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Acts of the Stomach

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Yajna feels like a freak—not because she is measuring out rice and mixing bhakri and pickles in strange, dark looking rectangular boxes. They could be non-stick pans for all she cares.  Besides, they sure beat any crockpot she’d have considered buying, and the smoke from the chullah alone can leave her eyes red rimmed and smarting for hours.  No, it is not freakish to set up shiny screens around darkened pots in anganwadis and mud caked courtyards. Whatever Aditya Sa’ab had thought of his misbegotten bastard has speculation enough, but since Prithaji wasn’t immediately around when the first set of solar cookers were delivered in solid brown packing cases as “a tiny supportive offering of Aditya Corps in this deeply laudable effort for all the rural mothers and sisters of our blessed nation"...and later it was too useful and effective a tool for her to mind, really. After all, if rumours were true (and they always turned out to be) it had happened so many years ago, and she trusted her Mummyji  to hold her cards and take back each pie and pice the world owed to her.

No, it was freakish to look like some telemarketing guru in the middle of buckets of water drawn from a tube well, if they were lucky, with the grains waiting to be cleaned by hand on mat trays, especially when one was fresh out of a lecture, or a four mile trek to the nearest mitti kotha for what passed as schools, or an exhaustive Q and A that made one want to cry or gouge out the eyes of some of the people around her, or yet another round of entering a room like an alien shehrwali, lawyerwali bahuji  of famous kingmaking  khaandaans, and leaving it as herself, as their behn and beti melded in misty eyes and shining, promising rage. By now, even she wasn’t very surprised by the range of reactions she could charm out of a roomful of the most hostile, reticent, vaguely suspicious of crowds. All that she told of herself, and the law, and the NGO she knew to be true, but not for nothing has she been training secretly with Bhama and Hirimba to hit the right accents, the right jokes. The right tearjerkers and rage monsters.

Word had reached Delhi in resounding booms. This was a card well-played. Sure, Ajaat Bhaisaab had to use a bedsore cream and hide his bottles, and all of them hated the toilets equivocally, but the Battered Women’s Lawyer’s Collective was the exact thing they needed to keep making news in this, the dullest and slowest of political seasons in the Dilli Durbar. The awareness drive started quietly to test the waters, with a couple of buses stopping at the backwaters of Dhabeli, village by village, slowly orchestrating with Panchayats, headmasters and mistresses of local schools, anganwadi workers. If some cash changed hands here and there, Yajna refused to think too much about it. That was the way of the land, your motives be damned.

Soon, Hirimba’s Tribal Women’s Alliance started making regular appearances, Bhama’s NGO would buy (and try to sell) chutneys and handloom wherever they went. Village signals soon started disrupting distant calls from the Centre’s Women’s Empowerment and Human Resource Development Cells, and now there were kiosks promoting government schemes for the girl child everywhere she went to speak. Forget alabaster-skinned ma ka ladlas sipping water in chowbaras surrounded by ghunghats and brown skins, or gold glitter on the turbans of seventy year old men touring in chariots, she was the new cool thing without so much as mentioning the name of the party. She supposes she should appreciate the excellently subtle PR managed by Dhoumya and Sahadev: In the beginning, when it was too early for national media and the sensational geek cowboy Goswami, they played the game with a carefully earnest and dramatic hour-long episode in a BBC documentary show of her entering a dingy courtyard-- not as the exception because she was rich, or from the city, or that her sexual abuse was public knowledge-- but as the exceptional woman who spoke smooth dehati, described her own dishonour, and urged for rural cases of divorce and domestic abuse to be filed, explained the latest provisions for alimony and compensations, gave phone numbers of help cells that weren’t answering machines, and best of all, quietly assured that any opposition in doing the above will be taken care of, that every unwilling mard and in-law will eventually meet a samjhota, and delivered on that promise. She has evolved in newspapers from (Savita) Bhabi? To Gulabbo Girl!  to Desi Godmother to eventually,  finally! Revolutionising Lawyer and Social Activist Mrs...

Soon they were harangued with initially dissenting, hardworking but obscure local NGOs that were swiftly mollified with promises of shared limelight and sometimes, funding. The CNN special hours showed her plying an ever increasing motley crew of volunteers, crew and villagers alongside family with food brewed in Aditya Saab’s solar cookers. Her chawal, daal and bhaji were praised widely, while pickles and milk flowed freely from one household or the other. The TV showed thakurains and choris  turning up slightly shyly with lotas of milk and katoras of pickled carrot, chillies, mangoes, garlic--if all else failed-- coriander. There seemed to be a special love in Youtube for the bits she loved herself, even though sometimes they wrung the last bit of patience and nerves out of her: the veritable majlis around food and hungry mouths that couldn’t stop talking, sometimes teasing, or plying her for recipes. The white cameraman had an eye for filming how people praised her cooking—they always praised her cooking—faces apprehensive of her strange, shiny kitchen turned grinning like children with flakes of rice hanging from the edge of their mouths. Bhama joked that the turnouts improved from twenty to fifty to, no less than one hundred and fifty nowadays on the bulwark of her cooking alone, and the promise of an open invitation to sample it.  It was important, she knew.

Very few of the news channels were really interested in the contents of the meetings, or how she appeared to bond with strangers across income brackets and addresses. She had to always, everyday, start the game as the shameless vakil lady making a spectacle of her dishonour. The urban chick who talked freely of how her brothers-in-law nearly took off her sari in public, amongst elders, among strange men (she still can’t say which is the more shameful). But that, footages of her cooking in mud-caked courtyards , teasing and joking with the couple of stray helpers she always seems to collect, with a running commentary on how she, Bhabhi, insists on everyone breaking bread she bakes—men and women, chchoot-achchoot-- works magic in making her the stuff of the modern hangover about the goddess Lachmi everyone seems to obsess with. She may be calculating, but she didn’t, doesn’t feel fake. And she supposes it shows. By the time local media caught on it, slightly shamefacedly complaining to the smooth grins of Sahadev, the few and faint jokes and cartoons elicited enough public outrage that she had to defend their freedom of speech, and forgive them graciously in smooth English and Hindi, on TV.

And here’s the deal. She likes the work, sometimes even better than she likes to admit. She thrives on walking in a roomful of distrust and alienation. She is ready for all and every question. She strikes the right balance between affronted modesty, rage,  humour, and lucid legal knowledge. She keeps her pallu drawn. “It helps with the heat”, she tells reporters when asked, “I am no Sonia Gandhi!” Main koi Sonia Gandhi nehi hoon! They laugh with her. In the meetings, when she talks of the miracle of supportive in-laws, eyes glistening with sincere moisture, she waves her hand vaguely towards Ajaat Sa’ab or Bheem, whoever happens to share the podium with her; and the pallu gets her bonus points, she knows. “Its like mother’s milk to her! Bitch, you wanna bankrupt the Barjatiyas and Bhandarkar ek saath?!”, Rukmini teases over the phone.

But she knows she is being really effective when Parth’s calls turn whiny as he squirms his way through the Rajya Sabha corridors. She hands the phone to Ajaat Sa’ab after the third round of “The press meets were cool an’ all but come on yaar Yajna! Yahan muh dikhana mushkil ho raha hai! Bas bhi karo ab tumlog.”  She enjoys the resounding silence and bitter tears a little too much afterwards.

*

And then there’s today. She wakes up and knows, instinctively, that something is wrong, or is going to be. Dhri is visiting with them that week. She calls up Bhaisa’ab first thing. By the time she finds her way to the first cup of coffee (fresh, whole milk, four spoons of sugar, one heaped spoonful of Nilgiri’s Special Strong. Ajaat Sa’ab just waves her to the place next to his and mixes her brew) both of them have thunderclouds for faces, not unlike the sky outside, she notes.

“This has too much Dhanraj written all over it.” Dhri growls. Ajaat Sa’ab has a faint frown on. Between herself, the maid, and Nakul, they fold away all the razai, the sleeping bags, collect the tubes of Odomos and bottles of Geolin and clothes littering the floors. Eventually though, even with the local jalebis and special chai, she can’t put it off any longer.

Wrapping herself up in the old, husky brown shawl, she bites in her first jalebi, sussurates back the dripping syrup, and says, “Hit me.”

Bhai Sa’ab clears his throat. Oh boy. That bad?

“Word is, Durvasa Sa’ab is visiting the neighbourhood today, Yajna.” She nods. Ferocious and frugal, the Gandhian Congressman is not for nothing called the Iron Man of the backwaters. Rumour has it that his old school ways and terrifyingly, violently disastrous short tempers are two of the very few things that give even Dadaji a run for his money.

“’Thought he liked this.”

“Oh, no, it ain’t that. He freakin’ loves this—especially the bit about the no fuel feasting. It’s his favourite. That’s the problem. His was one of the first public praises, and congratulatory phone calls on the Shakti of our ghar ki Lachmi.” Sahadev trills, “He is too much ex-freedom fighter. He has even gone on press to say you remind him of the firebrands of the Swaraj movement. Good ally, Durvasa Sa’ab.”

“If one can keep him”, Dhri spits out. “We pack up and leave for Madla by noon, yes?”

Sahadev and she nod in unison. The schedule has been drilled into all of them. There is only another fortnight to go, anyway.

“Look at the sky. Today the eco food thing won’t work. We got to have the chulhas lined up.”

She nods. “We have done this before. Some days are cloudy.”

“Except,” Ajaat Sa’ab clears his throat again, ”He is hear for some Chipko stuff—‘Thousand Trees, Thousand Lives’—something like that. The afforestation megafest. Part of a havan he kept for the motherland.”

The chulhas use firewood. Too far to get enough coal. Too much trouble, so they don’t bother. She is allergic to dung cakes.

“Fucking seriously?”

“And, he has been making an example of us. You, really.  Communal meals from a solar cooker cooked by an educated young Indian female is an old school kink. Especially if firangs want to film people praise the cooking.”

Raw sentiment has value, she knows, but—“But we have a supply run problem. We need to stock up on oil and spices. The last two meals had more people than we estimated! Rice and daal we can prob’ly manage: beg, borrow and buy from the villagers. But nobody here can lend or sell that much...The nearest halfway decent grocer is miles away!” She turns to Nakul, “Jugaad. Now.” She turns to the rest.

“We are good for 150 today: fifty, really, but I can make things stretch. Keep the headcount low if you can. What bhaji?”

Matar Saag. Nothing else was found. Not enough.” Bheem says heavily.

She bites her tongue. Greens are oil soaking monsters. “We’ll make do.”

 Ajaat Sa’ab and Bheem lend a hand today, anxious and trained enough with years of apprenticing for Prithaji. Dhri continues on the phone, choking out an invitation if Durvasa ji can kindly spare the time, it will be such an honour, but of course they understand. He is such a busy man, after all.

*

They have to stretch it to two hundred. It’s a boisterous crowd today, and she is caught between alternately laughing and frowning at the raucous appreciation. No news from Durvasa Sa’ab.

At 3pm she looks at Dhri, who shrugs. Nakul has been hoarsely apologetic over the phone, having been caught up in a roadblock of some sort— over the tree planting event or an accident prob’ly—and they finally call him and ask him to go directly to Madla. They plan to break camp at sundown.

At 4, Dhoumya returns from the bend of the road. “Bhabi, you better eat.”

At 4:30, when she has barely cleaned her plate of the last droplets of the watered daal, she hears cars. At least five of them are news vans, she can tell by the squelching of tires. There is scuffle near the gates. Voices. Voices. She picks up the lota but stills. The schoolrooms they are allotted this time are towards the back of the building, and quite deserted now except for them. The government kiosk people have long retreated to the nearest circuit house. A booming voice bursts like a misbegotten cannon ball in her terrifyingly empty storeroom, “Yajna bitiya! Spare a morsel for your poor Dar-ji?” And then,  “Nah, Ajaat. The phone signals were so bad. But I said, I will break my fast here, let the world see. What better food to end the havan with than that with the magic of her hands? Especially when she already invited this poor, old Brahmin. So I got everybody to sample. Let them see.  Let everyone see!”

*

Apparently, where Durvasaji and his entourage were, it was sunny like the Thar. She cajoles them to go to the river and wash off the sweat and manure they reek from. Everyone laughs appreciatively when she feigns horror at the crowd of a hundred and calls them his brood of Vanar-sena. She promises food “Soon!” and waves them away with Dhoumya. Dhri has disappeared to scrounge for supplies. But. They have already sent one of their buses ahead of them with what was left of their supplies (two tablespoons of jeera and half a bottle of mustard oil) to pitch camp at Madla. Durvasaji, if not his Vanar-sena, expects a ready meal. There is no time to boil khichdi, even if Yajna had the supplies. The sun is so low that even wishing for the cooker to be here feels like a joke. She knows it can be explained: cloudy day, large crowd...but her brain peters out: a fasting, volatile old man with a ready invitation, a media which won’t bother to check the weather reports, who would?

Should she say the food got spoilt, waiting? Or that a crow fell on it, and polluted it so it is no longer fit for an old man, especially one ritually fasting? But. Then they would want to see the spoilt food. What does she show them?

Ajaat Sa’ab turns up with some fruit and a bowl of milk.

She is still standing in the middle of the room. The bath will only make the firein the belly stronger, she knows. She can nearly spell out the media reports: one half will treat it like a sting operation with Durvasaji as their leader and hero, the other half will make a hoax of it. The humiliation of not being able to feed a veteran stalwart—worse, not feed him well—on national television...even DD National has sent three people...and the man’s famous temper will ruin them in front of the world by dinnertime.

She is jerked out of the black hole in her brain by the insistent, ”Yajna! Yajna!! You there?!” from the handset she is clutching like dear life. For once, apparently, the signal came through. She didn’t realise she’d called Shyam. He was on speed dial, her deadened brain reasons, she was clutching the phone too hard...

“Sh-Shyam?” She sounds jittery and frantic in many, many months and it shows. Her voice wobbles, rusty.

“Yajna, open the door! Ghar aya tera pardesi!”

“What?” She deadpans in earnest.

Open the goddamn door!

She didn’t realise she had bolted it...Right after Bhai Sa’ab left...The bolt, it is rusty, how did she not realise tugging at it?

The door reveals a Shyam streaked in white dust. Motorcycle then, Yajna notes dumbly.

“What’s up?” She sounds lame, she knows.

“The last time I checked? Clouds about as dark as I am.”

Shyam. Shyam smiling. Bright, dazzlingly white teeth. She can feel the phone slip through her fingers. Shyam with his dusty white shirt and jeans that look like they’ve been rolled in mud. Shyam stepping closer, eyes wide, and assessing, even now.

“Hush, kiddo. Hush. Sakhi, no.” And the childhood nickname does it. Salt spills over her blank gaze, and suddenly she is locked in swarthy arms that look blue-black in the dark of the room, smelling Shyam’s petrichor through the dust of his shirt, warm, quiet breathing tickling her ear, cigarettes jutting out of his pocket, nudging at her brow—and suddenly she never wants to leave the comfort of not having to look beyond Shyam’s shoulders.

She actually mumbles a protest when Shyam tries to look at her face. She can feel his grin. She doesn’t ever want to open her eyes again. She is not yet thirty and this is hard. She knew it wouldn’t be easy. But this, a hungry old man with a capricious temper is bringing her down like a house of cards, and what was she thinking, really? But Shyam is still jerking her face up, and she opens half an eye, rebellious like she was when she was eight and he could bodily pick her up and swing her around.

“What’s for dinner?” Shyam gleams. That’s when she starts laughing.

*

“They tell her later that the laughter looked really scary up close, like she could scratch their eyes out. That Shyam continued to hold her nonetheless, and drag her to the empty, unwashed pots. That Ajaat Bhai Sa’ab had suggested slapping her, or splashing her with water. That Dhri and the maid had melted from the scene, helpless and angry. When she came around, she was sitting squat on Shyam’s lap, braced against his back, while he murmured to his phone, licking his fingers.

She could feel the chest heave with a sigh, and rumble as he said, “I like the way you use green chillies. Not splitting them to make it too hot, right? Just the smell. The very redolent smell. But if anyone likes their curries on the blazing side, they are free to smash and rub the boiled chilly in rice. That’s...thoughtful. And the tadka was pitch-perfect. A touch of hing with the kalounji, nehi? A bit of bua, but also a bit of Uma Bhabi.” She stares at him blankly.

Shyam looks at her and sighs. “I have been tracking them since morning like a hawk. Since we had news. Bhama will kill me for the jeans. They are gone, honey.”

“How?”

“You think my Maoist friends like the idea of a conservative Brahmin chut come over and play garden in their home?”

The man’s old, wrinkled face looms large in her head. “Are they...Were they...?” Panic gushes out her eyeballs once more. He can do that, or get it done. She knows.

“Shyam watches her face for a moment, his head tilted. “No.” He says at last. “I had better, er, uses for them.”

She stares.

He grins suddenly. “Never test the rumbling stomach of a full-blooded man. With a hot-blooded old man, the game is yours whenever you choose to make it your own.”

“I made one of my folks—terrorists for you—pose as a Brahmin kid of the nearby temple and offer them Prasad. They were ravenous. He was, at any rate, and he was determined to have his meal with everybody else, like he saw on TV.” Shyam smirks. “He knew they’d have to wait some while the net batch for the unexpected numbers got cooked. I even heard him joke with one of the journalists about taking photos of the rice boiling. He didn’t care how. I don’t think he thought this through much. They stopped to pray at the temple. The media followed. They had missed too much not docketing you much before the firangs. They wouldn’t miss his day out for a second, grandiose old grizzly that he is.”

The Prasad was bhang. We made it a Shiva temple, after all. It was one of my mixes. He drank the most. He is very full now.” Shyam yawns.

“The reporters are having too much fun with him to bother checking on the rest. They might want bytes later though: Your hurt and heartfelt reaction at his abandoning you guys for a lota of bhang, and all that. The few of his men who aren’t wasted are being informed very quietly about the Maoist occupation in this belt of the greens. They want him out. I believe the copter is there already. Let’s just say, he won’t be joining you today. ” He yawns again.

She closes her eyes and nestles against him. They don’t speak any more, but the arms around her tighten and stay that way.

*

Later, she is pulled to her feet once the concerned police officers turn up to warn them away. They look appropriately panicked and naive city folks, relieved at the news of Durvasaji’s speedy departure in the face of the horrors of the neck of these woods.

In an hour, they are speeding towards the NH14, a longer route by far to reach Madla, but safer in the gathering dark. Shyam’s bike is safely laced at the back, with Shyam in Ajaat Sa’ab’s overlarge kurta discussing the merits of “this one dhaba barely a mile from here...the mutton there, you guys...!”

*

She gets a couple of electric cookers three days later, complete with a tiny soundless generator. The cookers are Aditya Corps, the generator is clearly imported. She stops asking who arranged for them. There is no card, for once.