Note: this is the third (and final) of three Pravinsinh Chavda stories translated by Mira Desai. To read the introduction to the series and the first story, click here; the second story can be clicked toward here.
Mira adds the following: "The title 'Trimurti,' literally 'three facets,' is from the triumvirate of Hindu Gods—Lord Brahma, the creator; Lord Vishnu, the nurturer, and Lord Shiva, the destroyer."
And in my minds eye, I can still see the two women seated comfortably on the sofa or on the kitchen floor. Breaking darning thread between her teeth with practiced ease, one asks, "Do you see it? Near my temples, behind my ear.. white.."
The other reflective, with an artist’s perspective "Not at all. Anyways, some white is like a badge of honor, proudly worn."
In a manner entirely womanlike, their talk meanders to matters of greater import.. "Get me some areetha from Gandhi Road when you go there next. Don’t you ever think of your ben in all this gallivanting about that you do? Spare some attention for ben, otherwise saheb is all that holds your interest!"
The hidden nuances, the numberless shades in this conversation did not remain unnoticed or un-understood by the younger woman. She straightened for a moment, thought deeply, then cursorily said "Oh yes! What you say is right."
And after this break the talk veered towards cooking soda or sweet neem or some such.
While folding and keeping away Bapuji’s clothes or arranging the books on his study table, while addressing envelopes or making tea to his taste, four hands blur in my sight, strangely interweave and emerge as two.
Oneness, identification, merging of souls.
They’re fine, as far as religious fervent, bhakti, is concerned.
But these begin separating out, assuming separate identities, when one looks at details.
The elder, aware of each subtle stanza of like and dislike, like the language of a gentle touch says, "He can’t tolerate oil and chilies, not at all. Sprouted moong. Khichdi. An apple or perhaps a chicku. His tea and cigarettes for sure! Fueled by these, he transcribes history, brings centuries to life."
The younger, with a hint of a temper tantrum, "D’you wish to belittle saheb? He is an authority, not an ascetic. Chilies and oil aid temper, they bring qualities to light."
And giving credence to the tone of this conversation, Ba would sometimes say, "Ah lo the equations of destiny! Such a well- known man, respected, looked up to. Wherever he goes, a hundred rush forth to meet him! Wouldn’t a half of these be women? Several of these traipse all the way home. Hordes! Some journalists. Some professors. Truly, there is no shortage of jesters in our land. Some swing outside, some gather in his room for hours without end. They interview him, take notes, tape conversations. Each valued guest shares our dinner table.
All of these came, and they went their separate ways. Only this one held tight to the thread of this relationship. This, for sure, one can’t find fault with."
The crux of this story is Bapuji’s grief.
But Ba’s behavior and thoughts filter past memories and crowd the foreground of my mind.
Ba certainly was not as simple, naïve or dumb, as she appeared to be.
It’s only now that I recollect, at certain times, a stilling, stiffening of lip.
Ba would perhaps be in the kitchen, testing the sharpness of the seasoning, she certainly would have read the tones, said and unsaid; of the arguments and discussions that ensued in the incense-scented room on the first floor.
Ba was not a village bumpkin. No. She was not dumb.
A stillness, a capacity to view life in its entirety, an endearing simplicity- these qualities defined Ba.
When a vision is quiet and unwavering, a lot can be seen. A great deal observed. And when such sight is moist everything is understood, everything taken in, accepted.
Truly, oneness does seem to find expression in strangely different ways.
Sometimes I’d be at my books, studying, and Anuradha would suddenly appear from nowhere to sit by my side. I’d ask, "Anuben, why are you crying?" And pulling my book away she’d say, "You do your work!"
And a certain sternness would be written over Ba’s face, for Ba would have followed her to my room to stand by the doorframe, with hands folded, a disciplinarian.
"You’ve become very smart now! No respect! No regard at all for the difference between the old and the young! Talking back, answering back at will?! Someone older can, quite correctly too, tell you a few things, teach you a word or two and..." After this one-sided dialogue she’d soften and implore, "Make amends...!"
What were these arguments about? These tiffs, misunderstandings? What were the steps that defined an amend? All this was far past my ken, and as far as I was concerned the discussion ended then.
The myriad whirlwinds that decorated the margins of the writing paper - these were things that I did not understand. No, not at that time.
Chili powder had become a symbol, a representative of the battle. Ba would be cooking, adding her usual spices to the vegetables and dal; Anuradha would rush in with a huge pinch of chilies and say, "An expert historian, an authority he may well be for universities and conferences! Do we give a damn? Someone like me would drag him to the kitchen and force him to hold a kitchen knife, and I’d tell him “Stand right here! I’ll prepare the dough for rotis and you cut vegetables! When I temper the seasoning, rush to my assistance with the stirring spoon!" Sometimes she’d softly add, "And when I weep, sit by my side, gather my tears..."
And sometimes she’d scold Bapuji. "Don’t you think sometimes you could take us out, to some park or garden, and then treat us to a meal which is decent, but not expensive?"
Bapuji would glance at Ba and comment: "See! She wants us to go to war over this!"
Ba would retort, "Well! Grumbling is not part of my nature, but what she says is entirely right! I don’t speak up. She doesn’t shut up. That’s the basic difference between us."
At this point all three would laugh together, a similar kind of laughter, and the seriousness of the moment would take flight. Although a feeble trickle, a remnant, would find its way ahead. Perhaps Ba could not see this.
This gala laughter would make the moment lighter, fluffier. Lifting, for a moment, this veil of lightness Anuradha would look up and say, "Do you wish to ask me something directly?"
One evening I noticed a shift in tone and a variant of shade in the up-down scale of questions and replies that reached my ears from the garden as I sat at my desk, and my hands stilled. I stared at the slowly approaching dusk. Suddenly I could hear Anuradha speak up, "If I had a husband like this I wouldn’t tolerate him for a day!"
In a low tone, Bapuji replied, "Anurag, is that right? You wouldn’t tolerate him for a day?"
Where was the irritant in this dialogue? Was there something hurtful that would drive someone to tears?
Suddenly I could hear the sound of a chair being pushed aside, as Anuradha swiftly got up and rushed indoors. Looking at me as though I was a complete stranger, she stood wide -eyed in the center of the room staring at me, until Ba led her away quietly into her domain, the kitchen. "Here, take a sip of water. I won't let you leave without dinner. Not today."
To all problems and conundrums, a simple homemade solution.
In due course Anuradha completed her PhD, her thesis was received well by a publisher in Delhi, and she got a job as a city college lecturer; however, there was no change in her standing in my home despite these accomplishments.
Some arrangements, however, did change.
Some activities were added.
Annual visits to Jaipur, Kanpur or Madras, or wherever the historical society convocation would be held that year. Other than that, visits to the history societies in Calcutta or Delhi every now and then. Or if they’d hear about some private collection or library that held a rare document, in Junagadh, Palanpur or Navsari, they would rush there, eager and enthusiastic, bursting at the seams with childlike glee.
The woman at home would dutifully fill containers of thepla and sukhdi.
About the staying arrangements, about accommodation and bedding perhaps she was not overly curious.
Bapuji’s book on the princely states of preindependent Gujarat, entered its 3rd volume of narration. The intensity of his concentration was nearing its peak. His involvement –no- his oneness, ownership, was total. All absorbing. His discussions were measured and well considered, free of an argumentative undercurrent.
Blissfully ignorant of being the fulcrum for two pans swinging first one way and then the other, the distinguished authority worked, engrossed at his task.
If a drop of perspiration was visible on his furrowed brow, two hands would appear from two different directions and proceed, with a gentle finger each, to soothe the drop away, calm his forehead.
Ideas, thoughts, principles, details, and shadowy crowds- all this and more, his vision struggled to capture and race past.
The intensity of his happiness had increased apace in the last few days. I remember Anuradha’s visits had also intensified. She would run to and fro between kitchen and study, connecting the two.
I distinctly remember the Uttrayan festival (kite flying festival) that year. Clad in jeans and a blue round necked t shirt, with glares and a white cap perched atop, this vision ran fleet footed from spot to spot, as though at whim she’d merrily follow a kite into the blue sky up above.
Her tresses, escaped from the confines of her cap, flew in the wind, master of their will. Bapuji shaded his eyes against this glare as that of the sunlight.
Two eyesights, two lines of vision. Meeting at some distant point far away in the sky.
The third person, in charge of domestic matters, was setting forth a volley of orders from her ground floor domain.
"O! Tea’s ready"
"One of you come and fetch these chikkis (puffed rice sweet)"
When we ran out of drinking water and I rushed for a refill, Ba was patiently rolling chikki at the kitchen counter.
A peace, very different from the chaos on the terrace, percolated the kitchen, a look of quiet satisfaction marked Ba’s face.
This instance has been imprinted, nay, burnt deep, in my memory.
The festival of crisscrossing kite strings against the blue skies would mark the end of Shantiparv, the season of truce, of peace.
A new chapter was soon to begin.
But who amongst us knew about this cataclysm at that point in time?
And I wonder at the girl jumping about on the rooftop, shouting gleefully … did she not have any inkling of a chapter’s ending?
This happened the third day after Uttrayan.
Two experts from Rajasthan were visiting on a study tour of the sculptures of North Gujarat. They had been invited home for dinner. Ba, at peace after having completed the dining arrangements, commented, "Hasn’t she come as yet?"
Bapuji was speaking in a slightly raised tone, he was restless, and every now and then would step to the front porch.
When this happened thrice, Ba called him into the kitchen on some pretext, and in a muted voice scolded him, "Perhaps some task cropped up at the last moment! Why are you causing such havoc?"
Perhaps what she left unsaid was, "What is it that you’re yearning for anyway? To meet a householders duty to his guests, I stand by your side, stalwart, steady and shoulder to shoulder, in a manner that’s befitting..."
That day passed somehow, but the transformation that it caused in its wake was difficult to understand. Anuradha’s absence that day was an error, there was no way it could be termed a flaw in character or a life-threatening fault.
Perhaps something that I was unaware of had happened.
At any rate, I was no more than a chit of a girl. And in matters of import, matters that concerned elders I could not gain an entry.
I could not understand their language. Perhaps I could look at this behavior. How could I unscramble this code of silence?
A dull, heavy tread took the place of swift feet, and laughter vanished.
Anuradha would come home. But she’d remain by Ba’s side. The learned authority would remain aloof within his castle of anger. Ba would command, "Here- take this draught to your Saheb."
Anuradha would return with an untouched cup.
"He refused it"
"Why did he refuse it?"
"He says he doesn’t wish to drink it."
And I’d wonder at this conversation. What an uncouth way to refuse something.
Was it so difficult to reply with a sensible excuse?
"I just don’t understand any of this. You know and your saheb knows the best."
But it was obvious she was not sad. At dinnertime, she’d settle her unwavering glance upon Bapuji, "Is this some way to behave? Is it the done thing, to push away someone in this brusque manner?"
The learned authority whose expertise was the deployment of language, at that point used another equally powerful weapon, the weapon of silence.
Amidst that mist of chaos and hurt and sullen silence, Shri Seshadri emerged, pleasant faced and nodding his head, like his namesake…
Whether or not I understood what was happening, Ba worked hard to solicit my support. One afternoon she recited a list of complaints. Since she lacked the impartiality of a judge, half her case would be for the accused, and half for the defendant. In the manner in which she junked the case, it was difficult to say who the accused was, and who the defendant.
"Look at her, the shameless girl! Shouldn’t she have been ashamed of roaming about openly in this fashion with someone? That too, on the strength of a piddly University job? And lo! Look at him! Shouldn’t he even show basic concern about the person on the opposite side? How uncaring." When I asked several unrelated questions in a crisscross fashion, I could unearth pertinent but disjointed clues. That Seshadri was a man of management. That he had no connect, whatsoever, with history. God alone knows how they had met. But now he made several trips to Ahmedabad, ostensibly on work. He must be a good catch. Our one, that girl is fairly pretty too.
And if both are happy, and the families have no objection...The judge’s final statement placed the blame fairly on the woman’s head. "That one, she’s shrewd, deep, difficult to fathom…"
Grief is an independent, isolated nation.
It has its own sky, its own weather, and the laws and regulations that normalize life outside its boundaries do not govern the inhabitants of this land.
When I stand in that no man’s land with Bapuji I see the wise historian, the authority and the man of letters transform into a mere child in this land. Where have the pride of learning and the distinguished veneer of knowledge gone? All this expertise, all this wisdom about humankind, the individual, the universality of nature, the pervasiveness of human emotions…why did all this not help him in his own case? I used to firmly believe that a learned man, an authority stays aloof from sorrow and grief; he stands beyond the pale of mundane human emotions.
A wife’s untimely death, a son lost in the prime of youth…but so what? After thirteen days of quiet, he returns to his realm of books, his domain, and says firmly, without this sustenance, there is no go, for life has to go on.
But Bapuji could not do this.
He could not lose himself on some meandering path related to his subject, and follow where the trail would lead, step after step in uncharted land. The very words that once raced like a horde of gleeful schoolchildren were vanquished and bloody, defeated.
The requests and pleading from his publishers in Delhi continued but work on the prestigious 3rd volume of history was at a standstill.
Time was frozen. All I can see is a picture of a man cut off from time. Regardless of how long that time span must have been in reality, in my memory it has become dense, like a condensate. With a pen in hand, a skeletal structure sits at a desk, listless and vacant eyed, hour after hour. And moves as limply to the adjoining balcony.
Ba would say, slowly, "Go up, see what he is doing..."
And quiet footed I would creep up the flight of stairs, hide behind the curtains and keep watch.
I couldn’t see, but I could hear a subdued, broken wail
How could I go downstairs and report this to Ba, and which language should I pick the words from, to tell her that my father was weeping?
Ba was his better half, his wife. She had wed a distinguished and proud man of letters and she had supported his brilliance. Even in these circumstances, she could not bear to see him broken, lost, a shadow of his previous self.
One evening as he was seated in the dark gloom, she spoke to him.
"Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? This behavior, shedding tears in the dark- this doesn’t befit you! Someone doesn’t care for us, doesn’t quite give a damn, and we sit here, broken, lost, in pain. If nothing else, don’t you have any self-respect left?"
If a picture of an old man bereft, dead and frozen in his sorrow marked our home, at the other end, time was prancing in all its extravagance, finery.
Although Ba did not completely understand the words “Simple wedding” she struggled hard to translate these words, unravel them.
A simple wedding means only a few invitees. Immediate relatives and close associates. We can’t comment on this, or choose to be happy or hurt that we were not invited.
I was after all an intrinsic part of this household, brought up and weaned on its breath. This brutal attack left me dizzy, disjointed, and unable to see reason.
Pointing to the floor above, I asked, "Does he know?"
"Do matters like these remain a secret? He’s known for long."
The next evening, unannounced, the newly weds arrived at our threshold. I had opened the door, and I stood still at the spectacle on my doorstep.
The newly weds had come to seek blessings from their elders.
The bride? Well she seemed taller than usual, in a heavy silk sari and was reflecting such dazzling brilliance that one would have to shade eyes from the glare. Was marriage a parasmani? Just a fleeting touch bestowed shining radiance?
Ba beckoned "O! Do step down! See who’s here!"
That evening was an exam, and one that all of us passed with distinction.
Bapuji stepped down swiftly, he did not seek extra time to reconcile, cover up or splash the make up of laughter on his face.
No one and not certainly Mr Seshadri caught any inkling of the prevailing undercurrents of sorrow and pain.
No gaps or awkward silences marred the conversation; no dialogues with two shades of meaning were uttered.
I did not possess a camera, or else some moments deserved to be preserved for posterity, framed and displayed on the wide skies.
On her arrival Anuradha stepped forward to touch Bapuji’s feet for blessings, and her jet black mane, a curtain of black silk touched the great historian’s feet. For a fraction of a moment both were statue-still.
And then Bapuji broke free of the spell and exited that moment.
"Are arre! sukhi thao!"
Then he seated himself next to Seshadri and the talk pranced past diverse topics like national associations, design, french films. On each of these topics Bapuji held revolutionary, long cherished opinions, but that evening he agreed with everything that Seshadri said. He would not fault courtesy, not fall amiss of the norms of give and take characteristic of worldly interactions. Retrieving a wrapped sari from its hiding place in some cupboard, he blessed them, "Be happy, what else should we say?" An envelope was handed over to the prize winner. No rules of propriety were breached, no ritual left undone. A cloud of fluffy happiness gathered everyone in its folds. Since I did not have a role to play in this final act, I stood by a wall, and watched.
When Anuradha swept by with a swish to sit next to Ba, the pallav of her sari touched Bapuji’s cheek. Finally it was my turn to benefit from her grace. I was looking at Bapuji, conscious only of his tone laced with enthusiasm, when the silk whirlwind enshrouded me, and a voice with a gentle fullstop, a hand placed on my head said "Goodbye!"
Long after the couple left, these words rang loud in the air.
"Be happy be happy"
It is not easy to erase the presence of a learned man from a home. One cannot simply dust free and mop away his identity. If nothing else, cupboards, storage attics and corners occupied by the physical manifestations of knowledge –books and volumes- cannot be scoffed at, ignored easily. Sheets of foolscap paper filled diligently in fine writing, getting yellower by the day, but why should foolscap sheets folded at the margins display such anguish?
The doctor said it was a stroke, but given the manner in which he died, sitting emptily in his armchair, this medical term failed to capture this physical assault. A gentle tap, nay a nudge, that too from so far away- for when this happened, the newly weds were ensconced in Dalhousie, partaking of the night.
And in this manner the Trimurti broke apart. Two individuals, who swam deep in the rarified air of the study, now swam in directions that took them far far apart, in differing dimensions of light.
The third person of this triumvirate was left behind, along with the spices in her kitchen.
The task of converting our home to a learning–less, expert-less state, fell on our shoulders. Books were gathered up and sent to school and college libraries. Some were sacrificed in Diwali maha-cleaning, and some were thrown out in lots one after the other, along with used up batteries and long silent transistors.
Ba’s scalp was now completely white.
No one could look at our home and state that here, once upon a time; a man of a different mettle resided, and in this very balcony, in this very chair, an old man broke down and wept like a child.
No one could ever imagine that a woman, accused and held guilty of unstated betrayal and treachery, once spread a cape of jet—black silk in pleading, at someone’s feet.
The past does not exist in my memory as a continual chain. Some events, some instances, some expressions—this is the residual. And these events kaleidoscopically morph of their free will, fragments rearrange to create new shapes, memories. Old memories are not faithful to what actually happened. Of their own fancy they form new stratagems. New plots, and that instance of touching feet seems elongated into eternity.
The woman who bent in submission and beseeched for forgiveness with a cape of black silk does not move past that freeze frame.
And I tell her, get up! Get up, Anuradha, get up and go….
Note: this is the third (and final) of three Pravinsinh Chavda stories translated by Mira Desai. To read the introduction to the series and the first story, click here; the second story can be clicked toward here.