It all happened late in afternoon. Tora was sweeping the yard then, often looking back over her shoulder in wonder at the streaks of sunlight on the long, languid trail made by the sweep of her broom.
Meanwhile her cousin Nili was busy admiring herself in sunlight. It held no lure for her but Tora in mesmerized. She didnât really know why but parting words or the parting sun, in fact anything ending always left her distracted. Beyond the road, in the distance, a train rolled by leaving its click-clack on the metal rails making Tora stay rooted straining her ears for the sound till someone jolted her out of her reverie. Sunlight glistened for a moment on the wings of birds homing in with a swoosh. A bullock cart rattled on with the cowbells tinkling. Whoever was that unknown coachman? It seemed the unwary coachman read Toraâs mind and started a song. âO wee bird, do tarry a while...â
And that created all the fuss. Her aunt stormed out of her room demanding to know who dared sing at her door, shouting and cursing all the while. âYou foxy rubble, youâd yet know me? So charmed by Niliâs looks, are you! Rush along out all, Pabitra, Kamal, Ritu, Lalit, Nab him and bring him to me.
Itâs her boys really who look like a foxâs breed. They get out like a fox from his hole. They were sleeping perhaps and rush out rubbing their eyes.
Tora puts her sweeping into a trash can. Her mother used to manure gourd plants with them to make them grow abundantly. Tora saw her auntâs serving boys, Pitou and Dhop at the weedy clump in the backyard. They were carrying live toads for Rituda, her auntâs son who was a science student. He would dissect the roads on his way to becoming a doctor someday. Pitou and Dhop were glowing with confidence at a mission accomplished but her aunt didnât even notice the toads but sent them rushing to join Pabitra and all in the hunt for the joined in the spree least knowing what it was all in aid of. The toads leapt about, lost wary and afraid in the big clean yard.
But the evening has deepened into night now. The lights are on and in the glow of coloured lamps, the potion was ready. Tora arranged glasses and water and even a plate of fried meat from what Basanti had made, from the kitchen. Her motherâs brother and brother-in-law were all set to tipple. Her Mama and Moha are friends now, sipping and chatting.
Tora came out to the cold outside. The hair on her bare legs stood on edge and shiver ran down her. The knee length cold. She considered sitting by the fire in the kitchen but it was time for her auntâs sons to raid the kitchen for fried meat and their favourite sport was to pick on her. One would pull her hair while the other would slap her. They were thrilled if she showed signs of being hurt. She stood quietly for a while at one dark corner of the long veranda.
Nili is studying with her totor and Tora has just served tea and snacks. While collecting the empty dishes she remembered the lesson of English tenses and the sums on interest rates. Whenever would she be able to learn them well she wondered. After all, exams are just round the corner. These brought memories of home and she started feeling fine but soon her mind clouded over. Her father comes soon as her exams are over to take her home and her aunt would be at it with that put on caring voice telling him how mush they would miss her. âIt take her home Bhindeu, do that by all means, but my mind is not equal to the even brief parting.â
Her father was reassured by her love for Tora. She looks after Tora as she said she would. He said he wonât take Tora home even for a day or two. After all Tora was being looked after and cared for as her own daughter and she sends her to school also something he himself couldnât manage at home. Her father becomes emotional saying this, he chokes and is silent for a while. He then looks at Tora and says youâd better stay then. You are living in much more ease and comfort here. He leaves taking his usual long strides happy that she was comfortable. Tora keeps on gazing at his receding figure for quite a while. The endi shawl slips form his shoulders and he pulls it up again without once looking back. His long strides soon take him out of her sight but the alkaline smell of his endi shwal lingers, spreads round Tora and finally makes her cry.
She recalls all this doing the dished in one corner of the backyard. She remembers her mother and her siblings and how she used to quarrel with them. She had yelled at her sister once for a mere pen and had also given a rough shove to her younger brother for something as measly as a plum. It all shatters her and she breaks down. She was so cruel as to pick a fight for a mere trifle. But she never remembers the care she took of them and the way she actually lover them. After all she alone could feed her brother taking him on her lap. Her younger sisters would never sleep unless she put them to sleep with her caresses. They used to look at the Milky Way together wondering how the stars lit the path to the mooring place for the elephants. Whatever did her father send her here for? So what if she missed going to school. She could stay home and help her mother.
She hardly has time to study here. She learns only whatever is taught at school and she goes to school more like Niliâs sedan bearer carrying her school bag, water bottle, tiffen box etc. all the way. How could she tell her father all these? But why are they poor? Why donât they have enough to eat? Why canât they make both ends meet? Tora wipes her tears with her wet hands.
All these belong to the night. Routine happenings. She always cries while washing dishes. Voices are loud by now in the drawing room as both were quite mellow. Their blabbering become heated arguments. Complaint and accusations begin. The honorific âtumi apuniâ is forgotten and the familiar âToiâ takes its place, âItâs a shame that I call you my bhindeu. Getting fat on bribes! Whatever have you achieved in life. Its nothing Piddling!â
âGo away from my home then! Arenâtâs you ashamed to stay on like a pet dog. Why do you drink my wine then?â The tutor makes good his escape at the juncture and her aunt emerges from her bed room. âAnd youâ, she says it loud enough for her brother to hear âyou would better leave tomorrow.â She now shouts at her husband, âLook at him giving that mouthful because he is my brother. But what about your sister Basanti. I had been feeding her all these years after she was kicked out of her husbandâs place. Very nice and forbearing where his sister as concerned.â This speech was mean for Basanti, who was carrying out a steaming thick pail of rice starch. She was sniffing as she acrreid the pail and it felt as if she would throw it pat on her sister-in-lawâs face. But that does not ever happen. She quietly hands it over to Tora. Tora hates wasting it. If only there were some cows or at least a goat. But her aunt keeps humans alone and they take rice, the starch is wasted.
And from this moment the night takes a turn for Tora as the song of the unwary coachman had changed her evening. Her auntâs sons took possession of the cart and bullocks and brought them home. They were all riding the canopied cart home. Pitou and Dhop were goading the bullocks on. A proud smile appears on her auntâs lips at her sonsâ success. They were shouting and cheering in glee but where was the poor coachman? Someone said sheepishly that he managed to escape.
Tora too would run away one day. She goes to the bullockes musing on all these. She canât un-yoke them but raises the pail of rice starch to their mouths to feed them one by one. The slurping as they took in the starch stayed with her. She was worried lest their legs should give way in hunger, exhaustion and the cold. Slup, slurp, an eager anguished sound. Like the sound of oars while crossing the river in midsummer. The sound of someone leaving across the river and beyond.
âLook at her glued to the bulls! Do they belong to some mate of yours?â Tora looks back with a start to find her aunt standing on the veranda. âThis oneâs really odd! Whatever she sees will keep her rooted as in a spellâ. Tora comes back in and tidies up the room where he uncle and all had been drinking. The bottles were lying about. The dregs make feel warm and youâd sleep well without waking up at dawn. Tora had surreptitiously tasted that intoxicating warmth, that prohibited sleep. She ignored them all today. She face is half seen in the mirror. Her nose is not straight and she is lean and tall. No one would remind her of her ugly nose today. Nor would anyone tease her as a lanky reed, nor will they make fun of the way she walked or the way her father talked. No one will tease her and roll on the ground out of fun. But she has decided. She would go away.
She is surer of her resolve by dinner time. She would fun away very early in the morning, by dawn. If her aunt gets to know sheâd send people to nab her. Tora knows they get up by seven only. She decided while doing the dishes by the well that she would be half way down her road by then. She should reach home by evening if she follows the railway tracks. Her heart was breathing fast, noisily, like oars on water. She stands by this bank of the river and dreams of the other bank. Her remote other bank.
Her lids hang heavy and sleep impales them darkly. She crashes on her bed and when she wakes up there was a soft light that came through the chinks in the fog. She rubs her eyes, looks out and jumps out of her bed. Was she late? She hurriedly makes her bed. She takes out her frock pressed under the mattress. She feels heady as she puts it on. Can she make it to her home? She covers her head with the shawl and comes out. Her sandals feel cold and a cold whiff makes her start with a shive. But she would walk fast and feel warm. The train takes some three hours and she about later. She has to leave this place fast. She took the keys suddenly mew in the backyard. Tora starts. If felt as if she were in her own house. The luck oxen called knowing the owner was up and about. How could she go without taking their leave!
She looks at the closed doors to see if anyone was up. She knows none would bother to get up just then. She paused by the bullocks who spent the night standing because they couldnât sit or lie with the harness tied. The hairs on their body stood in clusters. Tora lights a fire in the oven made is a work with holes. She carries it to the bullocks. Some better use than boiling water for them for their warmth. After all Tora was there to do it. The oven would not complain but Tora keeps on muttering something.
She goes to the end of the yard to where the coral pland stood as a sentinel. The betel vine was climbing abundantly. Tora puts some dung at the root of the tree and says now she should be given some better leave. She carries them cheerfully to the bullocks and feeds them one by one, talking all the while... whenever is your ownerâ May be waiting for your to show up. This is a prison house. Once trapped there is no respite. The pair listens as to a tale.
But there was no time for tales for the fog was about to leave the courtyard and her aunt would also wake up. But whenever would she leave?
She unites the cart and opens wide the front gate. They follow, their bells tinkke and they reach the front yard and move out of the gate to the road outside. Tora stands and gazes at them. The canopied bullock cart mover away with the bullocks.
The emptiness below the canopy merges like a star in the distances.
Translated from Assamese by Pradip Acharya
About the writer :
Manika Devee(b.1979) is an acclaimed short story writer in Assamese literature. Her collections of short stories include Priyo Alaap, Shakhiyoti, Moidamor Jonaki, Jahar-Mahar, Baanpaani Ahisi Chomake Bhomake and Burhatoe kole. The Igloo is the collection of English translation of her short stories. She earned her masterâs degree from Cotton College and B. Ed from Gauhati University. A teacher in Monikuntalashram Vaidik School in Panbazar in Guwahati, Manika Devee is a recipient of Munin Borkataki Award(2005), Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar(2014) and Padmashri Jugal Kishore Choudhuryâ memorial award. Celebrated singer Pulak Banerjee has lent his voice in two of the songs composed by her and aired by All India Radio.