The Pressure Cooker
The Sens and the Chatterjees had known each other for the past 10 years. They were among the most illustrious and wealthy Bengali families in Hyderabad. The marriage had been the talk of the first circles of Hyderabad for months. It was being seen as the beginning of an alliance between two big business houses of the state.
Amidst the excitement and noise, in their second floor bedroom, Mrs. Sen and Malati were discussing her makeup and her wedding costume. Mr. Sen was going around supervising the packing of the cartons that contained things that Malati was taking with her for her new house. Every now and then he would stand at the door of the bedroom and take a long look at his daughter with a fond loving eye. As he listened to the mother and daughter discuss, he sighed. Tomorrow she would not be here and he would miss her so much.
"Accha Mala, edikey shon ekbaar," (Mala, just come here for a moment), he finally said, interrupting the women’s conversation.
"I am having all the cartons marked so there would be no confusion. And all the electronic goods will be delivered directly to your home, once you return from Singapore. The rest of this will go with you tomorrow. The clothes, the utensils, the furniture..." then seeing the exasperated look on the faces of the mother and the daughter he said, "Arey I know, you are too preoccupied about other things, but Mala dear, you are about to start a new house. There will be no Baba and Ma to take care and you will have to manage a hundred things at one time." He wiped a small tear that appeared at the corner of his eyes.
"Baba..." Mala gave a cry and jumped into her father's arms. Father and daughter held each other for a long time. Then suddenly Mr. Sen said, "Ahh, tor jonno ekta jinish kineychi (Ahh, I have bought something for you)".
And he went into the next room. Mala's eyes followed him expectantly, with the same expression that they had when she was a five year old and her dad used to promise her a "jinish" (a gift) and pulled out a cadbury chocolate or a toy from his pockets.
Mr. Sen came out with a medium size Hawkins pressure cooker and handed it to Mala. Mala could not hide her disappointment. "Eta ki baba? (What is this father?)."
Mr. Sen had known that she wouldn’t understand. He had not expected her to understand. He knew that his darling daughter had expected a diamond set or a gold watch or something equally exquisite from her father as a wedding gift. He looked at his wife. She smiled and nodded her head, asking him to go ahead and explain.
"tor ei biyer torjorey, Amaye duto minute ditey parbi Maa?(can you spare two minutes for me from your marriage preparations?). Let’s go and sit in our favorite little spot on the verandah, where I used to narrate stories to you as a child. I have one last story to tell. "
Mala was touched by the look in her father's eyes and the tone of his voice. She felt bit ashamed at having questioned her father’s gift, sure now that it had a deeper meaning. Quietly she followed him to the verandah on the third floor, at the back of the house. As a child this used to be her favorite spot. It commanded a view of the entire city, from Punjagutta to the distant Secunderabad hills, with the HussainSagar lake occupying a prominent central position on the field of vision.
In this remote corner of the house, the sounds from the marriage preparation had dimmed to a distant humdrum. The afternoon sun had gone over the house and was now behind them. It threw light on the entire city and made the waters of the Hussain Sagar sparkle like pearls. Numerous memories from her childhood years flooded her.
Father and daughter sat down. He held her hand in his. Mala held on to the pressure cooker with one hand and looked at her father. She saw a faraway look in his eyes. He was no longer with her. He was following a certain train of memories which had carried him to a faraway land and amongst faces, long since gone. He spoke involuntarily, and for a second Mala was startled by the distant tone in her father's voice,
“You know that I was born in Jaipur and that I spent all my childhood and my teenage there. We were a big family, my father and mother and my three sisters - your aunts and me. My father was an electrician in the railways and it was a really difficult time for all of us as children. My mother was always sick and in spite of her ill health she worked hard to give us a good childhood. We pulled along, but barely so. Even the smallest necessities were luxuries for us. It was a tough life, full of sacrifices for all of us, but I think my mother sacrificed the most.
I still remember the first time she saw a pressure cooker. It was at a neighbor’s place. She came home and told me about it. She never talked to my father. In those days, women weren’t supposed to talk much to their husbands. I being the eldest son was close to her. So she came and told me all abut it. It had caught her fancy, that little whistling machine which could cook the food of 5 people in 15 minutes. It took her an hour to make dal and rice for us on the stove.
"Bapai", she told me, " tor jokhon onek taaka hobey, oi citi bajano rannar jinish ta amaye kiney dibi? (When you have enough money, will you buy me that whistling thing that cooks?)" She would ask me this and look at me with pleading, expectant eyes, as if I was her only hope for future joys.
I was then a diploma student at the engineering college, studying on government grant and barely managing the cost of my books and tuition fees. I had no idea how much a pressure cooker cost. The next day, I went to the market and entered a utensils shop. The shopkeeper could see I didn’t have enough money for the evening meal, still he answered my question " the small one is Rs 200, the Medium one is Rs 350" I thanked him and walked out of the shop. I had 3 Rs in my pocket and that was my weeks fare for the college.
"Don’t worry Ma, I will buy it to you in some days. You know the scholarship exam that is coming up. I will win it and buy you the cooker with that money." I promised her. She kissed me on the forehead. From that day, I studied harder than ever. Whenever I found some time, I would walk down to the utensil shop at the market and look at the pressure cooker on the display window. The shopkeeper eyed me distrustfully, but I did not mind. I dreamt of a day when I would walk in with 350 Rs, put it on his desk and walk away with the shiny new cooker for Ma. How happy she would be that day.
The scholarship exam came and went. I could not pass it. I was heartbroken. I could not explain it. I had studied so hard. I could not face my mother. But she said it was alright and that there would always be the next exam. She would wait. But I could see the glint of disappointment in her eyes, every time the sound of whistle came from the neighbor’s house.
After some months we stopped discussing the cooker. My mother resigned her hopes. Such a simple thing as a pressure cooker seemed to her as impossible as the holy grail. But I secretly kept planning, preparing and dreaming for the next exam. I did win the scholarship, the next year. That was my final year in Diploma College. I had got a job in Hyderabad. My father told me that the scholarship money was all that I had to start off with. He couldn’t spare a single rupee from the household expenses.
The scholarship money was just enough to buy the train tickets and hold me for a month in Hyderabad. When I left Jaipur, I promised my mother that she would have a pressure cooker next month, from my salary. She was happy. She knew that this time I would not fail her. She was also happy that finally her "bapai" would help pull the family out of financial trouble. I can never forget the look in her eyes as my train pulled from Jaipur station. It was a mosaic of hope, joy, sorrow and a thousand other emotions, that rising from her heart, got reflected in her eyes. Little did I know that I would never see those eyes again.
My mother died fifteen days after I left Jaipur. She died peacefully in her sleep from heart failure. I am sure her last dreams must have been of her bapai walking with a pressure cooker to home. When I got the news, I did not know what to do. I did not cry, because she had been a brave woman all her life and crying would have been an insult to her. And there was nowhere I could go to cry. I waited for the 31st. With my first salary I walked into a Hawkins showroom and got this pressure cooker. It has been with me ever since. "
"Ki Mey babar kotha furolo?( Are the two of you done?)", Mrs. Sen's voice intervened from behind. Both father and daughter wiped their tears in a hurry.
"What is this Madhu, you have managed to make our daughter cry on her wedding day?” exclaimed Mrs. Sen.
"No ma, I am not crying. It’s just the afternoon sun and perhaps dad's story has put me to sleep," and they all laughed and walked into the house and back to marriage celebrations.
Three months later, Mr. Sen visited her daughter’s house for dinner. In the kitchen, with all the porcelain crockery and imported electronic kitchenware, was a Hawkins pressure cooker. Father and daughter looked at it and then at each other with a smile. Mala walked up to her father and hugged him saying “Thanks baba, for the most precious gift you have given me in my whole life."