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‘Fifty-five Pillars, Red Walls’: Classic Hindi novel set in girls’ college gets English translation

Sushma again ran her finger over the copper plate on the table. The letters of her name were carved into the shiny new surface. Suddenly her name sounded sweet and musical. She pushed the nameplate to one side and began sorting through the piles of mail on the tray. She glanced outside the blinds and felt impressed at her new status. An enticing world lay beyond the fresh yellow slats – she caught glimpses of colourful dupattas and innocent dreamy faces and heard the laughter of carefree young voices. The chaprassi sat on a stool outside, his khaki uniform glowing in the sunlight.

Sushma’s heart was flooded with the laughter and gladness of the world. She recalled the tortuous paths she’d travelled in her life thus far, each turn full of fresh hope. She’d forgotten how many bends in the road she’d already traversed. Now she’d reached the point when one turns to look back, and her former aspirations seemed hollow in the sharp relief of reality; her delicate dreams had withered and faded.

The bell echoed through the hallways. Vibrant dupattas were pulled tight and exuberant laughter grew subdued in the solemnity of the classroom. She returned to sorting the mail. At the moment she couldn’t quite remember which girls lived in which blocks. She made six piles of letters and rang the bell for the chaprassi.

Hari Singh, the old hostel chaprassi, came and took the mail away. She picked up her register to go to class, and had just come outside when two chaprassis saluted her at once. Until last year, these two had fled from the mere mention of work, and – far from saluting – wouldn’t even work for Sushma if she tipped them. She felt as though she really had become someone. Respect for her had grown. She smiled and went off to class.

When she returned at the end of the hour, she saw that in the interim her nameplate had been installed outside her office: Miss S Sharma, MA, Warden, Girls Hostel. Seeing such a long string of titles after her name seemed odd to her. She went inside to find two of her fellow teachers seated in her office.

“Please come in, Madame Warden,” said Miss Shastri sardonically. Miss Shastri taught Sanskrit. She had developed a fascination with pleasure due her exposure to Sanskrit literature, but not having found the means to experience it, she’d turned bitter towards life and the world.

Sushma put down the register and sat in her swivel chair.

“Are you free right now?” she asked.

“How could I be free? I just had to make a call. There’s no privacy at all in the office.”

Sushma pushed the phone towards her and began looking through some papers.

Miss Shastri looked over at Sushma after dialling the number, and said, “Roma David came home at one o’clock in the morning last night. Really, she is testing the limits of bad conduct! What can she be thinking?...Hellooo, this is Durga speaking, please give the phone to Mr Joshi.”

Miss Shastri stood up when her conversation had ended.

‘Fifty-five Pillars, Red Walls’: Classic Hindi novel set in girls’ college gets English translation

“Sushma, do get the hostel to shape up a bit. You’re new, so there will be more enthusiasm of course, but really, what doesn’t go on here...”

“Don’t you have class right now?” Sushma interrupted. “The girls must be making a racket!”

“I’ll tell you more later,” said Miss Shastri, departing unwillingly.

Now Meenakshi, who had been sitting listening silently to Miss Shastri, smiled and said, “This is all Miss Shastri does with her time. Does she even sleep at all, or does she spend the whole night on patrol, sniffing out who came home when? You can ask her about anybody: which girl is friends with whom, which teacher sends how much money home, who’s sex-starved...”

“Enough, enough,” said Sushma, guessing where Meenakshi was going with all this. “I know everything. There’s no need to tell me.”

“Are you embarrassed?” Meenakshi asked with surprise. “You’ve done such things before. You’ll have to deal with so many problems with the girls that – ”

“Just give it a rest, Meenakshi! Ever since I came here, every single well-wisher has given me a long list of items I absolutely must attend to.”

Sushma was getting bored of the topic. She stood up. “Come, let’s have a cup of coffee,” she said. “It’s still a while until the bell.”

The new hostel building could be seen from the long window of the café. Colourful curtains fluttered from the windows of the bedrooms. Inside the café they could smell the fragrance of the madhavi vine that climbed the walls. Sushma remembered she hadn’t yet asked the gardener to plant roses at the bungalow. The rainy season would pass and then it would be difficult.

“I have so much work right now,” she said, playing with her spoon. “All my time goes into meaningless struggles at the hostel. I get no time to myself.”

“What sort of work were you doing that you can’t do anymore? No more time for cheap novels?”

Meenakshi was always making fun of Sushma’s collection of low-brow literature, but Sushma was never offended. That was the kind of novel she liked to read after working hard all day – light and romantic. She could hardly match Meenakshi’s high- toned tastes, but she could thoroughly enjoy them.

Sushma smiled at Meenakshi’s words then looked down and began to examine the design on her cup. It was only eleven o’clock, so there weren’t many students in the café yet. Even the few who sat at tables spoke quietly. Two bearers stood silently by the counter.

The screen door opened and a girl peered in. Seeing Sushma and Meenakshi staring back at her, she started, greeted them both and, perhaps not finding her friend, rushed away. Sushma thought of her aunt Krishna when she saw the girl’s sari, and how this was exactly what her aunt was like: if she were to come in right now, she would be extravagantly affectionate.

But how many times had Sushma asked her to get those saris embroidered for her and send them right away? And now she was just putting it off– she hadn’t even bothered to send her a five-paisa postcard! If the saris ever came she would definitely wear them.

Excerpted with permission fromFifty-five Pillars, Red Walls, Usha Priyamvada, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell.

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