Destiny wept, in thunderous applause, for the cruelty it wreaked on its children. “What play, what games, oh what theatrics,” she sighed.
The house was an old relic, single storey, simple built with two decently-spaced bedrooms, a dingy kitchen and one bathroom. The courtyard was a luxury on a city land, a hangover from the village days where Ashwin babu had grown up. Ashwin babu would often spend his mornings on a jute chair, enjoying his tea and masala muri, devouring his newspapers and shouting out to passersby. Everybody in the locality knew Ashwin babu, his courtyard was the unofficial meeting point for debates, discussions and adda. Ashwin babu invited everybody, he found pleasure in meeting people and getting to know them. Sometimes, someone would bring along some samosas, biscuits or home cooked pakoras for those evening gatherings.
Ashwin babu was a simple man who had spent his childhood in Deori village, four hours from the city. He would bathe in the village pond, lie in the open on a mat, gazing at the stars, climb trees with his friends. He often thought of those days with sudden wistfulness, especially now that he rarely visited his village anymore. Ashwin babu was one of those few from the village who completed his schooling, travelling for two hours every day on his cycle. His teacher, a man of great motivation about whom Ashwin babu still thought of very fondly, gave him books and tutored him. The entire village celebrated his admission to an obscure engineering college, the young lanky Ashwin being the first from Deori to hold such a distinction. When Ashwin’s father fell short of the admission fees, they all chipped in with their meagre earnings.
“Remember the sacrifices that went behind this,” Ashwin’s father told him as he counted the money. Ashwin never forgot. He won few scholarships to pay for the rest of the four years at the college, even did odd jobs to pay back the village neighbours. Fifteen years after getting a job in the city, Ashwin built this little home with the courtyard. His parents came to live with him, leaving the village land under the care of his father’s younger brother. His father would often go to the village, unaccustomed to the city sounds and landscape, but Ashwin’s job would rarely permit him to accompany his father. Ashwin’s mother, after years of hardship, was finding it difficult to move around much.
Meanwhile, after a year or so (nobody knows for sure when) Ashwin babu found a sturdy sapling growing at a corner of the courtyard, a green little thing rising towards the sun. Ashwin babu’s father had taken one look at it and said, “It’s a mango tree,” with the wistfulness of a barren man, left bereft of acres of green which he would nurture and care. Ashwin babu went out hurriedly, leaving his father distracted. Within a few minutes he came back, knelt beside the sapling and started digging grooves for thin strips of bamboo. A barricade was built, the sap turned into a great, beautiful tree, and Ashwin babu often found succour in its shade as well as in its fruit. Every year there was more than enough of the sweet, fleshy mangoes to keep everyone in the neighbourhood happy.
Life went on as usual. There was a dependable hum to the everyday ordinary routine. One fine morning Ashwin babu stepped out into his courtyard, looked at the mango tree and wished he had a young one to build a swing for. That very year, he told his parents to look for a bride, and to prepare for a wedding.
Shiuli woke up much before the sky had lightened, much before the crows would start their cacophony. She was usually an early riser, starting her morning rituals before anyone else in the village had stirred. But today, she realised that dawn was still a good while away. Shiuli was not in the habit of questioning things, she never wondered about why, when or how. So she shook her mane of dark curls and got her neem twig and start brushing her teeth. She would soon walk to the pond to bathe before starting any household chores.
Shiuli was left an orphan when her mother died from untreated pneumonia, and her father from a snake bite a year earlier. She was then five years older than her 10-year-old brother Kochu. After burying her mother, since she had no money to buy enough firewood to cremate her, Shiuli and Kochu had held each other the entire night, crying and rocking in a corner of their mud and thatch house, a little away from the main village. Sometime, during the night, these two slept. As light broke through the dark clouds, Kochu stirred and Shiuli woke up. A tear-stained, exhausted Kochu looked at his sister and wailed, “I’m hungry.” Shiuli looked at her brother, smiled and played with his curls and said, “Bhai, go wash your face and I’ll put something on the coals.”
For five years now, Shiuli has been waking up at daybreak and trying to eke out a living so that she and her brother would not starve. She took up odd jobs at other houses to clean or sow or even be a mid-wife to keep their hearth burning. Kochu could no longer go to school, and at first his soft pudgy fingers could barely help Shiuli tie a bundle of hay. But gradually, his hands became coarser and stronger and he started working on the fields now and then. It wasn’t easy but somehow Shiuli and Kochi built a home and on some days, the sun would shine through the darkness.
On certain clear nights, when work would be over, Shiuli and Kochi would go to the village pond and look at the stars reflected in the shimmering waters. They would lie on the grass and listen to the soft sounds of nature. They would whisper gossip and laugh quietly. After a while Kochi and Shiuli would walk back home together. Kochi would be watchful of the men who would be drinking foul-smelling homemade liquor out of grimy bottles, eyeing his sister and ribbing each other. Poor and nearly famished, Shiuli had still grown into a strong-boned woman with prominent chest and hips. Her dusky skin glowed in the moonlight, her hair tumbling down in waves around her oval face. Shiuli knew that no man would want to marry her, but that many men did desire her, and she was glad for Kochu’s company. If not for her brother and his gentle soul, life for Shiuli would have been unbearable, and would have probably ended long before.
So, when Ashwin babu’s parents came to the village and required help, Shiuli was summoned. She knew they were kind and elderly and from a city, so Shiuli agreed to help around as long as her brother was allowed to do the menial jobs. Ashwin babu’s parents nodded, Kochu folded up tattered pants till the knee and picked up a broom, Shiuli went inside the kitchen to start brewing tea. The entire village started trooping in to meet them, and as word of Ashwin’s search for a bride spread, a lot of families with young eligible daughters started visiting regularly. Shiuli would hear snatches of conversations about Ashwin babu from other women at the market place or bathing area. She knew he was highly-educated, respected and very, very rich, that he had a pukka house in the city with a courtyard.
The day he was to arrive in the village, Shiuli had woken early to pack some rotis for Kochu who was going to receive Ashwin babu at the station.
This time, homecoming was no pleasure at all for Ashwin babu. The first day, he met Kochu at the train station and took an instant liking to this simple-hearted villager whose eyes expressed more than spoken words. It usually takes half hour of rick-shaw or cart ride from the tiny station to his village and usually Ashwin babu would breathe in the scent of the earth, fresh and fertile. The tar and soot of the city would numb his senses which would gradually open up as he got closer to home. Nothing much has changed over the past two decades. Transformations which sweep across cities every few years have left this little hamlet untouched, unspoilt. The railway station has now a tin roof, a few concrete seats and a drinking water station. But few trains still stop here and beyond it - the red-clay road, cows loitering in fields, smell of dung mixed with leaves – much has remained as before.
Unfortunately, for this lover of serenity, the contentment didn’t last for long. As soon as the rick-shaw drew close to the village, children clad in tattered clothes ran around the vehicle, exclaiming loudly to one another that “Babu has arrived.” They kept this chant till the very doors of his house where Kochu got off and shooed them away, much to the relief of Ashwin babu. His mother hobbled out with a cup of tea and even before Ashwin babu could take his first sip, he had to set it aside.
“Arre chotu told us that you have arrived, and we were waiting to give you some samosas and egg pakoras. You have lost some weight I see, maybe you need a woman who can cook good homely food,” said kakima, their neighbour. Her husband was beaming at him and the young impish son stared at him from behind his ma’s saree. Ashwin babu could see that they were better dressed than when he had last met them. There was not a tear in sight and chotu’s hair had been oiled and combed. They all sat down to enjoy the tea and the snacks when kakima thrust a plate piled high towards Ashwin babu, urging him to taste her daughter’s preparations. The said daughter was at present at home, nervously twisting the end of her saree, wondering what was going on.
He remembers kakima’s daughter, Padma, very well. They had played together when they were kids, walked to school together and even stolen fruits together. He remembered that she had grown into a wholesome woman, a bit thin, and that there was a village youth who would follow her around with large forlorn eyes. Ashwin babu couldn’t remember his name but recalled the surname to be of a lower caste. Padma was his childhood companion, his comrade, a little too loud to be his wife but definitely good in the kitchen, mused Ashwin babu while biting into a soft yet crunchy pakora.
This, however, was only the beginning. By the time birds were flying across a vermillion horizon, Ashwin babu had met four families, eaten more than his tender stomach could bear and drank a gallon of tea. His soul was restless, and Ashwin babu did not like anything that made him restless. His sense of tranquillity felt battered and exhaustion, more mental than physical, seemed to pull him down. He washed his hands and feet with water stored in a bucket in the bathroom which was built out in the compound. He retired with a book and lay down on a khatiya. The thin cushion hardly offered any comfort but Ashwin babu was already fast asleep without having turned a single page. That night he woke up several times, his mind heavy and disturbed, to go back to a restless slumber. Finally, as the stars stopped twinkling and the sky lightened, Ashwin babu woke up, not refreshed but a decided man. Such days as the previous one were sheer torture so he would choose his bride today. And that would be the end of it, or so he thought.
The morning air was crisp and clean, promising a clear, bright day ahead. The birds chirped unceasingly and houses were slowly coming alive. Ashwin babu stepped out of his room and met Kochu cleaning the compound. They greeted each other, and since everyone else was still asleep, Kochu called out to his sister for a cup of tea for ‘borobabu’. Ashwin babu was sitting on the khatiya when Shiuli offered him chai and masala puffed rice. He noticed she was young, oiled hair tied tightly in a braid, a voluptuous body austerely wrapped in a cotton saree. Ashwin babu was embarrassed that he noticed, avoiding her eyes as he took the pot of tea. He tried thinking of visiting the fields and the village pond later in the day. He tried to focus on the people he met, the food he ate, the gossip he heard. But instead he noticed Shiuli’s broad and flat palms as she served lunch, smoothened by years of coarse work. He noticed how her eyes smiled as she spoke to her brother, an easy companionship between her and Kochu which made Ashwin babu slightly wistful so he would hurriedly look away.
He wasn’t sure anymore what he was looking for, the abstractness making Ashwin babu irritable and confused. Also, his morning promise of finding a wife before the day ended seemed more improbable now. He felt bereft, like he had lost something even before he had the chance to own it. Ashwin babu said the right things, made the right gestures and was rightly vague with his answers as the day wore on. Nobody guessed the inner turmoil ripping through his insides. As soon as the sun was getting low and a hint of dusk touched the sky, Ashwin babu got up, stretched himself and declared his intention of taking a walk. Dusk was his favourite time of the day. The sky turned into molten fire, tempestuous passion tempered by the tinge of cool, dark night. It never lingered for long and within a matter of minutes, darkness would sweep through the night and the land would be dotted with flickering yellow lamps.
It was a good time to walk across the fields where only a few workers remained resting. There was an air of quiet contentment after the stuffy afternoon heat. Ashwin babu took his time to wander around, trudging comfortably on the raised soil demarcating lands. He reached the edge of the village as the sun slipped out of notice. A band of children rushed past him, screaming and clamouring, most of them clad only in torn pants. The wild grass growing on the sides scrunched gently under his feet emanating a sweet gentle scent. On reaching the pond Ashwin babu saw two figures sitting on the bank, a woman braiding her hair in the dying light and a young man lying on the grass beside her. The three of them remained at their spots, Ashwin babu much further away from the two, until silver moonlight lit up the tree tops. As Shiuli and Kochu got up to walk back together Ashwin babu slipped away in the shadows, reluctant to spoil this moment.
They were hurrying home when Shiuli noticed an old woman walking towards them. She was a stranger, obviously not from this village, and seemed to be in terrible pain, dragging her right foot along. Beaten up viciously by someone, the blood and scars had congealed, some reeking of puss and infection. Her head had patches of dirty white hair, her saree was a threadbare grey. Shiuli had stopped in horror, Kochu’s mouth hung open as the grotesque features became a morbid phantasm in the moonlight.
“Are you alright?” asked Shiuli, revulsion and pity threatening to overwhelm her. The woman looked at her, eyes clouded like an overcast sky as Shiuli stood rooted to the spot, a tingling sensation of warning rippling between them like electricity.
“If you marry him, they will all die. The year of the storm, when the mango tree will bear not a single fruit, someone will die. You will sift through their ashes looking for meaning, you will walk my path of decay,” the woman said urgently, voice raspy and barely a whisper as she reached out to grab her. On feeling her cold decaying touch, Shiuli cringed back, Kochu snapped at her and the tension was broken. He made almost to hit her when she turned around, kept mumbling as she walked away, a gnarled figure disappearing into the shadows.
Kochu refused to talk about the old woman. It was as if he erased the memory as soon as she was out of sight. By the time Shiuli lay on the floor, tucking her plastic red comb under the torn jute mat, she too had forgotten about her.
Next day, Shiuli and Kochu reached Ashwin babu’s home at dawn, only to be sent back by his mother. They didn’t require any help that day, she told Shiuli with barely concealed anger. There was a strange quiet, a heart-thudding, impotent rage filled the air. Shiuli, dumbfounded by the open hostility, quickly grabbed Kochu and led him away. She tended to her own home, cleaned and swept and filled water, all the time wondering what she had done wrong. Even Kochu was restless, after all they needed work and the money was decent. In the late afternoon, her little brother stepped out but Shiuli kept sitting in the dark, lighting a lantern long after the sun had set.
“Babu has decided on his wife, they are saying,” said Kochu on returning, washing his feet in the courtyard.
“Who are saying?” asked Shiuli, suddenly curious and alert. Maybe it wasn’t her fault after all.
“Everyone. Babu refused to meet anyone today, so he must have decided. Villagers say shopkeeper Brihan’s family visited last,” Kochu said as they sat for their frugal dinner of chappatis and jaggery.
“Well, maybe then we can get back to work at their place soon again,” Shiuli said, with a rush of relief.
They talked late into the night, Kochu telling his sister all the gossip he had heard in the village. The next morning, even though there had been no news from babu’s house, Shiuli and Kochu made their customary appearance at their residence at the crack of dawn. Ashwin babu was already sitting on the khatiya when he beckoned them to approach him.
“You both know that I have been seeking a wife, and after a lengthy deliberation, I have finally decided,” Ashwin babu told them both. He shifted a little, then started speaking directly to Kochu, “You are the only living male relative, her brother, protector and guardian. Hence, I seek your permission to marry your sister Shiuli.”
As both Kochu and Shiuli gaped, unable to respond, Ashwin babu hurriedly went on. “In all earnestness, I am in no doubt that your sister is a very capable woman. In the city, there are no caste or class differences. I’ll take care of you both.” There was silence for a long time as Ashwin babu waited, Shiuli stared at her feet and Kochu simply kept blinking and gasping for breath like a goldfish. Finally he looked at his sister and there was a single sound, an indiscriminate grunt. Ashwin babu let out a breath he did not know he was holding and clapped Kochu on the back. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything. Don’t tell anyone. Go home and wait for my word.”
Shiuli was unable to move, rooted to the spot from sheer disbelief. Kochu had to tug on her saree several times before she looked up. Dazed and confused, she saw Ashwin babu give her quick, soft smile as Kochu dragged her away. Kochu walked with a nervous energy, his eyes darting everywhere, as he pushed his sister on, a sister who seemed to sleepwalk the entire way. His whole life he had looked up to Shiuli, his elder sibling, to guide him. Today, he was asked to take an important decision, he doesn’t even know how he took the decision but it is alas done. He sat Shiuli on the floor, squatted beside her and asked, “Didi, are you feeling fine?”
Shiuli burst into tears, she wept and shuddered as Kochu sat a little apart, terrified. He had never seen her fall apart, even when ma had died. He was at a loss so he kept quiet and hoped the storm would pass soon. Gradually, Shiuli grew quiet but the storm inside her kept raging.
“I am sorry didi, I did not know what to do. If it is making you so unhappy, I’ll go and tell babu that it won’t happen,” Kochu blurted out. Shiuli looked at her brother, thought about the future Ashwin babu had promised. It was unknown, frightening and unwelcome, but it was better than starving to death.
“No bhai, you did alright. Let’s make some lunch and clean up. Let’s take a walk and meet our friends. I’m afraid soon our dear village, our home, will become strange lands for us,” Shiuli said.
A week from that day, an hour before dawn, a carriage came to the gate. Shiuli and Kochu got in, along with two bags and a pouch full of few hundred rupees. Shiuli was dressed in a simple red saree with golden zari, a white garland of fresh flowers tied around the neat, long braid. Kochu was in an off-white kurta, the first new clothing he had worn in his entire life. The crisp, starched material made him uncomfortable and he kept fidgeting. As they were leaving the village, the two siblings held hands, craned their neck to look at the fast disappearing home, pond, and fields. For a long while they stared until the last familiar tree disappeared into the golden horizon. Two hours later, they arrived at the temple outside the next village. The priest was already starting his preparations. Ashwin babu and his family stood around the cart which had drawn up. There was only another young boy around sweeping the steps, everything and everybody else were yet to awaken.
Kochu gave his sister away and as Ashwin babu smeared thick bright vermillion across her forehead, his mother looked away. The past week had been strenuous, she knew that evil woman had bewitched her son. She wished Shiuli had never stepped over their threshold, because it was she who had enticed her foolish son from the city. The low-class, low-caste, orphaned girl had obviously schemed her way into the marriage, or maybe it was black magic. But city air has made her son obtuse, she thought as she recalled his outburst of the night before. Ashwin babu had heard his mother rant for a while, hoping that gradually she would accept his decision. The evening before when Shiuli and Kochu were taking their last walk around the village, visiting all their favourite places, meeting childhood friends, Ashwin babu had lost his temper. Finding both her husband and son on the same page, his mother promised to keep her opinions under check.
And that is how they were married. Nobody from the village were witness to their union, the news was carefully hidden fearing backlash. Shiuli lost one home to build another, Ashwin babu gained a wife and much criticism.
Six years went by.
Kochu was still a man very much in awe of the city. He was just finishing school, a little behind in his class and still a village simpleton. He had a wondrous curiosity at the world around –vehicles, clothes, Bengali dialect so very different from the village tongue. Most of all, since the first time he came across a Radio, he had been enthralled by mechanics. Neighbours would call for Kochu whenever something stopped working. And Kochu, the wide-eyed village boy of little education, would tinker around, instinctively fixing it.
Shiuli was proud of her little brother. She had initially been worried that he would miss his village, be a misfit but Kochu surprised everyone. Her husband was extremely fond of him, even hinting at opening a repair shop for him eventually. Ashwin babu was a happy and contented man yet Shiuli was a woman of tormented spirit. The house, the city, the new life would still overwhelm her. Her favourite part of the day though was in the early morning, when she would sit beside her husband drinking tea under the mango tree. Only after she had put on some weight and met a doctor was she able to conceive and finally into the third year of marriage, on January 26th a girl was born.
Ashwin babu’s mother continued to detest her daughter-in-law, and after a few years, the reasons became blurred but the hate continued to grow like poison ivy. Her vitriolic tongue and penetrating critique could still be tolerated but her immediate dislike of her granddaughter, born dark skin like the mother, was the final nail in the coffin. After a long battle with his conscience, Ashwin babu asked his father to go back to the village home for a while, along with his mother. The old man was pained, he loved the little one cooing softly in his arms. “Name her Meethi,” he said before leaving. Ashwin babu’s mother settled happily in the village, gossiping and freely cursing Shiuli as a wretched witch, scheming and controlling her puppet son.
Having come for Meethi’s third birthday, Ashwin babu’s father stayed on for three more months to get treatment for arthritis. This winter had almost crippled him with pain, his joints rusty and swollen red. As his visit was coming to an end, the fearsome Kalbaisakhi tore across the city. A treacherous thunderstorm which would uproot everything in its way usually hits Bengal once every year. In the village, it seems like the entire world turns into a churning abyss but in the city it is more dangerous. Ashwin babu’s father was on his way back from the clinic with a pot of kheer. As the storm raged, he stood under a shop, clutching the pot, imagining his granddaughter’s leap of joy at this little treat. There was a loud rattling noise, as a part of a broken tin roof, flying with the heavy gusts, appeared out of nowhere. Nobody knows what happened. The shopkeeper said that in a blink of an eye it rammed into the old man outside.
He died, bleeding profusely but still clutching the pot of kheer.
The hospital declared him dead on arrival. The house had a stony silence. It reminded Shiuli of the days after her mother’s death, when the silence was like a grey, heavy shroud. Grief was a very familiar sentiment, the rituals of death adding a sense of finality. Yet no two people mourned the same way. Even Meethi was quite and sombre, although the three-year-old could barely fathom what had happened. They hardly slept at night, waking up at the crack of dawn. Ashwin babu was waiting for his mother and other relatives to arrive. Shiuli went to serve tea when she saw him standing among a bed of fallen green, staring at the mango tree.
“She is barren of even a single mukul,” he said softly. With a shudder Shiuli remembered that old woman who had crossed her path long, long ago. Before the memory could take root, Kochu arrived with the old man’s body. “What a tragedy,” they said. “A terrible accident,” they whispered yet for a long time Shiuli would be tormented by a foreboding premonition. A year later, when the Kalbaisakhi once again tore through the city, Shiuli sat at the window, eye on the tree. That year the branches almost touched the ground, bent with the weight of mangoes, to the utter glee of Meethi.
Doe-eyed and head full of soft curls, Meethi would follow Kochu mama around wherever he went. For a long time, Kochu would carry her in his arms until she got too big. He would let her ask millions of question, himself wondering at her childish curiosity. He would shield her from her mother’s scolding, protect her from Ashwin babu’s grave reprimands. He would rub ointment on her scratches and sneak her forbidden treats. Meethi herself was a strong-willed child, a stubborn imp who often led her parents to the brink of frustration. Yet whenever her childish spirit was troubled, she would seek out Kochu mama whose gentle face and quiet love would bring solace.
Meethi was not at all fond of her grandmother, who was visiting on the occasion of her tenth birthday. Ashwin babu’s mother had gotten more bitter with every passing year, and old age had deepened her wrinkles of discontent. She found fault with everything and tension vibrated through the house. Meethi would often escape to her Kochu mama’s workshop and only appear for meals. So Shiuli was surprised to find her daughter in the house, playing by herself.
“Mama has gone to the market again,” pouted her 10-year-old, pausing to braid her doll’s hair. Shiuli smiled. She had noticed that her brother would often go to the market, under any small pretext, and would take longer than usual to return. She had heard the rumours, of Kochu often stopping by Das babu’s house on the way to the market. Das babu’s daughter was an ordinary looking girl working as a seamstress. Her voice, however, was said to be divine, a blessed gift. It was still an hour before dinner, and afterwards Shiuli decided to talk to her husband who was yet to come home from office. A 28-year-old man needed a wife, and Shiuli was looking forward to another woman companion.
There were no usual signs, no darkening of the sky, no thunder or lightening. It blew in like a swarm of locusts, laying a trail of waste and destruction. The Kalbaisakhi’s stealth was as much a surprise as its violence. It raged for an hour, and even after that, as Shiuli stepped into the courtyard, the air was heavy with unshed rain. Ashwin babu and Kochu were yet to return, and Shiuli set about clearing the courtyard of the storm’s leftovers. When Ashwin babu entered the courtyard he found his wife standing still under the mango tree. She was looking up, her neck craning to spot something. He called out to her, and she half turned but she kept searching for something in the tree.
“She is barren,” Shiuli whispered, and for reasons unknown Ashwin babu felt a cold trickle of fear down his spine. Shiuli went and stood at the gate, and far away she saw a familiar gait. Slowly and carefully her brother was walking towards his sister. Shiuli smiled tremulously, eyes brimming with nervous tears as her brother’s silhouette grew bigger and bigger.
The motorbike appeared out of nowhere. Shiuli watched it skid behind Kochu, ram into him, flinging him to the side of the road like a rag doll. She heard someone screaming from afar, felt two arms around her clammy skin. It was a while before she realised that her throat felt raw, and it was she who was screaming.
Meethi was never the same after her mama’s death. With nobody to temper down and calm the grief inside her, Meethi became more stubborn and troublesome. She watched her mother grieve like she had lost a child. Shiuli would never be the same again too. The tears stopped falling but she kept mourning secretly. Ashwin babu tried to help her but after a while he let her be. He couldn’t understand Meethi who was becoming more and more needy. For a while he felt like a failure, as a husband and a father, but Ashwin babu was a man who always found equilibrium. He started spending more time in office and reading more books at home.
Even three years later, the void left by Kochu was like a concrete shadow in the house. It was malaria which finally brought Shiuli out of her grieving. One day Meethi came home from school with a burning forehead. She had bloodshot eyes and collapsed on the bed in delirium. Shiuli immediately wrapped her shivering body in a blanket and took her to the doctor’s chamber, silent tears rolling down her cheeks in a stream. The doctor diagnosed the thirteen year old with malaria and gave a quinine course of five days. Shiuli never left her bedside, praying fervently, kissing her forhead, cradling her fragile body. Meethi improved gradually, and on the fourth day her body temperature was almost normal.
But on the fifth day, Meethi’s body was burning up again. Ashwin babu promised to meet the doctor in the evening and get more medicines. But as the day wore on, it became worse and Meethi lay almost unconscious. It was noon, when the sun was at its peak, and Meethi lay on a cot wracked by malaria, that the storm blew across the courtyard. There were clothes hanging to dry outside but Shiuli did not move from her daughter’s bedside. The storm blew for several hours and Shiuli sat with Meethi’s fragile body cradled in her arms, guarding her baby from death with her very physical being. As the last dregs of wind stopped howling, Shiuli loosened her grip, feeling her daughter’s temperature much lower, her breathing much easier. Shiuli sat and watched Meethi’s chest fall gently. For hours she sat, until the sun had disappeared beyond the horizon and long shadows crowded around.
Shiuli looked at her daughter sleeping peacefully, feeling a bone-deep exhaustion overwhelming her. She heard the door to the courtyard open, the doorbell ring in its typical monotone. Shiuli opened the door and looked into the heavy, downcast eyes of three strangers, an air of death so very familiar hung onto their wet clothes. Before Shiuli collapsed, she saw Ashwin babu standing under the mango tree, his face pained and wistful.
She hated her. Her body was a boiling cauldron of rage, threatening to implode. She hated her life, her father and uncle, her mother. She felt impotent and puny and hated that the most. Days after the funeral, when the house was really dark and quiet, Shiuli had been keening and weeping in her room. Meethi just lay there, letting the sound wash over her grief, intensifying its contours. That evening Shiuli told her everything, compelled by a desperate urge to make sense of it all. Shiuli’s father dying of a snake bite, her mother dying from pneumonia, her father-in-law killed by the wind, her brother killed in an accident, her husband’s heart attack, she then told her daughter of the old woman who had crossed their path. Maybe she was cursed by the witch, maybe she was a dark evil that killed everything it touched.
Shiuli wept and asked her daughter to forgive her. Over and over again, rocking herself, Shiuli asked for forgiveness. But Meethi, her heart raw from scars, feeling betrayed and abandoned, latched on to her mother’s guilt with every ounce of her young, hurt spirit. She had finally found a reason – her mother – so she did the only thing possible. She hated her mother.
Shiuli would recoil into a corner every time Meethi went into one of her fitful rages and wait for it to blow over. Her hair had turned dirty grey, deep set lines having formed around the corner of her eyes and mouth. In the four years since Ashwin babu’s death, Shiuli looked well beyond her forty years. Death can do that to the living, suck the very vital force out of someone. Shiuli was a battered woman, abused by fate, living in a nightmare without loop. They said Meethi was on the brink of womanhood, her extreme mood swings a by product of being seventeen years old. They said, over the years, she’ll forgive, if not forget.
Shiuli knew they were wrong. They all died because they got it wrong.
For a long while, people came to the house, spent a while talking about mundane things. Neighbours sent food, tried to pitch in when chores needed to be done. Gradually, their visits petered down as their own personal troubles overshadowed Shiuli’s tragedy. The house, and the courtyard, rarely had any visitors now. It lay quiet and bare, paint peeling off, a carpet of weed covering the walkway. The shadows grew bigger, the cobwebs hung low. Shiuli rarely stepped out except for when absolutely necessary. She liked to be left alone, immersing herself in the care for the one person who revolted at her touch. One such evening, they fought. Shiuli had heard of a rumour about Meethi often meeting a certain man, a wastrel, a drunkard, a local troublemaker.
She was losing her only daughter. Shiuli was nearly frozen with grief until she heard Meethi rummaging for food. Suddenly, that grief turned into fury, and she fought with Meethi. They screamed and tore each other apart. As Shiuli forbade her daughter to ever meet the man again, for her own good, Meethi threw a steel plate and ran out of the house. The night had suddenly collapsed on the house, and the clanging steel kept reverberating for a while. Shiuli stood still, shocked and numb at what had happened.
Slowly she walked into the kitchen and started to roll chapattis for dinner, waiting for her daughter to return. She was crying, silent tears running down her cheeks into the fire, when she heard the first gust of wind sweep across her courtyard. Shiuli walked in the wind and stood under her mango tree. She kept standing as the violent wind racked the house, as lightening tore through the darkness. She stood still, looking up into the tree, as rain fell in sheer violence. She cupped her eyes and kept looking, searching. As the last mukul fell to the ground, she bent and picked it up, tears now mixing with the rain streaming down her face.
‘Meethi,’ she whispered, lovingly, tenderly, her heart breaking with her voice.
The gate clanked as the storm raged. Meethi was scared, her anger quickly turning to grief, and then utter terror gripped her as the Kalbaisakhi raged across the city. She hurried home, wanting to be with her mother. So she hurried in the rain and the wind, body bent a little forward. She opened the gate to the courtyard, an instant of relief washing over her when she found her mother swinging wildly in the wind, her body hanging from the bedsheet tied to the lowest branch. Dazed, Meethi walked to her, catching hold of Shiuli’s saree and trying to tug her free. When she finally managed to get her inside and lay her on the floor, Meethi could no longer hold back. She screamed and howled and beat and cried as the kalbaisakhi drowned her sounds of sorrow. And of guilt. She felt lonesome, utterly, absolutely alone but she was free. Free of rage, anger, death and the curse.
Later, she would find a tiny green mukul, dried and balled tight in her dead mother’s palm.