I loved Aita not only because she was my mother’s mother but mostly because she was a child like me, at least, at heart. I have always remembered her as this frail old woman with hair as white as cotton tied in a bun that looked more like a pig’s tail. She would be there at the gate in her starched mekhela chadars and toothless smile, waiting to welcome us every time we went. I have never known her in any other image. She would wait for me to come during my month-long summer and winter vacations, bathe in the rain with me, make bird houses with me, pick lice from my hair, make me sleep with her at night and tell bedtime stories. Grandma’s place at Digboi, in one of the northernmost corners of Assam, was my favorite playground. Every time, there would be a new calf or a pigeon, duck, cat, dog, or plant for me to get excited about. And there would be some new story too to keep me occupied during the stay.
Like that summer, in the early 1990s, when Aita took me to the gooseberry tree by the pond behind the house. “Living in the town has destroyed your skin. Look at you!” she told me, holding me by the hand and leading me through the backyard towards the pond. “Your skin hangs on you like a tortoise’s shell when it should be soft and glowing. You need to eat lots and lots of gooseberries.” As we neared the pond, Aita let out a strict, “Be careful now! I don’t want you in the pond. Just follow me!”
As I nodded, she placed a step on the tiny patch of land between the gooseberry tree and the pond, her foot slipped and she went sliding into the pond. It all happened so fast that Aita’s shout came out only after she had landed in the pond. I thought I was imagining things when a little fish leapt out of the water and almost fell into her open mouth crying out in horror.
The domestic help working in the granary nearby rescued Aita and carried her to the house. She had sprained her ankle and couldn’t move. The sons, my uncles, rushed out in grave concern while the daughters-in-law hid their smiles behind the end of their chadars. The house maids, two of them, ran helter skelter trying to get balms etc. As one rubbed balm on her ankle, the other one massaged her head to calm her. One of her sons fanned her while the other stuck to the black telephone on the cupboard calling up everybody in town, “Halo! Probir here! Ma fell down! Sprained her ankle! Is bed-ridden!” In no time, the house was filled with good fifty people, one among whom happened to be the general practitioner, Dr. Bezbaruah. Holding Aita’s hand and almost bending down to her ears, Dr. Bezbaruah said, “Mother, don’t worry. Your Saturn is not in the right place which is why you slipped and fell. Let your elder son Dilip get up before sunrise for one whole week and offer some black fish to a beggar. This will steer your Saturn to its right place and soon you will be able to walk again.” And then he said what suited his profession more, “Meanwhile, you rest. Don’t leave your bed if it’s not urgent and eat this tablet twice a day after every meal.”
That night, of the fifty people who came, twenty stayed back. All of them happened to be relatives in some way or the other. As my two aunts went into a frenzy in the kitchen preparing dinner, the maids, as instructed, went about preparing beds for all the guests. There were not enough beds for everyone hence mattresses were arranged one after the other on the floors of the rooms. That night, and for the rest of my vacation, I had to sleep with my uncle Dilip, his wife and their two sons – Deva and Bijoy, almost my age the elder one. Their bed was big enough for all of us to fit in. I wasn’t allowed to sleep with Aita lest I kick her ailing ankle. And yes, a beggar was brought from the nearby marketplace and permanently stationed at the household for the next seven days.
A very unusual thing happened that night. I must have been in deep slumber because I woke up with a start. I had felt something crawling on my right thigh. I kept awake for a few seconds but nothing happened. So I dozed off again. I don’t know how much time it was before I woke up with a start again. I had felt it. I got up, looked around and saw everyone sleeping like logs: My aunt on my right and my cousin Bijoy, younger to me by two years, on my left. Next to Bijoy slept soundly Uncle Dilip. My older cousin Deva was snoring by my aunt’s side. I glanced towards the open window by the bed, its curtain fluttering in the fan’s wind, and in a moment I thought there was somebody standing outside looking at me. My throat went dry and I quietly lied down again, my heart palpitating hard. I desperately wanted the sun to come up. I prayed for morning soon.
The din of people’s voices woke me up. As I opened my eyes, I inadvertently looked at the window. There was no one there. Maloti ba, the maid with skin as dark as the night and big beautiful eyes, came sashaying towards me. “Wake up little one,” she smiled her brilliant smile on me and the dark red phut on her forehead seemed like a glowing sun in shiny darkness. I loved Maloti ba. She was so charming. I couldn’t take my eyes off her when she talked. More than her mouth, it was her eyes that did all the talking. And that smile. I so practiced hours in front of the mirror to get a smile like hers and tanned myself no end whenever possible. There was a day when I even rubbed charcoal all over me and put a red phut on my forehead. Mother planted a sound smack on my back and sat me under the tubewell that whole afternoon, scrubbing me clean.
“Wake up you little angel,” said Maloti ba, “Your cousins Deva and Bijoy have already eaten breakfast. Come eat before you get none,” she said caressing my hair and stroking my face. “Come,” she whispered in that magical voice of hers when a voice shrieked from the next room, “Maloti! Get me some water!” Casting a look towards the next room, Maloti ba stared long and hard. The she turned towards me, winked and said “How I wish it was her throat and not ankle!” She walked away with that smile of hers as I rolled with laughter before stopping all of a sudden as guilt overcame me; how could I laugh when someone’s all daggers about Aita?
Outside in the verandah, men sat huddled close to each other talking of this Bez and that Bez who could cure sprains by the touch of a feather or flower. Finally they decided on a Bez from a nearby village to come and cure Aita. The most elderly in the crowd walked into Aita’s room full of women and stood at the threshold. I am sure he was older than Aita yet he addressed her as “Mother” and said, “Ai, we are going to get Ojah Bez from a village near Thanai Tea Estate. He is supposed to be very good. People say that he has even woken up the dead. I am sure he will heal your ankle in no time. The society of our town has decided to seek his help; kindly ask your sons to provide for fifty rupees and a pair of areca nut and betel leaf. One of us could have arranged for the money; but since it is an offering for your health, the money should come from you or your family, otherwise his healing powers will have no affect on you.”
“Daughter-in-law!” called out Aita. Uncle Dilip’s wife came running from the handloom where she was working out a little mekhela chadar for me. Uncle Probir’s wife left the pumpkins she was getting ready for lunch and rushed out of the kitchen, almost tripping on the flat wooden pira she was sitting on. The two of them almost reached Aita’s room at the same time and spoke “Ma” in unison, heads bowed, pulling the end of the chadar over their heads. Aita cleared her throat and spoke with authority, “I need fifty rupees to offer for my health. Whose husband will get me the money?” The two women looked at each other and kept standing there. “Why aren’t you speaking?” growled Aita. To that the elder daughter-in-law replied, “He has gone out for a while. I can ask him when he gets back.” “And Probir? Where is he?” grumbled Aita. The second daughter-in-law looked pained and said, “I don’t know.” Aita’s voice came out in a gargle and eyes danced wildly, “It’s that bitch again! Isn’t it! I will kill her. Throw her out of my house! That Maloti, I will kill her!” My heart lurched when Aita spoke of killing Maloti ba. I hated Aita for talking about her like that. Tears poured out and I ran out of the room. How can two people whom I love so much hate each other so? There were murmurs behind me as men and women gossiped in whispers, and I ran even harder to get away from the unbearable buzz of those whispers. I was sure they were saying bad things about Maloti ba and my heart bled.
That night, as I slept between uncle Dilip’s wife and their youngest son Bijoy, I felt that crawling again. My heart beat wildly as I jumped up and stared straight at the open window. I don’t know how long I kept staring at the window before aunt put a hand on my shoulder and said, “What’s wrong?” I looked at her and shook my head; but my heart beat wildly. I had seen two shadows move outside the window but couldn’t tell this to aunt. I don’t know why, but I just didn’t tell it to my aunt. “Do ghosts exist?” I asked her as I snuggled close to her. “Of course they do,” she said. “If you don’t go off to sleep, they will come and take you.” I looked at the others sleeping peacefully – Uncle Dilip, Deva and Bijoy. And then I snuggled up to my aunt and fell asleep in her embrace.
The next morning, as I stood by the tubewell brushing my teeth with Deva and Bijoy, a commotion broke out in the kitchen. There was the clang of utensils as they hit the ground and screams of women. We rushed through the corridor towards the kitchen and saw uncle Probir’s wife and Maloti ba shouting at each other. “Why blame me?” screamed Maloti ba, as she held a cheek that had gone purple with one hand, “Go ask your husband to stop it! Hah! Tie him to your bed if you can woman! Tie him! And if you can’t, it’s bloody hell not my problem!”
“You are a sorceress!” screamed uncle Probir’s wife hoarsely after Maloti ba as she stormed out of the kitchen. “You witch! How dare you seduce my husband!” Uncle Dilip’s wife came running towards the kitchen and held her sobbing sister-in-law tightly. “Get a grip on yourself now. Come on. Not in front of so many people!” Some seven-eight women reached after uncle Dilip’s wife and one of them shooed us away, “What are you kids doing here? Get lost!”
In all that commotion, people forgot about Aita. “Where is the fifty rupees to be offered for my health?” she cried out in authority once or twice. And then more feebly before she started mumbling as tears wet her eyes. I was passing by her room when I saw her in that state. She looked so helpless. I had never seen her so weak before. “Know what?” she whispered to me across the room, “A person is heard and obeyed only till the time he or she can move about and get things done.” And then, in the same breath, she whispered, “If you see Maloti, ask her to go kill herself.”
After that incident, those twenty people stayed for another seven days in the house, relishing food cooked by my aunts and chatting in the verandahs, rooms, courtyards and backyards. Unlce Probir and Uncle Dilip refused to shell out fifty rupees for something as stupid as “jhar phook” and invited curses from the elderly members of the society, who believed that the two of them had no respect for traditional wisdom. And since the sons were not concerned, they eventually left the house saying they were wasting their time. Two-three elderly women, however, stayed back, letting everyone know that they would leave only when the old woman healed herself completely.
That night, somehow, sleep would not come to me. But I pretended to be asleep. Soon after, I felt a hand on my right thigh. I opened my eyes and turned my head to the right. There was Bijoy, his trembling hand on my thigh, eyes pressed shut. I jerked his trembling hand away; but in a few seconds, it was back on my thigh, slowly climbing up. I threw his hand to the side with more force this time and turned to the left to look at my aunt. She was fast asleep and her son’s hand came back again, trembling and slowly climbing up. “Bijoy,” I said with force, in a voice that was somewhere between a whisper and shout, “Please keep your hand to yourself. I don’t like this!” After that night, for the next twelve days that I was there, I felt nothing crawl over me, and never woke up in the night. But the window kept bothering me. I had seen something. Though I didn’t know what it was or who it was. The day my parents arrived to join me at Aita’s place and take me back, I had somehow grown bold. Now that my parents were there, an inexplicable strength came to me. I decided to explore what lay beyond that window in Uncle Dilip’s room. As I went round the house to get to the back of that room, I crossed Maloti ba in the corridor carrying a tray of tea and biscuits for Aita. Next to the bowl of tea, I saw what looked like a fifty rupee note.
As I reached the back of the house, I saw the window to Aita’s room first. The tea lay untouched on the tray, while she stared hard at the wall in front, crumpling something in her hand. A few seconds later, she threw something with immense force out of the window, almost at my face, still staring at the wall. A crumpled fifty rupee note lay close to my feet. I moved over to the next window, which was in Uncle Dilip’s room right by the bed where we slept, and could smell something that I have known so well – Maloti ba! And then I noticed several of the red phut that adorned Maloti ba’s forehead in the grass. There were several of them. My heart beat like the drums but I couldn’t make anything of the mystery. Just then I heard someone breathe at the window above my head. I looked up. There was Maloti ba, her big eyes glinting in the sun as she stared at me with a finger on her lips.
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mekhela chadars = traditional two-piece attire for Assamese women
phut = traditionally a dot of red color applied in the center of the forehead close to the eyebrows
Bez = a person who uses magic to cure the sick