தூமகேது குஜராத்தி எழுத்தாளர். பேரைக் கேள்விப்பட்டிருந்தாலும் எதையும் படித்ததில்லை. குஜராத்தி சிறுகதைகளின் முன்னோடி, பல சரித்திர நாவல்களை எழுதியவர்.
அவர் எழுதிய புகழ் பெற்ற சிறுகதை – கடிதம் (Letter, Post Office என்று இரண்டு தலைப்புகளிலும் மொழிபெயர்க்கப்பட்டிருக்கிறதாம்.) அதன் ஆங்கில மொழிபெயர்ப்பைக் கீழே கொடுத்திருக்கிறேன், படித்துப் பாருங்கள்!
ஒரு சிறுகதையை வைத்தெல்லாம் ஒரு எழுத்தாளரை எடை போட்டுவிட முடியாதுதான். என் கண்ணில் இந்தச் சிறுகதை சுமார்தான். ஆனால் குஜராத்தி எழுத்தைப் பற்றி எனக்கெல்லாம் என்ன தெரியும்? இவரை விட்டால் மன்வினி பாவை நாவல், கே.எம். முன்ஷி, அவ்வளவுதான். அதனால்தான் இந்தப் பதிவு. படிப்பவர்கள் யாருக்காவது தெரிந்தால் சொல்லுங்கள்! குஜராத்தி மட்டுமல்ல, இந்தியாவின் பிற மொழி இலக்கியத்தைப் பற்றி என்ன தெரிந்தாலும், எதைப் பகிர விரும்பினாலும் சொல்லுங்கள், இதே தளத்தில் பதித்துவிடலாம்.
சிறுகதை சுமார் என்று கருதினாலும் அவர் சொல்ல் வருவது புரிகிறது. அவர் கொஞ்சம் கவித்துவமாக எழுத முயற்சித்திருப்பது தெரிகிறது. இதே சிறுகதையை சரத்சந்திரரோ, தாகூரோ, வேண்டாம் கு.ப.ரா.வோ, அழகிரிசாமியோ எழுதி இருந்தால் எப்படி வந்திருக்கும் என்று தோன்றிக் கொண்டே இருந்தது. சிறுகதையில் 1950-க்கு முந்தைய வங்காள எழுத்தின் பாணி தெரிகிறது.
இந்தக் கதையைப் படிக்கும்போது தபால் நிலைய நினைவுகள் வந்து கொண்டிருந்தன. இரண்டு தலைமுறைகளுக்கு முன்னால் தபால் அலுவலகம் எத்தனை முக்கியமான பணியைச் செய்திருக்கிறது? மூலையில் மஞ்சள் பூசிய அழைப்பிதழ்கள், தபால்களை குத்தி வைக்கும் நீண்ட வளைந்த கம்பி, தந்தி அனுப்புவது, அதிலும் சிக்கனமாக ஒரு எண்ணை அனுப்பினால் போதும், அது சேரும் இடத்தில் வாழ்த்தாக விரித்துக் கொள்ளப்படும். தபால் அலுவலகத்தில் ரேடியோ லைசன்ஸ்களை வருஷாவருஷம் புதுப்பிப்பது! கிராமங்களில் போஸ்ட்மாஸ்டர் (ஹெட்மாஸ்டரான எங்கப்பாவும்) ஒரு முக்கிய நபர். இன்று பில்களைத் தவிர வேறு எதுவும் தபாலில் வருவதில்லை 🙂 தந்தி ஒழிந்தேவிட்டது!
கதையில் கவனித்த இன்னொரு விஷயம்; பியூன்கள் தபால் அலுவலகத்துக்கு சென்று அலுவலகத் தபால்களை வாங்கிவருவது, தபால்காரருக்காக காத்திருப்பதில்லை. அப்படி அரை நாளை சேமித்து என்ன கிழித்துவிடுவார்கள்?
சரி நாஸ்டால்ஜியா போதும், வசதிக்காக சிறுகதை கீழே.
The hazy dawn sky was glittering with the previous night’s stars – big and small – like happy memories shimmering in a person’s life.
Wrapping his old, tattered shirt tighter around his body to protect against the blasting wind, an old man was making his way through the centre of the city.
At this time, the unrestrained, rhythmic sounds of mills grinding, along with the delicate voices of women, could be heard from many homes.
The odd dog’s bark, some early riser’s footsteps heard from a distance, or some prematurely awakened bird’s tone – except for these, the city was entirely silent.
People were snoring in sweet slumber and the night was more dense thanks to the cold of winter.
Bearing the pleasing temperament of a man who can kill without uttering a word, the cold was spreading its tentacles all over, like a deadly weapon.
Shivering and tottering quietly, the old man exited the city’s gates to reach a straight path and, slowly-slowly, continued walking with the support of his old stick.
On one side of the street was a row of trees, while the city gardens stood on the other.
Here, it was more chilly and the night was more velvety.
The wind pierced right through and the fine brilliance of the morning star, Venus, fell on earth like an icy flake of falling snow.
At the very end, near the edge of the gardens, there was a beautiful building. And lamplight was spilling from its closed windows and door.
As a devout person experiences a reverential joy on catching a glimpse of the destination of his pilgrimage, so did this old man feel happy upon spotting the wooden arch of the building.
The arch had the words “Post Office” painted on an ancient signboard.
The old man sat outside, on the verandah.
There was no discernible sound from inside but he could hear some indistinct whispering, as if some people were busy at work.
“Police superintendent!” A voice called from inside.
The old man startled, but sat back down quietly again. Faith and affection were, in such cold weather, giving him warmth.
The noises inside began to rise in intensity.
The clerk was reading out the English names on letters and tossing them towards the postman. Commissioner, superintendent, diwan saheb, librarian – calling out such names one after the other in a practised manner, the clerk was flinging the letters rapidly.
During that time, a playful voice called from inside: “Old coachman Ali!”
The old man sat up where he was, looked up at the sky fervently, moved forward, and placed a hand on the door.
“Who is it?”
“You said old Coachman Ali’s letter, right? I’m here!”
In response, there was merciless laughter. “Saheb! This is a crazy old man. Does a futile round of the post office to collect his letter every day.”
As the clerk said this to the postmaster, the old man sat back in his place. Over the past five years, he’d developed a habit of sitting in that spot.
Ali had been a skilled hunter. And, slowly-slowly, he had become so proficient that, like the addict needs opium, Ali needed to hunt.
As soon as his eye spotted the colourful partridge, which could somehow still blend like dust within dust, it would be within his hands!
His sharp scrutiny could reach into a rabbit’s warren.
Sometimes even the hunting dogs couldn’t separate the dirty grey colouring of a clever rabbit sitting hidden with cocked ears in the nearby dry, yellow kaasda or raampda grasses.
The dogs would carry on forward and the rabbit would be saved.
But Ali’s sight, like that of an Italian eagle, would land precisely on the rabbit’s ears and, in the next moment, it would be no more.
Then, sometimes, Ali would team up with the fisherman to hunt in the water.
But when the twilight of life seemed to be approaching, the hunter abruptly turned in another direction.
His only daughter, Mariam, got married and left for her in-laws’ home. Her husband worked in the army, so she went to Punjab with him.
From that Mariam – for whom he had been holding on to life – there had been no news for the past five years.
Now Ali had learnt what affection and separation meant.
Earlier, one of the pleasures of the hunt was the baby partridges running around in bewilderment once he had shot and killed the parent. The delight of hunting had permeated every nerve.
But, since the day Mariam left and loneliness engulfed him, Ali had forgotten the hunt and begun staring steadfastly at the brilliant green fields teeming with grain. And, for the first time in life, he understood that a universe of love and tears of separation, both exist in nature.
One day, Ali sat under a palash tree and cried his heart out.
From that time on, he would awake at 4 am every morning to arrive at the post office.
There was never a letter for him but, with fervent devotion and hope-filled cheer that his daughter’s letter would arrive one day, he always showed up before anyone else and sat waiting outside the post office.
The post office – perhaps the most uninteresting building in the world – became his holy land and place of pilgrimage.
He always sat in the same spot, in the same corner.
Upon seeing him, everyone would laugh. The postmen would make jokes and sometimes, in jest, call out his name even though there was no letter, making him come running to the door of the post office in vain.
As if possessing an endless faith and resolve, he came every day and returned empty-handed.
While he sat, peons came one after another to pick up their office documents.
Largely, these twentieth century peons were like the secret confidantes of their officers’ wives. So the private history of every officer in the entire city was recited now.
Someone sported a turban. Another one had sparkling boots on his feet. In this manner, each one displayed his unique status.
Just then, the door opened and, in the lamplight, the postmaster sat in the front-facing chair with his pumpkin-like head and displeasure-filled, indifferent face.
With no radiance on the forehead or face or eyes, the clerk and postmaster of this century are rather like Goldsmith’s village schoolmaster.
Ali did not shift from his spot.
“Police commissioner!” the clerk boomed and a young man reached his hand out impatiently for the police commissioner’s letters.
Another peon came forward.
And, in this manner, the clerk always read out the entire list for names like a Vishnu devotee.
Eventually, they all left.
Ali got up. As if there had been some miracle in the post office, he offered his salutations to them and left. Arrey! Like some villager from ancient times!
“Is this man crazy?” the postmaster asked.
“Yes, who? Ali, na? Yes, saheb. Five years have passed and, no matter the weather, he comes to collect a letter. It’s very rare for him to receive a letter” the clerk replied.
“Who’s sitting with free time? How can there be a letter every time?”
“Arrey, saheb! But his mind has slipped away. Before this, he committed many sins. And then he did some wrong in some place. Bhai, one must suffer for one’s actions” The postman offered support.
“The crazy ones are very strange.”
“Yes, I had once seen a madman in Ahmedabad. He made piles of dirt all day. Bas, nothing else. Another one had a habit of going to the riverbank every evening and pouring water on a stone.”
“Arrey, I know of one who walked back and forth all day. Another kept singing a poem. Yet another kept slapping his own cheek. And then, believing that someone else was hitting him, he would keep crying.”
Today, the mythology of the mad had emerged in the post office.
Taking examples like this and talking about them for a few minutes at leisure has become an established habit for pretty much every working person — much like an alcohol habit.
Finally, the postmaster got up and, while leaving, commented, laughing: “Gosh, the mad folks also have their own world. The crazy must consider us crazy and their universe must seem like a poet’s universe.”
One of the clerks would, when time allowed, enact some behaviours of madmen.
Speaking these last words in the direction of the clerk who often caricatured the actions of madmen, the postmaster went away laughing.
The post office became as quiet as before.
Once, Ali did not show up for two or three days.
There was no one in the post office with the empathy or perceptiveness to understand Ali’s state of mind.
But everyone was curious as to why he had not come.
Then, the day that Ali came, he was panting and there were clear signs of the end of life on his face.
That day, Ali became impatient and asked the postmaster, ‘Master saheb, is there a letter from my Mariam?’
The postmaster was in a hurry to go to his village and his mind was not sufficiently at ease to entertain a question.
“Bhai, what kind of a man are you?”
“My name is Ali!” Ali’s irrelevant reply was received.
“Yes, but is your Mariam’s name registered here?”
“Please register it, ne, bhai! In time, if a letter arrives and I am not here, then you will need it.”
For one who had spent three-quarters of his life hunting, what did he know about how, besides her own father, Mariam’s name barely carried the worth of two paise for any other?
The postmaster got heated up. “Are you mad or what? Go, go. If your letter arrives, no one is going to eat it up!”
The man left in a hurry and Ali went outside with slow footsteps.
As he was leaving, he turned around once to look at the post office.
Today, there was a glimmer of the orphan’s tears in his eyes.
There wasn’t a lack of faith but his resolve had come to an end. Arrey! Now where will Mariam’s letter come from?
A clerk seemed to be following him. Ali turned to him, “Bhai!”
The clerk startled. But he was a good person. “What?”
“See, I have this with me.” So saying, Ali removed five guineas from an old metal tin of his.
Seeing this, the clerk got angry. “Don’t get angry. This is a thing of use to you. I have no use for it. But will you do one thing?”
“What do you see on top here?” Ali pointed a finger towards the empty sky.
“Allah is there above and, with him as witness, I am giving you this money. If my Mariam’s letter arrives, you must deliver it.”
The clerk stood still in astonishment. “Where must it be delivered?”
“Upon my grave!”
“I am speaking the truth. Today is the last day. Arrey re, the last! I did not meet Mariam, did not receive a letter!”
There was a drowsiness in Ali’s eyes.
The clerk slowly-slowly separated himself from Ali and walked away.
There were three tolas of gold in his pockets.
After that, Ali was never seen again and no one bothered to check on him.
One day, the postmaster was grieving a bit. His daughter was ill in a faraway country and he was sitting, woebegone, in wait of news from her.
The mail came and he took hold of the pile of letters.
Based on the colour, he assumed an envelope to be his and quickly picked it up. But the name on it was “Old Coachman Ali.”
As if struck by lightning, he threw it onto the floor.
Due to distress and worry, within a few moments, his authoritative demeanour had disappeared and his human side had emerged.
He suddenly recalled that it must be that old man’s envelope. Perhaps his daughter Mariam had finally written to him.
“Lakshmidas!” he immediately yelled out.
Lakshmidas was the same peon to whom Ali had, in the final hours, given money.
“Your old coachman Ali, whereabouts is he these days?”
That day, there was no news of his daughter for the postmaster.
He spent the entire night in doubt.
The next morning at 3 a.m., he was sitting in the office.
When old Ali comes at 4 a.m., I will give him the envelope myself — such was his plan today.
Now the postmaster understood the old man’s plight.
He had spent the entire night for the morning to arrive, and with it, the letter.
For the first time, his heart was overflowing with emotions for the person who had spent five long years suffering such endless nights.
At precisely 5 a.m., there was a knock on the door.
The postmen hadn’t arrived yet. It could be Ali knocking!
The postmaster got up. As if a father’s heart recognised another father’s, he ran today and opened the door.
“Come, Ali bhai! Here’s your letter!”
In the doorway, a poor old man stood, leaning over his stick.
The tracks of his last tears were still fresh on his cheeks and, over his coarse colouring, the wrinkles of his face were awash with kindness.
He looked at the postmaster and the postmaster became somewhat disturbed.
There was no life in the old man’s eyes!
“Who, saheb? Old Ali?” so saying, Lakshmidas slid sideways and came to the door.
The postmaster did not pay any attention to him and kept looking towards the door — but there didn’t appear to be anyone there.
The postmaster’s eyes widened. What was this, there was no one at all in the doorway!
He turned towards Lakshmidas and answered the question, “Yes, old Ali, that’s who! It was him, right?”
“Ji, old Ali is dead! But let me have his letter!”
“What? When, Lakshmidas!”
“Ji, it’s been three months!” A postman just entering the building gave this second response.
The postmaster was stunned. Mariam’s letter was still in the doorway. The image of Ali was floating before his eyes.
Lakshmidas also told him how he’d last met Ali.
That knock rang in the postmaster’s ears and Ali’s image remained before his eyes.
A doubt rose in his mind: “Did I see Ali or did I simply imagine it or was it Lakshmidas?”
Again, the daily routine continued: “Police commissioner, superintendent, librarian…” the clerk threw the letters in rapid succession.
But, as if there was a beating heart within each letter, the postmaster was staring steadily in their direction today.
An envelope means one anna and a postcard, two anna – that awareness had disappeared. What does a widow’s only son’s letter all the way from Africa mean?
The postmaster sank deeper and deeper.
When man puts aside his own perceptions and looks through another’s viewpoint, then half the world will be at rest.
That evening, Lakshmidas and the postmaster walked with slow steps towards Ali’s grave. They had Mariam’s letter with them. Placing the precious mail on the grave, the postmaster and Lakshmidas turned back.
“Lakshmidas, this morning, you were the first to arrive, right?’”
“And you said that old Ali…”
“But then… then… I don’t understand…”
“Yes, okay. It’s nothing!” The postmaster quickly changed the subject.
On reaching the threshold of the post office, the postmaster separated from Lakshmidas and went inside, pondering.
It was stinging him that he had not understood Ali’s heart as a father himself. And, having received no news of his daughter yet again today, he was going to spend another night worrying about getting news of her.
Set aflame by the three kinds of fires of surprise, doubt and repentance, he sat in his living room. And a sweet warmth began to radiate from the nearby coal stove.
தொகுக்கப்பட்ட பக்கம்: எழுத்துக்கள்