Writer and poet Anita Agnihotri was born in Kolkata, India, in 1956 and received degrees in economics from Presidency College and Calcutta University. Although she began writing at an early age, she also had a long career as a bureaucrat until her retirement from the civil services as Secretary in Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India. As a student, she wrote for Sandesh, a children’s magazine, for the renowned film director Satyajit Roy who had taken editorialship of the magazine. Inspired by her interest in economics and her experience as a civil servant, her books have underlying themes of the struggles, exploitation, and deprivation in the lives of the marginalized. Her stories traverse a wide range of human emotions while taking the reader through a journey into the dynamics of an Indian reality. Anita has written over 40 books, some of which have been translated into major Indian and international languages, including German, Swedish, and English. She has also received numerous awards for her writing.
Anita Agnihotri’s short story “Sarojbala” is translated by Arunava Sinha for this issue.
‘Sarayu, ey Sarayu…’
Sitting with her back to the wall, Sarojbala was not exactly lost in thought. But it doesn’t always register immediately when you’re addressed by an unfamiliar name. Raghu, the cook, peeped in to tell her, ‘Badhi Ma is asking for you.’
Sarojbala jumped to her feet. That’s right, it was long past seven-thirty. She had given the old lady her medicine at a quarter to seven.
‘Coming Badhi Ma, I’ll make your rotis now.’
‘It’s past seven-thirty, I’ve been calling you for ages, you never pay attention…’
‘It won’t take long Badhi Ma, I’m making your rotis right now.’
Won’t take long was just something she said. Of course, it would. Badhi ma wouldn’t eat unless the food was steaming hot. Her meal consisted of two courses, and it took her some time to chew each mouthful. And yet, everything had to be equally hot. It had confused Sarojbala at first, her brain almost vaporising – but now, after nearly a month and a half, things had fallen into place. The first course was a bowl of milk and a roti. The milk had to be piping hot, but not the roti, for hot rotis were too hard to eat, apparently. The roti had to be torn into smaller pieces and slipped into the milk, but not before a large spoonful of sugar had been stirred in. Sarojbala warmed the daal along with the milk on the gas stove, using adjacent burners. But the gas had to be turned low, otherwise? the daal would get too hot. It took about five to seven minutes for her to eat the milk-and-roti, after which the daal and rice had to be served. Unlike the rotis, the rice could not be cool. It had to be steaming hot – the daal too. Which meant that the pressure-cooker with the rice in it had to be put on the stove as soon as the milk was taken off, so that steam was rising from both the daal and rice by the time they were served. She had to take each of the bowls carefully from the kitchen to the dining table. Small wooden coasters were laid out on the table to prevent the glass from cracking in the distant future. Heat was not good for glass. The bowls had to be placed on the coasters. Something might turn cold in the process of being brought in from the kitchen. The point was not whether it really had turned cold. Even if she were to touch the bowl to show Badhi Ma, here, see how hot it is, or, it’s still steaming, the old woman might not accept it. Her principal objective in life was to ensure that no one could deceive her about the temperature of her food. So Sarojbala had to go back to the kitchen with the steaming bowl…
When she had a few moments to herself, Sarojbala sometimes thought about her own meals. She sat in a circle on the floor with her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren to eat. It was more economical to eat together, there was less wastage too. They had no refrigerator, so in the summer there was always the fear of the leftovers rotting. Serving herself a small portion of rotis and vegetables, Saroj checked whether any of the others had extra food on their plate or were going to waste what they had. Especially her grandchildren – both her daughter and she ate what was left over on their plates. Gradually her own plate filled with rejected vegetables, rice mixed with curry but not eaten, bits of potatoes, fish bones. A hot meal? Saroj didn’t remember the last time she had had one. Hunger cared for neither warm food nor cold – and besides, who would pay for the fuel needed to warm the food again and again?
Her daughter was under a lot of pressure. She had taken on a second job at Badhi Ma’s, along with her regular one. She got a headache every evening, her shoulders and back ached, too. Before going to bed, a whole pile of dishes had to be washed outside the door of the communal bathroom they shared with other families. ‘I have to, the children have to be brought up properly, they must be educated… What do we have to sell besides physical labour?’
They lived in the service quarters adjacent to the flat in which her daughter worked. A room and a shared bathroom. Even this tiny space commanded a rent of ten thousand rupees a month, in addition to an initial payment of a couple of hundred thousand. There was no lack of people in Mumbai ready to pay these amounts for a room in a slum. They must not let go of this room, no matter that the plaster was flaking off the walls and the floor was worn out. The children went to school nearby, their private tutor was close by too, and the sea was next door, with a beautiful park next to it…
Her daughter couldn’t afford to lose this room, which is why she worked so hard at the Bakshi household. And she had given her mother the job of looking after Badhi Ma – she simply couldn’t afford to turn this opportunity down. They needed the money. There was no question of handing over this job to anyone else as long as they were alive.
‘We need money, Ma, lots of money.’ Sarojbala’s daughter whispered so sibilantly, her eyes round like saucers, that she actually found it funny. Her son and daughter-in-law were struggling on a starvation diet in a Delhi slum. Living with them was as hard as leaving them was. Delhi winters chilled you to the bone, while the summers boiled your innards – but still, she had grown used to it over all these years. Her son’s factory had been locked out for ten months, the four thousand rupees that used to come in every month had vanished. Contractors had dug up all of Delhi in preparation for the Commonwealth Games – Saroj’s son had been working as a labourer for one of them. But some sort of investigation had stalled the contractors’ payments and, with them, her son’s wages. That was when he and his wife told her, ‘We’ll get by somehow, but you’d better go live with your daughter. Even if all you do is look after the children, it’ll give her some respite.’
Such a gap between imagination and reality! This was like entering and exiting the tiger’s cage every day.
Badhi Ma was done with her dinner. Sarojbala would now have to hold her chair steady as the old woman rose to her feet. Then she would have to lead her away gingerly to wash her hands, change her clothes and put on her night-dress, pour her a glass of fresh water, and arrange the blankets and quilts near her feet. None of this was heavy labour. Her daughter used to do all this earlier but now she only did the dishes. It wouldn’t be safe for Sarojbala to have anything to do with water in the evenings at this age – even if not like in Delhi, there was a wind from the north and the west in the evening in this flat, it was quite chilly after sunset.
Did they hire people here at such large salaries just for this sort of work? Really, how rich some people were. Sarojbala bit her tongue as soon as the thought occurred to her. It was because they had hired her that she would actually be able to send her son some money, for there would be a bit left over after expenses.
She dreamt of money, but she was uneasy.
She had to go in and out of the tiger’s cage every day.
Her daughter had instructed her not to talk too much. Just as much as was necessary in the course of work.
Of course, everyone here was busy. Badhi Ma’s son and daughter both went to office at nine in the morning, returning only at nine in the evening.
Saroj had come to know that the real work in this city was commuting. People worked and managed their households despite spending four or five hours every day on trains and buses and cars – that was how they lived. But could this be called living? The people here were like sugarcane sticks pulped by the wheels of a juice-making-machine. Raghu stayed in the flat through the day. Sarojbala came and went three or four times, doing all that Badhi Ma needed. Raghu didn’t like staying beyond seven-thirty, which was why Sarojbala was in charge of Badhi Ma’s dinner.
Sarojbala didn’t sit down anywhere near Badhi Ma, just in case an exchange led to a conversation. She bustled about, folding the old woman’s clothes, reorganising the contents of her suitcases, placing fresh naphthalene balls in the clothing, lining the racks with newspaper.
The first few days had not been busy.
‘What did you say your name is?’
‘What kind of name is Sarojbala? Are you sure it isn’t Saryubala?’
‘Saryubala? What’s your mother’s name? Where did you say your home is? Where did you live in Delhi? What does your son do?’
Badhi Ma’s daughter-in-law said she needed a photograph and proof of address. They had to be submitted to the police.
‘You’ve never lived here, after all. Lucky your daughter’s close by.’
‘She’s old, don’t worry about her, Mausi. We’ve been here ten years, haven’t we? Let Ma help Badhi Ma for a few days, see how it goes, no need to pay if she doesn’t do her job well.’
How bold this daughter of hers was! When her daughter told her that her mother was named Kaushalya and her father, Vishwanath, she had said, shaking with fear, ‘I can’t do this. I’ll die of fright. What if you get into trouble? What if they find out?’
But this small, thin daughter of hers was not only courageous but also tough.
It was her spunk that allowed her to send her children to an English medium school, engaged private tutors for them, transforming herself and her family in speech, behaviour and habits. Sarojbala barely knew this woman.
‘You have to do it,’ her daughter had said angrily. ‘You think I’m going to lose a three-thousand-rupee job because of your fear? Dozens of people will come running if they so much as snap their fingers – have you any idea?’
‘But what if I say something wrong? What if something terrible happens to you.’
‘Forget it, nothing will go wrong.’ She tossed her head. ‘Ten thousand human beings and four hundred cars are born in this city every day. There are ways to get papers for all of them. No one can do anything to you, take my word.’
Her daughter wasn’t wrong. She had lived here for ten years and knew the place well. No one had the time to interfere in other people’s affairs. No one had asked Sarojbala what she ate, what she put on her skin, how things were back home.
Because time hung heavy on Badhi Ma’s hands, she made Sarojbala sit down and chat sometimes, but she spoke about her own life rather than ask questions.
There was another characteristic this city had. A big heart. Humans, dogs, pigs, jackals – they were packed together, in congested chawls, in slums that resembled pigsties. But they looked after one another, gave way on the road, didn’t stab each other in the back. Because everyone had to survive. Mumbai had realised that you cannot live unless you let live – and because it had, it stayed afloat on the Arabian Sea like a plate with a raised rim brimming with water.
Badhi Ma went for a walk in the late afternoon in the clearing beneath the multi-storied building. She was over eighty and did no chores at home – walking was her only form of exercise. She walked a measured five hundred steps in her room, with Sarojbala trailing behind. One of them walked for better digestion, and the other, to suppress hunger. It was amusing. Although Sarojbala was over sixty, she still had an erect frame. She did have a slight stoop, but her appetite was intact. She bathed her grandchildren, fed them, took them to school and brought them back – her daughter didn’t have a moment to spare once she entered the Bakshis’ home.
Badhi Ma took her walk between five and six-thirty every evening. Saroj escorted her downstairs in the lift with care, strolling along with her. On her return, she gave the lady a glass of water and her medicines, followed by sweets, pudding or fruit juice. So many medicines for just one person! Sarojbala was astonished at the sight. Red, blue, yellow tablets, ayurvedic pills, homeopathic globules, biochemical liquids – everything had an appointed hour. Sarojbala did not know how to tell the time – but no one here had found her out. Not that that proved to be a problem because Sarojbala could manage by the position of the sun, as she had all her life. And also, Badhi Ma knew exactly when she had to be given each of her medicines, along with its dosage – she always called out loudly to Sarojbala to remind her.
Sarojbala had about an hour of free time before Raghu left. She used it to visit the park by the seaside, by herself or with her grandchildren. The waves crashed on the black boulders at high tide, seagulls cried, the wind blew furiously. And then, look at how far the water retreated at low tide, like a sulking schoolboy. A long stretch of the black boulders became visible, the air grew still, a terrible stench of stale fish spread everywhere, but still the sea was lovely. The sun set like a ball of fire in this sea every day. The moon rose, then sank in the water. Moonlight sent a column of light deep beneath the surface of the water, a magical pillar of gold, shimmering with the movement of the sea. Sometimes Sarojbala even had to spend the night with Badhi Ma – the old woman was never to be left alone. Her son and daughter-in-law may have gone to the movies or a party, and they wouldn’t be back before midnight. She spread out a mat near Badhi Ma’s feet and sat or lay down on it. That was when she observed this novel sport of the sea by night. The time she spent with the sea was entirely her own – during these moments she was nobody’s mother, nobody’s wife, nobody’s mother-in-law. The sea at high tide swayed her heart, the gusts of wind unsettling her. The sea asked, What are you doing, Sarojbala, is this any way to live? Do you call this living? Concealing your own name, identity, attire, behaviour, everything? Your life is a lie. Sarojbala felt an upheaval within herself. To hell with all this, she told herself – I’ll go back to Delhi, I’m sure I’ll survive somehow. My daughter’s lived here for ten years; she’ll manage without me. Then, in bed at night, when she heard the rustling of the currency notes from her salary inside the pillowcase where she had stashed them, when she saw her grandchildren’s freshly ironed white school uniforms hanging on the wall, she told herself, no, never mind, what use is the truth – let me spend some time with those who are struggling to escape the noose of poverty.
That was when she lay quietly, thinking of the long, golden archway in the night sea created by the moon. Sarojbala had never seen anything so beautiful in her life. There was no sea in Delhi – only a few sun-baked trees next to the tiny and dark shanty they lived in, besides dense undergrowth, large heaps of refuse, and rows of shanties just like theirs. Closing her eyes, she slid down the golden pillar to the bottom of the ocean. From the light and waves, she tried to glean some comfort, some joy, for herself, even as her teardrops moistened her pillow at the recollection of the pitiful conditions her son and daughter-in-law lived in.
Early one morning Sarojbala woke up with a high fever, accompanied by a headache. It was morning, and yet her body wouldn’t allow her to get out of bed – the thought bewildered her. Her daughter rushed back several times from the Bakshis’ to check on her. Then, playing truant from her regular work, she went off to bathe Badhi Ma.
Why didn’t I give you a sheet at night? What was I thinking of. Her daughter rushed off again, to manage the work at two households. Badhi Ma’s son and daughter-in-law had been to the airport last night. They had returned at two in the morning with their son. Saroj had been sitting on a mat near Badhi Ma’s feet; behind her the open window through which the north wind blew. She hadn’t dared sit on the other side, in case she didn’t hear the bell ring. The sari draped across her back could not keep the wind at bay. She had been cold; it had seeped into her bones. Sarojbala had remembered that her warm clothes were in a bundle back in Delhi – two woollen sweaters and a thick shawl. She hadn’t expected to stay on here till winter, which was why hadn’t brought them along. Now, as the chilly wind blew about her, she had tried to gain warmth by thinking about them. She did manage to wake up late at night to open the door, and then went to her own room to sleep – after which she remembered nothing.
When she returned hesitantly to Badhi Ma after two days of fever and splitting headaches, no one scolded her. There was a wave of happiness in the house. A handsome young man had come home from a foreign country, his name was Milind. Badhi Ma’s grandson. He had a thick head of hair, glasses, a fresh beard – holding his hand out to Saroj, he said, ‘Hi!’ Saroj was startled. He brought her a chair to sit, making Badhi Ma frown. Unwilling to annoy anyone, she fetched a mat instead and sat on it. Sarojbala was reminded of the golden archway in the water – made by the moon, it was moving about inside the house now.
Milind was always busy when at home – reading, working on the computer, or repairing things. He didn’t let Saroj touch the dishes he ate out of, doing them himself. Apparently, they had to cook for themselves over there, and do the dishes too. There were no servants to do the household work in this land of rich people. Sarojbala was puzzled.
If there were no servants, if you had to do your work yourself, what was the difference between the rich and the poor? And what did the poor people do over there, for that matter?
How strange it was! Milind addressed her as aunty and actually asked questions about her life. Saroj was no longer afraid. She stood behind Badhi Ma when she ate, one hand on the old woman’s chair in case she needed anything. Milind didn’t insist on her sitting, he stood too, at the other end of the table. There were many things he wanted to know.
‘What do you eat for dinner, Aunty? Rotis or rice?’
‘Do you own land back home? What do you grow on it?’
‘Which do you prefer – Bombay or Delhi?’
‘Have you decided what you want your grandchildren to study when they grow up?’
At night, on her own mattress in her room, Sarojbala had a strange dream once or twice after Milind’s arrival. It embarrassed her. She saw herself sitting in a soft velvet armchair, like the ones you saw at weddings, supplied by the people who provided all the furniture. In front of her was a steaming brew of tea, in a beautiful cup and saucer…
The dream was so wrong that Sarojbala hadn’t even dared to tell her daughter.
Something had happened to her. When she went to the park on the way back from her grandchildren’s school, or while she oiled Badhi Ma’s hair with warm coconut oil, only one image floated up in her mind. A thick head of hair, a tender beard. A fair, handsome, bespectacled face.
‘Do you think I should shave my beard or let it grow, Aunty?’ Milind wanted her opinion.
It was such a strange time. Sarojbala had never imagined that anything like this could happen. Milind went out on work sometimes, going out of town for two or three days. Sarojbala felt miserable. She lost her appetite, made mistakes at work, gave Badhi Ma thirty drops of the medicine for the aching foot instead of twenty – as though her eyes were streaming with tears. And when Milind returned, she was filled with joy, as though flowers were blooming all over the house.
Her perceptive daughter did not miss her capricious behaviour. Smiling covertly, she said, ‘These are foreign birds, they’ll peck at the grains, but they won’t enter the cage; they’ll fly away. What will you do then?’
What would she do then? That was true. The thought haunted her even as she felt herself alive. What would she do? What could she possibly do? An unreal dream occupied her – what if Milind took her away, far away – where people shook hands with the household staff and offered them chairs…
‘You and your ridiculous ideas! Remember what your daughter said, don’t they have labourers over there? Don’t they make people work in factories? Who was it who brought black people as slaves from foreign lands?’
She didn’t dare mention her dream to her daughter, as if that would shatter a fragile bowl of glass. , Milind’s day of departure really did arrive. He had been here a month and a half, how much longer could his holiday last? He had to study, finish his research.
He had shaved before leaving, his face looking softer and fairer now.
The flight was to leave at two in the morning. Milind would leave at ten-thirty, after dinner. Her daughter and son-in-law had dropped in to say goodbye. Her grandchildren had got fistfuls of chocolate. Now he was touching his parents’ feet in respect, his grandmother was handing him a bowl of curd, if he wiped his hand on her sari afterwards, he would have a safe journey. Saroj gazed at him, her vision blurred, but she wasn’t blinking. Milind came forward and hugged her. There was a packet on a chair for her.
‘Here you are, Aunty, wear this when you feel cold.’
Milind draped a soft green shawl around her.
Instead of thinking of how comfortable she would be next winter, Sarojbala mourned – she felt as through the moon had splintered, sinking deep into the water along with the glittering pillar of gold. Stay safe, my son, wherever you are, may my lifetime be added to yours. And may God give you all the wealth in the world, may Allah give you all his blessings – with these words in her head Shabnam Banu, mother of Bilkis Banu, wept, shedding from her soul the fear of living, dropping all the shame of her non-existence, into the water of the Arabian Sea.
Interview with translator Arunava Sinha
Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/translator? How did you come to this realization?
Arunava Sinha: I didn’t really know that I did. Things happened. Opportunities arose. And before I knew it I was translating morning noon and night, because I love it. So you might say I discovered a love that was asleep till I hit my 40s.
Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has or should have on short fiction?
Arunava Sinha: Eventually fiction has to lead us back to reality, especially political reality as it controls so much of our lives now. But fiction enables us to see this reality in ways that our everyday perceptions don’t. And short fiction can provide epiphany in ways the longer fiction cannot.
Shuddhashar: If you were to recommend one writer or collection of short stories to a reader, who/which one would it be? Why? OR Tell us about a single short story that moved you to tears!
Arunava Sinha: I would recommend the stories of the Bengali writer Banaphool, who literally put the ‘short’ in short stories in there. Almost none of his stories runs to more than three pages, most run to a page. And yet each story ‘contains multitudes’ by capturing the precise moments in that hold eternity.
Shuddhashar:What, to you, are the key elements of a great short story?
Arunava Sinha: The elements that are left to the reader’s imagination to fill in, so that a short story turns into a much richer document than its length allows. This could be the characters’ back stories, or the spaces they inhabit, or the thoughts we’re not allowed to see, or the things happening off the page.
Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?
Arunava Sinha: The need to listen with my ears and not just read with my eyes when it comes to any text.
Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!
Arunava Sinha: There are several! One is the continuation of a memoir from Afghanistan by Sushmita Bandyopadhyay, who was brutally killed in that country. The second is also a memoir, by the brilliant writer Pratibha Basu. The third is a crime novel, by Rajarshi Das Bhowmik. There are also two short literary novels, by Sayam Bandyopadhyay and Anita Agnihotri, respectively. And I’ve just wrapped up the Penguin Book of Bengali Stories, to be published by Penguin UK.