Shantaram :: Evening Raaga

From the Marathi--

Shantaram (b. 1923) has authored twenty-six books, including collections of short stories and essays. He has taught English Language and Literature and served on academic and administrative bodies across Maharashtra and other Indian states. An annual award has been instituted in his name by the Sahitya Mahamandal in recognition of his contribution to Marathi literature. He lives in Mumbai.

On Shantaram’s Fiction:

 Writing under the pen name Shantaram, K. J. Purohit was a pioneer of the new genre of short fiction in Marathi in the 1950s. His stories broke stereotypes—be it of the joint family, relationships within a family, or the role of women in society. 'Evening Raaga' is typical, set in a big city, where characters try to keep pace with life despite all odds—poverty, exploitation, societal norms and pressures.

One of the few whose concerns were beyond the middle classes and their morality, where roles of men and women were well defined, he was interested in all interpersonal relationships, in characters who look for ways to express the hidden aspects of their personalities. Like Bheemi in this story. Bheemi comes across as a strong-willed woman who takes life in her hands and chooses to live it on her terms, yet is vulnerable in a subtle, unobtrusive way. Kishan Prasad may typify the "macho male" but also reveals the soft, susceptible side of himself. 

Shantaram's poetic narrative in simple yet evocative prose, understated, ironic and matter-of-fact resonated with Marathi readers, making him one of the popular writers of the day.


Evening Raaga

 Imperceptibly the darkness enveloped them. Stealthily Kishan Prasad put his arms around her. Bheemi pretended not to notice either.

She was busy calculating how many peppermints and chocolates she had sold, how many biscuits were left, and how much she had made from the bananas and guavas. She counted the money she had made that day, over and over. She didn’t need to count it so many times, but she wanted to ignore the engulfing night and Kishan Prasad’s embrace.

“Bheemi, it’s dark. Can’t you see?” Kishan Prasad said tightening his hold.

“Yes, darkness has fallen upon me and I see you want to do the same.”

“Then what are you looking at? You can’t see anything.”

“You can. In the dark, you can see the present and the past; your own and that of other people. Very clearly.”

“What use is it, looking at the past? Everyone knows what was. One must look ahead.”

“You know about my past, my early life?”

“Maybe not all of it, but yes, the important bits.”

“Which important bits?”

“When you left your home.”

“I didn’t leave. I was humiliated. Unfairly.”


“Fate!” she sighed and began to tell him her story. She had told him the story before, but as she narrated it again she found it as new and fresh in the telling as he found it in the listening.

People only knew that within a year after her marriage to Bhikya, she had walked out of his jhopdi. But no one tried to ask her why. Bhikya’s hut was really small. How were two couples expected to share it? Bhikya and Bheemi were at the prime of their youth. They were newly married. How could they live with another couple day in and day out? Even if one closed one’s eyes, one couldn’t shut the sounds out.

It wasn’t difficult to find another dwelling. But Bhikya was not interested. He did not want to leave his old parents. Bheemi couldn’t explain her fears to him. What if her mother-in-law opened her eyes just as Bhikya’s hand caressed her naked breast? What if her father-in-law got a coughing fit the moment Bhikya threw his legs across her thighs?  Bheemi tried to persuade Bhikya, but his reply was, “We are poor people. Why should we think like the sahebs? Why should we do things in secret like they do?” he asked.

When Bheemi realized that Bhikya would never understand her feelings and move to another jhopdi, she left him.

And where did she go from there? To her brother’s. Who, at the time, was unmarried. Bheemi had left Bhikya’s hut; she hadn’t left him. How could she? She had his seed in her womb.

“Do you understand all this, Kishan Prasad? I nurtured that seedling in my brother’s house. When my boy was born I took him to his father’s place, put him in the cradle, and gave him a name. Bhikya and his father and their friends drank so much that day, who knows what they drank … the drink consumed them. Only my mother-in-law and I survived.  ‘You swallowed my husband, you devoured my son,’ screamed the old woman and kicked me out.” She paused. “And people called me a home wrecker,” she said.

Kishan Prasad knew only too well that no one bothered to try and understand a person.  Bheemi had tried desperately to make a home of her own and she was condemned for it. He had struggled to make a home in Mumbai far away from his village, for what? So that his wife could come and live with him. She would bear him children and the two of them could grow old looking after the kids. But his wife would not leave the village. She had borne her children there. Kishan Prasad was willing to accept them as his own. “Had she joined me here, would I have made any distinction between her children and ours?” He had often asked himself. “No never,” he would reply. “My wife? How can she be mine when she will not live with me? People laugh at me. You are in the city and she has children in the village, they snigger. What do I say to them? They will not listen, nothing will convince them.”

“Do you know what people say about me in the village, Bheemi?”


“They think I am not a man. Not a man! Sometimes I feel I must prove my manhood to them.”

“Is that why you are after me, to show them your manhood?”

“Only if you let me, Bheemi.”

“And what use will that be?”

“I can still father a child you know. Men can do it at any age.”

Bheemi burst out laughing. His legs were bowed, his ribs stuck out of his chest, his eyes were sunken, his head bald. And this was the man blowing the trumpet of his virility!

“Why are you laughing, Bheemi?”

“I was thinking, how should we move forward? If we say we will have children, that may not happen.”

“Why not?” Kishan Prasad asked as his hands stroked her body. Breasts sagging like rain clouds, the folds of her abdomen like the furrows of freshly ploughed earth, long scissor blade legs, eyes glowing embers … how old was she , mused Kishan Prasad. Sometimes she looked like an old woman, sometimes she gleamed like a tree in the moonlight.

“All right, leave me alone now. Don’t stare at me, and stop drooling like that. I have something to say to you. Listen and then ask me whatever you want.”

“But I don’t want to ask you anything, Bheemi.”

“Very well, then. Listen.”

After Bhikya’s death, Bheemi’s mother-in-law wouldn’t let her step into the hut because she was the pale-footed, inauspicious one. She had to leave her brother’s jhopdi soon after because he married a woman with two children of her own. Bheemi worked in people’s homes, cleaning utensils and sweeping floors. Then she sold sweets and biscuits outside the school gates. She saved whatever she could and gradually she managed to buy a small jhopdi of her own. Her son grew up but before he could start earning a living he married the girl next door. Bheemi left her jhopdi to give her son and daughter-in-law some privacy. She didn’t want them to feel suffocated as she herself had felt all those years ago.

She herself was under the care of the open sky. At a shady spot behind the bus stand she laid out four stones and built a hearth. When it rained or grew cold, she took shelter under the railway bridge. Water for bathing was plentiful from the railway pipes. Many other families shared the space with her. When she felt like seeing her son, she went over and spent a few hours with them. But they spoke harshly to her. You left because you wanted to be independent, to be free to roam around, to do whatever you liked, they said, disapprovingly. If she could leave a husband, how could she keep a son, people asked. She didn’t care when people said hurtful things to her, taunted her, but it broke her heart when her son and daughter-in-law joined them. She decided never to see them again, but later her resolve would crumble. Bheemi realized no one understood, no one cared enough to understand the other.

Layers of darkness piled upon each other. Nothing was visible anymore. Not what was distant, nor what was near. But sounds became more audible. Traffic noises, the chittering of insects, Kishan Prasad’s breath…

“People called me names. Not all of what they said was untrue. But just because I slipped a couple of times, should they call me fallen? It happened three or four times. I swear that’s all. On a night like this, behind the bus stand, danger struck. The policeman, tired of patrolling, snuggled up to me. I endured it. Enjoyed it. Before the night ended he went away. I was not angry with him…. Do you hear me Kishan Prasad? Kishan Prasad?” her voice rose slightly.

“Say something. Don’t just remain silent,” Bheemi whispered.

“I will when I feel I have something to say. Go on.”

Bheemi continued to put things into a trunk as she spoke. One night she was in the slum under the bridge, asleep. Heavy rain, thick, black, and cold was assaulting the earth. One was afraid to be alone. Everyone needed company, wanted warmth. There were so many lonely people in the world. Bheemi was just one of them. He was another like her. They were strangers till that night, then they got to know each other well. Together they had driven out the lashing rain.

“There is some truth in what people say,” said Bheemi again, “but who is to tell them how much of it is true and how much false?”

“Yes, don’t they say I stole my wife’s jewelry? It’s the same thing.”

“I’ve heard that.”

“That’s not what happened.” Kishan Prasad told his story. He went to the village prepared to forgive his wife everything, and take her back to Mumbai. He coaxed and cajoled, spoke to her brothers and her father, but it made no difference to their behavior or their attitude. They were all shameless. Disappointed, Kishan Prasad finally put all thoughts of his wife out of his head and said to himself, “If this woman doesn’t want me for a husband, what right does she have to the jewelry I gave her?” He asked for it to be returned. Her brothers threatened to kill him. He backed off. That night after everyone had gone to sleep he performed one act of courage. He tried to take the mangalsutra, the symbol of a woman’s marital status, off his wife’s neck. But she woke up and started screaming. Kishan Prasad fled, leaving the village forever. But the shame followed him. It reached distant Mumbai and gave him a bad name in the community. “Hijra! Thief, bastard, steals his wife’s mangalsutra, the scoundrel!” they shouted at him.

“I am neither a hijra nor a thief, Bheemi.  But one thing I must say – when I placed my hand on my wife’s neck that night, my nerves didn’t tingle, my blood didn’t rise.”

“What’s the point of telling me this story, Kishan Prasad? Will you tell me something else?”


“Why did you leave the banks of the holy Ganga to come and live in a slum on the edge of a sewer?”

“You mean why did I leave the fertile green valley of the Ganga and get mired in this swamp of a city? Fate. These children were destined to have me guarding their school gate. And it was my destiny to look after if not my own children then someone else’s. If that’s not fate what is?”

Bheemi said nothing.

“Sometimes I wonder,” Kishan Prasad continued, “why am I here, not just in Mumbai, but in this world? I feel I am a stranger on the earth.”

“Stranger or guest?”

“You ask a very difficult question. Such questions don’t fill your belly. They only make your head spin.”

“It lightens the heart to talk to someone, to ask questions. But answers? In the next life …”

Both Bheemi and Kishan Prasad stood up. She placed the trunk full of her belongings on her head. She stooped under its weight.

“Your back is bent with that box on your head, Bheemi, like an old man’s, like mine.”

“And why shouldn’t it? The trunk contains not just sweets for the children, it holds my entire life. When you carry the burden of life, your back is bound to bend.”

“Give it to me, let me carry your burden.”

“You’re so young, aren’t you?”

“I may not be young, but I am a man.”

“That’s obvious. Your pride is also a man’s.”

“Whatever that may be, man I am. Here, put that box on my head.”


“Come with me.”

“With you?”


“I told you clearly what kind of a person I am. I will behave in the same way again. I am free. I have a bad name.”

“I know all that but still I am asking you to come with me.”

“Shall I? Like I went with that policeman? No, he came to me. I will not go to you like I went to him on that stormy night.”

“Come any way you want, but come.”

Bheemi began to walk alongside Kishan Prasad. He took the trunk from her and placed it on his own head. He was panting as he walked.

“What did you do that for?” she said.

“Old I may be, but I am still a man.”

“Man, man, man … the same old nonsense.”

“It is not nonsense.”

“Then what is it?”

“Walk straight. Why aren’t you following me?”

“Where are you going?”

“You’ll find out.”

Soon they reached a temple. “Good, the fire is burning,” Bheemi said. She called out to the priest. “Get some sweets and flowers and two garlands,” she told him.

The priest stared at her open-mouthed. Taking the trunk from Kishan Prasad’s head, Bheemi set it down, took some money out of it and handed it to the priest. “Go,” she scolded him. “Why are you staring as if you have never seen me before? Go quickly. This old man is in a hurry.”

She turned to Kishan Prasad who had exclaimed, “Me?” and told him to shut up.

She took the flowers and the sweets the priest had brought and offered them to the deity in the temple. She dragged Kishan Prasad by the hand around the fire seven times. They exchanged garlands.  They ate some of the sweets. She picked up the trunk and put it back on her head. “Let us go,” she told him. When he tried to take the box from her, she snapped, “No need to prove your manhood by carrying it. It will be tested soon enough.”

The sky was dark and stars clustered on it like silver khaddi print on a black sari. They walked close to each other.

As they neared Kishan Prasad’s jhopdi she started to mutter, “Fancying marriage at this age!”

“But you were the one that got married,” stammered Kishan Prasad.

“And you were a mute spectator?”

“I got married because you got married.”

“Why do you want me, at this age?”

“Why does a man need a woman?”

“That I already know. But you tell me really, why?”

“Shall I tell you the truth?”

“Why do you think I am asking?”

“All my life no one called me their own. After I die at least let someone say: He was mine.”

“After you die?”


“You think I will let my old man die so soon?”

Kishan Prasad’s jhopdi had never been so full.


-- Translated from the Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra


Keerti Ramachandra is an editor, translator, and teacher, working from Marathi, Kannada, and Hindi. She received the Katha A K Ramanujam Award for the translation of the Marathi novel (A Dirge for the Damned) by Vishwas Patil. Most recently she and Vivek Shanbhag translated U R Ananthamurthy's Hindutva or Hind Swaraj