Translation of Taltal, a story by Bala Krishna Sama.
Tara came running down the stairs. “Why, there’s nothing here!”
“Look around, idiot!” said Chandra excitedly.
He descended so quickly that the sound of the successive steps merged into one.
“Gopal!! Hey Gopa!!” shouted Tara, knocking on the door of the room leading off from the landing. It was locked.
“Gopal!! Babu!” yelled Chandra Prasad even more loudly.
Gopal’s small voice came through the crack in the door.
“Open the door at once. You naughty boy.”
“Don’t threaten him. The poor little thing is probably playing.”
“Did he throw the paper into the fire?”
Gopal puffed quickly on a paper cigarette that he had made himself and threw the butt into the fire. He would have thrown that piece away whether or not his parents had come. When they entered the room they smelled the odour of burning paper even more. “What a baby,” said Chandra, chucking his son’s chin, “he was playing so hard he didn’t even realize that the paper has fallen into the fire.”
“You can call it playing if you want to, but I don’t like the way he’s been carrying on nowadays. He’s eight years old, but when it comes to sense, he hasn’t … What kind of a game is this with the door always closed? I’ve had enough of it.”
Gopal extricated himself from his father’s embrace and ran outside.
“Nowadays he won’t spend even a minute with us.”
“Let him go and play. Remember when we were young.”
Gopal, already far away, was heard shouting happily and as shrilly as a peacock.
“Remember when we were young,” said Tara nostalgically.
Night fell, the lights were put out, and soon everyone was in bed. Tara was not yet
asleep. She closed her eyes and remembered the time she had a fever and stole the achar that her grandmother had made. Suddenly she heard a noise. She opened her eyes. A match was burning. She saw a yellow moon rising, as it were, from the mountain formed by two small hands. The tip of a nose was lit up and so was the area under two round cheeks. There was a shadow on the side of the nose, but the face was not hidden — she knew it was that naughty Gopa!. The moon was suddenly hidden in a cloud of smoke and mist. Only a star remained. At one moment, it twinkled brightly, at another it was dim. The cloud grew larger and larger, and she realized that it was a cigarette.
Tara, seeing her son’s attempt to act like a man, smiled a little. She was a bit worried about this bad habit but somewhat pleased that ‘yesterday’s egg had become a chicken today’ and was now flying. Suddenly imagining what would happen if her husband found out, she became a bit frightened, and for no reason at all, began to cry.
Chandra suddenly awoke. He jumped out of bed, lit a lamp and looked toward his son. “Gopa!?”
Gopal snickered and did not throw the cigarette away.
“You wretch! No good! Who taught you that? Throw it away!”
Gopal held on to it. Chandra leapt at him. Gopal hid the cigarette behind him. His father snatched it from him and threw it into the spittoon. Gopal stretched out his neck and looked into the spittoon. Chandra slapped his cheek hard, pulled his hair, gave him a blow on the seat of his pants and pulled him back. Gopal screamed loudly, rolling about and began to cry. Then Tara saw that it was not a dream but rea!. She got out of bed. The quarrelling lasted through the night.
The next day the mother and her son were seated around a brazier. Gopal wanted to go soaring skyward like a paper kite ~- right into a cloud, a cloud of cigarette smoke. Tara began to reel him in slowly so as not to break the string of filial love.
“Tell me, who taught you?”
“I learned myself.”
“That can’t be, you can’t fool me. Tell me.”
“I saw father smoking.”
“So you smoke because father smokes,” said Tara, after a pause. “Father is a big man.
After you grow up, who will say anything if you smoke?”
Gopal frowned peevishly.
“When did you start smoking” asked Tara again.
“A long time ago.”
“How long is that? When? How did you get them?”
“First I made them from paper, then a few days ago, I took father’s –”
“Thief! Did you like them?”
As soon as that “yes” fell into the middle of the lake of Tara’s mind, it caused a wave to spread, but when it penetrated to the bottom the surface was calm again.
“Children should not smoke, your insides will rot. So don’t smoke, all night?”
With a distant look in his eyes, Gopal nodded. Tara began to take potatoes out of the fire with tongs. Gopal ran outside.
In an inner room, Chandra Prasad was speaking with Harikrishna.
Harikrishna– “You understand, nothing is as great as learning.”
Chandra Prasad — “I don’t know much about it. Look, I’ll give you the money and I want you to order all those twenty-four books for Gopal. Whatever it comes to –”
Harikrishna — “I’ll order them tomorrow, all right?”
Chandra Prasad — “I want to make a man of him.”
“Your son is intelligent; nothing’s impossible for him. He must be taught our Sastras Even Western scholars are deeply interested in them nowadays.”
“That reminds me. For several days I’ve wanted to ask you — why do our rishis and munis have the custom of wearing the tika?”
“Aha! The reason for this is clear. Listen. If too much sun falls on the base of the skull, a man could possibly die, right?”
“Therefore, even bald men have thick hair near there. Heat penetrates less through black, right?”
“But old men have white hair ..”
“Heat and warmth are necessary to the old.”
“Nowadays they cut the hair in the back, don’t they?”
“Mind you, nowadays they wear a hat that extends down low in the back.”
“True! True! Go on!”
“Now observe. The thread of our intelligence lies where? Right between the eyebrows, you know that intelligence increases when the brain is cool.”
“Good. Now you have the key. Open the way for yourself. The sandalwood mark of Pasupatinath is used to keep cool the nerve of intelligence that runs down the middle of our foreheads. The Vaishnavas wear a black tilak straight to the top. Heat can’t penetrate it. We Nepalis cover the tops of our fore!1eads with a black topi and we wear a black tilak below. Even the English wear black bands on their hats.”
“What about the red ticks then? Are they only for decoration?”
“Dear me. You are too lazy to think a little.”
“Sarasvati has revealed herself to you and that is why such thoughts come to you.”
“Go into a photographic darkroom.”
“Ah, yes, there are red lights.”
“And now? What do you see? Black is the remedy for heat, red for light. At the same time, they are caste signs.”
“Well! How about this ancient civilization of ours!” But when will Gopal begin to learn about it?”
“Our forefathers were not idiots, you know.”
Chandra, amazed by what he had been saying, smiled foolishly. Harikrishna was laughing so hard at convincing his friend that his head bobbed up and down like a boat on rough water. Just then, the potatoes were done and Tara called to Gopal. Chandra and Harikrishna went outside.
“Your son is smoking a cigarette butt that I threw out the window,” said Chandra to Tara. “How will a boy like that be able to study? He doesn’t listen no matter what he is told. Go out and get him. I’m going to beat him.”
“What’s the use of beating him?” said Harikrishna. “You can’t ask others to stop when you continue to do it yourself. You still smoke yourself and you expect him to obey! All children are like that. Nowadays, as soon as the umbilical cord is cut, instead of the breast, they suck on cigarettes.”
Gopal continued to puff, blowing rings of smoke upwards.
There was a cool breeze and Tara had closed the glass window even though the sun was shining. She was rubbing oil on her son. Gopal was completely relaxed. Wherever she turned over he let himself go. There were about half a dozen black and blue marks on his back, arms and legs. He was ashamed to cry out but could not help it when Tara touched them.
“This rascal is wearing himself out with this smart-aleck behaviour of his, ” Tara said, talking to herself. “He’s wearing me out too. He’s like this now, but what happiness will I have to look forward to? I wonder what these eyes of mine still have to behold.”
It was impossible to say whether he heard his mother’s words or not because his ears were red and swollen. He was playing, sometimes dipping a thread which he had torn from the rubbing sheet into the oil pot, sometimes catching the patterns of sunlight that came through the window in the palm of his hand. He paid little attention to her weeping because her tears were mixed with the perspiration on her cheeks.
“When will you grow up? You are always making me cry. Why don’t you say anything?”
Gopal glanced quickly towards his mother. Then he reached for a book lying nearby, and leafing through it, he began reading to himself.
“Nobody says you don’t study,” said Tara pouring oil on his swollen neck. “The teachers in school say that you are a hard worker. We are your enemies now only because of your filthy habit. Father is having you taught at home because you smoke when you are out, and now you’re doing the same wicked things at home. How does it look to you? Father says he will thrash you within an inch of your life if he sees you smoking.”
Gopal threw the book away.
“That’s it? Throw it away! You don’t need your book. You don’t need your parents. What do I mean to you? Go on acting like this and you’ll never see me again. You’ll see, when the mother dies, you’ll remember how good a mother she was. But probably you won’t even do that. You’ll probably be wondering when she’ll die and leave you in peace.”
Gopal, who was lying face downward, raised himself on his elbows and resting his head on the right side of his mother’s body, turned and looked straight at the wall. In spite of this, she could see from the corner of her eye, a stream of tears pouring down his cheeks over the oil. His cheeks were burning like hot coals and the tears falling on her cool and tender breast seemed to sizzle like drops of molten silver when they fall on the floor and solidify.
“Such a cry baby to weep over such a small thing.”
She patted him on the back, and the outcome was that he began to weep loudly. When she removed her hand, she saw a pink bruise. And she had struck him so gently! She felt as though someone had struck her in the chest with an axe. Fearing her chest would burst in two, she hunched her shoulders and closed her eyes for an instant. Then she stretched out her hand to his chin. He pushed her away with his elbow. Covering her face, Tara began to cry in a loud voice.
“Mother, please, I’m sorry!” said Gopal finally, bringing to an end the battle.
Six days later, the(e was a party at Sahila Baje’s house to see Tulu receive the sacred thread. Chandra and his family went. There was dancing in the manner of Krishna and the ~ and lots of food and drink afterwards.
“Gopu, what did you think of the dancing?” asked Chandra Prasad after they had returned home.
“It was very nice.”
“I’ll come as soon as I remove my coat and things.”
“Go after him,” said Chandra to his wife when Gopal had run off; “perhaps he’s stolen something again and brought it here.”
Tara came back a minute later.
“Well, what did you see? Has he stolen something?”
“Please, let him alone. How much can you beat him?
“Well!” said Chandra, giving no other reply. He ran quickly to Gopal’s room. Tara followed him. He kicked away Gopal’s pillow as if it were a football. Underneath it was a cigarette butt, two whole cigarettes, and some spices. Chandra began to beat him unmercifully as if he were Hiranyakasipu. He had completely lost his temper and rained blows on him as he had never done before.
“How can you be so cruel! You’ll kill him! We were all the same when we were children,” said Tara, trying to separate them.
“I can’t train your son, can I?” he said. He turned on his wife like Narsimha. “You mean that I”m to have no part in training that precious son of yours. All right, I’ll have nothing at all to do with the wretch. You can take him over. Then you won’t be able to blame me. What do you think of that, eh? Say something.”
Gopal could not even cry at first, though he opened his mouth. Then he began to scream out loud.
As she answered, the blue veins in her neck showed Tara’s self-control. “I was afraid that you would injure him very badly.”
“Am I a creature that eats grass? Am I an ass? Is it right for you to say such a thing to me? If he is my son, I can kill him if I wish.”
“All right, do as you please.”
“Keep on crying, you no-good!”
Chandra went for him again. Gopal was silent. Crumpling the cigarettes and the spices, he threw them away. With one hand he grabbed Gopal by the back of the neck, with the other he took up a book. He sat Gopal down in front of the mosquito net. The boy, like a monkey in a show, shrank within himself and began to tremble. Despite his sobs, he had to recite his lessons until well past half-past twelve that night.
In this way for months, night and day, the little boat named Gopal made its way wearily over the ocean of life. In the deluge of his craving, the sun did not shine on his brow during the day, nor did the moonrise at night. He breathed noisily from deep down in his lungs through parched lips. He was very weak and tears like colourless drops of blood kept falling from his eyelashes. His stomach rumbled and his heartbeat like a machine gun in his chest. He would be miserable if he did not get a cigarette. But he would be miserable if he got one too, for he was always found out and punished. His eyes were closed like those of an ascetic, meditating on everlasting bliss. He was unaware of the flash of the falling star nor did its heart-rendering please reach his ears.
When the racehorses of the mother and son, one close upon the others heels, were approaching the flag of consumption held in the doctor’s hands, Chandra caught up with them in a burst of speed.
“I’m going to break him of the habit of smoking if it kills me,” he said at the end of his patience.
“What’s the use of having a son who takes no notice of what his father says? I’ll stop him or die in the attempt. I’ll tell him to stop smoking — its only a small thing, but he takes no notice. I’ll thrash him within an inch of his life if he doesn’t keep that garbage out of his mouth.
“Don’t you love him?” asked Tara with a sob as she restrained her husband. “He’s dying, can’t you see? There’s not much time now, I beg of you, I don’t want to see my son die. I’d rather die first. Let me have this little reward for having been your slave all this time.'”
These words of Tara’s struck deep into Chandra and left him shattered. “I’m leaving,” said Chandra, suddenly rising.
“Where are you going?” said Tara catching hold of him.
“He isn’t my son, he belongs to you now. I’m renouncing the world!”
Tara knew instinctively when Chandra was joking and when he was serious. She fell at his feet and embracing them, burst out crying. Her grip was so firm that had Chandra used force to pull one of his legs back, half of Tara’s chest would have come with it. Anger, pity, love, despair, suffering, hatred and sympathy made Chandra choke up, but from a cage opened so quickly the bird of life does not have time to fly.
“As long as I have you, thousands of sons like him could be born to us. I have only a mother’s heart and I’m not clever enough. When one is angry, one says anything that comes to mind. I was wrong. I won’t say anything from now on.”
She quickly begged forgiveness, and without saying anything, Chandra forgave her. Gopal looked down at the house servant, Came, as he drew water out of the cistern. “Instead of enjoying yourself you’re making yourself miserable and everybody says ‘you’re mad’ into the bargain for behaving like this,” said Came.
“You know, Gopal,” said Came, “If the cigarettes were nice, I would say smoke them, but they have no taste, no nourishment, nor do you get any religious merit. Damn it! At your age, what is this? Don’t you have any brains at all?”
When he had straightened up for a minute, Came looked at Gopa!. Gopal made an effort to laugh and threw a leaf down from one of the flowerpots.
“We don’t like to see you get beaten. Do you like to smoke — or what is it?”
“Right now, I don’t feel like smoking, but after a couple of days I want to,” said Gopal as he leaned down.
“Aren’t you afraid of your father?”
“So what? I like to smoke.”
“Don’t you love your mother?”
Gopal did not answer. Turning from the place where he had been standing, Came looked Gopal in the face. His eyes were red and moist. Came had not liked Gopal very much until today.
Suddenly it was cloudy. A gust of wind blew, then the sun came out shining all around. Gopal looked up at the sky. A piece of cloud was hiding the sun. It moved a little away from the sun. The blue sky slowly appeared and the cloud vanished. Came looked up also when he saw Gopal staring at the sky. Even the sun seemed to be smoking. The day was almost gone. Chandra, with Harikrishna, entered Gopal’s room silently. The glass window was closed; there was a hole above it where the air passed. Gopal had evidently climbed a chair, broken a part of the window and with his head out, was talking to the servant of the house next door.
“I have this, but no matches.”
One could not hear what the servant said.
“How about a picture of Narasimha? Will that do?” asked Gopa!.
“The key must be in his pocket. You’ll get it in the evening …”
” “Not here. Outside.”
Chandra had taken the spice box from his pocket and was showing it to Harikrishna when Gopal drew his head back into the room.
“You said first you have to stop smoking yourself, but you were wrong. It’s more than a month since I have smoked a cigarette. The other day he sent our servant Came out to buy some, so I dismissed him. I locked him up like this. But he is a rogue, you can see.” “What’s so smart about this, eh, Gopal?” said Harikrishna.
Chandra did not dare search for cigarettes for shame of perhaps not finding them. He just glanced around and sniffed, but because Harikrishna was present, he did not give Gopal his usual beating. He pulled his ears slowly (I should say he tried to pull them). Gopal immediately raised an uproar, rolled about and began to cry.
“You see,” said Chandra, “I can’t even touch him gently now.”
He gave Gopal a couple of hard kicks. Harikrishna kept him from going on. Gopal began to bite and claw himself and banged his head on the floor. He began to cry, but his voice was weak.
“He won’t let me have any cigarettes. May God kill you instead.” And he went on whimpering.
Chandra opened the window and cursed the servant soundly. Then he closed the window, left the room and locked the door behind him and Harikrishna. They heard the sound of glass windows breaking inside the room.
“What a demon he has become!” said Harikrishna softly.
In the other room, Tara heard Gopal’s screams. She closed her ears.
“Ram! Ram! Ram!” she sobbed.
Gopal had pulled up a piece of the floor under which he had been hiding some cigarettes. It seems that he was buying matches with the money he got from books and various articles that everybody thought were lost. A few days later, Chandra found out. This time he did not beat him, but just took the cigarettes and matches away. Gopal did not take this lying down.
“May worms eat your hand!” he cried.
“To whom did you say that, eh, you wretch?”
“To you,” said Gopal very rudely. Until today he would not have been able to speak like that.
Chandra lost his temper completely. He kicked, beat and thrashed him, and Gopal bit in return. At that moment, the sound of a motorcycle was heard outside the windows. Gopal remembered that there was usually a cigarette in the driver’s mouth. Even during a crisis such as this, he longed for cigarettes. Chandra struck his jaw because the boy had bitten him.
“May you turn into a corpse, may your hand fall off from leprosy. May you die,” screamed Gopal.
Chandra struck his face again and again. Gopal fainted.
The confusion reached Tara who was upstairs preparing spices on a grinding stone. No matter how hard she tried, she could not succeed in grinding them properly. Tears fell into them and in disgust, she threw the spices, now too salty, down the drain. There was a sudden silence, but she did not know the reason.
Chandra’s heart had become as hard as the Himalayas. His eyes were as cold as ice. Fear itself had gone and sat on the edge of his eyes and peered inside, but frightened by the dark hollow in his heart, fled off.
“Never will this hand touch him again,” vowed Chandra, as he tried to revive him. Gopal came round from his faint.
“In the future, I’ll lock you up and punish you in other ways,” said Chandra, continuing his oath.
By now, Gopal had completely recovered from his faint. Chandra got up quickly and went out. Disconsolate, cold and lifeless, he did not even for a moment remember the water he should have sprinkled on his son’s head. Locking Gopal’s door, he went to his bed and stretched out. He looked at the shelf on which were the collection of twenty-four books which had been bought over a period of time. His hand gradually grew warm and his cheeks hot. Where before he breathed an icy Himalayan wind, a great volcano began to erupt. Chandra was like fire itself, Gopal like glowing embers, and Tara like ashes! It was the day of the horse festival. Gopal could hear his father shouting outside his room.
“That rascal still won’t obey. I must keep him locked up here. Let’s you and 1 go to the Tundhikhel to see the parade. How nice it will be! There will be all kinds of fine games this year.”
Tara could not refuse. Gopal was deeply hurt. He tried to deceive himself by pretending that he had not really heard his father’s tempting words.
Chandra and Tara were standing near the city gate with several onlookers. The show had already begun. Tara’s aunt had also come and a little later they met.
“Oh, my dear niece. Gopal — where is he?”
Tara glanced toward Chandra.
“He’s not feeling too well,” said Chandra.
“How could you come by yourselves!”
Tara’s aunt had brought her small son with her. He came and took hold of Tara’s hand. She opened her purse and gave him some candy.
The festival was very gay. There was a great laugh when a man dressed in gaudy clothes tried to hit a pot with a stick, missed and hit his companion instead. The pot was elsewhere. Tara’s aunt’s son did not understand what it was all about but he laughed and jumped up and down. Sometimes he looked at the dazzling crowd around the Khari tree, sometimes at the colourful horses. He described the faraway flags to Tara and said that they were leaves of the Bhorla tree. From all sides came peels of laughter one after another, for the crowd enjoyed itself, even more, when they lost their bets than when they won them. That which gives the most light is the sun, so they say, but if, like a comet, another sun were to come and merge with ours, the light on the earth would be doubled. If millions of suns appeared, we would be blinded — if we were not burned to ashes. But Chandra saw nothing. As one singing a song suddenly remembers a past that he has forgotten, he said, “Come, let’s go home.”
Tara thought that he wanted to return home unexpectedly so as to catch Gopal again. Chandra got up, began to walk, swimming through the crowd, and led Tara to the other side of the street. The roar of the crowd, like the sound of the ocean, gradually diminished, and they finally reached home. Gopal was singing, unaware of the world. When he saw his father, his face fell. He began to tremble as his father approached.
Gopal stared, unable to recognize the sweet familiar tone that his father used in days gone by. Still remembering thorns, sticks, snakes and scorpions, he blinked at him for an instant. Then he saw tears were flowing from his father’s eyes. His father held out his hands. In one hand there was a pack of cigarettes. Bewildered, Gopal looked at his mother. .
“Father said he will allow you to smoke from now on,” said Tara.
Chandra took his son in his arms and began to cry. It had been many days since Gopal was aware of the special fragrance of his father, a curious mixture of roses and cigarette smoke, and he sobbed. Because it was raining, no one remembered how much time had passed.
“Ba, from now on I won’t smoke these rotten cigarettes ..” said Gopal suddenly stroking his father’s cheeks very affectionately. Going to the window he threw away the cigarette packet. Someone in the street saw it, but passed it by, another unknowingly kicked it and went on. Finally a third picked it up, looking all around, opened it, turned it over and furtively put it in his pocket.
After the man disappeared, Gopal, beaming returned from the window.
“Ba, will we get Came back now?”
Gopal had cried for such a long time that he had hiccups. Chandra kept him pressed to his bosom all night like a poultice. Tara could not sleep but lay watching father and son. Gopal even in his sleep went on hiccuping half through the night, and Chandra, asleep too, patted him gently on the back. Each time this happened, Lord Gopal smiled in the temple of her heart and she bathed his image with her tears. She did not remember falling asleep. In her dreams love was swinging to and fro in a swing of flowers, gently dispersing the cloud of that craving, and bright red lights of affection rose and danced before her eyes. Actually it was the sun shining brightly.