She chimes along all day, like a bangle, so I call her Kangna. Even now, in the deserted metro coach, devoid of intrigue and fascination, she jumps about excited holding a cold steel pole in front of my seat. She is the third in the quartet of her sisters. Only four years in antiquity. She trundles towards me and points to the buck tooth of the a boy sitting some paces away. She giggles unabashed and then tired, settles on her mother’s lap. Her mother is weary from the two day train ride from our village in Bihar to Delhi, where I work as a welder. Her hair is scruffy, like a mango tree in autumn. She smiles and strokes Kangna’s head. The little girl’s hair are tied in a pair of puny braids at the either side of her head, held together by small yellow and red clips which she picked herself from the hawker at the railway station. Her feet are clasped in red sandals embroidered in glittering gold, her uncle’s gift. These wouldn’t last long on her pirouetting feet.
Sanwari yawns in my hand. I find her yawn very pretty. Pink gums part baring tiny teeth cloaked beneath their folds. She remains still, eyes closed, her chest heaving softly. It is remarkable how little she cries. With stomach full and bladder empty she consents to be in anyone’s arms. She smiles her toothless gummy smile when people strike her tummy. Her demeanor resembles that of her eldest sister. She also has her eyes. Big watery eyes which look at everything with impalpable curiosity.
Even now as Sanwari sleeps in my arms, heaving lightly, her sister looks out of the metro following trees and buildings and light poles darting backwards. Though only nine, since she is the eldest of the four sisters, she also keeps a wary eye on her bubbly sister Kangna. She was born nine years ago when I was still in my village in Bihar. I remember waiting restlessly outside our hut as the midwife and my sister-in-law helped deliver her. It was a warm night and the moon was full. Drought had gulped all grain from the previous year and we had nothing to give to the mid wife when she handed me a bundle of my own blood and muscles. I was overjoyed and promised to pay her when I had money. She said nothing, everyone in the village knew our condition.
My mother named her Roshni hoping that she would bring some light to our household. She did. I shifted to Delhi a few months after her birth. In the city there was much to do. I worked as a daily wage laborer on construction sites, as sweeper in workshops or even as a guard in schools or hospitals. When I looked at the kids on the roads, bouncing in joy with their fathers, I longed dearly for Roshni. I often dreamt about her on restless nights. In a few months I had enough money to rent a small room in a slum near the welding workshop and summoned Roshni and her mother to the city. She had grown bigger and cried whenever I picked her up.
But after a few days she began to recognize me and was quiet happy to play with my index finger, chewing it with her newly formed teeth. Bhanumati arrived later, when I was out of work for sleeping at night while guarding an under-construction site. She is the most beautiful among all her sisters. She has her mother’s light color and a round perfectly formed nose. She studies in class 4 of the Municipal Corporation School of the locality and always comes first in her class. When I accompany her to the school during the result declaration the teachers treat me respectfully. They offer me a seat and then tell me how well Bhanu has performed. I’m proud of her. When I receive my payment at the end of the week I make her count and verify my wage, the contractor is a shrewd person. I give her ten rupees in return, from which she invariably buys packets of puffs which she shares with her sisters.
My wife yawns. Kangna clambers off her and indulges in small make shift games with her sisters. Her mother closes her eyes to sleep. The last few days had been hectic for her. Marriage of a niece is always busy affair. The girl is the first of Kangna’s cousins to be married.Only 18 but precocious in her manners. My brother had been proud of her. The groom is a primary teacher in a village. I talked to him once. He came across as a haughty creature, not disrespectful but arrogant. Draped in a crisp white shirt a small paunch peeked through the folds of his garment. I didn’t find the boy very handsome but my brother couldn’t stop gloating about his son-in-law. He called him a prized catch. The marriage cost him a Bajaj bike and 2 lakh rupees as dowry. I also lent him some money. He told me that when my daughters were big enough to be married, he’d be the first person to extend a hand of help. He looked like a tired man at the end of the ceremony, but also relaxed. He had only one daughter.
I look at Roshni. She’d be the first one to be married. She has nimble feet and does all household chores dexterously. And though she does not come first in her class as her sister does she is decent enough in her studies. She passes her examinations regularly. In a few years I would have to look around for a suitable groom for her. My brother says that he moved about in a dozen cities to find a suitable groom. He was a farmer and his son could take care of his fields when he was away. I would lose my job if I stayed away for so long. The contractor is a shallow inconsiderate person and seeks instances to dismiss workers. I had to cringe to him to secure a two day leave to attend the marriage. What if he dismisses me? Where will I get the money to marry my daughters? I’m not even a good negotiator; I often get the feeling that shopkeepers loot me. What if the groom demands too much dowry? The small plot of land in the village will not provide much. What if I’m fooled into marrying off my daughter to a thief or a tout?
Whatever happens I will not marry off Bhanumati young. Let her study and grow. Then I will find her a groom as educated as she is, whatever it takes. I know a man across the street who lends money at low interest rates. I’ll borrow money from him.
Bhanumati would not be much trouble but I’d have some problem finding boys for my two younger daughters. Kangna is impatient and restless. She cannot stay put at one place and is also clumsy. While Sanwari, even with her beautiful gummy smile, is slightly dusky in skin. The dark color is my gift to her. I’m a wretched father, I give my daughters only misery. When they reach marriageable age, I would already be an old man. Would I have enough strength in me to find them grooms? What about money, wouldn’t all my money be exhausted in the first two marriages. I hope my brothers help me then. When we reach home I will tell my wife to involve Kangna more in the household chores and teach her some bashfulness.
I look at all my daughters, unconcerned and happy. Kangna is giggling at something. Sanwari is dozing soundly in my hands, Bhanumati is reading an old comic and Roshni is gazing outside the window, towards the passing world. What will I do when all of them leave for their husband’s house? What reason will I have to live on, how will I trudge along life. How miserable would life be without Kangna’s smile and Bhanumati’s questions and Roshni’s strong evening tea.
The speaker in the metro announces the arrival of our station. I hand over Sanwari to her mother, collect the bags and step out of the metro. The three girls hold hands and follow us out onto the platform, jolly and unworried.