ACCURSED A short story By Om Prakash Deepak, 1961
Gods do not close their eyes. But they can sleep with their eyes open. I am not a God. My eyes close even if I do not want it. But I cannot sleep.
Dry yellow leaves swept by the mad March wind. And my veins throbbed with the heady smell of Mahuva blossoms. Standing in the fast-disappearing red glow of the setting sun, I felt that I was tied to the earth only by touch, at a mathematical point, and in a moment the bond would break and I would be free. Free, unbound. Like the heady smell of Mahuva flowers and the mad, singing wind, the warm glow of the stars and the cool, pure dew.
Tears are neither cool nor Pure. Tears are hot and salty .
The stink of dead rats, groans escaping from swollen throats. rotting corpses in abandoned homes, and a deserted village. Flames rising from funeral pyres and smoke – thick, black, enveloping smoke.
I feel sleepy, very sleepy. And my eyes have no moisture, only salt. Dry, burning eyes. Only smoke, without a glow.
“Are you unable to sleep?”
I have heard that the will of the high priest of Ishtar in ancient Babylon was the will of God. He could do whatever he liked - on condition that he did not sleep. Never, not for a moment.
And you were asking me, “Are you unable to sleep? Come, I’ll put you to sleep.”
The open window looks like a framed picture on the wall. And in the picture a star slowly moves, very slowly. The picture has a stair wall, going up diagonally, a rectangular roof beyond the wall, and a water tank on the roof. All bathed in a dim, diffused moonlight. And above them a hardly visible star. As the night grows, the star will move out of the picture, and only the faint1y visible walls will remain.
This house was set on fire during the riots. It has been painted and whitewashed many times after that. But whenever I look at the picture, the walls are cracked and blackened with smoke, as if a moment of death lies frozen there.
If you came right now and put your lips on my burning cheek, you’d be taken aback. “Why, you are on fire. For how many nights have you not slept? Come, I'll put you to sleep.”
No, no, do not come here. For God’s sake, you must never come here.
I have seen you often. Your body, like the waterman’s half-filled goatskin, swollen and flabby. Several chins beneath the chin. Hungry eyes, which bring in me a little fear, and also a little pity. And your face, as if tatooed by a very sharp needle. Four children. Perhaps six, perhaps eight, perhaps ten, perhaps twelve. Yes, twelve children in twelve years; it’s nothing very unusual.
Your body, a bare skeleton, sharp, pointed bones, as if in a moment they will pierce the skin and come out in fearsome whiteness; as if a skeleton has been covered tight with half-dead skin. Dull, lifeless, opaque eyes, which have seen many children die, clinging to your dry breasts. And you bore more children, and saw them die in your lap. And every time the dark rings around your eyes became a little darker.
But you can put me to sleep. You can only put me to sleep. Four days ago, I slept in your arms. And when I woke up, I had shaved and taken a bath, and had felt that I was alive once again.
No, it’s a lie. When did I sleep? I am not a god. My eyes close. But when did I sleep?
The lawn of Noorjehan’s Tomb, bathed in moonlight - Light no lamps, nor put any flowers on the grave of my poor self; Let not the moth burn his wings, nor the nightingale cry in anguish.
- A sweet sorrow filled my heart, and your searching eyes were bent on my face.
A similar sweet sorrow had filled my heart, and you had looked at me with similar searching eyes, and had said, “Are you unable to sleep? Come, I’ll put you to sleep.”
And since then I have not slept. And you did not come. You come, you can come, when I sleep. But how can I sleep? You, you who are beautiful like fairies - and fairies are eternally young, aren’t they? - why did you look at me? Why did you say that? Take back your look, take back your words. How can I turn back the wheel of time? How?
There was a Neem (margosal) tree in the compound of the village temple. And on the raised platform beside the temple, in front of her father's grocery shop, Chandu’s daughter recited the Ramayana. I performed acrobatics on the branches of the tree. Her eyes rose and fell, and her lips continued to recite: “He who loves anyone truly …”
I don’t remember any more. Only this line . Why do I remember this line? Why even this line? I want to forget everything. But how to destroy memory?
I had returned after hundreds of years. The wall of the temple’s compound had been pulled down and the Neem tree cut. On the temple platform Panditji was teaching the alphabet to a small group of village children. Chandu’s daughter was still sitting on the platform in front of her father's shop, reciting the Ramayana. One child was leaning on her back pulling a corner of her dirty sari, and another was asleep in her lap. Her eyes rose and fell, and she went on reciting the Ramayana. What was she reading? She had also come back to her parents after hundreds of years, a widow. I remember the line which I had heard hundreds of years back – “he who loves anyone truly." What was she reading now? Don' t ask me. I remember nothing., I remember nothing.
On dark nights when the world was quiet except for dogs and jackals and I returned through dark, muddy lanes, I felt that you’d be sitting in my room. My heart throbbed fast, my eyes burned, and I turned the corner, tense in every fibre. But there was nothing, only silence and darkness. The door was padlocked as I had left it. I struck my head on the wall. I wanted to break my head on the wall. But I only sighed, unlocked the lock, and went in.
Between me and you were the boundaries of two states, two armies, rifle bullets, my humiliated manhood and your honour destroyed on every step from Sutlej to Jhelum.
Between you and me, there was nothing- You came every day. Your searching eyes looked at me every day, looked at me and asked, “Are you unable to sleep?”
Oh, how could I tell you since when I had not slept, for how long I had not slept. You asked me every day, but you could not put me to sleep. I am not a God, only a man. My eyes close, but I cannot sleep.
In the mornings I made tea on the stove, my eyes burning with the sleeplessness of hundreds of years, and water pitchers, placed on slender waists, passed before my eyes, to and from the well.
I raised my eyes and you turned your face. Some water spilled from the pitcher, and its clear drops shone on your dusky silken arms. That night I slept again after hundreds of years. On dark nights, when I returned through muddy lanes, I felt that you’d be there in my room. And you were often there.
That night you had not come. I opened the door and lay down on the bed. And I could not sleep. How could I? For you were not with me. A shadow moved near the door, and I whispered your name, “Maiki”, and the shadow disappeared. I went out and looked around, but there was no one.
When I looked at you in the morning, your slender waist bent a little more under the weight of the pitcher, and you smiled, with a corner of your sari held between your teeth. I came out. The platform before Chandu’s shop was empty. A horse-cart was waiting. Chandu’s daughter was going to her husband’s place.
The same day, they found a dead rat in the drain beside the well. And then the smell of dead rats spread throughout the village. And over it the smell of rotting corpses.
The mad March wind and the heady smell of Mahuva blossoms. I felt that the next moment I would be free. Free, unbound. But the wind passed, and I remained tied to earth. In the dark silence of the night I continued to walk in the fallow ground beside the Mahuva garden. And people who had built temporary huts in the field outside the village to escape the plague saw my dark figure and the red glow of my cigarette, and were convinced that the Mahuva garden was visited by a ghost.
You had fever and your throat swelled. And then the groans escaping through your swollen throat stopped. And your smell mingled with the smell of dead rats and rotting, corpses. A team of government officials came to burn the corpses in four heaps. In which heap were you?
The heat increased and the Plague died out. People returned to the village. But the rotting smell had entered my blood. The ghost could neither return to the village nor stay in the Mahuva garden.
The star has moved out of the picture. Before me now are only cracked walls and layer on layer of black smoke frozen on them. As if time will never be able to wipe out this blackness. And I imagine that if you came now and put your lips on my cheek, you’d be taken aback. “Why, your body is on fire.”
No, no, you must not come. In the name of God, you must never come.
It’s the fourth day I have not shaved. And when I rub my hand on my f ace I can’t feel anything. I don' t know what has happened to my hand. The skin has dried up and is dead, black, thick and hard, like the skin of a dead buffalo. Sometimes I feel like carving it out with a knife and using it on the soles of my chappals. It would last very long.
And there are ulcers in my stomach. When the pain increases, I try to relieve it with some hot tea. When that doesn’t bring relief , I try Mahuva wine which has a rotten smell and a worse taste.
Four days back, when you had asked me, “Will you sleep, sir?”, your body was like the half-filled goatskin of the waterman, fat and flabby. And in the dim light of the smoking kerosene lamp, which seemed only to enhance the darkness, your eyes were lifeless but they looked hungry, which brought in me some fear and some pity. But you had no children, not even one. And you’ll never have any.
No, no, no, you must not come. In the name of God you must not come.
The mad March wind and the heady smell of Mahuva, the smell of dead rats and of rotting corpses; cool, pure dew and bitter, burning eyes, black, cracked walls, your eternal youth and fairylike beauty; a body like a half-filled goatskin, a body like skin tight1y wrapped around a skeleton; let not the moth burn his wings, nor the nightingale cry in anguish; he who loves anyone truly, are you unable to sleep? Will you sleep, sir?
How can it be? How can all these be true, when each contradicts the other? But they can be true. They are true. It is my misfortune that they are all true. And consequently I cannot sleep. However my eyes may burn, the veins in my head may burst but I cannot sleep. I am not the high priest of Ishtar. (Perhaps I am.) Sleeplessness for me is a compulsion, my will has no value. (Perhaps it has.) But as long as all of this is true, I cannot sleep.
Would that somebody take something from me? Even if he took everything that is pleasant and beautiful, and left only rottenness and poison and death, I’d be able to sleep. But even if somebody wants to take something, I cannot give. This rottenness, this poison, these beautiful dreams, they are all mine. I am your eternal youth and your fairylike beauty. And I am also the dead skin of my hand and the ulcers in my stomach. And so, even if the veins burst in my head, I cannot sleep.
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