“Light and Shade”, a short story from “The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories” by Dhumketu, translated by Jenny Bhatt

Translator Jenny Bhatt (photo: Praveen Ahuja) Translator Jenny Bhatt (photo: Praveen Ahuja)

For such a small girl, this dignified-sounding name was certainly somewhat startling. But even more surprising was her temperament. Until something was broken, she did not believe in fixing it. For one, at such a young age, she took care of a couple of children as if she were a mother. And, on top of that, as a bonus, her mother would beat her up. Being the oldest might have many advantages but, in Chandangauri’s share, there had only been disadvantages. Her mother always gave her the last and the smallest portion of food. It was good that Chandan was second to none. So, when Ma wandered away, Chandan would force a bit out of everyone else’s portions by yelling at someone, or making another cry, or threatening another sibling. Otherwise, the poor one would have been mired in misfortune. 


The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories, Dhumketu, Jenny Bhatt (trans) (Deep Vellum, July 2022; HarperCollins India, September 2020)
The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories, Dhumketu, Jenny Bhatt (trans) (Deep Vellum, July 2022)
Reprinted with permission from Deep Vellum.


When Gopaldas’ wife, Lakshmi, awoke at 8:30 and sat to clean her teeth, Chandan would stand there with a pot of water. But, if she just stood there with the pot of water, Lakshmi would say, ‘Are you stupid? Why are you standing like that? Last night’s utensils are lying dirty. Can’t you see?’ Yet, if she went to clean the dirty utensils, Lakshmi would say, ‘So here comes bai saheb! Bring the pot of water right away. Get the utensils later.’

The constant bickering would hurt Chandan like an arrow to her heart. But she had committed to memory the fear that her mother Nandu, who usually did all the housework for Lakshmi, would intimidate her with at home. And that fear, which had made a home inside of Chandan, had also made her deter- mined to accept every task with ease. Before sleeping, her mother always told her, ‘Girl, wake up early tomorrow morning and go. Otherwise, my mother-in-law will strip your hide! And work with attentiveness, or my precious lady there will kick you out. And then what will they eat?’ So saying, her mother would show her the four children who had arrived at intervals of a year and a half each – numbers one, two, three and four. When ranked by age, they were in the order of six, seven-and-a-quarter, eight-and-a-half, and ten. Chandan was twelve or thirteen.

So this thing Ma would tell her at night would be in her mind when she came to work at Gopaldas’ house. And, as if she did not understand anything, she would work like an emotionless puppet. She would pay only enough attention to know that Gopaldas’ wife, Lakshmi, was definitely not in sight, then get a piece of sopaari[1]Sopaari: An areca or betel nut that is broken into pieces and chewed, on its own or wrapped with other ingredients in a betel leaf. It is a mild stimulant. or a piece of clove or a string of wool or sometimes an anni dropped somewhere by the wandering vaaghran Rudki. Whatever came to hand, she would take and save it in her huge pocket. In this way, once, she had gotten an anni. For four days, she had left during her afternoon break of noon till 2:00 pm, telling Ma that the saheb’s wife had asked her to come early to wash the table. And she had gone out and bought roasted gram, then sat and eaten them on the sands of the Sabarmati, under the bidi leaf tree. At that time, who else would come to eat there in a similar manner but Bhikla?

That secret joy of hers made her quick at her work too, forcing Lakshmi to say once to Chandan’s mother, ‘Nandudi! Your daughter has become very active nowadays!’

Chandan would not say anything then but, in case she got fortunate with some other wandering anni or a pie paisa, she would take a cloth and start dusting everywhere. And she would do more rounds especially where Gopaldas’ architect’s scale and other such instruments lay. She was certain Lakshmi was not the kind to leave even a pie lying about anywhere. But Gopaldas had suddenly received the opportunity to increase his 250 engineers to 350. So, sometimes, he would unknowingly drop a stray coin or two.

Lakshmi ran the house, primarily. She had only three years of schooling and said ‘cha’ab’ since she couldn’t say ‘saheb’. Being from the village, her physique was large and heavy. Gopaldas had been educated in such poverty that he had developed a natural tendency to underestimate himself. With Lakshmi, he had considered himself insignificant from the start and, in so doing, had truly become insignificant. So, at home, which person to hire or fire, what to do and how to do it – all this management was in Lakshmi’s hands. Nandudi and Chandan would sustain the tor- rent of Lakshmi’s words. At 8:30 in the morning, Chandan would always be standing with a pot of lukewarm water. Yet, at least once a day, Lakshmi never failed to threaten to have Nandudi’s husband removed from his job at the mill. And there was a reason for that. Where she came from, all elders threatened the younger people to keep them under control. Her father threatened her mother, who in turn threatened their boy; the boy threatened the girls, who went on to threaten the rabaari who went to graze the cattle; the rabaari beat the cattle; and on and on that unhappy circle continued. So, no matter how much Chandan or Nandu worked, it failed to please Lakshmi.

And Lakshmi often told Gopaldas: ‘Nandudi hasn’t been working; do as you see fit with her husband.’

Despite that, in the end, the threats never materialised. Seeing this, mother and daughter stopped minding the insults. On occasion, when Lakshmi would hit Chandan, Nandu would also reprimand her instead of taking her side, ‘Here, whore! You’re not doing as bai saheb wants?’ and even hit her. After this would happen, and everyone would sit to eat that afternoon at home, then the precious four or five vegetable pieces brought from Gopaldas’ would find their way only into Chandan’s plate.

Seeing her mother’s unspoken love and recalling her actions from the morning, unbidden tears would fall from Chandan’s eyes. Then both mother and daughter would start to eat in silence.

Ma’s speechless love—which spread its light across even such dark earth—must have taught Chandan this much at least: that, oftentimes, there is something in not thinking only of oneself. Otherwise, why would this girl, who toiled so much for roasted gram worth one paisa, do this now when Nandudi was ill: put aside a biscuit and some tea in a bowl when she went to give the saheb snacks in the afternoon; deliver them to her Ma on the way itself; and, so that she would not lose time, walk so quickly as to become breathless?

During the time that Nandudi was sick, Chandan came to work regularly. And, with her sharp vision, she kept looking, hoping to find a square two-anna and not the uneven one-anna. Nandudi was ill and the young girl was motivated by her innate nurturing tendencies to carry out these different roles, doing all of it as if it were nothing: take care of four children, do the housework, keep Lakshmi happy, steal snacks and give Ma a drink of tea.

She began to do as Nandudi used to do before her. Nandudi had a right to one cup of tea at Lakshmi’s house. But, on some rare days, she would get one and a half cups of tea. Nandudi would not drink tea that day. Chandan would get angry that Ma was not drinking tea and was not letting her drink it either. But the mother took the tea home with her so that all the chil- dren would get a few drops. Chandan would see that and stop complaining.

Now that she was in Nandudi’s place, she had begun to do the same thing. She didn’t realise it, but who knows how exactly it suddenly occurred to her: now I will not drink the tea here; I will take it home.

But the real fun came one day when Chandan stole a paavli. Her thought was to keep the coin hidden and, if no one remembered in a few days, take the opportunity to steal it away. But before she could make any decision, Lakshmi arrived and, in a fright, Chandan put the paavli into her pocket.

In the afternoon, when she came to work, her thought was to put the paavli back. There was a reason for that. She was aware that if she did any wrong and lost her job, the tea that her sick mother was getting in the mornings and afternoons would be gone and it would be a big emotional blow for her. So, if possible, she wanted to stay virtuous right now. She would take the opportunity to be wicked afterwards. But now – though, in her mind, this virtue was worthless – she had no option other than to be vigilant.

It so happened that, as she was leaving home, the four children were clinging to their ma, pulling at her. There was no one else at home. So, as Chandan left to go, Ma said, ‘Give these children two paise’s worth roasted gram before you go so they will leave me in peace!’

Nandudi said this for the sake of saying it, but the children immediately caught onto her words. Then Chandan found out that there weren’t even two paise in the house, so she left with- out saying anything. In the afternoon, somehow, she dropped off roasted gram worth two paise at home. These two paise were from exchanging the paavli.

The next morning too, she bought two paise’s worth of roasted gram. These snacks kept the children quiet and, thanks to that, Nandudi got so much rest that her illness also seemed to be receding. So Chandan also resolved to forget about the paavli.

The following morning, when Chandan came to work, as soon as she had placed a foot on the verandah, she jumped with, ‘Oy, you’re killing me!’ Lakshmi had caught her by the lobe of one ear, pulled Chandan towards herself, and landed two blows on the girl’s back.

Chandan took no account of the beating, but she trembled in fear that, if Lakshmi had found out about the paavli and was beating her for that reason, she would be removed from the job. Just then, she heard Lakshmi’s Gajendramoksh[2]Gajendramoksh was an elephant, Gajendra, who had been saved by Lord Vishnu from the clutches of a crocodile and given moksha (salvation).-likevoice: ‘Saali! You touch a Bhangi and then come into this house without bathing?’ Chandan remembered. Yesterday, to exchange the paavli, rather than going to some nearby shopkeeper who might give evidence if he heard of the matter, she had turned to no other than the Bhangi’s son, who had been jingling paisa in his sack. She had exchanged the paavli with paisa from him. Lakshmi’s gaze, from the window or who knows how, had fallen on Chandan sitting beside the Bhangi, Bhikuda, and not on her taking the paisa. And Lakshmi had hit her.

On discovering the reason for the beating, Chandan felt it like the light touch of a flower. She spoke with some enthusiasm, ‘I will never touch him from now on, ba!’

‘Never touch from now on! But what were you doing there yesterday?’

Chandan was sure she would not be able to think up a rea- son and would make some mistake when, like Vishnu’s vimaan[3]Vishnu’s vimaan: A reference to Lord Vishnu’s heavenly aircraft or divine flying chariot., Gopaldas’ voice was heard, ‘Eh-li! Chandi! Water, bring water! Late, it’s getting late!’

‘Eh-li, wash your feet before you go.’

‘Yes … ba…’ So saying, Chandan walked away. No, not walked, ran away.

But the blows that had landed had felt so lovely to her that, if she could have her way, she would go to Lakshmi and say, ‘Hit me with two more, maavdi![4]Maavdi is an affectionate term for mother in some rural Gujarati dialects. But be so kind as to forget about the paavli!’

But if a vulture could remain without sniffing out a dead beast, only then Lakshmi could remain without sniffing out a paavli. In the evening, she told Chandan, who was leaving for home, ‘Girl, send your mother tomorrow.’

‘She has a fever, ba!’

‘Still, send her. Or she will not stay on. You stole a paavli yesterday, na?’


‘Yes, yes, paavli, you rich man’s daughter! Do I not know of it? Tomorrow, bring back the paavli. And, from tomorrow, don’t come to work.’

Chandan felt a mountain of worry weigh on her but she said suddenly, ‘The paavli will be wherever you’ve placed it, ba! I have not taken it.’

‘Fine. Go now. We’ll see tomorrow.’

Chandan did leave, but it was as if there were shackles weighing a thousand maunds around her ankles. It was evening-time and, in the Ahmedabadi fog, the light from the electric lamps was dim. She walked on but, in her mind, a worry was making its home: where to get the paavli, and how to put it back exactly where it had been so that she would be saved. She was walking absent-mindedly when someone collided into her.

‘Alya, who is it?’

‘It is only me, Chandi!’

‘Who, Bhikudo?’


‘Alya, why did you run into me?’

‘This paavli of yours is no use. Take it back and return my paisa to me!’

Bhikuda held out the paavli.

Chandan felt a tremor of joy and quickly snatched the coin from Bhikuda’s hand.

‘But my paisa?’

‘Your paisa … won’t I give it to you tomorrow?’

‘If you don’t—’

‘Swear on you.’‘Arrey, get off with you. Swearing on me! What relation are you of mine that you will abide by that oath?’

Chandan had become so upbeat after getting the paavli back that she burst into laughter.

And, believing that there was no other cause for such laughter, Bhikudo fell to laughing too. ‘Why are you doing so much khi-khi?’

‘Looking at you,’ Chandan could not think of another response.

‘So you’ll give me the paisa tomorrow, na? If you don’t? Give me a promise, then.’ Bhikuda extended his hand.

Chandan clapped his hand but, before she could pull it back, Bhikuda caught it. ‘Chandudi, I don’t want the paisa. But you take this road every day, right?’

‘Yes. Why?’

‘So … look, I’ll tell you…’ Bhikudo came forward and pinched her cheek. ‘Who’s all this loveliness for?’

‘Ey … yy!’ Chandan moved away.

‘Saali, you’re standing near him again?’ Gopaldas and Lakshmi had come out to take a turn. They saw Chandan standing beside Bhikuda and called out. Lakshmi took her to task severely and properly, ‘Come on, saali … come home. And sit under the faucet.’

Lakshmi walked ahead, Chandan behind her. Their evening walk remained unfinished and Gopaldas stood yelling. Lakshmi sat Chandan under the faucet and bathed her with her clothes on.

As Lakshmi wandered away in a bit, Chandan removed her pomchu[5]Pomchu is a length of cloth worn around the upper torso by women and used to cover the head when needed. It is also known as odhni, even shawl. Often, it is brightly coloured and embroidered., wrung it thoroughly and wore it back on. She washed the other clothes and hung them to dry. After that, she went into the house to ask, ‘Ba, is there any work or can I go?’ And then, she returned the paavli a little further away from where she had found it. Then she went back to her home.

On her way back, Chandan found Bhikudo standing at a distance. He saw her coming and went to her. ‘Chandudi! Why? What happened?’

Chandan laughed. She had been amused by the bathing but, more than that, she was thrilled by the fact that she had put the paavli back properly and had decided that she was not going to work from tomorrow on. In that joy, she kept laughing heartily.

Bhikuda said to her, ‘Tomorrow, will you bring my paisa or what?’

‘Yes, I told you already!’

‘Otherwise, I’ll touch you!’ And, looking around to see if any- one was watching, he caught Chandan’s hand. ‘What, did you become impure?’

‘No, re!’ Drawling thus, Chandan walked away. But a very bad thought came into her mind: ‘Tomorrow, I will ask him for two paisa!’

The next day, the paavli was found, so Lakshmi did not punish Chandan any more. But she called her mother and threatened her.

Nandudi went home and thrashed Chandan.

On the third day, instead of stealing tea to give her ma, Chandan asked Bhikuda for two paisa, bought roasted gram, and ran off to eat them.

Dhumaketu is the pen-name of Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi (1892–1965). Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator and book critic.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Sopaari: An areca or betel nut that is broken into pieces and chewed, on its own or wrapped with other ingredients in a betel leaf. It is a mild stimulant.
2. Gajendramoksh was an elephant, Gajendra, who had been saved by Lord Vishnu from the clutches of a crocodile and given moksha (salvation).
3. Vishnu’s vimaan: A reference to Lord Vishnu’s heavenly aircraft or divine flying chariot.
4. Maavdi is an affectionate term for mother in some rural Gujarati dialects.
5. Pomchu is a length of cloth worn around the upper torso by women and used to cover the head when needed. It is also known as odhni, even shawl. Often, it is brightly coloured and embroidered.