by Juanita Kakoty
I was the eldest among my siblings and helped Mother take care of the rest of the brood by bathing them, feeding them, cleaning their poop, etc. I even learnt to cook the watery dail and bhaat by the time I was ten years old. Which is why, I think, Mother found a confidante in me. She told me stories from her past while we washed clothes, made the beds, cleaned the house, or sang our prayer together – “Tumi Sitto Britti Muro” – Mother singing from memory and I by following the words in the sacred text, Naamghosha.
“The Tipling High School was established by Gulok Chandra Baruah when we moved to Duliajan,” she told me one day when both of us were alone in the house. Father was away for a few days on work and my siblings were away at my aunt’s for a while. “Our house was right by the Tipling river. Father had a tiff with one of his brothers over land and he stormed out of the ancestral house in Jorhat, taking us with him.”
“How old were you then, Mother?” I asked.
“Hmmm 12 years I guess. I can’t say exactly,” she replied. The year she was born, nothing significant had happened, she said, hence no one remembered it.
Mother put some lentils and tomatoes to boil in a pot; I washed some rice for the two of us; Mother fetched some greens which she had cleaned earlier in the day and stored in a container in the fridge and continued with her story. “I was the eldest and the most hard-working like Ma. Ma used to get up before sunrise and sleep after everybody in the household had gone off to sleep. She would clean the area around the house, give fodder to the cows, feed the ducks and hens, cook food for all of us and the anxious guests who kept coming from father’s village to ask after us. I was the one up and about with Ma from sunrise.” Suddenly her voice became tender. She sniffed. “Ma worked so hard for all of us. And whenever there was fish or meat in the house, she would see to it that father and we got to eat well even if that meant she had to go without any.” A tear rolled down her right eye, which slanted a little more than the other eye, and she cried out softly, “Ma!” She closed her eyes and stayed still for a while, lips pursed as if that would keep the tears from gushing out. I didn’t disturb her. I quietly got up from the low wooden pira where I sat watching her clean the greens, and put the rice to boil on the stove. She got up in a short while and joined me with a bunch of little fish in her clenched hands. Saying move to the side, she deftly removed the hot lid of the pot where the lentils and the tomatoes were boiling with her bare hand and threw the fish into it. She then added the greens, some turmeric and salt and covered the pot once again. Turning to me, she whispered, “You have a beautiful face. Your aunt’s.” I melted and wrapped my arms around her and dug my face into her stomach, soaking in her familiar smells: of the earth, of garlic, of onions, of coriander, of fish, all mixed. “Had I a pretty face too, maybe I wouldn’t have been made to work so hard,” Mother spoke wistfully, “Meera has always been beautiful; she was a gorgeous child. No one made her work. Not even Ma.” My heart pained a little and I tightened my grip around her.
Meera mahi had married well. She was extremely proud of the fact that her husband was the Manager at Assam Company Limited’s Thanai Tea Estate. “Assam Company Limited is the first ever tea company in the world!” she used to boast. “Established in 1839 by the British Parliament,” she used to stress, head held high and a bun held even higher by a pencil. “And not only that. It is also the first company in the world to establish tea gardens and export tea!” Whenever Mother met her, she would mention at least once “What privilege it is to be in Tea! Such benefits! Such prestige!”
It was lovely visiting the petite Meera mahi though whom elegance escorted like a loyal companion. Whenever we went to our maternal and paternal grandparents’ towns in upper Assam, we also stayed with Meera mahi at Thanai for a few days. A beautiful two-storied wooden bungalow it was from the colonial times. And the guest room was huge with two large beds, a parlor and attached bath all done in blue: Blue upholstery, blue bed sheets, blue carpets and rugs, all of which created a blue glow inside the room. We called it the “Blue Room”.
Meera mahi loved Mother dearly. She always brought presents for her from tours she took across the country with her husband. Lovely pochampalli ikat sarees and kalamkari sarees from Andhra Pradesh, kantha sarees from Bengal, kani shawls from Kashmir. Yet she never failed to convey softly and subtly how unsophisticated Mother was. Whatever Mother made or did, it never escaped Meera mahi’s critical eye. The dahi vada was too sweet, the masor tenga was too sour, the fish chorchori was unpalatable due to a tad bit stronger mustard that Mother had used, the table cloth that Mother stitched exhibited clumsy hemming, the new mekhela chadar Mother wore was a little tacky etc. etc. But when Mother actually turned up something flawless, Meera mahi stayed quiet.
But Mother had her own way of getting back. Like the time Meera mahi forgot to add sugar to the absolutely stunning looking caramel custard that came out of her kitchen. “Meera, you seem to have forgotten the sugar. Please put this dish away, it is as good as a plastic fruit now,” her husband, in his typical upright manner, had said. Mother savoured a little delight in her heart that quite reflected in her eyes. Later when we retired to the Blue Room for the night, Mother sniggered and whispered to me, “The Goddess has been shown her place! The next time she tells me something I cooked has less salt, more salt, is overcooked, less cooked, I’ll remind her of this diabetes-friendly caramel custard that she made today on her daughter’s birthday!”
The next morning, at the breakfast table, Mother and Meera mahi spent quite a few hours talking about their “good old childhood days” over several cups of sugarless black tea.
Mother had four brothers: Baba mama, Babu mama, Bhaity mama and Tuklu mama; all younger to her and elder to Meera mahi. Baba mama did not make it beyond the eighth standard in school. So did Babu mama. They were more interested in playing football in the field outside their school than in their textbooks. Grandfather opened a grocery store for them in Gulok Chandra Baruah’s Tipling Market, close to the Tipling High School he had established in Duliajan. Tuklu mama went on to do his Bachelor’s in Assamese literature from B. Barooah College in Guwahati and after a few years of struggle finally landed himself a job as a translator with the newly established Guwahati Doordarshan in the 1980s. It was Bhaity mama who was destined to be the blue-eyed boy of the family. He made it to the first batch of civil engineering at Jorhat Engineering College, and went on to retire as Chief Engineer in the Assam state department of irrigation. He secured a wife from the legendary Jyoti Prasad Agarwala’s family, with whom my Mother and Meera mahi were very impressed. “She comes from such an illustrious family but look at how humble she is,” they never failed to mention this to people they knew. “The doyen of Assamese culture and literature is a grandfather from her mother’s side yet how humble she is. Pedigree sure does matter!”
It was in the early Nineties, when everybody was sure that the Guwahati Doordarshan job was security enough for marriage, the rapidly balding and ageing Tuklu mama caused a worry in the family and everyone desperately sought him a wife. After many failed attempts and Tuklu mama’s vapid rejections because someone was fat, someone was thin, someone’s voice was too rough or the nose much longer than the face, Meera mahi finally found someone whom he couldn’t reject. Although when I first saw her, I thought what could it possibly have been that made him not to reject her like the others? Anyway, this woman was Meera mahi’s mother-in-law’s sister’s husband’s niece from a second cousin. “A simple girl from an average family,” Meera mahi told grandmother while proposing her name as a bride for Tuklu mama. The wedding soon took place. Mother took me and my sister to grandmother’s place at Duliajan at least fifteen days before the ceremony. Meera mahi came a week later and Bhaity mama and his family arrived about five days after. Everybody came with gifts. Meera mahi had brought along two beautiful Pat silk mekhela chadars for the bride to be gifted during the jurun ceremony and a Pat silk kurta with fine gold embroidery for the groom to wear during the wedding ceremony. Bhaity mama said that he would bear the entire expenses of food to be served at the wedding. Baba mama and Babu mama promised to chip in for the bride’s jewelry, after all not much of her own jewelry was left with grandmother who had given chunks of it away to all her married children at the time of their weddings. Mother had hand-embroidered a bed sheet with pillow cases and carried it with her as gifts for the couple.
On the day of the jurun, with sunrise, about thirty women and little boys and girls left for the bride’s place at the outskirts of Nagaon, about nine hours by road from Duliajan. There was a mini bus that carried all of us. On the way, the jurun party halted at Bokakhat for breakfast – puri, potato sabji and the mouth-watering green chilly pickle. We reached the bride’s place by afternoon. A little red and white canopy on bamboo poles was put up in the paltry space outside the house. Women and girls, about fifty of them, stood at the bamboo sliding gate singing biya naam, wedding songs. We got out of the mini bus and waited at the gate for the bride’s old mother to arrive to welcome us. She arrived, rickety and bent with age, a bota of betel leaves and areca nuts in her hands, nervous as if she were the bride herself. Behind her stood the bride’s eight elder sisters.
Under the canopy, about ten ladies from the jurun party settled down at the mattress in front of the morol, a beautiful pattern made on a mound of mud with rice and turmeric powder. As we looked at the women around us and somebody went in to fetch the bride, Meera mahi whispered into Mother’s ears, “No class!” Mother emitted an embarrassed expression as though that remark was meant for her.
Tuklu mama’s bride was brought over to the morol in, what Meera mahi, Mother and my other aunts discussed once they were back on the road to Duliajan, an old mekhela chadar. “We understand they are, you know, not much endowed but still, they could have got her a new mekhela chadar for the jurun at least,” they talked in the mini bus.
“Did you see the glint in their eyes when we presented the bride with the jurun! They were stunned at the sight of all those mekhela chadars, jewelry, the big fat fish, coconuts, sweets, cosmetics!”
“And what did they serve us? Some luci, bhaji and dail! We have come from so far, they could have at least arranged for our lunch. If nothing else, at least some rice and fish!”
“Meera, really, they should have thought about your reputation at least! They are after all from your husband’s family.”
“No, no,” Meera mahi swiftly pointed out, “They are not from my husband’s family as such. Some long distance relatives merely! I was only thinking of doing them some good when I thought of her for my brother.”
Three days after, the whole scene repeated again. This time round, about fifty odd people were carried on a mini bus and some five-six cars from Duliajan to the outskirts of Nagaon for the wedding. The convoy left in the afternoon and reached the venue close to midnight. The whole journey, people were singing in the bus. I slept off even before we were out of Duliajan, kept sleeping throughout the wedding, and was still sleeping when the party reached Duliajan the next afternoon with the bride. It was only then that I saw Tuklu mama’s wife properly. She looked like a young girl, small and sickly, the red lipstick standing out on a pale face with dark frightened eyes. I smiled at her; she didn’t smile back.
The war soon commenced. Meera mahi left a few days after the wedding. So did everyone else. Mother stayed back with us for ten more days for Father, who couldn’t make it to the wedding, to come and fetch us. And in those days, Mother collected enough dough to irk Meera mahi: About how the bride had washed her wedding mekhela chadar, gifted to her in the jurun, one morning with dhela saboon, the coarsest of soaps, and tore the silk in many places. “Daughter-in-law, you never wash silk mekhela chadars, you clean them with a moist cloth and air them,” grandmother told her when she saw what had happened. To this the bride replied arrogantly in her squeaky voice, “Who bought me these mekhela chadars?”
“I have seen women in my family wash silk mekhela chadars and they have stayed as good as new over all these years. Had I been given good ones at the wedding, this would have never happened!”
Grandmother was taken aback. She couldn’t utter a word. Nobody had spoken to her like this before, except perhaps her own mother-in-law and sisters-in-law. When Meera mahi heard of this, she vowed never to gift anything again to that “ungrateful and uncouth bitch”.
Baba mama’s wife, being the eldest daughter-in-law of the family, exercised much clout in the household. But whenever she asked Tuklu mama’s wife to make tea or gather some vegetables from the backyard or prepare the cow’s fodder, the younger woman came up with a headache. All day she lay in her bed but ate well whatever was being served by the two other daughters-in-law. She paid no heed to grandmother as well and called her “Mahideo, aunt” instead of “Ai, mother”.
The day Father arrived, Tuklu mama’s wife had just come out of the bathroom, a gamusa around her head holding her wet hair in a bun at the nape of her neck, a few stray flicks over her face, a tin bucket of clothes in her hand. Dressed in a red blouse, muga mekhela and white chadar with red motifs, she was cutting across the courtyard in front of the kitchen to go round the house towards the clothesline. Her skin dazzled in the sun rays. I startled; she is pretty, I thought. Father, who had gone out for a smoke, was making his way to the kitchen through this very route and bumped into her right in front of the kitchen verandah. “Why, you are a handsome man!” teased Tuklu mama’s wife. Father looked at her stunned and then smiled, as if pleased with himself. From the kitchen verandah, all of us, Mother and my two other aunts, saw this. “He is your eldest sister-in-law’s husband, girl!” Mother shouted out, her fingers momentarily letting go of the raw bananas she was slicing for lunch. “So? That doesn’t stop him from being handsome, does it?” Tuklu mama’s wife threw a naughty glance at Mother and sprinted away giggling. Later when Mother recounted this story to Meera mahi, she swore she could have “killed the slut for her audacity, flirting with my husband right under my very nose!”
A few days later, Babu mama’s wife was working on the handloom by the kitchen verandah. Tuklu mama’ wife came sashaying in with a bottle of nail paint in her hand and planted herself on the floor next to the loom. On learning that Babu mama’s wife was preparing a chadar for Meera mahi’s mother-in-law, she lectured the elder daughter-in-law about how this was insulting because Babu mama was elder to Meera mahi and that such indulgence was akin to servantship.
When Babu mama’s wife narrated all this to Mother and Baba mama’s wife, waves traveled far and affected Meera mahi outrageously. Grandmother was very unhappy with the young bride too. Luckily though, Tuklu mama’s one-month leave, which he had taken for his wedding, was over and he soon left for Guwahati with his wife. In Guwahati, they lived quite close to our house. But we hardly saw each other; once in every five-six months maybe. It was not just us; Tuklu mama had slowly distanced himself from the rest of the family as well. We now got to see him and his wife only at weddings and funerals. This made grandmother’s health to deteriorate. Her son’s disappearance caused her a major heartbreak; but she was more troubled by the questions people raised. She was running out of excuses for Tuklu mama’s behavior, but the people around kept persisting, kept asking her why he was shunning the family, and kept giving advices on how to get him back. Finally, after more than a decade, she began admitting to all what an ungrateful son she had given birth to and what a shameless creature she had got him married to. Days passed thus till the time a stroke rendered her partially paralysed, confining her to the bed, where she lay peeing and crapping in a pot that was kept under the bed.
All day long she just lied there talking to those who came to see her or talking to herself when there was nobody to give her company. She was losing her mind too. She now talked about grandfather, who was long dead, as if he was alive but away. “He has gone to spend some time with our youngest daughter Meera, his favorite, at the tea estate. You know my son-in-law is a senior manager there?” And if a naughty child asked when he was returning, grandmother would look confused and ask, “Who?” She increasingly failed to recognize people, especially her eldest daughter-in-law, Baba mama’s wife, who was the only daughter-in-law who now stayed in the same house since Babu mama’s wife died a few years ago complaining of a severe headache. Baba mama’s wife now took care of everything, even washing and cleaning grandmother when she soiled herself; yet grandmother often asked her, “Who are you? Who let you in?” quite rudely. Amongst the other two daughters-in-law, Bhaity mama’s wife came along with him twice a year. She would then sit by grandmother, for as long as she was there, feed grandmother the food cooked by Baba mama’s wife and talk to her about this and that although they never stayed on the same plane. “I met your sister’s granddaughter the other day, Ai,” Bhaity mama’s wife would say, sitting by a cane chair next to her bed on top of which the mosquito net remained suspended, to be pulled down at night. “Are you my childhood friend Leela?” grandmother would respond.
“She sends you greetings,” Bhaity mama’s wife would continue.
“Don’t you remember the time when we were little girls and crapped in our pants behind that crooked face Borbaruah’s granary?” grandmother would giggle and carry the conversation forward.
But at least Bhaity mama’s wife came to see her. Mother and Meera mahi went to see her every once in a while. It was Tuklu mama’s wife who never came; nor did Tuklu mama. And the day grandmother died, the couple came for a few days and everyone noticed how Tuklu mama’s wife laughed loudly and chatted gaily in the midst of people who came to pay obeisance.