thesamenight_img1x.jpg“The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.”
~Pablo Neruda

I was young when I first read those lines by Pablo Neruda, from a poem that I still hold as one of the best I have ever read in my life, and probably ever will, I had a different perception of human emotions. I was of course a boy of ten, less scarred by the claws of nostalgia, and found the assertion valid enough. How can two humans be the same at two different nights, even if they remained pals or lovers?

Growing older, I would find places have no meaning without people, in that they always remind me of being or not being with someone, in the years past and present. But, as Neruda points out, someone of one time may not be the someone of other moments. People keep finding people in husbands, wives, families, children, friends and neighbours, in ways that rearrange the maps of their lives irreversibly. In that sense, someone I may be looking for in someone may have vanished for ever, leaving behind a familiar topology of an alien landscape. The same night whitening the same trees…

Then people keep going away physically on and on, across longitudes, latitudes and oceans, across lines of Equator and Greenwich. And when they come back they are like Lazarus, they are truly not there. People cross that last line too, of that indelible darkness, and die. At times in the noon of their lives, felled by cancer or meningitis, or axes and guns of the Jihadists, or minced into pulp on the tarmac by an eight-ton truck.  Then there is a someone-shaped black hole in the universe.

I also hate when places change faces, as they will all inevitably do. Couple this with the disappearance of people, physical or metaphysical, and what you have is a place sans soul. I trust the feeling is called saudade in Portuguese.

Early in my childhood, my father took the family to our village. Among many things, I became fond of a circular hut in a clearing east of the village, nestling under a peepal tree. The hut belonged to a family that had branched off from an ancestor we had shared generations ago. While there was no explicit rancour among us, there was a palpable undercurrent of loathing between the offshoots of the bloodline. An old woman clad in a white saree, because she was a widow, I was told, was forever crouched in a cot, and was more or less a fixture along with the hut and the tree. Her grandniece would visit her with food and water from time to time, and it was definitely to the latter I was drawn to when I found out the hut. We sat on the cot facing the old woman; my dangling legs began waving like pendulums.

“Stop that!” Those words were more hissed than rasped by the toothless mouth. I noticed her grandniece had pulled her legs up and was sitting cross-legged like a demure child would, covering her knees in the mauve coloured frock. She had big, black eyes in her round face and short, bob hair covering the forehead. The peepal leaves were susurrating a ceaseless music, even though the corn ears stood still in the fields; the sun shone brightly over the top. A scarecrow with a head made of soot black pitcher stood leaning to a side, an old broom drooped from his bamboo-stick arm.

The old woman broke into a story, unsolicited by her paltry audience. Perhaps she wanted to impress the new visitor; perhaps it was a daily chore. The story was about a prince and a fairy who was cursed to be a poor girl. They became friends and grew up together whereupon the prince was whisked away by the generals of the king.

The matter of my visit to the hut was discussed among the elders of the home and it was generally agreed to be a harmless adventure. I visited the hut and the ladies young and old twice more before we returned to the city. The next summer we went there the hut was still there and so were the pair of the white-clad old woman and her grandniece, who had grown a bit shy and had lost a tooth but had somehow grown more charming.

The old lady though seemed frozen in time, and so were the stories most of which were spun upon the common theme. I had carried several rolls of candies called ‘Poppins’ and gave her one each day. I also learned to time my visits in the day so as to make sure I met the grandniece. Once, I believe she was sick and a grumpy greying man appeared with the food instead. He cast a sarcastic look at me and left soon without so much as an introduction after dropping a tote bag in the old woman’s lap. The peepal tree was swaying noisily in the strong summer wind that day. The little girl was not at rest, nor was the tree.

The hut was gone without a trace the next summer we visited the village. The ‘white widow’ had died the previous winter, unattended in her thatch, and with her passing the hut was pulled down too. And although her grandniece was still there, tucked somewhere under the clay tiles of her huge family home, there was nowhere I could have met her. Since ours was a pucca house, I would slip onto the terrace and look wistfully at the brown earthen spires adorning her housetop. It was perhaps then I had felt the first pangs of longing.

Our family wouldn’t visit the village for the next few years because of my father’s transfer to a farther location. I had grown bigger and wiser when the opportunity presented itself again. But the little girl’s family had sold off all their land and belongings to move to Delhi permanently. I didn’t have the heart to visit the peepal tree where once stood the round hut meaning so much to me. But on a particularly listless night, I slipped out of the house and found my way to the tree. It was a half-moon night and the peepal stood high, all its leaves quivering and whispering. But it didn’t say anything to me.

44 thoughts on “The Same Night

  1. Loved that. I can see the Peepal and the crouching old lady and the toothless smile of the grandniece. Life flows on swift; Sun sets and darkens the waters. There may or may not be a next morning….

    1. Come to think of it, I had not planned to write about the peepal tree when I had started. I am glad I could convey what I ended up writing. That is a poetic comment, Balan Saheb: I am indebted.

  2. Over and over again we must learn impermanence…something we know and yet seem hard-wired to wish otherwise. Such beauty and longing here, and so well written….I have read it and re-read it with a lump in the throat.

    “There is a someone-shaped black hole in the universe” …I will remember this always, I think;—it is such a perfect line of poetry.

    1. Writing a post seems to be the only way to spur you back in action, old friend! There is a Bruce Goodman shaped hole in the Blogsphere. Thanks a ton for encouraging my fumbling pen.

  3. Uma Shankar, this is beautifully written and two Hindi songs came to mind as I read this, the first one “Bhooli Hui Yaadon, Mujhe Itna Na Sataao” – the late greats Rajendra Krishna, Mukesh and Madan Mohan and “Karoge Yaad To Har Baat Yaad Aayegi” – Bhupinder, Mirza Shauq and Khayyam. Your story is a song in itself…..

    1. I do love those songs you have mentioned, especially the one from Bazaar, it could easily mist my face if it were allowed that. As for the story, when pain becomes larger than life, it becomes a song.

      I am fully with your appeals to both Bruce and Cynthia.

  4. Such a poignant and wistful story from your youth, Umashankar! “We, of that time, are no longer the same.” There is much truth in that line by Pablo Neruda. How often I have reflected on people and places from my youth and to go back again, if I can, it is never the same as the memories I held. This is expressed so well in your poetic lines…”It was a half-moon night and the peepal stood high, all its leaves quivering and whispering. But it didn’t say anything to me.” Perhaps that is as it always should be, that there is no more to be said because the romance of nostalgic memories is that they are unique snapshots forever frozen in their time just “to be” as they were at their moment of creation. Beautifully written, a story and memory to treasure!

    1. Yes, Madilyn, it is never the same, sometimes even when the same people are present. You have summed it beautifully with your words, “romance of nostalgic memories is that they are unique snapshots forever frozen in their time just “to be”.

  5. The susurrating of the peepal leaves…the woman in white saree telling a story…your description made me feel the moments. We often forget to enjoy such fugacious pleasures of life. But, you did, and, that too, in a way that left a lasting impression on your life. 🙂

  6. I keep your posts to read at leisure as I always expect to unearth a treasure. And I have never been disappointed. Thanks for such a lovely gift to your readers.

    “People keep finding people in husbands, wives, families, children, friends and neighbors, in ways that rearrange the maps of their lives irreversibly. In that sense, someone I may be looking for in someone may have vanished for ever..” This thought will dwell in me for some time now…

  7. Exquisitely penned. A true masterpiece about time and its mystique that will stand the test of time.:) Lots of little gems in this brilliant piece.

  8. A fan of your writing style I have always been Umashankar Ji and this one tells me that I have not been wrong –I find this one is the simplest of you writings depicting and explaining the most complex human emotions not only relationships and feelings of the romantic kind but also those of the kinds required of humans to practice and execute and the beautiful description of the natural surroundings and their contributory importance for the exact screenplay —beautifully vivid story —thanks for sharing

    1. Sometimes it takes the simplest of words to transfer the melancholia onto a piece of paper, sometimes all the words in a dictionary fail to do the same put together. I feel fortunate to have been able to touch your feelings at times. Thank you ever so much, Rajni Ji.

  9. A very nice story, makes me think of the many aching moments I get when I visit and think of my home town.
    Unlike your story when I go back to my hometown everything is still in the exact same place, my old house is still sitting there, still the same color, the same doors and windows, the same trees in the same place and the garden with the same shape as before, as are all the other houses around it. What is missing are all the people I used to know, most have passed on and the rest I no longer have any contact with.

    1. I can feel your pain, my friend, that hollow feeling in your gut when you stand before your old house, the same doors and windows, the same trees in the same place and the garden with the same shape as before… but missing people.

  10. Once again you took us to the countryside and its people and another little story that will refuse to leave my mind for some time. Your words have created vivid pictures again and I feel I have actually seen that hut and the old woman in white and her grand niece.
    And the story — soul stirring, USP.

    I guess we can all relate to this piece because we’ve all seen places change without certain people in them. And that hole that they leave there, is one that another cannot fill.

    I feel so blessed to be able to read your work. It’s so, so, so beautiful.

  11. ‘ The same night’ and yet so different. How time takes away all that it gives! My Sunday evening is enriched with your beautiful narrative. Keep feeding us those thoughts always 🙂

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