A new collection of Gujarati short stories in English translation opens up a rich literature – Scroll.in

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“Silly girl, you’ll kill yourself this way. It’s been four days, isn’t your stomach aching? Don’t you see how blissfully those girls go and squat? You are such a fussy little thing.”
Savli reluctantly got up to go to the ditch. The thought of the ditch made her shiver. Two days ago, it had rained heavily. Slippery, mucky lanes, full of puddles of dirty water, had to be crossed to reach the bushes. Then one had to find a relatively decent spot and squat on the dirty wet grass, flattened by God knows how many feet. If a frog leapt onto her foot, or an earthworm brushed against her, she would scream. Heart racing and eyes watchful, one had to somehow finish off the “task”, but none of this seemed to bother Sevanti or Devu. They could defecate anywhere.
In the dim light of dawn, one could see shadows gliding like ghosts along the road that led to the ditch. The whole scene would have seemed quite eerie had it not been such a dreary routine. After all, people living in and around the slums had always used open land to relieve themselves. It did not seem to bother anybody. Timid and painfully shy, Savli was the only one frightened to be in the open fields.
“Savli’s mother wants us to take her along, but god, Savli is so picky. No, here, not there, you keep walking endlessly, and finally she may agree on a spot.”
“Alee, listen! Where do you think you are going? You’ll have some insect clinging to your feet if you go that far….”
Then Savli would have to stop. Hiding behind the bushes and staying close to her companions, she would squat. But at the slightest sound of approaching footsteps, she would stand up. The open sky would hang over her and even a tiny hole appeared cave-like.
While they lived in the village, Baapa, her father, would make her and Budhiya sleep outside on a string cot. In the middle of the night, her eyes would fly open and Baapa would be missing. The door of the house would be shut. She would hear jackals howling from far away, or hear the wind rustling among the dry leaves and brush off the top branches of trees. Something seemed to move in the grass of the yard next door.
At such times it seemed the darkness would swallow her whole and, even on a cold night, she would be soaked in sweat. Once she was so scared that she had pounded on the front door violently. When he saw that nothing was really wrong, Baapa had slapped her, though not very hard. After all, he had been rather groggy.
Things are different in the city. The crowds surge and simmer through the days and nights. Everyone carries tins of water into the open. Nani kaki had once taken her to an enclosed toilet. There was a queue, of course, but at least one could shut the door.
But after going inside, she realised that it wasn’t much of a door. The latch was broken. She had specifically reminded Nani kaki and Pani several times to make sure that no one pushed open the door. But both of them had got busy chatting and laughing, and soon forgot about her.
A huge man with a big moustache had thrown the door open with a dhad…aa…ak. She had frozen. When she tried to rise, her legs trembled.The rascal stood laughing outside and even winked at her. Since then Savli avoided his gaze if she ever bumped into him anywhere.
On the festive night of Aatham, there was a film screening at Dayaljinagar. She slept through most of it, but the memory of a pink tiled washroom and a fairly-like girl engulfed by bubbles of soap remained etched in her mind. Sevanti had said that bungalows had such bathrooms. Perhaps that was why she worked in a bungalow.
As for Savli, the tattered gunnysacks draped around four bamboo poles that made up her bathroom were so worn out that she dared not remove all her clothes to bathe. She was afraid people would be able to see her. The road behind the bathroom led to a factory and cycles and two wheelers whizzed by. Good-for-nothing boys loitered around, whistling. Even though she was shielded by the gunnysacks, it felt like she was bathing in the open.
Sevanti and Mumtaz had started their menstruation cycles five or six months ago. They said, “It’s so difficult to ‘go’ on such days.You have to keep everything suppressed.” They, of course, took care of all this when they went to work in the bungalows.
There is a mela at the maidan today. People from the locality are running back and forth from the mela. For the last couple of days, Pani and Sevanti have been persuading her to accompany them, but her mother wouldn’t agree. She probably thought that Savli would spend five or ten rupees there, and so, it was better not to let her go. Sevanti didn’t have to ask anyone to go to the mela because she worked and earned her own money.
Finally, Ma relented and allowed Savli to go. She combed her hair with oil until it was slick and plastered her face with talcum. Ma had reminded them to hold hands tightly because if they got lost, they would end up looking for one another all night. “Make sure,” she had said, “you come back before it gets dark and don’t stop for too long at any one place.”
At the fair, crowds swelled near the long rows of bangle sellers.
Suddenly, there was pandemonium. It was difficult to figure out what was happening. In the confusion, Savli was separated from Sevanti. She shouted but nothing could be heard in the noise. Standing alone, she was about to cry when a kind-looking woman grabbed her hand and carefully pulled her out of the crowd.
The woman asked her, “Dayaljinagar? Come, child, I’ll take you there, don’t be afraid.” She wiped her misty eyes on her frock sleeves and began to walk with the woman.The woman hailed a rickshaw.
“First, let us go to my house and inform my family. Then we’ll go over to your house. You are not in a hurry, are you?”
There was a courtyard in the middle with rooms on the upper floor. A few faces peeped out of small windows, but the windows were immediately pulled shut. There must be many people staying in such a big house, Savli thought, as she looked around her.
Muffled sounds of song and laughter seemed to come from somewhere. But she could not see what was going on upstairs. The doors of the rooms appeared firmly shut and even the ones that were open had pink floral curtains hiding everything inside.
“Aati hun abhi, I will be back soon. We will go to your house and I will drop you,” Bai said before disappearing inside.
Sevanti must be looking for her in the crowd. Everyone must have gone back home and Ma would have brought the house down. “This is why I had said no. How do we now look for Savli in the crowd, my grain-sized girl in such a mad rush?” Ma always called her “grain-sized”.
Something moved and churned inside her; she became impatient and confused. As soon as Bai came she would quickly ask her – why would anyone refuse something like this?
She immediately asked permission when Bai reappeared.
“Sure, sure. Arre, Munni, take her.”
There were two big bathrooms on either side of the courtyard, with pretty, smooth, pink-and-blue tiles. She thought of the bathroom in the movie she had watched. Next to the bath was a clean toilet with doors that shut and strong walls…did one go in there? Did they all go in there?
Wide-eyed, she stared at the door and the latch. Once the door closes, everything outside gets shut out. She is safe inside; no one can open the door nor peep in. There’s no need to rush.
“Go inside,” Munni ordered.
She floated through the air with joy. Dazed, as if in a dream, she went in and the door shut behind her – tightly.
Excerpted with permission from The Greatest Gujarati Stories Ever Told, Selected & Edited by Rita Kothari, Aleph Book Company.

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