Sunday, December 20, 2009
Moon Burns: Translation of a famous Gujarati short story
Rendered into English By Tushar Bhatt
The whiff of air brought it with faint sound of a garba song being
sung in the distance. The wind carried the sound for a moment and let it die, leaving behind the tentalising sensation, just like the touch of nippy breeze in the winter. Scanning the horizons all around did not reveal much. There was a vast expanse of moonlit meadow, broken here and there by a few trees and an occasional hillock or two.
“Where is the sound of singing coming from ?”
As if he wanted to rush to the spot in one giant jump of a glance, Pappu looked into the far distance. More expressively, Varsha spread her hand, pointing her fingers in the direction of the sound. “It is coming from a far off place. My friend was telling me that the singing goes on near the dam, along the river-bank. Shall we go there, Papa ?”
Without uttering a word, I started trudging ahead. Children followed me. Questions must be whirling around in Varsha’s mind and Pappu was raring to go, but I was the restraining presence. I yearned to be alone, a solitary figure standing in the midst of the meadow painted silver by the moonlight.
The children, however, would not allow me such an opportunity. They told each other, “Come on, let us go.” I followed suit, adding authority in my voice. “Make haste. Or else, it will be very late when we return. Hurry up.”
The sound of singing traveled on the back of the mild breeze and dissipated as the wind fell. It was not just a sound; it was a tapestry of female voices, women together by rhythm and rendered all the more enchanting by the breeze that carried it. The sweet notes rose and fell. “Very melodious, isn’t it, Papa ?”, said Varsha, her demeanour displaying the fact that she wished she was where the singing of the garba was taking place at this very moment. She would have picked up the words of the garba and joined in singing it to herself, had it not been for Pappu. He refused to change his place.
Irritated, Varsha tried to admonish him: “Look at him. He is coming with us for no purpose. He will go to sleep and will watch nothing. Huh.” Her eyes were silently airing her complaints to me. I was about to tell her something, when the lines of anger furrowing her forehead adorned by a red bindi stopped me in my tracks. I had begun secretly to fear this girl. She had grown up. True, not so much grown up that I could not tell her anything. But, she had grown to an age where I was bound to take note of her likes and dislikes.
I slowed down deliberately, letting the children forge ahead. I noticed the moonlight making mockery of my shadow cast on the swaying grass all around. My shadow was an entity by itself, a different person altogether.
The soft moonlight became even whiter, a pristine, translucent white that felt on my skin going unhindered through the clothes, giving thrills. My shadow appeared in agony. Perhaps soft edges pf the grass-blades were piercing its substanceless body. Or, perhaps the shadow was in agony because it was envious of my clothes. Whenever I put on white clothes, Vatsala used to tell me: “You look attractive in whites.” I had asked her once: “Just attractive or more attractive?” Pat came her reply: “You look good in whites and better in white, especially under the moonlight.”
“How do I look now ?”, I raised my eyes to the moon and asked, wordlessly. I insisted: “Tell me frankly.” The moonlight as though turned into Vatsala and showered the answer, soothingly: “Lovely, very lovely. But, not as lovely as my Pappu, running ahead there.”
I queried: “How do you mean ?”
“In Pappu, not only you, I too am present. We are all mixed up in him”, she said and laughed. The breeze, as if flowing out from the serene moon, had touched me to the core. My shadow still seemed in agony. But how long should I suffer with it ? The bouquet of female voices was getting nearer and clearer every moment, the breeze too had abandoned its tide and ebb pattern to become constant, yet mild, very mild. It was so mild that I could not differentiate it from the voices; the breeze could be discerned only through the sound. Vatsala had once asked me: “Why do you close your eyes when listening to a song?” I told her: “It is not that simple. Just think of the moment when entering the inner sanctorum of a temple, eyes close automatically. Do you get the meaning? Why do eyes get shut at the pinnacle of the honeymoon night?” Vatsala burst out laughing, as if her body was solely composed of the laughter alone. “I get it, I get it”, she said, again laughing.
Varsha and Pappu were waiting for me on the narrow path. “Why have you stopped walking ? We were woundering, where has Papa got lost.”
“Lost in the moonlight,” some one cooed the answer. Startled, I asked, “Hey, who spoke ? Pappu, my son, did you say anything?” I turned to Varsha to ask her. “Did you?” Both said: “No.” I suddenly knew who had spoken and cast an inquiring glance at my shadow busy turning the silver grass into a black smudge.
The breeze made the grass tremble a little. My shadow too trembled, as if in apprehension. Well, maybe, it was the moon who had spoken.
“You two go on. I will walk slowly behind you.”
Varsha said: “No. I am afraid, papa.” Pappu chipped in: “I too am frightened.”
“Frightened of what? What is there to fear? I am with you.”
Pappu looked at me, as if he was afraid of me only. His eyes had taken after Vatsala’s. Momentarily, I felt as though Vatsala was watching. We used to talk with our eyes, without uttering a word, silently. The irises of our eyes, facing each other closely, would come alive. Vatsala would say: “Aha, our eyes are celebrating a honeymoon night.” The very words, honeymoon night, made my face, hidden in the darkness, bathe in divine moonlight. I imagined Vatsala’s face was the moon from which came the cool, exhilarating light. Holding her face in my hands, I started explaining to her….
I told Varsha; “Go on, go ahead. I will come slowly behind you.”
My obedient daughter gave a little nudge to her brother to walk, her protective hand on his shoulders. After a few steps, she turned to make sure that I really was following them, even slowly. The children started walking ahead, getting immersed in the sound of music that wafted on the air, drawing closer every moment. Apprehensively, I felt the solitude of the ambience, looked at the moon and asked sternly: “Why are you frightening the children?” No sooner had the question left me, Vatsala seemed to leave the moon. She was annoyed with me and walked ahead to the children, as if to provide a shield. The palav of her sari was flowing in the wind in their wake.
Suddenly, Varsha and Pappu stopped in their tracks. They turned towards me, clearly worried. “What is it?” I asked.
Reluctantly, Varsha articulated: “Papa, did you call out loudly for Mummy a moment back?”
“Me? No, my darling, no.”
Tears were drowning her voice. “You did call out for Mummy.” She turned to Pappu and sought his confirmation: “Brother, did not Papa call out loudly for mummy?” Pappu nodded in agreement.
“Papa, let us go back home,” Varsha said. “We are frightened now.”
“Oh, my dear girl, you are needlessly worrying. Why should I call out loudly for mummy? It is now eight months since she died.”
“But, Papa, last year on the full moon day, she was with us.”
“That does not mean that I would call out for her this full moon….” My remaining words stretched out like ink spilling out from a broken pot. I had nothing to say, except smiling nervously. The smile brought a palpable relief on the faces of the children. “Come, let us go on. We are very near now. Do you understand?” The children started walking slowly. After a while, after a long while, I looked at the shadow. In trying to keep pace with me, on the uneven terrain, which had replaced the grass of the meadow, it was rolling up and down. I must tell Vatsala something about the shadow. “Look, look.” I told her. She was walking so close that I could hear her breathing. “If this shadow were not there, how perfect the moonlight would have been !”
“You would not change. You were always like that.”
“Lunatic…. affected by the mere sight of a full moon.”
I mumbled something in reply, and started walking on. We were walking at the pace of dappled moon-beams ambling through a roof of tiles, slowly, unevenly, reluctantly. We were walking very slowly, like a snake slithering out of its skin, as if it never wanted to do it, but had to. All of a sudden, I pointed a finger at Varsha and Pappu walking ahead and kept my other hand on her shoulder. “Look there go our children.”
“There ahead of us. Don’t you see?”
“You are a gem. In front of us is a bouquet of sweet voices singing garba.”
“Varsha, Pappu,” I shouted. As if materializing out of the moonlight, the children came back, running: “What is it, papa? What is it?”
“Look, what is….” Suddenly, the name of Vatsala evaporated from my lips, like camphor touched by fire. I spoke out, spoke a lot, and apparently nobody heard. The children kept repeating: “What is it, papa? Tell us. Why are you silent?” How would I know what in the universe around had been so thirstly to drink up my voice dry. Why did not that black shadow get sucked up? And, where had Vatsala, who did not get destroyed even when these very hands lit her funeral pyre? How did she vanish in the moonlight? What even the fire could not do, how did the soft rays of the moon did?
The singing voices of women sounded very near. Varsha said: “We are almost there, Papa. Beyond this rise…”
“Yes, let us get on,” I said. The children started walking. Very slowly, I too started shuffling. Lovely, Very lovely. Very lovely in the white clothes. But alone. I brought my hands to the face as if I was washing my face with the moonlight. May be, it would bring the freshness of a wash with water. The very thought of freshness made me turn towards the shadow. It too had surreptitiously copied my gesture. Maybe, the children of the shadow too were walking ahead, just as my children were doing. They might even be about to join the garba dance.
At the top of the high ground, Varsha and Pappu had stopped, waiting for me, “Look, Vatsala, there our children are.” I turned to the moon to tell. But where was she? It was moon alone, a mere participant in the garba dance of the women. Now the sound of garba singing was very close. Maybe, Vatsala had run ahead to join it. I tried to distinguish her voice from the woven tapestry of many female voices that made up the whole singing sound like a bouquet of fragrant flowers. My search remained fruitless, like that of a man looking for a dear one in the stampede. In vain, in exasperation, I looked at the moon, and lent my ears to the singing. The hot breath of Vatsala touched my earlobes. It almost shook me to my very core when I heard her asking: “Why are you listening to music with open eyes?”
Startled, I told her: “You are a mischievious person. A minute ago you had disappeared. When had you gone? This day last year, you were present completely with us, with all the three of us. This full moon day should also be the same.” I had said so much that she had to put her hands to my mouth to make me stop. My own words laid a siege on me and under their weight my eyes closed.
I stood there on the high ground with half shut eyes, in the full moon light. I saw Varsha and Pappu run ahead. “Papa, we will come back, you stay put there.” The words came to me like an arrow. Varsha joined the group of women. Pappu sat down on the ground to watch the garba. Separated alone I stood there, away from them. I looked around. Vatsala, Vatsala. Why was she not anywhere here ? The funeral pyre I had lit eight months ago was burning me now. My palms were hot. The singing of garba became very loud, as if they were singing close to my ears. Slowly from the bouquet of many melodious voices, my ears detected one voice. Just like that of Vatsala, or maybe of Vatsala’s. My eyes closed involuntarily.
Through the closed eyelids, the moon got through and merged into my eyes, flooding me. I experienced the hot breath of Vatsala. It all became words. “Hey Vatsala, What kind of a honeymoon night we are celebrating now ? Burning ? Melting ?” Her breathing became quicker. I cried out. The moonlight was on fire. It enveloped me like the flames of a funeral.
(Translated from Gujarati by Tushar Bhatt)
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