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Elder Love: Translated From Gujarati to English

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:

Elder Love

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.

“What happened?”

“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.”

“Nothing important.”

“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.”

“How much?”

“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.

At the Marienplatz with RK

Last October, my husband and I, newly empty-nested, decided to visit Europe. One evening in vivacious Munich, we were roaming the celebrated Marienplatz Farmers Market (real name: Viktualienmarkt). Strolling past the effervescent crowd at the outdoor beer garden, we made our way to the numerous stalls selling spices and spice mixes. We came upon a stall where the vendors were singing what sounded like ebullient German folk songs—we stopped to listen and check out the merchandise. The stall had several bins of richly colored powders in hues of red, orange, and brown—I counted more than seven different types of ‘Italian Bruschetta’ mixes. I looked up to see a vendor on the other side of the bin eyeing me with a smile on his face. He was a portly middle-aged man, dressed in a white t-shirt and green apron like the other merchants in his stall.

“So many!” I said to him. “Which one is good?”

“All very good, Madam!” he replied with gusto. “All best!”

I smiled at his selling skills.

“You want spicy?” he ventured.

“Yes!” my husband and I declared, simultaneously.

“Ha ha!” guffawing at our vehement, synchronous response, he asked, “You, India?”

“No—I, California. America!” I answered, trying to match his energy and mirth.

“Aah, California!” he echoed. “But first—India?”

“Yes,” I conceded. “First from India.”

Then, it was my turn to be amused as he broke out in song.

“Main shaayaar to naaheeen!”

I laughed, feeling a rush of joy at the unexpected reference to one of my favorite songs.

“You like that song?” I ventured, “You saw the movie?”

“Yah! Baabby!” he stated immediately.

“Yes! Bobby,” I agreed.

Rishi Kapoor (so cute!) Dimple Kapadia (so hot!) in Raj Kapoor’s ode to young love that was released right around the time that I, and all my friends, were coming of age. Of course, we idolized everything about it — not a girl in my school had not brandished the Dimple half ponytail and everyone had a crush on Rishi.

The conversation at the Farmers Market reminded me of the bygone ‘encounter’ with Rishi. The year was 1970 and another RK movie, Mera Naam Joker, had just been released. It was, one can say, not quite the blockbuster that Bobby was three years later, but it was Rishi Kapoor’s first significant role; he played the teenage version of Raj Kapoor, the namesake Joker of the film. The city was Vadodara — we called it Baroda then — and the movie was to premiere at the trendy Sadhana Talkies. The theater was owned by my aunt’s family, and her two children and I, all of us between nine and eleven years of age, spent many a warm afternoon in the air-conditioned cinema hall for at least a few minutes to watch a favorite song or scene from whatever popular movie was playing at the time. All we had to do was run down the stairs and ask the doorman to let us in, for the family’s home was right above the cinema hall.

We were immensely excited to learn that, to promote the film, the cast of Joker, including Raj and ‘Chintu’ Kapoor, as Rishi was known then, were to attend the premiere! An actual Bombay style premiere was to be held at Sadhana Talkies! By default, since I was constantly spending weekends with my Sadhana cousins, I was included in the welcoming committee.

As we stood, in our best attires, on the steps leading from the street level lobby to the theatre’s balcony and offices, I recognized a shy young Chintu Kapoor ascending the stairs. We had seen photos of the cherubic eighteen-year-old and heard that he had given a wonderful performance in his debut film. 

Rishi kept his head down as he climbed, smiling to himself at the shouts of “Chintu! Chintu!” from the huge crowd gathered in the street below. He wore a suit, I recall, and pulled demurely at his jacket. He did not look up until—to the incredible delight of my young self—Raj Kapoor, following his son up the stairs, stopped in front of me. Bending down—his green eyes looking into mine—he gently tugged at my cheeks and extolled, with his trade-mark charm, “Kitni pyaari bacchi hai!” What a sweet girl!

Rishi looked back—our eyes met, and he smiled!

An RK fan for life that day was made and the grown-up Rishi Kapoor of Bobby only further consolidated the deal. The faith of millions, like me, was well placed in the young man, as he proved to be a versatile actor and entertained audiences for many years with exemplary performances, from the romantic Hindi film hero to the nuanced characters of his later years. His untimely death in April has left the film industry undoubtedly poorer. 

Back at the Marienplatz, having completed our purchases, we were about to walk away when I heard someone call out.

“India!”

Of course, it was my German friend. As I looked back, he held up a finger—just a minute.

“Ghe ghe ghe ghe ghe, pyaar mein sauda naaheen!” he sang. His eyes danced, waiting for my reaction.

Laughing, I crooned back, “Ghe ghe ghe ghe ghe, ghe re saahiba, pyaar mein sauda nahin.”

We were attracting an audience of fellow merchants; some of them started to hum the tune.

“Do you know what it means?” I asked. “There is no trade in love. You should not take money from me—just give me the spices for free!”

We walked away to sounds of laughter and cheerful banter in German. Rishi Kapoor — to borrow the immortal words of O. Henry — makes the whole world kin.

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.