Five Grains of Sugar
A Play byManav Kaul, Translated by Arshia Sattar
Pundalik once said, “there is no difference between you and your town.” He said this and wandered off. I could not understand why he had said this. I thought about it and after a while, I realized that this was true. My town was not really a town and was not quite a city either. The people here were not terribly wealthy, but they were hardly dying of hunger. The town was not important enough to be stamped on the map of the nation, but it’s not like it wasn’t there. Nobody here really wanted to do any work, but they all ended up doing something somehow. Everything here is ok, like me, just ok. Pundalik says that this town seems as if it’s made up of people left behind. Like when a truck full of gravel drives along scattering sand in its wake – like that sand, the people left behind got together and made this town.
My town lies exactly between the highway and the wilderness. And my house is right on the highway. There’s a tea stall across the highway where people with weird faces laugh and shout as they eat. Human voices are transformed into motor voices. Actually, I don’t go to the other side of the highway much during the day. I do my thing at five in the morning. My thing? I used to go there to write stuff on the backs of trucks. All I know is that these trucks travel through each and every town and city in the country. I would write things in chalk in tiny letters on the backs of these trucks – I don’t know for whom. For me, it was like sending a message into the atmosphere. I was convinced that some Raju, Rajkumar, Chotu, Bunty, Chintu, Rakesh, some ordinary guy with an ordinary name, like me, would wake up at five in the morning and read the message. Nothing I wrote ever came back to me, which means that someone was reading it and erasing it so that no one else could read it. Our friendship was quite deep. I used to tell him everything, but in code, cunningly, turning things inside out. So that no one else would read it and laugh. And also to prevent the police from showing up at our door – because I talked about mother, Raghu, Pundalik, Radhe and their secrets. But I am pretty devious and the police will never find out. Long ago, I had written on a truck: Pundalik/poet, Raghu/hero, Radhe/Gandhi’s walking stick, Mother/mug-lady.
Actually, I had two reasons for waking up at five in the morning: writing on trucks and meeting Radhe. Radhe would come to my house every morning at five. I didn’t even know if his name really was Radhe. Every time he saw me, he would say, “Radhe! Radhe!” and I would return his greeting with “Radhe!” We were “Radhe” to each other. I used to call Radhe the gold-man because he worked at sifting gold. You see, there were two small jewelers shops in our house that paid us rent. Every day, Radhe would arrive with his tiny iron-toothed broom and sift out the gold dust. When he was doing this, he looked like a tiny white bundle tottering before my eyes. He was totally silent when he worked, I could only hear the sound of his breathing.
I’ve known Radhe for years but I feel as if he’s stuck at one age. Maybe he has no desire to get older than that. He has been old for years and I cannot imagine that Radhe was once a child. He had left the town for the city only once and that was the first and last journey of his life. He went to Sabarmati to see – just to see – Gandhiji. This was his life’s achievement, which he has told me about more than fifty times by now. Every time he told me about his meeting with Gandhiji, Gandhiji had something different to say to Radhe. Many times, Gandhiji only said ‘namaste’ and Radhe came back. But many times, Radhe had had a meal with Gandhiji. Many times, Gandhiji wanted to say something to him but Radhe was in a hurry to get back to his town. Once, Gandhiji even said to him, “Radhe, I am very tired. Now you become Gandhi.”
I did not talk much to Radhe when he was sifting the gold dust. But once I asked him why he swept up the gold. He said that before he died, he wanted to make a pilgrimage to Vaishnodevi. I asked him how much money he needed to get there. He said that he would need at least one thousand rupees. I asked him if he had a thousand rupees and he said he did. I found this very odd. I said if you want to make the pilgrimage and you have the money, why don’t you go? Radhe was silent. It was an uncomfortable silence and I did not push it. Radhe said softly, “Soon after I met Gandhiji, he died. I was very sad. They made a Gandhi Park in our town and put up a stone statue of him. I figured that maybe before he died, Gandhiji had said, make a Gandhi Park in Radhe’s town. I used to stand for hours in front of Gandhiji’s statue and he, too, would gaze at me for hours. I felt that he wanted to say something to me. But because the park was always so crowded, he did not get a chance to speak. Then, one day, he came to me in a dream. Actually, he did not come to me, he called me to the ashram. I saw Gandhiji in a huge crowd. Then he noticed me and said, ‘Radhe!’ I bowed to him and he embraced me. He whispered in my ear. ‘Son, I haven’t been able to make it, but you go to Vaishnodevi and get the goddess’s blessings!’ I was stunned—what was Gandhiji saying to me? I stared at him and what did I see? Gandhiji had turned into a pigeon and was flying away. And suddenly I awoke. As soon as it was morning, I ran to the Gandhi Park to see Gandhiji. And that same pigeon was sitting on his head. My dream was true! Absolutely true!
Until then, I had been outside this town only once and so I was very afraid. I tried really hard but I wasn’t able to get away at that time. And now, I don’t even want to go. Whatever my life is, I’ve lived with the hope that I would one day go to Vaishnodevi. If I go there, how will I get through the rest of my days? The hope that I have lived with has grown, like a child. At this age, I can’t kill my child, can I?”
And now, the problem. I have this huge problem, which is why I am doing all this. This problem came to me in the form of Pundalik. Actually, Pundalik wanted to publish his collection of poems. He had a friend in the city called Tarachand Jaiswal who was helping him with the publication of the poems. I had heard all his poems, some of them so often that I know them by heart even today. The problem started when Pundalik was leaving. I noticed that in one hand he carried the diary in which he used to write his poems and a letter and in the other, he carried a picture of my mother and her Gita. He came to me with all this in his hands. He said to me, “Put both your hands on this and swear . . . swear on your mother’s Gita and on my poems that you will have my collection of poems published.” Before I could take the oath, I saw that he had packed all his things. I said, “Where are you going, Pundalik?” Our town is not that far from the city, certainly not far enough to have packed a bag. Pundalik did not reply to my question. His voice was getting strained and he was insisting that I should take the oath and so I did. I swore on the goddess of knowledge, on mother earth, on the poems, on the Gita – and I threw in a couple more oaths as well, in my enthusiasm. What was it to me, after all? The poems were Pundalik’s, Tarachand Jaiswal was going to have them published, where was I in all of this? I was nobody, but I could not understand why Pundalik was making me take oaths to have his poems published. The truth was, once I had taken the oath, I was stuck in the middle of this whole mess. Pundalik’s face brightened the moment the oath-taking ceremony was over. He tossed the picture of my mother and the Gita into a corner, picked up his stuff and left. He got to the door and remembered that I had asked him where he was going. He turned and said, “First, I’m going to city to give Tarachand Jaiswal the poems and this letter which explains everything about you and the poems. Then I’m going on a pilgrimage and then am going to renounce everything!” and he hugged me and whispered softly in my ear. “I wanted to give you something. You’ll find it after I’m gone. Thank you. Namaste!” and he left.
I could understand what he said about the poems, by why was he talking about me in the letter? What did he want to give me? And why? I had only listened to his poems and not even understood half of them. If he had talked about a listener in the letter, that would have been fine. But it was not like that. I was well and truly trapped. How Pundalik trapped me in this problem came to light with a letter I received from Tarachand Jaiswal a few days ago. I could not believe that Pundalik had done this to me. I know that I am not the most useful guy but that someone could use me like this was beyond me. Do you know what Pundalik did to me? What was written in Tarachand Jaiswal’s letter? This is his letter. The letter’s pretty long but I’ll tell you the main points. (He reads)
Rajkumar, greetings to the great poet! I was delighted to read your poetry. Pundalik had spoken to me about your poems earlier as well. People are full of praise for your poems. The collection will be published next month, but there is one concern. We are one poem short in the collection. This is not my opinion but our editor’s. You are a great poet and after this collection, your name will be mentioned along with other famous poets. Please take the trouble to send us one more poem as soon as you can. My daughter is crazy about your poems. What are your thoughts on marriage? Pundalik always spoke well of you. When might we meet? Will you publish the poems under your own name, Rajkumar, or would you like a surname added to that? Do let me know.
Which means that the ‘problem’ has now taken on terrifying proportions. Why did I take that oath? Now I’m regretting it. Forget the oath, I really wanted Pundalik’s collection of poems to be published. But not like this! I’ve done everything. For the past few days, I’ve been searching through Pundalik’s books – perhaps he’s left four lines, two lines, even one line behind. But no – there was nothing there. I picked up a pen and tried to think like Pundalik and started writing. Khar-khar, phar-phar, char-char . . . I could not get beyond that. The fact is, nothing has ever happened in my life that I could write about or fight with. I can remember everything that has happened up to now, but trust me, it’s as if nothing ever happened. As Pundalik used to say, in order to write a poem, you need to recall your life and your experiences, you must struggle with them and confront them. What is said or written after that is called poetry. I did not understand this then and I do not understand it even now. I mean, I can understand wrestling now, but poetry is still a mystery to me. What fight? Whom to fight? This excavating the self was something that was always beyond me and still is. But now I have no choice. I have to do this. It’s not as if I’ve started writing. Four days ago, I composed the beginning and the end of the letter I am going to send to Tarachand Jaiswal. (He reads)
Dear Mr. Jaiswal, namaste! How are you? I am well. I hope you are well, too. My poem is enclosed . . . The above poem is ok. I am also ok. Forgive me, but after sending you this poem I am leaving this house, this town, this city and this country. Please do not try and contact me. You must publish the collection of poems, you promised to do so.
Your obedient poet,
Rajkumar the Grave.
Grave, grave! That’s the name I added. I like the word ‘problem’ also, but I thought ‘Rajkumar the Grave Problem’ would not work as name. So I got rid of ‘problem.’ ‘Rajkumar the Grave’ is a good name. I’ve done this much. Now, how do I write the poem? I have to write it, but all roads are closed and the journey is long and lonely. There’s nowhere to hide – no alley, no lane, not even a dead end. So I have to go ahead and write. If I had sworn only one oath, I might even have broken it, but all those damn oaths I swore have turned into ghosts that are haunting me. O Gandhiji! Save me! O god, what shall I do? No, no, they can’t save me! Only one poet can save another. Only Pundalik can save me now.
Translated by Arshia Sattar.