|The mirror 1|
Gurdev Singh Ropana
He was a slim and athletic young man in his mid-twenties with a copper tan. His name was Dennis and he was from Paris. He was working on his PhD on Punjabi literature in the twentieth century. He was here in Delhi to collect books and meet local Punjabi writers. And that’s how I met him.
While reading novels of Kanwal and Gurdial Singh, he could not always understand Malwai (a dialect of Punjabi spoken in the Malwa region) words. When even the dictionaries failed to help him, he used to seek my aid.
One day, Dennis heard from his friends that I was going to my village, Ropana, for a few days, and in his halting Punjabi, he asked me: "May… I… accompany… you… if… go…" He was hesitant because he did not want to be a burden on anyone. I told him that my mother lived in the village., so it wouldn’t be a problem. The stay there wouldn’t cost a penny, and we would only need to pay the bus fare. Naturally, he must come along.
He was excited and positively quivered with joy.
The next day, we took the Delhi-Ferozepur bus. On the way, he plied me with endless questions. I fed his curiosity, for it allowed me to praise the goodness and virtues of my people. By the time we were in Punjab, my paeans had scaled epic proportions. I was thrilled, because Dennis was lapping it all up. I had him totally.
We reached the village at three in the afternoon and got off at the bridge over the canal, just before the bus terminus. My home was on the far side of the village. Had we got off at the terminus, we would’ve had to walk right through the village. When they saw a foreigner, the villagers would have stared at him and asked all sorts of questions. I was quite tired at the time and in no mood for small talk.
Standing there on the bridge, Dennis looked around. Then he asked me in his unsure Punjabi: "Is… this… … road… you… described... in… your… story… Hava (Wind)…?"
Yes, I told him. This is the very road on which the people of the caravan had been massacred. The few who escaped had come here for refuge. The road from the base of the bridge leads across to the village of Dhigane, which my protagonist Madan reached towards the end of the story.
He had read my latest novel, Gori, a few days ago. He asked: "In… Gori… did… Dev… Mitho… go… looking… for… pebbles…?" Dennis’ queries were like an antidote to my fatigue and I got into the mood for conversation once again.
We walked along the embankment by the cremation ground, where someone’s last rites were being performed. The pyre had been lit and flames licked the air. Some men stood around the burning corpse. An old bachelor must have died, I thought. We descended from the path and joined the mourners. Someone told me: "Boorha the rascal has passed away."
All right, I thought, many young men’s lives have been saved.
Age had not improved Boorha’s ways. In fact, he had started tutoring a new generation of young men in the village. When a dancer grows old, she opens a school; Boorha had opened a sort of school for scoundrels. Under his tutelage, a boy would drop out of school, another would turn against his father, and Boorha would feel a perverse sense of achievement. He had ruined many homes. Far from wishing anyone well, he did not even make a pretence of it.
The men threw some logs onto the pyre and talked among themselves.
"This is the way to die."
"No fever, no pain."
"He was never sick, not even for a day."
"A day is too long — he wasn’t sick for even five minutes."
"As though he’d done a lot of punn."
"Yes, he never suffered."
Dennis wanted to know what punn was. Then he asked whether the dead man had done a lot of punn, or good deeds. Was that why people were saying this? Briefly, in a low voice, I told him about Boorha’s character, and that he was a sinner of the first rank.
Boorha’s son Keharu saw me and walked over. As a condolence of sorts, I asked him, "Why, had Bhaiya fallen ill?"
Keharu was only too willing to tell us. Having repeated the tale so many times, he had it by rote. "No, he was not sick at all. In fact, he was perfectly all right. He didn’t even have a fever or a cold. He had had a hearty meal. He sat up late into the night with the boys. He was just fine when he went to bed. He closed the door and latched it. When I took him his pot of tea this morning, he did not answer when I called out. I pulled back the quilt to look at his face. His eyes were closed and his mouth shut. The eyes and mouth of a dead man are often open. But he seemed to be in a deep sleep. I put the pot of tea back on the stove to keep it warm. He was addicted to tea and liked it piping hot. Then I went about my chores. I even went down to the village to do a couple of errands. I returned and saw the pot was still on the stove. It was broad daylight. I called out again, but there was no reply. He would’ve replied if only he could speak; the voice had left his body. I uncovered his face and shook him by the arm. It was ice-cold. He had died in his sleep. That’s all." Keharu pouted his lips in an effort to weep, but the tears eluded him.
Across from where we stood, someone was recalling how Dharam Singh had died — such a God-fearing and religious man. He would eat only after his prayers. He was always the first to offer help if anyone was in trouble, or even in the slightest discomfort. But see how he died! He was bed-ridden for six months and had stinking bedsores. He could no longer attend to his own needs. All night, he cried out for death to come and claim him. But death takes its own time. He went through hell. Strange are the ways of God!
Everyone had something to say about Dharam Singh’s death. Then the discussion turned to the contrast between the two deaths — Dharam Singh’s and Boorha’s — one a pious man and the other a sinner. The God-fearing man died in pain while the sinner had a happy death. They were saying of Dharam Singh: "His good deeds were without number." About Boorha, they said: "As if he had done any good deeds at all!"
Keharu’s state was quite pathetic. His father’s painless passing had annoyed the villagers, who did not consider him worthy of such a death. Wrapping his shawl around him, he stood by the trunk of the peepul tree, as though to make a formal speech.
"Actually, his one good deed helped him. That’s why he didn’t suffer," Keharu said.
Everyone fell silent, trying to recall this good deed. Had it been done in secret? What was it that had made Boorha’s passing so easy?
"When the caravan passed this way during the riots," Keharu said, "Bapu had brought salvation to thirty suckling babies. That punn saved him."
p. 1 p. 2
Gurdev Singh Ropana is an acclaimed writer of short stories and novels in Punjabi. ‘Sheesha’ is one of his best known stories. He lives in Bombay and Ropana village, Punjab