Ambu shook 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 which were numb from squatting. Her back ached and her spine made the crackling noise as she tried to straighten slightly from her precarious 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....
Ambu shuddered involuntarily. She shrugged her shoulders 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. 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 is so much to do. 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 from little glass windows on the roof. Ambu's day in the kitchen would begin at daybreak when the first rays of sunlight would stream in from the back door as lustrous beams on the wall 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 someone accompanying her 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 this 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. Unlike her sisters, Ambu was neither beautiful nor did she possess any home making skill. Knitting, sewing, cooking, embroidery, she could do none of these up to the mark. Her parents thought that she was scatterbrained and clumsy. Constantly preoccupied with thoughts, Ambu was an incorrigible dreamer.
Ambu’s parents feared that she would turn into an old maid unless she was married off soon. Finally, after much scouting, they found her a match. Ambu was married off hurriedly to a middle aged widower who lived in a nearby village. During her brief married life, 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 was 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 motherly affection. Still, 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. In a few years, 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 and, 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 and would taunt 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.
“Ambuuu, what’s wrong with you today? They will be coming any time and you have not even put the rice on the stove yet! Hurry up, now.” Her sister was annoyed but too busy to say anything more to Ambu. She threw a reproving glance at Ambu and hurried away to watch the servants. Ambu snapped out of her reverie and began washing the rice to prepare for cooking.
By the time the first of the guests began to arrive, on foot or in horse drawn carts, Ambu was finished with her cooking and came out to welcome them. While her sister fussed over her sons and daughters and welcomed the other guests with a broad grin and merry chit chat, Ambu was busy making sure there was enough water for them to wash their feet before coming in. She followed the servants who carried the guests’ luggage and made sure it was put in proper place. The guests would keep arriving for a couple of days more until the ceremony and it was Ambu’s responsibility to make sure that they were comfortable.
The little baby and his parents had already arrived and Ambu went to double check that they were properly ensconced in their room. As she hurried back to her post at the doorway, rather distractedly, she looked up and stopped in her tracks. He was sitting in the front room besides her brother in law’s bed, engaged in an intense conversation. He was wearing a cream colored silk kurta that enhanced his broad shoulders and a white cotton dhoti. There was just enough grey in his hair was giving him a mature, distinguished look. His tall body was slumped over and his dark, brooding eyes were intently focused. A dot of sandalwood paste on his forehead brought out his straight, sharp nose. His swarthy face was glistening with perspiration from walking in the hot summer day and his strong chin was covered in day old stubble.
Suddenly, Ambu felt as if her cheeks were turning hot. A nameless yearning filled her heart and her pulse quickened. As she stood entranced, watching him, she felt an intense urge to go out to the front room. But, then she became aware of her own shabby self and was mortified. She checked herself and turned back to go to the kitchen.
He was Ambu’s brother in law’s youngest brother. There had been a buzz in the house for the past few days that he was coming for the ceremony. This was indeed special because no one in the family had seen him for past three years. He had dedicated himself for the freedom struggle and would disappear on missions for long periods of time. The whole family was in awe of him as he was said to have traveled all over the country and taken part in many important protests against the British.
Ambu had seen the British only once in her lifetime. Her little town was not important enough for the British to have a white officer in charge, but an officer from the city had come with his battalion to Ambu’s town to inaugurate a missionary school. Like the rest of the town, Ambu had stood outside her sister’s house to watch in awe and great fascination, the group of white men with blue eyes, in their dapper red and white uniforms, trot away on horsebacks to the school. However, she was able to only catch a glimpse as she was promptly sent inside by her brother in law, who was also equally awestruck on his part.
When Ambu heard that he had been involved in a battle against the British she was quite fascinated. She had sensed that he commanded a great respect in the family and watched the entire household drawn towards him. But she felt shy and avoided being in the same room with him. Although she tried to keep herself busy in chores, her heart was far away from herself. She found herself thinking about him all the time and was secretly hoping that she would get to see him at the next corner.
In a while her silent prayers were answered for she did come face to face with him, albeit in an awkward situation. In the afternoon after lunch, Ambu was done cleaning up the kitchen and was fetching some fresh sheets to the baby’s room. Ambu was walking hurriedly as she had to get back to the backyard to fetch more water from the well for the evening. She was checking her stack of sheets as she went and that was when she bumped against him in a dimly lit corridor. Stupefied, she looked up to see him peering down at her with a smile on his face and a deep dimple on his cheek. Ambu stood frozen as the sheets fell down from her hands. For a few moments he looked once at her and once at the fallen sheets. Then he quietly gathered the sheets from the floor, put them in Ambu’s hands and walked away. Ambu did not know for how long she was standing there after that, but when she came to her senses, she felt as if she had been woken from a dream. For the rest of the day, Ambu was feeling lightheaded.
At night, the whole household gathered around him and he told the stories of the freedom struggle. Ambu sat as far away from him as possible, hidden behind the group of women. He spoke in a deep, lyrical voice about his missions and adventures, of the great leaders of the fight for freedom, of social reforms and education. He also talked a great deal about widow remarriage and women empowerment. Everyone was listening to him in rapt attention, entranced by his style of speaking and command on the subject. Ambu took this opportunity to watch him at her hearts content and drink in every word of what he said.
That night, Ambu lay on her bed, half awake, half asleep. The ceremony was on the next day and she was going to be busy in the kitchen. Would she be able to see him? She wondered, rather embarrassed with her eagerness.
The next day the household was in frenzy. The ceremony had begun early in the morning on the auspicious day as prescribed by the pundits. Everyone was dressed in their festive clothes and women were decked up in finest jewelry. Ambu was wearing her best possible sari and she had taken just a little extra care of her appearance. She wanted to look good today, but she was not allowed to wear any color or flowers. Jewelry was out of question. Still, she had tried to do what she could by changing her hairstyle a little and lining her large black eyes, her only good feature, just slightly with kohl which, she kept hidden in her trunk.
All through the day Ambu was whirling all around the house, overseeing everything from cooking to decoration to guests’ baths. She saw him fleetingly a couple of times. He was always surrounded by group of men and they were talking animatedly. Ambu did not have time to take a long look at him, but his thought never left her mind. He was constantly in the backdrop of her mind, no matter what she was thinking or doing on the foreground.
Some time in the afternoon, the ceremony was over and it was time for the special feast. As was the custom, the men and the children sat down on the floor in rows and the women lined up to serve them food. The women would be having lunch in the next batch. He was seated on the floor besides Ambu’s brother in law who was propped up on a chair with his plate on a little table in front of him. The first round of food was served by the married women to bring good luck to everyone. Ambu was given the task of watching people’s plates to see what was finished and to bring that item out again and ask if they wanted more of it.
Ambu’s heart was pounding as she was watched anxiously at his plate to see if she can bring something for him. That was when her brother in law shouted, “Will someone bring me daaal?” and Ambu was startled. She took the hot vessel containing daal and went gingerly to where her brother in law was sitting.
As she started to serve daal in her brother in law’s bowl, he looked up at her and frowned.
“Are you wearing kajal (kohl)?” he asked, frowning.
Ambu hung her head, and said nothing. “Is there any honor in this house?” He screamed.
“What are the women in this house doing? How could you let her walk shamelessly decked up like this?” He demanded to his wife. Ambu’s sister stood terrified looking at her husband but did not say anything.
Ambu’s eyes were brimming with tears. She could feel the seething gaze of everyone present searing her. Not in front of him, not in front of him, a little voice screamed in her head as she stood frozen fighting back tears, clutching the vessel in her hand.
“Ambu maushi are you trying to be a heroine or what?” one of her nephews taunted, sneering and the whole room broke into a snigger.
Ambu could not take this anymore. She had faced this before - the taunts, the unkindness, the mockery, the disgust. The way her brother in law was treating her was not was not new to her. She had always accepted everything without a question. She faced derision with a sheepish, self deprecating grin on her face. But now He was here. Not in front of him, not in front of him, the little voice screamed again. She whirled around, kept the vessel and went inside half walking, half running. She could hear the room still tittering behind her as she went. Either they had completely forgotten about her or were still enjoying their jokes about her but he was with them. Ambu felt a gnawing pit in her stomach as she walked to the backyard - the only place where she could feel safe.
She did not know how long she was sitting under the Mango tree to the far end of the back yard, clutching her knees and looking far away into space. She did not have many tears left. They were spent long ago. So, her eyes were dry and empty. She was feeling as if she was floating in the air and was slowly being sucked into a vacuum. Worst, she did not want to struggle. She just wanted to let go and sink into the abyss.
A rustle of leaves behind her startled her and she turned around and saw him standing there, looking at her. There was concern on his face, but he did not say anything and she did not respond and just stared vacantly at him. He came closer and sat down besides Ambu.
For a while none of them spoke. They just sat side by side looking far away.
“I am sorry” He said suddenly, breaking the silence. Ambu did not respond.
“I am really sorry about what happened inside. It was not right, not right.” He said, facing Ambu. She hunched down and buried her face in her knees.
“Look what they have done to you!” He said and came a little closer and gently touched her shoulder. Ambu shuddered as if a shock went through her body but still did not look up.
“I wish I could do something for you. I wish I could…I wish we could….But I can’t. My life is not mine you see, not mine….at least not this one. For this life I am bound to my Motherland. But if and when there will be another birth, if some where some time we could meet each other free from all these shackles, I hope God gives us a chance to come together. Till then, remember, whatever they say or do to you, don’t be hurt. Because, some where, someone is thinking about you...”
For a moment, he tightened his grip on Ambu’s shoulder. She was still hunched down but was now sobbing softly. He looked at her for a while, slowly released his hand and got up. As he walked away from her towards the house, Ambu finally looked up. She saw his tall, erect silhouette going far away from her and felt the eternal longing grip her, once again. Only now, Ambu had found her tears back. She let them flow freely until her vision was hazy again.
The next day, he was leaving. The whole household had gathered to see their beloved uncle off. Once again, Ambu was standing behind the group of women. As the servants brought out his luggage, he bid farewell to the young by giving them money for toys and sweets and old by touching their feet. After he touched his brother’s feet he came towards the women to touch his sister in law’s feet as well. Once he took her blessings, he stood straight and for a moment and looked openly, unabashedly at Ambu. Ambu’s heart stopped but she read the message clearly in his eyes. “Some day” He seemed to say “Some day I will come for you.” Then he turned around and walked away, without looking back.
Ambu’s heart went away with him. But she was not unhappy. In fact, she had never been happier before. This delicate, breezy romance had given her life a purpose. The dry leaf hurtling in the wind had found its own cozy nook. She would live the life that was in store for her, but a glowing flame of hope would always warm her mind. For some day, some time, he would come for her.