ONE GIRL, FIVE LOVERS

Harishankar Parsai 

translated from the Hindi by Sonakshi Srivastava

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There is a story by Gorky – “Twenty-six Men and a Girl”. I was reminded of that story while writing the story of this girl – in a cage-like squalid bakehouse, twenty-six bakers lived and earned their bread in circumstances worse than pigs. Whenever the owner’s daughter passed through, the bakers would look at her from behind the bars. In this desert of life, there was a promise of some verdure. They worshipped her like a goddess. They loved her – individually, and collectively. One day, when the girl goes out with her high-class lover, the bakers, out of habit, take a peep at her. The girl retorts, “Such swines!”, and leaves with her lover. 

But the girl whose story I am writing is not a rich man’s daughter. She is the eldest daughter of a poor, middle-class family. Her father is a government servant. In producing children, the wife is in competition with Gandhari. Gandhari had birthed a hundred sons with a blind husband. This woman, with an able-bodied husband has borne four so far. The foundation for a fifth has been laid. She is emaciated. Does not get enough to eat. With no blood in her body, she is just skin and bones.

The eldest daughter is not particularly weak. She cooks the food since the mother is in a perpetual state of childbearing. It seems that the girl devours an extra roti or two while cooking. Bread makes great revolutionaries go weak in the knees. Che Guevara in his diary entry relates how a brave guerilla comrade stealthily ate two bites of a sandwich once. The very next day he was deprived of his breakfast as punishment. 

The girl is slender. She is beautiful. And, she is a poor man’s daughter. 

The mohalla is such that people ripen a twelve-thirteen years old girl by ogling at her. She begins to understand where she is being stared at. She begins to pay attention to these certain parts. She begins to push up and adjust her blouse; pads it up by stowing cloth underneath. She begins to insinuate. She begins to rehearse how and when to slide her pallu. 

Staring ripens the body.

Rahim has said – 

“There are no better ministers, O Rahim, of the mind than the eyes.

Whoever captivates these eyes, this mind gets readily sold to them.” 

Eyes are the ministers of the soul. Those knowledgeable in the matters of the uses of eyes know their influence. If she is affected by such an influence, then the woman begins to sway the locket in her hand. In case she is not wearing a locket, she begins to twirl the pallu of her saree around her finger. It is a little distressing with a woman knitting a sweater. However, on prying carefully, one would notice that she wrongly knits a column or two only to unravel and knit them again. The rest – the ones in demand, clearly say, “You will have to buy me an ice-cream today. Let us go.”

The remaining lot of people, frustrated in their efforts of staring at the girl, are now staring elsewhere. There are around five lovers now, who either sit in front of her house or orbit around it. The lover who circles around is dearer than the one who merely sits since the former exerts himself. And then, out of tradition, he will continue to wander about in the streets of his beloved. The girl is turning eighteen. She is at the threshold of blossom. When she appears on the balcony, whichever lover is present nearby thinks that she is standing there for him and that she is looking at him. The five lovers are together only during the evening for they go to work during the day. Whoever is present during the day keeps staring at the balcony, exchanging gazes, and gesticulates. 

There is a middle-aged general merchant’s shop opposite the house and a crockery shop below. The crockery seller is young but his predicament is that the balcony is right above his head. There is a bookstore next to the general merchant’s whose owner is a handsome man of forty. Right across, in a two-roomed house lives a young man who works for an insurance company and earns more than 500-600 bucks. He stays away for three-four hours, and whiles away the rest of his hours in the house. He is a bachelor. There is a halwai’s shop across the house. Despite being on the verge of fifty, he too is a moonstruck lover.  

Moonstruck Lover No. 1

His work spans for around three-four hours. After being acquitted from a day’s work of supplying goods from here to there, he comes and sits at the general merchant’s shop. He lives in a state of economic penury. He has grown a beard. Beards are of distinct kinds – a lover’s beard is different, a mullah’s beard is different, and a mendicant’s beard is different. He has grown a lover’s beard and keeps it in form by occasionally giving it a trim. Beards can be humble as well as regal. Their stature can be judged by the persona of the beard-keeper and the expression of his eyes. Some beards also seem to be in a state of repent. This lover particularly believes that he can work his charms and attract a woman by growing his beard and inducing mendicancy in his eyes. With beard and humility as his companions, he intermittently divides his time between watching the balcony by sitting at the shop or walking on the road in front. 

It is true that some women like beards. I have heard that some women like their husband’s beards so much so that they brush their teeth in the morning by applying toothpaste on it. 

This lover just gazes. Whenever she appears on the balcony to take in oxygen, the bearded lover is humbled by the thought that she has made an appearance only to see him. He desires to draw love out of yearning. And, love does derive itself from yearning. The village streetwalker remarks, “If the sons of such venerable men were to fall at my feet, my soul would exude itself. A no won’t suffice.”

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Every once in a while, the bearded lover gets to be in close proximity with the girl. Her brother fills the buckets from the tap down below and takes them upstairs. In his absence, the girl comes to fetch water. It is then when the bearded lover lifts the water laden buckets and keeps them at her doorstep. “You took a lot of trouble, bhaiya!” The bearded one is rather afraid of being addressed as “bhaiya”. What if she ends up tying a rakhi? The bearded lover only needs some pretense to sit and spend seven-eight hours at the general merchant’s store. He says, “Bade bhaiya, I live a life of leisure. If you have some work, let me know.” The shopkeeper sends him on errands like unloading parcels and supplying goods. The merchant has already dismissed his servant who ran such errands. 

Moonstruck Lover No. 2

He is around thirty years old. Fair and ordinary, he is good looking. As compared to others, he has his own set of advantages as well as shortcomings. An advantage is that he lends money but is at a disadvantage for it is the father of the girl who comes to borrow it. He wishes for the girl to come, and tells her father, ‘Why do you burden yourself with such pains? Just send your children.” But the old man persists – it is always him or the girl’s mother. The thing of inconvenience to this lover is that the girl stays upstairs. He cannot see her, and if he seeks her through the backdoor, a wooden mesh hinders his view. Helplessness has made a booklover out of him. He lodges for an hour or so in the bookshop in front and compensates for the time by buying any book by Gulshan Nanda.

He has devised a new plan. A vegetable seller stalls himself at a short distance where families who regularly buy a lot of vegetables live. Thinking to himself, and weighing his options, the lover – the crockery seller believes that if the vegetable vendor were to stand here, then the girl would come downstairs to buy vegetables. He tells the vendor to stand there. He expects a haggle of sorts, and harbours the hope of lending and borrowing money to the girl if she were to run out of it.

 

The vendor tells him, “Bhaisahab, there are no buyers here!”

He replies, “Why not? Stay and look for a day or two.”

Heeding his advice, the vendor stands near the girl’s door and begins to shout about his wares. The girl alights and asks, “What is the price of the potatoes?”

The lover, in the meanwhile, discards the customers at the crockery shop and walks over to the stall. Love demands great sacrifices. One must risk losing potential customers.

He tells the vendor, “Sell it at the proper rate,” and attempts to meet the girl’s gaze.

 

“Give me a quarter kilo of potatoes,” says the girl. The transaction disappoints the vegetable vendor. The crockery seller finds himself in a moral dilemma. 

“Ae, give her a kilo. Take the balance tomorrow.”

The vegetable vendor places his trust in him and weighs a kilo of potatoes. But this purchase is not enough to sustain the vendor at the same spot everyday. The crockery seller pays the girl’s outstanding amount and purchases two-three kilos of vegetables for himself. He is now certain that the vegetable vendor will stay put there every day, and the acquaintance will progress.

 

But alas, the path of love is the path of thorns. Who knows when this eternal path will see a concrete road. Even today, one has to walk through the thorny path of love. The Planning Commission should probably consider making a provision for the construction of concrete roads on the path of love. 

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It came to pass that when the lover reached his home in the afternoon with the vegetables, his father gave him a dressing down, “Who asked you to buy vegetables? You have bought trash!”

The outcome proves distressing for the lover. He stops purchasing vegetables from the next day on, and the vegetable vendor stops putting up his wares there. Now, if the family has to buy vegetables, the youngest girl goes and buys a quarter kilo of potatoes from the vendor nearby. Overall, the lover’s only support is that he can sit in the bookstore, gaze, and make slight gestures while saving his face. 

The lovers, through their antics, are making the girl clever. A naïve girl is a matter of opportunity. It is easier to woo her. But these lovers are polishing her shrewdness, and this is going against their interests. Now, that girl no longer remains to be so easily wooed.

Moonstruck Lover No. 3

He is the halwai from the front shop. Donning exceedingly dirty underwear and a black vest laced with dirt, he takes his position in front of his furnace every morning. His beard is a mess, a hodge-podge of black, white and grey hair which has been unkempt for days. His teeth are yellow, and his nose resembles less of a nose and more like a potato. After preparing jalebis, he proceeds to prepare aloo bonda and bhujia.

He is a formidable lover. He keeps stirring the pan with the ladle while keeping an eye on the balcony. The jalebis bear the brunt.. Sometimes, he takes out only half-cooked aloo bonda from the pan. The oil keeps burning aimlessly while he keeps staring at the girl on the balcony. Then, he attempts to lure her by showing her a jalebi and flashing his yellow teeth in a smile. He thinks that since the girl is a poor man’s daughter, she will come to him for the jalebi. But she does not come.

Once, he had given a jalebi to her younger sister, saying, “let everyone share and take a bite from this.” He intended for his beloved to eat the jalebi. But the beloved scolded her younger sister, “if you take more jalebis from him, I will thrash you.”. Here, this moonstruck lover with his yellow teeth pulled out and nostrils flared, was anticipating her appearance on the balcony, hoping that she’d come now, anytime from now – only to be disappointed. Dispirited,  he resorts to the corners of the shop – this one, no, that one – in order to catch her glimpse while she stays indoors.

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The girl was surveying everything from within. At last, she comes out and graces the halwai with her presence. He brims with gratitude. In that moment, had she walked up to him and demanded, “I want to eat your fried hand,” he would have fed her his fried hand.

People often ask him, “What is your age? It must be above fifty?” He replies, “I am not beyond thirty. The fires of this furnace have aged me in the last five years. You should have seen me before these 5 years. Girls from well-off families were ready to lay down their lives for me. Two-three had, in fact, burnt and withered away out of their love for me.

 

Whenever she comes out on her balcony, the halwai – with his yellow teeth pulled out, and his nostrils flared like a bull sniffs her out from afar, thinking whether she has mellowed or not. 

Moonstruck Lover No. 4

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He is a player and plays at various places. He is the son of a wealthy man. He is prudent and keeps his chain outside his kurta with much caution. He usually arrives at the scene during evenings. He harbours a steadfast belief that in the radiance of a tube light, man lights up and looks more beautiful than ever. No one likes his arrival – because of his good clothes and gold chain. Around this time, the girl is busy huffing and puffing at her chulha. The radiance of the nearby tube lights go to waste. Once or twice, the girl appears at her balcony to wipe away her sweat. The lover thinks that she has noticed his chain. He desires to secure her love and attract her towards him with this gold chain. This lover talks with an exaggerated swagger, he guffaws…oh, only if she were to listen and know that this lover is madly desperate for her.

But the girl is busy huffing and puffing air into her chulha within. Without, the lover is treating people to cups of tea, thinking “oh, only if she were to witness my magnanimity.” But the girl is busy huffing and puffing air into her chulha within. He declares openly, “Arre, I have squandered thousands of money. Here, they treat it like dirt. If one is needy and asks for it, I give away thousand-two thousand bucks and then forget about it.”

But the girl fails to hear this account of divine magnanimity for she is busy preparing rotis.

This lover chose the wrong time. He should have come before evening, in the morning or in the afternoon. 

But he too, is helpless. His face bears the residual scars of smallpox, and that is why he seeks the time of the tube light. 

 

He too, sits in the bookstore for a while. It allows him to catch a glimpse of a corner of the kitchen. And then, pocketing these glimpses as memories, he goes back home. 

To be continued...

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Jabalpur born Harishankar Parsai (1922-1995) was one of the greatest satire writer of the modern Hindi Literature. His writings took a direct hit at the political and social corruption in post-independence India. He was the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1982. Parsai was the founder of the literary magazine Vasudha which later had to be discontinued because of financial difficulties.

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Sonakshi Srivastava is an MPhil candidate at Indraprastha University, Delhi and works as the copy editor (English) at Bilori Journal. She is one of the translation fellows with the South Asia Speaks mentorship programme where she is working on translating the Hindi novel, “Titli” into English under the mentorship of the esteemed translator, Arunava Sinha. Her translations have appeared, or are upcoming in Rhodora Magazine, Hakara etc. She re-tweets at @SonakshiS11, and blurs the personal and the public at sonakshisrivastava.11