Puro was about to leave for the fields when she said to Jangir, “Will you come with me? I’ll give you laddoos to eat.”
Jangir had been playing with a soapnut in the lane. He swept up the soapnut, put it in his pocket and set off with Puro.
Puro was a young jat girl who danced the giddha and who, while playing on the swing, always soared higher than anyone else. She would return from the well with three pitchers of water atop her head. No one dared to even clear their throats inappropriately in front of that strong, tall Puro. Once, en route to a women’s fair, someone feigned a cough to get her attention. She walked right up to him and slapped him hard. She was hardly seventeen years old.
Jangir headed off to the fields with her. A stack of rotis and pot of lassi were balanced upon Puro’s head. She had to go to the fields to deliver lunch to her father and she needed someone to accompany her. Even though Jangir was only ten years old, for Puro and the community, his presence was an adequate safeguard.
A large channel full of flowing water lay ahead as they made their way towards the jowar fields. Jangir stood up and announced, “I’m not going any further.”
Puro pulled the hem of her salwar up and over her knees and said “Grab my neck. I’ve crossed several channels like this.”
Jangir grasped her neck. Puro put her left hand behind her back to support him, managed the stack of rotis and the jug of lassi with her right, and descended into the flowing water. When Jangir slipped and began to dangle, Puro mustered her strength and, with a heave, hoisted him up again. He slumped over her shoulders. The musk of Puro’s wet neck and muscular body reminded Jangir of the scent of jowar leaves.
Once they crossed the channel, Jangir fell from Puro’s shoulders as she tried to let him down. Puro’s rolled-up salwar was soaking wet and water was trickling down her naked legs. She pulled her salwar down around her legs and, looking at Jangir, said “You are very heavy!”
Puro was breathing heavily….but it wasn’t the kind of breath as it would have been had she been running. Instead, it was a hot powerful breath like the heat that rises from sands and churns into a tempest. There was ardor in her eyes. She squatted down and rested her weight upon her toes. She grasped Jangir and said “You are very heavy! Someone ought to squeeze your cheeks!”
She pressed Jangir to her chest and gave his cheeks a pinch. He began to cry.
She told him “You deserve to have your cheeks pinched!”
When rosy splotches appeared on his face, Puro blew on them.
Jangir fell quiet and both continued onward.
Abruptly, someone leapt out of the jowar stalks and grabbed Puro’s arms. It was Kaila, the carpenter’s boy, who would get drunk and fight with his father. Jangir was petrified.
Puro told him “Don’t be afraid. I’ll sort this one out.”
The two struggled. Then Kaila yanked her into the jowar stalks. Jangir heard “Let me go! Let me go!” after which Puro’s voice was swallowed by the sounds of jowar stalks snapping and the crushing of leaves. He stood there silent, awed.
After some time, Puro emerged with her chunni disheveled. She said, “The bastard got away.”
She collected the bundle of rotis and the lassi jug whose contents had spilled. She grabbed Jangir and, pressing him close, told him, “Don’t tell anyone, my brother. I’ll give you a laddoo.”
She untied the knot at the end of her chunni and gave him two yellow laddoos. Jangir took them from her and began to eat them very, very slowly. He savored this sweet bribe.
The two of them reached the fields. Puro’s father stopped ploughing and sat down beneath the young peepal tree to eat.
Puro explained, “When we began to cross the irrigation channel, the pot fell and all of the lassi spilled out. Now you have only onions to eat with your roti.”
After delivering lunch to her father, she and Jangir set off for home. The load on Puro’s head was lighter and there was a certain frenetic energy in her step as if she were returning after finishing a weighty task.
As they prepared to cross the channel once more, she again rolled up her salwar above her knees and slung Jangir over her shoulders. She crossed the channel in two bounds and put him down. Jangir, once again, smelled the scent of her wet neck and cotton kurti. It was a strangely sweet and sour odor reminiscent of jowar juice mingled with lassi.
On the way, she lovingly hugged him and reminded him, “Don’t tell anyone, little brother.”
Jangir never told anyone. He held such affection for her in his heart, but also pain because of what Kaila, the carpenter’s scoundrel son, had done to her after dragging her into the jowar stalks.
A year later, Puro married. Her courtyard was filled with the sounds of dholkis and giddha. The groom’s marital party arrived from Dham Kot on camels. Everyone was drinking alcohol and singing bawdy songs. In the early morning, they were married, and Puro prepared to depart for her in-laws’ home.
Jangir was standing in the courtyard. Puro was sitting inside surrounded by her girlfriends. Jangir entered. Puro, whose eyes were adorned with kohl, saw him. She was wearing a silk suit and slippers with sequined stars. Before the wedding, three dots had been tattooed on her chin which became her. On her head, she wore a chunni of heavy lace. Puro declared, “How lovely you came! I wanted to see you. Did you eat any of my wedding sweets?”
She removed two special laddoos made of rice flour that were tucked away in a corner of a basket and handed them to him.
The unspoken phrase “don’t tell anyone” echoed in her words “take them.”
Puro went to her in-laws. Many years passed.
Jangir passed the fifth grade and was admitted into a good school from which he subsequently completed the tenth grade. He then went to Lahore and began his college studies. Occasionally, when he returned to the village during the summer holidays, Puro too would return to her maternal home to celebrate Teej. Jangir would once again hear her telling him to take the laddoos. He never mentioned that day to anyone. He protected that secret like a soldier honoring his oath.
After finishing his BA, Jangir returned to the village whereupon he learned that Puro had returned to her parents’ home. He was now 19 years of age and Puro was 26. She had two children…a seven-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter.
When he went to Puro’s home to meet her, she was sitting in the courtyard making rotis. Her daughter was sleeping, and her son was sitting in front of her eating a small piece of bread with butter. She told Jangir to eat some bread and drink some lassi. Jangir responded that he had become accustomed to drinking tea during college and had lost his taste for lassi.
After speaking a bit with Puro, he learned that she was heading out to the fields to carry lunch to her father. She was getting her son ready to accompany her.
In the nine years, Puro’s fulsome figure had filled out even more. Her breasts seemed so large in that yellow kurti. Her face was aglow from the crackling stove embers. Time and time again she wiped the sweat from her face with her chunni.
After cooking the rotis, she washed her hands and face. Just as she had that day, she placed the bundle of rotis and the jug of lassi upon her head and headed off towards the fields with her son.
As Jagir watched her leave, she looked just like that very Puro from nine years ago. That same gait. Those same mannerisms. That same quantity of lassi. Suddenly, an idea snapped to his mind. He left their home, bought some laddoos, and set off for the fields. He passed through the hillocks on one side and hurriedly crossed the channel right before Puro did so. Then he hid in the jowar stalks.
He listened very attentively for her. After a short while, he heard the faint sounds of Puro and her son on the other side of the channel. Then from the channel came the sounds of water splashing.
From the jowar stalks, he watched as Puro crossed the channel and let her son down from her shoulders. Her black shalwar was hoisted up above her knees and water was dripping from her exposed legs. She tried to slip her wet salwar down over her legs. Jangir felt oddly titillated watching her struggle to adjust her salwar. Hearing leaves crushing and stalks breaking, his breath became hot. He quickly leapt out of the stalks, crushing them. He lurched in front of Puro. Seeing him, the mother and son trembled in fear.
He grabbed Puro’s arms. She pounced like a lioness “Have you no shame? What kind of a depraved person are you?”
The word “depraved” emboldened him, summoned his courage. Holding her firmly in his grip, he lugged her into the stalks.
Puro’s son was standing right there, utterly terrified. Above the rustling of the leaves, he could hear his mother say “Leave me! Have you no decency?” A muffled scream came from the stalks which disappeared in the soft green leaves. Then came the noise of stalks breaking and leaves crushing. The little boy’s heart began to race.
After some time, Puro emerged and then, on her heels, Jangir, who was tying his turban.
Puro yelled “Go! Get away from here!”
Jangir stepped forward and opened a fold in his turban from which he withdrew two laddoos and gave them to her son. The boy looked towards his mother.
Puro, clutching her son closely, told him, “Eat the laddoos. Don’t tell anyone, my son.”
Jangir crossed the channel and returned to the village.
Puro put the bundle of rotis and the jug of lassi back on her head.
Her son walked along beside her eating the laddoos.
About Balwant Gargi: Balwant Gargi (b. 4 December 1916 — d. 22 April 2003) is perhaps most known for his dramas in the Punjabi language as well his theater direction. However, he was also a scholar and prolific novelist and short story writer. In 1962, Gargi was awarded the Sahitya Akademi award, which is the highest Indian literary award, for his play Rang Manch. In 1972, he received the Padma Shri (1972). In 1998 he was bestowed the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in Punjabi Playwriting in 1998. Gargi is one of the few artists who received both the Sahitya Akademi and Sangeet Natak Akademi awards. In 2017, the Government of India officially released postage stamps to commemorate the birth-centenary of Balwant Gargi (1916–2016). Gargi’s short stories are known for their straightforward language which narrate unpleasant truths about Punjabi rural life.
About the Translator: C. Christine Fair is a professor within the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She studies political and military events of South Asia and travels extensively throughout Asia and the Middle East. Her books include In Their Own Words: Understanding the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (OUP 2019); Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (OUP, 2014); and Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States (Globe Pequot, 2008). She has published creative pieces in The Bark, The Dime Show Review, Clementine Unbound, Awakenings, Fifty Word Stories, The Drabble, Sandy River Review, Sonder Midwest, Black Horse Magazine, Furious Gazelle, Lunch Ticket, Hyptertext, Barzakh Magazine and Bluntly Magazine among others. Her visual poetry has appeared in Awakenings, pulpMAG and several forthcoming pieces in Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, The Indianapolis Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine and PCC Inscape Magazine. She causes trouble in multiple languages.
Acknowledgments: The translator is grateful to Balwant Gargi’s son, Manu Gargi, for giving me permission to translate this story as well my various Punjabi instructors over the years, especially Seema Miglani of the American Institute of Indian Studies program in Chandigarh.
This translation was published by The Bombay Literary Magazine on May 26, 2021.