Ratno Dholi brings together the first substantial collection of Dhumketu’s work to be available in English. Beautifully translated for a wide new audience by Jenny Bhatt, these much-loved stories – like the finest literature – remain remarkable and relevant even today. An excerpt from the chapter ‘When a Devi Ma Becomes a Woman’:
We 20–25 breakfast customers would appear at Gopikabai’s mess between 9.30 and 11 a.m. There was no work-related fellowship between us because, among those who came to eat, some were clerks, some miscellaneous working types. Many were also students. Some were from small factories. And some came because they enjoyed Gopikabai’s cooking and, even more than that, her lovely nature.
In Gopikabai’s countenance, there was such a kindness-filled, pleasing enchantment that any man who spoke with her even for a few moments would forever remember the charm of her facial expressions. Even the word ‘charm’ was not accurate for her. Charm is dependent on beauty. But what people consider beauty was hardly the kind to be found in Gopikabai. And yet, a wonderful loveliness played in those facial features. She laughed, looked at you, simply said a merry thing, made some sweet joke about life, arrey! Gave you a gentle reproach – but whatever activity she would be doing, that beauty would not leave her alone for even a moment. Many a time, no words could be found to give a true description of her beauty. Because it just wasn’t there. It emerged anew every moment due to Gopikabai’s actions in each moment.
This Gopikabai had no kinspeople. That is to say, she had absolutely no relatives or loved ones. And, in another way, just as there were no kinspeople, there were no strangers either. To her mind, there were no customers either, people who just paid to dine there. She took pleasure in cooking. She enjoyed serving the food. She enjoyed feeding others. As if the hallowed name of Annapurna 1 was for her alone.
All her diners came to eat there between the aforementioned hours. After that time, rarely anybody came to eat. So, in the afternoon, after taking some rest, Gopikabai would sit wit her TulsikritRamayan. The peaceful rhythm of her slow, sweet voice would flow throughout the room. For a couple of moments, she would forget everything. She would forget herself. She would forget her mess. She would forget her household affairs. Everything. If someone showed up during this time, he was sure to mistake her for a goddess and wouldn’t be able to resist folding both hands and bowing to her. A lovely, auspicious mark of sandalwood would be honouring her forehead. Nearby, on both sides, lamps would be glowing. In front, there would be a portrait of Ma Annapurna. And, sitting there, Gopikabai would have forgotten herself in Ram, Lakshman, Sita, Hanuman, Tara and Mandodari. Many times, some customer would come to confirm their attendance or absence for the evening meal but, seeing Gopikabai, the topic of conversation would be put aside and they would fold their hands, bow, and take their leave. Gopikabai would have to remind them – why had they come? Then that man would stop to tell her his concern.
So this Gopikabai – if you want to call her a hostel-waali, you can call her that too. If you
want to call this business of hers a business, you can do that as well. But, within it, she had
spread her own fragrance in such a manner that whoever came there would believe they were committing a crime by calling her a hostel-waali. No one had heard anyone call her a hostel-waali or bai or hostel-waali bai or Gopikabai. They only called her Annapurnaben. And many spirited young students addressed her as Annapurnadevi. From among them, those who found that name too long, began calling her simply ‘Devi’.
And, truly, she was like a goddess to us customers. If there was any festive occasion or major holiday, some sweet would have been made. Then, a small gathering would assemble around Gopikabai after eating. At that time, the goddess-like respect for her that everyone nursed could be seen clearly. Even a beedi-roller would come there, a man who did not, generally, belong to the better classes. But even he would remain civil in her presence. And he would be constantly careful that his own merrymaking did not slide below a certain level.
In this way, she had been enshrined the devi of a small family. Her countenance was so calm, lovely, and beautifully enticing. The subtle lustre of that gracefulness also emerged in her manners. Her speech had the same attractiveness. Even in the jowar she made, there would be a ‘little more sweetness, little less sweetness’ rolled in so naturally that the taste of it lingered long in the mouth. Nature had seemingly put a line of modesty in her hands. Even her appearance would be like that. It didn’t seem too conceited or too sober. Pretty in a dignified way, yet showcasing the allure of both her body and clothing fully.
Image Credit: Jenny Bhatt/ Harper Perennial
Excerpted with permission from the chapter ‘When a Devi Ma Becomes a Woman’ from Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, translated from Gujarati by Jenny Bhatt and published by Harper Perennial.