The Unadorned

My literary blog to keep track of my creative mood swings with poems n short stories, book reviews n humorous prose, travelogues n photography, reflections n translations, both in English n Hindi.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Among Dear Little Doves

Among Dear Little Doves
(Translated from my Hindi Story, कबूतरों के साथ )
Finally an incurable disease afflicted him like an inexpiable black curse. So deadly was the disease that even one would not like one’s sworn enemy to be diagnosed of that. Who is not aware of the horrendous consequence of cancer? It was all in the destiny of his family to be rendered destitute, and in time situation came to such a pass that nobody else was left to come to their rescue. True, he was a government employee and that was how whatever medical reimbursement was admissible just pushed the wheels of life a little ahead. And one day doctors in that Mumbai hospital where he was undergoing the treatment advised him to go home. Respecting their advice he just left the hospital bed. At home he stuck to his bed and waited patiently for the day to come when he would breathe his last.

The luckless fellow I’m talking about was Ram Khilaban Pandey, a sorting assistant in a certain mail office. He was at the doorstep of his middle age, say on the right side of forties. Had he not come face to face with this deadly disease he would have served another twenty years. He was a person of robust build and more than his physique his moustache endowed him an imposing personality. Ferocious—honestly, one could use the word for a precise description of Ram Khilaban.

God only knew it, what else did he wish to do during his twenty years of service? He was not a soul to be satisfied with the salary he used to receive at the end of every month. So paltry it was! He practised moneylending, became a leader of a group and as there was need to terrorise others in those pursuits, he did not hesitate to resort to that. In this way, he managed to register a powerful presence in his circle. He ever hated to join the issue as to which one was moral and which one was not. Like all practical persons in this world, he just believed in the popular adage: End justifies means. And for him anything that was practical had got to be moral! So much clear was he in his mind about what he thought or what he did that he did not care a damn as he took pigeons out of their nests to eat them. Well, he was not eating them raw but saw to it that the birds were made into savoury dishes first before he actually relished them as his food.

There were many among his colleagues who did not approve of the style of Ram Khilaban, but only a few of them could muster courage enough to actually dissuade him from this. Especially his senior colleague Prabhudayal used to advise him, ‘What’s that you’re doing, Ram Khilaban? Poor little birds they are, and what harm have they done to you so that you’re killing them almost one every week? And eating them so brutally?’

Despite his unrestrained disposition, one good quality about Ram Khilaban was that he did not retort in reply to Prabhudayal’s words of advice. He was the only person that received the respect of Ram Khilaban. So, faced with the vigilant watch of Prabhudayal, he had to change his plan of stealing pigeons from the office. He used to patiently wait for the day Prabhudayal would be on leave so that he could take pigeons from the mail office without any restrictions.

It was not a fact that supervisor Prabhudayal wielded so much power over Ram Khilaban only on account of his seniority. Rather, as a person he was the possessor of a cultivated religious temperament. He used to advise Ram Khilaban on religious lines too. Sometimes, he would not hesitate to sanctimoniously remind Ram Khilaban about his caste.

‘Oh, Ram Khilaban, you're a Brahmin, aren’t you? And does it behove you to indulge in all these? Your entire clan is vegetarian but you don’t hesitate to relish the flesh of a pigeon?’ once the supervisor Prabhudayal exhorted.

Ram Khilaban did not respond to what Prabhudayal said in the spirit of mild reprimand. Rather he chose to remain silent. He was not interested in opening a stultifying session of Q & A, not in the least. As for him, there was no answer for the question that Prabhudayal posed, in that the world was also the abode of millions of meat-eaters. Then he thought, ‘When a pigeon is not a human being, why then should there be so much fuss about my killing it?’

But one day realisation was to dawn on Ram Khilaban. In fact a ray of knowledge illuminated the dark cell of his mind all of a sudden. The event that happened was something like this. That day Ram Khilaban stole a pigeon and per chance the supervisor Prabhudayal was on duty. On other days he used to twist the neck of those birds a full round that killed them instantly, but on that day he had forgotten to complete that formality. He just hid it inside the bag and came to Prabhudayal.

‘Sir, may I go out for half an hour?’ Ram Khilaban sought for permission from Prabhudayal.

‘But why? Don’t you know mails will arrive at any moment now? What’s so urgent with you that you want to go out at this moment?’ asked Prabhudayal.

‘I hate to remain absent at this moment but then what to do? I’ve some unusual rumbling in my stomach and I want to go home and swallow some pills.’ Hardly had Ram Khilaban finished his words than a pigeon managed to set itself free out of the bag and reached Prabhudayal. Exhausted and panting, the poor little bird sat on the table.

Ram Khilaban could have managed the situation had he not reached out to the bird to take it on grip. But what else could he have done when his hands acted so compulsively?

Now Prabhudayal understood everything. Why did Ram Khilaban ask for permission to go out of the office for a spell of half an hour, where from did an exhausted and half-strangled pigeon come to perch on his table, why did Ram Khilaban take the bird in his grip—everything was clear to Prabhudayal. He became crestfallen. It was his realisation that despite all his efforts, he had miserably failed to exert any influence on his wayward colleague. All these years he could not kindle in his mind even a spark of compassion towards living beings.

Just in a matter of minutes Prabhudayal was out of his mood of despondency. He was now agog with new optimism. Why can't he make another attempt? Having spent all his life in experimenting and meditating, he was by now spiritually matured. In fact he was too matured to be let down by this temporary setback. He believed that there is always an abundance of goodness in human beings, ready to bloom at any moment. That is why we are all humans. The only prerequisite for such efflorescence is the company of spiritually awakened souls. One should wait for the arrival of one’s moment of spiritual break.

‘Do you know, Ram Khilaban, who these pigeons are?’ asked Prabhudayal in a tone that was soft but profound. He was calm and serene, unperturbed at the vicissitude of the banal world.

Ram Khilaban was shocked. He began to ponder, ‘Well, a pigeon is, after all, a pigeon. What else could it be if it’s not a pigeon?’

Finding his colleague greatly confused, Prabhudayal said, ‘Look my dear, don’t think that these birds are simply pigeons. This one was a sorting assistant in this very office in his previous birth. His name was Brijbhushan who died of a massive heart attack. Aha, the poor old soul didn't stay away from his letters and parcels till he breathed his last.’

Prabhudayal's words were pregnant with meaning, nay full of profound spiritual content. And they were powerful too. Had it been a different moment Ram Khilaban could not have understood them. But now there was receptiveness all around: his internal self was clearly ready to receive and internalise those spiritual strokes. Until this moment Ram Khilaban had discarded many things as either too banal or too abstruse, but now rays of new light fell on them just to illuminate them afresh. The lovely little pigeon sitting before him was not a simple bird; it was reincarnation of human soul. Thus Ram Khilaban could not help being submerged in the surge of his new realisation. And he wondered, ‘Eek! Were those hundred-odd pigeons I’ve eaten so far my great ancestors? Have I been so blithely unaware that what I was eating all these years was the flesh of human beings? Am I such a demon?’

Back home Ram Khilaban fell ill. It was all shock and shriek for him. He took leave from office. Then he consulted doctors, from the family doctor to the specialists of the town; got hospitalised and moved from the local health centre to the district headquarters hospital. And finally he reached Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital, Mumbai. By that time cancer had already spread from stomach to other internal organs. There the doctors sprang into action and chemo vials were injected into his body one after the other. Some result definitely came to be seen, improving the quality of life greatly, but that was only for a few days. Finally doctors advised Ram Khilaban to go home. And the fighter in him understood what the doctors meant by that.

Lying on the same bed continuously for two months, Ram Khilaban was bored to a hilt. Now he was not afraid of death. He had arrived at his own findings about life and death. People are afraid of uncertainties. And death for him was not going to be an uncertain eventuality any longer. He was ready to fight any attempt to tut-tut at him, for he had begun to imagine his way ahead. Even he would share it, in case anybody would benefit by that. He thought, ‘Shouldn’t I go to my office, even for a while? After all, I’ll be living there even after my death, won’t I?’

He sent a word to Prabhudayal through one of his relatives. And Prabhudayal visited Ram Khilaban without any loss of time.

It is often seen that spiritually immersed people love to adore people who are about to die, for the one who is going to die will be meeting God soon. Prabhudayal was for choosing the right words, a manner of articulation that would best console Ram Khilaban. More than medicine, moribund Ram Khilaban needed consolation urgently and Prabhudayal was there to reel that out.

Lo and behold! Ram Khilaban was totally fearless. Prabhudayal suspected the fellow had already known the secret meaning of human life which had eluded him so far despite his rigorous penance all through his life. How else a person so painfully enduring the death throes could adopt such a lofty posture of fearlessness?

‘Sir, I wonder if I could go to office just for once,’ pleaded Ram Khilaban.

‘Oh yes, by all means,’ agreed Prabhudayal without so much as a twitch of hesitation.

When both of them reached office, it was already night. All drafted for night duty were busy disposing their work. There were heaps of mail all around. Seeing Ram Khilaban everyone was drawn towards him. All wanted to know his wellbeing and he, too, replied to those friendly queries smilingly.

Finally Ram Khilaban went near the pigeons, resting snugly in their nests for the night. The birds could recognise his presence by moving their heads, some of them even crooned briefly but they were far from being afraid of him. Had it been the case of any other day they would have shown panic reaction. They would have fluttered their wings and taken a desperate flight in all directions to escape the doom. But today no such thing was necessary. The birds knew everything: they knew only a friend was standing before them.

Ram Khilaban came home and returned to his bed. Just two days later he breathed his last.
A N Nanda

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Thursday, July 07, 2016

सूबेदार और ज़मींदार

सूबेदार और ज़मींदार
श्रीमान्‌ भारतेन्दु वहिदार आख़िर में अपने राज्य में आ ही गए। अपनी पैंतीस साल की नौकरी के दौरान उन्होंने अपने राज्य के सिवा और कई जगहों में काम किया, पर वे इतने खुशनसीब न थे कि इससे पहले अपने राज्य में किसी पद पर काम कर सकें। ख़ैर, देर ही सही, अब काम तो बन गया। वहिदार साहब आकर मध्यराष्ट्र परिमंडल में चीफ़ पोस्टमास्टर जनरल बन गए। जगह थी अपनी, भाषा भी अपनी, फिर भी शुरू में उन्हें सब कुछ नए लगे। मध्यराष्ट्र सूबे की राजधानी रामेशवरनगर में डाक परिमंडल का मुखिया बनकर वे सचमुच आत्म-विभोर हो गए। कार्यालय-भवन की दूसरी मंज़िल में स्थित अपने कमरे के झरोखा से बाहर गगनचुंबी इमारतों का नज़ारा देखकर, लोगों का बधाई-संदेश पढ़कर, चाहनेवालों से सुगंधित गुलदस्तों को स्वीकारकर, पुराने दोस्तों का हाल-समाचार सुनकर उन्हें नौकरी करने का सच्चा सुख प्राप्त होने लगा।

ख़ुशी का दौर ख़त्म होते ही वे काम में लग गए। अपने राज्य में डाक संस्था का मुख्य होने पर कुछ कर गुज़रने का ख़्याल उनको शुरू से ही था। आज उस सपने को साकार करने का मौक़ा आ गया। कम-से-कम समय में वे अपने कार्यक्षेत्र से संबंधित न्यूनतम जानकारियाँ हासिल कर लेना चाहते थे। अपने पैंतीस साल के तजुर्बे से वे विभाग के बारे में ऐसा बहुत कुछ जानते थे जो जगह बदलने पर भी बदलते नहीं। एक डाक कर्मचारी अपने विभाग से क्या चाहता है, उसे उसे किन-किन कार्यों में महारत हासिल है, अपने वरिष्ठ अधिकारियों से उसे क्या-क्या अपेक्षाएँ हैं, डाक सेवा को लेकर लोगों की अच्छी-बुरी क्या धारणाएँ हैं---वे सब मालूम थीं वहिदार साहब को। फिर नई जगह में काम करने में उन्हें क्यों अड़चन आती?

साहब की असली अड़चन कार्यालय से नहीं बल्कि घरेलू उलझन से थी। अब तक नौकरी में पैंतीस साल गुज़र चुके थे पर वे अपने लिए एक मकान भी नहीं बनवा पाये। आर्थिक दृष्टि से वे इतने कमज़ोर न थे कि दो-तीन कोठरीवाला एक आवासीय भवन नहीं बनवा पाते, मगर वे सोचते थे, 'बेमतलब घर किसके लिए बनाऊँ? क्या अपनी मेहनत की कमाई को लगाकर किरायेदार को आराम पहुँचाऊँ?’

सेवा की अवधि अब एक साल में ख़त्म होने वाली है। वे अपनी इस माँग को और टाल नहीं सकते। उनकी धर्मपत्नी भी चाहती थीं कि कैसे भी हो अपना मकान इस एक साल के अंदर बना लिया जाए, नहीं तो इसके बाद कहाँ जाएँगे? जैसे ही वहिदार साहब सेवानिवृत होंगे, नए चीफ़ पोस्टमास्टर जनरल सरकारी आवास में रहने आ जाएँगे। शिष्टाचार के लिहाज़ से वहिदार दंपति को यह आवासीय भवन नए चीफ़ पोस्टमास्टर जनरल के आने से पहले छोड़ देना सही रहेगा। तब वहिदार साहब बेघर हो जाएँगे। रहने के लिए उन दोनों पति-पत्नी को क्या अपनी बेटी और जमाई के पास जाना पड़ेगा? उनको तो अपना बेटा नहीं था, अगर वह भी होता भगवान जाने वह कैसा होता ! आमतौर पर आजकल बेटे लोग अपने माँ-बाप की ख़ुशी का इतना ख़्याल नहीं रखते।

श्रीमान्‌ भारतेन्दु वहिदार, मध्यराष्ट्र परिमंडल के चीफ़ पोस्टमास्टर जनरल ने आख़िर में मकान बनवाने का मन बना लिया। अपने करीबी अधिकारियों के साथ बातचीत करते वक्त उन्होंने अपनी इस योजना के बारे में बता दिया। उन लोगों में जिनको घर बनाने का तजुर्बा था, वे लोग वहिदार साहब से इस संबंध में बातें करने लगे। ख़ैर, ऑफ़िसर को जो पसंद है, कर्मचारी वही बात करते हैं। उन्हें अगर शतरंज खेल में शौक़ होता, तो कर्मचारी उनके साथ शतरंज की गूढ़ चालों के बारे में बातें करते; उन्हें शायरी में दिलचस्पी रहती, तो वे लोग रोज़ नई-नई शायरी लाकर उन्हें भेंट देते। ऑफ़िसर अब घर बनाने को मन बनाया, सो लोग उनके साथ इर्टं-सीमेंट की चर्चा करने लगे।

मगर बात सिर्फ़ इर्टं-सीमेंट की न थी। घर बनाएँ, तो कहाँ बनाएँ, जब वहिदार साहब के पास ज़मीन ही नहीं। सबसे पहले उन्हें ज़मीन ख़रीदनी थी, फिर मकान बनाने का दौर शुरू होता।

लोग कहते हैं, ज़मीन, औरत और विद्या भाग्य में ही लिखी होतीं हैं, पर उस भाग्य को पढ़ने वाला तो वहिदार साहब के पास आ ही नहीं सकता था। साहब इन सब बातों पर कतई विश्वास नहीं करते थे। एक ही रास्ता बचा था और वह था किसी बिचौलिये के मार्फ़त ज़मीन लेना। आख़िर में साहब को वही करना पड़ेगा। सचमुच वे ऐसा ही सोच रहे थे।

किस्मत से साहब को खबर मिली कि अपने परिमंडल में किसी अतिरिक्त विभागीय डाक वाहक श्री रूँगटा विराग ज़मीन ख़रीदने में सहायता कर सकता है। वह कर्मचारी एक बिचौलिया था, पर अपने विभाग में इतने बड़े अधिकारी के साथ व्यापार उसने पहले कभी नहीं किया था। आज एक ज़बरदस्त मौक़ा उसके हाथ लग गया।

अक्सर अतिरिक्त विभागीय कर्मचारी देहात में डाक संचालन करते हैं और चीफ़ पोस्टमास्टर जनरल जैसे बड़े ऑफ़िसर से मिलने का अवसर उन्हें कम मिलता है। लेकिन श्री रूँगटा विराग इन लोगों से भिन्न था, जो खुद को किसी उच्च अधिकारी से कम नहीं समझता था। शहर के उपांत स्थित एक डाकघर में वह काम करता था और डाक लाने व ले जाने के लिए वह रोज़ शहर आना-जाना करता था। तब विकास और शहरीकरण के दौर में रामेशवरनगर आकार और आबादी दोनों में बढ़ने लगा था और देखते ही देखते रूँगटा का डाक घर भी शहर के अंदर समा गया। रूँगटा ने इस बदलाव को अच्छी तरह समझ लिया। उसने अपने लिए एक नया उप-धंधा चुन लिया। इस प्रकार श्री रूँगटा विराग बन गया एक विचक्षण बिचौलिया! पिछले पंद्रह साल में दिमाग़ के बलबूते  उसने कितनों को बुद्धू बनाया, कितने कागजात को असली-नक़ली किया, कितने लोगों से अग्रिम लेकर लौटाने में विलंब किया--इसका हिसाब नहीं। ऐसे लोग जो रूँगटा से अपने पैसे वसूलने में नाकामयाब रहे, उन लोगों ने आकर डाक मंडल अधीक्षक से रूँगटा की शिकायत की, पर नतीजा कुछ न निकला। हाँ, एकाध अनुशासनात्मक कार्रवाई तो शुरू कर दी गई, पर इन सब मामले में गवाह भी तो चाहिए! शुरू-शुरू में कुछ मार-धाड़ अवश्य हुए, मगर आजकल रूँगटा अकेला नहीं है। अब न पुलिसवाले कुछ कर सकते हैं, न विभागीय अधिकारी । कौन, क्या बिगाड़ सकता है उसका?

आज जैसे ही वहिदार साहब ने रूँगटा को अपने पास बुलाया उसने सज-धज कर परिमंडल कार्यालय में दस्तक दी। सफ़ेद कुर्ता, सफ़ेद धोती और इत्र से महकता हुआ लाल पट्टीवाली चद्दर---वह एक पहुँचा हुआ तृणमूल राजनीतिज्ञ जैसा लग रहा था। साहब के कमरे में आकर बैठने के लिए उसने इजाज़त लेना ज़रूरी नहीं समझा; ऐसे ही कुर्सी पर बैठ गया। चीफ़ पोस्टमास्टर जनरल श्रीमान्‌ वहिदार साहब को रूँगटा का इस प्रकार का हाव-भाव कुछ अच्छा नहीं लगा, पर वे क्या करते? उन्होंने सोचा, 'इस लोकतंत्र की दौर में तहज़ीब आज़माने से बहुत पहले लोग ऐसे ही ऊपर तक पहुँच जाते हैं। फिर रूँगटा की बात तो अलग है; वह मुझे कुछ देने आया है, लेने नहीं! आज अगर मैं अपनी अधिकारीगिरी थोपने लगूँ तो सेवानिवृत होने तक घर कैसे बना पाऊँगा?’

प्रारंभिक बात के सिलसिले में रूँगटा ने बहुत कुछ कहा। किन-किन बड़े लोगों के साथ उसका उठना-बैठना होता है, हाल में किन-किन लोगों को उसने ज़मीन दिला दी, कहाँ उसका अपना तीसरा मकान बन रहा है, वगैरह, वगैरह। बीच में टोके वगैर चीफ़ पोस्टमास्टर जनरल श्रीमान्‌ भारतेंदु वहिदार सब सुनते गए, बिल्कुल एक आज्ञाकारी छात्र जैसे।

'हाँ जी, भगवान की कृपा से मुझे अभाव नहीं है। मैं आपसे कोई कमीशन की अपेक्षा नहीं रखता हूँ, फिर भी....ज़मीन के मामले में लोग कुछ-न-कुछ अग्रिम चाहते हैं,’ अब रूँगटा मतलब की बात करने लगा।

'नहीं, मेरे ख़्याल में अग्रिम देकर बात को उलझाना ठीक नहीं होगा, रूँगटा जी। क्या इसके बिना काम नहीं बनेगा?’ आख़िर वहिदार साहब ने अपनी शंका स्पष्ट कर दी।

ऐसा लगता था कि साहब की बात रूँगटा को पसंद न आई। वह एक मिनट के लिए चुप रहा। उसे अब पता चल गया था कि मामला यहाँ फ़िट होने वाला नहीं है। फिर जाने से पहले कुछ ऐसे कहकर निकल पड़ा, 'मैं कोशिश करके देखता हूँ, पर क्या करूँ, आजकल ज़मीन ख़रीदने के लिए लोगों की मारामारी ! फिर भी...

साहब ने बिचौलिया से तो मिल लिया, पर वे उस शख़्स पर इतनी आसानी से भरोसा नहीं कर पाये। इस दर्मियान रूँगटा की नीयत के बारे में वे कुछ खोज-बीन भी कर चुके थे। सूचना के आधार पर वे जोखिम उठाने के पक्ष में न थे। दूसरी ओर उन्होंने ऐसा भी सोचा, 'ज़मीन क्या साबुन, टूथ-पेस्ट जैसा सामान है जिसे किसी दूकान के काउंटर पर ऐसे ही ख़रीदा जा सके! क्या पहले सामान, फिर बिल, फिर भुगतान--ऐसे ज़मीन का भी सौदा होना चाहिए? अगर मैं अपनी सोच में थोड़ा-सा ढील न दूँ, तो यह भी हो सकता है कि कोई भी ज़मीन बेचने वाला मेरी तरफ़ नज़र उठाकर देखेगा ही नहीं। लोग जानते हैं कि मैं बड़ा अधिकारी हूँ, पर इससे ज़मीन बेचने वालों को क्या लेना-देना?’

श्रीमान्‌ भारतेन्दु वहिदार अपनी बीवी की राय पर भरोसा करते थे। दुनियादारी में औरतों का कोई मुक़ाबला नहीं। मर्दों की अक़्ल को कैसे निखारना है, यह उन्हें बचपन में ही सिखाया जाता है। आज वहिदार साहब ने तय कर लिया कि अगर उन्हें और आगे जाना होगा, तो साथ में अपनी बीवी की सलाह होना निहायत आवश्यक है।

ऐसा लगता था कि श्रीमती वहिदार को घर बनाने की जल्दी थी। उन्होंने अपने पति को बिचौलिए के मार्फ़त ज़मीन ख़रीदने की सलाह दे दी। साथ में कुछ अग्रिम देने को भी कह दिया। वैसे तो उन्होंने स्पष्ट नहीं किया था कि राशि कितनी दी जानी चाहिए। अगर वहिदार साहब अपनी श्रीमतीजी से पूछ बैठते, तो कोई ज़रुरी नहीं कि वे अपनी राय स्पष्ट करती। आखिर में औरत यह भी जानती है कि सलाह देने के मामले में किस हद तक जाना चाहिए। हर मामले में बीवी को आधी ही ज़िम्मेदारी लेनी चाहिए न कि पूरी !

रूँगटा को अग्रिम मिल गया और वह ज़मीन ख़रीदने में जुट गया। वैसे तो उसके पास दो-तीन प्रस्ताव थे, पर वे सब वास्तु के हिसाब से सही न थे। फिर वह कैसे उस घटिया क़िस्म की ज़मीन अपने उच्च अधिकारी को दिलवाता?

समय बीतता गया। दो महीने क्या, दो साल भी काफ़ी नहीं होते हैं, एक ऐसी ज़मीन तलाशने के लिए जो हर दृष्टि से शुभकारी हो। यहाँ वहिदार साहब की नौकरी भी ख़त्म होने जा रही थी। उनमें शंका आने लगी, 'अगर ज़मीन खोजते-खोजते मैं सेवानिवृत हो जाऊँ, तो क्या रूँगटा मेरा पैसा लौटाएगा? पचास हज़ार रुपये कुछ कम नहीं होते हैं! अगर रूँगटा ने मेरा पैसा नहीं लौटाया, तो मैं  उसका क्या कर पाऊँगा?’

नौकरी के अंत में सेवानिवृत होना और ज़िंदगी के आख़िरी पड़ाव में मौत के साथ मुलाक़त होना, क्या कोई टाल सकता है? समय आने पर वहिदार साहब सेवानिवृत हो गए। उनके विदाई-समारोह में शामिल होने रूँगटा परिमंडल कार्यालय आया था। सबको मालूम था कि रूँगटा बिचौलिया साहब के लिए ज़मीन खोज नहीं पाया, लेकिन कोई यह नहीं जानता था कि क्या सचमुच रुंगटा ने साहब से लिया हुआ पैसा लौटा दिया? साहब ने भी इसके बारे में किसी से बात नहीं की थी। वार्तालाप के लिए उन्होंने और विषय चुन लिया, जैसे कि सूफ़ी संगीत, जादू सम्राट पी. सी. सरकार, एस्पेराँतो भाषा की सहूलियतें, रास्ते में कुत्तों का प्रादुर्भाव, ऐसे कई और, पर ज़मीनवाली बात पर मानो फूल स्टॉप ही पड़ गया था। वाह वहिदार साहब, मन बहलाना तो कोई आपसे सीखे!
अरे, हाँ। साहब अपनी नौकरी के आख़िरी दो-तीन महीनों से ज़रूर कार्यव्यस्त थे। उन्होंने अपनी पैतृक ज़मीन पर घर बना लिया था। अपने इस निर्णय के पक्ष में वे बोलते थे, 'आजकल गाँव में क्या अभाव है? बिजली, पानी, सड़क, केबुल टी. वी., मोबाइल फ़ोन, इंटरनेट---सब  मिलते हैं, गाँव में। अगर चैन से समय गुज़ारना है तो गाँव लौटकर आज़मा के तो देखिए।'
A N Nanda

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Wednesday, July 06, 2016

And Then a Fine Morning

And Then a Fine Morning

This is a story I wrote while I was at Calicut some 12 years ago. It was on 18-6-2004 to be precise. While writing it I got anecdotal but as I finished it, I refused to discard it. I convinced myself that it was a story and included in my short story collection, "The Remix of Orchid". Now as I read it before posting, I feel nostalgic about Port Blair. A charming location, a quiet place, a story-teller's town!
It is my love for life that finally triumphs over all the pain and delirium. Those insipid pills, all the tormenting jabs throughout my body also do their bit, but then they are only placebos. Now, there is nothing more for me in the pharmacopeia to endure. What about the final formality? Shouldn’t I wait for the doctor’s nod before I step out? Yes, I must. The doctor and the swarm of well-wishers—they are the guardians of my health.
                        Oh no! I don’t give a damn about the stuffy formality of taking permission of the host before departing. There is life beyond the sickbed. But that is what I alone think, not the all-knowing seekers of my well-being. It is a tall order to be able to convince them. So I pray for a constitutional—my lovely little constitutional.
                        Come evening I am allowed to do as I wish but with a lot of homely hesitation. I have no over-high expectations. I do not want any busybodies to bump into me, and hunt for those trivial matters I take care to forget. I should be given my chance…and my peace. I just prefer to go alone on the tracks, along the trails that are lonely and peaceful, across the desolate bridle path that nobody frequents so often as I.
                        The sky is fine with fluffy clouds, immobile and not likely to threaten like those satisfied mongrels on the street after their sumptuous grub; with patches of overdone yellow like piles of dying leaves, redolent of poverty, neglect and jaundice; with its chiaroscuro of dark and grey, emphasizing gloom and irremediable inequality in the immediate neighbourhood. The sea is calm, already hours into its low tide phase, its golden sands more exposed, crowded and rummaged, its colour darkened under the impact of moonless sky, and I continue to walk my constitutional.

‘Good evening, Mr Basantram,’ a familiar face greets me. I feel disturbed, not only because it breaks my thought process but also for the fact that it embarrasses me. It reminds me I am getting more unsocial day by day; it confronts me with the reality that people know me by name, whereas I know them by face; it makes me suspicious of the untold intention of the officious person.

‘Good evening, Sir,’ I return the courtesy with a reluctance writ large in my tone.

                        The gentleman is undoubtedly an intelligent individual. He interprets my grumpy reticence, understands what is going on in my mind and what would I like at the moment. When we reach the first diversion beyond the Government Press, he diverts his path, takes a further turn after a few steps, then another turn, and then a third so that he is lost from my indignant view, and I continue plodding on and on, on the straight bitumen road. Marina Park of Aberdeen is now left behind with its stalls of putrid eatables and its crowd of crazy frequenters; the road can take me to Corbyn’s Cove if I stick to it till the end. It will require me a cool half an hour sauntering at this pace. I understand that and try to be brisk, covering more distance in every stride thenceforward.     
                        I go past the Murugan temple disliking the riot of colours on its exterior, the annoying wild growth around it, the well-like terrain of its location, the lack of elegance of its architecture, and above all, its conflicting ambience that makes happiness disappear as soon as it arrives. I see those exposed rocks of the seabed in the low tide, and their deformed perforated view depresses me. I see the stream with its trickles of clear water, incapable of quenching anybody’s thirst, but just enough to keep it wet, so that people continue to call it a stream and have no doubt about it. I want to go past the spot in quick strides without looking towards the Pir Baba Dargah, where people throng for picnic and have converted it into a poor man’s partying venue, and where people visit without bothering to know what that holy spot has to do with the modern day socialisation. I do not look there since a fear of getting detained by somebody semi-familiar and nagging seizes me. I succeed in avoiding them and a twitch of happiness runs through me. I want to reward myself by slowing down the pace; in normal course, I would have done that as the road assumes an upward slope.
                        Pleasant breezes come off the sea and rustle the leaves, dishevel my hair, billow my loose-fitting dress, and do many more things as they please, but do not stop unless I have inhaled to my lungs’ content. The last twitter of the evening is still heard but feebly, and the frisky insects come out in swarms but not with a vengeance since the darkness in the evening is still to set in fully. The occasional warble of frogs in proximity, the damp reek of centipedes, and the fermented odour of unspecified reptiles touching my nostrils make me feel closer to the swamp. I continue to walk and reach proximate to the Horn Bill Nest holiday resort and smell the pungent scent of some unknown garden palm in bloom. I have heard many praising the odour of that smelly palm, but its unmixed pungency forces my head into momentary giddiness. The winding upland road nears its end at the last hairpin bend, as I spot the beach—the happy beach of Corbyn’s Cove. I feel energetic and start realising a feeling that I have taken less time than ever. A car whizzes past me but I am not sad. I know I shall have seen, enjoyed, and remembered more than those unfortunate souls huddled inside the cab. 
                        I reach Corbyn’s Cove Beach and see a crowd. I am not bothered about it since I know the beach has enough room for the crowd and me. I resolve not to disturb it and I am sure it will reciprocate.
                        A group is busy having some celebrations. It has crackers, sparklers, and many such thingies capable of emitting light—each for a few moments, and only that much. Then another has to burn and light the surroundings. They will be in light till they can burn, and thereafter darkness will engulf them. But what are they doing exactly? And here at the sea beach? Only five days back they had Diwali, the festival of light. Have not they yet finished their stock? It is just possible. For many it takes longer to finish their stock and for others it is so very instant! Then those that have nothing to finish have to remain content being called as the poor.
                        What is this that I see here? The same gentleman comes back to me. He had left me to myself just half an hour back and now he comes again to me. What for? To remind me that I should do better to remember friends’ names? Or to test if I have succeeded in recalling it in the meantime? So what if I’ve not? He may think I have grown old, senile, reckless, unsociable, and eccentric or anything that makes him happy. And I do not bother.         

‘Good evening, Mr Basantram,’ the familiar face greets me. I feel helpless and respond.

‘What are these people doing here?’ I ask the familiar gentleman because I have to talk now, perhaps somewhat more than required, to hide my uncertainties.

‘Maybe some Marwari festival—I don’t know,’ the gentleman quips. His answer does not seem convincing to me. Rather, it confuses.

                        We start to return. Darkness emphasises that we are late. We walk quickly, and then I trail. The gentleman waits for me to catch up and I do so before I can decide to do otherwise. But I feel embarrassed and further slow down my pace. The gentleman waits furthermore and allows me to catch up. Then I sit on a side rock, inhale oxygen, and contemplate how to get away from him. The gentleman does his part of thinking and strives to take me along. We sit on the rock to listen to our breath and do not talk since I do not welcome talking, or maybe I am afraid of him. Maybe I have nothing to talk.
                        We resume our walk and I walk shoulder to shoulder. I observe en route the same thing I had done an hour before, but now they appear hazy, except the fireflies that glow to defy the mighty darkness in their way. I hear chirp of crickets that they do hiding themselves unlike the fireflies for which a lot of self-publicity is needed for living as though they will die without them. Then I turn to left at the first branching of the road, and do it silently while the semi-familiar gentleman keeps straight and trudges ahead.
                        Finally I am home and all are happy to see me back. I do everything perfectly, for I know it as routine. Sometimes I do not have to think—a towel hangs from its rail near the washbasin, so I use it after a wash; the familiar sofa is vacant and tidy, so I sit there; a steaming cup of tea comes before me, so I grab it and slurp it to finish. Everybody makes me happy because they want me to recover soon and have no more fits of delirium to disturb them through the dead of night. Port Blair is a place with dearth of experts—you have a chest specialist to treat your heart because heart resides in chest; you have an electrician to repair your electronic gadgets because ‘electronics’ and ‘electricity’ sound alike. I go across to them, stand there till they smile, and I smile them back and come back to my familiar sofa. Now children are encouraged, murmur starts and gains in pitch and frequency, and happiness reigns.
                        I try to think about the semi-familiar man. It interests me no longer. It is now more comforting to think of wife, children, and pet. I feel the delight of lightness that makes me relish food served, enjoy the vagueness of matters raised, discussed and swept aside, stand the involuntary twitch and whine of the pet, or the resonance of television soaps from the neighbour.
                  And then I go to sleep. Everybody says I should have plenty of sleep to convalesce, but I think I need, more than anything else, an assurance that things would not be as bad as before. Now I have started getting it but slowly, like the movement of a hermit crab that chooses to withdraw and lie still on slight threat of insecurity and resumes its crawl long long thereafter with renewed cautiousness and repeated self-assurance. I devour pills, the bitter insipid pills, and everybody says that I should have plenty of pills to recover, but I feel I need, more than anything else, a silence and a complete silence like the one a frog likes to enjoy itself in its hibernation in wintry days. I cover my body with a blanket, the fluffy smooth blanket, and everybody says that I should sleep covering my whole body to keep myself warm and recuperate, but I feel I need a solid hard sheet on my aching body like a tortoise to keep itself warm under its hard shell that no mosquito ever ventures to prick and inject malaria. And finally I go to sleep.
                        I should sleep my beauty sleep, now that I am tired after a long walk after a long gap. I am advised praying God before sleeping and I do not see anything wrong in doing that. And I pray god, the one who has given me happiness unexpected, always, and in abundance, the one who does not mind if I fail to remember, supplicate and praise, the one who is happy if I pray for others, allow Him to do as He thinks good and do not nag for more and more. I begin my soporific spell with a yawn at first, a steady tranquilisation thereafter, and a satisfying snore at the end.
                        The night progresses and with it deepens my sleep.
                        Now is the time to close the account for the night. I dream and in my dream find the same semi-familiar man. But he is no longer a disgusting interruption, or an unsolicited meddler; rather he is an affectionately munificent soul who can be welcomed to every quarter. He is with a load on his head, offering his wares for sale—the fresh vegetables. Yummy…Yummy, they are bitter gourds! The bitter gourd that I like the most is the stuff on sale and that too, at a ludicrously depressed price. I can buy his whole basketful if I want, just in exchange of a loving stroke. I do not hesitate and give a gentle stroke and then the affectionate man morphs himself into another more familiar and more lovable appearance, an old man I had not seen for years. Oh yes, he is my father who is before me in his emaciated bony appearance, with his toothless smile, and age-defying air. I feel so good that I stir on the bed and catch the attention of my wife. And then I narrate the entire theme to her.

‘But you’ve had no delirium tonight, I must say,’ my wife is happy to announce. She is convinced that I am recovering from the fits of delirium that had afflicted me for quite some time and made everybody miserable in the dead of nights.

‘Oh yes, I must tell you how I feel now. I feel so good that I can go to the kitchen and make tea for you, darling,’ I confirm her optimism.

                        She dissuades me from getting up so soon or undertaking strain in the kitchen. I agree to her suggestion. I am sure she continues to love me; rather she loves me more than ever. I have the need to live for her and I could not have died so soon.
                        The night has almost ended. It is now the time for everybody on the bed to go through the final round of twist and turn, and to slothfully invent the best possible plea to prolong his sweet sleep. The meticulous early risers will now be busy at washbasins, the sleeping chowkidars will get up from their slumber and get ready to go, handing over the responsibility of the premises they have guarded in their dream, the shipping staff at jetty will bustle around to ready themselves for sending a ship in her inter-island trip, the milk van will start its whirlwind criss-cross. All these will start in a short while and then, before we realise, the day will break with brightness.        
                        I hear something very near, just in front of my window. I strain my ear to catch it. And I catch it correctly; it is the chanting of those devotional Bhojpuri songs, sung in chorus by women coming nearer and nearer. I think I have correctly realised the context and I get up to look through my window for a confirmation before I utter a word. I recognise this; they are going to seashore to perform the rituals associated with the pious festival of Bihar, Chhath, which comes five days after Diwali. They are going to give their first offerings and worship when the Sun God shows his face on the eastern horizon. They are neatly dressed, barefooted, slow and they proceed ahead in tandem. They are men, women of all age groups. They are Biharis, and they appear happy and contented.
                        I know what the festival means to a devotee. It calls for strict abstinence, non-vegetarian diet and diurnal fasting for a couple of days before and complete fasting on the day of the observance, keeping awake all the time to catch the fixed moment of offering, and various other kinds of dos and don’ts. The ponds or river ghats, where the devotees assemble, dip, and do their worship, have to be clean and made up. Despite the initial bite of winter that follows Diwali to Bihar, nobody hesitates to go into chilled water in the early hours of Chhat morning or at sunset. They worship for material prosperity, mental peace, and elimination of enemies and for almost everything. They do not forget to pray for good health and burst the leftover crackers of Diwali.
                        And they get to the ponds with head-loads of fruits and offerings like the present group of men and women who are carrying them on their heads to the beach at Aberdeen. Aha! It is exactly like the loving old man who came sometime back in my dream and gave his head-load of bitter gourd just in exchange of a loving stroke. Yes, bitter gourd in exchange of a stroke! And I feel good, so good that now I can proceed to kitchen, and make tea for my darling wife, who has nursed me back to life.  

‘Oh yes, I know now what they’re all about. Today is Chhat, you know darling?’  I cried out of happiness. I have had occasions in the past to see people going respectful and happy on the mention of its name alone. I relive that—on this spur and automatically. 

‘God, what a terrible slip! You know, I have missed to send my offerings this year through somebody who is observing Chhat,’ she feels the pang of her conscience and starts cursing herself for her forgetfulness. I feel it is my duty to console her.

‘It’s unintentional, darling. It doesn’t make any difference. You can do that afresh next year.’ It appears my words fail to make any impact on her penitent mood.

                        I change the topic. I declare that sleeping is not going to happen any more and get up to sit on the bed. She also feels she should get up for making me some tea. She wakes up and prays God, standing and looking out of the window, with her semi-closed eyes.
                        She finishes her prayer very soon. I wonder what she should be asking God for so soon. Maybe a religious lady like her is not to ask God for anything. She knows that God has only to be thanked for everything He has given to us, and to the world at large and for allowing us to continue doing things as per the dictates of quotidian existence. The esoteric realisation of this wonderful lady is beyond my comprehension. I have so far not probed that deep to realise all those she has been confident of.
                        She goes to washbasin and then into the kitchen and does everything methodically and peacefully. Her sedulous operation inside kitchen makes me happy, as I have followed her into the kitchen in the meanwhile. I feel completely relieved and ready for the day ahead.


A. N. Nanda




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