She went to the Kapoors again, the ones from F-53. They were a decent couple, always ready with a smile, a helping hand, and a willing ear for anybody in need of free advice or a shoulder to lean on. Mr. Kapoor was a much-respected man since he was manager of the tiny, local SBI branch, while Mrs. Kapoor worked as the accountant under him. It was probably the only bank around, for there was no one in the neighborhood, from a housewife who saved milk money to the biggest businessman, who didn’t have an account with the Kapoors.
Mrs. Kapoor welcomed her with open arms. Over tea and wheat rusks after asking after each other mummy came to the point. ‘Any news about the pension?’ Being a nationalized bank, all of daddy’s deceased claims were to come to the SBI branch.
‘Yes, good news dear, the pension, gratuity, insurance, PPF; everything has come! I was going to inform you in the morning on my way to the office. So good that you could come now.’
Mummy clasped her hands in panic, her heart had started hammering away, and she was afraid it would show through all the thick layers of winter clothes, and the pashmina shawl that she wore on top of all that. ‘How much would you say it would be?’
‘I haven’t summed up all the figures, but I would say nothing less than a couple of lacs!’
‘Whew!’ Mummy, who wasn’t expecting more than a thousand couple, became breathless. ‘How come?’ She asked, fanning herself with a magazine she picked up from the side table.
‘Your father in law had started some businesses- some transportation and grocery stuff- which apparently failed due under the Force Majeure clause- never mind, don’t try to pronounce it. All it means is; circumstances beyond one’s control. The insurance beneficiary was your husband, and after him, you were the nominee. So that money also has come into your account. Come by to the bank when you’re free and we’ll officially hand over the funds to you and start your individual account with the branch. You will have to grow a bit smart…learn to handle your money now I mean’.
‘Really, all that money belongs to me? I can’t have it all by myself! It must be shared with Biji and others’.
‘It’s yours!’ Mrs. Kapoor jabbed an indignant finger at her. ‘And don’t you go around sharing it with anyone. It belongs to your husband, and after him his family, his family meaning you and the kids and no one else! Come to think of it, I’ll be doing you a favor by not handing over the money to you! What say, I put it away in a fixed deposit for you and the kids till you or they come to their senses, eh?’
‘No no, Mrs. Kapoor, I’ll not share it if you insist’.
‘Absolutely! And you will not even go about talking it to anybody, understand?’
‘Yes Mrs. Kapoor’, mummy whispered, a little taken aback with the anger in a lady who was usually so gentle.
Mrs. Kapoor sensed the anxiety in the other and realized she’d been too harsh with a lady whose only problem was her simplicity. She reached over and patted mummy’s hand to put her at ease again. Then smilingly, she asked, ‘tell me how are you going to spend the money?’
Mummy pondered a while, struggling with a question that had been troubling her ever since her visit to her brother’s. ‘What would be the going rate of a house this size’, she asked tentatively.
‘You mean a house of your size’, Mrs. Kapoor helpfully suggested, ‘and make. Because if I’m not mistaken, no alteration has ever been done in your house, it’s exactly the way it was originally offered. Pardon me- I say this because one would have noticed if any building materials had been piled up outside the house’.
‘You are absolutely right’, mummy nodded vigorously, taking in the beautiful woodwork, the marble flooring and the modifications done to the original matchbox structure, so that the rooms graciously led from a spacious living room to the private interiors. All houses in the block were originally constructed alike, the rich had altered their homes to modern specifications, while humble folks had never even changed the paint, or moved a brick.
‘While the rates of property in this colony depend on a lot many things, if someone were to come for a loan for your house, our assessors would roughly put the value around 80,000 Rupees, provided all documents were in order.
Mummy fell silent, calculating what half a house would cost. ‘So if one were to buy half the portion, it would cost 40,000?’
’20,000 only’, Mrs. Kapoor smilingly replied.
‘How come?’ Mummy thought she was testing her math.
‘Coz your husband already has a quarter share in the property, since they are four brothers. In the Hindu system of accession, once the daughter is married off, she gets nothing. I’m sure you know it well. I know you come from a wealthy background, but I will take it that you may not have got anything!’
Mummy nodded, trying not to show her disappointment. Mrs. Kapoor placed a kindly hand on hers. ‘Tell me, what’s on you mind dear?’
‘I…I want to buy half the house, so that I can build it up nicely, something like this, only smaller. And maybe not so lavishly! Certainly not, definitely’.
‘That’s a wonderful idea. You can give your children the privacy and independence they deserve. They would need it for their higher studies’.
‘Yes, Mrs. Kapoor, that’s what I had in mind too. Do you think it will work out?’
‘Yes, I’m sure it will dear- many women with the nerve are spreading out on their own and happier for it too. And if you can put in something of your own, do come by to the bank and we’ll see how we can help you with a small loan to build up the half portion nicely- something that you’ll be able to manage easily. And when Vasu or Paro go to college, we’ll see if there is a education loan we can work out… but that’s for later.’
‘I have no one else to guide me on the paperwork…’
‘I understand. Just don’t sign on anything till you’ve shown it to me, if you trust me, that is. In fact your mother in law should give away the house for free, after giving your husband’s job to her son and not to Paro!’
‘Oh, you know about that!’
‘Everybody knows about it!’ Mrs. Kapoor said, clearly outraged. ‘How could you let her!’
‘That’s all right Mrs. Kapoor; it’s god’s will. At least the job remains within the family. Perhaps Inderpal will be able to find a bride now’.
‘What about Paro? Doesn’t she need a groom? You are too simple, too nice; I’m afraid, for these rotten times. I feel dreadful knowing what has happened with you, and you take it so well, so cheerfully! I wonder whence forth you draw your strength, your peace? Is it religion- it must be! Poor you!’ she reached across and hugged mummy, her eyes moistening over. ‘I will help you all I can. The whole neighborhood is with you on this’, she said, settling back and dabbing at her eyes with the edge of her shawl.
‘Thank you, Mrs. Kapoor, I’ll leave now- I can hear Vasu outside - he must have got back from cricket’. Mummy rose and after briefly enfolding Mrs. Kapoor rushed home to her children who she was sure would be hungry.
‘Drive a hard bargain with that *$@!’ Mrs. Kapoor shouted down the lane after her.
Grandma still had fine teeth, all of them, not one had been lost in sixty winters to a daily scrub with the chewed twig of the Neem tree or the Miswak. The wood brush sent vibrations through all the 84 meridians in the mouth and gave her white teeth and a sweet breath. She looked up from the sugarcane stalk whose outer woody sheath she was shearing off with her sharp teeth, and nodded at mummy to sit by her. Once the outer layer was removed she chewed like gum the fibrous veins inside and sucked with pleasure their sugary sap. Mummy picked up a juicy golden stalk herself and for a long while the women sat silently, enjoying the sharp winter sun and the sweet fibrous sugarcane juice, mindless of all time or care. The mere sight of these women biting into wood would have given a modern dentist a worrying toothache. When the ladies were done with the sugarcanes they began on the heated peanuts, crushing the wrinkled shells and popping in the seeds, taking breathers with bites of dry-fruit-stuffed yellow gold jaggery. When the shells had gathered in tidy heaps in their laps, mummy got up to gather the remains of the snack and dispose them off outside the house.
‘I want to buy half the house’, she said, without further formality, sitting down in a huff opposite her on the jute charpoy.
Grandma, who was washing her hands in a small copper tumbler, stopped. She shook off the excess water and wiped her hands on the hem of her shawl. She liked the idea that something was hers to sell. It’d been so long that she’d possessed anything of value; everything had slipped through her fingers in the long struggle to stand her brood on its wobbly feet. She was weary now. She’d long forgotten the days when Sardarji would bring home sacksful of money that she would sit on the wide teak bed with ornate carved rails, posts and headboard, underneath a draped canopy with a silk fringe, ribbons, and tussles. Now all she counted were the bills that she couldn’t pay and the debts that kept mounting, to keep this large establishment running in this massive house. Yes, she welcomed the idea, but she was careful: ‘and who’s going to pay- your dead parents?’
Mummy struggled with her conscience. It was her duty to tell Biji that she’d come into some money, her husband’s and Biji’s son’s money, and rightfully everyone should share it. But Mrs. Kapoor had been very emphatic when she’d defined her strange concept of family; it was just she and Paro and Vasu. And she’d said that the job, which Biji gave to Inderpal, more than made up for the trade. With effort she controlled her urge to tell the truth. ‘Yes, my parents, dead parents’, she answered.
‘So you didn’t go to Bahadurgarh just for a holiday, did you, you scheming wench! You went to ask them for your share in your father’s property, didn’t you, now?’
‘Yes I did’.
‘How much are they giving you’, grandma leaned in keenly, turning her good ear in mummy’s direction.
‘The price of the house…the going market rate’.
‘How would you know anything about the real estate markets?’
‘One hears…ladies talk about houses that go off in sales’.
‘Don’t trust that bunkum! What do ladies know about men’s things!’
‘Fine. So you tell me what you want for half the house?’
‘Your part?’ mummy’s part had no construction other than two rooms, one occupied by her, the other by the tenant. That was the part mummy wanted, so that there would be minimum effort required in tearing down the old structure, and rebuilding from scratch. She wanted to erase all memories of the painful, cramped existence they’d had so far.
‘I would put the price of the whole house at about 2 lac rupees…’
Mummy began to laugh.
‘What happened?’ grandma said with annoyance.
Mummy waved her arms, taking in the austere, brick and barely mortar crumbling lodgings around her. ‘This dump! It won’t sell for more than 160,000!’
Grandma was speechless first, and then vociferous. ‘Your brain has gone to graze in the fields. Who puts these ridiculous ideas in your ignorant little head?’
‘I do go out all the time Biji, running errands for everyone. If you are willing to sell, let us go to a couple of brokers and check for ourselves’.
Grandma was very clear about the going rates. Had mummy not come ahead with the proposal, she would have sold it in the open market, driving poor mummy out of even the only cramped room that she called her own on this vast planet. She was afraid the house wouldn’t fetch even this much, and what with the nuisance of mutation, registry and vendor fees, she would be left with a lot less. Here, she could simply pocket the full money and leave mummy to deal with the tedium of paperwork. ‘Why would I go to a stranger? Family matters must remain inside the four corners of the home. So what if my own daughter in law will rob an old widow of her old age comfort. At least the money remains within the family. All right if you absolutely must be so forceful, I shall concede. Give me the 80,000 and I will sign the papers’.
‘Not 80,000 Biji, 40,000!’
Biji had lost count of the surprises her unlettered (she wasn’t unlettered, but grandma preferred to relate to her that way), humble, and demure daughter in law, who she took so lightly, was skidding off her in that glowy afternoon. ‘Why 40,000? Did my ancestors owe you something in the past life?’
‘How can you not remember, dear Biji! The house has four shares for four brothers, and one of them belongs to Vasu’s father, and after him, to Vasu. So we pay for only one share of 160,000, which comes to 40,000. One quarter of the house already belongs to us, and we pay for the second quarter!’
Grandma knew mummy was right. ‘So you plan to leave nothing for this old wretched widow?’
‘I gave up Paro’s father’s job at your behest Biji. I think you should give me the house for free!’
‘ O Waheguru, lift me from this sorrowful earth, deliver me from this lifecycle, relieve me of this aching. What would my dear son say to hear this women rob me thus,’ grandma wailed, rocking to and fro and beating her chest absently.
‘All right, all right, I will give you 40,000, Biji, which is only fair. I need some money for building the remaining parts’.
‘When?’ grandma stopped rocking, and replacing her glasses, peered closely at her, cocking her good ear once again in the direction whence the good news was supposed to travel.
‘As soon as I draw up the paperwork and apply for a wee loan. Should be before Lohri’.
‘Hurry it up before I change my mind’, grandma urged, ‘or before some other claimant lands up for this house’.
‘There is no one else Biji; they’re all dead in Pakistan. And one other thing, I want all the other siblings to sign as witnesses’.
‘Hai’, grandma cried. ‘Do you trust no one? Is this money going to make us strangers?’
‘No Biji, bank requirements.’
‘You’ve been speaking to those Multanis again?’
‘No Biji, milkmaid bulletins!’ mummy laughed and rose from the charpoy and left to announce the happy development to her kids.
Mrs. Kapoor ensured mummy had the paperwork and mutation all in perfect order, and that mummy paid the full sum, that too through a bank draft, only after all the formalities of a peaceful transfer of titles had taken place in her favor. She transferred all the deceased’s accruals, which were substantial into a bank account in mummy’s name, and kept advising her for the rest of days on sound investments opportunities that kept presenting themselves from time to time. For the time being, it seemed mummy and her children would comfortably sail through the choppy waters of life. Things were cheap, money was rare, and the people tightfisted. They would last out yet, mummy thought with growing satisfaction as after nearly a year of taking over the half house, she watched the last worker add before leaving the finishing touches to their brand new house; small but private and cozy and respectable, not luxurious, or modern, but fairly contemporary and comfortable with all conveniences and then some more. One fine autumn Sunday afternoon after an Ardaas and a Havan, at the auspicious hour mummy and her children moved into their new house.