It was always difficult to wake up on a rainy day.
Had it been my school, I could have slept till six in the morning. Here at Dai, as they said in my hostel, ‘No scene!’ They meant that there was no hope.
My father woke up at three. The rickshaw-puller had been instructed not to be late. It would take an hour to reach Kanta. The first bus from Kanta was at four thirty. If everything went well, another twelve hours and three buses later we would reach the outskirts of Purul. My school was there.
When I woke up it was dark outside. Not completely though. Mother lit a kerosene lamp. It made some of the darkness go. Some of it remained anyway. Even inside the room. And those tall trees outside looked like tall giants.
There was something scary about those trees. You would be amused to hear that. You would say, “But, of course, Abhi, they are only trees”. I was not so sure. Their long arms were so visible. Thorny and long. Not that they didn’t try to hide them in a cloak. But I was not fooled by their feigned innocence. I saw them holding breath for hours while gloating inside. When nobody was looking, no parents were there, no strong adults, they could try to snatch me, dig their nails in my body and before long I wouldn’t be able to find myself anymore.
Now they were swaying nonchalantly, all drenched, minding their own business, sometimes waving at me just for the fun of it.
Father quoted an old village adage. One could go anywhere when Tuesday faded into Wednesday. He was trying to cheer me up while I was bitter inside. Bitter at the prospect of braving the rain for an hour to reach Kanta. Not that I was unhappy to leave Dai. I was plain sleepy.
We could hear the rickshaw-puller’s horn.
I piled up the bags and books on the rickshaw and bent down to touch mother’s feet. “Let’s go, let’s go!” father hurried me up. In his time table we were always late.
She was standing there where the muddy lane met the main pitch road. Like those ghosts that waited silently. Only that she was no ghost. Like a white shadow, she was just very frail. She knew that I would be gone today. So she accepted the rain and accepted the prospect of an insult. She came to feel her son one last time.
She was not my mother, of course. I had left my mother at home. She was not my relative either. I even didn’t know her before this vacation. I used to know her son Dipu. Dipu had been murdered in a neighbouring village a month ago. Now she was waiting to hug me, pile up a few coarse kisses on my cheek and cry.
“Why are you here, sister? In the rain?” father tried to be sympathetic. Though, his voice showed mild irritation. She didn’t answer.
Rather she came towards me trembling. She put her arms around me like those tall trees around the house and kept her head over my shoulder. It smelled foreign. Her wet dress made me feel cold. Umbrella aside, I stiffened in the drizzle and wondered if she was trying to get something out of me and keep it with her.
“Let him go, sister. He will come back during Pooja. We will miss the bus.”, father insisted without sounding harsh. I felt that she retreated. Then I could hear a strange sound. She was looking at me.
Some of the nights, from the bed, here at Dai, one could hear the dogs wailing from far. I wouldn’t be able to tell you whether that was scary or miserable. The only thing that you would want was to fall asleep again so that you could wake up in a new morning. It dawned upon me that she was looking at me and talking to her dead son in her wail.
I kept my head down and avoided the gaze. And I didn’t look back when the rickshaw started moving again. Let her fade away, I kept praying. That eerie feeling didn’t leave my shoulder till we reach Kanta.
I studied with Dipu at the village primary school. He was not my best friend, not even a good friend. How could he be? He was not good at studies, not good at sports either. He was gentle though. He wouldn’t think about punching you or complain about you to the teachers. It was safe to be around him. And he would smile often. Three years later the only thing I remembered about him was his smile.
Dipu’s mother was a domestic maid in Calcutta. The hope was there that one day Dipu too would go to Calcutta and find work as a driver or an orderly. Then his mother could retire and get her daughter married. Sadly, the daughter was seen with a man who was a young political cadre in the village; a brother of a drug addict and a bit of a thug. His name was Purno. ‘Purno Shaitan’, my mother said about him. ‘A complete devil’, that’s what she meant.
Dipu was against the affair. He not only threatened Purno, but stopped his sister to go out of the house: quite a thing to do for a thirteen-year old boy. It could be that he felt responsible in absence of his mother. Or, he wanted to be the father he lost right after his birth. Might be that he wanted to protect the dignity that the village folks worried so much and so often about.
In an evening of Narayan Pooja, he was invited to a neighbouring village. Where he was poisoned under the pretext of serving ‘prasaad’ and then taken to a nearby hut to be strangled to death. He was taking time to die and generating unnecessary attention otherwise. Then they said that his heart had failed.
His body was taken out of the morgue. He was kept covered in salt and ice for three days at the local post office. The rumour was that his tongue had turned black, coming violently out of the mouth. After three days, the smell became unbearable and the body was cremated.
Purno absconded. So did his brother. A few brave villagers had gone and destroyed a part of their common house. Seven days later the police had come visiting the village, waking up those brave men from afternoon sleep and putting them in Kanta jail. In fact, they had picked up a few more people: an old man who had shown them the way and a young man who had started to run away just because he was afraid of the police.
Father was sympathetic towards Dipu’s mother. So much so that, this time, when I came home, he took me to her house where the old lady felt my face against her rough palms, looked at me with sad longing, hugged me drawing closer to her chest for what felt like an eternity, kissed on my cheeks again and again and cried. It was embarrassing for me. It would be embarrassing for any boy who was in class seven. Yet, she would keep visiting my house and following the same routine till I protested to father. “I don’t like her.”, I said.
That day, while going towards Purul, when the dawn was breaking, in the bus, I asked father, “How would Purno be punished?”
He looked disinterested in the topic. My mother had told me how she would stay awake for nights guarding food, while father, being one of the village headmen, spent hours in the meetings to decide Purno’s fate. He couldn’t avoid the conversation. Not that he was awkward or feeling guilty about it.
“Dipu’s mother was given grievance money. His sister was married to that guy and she was given a piece of land.”
“But he murdered!” I felt bitter again. Purno should be hanged like Ranga-Billa.
“In a village like ours, for poor villagers like them, getting a piece of land is a big deal. Now the girl is married and has a land of her own.”
He looked satisfied with the judgement of it.
I kept thinking while staring through a muddy glass window of the bus and couldn’t make any sense of it. Might be, she liked the man the way I liked the bespectacled girl standing near the bus driver. Might be, she wanted herself to be settled the way my parents wanted me to be; wasn’t that the point of going so far from home to study in a famous residential school? Might be she couldn’t resist the village elders’ decisions the way I couldn’t that of my parents. Yet, the girl was married to a man who killed her brother.
A movie after a vacation. That’s the schedule at the school. But first, there would be a prayer in the evening. Then we would run along the lit street to find the best seats in the hall. Sometimes movies repeated. Some of the boys would sleep till the end even if it was new. Then they would run towards the dining halls.
I liked the prayer. There was strength in everyone saying one thing together. There was strength in believing someone up there or somewhere else, listening to and caring about us. Moreover, there would be a movie after this sit down.
Unfortunately, the only thing I could see that evening was a white shadow. The poor widow’s dress. It was fourteen hours ago, yet, I could not forget her touch. Her sad wail. How could I not hate her? She made me feel bitter.
“We will show you a film on Khudiram Bosu today.” the provost announced after the prayer.
Khudiram Bosu had thrown a bomb at a horse coach that had been carrying an English lady and her daughter. He had intended to kill a cruel British magistrate. Caught while drinking water and taken to a jail to be hanged, he had been smiling all along. He had only been eighteen. Khudiram Bosu had been born in my district. Dipu was born in my district. He opposed to a cruel man too. Why was his tongue coming out of the mouth? Khudiram had been smiling at his death.
“Will you sleep or watch the movie?” Sanju, the most cheerful of my classmates asked while we were walking towards the movie hall.
“I will watch. You?”
“No scene. I watched Disco Dancer at Calcutta. I will show you the moves once we are back to the hostel.”
I couldn’t bear anymore.
“There was a murder in my village. I used to know the boy. I can’t forget him.”
He didn’t say anything.
“I don’t want to go back home.”
He put a hand over my shoulder and tried to encourage me.
“Next vacation starts before the Pooja. That is four months away. Third terminal examination in between. You will forget everything by then.”
Just before the Pooja, Father and I took a night train from Purul. It helped us reach Dai around noon after being plied by two buses instead of three. Mother cooked special curries and father asked me to go to afternoon sleep immediately after having them. “We would have fruits, Abhi, when you would wake up”, he said. “Train journey at night is tiresome. You need sleep”, he was awfully certain.
I woke up hearing the neighbour lady calling up mother. “Didi, have you heard this, the sister of Dipu died in the afternoon. Some say that she has committed suicide. Some say that she has been poisoned. Purno is missing again.”
Mother asked her to hush up, I could hear. I forced myself to get up.
“They are marching with her dead body around the village. The procession would reach here any minute.” her excitement knew no bounds.
I got up carefully to see the trees were silent in the twilight. “Were they pretending again?” I wondered. They rather seemed very sad. I started to have doubts. Could it be that they were not bad at all!
The procession reached the dusty lane in front of the house in fifteen minutes. Some local leaders in white kurta, bare chested men in dirty dhotis, women in unkempt green and blue saris. Some hand-written placards here and there. Mild slogans now and then. And I saw her for the first time.
Rocking slowly on a van rickshaw, mouth wide open, sari loosely wrapped around her unfed body; she looked unhappy, sleeping. Two deaths for this girl?
Tree branches wiggled maniacally. Everyone was so clueless in this world, especially the elders. Like running around a deep pit without knowing. Running around a deep pit without looking. Running around without stopping.
A muffled sound came from the ground. The rickshaw cricked and panted forward. She was rocking so cautiously on that rickshaw that she wouldn’t fall any more. We could. We would.
Suddenly an amazing thing happened. She stopped rocking and rose.
We all could see that she rose up high; leaving those showy marchers and selfish spectators. She rose higher than the tall trees and the wisdom of village elders; where she couldn’t hear her mother’s wail and Purno wouldn’t come back hunting.
She found her brother sitting near the fire and waiting.
She called, “Dipu!”
He turned back and smiled. His smile!
He got up and held his sister’s hand. He looked grown up against the warm light.
“Did you find love?” he asked.
She started to sob and said, “I will never let you go again.”
Disclaimer : This is a work of fiction. Characters resembling to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.