Translated from the Assamese by Anindita Kar
Where there is paddy there are weeds; a patch of pale pink mimosa flowers will always be interspersed by prickly grass burs. It is only the foul that makes beauteous the fair around it. If I were to imagine the city I inhabit as a spirited young woman, then this part of the city where I am standing right now would be the last part of her digestive tract, the final lap in the serpentine journey undertaken by food, the last station for the sundry experimental indulgences of the palate and its unchecked food fantasies. Beneath this blinding crust of beauty, how ugly the kernel of truth!
As a young boy, my idea of beauty was ‘absolute’. At primary school, everyone’s favorite teacher was Debjani baideo. Although we were not old enough to understand the true measure of the beauty, it was unanimously agreed upon that Debjani baideo was a raving beauty. Once, when she did not come to school for a couple of days, we coaxed our classmate Bokul, also her neighbor, into investigating the matter, “Bokul, why’s Debjani baideo not attending school?”
The next day at school Bokul broke the news.
“It’s a case of diarrhea.”
We listened with our eyebrows raised. The divinely beautiful baideo was no different from us! She too took regular trips to the loo every morning!
Now my age is on the higher side, the matters of the universe are getting clearer by the day. The greater my ability to unravel mysteries, the less capable I become of humor. As I stand watching, the area is losing its contours in the descending darkness. The moon that has been patrolling the sky since daytime is slowly getting whiter. The earth is illuminated by the combined pyrotechnics of the moon and the setting sun. Clouds that had arranged themselves in the shape of a blue whale just moments ago are slowly getting smudged at the edges. The euphoria of the evening has reached its peak. Taking advantage of the moon’s temporary retreat into the clouds, the sky and innumerable stars have come forward to play their parts in the festivities. Despite these, I can in no way convince my mind that a festive season has arrived. When it comes to the justification of the observance of festivals, I am scornfully vocal because I believe that festivals are sheer humbug, and I’d rather stick to a dull quotidian life.
Grains of protest from all over my being gather in the iris of my eye as I scream, “Do not invite me to be a part of your celebrations!”
With a start, I walk away from the corporeal world of the heroine of this story, Shyamala, and head straight towards home— where Bouti, my mother, is eagerly waiting to take a look at my face that, just like some hybrid citrus fruit, suffers from a crisis of identity.
Bouti and I do not live in the village anymore; we are now inhabitants of this bustling city. After I landed this job in the city I didn’t feel like letting her fend for herself in the village home. At her age, leaving the poor woman to die for want of care would have been an act of sin. She had shown some reluctance in the beginning; just as an old papaya tree is unable to bear the shock of transplantation, Bouti has not been able to adapt to her new environment. To say nothing of the body and joint pain, she seems to show signs of some mental disorder. These days the nerve fibers of her brain meant for the plying of thoughts are often caught in heavy traffic. A traffic jam in the axons of the brain! What shall I do, my condition is no less pitiable!
The other day, Bouti asked me, “Tell me Pona, what exactly is your job?”
I said, “It’s called Aids Counsellor.”
“Like the one in our village panchayat? Like Podo the councilor?” she asked.
Now face that! After all these, she thinks I am an elected Councilor of the village council.
“No, not that! For the last few years, a disease called AIDS has hit humanity. I offer counsel related to this disease. Now how do I explain it to you, Bouti!”
“I sent you to the University. How on earth did you end up becoming a ‘daktor’ (doctor) offering counsel for the what-do-you-call-it, ‘ass’ disease!” Bouti burst into laughter, and after a pause, said, “What exactly is this disease, Pona?”
I felt like a teacher facing his class impromptu, without the necessary homework. Unable to work up a befitting reply in that instant, I tried to dodge her question by saying, “You won’t understand, Bouti! It is a disease of civilization, of anarchy, of ignorance, and I am a toadstool that has sprung from the disease and lives off it.”
“I cannot make out a word of what you are saying,” Bouti muttered under her breath.
Such has always been my tactic. Whenever I am confronted with a subject I detest, this is how I tackle the situation. Although I have a master’s degree with a first class in philosophy, this degree could not help me in securing a job; I got a job because I had psychology as an elective subject at the undergraduate level. Looking at it now, I think it makes sense because understanding the mind of modern man is way more important than understanding Indian or Western philosophy. But then, my job in itself is quite silly, one that exists only in theory, with no annual increment, no age of retirement or pension. This in turn implies there’s little scope for marriage in this lifetime. Had I rather been a counselor at a matrimonial agency, I could have at least tried my luck with one of the lasses who came seeking advice.
The job itself was no windfall. Carefully inspecting the envelope thick with money that I had respectfully handed over to him, the chief administrative officer of my department, flashing his betel-nut-zarda stained teeth towards me in an obnoxious manner said on the day before the interview, “Young man! Rest assured. As long as there is the sun and the moon overhead, this job will remain yours, because the disease will never leave the face of the earth as long as there are whores selling the hills and valleys of their bodies. And you, my boy, will have plenty of occasions and plenty of people to spend your advice on. Isn’t this what you call symbiosis in biological terms?”
“I think parasitism is the right word, Sir! Or, you can say, living on the dead, like mushrooms or toadstools, or you!” Needless to say, I uttered the last clause only in my mind.
“I see that you are quite garrulous, outnumbering what I say three to one!” the oldie spoke through his laughter. The thick envelope had already started working.
Although it is a puny little room that we have rented, Bouti has accommodated the gods too in a corner. She seems to pray endlessly. Occasionally, if I have the time to spare, I join her as a tongue-in-cheek partner in prayer, and as her lips move in prayer, indistinctly pronouncing the verses, I add a few corrupt words here and there. It hurts to think that I could not even be a good believer, let alone other things. When I’m in a temple praying, some frivolous idea related to God tickles my mind and sets me off laughing.
The city did not suit me either. Often in my dreams, I see flowers of the neem tree, I see cranes, I see children, half-naked, kicking a robab tenga, or grapefruit, in the name of football, and a snot-nosed boy clutching an anthill to his chest, all images from my village Diphalu. Sometimes in those dreams, I crush with my fingers the silkworm-like fruit of the nooni tree. The name of the dream is My Childhood.
In the last few days, Bouti looked more depressed, visibly making more errors in speech than usual. She talked without looking me in the eye and was consciously maintaining a distance from me. What might be the matter with her? Last morning, standing before the altar, she blurted out the truth. After crying for a long time, she muttered, “Oh God! How can a woman of my age commit such a mistake!”
What she called a ‘mistake’ deserved to be called a blunder. It wouldn’t have been so shocking had the heroine of this story Shyamala made this blunder. Bouti had come to believe that once again she was on the way to motherhood. Since she had experienced motherhood before, she firmly believed that she can in no way go wrong in identifying the signs of pregnancy. What’s more ludicrous, the fetus that had formed in her womb, supposedly, was none other than— “It’s your father, Pona!”
“This is disgusting! You’re sixty, why say such obnoxious things at this age!” I shouted, “It must be the city chilies causing gas in the stomach.”
“Does gas cause the lower abdomen to bloat like a balloon?” Bouti snapped at me, exposing her gourd-shaped belly to me. I thought it wise to take her to a doctor for her satisfaction instead of prolonging the argument and thus took her to a gynecologist in the afternoon.
After examining her and getting a few tests done on her, the doctor came to the following conclusion— she suffers from a condition called pseudocyesis, or false pregnancy. This condition is seen in women who experience a strong urge to conceive but are, in fact, incapable of it. In such cases, the body exhibits all signs of pregnancy but no embryo is formed in the uterus. How strange! But how or when did this urge for motherhood take root in Bouti’s subconscious? Can it be that she no longer feels secure under my care? As the dead cannot return in person, is this a way she has devised for my dead father to come back in the form of a newborn to take care of her? Oh, God! Help me out of this.
I felt uneasy all day, and could not sleep for the major part of the night. I walked towards Bouti’s bed. The state of her mind was no different. Casting a long and blank stare at the beam on the ceiling, she was muttering something to herself. A little startled to find me there in the middle of the night, she turned over to face the wall and started sobbing.
“Bouti, I can understand what you are going through,” I said. “Slowly everything will be sorted, why do you fret about everything under the sun? And one more thing— are you the only one who can show your swollen belly? Look at mine!” Now it was my turn. I lifted the vest upward and pointed to my exposed belly button.
“This belly button is a living testimony to all those months in your womb when I drew blood and nutrition from you. I won’t let it down. If you ever find me faltering, just tell me, and I will get this thankless belly button permanently removed through plastic surgery. But for God’s sake, don’t make such a fuss about the matter; in that dry and shrunken womb of yours only a toadstool can grow, not a human baby.”
Bouti did not snap back this time. Had someone asked me at this point to describe ‘the face of grief’ I would have pointed towards her. It was almost morning when both of us drifted to sleep. The two of us lay on the two ends of the bed, the atmosphere imitating the calm that follows a storm.
To tell the truth, I don’t have in me the traits of an AIDS counselor. I am expected to be calm, trustworthy, and a true gentleman. I have no right to advise anyone in the truest sense, not even an AIDS patient. I can’t stop an infected person from tying the knot. There is a thing called human rights. If they wish to have children, I can’t stop them. Our responsibility ends with explaining the pros and cons of the matter. The ultimate decision rests with the patient. “There is a 1 in 3 chance of transmitting the virus to your baby; now you decide.”
The law has tied down the hands of doctors, nurses, and counselors but asks of them to wipe out the disease from the face of the earth. We are unarmed Nidhi Ram Sardars deployed to destroy an armed opposition. It is only natural that a deadly virus should be confronted in an equally deadly manner; only then things will work out. But in order to save my job, there was no other way but to be a gentleman, and remain sweet-tongued every minute.
As per government rules, there should be female counselors for female patients. A female patient may not be comfortable opening her heart to a male counselor, especially when seventy percent of the heart’s contents are matters sexual. But since my female colleague is on maternity leave, I am bound to do her part of the job too. A woman or two pay their clandestine visits to the center now and then. One gave herself up to a stranger swayed by uncontrollable passion, one got infected from a blood transfusion, and another had a husband with doubtful sexual orientation. Having come across awareness ads in newspapers, TV, and radio, these people come to our VCTC center to clear their doubts. As if this is nothing but a doubt-clearing center!
That day too, a young woman sneaked into our center. It made my blood boil when I saw this barely seventeen or eighteen-year-old. I felt a strong urge to unmask the face of the gentleman that my profession made me wear. I carefully studied her face, eager to see if I could spot the slightest trace of repentance in it. The girl was scantily dressed.
“Bhonti, come here, let me ask you a question. Tell me in which age clothes were invented— the Paleolithic or the Neolithic?”
“How would I know! I didn’t have History in school,” the girl, Shyamala, said.
“Of course, how would you know! You seem not at all impressed by the invention. Tell me, what is the fundamental function of a piece of clothing?”
Shyamala looked at me nervously, and that look hurled me back to reality, to my job. With a feigned softness in my voice, I led her to the chair in front of my desk and waited silently for the situation to be normal. All of a sudden, I was overcome by a sense of pity, felt embarrassed about my behavior moments ago, and looked concernedly at the eyes of the troubled girl. For a few moments, she seemed to be thinking something, her head lowered. Then she looked me straight in the eye and began narrating her life’s story. With careful carelessness, she narrated how she fell in love with an army officer who was their neighbor. Every time he came home on his annual leave for two months, their intimacy grew; the remaining ten months were spent reminiscing those intimate memories. Since it was a life of her choice, she didn’t have anyone to blame. When the intensity of a year’s worth of love has to be packed within the time frame of two months, is it not bound to border on the erotic? That’s what happened with them. Life assumed a musical character where, if there was one keynote, the stray notes gravitating towards the opposite direction were its byproducts. Neck deep in this flood of words, one day the news came as a bolt from the blue— he had contracted a strange illness and died of it in a small town in the Thar desert of Rajasthan.
“What strange illness?”
“A letter from the Regional Head Office that came with the dead body had it clearly mentioned. Reading the letter through to the last sentence made my blood run cold. The news on TV, in newspapers, and discussions of relatives and well-wishers raised my suspicion. What if I have contracted the disease too! Trust me, I was very good in my studies before love screwed me up.”
The girl began to sob. After the primary investigation and conversation, I called the laboratory technician to take a sample of her blood for the ELISA test. We need to be absolutely sure of everything. Even if she tests positive, there’s no reason for me to be saddened by it. It matters not if Shyamala suddenly turns into statistics, rather it would benefit me if she turns out HIV positive. For quite some time I have not registered a positive case. Even the State AIDS Control Society has been questioning me as to why no positive cases have been identified in my center for a long time. If that is the case, what’s the point of spending lakhs of rupees in one center? One needs figures to receive grants from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS. Inflated statistics? That too, if necessary. Sometimes it might be imperative to produce fake reports for five different persons with the blood sample of one infected. After all, I am a toadstool living off dead matter.
As I held Shyamala’s reports in my hand, the young man in me felt a sense of relief. But there was a streak of doubt too. What if she was still in the ‘window’ period when the virus remains undetectable and doesn’t show up in the test results? But this period does not exceed three months from infection, and from her own version, it was evident that it had been more than seven months since their last rendezvous. I felt so delighted that I brought the report closer to my lips so that it touched them, holding that posture for some minutes.
With sudden promptness, I changed from a counselor to a high-spirited young man and screamed out, “Bhonti, you have not contracted AIDS, and there’s no HIV in your blood. You are safe, you are free, you are on the side of life.”
Shyamala gave me a suppressed smile and almost snatched the reports from my grip. With words of gratitude, she darted out of the VCTC. Climbing out of my professional armor, I walked outside, hoping that she would share her address, invite me for a cup of tea, and that in a homely atmosphere, she and I would engage in a friendly conversation. Without my knowing it, a tinge of hope was born in my heart, and this optimism freed my otherwise romantic, but now tattered, heart from its long confinement, and proposed to make it operational once again by making repairs. It needs to be mentioned here that it has remained dysfunctional since my college days.
None of these happened. In my life so far, nothing has happened as I had wished for it to happen. So there was nothing to be surprised about.
Time passed, swiftly, and in the currents of flowing time, the girl Shyamala was buried.
Like a wild fig tree growing on the banks of a river, I stood helplessly and looked on as the river of time flowed past me, but then suddenly today…
Suddenly today, I saw Shyamala, alone in the middle of the marketplace, scantily dressed as before, lips like that of the bulbuli bird, a face completely taken over by cosmetics. I saw her emerge from a grocery store. I can’t say why I felt hesitant to go forward and speak to her. I felt it would be better to observe her from a distance. Although I might sound like a pervert, I couldn’t help it. I wanted to know where she stays. It’s not that I will go to her place every evening for a chat. I had this strange feeling that I didn’t want to lose her to time present, I wanted her to linger as a probable event in the events about to take place in my life in time future.
So I began to stalk her, maintaining a safe distance from her. At one point, a few roadside Romeos began to tease her. I saw an elderly man gesturing something towards her with his hands. She too replied to it. At one point, an ASTC bus passed through the bazaar raising a cloud of dust behind it, leaving the streets dusty in its wake. Suddenly I saw her shouting something out to a young man whereas the latter didn’t even think it necessary to respond to her. What was the matter? Everything implied that she was quite popular in that neighborhood. What could be the cause of a young woman’s popularity? The suspecting man from within me showed up and began to ask uncomfortable questions. Pressing the index finger of my right hand to my lips, I asked him to shut up.
“Just hold on! Why can’t you take the popularity of a woman easily? Are you an MCP too?”
My wait seemed to have come to an end. Shyamala had unlatched the gate of an Assam-type house. Was it her house? Didn’t her father find a better place to build a house? (Who knows whether her father is alive or dead!) This is a locality of ill repute. On both sides of the road are vegetable stalls and stationery stores— a village haat. A scene of buyers and sellers as old as time, nothing to be identified as special. Suddenly, a peculiar thing happened. A group of juveniles came out of nowhere and started making threats and demands for cash from the sellers. Like old acquaintances, the sellers conceded to the demands while faking a smile, and handed over to them hundred to five hundred rupees, each according to his day’s sales. I was stunned. What was all this? I stopped a passerby who seemed to have some time to spare, and asked him, “Is it what they call gunda tax1?”
“What! Don’t use such an unparliamentary word, this is SULFA tax2!” the man joked.
“Will the sellers make up for the money by overcharging customers?”
“What else?” the quick-witted man cast a sarcastic look at me and left in a hurry.
Right in the center of the marketplace, some men were selling sulai, surrounded by men as if by flies, boozing under the open sky. Two constables were patrolling the street, staff in hand. Now and then, notes of different denominations were tucked into the palms of their extended hands. It was amusing to notice that this exchange had no place for verbal language. It was as if the lingua franca of this marketplace was money. Haphazardly scattered on all sides were wine shops, vendors selling roasted chickpeas and nuts, and shops selling old motor parts. The stinking roadside drains diffused a rotten smell into the air. All around were big hoardings of the Ministry of Health containing graphic health warnings, from malaria to leprosy to HIV. It was, to all appearances, a place that met the requirements for a red light to be turned on all day.
Shyamala entered the house and within seconds could be seen no more. Like someone possessed by an evil force, I too unlatched the gate and followed her tread. Even on seeing me enter, no one came forward to greet me. Once inside, I felt the presence of a few other men in the house. A window in the veranda was left open. In the room inside, I could see two men drinking something. Shyamala was not in this room; perhaps she was further inside. Although I could not guess it from the outside, I could now understand that the house was reasonably large, and had many rooms in it. I pushed the door open and peeped inside. The ears picked up subtle notes of the antara of a song. Its words were improperly bold. No one seemed to be bothered by my presence. The two men were chattering loudly. There was no place for a third person, that too a stranger, in that discussion. I wanted to ask them about Shyamala but stopped myself.
The two men were talking about prostitution. How the horror of the AIDS epidemic, by discouraging many a fainthearted potential customer, has given a big blow to the business was a part of the discussion. They lamented the sorry state of affairs, but immediately afterward, whispered something into one another’s ears and broke into indecent laughter. Emotions vacillating like a pendulum! I wasn’t so stupid as to not understand what was actually happening there. When I imagined my situation, I couldn’t but laugh wryly at my own condition. Run for your life now, or you are dead!— I said to myself.
Meanwhile, as the scene was unfolding, I found myself a place to sit. On the wall was a poster of a Bollywood heroine. On her face, I deduced a look of contempt for a society fraught with Grundyism. Her figure indicated a beauty of exact geometric proportions and extroversion. What if Angelina Jolie’s nose, as is asked of Cleopatra’s nose, had been shorter by half a centimeter? No, this beauty too did not have to worry about her nose. With just one flick of her eyes, she could make the sanest person lose his mind. And what was this thing framed by her side? I walked towards it to look closely. What a strange thing— beautifully bound in a wooden frame was a certificate! I was already overtaken by anger, despair, and intense curiosity when I read the certificate. A mere blood report was bestowed with such dignity! The report proudly declared one thing— Ye, men of the earth looking for the bluebird, come here. Shyamala is not AIDS-infected. Her blood is pure. Ye, the pleasure-seeking male race, make love to her without any fear. She is a miraculous potion with no side effects.
The handwriting in there was familiar to me. Even its language. To get that certificate, Shyamala had concocted a tragic story of her past, or was it a true story? Or was it the story itself that marked a point of departure for her life’s journey and has now culminated in the present situation? How many more such stories will Shyamala concoct? What can an idiot like me do in this matter? Yes, I can be a silent spectator and watch these stories unfold, the only role I can play.
In this world, there are so many kinds of class divisions. We, from the department of public health, however, divide people on a different basis. According to that, the world has two kinds of people— HIV positive and HIV negative. And no one in between. It would have been nice if the same law applied to life. Either you live, or you take the accelerated and definite path to death. No middle path. But the world is full of the living dead!
In the midst of all these, I suddenly remember Bouti. This woman is unable to grasp things properly. To her, the value of a living dead is worth so much more than that of the dead. It now seems to me that with her kind of expertise in making up a story on the spot, Shyamala could have become a good writer. But then, she opted for the easiest, the most tried and tested path.
I have run out of all curiosity for Shyamala. Now there is no need to go and meet her. Once I reach home I’ll say to my mother, “Bouti, come, let’s adopt an orphan. It will keep you company, and for the rest of my life, it will make me live in constant fear in this kingdom of toadstools. Isn’t that a necessary precondition for becoming a good human? I just said ‘live in constant fear’ because he or she will be the orphaned child of parents who died of AIDS. Won’t you fulfill my request, Bouti?”
 Gunda tax: exhortation or a percentage of earnings collected by the local mafia.
 SULFA tax: SULFA refers to a surrendered ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) militant outfit. Members of the militant outfit extorted money from businessmen, etc. during their active years, threatening them with life if they refused to cooperate.