We spent our working lives in a hill town. It was only last year when we commenced our careers we bade goodbye to the highlands. We lived joyfully, in a little house that we built on a small hillock in this lush green land. We dispensed our social obligations pretty successfully from here. Our children received education in a convent; shrouded from the worldly hues of good and bad, they remained focused on their studies. Our son is now in the US and daughter in London. Both of us retired from our jobs almost simultaneously. The word Joy was etched on the gatepost of our haven; both literally and metaphorically, we truly spent our lives in joy…
…until things were not the same anymore.
A deep sense of solitude seemed to engulf us; solitude accompanied by distaste. The ethnic folks of that region wanted an independent state and all of a sudden, we were looked upon as aliens. We were forced to leave the warmth of Joy, but the question was where? The children wanted us to be with them but was that an option, simply because they asked us to? Like the prodigal child, we returned to the same place where we were born, where we studied, and where we fell in love – the city of Guwahati. Only after arriving in this city did we realize how restless we felt when we did not see the sun setting in the horizon and when we were deprived of the sight of the orange disk rising from the lap of the rolling hills. The flat city, laid out like a neatly fitted bedsheet, was no pleasant sight for us as we preferred the crumply and bumpy terrain of the hills. Hence, despite it being expensive, we chose to buy an apartment at a hillside location that could be reached after traversing an undulating road for about four kilometers. Nestled in those hills, our apartment was on the fourth floor of a building that could house forty families in all. I liked the place, its silence, and the river view from its balcony. Yet, just a five-minute drive would take one to the chaos of a lopsided city bustling with people and automobiles. We were three households on the fourth floor – Us, Dr. Amit Bordoloy and his family, and Jonaki Saikia. It wasn’t long before these next-door neighbors felt near and dear to us. Dr. Bordoloy and his wife Sunita, who was a doctor herself, were a busy couple whose two children studied at a boarding school. Even we engaged ourselves with jobs at private institutions. Had it not been for Jonaki Saikia, the fourth floor would have remained empty for the most part of the day. It was because of her that our common spaces looked alive with lush flower pots. The moment she would hear Our or Dr. Bordoloy’s door opening, out she popped from her door with a pleasant, ‘you’re back?’, a greeting often accompanied by a bowl of something that she had prepared – curried vegetables or hand-rolled sweets or pickles. She would politely refuse my invitation to step inside saying, ‘you have just got home tired, you need to rest’ a reasoning that I would accept with a quiet sense of relief, because the chores hungrily waited for me inside. I sometimes picturize the impossible scenario of a guest at our quaint hilly home, us faking courtesies and asking her to step in but feeling the same rude relief when she would turn away from the doorstep……unthinkable! Has the mechanical character of the metropolis knocked us out too? The clutter, stink and endless screams of the city have exhausted me and I have even lost the energy to exchange pleasantries after returning home. Jonaki Saikia leaves with her bowl every time, and every time I repeat the same words to her habitually: ‘Do call on us one of these days’.
Jonaki Saikia is about sixty-five years old, more or less. While she hails from Golaghat, her husband was a native of Jorhat. Naren Saikia was a high-ranking official in the Agriculture department of the Assam government. When property was still relatively cheap in Guwahati, he purchased a plot of land and built a sprawling two-storied house. Two of their sons became doctors. One settled in the US and the other in Canada and both married girls of foreign ethnicity. Following his father, the third son took up a job in the same department in Guwahati. Naren Saikia died about ten years back. The three sons decided to hand over the family house to a property developer for the purpose of building an apartment block. The project would take a minimum of four years to complete. Jonaki Saikia would be rendered homeless until then, unless she lived with her youngest son – the most logical option, but his wife objected. She is an advocate, practicing at the High Court; not a very successful practice but that hardly mattered, for husband had a flourishing job bringing in the moolah from all sources. It was the ‘professional’ tag that mattered to her, and her ‘independent’ life. Having mother-in-law under the same roof would shatter this independence of the advocate. The three sons contemplated on the idea of renting an apartment for their mother and go Dutch on the rent. But the independent advocate’s husband objected……again. Delays in remittance from his foreign brothers would mean that he would have to bear the brunt of the rent on his own and he wasn’t capable enough to shell out 12-13k a month for that. Ultimately the second son decided to buy something on his own, an idea he was contemplating for some time now. He needed a pad in his hometown, some place where he could stay whenever he was in town. The US economy was jittery, the future was unpredictable; at the worst he needed a backup in Guwahati. Under the emerging circumstances, buying an apartment for himself seemed to be a ‘win-win situation’ for both him and his mother. It was not an expensive proposition given the fact that dollars converted to rupees was a profitable exchange, and he would not have to worry about maintenance of the place, given the fact that his mother who now needed a place anyway, would be its caretaker.
And thus, Jonaki Saikia landed in this hillside apartment as our neighbor. She is a very meticulous homemaker. Her old but well-maintained furniture and trinkets are delightful, one can guess that a lot of thought went behind their collection. She listens to the radio quite often. The fair, slender woman of medium height putters around her packed apartment wearing a neat pair of mekhela-sador, cleaning and tidying her possessions while her radio plays in the background on low volume. She doesn’t venture out of her home much, and no one comes to visit her too, except for a professional driver who comes on the first week of every month – I don’t know whether he is sent by someone or retained on fixed pay. His job is to wash her old Fiat car that is perpetually parked in the parking space allotted to her at the building. The car is an element of controversy in our building where almost every household owns two cars and parking space is limited. Often, tempers flare up due to this congestion, which results in some saying that the hardly-driven old car of Flat 4C is unnecessarily taking up precious space, whereas others say that the owner has every right to use her allotted place in any way that pleases her, albeit with a run down, scarcely driven car.
On the day the driver washes the car, she ventures out of her home decked up in a well-pressed outfit – a silk mekhela-sador with an archaic but beautiful design. If she saw me on her way out, she would say that she was going to the Bank. On her way back, she would buy her month’s groceries. She bought perishables like fish and vegetables from roaming vendors that visited our building.
On the monthly shopping day, noises could be heard coming from 4C till late at night – noises that came from her arranging and packing the groceries in her many steel jars of varying sizes. She is a very meticulous homemaker…this is my neighbor Jonaki Saikia.
That fine morning, I saw a lock on the door of 4C. But where did she go? She must have left at night! Could she not have informed us before leaving? But then, would she? The coy woman who turns down the volume of her radio during cacophonic commercials and again turns it up during the main program was not someone who’d ring our bell in the middle of the night…she would not want to disturb us! The Smokey-Grey cover of the Fiat was at its same place, sheltering the car as it does every day. I wonder where she went…I have heard that one appreciates the value of something only when it is gone. Suddenly, everything feels so empty in her absence – the flower pots look forlorn, the soft voice that greeted me when I was back home was gone; gone are the morsels of silent love that hopped towards me in those small bowls. Who could I ask about her? The security guard said that she left at around three in the morning…with bags and baggage…in a red Eon…with just a driver.
But after about fifteen days, I saw 4C unlocked…she must have returned last night. The bowls visited my door again, this time with some thumb-pressed milk cakes from Bokakhat – a specialty of the town that falls on the way to Jonaki Saikia’s hometown – and a few smiles. Déjà vu: ‘it’s a day off today, you should relax,’ the same hungry chores, the impending errands to run out for, the same dry invitation, ‘do call on us one of these days.’ The microwave and washing machine started beeping at the same time but I managed to throw a hasty question at her: ‘Baidew, where were you?’ With teary eyes she responded, ‘my mother passed away, I had gone home,’ and turned to leave; I saw that she wiped her tears with the edge of her sador. I didn’t let her go so easily this time; rushing towards her, I asked, ‘When? How old was she?’ The apocalyptic beeping continued in my apartment…the washing machine, the microwave…obviously audible to her as well, for she said: ‘let me tell you some other time.’
‘I will come over this evening, will you be home?’ Today was the last day of the Durga Puja celebrations, meaning the vacations were coming to a close. Immersion of the idols would begin in the evening; I have to go out for some errands too; for things I have been sitting on by exploiting the idle alibi of the celebrations.
I went out on foot in the evening, there was no question of driving. An animated demonstration of happiness pervaded everywhere. It appeared that the entire city was out on the streets today, dressed in colorful new clothes. I somehow managed to get my things done. When I reached the thoroughfare that led to our hilly road, I felt like I was grasped by a rapid current of humanity; there were people everywhere, the cramming broken in intermittent spots by trucks hauling idols. Drums, music, lights, incense smoke and hordes of people – like ants – the metropolis had converged to join this parade to immerse the goddess. Dancing unrestrained, an outlandish exhilaration fired the people. I wondered where they found such zest, such limitless energy, reducing my state to that of a drowning person incapable of navigating through this living deluge. A step forward and I would drown and if I wait, I would be stampeded to pieces; that was my condition. I stepped up to the pavement, afraid of what lay ahead. A whiff of alcohol hit my nasal buds, coming from a group of disheveled young men that danced in front of me, and what a peculiar dance it was! Synchronized with the adrenalized drumbeat, unaware of where they were and what they were doing, but coming towards me – why? There was another truck passing, with another idol, causing the uproar to rise and the euphoria of dancing to intensify like an enormous wave. I stepped down from the pavement, entering the river of people. I had to simply cross the street and walk right for a few meters to reach my hilly road. I can’t take credit for crossing the street, because I didn’t; I was pushed and shoved, right and left, by this wild river, until I reached the other end. Two more deities arrived, the dancing broke all fetters, drumbeats reached their zenith, music blared from the trucks and here was my street; like a struggling non-swimmer reaching land, I clutched onto it by swerving left. Words that I had heard saying that the entire city’s immersion trucks would go through this particular thoroughfare, made me take rapid steps towards my apartment. Panting and sweating, I took the lift; the whole building was in a hush, perhaps nobody was home, but out celebrating. Just as I was about to open the door to my apartment, Jonaki Saikia surfaced from 4C.
‘Come, I have waited a long time for you.’
Waiting? Why was she waiting for me?
‘You said that you would come by evening, did you go somewhere?’
True that, I did say so to her this morning and she’s been waiting for me – a shiver ran down my entire body.
‘Not really. I had some things to do but the shops are shut and such madness on the streets! I returned.’
‘Come in, I’ll serve the tea.’
She laid out the tea and snacks on a tray and brought it to the balcony, from where one could get an aerial view of a section of the city. The cacophony of the immersion celebrations could not be heard from up here, just a somber and sluggish rumble, like the sound of water breaking from a dam far away. Expecting me, she had prepared many nibbles – she must have worked all day; I turned off my mobile.
‘What happened to your mother? How old was she?’
‘Wasn’t suffering from any illness as such, she had difficulty breathing just before dying, she was eighty-five years old, give and take a year or two.’
‘You left at night?’
‘In my brother’s car…’
She seemed to get lost for a while in her thoughts, but returned again.
‘Where was I? Ah, my brother,’ she resumed. ‘You know, my father was the Principal of a high school, a very intelligent man who graduated from Calcutta University. My brother inherited his brains; it’s no wonder that he turned out to be such a well-known doctor.’
‘So, you left with your brother?’
‘He sent his car with a driver for me, and he left by flight the next day. Yet he arrived ahead of me…he’s a very busy man.’
‘How many siblings do you have?’
‘I am the eldest with two younger brothers. I am talking about the younger one here, who is an ENT doctor. The older one works in the same school as our father.’
She left to take the crockery inside and returned with a light shawl wrapped around her.
‘Your mother…’ I said with the intention of coming to the point and closing the conversation.
‘By the time I arrived, they had already laid my mother under the Holy Basil…you know we have two tall Bulletwood trees in our courtyard. They tapered upwards like the temple-dome of the Shiva Doul, they shed so many flowers! The ground gets covered with them and I would pick them every morning…we had a small bamboo basket, with flower shaped knots woven along its rim. The basket was given to me by mother’s maternal grandmother…my grandmother’s home had eight Bulletwood trees in their long courtyard and our trees are offshoots of those. Their seeds attracted birds by the many and the flowers? So many of them! I would heap them on my palms until grandma presented me with the basket, woven by my grandad himself.’
‘That means you managed to see your mother for the last time…’
He had gone to a friend’s house. This friend’s son lives in the same city as ours and is in town. We are sending some knick-knacks for our grandson through him – knick-knacks like a cardigan, a cap and a pair of socks that I knitted myself. I sometimes wonder when I would get to see my little grandson…maybe never? His parents are very busy people and we as a retired couple cannot afford an expensive trip to the US. We are happy as long as they are doing well. He will look for me when he sees the locked door, my mobile switched off on top of that! Let it be, this lady is expressing herself today, I wouldn’t want the mobile to ring unnecessarily and disturb her story.
‘If you call that seeing my mother…sleeping under the Holy Basil. Covered with a white hand-woven shroud; it was as if she was sleeping. My mother was a very pleasant person, an expert weaver. You know, she had woven that shroud too, and packed it in a box. She had readied all the articles required for her death rites; gamochas, wicks for the earthen lamps, and the lamps too, all washed, cleaned and dried by herself. She packed everything in the box that also included bottles of clarified butter, incense, and change for the priest’s offerings. Before dying, she left the keys to this box with my brother with the words that it should be opened just after she died. My brother and his wife could not hold back their tears when they opened it. They told all the mourners who had gathered about it…no one could stop their tears…the woman who never imposed upon anyone in life, did the same in death too. This was my mother.’
This time, not with pushes and shoves but by cradling me lovingly, another river gently carried me in a different direction with its warm currents. A long courtyard with eight Bulletwood trees, a non-imposing woman weaving her own death shroud, cleaning lamps for lighting next to her own future corpse, preparing the wicks…a doctor brother on a plane arriving before his sister, and the sister who left in the middle of the night…I kept drifting…
‘A few suggested against burning the shroud with the corpse and to keep it as a remembrance of the dead person. Someone snapped back saying that the cloth had become untouchable and it had to be burned with the corpse; it should not stimulate any attachment. The cloth was so smooth and why wouldn’t it be…after all it was woven by my mother! You know we had a big veranda behind our house and two handlooms were placed there. One belonged to mother; it was sent with her by my grandfather at the time of her wedding. My grandfather also gave a dheki carved from a jackfruit tree, to pound rice, and a stone mortar. This dheki did not get any rest during the harvest festival, family after family would come to pound rice with it to make their pithas. The heavy jackfruit dheki and the stone mortar combined made such fine rice powder that the look and taste of the sweet treats were a delight for the senses.’
The rumbling sound, like water breaking, was now losing its intensity. The parades of the deity must be coming to an end. The sky in a corner of the southern side from where we sat lit up brightly. It could be understood from this that some arrangement of bright lights was being prepared somewhere in that direction.
She now came with a big cup of coffee and a plate of handmade snacks.
‘You were telling me about the cloth woven by your mother…’
‘Ma would brin smooth embroidery threads home and fit them on the spindle, which we as children would love to turn, and impatiently waited for our turn to do it. In those days she used to love the new multicolored yarn that arrived in the market. She would create beautiful flowers out of this yarn. Seeing my mother, I got inspired to weave as well. Her loom was made of bamboo, but father got me one made of wood. I got so addicted to weaving, that I would often burn the midnight oil and stay up doing it. Seeing this, Father scolded me a lot one day saying, “She will never graduate at this rate. No need for you to weave gamochas for me, I will get as many as you want from the Keya gola.” Keya gola was what we called the Marwari shop that sold threads…a magical wonder-world for us young girls.’
I liked drifting on this river, I was enjoying it a so; like a newfound addiction, I became oblivious of everything else. The woman’s pleasing words washed me away lovingly; the courtyard of Bulletwood trees, bright flowers created with multi-colored yarn, a handloom lit up by a lightbulb, a young woman on that loom…rice being pounded in a stone mortar, the taste of succulent pitha.
The southern sky lit up like the dawn. I wondered what lay in that direction…oh yes, the stadium! This arrangement of lights must be on the stadium field. The immersions were over by now. I recalled reading in the newspaper that Dussehra was being celebrated today at the stadium…they will burn Ravana. The play ‘Ram Navami’ will be staged there, today is the day when Ram killed Ravana the demon. The lights from this celebration lit up the night sky, there was no sound though, just bright lights.
‘You stayed back for the rituals?’
‘Yes, I did, you see, I stayed back for the entire period until the feast. We had no idea that Ma was loved so much by everyone, so many people came to offer their condolences to us; the house was packed with the customary foodstuff they brought and it was impossible to exhaust it even after giving them away freely. She had called me over some time before she died. I spent about a week with her…I don’t think you guys were here during that period.’
‘Yes, we had been to his paternal house, it was his niece’s wedding. The house has changed totally from the time I first entered it; time really has flown.’
‘You know, nothing has changed in our house. Brother has not altered anything and there’s actually no need for that! Courtyards at the front and back, enough space for thirty to forty priests to gather for prayers. Also, vegetables grow in plenty at my hearth; on the day of Ma’s feast, the homegrown gourds and potatoes far exceeded the requirement. Tree, fruit in abundance there; there is a type of berry called water-berry that ripens in peak summer, I am not sure if you know it, it’s not the white type, but the red. Just one relieves you from the summer heat. It’s mildly sweet, and so juicy that a single bite is sure to spill the juice and drench your clothes.’
‘Ma had called you over?’ I intervened.
‘Yes, as you know I am the eldest and only daughter, Ma loved me a lot and worried about me greatly because I live alone. I slept with her during that visit. Ma had a favorite duvet that she used when it was slightly cold. The markin-cotton cover that was freshened in the sun every day was so soft! When I slept, Ma would cover me with the duvet and caress my hair. Whenever I visited, she would keep wracking her head thinking about my comfort and needs. The branch of a mango tree sways next to the ventilator of her bedroom and a pair of doves often perch on it. Lying on the bed, I would watch the pair coo – whenever Ma saw me doing that, she would narrate nostalgic stories of my childhood.’
Suddenly, the bright night sky turned even brighter. We understood that Ravana’s effigy had been ignited. This was followed by a display of fireworks and the skies exploded intermittently; someone tossed basketfuls of stars on the sky…sparkles and hues, hues and sparkles…sound and more sound.
We both stood up, staring with childlike wonder at the glittery sky. I turned on my phone; his stern voice came drifting ‘where are you? Your phone was off! I have been waiting here for more than an hour.’
I got ready to leave; the woman who was talking without recess all this while was now silent… ‘I am leaving, you please call on us some day.’
She didn’t respond. There was a cell phone on the table, one that looked quite up-to-the-minute.
‘It’s a very expensive phone’; the chatty-turned-speechless woman abruptly transformed into someone ethereal when, with a stony look in her eyes, she added to the cold words, ‘my eldest son gave it to me…’
Then, picking up the phone, she broke down… ‘Ma would call me every evening. I live alone you see? She would ask my sister-in-law to connect us…there is no one to look out for me anymore.’
She kept looking at me, but without a word I left Jonaki Saikia’s side…I felt the door of 4C slam shut by itself behind me…
He was sitting on the corridor floor while somebody was still throwing sparkles on the sky; ‘Where did you go? It has been so long…’ he asked gently.
‘I went to call on myself…I was with myself’ – I noticed that he pulled back at my answer.
Something has been wrong with me the past few days; I talk gibberish at times, I lose control over my senses…it’s happening today as well…I feel the urge to repeat the same words over and over again:
‘I went to call on myself…
I went to call on myself…
I went to call on myself…’
(Originally written in Assamese as Utoni and published in the collection Jaltarangar Sur)
Translated from the Assamese by Bhaskar Dutta-Baruah