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Mrinal Sen
  Urvashi Butalia

  
Sunil Gangopadhyay
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Nirmal Verma

She is looking down from the roof. She is not on the roof; her house is on it — one brick wall, one jute curtain, a sheet of tin above, apart from these there is something else that without being a part of the house is still an uninvited guest. It’s a peepul tree. The tree has its own family — twigs, branches, birds in transit. But most of all leaves…

This is the time of their glistening in the sunlight — also the time when the wind causes them to leave their branches.

Every morning she gives the tree a shake and when she has had enough she starts looking down.

Down, is where Babu has his stall — a tea and bread stall that has before it some decrepit chairs, a worn-out bench and a Hindi newspaper that is weighed down by a piece of stone. Customers usually come, browse through the paper, have their first cup of tea and then if they own a bicycle they pedal away ringing their cycle bell. The birds on the tree fly away whenever the cycle bell rings.

It is close to examination time.

She fervently wishes for the floods to come before the exams and sweep away the entire lane. Or a storm or an earthquake to swallow the teacher, the school, the tea stall, everything — leaving behind just a cloud of dust. It is all possible…

Everything is possible. But nothing ever happens. Time moves, days are exhausted and the lane goes about its business in the bright April breeze. The falling leaves land on her books, notebooks, school bag and hair as if each leaf knows its final destination. Her mother takes them out of her hair while combing it, as if they are lice or slugs stuck to her scalp.

She sits with her eyes fixed on her history book… Alauddin’s entry into Chittor Fort, Queen Padmini in the mirror! Everything is bright, the glittering sand flies in the direction of the fort, the mirror reflects her own smiling face…

Don’t you want to go to school, how long will you stand before the mirror?

She starts wiping the mirror on hearing that. Queen Padmini is now behind the tree, she, on the ladder; quickly climbing down the iron ladder, the one Babu has installed between the shop and the house because the house doesn’t have its own staircase.

Morning customers can often be seen sitting on the bench — the newspaper boy, the tired watchman, Sharmaji, who comes to the shop after his morning walk, not for tea but for the newspaper. She comes out on the lane avoiding everyone’s gaze. The morning road, naked and empty… the customers’ eyes boring into her back. She shrugs them off at the turn like someone would an insect that sneaked inside their clothes.

A growing body attracts so many eyes…

She is used to walking fast. Not that she is swift — it is more like a dead weight being carried by a pair of legs. It isn’t even a body — rather a shalwar, a kameez, a chunni, a bag stuffed with books all rolled into a world on foot. It is a world whose beating heart is wired to the roof of the house at one end and to the green gate of the school at the other. Through the space between the open gate one can see the school ground forested by a gaggle of girls and boys in green, the sound of their collective prayers rising and falling…

Lab pe aiyee hai dua ban ke tamanna teri... (Your wish comes out of our lips like a prayer), they sing.

They pray, they wish…

A storm of wishes brewing behind the shut eyes.

Across the field.

The school bell shatters the calm. They scramble towards the classrooms. The classroom doors swallow them up one by one. The empty ground seems more empty, except for the badminton net — stretched between two bamboo poles — that hums with the warming breeze, surr, surr, surr…

She also hears the sound; from the classroom window; the sound of one bell chasing another, between History, Math, Geography classes till it’s time for the drawing class, that’s when everything seems to stop. Her notebook is shown to the whole class…

See what she has drawn!

Sharmaji emerging from the pencil’s tip — black as ever, flab quivering, with crow-like eyes — alert and cunning; dry-cleaner Harilal, who’s always glued to his mirror combing his hair and then winking at his own reflection; and the Bangali babu, who’s called Type Master because he’s the only one in the lane who types in English on his Remington typewriter, but he too prefers to look at the wall, admiring his own portrait.

It’s a whole portrait gallery! Where do you find these faces? — the teacher asks.

How does she explain, that she lives above a tea stall, in a shack on the roof — a ventilated palace — from where she doesn’t have to peer down to look at people, their exploring eyes come and stop at her place? At the utensils in the kitchen, at the clothes on the peepul tree. Clothes that hang shamelessly… as if she herself was hanging naked from the tree…

No Teacherji, I don’t — the faces find me!

And when it rains, when there’s a storm — then? The look on the teacher’s face seems to ask.

Then what?

She begins to laugh. The teacher always finds that unsettling. It rakes up ash — does drawing other people’s faces rob you of your identity? Do you turn to ash?

What happens when there is a storm?

Not a storm, I’ve seen a hurricane. It snatched my clothes from the peepul tree and made them course down the streets like wanton louts. Thankfully, with the storm also descended darkness, no one could see anything through the rising dust. No one belongs to you. No one stays with you. See, Teacherji, the things we call handkerchief, towel, shirt, coat… they all have their own life. They’re tied to us like animals in a zoo. Have you ever seen clothes at a tailor’s shop? They hang like animals’ bodies at a butcher’s… you are laughing… I am not lying, if it weren’t so, wouldn’t they escape at the first opportunity?

But that night was the limit. We couldn’t see a thing, didn’t know where the clothes had gone and hid themselves. When the storm subsided, I took my brother and went looking. The bigger ones we found mother’s sari, my shalwar-kameez — they, being heavy, couldn’t go too far. But the ones we wear inside she giggles, the teacher blushes a little — those we couldn’t find. When we were returning, my brother shook me by the shoulder and pointed towards Bashir Mian’s shop. They repaired punctures there. Bashir Mian has hung a used tyre to mark his shop… on that tyre hung my bra, like a bat. I removed it with great difficulty by climbing on my brother’s shoulders.

Next day, Bashir Mian came over and said a thief had come to his shop the night before. Thank God, he only found that old tyre, he told us.

This happens rarely. Usually, the day ends on a bright note. On such occasions the temperature in the lane rises, it becomes difficult to make out why people returning home get so desperate. Are they scared that the journey may end? There’s nothing after this. So when there’s nothing, why be afraid?

Does this fear bring people to Bodhrajji? He’s always sitting on his throne. At his wooden desk with his hand-made ledger… the view half-concealed by a curtain. There is always someone with him whenever she passes his shop. Harried, anxious, worried, they come to him as if their lives depends on his ledger’s verdict, which Bodhrajji will find in the constellation of stars and planets within the ledger. On the way from school, she sometimes stops and wants to be there, before him, as he announces his verdict. Are exam results also announced like this — pass or fail? She dreams of finding Bodhrajji alone one day, then asking him to read her palm, and telling him that she comes from the Ventilated Palace, from where she can see the signboard on his shop — Professor Bodhraj, Astrologer and Philosopher, Friend and Guide — Please tell me what will happen to me?

Bodhrajji lifts his head. His tired eyes peer through his glasses and stop at her.

What is it, beti? Why are you standing there? Have you lost your way?

She walks ahead… wondering, He can really read minds! He knew at once that I had lost my way to come to him… it is then that she realises the meaning of the word ‘Philosopher’, a man who sets up shop between lost paths. And anyone can go to him to find his way.

But the stars? Are the constellations all locked up in his ledger, the ones she can see from her rooftop? On returning home in the evening she can see them among the peepul leaves, shining like fireflies.

Mother is in the kitchen, her brother out in the lane, Babu in his shop… she, alone in the house with the examination monster: Is there a way to escape from him? She brings out her mat, keeps the lantern on the ledge, sits down with her notebook and begins to write. She sees the shadow of her hand, stops, the shadow also stops; she begins to think, the hand also seems to think. She observes the shadow for a while, as if it were someone else’s hand. If Bodhrajji read her palm, he’d say, Bhai, this is the palm of a queen, show me your palm. It is my own palm, Bodhrajji, I live in the Ventilated Palace in front of your shop; it’s the highest place in the lane. Everyday Queen Padmini comes to meet me… I can see her face from behind the leaves in my mirror. She leaves her books and goes towards the ledge…

Bodhrajji is long gone — the light from the lamppost illuminates his signboard that has his name in bold letters and of course the… Philosopher, Guide and Friend. She looks at the board for a while and then is startled by something. Someone is standing near the shop, whispering. She bends to look closely and sees two men on a motorcycle… they don’t seem very grown up, more like college boys — impulsive and worldly unwise, perhaps a little scared, but happy. As if they’ve found heaven beside the wall near the shop. They’ve come here, away from all curious eyes, not knowing that they are being watched.

She can’t see them too well. One boy is standing, the other sitting on the motorcycle. The one sitting takes something out of a bag from somewhere behind his legs. She sees the glass in the other boy’s hand… She realises what they are doing here. Shopkeepers come here after closing shop, to consume in fast gulps stuff they can’t touch at home, and then disappear into the darkness. But these boys? They seem untouched by the shopkeepers’ hypocrisy. They whisper and then laugh, and hide their glasses at the slightest noise. They don’t seem to be from here. Neither from the world around her… What is it that makes them stand out? Is it their laughter? Their whispers? Their happiness? The happiness that comes from drinking?

Is this the way to happiness? A dark alley?


p. 1 p. 2

 
Nirmal Verma is a pioneer of the New Story movement in Hindi. A winner of the Jnanpith Award, his translated works include The Last Wilderness, from TLM Books