‘Ma reads’ by S.R. Harnot: A Hindi short story in translation

Print edition : January 29, 2021

S.R.Harnot , the author of this story (first published as “Ma Pardhti Hai” in the Hindi monthly “Hans”) is well known for his keen powers of description and his dispassionate gaze at deeply rooted social and religious customs. He is the author of the critically acclaimed novel “Hidimb”, five collections of short stories and four books on Himachal Pradesh. He currently works for Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation Limited.

Ira Raja , the translator of this short story, is a professor at the Department of English, University of Delhi, and a postdoctoral research fellow at La Trobe University, Australia. She has edited, with Kay Souter, “An Endless Winter’s Night: Mother-Daughter Stories from India” (2009).

The story “Ma reads” features in “Grey Areas: An Anthology of Indian Fiction on Ageing” edited by Ira Raja, Oxford University Press, 2010.

Creative explorations helped to put ageing on the literary map. By being in touch with feelings and relationships, and demonstrating that that they could access emotional truths, writers made fiction a source of knowledge.

I have come back to the village after months. Ma lives here all by herself. The front door has been left ajar today. On most days Ma is up early and out of the house, the door shut behind her, doing outdoor chores. Her mornings are spent in the cowshed, feeding and watering the animals, milking the cows, heaping dung.

Even today, Ma’s not in. I have walked into her room. It’s drenched in light from the morning sun. I am here with the rays. Intimate as her room seems, it also looks a little forlorn. It’s crammed with all sorts of things—in the same way as it gets crammed with the morning light. The wooden ceiling above is covered in cobwebs—a few flies caught dead in them. The walls are in a similar state—layers of cobwebs and dead insects pressed against them.

Things are scattered everywhere. Nothing is in its right place. On the right side of the door, as you walk in, there is a clay pot for churning milk, covered with a rag. Ma must bring it here after she’s done with the churning next to the hearth. To the left is a basket stuffed with unspun sheep wool. A few wads of wool sit on top of its pressed layers. A spindle is lying on the side. Date leaves are strewn in one corner and amongst them lie a few mats made from plaited date leaves. An old, small table, with a TV on top, is placed in another corner. Right next to the pillow is a canister covered with a shabby cloth, on top of which sits the telephone. The electric bulb looks discoloured; it has been completely taken over by insects.

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From the wall, above the bed, hangs a strip of wood holding an oil lamp. A long line of soot travels all the way up to the ceiling. Ma probably uses it in the event of a power-cut. The smell of bidi lingers in the air. I look under the cot and find bits and pieces scattered there as well—half-smoked bidi ends and burnt matchsticks. There’s dried anardana on a date board. A few gooseberries. Some walnuts. Five ripe, unpeeled cobs of corn tied together—the first corn of the harvest, perhaps saved for the deity. Several bundles carrying a variety of dals…. All these things live with Ma, her intimate friends and companions, while I sit amongst them like a stranger. They look at me as if they are trying to place me. I wonder if they are mocking me. Ma … home… courtyard… gate… fields… granary… land… property… they are all mine but how far I have come from them! The sun has drifted beyond the edge of the terrace. The rays have gathered and edged into the courtyard, drawing away the light from the room … I can sense darkness at this hour of the morning. It’s much darker within me though, than it is without. I might be in Ma’s room, sitting on her bed, soaking in the fragrance of her love, but the sense of living away from home for years keeps that love from reaching me!

I forget that I am carrying a parcel of books in my hands. I have got these for Ma. To this day I have never brought her a single book of mine. Nor have I been able to invite her to any of the book launches. Whenever a new book arrived, I had it launched by the Governor or the Chief Minister of the State, knowing fully well these people had nothing to do with literature. Exactly the way those who shout from platforms slogans about abolishing poverty have nothing to do with the poor. Or those writers, for that matter, whose pages exude the sweet scent of rural life but who have little to do with the dung and soil of the village itself. That is, an apparition, a false display. Or shall we say, it’s like setting one’s house on fire in order to watch the spectacle?

It is not that I didn’t want to invite Ma. Or that her memory wasn’t constantly with me. But several fears had lodged in my heart. I felt that the times had changed. How would Ma “adjust” amongst these big people!

To begin with, even getting her on to a bus is inviting trouble. She’ll start feeling sick right away. Will start vomiting. When she finds some relief from that, she’ll pull out a bidi and matchbox from her pocket, light it deftly under cover of her shawl and begin to smoke. A few puffs, and she’ll start coughing so badly you’d think she was drawing her last breath.

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If somehow or the other, she manages to reach the ceremony, she’ll be under constant scrutiny from the other guests. Her crumpled clothes, her plastic shoes will draw sneering looks. And the whole time there will be the smell of bidi on her breath. Her hair would be in a mess. Even though she’ll keep her head covered with a shawl, strands of grey hair will hang untidily down, blades of grass and dry leaves caught in them. As soon as people find out my “mother” has come they’ll approach her to offer their congratulations. They would want to talk to her. Some may ask her questions. Writers and journalist friends will, of course, seek information. I can’t imagine what Ma would say to them. She might utter something quite foolish. And everything will be ruined if she gets a coughing fit in the middle of the conversation. And then if she feels the urge to smoke, she’ll promptly light a bidi and start to smoke then and there. When tea and refreshments are served she obviously won’t know how to use the cutlery. Everyone’s attention will be drawn to her hands. Cutting grass, heaping dung, churning milk, chopping wood, making rotis, her hands will be full of cracks… and they will smell of cow dung and soil… people may not say anything to my face but they are bound to gossip… this is the mother of the great writer—utterly ill-bred… and if I somehow get through that, I’d still have to deal with harsh words from my children.

Lost in these thoughts, I lie down on Ma’s bed. I feel my childhood returning. As if I am resting in Ma’s lap… She is cradling me to sleep… it has been years since I felt such love and comfort. My heart says I should lie still… never to rise.

I marvel at the fact that there is a village in my works, the whole gamut of village life, poor people, fields, and granaries. And Ma. Her love… but I have come a long way from those certitudes… a long, long way… Lying on Ma’s bed, I start to search for the writer within me… but he’s not to be found. He has many faces. And perhaps those faces are hidden behind a string of masks. To enhance my status in “elite” society… to make a name for myself… to earn kudos from people…. But that achievement, honestly, has no relation to my true self. Unconsciously, my hand reaches for the books lying on the side. The touch conveys me once again to the peak of my success…. So what if I didn’t invite Ma… .It’s okay. Everything’s okay. We are living in the twenty-first century. Why, then, should we go on shouldering the burden of past traditions? Hills and villages, cow dung and earth, fields and granaries look good on the printed page. In real life they are hell, they are …? And all said and done, I have come here to honour Ma! There are writers these days who have either left their parents or surrendered them to old age homes… I’ll place these books at Ma’s feet and seek her blessings…. I will repent. She’ll be happy to see what a great man her son’s become? He’s a writer… these books appear to bolster my ego ever further.

I am caught up in these thoughts when my hand falls on Ma’s pillow. I sense something hard underneath. Still lying on my back, I stretch my right hand to reach under the pillow. I am startled. I sit up and push the pillow to one side. It looks like a book. I pull it out and I am stunned by what I see. My eyes sink deeper into its covers. My breathing becomes laboured. As if all the blood in my body has frozen in the veins…. This is my book. I quickly pull away the layers of rags next to the pillow and drag out all the books buried beneath… they are all mine. For a second I wonder if these are the books from my parcel, accidentally placed here next to Ma’s pillow. But my parcel is still with me, untouched. The copies by the pillow are Ma’s own.

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I take the first book in my hands. I turn the pages. Pressed between them are blades of grass, butterfly wings.

When Ma goes out to cut grass, she must sit there leafing through its pages.

I pick up the second book. It carries the sweet smell of mustard flowers…. I flip through and find yellow flowers stuck in places. There’s also an occasional sprig of wheat.

When Ma goes to the fields to pick greens, she must sit there and turn its pages.

Now I pick up the third book. It’s a novel I wrote. The fragrance of raat ki rani starts to fill the room. My eyes drift across the courtyard and I spot the plant. How tall it’s grown! Its branches have spread everywhere. My mind wanders to the past. Summer nights, awash with the light of the moon, often saw Ma haul me on to her lap and tell me stories…. Flowers from the raat ki rani are preserved between the pages. Ma must sit under its shade and read this book on moonlit nights.

The fourth book is immersed in the smell of buttermilk and flour. The pages carry the impressions of fingers still sticky from dough. In places, the words have become illegible from butter grease. Ma must look upon it while cooking rotis or churning milk.

The fifth book is now in my hands. Its pages have the whiff of the dark about them, the smell of bidi seeped inside. I observe the pages, turn them over. The words have dissolved and disappeared in places. In between is the residue of ash from a lit bidi. A dead firefly is stuck in one place.

…perhaps Ma holds it in her hands on a moonless night and reads. Perhaps, remembering me, she cries a little and then sits up, late in the night, puffing at her bidi.

Now I drag the sixth book from under the pillow. I feel restless. Beads of sweat form on my forehead. This book has several pictures of my father too. There’s either Ma or myself in them. Ma must share her writer son’s success with his father in her memories.

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I put this to one side and start searching the pillow again. In the folds of the bed, I find yet another book. I take it out. This is my seventh book. My surprise knows no bounds. This is the new book that was launched only a week ago. Its pages smell of cow dung. Impressions of dung-stained hands are left here and there. Strands of white sheep wool are stuck in a few places. Ma must sit in the cowshed, amongst the animals, and look at it.

My eyes are streaming. I can’t remember having cried as much in my life before. As if my wealth, status and the arrogance inside me were raining down on Ma’s bed. Like a wretched bedbug I feel I am sinking and drowning in its layers. Every pore of my body is filled with shock and shame. My head is falling between my legs. In spite of my abjection, there is some comfort that I can still draw from shedding tears which prevents me from sinking further. It seems as if all the objects in Ma’s room are showering their love on me, helping me regain my composure. I steady myself. Surprisingly, my heart feels lighter. Just as in my childhood, crying for some object, I’d drop off to sleep in Ma’s lap and wake up without a trace of grief remaining.

Suddenly a voice breaks the silence.

“Dadi! Dadi!… Newspaper.”

Ma is gathering cow dung. On hearing the call, she promptly drops the basket and grabs the newspaper from the hands of the postman. I rise from the bed and look out from behind the door. He is Amru, the postman. His house is not far from our own. He comes to see Ma regularly.

Everything is becoming clearer. Ma is looking at the newspaper. The postman is pointing something to her in its centrefold. Ma carries the newspaper inside, puts it down somewhere in the cowshed, and starts to heap dung as before.

I assemble the books spread on the bed and place them beside Ma’s pillow. With my parcel of books in hand, I make my way to the door. I feel I am carrying a huge burden on my head. I feel my whole being mocking me. Having finished all her outdoor chores, Ma is now about to come in… I slink away, in silence.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reprinted courtesy of Oxford University Press

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