In Simsim, author Geet Chaturvedi has assembled what might seem like an odd cast of narrative voices: an old Sindhi man, a book in his library, and a restless young college graduate. That this gaggle of characters comes together to tell a moving story of loss – and the many ways in which people negotiate with its demands in order to live – only cements Chaturvedi’s place as one of the most masterful writers in Hindi today.

Basar Mal, now in his old age, is a Sindhi man in Bombay who carries Sindh in his heart. Exiled from his homeland by the violence of the Partition, these days, all he can think of are the days of his youth spent there, its orchards and young love. Larkana is now no more than a memory, but as he mixes instant coffee with steaming hot milk, all he can think of is the coffee-coloured skin of the girl he had loved then, the sweet scent of guava from her hands, and their painful, eternal separation.

A refuge in the library

Married for decades now, he had met his wife in Bombay years after their exodus from Larkana, where they had been acquaintances, their move to Bombay marked by deeply tragic events for both. Though it had felt like a beginning at the time, this marriage, the pain of childlessness had hollowed her out beyond recognition. Basar Mal had, in fact, even started calling her Mangan’s ma, hoping that giving her wish a name would bend the universe’s hand into granting it. If this child existed in the heart, if his phantom existed in the life that they shared between them, why would the gods stop it from existing in the world?

Over the years, the library he runs has become Basar Mal’s refuge. Musty, dark, every corner demanding repair, he comes to it in the evenings, mostly spending the hours by himself. His companion is his drawing book and charcoal pencil, where he draws figures and erases them, draws and erases again, repeating the activity as if the routine is what keeps him rooted in this world of the present. But this is Bombay, and Basar Mal is but an old man. After years of pressure from the land mafia to sell the library to them, the threats have recently become increasingly more frequent, more frightening.

Our second narrator is an unnamed young man who, recently graduated from college, fills his days with the anxious process of trying to find a job that he will be happy with. His father is old-fashioned, but their conflicts are as much a consequence of the generational gap as they are of the facts of their relationship: one is a father, one is a son. Parental concern and youthful obstinacy butt heads, and even times our narrator feels like he has delivered a decisive blow, he is the one who feels the punch.

As a respite from these anxieties, he finds himself returning to books, to the activity of reading. He remembers having abandoned it years ago due to his uneasy relationship with English as a Hindi-medium educated kid, but the pages feel inviting now, the shelves of books in Basar Mal’s library warm, safe.

But the books are not the only temptation: across the library is a building with a yellow window, and on the window, he sees a girl. With little to do and a mind itching to wander outside the walls of home, he forms an imaginary relationship with this mysterious girl, spending his days wondering who she is, what she does, and when he will see her on that window again.

The third narrator is the book in Basar Mal’s library. Disembodied, it casts an eye over the stale mundanity of Basar Mal’s life, and the state of its fellow books, stacked in racks, quiet but not lonely. They have a life of their own, these books, no matter how much the world outside wants to label them unnecessary. In their monologues, they reflect on the life of books and the tertiary characters that feature in Basar Mal’s story, making for a compelling voice.

Chaturvedi’s description of the fanaticism and violence that marked the Partition is unembellished and chilly in its distance, making it all the more affecting. Now in the 2000s, many decades have passed since that fateful summer of catastrophe and sorrow, but in unsuspecting moments, when home creeps us on Basar Mal, its loss is a marker of the hopes Basar Mal had had of a future life, wandering in those guava orchards, content, with a full life, the reader feels the sting.

The canvas of memories

Memory is a strange canvas; upon it, all the possibilities of a different present rise and crash like waves. In exploring it, Simsim blurs the lines between imagination and reality – how much about the young man’s interaction with the girl on the window is real, anyway? – and thinks instead about how choosing to believe in something is to repose in it an almost sacred faith: perhaps this will keep us alive.

Gopalan has delivered a measured translation, her control steady over the restrained tone of the novel; in her hands, what remains unsaid in the dialogues translates smoothly from Hindi to English, punctuated by silences. The only parts where it comes up lacking are the poetry verses interspersed through the text, which lose their rhythm and intensity in the process. But these are perhaps just gripes of a native Hindi speaker and certainly do not take away from what is, by all measures, an achievement of a translation.

How does one contend with loss that chips away at you day after day, year after year, relentless in its appetite to take, take, take? In Simsim, we witness characters paint a portrait of human life, one you will find it difficult to look away from. Perhaps you will find an answer, or perhaps you will realise – like I did – that sometimes asking a question like this is the cruellest thing you could do to a story.

Simsim, Geet Chaturvedi, translated from the Hindi by Anita Gopalan, Penguin India.