Jyotsna Milan

A for Astu : an excerpt

She ran up the stairs and jumped a step. And then many steps—

But you were in a rush. The soup was on the stove and your mind was in the kitchen.

Yes, I was in a hurry! Must have been a little distracted too. Yet—

Regardless of the rush and the soup on the stove, she went on climbing stairs. On reaching the top without losing breath she felt almost disappointed to find no more steps to climb. It would have been fun to climb a few more.

Though happy to catch her breath, she rued the abrupt ending of the flight. And yet- she could not have just gone on climbing stairs forever.

She had finished so many chores in the past one hour. But of course they were endless. It was like being busy without work.

If she did not have to pause work owing to ennui, some guest or nightfall, they would just go on showing up one after the other. In fact often while the previous work was underway, she could already see the next one coming.

Most of the things she did through the day were purely out of habit or need and the rest out of sheer boredom and unwillingness. Then there were those things that no one would do. Those fell to her share as well. Given a choice she would not do any of them.

“Goodness gracious” She suddenly panicked—Have I just been cooking day and night for so many years? And yet-

can I say, given a choice, I would never cook, neither bear children, nor typewrite, nor stitch clothes?

One after another, the chores piled themselves up before her eyes. She whisked the pile awhile and couldn’t find a single chore that she could pick up and throw saying—‘I won’t ever do this again.’

Now take for instance, the job of making chapattis. At times it is so much fun. The ball of dough magically dances under the rolling pin, turning into a thin round disc, as if it would change sides on the hot plate on its own!

Aaji had once told her that dusting the flat pan with some dry flour saves it from sticking, even helping it glide on the surface, as if on water or on air.

So when the disc changes colour, or when the colour of rawness ripens—turn it over. When its back crinkles, slap it face down on the fire, let it swell and catch a few freckles on its face. Sometimes the tip of the firewood or the corner of a hot coal may conspire to smudge it. One must save it at the nick of the moment!

The chapatti swells and the smell rises and fills up the home, sometimes escaping out of the window to rush into the nostrils of the man walking on the road outside. That usually is the end of the poor fellow. Thereafter there is nothing in the world for him but chapattis!

When making chapattis is fun, they seem to roll out and change sides on the pan of their own will, as if a jugglery was playing itself out in front of her eyes. Brahm latka kare brahm pase[i]. Sometimes however, the rolling pin slid back and forth, the disc got stuck on the base and you had to pause and pull it with the other hand. In the meantime, the other one on the hot plate got marked or even burnt. (in those days even making a dozen chapattis felt like too many to her).

Ma muttered to herself— ‘Doesn’t sleep a wink through the long day, I wonder what this girl does with her time’. The long summer days came heavier on Ma. Though for her they were a small matter, like a small chore.

It is possible she’s never able to say— “Given a choice, I won’t make chapattis hence or never, for that matter!” And yet— some day she cannot help feeling like, ‘I won’t cook today!’ Let whoever cook or not cook, for all she cared. She would rather forget all about cooking, serving, eating whatsoever.

But how can this be?

What if Time said I have been beating forever and hence I’d like to be pegged some place?

What if the tree said I am tired of standing all day and I should be allowed to walk around?

Or if the house said, I am going to climb the hill today, or come to your city, or fly in the sky, or keep shaking or fall down whenever, wherever, as I please?

I am willing to be your house, on one condition- I will be when I want to and will not be when I don’t.

She agreed to the condition put forth—“Alright. But then I should also be able to expand and contract you at will. You shall be when I want you and vanish when I don’t. Agreed?

Both had their conditions.

But how is that possible?

Well, why not? If it’s possible for you to just not cook someday without any reason, or even if for a reason like being unwell or some other important work, why should...

Don’t mix the two. You are always bungling! They are different things.

He gave her a hard look.

How are they different?

You know very well how! Yet you will go on arguing. Bad logic.

It is another matter that she enjoys bad logic.

All the same, she will actually do that once and find out for herself. One day she will not cook and see if the trees begin to move; if Time pegs itself in her backyard, if the house does a somersault!

Fool! A perfect fool! Look, its possible that in my place you cook today, but none of us can rise instead of the sun, can we?

She found herself falling into a fit of laughter.

And again she was breathlessly climbing stairs while stirring the soup. The stairs went on multiplying and she asked herself— will I get exhausted first or the stairs?

Whichever! Only it shouldn`t tire me out.

But if the stairs end…no fun!

A ASTU KA. Hindi novel by Jyotsna Milan. Pub. Harper Collins. 

Translation: Rajula Shah


[i] A line from the medieval bhakti poet Narsi Mehta’s couplet that says-‘the soul (as God) dances before the soul.’

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