Piece appears below in both English and the original Hindi.
Hindi is comprised of words from a variety of regional languages of India and has various dialects. The way people speak it changes almost every hundred kilometers, with the language taking on a new garb and flavor, just like the clothes and food of the people who speak it. What delighted me about this story was the place it is set in and the dialect of the characters. It’s not common to come across literature set in the remote areas of Rajasthan, full of Marwari words (the primary language of the people of the state). As someone who spent most of his life in this state, I was even more invested to present the dialect, life, and customs of the communities.
This story about how history and imagination infect one another unwittingly began a week after I arrived in Delhi for a month-long writing residency. The Sanskriti residents were told that we would have a chance to visit the newly restored Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb. It was about to open to the public. O.P. Jain, the founder of Sanskriti, was a major supporter of the restoration, thus this outing.
Our bus arrived at an overgrown park entrance where we traipsed alongside a river full of plastic garbage, climbed through hills of brush, stumbled over unrestored ruins, and finally arrived on top of a hill, a plateau, where the Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb stood. At its entrance, a brand-new sign informed visitors that the tomb held the remains of Jamali, a sixteenth-century Sufi court poet and saint, and a person named Kamali whose identity was unknown. The conservator of the restoration would guide us at the site.
When we entered the small space of the tomb, I was stunned by its beauty. Two white marble graves sat side by side on the floor. The red and blue circular ceiling was decorated with sunbursts and floral forms carved in plaster. A band of Jamali’s verses encircled the ceiling. The conservator spoke, “Some have thought Kamali was Jamali’s wife or perhaps his brother. Others have thought that Kamali was a disciple of Jamali, the saint. The undisputable fact is that both were men. A symbolic pen box, traditionally a sign of a male, is carved on each of their tombs. It is believed, through our oral tradition in Delhi, that Kamali was Jamali’s homosexual lover.”
“But,” I said, “the new sign out there that you just put up says his identity was unknown.”
The conservator explained that in India a public sign would never mention homosexuality.
From my window I see a boy shaking the bougainvillea for flowers. My parents talk of pruning it. They talk of little else. The tree, spilling wildly past our house into the gulley—where boys come to smoke or piss, lanky against betel-dyed walls—acrid ammonia, posters begging for votes, pink crowning above them. The boys linger even when it rains. Each drop caught briefly under the golden streetlight, and me, holding my breath.
By the time the car stops at the end of the dirt road, we’ve been jolting along for an hour. Before us is the banyan tree we have come to see—its giant trunk surrounded by hanging roots, its distant crown shutting out the sky.
It is summer in Kerala, and the world is liquid and shimmery with heat. The roads and fields are parched, waiting, suspended in a burning delirium for the moment the monsoon will break. My aunt Sudha and I have just driven through miles of sun-blasted paddy fields, but the abrupt immensity of the tree makes the light feel shadowed, as if dusk has fallen at noon. A hushed feeling comes over me as the dark, looming presence asserts itself.
For nearly two years of my life, I lived with a ghost. It was when my father, a civil servant, was posted in Sambalpur, a now forgotten town in northern Odisha, a state in India’s east. Newspapers then, and even now, always added the descriptor “India’s poorest state” whenever Odisha made the headlines. This happened in the late 1980s, when several hunger-related deaths were reported in a tribal-dominated district in the state’s west, and a decade later, after an Australian missionary was burnt to death, along with his two sons, by a group led by a Hindu fanatic.
“Name and fame,” Mohammad Sabir said in English, shouting over the noise of the traffic. Manager and occasional trumpet player for one of dozens of marching bands for hire in Kolkata, India, he was describing the glamor that once compelled families across the city to hire bands like his.
Fifty-year-old Master Sabir, as bandleaders are known, was sitting behind his desk in a pink, threadbare shirt. A goat was tied to the electricity box out front, barefoot children raced past, and, nearby,bidimakers sat chopping dried tobacco by hand. According to my phone, it was only 103 degrees, but the reported “feels like” had hovered between 118 and 125 for days, and it was sometimes hard to breathe. This was in May of 2019, halfway through Ramadan and an hour before iftar; Sabir had not eaten or taken a drink of water all day.
Shubha Sunder speaks to managing editor Emily Everett about her story “A Very Full Day,” which appears in The Common’s fall issue. In this conversation, Shubha talks about writing stories set in India, and how she built out the insular world of Indian retirees that “A Very Full Day” centers on. She also discusses teaching creative writing to undergrads, her revision process, and her forthcoming collection of stories Boomtown Girl, which won the St. Lawrence Book Award.