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Excerpt

A Handful of Sesame

Title: A Handful of Sesame

Author: Shrinivas Vaidya

Translator: Maithreyi Karnoor

Publisher: Gibbon Moon Books

Although Navalgund had been roused from its slumber by the Mainavati elopement episode, in a few days after the eloping couple returned, going by the saying, ‘she becomes of this earth when she starts lighting the hearth’ the scandal lost steam and the town went back to sleep again.

The people returned to their busy routines of asking each other in the mornings if they were up, and turning their faces to the skies in the afternoon and saying “What do you know? There’s not a hint of rain yet.” They went back to sitting on the knoll near the Lalgade temple until darkness stepped in and until the concluding strains of the raag Bhairavi  of the Magdum’s band rehearsal became thin air, they discussed such pressing matters as the ghost in the tamarind tree beside the Sankawwa pond, or the yard-long wheat-hued cobra that had slithered into the rock cluster before the Taluk office, or the Halladmatha’s Sire’s persistent cough, or Mamlatdar’s minor wife Mandakini, or the plague mice falling dead in Hubballi, or Bal Gangadhar Tilak. After ruminating over these never-ending topics, they would hasten home to eat their evening meals and shut their doors upon the darkness outside and turn in before the wicks in the kerosene lamps in their respective homes went off with a phtt.  The womenfolk kept themselves busy with hearth, childbirth, and a little mirth of water’s worth on their way to the pond. Once in a while, they created their own entertainment with gossip and slander and quarrels – scold this one, taunt that one or mock another one. 

Navalgund has grown considerably in the thirty or forty years since the mutiny. Fleeing the Company’s oppression, many families from Nargund are now settled in Navalgund. With the increase in population, more merchants have set up shops. Earlier, Adoni’s was the only trading family in all of Navalgund. Now, with the addition of Mhantshetty, Mhankali, and Yirapakshimath, there are four merchant families. The Queen’s government had laid down with great care gravel roads because of which trade and businesses are growing. Open-topped and covered bullock carts and even horse-drawn carts are now plying from town to town on these roads. The municipality that has been there for a while has now started a school, a library and — can you believe it — even an English hospital! But no one goes to that hospital because it is rumoured that they put the flesh of chickens, sheep, and donkeys in their medicines. Hence, Vasudevaachar’s patients are constantly growing in number. Bullock carts crowd at the Panths’ door every morning. Moaning, groaning and coughing patients covered in woollen blankets wait in their veranda. Vasudevaachar walks among them bare-chested, stroking his sacred thread with both hands and advising the patients on their medication, treatment and diet, offering soothing words of courage or stern reprimands as the occasion demanded.

“Ningawwa, if give up garlic chutney for two days the sky won’t fall on your head”

“Krishtya, I’ll give you a Shankhvati. Powder it, mix it with lemon juice and lick it. Your stomach will be alright. You won’t die if you cut down on your food for a couple of days”

“Bharmya, I’m giving you this bottle of Balantsyrup. Give it to your wife and don’t drink it yourself, you whoreson…”

“Basangauda, you have the sugar disease. Fire two of your farmhands and do their work yourself. You must also eat less…”

“Subbi, I told you that feeding your daughter-in-law the red figs of the Banyan tree will beget her children. But I don’t remember promising they would be male children!”

“Do not eat or drink undrinkable and uneatable things, you sons of unwed mothers!”

“Goudra, your lady is showing signs of consumption. See if her spittle is red-tinted. It’s a terribly infectious disease. Stay away for a few days – it’s good for you and also for her.”

“It’s not just medicines that will cure you, Shambhu. You must also have faith in god. Here, repeat after me, medicine is the waters of the Ganges, the doctor is a manifestation of god’. Now, once more…”

Such medical jargon could be heard in the halls of the Panth house every day. 

From early morning to the ripening afternoon, Vasudevaachar sits in the outer hall attending to his patients. He then heads to the backyard, draws seven or eight pots of water from the well and pours it over himself completing his bath before heading to the altar and sitting down for a two-hour long, uninterrupted prayers. Sometimes the municipality’s three o’clock bell would have rung before his prayers are complete. Then, after a meal and a short siesta, with only a thin shawl covering his bare chest, he heads to the Lalgade Hanamappa temple for prayers in the late afternoon. Sometimes, if there is a sermon or sacred storyrecitation on, he sits down to listen to it. If not, he sits a while on the stone bench that’s open to the skies outside and lets himself afloat in Magdum’s melodies before slowly heading back home.

On one such rippleless evening, Tulsakka and Vasudevaachar sat chatting on the porch outside the house. The children who had gone out to play hadn’t returned yet and Ambakka was at Antambhatta’s corner house, when suddenly Rukuma rushed from the backyard to the main-door looking excited and coughed a couple of times to draw Tulsakka’s attention. She then called out to her sotto voce, “Tulsakka… tssst… come here… come quickly…” Sensing her excitement and strange expression, Tulsakka left Vasudevaachar behind and walked over looking quizzically at Rukuma who began gushing and flailing her arms animatedly.

“She’s here!” she said.

“Who ay Rukuma? Who is here?” Tulsakka asked in her normal calm voice.

“She… she!” Rukuma insisted.

“She who?” asked Tulsakka as calm as before.

Rukuma came close to Tulsakka and said with wide eyes, “She! The one from Annigeri”

Taken aback by her words, “What’s this new drama now” Tulsakka exclaimed and followed her to the backyard.

Covering the child in her lap with the loose end of her sari, she sat by the stack of cotton twigs in the backyard, her poignant face both nervous and hopeful. As soon as Tulsakka and Rukuma came close, she stood up and held the child out and her eyes filled with tears.

“Please don’t be angry, my lady… it’s three days since he’s burning with a fever. Even the master of my home hasn’t visited in a while. Do what it takes but please save my child. I heard the master of your home is a great doctor with healing hands. So I came running here. Please don’t tell my master that I was here… he will be very angry. This is my only son please save him for me…” she implored them.

Tulsakka hesitated for a moment and then said, “Come, sit here…” and showed her to the holy basil pedestal. The Annigeri woman sat down where she was asked to. Then spotting someone else, she suddenly covered her face with her sari, handed the baby to Rukuma and stood back in fright. Even Rukuma and Tulsakka were a little scared as they turned around and saw that it was Vasudevaachar. He fixed a dark gaze upon them for a moment before looking at Rukuma and saying “Bring the child in, I’ll take a look.” He walked back to his desk in the outer hall and Rukuma followed with the baby.

The Annigeri baby’s fever was owing to a knot in the stomach. Vasudevaachar gave a handful of small sachets to Rukuma and said, “Tell her to mix this in thin, watered-down milk to make a paste and feed it to the baby four times a day. Children often get fevers. Tell her not to worry. The baby will be well in a couple of hours. Open one of the sachets and give it to the baby yourself so she can learn how it’s done. Also, tell the mother to drink boiled water and to feed the baby a little less for the next four days.” He sent Rukuma away and went back to sit on the porch outside.

As Vasudevaachar’s instructions were being carried out, Rukuma and Tulsakka had formed an easy friendship with the Annigeri woman as only women could with one another. ‘Where are you from? How many years since you came to Annigeri? What did you say your name was? Mhaashaabi? What does it mean? Where did you meet Venkanna? Is this your only child?’ they were asking her. ‘How many grandchildren? I hear you haven’t seen your own lands in Annigeri… why don’t you visit once? If the baby gets well soon, I will go to the annual fairat the mausoleumof the Yamanoor saint…’ she was saying to them when suddenly Ambakka walked in through the backyard door straightening the parting in her sari. Upon finding out who the stranger was, Ambakka sprung back as if stung by a scorpion. “Ayya may her pyre be lit!” she started shrieking, “That thing may have no sense, but what about you? You have let it in like this! Hey, you! Get up… you have polluted the holy basil with your touch… pick your child up…” Rukuma and Tulsakka were saddened to see the Annigeri woman’s plight. Tulsakka spoke with her usual calm and dignified voice.

“Ambakka, please be quiet. Is this how you treat a guest?” At this Ambakka suddenly came into her wild avatar and started yelling in a shrill, sarcastic tone.

“Ayya… who’s stopping you, my lady? It’s your home… do what you like in it. Who am I to tell you anything? Venkanna mistress is your sister-in-law after all, isn’t she? She’s brought her son home moreover… it’s the procession of the family’s heir. Get the cradle out. Welcome him in, bestow gifts into her lap, give her a new sari– you haven’t given her one on her wedding, have you? Who am I to stop you…?”

“I don’t understand what she’s saying” exclaimed Mhaashaabi alarmed by the scene Ambakka was making. She said a hasty “I’ll take your leave, madam” to Tulsakka and left quickly.

The next day, after the atmosphere had cleared a bit, Rukuma went up to Tulsakka and said in a low voice, “Did you notice the baby’s nose, Tulsakka? Wasn’t it exactly like Venkanna’s?” and smiled knowingly.

A few days since then, Venkanna cornered Ambakka in the backyard. “Ambi, this is the last time. If you stick your nose in my affairs again, I’ll erase all traces of you. Be warned” he said menacingly.

ABOUT THE BOOK

A sweeping historical novel. Shortlisted for the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize, 2019. The original work Halla Bantu Halla won the Central Sahitya Akademi Award.

It is the year 1857. A great uprising — what would come to be known as the first war of Indian independence — has broken out. Two brothers, emissaries of a northern king, on a mission to garner the support of the southern rulers, wander lost and hungry in a forest not far from their destination. They are captured and one of them is hung by the British. Caught in the rough and tumble of the mutiny, the other brother settles down in a place that was never meant to be more than a temporary refuge. He spends his life far away from home among people who do not speak his language. The novel spans the story of three generations of his family living under the burden of inherited nostalgia, a story that unfolds with all its flying fancies and stumbling follies on the threshold between tradition and modernity. Set against the backdrop of the freedom movement, the novel explores the lives of the people of the Dharwad region of Karnataka; their acts of faith and the realpolitik of ritual. Masterfully and sensitively translated from the Kannada, A Handful of Sesame is funny, tragic, ironic, satirical, lyrical and deeply allegorical of a young, modern nation. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shrinivas Vaidya was born in the Dharwad district of Karnataka. He conceived of the plot of Halla Bantu Halla — inspired in part by the history of his own family — a long time ago, but it wasn’t until he retired from his four-decade long career in banking that he managed to sit down and write it. The novel won the Sahitya Akademi award – the highest honour by India’s National Academy of Letters. He has written several collections of short fiction since then.  

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR

Maithreyi Karnoor is the recipient of the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship for creative writing and translation at Literature Across Frontiers, University of Wales Trinity Saint David. She has won the Kuvempu Bhasha Bharati prize for translation and has been shortlisted for the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize and is a two-time finalist of the Montreal International Poetry Prize. Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends is her debut novel.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Interview Review

The Making of Historical Fiction: A Conversation with Aruna Chakravarti

Aruna Chakravarti reveals how she wove a historic novel, The Mendicant Prince(Published by Picador India, 2022),  from a controversial court case that took place in the early twentieth century and created ripples through not just Bengal but the whole country and even England.

Aruna Chakravarti. Photo courtesy: Swati Bhattacharya

Perhaps we can call her the queen of historical fiction or an author inspired by history, but Aruna Chakravarti, an eminent award-winning Anglophone writer, evokes the past of a united Bengal – long before the Partition along religious lines in 1947 — repeatedly giving us a glimpse of an age where culture superseded beliefs. She recreates a period where we can see the seeds of the present sowed. In her last novel, Suralakshmi Villa (2020), she gave a purely fictitious account of a woman who pioneered changes in a timeframe that dates back to more than a century. Before that in the Jorasanko novels (2013, 2016), she brought to life the Tagore family history. By then, she had written her own family history set in the same period called The Inheritors (2004), which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Award. Perhaps, her grounding comes from having translated Sunil Gangopadhyay’s First Light and Those Days, both novels set around the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She also won the Sahitya Akademi Award for translating Sarat Chandra’s Srikanta, a novel again set in a similar timeframe. She started her journey as a writer translating Tagore songs for which she won the Vaitalik award. Perhaps, this grounding has made her what she is today – a powerful re-creator of history where the characters come to life. You emote and react to their statements and on their actions. Her narrative carries you with it.

Her novel based on the real story of the Bhawal Prince which was launched last month,  gives a clear glimpse of the event with historical accuracy. The Bhawal prince turned mendicant after losing his memory in 1909 in Darjeeling. He was recovering from a bout of syphilis. He fell prey to intrigue and might have been poisoned. The prince was abandoned as a corpse during his cremation and yet he survived …and then, twelve years later, he returned — having travelled through much of the country with a band of Naga sadhus — to claim his rightful place. Swapan Dasgupta, a journalist turned politician, wrote when he thought of the Bhawal case, the “Dreyfus affair in late 19th century France, the John F. Kennedy assassination in the US and the James Hanratty case in Britain are ones that come readily to mind.” He was reviewing an earlier historical narrative written by Partha Chatterjee(2002) called A Princely Imposter?, which Chakravarti tells us she has used as a resource.

Set against the independence movement and colonial era, she has painted a man, who though flawed, gains the sympathy and wins the heart of the reader. The writing is fluid and evocative. Given that the trial lasted for more than sixteen years, and his first wife and her family refused to acknowledge the prodigal prince, the story has been made into films multiple times, once Sanyasi Raja (Bengali, Mendicant Prince, 1975), the second time, a remake in Telugu Raja Ramesh (1977) and more recently somewhat anachronistic, a movie called,   Ek je Chhilo Raja (There was a King, 2018). The Mendicant Prince departs from the films in being a stickler for the period, the historicity and brings to fore events and nuances the author researched by interviewing surviving Bhawal family relatives. What is amazing is the way in which Chakravarti has fleshed out each character to make the persona real, to the point where, as in her earlier Jorasanko novels, the reader can visualise them. Aruna Chakravarti’s strength is definitely her mastery over the language and her ability to breathe life into the past.

In this interview, Aruna Chakravarti tells us how she has woven the novel into the timeframe and created a novel based on history – an excellent lesson for aspiring writers of historical fiction from the empress of the genre herself.

What moved you to write a novel on the Prince of Bhawal?

The controversial prince of Bhawal, Ramendra Narayan Roy. The top is a picture of the claimant and the bottom has the picture of the prince as a Naga sannyasi or mendicant.

I first heard of the Bhawal case in 1950 when I was about ten years old. The time was the aftermath of Indian Independence and Partition when many Hindus from Pakistan were relocating in India. A family from East Bengal came to live in the government quarter next to ours and became very friendly with us. One of its members, we called him Uncle, was an excellent story teller and regaled us with many tales.

One was about a legal case concerning a prince turned sannyasi [mendicant] then prince again. It had taken place in Bhawal, a principality in present day Bangladesh. The case was still fresh in his memory. The Privy Council verdict had been announced as recently as July 1946 and it was natural for him, still nostalgic for the land he had left behind, to wish to talk about it. I was so mesmerised by the tale that it stayed with me for decades afterwards.

I never thought of writing about it till recently, when some friends distantly related to the royal family urged me to. ‘You have already done two novels on the Tagores so why not the Bhawals?’ I didn’t take to the idea easily. It seemed too big and complex a project. Then, during the Covid years, in the state of incarceration we all found ourselves, I started thinking seriously about it. But I was constantly beset with anxiety. ‘Would I be able to pull off such a delicate operation?’ A meticulous adherence to the facts together with dates was called for since these were already out in the public domain. There was no way I could take liberties with them. A reconstruction of the life and times of the concerned people, within these limits, called for tremendous imaginative power and an equal amount of discipline and concentration. Covid worked in my favour. In the complete silence and absence of activity; in the total encapsulation of self by the mind; I found myself getting slowly entrenched in the world I was creating. A world of queens and mistresses, liaisons and stratagems, faith and betrayal and a desperate British imperialism slowly eroding under the pressure of an awakening nationalism.

It seems amazing to me now. But it worked.

What kind of research went into it? Did you travel to Jaidevpur?

No. That was one of the hurdles Covid put in my way. For all my other novels I have made it a point to do an extensive amount of field work. This time, travel being rendered impossible, I had to depend entirely on secondary sources. My chief source was Dr Partha Chatterjee’s book A Princely Imposter? It contained a treasure trove of information. Articles in Bangladeshi journals of which there was quite a significant number and other books, both English and Bengali, fiction and non-fiction, helped me to understand and visualise the context in which the drama had unfolded. The two films Sanyasi Raja and Ek je Chhilo Raja also offered a few glimmerings. These, however, were negligible. What came in truly useful was the first-hand research I had done for my earlier work such as my translations and other novels. As also the conversations I had with some distant relatives and family friends of the Bhawals.

How much of your story is fact and how much is fiction?

This question, invariably put to me in the context of my creative writing, is difficult to answer since it is impossible to put a quantum to either. All I can say is that the events the reader is taken through in The Mendicant Prince are historically accurate and documented. But the book is not history. It is a novel; an imaginative reconstruction of a prominent legal case fought in the dwindling twilight of British India. The fictional element travels beyond the case to the lives of the people it affected, particularly the women of the family. Nothing much is known about these women so I have had to give them backgrounds and contexts; personalities and distinguishing characteristics that are wholly imagined.

It is true that you have woven history and fiction meticulously and seamlessly in the book. In creating the ambience of the period, you have touched on prevalent myths such as the education of a woman results in her widowhood. You have also mentioned bedes and kheersapati mangoes. Were these actually part of what you found in the Bhawal story? Or is it something you introduced? If so, what was the intention?

No. They had nothing to do with the Bhawal case. These details were provided to intensify the ambience; to make the world of early twentieth century Bengal come dynamically alive. Reformers like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Debendranath Tagore had advocated education for women. But the idea was fiercely resisted by the conservative section of Bengali society. Many clung to an age-old belief that educated women were liable to become widows. It was natural for Rani Bilasmoni [the prince’s mother], with her disdain for education even for her sons, to hold such a belief. In terms of the novel, this is a distinguishing trait of her character and brings into focus Bibhavati’s difficulties with her mother-in-law and her alienation in her husband’s home.

Pannalal Basu’s preference for kheersapati mangoes, along with other fictional details about his nature and tastes, takes him out of the realm of history and gives him a personality and voice. The presence of bedes at the river bank, just before the monsoon sets in, is a regular feature of the riverine culture of East Bengal, now Bangladesh. The addition of this detail enhances authenticity. In this case it provides a bit of dramatic irony as well. The band is travelling to Bhawal. Bhawal which has been the central focus of Pannalal Basu’s life for over six years…

You discussed the story with a relative of the royal family. What kind of interview did you have with him? Please share with us.

Actually I spoke to several members of the family. None of them are directly connected to the royal line. The person with whom I interacted most closely is the grand-nephew of the bara rani [the eldest queen], Sarajubala Debi. It was not a structured interview. Some family gossip and reminiscences, were shared, from time to time. That, too, mainly in connection with the bara rani. Among the bits of information I gathered, was the bricked over Bhawal vaults, filled with gold vessels, which ran across one entire wall of a room in the palace. Another was the conversation in which Bibhavati tells Sarajubala about the aridity of her sex life. I also came to know that the mejo kumar’s [second prince’s] second marriage was arranged by Sarajubala and that she had initial doubts about its suitability since Dhara Debi was small and slight and the mejo kumar very tall and hefty.

Your characters, each one are very well drawn, and the narrative makes readers travel back in time. How do you manage this? How do you gauge the reactions of the characters?

It is difficult to answer this. It has, I suppose, to do with instinct and the ability to internalise. In a historical novel, characters are conceived within a factual framework to begin with, then internalised and allowed to evolve through the course of the novel. The process is not planned. There is no strategy involved. It flows naturally and spontaneously. Not only the characters… the world that the author is recreating expands and grows in depth and richness as one goes along. Gradually it pervades one’s whole consciousness. So much so that sometimes one is not even aware of where fact ended and the imagination took over. I find myself in this state of confusion quite often. Did I read or hear about this somewhere, I’m often caught wondering, or did I imagine it?

Some women in your Jorasanko and Suralakshmi Villa are path breakers. But in The Mendicant Prince, they are more within the stream of history. Was this a conscious call or was it the circumstances? Please elaborate.

Suralakshmi Villa was pure fiction and I wanted to project a certain kind of woman as the central character. A woman who is far ahead of the times in which she lives; who breaks stereotypes and lives on her own terms; who dismisses societal expectations without giving it a second thought. A complex, enigmatic character whom people find difficult to understand, even a century later.

In Jorasanko, some of the characters were indeed path breakers. Digambari forbade her husband entry into his own home because, in her opinion he had strayed from the moral path. Jogmaya refused to obey her brother-in-law’s diktat that his entire family embrace the Brahmo faith, resulting in the rift that divided the Tagores into the Hindu branch and the Brahmo branch. Tripurasundari refused to give up her husband’s property. Jnanadanandini introduced many changes in the way the women of the household lived. These were real people and their actions are documented facts. There were no such progressive women in the Bhawal family. So how could I present them as path breakers?

The Bhawal case had been a mystery for a long time and no one knew why the prince’s first wife, Bibhavati, refused to recognise him. Have you figured that one out? Do you have an opinion on it?

No one knows the truth. Bibhavati’s insistence that the sanyasi was not her husband has left people baffled to this day. The case was fought many years after the alleged death and cremation of the prince and the verdicts given were based mostly on circumstantial evidence. I have tried to rationalise her stance and find a cause for it.  This is where the fictional element comes in. It lies in the kind of person Bibhavati is and her relationship with her brother. In terms of the novel, I mean. Nothing has been made very explicit. But there are hints. I’m hoping readers will be able to figure it out for themselves.

You have written historical novels before this one. You have dealt with the Tagore family ancestry and your own. How different was working on this novel?

The difference was that this one dealt with a court case the details of which were already out in the public domain. There was very little known about the Tagore women and my own family of course. For the latter, I had to depend on what I had heard from family members, which was very little. For the Tagore women project I gleaned titbits of information from their own writing, biographies of Rabindranath, and Rabindranath’s autobiographical writing. The facts being few and far between the imagination was allowed full play.  

Writing The Mendicant Prince was a different proposition altogether. The facts were well known. What could I add to them to justify a new work? And then an idea came to me. How would it be if I were to bring to the fore the women of the family who were strongly affected by what was happening but about whom nothing is known? They were only names in the drama that was unfolding around them. I could flesh out these women, give them thoughts, emotions, aspirations and distinguishing characteristics. This component would be pure fiction. As a result, the book came to be structured on two levels. It is an authentic record of the Bhawal case supported by  documents like letters, diary entries, newspaper cuttings, legal papers and case histories. But the account is interspersed with the personal revelations of the women of the family. Gradually the musings of a few other characters were added. The District Judge and some of the subjects were also given a voice.

Do you have another book on the cards? What should we look forward from you next?

 A collection of stories titled Through a looking glass: Stories is scheduled for publication by Om International. It should be in the market in a few months. There are nine stories showcasing women from across the spectrum of Indian society. Though coming from diverse religions and provincial cultures, they are all trapped in the tradition of silence which is the woman’s lot. Each has a secret space within her with a hidden story.

Thank you for giving us your time.

The Prince of Bhawal before he became a mendicant, early 1900s.

Click here to read the book excerpt

(This online interview has been conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Excerpt

Aruna Chakravarti’s The Mendicant Prince

Title: The Prince Mendicant

Author: Aruna Chakravarti

Publisher: Picador India

January 1921

1

The Sannyasi

It was a raw, blustery morning in late January. A small knot of people could be seen standing near the Buckland Bund, an embankment on the Buriganga river. The river, which swirled and foamed along the edges of the city of Dhaka, was especially turbulent this winter.

All eyes were fixed on a man, a stranger to these parts. He had been sitting cross-legged on the Bund, gazing into the distance day and night, for the past three months, impervious to the cold gusts of wind and spray that rose from the agitated waters below. There was something odd about his appearance. He could be a Bengali, the locals surmised, judging by the shape of his face with its somewhat square jawline, wide nose and high cheekbones. His body was covered with ash but the patches that were visible were as fair as a European’s and his eyes, hooded by dark, heavy lids, a greenish brown. Masses of tawny hair fell in dreadlocks down his sturdy back and shoulders and a matted beard almost touched his navel. A tattoo—a word in some strange language—could be seen on his right arm. He was naked except for the strip of coarse orange cloth that covered his genitals. The men standing around stared at him with unabashed curiosity and exchanged glances. Once in a while someone would fling a question at him. They had been doing so from the first day they saw him sitting on the Bund.

‘Who are you? Why are you here?’ A middle-aged man in a silk lungi and woollen vest asked in a stern voice.

‘Main Bangla nahin jaanta.’ [1]The stranger’s lower lip twisted to the right as he answered in Hindi.

A barrage of questions followed in a Hindi thickly accented with Bengali.

‘Where have you come from?’ ‘Bahut door se.[2]

‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Nothing. Just sitting.’

‘That we can see. But why here?’

‘No reason. I just … just came here …’

‘Are you a sannyasi?’

‘Yes. I’m a roaming sadhu.’

‘You look quite young. Must be in your mid-thirties. Am I right?’ The stranger shrugged his heavy shoulders and turned his eyes northwards on a massive structure looming in the distance. It was the zamindar’s mansion locally known as the Rajbari. The zamindars of Bhawal were rich and powerful beyond ordinary landowners and had been dignified by the title of Raja. Their sons were addressed as Kumar, each according to his position in the hierarchy.

The man in the lungi moved aside. Another, an elderly gentleman in a dhuti[3] and shawl, took his place.

‘You are too young to abandon the world. When did you become a sannyasi?’ The old man leaned forward and examined the stranger’s face and head closely. There was a puzzled look in his eyes.

‘I ran away from home in my youth and joined a group of holy men.’

‘How long ago was that?’

‘I don’t remember.’

 ‘Where did they take you?’

‘To the mountains. I spent many years there.’

The old man nodded. But the answer didn’t seem to satisfy him.

The crowd ebbed, melted and swelled once more. Others took up the interrogation.

‘Do you have parents?’

‘No.’

‘Are you married?’

The man, calm and unruffled all this while, stiffened at this question. As though alerted to some hidden hostility. He had a prominent Adam’s apple which jumped up and down his throat.

‘Um …’ he hesitated, ‘yes … n-no. Yes. I had a wife … once.’

‘You left her too?

‘Yes.’

‘Why do you keep looking at the Rajbari?’

‘No reason.’ The answer came pat as though he had prepared for the question. ‘There’s nothing else to see …’

The men walked away and stood a little apart. They exchanged meaningful looks and nudged and whispered. Snatches of their conversation came floating through the air.

‘Exactly like the mejo kumar[4]. The same height and build. The same small hands and feet. Even the tiny wart on the lower lid of the right eye. What do you think, Taufique?’ The elderly gentleman turned to the man in the lungi.

‘Yes, indeed, Kashi kaka. I never did believe the story.’

‘You think anyone does?’

‘I don’t know about the family. The subjects certainly don’t. Not one.’

‘The man seems to be about thirty-five or thirty-six. Exactly the age the mejo kumar would have been today. Have you noticed the way he sits? Hunched forward like a bull.’

‘And his complexion! What man other than a royal could be that fair? His body is covered with ashes but I noticed his hands and feet. Particularly the feet. Rough and scaly but shell pink. Like new milk with a drop of vermilion mixed in it.’

‘The colour of his eyes? And the tiny angles sticking out from the tops of his ears? The resemblance is uncanny. The mejo kumar too had …’

‘There are marks on his back and legs. And tiny patches on the scalp in between the dreadlocks. I looked at them closely …’

‘Yes, I noticed them too. The mejo kumar’s body was ridden with syphilis when he was sent to Darjeeling. These must be the scars.’

‘He seemed a bit rattled when I asked if he was married.’

‘He did indeed. He couldn’t decide what to say.’

‘He is the mejo kumar,’ a chorus of voices joined in. ‘The story we have been told is bunkum.’

‘Concocted by the mejo rani[5] and her brother.’

‘Without a doubt. Without a doubt.’

‘Why do you think they did it?’

‘Who knows? They must have had their reasons.’

‘Mark my words, brothers,’ an old man wearing a skull cap observed darkly, ‘this man is pretending to be a sadhu, when he is in fact the mejo kumar – the second prince of the royal family. Now that both his brothers are dead, he is the sole heir of the estate. The real ruler. If I’m proved wrong, I’ll never venture another opinion as long as I live.’ He moved his head solemnly from side to side.

About the Book:

In the winter of 1909, Ramendranarayan Roy, the ailing second prince of the Bhawal zamindari, proceeds to Darjeeling with his wife Bibhavati, brother-in- law Satyendranath and a retinue of officials and servants, after being advised a change of air by his physicians. Three weeks later, a telegram from Satyendranath arrives at the Bhawal estate, carrying news of the prince’s demise and subsequent cremation.

Soon peculiar rumours start circulating around Bhawal and the surrounding town. Some say that the prince was poisoned, while others suspect that his body was taken to the burning ghat but not actually cremated. There are also whispers about an incestuous relationship between Bibhavati and her brother. The story takes a bewildering turn when, twelve years later, a mendicant comes to Bhawal, claiming to be the long-lost prince and the heir to the estate.

With no resolution in sight, matters reach the court, where the so-called prince and some family members face off against Bibhavati and her brother, aided by the British Court of Wards who are keen on maintaining ownership of the zamindari. The breathless legal drama that ensues will culminate in an incredible series of events, permanently altering the course of the estate’s history.

Inspired by the legendary Bhawal sannyasi case and evocative in its recreation of pre-Partition Bengal, The Mendicant Prince is an intriguing tale of dual identity and the inexplicable quirks of fate.

About the Author:

Aruna Chakravarti has been Principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fifteen published books to her name. Her novels, The Inheritors, Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko and Suralakhsmi Villa, have sold widely and received rave reviews. She is the recipient of the Vaitalik Award, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Sarat Puraskar.


[1] I do not know Bengali – translated from Hindi

[2] From very far – translated from Hindi

[3] A cloth wrap that is a substitute for trousers

[4] The second prince

[5] The second queen or the prince’s wife

Amazon pre-order link: https://amzn.to/3uZgjCy

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Categories
Stories

The Bus Conductor by Dalip Kaur Tiwana

Short story by Dr. Dalip Kaur Tiwana, translated from the original Punjabi by C. Christine Fair

Dr Dalip Kaur Tiwana. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Dr. Dalip Kaur Tiwana (4 May 1935 – 31 January 2020) is recognised as one of the most consequential Punjabi authors who substantially contributed to the development of modern Punjabi literature. Prior to her death, she published twenty-seven novels, seven collections of short stories as well as a literary biography. Tiwana was also a distinguished academic. She was the first woman in the region to obtain a Ph.D. from Punjab University in 1963.  She joined the Punjabi University at Patiala from which she retired as a Dean as well as a Professor of Punjabi. Dr. Tiwana garnered innumerable regional as well as national awards within India, including the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award and the Padma Shri, India’s fourth largest civilian honor. She surrendered her Padma Shri in 2015 expressing “Solidarity with other writers who are protesting against the increasing cultural intolerance in our society and politics and the threat to free speech and creative freedom.”

The Bus Conductor

Art by C Christine Fair

The lady doctor, Polly, had been transferred from Nabhe to Patiala. Her family members were trying to get the transfer rescinded. That is why, instead of taking a house and living in Patiala, she got permission from the senior doctor to come from Nabhe every morning by bus and return in the evening.

She felt ill at ease because of the shivering sound of the idling buses, the heat, the sweat, the crowds, the ludicrous indolence of the conductors, and the rude banter. Thinking to herself, “But this is just a matter of days,” she suffered it all. On the days when Jit was on duty for that bus, she would feel a bit comfortable because that conductor seemed to be good natured.

One day, a man asked Jit, “Where does that girl with the bag work?”

Jit said discretely as he was handing over the ticket, “Aho[1] sir!  She is a lady doctor. A very senior lady doctor. People say that her salary is a full three hundred rupees.”

“Sir, these days women are earning more than men. That’s why men are no longer the boss,” said the man as he sat down on a seat nearby.

“Sir, no matter what they earn, girls of a good household still must lower their eyes when they speak…and this lady doctor, I go to Patiala all the time and by god, she doesn’t even speak…,” said the Sardar who was sitting behind while gazing towards Polly.

“By god! I also….” He stopped mid-sentence when Jit, while handing the ticket to this dandy in a pink shirt, glowered at him and said, “So, brother. Do you want to go? Or should I toss you off the bus now?”

“Conductor Sir.  I didn’t anything. Why are you getting angry like this?”

While Jit was handing the ticket over to Polly, she began to give him the ten she took out.

“I don’t have any change. Forget about it and pay in full tomorrow.” Having said this, Jit moved on.

Ahead, there was elderly woman who also took out a ten. “Ma’am, I don’t have change. The entire fare is 10.5 annas[2] and you take out such a large note and hand it to me? Fine. Go and get change and then come back,” Jit said in a rather stern voice.

“Young man! In that time, the bus will have left and it’s urgent that I go.  You can return the rest of the money to me in Patiala,” the elderly woman begged of him.

“Fine, ma’am. Sit down,” he said as he began to cut her a ticket.

Polly was thinking about the hospital, all of the patients, the medicines, the nurses, and the various duties as the bus left behind Rakhra, then Kalyan and then Rony and neared the Chungu toll booth.

Jit told the driver, “Yaar[3]!  Today drive towards this blue building right here.”

The passengers who were travelling to the gurdwara grumbled a bit, but by now the bus had turned and was once more on the direct route. Near the Flower Cinema the conductor rang the bell to stop the bus, opened the door, and began to tell Polly, “You get down here, the hospital will be nearby.”

Polly got down quickly. She even forgot to say thank you. She thought to herself, “That poor fellow is such a nice conductor.”

By the time she reached the bus station that evening to begin her journey home, the bus was already full. With great difficulty she waited 45 minutes for another bus. A bus conductor, with his shirt unbuttoned, passed her three times while mumbling the song from the film Awaara[4]. He gave an anna to a female beggar to get rid of her for some time. She didn’t know why, but people were staring at her wide-eyed.

The next day, it happened by chance, that when she reached the Nabha bus station, the buses were already full, and Jit was turning away additional passengers without a ticket. Jit approached her and said, “You can pick up the bag on the front seat and sit down. I saved a seat for you.”

Polly passed by several gawking passengers and sat down. Jit immediately rang the bell for the bus to move forward.

“This conductor is so good-natured,” Polly thought to herself.

As the delays in getting her posting to Nabha stretched over time, she became depressed. The sound of the idling buses and fears of the bus leaving were constantly on her mind. Whenever she was forced to sit next to a fat passenger, her nice clothes would get wrinkled, and the stench of sweat would make her dizzy.

Then one day when she was about to give money for her ticket, Jit said, “No madam, forget about it,” and moved ahead.

“No sir, please take the money,” Polly emphatically requested.

“What difference will it make whether I take your money or not?” he asked. He walked further ahead and began to give a ticket to someone.

Polly, feeling self-conscious from the argument, sat down quietly but throughout the journey she was wondering why the conductor didn’t take money from her. She did not like it at all. For someone earning Rs. 300 what is the value 10.5 annas?

The next day she intentionally left five minutes late, thinking, “Today I won’t go on the Pipal Bus. Instead, I’ll take the Pepsu Roadways Bus.  What nonsense is this that he won’t take the money!”

She was stupefied to see that the driver had started the bus and was standing yelling at the conductor.

“Oye! I am just coming. Why are you yelling? Why do want to leave so early? Is it about to rain?” Jit said, while walking very, very slowly.

“Are we going to the next station or not? You’re taking your sweet time getting here,” the driver said.

“Get over here, Madam and take the front seat, and open the window,” Jit said to Polly.

“How can the bus leave without Madam?” mumbled a clerk in the back who took the bus from Nabhe to Patiala every day.

Jit glared at him. Everyone fell silent. The bus left. Polly took out the money but despite her repeated attempts, Jit refused to take it. Polly became very angry. “Jit is making me a part of this scam…But why is he neither charging me nor giving me a ticket?… Still, this is defrauding the company…” She was thinking this just as the bus stopped and a ticket-checker boarded. When he was checking the tickets of the other passengers, Polly broke out in a nervous sweat.

“How humiliating it is that I don’t have a ticket…. I will tell him that the conductor didn’t give me a ticket even though I asked for one,” she thought. “But what will the poor man say? No. I will tell him that I forgot. But no. How can I lie,” she debated with herself.

Then the checker approached her.

As soon as he said, “Madam…ticket,” Jit, taking a ticket out of his pocket, called out, “She…. she…This woman is my sister. I have her ticket.”

Seeing the ticket, the checker glanced at the conductor whose pants were threadbare at the knees and whose khaki uniform was worn at the elbows. Then, he looked over the woman in the expensive sari.  He smiled with his eyes.

Jit became flustered. The checker quickly got down from the bus.

Polly, surprised and worried, was thinking that perhaps this man, who earns a paltry Rs. 60 per month, didn’t eat during the day so that he could pay for my entire fare.

In the hospital, she kept thinking about this. She felt so uneasy about it.

In the evening when she reached the station, Jit was sad as he slowly made his way towards her.

“My older sister also studied medicine in Lahore…and she died there during the riots of partition. The rest of my family perished too. I somehow managed to make it here alive. How could I even think about studying when I could barely feed myself?  Then I became a conductor. When I saw your bag and stethoscope, I remembered Amarjit…and…and….” Then he choked up.

Polly was very distraught. She didn’t know how to respond.

Meanwhile, the bus came.  He quickly walked towards it and Polly kept on watching him walk away with affection in her moist eyes.

(Translated and published with permission from the Punjabi publisher at https://punjabistories.com. Link to the Punjabi story: https://punjabistories.com/tag/bus-conductor-by-dalip-kaur-tiwana/)


[1] A Punjabi expletive like Oh!

[2] Equal to 1/16 of a rupee

[3] Friend

[4] A 1951 movie – Awaara means vagabond

C. Christine Fair is a professor in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.  She studies political and military events of South Asia and travels extensively throughout Asia and the Middle East. Her books include In Their Own Words: Understanding the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (OUP 2019); Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (OUP, 2014); and Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States (Globe Pequot, 2008). She has published creative pieces in The Bark, The Dime Show Review, Furious Gazelle, Hypertext, Lunch Ticket, Clementine Unbound, Fifty Word Stories, The Drabble, Sandy River Review, Barzakh Magazine, Bluntly Magazine, Badlands Literary Journal, among others. Her visual work has appeared in Vox Populi, pulpMAG, The Indianapolis Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, The New Southern Fugitives, Glassworks and Existere Journal of Arts. Her translations have appeared in the Bombay Literary Magazine, Bombay Review, Muse India and The Punch Magazine. She reads, writes and speaks Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu.

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Categories
Review

Going by Keki N Daruwalla

Book Review by Indrashish Banerjee

Title: Going: Stories of Kinship

Author: Keki N Daruwalla

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

There are short stories where the ending is a collective culmination of all their subplots and themes, somewhat like a novel, but if you have read Somerset Mugham, you know what I mean. And there are stories which couldn’t care less. They move from one event to another, one subplot to another, make abstract observations and then suddenly come to an end. Maybe because every story must come to an end, but it’s the journey you must enjoy; it’s the journey that’s of greater importance. There are readers who like the former style – they appreciate its logical pattern of one thing leading to another. And there are readers who like the journey and believe disorderliness is a better reflection of life’s idiosyncrasies – and reflect on the sudden ending to connect it with what happened earlier.  It is a delight to discover a writer. I knew Keki N. Daruwalla’s works – For Pepper and Christ – but had never read him. And now that I have read Going: Stories of Kinship, I will move back and try out his other works.

Among Keki N. Daruwalla’s acclaimed short story collections are Sword and Abyss (1979), The Minister for Permanent Unrest and Other Stories (1996) and Love Across the Salt Desert (2011). His first novel, For Pepper and Christ, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Fiction Prize in 2010. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 2014. But Keki N. Daruwalla is better known for his poetry. His poetry volumes include Under Orion, The Keeper of the Dead (winner of the Sahitya Academy Award, 1984), Landscapes (winner of Commonwealth Poetry Award, 1987) and the Map Maker. Most recently he was honoured with the Poet Laureate award at the Tata Literature Live, Mumbai Litfest, 2017.

Thematically connected short stories are in fashion. But it’s difficult to identify any common thread running across the stories in Going. Each one is different.

Sometimes that sudden or understated ending can be a reference to a subplot within the story. Lionidas Campbell, in ‘The Bhahmaputra Triology’, many years after making love to an Indian woman discovers that he had sired a son from the relationship – and the story ends there. It can sometimes be reflective of the larger message the story wants to convey.  After Ardeshir’s daughter, Arnavaz, elopes with a Muslim boy against her father’s wishes refusing to be dissuaded by her father’s attempt to invoke the history of persecution of Parsees by Muslims, Ardeshir is a heartbroken man.  At the end, while wallowing in grief, sitting on armchair, Ardeshir suddenly feels the “frail silhouette of Arnavaz adrift on his memories” – and a yearning for his daughter grips him. The climax makes two messages very clear. The helplessness of a man seeing personal concerns of his daughter triumphing over a need for historical justice; filial love prevailing over community loyalty and concerns about history.

As much as all the stories, to an extent, explore the inner lives of characters, Bikshu is more so. The entire story is about Bikshu’s inner journey, its conflicts, evolution, emotional layers with occasional detours to Bikshu’s past, his family and mother. At the end of the book, I discovered the commonality.  When you have read the stories and reflect on them as a collective, you feel they are about human relationships and how they evolve over time.

Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India. 

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Categories
Excerpt

Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee

Title: Villainy

Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Death of late having been much on her mind, it did not seem surprising to Dr Mujumdar that she should, at seven-forty of a December morning, during her constitutional in the neighbourhood park, be the first to come upon the corpse or rather, to recognise it to be a dead body. Of course, they were all concentrating on striding along on the jogging track – rolling their hips, pausing discreetly on occasion, only for a micro-second, to break wind – and all moving clockwise as per the rules set down and put up by the Residents’ Welfare Association on the signboard at the entrance, and if they had eyes for anything, it was for the odd, protruding pebble in their paths and every now and then, a Johnny-come-lately in his new car outside the gates, prowling in search of a parking slot. But beneath the hibiscus bushes just before the Children’s Corner, they so stared her in the face, leapt out at her to shout out their presence that she marvelled that no one else appeared to have noticed them – a pair of off-white Bata tennis sneakers, stark against the dark, damp loam, blue socks in a heap at the ankles, khaki trousers that had ridden up to reveal scrawny calves, with the rest of the travesty mercifully hidden by the foliage and a mound of compost awaiting distribution. For travesty she knew it would be and she did not want to see it; for since when has death not been a travesty of all that holds meaning?

       ‘Something tells me that that is not a drunk Colony guard or municipal gardener sleeping it off,’ said she, aloud, to herself, glanced at her watch even though she knew what time it was, and continued silently, But could I still do my half-a-dozen rounds as though nothing has happened, or at least as many as I can before someone else notices something amiss? Or would that be callous and unfeeling of me? She lengthened her stride and began doggedly to pump her elbows in an effort to get away quickly. Her heart though was really not in it that morning. ‘It does seem shameful for someone who’s almost a medical doctor,’ she carried on her conversation with herself, ‘to run away from a corpse. Waddle away, more accurately. But people must never know. And all this – ’ She looked up and about her for a moment, blinked ‘ – is going to have to stop pretty soon, isn’t it?’ She exchanged a ‘Morning’ for a ‘Hello, dear’ as she overtook portly Mrs Gulati. ‘I mean, no one can possibly jog or skip rope or stretch or do his yoga and breathe through his anus or laugh his therapeutic Santa Claus belly laugh in the presence of a dead body, can he?’ And then, aloud, ‘Morning, Sanjeev-ji. You are early today?!’

      Dr Mujumdar took more than her usual eleven minutes to cross the Children’s Corner, pass the Water-Harvesting Area and loop around the Nano Golf Course. By the time she turned into the straight stretch along the C-Block side of the park, a knot of the regulars, forced to abandon their burpees and their Hanuman pushups, had formed around the hibiscus bushes. Automatically, Dr Mujumdar slowed down, even wondered for a second whether she could about-turn and, disobeying the commandment of the RWA, clump away anti-clockwise.

       ‘Don’t touch anything! Just call the police.’

      ‘Could it be someone we know? Even a member of the Health Club?’

      ‘Doesn’t look as though his membership did him any good. Somebody had better telephone the police, I say.’

      ‘I can’t. My phone needs to be charged.’

      ‘I can’t either, unfortunately. I always leave my phone behind at home when I step out for my exercise.’

      ‘Why don’t you call them? They will respond immediately to your commanding personality.’

      ‘It is the RWA that should phone the police. After all, the dead body has been found in a public place. Just call Tutreja at the Association.’

      ‘I can’t, I just told you. My phone needs to be charged.’

      ‘Why are you carrying around a phone that doesn’t work?’

      ‘To time my rounds, if you must know. The clock works. And how damn nosey you are, if I might add.’

      ‘Is something the matter? I’m a doctor. A pharmacist, more accurately. Perhaps I might be of help.’

      The knot of exercisers, three-deep by then, stirred and parted like porridge to make way for Dr Mujumdar and then congealed around her even before she could look down once more upon the Bata shoes and the scrawny calves, the khaki trousers. The press of bodies made concentration all the more difficult.

      ‘We’ll have to pull him out and turn him over. Any volunteers?’ The doctor looked about her at the knot, watched it stir and thin. ‘Backache,’ murmured a man with a white moustache, his hand ready to clutch his hip.

      With a grunt of annoyance, portly Mrs Gulati planted herself in the hibiscus bed, pushed aside the vegetation and bent to grab an ankle. The shadow of a momentary queasiness crossed her features at the touch of that cold, alien flesh. She was suddenly surrounded by several fellow-residents whom she had abashed. Freely directing and admonishing one another, they lifted the body up and sideways and laid it down, face up, on the jogging track. The group emitted a sort of collective moan, part sigh, part gasp, on first seeing the face. With difficulty, Dr Mujumdar got down on her knees beside the body. The onlookers, four deep now, gathered about them as though caught in an eddy.

      He was dead, there was no doubt about that. The dead do not look like the living. She felt for his pulse. The wrist was cold and stiff. She extracted a large handkerchief from the pocket of her tracksuit and gently dusted the loam and grit off the face. A murmur, a commentary on the vanity of all that is not death, rustled through the group like the hint of a breeze.

Excerpted from Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.

ABOUT THE BOOK

 Walkers in a Delhi neighbourhood park come upon a body on a mid-winter morning—an unidentified body, unremarkable but for an extraordinary scar right between the eyes.

A delinquent teenager—who prefers, to the rest of living, an Ecstasy pill with a beer, and the interior of an expensive car with a gun in his pocket—leaves home one evening for a joyride in his father’s Mercedes.

In the nineteen years separating these episodes, five killings take place—and one near-fatal battery—none of which would have happened if a school bus hadn’t been in the wrong lane. Deals are struck between masters and servants, money changes hands, assurances are given and broken. The wheels of justice turn, forward, backwards and sideways, pause and turn again. Old alliances are tested and new ones are formed in prison cells, mortuaries and court rooms. And every life is a gamble, for no one is entirely innocent.

A meticulously crafted literary thriller, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s seventh novel is a riveting story of crime and retribution, and a meditation on the randomness of evil, death and redemption. It will keep you spellbound till the end.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 Upamanyu Chatterjee is the celebrated author of English, August: An Indian Story (1988), The Last Burden (1993), The Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000), Weight Loss (2006), Way to Go (2011), and Fairy Tales at Fifty (2014)—all novels; The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian (2018), a novella; and The Assassination of Indira Gandhi (2019), a collection of long stories. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2000, and in 2008, he was awarded the Order of Officier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government for his contribution to literature.

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Categories
Excerpt

Ruskin Bond’s Friends in Wild Places

Title: Friends in Wild Places: Birds, Beasts and Other Companions

Author: Ruskin Bond

Illustrator: Shubhadarshini Singh

Publisher: Talking Cub, the children’s imprint of Speaking Tiger.

Timothy

TIMOTHY, THE TIGER cub, was discovered by Grandfather on a hunting expedition in the Terai jungle near Dehra.

Grandfather was no shikari, but as he knew the forests of the Siwalik hills better than most people, he was persuaded to accompany the party—it consisted of several Very Important Persons from Delhi—to advise on the terrain and the direction the beaters should take once a tiger had been spotted.

The camp itself was sumptuous—seven large tents (one for each shikari), a dining-tent, and a number of servants’ tents. The dinner was very good, as Grandfather admitted afterwards; it was not often that one saw hot-water plates, finger-glasses, and seven or eight courses, in a tent in the jungle! But that was how things were done in the days of the Viceroys… There were also some fifteen elephants, four of them with howdahs for the shikaris, and the others specially trained for taking part in the beat.

The sportsmen never saw a tiger, nor did they shoot anything else, though they saw a number of deer, peacocks, and wild boars. They were giving up all hope of finding a tiger, and were beginning to shoot at jackals, when Grandfather, strolling down the forest path at some distance from the rest of the party, discovered a little tiger about 18 inches long, hiding among the intricate roots of a banyan tree. Grandfather picked him up, and brought him home after the camp had broken up. He had the distinction of being the only member of the party to have bagged any game, dead or alive.

At first the tiger cub, who was named Timothy by Grandmother, was brought up entirely on milk given to him in a feeding bottle by our cook, Mahmoud. But the milk proved too rich for him, and he was put on a diet of raw mutton and cod liver oil, to be followed later by a more tempting diet of pigeons and rabbits.

Timothy was provided with two companions—Toto the monkey, who was bold enough to pull the young tiger by the tail, and then climb up the curtains if Timothy lost his temper; and a small mongrel puppy, found on the road by Grandfather.

At first Timothy appeared to be quite afraid of the puppy, and darted back with a spring if it came too near. He would make absurd dashes at it with his large forepaws, and then retreat to a ridiculously safe distance. Finally, he allowed the puppy to crawl on his back and rest there!

One of Timothy’s favourite amusements was to stalk anyone who would play with him, and so, when I came to live with Grandfather, I became one of the favourites of the tiger. With a crafty look in his glittering eyes, and his body crouching, he would creep closer and closer to me, suddenly making a dash for my feet, rolling over on his back and kicking me in delight, and pretending to bite my ankles.

He was by this time the size of a full-grown retriever, and when I took him out for walks, people on the road would give us a wide berth. When he pulled hard on his chain, I had difficulty in keeping up with him. His favourite place in the house was the drawing room, and he would make himself comfortable on the long sofa, reclining there with great dignity, and snarling at anybody who tried to get him off.

Timothy had clean habits, and would scrub his face with his paws exactly like a cat. He slept at night in the cook’s quarters, and was always delighted at being let out by him in the morning.

‘One of these days,’ declared Grandmother in her prophetic manner, ‘we are going to find Timothy sitting on Mahmoud’s bed, and no sign of the cook except his clothes and shoes!’

Of course, it never came to that, but when Timothy was about six months old a change came over him; he grew steadily less friendly. When out for a walk with me, he would try to steal away to stalk a cat or someone’s pet Pekinese. Sometimes at night we would hear frenzied cackling from the poultry house, and in the morning there would be feathers lying all over the veranda. Timothy had to be chained up more often. And finally, when he began to stalk Mahmoud about the house with what looked like villainous intent, Grandfather decided it was time to transfer him to a zoo.

The nearest zoo was at Lucknow, 200 miles away. Reserving a first-class compartment for himself and Timothy—no one would share a compartment with them— Grandfather took him to Lucknow where the zoo authorities were only too glad to receive as a gift a well-fed and fairly civilized tiger.

About six months later, when my grandparents were visiting their relatives in Lucknow, Grandfather took the opportunity of calling at the zoo to see how Timothy was getting on. I was not there to accompany him, but I heard all about it when he returned to Dehra.

Arriving at the zoo, Grandfather made straight for the particular cage in which Timothy had been interned. The tiger was there, crouched in a corner, full-grown and with a magnificent striped coat.

‘Hello Timothy!’ said Grandfather, and, climbing the railing with ease, he put his arm through the bars of the cage.

The tiger approached the bars, and allowed Grandfather to put both hands around his head. Grandfather stroked the tiger’s forehead and tickled his ear, and whenever he growled, smacked him across the mouth, which was his old way of keeping him quiet.

He licked Grandfather’s hands and only sprang away when a leopard in the next cage snarled at him. Grandfather ‘shooed’ the leopard away, and the tiger returned to lick his hands; but every now and then the leopard would rush at the bars, and the tiger would slink back to his corner.

Excerpted from Friends in Wild Places: Birds, Beasts and Other Companions by Ruskin Bond; illustrated by Shubhadarshini Singh. Published by Talking Cub, the children’s imprint of Speaking Tiger.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Since he was a young boy, Ruskin Bond has made friends easily. And some of the most rewarding and lasting friendships he has known have been with animals, birds and plants—big and small; outgoing and shy. This collection focuses on these companions and brings together his finest essays and stories, both classic and new. There are leopards and tigers, wise old forest oaks and geraniums on sunny balconies, a talking parrot and a tomcat called Suzie, bears in the mountains and kingfishers in Delhi, a family of langurs and a lonely bat—and many more ‘wild’ friends, some of an instant, others of several years.

Beautifully illustrated by Shubhadarshini Singh, this is a gift for nature- and book-lovers of all ages.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 Ruskin Bond is the author of numerous novellas, short-story collections and non-fiction books, many of them classics. Among them are The Room on the Roof, The Night Train at Deoli, Time Stops at Shamli, Rain in the Mountains, The Blue Umbrella, When I Was a Boy, Lone Fox Dancing (his autobiography) and A Book of Simple Living. He received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1993, the Padma Shri in 1999 and the Padma Bhushan in 2014.

Ruskin lives in Landour, Mussoorie, with his extended family.

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR

 Shubhadarshini Singh was brought up in Kolkata and studied in Visva-Bharati, Shantiniketan. She has been an ad woman, a journalist and a film-maker. She shares Ruskin Bond’s deep love for animals and wildlife and has made his best stories into a series for television: Ek Tha Rusty. Shubhadarshini runs an art gallery for Outsider Arts, and has had shows of her paintings in Delhi and Bhopal. She lives in Delhi with her husband, son and dogs.

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Categories
Review

The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes

Book Review by Indrashish Banerjee

Title: The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud

Author: Dom Moraes

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Travel books that I have read so far, broadly fall into two categories. One is investigative and the other is a spontaneous account of the author’s experience. If one is analytical, the other is immediate. It’s not necessary that the two styles can’t be combined. V.S Naipaul’s A Million Mutinies Now (1990) is a good example of that: a mix of investigation of a place’s past and present through ordinary people’s lives combined with day-to-day travel details. Bill Bryson’s Travels in Small-Town America (1989) is about Bryson’s experience of visiting the towns of America with occasional dosage of nostalgia.

The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud falls into the second category – a spontaneous account of events as seen by the author. However, where it’s different from travel books in general (and the ones mentioned above) is that it doesn’t stick to a singular theme. A collection of essays, some autobiographical, some reports, the book takes the reader through a kaleidoscopic journey spanning continents, lives and topics ranging from when the author takes his first steps into the world of writing as a child to the time he is a mature travelling journalist covering topics as diverse as Suharto’s rule in Indonesia to dacoits in India. 

If you are familiar with Dom Moraes ((1938-2004) as a poet, novelist and columnist, you will not be surprised by the sheer finesse of writing you encounter as you move from one essay to another, although you may have your own favourites. Regarded as one of the giants of Indian English literature, Moraes won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize when he was just 20 followed by Sahitya Academy Award and a series of other literary awards in England, America and India.

The book starts with an introduction by Sarayu Srivastava recounting the last days of Moreas with detours to his past. The introduction has a morbid element to it, as did Moraes’s life. But, surprisingly, the morbid mood the introduction sets, vaporises in the pieces that follow.

The first two travel pieces are purely autobiographical. ‘His Father’s Son’ (1945) recollects the carefree childhood days of Dom Moraes in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where is father, a reporter with Times of India, was posted. There is a strong visual element to how the natural world of these places has been described. Anecdotes about a child – Moraes – discovering this natural world slowly almost reads like the formative pages of a novel. In ‘Figures in the Landscape’ (1955) Moraes is equally carefree, if a little awkward, going through a range of experiences, some writerly, others potentially amorous, in that global capital of arts, artists and sensuality, Paris.

But there is a tragic and frightening aspect to the pieces, too, which appears and retreats only to reappear as if to remind you that life is not just about gambolling. That aspect is the gradual mental deterioration of Dom Moreas’s mother who was given to violence. Her fits of violence form a recurrent theme until she leaves Ceylon and returns to Bombay to stay with her relatives. But even after she departs, her presence constantly lurks in the background. And when she does reappear, either actually or via recollection, the atmosphere of the essay instantly changes.

She, although absent from many other pieces in the collection, casts a shadow on her son such that some of the actions of the son, particularly his introverted and melancholic personality, seem to be coloured by his mother’s tragedy. One can sense in later essays where the author has grown up, how the derangement of the mother would have affected the son. That almost becomes a subterranean subtheme.

The following opening passage of ‘The Chinese at the Doorstep’ is a case in point.

One recalled the oddest things: I remember a toy-shop in a Knightsbridge arcade where I used to go when very unhappy, during my first days in London, in order to buy small delicate glass toys which I later smashed, one by one, in the fireplace of my flat, with a malediction against anything beautiful.”

Moraes had a complex relationship with his mother. And in the essays that are a throwback to his childhood days, you meet a helpless child unable to make up his mind whether he loves his mother for who she is, or is indifferent to her — seeing her from a distance with a sense of fright and awe.

As the book progresses, the world of Moraes opens up further. ‘The Chinese at the Doorstep’ (1959) is about a sudden journey to Sikkim and surrounding places. There is a tension in the place that it’s abuzz with Chinese spies, and that China is engaged in incursions and military build-up in the Indian border states. The year is 1959 and developments are admittedly a precursor to the things to come in 1962. Written more than half a century ago, the essay reads disturbingly current. The essay’s narrative is much tauter, almost like a spy thriller, than the other essays.

Since the global brouhaha about climate change is not older than roughly a decade and half, we tend to locate all climate disasters to recent times, having settled into the belief that the past generations were coexisting with nature in peace and harmony. However, the subcontinent has always been home to extreme climate events going back to the 18th century.

“Geography as well as history has always been linked to East Pakistan.” When I read this sentence, the first sentence in ‘Death by Water’ (1970), I thought I was in for an account of the atrocities on the Hindu population of East Pakistan during that period but was surprised to find an extremely well-informed report on a cyclone which had hit the region in 1970. The sea level had risen to a great height creating a ‘water wall’, according to eyewitnesses, which had then crashed on the land raging inland with a monster force and then stopping and moving back into the sea. The next day when helicopters were sent to survey the damage, bodies of humans and cattle were found floating in the sea, river and crevices. 

In ‘Dispatches from Indonesia’ (1972), Moraes visits a country under the tyrannical rule of General Suharto. The dictator had come to power seven years before his visit through a military coup, and immediately after, there was a crackdown on the intelligentsia. Some were executed and some sent to prison camps. Moraes travels to one such prison camp outside the city and meets two famous prisoners, Suprapto (Soeprapto), the former Attorney General, and Pramudja (Pramudya Ananta Tur), a famous writer. Their lives are a reflection of the losses and tragedies the critics of the regime suffered.

In ‘The Company of Dacoits’ (1981), Moraes withdraws from the world of dictators and devastating floods and enters the rugged terrain of dacoits.  We meet Lajjaram, who is dead and whose body is being constantly mishandled by the police, and Lakshman Singh Rathore, alias Lachhi, an eighteen-year-old boy who was thrust into dacoity by his circumstances, first to seek help to avenge his father being deceived, and then to pay for the help received by becoming a fulltime bandit. The rest of the essay is about Lachhi trying to get himself acquitted of the crimes committed by other dacoits in his group. 

Likewise, the other pieces also deal with human conditions in varied settings.                    

The essays are undoubtedly dated, but the subjects they deal with brim with recency: human disaster, tyrannical govt, national expansionism, inaccessibility of justice. Over a period of time, these subjects, of course, have acquired a new lexicon: territorial conflict, climate change, human right excesses and so on.

The collective time span of the pieces is almost 60 years. Dom Moraes’s gaze is that of a writer, rather than of a journalist, always looking out for human tragedies, helplessness and intricacies within bigger narratives of climate disaster, military coups and national conflicts.

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Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India. 

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Categories
Stories

Eyes of the Python


Written in Tamil by S.Ramakrishnan, translated by Dr.B.Chandramouli

Raghav dreamed of a python again. He had never dreamed of a snake till he was thirty. But ever since he married seven months ago, the python had recurred several times in his dreams. Mirudhula was to blame.

She was fond of pythons. When she admired one, her eyes would widen as if she were swishing her tongue at a delicious gulab jamun. In confusion, he used to wonder: “What kind of woman is she?”

In the city zoo, there was a cage with an artificial tree containing a twelve-foot python. They did not know where they got it; it was the first thing they went to see as newlyweds.

“Ragav, look at its eyes. They flash with a secret. Its texture, the style of its coils, the small movements, all of it are amazing. I like it; I want to hold it in my lap,” said Mirudhula.

Ragav hid his fear and asked, “Should we go?”

“We just arrived. Why are you rushing?” she said, standing near the barrier, watching it with interest.

He could not understand what interested her.

“You know it is non-poisonous. Even at school, I got a prize for drawing a python,” said Mirudhula.

“It is still a snake,” said Ragav. She was snapping pictures with her mobile. A boy who came there hid behind his mother with closed eyes. His mother was pulling him forward, urging him to look.

Ragav left her alone and went to see the white tiger. When he returned, she was still admiring the python. He felt irritated to see her slowly licking an ice cream cone and watching the motionless python.

Young newlyweds go to the movies only. Mirudhula was not interested in the movies; in all of her 26 years, she had seen only less than ten.

“I fall asleep at the cinema,” she said. He could never fall asleep in a movie theater.

In his college days, he would watch all three new releases for Diwali and Pongal non-stop. The three movie theatres in his town changed movies twice a week. In a week he saw six movies, mostly second shows. If it was too late to go home, he would sleep on friend’s open terrace and in the morning, go to the college from straight from there.

Why did he marry a girl who disliked movies – he wondered.

 Mirudhula was a salesperson for a multinational company. She was the single daughter of a dentist. She graduated from Manipal University after attending an Ooty convent. Having worked in Italy for two years, she was fluent in four or five languages. She made 1.5 lakhs per month.

They connected on a matrimonial site. When they first met in Amethyst’s coffee shop, her perfume intoxicated him. He couldn’t take his eyes off of her black and yellow salwar-kameez.

She spoke fluently and naturally with a fake smile on her face, as if speaking to a customer. She ordered an orange ice-tea, which Ragav had never tasted.

Twice, she repeated the same question: “Are you the only offspring?”

“Yes. My father is a college professor and my mom a schoolteacher,” he replied.

“Thank God you aren’t a teacher too,” she said. He didn’t get what was funny about it but laughed politely. Her charming beauty seduced him, as one might desire decorated pineapple pieces in a five-star hotel.

She seemed to be purposefully using a seductive voice.

“May I know how much you weigh?” she asked.

No girl has ever asked him that. Feeling shy, he said, “Sixty-eight”.

“You must lose 5kg, ” she said, smiling.

While opposite her, he felt as if it was drizzling on his face.

She winked, “Do you have any other questions?”

“You are very beautiful,” said Ragav. 

“I am aware of it.”

“I am lucky,” he laughed lightly.

“I’m still deciding – have to think more. I rush nothing.” Mirudhula said, “I am different and difficult to understand.”

“Different how?”

“I don’t want to scare you off yet, but I am like that only.”

She licked her small lips as she spoke. Her lips were sexy; the upper one was slightly smaller.

‘I think I am an inch taller than you,” she said.

“Is that so?” he exclaimed. “It is not a problem.” 

“It would be a problem for me. You should wear platform shoes,” she said.

“Sure. I can do that.”

“Do you drive?” she asked.

“No, I only ride a bike.”

“I got a car as soon as I got the job and drive to work daily. I love driving.”

“That is really cool. We don’t have to use ola then,” he said.

She disliked that comment. Slowly combing her distressed hair, she munched on the orange wedge.

“Aren’t you curious about my car?”

“Sorry. I know nothing about cars.”

She teased him, “Do you walk on the road with your eyes closed?”

“I wear a helmet. I hardly notice anything else.”

While she ate a sugar cube, she regarded him quietly. Her eyes seemed to seek something in him. What was she looking for? He could not stand her scrutiny.  

She smiled. “We will meet again.”

 Her perfume lingered long after she left. Ragav picked up and tasted a sugar cube just like her.

It was the first of their three dates. After that, their families got together and arranged the wedding. Unlike traditional marriage hall weddings, theirs was a lavish affair at a beach resort. Mirudhula’s father spared no expense. They honeymooned in Hawaii. She enjoyed varied foods, including fish. Raghav craved rice.

Even when she was kissing him in bed, Mirudhula was slow and deliberate. Her kiss was emphatic. Her embrace was slow and long. Their lovemaking was urgent and refreshing, like eating ice cream in the summer.

They temporarily stayed at Mirudhula’s apartment upon returning to Chennai. Mirudhula was serious about renting a new home. She rented a flat on the top floor of a newly built apartment building with 34 floors.

Ragav said, “A first-floor flat would have been nice.”

“One must live in the highest location possible. It is nice to see the city beneath my feet,” she said.

He felt uncomfortable living so far up.  What if the lift failed? What if the balcony glass barrier cracked? Why was there so much glare in the morning? His mind bubbled with doubts, questions, and fears. But her morning routine was to stand on the balcony with the morning brew in the hand and admire the sprawling city below. The fast wind blew her hair in waves. He disliked standing on the balcony.

Mirudhula was a great cook, but she only cooked when she liked it. The other times, they catered from the hotel only. She was never late for work. Even at home, she never seemed to rest and kept moving. Ragav, however, liked to relax on the sofa after work. On Sundays, he slept until noon. Not her.  She exercised every morning. She took great care of her figure and health.

Leaving together by car, she dropped him off at the metro station and proceeded to her workplace. She never drove him to work. She often got home by 9 p.m., whereas he was back by 6 p.m.

While waiting for her, he watched television. Occasionally, he cooked for himself. All his dreams of married life were dashed in a few weeks. He felt that his life was like a book read and finished in a hurry.

One day Mirudhula fought, saying he lacked toilet etiquette. He yelled at her another day for storing Chinese food in the fridge that smelled foul. Despite the petty fights, she often surprised him with gifts. He too took her shopping every week without fail. To appease her, he ate in some restaurants that he disliked. Her poise was evident in her every action.

She had the habit of buying strange things online. She bought wall mounted blue lights for the bedroom. The rotating blue light made the room look like a pool. When she moved around in the room, it was as if in a dream.

Another time, he was busy at work when she sent him a video and texted him to watch it right away. It was a revolting scene that showed a python swallowing a baby monkey.

Angrily, he called her and demanded to know why she sent him that video.

“Did you see? The python swallows the monkey and turns, looking eerily silent…something strange…”

“Isn’t the baby monkey unfortunate?”

“Snakes eat when they’re hungry–anything wrong in that?”

“Don’t send such videos anymore. Why would I look at them?”

“I liked the video so much I watched it 30 times today. You are my better half, so I shared it with you.”

 He cut the call with “Stupid”

It was two days before they spoke again. He became more enraged when she ignored his anger.

That Sunday, she made many of his favorite dishes. She deliberately wore a silk sari. Showered him with kisses; his anger melted away.

A few days later, she told him while leaving for work, “I’ll get a package; accept it but don’t open it. I’ll open it.”

“What package?” he asked.

“Surprise” she laughed.

A guy delivered a big box, just as she said. It came from Taiwan.

Despite being curious, he did not open it, not wanting to anger her.

Unusually, she called before coming home that day: “Did the package arrive?””

“They delivered it in the afternoon itself,” he said.

“Can I get you something from McDonalds?” she asked.

Knowing she wasn’t planning to cook, he replied, “Pick it up yourself.”

She asked, “What sweet would you like?”.

“I’ve given up sweets,” he said flatly.

She cut the line by saying, “Well, we’re eating today.”

Mirudhula came home carrying two bags. One package contained food and the other sweets. Was it her birthday today? He wondered. Then he remembered her birthday was on May 8th. He could not figure out what was special about that day.

 The package she carefully unwrapped contained a rubber python folded six times. She caressed it lovingly.

“Touch it and see how soft it is”

“What is this for, Mirudhula?” he asked.

“They have included a hand pump to inflate it; please help me,” she said

He took the hand pump and inflated the rubber python through a port. He watched it slowly expand. The snake unraveled to over ten feet of smooth coils. She wore it on her shoulders and smiled.

“Come close… let us wear it together,” she said.

As he grudgingly consented, she wrapped the inflated python around his shoulder as well.

“How is it? Can you feel the silky touch?” she asked.

“It feels strangely slimy, “he said as he tried shaking it off.

“I searched online and ordered it from Taiwan for 300 dollars,” she said.

“It’s not worth it. What made you buy it? I don’t like it,” said Ragav.

“I will spend my money as I wish. You like nothing.” She said, reclining on the sofa, hugging the python. He was a bit scared to look at her. As she stroked the python’s head, she stroked it with her cheek; only its tail was dangling outside the sofa.

“Ragav, I am thrilled today. Let us celebrate.”

“What is there to celebrate?”

“You won’t understand. Even before we were married, I said I was different. You even nodded your head.”

“That doesn’t mean you should have a Python at home… who would do that?”

“This is not a true snake, just a toy.”

“Why do you need a toy?”

“Then why do you have a fish tank? You like watching fish, right? Did I question it?”

“It is not the same.”

“It is all the same. Look Ragav. Whether you like it or not — us living together means compromising on some things I like.”

“There is no such rule.”

“No problem.  I don’t need your permission, anyway.” She laughed and sat down on the couch to watch an Italian channel. When she was angry, she would speak in a foreign language and watch foreign language channels.

Ragav locked himself in his room. His anger took a long time to subside. She might even bring the rubber python to the bedroom, he thought. Luckily, she left it on the sofa. She ate alone and came to bed as if nothing had happened.

She took the python to the bathroom the next day. She rubbed soap suds on it as she played with it in the shower. The wet python dried on the balcony.

He suppressed his rage and left for the office.

In the car, Mirudhula said, “You are overreacting, it’s just a toy.” This is like you playing video games; try to understand.”

He did not reply. That day, she drove him to his office on purpose. He came home to find the dried python in the hall, left there by the maid. He was furious.

When he touched its body, it felt like a snake but with motionless eyes. The plastic tongue twitched when he pressed its head. In the mirror, his visage looked strange as he wore the snake, like she did. It was such an expensive costume. What would someone from his hometown think? What is so special about this python?

 He deflated the python. Folding the rubber shell, he cast it in the kitchen corner. It was the first thing she looked for when Mirudhula got home at 9.30 pm. Not finding it, she shouted, “What did you do with the python?”

“It is in the kitchen”

“You would have deflated it, I know.” She said, walking to the kitchen.

“Yes. It is disgusting to look at.”

“The problem is yours. What you did is inevitable; you’re a pervert.”

“I’m not perverted. Does anyone else keep a python at home?”

“I don’t care if others keep it or not. I’m not like others.”

“You are adamant.”

“Yes. I am like that only.” She said, deliberately inflating the python with the hand pump. It grew much larger than its usual size. She walked to the bedroom, lovingly hugging the python. Loud music blared. Maybe she was dancing with the python.

Ragav slept on the sofa that night. The python accompanied her to work in the morning. In the lift, an old man asked her, “Is that a rubber toy? Where do they sell it?”

“Taiwan” she said, laughing.

“I’ve seen a python in the Assamese forests,” said the old man.

She put the python in the back seat. She did not drive him to work that day. He rode to work on his bike. He could not concentrate at work. When he spoke to his mother, he told her what had transpired.  His mother asked incredulously, “A rubber snake? Why did she buy it?”

“Who knows? She is a strange type.”

His mother was shocked. “Thank goodness she did not buy a live snake”

“She might even do that. I don’t know what to do.”

He heard his mother cursing in anger. Perhaps she spoke to Mirudhula’s father. Mirudhula’s mom called her the next day.

“Why did you talk to others about our problems?” Mirudhula demanded.

“I told my mother only.”

“Are you a schoolboy to run to your mother? What do you have in your mind? Am I crazy?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t live up to your expectations, Ragav.”

“I understood it very well long ago.”

“Then you better close your eyes and ears.  If you complain again like this to my folks, I do not know what I will do.”

“Why do you torture me? You can leave if you don’t like to live with me.”

“Why should I leave? I will stay here.”

“Well, I will leave then.”

Walking to the balcony with the python, she said, “It’s your choice.”. Leaning on the barrier, she held the snake up, and it wave in the air. To express his anger, he left for work early in the morning.

He arrived home late that night. The home was empty. He didn’t bother to look for her. She did not return the next day as well. He rang her father, but his father did not pick up the phone. After three days, Mirudhula called him one afternoon. “I have decided Ragav. I am leaving”              

“It is your choice.”

“The house cost me over two lakhs. You must return it. I have informed the owner that I will vacate the home, since I have paid for the advance. You better find a new place. Our marriage was a bad dream. That is all I can say.” She hung up.

Ragav thought she’d return after her anger subsided. He couldn’t stand her stubborn behavior. He wanted to call her back and give a piece of his mind. When he called again, she did not pick up the phone.

Upon returning home that night, he discovered she had emptied the house of her clothes and belongings. But she had left behind the rubber python, which lay alone in the middle of the hall.

Why did she leave it behind? It was the root of all their problems. What was she seeking? Her wants were so weird.

He kicked the rubber snake with his foot, but even then, his rage did not fade.

To vent his anger, he trampled the snake with his feet. After deflating it, he took it to the balcony and cast it into the wind.

 Flying in the air, the snake looked beautiful indeed. 

Glossary

Gulab jamun: Indian sweets

Diwali, Pongal: Festivals

S. Ramakrishnan is an eminent Tamil writer who has won the Sahitya Akademi Award in the Tamil Language category in 2018. He has published 10 novels, 20 collections of short stories, 75 collections of essays, 15 books for children, 3 books of translation and 9 plays. He also has a collection of interviews to his credit. His short stories are noted for their modern story-telling style in Tamil and have been translated and published in English, Malayalam, Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Kannada and French.  

Dr.Chandramouli is a retired physician.. He is fluent in English and Tamil. He has done several English to Tamil, and Tami to English. He has published some of them.

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Categories
Review

Beyond the Veil: A Book Review by Aruna Chakravarti

                                                                              

Title: Beyond the Veil

Author: Devika Khanna Narula

An important task for those committed to tracking the path of women’s Issues, past and present, is to embark on a study of the academic discourses on gender sparked off by feminist scholars and activists — an area that is fast gaining ground all over the world. Yet there is another dimension to the effort. It also involves an exploration of creative writing generated by sensitive, imaginative feminism. It is important to understand that concepts such as Patriarchy, Agency and Resistance are not limited to feminist debate and discourse. They are equally and dynamically present in poetry and fiction. In India, the field of feminist creative writing is growing rich with promise every day.

One such endeavour is Devika Khanna Narula’s novel Beyond the Veil.  A work of epical dimensions it operates on a vast canvas. Vast both in terms of space and time, it spans half a century, between 1900 and 1950. It offers interesting insights into life as lived by upper class and middle-class women during a momentous period of Indian history. A time when a mass resistance against British rule was spreading all over the country culminating in the independence of India. A movement in which some women also participated.

Spatially the narrative shuttles between two families from two different parts of India linked by marriage. They belong to different cultures though they come from a common stock. They are the Punjabis of Lahore and the Punjabi Khatris of Bandhugarh, a fictional name for Bardhaman, in West Bengal. The founder of the Kapoor family in Bandhugarh, came from Punjab in the sixteenth century and, by sheer dint of merit and hard work, amassed lands and wealth. His progeny followed in his footsteps, established themselves as zamindars and, at some point, were dignified by the title of Rajah by the British.

The Khannas of Punjab and the Kapoors of Bandhugarh seem very different in externals. The first belongs to the ‘small business’ class. The other is related to royalty. One is of pure Punjabi extraction. The other, though from the same genetic type, is highly Bengalised having lived in Bengal over many generations. They speak Bengali, eat Bengali food, dress like Bengalis, worship in Bengali temples and use idioms and expressions that serve to accentuate the effects of defamiliarization and alienness among the daughters-in-law who, in an effort to keep the bloodline pure, are brought from the old pristine stock.

These women face the challenges their upheaval brings in its wake. They are required to come to terms with another kind of life, learn to adapt to a new environment, cope with taunts about their dissimilarities and conquer their fears and insecurities. It works both ways. Roopmati, coming from Punjab has to turn herself into a Bengali in her marital home. Her daughter, brought up as a Bengali in Bandhugarh, is wed to a young man in Lahore and has to adapt to a different set of priorities and values for which she is totally unprepared.

Yet, scratch the surface and the fates of women, whether in Punjab or Bengal, are identical. Denial of education, economic dependence on the male, social conditioning over generations and the suppression of individual identity by an oppressive ‘joint family’ ideology are present across the spectrum. Humiliation and desertion by husbands, violence—physical and mental, molestation and rape both marital and by other males of the family are normalized and hidden from view. Adherence to tradition have rendered other horrors acceptable and inevitable. The custom of Sati and Purdah, female infanticide and neglect of the girl child are part of a patriarchal system that exists in both communities.

The strange thing is that the women who suffer these indignities, day in and day out, are the very ones who are entrusted with perpetuating the system. Males set the rules but females are expected to implement them. And many do. Mindlessly like automatons. Some even enjoy the process. Because this is the only area of dominance men have relegated to women. Women like Bebe of Bandhugarh and Rukmini of Lahore enjoy power through a determined subjugation of the younger women of the family, particularly the daughters-in-law. They also see it is as their duty to break the clay of the other and force it into the patriarchal family mould. 

The world in which the young women of Beyond the Veil live is cold and dark. But occasionally a shaft of sunlight pierces through the clouds. Some women upset the status quo from time to time. These are rebels who expect consideration and fair play. They demand change. The mother and daughter duo Roopmati and Maina are two such women. It is heartening to see that, under their influence, their husbands too develop sensitivity and compassion for the women in their households. Other males follow suit. The curtain falls on a world slowly waking from slumber.

The ambience of both worlds is created with great sensitivity and detail. Descriptions of food eaten, clothes worn, journeys undertaken and the joys and sorrows of day-to-day living are totally credible. The narrative flows smoothly unmarred by jolts and jars. The topography of Lahore, Karachi and Bandhugarh of those days is authentic and accurate. Life as it is lived in, whether it is the Khanna family or the Kapoor, the cultural differences come through with clarity and precision. Events and locales are rooted in history and dates are adhered to. Names of streets, restaurants, railway stations, cinema halls… even the films that were shown in them a century ago… can be put to the test and will not fail. Best of all are the local legends and myths that have grown around communities and families, rivers and lakes, temples and mansions. The book is a storehouse of information of a bye gone era.

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Aruna Chakravarti has been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels JorasankoDaughters of JorasankoThe Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Suralakshmi Villa is her fifteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.

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