As she peeps out of the black shawl that covers her head and petite frame to check who has arrived at the black iron gate of her house, Shakuntala Devi looks a bit worried. Amid the shrieks of a two-and- a-half-month-old baby dangling by her arm, partly covered by the shawl, she struggles to make herself audible. After a couple of attempts, she puts the child down on a charpai and comes closer. A wrinkled and sunburnt face is visible as she speaks through two broken teeth in the front. “Hum nahin aa rahe, teeka laga sakti ho toh batao (I am not coming, tell me if you can give me an injection instead),” she says while turning around to check on the baby, who is now joined by his two-year-old brother Karamjeet.
Having delivered two sons in the past couple of years, the 52-year-old has been contemplating a tubectomy. “Hum gaye thhe operation karwane , par bhaag aye. Hum darr gaye thhe, teeka lagwa sakte hain par unke paas hai nahin (I went for a surgery but ran away, I got scared. I don’t mind a shot, but they didn’t have one),” she says.
Realising that we are not doctors from the nearby government health centre asking her to get a tubectomy done, she asks again, “Buddhe se milne aaye ho (You’ve come to meet the old man)?” We nod. The old man in question is 96-year-old Ramjeet Raghav, who recently hit headlines for fathering a second child at his age with Shakuntala. Living in Kharkhoda village in Haryana’s Sonepat district, he was declared ‘the oldest known new father at 94’ when their first son was born in 2010. Raghav managed to retain the title at 96 with the birth of their second son in October this year.
Ramjeet had left earlier in the morning for the market nearby to run some errands for his landlord, Veer Pehelwan, who had built the one-room house for the couple on his property. Before the children were born, the two worked as labourers on his farm. Since then, Pehelwan has switched to real estate development, and Ramjeet now only looks after his cattle and does sundry odd jobs for him.
Shakuntala sends the neighbour’s son to fetch him from the market and offers us a seat on the charpai. The older boy is given a chappati and some boiled potatoes to nibble on, and she grabs a stool for herself to catch her breath as the baby quietly suckles on her breast. Eager to chat, she says that she finds it hard to manage the children alone. Apart from having to look after them, she regrets missing out on increased daily wages. Earlier, as farm labourers, they would together make about Rs 100 a day. With the landlord switching to real estate, and all the extra construction activity in the area, wages have gone up to about Rs 300 a day. She doesn’t want more children, and on the insistence of her neighbours, who often laugh at the couple’s feat, went for a tubectomy a week ago only to get cold feet at the last minute.
Shakuntala has an alternative. “Buddhe ke paas takatak mantra hai, wohi ilaaj karega (The old man has a fantastic mantra, that’s the solution),” she says.
Ramjeet arrives in about half an hour and settles down in one corner of the charpai. Partly covered by a white beard, his face is a maze of crisscrossing lines that make him look old, but not as old as 96. He calls Shakuntala ‘Ramee’ and asks her for a glass of water. “ If I didn’t have my children, no one would have bothered visiting me. Today, everyone finds me interesting and wants to know how I did it,” he says. “My children are Krishna’s blessings and a testimony of my love for her (Shakuntala) and my devotion to the cattle I look after for my landlord,” he says. While they have been living together without being married for the last 20 years, Ramjeet believes that it is his ability to please her at least thrice every night that has done the trick. “The secret lies in drinking milk and having ghee, I tell my neighbours when they ask. They laugh, but it is true.” As if on cue, he fishes out his pension papers to prove that he is indeed 96 years old. Out also comes a $10 bill which he hopes to exchange with one of Pehelwan’s employees the next day. It was a parting gift from an American journalist who recently took photos of his family, he tells us with pride.
Shakuntala, handing Karamjeet over to his father, disagrees with his explanation. She mentions the takatak mantra again.
Ramjeet decides to explain. He starts from the beginning. All of 21, he had left his family home in a village near Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh after his wife died while giving birth to a girl. While his daughter, too, died a few days later, an impending family dispute forced him to leave home. “ I wandered around working as a labourer for several years till I arrived here 25 years ago to work on a fruit farm. Ramee, too, was a worker there,” he says.
Married at 15 and abandoned by her husband after a miscarriage, Shakuntala, too, wandered for years working as a labourer in places like Benaras and Mughal Sarai till she found work in Kharkhoda, known for its estate farms and fruit orchards. “Everyone found her strange and said that she had lost her mind. But she looked after me when I was sick and we eventually fell in love. We decided to stay together and she moved in with me in my hut, built under a neem tree on the estate,” he says. With Kharkhoda set to become an important industrial hub of Haryana, the farm has now been converted into a plot for development and construction. The couple have moved away from the neem tree and now live next to a Muslim shrine. “The sex and love is our takatak mantra. She was not crazy anymore and we were husband and wife,” he says as Shakuntala goes into the kitchen to fetch some rotis and potatoes for the old man. “I have worshipped cattle all my life. It is because of my devotion that I have a family,” he adds. While they moved in together about 20 years ago, the first child was born only two years back. “No one believed us and thought we were lying to gain sympathy and make a quick buck. When Ramee went into labour, we had to go by ourselves because none of the neighbours would believe us, “ he says.
As his neighbours, who had now assembled to participate in the discussion, laugh with mild embarrassment, he says that each one of them has secretly come to him for advice. “Every man wants to please his woman, there is nothing wrong in it.” The routine advice is to drink milk, eat almonds and fruits, and exercise regularly. “Wrestling is very good, I used to be a wrestler when I was younger,” he adds.
The sex, however, has taken a beating with the children demanding more time and attention. The couple would earlier work in the fields and return home only in the evening. “The younger one is very restless. We sleep at 2 am and have to wake up two hours later sometimes. I can still go on, but we have decided to sacrifice our physical needs for our children,” he says.
Shakuntala, of course, doesn’t mind this, for the time being. She does not want more children and hopes for the reversal of the takatak mantra. However, she coyly admits that she does miss “spending time with the old man”. She calls him ‘buddha’ but claims he is better than any other man in the village.
Meanwhile, a labourer working near the house walks in looking for the parents. Visibly irritated, he hands over a child’s pants that the wind had blown out onto the road. He chides Shakuntala for being such a careless mother. Ramjeet sheepishly apologises to him. “All our lives we have been wanderers with no family. It is tough managing the house and children, but I have no regrets,” he says.
While Shakuntala worries about the lack of finances and uncertainties of life, Ramjeet is content and believes the children will manage alright, just as their parents did. “People would call us crazy and an infertile old couple. Look at us now, we have two sons. Nothing in the world can replace the happiness of having a family,” he adds.