The Debt

by Kritika Chettri

Lina kept searching for coins everywhere. On the way to school, the neighbourhood playground, the Samaj mandir, the pockets of her father’s pants.

Three rupees at last!

Now she could pay the debt so Warling golai ko boju can open her shop again.

Warling golai was the sharp bend in the road that took you to Dubin Dara- the famous tourist spot. The road diverged here and made its way into the busty where Lina lived. This passage before the busty was shrouded in misty darkness. Towering trees on either side of the road. No habitation in sight. Just a huge forest bungalow sitting high above the road, moss moving up its walls, owning this entire stretch. It was a much feared passage, especially during the monsoon. Only last year the dhobi’s wife had been hit by a tree. Brutal death!

This year Lina had been admitted in the second standard in the big government school across town. She was terrified of this passage. On the first day, her father came along till the golai. Then he asked those senior girls heading down from Durbin Dara to take her with them. On the way back, she couldn’t find those girls anywhere. Everyone looked the same in those school uniforms. Walking alone, she saw them a little ahead and followed them till the golai. Now there was no one to follow and it was beginning to drizzle. The passage looked like the one in those scary jungle stories which terrified her little brother. Standing under the shelter of the small tin shop she heard the old woman inside say-

“Do you want some alu thukpa or phambi, little girl?”

There was two rupees carefully hidden inside the pencil box.

Alu thukpa for two rupees”

It came wrapped in a leaf. By the time she polished off the leaf, the drizzle had also stopped. She ran all the way home. Early morning the boju would be washing  the alu thukpa vessels below the dhara at one corner of the golai.

“School?” she asked with a smile trying to break through the wrinkles.

“Yes. Waiting for those Durbin Dara girls”.

It became a routine. Alu thukpa for two rupees or phambi for one. Sometimes she ate along the way gasping for breath. The chilli paste was too hot! Forgetting all about the misty darkness, her own scary stories.

But it was getting difficult to find coins about the house. Her father’s customers were being won over by the milk that came in a van, all the way from 16th mile. He had been mixing a bucket of milk with full bucket water. It was his monopoly afterall. There was no other milkman in the neighbourhood. It was impossible to improve the quality now. Daana and hay were only getting more expensive and every other grass-cutting gara was slapped with a new house. It would be a good idea to sell those cows and buy chicken. Except for the swine flu that hit every couple of years, poultry was the new lucrative business. He was hoarding every pie for those chickens.

On the way back she was just loitering around the shop, eyeing those vessels when the boju called out-

Alu thukpa or phambi?”

“Nothing today.”

Boju knew her daily customers well.

“Here take some alu thukpa. You can pay back next time.”

For the next three days she didn’t have to worry about money. On the fourth, there was no boju washing vessels as usual when she left for school. It had rained all night so she was probably still sleeping. On the way back, the shop was shut. It remained shut in the days that followed. Maybe she didn’t have money to reopen. She needed to pay her back. The hunt for coins began.

No one knew her real name. She belonged to the golai– Warling golai ko boju. The tin shop had been there ever since anyone could remember. A lot of other shops had sprung up over the years, grown from tin to concrete structures, selling all sorts of goods bought all the way from the wholesale stores in Siliguri. The boju and her tin structure only seemed to diminish. Smaller and smaller with each passing year. The alu thukpa and phambi had the same flavour. Year after year. A blandness compensated by the high dose of chilli paste, dalle ko achar.

Her bamboo hut was just below the shop. You couldn’t see it from the road. The slope was too steep. She had been brought here from the kamaan, barely sixteen. Picking tea leaves, pruning tea bushes, weeding the gardens, ever since she was six. The father had been lured here from Dolakha, Nepal because they said money grew here—on the tea bushes. This was during the British Raj. It was barely enough to manage a two time meal, even with the entire family working. The sister-in-law was making life hell. She had seen her steal money from her brother’s pocket. It was for the Dhaka sari they were selling at the mela. The brother came home to another quarrel. This time he threatened to move out, live separately with his wife.

Then she met her him at the mela. Almost like a saviour. Every year people from the plains put up a mela in the kamaan. He bought her the Dhaka sari. He even wanted to take her to Kalimpong. He worked there in the MES—the army engineering service at Durbin Dara. She left home early morning, before anyone was awake. Wearing the Dhaka sari.

He brought her to Tirpai. There was a small house with his first wife and a daughter. She received a good beating from the other wife. He just stood there watching. Without a word.

She needed a place of her own.

He brought her to Warling golai. His brother lived here with his family. The wife didn’t take kindly to this young girl. Was the useless brother not enough that they had to feed this new nuisance! He had lied about the job too. Was just a labourer, went wherever he was called, earned enough to buy the local liquor for the night.

The brother-in-law fixed her a small shop at the golai. Just on the side of the road, in the land that belonged to the government. She forced the husband to build her the hut. He had wanted her to sleep in the shop itself! An endless making and selling of alu thukpa began. Sometimes he stole the small fortune from under the bora where she kept it hidden. Disappeared for days, probably back to the first wife. Returned drunk. In the month when his liver burst, he moved to the golai permanently. It was a relief when he died.

The two sons were also born here. The elder one had gone looking for a job at the NHPC site on the river Teesta. Returned with a woman from the nearby kamaan a couple of months later.  A week later maharani was sound asleep when she returned from the shop. Dinner uncooked, vessels unwashed. She could go back to the kamaan where she belonged! She wasn’t obliged in any way to feed such useless folk! The son left with his wife early morning. The younger one had been taken in by the orphanage uphill. He had been studying when he decided to go look for work in Kolkata. They said he worked in a hotel there. He didn’t come home for the last dasain too.

Lina had finally collected the money. Now she needed to place it in the boju’s hands, where it belonged. After school, she made her way down the steep slope. There was a crowd gathered outside the hut.

“What an unfortunate old woman. Suffered all her life.”

“But a fortunate death nevertheless. Passed away quietly in sleep. No diseased ending, no trouble to anyone.”

“If you break down that ramshackle shop, the property will be of high value. Roadside afterall.”

“Do you want some tea bara?” The brother-in-law’s daughter was roaming around, kettle in hand, filling tea into the glasses. It was a cold day.

This was her funeral ceremony. She had died the night when it rained heavily. The brother-in-law discovered only two days later when he saw the shop shut for two whole days. She lay there on the mattress, the room reeking with her death. He had cremated the body and this was the ceremony held for the entire samaj a couple of days later.

Lina went in clutching those coins. Those vessels lay there, unwashed, remnants of the red alu dum like plastered mud. The mattress filled the rest of the room. She went and hid the money. Just as she had seen the boju hide hers, under the bora, below those vessels.

The Debt

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