|The lost stream 2|
She stands there transfixed, watching them. Then, one shadow moves; the boy goes towards the side of the shop, his shadow seems to melt onto the wall. On the way back, when he is returning, zipping up his trousers, he looks up. Suddenly, he realises someone’s been watching him.
He comes back whistling to his friend, the motorcycle engine roars, something falls with a limp thud and they’re out of the place on their roaring lion — they disappear as if they’d never been there. Nothing remains. Only a broken bottle in the drain, the wetness of a golden stream on the wall and… laughter. After everything is drowned in the darkness, only their laughter remains.
She’s startled. She moves away from the ledge and runs, comes to the shack. The bell on the rope is shrieking.
It is a strange bell. It rings below but the whole house resonates with its sound. Mother calls it the other woman, a noose around her neck; whenever Babu requires anything for the shop, he pulls the rope. One end of the rope is tethered to a stump near the shop, the other to a branch of the peepul, from which also hangs the bell. Whenever anyone pulls the rope the bell starts clanging. From a distance it seems that the sound is coming from the tree. The bell is a call for mother from the world below, one tug means milk, two mean tea leaves, three, savoury biscuits. Father doesn’t have to climb up to collect them; mother ties them up in a bundle and lowers them down to him. It was a sort of illusion that makes the customers believe that they are at a temple courtyard rather than a rundown tea stall — a temple, where just a few tugs of the rope brings down instant prasad from the gods above.
Sometimes the swaying peepul god also causes the bell to toll, as if he knows that someone is waiting below. On such occasions she always finds a sadhu or a beggar waiting below. The swaying rope breaks into a dance, on such occasions, as if glorying in the knowledge that the tree god has chosen him as messenger. Saturday is the day the black pandit comes with his oil-filled begging bowl. Every week, they hear his call, the bowl slowly rises up and then they — mother, son and daughter — put their alms into the bowl after looking at their reflections in the oil. Should I bring it down? The Saturday deity shouts from below. No, not now. She puts her money at the end. When she peers into the oil, she sees the Queen of Chittor in it, looking down from the golden ramparts of the fort, smiling into the coin-filled pit. Going down with it… does the Saturday deity take people’s reflections with him and when he comes back a week later, people see other faces in the oil?
Other faces? Then, suddenly she remembers the other deities, the shadows of Saturday night. They don’t come with oil bowls but with black sacks on their backs. They don’t come to collect faces but the scattered treasures of the lane. There is no nightly treasure that escapes their sharp, scavenging eyes… plastic milk bags, old newspapers, tattered clothes, scraps of cloth from the tailor master’s shop… The lane is their hunting ground. They are followed by barking and yelping street dogs, who fearfully lunge at these alien marauders as if they are evil ghosts from another planet. Ghosts that are beyond the reach of their teeth and paws. They not only frighten the dogs but also the frail things that inhabit the lane. Lottery tickets scamper off at their footfalls, leaves begin to fly, ends of cigarettes and beedis also run for cover — only the old street cat isn’t afraid of them, she sits perched on the water tank and stares at them defiantly with her luminescent eyes.
Then suddenly, they disappear into the dark cove they seemed to emerge from. Standing on the ledge of her roof she surveys the plundered remains of the lane. The slighted dogs return with their tails between their legs, the lathi-wielding watchman comes out expectorating. Things come back to normal. Quiet and uneventful. Uneventful and deserted. Except for shop number seven! Here Bangali babu pounds away at his typewriter. Letters from his machine jump out like insects, and fly out to form words — words that later appear in her book, as she reads lying on a mat under the open sky, in the lantern’s light.
Are you awake?
The woman’s voice comes from behind the quivering jute curtain.
Do you want something, mother?
First tell me, are you studying?
No, first tell me what you want?
Will you give me some warm water?
Just go to sleep, mother. I will take care of the rest!
Only two pieces of clothing are left... I am coming out.
Her mother’s voice from behind the jute curtain sounds like someone prompting in a school play. The voice is not heard but the face is visible.
She puts the book under the pillow and gets up. The kerosene stove wakes up the peepul tree with its light. Its shadow looms on the wall like a giant, covering the entire area with its long arms; not saying anything but talking to itself in a strange dialect. Had it been any other night, she would have gone closer to the shadow and listened to the tree muttering to itself, but tonight she avoids it. She places the bowl of warm water near the pile of clothes.
The woman takes the warm water in the hollow of her palm and starts sprinkling the clothes with it. The remaining water she throws at the girl’s face. The girl winces, moves back and wipes her face with the back of her hand.
What are you doing?
The woman laughs. This is her way of teasing her quiet daughter.
Won’t you come out?
You go, I’ll come later…
She doesn’t move. She watches the woman iron the clothes in the wan light of the lantern… different piles for different people — her green school uniform, the brother’s shorts and shirt, Babu’s pyjamas, trousers… the woman’s saris that have become threadbare with repeated washes now lie waiting for the warm embrace of the iron.
Will someone at school find out what dingy place her neatly ironed uniform comes from?
See, if there’s anyone in the shop?
She comes down the ladder — just halfway — it’s enough distance to see who’s there in the shop or in the world for that matter. Who’ll be there at this hour, except for Type Master, who comes here for his tea, toast and boiled egg, before going home. Ek tho deem! Sometimes the mother also sends down a bundle of savoury channa and beaten rice. Some also for the little boy who sits with his father till the shop closes. He does his homework there, with a little help from Bangali babu.
Bangali babu is scared of going home alone. His homework was completed when his wife died. Whenever the girl sees him she feels a little jealous… he doesn’t have to appear for any exams now!
She doesn’t say anything, just climbs up fast. People go up after dying, but she is already at the top.
The moon is out. It is floating in a thin film of precipitation. It is two days before full moon. The stars seem to melt down the leaves of the peepul and drip as golden rain; they drip inside the shack as well. The utensils in the open kitchen glisten.
Both mother and daughter sit before their thalis. Food, kept out in the open, has a taste of its own. They feel as if they are perched high up on a giant wheel at a village fair, inside the house yet outside!
Have you finished your homework?
She shakes her head; eating silently. She takes the glass up to her lips and sees the woman’s pale, anxiety-ridden face… the thought of approaching exams bothers her more. She has remained illiterate therefore all her energies are directed towards her daughter’s education.
There’s some milk left — drink it before you sleep.
The glass on her lips shakes a little.
Do you want to get anything else ironed?
She shakes her head — a brief giggle escapes her lips.
Why are you laughing?
I remembered something.
I ask you something, you think of something else. What have you suddenly remembered?
Bangali babu… Type Master, he’s always looking at himself whenever I pass his shop.
How does he look at himself?
He has a big portrait of himself in front of his typewriter — it’s almost like a mirror.
What’s there to laugh about? It’s not a sin to look at yourself.
It’s not a sin, but does anyone keep his own picture framed in his shop?
Hush! Talk softly; he’s down there.
The calendar on the kitchen wall is fluttering — Goddess Durga on the calendar goes up and down with it, as if she’s on a giant wheel like them. The headlights of a passing car on the metalled road expose the whole household… the jars, the decanters, the books and the bundles of clothes… Goddess Durga fluttering on the wall. Suddenly the scene changes. Only their two wilting shadows remain on the roof.
What is it now? The woman stops collecting the used dishes.
Have these people been living here forever?
These people… Sharmaji, Hiralal, Bashir Mian, Bangali babu?
Where was the lane? There used to be a nullah here. There was no lane then. You could hear hyenas at night.
Where has the nullah gone?
It’s covered… now it flows below the ground.
Can we hear it?
Yes, why not… when the lane is silent, you can hear the nullah.
But how can the lane remain silent? There’s always something happening; the yelping of dogs, the cat’s caterwaul, the ‘jagte raho’ calls of the watchman. And if all else is quiet the whispering wind makes the peepul leaves swish. And whenever the tree goes to sleep, the city’s various noises come to inhabit the silences in the lane. The bells of the Kali temple, the film songs played by wedding bands, stir a strange sinking desire. The heart seems to sink. Even if the lane goes silent who can shut the doors of the heart, they swing open at the slightest touch.
Who is it?
The woman gets up with a start. It is the bell. It has been clanging persistently. The girl runs to the ledge of the roof, looks down and sees Babu calling out to her. She picks up the lantern and goes down the ladder.
The little boy is asleep; I’ll take him up. You take Bangali babu to the main road… he can’t see too well in the dark.
Who can see in the dark? She grabs Bangali babu’s hand in anger almost drags him. Please come!
Type Master stands there like a dummy in the flickering light. His dhoti has crumpled up to his knees. A threadbare khadi jhola hangs over his shoulder, an umbrella in his hand. The loose spokes of the umbrella stand out like thorns on a bush. He lifts his distant vision glasses from his nose and looks at her.
Is it you? How you have grown!
The end of his umbrella in one hand and the lantern in another — she walks ahead, Masterji behind her. A scruffy dog on hunger strike outside the closed meat shop starts walking with them. Making their way through the fruit skins and the heaps of garbage they start out towards the bus stand. She stops whenever they come to a pothole and lets him come closer, then manoeuvres her end of the umbrella to bring him into the circle of the lantern’s light. He lets out a heavy, phlegm-laden cough — Now you go, I’ll find my way, the main road is anyway here.
The lantern flickers for a moment and then becomes still — absolutely still — just a solid column of light between two shadows.
Please, I’ll take you to the bus stand.
He stands there indecisively. The scruffy dog looks up at him, as if telling him — move if you have to, otherwise I’ll turn and head back.
This time they walk and stop only at the bus stop. It is deserted. Cars speed off into the darkness before them. Masterji lights a cigarette and looks at her.
The bus must be on its way, now you go.
She doesn’t move.
How far is your house?
Not very far, I have to cross three stops.
Why don’t you live here, Masterji?
In this lane, then you won’t have to go so far.
He thinks for a while, taps the ash from his cigarette, and then says softly.
It’s not far. Sometimes my stop comes so soon that I remain sitting till the end. Then I come back in the same bus. Now the conductors have also started recognising me, they don’t charge me the return fare — they say, Free ride Masterji!
He laughs softly. Takes off his spectacles and wipes them with a corner of his dhoti, as if some internal vapours have condensed on them. She realises why he always looks at his portrait on the wall of his shop. Because he always finds someone else in it. Someone who works in the shop, while someone else plies from one stop to the other.
The dog starts barking at the bus. Bangali babu chucks his smouldering cigarette, jumps onto the bus, turns around; but fails to see anything from the moving bus… he only hears the unending barks in the distant darkness.
Everything is silent when she returns to the lane. Babu has gone up after closing shop. The tin roof, the jute curtain, the peepul tree, all stand absolutely still, as if waiting for her with bated breath. She steps on the ladder, but stops immediately. A strange surr, surr, surr sound seems to emanate from some deep, bottomless pit. It isn’t even a sound, it is more like a rasping hoot that’s rising from within the lane, snaking its way through the closed shops.
Is this the stream that used to be here but has now become invisible?
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