Bittersweet by Gangadhar Gadgil, Translated from Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra
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I stood in front of the mirror in our room, swaying my body this way and that, like the dancer in the film we had seen the previous day. ‘Wah! Very nice!’ I heard from outside the door.

 

I got such a start! Obviously the lord and master had come back  from his morning walk. His movements are like clockwork. Precise. Hardly make a sound.

 

I went and stood by the corner table, head hanging low, waiting for the next volley.
‘You have become very smart!’

 

I tried not to smile. I feel like laughing when he gets angry. These foolish men believe that women are afraid of their temper.

 

‘All you want to do is act coy. Not do any housework. Quarrel with everyone, tell tales.’

 

I drew a crow on a piece of paper lying there.

 

‘Don’t waste paper!’

 

I put the pencil down.

 

‘I’m not talking to your back.’

 

I covered my mouth with my saree pallu and turned to walk  out. My muffled laughter did not escape his lordship’s notice.

 

‘You have this bad habit of laughing for nothing,’ he yelled, adding a sharp slap to his words. This was a sign that his anger had dissipated.

 

As I went downstairs I heard the clock strike seven. It was time for his lordship’s bath. I ran to draw his bath water, because otherwise again …

 

I got to the boiler and found it was stone cold. That’s senior Jaubai, my elder sister-in-law for you. Never completes a chore.

 

‘What? No coals in the boiler?’ I asked angrily.

 

If anything is said rudely, Sasubai, my mother-in-law, is sure to hear it. Her ears are very sharp; her tongue, even sharper.

 

From the puja room I heard her say, ‘Where has she gone, leaving all the housework half done? Shirker of the first order, she is!’

 

When Sasubai’s tirade began I felt deeply embarrassed. I should have told Jaubai myself. I went inside to check what she was doing. I found her lying on the floor in the hall. She was looking exhausted.

 

When Jaubai saw me, she struggled to get up. ‘I am feeling very breathless. Once I catch my breath I will light the boiler,’ she said. I felt really bad for her.

 

‘Chhey! How can you do any work when you are so tired? I’ll make your bed. Lie down for a bit. Don’t worry, I’ll light the boiler,’ I told her.

 

Our voices carried to the puja room, of course.

‘Who is that talking in the hall? Is it that Annapurna?’ Sasubai asked.

 

Jaubai once again struggled to get up. I signalled to her to keep lying down and said, ‘She is getting breathless. I’ll light the boiler.’

 

‘You mean she is happily sleeping away?’ the puja room thundered. ‘She is the absolute limit! Twelve months and eighteen yug she is ill … not a twig can she move from here to there. Took good care of her husband and now she is bent on torturing me.’

 

Jaubai burst into tears. ‘Yes, I am the pale-footed, ill-fated one. I swallowed my husband and now am sitting here and eating for free.’ She muttered to herself and slapped her face a couple of times.

 

I quickly took her hand in mine. I didn’t know what to do next. A dry sob escaped me. I stroked her back. ‘Let me make some tea for you. You will feel better,’ I said. Had I remained there, I would have started crying too.

 

‘No no, no tea. Why should I feel better? It will be better if I die.’

 

What can one say to that? I took the stove out quietly and lit it.

 

‘Who’s that pottering around? Narayan, is that you? Come into the puja room, will you?’ Sasubai said.

 

Narayan is my middle brother-in-law. He is simple and innocent. You can even call him a simpleton. But Sasubai loves him dearly. She keeps calling him to the puja room and feeding him something or other. As for our lordship, everyone resents him. Why? Because he earns the most money.

 

I hadn’t pumped the Primus stove much because I didn’t want Sasubai to hear it.

 

Just then my junior sister-in-law came in sneakily. She believes she is very beautiful. Loves to dress up, preen around and act busy without doing any work, and act coy. She is jealous of me because everyone says I am good-looking and my lordship has a good salary. She is constantly carrying tales about me.

 

Standing with her hands on her hips, she looked at me and said, in a deliberately loud voice, ‘Oh … Is tea demanded upstairs, now?’

 

‘Who is that making tea?’ the puja room wanted to know.

 

I looked angrily at junior Jaubai.

 

In response she said haughtily, ‘Why are you glaring at me? Tea is made three times a day and when the sugar is finished, Sasubai starts questioning me.’

 

Senior Jaubai whimpered, ‘Really, don’t bother to do anything for me. You will be scolded for nothing. Who cares about wretched me! They’d prefer it if I die.’

 

Sasubai emerged from the puja room and took me to task at once. ‘Susheele,’ she grunted, ‘You are getting more and more impertinent by the day. Who asked you to meddle in things that don’t concern you?’ She continued her rant.

 

But I uttered not a word. I sat there watching the kittens. Senior Jaubai, poor thing, was feeling worse than the dead.

 

The staircase creaked. His lordship was coming down for his bath. A sudden silence enveloped the room.

 

‘No hot water for a bath?’

 

I tried very hard to signal him with my eyes not to create a scene. (Because Sasubai did not approve of women talking to the men in the house.) But saheb was in his own world.  Must be some huge tome he was reading.

 

He stormed out of the bathroom and shouted, ‘What is the meaning of this? No hot water for a bath? What do you women do all day?’

 

I put my finger to my lips, suggesting he keep quiet. Instead he asked, even more loudly, ‘What?’

 

Such are the men! I had to speak in the end. ‘Have a cold water bath today.’

 

‘Why?’ he asked belligerently.

 

Equally angrily I replied, ‘Because I say so.’

 

That silenced his lordship.

 

Junior Jaubai stepped out of the kitchen and butted in. ‘You are actually telling bhauji to have a cold water bath! What if he catches a cold? Is it so hard to get him hot water? Wait, I will heat some for him.’ She flounced past him into the kitchen. My temper rose. This sister-in-law is always so meddlesome. For no reason she hovers around the men, posing on one leg, talking coquettishly to them. And always quietly maligning someone or other. We don’t prance around like this in front of other men, ever…

 

I took the tea water off the stove and said to senior Jaubai, ‘Now you can strain it yourself.’ Quickly I placed a large vessel of water on the stove and began to pump it furiously. As soon as I saw bubbles in the water, I took the vessel to the bathroom and emptied it all into the bucket. A little water splashed on him too.

 

‘Aga aga, what are you doing? Have you gone mad or what?’ he said irritably.

 

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Add as much cold water as you need.’

 

‘Okay, okay I will. But tell me, what  happened this morning? If you didn’t want to heat the water, vahini offered to do it, didn’t she?’

 

‘You don’t want my water? Very well, I’ll throw it away,’ I said sharply.

 

‘Meaning?’

 

‘You won’t understand. These things are not written about in your books.’ I stalked off into the house.

 

Dumb fools these men!

 

Senior Jaubai was sipping her tea slowly in the living room. Her son Krishna appeared from nowhere. ‘What’s this Aai?’ he screeched. ‘You are drinking tea by yourself? And when we ask for it you yell at us. Give me some.’

 

Senior Jaubai said feebly, ‘Arre Krishna, your Kaku made it for me because I wasn’t feeling well. Go, go out and carry on with your studies.’

 

Stamping his feet, Krishna said petulantly, ‘You … you never give us anything. Baba used to make me sit on his lap, give me things to eat, take me for outings, but you only tell me to study. Or make me do your work. Now watch. I’ll go inside and eat a laddu from the dabba.’

 

Again the tears began to flow. The saucer of tea which had reached her mouth went back on the floor. No matter how much I coaxed her, she couldn’t bring herself to finish the tea.

 

Krishna started rummaging around in the kitchen and Sasubai started yelling. Despite her breathlessness, senior Jaubai rushed into the kitchen and with the churning stick, which came to hand, began to beat Krishna mercilessly.

 

I quickly barged in, dragged him away from her and took him outside.

 

Between sobs he muttered, ‘Aai is very bad.’

 

‘No, re baba, we’re the bad ones,’ I said and gave him two pieces of sweet vadis. He smiled through his tears.

 

Seeing his smile, I felt a knot forming in my stomach.

 

I turned away and got back to my work in the kitchen. ‘Aga, has Raghu woken up?’ the puja room enquired.

 

Raghu is our younger brother-in-law. He is like a piece of firewood. Wears thick-framed spectacles, fails exams and then sits around moping, his face longer than ever. How he can sit there, doing absolutely nothing, who knows!

 

Sasubai repeated the question.

 

‘It’s not yet eight,’ I replied. ‘Still time for him to wake up.’

 

‘Aga, his exams are approaching, na? He will wake up early to study. He was saying he had a fever yesterday.’

 

Much fuss is made about Raghu bhauji’s fever every day. There is nothing wrong with him, the doctor said. ‘Time to get him married, now.’ was his advice.

 

But Sasubai says no marriage until his education is completed. She wants him to study a lot, get a good job and earn much more than our lordship. Who knows why people are so resentful of him!

 

‘Enough of fuss,’ I said under my breath.

 

‘What did you say?’ came instantly from the puja room.

 

‘Nothing.’ I went in to wake bhauji. He was lying in bed, talking to himself.

 

I stood in the door and said, ‘Bhauji, Sasubai sent me to wake you up.’

 

Bhauji looked crestfallen. ‘Vahini, please come here and see if I have a fever,’ he pleaded.

 

‘I can’t tell,’ I replied. ‘I’ll send Krishna with a thermometer.’

 

‘But … but…’

 

‘Come down quickly, or else the tea will get cold,’ I said and turned away.

 

‘Then bring the tea upstairs,’ he said.

 

‘I have work to do.’

 

Getting out of bed he asked me, ‘Do I need a shave?’

 

‘I don’t know.’

 

As I headed down the stairs, his lordship asked, ‘Hasn’t that fool woken up yet?’

 

‘He has, just now.’

 

Angrily, his lordship went into bhauji’s room. Swept all the English novels from the table onto the floor. Grabbing a textbook, he thrust it into bhauji’s hands and pushed him into a chair.

 

I got a stitch in my side, laughing. My eyes strayed to the closed door of Mamanji, my father-in-law’s room. And the laughter died.

 

Mamanji is a very stern and wise man. He keeps the door of his room shut and sits inside writing some accounts. But he knows exactly what is going on in the rest of the house. If he takes a dislike to someone, he makes life miserable for that person. He goes out every evening and returns late, chewing paan.

 

I stood there, on the staircase. If his lordship had come out of bhauji’s room, I would have bumped into him.

 

Suddenly the door to Mamanji’s room opened and junior Jaubai emerged with an empty teacup in her hand. She was so startled to see me that the cup fell and broke with a crash.

 

I went down the stairs in silence. For a little while I couldn’t do anything.

 

Junior Jaubai, however, was venting her ire on her husband … ‘Sitting there, doing nothing – why don’t you break this coconut … and put the mats down for everyone to sit on.’ Junior Bhauji happily performed all the household chores.

 

For some reason, I was left feeling guilty.

 

As soon as people sat down for their meal, I picked up the ghee vessel. Sasubai usually serves the ghee and curds. While doing that she slips Raghu bhauji an extra couple of spoons whereas Krishna and his lordship barely get a drop or two. That’s why I decided to serve the ghee that day.

 

I was about to move forward after serving Mamanji one teaspoonful when he said, ‘Why did you stop? I did not say ‘enough.’

 

I served him some more, but an unknown fear gripped me.

 

I saw his lordship looking sharply at me.

 

If this kind of thing was repeated, his lordship would believe I was a wily and quarrelsome back-biter.

 

When lunch was over, I cleared up everything, cleaned the place and went upstairs. But by that time, his lordship had got dressed and left. I was so angry, so angry I tell you …

 

I could hear junior Jaubai’s haranguing her husband in the next room. I listened intently. ‘Take a look at yourself in the mirror – overgrown beard…’

 

‘So what?’ he interjected. ‘No big deal! I have to go. I am getting late…’

 

‘You go out like this … looking scruffy and unkempt and I have to hang my head in shame in front of people.’

 

‘So what do you want me to do? Shave?’

 

‘Oh no! not at all. Why should you do me such a big favour!’

 

‘I just don’t understand what’s in your mind. Shall I go now?’

 

‘Give me ten rupees.’

 

‘Ten rupees? From where? That too at the end of the month!’

 

Sounds of sobbing, placating, loud wailing, cajoling, screaming …

 

Finally bhauji went down the stairs dejected and downcast. Bhauji is a strange man. The more junior Jaubai humiliates him, the more he grovels.

 

I finished washing the dishes and was about to go upstairs when Sasubai’s brother’s daughters came to visit us.

 

The girl with the protruding teeth rushed up to Sasubai and said, ‘Atya, Atya, look what we have brought for you from Kokan … some cashew nuts and some satay.’ So saying she held out four pieces of satay and a handful of cashew nuts.

 

Sasubai was flattered. ‘Very nice, very nice,’ she said. ‘Who thinks of all such things these days!’

 

‘What do you mean, Atya? If we won’t think of you, then who will we think of?’

 

‘Aga, that’s what you think. But here, no one wants me. They have had enough of me.’

 

‘Oh, so the daughters-in-law have reached this stage, have they? Well even if they don’t want you, we do, Atya. Just come away to Kokan with us.’

 

After a while, they began rummaging through the house. Two neat dabbas went, ivory combs from the box, and several other knick-knacks disappeared. Junior Jaubai hastily put all her belongings into a trunk and locked it. I didn’t think of doing that. So I lost two of my sarees. Then, holding one of my jumpers against her, the other one said, ‘Atya, this blouse will fit me perfectly, won’t it?’

 

‘Take it then! She can always get another one. After all something has to be done with that trunkload of clothes.’

 

I was infuriated! He had chosen this fabric especially for me. When they went one step further and the younger one reached for his pen, I snatched it out of her hand. She tried to complain to Sasubai, but her words didn’t reach her aunt. So intimidated were they all by his lordship!

 

I was completely fed up when I had to make sheera and tea for them. The two wretches ate so much not even two morsels were left. Poor, unfortunate Krishna hovered about the kitchen hungrily.

 

Before leaving, once again the two girls searched all the shelves. Even the one where Sasubai kept her money. But I didn’t suspect anything then.

 

It was five o’clock by the time I finally went upstairs.

 

Raghu bhauji had returned from college. ‘Come on vahini, let’s play carrom,’ he said.

 

‘No, I have a headache,’ I told him, went into my room and shut the door. Our lordship had asked me to read a particular book. But the moment I start reading I fall asleep. Just as I was drowsing off, Sasubai started yelling and shrieking. Who knows what had happened.

 

I was just so furious! You might laugh, but when I get really angry, I feel like eating something. I wanted to eat some doodhi halwa. Lots of it.

 

I opened my bag. But there was no change in it. I had no choice but to pick up a five rupee note. Stealthily I went down to tell the maid Janaki to buy me some.

 

I had barely reached the back door when Sasubai appeared from nowhere and asked, ‘Where are you going?’

 

‘Nowhere,’ I replied with a start and the five rupee note fell out of my hand. Sasubai saw it and slapped her forehead.

 

‘This is the limit! The ultimate limit!’

 

Alarmed, I asked, What happened?’

 

‘Shabaas! She asks what happened. You took that five rupee note from my corner shelf, didn’t you?’

 

‘No, I didn’t,’ I replied. ‘This is my money.’

 

‘Sure, sure! It’s her money, it seems. Does anyone steal around to the back door with a five rupee note?’

 

I didn’t know what to say, I was so bewildered. All the family members surrounded me and started saying all sorts of things, throwing allegations and insults at me. Finally, Mamanji summoned me.

 

I burst into tears. No one had accused me of this before. If his lordship believed them …

 

In a calm voice Mamanji said, ‘Soonbai, why did you take those five rupees?’ That tone was even more frightening.

 

Just then his lordship returned from office. Coming into Mamanji’s room, he asked, ‘What’s going on?’

 

Raghu bhauji told him the whole story, suitably spiced.

 

I blurted out, ‘I swear on you, I didn’t steal the money.’

 

He took one look at me, then shouted, ‘What nonsense is this? Why would she steal anything? You think I don’t give her any money, or what?’

 

Everyone shut up after that. Even Mamanji. I made my escape from there.

 

As a result, Sasubai was fretting and fuming. Senior Jaubai’s foolish son Krishna came and stood there. Sasubai grabbed his arm, screaming, ‘It must be you. You must have stolen my money,’ and began to beat him.

 

Piteously he pleaded, ‘Believe me, I did not steal any money. I swear I didn’t do it.’ But who would listen to that poor fatherless creature.

 

That’s when I recalled seeing the two girls looking through the shelf.  I felt like voicing my suspicion and freeing Krishna, but I was afraid. To avoid further involvement, I went upstairs.

 

In the outer room, Senior Jaubai was standing against the wall and listening to Krishna being beaten up. When he screamed, she stuffed her saree into her mouth to stop herself from crying out. Her body was trembling and tears were rolling down her face.

 

Seeing her condition, I got very scared. I felt like putting my arm around her and taking her inside. But I didn’t have the courage to go near her.

 

I thought I would tell his lordship about her plight. When I entered the room I saw him standing in front of the mirror, making funny faces, gesticulating wildly and mouthing some English sentences.

 

I was so amused, I sat on the bed and holding my stomach, started laughing uncontrollably.

 

For a moment he was startled. Then he began shouting at me. But he couldn’t show his anger and I couldn’t stop my giggling. In the end he too started laughing.

 

Senior Jaubai’s story remained untold.

 

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This translation was first published in A Faceless Evening and Other Stories by Gangadhar Gadgil, translated from Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra, Ratna Books, 2017, reproduced with permission. The Marathi original is the title story of a collection Kadu ani Gode, Popular Prakashan, 1998, first published by Abhiruchi Prakashan, Baroda1948.

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Gangadhar Gadgil (1923-2008), writer, economist and teacher, received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1996 for his autobiographical work Eka Mungiche Mahabharata (An Ant’s Mahabharata). He wrote novels, plays, travelogues and a large number of stories. A pioneer who ushered in a new era of the short story in Marathi literature, his extraordinarily empathetic and observant stories deal with day-to-day situations faced by the urban middle-class.

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Keerti Ramachandra is a teacher, editor and translator from Marathi, Kannada and Hindi into English. Her translation of Vishwas Patil’s Marathi novel A Dirge for the Dammed was shortlisted for the Crossword Prize in 2015. She has received the Katha A.K. Ramanujan award for translating from more than two languages, and also the Katha award in 1997.