Our village is in Kerala, which is the southernmost state of India. My family has lived there for generations. Not everyone can boast of having lived there for such a long time, like the Patel’s who had moved in some thirty years back.
Patel’s are not from this part of the country. They belong to the state of Gujarat, which is on the western coast. The Gujarati’s are famous for their business acumen and ability to survive anywhere in the world. A drought in their village had forced Patel Bhai, to undertake a journey southwards. On this train journey, he met my grandfather, who was on his way back from a pilgrimage.
Grandfather knew a little Hindi, while Patel Bhai did not understand a word of Malayalam. These minor problems aside, by the time the train stopped in Thiruvananthapuram, the last stop on their journey, the two had become good friends. The twenty-kilometer journey from the railway station to our village was by bullock cart, and took about half a day to cover. On this journey, they verbally finalized the arrangements for a business partnership that was to last almost half a century. Grandfather owned a few shops in our village. He sold everything from grocery to silk saris in his shops. Patel Bhai had good contacts in Surat, a city in Gujarat famous for its silk.
Over the next few months, with a small loan from grandfather, Patel Bhai set up a shop, where he sold elaborately embroidered silk dresses. Business boomed, soon other members of his family joined him. They included his younger sister and three children. His wife had died giving birth of his youngest son. His sister, Phuiba looked after them now.
The Patel children joined the local school. Phuiba contrary to the local custom of women from ‘respectable’ families not going to the market, used to do all the shopping for their family.
To the villagers the name Phuiba sounded Chinese. Gently ‘interrogating’ the Patel kids provided some clues as to its origin. The ‘ba’ in her name stood for grandmother or elderly lady in Gujarati. The ‘phui’ part was apparently a short form of her real name, which the children did not know. They just called her Phuiba and so did the rest of the village. Phuiba was about five feet tall, frail and was in her thirties when she had first come to our village.
The Patels put in a lot of effort to blend in. They even learnt our language Malayalam, which they spoke with a funny accent. For some time, the fair-skinned Patel’s with their accented Malayalam and Phuiba arguing with the vegetable vendors attracted a lot of attention. Then the people got bored and accepted them as one of their own.
Years went by. First grandfather passed away, and then five years later his friend Patel Bhai followed him. While in our family, the uncles took over the managing of the family business, Phuiba did it for the Patels. She became the first woman in our village to manage a business. A strict manager she was also a smart sales person. Business improved further.
Phui had a punishing schedule. On weekdays, she would get up early and cook breakfast. Then wake up the children, bathe them given them their breakfast and pack them off to school. Then she would have her breakfast and leave for the shop. After a few hours of this she would rush back home in time to make lunch for the children returning from school. Once all of the three had their lunch, Phui would eat and then rush back to the shop. Weekends were slightly less hectic with the shop being closed on Sundays.
It was but natural that this single ‘mother’, managing three children and a shop, evoked a lot curiosity in the village. There were all kinds of rumors about why she had never married. One look at her always-serious face and no one dared ask her. The mystery unraveled by accident and that too at the hands of a young child.
It was a Sunday, the shop was closed and all the children in the neighborhood were playing right outside the Patel’s house. Phui as usual was keeping an eye on the three Patel’s, who were also a part of this group. She had always been the unofficial caterer for children in the neighborhood. Any time anyone needed a drink of water or a quick snack they used to run over to her. The children preferred going to Phui rather than to their own mothers who were more likely to ask them to stop playing and complete their homework. She has a knack for making sweets and savouries. These she used to distribute to the children, who just adored them.
One of the children had just come over for a snack. Phui could not help but smile. This was the third time this kid had come to her in the last hour. She gave him two pieces this time. A big smile illuminated the child’s face who turned to run then stopped and came back, hugged and gave her a big kiss on her cheek.
“You are just like my mother,” the boy said, smiled and ran back.
Phui stood there for some seconds and as tears started rolling down her cheeks, she ran indoors and closed the door. The Patel children had never seen her cry before even when their father had died. That day , when his body had been laid out in the main hall of their house, for people to pay their respects, Phui had sat beside it, expressionless, gently waving away the files, which had come, attracted by the flowers placed on the body.
Confused some of the children ran over to call their mothers. It was in front of these women that the story finally came out.
Back in their village in Gujarat, the Patel’s were poor. As was the custom then, she had been married off early. Her husband was a factory worker from Mumbai. After the marriage, the young couple left for Mumbai, where they moved into a small one room flat near the factory. Unfortunately for Phui, her husband turned out to be a drunkard and a compulsive gambler. He worked in a factory on daily wages and frequently used to get into fights with the other workers there. He considered her as the reason for his failures and used to beat her up for absolutely no reason. At his workplace, tired of his behavior the factory supervisor fired him. Now jobless, he demanded she ask her brother to send over some money to help them meet their expenses. She refused, as she knew about her brother’s financial condition. This resulted in even more arguments and fights.
One day after an argument, as Phuiba was hanging out clothes to dry from their window; he had sneaked up behind her and pushed her. A heap of sand on the ground had broken her fall. As she lay on the ground with a few broken ribs and a fractured arm, people from the building took her to a nearby hospital. Someone informed her brother, who came from his village and stayed in the hospital to take care of her. He also promised her that he would take care of her for the rest of his life. Once she recovered, they returned to their village. She had been in the hospital for three months but not once did her husband come to visit her, not that she wanted him to. She never saw him after that. Their marriage had lasted just one month. After the death of her sister-in-law, Phui took care of her brothers’ children.
After blurting all this out, Phui regained her composure and got back to her normal, expressionless self. The children peeping through the windows were happy and returned to their game. That day even before the sun had set, everyone in the village knew this story.
This story had a postscript, added the day a telegram came in. Phui had just come home for lunch when a post-man came to their house. In an age when telephones were rare, telegrams were usually the harbingers of bad news. A few villagers, eager to know what the news was, had also come with him.
The telegram had come from the Patel’s village. The village, which they had left years ago and the sender, was Phui’s husband. It seemed that he had remarried after Phui had left. Now old and on his death-bed his second wife and children had kicked him out. He saw it as divine retribution for the way he had treated Phuiba. He wanted to see Phui one last time and apologize to her, before he died.
Phui read the telegram and stood there for a few minutes as if deciding what to do. Then slowly she tore it into tiny pieces, threw the pieces into the dustbin, turned and went into the house. The children had returned from school. They needed their lunch and then she had to return to the shop.
This reaction to the telegram was the subject of a lot of debate in the village. There were people who agreed with her stance and those who held the view that she should have granted the man his final wish. Phui as usual never reacted to any of this.
There is a stanza in the Bhagawat Gita, which translates roughly, as ‘Do your duty and never think of the fruits of that action’. There have been many different interpretations of this; perhaps Phui was one of the few who actually understood the meaning of those words.