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Threshold— Nirmal Verma

Jun 17, 2023 | Fiction | 0 comments

TRANSLATED FROM THE HINDI BY AYUSHEE ARORA

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Last night, after ages, Rooni felt as if an old dream from years ago had slowly walked towards her with measured steps. It was the same bungalow, surrounded by foliage in a secluded corner, a creaking door, silence submerging the depths of the lawn. The early March breeze was gently caressing the grass, and a tune from a record of yonder echoed from beneath the canopy. Playing cards were scattered on the grass. It felt as though Shammi Bhai, with his raucous, cheerful laughter, would appear any moment now, and Apa (whose name was Jelly years ago) while digging the flower-beds backyard would playfully say, “Rooni, just look at my hands, how red they have become!”

After eons, Rooni felt as if she stood in front of the bungalow again, and everything was just the same as it was decades ago, like a day in March. Nothing had changed. It was the same bungalow, with the dry, warm evening breeze steadily blowing. The ringing sound of the curtains softly brushing against the ring continued during the silent afternoon. And she was lying on the grass, just as before. A single, solitary thought flitted thought her mind, “If only I were to die now.”

 However, that afternoon was not one where one could die with a mere desire. In the corner of the lawn, there was a cluster of three trees, with their intertwining branches constantly getting tangled. The blue expanse of the sky played peek-a-boo with one’s vision- sometimes shyly turning away, sometimes coquettishly preening through the wind-induced gap in the trees.  The aerial pole on the roof of the bungalow (if you look, lying on the grass with half-closed eyes, it appeared blurry like that), and it seemed like it was swaying slowly… Look with tired eyes (don’t even blink, even if tears fill your eyes… it looked blurry like that), and it seemed like the wire was gradually being cut from the middle and the blue expanse of the sky between the two severed wires was floating gently on the surface of the tears that glimmered on her eyelashes …

The weekly wait for Saturday always lasted an eternity. To make time go faster, she opened the pages of her stamp album and showed it to Jelly, and Jelly lifted her eyes from her book and asked, “Where is Argentina? Where is Sumatra?” Jelly’s questions fuelled her imagination, and in her head, she was travelling to obscure, far-away lands.  Every day, she filled the pages of the album with tickets from new countries, and when Shammi Bhai came from the hostel on Saturday afternoon, Jelly stood up from her chair, and a gleam of light shone in her eyes, and grabbing Rooni’s shoulders she said, “Go, bring the gramophone from inside.”

Rooni hesitated for a moment “Should she go or should she stay?”  Jelly was her older sister, there was a long, empty distance between her and Jelly, and a seemingly unbridgeable chasm.  She couldn’t touch either of them. They both dwelled in a world very distant from hers ….The gramophone was just an excuse, by sending her to get it, Jelly would be left alone with Shammi Bhai, and then… Rooni was running towards the bungalow… in the direction of the grass… dancing on the patches of wet grass in the yellow light, the green grass ,the rosy- pink sunlight, the rhythm of her heartbeat, the wind, the feathered wings of distant wind, they swayed the aerial pole back and forth, and like falling waves, the branches bowed. Slipping through her eyes, her tears trembled on the eyelashes, as if her pounding heartbeat had been condensed into a droplet. 

Shammi Bhai, when he would be back from the hostel, sat under the parachute-like umbrella in the middle of the lawn. The gramophone was from another era. After every record, Shammi Bhai handed over the key, the needle changed, and Rooni quietly sipped her miserable cup of tea. When a strong gust of wind blew, the umbrella slowly swayed, its shadow lightly brushing the tea cups, teapots, and Rooni’s golden hair, and she felt that someday the wind would blow so fiercely that the umbrella would come crashing down, and all three of them would be crushed underneath.

When Shammi Bhai spoke about his hostel days, Rooni and Jelly looked at his face with wonder and curiosity, gazing in awe at his moving lips. On paper, Shammi Bhai meant nothing to the sisters, but they had known each other for so many years now, that the line between friendship and family was fast blurring, if not completely dissipated. Before going to the hostel, when he came to the city, he stayed at his house for a few days as per Abba’s instructions. Whenever he came to their house on Saturdays, he never forgot to bring some English novels from the university library and some records borrowed from his friends, for Jelly. 

Even after so many years, when those strange and unique names given by Shammi Bhai come to mind, they elicit laughter. No one knows when or why Shammi Bhai renamed the house help Meharu as Mehrunissa, after a fabled princess of yore. Rehana became Rooni, and Apa became Baby first, then Jelly Ice Cream, and finally, the poor thing was reduced to just Jelly. However, Shammi Bhai’s name, even after so many years, is timeless and immortal, like the grass of the lawn and the walls of the bungalow, entwined with the bells and creeper vines.

On the rotating disc of the gramophone, flowers and leaves sprouted. A voice gently held them with soft, bare hands and scattered them in the air. The musical notes played in the wind through the branches. Underneath the grass lay dormant brown soil, where a tiny butterfly’s heart beat. The nest of air trembled between the soil and the grass… quivered… And hiding behind the playing cards, Jelly and Shammi Bhai bowed their heads, raised them tentatively, as if both were watching each other’s reflections in a dusky, dark lake surrounded by unseen eyes. 

And whatever Shammi Bhai said, it wasn’t significant if you believed in his words. In front of him, everything seemed to slip away, everything seemed to be lost… And there were some things that remained shrouded in layers of silence and when she thought of them on a gloomy night before sleeping, it felt like there was a deep, obscure hole, where she slipped and stumbled, and if she didn’t fall, she was captivated by the fear of not falling… And she felt like crying, felt angry. What did Shammi bhai see in Jelly, that he didn’t see in Rooni? And when Shammi Bhai played records for Jelly, played cards (placing his feet under the table against hers), she silently kept watching him through the curtains of her room window, where there was a strange, mystical enchantment, a shimmering dream. Peeking through the curtains, she wondered bitterly if the lifting of the metaphorical veil between them would ever happen.

“I have a secret too that nobody knows, nobody knows.” Rooni closed her eyes and thought, “I could die anytime if I want, behind those three trees where cool damp grass lies, from where aerial poles sway in the air.”

Shammi Bhai’s tie, flying in the air… his hand, beneath each finger, had small red pits on soft white skin, tiny moon-like pits. If you touched them, clenched them in your fist, and gently rubbed them, how would it feel? What would the truth feel like? But Shammi Bhai didn’t seem to know that she was watching his hand, his tie flying in the air, watching his blinking eyes.

 

Why did it feel like an unknown, sour fragrance was slowly surrounding her like a miasma, knots were unravelling in every part of her body, her mind pausing, and it felt like she had stepped out of the lawn and reached the edge of the Earth, and beyond that, there was only the pounding heartbeat in her chest which made her head spin (did it happen just with her , or did Jelly experience this too?)

“Where is your album?” Shammi Bhai slowly came forward and stood in front of her. She looked at him anxiously. He was smiling.

Shammi Bhai placed his hand on her shoulder and asked her, “Do you know what’s in it?” Rooni’s heart started pounding like a staccato drumbeat. Perhaps Shammi Bhai was going to say the very thing that she had silently thought about multiple times when alone, before going to sleep at night. Perhaps there was a letter inside this very envelope, written secretly by Shammi Bhai, exclusively for her. Sweet needles were pricking in the raw, round buttons rising from beneath her collar, crawling all over her flesh, as if Shammi Bhai’s voice had gently stirred her bare nerves. She felt as though the red and blue fish that made up the design of the tea-kettle, would soon leap and swim in the air, and Shammi Bhai would understand everything… Nothing would be hidden from him.

Shammi Bhai placed the blue envelope on the table and carelessly scattered the tickets that lay within. “These are for your album…”

She stared at him, uncomprehending.  Her throat felt like it was closing up, her breathing was ragged, and a dark void seemed to be opening up between the cadence of her breaths. 

Jelly, who had been busy digging a hole in the garden with the gardener’s spade, came over to them, stood, and spreading her palm in the air, she said, “Look, Rooni, how red my hands have become!”

Rooni turned her face away, clamping her mouth shut. …She knew she would cry, she would definitely cry, no matter how much self-control she tried to exert. 

The tea had run out. Mehrunnisa took the playing cards and the gramophone inside and said as she was leaving that Abba was asking everyone to come inside. But it was still early in the evening, and no one was all too keen to go inside so quickly on a Saturday. Shammi Bhai suggested that they go for a walk to the water reservoir for a while. No one had any objection to that proposal. And within a few minutes, they crossed the boundary of the bungalow and started walking on the uneven soil of brown and dry clumps and ridges, amidst the wild Ber bushes, with dry grass growing between small rocks, an odd, intoxicating, heavy, and stifling smell coming from the falling yellow leaves, and a scattered breeze dancing on the dusty slopes in the sunlight.

Shammi Bhai suddenly stumbled and fell while walking. “Where is Rooni?”, he asked.

“She was just ahead of us”, Jelly said, her breath rising and falling rapidly.

 Both their eyes wander around the field… Yellow dust floats on the patches of soil. …But Rooni was not there, the dry Ber bushes rustled in the wind, but Rooni was not there. …If you turned back and looked, behind the clusters of palm trees, you would spot a bungalow hidden from sight, the lawn’s umbrella concealed… Only the leaves of the tree peaks were visible, and far above, the fading daylight began to melt into a quiet stillness. The brightness of the sun was dripping like drops of molten silver from the leaves.

 “Do you dislike coming here?” Shami Bhai asked in a soft voice, looking studiously at the ground. 

“You lied”, Jelly says, flatly. 

“What lie, Jelly?”

“You misled poor Rooni, and now she must be searching for us, who knows where!”

“She must have gone towards the water reservoir. She’ll be back soon.” Shammi Bhai was writing something on the ground with a twig, bending over it.

They both remained silent… Shammi Bhai was tracing the twisted shapes of rocks around the tree’s base. Jelly sat on a large square stone, spreading her handkerchief. From a corner of the distant field, the grinding sound of a stone-cutting machine echoed through the white air, like a muffled sound covered in soft cotton. 

A small cloud appeared over Jelly’s eyes. Would nothing happen tonight, would nothing ever happen in life? Her heart snapped like a taut rubber-band-snapping, breaking……..

“Shammi!… Why did you come here with me?” And it stopped in between. There was a soft sigh lingering on her eyelashes, and her eyes closed, fingers curling into a self-driven fist, then suddenly they opened on their own.

“Jelly, listen…”

The ground on which Shammi was scratching trembled. Laden with unsaid meaning, between these two words uttered by Shammi, how many stones were there, ancient silent stones from centuries and ages? How sad was the air, and the sunlight of March, which had come to him after so many years that evening and would never return! “…Shammi! Please! Please! Say whatever you want to say, say it now! Will nothing happen tonight, will anything ever happen in life?”

They started walking towards the bungalow, their silent shadows converging in the fading sunlight. “Stop!” Behind the jujube bushes, Rooni’s trembling lips twitched. “Wait… for a moment!” In the tangled webs of red and brown leaves, a forgotten dream peeked through, the faint white breeze, the yellow sunlight of March, a familiar tune heard long ago, now fading into the blades of grass… Everything rested on these two words, which Shammi Bhai had written in the dust with a trembling hand, ‘Jelly… Love.’

Jelly didn’t see those words. Even after so many years, Jelly still doesn’t know what Shammi Bhai had written near her feet with his trembling pen that evening. After such a long time, the dust of time had settled on those words. Shammi Bhai and Jelly have travelled far apart from each other in different corners of the world, but even today, Rooni feels like she is standing behind the jujube bushes. Shammi Bhai thought she had gone towards the water reservoir but she kept holding her breath, looking at them with motionless eyes, looking at the stone where Shammi Bhai and Jelly were sitting just a while ago… Behind the tears, everything becomes hazy and blurred… Shammi Bhai’s trembling hand, Jelly’s lowered eyes, would she ever be able to enter their world?

Somewhere there was a trembling flame, casting its shadow. It had seen itself burning, and closed its eyes. Beyond the evening’s sunlight, there was a slight twinge of pain, pain, like a fragment of the blue sky that had found its place in a teardrop. Beyond that evening, for years to come, the restless bird of memory would wander on that congealed dust, where only these words were written, “Jelly… Love.”

That night, when the maid- servant Meharunnisa came into her room, she stood still. She had never seen Rooni like that before.

“Little mistress, have you fallen asleep already?”, Meharu approached the bed and asked.

Rooni lay there silently, with her eyes closed. Meharu came closer and gently caressed her forehead, asking softly, “Little mistress, what’s the matter?”

And then Rooni lifted her eyelids, gazing towards the ceiling for a long moment. A line appeared on her pale face, as if it were a threshold from which childhood had forever escaped.

“Meharu… turn off the light…” she said calmly, with a composed voice, “Can’t you see? I am already dead!”

 


Also, read four Italian poems written by Paolo Fichera, translated into English by Mikica Pindzo, and published in The Antonym:


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Nirmal Verma

Nirmal Verma

Nirmal Verma is a stalwart in modern Hindi literature. An activist, translator and novelist, he is considered one of the pioneers of the Nai kahani, the new short story movement in Hindi literature. Born in Shimla in April 1929, his literary career spanned five decades. He has written five novels, eight short story anthologies and nine non-fiction collections featuring essays and travelogues. He has been awarded the Jnanpith Award, The Sahitya Akademi Award and Padma Bhushan for his contribution to Hindi literature. He passed away in October 2005, leaving behind a rich literary legacy. 

 

Ayushee Arora

Ayushee Arora

An Assistant Professor of English and an internationally awarded debater and writer, Ayushee Arora, finds her creative conduit in public speaking and writing. Her areas of interest include Cultural Studies, Greek Mythology, Eco-feminism, and Literature of the Subaltern. She rejuvenates by spending time in nature and reading.

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