The High-Noon Of Her Misery
The High-Noon of her Misery
Hello and welcome to another episode of “I Went Back to” brought to you by Motormouth Media. A podcast where our past and present hold a mirror to each other showing how one owes its existence to the other. I am your host Kalyan, hopelessly caught in between these mirrors and trying to make sense of it all.
All our lives are punctuated by a multitude of people, moments and instances seemingly isolated from each other but which tug at us in quite the same ways, suggesting, even if subtly, some sort of a kinship between them, like siblings disunited at birth and unaware of each other’s existence. Even when we sometimes manage to faintly pick up on them, we quickly dismiss them as being just too inscrutable to occupy our already busy minds.
But every once in a while these things have a way of making themselves known like it happened with me recently. And when it happened, it was through a dream, the most cliched of all allusions isn’t it?! This dream played out like several scenes in one and helped me identify how so many things which I had perceived in isolation were actually like collinear points joined by a faint thread. Before talking about the dream itself, I want to say what it did to me and that is in a way the whole point of this episode.
It provoked memories of a Hindi poem I had read as an impressionable 17-year old back in school. It was a short poem titled Todti Paththar meaning ‘she who broke stones’ written by Suryakant Tripathi better known to the world by his nom de plume, Nirala.
I had been too young and callow back then to recognise the enormous fascination and regard I felt for this poem. I had, however, retained my textbook, an act I realise now I owe to the poem itself. As I rummaged it out of an old trunk with its pages the colour of pale coffee and my scribblings all over, memories rushed in like a stifled mob breaking the barricades. I knew this textbook had much more to teach me today than it did all those years ago.
Todti Patthar! In this poem, Nirala talks about a fleeting experience he had on the streets of Allahabad, when he encountered a woman on its streets (देखा उसे मैंने इलाहाबाद के पथ पर, वह तोड़ती पत्थर).
The young sturdy woman is breaking stones unmindful of her bare, harsh surroundings made allegorically harsher by the presence of a large palatial mansion within view (कोई न छायादार पेड़ वह.. जिसके तले बैठी हुई, स्वीकार… गुरु हथौड़ा हाथ, करती बार बार प्रहार… सामने तरुमालिका अट्टालिका, प्राकार).
The ever-ascending sun descends cold-bloodedly upon the dust-laden earth like some bird of prey engulfing everything in its searing heat. But she goes on unstoppably. (रुई ज्यों जलती हुई भू… गर्द चिनगीं छा गईं… प्राय: हुई दोपहर… वह तोड़ती पत्थर)
And at one pregnant moment, she stops, to give an indifferent stare first to the onlooking poet and then at the mansion (देखते देखा मुझे तो एक बार…उस भवन की ओर देखा छिन्नतार)
She regards him with battered but unwept eyes. This moment, inhabited by just the two of them, tugs at the poet like a practised finger tugging at the strings of a Sitar to produce a piercing note (देखकर कोई नहीं…देखा मुझे उस दृष्टि से…जो मार खा रोई नहीं…सजा सहज सितार… सुनी मैंने वह नहीं जो थी सुनी झंकार)
While she resumes to strike impassively on the stones with all the force of her arm and her mind.
You may read the entire poem along with an amateurish English translation by me in the transcript of this episode.
As I read and re-read the poem, at an epiphanic moment I realized that through their brief visual union, the stone-breaking lady in Todti Patthar and the poet himself were the parents to those separated siblings I alluded to earlier. The provenance to all those cryptically connected faces and encounters lay in the poem. The thread wasn’t quite faint anymore. It was much stronger and explicit.
The poem is remarkable in its brevity. A few words which create a poignant picture, and the picture, being true to its nature, speaks a thousand words in return. The true mark of Chhayavaad of which this poem is considered a great specimen. For those more familiar with English literature, Chhayavaad is more akin to Romanticism in English.
And Nirala, arguably one of its greatest exponents.
Born in Medinipur, Bengal, where he also spent his formative years, Nirala’s first language was Bengali alongside Sanskrit. The inveterate romantic that he was, despite it being one of the later languages he imbibed, he chose Hindi as his primary language of expression solely upon his wife’s insistence, who he loved beyond himself. Alas, throughout his life he consistently ran out of people he could shower his limitless love upon. Even before he entered middle age, he had lost all his close family members.
Every chapter of Nirala’s biography will read like a tragedy each more catastrophic and sordid than the other. And happiness in any form was so scarce and short-lived that it only augmented the motif of pathos and plaintiveness in his life. And while his own fate abused him, he was also cursed to face much derision and disdain from the outside world.
A fine piece written on him some years ago in the Hindi edition of The Wire likens him to the Greek demigod Prometheus. Someone who underwent unfathomable suffering for the sake of humankind. The piece is beautifully titled Nirala: Vish peekar Amrit barsane wale kavi or the poet who consumed poison to yield elixir. His anguish had truly embellished the language. His work Saroj Smriti, which he wrote in remembrance of his daughter Saroj who died when she was merely 18, is arguably his best work.
Like Prometheus, Nirala too provided that fire to Hindi literature, but the incandescence of which was hardly perceived during his lifetime. Much of the recognition and adulation for him has been posthumous. He died a sad, delusional and schizophrenic man having no cognizance of how strongly he had engraved his name in the canons of modern Hindi literature.
He was fundamentally a non-conformist and a rebel, a streak that also shows in his writings in his use of extensive free verse and his general autonomy of form. He brought together elements of nationalism, mysticism, a love for nature and above all a deep-seated humanism in his works. Making him the voice of things and people which couldn’t speak for themselves.
It is through his compelling words in Todti Patthar that the mute laboring lady speaks to me now ever more than she did before. It is owing to the magic of his writing that I have been able to discern, now and then, faces similar to the stone-breaking lady’s even if they were damned to forever remain obscure and irrelevant. Faces that I wish to speak about today in this episode.
So yes, it wasn’t the dream that invoked the memories of Nirala’s poem, it was actually his imagery in the first place which lent the frames to the dream. Nirala’s words, not only paint a picture of his times, but also actualize the realities of ours. How ill-fated for his stone-breaker lady and for him too! Nirala would only have wished for his art to live forever, not its realism. On the other side of the break, the faces, and of course the dream. (a logical break)
Many years ago, when I lived in Kolkata, I had befriended a man one rainy evening under unusual circumstances. On my way back from office my motorbike had broken down and I had to stop at an allegedly shady neighbourhood to get it fixed. This man had been running a sweet shop right next to the bike mechanic’s shop. Seeing me as an anomalous stranger who didn’t quite belong there, he had warmly let me into his shop while my bike got fixed and conversed with me.
His name, as I learnt eventually, was Shahjalal Haider. He wore a netted vest, an amulet fastened to his arm and a flowing beard sans the moustache – tropes which betrayed his religion only further. His shop, though, was named Radheshyam Sweets with images of Lord Krishna and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu adorning its oily green walls. He was a scant mass of a man not quite in keeping with his voice which was a booming rich baritone. He spoke flawless Bengali, but it had sounded more domesticated than local, showing a faint trace of not belonging to the place.
There was an inherent evenness to his personality which he carried like a good novel carried a motif. He was neither shy nor effusive and mostly incurious, he kept a somewhat serious demeanour but never withheld a smile if he had to. His natural disposition was marked by a sense of temperance and restraint, something like a thehraav that fine actors often brought to their performance. If at all, the one thing immoderate about him, as I observed in due course, was he gave more than he took.
Over the next months I occasionally stopped over at his shop and we had come to know about each other a little more. He had only revealed that he was a migrant but hadn’t said where from. There had also been a reticent young boy around 14-15 years of age assisting him in his shop. In all my visits, this boy never spoke a word or made eye contact with me. His name, I was told, was Inquilaab, and he was an orphaned nephew of Shahjalal’s whom he had adopted. Shahjalal had no children of his own and his wife had passed away some years ago of Tuberculosis and he himself had been a survivor of the vile disease.
Eventually, my visits to his shop had stopped because I began travelling extensively as part of my work and was hardly living in Kolkata. One day, a good 3 or 4 years after my last visit, I happened to pass-by the shop, and I stopped to check. The sweetshop wasn’t there anymore. It had become something else not worth remembering. I asked around and came to know that Shahjalal had had a relapse of Tuberculosis and had succumbed to it a year ago. The shop and their home had been appropriated by a local goon and Inquilaab had left the area and with no one any the wiser about him or his whereabouts.
My familiarity with Shahjalal had never really grown into intimacy. That was a wall of his I hadn’t managed to scale. In all our meetings I never got to ask or tell him about the endearing paradox that his shop had been. His own name, that of a 15th century Sufi saint Hazrat Shahjalal, who is considered to have brought Islam to Bengal, and he also had been a great devotee of Chaitanya who was a Vaishnavaite Bhakti saint. Was this merely an unwitting coincidence or had Shahjalal gone out of his way to assert an alternate identity? I wondered if there were actually people around us whose anonymity was just as desirable to them as their identity. Since then, Shahjalal’s memories have permeated my mind but occupied a space only as moderate as the man himself.
And Inquilaab, what about him? Orphaned a second time over.
Some years later, in my present city of residence, when we had moved to our new home, I had stepped out one day to get eggs from a local Eggs & Chicken shop. And I had seen a sombre youth manning the shop, possibly in his early 20s who spoke the local language fluently, but his accent nonetheless gave him away. I couldn’t help thinking if he could be the enigmatic Inquilaab I knew? There was certainly a semblance of one in the other. But I also knew that it was a colossal improbability. In the world I inhabited, Inquilaab’s was a life too insignificant to resurface noticeably. And to add to that, there was not even a faint hint of recognition in him. I had asked him his name and he had responded Munna with a poker face. I knew very well that I’d never find out the truth. Even today, he hardly speaks or makes eye contact. Initially, once or twice, I had the bizarre urge to address him as Inquilaab and see if that caught him unawares, but good sense had prevailed. However, each time I visit the shop I silently nod in remembrance of Shahjalal and Inquilaab.
Todti Patthar is from Nirala’s celebrated poetry collection, Anamika, meaning ‘she who has no name’. It was written almost 90 years ago, a time period by no means insufficient to cause social upheavals and economic turnarounds. And sadly also, a time period, long enough to habituate and resign ourselves to realities which are beyond change.
In a figurative world, why wouldn’t the likes of Shahjalal, Inquilaab and Munna trace their antecedents to the lady from Todti Patthar? They have certainly inherited her anonymity, her sense of displacement, her tribulations, her vulnerability, haven’t they? And she too has bequeathed to them her resilience, fortitude and most importantly her stoical face and general aloofness of being, hasn’t she?
And then came her latest offspring. So uncanny was the resemblance with her this time that it was as if she had been reborn. It seemed like a karmic residue from her previous life still remaining to be suffered.
For someone who almost never remembers his dreams once awake, this one from some days ago plays out vividly even today in my mind’s eye. I had seen a woman, her dupatta tied firmly around her waist, on a bicycle pedaling steadily with her back to me. The faster I had tried to catch up with her, the farther she seemed to move. Almost as if on cue, she had stopped and turned around right when I had given up the chase. I saw that she was hardly a woman. She was a girl not a day older than 15 years who merely endured the bearing and composure of a woman. We made eye contact. Her face was wet, and I knew it had to be with sweat because her eyes were just too vacuous even to hold tears. I tried calling out to her, but as is typical in dreams, my voice just failed me. After her brief impervious stare at me, she turned to look at the blistering sun above us and again began her laboured strokes on the pedal. I realized even if I could have made myself heard, she’d have hardly stopped. Who was she? What was her name? (a logical break)
This girl on the bicycle wasn’t any surreal being which my mind merely manufactured for the sake of an effect. She was real. And so was her bicycle. She was the 15-year old girl who travelled 1200 kms over 8 days during the lockdown to return home partly hitchhiking and partly cycling with her incapacitated father riding pillion. And they did this because it had been a more agreeable proposition than just staying where they were.
At first, it seemed like one of those make-believe things we so commonly come across nowadays. In fact, it seemed too unreal even for it to be fictitious. I mean if I saw this happening in a good movie or a book, I’d have hardly commended the work for its realism unless it was consciously depicting some form of a dystopian reality.
Well. Last I heard, the girl had been called by the Indian Cycling Federation for trials in recognition of her extraordinary accomplishment which could mean a change of fate for the better. And she had become a bit of a celebrity too. What with the foreign media covering her and some even calling her a teenage wonder?
But this one hell of a ride, literally, wasn’t really her quest for fame or an act of gritty heroism. It was just that animal will to hold out and fight for a chance to make the cut. It made me wonder if all was right with a world that celebrated her astounding deed more than it lamented the misery that had caused it.
The girl’s father is one of millions of migrant workers adversely impacted by the pandemic and the way it has been managed. These are people who easily fall through the cracks in the system and are forever doomed to remain what they are in government records: informal, unorganized and unregistered.
How else does one explain that there was a very brief period initially when the number of deaths caused by the pandemic were comparable to those caused by the lockdown, a measure to curb the pandemic? Close to 900 migrants had died – some had starved to death, some had succumbed to unattended curable ailments, some were simply run over on their way home and some others out of sheer depression.
In what is arguably the greatest humanitarian crisis of independent India, concerned citizens and civil society organizations – the ever-trustworthy pressure groups that they are – were the first to be roused to attempt the absurdly impossible task of offsetting state apathy with public philanthropy and yet they pulled it off, even if within a limited scope. There are research reports available in the public domain, links to which I shall append in the transcript of this episode, which have documented the sheer magnitude of this crisis. As the numbers, graphs and events unfold in these reports, the pill gets progressively more bitter for the privileged reader to swallow. There hasn’t been a more apt example of the most unpleasant and ugly devil residing in the details.
These are freakishly tough times, even for the privileged.
The other day, we were wondering how best we could manage to take our 2-year old out in the sun, even if for 15 minutes, because her paediatrician had ordered for it, you know, to avoid any Vitamin D deficiency. This one instance alone puts into perspective how the disparity has been perpetuated doesn’t it?
As in how sun-starved we all are and how the kindred of Todti Patthar make the sun-ridden skies their day-time roofs. Of how they hog all the Vitamin D meant for our children while we wallow in the dim discomforts of the homes they built for us!
Sarcasm or no sarcasm, the metaphorical Anamika still outlives herself through her countless rebirths and yet occupies a permanent blind spot in the privileged vision of the world. Unless, unless of course she does the confoundingly unthinkable like the girl on the bicycle. But unlike her, there isn’t a Nirala who too could reincarnate himself to wield his words on her behalf to touch, cut and pierce through our thick skins all over again.
Even today, in the high noon of her misery, her dark beautiful face barely quivers as drops of sweat trace their way down her brow. But neither has she stopped pounding her hammer nor have we begun to feel the force of it. (एक क्षण के बाद वह काँपी सुघर…ढुलक माथे से गिरे सीकर…लीन होते कर्म में फिर ज्यों कहा…-“मैं तोड़ती पत्थर।”
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for tuning in and hearing me out. I am trying hard but am unable to end this with a sense of hope. I hope though that the next thing I will go back to will be less disorienting.
She Broke Stones
वह तोड़ती पत्थर;
देखा मैंने उसे इलाहाबाद के पथ पर–
वह तोड़ती पत्थर।
She broke stones
I saw her on a street of Allahabad, alone
As she broke stones
कोई न छायादार
पेड़ वह जिसके तले बैठी हुई स्वीकार;
श्याम तन, भर बंधा यौवन,
नत नयन, प्रिय–कर्म–रत मन,
गुरु हथौड़ा हाथ,
करती बार–बार प्रहार:-
सामने तरु–मालिका अट्टालिका, प्राकार।
Without a tree
With whose shade she could agree
Skin dark, fullness of youth subdued
Eyes without spark, mind with duty imbued
(with) Heavy hammer-like hands,
Striking, repeatedly quelling
Overlooking a tree-lined palatial dwelling
चढ़ रही थी धूप;
गर्मियों के दिन,
दिवा का तमतमाता रूप;
उठी झुलसाती हुई लू
रुई ज्यों जलती हुई भू,
गर्द चिनगीं छा गई,
प्रायः हुई दुपहर :-
वह तोड़ती पत्थर।
As the noon arose
In the peak of summer
(and) The day took a blistering pose
A blazing hot wind churned
As like cotton the earth burned
Engulfed in smoky dust
The afternoon sun shone
As she broke the stone
देखते देखा मुझे तो एक बार
उस भवन की ओर देखा, छिन्नतार;
देखकर कोई नहीं,
देखा मुझे उस दृष्टि से
जो मार खा रोई नहीं,
सजा सहज सितार,
सुनी मैंने वह नहीं जो थी सुनी झंकार।
As she watched me watching her
She turned sharply to look at the manor
Seeing as there was none around
She saw me with such eyes
beaten, unwept and emptiness abound
Like the strum of a sitar
I heard a melody, unheard and bizarre
एक क्षण के बाद वह काँपी सुघर,
ढुलक माथे से गिरे सीकर,
लीन होते कर्म में फिर ज्यों कहा–
“मैं तोड़ती पत्थर।“
After a moment she shuddered to herself unknown
As drops of sweat on her forehead shone
Absorbed again in her sense of duty, she said
“I break stones”
References & Recommendations:
- Distinct memories of passionately delivered lectures by the Late Mr. Lal Bahadur Singh, our Hindi teacher from school.
- Nirala and The Rennaissance of Hindi Poetry by David Rubin
- The World Heritage Encyclopaedia under Project Gutenberg (Link)
- An article in The Print by Unnati Sharma
- An article in The Wire Hindi by Avinash Mishra
- The SWAN reports on the migrant worker distress
IWBTS01E03 – The High-Noon Of Her Misery
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