Krishna Sobti’s autobiographical protagonist has had to leave college in Lahore during the Partition, and return to Delhi, where her parents live. In Delhi, she trained as a Montessori teacher at the refugee camps. New qualifications in hand, she has applied for a job advertised in the newspaper: director of a new Montessori pre-school in the kingdom of Sirohi, a princely state not yet accessioned by the Indian government. She is invited for an interview, and this excerpt chronicles her journey from Delhi to Sirohi:
A train breaking through the stillness. The past, and a desolate landscape, rush alongside it. A wasteland of rocky cliffs. Thorny bushes and foreignness. A succession of small hills. What happened to the lush yellow fields of mustard? Where have those leafy, shade-giving trees gone? What happened to the dirt roads? The glittering ripples of the Chenab River? The sparkling clean sand? Here was the solid earth of Rajputana in its stead, hidden in the wrinkle of hills that ran alongside the train.
She took the envelope from her purse. Read the slip of paper once more:
Princely State of Sirohi Railway Station Erinpura
Sporadic settlements had begun to appear. She pulled out her luggage, stowed cowering beneath the seat, and fixed her eyes outside the window.
The train was slowing down. A flat, silent platform baking in the afternoon sun. A green railing. A gate leading out. That’s it? Nothing more?
The train stopped.
She pulled out her suitcase and unloaded it. Then her holdall and bag. Checked her purse. Looked around. Ahead of her she saw a tiny personage. He wore a kurta, dhoti, slip-on shoes and a black boat-shaped cap. He strode towards her.
When he drew close, he greeted her: “You’ve come from Delhi, is it?”
She nodded: “Yes.”
“My name is Munna Lal. I’ve been sent to pick you up. Please come outside. I’ll get your bags.”
But her feet seemed reluctant. They weren’t prepared to comply. Go back. Did you really have to come here? Yes, she did. From one internal uprooting to another. What will you do? She’d come all this way chasing after that advertisement. She felt strange.
“Come, come, the bus is waiting for you.”
“Can I get a cup of tea here?’
“The bus is about to leave. Maybe you can get some tea in Bavanvar. You sit in the front seat, and I’ll load the luggage.” An old, brittle, wheezing bus from way back when. She looked around and out the window – as though dust had got in her eyes. She opened her purse, took out her handkerchief and wiped her eyes, pretending to brush away the dust. Paving pebbles from long ago.
Should you go back? Yes, why not? You still could. You have enough money for the ticket.
Yes, I do.
All the same, there’s something –
She looked at the seat in front of her indecisively – her throat felt dry. Would she get any water, she asked.
“You’ll get some at Bavanvar.”
“How far is Bavanvar from here?”
“It’s coming right up.” She started to close her eyes, then opened them.
“Can you get a bus from there to the station?”
“Why? Why, Bai ji, why are you asking that? You did get the letter sent from here, didn’t you?”
“It’s not that.”
Munna Lal ji took off his little cap, scratched his head, then put the cap back in place and asked worriedly, “You didn’t leave anything behind at the station? You just had three bags, right?”
She said nothing. Just nodded. Yes, nothing more.
This far-off kingdom of Sirohi. It won’t work out for me here. I left home for a job. Now I want to go back.
What are you worried about?
I can’t even tell myself why I’m so uncertain. As I was arriving here, I wondered what my dilemma was. Why had I become so disenchanted already?
Is it because of leaving your homeland, Gujrat? Or Lahore? Or Delhi? Look, you need to shake off this gloom. Gloominess doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t fix a thing. Whatever happened, happened.
The bus had come to a stop in Bavanvar. She got down. Munna Lal was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he’d gone off in search of tea. I could have done that myself, she thought. I’m giving him trouble, she thought.
“Here, please have some tea.”
“What about you?”
“No, I don’t drink it much. Will you go to the temple?”
“Yes”’ The entrance door: inside was a colourful woven tapestry.
Idols large and small. When she came back outside, she saw a hut built high among the rocks. One by one, she began to recollect each thing that had happened.
She cast an apathetic eye over the rocky slope. The thin, rippling shade of the two or three trees on the side of the hill, and the pond crouching below. On its mossy green surface: mosquitoes and bugs. A tall, strong figure strode along, far below. He had long legs and arms, and on his head, a turban decorated with an outer wrapping. He sat in the shade, tore a round piece of roti from his turban cloth and pushed the rest back in again. Then he began to place in his mouth morsels of that most blessed thing in the world.
When he was done, he stood up, a human of real flesh and blood, and went to squat by the bank of the pond. He spread the edges of his turban cloth over his mouth and leaned down to gulp the water. She was quite amazed to see him shake off the moss, mosquitoes and bugs stuck to the outside of the cloth. For the first time, she saw the imperfections in the water. As she walked back to the bus, the soles of her feet felt lifeless.
Their old haveli was gone, the wooden gate studded with brass nails, the brick well with the raised platform, the doorway. The narrow stairway going down into the cellars. Don’t think about there any more. She had studied a gazetteer of Rajputana before coming. The princely states, the mansions, the masters of the mansions, palaces and estates; handmaidens and slave girls, Bhil and Garasiya skirts, cholis, dhotis and turbans, colourful dupattas.
Excerpted with permission from A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, Krishna Sobti, translated by Daisy Rockwell, Penguin Books.