After reading Bhaunri, several readers asked, but what happened to Mangla, the crazy brother, what did Mai do and how did Bhaunri cope? I grew curious too and wondered how things panned out after that rather cataclysmic ending. So I decided to go back to the small village in desert, into that house where passions had flared and found this:

Sankranti had just passed and so had Magha, the last month of winter. The wind of Phalgun was fresh and tart like the fruit of gooseberry tree, and lustrous like it too. The mango tree had sprouted new flushed-copper leaves and its shade was fragrant with oncoming spring. Bhaunri took a palmful of sun-warmed mustard oil and spread it over Bheema’s chest.

“There was night-dew again last night,” she said as she kneaded and massaged the shrunken muscles and flesh. “I had to cover Dhauli with a sack-cloth and bring her calf indoors again. But despite the cold the curd has set well, I had buried the pot in the warm ashes of the chulha.” She turned him over onto his side and oiled his back. ‘The days are really drawing out. Isn’t it warm in the sun? I have heated water with neem leaves for your bath and there’s hot maize rab to eat afterwards.”

Mangla emerged from the cow-shed, buckets in hand. “Milked the cows,” he said in his halting tones. “Dhauli gave seven ser milk today.”

“Put the milk in the rasoda and come back here. I will oil your hair.”

Mangla ducked his head and walked towards the house door. Bhaunri watched him enter the house.

One early morning, a few days after Mai left, Bhaunri had entered the cow-shed to find a man squatting beside a cow, a bucket wedged between his knees. At the sound of her footsteps he had raised his head. In the gloom of the shed, two eyes, sluggish and sleepy, so like her Bheema’s that she had to hold on to the door post, had looked at her out of a hairy face.

Bhaunri had stood arrested till Mangla had said haltingly – “Milking cow…” and resumed his efforts at milking. She had glanced towards the small room at the end of the shed. Its door was hanging off its hinges. She had felt no fear. Over the past months, as Mai had turned away from her and the household, she had often talked to Mangla as she fed him or gave him a bath. She told him about the changes in their household, about Bheema and the ever-present ache in her heart. “All of us know this pain now, this pain of never quite having, never completely losing,” she had said to him the day Mai had left.

Bhaunri had watched for a few moments as Mangla clumsily struggled with the teats of the patient cow. No milk streamed into the empty bucket despite the cow’s engorged udders. Going up to him she had said gently, “Let me show you how.” Mangla had watched, his head bent to one side, his mouth half open, as she had eased the milk from the udder and pressed the ends of the teats drawing forth warm jets of milk.

He had proved to be a quick learner. Within days he relieved Bhaunri of the morning and evening milking. He also took it upon himself to clean the cow-shed, feed and water the cattle, gather dung, make cow-pats. After the door of his room was fixed, it was left unlocked day and night. Mangla never attempted to venture outside the house. Villagers marvelled at the change that had come over him.

“Mangla has become sayana again. He may not amount to much but at least he is not a burden on that poor girl any more.” They peered through the street door to look at him as he sat beside Bheema’s cot after the midday meal, talking to him, the pitch of his hoarse voice rising and falling like the twang of an instrument in the unaccustomed hands of a new player.

He spoke to Bheema about their games of kite-flying and, eating sweetmeats and jumping into the baowli from the topmost step. He talked about these childhood romps as if they were yesterday’s happenings. Bhaunri’s heart twisted when she saw the bright intentness in Bheema’s usually vacant eyes as they rested on his brother and the glimmer of memories lighting his inert face.

Till Mangla had begun helping, Bhaunri had struggled with the house-work and looking after Bheema’s needs in Mai’s absence. Her father-in-law had been of no help. For days after Mai’s sudden departure, he had gone about his days like someone learning to negotiate his way through a new and unfamiliar medium. He felt keenly the humiliation of losing his wife to something other than death.

“Ram, Ram,” his clansmen would shake their heads in mock-sympathy as they sat smoking in the village square, “one trouble after another. First young Bheema felled like a banana plant under an elephant’s foot and now your woman. What came over her to go away and leave husband and sons to be looked after by a mere girl. Truly who could say anything about a woman’s heart? It is more difficult to decipher than fate itself.”

He had fumed but for the first time, his anger did not scare the village-folk. “Don’t mind his angry words,” they said to each other, “he is like the cat who scratches at the pillar in frustration when its prey escapes its claws. The woman he married has walked out on him after all these years, of course he is angry like a man who has been suddenly been fed red chillies when he was only used to eating sweet jaggery.”

Underneath the thin crust of his explosive anger lay bewilderment. He couldn’t understand why his wife had left. To him, she had seemed her usual self silently supporting the lie he had told everyone about Bheema slipping and falling while mending the thatched roof of cow-shed. She had listened quietly to the village-women praising Bhaunri. “Your beedani is a real Sati, another one would have left Bheema, now that he is a deaf-mute cripple and would have found herself another man but not her,” the women had chattered like sparrows, “she bathes him and feeds him and cleans his shit as if he is not her husband but the son of her womb. How fortunate you are to have such a steadfast daughter-in-law!”

On the fasting-days for married women, they brought choonari for Bhaunri and red bangles. The young daughters and daughters-in-law in the village came to seek Bhaunri’s blessings. Mai bore with it all in silence. Only Bhaunri knew that there was a change in her, a remoteness in the way her eyes rested on everything and everyone.

She neglected mending the cracks in the clay oven and the bread she cooked had crusts of clay stuck to it. She ground millet for an entire day in silence, mechanically pouring handful after handful of grain into the heavy stone mill, while wind blew dust into the uncovered flour and ruined it. She forgot to set curds, to water the tulsi plant, feed the cow broth made with carom seeds and jaggery after she had birthed a calf. And she didn’t seem to care about any of these omissions.

One evening Bhaunri’s father-in-law had returned home from the fields. He no longer went away on journeys or traded in goods. He had closed down Bheema’s shop too, selling all its stock to a shopkeeper in a neighbouring village, and rented out the rooms to a party of hymn-singers for storing their musical instruments and holy beads and clothes to be worn for special prayers. Only the fields seemed to matter to him and he spent his days tilling and sowing and weeding.

That evening, as always, he had called for Mai upon entering the house. “Wife, bring me some water and my hookah. Working in the fields is dry, dusty work.” He had muttered. Mai was collecting cowpats from where they had been left to dry in the sunniest part of the courtyard. Bhaunri had filled a brass tumbler with water and readied the hookah for Mai to take to her father-in-law. But Mai continued with her work, counting under her breath as she picked up and placed each dried cowpat in a large metal tray.

When Bhaunri’s father-in-law called again in anger, Mai rose. She picked up the tumbler Bhaunri had placed before her, poured the water over her hands and turning her back towards her husband, went into the house. Bhaunri’s father-in-law was stunned, so stunned that he forgot to roar in anger for a moment. By the time he did, Mai had locked herself inside the kothari.

She had emerged the next morning, dressed in an old set of clothes, the pink of the odhani worn almost to white. Devoid of ornaments, carrying a small cloth-bundle in the crook of her arm, she had walked up to where her husband squatted chewing a neem twig and eyeing her balefully. “I am leaving your house,” she had said simply, “here’s the nath and borla you married me with. I am returning them to you.”

She had bent down and placed the ornaments on the ground. Then without a glance at anyone, she had turned towards the door. Bhaunri’s father-in-law had risen, shaking with rage. “If you put a foot out of the door, woman, you shall regret it as long as you live.” He had hissed through clenched teeth. “You can kill me but you can’t make me live in your house a day longer.” Mai had answered and crossed the threshold. Bhaunri had run to the street-door. “Mai…” she had called out but Mai had not looked back even once.

Initially the old lohar had pretended Mai had gone to the holy pond, a few hours journey from the village where women bathed and prayed for the health and well-being of their families. No one in the village had believed him. Children grazing their goats had spotted Mai walking in the opposite direction from the pond. A visiting kinsman had seen her at a shrine several days journey away.

Yet others, nomads, travelling musicians, healers and mendicants had seen her in various far-flung places of pilgrimage. To Bhaunri it seemed that at every tiding of Mai, her father-in-law shrank a bit. His shoulders drooped and his witty, wounding tongue turned sluggish. Most evenings he crouched in a corner of the inner courtyard, silently pulling at his hookah, eyes closed, head nodding from time to time in agreement with his own unspoken thoughts.

Mangla returned and sat cross-legged on the floor beside Bheema’s string cot. Bhaunri covered Bheema’s inert body, gleaming with oil, with a light cotton coverlet and, turning towards Mangla, began massaging his head with mustard oil. “It is no longer as cold as it was last week and next week this mango will begin to flower. I will get new yellow tunics stitched for you both.” Bhaunri said as her hands moved in her brother-in-law’s rough hair. The two men remained silent.

In the evening Bhaunri’s father-in-law returned. The pot of meal for Bheema’s dogs was cooling in the courtyard. Bhaunri brought out a smaller vessel covered with an earthen platter. “This is for Bhoori. She just littered. Mai used to say a bitch with a litter should be tended to like a jachcha and fed porridge with ghee.” She handed the vessel to her father-in-law. He looked down at her shadowy face.

“Why don’t you let the Khateek’s daughter look after the dogs? The kennel is next to her house and it will save you the trouble of cooking thirty-six different food-items when your hands are full with all the housework. The dogs are of no use in any case. No one’s going to go hunting from this household anymore.”

Bhaunri’s eyes glinted. “Never. Wash your feet and come eat. I have fed Mangla already.” Though Mangla did not scream and rage at his father’s presence, he retreated to the shed every evening, refusing to come out till after the old lohar had left the house next morning. She turned to go into the house.

“You are wearing yourself down, daughter-in-law.”

Bhaunri paused. “You do not understand, father-in-law. That which wears down the stone, hones the knife.”

The old lohar bowed his head and picked up the pots.