Down memory lane

Days of Longing
Nirmal Verma, translated by Krishna Baldev Vaid
Penguin
2013, pp 224
299

The red tin roof
Nirmal Verma, translated by Kuldeep Singh
Penguin
2013, pp 241
299

Celebrated Hindi novelist Nirmal Verma earned many honours, among them India’s highest literary award, the Jnanpith. In his fiction, he used exquisite descriptions of a realistic outer world to reflect the complex emotions and thoughts of his characters. These two smoothly translated novels are welcome introductions to Verma’s brilliant work for readers unable to enjoy them in the original Hindi. 

Verma’s protagonists are deeply sensitive, introspective beings throbbing with vivid inner lives. The young Indian student of Days of Longing is compelled to rough out the bitter cold of Prague because he can’t afford to go home for the winter vacation. His friends are other expatriate students from far corners of the world, who have stayed back in an icy alien city for the same reason.

He has a brief but intense love affair with Raina, an Austrian tourist, who engages him as her interpreter and guide. The brightness of the world outside, “like a clean blank page in a dirty notebook,” reflects the transient warmth and beauty of their brief encounter. The lovers try to “squeeze the last drop of warmth and life” out of their “false spring” days. The beauty of Prague comes alive through Verma’s glowing descriptions. The lovers’ perceptions change as they pass together through picturesque places and buildings, the Little Quarter and the Palace on the highest point in the city.

As they grow emotionally closer, the protagonist feels “as if I was looking at many things through her eyes, for the first time.” Raina too, feels “as I walk with you, that I am not I, that there never was a war, that... there is no Vienna behind me.” Her painful past and hidden agonies are sensed by her guide and lover. “I felt the presence of someone other than... us. Someone who was there with us all the time.” For a brief moment of love and togetherness, they tremble “on the last fringe of fear, about to drown in each other.” The novel ends with a hint of optimism. When the inevitable parting comes, the protagonist retains memories of a significant, beautiful moment.

“Listen, don’t you believe?”

“In something that is not there?”

“That is not there but for you?”

The Red Tin Roof portrays a darker, lonelier world, where Kaya grows from a little girl to the cusp of womanhood. In this novel too, the inner and outer worlds coalesce seamlessly. The scenes and settings do not appear to be constructed “by deliberate choice or design... an unwilled yet unquestioned part of” her life. Kaya shares a room with her younger brother Chhote, in their isolated house in the Himalayan foothills. A few people, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and servants flit in an out of Kaya’s life. But she is isolated, and shows “a vague ache, a bleakness in her heart.” She is almost “a stranger who happened to have taken refuge here.”

There are some inconsistencies in Kaya’s characterisation. She is too young and innocent to understand that her mother is unwell and growing because of pregnancy. Yet her solitude and heartache seem mature. There are many beautiful, memorable passages. “Her sorrows, like bits of straw, lined the eyrie in which she wrapped herself.” She is haunted, among other things, by the death of her beloved dog, Ginny, and by her own unwitting complicity in it.

“Beyond the door was the moonlight beyond the mountains and the noisy rush of bushes along the narrow-gauge railway track... that splash of pure white as Ginny opened her mouth one last time between the rails, her tail beating in fear, minutes before she died.” As Kaya sifts through her “teeming basket of memories, extracting them one by one,” she comes across as more of an adult than a young child. Meeta, Raina’s little son in Days of Longing, also seems like a tiny adult whom childhood has passed by.

Days of Longing, glowing with the sparks of an exquisite but ephemeral love, is overall a livelier and more positive novel than the gloomier The Red Tin Roof. The protagonist of Days of Longing is a more convincing character compared to Kaya. Unlike the much younger Kaya, he has his moments of youthful liveliness, and flashes of self-deprecatory humour. He wears a cheap duffel coat to beat the chill, and is amused at the thought that it may make passing strangers mistake him for a gangster. He ventures to make the most of stolen moments with Raina by inviting her to dance with him on a frozen lake. “If anyone had seen us, dancing with duffel coat and gloves and all, they would have considered us crazy.”
Both novels are beautifully poetic and memorable reads.

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