“How do you like this story?”
“Arrey, Qurratulain Hyder story… Photographer.”
“Why, did you not like it?”
“No, nothing like that. It’s not really about liking or disliking. I mean I’m wondering– what is this story really about? Where does its storyness reside? If you see it as becoming…”
“Meaning? You’re talking funny. Is becoming really all that important?”
“That’s not what I’m saying re…a story can happen without anything happening, it’s true– you know, the story of nothing and beingness!”
“Now I will show you something. He in Qurratul’s story goes to Her, I mean to the protagonist’s room at night. He’s quite distraught with cold. He says to her,
‘Mujhe badi sakht khansi uth rahi hai’.
Ladki ney dawai ki sheeshee aur chamcha usse diya. Chamcha naujawan key haath se chhootkar pharsh par gir gaya. Uss ne jhuk-kar chamcha uthaya aur apney kamrey ki taraf chala gaya.
(‘I have a terrible cough.’
The girl hands him the bottle of medicine and a spoon. The spoon slips from the youth’s hand and falls to the floor. He bends down to pick it up, then proceeds towards his room.)
Now tell me, yeh jo pharsh par chammach girna aur uss ne jhuk-kar uthana, isn’t this also a ‘happening’ in the story?
(Now tell me, the dropping of the spoon on the floor and his picking it up– isn’t this also a ‘happening’ in the story?)
“Aga, look at it this way, what happens because of this act of dropping and picking up the spoon is that the story grows a couple of lines longer, heavier. Call it detailing no, if you wish. It’s definitely not as though this event has been linked with the intent and the plot of the story. But why must it have happened in this exact way? Why didn’t Qurratul write it another way, where, while he’s taking the spoon from her hand, a rat jumps over his foot and in the confusion that follows, he drops his spoon. Or something filmier, where she hears a knock on her door while she’s changing and she ends up buttoning her kimono wrong, in her hurry to attend to him. He is transfixed by whatever he can see of her skin through the two-finger wide gap between the buttons. He also realises that she has realised he’s watching. Then he grows even more flustered and drops the spoon that she had been trying to hand him. If she had written it this way, Qurratul could easily have been able to gain at least a dozen more lines of footage.’
‘Enough of your wayward nonsense.’
‘Aga but Qurratul didn’t write it this way because it just didn’t happen this way. I think what must have happened is that maybe Qurratul went to a hotel with one of her friends one day, and she made the characters repeat whatever happened to her.’
‘What do you mean to say?’
‘Why don’t you do something, you write a story, about our Jaipur conference!’
‘A story about the conference? But is there a story there at all?’
‘Why not? So many more thematically relevant things than the dropping of a spoon happened there!’
‘Oh, you’re impossible…’
The Spice jet plane began its descent on the runway of Jaipur’s Sawai Mansingh International Airport. Wasim-Varsha clutched their bags and stood in the lobby of the plane. They had reached Jaipur in about two, two and a half hours. It had started to grow dark outside by then. As soon as they stepped off the plane, Jaipur’s proverbial pink cold engulfed them. The airport seemed rather small in comparison to Mumbai’s Santacruz. Activists and Delegates of the C.D.S. were waiting for them with banners welcoming the arrivals. They immediately arranged for their transport to the hotel.
By the time they reached the hotel, they were both freezing. During the 10-12-kilometer-long journey from the airport to the hotel, the cold made its presence felt repeatedly in the form of electronic weather displays on the road that announced the falling temperature, with disagreements over one or two degrees.
Diggi Palace. The palaceness of the place was not confined to its name. This used to be the haveli of a Raja. It was from here that the Raja would look after his businesses located about a hundred kilometers away. The manager arranged for the luggage to be sent up to their room. The magnificent room. An intricate triple-sized Saag bed. Would you imagine! It had a white bedsheet. Two big, fluffy blankets. A sizeable bathroom. Antique Saag furniture. And the most important and indispensable heater. Wasim immediately switched it on.
It was clear that the extravagant arrangement was only possible because the Rajasthan Government was involved in organising the conference. This meant that they were going to have a ‘royal’ experience here. Naturally, the plane ticket too had been sent by the C.D.S. But, only Varsha’s.
Wasim was very disturbed at the sight of the ticket. They were newly married. The seminar could be an excuse to have a mini honeymoon in Jaipur, they had decided. But before they could explain all this to C.D.S.’s Seema Nanda, they had already sent Varsha’s ticket by email.
Even though Wasim wasn’t a part of Prayas, he was a journalist and more importantly, he was working on the NGO beat. Which is why it was imperative that he come along, and Varsha had tried her best to convince C.D.S. of this. When her efforts didn’t lead to much success, she even made up a gynaec problem and told them remorsefully that it was of utmost importance that he be with her. The response was: ‘You don’t worry. We have all the necessary medical help at hand. My mother is a gynecologist. She will personally look after you.’ The message had been sent to reassure them but it had only unsettled them further.
And then again, phone calls were made, emails were sent- if we were to pay for Wasim’s journey to and from Jaipur, would you at least be able to arrange for his stay there? More importantly, they managed to corroborate that Wasim would be able to attend the conference. After which even Seema Nanda agreed to it and was happy enough to send Wasim a ticket. Told them- pay for it when you reach. Okay. Wasim-Varsha heaved a sigh of relief. But there was still the one problem remaining. Although they had both been booked on to the same plane, the bookings had been done at different times and so their seats might be far away from each other’s; the worry had made Wasim very anxious. Moreover, the fact that they were both standing in separate queues to collect their boarding passes did nothing to help their general disorientation. Upon entering the plane, they realised that they had been allotted seats in the same row, but on the opposite sides of the lobby. There was a scruffy-looking, middle-aged woman in the seat next to Varsha’s. Wasim got her attention by saying ‘excuse me’, then said, ‘We are together. Can you please exchange your seat with me?’ She replied ‘Oh, surely’, closed the book she was reading, went and sat in Wasim’s seat, and was absorbed in her book once again.
The plane took off. In reality, the plane seemed even more crowded than an Asiad bus. There were three seats on either side of the lobby, so six seats per line. And about forty such rows in the plane, which meant that there were over a couple of hundred people there. Still, Wasim-Varsha were able to ignore this ‘flying Asiad’ and get engrossed in one another. A sudden inconsequential movement caused Varsha’s eyes to wander, and she noticed that the scruffy-looking woman was looking at them. Varsha tried to restrain Wasim. But the dramatic nature of Varsha’s efforts to restrain him had always only been attractive to him.
At the Diggi Palace, they were received by a Punjabi volunteer who courteously informed them that arrangements for dinner had been made at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium. Go ahead and freshen up. I’ll wait outside, in the car. Another two or three kilometers’ journey.
The sight that greeted them upon their arrival pleased Wasim-Varsha immensely. There was a buffet arranged by the poolside. Bonfires littered the space. They even saw several hands cradling drinks. Rajasthani musicians were playing in the background. All in all, everything that you could need to nullify the cold was present there. Seema Nanda was introducing all the attendees, they realised that the scruffy-looking woman from the plane was present there too. She looked at Wasim-Varsha slyly. She was rather surprised to see this couple there. It was quite late by the time they reached their room.
The heater had kept their room fairly warm. Varsha was on the third day of her period; so basically it was still going on. On top of it all, her presentation was scheduled for the next afternoon, so she took her paper out, and timed herself reading it. Twelve minutes. The speakers had only been allotted ten minutes each. So then she edited it a little bit more. It was past 1 in the night. She had to read her paper in the slot right after the series of opening ceremonies and speeches. She was nervous.
The next morning was tense as well. They made their way towards the dining room for breakfast. Breakfast was arranged in a buffet. The offerings included everything from bhaajipuri and idli to gulab-jamun. Varsha had a sandwich, and Wasim chose the puri bhaaji. They decided to sit outside, under the sunlight. There was a foreigner sitting there. He invited Varsha-Wasim to join him at his table.
Wasim asked him- where are you from?
Greece. We often come here for our jewellery business.
His wife joined them. He introduced her to the both of them.
When they told him about the seminar, he said- we would have liked to attend the conference, but we have some work to do.
See you at night.
The Seminar hall. Barely a couple of minutes away from their room. It used to be the rajmandap of the old haveli. The centralized A.C and the two huge display screens on either side of the stage seemed to disagree with the traditional decoration of the rajmandap. The Chief Minister, Vasundhara Raje-Shinde was to inaugurate. But the recent violent upsurge in the Gujjar movement couldn’t make her come. She would in fact be visiting at some point later during the day, the organizers had informed.
The inauguration ceremony got over. Varsha was supposed to present her paper right after the lunch break. One of the organizers announced and introduced the theme: ‘Development in The Age of Globalisation’. Varsha’s paper was titled, ‘Development Trapped in Communal Atmosphere’. The compère’s unease was evident the moment she approached the Hindutva detail. At the fifth minute, he began hurrying her up, asking her to finish soon, because her time was nearly up. Varsha panicked. She knew her presentation lasted exactly ten minutes. She skipped a part of it, and began reading the rest. But the compère was losing his cool. He was nervous because a few Important Officials of the Rajasthan Government were present in the audience. And as soon as she mentioned Narendra Modi, he intervened to tell Varsha that her time was up. At this point, she was only seven minutes into her presentation. She told him that she would read the conclusion and then stop.
I am going to end the presentation with narrating one of the most depressing happenings of recent months. I have already mentioned that Hindutva and globalization are the twin challenges that development processes face. But as is much too clear these are the challenges that India herself faces. A person who takes pride in trampling democratic values and paints himself as the most suitable boy for development in the age of globalization has become prime minister again through apparently democratic processes. It’s the greatest mockery of democracy. How are we, as conscientious activists, going to face the invidious reality that’s the greatest challenge before us.
Varsha stopped speaking. All this while, Wasim’s concentration had been focused on her pronunciation, her utterances, her face and each of the lapses imprinted on it. He had been at the edge of his seat throughout Varsha’s presentation. The presentation was followed by a break. A few people came up to her and congratulated her. Amiyakumar Bagchi, a senior State economist congratulated her especially. Varsha-Wasim instantly felt lighter.
An activist from Nanded was heard saying in the morning, that dinner that night at the Clark’s Amer had been sponsored by Pranav Mukherjee. And that meant that it would be fancier than previous night’s dinner! Ekdum royal! I had met him once before, when I had gone to Delhi. He might even recognize me!
But on reaching there, they realized that the dinner was indeed sponsored by Pranav Mukherjee, but not Pranav Mukherjee, Mr. Minister. This Mukherjee was an artist. He had directed a short play called ‘And The Dead Tree Gives No Shelter’ based on one of Mahasweta Devi’s stories. And it was compulsory viewing before dinner! Towards this purpose, Seema Nanda told them to arrange themselves in a circle outside, in the garden. Jaipur’s temperature had dropped below three degrees. But there was to be no relief for their bellies without being subjected to the play. Dinner and drinks.
An extremely polished performance. Intimate show. Intuk-Anti-left show. It was to last an hour and forty-five minutes. After about an hour and a half, Seema Nanda arrived and began whispering into each delegate’s ear: if you don’t want to torture yourself in the cold, you can go for dinner. It’s ready! That meant that the play was only important till dinner arrangements were made! Like ripe fruits fall, some people obeyed. A few others remained seated. Varsha pulled Wasim away. And then they were free to attend to their stomachs. They kept overhearing discussions and debates about Pranav Mukherjee’s play from the surrounding tables throughout dinner. ‘Mujhey toh bilkul accha nahin laga. Mahasweta Devi ki story ko kitna distort kiya hai!’
(I did not like it all it. Mahasweta Devi’s story has been distorted so much!),
‘It’s like using revolutionary methods of street play to convey antirevolutionary message!” And so on.
Varsha-Wasim returned to Diggi palace after dinner. It was 12:30 AM. The success of her presentation had calmed Varsha’s nerves. Wasim was unusually happy as well. Importantly, waiting for them was an untouched bottle of Old Monk that they had bought in the morning as backup in the event that dinner happened to not include drinks.
As Varsha prepared to sleep, and was about to put on her nightgown, Wasim said, ‘Aga, why are you wearing that? Weren’t you buried in clothes all day? Let’s sleep naked in the Jaipur’s pink cold!’*
‘No! It’s so cold, my teeth are chattering.’
Aga, but we have two blankets. We could just wear them both, one on top of the other.’
‘I want to sleep.’
‘But I want to sleep too! I won’t do anything to you. You should sleep without clothes. Where’s the problem in cuddling to sleep?’ He began undressing her.
‘You are forcing yourself onto me.’
‘The heater’s running. You know the room will heat up eventually.’
‘I’ve said no. No. You can sleep naked if you want.’
Varsha lay down on the bed and pulled a blanket over her head.
Wasim was enraged. He was already naked. He went and slept naked on the bare carpet on the floor.
Varsha saw this. She was enraged as well.
Wasim, don’t be foolish. It’s extremely cold. Why are you sleeping like that? You’ll fall sick. Come up here.
Next to you?
No… over there, on the other end.
Then I won’t come. Why don’t you sleep peacefully? Look, I’m sleeping in front of the heater! What is your problem?’
Come up here re, will you?
Varsha threw a tantrum for a while, but she did not descend from the bed. Then, teasingly, she said to him, you don’t feel cold, right? Then why don’t you just go sleep in the bathroom?’
Wasim jumped up and went straight to the bathroom. He took the turkish towel hanging there, spread it on the floor, and lay down on it. The other towel became his blanket.
Varsha kept calling out to him.
But he refused to say a word.
Varsha went to the bathroom to check on him, and found him sleeping there, of all things!
Wasim’s eyes were closed. He had assumed that she would come close to him.
She couldn’t figure out what to do. Suddenly, something struck her. She opened the main door and stepped outside. And made her way towards the sofa some distance away in the dark corridor, and collapsed there. It would have been impossible for him to spot her in the black darkness there. So in the end, things had gone her way. He had heard the sound of the door being opened.
Has she really gone and left? Now he was extremely frightened. He stumbled to his feet, hurriedly put on some clothes and rushed outside the room.
He began pacing up and down the corridor like a madman. She could see everything. She was observing each of his movements. She started to giggle. How she had foiled his mischief. As if only he could trouble her.
Where had she gone? Had she gone outside the hotel this late at night? What if someone picks her up?
He started calling out to her.
There was a short house with a tiled roof behind their suite. He checked there. She was nowhere to be seen. Then he crossed the lawn and went up to the main lobby of the hotel. He saw a bunch of boys there. He couldn’t understand whether he should ask them about her. What a bizarre thing it was, that this man’s wife has stepped outside at this time, and he’s wandering around looking for her!
Varsha’s also stark mad. She will keep roaming throughout the night.
Without saying a word to anyone, he checked the entirety of Diggi Palace. She wasn’t to be found.
Wasim broke into cold sweat in the cold night.
He came back to the room. He found her sleeping on the bed in the room. Wasim went and held her tight. Where had you gone? Did you think this is Mumbai? I was so scared… He broke into sobs.
She began laughing at him. Suddenly, while laughing, tears began filling her eyes as well.
And then it was lively; they were lost in one another once again.
… Sometime during the night, the nurse who had breastfed the children of the rich parents from Mahasweta Devi’s story, and Pranav Mukherjee made an appearance in her dreams. But the Pranav Mukherjee of her dream wasn’t the one with the play- it was Mr. Minister. He was irrepressibly suckling at her wrinkled, hanging breasts. And the actress, while running her hand lovingly through his hair, was only cursing herself. How could my milk have dried up like this? How could it have dried up so much?
Pranav Mukherjee’s skin had erupted into a thousand tongues. A thousand tongues to lick and spit at, and then swallow the pitch black darkness.
The next night was their last in Jaipur. The conference had ended, so the participants from Delhi had left immediately. A few whose flights were in the next morning remained. So dinner that night was to be at another new place. A bus had been arranged to take them there. This hotel was inside Jaipur city. It looked quite small from the outside but upon entering it, they saw that it had a basement room. The hotel had cubicles. Everything from the structure to the decor of the hotel was brightly coloured squares. Dinner did not include too many options. Three-four items. Even drinks weren’t as various as they had been for the past two days. But they were both wondering if it would be better to not drink that night. And then Seema Nanda’s husband insisted. He poured. By the time they had toasted and taken the first sip, Amiyakumar Bagchi had arrived along with a Hindi teacher from Allahabad
‘May we join you, madam?’
Wasim asked them, ‘Will you take vodka? We are having it.’
Bagchi chose wine. ‘I am a lover of wine, no other drink.’
Bagchi’s personality had completely floored Wasim-Varsha. Bengali Babu. And a veteran political economist. Original stalwart. A softness on his face. He even reminded Wasim of Habib Tanvir, Amlan Dutta, and Ram Bapat.
‘I did my post-graduation in political science. I am student of Ram Bapat, Rajendra Vohra…’
‘I have met Bapat couple of times. Heard him speak.’
Varsha’s drinking skills had floored the Hindi teacher.
‘Aap akele aaye hain?’
(Have you come here alone?)
‘Main akela hi hun!’
(I am alone!)
‘Aap ne shaadi nahin ki?’
(Haven’t you married?)
‘Aap jaisi koi mili nahin na!’
(It’s because I never met a woman like you!)
Varsha burst out laughing. Turning towards Bagchi, she said, ‘We have recently married.’
‘That looks! I liked your presentation, Varsha. Globalization and communalism are the twin challenges today.’
Varsha’s invisible and Wasim’s visible collar had straightened.
At the Jaipur airport, in the luggage scan, the bottle of Old Monk in Wasim’s bag was detected. It felt as though a criminal activity had been intercepted there, for a few seconds. The people in the queue behind Wasim-Varsha had begun looking at them interestedly. Wasim’s face fell.
You cannot take this bag with you.
Send it with the luggage.
Let’s just pour the bottle out, Varsha suggested.
Why would you pour it away, just give it to this security guard here, he will be happy, the man behind them suggested.
Wasim rejected all of this. He did whatever was necessary and handed the bag back to the security guard.
This is how the bottle of Old Monk from Jaipur reached Mumbai through civil lines. And naturally, so did Wasim-Varsha.
‘But all of this is only detailing – a straightforward option to a straightforward fallen spoon. But this is a story, isn’t it? Even if we were to call it a story forcibly, what would be its main plotline then?’
‘That could be demanded of Harishchandra Thorat or even Uday Rote to search. Aren’t they the critics of today and tomorrow! Why bother ourselves about it?’
 The sentence structure of the original, which was written in English in Devanagari script, has been maintained. All the other instances of such speech have also been left untouched, apart from transcribing them in Roman script.
This story is taken from Afava Khari Tharavi Mhanoon, a collection of stories published by Shabd Prakashan, Mumbai, Second Edition, 2010)