Classic Hindi novel set in girls’ college translated into English

Sushma ran her finger again over the copper plate on the table. The letters of his name have been etched into the new shiny surface. Suddenly his name sounded sweet and musical. She pushed the nameplate aside and began to sort through the piles of mail on the tray. She glanced outside the blinds and felt impressed by her new status. An alluring world stretched beyond the cool yellow slats – she saw colorful dupattas and innocent dreamy faces and heard the laughter of carefree young voices. The chaprassi sat on a stool outside, his khaki uniform shining in the sun.

Sushma’s heart was flooded with laughter and the joy of the world. She remembered the winding paths she had walked in her life so far, every turn filled with new hope. She had forgotten how many turns she had already driven. Now she had reached the point where one turns to look back, and her old aspirations seemed hollow in the sharp relief of reality; her delicate dreams had withered and faded.

The bell rings in the halls. Vibrant dupattas were squeezed together and exuberant laughter subsided in the solemnity of the classroom. She resumed sorting the mail. At the moment, she couldn’t remember which girls lived in which blocks. She made six piles of letters and rang the chaprassi bell.

Hari Singh, the former chaprassi of the inn, came and took the mail. She took her register to go to class, and had just left when two chaprassis greeted her at the same time. Until last year, these two had shied away from the mere mention of work and – far from saluting – wouldn’t even work for Sushma if she tipped them. She felt like she had truly become someone. Respect for her had grown. She smiled and left for class.

When she returned at the end of the hour, she saw that in the meantime her nameplate had been installed outside her office: Miss S Sharma, MA, Warden, Girls Hostel. Seeing such a long chain of titles after his name seemed strange to him. She went inside to find two of her fellow teachers sitting in her office.

“Come in, please, Headmistress,” Miss Shastri said sardonically. Miss Shastri taught Sanskrit. She had developed a fascination with pleasure due to her exposure to Sanskrit literature, but not finding the means to experience it, she had become bitter towards life and the world.

Sushma put the register down and sat down in her swivel chair.

“Are you free now?” ” she asked.

“How can I be free? I just had to make a phone call. There is no privacy in the office.

Sushma pushed the phone towards her and started to go through some papers.

Miss Shastri looked at Sushma after dialing the number and said, “Roma David came home at one in the morning last night. Truly, she is testing the limits of bad behavior! What can she think of? … Hello, it’s Durga speaking, please give the phone to Mr. Joshi.

Miss Shastri stood up when her conversation was over.

“Sushma, help the hostel get back into shape. You’re new, so there will be more enthusiasm of course, but really, what’s not going on here … “

“Don’t you have class right now?” Sushma interrupted. “The girls must be making noise!”

“I’ll tell you more later,” said Miss Shastri, leaving reluctantly.

Now Meenakshi, who was sitting listening in silence to Miss Shastri, smiled and said, “That’s all Miss Shastri does with her time. Does she not even sleep at all, or does she spend the whole night on patrol, sniffing out who came home when? You can ask her questions about anyone: which girl is friends with whom, which teacher sends how much money home, who is hungry for sex … “

“Enough, enough,” Sushma said, guessing where Meenakshi was going with it all. “I know everything. You don’t have to tell me.

“Are you embarrassed?” Meenakshi asked in surprise. “You’ve done such things before. You will have to face so many problems with the girls that – “

“Let him rest, Meenakshi!” Since arriving here, every supporter has given me a long list of items that I absolutely need to take care of.

Sushma was starting to get fed up with the subject. She stood up. “Come on, let’s have a cup of coffee,” she said. “It’s still a while before the bell.”

The new hostel building was visible from the long cafe window. Colorful curtains hung from the bedroom windows. Inside the cafe, they could smell the scent of the Madhavi vine climbing the walls. Sushma remembered that she had not yet asked the gardener to plant roses in the bungalow. The rainy season would pass and then it would be difficult.

“I have so much work to do right now,” she said, playing with her spoon. “All my time is spent in senseless struggles at the inn. I don’t have time for myself.

“What kind of work were you doing that you can’t do anymore?” More time for cheap novels?

Meenakshi always made fun of Sushma’s basic literature collection, but Sushma was never offended. It was the kind of novel she loved to read after working hard all day – light and romantic. She could barely match Meenakshi’s sharp tastes, but she could fully appreciate them.

Sushma smiled at Meenakshi’s words then looked down and began to examine the design on her mug. It was only eleven o’clock, so there weren’t many students in the cafe yet. Even the few people seated at the tables spoke quietly. Two porters stood silently near the counter.

The screen door opened and a girl peered inside. Seeing Sushma and Meenakshi looking at her, she jumped, greeted them both and, perhaps not finding her friend, ran away. Sushma thought of her aunt Krishna when she saw the young girl’s sari, and how it was exactly what her aunt looked like: if she were to come in right away, she would be wildly affectionate.

But how many times had Sushma asked her to have these saris embroidered and send them right away? And now she was just putting it off – she hadn’t even bothered to send him a five-paisa postcard! If sarees were ever to come, she would definitely wear them.

Extracted with permission from Fifty-five pillars, red walls, Usha Priyamvada, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell.


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About John McTaggart

John McTaggart

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