The White Marble Burzi

Sharat Kumar

By Sharat Kumar

The chowkidar did not have any, nor could he get it from the village which was far away from the fort. So finally there was no bedding at all and we used her saris and the curtains which we removed from the windows. It was cold when the wind blew through the broken window panes of the old palace as the mornings approached when she always abandoned herself to me just before dawn, and it was not because of the cold.
She was unpredictable. We were embarrassed when the chowkidar brought the morning tea for he might have heard the ancient bed creak. I could not make her out, not in those five days, nor even now when I dream about her. I remember that unseen form only from touch for even in the mornings she would not let the covers fall.

And now when I visit the palace, I often see her, as young as she was then, wandering over the ramparts of the abandoned fort in the moonlight. I create with my mind what the eyes never saw but the touch had known, and the heart led the imagination on.

The Betwa flows some distance away from the fort. Rivers change course over the years, and we do not know if the river was any closer to the fort when Bir Singh had built it some three centuries ago with the money and glory he received for killing Abul Fazal at the behest of Emperor Jehangir. The forest stretches far to the south.

It is held by the bend in the river where ruins of the chatris in the royal cremation ground rise above the trees. The river flows swiftly over rocks and boulders.
On moonlit nights one can see its frothy turbulence beyond the dark stretch of the forest from the marble burzi of the palace.

The village guides narrate the gory story of the murder of Abul Fazal to the rare visitor, as if to atone for the glory which could not obliterate its origins even with the building of two splendid temples whose spires rise to great heights to the west of the palace. The blue-tiled walls of the Jehangiri palace in the east shine in all their splendour as the sun rises above the white marble burzi of Bir Singh’s palace. The burzi overlooks the landscape from a high point above the solid walls of the fort, almost overhanging the deep moat which has no water any longer. At nightfall, after the lonely chowkidar puts out his lantern at the far end of the fort, an eerie silence broken only by the occasional howling of jackals engulfs the landscape with its desolate buildings looming high above the flat plains.

“No one stays here,” the chowkidar said as we declared our intention to spend a week at the fort. “It is better to stay the night at the forest bungalow four miles away.” The tonga which had brought us from the station had already left, signifying our determination to stay. A generous tip did it finally. The Bundela chowkidar with his proud handlebar moustache, the lone custodian of the fort on a pittance from the archaeological department, even agreed to cook meals for us. I think he was fascinated by Aparna. Vibrating through all her elegance and finery was a wild exuberant spirit which reached out to men instantly. I wondered till the last day if she was ever conscious of it.
We walked to the monuments, photographing and taking notes all day long. It was meant to be research for a joint project, the history of the fort and the artistic linkage of its architecture to the traditions of the medieval period. I do not remember who had suggested the theme.
The idea was attractive and it had not taken us long to plan the trip. I know now that both of us had reasons of our own, deeper than the love of research. The time and the project had merely fitted into the inevitable flow of events.

Aparna lived an exciting life. There were lively discussions at the gatherings in her house. She attracted intelligent people of diverse character, mostly much older than herself, and was constantly falling in and out of love. I often wondered how she felt about love.
“The word ‘Eros’ must have originated from ‘Rasa’, or vice versa. Why do people feel so squeamish in discussing Eros? Don’t the Tantriks consider it the essence of life?” “The great Shankaracharya had to experience Kama before he could defeat Mandana Mishra’s wife in the shastrartha at Maheshwar.”

“Researches in America suggest that women reach sexual prime only in their mid-thirties.”

“The nayikas of the Indian tradition seem to reach their prime at eighteen. The Shilpa Shastra’s formula—moon-breasted, swan-waisted, elephant-hipped may not quite work at thirty-five. The fruit apparently ripens early in a warmer climate.”

“Centuries before William Blake, the Indian artists had achieved an unsurpassed mastery of the dark unconscious, the instinctive, and the emotional. They had learnt to represent it in their art as the core of human existence.”

Discussions continued late into the night. We would come away enchanted, if not with the conversation then always with the lively presence of our young hostess.

Twenty-eight years was not too young for a woman who lived as intensely as Aparna did. It just happened from the way life came to her, with little choice on her part.

Psychologists would have us believe that most creative people have an unhappy childhood. Does that give them the intensity? The penetrating search? Even the strength to go on with the search? And what of the fears and the insecurity which remain with you for a long time. Does the intensity arise from the erotic impulse unable to find a fulfilling release, no matter how much physicality you may indulge in?

“I have been here before,” she said dreamily. The outlines of the Jehangiri palace were silhouetted against the skyline as the moon rose above the ramparts of the fort. After the day’s wanderings, we had climbed to the marble burzi. It had the best view, and always a breeze.
The landscape stretched below us.

“Emperor Jahangir stayed here a full month.” She went on, “He had a cruel mouth and his lips curved hard as he watched the girls dancing. Men are bad lovers even when they are emperors. They never give much of themselves to women.”

The moonlight fell on her. The white marble of the burzi had a gentle luminous quality against the darkness of the forest. She had marvellous hands—tapering, clean, delicate, soft as her face, and it was an enchantment just to look at them. A peculiar grace illumined her features when she spoke. Her nose would move ever so slightly, and her cheeks curved above her open lips. Her eyes had a magical radiance. I was ensnared. It must have been the moonlight.

“There was dancing here, the courtyard was lit up with huge oil lamps. Festivities went on for a whole month.”

She stared into the darkness of the palace. “Beautiful women dressed in all their finery to charm men, and men proudly narrated the feats they had performed to win the women. But the yearnings of the woman’s heart remain unfulfilled through the centuries. The journey continues, searching and searching. If all joy, the whole universe, is inside us, and if life can perpetuate itself only with the love of a man and a woman, isn’t love the source of all things?”

I dared not touch her. She was in another world. My mind was filled with a resonating passion. I watched her bathed in the moonlight on the marble burzi, looking out into the forest beyond the walls of the fort. And later, when she was making the bed, I could see the outlines of her beautiful little bosom and the undulations of her hips. I stayed awake for a long time, all tense.

But sometime at night she came back from wherever she had been, and was marvellous just before the dawn. She was a different person, warm and uninhibited with a carefree lilting laughter. It was sheer good luck that the chowkidar was late with the morning tea. She kissed me when he came finally, and pushed me off the bed.

We went to bathe in the river that morning. She looked lovely. Over her Rajasthani skirt she wore a red silk blouse which fell in such soft lines on her body,in such relief and such contours. She laughed as she slipped over the pebbles. The water was pleasantly cool and fresh. We found a pool behind a huge rock.

“I don’t want to wet my dress,” she said, “Will you keep watch while I take off my clothes and bathe? And don’t look.”

“It will be difficult,” I said, “but I will try.”

“How hard will you try?”

“Not very hard.”

She pushed me into the water and jumped in without removing her clothes. I splashed water on her till her eyes were red and she cried. We picked pebbles. She found some really beautiful stones. We sat on the boulders watching the fish swim in clear pools of sparkling water.

And then we walked in the forest for a long time drying our clothes in the morning breeze.
I could not believe she was the same hypersensitive person looking forever for a perfect relationship.
The elusive visions of her ideals made the relationships deeply searching and insecure, but also imbued them with a rare flavour and intensity. She noticed flaws in herself in relationship with others, and in others in their relationship with her. She questioned away her whole wishful scheme of things. It isn’t the thing, but it must be, and it won’t be. The torment had gone on.

There is, perhaps, an inbuilt limit to the emotional intensity a human being can cope with, independent of the dictates of the will. She was tired and wanted to stop and rest, and to make compromises. She had not yet learnt that compromises were inevitable, and perhaps the only way to defeat the compromises from defeating you was to be mischievous and playful with them, as with all important things, if you were ever to win.

It could be that she felt that I was overwhelmed by her and she would find it easy to handle me. I was more her age than most other people she was close to.

In practical terms, I seemed to be the best choice she had to settle down with. But that practicality, good as it seemed, ate into the fragrance of her dreams of love. If the deliberate calculation, and the ever returning thoughts to it in weaker moments, could not be cleaned out of her system, what would the quality of the relationship really be?

Instinctively, without even understanding it, she knew that her strength lay in the purity of her mind, as it faced itself when there were no witnesses; when she did not answer for all the petty vulgarities that the mechanics of day-to-day life imposed on her, even didn’t have to, as long as in the main she could look at and respect her own inner purity. The prize of all was the quality, of her private-secret-honest view of herself.

“The great philosophical and ethical truths that we mouth every day are also often mischievous tricks played by our subconscious mind, to prevent us from honestly looking into ourselves to see the way we really act and live.” She remembered a conversation on her terrace. It had helped her understand the uneasy feeling she had with many men of the sharpest intellect.

“The unconscious is the dominating self. The body can make a monkey of the mind. In the frenzy of passion where does the intellect go? The body wants to surrender itself to another, to give. The mind, the speech, does not know how to.”

“It is the ego which pulls you back. What if the surrender is not reciprocated? We hear and read endlessly that it is in giving that you receive. Yet when it comes to our own lives, ego overpowers and corrupts the heart with fear, and prevents unconditional giving.”

“If you are too hard on the body, it fights back to clog the mind. Without coming to terms with the body, you cannot prevent the unpredictable breakdown of your rational system.”
They had gone on to discuss the sublimation of bodily passion. There was a clinical quality to the discussion.

Aparna sat fascinated. I looked at her and wondered how it would feel to hold her in my arms. The proximity of her body clouded my mind and I could not concentrate to keep up with the discussion.

“Doddering old fools,” I thought, resentful at being left out of the conversation. “Their minds more dead than their bodies. Drumming up the intellectual jargon to make up for their weakening bodies and the pressures of desire.”

Aparna was absorbed in the discussion. A life of the mind attracted her. And yet there were attractions of the senses. Would the world of the mind fulfil her?

Her body yearned to be touched, to be played with, it longed for a commitment to the world of the senses, to a home, to children, to a permanency of love. Could she sublimate desire? Wouldn’t that leave her all dried up, no matter what other rewards she gained. The barrenness would show on her face. Her manner would acquire a harsher quality, Even her voice would lose its melodious tone. Didn’t the music of life come from love making, caring, giving, receiving? If the juices of her heart and body dried up what other compensation could she really have? One could drug oneself with external activity somnolently. But that did not stop the corruption, the coarsening of one’s inner system which sapped the strength. Ultimately, didn’t all joy even courage, spring from the aesthetic-erotic elements of life?

The sun had climbed high when we reached the palace. It was a cool and clear day heralding the onset of winter. Aparna wanted to photograph the big temple which had some splendid panels of rare carvings. She asked the Bundela chowkidar to serve an early lunch.

“Chilli soup, chilli meat, and chilli saag,” she repeated the unalterable menu laughingly to him. Cooking was not the chowkidar’s forte. He cooked, adding large quantities of chillies to every dish, hoping to improve the taste for the memsahib who had bowled him over. She really liked his handlebar moustache.

“It is so picturesque,” she told me, “It adds such vigour to his wiry frame. Why don’t you grow a moustache?”

It was her unmistakably mischievous playful style. She instinctively reacted to every opportunity for charming her men. Intellectual discussions were all very well, the real flavour of human relationships came from the quality of subconscious responses, from the instinctual gestures.

I had never met anyone with a better instinct to react at the opportune moment.

For the first time ever, I heard her talk about God that afternoon. It was not a weary spirit looking for refuge. She had continued in her cheerful mood. But human moods, as I know now, so often superimpose themselves on the earlier moods—over so much thought that has gone on before—that it is not possible to gauge the causes leading to an event only from the mood of the moment.

We had climbed to a high point on the temple to take the photographs. The foothold was narrow and it made me giddy to look down from that height. The terrace below was paved with grey stones. The stones were smooth. They were not jagged or uneven. I could see the flower bed of marigolds on the terrace below.

Aparna was looking down when I caught her hand. “The pain would be sharp and sudden if one fell,” she said. “The fall would break the neck. It would not be slow, and everything would soon be over. The stones will rise up to meet you.”

A shiver ran though me, I held her firmly, and said, “Aparna, what nonsense is this?”

“It is god’s house,” she said. “One would go straight to heaven, to eternal happiness, like the old women who die on the ghats of Varanasi.”

We came down and took some more photographs. There were some erotic panels half way down.
“I like this temple. The gods are so friendly here. They even make love. They seem only slightly superior to us.” She was looking at the panels. “I was once at the Notre Dame in Paris. It also has high towers. It is also a house of God. But I was terrified. I was overawed by the power of God. I felt that the mighty God of that imposing edifice was seeing through me with his sharp eyes and would soon expose all my sins and punish me. The gods of this temple don’t seem to worry so much about sin. They will let me keep my secrets.”

“Crazy woman,” I thought. “She is totally neurotic.”

I held her hand. It was warm and delicate. I looked at her slender form so close to me. I thought of the delicious mornings when she had given herself to me so beautifully.

“Aparna,” I said my heart pounding wildly, “Why don’t you get married?”

She looked at me silently and then smiled.

“Will you marry me?” she laughed. “Don’t you think I am totally neurotic?”

I froze in my steps. She was capable of anything. I held both her hands and raised them to my lips instinctively.

It was not a ritual.

“Yes! I will. Anywhere. Anytime.” I was breathless.
She laughed again and took away her hands. “We could have a Gandharva vivah right here. I am lucky the Betwa has so little water and the fish are small, they won’t swallow my ring.”

She stopped abruptly. Raising her camera she took a few steps backward to focus it on me. I felt her eyes looking at me searchingly though the lenses. It seemed an eternity before she took the photograph.

“You are sweet,” she said. “If we stay together you will divorce me even before we get married.”

“You can trust me,” I heard myself saying, my words beginning to sound ridiculous.

She smiled at me. She clicked another photograph.

“I was reading a novel by Heinrich Boll last week,” she said, “about an estranged wife in a hotel room, in bed with her husband attempting a reunion.” Aparna was speaking calmly now. “She keeps looking out of the window all night at a neon sign on a pharmacy, blinking: You Can Trust Your Druggist.”

“Will you be my druggist?” she said almost affectionately, “Will you drug me to happiness?”
“Aparna”, Aparna,” I pleaded desperately. “You must be sensible. What are you doing to yourself?”
She was strong-willed and sensitive.  The tension of the combination, unrelieved by faith or humour, was hard on her. Insecure people long for a great deal of intimacy—physical, emotional, even spiritual. Oblivious to this, imprisoned, as if by her acute sensitivity into a rarified world, she was trapped at a subtler level. She did not care to possess any one. She found that heavy on the soul and ultimately destructive. All earth-bound things, responsibility and morality, were heavy though they preserved and stabilized life.

Detachment was light, even immorality was. Light things pulled you way above yourself if you could take the elevation. You could generate much more at a higher level if you could. You risked all too much and could end up all wasted. But life had come to her that way.
There was no choice.

We walked back slowly through the village bazaar. Aparna photographed some children who ran behind her, laughing and giggling, fascinated by her and her camera. A village belle peeped out of her window and caught her fancy. Aparna went into the courtyard and soon had all the women around her.

“Look,” she said to me, “she was married at fifteen. She already has a baby.”

The women were admiring her necklace. “They want to know why I don’t wear sindur,” she said again.

The light was fading. The evening was coming on. Dark clouds were gathering on the far horizon.
“Let’s go back,” I said.

She had an intelligent mind. She could reason and rationalize. She also had a mysteriously penetrating sense for the subtleties of feelings. Many children also have it, a God-given gift lasting only for a few years of early life. They discriminate and respond so well to different shades of feelings, knowing instinctively where their safety lies. Safety lay in emotional relationships. She also knew it. And then there were other centres that took shape in your body and in your emotions as the years passed.

The intellect enhanced you, it also diminished you. The world of emotions rested on faith. In that inner world, in the deeper, darker recesses of the heart, reason and intellect—untempered by faith—destroyed more than they could create.

We walked in silence. I watched her walking with an unsteady pace. The fort loomed ahead of us.
“You did not give me an answer,” I said. She stopped. She looked up at the gathering clouds and said “I want a baby.” And then she went on slowly, “If I had a baby twelve years ago, he would already be my friend. We could do things together.”

Suddenly I was angry. “By now you would have made the boy a neurotic wreck. Don’t you ever think of anyone else but yourself?”

And then I was sorry for my words. There was no way to retrieve them. We walked on in silence. She had wanted to come to terms with her conflicting pulls. She wanted to love, to respect, to fondle and to hold sacred a relationship: but she also had to contend with the conflicting pulls of her mind. She could not force herself. The calculation did not work. And yet, without some calculation it was not possible even to preserve the purity of all that she held precious, to keep it from corruption which advanced all the time as the years passed.

It rained that night and it was cold. The rain blew through the broken window-panes. We could smell it in the room. Aparna had caught a chill. I did not touch her. She lay in bed, looking miserable and unwell with a tense expression on her face. She had not slept a wink.

The weather cleared in the morning. It was still cold. I gave her tea in bed and took her hand to count the pulse. I sat near the bed. She smiled at me weakly. She was not all there. The chowkidar brought hot milk for her breakfast. I had told him that she was not well.

“You have a slight fever,” I said, “I must get some blankets from the village, the cleanest possible.”
I gave her an aspirin and said again, “We can leave tomorrow if you are well.”

She did not respond.

The village was far from the fort. I moved from house to house. The village folk were still using their thick cotton sheets. Their low-roofed mud houses were much warmer than the high rooms of the palace. I had finished the first round of the houses. There were no blankets and I was trying to find a clean quilt when the chowkidar came, his face all ashen. He spoke only a few halting words. My mind leaped to the white marble burzi. There could be no doubt. The height was too great for any doubt.

The villagers were already in the moat when we got back. I stood by the road. There was no point in going down now. The police would come soon. Nothing could be touched. There was nothing to touch any more. A postmortem report would have to be made.

The white marble burzi overhanging the moat was lit by the morning sun. I looked up. A piece of cloth, a sari we had used as our bedding, was fluttering in the breeze. I went up with the chowkidar. You could not see her from the marble burzi. Some bushes overhanging from the sides of the moat blocked the view. The dry bed of the moat looked surprisingly like the terrace we had seen the previous day looking down from the temple.

There were even some wild flowers. The white marble burzi was at a much greater height though.
In the bedroom there was a sheet of her thick notepaper prominently left on the table. She had pressed down a corner of the paper carefully with a book to prevent it from flying away in the breeze. It was a brief note signed neatly in her meticulous handwriting, dated, and the time had also been recorded. She did not want the police to bother me. She had been as efficient as ever. In her own way she had been fond of me.

I came away after two days. The chowkidar brought the tonga for me on his own. He was not even cooking the food any more. There seemed to be no need for it.

There was nothing more to be done. Over the years, I have often gone back to Bir Singh’s old palace and watched the frothy turbulence of the Betwa beyond the forest. I walk through the forest to the river bed. The water is clear and I see the fish in small pools of sparkling water.

It is an old story now. And it is not good to live in the dreams of a dead person, in the visions of a mirage which can never come back to life. But perhaps this is not true. People remain as you want them to be. They are dead when they are alive. And still living when you cannot touch them any more. I see her in the sparkling waters of the Betwa and on the ramparts of the fort, and the vibrations rise through the landscape to permeate the spirit with their precious beauty which lives forever.

(The story is taken from the collection of short stories, “The White Marble Burzi and Other Stories” written by Sharat Kumar)

No comments :

Post a Comment

We welcome your comments related to the article and the topic being discussed. We expect the comments to be courteous, and respectful of the author and other commenters. Setu reserves the right to moderate, remove or reject comments that contain foul language, insult, hatred, personal information or indicate bad intention. The views expressed in comments reflect those of the commenter, not the official views of the Setu editorial board. प्रकाशित रचना से सम्बंधित शालीन सम्वाद का स्वागत है।