Short Fiction October Issue, 2022

The Book With Two Faces**

** This story was originally written by renowned Punjabi author Sukhbir and has been translated here by Sarabjeet Garcha.

The lips painted deep red with lipstick formed an O, which expanded. Letting out a yawn as she dropped on the teapoy the book she was reading, Alka rested her back against the sofa and tossed her head back.

For a brief while, her gaze was drawn to the picture hanging on the wall in front of her. She had purchased it at an exhibition for nine hundred rupees. Done in a folk style, the painting required no less effort to decipher than a para-existential one. But Alka had liked it, even if she didn’t understand it until the painter explained it to her. She might not have taken a fancy to the painting, but had found the painter quite interesting—moving about in a bright red silk shirt, yellow tie and black khadi trousers at the exhibition of his artworks. In loose-fitting clothes, his body was lean as a dried stalk, and his sad eyes had a peculiar, wild glint.

Alka looked at the picture and, yawning again, closed her eyes.

Her head ached and her heart pulsed with a pungency.

The source of this sourness was the book on the teapoy that she had been reading just moments before. A few more pages were left, and Alka had made up her mind to swallow them all in one bitter gulp today.  

But she lacked the energy to pick the book. Never before had she felt such corrosive boredom while reading a book.  

What a book it was! So very different from the ones for which her craze knew no bounds. Those books used to be so appetising that they kept her hooked. Even her reading speed had gone beyond bounds. She would start a book and finish it in one sitting.

But reading this book, thought Alka, was like forcing a delicate girl like her to wade through traffic in high-heeled sandals. Reflecting on her simile, she gave a soft smile. She had a sour experience walking through vehicles like this when their professor had led their B.A. class out to see a village. It was as if even a village were a special place that deserved a visit by girls who had lived in cities their entire lives.

Yes, Alka had felt something similar when reading this book. She had switched between putting it down and picking it up many times.

Head thrown back and eyes closed in the same manner, Alka thought: Some writers write as if the entire world were their enemy, as if they were bored with the entire world, all people, and all places, and this ennui shows in their writing. What sort of book it is! Crammed with a crude life—the realities of vehicles resembling those of lumps. Maybe it was Matthew Arnold or somebody else who said that literature is an artistic extension that raises man above this world so he forgets his sorrows and troubles.

Alka called out to the maid and asked her to bring tea.

What sort of writer, Alka thought again, makes you want to put the book down and have a cup of tea! It was as though a car stopped in the middle of a journey, restarting only after refuelling. In reality, the writers of our country still have a lot to learn. They lag far behind European, French and American writers. At the very least, a man should write something interesting. On the one hand, there are authors like Mickey Spillane, who keep you so riveted that you become unmindful of yourself and everything around. Can one reading Mickey Spillane think of interrupting oneself to have a cup of tea? Only when the book is finished do the hands let go of it. It’s as if the reader runs in sync with the book.

But this novel? The bitter medicine of a doctor. What kind of characters populate its pages. The bland and the rough, the drunks, the truculent, the unemployed, the hungry, who bicker over a morsel of bread and who go on strike. Their crude words, crude love, and ridiculous lives are perhaps not the lives of today’s cultured people. And this character, a refined man, is uncannily similar to her father. His nature, expression, bearing and so much else resemble her father’s. Even the mention of the strike matches exactly with what had happened in her father’s mills two years ago. That strike had failed, but this book shows it as a roaring success . . .

The maid gave her tea and left. Alka drank the two cups she had made for herself and, picking up the novel, began to read again. The reading unsettled her all the more. She found the commoners in the novel to be complete strangers. Their conversations, their lifestyles, their lives—everything had a strange ring to it. In the end, the character resembling her father was shown to be so nasty.

Finally, when she reached the last page of the novel, such hatred welled up within her that she hurled the book out of the window, got up and began to change her clothes. Maybe going to college and partying with her friends would distract her from this boredom.

Midnight. Deep dark all around. But in a smallish room, there’s light even at this hour. In a corner of the room, Parvati sits on a gunny bag spread on the floor. Old age personified. The lenses of her glasses are soiled. The faint flame of the lamp flickers now and then. Parvati appears to be lost within herself. Her son is about to return from his night shift. Parvati has just finished reading a grimy, tattered book. Her son brought it yesterday from the union library. She is given to reading this or that until her son arrives. While reading, she has already sat in this manner three or four times, setting the book down. But after some time, she resumes reading.

Reading the book, she felt many times as if someone had grabbed her heart tight. She doesn’t know what began to transpire in the heart. She would become gloomy. She could neither read further nor leave the book. Until now, she had cried thrice. Each time, dense darkness had spread before her eyes and the book had kept disappearing in that darkness.

One time she cried when in the book the police tortures Raju to the extreme. As she read about those torments, her heart would begin to pound abruptly. She had felt as if her own son was in the lockup undergoing the same torture. She couldn’t read anymore and had sat alarmed for quite some time.

One time she cried when Lakshmi, suffering her widowed existence, gets fed up of hunger and sorrow and one day at midnight jumps into a well with both her children.

And the third time she cried now, when Raju is sentenced to death by hanging and is sitting in a dark cell on his last night. She had been unable to read further. Over and over, she would see her son in place of Raju—sitting in the dark cell—for whom this world would darken no sooner than day broke, and his mother’s world would darken more than his. How would she see her son being hanged? An ache rose in her heart again and again. Finally, she was left staring.

Why hasn’t her son arrived until now? This is the time he comes home. Hope all is well. Looking towards the door frequently, she is thinking.

Her gaze shifts back to the book. What kind of book it is that can neither be read nor be put down!

At one point the old mother from the book appears in front of her. Her exact replica—exact same mannerisms. Yes, she is much shorter than her, but not as timid. Everything else is exactly like her. Has the author seen her somewhere? He must have definitely visited here with her son. Many persons keep coming home with her son. Does one ever notice? All right. When the son is back, she will ask him. The author must have been here with him for sure. He must also have lived sometime in this basti. That’s exactly why the book mentions so many people of the basti. Only the names are a bit different. This Radha’s daughter hasn’t even studied till the fourth standard, but in the book she’s been depicted as sagacious! And this old Jumman Khan is none other than the neighbour Ram Deen. The same bearing and behaviour. But how was he made into a Muslim? Well. She will ask her son when he returns. The author of the book has undoubtedly visited here at some point. She will ask her son to bring him home again someday. She will ask him a lot of questions and say, My son, don’t write like this lest the heart be squeezed while reading and one is left sobbing again and again—and even then, doesn’t feel like leaving the book. One needs a large heart to read such a book . . .

Illustration by Pratyusha Chakraborty.

She keeps thinking in a similar vein.

Then she picks up the book and returns to her reading. But after two or so pages, her eyes well up again. She can’t contain those tears. And this time, instead of putting it down, she presses the book to her chest tightly. Oh, the tyrants have hanged her son. The tyrants . . .

Her son, back from the night shift, stands in the doorway. She is staring at him, dumbfounded. At last, a terrified voice escapes her mouth: ‘My son, my son, you are back!’ And then she becomes aware of the book, which is still pressed against her chest. She gently places it down on the floor.

Her son looks at her, understands everything right away, and smiles a little. Then, crossing the threshold, he shows his mother a book. Mother looks at it and says, ‘It’s the same book I’m reading, son.’

‘Yes, but it’s brand new. I found it on my way home. Don’t know who dropped it.’

Sarabjeet Garcha is the author of four books of poems, besides a volume each of translated poetry and translated prose. A recipient of the Fellowship for Outstanding Artists (2013-14) from the Government of India and the International Publishing Fellowship (2022) from the British Council, he is the founder and editorial director of Copper Coin (www.coppercoin.co.in).

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