[ छोटी कहानी है.. पिछली सदी के पूर्वाद्ध में यहुदियों की बसाहट की एक छोटी दुनिया की.. मुख्यधारा की आंखों में उनके खटकने, उन्हें इधर-उधर किये जाने, हिंसा का उन्हें शिकार बनाये जाने की.. सबका एक महीन इशारा भर है.. मगर यह इशारा भी, अपने समय में, दु:स्साहसभरा काम रहा होगा.. मगर, फिर, ऐसी अन्य दूसरी दु:स्साहसी रचनायें, चौवालीस वर्ष के संक्षिप्त जीवन में आईसक बाबेल की रचनाओं में छितरायी मिलती हैं.. खुद बाबेल का जीवन कम दु:स्साहसी नहीं रहा होगा.. उनके जीवन और कहानियों पर मैं फिर लौटूंगा, फ़िलहाल यह, छोटी-सी कहानी.. जीने, और उससे ज़्यादा, मरने की.. बूढ़ा शोओम..]
Although our little town is not large, although its inhabitants are few, although Shloyme has lived for sixty years in the town without a break, even so, not everyone would be able to tell you who Shloyme is, or what he is like. That is because he has simply been forgotten, in the way that an unneeded, inconspicuous object is forgotten. Old Shloyme was such an object. He was eighty-six years old. His eyes were watery; his face, a small, dirty, wrinkled face, was covered by a yellowish, never-combed beard and a mane of thick, tangled hair. Shloyme almost never washed, seldom changed his clothes, and he had a bad smell: his son and daughter-in-law, in whose home he lived, had given him up as a bad job, concealed him in a warm corner and forgotten him. A warm corner and food – that was what remained to Shloyme, and, it seemed, it was enough for him. To warm his old, broken bones, to eat a good piece of fat, juicy meat – those were for him the highest enjoyment. He would arrive first at table, greedily follow each piece with unblinking eyes, convulsively stuff the food into his mouth with long, bony fingers and eat, eat, eat until he was refused any more, even one more little piece. It was revolting to watch Shloyme as he ate: the whole of his small, emaciated figure trembled, his fingers were covered in grease, his face pitiful, full of a terrible fear lest a wrong be done to him, lest he be forgotten. Sometimes the daughter-in-law played practical jokes on Shloyme: at table she would, as if accidentally, leave him out: the old man would begin to grow agitated, look helplessly about him, try to smile with his crooked, toothless mouth; he wanted to show that the food was not important to him, that he was all right as he was, but in the depths of his eyes, in the fold of his mouth, in his extended imploring arms could be felt such pleading, this smile, produced with such difficulty, was so pitiful, that the jokes were forgotten and Old Shloyme received his portion.
Thus did he live in his corner – ate and slept, and in summer also warmed himself in the blaze of the sun. He had, it appeared, long ago lost the ability to understand anything. His son’s business activities, the events of the household, did not interest him. Indifferently he gazed at all that occurred, and there merely stirred within him the fear that his grandson might see that he had a dried-up piece of gingerbread hidden under his pillow. Never did anyone speak to Shloyme, seek his advice, ask him to help them. And Shloyme was very pleased when, after supper one day, his son came over to him and loudly shouted in his ear, ‘Papasha, we’ re being evicted from here, evicted, do you hear, kicked out!’ The son’s voice trembled, his face was contorted as by pain. Shloyme slowly raised his faded eyes, looked about him, took something in with difficulty, wrapped himself more tightly in his grease-stained frock-coat, made no reply and plodded off to bed.
From that day on Shloyme began to notice that something was wrong in the house. His son was downcast, neglected his business, sometimes wept and looked furtively at his chewing father. His grandson stopped attending the grammar school. His daughter-in-law shouted in a shrill voice, wrung her hands, pressed her boy to her and wept, wept bitterly, hysterically.
Now Shloyme had an occupation – he looked and tried to understand what was happening. Troubled thoughts stirred within his long-inactive brain. ‘They’ re being kicked out of here!’ Shloyme knew why they were being kicked out. But why, he couldn’t leave! He was eighty-six, he wanted to keep warm. Outside it was cold, damp… No, Shloyme was not going anywhere. He had nowhere to go, nowhere at all. Shloyme hid in his corner and he wanted to embrace the shaky wooden bed, stroke the stove, the dear, warm stove that was as old as he was. He had grown up here, lived his poor, cheerless life here and wanted his old bones to rest in the small home cemetery. In the moments when he had such thoughts, Shloyme grew unnaturally animated, went to his son, tried to tell him many things, excitedly, to tender some advice, but… it was so long since he had talked to anyone, or given advice to anyone about anything. And the words would freeze in his toothless mouth, the hand which he had raised would fall, helplessly. Shloyme shrivelled up, as if ashamed of his outburst, went back morosely to his corner and listened to what his son and daughter-in-law were talking about. His hearing was poor, but he picked up some of it, picked it up with fear, with horror. At such moments his son would sense fixed upon him the wild and heavy gaze of the old man who was being driven out of his mind and the pair of small eyes which with a cursed question were constantly guessing at something, trying to fathom something. On one occasion a word was spoken too loudly: the daughter-in-law had forgotten that Shloyme was not yet dead. And after this word a quiet, as-if-stifled wail was heard. It came from Old Shloyme. With faltering steps, dirty and tousled, he slowly crept over to his son, seized him by the hands, stroked them, kissed them, without removing his inflamed gaze from his son, shook his head several times and for the first time in many, many years a tear rolled from his eyes. He said nothing more. With difficulty he got up off his knees, wiped the tears away with a bony hand, for some reason shook the dust off his frock-coat and made his way back to his corner, where the warm stove was… Shloyme wanted to warm himself. He was cold.
From that time on, Shloyme did not think of anything else. He knew one thing: his son wanted to go away from his people, to a new God. The old, forgotten faith stirred within him. Shloyme had never been religious, seldom prayed and had earlier even been considered godless. But to go away, completely, to go away from one’s God, the God of a humiliated and suffering people – that he did not understand. Heavily the thoughts tossed and turned inside his head, slowly he pondered, but these words stood immutably, firmly, menacingly before him: ‘This must not be, must not be!’ And when Shloyme had grasped that the disaster was inevitable, that his son would not be able to endure, he said to himself, ‘Shloyme, Old Shloyme, what can you do now?’ Helplessly the old man looked around him, puckered his mouth sorrowfully, as children do, and tried to weep an old man’s bitter tears. They were not there, the relieving tears. And then, at that moment, when his heart had begun to sicken, when his mind had grasped the limitlessness of the disaster, then Shloyme cast a loving glance into his warm corner for the last time and decided that he was not going to be kicked out of here, never would he be kicked out. They would not let Old Shloyme eat the piece of dried-up gingerbread that was lying under his pillow. Well, so what? Shloyme would tell God of the wrong that was done to him here. After all, God existed, God would take him in. Of that Shloyme was convinced.
At night, trembling with cold, he got up out of his bed. Quietly, so as not to wake anyone, he lit a small kerosene lamp. Slowly, like the old man he was, moaning and shivering, he began to pull on his dirty clothes. Then he took a stool, a rope, which he had placed in readiness the evening before, and, faltering with weakness, clutching at the walls, went out into the street. Immediately he felt so cold… He trembled in all his body. Shloyme quickly secured the rope on a hook, stood up beside the door, put the stool in place, climbed up on to it, wound the rope around his thin, shaking neck, with a final effort pushed the stool away, had time with his dimmed eyes to survey the little town in which he had lived for sixty years without a break, and hung…
There was a strong wind, and soon the feeble body of Old Shloyme began to sway before the door of the house in which he had left a warm stove and the grease-stained Torah of his fathers.
[अंग्रेजी में कहानियां पेंग्विन ने छापी थीं, अनुवाद डेविड मैक्डफ का है]