Season of joy

The sun is the gateway to the path of the gods Mahabharata

An enduring image from the Mahabharata is that of the mortally wounded patriarch Bhishma Pitamaha lying on a bed of arrows, waiting for precisely this date – 14th January – to die.  Blessed with the boon of selecting the time of death, he chose Makara Sankranti,  a highly auspicious day in the Hindu calendar, because death on this day would grant him moksha, release from the cycle of rebirth.

On Makara Sankranti, the sun enters (Sankranti) the sign of Capricorn (Makara) and begins its northward journey, Uttarayan. For us earthlings, it means that our days will now be increasingly long and warm. While northerners celebrate the end of winter, in the south, especially Tamil Nadu, this day is marked for an important harvest festival, Pongal, when an offering of cooked rice is made to the sun.

The overflowing of the cooking pot, representing an inexhaustible vessel, is considered a sign of good luck, and it, too, finds an echo in the epic: When the Pandavas began their thirteen-year-exile, their circumstances were considerably reduced. Understanding this, Surya presented Yudhisthir with an Akshaya Patra, a cooking pot that would assure him an endless supply of food,  as he was still obligated to feed all visitors.

Yaska, a 5th BCE grammarian, classified the chief Vedic deities as three: Agni whose place is on the earth, Vayu or Indra, whose place is in the air, and Surya, who occupies the sky. While worship of the first two gods has somewhat declined, worshipping the Sun is a tradition that has continued to present times, as evidenced by the chanting of the sacred Gayatri mantra in which the deity is referred to as Savitr, ‘the one that rises and sets’.

Among the sun’s 1008 names is Bharga ( Evolver). ‘This Evolver is the soul of all that exists in the three worlds, whether animate or inanimate. There is nothing apart from it.’ As the source of life and light – physical, mental spiritual – the sun is the nearest image we have of divinity.

Mothers & Others

Your son will have your glory, but will he have your name? By what name will he be called?’

The look he sent me was full of irony. ‘Would it be wrong if he was called by your name – as Kaunteya?’

How little you know of this world!’ I said, bitterly.

(source: The Kaunteyas – pg 62)

Kaunteya (singular) is a matronymic, a personal name derived from the name of the mother, grandmother or a female ancestor. It means ‘Kunti’s son’ – just as Pandava means ‘Pandu’s son’ – and is equally applicable to the four sons born of Kunti.

We know that Kunti is the birth mother of the elder three Pandavas: Yudhisthira, Bheem and Arjuna. But what these three brothers do not know is that they have another sibling by the same mother. In ancient times, a matronymic was used when referring to the son of an unwed mother (as is the case with Karna), or when the mother was a powerful figure in her own right, such as a queen. Thus, in the epic, each of the twin sons of Kunti’s co-wife, Queen Madri, is referred to as Madreya (Madreyas in plural). Likewise, the five sons of Draupadi are called Draupadeyas.

Another matronymic in the epic is Partha.Though it is used mostly for Arjun, it can apply just as well to Karna, Yudhisthira and Bheem. (In recent times, the well known Bengali author poet and playwright, Buddhadeb Bose wrote a popular play Pratham Partha, which is about Karna.) Partha means ‘Pritha’s son’, Pritha being Kunti’s birth name before she was given away in fosterage to Kuntibhoja. In those days, queens were often known by the name of the kingdom that they came from, so Pritha became Kunti.

 

Good Girls Don’t

“Girls in our family are taught to run a household, trained to be good, dutiful wives in the future but you have encouraged her to study the Shastras because she has a sharp mind – that was what you said. How does a sharp mind reveal itself but through a sharp tongue? In a woman is that a virtue or a vice?”

(source: pg 28-29, The Kaunteyas)

One of the criticisms made about modern TV soaps is about the regressive depiction of women – evil saas, submissive bahu – that reinforces gender stereotyping. However, screen actors act according to a script, the episode is watched by an unknown audience. Oral storytelling performances require performers to be more sensitive to their audiences. Coming from this milieu, the world as depicted in the Mahabharata, is also complex and nuanced, particularly in its depiction of women.

We know the Mahabharata as a tale of enmity between two branches of the same family that ends in a terrible war. Rivalry is a recurrent theme in the epic. For instance, the unspoken sibling rivalry between Dhritarashtra and Pandu mutates, in the next generation, into the deadly enmity between their children.

A subplot of the story is the intense competition between the two best archers of that time, Karna and Arjun. In the sweep of the narrative, it is sometimes overlooked that they, too, are half brothers. The fact that they, themselves, are unaware of the kinship adds piquancy and pathos to the tale. Until the eve of the war, the relationship is known only to their mother Kunti.

What compels her to maintain this secret almost right to the bitter end? Why does she choose to reveal it at a critical point in the story? What are the lifelong consequences that she suffers for keeping this secret? Finally, what role does the secret play in shaping the larger events of the Mahabharata? These are intriguing questions that lead us towards insights into the feminine world of the epic, as well as to a deeper understanding of patriarchal society. Most of all, the questions allow us to enter the mind of an important but elusive character from the epic and see its events from her perspective.

 

Family Sagas: Our Never Ending Love

“Men’s stories are the bones of a bygone age, sanctified as relics, preserved in stone. Women’s stories are written in water. Passed in silence from mother to daughter. About things perishable: flesh, blood, feelings, tears. Suffering. Endurance is a sign of womanliness. But what men overlook is that endurance is a crucible, it changes the existing state.”

(source: Prologue, The Kaunteyas)

The serial Yeh rishta kya kehlata hai just aired its 2,267th episode. Dallas and Dynasty may have inspired Indian screenwriters to script convoluted family sagas, but our own indigenous tradition for such fare is very old.

Long before the writing of the Mahabharata began, over 2000 years ago, it was already a well-known tale that had thrived for centuries. Storytellers performed it before audiences, but it was probably a talking point in every household. Why? Because it is about family. One of the methods used to keep multiple generations of listeners engaged was to constantly re-frame the narrative; every possible character, situation and plot twist was included in the mix so that eventually a famous (tag) line said: What is here may be found elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere.

The Mahabharata is regarded as itihasa, that some translate as ‘history’. But history, strictly speaking, has no lessons to offer; it is for the student of history to decide what s/he wants to make of it. An epic like the Mahabharata is a different matter: the concept of time that applies to history is irrelevant. Also, its sheer size and variety, offering profit and pleasure, makes it accessible to a wider range of people.

Oral storytelling is more nuanced because it is sensitive to a ‘live’ audience. The Mahabharata, originating in this tradition, carries within it multiple meanings, stories and ways of telling them. It has, and it will for generations to come, inspire us to seek or renew these meanings, stories and storytelling styles. That is the secret of its enduring appeal.

 

USNE KAHA THA / She Had Said It

[Note: On the eve of World War 1, the Indian Army expanded from 155,000 men to around 1.27 million, providing 10 percent of the British Empire’s total military strength. Of these, 827,000 served as combatants and more than 74,000 lost their lives. Their contribution to decisive early battles led to the failure of Germany’s plan for a quick thrust into France, ensuring instead that the war became a long-drawn affair which the superior material resources of the Anglo-American and French powers could eventually win. These battles were mostly fought in the Ypres Salient and at Neuve Chapelle.

About 60 per cent of those recruited came from Punjab, both Muslims and Sikhs. They were paid a monthly salary ofImg 3 11 rupees. Most separated their political duty to serve the Empire from their personal feelings, aware that they were treated less-than-fairly by a colonial regime that paid little attention to their religious sensitivities. What was deeply traumatic for them, however, was the surreal experience of industrial-age warfare. Their more erudite Anglophone counterparts left behind moving testimonies of the powerlessness that soldiers would experience when coming under artillery fire from an unseen enemy. For the simple jawan, recruited from hardy peasant stock in another climate, however, the combination of cultural disorientation and physical danger posed on the battlefields of Belgium and northern France must have numbed the senses. In spite of tremendous hardship, the Indian Corps won 13,000 medals for gallantry, including 12 Victoria Crosses.]


USNE KAHA THA (She had said it)

(Originally by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri. Translated from Hindi by Madhavi Mahadevan)

Residents of big cities who have been blistered from the tongue lashings and hardened by the abuses from ekka drivers should apply the balm that is the sweet speech of the bamboo- cart drivers of Amritsar – this is our appeal.   Whereas an  ekka driver on the city’s wide roads thrashes the horse  with his whip and, with his insults, establishes his intimate knowledge of the animal’s grandmother, or, pitying the pedestrians for not having eyes in their heads, rides roughshod over their toes, all the while bemoaning his fate, the man of his fraternity in Amritsar will negotiate the narrow, convoluted  alleys with endless patience. He will politely address those on foot:  save yourself, khalsaji; move aside bhai ji;  just hold on, lalaji; watch out, Badshah. All this in the thick of a crowd made up of white turbans, mules, ducks, hawkers, sugarcane sellers and porters.  It would be a wonder if anybody had to shift an inch without being respectfully addressed as ji or sahib.  If an old lady totters while crossing his path, the bamboo- cart driver will speak to her thus: You deserve to live long. You are fortunate that your children and grandchildren love you.  Why do you want to die under the wheels of my cart? Let me pass!

In the midst of these bamboo- cart drivers, a boy and a girl first met at a shop in the chowk. From his long hair and her loose fitting pyjamas, it appeared that they were both Sikh. He had come to buy fresh curd for his uncle’s hair wash and she was there to purchase wadi, sundried lentil paste balls, for the kitchen. They waited while the shopkeeper wrangled with a customer who insisted on counting every piece of raw papad in the one seer he had just bought.

-Where’s your home?

-In Maghre. And yours?

-In Manjhe. Where do you live here?

-At Attar Singh’s. He’s my maternal uncle.

-I’m also staying with my maternal uncle. His house is in Guru Bazaar.

The shopkeeper then attended to these two. Collecting their purchases they set out together. After a while, the boy asked her, ‘Teri kudhmai  ho gayi?’  Is your engagement ceremony over?

The girl frowned. ‘Dhatt!’ she said and ran off, leaving the boy to stare after her.

They would run into each other every second or third day at the vegetable shop or at the milkman’s. This went on for a month. On two or three occasions, the boy asked her the same question: Teri kudhmai ho gayi? And she gave the same answer. Dhatt! Then one day, he teasingly asked her again, and this time, she said, Yes, it’s over.

-When?

-Yesterday. Don’t you see this silk embroidered shawl?

The boy headed home. En route he pushed another boy into the gutter, destroyed a hawker’s day’s worth of earnings, hurled a stone at a dog, poured milk over a vegetable seller’s cauliflowers and jostled an old vaishnav woman  just returning from a purifying bath – she called him blind – before he finally made it home.

2

‘Ram, Ram! What kind of a war is this!  The bones are stiff from being cooped for days and nights in the trenches. It is ten times colder than Ludhiana, rains and snows constantly. Up to our calves in the slush. Can’t see the enemy, but Img 2every hour or so, there’s an ear drum shattering explosion, the trench shakes, the ground beneath our feet shifts.  If we can manage to save ourselves from these bombs, we might even be able to fight. Had heard of the earthquakes in Nagarkot, but there are at least twenty-five such upheavals here every day. If the tip of a turban or an elbow emerges from the bunker, it is shot off. No one knows whether the blighters are – in the mud or hiding behind the grass.’

‘Lahna Singh, just three more days to go. We’ve already spent four in the trenches. When relief arrives there’s a seven-day break for you. We’ll kill a goat, eat our belly’s fill and get a sound sleep in that French lady’s garden, on the velvety green lawn. She showers us with fruit and milk; even though we say it a thousand times, she will not take money from us; tells us that we are kings who have come to save her country.’

‘For the last four days, I have not had a wink of sleep. Without exercise, a horse suffers, as does a soldier –without a fight.  I wish they would tell me to fix a bayonet on my rifle and march ahead. If I don’t return without killing six or seven Germans, let me never have the good fortune of bowing my head before Darbar Sahib. These scoundrels, seeing our tanks and bayonets, beg for mercy, but after dark, they fire shells, each weighing at least thirty munn. Remember our last attack? Did  not leave a single German alive within a four mile- radius. The general ordered us to return, or else…’

‘Or else you would have reached Berlin, eh?’ Subedar Hazara Singh smiled. ‘Wars are not overseen by jamadars and naiks. The senior officers have to think ahead. The front is three miles long. If we break through on one side what will happen to the rest of it?’

‘You are right, Subedar ji,’ Lahna Singh said. ‘But what does one do? This cold has entered our bones, the sun doesn’t show up and water keeps on seeping in from the sides of the bunker as if the streams of the pond in Chamba are flowing into it.  One attack would warm us up.’

‘Restless fellow, get up and add some coal to the sigri. Vazira, take four men and  tip the water out of the bunker with buckets. Maha Singh, it is evening now, time to change the guard at the entrance.’ After giving instructions, the subedar went on his rounds of the trench.

Vazira was the comedian of the unit. Pouring out the muddy water, he said, ‘Look, I’ve become a padha. Here’s a libation to the dead king of Germany.’ Everyone laughed; the clouds of depression vanished.

Lahna Singh said: ‘Imagine that you are watering the melons in your fields. Nowhere in Punjab will you get water so rich in nutrients.’

‘Yes, what a great country this is. Sheer  heaven. After the war, I’m going to ask the government to grant me ten gunas of land here so that I can plant an orchard.’

‘Will your wife join you, or is that white mem who gives you milk…?’

‘Shut up. The people here have no shame.’

‘Different countries have differing customs. I have never been able to make her understand that Sikhs do not smoke. She insists on offering me a cigarette. Tries to place  it on my lips, when I refuse she thinks that that the king is annoyed and will not fight for her country.

‘How is Bodh Singh now?’ Vazira asked.

‘Better,’ replied Lahna.

‘As if I don’t know what’s going on! Every night, you give him your blankets and sit by the sigri. You also do his guard duty. You give him the wooden planks to sleep on, while you lie in the wet mud. Don’t you fall ill now. This isn’t cold, it’s death. And those who die of pneumonia are not given lands next to the canal by the government.’

‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll die by the channel in Bulel. My head will be on my brother Keerat Singh’s lap and the shade of the mango tree I planted will be over me.’Img 1

Vazir Singh scowled. ‘Why this talk of death and dying? Let the Germans and Turks die
… What do you say, brothers?’ He burst into song.

Who would have imagined that those upright Sikhs, bearded and married, would sing such a bawdy song? The entire
bunker resounded with their singing. The soldiers felt refreshed as if they had enjoyed four days of rest and recreation.

3.

It is late night. Total silence.  Bodh Singh is asleep on a bed made of three biscuit tins placed end- to- end. Two blankets below him and two of Lahna Singh’s blankets and an overcoat to cover him. Lahna Singh is on guard duty. His eyes shift from the opening of the bunker to Bodh Singh’s thin frame. Bodh Singh groans.

‘What is it? What do you want, Bodha?’

‘Water.’

Lahna Singh held up the cup of water to Bodha’s mouth. ‘How are you feeling now?’ he asked.

Bodh Singh sipped a little water. ‘I’m shivering. It feels as if an electric current is running through my entire body. My teeth are rattling.’

‘Wear my jersey.’

‘What about you?’

‘I have the sigri. It’s so warm that I’m sweating.’

‘I’m not going to wear it. For the last four days, you’ve…’

‘Oh, I’ve just remembered that I have another woolen jersey. It came just today. The memsahibs are knitting pullovers in Vilayat and sending them to us. May the Guru bless them.’ Saying this, Lahna removed his great coat and started taking of his jersey.

‘Are you telling the truth?’

‘Yes, of course.’

Bodha protested, but Lahna insisted and helped him slip on the jersey. Wearing only a coarse shirt and and the overcoat he stood guard near the entrance. The story about the knitted pullover from England was just that, a story.

Half an hour later, some called from outside the bunker, ‘Subedar Hazara Singh!’

‘Who? Oh, Lieutenant  sahib!  Yes,  sir!’ The subedar stood to attention and saluted his superior officer.

‘Look, we have to attack immediately. About a mile away in the eastern corner, there is a German bunker. No more than fifty Germans. Move under the trees. There will be two or three turnings. I have placed fifteen soldiers at one of them. Leave ten men here. Seize the trench and stay there till further orders. I will remain here.’

‘Yes, sir.’

Everyone got ready in silence. Bodha threw off his blanket, but Lahna Singh stopped him. However, when he stepped forward, the subedar, Bodh Singh’s father, pointed a finger towards his son. Lahna understood, he did not protest. An argument started about who would be staying back; no one wanted to. The subedar managed to persuade ten men to remain in the bunker and marched off with the rest.

The lieutenant sahib stood next to the sigri. He took out a cigarette and lit it. After ten minutes, he offered a cigarette to Lahna. ‘Go ahead, have one yourself.’

In the blinking of an eye, Lahna caught on. Keeping his face deadpan, he extended his hand.  In the glow from the sigri he saw the lieutenant’s face, his hair. He was taken aback. How had the sahib’s sideburns vanished in just one day, to be replaced by a prisoner- style close-crop? Perhaps the sahib had been drunk when he got the opportunity to have a haircut. Lahna wanted to probe further. The lieutenant had been in the regiment for five years.

‘Tell me, sahib, when will we return to Hindustan?’

‘After the war is over. Why? Don’t you like this country?’

‘No, sahib.  The hunting here isn’t the same as back home.  Don’t you remember, after the battle exercise last year we went to Jagadhari  on a shikaar?

‘Yes, I remember.’

‘The time you rode a donkey and your khansama Abdulla stayed back to offer water at a temple.’

‘Of course…The rascal!’

Medals_and_Decorations_H60

‘And that nilgai came out suddenly. I’d never seen a creature so big. And your bullet entered its shoulder and came out through the side. It’s a pleasure to hunt with an officer who is such a fine shot. Did the head of that nilgai come back from Shimla? You had said it would be mounted on the wall in the officers’ mess.’

‘Yes, it came back, but I had it sent to Vilayat.’

‘The antlers were huge. At least two feet?’

‘That’s right, Lahna Singh. Two feet, four inches…You haven’t smoked your cigarette?

‘I’ll just go and get a match.’

Lahna Singh entered the bunker, knocking against someone in the dark. ‘Who is it? Vazir Singh?’

‘Yes, Lahna. What’s the problem?  You could have let me doze for a little longer.’

‘Wake up.  Judgment Day has arrived, and it’s wearing the uniform of the lieutenant sahib.’

‘What!’

‘He’s either been killed or taken prisoner. That is a German wearing his uniform. The subedar did not see his face clearly. But I did, and I chatted with him, as well. Bastard speaks fluent Urdu, but it’s the bookish type. And he offered me a cigarette.’

‘Now what?’

‘We’re dead. It’s a hoax. The subedar and the other men will be wandering about in the slush, and this trench will be attacked. And there, they too will be attacked in the open.  Do one thing: follow the tracks of the paltan. They wouldn’t have gone too far. Tell the subedar to return immediately. The news about the enemy bunker was false. Leave from the back. Don’t make a sound. And hurry!

‘But the order was to –

‘To hell with the order! The order is what I, Jamadar Lahna Singh, the senior most officer here, am giving you. And now I’ll sort out this lieutenant sahib.’

‘But there are only eight of you here.’

‘Not eight, ten lakh. A single Akali Sikh is equal to a lakh and a quarter men. Now go.’

Lahna Singh returned to the entrance of bunker, but stayed hidden in the shadow of the wall. He watched the lieutenant sahib. The man had taken three explosives out of his pocket, each the size of a wood apple and had pushed them into the mud wall at three different places, connecting them with a wire. At the end of the wire was a ball of thread which he placed near the sigri. Moving to the bunker’s opening, he was about to set a match to the fuse when Lahna Singh fell upon him, hitting his elbow with the butt of his rifle. The sahib dropped the matchstick. Lahna Singh hit him again, this time on the neck.  Crying, ‘Ach mein gott, the officer collapsed. Lahna Singh pulled out the three bombs from the wall and flung them out of the bunker. Dragging the sahib to the sigri, he searched through his pockets, found three or four envelopes and a diary. He shoved these into his own pocket.

After a while, the sahib recovered consciousness. Lahna Singh laughed. ‘How do you feel now, lieutenant sahib? Today, I have learnt several new things. I have learnt that a Sikh smokes a cigarette, that there are nilgai in Jagadhari district that have antlers two feet four inches tall. I have also come to know that a Muslim khansama offers water at a Hindu temple and that our lieutenant sahib rides a donkey. But tell me, where did you learn to speak such good Urdu? Our lieutenant sahib cannot say five words without adding “damn.” ’

Lahna had not checked the trouser pockets of the lieutenant. Pretending that he was cold, the lieutenant pushed his hands into his pockets.

Lahna continued talking: ‘Clever though you are, Lahna of Manjha has spent several years with the lieutenant sahib. Conning him isn’t so easy. Three months ago, a Turkish maulvi came to my village. He handed out amulets and charms to the women who were desperate to have babies and medicine to the children who were unwell. He would place a cot for himself under the chaudhri’s banyan and smoke a hookah while telling us that the Germans were very knowledgeable, they had studied the Vedas and figured out how to make aircrafts. They don’t kill cows. If they were to come to Hindustan, they would stop cow slaughter. He would advise the shopkeepers to withdraw their savings from the post office; the British raj was on its way out. Even the post master, Polhuram, got frightened by the talk. I grabbed the mullah by his beard and threw him out of the village saying, Don’t  you dare step in here again.’

The sahib fired the weapon from inside his pocket. The bullet struck Lahna on his thigh. Lahna fired two shots from his Henry Martini and blew the lieutenant’s head apart. Hearing the gun shots, the others came running.

Bodha shouted, ‘What is it?’

Lahna told him that a stray dog had come into the trench and he had shot at it. To the others he told the facts. They began to prepare for the attack. Lahna tore his turban in two and tied the strips on the wound. It was a flesh wound, after a while the bleeding stopped.

Seventy screaming Germans descended on the trench. The Sikhs quelled the first attack. The  second, as well. But they were only eight. Climbing over their dead comrades the Germans kept on coming. Suddenly, a cry was heard: Wahe guruji da khalsa, wahe guruji di fateh. A barrage of bullets was let loose on the Germans. At the crucial moment, they found themselves caught in the middle of fire from two sides. Hazara’s Singhs jawans rained bullets from the back. In front were Lahna Singh’s men and their bayonets. Finally, they had to deal with bayonets from both sides.Indian cavalry from the Deccan Horse during the Battle of Bazentin Ridge

A final cry went up:  Here comes the army of the Akal Sikhs!  Wahe guruji da khalsa,  wahe guruji di fateh. Sat Sri Akal purush. And it was over. Sixty-three Germans dead or wounded.  Fifteen Sikhs dead. A bullet had gone through Subedar Hazara Singh’s shoulder. One had pierced Lahna Singh’s ribcage. He filled the wound with the wet mud in the bunker and tied the remaining strip of his turban very tight just below the wound. Nobody was aware that Lahna had sustained a second, more serious, injury.

The moon rose, its glow of the kind that inspired Sanskrit poets to create the word kshayee to describe it. There was a light breeze, what the poet Banabhatt would have described as dantvinopadeshacharya. Vazira was relating how huge clumps of earth had stuck to his boots as he’d run following the subedar sahib. The subedar saw the papers that Lahna had taken off the lieutenant and praised him for his quick thinking. ‘If it hadn’t been for you, we were all dead today.’

The sounds of the fighting had reached the men in a trench three miles to the right. They had called up the base in the rear. Two doctors and two ambulances from the field hospital nearby had been dispatched. The wounded were given first aid and  put in one ambulance; the other vehicle took away the dead bodies. The subedar tried to see that Lahna’s  wound , too, got medical attention, but Lahna fobbed him off saying that it was minor and could wait till the morning. Bodha Singh was delirious with high fever. He was made to lie in the ambulance. The subedar was not willing to leave Lahna behind. Seeing this, Lahna said to him: ‘For Bodha’s sake and for the subedarni, I beg you, please go in the vehicle.’

‘And you?’

‘Send another vehicle for me. Anyway, one will be coming shortly for the German dead. My condition isn’t so bad. Don’t you see that I’m on my feet? Besides, Vazira is here with me.’

‘All right, but –

‘Bodha is in the ambulance. You, too, must get in.  Oh, do listen. If you write to the subedarni, please send her my regards. And when you go home, tell her that I did as she said.’

Climbing into the vehicle, the subedar held Lahna’s hand in his own. ‘What letter? We’ll go home together. You can tell it to your subedarni in your own words.  What did she say?’

‘Now, do get in…Write my message to the subedarni. And when you meet her, say it to her.’

As soon as the ambulances left, Lahna lay down. ‘Vazira, give me a drink of water,’ he said. ‘And release my cummerbund. It’s completely soaked.’

4

A little before death arrives, the memory becomes crystal clear.  Episodes from  one’s life present themselves before one’s eyes, their colours sharp and bright. The mist of time vanishes.

Lahna Sigh is twelve. He is on a visit to his maternal uncle in Amritsar. At the curd seller’s, at the vegetable vendor’s, wherever he goes, he meets an eight-year-old girl. When he asks her, Is your engagement over? she replies “Dhatt” and runs away. One day, he asked her the question in the same teasing manner and she said Yes, it was over yesterday. Don’t you see this new embroidered shawl? On hearing these words Lahna  had felt a sorrow, he had felt an inexpressible anger. Why  had he felt that way?

‘Vazira Singh, give me a drink of water.’

Twenty-five years passed. Lahna Singh was a jamadaar in 77 Rifles. He no longer thought of the eight-year-old girl. Had he ever met her, or not? He had gone home on a week’s leave to attend a court case about a piece of land when he received a letter from the regiment, informing him that the troops were leaving for the front; he must return immediately. He also received a letter from the subedar saying that he and his son Bodha Singh were going to the front as well. While heading back to the regiment, come via our village, it said. We’ll go back together. The village was on his way and the subedar was very fond of him. He did as asked.

When it was time to leave, the subedar emerged from his house and said, ‘ Lahna, the subedarni knows you, she wants  to speak to you. Go in and meet her.’ Lahna went in. The subedarni knows me?  Since when? The subedar’s family had never stayed in the regimental quarters. At the threshold, he called out his greetings and heard a blessing in reply. He waited. She came to the door.

‘Do you recognize me?’

‘No.’

‘Teri kudhmai ho gayi? – Dhatt! – Haan, kal ho gayi. – Amritsar.’

The turmoil of conflicting emotions dragged him back to consciousness. He  turned to the other side. The wound in his ribs began to bleed again.

‘Vazira, a drink of water…. Usne kaha tha.’ She had said it.

The dream goes on… The subedarni is saying, ‘I recognized you immediately. I want you to do something for me. I am so ill-fated. The government awarded him a medal for  bravery and a plot of land in Lyallpur. Now the time has come to prove his loyalty. Why didn’t the government raise a paltan of women, so that I, too, could have gone with Subedarji? I have a son, and he joined the army a year ago. There were four sons born to me after him, but none survived.’ The subedarni began to weep. ‘How unlucky I am! Do you remember that day at the curd-seller’s when a tongawallah’s horse went berserk? You saved my life that day, braving the kicks of the horse, lifted me and placed me on the shop’s verandah. Look after these two the way you took care of me that day, I beg of you. I spread my aanchal before you.’

Still weeping, the subedarni went inside.  Lahna’s eyes were moist as well. Wiping them, he left.

‘Vazira, water… Usne kaha tha.’

Vazira sits with Lahna’s head on his lap. When Lahna asks for water, he offers it.

Lahna was quiet for a while, nearly half an hour. Then he asked, ‘Who is it? Keerat Singh?’

Vazira  understood. After a moment, he said, ‘Yes.’

‘Brother, raise my head a little. Place it on your thigh.’

Vazira did as he was told.

‘That is much better. Give me some water… This Ashadh there will be plenty of mangoes on the tree. You and your nephew must sit right here and enjoy them. Your nephew is as old as this tree. I planted it the month he was born.’

Vazir Singh’s tears flow.

A few days later, people read it in the newspapers:  France and Belgium,  68th list.  Died of wounds in the battlefield.  77 Sikh Rifles. Jamadar Lahna Singh.

THE END

About the author

Pandit Chandradhar Sharma Guleri ( 1883- 1922) was born on 7th July in Jaipur, into a family of scholars originally hailing from the village Guler in Kangra.  His father was the royal astrologer in the court of the Maharaja of Jaipur. He graduated from Allahabad University and, for 15 years, headed the department of Sanskrit at Mayo College, Ajmer. Later he was on the faculty of the Banaras Hindu University.  He was fluent in several languages: Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Hindi.  Usne Kaha tha  was written in 1915. In 1960 it was made into a film, produced by Bimal Roy, starring Sunil Dutt, Nanda, Durga Khote and Indrani Mukherji.

Visthapit Vinayak / Displacement

(Originally in Hindi as Visthapit Vinayak by Viky Arya. Displacement translated by Madhavi S. Mahadevan.)

Setting foot in this office for the first time, one gets the feeling of having arrived at some ultra modern place of work in an European or American metropolis. Fully AC with spacious well-appointed interiors, sleek stylish furniture, walls in pleasing shades and tasteful artwork on those walls. 30389b94842aaada29ffc713d8aad8a3The passages are brightly lit, the cabins are airy, the atmosphere is open and cheerful. Conversation is mostly in English.

In all this one’s glance may suddenly fall on a large grey stone Ganesha placed in a corner. A closer look at the carving may lead one to conclude that it is the work of master craftsmen from South India. Like all such statues, this particular Ganeshji is beautiful. A faint smile plays on his lips suggesting that he is pleased to acknowledge the offering of fresh blooms –white jasmine and yellow marigold –placed respectfully at his feet. There is also a lit incense stick gently dissolving its sandalwood fragrance in the air. It’s clear Ganeshji is worshipped every day. It’s also clear that he is completely out of place here.

Fig17I sometimes get the feeling that, notwithstanding the benign smile, there is a slightly frozen quality in his expression, as if Ganeshji were suffering from a ‘culture shock’. Undoubtedly, I am wrong. We happen to be Indians, after all: one thing on the surface, and something altogether different within. For instance, just take a look at that young man approaching Ganeshji. Skinny tight, low waist blue denim jeans, a tight navy blue tee shirt, hair gelled into a rising wave, a tiny goatee adorns his chin and a cloud of aftershave trails behind him. Yet, he never fails to stop before Ganeshji, join his palms in a prayerful gesture, shut his eyes and address the deity for a full five minutes before heading to his desk.

There are many others like him, not the least being our Accountant sahib. While entering the threshold itself, this gentleman bows low as if our office were hallowed space. He does the same before Ganeshji. Only then does he enter his cabin. It was at his insistence at the Board Meeting that the idol was given a prime location inside the office. When he first arrived Ganeshji was the cynosure of all eyes and every passerby stopped to greet him. I am not an idol worshipper but the sight of Ganeshji there gladdened me, as well. I liked to imagine that his gentle smile was a sign that he was pleased at the high regard we held him in. One evening, however, I thought that the smile seemed rather fixed. I understood why the next day. When I arrived at the office, the place seemed different. The prime spot was vacant. Where was Ganeshji?

I searched for him everywhere and found him fixed on to a back wall.

God-Ganesh-HD-wallpaper‘What’s this?’ I asked him. ‘You’ve shifted…Did some Feng shui or Vaastu expert advise this transfer?’

He did not reply, but continued to smile bravely.

I couldn’t contain myself and barged straight into Accountant sahib’s cabin.

‘What can I say?’ he said, shaking his head. ‘That Kapur sahib, you know…Well, he just got a promotion.’

‘But what does that have to with displacing our Ganpati?’

‘Promotion means a larger cabin.’ He shrugged. ‘ Everyone has to adjust…What else is one to do? The order came from above.’

He turned back to his paper work.

Ganesh_sits_affectionately_with_his_vahana,_Mushika_another_versionMonths went by. It was all work, work, work. Once in a while my eyes would search out Ganpati and I’d say to him: ‘They’ve pushed you around,too, haven’t they? And now you’ve been allotted this obscure corner. Yet you continue to smile. You are truly great, O merciful one!’

Then one day he was missing from that spot as well. It took me a while to discover his new location, it was even more remote than the last one. Every time there was a rearrangement of space in the office, Ganpati would be moved to yet another little known spot. Isn’t it strange that as a man moves up, he occupies a larger office and the god, by whose grace, this progress occurs, finds his space being diminished? Thoughts such as this came to me, and I’d feel a little sad, but Ganeshji continued to wear his smile, as if saying. ‘Keep on watching…There’s more to come. The story’s not yet over for me.’ Just one tiny reassurance made me feel that it wasn’t downhill all the way for our beloved Ganpati. That was the sight of the fresh flower garland around his neck, and the incense burning at his feet.

1-garden-ganesh-statueA year had passed since I joined the organization. In that time, everyone in the office had maintained his original position in the hierarchy, there had been no major shifts in our situation. Only Ganeshji had moved – some five or six times. These moves marked a continuous decline in his accommodation. It became smaller and increasingly humble. Till the day finally arrived when in this bright, hi-tech office there was no space for him. None at all.

Now he’s been plunked outside the office door. It reminds me of the manner in which some well-to-do folks pack off old decrepit parents to a distant corner of their lives. But Ganeshji continues to raise his palm in blessing, the smile stays on. Or am I wrong? Is it a grimace of pain? Hard to say what that expression means. It could be the grime that hasn’t been dusted off his face for days.

THE END

Tulsi

(Originally in Hindi as Tulsi ke Bahane by Vipin Choudhary. Translated by Madhavi S. Mahadevan.)

I was the one who opened the door. It could have been around one-thirty in the afternoon. Generally, the doorbell does not ring at this hour in our flat 101 of the paying guest hostel, because no one is in at that time. It just so happened that I was at home that day as I had some work in connection with that evening’s program at the Press Club. Who could it be, I wondered. Pressing the Save button on the laptop, I made a dash for the door. Before me stood a slim, short young woman. Going by the make up on her face, she appeared to be newly-wed. She stood there clasping her hands, clearly a bit nervous.

In the five-storied building that is our hostel mostly single women stay, but there are a few apartments for families as well. We don’t have much to do with them. The young women who live here are from small towns, studying in one of the city’s colleges, or in some cases, working, like myself. We are all, usually, short of time, and when we do manage to grab a break, some of us spend it with our boyfriends while others choose to head home to their families. That’s why, with just a glance at the young woman, I guessed that she was probably the new neighbor in the next apartment.

Before I could ask what she wanted, she smiled a smile of great sweetness and said, ‘We’ve only just moved in. We have to go out of the city for a few days. Could you take care of my tulsi plant for me?’

Taking my silence for a Yes, she disappeared into her own flat, returning after a few minutess with a pretty flower pot that she handed to me. I held it gingerly, as if it was a living creature – a soft white rabbit .

‘Sure,’ I said, like a good neighbor. ‘I’ll be happy to take care of it.’

I placed the flower pot on the balcony and kept looking at it for a while.

In the busy, knotted lives we single women led, that tulsi plant was like a new guest. While admiring it, I was reminded of the tulsi in my own home. In an instant, I had crossed the distance, leapt over the four walls that separated my house from the world and was standing before that plant. Despite all efforts to keep it going, it would wither and die. My mother would always worry about this. Hindus believe that the tulsi plant brings good luck and it is invariably present in every home. Whenever my mother transplanted a fresh flourishing plant at that spot, it would become lifeless in a few days. Advice and suggestions to solve this problem flowed in from all directions. Someone said that the tulsi should always be planted in a pair; it enables the roots to grip the soil more strongly. Those days, I was a student of Economic Botany, very interested in increasing my knowledge about the usefulness of different plants. I tried very hard to bridge the distance between the dying tulsi plant in the house’s courtyard and the one flourishing in my text book, but despite all my effort that did not happen. Finally, my grandmother came to the conclusion that there was something wrong with the soil in the garden, or perhaps something inauspicious had happened at some time in the past of that house. At this my mother admitted defeat and gave up.

Now, after all these many years, here was a tulsi plant once again in my care.
That evening, when I returned from the Press Club, I gave my three flat mates clear guidelines and instructions on how to look after the tulsi plant. And all the while I was thinking that , Of course, these three aren’t going to bother with so much as a glance at the plant. But in the next few days that assumption was completely over turned. I had not imagined that these girls would show so much care and attention toward the plant. Whenever I opened the door to the balcony to have a look at the tulsi, I’d find it, well-watered, standing proud and tall. One of the girls had moved it to a shady spot where it was protected from the sun’s glare. Wah! There’s hope for them yet, I thought.

In the beginning I used to be baffled at the renaissance in my flat mates. However, even bewilderment, spread over a period of days, gets dreary.

There were four of us in the apartment: myself, Manasi, Gunjan and Ipshita. All four had emerged from mofussil towns and headed straight to the big city, New Delhi. The three girls, all students of Fashion Technology, had immersed themselves fully in the razzle- dazzle of city life. It was as if their small town values and mores were a skin that had now been shed. Why, talk of them alone, I, too, had not remained immune to its vibrant attractions. The first thing that I had abandoned were the daily rituals that I had followed at home. While speaking on the phone to my mother, I’d reassure her: Yes, I was still performing those little daily rituals she had taught me. Indeed, I had tried to for a while, lighting the wick in the oil lamp. But I had, before long, given up keeping the prescribed fasts and even lighting the lamp.

The city was rapidly pulling us towards itself, altering us in the process. My flat mates would appear in new avatars every day. Once, I noticed a small dark carton of something lying on Gunjan Raina’s study table, and assuming that it was a pack of playing cards, lifted it. To my surprise, it turned out to be a pack of cigarettes. Which of these three girls, I wondered. Or are all three …?

When I brought up the matter, rather cautiously, with her the next day, Gunjan sheepishly admitted that it was Manasi’s pack.

Do you smoke as well?

I didn’t earlier, she said, but now in Manasi’s company, I do smoke now and then.

After that day, I made a conscious decision not to ask questions that might imply that I was prying in their personal lives. Live and let live, I told myself. Since then, this loony bin of ours has remained a happy, cheerful place. One of them even stuck a big bold notice on the door: MADHOUSE.

Seeing it, I said, Agreed you all are a special sorority, but don’t include me in that.

No, didi, said Manasi, you are the superintendent.

Oh really, I laughed. Fine. We’ll keep it that way.

Yes, in the beginning I was astonished at the antics of my flat mates, but by and by, I got used to them. As a result, the girls, too, became more free and easy. In a few weeks, besides smoking, they were drinking as well. They’d get up in the morning and head off to the neighbourhood temple cupping an offering of flowers in their hands. The pub and the temple were comfortably ensconced side by side in their lives, however I was quite uncomfortable about this juxtaposition. The strange mix-and-match of their lives would frequently catch me by surprise. The deep rift between Indian culture and Western modernism that lay in me, never seemed to bother these girls. And now, the tulsi plant had forged another link to tradition.

All those days that the tulsi plant was in the apartment, I felt a bracing glow in me, as though an elixir of some kind was flowing through my arteries. And one day, when the tulsi plant was not at its usual spot I immediately asked Manasi about it. She said that the next door neighbor had taken it back early that morning.

Oh, I said. A sad acquiescence.

These days, the most significant change is the one I see in myself. After a long time, I picked up the small brass diya that had been lying neglected in a corner of the kitchen. I wiped the dust off it. With great concentration, I fashioned a wick. Then I poured ghee in the diya and lit the wick. As the glow grew stronger, of their own volition, my palms came together and that mantra, which I used to chant so frequently in my childhood, came to my lips.

Om namo Bhagavate vasudevaya namah.

END

download (1)Vipin Choudhary spent her childhood in Kharkhari Makwan, a village in Haryana, and her poetry displays a blend of both rural and city influences. Her collections include Andhere ke Madhya se (2008) and Ek Baar Phir ( Haryana Sahitya Academy 2008). She publishes poems, articles and stories regularly in various literary magazines, and also writes for the radio, drama, theatre and films. She is the co-ordinator of an NGO Manav Adhikar Sangh . She lives in New Delhi.

Somewhere in Gujarat

The dogs had stopped barking. With their tails tucked between their legs they cowered in corners among the debris. A brown pup was suckling its mongrel mother, that lay stiff. Charu wanted to ask someone something. But he forgot what. Also, he did not know if he could speak. He tried to say aloud, ‘Can I talk?’ Though the wind had stopped howling through his hair, something still marred his hearing.

The market, where his shop once stood, was razed to the ground. Rubble and plaster covered his tie-and-dye hosiery stall. His face was streaked with dust and his clothes were ripped in the panic-stricken dash into the cornfields when he was jostled from all around. The tiny tri-coloured paper flag on his kurta though was intact. Just this morning, while pinning it on his lapel, his daughter said: ‘Babuji, can you take me to school on your cycle?’ 

‘Have you forgotten it is Republic Day today? There cannot be school.’

‘We are celebrating it in school with marching, Babuji,’ she told him patiently.

Charu’s younger son burst in mockingly, ‘You should see them, Babuji. Left, right, left… like frogs!’

Before sibling rivalry raised its omnipresent head, Charu said, ‘Yes, Munnu, we will go on the cycle.’

Someone touched his shoulder. It was an old woman.

‘Please, can you pull out my grandson? He is in there somewhere.’ She pointed at a crumbling structure from which bricks and twisted iron bar had crawled out.

Charu vaguely knew that he should be mouthing comforting words, but all he could manage was a shake of his head. He saw her scrambling over to somebody else.

Slowly, still in a daze, he set out on foot for his home. The cycle, he knew, no longer existed.

On his way he tripped only once. Though strewn with rubble and concrete shards, he found it easy to climb up and down the uneven path. Mechanically he trod on the newly unfamiliar path, with none of the apartments he was used to seeing. Buildings lay on the ground, innards out. One such climb nearly toppled him over. He was sure the leg belonged to a woman. The ankle was slim and had a silver chain with tiny bells around it. He tried to walk faster, though the thought of what lay ahead made his steps slower and slower.

He reached Munnu’s school. The once-proud building was now silent and prostrate. Charu strained his ears. No, no left-right-left could be heard.

He remembered how disappointed he’d been when told a daughter was born. ‘A girl? Are you sure?’ he asked his aunt, who was also the midwife in the family.

‘Yes,’ she had said, wiping her eye.

But that was before he met his Munnu.

He had thought the earth under him was going to tear open.

First there were the vibrations, then it had begun to rock like a cradle. The wind had whipped the dust into a frenzy. All around him were cries of ‘cyclone, cyclone’. The white tourists, who had been smudging his tie-and dye merchandise with their unwashed fingers, had looked petrified. Then he heard the unmistakable crunching of stone walls that shook the very moorings of his heart. Like mad women possessed by evil spirits at temple festivals he and the foreigners had made for the fields.

‘It is a bomb,’ another shopkeeper had whispered. ‘Pakistan has done it.’

But even from a distance they could see the walls crack open, convulse and come down. Hands from the earth’s belly were pulling them down.

He leaned against the broken down school wall. His legs gave way and soon he was sitting by the wall.

Slowly Charu began to weep.

THE END

(Reprinted by the author’s permission)

Orange ShinieShinie Antony is a short-story writer. Her books include Barefoot and Pregnant, Seance on a Sunday Afternoon and Why We Don’t Talk. She won the Commonwealth Short Story Asia region prize in 2003 for her story A Dog’s Death. She is a co-founder of the Bangalore Literature Festival and editor of the festival magazine Beantown.

Paani da rang vekh ke / Ringtone

Short story in Hindi by Viky Arya. Translated by Madhavi S. Mahadevan (originally published in Sahityashilpi – an online magazine).

Until yesterday, one thought twice before stepping out of the house into the scorching heat and the dust storms that sweep over the city on a summer day. But not anymore – thanks to the metro. HUDA city centre, Gurgaon, is the metro’s last stop. It is also the first. The biggest benefit of catching the Yellow Line from this place is that one is assured of a seat for the journey.

Even so, given that it was two in the afternoon on that day, the waiting crowd did not appear to be any less than usual. It was a crowd made up mostly of young people in late teens and twenties. Among them was the woman in skintight blue jeans and a short sleeveless top in the same shade. Her shoulder length hair framed her tanned face attractively. She had a leather bag over one shoulder, a cell phone in the other hand. Leaning casually against the wall below the pink sticker that said Ladies Only, she looked like a college student, or perhaps a sales girl in a fashion store in one of the malls.

The metro arrived. Polished glass and steel doors noiselessly slid open. She was the first one to hop on board, headed straight for the corner seat, and occupied it with a certain familiarity, as if it had been reserved for her. The doors of the metro had barely shut when her cell phone rang.

Paani da rang vekh ke…

“Hello?” Her tone was cautious. She glanced surreptitiously at her fellow passengers. Almost everyone was occupied. Many were listening to music on head phones, others were quietly conversing into their cell phones. She relaxed and began to speak in a normal tone. “I’m on the metro… My job what else? Offoh…You! Don’t irritate me…No, there’s nothing to say. Now, I’m going to keep the phone down…I can’t talk right now.”

She cut off the connection.

Did she belong to the city or was she from one of the smaller towns? There was something of both in her. A small town girl, perhaps, who had gotten used to the mood and mannerisms of the city. Had she come here in pursuit of her dreams? So many dreamers have felt the magnetic pull of this city. Her ringtone suggested a liking for modern film songs, and what she had said on the phone, too, had the slightly exaggerated drama of a dialogue from a Bollywood film.

Barely a minute later: Paani da rang vekh ke…

Now what? Why are you bothering me? Haven’t I said so – I can’t talk at this moment.”

Something about her tone suggested that she was talking to a member of the opposite sex. A boy of her own age? Someone older? Was he pleading? Please don’t cut the line…Please…I need to speak to you about something important.

“Important?” Her face froze into a mask. “There’s nothing important between us…Nothing to talk about…What?That? Forget it!”

She cut the line.

Paani da rang vekh ke…Paani da rang vekh ke…

“What is it? Why don’t you just forget about me?” Cut.

Paani da rang vekh ke … Paani da rang vekh ke …paani da paani da paani da

“Why are you doing this? What do you want? Why don’t you back off? Why, hunh? …Oh I see! And what will you do? Tell me…what can you do? Tell me!” Cut.

Paani da rang vekh ke …

“Do what you want! I don’t care.”

She had raised her voice enough to attract the attention of other passengers. A pair of college students, sitting on the floor with their books on their laps, turned to look at her, smiled at each other and then got back to their reading.

“I’ve already said what I had to say, haven’t I? Our paths are separate from now on. I have nothing more to say or do with you. Wait! Yes, I do… Go hang yourself! Go. To. Hell… Don’t you dare call me again. I am switching my phone off.”

Paani da…

The girl stared stonily out of the window. The temples of Chhatarpur standing beside the long road looked empty and drab. It must be the light that had bleached them of their beauty. Usually they looked magnificent in the morning sun, and in the soft evening light they were magical.

Paani da…

Her face looked like a graven image. Her eyes were fixed on the Qutub Minar. The ancient tower was enveloped in the haze of the afternoon. Was it the haze that blurred its outline or was it the smog in the sky of Delhi? The sky that was no longer blue but a tired, irresolute grey.

Paani da…

Paani da…

She cut the calls impatiently.

“Saket! Next station is Saket. The door will open on the left. Please mind the gap!” a recorded male voice reminded the metro’s passengers.

Paani da… Her phone rang again, but this time the gap had been longer, as if the caller was making one last attempt.

“Yes…What is it?” There was no fatigue in her voice, only anger, real or make believe.

The metro stopped at Green Park. Dozens of women filled the compartment. One of them wanted to sit in the thin sliver of space next to her. Without glancing at the new passenger, she shifted slightly, pressing closer to the window to make place. The doors closed. The metro glided out of the station.

“Who?”

Her tone altered as she protested. “On no, no…please! Don’t disconnect…Busy? No, no…Of course, we can talk…I’m on the metro, actually…Call? Oh…that call? That was … my boss. You know! These men! They’re all alike. Talk nicely, smile a little…Bas, that’s all it takes…No, not you! Never you! You are the exception…Yes, yes. I mean it!”

The metro entered the INA Market station, sashaying past the waiting crowd.

She lowered her voice a notch or two. “Shall I call you then?” A light smile played on her lips. “Later in the evening? You don’t go to bed early, do you? What! So early? Come on! Just for tonight – one night is all I’m asking – stay up. We’ll have a nice looong chat…Say yes… Pleeeease!”

The metro halted. The doors of the metro slide open at every station on its way. They open. They close. Who knows how many such stories begin and end on the journey from HUDA City Center to Rajiv Chowk?

A sea of people flowed into the coach. Somehow, I managed to get off. The wave of humanity itself buffeted me towards the exit. Somewhere in that crush of bodies the ringtone called out a plaintive lament.

Paani da rang vekh ke,
Ankhiyan jo hanju rul de

Seeing the colour of water, tears roll down my eyes.
And what of the colour of relationships today? What of that?

Ask the metro.

END

VikyViky Arya is an advertising professional with more than 24 years experience in top agencies. She is a painter, illustrator and sculptor. The list of awards and accolades that have come to her is too long to mention here. She has also written three collections of poems: Canvas ( Rajkamal Prakashan), Dhoop ke rang ( Penguin), Banjare Khwab, (Yatra).

Blind Spot

Paromita sat at the dressing table, going over the telephone conversation in her mind. Something had not sounded right, but she could not make out what it was. Just then, Surojit walked in.

Not ready yet, Paro!” he said. “What are you wearing today?”

Haven’t really thought about it.”

Wear your red and white Jamdani sari.”

Oh no! That’s too grand.”

What about that chiffon you bought the other day …Satya Paul, wasn’t it?

To the airport, to receive my son?”

And Clara, don’t forget.”

Surojit, after twenty gruelling hours of flying from Atlanta, do you think Clara would notice what I’m wearing?” Paromita said.

Surojit smiled as though humouring a child. “You must make a good first-impression on your American daughter-in-law, Paro. Remember, it’s important for your son too.”

Excuse me! My son?”

Surojit did not reply immediately. He walked up to the wardrobe, opened it and took out yet another jacket to try on. He studied himself in the full length mirror. Tweed? No, not quite the right thing. He took it off. Without looking at Paromita he said, “Yes, Paro, your son. With Gautam, it has always been you. Only you.”

Paromita did not argue. Her mind went back to the phone call. It had come three days ago on her mobile, but she could still recall every word, every inflection.

Ma, it’s Gautam.”

How’re you, re?”

Ma…I’ve to tell you something.”

What?”

I’ve gotten married.”

What? To whom?”

Her name is Clara.”

Indian?”

No, Ma… American.”

When? When did this happen?”

We’re coming home… Just for a week. Our flight will reach at nine thirty-five Monday morning. Will message you the flight details.”

You mean… you and your wife? Oh God, what day is it today?”

Friday, ten- twenty in the morning at your place,” said Gautam, with a laugh. He added, “I’ll explain everything when I’m there. It’s past midnight here… See you, Ma.”

Paromita could hear Surojit still poking around the wardrobe. Mechanically, she picked a jar of anti-wrinkle cream from the dressing-table. She opened it and began to apply the cream on her face. Its delicate rose fragrance calmed her. Surojit had taken it very well. Others in the family had been surprised by the news of Gautam marrying so suddenly, and that too, an American. Was it really out of the blue, Paromita wondered. She’d been hurt and upset at being informed after the event, and that too, so casually, but somehow she’d not been surprised. Gautam had always been unpredictable. She remembered the time he had refused award for the Best All-rounder in middle school. He had suspected that the headmaster’s son getting a job in his father’s office had tilted the decision in his favour. Surojit had been livid, but Paromita had understood. She had always understood her son.

Surojit’s voice startled her out of her reverie.

How do I look, Paro?”

He had changed his clothes again. A blue -and -white check shirt, navy blue blazer with the golf club’s insignia embossed in golden thread on the pocket. He usually wore that blazer to the management committee meetings at the club. But to the airport on a summer morning?

Paromita, however, stuck to her standard response. “Perfect.”

On the way to the airport Surojit was in a good mood. He did most of the talking, with Paromita responding with a ‘hmm’ and a ‘yes’ in between. She looked out of the window, her mind travelling over the past years. The last time she’d seen Gautam, he had waved at her before disappearing behind the immigration enclosure at the airport. That was four years and nine months ago. She told herself that she should be prepared for changes in him. Yet she could not help that tiny flutter of trepidation.

The car stopped at a traffic light.

So what do you think, Paro? Is it okay? ” asked Surojit.

Paromita had no idea what it was that he was seeking her opinion on, but before she could think of anything to say, Surojit answered his own question. “I don’t mind Clara calling me by my name, and I’m sure you wouldn’t either…Better than being called Mr. and Mrs. Mukherjee. That’s the way some American daughters-in-law would have it.”

Paromita merely smiled. Surojit continued, “All these years I never could figure out Gautam, but I think he has finally made a smart choice.”

His mobile phone rang. He spoke briefly, then turned to Paromita with a smug look.

Everything’s fixed;’ he said ‘Tomorrow, we’re having lunch at the club. I have booked the Chamber Room. This lunch is only for a select crowd and the top brass of the chamber of commerce. Dinner’s going to be at The Oberoi. A hundred and thirty guests have confirmed as of now. Mostly friends and business associates. And for the family, we’ll have a do at home, the day after tomorrow. We can keep it traditional for them, but don’t go overboard.”

Paromita frowned. “Are so many lunches and dinners necessary? Gautam and his bride are here just for a week. When will we spend time with them?”

Don’t you want to introduce them to our friends?” asked Surojit impatiently.

Gautam doesn’t like parties, you know that.”

What about Clara?” Surojit raised his eyebrows. “Clara is an American, Paro. Americans are gregarious. You can’t expect her to spend the whole week just chatting with us. She must get to know our friends….Wait till the Dasguptas meet her. Mrs. Dasgupta will stop bragging about their Italian daughter-in-law once and for all.”

Paromita remained silent for the rest of the journey.

At the airport the visitors’ enclosure was crowded. From where she stood Paromita could not see the glass sliding-door through which the passengers were walking out. She made her way to the front of the waiting crowd. Time just crawled. Then, suddenly, she caught a fleeting glance of a silhouette in the hallway beyond the glass-door. Gautam.

As he came out, she saw him more clearly. He was wearing a maroon tee-shirt and a beige jacket over a pair of blue denims. He looked a little tired, she thought. But otherwise he looked the same. No change. Gautam scanned the crowd, spotted her and smiled. She stepped forward to hug him.

Where’s Clara?” asked Surojit, standing right behind her.

Paromita felt Gautam stiffen. He straightened and looked back. Paromita followed his gaze. At some distance stood an Indian family with two kids, a middle-aged Caucasian couple, a woman of African origin and a cluster of four or five young men and women.

Paromita’s eyes skimmed over the gathering and looked beyond it, but could not see a white woman young enough to be Gautam’s wife.

Clara,” Gautam called out. The black woman stepped forward and walked towards them, smiling politely.

Paromita paled with shock.

The woman stopped beside Gautam who drew her forward and announced, “This is Clara.”

Her mouth too dry for her to speak, Paromita forced a smile. She did not glance at Surojit, but she sensed his outrage and disbelief. She had to do something – right away.

Stepping forward, she offered her hand and said, “Hello Clara. Welcome to India.”

During the journey home, there was a nerve-wracking silence in the car. Paromita made a few half-hearted attempts at conversation, but getting no real response, gave up. Only Gautam spoke as he occasionally pointed out a prominent landmark to Clara. Clara, herself, said very little.

Reaching home, Paromita showed the newly-weds their room and advised them to sleep it off till lunch time. “You’ve had a long journey,” she said. Then, she went upstairs to her bedroom.

Surojit was sitting on the edge of the bed taking off his shoes. One by one, he threw them to a corner, then walked up to the cabinet, took out a bottle of whisky and took a swig.

Paromita had never seen Surojit doing that – drinking straight from the bottle. He was always ‘proper’ with his drinks.

He looked at her, his face inflamed with pent up fury, as if all the blood had rushed up and was screaming to burst out through the skin. “How could Gautam do this to me? To his family?” he said.

When she did not reply, his tone grew louder. “It’s all because of you. You have spoilt him.”

Paromita said nothing.

You encouraged him to study some damn liberal arts when he should have done Engineering and Management… And now your son has brought home some bloody nigger.”

Surojit !”

What? What do you have to say now, Mrs. Paromita Mukherjee? That in the entire United States of America, your son could only find a black woman to marry? Charcoal-black.”

Paromita shut her eyes briefly. She listened outwardly unperturbed, as she had always tried to be when Surojit had spoken disapprovingly of Gautam. But this time, even she felt drained. She sat at a corner of the bed, held the headboard with one hand, cupped her mouth with the other and let the hot tears flow. She heard the bedroom door slam as Surojit walked out. She cried for a long time.

When she came down at lunch time, the maid informed her that Gautam and Clara were still asleep. Paromita asked her to find Surojit and inform him that lunch was about to be served. The maid returned to say that Surojit was on the terrace and had said that he was not hungry. Paromita went back to her bedroom and lay down.

She woke up to the voice of Surojit talking on the phone. “Call up the steward at the club and cancel the party. You have the guest-list, right? Call each one and inform … What? …The reason? …Tell them, tell them… Mrs. Mukherjee has suddenly fallen ill. No, no, she isn’t in hospital… Just do as I say, dammit.”

Paromita sat up and looked at Surojit questioningly. He paid no attention to her and began to dial another number. This time, he went about calling off the party arrangements at the hotel. Why is he doing this? Paromita wanted to confront him, but she felt too exhausted. She had a splitting headache and remembered she had not eaten anything since morning. Neither had Surojit. What about Gautam and Clara? Would they be up by now? She hurried out of the room.

At the door of the dining-room she stopped. Gautam and Clara were sitting side by side at the table, snuggling, like two happy pigeons. Paromita watched them for a moment.

She cleared her throat.

We overslept, Ma,” said Gautam smilingly. “We’re having sandwiches and coffee instead of lunch. We will have the lunch fare for dinner. I’ve already told the maid.”

Paromita laughed. The sound, tripping so easily off her throat, surprised her. She took the chair opposite Clara.

Make me a sandwich,” she told the maid. “Seeing these two, I feel like having one myself.” As the maid left, she added, “And take a plate of the same to sahib in his room.”

Is Baba not well?” asked Gautam.

He’s a bit tired.”

I see you have kept that old thing,” Gautam said, pointing to the clock standing on the mantelpiece. He had won it in a school essay writing competition. Paromita smiled. Gautam said, “But Ma, the clock had stopped years ago.”

It stopped from when you left me, Gautam, Paromita said to herself. She made a mental note to change the battery by the evening.

She turned her attention to Clara, observing her quietly. The first impression she’d got had been of poise and maturity; now, she was surprised to see how young the woman was. Her hair was thick, black and straight, framing her calm, chiselled face. Her bones were good. Her eyes were large, shining and expressive. There was a mixture of wonder and caution in them. She can talk with her eyes, this girl, Paromita thought. There is a glow in her face. A quiet charm.

I was thinking of taking Clara around the city tomorrow,” said Gautam, “Unless you have any program fixed for us?”

Paromita thought for a moment and said, “Not that I know of. I’ll check with your father.”

As Gautam planned the itinerary with Clara, Paromita continued with her quiet screening.

Behind the round-necked grey tee-shirt was a pair of full breasts. Paromita noticed her posture, straight and firm. It reminded her of – the day thirty years ago when Surojit and his parents had come to her house to see the would-be bride.

You sit so straight, Paromita, unlike most girls,’ Surojit’s mother had said.

Paromita looked at the dark slender arms of Clara resting on the marble table-top. She got up abruptly.

Anything wrong, Ma?” asked Gautam.

Nothing,” said Paromita, adding quickly, “I have forgotten something that I need to do.”

She fled from the room to the small study half way down the hallway, closing the door firmly behind her. Images from thirty years ago came back in a flood. Paromita shivered, then sank into a chair and buried her face in her hands. She sat like that for a long time, wrestling with her emotions.

Next day, after breakfast, Gautam and Clara went out on city tour. They would not be home for several hours. Paromita found Surojit pacing the length of their bedroom.

No way am I going to accept this marriage,” he said.

Paromita smiled faintly. Surojit went on, “Our family has a name, a standing. I will not let it be tainted by …by -”

Dark skin?” completed Paromita.

He stopped short and challenged her. “Well, would you?”

Paromita studied his face in silence. Finally, she said, “This is not the first time, is it?” Her voice was very quiet.

Surojit stared at her. “What on earth do you mean by that?”

Paromita did not reply at once. Of course, Surojit would not remember that far back. Nobody had ever spoken about it in his family. Hadn’t she too wiped her own memory clean? If she had ever felt a speck of guilt, it had been buried under the triumph of a fairy-tale marriage – between an exquisitely beautiful daughter of a retired government officer, and a bright US- returned engineer from an upper-crust family. They were not equals, the two families, but Paromita’s stunning looks drew level.

Thirty long years had passed. In all that time Paromita had never had the faintest reminder of that uncomfortable incident, yet the memory had lain hidden, biding its time, waiting to raise its head and be known. And now, with Clara’s arrival, it was out in the open.

Paromita felt her stomach churn. She felt as though she was on a giant wave. Would she be able to ride it or would she drown?

After a while she drew a deep breath. She knew what she had to do.

Two more days straggled by. Gautam and Clara would leave for Atlanta the day after next.

Return home early today,” Paromita told Surojit as he was leaving for office.

Why?” he snapped. “What do I have to look forward to? Is your son going to have a change of heart?”

Paromita’s lips twitched in a smile. “Change of heart?” she said. “Well there is a possibility.”

Really?” Surojit looked surprised and suddenly hopeful. He came closer and laid his hand on her arm, “I didn’t tell you Paro, I have had a chat with our attorney, Mr. Bansal. His firm has an affiliate in Atlanta. I can have a long-distance conference, but first Gautam has to agree…”

I don’t think the conference will be necessary,” said Paromita calmly.

You think so?” Surojit looked at her, “If you can pull this one off, Paro, I’ll be grateful to you forever.” He planted a kiss on her cheek and left for office.

Paromita heard the familiar screech of tires followed by the slam of the car’s doors. She looked at the clock. 6.15 pm. Surojit had arrived earlier than she expected. She had not completed her tasks yet.

Long chains of red and yellow light bulbs hung all over the outer walls of their house. The foyer at the entrance had been decorated with garlands of marigolds and red roses. There was a red carpet running up to the entrance.

Paromita watched Surojit as he entered the hall way, looking bewilderedly at the hustle-bustle. People known, some who looked familiar, dressed up in rich colours, were moving around. Was this the same house he had left from in the morning?

Then he spotted Paromita at a distance and went towards her.

What’s all this about?” he demanded. “What’s going on?”

Preparations for a party,” she said. “A wedding reception.”

His face darkened. “Dammit, I –

She held up her hand to stop him. Her eyes were on his face.

Do you remember, Surojit, why you married me?”

He frowned. “Excuse me?”

Try to remember.”

Stop your riddles!”

Why did you choose me?”

Surojit sighed. “I don’t understand this,” he said with exaggerated patience. “Why did I marry you? Why else? Because my parents approved of you and I did not have a problem with their choice.”

No, Surojit,” Paromita’s voice was quiet and emphatic. “You married me because I was the fairer girl. Remember? You liked Paromita whose skin was lighter and who was considered better looking than her elder sister Madhumita – the girl whom you and your parents had been invited to see.”

Paromita trembled. She felt as though a part of her being was crumbling, giving way to a new self, rising like a resolute stem out of a crack in the rock.

Please move aside,” she said.

Surojit stepped aside in silence. Paromita walked past him and straight to Gautam’s room. She found Clara standing in front of a full-length mirror, wearing a red petticoat and a gold embroidered blouse, trying to grapple with yards of a Banarasi silk sari, the one Paromita had worn at her own wedding.

Paromita laughed. “I told you to wait for me,” she said. “You can’t wear this on your own, my dear, not for the first time. Now, let me do it for you … This way … now tuck in … right … yes … now across …like this … and here goes the pallu, over your shoulder…”

-END-

ashis duttaAbout The Author

Ashis Dutta is a Bangalore based software entrepreneur. He writes and photographs as a freelancer – on travel, music and culture. His features have been published in newspapers, in-flight and travel magazines, and guidebooks, in India, USA and Canada. An avid traveller, Ashis has been to 26 countries. His all-time favourite? Closer home, the Himalayas. Ashis can be reached at ashisdutta@gmail.com