Somebody should have gone and inquired from this Jaanki Raman Pandey, Advocate, why in the name of God did he have to go to Rasoolpur and die there when he was doing so well in Allahabad? And die, not just figuratively, but literally. The common belief is that the time and place of a person’s death are preordained (and also the time and place of some events more important than death, e.g., marriage). So why the fuss if one believes it has to be so? Well, what can one do? There are many wisecracks around, each smarter than the next. They say, of course, the Lord above has predetermined the time and place of death, but wouldn’t you say something must be left for us humans to do too? So whether we dump nine tons of soil on the dead body or douse it with kerosene—by the way, this practice of pouring kerosene on the living and incinerating them has also become quite fashionable these days—or feed it to kites and crows, well, that’s our business. But brother, the crux of the matter is that a person only likes beliefs that accord with his own desires and convenience, otherwise he usually picks up a cudgel and goes after the offending ones. At least that’s our belief. If you don’t want to take my word, just look at how Pandeyji fared.
Pandeyji’s whole story was told by K.K. Mama—the K.K. stood for Krishan Kaant, but he was mostly known by just those two initials. He’d given up appending his surname long ago. He used to say that in this kaljug, the period of crass inhumanity and unmitigated evil, everyone has thrown all laws of proximity and abstinence overboard. Why, they have even started eating and drinking together. Be it high-caste Brahmin or someone as lowly as a sweeper or tanner, they are all mixing freely. So why should he drag the name of his worthy ancestors through the mud? But Krishan Kaant’s disciples knew that all this posturing was merely a façade to hide the real K.K. He was hell-bent against caste differences. So purposely omitting his surname was really a sign of protest.
K.K. had perhaps no nephew of his own to call him Mama. But some wag had added the word Mama to his name. That stuck and he became everyone’s Mama. He had spent quite some time in Lucknow, spoke fine Urdu, and was fond of telling stories. It was as though the spirit of some raconteur of the bazaar had been breathed into him—one time Jaanki Raman Pandey had himself expressed some such idea. Shifting the glob of paan from one cheek to the other with his tongue, and lifting his face up so the messy spittle didn’t splatter on his audience, he’d talk in a peculiar, rounded, rolling tone. But what an enchanting storyteller he was! Not one person would even think of getting up to leave while he pulled yarn after yarn from his inexhaustible stock.
His chief audience consisted of the young men from his extended family, one or two neighbors, including Mirza Anwar Beg’s wife Nayyara Beg, and perhaps a visitor or two who happened to be around. It seemed like Anwar Beg was the only person who was always pissed off by K.K. Mama. Calling him “a damned sissy,” he would say, “talks like gossiping women—someone in the family is like this; another one is like that . . .”
Regardless of what Anwar Beg said, it never made the slightest dent in K.K.’s popularity. A crowd collected around him the minute he arrived, especially in winter when a heap of peanuts and steaming cups of tea would be on hand, a brazier of coals would be lighted, and K.K. Mama would sit in front wrapped in a quilt looking every bit the clown. And thereafter, a cornucopia of delights, a paradise of absolute fun!
During one such winter session, he told the story of Jaanki Raman Pandey, the Advocate, who went to Rasoolpur and croaked there, creating quite a crisis. This is how the story went:
“When Pandey was small—and it was a long, long time ago that Pandey was small—his mother, known as Punditayin, passed away. She was the first cousin of my mother’s first cousin’s sister-in-law’s elder brother-in-law. There was, of course, the kinship, but there was also a close bond between the two families.”
“Was the bond just as close as the kinship, or more, or less?” Bipin Bhaiya had a habit of butting in, whether during a story or in real life.
“Well now brother, I haven’t invented any gadget for measuring closeness of relations. I can only tell you that we were quite close and the kinship was not inconsiderable either. And Mian, back in the old days people used to end their letters with the PS ‘Regard my brief note as a full letter . . .’ And not just brief notes, they even regarded distant kinships as close kinships, and they steadfastly maintained those relationships. We’re like them too,” K.K. said, striking his chest with his hand. Quite a bit of paan-spittle flew about and dissolved in the air. He wiped the edges of his mouth.
“I’m warning you if you ever interrupt again in the middle,” Nayyara Beg scolded Bipin Bhaiya. She seemed to have acquired the right to scold everyone, including Anwar Beg.
“So, bitiya, when Pandey’s mother passed away, his father didn’t take long to find himself another wife. Well, that’s what people did in those days, if they felt the need they didn’t even wait for the first wife to die. They went ahead and married again just like that. So if he did, it wasn’t like he had committed some grave sin. And especially when the old ladies in the family kept goading, ‘Oh dear! Pundit, the poor motherless child is wasting away. Why don’t you remarry? How in the world are you going to raise a five-year-old child by yourself?’”
A moment ago, Nayyara Beg had scolded Bipin Bihari for butting in; now she couldn’t hold back and blurted out, “What if the Pundit had somehow died? Would anyone have suggested to Punditayin that she get herself a new groom? Wouldn’t that have easily taken care of all the looking-after Pandey needed? Perhaps nobody gave a moment’s thought to how Pandey would be raised if his widowed mother stayed unmarried . . .”
“But it wasn’t like Pandey was raised by his mother. His father had remarried all right, but the Punditayin he brought home this time was only about a year younger than Pandey’s older married sister Uma.”
“Oh come on Mama! A year older or younger?” Nayyara Beg nudged him again.
“Now, Nayyara Bibi, the fact is that she was a year younger, but if you would rather, then call her a year older,” Mama again pushed the paan from one side of his cheek to the other.
“Mama, next time someone interrupts you give him a good whack,” Kaanti said. She was getting irritated by these constant interruptions of the story.
“Well, brother,” Mama took out another pinch of flavored tobacco from the paan box and stuffed it in one of his cheeks, “I’m too old for whacking? Just listen to what happened later. So, the daughter of Punditji, who had been married in Allahabad, was his eldest child. Actually she was named after the goddess Uma, but all the young men around called her Didda. She was about eighteen. She saw what was happening at her father’s place: how the new wife, with a tikka emblazoned on her forehead, moved about everywhere in the house jingling her anklet bells, while her own father either stayed in the men’s quarter of the house or hung around the new mother rubbing his hands in anticipation of coming pleasures. So, no sooner had she returned home when she took to bed feigning illness and told her husband in no uncertain terms that she was going to have her little brother there with her, no matter what. A brother born after the death of three sisters, and the treatment he was getting from the stepmother! He craved a cup of milk and she wouldn’t give him any even though two cows were tethered in the yard.
“‘When did I ever stop you from bringing him here?’ her husband said. ‘You could just as well have asked in a simple, straightforward way. Why become a second Queen Kekai when you’re my only wife?’ And so on.
“A beaming Didda went back the very next day and brought Pandey with her to her in-laws’ place. The stepmother thought it was better that way; the less junk, the cleaner the place. Her anklet bells began to jingle a bit more.
“Didda called Pandey ‘Bhaiyan’ out of sheer love but treated him like a son, not a brother. Even after her own children came along, Bhaiyan’s status didn’t diminish. Those who didn’t know the family well thought Bhaiyan was her first-born. Her husband, Onkaar Nath Mishra, also regarded him equally. He considered himself lucky to have found a wife such as Didda: in appearance fair and lustrous like a Brahmin; in honesty and fidelity a Rajput; in maintaining the household accounts and looking after the land and property a Vaisha, and in being ever ready to serve, a veritable Sudra. Onkaar doted on her. He took great care of her brother. Bhaiyan got an absolutely first-rate education.
“Bhaiyan was in his graduating year when, to gratify her own desires, Didda went ahead and arranged his marriage.”
K.K. Mama shifted in his seat and also rolled the paan in his mouth over to the other cheek, giving his narration a theatrical air. A respectful audience waited in hushed silence for the denouement to unfold.
“Now, brothers, understand that just after Didda arranged for the wedding, someone came and laid on Bhaiyan that the girl was as dark as one could imagine. Bhaiyan’s heart sank. Summoning up his sagging courage he approached Didda. She was sitting on the takht trying to figure out how much she needed to pay the washerman. That’s when Bhaiyan, his eyes downcast, twisting the edges of his shirt, walking on tiptoe, stole behind her—behind, so that he might not have to look straight into her eyes and yet say his piece.
“‘Didda,’ he said in a timid voice that was barely audible.
“‘Heavens, that cursed man broke the buttons again.&