A few miles away from Meerut, the family of Narain Singh lived in their ancestral house which had a vast open area around it. Over the years, most members had gone away seeking greener pastures. Narain Singh had for some time worked in a public sector company in Lucknow and later in Agra. He took voluntary retirement as he felt that his village home would be deserted if no one took care of it and the fear that the open land could be usurped by some land sharks was what motivated him to come here. He had his daughter Purna married while he was in active service and his son Arjun was studying in Lucknow. Narain Singh had made good use of the land available to him by growing vegetables and flowers. Summers were lean because of the extreme heat but the family did not have any financial problems. Occasionally, his brothers came from New Delhi and as time went by, they took their dues and transferred the property in Narain’s name. He could not have been happier. From an absolute urban, office going man, he was now a farmer!
Arjun completed his graduation in commerce and chose to return to his father. He was “ just not interested in a 9 to 5 job” and would rather do something to increase the trade which his father had started in a humble way. Narain Singh was a little surprised as many of Arjun’s generation were migrating to urban areas but he welcomed him. Arjun used his skills to develop a regular trade link for their products and even brought more land and built silos. He rented them to big farmers. Soon, seeing his progress, Arjun began to receive many marriage proposals and Narain Singh and his wife Ishwari zeroed on Prema. The girl had studied up to high school and her father was a grain merchant in the neighbouring village. Besides, he had hired a godown on Arjun’s land. When the two families sat together for the negotiations, Arjun had refused dowry-much to the surprise of all as those days graduate boys sported a heavy dowry tag. Arjun’s only condition was that she would have to stay with his parents and look after the house and help him. The wedding was a grand affair as the office bearers of the panchayat and zilla parishads attended the three day long event. Paras was born to Prema within a year and both the families were brimming with joy.
Three years later Prema gave birth to twin girls-Reema and Seema. They were a difficult lot to handle and both Ishwari and Prema were exhausted looking after the rather unexpected load of two infants. Reema was always active and appeared like a happy-go-lucky type. Seema was just the opposite and cried at the drop of a hat and her weeping sessions seemed endless. Ishwari wondered where all those tears were stored in that little head. Both hated to be bathed and demanded attention at the same time. It was becoming difficult to handle the twosome. The twins were about four months old when Ishwari began to suffer from joint pains. There were frequent visits to Meerut to get treatment for her galloping arthritis. Prema had to manage the twins and the elder son Paras. But the latter was not a difficult child and soon he had started attending anganwadi. For a couple of hours at least, Prema could look after the twins uninterrupted.
Once, while the twins were asleep after a massage and a bath, Prema brought clothes for the girls. Ishwari was sitting on her bed with her legs stretched. Prema began to remove the frock from Reema’s body. Ishwari shouted. “What are you doing? Changing the clothes while the children are sleeping? Combing their hair and putting kajal? Have you gone mad? Prema was dumbstruck. What crime had she committed that her mother-in-law should lose her calm? Ishwari was still fuming when she said, “Haven’t your parents told you not to change clothes when children are asleep?” Prema preferred to be quiet. “Listen, it is said that when kids are asleep their souls go wandering. If they find the appearance of their body altered beyond
recognition, they wander away somewhere and soon the kids would only be mortal remains!” Prema hesitatingly mumbled, “Ma. They are so fidgety, they don’t allow me to change while they are awake. You know their tantrums and cries.” Ishwari had calmed down by then and told her to keep this mind in future. Prema was upset that whole day and kept to herself whenever she could.
Both Reema and Seema were school going. Though they looked alike, their traits were markedly different. Reema was outgoing, played with her friends, participated in most school activities and bagged trophies in debates. Seema was an introvert, did not have many friends and kept to herself most of the time. When she returned home, she would be near the mother or the grandmother and willingly sat down to help in the household chores. Reema was good in academics too while Seema was ‘average’ as her father described her. Comparisons were always there. When Reema did not come home in time, they would praise Seema’s sense of time and duty. When Seema just about scraped through in her exam, they would ask her to be a little more dedicated to studies like Reema.
By the time the girls were in high school, their grandparents had left for their heavenly abodes. Ishwari had died first as her ailment had worsened. Narain Singh was fit till the end and one afternoon had just passed away in his sleep. Arjun was now the sole owner of the property.
Reema and Seema passed their matriculation and Seema had refused to study further. Arjun took Reema to Meerut and admitted her in a girls’ hostel. Prema did not want Reema to be away. “They will take advantage of her openness,” expressed Prema. Arjun argued that today, boys also demanded graduate girls and that this was the only way he could educate her. Prema and Arjun visited Reema at least once a month showering her with home-made goodies, clothes, etc. Reema was initially homesick but had adjusted herself well to the city life. She had hordes of friends in tow. Seema was 18 and had agreed to get married instead of sitting at home idle. She was married to Raman, a well-to-do businessman. Reema took a whole month off to be with her sister and parents. Seema left for her marital home at Mathura. Arjun had ensured that she goes into a wealthy home.
Seema was content with wearing zari saris and sporting a large bindi on her fair forehead. Her fondness for traditional attire and jewellery was evident. Each day, she would choose her sari with matching trinkets and glass bangles and fill her hair parting with sindoor. From toes to her head, she was always bejeweled. A year after Seema’s marriage, she began to keep indifferent health. From TB to cancer, the doctors had not left out any investigation. Seema had two miscarriages which put her health even more at risk. The doctors in Agra had advised expert opinion from Delhi or Mumbai. Seema’s husband had agreed and got all the investigations done but there was no obvious condition that could be diagnosed. Sometimes, she was perfectly alright and went to the club with her husband or went shopping with a few friends that he had made in Mathura. No one could predict when Seema would fall sick and stay in bed in utter agony. Occasionally, Arjun and Prema would come to meet her. Arjun took permission from Seema’s husband and his parents to take her home for a few weeks and they agreed. While Seema was with her parents, she was fine most of the time and once she just could not get up from her bed. A couple of days later she was okay again. The whole episode was baffling. Arjun left her at Mathura assuring her husband that he would bear the medical expenses if he wished. Raman declined the offer.
Reema was in the final year of college. She had topped the class each year. She was to participate in a play for the inter-collegiate competition and was in her hostel room with her friends. Togs of clothes lay strewn all over the room, shoes, sandals, books and bags too lay on the floor. She had rehearsed her part well and needed a little sleep before she went to the auditorium that evening. She was a l little disturbed as her father had told her on phone the previous day that Seema was unwell again. But, by now, Seema’s falling ill frequently was not a matter of concern. It had almost become a routine to hear that Seema was unwell and after a day or two, she was fine. All the same, Reema stretched herself on the narrow cot and soon fell asleep. An hour later, her friends decided to play a practical joke and put a big bindi on her forehead. They took a dupatta and draped it on her left shoulder. Reema moved a little but was very tired and continued to be in sleep. She was lying on her back and her friend put a necklace lightly round her neck. She had put an alarm to wake up at 5 pm. When she wakes up, she is going to scream at her new image, thought her friends and waited for the fun. The alarm rang but Reema did not move. Her friends shook her and realized that the body was cold and lifeless. One of them ran to the hostel warden quivering with fear.