Silver Plums by Ankur Agarwal

Ankur Agar­wal is an poet, trans­la­tor and teacher from India. His poetry has been pub­lished before in “Paper Wall”, “Barn­wood Poetry Mag­a­zine”, “Cha: An Asian Lit­er­ary Jour­nal”, and “Halfway Down the Stairs”, among oth­ers, and his haiku have appeared in “A hand­ful of stones”. This is the first time he has writ­ten prose fic­tion. He loves play­ing card games, espe­cially sheepshead, poli­gnac and gin rummy, and learn­ing new ones. He also reviews cin­ema, pri­mar­ily Euro­pean and Indian, at http://indmoviereview.blogspot.com

 

 

Sil­ver Plums

Stars died the night I was born, they say. I always grew up believ­ing that, and often as I gazed up into the sky, I searched for vacant spaces, as if like lines of des­tiny they would tell me some­thing about myself. Peo­ple go to palmists or fill up ques­tion­naires that claim to reveal their per­son­al­i­ties to them, but all I had was the align­ments of those celes­tial bod­ies: their mys­te­ri­ous twin­kling filled me always with alarm, that the world will sud­denly end and I will not have ful­filled my des­tiny. For you see, des­tiny meant a lot to me.

The mon­soon sky told me one day that I will have a lover soon. 

1. The merchant

गंगा आए कहाँ से, गंगा जाए कहाँ रे1

Ganga, from where does she come, to where does she go

Every year, when the rains came, also came new faces, of hope and unknown stamp, and that time was the time when we for­got all our mis­eries: the jagir­dar2 for­got how much grain is stored, the rebari3 women for­got how shal­low is their well and I used to for­get how con­stricted was my world. Cross­ing those long ravines whose many hid­ing places the local war­lords and their gangs inhab­ited, a car­a­van from the world out­side came every year at this time, the only moment when we came face to face with the world beyond the ravines and the desert. For on one side lay those passes bristling with dan­ger while behind us lay a des­o­late land which no one had crossed alive, and even after that, there were only paid ser­vants employed to kill each other for these scraps of the con­cept called land. But this is all as I write today: then, when I was merely nine or ten, all I knew that I was always at the grounds where the car­a­van set its base for two weeks before they set forth again, those eter­nal gip­sies. This was my only means of know­ing the world.

It was his loud hag­gling but always in a pleas­ant, laugh­ing voice that first drew me there: the largest of crowds was there and he had the choic­est of wares. Dates from Iran and chilgoza4 from Afghanistan were what every­one had: but he had intri­cate wooden ele­phants, he had lamps built like lotus petals, and he had ban­gles shim­mer­ing in red and green like no one else had. But soon my gaze was drawn from his wares to his face: maybe thirty-five, with a fine mous­tache that did not seem too silken and a voice thicker than most boys here, his eyes were what struck me. I had never before encoun­tered such eyes in my life and never again will I on any other face. Fiercely burn­ing, those eyes had no heart in all the com­merce the man’s voice was so busily con­duct­ing: they were far off, as if they were still trav­el­ling over the var­i­ous lands from where he must have bought and traded these goods. They pierced right through men and women as if these were made of trans­par­ent stuff; nei­ther kind nor unkind, they seemed indif­fer­ent to the very con­cept of kind­ness, but rather made way to some­thing as water does, whether it is given a way or not.

I stood trans­fixed for sev­eral moments, and then I picked up the courage to talk to this adven­turer with steel-like eyes, this inter­loper of many worlds who yet could burn. I was fas­ci­nated by his eyes as I never was by any­thing, and to under­stand them, to know what lies in their depths, I was will­ing to do any­thing, to go any­where. I waited till the crowd thinned, as the evening hour came and many became busy in evening prayers.

Have you trav­elled long?”

Far longer than you have lived.”

His reply and his assured smile did not please me: he did not know how long have I lived. Who knows if I were some­one with some ill­ness that made me appear a child? But I continued:

 “To sell and buy?”

Yes, souls.”

Souls? What are they?”

When some­one comes to ask me a ques­tion, I buy her soul. What I give her shall haunt her all her life, and only I can break the spell.”

Ah, so you’ve already mine. And sell? Whom do you sell to?”

To those who col­lect them, for I am a mere inter­me­di­ary. Those who are not con­tent with the world, but also dis­dain it, sneer at it, and keep collecting.”

Why do they collect?”

To touch the sky — to enjoy many finite forms; to try to prove the form­less­ness of a world that is glis­ten­ing with forms and their temptations.”

And you? You are content? 

Before the man could reply, two women with ghung­hat5 a foot and half long came, and I became uncom­fort­able, and I asked him if he had a payal6 for my size. He said no, but he might have to look in his stores, maybe he will have one for me tomor­row, and I said thanks and left him with a twin­kle of under­stand­ing. But for sev­eral days I watched him, gaily con­duct­ing his busi­ness and yet again far off in a space of his own, and all that time I was think­ing of what did he mean by forms and form­less­ness. Before long, for I knew the car­a­van would not be stay­ing for­ever here, I found him while he was eat­ing his sim­ple din­ner by the fire. But this time it was he who shot a ques­tion at me.

Have you killed?”

I shud­dered at his words.

No! What do you mean? Have you?”

Did you not kill the desire to talk to me all this time? Is it not killing? Is it sinful?”

One can­not do always what one wants. One is not per­mit­ted to.”

Or you allowed the restric­tions to rule you. Why do you? Food, water, these?”

He shook a pair of payals in his hand as he said these, and in the half-clouded moon­light, the thick chink­ing hit against me, as if them and I could never be in one place together.

You don’t? Why do you trade?”

You don’t want these?” He ignored my question.

You know I don’t. Are you content?”

I am no friend to words, even if you see me use a lot of them dur­ing the day. What do you mean?”

Are you … happy?” I was confused.

Yes, I am.” He smiled and offered me two closed fists.

I was dis­ap­pointed by his reply. I don’t know why.

Choose one,” he said.

I can­not. You must show me what they contain.”

As you want. I wanted you to choose your fate blindly, for then you can’t be reproach­ing your­self, but if you want to do it delib­er­ately, so be it.”

With that he opened his fists: in one palm were lying a cou­ple of some­thing red and beau­ti­ful that I had never seen, and in the other were beau­ti­ful life­like imi­ta­tions of that thing in silver.

What is it?”, I asked as if entranced; I felt as if he was offer­ing me an untold treasure.

Plums!”

Plums?”

Yes, have you ever heard of them?”

I shook my head.

When you eat them, your mouth is filled with a heav­enly juice, it seems that it will make your whole body fra­grant. Their sweet­ness is not crude like sugar nor apolo­getic like pome­gran­ate, but they seem to mas­ter your body and spirit and take you to another level of expe­ri­ence, another qual­ity of yearn­ing. It is as if you are kiss­ing all that is good in you.”

I remained silent and gazed won­der­ingly at those blotched red fruits, not so small but not at all big, and I won­dered in whose bowls they lie filled to the brim, which lips taste them and kiss each other, and who are the peo­ple who watch and tend over them and pluck them: are they also as beautiful?

They come from the moun­tains and it is no won­der you have never known them. I have only two with me and here they are for you.”

I stretched out my hand for them and here­upon, just when I was about to touch them, the man put up a warn­ing gesture.

Remem­ber, you could have only one of the two. The sil­ver ones or these fleshy ones.”

I thought long: the sil­ver ones were beau­ti­ful and they looked com­pletely the same if only for the colour.

Can I ask you one thing before mak­ing a decision?”

Go ahead.”

Are there fruits more deli­cious than these?”

Not accord­ing to me.”

Then I will take the sil­ver ones.”

He gave me the two sil­ver plums, reflect­ing faintly the clouds above and the fire beside. I caressed them long­ingly, and then said:

Before I go, can I ask you one more question?”

He nod­ded.

What did you mean by forms and formlessness?”

He laughed, for long he laughed: his laugh was like ice being crushed, with a thou­sand voices speak­ing in his laugh. He held his head back and laughed, like a man who decides to do a long and thor­ough gargle. 

I kept look­ing at him all the while.

Do you like mangoes?”

Not much.”

Well, you could imag­ine eat­ing plums instead of man­goes, and then the forms of man­goes won’t matter.”

But do I know how plums taste and feel?”

No, you don’t. So now you are also in search of the form­less­ness: you seek to know plums with­out hav­ing any­thing to do with them.”

You are sure I seek that?”

He nod­ded.

2. Jab­bar

इतना न मुझ से तू प्यार बढ़ा
कि मैं एक बादल आवारा

Don’t fall so much  in love with me
For I am but an errant cloud

Why don’t you under­stand me? Life — I can barely bear it. There is some­thing that calls me from some­where, and I don’t feel it to be of the world. It is out­side me and yet inside me, not in those shapes I know, not in the voices that speak to me. How can I rest till then, how can I forget?”

Jab­bar had come into my life when I wasn’t even expect­ing it at all: I was nine­teen maybe, and I was busily plan­ning to grad­u­ate in a cou­ple of years and go out into the world, to feel the actual world with a real job, all kinds of peo­ple from every­where, a dif­fer­ent exis­tence. I wasn’t expect­ing Jab­bar, and like a storm shakes up a tree but leaves it intact, he had done the same to me. And maybe the storm isn’t affected much, not that much as one tree is.

I looked closely into his eyes, as if eyes could frame an answer. His eyes were strangely limpid but also very kind: there was some­thing swim­ming in there and I could never fig­ure out exactly what. His eyes did not go well with what he was in per­son: of a strong impos­ing pres­ence with a big chest, mus­cu­lar arms, and tall build, he was some­one who felt effort­lessly strong. Yet those eyes were that of a gen­tle, almost cry­baby crea­ture, and yet there was no sick­li­ness or pity-taking in them. They were just — well, fluid. Which would be an understatement.

I pressed his hands in response and let out a sigh — it was true that I who loved life so much and yet had known every­thing that he had, the same nar­row world of ours — it was true that I could not under­stand him. Or maybe I did, but could not bring myself to it. I just took his hand in both my hands and pressed it with my warmth.

I had met Jab­bar when he was singing the story of Pabuji7 in one of the jagrans8 as the win­ter had waned but had not yet gone com­pletely. Though he was only among a group of singers and only occa­sion­ally sung alone, his voice enthralled me: it had some­thing that this place, or the desert, had not. It was a rich voice, but noth­ing more about it as a singer: but for me there was some­thing that felt unknown in there. The bright colours that peo­ple wore to defeat the desert’s over­ar­ch­ing soli­tude had taken another shape here: bright strands of rebel­lion, not against a sys­tem nor soci­ety, but against him­self, an anx­ious strug­gle to repress him­self and as if be a part of the sun-worn sands. He was an orphan, and his par­ents had been known singers, so singing had been handed down tra­di­tion­ally to him: but from the emotion-packed melo­drama of Pabuji’s life, he had cre­ated a lament that went against the grain though the lis­ten­ers were not intel­li­gent enough to detect it. They were deeply moved, rather. A lament that asked why from the wind, not the man.

Jab­bar and I spent a lot of time in each other’s com­pany: oth­er­wise always taut as if on some kind of leash, he felt always strangely relaxed in my com­pany, and I felt some kind of world in him that I could not name but which felt to be my world even though I was an alien to it. He was maybe a year younger than me, but for a long time we were uncon­fessed lovers, each cling­ing to his and her dream a bit longer because of the other.

And you? What will you do?”

What can I?”, he laughed bit­terly. “I can­not go any­where unlike you, for it is here my des­tiny is to be played out. They say cross­ing the seas is a sin; do you know why do they say that?”

I knew what he would say, but asked “Why?”

Because you switch your des­tinies then. Which is like cheating.”

And why’s cheat­ing wrong?”

I am not say­ing it’s wrong. It is just run­ning — run­ning like that man you told me about for more and more land and never able to return before the sun set. Just like that man. I don’t care about running.”

I took a long time to respond, I kept on think­ing. I loved him so much and yet some­times I wanted to be far away from him, to have never even known him.

And me?”

He emerged as if from some kind of reverie with some kind of shock, or as if that had never occurred to him, though I can­not tell what had not occurred to him — the ques­tion of me or that I would ask him this. Or maybe it was not even this, but he was sim­ply try­ing to think of me in all this in a new light.

Yes, me?”

What about you? You like run­ning — you like the exer­cise. You do not feel suf­fo­cated by this inces­sant scam­per­ing back and forth, you are like a river that flows on and on, giv­ing forth and never ceas­ing to question.”

But you hold so much love — and hate — in you. You can also give so much, Jabbar.”

Maybe, but I am like the sea: I only give what I get, I keep throw­ing up dead conch shells. Even one day is too long for me: the sun comes up, it plays with a mil­lion rays on my blue and green waters, and then it will set in orange splen­dor shin­ing over me, but I remain where I was, forced to wait for the sun, still and sim­mer­ing with lit­tle waves.”

But isn’t it you who has cho­sen stillness?”

Yes, you are right; but it is not because I have cho­sen still­ness, Ruqaiyya, that I am the sea: but because I am the sea, I have to suf­fer, I have to remain.”

As the evening faded into night, with hardly a sound except few pea­cocks’ calls, he asked me: “Tell me, can rivers and sea marry?”

I smiled wryly, “Not until the river loses its char­ac­ter and merges into the sea.”

He insisted, “Not even if the sea can touch the sky?”

I shook my head.

That evening we had our first phys­i­cal con­tact. It was the first time both of us had explored another person’s body, and yet we did not have the wild excite­ment that one would think to be asso­ci­ated with the first loss of vir­gin­ity. Rather, we made a thor­ough sur­vey of what each had to offer: a silent and joy­ful acknowl­edg­ment of the plea­sures and equally silent pas­sages to more dif­fi­cult and painful rites. It was as if this one thing remained for us to do, and now each was for­ever etched in the other, each water, but dis­tinct as river and sea.

When the night deep­ened, I left Jab­bar, I left uni­ver­sity, and I left home. I never came back. The merchant’s words had returned to me about those soul col­lec­tors who can touch the sky: and it was the mer­chant who had bought mine and I refused to let it be sold to any­one else. The only pos­ses­sion I took with me besides some money was the two sil­ver plums.

3. Ruqaiyya

हमने देखी है उन आँखों की महकती खुशबू
हाथ से छू के इसे रिश्ते का इल्ज़ाम न दो

I’ve seen the sweet-smelling fra­grance of those eyes
Please don’t accuse it of a  rela­tion­ship by touch­ing with hands

A thou­sand turns of life had left me now a teacher in her for­ties in a small vil­lage in the Himalayas: I had expe­ri­enced as much of life as I could seek, I had met hun­dreds of peo­ple, many had pro­fessed to love me, there were many whose opin­ions I respected, there were the good friends and the use­ful acquain­tances, and I had been a suc­cess­ful edi­tor of a news­pa­per that indeed did some­thing — till one day I felt as far from what I had started for as that night when I had left the mer­chant. I had met impres­sive men and women who had done brave and great things; I had met all shades of peo­ple from the lowly to the high­est, from the thinker cat­e­gory to the prac­ti­cal no-frills one, and yet never had I again seen the like of those eyes that first led me to ask: who am I? where is my home?

I had never found that home, for home to me is beyond com­fort, beyond refuge: it is the place where I find refuge with myself, not from myself. And all the homes I had found were of the lat­ter kind: hadn’t Jab­bar said I was always run­ning? From myself or some­thing, I didn’t know. And now, I was buried deep inside a small, remote moun­tain vil­lage since the past seven years: no one knew me here, and I was able to slowly per­suade myself that this indeed was my true home. I had no con­tacts left from my old worlds, and I had no keys to my house: it was always unlocked, and I had for­saken the feel­ing of pos­sess­ing as free­dom. Yet, some­thing lacked, some­thing gnawed. There was yet a miss­ing link.

One snow-clad night, when you wouldn’t even bet on a jackal roam­ing out­doors, I heard a knock on my wooden door; a knock that had no per­mis­sion in it, but sim­ply infor­ma­tion. Who­ever knocked wasn’t say­ing “May I” but instead “I am going to.” My ini­tial thoughts didn’t land up there, though; at first, I thought who could it be in such weather. A lost trav­eller? But hardly any­one knew of this region and no trekkers ever came here. None of my school­boys would ven­ture out from their homes right now. I took the lantern and pushed the heavy wooden door.

Out­side was a Bud­dhist monk with his shaved head and maroon robes.

Could I rest in your cow­shed?” For I kept a cow since a year.

As the man spoke he looked directly into my eyes, and I instantly rec­og­nized them: they were the very same eyes, and no other eyes could be these. I was com­pletely unnerved, and my lantern fell and almost went out: I regained my com­po­sure a bit, and then stud­ied his face for some time before answer­ing. He had changed greatly, and but for the eyes I wouldn’t have rec­og­nized him: a kind of inno­cent smile played on his face, which had sunken-in cheeks now, and his eye­brows, once thick like his mous­tache, were almost nonex­is­tent, as was his mous­tache. He had aged greatly, and he looked much older than what he must have been. Yet, he was firm on his feet and nim­ble as just any man: it was only his face that had so aged.

Come in”, I smiled, “please come in, you can have a rest cer­tainly, but I can also pre­pare you some rice.”

Thanks, child; if it does not give you any trouble.”

Surely not.”

He came in with his quite big sack kind of bag slung on his shoul­der and as he was ready­ing to sit on the floor, I offered him a chair: I didn’t know if monks can sit on chairs or not, but he didn’t refuse it.

You’ve got a few scratches below your knee there,” I said.

It’s noth­ing, just some thorns: it was so dark and the path was very narrow.”

Very well, I will grind some charoli9 and it should be bet­ter by tomor­row morn­ing. Are you pass­ing through here?”

Yes, and you?”, he asked with a smile. The full-fledged smile hadn’t changed: he still retained a cer­tain fond­ness for turn­ing your ques­tion on you.

Me, too, though I don’t know to where.”

Can any­one know that?”, he won­dered. I nodded.

I gave him the ground charoli, and as I pre­pared the rice, he applied it slowly on the bleed­ing marks on his leg. In between, though I didn’t think there would be a prob­a­bil­ity of that, I brought out the two sil­ver plums and kept them on the table before him, but he didn’t seem to take any spe­cial inter­est in them.

Out­side was the noise­less noise of falling snow, and the smell of rice tainted with cam­phor and car­damom slowly swirled inside and became one with the wooden-hued habit of the monk, as like sought like. Apart from me, every­thing seemed liv­ing and un-living at once: the flick­er­ing of the fire made mon­ster shad­ows out of us and it seemed to be the only being out­side the realm of ani­mate or inan­i­mate there. Some­thing to whom the con­cept of ani­mate doesn’t apply.

He ate slowly but he seemed to appre­ci­ate it. I ate noth­ing, and we kept silent gaz­ing at each other. The very same adven­ture was still in his eyes: the only dif­fer­ence was that now he seemed to be at the same place where phys­i­cally he was, unlike in the past. Or, rather, he seemed unreal: thus even phys­i­cally he wasn’t here. He was and was not. He was like a ghost, but a ghost who ate rice and who had wounds made by thorns brush­ing against his legs.

Have you found what you sought?”, I asked.

I can­not answer that.”

Why? I won’t understand?”

No, child; it is that I do not seek.”

Then why do you live? Or, how are you able to?”

He smiled and remained silent for a long time.

I am indif­fer­ent to liv­ing or being dead. In fact, I don’t even know what am I, alive or dead. How­ever, I have dis­tinct mem­o­ries, which tell me I am alive, per­haps. Perhaps.”

I meant, what takes you to the next day?”, I again asked.

To see the new sun”, he smiled. “I am curi­ous. Or not curi­ous — I can­not choose the word. I am no friend to words.”

Then, after a moment’s silence, he said:

I will sleep in the cow­shed, child. Thank you for the meal. You have good hands. I have not much to offer you before I take your leave. Win­ter has already come, so you might not be hav­ing these now: I have only some with me, they are for you.”

With that, he brought out some damask plums from his bag and kept them on the table in front of him. As he kept them there, he took back the sil­ver plums and smiled:

You can taste the real plums finally.”

NOTES

1All sec­tion open­ing Hindi quotes are fragments/refrains from Hindi songs.
2Recip­i­ent of jagir, a land grant/land taxes.
3Also spelt rabari, cat­tle­herders who tra­di­tion­ally were nomads but in mod­ern times it is rarely the case.
4Pinus ger­ar­diana seeds.
5Veil worn by pri­mar­ily Hindu women in cer­tain Indian com­mu­ni­ties.
6Ankle bells, worn around ankles, as the name sug­gests. A must for the tra­di­tional Indian dance of kathak today.
7Name of a god revered by cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties in north­west India, in par­tic­u­lar by rebaris.
8Hindu cus­tom of all-night wor­ship; it can be orga­nized for one to sev­eral nights in run­ning.
9Seeds of Buchana­nia lazan; pop­u­larly called as chi­ronji in India.