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The Silent Story
The Silent Story
‘Old photograph, let the butterfly go
It’s about to rain, the mists are cold
There’s dust and smoke rings in the air,
Please let the poor thing out of there.’
Meera put the kettle on the boil, humming to herself. The thought struck her that she didn’t know any new songs, and the old ones she sang seemed to talk about still older things. She smiled as she let herself out to the garden porch with two cups on the tray.
She nudged the door with her shoulder. The door-hinges chorused in recalcitrance, but the old man sitting in the chair outside did not turn at the sound, nor did he say a word as she sat down beside him after handing him his cup.
“Don’t you have any old photograph albums, Masterji?” she asked on a whim as she sipped her tea, for one thought had led to another.
“Only profligates and big loots and traitors serving the British had cameras in my day, girl,” Masterji replied irascibly- annoyed, no doubt, at having been shaken out of his reverie.
“Sketches, then?” she persisted “Or letters?” Now that the reverie had been interrupted, it made sense to get the most of the conversation.
Masterji shook his head in irritation. Some people have a slow, rhythmic, even graceful way of shaking their heads, but Masterji’s head-shake was an abrupt series of side-to-side jerks, like a vigorous attempt to get rid of an insect of the more persistent sort buzzing near his ear.
“What a garrulous, impossible girl!” he muttered volubly with a resigned, despairing sort of annoyance, “Never a moment of quiet since she came. Do you think I had time to draw sketches while I was working night and day to teach those children, trying to build a nation? Do you think I could indulge in such… such trifles?”
Meera did not point out that writing poetry must certainly qualify as a trifle if sketching did, and yet he had spent many of his priceless youthful hours writing the simply beautiful- and numerous- verses that had so moved and captivated her when she had taken the dust off them and read them decades later.
She had tried to talk about his poems to him, many times, with scant success. His responses were always perplexing:
“What nonsense you keep talking, girl. Now bring me those... those detestable medicines.”
“And, girl,” he had added, with a slightly disturbed air, “I believe you are deluded. If you are deluded then… then you must have delusions, but please don’t share them with me again. Please. I’m an old man, and tired. I’ve worked with my schoolchildren for many, many years.” And all of sudden he would begin to look so weary and helpless that she would rush to get his medicines, alarmed.
Why did he act as if he did not remember? As if the poems he had so beautifully crafted, like a masterful weaver drawing fine threads of inspiration into a lovely shawl, had vanished without trace from his mind and memory? What had happened to make him deny their existence? It had lent an air of mystery to his work that only intensified her fascination with it.
“Of course, you were too busy, Masterji,” she said, returning to the present moment, “But letters? Surely you wrote and got many of those? From your friends, your colleagues.”
Masterji did not reply. It was as though he had not heard. He was humming in a perfectly self-contained way. A bizarre, erratic sort of melody, one she had never heard before. The half-remembered vestige of some ancient song? She wondered about the songs of that spirited generation. Had they been the same in essence as the ones that had delighted her and her friends back in her village, tying together the thoughts they shared?
But her friends and family had been left behind, and the letters she exchanged with them were her only link to them. Her suspension in time and thought was at most times a special privilege rather than a source of unhappiness to her, and through the letters she had still maintained a tortuous semblance of conversation with them. But you cannot send in a letter the song on your lips or the sight of your face, and most times you cannot even send a true statement of your sentiment.
“It’s getting dark, Masterji. You cannot stay out for more than ten minutes now.”
She knew as she went in to make dinner that he had paid no attention and that she would have to go and get him back herself. The open air was salubrious for his thinking, and she loved it herself. The view of valley from the porch was exquisite: its infinite openness, with the sharp greens peering out of its spreading grey mists, like flashing eyes in a white-veiled face or a crystal-clear memory in a fog of forgetfulness.
Masterji was Meera’s grandfather. He himself seemed hardly aware of the fact, or of the existence of his children and their families in the foothill village, or of the illustrious career and widespread recognition he had had in his time as a poet and professor, or of anything, much. On retiring from the university years ago, he had decided to live in his old barren, sequestered village high up in the hills instead of the one where his children were settled. He had been firm on the decision to live alone, and they had respected his will. But when the family noticed with concern that he had grown too feeble to even have an articulate will any more, they had decided that one of them must go and tend to him. Meera, who had idolized her widely venerated grandfather since childhood and had been constantly awed to see what the important people in the newspapers had to say about him and his work, had immediately volunteered.
“Are you sure?” her mother had said doubtfully, “You will be very lonely there. There are few people in that icy place, and none are of your age.”
“But it will be so fascinating to talk to Dadaji- and most people of ‘my age’ are so hopelessly ordinary. Most people in general are so ordinary, and he’s one who isn’t. I’ve seen his poems, and they are the most enchanting I have ever read.”
“I fear you will find his company cheerless. He has completely forgotten about his whole career and all the accomplishments you admire. He thinks that all he’s ever been is a teacher in the village school here and an intermittent freedom fighter.”
“It’s simply not possible that all those wonderful things have been erased from his mind,” she had insisted.
It was a belief she still stuck to, although she had been in for a disappointment when she had arrived. The house, for a start. She had thought it would be one of those grand ancient houses she had read about in stories: endless corridors lined with mysterious wooden doors, secret passageways behind innocuous-looking tapestries, trapdoors that sprang open beneath your feet. Her only worry had been that the tapestry she would accidentally draw aside might not be the right one. But she could help serendipity on with thoroughness and check behind every curtain; that would not be a problem. On coming to the village, it had been clear to her how incongruous such a mansion would be in this setting, and yet she had expected something far prettier than this dilapidated cottage. A wizened old house, she had said to herself when she first saw its cracked, corrugated walls in their stooped frame.
And her grandfather, who had refused since the beginning to be addressed as Dadaji, Grandpa, and only answered when addressed as a revered schoolmaster. Who irritably turned out anyone who came to see Professor Daftuar, whom the greatest writers of the age had once hailed as a genius, and muttered about the menace of mistaken addresses. Who shut himself out entirely from the outside world. The only link he maintained was the newspaper he demanded daily, and to Meera this little sign of interest he showed in the happenings beyond the cottage and the valley was what in books was called a ray of hope.
Once- just before she had left home, in fact- Meera had begun to read a story in which all the beautiful things in the world were locked away in a very small chest, no bigger than a sparrow’s nest, small enough to fit into the palm of her hand. She had not completed the book- it had been left behind in the confusion of the move, much lamented- and she had not found out whether the box was finally opened and what was discovered. To her, beauty and wisdom and greatness were sounds of music from the distance, so faint that you are unsure of whether they are really there or whether your ears are making them up, so soft that you cannot hear the words but can only follow the trace of the melody in some special moments.
And she felt- or fancied- that with every question and every conversation, she was closer to unlocking the chest that was her grandfather’s mind and finding the wondrous genius stored within. That was why the sad little house and the drab, stern little village, and even the void of her loneliness, was forever lit up with hope- the hope of discovery, of being a disciple of greatness. One day, very soon, the master’s story would find glorious utterance.
Very soon, but already she had unearthed a smaller treasure. In a meandering walk through the overgrown garden a few days ago, she had discovered something that had somehow been concealed from her probing eyes for nearly a whole year. A warehouse with an abandoned air on the far edge of garden, hidden in the cloak of shadow crafted by the impinging forest. It was unlocked and she went in, curious. And gasped.
From floor to ceiling, against every wall, were shelves filled with books. Clearly all the books that had over long years shaped the brilliant mind she was trying to understand- and had then been inexplicably shut up, much like the ideas they had inspired. As in a dream, she pulled the nearest one out, and the pile she had unsettled wobbled uncertainly. She stood dazed for a moment, awkwardly holding her prize in her hands, before she began to laugh.
It was morning and Meera walked to the outhouse with sleepy eyes and a skip in her step. She could, of course, browse through her beloved books even at home, but she enjoyed sitting in that little shed cramped with ideas and holding the ink up to the early sunlight sifting in through the windows.
Masterji had just woken up. He groped for his spectacles. He gently cursed the heavens, being a man of regular habits. He thought about his medicines, and his breakfast. The newspaper was lying by his bedside, and having scrutinized it carefully with his magnifying lens, he shook his head creakily. His eyes were wistful. Such coarse sheets, such inferior quality of pulp. In his day, the newspapers had been made of such fine paper. Every morning he hoped and checked, but there was never the slightest improvement.
Meera looked down at the grass, and was suddenly struck by her shadow. How tall it made her look, taller even than the awe-inspiring heroine in the book she had been reading. Shadows aren’t long only at dusk, she recollected with some surprise, whatever the old phrases about long shadows may say. At sunrise, too, they stretch themselves out luxuriantly, like the one she now saw sprawled on the grass. Its outline in the present pattern of light and shade was hazy and uncertain, as if it was still searching for the shape it was to take.