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Bonti Senchowa
Date of Publish: 2017-05-27

Beyond Satiety

 

Pahi’s visage is barely visible through the blanket of the dense cloud of shravan that has descended upon her. Her spirits have certainly been deflated ever since her father had been transferred. Indeed she took a protracted period of time to come to terms with her father’s absence from home. And as if the weather complemented the mood by suddenly turning hostile and sullen as she returned home from school. What could have befallen the girl? Roon is a very vigilant mother. At least she thinks she is. The children have already been overindulged by their father. Naturally Roon had to take up a certain degree of strictness.

Roon had no other way but to wait anxiously for the wily weather to calm down. Moments of bewilderment. The pristine charms of childhood are almost sliding away but the road to adolescence is also miles away. It would be best to wait in anticipation instead of making repeated enquiries. Roon is determined to remain unflustered and let time pass. However by nightfall the veil of clouds is lifted.

By temperament Pahi was given to think and behave beyond her age. It is this maturity that is reflected in her concern for her little brother. She makes sure that Ponakan had fallen asleep. After that she crawls up to her mother, “Do you know a man misbehaved with me on the road? On the way to school and back. On several days. Some day I would hit back. Then don’t blame me. Deta2………..”

Pahi’s nostrils flares up in furious flames. The words are stuck inside her.

And Roon’s hair stands erect. Caterpillar or wild dog? How could she be so careless? The school is at a stone’s throw. They are not even required to cross the road. Ever since Ponakan had been enrolled in school they go and return together. Everyday they travelled that short distance very carefully. She desperately prays for the safety of her children. The same anxieties had plagued Shyamanta also. Yet, in the midst of it?

She reproached her own carelessness. Is there a moment absent from the slings and arrows of life? Even the dappled butterflies bear with them the stings of the caterpillar. Roon hugged her downcast daughter close her. Gradually the complexities of life would bear down on her. And perhaps one day, like Roon she would dispose of with the old and embrace the new close to her heart again. She gives in to moments of self-introspection whether in performing the role of the mother she had erred somewhere along the way? And where did she blunder? And what was she pursuing herself? Virginia Woolfe’s a view of her own room? She fervently awaited the break of dawn.

With both the children held firmly in her hands, Roon proceeded to school bent on accosting the man who had ‘misbehaved’ with Pahi. But just a mere glimpse of the man sent a ripple of mixed emotions through her, baffled, whether to break into a cry or laugh aloud. A podgy and bulging old man. The body transfixed in timelessness as the mind races towards a remote corner of adolescence a hundred seas away. As if, just then a page straightway from the short story of Shilabhadra3 had flown in holding his son on the verandah or in other words substantiating his physical presence. The mind reverts to the zone of flustered youth on the riverbanks. A helpless condition. The body that could not synchronize with memory; the restless and greatly flabbergasted son managing his aged father.. The lusty gestures; the hideous smile. Roon decided to steer clear of the scene altogether.

 

Roon’s precarious condition takes a further beating at night when she is subjected to a barrage of questions by Pahi: “Speak frankly. Why won’t I understand? You speak. Where does the bafflement lie? What do his gestures imply? Won’t he understand even after being humiliated? Why? If suppose I inform the son that this --”

But this is her Pahi, who would not take things lying down. She would make Shyamanta sweat while teaching her about mammals. The new generation that in a wink desires to traverse the unknown distant future. This wide world looming in front of her. The apparent disharmony between mature perception and juvenile insight. Pahi’s insistent demands. Relentless on a transparent answer. A coherent one. Roon and Shyamanta quickly exchange feeble glances. The former Miss Universe endorses an advertisement of napkins; but what is the use of it? Every time Roon defers an immediate explanation, Pahi is all the more persistent on an immediate answer. The difficulty of holding on to the core. Indeed, very taxing times.

Roon heaves a sigh. The sight of the old man unloaded a heavy stone from her heart. A great relief. But can one really remain complacent amidst the turmoil? Suddenly she is haunted by flashes of her own childhood.

The consciousness playing a game of hides and seeks on a sleeping mind and coursing along the labyrinths of every corner of the past. Pahi had slipped into a deep slumber. Even Ponakan. Roon had infinite time in her hands to have a room of one’s own view and revel in some sun-drenched moments. All by herself in absolute seclusion. She peered over to catch a glimpse of her own reflection in Pahi’s countenance. Did Charulata ever wallow in such turmoil? Did she also display such inquisitiveness?

How old was she then? Borpah4 and the others senior relatives were engaged in contouring the raised earthen mound surrounded by four pointed bamboo stems. In the same vicinity a few banana plants. A bota5 in little Roon’s hands.

“ Isn’t she our Thagi school master’s daughter? Get me some mola dhopat6 from your Borbou7 , Aai8 .”

Romping around gleefully she forgot all about the mola dhopat. In her excitement she almost stumbles on the bota. Just at that moment she remembered. As she handed over the tobacco she paused in disbelief. Why didn’t she notice it any other day? Such a lovely bey9. Four rootless white banana columns formed the four corners. The mound made of loose soil and enclosed in delicately woven layers of banana barks. Cold and smooth. The barren space just adequate for one person to stand. Above the four banana columns the pointed canopy of woven and layered banana barks. As pointed as a crown. Above and below, inside and outside, the entire area was a vibrant array of skilled workmanship in banana barks. Slender and flawless. Four banana plants in the four corners. A straight bamboo stem from the tip of the crown just like an umbrella. The de-skinned fibers, as green as the freshly sprung grass, was made into floral bouquets and placed at intervals, A small banana flower was inverted on the protruding tip. The petals split open like a half open lotus bloom. She gently placed her feet on the mould. The weight of her delicate frame sent a cascade of rippling sounds from the banana barks. She was amazed. Such crystal whiteness! Supposing the dirt and grime from her feet smeared it? Borpah and the others were adding the finishing touches to their work.

She made one single brisk round of the bey. Someone remarked, “What is it, child? Are you fascinated by it? When your turn comes, we will surely replicate the same decoration.”

Like the balimahi bird10, she took flight and disappeared. The evening flew in as gently as the simalu cotton. The emaciated river that mirrored the sky. Along the river bank the troupe of women singers trudged upstream. The water flowing backwards should never be drawn. The pitchers embellished with the mango-stems were filled with water only after the ritual of symbolically slashing the water with kitchen knives. The frail anorexic river like a chirpy young girl. And the aiotis11 break into a melodious hymn,

Beholding the waves of Yamuna

Radha’s heart flutters.

Bring the boat closer to the bank

O pleasure giver!

The friendly river basking in rustic fantasies and dulcet melodies impacts and enters the nooks and crevices of the delicate mind; an enigmatic evolution. An escort of eternal time, of chaste and undefiled contentment. She is also a part of the troupe. The group of female singers gathers on the river bank to sing,

On this bank a whirlpool

On that bank a wave

Our copper pitchers, Radha

Has the river flowed in?

To the dense notes of uruli12 and showers of rice grains the little bride will be bathed with pitcher after pitcher of water. And she will be covered in a shroud of starched and stiff cloth to enable her to undress. Wrapped in a chador she will be treated to another stream of uruli and more showers of rice grains,

Pour at the front

Pour at the back

The women shall bring water from

The dhobi ghat

And pour on the maiden’s head.

Inside the pandal, the bride would distribute puffed rice flakes carried in the fringes of her chador. In a symbolic gesture the women will cuddle her konai13. Every woman who would lift her konai would be plastered with a layer of soggy rice paste. A time for cavorting and prancing about; tugging and pulling in merriment. Girls on the threshold of puberty and the bride’s peers are frantically tracked down to dish out the sindoor used for the bride’s bindi. Roon plays her part in the festivities.

If a boy of her age was spotted on the fringes of the pandal, he would be immediately packed off, “Off! Off! Gosh! You can never sport a beard. Don’t you dare to come here?”

Her gender inflates her little heart with pride. “See! I am allowed to enter. So what if I am very young. I am a female. I can take part in these rituals”.

A lustrous radiance emanating from that pride creeps out and overflows her lips. She changes her sleeping side. Times have changed; culture has been edged out by consumerism. The ritualistic festivities and genial tenor of the pubertal marriage is fast eroding. That space has been replaced by the ritual of feasting. The cost of the food items is also consistently increasing. The disease of consumerism has infiltrated the rank and file of society from town to village. While we revel in the absence of dowry in our society the mushrooming cases of bride burning and assaulted daughters-in-law speak a different story.

Perhaps the exorbitant costs of the feasts have been the cause of distress for parents of the girl child. An impulsive yawn escapes from her. Drops of pearl continuously slide off through the chinks of her fingers leaving behind only the grime and sand.

Sand? The sand-castles that they built on the bank with the wet sand? A soulful cry of pity emanates from her heart for her own children. Confined in a suffocating flat the medium of the remote control has defined their childhood. The baggage of textbooks has occupied the prime place. The effort to survive in the rat race.

Presently, Roon feels intimidated by the newspapers also. Cases of murder, rape feature regularly in the newspaper columns. The other day, on the very first page a father made a confessional statement that a particular child of his was born from an illicit affair. Not out of wed-lock. Another anxiety has been appended to Roon’s prevalent list. Hope the newspaper is out of Pahi’s sight. Otherwise she will be compelled by Pahi to undertake the most Herculean task of defining what is legal and illegal of marriages and children. .While trying to keep the paper out of reach Roon felt a heavy load on her heart. Did the special child of the confessing father read the story of his birth? Who must have hidden from his knowledge this dark and forbidden history? He may have read. He may have digested it .He may have taken it casually. May be. The new generation strides at enormous pace. Nothing can hold them back.

The resplendent and unrestricted expanse of her childhood sky. Was it absolutely unclouded and unrestrained?

The graphic image of Gagan khura’s14 large house slowly unfolds in her mind. Roon had unrestricted access to that house. Moina khuri 16 would serve her sliced pineapples. The entire area suffused by the aroma . While eating the chunks the syrupy juice would trickle down the length of the elbows. But what fascinated her more was the almirahs stacked with rows of books. She reached out at the books through the clear and clean glass windows. There was an intense bonding with the books. Her friends on the other hand, remained busy picking ‘milky flowers’ or digging edible roots in the paddy fields.

Passing both his hands through her armpits Gagan khura would lift and playfully fling her in the air. Then catching her again in mid-air he would tell Charulata, “Nabou15, watch out, your daughter will attain great heights. So fascinated by books. Send her to our place. Moina will be delighted by her company.”

She desperately tries to free herself from the clutches of Gagan khura’s crab-like hands. Her group of friends must have finished building their sand-castles in the afternoon. The sheer voracity of books has confined her to Gagan khura’s room.

The call of the river is irresistible. Charulata would sweep the courtyard exactly at the break of dawn and head off to the river bank. And on the cleanly swept fresh courtyard Roon would make a circling sweep with her big toe, balancing on the pivotal sole of her right foot. The previous evening, her father had already collected the neem stems for brushing. Taking one in her mouth she would race after her mother

Sliding down into the water up to her chest her mother would leave one end of her chador to flow along with the water. The upper portion of her body stark naked. The delicate pair of hands in playful wantonness with the water. As if holding the river in her arms. As though she will speak to it. The thin veil of mist melts away exactly from the place where Charulata stood as if removed by somebody; she would repeatedly remind Charulata to cover her body, “What are you doing? Cover your body. The mist has nearly dissolved.”

“Let it be. The river shall see and so shall you. Why should we be ashamed of the river? Women and river are identical. And what about you? You are still a part of my bare breasts. You exist within me.”

And then, Charulata would dive headlong or simply wade in and float and engage in a heart-to-heart conversation with the river! Like little Deukon? Every day, while returning from school, Deukon is invariably the last one in the group to reach. Unconsciously, he would break away from the group to halt and pause awhile. And he would gaze conscientiously at the green trees. And he would also speak to the tufts of green. After covering quite a distance the group realizes that he had been left behind. They wait for him to catch up.

When news of Deukon’s diversions reaches Charulata’s ears, she merely exclaims,

“What kind of a boy is he? Insane or sane!”

“But what about you-----?”

Roon reminds Charulata of her silent tête-à-têtes with the river.

Whenever she had free time, Roon would dash off to Gagon khura’s house.

And the fragile hands would browse through the rows of books hunting for familiar names. Sometimes she would single out up her favorite one and flip through the pages standing right there. As she read, Gagon khura would repeatedly try to distract her. He repeatedly rubbed his stubbled cheek on her soft one. On other days, when she is engrossed in locating places in the atlas khura would surreptitiously sneak in and hug her in a taut grip and forcefully place her on his lap. It was very exasperating. Her book fantasies would just wither away. At such moments she would dart out of their house resolving never to set foot again. Never will she again crave for books.

“Will give you grain, give you rice, sprinkle flowers

The thought of going to Indrapuri makes me feel good---”

The rows and rows of books behind the closed doors constantly enticed her. Her previous resolution simply flutters away as she meekly surrenders to the call. An eerie silence prevails in the house. Very well. Uncle must be away; khuri16 must be in the kitchen. Hoping to be unseen by anyone she directly tip-toes to the room. Nimble hushed steps. She expected a quick read-through of the half- read story before the arrival of Gagon khura and would later sit by Moina khuri at her loom.

An unusual stillness permeated the house that day. The peculiar ‘khat-khat’ sound of Moina khuri’s weaving shuttle could not be heard. Feeling a gush of warm breath on her neck she turns but is immediately lifted in a jerk by Gagon khura. She desperately fletches her hands and legs to wriggle free from his clutches.

 

“Leave me. Don’t lift me. I don’t like it.”

The doors of the books are not open today. The depraved love reflected in the enlarged panicky eyes. Several drops of mist in the corners. Where is Moina khuri? Moina khuri? The entire body reeling under a hundred stings. The hands as sharp as the paws of an animal. The teeth of a hunting dog.

She resists the carnal assault by sinking her milk-teeth into his beefy hairy hands. She leaps for the door, dashes out leaving behind on the threshold a little flesh from underneath the nail of the big toe. The big toe that made circles on the fresh courtyard.

A piercing cry emanates from a flock of birds in the front courtyard. A handful of weaver birds had nested on the betel-nut trees at the nongolamukh17 ; surely a hunter crow must have infiltrated the nests. Unless there is a grave danger, the birds would not raise a pandemonium and run helter-skelter and wake up Sarulata. Their eggs must have hatched. Early in the morning Sarulata had found one fledgling that slipped out from the nest. Even then the flock had created a commotion.

Leaving behind the work at hand, Sarulata rushes out of her house. The wailful cry of the flock of birds burst out to the farthest areas and frittered away.

The sound of a vigorously fluttering banana leaf emanates from some place. The sound submerged all other sounds. The fluttering sound even reached her heart. She stood rooted to the ground in bewilderment. Or did she see a frail dove with mutilated pinions in front of her? Or is it an injured deer who has escaped from the clutches of a savage hunter? Sarulata stood motionless.

Seeing her mother’s unusual composure the little girl’s fears and tears break into a heart-rending wailing. The entire body battered by red swollen patches.

On one of her foraging trips to collect half-ripe mangoes, the surat leaf had caused allergic itching followed by red swellings. The same kind of lesions. On that day the more Sarulata discovered abrasions on the delicate body, the more loudly she called out to her mother-in-law.

“Look at the state of the girl! Let her grandmother offer advice.”

But that day? Thunderous stillness envelopes Sarulata. Her grandmother could instinctively smell something from the confines of her bedroom.

“What has happened? Why? You bitches don’t tell me anything!”

Instantly Sarulata wields her defenses.

“Nothing, nothing has happened. Caterpillar allergy. You go back to sleep.”

Caterpillar?

A chill ran down the spine of the little girl. Fearlessly, she trudged up to the corner of her mother’s bed. Does it imply that her rounded shoulders, slender neck, beautiful thighs, the swollen patches on her body had been raided and invaded by thousands and thousands of stings? A feathery smooth face dotted by chicken-pox? Her face twinged in disgust for her own body.

She spent the entire night chasing one patchy dream. That is the river bank. Over there the half buried blazing tortoise eggs . Gently she removes the sand from the sides that were buried. The eggs were positioned one after another covered by a flimsy layer of sand. Smooth and round. She repeatedly staggers towards the eggs but fails to reach. She makes an effort to approach them from another direction. She cannot reach the eggs. Her feet slips off on the bank. She will once again try her luck from the edge of the river. The eggs have to be retrieved. A flash of lightning rips through her feet.

Suddenly she wakes up and sits. The sheer whiteness of the eggs bedazzles her eyes for a long time. Her mother is sitting besides her. Surely, last night she did not sleep with her grand mother.

Today her mother did not sweep the courtyard. She followed her mother to the river bank. A pair of swollen eyes. They walk to the river in chilling muteness.

The rising water of the river. As if someone had gone upstream and mixed red soil with a lot of water. Now and then heaps of marshy waste floats down. In the distance the fishermen’s boats are distinctly visible. It is no longer misty. Roon was transfixed in muteness, rooted to the stone which they used for washing clothes. Nothing appealed to her.

“Ma, lets go home and wash. Can’t you see the water of the river is so dirty today.”

Charulata turned towards her. Red,swollen eyes. Her mother must have remained awake the entire night. Treading carefully and slowly she wades deep into the river. It remained unclear whether she paid heed to Roon or not.

“The river drifts away grimy waste. It is not by itself dirty. We must not call the river dirty. Dearest daughter, come along and get into the water. Plunge your body. It shall be cleansed.”

As she stood watching the water steadily began to rise. Sometimes a lashing wave would suddenly swirl around itself and slide down. Again the water starts flowing. The washing stone is nowhere at sight. The familiar river bank is in the middle of the river. And her king’s castles made of sand? Looking at the scene evokes a mixed feeling of delight and fear in her.

That was the only time that she was separated from her mother for a long stretch of time. With Romola pehi18. Far away from the shadows of her mother. The layers and layers of her pehi’s gentleness that lay concealed behind an enigmatic front flowered before her eyes. Pehi was married. What a beautiful bride she was! She came home on the eight day of her marriage for the traditional feast but never returned. A curiosity that remained unanswered for Roon. Romola pehi was by temperament calm and amiable. A river ceaselessly flows inside. Now and then it overflows the banks.

That was the time when for a long period, in her state of separation from Charulata, Roon had been to many places with Romola pehi. Although not a direct family member, Charulata had always treated Romola pehi as her own sister-in-law. Only after coming away from home did she discover this warmth in her? Tender- hearted and very close to the heart. The city is congested with vehicles. There is just no end to her surprises. It is quite amazing how the vehicles managed to speed on in close proximity to one another. How? Romola Pehi explained, “The way melody interfuses with rhythm Your song, my harmonium, Tapan’s tabla. You are you, I am I, yet together.”

They returned home carrying along precious pearls of wisdom unsurpassable by even the most melodious notes. Sarulata was fidgeting in restlessness eagerly awaiting their arrival. Did she recall her then? She tightly clung to her mother like a madhobilata19, “Very much, ma. For you . For the river also.”

Her father was a man of few words. Roon’s utterance brought a smile to his lips. Her father then turned to the eagerly waiting brothers and said, “Do you understand now? Only mother and the river. We are not included within the four boundaries.”

Roon was so elated that her spirits soared like a frenzied butterfly. She sat on her grandmother’s lap. Then she shoved a little sliced betel-nut into her mouth. Charulata was overcome by a flood of tears as she stared and stared at her little girl. She is indebted to her sister-in-law Romola. She had erased the dark shadows that had weighed heavily on the tender mind of the cheerful butterfly. Romola pehi smiled back gently. Possessed by the yearning to know whether her aunt had reached home or not, Roon dashes off with lightning speed to the river bank for an answer.

Out of sight for such a long time! Her body has not been cooled for a long time by the soothing water of the river. Should she share her beautiful thoughts with the river? She cannot gain peace of mind without dipping into the river.

Leaping in and out and submerging in the waters she blissfully bathes. Leaping headlong again and again as if looking for something. Her hair flung open. The eagle’s stroke takes her to the middle of the river and then back. Like the rising waters her lustrous mane of hair floats along with the current. Constantly rubbing her cheeks against the water she converses with the river! Silently! Like her mother Charulata!

The river is blessed with immense power. Sometimes the reflection of the sky is crystal clear. Sometimes swollen in arrogance. The fresh rain- filled river is a beautiful but a disdainful maiden. At such times her grandmother often cautions her grandchildren to be careful of the river.

“Look out. New water has sprung. Around this time the river becomes highly overbearing.”

Roon felt the same way. The river behaves in this manner as if it does not recognize us. As if it will not speak to us.

“Yes. Just like you. A freshly fed river and a fresh teenager. The same impetuousness.” Charulata added.

That is Charulata’s affectionate indulgence. Roon is not at all arrogant. Her conduct and intelligence elicited the appreciation of everyone in the neighborhood. Charulata felt proud of her. The one and only daughter. And her appearance ? Once a week her grandmother wards off the evil eye from her. A budding girl. Cannot let evil eyes befall her. Let disasters and calamities be kept away in the distance. Although confined to the bed, grandmother keeps a constant vigil!

The betel-leaf climbers had withered away under the impact of last year’s flood. The aromatic betel-leaf planted by grandfather. Grandmother profusely cursed the river. The annoying floods have willfully taken away the betel-leaf climber. The enemy of some birth has reaped victory.

Hearing her mother-in-law’s curses Charulata breaks into a suppressed smile. Oh God ! Her curse to the river ! On the other hand the very mention of the river makes her stonewall other things.

At that time Charulata arrived at this house for the first time. Perhaps the smell of moong and haldi was still lingering. Charulata’s mother came visiting her daughter. Both the mothers-in-laws are deeply engrossed in conversation. Charulata’s mother was immensely pleased that even after marriage there was a gay spritefulness in her daughter. The house befits her. Very befitting conditions. Such an affectionate mother-in-law. Such nature to make an outsider feel at home. Again the Dekhow river in which she swam and grew up with, is to her good fortune, the same river in which as a bride she again changes her bathing clothes. So what, if she has left her mother’s home! The river has embraced her since birth right up to this moment, like a mother’s company. A maiden equipped by the Dekhow and a daughter-in-law nourished by the Dekhow.

The statement of the new family kin made her squirm in annoyance. What is this young family kin talking ? Grandmother knows no Dekhow.

“What are you saying, biyoni20 ? Ours is a river. If Dekhow is Dekhow, then it is yours. For what deficiency will our river be a Dekhow? Please pay heed to it. Time will tell. Our water is sweet. The fish luscious. The flood comes suddenly but leaves instantly. Leaves it fertile; no damage. We always get news of your river. Devastating affliction. Heavy water. It remains in the paddy fields for so long that the chances of survival of the new saplings is thwarted.”

On the banks of the same river grandmother lies asleep. A healthy moj21 sapling has sprung up right through her heart. The moj sapling has turned into a massive tree. Grandmother is leaning against the river and flowing along with it.

Situated at a corner from the main room, grandmother’s room lies in an abandoned state. The very next year Charulata decided to use that room for rearing silk-worms. The sound produced while devouring the leaves is clearly audible. The october bound silkworms mature in time for Charulata. The silk-worm reared during her mother-in-law’s time must be boiled in the back courtyard. As a rule, after extracting the thread, the cocoon is buried in a pit dug at the corner of the backyard. After the demise of grandmother the rule is no longer followed to the letter. The boys have learnt to relish the taste of the cocoons. A constant vigil is kept as the days to the maturity of the silkworms close in after which the thread be retrieved and the cocoons made available. Charulata remains indecisive. The dead might find some fault. The boys would not relent. Charulata is in a fix.

Roon awaits longingly to hear the music created by the silk-worms while chipping at the leaves. The soft notes of the growing silk-worms! As muteness descends upon the still night the sound becomes more rhythmical. It enters and soothes her ears. She has narrated this experience to all her companions.

Once Giti came to get a personal feel of such a mesmerizing experience. She has never seen a room engulfed with hundreds of silk worms. A shiver ran through Giti’s facial contours. Roon pulls her inside; if Giti hesitatingly moves one step ahead, she instantly retreats two steps back. The sight of the creeping and crawling silk worms makes her cover herself with the chadar. As if the serpentine crawling of the silk worms is taking effect right on her body. She closes her arms around her own body. Roon breaks into uncontrollable laughter. What will happen? What is the fear? Such harmless creatures these are. Now Roon gently picks up one in her hand. The silk worms crawls softly from the palm of her hand up to her elbows. What a soft body! What a radiant colour!

The sight of the silk worms crawling all over Roon’s body sent Giti running out of the room. Her colour fast waning. It cannot be looked at. The body shivers. Cannot decide whether to laugh or scream.

Charulata deplores the whole incident. If someone does not want to look, so let it be. A good idea. Because these are delicate beings. The very acts of sighing and exclaiming, pointing fingers and creating commotion is very objectionable. These delicate creatures will find fault. If they are offended they will stop devouring leaves and the very withdrawal of consumption is very ominous . No human heart can possibly bear to see such affliction. These beings require to be nurtured and looked after like a very tender baby.

Charulata can never forget the last incident. Forgotten which month it was! Yes, during the monsoon season. The mulberry trees on the river bank had been swept away by the food waters. In such a situation Charulata engaged the boys to fetch as much keselu22 leaves to last two days. Last year she did the same. If the mulberry leaves are replaced by keselu leaves the silk worms are not gratified . For almost half an hour there will be a temporary halt. After half an hour there is again a motion. Once again they resume eating amidst the background of a peculiar sound. The thread of the keselu leaf-fed silkworm is more durable and resilient . They have been regularly feeding on the leaves, suddenly in the afternoon, God knows what plagued them, the leaf eating suddenly came to a halt.

They remained listless throughout the night. Charulata wept uncontrollably. What peril has visited! She cooked and served everyone but she herself lost her appetite.. The heart prevented her from eating in the face of the starving silk worms. Can’t she request Ratikanta uncle to fetch some blessed water? Some sanctified object? She pleaded with Thogiram. But Thogiram did not pay much heed.

It is Charulata’s belief that it is her heartfelt concern that worked in the end. In the later period the spell of listlessness was broken. The familiar sound of chewing was soon resumed. At first in low notes; and slowly a crescendo of sweet and soft notes. Life had come back to the house also. When the chief members of the household remain crestfallen, it has a reciprocal effect on the other members also. Charulata broke into tears of joy. The starving silk worms must have cursed her a lot.

The load on Charulata’s heart was relieved momentarily; the cycle of probing remained. What must have caused the momentary interruption ? Some menstruating female must have discreetly peeped into the room without Charulata knowing. Or perhaps the keselu leaves have been contaminated by the amlori23 ants or some other toxic insect! The caterpillar’s sputum or the sting!

A chill ran down Charulata’s spine. It pays to be cautions. The lessons of time. She has already become very alert. Devoid of temper-tantrums or harsh-words. But very aware. The very names of Gagan and Moina have disappeared from her vocabulary. Nobody knew. Even Thogiram could not get into the crux of the matter. Just as the definitely demarcated area in the backyard reserved for washing utensils, an area never transgressed by grandmother.

After the departure of Roon, Aruna, Purabi, Juli for College, Charulata sits at her weaving loom. She derives immense gratification at the sight of the college bound group of girls. Embankments will be built. The measuring process is on. New new faces are seen everyday. Roon suggests to her mother if the road beneath the Simalus24 tree would be better to take on their way to college. The other road is now a days, a hub of various gossip sessions. Charulata is perturbed by the report. Roon is basically a reserved girl. She must have definitely mulled over the pros and cons.

Through her mind’s eyes, she could experience glimpses of the familiar faces of her peers as they passed by. The steam of the Panchami incident is diffused. Till the other day everything was fine. Suddenly the isolated house is infiltrated by people engaged in erecting the embankment. People’s probing eyes cannot be willfully shut off . Since a few days back the cheerful girl hardly ventures out of the house. It was fairly evident in the neighbourhood that the stream of unfamiliar faces has also dried up. Who will seal off the mouths? Everywhere rumours are in the air.

Sarala mahi, an active gossiper pays an impromptu visit to Panchami’s house on some pretext. Someone had reportedly seen in the veiled darkness of dusk the government hospital’s doctor being ferried down by boat to that house.

Yes, like thekera25 blossoms that secretly blooms in the darkness of night unseen by the eye! Sarala mahi26 justified the exposure. Like the newspapers spreading spicy news Sarala mahi is eagerly awaited at every household’s weaving loom, granary and kitchen . Roon was surprised that even her mother indulged in such juicy scraps of information. The only noticeable difference was that she was always more circumspect than the others. Very alert that the children are no where around.

A secretly conspiring universe which half reveals and half withdraws. A fortnight has hardly elapsed when Panchami ventures out. She was always a cheerful girl of very quiet parents. The ‘s’ of strictness was absolutely missing from the household . Again the rumour mills in the air. The girl’s face is heavily made up. The body bore the marks of a severely battering storm. Drooping shoulders. A withering body complexion. By nature a gregarious speaker. Seeing Roon, Panchami advances towards her. Citing some work, Roon makes a retreat. An unassailable barrier has been erected. No inclination to engage in any kind of conversation.

 

She leaves to call on Joba nobou. A first time mother, Joba nobou looks emaciated. Feeding her baby, she shouts at Roon to set down. She tucks the sleeping baby into the bed and goes to Roon clutching paper and a pair of scissors in her hands. She will learn from Roon to ‘cut’ and make frocks. At first she will attempt her skill in cutting on paper; later on actual cloth. Joba nobou had a delicate and small waist. Her breasts a filled up pitcher. She hurriedly dispenses with her household chores and sits next to Roon on the floor. Paper and scissors in her hands. Her rounded face slightly drained off. What is there in Joba nobou?

A good feeling prevails in the air.

Why does it happen this way?

She cannot consciously find one specific justifiable cause for avoiding conversation with Panchami. Very hesitantly Roon inches forward one step at a time and sits besides Sarala mahi. A stream of broken health, yet how blissfully complete Joba nobou is? Nabou’s serene state of being constantly flowing through her mind .

Lurking inside Roon, a half-asleep yearning to know more!

Why does this happen?

Romola pehi will not spare Roon if she is caught in the company of Sarala mahi. Roon knows. Nevertheless, inspite of transgressing the unwritten writ, Roon in her own way let it be known. She expected Sarulata to explain things to her. But as though Sarulata did not hear anything. While pulling the skins of the jackfruit seeds she said bring some salt and left.

Roon looked straight into Sarala mahi. Pointing to the bel27 tree located at the right hand corner of the courtyard, mahi said, “Keep in mind that when a ripe bel falls, the tree does not even know it; stays unruffled. The load is lessened. But then, when we prod and prick to pluck a raw bel it unleashes great pain on the tree; it shrivels up”.

That night on every page that she turned in the book the image of the bel tree floated before her eyes. The bel tree is no longer there. In its place is a poramlakhi sapling. On her last visit with her children she had a good experience. At hands’ reach bunches and bunches of poramlakhi have blossomed. They are still unripe. The sheer delight of eating hand plucked poramlakhi made them tug handfuls of them. Once, someone cautioned them that so much consumption of poramlakhi is not good for health. Both of them were astonished , “We are not eating the fallen pora amlokhi29. Here they are at our hands reach. We are plucking and eating. .”

This is Pahi and Ponakan’s childhood.

They consider the gourd and pumpkins as complementary vegetables. They fervently desire to know the difference between huggies and sanitary nappkins. On the T.V. they can easily comprehend the significance of the sacrifices performed for the destruction of the Asuras30. The sight of the baby goats sprinting along makes them retreat inside in anticipation. Ponakan is affectionately called kukoi31 by his grand mothers. He is simply fed up of complaining, “But my name is not kukoi, it is Ponakan”.

Roon is overwhelmed by grief. Inspite of Charulata’s prohibition she yearns to frequently visit her home. Let the children also get the opportunity to comprehend the sweetness of speech. May they understand that a perfect happy home is an amalgamation of the feelings of co-operation and being carefree.

Charulata chose to disagree. The village now a days is a distant mountain. There is no need to visit it so frequently. It is preferable that they remain in safety at a distance. The charm of the old village has degenerated. No earthen lamp is lit under the tulsi at dusk. Very rarely will you hear the devotional renditions flowing out from the prayer house. At dusk Charulata carries the lonely female silk moth outside singing aloud to the male moth.

O male-moth come, come,

Female moth is here all spread out

Male moth will come tilting his body

Will alight on the mango tree

Will fly in a swarm, will be oily too……

Following the call the male-moth emerging from some unknown place breaks through the deep darkness and mates with the solitary female. The mating of the moths evokes surprise and a host of questions in Roon. A strange mysterious universe indeed! Wherefrom picking up the thread of the song flies in the male-moth! Surprise knows no bounds! What a fusion! What a creation of mutual attraction! The evening assumes a strange and mysterious quality.

That means, now-a-days, Roon keeps her eyes closed to everything?

There cannot be another Charulata to sing so enticingly to the male-moth? Even if such a call is made, which male-moth will turn up? Every evening the police and army personnel turn up unannounced. In the name of scouring they would ransack the main house and the outhouse. Charulata has to be consistently vigilant like a tigress. Ask Charulata about the pain of being a mother to a simple but unemployed young son. Being married to a simple and straight forward school teacher is the penalty imposed on her by fate. The lessons can be derived straight from Charulata. For no reason or crime one is subjected to a host of interrogations at gun point, Terror simply reigns.

There is no need to come to this state of terror frequently. One of her greatest attractions is the river but the once familiar banks are nowhere at sight. On either sides are raised embankments. Every where there are bridges . At any moment swollen dead bodies float down the river.

The arrival of Bohag32 prepares the youth for the platforms of Guwahati. The villages become barren. The sudden awakening of the household at mid night to the call of hei hei heiya and the fidgety preparedness to welcome the troupe of husori33 no longer prevails. Even if the performing husori troupe comes they make it a point to send prior intimation through a formal letter mentioning the monetary contribution that is expected of them. They are booked throughout the Bohag season. They will not be available free of cost. Result? Those who cannot pay will not be visited by the husori.

Rather, the time bound places where Roon live is preferably better. The death of insignificant birds and beasts make newspaper headlines and arouses concern. Down swoops the camera. And in our places? When the fugitive son is not found the father is subjected to brutalities. The rustic farmer who swells with pride at the news of Kargil is hunted down and shot at close range in the paddy fields.

At a solitary place the crows and the vultures prey on a mother’s beloved son. By the time the incident makes it to the pages of the newspaper, the ceremonies are done with.

Charulata’s letter arrives. She cannot come. Charulata has to maintain a constant vigil. As if a momentary wink would break her concentration and lead to some catastrophe . She could not come even at the birth of Pahi and Ponakan. She penned down her advice in letters. Roon had no complain. Sometimes she felt very self-centered . She could not provide succour to her mother in any aspect. She is buried neck deep in debt to Charulata.

Charulata unburdens that load one day: By giving birth to a child every mother is freed from the debt of motherhood.

This is the way one river flows after another.

That time the letter made her cry uncontrollably. Tears that were never shed. The tears that cascaded down ceaselessly at the time of coming away with Shymanta.

Submerging into chest deep water she questioned herself a long time. Who is she? Who is Shymanta to her? This eager anticipation. This unreasonable desire for Shyamanta. But in whom will she confide? With whom will she share her perplexities?

The river. Only the river will bear testimony of her love. Let Shyamanta come. Let him take her away.

Shyamanta came. Accompanied by a few friends. Within a short period their love transformed into marriage. He requested her parents not to arrange an elaborate social affair. Her father informed people he encountered. Not for the marriage but for seeing them off. Both of them lay prostrate in front of each of the senior guests present. At last, Gagan uncle paused and placed his hands on her head.

“Go maiden. Please don’t curse us.”

A stony weight on the heart. But why is there no rainfall? Thunderous rainfall? Let the waves break through the layers of anguish and flow out in a torrent. The fields of childhood and adolescence are fast retreating from sight. From a distance she prostrates in reverence before the river

Fill your pitcher up Yashoda

And don’t look back,

O Ram

Else the sea would break forth, Oh

The sea would break forth

She would also be stung

O Ram

Nobody waits. Just like the river waits for none.

Whatever must have occurred to Moina khuri towards the end? The cloth on the weaving loom tore off at the folds . The sound of the running shuttle gradually became faint and disappeared altogether. The prevailing muteness of the house was by degrees replaced by an unending chilling silence. Throughout the day she stands by the nongolamukh as if in eager anticipation of someone. Charulata informed Roon through the letters. Moina has transformed into a voiceless moina bird. Imprisoned. Mute.

 

Once the military barged into Gagan uncle’s house. They leafed through every thing in the book almirah. Only the jackets of the books remained. Small white ants have tunneled through the pages; nothing legible left to be read. It seems Romola pehi had told Charulata; “ Drain water, nobou. Dry leaves and twigs have clogged the drain forever. It is of no use.”

Romola pehi was also subjected to interrogations. Meanwhile she retreated into her shell. Did pehi embrace wish-death in the end?

She had such organizational skills. The youth of the village followed her everywhere. A library must be established; Romola pehi at the forefront. They must go and join the flood relief operation. Taking the oars in her own hands she sets down to work. Seeing her, the young man troop in to lend their hands.

Once Roon’s house was also flooded. Those were the days when she immersed herself in the world of books. It was Romola pehi who steered her by hand from the world of books to the real world. It was natural at her age to dwell so long on one’s own grief as tremendous.

Such moments would incense Romola pehi. Is this a matter of concern? Come out and look what is happening to people around. The houses are submerged to the roof top. The government relief is embezzled even before it reaches its destination. Month after month the schools are crowded by village after village. Sometimes because of floods; sometimes because of communal flare-ups. The young men disappear in the middle of their school and college terms. The majority of us are destined to be in poverty. But endangerment and starvation? It is horrifying enough to disrobe people and instill evil.

From the pages of the book Roon was escorted to the real world by Romola pehi. It was in such a relief camp that she encountered Shyamanta. Words and action emanate with great speed from Shyamanta. She did not require much time to fall in love. Even to get married. A smile floats on Roon’s thin lips. Must pen-down a letter to Shyamanta. Long. Just like the ones she wrote before her marriage. He will be very delighted.

Very slowly but gradually Romola pehi withdrew herself from work. For what reason? The dwindling percentage of loyalty? Or is it that deep inside her she had been dried of inspiration ? Romola pehi retreated deep down into the shell. There is not a more noble cause to die? May be no goals of conviction were in sight which she can pursue heart and soul? Truly, what aim was missing in front of her ? An aimless future ? Aimless work? Aimless waiting of Moina khuri ?

While remaining enclosed in her own small world, the pearls of time flow out. Wastage. Wastage. She is incapable of imprisoning time in her palms. But the river that ceaselessly flows in her heart? Like the pet cat who curls around deep inside to thwart off the cold? Within the concrete embankment a whirlpool is twirling around. The time has come to let it flow along.

Only towards predawn the eyes are finally shunted to sleep. This is a railing. Who is it pressing her chest by the railing the upper torso protruding ahead in a slight inclination and the nether part firmly affixed to the ground?? Yearning for something! As if her mane of open hair is talking to the wind. A very familiar posture. A face, very close to her. Moina khuri? Romola pehi? Panchami? Or is it herself? A dichotomy between light and dark. Clarity is reduced and perception cloudly.

 

“Ma, Ma, get up. We’ll be late.”

 

She was in a rush. Pahi and Ponakon are ready for their swimming class. Clutching both of them on either side she advances on the foot path. The city has just awakened.

As the swimming class was over in the morning, the children would get some time for themselves.

She attempts to visualize the image of her dream. Open hair, hands flung leisurely, eyes directed towards the horizon, whose image is this? When did she cross over? When did the past rambling world merge with the present? She increased her pace. Pahi and Ponakon are way ahead of her. A picture imprinted on the wings of her mind. The wind carries aloft the edge of her blue chadar. The effort to flow endlessly gains momentum and flows fore ever.

“Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness

Traveling across the wet mead to me here,

You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,

Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward!

Leaves around me falling,

Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward

And the women calling.

 

Footnote:-

shravan1: month of cold and rain.

Deta2: papa.

Shilabhadra3: Assamese short story writer.

Borpah4 : papa’s elder brother

bota5 : traditional Assamese betel-nut serving plate with a long stem, mounted on a round flat base.

mola dhopat6 : aromatic local variety of tobacco leaf used with betel-nuts..

Borbou7 : wife of ‘borpah’.

Aai8 : maiden / moppet.

bey9 : ceremonial bathing area made of banana plants.

balimahi 10 : wag-tail

aiotis11 : women skilled in singing in the marriage rituals.

uruli12 : auspicious continuing gargling sound.

konai13: shape of a baby made by betel nuts wrapped in a piece of cloth.

khura14 : papa’s younger brother.

Nabou15: elder brother’s wife.

khuri16 : Khura’s wife.

nongolamukh17 : gate.

pehi18 : paternal aunty.

madhobilata19 : a kind of climber of sweet scented flower.

biyoni20 : mutual form of address between the mother-in-laws.

moj21 : kind of fast growing tree.

keselu22 : a kind of tree silk-worm feed on.

amlori23 : species of reddish brown ant.

thekera25 : a variety of plantain a citrus fruit.

mahi26 : maternal aunty

bel27 : local variety of wood-apple.

poramlakhi28 : softer and juicy variety of amla.

pora amlokhi29 : hard variety of amla or olive. Pora denotes ripe and hence fallen on the ground

Asuras30 :

kukoi31 : sweet boy / dearest son.

Bohag32 : first month of the Hindu (Assamese) year.

husori33 : a party of singers and dancers going about from house to house on the Bahag Bihu days.

 

Bonti Senchowa

Translated into English by - Diba borooah

 

about the writer

Bonti Senchowa is one of the most distinguished creative writers of Assamese literature. She has penned more than 50 short stories and one novel so far. Subject matter of her fiction ranges from culture specific rural society to the restlessness of modern society. Her collection of shortstories include Nixad Ganghar, Doporor Paro-sorai, Xorol aru Xondor, Mou-Xora. Akonbindhir Xonporua is her only novel. She is currently working as Associate Professor, Department of English, R G B College, Guwahati.

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