The Old Aunt
by Premchand. Translated by M. Asaduddin
Old age, in many ways, is the return of childhood. The old aunt had lost all her senses except that of taste. She had no other means to draw attention to herself except crying. All her limbs – eyes, hands and legs – had given way. She would be lying there uncared for, and if the members of the family did things contrary to her wishes, did not give her food on time or in sufficient quantity, or if she was not given a share of the eatables brought from the market, she would begin to howl. What is more, she cried and sobbed at the top of her voice, not in a subdued tone.
It was a long time since her husband had died. Her son too had died when he was an adolescent. And now, there was no one except the nephew, with whom she lived. She had transferred her entire property in his name. He had made tall promises at the time, but they turned out to be false. The return from her property in a year was not less than two hundred rupees, but she was hardly given enough food to fill her belly. It was not clear whether her nephew, Pandit Buddhiram, was to blame for this, or his wife. Buddhiram was a decent gentleman, but only as long as he does not have to part with his money. Rupa was sharp by temperament but God-fearing. The old aunt did not mind her sharp tongue as much as she did Buddhiram’s apparent gentlemanliness.
Sometimes Buddhiram regretted this cruel attitude of his. He knew well that he could pretend to be a gentleman because of this property. If verbal assurances and dry sympathy could improve the situation, he was all for it. But the fear of extra expenses made him suppress all his good intentions. If the old aunt shared with a visitor her plight he would burst into a rage and reprimand the aunt. Children generally dislike old people. When they saw the attitude of their parents towards her, they teased her all the more. If someone pinched her, another would spit water on her after rinsing. Kaaki would let out a scream, but as everyone knew that she cried and screamed only for food, no one paid any heed. Of course, if Kaaki, in a fit of anger, started cursing the children, Rupa would appear on the scene. This fear made Kaaki use her tongue as a weapon sparingly, though it was certainly a more potent weapon than crying, for getting her way.
In the entire family, if Kaaki was attached to anyone, it was to Ladli, Buddhiram’s youngest daughter. Fearing her marauding brothers, Ladli would take her share of sweets etc. to Kaaki’s room and ate there. This was her refuge, though it often proved rather costly because of Kaaki’s greed, yet cheaper than her brothers’ injustice. Their self-interest had woken up their sympathy for each other.
It was night. Shahnai was playing in Buddhiram’s courtyard, and the children of the village were enjoying the music with wide-eyed wonder. The guests were resting on charpais and getting a massage from the barber. The village minstrel was standing there and singing, and carried away by it, some guests were exclaiming “bravo! bravo!”. The minstrel looked ecstatic, as though he was really deserving of the praise. Some English-educated youths were there who ignored it. They considered it beneath their dignity to take part in the assembly of fools.
The occasion was – tilak had arrived that day for Sukhram, Buddhiram’s eldest son. People had gathered to celebrate it. Women were singing inside the house, and Rupa was busy in the preparations of the feast. Huge pans were installed on the earthen oven. If puris and kachauris were boiling in one, other dishes were being cooked in others. Spicy curries were being cooked in another huge one. The appetizing aroma of ghee and spices had filled the place.
Kaaki was sitting in her room, dejected. The spicy aroma was making her restless. She was thinking, They won’t give me any puris, I guess. It’s so late, but no one brought me any food. It seems everyone has eaten. Nothing has been left for me. This made her cry, but she resisted it thinking it might bring ill omen.
Ah! What aroma! Who’ll think of me? When they don’t give me enough roti, will they give me luscious puris? This thought brought tears to her eyes and she felt a lump in her throat. But she maintained silence for fear of Rupa.
Kaaki was rapt in her sorrowful thoughts for a long time. The aroma of ghee and spices would make her restless off and on. Her mouth was watering. Imagining the flavour of the puris tickled her mind. Who would she call today? Even Ladli didn’t come to her. The two boys who always teased her were not to be seen either. No one knew where they had disappeared today. If only she had a way to know which eatables were being prepared.
Kaaki’s imagination took wings as she thought of the puris dancing before her eyes. Deep red, fully puffed up and soft to touch. Rupa must have eaten to her heart’s content. The kachauris must be emitting the aroma of ajwain and cardamom. If she could just lay her hands on a puri, she would have loved it. She felt like going to the scene and sit before the pan. The puris must be tumbling out of the pan. They must be taking them out of the pan and serving them hot. One can smell flowers in the house, but it is quite another experience to smell them in the garden. Having decided, Kaaki sat on all fours and leaning on her hands got down the threshold with difficulty and slowly crawled to the pan.
At that moment Rupa was doing her duties anxiously. Sometimes she would enter one room, then into another; sometimes she would go near the pan, and the next moment to the place where the food was being stored. Someone came from outside and said, “Maharaj is asking for milk shake.” She got busy giving milk shake. The next moment someone else came and said, “The village minstrel has come, give him something.” She was taking out a portion for the minstrel when a third person came and asked, “How long it is for the dinner to be ready? Could you give me the drum and the cymbals?” Poor thing, she got exhausted running around, felt annoyed but she had no time to express her anger. If she vented her anger, her neighbours would make fun of her saying that she had no ability to manage an event. Her throat was getting parched because of thirst. She was getting sizzled in the heat. But she didn’t have the time either to drink water or fan herself with a hand fan. She also had her apprehensions that if there was the slightest laxity on her part then things would begin to disappear. In this mental state when she saw Kaaki sitting near the pan she flared up. She could not control herself. She forgot that her female neighbours were sitting there, what would they think. What would the men think if they saw her chiding the old woman. Just as the frog pounces on the snail, she pounced on Kaaki, shook her by the arms and said, “Is your belly on fire already? Is it a stomach or a warehouse? Couldn’t you sit still in your room? The guests have not eaten yet, offerings to the God have not been made yet — couldn’t you wait a little more? You have come out to sit on my chest. May God burn your tongue. If you aren’t provided with food throughout the day, you will go out raiding other people’s kitchen. The village people will think that you are not provided with sufficient food in the house, that is why you look for food elsewhere. She doesn’t even die, the witch! She is bent upon sullying our honour. She will stop only when we lose face in the society. She stuffs herself with so much; I don’t know how she burns it. If you care for your life, go back to your room and sit there, when the people in the family will sit down to eat, you will get your food. You are not a deity that you should be worshipped first, never mind if no one else has taken even a drop of water.”
Kaaki lifted her head; she didn’t cry or say anything. Silently she dragged herself back in to her room. Rupa’s tone was so cruel that her entire mind, her senses and all her feelings were drawn towards it. When a big tree from the river bank falls into the river, water from the vicinity rushes there to fill the gap made by it!
The feast was ready. Leaf plates were laid out, the guests began to eat. The women sang the songs that are sung during the festivals. The barber and other servants who came along with the guests also sat down to eat but at some distance from the group, but as a matter of etiquette no one could get up before everyone had taken the meal. One or two guests who were somewhat educated were annoyed because the servants were taking too much time. They considered this restriction to be useless and irrational.
Sitting in her room, Kaaki was regretting her adventure that brought so much humiliation. She was not angry with Rupa, but cursing herself for her own impatience. She was speaking the truth- how can the members of the family eat before the guests? I could not show this much patience and had to face disgrace before everyone. Now, I won’t go as long as I’m not called.
Thinking along these lines, she began to wait for the call. But the tasteful aroma of ghee was testing her patience. Every moment began to seem like an age to her. Now the leaf plates must have been laid out! The guests must have arrived. People were washing their hands and legs, the barber was serving water. She surmised that people must have sat down to eat. The songs were still on; she lay down to take rest and began to hum a song. Now she felt that she had been singing for long. Were the guests still eating? She could not hear any sound. People must have left after the feast. No one came to call me. Rupa is angry, she might not call me. She must be thinking that I will go on my own. After all, I was not a guest that she should come to invite me. Kaaki prepared herself to go out. The anticipation that she would encounter puris and spicy curry tickled her senses. She began making all kinds of plans in her mind- first, I will eat puris with vegetable curry, then with curd and sugar. Kachoris will be yummy with raita. I will demand several helpings, never mind what people might think. They might say that I have no control over myself. Let them. I was going to eat puris after such a long time and can’t be content without having my fill.
She sat on all fours and glided down to the courtyard. But fate betrayed her again. Her impatient mind had miscalculated the time, the guests were still sitting. Some had just finished eating and were licking their fingers; some looked from the corner of their eyes if others were still eating. Some were worrying about how to take the remaining puris with them. Some had finished the curd but longing for a second helping for which they were hesitating to ask. At this moment, Kaaki slowly crawled in the midst of guests. Several men stood up, startled. They exclaimed, “Who is this crone? Where has she come from? Take care that she doesn’t touch.”
Pandit Buddhiram flared up at the sight of Kaaki. He was holding a plate of puris. He threw the plate on the ground and just as a cruel moneylender pounces on an unfaithful and fugitive borrower, he held Kaaki with both hands, dragged her to the dark room and flung her. Kaaki’s imaginary scene was destroyed in a moment by the blow of a whirlwind
The guests finished eating. The family members also ate. The musicians, the washer man and the cobbler too had eaten. But no one remembered Kaaki. Both Buddhiram and Rupa had decided to punish her for her shamelessness. No one took mercy on her old age, her destitution and her helplessness, except Laadli who felt an ache for her grandmother.
Laadli was deeply attached to Kaaki. An innocent and simple-hearted girl, she had no trace of childish play or restlessness. On both the occasions when her parents dragged Kaaki with such cruelty, Laadli’s heart cried for her. She was annoyed that her parents did not immediately give Kaaki a lot of puris. Will the guests eat up all of them? And will the earth fall if Kaaki ate before the guests? She wanted to go to Kaaki to give her solace but couldn’t because of the fear of her mother. She had not eaten puris of her portion at all, but kept them hidden in the doll box. She wanted to take them to her and was getting restless. Hearing my footsteps Kaaki would get up and be so happy at the sight of the puris. She will shower her affection on me.
It was eleven at night. Rupa was sleeping in the courtyard. But Ladli’s eyes were sleepless. The desire to see Kaaki’s happiness while eating puris did not allow her to sleep. The doll box was there right in front of her. When she felt that amma had gone to sleep she got up and wanted to go to kaaki. But it was pitch dark outside. Only the embers in the earthen ovens were still live, and there was a dog sitting there. Her glance fell towards the neem tree beside the door. She felt as though Hanumanji was sitting on it. She could see his tail and mace quite clearly. She closed her eyes in fear. At that moment the dog sat up which gave courage to Ladli. A waking dog provided her more security than sleeping human beings. She picked the box and made for Kaaki’s room.
Kaaki could only remember that someone had caught her by the hand and dragged her along. Then it felt as though someone was pulling her over a mountain. Her feet stumbled on the stone a couple of times. Then someone threw her down from the mountain and she passed out.
Now that she had come to her senses, there was not a sound anywhere. She thought that all must have eaten and gone to sleep, and with them her fate had also gone to sleep. Oh God, how could she spend the night without food? Fire was burning in her belly. Ah! no one spared a thought for me. Will they add to their wealth by cutting my food? These people do not show any concern that this old woman might die any day. Why to hurt her? I just eat a couple of rotis and nothing more. They grudge me even this. I am a blind and handicapped woman – I don’t hear or understand anything. Even if I had gone to the courtyard Buddhiram could have told me, ‘Kaaki, now the guests are eating, you can come in a while.’ He dragged me and then dumped me. Rupa abused me before everyone for the puris. Even after doing all this to me for the puris, their stony heart did not melt. They fed everyone, but did not so much as ask me. If they didn’t give me anything then, will they give now?
Arguing thus, Kaaki lay down, resigned to her fate. The humiliation hurt her deeply and she wanted to cry her heart out, but couldn’t do so before the guests.
Suddenly, she heard someone saying, “Kaaki, get up. I have brought puris.” Kaaki could recognize Ladli’s voice. She sat up with alacrity. She groped for Ladli with both her hands and made her sit on her lap. Ladli took out the puris and gave her.
Kaaki asked, “Did your amma give them?”
Laadli replied, “No. It’s my portion.”
Kaaki grabbed the puris. She emptied the box in five minutes.
Laadli asked, “Kaaki, did you have your fill?”
Just as a little bit of rain does not bring down the temperature but shoots it up, the few puris whetted Kaaki’s desire and hunger further. She said, “No, girl. Go to your mother and get some more.”
Laadli said, “Amma is sleeping. If I wake her up, she’ll beat me.”
Kaaki scraped the box once again. There were some left over crumbs that she picked and ate. She licked her lips again and again, longing for more.
Kaaki’s heart was craving more and more puris. When the bridge of contentment breaks then one’s craving crosses all limits. If the drunkards are reminded of alcohol, they get blinded by their desire for it. Kaaki’s impatient mind was carried away by the strong current of her desire. She forgot the distinction between what is right and what is wrong. She resisted her desire for sometime, then suddenly said to Laadli, ‘Take hold of my hand and lead me to the place where the guest were eating.’
Laadli couldn’t make out what was going on in her mind. She held her hand and took her to the place which was now strewn with leaf-plates in which people took their food. The wretched, hungry woman began to pick left-over pieces of puris from the leaf-plates and eat them. How tasty was the curd! How delicious the kachauris! And how delicate the Khasta! However dim-witted, Kaaki knew very well that she was doing something she shouldn’t do. I’m licking stale plates discarded by others! But old age is the final stage when all our desires concentrate on a single point. In case of Kaaki, this centre was her sense of taste.
Just at that moment Rupa’s eyes opened. She realized that Laadli was not there beside her. She was flustered, looked around the charpai lest she tumbled down from it. When she didn’t find her, she came out to see her standing beside the debris of discarded leaf-plates while Kaaki was picking pieces of left-over rotis from them. Rupa was stunned by the sight. Her state at that moment was akin to the feeling of a cow that sees its own throat being slit. What can be a more pitiful sight than a Brahmin woman looking for food in the left-overs? For some morsels of puris her mother-in-law was taking recourse to such a lowly and reprehensible act! It was a scene that would shock anyone. It seemed as though the earth stopped on its axis and the sky was spinning around. That a calamity was going to befall on the world. Rupa didn’t feel anger. Anger melted into deep sorrow. Pity and fear brought tears to her eyes. Who is responsible for this adharma? She raised her hands towards the heavens and said with a pure heart, “My God. Have pity on my children. Do not punish me for this adharma. I’ll be ruined.”
Rupa had never witnessed an exhibition of her own selfishness and injustice before so directly. She thought – How cruel can I be? I have reduced someone to this state from whose property I receive an income of two hundred rupees per year! It is all my doing. O merciful God! I’ve committed a blunder. Please forgive me. It was my son’s tilak ceremony today. Hundreds of people were fed. I was a slave to their wishes. We spent hundreds of rupees for our prestige. But the one whose money helped us do this was left starving. Just because that old woman is helpless!
Rupa lit the diya, opened the door of the dresser, arranged all the eatables in a plate and moved towards Kaaki’s room.
It was past midnight. The sky looked like a huge plate of stars on which angels were arranging heavenly offerings. But none of them could experience the supreme joy as did Kaaki when she saw the plate before her. Rupa said with a choked tone, “Kaaki, get up. Have your meal. Please forgive me for my lapse today. Pray to God that He may forgive my crime”.
Like simple, innocent children who forget the chiding and beating of their mother the moment she gives them sweets, Kaaki began to eat, oblivious of anything else. From every pore of her body emitted a blessing for Rupa who was lost in that moment of heavenly bliss.
Story first published in the Urdu monthly, Kahkashaan (1920), and later included in the collection, Prem Battisi. First published in Hindi in in Mansarovar 8.
About the Author:
Premchand (31 July 1880 – 8 October 1936) was an Indian writer.
M. Asaduddin is Professor in the Department of English, at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.