Wednesday 25 October 2023

Short Story 2023 Longlist, Archana Bahadur Zutshi


The Tewari household was abuzz with activity, their only daughter was getting married. The girl was beautiful and had studied till high school. Ragini's mother had not been keeping too well. The mother had a small pension to subsist on of her late husband who was an electrician in the Collectorate. The neighbours were all like family as they lived inside the same periphery of the old building. The building was under a trust and government had fixed a nominal rent for each of the tenants. Ragini's mother Tara was much of a help to the younger generation. She was ready with her home remedies for the young distressed mothers. She too had studied till class eight. Due to adverse conditions her brother and sister-in law had got her married to the city electrician from their village who earned enough to support his family. Her happy married life was shorlived as she lost her husband in an accident in his office.

The entire collectorate had come to condole for Ramlal. He was a very jovial and sincere man. For days Tara was in a daze. Life lost any meaning for her. Her life was centred around Ramlal. She had never desired of any luxuries in her life. Her daughter brought her out from her depression. Tara had decided to educate her daughter well but Ragini had to discontinue her school when Tara fell down the stairs and her pelvic fracture took one full year to heal.

Suresh her nephew had got a job in Meerut, so he stayed with Aunt Tara for a month before he shifted to the accommodation provided by his company. He helped Ragini in taking care of her mother.

A new neighbour Nazmeen and her husband found favour with Tara. Tara used to guide young Nazmeen about the upbringing of her son Umar. During daytime sometimes Tara would babysit and fuss over Umar. The strange bond grew day by day.

The Tewari brahmins had all gathered to support Tara at the time of Ragini's marriage. Suresh was there with his wife and his parents. Ragini was marrying Suresh's cousin cum friend who too had been working in Meerut as an engineer. He had fallen for Ragini at first meeting. He appreciated the way she had taken care of her bedridden mother. His parents happily accepted their son's choice.

All the women had helped Tara in the preparation of the wedding. They would dote on Ragini as their daughter. Umar would want to eat out of her plate much to the annoyance of other women who knew that Tewari households were punctilious about their food and maintenance of purity while intake and preparation of food. Often Ragini ignored such decorum.

Nazmeen was a religious woman. She followed the religious observance closely. She believed in charity of word and deed. Eid was close at hand, so Umar wanted to be pampered. When Ammi asked him what he wanted for Eid he said he wanted a big plate to eat now since he was a big boy. He wanted the gold metal plate like Ragini Didi's. Nazneen was bemused at his insistence, and his sibling rivalry for getting a similar one.

That day Tara was running fever. Of all the women in the adjacent houses, she sent for Nazmeen alone, when she came with Umar. Tara made Umar sit on her lap. Umar asked her would Ragini be around for Eid. At this Tara said that if he would invite her she would surely come.

Tara had sent for Nazmeen as she wanted her to fill her drinking water from the tap. For her worship too the same water had to be used. Nazmeen asked her if she had eaten before taking her medicine.

"If you don't mind would you make tea for both of us... Oh, are you fasting?"

Nazmeen prepared tea and gave her a few biscuits in a steel plate to which Tara had pointed. Umar readily picked up one when Tara offered him to eat.

She then took out hundred rupees bill from her wallet and asked Nazmeen to buy Umar something for Eid.

Nazmeen was bewidered as she could never have imagined that Ragini would ever ask her to enter her kitchen.

"Nazmeen you are like my family, that is why I asked you to come. I am a little fussy about cleanliness. I appreciate how well washed Umar is at all times."

Nazmeen was so happy. Her Eid seemed to be on that day itselfthough it was a couple of days later.

"Nazmeen I authorise you to feel free in my house, I know you ask a pious and generous woman. In the evening will you please cook porridge with pulse it shall be my Eid's delicacy"!

In Nazmeen's eyes tears of joy were shimmering as she helped Tara with her plate.

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