Beyond Fear

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Gaurav Solanki

(Translated from Hindi by Aniruddha Shankar and Gaurav Jain)

I’M SEVEN years old. Ma has told me to fetch milk from the pujaris. Perhaps we call them that because they live in the temple. Shippi tells me that the pujaris are not gods. She’s become even more convinced of this ever since she saw an old man of that house smoking a beedi. She gets confused and starts thinking whenever I ask her who gods are. Shippi is older than me, or even if not older she just seems that way to me. And she becomes even older when she cups her half-cheek to think.

I pick up the dolu and set off. Perhaps they call this vessel a dolu because you feel like rocking it to and fro while walking as soon as you take it up. Shippi is sitting on the steps of her house. Seeing me walking alone she too joins me. She promises that if I take her with me she’ll teach me how to play bat-ball when we return. It’ll be night by the time we return, I point out. “Yes, now the days are growing shorter,” she replies. Lifting my head, I squint at the sky but I can’t see the day’s face or belly or feet anywhere.

She’s wearing a new frock which comes to just above her knees. “This is an old frock,” I snigger, “and that’s why it’s become short for you.” She spins around and, showing me the sticker stuck on her back, says, “See? I’ve worn it for the first time!” In her attempt to touch the sticker one of her frock’s hooks comes loose. Now as she walks the frock just hangs a bit on one shoulder. She’s ahead of me. I stop her with a grab and tell her about the open hook. She says she feels embarrassed. I feel kind of nice. She’s taller, so I have to reach on tiptoe to set the hook right. Then we set off together again. “I’m very scared of the pujaris’ dogs,” I say.

In her attempt to touch the sticker one of her frock’s hooks comes loose. Now as she walks the frock just hangs a bit on one shoulder

“Never look dogs in the eye, they get angry if you do that,” says Shippi

“Yes, and you should never run when you’re near them,” I reply. “Ma told me that.” Thinking about her reminds me that we should walk faster, or else Ma will scold me for returning late.

We have to walk through the government school. There are locks hanging on every classroom door, but one room’s door is broken through which one can enter. Sometimes we play hide and seek in that room when we pass by. But we’re in a hurry today and so head straight ahead.

The temple of Ramdevji is outside the village. Scattered around the temple lie high piles of sand, on which Shippi and I love to leap, roll and slide. Shippi stays outside the temple. On returning with the milk from the pujaris’ house I find her looking longingly at the sand piles. “You promised me you’d teach me how to play bat-ball,” I remind her, upon which she wistfully starts back with me. The days have gotten so short it’s already misty by now.

Didi writes something on her palm with a pen and then scratches it out. When I ask her why she’s crying she brushes me aside

The path through the school is deserted. We walk together holding hands. Just then we hear feet scurrying behind us. I turn and look back. No, Shippi turned first and saw the pujaris’ boy Atul coming behind us. “I don’t know his name,” she whispers to me, “but he’s not a good boy.” She’s suddenly begun trembling. I too turn to see that he’s approaching while dragging on a cigarette. I see him every day, but today a wave of fear ripples through my mind as well. We walk faster and faster, and soon we’re almost running, hand in hand. We’re in front of the room with the broken door when Atul catches up in front of us.

I’m holding Shippi’s hand tightly. Atul is five or six years older than us. He ruffles the hair on my head. I don’t like it at all. Then he pulls free Shippi’s hand from mine. Her eyes have filled with tears. She’s started trembling badly now. I watch as he pulls her through the broken door into the room. I run away scared and stand at a distance. I keep running away only to return and run back a bit. I’m wet with sweat on that cool evening. I don’t know what to do. I want to cry but I’m too scared to do even that.

After I grew up there was once an ad on TV, saying, “Victory lies beyond fear!”

No, victory does not lie beyond fear. Beyond fear lies a dark room in a government school, entering which Atul’s hand is lifting Shippi’s high frock even higher all the way up. Beyond fear is me rooted outside that room until nightfall and then fixedly watching first Atul as he leaves after ruffling my hair and then the crying, shaking Shippi. Beyond fear lies pitch darkness, after which I never ask Shippi who gods are. Four hours beyond fear is Shippi going to sleep on her bed without telling anyone anything.

***

I am 14 years old and being a boy of 14 is like being nothing. I try to stop it but scraggly hair keeps sprouting on my chin. When I go for a haircut I feel too embarrassed to ask the barber to shave me. Each time I return just like that and the scraggly wisps keep growing in their own way. I’m not a kid anymore and still the grown-ups don’t let me sit with them. The female playmates I used to wrestle with unabashedly till recently are now reserved and quickly slip past me. They are being considered as adults, but boys of 14 are considered one of the most troublesome sections of the household and are subject to everyone’s suspicion. Now Ma scolds me when I walk around the house in my underwear. Fourteen-year-old boys don’t attach much importance to the pimples that burst on their faces while bathing, while others consider the boys’ discovery of these to be a mark of growing up. They see unreal and enchanting dreams, which they sometimes can’t withstand. Every morning I’m ashamed at those intoxicating dreams of mine and, on my own, fix myself a little more firmly on my line of resolve.

PEOPLE ARE coming to see Didi. No one tells me but I know it. The thought of Didi getting married makes me feel quite lousy. Didi is frying pooris, Didi is making dahi vadas, Didi has got her eyebrows done, Didi is wearing a sari, Didi is crying. When Didi goes into the inside room to retrieve a new crockery set, she pauses for a minute and cries. Didi writes something on her palm with a pen and then scratches it out. When I ask her why she’s crying she brushes me aside and rushes outside. Ma scolds me about it being a room for women and says that I have no business there. I ignore Ma and stay lying there in the darkness. Ma keeps grumbling. Then there’s a shout for cashewnuts to be brought from the market but I don’t listen. A car pulls up outside. There is a sudden chaos in the house. “Arre Siddharth, get my chunni na,” Ma calls, and I wonder why Didi cries.

Ma has gone outside and the rest of the girls and women gather in the same dark room. “He has a fit body,” says Mausi in a way that makes all of Didi’s friends giggle.

“What does he do?”

“What does that matter?”

Another gust of giggles.

“He’s handsome…”

My cousin sister pinches Didi’s arm. Didi doesn’t flinch. Why?

“What’s the boy’s name?” someone asks from outside the door.

“Atul…”

And it so happens that the room’s walls are being slathered with ash, everyone but me begins vanishing. The roof shudders and cracks and begins falling. Lying down I can see the moon on which Shippi is sitting and sobbing uncontrollably while spinning a charkha. Her yarn is the colour of dreams – muddy. I call out to Shippi but she doesn’t talk to me. She writes on the cloth and sends it forth, asking, “How do you sleep at night?” I fold my hands, fall at her feet, tear at my hair, beat my chest, and Shippi doesn’t listen.

Did you hear that? Didi is exchanging whispers with her two friends in the world that lies on the other side of the door. After her wedding, for the first time, she’s back for three days. She’s so happy that she looks at you as if she’s forgotten. As if all those evenings when you both jammed absurdly and laughed together. A boy used to walk past our house everyday and would definitely turn his head to peek inside. We had baptised him ‘crooked-neck guy’ and then by changing it to ‘neck-crooked guy’ its abbreviation became NCG. We would laugh and would hit each other and run, catch each other, would collapse exhausted, and eat from the same plate. As if all those evenings were but a childish joke. She doesn’t discuss anything in particular with you. If you wish to know about her transformed world, you will have to stand behind the doors to listen to her. Because you are now a 14-year-old boy.

“You, my love, have blossomed like a rose in just one week!”

That’s Rashmi’s voice. Didi laughs. These days there’s a new flavour to her laugh which has thickened its syrup. There’s no reason for sorrow in this. Let me tell you there’s never any reason for sorrow, there is just sorrow — deep black in colour — in which one has to drown. It comes as if you’re standing naked in the street, it has begun to rain, and you have no home.

“He’s so strong…” Didi says softly, “I have started loving him beyond measure.”

“And your Madhusudan?”

You can get three books for twenty rupees if you want suhaagraat tales. For that I didn’t need to hide and listen to my sister’s stories

Didi goes silent. I feel she might cry. Madhusudan used to send her letters and be desperate to meet her. He would stand at the college gate and wait for her, and had been sad ever since her marriage was fixed. I had also seen that young cheerful boy fall at Didi’s feet and cry. When boys forget all their self-respect and cry in front of girls, one feels like rescuing them and taking them off to some beautiful world. Boys who could’ve done better things than fall in love and ruin themselves.

“Arre what of Madhusudan? I was mad to think I would not be able to live without him. We become foolish in puppy love.”

“He’s left college.”

“I was telling you about my Atul and you all have changed the subject entirely.”

“Yes, yes, tell us! We’ve been waiting for a week. And you wouldn’t talk even on the phone, you just giggled.”

HER WORLD had changed suddenly. She had become rich, happy. From that day, I’ve maintained that whatever love is (and does it even exist?), it is a kind of suicide, a sort of slow poison, and this new experience of Didi’s, like Pulse Polio vaccine drops, is like ‘life’ in our constant battle against mortality.

Didi said, “This room of ours, it’s so big it feels like a classroom. Atul is very romantic. Do you know… on the first night he told me that he would like it very much if I wore a skirt. Me in a skirt? If I wore one here, Papa would have killed me. I’ve never worn one after the sixth standard. But he had already bought three or four skirts for me. Tiny, tiny ones.

Even Ma could one day forget me in the bazaar, come back and comfortably cook aloo-matar while humming some Lata song

A balloon of laughter gently grazes my ears.

“Actually he tells me that when he was alone… meaning before the wedding, before me… girls in frocks were a fantasy of his. He says that when we get bored with skirts, we’ll come to frocks. He’s so creative… and this is love, Shaloo, which gives you nothing but joy. Endless happiness. Madhu might have been all right but now I’ve understood that torturing oneself, killing oneself, isn’t very sensible… Yes, so listen to the whole thing. Then he said he wanted me to go outside with him. Our room is on the second floor and there was no one outside but how could I, a new bride, go outside wearing a skirt like a schoolgirl? But he pulled me away… picking me up in his arms forcefully… you’ve seen how strong he is! He can pick up two girls like me at a time. Earlier I used to think that this Salman Khan, he looks like that because of some camera trick… I really used to think so but I saw a man this close for the first time… and that too, Atul. When he picked me up like a flower, my face was next to his shoulder… and I bit on the rippling muscles in his arm. He bit my ear so hard, what can I say… look, Rashmi… there must still be a mark on this ear.”

Didi paused. Maybe Rashmi had seen me. I was dying in the heat. If I’d switched the fan on they would’ve figured there was someone in the other room.

“And then he said we’ll try roleplay.” Didi went quiet.

“And what kind of play is this ‘roleplay’, bride ji?” Shaloo’s voice was impatient. To tell the truth, I wanted to run away. You can get three books for 20 rupees in the bazaar if you want suhaagraat tales, and for that I didn’t need to hide and listen to my sister’s stories. But I couldn’t even run away. Those who think the body is lowly and worldly love is base, in fact they are the ones who have closed their eyes to the world and run away. They don’t want to look into that deep, dark hole in which the everyday business of life goes on and people sleep with each others’ wives. After putting their kids to sleep, they lie right there next to them and watch blue films on their CD players. Women hungry for the company of boys their sons’ age whisper obscene things to them, drink alcohol, drive them around in their fancy cars and with seductive pampering clasp them into their bosoms. Eighteen-yearold boys are sitting ready to kill anyone for 1,500 rupees and a bottle of Diplomat. Life is pulp fiction after all, a cheap literature sold on the footpath.

“Roleplay is a kind of naatak in which both people for some time act like something that they’re not.”

“Why so? And what did you both become?”

“It’s a lot of fun. Whatever’s hidden in your heart, you can say… you can do whatever you want…”

“Arre wah! And what did you become?”

“He said I should play a small girl, a school girl, a complete innocent.”

“And your man?”

“He remained himself.”

“And then?”

Shaloo and Rashmi were desperate to hear the rest of the story. I couldn’t listen anymore and came out.

ONE DAY, when we were children, Shippi and I went out to play. Shippi’s family was to leave the village forever the next day. She was looking very happy. Near that bush where we often went to pick berries, she suddenly stopped and started crying. “What happened?” I had asked, worried. She kept crying, and shook her head to call me closer. I went and stood in front of her. She caught hold of my hand and put it on her head. “Swear on me that you won’t speak to anyone about what happened that day. Not even to me. We’ll forget that day forever.”

Girls mature very young. I stood there stunned with my hand on her head, and couldn’t think of anything to say. Then, still crying, she hugged me and sobbed for a long time. When we started off again, without plucking any berries, she had really forgotten everything, even her tears of a few moments ago. We saw a buffalo with two crows on its back and she pealed with laughter. This forgetting of hers also scared me. This way, she could forget me too someday. This way, even Ma could one day forget me in the bazaar and come back and comfortably cook aloomatar while humming some Lata song. Some days Ma would lock the house and go out, leaving me inside. I would feel that she’d forgotten me. Frantic, I would tear around the house, would pound on the door with my tiny fists, would think of somehow climbing the wall and jumping across to the other side. And in the end, defeated, I would start crying. By the time Ma returned, I would be fast asleep from exhaustion and she must have thought that I’d been asleep the whole time. She would lovingly stroke my head and I would wish, then, that I could somehow return to her womb, so that she would never leave me and go away.

The women I considered my world – along with other unpleasant things, they’d often forget me too.

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