“Play”, a short story

by Jainendra Kumar,
translated by Sonakshi Srivastava

Bewitchingly silent and alluring, dusk was smiling through its blooming hue. Around the same time, on a secluded sandy bank of the Ganga, a boy and a girl oblivious to the world and to themselves, and considering the sand and water to be their sole soulmates, were busy playing with it. The cosmos was a mute spectator, unblinking in its observation of the guileless interplay between these two divine fractions. The boy had gotten hold of a stick from somewhere and was busy cutting the bank’s waters with it. It seemed as if the waters, despite being in pain, were feverishly splashing about in their eagerness to befriend him. The girl, with one foot firmly set in sand was busy making a kiln by smothering sand all around it.

While she was in the process of making the kiln, the girl said to it, “Look, if you don’t turn out well, I will not hesitate to smash you.” And then, she resumed to fix it by patting it affectionately. She was thinking to herself, “I will make a hut on top of this. That will be my hut. And Manohar…? No, he will not stay in my hut but will stand out and tend to my kiln by feeding it with leaves. Eventually, when he will out and insist, then I will take him in.” On the other end, Manohar was thoroughly occupied with the waters. Little did he know that here, an unreasonable mix of wrath and reprieve were being bestowed on him.

The girl was in deep rumination, “Manohar is such a good boy but he also such a hooligan. He keeps teasing me. If he runs riot now, I will not factor him in as a partner in my hut. And if he would insist on sharing the quarters, I will ensure that I make him agree to my terms and conditions before allowing him in my hut.” The girl, Surbaala was in her seventh year of existence. Manohar was two years older to her An epiphany suddenly struck Surbaala – “The roof of the kiln would have gone hot.

How will Manohar stay there?” Her epiphany expanded, “I will tell him, ‘Bhai, the roof is blazing hot, you will get burnt. Don’t come here! But what if he endures in his stubbornness to come near me? He will definitely insist, he is so pig-headed. But I will not let him come near me. Poor soul, he will get burnt – but it alright! … if he will hanker a lot, I will push him away, and tell him, “arre, you will go up in flames, you fool!” The thought ignited a sizeable amount of delight in her but soon her mouth went dry. It was as if the comical and tender scene of Manohar’s imaginative fall had assumed a material reality.

The girl patted and examined the kiln with her firm hands – it was ready. Surbaala cautiously extracted her hands from under the kiln with the same exact careful precision of a mother who leaver her new-born baby on the cradle to play. It seemed as if she were caressing the kiln in the entire process. Since the foundation of the kiln rested on her foot, the vulnerable kiln ran the risk of crumbling down if the support was withdrawn. It was only after the kiln stood where it was after she had neatly fished her foot out that a wave of glee ran through the girl.

For once, the girl was eager to rush to the foolish Manohar and drag him here so that he could witness the sublime cleverness of the kiln. But that stupid boy, too entangled with the affairs of the waters, was indifferent to this spectacle of stunning efficiency. It was certain that he must have never seen such an authentic kiln before. But the girl thought – “No, let me make a hut first.” And thinking so, she very tenderly emptied a pinch of sand upon the head of the kiln. She did it a second time, then third, and then again. In this way, Surbaala prepared a hut atop the head of the kiln by dropping four pinches of sand in all.

The kiln was ready but when the girl recollected the complete picture of a nearby kiln, she realised that her shaft had a failing. From where was the smoke to escape? Reflecting a little, she took a stick, bent it, and plunged it into the kiln. That was it – the universe’s absolute specimen of a kiln, and thus, the world’s most beautiful object was ready.

She would make that wild Manohar witness this specimen of rare craftsmanship but before that, she wanted to bask in its beauty for a while. With her mouth wide open, and her eyes transfixed, Surbaala was filled with wonder and thrill on seeing that supreme kiln. If someone were to ask Baala where God resides, she would have answered, “in this enchanting kiln.”

When Manohar, upon remembering his “Suri-Suro-Surri”, broke off with the waters, threw away the stick in his hand with utmost force into the steady flow of the Ganga and turned, he saw Surbaala devi occupied in speculating and unravelling the magic of her divine plaything.

Manohar observed the trail of Baala’s vision and saw that she was completely hypnotized by her kiln. With a loud bellow and a kick, he delivered a definite deathblow to the kiln. And God knows why, but puffed with fresh pride as if he had conquered some fort, Manohar cheered, “Suro Rani!”

Suro Rani stood there, dumbfounded. An expression of void unfurled itself replacing the utterly pure sentiment of joy. Heaven had summoned itself before the very eyes of the queen. It had been engineered by her very own hands and she had wanted to show and share with Manohar every ounce of that Heaven’s comeliness and divinity. Ha, but look – that same person came and knocked down that Heaven. Our queen brimmed up with great distress.

If one our knowledgeable readers were among them, they would have enlightened them thus – this world is ephemeral. What is sorrow and what is joy here: one would eventually synthesize with what one is made of in the fullness of time – why must this stir up misery and worry? This world is forged from water, and one day would return to it as a bubble does when it bursts. The essence of the bubble is in its bursting. And the ones who don’t understand this are worthy of pity. Oh, silly girl! You try to understand. This world belongs to Brahma and will eventually lean into him. Why are you enduring this unavailing grief? Your sand kiln was transient, and so it vanished in a moment, unifying with the sand. Do not fret over it, take a lesson from it. The one who shattered it by knocking it over was just a divine instrument. God wants to educate you afresh. Girl, why are you being so silly? Understand the ways of the God, and try to pave your way to Him etc, etc.

As the girl’s misfortune would have it, no wise and learned scholar could make their way to the banks of the Ganga to counsel her on the Absolute nature of Truth. We are also suspicious that Suro is so obtuse that even if a benevolent philosopher were to arrive there by providence and initiate their sermon, she would have made no attempts to listen to him or to understand him. However, there is no one there but for the supremely ignorant Manohar who knows not an iota about the Absolute truth of the universe. Who knows what must be going on in his head? It’s as if something was tormenting him from within. However, betraying his emotions, he said, “Suri, are you really going to be upset with me, huh?”

Surbaala stood as she was.

“Suri, why are you miffed?”

Baala did not flinch.

“Suri, Suri…O, Suri!”

The betrayal was difficult to keep up. Manohar’s voice gave in to a sudden quake. Surbaala turned her face further away. Perhaps she too found herself unable to face the tremble in his voice.

“Suri – O Suriya, I am Manohar, Manohar! Why don’t you hit me?”

Manohar said this from behind her back, and said it so that it seemed he wanted to convey that he was not crying.

“I won’t speak,” the girl could not stop herself from speaking. Her kiln had probably ascended to heaven. Its place and the place of everything in her life had been assumed by Manohar’s trembling voice.

With great force, Manohar continued, “Suri, Manohar is standing behind you. He is very wicked. Don’t speak to him, but why don’t you throw sand at him, why don’t you beat him? Give him one slap – he will never commit any wrong.”

Baala steeled herself and said, “Shut up!”

“I will stay quiet but won’t you even spare a glance for me?”

“No, I will not look at you.”

“Okay, don’t look at me. Don’t see me at all. I will never come in front of you – I am worthy of this.”

“I have already told you – you stay quiet. I don’t wish to speak to you.”

The girl’s despair and anger had long dissipated. They had melted away. This was some other affect. It was ecstasy manifesting in the form of borrowed anger. In other words, this was femininity.

Manohar said, “Listen Suro, I will not speak. I will sit down. I will continue sitting here. I will neither get up nor speak until you ask me to.”

Manohar went silent. A few moments later, a defeated Surbaala asked, “Why did you break my kiln? Make my kiln again!”

“Here, I will do it right away.”

“I want it as it was.”

“I will construct it as it was, even better than that.”

“It had my hut; it also had a passage for letting out smoke.”

“Here, take it all. You instruct me, and I will make it for you.”

“I won’t instruct you. Why did you break it? You broke it, now you make it.”

“Achcha, but look here once.”

“I will not look. Make the kiln first.”

Manohar finished preparing a kiln. “See, the kiln is ready.”

“It is ready?”

“Yes.”

“Did you make the channel for smoke? Did you make the hut?”

“How do I make those – tell me, no?”

“First you make them, then only will I tell you.”

After inserting a stick on the head of kiln and screening it with leaves, he said, “It’s done.”

Surbaala turned around promptly and said, “Achcha, show it to me.”

“The stick has not been put properly. The leaves should have been put like this” etc., and after making such amendments, she ordered Manohar, “Bring some water, we will pour it on the kiln.”

Manohar brought some water.

He had wanted to anoint the kiln with the waters of the Ganga contained in his cupped hands when Sura rani sent the kiln tumbling down with one majestic kick.

Surbaala rani sprung up with joy. Manohar chortled with glee. The secluded spot was suffused with waves of the children’s innocent laughter. The sun god, with the radiance of flushed boys added to the gleam with his rosy rays. The waters of the Ganga, out of their own design, seemed to be squealing with laughter. And, and those tall towering trees, like some esoteric scholars who had privately and very earnestly discussed the inane essence of laughter, seemed desirous of extending some sympathy to those fools lost in the folds of mirth down below.

Sonakshi Srivastava is a writing tutor at Ashoka University, Sonepat, India. She is one of the recipients of South Asia Speaks mentorship programme (cohort 2021), working on translating the Hindi novel, “Titli” into English under the mentorship of Arunava Sinha. She was the contributing translator columnist at “The Bilingual Window’. She was longlisted for The Stinging Fly Translation Bursary 2022, and was awarded the Katharine Bakeless Nason scholarship for the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference 2023. Her works have previously appeared in or are appearing in ASAP art, Usawa, Proseterity, The Monograph, Alipore Post, Hakara, potluck zine, orangepeel mag, Qissa mag, and Rhodora among others.

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