Amrita Sher-Gill. Woman on Charpai. 1040. Courtesy: WikirArt.org
Bebe sits on the charpai in the verandah of her only son’s new bungalow, all alone, lost in thought. The deep lines on her face, weighed down by her experiences, reach the wooden legs of the charpai and it seems as if the old wood would disintegrate and merge with those wrinkles at any time now.
Bebe raises her head and looks out but can see nothing. She is not blind; she squints her rheumy eyes and manages to catch sight of something. But what does one do with someone whose eyes are always veiled by memories and sights of the past …. Her ancestral home with innumerable rooms opening one into the other … and … and…. Bebe smiles a little … and the sagging wrinkles lift up to Bebe’s face, making it whole again… and her husband flits from room to room, looking for her desperately…while she sits here, in this room breaking into a sudden laugh and he, hearing the silvery tinkle of her laughter, follows it finds her and holds her tightly in his arms.
The image of the whole haveli is etched on Bebe’s face and her laughter resounds through every room. And her charpai struggles to hold Bebe down,Bebe, show some thought to your age … As it is everyone thinks you are mad… But at that moment Bebe is Bebe. She will not pay heed to anyone, not even the charpai!
I wondered fearfully if she was lost somewhere.
But even if she did get lost, she would be found in one of these rooms where she would laughingly tell her husband, Even if I die I will be here, and if you don’t find my body in one of the open rooms, the keys to the others are in this bunch, tied to the pallu of my dupatta. May be I will fall asleep there, waiting, waiting for you.
Bebe restlessly spreads her legs out on the charpai and drawing her dupatta across her breasts, takes the big bunch of keys tied to one end of it, in her hands. The metal of the keys, under the gentle touch of her fingers over the years, has come alive and bares its soul in the shape of every key … this key for the kitchen … I have told you so many times, at least come in time for meals, but who listens to me? Oh you are here? Wait, wait…I’m coming… And this key? That’s the room my Munna studies in… see, the same story again … the lantern is burning above his head and your Munna, is fast asleep holding the book in his hands… you get after him unnecessarily … who knows he must be studying in his dreams…
“Bebe, you still think of me as munna, but I am the father of a child now. Call me by my name.”
I try but when I call you by your name, I feel I am addressing my daughter-in-law’s husband, not my son.
“So address me as that, then, Bebe. How can I remain your Munna all my life, Bebe?”
Bebe’s trembling fingers moved from the key to Munna’s study room and rested on another key. The room from where her husband conducted his business. Come, come in, Munne’s Bebe. Why did you stop? Hai!Why are you crying?
That is my great sorrow… you are not here … Had I been there, even if I was dying I would have stayed alive to take care of you. Bebe is racked by dry sobs but since no tears flow down her dry and shrivelled cheeks, no one knows she is crying.
One key seems to leap into her hands of its own accord. A door opens. They are bringing out the body of her dead husband.
No no, don’t take him away. I have spent all my life inside this haveli … I don’t know the roads outside …where will I go looking for him? Don’t take him away, don’t …
People are muttering among themselves and Bebe is distraught.
Yes, yes I have gone mad, let me be mad, otherwise I will really become mad.
Sawan, the season of rains has descended into Bebe’s eyes, but the weather outside is so hot and dry that one tree at the edge of the lawn in front of the verandah whispers to another, ‘Look how rain from the old woman’s eyes is falling on the stone floors and shattering.’
‘At least if it falls on the parched earth near us, our thirst will be quenched.’
Bebe clasps the big key bunch to her chest as if she is gathering the whole haveli to herself.
She stands beside her dying husband and weeps.
“Don’t cry you silly girl, I have very little time left.”
To silence her sobs she stuffs her dupatta into her mouth.
“Stop crying and listen to me. Remain in this haveli until your last breath. I have also instructed Munna to come and live here once he gets his law degree. Have a grand wedding ceremony for him. Our family has lived in this haveli for generations and our ancestors get together whenever there is a marriage or a death. I saw them all with my own eyes at our wedding. My late father too was among them. Yes, the very same … he too was there, with the rest…Are you listening? If you remain here, then no matter where I am, you will be with me. Don’t leave the haveli under any circumstances. Otherwise we will get separated… there, look, they are all coming, my father, his father, his grandfa…”
Bebe has actually become insane. Poor thing doesn’t know if she is in her own home or if she has left it and come here a long time ago.In her head, though,those early days remain entrenched in her mind.All the rooms of the haveli have been locked and her late husband, his father and several of his ancestors are escorting her to the front door of the haveli. Her husband’s spirit comes forward and pats her shoulder. “Go, Munne ki Bebe, go. Things have become so bad, it is best that you leave this place. Otherwise these people will shed your blood. No don’t worry about us. There is no blood in us, what will they shed! But come back as soon as the situation improves. Lock the front door before you go. We will wait for you here, counting the hours till then.”
You had forbidden me from stepping out of the haveli, now you are turning me out?
“No Munne ki Bebe.I If, god forbid, someone should kill you, I will pursue him to hell, if necessary, but then there will be no coming back from there for me.”
“Yes, Munne ki Bebe, leave this place for now. No matter where you go, you will come right back here. Go now Bebe, otherwise we will be separated from each other for ever.”
A deep shudder of pain cut through the womb of mother earth. Giving birth to a pair of blood splattered twins, she breathed her last. And calamity struck. Arrey, someone bathe these two motherless babes. Swaddle them in soft warm clothes. Arrange for their food and shelter … But when trouble is hovering over one’s head, who listens? Crowds of people fall upon each other and the sight of dismembered bodies scattered around becomes so commonplace that not humanity,but its ghost is seen.Only recently two old spirits, one a living woman and the other her dead husband, were seen taking leave of each other.
Bebe runs her fingers over the bunch of keys tied to her pallu and turns her back upon the haveli and she can see it all so clearly. “Don’t be afraid, Munne kin Bebe, you are going away only to return..”
“Come on Bebe,” her young lawyer son reaches out to take her hand.
No, no, Bebe says and pulls back her outstretched hand.
“All my supports are here, in this haveli.” She leaps back to the door of the haveli and the key from the bunch plunges into the keyhole and opens the door.
“No, Munne ki Bebe,” her deceased husband still stands there, just inside the door. “Go. You must go.”
The ingenuous Bebe suddenly falls silent and follows her son as if she did not know she was going somewhere. And within herself, and in the dry, desiccated veins of her body she stumbles forth on her journey and is there where she was, in the haveli. All around the haveli is smoke and fire and flames and explosions, but the innards of the haveli are so safe, so calm,so populous.
Bebe has regained her voice. “Didn’t I tell you, Munne ki Bebe, no matter where you go you will come back here.”
Haan, you go and rest now. I must warm the milk for Munna. It’s time for him to come home from the courts.
“Bebe, Bebe! How can I make you understand? Will you rest only when you have made me mad like yourself?”
May your enemies become mad, Munne …. Why will you become mad when I am here to go mad myself?
“You are already mad Bebe … How can I make you understand that we have left our haveli, our basti, our country on the other side of the border? It’s been many years since. But you are still dwelling there.”
Where else can Isettle now, Munne? You go live, laugh, prosper, wherever you wish. For me it is that one ancestral haveli.
Lovingly, Bebe caresses the keys to her haveli.
“Even a madman is not so mad, Bebe! You still go around with that key bunch knotted in your pallu.”
Here, Munne, have your milk.
“What good will it do me, Bebe? I wish I could somehow turn and twist these keys just once and open you up, Bebe… Do you know that because of your insanity no girl is willing to marry me?”
Ajee, are you listening? Step out of your room. See your Munna has brought home his bride… what kind of a father are you? You don’t even hear the wedding revelry in the haveli. Even a dead man cannot be so deaf. Step outside … Come,Bahu, I will take you to your father-in-law. The poor man died dreaming of the day his Munna would pass the exams and become a lawyer, then bring home a bride…Come in, he is busy writing his accounts … as soon as he sees you, words will flow from his mouth … he will forget his business, his accounts, everything. Bahu, Bahu!Come and sit with me, Bahu, spend a little time with me also. I long to hear you say a few words to me sometimes…
“Bebe, what conversation can one have with a mad person?”
No, Munne, I am not mad.
“I am not Munna. Address me by my proper name.”
What is your name, Munna?Ajee, are you listening? What is our Munne’s full name? Bahu! Bahu, your feet are heavy, you are carrying… stop going to work now.
“If I give up working, Bebe, what will we eat?”
Why are you worrying about that,Bahu? Our haveli is a granary, overflowing with food grains … come with me, I will unlock the rooms and show you.
“Bebe, Bebe, you will make everyone crazy.Forget about me, at least show some consideration for your bahu.”
Who can equal my bahu? Ajee, are you listening? See your daughter-in-law has given birth to our grandson. He is exactly like our Munna. .. his head, his chin… Ajee are you listening … what kind of a grandfather are you? You don’t ever leave your room. See who has arrived in the haveli.
“Don’t make so much noise, Bebe. Let your daughter-in-law rest.”
Munne, I was only …
“How many times have I told you Bebe, I am not Munna.”
If you are not Munna, then whose mother am I?
“The way you harass me with your obsessions, Bebe, I wonder if you are my mother at all.”
Ajee are you listening? Come out of that blighted cell and hear what your Munna is saying to me.
Bebe lies on the charpai in the verandah of her son’s new house, tossing and turning and the charpai creaks and groans, “Go to sleep Bebe, why don’t you lie down quietly?”
Haan, I must go to sleep now, Bebe says closing her eyes and thinks it’s been a long time since her son, daughter-in-law and grandchild went out. They must be on their way back … Yes, they are coming.
Bebe … Bebe! Arrey look, Bebe, Bebe …. Look, look Bebe, her Munna is crying, his bahu too and also the little grandson ….
No little one, don’t cry… Bebe’s eyes fly open and she holds out her arms towards him, but then seeing no one there, closes her eyes again and she imagines, hazily that she is dead and the mad woman in her is actually acknowledging her madness and she realises that no one can die by simply closing one’s eyes.
The walls of the verandah respond to Bebe’s plea, “If you are thirsty then fend for yourself Bebe. What can we do?”
With great difficulty Bebe gets up from the charpai and reaches out for the enamel jug on the table beside her and the empty jug slips out of her hands and falls to the floor, clanging noisily, like her bad tempered son.
Sighing, she returns to the charpai and sits down.
“Look Bebe, see what we have brought for you!”
She turns around quickly hearing her grandson’s voice. What have you brought,Nanhe?
But there is no one there.
Her thirst increases.
And with a parched throat she stares at the locked door at the end of the passage leading into the bungalow.
See, the shape of his head is just like our Munna’s… even the chin is … Ajee, are you listening?
“Yes I am listening, Munne ki Bebe.”
But you are talking about someone else. This is our Munna… yes, our very own Munna…
“Come inside, Munne ki Bebe, why are you sitting out there? But draw your ghunghat over your head before you enter. Your father-in-law is coming this way… No, he has gone the other way…Arri, come in, unlock the door and walk right in … you drink some water and bring some for me also … come…”
Who knows where Bebe gets the energy from. She rushes to the closed door leading into the bungalow and inserts the keys from her bunch into the lock, one by one. But the lock will not open.
Translated by Keerti Ramachandra. All rights reserved.
Copyright this translation © Keerti Ramachandra
from the Urdu, ‘Dariyaon Pyaas’ by Joginder Paul
Keerti Ramachandra is a multi-linguist based in Bangalore. She has translated short fiction from Marathi, Kannada and Hindi. Many of the stories have appeared in magazines, journals, and anthologies. Her major translated works are: Vishwas Patil's A Dirge for the Dammed (shortlisted for the Raymond Crossword award in 2015) and Mahanayak (from Marathi), A faceless Evening and other stories, a collection of Gangadhar Gadgil's short stories also from Marathi, The Dying Sun and other stories by Joginder Paul with Usha Nagpal.( from Hindi ) and U R Ananthamurthy's Hindutva or Hind Swaraj with Vivek Shanbhag (from Kannada). Another Chance, a collection of six short stories and a novella by Saniya and Atmakatha, the autobiography of Madhu Limaye are with the publishers. In the pipeline are a collection of Bolwar Mahamad Kunhi's Kannada stories, a collection of Vijaya Rajadhyaksha's Marathi stories and an autobiography in Hindi