Beautifully structured and deftly written, Lipokmenla’s short story explores the resilience and strength that Imkong displays as she comes to terms with her life
Imkong looked out of the window, from the nurses’ quarter allocated to her. It was a gloomy morning, the sun had been gobbled by the clouds, the air thin, and the hospital slightly different from how it used to be, fading. The walls had aged to yellow, and the freshly painted sides stood there still, insignificant. She had received news of the first Covid patient admitted in the hospital and had to send her daughter away from home and focus on work. The iron she had placed on the table was already heated, the board toasted, the uniform unready. The road outside mothered the impatient cars and the prisoned individuals who swarmed about; buzzing, rushing, spewing. She shut her window and heaved a dithering sigh of relief, everything suddenly felt abnormally normal. Turning away from the maddening circus, she watched her daughter pack. The iron on the table had started to smoke as she clenched her fist, and felt her tears burn her sunken cheeks. “This is my purpose” she mumbled as the sun resurfaced from its hiding, finding place on her face from the reflection of the windowpane. The sun gleamed proudly through its host. It was a glorious adventure for her suddenly. Her defeated eyes had been aroused, as she approached the drawers, of letters, discoloured photographs and the painting of the chrysanthemum that her late husband had painted for her. She held the canvas against her bosom as she walked out to the verandah, lifting the canvas up towards the sky “I am my mother’s daughter.”
Seventy years ago, in the valleys where bamboos sprouted like wildflowers, and the hibiscus, marigolds, and the musk rose impatiently crowded the forest path where the summer rays lay its magnificence down to rest, stood three young women with their cane baskets. A trip taken from home, three kilometres away to fetch firewood for their kitchen-Aka, Temjen and Mei, the sisters carefully piled up the wood they had chopped from the oak tree. And noticing they had collected enough, they decided to hasten homeward, else the sun would cease to sleep and the evening shade would bring in the creep of night; of tigers and wild boars that which tormented the village folk and had also mercilessly feasted upon some of the residents in the nearby villages. As they treaded along, Temjen looked back at the naked oak tree and whispered a faint song, “A tree so sturdy, unmoved by storms would one day find its defeat at the hands of sudden death” she sang as she drew her pipe for a smoke. Young shepherds would daily rest themselves under the stretched cares of the sturdy oak tree, but now all that remained were fallen broken barks and leaves that cried of all its lost hues.
By the end of the summer of mid 1950s, the Indian army had established their camps in the village. It was the heat of insurgency in the state. The sisters were demanded to remain home, as their father daily went out to the fields. And with every evening he returned home, he had a story to narrate; about the slaughtered naked girl in the depths of the forest, sometimes about the shootings, and when days were slightly favourable, the story was limited to just ransacked houses and burning fields with no victims.
The arms and fiery conflicts nested itself in the normality of the village along with the mystical happenings that terrified the village folk, “Shut your doors before the sun sets” echoed seventy year old Toshila, the isolated lunatic of the village. Aka hushed off Toshila’s echoes as she decided to go to the field, for she had noticed her father grow weary ever since he had become the lone breadwinner of the house. The three then arriving at their field noticed how just a few feet away from their field was a camp of the underground operation. The sisters stood there, terrified at how things would go about in the village if news broke that they had come in contact with the insurgents. Temjen then drawing out her machete looked at her sisters “What should we fear our own brothers for?” The three then started to plough, for it was the awakening of summer, and soon they would be celebrating Moatsu, the festival of sowing. As they worked under the generous sun, they sang of the rain and the winds that nourished their fields. The songs then found its way into the ears of the insurgents in the camp side, who setting aside their tasks came out of their dwellings. The head of the camp, a young man along with five youth walked down the camp and greeted the sisters. The young man’s face glistened proudly against the sunlight as he uttered “Let us help.” The sisters unable to reason with them, simply stood there without a word uttered. That evening, the three returned home with laughters and merry hearts as they had been done good by the men who had helped sow their entire field. “Perhaps” said Temjen, “Life is good to us when we least expect it. Uncertainty is life” she spoke as she adjusted the white chrysanthemum in her hair. “Truly, look at this winter flower, something that only blooms after summer, I have found in this summertime for myself.” Even the early bloomers flowered only by late July, and it was only April. She then proudly pressed the chrysanthemum against her hair, in such aggression that almost frightened herself as she realised how attached she had grown towards the flower.
By the late 1970s, the three sisters had become individuals of their own. Aka had married, Temjen was pregnant with her sixth child, and Mei had moved to the city to find for herself a profession, for she was a proud matriculate at thirty, and considered herself worthy for a Government job. However, Temjen had struck winter at autumn, and so called for her second daughter to her bedside and seeing in her daughter her own image, she whispered “This is now your responsibility. Uncertainty is life.” Imkong, her daughter only twelve at the time listened to her mother, unaware of the burden passed down to her, and only impatiently plucked the petals off the white chrysanthemum placed by her mother’s bedside. In a few days, Temjen, although pregnant, decided to travel along with her husband, who at the time was the gaonbura of the village. She decided it was unwise to send her husband alone, for her husband though rigorously disciplined was half as wise and meticulous as herself when it came to decision making. In a week, as Imkong sat by the verandah of her house, she noticed her father come home with a baby in his arms, and three other village elders. Her mother had passed away by the Dibrugarh road after hard labor, and had to be burried in Tuli, Mokokchung, the town just next to the village, for the roads were destroyed by landslides.
One scarce morning, Imkong’s father had asked her to go to his brother’s house for some scraps. However, when she reached the compound of her uncle’s house, Narola, the wife of her uncle had seen her arrive with the crying baby, and realising that she had come to ask for food, decided to shut all the doors. Imkong then realising the sly intentions of her aunt, shouted “Tantsu, Tantsu” until the neighbours started to mumble, and Narola had to finally open the door. “What do you want?” she demanded. On explaining how she wanted some milk for the baby, Narola decided to declare that they had no leftovers at home. Realising the insidious agenda of her aunt, she decided to leave. That night, as her father pondered upon life, he decided to come up with a solution. Then calling Imkong to his side, he uttered the one most unimaginable sentence, “Imkong, can you stop school? You are needed to mother your baby brother.” Imkong agitated, revolted at this decision, but as fate had it, she sacrificed two years of her education until her brother turned three. When she was finally fourteen, she joined school, but this time she was the eldest in class with all her friends promoted to eighth grade. Her friends called her “motherless” and their parents had asked them to refrain from spending time with “motherless children” for they were labelled indisciplined savages. In four years, after getting through matric, she decided to study in Mokokchung, for it was a mammoth achievement for a rustic girl as herself. After much consideration, her father decided to send her to his brother’s house, and thereby invited him for a few days stay at the village. On the way to Mokokchung, Imkong who was travelling with her uncle and his children, noticed how he was vividly indifferent to her, unlike how he was back at her father’s house. When they reached Mariani in Assam, and stopped for a cup of tea, her uncle only sat by the table of the roadside hotel and rejected every waiter who approached their table, “Esssh” he would hiss at the waiter everytime he approached the table, as if to indicate that he was being bothered. It was almost the fourth invasion of their table when he started to fume. Ignorant of her uncle’s propaganda, she sat there without a word, until some passengers of the bus they were travelling in, caught this scene and asked her to join them for a walk. Accepting the invitation, she returned after a minute or two to the same table and noticed her uncle and cousins hurriedly chugging tea down their throats, so aggressively that when he caught eye of her arrival, he chocked in dismay. “You order something too” and with a demented look asked “Your father sent you any money?” “Yes” she slipped her hands down her pocket and took out the thirty rupees her father had sent her for the year. She then ordered a cup of tea and toast for herself and paid a sum of two rupees and a paise for the treat, a sum no one would pay for her, a sum too large for someone to pay.
In a month or two, Imkong was now the involuntary maid in her uncle’s house. She would fetch water from the community well for Panger’s sons for baths, who by age were older than her, and other days she would either be tending the pigs or helping in the kitchen. Panger’s daughter however was in the same grade as Imkong, and whenever results would be declared in school, he would sit by the verandah awaiting their arrival. “Come here, what is your score?” He would then compare every subject, and realising that his daughter was never half near her, he would rub his nose and walk away.
After five years, Imkong having secured for herself a seat in Nursing school in the first attempt, she decided to move to Tuensang. There she met a young man, through a mutual acquaintance who amused her enough to impress her. She thought he was neither disciplined nor good looking. Being younger by two years, and shorter than her by an inch or two he spoke in a rogue tone. “Uncultured” she thought of him whenever he slipped a cigarette whilst cursing. But whenever they would have gatherings, he would spill the most notorious jokes, and she thought they were the most brilliant word plays, for they contained dark humor while seeming pretentiously non violent . By profession, he was a teacher in a government school and had a good pay. In a few years, she was a nurse at the district hospital and found herself in love with the little man, with whom she had conceived a child. Having been convinced that he was the love of her life, she decided to agree to settle after breaking the news to both the families. By the year 1999, she had given birth to her third daughter, and that glorious January, they cherished the gift of the three daughters. But when the chrysanthemum in her garden started to bloom early, and the buds started to sprout by April of 2004, her husband’s health deteriorated. By the month of May, he withered with the flowers, leaving behind the painting he had been working on since the seeds were scattered in the garden.
“Mom?” her daughter called out a second time. Imkong drew back the painting, and pressing it against her bosom, turned towards her daughter and kissed her “uncertainty is life, we need only be strong.” As the car took off, and her daughter looked at her mother for one last time, Imkong waved back, crying out “I love you, you are my brave daughter.”
Original photograph used for the Photo Illustration is by Shekugha Achumi
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Lipokmenla Ao is a student with an MA degree in Literature from NEHU, Shillong. She was consecutively published under the National 'Wingword Poetry Prize' (2018-19) for her poems "Home" and "The Solitary Man." Apart from writing poetry, she has a deep love for story writing. She currently works as a freelance writer for an NGO based in Sri Lanka, "WeForUs."