Nanak Singh (July 4, 1897–December 28, 1971), born Hans Raj, was one of the pioneering writers of Punjabi fiction and is remembered for his novel Pavitar Paapi, which was made into a Hindi film and later translated by his grandson Navdeep Suri as The Watchmaker.

His story “Split Milk” looks at the Punjabi love for food and the overenthusiastic hospitality in a rural area of yesteryear Punjab.

Spilt Milk (Bhua) by Nanak Singh

Translated from Punjabi by Nirupama Dutt

I had not met Bhua, my father’s younger sister, for more than a decade. She was the only elder from my clan who was still alive. I recall, as though in a dream, that she used to hold my hand and take me to school when I was young. Then during the lunch break she would bring a bowl of sugared cream for me to eat. I am talking of some thirty years ago. All those who had called me “son” or “child” were dead and Bhua was the only one of that generation still alive.

So this time when I went for the wedding of a relative’s son, I could not stop myself from visiting her even though it was a ten-mile walk along a dust track. It is not an easy task for a city dweller to participate in a rural wedding and that too in summer. The food served is so rich that a whole bottle of digestive pills has to follow. In just two days I had had enough of puris and other such savouries. I was hoping one meal would be plain roti and dal. But that was not to be for serving such plain fare at a wedding was not the done thing.

I somehow spent two nights there and then taking my leave started for my bhua’s village. I remember my bhua used to puff light rotis on the earthen stove with such love when I was young. No conveyance was available so I walked all the way through the fields, down the track in the dust in the heat of summer. It was evening by the time I reached the village. At last the journey was over.

I entered the house and very eagerly went and touched Bhua’s feet. She gave me her blessings and caressed me almost as a ritual and I felt that her love was missing. The truth was that she had not recognised me because she suffered from night blindness.

She asked, “Son, where are you from?” When I told her my name, she embraced me affectionately. My cheeks were wet with her kisses. Bhua shouted, “Chanan Kaure! Run here. My lion has come after so long by God’s grace. Come little ones, come and meet your uncle.”

Her daughter-in-law actually came running. Her grandchildren surrounded me. Although they had never seen my face it was enough for them that I was their uncle.

Her daughter-in-law did not raise the veil from her face nor did she speak as she was married to my younger cousin. It was not befitting to speak to one’s husband’s older relative.

I was seated on a low stool and Bhua, caressing my face and limbs, asked about my home, my work, my children and my wife. And I kept saying, over and again, “Yes, all is fine.” I actually felt like a little boy, for all my whiskers.

“Girl, get up and make some food. The poor boy must not have eaten anything since morning.” Bhua chased her daughter-in-law into the kitchen. I said I wasn’t hungry but she paid no heed.

I really wasn’t hungry. In fact, I was full from the food and sweets eaten at the time of departure of the groom’s party from the bride’s home. I had decided to miss dinner because I was still belching from overeating.

“Oh my god,” was the phrase I uttered when I saw a thali full of food placed in front of me. Two huge parathas dripping with ghee and a heap of sweet vermicelli were laid out on the platter. I glanced at the food with fear. It was actually like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

I was shy of saying anything to my cousin’s wife and there was no point in saying anything to Bhua, but I still pleaded. “Bhuaji, I will not be able to swallow a morsel. I am full from the wedding feast.” But not paying any attention to me, Bhua kept saying, “Child, what are we giving you anyway, just two small rotis? Eat them, my love.”

“Bhuaji, what do I do with this large helping of vermicelli? How will I ever eat it?” I pleaded once again in vain.

“Come on, son, eat it. This will just sweeten the mouth. You see, we live in the wilderness and can only serve these things. In the towns and cities, all kinds of fancy foods are available. It’s true what someone said that the gods live in cities and ghosts in the countryside. Once your uncle took me to Amritsar and by the grace of Wahe Guru I saw the holy city and the Darbar Sahib. Otherwise one never gets away from home. Yes, when my elder sister-in-law’s mortal remains were to be taken to the Ganga at Haridwar, my husband told me to come along. I yearn to go once more and bathe in the holy river. But that is not to be. I keep telling my son Shaikar but he doesn’t listen to me.” Bhua went on rambling and I was thinking, “The last time you took your sister-in-law’s mortal remains and this time you will take your nephew’s for I certainly will not survive so generous a helping of food.”

Finally, accepting my fate, I started eating. I had just about put a morsel or two in my mouth when my cousin’s wife brought a bowl full of sizzling ghee and poured it on the vermicelli. I kept saying no but no one was listening to me.

I had asked for trouble and now there was no way I could get out of it. I somehow managed to stuff myself with a paratha and a half but how would I ever eat the vermicelli? I thought Bhua can’t see so I could just throw the food outside but my cousin’s wife was now sitting with us.

I started putting bits of vermicelli into my mouth like a sparrow. Just then I saw my cousin’s wife get up and go inside and I thanked my stars. I looked around and saw that beyond the back wall was a tandoor. It would be best to throw the vermicelli there for now and at night I could sneak out and bury it under the ashes. Just as I took a handful of vermicelli to throw, my cousin’s wife returned and without asking me hurled another paratha on to the thali and sat down by my side.

Somehow I gobbled what I could and at last my cousin’s wife took the thali away but by then it was difficult for me to even move to my bed. My stomach was about to burst and I could hardly breathe.

I somehow managed to drag myself to the cot that had been laid out for me in the courtyard. I started cursing myself for having come here instead of going home. I lay down but was very uneasy. I tossed about in the bed but felt no relief. My stomach was bloated and I started getting cramps. I was perspiring profusely. The hand fan was lying by my side but I had no strength to pick it up.

I suffered in silence for half an hour and then I decided to ask one of the children to give me a digestive. Just then my cousin’s wife appeared with the final death warrant – a huge tumbler full of milk.

If it had been my wife instead of my cousin’s, I would have hurled the piping hot milk in her face. But I was helpless in this situation.

I refused a number of times but she stood there with the glass in hand. I finally took the tumbler and rested it on the edge of the bed and said, “I will drink it when it cools down.”

At this she ran inside to fetch a bowl and started cooling the milk by pouring it into the bowl and then back into the tumbler. She probably wanted to serve me as best as she could.

The tumbler was back in my hands and there she was standing. I had thought she would go away but she stood guard for her mother-in-law had warned her to come back only once the tumbler was empty.

At that time if someone had given me a pill of poison instead of the milk, I would have certainly gone for it. I took a sip and another but the huge tumbler full of milk was not going to finish. I tried to hand the tumbler to her but she stepped back. Finally I told her that I would drink it later and put it at the foot of the cot and the tumbler fell down and the milk spilt. I picked up the empty tumbler and gave it to her. This time she took it.

Startled by the noise, Bhua asked, “What has happened?”

“Nothing, the milk has spilt,” my sister-in-law said in a weak voice.

“So what? There is no dearth of milk. Go and fetch some more,” Bhua said and came and sat by me. “I wanted to chat with you but thought you must be tired so I let you rest for a while.”

And I thought Bhua was ensuring a bath in the Ganga at Haridwar for I felt that I would die at any moment. My cousin’s wife came back and whispered something in Bhua’s ears. “You have set the curd? Now what will the poor boy drink? He has been without food all day. He has just had two rotis. When will this poor child come again to our home again? Go to the neighbour’s house and fetch a tumbler of milk.”

“No Bhua, you’ll see me dead if you send her to get milk,” I pleaded.

“Why? Don’t talk so. You haven’t eaten anything all day. May you live long! You are the only son. You have to continue the lineage. It was only after prayers and penance that you were born. I had three brothers but you are my only nephew. Don’t feel shy, this is your home.” Bhua went on talking.

My eyes were glued to the door for I feared the moment when my cousin’s wife would return with a tumbler of milk. She did return but thankfully with the tumbler empty for the neighbour’s calf had drunk all the milk.

Bhua looked at me with embarrassment and pity. “Poor child! Now you will have to sleep hungry. How weak you look! Why did the milk have to spill?”

But that was one night when I certainly did not cry over the proverbial spilt milk.

Nanak Singh

Amrita Pritam (1919-2005) was a celebrated Punjabi poet who also left behind a fine legacy of fiction. Her story “The Shah’s Harlot” is an ode to womanhood in which two women come face to face with dignity.

The Shah’s Hartlot (Shah di Kanjari) by Amrita Pritam

Translated from Punjabi by Nirupama Dutt

No one called her Neelam, she was the Shah’s harlot to everyone. Neelam blossomed into youth in a courtesan tenement in Lahore’s Hira Mandi. A sardar from a princely state performed the ritual of removing her nose ring to deflower her for a precious sum of five thousand rupees.

Then one day she left the cheap tenement in Hira Mandi and moved to Falleti’s, the most expensive hotel in town. Although she had not moved away from Lahore, the whole town seemed to have forgotten her original name overnight and started referring to her as the Shah’s harlot. She was known for her sonorous voice. No girl could render Mirza as well as her. Although people had forgotten her name, no one had forgotten her voice. Every home with a gramophone was sure to have her records. At any get-together there were always requests for her records to be played over and again.

Her relationship with the Shah was no secret and his family knew of it. Not only did they know of it, they had also accepted it. Though when the Shah’s son, who was to be married now, was still a baby, the Shahni had threatened to take poison and kill herself. But the Shah, clasping a necklace of the purest of pearls to his wife’s neck, told her: “Shahni! She is lucky for your household. I know a gem when I see it. Haven’t you heard of the qualities of the neelam gem? The sapphire can make or mar someone. This Neelam has made me. Ever since I took her, even the mud that I touch turns to gold.”

“But she will ruin the home one day. We will be left with nothing.” The Shahni, swallowing the pain that rose in her heart, tried to counter his argument.

But the adamant Shah said, “On the other hand I am scared. One can never tell with these harlots. If someone else lures her away, our fate may be marred forever.”

The Shahni could say nothing more and left everything to time. But time did not move on for many years to come. True enough more wealth came into Shah’s hands in comparison to what he spent on Neelam. Earlier, he had a small shop in the city but now his was the largest showroom with cast-iron railings. He owned not just his house, but the entire colony that was rented out to well-off tenants. And the Shahni did not let go of the keys to the lockers of her home.

Long ago while locking the box with the gold coins, the Shahni had told her husband, “Keep her in the hotel if you will or build a Taj Mahal for her, but she must never enter my home. I do not wish to see her.” True to her word, the Shahni had not seen the harlot till date. When she had said this her elder boy was still in school. Now he was to be married but she had not even allowed Neelam’s records to enter her home nor could anyone talk of her. But her sons had heard her records all over the bazaar and had also heard innumerable people referring to her as “the Shah’s harlot”.

The elder son’s marriage had been fixed. Tailors and embroiderers had been sitting in the house for the past four months. One was embellishing a suit with gold, another with silver, yet another was bespangling dresses and edging dupattas with golden trimmings. The Shahni was flush with money – she would take out a pouch full of rupees, spend it and return to the locker to fill it again.

The Shah’s friends insisted that they wanted to hear the harlot sing at the boy’s wedding. They put the proposal forward with tact. “Shahji, many singing and dancing girls are available but you must make sure that your melody queen comes, even if she sings just a verse of Mirza.”

Falleti’s was not just any other hotel. Only the Britishers used to stay there. It had not only single and double rooms but also suites of three big rooms. Neelam lived in one such suite. The Shah thought he would humour his friends by organising an evening of music in her suite.

“That would be like going to a house of entertainment,” a friend objected and everyone joined him saying, “No Shahji, only you have the right to go there. We have never said anything for so many years. She is all yours. But we want to celebrate our nephew’s wedding so in the true feudal tradition; you must call her home, the home of our sister-in-law...”

The proposal appealed to the Shah. It was wise not to take his friends to Neelam’s abode although he had learnt that a few aristocrats were visiting her in his absence. He also wanted Neelam to see the grandeur of his home. But afraid of the Shahni, he did not concede to the request of his friends.

Two of his friends found a way out and approached the Shahni, “Bhabhi, won’t you arrange an evening of music for the boy’s wedding? We don’t want to miss out on any ceremony. The Shah wants to arrange a get-together at Neelam’s place. It is all right but thousands of rupees will be wasted on it. After all, you have to take care of the finances. He has already spent enough on the harlot. Be wise and call her to sing here one evening. We will enjoy the music and a lot of money will be saved.”

First the Shahni resisted. “I do not wish to see the harlot.” However, the friends persisted. “This is your empire. She will come as a servant obeying your orders. It will be her humiliation, not yours. She will be just another entertainer.”

The Shahni finally saw the merit of their case but she laid down the rules. “Liquor will not be served. Everyone will sit as they would in a decent home. You men can join us. She will just come, sing and leave. I will give her the four patasas that I will be giving the other girls who come to sing the ghodhis.”

“That is exactly what we want.” The Shah’s friends flattered her. “You have saved this home with your wisdom otherwise God knows what may have happened.”

And the harlot came. The Shahni had sent her personal carriage to fetch her. The home was full of relatives and friends. White sheets had been spread out in the big room with big round cushions and a dholaki was placed in the middle. The women of the home started singing the ghodhis, the wedding songs for the groom.

As the carriage stopped outside the house, many eager women ran towards the windows and the staircase to catch a glimpse of the woman they had all heard about but never seen.

“It is an ill omen to leave the song unfinished,” the Shahni scolded. But she found her own voice weak as though her heart was sinking. She slowly walked to the front door. She rearranged the borders of her pink sari as though she was seeking courage from the auspicious pink colour to face the other woman.

There was Neelam! She was resplendent in a shimmering green garara trimmed with gold and a bright red shirt. A green silk dupatta was draped on her head and trailed to her feet. She seemed to be twinkling and the Shanhni felt that the shimmering green colour of her attire had spread itself out in the doorway.

Then her green glass bangles tinkled and the Shahni saw a fair hand rise in a salaam. A musical voice spoke out, “Many congratulations, Shahni. Many congratulations to you.”

She was a dainty little thing. The Shahni pointed towards the round cushion and asked her to sit down and doing so she felt that her fleshy arm looked very unsightly. In one corner of the room, the Shah sat with his friends. The delicate woman glanced at them and gave her stylish salaam and then sat by the cushion. Her glass bangles tinkled again. The Shahni looked at those arms once again, bedecked with green glass bangles. Then spontaneously she moved her gaze to her own gold bracelets.

The whole room was bedazzled. All eyes were looking in one direction, including the Shahni’s, but she was annoyed at the other admiring stares. She wanted to scold everyone and ask the women to continue with the wedding songs. But she could not find her voice. The others too seemed to have lost their voices. She looked at the dholaki in the middle of the room and wanted to go and beat it hard to break the stunned silence.

She who had caused the silence broke it too. She said, “First of all I will sing a ghodi. Is that all right Shahni?” And looking at the Shahni, she started to sing:

Nikki-nikki bundi nikeya meen ve ware
Teri maan ve suhagan tere shagan kare

(Tiny droplets, my young one, come down in rain
As your lucky mother performs the sacred ritual)

Hearing the song, the Shahni felt a little at ease because she was the mother and was being sung about. Her husband was only her’s and only she had the right to perform the rituals. Smiling, the Shahni sat right in front of the woman who was singing about the rites and rituals of her son’s marriage.

The ghodi ended and conversation resumed in the room. The women wanted a dholaki song and the men wanted to hear the verses of Mirza. The singer paid no heed to the request from the menfolk and put her knee on the dholaki. The Shahni was pleased with the fact that instead of pandering to the men, the harlot was fulfilling the requests of the women.

Some women did not know of Neelam. They were asking one another about her. The Shahni heard whispers, “She is the one, the Shah’s harlot.” Even though they had whispered softly, the words were piercing through the Shahni’s ears – the Shah’s harlot, the Shah’s harlot – and her face went pale again.

The beat of the dholaki got louder as did the singer’s voice:

Soohe ve cheere waalea main kehani aan...

(I call out to you, the red-turbaned one ...)

The Shahni’s heart sank. God forbid! The red-turbaned one was her son and today he was to mount a horse to bring home a bride. There was no end to the requests. One song would finish and another would start. The singer would oblige the women in one song and the men in the other. Every now and then she would say, “Let someone else sing now, give me a breather.” But who had the courage to sing in front of her. Singing came naturally to her and her voice was so melodious. She was just saying this for effect because when one song ended, she would start the next one.

It was all right as far as the wedding songs went but once she started singing the verses of Mirza in her sonorous voice, even the breeze stopped blowing to listen to her. The men in the room froze. The Shahni started feeling uneasy. She glanced at the Shah. He was a statue like the others but the Shahni felt he had turned to stone.

The Shahni panicked. She felt that if she lost this moment, she would be reduced to a clay statue forever. She had to do something, something to prove her existence. It was late in the evening, and the function was coming to a close. The Shahni had said that she would distribute only patasas but once the singing ended, tea and delicious savouries were served. The Shahni took a rolled hundred rupee note in her hand touched it to her son’s head and then gave it to the one who was known as the Shah’s harlot.

“Let it be, Shahni. I already live off your morsels,” she said and laughed. Her laughter twinkled as did her silence. The Shahni’s face went white. She felt that the Shah’s harlot, by referring to her liaison with her husband openly, had belittled her. However, she took quick control of the situation. Pressing the note firmly in the other woman’s hand she said, “You will take from the Shah always but when will you get the chance to take something from me? Come on, take it today.”

The Shah’s harlot accepting the note seemed most humbled. The auspicious pink colour of the Shahni’s sari had spread itself all over the room.

Amrita Pritam