When she got up in the morning, Karuna wondered how she should spend the day with Leenu..
It was a Sunday! She didn’t want to get out of bed. She drifted between sleep and awakening, a strange lethargy seemed to have overtaken her.
She had not slept soundly for many nights. She would get up in the morning, drained and weary, as if she had trudged miles through the night.
Last night too, she had not slept a wink. She had heard the cock crow at the break of dawn. And, getting out of her own bed she had got in with Leenu, and kept looking at her as she slept. Then, she had put her own cheek next to her small round cheek, and didn’t know when she had fallen asleep.
When she got up in the morning, she could not decide how to spend the day. Should she keep lying in bed, or should she get up?
She lay for a long time, debating. She could hear Leenu’s even breathing beside her. It was when the maid put a cup of hot tea on the table beside her, that she got up.
‘Bibi, what is the matter today? Aren’t you getting up?’
‘Nothing Katoriya! It is Sunday!’ Today is Sunday, and tomorrow will be Monday. And on Monday morning… Bas, bas! Don’t think about anything! Don’t think!’ A wail rose within her. She drank the tea and put the cup back on the table.
She felt as if a storm had overwhelmed her! A roaring dust storm! Screaming from a distance! And she could see nothing, hear nothing!
…It is Sunday today, and tomorrow is Monday. And, on Monday morning….
Karuna glanced at the clock. It was eight-thirty. Tomorrow, anytime after ten… anytime… There were only twenty-five-and-a-half hours left. That was all.
And Karuna looked at Leenu. Leenu’s long black silken lashes shaded her round cheeks. A few curls spread on her forehead. And Karuna thought of what Mrs. Dewan had said – ‘Oh, had your daughter been older by six or seven years, I would have asked for her hand for my son, Lalit! Leenu beta, why weren’t you born a few years earlier?’
Leenu had suddenly felt shy. ‘I don’t know, Aunty, my mother should know that! You say, Ammi!
She did not know what it was – a smile, or fear, or a breath, which got stuck in Karuna’s throat. She gulped in some air… as if she was trying to swallow the sharp prickly pain.
Picking up the newspaper, Karuna glanced through it. A couple of children’s films were being screened at Sapru House. Yes, this was it! She would take Leenu there. After that, who knows…
Karuna woke Leenu up, and got her ready.
Leenu asked – ‘What should I wear, Ammi?’
Karuna opened the wadrobe. All of Leenu’s dresses, skirts and blouses, were hanging there. Karuna’s own clothes took up very little space.
‘Wear whatever you want to,’ Karuna answered.
A slight shadow appeared on Leenu’s face. She looked at her mother’s face, but Karuna averted her face. Taking two steps in the other direction, Karuna picked up a book from the table and straightened things. She could guess from the rustling at the back that Leenu had selected her black skirt with red mirror work. And her deep yellow blouse of handloom silk.
Leenu silently went into the next room with her clothes. She had stopped undressing before her mother sometime back ago. Karuna felt that Leenu was conscious of the fact that she was growing up.
Silly girl! She is shy of her own mother! The tension dissipated for a moment for Karuna. She still stood at the table in the same manner when Leenu came out in her new dress. To Karuna she appeared older and taller than before.
Katoriya had left tea for her on the table. Karuna said, ‘Leenu, pour out two cups of tea. I am coming.’ She didn’t want Leenu to see the unhappiness on her face.
Karuna was stirring the sugar in her tea, even though she knew that the half spoon of sugar must have been dissolved long back. Leenu was eating paranthas and butter. Suddenly, she felt that Leenu also was trying to hide that shadow from appearing on her face.
Karuna felt that suddenly Leenu had grown older in the last few days, and now they were of the same age. Two girls, two women, of the same age. And there was one word that both of them were not uttering. They both were indulging in some innocent play acting to avoid any hurt to one another.
‘Take some butter, Leenu!’
‘Give Ammi,’ She was eating butter to please Ammi.
‘May I put some Ovaltine in your milk?’
And, tomorrow who knows… Karuna stopped herself with all the self control at her command to think beyond that.
They reached Sapru House well in time. Karuna was grateful for the darkness in the hall and the film. Both these combined to help wipe out a part of the time hanging like a guillotine blade, the sword of Damocles’over her head.
After the film, they went to Janpath. Karuna bought Leenu a pair of Jaipuri pearl bangles, and a story book.
‘What will you eat, Leenu?’
But, after having said this, Leenu looked at her mother’s face and saw a half expressed longing there. She immediately offered, ‘Ammi, let’s go to Kwality’s! We will have double sundaes!’
Leenu had a double sundae and Karuna took a cup of coffee.
An unbearable silence hung around their table. They kept looking at people sitting at other tables.
It was almost evening. The crowd in Connaught Place was swelling. Sometime later, Karuna asked, ‘Shall we go home or do you want to go anywhere else?’
After a little deliberation, Leenu asked, ‘Ammi, may I meet Rajni?’
Karuna was surprised… Meet? Was she also afraid that she may…? Collecting herself, Karuna replied, ‘Yes, yes! Let’s go right now!’
When Rajni took Leenu to her room, her mother put her hand on Karuna’s shoulder with an air of mystery, and said, ‘I’ve heard that …’
Karuna hated this sort of sympathy and attempts at mystifying things. She hated sharing her problems with others. To her it seemed very much like a leper exhibiting his oozing wounds to collect alms.
She wanted to get up and leave. But that was not possible, and she replied rather shortly, ‘Yes, the decision will be handed out by the court tomorrow…’
‘Is it the final court date?’ Rajni’s mother persisted. She didn’t want to drop the matter without getting all the information.
‘Yes, tomorrow,’ Karuna’s answer came in such a manner that Rajni’s mother did not dare ask anything further.
It was getting dark. And also cold. Karuna called out to Leenu, ‘Beta, shall we go?’
‘Yes, Ammi! I am very tired!’ Leenu suddenly felt very exhausted.
By the time they reached home, it was dark.
‘Shall I make the rotis bibi?’ Katoriya wanted to know.
‘You put the tawa on the chulah, Katoriya, I am coming.’
Karuna made the rotis herself. Soft, round rotis – layering them with butter! While making the rotis, she felt a strange pain twist her inside. Suddenly, she thought of her own childhood, when her father used to get fresh acacia twigs — he twisted and crushed them to make datun for all of them to brush their teeth.
After the meal, Leenu quietly got into her bed.
Silence was a huge stone – a rock, which weighed heavily on Karuna.
‘Have you applied some cream on your hands, Leenu’? Karuna tried to break through the solid wall of silence.
‘Oh, Ammi, I clean forgot about it!’ Saying this, Leenu immediately got out from under the quilt, as if she had forgotten something of great importance.
‘I will get it for you.’ Karuna brought the cream jar from the cupboard and handed it to Leenu. She was grateful to this almost forgotten chore, which had helped her to break the tautness of silence.
Leenu went back to bed and closed her eyes. Karuna put the light off, and also got into bed.
She did not know how much time had passed when the telephone rang in the next room.
Picking up the receiver Karuna said, ‘Hello!’
‘Hello, Karuna, how are things?’
‘Arre Toshi! Nothing. I was just lying down.’
‘I had called in the evening also, but you had gone out.’
‘Yes, Leenu and I had gone out for the day.’
‘Where is Leenu?’
‘Achcha… Bas… I only thought… to ask… what are you doing.’
‘Oh, Toshi!’ Karuna didn’t want Toshi to act like this with her. She was a very close friend.
‘Karuna, may I come over for some time?’ Toshi pleaded with her.
‘Do come,’ Karuna said, after some hesitation. She liked to be alone when she was troubled, but Toshi was different.
Toshi arrived a little later.
‘How have you come?’
‘The driver brought the car. Its still here.’ Both were silent for some time.
‘Will you have some coffee?’ Karuna asked.
‘No, I don’t need anything right now.’ Toshi seemed to be having some trouble with her throat.
‘I definitely want a hot cup of coffee,’ Karuna replied, for the sake of making some conversation.
Karuna filled the electric kettle and plugged it in. Then, she came back and sat down on the divan.
Toshi looked at her for a moment. Then, she looked the other way. What can one say, and how should one say anything, at a time like this? She took a deep breath and then slowly expelled it, so that Karuna might not hear it.
In the harsh and heavy silence, both of them could hear the water slowly coming to boil in the kettle. Karuna knew that it had not yet come to boil, even then she got up, and taking the lid off, peered into the kettle. Small bubbles could be seen in the water. Karuna put the lid back.
‘A cup of coffee in winter gives a lot of warmth,’ Karuna remarked.
‘Now, even I need coffee,’ Toshi said, though she did not really want it.
Karuna went to the kitchen to fetch the cups. Toshi followed her.
Coffee was made and both sat down to drink, silent and thoughtful.
Suddenly, tears came rushing to Karuna’s eyes. Her tough stance was collapsing under the stress.
Her hands were shaking. She put the cup on the table. Toshi stretched out her hand, and touched her fingers and patted them slowly.
Toshi got up and went out. Then, the sound of a car starting was heard. She came back and said, ‘I have sent a message word home, that I will spend the night here.’
This statement neither gave Karuna solace nor did it upset her. She sat, silent, looking at her hands in her lap.
Toshi picked up Karuna’s cup and gave it to her, and picked up her own.
‘It was this moment that I feared all along. I have spent thirteen years in that house, dying every day, being butchered every day.’ Karuna was talking more to herself than to Toshi.
Toshi did not say anything. ‘Whenever I thought of crossing the threshold of that house, Leenu’s face came before me. It was the fear of this moment that kept me a prisoner there.’
‘Look, Karuna, you have taken this step with courage, don’t lose heart now.’
‘No, Toshi, my mind is made up, and I have steeled my heart!’ But something inside was killing her.
She got up and poured some more water into the kettle. She tried to collect herself and her turbulent thoughts by burying herself in various little jobs.
‘Did you meet the lawyer?’
‘What did he say?’
‘The same thing – that the judge decides who gets the custody. He will give the custody to the person he thinks is better equipped to look after the child.’
‘Let the law go to hell! Does the mother have no right on her child? It is she who gives it birth, brings it up, goes through all the pain and trouble!’ Toshi was angry.
Karuna was thinking of all the trouble that she had faced. How she had brought Leenu up, how she had tried to give Leenu the love of a father and mother both, Anand had no love for his daughter. Even lions and tigers love their children, and look after them, but Anand… .
‘Anand has found this way to harass you! You have, with great difficulty, made this house in two and a half years, and have found some solace. Now he has filed this petition! If someone were to question him: You don’t love the child, don’t want to spend money on her! He would have no answer. This petition is only to create trouble for you… what else?’ Toshi was angry with Anand. Her anger and irritation could no longer be hidden.
The sound of water coming to boil could be heard. Karuna got up and made two more cups of coffee. Putting her own cup on the table, she went in. Toshi peeped into the other room, Karuna was adjusting Leenu’s quilt.
Toshi came back to sit on the sofa.
When Karuna came back, the strain of unshed tears, barely controlled, was so great that her cheeks were throbbing. She covered her face with her hands as she sat down on the divan, and burst into tears. Toshi came over and sat down near her, and put her arm around Karuna’s heaving shoulders.
‘I am worried… If the judge hands over Leenu to Anand, and he takes her away… then who will cover her at night?’
Toshi too wanted to cry. There was a burning sensation in her throat.
Karuna pulled herself together.
Karuna pulled herself together.
‘Achcha, Toshi, will you sleep here, on the divan?’ Karuna knew that whenever Toshi spent the night with her, she always slept on this divan.
Toshi nodded. Karuna brought a white sheet and a quilt. She also brought a night suit. And collecting the empty coffee cups on a tray, took them to the kitchen.
Switching the light off, she lay on her own bed.
Karuna could not decide what it was that she wanted… that night should become so long that it should never end, or that it should end as fast as possible. Then the sun would come out, and this dreadful apprehensiveness would be over…
She didn’t want anything. She was not waiting for anything. She was not thinking of anything.
The greater part of the night had passed. Karuna got up and silently got in beside Leenu and put her lips on her soft cheek.