Friday, 20 June 2008

A Tale of the Lost

It all happened quite a long time ago. They were the residents of Gosainpara, Mukundapur. Her father, with a rotund belly and huge moustache (a typical iconic example representing the middle class male-dominated-society) worked in a small grocery store that stood at the end of the lane. Her mother, a homemaker, was the mistress of the kitchen, a kind and a meek personality adorned by the red-bordered white sari worn in the old Bengali style and a big round red Sun of the sindoor drawn on her forehead. The family scene can be completed by the presence of children (and sure enough, there was no dearth of it in her family): they were three sisters (including her) and a younger brother, she being the eldest of all.

She studied in the ninth standard then, in the neighbourhood Malati Girl’s High School. She remembers the small classroom, the small desks and chairs made out of rusted tin – she, solving Maths sums, sitting at her desk at her corner of the room… Two plaits done with red ribbons hung low on her shoulders, the blue blouse and the blue-bordered white sari neatly ironed and pleated – she remembers it was the year she had just started wearing saris… It was then that she met him, her Benimadhab.

The first time that she met him was at the house of her close pal Sulekha. He had just returned to the town from the city, completing his higher education. They used to say that he was a good student – yes, he must have been a very good student… She was just a mediocre student, she recalls, “poor at Arithmetic, but good at literature”. Oh, yes Benimadhab! She had completed the Sharat Rachanabali by then (from the neighbourhood library), but Bibhutibhushan was still her favourite…

Benimadhab came from the city, but heaven knows why that made her realise she wasn’t pretty! She was dark and thin. She also realised that her father was a mere grocery seller – “Would you mind that, Benimadhab??”… Ah, Benimadhab, nothing would stop the hues from blossoming in the spring! No, it did not. Everytime you looked at her, she ran to hide herself, her heart beating, her apprehension giving way to ecstasy… After all, it was her class nine; it was her “sweet sixteen”!

Did you know anything of her feelings, Benimadhab?? She was so sure that you understood her, that you read through her “unwritten saga”, that you also had fallen in love with her… She never uttered a word about it, never a word, never to anyone.

Do you still remember her, Benimadhab?? Ah, yes! You must have said all about those days to your girlfriend, your sweetheart… She saw her only once, beside you, beneath the moonlight – flash of a brighter light, a harder light of truth! Her eyes burned, her throat choked. She didn’t cry... That day, she took the other way to home.

She never said a word – never to anyone. Her tale remains untold, buried deep in a forgotten ally of her heart. The following year, her father died of a stroke. Her mother, a widow now, didn’t have the sun of sindoor anymore adorned on her pretty forehead – a life that was to be led san colour, san taste, san merriment for the rest of it’s time. She was the eldest of all her siblings – “Bordi”. After passing her Madhyamik exams, she started tutoring the girls of the locality the art of sewing: something at which she was very deft and for which nobody seemed to ask her a degree or a certificate. The income was really meager at first and for the first few years, the family of five was almost under starvation. She was insistent on the education of her younger sisters and brother, but the school fees remained unpaid for quite some time… Their mother passed away four years following their father’s decease.

She stirs back to the present, twenty years since she was sixteen – twenty years since “Benimadhab” happened… The sister after her has taken into the profession of a call girl. This sister doesn’t live with them anymore, neither does her brother. Her brother works as a motor mechanic in the city and now resides there. She has remained unmarried – the battle for existence has been so hard that she has never had a chance to brood over her “emptiness” – the strands of harsh reality have stifled down the sobs of a teenaged girl.

I’ve retold Joy Goswami’s poem in my own words, in my very own way (I hope readers will pardon my impudence). The story could have ended where her silent romance with Benimadhab was unintentionally betrayed. But, it didn’t. Probably, because that was simply the beginning of her tale – the journey that had to be hers and hers alone. The craving for a friend, for someone to love, for someone who would stay and walk the life with her, for someone who would be there to give her the littlest of the warmth and support that every person desires – all of it started there. Precisely, “Benimadhab” was the commencement of a barren life, won over with extraordinary blatancy.
Benimadhab, benimadhab, tomaar baari jaabo,
Benimadhab, tumi ki aar aamaar kotha bhaabo…”

At the end of the poem, a suppressed pain upsurges after all these years and suddenly, she wonders if the chastity of her faminity that she has preserved through all this time was enough a “sacrifice for nothing”; if that would ever be acknowledged by the world at large. She amuses at the stark cruelty of her fate and tests the world with a final question, “Kemon hobe aamio jodi noshto meye hoi?...” [“How would it be if I also took to prostitution?...”]


Hers isn’t a Cinderella story and she hasn’t been a Cinderella. Hers is a tale of an utterly ordinary woman (once a girl full of sensuality and perhaps, "possibility") – the Bangla tutor of the local primary school of a small town, the sewing mistress of the locality, the sales-woman at the mini-store, the type-machinist at the Xerox shop… She talks little; she is not pretty neither is she an intellectual; with a serious face but kind features, she is a person we all have met somewhere… Hers is a story of the lost – hers is a story which isn’t found in any of the world epics. Hers is a tale which is to be written yet…

Monday, 2 June 2008

Floating Lamp of Shadow Valley

"If there's paradise on Earth, it is this, it is this."

Kashmir. The closest thing to heaven on Earth. A valley sparkling in serene beauty-- snow capped mountains, moss-covered lakes, trees adorned in brilliant green, boathouses, and a little boy named Arif.

This is the story of a boat-"man". Of Arif. A nine-year old child who has the wondrous eyes to look at his world; who, at this tender age, knows what is duty and what is whim, what is right
and what is wrong. This is the story of Arif. And of a reason why I still want to live.

The sole earning member of a family of six, Arif gets up every morning and goes out with his boat for a day's work. He has to work every day; for if he doesn't, the whole family will have to go without food. With such a firm responsibility placed on his tender shoulders, Arif has accepted his fate with cheerful happiness. That is why the cold winter days cannot subdue his spirit-- he still manages to push his boat through the frozen Dal lake with firm determination. His thin arms have already developed the strength to push the oar through such a difficult terrain, which is no different from Arif's own life. And Arif knows that his arms have to push the oar forward so that he can reach the other bank-- for that is where his dreams lie.

Arif lives in a small shack built on the edge of the water with his mother and four other siblings:
two little brothers, an elder sister and a little one too! His father is a terrorist, who does not take care of the family but wastes his time swaying between gun and dope. Hence, Arif has been left with no other choice. On a good day, he gets about 50 rupees from ferrying passengers to and fro. And he hands all of the money to his mother, who is slowly saving up so that one day they can buy some land of their own and build a house.

When asked about his father, Arif says that he does not care for him. Arif knows that what his father is doing is not right, and he does not mince his words when expressing so. Even at the early age of nine, Arif has already learnt one of the greatest, and yet undeniably important lessons in life-- killing people is unpardonable and wrong. He could easily have chosen the gun to eradicate his misery. He picked up the oar at the age of seven instead. Rightly has Dumbledore said that it is choices that ultimately decide who we are.

The little boy has witnessed the burning face of terror himself-- once when he was in Srinagar, the tourist department was blown up by terrorists before Arif's own eyes. That was the day before the now (in)famous Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus started as a conciliatory gesture between India and Pakistan. The boy expresses how suddenly fear struck him that day-- fear not for his safety-- fear from apprehension and a terrible gut-feeling: what if one of the terrorists involved is his own father!

Arif's shack has got new holes in the tiled roof. So he sets off for the big city once more with his younger brother to buy a new sheet of plastic to stretch on the roof of hishouse. This time, he takes a different route than the previous time. What if terrorists attack again? Well, terrorists may attack anywhere, but then Arif will have to find another route then! At least, that is what the innocent child thinks.

The house is mended. But the Dal Lake belongs to none, and most certainly not Arif and his family. The authorities have notified Arif's mother that if they do not evacuate within a time bracket, the shack will be torn down. Arif has no answer this time. He does not know where he will go if his house is demolished. But he knows one thing-- that there is only one gateway to a bright future: education. And hence, Arif takes himself and his siblings school by himself on his dear old boat (which has gone through a repair already so that it does not fall apart from being worn down by water and weather). The image of a nine-year old child in school uniform rowing four other children in his own boat is heartening-- the boy is already performing a duty that elders do. A young boy shouldering the responsibility of grown-ups is something that is rare in our 'normal' world. Perhaps, only desperate times and situations rear mature men! Oh, how happy would I have been to see people my age become only half as mature and responsible as Arif!

And yet for all his maturity, Arif is a child. A child at heart, not one merely by age. It's raining hard, and Arif has a huge lotus leaf perched on his head to protect him from the downpour. And suddenly he notices a small pup playfully balancing itself in a small "island" of floating debris in the lake. A boy who has no friends because he has suddenly grown up so much has a new companion now. He takes the pup home with him, lovingly caressing it's fur in between bursts of rowing. The children rejoice in the arrival of a new friend back at home. But happiness abandons the family again. The little dog is run over by a car. And it is absolutely heartbreaking to see tears rolling down the cheeks of all the small children as they give their lamp of shortlived mirth a proper Muslim farewell.

It's good bye time for us too. Who knows what happens to Arif? No one. And yet, as a viewer, I am optimistic. Perhaps he is still ferrying passengers. Perhaps his family have finally succeeded in affording a plot of land of their own. But we do know one thing. We know that there is something to learn from this story. A few things from that little child. The school-shooting champions (if you know what I mean!) could learn a bit of right and wrong. The spoilt and pampered brat could learn a bit of responsibility. And, maybe, everyone of us could learn a whole lot of unaffected innocence.