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Krishnan Varma's short story
I came across a short story which I thought would be a good start for a
web page section on relevant short stories about life in India. I'm not
sure what copyrights are being violated here: surely we need to get
permissions as things start getting more formal. But the key thing is to
either compile or get a link to stories which show the life of the poor in
[Krishnan Varma was born in Kerala, a southwestern state of India. Varma's
stories, in both English and Malayalam (an Indian language), have been
published in India, the United States, and Canada. "The Grass-Eaters" was
first published in Wascana Review i n 1985.]
For some time several years ago I was tutor to a spherical boy
(now a spherical youth). One day his ovoid father, Ramaniklal Misrilal,
asked me where I lived. I told him.
Misrilal looked exceedingly distressed. "A pipe, Ajit Babu? Did
you say - a pipe, Ajit Babu?"
His cuboid wife was near to tears. "A pipe, Ajit Babu? How can you
live in a pipe?"
It was true: at that time I was living in a pipe with my wife,
Swapna. It was long and three or four feet across. With a piece of sack
cloth hung at either end, we had found it far more comfortable than any of
our previous homes.
The first was a footpath of Chittaranjan Avenue. We had just
arrived in Calcutta from East Bengal where Hindus and Muslims were killing
one another. The footpath was so crowded with residents, refugees like us
and locals, that if you got up at night to r elieve yourself you could not
be sure of finding your place again. One cold morning I woke to find that
the woman beside me was not Swapna at all but a bag of bones instead. And
about fifty or sixty or seventy years old. I had one leg over her too. I
bitterly for my mistake. The woman very nearly scratched out my eyes.
Then came Swapna, fangs bared, claws out . . . I survived, but minus one
ear. Next came the woman's husband, a hill of a man, whirling a tree over
his head, roaring. That was my impres sion, anyway. I fled.
Later in the day Swapna and I moved into an abandoned-looking
freight wagon at the railway terminus. A whole wagon to ourselves - place
with doors which could be opened and shut - did nothing but open and shut
them for a full hour - all the privacy a ma n and wife could want - no
fear of waking up with a complete stranger in your arms . . . it was
heaven. I felt I was God.
Then one night we woke to find that the world was running away
from us: we had been coupled to a freight train. There was nothing for it
but to wait for the train to stop. When it did, miles from Calcutta, we
got off, took a passenger train back, and occ upied another
unwanted-looking wagon. That was not the only time we went to bed in
Calcutta and woke up in another place. I found it an intensely thrilling
experience, but not Swapna.
She wanted a stationary home; she insisted on it. But she would
not say why. If I persisted in questioning her she snivelled. If I tried
to persuade her to change her mind, pointing out all the advantages of
living in a wagon - four walls, a roof and doo r absolutely free of
charge, and complete freedom to make love day or night - she still
snivelled. If I ignored her nagging, meals got delayed, the rice
undercooked, the curry over- salted. In the end I gave in. We would move,
I said, even if we had to o ccupy a house by force, but couldn't she tell
me the reason, however irrelevant, why she did not like the wagon?
For the first time in weeks Swapna smiled, a very vague smile.
Then, slowly, she drew the edge of her sari over her head, cast her eyes
down, turned her face from me, and said in a tremulous, barely audible
whisper that she (short pause) did (long pause)
not want (very long pause) her (at jet speed)
baby-to-be-born-in-a-running-train. And she buried her face in her hands.
Our fourth child. One died of diphtheria back home (no longer our home) in
Dacca; two, from fatigue, on our long trek on foot to Calcu tta. Would the
baby be a boy? I felt no doubt about it; it would be. Someone to look
after us in our old age, to do our funeral rites when we died. I suddenly
kissed Swapna, since her face was hidden in her hands, on her elbow, and
was roundly chided. Kis sing, she holds, is a western practice, unclean
also, since it amounts to licking, and should be eschewed by all good
I lost no time in looking for a suitable place for her
confinement. She firmly rejected all my suggestions: the railway station
platform (too many residents); a little-used overbridge (she was not a
kite to live so high above the ground); a water tank th at had fallen down
and was empty (Did I think that she was a frog?). I thought of suggesting
the municipal primary school where I was teaching at the time, but felt
very reluctant. Not that the headmaster would have objected if we had
occupied one end of the back veranda: a kindly man, father of eleven, all
girls, he never disturbed the cat that regularly kittened in his in-tray.
My fear was: suppose Swapna came running into my class, saying, "Hold the
baby for a moment, will you? I'm going to the l-a-t-r -i-n-e." Anyway, we
set out to the school. On the way, near the Sealdah railway station, we
came upon a cement concrete pipe left over from long-ago repairs to
underground mains. Unbelievably, it was not occupied and, with no
prompting from me, she crept into it. That was how we came to live in a
"It is not proper," said Misrilal, "not at all, for a school
master to live in a pipe." He sighed deeply. "Why don't you move into one
of my buildings, Ajit Babu?"
The house I might occupy, if I cared to, he explained, was in
Entally, not far from where the pipe lay; I should have no difficulty in
locating it, it was an old building and there were a number of old empty
coal tar drums on the roof; I could live on th e roof if I stacked the
drums in two rows and put a tarpaulin over them.
We have lived on that roof ever since. It is not as bad as it
sounds The roof is flat, not gabled, and it is made of cement concrete,
not corrugated iron sheets. The rent is far less than that of other
tenants below us - Bijoy Babu, Akhanda Chatterjee an d Sagar Sen. We have
far more light and ventilation than they. We don't get nibbled by rats and
mice and rodents as often as they do. And our son, Prodeep, has far more
room to play than the children below.
Prodeep is not with us now; he is in the Naxalite underground. We
miss him, terribly. But there is some compensation, small though it is.
Had he been with us, we would have had to wear clothes. Now we don't. Not
much, that is. I make do with a loin cloth
and Swapna with a piece slightly wider to save our few threadbare clothes
from further wear and tear. I can spare little from my pension for new
clothes. Swapna finds it very embarrassing to be in my presence in broad
daylight so meagerly clad and so con trives to keep her back turned to me.
Like a chimp in the sulks. I am fed up with seeing her backside and tell
her that she has nothing that I have not seen. But she is adamant; she
will not turn around. After nightfall, however, she relents: we are both
When we go out - to the communal lavatory, to pick up pieces of
coal from the railway track, to gather Grass - we do wear clothes. Grass
is our staple food now: a mound of green grass boiled with green peppers
and salt, and a few ladles of very thin rice
gruel. We took to eating it when the price of rice started soaring. I had
a good mind to do as Bijoy Babu below us is believed to be doing. He has a
theory that if you reduce your consumption of food by five grams each day,
you will not only not notice t hat you are eating less but after some time
you can do without any food at all. One day I happened to notice that he
was not very steady on his feet. That gave me pause. He can get around,
however badly he totters, because he has two legs; but I have only
one. I lost the other after a fall from the roof of a tram. In Calcutta
the trams are always crowded and if you can't get into a carriage you may
get up on its roof. The conductor will not stop you. If he tries to, the
passengers beat him up, set fire to
the tram and any other vehicles parked in the vicinity, loot nearby
shops, break street lamps, take out a procession, hold a protest meeting,
denounce British imperialism, American neo- colonialism, the central
government, capitalism and socialism, and s et off crackers. I don't mind
my handicap at all; I need wear only one sandal and thereby save on
So, on the whole, our life together has been very eventful. The ~6
events, of course, were not always pleasant. But, does it matter? We have
survived them. And now, we have no fears or anxieties. We have a home made
of coal tar drums. We eat two square m eals of grass every day. We don't
need to wear clothes. We have a son to do our funeral rites when we die.
We live very quietly, content to look at the passing scene: a tram
burning, a man stabbing another man, a woman dropping her baby in a
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