The Illumination Across
Nathji and Pyari were glued to the TV, watching a chhakree programme. It was like the silent movie, for the volume had been kept at the minimum. This near silence was shattered by two unexpected sounds coming simultaneously-the loud whistle of the pressure cooker and a knock on the door downstairs. Pyari went into the kitchen and put the gas on
'sim'. Nathji waited for a while, but when no voice followed the knocking, he also got up.
"Where to?" Pyari asked, returning from the kitchen.
"Didn't you hear the knock on the door? I must see who it is."
"If there were anyone, he would have come up himself. Sit down."
But he did not, and sidled up to the window.
"Let him stand there, stuck to the window." Pyari mumbled to herself, "As if people have nothing to do but to drop in for a chat." She raised the volume of the TV, which brought chhakree wallas to life, thumping their breasts, rolling their heads over and over again and singing in a loud voice:
O, spend a night with me
Or smite me with a sword.
Nathji opened the window. With night fast swallowing dusk, he could see nothing. "I am sure there was a knock, can't be just mere imagination!" Cursing
Gula, the carpenter once again: "Couldn't the wretch fix the latch-string properly. Slipshod work as always! Even a gentle breeze pushing it from outside swings the door open and immediately shuts with a bang. And there are fellows here who deliberately push it open just to annoy
'Masterji'. May be one of them did it right now."
He tried to peer at the kucha road down below. It skirted the house, then joined the broad, tarred road, across which was a grove of willows, some on dry ground, some sticking out of bed of water. Behind the willow groves ran another road and a bund along the river
Vyath. Across the river was the broad highway and close by, at the foot of the hill, the army hospital, the canteen and rows o officers' living quarters. But all these metalled and unmettalled roads, willow groves, and so on can be seen only during the day. Right now, they lay covered under a blanket of darkness. Nothing could be identified but the officers' quarters high up on the hillside because of the rows of streetlights. This is what seems an impressive illumination across the river.
"Was there anyone?" asked Pyari. Nathji shook his head.
"Then why don't you close the window? It is cold." Before doing so, he said, "Wonder if you know. Of course you must have seen how beautiful the view from here is in the evening. The light in the distant army area across the river creates an illusion of Bombay.
"O, I see," she taunted him, "but may I know when you have been to Bombay, so that this scene makes you think you are there?"
"I never said I have been there. Possible I may have seen an identical Bombay scene in a film, or maybe I just imagined myself on the shore in the dark, with the unending stream of lights on the Marine Drive scintillating just like this."
"See, how he entreated you so much last year, and the year before. Why didn't you go?"
He closed the window, shuffled to his seat and lapsed into silence for a while before answering her: "How could I? Every month we have to pay the thousand-rupee on the house loan. And it is only during the winter holidays that one can get a few tution group. Moreover, who would guard this house?"
"You needn't worry about that now. We've got a tenant downstairs."
"Yes, but he has come only now. He didn't come earlier in the year!" He heaved a sigh. She felt a gnawing pain in her chest and crossed over to the kitchen to switch off the gas.
Nathji had quietly fished out an atlas from under the pile of books and just opened it on the page having the map of North America, when Pyari returned from the kitchen. He quickly hid the atlas under the register on the rack close to the divan.
"When will you have food?" asked Pyari.
He turned towards the TV, on which some expert was discoursing on various types of fertilizers. "Where is the hurry ?" he said, "It is not even seven no,."
"All right," she said, "I'll warm up the subzi after some time." "By the way," he asked, "what have you made for this meal?"
"Same that you had in the morning," she said, and added, "I asked you to get me some meat in the morning. But did you?"
Nathji fixed her with a look that really frightened her, but she continued with some trepidation, "I don't like it but you could have had it. I really don't like it, not that anybody has forbidden me to touch it."
"Why you don't like it, I know, I am to blame. I am very sorry I blurted out the other day how the neighbouring
Kakapora, Paarygaam and other places, they openly..."
"Please, for God's sake, don't remind me. It makes me shudder."
Nathji saw that she was absolutely shaken, and stopped.
Down below, another knocking, which made him jump out of his seat, but she made him sit down. "It is not our door, but Mir Sahib's."
"How can you guess?" he asked.
"My eyesight," she replied, "is on the wane, but my ears are still quite sharp. And since the only sound that assails them the whole day long is the banging of the doors, can't I make out which sound belongs to which door? It is not like you, spending the whole day at school."
"O, to hell with the school! This headmastership is eating into my vitals. Though I do manage to be back home by two-thirty or three, who knows some minister or some other bigwig may turn up for inspection after two-thirty, and I may be kicked out! Anyway! See, Kartik Purnima is coming next week and all the teachers insist that we all spend the whole night at Pompore enjoying the saffron blossom in the moonlight. I haven't agreed."
"How can I leave you alone here?"
She changed the topic and said, "Please get up now and bolt both the outer and inner doors. No one will come now."
He was, on the contrary, convinced somehow that some one or other relative, friend or acquaintance from the old locality-would drop in. It is a Saturday, and any caller would choose this evening. Tomorrow being Sunday, no one would like to miss the Mahabharata serial in the morning and the feature film in the afternoon, and come to this out-of-the way place. Anyway, it is strange that nobody has come till now. God knows why.
This musing was disturbed by Pyari saying again, "Did you hear? I asked you to lock the doors before it is too late."
"But I feel," he said, "Guptaji of the ground floor is due back today. He had said he might return in about a week. And coming from Jammu, he wouldn't reach earlier than eight or nine."
Pyari also felt that his arrival was not to be ruled out. But the whole thing looked ridiculous on second thoughts, for the fell, had definitely told Nathji that he would come only in March to clear the bills. What a tenant! Pays for the whole year, but stays here not more than 50 or 60 days!
"One keeps a tenant," said Nathji, fetching his newspaper, "to ensure vigilance and security. With us it is the other way round. We are the watch dogs not only for our own property but for his belongings too."
"Yes," she Snapped, "we are really the watch dogs-guarding the belonging of one and being the sentries of another's house."
Sentries of another's house! He was amazed at this statement. But he soon understood what she meant and took offence. "Don’t talk foolishly," he told her. "Be more sensible."
But though he admonished her, his own eyes welled up with tears. Removing his specs, he quietly wiped them and started reading the newspaper. Pyari brought a thali of rice from the kitchen and sat down to clean it, but could not spot the lurking husk and stone in the tube light. He gave her his glasses, which were certainly of great help. Folding the paper, he now turned to the TV where right now it was a doctor holding forth on old age diseases. The symptoms he was drawing the viewers' attention to alarmed
Nathji, for he imagined them flourishing in his own system. He got up and switched off the TV.
But with the paper folded and the TV off, a mental vacancy descended on him, and a growing restlessness seized him. Talking to someone to end the isolation of spirit might help, but the only person he could converse with was
Pyari, and she was busy cleaning rice. He started wondering if it was really worthwhile building a house in the wilderness, so far away from the city. True, that their old house was not a house exactly but a mud but resting on crumbling walls of brick holding together in the last stages of decay, only with the grace of God. Anyone just turning over in sleep in any room made the whole building shake like an aspen. That's why he had not dared sleep with Pyari for a long time after his marriage. But the couple did spend fifty years in that very shack, and it is them that Bitta was born and grew up. However, after completing hip training, he told them frankly that he would never come to Kashmir so long as they continued to live in that dilapidated old house. Nathji knew that the boy would soon have to get married, and it would not reflect any credit on them if they brought someone's daughter to live in this miserable structure. So he decided on building a new house. He ploughed in whatever he had saved, and also went in for a loan of two lakh rupees. That is how a
two-storeyed building came up in a distant village area which was now designated as the outskirts of the town.
And Bitta? He neither married nor did he come to live in Kashmir. The year before last he came for a month or so, last year he came only for seventeen days. And this year? He left for Canada two month ago, and God only knows whether he will ever come back.
"Shall I warm the sabzi now?" Pyari asked him, returning his specs as she had finished cleaning the rice.
"Just a moment! Let us just hear the news." He put on his specs, and went through the headlines in the newspaper and listened to the news on the TV simultaneously. While he heard the news telecast in Kashmiri and Urdu, and glanced through the first, third, fifth, ninth and tenth pages of the paper, Pyari had finished making his bed on the divan and for herself on the floor.
"No need to make two separate beds. You could also sleep in my bed."
"Are you in your senses?" she was really very angry.
He struck his forehead and said, "You've never understood what I say, and perhaps you never will. Spreading two beds every day, washing every third or fourth day two quilt covers, two bed sheets and two pillow cases is not a joke. You work so hard now. If we use only one bed, this drudgery of yours would be reduced by half."
"I have heard enough!" She lugged her shoulders back violently, which reminded him of the Pyari of 25 years age. He was now lost in thought.
"I say, when will you have your dinner?"
"All right, let us have our food now." Then to himself: How heavy each night is. The burden has to be borne. So let it be!
After food, he was listening to the Delhi news when she came out of the kitchen after cleaning the utensils. "Are you still sitting there?" she asked.
"What else can I do when sleep is nowhere near?"
"You can at least move into the bed to feel warm."
He got up, closed the TV and slipped into the bed, but kept the register in his hand.
"Shall I switch off the light?" she asked.
"Yes," he said, "I'll tase the table lamp. I've got to have a look at the school files."
She switched off the tube light, he activated the table lam: and started turning the pages of the register.
"You may keep awake, but I am dead, tired," Pyari said, getting into her bed.
"Wouldn't you be?" he said, "Washing two quilt covers, two bed sheets and other assorted clothes is no joke."
Pyari turned on her side and lay with her back to him. He wondered whether she had turned that side because of what he had said or was really sleepy. He quietly closed the register, took out the atlas he had hidden under another register a short while ago, and started having a close look at the map of North America: This Canada... Here is the capital, Ottawa... Here is Halifax, where Bitta would be now... Not very far from Ottawa, and on the seashore or on an island not very far from the coast. That's why, though f,ir up in the north, it would be having a mild climate. Just like Bomb, That is a blessing, for poor Bitta is so allergic to cold. Again, like Bombay, it would appear brilliantly illuminated as seen from the sea."
All of a sudden Nathji felt there was something wrong with him. Why did his mind recurrently picture bright illumination across a dark river? Was it an intense craving for light? Unending rows of street lamps, the radiance of the Sun in a clear sky, warm lovable sunshine on the earth-it all exercised a tremendous fascination for him. Perhaps he wanted to enjoy all this, but how could he, for it was all across the dark waters, while he was always on this side of the dark ocean...
"Have you fallen asleep? You said there was nothing to gain from sleeping." He woke up, for he had really dozed off.
"Get up! Some one has opened the door. You leave the doors unbolted throughout the day and the night for some affectionate callers, as if people have nothing to do but to come and chat witl , you. Get up, I say, some one may loot us." Pyari was pacing tip, and down in great agitation. Nathji took a torch and went
dow» stairs, saying, 'Guptaji may really have come.'
Pyari mustered courage to open be window. Looking down through a crack, she saw a couple of shadows down below, one short but somewhat extended, the other tall but somewhat lean. When Nathji shouted
"Hude-hude-may the plague seize you!" she heaved a sigh of relief and got into the bed again.
When he was back again after chasing out the cow and bolting both the doors, she said, "These creatures roam all over the whole night long, without anyone bothering about them. The milkman who milks them in the morning, doesn't he keep watch over them in the evening? Doesn't he wonder where they have gone?"
"It would be different if they were milch cows, " he said with a sigh. "But these are dry cows. That's why they seem so distracted and forlorn." Pyari also sighed.
"However," he continued, "there was a good rainfall this year. Not like last year, when there was a drought, and the price of fodder shot up, forcing the milkmen and farmers to sell dry cattle and old bulls to the butcher. That's why the horrid thing is on sale openly in Kakapur Kelar and
He bit his tongue, regretting what he had said. However, it couldn't be helped. He turned towards Pyari in fear, but God knows why the usual shudder had not convulsed her this time, nor was her face ashen pale. She replied unusually calmly, "Handing then over to the butcher means getting them slaughtered, which definitely would be a blessing in disguise. Isn't it much better to have one's throat slit than being forlorn and eking out a purposeless existence?" Nathji felt Pyari was crying under the quilt. He quietly got into his bed, switched off the table lamp, and covered himself top to toe with the quilt.
Translated from Kashmiri by Trilokinath Raina