Editor's Note

There is every reason to curse the river of Time. Its currents of History and Desire heave and swerve with all their force, only to abandon us wherever their aleatory natures wish to. What becomes of us then? Well, we are rendered incomplete. We become exiles, to art, to country, to love. There is also, of course, the whirlpool of Death, one that likes to appear without warning.

But there are sanguine possibilities in this river of Time. There is the possibility of coincidence. In a pub in an unnamed country, there might be a coming together of some who have been rendered incomplete. Here, communication can be lucid and staccato—for the exiled and the dying don’t need to speak much to one another. This coming together carries the possibility of transcendence, of  ‘the world outside’ becoming as inconsequential as ‘a vanishing star,’ of a tune from a piano emerging ‘like a spark of light flashing across a still lake’—for what is this lake, pray, but the river of Time stilled?

‘A Separate Light’ by Nirmal Verma, translated from Hindi by Alok Bhalla, is hesitant in backstory, non-committal in defining the conflicts characters face, and shows a general disregard for resolutions. Through these, it is a story that challenges our conceptions of that thing called story.

— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Translator's Note

Nirmal Verma’s Hindi is urban in its diction and sophisticated in its tone. Set in a dimly lit bar in an unnamed post-war European town, the story, Kisi Alag Roshni Mein,’ subtly textures the emotional histories of people exiled from home, betrayed by political ideals and disenchanted with their fragmented societies. The narrative moves between four sets of discrete people brooding over their drinks. For them, time is a burden and communication with others almost impossible. Their long Chekhovian silences, punctuated by the desultory scatter of rain outside, are correlatives of life’s unrelieved melancholy. The tension in the story is between the intellectual attraction that European modernity has for an unnamed Indian art student and her emotional need to belong to the traditions back home. Nothing, however, is overtly stated; anxious dialogue remains unresolved; an inchoate thought is suddenly abandoned; and the feeling that days will somehow pass is created through bits and pieces of conversation about modernist art, music, existential alienation and sickness unto death, with buried references to Edvard Munch, Emile Nolde, Thomas Mann, Simone Weil or Albert Camus. Yet, the story has moments of epiphany that are so quietly expressed that, as a translator, one must be alert to slight shifts of mood, perspective and the timber of prose.

‘Kisi Alag Roshni Mein,’ was included in Verma’s collection, Sookha: Tatha Anya Kahaniyan (1995). The translation of the title, ‘A Separate Light’, needed many deletions and rewritings to suggest the story’s concern, both with an artist’s search for a personal truth and with ordinary people in difficult circumstances, hoping against hope, for emotional support or consolation.

— Alok Bhalla

The light bulbs inside flickered whenever lightning streaked across the dark sky. Costa closed his eyes. Since he was not from that city, he still regarded any natural disturbance –rain or snow– as a bad omen. During a thunderstorm, people in the village he came from switched off the lights in their homes. Maybe they were superstitious. He no longer remembered. He didn’t recall much anymore, but still paid attention to bad omens and was afraid.

The two old men came to the bar at the same time at dusk when it was empty or sparsely occupied. That evening, as usual, they were bent over their game of chess. After every half an hour, one of them raised his hand and Costa walked over, refilled their mugs with foaming beer and went back to wait behind the counter. He never sat down; even when he dozed. His friends often teased him –Costa, you’d even go to your grave standing!

Buggers, they must all be in bed with their wives. Like an animal behind a bush, he suppressed a snarl beneath his thick moustache. Often, a few of his friends came by to pass a pleasant hour or two with him. But tonight? Who’ll come out in this thunderstorm? Costa took a deep breath. Startled by a flash of white light, he suddenly opened his eyes and saw a hazy shadow near the door. He rubbed his eyes with his shirt sleeves and was surprised to see her hesitate. She was the last person he expected to see on such a night –that young Indian girl who sometimes dropped in on her way back from the art school.

Costa took a deep breath –What could bring her here on this cold and windy night?

She wiped her shoes, which were wet and muddy, on the doormat. She was wearing a blue raincoat with a hood. Stray curls of hair escaped from under the hood, clung to her forehead and fell on her shoulders.

She smiled when she saw Costa. Before sitting down on a stool, she placed her shoulder bag on the counter and dried her hair with a handkerchief. Wiping the counter in front of her, Costa asked, ‘The usual?’

‘Yes,’ she replied, closed her eyes and was still for moment…Like a small girl, she began to tap her feet under the stool. A sandal slid off her foot a little, but did not fall. Oblivious of her surroundings, she was lost in a world of her own.

Costa placed a large mug of beer before her.

‘How are things?’ he asked.

She shook her head as if uncertain and anxious before taking a long swig of beer and wiping her mouth.

‘Have you finished?’

She laughed as she raised two calloused and rough fingers smeared with dirt and paint. ‘I have two more to complete.’

‘You have time,’ he said reassuringly. ‘Where’s my invitation to your exhibition next week?’

‘Wait, I’ll give it to you right now,’ she said as she fished a card out of her bag.

Costa always felt sympathy for her because unlike other artists who sometimes gathered in his pub, she never shook her fists and argued loudly. Her features reminded him of the girls in his own country –especially her brown skin and dark hair. He had once asked her, ‘Is every Indian girl as slim as you are?’ She had laughed with surprise as only someone from another country could have.

She was a foreigner, but for her the pub was like home –half home, half studio. She could sit there alone for an hour or two and think about her exhibition. No one disturbed or troubled her.

Her first sketch was of the two old chess players in deep concentration. Neither of them was conscious of her presence. They were so immersed in their game that, oblivious of their surroundings, they created the illusion of a ‘still-life’. Sometimes, she thought that, before returning to India, she’d gift all her sketches to Costa. Though, she wasn’t not sure if he’d like them.

He looked despondent as he watched the steady drizzle outside the misty glass doors and windows. It always rained when the season changed from autumn to winter. His knees ached and fingers grew stiff. He shifted from one leg to the other, but the ground beneath his feet offered no consolation. He had lost confidence when he had left his country. He was jealous of the Indian girl. She’ll return home after a couple of years…the word ‘return’ stabbed him with pain. He began to rinse and dry the mugs of beer.

‘Did Gypsy come today?’ the girl inquired.

‘No. He must be lying drunk somewhere.’ Costa had never liked that Polish Jew who sometimes played the piano in the pub. Costa was the first to have named him ‘Gypsy’ because his hair was tousled; his clothes were old and frayed… Gypsy composed music for TV documentaries and, when he had no assignment, worked as an attendant in the hospital. On his way back, he always stopped at the pub and played the piano in return for peg or two of vodka. His fingers, with their dirty nails, moved across the keyboard like big black ants crawling over sugar.

The stool before the piano was unoccupied.

‘Do you need him urgently?’ Costa asked as he wiped a beer mug.

‘No –not today. But I want him to see my paintings before the exhibition opens.’

Last year, Gypsy had helped with the display of her paintings. The first few days of an exhibition were tense because she could never decide where each painting should be hung. She was underconfident and tormented by the quality of her work. If she thought a piece was good in the morning, she felt like destroying it by the evening. She’d break into a cold sweat; feel as if she was deluding herself; had wasted her father’s hard-earned money to study abroad. A mug of beer always calmed her down; made her feel a little better. She recalled an adage from her childhood: ‘Life is short and the struggle to be an artist is very long!’

The rain outside fell with a slow and steady murmur. Each drop sizzled softly like a burning matchstick as it passed through the circle of street lights.

‘Autumn rain is endless!’ Costa sighed. ‘In my village, we compare it to the tears of parting.’

‘Tears of parting?’ she repeats, a little distracted. ‘Who is crying?’

‘The earth. Who else?’ Costa placed his hand on his heart like an actor. ‘The earth weeps…for those who have departed. Don’t you feel nostalgic for your country when it rains?’

Costa wanted to say something more, but the girl was absorbed in her own thoughts. After a few drinks, even the quietest of his customers became eager listeners to his life stories…How he had been separated from his relatives as they had tried to cross borders during the war; or, how he had somehow stumbled into this country and decided to stay…

But this Indian girl was different. After one mug of beer, she continued to smile as some people did in sleep, but seemed to be completely lost in her own separate world. Costa thought that some people live simultaneously in the past and in the present. But when he looked at the girl, he felt that there were people who lived in another, a third time zone that was like a faint sound –so faint that very few could hear it, but which persisted like the soft rattle of a door-chain.

Costa leaned towards her and whispered, ‘What are you thinking about?’

The girl seemed to return from some distant place. ‘Nothing in particular.’

‘I know,’ Costa added.

‘Really?’ she exclaimed and, with a mischievous spark in her eyes, asked, ‘So, tell me, Costa, what was I thinking about?’

‘About your unfinished painting. Am I right?’

Deciding to play along, she replied, ‘Yes!’

‘Can I ask you something? You won’t laugh?’

‘Go ahead. Ask.’

‘When do you feel a painting’s complete?’

She stopped playacting. Lost in thought for a moment, she took a sip of beer, and quietly whispered, ‘When I feel that I can do no more.’

‘Is that because you feel the painting is complete or that you can’t add anything more?’

‘Both…But sometimes it happens that a painting is still unfinished and I decide to stop.’

‘Shut it like a window?’ Costa asked. ‘What happens after that?’

‘Nothing…Begin work on another painting!’

‘And, so it goes on.’

‘Yes…And, so it goes on.’ Then she added with a smile, ‘From one window to the next!’

‘All day and night?’

‘No, not at night…I do nothing at night.’

She tried to sleep at night. When she couldn’t sleep, she sat on her bed, opened a bottle of cheap white wine, thought about her exhibition, talked to one or two friends on the phone, played Indian music on her record player, recalled her home in Ahmedabad, read a letter from her father that always arrived every fortnight…everything that had troubled her during the day rose like a tide, crashed against the shores of sleep, subsided into a quiet flow, receded and then returned once again with force…a puzzle that she thought she could solve. But, by the time she reached her studio, the solution seemed to vanish. She couldn’t remember how she had resolved the puzzle and why she could no longer recall it.

Suddenly, she heard the sound of the door creak open and saw Gypsy standing there. He took a while to wipe his muddy shoes. His wet jeans were rolled up and his hair was soaked. It seemed as if he had come from a horse stable instead of the hospital. Looking neither left nor right, he walked straight to his usual table in the corner.

‘You were asking about him…There he is!’ Costa whispered, but she had already seen him. She was listening to her own heartbeat. She shivered as if Gypsy had brought with him the sound of raindrops falling in the cold night outside.

Costa made his way from his place behind the counter, through the maze of tables, to where Gypsy was sitting and asked, ‘Good evening. What’ll you have tonight?’

‘Tonight?’ a rasping voice emerged from under Gypsy’s unkempt grey beard, ‘Is tonight any different?’

‘It’s raining steadily tonight,’ Costa replied as he stroked his thick dark moustache.

Gypsy took his pipe out of the pocket of his loose pullover, tapped it, turned it upside down and placed it on the table, without lighting it. ‘A cognac and hot water.’

‘Anything else?’

‘Isn’t that enough?’

Costa turned away with a frown, muttering to himself, ‘He lives in a strange world of his own.’

She thought so too, but was never irritated by Gypsy. It was impossible to fathom the strange forest that lay hidden under his cold eyes. In her fortnightly letters to her father, she sometimes mentioned her eccentric vagabond friend who composed music, worked in a hospital when he had the time and slept during the day.

She had first met Gypsy during an exhibition at her university…He had stood before her paintings for a long time…As he was about to leave, he had remarked, ‘I have seen you somewhere.’

She had laughed and replied, ‘In Costa’s pub.’ That was the first time she had invited him to her studio.

Maybe such informal friendships, which somehow happen and then slowly grow at their own pace, are the best. They have no expectations. There were times when she wanted to ask him about his work, but always lost her nerve. Whenever he saw her at the pub, he vaguely nodded as he walked past her to his table and sat before his drink, absorbed in his own thought as if he had come, not to meet anyone but to be alone with himself.

Sometimes, she picked up her sketchbook and drew him sitting alone or bent over the piano. But when she reached home and looked at her drawings, she felt as if something crucial was missing. Her pencil lines had failed to capture Gypsy’s rough and wrinkled face.

‘It’s time,’ Costa said to himself, ‘for me to get away.’ Every evening, at around this hour, the guests seemed lost –they were there, of course, still sitting at their tables as before, but Costa felt as if they had no connection to that pub, that table, that night, that world. It was as if the place was empty, even though he knew that the girl was sitting at the counter, the chess players were bent over their game and Gypsy was staring at his glass…the only difference was that for the moment they did not need him. He could vanish for a while without being missed.

Stepping into his private room with a glass window behind the bar, he quickly washed his hands and face, and poured a shot of whisky from his own country that he kept for himself. As he drank, he quietly watched the drizzle and the misty street outside through the window. Sounds from the bar seemed to emerge from some dark cavern. At that moment, he remembered neither his friends, his old home nor his parents. It was as if all his past memories had been swept away by a tidal wave.

Like any lonely man, Costa was superstitious…He was sure that something would go wrong in his absence…Gypsy would leave quietly, the chess players would have an argument, the Indian girl would start talking to herself…Of late, after a few drinks, she had begun whispering to herself in a strange language whose mysterious tones sounded as if she was seeking help from the depths of a well. And, if by chance, Gypsy happened to be playing on the piano at that moment, Costa felt as if he were a child sitting with his mother in front of the lit candles in his village church oblivious of what the future had in store for him…

When he went back to the counter everything was as it had been. The Indian girl, the Polish Gypsy, the old chess players were still where he had left them. Things changed, not when he was away, but when he returned. Everyone suddenly looked toward the entrance at the same time and Costa followed their gaze.

The door opened slowly.

Initially, they saw no one. It was as if the person couldn’t decide whether to enter or not. A spray of rain blew in through the door. Who was the sad soul wandering in that ungodly hour? Why was he hesitating at the threshold? Costa was about to call out when he saw a short woman, holding the hand of a very tall and thin man, enter. They stood at the door looking a bit bewildered as if they were surprised to find themselves in a strange place and wanted to run away as soon as they could.

They didn’t leave, but stood undecided for a while. When the man tried to help the woman with her raincoat, she stopped him. The coat hanger was too high for her so she placed the raincoat and the umbrella on the nearest chair and sat down. The man was still unsure. He ran his hand over his trimmed grey beard as his eyes swept across the pub. His long arms seemed wired to his body and made him look like a puppet. Drops of water on the sleeves of his black coat glittered like pearls. ‘Come, sit here,’ the woman said as she took his hand and urged him toward the chair next to her. ‘Here?’ he asked, anxiously. They were motionless for so long that Costa didn’t have the heart to tell them that they were in a pub and not in their own home.

‘Do you know them?’ the Indian girl asked.

Costa shrugged his shoulders and replied, ‘I’ve never seen them before. They look like angels of the night. I wonder why they have come here?’

‘Can’t they come here for a drink?’

‘In that condition?’

‘Can’t you see how distraught the man is?’

Costa laughed, ‘He’s welcome to a drink! He doesn’t seem to have committed a crime.’

Yet Costa was apprehensive. He was afraid that the man sitting on the chair was the dark shadow he was superstitious about meeting. At first, he wanted to tell him that it was late and the bar was closed. But then he recalled his mother telling him, ‘Never turn a guest from your door because he may be a messenger.’ He doubted whether a strange messenger would bother to come to his pub on such a miserable night, but he walked up to the couple and took their order. When he returned to the counter, he seemed pleased as he excitedly whispered from under his thick moustache, ‘Champagne! They’ve asked for the best!’

The Indian girl, still a little lost in her own thoughts, asked, ‘Who has?’

‘Who else…That tall man who just walked in with his short wife.’

Perhaps, it was an illusion created by the dim light, but the man’s face looked ghostly and the woman resembled a tiny doll. She wondered what strange conjunction of stars had brought them out of the dark gloomy night into that bar?

She noticed Gypsy staring at the couple. A faint, imperceptible smile appeared on his face.

Everyone was startled by a sudden loud sound. Instinctively, they turned toward the table where the couple were sitting. Costa was holding a bottle of champagne, wrapped in a white napkin, and pouring it into glasses for the man and the woman.

When Costa stood behind the counter again, he told the Indian girl in an undertone, ‘They’ve come here to celebrate something.’

‘In this rain?’

‘Can’t they celebrate a birthday on a rainy night? Or a wedding anniversary?’ Costa asked.

‘Maybe, they are returning from a concert or a play and, having got caught in the rain, decided to come here?’ She replied. Whenever she met strangers, she tried to read their faces and guess the kind of lives they led.

‘Concert? Theatre? In those clothes!’ Costa asked scornfully. She examined their clothes carefully. The woman was wearing an ill-fitting brown skirt that reached below her knees. The man’s striped tie looked sophisticated in comparison, even though his black corduroy coat hung limply on his thin, emaciated body. The woman’s skirt was as creased as the man’s face…

Were they husband and wife? She couldn’t decide. The man looked much older than the woman, but they were not father and daughter; they were like two separate threads that touched each other but were not knotted…The man held her hand in his lap and was gently stroking it as if afraid that if he let go, she would drift away from him, leaving him with only the memory of her warm touch.

Was this love, the Indian girl wondered –the fear, the touch, the faint pulsation? Or, what a drunk man feels when he recalls his forgotten past?

‘Did you say something?’

She didn’t know when that man had walked up to the counter and was standing next to her with a gentle smile on his face.

‘Perhaps, you want to ask me something?’

‘No…nothing…I was just…’ She replied bashfully. She didn’t realize that she had begun to talk to herself.

‘If you don’t mind, can we invite you to join us for a drink?’ the man asked hesitantly, ‘That’s if you are alone and are not waiting for anyone.’

‘No…waiting for whom?’ she answered instinctively, before she turned to look at the table where his companion was sitting quietly. The woman’s silence was as expectant as the man’s invitation.

‘Would it be alright if I join you?’ the Indian girl asked hesitantly. ‘You are, perhaps, here to celebrate some good news?’

The man looked puzzled; there was no hint of joy in his eyes. His smile, like the lightning outside, hid the shadow of some sorrow. ‘Please join us.’ His voice was so earnest that it would’ve been cruel to refuse.

‘Yes…but only briefly, because I’ve to get home soon,’ the Indian girl replied.

‘Can you also invite him?’ he asked, pointing to toward Gypsy.

‘You want him to…’

‘Yes, why not…I have seen him often at the hospital, but we’ve never been introduced.’

‘In the hospital? Were you…?’ But the man had turned away before she could complete her question.

Instead of following the man at once, she kept staring at the empty space where she had seen his face. It had something special; something that didn’t belong to that place; something that was alive, yet wasn’t part of this world; like a blank space in a painting that no one had the courage to fill.

‘What did he say?’ Costa, who had watched the entire scene from one end of the counter, asked.

‘He has invited me to join them.’

‘What are they celebrating?’

She shook her head and took a small mirror out of her bag before brushing her hair. In that dimly lit bar, her reflection looked as sorrowful as the word ‘celebrate’ that she had just heard.

‘Costa, I’m leaving my bag at the counter…I’ll be back soon.’

As she walked with her empty beer mug toward the table where the couple was sitting, her steps faltered. She had a sudden impulse to turn back, pick up her bag and walk out because the rain and the darkness outside were friendlier than the man’s face. But before she could retrace her steps, the woman guided her towards their table.

‘Sorry,’ the woman said, ‘Perhaps, you wanted to be alone?’

‘No, no…But I can’t stay long.’

The man stood up and invited her to sit in the chair next to his. For a brief moment, she thought that the two of them were magicians who could do anything with her.

‘Do you come here every day?’ the woman, who had been watching her closely, asked.

‘I drop in sometimes on my way home,’ she replied with a smile.

‘There can’t be a better place to stop…before going home.’

She noticed a slight tremor in the man’s hands as he poured champagne in her glass and a few drops spilled outside. The network of veins on his hands was so prominent that the skin above had vanished.

The man raised his glass and mumbled his good wishes…for her health, perhaps…or, for something else that got lost in the clinking of the three glasses. He held the glass in his trembling hand in the air for a moment as if lost in thought.

‘Are you a foreigner?’ the woman asked.

The Indian girl nodded quietly. She felt as comfortable with the two of them as she had been in her parent’s home where no one was offended by her silence…With others she always felt as if she was being interrogated in a court and had to be ready with an answer…She was only aware of champagne glasses raised in greeting…Had she seen something similar in the past? Perhaps, in an old, creased and yellowing photograph of three people sitting in a half-lit, ramshackle bar on a rainy day.

‘You look anxious about something?’ the man said.

‘I am always afraid,’ the girl replied.


‘I have to exhibit my art work next week…I still haven’t completed my paintings. I was thinking about them when the two of you walked in.’

‘Can anxiety help you find a solution?’ the man asked as if he too had walked into the bar eagerly searching for an answer.

The girl smiled as she sipped her champagne.

‘When I am here, I feel as if I have found a solution…but the next day when I begin to paint in my studio, I can’t recall what the solution was.’

She felt that she could talk freely to these two people…as if she was talking to herself without anxiety…instinctively following the shadow of her own self, ‘Can you tell me why that happens?’

‘No, I can’t…’ the man replied thoughtfully. ‘Many years ago, I saw a painting in the National Gallery…That was a time when my wife and I used to go out every weekend…Can we visit your exhibition?’

‘Of course. I’d be delighted.’

The man turned to his wife and said something. She smiled, raised her glass and said kindly, ‘To the success of your exhibition.’

With his trembling hands, the man refilled the girl’s glass.

They were quiet for some time. The Indian girl reminded the man, ‘You were talking about a painting in the National Gallery?’

‘Yes,’ the man replied and then shook his head sadly, ‘I can’t remember what I wanted to say…What were we talking about?’

‘About being afraid…’

‘Oh, yes,’ the man exclaimed as if a burning ember had reignited dry grass. ‘You may have also seen the painting in the gallery, though very few visit that particular room; it doesn’t have the works of well-known artists…I was very tired and sat down to rest for a few minutes on a sofa…It was then that my eyes fell on the painting. At first, it seemed like a conventional landscape…a narrow valley with a small stream in the shadow of some hills…a young woman standing on a bridge over the river…gazing at the water flowing below…’

The Indian girl listened to the man carefully and waited for him to complete his thought. When he didn’t add anything more, she asked, ‘Then?’

‘Then something strange happened. I saw the girl’s face floating in the water. When I got up to look at the painting closely, there was nothing…only a yellow blur of paint shimmering in the water.’

No one spoke for a while. The woman gazed into the distance, while the man looked at the floor as if he was searching for something.

‘It often happens that distance creates an illusion,’ the girl said slowly.

‘You must be right…But can’t fear create something similar? It vanishes when you confront it. I thought about that painting when I was in the hospital.’

‘Did you have to stay there for long?’

‘Fortunately, not for as long as I had feared.’ The man pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his eyes, picked up his glass and then placed it back on the table again. ‘The doctors informed me that they can do nothing more for me…that I should spend the time left to me wherever I wanted.’

‘The time left …?’

Music from the piano slowly swirled around them. Sometimes it dropped into a dreamy whisper and then returned with sprightly notes.

‘You were talking about being afraid,’ the man said as he leaned toward her. ‘When they told me that they could no longer help me, I had a strange feeling of relief…and freedom that follows relief! At last, I could do what I wanted…go where I wanted…I felt as if I was looking at the world in a new light…’

His wife smiled as she added, ‘When we came out of the hospital, he said, this is our first step into a new world, we should go somewhere different.’

As the woman picked up her glass of champagne, the sad notes of the piano surrounding her seemed to settle like mist on the surface of the glass and she began to weep.

‘Look, that’s not right,’ the man protested, ‘You’ve forgotten why we came here.’ He pulled out his crumpled handkerchief and wiped her tears.

‘I remember.’ The woman placed her head on his shoulder. A confused smile played on her lips even as tears continued to flow. ‘Can we send a glass of champagne to the man who is playing the piano?’

‘Why not?’ the man replied as he stood up. The Indian girl intervened, and said, ‘Please sit. I’ll give it to him.’

There was still a little champagne left in the bottle. She poured it into her own glass and walked with unsteady steps toward the piano.

The table in the middle was now unoccupied. She hadn’t noticed when the two chess players had ended their game and left. The outer door was half open. She couldn’t decide if the broken streak of the pale-yellow light from the lamppost outside was an optical illusion…or a prophecy of uncertain days ahead.

‘This is for you,’ the young girl said, as she placed the glass on the stool near the piano. ‘They had seen you in the hospital.’

Gypsy nodded. ‘I know. His doctor is an old friend.’

‘What does he suffer from?’

‘They don’t know.’ Gypsy turned to look at the man. ‘They’ll know only after an autopsy in a few months.’ He picked up his glass and gazed at the champagne bubbles in the faint light.

Everything was still and silent for a while. A sensuous, slightly feverish, Hungarian gypsy tune emerged from the depths of the piano; it was like a spark of light flashing across a still lake; a precious gift in exchange for a glass of champagne. The man and the woman seemed to have left the pain and the fever behind in the long corridor of the hospital. The man held the woman in his embrace and she placed her head against his skeletal body as they danced. They were only aware of their own breathing and the wild gypsy tune being played on the piano. The world outside seemed to have vanished like a wandering star.

‘Homeless exiles like me,’ Costa said to himself as he watched the couple from behind the counter. ‘I left home twelve years ago to come here.’ It occurred to him that the answer to the question he had asked the Indian girl about her unfinished painting lay hidden somewhere in his own lonely life; a truth that had somehow wandered into his desolate pub on that rainy night.

Far down the road he saw the dim outline of her figure as she hesitated to find a way around puddles of water…He wanted to call out to her, but suddenly realized that he couldn’t recall her name. He only knew that when she came to his pub in the evenings, she began to talk to herself after a few drinks.


Image credits: Vincent van Gogh. Le Café de nuit (The Night Café). Oil on canvas. 72.4 cm × 92.1 cm (28.5 in × 36.3 in). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


Nirmal Verma (1929-2005) was a Hindi writer, essayist, novelist, translator, and activist. Born in Shimla, India, he was a pioneer of the Nai Kahani (New Story) literary movement in Hindi literature. His first collection of stories, Parinde (Birds) is consider a hallmark of that movement. His oeuvre over five decades includes five novels, eight short-story collections and nine books of non-fiction, as well as many essays and travelogues.

Translator | ALOK BHALLA

a retired professor of English, got his M.A from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi and Ph.D from Kent State University, USA. He has been a Professor/Fellow at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Jamia Millia Islamia and Ambedkar University, Delhi, Institutes of Advance Study at Nantes (France), Bellagio (Italy), Shimla, and Gandhiji’s Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmadabad. A critic, translator and poet he has published extensively. His books include Stories About the Partition of India (4 volumes), Partition Dialogues, Ramakatha: Narrative, Performance, and Pictorial traditions (co-edited), Politics of Atrocity and Lust (on the Vampire Tale), Shades of the Preternatural (on the Gothic Novel). The Life and Times of Saadat Hassan Manto etc. His recent translations include Dharamvir Bharati’s, Andha Yug, Nirmal Verma’s Dark Dispatches, Intizar Husain’s Story is a Vagabond (co-edited) and A Chronicle of the Peacocks, and plays by Bhisham Sahni, Krishna Baldev Vaid etc. His articles have appeared in Journal of Peasant StudiesComparative Literature StudiesManoaAnnual of Urdu Studies, etc. His collection of poems for children is entitled, Wild Verses of Wit and Whimsy (illustrated by Manjula Padmanabhan). He was elected as the Chairperson of its English Board of the Sahitya Akademi.

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