The village of Maure in Amritsar lay flat and still at dawn, for within its mud walls all living things were asleep. Not a breath stirred the leaves of the pipal tree at the gate, nor touched the calm surface of the little stream, a tributary of Ravi, that flowed nearby with its waters creeping along in the slow, hesitating manner of their uncertain and winding course. The village was quiet and peaceful as a child asleep. But this stillness was not for long: for in that great hot plain, where it always seemed as if it were noon, night yielded to morning without any ado and delay.
Before long, the sky quickened and the sun with all the power of the month of May, rose like a strong man preparing himself to run a race. The cup of the world was soon filled to the brim with golden light. It poured over the village walls, chasing the blue shadows back towards the inner rooms. The scorching light filtered through all crevices, pierced the overlapping leaves of the pipal like sharp arrows of fire, and opened the eyes of the last and laziest sleeper with its burning touch. The village, which but a short time ago looked like a child asleep, was now like a fidgety child awake with restlessness. Thus began another new day.
Soulful notes of Rehras Sahib emerged from the precincts of the neighbouring Gurudwara, while street hawkers crawled through the streets with their carts, shouting at the top of their voices. One could spot the smoke rising from the houses, as the kitchen fires were being ignited once again. Sweepers and jamadars walked hastily from house to house, collecting their share of garbage, while ensuring to stop at almost every household to exchange gossip. Women cooked and lined up for water, while men took their breakfast and adjusted their turbans as they left for their fields. Sounds of the distant motor, the creaking well, wailing babies, and chatter of exchanging greetings between neighbours peppered the otherwise monotonous, yet myriad chores of a simple morning.
Perhaps the last to wake up were the inmates of the largest house in the village, a house whose stuccoed white front faced a narrow street. This aforesaid white wall was adorned with pictures of two wrathful figures in red, standing beside two palm trees in green, above which sat a benign-looking man smiling affectionately in the direction of a cluster of blue stars. A row of peacocks, also in stucco, guarded the roof. These decorations gave a modern appearance to the house. This grandeur of the exterior might lead one to expect luxury within, but it was not so. One entered into a courtyard with cattle tied in a corner, and walls covered with manure cakes stuck in round patches to dry for fuel. This vestibule led to a small inner court, at one end of which was the cooking place. A couple of rooms opened into a grateful gloom, and a narrow staircase, white and burning in the sunlight, seemed to lead right up to the terrace looking proudly up towards the brilliant blue sky. In this prosperous house, time had already planted the seed of decay: in other words, a pipal seed had found its way into a little crack above the doorway, and had spread and grown into a tree, whose vigorous life waged war with the resisting bricks and mortar.
This house belonged to Devidutta, the most flourishing merchant in the town of Maure.
Like every day, the first one to appear in its courtyard was the lady of the house, his wife. Not many, including me, knew her actual name as she was popularly called ’Mausi’ by one and all, irrespective of the relation: be it her neighbours, general village folk, or even her domestic servants and sweepers. That morning too, as was her usual practice, she busied herself in a leisurely manner amongst the cooking vessels, although for a while alone. Then, as the thought of help suggested itself, she stood in the middle of the little court and, looking up to the roof, called, “Chandkor!”
No one answered.
“This lazy child!” she muttered. Then putting her hands akimbo, she called even louder, “Ni! Chandkoria!”
But she had to return to her work unaided.
The sun rose even higher, and with the day came calls from the outer world. The sweeper came to their door with a vessel for her daily wage of buttermilk and a cake of bread. The food was not ready, so she proceeded to sweep the floor instead, putting all the accumulated rubbish of the night into her basket. A servant lady finally came with the leftovers, along with her two sons with very dirty faces. After handing over the leftovers to the sweeper, she started washing her sons’ faces with a glass of water. The boys screwed up their cheeks into hard knobs and endured the operation patiently, even the valedictory slap which their mother administered on the wet shining surface as she bade them off to their work.
All this time, a gentle voice had asked for admittance at the shut door. But it was only when the knights of the washed countenances opened it to go out that the patient figure was seen.
“May I come in?”
“Come in, lady,” said the sweeper, standing up with the basket of dust and rubbish on her head, and clinging close to the wall, so that none of her garments should touch the visitor.
“Come,” she repeated, seeing the lady hesitate because the hostess gave her no sign of welcome.
“What does she come for? We don’t want to listen to her story, it is always the same” mausi muttered to herself.
Finally the visitor, Miss James, took silence for consent, passed in and sat down in the narrow strip of shade facing the staircase. She looked up to the dazzling blue sky with shrinking eyes, while mausi looked at her now and then with indifference as she went on about her work.
“I am very thirsty,” said Miss James, breaking the silence which was becoming oppressive.
“Have you brought a vessel?” mausi retorted.
“Use mine, lady!” The sweeper in her innate kindliness forgot for the moment that she was an outcast.
The vessel looked dirty, as indeed it was, and the Miss James paused for a moment before accepting the vessel. As she just did so, she forgot thirst and everything else, for coming towards her from the upper room, she saw Chandkor – Chandkor, meaning ‘Moon Princess’ – whom her mother scolded for being late, but who was, for those who had eyes to see, a queen amongst women, and as fair as the moon whose name she bore. Regardless of her mother’s reproaches, and evidently unconscious of them, she sat down and looked at the stranger with quiet interest.
“Surely those wonderful eyes long to look at something higher than village life,” thought Miss James. At the same time, the Moon Princess was wondering why her visitor’s eyes were so like the eyes of a cat.
“May I sing to you?” Miss James had been thinking how she should begin, and thus decided to start a conversation with a hymn.
Chandkor nodded assent, so she sang a few verses from a Christian hymn:
“There is sorrow upon sorrow in the world;
The shadow of storms is everywhere.
Lord Jesus, come; why tarriest thou?”
As yet, this Moon Princess knew little of sorrow. It was nothing but a word for her. She had shed tears plentifully, but they had not scalded her heart; so nothing in her was stirred by the words of the hymn, further than her love for music.
“I like it very much,” she said.
Miss James smiled and then told the beautiful girl of a ‘balm for sorrow’ and a ‘Friend who loveth at all times’. Chandkor listened quietly and gravely to the end, after which Miss James took leave of her and went to the next house of call.
As you may have guessed by now, Miss James was a Christian missionary. What started as a part-time, vocational task during her college days had slowly turned into a strong belief. So much so that a few years ago she had quite her well established career in England to become a part of an organization that proclaimed to be commissioned by ‘The Lord’ to make more disciples. However, Miss James and many like her didn’t think their jobs were as simplistic as their naïve perception. They believed their job was more philanthropic and altruistic: They taught English, distributed hand-outs that had selected verses from the Bible printed on them, gave health advice to women they met, etc. “I cannot be stereotyped,” Miss James often said when asked to describe her work. “Nor am I doing a job. This is my life, a life that I have chosen. All of us respond differently to The Lord’s call. I am answering his call in my own way.” The village women never exactly understood, and were more in awe of Miss James’ foreigner’s looks than her teachings.
By now the sun had mounted itself high in the heavens, and was filling the courtyard of Bhola Singh with heat and glare. A domestic helper woman was seated in the doorway grinding wheat, but she stopped for a moment to wipe her tired, hot face as Miss James entered.
“Is your work nearly done, Bibi?” inquired Miss James.
The woman smiled, and pointing to a heap of grain on the floor said, “About half, lady! But what can one do? Twenty sers to grind and fifteen sers to cook is my work every day.” She paused as if to rest for a while, but seeing the mistress of the house coming out, she seized the handle and proceeded to move the heavy millstone with renewed vigour. Miss James went forward to greet Bibi Kishen Dei, who, although pleased to see her, seemed to be overwhelmed with duties.
“What a time to come!” she cried; “neither time to sit down nor time to stand!” She added a good-natured laugh, as she dragged a manji towards the less sunny part of the court. “Sit down. I shall come and sit with you in a while”; she said as she hurried off. Her anklets jingled as she went, for from the top of her grey head to the sole of her dusty foot she was laden with jewellery. Heavy silver ornaments hung over her forehead and dangled in her ears, a massive necklace of one piece of solid silver decorated her neck, two great armlets were tied over the sleeve of her jacket above the elbow; and besides these, anklets, rings and toe rings, such ornamentation was a part of a Sikh woman’s toilette back in those days. She was heavily decked up even as she swiftly walked around doing household chores.
Miss James sat down on the manji near which Bibi Bhag Dei, the quiet and depressed daughter-in-law of the house, was sitting on the floor and spinning her wheel. With the visitor sitting close to her, the little woman looked pleased but was silent. Miss James was thinking how to start a conversation with her when a baby, invisible until now, being hidden in Bhag Dei’s lap, asserted himself by a kick. His sudden movement twisted the takla of the spinning wheel. The poor mother tried in vain to straighten the twisted needle with the howler on her lap, but the baby started screaming when he saw that the wheel got more attention than himself. At last, his mother had to give in. It was clearly impossible to do two such things at once.
“Do give him to me!” said Miss James, glad to speak something finally.
Bibi Bhag Dei shook her head, passing an indulgent smile of an expert to an amateur in baby-tending.
“He won’t go,” she said. She was much in need of help, but none seemed at hand: all her noisy but willing children had disappeared and the yard was empty. Looking up, however, she saw a girl’s face, presumably good-natured, leaning over the wall. Therefore with a beseeching “Ah! The queen of the ladies!” she proceeded to hoist the baby upwards. But the girl disappeared and the baby tumbled back again into his mother’s arms. Just then a girl of about seven years scrambled down a ladder and seized the child. She comforted the baby in the manner of elder sisters (though she herself was tiny), while staring at the stranger all the time.
“What is your name?” cooed Miss James to the girl.
“My name is Durgi,” the girl answered, feeling a more intimate comfort after sharing this information. She sat down and began to examine the contents of the strange bag of books on the ground.
“Is Durgi the eldest child?” Miss James probed.
“Yes,” replied the mother, who was now absorbed in mending her wheel. She then added, with more interest in her tone, “She is getting old; she must get married soon.”
Bibi Kishen Dei had now joined the group, and at once demanded a hymn to be sung, that too with the concertina. This she implied by an encouraging smile and a movement of her two hands to represent the playing of the instrument. Miss James sang very well indeed, and her audience increased gradually. A few more children appeared: they seemed to have sprung up from the ground; two more Mohamedan women, the domestic helper woman who had been grinding the grain, all gathered around to listen. But the singing was brought to a sudden stop: as if a thunderbolt had fallen from the sky, that there could not have been more consternation. The Mohamedan ladies fled like frightened hares, and Bibi Bhag Dei covered her face with her chunni. Looking round, Miss James saw the cause of the panic: a tall, fat man, standing beside the manji. Attracted by the music, he had come silently forward, and now stood in the contemplative attitude of a great cow. The similarity of his expression to that animal was heightened by the thoughtful manner in which he chewed a straw.
“Go away, Nihal Singh,” said his mother Bibi Kishen Dei, and Nihal Singh departed, but with some reluctance and with many backward glances, while still chewing his straw.
Bibi Bhag Dei uncovered her face with a sigh of relief, and the Mohamedan ladies, who had not gone far away, came back after many affectations of looking round to see that the court was clear of him.
“What a fright I got!” said one breathlessly.
“Never mind Nihal Singh,” said Kishen Dei amiably. “He is only a pashu!”
“Pashu” means a beast, but in this instance, the word was used more as a term of affection than in reproach, for Nihal Singh, was like a harmless and labouring boor in the family. He was the one in charge of tilling the fields and managing the well. He was kind to all - at least so said his wife Bhag Dei, and her opinion must be considered beyond dispute. The covering of her face, therefore, can me assumed to denote a wife’s reverence for her husband, and not her fear of him. This is one of the immemorial and selective customs of the Eastern yesteryears which are still widely prevalent.
Miss James resumed the singing of the hymn, but the spell was broken. The babies had remembered to cry, while their elders and betters strayed about in the sun looking at each other’s ornaments. She tried to speak a few words to them before leaving, but their thoughts were miles away.
“Where were you born?” the children asked a question not belonging to her subject.
“Never! You are not English; you speak our language just like one of us!”
Miss James smiled. The children just had their moment of utter inability to understand a word she said. They looked at each other and chuckled.
My thoughts wander to think why the children laughed. Were they amused or were they cynical? Can children be cynical so young? Or if they were amused, would it lead to a sense of wonder, or a chortle? I would not try to delve deeper though, because if the way children think could be deciphered and emulated, we would be living in better, funnier times. So going back to our story:
“You have been to Devidutta’s house,” said another kid. “His daughter has followed you here.”
Chandkor was standing by.
“Take her home and make a Christian of her!” cried one of the Mohamedan women in a rude, jocular manner.
Miss James said nothing to this, and left very soon. She feared that the foolish words might do harm, but to her surprise she found Chandkor still at the outer door waiting for her on her way out. The word “Christian” had not frightened her after all.
“I want to sing over the lines again that you sang this morning,” she said. And then, with a voice as true as her teacher’s, she sang “Why tarriest Thou? Come, Lord Jesus.”
“Did I make any mistake?” she asked, with the simplicity of a child.
“None, dear! Not one. Always sing it thus, and the Lord Himself will listen,” and Miss James left with the words ringing in her ears.
The sound followed her like a clear stream through the burden and heat of the day, and Chandkor, all unknown to herself, had laid by in a corner of her heart, a balm for a time of hurt and wounding.