How hard can it be to tell a story?
At three in the morning, enslaved by a hyperactive imagination that refuses to sleep, you’ll find it remarkably easy. As easy as gobbling up an entire cake and letting the chomps and munches drown out the dirge of your dying will. I’m telling you, everything just seems to gaze at you longingly, as baked goods do through shop counters, fresh and ready to go. Right in front are perfectly kneaded characters. Ah yes, so perfect that you end up shedding a tear for choosing to kill them off, or feel rather sorry about making them miss a train. The very image of Headmaster Barua, chasing the 7:45 to Lakhimpur1, the poor old man! Gets me every time, you know. Then? Then you see the final story, hot out of the oven, which seems at that moment, a blameless blend of such characters in a plot just as creamy, one which contains and presents its themes in a form as easily digestible as it is delicious. In some cases, this is topped off with a frosting of comic elements which can, occasionally, make you squeal “Hah! Yes!” in the dead of the night, possibly giving birth to at least one neighborhood rumor with the creative potential to rival and perhaps outshine your artistic labors.
However, at 10 am in the morning when you’re sitting in front of a laptop, having consumed copious amounts of tea and equally questionable portions of biscuits and salted peanuts, realization dawns that the magnum opus of the past night had been about as properly stitched together as a Harlequin’s go to garb, after which you go on hitting the backspace key for heaven knows how many times, all the while muttering the choicest curses under your breath. After barely making it through multiple turns on this perilous day-night seesaw and amassing, in the process, enough adrenaline to give the yearly Adventure Park visit a miss, yours truly has arrived at the conclusion that it’s better to let go of any pretense, healthy, in fact, and undertake a venture of honesty and simplicity. Break the fourth wall, as one would say in the performing arts.
This is how I intend to guide you through this story, one we go on writing as you go on reading. How well this enterprise works, if it works at all, is something I leave for you to decide. Midnight trysts with my own mind have taught me not to trust it with anything remotely as critical as fair self-assessment. Is that a nervous smile? Believe me, there is no need whatsoever to be tense. All I am asking for is a touch of free-play with the rules, perhaps more than a touch. It is quite understandable if reader-writer-critic seems like a tall order, but if you would just take care to sit tight, I am certain you’ll find it in yourself to laugh through the most back-breaking p(l)ot holes along this path.
Well then, now that our arrangement has been properly laid out, and I dare hope, mutually agreed upon, I will begin. We have for our setting, Champawati2, Assam. For those of you who don’t know, Assam is a state in the north-eastern part of India. Let’s say it is the fourth of January, 2016. The rays of the winter sun have presently penetrated a group of presumptuous clouds which, if one factors in their flaky-feeble aspects and a perceptibly humble standing in the celestial hierarchy, did give it a go against a ridiculously large ball of fire. We are perched on a hillock, and if we gently lower a few of the curry plants obscuring our view, we spy the National Highway 37, where scores of cars, big and small, can be seen racing down the lanes.
A quick internal investigation of these cars informs us that most of them would be loath to squeeze in another passenger. Unless of course, said passenger is a hitchhiking squirrel, a possibility of which not many recorded instances come to mind. On top of some of the larger of these vehicles are strapped plastic chairs, various utensils and sheets of tarpaulin. Hanging out the door of some others, are human forms swaying to the beats of any recently released Bihu song. If the reader is one for detail, I would suggest in particular the songs of Zubin Garg. Go on, a quick web search will ease your mind.
It is at this point that you scratch your head and begin to wonder- Where on earth are these visibly delighted and alarmingly reckless herds of people headed? Here, I’ll swoop in, ever at your service, and by the authorial power vested in me to include whatever elements I please, we land smack dab in the middle of that mysterious destination. This, faithful reader, is a quintessential picnic spot in the state of Assam. Here, if one is able stand still for long enough to find a gap in the sea of humans…maybe that particular breach there, between the flailing arms of that Drunk man shouting “Narayono Namo Omritoko3…” and the huge, overstuffed bag of the lady in the yellow sari, one can catch a glimpse of the hills and a little waterfall with a stream running by it. Any attempt in particular to wet one’s feet at this stream, to feel the coolness of the water or- insert any random depiction of man embracing nature- is bound to end in disappointment. One who has closed their eyes with hopes of such a communion with the Wild, exhibiting a sort of fugitive devotion which is common in Mother’s Day texts and calls, will sadly be forced to open them after feeling an empty bag of chips graze their toes, or perhaps an orange peel or two. Yes, yes, by all means turn up your nose. It is self-righteous to expect anything different from you when I myself walk around with a handkerchief to my nose in such situations. Nonetheless, I must digress, for it is necessary to say that when it comes to rivers, hills and blankets of green, my little State has very few rivals in the country. Unfortunately, many pristine patches which have blessed us with these bragging rights, now seem battered and bruised, some looking bad enough to have been on the receiving end of a kick to their, ahem, delicate parts. Why, you ask? Oh the reason lies in front of you. Heavens, how pale you look! Do relax my friend, I didn’t singlehandedly raze entire forests to ground. I’m merely suggesting that the current plight of these scenic regions rests entirely on Darwin’s ever evolving prodigy.
Why we do what we do, is as simple as it is ironic. Let me explain here, my theory of excess baggage, which might not be as original as I would like it to be, but is all the same pretty appropriate. Now, tell me, don’t you feel the most exhilarating vacations are the ones where you don’t have to lug around a giant suitcase of amenities? When you impulsively decide to catch a flight to X or Y with just a toothbrush and a single pair of clothes to change into? Picnics are not much different you’ll find. The whole idea behind it, is after all a respite from the material world, a lunch in the non-manicured gardens of the wild, which await us at the end of uphill hikes and meandering dirt tracks. I’ll say it is a solid opportunity to display the veracity of our Mother’s Day outpourings, to reconnect and act out our best version of the Noble Savage4.
Ah, but its easier said than done. Surely, we can’t leave everything behind? We’ll need something to wash our hands with, of course, and a spray or cream to keep off the pests. Maybe something to munch on, while we’re at it. Owing to several such bare ‘necessities’, we end up with a bulging suitcase, filled to the brim with our plastic plates and popcorn, and we drag it around, unconcerned that one or two zippers stayed half open.
So it is that now you find Champawati, teeming with shops selling all sorts of sweets and savouries-raw, cooked or packaged. That right there, is a makeshift stall which deals, illegaly, in alcohol. You can see that the shopkeeper has, at this moment, concluded his business with a gentleman who is briskly walking away with something wrapped in a newspaper. Those people hooting and jumping to roaring music seem to have angered the little grey bird sitting on the lower branch of the Sal tree, who despite putting up at first, a strong resistance of full-throated singing, has now all but given up and can be seen flying away. By the brook is a family happily tossing their disposable plates behind a rock – a most effective method of waste recycling according to recent studies. And what is that in the corner? Oh, simply an inflatable Micky Mouse bouncer for the kids, a wonderful solution to the problem of finding a recreational activity for children in an unending plain of grass.
The tragic hero of our story, however, is not the little bird who showed immense courage in adversity, although I’d add that he just as strongly deserves to be. Meet Raja- a twenty two year old history student back in his hometown for the winter holidays. We’ll picture him with dark grey eyes, chiefly because I fancy them. Sporting a red woolen Kurta4 and a look of unfazed certainty, he strongly believes that life in University has roused his inert socialism. Part of the Kalita family entourage that is now trooping out of that blue and white bus, our hero, much in the manner of his celebrated predecessors, is a man on a mission.
A few years ago, the mere suggestion of a family excursion would have indubitably triggered a series of whiny tantrums on his part. This would be followed by his mother stuffing his face with his favourite Muri Larus5 and afterwards, strategically bringing up his refusal to help her in the kitchen- all of which would sometimes coax him into a grudging nod of approval. Growing up, he had consistently shied away from social intercourse, and this intimidating tunnel of greetings and gossip happened to grow gloomier whenever his family and relatives entered the picture. His mother didn’t give up though. Mothers rarely do, you’ll agree.
“Just a word with Pori Pehi6”, she would nudge him from behind, “And don’t just stand there looking at the ground when Ripon mama7 is talking to you!”
Overcoming her persistence with a competent strain of his own, Raja would, at the slightest opening, ask their leave and sprint upstairs to his room. There he would spend hours dreaming of a world where everyone interacted via email, and small talk acquired a stain of disrepute which it already enjoys in high school corridors. All the same, lying alone on the bed in his dingy little flat in Delhi, he would long for a familiar face to share a word with. Wherever he heard the sound of his mother tongue, he would stop for a moment and let it sink in, which never failed to bring a smile on his face, however temporary. It didn’t matter much whether the source of that sound was his father’s voice on the phone or a pedestrian hurling abuses at a reckless driver. In fact, it didn’t matter at all. If only he could, then and there, laugh his heart out at Ripon Mama’s jokes, or chat up Pori pehi regarding the pleasant monsoon. Yes, you got that right, the poor boy was in the throes of homesickness.
But of course, he couldn’t open up to anyone about his turmoil, an initiative which demanded a fair degree of comfort with communication. Instead, he appeased himself with the popular hypothesis that being an adult means dealing with difficulties on one’s own. Rolling your eyes eh? I know it’s rather ridiculous. We all like to leave the bigger things to ourselves, when it’s actually alright to fidget over nothing. It took me a long, long time to order pizza on my own, what a struggle it was! Now, where was I? Oh yes. Raja and his sob story. After a year of such disconcerting ‘if only’s which had piled up to form a humongous burden on his mind, our champion arrived at a daunting resolution- this time, his mother wouldn’t have to ask him twice. He would talk and laugh and leave an impression that lasts.
There he was then, standing amidst the objects of his operation. Where to begin? He could see Ripon Mama, Dulal Peha and Bimol Jethu8 roaring with laughter over boiled eggs and tea. Chatting away on the mat were Pori Pehi, Leena Jethai and Minu mami with her toddler in tow. His sixteen year old cousin whose name he couldn’t recall (Sweta? Swara?) was sitting by herself, with earphones plugged in. Those must be a damn good pair of earphones, Raja noted as he took in all the hullabaloo around him. His mother and father were standing a little further off, talking in whispers, once in a while stopping to look at him. He decided he would start with the men. He was, after all, no longer the little boy clinging to his mother while his uncles deliberated on sport and politics. Between you and me, I’ll say that their inflexible inventory of pertinent topics was more a dutiful nod to the status quo than a record of genuinely interesting issues. Our leading man considered himself one of them now. Armed with what he adjudged as researched facts and balanced opinions, you can imagine look of pride on his face as he made his way towards his kin.
“What is all this laughter about?” Raja sang, executing his best interpretation of a pleasant enquiry.
“Ah, look who’s here”, Bimol Jethu boomed, “Our very own intellectual in the making. My boy, it is good to have you around after so long. Quite the dashing young man you’ve become. Why, I don’t think I would recognize you if you passed by me a dozen times on the street. Here, have an egg. In fact, take two. A growing lad like you needs a good, daily dose of protein. Come on, I insist. As to the laughter, we were simply losing it over one of Ripon’s wisecracks. Your mama is an absolute riot.” At the end of this remark, Bimol Jethu slapped Ripon mama on his back.
“I’m well aware of Mama’s reputation”, Raja grinned.” Might I hear it as well? I could definitely use a good laugh after that two hour bus journey.”
Ripon Mama looked highly pleased. “Well now, if you insist on an encore, there isn’t much I can do to refuse you.” Thus declaring his helplessness, he began to relate his much in demand joke.
Now, which particularly sexist quip can we attribute to Raja’s beloved uncle? I’ll go with that nasty one I recently came across on Social Media, about the Hindi term for a wife being Bibi(Beebee) because Indian wives sting twice as hard . Yes, that one will do wonderfully. Hearing it, almost instantly the lad’s eyes grew wide with disbelief and disgust. Another set of eyes, namely Ripon mama’s, were also subjected to change, growing narrower at his nephew’s disrespectful silence in response to such a clever pun. Bimol Jethu, who could sense the tension between them, nervously intervened with a classic weapon fired in such situations- change of topic.
“We sure thrashed Pakistan in yesterday’s match, didn’t we?”, he said, casting a sideways glance at Dulal Peha and signalling him to follow his lead.
“Why, definitely”, Peha declared his approval, acknowledging the message. “A brilliant match, wasn’t it Raja?”
Raja felt pity for the two old fellows trying so hard. “Yes, Sharma singlehandedly destroyed their bowling line up”, he answered.
“Don’t I know it!” Dulal Peha cried out. “He full out raped their bowling. Full out.”
That remark sealed the first round for our gladiator, and he admitted it was better to give up on such a straining endeavour. I, for one, wholeheartedly support his decision. There are times when protecting your sanity becomes far more important than protecting your honour. That being said, he was not about to lose hope entirely. Not yet, at least. After all, even Newton had initially been declared a failure. Or had it been Einstein? With the inspiring recollection of an unspecified person overcoming an unspecified difficulty to achieve an unspecified goal, Raja attempted to give it another shot. On to the mat, he urged himself. Time for bit of wrestling.
As he made himself comfortable next to Pori Pehi, she received him with visible surprise.
“Do you want something?” she asked. “Tea? Biscuits?’
Me? No no Pehi.”, Raja fervently rejected such a Utilitarian quest. “I just wanted to chat a bit with you all. I have hardly had the chance to do so. Is that alright?”
At this, Leena Jethai ruffled his hair. This was a tradition she had kept up since Raja was a five year old boy, who had just proudly pointed out to her his crayon masterpiece on the newly painted living room wall.
“Why shouldn’t it be?”, she said with delight. “We were all eagerly waiting for you to visit. I have even prepared two bottles of pickle for you to take back to Delhi, but I had no idea you’d join us for the picnic. You rarely get to come home, I imagine. How is University treating you? Are you having a good time? They say it’s awfully hot over there.”
Raja was touched by her enthusiasm. “My dear Jethai, everything is perfectly fine. But please, don’t make me the center of your conversation. I just want to take part in it, not become it.”
Minu Mami laughed. “Now that is something I never could hope to hear from my man. But I do think you’ll find our chatter tedious. We were just discussing Anita’s upcoming wedding.”
“Do I know her?”, Raja asked, feigning interest.
“Why, you foolish boy, she is your cousin”, Pori Pehi admonished him. “Minu mami’s uncle’s daughter?The one who wore a blue mekhela9 to Saksham’s christening?
Now there’s an aptitude test question, Raja mused. “That makes her my cousin?”
Minu mami eyed him with marked suspicion. “You have a problem with being her cousin? What is it that you’d like to be then? Is there something going on between you two that I don’t know about?”
Without waiting for his response, she rambled on, disapproval written on the wrinkles of her forehead. “Youngsters these days are just the limit. They never tell you a thing, oh no, and make it a point to bring shame to the family. Did you all hear about Bora’s daughter? No? That is strange, it is the talk of the town. She eloped with her lover, her tuition teacher,at that, and with at least a lakh stolen from her fathers locker. tch tch. Why do you look so pale Raja? Why aren’t you answering me?”
Raja could only marvel at the rapidity with which she delivered her dissertation. “Wh…what? Two minutes ago I had no idea who she is. What are you saying?”
“Oh don’t bother yourself with your Mami”, Leena Jethai said with a wave of her hand. “She has a habit of jumping to conclusions. The baby has made her worse, I’ll say. Come now Minu, how could you doubt our own boy like that? Not a single complaint we have ever had because of him, not even in school. His mother has raised him to do good.”
“Right”, Raja added. Relieved at his aquittal, he gathered enough courage to go on with the conversation. “What about Anita’s wedding then?”
“Well”, Pori Pehi whispered. “Has your mother shown you the groom? We all agree its a sorry match. Our Anita is such a pretty young thing, educated too, and the boy seems as dark as a moonless night. Then again, what can we say? Its her own choice.
Minu Mami looked up at the sky with folded hands, and prayed, “I sure hope that their future babies acquire their mother’s complexion.”
Would you look at your face? All red and furious, yet equally helpless. Exactly how Raja felt at the moment. The stranglehold had proved too much for his neck, and he ended up tapping out. Having to recover from another staggering defeat, he immediately excused himself and hurried off to meditate on his mistakes. What an utter nightmare this was turning out to be! Not at all how he imagined it to be. As he looked around in despair, his eyes found his cousin. Of course, he exclaimed. There she was, bobbing her head to music, the last rope he could pull himself up with. Luckily for him, this one was going to be an even match, one on one, with no one to sneak up on him. He went up to her, with a confident glint in his eyes which is usually seen in battle-weary soldiers.
“What’s up, Swapna?”, he opened.
She greeted him with a scowl, annoyed at having to pause a good song. “Swati”, she coldly corrected him.
“Of course”, Raja acknowledged with embarassment. “Why aren’t you with the rest of the family? Why sit here all alone?”
With a surreal expression on her face, Swati muttered, “They don’t understand me, and never will. My broken heart, my broken soul, they mean nothing. Nothing.”
“What?”, Raja blurted out, confused and scared.
Thus began Swati’s rant. “My best friend went for a movie with someone else, can you believe that? We used to text day and night, bunk classes together. Like, she obviously knew I was dying to watch Wonder Woman, but she had to, had to go out with that dumb Meera. These grown ups, I mean, they always brush it off. All they care about is eating and sleeping, seriously. I’m empty inside, dada10. Do you even get it?”
As he kept on blinking at her, she turned away. ” Oh nevermind. You’re one of them too. I saw you sitting with Maa. There’s no point.”
“Of course I get it!”, Raja comforted her. “We all have such moments. In fact, that is almost how I felt after my first break up. But trust me, this is all temporary. Soon enough, you will be cracking jokes about this very incident. And your friend, ah, just you wait. Karma will get her good.”
A hint of a smile appeared on Swatis face. Raja was thrilled at finally having made some progress. “What are you listening to?”, he asked her.
“Tears Don’t Fall, by Bullet For My Valentine. It just speaks to me, you know. Here, check it out.”, she handed over to him her beloved earphones.
Raja felt obliged to honour this act of goodwill. However, after sitting through five minutes of endless screaming, he realized that his success was shortlived, and this budding friendship was about to die a premature death.
“I have an entire playlist”, Swati beamed. “Do you want to listen?”
“Oh uh, definitely”, he mumbled. “I just have to call someone back. My friend keeps pestering me about assignments, can’t do a thing on his own”.
There goes the grand mission, Raja sighed after making a narrow escape. For a moment or two, he kept staring at Minu Mami’s baby, who, for some reason, always seemed bored with everything. Dare I try?, he wondered. Convinced that he was on the edge of madness, Raja hurried off, into the crowd and away from his family. For a while he kept going on and on, lost in his thoughts, and lost in general. Shall we hazard a guess about what was going on in his mind? I think it’s better not to. After all, he deserves some peace and quiet, some time to collect himself. Let us skip this part then, and move on with the tale.
Nearing the spot where he had left them behind, Raja saw that all his relatives had assembled together, their faces lined with concern. For a change, even the baby looked mildly interested.
“Am I late? Are we leaving already?”, He asked his mother.
Everyone stood there, eyeing him with curiosity, until Bimol Jethu, being the eldest, cleared his throat to speak.
“Your mother and father are….. concerned about you.”
“Concerned?”, Our vanquished hero was compelled to raise his eyebrows. “What for? Maa, trust me I don’t even know Anita.”
Yet again, it was Bimol Jethu who answered him.
“What Anita? Look, I’ll put it this way. They feel disturbed by your sudden change of demeanor.”
“You didn’t once hesitate about saying yes to the picnic, ” his mother finally uttered. “And going around, willingly talking to every single person, what was all that about?”
“I had my doubts too”, Ripon mama said. “He has been acting quite strange, didn’t even giggle at my joke. But son, see, you can always tell us if anything is bothering you, you know. All of us here, in fact. We’re ready to listen, that’s what we’re there for. Isn’t that right?”
As everyone nodded vigorously, Raja kept looking at their earnest eyes. Perched atop the Sal tree behind him, a grey bird crooned a mellow tune.
1. A city in Assam, India.
2. Champawati Kunda, a famous fall in the village of Chapanala, Assam. Every year in January, crowds throng to it to usher in the new year.
3. A part of Address to the Tongue, included in the Atma Upadesa (self-correction) section of the famous Vaishnavite Assamese scripture written by Madhavdeva in the 16h century. The address admonishes the tongue for getting drawn to material pleasures. Literal translation: “The one true God’s name is the only ambrosia one should partake of”.
4. The idea that primitive man possessed innate goodness.
5. Sweets made of puffed rice and jaggery.
6. Respectful term for one’s father’s younger sister. He husband is refered to as Peha.
7. Respectful term for one’s mother’s brother. His wife is refered to as Mami.
8. Respectful term for one’s mother’s elder sister’s husband. The elder sister is refered to as Jethai.
9. The lower skirt of the traditional Assamese attire called Mekhela Saador. The saador is the upper garment.
10. Respectful term for elder brother.