Hari Ram Gupta got off the chartered bus at the Old Sargam Vihar bus stand and checked his watch. Hmph! 6:25 p.m. A full fifteen minutes later than the previous day. If the traffic condition in Delhi kept worsening like this, he’d soon be reaching home only after the sun had set. He made his way through the gaps between the cycle rickshaws crowding the bus stand and started walking towards his house. A rickshaw wallah called out, “Babuji, where will you go? Let me take you.”
Hari Ram shook his head. “No, I’ll walk.”
A rickshaw would certainly help him make up for the lost time, but why waste 15 rupees on a kilometre-long ride? Besides, he enjoyed stopping and chatting with the neighbors he met on the way to his house. Hari Ram walked at a brisk pace, keeping a lookout for any familiar face. But that day, he didn’t meet anyone till he reached the edge of the Sargam Vihar colony. There, he saw Bhushan’s amma, dressed in a white cotton saree, walking slowly with the help of a cane. Ammaji was following the doctor’s advice to take at least a hundred steps outside every day to prevent arthritis from taking over completely. Bhusan’s amma was a little hard of hearing. Any conversation with her could easily take a good ten minutes. So Hari Ram just bowed his head slightly, folded his hands in greeting and carried on.
Hari Ram soon reached the Ramlila ground inside the colony. His eyes sought and found his son Amar playing cricket with his friends on the ground. Amar was batting. Hari Ram paused to watch Amar hit the ball over cover for a four. He shouted out an encouragement but didn’t linger any further. Crossing the ground, he entered a narrow gali. His house was the second on the right from this end of the gali. Hari Ram’s heart lifted in pride as his eyes lighted upon his double-storied house.
For most of its forty years of existence, the house had been a single-floor structure with three rooms. But twelve years ago, when his younger brother Rakesh was about to get married, Hari Ram realized that three rooms were no longer sufficient for the growing family. He used the money he had saved over the years to add another floor to the house. The ground floor was also remodeled to include a large drawing room, a joint kitchen, a large bedroom for Hari Ram, his wife and their two kids, and a smaller one for his youngest brother Nitesh. A staircase at the back of the house connected the two floors. His other two brothers, Rakesh and Sia Ram, now lived with their wives and kids on the upper floor. His parents, sadly, were no longer alive.
One of his nephews opened the door for Hari Ram and called out in the general direction of the joint kitchen, “Tai, tau has reached.” Hari Ram folded his hands in prayer in front of the small wooden mandir fixed on the wall of the drawing room and thanked God for keeping him and his family safe for another day. His wife, Nirmala, came in from the kitchen carrying a glass of cold water. Hari Ram tilted his head, tipped the glass and gulped down the contents. Refreshed, he remarked, “I just saw Amar. He is really coming up as a batsman.”
“I wish he would spend more time studying and less time playing cricket,” Nirmala replied. “He doesn’t seems to remember he is in class 12th.”
“Arrey, why are you always after him? He’ll do well in his exams, you’ll see.”
“If I don’t keep after him, he’ll spend his entire day out of the house.” Nirmala took the empty glass and returned to the kitchen.
Why did women fret so much? Things would happen when they happen, whether or not you worried about them.
Hari Ram moved to their bedroom, just adjacent to the drawing room, and started preparations for the favourite part of his day. A quick change into a comfortable cotton vest and pyjamas, a search for the cassette that matched his mood and he was all set. Mohammad Rafi’s soulful voice soon filled the room.
Din dhal jaye haye, raat na jaaye Tu toh na aaye, teree yaad sataye….
Humming along, Hari Ram opened the steel almirah in the room and took out the bottle of Old Monk resting on the top shelf. He then called out to his daughter, “Bubbly beta, get me a glass and a few lemon slices.”
Bubbly did as requested and then said, “Ma is asking whether you want peanuts or anda bhurji to go with it.”
“Peanuts will do,” said Hari Ram. He didn’t want to make unnecessary work for the women in the family. But secretly, he was glad that his wife had asked. Nirmala had always been such a good wife. Not like some other women who were always finding fault with their husbands.
He remembered earlier Nirmala would object to his drinking. She would say it would harm his health. But then he reminded her that every man in their clan drank. Nirmala’s own father and brother were notorious for drinking and rioting at wedding parties. He, at least, drank only within the sanctity of his home and never made a scene. Nirmala relented, and over the years, her objections grew less and less frequent.
As the evening grew, Hari Ram watched his younger brothers, nephews, and nieces coming in one after the other. The door of his room opened into the drawing room so he could see and greet them from where he was sitting. They all returned his greeting before continuing on to their rooms. A warm glow enveloped him.
I’m lucky to be blessed with three younger brothers. Thank God my days of struggle are over!
When Hari Ram was just 23, his father had died of a heart attack, leaving behind a frail, illiterate widow and four sons. Eldest of the four, Hari Ram had recently joined as a Lower Divisional Clerk in a central government office. Suddenly finding himself the head and sole earning member of the family, Hari Ram chose the only alternative open to him. He worked hard, putting in a lot of overtime, almost three hours every day, to pay for his brothers’ education. A few years later Rakesh, the second eldest brother, also began to earn. But even before they could think how best to use the additional money coming in, their mother’s health started declining. This resulted not only in extra hospital bills but also a quick, arranged marriage for Hari Ram so that the family did not stay without a woman for long.
The subsequent years saw the happy but expensive arrival of Hari’s two children, Rakesh’s wife, and his two children. With only two earning members and eight dependents, there was never enough to go around. Then about seven years ago, the third brother, Sia Ram, also got a job. With the financial pressure easing a bit, Hari Ram stopped doing overtime. He started coming home on time for the first time since he started working.
Initially, in fact, he didn’t know what to do with the extra hours that had suddenly appeared in his days. Nirmala would be busy in the kitchen, the kids would be out playing. Rakesh and Sia Ram were busy with their jobs. That was when Hari Ram started drinking, more to pass the time than anything else.
Earlier, he used to sit in the drawing room for his evening ritual. But when Sia Ram got married, Hari Ram sensed that the new bahu, Alka, was uncomfortable. So he moved his evening ritual to his own room. He could still see the drawing room from his room’s doorway. The children often studied or played together in the drawing room. His brothers also sat there to discuss the latest news, their jobs, or to simply watch TV. Hari Ram would watch them all fondly from his seat and throw in a comment or two. If there were guests in the house, somebody would draw the curtain in the drawing room. He didn’t mind. Of course, decorum should be maintained at all times.
Now it was time for young Nitesh to get married. Talks were on. This time, Rakesh and Sia Ram were taking the lead in arranging the marriage. It was right too. Time for them to take on responsibilities and for him to let go. They were all doing really well in their jobs. With them at the helm, Hari Ram had felt confident enough to decline a promotion that would have required a lot of extra hours.
“Bauji, shall I bring the food?” Bubbly asked. “Is it 9 O’clock already?” Hari Ram wondered. How time passes. “Yes bring the food and take away this glass. Hari Ram had always been punctual. He kept away the bottle of Old Monk.
Hari Ram woke up with a start. He’d been having a nightmare. He glanced at the alarm clock. It was 12:30 in the night. He felt unbearably thirsty, but he didn’t want to disturb anyone. Without switching on the light, he went towards the kitchen to get a glass of water. He was surprised to see the light on in the kitchen.
Nirmala was sitting on the floor at the far end of the kitchen with her back to him.
“What are you doing at this time of the night?”
“I’m washing the dishes,” said Nirmala.
“Where is everybody else then?” asked Hari Ram. Badi bahu and Alka were nowhere in sight.
“They must all be sleeping,” said Nirmala as she continued washing the dishes.
“Then why are you alone washing the dishes?” cried Hari Ram.
“I always wash the dishes” said Nirmala quietly. “There is nothing new today. How did you wake up today?”
“But why” said Hari Ram brushing aside her question. “Don’t the other bahus help you? Have you always been doing all the dishes by yourself?”
“They do help,” said Nirmala. “But they say they have to sleep early as their children are smaller.”
“But you are the Jethani! You should be ordering them around, not listening to their excuses.”
Nirmala smiled. “I am Jethani in name only. It is their husbands who take care of the household and bring in the money so how can I order them around? Even our son goes to them when he has trouble understanding his studies and needs advice.
This silenced Hari Ram. The warm glow that had enveloped him all the evening suddenly left him. His wife had been suffering silently all these years. Her position in the household had changed over time…from Jethani, she had become a naukarani and he hadn’t noticed! Perhaps he had been deluding himself. He was an alcoholic, a bewda. True he was never abusive, but he could no longer claim that he was responsible. Hadn’t he neglected the important responsibility of taking care of his wife and children?
Remorse filled Hari Ram. “I’ll never drink again,” he said aloud.
“I don’t think you can stop now.”
“I can and I will,” said the anguished Hari Ram. He rushed to his room, took out the bottle of Old Monk from which he had been drinking and brought it to the kitchen. He emptied its contents in the sink. “I promise you I’ll never drink again. In fact, Nirmala, I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. If I could do that, I would go right back to the time when I first touched a bottle. If I knew this would be the result, believe me, I would not have taken that first step.”
Nirmala just shook her head. “That’s just the Old Monk talking,” she said and continued with her task. Hari Ram stood silently watching her for a couple of seconds. Then he went back and lied down on his bed. Only action, not mere words, could convince her now.
The next evening, Hari Ram surprised everyone in the house by asking for tea instead of his usual glass. As he sat sipping his tea in the drawing room, he asked all the children about their studies. Initially hesitant, the children soon started talking to him and playing with him. When his brothers came in, he enquired about the wedding preparations. His brothers, if surprised by his sudden interest, did not show it. They brought him up to date on the wedding arrangements and all other important and unimportant matters.
That evening, their wives sensing a change in the atmosphere decided that it would be in the best interests if they all worked together to clear up the kitchen. And in this way, Hari Ram Gupta quietly took back the reins of the household and his life. He never touched alcohol again.