I’m reading this story as usual with a bowl full of cashew nuts by my side. It is a story by Saleem I have known since long. Okay, why nuts, the reader may ask. Indeed, a visitor had eyed the bowl and wondered what the nuts were all about. The nuts are an essential part of my reading process. The nuts I have by my side came from the cashew plantations of Chirala, not far from where Saleem was born and went to school.
These nuts have a history like any institution or individual. They are fruits of research done at the Central Cashew Research Station at Bapatla, a couple of miles from Chirala. Why not Kerala nuts, you may ask. The answer is awfully simple. That is because the Chirala nuts are children of the soil. Priyanka is the name of their variety, You get it? The name is purely a matter of personal choice. Nothing to do with dynastic politics.
Before I begin reading it, it is my habit to count the number of nuts, without caring to know with what hand. The central idea is to know the statistical relationship between the story and the number of nuts it takes to appreciate it. This is an entirely new approach to literary appreciation. At get, set, go were 122 of them. I don’t remember how many nuts an earlier story of Chaya Devi, Prayanam, had taken. At that time I’d not conceived this revolutionary formula to sizing up a short story. I remembered their Brazilian parentage and wondered how effortlessly they have prospered on the hospitable Indian soil.
Yes, I’ve just started reading the Saleem story with a nut count of 122. The nuts are all washed and look enticing like white pudgy crescents. Come, what’s the delay, they seem to taunt me. Wait, your turn will come, I tell the fatsos. The Saleem story sounds familiar to me. I remember I’d translated it some long time ago. So it shouldn’t surprise me if I could remember I’d translated it before. And it makes me happy to know my memory is not poor and my mind is sharp at 90. Or, is it 87? I’m standing now at the doorstep of the story where I’m swept by a fancy to test my memory more scientifically than by relying on self-assurance. I close my eyes and try to summon the author’s name. Syed Saleem! The moniker drops behind my limpid eyelids. Great, I shout in celebration, and dip two fingers, the thumb and the index finger, into the cashew bowl made of porcelain my wife and I’d bought from a migrant Rajasthani woman on the footpath opposite the Indira Park. She was pretty but with my wife by my side I pretended I’d no interest. As a tribute to her rural beauty, however, I desisted from haggling over the price.
Yes, the fingers I’d mentioned in the previous paragraph catch a couple of nuts, the same nuts that looked like pudgy crescents and catapult the Chirala stuff into my open mouth, which I’d kept unshut lest in a moment of abstraction I fail to suck the cashews’ into my system. No, no. I’m sorry, the truth is I’d opened my mouth in awe at the grandeur of the lyrical sculpture of the doorstep to the story.
Saleem’s story titled Talaq opens with a theater-crazy Ibrahim winning the hand of a fairy, without wings, in one of his travels with an itinerant repertory. What is the name of the girl? I make a guess. It is Jameelunnisa. I make sure there is no one in the room besides me. But why guess when I could see it in the anthology in which the story appears. I confirm the name; it is Jameelunnisa. I like the name and regret I hadn’t given it to my daughter whose name is Lakshmi Kameswari Siva Prasanna. I don’t know how my thoughts have entered the mind of Jameelunnissa. She shouts from line 2 of page 40 where she appears in the story for the first time, ‘No, you can’t steal the name Saleem Saab had given me.’ I could’ve silenced her by just closing the book. No, that’ll dent my democratic image. So I tell her we’ll talk to Saleem about the name.
Now, let’s put this brawl on hold and go back to the story and see what happened. Unable to bear the separation from footloose Ibrahim, the wingless fairy Jameelunnissa joins the repertory so she could be by her husband’s side always. In one of Ibrahim’s plays being staged that day at Tenali, she and her husband play man and wife. Their names are Hamid and Akhtarunnissa on the stage. That they are already man and wife in real life makes things easy for them. Things now begin to happen, Saleem makes them happen, in such a manner that Hamid suspects the fidelity of his wife Akhtarunnissa. So, on the stage, Hamid, (Ibrahim in real life), says talaak three times in a row and divorces Akhtarunnissa (Jameelunnisa in real life). A kazi (a Muslim priest who presides over marriages) sitting in the audience stands up and shouts that the talaak is final even if the words were part of make-believe and Ibrahim and Jameelunnisa can’t live together even on the stage because their marriage is annulled. The fairy girl begins to cry bitterly. This scene pains me. I go to the green room behind and whisper to her to tell the kazi to go to hell.
Then I hear a sudden explosion like the one you see at quarries. From out of the smoke of the explosion appears Saleem alerted by a premonition. He has this power to appear whenever his texts are in danger of being messed up. God had granted him this boon in a previous birth and it has stayed. He is very agitated suspecting I’m trying to change his plot.
‘Yes, Saleem, what can I do for you?’ I ask him with a straight face.
‘You’ve done whatever damage you could already, sir,’ he says with suppressed anger.
‘This is a serious charge. Let’s be clear about it,’ I tell him trying to show outrage at his incrimination.
‘Cool down and tell me what the matter is,’ I try to pacify him.
He’s so worked up he doesn’t see me check how many nuts are remaining at this stage of the story in the bowl. Not a single nut. There are only two men in the green room now, Saleem and I. I don’t know where the girl has gone. My eyes transmit my suspicion about the missing nuts to Saleem. Alerted by his sharp antennae, he, winner of the Sahitya Akademi award, is less than amused.
‘It’s an affront to the 100-year-old Telugu short story,’ he bawls at me.
‘But the Telugu short story has not taken off in true sense,’ I remind him.
’What do you mean,’ he says.
‘It’s still stranded in its infancy by the controversy about who wrote the first Telugu short story,’ I tell him.
’It’s Gurazada who wrote the first story,’ Saleem says, punching his fist in the air.
‘Kondaveeti Satyavati says it’s Bandaru Achamamba’s Dhana Trayodasi.’
‘No, it doesn’t have the basic ingredients of a short story,’ Saleem dismisses me.
Saleem was in the middle of his defence of Gurazada when Jameelunnisa rushes into the green room from wherever she’d gone. She begins ranting at Saleem at inventing Maulvis and Moulanas to wreck her marriage. What can be done now, I ask Saleem.
‘Simple, sir. I’ll rewrite the story in consultation with Jameelunnissa,’ he said.
In that case I won’t read it, I tell him. Angry, Saleem disappears into an implosion he has triggered. I look piteously into the empty porcelain bowl in which I see the pretty face of the Rajasthani woman and sigh. Next time I will try to read without the distractions of nuts and a bowl purchased from a Rajasthani woma, I take an interim decision.