|A day's guest 2|
He began to eat. Toast, sausages, boiled peas out of a can. His hunger had flown, but the girl’s eyes were on him. She was looking at him, and was thinking something; sometimes she would put a piece of toast into her mouth and then drink some tea. Then she would look at him and smile, as though she were comforting him: everything’s all right, I’m responsible for you and as long as I’m here, there’s nothing to be afraid of.
It wasn’t fear. It might have been the effect of the tablet or the fatigue of the journey — he wanted to move away from the girl’s glance for a while. He wanted to remove himself. "I’ll be right back," he said. The girl looked at him suspiciously. "Are you going to the bathroom?" She came with him as far as the bathroom and when he shut the door, it still seemed to him that she was standing behind the door...
He put his face into the basin and turned the tap on. The water rushed down his face. He almost began to gasp, half-formed words began to emerge from the hollow of his chest, as though something collected inside were coming up, a vomit that comes straight out of the heart; the tablet that he’d taken a little while ago, its yellow fragments were floating in the marble basin. Then he turned off the tap and took out a handkerchief and wiped his face. A woman’s dirty clothes were hung on a peg in the bathroom —in a wide plastic bucket, underwear and brassieres were soaking in soapy water... the window was open and the back garden shone in the sunlight. From somewhere, from some other garden, the drowsy ghurr-ghurr of grass being cut came closer...
He shut the bathroom door quickly and went into the room. Silence lay throughout the house. He entered the kitchen but couldn’t see the girl. He returned to the drawing room, but that too was empty. He suspected that she was sitting with her mother in the upstairs room. A strange apprehension caught hold of him. As quiet as the house was, it seemed to be full of danger. He went to the corner where his suitcase stood; he opened it hurriedly. He set apart his conference notes and papers, and from underneath them he began to remove all the things that he had brought with him from Delhi — a Rajasthani lehanga from the emporium (for the girl), copper and brass trinkets which he had bought from Tibetan lama hippies on Janpath, a Kashmiri pashmina shawl (for the girl’s mother), red Gujarati slippers with gold brocade, which both girl and mother could wear, a handloom bedcover, an album of Indian stamps — and a very large illustrated book, Benares: The Eternal City. On the floor, gradually, a miniature India gathered, which he carried with him every time he came to Europe.
Suddenly, his hands were still. He stared at the heap of objects. Scattered on the floor of the room they seemed to be completely orphaned and pitiful. He felt a crazy desire to leave them in the room just the way they were and run. No one would know where he had gone. The girl would certainly be a little surprised, but for years she had been meeting him suddenly, like this, and parting from him for no reason, "You are a coming man and a going man," she used to say to him, sadly at first, and later with some laughter — not finding him in the room would not be a big shock for the girl. She would go up and say to her mother, "Now you can come down; he’s gone." Then the two of them would come down together, and they would be relieved that now there was no one in the house other than the two of them.
He started, as though caught red-handed. He looked at the girl with an embarrassed smile — she was standing at the threshold of the room and looking at the open suitcase as though it were a magic box, which had suddenly disgorged all these colourful objects, but there was no joy in her eyes; there was a kind of shame, as when children see an elder performing a trick whose secret they already know, and to hide their embarrassment they become slightly too enthusiastic.
"So many things?" She sat down in a chair in front of the man. "How did they let you bring all this? I heard the customs people bother you a lot nowadays."
"No, this time they didn’t do anything," the man said, gaining in eagerness, "maybe because I was coming from Frankfurt. They were suspicious of only one thing." He looked at the girl, smiling.
"What was that?" the girl asked, this time with true enthusiasm.
He took out a box of dalmoth from the bag, opened it, and set it on the table. The girl hesitantly picked up a few grains and sniffed at them. "What’s this?" She looked at the man with curiosity.
"They sniffed them exactly the same way." He began to laugh. "They were afraid that there might be charas or ganja in it."
"Hash?" The girl’s eyes opened wide. "Is there really hash in this?"
"Eat some and see."
The girl put some dalmoth into her mouth and began to chew, then, shocked, drew in her breath quickly.
"There must be chillies — spit it out!" the man said, slightly nervous.
But the girl swallowed it and looked at her father with brimming eyes.
"You’re crazy... you swallowed all of it." The man quickly gave her the glass of water she had brought for him.
"I like it." The girl drank some water quickly and wiped her eyes with her rolled-up shirtsleeves. Then, smiling, she looked at the man. "I love it." She would say some things just to please the man. They had very little time with each other, and to get close to him she would take shortcuts, whereas other children took months to bridge the distance.
"Did they taste it too?" the girl asked.
"No, where would they find so much courage? They just opened my suitcase, rifled through my papers, and when they heard that I was coming from a conference they said, ‘Mister, you may go’."
"What did they say?" The girl was laughing.
"They said, ‘Mister, you may go, like an Indian crow’." The man looked at her meaningfully. "What is that?"
The girl kept laughing — when she was very small and went to walk in the park with the man, then they used to play this crazy game. He would look at a tree and ask, Oh, dear, is there anything to see? And the girl would look all around and say, Yes, dear, there is a crow over the tree. The man would look at her astonished. What is that? And she would say triumphantly — Poem!
A poem! The shadow of receding childhood slipped across her gaining years — the air of the park, trees, laughter. Clutching her father’s finger, she suddenly came to a place she had left ages ago, a place that sometimes came to her in dreams at night.
"I brought some Indian coins for you... last time you asked me to."
"Show me, where are they?" the girl asked, with more longing than necessary.
The man picked up a red bag embroidered with stars, of the kind that hippies would buy for their passports. The girl snatched it from his hand and swung it in the air. The four-anna and eight-anna pieces chimed inside, and then she opened the mouth of the bag and scattered the coins on the table.
"Does everyone in India have coins like these?"
He laughed. "Or should they make different coins for everyone?" he said.
"But the poor people?" She looked at the man. "I saw them one night on TV..."
She forgot the coins and looked uncertainly at the objects scattered on the floor. Then for the first time it seemed to the man that the girl sitting in front of him was someone else. The frame of his recognition was the same as the one he had seen two years earlier, but the picture in it had changed. But really, she had not changed, she had simply gone somewhere else. Mothers and fathers who do not live with their children know nothing about the secret storeys that rise one above the other on the foundation of their absence; the girl could meet her father only by going to the basement of her childhood... but sometimes she would leave him and go to other rooms, about which the man knew nothing.
"Papa!" The girl looked at him. "Should I gather up all these things and put them away?"
"Why, what’s the hurry?"
"No, no hurry... but if Mama comes and sees these...!" A slight nervousness lay in her voice, as though she smelled some invisible threat in the air.
"What if she does come?" The man looked at the girl in some astonishment.
"Papa, speak softly...!" The girl looked towards the upstairs room. Upstairs, it was quiet; it was as though the home had one body, split in two, and one part lay desolate and motionless, and in the other the two of them sat. And then he had the illusion that the girl was performing a puppet play, tied with a string from above. As it was pulled, so she would move, but she could see neither the string nor the one who moved her.
He stood up. The girl looked at him apprehensively. "Where are you going?"
"She won’t come down?" he asked.
"She knows you’re here," the girl said, somewhat irritated.
"That’s why she doesn’t want to come?"
"No...," the girl said. "That’s why she could come down at any time." What kind of crazy man was he, that he couldn’t understand such a little matter. "You sit down, and I’ll gather up all these things."
She squatted on her heels on the floor and with great neatness. she began to pick up each object and set it in the corner. The velvet slippers, the pashmina shawl, the bedcover from the Gujarat Emporium. Her back was towards her father, but he could see her hands, thin and dark, exactly like her mother’s, just as indifferent and cold, which did not hold the things he had brought with any intimacy, only pushed them aside in a preoccupied manner. They were the hands of a child who had learnt only to touch the limited and safe affection of her mother, not the eager and painful madness of a man, which wells up out of the black cavern of a father’s sex.
Suddenly, the girl’s hands faltered. He thought someone was ringing the doorbell, but the next moment he remembered the phone, which was in an alcove under the staircase and was screaming loudly like a chained puppy. The girl left the things as they were and bounded towards the staircase, lifted the receiver, and for a moment nothing could be heard. Then she shouted: "Mama, phone for you!"
The child stood leaning on the banister, the receiver dangling from her hand. The upstairs door opened and the staircase shook. Someone was coming down, then a head bent over the girl’s face, and between the plaited hair coiled on the head and the receiver an entire face appeared.
"Who is it?" The woman pushed back the sagging coil of her hair and pulled the receiver out of the girl’s hand. The man rose from his chair... the girl looked at him. "Hello," the woman said. "Hello, hello." The woman’s voice rose higher, and then he knew that this was the voice of that woman who was his wife; he could recognise it years later even in a hubbub of a hundred voices... quivering slightly at high pitch, always hard, wounded, worried, the only thing of her body that could reach beyond the body and scratch and draw blood from a man’s soul... as he had risen, so he sat down.
The girl was smiling.
She was looking at the man’s face in the mirror below the coat-rack — and that face looked a little distorted, much as the woman’s voice in the mirror of age — inverted, crooked, as mysterious as a riddle! The three of them had, unknowing, been split into four — the girl, her mother, he, and his wife... when a house changes into a household, it expands on its own.
"Will you talk to Jenny?" the woman said to the girl, who seemed to have been waiting for this moment. She jumped up to the step above and took the phone from her mother. "Hello, Jenny, it’s me!"
She climbed down two steps; now the man could see all of her.
"Sit..." The man stood up from his chair. There was a helpless entreaty in his voice, as though he were afraid that she might see him and retrace her steps.
She stood undecided for a moment. Now turning back was meaningless, but standing this way in front of him made no sense either. She pulled up a stool and sat in front of the TV set.
"When did you come?" Her voice was so low that the man felt it had been some other woman talking on the telephone.
"It’s been a while... I didn’t even know you were in the room upstairs!"
The woman looked at him in silence.
Nirmal Verma is a pioneer of the New Story movement in Hindi.
A winner of the Jnanpith, India's highest literary honour, he lives in Delhi