Translation of a hindi story, हँसी के मुखौटे (Masks of Laughter).
I had mentioned that I had a diary, in which I wrote stories. (I had mentioned them here and here). I had stopped writing stories, as a mark of my protest to the universe conspiring against me. The diary was missing from November 2007 till February 12 2010. Now that I've got my hands on to it, am loving it. :)
Here is the story. I have written the same story in tamizh too. That will be new post. Please do let me know your comments.
I met Madhavan, after many days, in Bangalore, a place that was far from my native. We were both quite pleased to see each other. He was quite hospitable and talkative too. How can you expect quietness from a man, who had gained experience in life, from life. When I last met him, he was an assistant editor in a small company. He was thirty years old then. But that was 10-15 years ago. My memories had got fudged. Time had now changed his face. It had left an indelible expression on his face.
I was unable to decipher, how he got the news of my arrival at Bangalore. He had come to the station to pick me up.
‘I met Keshavan yesterday at the Sangh Library. You had written to him, isn’t it ? He told me, that you were coming.'
I could only mutter a ‘Hmm…’
‘Do you know how many times have I tried writing to you. But what will I write ?’
‘Why ? What happened ?’ I asked Madhavan.
‘I used to write sad stories at one point of time. Today my life itself is a sad story'.
He laughed a dry laugh. It made my stomach churn.
‘I hope everything is fine at home ?’
‘Hmm.. Things are ok. If life keeps moving on and on, on a crooked line, it soon looks like a straight line. I’ve learnt to laugh and I’ve learnt to cry. And I’ve also learnt it is better to laugh to difficulties.’
I did not know what to respond.
Madhavan continued, ‘I thought, my life was wasted. At least my children should have a proper life. It was all working fine. But you know the adage, right, just when the tree begins to give fruit, lightning strikes it.’
‘I hope he is alright ?’ I asked, referring to his son.
‘Yes, Yes, he is alright. That’s what everybody says. Happy to be away from me. Away from this world.’ He laughed loudly. Madly. A laughter to hide his sorrow. I felt a lump in my throat.
‘He is not in this world anymore.’ His face suddenly became serious.
‘Do you know how much I struggled to get him educated.’ The question was pointed towards God or to himself, I couldn’t say.
I tried to give him an empathetic ‘I can understand’
Madhavan continued, ‘He studied hard. Got himself a B.Com. Got himself a job in a bank. All on his own. You know about me right ? I don’t go around begging people for recommendations.’ He took a long breath.
‘He hadn’t even brought home his first salary, when he met with an accident. We suffered. You know, how it is. But he left behind a widow.’ He wanted to laugh but stopped.
I could not fathom, why Madhavan was narrating all this to me. I could only rationalize that maybe Madhavan was making this as a background to borrow some money from me. Sometimes under the mask of sympathy, there is also a little selfishness.
Changing the mood of the conversation, Madhavan held my hand, and said, ‘I want you to visit my home. You must come.’
‘Oh Please Madhavan…’
‘No.. I insist. You must come.’
‘O.K. Fine. I must meet Anni also.’
‘Oh, you mean Sujatha. She has gone to her brother’s place, for a change. I think she is fed up of putting up with me. I am currently staying alone, with my son. He takes care of everything, cooks the food, and goes to college.’
‘Hmmm.. You have a daughter too right ? I think she must be of marriageable age now ?’
‘Ah…Yes.. She is working in a consulting firm that conducts surveys. Her work involves a lot of travel in the suburbs. She earns about 200 rupees for every day of work. And as regards, marriage, what can I do if she reaches a marriageable age. I should have the means of getting her married also right ? With her salary… Forget it. The actual reason is everybody asks dowry and that is something that both my ego and my financial position cannot afford.’
I was thinking that the conversation had come to such a point, that Madhavan’s request for money would look genuine. I wanted to refuse it. But at the same time, for old times’ sake, I wanted to avoid that awkward situation. I changed the topic.
‘I have to meet someone at 10:30 today. Its related to why I came to Bangalore. By the way, What are you doing these days ?’
‘Me ? I tried my hand at many things. Jack of all trades. Now I feel, that I am not fit for anything.’
‘You are still with the Papers right ?’
‘No…No..No… It’s been years since I left them. These days I don’t even read them.’
He laughed again. A hollow laughter.
‘I left the paper company and joined a publication company.’
‘You are still there right ?’
I wanted to convince myself that if he did ask me any money, and I did not give it to him, I should not feel guilty. After all he is working and he is earning.
‘No. No. No. I am not. Those people threw me out.’
Again a hollow laughter. This time, it sounded mad.
‘Threw you out ?’ I asked in disbelief. Whatever was the case, Madhavan was not a thief. He was not dishonest.
‘Yes. I was accused of misappropriating the publication’s funds. Why accused ? I accept it. I did take the money. I got the punishment too. Not 2-3 years, but a lifetime. A lifetime of imprisonment, I should say’. This time he laughed till he had watery eyes.
‘Provident fund..etc ?’ I asked, still avoiding the situation.
‘They took everything. I wrote hundreds of petitions, thousands of letters. Nothing happened. Anyway, leave that. I came here because…’
Sensing the awkwardness of the moment, I pressed the bell to call the waiter, hoping the distraction would stop him, But he continued...
‘You are my old friend, and my well wisher. You are an editor, and you can do something to get me a job.’ He asked.
‘Yes, Yes. Sure.’ I told him. Less of sympathy. More of a formality.
‘You have to eat dinner at my place. I’ll come to pick you up. My house is near the station. I’ll leave you at the station.’
Madhavan went his way. I was engrossed in my work. When I returned back to my hotel, Madhavan was waiting.
‘Come, sit and have some coffee. You look tired.’ He said.
We had a silent coffee session. Madhavan paid the bill. I felt ashamed. I did not feel it was right for an unemployed man to pay for an employed man. ‘This is not decent’ was what I had thought about myself. And again, another voice in my head said, a man who spends every penny of his calculatingly, is obviously not spending it, without any reasons. But exactly did he want, I could not understand.
I bathed, paid the hotel bill. Madhavan had arranged for taxi to take me to his home. It was a small house in a decent colony. I should say it was a small room, for that was all I could see. Wherever one turned, one could see books. There was a worn out carpet on the floor. In the centre of the room was a table, with a lantern.
‘I sold everything I had, for my stomach. But I could not bring myself to sell my books. How could I ? Of course, Nobody buys these books these days, but if someone did, I would get another curse on me.’
I looked around the room. He had brought me there for dinner. The son was nowhere in sight.
‘Many great people live in this world, but Do you know, who are the greatest people for me ? One is the milkman, and the other, our house owner. Both have lent us money without hesitation, even when old friends turned their faces away.’
I felt as if someone had slapped me across my face. I got the point. One part of my mind said, ‘What an indecent man. Look at the way, he is making a background, to borrow money from his guest.’
I looked around again.
‘I think, it’s time for your dinner. I had told my son. I wonder where he is. He should have been home by now. He’ll come soon, I hope.’
Well, what could I say ? I said, ‘I usually don’t eat in the evening. You have invited me… So…’ I tried to convince him, in spite of my hunger.
Madhavan continued talking. He showed me his articles. Written 10 years ago, for some of the leading national dailies at that time. Then he pulled out another bundle, that had been rejected by publishers. Here was Madhavan sitting and telling his Ramayana and here was I listening to it. When life becomes a burden, only bitter experiences remain, and when you are hungry, bitter experiences do not sound nice.
‘I wonder why he’s not come yet.’ Madhavan said, looking at the clock.
‘It’s perfectly alright Madhavan. You have only strained yourself..’
‘No..No…No… You have strained yourself. You know about these youngsters. If the father is unemployed and mother is not in house, they are like donkeys off the leash. I am actually ashamed.’
‘Madhavan, no.. you need not be ashamed. It’s ok. It’s time for the train. Can I get a taxi from here ?’
‘Why do you need a taxi ? Station is quite near.’
He picked up my suitcase and started walking. He walked quite briskly for his age. He got me to the station on time. I thought he would ask me for some monetary favor at the last minute, but no, he did not ask. Keshavan had come to the station.
‘Did you have your dinner ?’ Keshavan asked.
It was originally planned that I would have dinner at Keshavan’s place and depart from there, but my plan had changed. Madhavan replied for me,
’Oh.. He doesn’t have dinner in the evenings.’
I gestured with my eyes to Keshavan to keep quiet.
The train came and I bade good bye to everybody. At the next station, I had my dinner. I never told a word about this incident to anybody.
A few days later, I received a letter. It was from Madhavan’s son.
‘I am quite familiar with your name. My father fondly remembers you in his conversations. I want to apologize to you. You are a sympathetic person, and you can understand our situation.
My father has the habit of entertaining his friends at his home, but there are no means. Eight years of unemployment. No income from anywhere. He has fallen so many times, that he does not have the strength to grasp the truth. Last week of the month. No food in the house. And my father invited you to his home. What could I do ? Where could I go ?
My sister sends us some money, which she earns after days of travel and sleeplessness. We use that money for our livelihood. She pays back our debts. I do not know what rights a father has to entertain his friends on his daughters earnings. Whether it is right or not, whatever inconvenience has been caused by me, I apologize for it.
You are quite understanding. You would have had your dinner at the next station. I hope, after reading this letter, the anger of insult would have vaporized too.'
After reading the letter, I could only see in my mind’s eye, Madhavan laughing his heart out with watery eyes.
P.S:- I do not know if I have done justice to the original. Folks who have read the original please do comment. :) :D
P.P.S:- I wrote this in 2000. I have made only subtle changes here and there. Those were mainly the choice of words. 10 years is a really long time... !!!! :)
The Mask - हँसी के मुखौटे - Translation
Translation of a hindi story, हँसी के मुखौटे (Masks of Laughter).