2

The vision of delicious food danced before the aunt's eyes. She could not resist the urge any longer. Why don't I go and sit in the kitchen, she thought to herself. The smell of flowers reaching you from the garden is certainly pleasant when you are in the house, but the pleasure is multiplied many times over when you are actually in the garden! The aunt climbed down from the cot with difficulty and slowly made her way to the kitchen. Her satisfaction on reaching the kitchen was akin to the joy of a hungry dog gazing at someone eating.

The flurry of activities had left Rupa harried. She scuttled from one room to another, managed the cooking, and attended to all kinds of requests - someone would come asking for a beverage, a second would come demanding something for the musicians, while a third wished to know how long it would take for the meals to be served. The poor woman felt helpless managing the preparations and requests single-handedly, but she could not express her frustration for fear of being chided by the neighbours. It was a warm day and her own throat was parched; she craved for a glass of water and to lie down for a while and fan herself but had no time even for that little pleasure. Besides, she was afraid that if she withdrew even for a while, she would come and find all the things stolen. Under such circumstances when Rupa saw the old aunt in the kitchen all her pent up frustration and anger burst forth. She, then, forgot the presence of neighbours and freely gave vent her feelings. Catching hold of the old woman's hands, she said, "Were you feeling stifled in your own room? The guests have not had their meals, no offering has been made to the gods yet, but you are getting impatient for food! People will say the old woman is not fed properly; the hag is bent upon shaming us! She eats the whole day! Go back to your own room; you will be given food when all the others are served and not before." The old aunt raised her head, but said not a word. Quietly she removed herself from the kitchen and lumbered to her own room. The reprimand was so severe that her heart and mind were still reeling under its impact.

The food was cooked; meals were served in the courtyard; the guests began to eat. The women started singing to entertain the diners. The barbers and retainers also joined in the meals but sat some distance away from the guests. Few guests, who were somewhat educated, finished their meals early but couldn't rise and leave because decorum demanded everyone rise only when everyone had finished partaking their food. These guests were irritated by the leisurely pace at which the barbers and retainers ate, and felt that such social customs were needless.

The old aunt, meanwhile, sat in her room feeling remorseful. She wasn't angry at Rupa but she regretted her own impatient behavior. The aunt acknowledged to herself that family members could not sit for their meals until the guests had been served. I should not have been so impatient, she said to herself. She resolved that she would not go out again until summoned. Thus she sat waiting for someone to come and call. But the pleasing aroma which wafted across the room made the wait tortuous. Every minute seemed like a year!

The old aunt tried to picture the scene outside: Now the plates must have been laid; the guests are washing their hands before they sit down to eat; it seems the guests have settled down for the meals; the women are singing.

The aunt lay on the bed and consoled herself by imagining these scenes. Then, she began humming a tune. After a while the aunt felt she had been singing for a very long time, and the guests must certainly have left after finishing their food by now; there was no sound of voices to be heard. Rupa must still be angry at me and that's the reason no one has come to call me, the aunt thought. Rupa expects me to come on my own; I am not a guest that I need to be escorted.

The aunt decided to go, certain that she would soon be sitting before delicious food and eating to her heart's content. I will ask for more even if people think it uncouth behaviour. Let them think, but I will not get up until I have tasted everything.

She dragged herself to the courtyard, but there was disappointment in store for her! Desire, true to its frivolous nature, had clouded her sense of timing. The guests were still there - some had finished eating and were licking their fingers clean, some threw sidelong glances at others to see what and how they were eating, there were others who had been unable to eat everything on their plate and wanted to take away the leftovers without attracting attention, and there were those who were now enjoying the curd. The old aunt, hunched on all fours, arrived at such a stage. Few of the guests were alarmed at the sudden appearance of the old aunt. "Who is this woman? Where has she come from? Watch out, she might touch somebody!"

Pandit Buddhiram flew into a rage when he saw the old aunt. He was standing with a tray of food in his hands serving the guests when she arrived; he dropped the tray, and like a merciless creditor who has sighted an errant and absconding borrower seized her by the hands, dragged the aunt to her room, and pushed her inside. All her hopes were dashed in an instant as though by a puff of wind.

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