The Currency has Changed by Krishna Sobti,
Translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell
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Dawn was breaking when Shahni reached the bank of the river wrapped in a homespun shawl, rosary in hand. Off in the distance, the curtain of the sky was smeared with red. Shahni removed her clothing and set it to one side as she recited Sri Ram, Sri Ram. She immersed herself in the river, filled her cupped hands with water, and greeted the Sun God as she splashed her sleepy eyes.

 

The chill waters of the Chenab were as cold as ever today as they flowed from the melting snow of the far off Kashmir hills, waves kissing waves. Eddies leapt and collided with overhanging banks, but the sand stretching off into the distance was oddly silent. Shahni put her clothes back on and looked about. Not so much as the shadow of another person anywhere, but countless footprints in the sand below. She shivered a bit.

 

There was something frightening in the sweet silence of the dawn today. She’d been bathing here for the past fifty years. Such a long time! she thought. She first climbed down this very riverbank as a bride. And today … Shahji was not here, nor was her educated son; today she was alone, alone in Shahji’s huge haveli. But no – what was this she was thinking so early in the morning? Why couldn’t she get her mind off worldly affairs at this hour? Shahni sighed deeply and made her way home through the millet fields reciting Sri Ram, Sri Ram. Here and there smoke rose from whitewashed courtyards. Bullock bells rang out. All the same … all the same … things felt subdued somehow. The Jammiwallah well wheel was not turning. All the people living here had been tenants of Shahji’s. She looked up. All the surrounding fields were hers. She felt overwhelmed with a sensation of belonging as she gazed tearfully at the new crop. The lands that stretched to far off villages, the wells on the lands – all were hers, all blessings. Three crops a year – this land grew gold. Shahni walked towards the well and called out, ‘Shera, Shera – Husaina, Husaina…’

 

Shera recognized Shahni’s voice. How could he not! After his mother, Jaina, had died, he’d been brought up by Shahni. He pushed the battle-axe lying nearby under a pile of clover, grabbed his hookah and called out, ‘Oh Husaina, Husaina…’ How Shahni’s voice had shaken him. Just then he’d been thinking about how he would grab the chests of gold and silver from that dark little room in the tall haveli, when he’d heard her calling out, Shera, Shera…. He was enraged. Whom to make the butt of his anger? Shahni!

 

‘Oh, did you die or what!’ he yelled. ‘May God give you death!’

 

Husaina set aside the clay chapati-kneading bowl and rushed out. ‘I’m coming. Why are you getting so worked up this early in the morning?’

 

Shahni was close now. She’d already heard Shera’s outburst.

 

‘Husaina,’ she said affectionately, ‘is this any time for quarrelling? When he gets crazy, you must be gutsy!’

 

‘Gutsy!’ Husaina said in a voice full of pride. ‘Shahni, boys will be boys. Have you ever asked Shera why he only curses in complete darkness?’

 

Shahni patted Husaina fondly on the back. She laughed, and said, ‘Silly girl, I love the bride more than the boy! Shera…’

 

‘Yes, Shahni!’

 

‘Did you know, people came here from Kulluwal last night?’ Shahni asked in a serious tone.

 

Shera hesitated, then panicked. ‘No, Shahni…’ he replied.

 

Shahni ignored his response and said in a slightly worried tone, ‘Whatever’s happening, it’s not good. Shera, if Shahji were here today, perhaps he’d intervene somehow. But…’ She stopped in the middle of her sentence. What was going on today? She was on the verge of tears. Several years had passed since she’d lost Shahji, but today something was welling up inside her … memories of the past, perhaps … she glanced over at Husaina, trying to keep from crying, and laughed softly. And Shera was thinking, What is Shahni going on about today! Today, no one can do anything, not even Shahji. And so it should be, why wouldn’t it? Shahji filled his sacks with gold by charging our people interest. Flames of revenge flashed in Shera’s eyes. He reached for his knife. He looked at Shahni: But no. No, he had already committed thirty or forty murders in the past few days. And … and, he wasn’t that low. Shahni’s hands swam before his eyes. But he wasn’t thinking of the Shahni sitting before him, rather, the one who used to come to see him on those winter nights. Sometimes he’d be lying in the haveli after getting a scolding from Shahji. And then, by the light of the lantern, he’d see Shahni’s affectionate hands holding out a dish of milk. ‘Shera, Shera, pick it up, drink it,’ she’d say. When Shera looked over at Shahni’s wrinkled face, she was smiling. He felt moved. After all, what has Shahni ever done to me? All Shahji’s deeds had disappeared with him. He would definitely save Shahni. But what of last night’s agreement! Why had he agreed to what Feroz had said? Everything will be fine … we’ll divide the stuff up!

 

‘Come, Shahni, I’ll take you home.’

 

Shahni stood up. Shera strode behind her in deep thought, glaring about suspiciously. The words of his comrades echoed in his ears. But what would he accomplish by killing Shahni?

 

‘Shahni?’

 

‘Yes, Shera?’

 

Shera wanted to tell Shahni something of the danger about to descend on her, but how to say it?

 

‘Shahni…’

 

Shahni held her head high. The sky had filled with smoke.

 

‘Yes, Shera…’

 

Shera knew it was fire. Jalalpur was to be set on fire today, and it had been! Shahni was speechless. All her relations were there.

 

They reached the haveli. Shahni stepped into the entryway in a daze. She had no idea when Shera left. She was weak, and she had no support. She lay there for a long time. Afternoon came and went. The haveli was wide open. Today Shahni was not able to rise. As though even her authority was deserting her. The mistress of Shahji’s home … but no, those words no longer held the same magic. As though she’d turned to stone. Evening fell as she lay there, but she was still unable to imagine rising. Suddenly, she started on hearing Rasooli’s voice.

 

‘Shahni, Shahni, I hear the trucks are coming to get you!’

 

‘Trucks?’ Shahni could say nothing more. She clasped her hands together. The news had spread throughout the village by word of mouth.

 

‘Shahni, before today, such a thing has never happened or been heard of,’ said Laah Bibi in her rasping voice. ‘It’s amazing, darkness has fallen.’

 

Shahni stood still as a statue.

 

‘Shahni, we’d never imagined such a thing,’ said Nawab Bibi with loving sadness.

 

How could Shahni say that she herself had imagined it! She could hear Patwari Begoo and Jaildar chatting down below. Shahni understood that the time was nigh. She walked downstairs mechanically but could not cross the threshold. She asked in a hollow tone, ‘Who’s there? Who all is here?’

 

Who wasn’t there today? The entire village, that once upon a time had danced to her orders. They were her tenants, whom she had never considered anything less than relations. But no, today she had no one; today she was alone. This crowd of crowds, among them the Jaats of Kulluwal. Had she not understood this early that morning?’

 

Who knows what Begoo Patwari and Ismail, the mullah from the mosque, thought. They came and stood near Shahni. Begoo was not able to look at Shahni today. He cleared his throat softly, and said, ‘This is the Lord’s will.’

 

Shahni swayed … she felt dizzy and leaned against the wall. Had Shahji left her for this? Begoo gazed towards her inert form, thinking, What is happening to Shahni? But what else could we do? The currency had changed.

 

It was no small matter for Shahni to come out of her house. The entire village stood outside – from the door of the haveli all the way to the gate that Shahji had built for their son’s wedding. That was where all the decisions of the village, all advising took place. The idea of looting this large haveli hadn’t even occurred to the villagers. It wasn’t that Shahni didn’t know anything. She did know, but she was still unaware. She’d never known animosity. She’d never done anyone ill. But what she didn’t know was that now the currency had changed.

 

It was getting late. Daud Khan, the inspector, stiffened and came forward. Seeing the motionless shadow rooted to the spot in the doorway, he hesitated. Was this that same Shahni whose husband, Shahji, had set up tents for him on the banks of the river? Was this that same Shahni who had given golden earrings to his bride during the greeting ceremony? Recently, when he’d come to see her on League business, he’d told her boldly, ‘Shahni, a mosque will be built in Bhago Mal. You must donate three hundred rupees.’ And in her sincere manner she had immediately offered up three hundred rupees, and now, today…

 

‘Shahni!’ Daud Khan called out. He was the inspector, otherwise perhaps tears would have come to his eyes.

 

Shahni was silent, she couldn’t speak.

 

‘Shahni!’ he came near the threshold and spoke softly, ‘It’s getting late, Shahni. If you want to keep something with you, keep it. Have you packed anything? Gold or silver?’

 

Shahni said in an indistinct voice, ‘Gold – silver!’ she hesitated, and then said simply, ‘Gold and silver! Child, that is for all you people, my gold is scattered in each field.’

 

Daud Khan felt ashamed. ‘Shahni, you are alone, you must take something with you. Take some cash. There’s no telling in these times…’

 

‘Times?’ Shahni laughed, tears in her eyes. ‘Daud Khan, will I live to see a better time than this?’ she asked with a deep anguish and reproach.

 

Daud Khan could think of no reply. He got up his courage, and said, ‘Shahni … you must take some cash with you.’

 

‘No, child, I do not desire any cash from this house,’ she replied, her eyes welling with tears. ‘Whatever cash is here will remain here.’

 

Shera stood nearby. When he’d seen Daud Khan standing near Shahni from far off, he’d felt suspicious, worrying he might be cheating Shahni out of something.

 

‘Khan Sahib, it’s getting late…’ he said.

 

Shahni started. Late … how can I be late in my own home? Rebellion surfaced somewhere within her storm of tears. I stand in the home of my ancestors, and these people have been nourished on my crops … no … I accept none of this. But fine … it’s getting late. It’s getting late. These words seemed to echo in Shahni’s ears. It’s getting late. But no, Shahni would not leave weeping, she’d depart elegantly from the home of her ancestors. She would cross with pride this threshold, at which, once upon a time, she’d arrived as a queen. Shahni steadied herself, wiped her eyes with her dupatta and walked over the threshold. The elderly women burst into tears. Their companion in joys and sorrows had been turned out of her home today. She was incomparable! God had given everything her everything, but … times change, times change.

 

Shahni covered her head with her dupatta and gazed for the last time at the haveli through dim eyes. The legacy she had nurtured after Shahji’s death had turned against her today. She pressed her palms together. This was the final glimpse. This was her final bow. Shahni would never again lay eyes on this high haveli again. Her love made her wonder, Why don’t I walk around and look at the whole house? She felt her whole being shrinking, but it wouldn’t do to look small before those to whom she had always seemed so grand. This would be enough. It was all over. She bowed her head. A few teardrops fell upon the threshold from the eyes of Shahni, the daughter-in-law of the house. Then she set out. The tall mansion was left behind. Daud Khan, Shera, Pataari, Jaildar, and everyone else, small and large, children and adults, men and women, all fell in behind her.

 

The trucks were full by now. Shahni dragged herself along. The villagers were wrapped in a cloud of lament. The heart of Shera, the killer Shera, was breaking. Daud Khan stepped forward and opened the door of the truck. As Shahni walked forward, Ismail came up to her and said with a heavy voice, ‘Shahni, please say something. Any blessing that comes from your lips cannot be false.’ He wiped the tears from his eyes with his turban cloth. Shahni held back a sob and said tearfully, ‘May God keep you well, son, and give you joys…’

 

The small gathering fell to weeping. There isn’t the least bit of malice in Shahni’s heart, they thought. But we – we can’t keep Shahni. Shera came forward and touched her feet.

 

‘Shahni, none of us could do anything, it was just the rulers that switched.’

 

Shahni placed a trembling hand on his head and said haltingly, ‘May luck smile upon you, my moon.’ Daud Khan motioned with his hand. Some elderly women embraced Shahni and then the truck took off.

 

The time had come to leave. That haveli, new sitting room, high rooftop room, wide veranda, all passed one by one before Shahni’s eyes. Who knows, was the truck moving or was she? Everyone wept. Daud Khan watched old Shahni motionless. Now where will she go? he wondered.

 

Don’t feel bitter Shahni. We wouldn’t send you off if we could avoid it; it’s just the times, that’s all. The government has switched, the currency has changed…

 

That night, when Shahni reached the camp and lay on the ground in a state of shock, she thought, ‘If the government changes, must the currency change? But I left it all there myself…’

 

And Shahji’s Shahni wept.

 

In the villages nestled in verdant fields nearby it rained blood that night.

 

Perhaps the government was switching over, and the currency was changing.

 

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This was Krishna Sobti’s first short story and was written in July 1948. It appeared as ‘Sikka Badal Gaya Hai’ in Pratap. Daisy Rockwell writes in her tribute to Sobti after her passing earlier this year, the editor of Pratap, ‘acclaimed Hindi poet, novelist and critic Agyeya, was notoriously particular. When he accepted her story without a single edit, Sobti felt enormously proud and emboldened to become a writer.

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Krishna Sobti who passed away on January 25, 2019, wrote 11 novels, exploring a wide array of topics, and numerous short stories and essays, including an entire series written under her male nom de plume ‘Hashmat’. Hashmat’s essays, published in three volumes, consist primarily of biographical sketches of her (mostly) male colleagues. As a trail-blazing feminist, Sobti often wrote about women’s lives and women’s issues, but she also did not wish to be considered a ‘lady writer’. Her male alter ego helped cement her identity as a ‘writer’.

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Daisy Rockwell is a writer, an artist and a translator of Hindi and Urdu literary fiction. Her translation of Krishna Sobti’s final novel, A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, was published by Penguin in February, 2019. Her translations from Hindi of stories by Shrilal Shukla and Arun Prakash, and from Urdu of work by Azra Abbas have appeared in Out of Print.