It was a chilly winter evening. She sat there on the cold floor by the side of her husband, lines of anxiety getting darker on her young petite face. He lay there almost immobile looking listless and sallow. Slowly his lips quivered and she bent forward in an effort to hear him.
"Where is Baru,” he whispered.
“He too has a high fever ….. he is lying in the other room,” she replied trying to hide the anxiety from her trembling voice.
A few minutes passed in silence.
“How many more are gone,” his voice was weak and almost inaudible.
“You don’t worry. All are recovering,” she tried to put on a brave front.
The charcoal fire in the angeethi was slowly turning into ashes and losing its heat and the young man lying on the cot was also turning ashen and cold.
The small hut suddenly reverberated with the long wails from the neighbourhood.
“Oh God! Babu Lal is also gone. Looks like, it is my turn now,” he whispered in a voice thick with fever and exhaustion.
“Don’t speak evil. You are not leaving me and Haria and going anywhere. You have to live for him,” she chided him affectionately.
“No, Phoolo. I think my end has come. Please remove me from the cot and help me lie down on the floor. I think…grr….grr…..grrr…” his breath rattled for a few seconds and his head rolled to the side.
“Nooooo….,” Phoolo screamed pushing away her four-year-old son Hariya from her lap but her voice was stuck in her throat. She could only utter, “Baru Bhaiyya, come here quickly.”
Almost instantly, a distraught Baru rushed into the room with his eyes red with high fever.
“What has happened to Bhaiyya?” he said trying to check his pulse. He checked the other wrist too and tried to check his breath shaking his head from left to right and then he became numb. Totally shocked, he slumped on the floor without uttering a word.
It was the winter of 1919 and the small village Girahoo was inflicted by the epidemic of plague. Hordes of people were dying every day. Not a single house was spared the wrath of death except this small house of Ram Prakash where he lived with his wife Phoolo, four years old son Hari Prakash whom they fondly called Haria and younger brother Baru Prakash. And today Lady Death had walked mercilessly into this humble abode also taking away the only bread-winner of the family.
Baru was sitting on the floor motionless looking blank and staring into oblivion. The world for him had come crumbling down. It was his elder brother only who had been taking care of him ever since he was 8 years old when his mother died. Father could not take the shock and had left this world within six months. But Badke Bhaiyya did never let him feel the absence of the parents even for a day during these last 12 years. He could never imagine the world without him.
Young Phoolo kept staring at the dead body of her husband for a few minutes and then started howling uncontrollably. She did not notice when Baru stepped out of the house.
Few minutes later, as young Haria kept pulling at her arm, she lifted her head and noticed Baru’s absence. Phoolo was made of strong stuff. Who could she call at the dead of the night, she wondered? In the next house, Babulal had just expired but she picked up Hariya in one arm and slowly stepped out of the small hutment. Standing at the door against strong winter wind, she saw Ramu Kaka going to the neighbour’s house.
“What happened?” Ramu Kaka asked sounding concerned.
“Hariya’s father….” she sobbed wiping tears from her eyes “…..also gone.”
“Hey Ram!!!” he took a long breath as he came in with her, ”Where is Baru?”
As Baru was not to be seen around, Ramu Kaka called others and shifted the dead body of Ram Prakash to the floor. Phoolo kept staring at the figure which once was her husband and father of her only child but was now only a dead body which will be cremated tomorrow.
Some neighbours walked in and sat down around the body of Ram Prakash. They were counting the number of villagers who have already been swallowed by the epidemic and how many were in the critical stage. At this rate, the entire village may be wiped out, they were saying. But Phoolo was sitting on the floor staring blankly at the walls. How is she now going to handle the life alone? Where has Baru Bhaiyya gone? He is so attached to his Badke Bhaiyya. How will he take it? But where is he? It is so cold outside. And he is suffering from high fever.
Next day early in the morning, the villagers arranged for the funeral of Ram Prakash along with four others who had succumbed to plague that night. Baru Prakash was still not to be found anywhere.Two weeks passed, but there was no trace of Baru. Villagers’ efforts, to search him, yielded no result. On the fifteenth day, Phoolo was sitting in the dimly lit room. The dusk had set in early. The house was dark and silent like Phoolo’s life which had also suddenly become dark. And then they brought him in. Baru had lost his speech and memory out of sheer shock. The next-door neighbour Goolha told her that he found Baru roaming in the nearby forest. He had not been able to take the shock.
Baru stood still with his eyes fixed on the floor. Phoolo stood up and caught Baru by his arm, “Where had you gone all of a sudden?” Are you the only one who has lost his brother? Have I not lost my husband? Has Haria not lost his father? We are all missing him, but you have run away leaving both of us alone here. You are always so irresponsible,” her voice was rising with anger but suddenly as if remembering something, her voice softened, ”How is your fever?”
By some miracle, Baru’s fever was gone but he was weak and cold. Phoolo gave him a quilt and said, “You lie down now and take some rest. I will fix up some dinner for you.”Phoolo was a strong woman. She knew what she had to do. Next day, she took Baru to the nearest doctor some 14kms away from the village. The treatment yielded no result. But the persistent woman that she was, she had not learnt to give up. She took him from one doctor to another, from one tantric to another, from one temple to another and from one village to another in search of some remedy for her brother-in-law whom her husband loved more than his life. She took him wherever she saw any hope until her efforts yielded result. In about six months’ time, Baru got his speech back though he had become quiet forever and lost his effervescence at the young age of twenty-one.
A year passed. And they all sat down in the village temple for the ritual of the Barsi for Ram Prakash. Soon after the pooja was over, the Sarpanch of the village called Phoolo and Baru to Panchayat and announced that the panchayat had decided that they should get married. Phoolo resisted, “He is younger to me and has been just like a brother to me. I can’t even think of being his wife. Why can’t we stay like we are staying now?”
“No…It cannot be. Ram Prakash is gone and we cannot not let a young man and a woman live under the same roof. This is the way it has always been done,” the Sarpanch had given his verdict.
The Sarpanch and the other villagers would not listen to her protests and pressurized her and Baru until he put four red glass bangles on her wrists and put sindoor on her forehead. They were declared man and wife by the village priest and sent home. In due course, Phoolo bore two more sons.
|Phoolo in old age, |
a rare photograph
As a woman, I at times wonder whether a woman of today would have also accepted a similar verdict in similar circumstances? Or would she rebel? Everyone’s view would vary. How do you think a woman would have tackled this today?