Tulsi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you smoke as well?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, I said. A sad acquiescence.

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

Om namo Bhagavate vasudevaya namah.

END

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

Somewhere in Gujarat

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone touched his shoulder. It was an old woman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes,’ she had said, wiping her eye.

But that was before he met his Munnu.

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

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

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

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

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

Slowly Charu began to weep.

THE END

(Reprinted by the author’s permission)

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

Paani da rang vekh ke / Ringtone

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

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

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

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

Paani da rang vekh ke…

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

She cut off the connection.

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

Barely a minute later: Paani da rang vekh ke…

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

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

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

She cut the line.

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

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

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

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

Paani da rang vekh ke …

“Do what you want! I don’t care.”

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

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

Paani da…

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

Paani da…

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

Paani da…

Paani da…

She cut the calls impatiently.

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

Paani da rang vekh ke,
Ankhiyan jo hanju rul de

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

Ask the metro.

END

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

Blind Spot

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

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

Haven’t really thought about it.”

Wear your red and white Jamdani sari.”

Oh no! That’s too grand.”

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

To the airport, to receive my son?”

And Clara, don’t forget.”

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

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

Excuse me! My son?”

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

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

Ma, it’s Gautam.”

How’re you, re?”

Ma…I’ve to tell you something.”

What?”

I’ve gotten married.”

What? To whom?”

Her name is Clara.”

Indian?”

No, Ma… American.”

When? When did this happen?”

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

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

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

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

Surojit’s voice startled her out of her reverie.

How do I look, Paro?”

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

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

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

The car stopped at a traffic light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paromita remained silent for the rest of the journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paromita paled with shock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paromita said nothing.

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

Surojit !”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She cleared her throat.

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

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

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

Is Baba not well?” asked Gautam.

He’s a bit tired.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything wrong, Ma?” asked Gautam.

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

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

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

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

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

Dark skin?” completed Paromita.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His face darkened. “Dammit, I –

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

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

He frowned. “Excuse me?”

Try to remember.”

Stop your riddles!”

Why did you choose me?”

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

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

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

Please move aside,” she said.

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

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

-END-

ashis duttaAbout The Author

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

Parallel Lives / Do Jeevan Samaantar

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

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

END

 

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

W. Somerset Maugham: Adultery in the tropics.

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

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

raffles
Raffles Hotel – Singapore

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

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

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

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

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

 SWEET DISH

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

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

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

`Ma, Rohit is a greedy pig.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

`Is somebody coming to visit us, Ma?’

`No, Shalu… Why do you ask that?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

`Will you exchange your katori with mine?’

`And if I do, what will I get?’

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

`Liar!’

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

`How many Gems?’

`Seven.’

`All right.’

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Shinie Antony

My short interview with Shinie Antony. Shinie Antony is a short-story writer. Her books include Barefoot and Pregnant, Seance on a Sunday Afternoon and Why We Don’t Talk. She won the Commonwealth Short Story Asia region prize in 2003 for her story A Dog’s Death. She is a co-founder of the Bangalore Literature Festival and editor of the festival magazine Beantown. You will find my short story published in this anthology, posted next on the blog.

Shinie Antony
Shinie Antony

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

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

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

The Game’s Afoot: The London of Sherlock Holmes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The magic begins…

(this was a guest post by Achala Srivatsa)

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

achala srivastava

 

 

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

Interview with Jahnavi Barua

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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