Memory shafts: A story by Neera Kashyap

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Memory shafts: A story by Neera Kashyap

"She sat in her easy chair, watched the sun stream onto the glass cupboard. She rummaged her mind for King Asoka’s end."

It had started as a small but unpleasant jab, occurring just as Roma woke at dawn. At first she thought it was a dream – a vivid dream. But, instead of losing its intense but shadowy contours, it stayed like a picture in a frame. She saw herself stand over Leena who must have been five then – her own face stiff with rage as the little one crumpled, weeping inconsolably. There was a study desk in the background, strewn with books and papers, lit by a blue tube light. A sheet of paper had been inserted into a slim typewriter. It was their first house on Chowringhee Road, she recalled, but with no memory of the event. She had shrugged it off, the discomfort too.

The images were mostly only of Leena, but sometimes included Pratibha, who stood taller, stouter- with her characteristic stare that had held through the long years. There was one image of Roma slapping her, Pratibha’s large eyes staring back while Leena stood to the side in a red honeycombed dress, with a fearful face. Roma heard the sound of someone pounding at a door and saw herself get up from a desk to let Leena out who streaked past, her wail growing softer as she ran the distance to their room. It was the time of her PhD thesis on King Asoka, Roma recalled. Forgotten for over twenty centuries, it was as if she was re-discovering him for the world, not Prinsep or Turnour or Wheeler – but her.

She remembered the thrill she had felt when she travelled to the small cave on the spur of the Kaimur hill near Sasaram, and saw Asoka’s minor rock edict, the first of his inscriptions to be discovered. It was her doctoral guide who had translated the script from Brahmi into English. His words were etched in her mind: “Beloved-of-the-Gods speaks thus: It is now more than two and a half years since I became a lay-disciple, but until now I have not been very zealous. But now that I have visited the Sangha for more than a year, I have become very zealous. Now the people in India who have not associated with the gods do so. This is the result of zeal and it is not just the great who can do this. Even the humble, if they are zealous, can attain heaven.”

Roma threw the sheet aside and reached for the remote to switch off the air conditioner. She winced, rubbed her right knee. Last night, she had forgotten to rub in the Ayurvedic oil she had been recommended by an old student. As her hand rotated, she noticed the blue veins bulging visibly - unlike the invisible roots of an old tree. She stretched her stiff body, rose slowly to open the windows to a burst of birdsong - a loud and animated chorus of calls and responses - of surviving the night, of braving the day that had dawned.

For decades now, she had not had to struggle with all the paraphernalia that came with the writing of history – the citations, the footnotes, the annotations, the glossaries, the biblios. Her students did this, while she confined herself to garnering sources available, unearthing new ones, assembling them for interpretation and re-interpretation in a dynamic evolving perspective of the past.

She watched her secretary Anita work in her study - sorting out her papers and correspondence, arranging interviews and webinars, transcribing recorded talks for circulation. The light streamed into the room, glanced off the glass-fronted cupboard full of awards and honours. From her easy chair, she could see her reflection in the wavy glass – broad chin, sagging cheeks, tight mouth and nose, pouches and crows’ feet around the eyes, a pronounced receding hairline, snow white hair held back tightly. She glanced at the book-lined shelves and the ladder Anita used to reach books near the ceiling. On the rare empty wall spaces, there were the paintings she had chosen herself – mostly water colors by Paresh Maity – womens’ sharp-line profiles emerging out of colored squares and cubes.

It was Pratibha who had been the sharp-tongued one, especially after her father left and the divorce followed. She had leashed in her bitterness for a long while, applied with passion to a rash of universities abroad, and just before leaving, unleashed a volley of accusations at Roma. She married an American and had kept her distance ever since – distance that only grew. How did one explain to one’s child that one needed time to study an ancient era – its cultures and norms, its monarchs and people, historical shifts and their effects as rule and relationships shifted? Roma knew she had angered easily, her impatience and frustrations only growing with the numerous interruptions that came in the way of her research, families being as conflicted as histories.

There had been no interruptions for a long time. Past her reflection, her eyes probed the glass cupboard not only for the awards, but also for all the books she had authored. A full row. She saw a continuum in King Asoka’s strategies and those of Gandhi’s nearly twenty centuries later. That would be the theme for her next book. Both knew how to communicate with the masses. Asoka travelled throughout his enormous kingdom to understand issues, inscribed his policies of pluralism, social responsibility and nonviolence on rock edicts and pillars in a progressive series of statements. He also had his dhamma officers travel far and wide to explain and reinforce these in public spaces. Gandhi drew inspiration from this and went further. Not only did he use the newspapers and journals he edited to communicate in at least three languages, everything he did was a symbol of communication: the charkha, his diet, the community spirit of ashram living, its austerity, his cooperatives, his fasts, his marches, his use of time during his periods in jail, his rallying calls…..

Her knee throbbed. She lifted her leg at a right angle, bent in her toes and held up her tightened muscles for a count of ten. Picking up her phone, she walked slowly into the living room. She watched through the glazed door a pigeon stare at the hole in the feeder, then push its beak in.

Leena took her time to answer her call.

“Hi Ma, what’s up?”

“Oh, the usual. Students coming in, old records to read, proofs to correct. You? The boys?”

“Fine. You are due for your flu shot, Ma…it’s already 13 months…should I buy it, bring it across?”

“No, no… no dear. I’ll ask Anita to make a note of it. She will order it tomorrow, call the nurse to administer it.”

A pause. “How is the gardening project getting along? In Manesar, no?” asked Roma.

A pause. “I am a landscape architect, Mom…which is not just gardening. Yes, I still need a Masters and a state licence to qualify for the big spaces. But with Manoj traveling and the boys’ constant demands, I just have to wait.”

Roma felt the pain rise from her knee to the small of her back. She noticed the pigeon still pecking at the feeder.

“Yes, dear. I know…I realize….”

“Ma, do you realize…sitting in your cool study and speaking about majorities and minorities being colonial concepts, religious majoritarianism not being the same as political majoritarianism, the nation’s duties…. the citizen’s duties….. nobody gets it, Ma. Nobody. You need to be on TV discussions, explaining all this to those party panellists who get minorities murdered – openly, brutally. And your ideal citizen - who needs to be secular, above caste and religion - takes a video shot of the brutality, so it can go viral and give others the same pleasure. It’s time to slugfest it….it’s not exactly the Asokan era, you know.”

A pause. “Yes, it’s not the Asokan era, I am aware of that….I don’t.….slug…fest…that’s not the job of a historian…

A pause. “I’ll bring the Influvac across tomorrow evening – six-ish. Get Anita to call the nurse…see you then.”

The pigeon flapped its blue wings before lifting itself into the air. Roma tried to see if she could hear birdsong at this mid-morning hour. She heard a crow caw…. its grating sound soon drowned by the noise of a passing car. She was sweating but couldn’t stir herself to put on the fan. She slumped back into the comfort of the sofa’s large grey cushions. Her mobile rang. It was an unlisted number. She glanced towards the study, the kitchen, then picked up the call as it persisted.

“Yes?” said Roma.

“Good morning, Ma’am. Am I speaking to Dr. Taneja?”

“Yes.”

“Ma’am, I am Vandana, Vandana Bhatia. I am calling from an NGO – Shiksha. We are into quality education for underprivileged children living in slums and villages. Basically we try to fill critical gaps in the educational system through different programs and low-cost creative materials. In this, we supplement the efforts of the government through learning support programs, libraries and by mainstreaming drop-outs. For delivery, we train women who belong to the local communities to work with the children.”

“Yes?”

“Ma’am, so far the emphasis has been on younger children in the age group 3-6 years. We’ve had to provide a lot of support, so children can learn the language, read in it, and learn numbers and math.”

“Yes?”

A pause. “We have moved into the 6-14 age group, providing the same support in reading and math. But we plan to enlarge the scope through other subjects such as history. We want to make history come alive to children through the authentic research of historians, through inspiring stories of the lives of kings and how they governed societies”.

“Yes?”

A pause. “Basically, if you agree….we would need to record these stories in a studio in short modules, dub them into Hindi and other languages and upload them as apps on the tablets we give to these community teachers. This is experimental work. We have no grants for it so, I am afraid, we will not be able to pay.”

“Payment is not the issue. The issue is how does one simplify history so young children can be inspired by it. As we look through our sources and the oral histories of the period, we can never be certain we will have stories to tell, least of all stories that inspire. Our findings do often give us insights into human nature as we look through the eyes of people who lived during the time. But our search is for the whole – for patterns, explanations, comparisons, causes and effects. It’s not about a single king, no matter how inspiring his life – it’s about him and society - its culture, religion, politics, economics – and shifts in these over time,” said Roma.

A long silence followed. Roma felt the sweat dribble down her back as she saw a scene flash before her. This time there were words. She recognised the veranda of the campus house allotted to her from the university. She is sitting on a wicker chair, a large volume open on a cane table. The potted plants lining the walls are mostly thorny, cacti and succulents. Leena stands beside her, holding up an open workbook. She is tearful, but defiant: “It’s an okay essay, Ma. My teacher liked it. The trouble is nothing is okay for you, Ma.”

“Ma’am? Ma’am?” said the voice on the phone. “Is it okay if I call again….in a few days? I really appreciate you taking time out to talk….I am honoured I’ve had this opportunity. Thank you, Ma’am.”

Roma dropped the phone on her lap, gripped the cushions with both hands. She gazed at the empty feeder for a long time.

At dawn the next day, the memory flashes that came were intense. They focused not only on Leena and Pratibha but also on her ex-husband Rohit and his parents. They were painful shafts that pulverised her mind and body. She waited for them to recede. She felt empty as a hollow log, infested by the termites that had eaten it through. She rose, walked slowly to the toilet, her body trembling. She left the A.C. on.

She was in her study earlier than usual. Anita had yet to arrive. She sat in her easy chair, watched the sun stream onto the glass cupboard. She rummaged her mind for King Asoka’s end. Even from the second pillar edict, the megalomania and fanaticism had begun to show itself. His remark that he had conferred many boons on men and animals and performed many righteous deeds were the first signs. His humanitarianism had gradually overshadowed his belief in his own achievement in having changed men’s natures. He had succumbed to his ego.

There was that nasty business with his second wife who used her anti-Buddhist faction to prevent Asoka from emptying the treasury to support the Buddhists. She was finally executed but not before she got his son Kunal blinded – disabling him from succeeding his father. In the end, Asoka was so obsessed with giving donations to the Buddhist church that his grandson Sampadi prohibited the State treasurer from granting funds for this purpose. So Asoka began donating his personal tableware - first gold, then silver, then copper till his own food was served on earthenware. Finally, he had nothing left but a cherry plum which he had mashed and put in a soup for distribution to Buddhist monks.

His end came when he asked his minister who the lord of the earth was. When assured it was he, he had struggled to his feet, turned to each point of the compass, and with a gesture of offering, declared he was presenting the whole earth ‘to the community of the Blessed One’s disciples’. He had these words written on a document which he sealed with his teeth, then lay down to die.

Roma gazed for a long time at the glass cupboard, unseeing. She closed her eyes and murmured: “Forgive me, Rohit. Forgive me. Forgive me, my girls…..my beloved daughters.” She did not open her eyes to blink back the tears.

Anita switched on the A.C. when she entered and sat noiselessly at her desk. Roma mopped her face before greeting her, reaching for her mobile.

“Anita, there was a call for me yesterday at around 11.30 in the morning from an NGO called Shiksha. There was a Vandana Bhatia who spoke. Could you please trace the number and set up a call?”

Neera Kashyap has had a career in environmental & health journalism and communication. She has authored a book of short stories for young adults Daring to Dream, (Rupa & Co.) and contributed to five prize-winning anthologies of children’s literature (Children’s Book Trust). As a writer of short fiction, poetry, essays and book reviews, her work has appeared in literary journals and poetry anthologies published in the USA, UK, Singapore, Pakistan and India. She lives in Delhi.

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