THE SMALL BOX
translated from the Hindi by Carol D’Souza
The small box is still with me. For many years now. I have never even opened it. But the decision to open it is entirely up to me. Neither society nor anybody else, not even a friend, can force me to open its lid just so they may believe me. Or else, all my life, I may never be considered trustworthy.
That is, if I want to prove the merit of my experience, I will have to open the lid of that box in the presence of those people who otherwise don’t believe me, to whom my experiences seem incredulous.
But the trouble is, how do I find out if earning the trust of those people is more valuable to me than the risk and wager of opening this small box? It is possible that once what I say is proven, all of them might come to believe just this one experience, and the rest of my experiences continue to seem unbelievable to them.
If this is the case, my constant attempts at verification for the benefit of those people will be enough to age me. I might even die. And still, a lot of my experiences may remain unproven. So, for those people, ultimately, I will continue to be unreliable.
Another big trouble is, to verify my other experiences as true, I don't even have a second small box. How do I keep establishing my life as genuine for so many people?
This is why I don't remove the lid of that little box. By myself or in front of others. Because sometimes I even doubt myself. After so many years, even I have become a different person in relation to that one experience.
I have had that little box since childhood. Its story is quite short. But for that, not dull.
So, it was such that my age at the time must have been around eight years. One starts to lose milk teeth by seven years of age. But the molar teeth known to birth wisdom do not sprout by then.
Our house was in the village. Initially, it was a mud house. The roof was made of tiles. It is still made of tiles. There was a jungle adjoining the village. There were a lot of langurs in the jungle. In fact, it was much later that I learnt the word langur from books. We called them black-faced monkeys.
And there were a lot of crows. After her meal, my grandmother would call the crows to the courtyard in the afternoon to feed them. They would crowd into the whole yard.
Langurs and crows were both enemies of our roof. If the langurs ran on the roof, the tiles would break. Even the crows shifted the tiles here and there.
Wherever the tiles were broken, rainwater would drip into the house. We would keep an empty bucket there.
But when there was no rain, sunlight would fall on the room floor through those holes. Those round slices of sunlight on the floor would seem mysterious, attractive, and somewhat alive. They would shift along with the sun, and their shape would also steadily change. The slice I would see in the form of a fish in the morning, by afternoon, would be in the shape of an elephant. Or like a demon with a wide-open mouth. Sometimes, a splat of sunlight would even disappear because of the change in the angle of the rays or the sun's position. As one watched, it would become smaller and smaller and then vanish, only to reappear at the exact same time the next day. Sometimes, several such slices would be visible in the room. Then, slowly, the smaller slivers would all disappear, and the biggest slice would last the longest.
There was one other thing about these slices of sunlight. In the room's darkness, wherever they fell, there all around their sparkling self, they would create a soft halo of light. In that orbit, there would be a hazy reflection of the sky. An upside-down sky of light blue hue. Birds, if they ever went by above, inside the room, their flying shadow would pass. Crawling clouds could be seen. Sometimes, these clouds would cover over that very slice. Then, in that case, nothing would remain. Neither the reflection nor the slice.
Those splats of light would seem so alive and magical to me. I would be caught up trying to take them with me from one place to another. This much was certain — there was life in them — and I did not want to have only a spectator-like relationship with them. I wanted to be involved in their day-long game.
I would try a lot, but they would not budge from where they were. Sure enough, they would cover whatever I placed under them but remain behind when I dragged it away. They would stay on the palm of the hand, but when the fist was closed, they would appear over fingers, and my hand would return empty.
Angry and fed up, many times I would beat them up severely. Kick them. Dig up the ground under them with iron. But they would remain entirely unaffected. Their indifference towards me was more than I could bear.
Then, that day, it so happened that I was alone. This was the kitchen. A biggish, prettyish slice of sunlight, having fallen there, was frolicking. Mother had gone away somewhere after preparing food. I tried to show a lot of love to that slice. I kissed it and gave it some rice and dal.
There was a fan in the kitchen. It was used to flame the fire in the earthen stove. I placed the slice atop the fan and drew it in.
I saw that the slice of light was moving with the fan. It was coming along. This was the biggest success of my life. Now, it was free of the roof, even of the sun. It had formed a bond with me and broken off all its other connections. It was mine. Only mine.
I drew it along as far as the other corner of the kitchen. Then I told it lovingly — ‘Wait for me. I’ll be right back.’ And I ran. I returned with this small tin box that had once held my mother’s kajal. It was waiting for me atop the fan, shivering slightly.
Ever since then, I have kept it shut in this small box. I am free to carry it anywhere. I know that it remains there. It will be there forever. And this is true.
Should I risk losing it by opening the lid of this small box only so that those people will believe this experience? Or I may never earn their trust?
But is it all sensible to gamble what is there for what isn’t?
Uday Prakash is a poet, short story writer, translator and filmmaker. His work is widely translated into both Indian an foreign languages. He is a recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award, among others. Some of his notable works include Mohan Das, Peelee Chhatri Wali Ladki, EK Bhasha Hua Karati Hai, and Paul Gomra Ka Scooter.
Carol D'Souza is a writer and translator based in Chennai. A collation of her work can be found at linktr.ee/cblaizd.