Growing up in India, I wasn’t very familiar with the short story form and read mostly novels. The wealth of short stories written and published in Indian languages remained undiscovered.
However, in the final year of high school, my classmates and I read a translation of a Hindi story in our English textbook that I was never able to forget. So haunting was its mood that every time I visited a hill station in subsequent years, I was reminded of its blue haze and misty melancholy.
The story in question was Nirmal Verma’s “Under Cover of Darkness.” Recently, while searching for fiction involving child narrators, I decided to revisit this particular story and realised that even now, years later, it remains one of my favorites.
The World Elsewhere and Other Stories is an anthology of selected stories by Verma, translated by various people. The title is apt because the stories are set in different places – a hill station in India, a park in London, a hospital in the Czech Republic – with characters of diverse nationalities mingling with one another.
A prolific and cosmopolitan Indian writer, Verma was invited by the Czech Oriental Institute in 1959 to initiate a programme of translation of Czech novels to Hindi. He lived in Prague for nearly a decade, during which time he travelled across Europe. The life of the Indian expatriate is portrayed with poignancy in many of the stories in this anthology of selected translations.
Before Verma, Hindi and Urdu language writers such as Munshi Premchand, Ismat Chugtai, and Saadat Hasan Manto, who belonged to the All India Progressive Writers Association, championed literature that emphasised social ills such as poverty and oppression of the masses. Verma was a pioneer of the Nayi Kahani (New Story) literary movement in Hindi literature with his very first collection of stories, titled Parinde (Birds). It marked a shift away from social to psychological realism, and to a focus on the middle class.
Verma’s characters are mostly urban and educated. Many of the characters remain nameless. In his first novel, Those Days (Ve Din,) which is credited with being the first Hindi novel set in Europe, the protagonist’s name is never revealed. The men and women in these stories could be anyone. They suffer from a malaise shared by individuals across the world.
Verma was sometimes known as the “poet of loneliness.” That may be all one needs to know about this book. A characteristic device of his stories is the soliloquoy. Long monologues are used to narrate events and also to signal the isolation of the speakers. Some of the characters just want to talk. They sit alone in parks or pubs. Often, they are expatriates stranded in a foreign country. Sometimes, they are grieving lost relationships. Verma’s wife, the poet Gagan Gill, says that he once told her, “Kabhi apne akelepan ko maila mat hone dena” (“Never allow your loneliness to be polluted.”) It is almost as if he were in love with loneliness. Without it, what would these stories be?
Occasionally, a fleeting connection offers a glimmer of hope, only to ultimately fail. Unexpected encounters and unlikely bonds provide temporary relief from solitude in Verma’s world. But, ultimately, they are too fragile to survive. Even when people appear to connect, their circumstances are so fraught that they lead to more sorrow than joy.
In his wife’s favourite story, “The World Elsewhere” (translated by Girdhar Rathi,) the narrator is an Indian expatriate in London who spends his days at the library to keep warm because heating is too expensive at home. “London seemed wretched,” he says, “And I felt low most of the time.” The sight of a cat in a restaurant leads him to reflect that “even a cat…is a great help in times of destitution and loneliness.”
In the park outside the library, the narrator meets a little black girl who asks him to join in her imaginary games. Her mother, a nurse and recently separated from her husband, also befriends him, and even asks him to look after the child, Greta, while she is at work. Greta’s innocence and joy lighten the narrator’s world for a period of time. But as he says, years later, “It was a false summer.” Endings in these stories are not happy or even bittersweet. They make no apology for breaking your heart.
Where is home, really?
The predicament of the expatriate living far from home is explored in several of the stories. In “Exile” (translated by Kuldip Singh,) a brand new immigrant finds himself “lonely and alone.” The setting as always heightens the sense of alienation. As he explains, “Loneliness can be bad enough the first few days in a foreign country, but those were late autumn days when even shadows wilted to a depressing yellow. Tired of sitting on benches by the river all day long, I would often seek refuge in one of the concert halls.” At one of these concerts, he meets a fellow Indian who seems eager for his company. The narrator soon discovers the urgency of his new friend’s homesickness. “Couldn’t you go back home?” he asks. In response, the man is silent.
His life is filled with pathos. The two children he has with a white woman have no friends in school except one another. The other children at school call them gypsies because of their dark skin. His wife wears garish saris and cooks Indian food in an effort to connect with him. In the most poignant scene in this story, the man plays the tanpura and sings songs by Tagore, while his wife sits in the corner with her head in her hands. The narrator observes – “I suspected that she, despite being a part of his family, was not with it; she was an outsider or a guest – as I was.” It is only at the end that the narrator learns the truth about the man who is now dead, that he had a wife and family all the while back home in his country, to whom he could not return.
Adultery is a recurring topic. The relationships in these stories are shrouded in secrecy, confined to specific rooms and days, and fraught with longing and desire. In “Weekend” (translated by Singh,) the protagonist is involved with a man who is separated from his wife and has a young daughter. She spends weekends with him, and on one such weekend, he takes her along when he visits the child. She lives from weekend to weekend, trapped in a state of constant uncertainty. She finds herself forever waiting. “Spring will return, and find me waiting for the summer. Autumn will be back too, followed by the short misty days of winter.”
“The Man and The Girl” (translated by Singh,) features two unnamed characters – an older, married man, yet another expatriate in a European city – and a much younger woman whom he meets in a bookstore. The story uses setting – the bookstore, the little cabin at the back, the man’s small apartment, the park outside, and so on – to examine the internal conflicts of both characters. When the man goes away to visit his sick wife for a few days, the woman is forced to confront the situation she is in. And the epiphany she has in a way sums up the ethos of all the stories.
“How could one’s not being around be a thing in itself? Yet, it walked with her in the streets, lay down beside her in her bed at night, and kept awake watching her fall asleep…And then it dawned on her why men, lonely and alone, went to the church, or to pubs, or into those houses where women traded their flesh – or, if married, went to their wives despite the fact that their happiness in each other had long since vanished.”
My favourite story is another variation on the same subject. The child narrator of “Under Cover of Darkness” (translated by Jai Ratan), set among the blue hills of Simla, senses that his mother is in love with Biren Uncle, a friend of his father’s. Verma was born in Simla, where his father worked as a high-ranking bureaucrat in the British government. The landscape he knew so well is an integral part of this evocative and broody story. The boy lies in a fever in his room, observing the world around him through a haze. “Outside one could see the forests enveloped in a blue haze, and lofty mountains, range upon range. When the curtains fluttered in the breeze the room was drenched with a dream-like fragrance, wafted from afar.”
Set against this surreal backdrop is the scandalous affair between Biren Uncle and the boy’s mother Pono. The boy overhears snatches of conversations between adults as well as hushed voices and stifled cries. He watches his enigmatic and tormented mother suffer. He visits Biren Uncle’s little cottage stuffed with books where the sensitive, literary man treats his mother and him with such tenderness. He sees images that at the time defy understanding – a photograph of his mother standing next to Biren Uncle, the closed window of her room burning with light, the yellow and brittle pages of Flaubert’s Letters to George Sand. The innocence of the narrator adds tension to this beautiful story but it is the imagery that will haunt you long after you’ve read it.
And back to loneliness
This romantic story is followed immediately by the depressing “The Dead and The Dying” (translated by Geeta Kapur,) in which a son tends to his dying father in hospital. Interior monologues carry these stories along, replete with flashbacks and reflections. Dialogue, when present, is sparing and cryptic. In “The Difference” (translated by Krishna Baldev Vaid,) where a man visits a young woman in hospital soon after she’s had an abortion, a subject that no one addresses directly, the conversation is eerily reminiscent of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”
“‘Are you happy now?’ her voice was very feeble.
‘We were happy even before this,’ he said.
‘Yes…but are you happy now?’”
The stories are tender towards women. In “Maya Darpan” (translated by Kapur,) which was adapted into a critically acclaimed arthouse Hindi film in the ’70s, a daughter feels trapped in her distant father’s home. Her brother has managed to escape but she has been left behind. The story reminds me a little of James Joyce’s “Eveline” in Dubliners. In fact, this entire collection has something of the Dubliners sensibility in it – a pervasive gloom that hangs over streets and parks, a heartbreaking tenderness.
Verma frequently plays with point of view. It often shifts abruptly from one character to another. Everyone’s perspective is significant. In “A Splinter of the Sun” (translated by Singh), the narrator addresses the reader directly. The entire story is in the form of a long monologue, which gradually reveals that the narrator is somewhat unreliable. Clues are scattered from the very beginning but rather than make him unsympathetic, they only serve to highlight his melancholy. The narrator sits on a park bench all day long, thinking about the dissolution of his marriage. He says, “Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m alright. I’m not unhappy. I come only for the sun.”
The overarching theme of this book is loneliness. The loneliness of old age, of exile, of clandestine relationships, of cultural difference. The characters yearn to connect. Everyone is searching – Taran for escape from her oppressive life, the exile for a way back home, the man in the park for company. Again and again, the connections fail. People disappoint one another. Circumstances turn against them. Happiness is elusive and hope, when it comes, is fleeting. What makes it all bearable is the writer’s poetic sensibility. And the conviction, deep down, that loneliness is not such a terrible thing after all. For, as one of his characters in “The Burning Bush (translated by Susan Neild) says, “As long as we have our solitude to commune with, even when we’re with others, then, in any real sense, we’re not alone.”
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