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Geetanjali Shree

Is it a rumour or is it for real? But these days, it does not take long for a rumour to turn into reality. A rumour began — and everyone thought it was just a rumour — that the tomb of a music maestro dead these five centuries would not be spared. And it was not. The rumour ceased to be a rumour. Guruji died after five hundred years. After all, real death is the death of the soul.

Who will die when this house is burnt down? How long will a soulless body haunt it?

I was very stiff, like a corpse growing cold.

The shadow is in the study. It moves softly, very softly. But I am wearing a hearing aid and every sound is amplified. I hear the sound of a drawer opening and closing. I hear the rustle of paper. I hear him breathing.

The shadow moves and its toes can be seen pushing the bedroom door just a little. And a line of light borders the study. It is my fault. I had switched on the bedside lamp. I switch it off only when I go to sleep.

Now I can see bits and pieces of him in the room — sometimes the hand moves to the almirah, sometimes his chin is turned toward the top shelf. It is as though human body parts are moving about in the house and everything else is in the dark.

Along with the bits and pieces of the body, things too are moving around in the darkness of the house. A green duffel bag slips out from under the bed. The bag moves to the study and, stumbling here and there, fills itself with odds and ends. Then fingers touch toilet articles lying in the bathroom and objects start moving out. The big cupboard pushes out hangers and the hangers hand over the clothes to darkness. The locker keys come out, jingling softly, from under the mattress and things kept in the hidden safe tumble out into a hand.

Later, I will think to myself that while I was sitting frozen outside, ordinary, everyday, household objects took on a life of their own — like in fairy tales — and moving out of their little corners, touched bits and pieces of a body, and slipped into a duffel bag where past met with future.

Even the vegetables that Kaluva had picked from the garden in the backyard and put on the kitchen table suddenly come alive. And as is the nature of vegetables, they start spreading the fragrance of the soil they were nurtured in. It is as though they are greeting the one whom they were waiting for. Sitting in the verandah, the separate smells of tomatoes, lemons and gourd reach me, and I know I will smell them again in my memory.

I am sinking in the bright light. Helpless in face of the fire that comes and burns down homes built over many years. Should I just sink in the light? Should I move? It is difficult to make a choice. How do I know when to be still and when to move? These questions will return when I describe my state of mind later.

The shadow is retreating. It is retracing the path it took to enter the house — from the branch inside to the branch outside, from the ground inside to the ground outside.

Oh! My chair moves of its own volition. Oh! He is going away. He will go away. The chair gives me a push. I wake up. I quickly climb down the verandah stairs and go and stand by the simul tree. As though he too is participating in the game, he starts walking with firm footsteps outside. And I keep step inside. Walking along the wall.

I will think about this too one day. He is outside. I am inside. On either side of the wall. On either side of the darkness.

Both of us reach the gate. But here the momentum of the game changes. I stop and he moves on.

He walks down the road and even the green duffel bag becomes part of the shadow. I watch him going and he knows that I am watching him. He walks on along the straight road that stretches ahead.

No, I don’t go out on the road. If I didn’t come out so long, there is little chance that I will venture out now. If I did not catch him all this while, I will not do it now, you could say. You could even say — just as well, for who knows who is carrying a weapon these days.

He is taking the turn at the bend of the road, and I turn for home. Suddenly, a door bangs open in one of the houses. We are startled. Stricken by fear, we turn around, he outside and I inside. The pupils in our eyes move like the hands of a clock from one moment to another.

In this single moment, we are piercing the darkness and looking upon each other, unblinking. The moment freezes itself for all time.

Such moments are never lost. Such moments are never spoken of. Such moments gather everything. Such moments erase everything. Such moments are dissected by social scientists, writers, theologians and psychologists. They dissect them for centuries but reach no conclusion.

Such moments strip us naked, so obscenely naked that we are left with nothing.

I lower my head and a repressed anger rises in me against this Muslim friend who has come as a shadow to his own house where I have been for a week providing cover so that he can gather his lifetime’s earnings in a duffel bag and get lost. For rumour has it that this house will be burnt down along with him. To burn one of us amounts to burning the other too. Even the very rumour has scorched us. The road ahead is empty and behind it are the red simul flowers, perched in rows, their wings spread out, as though waiting to fly away before they are charred. Waiting, who knows, in despair or in hope.

Translated from the Hindi by Nirupama Dutt with TLM

NOTE: Holi is the Indian festival of colours, which is celebrated in the month of March. On the eve of this festival there is the symbolic burning of an evil mythical character, Holika. Hori are songs sung at festival time.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3

Geetanjali Shree is prominent among the younger generation of
fiction writers in Hindi. She lives in Delhi