by Ilakshee Bhuyan Nath
The last line tightened the cold grip around Ratul’s heart even as he sat watching the waves come crashing to the shore. He burrowed his toes deep into the coarse sands of Marina Beach. The gritty grains slipped against his heels, rearranging to settle under his callused feet. He clasped a blue inland letter, its edges fluttering like a trapped moth. The letter from his father said they were going to replace Joha in the plot near the naamghor from this year on with some other high-yielding variety. It would give him less headaches with pestilence. They were waiting for showers of bordoisila to soak the earth to sow the Ahu seeds. They were planning to sell two more of Lokkhi’s calves. His mother no longer had the energy to tend to them. Digonto was still the same and Debol was yet to return.
Ratul read what wasn’t written in the last line. Digonto, his neighbour’s son was yet to speak after he was whisked off by the army for interrogation. And there was no news of Debol. Even after two years no one knows whether he joined the banned outfit or was abducted by them. Today marked exactly two years in exile for Ratul. And all because he had boasted of being in league with the banned outfit.
After five days of a sooty journey with whiffs and dust of the countryside rushing in through the train window, Ratul drew in a long breath to savor his moment of freedom, when his train pulled into Madras Central Station. He was greeted with, the by now familiar stench of excreta drying on the tracks mixed with urine and the raw smell of iron, no different from the other stations he had hopped off, to stretch his legs. It had amused him to see his wife peer through the iron bars of the sleeper class, her perpetually surprised eyes not losing track of him for a minute.
It was too warm for a March morning. It was the babble of a strange tongue that told Ratul, he had traveled far from his village in Janji, which was yet to find a mention on the map. The sharp sounds jolted him back to his senses. He made a mental note to send off a telegram to his folks back home. ‘Arrived Safely’ would be read out to his parents by the postman. His old parents could then safely answer the entire village’s queries about their son. The details would have to wait till he could find the time to fill in the blue inland letter.
Over the next few months it took many more inland letters to fill in the details. Ratul was the first man in his village to travel across Jorhat, Guwahati, Calcutta and finally reach Madras and the first to lay eyes on the rolling waves of Bay of Bengal. For that matter, he was the first from his village to see any water body larger than the Brahmaputra.
Settling down in the new place had robbed him of that moment of euphoric realization that he was marking history sitting on Marina Beach while the rest of the village only knew it as a point on the eastern coastline of the India map, hanging next to the black board in his Lower Primary school. He could go back and say with all honesty that it had a greenish tinge and an abrasive feel very unlike the village pond or the Janji stream that flowed past their paddy fields.
Only, his father said he couldn’t come back. It wasn’t safe yet.
Marina Beach was the only place he and his family came to on Sundays, his day off. From where he sat, Ratul watched his son heap loose sand into little mounds, shifting and collapsing with the slightest touch. A young boy ran past him, holding a kite on a short string against the breeze. Ratul watched the wind catch the kite. He hoped the boy had felt the tug and waited for him to loosen some more of the string. The kite lifted in little jerks and soared into the sky, riding the wind with grace, away from the cries of the vendors selling sundal and appalam or crying out for pony rides. Was it the Sot wind carrying the kite? Soon it would be Bohag Bihu then! The letter had most certainly brought on these thoughts. His mother had probably woven twenty gamusas on the loom by now. He imagined her sitting by the kitchen shed, sliding the shuttle and pulling in the reed. Ratul watched the kite dip and sway and reach out till it was little more than a speck. He had seen a few of them break away from its reel, swaying in a crazy dance before gliding and hitting the sand. He had often come across a couple of them tattered and half buried in the sand with no claimants. Those that remained attached were rolled in and taken back to the safety of their homes.
The first summer in the new city, Ratul stopped frolicking in the sea the day his landlord climbed up the stairs to their first floor two-room set up, to suggest that they share the cost of a water tanker to fill up their pump. The owner had sipped the tea offered and mentioned without a crease on his forehead that it’s judicious use would see the two families through for a week.
The two sat bewildered that night. Water was free like the air, the grass, fragrance of flowers in the evening, the songs of birds emerging from the mango trees. His wife suddenly erupted with her eyes further widening.
“Buy water? What place is this? Our village is only better! First, for water stand in line! What for? For two tekelis of water! Then with four mugs I take bath. Four mugs! After that also I feel sticky sticky! Tchah!”
Even in his uniform standing by the dock gates, saluting the officers moving in and out, Ratul could think only of the long serpentine queue of lime green, yellow turning to white, jaded blue plastic pots interspersed with the aluminum ones, lining the road from Arumugam’s house at the mouth of street till the grocery shop at the far end. By the time the men left home for their work with tiffin carrier handles glinting from woven plastic bags, the line of pots and buckets invariably reached kabaadiwala’s stall. The familiar screech of tyres in the late afternoon sun brought the women rushing out of their homes with small bottles and pans clanking, accompanied by raised voices and jostling, just in case there was some extra water after the two pots allocated to each house were filled.
The first few days he wondered if his wife had managed to fill their two pots. He returned one evening to find a bonus waiting.
“I have some extra thanni today!” she said, her shining eyes pointing towards the aluminum saucepan sitting on the kitchen ledge.
“It will take care of today’s dinner and tomorrow’s morning tea,” she said with a tilt of her chin.
The first few days of settling down found them doing strange things in front of shops. He could be found clucking and flapping his arms near the meat shop. Or desperately trying to point to the river fish for they were yet to develop a taste for the strong flavored sea fish. They went out as a team in this strange land to look for bits and pieces to make their home and build their lives. His wife stood behind him to detect the slightest trace of comprehension dawn on the shopkeeper’s face. Their toddler watched with keenness the changing expressions on his father’s face and the wild moving arms. Shopping was an exhausting exercise till he spied the Learn Tamil in 30 Days beckoning him from the corner of the stationer’s shop.
They felt the surge under their wings to hop beyond the narrow alleys of their neighborhood and explore unknown territories beyond. But that adventure took a back seat when his wife couldn’t muster the courage to climb into the PTC bus. She threw up the first time on the bus on their way to seek blessings at the Kapaleeshwar temple in Mylapore which their neighbor had recommended. The weekend trips to Marina Beach on his second-hand bicycle was tiring enough. Not to mention the sacrilegious act of bathing twice to wash off all the sweat.
At night, while patting their son to sleep, his wife often told him the new discoveries she had made during the day. How the drumsticks here were the hard mature type, instead of the slim tender pods they were used to. Slowly the ruti bhaji or the dail, bhaat bhaji in his steel tiffin carrier was replaced by idli sambhar molagapuzhi or lemon rice and curd rice. But that sea fish was something they were yet to come to terms with. While her neighbor sent in a bowl of sakkarai pongal on makkar sankranti she reciprocated with few ghila pithas, the only ones she could manage to make for Magh Bihu with no bora dhan to be found.
It was Arumugam, who suggested that Ratul be innovative with his bicycle. And so Ratul, taking his advice and watching a few specimens on the road, fixed a motor to his two-wheeler. Travelling became much easier but only for short distances. He then fixed the carrier of his bicycle with a broad wooden plank securing it with sturdy ropes. He decided that a cushion would finally complete the picture.
That evening, he stood at a shop which sold household essentials and utensils. He picked one cushion after the other checking for its softness and the right size to fit onto the plank. After much squeezing and patting, he picked one which was neither too soft to depress into the plank nor too hard to give discomfort. Pulling out a broom that his wife wanted and a red plastic scrub for the utensils, he made his way to the counter.
“Ida yevlo, saar?” asked Ratul.
“Muppad ruba” twanged the shopkeeper, his voice rising above the chaos of the roadside traffic and the customers’ chatter.
Then he went still all of a sudden. At first he thought he had imagined it. He strained his ears to catch the words again, looking at the shopkeeper. Above the din was just the blunt whirring of the fan circulating warm air. The shopkeeper stared back at him.
“Saar, muppaddu ruba” repeated the shopkeeper holding out three fingers.
Ratul quickly pulled out three tenners from his shirt pocket, and picked up his packet and the broom. Stepping aside he stood under the fan for a few seconds trying to decide whether he should investigate the words. Or let it go as his imagination. After all it was two years since he left his people. And then he heard it again.
“Etu luwa…etu bhaal”
The words tasted like honey, taking him on a trail to the banks of the Janji stream, the drumming rain on tin roofs, the fish smacking and plopping on the pond’s surface and the sweet warmth of the familiar. Of home.
Ratul’s eyes followed the trail back to where the words had come from. In between a few heads with strings of jasmine and kanakambaram, he traced the words to two faces at the corner. The shining steel milk cans in a row behind them, reflected bits and parts of their faces. Yes, they certainly didn’t look like they were from these parts. His heart hit the roof when he saw the woman unmistakably clad in mekhela sador. He almost choked on the surging emotions that rose from the bottom of his stomach leaving behind a fluttering emptiness.
He walked towards the familiar strangers while checking out a steel saucepan with a glass lid he couldn’t afford.
“Etu besi bhaal…I’ll take this” the lady had made up her mind on a steel saucepan with a glass lid.
Ratul almost rushed at them, overwhelmed with emotions straining to burst. And yet, something held him back. He could hear his heart thump loud and clear. What if they snubbed him? What if they thought him to be too eager? He was, after all, safely settled here now. And all the way from Janji! They looked like visitors going by her dress. His wife had given up wearing the mekhela sadors and taken to cotton saris. Ratul couldn’t let the moment pass despite his doubts and hesitations. He had to seize the opportunity before they left the shop. What was the best way to strike a conversation and yet give the impression of not being too eager? On an impulse, Ratul turned away from them, and sliding the watch off his wrist he slipped it into his pocket.
He brushed aside the emotions thickening in his throat and asked, “Keyta bajise?” He looked straight into their faces as if those were the most natural words to be floating around a shop full of stainless steel utensils, idli stands, propped-up brooms and plastic containers. He heard a gasp and a nervous giggle from the lady. Her husband looked perplexed. He recovered quickly with a short laugh and said, “You are Oxomiya! Ye Ram! So nice to meet you here! It is so nice to meet someone of your own kind!”
Ratul’s chest swelled, pushing all his doubts and the noise to the background. He had ears only for the sweet syllables reminding him of home.
“Do you stay here?” they asked.
“Yes, it’s been two years now…” said Ratul “How come you are here?”
“Oh! We thought of coming out for Puja holidays. We went to Madurai, then to Kanyakumari and will be going back day after tomorrow. Really, it is so nice to see the sun set over three oceans!”
“Yes, yes! You don’t get to see any of this back there! Being here for a while, I’ve seen everything. I say travelling is the best way to see the world. But our kind doesn’t come out only!” Ratul was not going to let them see him as a lost country bumpkin.
“We are staying with our cousins in Adyar. They have been here for many years!” chipped in the lady, “They said we should see the Burma Bazar… enei we wanted to see some electronic watches and a two-in-one tape recorder. We were simply walking around when I remembered I had to pick some steel stuff for people back home.”
Ratul’s ears perked up. It had been two long years parched of any familiar sight and sound. And now this lady was saying there were other people from his land here. There was a tug; a kite rose within him. This Bihu was going to be how it was back home! By the time they took leave of each other, the couple forgot to answer what Ratul had asked for in the first place. What was the time?
It was time to get together with his own kind, thought Ratul, pedaling his way through the narrow alley leading to his home with the episode looping in his mind. He was bursting to share the news with his wife. That thin cold grip around his heart loosened its hold. In his pocket was an address written on a piece of paper. It was to take them all the way to Kasturba Nagar in Adyar but that was okay.
Sunday morning found Ratul securing the plank on the carrier fixed over the rear wheel. His wife came out of the house carrying her son on one arm and a plastic woven basket in the other. She peered into the bag to check for the water bottle, a packet of Parle G, a small towel and a tiffin box carrying some snacks for her son. Satisfied, she locked the door behind her and looked at her husband, excitement shining in her round perpetually surprised eyes.
She nodded and placed the cushion on the plank. She had stitched a cover for it, a fresh green, the color of tender paddy fields. And on it she had embroidered a vine of yellow and red flowers with blue tendrils. She adjusted her bottom on the cushion deciding on the right position, so the edge of the plank wouldn’t cut into her thighs, and arranged her son on her lap, an arm tightly clasped around his stomach. The other arm she snaked around her husband’s middle, holding on tightly to the front of his shirt. He started his cycle pedaling past Arumugam’s house, out into the street chock-a-block with shops, weaving his way through the Sunday shoppers and onto the main road. Then he switched the motor on and rested his feet on the stationary pedals keeping to the extreme left of the road. The PTC buses trundled past him. A few mopeds and the black and yellow Ambassadors, at times a Fiat, whizzed past. The sun beat down on the travelers. They stopped once under the awning of a shop and shared a cold Thumbs Up. The hot air brushed their faces red. His wife pulled the silk pallu over her head and tried to shield her son with its loose end. Ratul’s shirt was already stuck to his back.
Not a soul stood on the leafy street with rambling homes on either side, when Ratul pulled up his cycle on its stand. A lone dog sat under a cart, panting in the heat with its tongue hanging out. Ratul wanted to do the same. He checked the house number outside the double-storied building. They had reached 46 Kamraj Avenue. His wife got off and adjusted the pleats on her silk mekhela sador, one of the two pairs she got at her wedding. The long ride with her son had crumpled the front of her sador and the blouse stuck to her back. Ratul wiped his face with the small towel, combed and patted his hair back into place while his wife held their son’s cheeks between her thumb and fingers to see if he was presentable enough. Satisfied, they walked up the narrow stairs on the side of the house.
It was the sweetest afternoon for Ratul since he had left his village in Janji. The lady was a gracious hostess, serving refreshments and lunch just like they did back home. The conversation flowed like a breached bund as Ratul grew more comfortable. The gentleman, Baruada, turned out to be one of the humblest men he had ever come across. And such a big officer! They exchanged notes on the best place to buy river fish and also the localities in the city with the least water problems. Ratul discovered there was a society of his people here in the city. They celebrated the festivals in their traditional way complete with food and dance! The gracious couple was impressed with his rendition of Bhupen Hazarika’s songs with which he regaled them through the afternoon. They thought Ratul could indeed play the dhol during this Bihu. And their children! How well behaved they seemed! He had caught the two girls exchanging glances and smiling and requesting him to sing some more.
He couldn’t resist humming the songs again. Motoring out of Adyar on their way back, Ratul threw his face to the wind; the afternoon had melted that cold presence around his heart. He had three more addresses in his pocket. The city found a soft corner in him but a new tiny spot embedded itself somewhere inside. It was the same spot that had grown and festered and sent him thousands of miles away from his home to this strange land. When the conversation flowed like the Janji stream in monsoons, Ratul got carried away and boasted that no documents ever passed without his signature. None of the officers could ever function without his clerical advice.
Cruising through the thin Sunday evening traffic, Ratul tossed around his thoughts. It had been such a long time since he took that leave to go home. It was almost two years now.
Ilakshee Bhuyan Nath is a writer based in New Delhi. She has worked on television and radio as a presenter, a narrator for documentaries, and a trainer for corporate employees in effective communications. She has contributed travel articles for several journals, both the print and the digital. Most recently her short fictions have been included in two anthologies — The Best Asian Short Stories 2017 anthology published by Singapore based Kitaab International Pte Ltd and The Others published by Storymirrors.