Fire blazed in the chulo, so after putting a smutty-bottomed handli with indented brim on it, Amli stood up and grabbing four or five burnt out stubs of bidi from the niche in her fist threw them before Chhitiyo. Chhitiyo stopped crying and sat up. He gathered all the stubs, kept staring at them inquisitively for a little while and then tossed all of them up in air and once again began to grizzle fretfully stretching his legs and dashing them frantically on the ground.
“An unsmoked bidi, an unsmoked bidi for me, mother…”
“Why, if you wanted to smoke unsmoked bidis, goddamn, you should have taken birth at some sheth’s!” Amli stormed and leaving the boy crying went towards the earthen water-pot lying in the corner to take water. Chhitiyo, still crying, got up and gripped her sari.
“Leave it, damned you, my tapeli gets gutted there by fire.” she steamed up and moved on tugging her sari with a violent jerk. The old worn-out sari got torn slightly as the child held on to it tenaciously. Chhitiyo became silent suddenly. He took up one of the stubs that he had flung away, lighted it with the fire in the clay hearth and began to smoke it quietly.
“Fulki, better go, bon, you and your brother, go to the market to pick up bidis.” Amli coaxed her daughter who had come up to the threshold and was standing. There was a tug of ghaghri, dappled with black spots, on her dark body. She had grown hardly up to the waist of her mother. Out of an unacknowledged fear, she had kept the kuldi in her hand pressed against her belly. Feeling relaxed on hearing the sweet words of her mother, she let the kuldi hang down her hand and gently clasped Chhitiyo by another hand.
“Come brother let’s go to the market.” No sooner did the sister say this than Chhitiyo, though without a stitch on, made for market, placing his hand into his sister’s and pulling at the stub with a joy tantamount to that of drinking supreme ambrosia. Amli brought a small shirt, scarlet and tattered, with a white lining peeping out.
“Hey, wait. Put on a shirt at least.” Casting a cursory glance over the shapely bodies of both her children, she made Chhitiyo put on the shirt and with a slight bitterness on her tongue and affection in her eyes, instructed:
“Bon, go about the big market only and return soon after picking bidis, right?” On seeing both her children walking along the footpath in distance and taking to their regular business, she went straight inside. She took a small packet of tea and sugar to add to water sat near the fireplace and taking a dry piece of biscuit out of a niche nearby, began to nibble at it.
Fulki and Chhitiyo walked on. Chhitiyo readily demanded kuldi from Fulki and tucked it in his pocket. The pocket of the buttonless coat sank under the weight. On the sight of Chhitiyo like a bridegroom and Fulki dressed only in a ghaghri, some of the people passing by turned away twitching up their nose in disgust, spitting an abuse or two, making typical disparaging gestures of hand and face or just taking offence at their presence without uttering a single word.
Picking up the stubs thrown away by people, from wherever he could sight, Chhitiyo tucked them into the kuldi lying in his pocket. The brother and sister gathered almost fifteen stubs from around the shops of a confectioner, a cobbler and a kachhiyo. In-between Chhitiyo kept on muttering, “O sister, today we will bring home at least a pocketful of stubs, right!” Then again he would examine the bidis lying in the kuldi, fondle them with his hand or bring five or six out to count them.
The eyes of both of them would keep rolling around to spot those mouths that smoked bidis out of the crowd of people walking along the road. Spurred by the hope that the smoker would throw the bidi in no time, they would walk right behind him keeping just a slight distance; if the smoker threw away the bidi, they would readily pick it up; if he didn’t, they would be disappointed a little; if the thrown away stub had a greater length of tobacco left unsmoked, they would snuff it out and tuck it in the pocket and throw away the bidi that was smoked up to the end after having a whiff or two at it.
After reaching quite a distance they halted at a corner. Chhitiyo brought the kuldi out of his pocket and emptied the bidis in Fulki’s hands. “Sister, all right! Let’s count.” And after sitting down cross-legged on the ground, Fulki threw the bidis in her lap and they began to count, “One, two, five, fifteen, ten, eleven, twenty.” They counted the numbers waywardly. While they were sporting thus with the bidis in hand, the shopkeeper in the vicinity cried out: “Run children, run away, there comes a mad cow!”
Clasping the hand of her brother, Fulki rose to her feet with a start and started running. The bidis got scattered. They rushed into a nook. The cow shot near hissing furiously and whizzing her head wildly. The people on the road slipped aside. The cow ran past as quickly as it had stampeded. After the passing of the cow, both of them returned to their place.
“My bidis, my bidis…” Chhitiyo was whining bitterly as if bewailing the destruction of the world. When they reached the place where they had sat earlier and cast a glance, they espied nothing but a pile of garbage bedraggled with mud. A soiled stub was lying on one side. “Leave it, it’s dirty, brother.” Fulki said and prevented Chhitiyo who was about to pick it up: “Stop crying, we’ll pick some more.”
Clinging to the finger of his sister, Chhitiyo moved on in the hope of future gain. They reached to the shop of a bidiwallah.
“Hey big sheth, give us one bidi.” Fulki begged and both-the brother and sister- extended their tender hands.
“Get lost, you seeker of bidis! Amuse yourself by toking on the find of stubs.” said the big sheth and started paying attention to his customer: “Why thakore, what would you like to have?”
The thakore wearing a red turban ordered a packet of twenty-five bidis and told him to prepare a paan. While tucking the big gobbet of paan in his mouth, as the thakore turned his face round, he saw that two, small, dark brown children were staring expectantly at him.
“Hey you, what are you gaping at?”
“Please give us a bidi, thakore!”
Fulki pronounced the word ‘thakore’ by lengthening it considerably. Chhitiyo extended his open palm. Thakore smiled. Untying the bunch of bidis, he threw one towards the children and tucking the rest of them into his pocket, he walked away. While thrusting them into pocket, one more bidi slipped from thakore’s hand. Chhitiyo ran for it. Just then, another contestant was sighted approaching for the bidi that had dropped. “Hey boy, I have seen it first.” A fat vagharan warned and came up running to take the bidi. Chhitiyo stopped all of a sudden. The vagharan took up the bidi.
“Hey you pudgy, why do you defile yourself by having an eye on it? It became polluted once the eyes of a bhangiyo were clapped on it. I shall give you another. Take this.” said the thakore and gave a bidi and matchbox to that vagharan with his own hand.
Both of them returned to the shop, taking the bidi thrown away by the vagharan and showing the bidi in his hand, Chhitiyo implored: “O big sheth, please throw a match-box.”
“O God! Hell with you goddamn people! Go there to that fire where the garbage is burning.” growled the big sheth.
They headed for the fire burning by the side of a high metal-dustbin lying in a lane within a short distance. Chhitiyo scalded himself while trying hurriedly to light the bidi with a cinder strewn out of the fire. Diverting his attention by quick cajolery that they were to pick up bidis from the garbage, Fulki calmed him down and both of them began to collect stubs from garbage. Hardly had they gathered a few of them when Fulki got up all of a sudden and bawled out, “Hey, father, father! Chhitiyo, there goes our father!”
Wearing a headgear with an end hanging right up to the waist, a black tattered coat, a tugged dhoti and shoes of perforated white cloth and walking with a broom placed on his shoulder, Hariyo, the gaunt-faced-father held back.
“Father, our mother has sent us to pick bidis.” Fulki said
“And father, hey see…” burbled Chhitiyo and showed a half-opened half-closed fist full of picked up stubs and reveled.
“O bravo, bravo my son!” Hariyo encouraged him and lifted the boy and holding him in his hands, kissed him. “Let me see, son.” he said and opened the clenched fist of the boy. And a few stubs dropped from it.
“Hey Hariyo, now come straight to office. How long will you keep amusing the children thus?” someone went away after bawling out at him.
“Father, this Chhitiyo wants to smoke a cigarette.” Fulki lovingly divulged the ambition of her brother.
“Does he? Do you want to be a shethiyo?” Hariyo said and nestled Chhitiyo up against his chest. And then saying, “Come, I shall make you smoke a cigarette.”, he reached near an Islami hotel along with both the children.
“Why Hariyo, have you brought along the whole family or what?” retorted Karimalli drenched with oil and frying bhajias sitting on the verandah of the hotel.
“Yes, just now the children met me in the market, so I brought them along.” Hariyo said and put the children down. Both of them kept gawping at the pile of bhajia in the plate, the sweetmeats arranged in a dirty cabinet above and a sticky stove bustling on a black table with an amazement of seeing a captivating spectacle of Alkapuri.
Hariyo ordered two cups of tea and brought three pairs from the cups and saucers that used to lie on the ground meant exclusively for bhangis and squatted after arranging them. The boy servant of the hotel went away after pouring tea into them. While drinking tea both the children kept sneaking glances all around with cocked-up wide-open eyes.
The flow of customers was escalating by and by in the hotel. A gang of young boys entered and sat reserving an entire table.
“Four plates of puda, four cups of special tea.” One of them unleashed an order. Plates of malpuda bestowed with the topping of hovering and buzzing bees were placed on the table. The hustle-bustle of the stove augmented.
“Father feed me a pudo” Chhitiyo whiddled in a cajoling voice, slouching on the father’s back and throwing his hands round his neck.
“Yes, son. But finish your tea first. Look there the motor goes!” he somehow managed to make three people drink tea out of two cups but now he didn’t have any money left to cater a pudo, so he diverted the attention of the son in a different direction.
Fulki had finished drinking the tea. Wiping her mouth with her palm, she stood up and went a bit nearer the steps. She kept staring at the red jacket and a silver-tipped stick of a spraunchy gentleman spruced in absolutely new clothes and sitting at a seemingly clean table. That gentleman seemed to be pleased with the large, beady eyes and curly hair of Fulki. He said, “What a wonderful girl she is!” and smiled slightly. Fulki also smiled back baring a row of tiny white teeth. That gentleman brought a box of cigarettes out of his pocket, lighted a cigarette and began to smoke it. Fulki kept looking at the smoke spiraling out of his mouth. After finishing his tea, Chhitiyo also got up, came near his sister and stood there.
On seeing the considerate glance of the gentleman, Hariyo begged: “O kind master, please give that half smoked cigarette for this boy.”
The face of that gentleman began to pale in disgust. He kept on smoking the cigarette. Pointing to the children, Hariyo began to sport an increasingly pitiable look on his face.
The gentleman ordered: “Don’t bring the plate.” And after throwing money for tea on the table, he began to descend the steps of the hotel. Fulki kept staring at the manner in which his stick swayed down from the upper step to the lower one while climbing down. Like the sunflowers, all three turned their faces towards the movement of that sun-like gentleman. He came near Fulki. Fulki was petrified with terror.
“Take this! he said and placed an entire box of cigarette in Fulki’s hand. No doubt Fulki’s hand spread out but she couldn’t get hold of the box. The box fell down. The gentleman went away pacing up the stick along with his legs.
Chhitiyo readily picked up the box that had fallen and opened it rapturously. There were three cigarettes in it.
“Cigarette! Cigarette!” Chhitiyo began to jump with joy. Fulki came near.
“One for me, one for you and one for father.” Chhitiyo began to do the dispensation.
“And what will mother smoke then?” Fulki reminded.
“Give it to me. All of us will smoke after reaching home. I will bring home a fourth cigarette for your mother.” Hariyo said and tried to take the cigarettes.
“No, no, I will keep them.” Chhitiyo began to insist upon it stubbornly.
“Look son someone will snatch them from you. Take this box along with you.” After taking out the cigarettes, Hariyo handed the box with a golden print to the boy. Chhitiyo was delighted.
“All right then. Bon, go home now. Take your brother home carefully.” Having sent the children homeward, Hariyo turned towards the municipality office.
It was almost afternoon. Fulki was walking clasping her brother carefully who was playing with the cigarette box putting her hand firmly round him. People living in the marketplace could be seen seated at the windows of their high or low upper storeys, after finishing their lunch and chewing paan or some stuff like paan. The shadows of the buildings had become short. The road was becoming increasingly hot. Bare-footed brother and sister were being scalded by it. Wetting their feet into the water spilled on the road by people they began to head for their home as quickly as possible.
Chhitiyo became thirsty. “Sister, I want to drink water.” As she couldn’t think of how to get water for him, Fulki cajoled her brother: “Come on now. We’ll drink it after reaching home. Look there the house is seen.”
“Where is the house?” Chhitiyo inquired, as he couldn’t see anything like his house around.
Coaxing and cajoling her brother with encouraging words like “There it is!” Fulki walked on taking him along. They came near a big three-storeyed building. Its slight shadow was cooling the road. Chhitiyo stopped there and stood still. Fulki also halted. Both of them looked up. A boy almost the age of her brother was standing at the grilled window, poking his hand with kallis out of the holes of the grill.
Chhitiyo saw a girl in the window looking just like Fulki, lifting the boy in her hands, saying, “O my dear brother, you will fall down.”
“Oh, why are you standing at the window in such hot afternoon.” Somebody cautioned. “The boy will catch sunstroke, take him inside, bai.”
The boy and the girl upstairs kept looking at Chhitiyo and Fulki standing below. It seemed that both of them were not ready to budge from there.
“O bhai, I shall give you sherbet, come inside dear.” A mellifluous voice was heard calling the boy. Still the children stood there only. A slight clanking of anklets was heard and a fleshy white face with lips gone red with the paan juice appeared at the upper end of the window.
“What are you gazing at down there?” she inquired on seeing the children looking down. Brandishing his hands with golden kallis at the children below, the boy looked at that fair face and said, “Mummy, those children…”
“Sister, please give me some water.” She heard the boy urging from below and sighted a girl along with him staring expectantly up at the window.
“Bhai, come inside. People like them are absolutely idle all the time. Come I’ll give you sherbet.” grumbled the woman dragging the boy and then lifting him in her arms, took him inside to have him drink sherbet. The window was left vacant. The brother and sister were overcome by a sudden shock born of a sense of something very personal being rent by a saw.
Once again a woman looking somewhat like a maidservant appeared in the window. She threw a broken bamboo-chipped basket out of the window and then looking below, spat out: “Push out, damn you, you’ll be hurt. Why, bloody damns keep standing in the midst of the road!” and she went inside.
As if man’s innate tendency for mercy had jumped down from a mountain to commit a suicide, the bamboo-chipped basket slumped down with a hollow plop. Chhitiyo and Fulki moved close to it. Inside there were some packets of crumpled papers and skins of oranges and bananas etc. One or two putrefying orange slices lay clung to the inside of the skin. Fulki plucked them out and gave them to her brother.
“Take brother, eat this, your thirst would be slaked.” Chhitiyo began to suck at it blindly by closing his eyes. After that Fulki gave him skins of bananas. He began to lap the pulp stuck to it. In the packet of crumpled paper were granular powder of pendo and jalebi and bits of puri etc. Drawing all of them close together and wrapping them in a sheet of paper, Fulki tied it to her tug of ghaghri. Chhitiyo insisted on eating it.
“We will eat after reaching home, brother. Mother would be greatly delighted.”
Gratified Chhitiyo now headed homeward, walking right behind his sister.
Amli, who had been waiting eagerly, sitting at the threshold of the house, straightaway lifted the children in her arms as soon as they came. Overjoyed both of them narrated their account of service and adventure. Chhitiyo proudly displayed the cigarette-box. Fulki employed naïve and merry trickery to hide the packet tied in her ghaghri but ultimately that too was detected by everybody together. It was time for meal. The vessels in which food was cooked had cooled and were lying in the front part of the fireplace.
“Why hasn’t your father turned up yet?” said Amli and stood up and as she was about to cast a look outside, she heard the angry voice of Hariyo.
“Have those damned children been home yet or not?” and in answer to his question he espied both the children standing and smiling merrily to him, having sped up to the threshold of the house. They kept staring at their father, taller than even the roof, heaving angrily the broom in his hand onto the roof. Hariyo tried to enter the room carefully by bending down but still he bumped his head against the doorframe.
“Bloody fools, all the time keep blocking the way!” he snorted and stamped a hard slap on the cheek of Fulki who had already drawn back in alarm. Fulki went inside sniveling and rubbing her cheek gently.
“What is the children’s fault if you be careless and hurt yourself?” Amli retorted while coaxing Fulki not to cry.
Trying to embrace the feet of the father who had come inside, Chhitiyo asked endearingly: “Father, you have brought cigarette for mother, haven’t you?”
“Oh, forget it. Your mother and her claim to smoke cigarette!” Hariyo snapped scornfully and swung the boy away with a violent jerk of his leg. Fulki readily consoled herself and sat down to open her packet.
“What is that, hey Fulki?” Hariyo said and snatched the packet. Fulki was dumbfounded. Her hands were left half-hanging. Opening the packet, Hariyo tossed in his mouth two or three larger morsels of items lying in it. Both Fulki and Chhitiyo kept staring sulkily at their father who looked like a devil guzzling their sweetmeats. Snorting angrily at them, he pushed the packet towards them. “Take it and thrust it in your bellies!”
“Why Hariyo, why are you behaving thus today?” Amli was thinking why Hariyo, who had always been calm, amiable and loving to his children, was changed suddenly today. Before Hariyo could reply, Chhitiyo came near him lisping”: “Father at least give us those cigarettes, our cigarettes.”
Hariyo’s eyeballs popped out threateningly. He extended his hand. “Come, come here, you bloody cigarette-buff. Take this cigarette!” saying this he clapped hold of Chhitiyo by wrist who was trying to move backwards out of fear and pulling him near, gave him a crushing pinch. The boy began to grizzle loudly.
“My cigarette. En…en…en”
“Have you had a quarrel with somebody or what?” Amli lovingly asked Hariyo who up till now was growling turning his face black as a jet. Having wriggled out of the fit of anger, Hariyo spoke in a soft voice fraught with a sense of shame:
“I have got the notice. I’ll lose the job. You know why? Because of the headman. Everyday I have to treat him with tea, refreshment and cigarette. And still the calamity persists.”
Amli guessed the inevitable doom the cigarette must have met with. Chhitiyo, like a seasoned politician, had already begun the term for squalling. Fulki was staring with a sullen face standing afar, lounging against the wall. Chhitiyo was rolling about on the floor and bawling. Hariyo was eating while chafing under a variety of reasons. After eating silently for a little while he said casting a threatening look towards the boy who didn’t stop crying:
“Now will you stop crying or not? Amli, give me those bidis of his share. I shall smoke away all of them.”
To verify the truth or falsehood of the threat, Chhitiyo decided to stop his crying and turned towards his father. Tears that had called a halt became just like pearls and were sparkling in the corners of his eyes. On seeing his father eating as silently as earlier, he turned to another side for crying. Just then Fulki came near him clasping something in her fist, sat near him and placing furtively some pretty, tidy and unsmoked bidis in his hand said:
“Take these, bhai, and stop crying! Tomorrow we’ll bring cigarettes from that thakore, all right?”
Chhitiyo tightly clasped the bidis in his fist. The virtual satisfaction that at last he got at least whole, unsmoked bidis if not cigarettes quieted him. Sleep, slowly and gradually, cast its spell over the child who was exhausted after walking long distances and crying. Holding the bidis in his fist, Chhitiyo fell off to sleep while turning and twisting about on the floor.
Hariyo kept eating with a downcast face. When Amli called Fulki for meal she denied. In between Chhitiyo fitfully woke up with a start and grumbled, “My cigarette! My bidis!” and tightened his grip on the bidis held in his hand and pressed it to his chest.
“Damn you, Hariyo!” breaking the silence of the house, Amli spoke in a low, tragic voice: “Why did you smoke away children’s cigarette?”
“Let it alone! Bloody smokers lusting after cigarettes! Bhangis by birth and…” snapped Hariyo and washed his hands.
Amli didn’t eat anything and god knows why she poured water in the chulo, that day, never before.