Stories from Garo Hills
Madam had a face like the moon, luminous and still. At nine in the morning she was asleep. The household was awake but only just. The marble floors reflected light and the boy in the kitchen was clattering pots from last night’s dinner, eyes still bleary.
In pouring rain, the three-wheeler made its way, looking for the house. Stopping every now and then for the passengers to ask for directions. Everybody said,”there, behind” and pointed to behind. Behind the field of rice, behind the wall, behind the tree, behind the row of shops selling granite. The three wheeler phat phatted into a lane, its shoulders grazing the brick walls, the rain washing it, the smoke leaving its behind. At the end of the lane, the house stood. But only just.
The passengers wanted to stay for a few days. Only Madam could decide that and she was asleep. So they waited in the large room on the ground floor on an L shaped sofa with the corner cushions missing. The matching two one seat sofas were draped with clothes and all along the marble floor lay the debris of travelers. remnants of make shift beds, bags, slippers. People wandered freely around or sat in groups on the floor talking, with glasses of steaming, milky tea in their hands. The newly arrived family waited.
A grand stair- case led the way up. The atmosphere was not the same on the first floor. Empty of people, the big hall accommodated only two tables. One was a Ping-Pong table and the other, a large dining table, surrounded by chairs that stood on the white marble floor. All around the hall were doors. Private bedrooms with private bathrooms. For the VIP’s. When they bothered to come to this town that is. Only around election time.
One VIP was here to stay. In the far corner, in a room with its own terrace, Madam lay asleep.
The rain fell and still she did not descend the stairs. It fell on the heaps of uncollected garbage on the pavements and spilled onto the roads. It fell into the holes made by missing slabs of stone and gushed down the open gutters. It fell on the tattered umbrellas tied with scraps of cloth onto the bicycles of the rickshaw wallahs. They pedaled fiercely on; their sunken eyes blood shot with the combined effects of an empty stomach and malaria. Lips stained red with betel leaf, areca nut and lime that was eaten to kill the hunger that gnawed at them. It fell on the thatch and the plastic roofs of huts that still managed to stand. It fell into the swollen river. It fell into the large cavities formed by old houses pulled out of the earth, like teeth extracted without anesthesia. In this landscape of shifting mud, the house in which Madam slept, stood. But only just.
Till the end of Chu
It turned out that Nanseng, the dead man had been baptized a Catholic, along with his wife only two weeks before his death. His name had then been changed to Nanseng Simon.
“And why did he convert”, Othol wanted to know.
“The body will die pure, no?”
“NO”, said Othol, “NO”.
A thin youth with a serious face turned up.
“It’s time for the prayer meeting”, he said in a soft voice. “Hello”, he held out his hand for Othol to shake. “I am the representative of the Students Union stationed here to lead the people in prayer and to teach in the school. What brings you here?”, he asked politely.
But Othol was not polite when he replied
“Is it true that you are distributing malaria pills and using them to tempt the people to believe in the miracles of Jesus Christ”? he said vehemently.
Hamlet, the youth replied calmly, “The nearest government medical center is forty kilometers away and the doctor is on duty when he feels like. The people come to me themselves seeking the path of the Lord. I am here to do the work of God.”
“Oh really”, stormed Othol. “There should be a law to put ones like you behind bars”.
Hamlet smiled calmly and left to lead the prayer meeting
” So, where are the slaughtered cows going to if he is a Christian on his way to heaven?” Othol wanted to know.
“His relatives, no, they are not Christians?they are Songsareks believing in the animist religion. They will give him cows to have in Balpakkram, no”.
Othol had never heard of Songsareks.
“Tribal peoples, no”, offered the boys by way of explanation.?
If Dakot could, she would tell you this story herself, but she is not here. She would probably tell you that she never imagined that she would return as a ghost one day to haunt Pilme, Arep, Rikji and her other friends.
What a time! One moment the sun cooks you and the next, the rain comes lashing down. Everything that can creep, crawl, fly, buzz, whine or stick has made its appearance. Even the lusty cicadas have been driven to silence with this explosion of life. Moss covers the hilly pathways and the tree trunks. Slipping downhill, you try to swat the insect that stings. Ambitious leeches lie in wait for passing feet, hooves or paws. Cockroaches come flying into your food. Toads sit heavy and still, their skins covered in blisters. Snakes lie hidden in the grass… spider webs are built in seconds?now you didn’t see them, now you do. The size of an infant’s palm, the black spider hangs, pretending deep sleep. Armies of ants are busy, busy?carrying dead bodies of other creatures several times their size. Anyone interfering in this feasting animal life runs the risk of receiving the sting, the bite, and the fatal kiss.
In such a time, Dakot ran away from home.
The next night and the night after that, the scene in the kachari was somewhat the same as on Saturday night, with some variations. One night Ambi brought out freshly boiled corncobs for all to enjoy and joined the folks in smokes and jokes. When she laughed, there were no teeth to be seen and though she had a difficult time chewing the corn herself, she was happy to share it. Elwin was there every night. So were the transistors. Kasi was not.
“Elwin, do you know in which village Govinda lives?”
“Bombay? Bombay, they repeated and laughed.
“Have you been to Bombay”?
“Did you meet Govinda’s wife”?
“No. Bombay is a big place – many, many thousands of people. It is not like your village where everyone knows everyone else”.
“Isn’t Karishma his wife outside the movies also”?
“No, she isn’t”.
Is Govinda still young like in the movies or has he grown old”?.
“He is still young”.
One woman began to sing in her heavily accented Hindi..
“Kabhi, kabhi mere dil mein khayal aata hai, ki jaise tujh ko banaya gaya hei mere liye?”
It made everyone laugh .
“Do you know the meaning of the song”? asked Elwin.
“No”, she said
“Nobody knows Hindi here”.
“This is All India Radio Tura”, said a voice in Garo on the transistor. A request from Pradeep Sangma, Nanseng Marak, Meringpole Sangma, Crusie Sangma, Barbara Sangma, Lorinda Marak and George Momin. The song churaliya from the film Yaadon ki baraat sung by Lata Mangeshkar .
Many voices began to sing along with the transistor..”Churaliya hein thum ne jo dil ko,
Nazar nahi churana sanam. Badalke meri tum zindgani, kahi badalna jana sanam.”
“Elwin, do you know what it means”?
“Tell us the meaning”.
Elwin laughed. He said,”if you go to plains Assam where people know Hindi and sing this song, a young man may think you love him.”
“So what does it mean”.
Elwin was beginning to enjoy his position as the one who knew. He said,”I won’t tell you” and began to laugh?.”Tomorrow. I will tell you tomorrow”. He left the kachari.
Other topics kept the people in the kachari occupied for the next two hours there was one TV in the village in Nath’s house and getting to watch it was not always possible. These were not particularly sunny days and his TV was powered by solar energy. After a gruelling day weeding fields , the company of others, the transistor , the cigarettes? and corncobs when available were the pleasures to look forward to. Through the woven bamboo walls of his borrowed room, Elwin heard the subjects change one after the other the trapped mynah’s mother crying for her, the black cat stealing milk, someone’s back hurt, someone cut his thumb. What a question?is Govinda still young or old”, he thought as he drifted off to sleep.