This translation was originally published in the Journal of South Asian Literature 14,3-4 (Summer-Fall 1979), pp. 99-118. It has been slightly edited for this online version.

[This story has a special place in my memory. When I was studying Hindi on the AIIS Summer Program in Delhi, my teacher Santwana Nigam promised that if I would translate one of Mohan Rakesh's stories, she would introduce me to the author. It was an exciting prospect-- my first piece of real work in the field of South Asian studies. I chose this story because it seemed so different from his others, and I thought it was his best. It was also an unusually long one. With much effort and great care, I managed to do the translation. (I still remember the first line-- vuh dur se dikha'i deti hu'i akriti mis pal hi ho sakti thi...) Santwana-ji fulfilled her promise, and I had the pleasure of meeting Mohan Rakesh. In the course of the conversation I was able to ask him the one question that really made me curious: was this story autobiographical? He replied that it was very much so. I was pleased to have my hunch confirmed. It also made me wonder about the real "Miss Pal" figure-- what was the rest of her story, what became of her? But I never had a chance to inquire further. Mohan Rakesh himself died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack only a few months later.]

"Miss Pal"

by Mohan Rakesh

translated by Frances W. Pritchett

  That figure visible from a distance could only be Miss Pal.
        Still, before believing it I adjusted my glasses. No doubt about it-- that was Miss Pal. Well, I had known that she was living somewhere in Kulu. But I had hardly expected such a meeting as this! Even seeing her in front of me, I could not believe she would be living in that little village between Kulu and Manali. When she quit her job and left Delhi, everyone there had told such stories about her!
        The bus pulled up near the Raysan Post Office. Miss Pal was standing nearby with a bag in her hand talking to the postmaster. After thanking him for something, she turned toward the bus--just as I stepped down in front of her. Miss Pal was somewhat taken aback; but when she recognized me her face lit up with happiness and enthusiasm.
        "What! Is that you, Ranjit?" she exclaimed. "How in the world did you get here?"
        "I'm coming from Manali," I said.
        "Really? How long have you been in Manali?"
        "Eight or ten days. Today I'm leaving, to go back to Delhi."
        "You're leaving today?" Half the enthusiasm disappeared from her face. "It's really not very nice of you--you've been here eight or ten days and haven.t even tried to come see me! You must have known I'm living in Kulu now."
        "Yes, but I didn't know where in Kulu you'd be. I just happened to run into you; otherwise how would I have known you'd settled in this wilderness?"
        "Really, this is very bad," Miss Pal said in a reproachful voice. "You've been here so many days, and we meet today just as you're leaving--"
        The driver began to honk the horn loudly. Miss Pal spoke to him in a tone of mingled reproof and apology. "Just a minute, I'm going on this bus too. Please give me one seat to Kulu. Thank you, thank you very much." Turning to me, she asked, "How far are you going on this bus?"
        "To Jogindernagar. I'll spend the night there and catch the through bus tomorrow morning."
        /100/  The driver now began honking even more loudly. Miss Pal, angry and helpless, glared at him. Heading far the bus door she said, "All right, we'll be together as far as Kulu; when we get to Kulu we'll talk more. You really must stay with me a few days before going on."
        The bus had previously been very crowded and two or three more passengers had just gotten on, so there was no longer any standing room. When Miss Pal started to enter the conductor lifted his hand and stopped her. I explained to him at great length that my seat was vacant, that the lady would sit there, and that I would manage to stand in the crowd. But the conductor stuck to his point and insisted that he couldn.t take any more passengers. I was in the midst of talking to him when the driver started the bus. My luggage was inside, so I ran and jumped on. While entering, I looked back at Miss Pal. She stood there dumbfounded--as though someone had snatched her bag and run off and she couldn't decide what to do.
        Turning slowly, the bus headed for Kulu. Then I began to feel remorseful. Since Miss Pal couldn't get a place in the bus, why hadn't I had my luggage taken out? My ticket was for Jogindernagar but I didn't have to go all the way on it. However, the meeting with Miss Pal had happened so abruptly and the time for decision was so short, that this idea hadn't even crossed my mind. If there had been even a little more time, I'd certainly have stopped in Raysan for a while. In so short a time I couldn t even ask Miss Pal how she was, and there was so much that I was curious to find out! After her departure from Delhi people kept spreading all sorts of rumors. Someone thought she'd married a retired English major in Kulu and the major had put his apple orchards in her name. Someone else had heard that she was getting a government pension there and wasn't doing anything--just going around and seeing the sights. Some were of the opinion that Miss Pal had lost her mind and to cure her the government had sent her to the Amritsar insane asylum. For Miss Pal had quit her secure, 500-rupee job one day and gone away--leaving everyone to spin all sorts of stories about her.
        At the time Miss Pal handed in her letter of resignation I was not in Delhi; I had taken a long leave and gone out of town. But the reason for Miss Pal's quitting I knew well enough. She worked with me in the Information Department and in Rajendernagar she lived ten or twelve houses away from us. Even in Delhi her life was quite lonely; she remained alienated from most of the office people and very seldom mixed with people from outside. Feeling that the atmosphere of the office was hostile to her, she counted the hours of every day she spent there. She used to complain that almost everyone there was of cheap mentality, that it was impossible even to share an office with such people.
        "These people are so low and without integrity," she always said. "They say such small and mean things that when I work among them I feel continually suffocated. God knows why people quarrel with each other over such small, petty things and try to humiliate each other for their own small, petty self-interest!"
        But the chief cause of her continuing unhappiness there was perhaps different, a cause which she never openly acknowledged. People knew about  /101/  it, though, and deliberately said all kinds of things to tease her. Bukhariya made some remark or other about her complexion practically every day.
        "What's this, Miss Pal! Your complexion is so very clear today!"
        From the other side Joravar Singh would chime in, "And lately Miss Pal is getting even slimmer than before!"
        Miss Pal used to be badly upset by these remarks; sometimes she would even get up and leave the room. People made all kinds of comments about her dress and cosmetics as well. Perhaps in order to compensate for the width of her body, the poor thing cut her hair short, wore sleeveless kamizes, and-- although she disliked cosmetics--spent a long time putting on make-up every day. But the moment she entered the office, some remark from somebody or other would reach her ears. "Miss Pal, the design of your new kamiz is excellent. You look really ravishing today!"
        Every remark of this sort cut Miss Pal to the heart. The longer she remained in the office, the more somber her face became. When five o'clock struck, she got up from her desk as though after hours of suffering her release had come. On leaving the office she went straight to her house and stayed there until it was time to go to the office the next morning. Perhaps since she was fed up with the office people, she didn't want to mix much with other people either. But because my house was very near, or maybe because among the office people I was the only one who never gave her cause for complaint, she sometimes came over to our house in the evening. I lived with an aunt, my father's sister, and Miss Pal used to visit with her and her daughters also. Sometimes she would give them a hand with the housework.
        Other times we went over to her house. To pass the time at home she used to practice music and painting. When we arrived at her house the sound of a sitar would be coming from her room; or, with paints and brush in hand, she would be absorbed in working on some picture. But when she wasn't doing either of these things, she woula be lying on her wooden bed on a soft mattress between two pillows, staring at the ceiling. Her mattress was always covered with a threadbare piece of silk fabric; no telling why, but whenever I saw it I felt very uncomfortable and had the urge to take it out somewhere and throw it away. In her room sitar, tabla, paints, canvas, pictures, clothes, and bathing and tea-making things were so scattered around that it was difficult even to free a chair to sit on. Sometimes I had to sit on her threadbare silk-covered bed; then I was in great distress and felt like getting away as quickly as possible. Miss Pal would search the room and pull out, no telling from where, a teapot and three or four broken cups. Then she would start making us "first-class Bohemian coffee." Sometimes she showed us her completed paintings and we three--rny two cousins and I--would praise them in order to conceal our ignorance. But at other times she was very sad and couldn't even carryon a normal conversation. My cousins used to get annoyed at this and say that they were never coming back to her house. But at such times I used to feel more sympathy for her.
        The last time I went to Miss Pal's house I found her very unhappy. I had just had surgery for appendicitis, and had been in the hospital for some days. Almost every day Miss Pal came to the hospital to inquire about me.  /102/  My aunt stayed with me there, but it was very difficult for her to collect all the necessities for meals. Miss Pal had come early every morning bringing vegetables, milk, and other things. The day I went to her house was the day 1 after my release from the hospital, and I was still fairly weak. Nevertheless, I went over to thank her for all the trouble she'd taken for me.
        Miss Pal had gotten leave from the office and was shut up in her room, lying on her matress. I suspected that she hadn't even bathed that morning.
        "What's the matter, Miss Pal? Aren't you feeling well?" I asked.
        I'm feeling fine," she said. "But I'm thinking of giving up my job."
        "Why? Has something happened?"
        "No, what could happen? The reason is simply that I can't even work among such people. I'm thinking of going away to some beautiful, remote little place in the mountains, settling there, and working hard on my music and painting. I feel that I'm completely wasting my life here; I don't see what meaning there is in living like this. In the morning I get up and go to the office. After spoiling seven or eight hours there I come home, eat dinner, and go to sleep. This whole cycle seems meaningless to me. I'm thinking about my real necessities! I could go anywhere and rent some little room or shack, take a few necessary things, and live on fifty or seventy or a hundred rupees a month. Here, the 500 rupees I earn all get spent. How my money it goes, I don't even understand myself. For a life like this, why should I bear the burden of going to the office? If1 live elsewhere, at least I'll have my freedom. I have some money saved and I'll get some money from my retirement fund too. In a small place I can live on that amount for a long t time. I want to go live somewhere where there won't be all thisdirtiness, where people won't do all these petty, spiteful things. To live decently people should at least feel that their surroundings are clear and clean, that they aren't living in muddy water like frogs."
        "But no matter where you go, how can you say that everything will be just as you want? I'm sure that wherever you go you'll find both good and bad things around you. If you get upset about the atmosphere here and go somewhere else, how do you know the atmosphere there won't upset you as well? I think you're wrong about leaving your job. Stay here and go on with your music and painting. If people keep talking, then just let them talk!"
        But Miss Pal's repulsion was not lessened. "No, you don't understand, Ranjit," she said. "If I live among these people much longer, I'll really lose my mind. You may not know it, but when I brought you milk and vegetables in the mornings, they made insinuations even about that. These people, who think such things about even the best human actions-- how can anyone live among them? I've borne it all for a long time, but now I can't bear it any more. I'm thinking of getting away as quickly as possible. Only I haven't managed to decide yet where to go. Since I'm alone, I'm a little afraid to go and live in some unknown place. You know that I--" Leaving her sentence unfinished, she suddenly got up. "Well, I'll make you some tea. You've just come out of the hospital and all I do is talk about myself! You should stay home now and rest for a while. If you start going out and wandering around like this, it won't be good for you."
        /103/  "No thanks. I don't want tea." I said. "I can't explain properly, but I think you're giving people's remarks more importance than necessary. And it seems to me that. in reality. people aren't as bad as you think. If you look at it from the point of view that--"
        "Let's just drop the matter." Miss Pal cut me off in mid-sentence. "I hate these people with all my heart. You call them human beings? I much prefer my Pinky to such people. He's so much more civilized."
        Pinky was Miss Pal's little dog. For some time she'd been holding him in her lap and petting him. I had often noticed that she loved the dog like a child. After feeding him, she even used to wipe his mouth with a towel as she would a child's. Some time later when.I got up to leave. Miss Pal took him in her arms and escorted me to the door.
        "Pinky, say ta-ta to Uncle," she said. taking one of his front paws in her hand and waving it. "Say ta-ta, ta-ta!"
        And when I came back from my long leave, Miss Pal had already handed in her letter of resignation and gone away. She had said only that she was going to live in some village in Kulu. The rest of the story was supplied by people's imaginations.

        The bus was following the bends of the Beas, and I felt like turning back and going to Raysan. I had stayed alone in Manali for only ten days and gotten bored-- while Miss Pal had been living in Raysan for months. I wanted to know how she was living there all alone, and what she was doing with herself since quitting her job. Meeting and talking with some familiar person in an unfamiliar place like tha.t has an attraction of its own. When the bus stopped at Kulu I took my luggage down. left it in the Himachal Government Transportation Office, and caught the first bus back to Raysan. In only fifteen or twenty minutes the bus let me off in the Raysan bazaar. I asked a shopkeeper where Miss Pal lived.
        "Who's Miss Pal. brother?" the shopkeeper asked the young man sitting near him. "Not that one, the miss with her hair cut short?"
        "Yes. that would be the one."
        Four or five other people were sitting in the shop. Their eyes all turned in my direction. It seemed that they couldn't make up their minds what my relationship could be to the miss with her hair cut short.
        "Please come with me; I'll take you to her house," the young man said, stepping out of the shop. As he walked beside me on the road he asked. "How is it, sir, is this miss entirely alone, or-- ?"
        "Yes. she's quite alone."
        /104/  For some time we walked in silence. Then he asked, "How are you related to her?"
        I couldn't decide what answer to give him. After thinking a moment I replied, "I'm not related to her. I just happen to know her."
        Turning right from the road and climbing a slight rise, we arrived in an open field. The field was surrounded on all sides by trees, and in the middle had been built five or six latticed cottages, which looked like giant chicken coops. After pointing out the first cottage as Miss Pal's, the boy went back. I tapped on the door.
        "Who's there?" came Miss Pal's voice from inside.
        "It's a guest, Miss Pal; open the door." "
        The door's open; please come in."
        I pushed the door open and went in. Miss Pal had spread her mattress and cushions on a rope bed, and was lying among them just as she used to lie on her wooden bed in Delhi. Near the head of the bed lay an open book face down-- Bertrand Russell's Conquest of Happiness. Looking at her, I couldn't decide if she had been reading the book or just lying and staring at the ceiling. Seeing me she sat up, startled.
        "What, you--"
        "Yes, me. You wouldn't have suspected that somebody once gone would c come back so soon!"
        "Really, you're a very strange man! If you were going to come back, then why didn't you get down at the time?"
        "Instead of all this, you should thank me-- I went seven miles and came back."
        "I would have thanked you very sweetly then, if you had gotten down and given me a seat in the bus!"
        I laughed and began to look around for a place to sit. Here too there was almost the same universal confusion and chaos as in her house in Delhi. Everything was being pressed into service for some other purpose. A chair was laden from top to bottom with dirty clothes. On another chair some paints were scattered, and a plate with a number of nails in it.
        "Sit down, I'll make you some tea right away." Miss Pal suddenly roused herself and began to get up.
        "You've hardly asked me to sit down and already you've begun to worry about tea?" I said. "You just find me a place to sit and forget about the tea. Right now I'm not the least bit in the mood for that 'Bohemian tea' of yours."
        /105/  "Then don't have tea. Do you think I enjoy making all that fuss? I'll fix you a place to sit right now." Removing the clothing, etc., she cleared a chair. To the right was a big table, but it too was so cluttered that there wasn't even space to rest an elbow. When I sat down, I tried to stretch my legs-- only to find that she had put her finished sketches underneath the heap of clothes. Miss Pal sat back on her bed, propping herself up with the aid of cushions. On her mattress she had spread that same threadbare silk fabric that used to irritate me whenever I saw it. And, just as before, I began to want to take it off and rip it up or throw it in a fire somewhere. To light a cigarette I picked up the matchbox from the table, opened it-- and immediately put it down. There were no matches in the box; it was filled with a sort of rose-colored paint. I glanced all around the room seeking matches, but no box was visible.
        "The matches are in the kitchen; I'll bring them right away." As she spoke Miss Pal suddenly got up again and left the room. I continued to look around. I was remembering the day when I had stayed late at Miss Pal's house talking to her. When I remembered her making Pinky say "ta-ta," I laughed involuntarily.
        I had laughed just as Miss Pal entered carrying the matchbox. My sitting alone in the room and laughing must have seemed very unnatural to her. She suddenly became serious.
        "Did someone give you a drink, or what?" she asked in a voice half joking,  half accusing.
        "No, no, I'm laughing about my having come back like this." As though to convince myself of the truth of my lie, I gave an elaborate imitation of my laugh and said, "How could I have thought that in this unknown place I'd suddenly meet you? And how could you have thought that the man who went off in the bus would be sitting in your room talking to you an hour later?"
        Believing that I had explained the reason for my laughter, I asked, "But where is your Pinky? He doesn't seem to be around."
        At the mention of Pinky, Miss Pal's face became even more serious and then began to look quite harsh. A redness appeared in her eyes, as though she hadn't slept well for some nights.
        "Pinky caught a cold one evening after coming here," she said, suppressing a sigh. "I fed him many warm things, but after two days he passed away."
        I changed the subject and began to complain that she'd gone away without telling anyone her exact whereabouts, and that this was bad.
        "Do the people in the office still laugh at the mention of Miss Pal?" she asked, as though the questioner were someone quite distinct from that Miss Pal about whom the question had been asked. But her eyes betrayed great eagerness to hear my answer.
        "Why do you always give such importance to people's talk, Miss Pal?" I asked. "People say this and that about somebody because they have so few other  /106/  sources of amusement in their lives. When that person goes away, within a few days they forget whether he even exists in the world or not."
        But even while speaking I sensed that I had made a mistake. Miss Pal perhaps wanted to hear that people were making those remarks about her even now and cracking the same jokes; perhaps this belief was necessary to enable her to accept her present life. "It could be that they don't make remarks in front of you," Miss Pal said, "because they know that we-- um-- uh-- are still friends. No, can those low people ever refrain from making remarks?"
        I was glad that Miss Pal didn't believe what I'd said. Perhaps she thought that I was falsely trying to reassure her. "It could be that they make remarks," I conceded. "But why do you think about those people? For you, at least, they have no existence at all now."
        "For me those people never had any existence," Miss Pall asserted, her mouth twisted with hatred. "I don't consider any of them worth my little finger."
        Her eyes revealed the vengeance which, even now, she wished to take. I thought it would be best to change the subject.
        "You know that Ramesh has been transferred back to Lucknow?" I asked.
        "Rea lly?"
        Miss Pal showed no curiosity to know more about the matter. Nevertheless, I began to tell her the story of Ramesh's transfer in detail. Miss Pal kept saying "Yes, yes," but it was clear that somewhere inside herself she was lost in thought.
        When I had finished the story of Ramesh, we both remained silent a few  moments. Then Miss Pal said, "Look, I'm telling you the truth, Ranjit, when I was there it always seemed impossible to spend one more moment among those people. It was like living in hell. You know that I never even wanted to talk to anyone in that office."
        Having left Manali in the morning without breakfast, I was hungry. I thought it proper to bring the conversation around to the subject of food. I asked her what arrangement she had made for her meals: did she cook them herself, or have them left by some servant?
        "But are you hungry?" Miss Pal now emerged from the atmosphere of the office. "If you're hungry, then come in the kitchen with me. For now you'll have to eat some of whatever is ready. Of course, in the evening I'll cook something and feed you properly. If I'd known you were coming, I would have had something waiting for you. You can't get anything in the bazaar here; if there are even good vegetables it's a lucky day. Sometimes you can get one or two eggs-- in the evening I'll cook trout for you. The trout here are quite good but very difficult to get."
        /107/  I was happy at having successfully changed the subject. Miss Pal got up from the bed. Getting out of my chair I said, "All right, 1'11 take a 1ook in the kitchen. Right now I'm terribly hungry, so anything at all that's ready will taste better than trout to me. In the evening I'll be going on to Jogindernagar."
        Miss Pa1, going out the door, suddenly stopped. "If you had to be in Jogindernagar in the evening, why did you come back at all? You'd better get used to the idea-- I won't let you leave today. Do you know that in these three months you're my first guest? How can I 1et you go today-- do you have some luggage with you or did you come just like this?"
        I told her I had left my luggage in the Himachal Government Transportation Office, telling them that I'd be back in two hours.
        "I'll have the postmaster telephone them right away. Your luggage wi11 be safe there till tomorrow. We'1l go on tomorrow morning's bus and bring it here. You'll stay for at least a week. Understand? If I'd known that you were in Manali, I'd have gone there for a while too. Here these days I-- well-- first come along to the kitchen, otherwise you'll run away out of sheer hunger."
        I was not prepared for this new state of affairs. Intending to talk to her about it later, I went with her to the kitchen. There was less anarchy in the kitchen than in the other room, perhaps because there was much less furniture. A fabric-covered easy chair was almost empty--only a salt shaker had been left on it. Perhaps Miss Pa1 sat in it when she cooked. All the other cooking utensils were lying on a broken table. She quick1y removed the sa1t shaker from the chair to the tab1e and thus made a place for me to sit.
        Miss Pal hastily lit the stove and put the pot of vegetables on it. The ladle was not clean, and she went out to wash it; coming back, she couldn't find a cloth with which to wipe, so she wiped it on her own kamiz and began to stir the vegetables.
        "Is there really enough for two, or will they both be hungry afterwards?" I asked.
        "There's a lot of food," Miss Pal said bending over and looking in the pot.
        "What is there?"
        Miss Pal began groping in the vegetables with the ladle. "There's quite a lot. There are potatoes and eggplant and perhaps-- perhaps even some squash. I made these vegetab1es the day before yesterday."
        "The day before yesterday?" I was as startled as if I'd suddenly bumped my head on something. Miss Pal kept stirring.
        "I don't manage to cook every day," she said. "If I started cooking every day, I'd have time for nothing else. And um-- uh-- I don't usually  /108/  have the enthusiasm to cook every day just for myself alone. Sometimes I cook the whole week's food at once and then I can eat without bothering. If you want, I'll make fresh food for you right now."
        "Then the chapattis too are left over from the day before yesterday?" I suddenly got up from the chair.
        "Come here and take a look; see if you can eat them or not." She went to a cane box in the corner. I followed her. She lifted the lid and showed me twenty-five or thirty dried-out chappatis. While drying, the chapattis had taken on all kinds of shapes. I came away and sat down again in the chair.
        "I'll make fresh chapattis for you," Miss Pal said, looking at me guiltily.
        "No, no, whatever is ready, I'll eat," I said. Inwardly, however, I deplored my own nobility.
        Having covered the box, Miss Pal went back to the stove.
        "The vegetables don't last for more than three days," she said. "After that I make do with jam, onions, and salt for my chapattis. You can get lots of plums here, so I've made plenty of plum jam. Taste it and see; it's good jam--wait, I'll get you a plate."
        She quickly went out again into the other room, emptied the plate which held the nails, and brought it in.
        "The glass is full of um-- uh--" she said, coming back, "--mustard oil. Will you drink water from a cup, or--"
        Trout-- While we were eating and even after we finished, the question of trout remained uppermost in Miss Pal's mind. Come what may, in the evening she would cook trout. Because of her insistence I had agreed to stay till the next morning. Miss Pal had left further decisions till then. She had to make some additional arrangements for the evening, because trout was not easy to get. First of all, she needed ghi;there was only the barest trace of ghi in the tin. There were no onions or spices in the house either; nor did she have any kerosene. After eating, when we went out for a walk, she first took me with her to the bazaar. Even the shopkeeper had no ghi. Therefore, Miss Pal begged the postmaster to send her a pound of ghi from his house for the evening, and the next day she would bring some from Kulu and replace it. She also asked him to have some French beans sent to her from his house and, if any fish seller passed by, to buy her a full two pounds of trout.
        "Mr. Sabbarwal, I'm causing you so much trouble!" she apologized, thanking him seven or eight times before leaving. "But you see, my guest has come, and except for trout, you can't get any delicacies here. I'll watch for Bali, and if I see him, I'll tell him to catch a trout for me from the river. But Bali isn't reliable. Please be sure and buy one for me. I've asked Mrs. Atkinson as well. If she gets one too, I'll just eat fish today and tomorrow both. Please watch carefully. Sometimes fish sellers don't shout, they just go along quietly. Thank you, thank you very much!"
        /109/  She also telephoned to Kulu about my luggage. Now, walking along the road, she began discussing the next morning's breakfast.
        "For the evening there will be trout, but what should there be for breakfast in the morning? Western bread isn't available here, otherwise I would have made you toast with honey. Well, we.ll see--"
        The road was full of the glare of sunlight, and a herd of sheep and long-haired goats was moving along in front of us. Two dogs, their tongues hanging out, were keeping watch over them. A jeep coming from up ahead caused a tumult among the animals. The goatherds began to push the animals toward the mountain. A lamb slipped and fell down the slope, raised its head from below, and began to bleat. When none of the goatherds paid any attention to it, Miss Pal became anxious. "Hey, look there, that lamb has fallen down-- goat-herd-- a lamb has fallen down in the ditch! Get him out! Hey there!"
        There had been rain the day before; the Beas had risen quite a bit. Torn and divided by sharp rocks, the water was flowing noisily. Ahead was the swing for crossing the river. Its small wheels were revolving, the ropes were being drawn together, and the swing, carrying two individuals, was traveling from the near bank to the far one. Suddenly both passengers began to laugh, "Hee-hee, hee-hee," as though they were teasing someone. Then one of them sneezed loudly. The swing reached the far bank, and both, laughing and sneezing in that way, got down. The swing was released and its ropes spread out in a semicircle from the near bank to the far one. The two who had gotten down laughed loudly once more from the far bank. Then a boy from among the swing-pullers, getting down from the swing-platform, came over to us. He began to speak as though some accident had just happened, and he was getting out of the way.
        "Miss-sahab," he said, It's that same Sudarshan who fed something to your dog. He still hasn't given up making trouble."
        The laughter and sneezing of those two didn.t have the effect on Miss Pal that the boy's words had. Her face instantly paled and her voice became dry.
        "He.s from the village on that side, isn.t he?" she asked.
        "Yes, Miss-sahab!"
        "You tell the postmaster. He'll deal with this man himself."
        "Miss-sahab, he tells us that this Miss-sahab--"
        "You run along now and do your work," Miss Pal admonished him. "Tell the postmaster; he'll straighten this man out in one day!"
        "But Miss-sahab--"
        "Go now. Come over to my house sometime to talk."
        The boy didn't understand what offense he had committed by talking to the Miss-sahab just then. Hanging his head, he silently went back.
        /110/  We remained there for some time. Miss Pal, as though a bit tired, sat down on a big rock at the edge of the road. I began to contemplate the rows of trees on the far side of the river leading up toward the mountaitop; between blue sky and balloon-like white clouds, they seemed to be drawn like lines. On both sides of the river stood the slate-colored pillars of a bridge, but the bridge had not yet been built. From around the pillars tiny bits of dislodged earth were slowly falling into the river. I shifted my gaze to Miss Pal. She was watching me; perhaps she wanted to discover what impression the words of the swing-puller boy had made on my mind.
        "Shall we go on?" she asked as soon as our eyes met.
        "Yes. let's go."
        Miss Pal got up. Her breath was coming a little fast, and as we walked, she began to tell me how very superstitious the local people were. When Pinky had gotten sick, the local people thought that someone had fed him something.
        "They're illiterate people. I didn't even contradict them. They can hardly abandon their superstition in a day! No telling how many years it'll take!"
        As we walked along, she looked toward me from time to time to see whether or not I believed her. I picked up a small stone from the road and quietly began to toss it around. For some time we walked in silence. When the silence began to seem unnatural, I proposed to Miss Pal that we go back her house.
        "Come on, I must see your newly-finished paintings." I said. "In these three or four months you must have done a good amount of work."
        "When we get home we'll have a cup or two of tea first," Miss Pal replied. "Really, right now I'd give anything in the world for a hot cup of tea. I wanted to have a cup or two before leaving the house, but I thought that if we delayed before speaking to the postmaster, the fish seller might leave."
        Her words gave me the pleasant feeling that her first guest in three months was more important to her than even her paintings. On returning to the cottage, she became absorbed in making tea. She had been somewhat tired coming back; during a very slight ascent, her breath had begun to come fast. But she didn't stop even a minute to relax. Her absorption in tea seemed very unnatural to me, perhaps because I myself felt no necessity for it. She became as concerned over the search for spoons as if she had ten guests waiting for tea and couldn't figure out how to make all the arrangements quickly.
        I began to walk around, looking at the pictures that hung in the room and on the verandah. Whenever a picture caught my eye, it seemed that I'd seen it before. There were some big pictures of a fair in the Punjab that Miss Pal had painted and brought back. There were strange faces about which we to make sarcastic remarks. No telling why Miss Pal always chose such faces  /111/  for her pictures, faces which were deformed in some way or other! I went all around the room and the verandah. Except for a couple of half-finished pictures, I saw not even one new thing. I went to the kitchen and asked Miss Pal where her new pictures were.
        "Oh, forget about it," Miss Pal said washing the teacups. "After a cup of tea we'll go for a walk on the road uphill. There's a very old temple up there and the priest will tell you such stories that you'll be quite astonished. One day he was telling me that there are temples around here where people used to pray to the god for rain. Afterwards, if the god didn't send rain, they took him to the Hidamba Temple and hung him with a rope! Isn't that a delightful idea? If some god won't work for you, then hang him! I tell you, Ranjit, among the local people there's so much superstition-- so much superstition that it can't be described. These people still live just as in the time of the Kauravas and the Pandavas; they have no links with the modern age."
        Once more she glanced at me for an instant, then became absorbed in hunting for the sugar. "Well, where did the sugar go? Just now it was in my hand; no telling where I put it. Look how forgetful I've become! There's only one cure: someone should take a stick to me and straighten me out. Is this any way to live?"
        "You haven't done any landscapes around here?" I asked.
        "I've started a lot of pictures but so far I haven't been able to finish them," Miss Pal answered, as though trying to extricate herself from a difficult situation. "Someday now I'll get involved and finish all the pictures. The turpentine is gone too; one day I must go and get some. For some time I've been thinking that I'd go to Mandi and bring back canvas and oils as well, but somehow I just get lazy. I must also have some drawing paper bound. Someday soon I'll go and do all the errands at the same time."
        While she spoke her eyes had been lowered, as though in her heart she felt guilty about something and wanted to hide that feeling by talking incessantly. I remained silent and continued to watch her add sugar to the tea. Seeing her then, I began to feel such sadness-- the kind of sadness which fills the mind on a desolate seashore or in an isolated, rocky valley surrounded by high mountains.
        "Starting tomorrow, first of all I'll fix up my house." A moment later d she again began to speak in that way without stopping. "First of all I must arrange everything in the house in the proper way. You know how enthusiastically I had crocheted curtains made for my room in Delhi? Those curtains, just as they were, are shut up in a box here; I didn't feel like hanging them. Tomorrow I'll speak to the carpenter and have frames made for the curtains. I also need to keep a supply of food in the house; to have biscuits, butter, bread, and pickle is very important. The things that are available in Kulu, I can bring back and keep stored-- I can get turpentine in Kulu too."
        Even when she put a cup of tea into my hand, the words wouldn't come, and I silently began to take small sips. A kind of stupefaction beset my mind. In Delhi people had told me all those stories about Miss Pal-- while here, this solitary irony of her life!
        /112/  Trout! Despite all her efforts, Miss Pal couldn't get trout that day. The postmaster said the fish seller hadn't come at all. Regardless of Miss Pal's abundant flattery, the landlady's watchman, Bali, wasn't willing to catch a trout from the river. He said that he was polishing his nightstick and had no time. Mrs. Atkinson's children had caught a trout; but their father had specially asked for trout filet, so they couldn't give their fish to Miss Pal. Yes, the postmaster had certainly sent the French beans. Rice and dry French beans! All her enthusiasm for the evening meal suddenly vanished. Her mind was not on the cooking, so the rice got a little burnt. At dinnertime her regret was quite apparent.
        "I'm so ill-fated, Ranjit, I'm ill-fated in every way," she said. After dinner we had taken chairs outside and were sitting in the field. With hands propped behind her head she was looking at the sky. It was a day or two before the full moon and the sky on three sides of us was pervaded by bright moonlight. The sound of the Beas was echoing in the air. Along with the rustling of the trees, a very slight rustling in the grass of the field made itself felt. The air was fresh, and from behind the mountain before us a rising cloud was slowly, slowly gliding toward the moon.
        "What's the matter, Miss Pal? Why are you so sad?" I asked. "If the rice got a little burnt, that's hardly worth getting upset about!" She kept staring ahead at the misty outline of the mountain as though searching for something.
        "I think, Ranjit, that my life has no meaning at all," she said.
        And she began to tell me the story of her early life. Her great grievance was that from the beginning she couldn't find happiness in her own home-- to the point that she didn't even have the love of her parents. Even her mother-- her own mother-- didn't love her. Therefore, she'd left home fifteen years ago to take a job. "Just imagine, mother didn't like even my presence in the house. Father was annoyed by my learning music; he used to say that his home was a home, not a geisha house. Whatever affection my brothers had for me was snatched away as well after they married. But one thing I know for sure: with however much difficulty, I have always preserved my um-- uh-- purity. You can imagine how difficult this is for a girl alone. I felt like visiting Lahore; I wanted to do some paintings of the city. But I didn't go because I felt that against the um-- uh-- bestiality of men, what could I do alone? Then you know how the people there in the department always said such awful things about me. That's the reason I hate every last one of them! That Bukhariya, and Mirza, and Joravar Singh! I never wanted even to drink a cup of tea with such people. You remember the time when Joravar Singh said to me. .."
        And she began to recount some insignificant event at the office. When I saw that she was again absorbed in that atmosphere and burning with anger, I told her once more not to think about the office people any more, but to concentrate instead on her music and painting. "Stay here and do some good paintings, then come to Delhi and have your own exhibition," I said. "When people see your work and hear your name,  /113/  they'll appreciate your merits of their own accord."
        "No, I won't fall into any round of exhibitions and such," Miss Pal said, staring straight ahead as before. "You know how much politics is involved in all these things. I don't want to deal with politics. I have three or four thousand rupees on which I can live for a long time. When this money is gone, then--" and she became quiet, as though deep in thought.
        I was very curious to hear her go on. But after a while Miss Pal shrugged her shoulders and said, "--then something or other will happen. Let the time come, and we.ll see."
        The cloud was ascending and the coolness in the air was increasing. The gusts of wind coming from the forest sent a shiver through my body from time to time. In the next cottage a radio was playing western songs. In the cottage next to that people were laughing loudly. With her eyes shut, Miss Pal began to tell me how in Hoshiarpur she had had her horoscope read from the Bhrgu-samhita. According to the horoscope, a curse had been put on her in this birth; she would never find happiness-- not from wealth, not from fame, not from love. The reason for this curse was also given in the Bhrgu-samhita. In her previous birth she was a beautiful girl, very skilled in dance, music, and the other arts. Her father was very wealthy and she was his only child. The man whom she married was quite handsome and rich. "But I was so vain of my beauty and artistic skills that I didn1t show my husband any respect; after a time the poor man became very melancholy and passed away. Therefore, the curse is on me; in this birth I will not find happiness."
        I continued to look at her in silence. Earlier in the day she had mentioned the local people's superstitions and made jokes about them. Suddenly, in the midst of talking, she too fell silent and her eyes became fixed on my face. It seemed as though something was trembling between her brightly painted lips. For a time we sat in silence. The cloud had spread over the moon and deep darkness enveloped us. Suddenly the lights in the next cottage were extinguished as well, so that the darkness began to seem even blacker and deeper.
        Miss Pal was still looking at me in the same way. I felt that the air around me was becoming heavy; I pushed my chair back and stood up abruptly. "I think enough of the night has gone by," I said, "so let's get some sleep now. We can talk more in the morning."
        "Yes," she said getting up from her chair. "I'll go and fix some bedding for you right away. Tell me, shall I put your bedding on the verandah or--"
        "Yes, put it on the verandah. Inside it'll be quite warm."
        "But listen, it gets cold at night."
        "No matter, I like the breeze out here."
        Lying on the verandah, I looked out through the lattice for a long time. The cloud had spread over the whole sky and the voice of the river seemed  /114/  to have come very close. A spider web attached to the lattice was swaying in the breeze. Nearby a mouse was gnawing on something. Within the room I could hear the sound of tossing and turning from time to time.
        "Ranjit!" When the voice from inside came, it sent a shiver through my whole body.
        "Miss Pal!"
        "You aren't feeling cold?"
        "No, I like the breeze." And then big raindrops began to fall, tap-tap-tap-tap. When they reached my bedding, I changed its position. I had put the verandah light on, and all kinds of things scattered here and there met my gaze. When she spread out my bedding, Miss Pal had created even more disorder in her house. Near me a three- legged table was lying overturned, and a little in front of it some picture frames had fallen, blocking the way. In the corner Miss Pal's brushes and clothes were jumbled together in a heap.
        The cot inside creaked, and the sound of feet on the wooden floor could be heard. Then came the sound of water being poured from a water pot and drunk from a cupped hand.
        "Miss Pal!"
        " not thirsty?"
        "All right, go to sleep."
        For some time I seemed to hear rapid breathing nearby, which slowly, imperceptibly came to dominate the whole atmosphere; it seemed that everything around me felt its oppression. When the rain began to fall more gently, I again moved back toward the lattice and began to look out as before. Then, very near, the sound of something falling with a clash was heard.
        "What fell, Ranjit?" came the voice from inside.
        "I don't know; maybe a mouse knocked something over."
        "Really, I've been bothered a lot by mice here."
        I remained silent. The cot inside creaked again.
        "All right, go to sleep!"
        /115/  All night the rain kept falling. Early in the morning the rain stopped but the sky didn't clear. After getting up, Miss Pal and I said nothing much until time for tea. Even when the tea was ready, Miss Pal continued to speak in monosyllables. I told her that I'd be leaving on the first bus; not even once did she press me to stay. Even in the most commonplace talk Miss Pal used as much formality toward me as in speaking to a complete stranger. Her entire behavior struck me as very unnatural. As though to avoid conversation, she became absorbed in the smallest tasks. I tried a couple of times to make some light joke so that the tension would be broken and I could take my leave properly, but not even the slightest smile appeared on Miss Pal.s face.
        "All right, Miss Pal, now we must think about going," I finally said. "Yesterday you were saying that you'd come to Kulu with me. It's a good idea, because you can bring back all the things you need from there as well. Later you'll get lazy again."
        "No, I won't get lazy," Miss Pal said. "One day I'II go and bring back whatever needs to be brought."
        Then, blindly picking up the clothing scattered on the verandah and putting it here and there, she said, "It.s too rainy to go today. Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow sometime; I'II see. There are a great many things to bring back, so I should plan it out carefully and then go. Today is too foggy, so not today."
        "If it's a foggy day, does that mean you can't get the things for your house?" I asked, trying to weaken her resolve by my persistence. "You tell me where the ghi and turpentine tins are kept. If there's a big sack around, take that with you too; odds and ends can go in it. Whatever bus we can get from here, we'll take together. I'll catch the twelve o'clock bus from Kulu and go on. When you want to come back, you can get a bus any time during the day."
        I deliberately spoke as though Miss Pal's going was already decided, though I knew that she would try hard to avoid it. Miss Pal was searching here and there, finding work for herself to do. From her face I gathered that my conversation was entirely meaningless to her and that she wanted to return to her solitude as quickly as possible.
        "Look, sometimes you can't even get a single seat in the bus from here," she said. "Getting two seats would be very difficult. Why should you miss your twelve o'clock bus for my sake? You go on; I'II go tomorrow or the next day and bring whatever needs to be brought." As though suddenly remembering some task, she quickly turned her face aside and went into the other room. After a while she came out carrying a moth-eaten petticoat. She threw it in a corner. Setting her face as though against some pain, she spoke with difficulty. "I told you that you should go. You know that even by myself I need two seats."
        "Forget all those excuses," I said. "If there's no space in one bus, there will be in the next. Come here and tell me where those tins are kept."
        Perhaps because she didn't want to talk any more, Miss Pal made no further opposition. "All right, you sit down; I'II look for them right away," she said; avoiding my eyes, she went into the kitchen.
        /116/  On the first bus we really didn't get a place. The driver didn't even stop; he made a sign with his hand that there was no room in the bus. There wasn't room in the second bus either, but somehow we talked our way inside and got space. We arrived in Kulu fairly late, since the night's rain had washed out the road in one place and it was being repaired. The twelve o'clock bus from Manali pulled in at almost the same time. It was already quarter to twelve. I went in and gave directions about my luggage, then joined Miss Pal outside. Miss Pal was holding the empty tins in both hands; when I began to take the tins from her, she put her hands behind her.
        "Come on, first let's go to the bazaar and buy your things," I urged.
        "Forget the things," she said. "Your bus has come, you get on it; I can buy these things any time. You won't get a place on any bus after this one. The two o'clock bus comes full right from Manali. Your whole day will be wasted here."
        "If the day is wasted, what does it matter?" I said. "First, we'll go and get the things from the bazaar. If I really don't get a place in any bus today, then I'II go back with you and take a bus tomorrow. I'm not in such a hurry to get back."
        "No, you go on," Miss Pal replied obstinately. "Why should I cause you trouble? I can get my things any time."
        "But I think that today you'll go back carrying these tins just as empty as they a re now."
        "Oh, no." Miss Pal's eyes filled and she looked away to hold back her tears. "You think I don't even take care of my own body. If I didn't, would my body be like this? Come on, give me the money. I'II get your ticket. If you delay, you won't even get a place on this bus."
        "Why are you insisting like this, Miss Pal? Really, I'm not in any such hurry to go," I said.
        "I told you, get out the money. I'II get your ticket. But no, forget it. Your ticket yesterday was wasted on my account, so why am I asking you for money?"
        Putting the tins down, she immediately started for the ticket office. "
        Wait, Miss Pal!" Embarrassed, I reached for my wallet.
        "You wait, I'm coming in a minute. While I'm gone, have your luggage brought out and loaded on the bus." No telling what state my mind was in then; but I had my luggage brought out from inside and loaded onto the roof of the bus. Miss Pal was still standing outside the ticket office.
        Because it was Saturday, school had been let out early and a number of children, their satchels dangling, were coming down the hill from Sultanpur. Some children had collected nearby to watch the bus passengers. Miss Pal was wearing an onion-colored shalwar-kamiz at the time, with a black dupatta above. Because of that outfit, her body from behind looked even wider. The  /117/  children, one after the other, began to approach the ticket office. Miss Pal was bending over the ticket window. A boy slowly spoke up. "It's a freak; look, it's a freak!"
        At this, a number of children standing nearby laughed. I felt as though someone had piled one more big stone on my heavily-weighted mind. The children had all collected near the ticket office and were whispering among themselves. I couldn't even say anything to them, because that would certainly have drawn Miss Pal's attention. I shifted my gaze and began to watch the people coming from the river. Nevertheless, the children's whispers kept reaching my ears. Two girls were speaking very softly to each other.
        "It's a man."
        "No, it's a woman."
        "Look at the hair, look at the rest of the body. It's a man."
        "You look at the clothes, look at everything. It's a woman."
        "Come here, children, come here and look." I was almost startled by Miss Pal's voice. Having gotten the ticket, Miss Pal had left the window.
        The children, seeing her coming, called out "She's coming, she.s coming!" and ran away. One boy, facing her on the road, again called out loudly, "It's a freak; look, it's a freak!"
        Miss Pal reached the road and took a few steps in pursuit. "Come, children, come here to me," she kept saying. "I won't beat you; I'll give you toffee. Come here--"
        But instead of coming to her, the children ran away further. Miss Pal stood for a while in the middle of the road, then returned to me. The expression on her face was very strange. Tears had filled her eyes and were on the verge of falling; to belie them, she was trying to manage a weak laugh. No telling how much she had bitten her lips-- in several places her lipstick had been smudged. The seams of her faded kamiz were ripping open near the shoulder.
        "Those were beautiful children, weren't they?" she said blinking so as to hold back the tears.
        When I nodded agreement, I felt that my head had become heavy like stone. After that I didn't understand anything Miss Pal was saying to me or what I was saying to her. It was as though thoughts had no connection with eyes and words. I remember this much-- I tried to give Miss Pal money for the ticket but she backed off and, despite all my entreaties, wouldn't take it. But what unconscious process kept the thread of conversation unbroken between us, I don't know. My ears were hearing her speak and hearing myself speak also. The voices were like sounds from far away-- indistinct, indefinite, meaningless. The words I heard clearly were these, "And when you get back, Ranjit, don't talk to anyone in the office about me. Do you understand? You know how low those people are. Instead, it would be better if you didn't  /118/  even tell anyone you met me here. I don't want anyone at all there to know anything or say anything about me. You understand."
        Then the bus was starting and I was looking out the window at Miss Pal. As the bus pulled away, she began to wave. She had both empty tins in her hand. I waved back to her once; and until the bus turned, I kept seeing the empty tins waving in her hand.

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