USNE KAHA THA / She Had Said It

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

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


USNE KAHA THA (She had said it)

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

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

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

-Where’s your home?

-In Maghre. And yours?

-In Manjhe. Where do you live here?

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

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

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

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

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

-When?

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How is Bodh Singh now?’ Vazira asked.

‘Better,’ replied Lahna.

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

‘Water.’

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

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

‘Wear my jersey.’

‘What about you?’

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

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

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

‘Are you telling the truth?’

‘Yes, of course.’

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

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

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

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

‘Yes, sir.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes, I remember.’

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

‘Of course…The rascal!’

Medals_and_Decorations_H60

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

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

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

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

‘I’ll just go and get a match.’

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

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

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

‘What!’

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

‘Now what?’

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

‘But the order was to –

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

‘But there are only eight of you here.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bodha shouted, ‘What is it?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘And you?’

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

‘All right, but –

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

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

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

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

4

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

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

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

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

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

‘Do you recognize me?’

‘No.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Vazira, water… Usne kaha tha.’

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

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

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

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

Vazira did as he was told.

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

Vazir Singh’s tears flow.

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

THE END

About the author

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

Visthapit Vinayak / Displacement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He did not reply, but continued to smile bravely.

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

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

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

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

He turned back to his paper work.

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

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

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

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

THE END

Tulsi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you smoke as well?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, I said. A sad acquiescence.

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

Om namo Bhagavate vasudevaya namah.

END

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

Paani da rang vekh ke / Ringtone

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

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

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

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

Paani da rang vekh ke…

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

She cut off the connection.

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

Barely a minute later: Paani da rang vekh ke…

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

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

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

She cut the line.

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

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

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

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

Paani da rang vekh ke …

“Do what you want! I don’t care.”

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

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

Paani da…

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

Paani da…

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

Paani da…

Paani da…

She cut the calls impatiently.

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

Paani da rang vekh ke,
Ankhiyan jo hanju rul de

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

Ask the metro.

END

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

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.

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.