What she had said
If there’s a memory that sticks out from my early teenage years, it was wrestling with stories written in Hindi for hours on end trying to understand the significance of each word and circumstance, coming up short every time, and then going over those stories with my mother, to see if I could understand them better. At the time, understanding for me meant taking words at their face value, with the goal of either finishing the assignments or doing well on the exams.
As one grows older, one learns that many a time, there are layers of meaning beneath what the words convey at their face value. One finds themselves trying to hold on to shreds of meaning from the years gone by.
“‘वजीरासिंह, पानी पिला’ — ‘उसने कहा था।’(Trans. “Wajira Singh, water..She had said”). Over the years, this sentence has stayed with me. I had forgotten about the story, but a few days back, I sat down and read the entire story again in its original form, marveling at the story and the depth that it contains.
The story is titled, ‘उसने कहा था।’(Trans. She had said) written by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri. (The story in original can be found here: https://www.hindisamay.com/kahani/usne-kaha-tha.htm and its English translation can be found here: https://www.madhavimahadevan.com/usne-kaha-tha-she-had-said-it/)
The story is about an officer in the Indian army — Jamadar Lahna Singh keeping his promise made to a woman(whom he had initially met as a kid) to save her husband’s life. The story intermittently uses flashbacks to reinforce the emotions from the past that catch us unprepared.
There’s so much that can be said about the story — an officer thinking about his childhood, a human keeping his promise despite all odds, the sense of camaraderie that prevails in the troops, and so much more. I asked myself the question — “Why did that sentence stay with me after all those years?”. After some prodding within, I realized this was because it allowed me to experience that sense of longing which accompanies stumbling upon found meaning of things much later than our first encounter with them. As a kid of 13, I didn’t know why it was important to enlist things that one sees clearly before their death in a story. Now I realize that as we approach death, we try our best to weed out what’s essential from what is not, so that by the time we are moments from dying, what’s left with us are experiences in our lives that made us whole and who we are.
I remember giving my mother a hard time asking her to explain the story to me. On multiple occasions, we tried to tackle the story together, my mother from a point of view of someone who had a PhD in Hindi, and me as someone who just wanted to get done with the story and move on to reading the next story. My mother at the time understood everything the writer meant to convey, and the meaning, both overt and subtle, that one could derive from the story. I guess when one is 13, one doesn’t know a lot about meaning and is quite fixated on finishing the schoolwork as soon as possible. My mother and I eventually got through the story after having gone over it multiple times, and I grasped most of the story, if not all. The assignment was done, and I moved on to the next story, the next assignment.
When I read the story again after all these years, I understood the reason, the necessity even in some ways, of me not being able to understand the story as a 13-year old. The multiple layers of meaning were not meant to be understood back then. Little did I know that I would approach the story at multiple points in my life, and on each of those occasions I would derive some new meaning that I hadn’t thought of earlier. What wouldn’t change on any of those occasions was the sense of wonder with which I approached it, as I did when I read it as a 13-year old for the very first time.