Death in the Paddy Fields


I can feel the chill emanating from the soggy earth below me, as I lay down immobile slowly returning to my senses. I can feel the soft mud on my face and can taste the muddy water in my mouth. My breathing shallow, with a nauseating feeling that is making me dizzy. I try to open my eyes, but the initial consciousness overwhelms my mind as an unbearable pain shoots up my lower back through my spine into my brain. I let out a painful scream, but due to the muddy water in my mouth only a gurgling muffled yelp issue forth. Where am I? The sky is dark, and it is drizzling. A small streak of lightning tore through the clouds. The ringing in my ears has faded and I can hear the croaking of frogs, filling in the otherwise silence of the surrounding; a few soft groans every now and then. I try to move, but as I did so I can only feel my upper torso trying to struggle out of a heavy burden. I can neither feel my lower torso nor my legs! A sense of panic overcomes me and succumbing to the fear of the thought that something terrible has happened to me, I start crying. I cannot recollect correctly the past moments of my consciousness. I try to focus but I can’t, the pain below my upper torso shoots up again and I feel like I might faint again. I clench my fists and push them into the soft mud, my fingers clutching the muddy soil and my teeth grating, my eyes closed shut.

After a long time, I open my eyes again.  I feel the lower torso go numb and as the pain has subsided considerably, I feel I can now focus my thoughts. I try to perceive my surroundings and recall the past events that has led to this circumstance. I feel a sticky fluid near the corner of my lips and below my nose. I slowly reach out my tongue and lick the corner of my lips. Salty and sweet; I know the taste of blood! When I was a child, if I accidentally happen to have cut my finger my mother and sister would suck the cut area to stop the blood before they applied the ointment; I did it myself too. Oh Sister! I reminisce now since slowly the curtain of amnesia is lifting before my eyes, I remember that today morning I had run to my sister with the request of allowing me to travel with others in the bus that was being arranged by the villagers to go for pandal hopping to Kolkata.

Everyone in Bengal awaits the arrival of Durga Puja, a holy festival of joy celebrating the victory of Goddess Durga representing the Good Force over Evil Mahishashoor. I received new clothes from my father for this occasion to wear during the puja days. I was already excited for the puja as we had a lot of fun in the local club among friends during these days, yet when the suggestion for the bus trip was projected, I was thrilled. It was Ashtami today and tomorrow on the day of Navami I would be in Kolkata enjoying the extravagant city celebrations that I miss in my village. I did not go to Kolkata for a long time since my board exams were there. However now that it is over and it is puja holidays, it was high time to venture out again into the city to praise its beauty and its amazing collection of cuisines that I would like to satisfy my palate with. The city was so different than where we live! We were three siblings and my elder sister was the immediate guardian to look after us and to whom we would go for permission, since mother would be busy in house-chores (we had a large joint family) and father was busy in his shop. I would not go to father anyways as that would mean the end of anything I premeditated. My sister heard my request and did think for a moment before she said “okay”. She told me to take care of myself and gave me a few notes from her purse out of her savings and brushed my hair affectionately. I adored her for she was not only supervising us but also was a rational and caring person. I held her chin up and said, “You are my Goddess Durga, Didi”! As she tried to pull my ear for teasing her, I ran downstairs to my mom and announced that I would be going to Kolkata with several others for pandal hopping in the evening bus that was to depart from the neighbourhood club. My mother was simple and affectionate. She never questioned the decision of my sister as she knew that my sister was quite responsible for her age. She nodded a “Yes” as she kept cooking the lunch. I hugged her lovingly with delight and touched her feet performing a Pranaam and went to meet my best friend Hari to ask him if he would like to join. While going out of the house I found my dad was in the shop. I sneaked out of the house making sure he would not notice as he might prohibit me from joining the amazing adventure that I was going to have. However, later in the day during lunch I found him already aware of my devices. Luckily, he had agreed to allow me on my journey as my mother and sister had reasoned with him. Even better, my best friend was also going.

As evening approached, I took my small bag and after embracing my sister and performing a Pranaam to my father and mother I went to the club where the bus was to depart soon for its destination. The bus was overloaded as people flocked in with the intent of experiencing the puja celebrations in the city. My friend Hari suggested it would be better to sit on the top of the bus (where in the luggage are generally kept). It was better than to enter the bus and get crammed for the four/ five hours journey. I agreed, as it was not only sensible to stay out of the overcrowded interior and breathe in fresh air but also to admire the scenic beauty of the road as we would travel along. I found many of our relatives also joined to board the bus. Several of my cousins were going too. I now realised why father agreed to my trip without creating any problem, as he knew that I would be watched upon by the elders. The people tried to fit inside the bus as we and few others climbed the ladder at the back of bus and got on top of it. We made ourselves space within the luggage and holding onto the side rails we comfortably sat. The bus started on its course and as it drove along the road, we had to feel the bumps because till the expressway the village road was full of potholes which was left after the floodwaters receded; the flood that had happened in July. However, the scenic beauty was mesmerizing as I saw in the twilight the small huts and the paddy fields flying past us. The distant sound of Bengali music playing in the solitary puja pandals in small neighbourhoods could be heard and with it came drifting the sound of Dhak, Sankha and Kasor-Ghanta (instruments typical in Bengali puja). We passed the local “Haatt” (village market in which one can find all the commodities from groceries and clothes to live animals for husbandry). The Haatt was closed and the open space looked deserted. But on a Haatt day the same place will be packed and bustling in trade. My school went past where I had to come cycling for eight kilometres from my home to attend my classes. I could hear a few people inside the bus merrymaking, singing the latest songs of a Bengali movie named Saptapadi, “E poth jodi na sesh hoy tobe kemon hoto tumi boloto” (If this road does not end, then how amazing it would be). The bus was now speeding in an almost empty road. It was now night and the headlights went on. The speed of the bus was too much and I heard people inside the bus complaining to the driver. However, he did not budge and went ahead with the speed. At one of the turns where we gradually leave the village road and come up towards the expressway, a road that crosses across the paddy fields elevated like a ramp with stone rails on two sides, I could feel the bus lose its control and it tumbled. An uproar aroused but it was too late as the bus steered too much to the side and broke the frail and cracked stone rails and fell below into the fields which was now cleared off the paddy but was muddy due to the rain. I tried to jump in the split second the bus was falling from the road, but someone grabbed me from my legs and pulled me back and as we fell the person who grasped onto me yelped, Hari! I could hear painful shrieks and screams coming from inside, and then the bus toppled over and stopped. All of this happened in a minute and yet each and everything seemed to happen for hours before the final halt. My lower torso was crushed beneath the heavy bus. I heard a few more painful screams and felt a sharp pang of pain tearing across my spine to my brain, I fainted!

I remember, I had met an accident and now I am in that same paddy field. I can now feel blood oozing out from my stomach sticky yet fluid, soaking my shirt. It is dripping out of the wound where the bus has crushed me, and a rail went into my body. I try to touch the region but then I feel the excruciating pain again and quickly remove my hand. I am feeling weak; I feel like sleeping. What has happened to Hari? Is he also trapped under the bus? I can not see one single person walking around or yelling for us to be rescued. Are all of them dead? I hear the croaks of the frogs that now try to overflow my senses. My head is reeling, and my eyes are now obscure. Wait! I can see my mother and my sister in our house, in the Kitchen cooking; their beautiful faces fill my mind and their sweet voice suppress the grumpy song of the frogs. I hear them speaking about me; I hear them say how they would prepare my favourite “Payasam and Luchi” (Rice custard and Flour bread) to surprise me on my return tomorrow night. I see my father calculating the day’s profit from his shop, he stops for a while and sees into my eyes; yet he does not see me and stares as if into empty space. I can see the small Diya (oil lamp) faintly burning in the Tulsimanch (sacred basil) that my sister has lighted like every evening. I feel a soft cushion below me, I can now lie down a little. Tired, I look at their faces and slowly close my eyes. I will rest now till tomorrow morning. I have been brought back home; I have been saved at last. Perhaps I was only dreaming!

As I open my eyes, I can see myself before me. What is this sorcery? I am lying still, on soft mud, eyes closed. A mixed expression of calm and pain on my face. I try to touch my other body, but I cannot; I cannot move this body as well. As if I have become fixated where I stand, watching the very scene of accident that I have experienced. Have I died? I can see clearly in the dark now and as I try to remember my family, my mother, father and my beloved sister, pictures assemble like a puzzle in front of my eyes. I can see a local telling my father about the accident that has happened last night. There is a loud scream as my mother came rushing down the stairs hearing about the incident. She slipped and fell down the stairs, her head hurt badly! My sister came running and tended to her with tears in her eyes and pain in her face as she is worried about me as well. My father sat down with his head between his knees. My uncle came in rushing and talked to the local. He immediately called out to some of the neighbouring youths and gave them specific instructions about how they should travel to the site of accident immediately and carry me to a hospital as soon as possible. He gave them a handful of money and bade them good luck and recited the name of our family Gods so that they help the family recuperate from the incident without any loss. Then he went on to console my family. The youths meanwhile went out and after travelling for a short distance entered a local brewery. They knew about the accident from the messengers who carried it to the families and from what they have comprehended is that the survivors are being taken to hospitals and rest are all dead. Hence, they did not want to go through confronting the gruesome scene and instead used the money on a few drinks which they thought was wisely utilised.

I can see the local hospital where I have been rushed in by the local rescuers and though I am having a faint pulse I am neglected and kept aside for treating later, since I have been brought in late and there were several injured patients who can be saved easily. Therefore, the few doctors scurry to provide them with the immediate treatment. When at last my turn arrives there is no life force remaining in me. The hospital was full of bodies and a few injured, some of whom have lost limbs; some lost their eyes or had a crushed face. I can see the family of my cousins lying under pall. The whole family, dead! I close my eyes and when I open it, I stand again at the site of the accident; blood splattered everywhere, organs and guts and pieces of brains, and a foul smell of rotten meat. I can see Hari, his body crushed underneath with only his head and hand sticking out as if to grab hold of me again. I can see the popped eyes that are protruding from their sockets due to the pressure; the horror on his face on meeting with Death.

Slowly everything turns into a radiant white light, a void where I stand stuck and remain so. I can feel remaining of my senses fleeting, my memory slowly erasing itself. I again see for a moment my sister, I hold her chin up and say, “You are my Goddess Durga, Didi”!

Then, there was oblivion!

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The Fragrance of Jasmine


At the center of the room, which was dimly lit by the street light percolating through the window, Putna Bai laid shivering on her bed trying to procure some sleep. Her bouts of fever have come back. She had Chikungunya three months back and still after her relief she gets these bouts of fever with shivering once in a while. She would now have to visit the government hospital once again, for the free medicine that is distributed there to alleviate the symptoms. The doctor had earlier said it would take time and the only therapy would be to treat the symptoms of fever and weakness. She would require to ask for a day’s leave from the houses where she works as a maid. The hospital has to entertain many people belonging to the economically backward section of the society from across Pune and its neighboring villages. Often patients and parties would flock to occupy the footpaths near the hospital gate early in the morning, to get a chance for health check-up in the outdoor patient department or for admission. There is no other option if one wanted good health care paying only a meager amount. Other government hospitals in the city either lacked in number of doctors, or the infrastructure and medicines. It was the only hospital that really aided someone belonging to their financial class.

She wrapped up her covering sheet and turned on her left side. The window had been kept open due to summer heat. The asbestos roof and the tin walls of the small room heat up and make it feel like an oven by the end of the day. Without any ventilation, like the window or the small gap between the roof and the walls, the shelter would have been agonizing to dwell in. The room was twelve feet by thirteen feet, habitable for a single person. The contents of the room included an earthen pot to hold water, a bamboo structure to hold clothes, a trunk used to store important stuff and cookware that lay in one corner of the room. She had CNG (compressed natural gas) cylinder and stove, but today she had to skip her dinner. After work when she returned in the evening to her abode she found that the cylinder was almost empty. The little amount of fuel left would not be sufficient to cook a meal but make two batches of tea. She made her evening tea and decided to skip her dinner, in order to preserve enough fuel to make the morning tea. The evening chai (tea) quite magically brushed away all her fatigue from the day’s extensive labor, and the morning chai was essential for her to persevere throughout the day. She had taken a few biscuits before bedtime to curb down her hunger.

A mild cool breeze drifted in through the open window carrying with it the fragrance of the jasmine. A handful of flowers blossomed in the shrub just outside, below her window. They now fanned their perfume with the slightest provocation of the fickle breeze. Putna Bai took a deep breath and the jasmine’s fragrance made her remember her past; her childhood, her youth, her marriage and her motherhood.

She had not been a native of Maharahstra but she was from a small village in Andhra Pradesh. She had come to Pune only when she was in her teenage years. Her parents had both died in a bus accident on their way to pilgrimage, to the Srisailam Mallikarjuna Jyotirlinga temple. She was only five years of age when this mishap had happened. It was ironical that the reason for their pilgrimage was for the sake of their family’s safekeeping. Orphaned at a tender age she was taken in by her maternal grandparents and raised as their own daughter. Her paternal relatives did not like the idea of undertaking the upbringing of a girl child, as it would not provide any economic return but a burden instead when she would be required to be married off. Her maternal grandparents having lost their only daughter were willing to take the liability even at their old age, since they found they could find bliss looking at the resemblance she bore to her mother. In fact she was raised to call them mother and father instead of calling them grandparents.

Her grandfather worked as a labourer in the fields of a land owner. He would bring in little money and produce that would provide them just enough for two square meals. Her grandmother would mostly remain home caring for her household except during the season of harvesting of the grains when she like many more would be temporarily employed as a harvester and thresher, by the same land owner where her grandfather used to work. She often helped her after she was seven both in the household chores as well as the harvesting work. There was no chance for her to go to school. During her childhood only boys were meant to be sent to school for the prospect of better income, while the girls were taught household chores and necessary skills to maintain the household so that they could be married off easily. The marriages were still organized early though seldom below 15 because of the child marriage acts threatening prosecution and jail. However rarely a girl would remain unmarried till her attaining of the age of 18. She was also married off to a distant cousin as was the custom of their village, and this young boy of age twenty-one used to work in Pune as a contracted labourer in construction firms. He went to visit his relatives in the village who were common in relation also to Putna Bai, and then both the parties decided on the marriage, Putna being roughly sixteen years old at that time.

She remembers the rituals that they had to perform including the early morning bath, and applying turmeric on skin to bring good luck and prosperity. The groom had lost his parents, so the common relatives themselves had taken the guardianship during the ceremony. She remembers the modest ceremony where the bride and the groom welcomed each guest accepting the humble presents offered. Everyone’s mood was elated and the music of the Shehnai (flute like musical instrument) played with the bride and the groom’s emotions. Whenever their hands touched or their bodies brushed each other’s they would look into each other’s eyes and blush. They did not know if this was love but there was a force that made them realise how empty they were without each other’s company even for a moment.

After a month of their marriage Putna Bai and her husband Shivaraju travelled to Pune. The railway travel was a new experience and like every young couple the new-found love made the travel yet more valuable. The way her husband would secretly touch her hand in the train compartment among several co-passengers and the things he bought for her from the hawkers made her feel like a pampered child, and she made sure she wanted more such gestures from him. On arriving to Shiva’s quarter (this was what she would call him) in Pune she settled in at once employing all the skills she developed under the guidance of her grandmother. She and Shiva both found that her skill to maintain the household were incredible. His quarter was a shack, a two room matted construction with thatched roof. But there was enough space in front of the shack and at the sides. The next shack was quite few feet away, unlike the densely populated slum she now lives in. However the shack of the bachelor now transformed into a comfortable home with arranged items. The outer room was used as a kitchen and dining, as well as for welcoming guests, while the inner one was the bed room where they would share their private moments. During those times she had to cook in earthen stove using coal. The utensils were of cheap steel, aluminium. The bed was just the mattresses on floor with bed sheets on them. Even in present her bed is just a mattress on the floor with a bed sheet, where she now lay shivering and wondering how it is like to sleep in the beds of wood or iron she finds at the houses she works in.

The slum where they lived had a common washroom which had water supply at specified times during the day, and it was the duty of Putna Bai to fill up the vessels during these scheduled timings. She also made herself a small garden at the front and sides of their shack, where she grew her favourite jasmine shrubs and tulsi (holy basil). She also planted papaya, lemon, and the hibiscus, the latter’s flowers she gave as offerings to her deities during her morning and evening pujas. Love was in the air and jasmine plants around the house would whiff up the passion in both of them when after day’s labour they would rest in each other’s arms. Sometimes it hovered inside the bedroom as they closed the windows shut and made love in the darkness fulfilling each other’s desire. The odour of the Jasmine would mix with their perspiring bodies and infused into their skin and mind. After they were exhausted they would reopen the windows and doze off.

Her first child was born after eleven months of marriage and since it was a boy Shiva had celebrated it with as much pomp as was possible for them. The child was named Shyameswar or Shyam as she would call him. However, this was not her only pregnancy. Like the jasmine shrubs flourishing outside in her small garden their family flourished, and Shiva’s love or desires (whatever the reader would like to call it) brought forth another two sons (Kaashi and Balu) and a daughter (Lacchmi). She endured the violence of Shiva’s lust and the dreadful agony of child delivery again and again. After the birth of the daughter she became wary, the fragrance of jasmine would not fan the flames of her passion and in the pretext of caring for the young children she continued to sleep in separate room. Her husband felt neglected as she would no more fulfil his longings and often he tried to force her into making love. Putna Bai resisted all his advances and fought aggressively to escape his arms when he would force her. Thus, though she had to suffer physical abuse in the name of excess love she still remained resilient not to undergo another pregnancy. She knew it would not only be harmful for her health as the doctor had suggested during her last child-birth, but also it was economically not viable in their position to raise another child. After a few months this forceful advances from Shiva stopped. She found her husband lacking sexual interest in her anymore. She found him returning home late and drunk most nights. She tried to ask him once, but was beaten up severely and her elderly neighbours (aged ladies) suggested her to let her husband be, like they allow their husbands to follow their whims and fancies. They had told her that it was the wives’ duty to serve her husband without question.

The smell of jasmine would linger in his clothes now and then. After a month it was every night that she found her husband returning late drunk and with jasmine fragrance around him. She would be physically abused again and again on asking any question and at last she stopped asking him about his whereabouts. He started to provide less for the family. Putna Bai had to borrow from the neighbours to maintain household expenses. He started evading coming to his home at night and after only four months of his late night ventures he brought in his new love Revati. There was an argument, where the neighbours played the role of a muted audience. Even when Shivaraju declared Revati as his only wife and denied any relation henceforth with Putna no one supported her. He evicted her and their children from his shack and Putna found her world crumbling and darkening with each moment. She made a last effort to ensure proper upbringing of her children and she found support from a few neighbours. She did not know of the laws or the customs, she knew her man was gone forever. All she now wanted was a means to raise their children whom he nearly disowned. The neighbours after consultation were able to bring Shivaraju to terms that he would provide for the primary education of his sons, a pocket-money for his wife to raise the children, and a small funding for marriage of their daughter in future. She was told to find herself a place and she received little help regarding job. That is when she shifted from the known neighbourhood of Laxmi road to a new slum in Hadapsar. It was far away from her real marital household, where she was no longer the Lady of the House. However it was near her work place. She found a job as well, as contracted labourer in a construction firm. Though she was promised the monthly allowances by her estranged husband to raise their children she could not trust on a man who nearly disowned his family for another woman. She was right too, for after a few months neither the allowances for the boys’ schooling nor her household allowances arrived anymore. The promise of funding for their daughter’s marriage in future was now just an extravagant dream.

After three years of her separation with Shivaraju, when she was in her early thirties, she was approached by another man to start her life afresh with him. This individual called Shahu was a fellow worker in the construction agency and had taken a liking to Putna Bai. Her friendly behaviour made him feel attracted to this lonely woman suffering the loss of her beloved. He found courage and slowly became a family friend to Putna Bai and her children. One day when the children were out to school and she was resting in her room having taken a day off from work. Her fatigue due to hard work and lack of proper nutrition made her dizzy. She heard a soft knock on the tin door. Her name was being called. She answered in a feeble voice. Shahu came in and enquired about her health. On noticing her exhaustion he suggested her to go to the health clinic with him for a check-up. She however refused as she knew this would be asking for monetary help from Shahu which she did not like. To this Shahu became emotional and through a continuous dialogue he at last let out the secrets of his heart how he had loved her and wanted to take care of her. He held out his hands boldly, grasped her body pulling her towards him and planted a kiss on her lips. She was spellbound at first being unable to accept the reason another man can have feeling for her despite her age, past and her children. She however did not resist. The lips did not move apart and as she looked into his eyes which were full of passion she felt an urge to throw away her burdens and duties and the sense of purity that society imposed on her as a married woman. She wanted to take in the fragrance of the lost jasmine flowers of the front garden and immerse herself into the wild desire that now dominated the environment of the room. She was losing herself in his arms when her eyes went to the door and she gasped in fear and shame, for there stood her eldest son surprised to find his mother in the arms of another man. Shahu scrambled up and went toward Shyam and gave him a loud slap, shouting at him for coming in without knocking. The second time he raised his hand to hit him with a punch Putna was in between the two and her eyes were firmly rejecting the idea of their union. She shouted at Shahu for his actions and made sure he was gone forever from their life. She also changed her work place to avoid his further advances. Putna had made up her mind to live up to the society’s imposed boundaries raising her children so that they can end her suffering by being successfully settled. She could never look up to Shyam again though, for she knew she lost her respect in his eyes irrespective of the fact that no one tried to look it from her point of view where she underwent an endless suffering for raising her children all by herself.

Her dreams of establishing her children were meant to be opposed by her ill fate. No one of the three boys were able to complete the schooling, and each in their teens took up jobs as labourers in the market and shops. Her daughter was also not able to complete her primary education and soon she fell in love and eloped with a young vegetable seller. Later she came back with her husband bearing the signs of a married lady. To save disgrace Putna had to socially arrange the marriage with the little savings she had, also giving away the dowry which she had been compiling in small amounts over the years. Her daughter nevertheless had been happy in her family, now a mother of two, and her husband now a successful businessman owning his own grocery store. However now they do not find reasons to visit her in her lonely abode. She remains alone working in the houses fending for herself. Her boys had started to drink and smoke early enough and started to ignore her bidding. Someone had suggested her to marry off the boys to discipline them and with whatever she could earn she slowly built up a three room brick quarter and married off the boys soon after. However she herself was again evicted from the luxury of a brick house within two years of marrying her sons, and was forced to move to the tin shelter as her two daughter-in-laws found excuse to quarrel with her every moment as long as she stayed together with them. Though her youngest son and daughter-in-law were unlike the other two, yet she found she had a strong dignity and would be better to live in solitude keeping the relation with the children from a few feet of distance (her shelter being in same compound). Since her age of forty-five she could no longer perform heavy construction labour and hence took up the work of being a maid in houses.

There was a loud knock on the tin door and Shyam was calling her name out loud. She felt like ignoring him and laid still in her place, but the knock came louder and then abuses showered upon her which made her shout back curses at him. She got up from her bed and went slowly to the door and opened it. Shyam was drunk and was faltering in his steps. He stepped in pushing her aside forcefully and looked around the room in a daze. Crawling in the semi darkness he entered the bed pulled up the covering sheet and fell asleep snoring and muttering abuses. . He would often come like this when his own wife would not let him enter in his drunken stupor.

She slapped her head with her hands in vexation and closed the tin door all the while cursing her ill fate. Then she went and laid down in one corner on the cemented floor pulling up another covering sheet. Her mind wondered what kind of life had been led by Revati and her husband. She had never been contacted by Shivaraju again, though she knew that they had remained in the old place. Neither had she tried to contact her husband. The sweet fragrance of jasmine had faded away and the breeze had died off. She closed her eyes once again trying to get some sleep, her frail old body shivering now and then.

The Shadow and the Shriek


This story has its setting in the locale of the narrow and twisted puzzling lanes of north Kolkata, (somewhere around Maniktala) West Bengal, India. The time period is set in the late 50s. The story was told to me by my grandfather, who is also the main protagonist in this story. In order to understand the circumstances in the story one must understand Kolkata during that time. Kolkata (henceforth will call Calcutta as it was called during the time) had yet not spread to its outskirts and Maniktala was one of the old Calcuttan neighbourhoods where the traditional middle-class joint families would stay. The narrow streets would be bordered by two or three storied houses. The houses would have raised platforms near their front doors where people would often sit and chat, and kids would play. The streets were lit with halogen lamps, while the lanes were dimly lit with only one lamp or none. It was recommended that a good Bengali Babu would return within 9 pm even if working late hours and have his dinner with his large loving family. For someone who would miss the last bus from Dalhousie to Shyambazar or one who would love to earn extra cash for doing an overtime at workplace burning the midnight oil would feel more comfortable to sleep off on the office benches than venture on the streets. The times were troubled. Bengal had been facing one crisis after another since world war; Famine, riots and now refugee crisis plagued the city.

In Maniktala there was a ghetto of the Marwari and Kalwar iron merchants which would be known as the Lohapatti. It was not far from where our ancestral home was; just a few lanes away. Here was set up a new start up by my grandfather and his brothers.  They would manufacture iron fittings for the baths and other plumbing necessities. The business was recently opened a few months back and a few industrial orders came in. It was absolutely necessary to complete the orders and bring in the profit to invest further capital and expand the start up. Often people would work till late night and sleep over in order to fulfil the required manufacturing quantity. It was the last day and by afternoon the orders had been packed and were ready to be couriered. So, the brothers had come to the office to check on accounts. While the elders had gone home by time, being the youngest of the lot my grandfather was dumped the responsibility to sit with the accountant and complete the audit for the orders. When the job was done the accountant prepared to sleep in the office (he stayed far) and my grandfather got ready to go to home. My grandfather’s name was Abani and the accountant’s name was Dibakar. The rest of the story I will narrate in first person as my grandfather had told me years ago.

Dibakar da had repeatedly requested me to stay back and sleep in the office. The roads were not safe at night due to miscreants. Moreover, he was an ardent believer of the supernatural and had a strong belief of ghostly presence after midnight in the streets of Calcutta. The ghosts of all those who were butchered during the infamous Bengal riots. He would carry a few tablets and sacred threads on his arms and neck to protect them from all the harmful effects of the Invisible Ones and would not even say their name (Ghosts) after sunset. He said again before I ventured out of the door, “Abani babu, please listen to my advice and stay back in the office. It is already 1:20 am and in another four to five hours when the sky will be lit dim by Dawn, then you can easily go to your house. You may skip office tomorrow. This is also not a good time to roam the streets as they (he won’t say ghosts) would walk around now in the empty streets.” The office was close anyways the day after to provide a long-wanted leave to the labourers who did overtime to fulfil the order. I told him “Dibakar da do not worry! It is just a kilometre or two from here, just few lanes away and I know them as good as the palm of my hand. It will be no trouble and no one dare attack me in the neighbourhood, most of the families know us and will come out to help if I call.” Saying this and laughing at his fear of ghosts I walked out of the office. The street was completely empty of human beings. It was a night when the moon had a crescent shape and its light could not shine amid the halogen lights on the street. The Lohapatti was silent as the Marwaris and Kalwars were sleeping soundly in their houses or matted sheds. A neighbourhood dog roamed the street ensuring the safety of its territory and marking the walls with its urine for trespassing canines to beware. I held the small bag containing the lunch box and a few office stationeries on my shoulder and thought about why I had really come out and did not wait for the dawn. I knew a couple of answers and it made me chuckle at myself. The first reason was due to my intention to make my brothers pay for dumping their job on me. Since, I was the youngest my mother, sisters and sisters-in-law would pamper me a lot, and hence I made a plan to make sure my brothers suffer for their insolence the next day. A few words of returning home so late at night would worry the ladies of the house about my safety and my brothers would face warrior Goddesses in their bedrooms. The other reason was a little romantic and private. I had been married a couple of moths back and since the nectar of our honeymoon was not yet old I felt like going home to comfort your grandmother (who was afraid to sleep alone in our big room at night) and also show her about how I would care for her risking myself in the process. A man’s pride to show off to his woman was in his fearlessness and compassion for her sake.

As I entered the lane, an eerie feeling which one may call the sixth sense crept into me. I tried noticing my surroundings as the open shuttered windows of the houses by both sides made a mild creaking noise with the wind. No other noise except a distant bark or howl of a dog, cry of a cat or the constant chirps of crickets. The crescent moon can be seen at the top of my head. Dim lights of the candles also have fled the windows as the wax burnt out; and the windows are engulfed by darkness. Darkness greatly improves your senses and your fears and so every sound, every shadow felt like something supernatural. I had to double check all the time to get rid of my fear. But my mind kept chanting the hymns of Ram Lakhsman (which would keep ghosts away they say) and yet kept on seeing illusions at every corner and dark areas. As I walked slowly, my now supersensitive hearing picked up sound of footsteps. It came from behind and it stopped as I stopped an turned back. The lane was empty, shadows engulfing the buildings on both sides, and a dim halogen lamp post at the farthest end. Overcoming my hesitation, I started walking again and kept my ears sharp. Yes, the footsteps are real! Light feet, but clear footsteps; as one would walk with extreme care. I was afraid and could not think of anything at first, the first thought was about ghosts. However, being not as ardent believer of the Invisible Ones as Dibakar da, and now thinking more rationally I overcame my fear and shouted out “Who is there? Come out or I will shout.” No reply was there, not even the sound of a breath. I walked a few steps in the direction I came from eyeing every dark area. I could not notice anyone. I had guessed it to be a thief but how can one be invisible. At least the eyes will shine a little in darkness. I had no torch with me that day or I could search the entire lane by every inch. I decided to let it go and walked fast to reach my house. Only a couple more by-lanes and I would see light and an enlightened face, both of which can warm up my heart.

As I paced faster, I heard footsteps again. I would halt now and then, fists clenched, and would look back. Every step I took I kept looking back for any surprise attacks from the unknown companion. But not a single shadow showed to be irregular out of place for me to haste and grab the hidden rascal. I now began to fear the idea of another type of adversary, Dibakar’s Invisible type. I started sweating and my heart raced faster, but I did not slow down my pace. Every step was heavy and time was as slow as an epoch. I saw shadows fly past me and shadows circling me, I saw the moon glowing dark and street lamps dimmed. I was almost running and it was the last lane at the end of which after a single turn I can thrust upon the door of my house and call out to our servant. I wanted to shout but no sound would come out of my voice box. Moreover, the thought in my subconscious that it might be just my fear kept me from doing it. I just ran and ran and prayed to all the Gods and Goddesses I ever read about or knew. I continued to look back as I imagined the houses standing there laughing at me with their bare brick teeth; their dark windows seemed like the hollow eyes of a skeleton.

I could see the corner and I dashed forward, I stopped looking back and then I heard the footsteps gain pace, their sound now clear. I was near my house, no matter if it is evil or any miscreant, I would reach the door fast and knock and shout and no one can do anything. I took this belief into my heart and just dashed out. As I turned the corner, I heard a loud shriek. A horrible painful and tormenting shriek, that made my blood run cold and my heart skip a beat. At the same time, I lost my balance and fell face forward. I had hurt myself; my knee was in pain and bruised, with a sticky fluid on it, blood. Not a serious injury but my ankle was sprained as well. My chin had a cut too. I tried to get up quickly but could not, and the shrieks continued but now milder and distant and echoing. I slowly pulled my strength and got up and looking back I saw nobody. The voice was now faint and echoing, sounding like a painful gurgle. Another shriek echoed, distant, ever faint and with it the words

AAAAAAAAAGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!

HELP ME! HELP ME!

I slowly went a few steps in the direction but I could see no one. Not a soul was there and yet, faintly the same words crying for help came echoing as if from far away from another dimension. I looked intensely and was sure no one was there and the words had died out as well. I was now sure I experienced something supernatural. They were the ones killed in the riots and now they seek help or may be revenge. I increased my holy chants and limped to the house door. I could bang on the door a few times before I went senseless seeing a shrouded figure with a candle open it. It was too much for me, my nerves had their share of horror and could bear no further.

Next, when I opened my eyes, I saw a gathering inside my room. My wife’s beautiful face was white with fear and so were other women’s. My brothers were curiously looking at me. One of them was pressing an ice bag on my head while others discussed in hush voices as to my condition and whether it would be ideal to immediately take me to the nearest hospital. Our doctor would not take late night house calls. As I came around my senses a lot of questions were bombarded but luckily my eldest sister-in-law and mother intervened and drove others away. They told my wife to care for me, and after ensuring no major concussion was apparent or no sign of an epileptic seizure was there on my face told me to sleep and left. I knew the questions were postponed only till morning. Now that I thought I felt foolish, I could have searched a bit more and found out the source. What if it was something trivial? I felt tired out of the sheer exhaustion of the whole experience. As my wife sat fanning me with a hand fan and caressed my hair, I fell asleep.

I was sipping my tea next morning and thinking about last night’s experience. I did not yet have to face my family for the incident last night and I was preparing my answers and my modified story of a brave save from something dangerous, when my nephew rushed in with big eyes and a surprised look. He was a young boy, twelve years old and handful. “Kakababu (uncle in Bengali), do you know what has happened?” Before I could respond he ranted his story to me and as I listened my head burnt with fury and the pain in my cuts and bruises increased manifold.

As he had narrated to me, “today when the local municipal cleaners arrived and tried to clean the manholes in the lane, they found one of the manholes’ lid broken in and as they peered into it they found a head peeking at them with anguish in its eyes. It was unable to speak and only was gurgling and as they went in and picked him out it came to transpire that it was some vagabond. Later as he was cleaned some locals reported to have seen him lurking near houses for a few days, and suspected him to be a thief. The police were called to hand him over and they identified him as a local thug from another neighbourhood who had robbed a few men and women earlier in last month. He confessed he was rushing out to thug a man last night when suddenly he fell into the open manhole at the side of the road. He actually jumped from the raised platform of the house beside which this manhole lay open. As he came crashed down, he shrieked and after he broke his back and a few ribs in the fall he had no power to speak much.

I had still a few questions for my grandfather after he had finished this story. I asked “How did he manage to hide and how his eyes did not show and why he did not attack earlier?”

My grandfather laughed and told me,” That is a supernatural save! He could not attack as long as I did not make a dash for the door; he knew I had been looking around my back and he would not surprise me, and fighting a man is always easy than fighting something unseen or unknown. So, he wanted to keep his advantage of surprise but he had a bad luck and waited too long.”

“About the invisibility?” I asked.

“Bah! Do not be foolish like I had been that night. He had no invisibility. In those days, most thugs would paint them with black tar which would help them hide in the shadows at night and help them surprise unaware travellers. It would also make them slippery so that when caught they can slip out of their captor’s hands. Also, he painted his eyelids black so when I turned, he simply remained still in shadows with his eyes closed. He listened to my steps to track my movement and stayed far behind unless he saw me dash and knew he had to act or lose his victim.”

“Then what about the shrouded figure who opened the door with a candle?”

“Hahahaha! It was Naran our servant, he wore a white shawl all around him as he was sleeping in it, and rushed in to open the door wearing it as it was, on hearing the loud banging on the door. Later he came apologizing for thus scaring me.”

My grandfather was really ashamed of his cowardice that night as he could have easily conquered his fear had he ventured a little further and checked for the source of the shriek. He would often say to me

“Hatred, Fear and Shame

Three wild horses to tame”

“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”                                          ———-Bertrand Russell

Flute Music


I often sit beside the small window of my bedroom looking outside, observing the events out there. I have never been a social person. I am more of an isolated soul who likes to brood inside the room. My place is beside the window from where I can actually socialise on my own terms, studying others’ lives and keeping myself aloof. I have grown to love my solitary confinement. Alongside the building where I live in an apartment, there is a temple. The lord of the temple being Lord Shiva. The destroyer of the worlds and free from all desires. The temple is simple in its architecture like any other one would see in the state of Maharashtra. It has a cemented courtyard and a small garden with benches, where devotees rest and feed the birds.

It is the time of evening prayers or “Sandhya Aarti” that I particularly like to sit by the window.  I watch the small crowd gather in the courtyard of the temple and repeat the prayers that the priest chants. Different people from different occupations and social class, who find unity within the Lord. Often a few religious individuals sing a song or two for the Lord and others join them to form a choir. The children play “tag” or from a distance examine the pigeons that swooped in to feed on grains scattered by someone to gain a few ounces of virtue. They remain uninterested in the unexciting religious rituals that mostly captivated the adult minds full of complication and guilt.

The sound of claps, bells, gongs and drums echo for some time and thereafter the crowd takes the blessing of the Lord by waving their hand over the pious flame and touching their forehead. Then most of them disperse quietly. A few lovers stay behind occupying the benches spending a moment together before they separate and wait for their next meeting. Old people remain back discussing ordinary life events, socialising. They too leave after a few minutes. After about an hour or more the temple has only an old man remaining in the courtyard. A girl child plays nearby on her own, most likely a kin to this old man, who now opens up a small bag beside him. He brings out a flute and he starts playing.

I know nothing of music but I like to hear the music that soothes my senses and stirs my soul. It may be a song of love, dream, failure or loneliness. I need to sense it from within before I can appreciate it. Anything else seems to me less alluring as I cannot relate with it.

The old man plays melodies that commonly a shepherd plays in the wild. It often makes me feel attached to it. The music takes me through the moments of joy and grief that I have experienced, bringing back nostalgic memories. It resurfaces thoughts that haunt me, ones which I keep buried deep. I like the music, I contemplate much on it and become a philosopher listening to it. I dream and relive lost moments, recover missed opportunities, mend broken relations and redeem lost love. I close my eyes and listen to it; till he stops, gets up and leaves with the child.

I have never thought about questioning about the man and never have I ventured to get acquainted with him myself. I do not want to know him. All I care about is the overwhelming music that he plays on his bamboo flute and the range of emotions that erupts within me as he plays. He is not a regular visitor to the temple. Perhaps he is not completely independent as I have seen a woman accompanying him and the child to the temple and leaving them there. Though he walks away on his own after his performance, by which I have come to conclude that probably he stays nearby and does not need much assistance all the time.

One midnight there was a power cut. It was the beginning of July and amidst the hot breeze blowing outside, one could suddenly smell a sweet scent wafting in. The scent is that of the first drops of rain hitting the dry earth and sending an odour known as “Petrichor”. The air grew cooler and within a few minutes it was stormy and chilly. Rumbling thunder was heard and lightning flashed through the darkened sky. I woke up and breathed in the cold air that now filled my room providing me with relief, easing the uneasiness of the hot weather from last couple of days. I opened my balcony door and went out. A few drops of rain fell on my dry skin. It was drizzling. A soft music started to play somewhere nearby. An untamed melody played by a master with his nimble fingers along the keys of his bamboo flute welcoming the rain to quench the thirst for love.

I had read a poem once, written by Tagore. It was titled “Flute Music”. It told the story of a clerk who worked a daily job with little pay. He lived in a shabby small room in a narrow lane. By his window garbage was dumped and often the stench drifted into his room. He had left his village with lots of dreams. He had left a girl behind waiting for him, with whom he was to be married. All he wanted was to escape the shackles of the mundane family life in pursuit of freedom to live up to his own ambitions. He tried to escape from responsibilities which he was not ready for. He had only one source through which he earned freedom from the monotonous life he lived. That was through the music that Kantababu, a connoisseur of music played nearby.

I imagined if I am that clerk. I work in a multinational corporate and live in a comparatively comfortable apartment. No one else would accept me to be similar to that clerk who used to manage in a harsher reality than me. I am a person with an easy living. However I know within, how much I wanted to be free from all the shackles and bonds that forced me to continue with my repetitive life and job. I envy the gypsies that often visit the city. I wanted to be born a gypsy so that I can travel to unknown destinations with my magic and my remedies. I wanted to camp under the stars, gazing at the constellations. I wanted to stay awake by the camp fire and drink, sing and dance. I wanted to fight duels for the kiss of a beautiful girl from the caravans. I wanted to be an explorer who would sail the seven seas like Sindbad the sailor and embark on adventures to an unknown peninsula in Africa like Professor Challenger. Instead I have grown up to be a person with a daily job and a family to care for.

I walk away from beggars begging alms and fail to help people in need because I save for myself and my family’s existence, our happy livelihood. I avoid the tumults and quarrels. I stay away from anything that has a tinge of dispute related to it. I see old men dying and accident victims pleading for help, and walk by. I see people taking videos of girls raped in footpath and I hesitate and then walk past away from any trouble. I save my skin, my job, I save myself and my family, so that we can live happy as we live now.

I can now effortlessly mask my true emotions to mingle in the society when required. I speak of secularism and support the communal ghetto living. I speak of socialism but hate to see the maid sit in the chair at our dining table. I speak of equal rights and pine later against people who apply for reservations to attain it. I speak of freedom of expression but cannot support the voices raised against the atrocities committed in name of patriotism and law and order. I support women empowerment and secretly objectify them as means of satisfying sexual craving. I protest against kissing in public and yet like watching the lewd advertisements on family time television and billboards. I have put on my self-made garb of hypocrisy and I have learnt how to act on world stage.

I kept listening to the melody and looked at the temple. There was no one. I was wrong, there was a shadow moving there in the courtyard. I looked intently. Another flash of lightning illuminated the surrounding darkness and I saw a little boy looking back at me. His innocent eyes staring as if looking inside the darkest corner of my soul.

“I remember you my younger self. What are you looking at? I have grown tamed to the society which has moulded me, like another puppet that plays its part and silently leaves the stage. I am without a name, never to be remembered as a person after a few years of my death. Even the clerk from the poem, Haripada, would be remembered through the immortal works of Tagore, but not me. I look at you and you stare at me naively, and lightning illuminates our faces at intervals. I try to find my dreams in your eyes, but they are now lost and I cannot revive them. You are perhaps my true self which hides within me but had long been forgotten, never to reveal yourself in the open until now. You look at an unknown person who changed from your idealistic visions of life and the world. Your adventure seeking dreams have been churned into pages of children’s stories. You are looking at a coward who never fought the society for freedom to live life on his own terms, but waited upon the orders and abided by the set down code. You see someone who has followed each and every rule with reluctance, but without a single world of rebellion. You look sad!  Perhaps you now understand that you do not exist anymore! You are only a mere shadow who is fading with each passing day. You will probably never show yourself again and return to the shadow world where you dwell and cease to exist at some point of time.”

I looked away, the music was still playing and with a sad melody. A few more lightning forked through the sky, as I stood in rain and soaked myself to the skin. I was absorbing the rain within me and then crying it out in form of tears. Nothing can be repaired now. I have come too far to let go of these materialistic attachments. I feel happy to obey. I understand, I have to carry on my performance. Each day I have to appear on the stage and perform. This show goes on forever with or without me.

I stood there in the rain for long and even after the music had stopped. That night I washed away my remaining individuality. Now I have accepted the rules completely. I am more tamed now than ever.

This story is inspired by Rabindranath Tagore’s poem of the same name. The thought provoking poem is provided below for the readers.

FLUTE MUSIC

A poem By Rabindranath Tagore

Kinu, the milkman’s alley

A ground floor room in a two storeyed house

Slap on the road, window barred.

Decaying walls, windows crumbling to dust in places

Or strained with damp.

Stuck on the floor,

A picture of Ganesha, Bringer of Success,

From the end of a bale of cloth.

Another creature apart from me lives in my room

For the same rent;

A lizard.

There’s one difference between him and me:

He doesn’t go hungry.

I get twenty five rupees a month

As junior clerk in a trading office.

I’m fed at the Dattas’ house

For coaching their boy.

At dusk I go to Sealdah station.

Spend the evening there

To save the cost of light.

Engines chuffing,

Whistles shrieking,

Passengers scurrying,

Coolies shouting.

I stay till half past ten,

Then back to my dark, silent, lonely room.

A village on the Dhalesvari River, that’s where my aunt’s people live.

Her brother-in-law’s daughter –

She was due to marry my unfortunate self, everything was fixed.

The moment was indeed auspicious for her, no doubt of that –

For I ran away.

The girl was saved from me,

And I from her.

She did not come to this room, but she’s in and out of my mind all the time:

Dacca sari, vermilion on her forehead.

Pouring rain.

My tram costs go up,

But often as not my pay gets cut for lateness.

Along the alley,

Mango skins and stones, jack fruit pulp,

Fish-gills, dead kittens

And God knows what other rubbish

Pile up and rot.

My umbrella is like my depleted pay –

Full of holes.

My sopping office clothes ooze

Like a pious Vaisnava.

Monsoon darkness

Sticks in my damp room

Like an animal caught in a dead trap,

Lifeless and numb.

Day and night I feel strapped bodily

On to a half-dead world.

At the corner of the alley lives Kantababu –

Long hair, carefully parted,

Large eyes.

Cultivated tastes.

He fancies himself on the cornet:

The sound of it comes in gusts

On the foul breeze of the alley –

Sometimes in the middle of the night,

Sometimes in the early morning twilight,

Sometimes in the afternoon

When sun and shadows glitter.

Suddenly this evening

He starts to play runs in Sindhu-Baroya rag,

And the whole sky rings

With eternal pangs of separation.

At once the alley is a lie,

False and vile as the ravings of a drunkard,

And I feel that nothing distinguishes Haripada the clerk

From the Emperor Akbar.

Torn umbrella and royal parasol merge,

Rise on the sad music of a flute

Towards one heaven.

The music is true,

Where, in the everlasting twilight-hour of my wedding,

The Dhalesvari River flows,

Its banks deeply shaded by Tamal trees,

And she who waits in the courtyard

Is dressed in a Dacca sari, vermillion on her forehead.

 

The Highway Girl


highway girl

Photo credit: © Aija Krodere |Dreamstime.com

“Did you not see her?” she asked as she looked, with embarrassment and disgust in her eyes, obliquely towards her husband. Her husband suddenly taken aback by her expression keeping his hand firmly on the steering looked through the rear-view mirror once more at the Girl whom they just passed. She was a medium built young girl with a wheatish complexion and black ruffling hair, standing alongside the highway waiting, seemingly for eternity, under the bright yellow streetlamp. The husband guessed from her carriage and her wear as to what she has been waiting for at this hour of night in a secluded highway. Speeding vehicles passing by, some decelerating to get a glimpse at the damsel. He saw a car stop near her and as soon she stepped inside the car sped away. He answered to her wife with a nod. She did not seemed to be mollified with a simple nod but wanted to resume the topic. Everyone does so whenever they find a whore, a woman selling herself for some meagre money. No one can think how they can stoop so low. Everyone like his wife and him, tries to hide away this social class which seems to them to be poisonous thorns that only pricks their view of a progressing society. They continued to search through the reasons for such a life, the indignity and the morality of such persons until they could come to a conclusion in forsaking these people by the society to keep it innocuous of their toxins.

As the highway girl lay beside her customer in exhaustion to the flaming desires of his frustrations, holding the revenue of her assignment, she calculates the shares she need to spend for her broker, her makeovers, her dwelling, and her dependents. She reckons how many more assignments she would require to survive to satiate the slice of her monthly savings for a gloomy future in her senility. She knows she cannot hope to be treated like a regular woman but will be always looked down upon by the society. She cannot love even when she does; the boy whom she sees everyday speeding by her in his car, only to slacken his speed and look into her eyes just for a moment too abrupt to etch her into his memory but only to amuse himself with a forbidden fruit.

Eventually the couple reaches home and each goes to refresh oneself with the delights one can find within their social stratum. A bottle of beer and music for the husband; and a daily series on television that is full of melodrama, which cannot be escaped, for the wife. At the end they find they need to have their carnal desires fulfilled that night with each other. They meet in the bedroom and procreate. The husband tries to quench himself and her with an incessant resolve. The woman lay their seeking contentment from within a customary performance she enacts each time. None of them try to love. Their twisted beliefs as infused by society make them believe this practice without any ethos clinging to each other except for the utter amusement of the moment, is what love is. They were lovers for a long time and they found their happiness in each other’s camaraderie. However with time slowly all that remained was an enactment of love to avert the weakening strings of a relation from collapsing.

And so rested their exposed forms after a frivolous love making similar to that of the highway girl. The only disparity being it was not a necessity for their existence, but it was for her.

Straw Hats and Pinwheels


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My maternal grandmother lives in a village and there she has quite a big house. A three storied house, made of mud, straw and cement, with thick walls and big wooden doors and windows painted black with tar. The floor is mostly mud floor except at places where it has been cemented, and the roof is that of asbestos sheets. The ceiling is high and lined by wooden bars to hold the weight of the floor above. The house has an odor of the Earth and it is cool and pleasing even in hot summer. The women of the household use muddy water to sweep the floors. It acts both as a disinfectant as well as keep the floor smooth and prevent formation of cracks.

Previously there were pigeons on the roof top. They would stay in the spaces between the asbestos sheets and the wooden logs of the ceiling. Nobody used the second floor so they were never disturbed, and thus prospered and grew in numbers. They would hop around and make strange noises, even during night, and hoot, flutter, fight and fly to and fro. Some daring ones would sit at the windows observing us as we observe them. The noise they made was like stones rolling down from the roof. My grandfather would sometimes feed them grains in the afternoon. They would come down in flock and pick up the scattered grains with their tiny beak and fly away to the top again. I once found a baby pigeon lying in the grass at the front yard of the house an early morning. I realized it was helpless and it screeched softly, perhaps searching for its mother. I took it to shade and put it there, and went to ask help from my aunt to know what to feed it. When I returned I could not find it. Perhaps some neighborhood cat took it. It was depressing. A careless mistake, and at that age it disturbed me, as I felt guilty for it. Sometimes the flock would be attacked by owls, and their chicks would be killed. The terrible commotion could be heard during midnights. It was bone chilling experience, as if some supernatural event were occurring.

In those days a person would come in the morning to provide the bread. We would have it with fresh unsalted butter along with a cup of tea for our breakfast. We would not be allowed to drink tea at home as a kid but in Grandmother’s place everything was allowed. We would play around the cattle house or in the field or try run around catching Kids (baby goats). It was very different during these holidays as we would feel the freshness of life unlike the caged living in the city. There would be pickle jars that Grandmother kept in the sunlight, and we would patiently wait for a chance to steal pickles from the jars and relish the taste of homemade pickles of mangoes and berries. We would give a berry or two to the pet parrot. It would eat it slowly with its red beak. I tried teaching it words but it would not learn. Stubborn bird! It even attacked if one tried to stroke its head!

The fishermen would be called to catch fish from the pond that Grandfather owned. They would come early morning before sunrise. Sometimes we children would call each other up and sometimes our mothers themselves called us to watch the fishing. They would all circle the pond and throw in the net and set it up. After an hour or two they would pull the net and slowly bring their haul to the land. There would be lots of fishes. Some small ones which we would give them as payment and others we would sell to them, except a few which used to be kept for us for lunch. We would watch how the women cut the fish and then wash it and fry it. If lucky we would be allowed a piece to taste after it has been fried and it would always taste delicious. Fish curry would be made, which was flavorsome. There was this favorite dish of mine called “Alu-posto” made with poppy seeds and potato that my grandmother would cook every day for me. I was simply addicted to that preparation. I still ask my mother to cook it for me but it’s always grandmother who cooks it perfectly.

The green meadows in the village of my Maternal Grandmother’s House, full of green and blooming new life, attracted my adventurous inner self and I would travel out with my cousin brother, often with our maternal uncle following us at a distance to keep us safe from harm. We would travel along small streams and wash our feet in them, splash water. We would make pinwheels and run yelling with joy at the top of our voices. Contrary to the boring, and disciplined  city and school life, it was our Declaration of Independence, the days to unchain our inner Wild Things and wreak havoc, with aunts and uncles running hither and thither after us trying to stop us from mischief. We would even sometimes take a beetle leaf or two from granddad’s stock  after lunch, unseen by the elders, and paint our lips red. It was funny. Our tongue would become red as well and we would show it to friends. In the meadows there would be small farm fields, we would traverse them and there would be small hillocks which we would climb. One day we went far enough. There was a small lake. We sat there feeling the breeze and splashed water. There was a small open temple nearby. The idol was covered in vermilion and flowers. Our uncle caught us there and brought us home. We went almost to the village of the Thieves he said to Grandmother. Later I came to know as I got mature that beyond that there was a village named “Anandapur”, where poor people of lower caste lived, and who due to their poverty resorted to robbery and theft and hence further isolated by the society. They would not be offered jobs and hence the only way to live was to work as temporary harvesters, and at other times were compelled to practice robbery and theft. The whole social hypocrisy to fit everyone in the society and tag them in certain systematic way and to isolate the unwanted without providing them a chance to live honestly troubles me.

Once our uncle took us to a friend who was poor and used to live in a one room mud hut. They would not want us to leave without having food, and provided us with water, puffed rice and jaggery. I did like the taste. The family was very courteous to us as their guests and we were embarrassed to having put them through such trouble for they were really poor. They had a few ducks, my uncle had a chat with his friend while we played with the ducklings.

There would be village fair twice or thrice a year. We would go and buy straw hats and sweets like Jalebis and Sweet-sticks (made of fried wheat flour and sugar) and we would see people enjoying. It was unlike city fairs. Not very glamorous but simple, and yet charming and enjoyable. There would be stalls for wooden toys, food, juices, ornaments and household items. Many of the kids would travel in groups and shop around. There would be magic shows by village magicians. There would be stalls for supernatural medicines. Snake charmers would play their music to snakes, and girls would buy colorful bangles. It would be during this time that people would be awake and stay out till late night. Otherwise the roads would be deserted early.

Now that development has reached that place, most of the ponds have been filled up and wide roads have been constructed. The earthly smell and the green is gone. The mud huts are mostly replaced by brick houses now. There was a shop by a small stream which we used to call a “Ferryboat” (though it was not a real boat), that’s no more there. My grandmother’s house has also been marked for demolition as there would be expansion of the road. The village fair is now a bit glamorous but still kids would buy straw hats and pinwheels and I still find kids running across the meadows in the afternoon, perhaps in search for some adventure as we used to when we were of their age.

However the small village of Anandapur still exists. Still the people there live the same hard way of life, facing extreme poverty. Still they do not get jobs easily and are not trusted. Most of them resort to crime as a result and hence they are still isolated by the society. Development has not touched them.

The Listeners


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For a while I had been quite occupied. Real life entangles you in chains and cage you in. I worked day and night to submit my thesis, just to get a degree, a piece of paper that declares your knowledge and academic achievement without ever really gazing inside you. Well I had to do it, be a part of the wheel, for many ties that can’t be severed. Anyways, I tried to write, had many ideas but ended up with nothing and now that all those ideas are gone I do not know what to talk about. I did always like to write, from a very young age, for myself and for others. However always I am refrained from my passion by my academics and sometimes due to lack of encouragement from others. I fear I am not a good writer, and when no one is your audience you lose hope and your thoughts start to die. People would say that sometimes you can’t do just what you want and you have to go on and wait for the moment.

This very thought reminded me of a beautiful poem by Walter De La Mare, the renowned English poet, short story writer and novelist. The poem I am talking about is an example of his imaginary capability and his brilliant literary skill. I had read it in my school days but loved it since. “The Listeners”, a short poem telling the story of a traveler who in the middle of the night comes to the door of a long abandoned eerie house where no one answers his repeated call. Only as if some phantom listeners still linger there listening to his tidings. He had come to keep his promise after many days. He came back to people he knew, may be his love, may be some friend, but it was too late. No one was there to greet him, to hold his arm and bring him in, no one to jump into his arms and hug him, no one to listen to news he brought. Just the silence of the moonlit night and some imperceptible audience in the dark corners standing still, listening to his cry. The traveler could feel this invisible audience, he could feel that he was late for whoever or whatever he came. Yet he told the invisible witnesses to remember that he came to keep his promise. He went away into the darkness, the whole meaning of his journey, of his arrival, had no significance for he was too late. The moment had passed long and he never realized it.

In fact I believe, sometimes we should not wait too long for the right moment or we will never realize even when it passes by. But take a chance to do what we want to. May be it will be unsuccessful and in that case there will always be more ventures, but again if it’s a success we would achieve our intended goal. One needs to be free and happy. That’s what I think matters at the end, to be happy. Everyone is chained and held in a cage by life, but when someone unshackles the chains, escapes and fly free, then one would perceive the real meaning of living. May be we should not be the traveler, for then everything we love will be long lost. Perhaps we should search for the freedom, unshackle ourselves, our mind and fly free.