“Writers, translators, smugglers,” argued the Bulgarian poet Georgi Gospodinov, “we are all engaged in a similar task. We translate—which is to say we literally carry over—what is desired, valued, missing, suppressed, forbidden.” Translation, then, as need. Need to right that which is wrong. Writing wrong—describing through your writing the ills the injustices that remain hidden in the midst of a dailyness that are taken for granted as a way of life.
So: translating these stories into existence. Translation as midwifery? Perhaps. Challenge the language you have so carefully cultivated. Revisit the meanings of words you have since childhood imbibed as universal truths. Consider the act of translation as impulse, as motivation, as a “telling” of that which would otherwise remain “untold”. So: speaking out and speaking about the forbidden? Maybe.
Do not the frames that rule the act of translating from one language into another hinder your vision, fool you into thinking the job is done? Translation as action. Activism as a tool for the translators who take up causes. Body pheledebo as a translatable act of not just the body being thrown physically into the fray should the situation demand this of you but the soul too. The soul translated as body made visible. Made passion. Translate your passion. Subvert the status quo. Translation therefore as subversion.
It’s how Mahasweta Devi translated her lived dailyness into literature. “I believe in documentation,” she wrote. “After reading my work, the reader should face the truth of facts, and feel duly ashamed of the true face of India.” Her method, as she put it, was “[f]orensic writing. Disclosing, revealing everything.” She needed to put down on paper, report, what she saw: “Writing is my real world. It is where I have lived. And survived.”
For Mahaswetadi, the positions she took through the many lives and many characters she sired were born out of an instinct to bear witness. Literature as an act of witnessing. Documenting the dark times under the guise of storytelling. Another act of translation? Maybe. Perhaps.—Naveen Kishore, publisher of Seagull Books and long-time associate of writer and activist Mahasweta Devi
A huge room. Dark. The carpets and the curtains covered in dust.
Kundan hung the mirror on the wall.
Then stood there for a moment, leaning his head against the wall. Then he stepped back and raised his eyes to the mirror.
His chest was hurting. He rubbed at the pain with his fingers. Then, softly, his voice cracking, he whispered—“Laayl-e!”
And then shook his head in despair. Laayl-e was gone. Laayl-e was gone. Laayl-e was gone. Laayl-e was nowhere to be found.
Tugging at his hair, more salt than pepper, Kundan began to pace the room. But soon he felt he couldn’t breathe. Looking down, he saw the clouds of dust rising from the carpet. Striding over to a window, he flung it open. It had started to rain. Rain like a fine powder. A drizzle. Kundan stood there for a while, then turned back to the room. Brought a stool up to the mirror and sat down before it.
This same room, the same monsoon evening…memories, so many memories…but memories can hurt you. Day by day, bit by bit, they can scorch your soul.
Kundan could remember so many things. But was this plunge into the past helping him find peace? No, no happiness, no peace. Just the burning, the flames, the fire. But he wanted that feeling, he could not resist its flame.
Laayl-e. Sitting in front of this mirror, Laayl-e would sing to him. Sometimes in the evening, then again in the morning. But he wasn’t thinking only about Laayl-e. There was another.
“Bajrangi, Bajrangi, Bajrangi!”
No, he didn’t say it aloud. But the name rumbled through him, a mute, unspoken call.
Bajrangi sarangia. Dark skin. Black eyes and black brows. Timid and pleading. Shy and gentle.
Laayl-e singing, and Bajrangi, eyes down, playing the sarangi. Sometimes looking up, his eyes meeting Laayl-e’s. His eyes then blazing with light. Kundan, watching them both. Kundan feeling affectionate and indulgent.
“I know how you feel, Bajrangi. An ignorant insect drawn to the fire—that’s you. You saw the fire and you flew right at it. Bajrangi, I think about you, I think about you all the time. But Laayl-e?”
Laayl-e had never indulged nor encouraged Bajrangi. That day, that terrible evening when Bajrangi’s sarangi fell silent forever, Laayl-e had said, “Tonight is for celebrating.”
That night, to her bath water, she had added perfume.
Then covered herself from head to toe with jewellery. Seven strings of pearls, a diamond and emerald choker, a pearl and ruby necklace. Pearls and diamonds tucked into her hair. Pearls and rubies dangling at her ears…her arms, her hands, her fingers, her waist, her ankles and her feet…and a gold-thread odhna thrown over her black clothes.
All the chandeliers had been set alight. The curtains had been removed from the doors and windows and fat strings of jasmine buds had been strung up in their place. Laayl-e instructed the sarangiya to sit in one corner. Then lay with her head on Kundan’s chest and drank all night. Flung the glasses at the wall. Then clapped as they shattered and laughed, “What a beautiful sound.”
And she had sung all night. Every song she knew. Until night itself seemed to be drunk on her voice. Looking out of the window, Kundan had imagined that the stars were reeling, then swinging, coming closer, drawing back, coming closer again.
But did having Laayl-e close to you mean that you were close to her? Had Kundan really known Laayl-e? Then why did he lose her? What happened to Laayl-e?
Laayl-e never told anyone what happened to Laayl-e. The news had spread through the city. Those who’d known Laayl-e had been surprised. Those who hadn’t had been sad. Curious too.
Slowly, but surely, the news reached the exiled nawab’s house in Metiabruz too. Have you heard? Laayl-e… Laayl-e Aasmaan, the same… have you heard about Laayl-e?
The British had sent Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Awadh, to Metiabruz when they took over his kingdom.
He was sitting in his room, the smoking pipe in his hand.
Who will give him the news?
Eleven o’clock in the morning.
As you cross the threshold, you think you’re back in Lakhnau. Behind you lies the Calcutta of 1865, smoke, dust, dirt, noise, an orgy of people and movement.
But once you cross over, you can breathe a little easily. On one side, a set of small rooms. Full of writers trying to imitate the nawab’s poems and songs. Perhaps a young poet with an Urdu shayar, hoping for an audience with the nawab. The ancient horseman of the Awadh cavalry lovingly feeding fistfuls of gram to his ancient horse. Tailors stitching caps. Embroidering. The white threads of the chikan-work. The gold threads of the zari.
Water splashing in the fountain. Gardeners busy in the rose garden. Young servant boys feeding the bulbuls flown in from China and the white-rumped shamas. In the baithak khana, some voices singing, some hands stringing their sitars. Somewhere an old maulvi copying out the Quran.
Sometimes, in the large room, the lights blaze, the rugs unfurl. Singers come from Pathuriaghata and Jorasanko. Music-lovers come in their palanquins and landaus. The evening starts with the nawab’s favourite Bhairavi. But the nawab cannot listen to it any longer. Babul mora naihaar chhooto hi jaaye…and the nawab’s eyes grow bloodshot, then glisten with unshed tears. That song, as though written with a pen dipped in the blood of his heart. A heart breaking with the sorrow of leaving his beloved Lakhnau.
The nawab was lonely. His heart was heavy with pain. But who could share his pain? No one.
When he heard the news, his pipe slipped from his hand. An unexpected blow, stunning the elderly nawab.
“Who—who has brought this news?”
Then with a wave of the hand, the messenger was dismissed.
For a long time he sat there in silence. Then, softly: “What will happen now? My Ishwarlal’s gharana—who did she leave it to? Who?”
Everyone in the mansion was astonished.
“So, then, were the nawab and Laayl-e Aasmaan…”
“They could have been. He’d send for her time and again.”
“Her beauty was like a flame…maybe the nawab…”
So many people, so many things they said.
But so much relief they felt when the nawab finally spoke. No, not for Laayl-e. But for her song. It was the death of the song that had sent grief wailing through his heart.
Wajid Ali Shah remained lost in thought.
Thinking not of Laayl-e Aasmaan. But of Ishwarlal. His childhood friend, Ishwarlal, like whom he had heard no other sing. Ishwarlal loved Mehroon, Laayl-e’s mother. And as a gift of his love gave to her his style of song, his gaayaki.
“What have you done, Ishwarlal,” Wajid Ali Shah had raged. “Who have you gone and gifted your gaayaki to?”
“Ali jahaan, I have gifted it to the one I love.”
“Ishwarlal, then you must marry her. Your child will carry on the tradition. Oh, but that’s not possible. You can’t marry her. You’re Hindu.”
“Ali jahaan, I could have left my religion for her. But she doesn’t want to marry me. But why do you worry? I will give the gaayaki to Mehroon’s daughter. She will keep it for the future.”
“Her daughter? Who?”
“Laayl-e. Laayl-e Aasmaan.”
Laayl-e. Twenty-two-year-old Laayl-e. In her voice was kept secure Ishwarlal’s gaayaki. Like a decanter preserves precious and priceless wine for years, Laayl-e had preserved the gaayaki. Inside her.
That Laayl-e was gone?
That Laayl-e was gone. The decanter was broken. Ishwarlal’s unique and incomparable gaayaki was lost forever.
Wajid Ali Shah shook his head.
Picked up his pipe. And thought with a sigh, “Oh most merciful, compassionate Lord, send for me now. This body has borne much contentment, such sorrow. Now I must go to you. Let this body turn to dust. One by one, they all go away. And I grow more and more alone.”
“Does anyone know how she died?” He asked a little later.
“No,” he said again, almost at once, “Don’t tell me. Let it be.”
The nawab didn’t want to know.
But in the evening, alone in the room, a thought made Kundan’s heart grow heavy. He could hear, like a bird struggles in her cage when it sees day turn to night, a question, in his heart, flapping its wings.
Why did Laayl-e die? What hadn’t he given Laayl-e? Then why did Laayl-e die?
Kundan stood up. Pulled a cord from a hook in the wall. A tinkle-tankle clinking-chinking sound. The chandelier came down. He lit one of its candles. Lifted it out and placed it in a candlestand. Placed the candlestand in a nook in the wall. Then drew away the cloth that covered the mirror.
No. He couldn’t see his face in the mirror. Was it that dusty? Kundan tried to clean the glass with his handkerchief.
But no, it refused to give up the dirt.
Then Kundan remembered. He rang the bell. A servant arrived. Then came back with a glass of water. A bundle of newspapers.
Kundan wet some of the paper and began to scrub the glass. The servant stared at him for a few moments in astonishment, then went away.
Kundan scrubbed at the glass until it began to gleam.
No more dust.
But no reflection either.
Kundan was stunned. A bolt of lightning seemed to run through his body, down his spine.
He was looking in the mirror but his face was not in it. No reflection. No face.
Kundan stared at the mirror as though he were hypnotised. His head was starting to throb. But each of his senses was alert, impatient. Now something unreal was going to happen. Lifting aside the curtain drawn by death, she would come back. And Kundan would once again see Laayl-e Aasmaan.
Kundan thought he could hear, somewhere in the distance, someone tuning a taanpura.
The scent of jasmines. The scent of jasmine perfume. A very faint, very mild smell, slowly filling the air.
The scent of jasmines? Yes, only jasmine perfume—she would use no other. So, it must be her.
Kundan was intoxicated. Unable to move his eyes from the mirror. Able to smell the perfume more clearly now. Able to hear the music. Only the taanpura? Not also a song?
Kundan thought he could hear the signing, no matter how faint its melody. No matter how lightly it wafted away on the air, he could still hear it.
Lagta nahin hai jee mera…
That song! The one she sang so often!
With her soft, fair fingers, she would bring over her shoulder her braid of dark black hair. Then playing with the gold flowers tucked into its folds, she would walk about the room, singing this song.
Had Laayl-e come, then?
Suddenly, as if in harsh reproach of every doubt in Kundan’s mind, a few lines shimmered across the face of the mirror. As though someone had drawn a few strokes with water.
Kundan raised the candle. His hands were cold. His eyes open wide.
He saw someone put down the sarangi and lift his head. A familiar face.
A few locks of hair had fallen over the forehead, a familiar forehead. He knew those eyes. Those kind eyes, those laughing eyes. Those soft, pleading eyes.
Kundan kept staring. “I know you! Didn’t I love you? I did. Kundan’s love is brutal, savage. It wants to consume the one upon which it falls. You forgot that. You crossed the line. Your eyes could not move away from Laayl-e’s face. That was your mistake.”
Kundan’s voice was hard as he said that name. But Bajrangi didn’t look scared, as he always did when Kundan was angry with him. He didn’t back away like he used to. He looked disappointed. He stared at Kundan, and then lowered his gaze.
No, there was no one else in the mirror.
Kundan placed the candle on the windowsill again. He was feeling numb. Shaking like a leaf.
Somehow he dragged himself to the balcony, to the rain-drenched breeze, and stood there till he felt better. Then he went back inside, back to the mirror. He reached out to touch it, and started at how cold it was. But it was Laayl-e’s mirror. Laayl-e had no warmth in her heart.
Yes, he could see now—his own face, a face weighed down with questions.
What happened to the music, the song, the jasmine?
That song was playing in Kundan’s heart, was it?
“Laayl-e, Laayl-e, Laayl-e!”
Laayl-e had never quite become Kundan’s, never opened up to him. He drew the curtain back over the mirror again. Even after her death, Laayl-e was fooling around with him, making fun of him. What else could she do?
Kundan found a chair to sit down on—words, songs…moments, all of them rising up inside his heart like bubbles and then bursting.
After a point, the candle went out. Outside, the streets of Khidderpore were dark. The strains of the muezzin offering the evening namaaz wafted in. The breeze from the garden blew in the fragrance of the rain-drenched flowers.
Everything was the same. Exactly as it had been three years ago. Only those flower curtains flowers were missing. And the songs—that fool Bajrangi and his sarangi didn’t make music with Laayl-e anymore.
Koi bedardi gul-e bulbul-ko na sataana…let no merciless rose’s thorn torment the poor bulbul, Kundan thought to himself.
But was Kundan just an unfeeling gardener, looking after this garden of memories?
Why else was he sitting alone? The cruel rose, and the foolish bulbul—both gone. Was he always supposed to end up like this, alone amid the ruins of the soirée?
Kundan finally got up and left the room. He called out to the guard and asked him to shut the gates. He wanted to go back home for a change. He had to call Shireen. Ask her what she knew. Why did Laayl-e Aasmaan, who had burst out laughing when she heard the news of Bajrangi’s death, trick everyone and go away? Did Shireen know anything? Anything at all?
Forthcoming from Seagull Books 2017
This essay was published in the Oct-Dec ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly. This issue marked 5th anniversary of the magazine, and is based on the theme “Love”.