Preeti never minded the work. Like the other girls, she too had three brothers, a father who was ageing rapidly and people who were always over on ‘business’, or to watch a game of cricket. As she would enter the kitchen before every meal, she did not feel the usual wave of tiredness that the other girls always complained about. Yes, on average, four chapattis per person had to be made- some men took five, while others took three. She had calculated, in the spare minutes while a chapatti was on the tawa, and another one was rolled and ready to be put on the tawa, that the average for her brothers was four.
Bhom Singh, the eldest, took five for lunch and four for dinner; Suraj Mal, the middle brother, took five each for lunch and dinner; Munbir Singh took four for lunch and three for dinner (sometimes, it seemed as if Munbir Singh would eat less so Preeti would have at least one less chapatti ito make, because when Preeti insisted, he would give in with a guilty look on his face, accepting the fourth chapatti). Her father took three when he was well, two when he was not. All in all, Preeti made about thirty-five chapattis a day, including her own.
But Preeti never minded the work- she never lazed away. It’s not as if she obtained a special kind of joy out of feeding her brothers, no, nothing like that; she was just a practical girl. She knew if something had to be done, it simply had to be done. Bhom Singh’s wife, her beloved Sarita bhabhi, had enough on her plate as it was. She washed the clothes of the six people in the household, everyday, single handedly. She scrubbed them and rinsed them, hung them out for drying, collected and ironed them, placed them in everybody’s respective cupboards. She made the breakfast and the sabzi, so Preeti kneaded the dough, beat the curd into cucumber raita, and cut the salad. While Sarita bhabhi washed the dishes, Preeti dried them and placed them on the counters. No, Preeti did not bully Sarita bhabi and lord over the household as her husband’s sister; she did not care for such trifles.
They however, had one small relief: they were allowed to get the house and bathrooms cleaned by a cleaning lady, as it was work that did not involve the pots and pans from which they ate, or the clothes which they wore. So every day, for one hour in the day and one hour in the evening, Preeti and Sarita bhabhi had reprieve. They could lie down and rest their legs; they could chat about the neighbors and make a glass of nimbu-paani; they could walk out in the fields if it wasn’t too hot. Not that nothing came up then- if her father was sick, Preeti could be required to fetch the medicine, or massage his legs, or make him something healthy to eat. But these were definitely the less hectic hours.
More importantly, it was during this time that they could catch up on their daily bites of cricket. They would sit and watch the highlights, cheering whenever Preeti’s favorite Dhoni would even raise the bat. Captain Cool, they would repeat again and again, screaming the phrase at the television, something which they had picked up one day from the TV as Navjot Singh Siddhu had been doing the commentary. When Dhoni made 91 off 79 balls for the world cup in 2011, Preeti, known for her unemotional conduct, cried. She tried to hide it though, retreating to a corner and almost reaching the bathroom, but Munbir Singh had seen her, and fondly told the other brothers. Dhoni was her first love. Her second favorite was Yuvraj Singh, or Yuvi, as they liked to call him. The day he hit six sixes in the over, Preeti and Sarita bhabhi made ghujiyaand distributed it all over the neighborhood.
The brothers, on their part, never rebuked their unladylike behavior while watching cricket, for the game commanded a special place in their household. For two glorious years, when Ashish Nehra had lived in this city of Hisar and had enrolled himself in the local school in his budding cricketing teenage years, he had become friends with Bhom Singh and Suraj Mal. Of course, Nehra had been older than them by a few years, but it was with them that Nehra had practiced in the wee hours of the morning, while the rest of the town had slept. Everybody knew about this, how Bhom Singh and Suraj Mal used to follow Nehra around town, batting away as he tried to bowl them out. When Nehra got selected for the national team, Bhom Singh had personally ordered kilos of Balaji’s purest kaju barfi and had gotten it distributed around town. And when Nehra had been invited for the school’s twenty-fifth jubilee, it was Bhom Singh and Suraj Mal he had asked to be by his side. The whole of Hisar had seen the two chatting with Nehra, and Preeti could not be more proud. Rumor had it that Kapil Dev himself had shaken hands with Bhom Singh, when he was welcomed to the city on a visit once.
Cricket, then, in their household, was a dharma greater than what the Gods demanded of them. Preeti wasn’t reprimanded when she burnt a chapatti while trying to witness a catch; Sarita bhabhi wasn’t given a death glare when she cheered for a four even though her husband’s brothers were present. Munbir Singh wasn’t told to relax if he carried Preeti on his shoulders out on the street if India won the match. And if it was an India-Pakistan or India-Australia match, the Gods couldn’t stop them. All normal activities of the day would be suspended and the house would be plunged in a state of utmost excitement. It wasn’t just them who lost their heads in the event of a cricket match; the city, divided into neat little sectors, came together in the event of a national match. Shops shut early, markets were deserted and televisions and radios thronged. There was truly no greater festival.
And so Preeti didn’t care for much; as long as she could sit and watch her Dhoni, she did not mind that she was not allowed to go to college (her brothers felt it to be unnecessary; they never went to college and they were doing well enough. Furthermore, they did not want the hassle of unworthy boys chasing her home every evening.) She did not even care when her marriage was fixed to a man belonging to sector 19 (Ajay, they said was his name)- it was the second-most popular sector in the town, and property rates there were very high. The family, on their part, owned a mid-size steel plant and Bhom Singh couldn’t have been happier. His father too, was very proud- they had done the best that they could for their youngest girl. Life was getting better every day.
Preeti, in turn, delighted in the fact that they owned one of those flatscreen TVs- other than that, she saw no occasion for excitement. Life wouldn’t change much for her, and she already knew what marriage would be like. She had seen her parents, and Bhom Singh and Saritabhabhi. She’d still be in the kitchen most of the time, making chapattis- there would be people in the house whom she’d like, and others whom she wouldn’t like. There would be her husband’s older brother’s wife, though, which definitely was a plus; she would have her to talk to, and perhaps they could roam the city together. Her new house too, was not far from the old one, and she’d be able to meet Saritabhabhi and Munbir Singh frequently; her husband did not seem like the spiteful sort although she had met him only once.
The only significant addition would be perhaps the sex she had to go through; she had not known much about it until Sarita bhabhi came to the house. And from what she had heard, she did not really look forward to it. It would not be a pleasant sensation at first, she was told, and she would hate it but have no choice. It would, one day, get better and she may perhaps even enjoy it; there was no guarantee of that though. It did not matter whether women enjoyed it; the world didn’t mean for them to enjoy it. And how could she expect anything else? The man was a stranger. If it had only been Dhoni…
But Preeti kept these things to herself, not even revealing them to Saritabhabhi, although she suspected her of dreaming the same about Yuvi. In a short while, children would happen, and the sex would not matter, and neither would much else. They’d grow up to be cricketers of course, Preeti had decided, whether girls or boys; and while she hoped for a son who’d grow up to lead India to glory, she did not even mind a daughter as she had heard that Delhi University took a lot of women athletes from their town, and that seemed a more plausible situation.
And so it was soon time for the wedding, and the flowers were up, the banquet hall booked and the lehengabought and fitted. A lot of people from the city were invited- this was one of the more important weddings- and there were a few people coming from Delhi as well. Not like Preeti knew, of course- or cared. She sat across from her new husband from the mandap, glancing at him to see how he was handling it. He seemed overwhelmed at first, but when he saw her giving him brief looks, he tried to smile back reassuringly at her. He didn’t think she saw it, though. That was the first time he realized that Preeti didn’t need him much.
In the next few days, he discovered that Preeti was just a different sort of girl. Not like anything was wrong with her, of course; she wore all the new clothes given to her, got along with his brother’s wife and could cook almost everything- she made every meal, chapattis for everyone, rice, and even chicken, although she was a vegetarian herself. She was adept at all the household work, barely leaving scope for any complaints, and got every single thing he could need ready at the right time. She was courteous and polite, and even made a joke or two now and then, even though her humor was on the wry side. She never complained, never fought and hardly ever got into an argument. At the end of the day, she would quietly settle down in front of the TV in the drawing room and watch, well, the cricket highlights. That was the only time the usual indifference on her face would be replaced by a kind of- kind of curiosity, and excitement. He just wished she could make that face in the night- she made no sound in sex, nothing to indicate she felt anything. But neither did she resist; she just agreed to whatever he asked of her, going about it like it was another one of her chores.
One day, as she sat watching the TV, he decided to go and sit next to her- in his own house, sport was given no importance. Nobody watched cricket, and hence it was no wonder that he had looked at her blankly when she had asked him who did he think made a better partnership with Dhoni, Virat Kohli or Suresh Raina? No, at their house, they all liked to watch TV, as in the real TV, the shows made for entertainment. The family dramas, that’s what did it for them. After all, TV was made to entertain- he had never found interest in a bunch of men running after a ball. He could play some, if required; but there were far better things to do. But he had sat down, along with her, as she gave him a small smile, and tried to concentrate on the tiny blue figures on the screen, before giving up within a few minutes.
When he couldn’t understand cricket, he tried a different approach; he tried to distract her from the game, to keep her away from it. Whenever he sensed that Preeti would be settling down to watch the game, he would cook up work for her; he’d ask her to make him a glass of lassi, to accompany him to the market to buy groceries, to reorganize his cupboard, to sew covers on the blankets, to iron his clothes. She never said no to anything; she’d give him a searching look and trot off to the finish the work, still managing to be back in time to catch the last few minutes. It was endless, the work, it would always be endless- the food had to be cooked and the house had to be cleaned, and if it weren’t for Preeti’s practicality, she would be miserable at having to miss the only thing that made her truly happy. But she made one chapatti after the other, every single day, as was required of her, and the days went on.
One day, she missed a particularly exciting innings by Dhoni, and almost slammed the chapatti on her husband’s plate; her nostrils were flared as she asked him, “Do you want another?” He shook his head meekly. From the next day, Preeti noticed her husband developing an irritating habit of hanging around in the kitchen as she cooked. She ignored him as she placed the chapatti on the tawa, answering as many questions as she could through brief nods.
“Oh, you use milk to knead the dough?” he asked her, genuinely surprised. She gave him a caustic look and nodded, going about making her chapattis.
Every day after work, he hung around in the kitchen, asking random questions, as Preeti went about her work, ignoring him as much as she could, without being openly bitter. Perhaps he was trying to show her that she was not alone in missing the match on TV; but Preeti could not care less. Then one day he asked her if he could try it.
“Try what?” she asked him woodenly.
“Making this, the chapatti!” he said excitedly.
She gave him a derisive stare and passed him the dough. “Make a circle,” she said, “go on.”
To everybody’s surprise, he wasn’t bad at the job; the chapatti was a fair oval, and almost appropriately baked. “Go,” he said, “watch your match. I’ll make your chapatti.” She stared at him deeply for a second and just to punish him for his brazenness at having even suggested such a thing, she went and sat down on the sofa in the drawing room. The other family members looked on, aghast, as Preeti put the cricket match on the TV and her husband brought her a chapatti and sabzion a plate to eat. Wondering if it was a trick, Preeti took the plate from him pointedly and began eating as he went back inside the kitchen to make more chapattis.
“Have you both gone mad?” Preeti’s mother-in-law asked her, to which she did not reply. But it went on; her husband went on making chapattis as his mother yelled and made a fuss, asked if Preeti had absolutely no shame. The rest of the family, too, asked Ajay to step away from the stove and said they would make the chapattis, that if Preeti was not feeling well, her bhabhi would make the chapattis, but he- it was unimaginable to them- he didn’t need to make the chapattis. It was a woman’s job. His mother yelled at Preeti, “You want your husband to make chapattis for the whole family as you sit and watch men run around on TV?!” Preeti did not reply; she had no idea what he was playing at.
The next night, again the same drama was repeated as her Ajay’s brother and mother banged stuff around, asking if the world had gone mad; it was insisted by Ajay that Preeti should sit down and watch TV and that he would make the chapattis.
Now Preeti was hurt; she walked into the kitchen and requested that her husband let her make the chapattis. She said it with tears in her eyes. She swore to him that she would never watch cricket again if that’s what he wanted; he looked at Preeti in alarm, wondering if his plan had backfired. “No,no, no,” he said quickly, trying to make her understand. “I genuinely want you to see the matches, I- I’m not doing this to shame you or anything, God, no! I don’t want you to miss Dhoni’s innings and what not, so I’ll make the chapattis, and I swear, it’s fun, I want to.”
It took half an hour’s worth of convincing and swearing that dhe actually meant it, and he made her sit in the drawing room again, announcing to the rest of the family. “From now on, I will make the chapattis in the night. I love making them and I want my wife to be able to have some relaxed and entertaining time. I’ll make at least mine and Preeti’s, if anybody has a problem with that.”
Of course they had problems with that.
“Brother, have you lost your mind?”
“What magic have you done on him, you witch-“
“This is absolutely unheard of!”
But Ajay, no, he would not take it from anyone, and every night he insisted that Preeti should go and watch cricket and that he would make the chapattis. His family tortured her; they taunted her all day and gave her scathing looks, refusing to speak to her for weeks, but the routine stuck, and her husband refused to give up.
She watched Dhoni swing the bat on the match nights, compared the performance of the West Indies with Australia’s. When there was nothing exciting happening, Preeti went and helped her husband in making the chapattis. He would tell her to go watch something else, that he was having too much fun making the chapattis, but Preeti would laugh. Slowly, he started to ask her more, about how many overs each bowler was allowed to bowl, and what was the league system, and what were Kohli’s strengths- he realized that maybe cricket was not for him. He loved to watch her talk to the television whenever India played, but he did not feel the same excitement. But more than anything, he was happy to make the chapattis as long as she could see Dhoni.
And Preeti? Well, she fell in love for the second time.
Photo: Matthew Bowden