पिछली सदी में पचास का दशक है, इटली के दक्खिन नेपल्स शहर के निचलके तबके की दुनिया और उस दुनिया में दो सखियां है, लीना और लेनु, उन्हीं की कहानी है. सखियां अभी पहली कक्षा में पहुंची हैं, कक्षा और उस दुनिया की एक ज़रा झलक लीजिए..
"Lila appeared in my life in first grade and immediately impressed me because she was very bad. In that class we were all a little bad, but only when the teacher, Maestra Oliviero, couldn’t see us. Lila, on the other hand, was always bad. Once she tore up some blotting paper into little pieces, dipped the pieces one by one in the inkwell, and then fished them out with her pen and threw them at us. I was hit twice in the hair and once on my white collar. The teacher yelled, as she knew how to do, in a voice like a needle, long and pointed, which terrorized us, and ordered her to go and stand behind the blackboard in punishment. Lila didn’t obey and didn’t even seem frightened; she just kept throwing around pieces of inky paper. So Maestra Oliviero, a heavy woman who seemed very old to us, though she couldn’t have been much over forty, came down from the desk, threatening her. The teacher stumbled, it wasn’t clear on what, lost her balance, and fell, striking her face against the corner of a desk. She lay on the floor as if dead.
What happened right afterward I don’t remember, I remember only the dark bundle of the teacher’s motionless body, and Lila staring at her with a serious expression.
I have in my mind so many incidents of this type. We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died. One of the daughters of Signora Assunta, the fruit and vegetable seller, had stepped on a nail and died of tetanus. Signora Spagnuolo’s youngest child had died of croup. A cousin of mine, at the age of twenty, had gone one morning to move some rubble and that night was dead, crushed, the blood pouring out of his ears and mouth. My mother’s father had been killed when he fell from a scaffolding at a building site. The father of Signor Peluso was missing an arm, the lathe had caught him unawares. The sister of Giuseppina, Signor Peluso’s wife, had died of tuberculosis at twenty-two. The oldest son of Don Achille—I had never seen him, and yet I seemed to remember him—had gone to war and died twice: drowned in the Pacific Ocean, then eaten by sharks. The entire Melchiorre family had died clinging to each other, screaming with fear, in a bombardment. Old Signorina Clorinda had died inhaling gas instead of air. Giannino, who was in fourth grade when we were in first, had died one day because he had come across a bomb and touched it. Luigina, with whom we had played in the courtyard, or maybe not, she was only a name, had died of typhus. Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.
You could also die of things that seemed normal. You could die, for example, if you were sweating and then drank cold water from the tap without first bathing your wrists: you’d break out in red spots, you’d start coughing, and be unable to breathe. You could die if you ate black cherries and didn’t spit out the pits. You could die if you chewed American gum and inadvertently swallowed it. You could die if you banged your temple. The temple, in particular, was a fragile place, we were all careful about it. Being hit with a stone could do it, and throwing stones was the norm. When we left school a gang of boys from the countryside, led by a kid called Enzo or Enzuccio, who was one of the children of Assunta the fruit and vegetable seller, began to throw rocks at us. They were angry because we were smarter than them. When the rocks came at us we ran away, except Lila, who kept walking at her regular pace and sometimes even stopped. She was very good at studying the trajectory of the stones and dodging them with an easy move that today I would call elegant. She had an older brother and maybe she had learned from him, I don’t know, I also had brothers, but they were younger than me and from them I had learned nothing.."
जीवन ऐसे सुहाने रास्तों पर कैसे दौड़ा जाता है? और दौड़ता किधर कहां-कहां पहुंचता जाता है? सखियों के जीवन के कुछ स्कूली, और कुछ स्कूल से बाहर के वर्ष व्यतीत हुए हैं, बचपन से बाहर आकर अब यह कैशोर्यकाल है, आइए, उस काल, कंकाल का आस्वाद लिया जाए. छोटे-छोटे खंड हैं, तीन खंडों में ये झांकिया ठेल रहा हूं. फ़ुरसत में दांत और कनखोदने से आंख खोदते हुए आस्वाद ले सकते हैं..
This entire period had a similar character. I soon had to admit that what I did by myself couldn’t excite me, only what Lila touched became important. If she withdrew, if her voice withdrew from things, the things got dirty, dusty. Middle school, Latin, the teachers, the books, the language of books seemed less evocative than the finish of a pair of shoes, and that depressed me.
But one Sunday everything changed again. We had gone, Carmela, Lila, and I, to catechism, we were preparing for our first communion. On the way out Lila said she had something to do and she left us. But I saw that she wasn’t heading toward home: to my great surprise she went into the elementary school building.
I walked with Carmela, but when I got bored I said goodbye, walked around the building, and went back. The school was closed on Sunday, how could Lila go into the building? After much hesitation I ventured beyond the entranceway, into the hall. I had never gone into my old school and I felt a strong emotion, I recognized the smell, which brought with it a sensation of comfort, a sense of myself that I no longer had. I went into the only door open on the ground floor. There was a large neon-lit room, whose walls were lined with shelves of old books. I counted a dozen adults, a lot of children. They would take down volumes, page through them, put them back, and choose one. Then they got in line in front of a desk behind which sat an old enemy of Maestra Oliviero’s, lean Maestro Ferraro, with his crew-cut gray hair. Ferraro examined the chosen text, marked something in the record book, and the person went out with one or more books.
I looked around: Lila wasn’t there, maybe she had already left. What was she doing, she didn’t go to school anymore, she loved shoes and old shoes, and yet, without saying anything to me, she came to this place to get books? Did she like this space? Why didn’t she ask me to come with her? Why had she left me with Carmela? Why did she talk to me about how soles were ground and not about what she read?
I was angry, and ran away.
For a while school seemed to me more meaningless than ever. Then I was sucked back in by the press of homework and end-of-the-year tests, I was afraid of getting bad grades, I studied a lot but aimlessly. And other preoccupations weighed on me. My mother said that I was indecent with those big breasts I had developed, and she took me to buy a bra. She was more abrupt than usual. She seemed ashamed that I had a bosom, that I got my period. The crude instructions she gave me were rapid and insufficient, barely muttered. I didn’t have time to ask her any questions before she turned her back and walked away with her lopsided gait.
The bra made my chest even more noticeable. In the last months of school I was besieged by boys and I quickly realized why. Gino and his friend had spread the rumor that I would show how I was made easily, and every so often someone would ask me to repeat the spectacle. I sneaked away, I compressed my bosom by holding my arms crossed over it, I felt mysteriously guilty and alone with my guilt. The boys persisted, even on the street, even in the courtyard. They laughed, they made fun of me. I tried to keep them off once or twice by acting like Lila, but it didn’t work for me, and then I couldn’t stand it and burst into tears. Out of fear that they would bother me I stayed in the house. I studied hard, I went out now only to go, very reluctantly, to school.
One morning in May Gino ran after me and asked me, not arrogantly but, rather, with some emotion, if I would be his girlfriend. I said no, out of resentment, revenge, embarrassment, yet proud that the son of the pharmacist wanted me. The next day he asked me again and he didn’t stop asking until June, when, with some delay due to the complicated lives of our parents, we made our first communion, the girls in white dresses, like brides.
In those dresses, we lingered in the church square and immediately sinned by talking about love. Carmela couldn’t believe that I had refused the son of the pharmacist, and she told Lila. She, surprisingly, instead of slipping away with the air of someone saying Who cares, was interested. We all talked about it.
“Why do you say no?” Lila asked me in dialect.
I answered unexpectedly in proper Italian, to make an impression, to let her understand that, even if I spent my time talking about boyfriends, I wasn’t to be treated like Carmela.
“Because I’m not sure of my feelings.”
It was a phrase I had learned from reading Sogno and Lila seemed struck by it. As if it were one of those contests in elementary school, we began to speak in the language of comics and books, which reduced Carmela to pure and simple listener. Those moments lighted my heart and my head: she and I and all those well-crafted words. In middle school nothing like that ever happened, not with classmates or with teachers; it was wonderful. Step by step Lila convinced me that one achieves security in love only by subjecting the wooer to hard tests. And so, returning suddenly to dialect, she advised me to become Gino’s girlfriend but on the condition that all summer he agree to buy ice cream for me, her, and Carmela.
“If he doesn’t agree it means it’s not true love.”
I did as she told me and Gino vanished. It wasn’t true love, then, and so I didn’t suffer from it. The exchange with Lila had given me a pleasure so intense that I planned to devote myself to her totally, especially in summer, when I would have more free time. Meanwhile I wanted that conversation to become the model for all our next encounters. I felt clever again, as if something had hit me in the head, bringing to the surface images and words.
But the sequel of that episode was not what I expected. Instead of consolidating and making exclusive the relationship between her and me, it attracted a lot of other girls. The conversation, the advice she had given me, its effect had so struck Carmela Peluso that she ended up telling everyone. The result was that the daughter of the shoemaker, who had no bosom and didn’t get her period and didn’t even have a boyfriend, became in a few days the most reliable dispenser of advice on affairs of the heart. And she, again surprising me, accepted that role. If she wasn’t busy in the house or the shop, I saw her talking now with this girl, now with that. I passed by, I greeted her, but she was so absorbed that she didn’t hear me. I always caught phrases that seemed to me beautiful, and they made me suffer.
These were desolate days, at the height of which came a humiliation that I should have predicted and which instead I had pretended not to care about: Alfonso Carracci was promoted with an average of eight, Gigliola Spagnuolo was promoted with an average of seven, and I had all sixes and four in Latin. I would have to take the exam again in September in that one subject.
This time it was my father who said it was pointless for me to continue. The schoolbooks had already cost a lot. The Latin dictionary, the Campanini and Carboni, even though it was bought used, had been a big expense. There was no money to send me to private lessons during the summer. But above all it was now clear that I wasn’t clever: the young son of Don Achille had passed and I hadn’t, the daughter of Spagnuolo the pastry maker had passed and I hadn’t: one had to be resigned.
I wept night and day, I made myself ugly on purpose to punish myself. I was the oldest, after me there were two boys and another girl, Elisa: Peppe and Gianni, the two boys, came in turn to console me, now bringing me some fruit, now asking me to play with them. But I felt alone just the same, with a cruel fate, and I couldn’t calm down. Then one afternoon I heard my mother come up behind me. She said in dialect, in her usual harsh tone:
“We can’t pay for the lessons, but you can try to study by yourself and see if you pass the exam.” I looked at her uncertainly. She was the same: lusterless hair, wandering eye, large nose, heavy body. She added, “Nowhere is it written that you can’t do it.”
That was all she said, or at least it’s what I remember. Starting the next day, I began to study, forcing myself never to go to the courtyard or the public gardens.
But one morning I heard someone calling me from the street. It was Lila, who since we finished elementary school had completely gotten out of the habit.
“Lenù,” she called.
I looked out.
“I have to tell you something.”
I went down reluctantly, it irritated me to admit to her that I had to take the exam again. We wandered a bit in the courtyard, in the sun. I asked unwillingly what was new on the subject of boyfriends. I remember that I asked her explicitly if there had been developments between Carmela and Alfonso.
“What sort of developments?”
“She loves him.”
She narrowed her eyes. When she did that, turning serious, without a smile, as if leaving the pupils only a crack allowed her to see in a more concentrated way, she reminded me of birds of prey I had seen in films at the parish cinema. But that day it seemed to me she had perceived something that made her angry and at the same time frightened her.
“She didn’t tell you anything about her father?” she asked.
“That he’s innocent.”
“And who is the murderer?”
“A creature half male and half female who hides in the sewers and comes out of the grates like the rats.”
“So it’s true,” she said, as if suddenly in pain, and she added that Carmela believed everything she said, that all the girls did. “I don’t want to talk anymore, I don’t want to talk to anyone,” she muttered, scowling, and I felt that she wasn’t speaking with contempt, that the influence she had on us didn’t please her, so that for a moment I didn’t understand: in her place I would have been extremely proud. In her, though, there was no pride but a kind of impatience mixed with the fear of responsibility.
“But it’s good to talk to other people,” I murmured.
“Yes, but only if when you talk there’s someone who answers.”
I felt a burst of joy in my heart. What request was there in that fine sentence? Was she saying that she wanted to talk only to me because I didn’t accept everything that came out of her mouth but responded to it? Was she saying that only I knew how to follow the things that went through her mind?
Yes. And she was saying it in a tone that I didn’t recognize, that was feeble, although brusque as usual. She had suggested to Carmela, she told me, that in a novel or a film the daughter of the murderer would fall in love with the son of the victim. It was a possibility: to become a true fact a true love would have to arise. But Carmela hadn’t understood and right away, the next day, had gone around telling everyone that she was in love with Alfonso: a lie just to show off, whose consequences were unknown. We discussed it. We were twelve years old, but we walked along the hot streets of the neighborhood, amid the dust and flies that the occasional old trucks stirred up as they passed, like two old ladies taking the measure of lives of disappointment, clinging tightly to each other. No one understood us, only we two—I thought—understood one another. We together, we alone, knew how the pall that had weighed on the neighborhood forever, that is, ever since we could remember, might lift at least a little if Peluso, the former carpenter, had not plunged the knife into Don Achille’s neck, if it was an inhabitant of the sewers who had done it, if the daughter of the murderer married the son of the victim. There was something unbearable in the things, in the people, in the buildings, in the streets that, only if you reinvented it all, as in a game, became acceptable. The essential, however, was to know how to play, and she and I, only she and I, knew how to do it.
She asked me at one point, without an obvious connection but as if all our conversation could arrive only at that question:
“Are we still friends?”
“Then will you do me a favor?”
I would have done anything for her, on that morning of reconciliation: run away from home, leave the neighborhood, sleep in farmhouses, feed on roots, descend into the sewers through the grates, never turn back, not even if it was cold, not even if it rained. But what she asked seemed to me nothing and at the moment disappointed me. She wanted simply to meet once a day, in the public gardens, even just for an hour, before dinner, and I was to bring the Latin books.
“I won’t bother you,” she said.
She knew already that I had to take the exam again and wanted to study with me.
In those middle school years many things changed right before our eyes, but day by day, so that they didn’t seem to be real changes.
The Bar Solara expanded, became a well-stocked pastry shop—whose skilled pastry maker was Gigliola Spagnuolo’s father—which on Sunday was crowded with men, young and old, buying pastries for their families. The two sons of Silvio Solara, Marcello, who was around twenty, and Michele, just a little younger, bought a blue-and-white Fiat 1100 and on Sundays paraded around the streets of the neighborhood.
Peluso’s former carpenter shop, which, once in the hands of Don Achille, had become a grocery, was filled with good things that spilled out onto the sidewalk, too. Passing by you caught a whiff of spices, of olives, of salami, of fresh bread, of pork fat and cracklings that made you hungry. The death of Don Achille had slowly detached his threatening shadow from that place and from the whole family. The widow, Donna Maria, had grown very friendly and now managed the store herself, along with Pinuccia, the fifteen-year-old daughter, and Stefano, who was no longer the wild boy who had tried to pierce Lila’s tongue but a self-possessed young man, his gaze charming, his smile gentle. The clientele had increased greatly. My mother sent me there to do the shopping, and my father wasn’t opposed, partly because when there was no money Stefano wrote everything in a ledger book and we paid at the end of the month.
Assunta, who sold fruit and vegetables on the streets with her husband, Nicola, had had to retire because of bad back pain, and a few months later pneumonia almost killed her husband. Yet those two misfortunes had turned out to be a blessing. Now, going around the streets of the neighborhood every morning with the horse-drawn cart, summer and winter, rain and shine, was the oldest son, Enzo, who had almost nothing about him of the child who threw rocks at us: he had become a stocky youth, with a strong, healthy look, disheveled blond hair, blue eyes, a thick voice with which he praised his wares. He had excellent products and by his gestures alone conveyed an honest, reassuring willingness to serve his customers. He handled the scale adroitly. I liked the speed with which he pushed the weight along the arm to find the right balance, the sound of iron scraping rapidly against iron, then wrapped the potatoes or the fruit and hurried to put the package in Signora Spagnuolo’s basket, or Melina’s, or my mother’s.
Initiatives flourished in the whole neighborhood. A young dressmaker became a partner in the dry goods store, where Carmela Peluso had just started working as a clerk, and the store expanded, aspiring to become a ladies’ clothing shop. The auto-repair shop where Melina’s son, Antonio, worked was trying, thanks to the son of the old owner, Gentile Gorresio, to get into motorcycles. In other words everything was quivering, arching upward as if to change its characteristics, not to be known by the accumulated hatreds, tensions, ugliness but, rather, to show a new face. While Lila and I studied Latin in the public gardens, even the pure and simple space around us, the fountain, the shrubbery, a pothole on one side of the street, changed. There was a constant smell of pitch, the steamroller sputtered, advancing slowly over the steamy asphalt, as bare-chested or T-shirted workers paved the streets and the stradone. Even the colors changed. Pasquale, Carmela’s older brother, was hired to cut down the brush near the railroad tracks. How much he cut—we heard the sound of annihilation for days: the trees groaned, they gave off a scent of fresh green wood, they cleaved the air, they struck the ground after a long rustling that seemed a sigh, and he and others sawed them, split them, pulled up roots that exhaled an odor of underground. The green brush vanished and in its place appeared an area of flat yellow ground. Pasquale had found that job through a stroke of luck. Sometime earlier a friend had told him that people had come to the Bar Solara looking for young men to do night work cutting down trees in a piazza in the center of Naples. He—even though he didn’t like Silvio Solara and his sons, he was in that bar because his father was ruined—had to support the family and had gone. He had returned, exhausted, at dawn, his nostrils filled with the odor of living wood, of mangled leaves, and of the sea. Then one thing led to another, and he had been summoned again for that kind of work. And now he was on the construction site near the railroad and we sometimes saw him climbing up the scaffolding of the new buildings that were rising floor by floor, or in a hat made of newspaper, in the sun, eating bread with sausage and greens during his lunch break.
Lila got mad if I looked at Pasquale and was distracted. It was soon obvious, to my great amazement, that she already knew a lot of Latin. She knew the declensions, for example, and also the verbs. Hesitantly I asked her how, and she, with that spiteful expression of a girl who has no time to waste, admitted that during my first year of middle school she had taken a grammar out of the circulating library, the one managed by Maestro Ferraro, and had studied it out of curiosity. The library was a great resource for her. As we talked, she showed me proudly all the cards she had, four: one her own, one in Rino’s name, one for her father, and one for her mother. With each she borrowed a book, so she could get four at once. She devoured them, and the following Sunday she brought them back and took four more.
I never asked her what books she had read and what books she was reading, there wasn’t time, we had to study. She drilled me, and was furious if I didn’t have the answers. Once she slapped me on the arm, hard, with her long, thin hands, and didn’t apologize; rather, she said that if I kept making mistakes she would hit me again, and harder. She was enchanted by the Latin dictionary, so large, pages and pages, so heavy—she had never seen one. She constantly looked up words, not only the ones in the exercises but any that occurred to her.
She assigned homework in the tone she had learned from our teacher Maestra Oliviero. She obliged me to translate thirty sentences a day, twenty from Latin to Italian and ten from Italian to Latin. She translated them, too, much more quickly than I did. At the end of the summer, when the exam was approaching, she said warily, having observed skeptically how I looked up words I didn’t know in the dictionary, in the same order in which I found them in the sentence to be translated, fixed on the principal definitions, and only then made an effort to understand the meaning:
“Did the teacher tell you to do it like that?”
The teacher never said anything, she simply assigned the exercises. I came up with that method.
She was silent for a moment, then she said to me:
“Read the whole sentence in Latin first, then see where the verb is. According to the person of the verb you can tell what the subject is. Once you have the subject you look for the complements: the object if the verb is transitive, or if not other complements. Try it like that.”
I tried. Suddenly translating seemed easy. In September I went to the exam, I did the written part without a mistake and answered all the questions in the oral part.
“Who gave you lessons?” the teacher asked, frowning.
“A university student?”
I didn’t know what that meant. I said yes.
Lila was waiting for me outside, in the shade. When I came out I hugged her, I told her that I had done really well and asked if we would study together the following year. Since it was she who had first proposed that we meet just to study, inviting her to continue seemed to me a good way of expressing my joy and gratitude. She detached herself with a gesture almost of annoyance. She said she just wanted to understand what that Latin was that those clever ones studied.
“I’ve understood, that’s enough.”
“You don’t like it?”
“Yes. I’ll get some books from the library.”
“But there’s still a lot to study.”
“You study for me, and if I have trouble you’ll help me. Now I have something to do with my brother.”
“I’ll show you later."
(एलेना फेर्रांते की सखीकथाक्रम के चार उपन्यासों में से पहले उपन्यास के अंश. यूरोपा से साभार. फोटो 'द गार्डियन' से, साभार)