|Taken from google images|
She stared dreamily out of the window as she rocked her chair, watching the time that became so stagnant in old age falling outside in the form of autumn shedding its leaves. A half remembered song, she started to hum; a song that tuned itself out of those pale, withered lips when they actually belonged somewhere else- in a large rambling house with sloped roof and a haphazard garden at the back. With a tall woman with her saree slipping from her head baring a high, smooth forehead smiling with a large, red bindi sweeping the front yard with a broom as she talked with a small, dainty woman at her side. With two brothers fighting over a game of ball, two brothers arguing over the current developments in medicine and a little girl staring unblinkingly at a wall when all that came to a sudden end.
She didn’t notice a small boy enter the room and call out “Tha’mma!” her mind was far away, listening to the more urgent calls of her lost childhood and then suddenly she said aloud “He must have pulled its tail”…
“Babli”, a small whisper came from the other side of the wooden makeshift wall that separated the two Chakrabarty families. It had erupted one fine morning, that wall, after the death of Babli’s grandfather, putting a definite end to whatever small interaction used to take place- hostile or otherwise. The last breaths of the wizened old man had hardly dispersed into every corner of the house and his two sons, egged on by their complaining waives decided to put an end to it all and divided the squabbling household into two.
It was then that the wall materialized, like the result of a poorly played magic trick, though who the mysterious black-hatted magician was, Babli could not fathom.
The wall not only put an end to the endless quarrels between the two sister-in-laws, it also put an end to the plays of their children. Babli was the only child of her parents, the youngest grandchild of Late Dr. Somesh Chakrabarty. Golu and Tutan were the sons of her Jethu, her father’s elder brother, aged 15 and 8 respectively and it was Tutan Babli had spent her entire childhood with as far as the vague remembrances of her childhood would permit her.
So the separation in their joint family of long baffled her more than it could vex her 7 year old self. Initially it seemed like a new game, like the play they had enacted once of Sita and Lakshman and their intriguing Lakshman rekha; she remembered how Tutan had insisted her to sit in a circle drawn by a broken mango branch under the scorching afternoon sun as he went out on the search for his brother Shree Rama, that ‘search’ turned out to be one for raw, green mangoes later.
But even the half imagined, half exaggerated childhood perception of Babli could decipher that things were more serious than Tutan drawing a circle around her and ordering her not to step out of it, a ‘bum-bum-bhole sadhu baba’ might come and kidnap her away; the ferocity with which her mother slapped her as she tried to sneak into the adjacent realm to taste the ‘taler boda’ Tutan had announced discreetly through the wall, put an end to her consoling story of a well-enacted play coming to an end soon.
And when, on spraining her ankle one day at school didn’t bring her Jethima rushing to her aid with an aluminium mug filled with piping hot water, amurthanjan and a wrinkled old cloth, she finally understood that things were never going to be the same again. Jethima with her bright red, orange and yellow sarees with bold patterns of huts and trees was the best nurse Babli had ever known. Cuts, bruises, burns, sprains… you name it and Jethima with her tall, reassuring frame, ample bosom, a long, grave face and small, twinkling eyes had the remedy for it all. You just had to lie whimpering on the bed till you heard the clamor of her nupur coming your way and you breathe relieved and lie back; you would soon be in safe hands.
Babli often followed the raucous Jethima’s thick silver nupur made; not like the dull, subtle clinks her mother’s ankles announced as she sat near the wall and tracked her footsteps, her heart alighting expectantly as they came near their side of the house, hoping to see a fair, bangled wrist hand out a cham-cham Jethu used to bring from “Ma kali Mishtanna bhandar”, hoping to catch a glimpse of the familiar folds of her starched saree in which she was rescued more than once from her mother. But she never came, the promising sound of her steps always painted a picture of illusion.
So when Babli sprained her ankle, she longed for Jethima to materialize with her ammunition, take her leg in her lap and massage her ankle with amurthanjan as she said something soothing in her deep, rich voice. She remembered how she twirled the cloth in opposite directions with both her hands till they formed a tight roll, dip the middle portion into the hot water, squeeze it slightly and touch it on the ankle with small, deft movements, ignoring the squeals and attempts to wriggle away. But no Jethima came that day and Babli realized that things were terribly wrong.
The long hidden discussions Babli and Tutan had in the backyard sitting on either side of the fence that constituted of the border outside didn’t solve the problem at hand. At first they made a play out if it as well, passing solemn messages of “Don’t worry, I will come to save you on Purnima night” through cracks and crevices, sharing food stolen from the kitchen or supplied by a kind, understanding cook, making weird codes and animals barks as a mode of communication and hanging around with guilty faces at their house, as if carrying the deathly secret of exchanging arms across the Indian border. But soon it became a bore; the physical presence of a person cannot be replaced by the pretense of contact over a distance, the energy and vibrancy of any event becomes subtle and vague.
So Babli wanted Tutan in person to play with, but the still lingering sting of her mother’s slap made her wise enough not to suggest any such thing in her house. It was their summer vacation and even the prospect of school to kill time was robbed away; sitting at home doing nothing all day long almost drove Babli mad.
So she wanted someone, a playmate like Tutan to be with, or something, a new scheme, a new imagined game to keep her occupied. It was then, on one fine morning as she sat with her chin cupped in her hands and her hair oiled and neatly parted in two pony tails that she remembered Kiki, their parrot.
She ran helter-skelter inside and made straight to the place adjoining the kitchen where it was usually kept but the cage was gone. She doubled back without pausing to catch her breath and ran to her mother who was separating the cotton from the seeds outside while gossiping with a neighbor.
“Kothai gelo? Joldi bolo kothai gelo!” Where is it? Tell me fast where it is; she demanded urgently, her breath coming in gasps.
“Ki kothai gelo?” What went where? Her mother asked as both the woman started laughing on the child’s idiosyncrasy.
“Arre Kiki. Amader Kiki. Kothai gelo?” Our Kiki. Where did it go?
In a split second her mother’s expression changed from amused to grave as she said grimly “Ota oder bari te” Its in their house.
“Kar bari te?” whose house, Babli asked as she tried to keep the fear in her heart at bay.
“Ooof! Ki jalaton! Arre oder bari te” Its in their house, her mother repeated, emphasizing on ‘their’.
“Tu… Tutan’er bari te?” Babli asked, her mouth drying suddenly.
Her mother nodded, confirming her worst fears and little Bablis’ shoulders slumped as if a terrible weight had been thrust on them all of a sudden.
Then started Babli’s tantrums- a series of whining, pleadings, fits of temper that nearly drove her parents crazy.
She wanted Kiki. It was her parrot and she wanted it in her house. Who was Tutan to steal it away from her?
Babli’s parents found themselves helpless because technically it wasn’t their parrot. It was Tutan’s father who brought it in their house but this fact was soon forgotten under the layers of family ties and the simple act of sharing. But when the family dispute bared everything down to the ugly arrangement of skeletal concrete that knew nothing except material possession, even a trivial thing like a child’s broken toy claimed debate and hostility.
“But it was Ma who fed Kiki everyday!” Babli screeched one day in sheer frustration, tired of scrambling for arguments every day.
Babli’s mother paused at that; it was true that her sister-in-law used to take no interest in the parrot whatsoever; it was she who had looked after its daily needs. Moreover, Tutan too had hardly ever shown any particular attachment with the bird; it was when heavy downpour would force his boyish games inside he would try and coax a few words out of the parrot. When the same argument was put on a platter with hot pakoras and cha in front of Babli’s father, he said only one thing.
“You made me sever ties with them. I am not stepping into that household you made alien to me ever again”
This made his wife retire in her room with sobs and a general woe on how she was blamed for everything that happened in the house and did he not see how cruel his brother and his family were to them?
Babli soon tired of all the drama; her mother’s sentiments and her father’s indifference wasn’t taking her anywhere. So she decided to take the matter in her own hands and confronted- if you call muted conversation across the fence as confrontation- Tutan.
There was much of debate, argument, fist-fight (all over the fence) which resulted in Tutan becoming more determined about owning the parrot and ended with Babli in hysterics. In the end, tired of the daily squabbles, Tutan came up with a course of action.
“Instead of us deciding who wanted the Kiki, we should let the Kiki decide whom it wanted”
Looking at Babli’s confused expression, Tutan elaborated. “Let us both feed the parrot. The person from whose hand Kiki will eat will get to keep it”
Babli was highly suspicious of Tutan’s plan; what if he would employ some trick, what if he fed the parrot so much beforehand that it wouldn’t eat anymore?
“Arre then it wouldn’t eat from my hand either idiot!” Tutan argued.
And so she relented, she didn’t have any other choice. It was when she was kneeled before Kali ma’s photo, praying for the power that would enable her to feed Kiki like a charm when Tutan’s whispered call urged her to hasten away through her prayers.
“Babli”, the whisper became more urgent and Babli rushed to press her ear against the wall.
“Meow meow bow wow” she muttered softly.
“Oh you are here finally. I am leaving now. Count till hundred and then follow me. On the count of three. One, two, THREE!”
She heard his feet rustling away on the other side and she immediately turned her face to the wall and started counting when she remembered that they weren’t playing hide and seek- those games had ended for her long back…
She gathered the skirts of her frock, clasped Kiki’s favorite biscuit in her palm carefully and sneaked out of the house- the undergrowth behind their servant quarters being their destination. Parrot-coveting games weren’t manageable over a fence or a wall after all. She quickened her steps as she saw the back of Tutan’s head; his short cropped summer cut a familiar sight peeping from behind the bougainvillea bushes.
He turned at the sound of her footsteps, his toothy grin flashed for just the split of a second before he reminded himself the mood of their meeting and turned somber. Babli didn’t smile either and the curious pang she felt in her heart because of the restrain that was causing two cousins, two childhood playmates from greeting each other with a simple thing like a smile was something she couldn’t name, not until later.
They sat facing each other with Kiki in the middle with faces more serious than they had been when they had attempted to call the ghost of their old cook Khudiram kaku by ‘planchet’. The prospect of owning a parrot was somehow more serious than the prospect of confronting a ghost.
“I’ll go first” Tutan said as he wordlessly broke a biscuit and put it to Kiki’s beak. Babli watched breathlessly as she waited for Kiki to turn its head away but nothing of that sort happened. It took the morsel in its beak promptly and holding it with a claw, it munched it down, half the biscuit falling down powdered into oblivion.
Tutan leaned back with a smirk; feeling pleased with himself and motioned Babli to play her part.
Babli took a deep breath before she broke off a small bit from her biscuit and tentatively reached it to the bird, cooing “Amar shona Kiki. Amar mishit Kiki” as she did so.
What happened next was lost in the speed of its occurrence and years later when she tried to recall that incident, all she could remember was the sharp screech of an anguished bird and a sudden flash of pain on her index finger which almost simultaneously started bleeding.
Her tears after that obscured her vision; Tutan and Kiki faded into background as the gash on her finger came to the forefront. But more than that, it was the betrayal of the living creature she believed to be her ‘pet’ that ached her more. She came home in such a mess of blood and tears and pieces of a small, broken heart flying everywhere that her mother bit back her curiosity and put her to bed without raising any questions.
Kiki’s betrayal Babli took on her heart and Tutan somehow seemed to make it all even more personal for her for she never could bear the sight of him again. Every time the whispered prospect of a dal-boda or cham-cham wafted in through that wall, Babli would stare at the cut on her finger, steel herself and walk away. It was that small cut hat became a scar- the only reminder she had chosen to keep of a 7 years of cherished companionship, the only reminder she chose to force upon herself, long after the cut had dissolved in her flesh…
“He must have pulled its tail” she said aloud again, her eyes staring into space with wonder. Her eyes automatically went to the wrinkled skin of her index finger, which had, a long time back nestled a pinkish-red scar. She smoothed her skin there, as if willing to see it again, almost seeing it again, that reminder of silence she bore all her life.
She felt that strange pang in her heart again, not unlike the one she had felt on seeing her cousin’s face bereft from its smile and her own unsmiling face mirrored in his eyes. It was then that she could name that emotion. It was sadness, that deep, limitless thing that weighs upon every living, feeling cell of our body and pulls it down with sheer force, leaving nothing but a void inside. It was sadness that she had felt on seeing the familiar Tutan looking more unfamiliar than ever in her life; it was sadness that she now felt, on seeing herself search for the scar that didn’t even exist anymore but had in irreversible ways, scarred that child’s heart forever.
They had shifted form that house two years later and Babli no longer had to look at her finger to remind herself; Tutan, Kiki’s betrayal, Jethima's bright sarees, Jethu’s cham-chams were all soon stacked with fine layers of time’s dust on the shelf of her memories.
But she would sometimes think of what happened to her cousin, whom he married, where he was now, how old his children were… she sometimes would screw up her face trying to remember what he had looked like when she had known him. But she could never go beyond hat toothy smile, those mud-streaked dirty nails and that closely cropped curly hair- it was as if she had never known anything beyond the nick-name of ‘Tutan’; she couldn’t even remember his real name…
Now as she thought about it, the wall in the middle of their house hadn’t materialized out of thin air like magic. It had grown- grown like a plant grows- first hidden and underneath, frail and unassuming, then bolder, stronger as it pushes itself from the soil till it expands and fills your vision, blocking its origin from your eyes. The wall had grown, invisibly at first to a point that it seemed as if it were always there and hence it had to take a more definite form, a more concrete form.
The wall had grown just like she let the scar grown on her finger from a simple cut; she had gashed it time and again till it was ingrained in her, became a part of her…
She was still rubbing her finger when her grandson’s voice broke her out of her reverie.
“Tha’mma!” he shouted. “You are talking to yourself again and not listening to me!”
“No, my dear” she said apologetically and tried pulling him close to her. But he danced away from her reach, too excited to contain himself.
“Guess what?” he asked, his eyes shining.
“What?” she played along to humor him.
“Baba agreed to get a pet for me!” he squealed and clapped his hands, jumping up and down.
But cold shutters gripped her heart as she tightened the hold on her index finger. “Not… not a parrot I hope?”
“Pooh! PARROT?” he wrinkled his nose as if she had spoken of some nasty, smelly insect. “That is for girls. I will get a dog or a rabbit!”
She didn’t realize she had been holding her breath till she released it on hearing his words, her hands relaxing from their grip.
“Ok ok I have to go now. Jachchi” he said and turned.
“Aashchi” she corrected automatically, her feet starting to rock her chair again.
“Haan haan that only. Aashchi” he shouted and ran out of the room, waving his hand.
She watched his tiny legs running and in her mind’s eyes visualized a small girl running- Babli as she ran taking the heavy shelf of some scarred memories away from her...