Amma Bi turned on her large bed and fixed her eyes upon the big clock. It was one minute to three. Her sense of time was accurate as always, and she kept staring at the clock until it struck the hour. Her sixty-five-year-old, unspectacled gaze slipped over the walls and stopped at the door, through which she anxiously began to look at the courtyard. It was pouring sunlight outside. She waited to hear some terrifying sound. Her hand reached for the telephone, and she looked at her deceased husband’s life-sized portrait a couple of times with reproachful eyes.
She heard a sound, as if someone had leapt in. She gathered all her courage and sat up in bed, pulled out an old-fashioned blade-tipped staff that she had hidden away under her quilt, and began to wait for the one, the same one who came every day at three and then disappeared. Ghosts don’t come out during the day, so who is this who won’t let me die in peace even in my old age?
The sound of footsteps, the rustling of leaves, a shadow outside the door. Who is it? And then, vanished! Drenched in sweat, Amma Bi looked around for help. Every object in the room was in its place, curled up from the cold, while outside the month of December smiled.
Why doesn’t that wretched Jumman just stay here all day? At least there’d be someone to catch this shadow which stamps out the peace of my sixty-five years every afternoon and runs off.
Staff in hand, she opened the door. Outside was the empty courtyard, and the 1936-model car which no longer ran on the earth but was a burden upon it and had plants peeping out of its windows at many places.
The sun was nice and warm, and the cot was in just the right spot. Bi took a paan out from a box and began to chew it. She sighed in relief – now there was nothing to fear. That fellow never came after three. She cast her eyes over the big haveli, and as she chewed on the paan and her eyes began to droop, her gaze fell upon the 1936 car. She closed her eyes.
The car began to move, and sixty-five-year old Amma Bi was in her wedding attire again, seated in the new Austin as it was entering the haveli. There was the sound of song and music, but there was no one to be seen except for herself. Alone, she looked at the entire house. It was very large, larger than she had hoped. I am the begum, and this is my domain.
Her feet moved faster and she ran about the house issuing commands. She stopped in front of a big mirror. A red wedding dress at this age, and that too on a widow?
She screamed and woke up. The sunlight had faded. The evening was making its bed in the courtyard, and someone was banging on the gate.
The half-eaten paan demanded attention, and her mouth began to move. She glanced once at that damned Austin and opened the main gate.
It was him, Jumman, wearing half-pants and a colourful banian. Bi didn’t like him one bit, but she also looked forward to the time she spent with him. He was the only one, after all, who saw and heard her in her old age.
Jumman latched the gate, and like a wind-up toy, began to head towards the kitchen.
Bi couldn’t walk as fast as him, but still she went after him, cursing. As quick as a djinn, Jumman washed the utensils, chopped the vegetables and put them on to cook, then announced: “Take them off yourself, I don’t have time today. A girl’s family is coming to see me.”
“Arey, who will give your their girl?” Despite not meaning to, Amma Bi had declared war. In retaliation, Jumman broke a plate. Bi immediately waved the white flag of surrender and said, “You halfwit, what girl will want to marry you in those clothes? Come, wear one of Javed’s old shirts and a pair of trousers tonight.”
Bi went out of the kitchen. Jumman opened the fridge, gulped down a sweet, wiped his mouth and followed Bi into her room. Bi knew this as she left the kitchen, but she thought: Let that wretched fellow eat, what will I do if he also leaves me?
The big trunk was opened. Jumman made space on the floor. He knew nothing would be accomplished in less than an hour. He was used to this waiting, and he enjoyed it too because he knew he wouldn’t be leaving empty-handed. “Come live here after you get married.” Bi didn’t want to lose any chance to lessen her loneliness. “I’ll give you the back room, and your wife won’t be alone. You can go to work and come back in the evening. I and your wife will look after each other.”
“I’ll think about it,” Jumman said.
Bi frowned at him and wondered what the wretch was made of.
Jumman’s expression was as it always was and always would be.
Bi told Jumman many stories connected to the big trunk, and also told him that when Javed returned with his wife and children she would ask him to bring a pair of foreign-made trousers for Jumman and an American nylon sari for his wife.
Jumman dozed off.
A shirt and a pair of trousers flung at him woke him up. He took the clothes and left without saying salaam. Bi kept looking at him as he went towards the main gate. Her eyes grew moist and she dropped the burden of her loneliness on to the bed which, by now, was used to it.
The sound of the azan could be heard in the distance, and as night fell the gate saw that Bi had collapsed on her bed with a thud, as if an arch in this old, lonely haveli had fallen and come to rest against one of its pillars.
Excerpted with permission from Dopehri by Pankaj Kapur, translated from the Hindustani by Rahul Soni, HarperCollins India.