(First appeared as 'Pinty ka Sabun' in the journal Hindi, Language Discourse Writing)
Such a thing had never occurred in our village before. Many of us had heard about ‘soap’, but there could hardly be two or three who had actually set eyes on it. If people were aware of the existence of soap at all, it was thanks to some army men. Also because when Deputy Saheb’s daughter visited the village once, some women observed this object with her. It was said that wherever Pinty might be standing, a scent of flowers surrounded her up to a distance of at least two miles. If ten or fifteen years later people still had memories of that Pinty, it was because of soap. People would place it in the category of fragrance, behind attar and other such perfumes.
Well, Pinty was a being who had arrived from another world. Soap had never been glimpsed with any other person in the village. In truth, I was the one who acquired the first cake of soap in our village. That too, in a sudden, unexpected manner.
It was the fifteenth of August or some such special day, because school was closed. Kaka and I had walked several miles to sell potatoes in a small town. My uncle must have been five or six years older than I. We were almost like friends. Sometimes though, in view of his age he did display an eagerness to throw his weight around. However, he never succeeded in his attempts to assert authority over me.
We were roaming around, sucking lemon drops, enthralled by the razzle-dazzle of the town, when we arrived at a crowded field. The place was as packed as a fair ground. Extremely noisy as well. Whistles were being blown and a man’s authoritative voice was booming over a loudspeaker, as if scolding everyone.
Confused, quite oblivious, we were burrowing deeper into the crowd when I suddenly found myself lined up in a row of boys, similar to me in age. Someone had caught hold of my arm and hurriedly made me stand there. A man was marshalling everyone, making them take up position near a white line. On either side of me boys were yelling, flexing one leg as if getting ready to pounce on something, over and over again.
It appeared that a race was about to begin.
At first I got scared. I looked around for Kaka but could not trace him. The men who stood there brandishing sticks must have shoved him away with the rest of the crowd. The loudspeaker was intoning numbers.
And three! They all dashed off like starving beasts. I along with them. At first I couldn’t figure out what to do, but when I noticed the boy next to me racing ahead pumping his matchstick legs, I pelted after him like a fury. With such force that in no time at all I got entangled in the rope stretched across the other end of the field and fell down. It was another matter that I hurt my knee too, slightly. When I dusted myself off and rose, the sound of clapping resounded in my ears. And a shiny box was thrust into my hands.
A giggling Kaka emerged from somewhere in the crowd. The two of us laughed and laughed. I was itching to run some more. Run and run. I bounded ahead and Kaka followed me, panting away. We left the town behind. I was racing pell-mell towards the village when Kaka began to call out to me. Eventually, when I came to a halt near the river, he caught hold of me.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
Then I remembered that I was still clutching the shiny red box. Immediately, Kaka grabbed it and began to examine it, turning it over in his hands. He was the one who guessed that it was a cake of soap. His face was beginning to gleam with excitement. He sniffed it again and again. When I asked him for it, he wouldn’t give it back.
“I’m not eating it up!” he snapped. His intentions did not seem honest.
I flared up. After all, it belonged to me. I tried to snatch it back. Struggled to knock him over. But it was impossible to get the better of that ruffian—tall and strapping as he was. By now he had opened up the gleaming wrapper and taken out the delicate pink cake that lay within.
I resorted to my ultimate weapon. I dropped down on the rocks near the river with a resounding thud. And began to bawl, shedding real tears. “I’ll tell Ija…!”
The trick worked, as it always did. Kaka glared at me with reddened eyes, then flung the cake of soap at me, saying, “Go, die.” I leapt at it. “Give me the wrapper too!” Kaka threw the wrapper at me. I wrapped the fragile cake carefully in the wrapper and made my way home, laughing, sniffing at it.
Thus was launched a serious antagonism between us, the first ever. At that time I was so absorbed in the delicate scent of the soap that I had no time to take notice of Kaka. Later, this animosity became permanent.
Well, that evening, Kaka walked behind me kicking stones. The moment we reached home, he cocked his head and announced, ‘Gopiya’s head is so high in the air today that he can’t even glance down. Just because he got a cake of soap.’
Ija was gathering the cow dung into a heap. She stood up and said, ‘Saban! Where did you get it? What is it like? Show it to me!’
‘It’s mine!’ I snapped.
Ija went and washed her hands clean. ‘Show it. Let me see too, what kind of soap it is.’
But I had no faith left in anyone. After much fussing, when I opened my fingers, Ija picked it up with great delight. She went close to the lamp and examined it carefully. Then sniffed it two or three times. ‘I’ll bathe with it,’ she said.
I swooped on it like a bird of prey. Grabbed it and stuffed it into an inside pocket. Ran and stood at a distance of at least twenty footsteps. Ija could only gape. ‘Go die,’ she said furiously. ‘May your soap burn up!’ She walked off, glaring at me.
So, that’s how my mother became enemy number two. The truth was—I was unable to grasp the consequence of this cake of soap. I was too young, perhaps. But soon I began to get the feeling that I was surrounded by foes. I knew it—that Kaka turned all my belongings inside out. That he inspected each and every canister and tin that existed in our house.
To the extent that he sifted the hay and straw in the cowshed. But no one was able to ascertain where the soap was kept—except me.
Beaten, Kaka tried flattery. But I was no longer so gullible.
Bapu wasn’t lucky enough to see the soap. Ija and Kaka had provoked him so much by harping on it constantly that he resorted to violence. However, by now I was well aware that temptation would strike anyone who happened to even glance at it. So I wouldn’t budge from my stand. Defeated, Bapu gave me a couple of kicks, saying, ‘So…he’s acquired a taste for perfume and scent! Saala, make him take the cows out to graze!’
I did not shed a single tear and swallowed the insult. However, from that very moment I began to doubt that he was my real father.
My sister Kunti did get the opportunity to touch and smell the soap, under my strict supervision. Since then, she follows me around, wide eyed. There’s no way to get rid of her, apart from giving her a couple of tight slaps.
With so many people around me, it was becoming hard for me to look at the soap again and again, the way I wanted to. My restlessness grew. Each day felt like a mountain that had to be climbed. Finally, on Sunday I made a tough decision and took out the soap, got some hot water and sat down to bathe.
This would be my first bath with the soap. I removed the paper casing lovingly. Placed it carefully in the sun. Held the soap tenderly in my right hand and touched it lightly to my wet hair.
The pink cake had some letters engraved on it. I did not know how to read English but whatever was written added greatly to the beauty of the soap. I had to take care that the letters didn’t get rubbed out.
Kaka ostensibly sat inside studying but his head would keep popping up at the window. In between I could hear him read loudly from his book. On her way to cut grass for fodder, Ija halted in the middle of the courtyard. She watched me for a while then pulled a face and left. Kunti stood two steps away and gazed entranced at the soap sliding on my head, the white foam emerging from it and the multi coloured bubbles glistening in the sun.
‘Scram! Get lost!’
Kunti began to plead, ‘Dada, give me a little too!’
I knew Kunti too well. She was as sly as a cat. It was best to chase her away. First I threw water at her. When she didn’t budge, I slapped her with my wet hands. The moment she fled, screaming, Kaka came clattering down the stairs. ‘You raised your hand on her? You’re going to get it today!’ But he did not move beyond the fence. Just stood there and glared. I was too far off. I continued to enjoy myself, whipping up foam, laughing. Kaka kept hurling abuses but did not go away.
I rubbed myself with the soap for a long time then poured water on my body. Dried out the soap. It had not worn out noticeably. I placed it back in its covering. Then I swaggered past Kaka. He sniffed the air.
How fresh my body felt. What a delightful scent! And how soft my hair felt! I quickly got dressed, worried that the fragrance might escape.
I used to leap off the parapet that surrounded our courtyard and often I’d begin to fly. I’d float like the pigeons above the high, high mountains, forests, far, far away. How many lands, how many villages would slip away beneath me! My body would tingle all over. When I looked down, our house appeared tiny, like a toy. And Ija, Bapu, Kaka, Kunti, all the people, how different they looked—like ants. I would soar high above the whole world. Everything would be below me. Nobody could reach me.
They say that when they’re growing, children dream of flying. But someone also said, dreams are not reality.
After bathing with soap that day, I felt I could take off any moment.
I had school that day. Early in the morning, I worked up a fine lather and scrubbed myself till I shone. I dressed my perfumed body in my best clothes. Parted my hair with great care. All the way, I kept lifting up my elbow, sniffing at it to make sure the fragrance had not evaporated. No, fragrance doesn’t evaporate. It lasts for hours. If there were no sunshine, no sweat, if dust didn’t fly and the wind didn’t blow, perhaps your body would always exude fragrance.
It took the class by storm. Soon all the boys had their noses pointing up, sniffing the air crazily. For a while I enjoyed the scene, smiling faintly. Then I placed my arm straight on the face of the boy sitting next to me.
‘Oh, baba ho! What have you put on?’ The boy actually jumped. The class was thrown into such a welter of confusion that God forbid it should ever happen again. Pushing, shoving, the boys sprang at me and dug their noses wherever they could to get a whiff. Those who were done pushed their eyeballs right up to their hairlines and began to cry, ‘Tell us! Tell us!’
And when, enjoying myself thoroughly, I told them the whole story; the room was filled with clamour. ‘Is it true? There’s a covering along with it? But it will finish one day, then? Then what, he’ll take part in the race again and win another. It’ll last a year at least. Show it, yaar, come on.’
When Massa’ab arrived the noise was stilled. But none of them could concentrate on their lessons. They were all watching me, from the corners of their eyes. I was soaring really high in the sky now. That moment if I had proclaimed that I was the monitor from now on, they would all have said, ‘Yes, you are!’ They had heard about Pinty from their elders, about her soap. Finding that dream-like story coming true, they were going wild.
The bell rang for half time. The boys got up to dash out as usual. Then suddenly all of them froze. I was still seated in my place. ‘Come on, come!’ Today all of them wanted to stick close to me. Even those who used to beat me up, taking advantage of my skinniness.
I rose, but an unfamiliar reluctance besieged me. This had never happened before. Earlier, I was invariably the first among those in a hurry to rush out. But then the boys had never surrounded me and said, ‘Come, come on,’ either.
‘You’re on our side’. ‘No, on ours.’ A furious battle flared up to determine which side I’d be on to play kabaddi.
I was overcome with constraint. The thought of being chased around in the game of kabaddi, rolling in the mud, was terrifying. ‘No, I don’t want to play,’ I said.
‘Why? Why?’ The shouts came at me from all sides. Then all of a sudden it seemed as if the boys had understood. ‘All right, you’ll be the referee. You can sit and watch.’ They all moved away, frustrated.
The word had spread through the village like wildfire. Each and everyone was dying to take a look at the soap. People would stop me on the way. Find some excuse for visiting us. They wanted me to show them the soap. When I refused, they would get annoyed. Even scold me. All the same, they would definitely sniff at me. My family must have faced some embarrassment on my account. Later on, they would make me the target of their abuses. Kaka would always make threatening gestures. A couple of times, finding me alone, he squeezed my throat. Kunti was forever sulking. If I ever happened to quarrel with her, Bapu would lose no time in letting me experience the weight of his two and a half kilo hand. Ija always spoke to me in an irritated tone.
The whole world seemed as rapacious as vultures trying to snatch away this tiny modicum of joy from my life. I noticed that in the beginning people would be very deferential, but when I didn’t show them the soap they would immediately turn hostile. Almost everyone had become my enemy now.
People even nicknamed me Pinty. This was not a joke. It was a way of showing their loathing. The boys would call out, ‘Pinty, Pinty!’ And the most astonishing thing was that despite feeling troubled by this I began to wonder where Pinty was and what she was like. I even sketched an outline in my mind, which I would fill up with colour in my spare time. I believed that she must look like the goddess Lakshmi on our calendar. She was as fair skinned and her clothes were so shiny that a glow surrounded her even in the darkness of the night. Not a single speck of dust could settle on her. She was as light as if created out of a blank, white sheet of paper.
And I had abandoned all play. Some of the boys did want to keep me company but the allure of living it up with the group would draw them away. When they were enjoying their noisy games, I would sit on the low wall, shaking my legs. They would chase each other playing kabaddi, rush into the clammy fields to search for cucumbers, steal lemons, bathe in the river with their clothes off, and slide on the dry pine needles. They would shriek and yell, wrestle, tear their clothes or scrape their bodies the way they always did. I would watch them from my seat, cracking my knuckles.
The truth is, I often longed to jump into the midst of the group. But whenever I was about to do this, God knows what made my body freeze. At such moments I wished that someone would just drag me from my seat and shove me on to the field where they were playing kabaddi. But perhaps this was not possible. Now they didn’t even ask me to join them. They had all accepted that Pinty’s role was to sit and watch. They had begun to forget my real identity.
Now Kaka was setting off to market. He was gathering bags to carry stuff back in. I couldn’t control myself. ‘I’m coming too,’ I said.
Kaka flared up. ‘You will not come with me.’
‘Bhabhi!’ Kaka proclaimed, ‘Ask him to get your stuff. I’m not going.’
Ija charged at me like a tigress. She caught hold of my ear and hurled me to the ground. ‘I’m going to settle you today. The bigger he’s growing, the more rotten he’s getting.’ She gave me a couple of kicks on my back and dragged me out.
Kaka yelled out enthusiastically from behind, ‘Fix Pinty well and proper.’
Ija dragged me like a dead rat to the parapet and pushed me into a bed of nettles—
One last fragile thread of attachment had lingered. That too snapped, at that moment. At half time in school, as I sat on the low wall, my eyes filled up again and again. The leaping, prancing boys began to tremble in my gaze. My body still throbbed with the agony of its encounter with the stinging nettles. My elbows were grazed, my hair full of dust. I had bathed that morning too. But not a whiff of fragrance remained on my body.
I felt like a wholehearted good cry. I’d leave; I’d depart this place! Go away forever to the land where Pinty lived. People were not like this out there. There was no hatred. None of this undeserved persecution.
And I made up my mind that as soon as I got the chance I’d run off to the market town. They said that buses left for distant places from there. I’d get on to any one. Then I’d never come back. Never.
After that moment, my resolve began to gather strength. I selected the clothes I’d take with me. I hid away a bag too, to carry them in. Collected some walnuts and spied out the place from where it was possible to help myself to some money. Now, I just waited for the right opportunity.
And once everything was in place, disaster struck.
I was bathing. No matter how cold it might be, I wouldn’t miss my bath. Little did I know that Kaka was lying in wait. The moment I put down the soap he pounced on it like a cat. I was stunned. Kaka’s hand was on the soap. He was picking it up when it slipped out and fell far away. By that time I had screwed up my eyes and flung a heavy brass pot at him.
Kaka cried out, ‘Hai!’ He swayed and sat down heavily, holding his head.
By that time I had picked up the soap and gotten ready to strike again, lota in hand. But Kaka didn’t rise. Now my legs turned shaky. I shook him and said, ‘Kaka, Kaka!’
He groaned, lifted his head and I saw red blood flowing from his forehead. ‘You hit me, saale!’ Kaka began to mumble God knows what. Then he staggered out, still holding his head with his hands. At the threshold, he paused. Tearful face. Blood streaked cheeks with tears gushing down. ‘Saale, one day your soap will wear out,’ he sobbed.
Kaka left and I stood there dazed. I opened my hand and gazed at the beautiful pink cake. How slender it looked! Its fragrance had vanished too, now.
My heart plummeted. There was no time to cry. I quickly put on my clothes and ran upstairs. Pulled out the bag. Stuffed some clothes inside it. No time to keep the walnuts. My school bag? Why would I need it? Money?
Then I overheard Kaka tell an anxious Ija how he slipped on some cow dung and his head struck the threshold of the cowshed. I couldn’t stand straight after that. Just fell face down on my bed. After a long time I was able to get up and hide the soap in its usual place. When I returned I went off to sleep in a dark corner. Didn’t even get up in the evening. Said I had a stomach-ache.
When I woke the next morning I found a strange light filling the place. It had snowed during the night. I hadn’t even noticed it. My heart plunged with anxiety.
I rushed out barefoot on the freshly fallen snow. Who was bothered about the cold? The pile of straw was covered with four inches of snow. Here lay—my secret. When I dug out the snow with my hands I found nothing but slush beneath. Soon it was all over my fingers.
Where was my soap? Not here, nor here? Not even there? My hands encountered something slimy. A lump of pink sludge. Scented. I sank down on the snow with a thud, the lump enclosed in my hand.
‘Haria!’ It was Ija. She had come to milk the cow. I looked up. Her lips puckering up as always for a joke. The lump slipped out of my hand. A kind of sob emerged from Ija’s mouth—‘Haria…’
A shudder shook my entire frame, tearing me apart. Letting myself fall apart completely, I clutched my mother with my muddy hands and bawled. Ma sat down beside me too. She gathered me close to her heart. And hiding my face in her womb warmth, I wept, after a long time. The way I used to before.
And suddenly I felt as if a huge mound of ice was melting. My heart turned as light as cotton wool, turned lighter and lighter. If at that moment, a gust of wind had touched me, I would surely have taken flight.
||uncle; father’s younger brother|
||mother; local term used in some Himalayan regions|
||respectful term of address for older brother|
||master sahib; respectful term for male teacher|
||a kind of outdoor game|
||goddess of wealth|
||term of address for older brother’s wife|