“What book is that? What are you reading?” asked the pot-bellied middle-aged man sitting opposite me, on the lower berth of the train.
He found it funny and actually started to laugh, slapping both his thighs. He was wearing a blue checked lungi. It disgusted me; it reminded me of the men from my family who farted lifting one leg up, as if the air would not otherwise escape their butt cheeks. When he was done laughing, he realised I wasn’t very impressed.
“From where I come when we say ‘kita kou’ we mean what are you saying. Yukiko, Kita Kou.”
That alarmed me. I said ha-ha and pretended to go back to my book. But, as fate would have it, just at that moment my phone rang. It was my mother, whose call I had disconnected twice. I had assumed she would think it was due to poor connectivity. This time, because my mind was preoccupied with ignoring the pot-bellied man, I took her call. “Baba, kita be?” She screamed from the other end, and with further yelling registered her complaint about my not taking her call, never taking her calls, being not at all concerned for my parents’ health, and eventually declaring that I was the kind of person who would not take her call even if she was dying. If I hadn’t spoken then, I might have in retrospect found all her statements to be true. But I was frustrated with the pot-bellied man and had to express it in some way. I yelled back at my phone, “Tumrar ita natok amar bhala laagena.” I had to tell her that I was done dealing with her antics, but this wasn’t the ideal time. The pot-bellied guy, who was munching on puffed rice, stared at me with his mouth agape. I cut the call and realised what I had just done. His astonishment soon turned into a wide smile. With one muri still stuck to his moustache, he exclaimed, “Tumio Sylheti ni?” I said, yes, I was indeed Sylheti, and then he went on to tell me how we are from the same desh.
A desh might mean a country but I could imagine this Sylheti uncle telling me, “In our desh, there were farms and lands and ponds. Our forefathers were spending their days fishing. They had no worries of course. A saree cost Rs 25; there was so much love between people that an extended family, the size of a district, could live under one roof; there was respect for us, so much respect that the labour class worked for us for free. But had to leave everything behind to the Muslim rascals.”
“Dilli-t kita porashuna koro ni?”
“I had moved here to study, yes. I am working as a journalist now.”
“Khub bhala. Very good. Aaro unnoti koro.”
In his mind, he was thinking I had ruined my life by choosing a godforsaken career, add to that I was a deluded journalist.
“So, what did you study in journalism?”
Before I could answer that question, he asked me what I was thinking of doing for Assam, giving back to my people.
“I have worked on some stories on Assam too. Mostly on theatre and cinema.”
“Assamese cinema? No, no, I mean our people.”
I knew where this conversation was going and would do anything to prevent it from going there. But it is difficult to wriggle out of discussions with Sylheti uncles, who are always competing for knowledge with Kolkati uncles, in the latter’s absence. Because in the latter’s presence they could think of one-upping them only in moral lectures. Sylheti uncles taught us history at home that schools would never teach us; that is, when they weren’t asking Sylheti aunties to vote for Atal-Behari-Vajpayee-who-is-a-good man.
“Education nowadays teaches nothing. You go to these big colleges, live away from your home but then what? I understand. I have relatives living in Bombay also. Ekbaar gele aar ghuria aae na. They hire brainy Sylheti boys but not pay them even half of their boys. This is not brain drain, what is then? You learn nothing about the history of your people, your culture. You end up half Hindi-ala. Not from this land, not from that land.”
In the meantime, we were served tomato soup and bread-sticks by the train pantry-boy. I wasn’t particularly hungry and have never found their soup appetising. The pot-bellied uncle, however, insisted I must have it. He himself took an extra cup of soup. “Khaowa chhariyo na emne. Never leave free food.” And he laughed as if it was some kind of rebellion we were waging against the powers that be. I really wanted to go to sleep. The boy on the berth below mine was snoring by then, perhaps because of the sunlight that falls directly on you when you have side-lower seats. Side-lower people, entrusted with the responsibility to see the world, also have a tendency to never pull the curtains on their windows. The pot-bellied uncle sitting on the lower berth was also living up to his role of munching on everything he came across and pretending to know the world without seeing it.
“Arre, I can tell you more than those books tell you. Books do not have everything. We learned from eyewitness.”
As a kid, I treated everything as a story. I was never looking for facts. Facts were boring. Imagination allowed you to bring up places and situations, and deal with them then and there. If I wanted to use my prized Eagle-brand plastic pistol in the dark, I could do that. The yellow plastic bullet would hit someone, and it was satisfying to hear the scream after a terrible day. There would be no blood and no cleaning up to do.
Since I was definitely not going to be able to stop him, I could go on listening. It would give me fodder for afterlaugh.
“I will tell you a story. A true story that I heard from my mother and she from hers. Our family is from Sylhet. Even now if you go there and ask people about Shome-baari, they will show you where. We had a scholarly family of teachers and doctors and magistrates. It was very respectable in those days. Our village was full of illiterates, who would come to us with whatever happened to them. My grandfather was a doctor. I haven’t seen him but have heard of him from my Maa. He cured mad people using homeopathy. By mad I mean they would run around naked. But because they would come to us with problems, we also knew what was happening in the village. Now I firmly believe there were more bhoot-perot those days than in the city now with tube lights and buildings everywhere. Life is so busy now that bhoot also is not visible to us. Good only. Because those days, they had tortured entire villages. In the same house, if this year a daughter was eating pigeons alive then the next the father would be dying, coughing blood because he came in the way of black magic directed at his neighbour.
I am sure you have heard that story about the petni who would push her hand through your kitchen window if your mother was cooking fish. The only solution to her was a hot spatula; bhoots are scared of burns. We also have goddesses who do not like the heat but that is a different thing. These bhoots are greedy. If they are so greedy after death, I wonder what they were like alive. There are ghosts who enter the bodies of dogs and stand near our houses when we cook our food. Then there are bhoots who take the shape of crows and cry throughout the day, sitting on the roofs. Worst are monkeys but that is a rare case, especially now in the cities.”
He munched on another fistful of the nimki and signalled to me with his mouth full that I should also eat some. I said no, I wasn’t interested. I actually wasn’t. I have never been fond of nimkis. In the evenings of my childhood, my parents would sit down and munch on them with their cha. Since I didn’t drink cha then, they would insist I should at least have ta. “Do you not know that I don’t eat nimki!” I would tell my mom, “and I don’t eat biscuits either.” To that she would respond with a snort of disapproval, which I hated more than I hated her saying hurtful things. My entire body would swell up in anger and I would not calm down till she actually picked up a fight with me; it ended with both of us in tears. I was like that then, but not anymore. There was a reason for my behaviour. One can’t think clearly when one has to put all one’s energy into breathing and feeling less hot. The suffocation only increases as one feels trapped in, unaware of the outside world. The nimkis stank. I wanted to tell the pot-bellied guy that it smelled of dalda. I could see him frying them in a black, shallow kadhai near Lachit Nagar police point. I wanted to tell him his nimkis yearned for the Marwaris but they did not know that the Marwaris would still go to Ananda Jalpan on the opposite side of the road, where they fry their snacks in desi ghee.
“Anyway, I wanted to tell you about this one case that had shocked the entire village. The news of the event spread like wildfire. It is said that it appeared in a newspaper called Samachar Darpan and the shahebs also came to know about it. In our colony, there lived a Chokroborti family who were poor but as they were a house of excellent cooks, they never had to struggle for rice. You could tell that from the bellies of the men and the skin of the women, who seemed to have been bathing in milk.”
The image of someone covered in milk brought back a whiff of that horrible smelling cow milk. I could smell a glass of milk from my childhood and then, in another flash of memory not from the same time, I could see a saucepan overflow with boiling milk that had now turned yellow. I could taste the froth and the hideous shor , which would make me want to throw up. I could hear my mother say, “shor o janos ni gun aase,” reminding me of the various benefits of milk cream. However, I could only see myself throw up and grow fat and feel extremely hot. My mother, without taking into account any of these things, would call out a name which I couldn’t hear and the glasses of milk would fill up my childhood. As I started growing up, I realised there were ways of avoiding this. Pretending to puke did not help but growing up also teaches one patience. As my mother walked to the kitchen to prepare vegetarian mamlet for my father’s after-office meal, I would tiptoe outside and pour the milk at the feet of the areca nut tree in our mini garden. Then I would rush back home followed by a swarm of mosquitoes who would immediately inform my mother of my doings.
My mind had wandered from the pot-bellied uncle’s story and I was already sweating from my memory. He noticed this and, as the Lord of Patience, walked up to the switchboard to his left and switched on the fan.
“These ACs in train, they are pointless. They stop working every time the train stops it seems. Even sleeper class is better than this. AC anyway is not good for health. So, where were we? The women, they saw and destroyed everything their eyes fell on. No, no, that is another story. We were talking about the Chokroborti family whose members— when they made food, people would lick their fingers so hard that their finger rings would come off. There were at least two deaths in the village just from people choking on their rings. Whatever the Chokrobortis had, it was magic. This explains why they would be the ones chosen to cook for the onnoprashon of the Roy-baari’s grandson. The Roys were zamindars with so much land that it would have been called a district if it existed now. Behind their house, they had a mango garden considered the biggest in entire Sylhet. Much like alphonso goes abroad these days, their mangoes were imported to the houses of the shahebs and even sent to London. The mangoes, it is said, were pink in colour and tasted like khoa kheer. One had to tear it with their teeth and squeeze and eat, squeeze and eat, that was the only way to actually enjoy the fruit.
As expected, the Roy grandson had to have a grand onnoprashon. The Chokrobortis were given the task to cook for 10,000 people, including people from the nearby villages. They were to be paid handsomely for their work but it had to be the best meal the 10,000 gathered had ever had. More importantly, it had to make the grandson utter ‘maa and baba’ for the first time. As you might have figured, the grandson had started speaking late. He also started walking late but that isn’t something we are concerning ourselves with. The Chokroborti women, the magical cooks, were extremely nervous. After all, it seemed like a test of their Brahmin-ness. If they failed the occasion, they would not lose their business but the stories built around them might struggle to survive the test of time. But Chokroboti-mashoi, the head of the family, asked the women to calm down. He said, they will manage. If they had the blessings of god, they will manage. For a man of those days, I hear he was very progressive. Never raised his voice at his daughters, he had four. He said, ‘Maa Komola will do this.’ Komola was his second daughter, endowed with all the virtues that women were made of those days, and was beautiful like Durga in person. People say she would always keep her face covered with a ghumta for other people’s sake. On a moonless night, she could light up their entire verandah. Komola was also the best of the cooks. So, it was decided she will do the cooking and rest of the Chokrobortis will assist her in chopping the vegetables, cleaning the grain and making sure she has all the ingredients ready. What will they cook? They decided they would cook koru and aam dia dail. It was a smart decision. One, that should flatter the Roys given their mango garden and, also, it should satisfy the guests. As the day arrived, the Chokrobortis were faced with a minor problem: who will go and pluck the mangoes from the trees. The mango trees, perhaps because they were that good, were far taller than the regular ones we see in cities these days. The Chokrobortis had no son. Theirs was a six-member family—parents and four daughters. Chokroborti-mashoi was too old to climb trees, and what would people say if he let the women of the house do such chores? It was then that Komola reminded her father, ‘Am I not your son?’ Chokroborti-mashoi did not have an answer. After all, Komola had carefully plucked and placed the words that he had often used for her, albeit with a question mark. Komola would go to the Roy garden and pluck the mangoes necessary and the other sisters would stand below collecting them in a bosta. Chokroborti-mashoi even pictured her climbing the branches, with her saree intact; she only looked down when she had reached the very top. This is where the story gets interesting.
Komola folded her saree up to her knees and started with her task. She climbed up the tree, plucked the mangoes and threw them down to her sisters. But just as she was done with as many mangoes as she needed and prepared to climb down, she had a complete blackout. She collapsed and fell off that tall a tree. She fell on her head and broke her skull into two. The Chokrobortis were doubly hurt with no idea why such a fate befell them. Chokbroborti-mashoi wondered, did his wife not do the Sitala puja properly? Or did she consume non-veg last Friday on Santoshi-maa’s puja? These could not have been true. After all, his wife was more regimental than him when it came to worship. What was it then? Komola by then had bled two buckets through her head. The village was convinced, she will not survive. That is when Chokroborti-mashoi’s wife remembered that recently a woman two lanes from theirs had found the devi herself. It was said that on Thursdays, she would turn into Maa Monosha. Those who had seen her would talk about how when Monosha came to her, she danced tirelessly for hours. She could stand on one leg while you spoke to her. Some people said she could cure them by just looking at them, to others she would tell the exact details of where they picked up a curse that had become an incurable illness. The doctor in the village was not happy with this development as he was losing customers. But people had found their goddess. Chokroborti-mashoi was instantly convinced but he did not show it. In a very serious manner, he waved at his wife, ‘hoibo, hoibo.’ With his permission, Komola’s mother and her three sisters carried her to Maa Monosha. Komola was put on the ground and Maa in her trance went around her, leaping. Half an hour of this and Maa’s eyes bulged out. By then very angry, Maa asked who it was, ‘ke aasil higu?’ After repeated scolding from a shivering Maa, unconscious Komola suddenly stood up on her two feet and said ‘Bibhu.’ But who was this Bibhu? The entire village was puzzled. There was a Bibhu, yes, someone pointed out, a Bibhu Bhatt, widower in his mid-50s. Was it that Komola was having a love affair with him? Was it him that Komola saw that day when she was up on the tree?
Many people, many things. One version tells us that on summer nights when Komola went near the pond for release, she walked around semi-naked, thinking no one could see her in the darkness, with the only light coming from the fireflies. But unintentionally, Bibhu babu, crossing the pond one such night, spotted her stark naked. Now, it was not his fault that Komola sang and she sang so well when left alone. In this version of the story, Komola is saved but has to live with her head in two. The villagers called her dui-maatha , and she was never again invited to cook. But because only her head had paid for her sin, her body was still suffering. It was almost as if they were two different warring factions forced to be one. She had no control over her body, which involuntarily travelled places with no regard for when and where. Chokroborti-mashoi was anyway disturbed. His health worsened and he was mostly bedridden, having to pay for the sins of his daughter who was once his pride. The whole family was in shambles. No one married his first daughter. His youngest, it is said, ran away. It was not until many days that the village discovered that Bibhu babu had married her, partly out of pity and partly out of guilt. No one saw much of his third daughter. However, it took a final blow from Komola for Chokroborti-mashoi to decide to throw her out of the house.”
We were approaching night. On train journeys, nights happen sooner than outside. Trains have their own climates. They are their own worlds. Rajdhani Express decides when you should be eating and, like an annoying mother, it keeps pushing food down your throat. Even if you are feigning sleep, you cannot avoid the inevitable. By now, it was time for another round of their horrible tomato soup, and the pot-bellied uncle called intermission. He apologised for halting his story; true to his nature, presuming that he was denying me something vital that I was longing for. All this was very strange to me. Even though Sylheti uncles disgusted me, manipulation wasn’t a thing I associated with men—especially Sylheti men, who seemed particularly worried about looking effeminate to the world. Perhaps I was overreacting because he reminded me of my mother and her shrill voice, which irritated my father and me. We had tried enough to make her believe that she had obsessive compulsive disorder when it came to cleanliness. But she refused to see reason, even accusing us of hatching a plot to turn her crazy. We were annoyed when she wiped the computer cables with damp cloth. But then she outdid herself with her most recent fad.
It was a Sunday morning. I remember because my father was home. I was watching Shaktimaan and my father was busy working in our computer room. The morning had been quiet so far by the standards of our house. You could actually hear things other than people’s voices. My father’s swift tapping on the keyboard was accompaniment to my Shaktimaan, who, with the sound of ‘fuck-fuck-fuck’, turned into a whirlpool and landed on people’s rooftops. I quite liked the feeling of such jugalbandi. I never told anyone that I look up to my father but I do. Amalendu Bhatt might not be a legend to be written about. But he carries his house on his shoulders, is compassionate, upright and patient, even if the house is on fire. He never raises his voice at my mother unless she provokes him by saying, “I am glad your parents died.” My mother is capable of such heartless ramblings. My father has slim fingers, is not too tall but definitely not short and has glowing skin for someone who never uses moisturisers. He has a perfectly-trimmed moustache, which made my mother think that he looked like Jackie Shroff. But I do not know Jackie Shroff from which movie would tolerate her if she made his slippers disappear.
It was a commercial break and I had just got up to go and pee. My slippers were nowhere to be found. “Amar sandal koi?” I screamed at the top of my voice to make my displeasure heard. My father asked me to go and take his and not wake the sleeping dragon. I decided to act mature because I wasn’t in a particularly bad mood that day, and went to take his slippers. He was engrossed in his work, so he might not have noticed but his pair was also to be found nowhere. My father was visibly angry when he discovered it. We won’t find him yelling every day but that day he just lost it. Now, what is this new craze? he asked. You do know that you are going mad, he told my mother. She yelled from the other side that this was all because of his mother, who was dead for years now. Then both of them pretended to leave the house. I stared at the walls, concentrated on a trail of fungus, and found it comforting. Our slippers were leaning vertically on the walls of our bathroom. My mother said from now on “she” will wash them every day and we could wear them only after the floor had been swept clean by “her” and after we had bathed. There was no other person who could be ‘she’ or ‘her’. We were convinced my mother was going mad.
“It was a Friday. But before that I should tell you that despite the several partitions of her body, Komola was still well behaved. If anything, the split of her head made sure she could actually, unlike other women in the village, think twice before putting forward a request or a suggestion. If her one head said yes, the other said no. This way she gauged both the possibilities even before she spoke. She spoke less, less than before. And with lesser number of women now, you can only imagine how much quieter the house was. Chokroborti-mashoi naturally liked this and, secretly, he was impressed. You know this is why, a man of no drama, Chokroborti-mashoi decided to reward his daughter with the opportunity to not only take part but also perform the Santoshi puja one Friday. Rest of the house was astonished but as always Chokroborti-mashoi held up his reassuring right hand. Komola woke up earlier that morning. If 5 o’clock was her usual routine, that day she woke up at 4. Her mother washed her head with lukewarm water which ran through the split like Ganga herself flowing between two mountain peaks. She kept her upash, and after arranging all the ingredients needed for the puja, sat down to read panchali. However, as she prepared to turn the first page, her hands trembled. Komola knew the panchali by heart, so she started from memory. But words refused to happen and as she proceeded to form sentences, she would halt midway and start again. It was confusing for everyone present. Was she running a temperature? Was she ill? Why was she speaking aabul-taabul? By then her eyes were rolling vigorously. It was a battle between her hands and her eyes. Every time her eyes rolled away from the book, she would move the book to where they were looking. Finally, when she was too frustrated to take it anymore, she started beating her forehead with the book. Then dramatically she started speaking to herself.
She screamed, ‘What have I done? Oh maa, kita korsi aami?’
And screamed back, ‘Mleccho, are you now pretending to not know!’
She screamed, ‘Na, Na. Aar kortam na.
And screamed back, ‘One cannot reverse what one has done. This is paap. This is paap. This is… And now you will pay for this…’
Saying that as if due to the force of her words, her head, as if separate from her body, pushed itself back and she fell on the floor.”
“Kita ba ghumai gelae ni?” The pot-bellied uncle wanted to know if I had fallen asleep. I hadn’t. I didn’t want to tell him that I am sleepy for most part of the day. My yawning is no indication of my disinterest. I didn’t want to tell him because I didn’t want him to keep talking, even if his story wasn’t boring. I just said “no” and stared upwards. I saw a camouflage-print duffle bag on the verge of falling from the berth above the head of the pot-bellied man. I saw it get to the edge of the berth. I didn’t say anything. I let it fall.
Both of us had chosen chicken for dinner. “Famous Rajdhani chicken,” said the pot-bellied man. He asked for two bowls of chicken curry, and was proud of the fact that he got his way with the pantry guy. There is no better marker of a Sylheti uncle’s intelligence than his ability to bargain. Some of them are known to have bargained for tickets at airports. Some had the guile to convince doctors to give them free samples of medicines. Some even went as far as London with as much English as ‘I London, my London’ in their vocabulary, and managed successfully to return home with whoopee cushions and Astral creams. My mother would repeat stories of their exploits. But it was never the same sequence of events. Hers were stories that had been passed on by her mother. Whenever there were gaps in her memory, she would call her up to fill them in. In the days before we got a telephone, if I pestered her too much, she would have to reluctantly ask her mother-in-law: “Aapne janoin ni, Sita-r baaper naam kita asil?” It would inadvertently invite ridicule in the form of one of the famous Sylheti cliches: “Saat khondo Ramayan poria Sita kaar baap?”
Thakuma was never fond of my mother, which on some days helped us bond and on others led to altercations ending with consequences such as me hitting her on the head with a plastic bat. She never took to my mother’s cooking, wasn’t fond of the fact that my mother had brought fish into her strictly vegetarian kitchen, and that every weekend without a miss she would take me to her parents’. I wasn’t particularly fond of going to my Dadu-Dida’s. My mother’s parents were nice people with a spacious house. They were financially better off than us, had fish for lunch and dinner and religiously consumed meat once a week. In my thakuma’s imagination, my grandfather was a serial killer, composed and soft-spoken when he visited and a cold-blooded murderer at home. She wasn’t too wrong in her character sketch. As a child, it often astonished me how he would feed the fowl, let it roam around free, name it, and then one fine morning decide to skin it alive.
I did not have much to do there. I had to escort Dadu to the fish market every day. On our way across a lake of hyacinths, he narrated stories about cricketers and footballers. Once we returned, my job was to hand him a mug of water after he had untied his shoelaces and a mug of water after he had taken off his shoes. As I grew older, I was also designated the responsibility to hand him his house slippers. Dadu spent his days looking after his two gardens, filled with a variety of flowers and fruit-bearing trees. He had roses, dahlias, hibiscuses, night-blooming jasmine and rose periwinkles. He had a mango tree too, which created a problem of plenty in the summers, and a coconut tree whose fruit, he told me, was my inheritance. In Guwahati’s everlasting monsoons, his gardens invited a walk of snails. On those days, our job was to sprinkle salt on the slimy creatures crawling our verandahs in their slow invasion. Stomping on them would bring bad luck. Seeing the hard-shelled animals die bit by bit was oddly satisfying and my only source of amusement at a place I would rather not be. But Bhattacharjees were good at hiding.
“Uncle,” I said, “If you are done eating, we could start again.” I felt like being polite to him now. He was of course ever-ready. Reasserting his legitimacy as a Sylheti uncle, like a howling fox, he looked at the ceiling and burped. “Darao, paan khai lai.” He opened his betel nut box which contained betel leaf, shupari, a packet of Baba zarda and choon. He also had a shiny shorta, which he took out from the front pocket of his duffel bag. As I saw him slice the areca nuts, I thought of the numerous instances my thakuma had cut her fingers instead, and then told us they were eaten by roaches. My dida often repeated how sharp objects are addictive. They should be kept away from children because the younger you are, the less control you have over your urges.
“Where were we? Yes, Komola. There are various versions of the story. In another one, this fellow Bibhu could not be traced as easily. For two days, the villagers wondered and wondered. Finally, they realised that there was indeed a Bibhu on the other side of the pond. A Bibhu-kigu who was always drunk from 5.30 pm on. Those who claimed to have seen him said that he was a short man. Some of them also claimed that he was dark as the night. Was it possible that this is why Komola could not see him when he sneaked up on her like a serpent? In the village, they did not did not utter the word snake at night. They said Astik, Astik, the son of Manasa. Only he was capable of taming the animal. What happened between Bibhu-kigu and Komola was anybody’s guess. You are old enough to understand, it was not acceptable. In this story, as Komola was climbing down the tree, she saw him cross the pond again. His darkness under the luminous sun. The darkness, confirmed by the entire village. She finally realised what she had done, and in somewhat-rage and somewhat-wonder, lost her balance. Komola did not break her head into two, she broke her back and was paralysed for the rest of her life. It is said that the Chokrobortis did not take her home. She was left by the pond, where she was born again or she had died, depending on how you see it. Her body, a garden of pus-filled bumps. Komola was lonely, her gut eaten by guilt. In her head, she had moved a number of times. Each time it was immense pain, and each time it was relief of distraction. Until one day, after seven years of suffering, a rishi-muni took pity on her.
The sadhu had just woken up from five decades of dhyan. Wisdom glowed on his resplendent face. His eyes had seen the farthest of the universe. His hair flowed down to his knees, his beard five feet longer than Rabindranath’s. He was more handsome than your Hindi film heroes. It was as if, as if his skin had been bathed in milk a thousand times over. He held a kamandalu in his right hand, rudraksha mala on his left. As he passed by the pond, he stepped on something. It uttered a shrill cry of pain, then relief. The sadhu looked down at the bloodied body at his feet. He picked Komola up in his arms and asked her, “Who are you? What did you do to deserve such agony?” Komola narrated the entire story to him. It came out of her in a mad rush. She had not spoken for ages and had no time for the dilemma of what to tell and what not to. The sadhu heard her all with quietness and calm. Her skin unravelled as she spoke, the old scales made way for the new. Komola was astonished. “Is it over now? Am I free of my sins?” The sadhu said, “No.” There was penance still.
She waited till the next purnima night, made better by the fact that it was a Friday. She knew he walked by the pond every night around 8.30, inebriated, unsteady, hardly able to identify faces. Rage had made Komola ten times her size. When she encountered him, he could only reach her knees. Komola’s body glowed under the moonlight. It was a blinding glow, she exuded the heat of a thousand suns. He covered his face and touched her feet. She said, “Finally,” and held him by his neck. Then tossed him up and ripped him apart in one go. Then she shrank to her real size. It is said that till today, she is worshipped by the villagers on full moon nights.”
Both his stories had ended. I wished there was more time but I was feeling extremely drowsy, coupled with the unusual December heat. To tell you the truth, I was a little jittery about reaching home the next day. “Oi toh rait hoi gelo,” I said. “Oi re ba kemne je shomoy jae,” he shifted the curtains to look outside. It opened to a street engulfed in yellow lights. On train journeys, the outside was always a series of poles brushing against the vehicle. I imagined them rubbing against each other and was instantly filled with a repulsive sensation. I told myself it was time to go back to my berth and dream about returning home.
We are going to my grandfather’s. My mother is happy because she has made the judicious decision of taking an auto-pool. She thinks she will tell my father how she is actually the better decision-maker of the two. But this is an extremely hot day. The share auto drops us near Shani Mandir, which felt like a kilometre away from my dadu’s house. My mother says, “Run, both of you.” I want to win this battle. I run as fast as I can, and reach huffing and puffing. By now my limbs have shrunk. “I feel old,” I say aloud. Everyone seems to agree, given that my skin is wrinkly, waiting to fall off my bones. Without it, I think I will be naked. It is of course silly of me to think this way. I am half bald. The bald patch on the middle of my scalp is a barren field, surrounded by some whites on either side. I say, I have returned. Everyone else nods. I am going to tell them a story. I sit on a green wooden bench on a veranda, with a lush garden around me. I sip on my cup of tea from a saucer and make a loud slurpy noise. Today, I am going to talk. I say, “Listen. Do not trust them. They are all the same, tards of shit, this way or that. Once upon a time, there was a family in a village far away. They survived on a little rice and cooked their vegetables with the least amount of spices. No garlic, no onion. But ample amount of cow ghee. The family religiously woke up before dusk and worshipped the tulsi plant in their veranda, before praying to other gods in their prayer room. Then they proceeded to touch their elders’ feet.
It was a happy family that dined together in brass bowls and plates, and sprinkled water on the floor as they sat to eat, their legs folded. Their weekends involved feeding a thousand poor khichuri and labra at Ramkrishna ashram, from a huge vessel which seemed to replenish on its own. The village believed that this family had never sinned. What else could explain their kitchen, where women started parting pods of thur from the first instance of the rooster’s call, where there were raw jackfruits in abundance, and buguil and bok phool stacked in heaps in gamlas.
Then misfortune struck. One day, the women of the house decided they needed outside help. It took some convincing. The entire family gathered at the veranda post lunch, with their betel-nut box. ‘We are so many already,’ said the men. ‘But we are the ones who need to do the chores,’ said the women. The eldest of the women said, ‘Home is our area, let us take our decisions. We could do with a helping hand with chopping vegetables.’ The men conceded. They did not think it was that big a deal. But it was.
That night the entire family travelled to meet Baba Kipta Kolshi, who lived across the shaky bamboo bridge. Four dangling lanterns made their way, crossing the muddy path made worse by incessant rain from the past four days. There was fear of leeches and snakes. But the family braved it all, telling themselves again and again that it was a test of their faith. The sadhu saw merit. ‘I will help you,’ he said, ‘but you should know that this is risky. At times you call the right ones and the wrong turn up. You will have to be watchful to decipher. Trust your instincts.’ They remembered this. The baba had also warned the family to never let them out of their sight, and never let them mingle with more of their kind. This, the family forgot. They paid the baba Rs 11, and returned cheerful. That night they put mustard oil into their noses and slept dreamlessly.
It worked for the first few months, worked very well. The family woke up to buckets full of water. They did not have to run to the well any more. The vegetables were chopped and washed before dusk. The women started waking up later than usual. The men took notice but it wasn’t too much of a problem as their breakfast was more timely now. Their clean, uncrumpled clothes were piled up and ready even before they bothered to ask. Their wives now had the time to put kumkum on their foreheads and alta on their feet in their spare time. There were fewer disagreements now. There were days when the men could actually sit and have candid talks with their spouses.
Convenience is the work of the devil. As with the relationship between cigarettes and cancer, you do not even realise when comfort lures you into your downfall. They had forgotten Baba Kipta Kolshi’s lesson. The family was too busy in their bliss. Where was the time to prevent the forces from mingling. Before long, there were cackles in the hallway. It started with the afternoon, then became the new norm of the day. The family was worried about the untamed spirit. But since their routine wasn’t disturbed, they didn’t do much except for a ‘hey, shut up!’ once in a while. Hell broke loose the day they found a chicken bone on the kitchen floor. The eldest of the family threw up. The younger ones now knew things had gone out of hands. They sent for Baba Kolshi, who was red with anger. How could they disobey him and then have the gall to demand his intervention. ‘Thoo,’ the naked baba spat on the floor. He refused to go but repeated thrice that the only way out was to beat them to shape. ‘Oil your batons,’ this is the only language they understand. The men of the house oiled their bamboo batons, and set them out to dry on their tin roofs alongside pumpkin creepers. However, they had underestimated the spirits. There was retaliation. First their flowers, then fruits and vegetables were burnt to ashes. They were more powerful than the family had imagined. They emitted laser beams through their eyes. Wherever they saw, there was destruction. The family was starving. When the youngest of them could not control their hunger and ate, they were down with diarrhoea. There were fewer soldiers now, and the spirits were growing in numbers. The final battle was fought with curtains for shield. It did occur to the family at least thrice that they would have to wash them after the bloodbath. It went on for close to two months. Their house curtains had turned into railway curtains, the ones their mothers had asked them to avoid touching at all costs for the germs they carried.”
After a million laser beams and bamboos being flung, I woke up. The Rajdhani pantry guy nudged my feet to remind me to pay him his tip. I took out a Rs 100 note from my wallet. “I gave you two bowls of chicken, sir,” he said. “Don’t pay him a penny more than 100,” said the pot-bellied man from the other end. We finally settled on Rs 120. The man held his hand out to help me get off my berth. “It gets difficult to climb up and down when you are a certain age,” I said, and held his hand. I feared I would drop dead if it wasn’t for him holding me.