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Healing the helpless, only to be banished by society: Read a short story from Dhumketu's Ratno Dholi anthology

Dhumketu
·7 min read

Caste conflict, justice for the oppressed, familial relations, love and longing are but a few themes that recur in Dhumketu's prose, capturing human relationships in their earnest through heartwarming narratives and vibrant characters. The collection Ratno Dholi €" an English translation of some of this pioneering writer's works €" takes the Gujarati short story to a contemporary reader. What is striking about translator Jenny Bhatt's book is that it becomes an interesting interpretation of the common person's quotidian dramas reflected so often in Dhumketu's stories. Her translations make for a crisp and honest rendering of 20th century Gujarat, complete with descriptions of the evil moneylender, the widowed daughter-in-law, the condemned untouchable and the reformed criminal. Each of Dhumketu's stories is an attempt to question, critique and analyse the workings of a complex, layered society with Bhatt's translation bringing forth his curiously intelligent characters searching for justice, freedom and love.

In the short story that follows, Dhumketu addresses the caste question, writing about an anonymous man who heals a diseased, lower caste girl from a community that has shunned her, much to the chagrin of the villagers. Such is their prejudice that this unknown helper is cast out for his kindness, yet undeterred he moves on to the next village continuing to help those in need.

***

Unknown Helpers

Translated by Jenny Bhatt

Like a star falling from the sky, he arrived in the village on a night overcome with darkness; with calm, noiseless feet; in an imperceptible way.

On his face was a clear brightness. In his eyes was tranquility. On his lips was an unbeatable smile.

He stayed at the dharamshala. Nobody from the village asked him: 'Who are you?' He didn't say: 'I am so and so.' Yet, he found a place in the village. In every village, there is always a vacant spot. That spot was filled by him.

He corrected the community's mistakes €" without any criticism. He served the community €" without any expectation. He gave the community vitality €" without any disruption. He became a part of the community €" the community considered him a part of it.

When there was work to be done, it was only entrusted to him. The responsibility for all the helpless lay at his doorstep. The skulduggery of all the rogues was counted against him. All failures were on his account. When a new cart rut was being made, the disapproval was directed at him.

With prophecies of fruitless efforts, he was held accountable. And, in the tales of victories, several shares were cast; his share remained the smallest.

On the day of ashaadhi beej, clouds had darkened the sky. In Sarju's home, like a quiet orphan's tears, raindrops were falling. She was alone. Sick. She had no hope of anyone coming. She was an orphan. Poor. Helping her would not serve anyone's interest. All had given up on her: because she was poor; because she was low; because she was diseased.

The door of the hut flew open suddenly.

Afraid of the dogs, the sick woman said involuntarily: 'Hudh! Hudh!'

Taking a step forward, the man lit a match. He held the hurricane lamp in front of her face.

Sarju's eyes rested on the unknown helper for a moment and she stirred.

When she brought bundles of wood from the mountains of Gir, with sweat dripping and heart hammering, instead of paying her properly, they harassed her improperly. Because the wood was dry but she was beautiful with the essence of life; the wood was aged but she was in the fullness of her youth. She was herself an untouchable dhedh but her youth felt touchable to all. The young man who followed her around at that time was the same one who had circled back today.

But the previous desire did not light up his face today. His eyes did not have the former intoxication. His gestures did not have the old passion. With slow, steady steps, he moved forward. He sat beside Sarju's bedding and took her hand in his. He placed her head in his lap.

'Arrey! Arrey! Your being will become polluted €¦ people will see, they will ridicule. All will laugh €¦ you will lose your honour.' She said so many things. But, instead of responding, he began to caress her head.

To impress upon her mind that the unbelievable event would not prove false, the weak woman shut her eyes.

She had caught him sitting like this near her several times before; but all that had been hidden from people's eyes. Goodness was viewed with suspicion by all minds. But today he was sitting openly. He had seen the people; the people had seen him. He had issued a fearless challenge to people to do what they will. The people had also decided to do everything they could. Before, at that time, her youth had won him over. Today, her awakened consciousness was drawing him in.

He said softly: 'Sarju! Remember, you would bring the bundles of wood and I would come and fix bogus prices? Sarju, remember, you would bring bales of hay and I would haggle dishonestly with the rates?' Across her face, a quiet, faint smile came and went.

When it was quite late, he turned back towards the village, having received the soul-filling joy of giving aid to the helpless. His figure blended into the grey, dusty twilight. And he was returning, having cleansed his mind of caste, having observed what was considered a sin by the multitudes.

At the point where the banyan branches spread and a thick darkness arrived earlier than at all other places, the people were waiting.

He came close and, immediately, without any words, the stones began to fall. From above, lumps of earth were falling; from the side, stones were raining; from nearby, there was cruel laughter. He understood.

He did not say anything. There was nothing to say. A person is drawn to a task by two tendencies: compassion or wisdom. If there is compassion in people, then stones won't fall. If there is wisdom, there won't be cruel laughter. To people, between reasoning and appearance, the latter is of more importance. He bore the assault quietly and went on.

The next day, people renounced him as their leader. When he was a secret lover, he was respectable. When he became an open lover, he became worthless. When he sinned in private, he was considered honourable. When he tried to clear his sin away with repentance, he was considered crazy. But, in his mind, service was the path to self-evolution.

And since the injustice done to Sarju had been acute, there would be more growth and evolution in attending to her. He took care of her because she was the lowest of all. Because unrepented sin sets the tree of life afire. Because no sin can be given up until it is confessed with an open heart in the public square of the world.

He was not sad about leaving the village; he did not even have a desire to stay. The village was unimportant. Life was more important. Another village could be found; another life could not be had. The next day, Sarju's health had recovered enough for her to not require his help. So, with the same silence that he had arrived, he left. Like wealth flowing quietly away from the village to foreign lands, he became distant.

Where there was a need for help, he provided. Where no one recognised him, he resided. Because it gave him pleasure to give assistance anonymously. Because that was the philosophy of his life.

***

The above short story by Dhumketu has been translated from Gujarati into English by Jenny Bhatt. It appears in the collection Ratno Dholi and has been reproduced here with permission from HarperCollins India.

Also See: Bringing Dhumketu to a new century: Jenny Bhatt discusses translating the pioneering Gujarati writer's short stories

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