The Morning Visitor

01 February, 2014

ABOUT THE STORY In Sonal Aggarwal’s story, a sense of the long sweep of history, the play of will and fate in human lives, and the peculiar vulnerability and resilience of women in India are all realised in the encounter one morning in Delhi between two old women who, having known each other since childhood, are able to look both at and through one another. Their talk is of simple, quotidian things, but it is impossible not to hear underneath it the notes of regret, resentment, suspicion, trust, respect and curiosity that suggest that each detail is being sifted through a lifetime’s worth of experience. Aggarwal’s understated, matter-of-fact manner, naturalistic dialogue and refusal to over-explain her characters (third-person narration’s way of showing respect for its subjects) all work to pique our curiosity. What are we going to learn from Yamuna and Pushpa? Perhaps not something—for all that a story is an artifact of language—that can be put in words.

YAMUNA SAT ON THE METAL COT, clipping her nails. Her hair was wet. The sun warmed her scalp. Her grandsons fenced with wooden swords on the grassless lawn. The granddaughter acted as referee, and blew on a whistle now and then. Amma was doing the dishes in the kitchen, which looked on to the veranda. Ram could be heard dusting.

Someone clanked the main gate latch.

Yamuna glanced up as the gate opened and Pushpa walked in, maroon shawl on one shoulder, jute bag on the other. She went back to clipping her nails.

“How are you?” Pushpa asked, settling down on the cot.

“I’m fine.” Her lips twisted as she pared the hard big toe nail.

“Is that yours?” Pushpa pointed to the brand new, pistachio-coloured Fiat in the veranda.

“Why else would it be parked here?” Yamuna nudged her spectacles up the bridge of her nose. “We bought it last week,” she said at last.

“Tch, that’s what I was saying, didn’t see it here before, no.” Pushpa tipped her feet out of the slippers and wiggled her toes.

Ram came out and called to the children, “Come, bhabhi has peeled oranges for you,” then went back in. Behind the cot, a wall-to-wall partition of wood-framed glass doors, curtained with muslin, separated the inner rooms from the veranda.

“Go now,” Yamuna said, seeing the children still playing. “And don’t eat half and waste the rest. Otherwise see, Aunty is here.” She pointed at Pushpa with her chin, while her hands folded the newspaper around the nail parings. “You know about the dark room in her house where she puts naughty children, don’t you?”

“So?” Pushpa narrowed her eyes. “Have you all been having milk? Come here.”

The children froze. They gaped at the old woman. Her face was like a shrivelled apricot. Her eyes were lined with kohl.

“This bag may look small,” she said, clutching it and shaking her head, “but it can easily hold ten little shaitans like you.” With an outstretched finger, she pointed at each of them in turn.

The children ran inside the house.

Pushpa, as though reminded of something, started to look through her bag. “Do you remember Janki?” she asked Yamuna.


“The one who used to live two lanes away. Back in Lahore. Whose family had a dry-fruit shop,” she said, still searching her bag.

“Oh, Janki! Yes, why?”

“I met her at a client’s house last poornmashi. She turned out to be their relative. I didn’t recognise her at first. Then it struck me who she was.” Pushpa looked up. “And I said, ‘Remember me? I’m Pushpa. From Lahore.’ She got up and embraced me with such ardour, Yamuna, I can’t tell you.”

Yes, the initial burst of enthusiasm, Yamuna thought. Isn’t that why I have had you hanging around my neck for fifteen years now? She will realise her mistake too when she finds you knocking at her door every month.

Yamuna and Pushpa, the two friends, had lost touch in the weeks after the partition, when communal violence flared up in Punjab. Like other Hindu and Sikh families, they locked up their ancestral homes and, carrying only cloth bundles of possessions, left for the Indian side. Pushpa, her husband and two-year-old son found themselves in the refugee camp at Kingsway in Delhi, while Yamuna and her in-laws went to Kanpur, only later moving to the capital. More than two decades passed without them seeing or hearing from one another. One morning Yamuna was at her tailor’s, who worked from his house at a rickety sewing machine set in the courtyard. She was discussing with him the neckline for her kameez when she heard a familiar voice call her name.

Yamuna was surprised and happy to see Pushpa, who lived with her family on the first floor. While the tailor watched their beaming faces, his feet working the treadle, his fingers guiding the seams, the two friends talked about the old days. Then with sadness they recounted the story of their journeys from home, in what was now Pakistan. They enquired after each other’s parents and siblings, and exchanged notes on their families. How many sons? How many daughters? Pushpa invited her upstairs.

The room was narrow. Its green walls seemed sweaty. Yamuna sat on the charpoy, while Pushpa filled her a glass of water from a pitcher in the corner. The window showed the cheap yellow facades of the houses across the lane, and clothes spread on lines. Over the cupboard lay a mess of pots and pans, and bundles of clothes that looked like dusty pumpkins. The ropes of the charpoy cut into Yamuna’s hips. She cleared her throat and shifted her weight. She started to tell Pushpa about their other friend, Radha, who was in Delhi too. Then cautiously, like probing a dead animal with a stick, she enquired about Pushpa’s means. Pushpa told her that the family was doing well. She spoke about her own job as if it were a pastime, and Yamuna nodded along. She stayed till after lunch.

A month later Pushpa paid Yamuna a visit, followed by a second visit the next month, and one the month after that, each loosely timed to fall on days when people were likely to give donations to Brahmins. Yamuna too would give her some money.

Over time the visits started to coincide more and more perfectly with such days. Sometimes she brought along Yamuna’s stitched clothes from the tailor.

Yamuna started to avoid her. If she happened to see Pushpa coming through the gate, she would tell the servant to send her away, to tell her that she was not at home. But next month she would find Pushpa clanking the latch again.

Now Pushpa said, “Janki asked about you as well. She took your phone number from me and gave hers for you. Here.” She handed Yamuna the chit that she had finally dug out of her bag.

Yamuna looked at the number. “Where in Delhi?”

“Kamla Nagar. What a house she has, Yamuna! Complete with a white marble temple. So many servants and maids. She has a bell by her bedside, she rings it and the maid comes in to take orders. Big industrialists her sons have become. Two flour mills, one in Okhla, another one in Haryana. And do you know …”

Twirling her long gold chain, Yamuna listened with interest. These titbits about common acquaintances, and sometimes even about strangers, were the only things that she liked about Pushpa’s visits. Whose son or daughter was getting married, who got a car as dowry, and who a washing machine, births and deaths, family disputes: Pushpa had all the details.

“I’m going to her house again next month. Why don’t I come here and we go together. In your new motorcar, hmm?”

“We’ll see,” Yamuna said.

“I’ll call you before I come next time.” Pushpa made another try.

Yamuna did not reply.

The two sat in silence, one filing the uneven edge of a nail, the other picking lint off her fleecy maroon shawl.

“I went to Radha’s a few days ago,” Pushpa began.

“How’s she?” Yamuna put aside the nail clipper.

“She’s fine, doing well. Somehow we got reminiscing about old times. Do you remember, Yamuna, how we would sneak into Radha’s aunt’s room whenever she was out. How we would go through her trunk? And one day she came back earlier than we had expected! You were prancing around the room in her sequin sari. Purple, wasn’t it? I had her salwar-kameez on. And Radha was doing a song and dance twirling the aunt’s dupatta. What a sound thrashing she gave us!” Pushpa stretched the sentence, relishing it and smiling. Around her eyes the crow’s feet crinkled deep, like hand fans.

Yamuna watched her quietly.

“But you know,” Pushpa said, “whenever I see Radha, I wonder at how she has changed. She was never interested in dressing up or doing her hair. She didn’t know a thing about it. And now, always gracefully dressed. Remember, you and I would be putting laces to our saris and dupattas, and she, her hair in dreadlocks, her sari a mess, would be skipping the rope in the sun. And this was when we were quite grownup, no longer little girls.” Yamuna and Pushpa with their fair skins had never considered the darker Radha as pretty as themselves. They treated her offhandedly, and sometimes kept her out of their games and secrets.

“Don’t talk rubbish,” Yamuna said. After Radha’s marriage into a rich, sophisticated family, she had warmed to her.

“Tch, she herself says that it was her husband and sisters-in-law who groomed her,” Pushpa returned. “Anyway, when I got up to leave, she gave me fifty rupees for ekadashi and a brand new shawl.”

Yamuna knew this to be a lie. At the most she would have received a worn shawl along with the usual fifteen or twenty rupees.

“And how many times I’ve asked you for a sari, and not even a new one at that. Can’t you give your friend one sari?” Pushpa said.

Yamuna shrugged her plump shoulders. “I didn’t get the time to look through my cupboard. Next time.”

“‘Next time, next time’, same answer you give me always. Then—”

Their conversation was interrupted as Meera, Yamuna’s elder daughter-in-law, came out of the house. “Namaste, Aunty,” she greeted Pushpa.

“Namaste, my daughter. How are you?” Pushpa dipped into her bag, took out a pair of hand-knitted black bootees and handed them to her. “See, is this what you wanted?”

Meera stretched one over her palm to see the design. “Yes, very nice. Aunty, make one more pair, brown this time, for my mother. Her eyes have become very weak, she can’t knit anymore.”

Pushpa nodded.

“And how much for these?” Meera brushed her fingers over the bootees.


“I’ll just get it. Will you have tea?”

“Not at this hour.” Pushpa raised her eyes to the jewel-blue sky. “Something else perhaps.”

“I’ll send some kanji.”

After Meera went to the kitchen, Pushpa said to Yamuna, “I’ve to go get my husband’s medicine tomorrow. I’ll also get a tin-box of this kohl I wear. For Meera’s mother. It improves the eyesight.”

“Whose medicine? Your husband’s?” Last Yamuna had heard, Pushpa and her husband had not been speaking. “Are you two back on talking terms then?”

Pushpa shook her head. “That’s not going to happen, not at least in this lifetime. And I hope I don’t get saddled with him in the next one,” she added quickly. “My dharma is to take care of him if he’s not well and needs me, and that I do. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“Oh.” Yamuna gathered her hair and did it up in a knot. “It must be strange to live in the same house and not talk to each other?”

“It’s gone on for so long, Yamuna. Now it doesn’t even occur to me as strange. He was the one who built this wall of silence. But now I say, good, very good, that he did. Twenty years of blissful peace it has been.”

“He must say the same thing: twenty years of blissful peace, spared of your nonstop chatter.” Yamuna laughed.

“Chatter?” Pushpa looked at her friend. “I was hardly myself around him. And he on his part preferred to talk with his hands and feet. In the evening the clock would strike six and my heart would go cold. So much beating, so much fault-finding. Educated, manager in a big dry-cleaning company—is that how they behave?”

Yamuna remained quiet. She had heard this many times.

“But the day I returned his one slap with two tight ones—a year’s resolve had gone into those slaps, Yamuna—he understood to not lay a finger on me anymore.” Pushpa’s face turned red. Sometimes, however, she liked to talk about the years when she used to send her petticoats, even blouses, to the factory for cleaning.

Ram came out with two glasses of kanji. He placed the tray between Yamuna and Pushpa. Mustard seeds swam in the purple drink, carrot wedges sat at the bottom.

“That was when your husband cut himself off from you?” Yamuna said, taking a sip.

“Yes, but not immediately. For a month or so we remained on talking terms.” Pushpa paused. “Then slowly he stopped speaking with me. I tried to talk, but he would not reply. Then one evening he came back home with a new stove. Took half the utensils and made his separate kitchen in the corner. Next month he didn’t give me allowance for my ration, and I didn’t go begging him for any either. ‘Why should I?’ I thought to myself. ‘Hasn’t God given me two hands and legs too? I’ll put them to use.’ Sure there are hard days even now, Yamuna. But I’ll survive. Somehow.” Pushpa smiled.

Yamuna looked at her. How does she not crumble? she wondered.

It had been a harsh life. Uneducated, untrained, unprepared to earn a living, Pushpa had found herself thrust out into the world. She started sewing and knitting for the neighbours. It brought in some money, which would have sufficed had her son been earning something too, but he was already on the road to becoming an alcoholic.

Back in Lahore, one of Pushpa’s aunts, a poor Brahmin widow, had lived on the meals provided by two households in the neighbourhood. She would go round to the houses in the afternoons and again in the evenings to collect her meals. On solar and lunar eclipses she even received clothes. Most households followed this contractual tradition. One day Pushpa met an acquaintance who complained of the near absence of this custom in Delhi. She asked Pushpa hesitatingly, for she knew Pushpa’s husband was reasonably well off, if she would accept a token donation from her household once in a while. Gradually, one contact led to another, and Pushpa garnered a clientele. She went from house to house now, on foot, by bus. She took whatever the clients gave—little, much, food, money. In return, the clients earned good karma.

Yamuna put her glass back in the tray. Pushpa sat crunching a carrot wedge, eyes closed, and the sun knocking at the lids.

Yamuna looked over the side of the cot. “Amma, where did Ram keep the methi bunch? I told him to leave it here,” she called.

Amma was on the lawn putting washed clothes on the line. “One minute.” Averting her face, she shook water out of a checked shirt and hung it.

“Knees have started hurting too much. Can’t walk,” Yamuna said to Pushpa, as their fingers plucked the methi leaves. They dropped the leaves on a newspaper between them and the stalks on a plate.

“Hmm, knee-aches tend to get worse in winters. And then the age factor does its bit too.” Pushpa lifted her eyes to look at Yamuna.

“What age factor?” Yamuna asked, without a twitch of expression. She knew well where the conversation was headed. “Why? You’re still okay.”

“Well, I still have some catching up to do there,” Pushpa replied.

“What catching up? We are the same age.”

“You should ask your sister Kanta. She’ll tell you. She and I are the same age.”

“How’s that possible?” Yamuna looked over her glasses. “Weren’t we in the same class at school?”

“That’s because you all started school late.”

“Nonsense,” Yamuna declared, throwing a handful of the separated leaves on the newspaper.

Pushpa lapsed into silence.

Meera returned with a fifty-rupee note. “Aunty, thirty-five for the socks, and the rest you keep as well.”

Pushpa clutched the fifty. “I’ll make your socks soon.”

“Brown colour,” Meera reminded her before turning to go back in.

The children stood knotted in the doorway. “What are you all standing here for?” Meera asked as she picked her way through.

“Is she going?” they whispered.

“Who? Aunty? I don’t know,” she replied and went in.

“I’ve been putting off buying garam masala. I’ll buy some on my way back today.” Pushpa put the note in her pouch and tucked it back into her blouse. “I miss it in my gobi-aloo. They just don’t taste good without it. Old habits, I guess.” She sighed.

Yamuna nodded. “It’s been so many years, but I’m yet to see a better stocked kitchen than your mother’s.”

Pushpa smiled.

“From sweetmeats to sherbets to ten types of pickles. And she loved to feed people.” Yamuna said.

“She was very fond of you. She would say, ‘I love to see Yamuna eat. How she savours every bite.’”

“There were times, Pushpa, when the only reason I could get through the meals at my house was that I knew I would soon be eating something good at yours.”

The children rushed past the cot to the far end of the veranda. They unfurled a skipping rope.

“But all that went away with my father,” Pushpa said. “He was a good man.”

“You know, even as a child what really struck me about him was that he didn’t mind having so many daughters. You were seven sisters after all. But I never heard him complain.”

“Never,” Pushpa echoed. “Instead, he used to say, ‘Seven daughters, so what? What trouble do they cause me? As to finding them good husbands and households, they’ve each come with a prewritten kismat. It’ll provide accordingly.’”

“Hmm, he used to say that, didn’t he? I remember now.” Yamuna’s eyes drifted away from her friend’s face to where the grandchildren were skipping the rope. The two boys swung the rope round and round like a large crank. The girl stood in the middle, skipping and counting loudly.

“Your mother-in-law’s death anniversary must be round the corner,” Pushpa said.

Yamuna turned to look at her. “Yes. Next Friday. Be here at nine, sharp.” Yamuna would wake up early that day to prepare the breakfast of poori, bhaji, raita and kheer that would be served to Pushpa, so that the mother-in-law would gain merit in the afterlife. After the meal Pushpa would be given twenty rupees and a new shawl.

“I’ll be on time,” Pushpa said.

Through with the methi, Yamuna wrapped the newspaper around the leaves.

“Is it lunch time already?” Pushpa said, as Ram passed by carrying a stack of plates and bowls.

Yamuna turned to see. “Hmm, must be two o’clock.”

Pushpa waited for a minute, then said, “I think I’ll go.” She gathered her bag, slipped into her slippers, and got up. “My poornmashi dakshina?” she asked, wrapping the maroon shawl around her.

“Yes.” Yamuna patted the front of her blouse. Locating a tenner and two fivers folded in it, she took them out. Since Meera had already given her fifteen rupees, she had made up her mind to give only another fifteen to Pushpa instead of the usual twenty. But at the last minute she didn’t feel like holding back the fiver. “Here.” She handed her all three notes.

Pushpa put her palms together. “Namaste.”

Yamuna watched Pushpa’s shawled back, with a lizard of a plait hanging over it, recede. Pushpa had simply accepted her lot. It was in her kismat that she be poor, have the husband that she had, that her friends become her patrons, rich women with cars and bungalows who held her in disdain. Next life, she hoped, she would start a new account. Yamuna realised this for the first time. The latch clicked into place. Pushpa’s shrivelled face appeared above it. Then she turned and left.

Yamuna sat there on the cot a while longer.

Sonal Aggarwal recently completed a master’s in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, UK. Her work is forthcoming on