Parallel Lives / Do Jeevan Samaantar

Short story in Hindi by Suraj Prakash. Translated by Madhavi Mahadevan.

Hello. May I speak with Deepti ji on this number?
– Yes, this is Mrs Dhawan speaking.
– But I would like to speak with Deepti ji.
– I said so, didn’t I? I am Mrs Deepti Dhawan. What can I do for you?
– How are you?
– I’m fine… but who are you?
– Guess.
– Look here, I can’t guess. First, tell me your name, next tell me what work do you have with me?
– I have and I haven’t.
– Look here, please don’t speak in riddles. If you don’t identify yourself and your business with me, I’m putting this phone down.
– Please don’t! That would be catastrophic. I don’t have another one rupee coin.
– You’re being impertinent. Don’t you know whom you are talking to?
– I do know and that’s why I’m taking the liberty. Who knows better than I what Deepti’s temper can be like?
– Mr Whoever-you-are, you behavior is inappropriate. I’m keeping the phone down.
– And if I behave in the right and proper manner?
– At least, identify yourself. Why are you bothering me?
– Yaar, at least make one guess. It’s quite possible that the stranger at this end is someone well known to you.
– I can’t recognize your voice. You’ll have to tell me yourself.
– Alright. I’ll give you a hint, maybe that’ll do the trick.
– Go on.
– Twenty years ago, in 1979, on a cold December evening, in the country’s capital city Delhi, in Connaught Place, close to Regal Cinema, you had made an appointment for 6p.m. with a certain gentleman.
– Oh god! So you are the one. Today…Suddenly…Out of the blue! After so many years?
– Yes. Even today, twenty years later, this man, in all humility, is standing right there waiting for you.
– Don’t pretend! Tell me, how did you get hold of this number? This is only my fourth day in office and you’ve managed…
– There goes madam with her questions! But first, you have to answer mine. Why didn’t you show up that day? You kept me waiting for two and a half hours. We’d agreed that it would be our last meeting, despite that…
– Your foolishness hasn’t changed a bit. After so many years, how would I remember when, where and why I did not show up? Now, tell me, where are you speaking from and where have you been all these days?
– Baap re! You are talking about days? Twenty years have passed since this incident happened. All of seven thousand and three hundred days…maybe more.
– May be. Tell me, how are you? Where are you? How many are you?
– You could also ask why are you?
– No. I’m not going to ask that. I know that even you don’t know the answer to that one.
– Your way of talking hasn’t changed a bit.
– How would I know? Tell me, how did you happen to remember me after all these years? And you haven’t said how you got hold of my number.
– It’s like this, Deepti. I’ve never lived in this city of yours, but I’ve been coming here over the years and I’ve have been hearing about you regularly. Where you are, how you’ve been doing, where all you’ve been posted, and when you’ve got promoted. In fact, I could, if you like, give you an inventory of your foreign trips. I could even tell you the names of your two children, the classes they study in and their hobbies. Just don’t ask me how I happen to know all this.
– Baap re! You used to teach in a university. Since when did you join the intelligence services? How long have you been spying on me?
– Not spying, dear, only a natural curiosity in watching a special friend climb up the ladder of success. With every promotion of yours my chest would expand and broaden just a little bit more.
– But you never cared to ask about my welfare.
– I wanted to. But whenever I tried to do so, the barriers always came up from your side. In fact, I wanted to take on the contract for your welfare for the rest of your life, but you were the one who drew back. You were the one who did not want me to be involved in your life. You gave me a time to meet you, but never showed up. Many years ago, I had gone to your office to offer my good wishes on your promotion, you kept me waiting for two and a half hours in the reception and never came out to meet me. Only I know how terrible I felt that day because I had become such a stranger to you that I could not even meet you face to face and congratulate you on your success.
– You know everything… Those days, I was on the brink of a nervous breakdown. I was on probation, it was a new environment, new responsibilities. On top of that there was tension at home, too, my in-laws were so stiff and demanding, and you kept calling me. Only I know how difficult those initial one or two years were, how hard it was to hold myself together so that I did not crumble on any front.
– These were precisely the reasons why I was keen to meet you, to help you keep up your courage , think of a better way out of the situation. The funny thing is that they were also the reasons why you were avoiding me. We could, at least, have met as friends.
– Maybe you weren’t all that keen.
– Don’t give me that. In those days there was no one as keen as I was on you in the entire city. Even you accepted that for a fact.
– And now?
– Test me, if you want to. Despite the distance, I’ve kept up with news of you. As you can see for yourself, even twenty years later, I’m the one who has come here to meet you. And I’m the one who rang you up.
– But where are you? I’ve not heard a word about you in all this time.
– If you’d wanted to hear about me, you would have found a way. Anyways, I am where I always was, in the same department teaching the same subject that you, too, once taught. Did you ever come that way again?
– Several times, but…
– But you were afraid that you might run into me.
– No, it wasn’t that. Actually, how was I to face you? I felt that I was the one responsible for the whole messy situation. If I’d only shown a little more guts then…
– Then what?
– Then, instead of washing the nappies of Mr Dhawan’s children, I’d have been washing the nappies of your children.
– So all this struggle is only about getting nappies washed?
– The experience of all the married women in world seems to indicate that.
– What does your experience say?
– I’m not outside this world, am I?
– It’s hard to belief that even an IAS officer has to wash babies’ nappies!
– Shriman ji, be it IAS or IPS, when a woman gets married her primary roles are that of a wife and a mother. She has to fulfill these first, only then can she leave for office. You tell me, if I had continued to stay there, teaching in the same university, and if I’d been married to you, would I have been free of these duties?
– Absolutely. I would not have wanted all this. Tell me, when you used to visit my room, who made the coffee?
– Oh, forget it! Just because you made coffee once or twice it’s become a grand narrative, has it?
– Okay, tell me, do your spectacles still slip down the bridge of your nose, or have you got them tightened?
– Well, the bridge of my nose is as it always was. Even if I buy an expensive pair of glasses, they still slip.
– Still the same old Miss Nose -up-in-the-air
– Shall I answer that?
– I swear, the airs and graces of your nose were world famous.
– But they were certainly less than those of your nose. The twin streams of Ganga and Jamuna would run constantly from it. How is your cold problem these days?
– The same as ever.
– Why don’t you take something for it?
– You know how it is. If you take medicine, the cold leaves you in 7 days, and if you don’t take it, the cold goes away in a week. In such a scenario what’s the sense in taking anything at all?
– You’re a born miser, that’s all. The cold was yours, but the handkerchiefs sacrificed to its cause were mine. Looks like you haven’t changed a bit. Had I married you, I’d probably have died of starvation.
– Forget it! You used to polish off the samosas from my plate as well.
– As though you were the one who fed me the samosas! You’d place the order and leave the payment to me.
– By the way, that day after my return, did your mother really take poison or was it just a little drama to blackmail you, a surefire way of keeping you away from me?
– Let it go… My mother herself is no longer with us.
– Oh, sorry. I didn’t know that. And who else is there at home?
– You’re the one who does the spying. You should know
– No, it’s not like that. I want you to hear it from you, in your own words.
– The elder daughter Ananya is in her second year MBA. Her younger brother Dipankar is studying Engineering in IIT.
– And where is Mr Dhawan these days?
– On deputation to the World Bank
– Are you happy?
– Useless question.
– Why?
– Firstly, one can’t ask this of any married woman, regardless of how close she is to you. Secondly, after twenty years of marriage, this question itself has no meaning. We no longer regard happiness or misery as the issue. The question now is how well adjusted are the husband and wife towards each other’s positives and negatives. Tell me about yourself. Is your story any different?
– What’s there to tell?
– Why? Had heard that within a year or so my wedding the procession of your baraat was taken out through the crowded bazaars of the city. And that you brought home a bride as pretty as the moon. How is that moon- faced beauty?
– What beauty? Which beauty?
– What do you mean?
– My marriage was a disaster. It lasted barely two and a half months.
– What happened?
– She was having an affair with her brother-in-law. She got married to me thinking that, at least, this way she would not break her sister’s home. However, she continued to meet him on the quiet. When I found out, I asked her to put a stop to it. But she could not. I filed for a divorce. Her sister committed suicide. Two homes shattered at the same time.
– Oh. I didn’t know that you had to go through something so awful. Where is she these days?
– In the beginning, she would live openly with her brother-in-law. Then I heard that she’d had a nervous breakdown. You really didn’t know all this?
– I’m telling you the truth. I’d only got the news of your wedding. I felt then that after my exit, you weren’t lonely for very long. I had no inkling that you’d gone through so much. Didn’t settle down again? No children?
– I had only two accidents written in my fate. Love and Marriage. There’s no third mishap written in my fate line.
– ………
– Hello?
– Hunh?
– Why are you quiet?
– I’m thinking.
– What?
– Why is it that often times we get punished for mistakes we never made. Just one person’s mistake or pigheadedness can destroy so many lives, so many families.
– Let it go, Deepti. If all this was, indeed, written in my destiny, how could I have avoided it? That aside, tell me, is it possible for me to meet you? Just for a little while. Look at it this way, that after aeons, I want to, just once again, gaze at you the way I used to.
– No.
– Why not?
– No. Just no.
– Deepti, you know as well as I do that I can, under no circumstances, come back into your life. And you also know that you cannot nurture any affection or delusion about me. In my case, I never had any delusions in the first place. I got over all this a long time ago.
– Maybe that’s the reason I don’t want to meet you.
– Can’t we meet just like two old acquaintances and have a cup of coffee together?
– No.
– May I ask why?
– I know, and maybe you do as well, that even today we cannot meet normally, like two friends. It will not just end with a meeting over a cup of coffee. I know you very well. You may well be able to control yourself, you may have gotten over all that happened so many years ago. But I am not as strong even today. It’s always been difficult for me to hold myself back.
– I would never allow you to give in.
– That’s exactly what I don’t want. That I should have to use your shoulder to keep myself strong.
– And what if I’d walked in without a warning into your office?
– In my office, the first question a visitor is asked is his name and address. Then he is asked for the reason for the visit. Then I am asked whether I want to meet him or not.
– And this is how it should be. After all, you are working in a big ministry as a senior official with the status of a chief secretary, and I happen to be a down-at-heel teacher. Now, just about anyone cannot walk…
– Please stop it! There’s nothing official about this. It isn’t as if I haven’t thought of you or missed you. The most wonderful phase of my life was spent in your company. Those were probably the most meaningful days of my life. I was extremely lonely while preparing for the IAS exam and you were constantly by my side. To tell you the truth, I still feel a connection with you somewhere inside, even if I cannot give it a name or do not have the courage to renew the association. Societal norms don’t permit me to do that. Hello…Are you listening to me?
– Yes, yes…go on.
– After so many years, I will not be able to meet you face to face…Please try and understand.
– All right, we won’t meet. If not face to face, I can still view you from a distance. Let me see for myself, if your glasses still slip down your nose. I may not be allowed to push them back, but I can, at least, watch you. Let me see how my friend looks after becoming a joint secretary.
– Joint secretaries don’t have horns on their heads.
– What’s the harm in having a look?
– When I really needed you and when you should have tried your best to meet me, you never bothered, and now…
– Let’s not go into whether I was serious or not. The truth is that once your wedding was fixed, in one stroke you cut off all relationships.
– Don’t bluff. I came to meet you even after getting married.
– Yes. To flaunt your mangalsutra and your wedding bangles. As if to say I’m not your Deepti anymore, I’m Mrs Dhawan now, the wife of another man.
– Don’t abuse me now. You knew everything, and you accepted it… Like I didn’t matter to you at all.
– What else could I do but accept it? In response to my proposal, your mother staged a suicide by swallowing poison, and you immediately surrendered. It was enough to overcome any man.
– You could have shown some manliness. At least then I could have said that my choice was not wrong.
– Should I have abducted you in true film style, or should I have, like a lovelorn Majnu, banged my head to bits on your doorstep?
– Why are you digging up these dead matters after so long? Did you call me after twenty years only to remind me of all this?
– I had no such wish. You were the one who…
– You could have chatted about something else.
– There are so many topics to talk about. About what happened twenty years ago, about what happened in between. It would have been so nice if we could have met and chatted. But I won’t force you.
– Don’t be stubborn. I’m no longer your Deepti. All these topics…
– All right then. See you soon. I’m keeping the phone down.
– Don’t even dream of seeing me… Anyway, so nice of you to call after such a long time. It was a pleasant surprise. Didn’t realize how time just flew while we were chatting. I do have to rush for an urgent meeting. There are some papers I need to go through before that. But didn’t you say that you had just a single one-rupee coin? You couldn’t have been talking from a PCO for twenty minutes. Where are you calling from?
– It doesn’t matter. I, too, have an urgent meeting.
– So, did you come here in connection with that?
– Yes, it was about that. But I thought, under this pretext, I could also catch up with you.
– Where is your meeting being held?
– At the same place as yours.
– Meaning?
– The meaning is clear, my dear. It’s your department that has called for the meeting to discuss the Non-conventional Energies Project of our university. The only bit of information that is of any personal significance to you is that I am running this project. It’s only after coming here that I got to know that you are dealing with this case and…
– Oh God! I just can’t believe it. What’s going to happen now? Why didn’t you tell me earlier? Made a fool of me for so long…
– Relax, dear. Relax. I’ll make it out that I’m meeting you for the first time in my life. Just ensure one little thing, will you? That your spectacles don’t slip…
– You cheat!

END

 

Suraj PrakashSuraj Prakash, author, translator and editor, has several short story collections, Adhoori Tasveer, Chhutay huay ghar, novels Haadson ke beech, Des Birana, and satirical essays to his credit. Among his translations are Animal Farm, Chronicle of a death, The diary of Anne Frank and the autobiography of Charlie Chaplin. He has also translated Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography and Prakash no parchhayo, a novel in Gujarati by Dinkar Joshi. He lives in Mumbai.

W. Somerset Maugham: Adultery in the tropics.

709897One of the many inconveniences of real life is that it seldom gives you the complete story, wrote British writer Somerset Maugham in the story The Romantic Young Lady. Yet, out of an inconvenience such as this, or perhaps because of it, he created a marvelous oeuvre of short fiction. Maugham, a writer with many hats – novelist, playwright, literary critic, travel writer – wore them all with élan. Even those who have read none of his longer works (The Razor’s Edge, Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence), would, most likely, have read a short story or two.

Maugham’s skill as a writer came from his acute powers of observation. As a child he stammered and was teased for it. Shyness made of him a passive participant but an active spectator. He started writing short stories after his moderately successful first novel, Liza of Lambeth, written when he was a medical student in London, was published in 1897. These early works came out in the best literary magazines of the day, The Strand Magazine, Punch, The Pall Mall magazine, The Illustrated London News. However, it was only after the First World War – in which he served in France as an ambulance driver – that he wrote some of his finest tales.

raffles
Raffles Hotel – Singapore

In 1917, Maugham travelled to the Pacific Islands and the Far East, visiting the British colonies: India, Burma, Siam, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong. The good traveler has the gift of surprise, he wrote. Though his travel writing compares with that of Evelyn Waugh and Freya Stark, Maugham was always more interested in people than places. On a Chinese screen, his account of a journey up the Yangtze river in 1919, is replete with detailed pen pictures titled My Lady’s Parlour, Dinner Parties, The Nun, that were probably meant as preliminary notes for his stories. On his travels he interacted with the whole gamut of expats who ran the empire – bureaucrats, planters, company managers, army officers, missionaries – and built up a storehouse of raw material in the form of vignettes, anecdotes, sketches which later gave shape to some truly memorable pieces of short fiction, rich in period detail.

It was a time when the world was in a flux and the sun was gradually beginning to set on the Raj. In The Outstation, a character who lives on a remote administrative outpost in the Borneo jungle insists on dressing up for dinner every evening: ‘When a white man surrenders in the slightest degree to the influences that surround him he very soon loses his self- respect, and when he loses his self- respect you may be quite sure that the natives will soon cease to respect him.’ In Maugham’s writing it is hard to distinguish between reality and imagination; fact is sometimes barely disguised as fiction, and the usual caveat about characters being imaginary seems like the only invented part. Naturally, some of the stories created controversy and invited lawsuits. For instance, The Painted Veil, a novella set in Hong Kong, about an adulterous affair and its unusual aftermath, had to be revised twice to avoid hurting the sentiments of British folks living on the island. The stories Maugham wrote give us an insight into the class structure of colonial life, the attitudes of those who administered the colonies and were caught between two cultures. They capture the dilemmas of the rulers –isolation, boredom, homesickness – while telling us very little about the ruled.

708The colonial’s existence was lonely and monotonous. Driven by the conflicting needs, to cling on to what he had left while distancing himself from where he found himself, it took an emotional toll. The imperative to maintain cultural boundaries both within and without the world of the White Man is a frequently explored theme in the stories. Class, religion and sex were typical subjects. As was adultery. Notwithstanding the gin pahits served by the deferential houseboys on the bungalow’s verandah, against a backdrop of prahus sailing down the river that ran through the dark forest under a buttery yellow moon, there was, it seems, nothing for the English mem and the sahib to do in those remote rubber plantations – except have an affair. With whom? For her, it was usually a neighbor from the estate next door, always a fellow white man. The sahib, however, had no such qualms; he could, and often did, make the crossover by choosing a native Malay or Chinese woman as his mistress and even having half a dozen half -caste kids.

Maugham_retouchedWhile these yarns were clearly inspired by tidbits of salacious gossip, probably gathered from shamelessly eavesdropping at watering holes such as the bar at the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore, in Maugham’s deft hands they became stories, written in plain prose, with plots and twists, but about real people and all the subtle touches of irony that make up real life. Of this ilk are The Letter, Flotsam and Jetsam, Force of Circumstance, all considered Maugham classics.

What was the response? Well, Western critics who were getting accustomed to more cerebral stuff such as the new styles of short story writers like John Cheever, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, tended to look down their noses calling his writing a ‘tissue of clichés’. The public, however loved his work – probably for the same reason that the critics despised it. He was, reputedly, the highest paid author in the 1930s, outselling brilliant contemporaries like Joseph Conrad.

 SWEET DISH

 
(Published in Why we don’t talk, Rupa, 2010)
(Published in Why we don’t talk, Rupa, 2010)

Unquiet nights invite me in. Nights like this one, wet, windswept, shifting. I never go far, just on a walkabout. This is a residential locality; at this hour, the lanes are empty except for the occasional cyclist hunched up against the rain and silent except for the wind in the coconut palms. Streetlamps cast pale pools of light that underscore the depths of the surrounding dark.

Keeping to the shadows, I stop now and then to peer through a gap in the hedge. Framed in the windows of homes are pictures of domestic life: a woman stirring a pot in the kitchen, a man and a boy playing a board game, a girl in pigtails packing her schoolbag. Everyday images, but as I watch riveted, they become extraordinarily beautiful, rich and pulsating, radiant with an inner glow. I am careful not to linger – these are dangerous times. Sociologists have glib phrases for them such as ‘sudden wealth and conspicuous consumption’, and ‘the collective itch to grow rich’.  Are they saying that greed is no longer a bad word?

`Ma, Rohit is a greedy pig.’

`Shalu, don’t use such words for your younger brother.’

`But Ma, he finished the whole packet of Gems! Didn’t give me even one.’

`Listen, bitiya. I’ve made kheer today. I’ll give you an extra helping.’

`You’re only saying that because you know Rohit doesn’t like kheer.’

`What nonsense you talk! Go, set the table. Your father will want his dinner as soon as he comes home.

How old was I then? Eight or nine? And why did we have kheer? My mother’s diary has no record of that day. What I remember is that kheer, thick, creamy, garnished with nuts and raisin, was a sweet reserved for special occasions. For Diwali, for Report Card day and for the days Father would bring home his paycheck – there were a few occasions like that, I remember.

To the world at large, father was the ne’er do well. In her diary, my mother calls him sapnon ka saudagar, a peddler of dreams. Yes, my father’s head was big with dreams. They were always about money. Not in the few hundreds that we needed for rent, fees and food. No. Father dreamed of crores, of empires. Remember, to reach your destiny you have to start with a dream, he would often say. Once Ma retorted, I’ll settle for a second-hand car. Father’s eyes turned flinty; he hated to be reminded of the things we could not afford. We’re not poor, he’d tell us. We’ve come down a bit, that’s all. Go back a generation or two and you’ll find that our family owned hundreds of acres in the Doab region. Go back a century or two and there are rajahs in our family tree; palaces, royal elephants and servants holding up white umbrellas over our heads; harems filled with beautiful women. He’d add with a grin, yes, we’ve come down a bit – I have to make do with just one woman. But she is the fairest of them all. Then, even Ma would find it hard not to smile.

Ma had the girl-next-door look popular in the Hindi films of the seventies. A heart-shaped face, a clear skin, a snub nose and wide set eyes. Vikasnagar, where she was born and brought up, was a small agricultural town in the Doon Valley. Her name was Rukma. She came from a family of three sisters and two brothers. Their father was a munshi, an accountant. Rukma was the only one who inherited his aptitude for numbers. She attended classes in accounts and bookkeeping, acquired a basic skill in typing and found a job for herself in Dehradun. Apart from her father, she was the only one who earned anything.

It was around this time, when she had just started working, that Rukma also began to keep a diary. She chose a hardcover single-lined notebook, the first of sixteen similar notebooks. The paper was thick and rough, but she made it beautiful with her script – neat, bold and rounded. She wrote in Hindi of the journeys she made. The daily commute to the city was a ninety-minute bus ride past orchards of mango and litchi trees, silent forests of sal, a dry riverbed and a brick kiln. She’d cross tiny thatched huts and catch brief glimpses of the lives of those who lived in them: skeletal women who slogged in the kitchen and the yard; barefoot, unclad children who rolled discarded tractor tyres through the dusty village lanes; old men who sat at the chai shop staring at nothing. The scene never changed. Rukma traced in it the bleak pattern of her own future: an arranged marriage to someone who would accept a small dowry, motherhood many times over, a lifetime of slavery in the kitchen, slow-festering frustrations that would, every now and then, burst into virulent domestic quarrels. The distance from Vikasnagar to Dehradun was only thirty miles, but on those daily journeys Rukma dared to travel further. She began to dream her own big dreams. Then she met Father.

His name was Vinod Baijal. He was thirty-five, the friend of her employer’s son. The employer, Seth Puran Chand Mittal, had a medium-sized timber business. Like many self-made men, Sethji was thrifty by nature, but he gave his son Murali all the advantages of money, starting with a public school education. It was at this school that Murali had struck a friendship with Vinod, the son of a senior police officer.

Vinod was tall and fleshy with an air of suppressed aggression in his quick, loud speech and impetuous manner. He was briefly in the army but finding its discipline too hard to bear on a daily basis took a premature release. Subsequently, he tried his hand at a number of businesses: garments, computer hardware dealership and event management. Every time he managed to put together the necessary capital for his ventures through bank loans and money borrowed from friends. But there was such a rush in him for quick gains that he would expand too fast, hire the wrong people, splurge on overheads. Soon, the daily grind would get to him, he would be unable to meet his commitments, the suppliers would stop giving him credit and the debtors would hound him for money. He would lose credibility and friends. Finally, he’d go bankrupt. Then his mother, Punita, would plead with his father to use his connections to get Vinod a job.

Dhanraj Baijal, my grandfather, was known for his incorruptibility; he wore it like a crown of thorns. For such a man it was anathema to have to ask an acquaintance – he had few friends – for a favour. Yet, hounded by Punita, he would swallow his pride and approach his contacts for a job for his son. Vinod rarely stayed in a job beyond six months. The reason could be anything: a real or imaginary slight, boredom, inadequate salary, better opportunity. He’d quit without notice. Before long, some new scheme would fire his mind.

It was one such scheme that took him to Dehradun. The Doon Valley was a hub of the timber trade. Vinod decided that he would make a foray into the furniture business. Naturally, he went to Seth Puran Chand Mittal’s office. From my mother’s diary it appears she met Vinod several times. At Sethji’s request, she explained to him how the business was run. Vinod asked questions, first about the business and then about herself. One day he asked her whether she would move to Delhi. She agreed immediately. The diary does not give any reason, but makes it clear that it was her decision alone to leave her job and her family. She packed an overnight kit, left for work as usual and did not return. Her letter to her parents only said that she was going to Delhi where she’d been offered a better job.

The furniture business developed the usual troubles. Within eighteen months it was grounded for good. Next was the filmmaking venture. Vinod had met a scriptwriter who made a tenuous living by writing scripts for corporate promotion and training videos, but dreamed of writing a TV serial. Vinod decided he would produce this serial. He scraped up enough money to shoot a pilot episode. For months he made the rounds of television channels, trying to sell the serial. At the end of another wasted day, Vinod would come back to his office, a room above the garage of his father’s house. He’d kick off his shoes and plant his feet on the table. Rukma would go to the market and buy him something to eat: a bun omelet, bread pakora or samosa. At that time Vinod was still living in his father’s house, but the two men had stopped communicating with each other. Vinod’s interaction with his mother was limited to the subject of food. Did he want breakfast, Punita would ask. Would he be back for dinner? No. His answer was always ‘no’. Though Rukma came and went freely, Punita never exchanged a word with her.

Soon, Vinod could not afford to pay even Rukma’s salary. She found another job in a ceramic factory in Gurgaon. At the end of her first day at work, she stepped out of the office at seven-thirty in the evening. She had started off towards the bus stand when someone emerged from the shadows.

“I’ll drop you,” said Vinod, sitting on his motorcycle. He took her out for dinner at a wayside dhaba frequented by truck drivers. Another six months were to pass before Vinod married Rukma. And that happened only because I was on the way. In her diary, she wrote: A wisp of desire. Who can guess its power? No matter what we believe of ourselves, our actions are based on our desires and dreams. But with that partial vision unique to dreamers, we are strangely blind to circumstances. Finally, reality compels us to rearrange our dreams.

I know now that my mother had wanted to abort. But, for some reason, my father would not hear of this rearrangement. Instead, he drove her to a temple and married her. There is a photograph of them, taken in a studio after the ceremony. They are side by side, they have fresh flower garlands around their necks. There is a hint of a smile on Ma’s face, just a tiny spillover, as if she’s holding her happiness very tight within herself. Father looks faintly irritated. There is another picture. It was taken on the day I was born. Father is holding me in his hands, gazing down at me with a strangely perplexed expression. At the time this picture was taken, Father had a job in a firm that provided security guards to factories. He had moved out of his parents’ house. Dhanraj had made it clear that he had washed his hands off the relationship. But, when my brother Rohit was born, two years after me, my grandmother began to visit us.

I recall her visits to our house in Gurgaon. After ordering the driver to park the car at the beginning of the dirt track that serviced our neighbourhood, Punita would get down, raise the hem of her chiffon sari and petticoat, hold a handkerchief to her nose and, with a disgusted look on her face, negotiate her way past cyclists, vendors, children, pools of dirty water and street dogs to our door. Ma would offer her a nervous welcome, run about fetching a glass of water and a cushion for her back and apologise for the cramped space. Punita would listen to her twittering with disdain writ large over her regal features. She would make it clear that she had come only to see her son and grandchildren. Before leaving she would place a sealed white envelope on the table. After she’d gone Father would pick it up and slip it into his pocket.

The job in the security firm began to pall. Father identified fitness as a sunrise industry. He got into a partnership with a friend who put up the money to start a gym. The deal was that Father would run the place. At that time I was eight years old. Sometimes, Father would take me to the gym. I remember the mirrored walls, shining steel equipment, loud music, the smell of sweat and room freshener. The place was always crowded. After a while the equipment began to give trouble. A man working out on the bench press had a heart attack and died on the spot. The gym was shut down due to mismanagement. It turned out that Father’s friend had taken huge loans. The banks began to foreclose. The friend vanished, leaving Father to face the debts and court cases. By now, Father was forty-six, grossly overweight, suffering from ulcers, his teeth rotten. The years had taken their toll.

It may appear from all this that I had a miserable childhood. That’s not true. In her diary, my mother wrote: Children have an instinct for happiness. They live only in the present – beautiful or ugly, it is all they know. Every moment is inset with its own sense of purpose. When do things change? When does hope turn its back?  May be when the realisation sinks in that tomorrow inevitably comes…it comes armed anew with its hollow promise. Those legions of empty tomorrows that march relentlessly towards us, they defeat us.

Rohit and I didn’t see that far; we were too young. We saw only the new lightness in the house.

`Is somebody coming to visit us, Ma?’

`No, Shalu… Why do you ask that?’

`You’ve tidied the cupboards and the kitchen shelves. You’ve changed the bed sheets even though it’s the middle of the week. You’ve made kheer today. All this tells me that today is special.’

`What a clever girl you are! Listen, did someone knock on the door? It may be your father. Give him a towel, bitiya. It’s raining. He’s probably drenched.’

How pretty Ma looked that night, how lighthearted. As we sat down to dinner, the four of us were caught up in the gossamer-fine web of our happiness. A web that was easy for them to spin. Father was in a cheerful mood. He hugged Rohit and me several times, kissed us and made little jokes. Every now and then his eyes would alight on Ma’s face; they would share a smile fraught with secrets. Outside the window, a sulphur-yellow moon struggled through a sea of monsoon clouds.

We finished eating. I helped Ma clear the table. Father started an arm-wrestling match with Rohit. I remember it clearly: Father’s arm covered with thick dark hair entwined with Rohit’s skinny smooth arm. Their eyes interlocked in a separate battle of their own. Rohit’s eyes bright with innocent laughter, Father’s eyes dark as an abyss.

Ma went into the kitchen. She returned with four bowls of kheer on a tray. She passed them to us individually. Later, the police said that the kheer was ‘laced with poison’. The news warranted front-page space in the national dailies. A tiny box on the left corner. Family suicide in Gurgaon. The report said that Father’s financial difficulties had led to this drastic step. Father’s name was not mentioned because he was Dhanraj Baijal’s son. My grandfather, though retired, had enough clout to prevent further details from leaking out. This time, he did not hesitate to use it.

The police found the empty bottle in the dustbin. What they couldn’t understand was why Ma had omitted to add the poison in one bowl out of the four. Why had she, instead, just added a dose of tranquilisers sufficiently large to knock out a nine-year-old for twenty hours? They asked me what happened in our house. Did my parents quarrel? Was my father worried about something? Was my mother angry? Was I unhappy? No, I said. We were happy that night. Our parents loved us, Rohit and me. It is true.

` Didi, your kheer has got more kishmish than mine!’

`That’s because you don’t like kishmish.’

`I do! It’s soft and it goes plop in my mouth when I bite it. I love it!’

`You don’t, Rohit. You know you don’t. You just want it because I like it.’

`Will you exchange your katori with mine?’

`And if I do, what will I get?’

`That packet of Gems…I didn’t finish it.’

`Liar!’

`No, didi. I’ll give it to you. See, I’ve kept it in my pocket.’

`How many Gems?’

`Seven.’

`All right.’

Our parents loved us – Rohit and me. But Ma loved Rohit differently. Though she doesn’t say it in her diary, I know. That night before we went to sleep in our room, she came to kiss us. I saw it in her face. Her eyes fixed on Rohit with such tenderness that I felt a hard knot in my chest. I looked away. Goodnight bitiya, she said to me a moment later, as one might say hello to a travelling companion, but I shut my eyes, pretending to be asleep.

Dhanraj and Punita took me in. We left New Delhi and moved to the south, to a quiet, cool city. Punita went through the motions of living: decorating the new house, training the staff to do things her way, wearing pastel chiffons, painting her nails seashell pink, baking cakes for Dhanraj’s bridge sessions. Habit, like water, created channels through which her daily life continued to flow unimpeded. She never talked about what had happened, but sometimes her gaze rested on me. That look of rancour. What are you doing here? Then it would disappear, to be replaced by the firewall of indifference.

It was different with Dhanraj. For a long time he was the only one who provided me with a form of meaningful human contact. He taught me to play bridge. We got into the habit of going for early morning jogs under the gulmohar trees in the park. Though he was a taciturn man, he anchored me in small ways. It was enough to get me through school and college. I did a course in ticketing and joined a travel agency. I moved into my own apartment.

I like my job. I meet all kinds of people: honeymooners wanting the ideal romantic getaway, families on budget holidays, grandparents travelling for the birth of a grandchild. I plan itineraries, make airline bookings and hotel reservations. I never fail to wish my clients bon voyage.

Yet there are nights like this one when I walk through empty lanes, looking into windows of homes at the simple tableaux of life. Sometimes they walk beside me. Vinod, Rukma and Rohit. Sometimes I see them inside the tableaux, looking out the window into the dark and at me. My dead. I hear their lament. I feel their pain, their yearning. For tomorrow, the day after tomorrow.
But tomorrow belongs to me alone.

Interview with Shinie Antony

My short interview with Shinie Antony. Shinie 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. You will find my short story published in this anthology, posted next on the blog.

Shinie Antony
Shinie Antony

Q: What was the thought behind putting together the book of short stories Why We Don’t Talk?
Shinie: To showcase relevant short story writers along with stories by contemporary novelists. The book has a foreword by Shashi Deshpande, a maestro of both short and long fiction, and stories by Usha KR, Jahnavi Barua, Chetan Bhagat, Jaishree Misra, Susan Visvanathan etc.

Q: Why the title?Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 12.48.57 PM
Shinie:
The power of secrets, of what we don’t come out and say, the unsaid. For instance, Jahnavi’s story delves into what a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law keep in their mind about each other, Jaishree’s goes into an old family secret and Madhavi Mahadevan’s story ‘Sweet Dish’ unveils a dark spot in someone’s memory, a knowledge she holds unwillingly within her.

Q: Would you say the theme of ‘Sweet Dish’ – family suicides – has been dealt with adequately in the story?
Shinie: It is a brilliant handling of the theme. Family suicides per se are a sad phenomenon and headlines are full of them, but to go behind the deed, examine motives and deliver a non-judgemental fictional narrative along with a spectacular twist in the tail that is quintessentially Indian must have been a challenge for the writer.

The Game’s Afoot: The London of Sherlock Holmes

sherlock-holmes-147255_1280Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has become so much a part of our lives that no one can deny he is practically a historical figure. Fans of SH would be shocked to hear that he might be… fictional.

In the same vein, so much has been said about Sherlock Holmes’s London that it would be presumptuous of me to claim that my take is new or different – it’s all been said, and said by the best writers. What I have done is write about what excites me the most and why.

Apart from the consulting detective himself, the “great wilderness that is London” is the omniscient presence in the stories of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock himself had a vast understanding of the city, apart from an intimate knowledge of its opium dens, the Opera House, Simpson’s and Pall Mall.

When Watson first returns to London, he calls it “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of Europe are irresistibly drained” Holmes disagrees, pointing out that the most dangerous alleys of London do not present a “more dreadful record of sin than the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

London was his canvas, his home and his turf. And what better backdrop do we need for the world’s most famous detective stories to unfold, twist and turn than London, where the weather enthusiastically pitches in to mirror the darkness that lies in the souls of men. Stormy, blustery windy nights, icy cold pavements echoing the footfalls of Holmes and Watson as they push their way through oily yellow fogs, clattering hansom cabs that bring the prospect of pure adventure to 221B Baker Street.

art_14When Holmes began his illustrious career in 1878, London was Dickensian – a constant jostling drama with chimney sweeps, dustmen, costermongers, ice barrow men, flower girls, footpads and Italian street singers rubbing shoulders with each other. The metropolis was slowly undergoing the metamorphosis into the great city it would become. Interestingly, Holmes’ love for disguise reflects these multiple characters that made up the texture of London.

One emerging trend in this Victorian England was the inter-mingling of different classes due to the surge of immigrants into the metropolis. 221B offers an interesting tableau in this regard. Holmes is clearly a member of the gentry, the son of an English country squire, Watson a member of the professional middles class, a doctor who also served in the army while Mrs. Hudson belongs to what they would call the lower middle classes. She is his landlady, not a housekeeper, keeps a maid and cook and also shows in his colourful clients.

Adding to this mélange are the Baker Street Irregulars — Holmes’ eyes and ears of the streets — homeless urchins who keep an ear to the ground and form the “Baker Street division of the detective police force”

The relationships are complex yet clearly defined. The close camaraderie between Holmes and Watson with the latter being his sounding board, biographer, friend and guide; Mrs. Hudson’s devotion to Holmes and his deep regard and affection for her (a closely guarded secret though!) and Holmes’ admiration for the tough, street-smart Irregulars whom he pays handsomely. Experts note that while Holmes admires their resourcefulness, the fact that he accepts their un-parented and homeless state reflects the general attitude to street urchins.

Baker_Street_Waterloo_Railway_platform_March_1906Moving on. We know that Sherlock’s brother Mycroft’s haunt, the Diogenes was on Pall Mall — which has always been the home of all the gentleman’s clubs that best exemplify the English sensibility, the Athenaeum, The Army and Navy Club, the United Services club, the Oxford and Cambridge club. The Diogenes was the club that housed the “most unsociable and unclubable” men in London. The number one rule was that there should be no talking and members could be invited to leave for coughing. It is here that we see Mycroft in — The Bruce Partington Plans (in the Stranger’s Room of course) and wonder if the club is a front for the Secret Service perhaps?

And finally Simpson’s in the Strand. Simpson’s opened in 1828 as a chess club and coffee house, The Grand Cigar Divan. It soon became known as the “home of chess”. The official website explains that the habit of wheeling large joints of meat on silver-domed trolleys to guests’ tables first began to avoid disturbing the progress of chess games — a practice Simpson’s still continues today. I was delighted to see that the official Simpson’s website proudly boasts of their famous patrons — Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone and Sherlock Holmes.

It was here that Holmes sat with Watson in The Illustrious Client watching the “rushing stream of life in the Strand.” (“She waved us into our respective chairs like a reverend abbess greeting two rather leprous mendicants…. if your head is inclined to swell my dear Watson, take a course of Miss Violet de Merville.”)

My London will always be the London of Sherlock Holmes where Watson would be shaken awake on a “bitterly cold night and frosty morning” to hear the immortal words: “Come Watson, come, the game’s afoot.” The London where Holmes and Watson clatter through the silent streets to Charing Cross Station, the figure of a workman faintly visible in the “opalescent reek.”

The magic begins…

(this was a guest post by Achala Srivatsa)

Sir_Arthur_Conan_Doyle_1890 Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle KGStJ, DL (22 May 1859 – 7 July 1930) was a British writer and physician, most noted for his fictional stories about the detective Sherlock Holmes, which are generally considered milestones in the field of crime fiction. He is also known for writing the fictional adventures of a second character he invented, Professor Challenger, and for popularising the mystery of the Mary Celeste. He was a prolific writer whose other works include fantasy and science fiction stories, plays, romances, poetry, non-fiction and historical novels.

achala srivastava

 

 

Achala Srivatsa is a market researcher by profession who observes the madness of the world and occasionally musters up the energy to comment on it. Her love for all things Sherlockian started at the age of 9 when she read the Speckled Band and it continues today. 

Interview with Jahnavi Barua

Jahnavi-Barua-e1409898940418-320x240Jahnavi Barua is an Indian author from Assam. She is the author of Next Door, a critically acclaimed collection of short stories set in Assam with insurgency as the background. She lives in Bangalore, and is a doctor.

Please find her short story called Birdsong featured on the blog.

Q. You’ve written a novel as well as a collection of short stories. The former requires planning ( outline, synopsis, chapters etc), but what about the latter? Do you plan your short stories, or do they start with an idea or an image, and just unfold?
A. I do plan my short stories — quite precisely, in fact. As any writer of short fiction will know, short stories demand meticulous crafting, perhaps more so than the novel which allows for some meandering. Quite often, I start with a character, a figure which comes to me incomplete, but as I build him or her up, put flesh on bones, an attendant story also unfolds.

Q. In your experience what sort of themes work better for the short story? What themes are you drawn to as a reader, and like to explore as a writer?
A.  I don’t know if there is any particular theme that works better for a short story, but  as a reader I relish stories of human relationships and I find I am drawn to writing about them too.

Q. Endings – how do realise that a short story has finished?
A. That is perhaps the easier part — a short story, at least for me, finds its own ending. It is hard to describe this but one develops a sense of an ending as one writes along.

Q. What is the relationship between the writer and the reader? Do you have an audience in mind when you tell the story? Do stories take on new meanings/ different nuances with the readers that you may not have intended? You’ve interacted with readers across the world – Is the Indian reader different in reading tastes and sensibilities, and if so, how?
A. For an author, the relationship between reader and writer is a critical one, one that is intimate and precarious, for without a reader there is no writer. As far as I am concerned, I do not write with a reader in mind; I just write and know — rather hope — that there will be some small segment of people out there who will enjoy what I am writing. Yes, I have found that readers unearth meanings in stories that the author would not have thought of, or only considered obliquely. Readers cannot really be stratified by nationality but I do find that readers from the western world have a  stronger taste for the subtle and the nuanced in fiction. Indian readers are very discerning and have a wider range of taste.

Q. Are short stories are harder to sell? What advice do you have for someone who wants to write them? How does one deal with rejection?
A. Short stories are harder to sell — publishers do say that but have I have personally been fortunate in being able to publish my short story collection without any struggle. Dealing with rejection is a very personal thing : I would say, keep writing until you are confident of your voice. Publishing in magazines , especially online ones is one way of honing your skills and gaining that confidence.

Q. What is your writing routine like? Do you keep a journal? Do you revise your work several times? When do you like to write?
A. I write at night, the day is too fragmented and busy to consider doing any serious work. I don’t have any journal– it is all in the mind! And I revise a lot in the mind, and not that much after actually writing it all out.

Also, shared below is another Commonwealth interview with  Jahnavi Barua.

Birdsong

“So, what have you decided?”

Directly above her is a scarlet minivet; he is a striking bird, with his scarlet and black plumage, and is sitting patiently, as if presenting himself to her. She tries to find the best angle for the picture. The branches of the tree are bare, it is almost winter and the bird is flamboyant against the stark skeleton.

“Are you going to answer?”

Her foots snags on a jutting out root as she presses on the button and the bird flies away, casually, as if judging that enough time has been given and now he must move on.

On the viewing screen, she is left with a red blur, the exact colour and ferocity of anger. His voice is tinged with that colour, now, and every so often.

Across the small water hole, a scarlet flash in a jackfruit tree. She makes her way swiftly to the foot of the tree. The bird is perched, motionless, above her, his long tail balancing him just so. She raises her head, peering through the viewfinder, trying to position the bird.

Warm breath against her neck. “What the hell do you think you are playing at?” he tugs at her shoulder, she loses her balance and throws an arm out, gripping the tree trunk. The bird flies away noiselessly.

“Listen, you have to decide one way or the other.” His voice is now jagged with fury.

She is keeping him from the cricket match on TV; even on holiday, in the middle of the forest, he remains glued to the screen. But, he too, is keeping her from her birds. Her jaw assumes a stubborn set. She thinks of all the times he has remained wedded to the television : when she lay ill in bed with the Dengue fever, shivering and frightened; when she walked their newborn son to sleep at night, frantic with pain from the C-section incision and worry; when she wanted to watch the birds on a late night programme.

“Excuse me,” she says and pushes past him, to the steps at the base of the small hill. She runs up the steps easily. He follows, she can hear him cursing, as he pants his way up slowly.

At the top of the hill is a small pelt of thick woodland. Tall silk cotton trees rise into the cloudless sky. A bulbul, a red whiskered one, sits on a lower branch. It is so fat it is almost like a small ball. She smiles at the sight. This has been a good idea after all. Her mother had urged them to come away for this weekend. “I will take care of Neil,” she had said, “Go sort out things with him. Divorce is not a solution.”

Divorce. The word terrifies her mother. In the beginning, she had been afraid too. How would she bring up a fatherless child? He had been confident, cocky almost. “You will never manage without me.”

Would she manage? She does not know. But she is less afraid of the word now. She has carried it with her for a long time now; it has grown familiar and no longer possesses the menace it once had.

She pushes deeper into the forest. It is dim here, even in the daytime. The path is narrow and uneven; she has to be careful, she has to watch her step. It is deceptively silent here. She knows there are eyes watching her, although she cannot see anything.

He is behind her. Stumbling and swearing. She feels a frisson of anger.

“He is not bad, darling,” her mother always said. Not bad, but that did not mean good.

Her mother went on. “He has never been cruel to you.” By that, her mother meant he had never hit her. But cruelty came in all shapes and colours and sizes. She thinks of how he often looked at her, a look so blank it chilled her heart.

Her son needs a father. She realises that. Divorce really is not an option. Only an idea she toys with to pretend she has a way out.

A cuckoo calls out from above. She looks up in delight. The bulky bird, sits half hidden behind the leaves of a tree.

Then, from the corner of her eye she sees the flash of a red tail. The minivet. It has followed her here.

He is almost at her shoulder when she lifts her neck and arms to point the camera. If, this time, he asks her , she will tell him she has decided against leaving him.

She looks into the viewfinder. The scarlet bird is sitting patiently, framed against the dark leaves of the tree. She almost presses down with her finger when there is a movement. A yellow and black bird has appeared and settled down gently next to the red bird. It is the female minivet! The male leans in towards his mate and she nuzzles him and draws closer.

Unexpectedly, she is desolate. Her chest tightens. She lowers the camera and turns to face her husband, the father of her child.

“All right, then,” she says. “Let’s get a divorce.”

– by Jahnavi Barua

(please read my interview with Jahnavi over here)

Book Review – Shaping the world: women writers on themselves

shaping-the-world-400x400-imadw6zjxmpv6fz2My review was published in the Deccan Herald recently. Please find the review below:

Shaping the world: women writers on themselves
Edited by Manju Kapur
Hay House
2014, pp 272
Rs. 399

SHE VOICES HERSELF“Reading novels seems to me such a normal activity, while writing them is an odd thing to do,”wrote Susan Sontag, the American writer-activist. That was when reading fiction was common.

Today, it is the fashion to bemoan the decline of reading habit. On the other hand, writers generate the kind of interest they never did in the past. In the age of lit fests and glitzy book launches, writers are forced to shed the cloak of invisibility and present themselves to the naked eye, to answer a bombardment of questions: Why do you write? How do you write? How did you begin? Where do your ideas originate? How much of it is autobiographical?

If the writer happens to be a woman, there are further queries — making it clear that while writing is no longer an odd thing to do, a woman writer remains an oddity. Do you struggle with the label of being a woman writer? Does it affect the choice of material and themes you write on? Was it difficult finding a publisher? How on earth did you get the time? These are among the FAQs that writers bravely attempt to answer. They are also the raison d’etre for Shaping the world: Women writers on themselves.

Edited by Manju Kapur — a novelist known for the sharp, restrained, often ironic portraits of the north Indian middle class — the book is presented in the form of very personal accounts by acclaimed contemporary writers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Twenty-three different voices, ‘detailing their writerly selves,’ in tones ranging from chatty and frank to reflective and poetic, could become confusing, but here they are harmonised, partly due to the fact that as writers in English they have commonalities.

‘When we took up our pens, whose example was there before us? Whose voice did we have echoing in our ears that would validate ours? We had the English literature we grew up with, the British school and adventure stories we consumed, with descriptions, personal appearances, names, food and places that were totally foreign to our context,’ says Kapur. While Blyton and Christie are mentioned as childhood influences, George Orwell’s Why I write and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own have been frequently quoted. Apparently, if you want to be a writer, you must read the first essay; if you are a woman who wants to be a writer, you must also read the second.

What, besides love for reading, fuels the impulse to write? ‘I like the malleability of words, how I can play with them like a child,’ says Janice Pariat, who, like Anita Nair, Anuradha Marwah and Tishani Doshi, was an early starter, keeping notebooks and secret diaries. ‘Storytellers are forever sifting for the word,’ says Shinie Antony, who, besides writing skills, displayed a fine business sense by playing scribe to classmates who wanted to petition God, complete an essay, draft a love letter — all for a fee. Others — Shashi Deshpande, Bapsi Sidhwa, Kavery Nambisan, Jaishree Mishra, Mishi Saran, Susan Visvanathan — were bitten by the bug after they had lived a little more, travelled, acquired degrees, a job, a husband, a child or two.

‘The reasons a writer feels compelled to create an imaginary world can spring from many sources,’ writes Meira Chand, ‘but to me all reasons appear to be rooted in the need of individuals to examine issues of relevancy to their lives.’ For her debut novel, Jaishree Mishra drew from a well of painful personal memories; Janice Pariat’s collection of short stories was inspired by the magical words and images of the Khasi folklore of her childhood. Social observation, on the other hand, was the source for Anita Nair’s Ladies Coupé and Pakistani writer Moni Mohsin’s The Diary of a Social Butterfly.

Though several of these writers have also trained and worked as journalists, copy writers and academics, writing fiction has not been a career so much as a calling. ‘Writing = joy + gratitude,’ says Sri Lankan Ru Freeman. ‘For when I write I know who I am,’ says Nair.
Each of these essays is special for its shape, tone and flavour. Brimming with details about where they write (the dining table is a favourite), when they write (pre-dawn hours, usually); helpful advice such as the importance of establishing a routine or Namita Devidayal’s ‘When you write you are better off not thinking about the audience, or whether it is going to sell, or whether it will be liked by your mother,’ the book — notable for the candour, commitment and generosity of its contributors — is a worthwhile read for readers, writers, wannabe writers and those who are curious about women who spend their time inventing fantasies

Navas / The Vow

Short story in Marathi by Asha Bage. Translated by Keerti Ramachandra.
(published in New Quest, May-June 1998)

Translator’s Notes:
Pandharpur a small town in Sholapur district of Maharashtra is famous for the Vithoba, (an avatar / incarnation of Vishnu) temple, where the idol is found standing on a brick, his hands on his hips. His Rakhumayi stands beside him. The famous Vithala temple of Hampi is dedicated to the same deity. Every year thousands of devotees (warkaris) from all walks of life and sections of society, gather together at Dehu and Pune and walk all the way(about 250 kms) to Pandharpur carrying ‘palkhis’ of Eknath, Tukaram, Dnyaneshwar, Muktabai among others, singing bhajans composed by these saint poets. They make this pilgrimage every year and the people of the villages they pass through provide them food, shelter and medical facilities, for no charge. On Ashadi Ekadashi(the eleventh day of the month of Ashadh) they converge at Pandharpur for the Mahapuja which takes place at 3.00 am. Poet saints like Purandaradasa from Karnataka have also composed bhajans addressed to Vitthala of Pandharpur. Some of Bhimsen Joshi’s most popular bhajan renditions are by these poets. Mangalashtaka is a blessing sung at a wedding or upanayana ceremony. Bal Gandharva one of the best known actor-singers of Marathi stage in the first half of the twentieth century played only the roles of women characters since women did not perform on stage,

Revati had just come home from college when the postman brought Digumama’s letter. She had expected him to reply promptly but when she saw the postcard, her face fell. Every inch of her inland to him was crammed with news. She’d inquired after Mami, their three children, the varkaris who came to Pandharpur every year, even Mama’s poetry. In return she’d received a few terse sentences. He hadn’t answered a single one of her questions, hadn’t even referred to them. Once again, she glanced at the postcard.

Chi. Sau.Chhakubai,

Blessings. Received your letter.Was very happy. The wada is full with varkaris just now. No space to set foot in. If you wish to perform the thread ceremony of your son, come after Kartik Ekadashi or after Purnima preferably. Inform the date, the menu, what pakvan you want, the number of people coming. Arrangements will be made accordingly.

The formal closing Ashirwads etc was general, no names mentioned. Signed Yours Digambar R. Govardhan.

Digumama had not written to her but to one of the pilgrims, she felt. As if there was no difference between her and the varkaris who stayed at his wada every year! The only concession he had made perhaps was in his use of her pet name, Chhakubai. The name evoked memories of her childhood with her grandparents in Pandharpur.

Soon the rest of the family returned. Seeing her at home Shridhar remarked, “Arre, no classes today?’

Classes were cancelled. Students’ strike.”

What for?”

Do they need a reason? When I heard there were no lectures, I didn’t wait.”

Shridhar was silent after that. She thought, I’ve been teaching in this college for so long, but there’s no satisfaction. Commerce students taking Marathi! How much interest can they have in the subject? You become indifferent, too, as a result. These days I’ve begun to wonder –does the college, these students, my subject have anything at all to do with me? None of it has assimilated into my life – it has remained distinct, independent of my existence. When I wrote to Digumama at Pandharpur I thought I could get away for a few days, away from the routine – and see the dry bed of the Chandrabhaga transform into an ocean of people– as Aie had described to me so often. Shrirang’s thread ceremony was only an excuse. I had made that vow so long ago. Shri is past the age of upanayana now, he’s in college. I could have easily let it remain unfulfilled. That letter to Digumama had been written for a specific purpose. How disappointing his reply had been!

That Shri’s thread ceremony should be performed at Pandharpur was an old vow she had taken. It had been discussed often enough yet when she placed Digumama’s postcard before Medha, Swapna and Shri, it elicited all sorts of reactions.

Why Pandharpur? Why not some other place?”

If it has to be done in the presence of the gods, then why not in our puja room?”

Basically, why have a thread ceremony at all? What happens if one doesn’t? So many communities don’t even have this custom.”

Aie, avoid the dates of the cricket test match, okay!” Shrirang warned.

Revati was puzzled. Does my vow mean nothing to my family? Does it really mean anything to me? Did I make it only because I felt like it at that moment? Is it possible to explain why something happens at a given moment, in a particular situation? There are so many questions, so many doubts in one’s mind. Should one keep questioning everything all the time, instead of accepting it? Surely even that which seems irrelevant has some bearing on one’s life, is woven into the fabric of one’s existence, past or future?

Revati was silent, but Shridhar sensed that she was upset. He began to say something to make amends, but she burst out angrily. “There’s no need for everyone to go to Pandharpur. Just Shri and I would have gone, but the father’s presence is necessary.”

Medha threw her arms around her mother and placatingly, exclaimed, “Mama!”

Revati shrugged her off.

You angry, Aie?”

Of course not! What’s there to be angry about?”

In an attempt to humour her, Medha asked, “They used to call you Chhaku at Ajji’s didn’t they?”

Only Ajji, Ajoba and this Digumama. Everyone else called me Revati. Ajji-Ajoba didn’t like that name…”

Why?”

Because it’s the name of a courtesan in Shaunshaya Kallol, a very well known Marathi play.”

Really?”

And the associations are also like that,” Revati said, smiling.

Like what?”

My father had gone to see the play with Bal Gandharava playing Revati. He had grown old by then and tired, and could barely come on stage. But his voice hadn’t aged. By the time Baba got home it was almost 3 a.m. Aie had gone to the hospital, and I was born at 4.30. Baba decided since I was a girl…”

But didn’t he explain why he wanted the name?”

He did, but Ajoba dismissed it with ‘A courtesan!’ Then Baba told him it was also the name of a star…”

Which of the two names do you prefer, Revati or Chakku?”

I like both. One because my grandfather gave it to me, the other because my father chose it.”

Aie, Digumama – is he a close relative of yours?”

No, he’s no relation. He grew up in Ajoba’s house, that’s all.”

That night, Swapna asked her, “Aie, why did you make a vow only for Shri? Why not for us?”

This time Swapna’s question did not annoy her. “Because I wanted a boy after you two girls.”

But why did you want a son? What’s wrong with daughters?”

Revati smiled. She had been desperate for a boy then. Now she found it amusing. Sons, daughter, there’s no difference. Viewed like that it shouldn’t matter if her vow remained unfulfilled. She was much more practical now, not so weak in spirit, or touchy.

Her mother often used to say, “You needn’t achieve anything else in life, but you must produce a son. Your own flesh and blood to pour water into your mouth at the final moment. Who knows how one’s last journey will be made – as a helpless lump of flesh or…One’s shame must not be exposed to a stranger’s eyes. A daughter and son-in-law are, after all, outsiders. No matter how large the family circle is, it is the son who must cover one’s naked body.”

Revati recollected her Aie’s words and was stilled. Life has become so complicated, so multi-layered, one cannot live the way one would like to. Nor die! Ideas like Aie’s were nurtured when life was simple, one-dimensional, she thought. And yet she couldn’t put her unfulfilled vow, and the visit to Pandharpur, out of her mind.

At 11.30 pm, the rickshaw stopped outside Digumama’s house in Haridas galli. It was bitterly cold. Even the full-sleeved sweater and shawl couldn’t keep the chill out. Revati looked up and down the pitch dark galli. None of the old familiar landmarks were visible except Digumama’s house which had preserved its appearance. While Shri and Shridhar took the luggage out of the rickshaw, Revati eagerly went to the door and rattled the latch. The well-remembered stench from the latrine next door wafted across. Instinctively, she covered her nose. She heard someone moving inside, switching on a light, as Digumama’s coarse, gravelly voice called out, “Coming, coming!” The door opened. In the doorway stood Digumama, with his cough, a constant companion, his bulk not concealed by his height.

Who is it? Chhakubai?”

His words instantly dispelled the dryness of the postcard’s tone.

Mama quickly went forward to take the bags from Shridhar, and Shri promptly gave them to him. Revati didn’t approve of it at all, “Let him carry the bags, Mama…” she said. But before she could finish, he’d taken them inside.

When she bent down to touch his feet, Mama said, “Wait, let me wake your mami up. She sleeps very soundly, you know.”

Let her sleep,” Revati told him, but he wouldn’t listen.

Both Shridhar and Shri merely joined their hands and said namaskar. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell them, “Arre, bend down, na,” but she held back. When they were inside, she whispered to Shri, “Touch Mami’s feet.” But his jeans were too tight!

Why did you take the night train, Revati, especially, when it is so cold?” Mami asked. (Only Mami addressed her as Revati.) Revati, too, had begun to wish they hadn’t arrived so late. It was several days after Purnima and they hadn’t been able to see anything on their way home from the station.

You haven’t eaten dinner, I’m sure,” said Mami.

We have, in the train.”

A little pithla and bhath?”

No. Just some warm milk if you have…”

Sure. Shall I put some sugar in it?”

All right.”

Something caught Revati’s eye inside the room. On Mami’s bed was curled up a five-six year old child. Hearing voices, he sat up.

Who is this, Mami?”

Bhaskar’s son Amit. Lives with us.”

Hm, I’d heard Bhaskar’s wife had passed away – but much later – I wanted to write, but…” Revati couldn’t find a suitable excuse.

It wouldn’t have mattered to Bhaskar, anyway. He was all set to go to America. He stayed back only because she was critical. Now he’s settled there, permanently, married too,” Digumama told her. Like his letter, this information was also conveyed in a dry, unemotional manner. Revati’s gaze drifted to Bhaskar’s little boy. Such a big responsibility for Mami, at this age…

The wada is still full of varkaris. Will you sleep here tonight? We’ll see about a room for you tomorrow,” Mama said,

It’s all right, Mama. We’re here for just one night.”

But our son-in-law might require a separate room…”

Have the reservations been made for tomorrow’s bus?” Shridhar asked, ignoring the previous remark.

Yes, we’ll collect the tickets in the morning.”

Although Digumama had been informed that they had planned to return the next day, Revati didn’t think it was proper for Shridhar to mention it so soon.

Shridhar and Shri went to bed. Mama had placed three cots with mattresses and clean sheets, in the small courtyard. “Do you need a blanket or just a quilt will do?’ he asked.

No. No blanket.” Revati was reminded of her Ajoba. He had used only a quilt.

As she was getting into bed, Mama began, “All the arrangements have been made, Chhakubai. The muhurta is at eight. It’s a good time. There is another later in the day, but not as auspicious.”

Eight is fine, Mama.”

You’ll have to get up early…”

We will…”

What pakvan do you want made?”

Well, there’s usually puran for naivedya, so that is a must. Besides that, just sugar with the meal will do.”

Wah, Chhakubai! You come all the way here to perform the thread ceremony of your son and then try to save money? Don’t worry. The lunch will be from my side,” Mama said in his typical wry fashion.

Revati felt like laughing. She had suggested sugar because she didn’t want to trouble Mami. Actually Revati had wanted only the basic religious ceremony to be performed – none of the trappings or rituals. She had clearly stated this in her letter to Digumama.

You want the ceremony in the temple or…?”

Inside the temple, Mama, in Pandurang’s presence.”

In that case you will have to pay Rs 51 more. Otherwise the total expense would be about Rs 200.”

Only Rs 251? The new pant-shirt to be given to Shridhar after the ceremony had cost more than 800 rupees. An unnecessary formality.

Mama’s questions were never ending. “The ritual bath – at home or down at the river?”

I’m definitely going down to the Chandrabhaga. Shridhar and Shri will bathe at home.”

Well, the mangalashtakas and the main ceremony will be at the temple. The earlier rituals will be at home. You’ll have to finish bathing before that. Then whoever wishes to go to the river can do so on the way to the temple. Normally, once the daivak, the Gods, are formally invited to the ceremony you are not supposed to go out. But we’ll overlook that.”

Revati’s eyelids were drooping. She lay down and closed her eyes. Shridhar and Shri were fast asleep. On the floor beside her were Mama, Mami and Bhaskar’s little boy.

Just as she was drifting off, Mama’s voice broke in once more, “What about his hair? Will he agree to have it shaved off?”

No, Mama. Just a token snip,” she replied drowsily.

That means, the barber loses his income for one day, Chhakubai – I had booked him in advance…He needs the money, you know.”

Mama seemed quite unconcerned that it was very late and everyone was asleep. She forced herself to ask, “How much is he to be paid?”

A complete shave is five rupees. Since it’s only one lock, we can give him two. ”

Give him five, but let me sleep, she wanted to say.

The shehnaiwalla…” Revati pretended to be asleep. Mama lay down declaring loudly, “Fallen asleep, it seems. Hm…better sleep. You have to get up early.”

Revati’s shoulders shook with suppressed laughter.

When Mami woke Revati up, it was still dark. “Tea’s ready. Also hot water for your bath.”

Revati wasn’t fully awake yet. She hadn’t slept well at all. The little boy had a severe earache and through the night she had heard Mama and Mami bustling about, attending to him. Tempted as she was to get up and help, she didn’t. Just as she was dropping off, Mama had a coughing fit. And an old woman in the next room was groaning loudly. Before Revati knew it, the night had gone.

Let me sleep a little longer, Mami,” she pleaded. “It’s not day yet.”

It’s four o’clock!” Mami retorted.

Revati noticed that that Mami was bathed and ready. Hadn’t she slept at all? “Shall I wake up the others?” she asked.

No. Let the men sleep. They need it. After you are ready, then call them.”

Revati was amused. Men need sleep, women don’t? Mami gave her a cup of tea. Revati remained huddled by the fire even after she’d finished drinking it.

Although they had a gas stove, they always used wood fire in the winter. The firelight played on Mami’s face. Mami was younger than Revati’s mother, but her hair was all white. She wasn’t stocky like Mama. Her hands were thin and bony and the veins stood out sharply. The mixed fragrance of warm bath, soap and wood smoke that exuded from her jolted Revati awake.

Has sleep flown away from your eyes?” Mami asked.

Revati just smiled.

This particular hour is very deceptive, you know,” Mami said.

Deceptive?”

You think it’s still night, but imperceptibly, day is creeping in. I’ve been fooled so often…Your Mama has a poem, Revati.

It is a deep dark night

From somewhere a light appears

To illuminate the twilight

Comes a beloved friend.

Revati glanced up at Mami. So much more warmth there was in her, so much sensitivity. Who could have taught this illiterate woman all this? Mama? Or had she picked it up herself? Digumama’s verse was like himself, awkward and clumsy. Nothing delicate or subtle about it. Yet the words rang true.

By the time Revati finished bathing, night had turned to day. Mama, the varkaris, everybody was up. Sounds of teeth being cleaned, bodies being washed, suggested a flurry of activity. The maid was sweeping and swabbing in the rooms. The courtyard had been sprinkled with water and Mami had made a fully bloomed eight petal lotus rangoli on it. A deep sense of contentment washed over Revati. The fatigue of the journey, the sleepless night vanished. She wasn’t even annoyed because Shridhar and Shri were still asleep!

When the priest from the temple arrived, Revati asked in surprise, “Why the bhatji, Mama? You normally officiate yourself…”

That’s different. Today I’m performing the ceremony, not conducting it.”

Revati smiled. Mama was all dressed up for the occasion. He wore a brand new dhotar and uparna, thrown over the same old dusty jacket and shirt and the inevitable topi. As if it was his own grandson’s thread ceremony!

When Shridhar sat down, Mama asked, “No new dhotar for the son-in-law? At least a silk shirt piece?”

Revati was embarrassed. She’d clean forgotten that the family presented gifts to the boy and his parents! She’d had new clothes made for the men and she’d remembered to pack Shri’s churidar pyjama and Bengali kurta. But this dhotar – shirt piece…

Never mind, never mind,” consoled Mama. “We will have the formal presentation first.”

Mami came forward carrying a tray with a sari, blouse piece, a dhotar and eleven rupees on it.

Mami, what’s all this? No unnecessary formalities, I told you,” Revati said disconcerted.

To which Mama retorted in his abrupt fashion, “You want to perform your son’s thread ceremony, Chhakubai, without anyone – neither the boy’s sisters, uncles or aunts, grandparents, friends. Besides, three is not a good number. When I saw you, Shridhar and Shri yesterday, I had to pick up a pebble to make up the fourth!” Mama’s voice rose sharply.

Revati stared at him in baffled silence. Mami intervened softly, “Enough!”

As the priest started, “Keshavayanamah!” the shehnai player arrived.

I said I didn’t want him, Revati grumbled to herself.

Your services will not be required today,” Mama told him almost ruefully. The man stayed where he was.

Revati, a puja shouldn’t be performed in silence,” Mami whispered. “You won’t have to pay him much. He is given a retainership in the wada. If you like you can give him a fiver.” Mami hadn’t accused her of being stingy as Mama had done, but she’d implied it all the same.

I have my cassette player and a Bismillah Khan cassette. I’ll switch that on,” Revati said and went to fetch it. The priest paused while the tape started. But Mama was muttering, “Once the puja has begun, you shouldn’t get up Chhakubai.”

Shridhar held his little transistor to his ear with his left hand and followed the priest’s instructions with the right.

What’s this? Put the radio down at least today,” Revati snapped under her breath.

Just the news headlines,” Shridhar declared loud and clear.

Very well. We’ll begin after the news,” Mama acquiesced.

The priest fell silent once more. By that time Revati was really angry. We’ve agreed to go through only the essentials, but can’t they even do those, wholeheartedly? These mantras, they acquire a special significance on the occasion. They have a flavor, a fragrance – like agarbattis during a festive meal.

For the matrubhojan,Digumama had lined up several eight-nine year old boys, just the right age for this ceremony. Among them, Shri seemed a hulk.

Come, Chhakubai, sit down with your son. Feed him, this last time. From now on, he is (a) twice born (Brahmin), an adult. He will become independent. Childhood is behind him after this,” Digumama explained wisely. The words brought a lump to Revati’s throat. She was reminded of what her mother used to say –As long as we are alive, you will always remain children.

At that instant, the shehnai ended and Shri’s pop music came on. Quickly, Revati switched off the cassette player.

They were to go to the temple, via the river. Since there were a few minutes for them to leave Mami made tea for everyone. The shehnaiwala and the barber were waiting for it.

During this time Mama had made a trip to the vegetable market on his cycle, for vegetables and other things that Mami required. Why should he be riding a cycle at this age, Revati wondered. Why couldn’t he send someone on these errands?

They had to walk barefoot to the temple. It was bitterly cold and Shridhar and Shri were reluctant to get into the water. Even Mama felt that they could give it a miss since they’d already bathed, but Revati was determined. On the way, Mami made Revati stop at a bangle seller. She took off her watch and gave it to Shridhar. But the gold bangles on her right wrist wouldn’t come off. So the bangle seller slid the glass bangles in front of them. They looked odd like that.

Actually, you should have done this before the puja at home,” Mami said.

The surface of the river was still. Slanting rays of mild morning sun played on the water. The sand was cold underfoot. Here and there, a few people were bathing, washing clothes. Cattle were being herded across. The place was quite filthy.

The sand, the river, the atmosphere, everything seemed devoid of any emotion, uninspiring, to Revati. This wasn’t the Chandrabhaga she’d carried in her mind all those years. Where were the flags, those symbols of the Vaishnavas, the devotees? The ocean of pilgrims? The sound of taal and mridanga. And what had happened to Ajoba’s Pandharpur house? In the harsh light of day, the town of Pandharpur sprawling along the Chandrabhaga appeared grim, soulless. The blurred impression of the previous might was much better, she thought. Yes, she had experienced the old Pandharpur in the predawn light, in the warmth of Digumama’s kitchen fire, in the hot bath water. But here, at this moment, everything, the thread ceremony, without the attendant rituals, seemed meaningless. Why had I insisted on coming? Why did I ever make that vow, she wondered as a strange unease gripped her.

She stepped into the water wrapped in an old sari. Immediately Shridhar called a warning, “The water’s very cold. You’ll catch a chill.” She ignored him and went in. She could swim. She shivered as the cold water stung her. But very quickly she got used to it. It was so comforting!

There wasn’t much water in the river in this season. She swam to the other bank and came back. Shridhar was getting impatient. As usual.

Mama reminded her. “The muhurta is at eight, Chhakubai.” She was about to get out when Mama stopped her, summoned Shridhar and Shri. “Come both of you. The water isn’t deep here.” Neither of the two men moved. “It’s all right if you don’t want to take a dip. Just wet your feet and you’ll have the same sort of punya. We have shortcuts, you know!” Mama joked.

Revati shuddered. The word ‘shortcut’ was as incongruous as the pop music that had followed Bismillah Khan’s shehnai earlier. At Mama’s behest, Shridhar and Shri rolled up their trousers and waded in, barely getting their soles wet.

Face the East,” Mama ordered and both of them turned into a broad shaft of light that pierced the river, blinking in the glare. “Good. Now Shri, say Chandrabhaga teerthe aham snaana karishyami Cup your hands together, fill them with water, then let it trickle back into the river. Touch your eyes with your wet palms.”

They did as directed. Then, Mama with his eyes closed, chanted the invocation to the Ganga, Namaami, Gange, tavapaadapankajam! Surasurairvandhitamdivyarupam, Bhuktincha, muktincha tada sunityam, Bhavanu sarane tadanaranaam, as if in a trance. His flat broad voice sounded almost mellow. Revati broke out in goose pimples. Even after he’d finished, she stood motionless, her face turned to the sun.

A long line of devotees snaked its way through the sixteen pillared mantapa, into the sanctum .“These pillars represent the sixteen sanskaras, the purificatory rites, Chhakubai,” Mama explained.

Will the ceremony be performed right next to the deity?” she asked.

No. It is not allowed.”

Why? Suppose a devotee wants to?”

Even then,” Mama patiently replied. “A ceremony can only be performed in the sabha mantapa.”

But I’d hoped we could go right up to the murti. You can’t even see Vithoba from here. Can’t we have a darshan first?”

We’ll go for ashirwad later.”

Revati looked around distractedly. Was this the same temple or had it changed? Why couldn’t she spot anything familiar? Why did everything look so different?

Father and son stood in front of the priest. Shri’s expression reflected the extreme reluctance with which he had donned the dhoti.

Chhakubai, here, hold this kalash,” Mama handed her a pot of water with a coconut on it. “This is supposed to be the sister’s job,” he remarked. Revati took it.

My role has changed now. I am Shri’s sister. I am becoming everything that Mama is making me. After the matrubhojan, my son will go away from me. I must launch him into the world, set him free to test his wings. Then my relationship with him, too, will change. He will become a friend, brother, sister…Every context demands its own particular relationship. A sister is needed on this occasion. Is that why?

When she came out of her reverie, Digumama had started on the mangalashtaka, obviously his own composition, invoking the blessings of the lord on the boy-man:

Jya stambhas karune saaksh, janata bhakti madhe naachali

Jyanchi pavana paooley parisare yanitya nadaavali

Bhaktiche sur je sur ela ghumale, yamandir abhyantari

Te saare, Prabhu Vitthala, thujhasave kuryat bator mangalam!

Through these lyricsthe temple and the varkaris swam before Revati’s eyes as they filled with tears. Shridhar and Shri stood there unmoved.

The antarpat held between father and son was dropped. The ceremony was over. Digumama’s influence had allowed them to circumvent the queue and they went right into the sanctum. The line inched forward slowly and the temple echoed with the heartfelt /invocation of the varkaris, ‘Pundalika varada Hari Vitthala.’ Most of them were total in their surrender, their footfalls rhythmic, like the reassuring beats of a mridanga.

We too should have been among them, thought Revati. There must be a particular path one had to follow to reach Panduranga, every experience taking one closer. Moving ahead slowly, one step at a time, has its own charm. This line, is it a chain, each of one’s experiences forming a link? There is a special satisfaction in moving along slowly, one step at a time.

Before she knew it, Revati found herself in front of the murti. As she gazed at the gleaming black-stone Vitthal, a powerful emotion surged through her. She felt she was drowning in her unshed tears.

The Pandharpur of the sandy waste, the filth, the indifference she had witnessed vanished. In its place stood Aji-Ajoba’s Pandharpur, the town of her childhood, with the sea of humanity on the banks of the Chandrabhaga swaying to the beat of the taal and the mridanga, pennants fluttering in the clean morning air, and presiding over it all, their beloved life-long friend, Vithoba, standing on the brick, hands on hips. Without their knowledge he had accompanied them on their journey. Here they would part company and go back alone. Revati was overcome.

Move on, move ahead. People are waiting,” Mama urged.

Her feet had turned to lead. Shridhar, Shri, the thread ceremony, all the events arranged in neat little compartments, drifted into her thoughts.

What came over me just now? How did I lose my grip on myself, my life, my relationships? I was completely carried away. Did I remember to do a namaskar? Touch his feet and ask for his blessing? Did Shridhar and Shri even do a proper namaskar? For that one moment all these things had become irrelevant.

Revati came out.

Someone has taken permission to do a milk abhishekha later on. Do you want see it?” Mama asked her. Revati shook her head.

Mama led them to Vithoba’s consort, Rakhumayi’smandir. But Revati’s heart was elsewhere. Mechanically, she did what Mama told her to.

Soon after they reached home, Mami started the cooking. Mama divested himself of his ceremonial dress and put on the usual dhotar. Again he rode off to the market on his bicycle. This time Revati scolded him, “Why all this cycling around at this age, Mama?”

What do you mean at this age?”

He thinks he’s still young!

Shridhar was reading the paper while Shri listened to the radio. Revati went in to see what Mami was doing. She was preparing the chana dal and jaggery stuffing for the puran polis.

Our son-in-law doesn’t mind jaggery in the puran, does he?” she asked apprehensively. Of course he minded. Shridhar’s family always made puran with sugar. And Revati, too, had forgotten the taste of jaggery polis! But she reassured Mami, “It doesn’t matter, Mami. You really shouldn’t have gone to all this trouble…”

It’s no trouble,” Mami interrupted. “You are only an excuse. Nobody comes these days, so only when people like you turn up, I make them.”

What about Padmakar? He’s right here in Pune, isn’t he?”

Yes, but he has cut himself off from us. Bhaskar in America or Padmakar in Pune – they’re equally far away,” Mami said sighing deeply.

Mama came in just then. He had heard the last few words. Angrily, he informed her, “Padmakar has severed all ties with us. If we die tomorrow, he won’t even observe the sutaka, the mourning period for us, I know.”

What kind of shameful talk is this?” Mami scolded.

As for Manohar, he is carried away by the Sangha. They want to bring together all Hindus, they say. Sure, go ahead. But we, his parents – aren’t we Hindus? She believes he’ll come in time to pour Ganga water into her mouth. If he comes in time to immerse our ashes, I’ll be grateful. I have often told your Mami, Chhakubai, whichever one of us is left behind…”

That’s enough. Think of the occasion, the time, before you utter such inauspicious words. What will Revati feel?”

Gradually Digumama calmed down. Then he left the room.Mami started to grind the puran. Every now and then, she dabbed her eyes with her sari. Avoided Revati’s eyes.

I came here to fulfil the vow I took because I wanted a son. Mami has three sons, but it’s as good as not having any. What strange bond has brought me here, linked my life with theirs? Revati wondered.

Mami began to blow into the fire to make the wood burn properly.

Shall I do something, help you, Mami?”

No, it’s your son’s thread ceremony. Besides the food has to be offered as naivedya, so only I must touch it. You go and rest.”

Why don’t you use the gas, Mami?”

This kind of food tastes much better cooked on wood,” Mami explained.

Revati went outside. The varkaris too were preparing lunch and the wada was filled with smoke. She was feeling very restless.

Every year, the varkaris come, finish their pilgrimage and go away. Like them, we too are here. I had to fulfil my vow so I thought of Digumama. He isn’t a relative of ours. We don’t keep in touch. Once I go back, I’ll probably send him a postcard, that’s all. What is it that connects the lives of this old couple with the lives of countless varkaris? What is it that made me involve them in the fulfillment of my vow? What was that momentary emotion I experienced in Vithoba’s presence, when I seemed to be completely lost? It has gone now. Will I be as casual as Shridhar and Shri if I go to the mandir again? Why? Revati was confused.

She was glad when Mama called out that lunch was ready. The meal made her drowsy. When she awoke much later, she found that Mami hadn’t eaten yet.

Mami, your lunch?” she asked with concern.

My guests haven’t had their food yet,” she smiled.

Revati looked around. The maidservant, the old woman who was groaning through the night, the shehnaiwala, the barber, and a few others were sitting in a row, waiting to be served.

Revati, is it time to leave? Shall I make tea?” Mami asked.

No, Mami, you finish your lunch first.”

Shridhar and Shri were putting their things together. Revati suddenly felt that she didn’t want to go back. Back to the same routine – college, disinterested students, the house, children, Shridhar – each one to his own world, nothing holding them together – all moving in concentric circles, not even touching.

Mama looked up from his accounts as she went upto him. “Is it already time to leave?”

No. Not yet…” She wanted to say something, to talk to him. “Don’t you write down your poems, Mama?”

I used to. Now I don’t compose so often. Occasionally, I scribble a few lines in the ledger. I made up the mangalashtaka for your son after so long…That’s all my poetry is!”

Poetry in account books? “But they were beautiful, Mama,” she said. She ought to have told him earlier.

Mama beamed with pleasure. As she rose to leave, he said, “Wait, Chhakubai. Just go over the accounts.”

What accounts, Mama?”

The expenses for the ceremony, the two hundred and fifty one rupees…”

Revati was taken aback. “Are we like the other varkaris, Mama, that you have to settle our accounts?”she asked sharply.

We are all varkaris, my child! But one must be very clear about money matters. You shouldn’t ever feel, Mama overcharged me for this…”

Mama was the limit, fumed Revati inwardly. She ignored the notebook he held out. So he began to read them out. He had included everything – five rupees each to the shehnaiwala and the barber, flowers, garlands, coconuts, paan supaari. But not the gifts he and Mami had given them, the food, her glass bangles. That was from him.

Revati didn’t know what to say.

So, Chhakubai, was everything to your satisfaction?” he asked.

Why shouldn’t it be?” she shot back, taking hold of herself.

It was a very simple ceremony without any frills, just as you’d requested. But then, we gave up all the trappings long ago. One leaves one’s footwear outside before entering a temple. But to get to His feet one has to tread the path of empty ritual, isn’t it? Isn’t that how we’ve all reached here?”

Revati stood there staring at Mama, nonplussed.

It was time to leave. The varkaris, too, had vacated their rooms. The maid began preparing them for the next lot of pilgrims. Digumama rushed off to fetch a rickshaw. This is exactly how I used to feel each time I was leaving Ajoba’s house, thought Revati, her heart heavy.

She had left an envelope with some money – enough to cover the cost of the gifts. She’d put all three names on it – Mama, Mami and Bhaskar’s little boy. She hadn’t dared to give it to Mama. What if he refused? Taken offence? Wouldn’t it have been much better to have bought Mama a nice sweater, instead of giving them money like this? A warm, full sleeved high necked sweater…

The rickshaw arrived. Sridhar, Shri bent down to do namaskar. “Come again,” Mama blessed them.

Sure,” said Shridhar, confident he never would.

Though they dissuaded him, seventy-year-old Digumama insisted on following them on his cycle. Slowly…slowly, wearing the same shabby old sweater.

It was six in the evening. That same half light that had deceived Mami, lay around them. At dawn, darkness dissolved into light, at dusk, day faded into night. Gradually.

There can be no sunset in Mama’s life, Revati thought. It can only be this sandhiprakash, twilight. And in that half-light everything became crystal clear to her…

The varkaris, their sojourn in the wada, are inextricably woven into Mama- Mami’s lives. My vow, our coming here for the thread ceremony, that moment of bliss in Vitthal’s presence, when all bonds, frames, contexts disappeared, all outlines blurred, they are all threaded into my existence too. Who has drawn them in? I don’t know. Why? I cannot say. Perhaps I won’t feel the same if I come again. But the experience, while it lasted, was real. And relevant. It made things fall into place for me, became a part of me. Intensely personal like my name. Revati, the name Baba gave me. Was this ceremony then, just the excuse, the cause, for my experience? Or an effect?

Shridhar and Shri got off the rickshaw and picked up their luggage, but Revati remained seated.

Come on, get up. Our bus is waiting,” Shridhar prodded.

Digumama’s cycle was nowhere in sight. Had he left them behind? Or had he gone ahead?

Calmly Revati alighted. Shridhar had gone ahead with the luggage.

END


Asha Bage
is an eminent Marathi writer of short stories and novels. She was the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award in 2006 for her novel Bhumi as well as awards from the government of Maharashtra and the Katha Award for short fiction. Her stories have been translated into several languages including English. Her latest novel, Chakravarti was published in June 2014. Asha Bage is also a connoisseur of Hindustani classical music.

Keerti Ramachandra is by aptitude, inclination and training, a teacher. She has taught English at all levels over the years but her career as an editor – translator started with Katha, New Delhi, in 1994 and since then she has been a freelance editor of fiction and non fiction for leading publishing houses. She translates from Marathi, Hindi and Kannada into English and her translations have appeared in several volumes of Katha Prize Stories, and several other journals. She had translated Mahanayak, a fictionalised biography of Netaji Bose and recently Hachette has brought out her translation of the Sahitya Akademi award winning novel, A Dirge for the Dammed. She has conducted workshops in editing and translation at SNDT University and colleges in Delhi and Mumbai.

KAFKA: A Cage in Search of a Bird

Franz_Kafka_from_National_Library_IsraelTo have an –esque after your name is so unusual that only one such name comes to mind. However, there’s nothing Kafkaesque about No 22 Golden Lane, a tiny row house- turned- into- a shop, in a colourful alley behind St Vitus’s Cathedral inside Prague Castle. What sets it apart from other souvenir shops, to its left and right, is that it was once the house of a woman named Ottilie. And what sets Ottilie (Ottla) apart from other women is that she had a brother named Franz. Franz Kafka.

The Kafkas were Jewish – a minority community in Bohemia in the late 19th – early 20th century. The fact that they spoke German (rather than Czech),  and that Franz had a rather ambiguous relationship with the Jewish faith, enhanced the sense of isolation that is a hallmark of  his writing. Kafka’s work, highly autobiographical in its themes, is frequently about The Other and the dehumanization of the Other – a reason why his stories presaged the horrors of the Holocaust. For example, In the Penal Colony  (written exactly one hundred years ago), the story, told from the point of view of a Traveler, is about a complicated torture machine, the Harrow, that kills the ‘guilty’ by engraving their sentence on their flesh with a metal stylus.

Franz, born on July 3, 1883, was the eldest – and the only surviving son –among six children, Ottla being the youngest. The Kafka family home and business were in the Jewish Quarter of the Prague’s Old Town. Papa Hermann retailed men’s and women’s clothing. (The business logo was a bird, kavka, Czech for jackdaw.)  The Kafkas, father and son, shared a fraught relationship, largely because the former had a domineering, tyrannical nature. Emotional alienation, oppression, claustrophobia, foreboding and fear permeate Kafka’s stories – giving him what probably no other author has got, an adjective of his own. Kafkaesque describes a situation or atmosphere that is repressive or nightmarish, in a manner characteristic of the fictional world of Kafka. Metamorphosis – also known as The Bug Story – typically begins with what is, perhaps, the most fantastic opening line ever written: As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found him himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. This story alone has been, and will continue to be, the inspiration for film makers, theatre directors, musicians and writers, who ponder on the meaning of becoming and being, reinvent it, relocate it across time and space, generation after generation.

What is it that maDSCN0382kes Kafka’s fiction so popular nearly a century after it was written? Like the best stories, his stories, too, are ‘experiences’. They evoke, in simple, even dry language, powerful feelings such as despair, loneliness, fear, confusion and guilt which resonate in the reader probably because these very same feelings are generated in us by the lives we live today.  Haven’t we all felt, at some time or the other, misunderstood, maligned and, worse, persecuted? Haven’t we come across people whose world-view is scary? Doesn’t TV watching sometimes give one the feeling that what one is seeing has no connection with one’s reality? Aren’t there days when newspaper headlines make no sense? Don’t we all know what filling forms and waiting in a queue – at the Visa office, at the bank – feels like? Hasn’t one tried and, sometimes, failed to work a ticket machine in a language one does not know?  Life sucks, Kafka seems to say, but in a way we have no one else to blame but ourselves for our predicament. Gregor Samsa turns into an insect because the life he leads day after  day as a travelling salesman, scurrying from town to town, catching train after train, is  not all that different from the life of an insect. It is, in fact, Life As We Know It.

This may sound grim, but Kafka’s writing is not without humour. His style, crisp, dry, understated,  is uber cool. It is quintessential Irony. Less is More. The joke is frequently on oneself, but it is a form of revenge, a gallows humour kind of survival tactic, in which the victim has the laugh, though it is probably his last one.

There’s nothing quite like dysfunctional relationships to make one appreciate the irony of life.  Typically, Kafka was engaged several times but never married anyone. Despite having a dad who did not understand his artistic nature, he lived at home till the age of 31.  He moved out later to his own rented room, but the hustle-bustle of the street below would send him rushing off for peace and quiet to Ottla’s little house on Golden Lane, and this was where the collection The Country Doctor was penned.DSCN0367

Kafka’s footprints are to be found all over Prague: the house where he was born ( though only the door remains from the original), the different homes in which he lived, the building that housed his school, the synagogue he visited, the university he attended, the café where he used to hang out with friends. It is as if Prague is Kakfa and Kafka is Prague. In his stories, however, the city features subliminally.  For instance, it is hard to connect the charming turrets and gleaming spires of Prague Castle with the surreal setting of his unfinished novel The Castle, a haunting tale that satirizes modern bureaucracy, much in the vein of  the more famous story, The Trial, where an innocent man is arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to death for no reason, by an all-powerful authority.‘ Like a dog’ are his last words. Life’s a bitch and then you die. Kafka didn’t say it that way, but what he said was the same thing. More or less.

Typically, Kafka did not care for fame. And typically it came to him after his death at the age of 40, of tuberculosis in 1924. As a dying request to his friend Max Brod, he wrote: Everything I leave behind… to be burned unread. We are fortunate that his friend did nothing of the sort.

END