The enormous weight of three hundred and sixty-five days once again slips from my hand and falls down into the dark cavern of the past. The windows in this desolate room are wide open. How improbably strange the sky looks, draped in a sheet of dense gray clouds, behind the luxuriant green trees. It seems as if someone has filled space itself with a sweet, melancholy beauty. A cool breeze has finally started to blow, after much heat and sun. Could it be the east wind?
Papers and books lie in a disorderly pile before me on the desk. I suddenly stop writing, screw the cap back on my fountain pen and clip it to my collar—not because the weather is absolutely delightful and the grapevine maddeningly beautiful and one simply cannot write a book on dairy farming in a setting so entirely out of this world; one cannot discuss the significance of the chemical components of milk any more than one can expound on the proper proportion of corn husk and mustard oilcake in cattle feed. All right, not another word about cows or water buffaloes.
My problem is that I’m very absentminded. I search for my pen everywhere, while it’s clipped to my collar all along. I look at faces I have seen so often and wonder who they might belong to—I have never seen them before. And my memory is so bad I can hardly remember who has hurt me and who I have decided to hold a grudge against. Worst of all, the day I’m supposed to take care of some enormously important matter, I seem to end up spending in some atrociously silly matter.
Well, that’s what it’s come to with me. My one abiding fear is that the landscapes of my memory might become a yawning wasteland—derelict, empty, blanched. That I may lose my grip on familiar things and no longer recognize them at all. That’s why I have pushed aside the sheets of paper and clipped my pen back on. Just so that I may lean back and squint into the horizon and not let my eyes waver—trekking back along the past’s interminable highways, so that time may twist around and look back. It just might. What! It really has! There, look, the past is calling me.
The scene before my eyes is beginning to dissolve, and a long-lost horizon is forming in space. This gigantic gate, here—it’s the very same gate whose wrought-iron bars we would hug tightly, and swing on for hours on end. Tickets were improvised and sold; the guard waved the green flag, and the passengers, planting their feet on the bottom rail and grabbing a hold of the grillwork, would enjoy the train ride as the others energetically swung the gate out into the street. Directly across the street from the gate the ironsmith’s furnace would be ablaze, the clank-clank of red-hot iron being beaten into shape resounding through the air. And inside the gate small and large gardens opened to view the hedges of nirbisi and delicate trellises draped with rose vines. We would make believe that our train was chugging along beside jungle and farmland. To bring the train into a station, we would stick thumb under chin, run our index fingers along the ridge of our noses all the way to our foreheads, and cry with all the power our lungs could muster: Koo-ooo! It felt as if the train were actually entering the station.
The entire summer vacation was thus spent swinging from the gate and playing games filled with violence inside the summerhouse. There would be bloody skirmishes between robbers and cops, the robbers would finally be caught, they would repent, and right away set up stands where they would sell guavas and mulberries. Clay flowerpots would be broken, the shards then rubbed smooth into ser and half-ser weights and all kinds of coins. And suddenly, one day, the vacation would end and school would start the next day. But on that next day I would pretend I didn’t know, and manage to stay in bed until nine o’clock. The school bus would come and leave without me. But this couldn’t go on.
The very next day I would be violently shaken awake at four in the morning. Every time the school reopened, a fresh calamity awaited us. This time, though, it came in the form of a new teacher: a portly woman draped in a borderless sari and wearing eyeglasses. She put a Hindi primer in the hands of each of the Muslim students, and ordered them to learn it on their own. When I saw the primer I was offended. We were in the fifth grade, weren’t we? Then why was it being foisted upon us? We had already been through a similar primer once before. All the pictures were exactly the same. Anyway, she informed us that Hindi was compulsory in the fifth grade. I carefully put the primer away in my satchel, and it stayed right there. Two days later when she showed up, I easily rattled off the lesson: alif for anar, be for bakri, he for huqqa, and dal for dhol. Crazy! Idiot! She was beside herself with anger, and ordered me to learn it all over again.
What misery! But who could I ask for help? The rest of the girls were quite a bit older than me, and spent free periods crocheting lace or knitting red and green woolen sweaters. I, who still played with marbles and broken glass bangles, felt shy in their presence. So I took the primer back and thought the teacher was crazy herself. There were pictures of “hubble-bubble” and “she-goat” all right. Bright and clear. Anybody could see that. Yet she always got angry. When she yelled at me over and over again, I had to ask Mother for help: the teacher doesn’t teach but keeps telling me to learn from somebody at home. “Go ask Robby Dutt. He’ll teach you,” Mother suggested. So I begged the boy whose father—whom we used to call Maharaj—lived in the quarters within the compound. Robby Dutt—his big eyes smeared with a thick application of kajal, wearing a gigantic black tika in the middle of his forehead to ward off the evil eye, and a gold amulet strung on a black thread round his neck—rolled his eyes and spelled out his terms:
“You won’t pull my braid, right?”
“You’ll let me swing on the swing?”
“Push the swing twenty times for me?”
“And give me gos-roti to eat?”
At this point I faltered. If I gave him meat to eat as he wished, mother’s displeasure was sure to follow. She had expressly warned me, “Don’t you ever give him meat—understand?”
“All right, don’t,” he said. “I won’t teach you.”
“I will, I will. Okay, I’ll give you meat.”
And when His Majesty came in to teach, he would straightaway push all of himself under a cot or a settee. I’d pull him out of there somehow, and then, in a voice calculated to overwhelm me, he would command:
“Read! Chota ‘a!’ Bara ‘uu!’ ‘Ee!’” All those pages with pictures on them he had made me learn in no time at all. Then one day he taught me: “Mohan accha larka hai. Bhor bha’e jagta hai aur ashnan karta hai,” Mohan is a good boy. He gets up early in the morning and takes a bath.
I couldn’t believe that such familiar words could possibly come out of such a strange alphabet. “You miserable ass! You aren’t teaching me properly.”
“Parha’e to rahe hain. Aur kya tumra sar parha’en?” But I am! What else did you think I was doing?
“Liar! Fraud! English sounds come out of English letters. And here you are teaching me Urdu in Hindi!”
“Go to hell! I’m done teaching you!”
He would throw in the towel and flee, because the matter was beyond him. He himself couldn’t figure out how Hindi letters managed to emit Urdu sounds. It took me a long time to make my peace with the idea that the letters of this weird and totally unfamiliar alphabet produced exactly the same sounds as the Urdu script I was familiar with. Now the writing drill got underway. “And what’s this—the silly squiggly thing stuck to it?” I’d ask, pointing at the matra for the vowel “o.”
This would throw him off once again. “Yeh eme hi hai. Tum is se mat bolo. Apna kam karo.” It’s just there. Don’t meddle with it. Do your work. In short, he wasn’t counting on explaining the vowel marks, and explain them he did not. But something like anxiety nagged at my heart. Sheer deception, this! It didn’t make sense that you read in the strange-looking Hindi script exactly what you read in the Urdu script. Surely it was a plot to confound the reader. Out of sheer stubbornness I took it to heart that there was no point in slaving over this. Robby Dutt too seemed to have become fed up with my daily bickering and nagging. So I put the Hindi qa’ida to one side. There was another reason too: I was soon going to attend a school where there was no such nonsense. And so that was the end of his teachership and my discipleship. He was now scarcely seen all day long. He’d go to school, and when he returned would dart out to wander around. Or else he would stay at home and talk like cranky old men. He had no siblings and all his close kin were back in his hometown.
Yep, Robby Dutt, you were really something. Even now I can see you vividly against this background. The truth is, you’re never far from view. Whenever the rains come—and with them the thought that back on the old house dark rain clouds are pouring down in a torrent, letting rivers of water gush noisily along the eaves, and people are celebrating Saluno, the festival of Raksha-bandhan—how can I not remember you? When the ties of teacher and taught broke off between us, you quickly forged another bond. You stood behind the door and kept repeating in your muted voice: “Tum kesi behni ho, tum hamre rakhi bhi nahin bandhat ho.” What kind of sister are you? You don’t even tie a rakhi on my wrist! And yet again: “Auron ki behnen to bhayya logan ke rakhiyan bandhat hain.” Other sisters tie rakhis on their brothers.
The whole day long you kept showing up behind the door, hurling taunt after taunt at me for not tying a rakhi on you, until Mother finally relented. She sent for a few rakhis from the bazaar and gave them to me. The next time you sneaked behind the door, I grabbed your hand and tied the whole lot on your wrist. Seeing not one, not even two, but three separate rakhis on your wrist, you became overjoyed and sprinted off, reappearing only in the evening, clad in a sparkling white dhoti and lacework kurta, a Gandhi cap on your head, holding a brass tray, with rice, andarsas, bananas and coins amounting to about half a rupee. Then, extending your hand from behind the door, you set the tray down and said, “This is your dacchana.”
Oh, you really were something. When did I have the mind, when was I ever eager to tie rakhis? But every year, well before Saluno, you would keep reminding me, “Rakhi mangali hamri? ” So, have you sent for my rakhi? Deep inside, how much you valued being made my brother. When Bibbi came from Shimla for the first time after her marriage, you hauled her bedroll inside the house yourself, practically doubling over under the weight. When told you didn’t have to, that Jabbal could have just as easily carried it in, you replied quietly, “Why Jabbal? After all, didn’t Aapa’s groom tease Aapa, saying, what kind of brother have you got—he can’t even carry your bedroll for you!” And that wasn’t all. You were pretty strange. You would fight me over the swing, and when I gave it a push, you would say in your quivering voice, “Not so fast! Easy! I’m scared!” “Why are you scared? I’m not.” You would say quietly, “Because you eat gos-roti and I eat daal-roti.” And if anyone ever asked you whether you were Hindu or Muslim, you replied with great equanimity, “Me? My clan and caste are the same as Begam Sahib’s. Why, I’m Begam Sahib’s son.”
Even though you were a Brahmin, and a Brahmin of the most elevated rank; indeed, so elevated that your doctor grandfather had no qualms about giving his daughter’s hand in marriage to a confirmed idler such as your father. Anyway, whenever a little free time came your way, you would quickly make wuzu, unroll Mother’s prayer mat on the settee, and start performing one ruku after another, dropping your forehead in sijdah after sijdah, mumbling a prayer under your breath and quickly passing your open hands over your face. And if anyone laughed, you felt hugely offended.
If a Hindu reproached your mother, the Maharajan, saying that you always hung out with Muslims and mimicked their ways, she would just laugh off the matter good-naturedly, saying, “Just as well. Let him live as a Muslim. This way at least he might live. My two other boys both died.” Well, the high point of the story came when a craze to hold milads swept through the entire neighborhood. We did it too, and that did it. Nobody could reason with you. You fought with the Maharajan and kept insisting on holding a milad too, and she, a simple woman, consented. She prepared the floor, spread cotton rugs and sparkling white sheets borrowed from our house; she sent for flower bouquets; she burnt incense sticks; and she begged Pathani Bua to come and perform the milad, because “my lallah wouldn’t have it any other way.” And guess who turned out to be the MC of the event? You, of course. Who else? You doled out paans to everyone gathered there, then daubed them with attar, sprinkling rose water from the dispenser every five minutes, dying from worry that you might have missed a detail that was part of the milad ceremony at your Begam Sahib’s.
On winter nights, when everyone tucked themselves quite early under heavy cotton quilts and sometimes listened to stories, you too would burrow into somebody’s quilt and linger there. And then it seemed the earth grew both weary of its weight and impatient with familiar faces and voices. It was like somebody had violently thrashed the grain in a winnowing fan. One flew and landed here, another somewhere else. But grain and seed, no matter where they land, invariably set up fresh worlds for themselves, sending their slender roots, like leeches, deep into the earth. They cling to it, and in time tear open the earth’s bosom and come out.
Well, Robby Dutt, it’s like this: I ended up here. You must still be there, grown into an honorable man, responsible and wise. Once again the rainy season has arrived. It must be pouring back where you are. Farmers, wearing folded gunnysacks for raincoats, must be busy digging ditches and taking care of the fields. Flocks of herons and parrots must be zooming back and forth overhead. Brahmin women must still saunter out during Saluno carrying rakhis for their brothers, draped in snappy red and green saris, bindiyas on foreheads, feet stained with henna, black and green bangles strung up the length of their flashing white, plump arms. Your arms must be covered with rakhis, and you must still offer dacchanas—but openly, though, not from behind the door. So what? What do I care? I wasn’t exactly dying to tie a rakhi on you, you practically forced me to. Then again, the time for those insignificant little nothings is well past now. Mankind now thinks only of big things, of things that matter, and despises everything that is small or looks diminished. And to tell you the truth, you or I or anyone who thinks about the past does wrong. Why must life stay fixed at one place? Life’s ship must pitch and rock forever on the restless waves of time. What if we had gotten stuck on the beach. On life’s ocean one ship sails east, another west. Favorable winds push them on, and fate determines their destinations. The ships of your life and mine also sailed to shores destined for us. And yet, why does this desire suddenly overwhelm me?—to fly off quietly to where you are, sitting grand and dignified, to sneak up behind you and whack you and ask, “Wanna have me tie a rakhi? And tell me, which tray of dacchana is for me?” Why are all these long-lost matters returning to me, like an old pain suddenly come back to life? It’s because after much smoldering heat and burning sun, a cool breeze has finally started to blow.
Do you suppose it’s the east wind?