In exchange for a profit of two hundred rupees, Kesu-mama decides to marry off his orphaned niece to a wealthy businessman thrice her age. The devastated young girl’s protests are met with traditional pressure to succumb to a fate decided by those who claim to know better. As a last resort, Shanti stands in a temple and makes her wish for a happy ending before she’s shooed out for belonging to a lower caste. The wish, however, sets off a chain of fantastic events, and what unfolds is a transgressive fairytale steeped in Marathi language and culture.
Written by Chintaman Vinayak Joshi, and appearing first in the bilingual journal हाकारा । hākārā, “Mousey Miracles” bristles with mirth and defiance against social injustice and ends on a note of triumph.
– Raaza Jamshed for Guernica Global Spotlights
In the lower alleyways of Osadwadi lived the kaasaar Kesu-mama, the bangle-vendor. His house was partitioned into three — a long wide verandah towards the front, a maaj-ghar or central partition, and then a kitchen towards the back. A courtyard adjoined the kitchen; and beyond lay a cowshed — that’s all there was to Kesu-mama’s house. There were two–four banana saplings and a papaya tree planted in the courtyard and a half-dead, dried-up cow tethered inside the cowshed.
Kesu-mama had grown old. To add to that he was plagued with a cough which had affected his business. He’d sit on the outside verandah continuously smoking his chillum and cough-cough-coughing away.
His wife Lakshmi carried on a bit of bangle-vending and earned a bit of money. This was enough to sustain the two of them and their orphaned niece Shanti, Kesu-mama’s sister’s daughter. The girl had just entered her fifteenth year.
After the plague claimed his third wife, Baal-shet, a wealthy gentleman from Baavdhan, decided to set up married life again. He came to Osadwadi to meet Kesu-mama accompanied by his nephew Prabhakar.
“How’s it going, mama?” he asked.
Kesu-mama helplessly described the situation. “Business has folded up, and I’m in debt of a thousand rupees.”
“Mama, listen to me. Not only will you be able to pay off your debt but also make a profit of a hundred–two hundred rupees while you’re at it!”
Baal-shet agreed to give Kesumama the twelve hundred rupees on the condition of getting Shanti married to him. When the girl was called forth for the customary bride-viewing, she thought it was Prabhakar she was to be wed to.
Shanti was ecstatic. Sakhar-puda, the engagement ceremony took place. She was given the gift of a traditional sari with gold bangles. In her heart she thanked her mama and mami a hundred times over.
After four days she happened to notice the wedding invitation cards.
“By the grace of Shree Yamai Mata, we are all set to solemnize the wedding of our niece Chi. Sou. Ka. Shanta with the merchant Shree Baal-shet Kaasaar of Baavdhan” and so on and so forth.
She thought this was a printing error, and asked,
“Mama, what’s this strange name on the invitation card?”
“No, dear, where is it wrong? I’ve decided to wed you to Baal-shet himself.”
“What? To that old man?” said a surprised Shanti.
“Where is he old, Shanti? He must be at the most thirty-five or forty years old. Forty-five years old maximum! Have we brought you up after your parents died only to give you away to some doddering old fogey? Silly girl, you’re hard pressed for even two square meals here. There you’re going to be rolling in riches when you become a sawkarin, wife to a rich man!” Lakshmibai vociferously agreed with her husband. The couple tried to coax and cajole Shanti into giving in and even went so far as to threaten her. After four–five days, she couldn’t even think straight with the disturbing thought of getting married to that old man.
Shanti’s one and only true friend was Kashi, Kaasaar Kashinath’s wife. She poured her heart out in front of Kashi. “I really thought I’d been chosen for that ogre-faced sawkar’s nephew.” Kashi wiped her tear-soaked eyes. “What do I even tell you, Shanti? A woman’s life is dependent on others. Taking birth as a woman means to stoically bear all that is destined for you. Women don’t have their own desires and wishes, and knowing their preferences and tastes is useless. They don’t have the agency of avoiding things they don’t want, and no way to get things they like.”
“Don’t start with your philosophy now, you little git! Everything’s going well with you, that’s why you’re being a goody-two-shoes! Tell me how to get out of this mess. I don’t care for my life.” said an incensed Shanti.
“No need to give up life, Shanti. Surrender to Ganpati in our Osadeshwar mandir. He’ll get you rid of all your troubles and find you a husband exactly like you want. Pray to him with all your heart. Pluck twenty-one stalks of durva grass yourself and offer to him, and if all goes well make a vow to offer him twenty-one modaks.”
Shanti plucked twenty-one tender stalks of durva grass. She took the grass with twenty-one grains of akshata and a bit of kunkoo, and offering them in a pooja to Gajanan-maharaj, prayed fervently,
“Vakratunda-mahakay and whatever-comes-after-that I don’t know by heart, moryaa! Devaa, have pity on this orphan girl and don’t let me become an old man’s wife! If I become his daughter-in-law instead, I’ll feed you twenty-one modaks on Vinayak Chaturthi. Or sometimes, twenty-one laadoos.”
Shanti wept and sobbed.
“Devaa, you might not care for laadoos and modaks from this wretched girl. Still I beg you. Be compassionate and heed to my plea, else I’ll break open my head at your feet. Then you’ll be stuck with the name Murderous Ganpati. You’ll take pity on me, won’t you?”
The temple pujari Ram-bhat, draped in his unsullied purified attire, came there with the pooja materials in hand, and when he saw Shanti stuck to Ganpati’s idol, he saw red and snarled, “Aga eyy, bangle-wallah’s daughter, you dare lay hands so casually on the Ganpati idol! Don’t you understand he’s a right-trunked Ganpati? Not supposed to touch him like this! Be that as it may, it seems now Harijans, lower castes are also going to be allowed in the temple; Morya Gajanana, may Bappa forever shut this Ram-bhat’s eyes before something like that happens!”
Shanti fled in fright while this blabbering was going on. His pooja complete, Ram-bhat locked up the sanctum sanctorum and left.
Then Ganpati called out to his favourite mouse mount, “Mooshakaa, arre Mooshakaa!” Undir-mama immediately got up from his seat and came and stood in front of his master.
“Mooshakaa, what do you think about people who give their daughters away to old men in marriage?”
“Dhani, I’d say they’re dyed-in-the-wool humans! This is something that doesn’t befit even us animals. Bhagavaan, we’ve found a man-imal in this village who is wedding off his niece, if not his daughter, to an old man!”
“That’s her! Looks like it was the same pitiful girl who came by crying to me. I felt very bad as I watched her.”
“If you wish, let me break off her impending wedding with that old man,” said Undir-mama. Gajanan-maharaj chuckled to himself. He was mightily amused at Undir-mama’s self-confidence. “Vatsaa, you’re just a puny little four-legger, how do you plan to disrupt an entire wedding, huh? You get yourself in a bunch when presented with a big calamity, and here you plan to break off an entire wedding!”
“Nothing is impossible without your blessings, Vighna-vinayakaa. At least wait and see how I work my magic!”
Eventually, with Gajanana’s blessings, Undir-mama began preparing, determined to disrupt Baal-shet’s wedding.
Baal-shet was to leave from Baavdhan in a car. He’d left no stone unturned in preparing for the wedding and had outdone himself with the exquisite arrangements. He dyed his mustache to hide the white wisps in it, and made the hair on his head black. With false teeth he filled his cavernous mouth, and beefed up his scrawny body with heavy woolens.
While coming out of his room he spotted a fat mouse lying lifeless by the wild fig tree. Baal-shet’s heart pounded. His second wife had been claimed by the plague.
Just then, the public crier proclaimed —
“Aika ho, everyone, listen up! The plague has started in our village, get away from wherever you come across the rats and mice lying dead. Send the dead rats and mice to the government office for examination. Everyone get themselves pricked with injections. Everyone guard yourself against the plague ho!…….”
The pounding in Baal-shet’s heart had reached his head by now. He turned to look at the dead mouse, but it had somehow vanished.
The richly decorated car in which he was to go to Osadwadi stood at the door. The instant he put his foot in, he spotted a dead mouse lying inside, exactly like the one he’d spotted earlier.
“Arre, throw away that mouse and scrub the car clean with scalding hot water.” he instructed his servant. When the fellow held the mouse by its legs and flung it away, it instantly vanished.
Later, the same thing happened when they came to the house in Osadwadi. Shet-ji started seeing dead mice here and there. But strangely, they were all of the same shape and size, and the same color too.
While the antarpaat, a cloth partition between the couple, was being held up during the marriage rituals — a dead mouse beside the paat! Baal-shet clenched his (false) teeth and quaked in terror.
Finally the wedding guests said, “Kesu-mama, this old fogey doesn’t look too promising. Why do you invite misfortune by giving away your niece to him?”
“Arre, but I’ve spent three hundred rupees on all the arrangements! Set up the wedding tent and altar too! Yellowed my niece with turmeric! And now who’s going to marry her if I leave her unmarried like this?”
Kaasaar Kashinath’s wife Kashi thought this was a golden opportunity to save her best friend’s life. She said, “What’s the big deal in that? Shet-ji’s nephew Prabhakar is of marriageable age, let him stand on the altar, scatter some akshata, and all is done! It’s not good to keep an already yellowed girl unmarried.”
The community members liked Kashi’s idea. They undid the mundavalya, the traditional wedding ornament, from Baal-shet’s forehead and tied it about Prabhakar’s forehead instead. Shanti was married off to Prabhakar.
As soon as Baal-shet came to and opened his eyes, what did he see? The newlyweds Prabhakar and Shanti had come to fall at his feet and take his blessings. The old man silently seethed and begrudgingly blessed them.
In Ganpati’s sabha-mandapa sat the guests for the wedding feast. Undir-mama’s idol was beside Baal-shet’s plate. And whenever the old merchant glanced at it he swore he could see the mouse winking at him and saying, “Look how I fooled you!”
“Mousey Miracles,” by Chintaman Vinayak Joshi and originally published by हाकारा । hākārā which describes itself as a “ peer-reviewed journal . . . focus[ing] on creative and critical writing in Marathi and English across literary and visual forms of expressions.”