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Sunset in the Hills


by Rumjhum Biswas


 

The old woman knelt before the medley of images in the little prayer room. Some were made of brass, some of clay. There was even a papier-mâché lingum. Her gray wisps of hair were still wet. How she managed to bathe at the unearthly hour of 3.30 a.m. was a feat her daughters and later her daughters-in-law had given up marveling at. The mist outside was heavy. Some of it crept inside the house like long tendrils of ether. She finished her prayers quickly with a feeling of guilt. All these years, even when her house had been full — with her children, her husband's myriad needy relatives and the servants — and the parting in her hair proudly was branded with vermilion, she had never ever cut short her twice-daily ritual in her little prayer room. She got up, holding her knee and wincing at the pain in her joint. Her grandson was coming all the way to Shillong from Calcutta just to see her, with his wife and her little great-grandson.

She hurried to the vegetarian kitchen, one of two kitchens in 
the rambling wooden house, where even garlic and onions were banned. The other was the original, larger kitchen, set a little away from the main house but connected to it by a narrow bridge-like corridor. That was where the rest of the family's food used to be cooked. Now there was little use for it. There were only the three of them left, herself and the youngest two of her children -- a daughter, grown into a thirty-four-year-old spinster who preferred the vegetarian meals cooked by her mother, and a twenty-eight-year-old scatter-brain who preferred the company of the Hill people to ordinary Bengali boys his own age.

Every time she thought of those Hill people she sighed -- an old, tired sigh that seemed to escape from deep inside her. It wasn't like this in the old days. Back then there was no hatred between the Hill people and her own. The Hill people's customs were shockingly matriarchal and liberal, but they hadn't resented the bookish Bengalis and their babu ways. They didn't begrudge them their government posts or the slopes where their homes sprang up like so many red-capped mushrooms. Even Kabi Guru Rabindranath Thakur had drawn inspiration for his poetry here! The climate was colder then. Peaches, apricots, plums and pears spread their fragrant blossoms far and hung their fruit low. There was no smoke then either, save for the wood-fed cooking fires curling up from chimneys. 

But all that had changed. Just like her house. Once bustling with people and merry with the laughter of children, her home now bore a tired battered look. The old woman smiled sadly to herself as she cut vegetables, resting her right knee against the bonthi's wooden board while her hands deftly worked against its sharp metal blade. As her mind went back to the past, the voices and laughter of the people she had known and loved wafted in from all corners of the house -- friends, relatives with children of their own. Now they were all either dead or had moved away. Gone from this picturesque little hill town to the cities, scattered all over India. Gone for the promise of a better life, and gone because politics, distrust and hatred had replaced the easy camaraderie between two peoples that her generation had known. Large cauldrons of shining copper and brass were used for cooking then. She remembered the two mild-mannered Nepali boys, who used to lift the heavy vessels, serve the food and keep her kitchen clean. A friend once remarked that having a meal at her house was like eating at a wedding; there were so many dishes and so many people to share them with!

Her sons had often encouraged her to come live with them in Calcutta, Guwahati, even Delhi. But she always refused. At first she gave her unmarried daughter as the excuse, but afterwards she stopped bothering with excuses at all. “It's no use,” she told them. “I can't leave this place. This is my home. This is the house that your father built for us. This town is as much my home as it is to the Hill people. They can't take it away from me. And I don't think they will. We have lived side by side for so long.... No, let me be. This is where I belong.”

She started kneading into balls the boiled and mashed green bananas. Her grandson, granddaughter-in-law and little great-grandson (oh, thank you, Lord, for letting me live long enough!) would be here with her today. The image of her grandson as a baby rose up before her: chubby, sloe-eyed, and always smiling. His little one was sure to look like him. She had only seen her granddaughter-in-law once, at the wedding. A pretty girl, but shorthaired. City bred. Would she like this old place and its old people?

“How time flies,” she thought. The sun was high up in the sky. The mist had vanished. Plump clouds were gathering for another burst of feathery rain. She had finished making the koftas, and the payesh was cooling on the table. They would be here any minute. It was just a three-hour drive from Guwahati. “They should be here any minute now, Shillong is just a three-hour drive away from Guwahati.”

The sound of a car crunching to a halt outside her house interrupted her thoughts. She hurried out. There they were! The little one all rosy and dimpled (just as she had pictured him!) looking around in round-eyed wonder. His mother, uncomfortable in a sari, was settling her face into the right expression for the occasion. Her grandson, getting on the plump side now--his wife must be a good cook, she thought approvingly--was running down the cobbled path and up the white stairs, past the creeping Lipstick Vines and Black-Eyed Susans, to catch her up in his arms.

“Dida! Dida!” he cried, twirling her round and round.

“Put me down, you naughty boy,” she said, laughing. 

Her grandson's wife was catching the mood too.

“I've made your favorite koftas," said the old woman, taking the child into her arms. But he immediately started to bawl.

“He's a little tired and dazed," his mother apologized. "Everything's so new to him.”

They went inside the house. The boy's mother busied herself with the child, coaxing him to suck at his water bottle, adjusting his clothes. But the old woman's grandson was gazing around the house with pleasure, his eyes glowing with memories--memories she shared with him.

“Dida, it looks the same. Only quieter and sort of empty.”

“They've all left for the cities,” the old woman replied. But her grandson was too occupied with the past to catch the sorrow in her voice. He was running about the house now, recalling the years gone by, excitedly pointing out familiar objects to his wife. Each piece of furniture and knickknack had its own story. For the old woman the memories were rushing in now. She sank down into a chair and let them wash over her, greeting them like old friends. Her house was full of people again, just like in the old days. Laughing, squabbling, teasing and complaining.

“Dida, these koftas are the best in the world!” Her grandson still talked with his mouth full, she noted fondly.

“Leave some for me, you hog!” from his wife who was feeling quite at home now.

“Mumm, mumm,” murmured the child possessively clutching his empty milk bottle. He didn't mind sitting on his great grand mother's lap. He had decided it was an experienced lap, though a bit bony. The old woman watched them finish the meal. She watched the young wife and her daughter clear away the table.

“Now you too must eat, Dida.” Her granddaughter-in-law's voice was like a soft caress.

The baby had fallen asleep in her arms. She felt she could hold him all day. But, concerned that their Dida hadn't eaten, the boy's mother took him and laid him down on the old woman's cot. Then they all sat around her in her vegetarian kitchen, chattering away while she herself ate. Her knees bunched under her chin, her thin, almost translucent hand mixing the rice and dal on the bell-metal plate on the floor, she ate with great relish. Her happiness flavored the simple meal with the rich aromas and spices of those long gone days.

They continued to chatter, her grandson, his wife and her daughter, while she lay down on her cot, next to her great-grandson. The baby smelt of powder and milk. He felt soft and warm, just like her children, nephews and nieces before they all grew up.  “How time flies,” the old woman sighed.

The sun was beginning to dip low. The valley was awash in red, gold and mauve. Gray smoke wafted lazily above the pine trees. The birds had begun to descend noisily on their nests.

“Dida?” Softly, afraid to intrude on her thoughts, her grandson touched her hair. “Dida, we have to go now.”

She looked up at him, his face surrounded by the first shadows of the evening. She felt her house beginning to grow empty again. She wanted to say, "Stay awhile. Just for a few days." But the words remained in her heart unspoken. It had been very hard for her when they had first left. But she had learned to live with their absence. They still loved her. This she knew. But they also had their own lives to live. And the cities were where prosperity and security waited.

“Yes, Dadubhai.” She kissed them both on their foreheads. But when the little one caught hold of her finger, she found it hard to stop a tear from falling.

The old woman stood waiting at the gate while the car strained up the steep narrow path leading to the main road. She waved and smiled her wrinkled smile, squinting in the gloaming to still see their faces. Her granddaughter-in-law was quietly wiping her own eyes. Her grandson's face was set in that men-don't-cry grimace she remembered so well. The car jerked forward. The sun slipped out of the sky, pulling down the light with it. And then she couldn't see them anymore.

                                                The End

(C) Rumjhum Biswas








 

                                             

 

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