Translated from Hindi to English by Vidit Singh
Karejwa is set in Benaras on the day of the apocalypse. In order to keep the local-global characteristic of the story intact, I had to decide which words or phrases were better left untranslated. I did not want the readers to feel alienated due to multiple references to particular places, foods and ingredients specific to Benaras. Yet, I wanted to keep a visceral Indian flavour in my translation. So for the majority of the text, I chose to translate commonly known nouns—things such as ‘chandan’, ‘kewda’ or ‘kathal’ into ‘sandalwood’, ‘pandanus’ and ‘jackfruit’—but I chose not to translate things like ‘suji’, ‘khas’ or ‘khoya’ in order to preserve the broader connotations with these foods that might have been lost. (I made exceptions in the case of translating names like ‘Baans Ka Murabba’ into ‘Bamboo Marmalade’ since they are pretty self-explanatory.) In my opinion, it is simple, untranslated words like these that will aid in bringing the reader closer to Benaras, even if it is through a mere phonetic comprehension.
The world is about to end in half an hour. Even Pintoo knows that there are only thirty minutes left. But he’s faced with a dilemma: should he wait for Mummy and Papa to come home or venture out alone in the market to eat the last Gulab-Jamun of his life? Mummy and Papa should have arrived by now. They said they would definitely come back. Since the afternoon, Dadi has been fussing about wanting to pay a last visit to the Ganges before she departs. I don’t think Mummy and Papa would be able to return now that there is such a crowd in the streets. Only half an hour to go.
It’s been on the TV since morning: a huge star will pass right by the Earth at twelve minutes past six in the evening. The name of this star is ITR-688, but the news has been calling it ‘death star’ for the past six months. As soon as it approaches us, the atomic pull that binds all the elements in the world—the attraction between protons and electrons—will obliterate. Three seconds. It will only take three seconds for ITR-688 to cross the Earth, by which time we shall all disband. It will be quite exhilarating, those three seconds. In the first second itself, all of us will split open and scatter like the overturning of a sack stuffed to the brim with marbles. Human, animal, tree, thing, plastic—everything would turn into protons and electrons. This process will emit so much energy in the next second that the nearby planets of Mars and Venus will be scorched away too. The temperature of Mars will soar to 186 degrees Celsius, and Venus will have to wait for seven long years to return to its old daytime temperature of 20 degrees Celsius.
Papa would laugh so much at this news, initially. Pintoo would laugh alongside him. Even Pintoo’s school teachers would partake in the amusement. Nandlal Sir even remarked that one should stop watching the news. Only now would the reckoning have struck Nandlal Sir. The star can be seen approaching as I poke my head outside the window. It looks as though someone pumped air into the moon and made it fifty times bigger. Nobody was ready to accept their fate, even until two days ago when the heat of June had struck December. But the star has now come into clear visibility since yesterday afternoon (Aaj TV broke the news first) and has been multiplying in size ever since. So, in the morning, Papa asked all of us what our last wishes were, because he will try and fulfil them. Tears flushed my mother’s eyes. She said she wanted to visit her school from childhood. So, in the morning, we all went to the Basanta School. Mummy went to her old classroom, sat on the old bench, and among the many names scratched upon it found her own. She told everyone that she had written her name for a boy whose name she doesn’t even remember now. Papa’s final wish was to come home and cook khichri for everyone. Dadi didn’t have any such wishes earlier, but after having the khichri in the afternoon, she wished to bathe in the Ganges. And Pintoo just wanted to have a Gulab-Jamun.
Papa had said, ‘Yes, I’ll make sure you eat one. I will get you the Karejwa straight from Pandepur Chaumani.’ Karejwa is a kind of Gulab–Jamun that is tender and juicy like jelly. The shopkeepers would often bet the customers to not pay any money if the Karejwa doesn’t break on its way from plate to mouth. Pintoo longed to savour the pleasure of having the Karejwa before he finally departs today. But Mummy and Papa are nowhere to be seen. And if they do manage to arrive now, the world would end before reaching Pandepur.
But why are so many people thronging the streets? They should all be sitting at home. Even the people on TV have left for their homes. All of them had finished reading their last piece of news. Some of them left with tears in their eyes, while others were under the spell of a maniacal laughter. What elated Pintoo, however, was the comment of his favourite cricketer, Sanju Rastogi. He said, ‘It’s the last day; live without a care in the world. Have something you like to eat.’
Pintoo was probably three years old when his taste buds were first introduced to a savoury sweet. As a matter of fact, Benares has thousands of sweet shops, and it is said that a total of twenty thousand varieties of sweets are made here. Plenty of sweets, like the Jackfruit Laddoo or the Bamboo Marmalade (yes, the very bamboo that sticks are made of), were not only invented here but could only be found on the streets of Benares. A certain Mr Pathak had even made a barfi out of mud. He would bring the smooth mud from the banks of Ganga at its far end where the water was clean. Then, he would wash and cleanse the clay for days on end in order to blend it with sandalwood and pandanus. He would later mix it with Khas Gulab–Jamun and cook it with jaggery to produce a brown–coloured barfi that keeps the insides cool in the summer. Such are the wonders of this city! If myths are to be believed, then Benares is the oldest city in the world. And it will be right here that Pintoo would bear witness to the last evening of the world.
He wrote on a small parchment of paper: ‘Mummy Papa! I’m leaving to eat Karejwa. Please don’t feel sad. Yours beloved, Pintoo.’ It is already fifteen minutes past six when Pintoo arrives on the street. As a result, he has decided to settle for the Karejwa of Kashi Mishthana stall at the Girjaghar Chauraha nearby instead of going all the way to Pandepur. But there’s a massive crowd towards that side too. People continue to indulge in hooliganism. Some are busy snatching and looting. Why? I don’t know. Either they’re venting their anger at nature or just fulfilling their last wish like Pintoo. Or it could very well be that these people believe the world will not end after all and are thus taking advantage of the chaos around them.
Pintoo is now walking briskly in the midst of the jostling crowd. He walks alongside the drain, straying away from the middle of the road so as to not be crushed by the mob. Pintoo couldn’t explain what a Gulab-Jamun means to him! Dark brown or black from the outside and light brown or red on the inside; a beautiful symphony of milk, khoya, sugar syrup, and suji. First is the taste of khoya, followed by that of milk and sugar syrup. In the background somewhere is the aroma of suji roasted in ghee lightly playing like a flute. Pintoo had read that Gulab–Jamun is a unique dessert also because it’s been crafted by the East and West coming together. Before the Mughals and Mongols arrived here, one would primarily find sweets made only from milk: kheer, rasgulla, milkcake, et cetera. The Mughals brought with them the recipes for halwa and sweets made from flour. Suji ka halwa, Laddoos made from gram flour or Boondi, along with the Jalebi, have thus come to India from across middle Asia. These desserts are prevalent in Iran and Israel even to this day. And the beautiful mixture of these two styles—Mughlai-Arya and Milk-suji—is the Gulab–Jamun. And the celebrated sovereign of the Ganga-Jamuna culture—Pintoo’s Karejwa!
Anyway. The most interesting part of those three seconds though will be the third second. First, everything will fall apart, accompanied by the generation of torrential amounts of energy in the next second. In the third second, however, if plenty of other dice fall right, our scattered protons and electrons will be amalgamated to form a new compound. An uneven, rough piece of rock that weighs nearly five thousand megatons with a surface area equivalent to the size of Uttar Pradesh itself. Scientists have also given it an attractive name: Eternity Ship. A non-living entity that will keep on swimming in space for eternity.
Pintoo’s heart has begun to sink as he faces the church. People have stormed into the place and there is no question of moving forward. Vishwanath Street also begins at the next turn, which I don’t doubt is also flooded with people who want to pay their last respects to god. According to the clock, there are only five minutes left, and Pintoo can only think of how the wooden spoon cuts the warm Jamun, how the vapour trapped inside the Jamun is released magically with a cut, and how it melts on its own once it is placed in the mouth, as if saying: ‘Why do the toil my good sir; I shall dissolve on my own.’
Suddenly a stream of people surges like a wave. But it was Pintoo’s good fortune that it was headed in the direction of the Jamun itself. Only a minute or a half remains as Pintoo stands in front of the shop. From all four directions, the crowd has begun to chant ‘Har Har Mahadev.’ The looting and rioting has stopped; so has the pushing and shoving. Everywhere now is only the chant of one slogan, as though the apocalypse might subside if the whole city prays to Lord Shiva! Have they all forgotten?—to cause doom is Lord Shiva’s primary portfolio.
The slogan does not concern Pintoo however. He fearlessly walks into the Kashi Mishthana and immediately gets to searching for the Gulab–Jamun. Not there on the counter. Not inside the bucket either! Perhaps in the kitchen? Time is coming to an end. The bugle is about to go off. Can’t find it in the kitchen either. 20-19-18-17-16…, Har Har Mahadev, bells from the church. The crowd perhaps is wailing in the same note now. Where are the damn Gulab–Jamuns?
A sad and dejected Pintoo was turning to leave just when, like the strike of lightning, he remembers the small cauldron kept under the box of Golgappas. Of course! Late at night, when they were finished in the bucket, Gulab–Jamuns were found only in that cauldron. Pintoo removes the lid to find at least thirty or forty of them inside. He holds one in his hands. ITR-688 is so large now that it seems closer to Pintoo than the Gulab-Jamun itself. It may be the final second now. The Gulab-Jamun is moving closer towards the mouth. The anticipation causes Pintoo’s eyes to close. A fierce storm rages inside his body. Everything is drowning. Pintoo realises that he won’t be able to eat the Gulab-Jamun after all, but he’s happy because in the next instant, there won’t be much distinction left between him and the Gulab–Jamun. They’ll both just be protons and electrons, floating in the air to be conjoined in the third second, becoming a single brick of the Eternity Ship. Contentment has taken over Pintoo’s face, as if he has just savoured a fresh Karejwa from Pandepur.
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