Hardly ten days after Chhutki left, Badki fell ill. Despite the medication administered by the village quacks, there was no improvement in her condition whatsoever. She made pilgrimages to the various holy places hoping for a cure. When she eventually informed her husband by telephone, he came down, bore her off to the city where he worked and made an appointment for her with a general physician who not only had a successful practice, but also made home visits.

The doctor asked the patient about her symptoms, to which Badki replied in a weak voice, ‘I’ve lost my appetite. I always have a splitting headache. I suffer from insomnia and indigestion. It has been days since I have had a normal bowel movement.’

‘Stick out your tongue,’ ordered the doctor. Badki did as she was bid. ‘Open your mouth wide.’ Badki obeyed again. The doctor hurriedly said, ‘Okay, that’s enough.’

He then listened to her heartbeat with a stethoscope before checking her pulse. ‘Her digestion is affected, producing the other symptoms,’ he declared. He accepted his fee and wrote out a prescription. He said he would need to see her after three days.

Badki’s husband dropped her back to the village after buying her medicines. Although Badki religiously took her medicines as prescribed, she found no relief even after the stipulated three days.

Badki’s husband brought her back to the city. This time he showed her to a specialist who ran a battery of tests. ‘I can’t find anything wrong with these results,’ said the mystified specialist. ‘Let me prescribe some other medicines, however. Come back to me after five days.’

Badki flounced out of the doctor’s cabin in a huff and her embarrassed husband ran after her. She turned on him furiously. ‘What kind of a quack is this guy? He knows nothing. How in the name of the devil will he treat me?’ And with that she returned home, deeply annoyed.

At night, she said to her elder son, ‘Call your cousins in Agra. I want to talk to your maasi.’

The soldier, who had just come home from work, answered, ‘Hello, who is this?’

‘It’s me . . . Golu.’

‘Yes, Golu. Tell me . . . is everything okay?’

‘Everything is fine.’

‘Is budhi-maa okay?’ he said, referring to his mother; all the kids were used to calling their grandmother budhi-maa or ‘old-mother’.

‘Yes, she is. Please give the phone to maasi. Ammi wants to talk to her.’

The soldier handed the phone to Chhutki. ‘A call from home.’

Chhutki snatched the phone. ‘I’m Chhutki. Who is this?’

‘It’s me . . . Badki.’

‘Idiot! Why this urgent need to talk to me?’

‘Did you see the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal?’

‘May you suffer, dari.

‘I’m already very unwell.’

‘You’ll die suffocating,’ Chhutki retorted, unsympathetically.

‘Did you sit in the aeroplane?’

‘Don’t you dare talk, witch! I’m also unwell. Agra’s water doesn’t suit me.’

‘You left me behind to go gallivanting with your husband. You had to pay, so pay!’

‘You’re a monster from another life, dari!’

‘And acting like a lioness just because you are at a safe distance, you hedgehog! If you have any guts, and are a red-blooded man’s daughter, I dare you to come to the village and face me . . .’ Badki challenged again. ‘Trying to behave like a soldier’s wife from far away!’

‘I’ll be back in two days, dari . . . and then see if I don’t grab your braids, twirl you around and hurl you a hundred yards out! Then you’ll know whether I’m the daughter of a red-blooded man or not!’

The soldier was dumbstruck to see the transformation in his wife. She seemed to have instantly thrown off the wan, sickly air that she had been carrying for days now.

Upon hearing that Chhutki was due to return in two days, Badki immediately switched off her phone.

That night she devoured several rotis and polished off a double helping of milk and rabdi. The next day she tossed out the packet of medicines. She announced, ‘It has been ages since I slept as well as I did last night.’

Excerpted with permission from Pataakha, Vishal Bhardwaj, Penguin Books India.