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Amma

Vipra Gupta

Amma sat as usual on the doorstep of her house, smiling her toothless smile, She
occasionally rubbed tobacco on her gnarled, wrinkled hands, all the while watching
the world passing by with sharp eyes. But her manner was gentle. Nonjudgemental.
I had recently moved into the adjacent house as a tenant. Being a writer, I was
fascinated with the way Amma spent all day sitting on the threshold of her single
storey house. Clad in a printed salwar kameez and rubber chappals that had seen
better days, she waved a greeting to people who passed by.
Some waved back. Some didn’t.
But that didn’t deter her. Gold balis hanging by a slim stitch of skin from her ears,
her hair was always neatly combed back into a sparse ponytail. Her scalp was
visible from underneath the scarce amount of hair she had.
She had waved at me when I 􀉤rst passed her by. I instinctively smiled and waved
back. It became a ritual since then.
Her open and warm smile reminded me of a grandmother I barely remembered. It
felt like home.
One day, as I walked towards my house, Amma called out to me.
Startled, I stopped and came near her. I bent towards her.
She slapped my shoulder playfully and said, “Stand straight! I am not deaf!”
The simple presumption made me smile and then laugh. She joined in.
I sat beside her and we started talking.
She asked about my family and told me about her son.
I had seen the middle-aged man many times. Dark skinned, balding head and a
ready smile, he was a spitting image of Amma, though not in face, but in nature and
temperament.
A daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, both girls, made up the family.
One day, I asked her how long she had been watching the street in front of her
house.
She rested her hands on her knees and replied, gesturing the number with her
􀉤ngers for emphasis, "40 years."
I asked whether she had any interesting things to tell about the people living around
her. Surely, she had silently been privy to a lot of human drama unfolding right in
front of her eyes. I had been struggling for fodder for my next book. Maybe, Amma
would be the key.
For a moment her eyes took on a distant look, remembering, no doubt the myriad
stories she could tell me.
"Amma, please tell me one," I urged.
For a long moment she remained silent. She looked about as she always did,
seeming to struggle with indecision.
The, she settled herself more comfortably, resting her back against the door frame
and told me the following story.
“It was some 10 years ago, that a young boy moved into one of the houses on the
street. Jatin. Handsome. His black hair was thick and wavy and fell on his forehead
in a careless manner, making him look charming. His father worked for the
government.
"He would touch my feet as he passed by on his way to college every day. Just a
few doors down, lived Fatima.”
Amma pointed to a green two-storeyed house further down the street, next to an
internet café.
“Beautiful, lively. She had thick hair down to her waist. Boys would line up along the
street when she came every Sunday on the terrace to dry her freshly washed hair.
Boys would bet how her hair must smell.”
Amma chuckled. “Some said it must smell like jasmine. Some said sandalwood. She
was the crush of every boy in the neighbourhood.”
“So, did someone win the bet?” I asked leaning closer with a mischievous smile.
Amma laughed.
“I don’t know. But I am pretty sure her hair smelled like jasmine.”
“One day,” Amma continued, “while getting down from the rickshaw, her dupatta
got stuck on a nail. Just as she bent to untangle it, her hand brushed against
another.
Enters our hero. Jatin. He unwound her dupatta from around the nail and with a
smile, handed it back to her. The tangle of the dupatta led to a tangle of gazes.
Thus, began a secret love a􀉡air.”
"In those times, a boy and girl could not meet openly. And a Muslim girl and a Hindu
boy..." Amma shook her head, causing her golden baalis to shake as well.
"So, they met under many pretenses. If she went out to buy milk, he went to buy
bread from the same shop. If she bought peanuts from Rama," she pointed to the
dark, pot-bellied man standing at the corner, making cones of newspaper for selling
peanuts to his customers, "he also went to Bhola to buy chana."
Bhola stood on the opposite end and 􀉤lled similar newspaper cones with chana,
sprinkling it with salt and masala.
"Both even gazed at each other across their rooftops. Every Sunday, Jatin stood on
his terrace and watched as Fatima dried her thick dark locks.”
"This went on for a long time. I think they had started meeting somewhere also.
Because, as time passed, their gazes met held a longing and desperation to be
together while passing through the street. Being stealthy was no longer acceptable,
it seems. No longer enough. The bond between them was becoming stronger by the
day and it was becoming di􀉢cult for both of them to hide their feelings from the
world. The world does not have a heart. It only has rules. Meant to be followed.
With or without reason. It doesn’t change. Maybe, never will.”
Amma paused here, a shadow of sadness passing over it. She sobered, the distant
look in her eyes back.
"Fatima's parents 􀉤xed her nikaah. The two lovers’ despairing glances spoke
volumes. The world around them was oblivious to what was happening right in its
midst. The street bustled as usual. One day, Fatima's dupatta got stuck in the
rickshaw. Again. Jatin hastened forward and untangled it. That's when something
white passed from one hand to the other. A note. No doubt, they were planning to
run away."
Amma kept quiet for a long while after this. I wondered if she was tired and wanted
to lie down.
I kept sitting quietly with her. Looking about at the hawkers shouting their wares;
vegetable vendors chasing away stray dogs and the occasional cow trying to get at
the spinach.
"They killed them."
My head snapped back.
"They were running away. Someone from their families must have guessed. Right in
front of that shop where they met stealthily," she pointed to a grocery store named
Krishna Stores with sacks of grains and rice lined up in front and a steel shelf
stacked with packets of chips, "they were lying there..."
"Stabbed..." She continued, making a stabbing motion towards her stomach with
her hand as her tongue failed to voice the thought.
"The parents took away the bodies. Nobody said anything. The day began its usual
business. People hurried here and there. It was like, nothing had happened. Or
maybe, they didn't want to acknowledge the horror. It was none of their business,
after all. But to think the parents themselves..."
Amma’s voice choked. She got up and went inside, closing the door after her


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