“On the main road...”
“What you are gossiping about…bhai…when?”
“Arre…only this morning…”
“The Milk-walla’s wife…”
“What happened to her?”
We could hear these random exclamations and responses sieving out from the commotion outside our small railway quarter where, that winter morning, we sat lazily watching TV in high volume. As father pulled back the window curtain to see what was happening outside, without having to move from where he was, I brought down the volume of the TV irritably. Mother swiftly moved out of the house I did not notice when. She was already a part of the neighborhood crowd while the water she had put on the electric heater kept boiling. Father gingerly made it to the door, putting away the Hindustan newspaper to one side of the bed. I followed him.
Death was a serious issue after all. One could not and should not wait for the completion of a TV show if such a thing was in the air. The poems on death I had read for my post graduate dissertation talked of its power and inevitability but they did not tell much about death’s capability to transform perspectives or, perhaps, I could not go deeper enough into those metaphoric muddles.
The Milk-walli, who hardly had any existence in anybody’s scheme of things, seemed most alive in the moment of her death. It mattered little, when she was no more (a trouble), that she was just a Milk-walli. It was a nice occasion for everyone to show up as humane. Neighbours, accordingly, contended to give her a martyr like stature. Careless of their awkward early morning appearances, they vehemently discussed and enquired about the tragedy.
Death had brought the Milk-walli into the parochial limelight. As if in a frenzy, the crowd harped on her virtues and behaviour; the way she walked; did something on a particular day; said something to somebody in a particular manner. Mundane pieces of information about her seemed to have become significant suddenly. People like journalists were trying to view this issue from various angles. Attention followed from all corners; from those who abhorred her; from those who ridiculed her; from those who quarreled with her; and also from those who pitied her.
Strangely, I caught myself contemplating what relation I shared with the Milk-walli. Was there anything between me and her worth calling a relationship? Or did her demise – a cold reminder of the commonality of the end of every life – make me feel connected to her? Death awes us in its concreteness and it assumes this concreteness by putting a period to life.
Did I really value such ideas? The thrill of the occasion seemed to have invited the issue of existence out of the books of philosophy. Was I thinking too much of my pseudo connection with the departed soul or attempting, inadvertently, to measure the share of the momentary importance she was being attributed to?
I deduced at this point that she was my neighbor, even though I scarcely acknowledged it to myself, much less to anybody else. I had treated her in the same manner some of our acquaintances treat us after they attain some sort of distinction in their lives; hurling occasional glance of curiosity, indifference, and pretension of non-recognition. In other words, I had ignored her except on a few occasions when it had become impossible to do so.
Once I saw her carrying a huge pyramid of cow dung cakes in a big tokri. They were skillfully arranged in the tokri up to a certain height like petals of lotus, and further up in the form of a small conical mound. To me that appeared pretty huge a load but she bore it with grace on her small haggardly head. I was amazed. I beckoned mother to savour the spectacle. Mother, however, did not find it amusing; for her it was a usual sight.
Mother told me that the Milk-walli was carrying the mound of cow dung cakes to another hut of hers across the main road that lay along the outer side of the colony and that they used the other hut to store the dung cakes. I was not aware of the other hut; I only knew of her hut in our colony beside our block. This was where she and her family lived. Her husband was a well-built man in his fifties with rotund belly, untended wiry grey hair and shabby beard. He usually wore a lungi and a shirt. Her son was always in a knee length pants and a dirty and torn vest. Besides, she had a daughter-in-law, a daughter and a granddaughter in her family. Their hut was unauthorized, and stood as a relaxed testimony to the ubiquitous encroachment upon the Railways’ residential area.
Mother added that the cow dung cake she carried was all made by her and that the quantity in the tokri was nothing compared to what she had amassed in her storeroom. She told me that the Milk-walli woke up as early as three o’ clock in the morning and began her day with a promenade through the colony to look for cow dung. She gathered cow dung not only from her own cowshed but from the roads and fields too; she often ventured near other people’s cowsheds for the same. Though many were not very particular about a thing such as cow dung, they did not like the idea that somebody would intrude on their cowshed unwarranted. This was why she was often rebuked by the other cow keepers in the colony, but in vain. Her love for cow dung was so strong that she didn’t mind the allegations of stealing, involvement in witchcraft and of being ominous. She was convinced that cow dung was the most valuable thing on the earth.
The Milk-walli would spend the long morning hours to make cakes with the gathered cow dung. She would use the side walls of her hut and the ground beside it to pat and stick the small balls of cow dung all over it. From the concrete bench on the runnel near our blocks (which we used as garden bench in the evening in summers and winter mornings) the wall of Milk-walli’s house and the adjacent ground appeared all symmetrically dotted. We could also see her inspecting and tending each of the dung cakes as they lay in the bright forenoon sun. She would collect them by evening after they dried completely. In the process she never appeared bored, much less tired and discontent.
After she had made dung cakes she would arrive at the public hand-pump to wash her soiled hands. Though she had her own hand-pump inside her hut she would use the one at the outside. She picked up frequent quarrels with other users of the public hand-pump who had no patience with her ways. They complained that she spoiled the cleanliness of the hand-pump from where they fetched drinking water. She would however fight her point out and curtly reply to such objections: “Will it vanish with my touch? “Don’t touch it… baap re!”… “Cleanliness…my foot.” Obstinately, she would use it for other purposes like washing rugs and even for bathing herself.
A lady washing herself in open may appear outrageous to many but Milk-walli did. However, she would bath with her clothes on. She would carefully wash her face and hands and then rub her feet and toes clean. Then she poured water over her body wetting her saree. She would return home like this, all wet, to change. It did not matter to her that people in those quarters might watch her, perhaps because she was neither young nor attractive. She was dark and had a pockmarked face, her body was very thin and her height was average. She would wear worn-out but bright coloured sarees, probably used by her daughter-in-law, who, she complained, was monstrous.
Sometimes, she would drop in to ask for some pickle or cooked vegetables; mother would give her some thing or the other but papa despised such attempts at charity. I would mostly remain neutral at such moments because supporting one or the other meant adding fuel to the fire.
Once the Milk-walli caused great amusement to us unwittingly and made us double up. She was carrying a polybag filled with something quite heavy; she hid the bag behind her pallu. When she saw that I was watching, she turned red and looked down to ensure that her pallu was doing its job properly. She tried to move past hurriedly, but the thing dropped down as the polythene bag was too tattered to hold it; the dung spattered all about her. I turned my back to her, trying in vain to suppress my laughter; I quickly went inside to avoid embarrassment to her. I related the incident to mother who also laughed, and told me that many a times she too had seen her carrying cow dung in plates, and sometimes on her bare hands hiding it behind her pallu the same way.
Indeed, it was an obsession for her to gather cow dung and make cakes, as many as she could. It seemed to be the sole aim of her life. To her, everything else was a mere trifle against this single-minded pursuit.
From morning to evening she engaged herself in various jobs related to her one-man cow dung cake industry. She did not even bother about her obligation as an aged mother-in-law; she did not support her daughter-in-law in her household works. Nor did she entertain her two year old granddaughter while her mother was doing the chores; she would leave the child with the other members of the family to go back to her dung cake work. This was why, it seemed, her daughter-in-law despised her.
She took care of each dung cake in making as they dried in the sun. In the afternoon, resting for a while, she would comb her hair and apply oil on her face and hands, sitting under the sun outside her hut. And after putting on a bright orange vermilion mark, she would move out, carrying the heavy tokri on her head, slowly and determined.
She was comfortable with mother who once asked her why she was so obsessed with cow dung cake making, as much as to neglect her granddaughter. “One gets money,” came the instant reply. “You know, they buy it, and sometimes it helps me make as much as a thousand rupees.” Mother probed her further about what she did with the money – she laughed self-consciously; and demurely complained against her husband and son: “O, they all take it from me; sometimes to buy fodder for the cattle, sometimes for other things. They need it, you know. It helps one carry on with salt and chilly; don’t you think it is useless.” She could barely hide her sense of pride as she spoke these words.
She was not crazy, nor was she ignorant; she knew very well what she was doing. It was strange that she died in an accident while on her way back from the dung cake-store on the other side of the main road. She was knocked down by a truck, and her fragile frame lay down by the road. One could still see the dung cakes scattered about her, and the tokri in the middle of the road, crushed.