Amidst the surge in the participation of the youth in the Liberation movement, a young lad Nibaran harbours a wish to be a writer. Will his wish come true? Here’s a wonderful story by Dr.Saumya Shankar Chowdhury about a budding writer and the journey of his success in his endeavour. The first part of the series introduces us to the young and shy lad and how a couple of simple incidents give him the resources for his first novel…..
Illustration by Sid Ghosh
Nibaran Kalita looked at the torn gamocha. He had to get one in the coming Bihu. Aai will definitely weave a few. She will reserve the best for deuta and his uncle. He will have to do with the next available quality, woven with the cheaper thread. He would not wear the new one to the toilet. It was one habit he could not give up. The toilet was a few metres away from the main house. The house was nothing much to write home about, but it was their own. He was the lone son and it would pass on to him. He was smart enough to understand that.
Nibaran sat in the cramped toilet going through the motions and allowed his mind to wander. He usually took a long time to get along with this aspect of his daily life. He listened to the friendly chirpings of his feathered friends and tried to decipher the musical notes in their calls. The crow was off tune and harsh, but the cuckoo, heralding the onset of spring let out melodious whistles from time to time. He would pen numerous lyrics to the tune of the cuckoo and then take a deep breath in the stuffy toilet, not the best place for doing so. He then would get through his ablutions and with the thread bare gamocha around his waist, go to the drums where water was stored, and pour the precious liquid in an aluminium bucket, which had obviously seen better days. During the fifteen minute long bath, he would play the scenes from the book he was planning to write.
Long days of no classes in these turbulent times, coupled with the postponement of the exams in the entire state had led him to borrow books from the college library. He read the great works in Assamese literature. They were of a revolutionary kind right from the days of Laksminath Bezbaruah. Nibaran did not have a command over the English language and he barely managed to pass in the subject, but he had a flair for writing in his mother tongue. However, he managed to read the translations of the great works in English literature.
ibaran did not exactly have many friends and was egged on by his neighbours to join the picketing and marches. He was the only one left in his neighbourhood who stayed away from such exercises. Although, he was a patriotic soul and wanted to do his bit, by nature, he was a shy fellow and possessed a poor constitution. He still had to go to the medical in Panbazar for the weekly streptomycin injections for the tuberculosis he had contracted a year back.
Long marches where one had to shout hoarse the slogans of the student’s union was not his cup of tea. The neighbourhood was all too well versed with his frail health and did not pass any adverse comments to show their displeasure. To make up for his absence, his mother tried to make herself conspicuous in the para meetings. His father silently took part along with his mother, both parents trying to shield their only son from the vagaries of the mass uprising.
Nibaran would very clearly sketch the characters in his mind. It was going to be a simple story of a teacher’s struggle against the changing society. No, it was not exactly going to be a path breaking novel, but one which would at least sell a few hundred copies. There was a sudden rise in the readership among the Assamese middle class. He would cash on it. It was his dream. The movement would be over and the climax would coincide with a victory for the Assamese. Nibaran would have liked to share his ideas with Deepali, his elder sister, who was lucky to complete her studies and work as a teacher in the Montessori school. But he was afraid of the firebrand girl. She was not to be seen these days and even did not come home from the processions in the evening. It was normal nowadays. The youth seldom came home. They had plunged into the movement. It was a unique one in the history of the country.
His parents had raised a hue and cry when she failed to turn up one evening from the torch procession. But so did Tarali, Deepika, Mamoni, Mayuri and Joba. They were in Rupam khura’s quarters in the railway colony near Maligaon. But due to the sudden curfew, they could not inform their guardians. Next morning, Rupam khura came to their house and explained to Nibaran’s parents the situation, which had arisen out of the curfew in the town. His parents chose to forget the incident, their minds in constant turmoil over the chastity of the night outs and the dilemma of the headlong plunge in the cause for a better Assam. His father, a state government employee, would argue that this was a small sacrifice to pay for upholding the identity of a civilisation so similar in physical attributes, but alienated from the mainstream, the geography being not the only cause.
Nibaran was in his first year in college. Pandu College was a ten minute ride from his house after he managed to cross the rail track from Durga Sarobar. But the unrest and uncertainty had spelt doom to his unbroken college record. The exams were likely to be postponed…there had been no classes for the past six months. Students did gather in the University and colleges, but for a different reason.
A sense of excitement was in the air. The youth disappeared from many localities in the state, some never to return. Nibaran managed to gather his thoughts and concentrate in the washing and cleaning. He never understood how the westerners, as he read in the books, took a long bath once a week, and sometimes never in weeks. Yet, they managed to look good, as he saw in a couple of movies in Aruna cinema hall. He had never seen a water closet in his lifetime and failed to understand the significance of chamber pots. Was that the komod which his uncle used to utter in his conversations….?
“Bhaity! I am getting late, come out soon.” It was Deepali. She had to go for the meeting near Chandmari. Nibaran gathered his clothes and came out of the bathroom bare bodied with a fresh gamocha around his waist. He kept his eyes down, as Deepali rushed inside the bathroom. She hung the clothes from the top of the rickety bathroom door. A strap of her brassiere could be seen. Nibaran blushed and went inside the room.
The smell of Japanese carp along with the dry chillies and five spices added to the heated oil in the other wok for the dal to fry roused his appetite. He quickly smoothened the curls in his hair and sat on the mat laid out for him in the floor. The hunger had postponed his otherwise daily obeisance to the family deity in the gohainghar.
“Mahi, ma has given some chutney for Nibaran da,” Mona or Monalisha, their neighbour next door came with a brass bowl covered with a stainless steel plate. She was to appear for the matriculation, but the schools had closed. Mona hardly spoke much, but would eye Nibaran with a strange look. She seldom wore mekhela saador at home, but today she was looking very pretty in the white saador and the black and green mekhela. Nibaran quickly lowered his eyes and concentrated on his food.
“Tell ma to try this,” mother said as she laid out two pieces of the fish along with the curry and handed over the bowl to Mona. “Mmmm….it smells good,” Monalisha said as she eyed Nibaran. Nibaran was still bare bodied and was conscious of Mona eyeing him, “Nibaran da, please taste the chutney na,” there was something in her voice which gave him the goose bumps. Please leave, he said to himself, but could only mutter, “hmmm…,” without bothering to look up. He never felt so naked in his life. Mona laughed and left after greeting father and Deepali, addressing them in contrasting tones, blending reverence with the playful. Nibaran couldn’t help thinking how the girl could be mischievous and courteous at the same time.
Nibaran mixed the dal and rice and took a mouthful before tasting the chutney. It was good, he had to admit. It was a mixture of ground nuts and coconut with a touch of ginger and garlic. He was silent as usual. His mother would fail to notice the perceptible change in his behaviour after Mona’s entry. He had rarely felt anything for any girl all his life. The strong presence of his sister’s personality in the household as he was growing up developed a sort of hatred for the fairer sex. He felt suffocated at times but never thought he would voice his sentiments aloud. He imagined his life would be ruined if he got married. He could never argue with a girl, forget uttering any harsh words. Nibaran almost doted on his sister but Deepali did not think very highly of her brother.
Mona’s smell still lingered in the sparsely furnished room. Nibaran finished his food in silence and got up to wash. He decided not to include any female characters in his novel. But, would that make a novel? He wasn’t sure. He was afraid to ask anyone for fear of being ridiculed. Nibaran hardly knew any girl or woman outside his family members to write a vivid description of the womanly traits which would enhance the characterisations. He wasn’t ready to write. He would have to carefully observe his sister and jot down some points to include them in his work. And then a thought struck him. It was time he befriended someone, someone close and yet one who would allude to his non-existent charms, someone who wouldn’t tom tom his real intentions, which he would never reveal…..
Nibaran didn’t know whether to call Mona pretty or plain. But she was attractive, at least to him. He could not deny that. Was it that he was attracted to her because he didn’t know any other girl? Of course, there was no girl as pretty as Deepali in the whole neighbourhood and he didn’t have any opinion on her plain looking friends who irritated him with their affected mannerisms. As he was descending the hill towards the main road, Nibaran missed a step only to find that the strap of his sandal had given away. He didn’t have an extra pair. He would have to wear chappals. Chappals to the publisher would make a wrong impression. At least he needed his father’s extra pair. His father would not go out of the house today. It was a Saturday and his office was closed.
Nibaran turned to climb the hill he had descended halfway. It was hot and he was sweating. He didn’t pause in the winding track leading to the cluster of huts below his house. He took the short cut via Mona’s house on the right. He saw Mona plucking bananas. She was reaching up to the bananas and her left profile was visible to him. Nibaran couldn’t avoid stealing a glance. Her blouse had distinct sweat stains. He made a mental note of this observation. He was happy with himself. Mona seemed unsure whether they were ripe or still fell in the plantain category as she placed the bunch of bananas on a wicker basket along with the kataari or penknife. A few strands of hair pasted themselves with the sweat on her face and she turned to face Nibaran who was caught unawares.
“Nibaran da? What happened?”
“I…I was going home…my sandal strap is torn.”
“Come in Nibaran da…I will give dada’s sandal…it will fit you.”
“No! Its fine. I guess I will run along…”
“You don’t have to climb all the way for a sandal..,”Mona pulled at his elbow and almost dragged him to her house with the wicker basket full of bananas balanced precariously on her right hip with the right hand on the basket, making quite a scene.
“Ma, O’ ma, Nibaran da is here. He has come to thank you for the chutney.”
Mona had dashed inside before Nibaran could reply…
“Bhaity! Sit here. How is your health now?” Mona’s mother asked him.
“I am fine…just the strap has come loose from my sandal. I have some work in Pan Bazaar…,” Nibaran managed to say. He was staring at the neatly stacked book rack. One row was filled with notebooks.
“Whose books are those, Mahi?”
“They are Mona’s. Will you like some tea? I have prepared some Mithois. Have a couple of them,” Mona’s mother went to the kitchen to fetch tea in spite of the protests from Nibaran. Nibaran went to the rack and leafed through some of the notebooks.
He got up and shouted in her direction, “Mahi, I am getting late. I will have a glass of water for now. I will have tea some other time.”
“O.K. but you drop in some time. We will be happy to have you in our midst. Ever since Rantu left us…,” Mona’s mother couldn’t complete the sentence. Rantu was Mona’s elder brother who was studying engineering. He was an outspoken lad and left the house one fine day with a note addressed to his mother that he was leaving home to join the ‘Liberation’ army.
Mahi went inside, barely managing to stop the flow of tears. The clanging of the stainless steel cups, plates and aluminium pans muffled the sobs. It was followed by the aroma of freshly brewed tea. He flared his nostrils, allowing the aroma to infiltrate his senses. The morning rituals of brewing tea in the kitchen by mother were among his earliest memories. Nibaran was lost in his thoughts, drifting from one world to the other when Mona entered with the tea. She placed the cup and saucer and a stainless steel plate of goodies on a cane stool. The sweat stains were more prominent in the blouse.
“Drink your tea, Nibaran da. The Mithois are prepared by me. I will send a jar of pickle over to your house the coming week. Dried green mangoes…yummy,“ Mona licked her lips, closed her eyes and made a smacking sound with her tongue in anticipation of the delicious sweet and sour taste of the pickle. Nibaran felt a flutter in his heart. He took a sip in silence as Mona continued describing the spices which she had painfully mixed with the mangoes. The technicality of the production was of no interest to Nibaran but he drowned in her exuberance, extracting much pleasure from the small talk. It was as if Mona wanted Nibaran to be a playmate she never had. Nibaran was embarrassed at this thought and even though he was sipping liquid, there was dryness in his throat and a constricting feeling in his chest.
He didn’t finish the tea and made an attempt to get up, but Mona in the midst of an absorbing lecture was in no mood to let him go and forced him to sit on the bed, never for a second pausing from her narration. He looked at the grandfather clock in the wall; he had wasted time…all due to the sandal. The strap was causing problems. He had met the cobbler on the way the other day, but was too lazy to stop by. He remembered an idiom from Kalita sir’s English class. A stitch in time saves nine! He finally stood up, cleared his throat and wiping his mouth with a hanky, walked out through the door. He looked back at Mona and said goodbye to her mother and nodded at the girl, who followed him to the bamboo gate.
“Nibaran da, you read a lot, I have seen. Won’t you share what you read with me? Ever since dada left us, I have no one to talk to. I go through his diaries from time to time. Please drop in from time to time. When mother takes a nap in the afternoons meet me in the banana grove….” Nibaran didn’t know what to say. He looked at her and nodded. No girl had spoken to him in this manner. What was the meaning of her mother’s nap and the banana grove?
The tea had invigorated him and he took sprightly steps towards his house. There was a new feeling of excitement in his uneventful and mundane existence. There was so much material in the notebooks. Rantu had written well. He stood up and carefully kept the notebooks in its proper place. There seemed to be a purpose, a new ray of hope, a feeling of warmth, like a breath of fresh air…was it the new ideas in his head which were germinating into a novel. He had not experienced love in his life. He was not sure if it was Mona’s daring or his quest for the key to feminine secrets.
To be continued
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Dr. Chowdhury is an avid writer, who in his professional life is a medico for the past 20 years, currently with a Central government Public Sector Undertaking. His first anthology of short stories, Barak To Doyang, was published by the National Library, Guwahati, in 2012. Besides writing, he has a keen interest in music.