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Gilbertson’s Feet— Anuradha Sharma Pujari

Dec 10, 2022 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Assamese by Harsita Hiya

 

Sa…

On arriving to meet with a prospective bride, Syamanta was left amazed by what he saw. The girl his parents had chosen for him was sitting on the verandah floor, combing a cat’s fur as she lectured him.

“Hang on, now. Stay down! Or that man coming over here will snatch you away!” The girl announced, pointing at Syamanta.

Syamanta could tell it was the same girl, the one whose photographs he had been shown.

“Do sit.” She told him, giving him a familiar smile, “I’ll change and come back.”

A while later, with her loose hair neatly tied, the girl sat in front of him in a saree. Syamanta found it rather funny, her sitting before him so demure. She was acting as if she had never seen him before in her life.

“I take it you just brushed your hair with the same comb you used on the cat?” He asked.

“The very one.” The girl answered, grinning. “I hope you don’t mind it.

“Not at all. You know why I am here, don’t you?”

“I do. You serve in the sky, and you have come here to see if I am fit to be your future wife. I do love the sky. I really do!”

“Serve in the sky? Oh, The Indian Air Force! I am afraid my job is on the ground, though. If you do like those who serve in the sky, I can find a nice pilot for you…”

“I don’t want a pilot.”

“No? Why?”

“I want to see the sky from the earth. So, do you like what you see? If you ask me, I don’t quite like your nose. And ears. The rest is good, however. You talk well too!”

Syamanta was flustered. Back at home, he told his parents he had made up his mind to marry the girl. Some decisions didn’t need much thought. He truly was taken with her. 

Re…

“I was told you sang. How come I have never heard you singing?”

Bhaswati laughed. She rolled over in bed, undoing the buttons on the front of her nightgown. A routine affair. Syamanta’s hand crept in through it, kindling arousal.

At times, Bhaswati did not feel a thing. She had nursed their only daughter until she was two. When a newborn Suwoga had first begun suckling Bhaswati’s then-firm breasts, a torrent of motherly love had borne her away. That moment had made her a mother in this world. Once the same Suwoga had kept at it for two whole years, Bhaswati had grown exasperated. Yet, the thing had become a habit. In the days Suwoga had laid claim to her breasts, she had ended up unthinkingly unbuttoning her blouse.

“I am asking you something, Chiku…”

Syamanta had fondly started calling her Chiku before they had even gotten married. Bhaswati didn’t know why he had given her that name.

“Chiku… Aye Chiku…”

“Huh. What did you say? Songs? There are songs in my heart. They just can’t seem to come out of there, somehow.”

“Here? There is a song here? Let me see. Where is it?” Syamanta began running his keen fingers over her bare breasts. Bhaswati knew which parts of her body they would travel to next, and what would follow.

“Chiku…Chiku! Come over here. Like this, yes. Alright! Now tell me. When I met you for the first time, why did you tell me you love the sky? You hate traveling on planes. Before heading to Singapore that time, remember how glumly you had asked me, ‘Can’t we take a ship or something?’ I don’t get it. The woman who loves music never sings. The woman who loves the sky never wants to fly. Come here… let me see your earlobe. How I love kissing you there…”

“I love Gilbertson Sangma ‘s feet.” Bhaswati blurted out.

“Chiku…huh…what? Who is Gilbertson Sangma?” Syamanta stopped before he could tenderly run his tongue down her ear.

Somewhere, a cuckoo crooned, disturbing the night’s stillness. Don’t cuckoos sleep at night? Bhaswati wanted to ask Syamanta, but didn’t. All else needed to fall quiet for certain sounds to ring loud. Bhaswati’s chest held a night’s stillness within it too. Like the cuckoo’s sudden cry, a few sounds, at times, unexpectedly made their escape, managing to pierce the void inside her.

Gilbertson Sangma’s feet—why had they come to her mind out of nowhere?

“Chiku…Chiku! What do you mean by that? Gilbertson’s feet?”

“As a kid, I used to accompany my father to the ATPA Bordoloi Trophy matches. Did you ever go to watch any? Gilbertson… it was as though he could paint with his feet! And his famous bicycle kick. The way he used to kick the ball up like he was riding a bicycle in the air! On a football field, the only aim of every player is the goalpost, but Gilbertson was different. More than scoring goals, he liked to make art on the field with his football. A man nothing but friendly towards those playing against him. What momentum his feet had!”

“Ah! Enough about Gilbertson. Now is not the time. Chiku…Chiku…Tell me how much you love me. Tell me…”

Syamanta’s whispers trickled past her ear like lukewarm water. 

“Chiku…Tell me, please?”

“After twenty years of marriage, why this question, Syamanta? Weren’t twenty years enough to let you know?”

“Still… Still…”

“A happy life is not about crossing milestones alone, is it? That is why Gilbertson was never obsessed with scoring. Life is no different than football. The way you play and kick the ball in the air, the fun you have while playing—that is what it’s all about.”

“Chiku…you don’t really love me,” Syamanta complained, lifting stray locks of hair off of Bhaswati’s cheek. “How beautiful you are! Age fears to touch you, Chiku.”

“I have loved you like this for twenty years, night and day. This love gave us a family. Suwoga is now all grown up. Strand by strand, my hair is turning silver like the wild kohua grass, and yet you doubt how much I love you.” Bhaswati spoke, her voice barely a whisper.

“I am a proud husband,” Syamanta declared as he always did. “When you shine brighter than anyone else at parties, I cannot help but gloat. This beautiful woman is mine. Mine!”

Like every other night, Bhaswati found herself struggling to breathe under Syamanta’s weight.

Gilbertson. Gilbertson. Where are your feet? 

In a yellow number ten jersey, a body, swift as an arrow, drifted past her in the wind. In front of her eyes flashed a gallery about to burst, full of ebullient people. Cheers and loud chants filled the air. How joyous, those moments…

“Come on, Gilbertson! Yes! Yes!” She too had shouted with her father. Her father, a lifelong supporter of the Duliajan Oilfield Team, had said out loud—“This number ten from Dergaon Battalion could have easily been number one in the world.”

Ah, what a terribly fine goal it would have been!

But no.

Gilbertson did not score even when he had the chance. He had dribbled the ball forward at such a pace that kicking it in would have seriously injured the goalkeeper. Scoring goals, however, was not the only aim of playing. Not for Gilbertson at least, who believed it was far more important not to harm his opponent. After all, a goal that hurt someone could never bring joy to anybody, could it? That day, in spite of not scoring, Gilbertson was lauded as the best of the best. The crowd, moving heaven and earth, had shouted in unison—“Gilbertson, you are one and only!”

“Are you happy, Chiku? I am truly satisfied,” Syamanta mumbled, his voice weary.

Bhaswati let go of his limp body. He fell asleep while she kept twisting and turning the whole night.

When would dawn break? She wondered. When would she see the sky and those feet she kept dreaming of? Those unstoppable feet! An image flashed before her drowsy eyes. Bhaswati saw a pair of feet—joyous and free—along with a football, rising up from the earth to soar high in the sky. 

Ga…

Whenever the doorbell rang at this hour, Bhaswati knew it was none other than the koodawala. In the past twenty years, she had roamed the country with Syamanta like his office bag, becoming familiar with its many languages and cultural norms. This was Syamanta’s second time being transferred to Delhi. Here, garbage collectors rang the doorbell and screamed “Koodawala!” to announce their arrival. As she did every morning, Bhaswati came forward with the plastic garbage bin. In the empty sardine tin, away from the garbage collector’s view, she had carefully hidden the used condom from the previous night which had been lying on the floor by the bed.

At times, she almost felt embarrassed in front of the koodawala, for he knew what people threw out of their households on a daily basis.

“I hope you don’t mind carrying so many.” Bhaswati had once said while handing him empty beer bottles the morning after a house party.

The koodawala had laughed out loud.

“The things you say, madam! I actually look forward to the bottles. Anyway, I rarely get these many from your house.  Sometimes, people throw out used sanitary napkins openly in the bin. That is what I absolutely hate.”

Because of this exchange, Bhaswati was always careful while putting out the garbage bin. On opening the door today, she held out the bin, only to stop in surprise.

Arey! It wasn’t the koodawala, but Satyen Barua standing in front of her.

“So early in the morning!” She exclaimed.

Satyen Barua entered, chuckling. “When else is there any time to get things done in Delhi?”

Syamanta came out to sit with him after his bath. Bhaswati served tea as they talked and laughed.

“Listen, now! I haven’t turned up here as early as a koodawala for nothing. On behalf of the Assam Association, Delhi, we have decided to get together and felicitate Samir Bordoloi.”

“Samir Bordoloi?” Syamanta looked confused.

“The painter?” Bhaswati asked as she picked up the tray.

“Ah, Syamanta! Even I found out recently that he is a painter. Drifted too far away from my own motherland, it seems. His exhibition is already underway at the Lalit Kala Akademi . It will be too bad if our Association doesn’t invite and honor him. You both must come on Sunday. I could have told you this over the phone, but I felt like dropping by your place. You know how life becomes downright insufferable at times, don’t you? The same old work, the same old pleasures. Even the same old pains in the neck! Rita has started going to the club these days, and I have noticed quite a change in her. She has become happier. Less irritable. It must get annoying for a woman to be followed around by her husband 24/7 like a shadow! We all have our office, friends, and parties. How much television will they watch? How many hours will they spend shopping and looking after us and the kids? Our wives are educated women. It is for us that they have sacrificed so much, traveling wherever we are posted like our suitcases. Only now have I started understanding all this. Anyway, let me invite you two once again. Do be there on Sunday…”

Ma…

“Syamanta isn’t here?”

“Only me. He is away on urgent business,” Bhaswati kept her answer curt. 

She sank down on one corner of a huge sofa. The probasis—the non-resident Assamese people—had poured in a lot of labor to start this association, all in an effort to feel closer to home.

In every heart is a home, after all. The home people turn to when the one they built outside fails to shelter them.

Everyone had dressed their best for the occasion. Whenever the probasis gathered together, they ended up spending most of their time sharing success stories and talking about the achievements of their children. Bhaswati loved to hear it all. This wasn’t bragging, she knew. Expressing joy and contentment was in fact a sign of a healthy person.

Why then, could she never do it herself?

“Bhaswati! Why are you sitting there all quiet?” Mitali Duarah asked, playing with her close-cropped hair. “Syamanta didn’t come? Did you drive yourself here?”

“Syamanta couldn’t make it, so I drove here.”

Bhaswati answered all her questions in one go.

In a chiffon saree as light as the wings of a dragonfly, Mitali breezed past her to join another lively group chatting away, the lingering scent of her perfume following her.

“There he comes! Samir Bordoloi!” The people began to murmur. Dressed in a red t-shirt, a man of average height with a salt-and-pepper French-cut beard walked into the room escorted by Satyen Barua. Conversations began to flow once introductions were out of the way. Onion and cabbage fritters were served with tea as people shared cursory insights about colors and emotions in art. This was followed by Satyen Barua’s daughter, Urbashi, performing a song. Of all the people present there, Bhaswati couldn’t tell how many were truly interested in art. Despite that, it was easy to see that everyone loved Samir Bordoloi. He was such a delight to talk to that he had already earned invitations to many homes for lunch and tea.

“I am planning to show up at your exhibition tomorrow,” Bhaswati said, going up to him.

“Of course! What time? I’ll be there.”

“Does any unique imagery feature in your work? You know, like Hussain’s horses? Or Gauguin’s voluptuous beauties?”

“You paint?”

“Not in this life!” She answered, laughing.

“Write poetry?”

“Never!”

“Well, do you sing then?”

“I had learned to, as we all do as children. But no, I don’t sing. I am an ordinary housewife, now left with way too much time on my hands. My daughter has just joined her first job after graduation, and my husband keeps busy. My days are sort of like your primary colors, you see. Either red or yellow.”

“You really are coming for the exhibition, I hope? Alluring women are the subject matter of a series of my paintings. You will be there, won’t you?” 

Pa… 

“You have been going to this exhibition every noon. What’s going on?” Syamanta asked, exhaling smoke in the air as he pressed the remote.

“Every noon? It has only been three days. Today was the last showing, in fact. Samir leaves the day after tomorrow.”

“But when did you develop this sudden interest in paintings? As far as I knew, you were fond of music.”

“Oh wait! You wouldn’t believe what happened today. I sang a song!”

“Huh? Where?”

“Where else? It was the last day of Samir’s exhibition. We had planned to go have bhelpuri in front of Mandi House, where a couple of budding artists joined us. We all had coffee and bhelpuri together. On the verandah of Lalit Kala Akademi, a little group gathered and we began chatting. This young artist, Shipra Bannerjee, sang us a Rabindra Sangeet . They all forced me then, so I sang ‘Nahor Phule Nusuai by Bisnuprasad Rabha … Are you listening, Syamanta? Syamanta… Are you upset about something?”

“Why are you asking that?”

“It’s just the way you are sitting before the T.V. Expressionless!”

“Well, I have never heard your songs, have I, Chiku? Those who did must have had a great time.”

“Syamanta, when I am humming away as I clean the bathroom, make the bed, arrange flowers in the living room vases and cook your favorite chili paneer, why don’t you ever say, ‘Leave all that. Sit beside me and sing a song. Doesn’t matter if it’s off-key. Doesn’t matter if you forget the lines.’?”

“Ah, now you’ve become sentimental. Teary-eyed too! My darling, I am not upset. I am glad. I am glad that you are enjoying yourself.”

“Enjoying myself? Like one enjoys parties and gossip? Like that?”

Syamanta switched off the TV. He stepped out into the balcony, lighting another cigarette.

“Syamanta? Why can’t you be happy for me? When you come home and tell me about all the fun you had with your friends, don’t I share in your excitement? Syamanta?”

“I don’t have any female friends who paint and sing, Chiku…”

Silence. Such utter silence!

Syamanta, standing in a cloud of cigarette smoke on the balcony, seemed to be sculpted of smoke himself. From the balcony, the sound of a lizard’s call reached Bhaswati’s ears. Tik…tik. Every single ache the passing years had left in her body overwhelmed her as she became a lump of muscles, unable to move. Bhaswati heard her phone ring at that moment. The Mozart ringtone started to play as Syamanta looked back at her through the darkness. 

Dha…

“Hello…”

“Listen, Bhaswati! I have painted a sky. A gift for you. Your sky is what I’ve been busy with since five in the morning. I’ll hand it to you tomorrow before I leave.”

“What is there in the sky?”

“Nothing but colors. Cobalt blue, your favorite shade of the sky. A bit of lemon yellow, vermillion, and—”

“Please add a pair of feet. And a football.”

“You like football, Bhaswati?”

“Yes. Yes! I want Gilbertson Sangma’s feet with a football.”

“Do you like football because of Gilbertson, or Gilbertson because of football?”

“Fell in love with football because of Gilbertson. He somehow breathed life into an inanimate ball, giving such joy to others! Be it Brazil or Argentina—in any match, I have watched hence, a yellow jersey number ten has always reminded me of his magical feet. You send that ball flying Samir, send it up to the sky…”

Ni…

“These artists have no decency! How dare he call a married woman at ten in the night? When is this lunatic leaving Delhi?” Syamanta grunted without meeting Bhaswati’s eyes.

Bhaswati hung up. Without a word, she headed towards the kitchen.

“Do you hear me, Chiku? I am asking you something!”

“If Samir doesn’t leave, will you run away from Delhi, Syamanta?”

“You shut up!”

Bhaswati froze as though she had heard a sudden explosion somewhere. Did the doors and windows of the house come crashing? In twenty years, her home had not borne the scars of a single lightning strike, and yet… 

Syamanta kept pacing up and down the balcony, lighting cigarette after cigarette. Bhaswati’s throat dried up.

“Syamanta…” she managed to whisper in spite of it, “I have aged a lot, you know. I am old…”

“And how does that change anything for women?”

Bhaswati clutched her chest as hard as she could. Her phone rang once again. How terrifying! How terrifying Mozart’s symphony had suddenly become. Her heart began to race. With shivering hands, she carried the phone out into the living room.

“Bhaswati! You are a great artist without ever painting! A fine poet without lifting a pen! I have lent this sky my fingers and brushes, but its colors are yours. You are the one who painted it!”

“Hush! Enough, Samir. Speak no more.”

“Why are you breathing so hard? Are you not well?”

“Please talk low, Samir.”

“Tomorrow I will gift you this painting and leave, Bhaswati.”

“No, Samir. No. You keep it. My emotions gave birth to it. There can be no bigger achievement in my life!”

Bhaswati was talking under her breath.

“You seem scared, Bhaswati. Anything wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. Please hang up now.”

“No. What has happened to you?”

“I am a wife… a mother…”

“You are you, unfettered from it all. You are Bhaswati. A wife, a mother, a beloved—you have an identity independent of these! You are a bird, flying and singing freely in the sky…”

“Uff, Samir! The things you say! Why did you ever come to Delhi? Why did you show me your paintings? Please hang up!”

“No, I won’t. I like talking to you.”

“I am Syamanta’s wife…”

“So what? Do you think I want you as my wife? You are… a pupa! Unlike any other woman I have met. I want to give you Gilbertson Sangma’s feet. Did I tell you your football is up in the sky already?”

“Chiku!”

Ah! that unearthly voice again.

Bhaswati quickly hung up the phone.

“Mm-Momi called. Sh-she was talking about visiting.”

“Momi called? Let me talk to her.” Syamanta casually held out his hand.

“I disconnected the call.”

“Disconnected? No worries, I will redial.”

“Leave it be, now. Come, it’s already time for dinner. I cooked your favorite this evening, you know. Chilli Paneer. And look at this deep-cut nightgown I bought today. In pink, the color you love! Let us go to bed early. It looks like it might rain tonight. Remember what you told me the other night? Age cannot touch my breasts, you had said. My darling Syamanta, for once please try to understand me… Hear me…”

A passionate Syamanta grabbed her in an embrace.

“Chiku… My Chiku! I know you can’t live without me. Let’s not eat tonight. Here, I’ll help you lie back on this sofa. Why are you shivering? Is that a message on your phone? You keep getting so many phone calls these days.”

“Let it be. I don’t care who’s messaging me! Must be those telecom companies.” Bhaswati said, her lips dry. Syamanta’s mouth smelled faintly of whiskey. Bhaswati’s saree unraveled inch by inch. Syamanta grew more intoxicated. Out of his sight, Bhaswati picked up her cell phone, attempting to read the message.

I will give you Gilbertson Sangma’s feet before I leave, Bhaswati. You must fly.

The phone slipped out of her hand and fell on the carpet. 

Syamanta’s body pressed down upon her.

“You do love me, don’t you, Chiku?”

“Yes, I do. Why are you always asking me that?”

“Then promise me, you won’t go to any other art exhibition! Be it shopping trips or vacations, you go ahead and do whatever else you want to in this world! You hear me?”

Bhaswati bit her lips, trying to hold back her sobs. A football kept bouncing against the walls of the room, unable to escape. How badly she wanted to see it crash through the window! Bit by bit, the ceiling became a mixture of cobalt blue and vermilion as Bhaswati began to whisper unprompted.

“I have fallen in love with myself, Syamanta. Can you hear me? Can you? For the first time in my life, I have started loving myself. Leave me on my own! Just me and those magical feet…”

Ah! The way that football had soared in the air, sent up with a skilled header away from the ground. Only the greatest artists are capable of creating pure joy.

“Gilbertson…Gilbertson, Bhaswati screamed silently, Please come back. I will always be there, cheering you on when you score your hat trick, crying That’s you, Gilbertson. You are life!’”


Also, read a Malayalam poem by Sujeesh, translated into English by Nithya Mariam John, and published in The Antonym:

Tamed— A Malayalam Poem by Sujeesh


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Anuradha Sharma Pujari  (born 1964) is an Assamese journalist and author. She is the editor of Sadin and Satsori. Her contributions to Assamese literature include fiction and essays. She lives in Panjabari, Guwahati. Her first novel is Hriday Ek Bigyapan.

Harsita Hiya, a postgraduate in English Literature from JNU (2017-19) is a writer and translator hailing from Nagaon, Assam. One of the three winners of the Storyteller contest organized by Twinkle Khanna’s Tweak India in 2020, her original fiction has been previously published in magazines such as The Little Journal of North-East and the UGC-recognized Muse India. As of now, she works as a translator (Assamese to English), being one of the three selected translators presently working on the project Write Assamese, a collaboration between Untold (UK) and Bee Books (India) sponsored by the British Council. She is also the winner of the Jibanananda Das Award for Translation from Assamese into English by The Antonym Magazine, awarded during the Kolkata Poetry Confluence 2022.

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