From Jamshedpur we traveled by train to Behrampur, changing at Calcutta. After spending a few days with Dadu, we took a bus that went along Amtola road to the kheya-ghaat (ferry landing) at Gangadhari. It was not much of a jetty, but had the virtue of being a bend in the Jalangi River closest to Amtola road. The river’s gently sloping grass bank, with a few split bamboos tied together and laid on it at the water’s edge made up the landing. Thakurdada would send down a boat to Gangadhari. If we took the bus after lunch from Behrampur then we reached Gongadhari just when the sun was about to set.
This last leg of our journey was the most thrilling, at least for me. First, there was the anxiety of whether there would be a boat at the landing. So, getting off the bus, I would run the short distance to the landing and then exult upon finding the boat, tied and rocking gently over the undulating river water lapping its underbelly. The boat usually had one boatman to row and another to steer it. Travelling upstream, the boat would take about two hours, give or take another quarter, depending on the current. At times one of the boatmen would get off and tow the boat, walking along the high riverbank. His solitary figure climbing and descending over the top of the looming bank, as it fell where small streams joined the river and then rose again, would fill me with awe.
When the boat set off, a reluctant electrum evening would descend gently, coloring the tall white plumes of ‘Kaash-ful’ (Kans grass, or Saccharum spontaneum) on the riverbanks, and set the river water on fire. The reflection of the dying sun’s light on the river surface would break up into innumerable shards of different hues. These would slowly melt and sink in the unfathomable blackness of the river. The tall riverbank would rise up and up into the descending darkness like the sinister wall of some ancient fort. Into its million gun-holes would return flocks of birds clamoring and fluttering like formations of boomerang coming back without result.
At last, as the calm darkness descended, a velvety canopy of black sky studded with a million sparkles would roll up from the east. And to outshine that glory, a creamy moon would rise with the omniscient smile of knowing every secret that scurried to hide in the darkness. I would feel as if I was embarked upon an endless voyage in time standing still under a perpetually twinkling sky, hovering over the scintillating water of the sluggish moat running by the unending wall of a fort abeam, changing from port to starboard as the river meandered.
Eventually, the boat striking against the jetty at the village would suddenly jolt me and wrench me out of my reverie. Thakurdada, with a lantern in a hand raised above his eyes, would appear out of the mysterious darkness like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
Thakurdada had named me Nirendro, and addressed me as Niren. And, my sister was Lotika for him.
From the village’s main street steps rose to the outer courtyard of his house. Across the yard was a ‘workshop’ where some artisans worked. On the left there was a verandah fronting the ‘Boithok Khana’ (Visitors’ Room), and ‘Poraar Ghor’ (Study Room). The main residence lay behind these, unconnected. The entrance to an inner courtyard was through an arched gateway between the Study Room and the Workshop, which laboured along a dark kinked passage passing under a staircase to go on the roof. The inner yard, into which the passage opened, was much larger. A high-roofed pillar-less verandah ran on the left, on the long side of the yard, and a paved ground lay on the right, on the short side. Along the verandah there were four doors to four pairs of large rooms. You entered the outer room of each pair from the verandah, and then into the inner room. Windows on the far wall of this room opened on the main street and looked across it into a frighteningly dense Mango grove. The entry door of the outer room was flanked by two wide and tall windows with low windowsill just about a foot above the ground. Opposite them, there was a similar pair of windows in the wall between the two rooms. This arrangement was the same in all the four pairs of rooms.
The eldest brother of my father, my ‘Baro Jyathaa’, occupied the first pair of rooms adjacent to the back of the visitors’ room and study room. Thakurdada and Thakurma (my grandmother) occupied the next pair. Their outer room with some scattered furniture served as a sort of living room, and the inner one was the bedroom. The bedroom had a huge ancient four-poster with fluted legs, ornamental headpiece and footrest. The bed was so high that for some years my sister and I had to be lifted on to it, where with little to do as the evening set in, we quietly dozed off.
On the right end of the inner courtyard, climbing from the paved area was a broad staircase going up to a verandah with pillars and arches that gave access to two very large kitchens. A storeroom of three walls and a fourth open side, used to store ‘paat-kathi’ (dried jute plant stems) and firewood for the hearths in the kitchens, separated the Workshop building from the kitchen building. The rest of the courtyard had high walls meeting at the far corner where a toilet stood like a pariah. The courtyard had a vegetable garden with no particular order and some flowering plants. The prize went to a dwarfish but very fecund tree of Shiuli flower (Night-flowering Jasmine, or Nyctanthes arbor-tristis). All through its season, it stooped and showered the ground below with copious white flowers with vermillion stem. For water supply, there was a well in the courtyard that provided cold water in summer and somewhat tepid water in winter. The bathrooms were set in the boundary wall opposite the verandah across the courtyard. A door next to them led out to the garden at the rear of the property. In this garden, which was L-shaped, extending the other arm around the Workshop, there were many fruit trees, a couple of large bushes of swaying bamboo, and a dark green pool where the dormant soul of algae had never been stirred, except when I pelted some stones to revive it.
Of whether Thakurdada was very fond of me or not, I have no memory. But, my arrival would give him a feigned relief, with which he would invariably offer me these words, “Niren, would you please marry your Thakurma and take her away from me when you return!”
I cannot say I minded the proposal much, because Thakurma was of a very serene and quiet disposition, smiling a sweet smile that summarily dismissed Thakurdada’s glib talk. Father was her favourite, being the last child. While he had inherited some of Thakurma’s striking features, these were the most prominent in her eldest daughter, my ‘Baro Pisi’ (auntie). Then in her early forties, she was extremely beautiful in a way that raised a feeling of reverence, aided by the large circle of vermillion on her forehead. Her daughters too were extremely beautiful, sadly much older than I was – save one of about my age whose beauty had not yet fully blossomed. So, through my auntie, I could set my imagination to wander off in search of my Thakurma in her younger days.
At the time Thakurdada would make me this offer, Thakurma was surely past sixty. She had crow’s feet at the corner of her eyes and wrinkles in her cheeks. Her complexion had turned dull golden like that of an ornament stowed away for a long time. She was of a slight frame, but of strong bones quite wide at her pelvis. Her flesh had no fat. He face too was made of fine bones. Her mildly bulging eyes, large and eager, were set in deep sockets and had iris pale with age. Yet their fine and persistent black eyebrows and large shadowy eyelashes rendered a certain depth and darkness to the eyes. She did not have an aquiline nose, but the bridge was strong and prominent, over which the skin lay taut, giving her a look of strong determination. The most fetching part of her beauty, of course, was her lips. Like two large segments of orange with dimpled surface, they had very sharp outline. Her lower lip, which was the heavier, drooped a little, parting the pair. The lips were always very parched, as if about to crack and, therefore, needing tender care, which she seldom took. The lips formed two moist eyelets where they met. However, these tiny oases failed to moisten her dry lips. Before she spoke, the emotion of the moment made the lower lip quiver. She had a mass of curly hair, then mostly silvery white with but few streaks of black. She did not comb her hair much, which allowed their fine silver waves to shimmer about her face.
Her beauty was in a certain way fragile, probably made so by age. I held all this in extreme pride, keeping it a secret all the time. Anyway, the large house and its gardens so overwhelmed me that most of the time I was like a prince out on a most dangerous expedition, while his bride-to-be awaited his return.
Thakurma, a person of few words, loved mother dearly and mostly spoke with her, and sometimes to my sister. Thakurma had a way of taming my mercurial Thakurdada. So his benign proposal to set her off with me did not seem to bother her much. As such, I was a quiet boy and Thakurma, sensing my deep shy embarrassment, seldom made any public display of her affection for me.
We mostly visited Jitpur in summer for the mangoes, and rarely in winter. It was an occasional year when we went there for Durga Pujo (worship of the goddess Durga), of which this once is the only one as far as I can remember – but I would not bet on that. The celebration in the village was very different from that in Jamshedpur. In the village, it got going with prayers and drum beat from early morning until lunchtime when Bhog (the food of the deity) was distributed, which the devotees took home to eat. The evenings were not very bright as the only source of illumination was Petromax lamps. Nightlife picked up after dinner with the staging of some rural folk theatre that everybody went to watch. Invariably the plot revolved around a king and his beautiful princess whose looks as compared to Thakurma always left me cold. Also, in the princess I recognized some effeminate cousin brother from the village!
This visit that I am talking of, the weather being good and mild for the time of the year, the days were passing very well. So much so that, on the Ashtomi (eighth day of the celebration), Thakurdada proposed that we visit a neighboring village temple to make the floral offering, Anjali. I do not recall why he decided – was it due to the presiding deity being conscious (of her followers’ earthly woes), the famous fair at the village, or a chance for him to meet folks from yore.
So, that morning we were all up early. An original Swedish Primus Stove filled with kerosene was used to make tea in the outer room. Father lit it with rectified spirit. This heated the oil, steaming it into the burner where it soon caught fire and burned with a mesmerizing blue flame becoming steady as father pumped the stove. This tea ritual started with the intoxicating smell of burning spirit that gave way to a very subtle smell of kerosene burning without soot, and finally ended with the aroma of the brewing tea. I would just sit on the sill of the low windows and savor the succession of smells as they wafted away with the rays of the sun streaming in through the window, finally disappearing as the sun rose in the sky.
Tea ceremony over, we took bath and got dressed. Thakurdada, father and I used the outer room, and mother, sister and Thakurma the inner room. Mother helped Thakurma with her stiff cotton sari and ornaments.
When Thakurma emerged, stooping with slight embarrassment, I looked at her and could not turn my eyes away from a beauty unforeseen in my imagination. Mother had tied her hair in a braid, in which the strong silvery curls snaked and struggled to escape. A few wayward wispy strands still remained free, radiating a maze of silver curls around her face, framing it in a scintillating halo. There was gold all over her, on her hands, on her arms, around her slender wizened neck under the prominent Adam’s apple. On her earlobes, there were rings. Also, she wore a nose ring, which stooping over her lips like a flower of Narcissus over a stream, accentuated their beauty. And, all that glittering gold threw a soft golden radiance over her coppery-golden skin enhancing its own matt shine.
We left the house, and cutting through the village came out in the open fields. We walked in a queue, as is wont in villages, along the bank of Jalangi River. Leading up the procession walked Thakurdada, discussing important issues of his land and property with father. Mother followed, clutching a hand of sister, and then Thakurma, with me bringing up the rear. From behind, I watched Thakurma, her thin frame in a humble yet graceful handloom sari, all white except for a brick-red border. She walked barefoot, slowly, as if afraid to tread on the dust under dew-soaked grass and sully her feet. She carried a plate of fruits and sweets covered with a lace scarf to offer to the goddess. Her gait had a femininity that her body seemed to remember from her teenage, whose shy diffident sway still lingered. From time to time, she stopped and looked back at me, rendering me a chance to catch her blooming beauty. In spite of the cool morning breeze, dew drops of perspiration appeared on her forehead, nose and the high cheeks. I kept falling behind, distracted by the pastoral beauty in the morning haze. Then I caught up, attracted by this acme of feminine beauty bordering on divine apparition. I had, thus, a strange sensation of being in the company of some goddess of Beauty, who, setting aside her love and affection let me be myself, by myself, to indulge in my exploration of the beauty of nature, and quench my primeval thirst for beauty per se.
Reaching the village, we first completed the offering of Anjali, and then waited for the prayers to finish. Thakurdada and father made use of the time to catch up with whatever familiar faces they could find, while sister and I did a tour of the fair. Finally, after a couple of hours we started for home, having eaten some Prasad, and finding little else to stay for, as the devotees had dispersed. The sun was nearing the zenith, and the cool breeze had slackened, raising the temperature and humidity. We began to sweat and Thakurma’s face became brighter with a flush and a radiance lifting the patina of age.
When we reached home, everyone heaved a sigh of relief. There was still time to have lunch. We changed, mother helping Thakurma. When she came out in her day’s wear, she still looked as ravishing, and more so because of certain radiance on her face. The flush seemed to have subtly worked her sebaceous glands, and a fine film of expelled oil shone bright, making her face gleam like the face of the goddess Mother. Her lips, moist now, were flushed too, and had taken on a glowing flesh-coloured hue. I looked and stared at her. She saw my stare. Looking a little puzzled, she commanded in a soft tone, “Niren, come to me!” As I went up, mother prompted me to touch her feet. As I bent down, Thakurma arrested me. Taking my cheeks in her hands she drew up my face. She slowly lowered herself and kissed me on my forehead ever so lightly with her flushed, soft, moist lips, holding it for a fleeting moment. Then she looked into my eyes, smiled, and raising herself, announced, “Niren took good care of me today!” I blushed and my earlobes burst with rushing blood. My eyes started growing moist. As tear welled up in them, I released myself and bowed down to touch her feet, a few teardrops rolling down my cheeks to fall at those white little feet framed in red Aaltaa (lac-dye used by Hindu women to paint the borders of their feet).
When I raised my head, Thakurdada was looking at me with quizzical eyes and a mock seriousness. He allowed for a moment’s pause and then asked me with quieting gravity, “Now, may I solemnize your marriage, Niren?”
© mikupa / 13 October 2013