Twenty Years Back
by Durjoy Ghosh
Twenty years ago, when we first settled in Boral, it was still a remote patch of Earth. It rose early, and it slept early, and sometimes it shuddered up at midnight, with voices crying desperately “dacoit, dacoit.” We had moved from Calcutta, from light and grandeur. Naturally, the first few months were terrifying. One of our neighbours had advised my mother to keep a metal dish by hand and beat the same loud with a spoon in case anything unusual happened. She did so. In addition she kept a long sharp dagger under her pillow, and a lantern burnt in a corner, its wick down, throughout the night. However, once the morning broke, it was so bright and lively around that we felt confident like Caesar. Birds chirruped. Squirrels climbed up and down every standing object. And yes, the monkeys, both ladies and gentlemen, sat on walls and boughs, like great philosophers, their long tails hanging in dignified postures. But then, with each nightfall, returned the primitive silence, the paralyzing gloom.
Our house was an incomplete brick-built structure, with no plaster or paints whatever, and the first eleven months we had only plastic sheets to cover the wide gaps left for doors and windows. I was told that we were poor, though I doubted if we were, for nothing had apparently changed in our lifestyle, except that now we lived under a tin roof and walked on a mud floor. Besides, from dawn to dusk, I played in the vast adjacent fields, and once I had enjoyed my day with so much freedom, it was immaterial whether I turned to a palace or a hut in the evening. For me, as also for my father, it was “living like Jim Corbett.” Of course, we had no guns, but we had cameras, and we would go out shooting whenever time permitted. Some of my playmates were native tribals. They were keenly interested in photography and joined us on most of our expeditions. In the beginning they were inexperienced in the game and we felt disturbed by the babel of their voices. But soon they realized how badly we needed patience to shoot well.
One afternoon, on our way home from one such expedition, we were informed by a local boy that my mother had “screamed and fainted.” She was fine and busy in the kitchen when we left home around eight that morning. What could have possibly happened in those couple of hours to make her scream and faint? A crowd of women blocked the entrance. We pushed through them and came to the open lawn, where she lay on a mat, conscious now but breathless with an unknown anxiety, something that had nearly frozen her eyes, and she looked pale like one in her deathbed. A young female was trying to rub her feet warm, while another, a widow, sat close by, near her head, muttering obscure mantras and bowing frequently to the ground. Her face radiated deep devotion. Her eyes were shut tight. She wore a white saree to designate her widowhood, and it seemed she had decided not to stir till she finished whatever ritual she was performing, because neither our appearance nor the hubbub around bothered her in the least.
I stood watching the scene for a while. I could well apprehend a person screaming and fainting. But the present setting of our lawn, with so many people crowding it slowly from every direction, was beyond my wildest imagination. I went down on my knees, laid my hand on the forehead of my mother, and whispered: “What happened?” She turned her drained eyes to me, yet unable to speak, and tears flowed helplessly. At once the voices cried: “Great Mother, the savior of earth and oceans, have mercy.” I was a mere child. Yet those two ever-loving eyes, now defenselessly staring at me, clogged my whole spirit with fear, and it was then my father, a man with the artless poise of a headmaster, urged the crowd to leave—very politely indeed. Unwillingly though, the crowd left, with many advices and suggestions, the most important being that the sick should not be allowed to touch milk for a month.
However, milk was the first thing we boiled on our stove soon after the widow completed her performance and disappeared, leaving behind a red piece of cloth, which was to be hung on a bamboo pillar near the entrance and washed and dried and burnt and washed again. The hot milk acted like magic, and my mother sat up, though she continued to reply to all our queries with her eyes alone. Next, she embraced me, crying silently again, as I went on questioning her in vain. She paused before entering the house, her eyes searching around, as though she was still under some spell. Then, exhausted, she fell asleep wrapped in a quilt, for it was wintertime, and it had drizzled the day before. Meanwhile, I had an hour with my friends too. We forgot to play that evening and just sat on a mound, recently raised from the dredging of a pond, speculating on the strange event. But perhaps I was not really interested in the discussion. They were saying all sorts of nonsense. I watched the cattle turning homewards, stopping occasionally and grazing. The sun in the west melted between the folds of clouds.
Back home, I saw my father reading at his table. “Have a wash and sit with your books,” he said, looking up through his heavy lenses. But where was my mother? The bed was empty. This meant she was in the kitchen, for the kitchen was her natural habitat, and it was where she was always found when she was found nowhere else. Our kitchen, unlike a modern kitchen, was a separate unit, standing by itself across the lawn. It was entirely left to my mother, who took every care to keep it clean and hygienic. My father and I entered only to have our lunch and dinner. Previously, when we were in the city, her kitchen had the brilliant appearance of a power station, equipped with electrical apparatus, where she moved like a queen. But now it was different. There was no electricity, though we had already applied for it, and naturally no electrical apparatus. The cooking utensils included a pump-stove, a few dishes, a kerosene lamp, a flat piece of wood to roll breads, and a stick to scare the monkeys, who had a keen knowledge about the purpose of a human kitchen. She had taken to these new arrangements quite sportingly and was inventing ingenious plans every other day to make the place serve better within its limited capacity.
She sat on the mud floor cleaning our two lanterns when I entered the kitchen. Soon after dark it was calm around, and I heard the conches being blown in the air. A candle burnt poignantly, half down, on a jar. I had already been notified once that it was time to do my lessons. I knew the consequences of failing to carry out orders in time. But it was always safe with the mother, safe and free of tension. Looking back, so many years later, I feel she was not a “caring mother,” not so at least in the sense we use the phrase now, for in spite of being highly qualified, she had never bothered to find out about my syllabus. But she was interested in my little discoveries of life. She was interested in everything that I thought or did or proposed to do. Even the silliest of my questions were so important to her that she kept trying to answer them silently, day after day.
As I approached, her hand stopped moving inside the glass chimney, and she looked up, smiling with confidence. “Come, game finished? You are late. Father will scold you.” She left her present occupation to serve me something to eat. “Will you please tell me what really the case was?” “Nothing,” she replied, her voice a little husky but decidedly sure. “Still, something must have happened.” “Nothing I told you, dear. It was just a shadow in my back which I saw and was scared for a moment. I was alone in the house you know.” It was apparent she was lying. She was not the sort of woman to be scared in a lonely house, and that too in the broad daylight. Besides, I noticed that as she told those grand lies with absolute confidence, her eyes were mostly fixed out through the open door, scrutinizing and pursuing something in the dark.
I knew it was useless questioning her now. If she had decided to keep something a secret, no one could squeeze it out of her, except my father, sometimes. Feeling disgusted, I turned to go. “Wait, take the lamp with you.” But perhaps she could not trust me with the burning lamp. She rose, took the lamp herself, and escorted me across the yard. Before returning to the kitchen, she stopped and searched the entire room again with the same apprehensive eyes and said: “Call me if you need anything.” I glanced at my father, who was sitting a hand off, absorbed in his book. “Mother says she saw a shadow,” I whispered, expecting a reply. The reply came, but two minutes later: “Yes.” So he had believed the story. What else could he do? Poor man! Though he viewed life as a heroic venture, all his heroism actually flowed from his wife, and if she was ever absent in the house for a day or two, perhaps staying away with her brother in the town, his valiant campaign against the unavoidable odds of life came to an abrupt stop and he found his vitality weakening. This is how, I am sure, all “Indian fathers” are designed, and my father was no exception. The sooner he could forget the dismal event, the better it was for him, and he was relieved to accept wholeheartedly the barren lies offered to him in explanation.
But I was worried. The shift in the expression of her eyes, the first spell of fear and helplessness stretching to confidence and finally determination, tampered with my concentration, and the doleful chapter of geography I strove to study remained unexplored. It was a dark depressing night. I parted the plastic curtain, straining to see in the starlight, but nothing was clearly visible except the treetops and the fields that surrounded our little abode with silence. Was it really a shadow—or some wicked wind leaving her soul debased, as I had heard them say, because it was soon after midday and she was alone in the house, her hair loose? The spirits always come out soon after the midday hours, and they spare nobody that happens to cause them the slightest disturbance, which is why Motilal, a friendly creature in disguise of a dog, was found lying dead by the pond not even a week before, its body abnormally stiffened and blood streaming from its nose. People touched by the wicked winds also scream and faint, and when they return to consciousness, they refuse to recognize their near and dear ones. Their eyes become strangely inquisitive. They eat nothing. They grow emaciated and die. “Father, it may be some wicked wind, or else . . .” There was no reply for a long time, longer than an age it seemed, and then he said: “It was a shadow.”
That night we had an early call for dinner. My father, as usual, was telling us what he had read. He was offended when he realized we were not listening. He lapsed into silence and ate mechanically. His sad face could only inspire sympathy in the heart of a woman, and it did. My mother rekindled his enthusiasm by wanting to know about the behavior of African lions, and he started at once, with Kenya, where, he said, Jim Corbett had spent the last days of his life and where the great hunter and conservationist first met Princess Elizabeth. He stopped eating as he described those last adventures of a brave man. He was happy that, though late, Jim Corbett had abandoned hunting and taken to photography, presumably because photography brought him closer to his idol, and he continued with his oration long after we had finished our dinner and were waiting for him to be done.
A trouble arose just when we were preparing to go to bed. The mosquito net was missing. We remembered that some local boys had borrowed it with the purpose of fishing and had forgotten to return the invaluable article. So we rubbed some mosquito repellent lotion all over our bodies and went to sleep. As every night, the lantern was kept burning, but its wick up, glowing exceptionally bright from within the cleaned chimney. The dagger was in its place, under the pillow, and the dish and spoon too. My mother and I slept on a camp bed while my father slept on the floor below—on a mat. I slept curled into her body under a common blanket. I liked her smell, a strange one, and a familiar one, and it drowsed me like the sweet fume of poppies. Even while dreaming I was aware of it moving all over me like a sacred spirit. “Keep the wick bit down,” said my father, and my mother replied: “No.” Soon I fell asleep and was dreaming. I was not really dreaming. I was trying to imagine. A band of gypsies! They had been traveling for days. They were tired. There was not a place where they could safely pitch their tents, for they had many things with them—cattle and monkeys and dogs. Then at last they came to a vast field, away from the town, where they pitched their tents. It was a vast field, very vast indeed, almost like a heath. They had very big tents, full of colors and decorations.
“Stay as you are. Move not. I know you are awake. You move and you die.” It was my mother speaking. However, in spite of the warning, I pushed my head out of the blanket at once. “What happened?” “Look at the ceiling,” whispered my mother, and her voice sounded steadier than ever. And what I saw next took my breath out. Just overhead, between two wooden poles that held the tin roof, was a large snake, half down, while the rest of its body was still coiled around one of the poles. It was a hooded one, hissing violently, which meant it was ready to attack. “Move not. Talk not. Just watch what I do.” She flashed the torch on its face and started swaying its focus, left and right—very slowly. The creature had a pair of eyes that seemed ablaze. A minute passed. The game irritated the reptile. Its hissing increased. “Get ready to jump.” Then, suddenly, she took the focus down on the bed, and I jumped off. I have no idea what happened within that twinkling of an eye. The torch fell on the floor. I landed straight on top of my father who woke up shouting, “Dacoit, dacoit!” The battle was over before I had recovered the torch and had time to focus it back on the bed, now spattered with blood. The snake lay cut by the middle in two, the part with the hood yet twisting wrathfully. “Mani, I think it is alive,” said my father. He was stammering. “No, it is dead—gone,” replied my mother, throwing the dagger on the floor.
It was a giant cobra. One touch, and you are dead.
Years have rolled by since. Today’s Boral, thanks to Promoter Raj, hardly looks like a village. My mother too has gone to her well-earned rest. My father is still alive, though he can read books no more—due to retinal detachment. In short, things have changed, but the event is fresh in my memory.
Durjoy Ghosh, born in India in 1981, is a regular contributor to The Statesman, India’s most esteemed English daily. He has also contributed to journals of literature and philosophy in the United States, such as Rock and Sling, Miranda Magazine, Forge, and Pegasus. Ghosh lives with his elderly father in Boral, a village on the outskirts of Calcutta. (5/2009)