“Unbeknownst to himself, he has carved pieces of his own life in the fables he narrated in each village, an illiterate dreamer’s way of holding onto to a disintegrating past.” A short story where the road home is blurred by a reflective storytellers’ ageing consciousness…
“The older I get, the more convinced I am of the conflict between fact and truth,” concludes the storyteller, pulling closer together the ends of his tattered blanket, the last bit of defiance against the wind from the river. Perhaps owing to his own confusion or the receding ends of his tales, increasingly, Musafir finds himself ending his sessions with philosophical remarks like these. The stories are the same he has been narrating for fifty-three years, only now, for the last few months, a mist seems to gradually obscure their endings more and more to him. Each thread seems to pass into an impenetrable oblivion, like the sound of the milkman’s bicycles in the early morning fog. Today, as he concludes his tasks, folding up his small colorful mattress, he thinks of his father’s advice all those years ago, when he was a little boy. “Remember son, it is a dangerous profession. You must rely on your memory all your life; you cannot forget, and if you do, you invent to perfection.” At last, here is the phantom he has fled all his life, the sorceress of forgetfulness, the first of Musafir’s three discomforts.
The second of Musafir’s three discomforts is the cold gathering in his bones. No amount of stove fire, wood fire, or spirit can douse the shivers that plague him throughout the night. His grandmother had warned him: “Child, the day the cold grips your heart, know that your days of labor must end, and it is time to warm your ageing bones in the sun on your own porch.”
The third of Musafir’s three discomforts is the gathering memory of Lalita’s fire. Lalita, with her deep kohl-rimmed eyes, throwing a handful of sweet-smelling dry herbs into the evening fire with a burst of flames, the warmth would intensify like magic. It was one of those secrets she learnt from her gypsy aunt who would visit their village with the annual circus. An instinctive knowledge that this special fire is the antidote of the rising cold in his shrivelled body troubles Musafir the most, for it clouds from his mind the map to his village. Now that he must head back, where is the home he left fifty-three years ago?
Musafir has four stories in all, to be told cyclically, over all seasons except the monsoon when the rivers swell and all youthful hands and feet serve in the fields; no one has time for stories then. That is Musafir’s season for travelling to a new village with the small bundle of all his worldly possessions and his current pet. In every village where Musafir set camp, he would stay a cycle of seasons and adopt a small animal. Little fledglings of parrots and mynahs, abandoned puppies or baby monkeys and squirrels, all had found home in his blanket from time to time. This creature he would give a name picked from one of his four stories, and carry it to his next destination, only to gift it to some little child in his audience saying, “There, this is a creature from another village, far from home — a storyteller for you.”
Musafir is a man of action. Now that he knows what he must do, he makes arrangements to leave the very next day, to try and find the way home. This is his last night on the road away. Tomorrow, this night, he would be on the road towards. The thought makes him smile, a soft wrinkled childish glow spreading over his features that only a storyteller can retain after over six decades of the hardships of a human life.
Under the starlight, the wafting summer fragrance of the Queen of Nights, that tiny white blossom famous for stealing sleep from the eyes of lovers, cures the ailing heart of Musafir. Beside him lies Ravi, a little boy from the village who has become Musafir’s disciple, and not having any children of his own, Musafir has decided to let Ravi travel with him and learn the secrets of his trade. Ravi is sleepless not for the torture of the little flower, but a child’s excitement for a journey at daybreak. “Guruji,” suddenly asks Ravi, “why do you want to go home? Does your family still live in Rozpada?” “I do not know Ravi,” murmurs Musafir, pretending to be half-asleep. Which question did he answer? wonders Musafir. Who is he returning for? There was a woman, long ago, a woman he had loved but never desired. In the long travels of his arduous life, he has desired many a woman from many a different village, yet loved none. He knows, in that spring of her bloom, years ago, centuries ago it seems, she had desired him, lusted him, hungered the oblivion of his body with the flaming death of her youth. He knew it, and that is why he left. Some mad fear, what unknown war of the heart that he would not have her, even though he loved her best of all he had and had not. Yes, thinks Musafir turning on his side to warm his back, to her he must return. More importantly, to that fire of hers.
It is a cloudless dawn, a good omen for a new journey. Musafir and Ravi start at first light along the bank of the river Nayan. As far as he can remember, this is the route he took the previous year’s monsoon. Ever since he entered the trade, Musafir has walked along rivers; it was an easy trick his father taught him to never lose the way. In fact, the villagers of this last halt of his had told him the delta was close, and if he only had travelled ahead another monsoon, he would have reached the coast. But he chose to turn back, this close to the sea.
It is a whole different landscape now, dry with the deep colors of the red earth, the brown grass, the raving orange of the gulmohur, muddy banks of a barely breathing stream where the river roared in the monsoon between lush green banks of stooping green trees beneath dark crimson skies. It is not easy, least of all if you have to trace back fifty-three monsoons worth of travel.
It is past the midday heat on the third day when they reach the first village — Nutangram. Strange, Musafir searches the corners of his fading memory but cannot recognize this name. By now, the fatigue is creeping into his bones and all he can do is find the village banyan tree and lie in its shade. One who thinks in the afternoon heat ends up never thinking again, smiles Musafir recalling his mother’s warning. Funny how the older he gets, the more vivid the forgotten world of his childhood and youth seem. Often Musafir finds himself in a stupor of vagueness, forgetful of even little things from the immediate past, like what he ate for the morning meal, yet Lalita’s face, lost perhaps for decades, rises like the haunting fragrance of the Queen of Nights in his memory.
Cursing his confused mind, Musafir moves on with Ravi. There was no room for mistake, they had been walking beside the river every day, he must had forgotten the name of the village. But nagging at the back of his mind is this: even if he has forgotten, how could the children of the village not recognize the storyteller? Something is wrong.
The ghost of amnesia refuses to leave. The name of the next village is as fogged as the last. At the end of a fortnight and five strange villages, Musafir gives up believing they are definitely on the wrong route, although how, he cannot for the world understand. It is Ravi who gives the simple and obvious explanation. “Guruji, wasn’t this the route that Rangit took to find Teesta? I remember he passed Nutangram and Bhalgunj on his way.” There, it is resolved, they have taken the road that Rangit, the protagonist of one of Musafir’s four stories takes to find his lover Teesta, who was kidnapped by the demons of the northern wind and imprisoned in a cave in the mountains.
Over the next three months, this happens twice more. However hard he tries, Musafir finds himself losing his way in a maze of his stories. Unbeknownst to himself, he has carved pieces of his own life in the fables he narrated in each village, an illiterate dreamer’s way of holding onto to a disintegrating past. And now, the mirage is complete. Whether it is Sohini on her way to meet Hindol, her first flame, or Alkananda reaching out to her childhood friend Bhagirathi, the maps of life twisted in Musafir’s ageing consciousness blur out the road home.
Meanwhile the cold in his bones torture Musafir more and more every day. Even on the hottest days, when the buffaloes doze in the muds of the dried ponds and even the children are too hot to run around, he wraps himself in his tattered blanket. It is insufferable what the cold can bring, as if the icy winds of the north hold the reins of Time’s chariot, as Lalita’s gypsy aunt would say. Indeed, that old crone knew a thing or two about the life of a traveller. As the days pass, a strange fear starts grabbing at his heart, for although Ravi points out every time the villages from his stories, and he himself remembers them clearly enough too, but every night when he sits with the boy for his lesson in the trade, Musafir realizes that he can no longer remember clearly how any of the four stories end. Often towards the stories’ conclusion, he would feign tiredness to escape being caught by the young one, other days, he would sum up with a philosophical ending instead of a proper one, and Ravi, though displeased, out of politeness and respect, would keep silent.
Finally, on the first full moon of the monsoon, Musafir decides to end the search for his childhood village, a place which, even if it does exist anymore, is no longer home to any family or former friends. He admits that what he is looking for is not the village but the fire, so it would make more sense to try and find Lalita instead. With that magic fire of hers, she was already famous on this side of the hills when he left, by now, she must be a well-known figure.
This decision turns out fruitful. In less than a week of enquiry, Musafir finds out about an old woman with a miraculous gift of healing fire who lives in the cave of the Hikmah mountains. But there is a snag, according to the locals, that the woman is the mistress of her fancies, and there is no saying if one would find her in the cave. She would leave, sometimes for days on end, and return as she pleased, always leaving the fire behind, which like the divine creature it is, would not douse. Musafir and Ravi set out next morning for Hikmah in search of Lalita, for he is convinced it is she; who else could have the secret to the magic fire?
It is a terrible climb. What gives the bent tired frame of the old man strength to scale such rocks is a secret that shall remain hidden in the inner courtyard of his ancient heart. To Ravi, it is the best adventure of his young life. It is twilight on the fifth day when they reach the cave. For the last two hours, the flickering orange in the distance has been guiding their weary eyes to the destination. The warmth is tangible even a few yards from the cave. At the mouth, Musafir’s heart flickers. Anticipation? hope? This old weaver of tales has no use for such pretty words anymore, all he can feel is his bones gravitating towards that reddish glow, his heart to its owner.
But the cave is empty. As warned, this queen of whimsies has left on one of her travels. She may return right at any moment, or possible in weeks or months. There’s no telling. It does not matter. Musafir has reached the end of his journey, for he has recognised that sweet smell emanating from the embers like bursts of spring fragrance, the intoxication of mahua blossoms, the madness of the Queen of Nights, the seduction of a thousand roses, the quiet invitation of the plumerias, all thrown together in a deep offering of warmth. Who can tell why she leaves her fire behind, for what lost Musafir? He is ready to wait here for the rest of his life.
Looking around, Musafir notices Ravi already fast asleep curled up at the farther corner away from the fire, the poor boy having labored all day under the weights of both their bundles, all the while helping his old companion along. Musafir too lies down, but close to the fire, as close as he can get without burning himself, in his habitual embryonic posture. The warmth gathers, the soft infusion of its elixir spreading through his veins softly. Ever so quietly the mists start clearing. Sohini, Hindol Teesta, Rangit, Ujjwal, Rajani, Alakananda, Bhagirathi, start taking shape in the dancing flames. In the remnants of his consciousness slowly return the endings to all his stories, a sickness gathered over fifty-three years melting away in the healing heat. Memory returns, love returns, the destinations of those lost characters, as tired and cold as his own bones, found at last. There descends on all their eyes, even as they await her return, sweet beautiful sleep.
Hridi is an Indian artist and writer currently based in Belgium, training to be an art conservator. Being a deeply sensitive and introspective person, words serve to anchor the aspects of her internal journey that colors may fail to grasp. In the world around her, she is constantly searching for the evasive, whimsical acts of nature and society, attempting to touch them through abstract impressions of reality as she perceives it.
Her literary works have previously appeared in The Bitchin’ Kitsch, Chai Copy, The Sunflower Collective, Aainanagar, Contem