“I’m closing shop,” the grocer told Jasoda. “There’s no business left in the village. I’m lucky if I get a customer or two a day.’
“Buy the vessels. They are solid brass and copper vessels which belonged to my grandmother.”
The grocer shook his head. “Go home, Jasoda. I’m not a pawnbroker.”
“Please, I’ll take whatever you give.”
“What will I do with your old brass and copper when I’m going to join my cousin’s business in Jodhpur?”
“Then lend me money. I’ll pay you whatever interest you charge.”
“I closed down the moneylending operation six months ago. I took the villagers’ farms as security and burnt my fingers. This land is worthless. The drought could go on forever.”
Jasoda ferreted inside the copper water pot. Almost her whole forearm disappeared but she couldn’t find what she was looking for. She tilted the vessel and there was the sound of something sliding down. She brought out a packet wrapped in cloth and laid it on the counter.
“What’s this?” the grocer asked. “Even if it’s gold bricks, I don’t want them.”
Jasoda untied a knot and stood the family gods up one by one.
“What will I do with them? I have family deities of my own,” the grocer said as he examined the brass, copper and bell-metal images. “Take them back. They belong in your house.”
Jasoda packed the gods, arranged the vessels one inside the other, placed them on her head and carried the last three in her hands. She walked away casually but it was still a tightrope walk with that load balanced on her head. She must have gone fifteen metres when the grocer called out to her. She stood still a moment, then slowly turned around and walked back.
The grocer couldn’t seem to make up his mind whether to talk or not. “Nothing, nothing.”
Jasoda did not move.
“It’s nothing really. I heard Poonam had a baby.”
“You heard right.”
“I believe you were the midwife?”
“Was it a boy or girl?”
“Just wondering, that’s all.”
“May I leave then?”
“Yes, of course. You think I’m the father of the child?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“But is it possible?”
Jasoda looked at him a long time. “It’s possible.”
“I’ll take the Narayan.”
Jasoda bent on her knees without altering the vertical line of her backbone. When the copper water pot came to rest on the ground, she lowered the vessels from her other hand and then deposited the pile resting on her head on to the ground. She handed over to the grocer the bell-metal image of Lord Vishnu sleeping on the infinite coils of the serpent Shesha.
The grocer measured three kilos of bajra and two of lentils and emptied them into two of Jasoda’s tote bags.
“Barely eight months since I threw her out. The child’s got to be mine. What’s the name of the girl?”
“Gauri, I think.”
“Will you vouch for it that the child is mine?”
“To whom shall I vouch?”
“What do you mean?” The grocer looked puzzled. “To whoever. To the villagers. To the world.”
“But you won’t even be here.”
“Even then. Besides, I’ll be back when the drought’s over.”
“Do you think you could let me have a bit more of the bajra and lentils?”
The grocer poured an extra kilo of bajra and lentils into the bag.
“And may I have some salt, chilli and turmeric powder, please?”
“Don’t overdo it, Jasoda. You are getting greedy.”
“It’s a fine image of the Lord. Vishnuji always brings luck.”
“A fat lot of luck he’s brought you.”
The grocer spooned out the turmeric, salt and chilli onto separate pages of an old, used notebook and folded them into little packets. “Will you?”
“Yes, I’ll tell them it’s your baby and not the tailor’s.”
Four days had passed and the water tanker had still not come. Jasoda had been frugal with the food but more than a third of the grocer’s munificence was already gone.
There was no question of going back to him, as she was well aware that his moment of weakness was past. Besides, the grocer had already got rid of most of his stocks of grains, oils and spices since he was leaving Kantagiri very soon. She had sent Himmat all by himself to Jalta that morning to find out if they had any news of the tanker. She was relieved to hear that it hadn’t already come and gone but nobody in Jalta had any idea about when, or if, it would turn up.
It was a couple of days since she had kept everything ready for departure. The axle of the cart was not evenly balanced and kept dragging to the left. She had planed it down a little at a time for fear of overcompensating and by merely switching the weight and the drag pattern. The wheel and axle joint had been oiled and she had laid a plank and a thin mattress for her mother-in-law to lie on. She had little choice but to be ruthless about what to take. The condition of Lakhan, the remaining ox, was precarious. He was gaunt and for months now had had a suppurating skin infection that would not go away. Malnutrition had killed his appetite and he looked ready to die. But he could still stand and that was what mattered. Most of the livestock, barring the cows, within a radius of fifty miles, had either been eaten by their owners or had died of starvation.
No one spoke of it but it was generally known that some of the cows too had been converted into meals.
Jasoda had to make sure that if Lakhan died on the way, the children would be able to carry the utensils and the water while she carried the old lady. The cow, which had not given milk for years now, she would leave behind with the priest. Let him decide what to do with her.
The tanker arrived three days later. She filled up seven pots. But there was hardly any food left.
Excerpted with permission from Jasoda, Kiran Nagarkar, Harper Collins India.