Translation: The Flow of Saraswati*

A short story in Hindi by Susham BediEnglish translation by Sonia Taneja
Sonia Taneja
A pain would shoot from Sharda**’s stomach in spite of having taken an enormous amount of pills to numb the pain. The slightest movement would cause the stitches from the operation to simmer. The knife, having cut past the intestines, had also ripped the back...somehow she had lived. But now the pain...the mean-spirited pain completely weakened her resolve. To make matters worse, the anesthesia made her feel nauseated. Lying on the hospital bed in this helpless manner was becoming extremely uncomfortable for her. Who knows how long she would have to remain in this position? Idle and dependent on others. Over and over again, she would moan in pain. Amidst those cries of pain, that face alone would affix itself in front of her-- sapless, yellow, stricken with panic, and indifferent. Such a face... so sad... young... lifeless! How could such a face have managed to strike her? Why did it do that? The face that, at one time, had begun to depend on her and trust her...had faith in her...then, suddenly, in this way...retaliation against her? But what was being avenged? What had she done? How had she hurt him? Had they grown so distant, unbeknownst to her, that this was the only way out? In her mind, her efforts had only attempted to make something of him, to create a certain hope, a yearning, to ignite a spark in him. Did that very spark rise up to burn her now? But the embers had not in fact kindled...this was frozen lava... this was the attack of that cold and stiffened lava. The chill of cruelty... when all senses deaden... all feeling is lost. One continues to sleep and wake, eat and drink, take care of business, but is dead inside. This is why in the fifth grade... a mere twelve-year-old child carries a knife and is ready to attack. Who knows if this attack on others is an attack on himself? Or is it an attack on his family or society who have failed to educate him about life? But Sharda only wanted to teach him how to live. She wanted to rescue him from that whirlwind of hate that was swallowing him deeper into the dark, lifeless wells.

Susham Bedi
It was a social science class. With reference to Clinton becoming the president, Sharda was teaching about American presidents. It was then that he had said, “We don’t want to read about these presidents...over here, all the presidents are white... no black person has ever become the president.”

Sharda had lovingly challenged him, “So what if it hasn’t happened... it can...there are black governors... there can also be black presidents... why don’t you become one when you grow up?”

He thought Sharda had said that in jest. Perhaps for many people it was in fact a joke. But, whatever Sharda said or did, it was with complete conviction and self-confidence. She neither doubted her own intentions, nor allowed others to doubt them. She would much rather fight and die fighting than engage in manipulation. At first, he too had been suspicious of Sharda. But in that school where ninety percent of the teachers were white, he trusted Sharda slightly more than others. Also, Sharda’s eyes carried a certain welcoming feeling...that drew him to her. It wasn’t just him; others tended to trust Sharda very easily too. She was indeed very sweet. The roundness of her face embodying her tan features, her small eyes radiating sensitivity- her face was always dripping sweetness. When she spoke, it felt as if someone had candied your mouth or fed you some sweets. The white principal of that school with ninety percent black and Hispanic students also trusted Sharda the most. Whenever a student became problematic, he/she would be handed over to Sharda. And she managed to always find a way to communicate with the student and find a solution for the problem. The principal was impressed with Sharda’s skill.

On the other hand, the rest of the teachers in the school became nervous with these students and used to secretly wish and wait for a transfer to another school district. A fear of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time or of this or that happening leading to an undesirable consequence always loomed over them. The clouds of hate and suspicion emerged from every corner of the school. Though Sharda never felt the hate in herself, she had been afraid on occasion. This fear, however, was only a product of the immediate circumstance. After all, the one who doesn’t know her is capable of hurting her. Overall, she was fearless- rather, she felt closer to the black race and believed somewhere within herself that she understood both (whites and blacks).

She was also unlike other Indians residing here who mostly prefer whites and imitate or respect their culture only. The Indians treat other blacks the way whites would treat them or even worse. After all, they have also received that respect for fair skin as an inheritance from their ancestors. The Indians extend the hand of friendship toward other whites as if, through the Aryan blood, over the centuries, they have been kinsman. So much so that colonization of India was, in a way, a blessing in disguise designed to reunite brothers lost long ago. Perhaps, owing to her darker complexion or her past, Sharda felt closer to blacks. At the same time, being an Indian, she did not have any sort of a historic ill-feeling for Americans. Either way, it helped that the Indians had also established a respectable niche for themselves in the working world.

After coming here, Sharda had obtained certification in special education. And thus, helping students weak in studies was her profession, and she received immense inner satisfaction from it. Perhaps this is why she was also successful. Otherwise, a lot of teachers avoided this type of teaching. This was the reason it was relatively easier for immigrants to get a job in this field. Sharda felt like she had found her field of work. While working with these children, she wanted to create respect for skin-color-- promote mutual trust, love and sympathy.

Encircling that face, the surroundings of the school revolved in front of Sharda’s eyes- worse than ruins, dirty, soot-covered buildings, bullet and stone pierced window panes, broken bricks akin to open wounds in the walls. Some buildings had all their doors and windows burnt, the debris of half-burnt beams and bricks shrouded the surrounding land. Her school was enclosed by many such buildings. Even the building of the school was not totally whole- injured in various places, covered with blue, black and green graffiti bruise marks. Inside the classrooms also, there were dirty, old desks and chairs gilded with ugly drawings, squeaky tables with loose screws. She used to take a long underground train ride from one end of the city in Brooklyn to another to teach in this school in the Bronx. On the way from Brooklyn to the Bronx lies Manhattan. She crosses all of Manhattan in an underground train through dark tunnels. But she knows that above her reside the riches of the world in those streets, buildings, and shops. No sooner than she exits the tunnels and enters the higher parts of the city, she also somehow leaves behind that world of dreams that resides in the blue-brown eyes of this nation. That may be why that twelve year old boy’s flat refusal to study might not a big deal. But Sharda does not want to liberate him of dreams just yet. If there is an age in which to dream, then one must dream...even if they are someone else’s dreams. This is why Sharda crosses the entire city of dreams (Manhattan) and goes to this broken, twisted, disorderly town (the Bronx) to sell dreams whilst it is already known to every man and child that this trade always incurs a loss such that nobody is willing to invest any amount in it anymore.

Then why does she go? May be because it is a job? Since the last four years, however, this alone has become her life's mode, her life's mission. In any case, there is no spare time to think about or do anything else. Because she is able to manage, everyone leaves everything up to her. The more she is able to manage, the more responsibilities keep piling up on her. But she is also that much more happy and content- as a result, the web of jobs keeps expanding, every task carries with it a new challenge, a new enthusiasm.

Ouch! A sharp wave of pain grips her. The nurse enters the room.

"Please miss! Give me some painkiller." The nurse states that the doctor is coming and he would be the one to increase the dosage.

The nurse asks, "Should I turn the television on?" And as she says that, she presses the power button.

Sapless and sick faces begin to swim across the television screen. There is news about Somalia- faces bearing hunger, scarcity, and disease. Worn out bodies, skeletons covered with a film of flesh. Every bulge in the body deflated like a ripped balloon and the half-ripped parts ogling outward.

She cries in pain. Wealth, happiness- everything is so ephemeral. Birth right or a right that has been earned- how meaningless do these systems become. An overthrow of power makes us lose our awareness of right and wrong. Everyone focuses only on their immediate gain- nothing more. For his own benefit, first one subscribes to a race, and if chance permits, smears the race in blood. Freedom, nationalism--how beautiful the concepts...how seductive the craftsmen! Once one is imprisoned in these terms, it is almost impossible to escape. More than that, there might not be any desire remaining for liberation. There is a lot that lies ahead on that path. It is simply not enough for people to reach the top; the task of appraising their name and place on the top is a never-ending one. Once the top is within their grasp, they tighten their hold to the extent that they keep hanging from it until the top itself melts and slips away.

A kind of drowsiness begins to take over her thoughts. A train of pictures, fragrances and toxic winds crosses over her. That’s where she was born. That bungalow enclosed by a bulk of greenery and trees. Mom and dad were both doctors. Their practice was going really well. She remembers-that affectionate African nanny who used to dress her and her brother in bright clean clothes and played with them in the garden. She loved both of them very much. In a sweet and soft voice, when she used to sing her a lullaby in her local language and put her to sleep, Sharda gave into the happiness and security and reached the world of fairies. Her proximity had a tender reassurance. In her presence, she used to even forget her parents. Mama and papa used to always be there in the evening during dinner. Nanny used to teach her at least one poem everyday, which she and her brother used to recite at the dinner table. When she reminisces about those days, she feels as if she was living in the land of fairies.

Then one day, suddenly everything had changed. There are so many things that are etched on her memory slate to this day and some, having repeatedly dipped in what she had heard from mama, has become a part of her memory also. When she returned from school that day, everything had seemed normal. Like everyday, nanny had fed her that evening and prepared a bath for her. After washing up and dressing in that bright clean and starched frock, she had been playing with her girlfriends all evening. Everything was totally normal. It was when papa and mummy were at home in the evening that some sort of storm has unleashed. The food was about to be set on the table and that day, nanny had taught her a poem about a fat and wealthy merchant. Repeating the poem in the living room, they were enthusiastically awaiting the sound of papa’s footsteps in the living room. At that time, two policemen had come to deliver a piece of paper. Papa had had to make it to the verandah himself to sign and receive that piece of paper. Upon reading that piece of paper, Papa’s face had become agitated, as if he was sick from a heart attack. Mama had screamed, “No! They can’t do this to us! We have made everything by working hard. We didn’t take anything from anyone! Then why would they treat us like this?”

At that time, Sharda had not been able to understand the graveness of that situation. Only the breathlessness and confusion on mummy and papa’s faces is branded in her memory.

Suddenly they had been ordered to gather together in the governor’s compound the next morning. She remembers that it rained heavily that night. In the morning as well, they had kept playing with other Indian kids while getting drenched in the rain. She had felt strange that the school was off that day. Nobody had even stopped them from playing. Nanny wasn’t there either. When they had exhausted themselves from play, then they had finally asked to be sent home. They were told that they could not go home yet. She had been surprised- why were they not allowed to go home? In that state of exhaustion, she had begun to badly miss the nanny, the anticipated dinner with mama and papa, and her bed. But the nanny was not with them. It seemed as if mama, in a sort of frenzy, and the alarmed and worried faces of so many of her Indian friends were awaiting some terrifying announcement. At one time, mama had let out an invigorated shout. Everybody was staring at her in silence and nervousness. Some policeman had scolded mama, “Shut up or else you will be shot.” A nervous Papa had quieted mama as he did not want them to unwittingly become the reason for the death of all the families gathered there.

Sharda must have given in to the fatigue and fallen asleep after that, because when she woke up the next morning, she found that they were being loaded like cattle into a truck. She hadn’t even fully awakened when the truck had started moving. There was a lot of pushing and shoving in that truck. Mama says that they were sticking to each other like ripe dates. If they fell on someone, they would rise themselves up using them as support or they remained fallen. Many children were vomiting. Mothers were wiping them with the corners of their saris. The mess, stink, and putrescence were causing even the healthy ones to feel like puking. After hours and hours of traveling that had shaken up every joint in the body, they were finally let off. It was a strange and desolate place. A fearsome jungle. The danger of being attacked by an animal lurked in every corner. Fear had replaced hunger in threatening their life.

Hours and hours of waiting had produced another truck. Again the loading began. The children were already half-dead. They were carried and lifted on to the truck. But the truck did not move. Everyone was told to walk on foot. Their caravan crawled on foot for hours. Combating hunger, thirst, and exhaustion, they had finally arrived at a port. They found that had to take the ship. They waited for the ship all day long. Having stayed up all night, everyone’s bodies were cracking. Stomachs were wriggling with hunger and nobody had anything to eat or drink with them. Nobody knew what was about to transpire next. Mama and papa were quietly awaiting a catastrophe and perhaps secretly praying for deliverance. In a state of fatigue, sleep, and hunger, she had repeatedly asked her mom, “When would we go home?” And her brother had also repeated the same question. After a while, they had forgotten to ask, as if receiving some sort of response from that grave uncertainty on mama’s face.

After a long wait, a goods carrying ship had anchored. Everyone began to be stuffed into it. The ship was a sky of hope and an immense watery spread of hopelessness, a space of waterland in itself on which everything was stuck or dependent. Somehow everyone was loaded onto the ship and it started to move. But each one of them was overcome with exhaustion, worry, and impatience. There was not enough room on the ship to be able to conveniently sit or stand. Additionally, there was no arrangement for food or drink. Such a long journey had only distress and restlessness to offer. The young ones were shouting and screaming. The entire ship was a scene of loud wailings. All the young or old were either weeping or babbling.

The annihilation and anarchy on the ship was reminiscent of an animal barn. Nobody could think of what to do. How to manage themselves and the hungry wriggling children. They were near Adan when they were suddenly subjected to a terrifying command from the ship’s captain ordering all the children to stand in a queue. Within minutes, the captain’s men had lined up all the children. It was declared that if any one of them made a sound or engaged in disorderly conduct, they would be severely punished, whereupon, pieces of cloth began to be stuffed in the children’s mouths. Their mouths were stuffed with a severity that did not allow for the mouths to even move. Sharda remembered being in this predicament throughout the trip. The trip was approximately twenty to twenty-two hours long. She does not remember when they reached India. Mama says that Sharda had suffered from a very high fever. By the time they had reached Bombay, she had almost become unconscious. Even though both mom and dad were doctors, they did not have access to any medicine at that time.

The second chapter of life had begun in India. Doctor parents started their life again. Sharda did the same- school and college education. Amidst relatives and friends, it seemed that she had studied and grown up practically overnight. The eight-nine years spent in Africa had become history, except that the fragrances, colors and greenery of that place had become a part of her body aroma. Often in her dreams, an old, familiar land and blurred, forgotten faces would surface. When she went to bed, nanny’s honey-dipped lullabies would come to caress her at once. Of course, given the shape and structure of her body, her color, and the mentality nourished in an Indian family, she had been an Indian. Now, she returned to being that way again. An Indian may live anywhere in the world, but he/she is never able to rid himself/herself of his/her color and culture and, for this reason, returning to live in India may produce some materialistic inconveniences, but still, growth of the self continues. The sweetness of the thick syrup of affinity enrolls any discontentment into it.

She recalls when there were few years remaining in her mom’s retirement and how she used to discuss the topic of Sharda’s marriage all the time. During this time, papa had suffered a heart attack and, without much notice, had departed from the world. At that time, she was in the second year of achieving her B.A. and her brother was in high school. Mama had managed everything very efficiently. But still, managing alone, that too when the body is fatiguing under the burden of age. She wished that at least her son should become a doctor. Then Sharda had decided that she would marry only after settling her brother and, after finishing her B.A. and
B. Ed, she started working in a school. Her brother’s medical education was about to finish when, in the prime of youth, he suffered a heart attack. His heart had a big hole in it. The doctor had said that if they wanted to save him, they should take him to America, otherwise nothing can be done in India and without the medical care, at any moment he could.... Sharda took a leave from school. Somehow with savings and borrowing from relatives and friends, she got herself to America. It was not enough to simply arrive here. Now the amount for the operation had to be accrued. At first, they had him examined in a state hospital, but nobody was willing to perform the operation in this circumstance. Illegally, she did many kinds of work and garnered the money. She also received some help. The operation took place. But, she was not able to save him.

To return to India without her brother and face her mother was analogous to being buffeted incessantly in an frightening sea of pain. She had made every effort on her part to give life back to her brother, but still she felt like a culprit in front of mama. Mama had entrusted her with her most valuable treasure and she had not been able to protect it.

She wrote to mama that she would remain in America and look for a permanent job. She planned to soon bring mama here too. If one world has been destroyed, she could attempt to build another. She had already made some acquaintances here.

A new battlefield. Different weapons. Different enemies. But Sharda had become used to fighting. Eventually, after taking all these exams, somehow, she had landed a job in a school. At least having a job improves one’s mundane life. At that time, Sharda felt that her age for getting married had long past. She should almost forget that aspect of life or else, another enemy would rear its head and she no longer wished to go to new frontiers and fight. Moreover, she had already established a convenient domestic life with mama. She wanted to improve what was in front of her, ahead of her.

And ahead lay this world of broken and ripped existences. A town of smashed dreams, which this twelve-year-old wanted to protect by always carrying a knife in his pocket. In his innocence, he had let Sharda know, “I have a knife... if anybody messes with me, I’ll kill them.”

This had made Sharda very nervous. She had tried to persuade him, “Nobody will bother you here. You can keep the knife with me. Somebody can get hurt.”

There must have been something in Sharda’s tone that made him give the knife to her. After school, when he asked for it, she said, “I will only give this to your mom... you can get hurt.”

Enraged, he said, “But my mom drinks and then beats me... I actually got the knife to protect myself from her.”

“So you will attack your mother?”
“You don’t know how badly she beats me up. Look at this...”
He pulled up his t-shirt and showed the bruises on his back.

Sharda was becoming very worried and did not know what to say. But she had not returned the knife to him that day. She had kept persuading him.

“Look Malcolm, it is necessary for you to study properly so that you can build the right world for yourself. You have to get out of this quagmire. You have to get an education and make a living for yourself so that you can stand on your feet and be able to chose your own path.”

Malcolm kept looking at her with a lack of understanding. Pulling out a welfare check from his pocket the next day and showing it to her, he said, “Why should I study? I get the money every month. I don’t need to earn it, then why should I study in school?”

Sharda was exasperated.

“Oh Malcolm! Who teaches you such things? You are not studying just so that you can make money. You have to get out from this filth...you have to transform your society... without the education, you will also give into drinking, drugs, be hopeless, and trapped in this world of criminals. Don’t you consider it necessary to escape from all this?

“You are wasting your time, Miss. My mom says that no matter how educated we become...how intelligent we become... the color of our skin always produces hatred in other people...our destiny is cursed with the color of our skin.”
Sharda was stunned as she looked at him. This was a twelve year old who was claiming to be already familiar with his fate. Could hopelessness look any uglier than this?

She kept grumbling, “This is nonsense! It is wrong. You are taught wrong things. Why are your insides being filled with this hatred... you live on the welfare money yet give hatred in return? You are neither grateful, nor wanting to get out of this situation! What do you actually want?”

“It would be better if you stayed out of our business. Ours is an old fight: it did not begin yesterday and it is not going to end anytime soon. When we receive hatred on every turn, that too without our fault, then how do you expect us to bestow love... My mom reminds me everyday that hate is absolutely essential or else we would be shackled in the chains of slavery again... It is in everybody’s benefit to keep our race backward-- yours too because this is how our share of the riches will be passed on to you. That’s why even your love is dangerous. I have to protect myself from both love and hate.”

“Bring your mom. I want to talk to her.”

For some time, he had kept examining her with his sharp, needlepointed look. Then he uttered, “My mom will never come here.”

“Why?”
“She hates my teachers.”
“I refuse to believe this.”
“I am totally telling you the truth. She says that you teach us wrong things.”
“Wrong...what wrong things do we teach?”
“She says that the black race was the one to begin all civilization and culture, but after the enslavement, they were discredited with this status and now the whites have claimed it...the only history of civilization taught in all the schools is of the white civilization... as if the rest were simply uncivilized.”

“There might be truth in your mom’s statement, but this is a very controversial matter. I can only talk to her about it. Listen, please tell your mom to come see me.”

“I will tell her... but she hates all of you.”

“Don’t talk rubbish, Malcolm! If this were the case, then why would she send you to school?”

“She does that because she gets more money this way.”

“Stop this nonsense... I told you to tell her to meet me. If she is occupied with work, then I can come see her... it is necessary to see her once.”

Malcolm’s mom neither came to the school, nor sent a message for Sharda to come. One day, when Sharda was carrying a bundle of homework notebooks from the classroom to the staff room, Malcolm had suddenly attacked her and stabbed her in the stomach. He had not been in the class that day. Sharda had not noticed him approaching or else she might have been cautious. Everything happened within seconds. The students in the corridor had also noticed only when Sharda had screamed. Within minutes, Sharda had lost consciousness. When the ambulance was called, when she was taken to the hospital, when she had been operated upon and received stitches- she does not remember anything. After she regained consciousness, there was that pain torturing the excoriated wounds and that spontaneously emerging question from the lips, “What happened to me...? Why am I like this?”

Sharda still found it hard to believe that it was Malcolm. He may discuss a lot, but it did not seem as if he had begun to hate her. Sharda had sheer goodwill toward him. Was this a result of a momentary illusion? Sharda felt as if it were the work of a momentary provocation. Malcolm could never hate her.

When she let out a cry of pain and turned her side, she found mama staring, sitting on a chair in front her. Mom’s face was mirroring Sharda’s distress. In a corner, the nurse was preparing an injection. Mama spoke up, “I told you not to teach in such a school. To hell with such a job! You apply for a transfer as well.

You will find a job somewhere else. Don’t go back there.”

Even in that pain, Sharda had managed to smile, “Don’t worry, Mom. Children can sometimes be ignorant. It was me who could not teach him well. The mistake is actually mine- of us elders...he can only learn from us. I have to find more effective methods to teach.”

“No, no. You are not going back there. We will manage somehow. You can find another job.”

“Mama, please! Don’t let me break, Mama. We have always run away from every battlefield.”

A pain surfaced on Mama’s face, “When have I left the battlefield, my little girl...? I only kept experimenting with new ways of attacking...I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for the way it was uprooted...but I did not want to be defeated...that’s why I changed my moves.”
“Mama, it’s not just you, I am also talking about other Indians...we lack a certain ability to commit. I have to just be firmly planted in one place now. Running away because of fear, or running away because one is being forced to run away...that is not my path. I must complete the work that I have deeply engaged in.”

And facing the nurse, she said, “When would I get well, sister?”

While giving the injection, the nurse responded, “Be patient, madam. You will soon be well. It’s only a matter of two or three weeks.”

“I want to return to school as soon as possible” and under the influence of the injection, she was murmuring, “No... no... don’t let me break... I am the bridge between the two. Flowing between that white and black, the Ganges’ and Yamuna’s streams, a blood-red flow of Saraswati...”


Notes:
[*] The Indian goddess of education and wisdom.  Also, one of the three rivers in India forming the famous and symbolic confluencing triad of the Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati.
[**] Another name for Saraswati.

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