The evening walk
Under her pillow, not exactly under it but a few inches away, Sumitra keeps a torch light, her reading glasses, a wrist watch, a match box, a handkerchief and a book. Even if one single item is missing, she gets to know the moment she hits the pillow. Then she gets up. She pushes her pillow aside and examines the content. Yes, the matchbox is missing. But at that time she does not shout for Prabha. She crawls out of the mosquito net and gets it herself.
Under her mattress there is a big knife. She uses it sometimes to chop big pumpkins but once the job is done, she cleans it, sharpens it and puts it back under the mattress again. Once, Sumitra bought an application form for a gun license. But finally, she decided not to apply.
When she wakes up to some sound in the dead of the night, the first thing that comes to her mind is the knife, sometimes the book. It depends on the nature of the sound. Like, when she hears birds singing in the wee hours, her hand does not involuntarily reach out for the knife. Sometimes when she wakes up without any reason, she does not think about those permanent items lying next to her pillow.
She has crossed 45 years of age. Sometimes she recalls few events that happened during those long years. If she does not like what she remembers and yet cannot shake it off her mind, then she picks up the book, reaches out for the bed switch and her reading glasses.
Tonight, the simmering excitement within her was the cause for her disturbed sleep. The kind of anxiety that builds up subconsciously when someone has to catch a bus early in the morning or like those ninth grade students who need to carry out their responsibility for an important function in school. She strained her ears to catch the bird calls. No, not yet! Then she looked at the skylight to check if the sun was out. Not even that! She did not want to switch on the light.
She switched on the torch instead, put on her specs and noted the time—3.17 am. She knew she could not go back to sleep.
Every morning she goes for a walk. She walks for at least two to three kilometers. These days one can go out even at four. Anyway, she would have to be up by 4.15.
She pulled the bed cover up to her neck and lied motionless.
Today is the foundation laying for her new house. Last evening itself Moinuddin and two labourers made the ugly looking iron frame for the post. That will be the first pillar of the house.
Sumitra does not understand such nitty- gritties. She made this deal with Moinuddin - he would do all the understanding and executions, she would pay, and he would not take her for a ride because she is a single woman. Moinuddin used to be a head mason, now he is a contractor. Now-a-days he does not like dirtying his hands with construction works. He wears pure white kurta-pajama and an expensive wrist watch.
But when he sees others committing some mistake, he gets after them with authority, “Hey idiot, let me show you how it is done.”
Otherwise he relaxes in a shaded corner and listens to his pocket transistor.
Since the past one month he has been dumping sand, bricks, iron rods and pebbles in the corner of her plot. A makeshift room had been erected as the base camp. Every alternate day Sumitra comes to have a look.
Moinuddin gives her a bunch of colourful sheets in all possible shapes. Those are the receipts. She takes out money from her purse and gives to Moinuddin and asks him like a confident person, “What is the line-up for tomorrow?” Moinuddin has studied the blue print of the house. The first time he looked at the plan from the reverse as he could not make out the right side of the semi-transparent paper. Sumitra had corrected him, “Why are you looking at it from the other side? Turn it over.” Masking his embarrassment well, Moinuddin had said, “This is the same plan even from the other side. Only the eastern wing has become the western side. Rest is the same.”
“Still, you can read the lines only if you view it from the proper side.”
“Oh, I have nothing to do with the written words, sister. I am only thinking about the twenty pillars the engineers have drawn. We can do without two.”
Sumitra had consulted the architect regarding those two extra posts. The architect gave a deep thought and agreed, “Yes, we could do away with those two pillars.”
That day Sumitra decided to hand over the entire responsibility to Moinuddin. And Moinuddin obliged. The preparation is almost over.
Moinuddin found out a priest in that area and gave him Rs 75 that included his fee for laying the foundation and getting the gold and red cloth to wrap the post.
Should she stop the work, Sumitra thought for a second. She was having doubts about the whole thing. Should she abandon her plan to build a house on this plot? She can continue living in her present house in the colony for another 14-15 years. She need not think about what would happen after that.
She heard a bird singing. She turned her head to look through the skylight. It was lit up with soft light from outside. She got up.
After five minutes, she called out for Prabha. Prabha got up at the first call.
“I am going for a walk. Lock the door,” she said as she went out.
She could barely see in the morning light. As if everything were sleeping except for Prabha, the birds, and her. It was cold enough, so she wrapped herself with the pallu of her sari. She could not make out whether the white light was actually light or fog. As she crossed her front yard she felt the mist on her feet.
She stood on the road and took a good look at her plot. The sand and pebble pyramids, the heap of iron rods, the skeleton of the post, stacks of bricks--all cold. Moinuddin’s man must have been sleeping inside that make-shift hut. Moinuddin had introduced her to the man wearing a floral lungi and pink shoes and said, “This man will stay here from today.”
Waiting for the sun light to break in, she strolled around the plot.
There will be a small verandah with railings. The verandah will lead to her spacious bed room. In her bed room there will be a small study table facing the east window. There will be cupboards for books. Adjoining her room will be a small room for Prabha.
They would be close enough. In the middle will be the living room.
Beyond that, towards the east, there will be a store room. From the road where she stood this is the portion that one could see. A small, compact house. If she gets bored inside, she can come out and sit in the easy
chair in the balcony.
No, women do not sit in these types of easy chairs out in the open. But then, she can always sit in the straight chair or she can sit in her study chair…
Sumitra looked at the nearest house. This is the house she just came out from. This was the spot where she had first discussed with Moinuddin about building a house some two months ago. At that point of time small trees and shrubs had dotted the area. They both were engrossed in a discussion when a jeep stopped in front of the house. The driver was sitting in the car as the man in the passenger seat climbed up the verandah and pressed the bell, not before throwing a curious glance at them as he passed by. He kept waiting but in vain. When he realized that nobody was home, he came back to the jeep. After a minute of hesitation, he walked towards Sumitra. “Good evening. I am Niranjan Dutta. You?”
“My name is Sumitra Choudhary…”
“Got it,” was his instant reaction. “I thought so. We have never met but I know about you.”
How and what? The two questions which arose from the pit of her stomach died in her throat, chocking her.
Niranjan Dutta continued, “When I bought this piece of land I enquired who this plot belonged to. After all you want to know who all are going to be your neighbour.”
He gave her a smile; then said, “Someone had mentioned your father’s name. But when I started building my house, I came to
know that this plot belongs to you.”
“Yes. My father gave this plot to me,” she said soberly.
“Are you building a house?”
“God knows. Just planning. They say it is quite difficult to build a house. You end up getting grey hair,” she smiled but her voice was polite.
As if the thought of Sumitra getting grey hair made Niranjan Dutta unhappy. He tried to soothe her by injecting some wisdom, “No way. People say such things without any rhyme or reason. You yourself have seen thousands of houses in this city; but how many grey-haired persons you have come across?”
He continued with the same initial excitement, “You need not worry. Once you start, it will take its own course. Only the main person has to be strong. You will give it on a contract, right? Is he the contractor?”
Dutta looked at Moinuddin. Moinuddin touched his forehand with his right hand to acknowledge the fact.
There was no turning back. Dutta made her promise then and there that if she needed any help, she would not hesitate to ask. He pulled out his wallet and gave her his visiting card. It had his telephone number.
Dutta himself was a contractor, who specialized in building bridges. His colleagues had given him the nickname, Bridgemohan. Even though his specialty was building bridges, he had to have a thorough knowledge of rod and cement. He would keep a tab, but whenever she needed something she should call him. That driver of his – Bharat—has also become an expert, working with him. He would also be helpful.
In the course of conversation Sumitra told him that she lived in a colony seven kilometers away. It would be difficult for her to supervise the work. But she needed to be around. Dutta did some mental calculations. He went into deep thought for a moment and said, “Had we met about ten days ago, the problem could have been solved. This one is my house. I wanted to get away from the hustle-bustle of the city life and hence built this little cottage here. However, rather than keeping it lying vacant, I put it up on rent. But this tenant on mine is leaving by the end of this month. I came to meet him. You could have moved in here once he left. That would have been really made things easy for you. But last week a friend of mine asked me for this house and I said yes. Shit. You really missed the chance.”
Niranjan Dutta looked repentant. After a week Niranjan Dutta paid her a visit at her colony house. He had made some arrangement with his friend. So, she could stay there till the construction of her house was over. He would not quote a price. Whatever she felt like giving was okay with him…
Her college was about 4 km from where she had been living. It was almost equal distance from her plot. So, living in Niranjan Dutta’s house would be convenient. To be able to supervise the construction work in the morning and evenings would be great. So she and Prabha moved into this house about two weeks ago.
Niranjan Dutta kept in touch. Last week Moinuddin had some problem with procuring A-grade bricks. Dutta gave him a slip and send him to SK Singh. The same night two truckloads were delivered at her plot. In the darkness she could not see the colour, but as she heard the clinking sound of those bricks as they were being unloaded, even she could make out that those were good quality bricks.
On the fourth day, Niranjan Dutta, on his way to his work site, stopped by and took the progress report from Moinuddin; asked him about the requirement of cement. Then he met Sumitra and said—“Don’t let him buy cement. Buy about five bags now and start it. We will later decide where to get it from.”
Then Dutta, with her due permission, took a round of his own house from outside. Everything was in order. The previous tenant had maintained it well. Bharat was sitting on the verandah. When he saw Dutta in the backyard, he stood up.
Niranjan Dutta looked at his watch. When he saw there was still time, he went back to the living room and sat down.
After drinking three-fourth of the brew from his teacup, which Prabha had prepared for him, he got up in a haste, “Once you move out, I will not rent it out again. Let it be. Now that you will be living next door, I need not worry. Sometimes I can come and stay. What do you say?”
Sumitra said nothing but gave him a subtle smile.
“Okay, bye,” Niranjan Dutta’s smile was brighter as he left for the jeep.
But the next day he appeared again and this time he looked restless as he called out her name, “Miss Coudhary?”
Prabha greeted him. As she asked him to wait in the living room, he first went out, looked at the jeep and then came inside. Sumitra took a few minutes to come out. Seeing her Dutta started without any preamble—“You are strange. I have been with Nishi Choudhary for the past two years. I was at the party he threw when his son passed his class Xth exams with distinction. Why didn’t you tell me you are his younger sister?”
Sumitra flashed her characteristic half-smile and said, “I am his elder sister. And how am I supposed to know that you two are close?”
Dutta kept looking at her for a while. After what seemed a long pause, he said almost inaudible voice, “Elder sister? You kidding me?”
“Why would I do that?”
Another pause and he started talking to himself, “Honestly speaking, no one would believe it. You look like a university student.” She blushed as he said it loud.
After pacing up and down for what it seemed like an eternity, she started her walk. The road laid straight for a long stretch before it turned right.
She could see the road clearly now till the turning point. After walking a few yards, Sumitra saw the signboard that read--Ratnapur Path. Standing at the T-junction, Sumitra looked at the road towards her left. She wanted to explore that road, so she walked towards the Ratnapur Path.
There must have been a huge field where she was standing now. She could make out from the roads and the way the houses were built. There were a few scattered trees that attained the height of a single-story house.
There was only a single fruit-bearing coconut tree in one of the houses. That must be the oldest inhabitant of this locality. Looking at those quiet houses, she felt like peeping inside.
Rupak Bhawan. God knows who lives there. Who is Rupak? Must be the son. That must be the bedroom. Rupak’s parents must be sleeping there. Where is Rupak sleeping?
The owner was making an extension of the house. A heap of sand was there near the picket fences. Fresh jasmine flower were all over the heap.
Inside the house towards her right, a dog started barking at her. She looked at the iron grill of the gate. No, the dog wouldn’t be able to come out. The light on the corridor that led to the backyard was still on. Niranjan Dutta must be living in a house like this one.
What a giant! He is tall with broad shoulders and red cheeks. He dresses up smartly. His smile is blinding and when he talks, it is simply mesmerizing.
Sumitra walked on. There was a scooter standing in front of another house. Would any young man drive it today? Would his wife sit next to him with her arms around him? Is the girl with her arms around him is the girl in his heart?
It hurts. No. It’s over.
Sumitra kept on walking. She saw a bunch of red flowers in a tree in front of a house and stopped. Were those red flowers or leaves that looked like flowers? She made a mental note to plant one in front of her house.
She tried to forget. But it kept coming back. Pain. But what pain! She was beyond pain or happiness. There was no way she could be happy. All she could do was stay away from pain.
One Mynah came flying from an electric post and sat on the rooftop. Instinctively she looked around for its partner. This took her back on the memory lane. Those days! Whenever she would see a pair of Mynah in the morning, her day would go fine…meaning her day with Bipul would go fine. Maybe she would have him all to herself, the way she wanted to. That would keep her happy till she fell asleep. Forget it.
Superstition. Who taught her such meaningless things? There were so many ecstatic days and nights as if she had seen thousands of Mynahs at one go. All bullshit. Those days there were no Mynahs within the range of her vision, only Bipul was, and she was within his.
One day Bipul told her, “Let’s go away for a few days without telling anyone.”
Sumitra suddenly focused on the lone female figure working in the garden of a house. She did not expect anyone to get up so early. As she went closer, she saw the woman was weeding out grass from the patch of her greens. She looked at the woman and the woman looked back. Clad in an old muga silk mekhela, a cotton chadar and a yellow blouse, the woman looked like a motherly figure.
Sumitra moved on. Did the daughter of this mother also lie to her and gone away with a man like Bipul for a few days? After that did she find her world collapsing around her after three months? Did she hate herself then? Did she cringe as the shooting pain that pierced through her, making her lie still in a pool of blood? Did she then develop a repulsion towards this world?
She took two left turns and reached that straight stretch. She saw a man in a sleeveless T-shirt and shorts running ahead of her.
He reminded her of Bipul.
She walked through the sleepy houses.
After Bipul ran away, she pretended to be sick for a complete year and then came out only when all her emotions had dried out.
After a long time when she joined this teaching job, her parents came to her.
“Are you going to waste your entire life like this?” her mother asked.
“If you want to talk about my life, then don’t come here,” she was harsh.
After that they never mentioned anything of nature. Before his death, her father gave her this plot of land and Rs 75,000. That money must have been tripled by now. She did not bother to find out. But now she would need that money to build the house.
Her sister used to drop in frequently. First with her husband, then with her kid, then two and then three. Sumitra had to prepare for her lectures, needed to study. She used to get irritated. Specially with her two sons who would pluck all the flowers. Now-a-days they do not come. Sumitra made sure that they did not.
Rarely her brother comes by. Most of the time he is quiet. He enquires about her well being, drinks a cup of tea and goes away. A few months back Sumitra told him about her plan to build her own house. She was unhappy in her colony house. Nishi had asked if he could get the master plan made by his office people.
Sumitra said no. There were plenty of architectural firms. One just needed to pay. She was not willing to take favours.
There was no dearth of well wishers. From getting a Lahsa Apsu dog from Bhutan to take her out on a trip to Kanyakumari—there must have been at least two thousand people in the past 27 years willing to help her out. There was this fourth year student named Diganta—who said if she would give him tuition, he would never forget her. Ignoring the ‘never forgetting’ part, she concentrated on teaching him. He turned out to be a devil reincarnate. One evening he told Sumitra how dry and rude she was -Sumitra screamed at him.
“Yes, I am rude and dry and all that. Now leave.”
After that day, every night someone would through stones at her roof. It’s because of that guy she wanted to buy a gun.
Sumitra was obliged to only one man. He was the night watchman at her college, old enough to be her father. The man had brought her Prabha.
Prabha had no parents or siblings. She was staying with her uncle.
Sumitra told that old man, “Listen, you are asking for Rs 20 but I will pay Rs 25 per month. Ask her uncle to open an account at the nearest bank. Every month her salary will go to that account. I don’t want them to keep coming here asking for money or take her home—I do not like that.”
Things were done according to her wish. Now, Prabha knew no one except for Sumitra. She was at the same age when Sumitra started counting Mynahs—One for sorrow, two for joy…
After she walked for a while, Sumitra saw the man in shorts and t-shirt returning. He would soon cross her. She kept her head down and started walking towards the edge of the road. She saw two white shocks and shoe-clad legs passing by. They made some thudding sound. Healthy legs. If Niranjan Dutta runs, he would make the same sound.
Did he really think Sumitra was studying in university? What about his family. Forget it. She needn’t know. His muscular body, his eyes and smile - were full of mystery.
Will he really come and stay in his house for a night or two? Then will he smile at her through his window and ask her for a cup of tea?
The day was now becoming brighter. People stated coming out from their homes. Sumitra started walking fast. She felt hot as she climbed up the verandah of Niranjan Dutta’s house. She wiped her face with her sari as she called out for Prabha. Prabha opened the door but Sumitra kept sitting on the verandah.
Moinuddin came early. Sumitra was having tea. He sat in the backyard as Prabha offered him a cup. As he finished, Sumitra laid the blueprint in front of him.
“Do one thing. Turn over this page and build the house as you see it from this side. Erect the foundation pillar accordingly.
Bewildered, Moinuddin looked at Sumitra.
“I want this verandah, my study room towards the west. This wing with this small room should face the east,” Sumitra explained as she would do to her student.
Prabha, who came to collect Moinuddin’s empty cup heard the conversation. She hesitated but said, “But baideo, the other side has nothing but the tall boundary wall. You would not be able to see anything.”
Yes. The western boundary of her plot had a seven-feet-high concrete wall.
Sumitra addressed Moinuddin, “You go. Get started.”
Niranjan Dutta was supposed to come for the foundation laying ceremony, but could not make it as he had to accompany the chief engineer to some site. He sent a box of sweets through Bharat. Bharat was there throughout the ceremony.
Most of the evening Sumitra kept sitting quietly on the verandah. She called Prabha and said, “This side will be the small room. You will stay there.”
Bhabendra Nath Saikia
Bhabendra Nath Saikia (1932- 2003) was a renowned novelist, short-story writer, playwright, filmmaker and director from Assam. His rich contrubtions to children's literature added glitter to his illustrious career as a creative genius. A recipient of many literary awards including the Sahitya Akademi award ( 1976), the Publication Board, Assam award ( 1973) and the Assam Valley Literary Award (1990) Saikia obtained his Ph. D in Physics from London University. Collections of his short stories include Prahari, Sendur, Gahbar, Upakantha, Brindabon, Taranga, Sandhya Bhraman. The three novels penned by him are Antareep, Ramyabhumi and Atankor Seshot. Seven of his the eight Assamese feature films diected by him won the prestigious Rajat Kamal award in the best regional films category in India while he won the national award for the best screenplay for his film Agnisnan. Dr Saikia was the Chief Editor of Prantik, a popular Assamese monthy magazine and the founder editor of Sofura, a children's magazine.
Translated by: Parbina Rashid
(Parbina Rashid, who translated the story from the original Assamese is a journalist with The Tribune, Chandigarh. She can be reached at - firstname.lastname@example.org)