The washerwoman, her sari clinging to her wet ankles as she drew water from the well, was the first to inform Sulakshana of the news. Sulakshana had been sitting on the charpai under the neem tree that grew in a corner of the courtyard. It was her favourite place, the place she always retired to after she had done the little bit of supervision that was required to keep the household moving on its well-oiled way. The masalas, the rice, and the pulses had been carefully unlocked and handed over to the maharaj; the vegetables had been purchased, and the gardener taken to task for not having trimmed the hedges, which were getting straggly. The local bhishti, his waterskin taut and cool, had come by to ask for the one anna due to him—and Sulakshana had, with characteristic kindness, told him to sit and have a cup of tea while he waited for the munim to bring the money.
It was, thought Sulakshana, rather silly that she should be forbidden to pay the bhishti out of the household money. “It’s a matter of principle,” her husband Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi said. “The bhishti doesn’t bring water for the house; he brings it for the shop. So he should be paid out of the shop’s accounts, not your household money. You have to be organised.”
Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi, despite the fact that he was a mere two years older than his twenty-year old bride, had few qualms about correcting her. His superior education and his wider experience of the world, such as it was, made him (at least in his own eyes) a being far superior to his submissive wife. He had decided opinions about everything from religion to ancient mathematics to politics, and he was not by any means shy about expressing his opinions. His acquaintances, relatives, friends and neighbours were treated, willy-nilly, to long monologues. They were told that Hinduism preached a doubtful theology and could be much enriched by borrowing from Buddhism, Theosophy, and the Brahmo Samaj. They were informed that the only sure cure for a cough was a mixture of ginger, honey and peppercorns; that painting could never be replaced by photography; and that the Treaty of Versailles had been unduly harsh on Germany. Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi waxed eloquent on the many ills of venturing out without first drinking a glass of milk boiled with turmeric; he praised Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra to the skies; and he insisted that there was no monument in India as exquisite as the Zeenat-ul-Masajid in Delhi.
He propounded theories that seemed either utterly ancient or completely avant-garde to a society that never quite knew what to expect of him.
Sulakshana bore, in a large part, the brunt of her husband’s admonitions and advice. “You should not let Birju cook the spinach in mustard oil,” he would say. “It is certain to cause flatulence.” Or, while inspecting a pile of neatly folded clothes brought in by the washerwoman: “Surely you will not accept this? She has been beating the clothes—see, these threads are fraying—”. Or, when he came home early one day and found Sulakshana sitting by herself and reading Devaki Nandan Khatri’s Chandrakanta: “Must you be filling your mind with such trash? If you cannot find a more uplifting book to read, tell me. I’ll get some for you.” And the very next day, Sulakshana had been brought half a dozen books from the local library. They ranged from Premchand and Bhartendu Harishchandra—which Sulakshana enjoyed—to translations of Goethe and Darwin, which put her to sleep.
The young woman bore the restrictions on her reading and her management of the household stoically enough. What irked her, however, was her husband’s never-ending counsel on her dress and deportment. “I do not see why you should be wearing such an expensive sari at home, Sulakshana,” he remarked one day. He had just returned from the shop and was sitting in the courtyard sipping a cup of tea. Sulakshana was sitting before him, waving a palm-leaf fan to keep him cool.
“It’s hardly expensive,” Sulakshana murmured in a moment of defiance. “It is cotton, after all.”
Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi put down his cup and stared at his wife, horror writ all over his thin clean-shaven face. “It is a jamdani,” he said. “A Dhaka muslin. It may be cotton, but it is expensive. You cannot hope to fool me.”
Sulakshana, flushed with annoyance, looked down at the offending sari. It was a beautiful piece of work, a phulwar, with floral motifs woven into an elegant blue-black ground. It had been a gift from an old aunt, and Sulakshana knew well enough that her husband probably knew—to the nearest anna—how much it cost. He, after all, did not own a sari shop for nothing.
She did not say anything, and her husband picked up his cup again. “From now on, let me not find you wearing expensive clothes at home,” he said. “You of all people should know how things are. The poverty, the oppression, the turmoil in this country—the mind boggles.” He shook his head unhappily. “The Great War has not been over two years, and here you are, behaving in this extravagant fashion. Next we know, you’ll be dressing up in a banarasi to go to the temple.”
The arrival of a chance visitor had put an end to the conversation; but from that day on, Sulakshana was allowed to only wear dull cotton saris at home. If she had to go out, she was permitted to drape herself in something slightly expensive, such as a jamdani. Her richly embroidered kanthas, her jamawars and paithanis and tanchois, were put by and unearthed only at Diwali, or on the rare occasion of a wedding.
That day, Sulakshana was wearing a rather battered old tangail, an offwhite sari woven with a pretty border of black and red. It had seen better days; the hem was frayed, and there were a few spots of turmeric that even good strong sunlight had not been able to banish. Sulakshana was sitting cross-legged on the charpai, a well-polished brass paandaan cradled in her lap. She was busy cracking the supari when the washerwoman walked over, squeezing the water out of the end of her sari as she did so.
“There was quite a commotion at the ghat this morning,” the washerwoman said, apropos of nothing. She loved a bit of gossip, and Sulakshana, who had nothing better to do, had no objections to hearing it. She put aside the supari cracker and wiped her hands on her sari.
“Why? What had happened?”
“Some students from the English College had gathered at the ghat and were shouting slogans against the British. The police came and arrested all of them, each and every one. And you know, bibiji, those students didn’t utter a squeak about being dragged off to the police station. That was what really surprised me, the way they happily let themselves be taken away—”
Sulakshana was more in the know than the washerwoman. “Ah,” she said, going back to her task, “That’s because of the Non-Cooperation Movement, Lajwanti. Gandhiji has called for everybody to boycott the British, you know. He has said people should not touch anything that is even vaguely British: so students should leave schools and colleges that are sponsored by the British; government servants should leave their jobs; people should not use public transport. Things like that.”
Lajwanti looked at Sulakshana in wonder, as if Sulakshana herself were exhorting her to all these heroic—and unusual—feats of protest.
“The country will come to a standstill, bibiji,” she said, in an awed voice. “How will we manage?”
“The way we managed before the British arrived,” replied her mistress, with a faint smile.
“But where is the sense in deliberately getting arrested? The students could have easily escaped, bibiji; but I saw them letting themselves be arrested. That’s sheer stupidity; why would anybody want to do that?”
Sulakshana shrugged. “I have no idea,” she said quietly. “But Gandhiji has said that it will help the Freedom Movement, so I suppose he must be right.”
Lajwanti had to be satisfied with this answer; but Sulakshana herself came to know much more about the Non-Cooperation Movement, Civil Disobedience, Satyagraha, and nonviolent resistance that very evening. Her husband, who had also heard news of the arrests, took it upon himself to educate her.
“Gandhiji used satyagraha as a successful way to protest when he was in South Africa,” he told her as they sat on the verandah after dinner. Sulakshana was mending a tear in one of her saris, and Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi was chewing a paan and gazing pensively out onto the moonlit garden.
“And not just in South Africa, but also in Champaran and Kheda. Everywhere, even the poorest of people have come together in an organised way to protest—peacefully, mind you—against oppression. It has worked in the past; it should work now. Gandhiji has a lot of foresight, Sulakshana. You mark my words; if there is one man who can win freedom for this country, it is he. He alone can show us the way.”
Sulakshana did not say anything. She did not need to; her husband was quite happy listening to his own voice.
“There are other leaders who’re very sceptical, of course—Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Jinnah, plus some others, including Annie Besant—but that is to be expected. You can’t hope to please everybody. What matters is that the younger generation are all for it. The Congress Party is supporting it completely, and already hundreds of people are leaving cushy jobs with the government in order to enlist with the Congress.”
He droned on, recounting to a bored Sulakshana all the events of the past few weeks that seemed to indicate the increasing antagonism of the people to British rule. He extolled the right-mindedness of leaders like Maulana Azad and Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, who supported the Non-Cooperation Movement. He rattled off, as if he had learnt them all by rote (and Sulakshana wondered privately if he had actually done so), all the major incidents of Civil Disobedience in the past week. Sulakshana was told, in painstaking and tedious detail, of each arrest in the city; of each case of refusing to salute the Union Jack; of each episode that smacked even faintly of resistance to British rule. Sulakshana was yawning surreptitiously by the time he finally sat back in his chair and said, “It’s time we were asleep. Don’t want to be late getting up tomorrow morning, do we?”
Sulakshana’s interactions with the outside world were limited to the small-time traders and hawkers who came by with their wares; the servants; and a small circle of friends and relatives whom she occasionally visited, along with her husband. From these people, and from the newspapers that her husband insisted she read—“For heavens’ sake, you’re not illiterate! Use your education, Sulakshana. Read, read!”—she managed to remain somewhat abreast of what was happening. But it was, ultimately, her husband who directed her.
About a week after the mass arrest at the ghat, Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi came home to announce to his wife that their household was going to be joining the Non-Cooperation Movement.
Sulakshana, who was sitting on the bed and sewing buttons on to her husband’s kurta, looked up in surprise. “Joining the movement?” she said faintly. “But why? I mean—how? As it is, we do nothing to support the British.”
Her husband took off his neat black achkan and hung it up before turning back to her. “You may not think so, Sulakshana,” he explained patiently. “But unwittingly, we- and I don’t mean just the two of us, but also the servants- may be doing a lot of things that help support this colonial government. It’s wrong, absolutely and utterly and completely wrong. We’re killing our own motherland, Sulakshana; have you no patriotism in you?”
Sulakshana did not respond to this melodramatic piece of rhetoric, and her husband continued. “For instance: when you go to the market, or to visit your old school friend, you use public transport. Now that is support of the British government.”
“But I go in Manohar’s ikka,” said Sulakshana plaintively, a protest that drew a scowl from her husband.
“But do the servants do the same? No, they don’t—”
“They walk,” Sulakshana interrupted gently.
“All right, all right—maybe not as far as public transport goes, but there are other ways. We should stop using anything that is manufactured abroad. Be Indian, buy Indian. So no more of these fancy things you keep filling the house with. We are not here to help support the British economy. We have to look to our interests first, the interests of our nation—”
Sulakshana cut in again, this time not quite so gently. “Your hair oil is English,” she pointed out. “And your shoes. And the tailor who made those smart jackets of yours was also British, I think.”
“Certainly not! He was not British, he was a Goan gentleman. Part Portuguese, maybe, but very definitely not British. You cannot be expecting me to be burning up my jackets just because the man who made them is Goan. That would be silly. But yes, the hair oil must be thrown out. Get Birju to buy me some coconut oil when he goes to the market tomorrow.”
He paused a while, chewing his upper lip thoughtfully. “There is so much that can be done,” he said. “So much. We must do our bit, Sulakshana. It would be a shame if we didn’t.”
His wife nodded, and for a change (considering her recent volubility) did not say anything. Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi frowned to himself, and then, unable to think of anything else to say, went off to the room he liked to call his study.
Her husband may not have said anything further on the topic; but Sulakshana’s sister-in-law, who came visiting the next morning, had much to say. Devaki was a stout, richly dressed woman with a deceptively jovial exterior that hid an iron will. She was a good twelve years older than her brother, and was one of the very few people who paid no heed whatsoever to Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi’s many strictures. Fortunately for Sulakshana, this formidable lady had developed, almost from the day Sulakshana was married, a soft corner for her brother’s timid young bride.
Devaki bustled into the house shortly after ten in the morning, accompanied by two children and a servant carrying a large basket of mangoes. The servant was sent off towards the kitchen, the children were handed into the care of a maid with clear instructions not to let them wander near the well; and the lady herself turned to Sulakshana.
“Come along, child,” Devaki commanded, her bangles jangling as she caught Sulakshana’s arm and steered her towards the charpai under the neem tree. “I have something to say to you—here, Birju—” she broke off to yell—“some tea, and bring the sugar separately!”
The charpai creaked as Devaki lowered herself on to it. Sulakshana sat down, her hand automatically picking up the palm leaf fan. Devaki talked of this and that—her children, her husband, an excellent recipe for lime pickle—until Birju brought the tea. When he had returned to the kitchen and the two women were alone, she said, “What have you done to yourself?”
Sulakshana reddened, but she did not look at Devaki. She stared down into the milky brown depths of the cup she was holding, and said, “I don’t know what you mean. I am perfectly well, Didi.”
“You are well, I can see that,” Devaki snapped. “I am not commenting about your health, anyway. And well you know it!” She put her cup down and reached across to caress Sulakshana’s head in a distinctly maternal way. “Why are you looking so neglected, child? Is that fool to blame for this?”
Sulakshana shook her head vigorously. “There is nothing wrong with me, Didi,” she persisted. “Nothing at all.”
“Then why, pray, are you dressed like a beggar woman?” retorted Devaki acidly. “Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi’s wife, a rich young lady if I ever saw one, wearing little better than rags!”
Sulakshana bit her lip unhappily.
“It—it’s not good to be wearing expensive saris at home,” she whimpered.
“Hah! Parroting what that dolt of a husband of yours has told you, if I’m not mistaken.” Devaki’s eyes glittered. “Is that it? Did he tell you to stop wearing decent clothes at home?”
“He said it would not do for me to be extravagant. The war is barely over, and people are poor and oppressed…” her voice trailed off, betraying a serious lack of conviction.
Devaki tut-tutted. “And you listened to him. Pray how will your wearing rags help the poor and oppressed?” She waited for an answer, but since Sulakshana did not oblige her with one, she continued. “He may be my brother, Sulakshana, but I am under no delusions. He is a fool, and you’re a greater fool if you let him dictate such things to you. Let him concern himself with trade and politics and other such matters. Where the household is concerned—and most importantly, where you are concerned—he cannot tell you what you should do and what you shouldn’t. You’re the woman of the house, child—show a little spirit!”
She sipped noisily from the cup of tea and then added, somewhat as an afterthought, “And if I see you wearing those tatters the next time I come, I will personally dress you up in something more suitable.”
The conversation wandered on to other topics, and Devaki did not touch upon Sulakshana’s sartorial inadequacies any more. By the time she finally left—which was after a long and leisurely lunch—she seemed to have forgotten all about it. She hugged Sulakshana briefly, assured her that a jar of lime pickle would be sent the following day, and extended an invitation to dinner whenever Sulakshana and her husband should find it convenient.
Sulakshana stood at the gate for a few minutes after the ikka had disappeared in a cloud of dust down the lane. She looked lost in thought, and when she eventually turned and went back into the house, she had much on her mind.
Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi entered his house that evening to find his wife draped in a stunning gossamer-light chanderi sari. It was a delicate apple green in colour, with a thin border and butis of deep red, embellished with gold thread. It had been, if his memory served him right, gifted to Sulakshana by Devaki. Bought at his own shop, too. An expensive sari—and she was wearing it at home.
Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi stood at the door of the room and gaped. “You- you’re wearing a chanderi,” he gasped unnecessarily.
Sulakshana turned to him and smiled blithely. “Yes. Devaki Didi had given it to me, don’t you remember?”
“Yes—yes, of course I remember,” he replied, halfway between angry and astonished at this unexpected rebellion.
Devaki put down the vase in which she had been arranging flowers, and, with a look of quiet joy on her face, glanced down at the billowing pleats of the sari. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
“And expensive,” her husband snapped. “I think I’d told you not to wear your good saris at home.”
“Of course,” Sulakshana replied, looking up at him with limpid eyes. “But you told me that I should do my bit for the Freedom Movement, you know.”
Her husband stared at her in consternation. “What does the Freedom Movement have to do with your saris?”
“Lajwanti told me yesterday that they’re also burning cloth. Cotton cloth. There was a huge bonfire near the vegetable market, so I took Lajwanti along, and gave away all my cotton saris. Gandhiji would approve, wouldn’t he?”
Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi sank back against the richly carved teak cupboard behind him. Perspiration had broken out on his forehead, and for almost a minute, he felt as if the room was whirling around him in a mad, gleeful dance of malice. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard, trying desperately to control the rising panic.
When he opened his eyes, Sulakshana was looking at him anxiously.
“You burnt your saris,” her husband croaked. “But your saris were Indian, completely and absolutely Indian. They’re only burning British cloth. Why did you burn your saris?”
Her face fell. “I didn’t know that,” she said. “I thought all cotton clothes had to be burnt. I’m sorry—but I haven’t given any of your clothes, I didn’t know if you’d want that. So that’s all right, isn’t it?” she added brightly. And her husband, for once at a loss for words, could do nothing but nod.
Sulakshana smiled to herself as she went off towards the kitchen. Devaki Didi would approve of her improved wardrobe.
And Lajwanti, much enriched by the windfall of a dozen cotton saris, would not think herself too poor any more.
(Winner of the e-author version 4.0 competition, www.oxfordbookstore.com and Reader’s Digest, 2006)