Vantage point

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Mhais by P.L. "PuLa" Deshpande Part 1

Previous PuLa translations -

My Newfound Spirituality
Mi Ani Mazha Shatrupaksha
Chitale Master
Sakharam Gatne, Part 2
Mumbaikar and Punekar, Nagpurkar
Travel Preparations from Apurvai
Bhau, what is alcohol, bhau?

This is a short story by PuLa called Mhais. My ballsiest translation attempt yet, because this is one of everyone's favorite PuLa stories, and even the idea of translating it might impossible and absurd. I feel a bit like Zack Snyder :). But anyway, here goes.

Mhais is the marathi word for buffalo, and as you read the story, you will realize why it plays a central role. PuLa’s actual verbal recitation of this story is arguably his best one, because of all the regional dialects he managed to mimic. Plus the story has a lot of characters and he was able to voice their moods and states of mind perfectly. Needless to say, a lot is lost in translation. But this is one of my favourite stories, so over the last few weeks I have been translating it bit-by-bit. By the way, I retained the word “mhais” instead of using the English word, because Mhais without mhais is just not Mhais, if you know what I mean.

This incident happened towards the fag end of May in the 5 a.m. Ratnagiri-Mumbai State Transport (ST) bus. The 5 a.m. bus started right on time at 5 a.m. By that I mean the engine started making noises right on time. But by the time it completed its teething pains and reached the highway, it was 7 a.m. Usually this distance can be covered in 7 minutes. Individual differences within passengers, and then passengers’ collective differences with the ST made sure that the first half an hour was filled with a lot of absorbing arguments.

Meanwhile I was getting extremely jealous of the passenger sitting next to me. Right from the moment he took his seat, he had managed to convince himself without a shred of doubt that my left shoulder was a complimentary pillow offered to him by the ST. Finally at 6:30 a.m. when the bus finally got going with a loud rumble of the engine, he woke up with a start and said to no one in particular in a very annoyed voice,

“Damn it! Just leave me alone and go to sleep, honey!”

Man is a creature of habit after all. After this puzzling utterance, he looked around for a few seconds, and went back to sleep with his head on my shoulder. While my left shoulder had been occupied by this creature, a hand was resting on my right shoulder. Assuming that it belonged to the guy on my right, I gave him a few dirty looks. But both his hands were busy holding to a jar of pickles in his lap. Then how did he sprout a third hand? I made some futile attempts to crane my neck and solve this mystery, and then gave up.

An entire family had taken refuge at my feet. The breadwinner of the family had placed both his hands on my thighs with his palms outstretched. And the homemaker was efficiently ensuring that the crying of the kid in her lap kept growing louder by the moment. They had placed a long broomstick between my legs and swept away any objections I raised about its obtrusiveness towards my nose. A while later I came to know that the esteemed homemaker had a tendency to throw up in buses. So I sat there praying that I would not in the trajectory of any projectiles that may emanate from her mouth.

Every few moments, detailed awareness of the bumps and potholes in the road was being felt in that part of the body where it should not have been felt. Even in this uncomfortable position I could not help thinking up a metaphor for the bus – that of a huge and speedy dumpling stuffed with the spicy mix of people and luggage.

In all this commotion, it would have been a miracle if the bus conductor had actually NOT messed up his calculations about the money. He tried to count the number of people in the bus a few times, and then gave up. Some khaki-clad ST employees gathered around to assist him in his book-keeping. And after a lot of investigation, it was revealed that one gentleman had bought a children’s ticket for himself. That led to a bit of feuding between the parties involved…. and feuding full of more than a few F’s and U’s and a lot of words that would have been dinged out if broadcast on the radio.

Right then, the bell in the bus went ding. The engine roared briefly, made a few demurring noises, and went silent. It kicked back into life and vibrated for some good measure. The engine displayed an admirable ability to produce a wide array of sounds. It would whistle and hum. It would screech and coo. At one point of time, I am pretty sure I heard the engine perform the start of Beethoven’s fifth – gn-gn-gngnnnn…gn-gn-gnnnnn…..gngngngngngngnnnnn…gngngngngngnnn..gnnngngngnn… gngngnnnn..gnnngnn….HISSSSSSSSSS…. shutting down right at the crescendo.

“Such problems never happened when the Brits were running things,” one man opined loudly. And that lead to a panel discussion of the merits and demerits of Indian independence vis-à-vis the public transport system. A man dressed in khadi took it upon himself to chair the discussion, without any requests to do so.

The discussion continued regardless of the engine’s cacophony. Speaking of cacophony, remember the man sleeping on my left shoulder? He had now started snoring in a rhythm not very dissimilar to the engine. Of course, everyone was sleepy. The bus was scheduled to leave at 5 a.m. so everyone had woken up at an ungodly hour and gotten ready. So the content of the majority’s complaints was not that the bus had been delayed, but that they could have slept for 10 minutes at home.

Meanwhile, the panel discussion petered out and the moderator, i.e. the khadi clad man, took a book out of his jute bag and started pretending to read. He was seated on the conductor’s reserved seat, so he started taking stock of the situation in an unreserved manner. Before we boarded the bus, a lot of the ST employees had politely shaken hands with him and had nicely offered him the conductor’s seat. Sharper tacks among the passengers had then realized that his khadi garb was capable of covering up a lot more than just his body.

Finally after about two hours of trials and tribulations, the engine confidently roared into life and the bus got going. And as crowded as the bus was, people settled down into their seats for the journey, and started accruing their overdue forty winks. Finally when the bus went past the Hatkhamba crossing and got on the highway headed towards Mumbai, the only awake person representing the passengers was me, and the only awake person representing the ST organization was the driver. The rest of that travelling ecosystem was fast asleep.

Even the manner of sleeping differed from person to person. Some people, due to the roads bumpiness were alternately nodding their heads as if to say “yes yes yes yes” and shaking their heads as if to say “no no no no”. In other words, not quite unlike India’s foreign policy….. ambiguous. Some people were just tasting their sleep. Others were swallowing their sleep. Some were sleeping with an obviously high amount of determination. Others, with their eyes open, were trying to summon back the sleep that had slipped away from them.

After a while, the smell of the jackfruits and mangoes people were carrying with them, assimilated with the stink of the dried fish others were carrying, and those two formed a formidable coalition with the aroma of the flowers stuck in the hair of female passengers, and a potent scent spread all over the bus, seemingly waking up most of us. Furthermore, the road from Ratnagiri to Mumbai has a lot of twists and turns, which makes sleeping in a practically suspension-less bus almost impossible. Our bus-world yawned and stretched into life. Hard candy, chips, chocolates and other snacks started changing hands.

Now let me update you on the dramatic personae of this epic tale. The khadi-clad politician had also caught up on his sleep, and he buried his head into a thick tome. Sitting in front of me was a buttoned down shirt, and next to it a Chinese collar kurta. Next to the kurta was an almost-pretty almost-petite young woman. Her family was probably taking her to Mumbai to meet prospective grooms. Next to them was Usman Bhai and his “phemilee”, i.e. his daughter and son-in-law who had come to visit him for the summer. Usman Bhai was going with them to Mumbai to keep them company. Next to them was young Madhu Manushtey, a guy who seemed like the dictionary entry for “whippersnapper”. He was going back after his college vacations to Mumbai to start the next semester. And most of the other people were workers, clerks and other assorted salaried class types who had just used up their quota of leaves, and were returning to Mumbai with their wife and kids.

I, on the other hand was returning to Mumbai, as usual wondering “why the hell did I come here?”. While going to Konkan, “why the hell am I going there?” and while returning from Konkan, “why the hell did I come here?”; apart from these two, I find it difficult to have any other thoughts during my Konkan visits. Anyway, the whole bus was now more or less awake. Even my left shoulder had been vacated by occupying forces.

And suddenly I heard, “Mhais, mhais mhais!!!!!!!!”, people were yelling the same thing in different voices from the front of the bus. Immediately after that, a sound that the letters from A to Z are incapable to describing – the sound of brakes being slammed very hard. And holding on dearly their noses and their lives, fifty or so men, women, children, and their trunks, suitcases, barrels, bed-sets, jackfruits, mangoes, brooms, ropes, tools,….. and an infinite number of purses… were rudely displaced from their respective locations. After that, you can imagine the scene. Some had their hands around someone else’s necks and shoulders, others had landed at someone else’s feets or laps. A few seconds passed in these rather unorthodox poses and positions, before everyone restored their dignities. And after a few more seconds, we all had a collective epiphany – a mhais had been run over by the wheels of our bus.

The driver had already jumped down from the bus. A lot of passengers also started rushing outside through the back door. A big crowd of passengers started heading towards the front wheels of the bus where the mhais was. Suddenly, a group of about a dozen or so women from the nearby fields gathered around the mhais with their few dozen children, and they all started wailing at the top of their voices. The mob around the mhais was so big, that I couldn’t quite gauge the precise nature of the relationship that had formed between the mhais and the bus’ wheels.

In all that commotion, I was still able to sneak a peek at the face of the mhais. It seemed like she was trying to come to terms with all the wailing and crying that was going on around her. Plus she was nodding her head once in a while. You know connoisseurs at a concert or an opera nod their head in appreciation when the singer performs a particularly admirable vocal feat? It seemed as if the mhais too was periodically expressing its admiration whenever one of the ladies or the children let out a particularly amazing cry.

As I craned my neck a bit more, I saw a stream of blood flowing from the side of the mhais’ back. Which disconcerted me a little. The sight of blood makes me feel like I am going to faint. Even the blood from a swatted mosquito is enough to make me dizzy… and here was an entire mhais! Of course, I wasn’t the only one squeamish about blood. Because I wasn’t the only one from the bus who first ran enthusiastically towards the front wheels of the bus, and then made a swift retreat at the sight of the mhais.

In about five minutes or so, the number of voices in the crying chorus started dwindling. When the accident happened, all these ladies had for some reason assumed that it was their mhais that had been hit by the bus, and started bawling. As they took a closer look, the ladies started realizing one by one that the mhais didn’t belong to them, so they got up and went back to whatever they were doing. Pretty soon, not a single crying lady was there at the scene.

Then the driver, conductor, khadi-clad politician, and other enterprising passengers surged ahead for closer scrutiny. They crowded around the mhais and started examining the scene.

“The mhais is still alive!” came the first update.

Then suddenly some of then started yelling, “Water! Water! Get some water!”

A gentleman who worked in an American company in Mumbai offered his thermos. For some reason, this man had made sure that he had informed everyone on the bus that he works in an “American company”. As he started advancing towards the mhais with his thermos, one guy stopped him and said,

“Heh. Just this much water? What good is that to this huge animal? Hehehe!”, and promptly chugged down just this much water himself.

“Your thermos is really good, by the way” he further added. “Must be American!” came his backhanded compliment.

The driver and conductor realizing there wasn’t much they could do but wait, ambled away to a corner and lit their cigarettes. Meanwhile passengers started splashing water on the mhais. And boy, did they splash! They splashed so much water, that if the passengers hadn’t decided to keep some of the water for their remaining journey and stopped, then the cause of death for the mhais in the autopsy would not have been “hit by a bus”, but rather, “drowning”.

After a while, the animal’s actual owner reached the site with his wife. The bawling started once again.

“Oh my chandi… my poor chandi… used to give 10 liters of milk everyday!”

10 litres? Buffalos are known to be very productive of course. But considering that this mhais was from Konkan, my guess is that the figure 10 litres probably referred to the sum total of all the milk she had given in her lifetime.

Now everyone gathered around the owner and his wife. The buttoned down shirt from the bus turned out to be a doctor. He started suggesting medicine for the mhais’ wounds.

“Hmpf! I won’t let anyone touch her!” the owner roared. “Let the police come and then we’ll see what to do about this.”


None of the passengers had thought about this possibility.

“Yes yes. That’s right. That’s right. It’s an ak-shi-den. Unless the police come and an FIR is filed, nothing can be done when there’s an ak-shi-den.” said a jacket with a black cap.

Police.. FIR.. as these known terms started making rounds, some experienced and perspicacious passengers took down their bedding sets from the top of the bus. Walked over to an empty shed by the side of the road, and spread their mattresseses.

“Hmmm….Bagunana… we are assured of a 4 hour nap now, what do you say?” said Jhampya Damle as he languidly unfolded his body on the mattress.

“4 hours? Are you crazy, Jhampya? Remember, when the bus ran over a chicken last year near Hatkhamba, we were sitting around for 3 hours. A chicken! And here we have a full grown mhais. If a chicken took three hours, then a mhais will…? You do the math!” Bagunana said as he lay down, “We’ll be here till evening for sure.”

Meanwhile the sun was getting brighter, and people started looking for shade to take refuge in. Unknown people in an unknown place. Then some of them got together to look for water, cigarettes and snacks started changing hands. Everyone made themselves comfortable.

"You know, if the wound keeps bleeding like this, the mhais will die in about 15-20 minutes," Dr. Buttoned down shirt was trying to convince the politician.

"I don't care even if she dies," the owner overheard him and shouted, "but if I don't make the ST people regret this blunder of theirs, I won't go by the name Dharma Mandavkar again!"

Some new information for us all - the mhais owner's name was Dharma Mandavkar.

Suddenly, Usman Bhai caught hold of a kid, sent him up a blackberry tree nearby, and got a basketful of blackberries plucked. Then some clever passengers sent Usman Bhai up a gum tree, as the expression goes, and got their own tongues blackened. That lead to another panel discussion - this time on the medicinal value of blackberries. Chairing the discussion, who else, but the khadi politician. As soon as familiar words like diabetes, hypertension and so on started being bandied around, the doctor joined the panel.

"Eh? No no. What are you all talking about - blackberries and all? Nah, nothing in them." Doctor opened his mouth. So far it had been busy eating those blackberries.

For about five minutes or so, he delivered a jargon-filled and unintelligible monolgue, and the only useful information to come out of it was that he was a Doctor of Homoeopathy.

"Does your homoeopathy work on a mhais?" a curious mind asked.

"Don't be absurd. How can homoeopathy work on a mhais," came a dissenting voice from the corner.

"Why won't it work?" the curious mind bristled. "If it can work on humans, it must definitely work on mhais. You just need to follow the dietary restrictions sincerely, am I right, Doctor? But I must say, your homoeopathy's dietary restrictions are very hard to follow. What do you guys have against coffee?"

"Coffee has a toxin in it named tanin," said someone else, definitely a teacher. Because giving such an obviously wrong piece of information with suchunshakeable confidence is something only teachers can do. This was the same guy who used my shoulder like a pillow.

"Who told you coffee has tanin in it? That's not correct", the curious mind responded, "Coffee has coffin or something like that. Am I right, Doctor?"

The doctor spat out a blackberry seed and was about to say something when,

"What nonsense are you talking about?" the teacher now bristled, "Coffin? Coffin is the Christian peoples' funerary box!!"

The teacher said the words "funerary box" with such self-righteous emphasis, that it summarily ended the debate on what coffee exactly has in it.And people returned to the virtues to blackberries.

That's when we saw half a dozen men walking towards us with a few cots in their hands. None of us had expected the villagers' to be so kind and considerate to us stranded passengers that they would strive to make arrangements for us to not just sit, but also lie down and sleep.As soon as he saw this, the whippersnapper Madhu Manushte found his voice,

"In these thankless modern times, there only shreds of human kindness left are in villages." He had now gathered a small audience around him, among them the almost-pretty almost-petite girl and her father. That girl was, for no apparent reason, staring at Madhu while batting her eyelids at a faster pace than usual.That spurred Madhu on even more.

"Is that the tobacconist Manushte's kid?" Bagunana turned on his side, and asked Jhampya Damle sprawled next to him.

But Jhampya had fallen into a deep slumber by now. So some third guy piped up,

"Think so. Attends college in Mumbai I think"

"Tchah, nowadays even janitors go to college." Bagunana fired an unnecessarily catty salvo, and closed his eyes.

Meanwhile, as the villagers with the cots got closer to us, Madhu kept getting even more fired up.

"In today's world human beings have become so distant from each other. But that distance, that chasm is wholly absent in villages." he looked from one face to another in his audience, ending up at the almost-petitie girl's face. "You know what makes these villages special? They have hospitality. They have courtesy. And they have...."

Madhu wanted to say they have something else and complete a rhetorical trio, but could not think of a word that would fit. So he just cleared his throat for a long time, and joined the others in looking at the approaching cots.

But when the cot-carriers started walking, not towards the people gathered, but towards the mhais, everyone was taken aback. No one had thought that the human kindness in villages has evolved to such an extent that they would ensure a mhais' comfort by having her lie down on cots. So all passengers, curious to see how the villagers would pick up the mhais and put her on the cots, gathered around the bus once again.But we weren't really fortunate enough to see such a spectacle.

Instead the villagers put the cots up sideways, put blankets over them, and created a small canopy for the mhais. We were told that this whole effort had been made to make sure that the mhais isn't exposed to the harsh sun for too long, and that flies donn't have a go at her wounds.

After seeing the mhais so comfortably esconced in her lair, passengers again started discussing their own fate. Some of them turned to the driver and conductor.

"Umm... Mister... Mister Driver... Mister Driver... when will the bus get going again?"

"What can I do unless the mhais is moved?" he shot back curtly.

"I won't let anyone touch the Mhais!!" Dharma Mandavkar the owner yelled.

"So what are we supposed to do? Just sit around here baking in the sun?" one passenger yelled back.

"And if my mhais dies, then who will pay me the compensation for it? Tell me!" Dharma countered."The police will get here, file an FIR, and then we'll see what happens. What do you all say?" he turned to other villagers and asked. They all nodded and murmurred in support.

"But how will police come to a small village like this?" someone asked.

"There's a police outpost two kilometres from here." Dharma said.

"Why would there be police in the Post Office?" the teacher, obviously. Who else would ask a question like that?

"Huh! A post office is one thing and an outpost is another thing. City gentleman folks like you don't even know such a simple thing?" Dharma jabbed the teacher.

"But..but.." teacher went into face-saving mode, "how will the police know there's ben an accident here?"

"Arjuna has gone to call them." Dharma said.

"Arjuna! Tchahh! Why did you send Arjuna?" a geriatric villager whinged, "Useless bum! He'll sit there playing checkers with the cops."

"What could I do? No one else was willing to go?" Dharma complained, "What else should I do? Leave the mhais here and go myself?And if these people shrewdly move the mhais aside and get going, then what?"

"Yes yes, you are right," another villager jumped to his defence. "You can't trust these slimey ST people."

"Come on, be polite. We are good people." a passenger took offence.

"I am sorry sir, no offence but you really have no business saying anything here." Dharma said to him, "I have taken out a mortgage on this mhais. A bit mortgage. Hasn't even been six months. And now her neck bone is broken and..."

"No no, her neck bone isn't broken," another passenger hepfully interrupted, "A while back I saw her move her neck"

"That she might have moved a little out of habit." Dharma replied. "But that doesn't mean the bone isn't broken. The whole bus ran over her neck!"

"Mister, if the whole bus had run over her neck, the next would have snapped in two. What bullshit are you talking about?" The ever-intensifying sun and ever-intensifying hunger was now making the passengers even more frustrated. "The bumper hit the mhais slowly and she fell down, that's all. Minor injury. No broken bones or anything."

"If it's such a minor injury, why is she just lying there? Huh? Tell me!" another villager piped up, "I felt it with my own hands. Her backbone is completely shattered!"

"Eh? You are saying her back bone. This guy says her neckbone. Stick to one story." Now the passengers opened up a united front.

"So? If such a big bus hit her, you expect just one bone to be broken?" the villagers batallion fired back.

"But tell me, if so many of her bones are broken, won't the mhais be yelping in pain right now?" a passenger said.

"Maybe her tongue bone is broken too!" someone wisecracked. A titter of laughter in the passenger group.

"Don't crack jokes. This is serious." Dharma roared, "If it was your mhais, you would have understood. Poor thing, used to give 15 liters of milk everyday".

"Yeah right. When has a mhais from Konkan ever produced that much milk?" another passenger chimed in.

"It's a Kathiawari mhais" Dharma replied.

"Hahh! This scrawny thing and Kathiawari? What bull! Kathiawaris are much heftier than this. If a bus bumped into a Kathiawari, the bus would break, not the mhais." came the retort.

"This silly discussion has gone on long enough." one passenger took center stage. "Why wait for the police and lengthen it longer? I say, let's all chip in with donations of a few rupees and gather some money for her treatment. And we can be on our way."

As soon as he heard the word "donation", Jhampya Damle sprung up from his reverie and shouted,

"Donations? Why all these expenses? There's a government hospital for cattle at Chiplun. The mhais can be treated there. How far is Chiplun from here?"

"22 miles."

"Hmm, then let's put the mhais in a bullock cart and take her there." Jhampya continued to come up with ways to avoid parting with any money, "Or..or... put her on top of the bus and we'll take her there."

"But why? But why?" Madhu Manushte deserted the passenger ranks and joined the villagers, "You can not hoodwink them just because they are poor villagers. This man has suffered a damage. ST should compensate him for that."

"So until then, should we just sit around here?" a passenger asked.

'That's not any of the mhais owner's business. That is your own business. Your own." he said, again stealing a glance at the almost-petite one.

"But why do they let their mhais wander on to the road like that?"

"Hey, the road is public property, not your private one." Dharma said, "We'll let a mhais wander or a yak wander. Who the hell are you to push us around?"

"I admit that everyone is being very inconvenienced. But it is not right to look at individual conveniences and inconveniences at an occasion like this. Anf furthermore...."

Madhu might have continued in this sanctimonious vein for a lot longer, but someone shouted,

"Look look! The cops are coming!"

to be continued

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