FIVE GRAINS OF SUGAR
I can sort-of-smile these days
I can sort-of-laugh as well
I have learned to stay alive.
I see things as they seem these days
What I cannot see does not exist
It matters not to me these days.
I am the neutral middle
The road that leaves home every day and returns
Nothing moves me, these days.
Like tongue-taste snatched away
Everything seems white to me these days.
I know nothing
But I know everything
Is the expression pasted on my face these days.
I’ve learned to sigh and laugh at every tale
I am content these days.
Ah no! Not content. I am happy
Because I want is to stay alive these days.
I neither fly nor flow
I am still these days.
Think what you will, I am aloof these days
I am the truth that dreams a world of shadows
I am almost real these days.
All this seems false these days.
My new reality
Mocks my own former fancies
And yes, I too, laugh a lot these days.
Laughter feels like a sickness some times
I laugh still more these days
Things are where they should be these days.
Things seem pleasant.
At least they seem alright these days.
But somewhere lurks a strange, halved worry of which I cannot speak.
Odd, I no longer cry these days.
A twisted truth that I can
No longer cry
I feel no pain nor pleasure these days
I shrug them off, these days.
You might find that strange.
It would be,
If you were dead
And no one knew.
They speak to you
With cups of tea they walk with you.
Only you know
That you are dead these days.
It’s enough to make you cry,
And yet, you wonder
That I cannot cry these days.
No, no, no, I didn’t write this poem, that’s not something I am can do. I mean, making such heavy words fight with each other, making them wrestle with each other and page 3 extracting meaning from that terrible violence. That’s amazing in itself. I start to sweat just reading or listening to such words.
You know, for me, there isn’t that much difference between poetry and wrestling. To this day, I have not understood why people wrestle and why people write poems. When I asked Pundalik, how does this happen, he replied that actually, wrestling was external but poetry was wrestling with oneself and then writing it out. I didn’t really understand what he said and all that I could say was “Hmmm . . .” Pundalik understood. He said, “Rajkumar, the problem is not that you are stupid, the problem is that you lack understanding.”
He sees the ants, he plays with them and then stands up.
Problem – I am wandering on the slippery slopes of a problem. What? What is the problem? That is the problem. Usually, a problem arrives with its own solution and the moment you apply the solution, the problem grows again. They say that he who has a life without a problem has not lived. Which means that I have not yet lived life. Because I have never had a problem. Because problems – o I love this word, I want to be surrounded by problems all my life – mountains of problems on all sides that I could tear through and get to the other side. But I’m not lucky enough to have a problem. I’ve had a few ups and downs, but nothing that you could use this lovely word “problem” for.
You know, I’m really happy these days – something that I can finally call a problem has come to me in the letter. Today, I can use all the sentences that I’ve been dying to use all this time, but I need to be a little grave. Actually, I also like this word “grave” a lot. But first, the problem. Today, I have a problem, I am distressed. Because today I am immersed in a huge problem. What will become of me? Surely I am not thinking about suicide? Oh! This problem! Should I kill myself with a knife? Page 4.
Let’s forget the problem for now. You won’t understand my problem yet. You’ll ask, “is there a problem?” For me, this itself is a problem. That’s why let’s forget the problem for the moment, first things first: conflict. These days, I am fighting. Even now, I am fighting. I have been fighting for the last so many days. I like fighting. Fighting alone has its own pleasure. Since I’ve been fighting for all these days, I’ve understood that if fighting means fighting with one’s self. Actually, I’ve been doing that for years. I started fighting when my wisdom teeth emerged. As it was, my wisdom teeth emerged ten years after they should have. That’s when I realized that I am the kind of person that not many people like. Not many, as in three or four people. One of them is my mother. She has got so used to scolding me and fretting over me that she just can’t live without me. Whenever I do anything, I mean anything useful, I prepare myself to see the weird aspect of my mother, that wrinkled face where the wrinkles get deeper and the raised arms with which she tries to make her tiny body appear larger. I am well aware of all my mother’s tricks. We are very fond of each other.
Actually, I am a man of average height. But if I want to, I can seem taller by wearing tighter clothes and Raghu’s high-heeled boots. People say that when I step out wearing Raghu’s boots and a tight red t-shirt, I look ok. I do everything just ok and everyone knows this. When I got my results from school and people asked mother, she would say, “yes, he did ok.” I was born ok, I grew up ok. Actually, there is a point that I stay steady at, a point that is exactly located between good and bad, the point that you call zero and I call ok. Once, during the selection for the school cricket team, there was a two-hour argument about whether or not to include me. That was the first time I felt I was important. Half the people in the argument said that we can include him because he does not play badly. The other half page 5 said that we should not include him because he doesn’t play well either. In the end, I was the one who said, “sir, sir, I play just ok!” No one understood what I was saying. I mean, they could not find the word to describe how I played. When I told them the word they were looking far was “ok,” they turned on me and said, “what does ok mean?” What does ok mean? Ok means nothing.” Since that day, I’ve only watched other people play cricket.
Experts have been fooled when they look at my physique. Some of them think that I can’t even run. Then I surprise everyone, for any game that can be played, whether old or new, I prove that I can play it ok. And this is where the problem begins: I am incapable of moving forward from this point. I get to ok on the very first day and even after playing for years, I stay at ok.
Mother says that I was fat when I was young. People used to say that he devoured his father as soon as he as born, that’s why he’s fat. I always laugh when I think of this. I eat my father, chomp chomp, and grow fat. But then, suddenly, I grew thinner and thinner and my mother has an explanation for that as well. When I was little, I ate a bar of Rin soap, thinking it was a biscuit. I licked at it, slurp, slurp, and after taking a few steps, I fell to the ground, thump! My mother says that’s when she realized that I had fainted. At the time, she had just seen the film Mother India. She took me in her arms and ran towards the hospital. I haven’t seen Mother India but do you know why my mother ran? My mother? Because for once in her life she wanted to play the role of a mother to her heart’s content. Imagine running one and a half kilometers with a fatty like me! Mother was dripping with sweat. When she got to the doctor, he scolded her. “Because you ran all the way, the Rin soap that your child swallowed has turned into froth and is oozing out from all over his body.” Mother says that the doctor extracted two mug-fulls of froth from my back. As a precaution, the doctor said that I had become very weak and would need special care for many years, that until I was 17 years old, I should not injure my head, etc., etc.
page 6 maybe it was that washing detergent that made my wisdom teeth appear so late.
Now, how do you know when intelligence dawns in you? I mean, its not a bulb that you can press a switch and say, “o here’s light! o here’s intelligence!” How does one know? This was the question Pundalik asked me one day. I felt he was testing my intelligence. I was afraid. I didn’t think for long, if I had, he would have thought that I had no intelligence. Quickly I said that if you begin to see your past actions as low and mean, then you have become intelligent. He laughed. I was sure I had said something wrong. So I quickly added that you experience that somewhere in the back of your jaw. Oh god! I had never been so ashamed in my life. But he laughed and he laughed. He laughed so much that he was exhausted. And then he gave me his answer, my god, what an answer it was! Each word was like a punch slamming into my idiot brain. Bam! Bam! Bam!
A bee buzzed by
And took the dancing flower
To be our story
Pushed out a hand
While my feet danced
Tippety tap, tippety tap
Tippety tap tippety tap
But in our hearts, yours and mine . . .
Smart Alec came by
And took a cycle
He pedaled out
The dance of the rusty fan
Clickety clack, clickety clack
Clickety clack clickety clack
The birds dance
Flippety flap, flippety flap
Flippety flap flipetty flap
That day, I never knew when Pundalik rose from in front of me, when night fell and when morning came. Now my life had only one purpose: to say something to Pundalik that would leave him dumbfounded. I wanted to see him sweat.
Actually, Pundalik was a pretty odd guy. He did not celebrate his birthday. He used to say that he was not born, he became manifest. He certainly became manifest for me. He was my mother’s brother and one day, he showed up to stay at my house. I could not believe this. I mean, I’d known my mother all these years. Could there be some one other than me that was her family? I couldn’t tell. Page 8 He said that he was a great poet and I was a great listener. Because I was the only listener. I was very pleased because from the moment I heard his first poem, though he did not know it, I became greater and greater. But our roles as poet and listener were somewhat reversed for Pundalik would praise me every time he finished reciting a poem. He loved the dumbstruck expression on my face. As it is, I was short of expressions, but this was the expression that I would most often stick onto my face in Pundalik’s presence. I did not understand 90 out of 100 things that he said and the little that I did understand, I was afraid to talk about.
Pundalik often cried in front of me. He had a certain sadness, I don’t know what, but there was something. But whenever he cried in front of me, I wanted to laugh. I felt that Pundalik was ashamed of crying and so he tried to suppress it in this weird way. He would twist his entire body into this crazy shape, he would contort his face like a monkey and a high-pitched squeak would emerge . . . eee . . . eee . . . eee . . . he loved his mother very much. He would say that he had stayed with her till the end. Perhaps my mother did not love her mother. I don’t know, but that’s what Pundalik told me. Loving your mother – I still don’t know what loving your mother means. When I look at my mother, I see a dried up stick of a woman who silently spends her day looking around the house for something to do. Odd isn’t it, to spend years in the same house, working incessantly. Sometimes I felt that the house was not a home, it was a small boat that had sprung leaks in different places. My mother sits in the middle of this boat with a mug with which she bails out the water, continuously.
Ant music. He sees the ants, plays with them and then stands up.
Pundalik used to say, “hey, your mother’s really lazy!” what did he mean? He would always say things like this and wander off and I would be left wondering. But slowly, I began to understand. Apart from the Mother India incident, my mother really was lazy. And this was proved at my naming ceremony. I mean, she named me Raju, which is the name of every second guy in India. And when she was putting me in school, her mother-love was aroused and she pushed Raju ahead of her and presented him as Rajkumar. Mother says that the admission clerk looked over at me as he was filling out the form and laughed long and hard. Mother felt that the fault lay in my face. I think that every man should have the freedom to name himself.
Actually, my mother was very secretive and no one knew this except me. When my mother would pull her red ribbon out of her closet, you knew THE moment had arrived. She would wear the red ribbon in her hair and step out. She had one real pleasure: she liked to watch films on her own. Not mythological films, but romances and the action films. I don’t know much about the romances, but she seemed deeply influenced by the action films, because as she grew older, her face was becoming more and more masculine. Her moustache and beard began to sprout and later, when she scolded me, she would say like a man, “You dog! I’ll drink your blood!”
At that time, Pundalik gave me a book, Maxim Gorki’s “Mother.” I was overwhelmed. Until this point, I was sure that all mothers conformed to a set code of conduct. But what was this? Pundalik told me that this was a true story. I thought, can a mother be like this? I remembered that Pundalik had told me that he loved his mother very much. Now I wanted to know about one more mother, Pundalik’s mother. I asked Pundalik, “Was your mother like Gorki’s mother?” it was as if a volcano inside Pundalik had erupted with my question. He talked and talked and kept talking. What examples he gave and what words he used – the story became more and more interesting. But I understood nothing.
Page 10 Then I unleashed my doomsday weapon -- my dumbstruck expression. After a while, he calmed down and in a choked voice, he began to speak slowly and I began to understand. He said, “I stopped reading, writing, going out, everything, during mother’s last days. I stayed with mother and sang to her. I didn’t leave the house for years. She died listening to me sing. She died suddenly. I felt very odd, I felt empty. I couldn’t grasp anything. Then, without warning, her smiling face appeared before me and her face turned into trees and I began to write.
Heat scorches my face
A shadow nips my heels
My body drips water.
A tree comes close
I flourish in her shade
And drink deep of her mother-love
Believe me, in this wilderness, a tree nursed me
Ma, I call her.
When the night is done with her revelries
When panic makes sleep shorter than the night
When cowardice enters my dreams
Her fingers play on my forehead
And I fall
Page 11 and he fell asleep. I sat there stunned. Just as well he was asleep. I did not want to cry in front of him. I ran out of his room and I saw her. A dried-up, girlish woman, whose face was growing more masculine, a mug in her hand, bailing out water. I began to tremble from head to foot. I felt as if I was seeing my mother for the first time. I ran to her at once and threw my arms around her and the words pelagoya nilobana, MY MOTHER burst out of my mouth. Phat! There was a noise like a whip crack! My head began to spin. For days after, I could feel her mother-love-filled fingers on my face. But I was not defeated by this incident. I did not stop calling her MOTHER. Of course, it’s another matter entirely that I said MOTHER in my head, and called her ‘ma.’ MOTHER – ma! MOTHER – ma! Like that. Actually, all arguments between my mother and me had been resolved years ago and those solutions never affected anything at all.
Pundalik once said, “there is no difference between you and your town.” He said this and wandered off. I could not understand why he had said this. I thought about it and after a while, I realised that this was true. My town was not really a town and was not quite a city either. The people here were not terribly wealthy, but they were hardly dying of hunger either. The town was not important enough to be stamped on the map of the nation, but it’s not like it wasn’t there. Nobody here really wanted to do any work, but they all ended up doing something somehow. Everything here is ok, like me, just ok. Pundalik says that this town seems as if it’s made up of people left behind. Like when a truck full of gravel drives along leaving sand in its wake – like that sand, the people left behind gathered together and made this town.
My town lies exactly in between the highway and the wilderness. And my house is right on the highway. There’s a tea stall across the highway where people with strange faces laugh and shout as they eat. Page 12 Human voices become transformed into the voices of vehicles. Actually, I don’t go to the other side of the highway much during the day. My work happens at 5 in the morning. Me? I used to go there to write things on the backs of trucks. All I know is that these trucks travel through each and every town and city in the country. I would write things in chalk in tiny letters on the backs of these trucks – I don’t know for whom. For me, it was like sending a message into the atmosphere. I was convinced that some Raju, Rajkumar, Chotu, Bunty, Chintu, Rakesh, some ordinary guy with an ordinary name, like me, would wake up at five in the morning and read the message. Nothing I wrote ever came back to me, which means that some one was reading it and erasing it so that no one else could read it. Our friendship was quite deep. I used to tell him everything, but briefly, turning things inside out, with cunning. So that no one else would read it and laugh. Also to prevent the police from showing up at the door – because I talked about mother, Raghu, Pundalik, Radhe and their secrets. But I am pretty devious and the police will never find out. Long ago, I had written on the truck: Pundalik/poet, Raghu/hero, Radhe/Gandhi’s walking stick, Mother/mug-lady.
Actually, I had two reasons for waking up at 5 in the morning: writing on trucks and meeting Radhe. Radhe would come to my house every morning at five. I didn’t even know if his name really was Radhe. Every time he saw me, he would say, “Radhe! Radhe!” and I would return his greeting with “Radhe!” we were “Radhe” to each other. I used to call Radhe the gold-man because he worked at picking up gold.
You see, there were two small jewelers shops in our house that paid us rent. Every day, Radhe would arrive with his tiny iron-toothed broom and sift out the gold dust. When he was doing this, he looked like a tiny white bundle tottering before my eyes. He was totally silent when he worked, I could only hear the sound of his breathing.
Page 13 I’ve known Radhe for years but i feel as if he’s stuck at one age. Maybe he has no desire to get older than that. He has been old for years and I cannot imagine that Radhe was once a child. He had left the town for the city only once and that was the first and last journey of his life. He went to Sabarmati to see – just to see – Gandhiji. This was his life’s achievement, which he has told me about more than fifty times by now. Every time he told me about his meeting with Gandhiji, Gandhiji had something different to say to Radhe. Many times, Gandhiji only said ‘namaste’ and Radhe came back. But many times, Radhe had had a meal with Gandhiji. Many times, Gandhiji wanted to say something to him but Radhe was in a hurry to get back to his town. Once, Gandhiji even said to him, “Radhe, I am very tired. Now you become Gandhi.”
I did not talk much to Radhe when he was sifting the gold dust. But once I asked him why he swept up the gold. He said that before he died, he wanted to make a pilgrimage to Vaishnodevi. I asked him how much money he needed to get there. He said that he would need at least one thousand rupees. I asked him if he had a thousand rupees and he said he did. I found this very odd. I said, if you want to make the pilgrimage and you have the money, why don’t you go? Radhe was silent. It was an uncomfortable silence and I did not push it. Radhe said softly,
“Soon after I met Gandhiji, he died. I was very sad. They made a Gandhi park in our town and put up a stone statue of him. I figured that maybe before he died, Gandhiji had said, make a Gandhi park in Radhe’s town. I used to stand for hours in front of Gandhiji’s statue and he, too, would gaze at me for hours. I felt that he wanted to say something to me. But because the park was always so crowded, he did not get a chance to speak. Page 14 Then, one day, he came to me in a dream. Actually, he did not come to me, he called me to the ashram. I saw Gandhiji in a huge crowd. Then he saw me and said, ‘Radhe!’ I bowed to him and he embraced me. He whispered in my ear. ‘Son, I haven’t been able to make it, but you go to Vaishnodevi and get the goddess’s blessings!’ I was stunned – what was Gandhiji saying to me? I stared at him and what did I see? Gandhiji had turned into a pigeon and was flying away. And suddenly I awoke. As soon as it was morning, I ran to the Gandhi park to see Gandhiji. And that same pigeon was sitting on his head. My dream was true! Absolutely true! Until then, I had been outside the town only once and so I was very afraid. I tried really hard but I wasn’t able to go at that time. And now, I don’t even want to go. Whatever my life is, I’ve lived with the hope that I would one day go to Vaishnodevi. If I go there, how will I get through the rest of my days? The hope that I have lived with has grown, like a child. At this age, I can’t kill my child, can I?
He sees the ants, he plays with them and the stands up again.
I remember learning about Gandhiji in school. Our Ma-saab – we call our teachers Ma-saab in this town – used to tell us about Gandhiji in the most boring way. The teacher had no interest in telling us about Gandhiji and we had no interest in listening, least of all me. But by then I had entered Raghu’s large and shining world. Raghu . . . Raghu . . . Raghu . . . He wasn’t Raghu, he was a wonder. He was really handsome and everyone was afraid of him – first of all because his father was in the police and had been transferred to our town and secondly because Raghu was the only one in the entire town who could speak English. Even our school Ma-Saabs were afraid of him because our Hindi-speaking Ma-Saab’s had no response to his English. From Std 9 to Std 11, Raghu was Krishna for me – his flute would draw many cows like me to him, our tails waving. Page 15 He seemed like an odd combination of a deer, a lion and a horse. He was always late for class and his sounds would arrive before he did. Like a horse . . . tup . . . tup . . . tup . . . these were his high-heeled boots. The moment he appeared at the door, the lion-mane of his hair would make the Ma-Saab rise from his chair. He used to wear really tight clothes. He was so different – the whole town was one way and Raghu was another. He was truly colourful. And he didn’t worship an Indian god, but some foreign god whose pictures were hung all over his house. He would say over and over again, “he is god, he is god, he is god!” Once, he said that his god moved so fast that when he wanted to sleep, he would be in bed as soon as the switch was turned off, even before the bulb went out.
One day in a crowd, I asked Raghu in a cow-like voice, “Raghu, what religion is your god in charge of?” He laughed and laughed and laughed some more and then he said a single word, which I did not understand. My relationship with Raghu was like that of Krishna and his cows. We had never confided in each other, I never had the guts for that. But I had written lots about Raghu to my truck-friend. Those days, I used to go home only to sleep. I had given up eating and drinking. I just followed Raghu around.
He had a unique but very beautiful red cycle. When he put on his high-heeled boots and his tight red t-shirt and rode his bike around, wow! He was something! I would run behind him just to listen to the sound of his cycle bell. When he left his bike and went off somewhere, I would sneak over and ring his cycle bell. What a sound that bell had! Not like our town’s cycle bells which went tan . . . tan . . . his bell went tring . . . tring.
One day, he announced in school that he was leaving our town because his father had been transferred to the city. I burst into tears in class and loudly, not softly, began to scream, “No, Raghu, no! You can’t leave me and go! How can you do this to me? No, no!” When I fell silent, the whole class burst out laughing. I couldn’t bear it. I got up and left the class room. But as I left, I wanted to see Raghu’s face one more time Page 16 – was he also laughing at me? But I didn’t have the courage. I was upset and feeling ashamed of what I had done. I woke early and clung to Radhe and cried my heart out. Radhe comforted me and said, “Never mind, these things happen. Don’t cry! When I was bidding farewell to Gandhiji, he couldn’t bear the thought of my leaving. His eyes were filled with tears.” Which meant that he had not understood what I was saying. For the first time ever, I was angry with Radhe. I got up and walked off to the other side of the street where I stood beside a truck for hours.
I stopped going to school. A few days later, a constable came to the house. I was terrified. He asked my mother, “Is Rajkumar here?” immediately, I thought of my crime with the trucks and I was sure that I had been found out. Now, everyone would know what I thought of them. I was not afraid of going to jail but the idea that people would know what I really thought of them was really frightening. It was like being naked in front of everyone. I went to the constable, quaking. I said, “Sir, I am Rajkumar.” He laughed and gave me a bag and said, “Raghu Sir told me to give this to you when he was leaving. Ok, namaste.” He went off. When I opened the bag, I saw that in it, there were Raghu’s high-heeled boots and the picture of his god.
Rajkumar pulls out an enormous picture of Bruce Lee
I did not wear Raghu’s boots very much because they pinched. But I did wear them till my feet swelled up. One day, Pundalik saw my swollen feet and I was sure that he would be upset, that he would ask what had happened. But no! He said nothing, just looked at my feet and smiled and turned away towards the window. Then slowly, he turned and smiled again and said,
A pinching shoe can make life heavy
But when it pinches not,
Time hangs heavier still
That was the first day that I felt alone because there was no one here with me. I cannot remember I time when I spoke and there was some one there to listen. It’s another matter entirely that I have nothing to say. Even Pundalik has never been with me, its me that has always been with him. Radhe was still not done with his Gandhi stories. There, too, I was the quiet one. And there was still water in my mother’s boat. There was only my truck friend to whom I could say everything. But for the first time I wondered whether, at the other end, he was actually reading these things or not.
The boots lay in corner of the house for days, though they never seemed to belong there. Later, they were given a space of their own in the house and this great deed was performed by none other than my mother. As I watched, she turned those high heeled boots into flower pots. I felt terrible. Those boots belong to Raghu . . . my Raghu. But I said nothing because of the all the arguments that had already been resolved between us.
He sees the ants, he plays with them and then stands up
You must be wondering what I am doing. I’m playing. Yes, I am really playing. It happened like this: one day, I was sitting at home, just sitting. And I saw this train, a train of ants walking one behind the other, marching in rhythm. I followed them but could not see where they had come from or where they were going. They were all walking in the same direction. I fetched five grains of sugar and then the game started. I shut the door of the house and closed off the whole of the outside world. Then I could see the world inside clearly. I started to lay the grains of sugar beside that train of ants. page 18. First, two grains close by, a third at a distance, the fourth further away and the fifth furthest of all. A couple of ants approached the first two grains. They ran back and shared the news with the other ants. Now all the ants turned towards the grains of sugar, the entire train changed direction. As soon as the ants reached the fifth grain of sugar, I would pick up the first two grains and place them ahead of the fifth grain. I could make the ant train move in any direction I wanted by doing this. I really enjoyed this, making some one dance to my tune, and that, too, with only five grains of sugar. This was my favourite game and I played it every day.
Once Pundalik came to stay with us, he rarely went anywhere. Sometimes, he would go into the city to meet his friend Tarachand Jaiswal, but he always returned in a day. I had never left our town. Because Radhe had told me that there were great dangers outside our town. Out there, language, food, people, all are different. Haven’t you seen how the bustle of the two cities streams through our streets? When Pundalik would speak to me, I felt that he used my name Raju to talk to himself. Because, sometimes, I would walk away and when I came back, he was still saying “Raju, Raju” and was still talking. He was the victim of a very peculiar loneliness. This is not what I thought, this was something I heard him say. Once, he was reading this really weird thing to himself – “A dog is trying to bite his own tail. And then a sort of dog-whirlwind begins that goes on and on until the dog comes out that tornado in its dog-shape. Emptiness. This dog is reflected in my eyes and I in his.”
Pundalik used to say that he had been declared a bad poet. He had tried to write all kinds of poems – about pain, about romance, about children, about the environment, about stones, about flowers – but none of them was worth anything. After a while, people would run away when they saw him. page 19 Pundalik would shout out, “No, brothers! I’m not going to recite any poems!” but no one stopped. The ones that did stop, Pundalik would find a way to recite a poem to them. Pundalik said that people would mock him. You could hear the laughter rise from the houses that he entered. Pundalik had written poems for children as well – and children stopped playing outdoors. Every single one of them was terrified of the word Pundalik. Vegetables and groceries were dropped off at his house as there was not a soul who wanted to listen to Pundalik’s poems under any circumstances. Nowadays, Pundalik no longer recites his poems and sings my praises, he gets mad. Once, after reciting a poem, he asked, “Hey! Did you not like the poem?” I said, “No. It was good.” He said, “Then why are you staring at me so angrily?” That was weird. He was the one who told me that he wanted to make a grave listener out of me. And you already know how much I love the word ‘grave.’ What a word ‘grave’ is! But when you try to mix a little gravity into your dumbstruck expression, this is what you look like. But I still tried to look as grave as possible.
One day, when I was playing my ant game, I suddenly felt that I had become an ant. I started to feel uncomfortable – what if, playing this game again and again, my mind had become like an ant’s? I looked over at the grains of sugar. And what did I see? These were not grains of sugar, they had been transformed into Raghu, Pundalik, Radhe, mother and my truck-friend. And I began to run after them. This meant that there is some one playing with me. When I am not playing. The way I play with the ants when they are not playing with me. Maybe the ants are also playing with some one that is not playing with them. Which means that we are all playing with each other. And that means Pundalik is also playing with me.
And now, the problem. I have this huge problem, which is why I am doing all this. This problem came to me in the form of Pundalik. Actually, Pundalik wanted to publish his collection of poems. He had a friend in the city called Tarachand Jaiswal who was helping him with the publication of the poems. I had heard all his poems, some of them so often that I know them by heart even today. The problem started when Pundalik was leaving. I saw that in one hand he carried the diary in which he used to write his poems and a letter and in the other, he carried a picture of my mother and her Gita. He came to me with all this in his hands. He said to me, “Put both your hands on this and swear . . . swear on your mother’s Gita and on my poems that you will have my collection of poems published.” Before I could take the oath, I noticed that he had packed all his things. I said, “Where are you going, Pundalik?” Our town is not that far from the city, certainly not far enough to have packed a bag. Pundalik did not reply to my question. His voice was getting strained and he was insisting that I should take the oath and so I did. I swore on the goddess of knowledge, on mother earth, on the poems, on the Gita – and I threw in a couple more oaths as well, in my enthusiasm. What was it to me, after all? The poems were Pundalik’s, Tarachand Jaiswal was going to have them published, where was I in all of this? I was nobody, but I could not understand why Pundalik was making me take oaths to have his poems published. The truth was, once I had taken the oath, I was stuck in the middle of this whole mess. Pundalik’s face brightened the moment the oath-taking ceremony was over. He tossed the picture of my mother and the Gita into a corner, picked up his stuff and left. He got to the door and remembered that I had asked him where he was going. He turned and said, “First, I’m going to city to give Tarachand Jaiswal the poems and this letter which explains everything about you and the poems. Then I’m going on a pilgrimage and then am going to renounce everything!” and he hugged me and whispered softly in my ear. Page 21 “I wanted to give you something. You’ll find it after I’m gone. Thank you. Namaste!” and he left.
I could understand what he said about the poems, by why was he talking about me in the letter? What did he want to give me? And why? I had only listened to his poems and not even understood half of them. If he had talked about a listener in the letter, that would have been fine. But it was not like that. I was well and truly trapped. How Pundalik trapped me in this problem came to light with a letter I received from Tarachand Jaiswal a few days ago. I could not believe that Pundalik had done this to me. I know that I am not the most useful guy but that some one could use me like this was beyond me. Do you know what Pundalik did to me? What was written in Tarachand Jaiswal’s letter? This is his letter. The letter’s pretty long but I’ll tell you the main points. (He reads) ‘Rajkumar, greetings to the great poet! I was delighted to read your poetry. Pundalik had spoken to me about your poems earlier as well. People are full of praise for your poems. The collection will be published next month, but there is one concern. We are one poem short in the collection. This is not my opinion but our editor’s. You are a great poet and after this collection, your name will be mentioned along with other famous poets. Please take the trouble to send us one more poem as soon as you can. My daughter is crazy about your poems. What are your thoughts on marriage? Pundaliks always spoke well of you? When might we meet? Will you publish the poems under your own name, Rajkumar, or would you like a surname added to that? Do let me know. Your sincerely, Tarachand Jaiswal.’
Which means that the ‘problem’ has now taken on terrifying proportions. Why did I take that oath? Now I’m regretting it. Forget the oath, I really wanted Pundalik’s collection of poems to be published. But not like this! Page 22 I’ve done everything. For the past few days, I’ve been searching through Pundalik’s books – perhaps he’s left four lines, two lines, even one line behind. But no – there was nothing there. I picked up a pen and tried to think like Pundalik and started writing. Nothing. I could not write anything. What could I write about? Nothing has ever happened in my life that I could write about or fight with. I can remember everything that has happened up to now, but trust me, it’s as if nothing ever happened. As Pundalik used to say, in order to write a poem, you need to recall your life and your experiences, you must struggle with them and confront them. What is said or written after that is called poetry. I did not understand this then and I do not understand it even now. I mean, I can understand wrestling now, but poetry is still a mystery to me. What fight? Whom to fight? This excavating the self was something that was always beyond me and still is. But now I have no choice. I have to do this. It’s not as if I’ve started writing. Four days ago, I composed the beginning and the end of the letter I am going to send to Tarachand Jaiswal. (He reads) ‘Dear Mr. Jaiswal, namaste! How are you? I am well. I hope you are well, too. My poem is enclosed . . . The above poem is ok. I am also ok. Forgive me, but after sending you this poem I am leaving this house, this town, this city and this country. Please do not try and contact me. You must publish the collection of poems, you promised to do so. Your obedient poet, Rajkumar the Grave.’
Grave, grave! That’s the name I added. I like the word ‘problem’ also, but I thought “Rajkumar the Grave Problem’ would not work as name. So I got rid of ‘problem.’ “Rajkumar the Grave’ is a good name. I’ve done this much. Now, how do I write the poem? I have to write it, but all roads are closed and the journey is long and lonely. There’s nowhere to hide – no alley, no lane, not even a dead end. So I have to go ahead and write. If I had sworn only one oath, I might even have broken it. Page 23 but all those damn oaths I swore have turned into ghosts that are haunting me. O Gandhiji! Save me! O god, what shall I do? No, no, they can’t save me! Only one poet can save another. Only Pundalik can save me now. He said, fight with yourself and so here I am fighting with myself.
When Pundalik told me about how he had taken care of his mother in her last days, I had begun to imagine what I would do for my mother in her last days. The first thing I would do is grab her mug from her hands and toss it far away. And I would tie the red ribbon in her hair and take her to the movies at least once, because I had this great desire to see how my mother went to the movies. What did she look like in the ticket line? What did she do during the interval? And what on earth was the connection between the red ribbon and going to the movies? But all my wishes remained wishes. I woke up one morning and found my mother was not in her bed. Instead, she was lying face down near the door and the red ribbon was in her hair. I said, ‘ma, ma!’ I even shouted ‘Mother!’ but she did not move. I was scared. I went to wake Pundalik but before that, I took the red ribbon from her hair and put it in my pocket. I didn’t want anyone else to know about her about movie-watching. Pundalik came. He declared that I should make arrangements as my mother was dead. How did this happen? What arrangements? How could this be possible? I wasn’t upset, I was surprised and my concern was not for myself but for the house. Would the house do something? Mother lived with this house and not with us. Maybe the house should have died first. Maybe that’s why mother did not die in her bed but on the floor, in the embrace of the house. “Make the arrangements,” Pundalik said and walked off, leaving me alone with mother. What could I do? I turned her over, put a pillow under her head and sat there looking at her dry, shriveled up body . . . this is the woman that gave birth to me, seems strange doesn’t it? Pundalik showed up with all the funeral paraphernalia and some other people. I wasn’t crying but everyone said to me page 24 ‘don’t be upset, this happens, everything will be alright’ and things like that.
Then my head was shaved and I lit my mother’s funeral pyre. I was watching my mother burn when suddenly, among the pieces of wood, I saw my mother’s hand. I felt as if she were asking for her mug and I wished that I could bring her mug and put it in her hand. Or take the red ribbon from my pocket and place it on the pyre. But I didn’t have the courage. I silently watched her burn. In the midst of that burning wood, my mother was burning, too. As I was walking home, I thought maybe the house would not be there, that it would have collapsed. Or at least there would be a huge crack somewhere. But there was nothing like that. Everything was normal.
Heat scorches my face
A shadow nips my heels
My body drips water.
A tree comes close
I flourish in her shade
And drink deep of her mother-love
Believe me, in this wilderness, a tree nursed me
Ma, I call her.
Radhe is depressed these days. He spends a lot of his time in the Gandhi Park with Gandhiji. He says that Gandhiji and he are talking a lot these days. He says, ‘Gandhiji has understood my situation and forgiven me and does not talk about going to Vaishnodevi that much any more.” But he was still depressed -- it was the season to go to Vaishnodevi. Page 25 People were coming and going from Vaishnodevi. But they shooed Radhe away from them. Suddenly one day, Radhe stopped coming. Dust began to pile up in front of the house. Since Radhe wasn’t coming, I began to wonder how much of Radhe’s gold lay in that dust. I gathered the dust with a broom, thinking that I would give Radhe all that dust when he came back. He would be very pleased. Then one day, as suddenly, he came back. I asked, ‘Radhe, where were you all these days?’ He sat there silently and did not say a word. I said, ‘I even went to the Gandhi Park. To see you. But you weren’t there either.’ Still, he was silent. Maybe he didn’t want to tell me and so I also sat in silence. And he refused to take the dust I had collected for him over all those days. He said it was no use to him. As he said this, he turned into a white bundle that tottered before my eyes. All those days when Radhe was not there was the first time in my life that I felt some one’s absence. I mean, Pundalik had left and mother was gone. But I never felt their absence. Until Radhe disappeared. I felt as if an enormous space inside me had been emptied and I could hear my own voice echoing inside it.
Well, that’s how it is. There is nothing else in my life that is worth talking about. There are a few other trivial things like the dog that comes to the back of the house every day to see me. I’ve started spending my evenings with him. Just recently, I had started to think of a name for him when he just stopped coming.
Now there is Radhe. There is my truck friend. And there is me. There are three of us and we are happy. The fight is over. This is all that has happened to me. I mean, this is all that has happened that I can remember and that can be told. But even after all this, I still can’t see what out of all this might be poem. Pundalik is not a poem, he is a poet. My mother is just my mother. She’s not like Gorki’s mother or Pundalik’s. page 26 There are only events with my mother, no poems. Radhe is simply Radhe, Gandhiji’s walking stick from the statue in the Gandhi Park. Radhe is nothing more than that. I prefer to stay silent about my truck-friend. Raghu for me was a wonder, he is a wonder and he will always be a wonder. He is simply my Raghu. But even he is not a poem.
I have fought with myself as much as I could, so where is this poem hiding? I have sworn so many oaths – what will become of them? Somewhere over there, Tarachand Jaiswal is waiting – and here, I can’t write a single word. Forgive me, Pundalik! I can’t do this. Let my false oaths burn, let the gods take false witness away from me! O god! None of this will happen, I’m only giving myself false hope! How long can this charade go on? I’m going to have to write this.
It’s done. This is my life, in brief. And here is your letter, Tarachand Jaiswal, Sir – complete. You can think what you like.
‘Dear Mr. Tarachand,
Namaste. How are you? I am well. I hope you are well, too. My poem is enclosed:
Five grains of sugar
An illusion chased by ants
Two shining crystals
And then three more
Pull the ant train forward.
Forgetting the first two when they see the fifth
The forgotten first returns
We trip into enchantment
Like a merry-go-round
The game never ends
For the ants are seekers
And only the sorcerer plays.
The above poem is ok. I am also ok. Forgive me, but after sending you this poem I am leaving this house, this town, this city and this country. Please do not try and contact me. You must publish the collection of poems, you have promised to do so.
Your obedient poet,
Rajkumar the Grave.’
It’s ok, isn’t it?
Translated by Arshia Sattar
June 19th, 2008