Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The Final Storm


Destiny wept, in thunderous applause, for the cruelty it wreaked on its children. “What play, what games, oh what theatrics,” she sighed.


CHAPTER 1

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.
CHAPTER 2

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.
CHAPTER 3

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.
CHAPTER 4

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.
CHAPTER 5

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.
CHAPTER 6

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.
CHAPTER 7

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.
CHAPTER 8

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.
CHAPTER 9

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.
Chapter 10

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.

THE END

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The Poison Tree


There is a tree with branches spreading into eternity and roots dug deep into hell. This tree has no life, no fruits, no shade. It is as common as garden weed. To be born under this tree is doom, to live henceforth, is a prolonged torture of the self.





CHAPTER 1

I dreamt of a beast last night. She appeared riding on wisps of blue nicotine haze, hair in endless swirls of torment. Her skin the ebony of death; face an indistinct blur. She was lying naked on a white bed in a white room, wrapped in the blue of cigarette smoke and the sterile echo of silence.

I woke up in the middle of a soundless scream ringing in my ears. It was a sound that crushed down on my chest leaving my clothes drenched in sweat. The night is blind and I stare into the darkness until I can feel its tangible presence in my room. So I light a cigarette and the red glow breaks through the monotony. As weariness battles the nicotine coursing through my veins, I struggle against closing eyelids to stave off the nightmares. I sleep in spurts, skimming the surface of consciousness, waking up tired yet strangely alert.

The light from the bathroom makes the marble-laid floor glow a neon white. The wrought-iron bed feels cool to touch. I have been thinking about home for a while. I have been thinking about the dread that drives me away from that place. Living alone has the pleasures of the self – to set my own pace, to choose the act of the day. Ten years of pleasure, tinged with guilt, and I wonder, “Did I ever really leave?”

Only my little sister, Noyaah, can make me go back. My cell had started ringing around mid-night. I don’t sleep early. I don’t sleep easy.

“I have been having bad dreams, D. I can’t seem to focus, can’t seem to like anything. It’s driving me insane. Raj keeps asking me what’s wrong and I simply cry,” Nooyah sighed.

Listening to her trying to speak through her tears, I can almost see her husband fretting over his very-pregnant wife. I imagined her sitting in a big blue cotton kaftan in vegetable dye, long hair falling over her shoulders and achy, swollen feet resting on a pillow.

“Which month are you in? Is it the hormones?”

“I’m almost at the end of the second trimester. Maybe it’s because of the baby. Maybe I just need to talk. Will you come?”

“Yes, obviously. I’ll see you over the weekend,” I told her, forcing a cheer when my heart was already growing cold. The last thing I wanted to do was talk. There was nothing to be said, no souls to be bared, no secrets to be divulged. It was murder. And we both knew it. Only the two of us. Soul sisters bound by a tie forged in fire and blood. So, why can’t we pretend just for a little while longer?

CHAPTER 2

As a freelance photojournalist, I could have settled anywhere. Staying at home would have been the sensible thing to do, since I wouldn’t then have to worry about the rent. But the house has too many stories, too many memories, too many whispered horrors. So I moved to Mumbai.

Mumbai. A city so bustling with life and activity, it takes you along in a sweep of time and energy. It doesn’t leave you with much space to ponder, think or grieve. Mumbai, my refuge. Every time I pack my bag to leave this place, I feel a twinge of wistfulness. Nooyah says it’s because I am more attached to brick and mortar than flesh and blood. Who am I to argue? All wounds heal over time but maybe it’s the dry, permanent scars we should worry about. I have never really been able to connect with anyone, never shared that soul-stirring trust. Do I not believe in it? Yes I do, I do know it exists. I have seen its presence, captured its essence. But I have been behind the camera. Always.

Three days later, on a humid Friday afternoon, I landed in Kolkata. It is June, the month that my mother gave birth to an ugly, pinched, premature baby 32 years back. I was a troublesome baby, I am told. I look out of the window but the sun’s glare is glinting off everything metallic. The cab’s pseudo-leather seat is too warm and sticky. Already rivulets of sweat are rolling down my back and I wonder how Nooyah is bearing all this.

“I hate this. I hate Raaj. I have a headache and I’m hungry and I am so fat I want the baby out NOW!” Nooyah pants on the phone. “Welcome home, D. I hope Pooja mashi has cooked something nice.”

Pooja mashi. She had initially come to help mother after Nooyah’s birth but had stayed on. In her mid-50s, Pooja mashi has been living with us and taking care of the house for almost 30 years. Nooyah hangs up after confirming that she’ll come over tomorrow. I put the phone in my handbag, take out my pair of sunglasses and watch the city go by.

I have this strange fantasy to sit a while and look. See buildings flash by, people, vehicles, roads, billboards, bus stops, shops, bridges, trees, lamp posts. I want to keep watching, sitting in a quiet corner but my eyes keeping pace with the moving world, until my eyes grow weary and heavy lids fall gently, until everything goes still.

Soon, maybe too soon, I think, I reach home - a monstrous building in ochre and brown. Built almost 60years back, it is a box architecture with sparse windows and few verandahs. There seemed to be walls everywhere, dark and brooding walls which stood proud once but now the paint is peeling off and plaster visible. The red mosaic walkway to the door had splashes of moss at the corners, the pipes rusting and creaky. Someone had stolen the bulb at the door and only an empty socket lay hanging. It was home, looked after by a lone, aging woman, growing desolate and antiquated, my own personal Satis House.

The spell is broken by Pooja mashi. “Arre, didibhai, you have already arrived? The rice is taking forever to cook. But the fish is done. Wait let me first get you some sarbat,” she bustled around. She was one person who stood still in time, an extension of the house but with a different aura. Plumpish & wide-boned, palms coarsened by years of labour, cotton sari in monochromes, usually the darker shade, her beaming personality and motherly proprietorship was annoyingly familiar. This time though there were a lot more grey strands in her hair. And she can still cook up a storm. The aroma of curry lay heavy in the air as I dragged my suitcase into my bedroom.

“You have gotten so thin!”

“Your hair has lost its lustre”

“You look beautiful.”

“Have you found a good man to marry?”

Pooja mashi. I’m home.

CHAPTER 3

The sun was setting by the time I finished my lunch and unpacked. The evening cast a golden hue in the room, the leaves on the Krishnachura tree outside rustled gently in the wind. The mango season is coming to an end and monsoons will soon be here.  My sister’s baby will arrive when the rains have washed the earth clean and kaash phool, the cottony, dreamy wild grass flowers, have sprung up all over the country side. It is a good time to be born.

The house is now silent, but warm. The chill will settle soon enough though. I enter the darkened hallway, voices haunting me, and walk from one room to the other. I should have sold off the place, torn it down to the last brick and built a new home. But the rage in me, coiling in restless agony, takes pleasure in its growing decay. Rage kept me alive then, it kept me alert. Rage killed my sleep until I walked the night like the living dead. Rage finally killed my father.

Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, the monster under the bed, lurking in the shadows. Since childhood, mythology and folktales teach us that a man’s inner goodness or evil is expounded by the outward manifestations. He can wear a mask for a while, but eventually, the ugliness is revealed to the world. Ravana’s laughter, boisterous and loud and un-Godlike, became almost a simile among Bengalis. But for a man who loved violence, Daddy had a strangely ordinary face – square jaws, average height, dark-skinned and thick eyebrows. His lips were pinched and could twist itself into an expression that transformed his middle-class family-man face into one which was cruel, animalistic and ruthless. But it was the glint of a madman in his eyes which gave him away. I always wondered why nobody else could see it. Maybe the world is too blind except to notice the obvious.

This house was no shelter, it never had been. It never hid me when he came for me. He said he loved me, he said he was trying to make me a good woman. And good women were to be beaten into submission. They must never scream, must please the man of the household and never question. He liked to see me scream, cry and cower. But he liked it best when I begged. And beg I did often, not for me, never for me, but for my little sister who kept crying in the next room. I would do anything to keep him out of that one room.

If Daddy was in the mood for play, he would lock me up for hours, where in the dark I would relive all the previous nightmares. Once Pooja mashi had let me out. That night Daddy had looked at her coldly and told her that if she ever got in the way, he would kill Nooyah. In his controlled rage, he belted me until I could no longer scream. Pooja mashi wept silently as she cleaned the cuts, vowing never to leave me and my sister. In her illiterate love, she sought God to be our saviour.

Daddy said he loved me. Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, why did you do what you did? Why did you love me so?

CHAPTER 4

“Didibhai, see these cartons, can you sort them out. Chotididi said you would do it,” says Pooja mashi, pointing at few dusty boxes in one of the rooms. Now that Nooyah is finding it difficult to move around much, Pooja mashi will pack up and go live with her soon.

I started sorting out the boxes as she went to get some masala chai, strong and milky, with hot samosas. I started taking out the items and dividing them into what was to be kept and what could be discarded. Out came curtains and bedsheets smelling of mothballs, old school books, report cards, and photographs. Lots and lots of photographs randomly packed together. Family and class group photos, relatives who I didn’t recollect, friends I had lost touch with and faces from the dark, dark past. There was one photo, a woman in a yellow saree, sitting by the window, evening sun shining weakly on her long black oily hair with two young children on her lap. She looked wistful, lost in another world. I felt guilty. Daddy occupied so much of my memories, even after his death, that I rarely thought of this woman.

My mother left no marks. She was a ghost, living on the periphery of existence. I felt guilty for letting her sink into oblivion. It is only when I heard my phone ring that I felt the hot, wet tears staining my cheeks. I don’t know why or when I had started crying. Maybe it was that forlorn look of a woman trapped in her own nightmare.

I don’t answer the call and let it keep ringing. After a while it stopped and the house once more, and suddenly, lapsed into a deadening silence. Afraid to look at the photo again, I kept it aside for Nooyah. I still have some vague memory, but my little sister has no recollection. My mother died five years after her second childbirth. There was nothing dramatic or spectacular in her death. It was a slow descend into wastefulness until she just disappeared one day, never to return again. I remember there being too many people at home, I remember Pooja mashi wiping her eyes as she made the sweet, masala chai, I remember 5 year-old Nooyah disturbed by the aura of gloom and strangers around, crying constantly like a colicky child.

I remember taking her in my arms, kissing her wet cheeks constantly, until she dissolved into bursts of giggles. She lay in my arms, fragile and helpless, and I remember feeling tired. With her tiny fingers gripping mine, the deep rhythm of a tiny heart at peace, I slept.

“Didibhai, have some tea, and don’t let the samosas get cold,” Pooja mashi said, walking into the room.

“Nooyah had such curly hair, do you remember Pooja mashi? It used to constantly fall over her eyes,” I said, while passing a yellowing photograph to her.

“She looked like such an imp, but I liked them. I was saddened to see her grow out of her curls,” Pooja said, a far-away look in her eyes.

The phone started ringing again.

“Maybe you should get that.”

I answered on the fourth ring. Raaj’s deep baritone flowed through the connection. “Nooyah is having a panic attack, D. It’s bad.”

CHAPTER 5

“Ballygunge Circular Road please,” I told the taxi driver even before I got in. Hearing the urgency in my voice, he picked up speed. Twenty minutes after the phone call I was taking the lift to the fifth floor of Kaveri Apartments. “Hi, she’s in the bedroom,” Raaj said as he opened the door. I took off my shoes at the entrance of the house and went to meet my sister.

Nooyah was very big, and at present, very agitated. Her eyes, the colour of almond touched by the sun, were lustreless today. She was pacing up and down but stopped to hug me and clung desperately for a few seconds, before starting to pace again. Her skin was clammy, eyes wild and puffed up, long, black hair limp and sweaty, strands sticking to her neck and back. The soft glow which usually radiated out of her very presence was missing. Looking at her my heart ached, and I wanted to take her into my arms and kiss her cheeks until she giggled.

“Noyaah, please sit down honey,” Raaj pleaded as he reached out to hold his wife still. But Nooyah slapped him, hard, the crack of palm against skin reverberating through the house. It stunned me, the sound taking me back many, many years. Nooyah then collapsed in Raaj’s bewildered arms, crying profusely.

“I don’t want the baby, D. I am sick and tired and I am not ready yet. Please don’t let me have the baby,” she wept.

It took us almost an hour to calm her down. We spoke constantly, jumping from one topic to another, to keep Nooyah distracted. I switched on the TV in the background and put it on mute. Raaj got her a pill, something the doctor had prescribed during the last attack the week before. Finally, after a shower, Nooyah got into the bed, and slept.

Raaj and I sat in the living room for a long time. He poured me some whisky and took some himself. I lit a cigarette and offered him one. We smoked and drank for a long time in silence. Raaj looked older than his 28 years. His shirt was crumpled and the collar limp, his hair dishevelled and a two-day old stubble amplified the shadows under his eyes.

“How long has she been having these attacks?” I asked him gently.

“This is the third one.”

“Oh God, why didn’t anybody tell me earlier?”

“I thought it was temporary. And we know how much you hate it here,” Raaj smiled ruefully.

“What nonsense. For Nooyah, I will go to Hell and back.”

“Haven’t you already?”

CHAPTER 6

It is 9:30 in the morning and Raaj is supposed to drop her off in half an hour. I had offered to visit their home, but Noyaah had insisted on seeing the house. She said she needed to. I know what is bothering Nooyah, I know what she wants to talk about - the day that changed our lives, the day I pushed Daddy down the stairs.

As years went by, Daddy had gotten creative. I fell down the staircase or slipped in the bathroom with dependable frequency. But neighbours and teachers tended to be nosy. So belt replaced the cigarette burns and certain exposed body parts spared. By the time I was fifteen years old, I stuttered. My clothes were always dirty and my hair undone. I lived in constant fear, fear which was like acid on naked skin. Terror gripped me night and day. There was no respite in sight. I could no longer sleep much at night, I could no longer hold a coherent thought.

Nooyah was a beautiful, gentle child. Her heart as deep as the ocean, the kohl marking her eyes as dark as the rain-laden clouds, her laughter filled me until it threatened to overcome the darkness in our lives. It almost made me forget the reality and bask in the rain-washed sunshine of her voice. She stumbled into my arms the first time she took a wobbly step. She would crawl into me after a particularly bad beating and try to soothe my burning skin with her baby-soft hands. Some days, she would hold my head in her tiny arms, a troubled storm in her eyes, and pour kisses on my broken body and weeping bruises.

Daddy seemed to enjoy breaking me over and over again. So much so that he overlooked Nooyah. And I preferred it that way. Somehow I always knew that Nooyah wouldn’t survive more than the sporadic slaps. There were days I couldn’t protect Nooyah, red welts singing her skin, tears marking a trail down her cheeks. I would hold her until she curled up in my arms and would drift into sleep.

But then, one day she ran out of luck. She was ten years old. I was preparing for my board exams at the table. Daddy was going through the newspaper, which too can be a formidable weapon when rolled up tight enough. Nooyah had been edgy since the morning, she was fidgeting and I was pleading with my eyes, asking her to stop, not to draw his attention. Pooja came with her glass of warm milk. Nooyah reached out but the glass slipped through her hands and crashed on the floor. Milk splashed all over, pieces of glass scattered. There was a stunned silence, a foreboding aura. Then Nooyah started howling, Pooja mashi grabbed a cloth and started cleaning, and I kept telling Daddy that it was just a bit of milk, it would all be cleaned away. Daddy rose from the chair, the mad glint in his eyes, and left the room. I knew he was going to get the belt.

I had to save Nooyah, at any cost. So I tried to send her to the neighbour’s until the worst was over. But Nooyah was red and splotchy and moved with difficulty. Daddy came, belt in hand, as I was trying to push Nooyah down the stairs. It was my first act of defiance against him, and rage clouded his eyes, darkened his face. He charged at us, and I blindly pushed him, away from screaming Nooyah. I was fifteen. Strength had been building in my bones, quietly, surreptitiously. It caught him by surprise. He grabbed a railing to steady himself, but it gave way. Rusted and brown, it broke under his weight. Then he fell, crashed down the staircase. Never to move of his own free will again.

CHAPTER 7

It was almost lunch time when Nooyah finally arrived. Pooja mashi was almost having a euphoric fit to have both of us back in the house again. She hovered over Nooyah until the pressure cooker sang. Reluctantly she ceased her questioning to get back into the kitchen.

“Pooja mashi can drive me crazy with her questions,” she said, trying to shake her hair free of the clasp. I laughed. I was happy to see her, my little baby girl, looking so much better than last evening. We both were comfortable on the bed, AC whirring loudly, surrounded by familiar sights and sounds. I took a mental picture of the room, Nooyah with a baby growing inside her, awash in the afternoon light. I didn’t want to break the spell so I continued chit-chatting until Pooja served us lunch.

“Didibhai still doesn’t have a boyfriend,” Pooja mashi complained to Nooyah while deftly serving us food.

“Not one boyfriend, Pooja but many,” Nooyah joked.

“They bore me beyond a few months,” I gave my usual explanation. Nooyah knew I was telling the truth. Sex became routine, men lost their novelty eventually and I would move on to a new subject. My one passion, one constant love was photography – to capture moments, freeze them in time, tangible on paper, even as everything else remained in motion.

“Show me some of your new work,” Nooyah said, as we were wrapping up lunch. Pooja mashi agreed to make us some coffee as I took out a thick dusty album instead of my laptop. “I found these in old boxes,” I answered Nooyah’s questioning gaze. Her eyes withdrew a little, she knew what was coming, knew she had to do this.

We sat huddled for a long time, pouring over photograph after photograph. We laughed at hairstyles and weird relatives. We cooed over classmates and favourite teachers. When I showed her the photograph of our mother, Nooyah grew very quiet, very still. “I don’t remember her,” she said, caressing the edges. “She looks sad.”

“Can I keep it? Although you remember her more than me, I’m sure,” she said.

I looked out of the window. “Not much but you are welcome to have it.”

Nooyah lays her hand on mine. “It’s ok, D. She wasn’t around much,” she tells me softly.

“If I die, will you tell my child about me? Will you keep me alive in memories and stories and those photographs of yours?” Nooyah asks me. The request caught me completely by surprise. “What are you talking about? You are perfectly healthy,” I tell her, wondering if the doctor has told her something I don’t know about.

“Yes, yes, I’m healthy, but you never know,” said Nooyah. “I have done bad things in life, terrible things. I don’t regret it, but it has been playing on my mind so much lately.”

I am even more confused now. “Bad things?”

“I killed Daddy.”

CHAPTER 8

Nooyah sat rock still with a brittle and fragile look, waiting for my condemnation. Hands twisting the edge of her kameez convulsively as the secret behind her nightmares and anxiety attacks spilled out.

“You were too young, you probably imagined it,” I told her calmly. “It wasn’t you, it was me who pushed him. And neither of us killed him for sure.” The last sentence was a lie, and Nooyah knew it.

During the fall, Daddy damaged his spine. Afflicted by paralysis on his right side, he took to a wheel chair. He was never able to unbuckle his belt again. Doctors put it down to negligence and distraction. His facial muscles couldn’t move and his words came out garbled. Nobody could understand what he was saying. His rage turned inwards, until it ate away at him day after day, month after month, year after year.

We tried to piece together our life, maintain a sham of normalcy. But the abuse had broken us on a much deeper level. It took a long while for sunshine to filter through the grime covering our windows. When it did, the rays of gold, coated in dust, made me even more sad. Sadder than when there was only darkness. Nooyah felt it too. The three of us settled down in our patterns, worked our way through each day. We would laugh hysterically, play music and smoke in the house. Sometimes I would carry the ashtray to the table and light up as Daddy would writhe, his hand would twitch, the acrid smell of rage coating his body. One day, on his 50th birthday I put an empty plate in front of him, then placed his favourite belt on it. It used to be pliable, smooth against my skin and the sting when it cracked. It was frayed but stiff, flaking as it lay on the plate.

Sometimes, I would wake up to Nooyah tossing and mumbling in the middle of the night, hold her until the nightmares eased out of her soul. But the house never kept them buried for long. The man in the creaking wheelchair was a living, albeit broken, reminder of the monster who haunted us still. Nooyah got admission in a college in Mumbai and I had started working for a newspaper as a photojournalist. When she was leaving, she cried. We held each other for a long time, before I let go.

“You are lucky to have such a dutiful daughter, she takes such wonderful care of you,” they told him. Duty, guilt, dependence – where does one begin and the other ends? It would be a couple of years later that his muscles would finally collapse, his lungs would flood, and he would drown in his own fluids.

“It wasn’t your fault, D. It was mine. After the paralysis, I couldn’t bear the sight of him, so I left for Mumbai. I ran away,” Nooyah wept, as big, fat tears fell with abandon.

“I was playing at the staircase in the morning, swinging from the rails, something Daddy had forbidden many a times. This time, it suddenly broke and came off. I was so scared Daddy would figure out whose fault it was. I tried to act casual but couldn’t. In my nervousness I dropped the glass of milk. I remember seeing the splotches of white against the red floor. I was so petrified that I couldn’t move, even when you tried to send me away. It was the same railing he fell against, the same railing that couldn’t support him. I am the reason he fell, D. I killed him.”

CHAPTER 9

I was cradling Nooyah in my arms, trying to block out the images from the past - the ghost of a dead man, alive in our psychosis, a larger than life monster which has been taunting us for over a decade. I didn’t feel relief, or pain, or any lighter. If only she had told me earlier, if only I had known. I let her cry, finally let go of the terrible memory, of the crushing guilt. I know what it can do to someone, how it can corrode your soul and warp your spirit. I comforted her, and I comforted myself. But guilt was our personal Lochness, it can rear its ugly head at unexpected moments. You think you have overcome one, but two more springs up in its place. I felt guilty because of the relief that swept through me, relieved that it was not my cross to bear anymore.

We both lay broken in each other’s arms, broken by abuse & guilt towards a man whom we loved and hated and feared and killed.

“He was a beast, an animal who ate his young, a pervert,” Pooja mashi spoke from the door. We raised our faces to her, tear-stained and puffy. A ghost of a smile played across her lips. “This is like a bad déjà vu. Just like when the two of you would come crying to me, battered body. I witnessed your birth, comforted you both as best as I could, but I couldn’t save you from the beatings,” Pooja mashi slumped to the floor, sadness etched deep in her eyes.

“You didn’t leave us, you could have walked away but you didn’t,” I said.

Pooja mashi stirred out of her thoughts. “I couldn’t leave you two, although he threatened and insulted me constantly. But you see, he only beat his own, his young.” Looking at me she said, “You were his prized possession, a madman’s object of obsession. I saw him break your spirit day after day. I was illiterate, a poor woman. I didn’t know how or to whom to seek help from. I didn’t want to do anything which would make him angry enough to drive me away. So I prayed everyday, asking the Lord to help us, rid us of our monster and for happiness.

I would clean your cuts and cry in the kitchen. Your screams would haunt me. I don’t know why you stayed back to look after him after the fall. I begged you to leave, to go away and lead a normal life. I would have looked after him, you know. After all, it was my fault he fell. I found the railing hanging loose and realised that chotididi must have been swinging from it. I could imagine what your father would do to her. So, I hurriedly placed the railing back in place so that nobody would know that it was broken. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

I would have looked after him, you know. I did not feel remorse for that monster, but why didn’t you leave? I felt sorry that you stayed back to care for him, that you had to nurse a man who took away your childhood. I would have looked after him, you know,” Pooja mashi said as she placed some tea before us, her hand steady, eyes clear, radiating a faith that anchored her soul.

CHAPTER 10

I stayed another day. Nooyah and me, we were euphoric, almost hysterical. We packed everything into suitcases and cartons, and cleaned the house, promising to sell the place as soon as possible. We talked about baby names, in-law troubles, home loans and everything mundane and normal. On Monday, when she came to drop me off at the airport, I realised that the glow had returned. There were no more unshed tears shimmering from underneath her lashes. The sun was glinting off the thousand mirrors, hitting my eye like shards as I promised her I would come down for a month later. I waved them goodbye, I saw Raaj kiss Nooyah quickly, his hand on her belly.

The weekend had drained me, stress keeping me on the edge for most of the time. But I was looking forward to a new life, a life without the crippling burden of guilt. I went back to my apartment, shuttered and sterile, smelling of stale air and dampness. For a while I hoped it wouldn’t but she came back to me a few nights later. The beast now appears often at night, when I lay awake, cold and detached. She draws succour from my dread, amusement from my helplessness, strength from years of guilt which has taken root in my soul. She mocks my desperate attempts to chain her. She stares out of the mirror and looks right into my soul. She disappears for a while when there’s chaos and dissonance. Every time I move to an unknown land teeming with strangers, I hope to bury her.

Some are born under the curse of restlessness. Not like the gypsies who never settle down, but We pick up the luggage and leave for the unknown, closing not the chapter but starting a whole new book. It is not the spirit that refuses to be anchored rather some invisible pull that changes the trajectory of our fall.

Every time I move, some things are lost in transit - a partial fingerprint, a whiff of body spray, a broken heel. If I can’t replace them, I buy new ones. Eventually I lose track of what I originally owned or what I really needed and a strange detachment takes root within. I don’t miss the things or people because I really can’t remember the specifics anymore. Their essence though has always remained just within that tantalizing reach.

As the detachment grows to cold indifference, We, the tribe of emotional nomads, live on the fringe of society. The flames of cold fire have no heat, no burns for the benefit of the world. The blood clots inside even as the skin remains flawless. I spoke to her one night, asked her if she was special, or I someone special to her? She reached forward, long, wisp-like fingers lay on my palm, telling me stories of how things do change, how the past transforms, how memories metamorphoses but they never really are any different. It is, as it was, as it should be.

“Then, what am I?” I ask as she disappears, for I deign to be no God, nor fortunate enough to be a beast. What I am, is a disfigured caricature of life.

THE END