In Times of Quarantine, Let Pankaj Kapur’s Debut Novella Be Your Literary Valentine

'Dopehri' is a gentle reminder about the necessity to pause, rewind, reflect and, if need be, hit the reset button on a lot of things that drive our day-to-day lives.

Acclaimed actor and artiste Pankaj Kapur’s debut novella Dopehri, translated from Hindustani to English by Rahul Soni and published by Harper Perennial, is a gentle reminder about the necessity to pause, rewind, remember, reflect and, if need be, hit the reset button on a lot of things that drive our day-to-day lives. The opening page of the book reads, “Dopehri is dedicated to all those people who forgot themselves in the passing of time, and age, and relationships…” And, in current times of quarantine, this book can be a faithful valentine.

The dawn of Dopehri

Dopehri has a history of its own. Before taking wings as a heart-rending novella, it was published in a Bhopal-based literary journal called Sakshatkar in 1994. In one of his interviews, on penning his first work of literature (which he finished writing in four days), Kapur said, “I wrote it as a film, I always write visually. It is so that I know where everything is when I direct the story”.

Pankaj Kapur and Rahul Soni
Harper Perennial India (November 2019)

Interestingly, this is amply evident when Dopehri found another life on stage. Through a theatrical reading of the story, Kapur gives voice to the unheard and often dismissed struggles of many women like Amma Bi, whose heart is frozen in time but her body has withered with seasons of transitions and emotional turmoil. Seamlessly so, Kapur not only experiments with his vocal folds to bring alive the disparate characters on stage, he also shifts from one prop to another, complementing the backdrop of the story. With over 50 shows, the dramatised reading of Dopehri gained immense popularity among audiences in India and overseas. Even today, Kapur’s one-act genius evokes a whirlwind of reactions from the spectators.

In the Foreword to the book, Kapur mentions how it was only because of wife Supriya Pathak, another veteran actor and theatre artiste, who had brought the manuscript to a literary agent and later a publisher, that Dopehri could see the light of day as a printed book.

When the clock strikes three, silence crawls in

An elderly widow, Amma Bi has survived years of loneliness in her haveli in Lucknow. Sepia-tinted memories of her rides in a 1936 Austin (now languishing in an empty courtyard with ‘plants peeping out of its windows at many places’) as a new bride keep her company on most days. Relegated to a similar fate as the 1936-model car, Amma Bi is now imprisoned and looks weather-beaten in her Lal Haveli. Her son Javed has settled down with his wife and child somewhere in a foreign land; his promises of coming to stay with his old mother keep deferring much like her own plans of bidding this mortal world a final adieu. Jumman, her household help makes regular cameo appearances. He is someone with whom Amma Bi manages to hold on to the vestiges of a majestic past she had once enjoyed as a newlywed. However, even Jumman goes missing every afternoon (with Amma Bi’s knowledge, of course) and those desolate, haunting noon hours with a piercing gaze bring moments of inescapable vulnerability and emptiness for the 65-year-old unspectacled woman. At three o’clock every afternoon, she hears footsteps leaping towards the stairs of her haveli, chances upon shadows, and even occasionally listens to the sounds of anklets. The author creates a daunting visual image with the phonetics – “the sound of footsteps, the rustling of leaves, a shadow outside the door.”

A fright-stricken Amma Bi, otherwise cloaked by a shroud of stateliness, stoicism, and strength, surrenders to the echoes of stealthy shadows of the unknown. It’s not her loneliness that becomes stark in these hours, it’s the absence of comforting familiarity that gnaws her. The rusty pillars, her ageing paan-box, an ailing verandah, her late husband’s life-sized portrait, and shushed utensils add to her misery. Apparently, there are ways to cure that misery. Saxena Saheb, a close friend of her deceased husband and a well-wisher suggests that Amma Bi should probably consider keeping a lodger.

When the clock strikes three, familiarity knocks

Initially, Amma Bi is enraged at the thought of renting out a portion of her haveli to a stranger. Briefly, she even prefers moving into an old-age home, instead. But things don’t really go well when she actually visits one. The grim reality of a couple, she had been friends with once, leaves Amma Bi flustered. Eventually, she relents to Saxena Saheb’s suggestion.

Sabiha, the lodger, is someone who embraces Amma Bi and unites the 65-year-old widow with her much younger and unmarried self. For starters, Sabiha is from Jaunpur, i.e. Amma Bi’s maternal home. Soon, Amma Bi doesn’t even realise when the clock strikes three; slowly, her afternoons are not drowned in deathly silence anymore. One of the most endearing episodes in this story is when Amma Bi helps Sabiha come out of a crisis. Sabiha has a big order of delivering stuffed toys to an important client and the fear of failing to meet the near-impossible deadline unsettles her. Lo and behold, Amma Bi steps in and helps stitch up the half-made, unfinished toys. In doing so, Amma Bi unknowingly stitches up her own patchy life and regains self-worth by recognizing her own resourcefulness and commitment to a meaningful survival. This scene could vaguely remind the reader of Adrienne Rich’s poem Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers. Aunt Jennifer, suppressed by an oppressive marriage, weaves fearless tigers that ‘prance across a screen’ and ‘pace in sleek chivalric certainty’. The embroidered tigers become a manifestation of Aunt Jennifer’s free-spiritedness. Similarly, when Amma Bi takes charge of Sabiha’s unfinished business – a suitcase brimming with half-stitched rabbits, bears, and tigers; she too, like Aunt Jennifer, breaks free from the constraints imposed by her zenana and weaves her own fate.

When the clock strikes three, she is set free

Sabiha’s order is complete and she saves herself the dreaded humiliation, thanks to Amma Bi’s stitch in time. Late into the night, when the clock strikes two, Sabiha and Saxena Saheb cajole Amma Bi into accepting a cheque as a token for her hard work and undeterred zeal. Holding the cheque in hand, Sabiha asks Amma Bi to spell out her name and that seals the most defining moment. Reclaiming her lost identity, she cries out, standing on her terrace: “Not Amma Bi, brother, my name is Mumtaz Siddique.”

Seeking solace in isolation

In such trying times when all of us are practising self-isolation to fight an invisible virus, and coping haunting hours by staying put at our respective homes, let us dive into the pages of Dopehri, read Amma Bi’s story, be one with her and her predicament, and come out armed with resilience, perseverance and determination to stand up to all challenges, viral or otherwise.

Ipshita Mitra is an editor at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi. Her Twitter handle is @ipshita77.