Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Storyteller

The afternoon was hot. The grasses on the field had gone yellow, offering a golden touch to the scene. Against the field, stood the majestic house of Zamindar Sunil Singh. Early morning the servants in the house would open all the doors and windows to let the sun come in, except those which belonged to the room on the second floor, left corner of the house. The room, if opened would open to a small balcony, the door to which usually opened at the onset of afternoon. And this was the time.

Vasundhara opened the door and came out. She leaned on the railing for a moment and looked out to the open field. She went in and opened the windows. The room was fully lit now. She walked to the bed where Priyambada was still sleeping. She woke her up, “Get up, sweetheart! See, sun uncle has arrived in your room. Say hello to him.”

“Didi… Let me sleep for five minutes more naa, pleaseeeeee!!”

“No Priya, it’s already very late. Get up fast. Your father must be coming in for lunch.”

Priyambada half opened her eyes and negotiated, “Okay, four minutes?”

“No baby, you need to get up now,” said Vasundhara and pulled her in her hap.

She dragged the wheel chair from behind the curtains and placed Priyambada on it carefully. Then resting her knees to the ground, she pulled up her face up and said, “Baby you are so beautiful. Let’s wash your face to give a wonderful glow. Okay?” Priyambada smiled in her reply.

Zamindar Sunil Singh was a rich man. He was married twice but currently lived life of a widower. His first marriage was against his parents will and since it was not performed in the social function but in a temple, no one really gave any sanction to that. Sunil lived with his wife in a small cottage in the outskirts of the village. His wife died in the first few months of their marriage without leaving any significant memories. After two years, surrendering to continuous pestering of his family, Sunil Singh married again to a beautiful woman. They were happily married and were expecting a baby when his second wife learnt about his infidelity. She had died soon after the delivery of her first child.

Lunch with Zamindar Sunil Singh was a custom. That was only time in a day when Priyambada would see her father. And as a practice they would never talk while eating. Each day after food, her father would ask, “How are you feeling today, darling?”

“I am good, father,” would be her short reply.

In rest of the waking hours Vasundhara was her only and dearly beloved companion. After the demise of his wife, Zamindar had appointed Vasundhara to take care of his polio-hit child. And it was not only polio which concerned Priyambada. She was also living with a great degree of weakness and reduced body mass. Doctors in and around the village found themselves incapable of helping her to recover. They could only reduce her pain to the extent that she could bear it in performing her daily routine tasks.

Vasundhara seated Priyambada on the wheel chair again and started moving to her room. From the corner of her eyes, she noticed that she was being watched. She assumed it was not her but his daughter on the chair, whom he was watching.

Her room was the only world Priyambada knew. Her balcony was the gateway from her world to the world of others, a journey that she traveled through the tales told by Vasundhara.

“Vasundhara didi, will we play the story game today?” asked Priyambada when she was carefully placed on her bed.

“Yes, my darling, today I will tell you a special tale. A tale of a princess.”

“Princess! Wow!”

“Yes, a little, cute princess, just like you.”

“Was she also handicap, just like me?”

To this Vasundhara couldn’t reply. She caressed her head through her hairs and said, “You are the sweetest girl in this world, my darling!”

Then she began the story.

“In the month of January, in extremely cold weather, was born a cute princess to Maharaja Ranbir Singh and Rani Phoolmati.”

“Didi, how is a child born?” asked Priyambada.

“Well, God puts the baby in mother’s womb. The baby lives there for some time and then comes out when she is ready.”

“But why does God put the baby only in mother’s womb and not father’s?”

“Hmmm… good question. May be your teacher, when you will go to school, can answer this.”

“But pitaji says I will not go to school. Then how will I learn?”

“No Priya, we will take you to the school.” And in an attempt to change the topic she asked, “Now shall I continue the story?”

“Yes, please,” she smiled.

“They named the little child as Saraswati. They wished their daughter to be the most learned person in the kingdom. When she grew up, they appointed a teacher for her. One day, her teacher brought along a young boy who was very intelligent and honest. Saraswati liked his company a lot. Two of them, had good time learning, playing and growing up together. But when Maharaja Ranbir Singh got to know about this, he threw the teacher and the boy out of his house.”

It was almost a routine game for them, in which Vasundhara would narrate a story to Priyambada, after which the little girl would extrapolate and present an extension of the story from her viewpoint. Priyambada loved this play. In the darkness of her existence, these were the only few moments that would infuse a light of creativity. There were times when Priyambada would beautifully twine her own little life experiences with fantasy.

When Vasundhara ended her story at the point where the princess finds her prince again and lives happily ever after, Priyambada gave her narration.

“The princess, one night wished to go to the bathroom. The night was dark and the prince was out on war. She tried locating the lantern, but couldn’t. She called for her servant, but no one arrived. She felt an urgency to run. On the way, she banged into the table, fell down and hurt herself. Neither could she move, nor hold on to the urgency to urinate. She peed lying on the floor. She cried, but no one heard. The next afternoon, when the prince arrived, he found her dear princess on the floor, all messy and stingy. He held her by his strong arms and lifted her up, took her to the washroom, cleaned her and changed her dress. All this while, the princess didn’t speak a word. Her eyes were swollen and were full of tears. When the prince placed her on the bed, looked in her eyes, and caressed her hairs, she closed her eyes and cried; cried aloud. But this cry was not filled with pain but joy. The teardrops flew down from the corner of her closed eyes.”

Priyambada looked at Vasundhara who was lost in the reiteration of past, but in way that it held the capacity of not appearing as being one.

“I think the compassion grows stronger when the relationship goes through the moments of pain,” said Priyambada.

“How in her age?” wondered Vasundhara.

The evening had arrived. They loved to watch the setting sun. In those hours, they would not talk to each other, but just stare in the sky. We spend our present either in our past or future. There are very few moments that contain the exactness of the present and those are the only moments in which we live. These two ladies would spend these long evenings in the exactitude of the present, watching sun’s minutest gesticulations.

Before she would leave for the day, Vasundhara would switch on the television and increase the volume to a little higher note than required. This was to ensure that loneliness in the house is beaten by the noise.


It was the month of July and was raining heavily. The problem with rainy season is, its not clear when the afternoon ends and evening starts or when evenings merge into night for it to envelop the earth.

After their lunch, Priyambada said, “Didi, I want to play the story game.”

“Yes, Priya. Let’s go to your room and we will play.”

“No I want to play here. I want to show our game to Pitaji.”

“No Priya, your father is busy. Let’s go.”

Pitaji, would you not like to listen to our stories? Are you very busy?” she asked her father.

Mr. Singh looked at her in a way that at times we look at something with no intention of looking at it. He said, “Yes, sweetheart, why not? I would love to listen to your stories.”

“Now didi, you tell me one story and I will tell you one.”

Vasundhara was not sure. She felt a bit suffocated in the room. She wanted to run out as fast as she could. It was a feeling similar to what a c would have felt in the vicinity of a tiger, after being attacked by him once, not killed but hurt badly. Her mind raced like a wild horse, but she pretended to be calm and smiled at Priyambada.

“Okay, today I will tell you a story of a king.”

Priyambada heard the story in all her earnestness. She was not questioning as she usually did. Neither did she appear trying to find clues for her extrapolation. That’s how we behave when we have our say ready.

When Vasundhara finished her story, she looked at Priyambada. Her face was emotionless, her eyes distant. She looked like a grown up girl, jailed in the body of a child. She whispered, “Priya?”

“Yes didi, now my turn,” she paused for some moments, took a deep breath, “It goes like this,” she begun.

“It was the month of July and every day, it rained heavily. The queen had gone to her mother’s home for a month. She had left her ten years old son with his nurse. One night the son heard a cry. It was like a whisper, a deep painful whisper. But before he could locate its direction, it was gone. This repeated for quite some days before that one night.

The night was dark black, as your hairs, didi. The son got up to use the washroom. While peeing, he heard that whisper again. It was very clear and appeared to be very near. He tried looking around but the darkness didn’t allow him to see anything. He came to his room and opened his door. He walked up slowly and reached the stairs that led to the hall. Just at the start of the stairs, was the study room for the king. He stopped. He could hear the whispers more clearly now. It appeared that someone was moaning which was being obstructed forcefully. He recognized the voice. It was his nurse’s. After a while he sensed someone coming out of the room and walking down into the hall. In the light of the hall, he realized it was his father.

Next day, when the boy met his nurse, she was not at her usual. She was not even looking into his eyes. She wished to finish her work fast and go back home before evening. The boy didn’t ask much. He knew what she was going through and didn’t wish to shatter her. In evening when he met his father, he found him in his usual self. He walked up to him, slapped him tight, rushed to his room and cut his vein. He couldn’t live the shame of being a rapist’s son,” she paused for a while and then said, “The irony of a rape is that, usually, it makes the victim guiltier than rapist.”

She looked at Vasundhara. She was looking down at her feet, holding his right hand in the left, tightly closed. She then looked at his father. He was busy with his hookah.

Priyambada smiled and said, “The story ends here.”

“Okay. Go to your room now,” said her father.

Vasundhara took Priyambada to her room, placed her in bed, switched on the television, closed the doors and left for her home.

She knew who the story was about. The thought of last night generated a strong shiver. She was trying to figure out how did Priyambada got to know about it. She tried her best but couldn’t gather much. Sometimes, our pain, our sadness is so profound that we don’t care to think anything beyond that. And the pain of being raped is something that no one can empathize with, no one can share. It’s exclusive for the sufferer.

It was around eight past evening. Vasundhara was lying on her jute bed, still shivering. Outside, it was drizzling. She avoided closing her eyes because she didn’t wish to think of last night. But the eyes were not the culprits, she realized, as with eyes wide open too, she could only think of the last night. She thought of Priyambada and her story, “With what face will I go in front of her again? She knows it. She knows it in every detail. She was the prince of her story… She was the prince…” she was stiffened in her bed for a second. And in the next instant she almost jumped from the bed and ran towards the Zamindar’s house. She ran and ran and when arrived at the door, she banged on it restlessly. The old gatekeeper, a lantern in one hand, opened the door, “Vasundhara bitia, so late in night?”

She didn’t care to respond. She snatched the lantern from him and ran the stairs up to Priyambada’s room. She was not in her bed. She looked around. She was not seen. She rushed to the bathroom. She was not there too. Her wheelchair was not seen. Then a mild stroke of rainy wind opened and closed the balcony door. Vasundhara pulled the lantern up and cautiously walked up to the door. She pushed the door open. The wheel chair was lying next to the balcony railing. Priyambada was not seen. A thought appeared in Vasundhara’s mind which she shrugged off immediately. She closed her eyes. She didn’t wish to move; neither did she wish to see.

“What happened bitia?” asked the gatekeeper who had arrived there by then.

Vasundhara opened her eyes and looked at him. Then she walked to the railing, moved the lantern out and looked down.

The lantern crashed on the ground followed by the echo of pain and guilt through the drizzles of the night.