Furlough: Upendranath Ashk
Translated by Daisy Rockwell
It was the second week of June when Kaviraj decided to go to Shimla. He told Chetan to get himself ready for the trip and then come to his pharmacy.
Chetan didn’t have much to get ready. All he had was the soft, warm quilt he had received as a wedding gift. Somehow he managed to scrimp and save and get two pairs of homespun cotton pajamas and shirts stitched. He had absolutely no coat to speak of, so he brought along the old government-issue overcoat which his older brother had already worn for quite some time. In those days the custom was that after three years, a station master was issued a new coat and then the old one would belong to him. This particular coat, having finished its term as Chetan’s father’s, had been handed down to Chetan’s older brother; and after he had exploited it fully for three or four years, he had very kindly given it to Chetan. Chetan had had it refitted, but despite the new cut, it still looked like an item purchased from a junk shop. Even so, when Chetan wore it over his freshly laundered clothes it didn’t look so bad with his collar open and his long curly hair.
For Chetan, a trip to Shimla was no less momentous than a trip abroad. He could not contain his excitement. For a junior editor working thirteen hours a day in that fire-breathing weather, the very thought of Shimla’s diversions during the hot season was no less than a sweet dream.
The train was going towards Shimla. Kaviraj, his wife and his children were sitting in the Interclass compartment and Chetan was in Third with Kaviraj’s clerk Jaydev, his servant Yadram, and Yadram’s wife Manni.
Chetan was so happy that even though there was enough room in the compartment to sleep he did not feel sleepy. At the Amritsar station a young man from his city came and sat with him. He had recognized Chetan and greeted him. Chetan didn’t actually recognize him but when he found out he lived in Jalandhar right near the neighbourhood he grew up in, he told him quite proudly that he was going to Shimla to improve his health and he also asked him, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, to go to his house and inform his mother and his little brother Nityanand that he was well. “Tell them,’ Chetan instructed him, ‘that you ran into Chetan in the train on his way to Shimla. He will stay there for three or four months and return when his health has improved.”
After he had said this he began to search for a reaction of envious respect on the face of his companion.
The train arrived in Jalandhar at around one o’clock in the morning. Yadram—six feet tall, young and well-built—had stretched his body across the bare seat and fallen asleep. His wife was dozing sitting up, her veil pulled slightly over her face. Chetan did not feel sleepy at all. He stuck his head out the window and looked at the station that was so familiar to him. He scanned the platform in both directions to see if any ticket checker of his acquaintance came into view so he could give him the news that he was going to Shimla, but he didn’t see anyone he knew for quite some distance.
Some clerks, eyes drowsy, were wrapped up in their work at chairs and tables set up outside on the platform. For them, it seemed, none of this was of terribly great importance: the comings and goings of the trains, the passengers getting on and off, the shriek of the engines, the whistling of the guards. Though they lived squarely in the uproar of the world they were as engrossed in their labour as yogis who live far removed from earthly matters. Chetan felt overwhelmed with compassion as he watched them. How could they know that as they leaned over their tables, their clothing dripping with sweat from the humidity, a young man seated in the train right near them was about to go and revel in the cool breezes of Shimla?
It occurred to Chetan that he might get down at the station and saunter a bit, walk just beyond the platform; if possible he could get a drink of cold water at the familiar station well. But he remembered that the night was already half over, the well would be empty and the person who served water on the road would probably be relishing a sweet or bitter rest.
The train set off. Chetan averted his gaze from the scene outside. Although Yadram’s wife was dozing, the veil had slipped from her face. Chetan glanced over at her, furtively at first, then openly. But first he opened a book and placed it before him.
Before agreeing to go to Shimla, Chetan had, in a way, demanded that Kaviraj give him something or other to do if he went with him. He was too proud to allow himself to be a burden on Kaviraj.
It would be hard to say whether the idea that he should be concerned for his pride had actually occurred to him of its own accord, or whether he had got the idea from listening to Kaviraj talk about events from his own life. But on hearing Kaviraj’s proposal that he come with him to Shimla, and on learning that he would not have to do much work there, Chetan had expressed his gratitude. In the course of that conversation, Kaviraj had told him an episode from the initial struggles of his own life: “A friend of mine gave me some financial support,” he said, “but at that time I could not pay him back, so for an entire year I tutored his children without taking any fees.” As he warmed to his topic, he told several stories of this type—how whenever he had received something from various well-wishers, he had given them so much more in return. Chetan had insisted even before that he be given some work to do, but when he heard all this, he had refused to come along without learning of his task.
Then Kaviraj, with apparent reluctance, had told him he was thinking of writing a book about the birth and death, loving and raising of children. He had also showed him a journal from America which touched on the subject and suggested he go to the Punjab Public Library as well and take a look there. If he found any books on the topic he should immediately become a member of the library. Chetan had understood what he was saying, and in order to repay him for his kindness he had decided that he would write a very good book for him.
In conversation, Kaviraj explained to him that this book would be published under his—Kaviraj’s—name. It would be a collection of introductory information about all the illnesses of children, and readers would be advised to immediately seek the advice of some famous vaidya or doctor if there were any complications.
Chetan had taken five books out of the library. He had even mentally created an outline for the book. Right now he had one of these books open before him.
Yadram’s wife glanced at him from the corner of her eye a few times as well. It seemed to Chetan there was also a slight smile playing about her lips—the kind of smile where it is difficult to tell whether it is on the lips, or in the eyes. She had a wheat-coloured complexion, with light smallpox scars on her face, a skinny body and dark lines on her teeth. She was not beautiful, but there was something attractive about her eyes and smile that made Chetan stop reading his book and look at her and then begin to talk with her.
There were not many travellers in the compartment. Those who were there were lying sound asleep, unconscious, their mouths agape, heads hanging, striking very strange poses. The leg of a sleeping man was swaying quite a bit from the luggage rack above the opposite berth and Chetan feared that if the man changed positions slightly he would fall off. Yadram was sound asleep right below the hanging leg. His light snoring punctuated the silence of the compartment. It was Manni who first started the conversation.
“You don’t feel sleepy, Babuji?” she asked, smiling familiarly. Chetan liked her smile. There was sympathy in it; it was friendly and enthusiastic.
With his gaze fixed only on his book, he again looked at Manni from the corner of his eye. “I can never sleep on trains,” he replied, with a chuckle.
Manni was half sitting, half lying down. She sat up and asked Chetan about his home, his parents and his brothers and sisters.
There was such affection in her questions, in her speech, in the yearning smile of her eyes, that Chetan began to feel warm inside. Manni began to seem very attractive to him in that nighttime silence, in that compartment lost in sleep. Chetan was growing stiff from sitting up, so he stretched his legs out a bit onto Manni’s berth.
“Feel free to stretch out, Babuji,” said Manni affectionately, practically pulling his feet. At the same time she stretched her own legs out onto Chetan’s berth.
“You get stiff from sitting,” she laughed.
For a few moments Chetan continued to quietly read his book. Then he glanced at Manni’s feet from of the corner of his eye—small, sweet feet; on her toes there were silver twists and rings and on her ankles heavy bracelets and hollow anklets. The soles of her feet were decorated with mehndi, the colour of which had mixed with dirt and mud and turned to black.
“You don’t wash your feet, look, they’re getting black,” he said, first touching them and then running his hand over them.
“I wash them all the time, Babuji, but I have to do housework all day long—scrubbing the pots, sweeping—how long can they stay clean?” She showed him her hand, where black streaks lined the red colour of the mehndi.
Chetan felt like kissing those red and black hands, but just then Yadram changed positions. Chetan’s hand returned to his book and they moved their feet away from one another somewhat.
But this time Yadram had his back to them. Then Manni touched Chetan’s feet nervously and said, “But your feet are also black, Babuji!”
“Mine?” Chetan laughed. “When do I ever get the time to wash them? I walk around all the time! And the only shoes I have are these sandals, so if there’s just a little bit of water or mud, they get sticky.”
Manni’s skirt, which had slid up to a little above her ankles, hung between the two berths and the pale white skin above her ankles was showing—it was the colour of pale white almonds. Chetan wished he could stroke her foot all the way up to her pale white almondy calves. But just at that moment, the train stopped at a station. Just as debris flowing in the tide of the sea washes up onto the shore with the current, some travellers washed up into the compartment from the sea of the crowd at the station.
The silence of the compartment was broken as the new passengers settled in, putting away their luggage, sitting down, lying down and talking on and on in their crude, unpolished mountain speech. Yadram continued to sleep deeply, as before. The person sleeping on the opposite upper berth pulled up his leg and wiped the sweat from his neck and face before turning over. Some dozing travellers sat up with a jerk of their heads; some sat up sleepily, cast a drowsy eye all around and then went back to sleep. One drank a pav and a half of warm milk; one ran off with a lota to get water.
Just then an individual sleeping in the corner woke up with a start.
“What station is this?” he asked a new traveller in a heavy voice.
“Ambala!” His mouth dropped open. Then he shook the person with him. “Arre, get up quick, it’s Ambala, the train is about to leave.”
His companion got up as though he had been struck by lightning. He quickly gathered his luggage and they both left the compartment.
Chetan’s gaze settled on the newcomers. After taking care of their luggage and so on, they had settled down on the opposite berth. There were three women among them. The two men were not dressed particularly well—they wore tight, dirty pajamas that came down to just above the ankles, and checked shirts under Pahari jackets. They both had wide sideburns, the tops of which were hidden in their round hats. Their braids hung down their backs from beneath their hats, like mouse tails. The women were quite neatly turned out, but they looked flashy. Two were young and one was middle-aged. Both the younger ones looked somewhat older than their age and a lack of self-control had etched lines in their faces which were clearly visible despite the application of cheap powder and rouge.
When the train set out and everyone had settled down, one Pahari youth took a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and handed everyone a cigarette. In just a moment everyone had begun to smoke cigarettes with great relish. Chetan was gazing at the women, astonished. They were smoking cigarettes quite casually, as though they were very skilled in the art. They were having a wonderful time blowing smoke rings as they puffed away contentedly.
Chetan did not smoke cigarettes himself. Cigarette smoke was unbearable to him. If someone sitting near him in a room was smoking he started to feel dizzy. Nonetheless, he had many friends who were addicted to cigarettes. But the idea that women might also smoke was completely new to him.
Now that more people had entered the compartment, the air had become stifling. The train was going full speed. Puffs of warm air came through the open windows along with the dust of the road and the smoke from the engine. The mixture of dust and smoke with the stench of the passengers’ sweat was already more than a little suffocating, and on top of this these five people had begun to smoke cigarettes. Chetan started to feel anxious. He was getting slightly dizzy. But the Pahari women, reclining with their legs outstretched and crossed, had overshadowed the atmosphere of the entire compartment; they were smoking with such self-assurance that Chetan felt like stretching his legs out too, slouching back, getting a cigarette from somewhere and blowing tiny smoke rings from his nose and mouth just like them. But in the midst of this, he really began to feel quite ill; he stuck his face out the window and took several deep breaths.
Although the moon was shining up above and there was no sign of clouds at all, a curtain of dust hung suspended between the earth and sky. It seemed as though the moonlight was having trouble reaching the earth. It spread its light hesitantly, as though its arms had stretched out just a short distance and stopped; they were incapable of penetrating the darkness. All around, the dirty earth lay spread out in the dusty light. The rains had not yet started. The shrunken withered greenery had become a part of the dust-filled moonlight. The trees and plants, like fleeing shadows, emerged up ahead. From the front of the train, the engine again began to puff out smoke. The black cloud of smoke grew in the pale moonlight. Like a python it leapt right over the train towards the rear. The sparks of its eyes burned in the darkness. Chetan quickly drew his face inside.
Everything was exactly the same. Only Manni had placed her hand on her husband’s thigh and gone to sleep. She had covered her face with her veil and wrapped her legs well with her skirt. The rings and twists on her toes gleamed as before.
Lifting his gaze up from those gleaming rings and twists, Chetan again glanced at the Pahari women. They were smoking as before. Chetan observed a lack of reservation in their eyes the like of which he had never seen before, except in the eyes of the prostitutes of Kotwali Bazaar in Jalandhar. A number of times, instead of coming home from school through Mohalla Mahendruan, he had crossed the police line and gone through Kotwali Bazar across from Sabzi Mandi and stood motionless, watching those women for ages, They were dark and ugly, and smeared with powder, and they sat boldly in front of their rooms, and joked coarsely with the Jaats who came into town from the villages. The boldness in the eyes of these Pahari women was exactly like that in the eyes of those prostitutes.
Just then his gaze moved to another person who was staring hungrily at the mountain women. Following the man’s greedy eyes Chetan saw that the center of his attention was the woman who was the youngest and comparatively most attractive of the three. She wore a pink silk churidar pajama and a shiny kameez under a beautiful chartreuse jacket; her head was covered with a silk dupatta and she reclined on her bedding supported by one elbow, her head resting in her palm, like a picture of a Mangal Dweep Empress. The silver pendants hanging from the centre of her ears and her nose ring complimented her sharp attractive features. She was also wearing less powder on her face than the others—perhaps because her face had fewer lines. The man staring at her was middle-aged with a pointed salt-and-pepper beard and shara’i moustaches cut from beneath the nose; he was bare-headed, with rough salt-and-pepper hair, and his eyes betrayed a keen hunger and a glimmer of lust.
When the women had finished their cigarettes and thrown the butts out of the windows, the man got up and went over to sit next to them. He took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, took one for himself and then held the pack out to the two Pahari youths. They each took one cigarette. Then he held out the pack to the other two women. They also took one cigarette each. Finally, with a grin that revealed his yellow teeth, he shyly held the pack out to the Mangal Dweep Empress. After all, she was the Mangal Dweep Empress! In her regal fashion, she shook her head, “I don’t smoke those!”
He pulled back his hand with a mortified laugh, and clenching his teeth, he asked in a hopeless tone, “So . . .?”
“I only smoke Cavender’s.”
“I only have Lal Badshah!” he laughed sadly.
The woman then regally ordered her companion to take out the packet of Cavender’s.
The Pahari man took out the packet of Cavender’s and gave her a cigarette. Holding the cigarette between her lips, she continued to recline and did not so much as move her hand. When he lit the match, she moved her face forward slightly, still in the same position, puffed on the cigarette until it lit and, then, fully the Empress of the Mangal Dweep, she began blowing smoke rings.
Chetan tried to read his book, but he felt as though something were pressing down on his head. His eyes didn’t feel at all sleepy but they stung. A line of pain ran above his eyebrows and his body was weary. He lay back with his legs stretched out on the berth across from him and closed his eyes.
But he didn’t fall asleep. He could hear everything: the conversation of the Pahari women, the mortified laugh of the lusting man and the rattling of the train in the background.
The man was joking with the Mangal Dweep Empress in a vulgar manner and she continued to put him off with her same contemptuous smile. Just then, he heard another voice, “Arre, go sit near her, why are you lying over there and giggling?”
Chetan opened his heavy tired eyelids and saw that another man had woken up and was sitting up and urging on the first one. But the first man didn’t have the nerve to go and sit near the haughty woman.
Just then the train stopped at a station. The first man got up and bought some sweets. He took the packet and went and sat near her. He bared his dirty yellow teeth in a grin as he held out the packet of sweets with one hand and with the other he took her knees and squeezed them to his side, a lustful gleam flickering in his eyes.
Chetan’s half-closed eyes opened completely.
The Empress of Mangal Dweep raised an eyebrow and looked toward the packet. Then, with contemptuous hatred, she suddenly propped herself up on the bedding with her elbow, freed her knees from his grip and pulled back, kicking the packet so hard the sweets flew out the window leaving a few reminders of his folly on his face.
“They’re prostitutes!” the other man said, “They’ve earned their money and they’re going on furlough.” He laughed.
The first man, rather chagrined, wiped his face and went and sat in his seat. The sparking lust of his eyes had grown dim, like extinguished coals.
Chetan closed his eyes.
“Furlough!”—what a lovely, sweet word it was! On his day off from the office, he never even went as far as Ganpat Road, forget about Bengali Gali. And if he had to go to Anarkali Bazaar, no matter how far he had to walk, he wouldn’t even turn his face towards the road going to the office. He felt strangely sympathetic towards the prostitutes. They had gathered up their limbs, tired, broken, slack from a whole year of selling their bodies, of leaving them to the mercy of violent hungry beasts; and now these poor creatures, worn down by fatigue, were going to get some rest. And that greedy man . . . that low-life! An impotent rage began to burn in Chetan’s mind like a bonfire . . . But his eyelids were growing heavy, his limbs relaxed, and the bonfire grew dimmer with each passing moment. He leaned his head against the window, his arms fell to his sides and he fell fast asleep.
“Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from Hats and Doctors: Stories by Upendranath Ashk (Tr. Daisy Rockwell)”