Excerpted from Krishna Sobti’s The Music of Solitude, translated from the Hindi by Vasudha Dalmia, out now in a special Harper Perennial keepsake edition.
Aranya began to pull on her socks. Have your shoes been hurting you? No. The grass was wet and I needed to protect my shoes. So I carried them in my hands. Ishan laughed.
Is there any sense in protecting your shoes and catching a cold? You may end up having to take antibiotics. Aranya laughed. Before that, I’ll have drunk a kaadha of black pepper, tulsi and liquorice. That’s a good habit. It’s not good to pop too much medication. The moral of the story is that it’s not good for a senior citizen like me to walk on wet grass.
Yes, Aranya, senior citizens can end up paying a heavy price for such carelessness. You’re right. In the future then, only Action shoes for me. Add another phrase to that, otherwise you’ll end up sounding like a shoe brand commercial. No, an evening like this can’t end with a commercial. Let’s have a conversation about spirituality then.
Aranya, does this word exist in your dictionary?
Don’t think so. My lot is known for fighting for its rights,
and yours for trying to achieve peace and clarity for all living beings by means of knowledge and wisdom.
Yes, but you seem all set to engage in a verbal duel. Are you getting ready for a battle?
Do I look very aggressive? Ah, yes, the activity of the subconscious mind shows in the tapping of feet.
Yes, I too have that. You own the arsenal of science and I, weapons.
You’re the one who is making the distinction.
The whole country is caught up in the commotion of caste history. I’m a Brahman, I’m non-Brahman. I’m Kshatriya, I’m a Rajput, I’m Jat-Gujar, I’m from a backward caste, I’m Dalit, I’m Scheduled Caste.
Hang on, wherever did Indianness go?
It went to the scales of the judiciary.
Why don’t we change the subject?
Let’s talk about happiness-beyond-belief.
You go first.
The list of what makes me happy is very short. In one line: a cluster of words and the expression of meaning. Nothing more. Now, your turn.
The pleasure of reading a good book.
Let’s hear a bit more about that.
The pleasure of sighting the consciousness glistening behind words—crystalline consciousness, whose transparent gleam never fades.
Are you saying this in your individual context?
Yes, that is the most irreplaceable dimension of human life.
A complete creation. To be conscious of oneself is re-creation.
Am I right?
Yes, I know what you mean.
We are reborn each time we refashion ourselves, renew ourselves.
Aranya silently asked herself: How many times might you have been born? Many times! Truly, this one life had in itself many launch pads for many births.
To rescue them from the long silence that followed, Ishan said, You say something. It’s your turn now.
A rebirth is underway these days as well. In the act of shredding paper. It Yes. Sometimes old letters, sometimes old accounts, calendars, diaries. And if I’m to speak of myself, along with papers, memories as well. Perhaps that’s what people call nirvana.
Why insist on so much plain speaking?
Because I live in colloquial prose.
They strolled in the rose garden. The language of poetry seems to grow in this little garden.
I have come here before.
Did you see the dusky rose-daughter in the red-orange flower patch?
That’s a beautiful name, rose-daughter. There isn’t any feminist influence working on this identification, is there?
That may well be. Sons form the majority in this park. We worry about the minorities. That’s why it’s so important to note the existence of daughters.
This shouldn’t get us tangled in an argument.
No, that won’t happen. Why would we trade our expansive vision for insularity? Regardless of quarrels, we seniors will ultimately attain peace.
But even there, the goddess of desires will block the passage of rights.
I see what you’re getting at. We will all face her infinite power.
Ishan laughed again. You could need a lawyer even there.
There must be some arrangement. The prosecution will work, if we pay the fees. But the verdict may take time. It could take eons. Several centuries may go by while you wait.
Aranya broke into a peal of laughter.
About the book:
Aranya and Ishan are neighbours. They are in the autumn of their lives. She is impulsive, anarchic and fiercely feminist. He is gentle, sensitive, orderly and believes in the institution of family, even though he has no one to call his own. Aranya thinks about the many Delhis, from the older one glimmering on the other side of the river to the trans-Yamuna residential complex where she lives now. Ishan is deeply spiritual and draws strength from his Danish guide in the Himalayas. The two of them banter about time, existentialism, changing landscapes, food, music and human nature. They think aloud about ageing and death, and wonder living the way they do amounts to biding time. Krishna Sobti’s Samay Sargam is a novel about sharing solitudes and growing old in a city that is at once keenly private and aggressively collective. This is as much a portrait of the changing times as it the story of a beautiful romance that thrives on companionship.
About the author:
Krishna Sobti is considered the grand dame of Hindi literature. Born in 1925 in Gujarat (now in west Pakistan), she received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1980 for her novel Zindaginama. Vasudha Dalmia is Professor Emerita of Hindi and Modern South Asian Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.