Excerpted from SIMSIM
(A Hindi novella)
…the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment…
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
Basar Mal Jetharam Purswani hears laughter again. The same laughter that he is now beginning to recognise. He feels she is laughing at him at first. Wrapped in this sensation, he closes his eyes, locking his hands on the belly.
The girl had once brought with her a black and white picture to show him. She had worn a loose pleated sharara. Covered her head with a dark-colored veil. Folded her hands in front. An aroma of guava had wafted from the picture. Whoever comes from Larkana, their palms smell sweet with guava. That day, they were sitting under the guava tree when unthinkingly Basar Mal Jetharam Purswani started rubbing the guava leaves on her palms. Smearing its sap on his thumb he applied a teeka mark on her forehead. And a little above, he put that sap in her part too. The girl had burst into giggles. Playfully she had then clapped her palms on Basar Mal’s face. And laughing, chirping, she had galloped away. In this excitement, a small drop of the leaf sap fell on the picture and splodged. Basar Mal, sitting under the tree, long wiped the picture with the edge of his pajamas—
He smiles. Even half a century ago he had smiled the same way. A lopsided smile, lifting one corner of his mouth.
Basar Mal Jetharam Purswani reminds himself that he is now old and gray, having lived so long, that he shouldn’t remember anything he ever felt. But his self is constantly nudging his memory to remember the girl who smelled of guava and whom he had kissed for the first time sitting in the compound of a desolate madrasa in the town of Larkana, in Larkana district of Sindh province, while narrating to her the Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif’s ballad, ‘Sassi-Punnu’.
In the ballad, which had evoked intense feelings in the girl, Sassi, the beautiful daughter of a washerman and Punnu, the prince of the land, fell madly in love and married despite fierce family opposition. The prince’s brothers so detested the marriage that they got the prince drunk on the night of the wedding and took him away to some unknown land. When day broke and Sassi found her husband missing, she went berserk searching, scouring every piece of ground. The merciless hot deserts of the Thar blistered her unshod feet, parched her lips. But she, unaware in the anguish that had seized her body completely, galloped barefoot on the burning hot sand. The bright emptiness of the desert, the dazed emptiness of the heart. In that, someone tried to take advantage of her astounding beauty, she cried out imploringly to mother earth to take her in, earth parted, and Sassi sank deep into her darkness. Only her veil stood on the surface, part sunk in the ground, part swaying in air. Its shadow wavering on the hot sand.
Inside the desolate madrasa, that girl sitting next to him became Sassi. She felt the soles of her feet welt. She looked at them, and wondered, how many steps she could now walk? The arid Larkana breeze parched her lips, her nostrils. She could almost smell the hot desert wind, and the anguish seeping through time. Smoothening her veil, she first cried, then stared long at the tall walls of the madrasa.
Old love is like a veil, part sunk in the ground, part swaying in air. One can neither wrap it around oneself nor carry it along. Its shadow wavers on the sands of time.
Recalling a kiss that he partook in a long time ago, Basar Mal Jetharam Purswani unconsciously goes toward the bookracks. He moves his hand over the books. There was moldering dust settled on them. He fetches a rag and a broom, and getting behind the rack starts with his cloth. Slowly. Cautiously. Then with the broom he starts tapping the books. The damp musty smell of the mold spreads in the vicinity. With the back of his palm, he rubs the irritation in his nose and pulls out some books from their places. A book, in its effort to move out, leaves its cover binding behind and emerges bare. He frowns.
“Oh my sweet child!” he says, pursing his lips in pity. “Why do you sulk so much?”
Depositing both the book and its detached cover on the table, he resumes. He spreads twenty-five to thirty books out on the floor. Mold had bred on all of them. The pages of some books had turned so yellow and wet that with a mere touch they came loose. The paper felt like pulp. With the rag, he starts wiping the books that had bindings made of cloth or Rexene. Paperback books, he tapped gently with his broom.
When the girl cried and wailed, he would, in his youthful exuberance, tap a leafy branch of the guava tree gently on her back. Then plucking a leaf from the branch, he would stick it in her dangling waist-length plait. Then tuck the entire branch into the shoelace that secured the braid at the waist. “Look, you’ve grown a tail!” he would say and gush with laughter. Many times the girl forgot her wailing and joined in his laughter, or feeling embarrassed she raised her hand to hit.
What he’s been trying to recall, did it really happen that same way? All of it? Or, was his memory filling up its gaping blanks after so many years by fabricating new scenes and stories similar to the ones it had watched several times in films, seemingly similar extraneously, but perhaps, with different sensibilities? The feelings resurging after fifty-odd years might’ve been verily the same even then? Or, the way they were then might’ve now come back exactly the same?
Memories are made with one’s imagination. Basar Mal will have to, respecting his imagination, rely on his memory.
He peers at the roof over the rack. The roof is mud pantiled and he is unable to see anything. He climbs up a stool and examines the rack. The top rack is drenched. He pulls out the books. The plywood has bloated and opened up. Some books are still stuck on it. Some have left their marks on it coming unstuck. He fingers the books. The water had seeped in deep. He again scans the roof. Since when had the water been dripping down? His old eyes had failed to see, his ears had failed to hear the sound of the falling drops. Why hadn’t anything within him tug or warn him?
An old mothball that hadn’t yet fully vaporized falls from the top. It had, however, lost its round shape. He starts wiping the rack with the rag. Because of all the dampness, mustiness, and wetness, the rag wouldn’t slide any faster.
Once he had burst a ripe guava on the girl’s shoulder. The shoulder and back peeked out of her wide-necked kameez. He kept the guava on the bare skin and with his thumb began pressing it down. The girl squirmed with pain. The guava ripped open from the middle. He took the two halves in his hands and started rubbing one half on her back. The girl groaned again and pinched his nose hard. Giving his head a sharp jerk Basar Mal freed his nose and began rubbing the other half too. The girl felled him with a push.
As she was leaving, Basar Mal had taken out his handkerchief from his pajama pocket and wiped her back. Softly. His hand moved, but his eyes were fixed on the lone mole on her nape. There were scratch marks by its side left by fingernails. His stare lingered on the mole, his mind lingered on the scratches and his hand wouldn’t slide any faster.
The Larkana of his memory was ruled by the deep scent of guava and the sweet laughter of a girl. The scent hung heavily over the gullies, alleyways, markets. Her laughter hung over the landscape of his heart. Perched on the mud wall of his house, the sixteen-year-old lad counted the cars whizzing by on the highway. One day he wrote the girl a letter—limned his love for her, then, afraid that his family would discover it, hid it in a small wooden box and buried the box on his land for safekeeping.
The country partitioned; that land fell off from him. From then on, he began hearing peals of laughter. He could sense the different scents. One day a wandering fakir prophesied: Son, what you’ve lost, you’ll find again in books. The same evening, on an impulse, he had bought a second-hand book from a street vendor near Flora Fountain. There was a pressed-up dried rose among its pages. A familiar aroma came from it—he could sense it; feel it. He suddenly became aware that he could discern the sweet scent of guava in a rose.
A dream keeps coming back to him, again and again, resplendent in evocation: He is digging the earth; three people appear from the exhumation, faceless, yet speak their names one after another as if taking a bow—Shah Abdul Latif. Sassi. Punnu.
Basar Mal could never bring himself to learn where the girl went. He could never bring himself to accept the fact that she actually went somewhere! Riots followed the Partition. A Pakistan was carved out of Hindustan. Like a past carved out of the present. Wrapping their Sindh, Larkana, Shikarpur, Sukkur and Hyderabad in bundles, weeding through piles of corpses, tangles of screams and cries, crossing the border, refuging in military barracks of Karnal, Dewas and Devlali, Basar Mal and some others eventually reached Mumbai. Basar Mal found a job. Married. Found a place for a library.
In a dizzying megalopolis where the survival instinct overwhelms one and all, who’d give a damn about books? Who’d dedicate a large piece of land to books when land got costlier every year? Mobilize planks for them when wood was costlier every day?
But Basar Mal wanted to imprison the memories of Sindh in his heart. The mendicant was right. There is no better medium than language and books. In three languages—Sindhi, Hindi and English—books converged like people converge from scattered places and a library took shape: Sindhu Library.
Initially, a good many people came to the library. With shovels of memories unrooted from Sindh. To root back by way of books. The library subscribed to many Sindhi newspapers. Every evening a flock of people gathered. The old read and reminisced, the young read and questioned—the legacy of Partition thus borne from age to age.
There were enough people. Give one breath and a book will live a thousand years. There were enough breaths. The library bloomed. An ancient civilization inhabited these breaths.
These Sindhis didn’t have much money. While fleeing to India, their women had with great effort secreted inside their wide bottom pajamas a nose-ring or two, earrings, finger rings, and other such articles—those became assets in these trying times. Life’s battle, now, was to survive and settle and acculturate. So they embroidered women’s clothing, sewed buttonholes and fall on sarees; they stacked butter-papadi on their bamboo stand, or rendered their Sindhi flavor to the local vada-pav. From cheap labor to brokery, from petty thefts to contract killing, they did all kinds of odd jobs. They struggled—like people who had lost everything—to win back everything.
Post the partition when Basar Mal had arrived in this city, he would sniff every person coming from Larkana. After shaking hands, he would sniff their palms, closing his eyes—but he could never get in any palm the same fragrance of guava.
So he waits for that fragrance, and for the people who once came here, and for an old abiding kiss, treading the endless length between his chair and the window with a kind of invulnerable conviction that does not slacken, despite his footsteps whispering “Those who wait long should have little hope.”
Leaving the books on the floor, he returns to the table. He sniffs his palms. The palms wafted the dampness of the rag.
The detached book cover lay on the table. Despite being inured to hardships his heart melted every time a book peered waiflike at him. He wipes the cover lovingly. Then the book. A library card was stuck on its last page. He looks at the date. The book was last issued seventeen years ago. To one Bhagat Ram R. Juneja. How many times that blue-colored card had been stamped!
He takes out gum from the drawer and smears it indulgently on the binding.
“Oh my sweet child!” he says compassionately, “Why do you sulk so much? There. There. Stay happily now stuck to your book, alright?”
He then reaches for an old issue-register. Postcard-sized calendars of many different years interspace the pages of the register. He pauses at a page. Beyond the page the register is empty. He reads the date on this last page, goes back to the calendar of the initial pages, does some calculations.
A total of eleven years, four months and twenty one days had passed—no one had borrowed a book from this library.
He pulls out the bottommost book from the rack. It is a timeworn, tattered book. With a rag hanging from the rack panel he dusts it. Carefully taps it, flaps it and for some time keeps inhaling it. It is the Sindhi poet Shah Abdul Latif’s ballad Sassi-Punnu.
Coming to his table, he starts reading in a husky and quavering old voice. His voice is like the veil, part sunk in the ground, part swaying in air. Its shadow wavering on a mirage of hope.