> Creative > Novella  
Arupa Patangia Kalita
Date of Publish: 2015-07-24

(Continued from previous part)

 

IV

The boy who left home with the bulging air bag has not come back. Initially there was a plate of rice for him, and then two bowls of curry and vegetables, followed by a bowl of cleaned pulses and rice, and gradually nothing remained. Just that his father’s blood pressure started increasing frequently. His mother could not sleep. Nobody could bear to see the face of the feeble woman who got up every time there was a sound, to open the main door; she turned extremely weak fasting and praying.

Though the woman does not want to engage her pregnant daughter-in-law in the kitchen, she cannot help doing it. Very frequently she would get dizzy while preparing food while her daughters would be in the school or the college. Applying some oil diluted with water on her head, she would call her daughter-in-law in a tired voice-“Ai, only the fish curry is left to be cooked.”

That day was the seventh or eighth of August. The youngest brother-in-law, both her sisters-in-law, her man and her father-in-law were all busy in their own work. It was just she and her mother-in-law at home. The sky was cloudy, but it was not raining. The weather has been the same for two days, humid and hot, not even a single leaf is moving. The clothes are soaked with perspiration in the sultry heat. Her mother-in-law started feeling dizzy while frying shredded banana flowers. After applying water-based oil on her head she had just called out to her in a weak voice, when a vehicle full of military personnel stomped into the house. She herself went out to meet them after helping her sick mother-in-law onto the bed. The backyard was already filled by them. They enquired about the missing boy the moment they entered the house. They asked harshly if he had ever been home and his present whereabouts, and then poured into the house. They fell into his room like vultures on a dead cow. After messing up his clothes and books, they went out with a bundle of some things. She also took some of the water-based oil on her head that she had prepared for her mother-in-law. She felt sick, as if she would vomit her intestines out. Leaving her food as it was, she also lied down besides her mother-in-law.

An unknown and unrelenting fear weighed down on the whole house. The usual everyday chores done neatly are lying here and there. Nobody has an eye for anything, only an overwhelming fear hangs about. Was it happening only to their house? The entire town has been swallowed by terror. Something will definitely happen before the 15th of August. Somebody has seen one or two of them near the reserve forest, and someone has seen them at night near the pipeline too.  Lots of trucks have also assembled in front of the army camp. People are also talking about the repulsive looking vehicle; it is supposedly bullet-proof and an anti-mine vehicle. Everything is like dry timber, only a spark is needed. Amidst this dry timber the news has spread silently that somebody has seen the prodigal boy in the forest reserve. He has supposedly turned quite jagged and rough, with a face full of beard.

Her mother-in-law cannot raise her head from her pillow due to dizziness. There is only one month left for her father-in-law’s retirement. The man who worshiped the school as his only vocation now hardly goes to the school. He finds it very difficult if he leaves home. Someone has supposedly seen the boy who had left his home at different spots. What if he comes home, what if those who trample their house every two or three days come. The man loses his composure in fear. What will they – the expecting daughter-in-law and the sick woman – do? The eldest one has to go to the office, the girls have their schools and college, the youngest son has already been sent to his maternal uncle’s house. There is no peace at home either; he would repeatedly walk to the road. Who knows he may come at night! He strolls in the veranda at night. Nothing is assured, nobody can be trusted, no one knows what will happen when. Who knows what thorns might lie hidden beneath the water? Fear, stifled terror.

The man went to sleep towards cockcrow after strolling the whole night on the verandah. The home fell asleep when he finally went to sleep at crack of dawn. How can someone sleep if he keeps on writhing on the verandah like a kawoi fish left out to die after being slit? The household also failed to do so. Those boys were unable to wake them up even after hitting the door loudly several times. She was the one who woke up first. Just pregnant, her body felt dizzy all the time. She shook her husband up. The entire household was petrified to see his four friends on the door step. The mud and dirt clinging on to the soles of their heavy boots immediately soiled up the entire place. They carried guns on their shoulders and heavy bags on their hands. They wanted to have food. Meanwhile, the mother of the home had got up from her bed. She almost cried out the moment she reached.

“Is he all right”?

“Yes, he is. He has come back from Kachin twice; his rank is far above than us.”

“Even the commander appreciates his sign.

“He was down with malaria once.”

“We have to take permission to meet him now.” All of them answered, almost at once.

“Ma, we haven’t eaten anything for two days.”

“After taking food, we will start for the hill before the day break.”

One looks at the youngest sister-in-law. “We are very hungry, Shalini.” She rushed inside with an irate snort.

“Does he have to starve?”  Her mother-in-law asks, just like one delinquent with fever.

“What is the big deal in starving?”

“We have to starve if needed, but then on other days we eat like there’s no tomorrow too.”

Her mother-in-law goes into the kitchen to cook. She and her younger sister-in-law followed her.

They left just as the morning was breaking after having their meal.  Everybody of the household kept looking at the boys who went away by the pomelo tree in the backyard.

The father said, “All of them had grown up together”

“All of them have been summoned by dark fate.” their mother wipes her tears.

“That fellow had the guts to ask for food from me. He has not yet forgotten that name he had given me; what a name! Shalini or Falini, am I his wife that he dare call me like that?” She wanted to laugh at her younger sister in-law’s retorts, but she stopped short when she heard the panicky voice of her man.

“Baby! Do not ever utter their names. Do not tell anything about them to others.” Her heart sank looking at the face of her man, ashen with fear. It has been such a long time since he had laughed that special chuckle of his. Is it only the man? The whole household has ceased to laugh since the day he had left the house. There is only fear. There is only terror.

She looked at the elephant apple tree. Is the honeycomb still there? Yes, it’s there. It has grown big and is now sagging. The hive seems to be swaying a bit in the wind.

Following her eyes, everybody looks at the beehive silently; a matured, drooping bee hive.

“It is full of honey” her eldest sister-in-law said.

“Let it stay so. They might fly away if we try to gather honey.” Her father-in-law was staring intently at the honey comb.

“Keep it like that, there is no need to drive them away with smoke; we don’t want honey.” There is not a single trace of the anger, fear and hatred that was there just a few moments back on the soft face of her younger sister-in-law. Arunima kept looking at her peaceful and gentle face.

V

That day was the 13th of August. The people of the household who slept at ten o’clock every night and woke up at the crack of dawn and started their chores have lost all sense of time, meals and sleep. They rarely sleep a wink in the night, who knows who might come? He? His mates?  Or Those...?  They go to sleep only towards dawn.

     Like others in the town, that day too they lit the hundred watt bulbs outside and came inside. The elder sister-in-law sat with her stitching. Her marriage is almost set. The boy is a librarian in the college where she is presently studying.  He is fairly good-looking and belongs to a good family. The boy has seen her for the last four years and he himself has offered the proposal. Arunima advised her to buy some fabric and do the stitching in advance. She really enjoyed watching the serious-looking girl fiddling with the threads of different hues. So many vibrant dreams are there in these colored threads! Baby sat with her books. But after sometime she took out the book of gardening. Arunima kept on watching her. The young girl is reading the book very attentively. She herself had presented this book with lots of photos of flowers inside it to her sister-in-law. When she had received the book, she jumped in joy like a baby goat.  Is she reading the book or is she flying like a butterfly in a flower garden? It is August already and time for seasonal flowers. The girl has measured the flower garden again and again, this space is meant for dahlia, that is for poppy, here would be marigold, there sweet pea, this is for chrysanthemums. She takes measurements and reads the book. Today, her man has to be on surveillance. People of the town keep vigil at night in the entire town following the army’s instruction -- who knows what will happen where? Three trains in three different areas of Assam have already been derailed by bombs. Various news items are being telecast on the radio and the television. As her man was not there, both her sister-in-laws had accompanied her to bed. The previous and the next day of Independence Day has been declared as bandhs.

She wants to go out. Both her sisters-in-law also get up. “What happened bou, are you not feeling well?” Baby comes closer.

 “Bou, do you want to go outside?” The elder one has brought an umbrella. “It’s drizzling, bou.”

Her rabbit-eared Mother-in-law called out, “Do you hear this, Ami? Take your bou to the bathroom, it is very slippery outside. What will happen if she falls down? Her mother-in-law lets go of some admonishment, “How many times did I tell him to build an attached bathroom, so that she may use it at night, he says he has no money. For everything else he has money, why not for this purpose? Actually it is nothing but apathy, what does men-folk understand about the plight of being a woman?”

“O.k. ma, I will go to the bathroom, you please go to sleep.” she is a little embarrassed.

She goes to the bathroom. Baby brought a bucket of water. “Bou, I will flush the water. Do not lift the bucket, mother will be angry.”

She heard the conversations of her in-laws in a different room. Her father-in-law was telling his wife, “There is no need to tell him, I will have it built. How much will it cost?  He is a young boy, what does he know about the turns and twists of life.” He clears his throat loudly, “Can you hear me, tell Moneswar to sprinkle some pebbles and sand on the yard, it has become very slippery lately”.

The rain drops started drumming on the tin roof; she could no longer hear the voice of her in-laws. The power went out and it was dark all around. Quickly Ami lit the hurricane lamp kept on the right side of the bed. Soft yellow rays of light lit up the room still carrying the fragrance of a new bride. Baby and Ami both fell on the bed on either sides of their bou. It is pouring heavily outside, just like someone pouring water from a pot, flashes of lightning seem to come right inside the room through the glass window and ventilators.

 “Bou, dada and others must be sitting at someone’s verandah,” Ami speaks up.

 “They might also be in Runjun’s house. Their father also is on vigil today.” There is a touch of fear in Baby’s voice.

“Runjun’s mother must be preparing tea for them”. She smiles a little. She feels lonesome  and empty  if the man is not around. He never goes out leaving her alone and now-a-days, he is not going anywhere. He wants a sweet baby girl. Oh! The things he does! Keeping his ears over the belly he says “Hey, I hear noises inside”.

She is falling into a slumber. Coloured threads are hanging In a multi-coloured garden. They are hanging like cobwebs in space. The web of threads is sparkling, like a web sparkling because of the dewdrops on it. Shaking the flowers, sticking the threads on her cheeks and face, a small girl with a red hair ribbon on her head comes running; she spreads both her hands…

A terrible. ear-splitting sound. She jumps up on the bed. Baby and Ami screamed. A strange red light entered through the window and the ventilator. Her in-laws reached her room, her man too reached there sometime later. All of them gathered in the verandah and stood there, petrified. A great ball of fire seems to be rising in the sky to the east. They started coughing and choking because of a burning stench, a layer of smoke has spread everywhere.

Her mother-in-law tells her father-in-law, “Will you please go, take the torch and let loose the cows of the cowshed.” The voice of their mother is forthright. “Ami, open the cage of the hens and pigeons, and also the shed of the goats.”

Arunima runs to put her hands on a box.

Buwari, don’t be attached to anything, think only about the one in your belly, my child. Mother-in-law clasps her hands and looks upwards. “What are you watching? Come, let us go, don’t you see that the fire is escalating?  Everything shall be burned to ashes now”. All of them went outside. People are running helter-skelter on the road. Somebody shouted, “They have bombed the pipeline.” Somebody else is crying out, “This fire is not one to subside, it will burn everything”. People are crying and screaming, the baying of cows and buffalos, cawing crows. She could only sense that one of her hands is being held by Baby and the other by her man.

The dream of the colourful spider webs, the colourful flower garden, and the girl in the red ribbon is still stuck in Arunima’s heavy eyes; her sight seems to have dimmed. A group of cows entered in the midst of the directionless, helpless people; a herd of runaway cows. People have opened the ropes of their hitches. A cold shiver runs through her. What will happen? Will her dreams be also like the runaway cows? Baby’s dreams? Ami’s dreams? His? The small dreams of her in-laws? The herd of cows are baying.  There is hue and cry, heart-rending cries of people… dreams lay around everywhere, unfettered dreams, fugitive dreams.

            “Where are we going dada?” Baby’s voice has cracked in fear.

“Where the fire cannot touch us, Baby.” her voice also sounds like it is twisting up from a deep well.

“Such a big fire,” Ami’s voice seems to have been buried somewhere.

The petroleum fire was burning boisterously, it was not a fire, it was as if there had been a volcanic eruption. The eyes of the people were burning, the throats were being chocked. There is a thick layer of smoke.

“Where shall I go now taking my children?” Her father almost broke into sobs. He is looking back repeatedly.

Deuta, pick up speed, all others have gone quite ahead”--the man’s voice is also trembling.

Dada, where shall we go?” Baby’s voice is one smothered by sobs, fear and terror.

“Baby, no fire can burn the whole earth, however big it may be.”  She speaks as if she is speaking to herself.

Before her eyes the dream of the shining webs of colourful threads, flowers of various hues and the red ribbon start looping again.

She cries out “Ma, walk fast…walk… fast…”

---

(…….To be continued)

 

(Dr. Mukuta Borah has done her Ph.D on Assamese Women Writing from the University of Delhi.  She teaches English literature and language to post graduate students of IGNOU. Her areas of interest include comparative literature, translation studies, ELLT, Indian literature in English, and American literature.

Rajarshi Kalita teaches English Literature at Shyamlal College, University of Delhi. His areas of interest include cultural studies, popular culture and popular fiction, colonial historiography, translation and North Eastern cultural history and politics.)

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