“And Pammi qualifies for the semifinals of The makki Ki roti Championship…” laughed her sister-in-law in an announcer like voice from outside the kitchen, as Pammi sat there throwing roti after roti is into the Chula. Would she have thought that this one time state champion would be sitting making rotis for the entire family by the hearth of the fire and not having a future in what she did best? Pammi ignored the comments and went back to making rotis and her thoughts went back to that night when all things silly happened. If it had not been for the rain that evening she wouldn’t be here, but would be somewhere else training harder to ace the nationals.
Pammi a k a Paramjit Kaur was a splendid track athlete. She was well built, but ran like a gazelle on the tracks. There was no one to match her records in the past few years and it was just a matter of time before she would be selected to the nationals. Her father was extremely proud of her and her achievements. Little did he know that a strike of Cupid’s arrow would change the course of their futures upside down.
It was raining that night when Pammi stepped out of Diljit Singh’s academy for sports training. She was standing by the bus stop waiting for her father to come pick her up, as he always did at 8 o’clock every night. It was raining very hard and she couldn’t see even a few meters away. She stood there waiting, peering hard and trying to catch the familiar thud thud thud of his Enfield. But what came was a shrill tring tring of a cycle, approaching her. It wasn’t her dad, it was Kissy. Kissy a.k.a. Kishanjit Singh was a shot put thrower training in the same academy as hers. She found the sport funny and never really liked him much. He had very offset features and his lopsided mouth seemed like he was always mid conversation, forgetting what to say next. But when it is raining hard enough to send chill down your bones, you wouldn’t mind anything to get you home soon. Kissy stopped a few inches away from her and offered to drop her. They lived two blocks away and it only made sense to go with him then stand there in the rain waiting for her father to come, which she realized wasn’t happening. So, she hopped onto the back of his cycle, sitting on the tiny metal seat which hardly fit her rear. They went slowly cycling in the rain, with no conversation but just the pitter patter of rain to fill the silence. Being dropped by a random boy, drenched in rain at an almost unearthly hour would have ideally had her mother beating her chest and lamenting, but Pammi was surprised when she thanked her Guru for having sent a savior to protect her daughter in times of such misery. What misery, Pammi could never gather. The damage was done!
Pammi went to sleep that night, gazing at the inky black night from her tiny, creaky window. Inside her head, it was still raining, with the faint tring tring of a cycle constantly ringing in the background. Faint, but strong enough to keep her awake all night. Four months and several cycle ‘doubles’ later, Pammi and Kissy were getting married. Her father thought it was a match made in heaven. Kissy’s mother however, had finally found someone to take her place in the dingy little kitchen.
A year later, Pammi was sitting making makki ki rotis and all the promises of her continuing her training and participating in the national trials had burnt in the Chula, thick and black as the wood in it. Staying away from the track was not what hurt Pammi, the taunts of her not being able to birth a child was what got to her more. Tears stung her eyes, threatening to jump down and add some seasoning to the rotis, but she held them back with a quick breath. Pammi had sat there in that kitchen, while her mother-in-law sat outside on their charpaai, loudly complaining how it must have been all the running that ‘damaged’ her uterus. Clutching her stomach unknowingly, Pammi waited for Kishanjit to return that night. He had immersed himself in the training for the National trials and she hardly got a minute with him in private. The fire in the Chula laughed, jumped and clapped to every taunt, like an audience watching a debate with prime seats.
“Why do I have to go through this when it is not even my fault?” she asked him that night. Kishanjit replied as though nothing had happened. He coolly said “leave it at the minute. When I qualify for the nationals all of this will be forgotten and they will not think of a child for another year or so and I will also mention your name in the paper saying it was my wife’s consistent hard work that made me come to this level. Then they will leave you in peace for sure.” Saying this, he changed, rolled over and fell asleep almost instantly. Pammi knew well that that it was another false promise just like them letting her pursue her training after marriage.
Kissy didn’t qualify for the finals. The whole house had come to a standstill and the silence felt heavy on Pammi. The newspaper had mentioned something about his ‘leg work being too feeble for the throw’. Whatever the reason be, Pammi had lost the last thread of hope. She shivered in anger, because now everything, including his failure at the trials would be tossed on her shoulders.
As she sat there making the dough for dinner, she thought about her husband. His nickname ‘Kissy’ had come from his expertise with women in the neighborhood. But sadly he hadn’t done anything but kissing in their bed. “How long now, Paramjit?” she asked herself aloud, absentmindedly.
Kishanjit had not come home after the poor show at the trials. He had gone knocking door to door, city to city, trying some tactics other than the athletic one, to get a place in the nationals. Or at least a chance to give trials again, he said to his uncle who carted him around town, wordlessly.
After 6 months, he returned home. Nothing had worked. It had been his mother’s idea that he stay away until the buzz dies down and then makes a silent return. He returned home after sunset that day. He didn’t seem upset to Pammi. On the contrary, he had got chicken tikka for everyone. “No need to make dinner tonight” he proclaimed, as though he had returned victorious after a wild boar hunt.
Squatting outside their tiny home, the adults ate in silence. Pammi couldn’t even bring herself to touch the food, because it all felt like a joke that was waiting to unfold any minute. It was too much to take. She was so lost in her thoughts, that she hadn’t heard her mother in law call out to her to bring some cut onions from inside. “You wretched woman, First you deny me the right of a grandchild, then you make my son fail his trials and now you ignore me! Haai haai! What fate has befallen our house” she shouted, mincing a piece of chicken in her hands. Pammi jolted back to reality and scurried inside to chop some onions for her mother in law. As tears streamed down her cheek with all the onion chopping, she told herself that she had had enough! Tonight she would confront Kishanjit!
She was sitting in the corner of their bed, when Kishanjit walked into their bedroom. He had anticipated a showdown, a tiny drama of tears, hitting and shouting. But none of it happened. It was Pammi and not his mother, he realized. She was the sensible type and that was what drew him to her back in the day. He sat beside her and touched her shoulder gently, yet cautiously. “If you can’t give me a baby, I will make one”, she said. He looked at her as though she had sprouted two extra heads. While he wanted to ask her how that would be possible, he knew that it would ascertain the fact that he had been incapable of the act. Understanding his discomfort, she whispered a plan in his ears. Kissy’s eyes grew wider and wider until it almost popped out. Gulping air, he nodded mutely before rolling over and falling asleep immediately.
Pammi had to execute her plan carefully. Her mother in law and her mother in law’s mother in law were old, but had the eyes of a hawk and the nose of a sniffer dog. She started out by slowing down on work. Where she could make 30 rotis in half an hour, she made only 10 misshapen ones. Then, she started complaining of nausea at the smell of mustard oil. That got the antennas up. Everyone in her part of the world grew up being friends with mustard oil, even before they knew their mothers scent. How could she not like it? Then, the last straw – one evening, while Pammi was sitting by the Chula, she let a roti burn to black on purpose. When she heard the ladies of the house run in shock, she lay down comfortably, acting as though she had passed out, waiting for them to revive her with sprinkles of water and rushed fanning.
As the worried members of the house surrounded her, Kissy’s grandmother took Pammi’s hands in hers. Gently, placing her fingers on Pammi’s pulse, she waited silently. It was like everyone had forgotten to breathe in that minute. Then she turned to Kissy’s mother and shot a toothless grin. “Arrey! Beta hoga, Beta!” she shrieked, kissing Pammi for the first time ever. Pammi had passed the acid test. Now, she had to plan the rest carefully as well. While everyone was jubilant, a visibly shocked Kissy sat near Pammi, as though waiting for her to spill the beans. All she did was wink at him and close her eyes, as though taking the much needed rest.
Pammi’s parents were called and they promptly landed at Kishanjit’s doorstep within five days of the phone call that brought the good news. They bought ladoo and kheer for everyone. After about 10 minutes of repeated hugging and wiping tears at the edge of dupattas, it was decided that Pammi would go to her grandmother’s place, as is the custom, to deliver the child. She would return when the child was three months old. Kishanjit would accompany them and ensure his wife was comfortable, before he returned home.
The four reached Pammi’s maternal grandmother’s house, 80kms away from Kissy’s house. It was as small but comfortable house, but more importantly it was what she needed to set her plan in motion.
Pammi had reached her mother’s place just after Holi and by the coming New Year their house was filled newborn paraphernalia. When Kissy got the news from the local grocer’s phone, that his wife had delivered their first child at 11pm last night and that they both were safe, he didn’t know what to say. Clearly, it didn’t feel like his child, nor did he have a sense of elation.
Pammi had named her son Sher. Maybe she wanted him to be braver than his father, one would never know. She arrived at Kishanjit’s place the following April and as though, she had already sniffed mischief, Kissy’s grandmother sat on the charpaai outside the house, waiting for the newborn party to arrive. When they did, she slowly unfurled a small piece of paper that was crumpled in her fist. She summoned Pammi to bring the child closer. When the baby was not more than 5 inches away from her face, she placed the piece of paper near his face and examined both. It was a moment of shock for Pammi. She was almost sweating profusely, when daadiji showed one more of her wrinkly toothless smiles. They had passed yet another acid test! The baby was a carbon copy of his father. It was remarkable. Jubilation and celebration followed for an entire week. Everyone was taking turns to adore the baby boy and his father took every spare moment he found to analyze Sher up close. Every feature was like a mini-Kishanjit. He wondered how that crooked nose, slender fingers and even the slightly lopsided mouth was just like him. It must be a dream, he told himself.
Months whizzed past and Sher was soon the heartthrob of his neighborhood. He was a darling and was an instant hit with every elder who came home to visit him. This obviously changed Pammi’s fate. She was no longer sent into the kitchen. Her mother in law glowered at Pammi’s sister in law, who pulled up her dupatta over her head, as though she had been shamed, and walked into the dungeon like kitchen. Her, six year old daughter Dimpy, tugging on to the corner of her mother’s kameez, following suit silently. A twinge of pain shot across Pammi, but she knew it was inevitable in a household where a boy child had finally made an entry. She would pacify and sort things with her sister in law in just a bit, Pammi told herself.
Sher was 1 and there was a feast that began at lunch and went almost all evening long. Kishanjit had forgotten the strange mystery behind his son and was dancing, with his turban almost coming off loose. Pammi stood, watching all this, as her mother came and gave her a gentle squeeze on the shoulder. She smiled at her daughter, thanking the Guru for having shown her daughter a way out of what would have been her life long sentence.
Pammi realized it was finally time to tell Kishanjit the truth. That night, while a half conscious Kissy came to their room, she sat by the corner of the bed, just as she had last year. It immediately made him sober and he wondered what she was going to do this time. He sat next to her, peering over his shoulder just a little to see his son sleeping peacefully. The steady rise and fall of the little boy’s chest, assuring him that there was no shock awaiting him. He looked at Pammi, as though she was the Sphinx holding back the final part of the puzzle for him to solve.
Pammi revealed the simple but astonishing truth that let Kishanjit proud and ashamed at the same time. Smiling softly at her husband, she tucked the blanket over Sher’s tiny frame and rolled over, falling asleep within minutes. The first time she had truly slept in ages.
~ The writer in me