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A Voice of One’s Own

A Voice of One’s Own

A woman standing with shillong as the background

The narrator tries to capture the cadences of her childhood by pulling out fond memories of her infant years with a female tenant, only to discover the surreal and the haunting hidden in the crevices of a pristine past. The story has been inspired by a character whose name has been changed.

By Monica Bhattacharya 

A few days ago, someone asked me where my home was and where I ‘originally’ come from. Such questions quit seeming unusual or intrusive when you are raised in Shillong but carry the weight of an Assamese lineage. To be fair, I have never struggled to fit in, as I naturally saw myself as an extension of these hills I call home.

But this inquiry set sail my thoughts on an unexpected journey, an involuntary walk down memory lane. I was ambushed with thoughts of my childhood, thoughts one doesn’t commonly visit unless there is an external push to break open the treasure trove of memories carefully locked in, some half-forgotten, some intentionally obliterated.

I realised then that of all the obvious people I would associate my childhood with, Mani aunty’s presence was perhaps the most significant and the least obtrusive. She was our tenant and lived in a two-room house with her husband and daughter. I am not sure if she knew that her idle conversations and chin-wagging had taught me Sylheti, and whiling away hours in her bedroom-cum-sitting-room, I had also come to appreciate the complex flavours of shidol chutney or the varied preparations of the shukhna mach.

Mani aunty had come to Shillong in 1994 having married a man who was thirteen years older than her. She was a beautiful, soft, and loving-eyed woman, who by the time she was in her early twenties had had several miscarriages until she was finally able to give birth to her daughter. She was always dressed in a cotton nightdress, a choice of attire that had become a marker of her housebound-captivity. She cooked and cleaned all day, and spent most of her afternoons wiping her window panes squeaky clean as if to compensate for her lack of control over things outside of her domestic kingdom.

She gleamed with pride and raw self-worth that only physical labour can impart to a woman’s body. Because of her acquired obsession with cleaning, even my memories of her broken marriage and claustrophobic life are seen through the sheen of glossy window panes and polished wooden floors.

However, what piqued my interest in Mani aunty’s life was her constantly changing temperament- she was reticent by day and hysterically loud by night. The violence of her rage revealed itself only twice or thrice in a week when she argued with her husband and later with her adolescent daughter. Her muffled screams and volley of invectives would pierce through the puny walls of her square room, leaving us disturbed, amused, and concerned all at the same time. I often wondered what could instigate such ugly squabbles that drastically transformed the ‘angel of the house’ into Shakespeare’s Sycorax.  Or could it be that Mani aunty’s unfettered voice had ruffled the tranquil surfaces of that legendary quality of ‘feminine silence’ that I was conditioned to accept so naturally?

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Growing up we had insidiously come to internalise the cliché that laau xodai paator tolot thaake (the gourd always stays beneath the leaf), thereby unquestioningly accepting the gender grid in the power map of the world. Occasionally, ringing laughter would also ripple out of Aunty’s home, when in the absence of her husband, her friends and her daughter’s friends would plant themselves comfortably on their khaat and share a feeling of coming together over endless cups of tea and therapeutic gossip. In a strange way, their voices healed the air that had been ripped with cruel muteness for generations.

Years later, despite her age and impaired vision, Mani Aunty’s dreams have not been muzzled, unconsciously protesting the tyranny of imposed silence. I have come to realise that when someone asks me about my ‘home’ and ‘origins’, I actually think of Aunty and her house that have become indispensable landmarks in the unpublished atlas of my life, a place that has curiously become a parent.

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