The earth-eating Muggi, groomed by her brother-in law cons fourteen men into marrying her and runs off with their money, but falls in love with the fifteenth and eagerly awaits the day she will be released from prison so that she can return to him.
The intimidating Vaishnavi pushes a buffalo, her cruel mother-in-law and husband over the edge of a ravine and spends the rest of her life punishing herself, wandering from place to place, homeless and penniless.
In this collection of sketches of sketches of ordinary women with extraordinary pasts, we read of women whose lives have been changed because of men, women who now survive on the fringes of society –or outside it.
Compassionate without ever straying into sentimentality, Shivani’s histories of the formidable women whose lives she chronicled strike a chord in our hearts even today, forty years after they were first written. A few of her short stories, inspired by these women, also from part of this brilliant translation from the Hindi by her daughter and award - winning translator Ira Pande.
I never like a preface or epilogue to any story or novel. Like Virginia Woolf, I believe that a preface to a book is like a piece of cardboard that is used to steady a shaky table. If a table has shaky legs, it has no right to exist. A work of writing should be strong enough to stand on its own, without the help of a cardboard support, declares, Woolf. One day, when the piece of cardboard is removed, the table will become unsteady once again.
However, today I am breaking a self-imposed rule because I think my pen wants me to do so. Almost every day, I get hundreds of letters from my readers asking me questions such as: why did you write this, what inspired you, is this story true? Sometimes, I feel as if I am a fish in an aquarium, whose every move is observed. Writing gives me immense pleasure, but talking of my characters – their joys and sorrows, their fears and desires – is very difficult. This is because I often feel I have not been able to fully bring out what I had in mind. Janaki’s intoxicating gaze, which I could see so clearly, refused to be translated when I sat down to describe it. I discarded countless sheets of paper, but still the expression in her eyes remained elusive. It was as if she moved just before my camera had been able to click, or my film had got exposed. The fleshy lips of Muggi, or the gold glinting in the teeth of the warden’s grin – have I been able to portray these as I wished to?
This is the frustration a writer is often confronted with - I saw, heard and experienced the pain of these characters in an environment that is impossible to convey in words and images. And what experiences they were! Among them was the pathetic request of a Kumaoni girl, whose story absorbed me so completely that I forget where I was. For a brief moment, both of us became oblivious to the hot loo that raged outside and were transported from the cell to a land where cool breezes blow down mountainsides. It is one of the ironies of life that we are unable to accept the truth unless we can see, feel or hear it. And yet, whether we accept simply it or not, nothing can ever change the truth. However, there is another kind of truth: the sort that we accept simply because it is there. For a brief moment, I was back with Chanuli in her village, and it was the hour when the cows come home – what we call ‘godhuli’ in Hindi. The prison, its walls and the searing afternoon heat – all vanished before the truth of Chanuli’s story.
A prison can also make a writer’s imagination oddly redundant. The characters I met there converted me into a sort of medium – a planchette if you wish – and my pen wrote down whatever stories were revealed to me. Unfortunately, I cannot write of those cases are still sub judice, yet there are some faces that will forever haunt me. A fourteen-year-old girl whose eyes welled up at the sound of a kind voice – what crime could she have committed to batter away her whole life? She had been persuaded by her seventy-year-old uncle to get her young lover to the house; the old man implicated her in the murder he committed and left her to her fate when he died. Along with her was a woman whom everyone called ‘Maa-ji’. Her tall and upright bearing was topped with a face that had the slyest eyes I’ve ever seen. Even in the prison, she had managed to collect a bans of devotes and her voice, when it rang out, vaulted over the prison walls in thrilling cascades. Her hooded eyes contained dark secrets that I cannot reveal unit her case has been decided by the courts. Embezzlement, fraud, cheating gullible villagers – she was guilty on all these counts. My fingers itch to write about the countless characters I encountered there, but the laws of the court forbid me to do so.
Kalhan writes in the Rajataranight that a writer should be able to uncover emotional diseases the way a surgeon’s knife lances tumours. What else can prove that he has the gift of healing? But this is easier said than done. When Dharmayug was serializing Ja Re Ekaki, I was flooded with protests from the government. How dare I write that the children in the prison school were unhappy, or of their pale faces? Did I know that they were given milk every day? I did not see the need to justify what I had written, but I will tell them now that there are some environments where no life can prosper or thrive. Even if those children were given the best milk the government could procure, I can wager that their pale faces would never bloom healthily.
Some months after my visit to the women’s prison, I received an invitation from another one. This time, I was invited to visit on raksha bandhan and tie rakhis on some male prisoners’ wrists. Usually, I avoid these empty gestures made by well-meaning social organizations. This one-day charity is not my cup of tea at all. Moreover, when I often forget my own brothers on rakhi, how could I take on the responsibility of acquiring some more? But this time, I felt compelled to go.
When I entered the vast hall and was confronted with rows of prisoners seated neatly, my heart sank. I remembered hearing in my childhood that all murderers are issued a special uniform to distinguish them from the others when I saw five men, clad in identical yellow clothes, come towards me. They had been chosen as the representatives of the whole body of inmates and were the ones on whose wrists I would tie the sacred thread. Each one them, chose today for exemplary behavior in the prison, was guilty of killing another human being. My new brothers approached me and, when they knelt in front of me, their wrists spread obediently in my direction, they seemed to me like the actors from a Ramlila who had put on the masks of a demon for the duration of the play and had now unmasked themselves to mark the end of a performance. Their clean faces, shining with a palpable affection and devotion, bore no trace of the hideous roles they had played earlier. Truly, they appeared no different from any brother.
‘This is Singh’ – the warden introduced the first one with a smile. ‘He recites wonderful verses. And this one’ – he introduced the next prisoner – ‘is a marvelous singer. His band is famous even outside the prison.’ The poet bent low over my feet: tall and handsome, he could well have been a hero in one of my novels. I remembered the lines of the Bengali poet Kashiram I had read years ago:
Dekho dvija mansij
Khagraj paay laaj
Look at the twin Kamadevas,
the handsome lords of love –
their aquiline nose puts to shame
even the grand Garuda
The ceremony over, drums and cymbals struck a lively tune as they sag:
Yeh hai ujde watan ka chaman bhajyyo
bahene ayi to isem bahar aa gayi
This is otherwise a wilderness, my brothers,
but spring has followed our sisters here today
I could follow the sweet voice of my brother throughout: just as there is a young qawwal whose clear soprano rings high over the deeper notes of the rest of the singers, rings high over the deeper notes of the rest of the singers, his voice soared over that of the rest like a nightingale’s. Those of you who have heard the high-pitched voice of Master Madan will understand what I mean. This man was the music director of the prison and brilliant at his job. Then, one day, I am told, he made an unusual request: could he take his band outside the prison to play at weddings or parties? Naturally, he was turned down – who could allow such dangerous players to step outside a prison? Suppose they snatched a rifle form an enthusiastic man accompanying a wedding procession – what could they not do with it? ‘I beg you, sir,’ he had pleaded, ‘just give me one chance. I promise you I will not let you down.’ Miraculously, he succeeded in convincing the staff and he was true to his word. Now, I was told, he was in great demand all over to his word. Now, I was told, he was in great demand all over the town; and what is more, never once has he cheated on his promise to return to the prison at the appointed hour.
My glance ran over the faces in front of me, trying to see beyond the polite masks, and my eyes picked out one whose face was buried in his knees. Throughout the ceremony, he did not lift it even once. All I could make out from his slender shoulders was that he was very young and my imagination began to spin tales. I listened with half my mind on him to the poem being recited and the songs being sung, and my hands clapped mechanically – I simply could not take my eyes off those defeated shoulders. I was tempted to ask the warden who the younger boy was, but I could not get myself to intrude into a grief so private. Obviously, he wanted to have nothing to do with the world, he had ducked out of sight – what right had I disturb his retreat?
Finally, I turned to the warden. ‘There must be some children from the juvenile home here today – why don’t I tie a rakhi on the youngest member from there?’ Within a few minutes, the young boy stood before me, his wrist outstretched obediently. I held his wrist; it was burning with fever. I was told he had his insisted on coming and specially worn his NCC uniform for the occasion. I tied the simple silk thread on his wrist, regretting that I did not have the kind of flashy rakhi that my young son ordered: one with a plastic aeroplane or a watch studded on gaudy tinsel. Poor little boy, I thought, what crime could he have possibly committed? My feeling must have reflected on my face, for the warden smiled as he said: ‘This is a very brave boy, aren’t you, son? Last year, he shot a friend with his father’s gun.’
This boy? He had shot someone dead?
They had been playing a game of marbles, and an argument had ballooned into a full-fledged fight. The boy ran inside, the impact up his father’s loaded rifle and shot his friend dead. The impact of the shot felled him as well and both friends lay side by side. Except that one of them was dead. He was sentenced to three years in a remand home and sent to the juvenile home.
He was followed by a Muslim boy, who was serving the last year of his sentence. He must have been only fifteen or sixteen, for his upper lip had a faint trace of down and his voice was still breaking. By now, I had no curiosity left – whatever the crime, the punishment seemed far in excess of it.
‘What class are you in?’ I asked him.
‘Ninth,’ he replied head low.
‘Where is your home?’
‘Ji, in Rampura’.
His lips were trembling, perhaps in dread of the question he thought I would ask next: why are you here? Of course, I did not. He turned away swiftly and was soon lost in the crowd.
‘Do you know how important these rakhi are for the men you have tied them on?’ the warden asked me later. ‘They put them in their Ramayana or holy and look upon them as their sisters.’
I felt as if I would choke. Who knows whether my rakhis were pressed between the pages of a Ramayana or a Koran – and I realized then that, whether or not I had a rakhi pressed in the pages of my books, I would never forget the faces of these brothers. That bent head, the sweet soprano, the shy poet – they stand eternally before me.
I know that mere stories do not engage readers for long; until they can sense the writer’s own emotions behind a character, stories remain dull and emotional behind a character, stories remain dull and lifeless to readers. I do not know how far I have succeeded in bringing alive these characters, but when these stories were being serialized in Dharmayug and Saptahik Hindustan, I was drowned in fan mail. Someone had recognized a character form an incident she had witnessed in Tikamgarh thirty years ago.
‘That maalin is from Tikamgarh, isn’t she?’ she wrote. ‘When the police were taking her, the crowd passed in front of our house. I still remember her face and the gunny bag that contained the remains of the husband she had murdered.’
Yes, she was the same maalin. On the pretext of talking her ailing husband to the toilet, she had led him to her lover’s hatchet. Then the two had dug a pit and buried him nearby. A few days later, a huge downpour had uncovered their hideous crime and the dead man’s hand had risen from the earth as if in accusation. Another reader recognized Janaki, another character I had written about.
‘If you could write about her,’ she wrote to me, ‘then would you like to her my story?’
I tore up the letter. I am no voyeur, I wanted to tell her I don’t write to titillate.
As I recall the faces I saw in my visits to the prison, I am reminded of Habib Tanvir’s brilliant play, Agra Bazaar. I hear the three fakirs, clad in their flowing, tattered robes, tambourine in hand, coming towards me from behind the wings of a stage. I cannot see them yet, but their sweet voice each all around the hall:
Gul shor babula aag have
Aur keechar pani mitti hai
Hum dekh chuke is duniya ko
Yeh dhoke ki si tatti hai…
A ball of fire, a gust of hot wind
Mud, water and slime
We have seen this world, my friends
It is a mirage, a false curtain…
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