|A day's guest 3|
The man took a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his sweat, tried to smile, produced a smile. "I was standing outside for a long time ó I didnít know the bell was out of order. The garage was empty, I thought the two of you must have gone out somewhere... your car?" He knew, but asked anyway.
"Itís gone for servicing," the woman said. She had always hated his small, useless conversation, whereas for the man they were straws that could be clutched to save oneself from drowning. At least for a while...
"Did you get my telegram? I had gone to Frankfurt, and I came here on the same ticket; I had to pay a few pounds more. I called you from there too, but the two of you were out somewhere..."
"When?" The woman looked at him, slightly curious. "We were both home."
"The phone rang, but no one picked it up. Itís possible the operator didnít understand my English and gave me a wrong number! But listen." He began to laugh. "A strange thing happened. I saw a woman at Heathrow, who from behind looked exactly like you. Thank God I didnít call out to her... outside India, all Indian women look the same..."
He was talking on. He was like a man who ties a blindfold over his eyes and walks on a rope stretched in the air; the woman was somewhere far below, in a dream, which he had known a long time ago ó but now he could not recall why he was sitting there in front of her.
He fell silent. He thought, for such a long time he had been hearing only his own voice, the woman in front of him was sitting absolutely quiet. She was looking at him, her eyes very cold, holding no hope.
"Whatís the matter?" the man asked, somewhat frightened.
"I told you not to; why canít you understand?"
"What? What did you tell me not to?"
"I donít want anything from you... why do you bring all these things to my house; whatís the use of these?"
At first he didnít understand. What things? Then his glance went to the floor... the purse from Shantiniketan, the album of postage stamps, the box of dalmoth ó they all seemed quite forlorn; as he sat in his chair, so they lay scattered over the floor. "Itís not very much," he said, embarrassed. "If I hadnít brought this, half my suitcase would have been empty."
"But I donít want anything from you... canít you understand this little thing?"
The womanís voice rose higher, quivering, filled with the pain of who knew how many fights, with the water of how many hells, which approached him as soon as the dam broke, advancing inch by inch. He took the handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his sweating face.
"Do you dislike my coming here for a little while?"
"Yes." Her face became taut, then she went slack with a strange despair. "I donít want to see you ó thatís all!"
Was that so easy? He looked at her like an obstinate boy who insists that he cannot understand anything even after he has understood the question. "Bukku!" he said softly. "Please!"
"Donít...," the woman said.
"What is it you want?"
"Leave me alone... I donít want anything more."
"I canít even come to see the child?"
"Not in this house. Can you meet her somewhere outside?"
"Outside!" Taken aback, the man raised his head. "Where outside?"
For a moment he forgot that the whole world lay spread outside, park, streets, hotel rooms ó his own world. Where would the child come, dragging along after him?
She was laughing on the phone. "No, I canít come today. Daddyís here, he just came... No, I donít know. I didnít ask..." What did she not know. Maybe her friend had asked, how many days will he stay? Perhaps the woman sitting in front of him also wanted to know that: how much time, how many hours, how many torments did she yet have to endure with him?
The last sunlight of the evening came in. The TV screen shone, but it was empty and only the womanís reflection sat in it, in the way the image of the newsreader is seen before the news begins, weak and hazy at first, then slowly growing bright... he was waiting with bated breath for her to say something, although he knew there was only a newsreel from years past which, every time they met, simply unrolled a tape of an old pain, which was connected to another life... how different objects and people are! Even years later, houses, books, rooms stay the same as you left them; but people? They begin to die the very day they part... they donít die, they begin to live another life, which slowly smothers the life that you spent together...
"I didnít come only for the child..." He began to stutter. "I came to see you too."
"See me?" The womanís face filled with laughter, contempt and astonishment, all at the same time. "You havenít lost the habit of lying."
"What would I get by lying to you now?"
"I donít know what youíd get ó whatever Iíve got, thatís what Iím enduring." She looked outside with a still, cold glance. "If Iíd known certain things about you earlier, I could have done something."
"What could you have done?" A cold shiver ran down the manís spine.
"Anything. I canít live alone like you, but now, at this age... now nobody even looks at me."
"Bukku...!" He took her hand.
"Donít say my name... all that is over."
She was crying; absolutely alone, with no connection to either past people or future hope. Tears ó which come not for any one reason, but when the stone is entirely removed from oneís heart ó flowing like a drain on some sloping life; again and again the woman brushed them away.
The child had been sitting quietly near the phone for some time now. She sat on the lowest step of the staircase and with dry eyes watched her crying mother. All her efforts had been fruitless, but there was no despair on her face. Each family has its bad dreams, which turn on a ceaseless wheel; she would not put her hand to it. At such a small age, she had learnt such a large truth, that there is a wonderful similarity between the human heart and the universe outside: it is futile to try to stop them before they complete their circuit.
Without looking at the man, she went to her mother; said something that was not for him. The woman made her sit near her, right up against her. The two of them sitting on the couch looked like sisters. They had forgotten him. The tide that had risen some time ago, the house had sunk in it, but now the water had ebbed and the man was where he should have been ó on the shore. This seemed to him like a boon from God; he was sitting among the two of them ó invisible! For years he had longed to sit invisible with the mother and daughter. Only God in his mercy is invisible ó that he knew. But the man who lives at the lowest level of a pit, no one sees him either. Mother and daughter had left him alone; this was not neglect of him. Turning their faces away from him, they had left him to his own devices ó exactly where he had left the house years ago.
The girl left her mother and came and sat near him.
"Will you come and see our garden?" she said.
"Now?" He looked at the girl in some astonishment. She seemed a little eager, impatient, as though she wanted to tell him something that was impossible to say inside the room.
"Come," the man said, standing, "but first take these things upstairs."
"Weíll gather them later."
"Later when?" the man asked, suspicious.
"Come now!" the girl said, more or less dragging him along.
"Tell him to put his things in the suitcase." The womanís voice made itself heard.
He felt as though someone had suddenly pushed him from behind. He started and turned back. "Why?"
"I have no need of them."
A flashing storm began to rise inside him. "I wonít take them. You can throw them out if you want."
"Out?" The womanís voice shook. "I can throw you out along with them." After her tears, her eyes shone; the moisture had frozen on her cheeks like dry glass, which comes from tears that have not been wiped but have dried in place.
"Wonít we go and see the garden?" The girl pulled at his hand ó and he began to walk with her. He wasnít seeing anything at all. The grass, the flower beds, the tree moved past like a silent film. Only his wifeís voice resounded like a ghostly commentary óOut, out!
"Why do you argue with Mummy?" the girl said.
"When did I argue?" He looked at the girl ó as though she too were his enemy.
The girlís voice had grown strangely insistent. She would say "you" in English, which in love meant "tum" and in displeasure meant "aap". This ambiguity of the English pronoun left the father-daughter relationship hanging in the air, sometimes very close, sometimes very distant ó which he could only estimate from gauging the girlís tone. A strange fear caught the man. He didnít want to lose both mother and child at the same time.
"Itís a lovely garden," he said, coaxing, "Do you have a gardener coming in?"
"No, no gardener," the girl said eagerly, "I water it in the evening, and Mummy cuts the grass on holidays... come here, let me show you something."
He walked behind her. The lawn was very small ó green, pale, velvety! Behind it was the garage, and hedges on both sides. In the middle stood a dense old willow. The girl almost disappeared behind the tree, then her voice could be heard, "Where are you?"
He went quietly, with soundless footsteps, behind the tree, and stood astonished. Between the willow and the fence stood a black wooden hutch, from whose door a rabbit peered out; another rabbit was in the girlís arms. She was caressing it as though it were a ball of wool, which could drop from the hand at any time and be lost in the bushes.
"Weíve just started keeping them... first there were two, now four."
"Where are the others?"
"Inside the hutch... theyíre still very small."
He wanted to touch the rabbit, but his hand went of its own volition to the childís head, and slowly he began to play with her short, brown hair. The girl stood quietly and the rabbit, wrinkling its nose, stared at her.
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