Translated from the Gujarati by Mira Desai (from Pravinsinh Chavda’s short story collection Ek Evun Ghar Maley, published by Gurjar Granthratna Karyalaya, 2005)
Ranjit dressed in clothes that he’d carefully ironed and told his father, ‘I’ll be back in a while.’
His father would drape a napkin on his shoulder and sit in an armchair on the front porch all day; his loss of vision had bestowed a certain grace to his posture. If he heard a vehicle pass by or footsteps approaching, he would smile in expectation and his smile would last even after the footsteps had faded away. Ranjit was at a loss as to how to fill in the vacuum of unending time even on Sundays, so he’d pick any direction and begin to walk, enjoying whatever he encountered along the way. His vision had been sharpened, so everything that he saw sprang to life.
Where will you go, son? His father didn’t ask such questions. There wasn’t much that was different in sitting idle on the otlo, the porch, or wandering about like his son did; perhaps he knew this.
That morning Ranjit walked with a special energy; he’d remembered Shriram Mulay as if he’d stepped forth from an old sepia photograph, dressed in his school uniform khakhi shorts and a toothy smile. They didn’t meet very often now; at times a gap of six months or a year would pass before they met, but Shriram’s riverside house and the surrounding backyard often impinged on his memory. When he’d reach Salvivad with his schoolbag on his way to school, Shriram’s Ayi would be waiting on the porch to see him off. All the happenings and news that they collected during the course of the day would be brought out carefully and shared in the evening by that house. Shriram would lead him indoor for a drink of water, and from there they’d step into the backyard as if drawn there. He could still see Shriram’s Ayi walking up to them with a bowlful of goodies, a ladoo or perhaps a til sweet.
The rustic tea stall and the flour mill at the entrance to the neighbourhood were still there. There weren’t too many changes in the locality either; he felt as if he were stepping into the past as he climbed up the steps to the porch. He stood there quite a while after he had gently knocked on the screen door. After what seemed like infinity, Shriram trudged to the door pulling his shirt into place and stared at him quizzically from behind the door-bars.
‘Who is it, bhai?’
‘Just a passer-by. I’ve come here for some water.’
Shriram didn’t laugh out loud. ‘Come,’ he said indifferently and turned away. This was a new way of greeting. Whenever they met in the past, they would trade accusations by way of greeting: You’ve become an important person. Your time is too precious… Only after both of them were satisfied that neither had become overly important would Shaliniben offer a cup of tea as a peace offering.
Shriram walked towards the staircase but Ranjit stood still in the hall. If that old allegation were made today, he wanted to accept it wholeheartedly. Yes, I’ve certainly become an important person now. After the textile mill closed down I sit at the cash counter at a distant relative’s hotel near the Tower. Tell me, isn’t that almost a manager’s post? In such a situation, to gift him the luxury of time, his wife had packed her bags and gone to her parents’. That’s how I have been blessed with the freedom of singlehood at this age. That distant relative pays a generous-enough salary to pay for meals of porridge for an aged father and his middle-aged son. If not a royal lifestyle, what would you call this, Shriram?
‘We’ll go up to the first floor,’ Shriram said.
The reason for not sitting in the living room became apparent as he climbed the stairs. This room was not empty. Next to the staircase and almost hidden there, a woman and a man were seated, bent into their chairs. There was no sign of movement from any part of their body. If one overlooked the hostility in their eyes directed at the visitor that was visible even in that gloom, they looked like statues.
So it seemed this was a Sunday for visitors at Shriram’s home. These two people had arrived earlier and had been waiting. Ranjit felt guilty – they had the first right as guests, he ought to turn back with his sad tale this very instant.
He stopped on the last step. ‘Shriram, I didn’t have any special work. Had just come to meet you.’
‘I also don’t have any work.’
‘What about them?’
‘They aren’t guests! My brother-in-law, my salo – and what does one call a brother-in-law’s wife?’
Shriram gritted his teeth and spoke without moving his lips, ‘Veli and Velo have been squatting in this fashion ever since they arrived by the 4.30 morning train. When the front door rattled that early we were scared. Which bandit had led an attack at this unearthly hour?’
Ranjit recalled a swing in the front porch on the first floor. Shriram’s father, clad in a vest and dhoti, would usually sit there. Ayi would be bustling about, dusting a few things, putting a few things back in place. Shriram sat on the swing and closed his eyes, so the guest was left to fend for himself. A chair had been placed by the window, and he sat there without moving it. He could see the dry riverbed from the window.
‘What’s new?’ Shriram asked without opening his eyes.
‘All fine. Majama. How are you?’
‘Great. What troubles could one possibly have?’
Shriram’s constantly bobbing head negated what he’d just said. After some time, the unspoken words broke out of their own accord; scorching the listener. ‘How could anything be great! You must be thinking – Muliya is not to be seen, doesn’t even bother to call, but look at the condition of this house. Would you like some water? Some tea?’
Ranjit refused. Shriram took this as sympathy, so he took out a letter from his pocket and said, ‘Read this.’
‘Anything the matter, Muley?’
‘Disaster. Nothing left now. These are court summons. Read this. You’ll find it entertaining.’
Ranjit didn’t show any eagerness to read what had been placed before him. Fumbling with the papers, Muley unravelled the mystery of the court case. His only son, Sunil, was the serpent in the garden, the accuser. The defendant or the accused party was Shriram Vasantrao Muley, occupation government service, and Mrs Shalini Shriram, wife of the first accused. About a month ago, Sunil and his wife had packed their belongings and moved to Sunil’s father-in-law’s place in Maninagar, Ahmedabad. The father, a clerk in the Public Works Department, should give him all his amassed wealth, so the papers read. He should withdraw all his fixed deposits with banks. He should vacate his three-storey home. The home had been built in 1942 – for all of rupees three and a half thousand. Finely carved wooden pillars held up the house; its carpenter Ambalal Suthar’s son still paid his respects after all these years. Muley wouldn’t mind giving the boy his inheritance, the old folk would find a rented room someplace; after all that they had witnessed, nothing mattered now. But the Prince and especially his Empress had no intention of living in this leaky boat. What were they to do with such a vast backyard, play hide-and-seek? The father-in-law had given his new-found son a calculative, businessman’s mien in dowry. This was a good place for a nice shopping centre and at least a ten-storey apartment building—
From all that he’d just been told, Ranjit settled on a particular page with delight. Images from the time the home must have been built flashed past. There mustn’t have been many homes around here back then, nor as many people. Lush fields and plenty of trees, an abundance of peacocks as well. The birds must have watched curiously as Ambalal Suthar carved life into those statuettes, a pencil tucked behind his ear. The river must have been brimming over.
‘I’ve only told you – why talk about this, offer fodder for gossip?’
Ranjit didn’t say anything; he was in no position to advise his friend. To track down Sunil, remind him of his responsibilities, to haul him by the collar and drag him to a happy ending – all this was beyond him. He had no standing that would allow him to intervene in this family – or in any other for that matter. If Sunil’s father-in-law or any relative innocently or even out of idle curiosity checked the status of the person who had intervened to broker peace, they could ask questions about his line of work.
‘You and Shalini bhabhi are all alone now.’
‘We’ll be evicted, thrown out on the streets and you talk about us being all alone?’
He often made such mistakes while speaking. Fleeting images of the past were captured perfectly; images of the future were rare.
He straightened and sighed, preparing to leave.
Ranjit was worried about the two people huddled by the stairs in the living room. He leaned back in his chair and said, ‘Uncle-Aunty must have heard about this news from someplace, so…’
The dialogue seemed to be getting repeated over and over again. In a tired voice, he said, ‘Your brother-in-law and his wife are seated downstairs. I’m talking about them.’
Shriram guffawed. ‘Did you see those specimens closely?’
Ranjit had had no chance of observing them closely. He had been rushed upstairs, and in that short while he hadn’t been able to comprehend anything in the way they were huddled in their chairs.
When Shriram laughed and spoke, at first Ranjit couldn’t hear him clearly. He felt a certain delight at the changing expressions on his friend’s face, and on hearing his familiar voice, a joy quite independent of the subject that they had been discussing.
The guests had arrived even before the milkman and the newspaper boy, and they had held fast to their seats ever since. One would need to get up from time to time to attend to bodily functions in the morning, but these rebellious schemers had not given in to even their body’s demands. They had been sullen ever since they stepped into the house. They drank water, but refused tea. Their tirade was unending. You don’t give a damn about us. We don’t matter at all. We’re not your relatives, just pebbles on the road.
‘About relatives and their behaviour, Shriram, everyone has to in some degree—”
The brother-in-law had a patchy career. His father had named him Yadunandan and he must have thought his responsibilities ended there. Our gentleman had worn this name like a crown and played at many a game. He had rushed pell-mell past his fifties, but does a monkey ever grow old? The reason he looked a little theatrical was that he found time from among his many pursuits to dabble in theatre, play bit roles of a servant, cook or thief to make a living. The reason he was indulging in a sit-in protest at this place was simple – he wanted a loan of rupees two lakhs without any interest and without any obligation to repay. Just because Shriram worked in the Public Works Department, people assumed his attic was stuffed full with bundles of currency notes.
‘What will you do, Shriram?’
‘Not to worry. The demand has been falling every hour. When you rattled the screen door, his demand had dropped to fifteen thousand rupees. He’ll stay for a day or two, dine on sweets like laddoo and doodhpak, finally settle for bus or train fare and go home happily. You must be getting late.’
Shriram stood up as he spoke the last sentence.
‘Father is alone at home.’
‘Who tied you up?’
‘I’ve left him on the porch, he must not have moved from there, perhaps.’
‘That poor girl.’
They’d stopped a few paces away from the stairs, near the door.
‘You may not have seen her properly in the gloom. She’s lost her beauty living with this clown, but she was as beautiful as a fairy once upon a time, with a name to match – Rajeshwari! Shall I tell you a secret—’
Shriram winked and whispered into Ranjit’s ear, ‘Actually I was to have been with her.’
‘This—’ Shriram clasped his hands to indicate the “hastamelap” ritual of a wedding ceremony. ‘My late parent was blessed with more than six senses, so he could look into the distant future. He didn’t agree to the proposal. Now I think whatever happened was for the best. She’s now this joker’s devoted wife. She thinks her husband is unique, one in a million. He doesn’t earn a penny, so he’s a saint.’
Ranjit said, ‘Not that she’s wrong in her way.’
‘She’s not wrong. My son is not wrong. I’m the only one who’s wrong. C’mon, get going down these steps.’
The formalities that ought to have taken place when he arrived at the house took place instead on the steps on his way out.
‘You’re an important man.’
Ranjit said, ‘That’s right.’
‘You never come here, never show your face.’
Ranjit thought – it’s a face worth hiding.
Shriram led the way, spilling accusations; Ranjit followed him, deftly picking these up. They walked past the lifeless statues and reached the gate.
‘Let’s go and see a play someday.’
‘What will become of these people?’
Ranjit was worried about this incomplete chapter. He’d been able to interpret the pleading glance the two huddled figures had sent his way.
Shriram brushed off his question with a helpless gesture. ‘Rajiya, dance, music, none of those interests remain now, dammit.’
Just then Ranjit caught a glimpse of a peacock-blue saree in the garden behind the house. Her freshly-washed hair was loose and she was picking flowers. She’d reach high on her toes to pick a flower, all her existence centred on the fingers touching the bloom. The pink-and-white flower-filled plate seemed like a reflection of her face. As if she hadn’t seen anyone, as if she didn’t know anyone, she walked unhurriedly from one plant to another, stepping closer to the front courtyard where they were standing.
Looking at her from head to toe, Shriram said, ‘Now that’s another sati for sure.’
His wife ignored this loud taunt, didn’t speak a word of greeting to the visitor despite having seen him. This gave Shriram more room for joviality. He shook his head, ‘This guest has been here for an hour yet no one offered him even a glass of water. Look at the lackadaisical state of affairs in this house, Rajiya.’
There was some humming and a smile. Without looking at her husband, Shaliniben stopped before Ranjit and said, ‘I dreamt of you this morning. I regretted waking up.’
Then she walked to the door at the same pace as before. Not one step out of place.
Shriram laughed. ‘Don’t you find the people of this family a little eccentric, Rajiya?’
Ranjit didn’t reply. He looked at each of the trees in the backyard and walked home, floating on a middle-aged woman’s dream.
Pravinsinh Chavda is an established author in Gujarati, with nine short-story collections (Sugandhit pavan, Pavankumari,Navun ghar, Natya patra no pravesh, Vandevta, Trimurti, Ek evu ghar maley,Bhajan Nirguni, Namrata na saheb), and a novel (Jagubhai no punarjanma) to his credit. A literary autobiography (Bal lekhak ni atmakatha) and a travelogue (Maro Edinburgh no pravas) have also been well appreciated. Many of his stories have been translated into Hindi, Marathi and English, and widely published in national and international magazines. He was a member of Gujarat Public Service Commission and has worked in the Gujarat Educational Services.
Mira Desai’s translations from Gujarati have featured in 91st Meridian, Indian Literature, Massachusetts Review, Words without Borders, Dhauli Review, Pratilipi, Muse India, etc. She has translated a political novel, Hon’ble Minister Jagubhai, and a book of Bharat Trivedi’s poetry, A Festival of Free Verse. A translated historically important memoir is seeking a publisher. As a writer of fiction/ nonfiction she has contributed to several magazines/anthologies such as Birmingham Arts Journal, Pure Slush, Annalemma, etc.