Dhumketu is the pen name of Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi, legendary Gujarati language writer and one of the finest Indian authors of all time. He won the prestigious Narmad Suvarna Chandrak Award in 1949, and was the only Indian author whose story, ‘The Letter’, was included in the famous short story collection titled “Stories From Many Lands”, published in the United States.
Characterized by a fine sensitivity, deep humanism, perceptive observation and an intimate knowledge of both rural and urban life, Dhumketu’s fiction has provided entertainment and edification to generations of Gujarati readers and speakers.
In the book “Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu”, Jenny Bhatt has translated some wonderful short stories by Dhumketu. This short story collection brings together the first substantial collection of Dhumketu’s work to be available in English.
Read an excerpt from story ‘Gulabvahu’, from the book “Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu” below.
The swing-bed was swaying slowly. Sitting on it, Gulabvahu opened her paan box and made a very fine paan. With the skill of a connoisseur, she moulded it and placed it in her mouth. Just then, as if suddenly hearing something, she got up coolly and peeped into the downstairs verandah. Then, with quick feet, she turned back to the swing-bed. For a moment, she sat there uneasily. Then she shouted with a vigorous intensity: ‘Reshamdi … eh, Reshamdi!’
In response, ‘Ho, ba! Eh … I’m … I’m coming, ba!’ So saying, a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old, somewhat dark but well-formed beautiful young girl, having climbed the stairs, was seen peeping in. ‘What did you say, ba?’
‘What did you say, ba? So said Rani saheb standing there: what did you say, ba? Come here, ne!’
Reshamdi entered the room. The entire room took on a new appearance due to her beauty. It was as if even the swing-bed was inclined to say to Gulabvahu: this teenage girl is best suited to sit on me.
She began sounding off. ‘First of all, see, these metal rings are making a noise,’ Gulab said. ‘Get a rag dipped in oil from downstairs. Then, did Khemaji come?’
Without answering the question, the girl went downstairs to work – in fact, she went running.
‘She is just as wicked inside as she looks on the outside!’
But Kishorilal, who had come up, soft-footed, using the back stairs and was standing there, caught these words that she had spoken only to herself.
‘What can the poor one do? You want to throw her into a bad situation; she doesn’t want to get into a worse situation. You brought her up here, raised her, shaped her mind. Now what can the poor one do?’
Gulabvahu slid to one side of the swing. Kishorilal had barely seated himself there when Reshamdi returned. So, for a moment, there was silence.
Leaving the three-year-old Reshamdi behind, her mother, Jeevti, had been dead for thirteen or fourteen years. Jeevti was, by caste, a Thaakardi. But she had no family on any side. Who knew from which village she had come to the city? And she stayed here, at Kishorilal’s, doing the housework. At the time of death, her breath would simply not give up. The thought of what would happen to little Reshamdi had, it seemed, bound her soul tight to her body, leaving the ailing woman miserable. At that time, Gulabvahu had come forward, taken holy Ganga-water in her hands, and given her word that she would bring up Reshamdi. And Jeevti’s life had departed.
Now, this same Reshamdi had come into her youth. She was somewhat dark – just slightly – and that bit of colour lent her exquisitely beautiful, well-shaped physique another kind of charm. It seemed as if, without that extraordinary complexion, half her loveliness would be lost. For all these years, she had lived with the family as its own child. So manners, behaviour, likes, dislikes, desires, temperament, character, disposition, hygiene, living customs – in all of these aspects, she had adopted the family’s traditions as its offspring. No one could say she was a Thaakardi and no one could even tell she was of a different caste. Kishorilal’s young son – who was called Babulal by all – had now returned home from abroad and, when he had seen Reshamdi, he had been bowled over. At first, he simply could not believe that the five- or seven-year-old he had last seen was this same Reshamdi.
Reshamdi got the metal rings to stop squeaking but could hardly make her own youth from making its presence known, could she? If her youth was alluring or attractive, it wouldn’t have posed a problem; but the kind of eloquence her youth had was in keeping with her original tribe and community. As the undulating phrases of their folk songs fill the air completely with resonance, so a new splendour would rise in the air wherever she walked.
Task done, she turned to go downstairs when Gulabvahu called her, ‘Reshamdi!’
‘Is Babubhai downstairs?’
‘Yes, ba. Yes. He’s downstairs.’
‘Send him up here. Then, did Khemaji come today?’
‘No, ba,’ so saying, Reshamdi ran downstairs.
‘When I came, what were you saying?’ enquired Kishorilal.
‘You were saying something like, just the same inside.’
‘Yes, yes, this girl is something else. Different caste – does that imprint ever leave?’
‘Why? Does she steal? And who is this Khemaji?’
‘This girl is of Thaakardi stock. Now her youth cannot be safeguarded by us. So I have searched out this Khemaji. He is of her caste-community. Does farming. He has wealth. He likes the girl. But this girl doesn’t want to move from here! She doesn’t like anyone!’
‘I was also telling you this. Let her stay with us.’
‘And then? Are you going to sit and guard her youth? Or will I? We also have a young boy in the house. I do not want to be in the eyes and on the tongues of people. Once people start talking, it’s finished. I don’t want that.’
Just now, when she had peered into the verandah, she had thought of Babulal’s manner of speaking to Reshamdi as somewhat inappropriate. But, right now, she chose to leave it out of the conversation. Which issue should be mentioned, which issue described, how much – in this matter, she had firm confidence in her own proficiency and was never willing to listen to anyone else about it. Kishorilal knew this, so he didn’t proceed further. In the meantime, Babu was on his way up from the lower floor.
Note: ‘Thaakardi’: Originally from the Kshatriya or warrior caste, this sub-caste eventually became merchants and traders by profession and were, in previous centuries, considered as belonging to a lower level within the sociocultural hierarchies.
Excerpted with permission from the story “Gulabvahu”, from the book Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, Dhumketu, translated from the Gujarati by Jenny Bhatt, HarperCollins India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.
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