Welome. Did you take a tour of my garden? The roses haven’t bloomed yet, it’s barely May. I have seven shades of roses: two of yellow, two of pink, two of red, and one white, of course. Each of them grows to the size of my fist. The rose is my favourite flower. Do you know why? Because though it was imported, it’s ours now. From Iran it spread across the world: the Mughals brought it to India. The original name, gulaab, is half Persian, half Sanskrit. You could call it a symbol of international union. I believe in internationalism.
Oh no, you’re not disturbing me at all, I have nothing to do—take a seat, stay as long as you like. People often come to see this house, this garden of mine, it’s a tourist attraction in Ootacamund now. Did you see the Japanese garden on that side? There’s a winding lake, the cherry trees are budding, a few spells of rain and the blossoms will appear. Lots of people take a walk there at sunset. I don’t stop anyone, how much can I take in alone with these two eyes of mine anyway? Beauty is for mass enjoyment, isn’t it? And I still crave the appreciation of other people. But no matter what people say, there’s nothing extraordinary about it, there are thousands of gardens like this in the world. I haven’t been able to add an eighth colour to the seven, have I? You know, I had this fancy once—I wanted to create a rose of a different colour. Blue or purple or black—why not black, after all? I had lots of books sent to me from Japan, from Holland. I couldn’t sleep for nights in excitement; trembling, as though I was about to get a key to a hidden chamber. Why are there no black flowers in the world? Flowers, fruits, grain—whatever springs from the earth is limited in colour to the seven shades of the rainbow, but why? White, which is a mixture of all colours, is still available as a colour for flowers, but black, where the colours have disappeared—why don’t we see black flowers? Don’t they exist, or is it just that we haven’t found them yet? Wouldn’t the first person to make a black rose bloom be considered greater than even God? What if it were me? Don’t be afraid, I haven’t gone mad, even while I dreamt of a blue rose I knew it wasn’t to be. You could call it a game with myself, a way to pass the time, something interesting to do, that’s all.
Excuse me for speaking in English with you. Yes, of course I’m Bengali. From Dacca, in fact. But I’ve been living outside Bengal for a long time, I haven’t used the language in ages. I don’t read Bengali books either. If I lapse into English now and then, assume it’s for convenience, out of habit. As a matter of fact, I don’t talk much these days. Don’t have to, either, except once a week with my steward. I live by myself, don’t go anywhere; I’m a widower, both my sons live abroad.
Pardon me? Oh, yes, the name of my house. Bonheur. It’s a French word, meaning joy, happiness. The name was chosen by Nellie—Nalini, my wife. We used to discuss the location of our final residence. At first we had decided to continue living in Malabar Hill, close to Nellie’s father’s house. He was the one who gave Nellie the house. At one point we were inclined towards the Riviera, but on a vacation to Ootacamund, Nellie fell in love with this place. The designs for the garden, the plans for the house— everything was hers. The house was built, it was named Bonheur. But within two years she wasted away to death, struck by a mysterious disease. She left me memories, her unlimited wealth, and her dowry. Her father was Gujarati, her mother, Kashmiri—she was what people call gorgeous. Her goodness was incomparable too. I was very fortunate to have a wife like her. Would you care for some tea? Nilgiri, or Darjeeling?
# # #
Tell me about Calcutta, about Bengal. They’re very unhappy, very troubled there, aren’t they? I read about it in the papers sometimes. But then, where do you find people living happily in India? Nobody knows just what they want, all they do is stir up trouble on any pretext: internal conflicts, hunger strikes at the drop of a hat, trains being burnt, riots, killing. On top of that, throw out English, bring back the Middle Ages, build a monolithic Hindi kingdom. What do you think? Will India be fragmented into many bits all over again? And then will some other superpower occupy our country again? And the British, whom we got rid of with so much fanfare, must be laughing themselves silly on the other side of the ocean. We’re now using the same weapons we wielded against them, to attack and wound one another— one another, meaning ourselves. It’s a joke, isn’t it?
You know, I too had believed that all it would take to turn India into a heaven on earth was to drive out the British. I was reading for my MA in Dacca at the time. Oh, you too, really? When was that? But I was there at the same time! Do you know Bakshibazaar? The orphanage? What! I lived near the orphanage too. Very ordinary middle-class Bengali-Hindu family—born and brought up in it, but there are many things I hate about them: far too constricted, too poor, too claustrophobic. It isn’t just economic poverty, their minds are like cesspools. When I read English literature, history, I wonder whether these extraordinary feats were really achieved by the same people who were nothing but plunderers in our country. Was it because they were a formidable nation, or because of some fatal flaw in ourselves? You know, I wanted to be ‘like them’— independent, reckless, powerful. I wanted to free myself from the shackles of our family-bound lives, where even joys and sorrows are measured, where not even hope can extend very far. And I even found a way out—when I met Mitu Bardhan, when I became acquainted with Arthur Jones. Here’s your tea.
Did you ever run into Arthur Jones? No? Many people in Dacca knew him. The fellow was a fresh ICS officer. Spoke Bengali, mingled with Bengalis, took part in debates at the university, even visited locals at their homes. A music lover. I met him at Mitu Bardhan’s house. Have you heard of her? That’s remarkable, that you still possess Amita Bardhan’s records. Very well, let me tell you something, I’ve been all over the world, clinging to all these old memories means nothing at all. Just like gout, just like leprosy, just like paralysis, memory is also an illness; it debilitates. Take India—we are still basking in the glory of the Upanishads, of Kalidasa, of Tansen. But after that? Aren’t all our achievements thanks to the British?
# # #
Do excuse me for not joining you with a cup of tea, I’m having gin. A little for you . . .? All right, to each his own, can’t argue with that. It’s the same with women— pardon me, I meant wives. Oh, the prohibition—alcohol isn’t a blue rose, after all, it’s not beyond reach when you want it. And if breaking the law is illegal, following it is illegal too. That is my opinion as a legal expert. We picketed schools and colleges once upon a time, set postoffices on fire, now we block trains whenever we like: each of these amounts to interfering with people’s independence, depriving them of their rights. Alcohol is a minor issue in comparison, minor and harmless—peaceful, private, personal—no one is being harmed, no one else cares. You’re on your way to take your BA exams, I don’t let you go; you’re taking a train to see a dying relative for the last time, I gather a mob and block the train; whereas here, without coming between you and your wishes or your movement, I get a little pleasure out of having a drink in my own home . . . Can there be any doubt about which of these is illegal and which isn’t? Whether it’s alcohol or acrostics or kissing in films—all these cases will eventually be thrown out by the high court. Pardon me? Oh, I was in a government job. Seasoned criminal: an ICS from the British era. Ranajit Dutta, ICS, Barrister-at-Law. Currently retired, settled here . . . Well then . . . Cheers! Is your tea all right?
I had never met a real live Englishman before Arthur Jones. Of course, I’d never seen a dead Englishman either—although they were dying left, right and centre from terrorists’ bullets. To me, Englishmen were people I’d read about in books, seen in films. And, sometimes, figures I had seen dimly in Calcutta. The Chowringhee- Park Street area, a mere slice of an enormous metropolis, an illuminated island replete with pleasures, indulgences, wealth; beyond our reach. Tall, hearty men with flaming red necks, dolled-up women on their arm: unfamiliar, distant, majestic. Like different creatures, not human beings but something else, as though they didn’t breathe the same air as the rest of us. This on the one hand, and on the other, the books I read which said just the opposite. I was young, unable to reconcile the two. In my head I had created an incredibly fine and talented England, whose flag was not the Union Jack but Shakespeare. Whose ships didn’t take away tea, jute, cotton and gold from India, but delivered Shelley’s poetry and Dickens’s novels to every port. Shelley was a vegetarian, Keats was only five feet tall, but how glorious they both were to look at, and how much pain their poetry held. They felt so very much a part of my life, was it even possible that they were Englishmen too? The same nationality as those people who strutted around on Chowringhee as though even the stars in their sky bent to their wills? Whose Firpo’s restaurant didn’t let in anyone wearing a dhoti? The mere sight of whom in the tea gardens of Assam meant that the babus (perhaps my own uncles) had to get off their cycles? I felt the urge to explain to those bovine idiots, the tea and jute bosses that I knew their country far better than they did, since I had occasional conversations with Shelley and Keats . . . Conversations? Well, maybe not, there are no exchanges, it’s all oneway. An idea, an ideal, in other words, a toy I’ve made for myself. Shelley and Keats, perhaps as dim, as unreal, as the John Bulls on Chowringhee. But it was only after meeting Arthur Jones that I realized that Englishmen are human beings too, just like us.
# # #
I see you find this amusing. When were you born? What a coincidence, that’s my year of birth too. Don’t you remember what it was like back then? Have you forgotten it all? Let me tell you, when I was growing up, the British lion hadn’t become toothless yet. And also take into account the atmosphere at home, everyone a government servant, low or middle-level—my father, his brothers, other members of the family—almost everyone. That was their Holy Grail, the objective, beginning and outcome of their lives: a government job. No retrenchment, annual increments, a pension after retirement, and what a pleasure to work under the British! They carefully avoided any other kind of job or business or profession that had the slightest degree of uncertainty attached to it, that needed a little extra intelligence or initiative—loathsome! It makes my stomach turn. I’ve seen many of the women in my family get married; I’ve been present at the ‘display of the prospective bride’ on several occasions. Caste, sect, genealogy and horoscope; so much in cash and so much in gold; pedigrees and mongrels; this village or that; are the Ghoshes of Varakar higher or lower in standing than the Mitras . . . I had no choice but to listen to all this as a child. Even my elder sister, with an IA degree, a talented student of Eden College, had to appear in near-bridal finery before a group of unknown men and women, my mother laid out plate after plate after plate heaped with food for them, my father behaved in the most obsequious manner possible. Execrable!
I had a personal problem too. Ever since I had passed my BA exams, everyone kept telling me ‘take the ICS, take the ICS’. Since scoring high marks in exams was one of my shortcomings, there was nothing else my family could talk of. Imagine, some of them were scribes, some postmasters, some clerks; apparently, the mere thought that one of their own could become the administrator for an entire district—that he might even become a high court judge some day—gave them ‘the strength of an elephant’, made them feel like they could ‘conquer mountains and rivers and seas.’ As though the job were a stairway to heaven, where the last rung wasn’t even visible to them. I put on an all-right-since-everybodyinsists air, although I knew perfectly well that the two things I would never go in for were a government job and an arranged marriage. What happened, then? Fate, I tell you, fate; man proposes, someone somewhere disposes.
When did you watch a film for the first time? What a pity you don’t remember, I do. I was very young then, the war with the Germans was on, the First World War. There was a free show at Coronation Park. First some random images of cannons, tanks and warships, Marshal Fosse, Lord Kitchener’s moustache . . . and then, suddenly, those horrifying scenes. Children being tossed in the air and impaled on bayonets, young girls in chains being whipped—all the Germans’ doings, of course. I trembled in fear, but still couldn’t think of Germans as ogres, because I’d seen at home that the grown-ups couldn’t stop smiling whenever there was talk of the Germans. They were ready to throw parties when the Emden kept sinking British warships. ‘They’ll go to hell now.’ ‘The British won’t know what hit them.’ ‘No more fun and games, my friend.’ But they said all this in whispers, leaning back on their bolsters on their bedsteads. But out in the streets? In broad daylight, in the open, if they so much as caught a glimpse, even from a distance, of an Englishman or an equivalent Indian, or a person of fair skin or in a high government post, their spines bent, their faces paled, they forgot where they were going and dashed into the nearest lane. When the war raged, when every family cursed the British, even then I saw in many houses photographs of Government House in Delhi, of King George V of England, sceptre in hand, surrounded by his wife and a gaggle of children. My grandmother’s prayer-room had a picture of Queen Victoria too. You’re laughing? I’m not making it up, believe me. Among the images of Radha and Krishna entwined with an Om, of Shiva with a snake round his neck, of Ramakrishna Paramahansa, of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, of Lakshmi, was a photograph in ‘three-colour half-tone’ of that fat, dead woman who reigned over a distant cold island, who had been referred to by a Frenchman as ‘the old hag with the yellow teeth’. In my grandmother’s opinion, the days of the empress were the golden age, the ideal world. During the Non-Cooperation Movement I had managed to get rid of the photo of Government House in Delhi, but my grandmother clung to the empress affectionately—‘Oh, please don’t take her away, she is a goddess come to earth!’ However, to satisfy both public opinion and me, she added a photograph of Gandhi next to that of Victoria. She was happy if her pantheon gained more gods, but she was unwilling to lose a single one.
# # #
Let me tell you an amusing story. I saluted the governor once. It was in Dacca, on Nababpur Road. I was in primary school. The governor was visiting Dacca. After getting off the steamer at Sadarghat, he was on his way to Government House in Ramna; I stood among the crowd of people gathered by the road. Escorted by a convoy of thick-whiskered Pathan soldiers on horseback and white sergeants on motorcycles, an enormous black car approached. A ruddy face in profile, sharp nose, puffy cheeks, a grey moustache—a face no different from hundreds of other nondescript faces—flashed past me. Amidst that crowd, under that sun, a momentary glimpse of that profile blinded me as it were. As the car passed, I suddenly stood to attention and saluted. Why did I? No one else did, no one had told me to; it came to me spontaneously. Back home, I told my parents jubilantly what I had done, they merely laughed.
Pardon me? Yes, I know what you mean when you say it was just childishness; it didn’t prove anything, wasn’t even worth considering. But you know, when I started frequenting Mitu Bardhan’s house—where I met one or two other significant people too—when I started thinking about things afresh, started seeing things differently from the way I had earlier, this insignificant event came back to me. At times I felt our lives were nothing but one humiliation after another. We swallowed humiliation with our food, sipped humiliation with our drinks. Had I saluted the governor because I was an innocent child? Or was I particularly evil, a sinner, which made such base behaviour possible? Or did we all—young and old, educated and uneducated—offer salutes forever, in our heads if not with our hands? Why else was Kim one of the textbooks in our university curriculum—written by Kipling, to whom Bengalis were ‘bunderlog’ and all that you could find between Peshawar and Rangoon were animals, their keepers and British Tommies. Many such thoughts assailed me at the time—I felt pain, for more than one reason I felt pain. At times I even felt that those who assassinated Englishmen were avenging this humiliation. A fitting revenge. You can’t have forgotten all the things happening in the country at the time. First in Chittagong, then in Dacca itself: at Mitford Hospital, then in the heart of Calcutta, at Writers’ Building. Tell me, for those people whose hearts can only flutter, can do nothing but flutter, isn’t it natural for war-drums to start beating in their breasts when they see one of those formidable Englishmen slump to the ground—not in battle with the Germans, but from a bullet fired by a mere Bengali?
The river Dhonnya was gurgling along. Some of the ground alongside was clear, covered in grass and small shrubs; beyond them lay the forest. Flowers bloomed. Flowers wilted. But at night? Nights were very dangerous. People were not safe during the day either. A variety of animals lay in wait. Just the other day a wolf had nabbed the mud-spattered baby named Shukko. But still they weren’t afraid. The threats were always there. Those who were taken away in the jaws of animals, or by the current, or by rain or fire, became silent and invisible. It was right to accept this. The forest was a little less dense at this spot; the light flashed on the currents, and the scent of water was discernible from a distance. Beasts, birds and humans all came here from wherever they lived to drink water. Their feet raised dust. The grass and shrubs were flattened; water dripping from their hands and feet and mouths on the way back soaked the earth. Tiny flowers sprung up among the blades of grass overnight, like stars. No one gave them any consideration – they were crushed underfoot again. This sprouting and being flattened went on constantly, unceasingly. Amidst all this the Dhonnya gurgled along. It was unmoved.
Ranka…a, Ranka…a – the cry came suddenly, breaking through the barrier of the forest. Ranka…a! The caller had cupped her hands around her mouth. Her voice was as powerful as a horn’s. Matangi. Matangi was calling. The cry held an urgency, perhaps anger too? There would well have been anger. A swamp of disobedience always lay between Matangi and Ranka, where rage could burst to life like the light of a will of the wisp. But why the anger? Was there anxiety too? They knew very indistinctly what anxiety was. When Shukko could not be found, it occurred to Matangi after three suns and three moons – where’s Shukko? I haven’t seen Shukko anywhere. Who’s giving him his milk?
Arjya had said very calmly – A wolf has taken Shukko away.
– What? You saw? And you didn’t do anything?
– I was guarding the field of grains. I had gone to the river for a drink of water. A herd of deer was grazing in the distance. I couldn’t even catch my breath. The deer are so cunning. He was playing in the dust. A wolf picked him up by the scruff of his neck. He didn’t get a chance to scream. His neck snapped instantly.
– One human less – Matangi had sighed angrily – all these grains fall to earth and then spring up again, they grow so quickly, the lovely white milk gathers in their golden tips. Don’t we need more humans to take care of these grains, to guard them, to observe their ways, to sow seeds, to harvest the tips, to clean and store them? We need many, ma…any people. Even the children can do so much; we need lots and lots more humans. And yet a wolf takes away a simple little human and you, Arjya, are telling me… three moons later. Shame! Matangi roared… and then a wordless murmuring sound emerged from her lips. ‘Matangi’s weeping, Matangi’s weeping,’ rose a cry. The small children nearby leapt on her at once. One of them tried to clamber up her knees into her arms, another one lowered its head on her shoulder, some were rubbing their lips on her hands and feet, a few had jumped on her huge, firm, mountainous breasts, sucking her nipples. This was how they wanted to calm Matangi down. She looked like a lioness surrounded by her cubs. ‘Go to Arjya,’ Matangi had told them hoarsely. ‘Go to Adri, Ranka. Adri will give you milk.’
Ranka was experiencing an unknown sensation. Her body was smarting, her heart was rebelling. An ache in her belly, an emptiness in her breast. She had screamed – I shan’t go to Adri. Nor to Arjya, I want Shukko, I’m going to Chhando. The obliteration of Shukko, Matangi weeping for the first time, and all the strange changes within her had overwhelmed her, making her unintelligible. Chhando had held her close – I’ll give you a Shukko, Ranka, I’ll bring milk to your nipples, Ranka.
They had gone off fearlessly into the dense forest. They had not been afraid of wolves or foxes or bears. They had watched the lovemaking of deer with great pleasure, the copulation of doves too. And Chhando had wrapped his arms around her from the back in the same way. Since then, Ranka didn’t go anywhere near Matangi. The distance between them kept widening – on both sides. Chhando and she always moved about in a pair. No one disturbed then. Only Sham said sometimes with a smile – when you no longer like Chhando come to me. I’ll give you a Shukko too, milk too.
Matangi was calling. Her cry wafted in, bouncing off the wall of green. Their leader, the gargantuan, large-eyed, unique Matangi – so adept with weapons – was calling. Ranka ran in the direction of the call. As swiftly as a deer. Leaping over bushes, sidestepping the rabbits and monkeys and the civets, she sprang along. For Matangi was calling. After a long time. Calling Ranka.
She did not know how far she had run. Abruptly, she stopped. Where the clearing should have begun stood a wall of humans. Behind them the joy in the field of grains was luminescent with the light falling on it. But all this was hidden behind Sham, Adri, Arjya, Alambush, Gridhna, Arjama, Ratri, Samba, Kutil, Haban, Sarva, Jagat – all the men and women from their area. Their faces were anxious and stiff; they had bows and arrows on their shoulders, sticks and spears in their hands.
Haltingly Alambush said – we will probably have to retreat far, far behind this field of grains. Do you agree, Shingha?
– No – roared Matangi.
Shingha had roared – what a roar it was!
– Ranka! Did you see any strangers by the river? They’ve wandered in from the distant land on the other side. You’re there all the time – said Matangi in a worried but tender tone.
– Yes, just like us, but a little different. You can tell they’re foreigners. From another clan.
Adri said – imagine trusting Ranka! She floats along with the current of the Dhonnya, looking for flowers and fish and moss. She stands on the bank of the river like a crane, unblinking. She sits by herself. She sees nothing, hears nothing. Ranka is absent-minded.
And at once Ranka remembered. Nimesh, his name was Nimesh. His face had floated up like a bubble where she had been swimming, catching tiny fish amongst the marine plants and then releasing them back into the water. Small of build. His hair flowing down to his waist, a sheepskin loincloth around his waist.
– Who are you? – She had asked in surprise, perhaps with some fear.
– I… um… wh… who are you?
– You tell me first who you are, I asked first.
– Nimesh… I am Nimesh.
– I am Ranka.
– Remember my name, Ranka, I am Nimesh. Will you remember? – The man slid off just like a fish to the opposite bank as he spoke. He lifted his head briefly, his long hair plastered to his scalp, dripping water profusely. He said – but don’t tell anyone about this meeting of ours, Ranka.
Raising his head out of the water once again, he said, I’m your water-friend. We’ll meet again in the water. Secretly.
This was from seven moons ago, or even longer. Ranka was indeed forgetful. She had forgotten. Just as she had forgotten Chhando, Sham, Ari, Sudan, and Ram. None of them had had her company very long. She liked many men. But how strange! The attraction of the morning vanished in the afternoon, today’s longing vanished tomorrow. What could she do? Everyone knew that this was how she was. At that moment she felt a violent desire for Nimesh in her belly, in her nether parts. In her breasts. Falling on the earth, she screamed in sexual pleasure.
Annoyed, Matangi said – this one’s good for nothing, take her into the deep, one of you. Else she’ll be driven mad.
No one paid attention to Ranka anymore. Everyone was looking at Shingha. At Matangi. Anxiety was writ large on their faces.
Shingha said – it’s just that I’m sure they’ve come to know about our grains. We’re the only ones here to consume grain and store water in earthen pitchers; there’s no one like us. The barbarians don’t know anything. Flowers grow from the earth, the grass grows too. Still they don’t understand. But how did they find out? The Dhonnya is our frontier, it protects us. From across the Dhonnya… didn’t anyone notice?
Matangi said emphatically – why, just the same way that we came to know. Don’t you remember the dogs and mongooses running in from the direction of the river? Their noses to the wind, the clicking of the mongooses could be heard clearly amidst the barking of the dogs. Their fur was prickling. Don’t you suppose they don’t have dogs or mongooses too? And besides, the grain? Its fragrance? The wind? Don’t you think the wind blowing in their direction would have carried the scent of grain? There’s nothing more treacherous than the wind.
Shingha said – we’ve lived through so many suns and moons, Arjama. We’ve battled with barbarians, we’ve battled with bandits. They don’t fight openly. In the middle of nowhere you’ll suddenly discover an arrow embedded in your chest or your arm. That’s it. But they never touch the grain. There’s no fruit they don’t eat, they know the value of different roots. When they run out of animals to hunt and fruits, they move elsewhere. Till the land, sow the seeds, water them, harvest the crop, clean and store – they don’t care to do all this. These people must be from areas we don’t know of.
The same day, when the moon had just begun to climb up the wall of the sky, while the water of the Dhonnya glittered in the dark, the forest was filled with the cries of monkeys and jackals. A completely unknown and alien neighing, accompanied by staccato hoof beats – louder than deer – shook the area. Shingha, Matangi and their people ran towards the river in silence, their bows and arrows and spears raised. Matangi and Shingha were in the vanguard, the rest fanning out in a half-moon configuration behind them. A group of warriors appeared on the opposite bank with clacking sounds. The animals raised their heads to the sky, neighing loudly, making the heart quake.
One of them shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth – step aside, lay down your weapons, we have horses, we can cross the river on them. We won’t have to swim across. Obey us.
Shingha roared like a lion. Matangi echoed his cry, shaking the forest. A hundred arrows and spears flew through the air. Screams, agonised groans, crying, followed by arrows and spears from across the river. Matangi’s group ducked. The enemies’ weapons flew overhead. Jumping back to their feet in an instant, Matangi’s people fired their arrows again. And through this web of arrows the enemy forces began to storm across the river with big leaps, plunging their spears into bodies and severing heads with their swords. The sharp, mighty blows from the feet of the animals alone killed and maimed many in Matangi’s group.
– Tie them up with ropes – An unfamiliar voice. Heavy. Loud, like a clap of thunder.
An arrow had pierced Ranka’s right arm. She was slumped beneath the peepul tree in agony. She was not as tolerant of pain as the others in Matangi’s group. Her threshold was lower – she was rather delicate. Her complexion was the colour of a drop of blood mixed with milk fresh from a cow. Her blue eyeballs sat in the centre of oval eyes. Matangi would hesitate to assign arduous work to her. When she smeared herself with mud, bathed in the river, emerged from the water, dried her garment of bark, used the sap of trees to affix flowers to it and then put her bark garment on, Matangi would glance at her with a mixture of affection and contempt. She would say – this one isn’t ready. Ranka’s learning nothing. If someone takes this daughter of Matangi’s away against her will, there’s nothing she can do. This is what lies in store for distracted young women. But Matangi will give chase – even give up her life to save her daughter from the abductor. Even though this will harm everyone… Shingha, Sham, Adri, Arjya… for no one here is as brave, as intelligent, as Matangi. When Matangi needs advice, the only person she consults is Shingha. But that’s only for advice. Ranka had better remember this.
The sun was up. The earth was awash in a mild orange glow. Ranka opened her eyes in agony. The blackness had not left her eyes yet. She could sense the colour of the sun, but she could not see it clearly. By her arm, a man with a face covered in hair and a beard was pulling the arrow out. Her eyes were streaming with tears at the pain. A grated salve was applied to her arm, and then it was bandaged with thin leaves. Ranka’s sight returned slowly. – I am Nimesh, do you recognise me, Ranka?
– Nimesh! Nimesh! Nimesh!
Her questions went from searching to more searching. From weak to normal to strong. – How did you get here? Do you know that people from the other clan have fought with us? They have finished us.
– Yes. – Nimesh’s smile seemed to confirm the information she had provided.
– Do you know they have taken the help of an alien, hateful creature…
– Not hateful at all, but a favourite of ours. Horses, Ranka. They are called horses. As strong as they are swift and beautiful. We are the horse-riders.
– We? You too…
– Yes, I, too…
– Then you are a spy? You had sneaked in to survey our homes?
– I must do what I can to ensure food and shelter for my clan.
Nimesh picked the injured Ranka up in his arms. He walked carefully so that her injuries were not aggravated. Corpses were scattered in the clearing between the Dhonnya and the fields of grain; some of the injured were tied firmly with vines to trees. All of them were unconscious, their heads lolling. Ranka spotted Adri, dead. Shingha’s head was rolling on the ground. Sham was lying on his stomach, senseless. The horses wandered about, their riders on their back. Nimesh bore her through the battlefield. Suddenly he stopped. And shouted – friends, we have discovered this wonderful form of vegetation on the bank of the Dhonnya river. They spring up through the earth, they provide us food, strength, vigour. The prisoners will teach us how they grow, how to nurture them. I am giving these crops growing by the Dhonnya river a name, dhaannyo. We have won dhaannyo. And I have won this woman. I have not found anyone so alluring in our own clan. This is my woman. Remember this from now on, she will live in “my” cave, bear “my” children… – He kept talking, kept talking, dipped his finger in his own and in Ranka’s wounds and smeared the blood on her forehead. – here is my mark. – Ranka listened in surprise. She could not understand him clearly and at that moment she received a severe shock. Matangi lay beneath a gigantic tree, covered in blood. Her enormous eyes were pointed at the sky, but they were sightless, her breasts pointed upwards, her garment of bark was in tatters, lying bunched up nearby. Screaming ‘Matangi… Matangi… Matangi…’ Ranka leapt out of Nimesh’s arms, running up to her before anyone could react. She flung herself on the inert body. Matangi’s frame trembled, and, like a soft, very soft, breath, she whispered – Ranka…a… , the cry disappearing in the sky.
– Matangi, Matangi… don’t go, Matangi… wake up… Matangi… Ma…a…a…
And then we proceed to wander around the city in search of shelter. We drift through the morbid yellow afternoon. Before our eyes, dusk descends like the trilling of a fire-engine bell and night falls like flames being extinguished by jets of water, a night as conspicuous as the whirling black skirts of desert gypsies. As for us, we are still spinning on our feet. We, that is to say, Roo and I. I, Ishwari, and Roo, who is my soul, stall for a moment in mid-air on our downward plummet. And when it is eleven-thirty (not midnight, for midnight is the hour of extreme longing for injured birds), a hallucinogenic silence surfaces on the city’s streets from the netherworld. Roo digs his nails into my thigh fearfully as I climb without hesitation into the taxi parked in the darkness beneath a tree, and ask the driver, ‘Will you take us?’ The young man, his hair like a bunch of black grapes, nods: he will take us. The taxi begins to move, and with our desperate attempts to seek shelter for the night, a novel begins. A malevolent, repressive, unpalatable novel. It begins—to answer the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ And by the time it ends, a virtual human being with transformed proclivities will have to admit that…
‘Life… is constantly being a murderer!’
Roo has asked me several times, where shall we go now? I haven’t answered. I have decided to look at him with impenetrable eyes if he asks again. That will be enough to shut him up. The next moment he asks me again, gazing at me with his big eyes, and I am unable to be as curt as I had planned. Instead, I draw him closer. My famished love showers blessings on him and my feelings are reflected on my face. I can see my expression in a non-existent mirror. A mirror that is imperative in this predatory novel as feral as an owl with beak and talons. A mirror that reflects Ishwari back at me all the time, an Ishwari continuously slipping off her point of equilibrium. To make room for a narrative combining me, Ishwari, this novel and Roo, the mirror lets me hear Ishwari answer Roo as she winds up the car window. ‘We’ll get there, we’ll find a place,’ Ishwari is saying. ‘We’ll get there eventually, don’t worry, Roo, I am with you.’
‘But where, ma?’ Roo asks like a germ.
Had it been me, I would have said, ‘Nowhere except a place where my art will find fulfilment.’ But Ishwari says, ‘Where we are going now,’ and Roo feels even more beleaguered by this riddle. He is already weakened from lack of food and sleep; an overdose of vulnerability from wandering on the roads has left him even more lifeless. A grave sense of crisis has made him slump on the seat of the taxi, his head drooping on my arm. He looks as though he has been beaten up unmercifully. And indeed he was: in the early hours of morning his arm was trailing outside the train window when the heavy wooden shutters slammed into his wrist. His screaming woke me up. Roo’s wrist swelled up within minutes. For ten hours he has wandered about with me, his wrist a poisonous blue. He screamed just once on impact but hasn’t cried at all since. Perhaps he has inherited my traits in this respect. I don’t cry either, I never have. When Ishwari cries I purse my lips. Every time I have the urge to cry I tell myself the present outcome alone isn’t sufficient reason to cry. I need more time, for time matures the outcome, and it is this tolerance that creates the atmosphere of this novel—this novel of truth and lies, this novel that resembles a bird of prey.
The taxi speeds down the road, I look out of the window. Ishwari has not managed to tend to Roo’s wrist, though several hours have gone by. It is bitterly cold and so late at night—the city roads are empty, bereft of human bustle, everyone seems to have sunk into a melancholy hibernation, it is as though no one will wake up ever again. Things seem about to explode. I found this taxi a few steps from the house of someone I know, someone I approached for shelter as a last resort and was rejected by moments earlier—the third time today that this has happened. I turn to look at the house from the taxi, and from behind a curtain, someone seems to be watching us.
There was no hope of getting a taxi at this hour of night, especially on this road deep inside Jodhpur Park. I would have had to walk, holding Roo’s hand, if I hadn’t found this one. I know where Ishwari would have walked on blistered feet late on this freezing night with her child. She might have been raped on the road and robbed, and even if the midnight predators had left her alive, Roo would still have been separated from his mother. Ishwari would never have found her son again.
I close my eyes for a moment. Lifting his head, Roo asks, ‘They won’t tell us to go away from where we’re going now, will they?’
What answer can I give? I am about to say. Why did you come away like this with me? I only went for a glimpse. Why did you run away with me without telling anyone? There is no room for me to live with you anywhere in your first city, or my second city, or this third city. Can you tell me where I should take you now?
But Ishwari doesn’t give me the chance to speak. Kneading Roo’s soft cheeks with both hands, she says, ‘We won’t go to anyone’s house any more, Roo. We’ll go somewhere where we can pay to stay, stay as long as we like.’
Pleased at this, Roo rubs his chin on Ishwari’s breast and tilts his head. ‘Do you have money?’ he asks.
With a quick look at the taxi driver from the corner of her eye, Ishwari places a hand on her son’s head like a hawk spreading its wing.
But will it really be possible to secure a roof for the night in exchange for money at this hour? Will any of the guest houses in this city agree to rent a room to a woman unaccompanied by a man on this winter’s night? The five-star hotels may not ask questions but will certainly ask for identification, and what identity could I possibly off er so that I am accepted by an ancient civilization? Besides, do I have enough money to seek shelter at such a hotel?
I am ravenous, but not once has Roo mentioned being hungry. I gave him a couple of biscuits before entering the last place we tried, but even that was an hour and a half ago. I wasn’t thinking straight, or I could easily have got hold of bananas or chocolate. It is far too late now. There isn’t a shop open anywhere. I am surprised. How has Roo learnt to control hunger? Roo is staring out of the window, his back stiff , but I know he isn’t looking at anything. His eyes have been empty since yesterday. When he threw himself into my arms yesterday, crying out ‘Ma!’, his joyful eyes were brimming with tears, but his joy disappeared soon after I put him down. I know what he is thinking with his back so rigid. We spent the previous night on the train, tonight the night has closed in much more on us. Did Ishwari ever imagine that doors would be slammed one after the other on their misfortune? No, she couldn’t possibly have. Everyone Ishwari turned to was well-established, safe in their respective home, all of them pillars of society living within a ring of security—although Ishwari now knew that none of them was any less helpless than she, nor any less ineff ective. They were just as afraid, terrified, callous and self-centred as the destitute Ishwari and her child. And they had no conscience. Despite the peaks these people had scaled, their assets were devoted only to shoring up their own existence.
The first person I went to after getting off the train is a respected businessman in this city, exceedingly wealthy. The person I turned to on my second attempt is an influential lawyer. The third—the resident of Jodhpur Park—is a great poet, a lover of children who writes distressed poetry for the exploited: those evicted for poverty, robbed of their land, bombed, turned into victims of war. But like the awakening conscience of society, even this poet off ered only compassionate rejection.
As we wandered around, it occurred to me over and over again that the relationships that form between people every day are actually small, flourishing dreams—brief dreams that can be shattered like glass. Like the other three, Ishwari averts her eyes from the helplessness of her limitations. Roo has not looked at me accusingly even once. He is probably the only one by my side during this terrible time. He came with me even though I did not want him to. He was eager to reclaim the mother who once abandoned him. I cannot understand how the five-year-old Roo could trust such a mother.
Roo was waiting for me on a secret road, holding a storybook. He is a baby, after all, he forgot to put on socks with his boots, and now he has blisters on the soft skin on his ankles. In the evening I saw the blisters had burst, the pink flesh visible beneath the scraped-off skin. Roo has endured it all in silence.
‘Does it hurt very much, Roo?’ Ishwari asked, turning his face towards her.
Roo shook his head quickly, no, it wasn’t hurting at all. Ishwari’s eyes smarted and I remember that it is time to talk to the taxi driver about where to go.
I remember a small guest house on Lansdowne Road and request the driver to take us there. As I speak, I realize my voice is trembling, so is my heart with all kinds of anxieties. How deserted these roads are. I feel a surge of anger as I observe the countless dark, indiff erent houses on either side—don’t any of them have a little space for me? Ishwari is freezing; Roo had come away without warm clothes and she has wrapped him in her own shawl. By way of a second warm garment, we have a sleeveless jacket, which I am wearing.
I have discarded many of my possessions in the hope of shedding my burden. I have a light blanket—but you can hardly walk on the road wrapped in a blanket. And why not? Is it because it’s diff erent from what society considers normal? Shaking off the dominating cold, I give instructions to the young man driving us and the taxi arrives at the guest house. The word ‘lodging’ is written in small letters in one corner of the neon signboard. It appears extremely significant to me. I count out forty rupees for the driver. Forty rupees is a lot of money for me now. Roo gets off the taxi after me, awkward in the shawl wrapped around him. As I accept the change, I wonder how long Roo and I can survive on the money I have. I wonder but cannot make an estimate. Then again, what’s the use? I never think too much of what’s possible and what isn’t; on the contrary, I’m more interested in the performance a person puts on when poised between the possible and the impossible. And precisely for this reason, I feel a sense of satisfaction from comparing intellect, genius and foolishness when I come across a flawed individual. By those standards Ishwari is my least favourite person, for she is everything I am not. Ishwari is Roo’s mother—the same Roo whose touch is unbearable to me.
Walking up to the gate of the guest house after retrieving her suitcase and canvas bag from the taxi, Ishwari found it padlocked. There was no one to be seen anywhere. Putting her luggage down on one side and motioning to Roo to stand next to it, Ishwari swept her eyes over the gate, trying to spot a doorbell. Rattling the gate, I say loudly, ‘Anyone here? Hello? Anyone?’ No one responds.
I realize the taxi hasn’t left. I should have asked it to wait, I tell myself, because if we don’t get a room here we’ll have to go somewhere else quickly. We have no choice but to find a sanctuary or spend the rest of the night in the taxi looking for one.
I glance behind me and am surprised to see that the young man has got out of the taxi and is leaning against it, observing us closely. The sight relieves me and also makes me frown, but without deliberating over it too much I go up to him and say, ‘I’m glad you didn’t leave. It doesn’t look like we’ll get a room here—it would really help us if you waited a little longer.’ ‘I’m here,’ came the brief reply. It was enough. For the moment, Ishwari just needed a little assurance, a little support. Some sort of third presence besides her own and Roo’s. It was freezing outside; Roo should have remained in the taxi, the shawl was unable to protect him from this chilly wind. But Ishwari was forced to reject the idea in the very next moment of this cruelly predatory novel. What if the young man started the car and sped away with Roo?
And sold him to an Arab sheikh? And made him a jockey for camel races in the desert? And Roo fell on the sand as soon as the camel leapt up to gallop off ? And kicked by hundreds of galloping camels, was tossed about between their hooves like a lump of flesh in a dust storm? Forgetting where she was, Ishwari remained rooted to the spot for a few moments—the young man suddenly appeared terrifying. I scold Ishwari, I force her to lower her eyes and return to the locked gate of the guest house, where her son stands. I rattle the gate with all my strength. I keep rattling it.
… It was at such a time that she came into my life, my brothers. I only saw her eyes at first. And the moment I did, Mir sahib’s ghazal began humming in my head:
Jee mein kya kya hai apne ai humdum
Par sukhan ta balava nahin aata.
There’s so much in my heart, my soulmate
But not a single word reaches my lips
I had drunk a great deal that evening. I couldn’t go back home after leaving the kotha and fell asleep on it verandah. Someone awoke me from the depths of sleep. I saw only her eye, the line of her kohl, and silken tears.
– Mirza sahib.
A voice engulfed me like a wind on a wintry night. I gazed only into her eyes and hundreds of birds were flying in it, as though it was dawn, the first dawn of my life, in her eyes. As though the painter Behzad’s brush had painted a pair of eyes on a body made of air.
– Mirza sahib…
– Who are you? Kaun ho tum?
– Why didn’t you go back home?
– Home? I chuckled. – Where is it?
– Next to Habas Khan’s gate.
– But my home isn’t there.
She was quiet for the longest time. Then she said, ‘Come, let me take you home.’
– You mustn’t languish here on the streets, Mirza sahib.
– Why not?
– Because you’re a poet without peer.
– Withour peer?
– Truly, yes.
– Say it again.
– You’re a poet without peer. You’re benazir.
I grasped her hand. How warm it was, how hot. I held it against my mouth, I sucked on its flesh. She was dark as the night. And because of this, she dazzled in the darkness.
– Let me go, janab.
But I was entering her darkness. I wouldn’t be satisfied till I had clasped her to my breast. She allowed herself to be taken, without resisting. For the first time I got the scent of moist earth in a woman’s body, Manto-bhai. The scent that the base of the tree gives out after it has rained. This was not the fragrance of ittar in the bodies of the courtesans in the kothas, this was the dark smell of a moist, ancient earth.
I was entranced by this smell, Manto-bhai. She was no famous courtesan from a brothel. She was an ordinary domni. You do know what domnis did for a living, don’t you? They aang and danced at weddings to earn money, and they slept with men as well; but no refined Mirza would ever touch a domni. Their behaviour and speech belonged to the gutter. But Munira – Munirabai was different from the rest of them.
Munirabai gave me shelter in her room from that day on. She sang nobody’s ghazals but mine. When Munirabai sang, the glow of vermilion clouds would spread on her darkling face.
– Where did you hear my ghazals?
Munirabai would smile. ‘They fell from the heavens.’
– From the sky?
– Where is that sky, those stars?
– Here. Munira would smile, her hand on her heart. ‘They’re in my breasts, janab.’
The sky was inside her breasts and my ghazals had dropped from this sky – nobody had ever described it like this before. Only Munirabai could put it this way. She had no monetary relationship with my ghazals. I clasped her to my breast. She disrobed behind the shield of my body. I seemed to be holding a black, moisture-laden cloud. Begam Falak Ara was a sunlit day in my life, Manto-bhai, and Munira was like torrential rain, continuous. New green leaves sprang up on my body; believe me, when I sat in front of Munira, it was only her eyes that I saw, as swift as a doe, but still every now and then. In those still eyes I could see fear, like a running deer stopping abruptly in its tracks.
They heaped calumny on me, Manto-bhai. You’re Mirza Ghalib, very well, you may visit a kotha, you may even spend the night with a courtesan, but that doesn’t mean you can live with a domni in her house. Are you forgetting your position? What is one’s position, Manto-bhai? When I was humiliated at the mushairas, she was the only one I could go to. She never said anything, she only sang my ghazals:
Dil-e-nadaan tujhey hua kya hai?
Akhir is dard ki dawaa kya hai?
What’s wrong with your innocent heart?
What’s the cure for this illness?
Deliverance lies where there is sanctuary. So I didn’t pay any heed to all the mud flung at me. Why should I tuck my tail between my legs and run away just because a commoner was throwing stones at me? I was never one to do that. I may not have gone to battle like my ancestors, but my life had become nothing but a battlefield, where I had to fight all by myself. To hell with what people said. When I was in bed with Munira I forgot all the humiliation heaped upon me, Munia made me forget it all, and I clung to her more and more with every passing day. As I heard her sing my ghazals one after the other, it occurred me that for all their jibes at the mushairas, at least one woman was keeping my ghazals alive through her voice. I wanted to have Munira all by myself, I wouldn’t let her perform anywhere else. I wouldn’t let anyone visit her either. I took on the responsibility for her maintenance. Not that I was particularly well-off – all I had was the monthly pension of sixty-two rupees and fifty paise from the British. It was used to run the household, pay for my drinking and gambling, and now, for Munira’s expenses too. But then my mother’s sister used to send some money every month, as did Ahmed Bux Khan from Loharu now and then; even my mother used to send me some money sometimes from Agra. But given my profligate ways, this was never enough. So I had to borrow. Back then, of course, people like Mathura Das or Darbari Mal or Khoobchand never turned down my requests for loans. All told, my days were passing quite enjoyably. And a hundred ghazals were being born around Munira.
Jaan tum par nisar karta hoon
Main nahi jaanta dua kya hai.
I am charitable to you, my love
I do not know what prayer is.
But one day some people stormed Munira’s house, beating her up and breaking things. Do you know why? So that she didn’t let me in anymore. But still I want, for I was adamant. Munira only wept, holding my hand. ‘Go away, Mirza sahib. If they see you…’
– What will they do? Will they beat me up?
– I don’t want your name to be besmirched.
– Do you also want me not to visit you anymore?
Drawing my head to the seclusion of her breast, she continued weeping and said, ‘I cannot live without you, Mirza sahib, you are my love. But still…’
I couldn’t imagine living without her either, Manto-bhai. I was drawn to Munira as the moth to the flame. My life was incomplete without her beauty. Do you know how I felt? As though someone would steal her from me any moment. I didn’t even go into the garden for a stroll with her, for I used to fear that the narcissus would forget its own beauty when it saw her and assume its real form to run to her. The more I explored Munirabai’s depths, the more I felt that I did not have her in all her fullness.
Yeh na thi hamari kismat ke wisal-i-yaar hota
Agar aur jeete rehte yehi intezaar hota.
That was exactly how I felt. Complete union with her was not in my destiny. The longer I lived, the longer I would wait for her. Only once in my life was I able to love like this, Manto-bhai. Firdousi among poets, Hasan Basri among sages and Majnu among lovers – these were the three beacons of the world. If you cannot love like Majnu I don’t call it love. I had dreamt of it, but I could not love like Majnu, Manto-bhai. It was too arduous a path for me. How many of us can train our body and soul to forget ourselves? I could not.
I was extremely hurt at first, so I cut down on my visits to Munirabai. Gradually the hurt was erased. And so was she. Mughal blood is very cruel, Manto-bhai; the same blood ran in my veins too. Do you know what this blood does? It kills the one it loves. I succeeded in forgetting her and getting involved with life in new ways. But Munira had locked herself up within me, no new paths opened up for her. Women are like that. Once they love someone, they cannot escape from the cage of this passion; even if they waste away and die they will confine themselves to the cage. Once upon a time I used to consider their world too narrow for my liking. But someone who can even die out of her love for a man has actually embarked on the ultimate journey, an endeavour to reach beyond the self and lose oneself in another. God did not give this life of noble pursuit to the male, Manto-bhai. We are like moths, and they are like flames – they burn and destroy themselves to give out light. This is the love you will see in Meerabai’s songs, Manto-bhai. Without Giridhari, Meera’s life was dark. Kaise jiyun re mai, Hari bine kaise jiyun. How will I live without Krishna, how will I live?
One day I heard that Munirabai had died. With her death, this maddening love, this bekhudi mohabbat, left me too. But her eyes didn’t leave me. Those eyes, just like the ones painted on a peacock’s tail, kept coming back to me. When death finally appeared to take my hand, I realized that I had indeed wanted to love Munira like Majnu did, or else she would not have appeared to me in my final moments.
Muddat Huee Hai Yaar Ko Mehmaan Kiye Hue
Josh-E-Qadah Se Bazm Chiraaghaan Kiye Hue
Karta Hoon Jama’a Fir Jigar-E-Lakht-Lakht Ko
Arsa Hua Hai Daawat-E-Mizhgaan Kiye Hue
Fir Waza-E-Ehtiyaat Se Rukane Laga Hai Dam
Barson Hue Hain Chaak Girebaan Kiye Hue…
Maange Hai Fir Kisee Ko Lab-E-Baam Par Hawas
Zulf-E-Siyaah Rukh Pe Pareshaan Kiye Hue…
Ik Nau Bahaar-E-Naaz Ko Taaqe Hai Fir Nigaah
Chehra Furogh-E-Mai Se Gulistaan Kiye Hue
Jee Dhoondta Hai Fir Wohee Fursat Ke Raat Din
Baithe Rahain Tasavvur-E-Jaanaan Kiye Hue
It’s been long since my love was my guest
Long since the the wine warmed the parlour
All these rigid rules choke my breath
I long to wear my torn clothes once more
Will my bleeding heart be mended, asks love
They’re just waiting to rub salt in my wounds
I want to be at my beloved’s doorstep again
Pleading with the doorman to let me in
My heart again seeks those easygoing days
When hours were spent in thoughts of my love
Don’t disturb me, Ghalib, my passion drives me on
I am waiting now with stormy, reckless will.
Munirabai was gone. The miserable days became even more miserable, Manto-bhai. Begum Falak Ara was a bolt of lightning in the sky of my existence, and Munirabai was the star whose light falls on our courtyard even millions of years after its death.
Night after night I gazed at the darkness of her death, reciting Mir sahib’s sher:
Sarsari tum jahan se guzre
Baranh har ja jahan-e digar tha
Munirabai, my love, you left the world carelessly, you did not notice that every spot here held a new world.