Author: Pankaj Kapoor
I don’t know why I took so long to pick up this book. It is written by an actor I love; an erudite, eloquent, thinking actor. It’s set in my hometown. It has a promising title and gorgeous cover page. I really can’t imagine why I didn’t pick it up earlier.
The last few months as I’ve helped the children with their Hindi school portions, I’ve rediscovered my love for my mother tongue. Perhaps that’s why I decided to read this one in Hindi. Besides, it’s just silly to read a translation when one can well read, understand and appreciate the original language.
Dopehri is the story of Amma bi
— a sixty five year old widow who lives in her huge ancestral haveli. Her son has settled in the US. Her only family in town is her house-help – Jumman with whom she shares a love-hate relationship.
Over the past few days, every afternoon, as the clock strikes three Amma bi hears footsteps, sometimes the tinkle of an anklet. And then…. nothing. Each afternoon finds her on edge, clutching onto a dagger as she awaits that presence wondering who/what it was – a robber, a thief, a ghost? She tries to persuade Jumman to stay with her but he steadfastly refuses. Finally, with no other alternative, she takes in a boarder Sabiha. Sabiha works from home and as she settles in, the robber/ghost seems to disappear.
An immediate rapport develops between Amma bi and Sabiha since they’re from the same hometown (that was just so ‘me’). When Sabiha falls into trouble Amma bi has to summon all her resourcefulness to help her out, in the process rediscovering her own self.
Dopehri is a short, sweet, feel-good story
At just over 80 pages it’s barely a novella, taking up an hour or two of your time. For that short a book, it leaves an impact.
The characters, the language and the setting — those are the things that stood out for me.
Pankaj Kapoor does a fabulous job fleshing out his characters. Though Sabiha remains a bit of a mystery, one can’t but help fall in love with Amma bi and her faithful young help, Jumman.
Amma bi represents the generation of elderly people left behind as their children move out for work. She doesn’t lack for money or comfort. What she craves is the company of loved ones as she grapples with loneliness. And yet, so steeped in tradition is she, that the idea that she could change her situation doesn’t occur to her. Despite her dread of the ghost-visitor and her abject loneliness Amma bi is reluctant to take in a boarder because ‘what will people say?’.
Her interactions are a treat to read, at once rough and affectionate.
Then there’s Jumman. Young and aspirational, complete with the longings of youth and the readiness to develop the most delightful crush.
Lastly we have Sabiha — proud, independent and fiercely self-reliant, tempered with good old fashioned values. Sabiha was exactly how I’d imagine a new-age Lucknowite.
What I loved most was the interplay of the characters. Their conversations were enchanting. The language, in this original Hindi version, is reminiscent of Premchand – Hindi liberally laced with Urdu, or Hindustani as we like to call it — an absolute delight to read. It brings alive the culture of Lucknow, endearing in its accuracy, showcasing the nazakat we’re so proud of.
The writing is heavily metaphorical and made me read and re-read the passages, first to understand them fully and then, to appreciate their beauty. Nothing I say here will do justice to that. You’ll have to read the book to truly enjoy it.
If Hindustani isn’t your mother-tongue, you’ll have some difficulties getting through it. Go for the English version then, because the story, though not long or layered, is delightful enough.
Last thought: A short, sweet, happy, feel-good read. I’d say, go for it.