Ambu flicked her head umpteenth time trying unsuccessfully to push back the rogue strand of hair that had stuck to her sweaty forehead and was tickling her eye. Her hands were dirty with the mixture of dirt and tamarind that she was using to rub the copper utensils before washing them with the water she had drawn from the well. Every year, in the summer her sister made Ambu bring out the copper and silver utensils from the attic of the old house and wash them with tamarind until they shone. This year the summer was even more special as they were having the naming ceremony of her sister's first grandson. Soon Ambu's nephews and nieces and many more guests from far off cities and towns would start arriving and the household would be in frenzy. All these vessels would be used to hold the enormous quantities of food that would be cooked in the coming days.
Ambu fidgeted a little and tried to move her legs that were numb from squatting. Her back ached and her spine made the crackling noise as she tried to straighten a little from her hunched position. It is almost done, she thought, looking with some satisfaction at the neat line of shining vessels of all shapes and sizes that sat drying on the white muslin cloth. She eyed the few remaining pots and pans and sighed. Taking in a deep breath, she attacked them ferociously, making loud clanking noises.
"Ambuuuu!" her sister called out from inside the house. "Stop that noise right now!" she hollered. "Don't you know the clangor of pots and pans brings bad luck?"
Ambu flushed and started washing the vessels slowly and put them back on the muslin cloth as gently as she could. Once the chore was done, she got up with some difficulty and went to the well to draw some water to wash her hands and feet. Once more, she lustily eyed the well. Once more, the long suppressed thought scratched her placid mind - what if she just let herself slip....
She jerked her head as if to ward off that thought and slowly drew out the bucket that hung down with a rope.
The cool water felt good on her cracked feet for they were burning by staying too long in dirt. She washed her hands and splashed some more water on her face. She threw the remaining water at the base of the banana plant and smiled noticing that the plant had begun to bear fruit. Little bunches of bananas clung to the plant, snugly hidden under the lustrous fronds. The Jasmine had blossomed too and Ambu watched a few bees humming lazily around the plant, intoxicated by its perfume.
"Ambuuuuu, what are you doing outside? Hurry up, there are so many things that need to be done. It is almost time for the guests to arrive." her sister called out again and Ambu hustled in through the short backyard door to enter the gloomily lit kitchen. There was no electricity in their town yet and whatever light came into the kitchen came in from little glass windows on the roof. Ambu's day in the kitchen would begin at daybreak when the first rays of sunlight would started streaming as yellow beams on the floor and she would be engaged in chores until, at sundown, the kitchen fire would be put out after the oil lamps were lit around the house.
The kitchen had been Ambu's abode for almost fifteen years since she arrived at her sister's place. She had rarely gone out of the house, except for going to the temple occasionally. Then too she was required to have an accompaniment and had to be dressed in the most sedate of clothes. Her whole world comprised of the back yard where she had planted numerous varieties of plants and the dark, gloomy kitchen.
Ambu was the last amongst her parent's nine daughters and three sons. Her parents were worried if they could ever find a groom for their dark and simple minded daughter. In the house of Bramhins from Konkan, being dark and dull was like a mortal sin. Beauty was defined by the color of the skin and the community took pride in the intelligence of its members. Ambu’s fair, light eyed sisters had found a match in a jiffy but she had turned sixteen and was already growing past the marriageable age. Her parents fretted that Ambu would turn into an old maid unless she was married off soon. Finally, after much scouting, her parents had found her a match. She was hurriedly married off to a middle aged widower who lived in a nearby village.
Ambu never really found out what love really was. She was always quite terrified of her husband and before she knew he died of pneumonia. Ambu's dreams for a blissful life ended with him. She was only eighteen then.
There was no place for Ambu in her husband’s house after he died. Her parents were too old and her brothers were too far away to take her in. That is when Ambu’s oldest sister and brother in law offered to take her to their house. Ambu’s brother in law was a lawyer and made enough money to maintain a well to do household. Her sister was a kind woman. Being more then fifteen years older, she loved Ambu with a motherly affection.
Although her sister loved Ambu very much, she was obliged by the rules of the society and had to put all kinds of restrictions on Ambu. Widows were still treated unfairly in those days and Ambu was no exception. Her brother in law, who had once been a successful lawyer, had been bedridden due to a stroke. The stroke had crippled his mind more than his body with time he had become more and more cranky and irritable. His bed had been set up in the front room and he kept a strict eye on people coming and going into the house. He would watch Ambu taunted her if she wore a new sari or tied her hair differently from the usual bun. As her children grew up and one by one moved out of the house to seek better jobs or education, Ambu’s sister became busy serving her whimsical husband and Ambu was relegated to taking care of the kitchen.