The Threshold by Jayant Kaikini
Translated from Kannada by Pratibha Umashankar-Nadiger
HOME

 

If you turned into the last lane of the crowded market, you couldn’t miss Muchchi Mian’s modka dukaan. For the uninitiated, Muchchi means moustache, which Muchchi Mian had an abundance of. Though his real name was Pratap Singh, he was not called Muchchi Singh, because the scrap business was usually run by Musilms, and Mian was a suffix they used. So, in the easy familiarity of the Mumbai bazaar lingo, his name had become Muchchi Mian, which he had accepted with pride. When someone called him by that name, he would look up, twirling his greying military moustache.

 

Now, coming to modka dukaan, it’s a shop dealing in discarded body parts of dilapidated houses and old furniture. From relics like rusted tin roofs to unhinged window frames, and from worn-out wooden thresholds to a pile of broken and blunt screwdrivers and everything in between, qualified for being stocked there.

 

A gigantic door-less fridge, disembowelled radio sets, a rusted stove and mismatched sofas with frayed upholstery that looked like they belonged to the ancient Harappan civilisation, and other odds and ends had found their way into Muchchi Mian’s roadside ‘used furniture shop’, which was, in reality, a small space he had created by placing a piece of plywood across a sewer flowing beside the pavement.

 

In the middle of this organised chaos, Mian sat smoking meditatively on a faded brocade and velvet discarded wedding reception throne, like an emperor who had renounced his empire and run away from it all.

 

The wares had been arranged in a bizarre pattern with a logic of its own. Each morning, Mian rearranged everything like some stage setting of a social play, dusting them with a yellow rag. And with the seriousness of an actor performing a solo act, he sat for a while on one of the sofas, then moved to the throne or relaxed on a three-legged bed propped up with a pile of bricks. A huge tree stood nearby, providing occasional respite from the sun. Mian’s shop stood as an oasis of peace amidst the rough and tumble of the noisy street, over which Mian presided.

 

One day, into this theatre of the absurd came an old wooden dressing table with a full-length mirror in an intricately etched frame, supported on either side by carved rosewood peacocks worn smooth with age.

 

Mian placed this right in the middle of the shop, facing the busy street. As he polished the mirror, he saw reflections of huge trucks and buses suddenly rushing towards it and disappearing at the last moment, making way for new ones. From then on, Mian watched fascinated, from dawn till dusk, the drama of daily life unfolding before him in the mirror. Even the sun seemed to take a peek at its reflection, as it set. Mian usually dozed off, looking with half-closed eyes at the mirror from his three-legged bed, as the shop was steeped in the twilight’s golden afterglow.

 

Mian had a small hut near the railway tracks, where he went to bathe in the morning. During the day, he kept it open. Women in the neighbourhood came there to rock their babies to sleep or separate chaff from the grain. Of late, he had begun to lock it, as he had found some louts playing cards once. When his neighbours came to the marketplace, they visited his shop and rested on the sofas for a while and left. They touched and inspected the rusted old stove, the zombie fridge or anything that had come recently to the shop.  

One afternoon, as he came awake from his siesta, Mian saw an amazing sight. Someone who looked like a celestial being stood running her delicate fingers through her freshly washed hair, engrossed in her own reflection. She occasionally struck a pose or swayed to the music emanating from an old radio in the corner.

 

Mian sat still, watching mesmerised, barely able to breathe. He dared not blink, afraid she would vanish from his sight. He could vaguely see her face. She exuded a mild fragrance of her own.

 

Suddenly, Popat, the teaboy, came screaming in his high-pitched voice, ‘Chai! Chai!’, hitting a coin against the aluminium kettle. Mian silently despaired, not knowing how to stop him. Just then, a red double-decker bus came thundering past, raising a curtain of dust, behind which she seemed to disappear. When the dust settled, everything was as before. Her reflection had evaporated.

 

Mian got up and walked with hesitant steps and looked everywhere – behind cupboards, beside the fridge…. She wasn’t there. But the faint scent that had wafted from her hair still hung in the air.

 

Popat poured a glass of tea, gave it to Mian as usual, and moved on to the next hawker. The marketplace looked the same – the same milling crowds, people jostling and pushing into buses, the same handcarts laden with goods, the street lamp wires entangled precariously in the branches of the tree….

 

Mian drank his tea pensively. He was wide awake, but the dream-like scene still played before his eyes. He didn’t want to believe what he had seen, lest it should fade. So fleeting was the image that he was scared even thinking about it could erase it from memory.

 

But who was she? Was it someone he knew? Did she look like the willowy housemaid who noisily washed dishes at the police quarters nearby, or the girl blossoming into womanhood, with curly hair and a mole on her cheek, who walked along the footpath on her way to school till last year? Was it the one who sold lemons at the street corner, hounding pedestrians as they passed by? Was it the lady in purple, who had bought a pair of old chairs dirt cheap, after haggling for hours?

 

Mian hesitated even placing the empty glass on the mirror stand.

 

He didn’t notice Popat, who came to collect empty glasses and money. ‘Muchchi Mian, where are you lost?’ he asked.

 

Popat spent some time, as usual, sitting on different sofas, stretching his legs. Mian looked at him, wondering if he had noticed anything different in the shop. No, Popat went about his way. Mian began gazing at the marketplace in the mirror, like someone watching TV. The faint fragrance of bath soap and female sweat blew around, with a whiff of the evening breeze. Mian thrilled at it, inhaling deeply. A gentle tremor coursed down his body. He sat unmoving, not wanting to smoke.

 

At night, as usual, he tied all the old furniture together with a rope and fastened it to the tree in front, and slept on the three-legged bed. Popat slept on one of the sofas.

 

But Mian was always half-awake, alert to thieves who stole old nuts, bolts and taps. These days, he covered the mirror with an old cloth, as the reflection of headlights of passing vehicles disturbed him. But that night, he left it uncovered. He lay watching, as sudden flashes of light lit the mirror. There were no stars in the smog-filled sky.

 

Something shadowy moved behind the cupboard. Mian sat with bated breath. She stepped out. She had hitched her sari up, like someone busy with housework. She moved noiselessly, with the thin silver strip of her anklets gleaming. She straightened things as she moved, and settled down in a corner, sewing something. Though wisps of her curls fluttered in the breeze, her hair tied in a loose bun lent her dignity. There was gravitas even to the playful ringlets on her forehead. She was softly humming something. She covered her eyes, dazzled by the occasional vehicle passing by, flashing its headlights on the mirror.

 

An aroma filled the air. Something was simmering on the rusty stove. She got up and served it on a plate and placed it along with a glass of water on a table nearby. Mian was filled with anguish. He knew the meal was meant for him, but he did not have the courage to touch it. What if she disappeared when he got up?

 

But without realising it, he walked to the table. Everything was bathed in a golden light: the pale-yellow light from the street lamps lit the tree, as a few gold-coloured leaves fell down lazily. Mian was about to sit at the table, when a leaf fluttered by and was about to settle on his plate. She stretched her elegant hand and pushed it away. She walked to the fridge and stood leaning against its side, as Mian ate. She looked like an image imprinted on a calendar.

 

Though she appeared to have traversed miles to be there, she didn’t show any signs of exhaustion. Though her hair looked as if she had put a heavy load down, it wasn’t ruffled. The fringe on her forehead had a sprinkling of flour. There was a pungent smell of spices on her fingertips. Her stomach gleamed with sweat. A bead of perspiration hung, poised on her bellybutton. Mian thought it might trickle down even if he breathed. The folds of her sari had the softness of a baby blanket, into which Mian wanted to bury his head and be cradled to sleep.

 

He choked when a spicy morsel got stuck in his throat. He drank thirstily from the glass of water. She filled it again. He couldn’t see her face or eyes clearly. But the heady odour of sweat from the damp underarm of her blouse teased his nostrils, and seemed to confuse the course of the gentle breeze that blew in. Mian choked again. As if she had committed a crime, she slowly slid behind the cupboard.

 

Mian got up alarmed and looked behind. She wasn’t there. He ran along the street. It was quiet. A heap of yellowing discarded tender coconut shells gleamed under the light, where they had been left by the roadside hawker. Mian thought something moved near the garbage bin across the street in the backyard of a marriage hall. But when he looked, everything was still.

 

He went back in and saw the glass and the chrome-coloured plate with bits of food stuck to it. He picked them up with trembling hands and washed them under the municipal water spout. Turmeric water flowed down to the sewer. The dark, supine street lying exhausted held no clue to the golden world within, where everything glowed with life.

 

A home had sprung up at a golden hour from a scrap heap in the middle of a crowded marketplace, anchoring Mian’s makeshift life.

 

Mian walked in and noticed Popat fast asleep, with his lanky legs hanging from the sofa. He had no idea when Popat had come in. He slid Popat’s legs back on to the sofa. Popat opened his eyes wide, looked at him, said something and went back to sleep. The eyes which had opened momentarily were blank. The deep grooves on his rough little palms had been etched with grime like a strange henna pattern.

 

Mian surveyed his little kingdom, staring intently at all the things assembled there. He was tempted to open the handle-less cupboard. He knew her saris hung there, and there was a small jewellery box with her bangles and other trinkets. And his clothes had been washed, ironed and folded neatly, even his thirty-year-old blue shirt. Mian didn’t open the cupboard. He went and sat on the bed.

 

When he woke up, Popat was already bathing at the water spout. The tower of transparent tea glasses he had stacked in the corner glimmered as it caught the first light of dawn.

 

Soon, the street was abuzz with the morning bustle. The municipal workers were piling up the remnants of a dead day – coconut shells, rotten vegetables and leftovers from the marriage hall garbage dump. People were rushing around, chasing their livelihoods. Mian went to his hut for a bath. On the way back, he had breakfast at Shankar Vilas. He felt a lightness – a lightness which had come from somewhere deep within him. He felt fresh and energised, as if he had stood under a pristine waterfall for hours.

 

He lit incense sticks all around his shop, flooded with the turmeric radiance of the morning. The mirror facing the marketplace had unravelled something hidden deep within it – something profoundly personal. He turned it around. It now stood with its back to the street, reflecting his scrap shop. There now seemed to be some sort of a connection between the things that had stood randomly for years. Instead of individual items, they looked like an entity bound together.

 

Popat, who was about to go to Shankar Vilas to fill his kettle, asked, ‘What’s up Mian, seem to be in a good mood?’

 

‘Nothing, really,’ Mian said, blushing. ‘Just feel it’s a lucky day.’

 

‘In that case, put a board that the throne is for sale with a boy thrown in for free. If you find a good customer, give me away. I promise you a lifetime’s supply of free chai.’

 

Mian smiled affectionately, as Popat ran off, whistling.

 

Mian jumped at the sound of the tinkling of bangles behind him. And there she was, in front of the mirror, tying a topknot, with a hairpin between her teeth…. Now she was applying kohl to her eyes. Now she was adjusting the topknot, pushing a strand of stray hair into it. A yellow leaf landed on her head. She didn’t seem to notice it. I’ve to pick it up, thought Mian. But how? He despaired silently.

 

She stood up, sticking the leaf into her hairdo. She picked a brass pot and stepped out, walking across the wooden plank covering the sewer. She made her way between handcarts and autorickshaws, and disappeared like a breeze, unseen by others. And now she was back, with water sloshing from the shiny brass pot balanced on her waist. She was now standing before the stove. Suddenly remembering something, she opened the dressing table drawer, picked up a few coins, pulled a cloth bag from a peg on the cupboard and was walking swiftly towards the bazaar, shimmering and swaying under the sun.

 

Mian felt with his palm the brass pot in the corner. It was cool. He touched with his fingertips the sprinkling of scented talcum powder on the dressing table. He picked up the comb and pulled out the strands of long, curly hair still enmeshed in it and held them to his nose. He breathed in the now-familiar fragrance and carefully put the strands in his pocket.

 

As she actualised and grew real through these small little signs strewn around the shop, Mian felt he had lost something else, but couldn’t name it. He felt a strange churning in his stomach. The faint scent of her dense, dark hair swirled around the shop, drowning the aroma of incense sticks.

 

He looked at himself for the first time in the full-length mirror. The wrinkles near his eyes had disappeared. The sagging skin around his neck had become taut. He had no paunch now. His hair, glistening with good health, was stylishly ruffled. Everything about him was fresh. He looked as if he had emerged from the poster of a newly released film. But a crack showed on top of the mirror. Dust and grime from the street had settled in it. He ran a finger over it. It got smudged. He walked to the front of the shop. The stench of stale food reeked from the wedding hall garbage bin. An onion peel caught in the breeze swirled around near the threshold.

 

Mian wondered how the domestic bliss he had not dreamt of in the last four decades had suddenly been bestowed upon him, free of any worldly give-and-take. He felt both a sense of calm and an indescribable turmoil. What can I give her, he thought – what can I possibly offer this celestial beauty, who has wordlessly showered me with such bliss? He felt a lump in his throat. Where is she now? Is she haggling for a bunch of coriander leaves at a vegetable cart? Something poignant tugged at his heartstrings. I need to do something, he thought. I need to act. How long will she keep coming to this dump? This second-hand domesticity?

 

Not knowing what to do, he picked up the old broom and began sweeping the floor.

 

When he was done, he stood staring at the heap of dust. Everything that had happened seemed unreal. He felt stupidly helpless. But the faint smell of her still hung in the air. Her strands of hair sat snugly in his pocket. The brass pot was brimming with water. A new life was blossoming around him, defying all logic. There were signs everywhere. But they were confined to the tiny space – to his scrap shop – which made him feel even more wretched.

 

Suddenly, someone came screaming, waking the somnolent crows hiding on the branches from the heavy afternoon heat. As they fluttered away in unison, a man in a vest with a checkered cloth around his waist, rushed by, brandishing his fist. ‘Let me get my hands on that whore! I’ll strip her naked and parade her on the streets!’ he boomed like someone shouting a slogan, and disappeared round the bend. Despite the raw violence in his voice, there was pathos in it – a lament of someone who begged for deliverance.

 

Nobody seemed to hear him. They continued to buy vegetables from carts, bargaining with the vendors. But his voice echoed in Mian’s ears like a portent of something terrible. He crouched behind the mirror for a long time.

 

Popat came and poured a glass of tea and shook Mian, ‘Mian, drink quickly. The municipal truck is on its way. They’re confiscating everything from roadside hawkers….’

 

A warning like this usually galvanised Mian into action. He would move all his stuff into a vacant lot in the compound behind. But today, he watched in a daze, as the coconut water seller carried a load of coconuts into the compound and the vegetable vendors hurriedly emptied everything from their cart into sacks.

 

Popat, pulling at Mian’s shirt, screamed, ‘Mian, Mian, quick!’ Mian stood stock-still at the threshold. All he knew was that she who had gone to buy vegetables had not returned.

 

Popat was worried. He started hauling whatever he could into the compound. A few others came to help.

 

‘It’s here! It’s here!’ everyone shouted. The old Ford municipal truck trundled into the lane and stood in front of Mian’s scrap collection encroaching upon the footpath.

 

Popat started pushing things randomly into the backyard. Mian didn’t utter a word.

 

A few brawny men in municipal uniform marched across the plank, tied whatever was remaining with a rope and began to haul them on to the truck. A crowd had gathered. The vegetable sellers ran towards the truck, pulling chairs and sofas, beseeching, ‘Just some broken old stuff. Please don’t take them away….’ The municipal workers pushed them, teasing, ‘Hey, Mian, we’re ransacking your empire!’ They picked up the throne and carelessly tossed it into the back of the truck. They dragged the table standing on a stone slab, and laughed as it splintered into bits. The fridge shuddered, the three-legged bed collapsed, the termite-ridden window frame crumbled. But Mian couldn’t utter a word. The chaotic scene before him looked like a mute tableau passing before him.

 

Popat was stuffing a bunch of nuts and bolts into his own and Mian’s pockets, hiding them, as if they were precious gemstones. But Mian was gazing ahead.

 

And suddenly, there she was! She came running and joined the crowd. As Mian watched, she tucked her sari purposefully and began to grab at things, screaming loudly. But he couldn’t hear her screams. The municipal workers pushed her away roughly. The truck began to move slowly. The others fell back, but she held on to it, sweating profusely. The workers kept pushing her away, but she lunged forward again and again, begging them, screaming at them. Her eyes were brimming with tears of rage and humiliation.

 

The truck gathered speed, and one of the workers shoved her roughly, laughing. Suddenly, Mian screamed, ‘YEI!!!’ She alone seemed to hear it. She looked back and stared into his eyes like someone turned into a statue mid-stride, all the fight and ferocity drained out of her. The throng began to scatter like a dispersed parade, erasing her in the tumult.

 

The wooden board covering the sewer, the collapsed three-legged bed, the rusted stove and the worn-out threshold were all that remained. Mian had no desire to find out what else had been rescued and piled up in the compound. He sat leaning against the tree, staring vacantly. The ultimate and the only truth for him was that he had screamed out, and that she had heard him. She alone had heard his scream. That was the only reality that mattered. The rest was all an illusion. Beyond that, there was emptiness on this side and the other.

 

Mian could still picture her eyes – eyes that had seen immense suffering, sorrow, squalour and the sordidness of human existence, its despair and agony.

 

Mian got up slowly and went to the spout and held his head under the gushing water.

 

‘Muchchi Mian, give me a five; we managed to save the dressing table!’ Popat laughed triumphantly. ‘My friends lugged it away near the railway tracks. Give me a five….’

 

Mian signalled him to be quiet and waved his hands as if to say, ‘I won’t need it anymore.’

 

At the railway tracks, children from the slums nearby were watching with awe a passing train come thundering and disappearing into the mirror.

 

*

 

The story, titled ‘Hostilu’ first appeared in the Kannada magazine Tushara in 1997 and subsequently in Jayant Kaikini’s 1999 collection of short stories, Bannada Kaalu.

 

*


Jayant Kaikini, Kannada short story writer, poet and playwright, with six short story volumes, five poetry and three essay collections, and three adapted plays to his credit, is the recipient of many prestigious awards, including four Karnataka Sahitya Academy awards for excellence in writing, the first one being at the age of nineteen in 1974 for his debut poetry anthology, followed by awards in 1982, 1989 and 1996, for his short story collections. Dots and Lines (2004), a compilation of his translated stories in English has been published by Indialog, Delhi. A much-sought-after lyricist, script and dialogue writer for several Kannada films, which have garnered both critical and popular acclaim, he has received the Karnataka state award for best dialogues for Chigurida Kanasu and Filmfare awards in 2008, 2009, 2016 and 2017 for best lyrics in the Kannada category.

A well-known television personality, he was conferred with an honorary doctorate from Tumkur University in 2011 for his contribution to Kannada in the fields of literature, films and television. A biochemist by training, he has an uncanny ability to grasp the alchemy of life, both rural and urban. His stories explore the labyrinths of existence of ordinary people, especially in Mumbai, a city close to his heart.

No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories a translation of his selected stories has recently been published by Harper Perennial.

 

Pratibha Umashankar-Nadiger straddles two disciplines – academics and journalism. She was, till recently, the Associate Editor of Climate Control Middle East, and was formerly Consulting Editor of Books & More. As Special Feature Writer for Weekend magazine, Khaleej Times, she received the Best Feature Writer award for 2008 and 2009 from the government of Dubai, UAE. Apart from cover stories, interviews, edit pieces, and essays in literary journals, her published works include two coffee table books profiling eminent Zoroastrians, a biography in Kannada, a set of English textbooks (co-authored) and translations of Jayant Kaikini’s short stories and poems in Muse India. Penguin Random House India has just brought out her translation of Yashwant Chittal’s Kannada masterpiece Shikari, titled Shikari the Hunt.

She is presently working on her doctoral thesis on Partition writing by women, with a focus on gendered violence.