The loser

Berjis Desai

She did not feel too bad that her marriage was to take place on her 13th birthday, hardly a few months after she had attained puberty. Her elder sister was married when she was nine months old and had nearly choked to death on a wine cake shoved into her tiny mouth. And then, their husbands were not strangers. The elder sister married her paternal cousin, then a boy of 10. Our heroine (we shall call her Aban for ease of reference) was to be married to her maternal cousin, then a boy of 16. The elder one’s marriage was attended by Chimnabai, a 16-year-old princess from the royal family of the Gaikwads of the princely State of Baroda, of which Navsari was then a part. That was one of the last infant marriages amongst Parsis.
Aban was a posthumous child; born five months after her 30-year-old father perished in a bubonic plague spread by rats. The earlier evening, he was fine; the next morning, there was a growing gland in his armpit; that night, he died. She always saw her mother wearing a black sari, a symbol then of irreversible widowhood. The trauma of a pregnant widow is often transmitted to the child. In Aban’s case, it was augmented by malnutrition, resulting in her stunted growth. She was a tiny little thing with eyes looking perpetually scared, sadness entrenched on her oval face.

Illustration by Farzana Cooper


The local girls school was divided into the topiwali girls (those who wore caps) and sariwali girls (those who wore saris). Few went past the first stage. Aban did not complete even the topi stage and remained semi-literate all her life. Enough though, to write postcards in Gujarati. Her cousin-husband was a pleasant lad and became a fully ordained priest, blessed with a sonorous voice to recite Avestan prayers. Her matrimonial home was just down the street, presided over by her father-in-law, who was the patriarch of this prestigious clan. He wore a red lengha (pyjama) and pointed shoes made of coarse leather; riding on horseback, he collected revenue for the ruling Gaikwads from desolate farmers including widows and orphans. He was cruel and callous, much cursed and despised by the poor and oppressed.
As compared to the small house of her widowed mother and two siblings, her matrimonial home, a two-storeyed structure just across the Atash Behram, was teeming with people. Some 90 odd ate together every night under the watchful gaze of the red lengha-wearing patriarch. This house had formidable doors, some 20 feet tall, to ward off marauding Pindari tribes (dacoits) who, a century ago, had abducted Aban’s great-grandmother, a green eyed lass of great beauty. But that is another story for another day.
Aban and her husband sailed to Aden where the young mobed served the Aden Agiary for nearly two decades. They returned to Navsari with two children and a handsome, grey feathered cockatoo. The bird’s cage was hung in the front portico, from which this exotic parrot fascinated humdrum Navsariites with its ability to mimic the human voice. Kaskoo, as it came to be called, was unlike the ubiquitous green parrots with the red beak to be found then in several Parsi homes. Returning schoolboys tutored Kaskoo to mouth choice abuses, which the bird did, with a rather splendid sense of timing, during uthamna prayers being recited in the moholla or a visit by some pompous guests who were shocked out of their wits.
Aban’s son completed his navar and martab at nine; and grew to be a handsome, soft-spoken, kind priest. Much loved by all, he was married at 23, to a cousin four times removed. At 24, he succumbed to typhoid, leaving behind a widow of 20 who never remarried. Of course, half of Navsari did not believe that Aban’s son was a victim of typhoid but of a curse uttered by an enraged fisherwoman whom his shrewish mother-in-law had cheated out of half a dozen mackerel ("Cheating a widow? Soon your daughter will be one”). Aban’s son had died within days of the mackerel vendor’s curse.
A decade or so later, Aban’s rather obese daughter, married to one of Aban’s own cousins, had to face constant torture from her mother-in-law for being childless; until the civil surgeon in the municipal hospital forgot to remove a piece of placenta after a still birth of a much delayed child. Two days later, like her brother, high fever claimed her, at 35.
The many curses inflicted upon the red lengha-patriarch came true, when her husband too died of Alzheimer’s and Aban was left alone in the house, where once upon a time a hundred clan members had co-existed — now migrated, perished, scattered and decimated, leaving behind this loser of 74 years, sitting alone, at dusk, and listening intently to the quarter-hour chimes of nine grandfather clocks, which would not strike together due to lack of synchronecity and bad maintenance, interspersed only with some cached sentences of Kaskoo who had developed a penchant for talking in his imitation lingua at the wrong time. Throughout the night, a pernicious cough prevented Aban from sleeping more than 10 minutes, and after a particularly ferocious bout of coughing, Aban would walk a little around her bed which was huge and covered with a mosquito net, her dwarfish form, bent from the waist due to chronic coughing, intermittently spitting blood and sputum in a bowl of water placed on a stool. Kaskoo would promptly parrot its standard advice that she should go back to sleep. Kaskoo was simply imitating Aban’s dead husband but the people of Navsari took this as evidence of an intimate bond between the bird and the hapless widow. Tales grew about how, in the middle of the night, Aban and the Kaskoo conversed in some African dialect which both had learnt during their stay in Aden or that the soul of Aban’s dead son took over Kaskoo’s grey and green body every night to look after his lonely mother.

Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.