India in translation

This Hindi memoir dealt with same sex relationships in 1939

Continuing our new series of works of Indian literature in translation with poet Suryakant Tripathi Nirala’s story about his own life.

“I am a mature person. They are trying to confuse me. I will judge Kulli for myself. If Chandrika is forced on me as an escort, it will be easy enough to distract him. I will send him on an errand, to get body oil for massage. ‘Wait for me at the crossroads when you return with the body oil.’ I need a little time alone with Kulli to understand why there is so much suspicion of him.” I was thinking these thoughts when there was a rapping on the door. “May I enter?” The voice was soft. Cultured. I understood it must be Kulli’s.

“Please come in,” I said with matching courteousness. He was an hour early, hair freshly oiled, a waistcoat over his muslin kurta, a cane, socks even in the heat of summer. A pale-faced supplicant. I remembered a line from Kalidasa for no reason: “Small talk from the lover like cooling breezes.” I was not averse to flattery then. I did not understand its hidden meaning. Nor did I have Kalidasa’s knowledge of sexual matters. Had I been wiser I would have dismissed Kulli instantly.

I accepted the cardamom Kulli offered me for sweetening the breath. “You are an hour early,” I said.

“I thought we might want to visit Pandeyji’s temple on the way.”

Mother-in-law had been wary from the first. She had her bed pulled into the verandah. She asked Chandrika to take his afternoon nap on the verandah as well, plying him with questions about how we lived, what we ate, what kind of people we were.

Chandrika was a blabbermouth. You could get the darkest family secret out of him in no time. He appeared in my room in a little while dressed to go out, hair well-groomed, walking staff in hand.

Kulli seemed surprised to see Chandrika with me. He asked Chandrika for a jug of water and, while Chandrika was away, Kulli turned to me. “Is he coming along? What do we want him for?”

Kulli’s questions piqued my curiosity. “Accompanying me is part of his job, but I can always send him away on an errand.” Kulli understood this in his own way. He imagined that I knew what he desired and would arrange things accordingly. I was the man he took me for.

Kulli accepted the jug of water Chandrika brought him. “The heat is terrible, splits one’s head open,” he said. Meanwhile Chandrika was estimating whether he could bring Kulli down with one blow. Kulli splashed some water on his face, then drank a few sips. “Let’s not waste more time,” he said.

I went inside. Mother-in-law stood rigid at the door and my wife right behind her. I went straight to my room, put on fresh clothes and shoes and ran a comb through my hair. I picked up my umbrella and stepped outside. Mother-in-law blocked my way. She handed me a peasant staff and said I should take it along. “The path goes through the forest,” she said.

“I can use the umbrella if there’s danger,” I replied.

My wife smiled.

Kulli was waiting by the door to keep me from turning back once I had set out. He walked behind me, followed by Chandrika. Kulli glanced back at Chandrika with contempt but said nothing. I stopped when Kulli stopped on the road. Chandrika stopped as well. Kulli couldn’t hide his irritation.

I remembered Mother-in-law telling me that Kulli was less interested in the fort than in getting me away from the house. I was curious to know what Kulli was after. When we reached the main road Kulli signalled that I should dismiss Chandrika. I enjoyed the way Kulli turned up his mouth and arched his eyebrows when doing so. He looked crestfallen when I did not motion Chandrika away. Kulli’s pace slackened, but he didn’t lose hope. We continued in this manner towards the Shiva temple.

At the temple we received darshan of the deity and looked at frescoes. We wanted to rest too, and listen to the priest’s conversation. Kulli was beside himself with impatience. The priest told us that the deity’s birthday that year fell on the same day as Muharram. The Shia carried paper shrines mourning the deaths of Hasan and Hussain.

Inside the temple, the priest waved arti lamps to the accompaniment of loud music. The temple festivities were not out of place, the priest told the police inspector who came to inquire. The Muslims were mourning martyrs whose remains had never been found while the Hindus celebrated the birth of god himself. (I heard a son had been born to the priest the same day).

Kulli interrupted to ask leave of the priest. “We have many other things to see,” Kulli said. Ignoring numerous signals from Kulli that we should be going, I got up only when the priest had finished his story. Kulli continued to communicate by signs as we left the temple precincts, a fact that did not escape Chandrika’s notice. Chandrika had imagined he would be needed to beat Kulli to a pulp, but he discerned something gentle in Kulli’s communication with me. He was mystified.

I chose this moment to send Chandrika to buy perfumed massage oil from the perfume maker. He was in a fix. Mother-in-law had told him not to let me out of sight. “The friend may turn out to be an enemy.” But Kulli didn’t fit the description of an enemy. Chandrika said weakly, “I would have enjoyed seeing more of the fort.”

“Will the fort be closed from now on? You can see it tomorrow if you wish. Do as your master says. Go and buy the perfumed oil. The shop is just ahead,” Kulli added.

Chandrika looked to me for guidance.

I said in an excited voice, “Wait for us by this lane or on the main road. We should be back within the hour.”

Chandrika turned to leave. Kulli puffed his chest out in victory. I enjoyed watching him. We lacked such charming mannerisms in Bengal.

The fort began to be visible as we descended a slope. There were two mounds adjacent to one another. The building stood on top of the mounds. It appeared that the entire area of the fort had been walled in brick. Some of the bricks were large. Others were thin like our Lucknow bricks but more durable.

We came to a wonderful gate built of these slender bricks. The path to the gate rose up like the ascent to a drinking pool for farm animals. It was also paved with fine bricks. We walked through the gate into the fort. A kind of intoxication comes over one in ancient places.

Kulli pointed to the mound across from us. “Those are the queen’s quarters,” he said. “We can make them out even though the building has settled. The gallery can be seen lower down. There is a cellar, too, with hidden treasure, people say.”

We went forward. The ruins of a mosque lay before us. “The mosque was built after the Shah had conquered the town. It seems new in comparison to the other buildings. Up ahead is where soldiers were quartered; all that remains is these graves. A succession of gates led from here to the summerhouse. There were sentry stations and soldiers on duty. Notice how the land climbs and how high it gets by the summerhouse,” Kulli said.

He pointed out a well that had gone dry. Bordering it was the fort’s sewage ditch where Hindu statues had been tossed when Muslims conquered the fort. A heap of statues could still be seen in there. “There was said to be a tunnel leading from the ditch to the outside.”

We continued towards the summerhouse. “This used to be a beautiful structure,” Kulli said. “The British repaired it and turned it into a court building.”

I stood on a hilltop. The Ganga flowed below. Some stones among the ruins indicated a flight of steps that must have led from the summerhouse down to the water. The Ganga was wide here. The banks on either side of the river were broad. The view was unimpeded. It brought refreshment to the heart. Kulli smiled on seeing me happy and seated himself by the stones leading up to the summerhouse. I was tired; I sat beside him.

“Friend,” he said, “how fresh the air smells.”

I liked being called friend. I much prefer friendship to the relationship of guru and disciple.

Excerpted with permission from A Life Misspent, Suryakant Tripathi Nirala, translated from the Hindi by Satti Khanna, HarperCollins India.


Suryakant Tripathi Nirala (1896–1961) is associated with the Chhayavaad movement in Hindi poetry in the first half of the twentieth-century. He was a prolific poet and essayist, who altered the landscape of Hindi letters by the range and intensity of his art. Some of his most important works are Parimal, Anaamika, Gitika, Tulsidas, Sandhya Kakali, Chaturi Chamar and Ravindra Kavita Kaanan.

Satti Khanna is Associate Professor at Duke University, USA, where he teaches Indian Cinema and Modern Hindi Literature. He interprets the lives and works of contemporary Indian writers to an international audience through a series of documentary films and translations. He has translated Vinod Kumar Shukla’s novels Naukar ki Kameez (The Servant’s Shirt, Penguin, 1999) and Khilega to Dekhenge (Once It Flowers, HarperCollins, 2014), and Mohan Rakesh’s travelogue Aakhiri Chattan Tak (To the Farthest Rock, HarperCollins, 2015). He has also translated Shukla’s novella for young adults, Hari Ghas ki Chhappar Vaali Jhopdi Aur Bauna Pahadd, to be published by HarperCollins in 2016.

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