I Iwas about to drink my tea when I heard Aai’s footsteps.
“Tea is ready!” I called out even before she entered, very pleased with my strategy.
“Shabash!” Aai said.
It made me quite hopeful. I waited for Aai to finish her tea before launching the attack.
“Inspection in eight days,” I said causally, my back to her. I was washing up, as a preliminary.
“I know,” Aai said. “Mrs Chiplunkar is coming.”
“How do you know?” I was astonished. Aai knew everything! She smiled.
“She’s very strict… that’s what they say.” I was making conversation.
Aai was silent. She was sitting, leaning against the wall, her legs stretched out before her. Her eyes were closed. Aai had a sharp nose. It seemed to pierce right through me.
I gathered up all the courage I had. “The teacher asked me to bring my needlework for the inspection,” I said.
“Put the rice to boil, will you?” Aai had probably not heard about the needlework, nor about the inspection.
I did not have the courage to pursue the conversation further. I stuffed another log into the mouth of the chulha and put the rice vessel on.
I got up and brought the pillow, the only one in the house, gave it to Aai and told her to rest.
“Where are Shri and Pammi?” she asked stretching out. “Tell them to come in. They’ve played enough. Let them start with the tables.”
It had become dark. I got busy with the lantern, striking matchstick after matchstick. It was no use. Then I lifted up the dome and shook it. No oil. Not in the lantern. Not at home either.
“No oil,” I said to Aai.
“No oil?” Aai was fully rested now. “Well, we will have the purple haze then…”
Our house had been partitioned recently. Between us and our tenants.
Without them we would not have been able to manage really. The partition was made of matting. So when the tenants lit the lantern in the evening, we got part of the light too. It was a bright light, a really bright shadow, actually. The shadow of life. The purple haze… our surprise Diwali… the Diwali we celebrated once a fortnight, at least. The purple haze. We had the haze this evening too. The kitchen was aglow. The chulha saw to it.
We had our food. Washing up was my job. Shri and Pammi went to sleep early. I was pressing Aai's tired feet.
“I need a yard of cloth,” I said once again. “It is not expensive, really. Only twelve annas a yard.”
Aai was silent for a while. Finally she spoke, very very softly, “Vasanthi, child, not this month. Next month maybe. I’ll come and speak to your teacher.”
“The inspection?” I could bring out no other word.
Aai sat up. I could see her face, blurred, but visible. The tenant’s lantern helped me see it.
“Don’t worry, child. I’m there, aren’t I? I’ll see your Inspectress too..” After a short pause, she took a deep breath and whispered, “These days will pass, I’m sure of it. Things have to change after all…” Then her voice grew a little louder. “Not today, maybe, but some day we will be free. And when the country is free, your father too will be free…out of jail.” Now Aai’s voice blurred too. She continued, “The purple haze cannot last for ever. It has to go…”
Continued next week
From The Bell
Illustrations: Suman Choudhury