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RUMA CHAKRAVARTI

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 2/10/2015 |



My mother’s father was from a village called Gangadharpur. It was a small hamlet in Vikrampur – shaded by trees, a collage of watery greens. It had once been known as ‘Gangadhar Khola’. All around it were villages that were far better known. In the midst of these, the people of Gangadhar Khola felt inferior. When my uncles grew up, they petitioned the District administration and the name was changed to Gangadharpur. This name seemed to promote the village in everyone’s eyes.

Gandaria is at one end of Dhaka. When my father passed away, my mother moved into a rented house in the area with her young children. The house was set in a large block of land; there were many fruit trees and flowering shrubs both at the front and at the back, in the middle stood the house, a small courtyard, kitchens to one side of that yard, separate ones for vegetarians and people who ate meat and fish.

This house was well known as ‘Raimohon Kabiraj’s house’. This was the address what letters had to carry when writing to the people there. They always arrive at the right place. Another reason the house is famous is the huge spreading mango tree that stands at one side of the main door. People use this tree to describe the location of the house, calling it ‘the house with the mango tree’. It covers the place – a sight to behold in mango season. Large round fruit fill the tree each year. These hang from the tree and even get to ripen on the tree. No one, not man nor bird touches the fruit, ripe or otherwise. The fruit are so sour that when people talk about the tree, they screw up their eyes as though they can taste the sourness.

Our eldest brother was in England. A number of siblings born after him passed away after crossing childhood. Then came two older brothers, my sister and I and our baby brother; we make up Mother’s household.

The two older brothers go to a boys’ school. My older sister and I go to ‘Dhaka Eden High School’. A horse drawn carriage hired by the school picks up the girls from their houses. It comes for us as well and drops us off each day. Our brothers walk to school.

Apart from occasional days off, there are two long holidays in a year. One falls during summer and the other during the Pujas. When one finishes, we count down the days till the next one arrives on our fingers. We go to our Mamabari for both these breaks. We grow very excited for a couple of days when the day of departure nears.

One of our uncles comes to accompany us back to the village. Rows of boats line the banks of the Buriganga – ranging from boats with one oar to ones with four oars. The more the number of oars the more the number of boatmen they will need. Correspondingly the boats get bigger.

The boat is selected and the rate fixed by our uncle the night before we leave. The next day we all pile into a horse carriage as soon as dawn breaks and arrive at the river bank. Before the luggage is even loaded on the boat we jostle to get onboard. After we have boarded and our luggage packed away, Mother touches the prow three times with water, touches her forehead with the same hand and sits up on the boat after washing her feet in the river. She gathers us close. The boat starts on its journey.

She is a child of the river country, but she cannot bear the motion of the river. Her head starts to spin as soon as she is on the boat and it becomes impossible for her to sit up. My sister who is older than me is the same. The two of them spread out their bedding and lie down inside the boat. Mother keeps my youngest brother close to herself. I sit outside on the prow with my brothers and our uncle.

One boatman sits behind us with the tiller in his hands; two sit at the front on two sides with the oars. I sit and watch them. The morning is soon gone. The boat enters the Dhaleswari. With this begins a time of great fear. My mother calls out frequently from her bed, where she lies with eyes tightly closed, ‘Brother boatman, are we on the Dhaleswari yet?’

When she hears that the river we are sailing into is the Dhaleswari she presses her head deeper into her pillow and calls upon Ram to keep us all safe.

The boatmen grow anxious. The head boatman looks at the sky and the direction in which the wind blows ; his eye is also on the flow of the water. Then they unfurl the sails to calls of ‘Badr Badr Hoi!’

The Dhaleswari is an erratic river. It moves to no set rhythm. Sometimes the waves beat upon the boat from one direction, sometimes the other. It does not know how to follow a pattern, That is why the boatmen must be even more careful.

Once the Dhaleswari is crossed, the boat settles down. Mother sits up and says, ‘Dear boatman, please moor the boat at the banks for a while and let me walk about a little.’

The boat drops anchor at the banks. We children drop off the side onto land. We run about on the sand banks and in the reed forests. Then we sit on the river bank and eat the food prepared last night, luchis, curried potatoes, sweet halwa. Then it is back to the boat after washing our hands. This time the boatmen are unworried as they set sail. One lights a clay oven stored under the decks at the back all this time. He washes their rice in a clay bowl with water from the river. The rice is then cooked in another clay vessel on the oven. The plump red grains start to dance briskly when the water boils.

When the rice is done, they cook fish. This is mostly hilsa, bought from fishing boats on the way. The salted fish is cooked with green chillies and turmeric and the fragrance fills the air. The boatmen eat one at a time on earthenware plates. They rinse their plates, bowls, pots and pans in the river before putting them away under the planks as before.

The boat travels with a slow swaying motion. Fish eagles fly high overhead. Dolphins surface every now and then to breathe. I watch spellbound.

The sweat dries on the boatmen in the hot sun till there are white marks on their dark backs. Ma calls them salt stains. Apparently they eat more salt and that is why it shows up on their skin. Ma gets anxious as she looks at the time and hurries the boat men, ‘Dear brother, majhibhai, do take us there before it gets dark! Row faster!’

The Ichchamoti is like a dutiful daughter. Her movements are slow and sedate. After the boat enters her waters, it is rowed close to the banks and two of the boatmen jump into the knee deep water. They carry thick ropes and staves in their hands. They climb onto the bank and start pulling the boat along. They tie one end of the rope to the boat and the other end to the stout staff and brace their shoulders against them as they walk along the bank. The boat glides along with them.

Soon the boat approaches a canal that joins the river from the left, washing past the exposed roots of a banyan tree on the high bank. The boatmen put down the rope and the staves and start pushing the boat forward by pushing along the canal bed with poles.

Babon Khan lives by the canal. He was my grandfather’s friend. They were as close as brothers. Ma calls him uncle – Babon Chacha. His eldest son is Ali Hossain Khan. Seeing our boat on the canal, Hossain Mama comes to the edge of the bank, hookah in hand and asks, ‘Whose naiyori do you have in your boat, Boatman?’

Ma peeps out and says, ‘It is me, Hossain Bhai!’ Seeing her, he breaks into smiles and says, ‘Is that sister Puni? So it is!’

My mother’s name was Purnoshoshi. Her elders shortened it to Puni. He goes back to his house quickly and comes back with a bunch of ripe bananas for us. He calls his staff and has jackfruit picked from his trees. He says, ‘Be sure to eat them when you reach home.’

At each turn of the canal are the houses of the Jola(weaver), the Bhuinmali, and the Shaikhs. We call them all our uncles. As soon as they see our boat they come and ask from the bank, ‘Who comes home? Puni didi from the Bose house, I see!’

Word travels from house to house. My grandmother hears about it even before my mother sets foot in her home. When the tide is low, the boat does not go up to the house. Grandmother and her retinue walk along the shore to where the huge clump of bamboo owned by Murali Ghosh stands. By the time the boat reaches it there is quite a crowd of people waiting. During the summer break, we enter the village via this route. During the Puja holidays we travel across the filled lake.

At that time, the rains have long disappeared but the water still stands in the depressions in the earth. From the cemented steps of the Nandis, the lake stretches to the horizon. As soon as people see the boat, they ask each other – whose relatives are coming visiting? Whose daughter is it that comes home? Everyone crowds the shore in happy anticipation. It makes everyone happy to think that a daughter is coming to the village on a visit. We see the crowd from far away. My mother is already standing outside the shade of the boat, on the open deck. Now she does not even remember that her head spins if she is on a boat.

Thanks to the water from the rains, the boat stops right at the house steps. All the village mills about in greeting; both those related to us as well as others, everyone is equally excited, as though we are their guests too. The rest of the day passes in joyful conversation. In the evening, conch shells are blown in various houses. People go home one by one and we are finally free to wash our feet, pay our respects to the holy basil plant in the courtyard and go indoors.

My mother’s home was like her throne. She was the only daughter in a family with eight brothers. She had one older brother and the rest were all younger than her. She was the apple of my grandfather’s eye. Everyone in the village felt that she was his gift to them. They were very proud of her.

She had come home; this meant a celebration in the house. Her brothers, my uncles had milk brought from the dairy sheds in brass pots – to make sweets. They angle for fish in the ponds for us to eat. They cut the soft tips of cane, bethaik, from the rattan forests. My mother loves to eat the boiled, white, peeled tips with rice. They search in all directions for the things she likes to eat: dhnekishak, water arum roots, arum leaves. They climb the betel nut palms to pick the woody fruits. They shake the trunk of the coconut palms to dislodge the dry coconuts they have been saving all these days in her name. Their wives hurry about the huge courtyard on quick feet, their faces veiled. They move tirelessly between kitchen and main house.

Early in the morning our mother bathes and wears fresh clothes before sitting down on the platform in front of the bedrooms. Her sisters –in – law bring bowls of various sizes, both empty and filled with water, the sharp bent blade called the bnoti, baskets filled with vegetables and place them around her. She sits there and cuts them for the meal that day.

Some vegetables she places on a brass plate, others on the wooden platters. Some are piled into cane or bamboo baskets. She says the taste of cut produce can be changed by the container in which it is placed. Potatoes for fish curry and for spicy fish are different in the way they are cut. We cannot tell the difference but my mother can spot them. She is displeased when they get mixed up through carelessness.

Her skill in cutting vegetables is something to learn and to observe. She cuts pale green and white gourd in such a way that it looks like jasmine blossoms arranged in rows. I can still remember the sight of my aunts carrying a plate full of gourd to the kitchen, left hand held high near her shoulder, plate balanced on her upturned palm, like a woman going to the temple with flowers for worship.

Ma cuts the vegetables and all the villagers come to see her and to talk. The courtyard fills up. Her hands keep working as she listens. There is much to hear and listen to – six months worth of stories, of happiness and of sorrow too. Tears are shed and smiles are shared. While we are there, the southern room is always filled with the sounds of people talking to her.

This house is just like the others in the village. There is a courtyard in the middle and the houses have been raised around it. There are four rooms to the east, west, north and south of the courtyard. The breeze and sunshine in the east and the south are the best. These two rooms have tall thatched roofs and are bedrooms. The western room is the kitchen. The one in the north is the most unsuitable for living in. The room is also surrounded by trees and undergrowth. Even during the day, when we look at the shrubbery, it looks back at us, cold and unblinking. No one wants to stay in this room. Someone died there a long time ago; another person might have seen something frightening - these and other stories still cling to its walls. When we walk past in the daytime, our skin crawls with fear. Our eldest aunt holds a village school in the room. When visiting friends need to stay overnight, they are given a bed here.
Translated By:
[RUMA CHAKRAVARTI]





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