Stories of nostalgia, unlikely heroes and a yearning for home and hearth.
A pregnant Hilsa is positioned between the toes of a freshly-bathed Bengali housewife, and deftly sliced for lunch. Its massacre reddens the water of the pan it lies in. Elsewhere in the city, a pregnant woman is gang-raped and bleeds to death.
Metaphors abound in Gulzar’s Half a Rupee Stories, translated by Sunjoy Shekhar. They achingly strum the narratives of those who populate these histories that disobey the boundaries of a map, and meander to find friends in unknown places. Heroes have dubious credentials — there are guzzlers of hooch and scavengers trawling for disposable syringes; sweepers who must scrape dried-up vomit from ferries bloated with tourists; a young girl following a shard of wistfulness to arrive at a place grown putrid with violence.
The collection of 25 stories dwells on nostalgia — spontaneous road trips with friends like Kuldip Nayyar and Bhushan Banmali — before it swerves towards the unfamiliar terrain of a desert outpost, a flooded kholi or a dumping ground for severed limbs. Lives are racked by the moodiness of fate that doles out torrential rains, carelessly-drawn lines that tear villages into half, and lovers who stink of the sewer.
But even amid dire persecution, there is a yearning to return to the precarious peace of home, the warmth of a clay chulah and utensils that bubble with the promise of domesticity. In the story ‘From the Footpath’, whenever Hira, the scavenger, acquired a lover, she would “fire up a kitchen under a tree — a makeshift stove of two red bricks, a sawed-off canister that served as her pot and a few dented aluminium utensils that she washed in the brackish water of the bay and hung up on the tree.”
Pots and pans become earthy tokens of a reassurance that is desperately sought. In ‘The Stone Age’, young Nasir, whose village has been bombed by firangis, seeks refuge in a jungle only to “return home, back to pots and pans — a sort of return to civilisation.” In ‘The Charioteer’, a harrowed sweeper returns home, mired in the filth of his employer’s profanities. As an antidote to the gruelling day, “The stove was lit. The lamp too was switched on.”
There are stories in the collection that are unabashedly sentimental about villages across the border, in Pakistan. In ‘Kuldip Nayyar and Pir Sahib’, a story that is a reminiscence about a drive to the Wagah border on August 14, 1998, journalist Kuldip Nayyar recalls the grave of a Pir Baba in Sialkot, who provided silent counsel to his mother. Bouts of nostalgia grip Major Kulwant Singh in the story titled ‘LoC’, when an old commander in the Pakistani army is mentioned during a whiskey-and-mutton-roast conversation with a captain.
Hints of Saadat Hasan Manto are perhaps discernible in the stories that rue the absurdity of Partition. But what distinguishes Gulzar’s narratives from those of Manto is an indulgent lyricism. Manto’s conceits are shorn of excesses and chiselled with a graphic economy in words. Gulzar’s stories slither across footpaths and sand dunes, searching for poetry in unlikely places. In ‘Shortcut’, the narrative veers away from the direct route, much like the protagonists in the story, for a description of hilly roads: “Roads too stick out their tongues like a dog panting on its run.”
The motif of half a rupee — atthanni — is explained with textbook precision in a story that borrows its title from the book. Perhaps this central conceit of unfinished dreams and half-baked ambitions, with gossamer wings too fragile for a universe of randomness, could’ve enthralled the reader by appearing and disappearing, acquiring a tincture of meaning, only to discard it. But it is contained in a definition that leaves little room for inventiveness.
The English translation retains the idiomatic whimsies of the original prose. But there are moments when the neatness of grammar and syntax rob sentences of a smouldering passion. In a story titled ‘The Stench’, there is a description of an “aunty” who brews her own alcohol.
It would’ve authenticated the basti and its old hag to hear a bit of the “choice abuses.”