Some people have been reading my short stories, and asking for more. Here is one I wrote (or rather composed orally, dictating in class, when they told me the board examination paper had asked them to write a story titled ‘Yearning’) back in 2001.
He said he’d come to see me again, the last time we met, and he will not fail me.
He was a very young soldier, tall and strong, with a firm jaw line, when I first set eyes on him. And he had such eyes – eyes that could flash with fire one moment and melt with kindness the next. A captain in the army, I learnt later, but the night I ran to him for help I knew him only as the kind and brave afsar sahib who alone could rescue me from the clutches of the ugly and pitiless demon who was taking me away to hell. And the sahib changed my life forever that night, in more ways than one.
I was a slip of a girl then, hardly fourteen, a dreamy country bumpkin, supposedly pretty, whom her poor and unloving uncle had sold to an oily, smelly, leery, bearded stranger for a fistful of rupees. I was being taken away, fearful and uncomprehending and feebly protesting, to the great city of
The stranger had dragged me into a train, given me a paper bag full of dry
grams to chew for dinner, and gone to sleep in a drunken state, after telling
me he bore me no ill-will; this was just his line of business: he would put me
aboard a ship at Mumbai and it would carry me to a faraway foreign land whose
name I’ve forgotten, where I would become some rich man’s slave. My captor was
soon snoring away peacefully, confident that I was too scared and too stupid to
run away. But I had seen the military sahib at the station where he boarded the
coach next to mine, and as I sat alone by the window, staring blankly at the
darkness rushing past outside, a desperate plan began to form in my head. Twice
in the night, when the train halted briefly, I saw the sahib getting out for a
stroll on the platform. Twice I hesitated; the third time I rushed out and fell
at his feet, crying piteously for succour.
In a trice he had pulled me up roughly by the arms, and demanded an explanation for my strange behaviour. People were staring at us, though the platform was almost deserted at three in the morning. I could see that he was baffled and embarrassed, but he was too innocent to disbelieve me, and too kind to throw me back to the wolves. He told me to take him to the bearded stranger. We got back into my compartment just as the train began to move. Inside, he shook the man awake. Bleary-eyed and frightened by the military uniform and flashing eyes, the rogue apparently confessed to more crimes than he need have, thus putting himself at the sahib’s mercy. And then the sahib made a deal with him – he would be allowed to go free if he agreed to let me go with the sahib without strings attached. God help me – I still feel ashamed to remember the dirty grin with which he waved me away, a grin which made the sahib very angry and red in the face.
He took me to Mumbai. He had no relatives there, he told me; he was just passing through on his long journey back to his frontier post after a month’s home leave – the best he could do for me was to put me up in an orphanage, seeing that I refused to go back to my uncle’s. And so it was that I became an inmate at a destitute girl’s home run by some Christian nuns. They would look after me till I was 18, and try to teach me to look after myself afterwards. The sahib left a little money with them – he was not a rich man, but I knew that he had done all he could for me. I worked hard at learning a trade at the Home, and waited and dreamed and prayed. The sahib came back a year later. He seemed glad to see me, and proud to hear of the progress I had made at learning how to make wickerwork furniture. He left some more money in a bank account for me: money that I could use to set up shop on my own after I came of age. Was he not going to come back any more, I asked. He said he would, and there was a look in his eyes that told me I had a right to hope. He left me an army address to contact if I desperately needed him – his place of posting was secret; no letters were allowed. And I couldn’t read and write at that time anyway.
I am 24 now, and running a small but satisfactory business of my own. My uncle’s family is only too glad to see me these days, and they often urge me to get married. Idiots. I must wait, go on waiting. After six straight years without communication, I wrote to the address they had given me. They wrote back, politely regretful, informing me that the gallant captain had fallen fighting for his beloved country during an incident of cross-border shelling. But of course that can’t be true, can it? He said he’d come again to see me, the last time we met, and he will not fail me.
That’s it. A very short, short story.
A lot of people will find it trivial, or overly-sentimental, or otherwise unimpressive and unmemorable. I don’t want to hear from them. A precious few will feel a very deep, deep resonance inside their hearts, because they too have felt like this, occasionally or very often, and as keenly, as inconsolably. Not necessarily for a lost love in the romantic sense, but for missing parents, or children, or spouse, or student or teacher, even. They might let me know. It is about the same kind of missing someone who is lost or who will never come that I wrote Natalie and Sorcery too. So did Tagore with Kabuliwallah, Postmaster, Aapod, Ak raatri, Samapti, Ghaater Kotha… and many others I could name. It could be yearning for God Himself, when one has realized that all human relationships are ultimately fake, or merely conditional upon mutual convenience (the Bard says, 'most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly'!): ‘e milon toma bina kotha achhe hey ishwar’, and also ‘amar shur guli paye choron, ami pai ne tomare’…