Gaurav Deka is Delhi based writer and psychotherapist. His fictions, poetry and reviews have been published in the Papercuts journal, Himal Southasian, The Tenement Block Review, Café Dissensus, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Bombay Review, Anti-Serious, DNA-Out of Print, Northeast Review, and The Solstice Initiative, among others. His fiction “To Whom He Wrote From Berlin” won The Open Road Review Short Fiction Contest, 2014.
Her heart, that day, flipped open and the whole world came cascading down into it in one massive wave. Hearing the news she licked her lips, coughed and twitched for a moment trying to find her voice from somewhere inside. When she couldn’t, with the phone going mute at the other end, she felt something silent exploding inside her. On the line was Syiem, her journalist friend. The bridge had given away and the car had shot forth into the air, he said. It fell straight into a gorge near Laitmukrah, and descended to the bottom of the spring in it. The rescue team that came after an hour used a giant crane to pull the Ambassador out of the water. The body didn’t have a single scratch on it – the window-glass were intact, the tyres smooth and unperforated, and the fuel tank unbroken. They couldn’t find Abhilash, her husband. The body, as they said, was missing. The son however was safe. And breathing.
On the evening of her husband’s funeral, Shunita retired early. People, who came, only talked about how miserable her life would be now. How’d she manage with a child in a place like Shillong. After all, it is too lonely a place to be able to grieve. She didn’t listen to them. Instead she went to her room and started packing her clothes. Everything could be stuffed into one single suitcase. After finishing she sat down on her bed and took out a photo-frame from inside the almirah nearby. It was one from her wedding album. Abhilash always looked younger than her in all of them. She didn’t look at it. She didn’t want to. But she opened the suitcase and tucked it between her clothes. No, she could not wait for her son, she thought. It would be unbearable to wait any longer. The doctors had said that he was to be at the hospital for a week more. Syiem had agreed to take him to Jorhat once he was discharged. When he was first admitted, his lungs were full of water and in his jammed fist he had his father’s trident key-ring. She didn’t know if he was any better now. She didn’t want to know. She did not want to visit him at the hospital. She didn’t care if he died or disappeared like his father. Everything felt like a nightmare and Surjyo, her son, was the portal to it.
In the winters of November the night draped itself in mist and the hills rolled themselves to the clouds. One could imagine climbing up through them straight to the heavens. Jorhat and Shillong felt like similar towns in the eighties. Shunita didn’t have to bear the odd unfamiliarity of migration. Having spent her life in boarding, away from home, she had not tried to seek meaning in it. Home was just another place where one could be. And meeting Abhilash helped consolidate her belief. It was Shillong and going anywhere else didn’t matter the least. Life was quaint and simple. Not too many spoke Bengali there. That was the only thing she missed. Maybe in places like Haflong and Lumding people did, and some of them were migrants too. People were crossing over and assimilating with the locals. Near Sohra some migrants did cross over. But they did not come down far to the main-town to reside.
Abhilash worked in Sohra at the Meteorological Bureau and in the months when it rained incessantly, Shunita had to stay alone. The roads turned hostile and treacherous those days. A month later when he returned and found his eight-year-old son stricken with violent seizures, alone with his helpless mother, he could no longer cover it up. After reaching the hospital while the child was being diagnosed with pneumonia, he confessed to Shunita, how he had fallen in love with the daughter of a migrant rock-cutter in Sohra. He told her why he could not come home often. The girl had carried his child. It was stillborn and he could not leave her then. Shunita listened to him silently framing the questions in her mind like a child planning on his next algebra sum. She would solve it the next morning. Home was near but to return she needed her hours. She asked her husband to carry the child home and take the car. She would spend some time with Syiem, at the Shillong Times office; he would drop her. At the office she waited for Syiem to return but tonight he’d be late. He called an hour later. The receptionist muttered a feeble ‘yes’ and handed her the phone. Shunita listened to him describe the incident, stiff as an arrow. She didn’t break down but kept the receiver back silently and walked out into the rain carrying the blazing embers of her heart. A month later she was to come back to her brother in Jorhat.
Pronobesh Ganguly owned a large tea-estate near Titabor in Jorhat. People called him ‘Brown Sahib’ behind his back for his affected accent. They could not understand both his Assamese and Bengali. The workers however were in perfect awareness of his tyranny. He would not lose a chance to whip a labourer while he walked around the gardens. He did not even spare women. There were rumours of rape against him. They even said that he had gunned down two labourers once, who had allegedly stolen tea leaves. Pronobesh Ganguly never got married. When his widowed sister with her son returned back to stay with him, he seemed to become controlled. His rage began to dissipate, though sporadically sparks were to be seen when someone tried to speak over him or came late to work. Surjyo was asked to call him Poltu-Mama. He was the only person in front of whom Pronobesh Ganguly smiled. Surjyo didn’t admire or detest him. He had his own life stemmed away from his mother, who seemed to grow colder day by day. She came to be known as the ‘Memsahib’ and silent, but crueler than ‘Brown Sahib’. Abhilash’s betrayal had poisoned her incurably. His death only reminded her of his cowardice. She only felt a terrible need to rebel and feed her hostile heart. Nothing more than that. Even when her son was away in Guwahati failing his exams, doping and wasting, she did not bother to visit him for once or write to him.
Near Danish Road, he smoked his regular three tier Classic-Milds and roamed listlessly like a dog drugged under the summer sun. At Bharali’s tyre shop the air smelt of burnt distemper. He liked smoking up there. Inside, a bed had been kept by the owner where Surjyo rolled his joints and slept till eight in the evening. He paid Rs. 20 to one of the boys and left as the mayflies flapped against the sulphur lamps, to death. The next day he came again and pressed himself to the same bedsheet, breaking his body into its creases. The smell felt overpowering the next day, every day. The Rs. 20 was given so that they didn’t change the bedsheet when he returned and abandon the room the way he had left it. It brought back snatches of a journey he didn’t know when he had been to.
Somewhere on the way to Shillong, it rains and the road turns red-laterite. Surjyo has his head on the lap of a man. He is a fish in its dream, eyes wide open. With his stubby thumb he keeps drawing along the creases of the man’s trousers discovering how space curves in time. The rain beats away with a convulsive madness. The air is ablaze with thick shrouds of the electrocuted sky and the smell of pine is persistent even on the rubber back-seats on which both lie. The car stops outside a hotel and Surjyo walks out, the rain whipping sharp on his back. He slips into a chair and the man follows him. He has a key-ring dangling from one of his fingers. Surjyo looks at it trying to remember its origin in this dream. Somewhere, the wind breaks wild, splitting the silence hung over the hillscape and Surjyo wonders how far it might be to the secret tunnel in the mountains. The man traces near, pulls out his sweater and flips it on the floor. He holds Surjyo’s face in the folds of his palm – the key still dangling – and brings his mouth closer. Surjyo feels a mild sun pressing against him, warm and damp. Its moistness runs beneath his skin; he cannot help but think of the rain washed roads snaking and swerving to Sohra in dark turns. It must be somewhere there in the hills, he thinks, the tunnel through which people cross over. Reality and imagination juxtaposed – the key ring dangling, its coldness steel like against the moistness of the mouth; the roots of the pines and willows outside wounding into the entwining spaces of his fingers and threads of mist being wreathed into the dim walls of the room. All inside his clogged mind. At eight Surjyo woke up and remembered none of it. Except that he had once fallen from the mountains with a similar man, and had come back from the dead.
The following summer Surjyo failed in his final year in Cotton and was called back by Shunita. The tea gardens needed looking after and she, ‘Memsahib’, felt that her brother was growing old. People were falling short and the labourers were leaving. She had written to Surjyo: how their lands had been encroached upon by the Bangladeshis. She was disturbed. It was time for her son to return. And he too came back without a word. Guwahati was as much a piece of his disjointed memory that his knowledge could forsake as much as Jorhat, when he had last left. He was given a cabin beside Poltu-Mama, where he was to learn the papers as well the peoples’ faces. Their familiarity was to be committed with precision, the lines near the nose and on the forehead studied, and the colour of their skin and eyes were to be differentiated without failure. Surjyo did whatever little he could and ventured out in the evenings to the cane-cutter’s house. Akhtar, his old friend. Five years back he had learned to roll his first joints from Akhtar. Like an insect scuttling along the riffs of a dry leaf, Akhtar had rolled countless joints for Surjyo. It was an art. Origami. Little universes folding unfolding unto themselves and fading through a glowing dot, into the light of dusk.
“Ki? Still haven’t learned it the right way,” he mocked at Surjyo seeing him rolling the paper slowly, fingers trembling in withdrawal. He hadn’t smoked for a month since he left Guwahati.
“Naa re Kaku, these fucking fingers don’t let me. How come you’re still sober? Wait, you’re sixty-five, right!”
Akhtar laughed with his gums sticking out, his teeth the colour of coal; infested with the darkness of the world. In the spasms of his laughter Surjyo for a moment imagined a tumour bursting inside his mouth. It must be hurting now, with four full joints up his head. The sour smell of dried bamboo floating in the air, added to his dizziness. When he woke up it was pitch dark and Akhtar lay naked on the mud-beaten floor, his gamcha looped around his neck. Surjyo looked at him for some time, thinking if the tumour had ultimately burst itself and walked out, intoxicated. At nine the town slumbered into silence and only the fireflies could be seen floating like pin-pricks of light guiding Surjyo back to his bungalow.
“Back from the mia-party?” Shunita screamed at him that evening. “Mixing with Lungi wearing scum? Don’t you have any shame left?” Surjyo tried to say something but his tongue slurred at every silent attempt. He slipped into his room and without a word lost himself in an old dream: It rains in Sohra. He squats down on a slippery ridge, green with moss and gazes ahead, far away, at what looks like an avalanche of rocks gashing through the rain. Sinking into a spring below, splashing long arcs of water. It leaves a hole in the mountain from where the rocks have fallen. Wide and gaping. He squints an eye – the rain lifts up – and tries to locate a trail of people trudging ahead, through the tunnel; each of them hunched under the weight of long, heavy frames on their shoulders. He moves forward on his knees, palms flat on cold pebbles – digging into his thrill. Are they the rock-cutters? He thinks in his dream. His feet snags into one of the sharp, mossy stone and he’s about to fall. Someone pulls him from behind and suddenly a curtain of mist rolls down. He can only see the person’s hand, and a familiar tide ebbs below his navel. The man has the key-ring wound around his fingers. Surjyo in his arms now, points his finger at the troop of hunched-people and asks: Are they the rock-cutters? They man draws him close to his chest and Surjyo can feel the sharp smell of burnt-diesel near his neck. It arouses him. He knows he is about to wake up, knows that it’s a dream. Yet he awaits the man to tell him what he wants to, as if to continue dreaming is now only a conscious choice. ‘It’s an exodus,’ whispers the man, breathing heavily into his ears, ‘They have crossed the mountains.’ Surjyo opens his eyes. It isn’t morning yet.
When he finally climbed out of his bed, still heady and inebriated, he searched for Shunita in the house. Though she had been cold and unreachable throughout his life, yesterday’s was the first time she had hollered at him. In any case she had let him his ways all these years; even when he failed and mindlessly loafered around like a wastrel. But something about last night made him feel guilty, only for the simple fact that as a child he had never been reprimanded, nor asked to follow the whims of his mother. If not anything, he thought, maybe anger for now could be the only expulsion by which she could fill the gap. He wanted to apologize to her. A plain ‘sorry’, nothing overtly sentimental. But she was nowhere to be found.
He entered her room, and found that it smelled of spirit. It had been re-painted two days back. He sat there, on her bed, sniffing the air. It reminded him of the scent of burnt-diesel from his dream. He sat there rubbing his own neck and staring into the freshly painted white wall. The broken glass-paned almirah from his childhood stood beside him like an ancient obedient servant, growing mouldy in its decade old spot. The wood was coming out of the body like melted fish-bones. The photoframes inside weren’t touched for years. Abhilash’s yellowed smiling face in one of those made Surjyo wince for a moment. The faint memory of his father felt solid for a second. Felt like a slow thick wave the way he had felt in his dreams. Time and space stalled and the world swirled past in flashes – a white ambassador tumbling down a cliff, icy waves spraying into the sky, pieces of glass glinting under water, a man, a face, a hand, a key-ring. As the images merged into a grotesque chiaroscuro blinding him in a haze, Surjyo grappled to break free. He closed his eyes and shook his head violently, pressed his ears and let out a shrill cry. Shunita came running from somewhere. She had been busy with the morning Puja. She stood by the door waiting for him to calm down and tell her what had happened. Surjyo didn’t notice his mother but careened past her out of the room still shaking his head, swearing under his breath. Shunita kept calling his name from behind but he didn’t turn back. All the words he’d thought, he would tell his mother in apology by now had evaporated from his head and replaced by the delirious things from his dreams.
He hurriedly changed into his working clothes and paced towards the gardens. Pronobesh Ganguly saw him prancing his way through the bushes and thought some early morning withdrawal must have struck him. He was aware of Surjyo’s habits. Many a times, when Surjyo was a child, Ganguly had reprimanded Shunita for letting him mix with the coolies. One evening during Bihu, when he was around twelve, Surjyo went with a group of labour-women to play the dhol while they danced Jhumur in the courtyards of the nearby houses. When they entered the Mazumdar’s and started performing in their patio, Mrs. Mazumdar saw him beating the drum with an untamed vigour, sweating and shaking all over. She immediately informed her husband who inturn called up Ganguly and gave him the shock of his life. Both husband and wife were professors at the Agriculture University. Their daughter, Jaya, studied with Surjyo in Carmel School. She peeped through her window and looked at the thumping women, cavorting around Surjyo. It must have had such a bad impression on her, exclaimed her father to Ganguly.
When he told Shunita about it she didn’t bother to heed. All she said that it didn’t matter when the boy had the face of his father. He was bound to be like him. Pronobesh Ganguly was sure that Surjyo would soon be out of hands, but for some time he could certainly delay it. The next morning, Ganguly summoned the group of labourers, marching his way to the gardens with a whip in his hands. He lashed out obscenities at them, declared their wages to be deducted. Finally he left with the warning that whoever tried to misguide Surjyo would be thrown out of the gardens or worse, handed over to the police. A resounding thwack of his whip followed and ripped the air that seemed to suck the colour of the faces behind him. Later that evening he told his sister that the boy should be sent to Guwahati as soon as possible. She asked him to do whatever he felt necessary and not bother her. After his tenth, Surjyo was sent to study in Cotton College, Guwahati.
By the end of the summers when the air turned dry and the gardens quieter than usual, the labourers left early. They could be seen huddled up every evening around their huts and burned waste woods to warm themselves up. At night the temperature dropped down to as below as nine degrees. Surjyo spent most of his time in Akhtar’s mud hut. On certain nights when he didn’t return, Shunita didn’t ask him where he went. She had even requested her brother not to try and explain him or device ways of bringing him back on track. It was useless as she said. “Didn’t I tell you he has his father’s face?” she felt tired explaining it to her brother. “Things rub on, Dada. Certain things cannot be ridden off. Blood leaves its mark. I’d told you years back, remember.” The resentment of his mother wasn’t hidden from Surjyo. It showed in the house, in its breathless huge walls, it showed in the smoky stillness of her indifference every time he walked past her into his room. He gave up on mending ways with his mother. The distance didn’t disturb him now that he had begun to develop other interests. Nights at Akhtar’s were followed by days waiting by the gates of the Botany Department at the Agriculture University.
Jaya Mazumdar hadn’t forgotten Surjyo. While with her friends, one day, by the bank of the Bhogdoi, she had seen Surjyo smoking up, stretching himself on a still boat moored on the sands. He’d sat up immediately seeing her pass with a furtive smile. Had followed her to her house and when she had asked him what he wanted he’d walked away without an answer. Jaya saw him everyday waiting outside the university and let him follow her silently till she reached home. Three weeks went by. Soon they were holding hands and walking together. They only talked of the weather when the sky changed colours and of plants when they passed the scattered, indigenous tree copses on their way; sometimes a kodom or a hollong. Jaya enjoyed the remaining silence swelling between them. She could sadly speak of nothing but plants to him. She didn’t know how people talked of things they didn’t love. Back in Carmel when they studied together, Surjyo used to bring her a Joba flower everyday and stick it in her hair. She hadn’t forgotten it. They had spent countless afternoons sitting below the krishnachuras, growing in thick groves, in the small plateau behind the school. She had loved his cold silence then. She wondered whether he remembered. The day he had followed her, when she had stopped him by the gate and asked him what he wanted, she expected him to remind her of those days, those afternoons, the joba flowers and the krisnachuras. But that day Surjyo had looked new and dark. So, she thought of keeping it to herself.
The day they made love, Jaya feigned a headache and stayed back home, while her parents left in the morning. Surjyo, as usual, had spent the night at Akhtar’s and woken up toking on his first joint of the day; that could help him ease his reins for the task. When Jaya opened the door, she felt the stony smell of weed and bamboo on him. In bed, she loved the rawness of his breath on her. It reminded her of the long wild shrubs fringing along the banks of the Bhogdoi, where she had first met him after so many years. After an hour of desperate moans and gasps broken occasionally by the cawing of the crows outside, when Surjyo turned sluggish in his moves, Jaya understood the affect of the drug in his head dying. Tired, he fell asleep as Jaya cajoled him; his powdery hair scattered darkly on her breasts.
There is a yellow signboard outside his window overlooking the mountains – 7 km to Sohra. He is sitting inside a small wooden house and looking at a storm gathering up ahead. There is a child sleeping beside on the damp brown floor, whom he recollects has been left by a man he knows. Surjyo remembers sitting there, the man telling him how he had left his wife for him, but couldn’t leave the child. He must take care of the child. Clouds loom ahead, over the mountains. It is going to rain. He can hear a car pulling outside, the squeal of brakes, someone slamming the door and getting down. He can hear the light, metallic clinking of a key-ring drawing close. He has an urge to run to the door and see the person’s face. But he cannot leave the child. He must wait. He can hear each clink is in tandem with his heartbeat. Steady and exact. The clouds outside have melted and a thick curtain of rain has veiled the mountains. He cannot see them any longer from his window. A musty mildewy odour fills the room that seems to drug him. His head feels heavy and the clinking is clearer now, nearer and in a flash replaced by violent, hammering blows on the door of the house. Surjyo has an impulse to run to the door but he notices his legs being tied to a thick, bloody rope that coils into the navel of the child. The sight of it racks him to breathless spasms. The blows grow louder and rapid; and before the door breaks, he jumps back to life beside Jaya’s naked frame.
Surjyo didn’t stay longer after he woke up. Jaya too didn’t insist, for her mother had called up: she’d be home early. She bid him goodbye standing by the door, waiting to see him soon and without the knowledge of where he’d head to.
Dusk came disrobing into shadows as Surjyo walked up to the gardens. He had his quota for the night to suffice him, wrapped carefully in a polythene inside his pocket. The dream had made him tired. He bowed as he walked, an invisible beast on his back; and felt a certain numbness below his feet. He wanted to sleep peacefully; without rains and nightmares. For once he thought of Shillong – It isn’t too far. I just need to take a morning bus – and the next thought that followed was his father’s. He had snatches of the memory from his dream he was struggling to revive, yet nothing seemed to come full circle. The very thought of connecting the dots made him uncomfortable for some reason. No, I cannot go to Shillong, he thought. The little remaining sanity would be lost. As the thoughts rose, spreading up to the surface of his brain, he sat there clutching his head, on the wet, brown soil, amidst the tea bushes. Shivered and broke into a cold sweat. He sat there breathing heavily the sharp malty scent of tea leaves. It made him dizzy like the mildewy vapours in his dream. Suddenly he heard voices – a crowd bellowing with rage, ugly howls and abuses. Slowly as he held on to a tree branch and stood up, he saw large groups of labourers, men and women, with rods, machetes and fire-torches marching towards the bungalow where Poltu-Mama and his mother lived. He could not understand what was happening. He wanted to run into the house and tell his mother about it but he wouldn’t make it. He had heard of a similar incident in Tinsukia, from Akhtar, where the owner and his wife were burnt down by the labourers. He had told him about the deplorable state of tea gardens in Assam and its workers: “We are going to witness more murders, you see. Shitty lives, shitty wages, shitty labour laws. What d’you expect? And then they blame us hounding them and encroaching their lands. Ridiculous! Bangladeshis aren’t the real dogs, Babu. It’s your own people.” As Surjyo recollected Akhtar’s fiery words, he saw the mob surrounding the entire bungalow and breaking the chairs and tables outside with big iron-rods. Around ten to twelve other men started clobbering down on the Fiat outside, that belonged to Poltu-Mama. The dull cracking thuds were followed by the sound of breaking glass and then something whammed loudly. A wild explosion, the next moment he saw the house going up in flames. They leaped up like swarms of hungry snakes, rolling into the sky in loops of woody brown smoke. A ringing sound rippled through the air and blocked his ears. He wanted to think of Shunita and her burning frame, her silent bony face charred into ashes, Poltu-Mama’s portly legs melting like wax in the heat; wanted to think of the damage and the despair that would follow, the loss, the void; wanted to think of fear and sadness and death. Yet the only thought that came to him was his father’s yellowed photoframe in the old almirah surrounded by sheets of fire. It nauseated him, the thought, and the inability to think of his mother burning and crying bore into him like a constriction that he failed to arrest. Something rose up to his throat and before he could hold it, it shot up and knocked him down. Surjyo fell into the bushes. The sound of a thousand feet thumping back towards him, but he can only hear a light metallic jingle. The clinking of a key-ring. It rains in Sohra.
Illustration: Subhadeep De