Bela Desai published seven translated short stories by a famous late Gujarati writer, Ramanlal Vasantlal Desai; this is the first time his stories have been translated into English. Here is an abridged excerpt from the book Selected Short Stories by Ramanlal Vasantlal Desai:
Prabhalakshmi regarded her family lovingly, as her son and daughter-in-law propped her up in bed with care. They were all there—her sons, daughters, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. The doctor had advised them not to gather in her room, but Indian families often ignore such advice. To her joy, the grandchildren came in constantly, asking how she felt and playing quietly until an adult made them leave. Her gaze landed on her husband Pramodrai, sitting quietly in his armchair. Prabhalakshmi sighed.
An observant person would have noticed Pramodrai’s frequent glances at his wife. If someone came or left the room, a son gave her medicine, or a daughter-in-law offered her fruit—he took the opportunity to steal a look at her. But everyone’s attention was on Prabhalakshmi and his looks went mostly unnoticed, except by the young daughter-in-law Veena, who tried to hide her smile at the surreptitious glances.
Hearing Prabhalakshmi sigh, Pramodrai looked up; she turned to Veena, who was trying to conceal her amusement, and requested,
“Please make him a paan, my dear.”
“Ji—right away,” replied Veena, making a mental note to relate the old couple’s display of affection to her sisters-in-law later.
One of Prabhalakshmi’s two sons came over to make sure she was comfortable, and Pramodrai walked over too.
“Relax,” Prabhalakshmi told him. “The children are taking good care of me.”
Pramodrai nodded, returning to his armchair. Soon, someone came to visit Prabhalakshmi and he thought it was a good time to take a break.
“Maybe I’ll go take a short walk,” he stated.
“Yes—no need to sit here all day,” his wife replied.
“I will leave, then?” Pramodrai confirmed.
“Yes,” replied Prabhalakshmi.
She glanced at Veena, and they smiled at each other.
In Pramodrai’s absence, Prabhalakshmi asked the family to come to her.
“What is it, Ba?” they asked, concerned.
“I want to tell you something.”
“Yes. Anything,” a son responded.
“I will not be around for long…”
“Arré!” interrupted another son. “The doctor said you will be sitting up by yourself soon!”
“No—it doesn’t matter.”
They tried to protest; she interrupted them,
“You are wise children who don’t need my advice but—please pay attention to his needs. He will not ask for anything…”
Prabhalakshmi was too exhausted to go on.
At that moment, Pramodrai entered the room; seeing everyone standing by the bed, he approached hurriedly.
“Don’t worry, nothing happened,” replied Prabhalakshmi, closing her eyes.
Pramodrai stood quietly for some time. Suddenly, he reached for his wife’s wrist. Prabhalakshmi slowly opened her eyes—with effort. Her fingers touched Pramodrai’s—she smiled faintly. And the open eyes, the fingers touching his, her loving smile, became still.
“It has happened,” Pramodrai said, as he gently let go of her hand.
Immediately, the house erupted in the chaos that follows a sudden calamity. Children were taken out of the house by well-meaning neighbors. The doctor was hastily summoned. He checked Prabhalakshmi’s pulse.
“There is nothing left,” he solemnly proclaimed.
The women huddled, crying softly. Pramodrai, acutely aware of his responsibilities, tried consoling them. Family and friends started pouring in. Eventually, the beloved entity was taken on her final journey to be ceremoniously dissolved into ashes by her heartbroken family.
Pramodrai did not shed a tear—he continued offering support to his family, whose sense of loss was deep; no one could offer them solace except the elderly Pramodrai.
“Do not cry,” he told his daughter-in-law. “You did so much for her. She is surely at peace.”
And the wives would cover their eyes and weep harder.
To his daughters, he said, “See, the most important thing for us is knowing that our children are happy. What more can a parent want?”
But the daughters were not soothed.
He spoke privately with the son who was unable to eat, “She was very happy to see you doing so well. Don’t be sad—come, eat with me.”
Friends and extended family offered their condolences, “How terrible to lose a loved one! But it must be a big consolation that she lived a happy, full life!”
That was how Pramodrai himself consoled his family, but it irked him when others implied that, because of advanced age, her death was somehow justified.
One elderly relative offered, “Who can escape fate? Thankfully, you are amidst the warmth of your ample family.”
Pramodarai nodded politely, however, he felt as if the essence of his life had vanished, leaving behind a dark, ubiquitous void.
Several days had passed since Prabhalakshmi’s death. From his armchair, Pramodrai looked at the empty space where her bed used to be, his mind wandering to a time when they were still poor. He closed his eyes and envisioned a young Prabhalakshmi. He saw himself, lying in bed—his head on a pillow—eyes closed.
“What is wrong?” she enquired.
“It’s nothing,” he replied.
“There’s something on your mind.”
“Then swear on my life that nothing is wrong!” Prabhalakshmi persisted.
“You are so stubborn!” he expostulated but continued. “I need some money, urgently. Tried a couple of sources but no luck.”
“Two thousand rupees.”
“There’s a thousand left from my trousseau money. We can get another thousand selling some jewelry,” reasoned Prabhalakshmi.
Pramodrai was reluctant, but eventually accepted her solution, which proved to be prophetic as, in time, they dug out of their financial groove and began to live comfortably.
He wondered what would have happened had the young Prabhalakshmi been unwilling to part with her possessions.
“Veena!” Pramodrai exclaimed suddenly.
“Ji,” responded Veena, hurriedly entering the room.
Immediately, Pramodrai realized his mistake: he had wanted to remind Veena that it was time for Prabhalakshmi’s medicine. He tried to cover it up.
“I don’t see anyone—where is everyone?”
“Everyone is here, Bapuji. Shall I get them?”
“No, no—maybe I’ll step out.”
“Ji,” Veena replied, concerned. “Should I ask someone to accompany you?”
Pramodrai shook his head—No.
Outside, the flowers were blooming, but Pramodrai did not notice them; instead, he found solace in the drooping branches of the banyan tree that cast an elaborate shadow on the ground, like the protective arms of a mother.
“Are trees closer to Prabhalakshmi than me now?” he wondered. He sat on the bench underneath the banyan.
“My family takes good care of me but the one whose constant love supported me is gone.”
The leaves of the tree swayed in the gentle wind; the branches creaked.
“She often fanned me with that old brown fan, offering a cool breeze,” he reminisced.
As the sky turned red and gold in the twilight, Pramodrai slowly rose from the bench.
“My sun has set too,” he reflected, like a desolate man pining for his love—without the swagger of youth. His beloved partner was gone but he knew that displaying his grief would be ungainly—at his age.
He went inside, settling into his armchair again. The oil lamps were lit, reminding him of the time when Prabhalakshmi would light them.
“Where are Malini and Veena?” Pramodrai asked after his daughters-in-law.
“They are feeding the children,” replied someone.
He heard crying, and asked, “Who is that?”
“Oh, that’s Usha,” replied someone else.
“Who is making her cry?”
“Who can make that stubborn girl cry?” a daughter responded.
“Give her what she wants. Who but a child will be stubborn?” he sided with his granddaughter.
The brothers and sisters exchanged looks. Several minutes passed, but the sound of crying from the kitchen did not stop.
“Why is she still crying?” Pramodrai asked. “Bring her here.”
“Don’t worry, Bapuji. she will go to sleep soon.”
“A child should not go to sleep crying. Please—bring her to me,” he insisted.
Reluctantly, one of the daughters went to the kitchen. She cajoled Usha to stop crying—to no avail. Soon, Pramodrai sent his other daughter and, finally, they managed to bring the child over.
Pramodrai sat her on his lap and asked gently, “What is the matter, Beta?”
“Nothing,” she managed to answer, still sobbing.
“Then why are you crying?”
Usha stopped crying long enough to respond, “I want Ma.”
Pramodrai was unsure of what to say to the child whose daily ritual had included her beloved grandmother.
“Beta, Ma has gone to the house of God.”
“Why did she go without me?” Usha cried harder.
Pramodrai felt a tug in his heart. Stroking her head gently, he asked, “Shall I feed you, Dikri?”
“No, I want Ma,” replied the child.
“Ma cannot come back, Dikri!” the grandfather stated.
“Then why did she leave without me?!” Usha objected, letting out an extended wail.
Pramodrai’s restrained grief finally defied the threshold of constraint.
Hugging the child, he said in a quivering voice, “Everyone could go on without her—you could not, Dikri!”
And the room was filled with tears.
Bela Desai, Ph.D., has been working in biotechnology in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than twenty years. Besides science, she enjoys reading and traveling to different places around the globe. She loves to dabble in singing and writing as well.