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. 

Moonstruck Lover No. 5

I have chosen him for the last because he is cent percent a moonstruck lover. He is the only exclusive lover, the only one who is as serious as dedicated. Fair-complexioned, he is whiling away his life alone. He gets infatuated with every woman. But ever since his eyes have rested upon the girl, he has completely been bewitched by her. He has abandoned himself to her and keeps himself indulged in her thoughts, day and night. Work does not interest him anymore. Whenever he meets someone, he either talks about her or stays moony in her thoughts. And, since he lodges right across her house, he keeps looking at her from inside while sitting or while lying down.

He keeps screwing around, having ‘sex’ here and there. Consequently, circumstances force him to change his lodgings every six months.

 

One fine afternoon, he came rushing to me saying, “My condition is such that I am close to being beaten up in the mohalla.”

Upon my further enquiry, he replied, “The landlady is a poor woman. I have rented a room from her. She herself is ensnared by one. I had seduced her daughter. She also has a son who is about to appear for his matric examination. The girl came in the afternoon while her mother was asleep upstairs. We were together in bed when the mother showed up. When she saw us, she screamed, ‘Arre, do you think this is a brothel? Committing such dishonourable acts in the mohalla of honourable men. I will call all the mohallewale straight away and ensure that they cut you to pieces.’

I asked, “Then what did you do?”

He replied, “I took to her feet and implored her to spare my life and forgive me.”

“What about the girl? What did she do to the girl?”

“Nothing much. She gave her a light slap across her face and said, ‘Come up, haramzaadi,  get moving. Here you are getting trapped in the affairs of discreditable and crooked men. I will make sure that this boy gets beaten up.’ I immediately took my cycle and came rushing to you. What should I do? All my things are there. There is also a case with a lot of money as well. I am afraid to go back. Will she really get me beaten up?”

I replied, “Yes.”

He asked, “But how does it matter to the people of the mohalla? They know that the woman herself is entangled in some affair. Would they not listen to me? Would they not believe me”

I replied, “No, not at all. They will only listen to her, they will only believe her. They will create a ruckus. They will beat you up. Such ruckus and furor tend to disrupt the monotony of the mohalla. If there is not an instance or two of a girl eloping or a rape in the mohalla, the residents tend to get very bored.

He was already very flustered. 

I asked, “Did you have a talk with the girl’s mother today or yesterday?”

“Yes, she was with me last night and in the morning as well. She was detailing her financial troubles. She has to deposit Munna’s examination fee of fifty bucks by the day after. She is in much distress and was discussing the same woe in the morning.”

I gauged the situation. I said, “Go back to the house as soon as possible and take out fifty bucks from your case. Take that money to her and tell her, ‘Here, take this and deposit Munna’s fees. Just as he is your son he is as much my brother. The boy’s year should not go to waste.’ There is no other way to escape from being thrashed apart from this.”

As it is, he was in sweat, and when he heard about the additional expenditure of fifty bucks, he immediately asked for water. 

He continued, “What if she has already assembled people to thrash me?”

I replied, “I say this with unshaken certainty that she has not said a word to anyone yet. She must impatiently be waiting for you.”

“Fifty bucks is a lot. My work was not even half done.”

“If you give away those fifty bucks you will not only be saved from being beaten up but she will also make sure to finish off your pending work. This way you will manage to score two birds with one stone.”

With much apprehension, he went back to the house.

 

We met the next day, and so I asked, “You didn’t get beaten up, no?”

“No.”

I asked, “Did she take the money?”

“Yes! She told me, ‘Arre bhaiyya, you are one of our own. If you don’t help in instances of emergency then who would?”

I ventured to ask again, “And she did manage to complete your pending task at night, right?”

He replied, “Yes, she did. You were right about scoring two birds with one stone.”

I added, “Now leave that house immediately. And, in case you experience any hitch while sorting ‘that’ matter out, failing to deal conveniently with it, resort to the teachings of Gandhiji.”

He enquired, “What has Gandhiji to teach in the matters of ‘sex’ apart from brahmacharya?

I replied, “Nothing, but he did educate us to uplift the untouchables. You too should try to uplift them with one or two bucks.”

He became a Gandhi-bhakt.

 

He became more attentive to the cause of the untouchables.

 

A brahmin, earning five-six hundred bucks, good-looking and yet not settled – all of this and more are certain to raise a brow. He is a stranger here. One of the many problems includes the veracity of his brahmin status. Who will elaborate on his pedigree if the need arises? No senior members of his family seem to take any interest in his matrimonial matters.

 

It’s not that the families of prospective brides do not visit him. He himself searches for suitable matches and pays them a visit.

 

However, there is one thing peculiar about him or so I have heard. Instead of giving attention to the girl, he starts showering attention on the mother. While on the one hand it vexes the girl, the mother on the other hand thinks it to be an idle matter and takes to it just like that. A few people did try to reason with him and make him understand that he should definitely please the mother but only by considering her as one. He reasons back, “What am I supposed to do? No matter which household I visit, both the mother and the daughter begin to yearn for me.”

This is a knotty situation. If he pays attention to the mother, then the girl gets miffed and the mother begins to think of him as some loafer, and when the mother seems to warm up to him, she begins to snap at the girl – “what work do you have here? Why don’t you go away and study?” To seduce both – the daughter and the mother is always a perilous thing to do. Some men think that if not the daughter, then one should atleast get lucky with the mother. One would necessarily have to get married to the daughter. And here, this lover goes on proclaiming that it is the mother who is after him. It is an acknowledged truth that the world becomes a difficult place for any man who finds all the women in the world bewitching and who believes that all the women are ready to sacrifice their lives for his sake. Under such beguiling circumstances, not a single woman is bound to fall into one’s hands. 

This lover number 5 is absolutely crazy about the girl. He desires to marry her. He is totally smitten with her. The girl also appears to be congenial. She pays more attention to him.

 

The lovers did themselves a huge disfavour by untaming an otherwise naïve, easy to trap girl into a shrewd. 

He writes one-two love poems daily. Expressions of overwhelming love demand a broadcast. He recites his love poems to others. These are usually good, and mostly straightforward – ‘come near me’, ‘come sit near me, let me caress your hands and let me kiss them’ – etc…

 

Enough has transpired between the eyes – enough of looking and being looked at. How is one going to build proximity? The lover is something of an inventor himself. The girl’s father is a connoisseur of locally brewed liquor. One Sunday evening, the lover asked him, “Mishraji, please come and sit here.” Mishraji acceded to the request. 

The lover opened a half bottle of the country liquor and began to tank up. It was only after Mishraji had downed half the bottle that the lover remarked, “You are yet to marry off your daughter.” Mishraji added carelessly, “What cares do I have? Anyone who gets…a son-in-law like you? You are my son-in-law. Let the world say whatever it wants. All those mother…”

He embraced the lover. 

The lover did not blink his eyes that entire night. 

When Mishraji ventured out of his house the next morning, the lover called out to him, “Mishraji, listen!”

Mishraji was in haste, and told him rather cursorily, “It’s time for my duty right now. I will meet you later.”

He had come back to his senses.

The Moralist

He is a guileless, handsome book seller. He has three kids. He has a good wife. He does not have eyes for any other woman in the world.

I meet him now and then for a chat or two. He is in deep distress, and asks, “What has become of this mohalla? All of this is outrageous. There is such a hue and cry. All of this should come to a stop. 

He continues, “I am earning disrepute as well. Those three lovers come to my bookshop and cast amorous glances and gestures at the girl. This is impacting my business. I have already told the two of them point-blank that they cannot sit there anymore.”

Since I was in a playful mood, I prodded him, “Oh! You are such a fool! I have noticed that the girl has her eyes on you. She is captivated by you. You too should reciprocate by looking in her direction once or twice.”

He replied, “What rubbish! I don’t wish to involve myself in such a terrible mess. I already have a ‘wife’.”

I replied, “Yaar, having a wife is not sufficient. You are such a dull and boring fellow. Such beautiful girls come to your shop and yet you make a fuss for a commission of five-ten bucks. The PhD one who visited your store yesterday was talking to you in such a sweet-hearted way. I heard her say, ‘I have been coming to this shop since my first year. I don’t go to any other bookshop’, while you told her, ‘I won’t give any commission above five paise.’ Poor girl! She was so disappointed. You should have given her the books to read anyway.”

He retorted, “Oh yes! If I keep giving the books away just like that to all the beautiful women who come to my store, who will look after the three children that I have fathered? Will the PhD one rear them?”

Then he began his expansive lecture on moral ethics, virtues, fidelity to wife, and chastity. 

I said, “Sacred texts usually provide some slack in such matters. See, a chaste wife is extolled more highly than a chaste husband. Tulsidas has described the ideal woman thus – 

‘uttam ke as bas mann maahin

Sapanehun aan purush jagg naahin‘**

“the ideal woman is one for whom no men are strangers in her dream – all of them are her own.”

To this he remarked, “Your brain is certainly distorted. You always tend to misread and misinterpret things. It is a good thing that you left the business of studying. I don’t like such things at all. I will ensure to put an end to the entry of that third lover as well.”

And he became more inconsolable at the depraved state of the mohalla.

** this is a couplet from the Araṇya-Kāṇḍa or The Forest Episode in the third book of the epic poem Ramayana, authored by Valmiki. It is also found in Rāmcaritmānas by Tulsidas. Here, Anasuya briefs Sita on the many qualities of an ideal woman. One such quality of an ideal woman is her utmost devotion to her husband, so much so that she cannot even think of any other man in her dreams, quite literally and metaphorically.

Moonstruck Lover No.5, Again

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I had previously left my discussion of this lover midway. He is an ideal lover. Any lover who treats his future father-in-law to liquor even before any formal marital arrangements have been made, is bound to be an ideal lover. But, it is highly likely that when the prospective father-in-law’s intoxication wears off in the morning, he thinks that his apparently ideal son-in-law consumes alcohol. 

As for someone who embraces him and declares him his son-in-law after downing a quarter and one, he is quick in dismissing him the next morning by telling him that he has to go for his duty. That he is running out of time. 

The girl’s mother is very incisive. She is beginning to understand everything. 

One fine day, the girl ran out of flour. With nothing to eat, and the hearth as cold as ice, the mother convinced the younger daughter to go to the fifth lover. “Go and request that babuji from across the street for some flour. We will return it once he is back from work.” The girl went to take the flour. 

The lover is steeped in love from head to toe. 

“I can sacrifice my life for her. I wouldn’t let my beloved starve.”

In all possible haste, he gave the girl nearly two kilos of flour. 

And in the same equal haste, he took out his diary and wrote ‘two kilos of flour’ against her name along with its cost. 

I really admire such ideal lovers who are not only willing to surrender their lives for their beloved but also maintain accounts of the cost of flour that they give to their craving beloved. Is there any cost to life? Who purchases life in bazaars? Flour would still cost a rupee and a half for a kilo. Love mandates calculations. What if love bears no fruit or there is no wedding on cards – there would at least exist a record of these transactions of love. 

On some occasions, the girl buys dal as well and the lover accounts for it against her name. 

Mishraji says, “Tewariji, I am about to get my arrears. Once I get them, I will pay off my debts.”

But the lover ponders – who cares about the arrears on flour, dal, and salt? It is the arrears on love that should be written off first. 

Until one fine day, the younger girl finally said to him, “Bhaiya, amma has requested you to lunch with us today.”

The lover stayed stunned for a while. 

Then, he grew perturbed. Finally, the event of visiting her home had inaugurated itself. 

There were still three hours left for lunch. How was he to while away such a vast span of life? Should he go and watch the matinee show? He is already half-mad out of happiness. To keep his thoughts occupied, he begins to arrange his stuff. But even that fails to keep him occupied. He comes out on the road and walks to the nearest crossroad. He brings a paan from a shop nearby and had another paan while returning. Then, he goes to the next crossing. This time, he has a paan from a shop here. Then he moves on towards the next crossing and has a paan again. The surprised paanwalas remark, “Tewariji is having a paan every fifteen minutes today. What is the matter?” He has been to both the crossings for six times and had had twenty-four paans already. I am not sure if he reckoned up the cost of these paans in his beloved’s account. Tired, he sits down and begins to read Bachchan’s poem – “today I will not sleep, nor would I let you sleep, oh the stealer of my soul.” He sings it quite a few times. 

Then, he takes a bath and quickly wears his dhoti and kurta. He applies some foundation to lighten up his face and without much ado, stealthily climbs up to her house. 

They feed him lovingly. After the meal is over, the girl’s mother remarks, “Bhaiya, why do you bother to prepare your rotis? Have lunch here with us only.”

The lover blanks out for a while after hearing this. When he retrieves his sense, he replies “If you wish so, I would not say no. This would be a burden for you. You would have to take sixty rupees from me monthly for this.”

The mother replies, “There is no need to discuss money between family. Come and have dinner with us from today itself.”

A meal for six-seven people is anyway prepared at her place. If some water is added to dal, and some more to the sabzi, it would only be a matter of preparing some additional four-five rotis. Those sixty bucks would be of immense help to the poor family. 

When the lover went for dinner, he handed over the money to the girl’s mother. 

Here, the world of the lovers has turned upside-down, “saala, he has begun to break bread with her family. He needs to be beaten and banished from this mohalla.”

On every visit, the lover climbs up the stairs to her house without paying any attention to those nearby. 

One day, the halwai said to him, “Bhaiya, make her taste one of my jalebis someday.”

Previously, her mother and her younger sister used to serve him food, now she does it. She serves less of food and more of her amorous looks. 

The collective antics of all the lovers had smartened the girl. 

Fifteen-twenty days later, a friend remarked, “Tewariji, you look a little thin. You are being served good food, no?”

The lover replied, “The food is good but my appetite has weakened.”

“Yes, one is never too hungry under the spell of infatuation.”

“Yes, it is so.”

“Does she drop hints by gesturing?”

“Yes – by slyly evading her mother’s watchful eyes, she carelessly drops her pallu allowing me a glimpse of her bosom.”

And then, he grew wistful.

He is a real friend, and sympathizes with the lover. He wishes for his friend to be married to the same girl.

But her parents are analyzing him. They want to place their faith in him. And here, the lover as a token for a quick peek of his beloved’s bosom, had increased the pay from sixty to seventy.

The arrangement of lunch continued for three months before stopping abruptly.

 

On being enquired by his friend, he replied, “I will no longer have my meals there. I will eat in a hotel.”

Then, he took out his ledger and totalled the arrears on dal-chawal – 250 rupees had been exhausted. No matter what happens now, I will elope with her. Even if I lose my job, even if I have to starve, I can no longer live without her.”

“Is she ready to elope as well and is she legally an adult?”

“Why would she not elope? She definitely will. I don’t care for any adult-shadult. I can go to the prison for her, give my life for her.”

Then he looked at his ledger and declared, “My 250 bucks are gone.”

“But why did your relationship go sour?”

“Arre, the wife and the husband are like this only.”

The friend hazarded a guess and pinned it on either his short-temper or his rash desire to heaten things up for the relationship to go awry. 

The lover no longer directs his gaze at the house. 

The other lovers pass remarks at him, “The blush is off the rose. The cards are no longer in his favour.”

One day, the lover told his friend, “The girl’s parents are afraid of me. They know that their daughter is enchanted by me. They are afraid that I might do something, that I might run away with her.”

The friend replied, “No matter what the girl says, she usually shrinks back when it is time to elope. She will say, “You have my heart, and I am yours forever” – girls have learnt this phrase by heart. 

The lover replied, “She is not like that. She is brave. I can whisk her away from her house right now.”

He continued, “They want me to leave the house. I will, but only after taking my money. I won’t leave like this. I will say, “Give me my fifty bucks, or else I will not leave the house.”

Such are the traits of an ideal lover. 

He is melancholic. He gets easily vexed. He thinks that all men are his enemies.

 

The friend offered him a suggestion, “They are of a traditional mindset. Request some respectable relative to come over and ask for her hand in marriage. 

The lover retorted, “To hell with respectable relatives. Saale, they have not cared about me all this while. I won’t call them. I will do whatever needs to be done. I am a rebellious man.”

The Girl

A poor man’s daughter, she does all the household chores – from preparing rotis to cleaning the house, washing the dishes etc. etc. She is an innocent, naïve girl. She went to school for a while, and had somehow, only recently, managed to pass her matric. She had begun to believe that this was all her life was about. 

But the lovers and their capricious acts had infused a certain awareness within her – that there was something more to her, more to her life than preparing rotis, more to washing clothes, more to cleaning the house, something that was not of any worth to her family but of much value to the outsiders. As such this is common knowledge that girls grasp when they come of age anyway, but the lovers have acquainted her with it well before the time was ripe. And that is why she seeks escape from the stifling realm of her home by frequenting her balcony every now and then, wondering what is it about her that is of no utility to her home but to the outside world.

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 By the time she was 17, she knew that poverty had made her marriage a knotty affair. She would suffocate her or else be yoked to someone’s neck where she would suffocate more than ever.

 

She has begun to satisfactorily amuse herself with the thought of marrying the fifth lover. She has begun to get a measure of her other lovers as well. Moreover, it is only him, this fifth lover who is eager to get yoked. She is crossing the age of 18, and is desirous of someone who would take a serious liking to her cheap, unwashed saree, her simple light blouse, and her oil-adorned hair. It is with this exact plain beauty that the fifth lover is smitten with and this fans her happiness – that despite being poor and emaciated, there is something about her that he likes.

 

But the lovers have turned her into a shrewd. For the three months he was home for lunch, he was being judged not only by her parents but also by the girl herself.

 

Everyone had come to believe that he had no demands of dowry etc. The wedding would be a cheap affair.

However, over the course of these months, everyone had also understood that this lover was short-tempered, unpredictable, and capable of doing almost anything. He could possibly walk away from his own baraat.

 

They began to grow cold towards him but the girl continued to lend rays of warmth to him. That this warmth be reciprocated was her need as well.

The girl has no time to spare to go anywhere.

 

A family puts up four-five houses away. The lady of the house is a good woman. The girl lovingly calls her mausi. She visits her mausi’s house once in a while and sits and chats for one-two hour. She likes it there. Mausi is also equally fond of her and thinks to herself, “how beautiful this girl is, so gentle and so well-mannered. But for poverty, oh may you attract ill-luck, she is yet to find a suitable match. To whichever house she goes, she will surely lighten it up.”

The moralist bookseller remarks, “I knew that something like this would happen someday.”

We Had Known So

People of the mohalla remark, “For someone who used to stare at men while standing on her balcony, she was sure to do this.”

Some say, “Whatever happened is for the better only.”

The lovers say, “Saali, she turned out to be a hussy.”

The women say, “Who knew the girl would do something like this?”

What actually transpired? Did her belly outgrow itself? Was there an abortion?

No.

One day, the girl said to her mother, “Maa, take my matric certificate out of the box and give it to me. I am getting a job at the girls’ school.”

The mother was very happy. The prospect of welcoming 100-125 rupees seemed delightful to her. 

Then, she went to the halwai’s and said, “Chachaji, today I will have jalebis.”

The halwai was crestfallen on being called “chacha” but he pulled up his yellow-teethed smile and said, “Eat as much as you want. After all, this is your shop.”

He wrapped some jalebis in a newspaper for her. The girl took it home. 

Her mother inquired, “Why did you buy this?”

The girl replied, “Maa, this is in celebration of the job I am getting today.”

Then, she went to the bearded-lover and handing him two buckets said, “Bhaiya, please just fill these up and keep them upstairs. I am not feeling very well today.”

Then she went to the crockery seller and said, “I am going away for some work. Bhaiya, please just send over a kilo of potatoes upstairs. I will return your money once I am back.”

Then she went to lover number five and said, “Give me fifty rupees immediately. I am in major trouble.” 

The lover rejoiced. She has visited him for the first time. He promptly gave her the fifty bucks and holding her hands, tugged her towards himself, “Just for once, come close to me.”

The girl replied, “No, I will quickly return after giving this money to Maa. Don’t go anywhere. Stay put here.”

She went back home and wore the saree-blouse gifted by the fifth lover. 

She told her mother, “I am going to mausi’s place. It is only because of mausaji’s acumen that I am getting this job.”

Mausi’s family is very influential and famous. They had already selected a groom. His mother was a widow. The boy worked for a bank. He liked the girl. A day was decided and fixed. She had taken her matric certificate to testify her age. 

The wedding ceremony was completed within an hour according to Vedic rituals. 

When the girl returned after a gap of four hours, she was wearing a beautiful saree and jewelry.

Behind her were two loaded rickshaws. The boy was sitting with her. He had come along to gather the blessings of his in-laws.

Both of them went upstairs. The father was away on duty, The boy kept his head on her mother’s feet.

What was astonishing was the fact that the mother was not astonished. The boy went back. Her bidai was slated for later.

 

The girl came out on her balcony. Her parting was filled with such a gigantic, and deep-red streak of sindoor that it was visible from a mile away.

 

 A crowd was beginning to gather outside her house. 

A passerby asked, “What is the matter? Has someone passed away?”

Another passerby replied, “Yes, it seems like someone has passed away.”

Just then a prankster from the mohalla butted in, “Not one but four-five deaths have occurred today.”

xxx

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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