By Nabanita Sengupta
As the train eased itself into the dimly lit station, Purnima peeped out of the door of her compartment. The only bulb tiredly glowing in front of the station office at Ghumi did not do much to dispel darkness. In fact, to Purnima the lonely electric light seemed to highlight the blanket of darkness ahead rather than erase it. Once the train jangled to a complete stop, she descended the three iron steps at the compartment door to get down to the platform. Her brother-in-law rolled the luggage towards her and she quickly pulled them down on the platform. The month old infant, her own flesh and blood and the reason for her being in Calcutta for so many months, was happily sleeping in her sister-in-law’s arms. She was grateful to this elderly couple who had accompanied her from the city to help her during this long journey.
She helped each of them descend before the train hissed and heaved itself into reluctant motion, puffing a lung full of smoke along with tiny specks of coal dust, onwards into the darkness lying ahead. The station was unusually quiet and Kishore was nowhere to be seen. Probably he was on his way, Purnima thought to herself, a little embarrassed by his lack of punctuality at such a time.
This small township in the undivided Bihar, tucked away in a quiet corner of the Chhota Nagpur plateau was never a very busy place. Yet at any given time there would be some twenty to thirty people on the platform including passengers, idlers and beggars. But today, it was just themselves and a young man with his pretty wife they had met on train. All, except the blissfully sleeping baby, were quite disturbed by the unnatural and eerie silence that had enveloped the platform. Only the baby felt secured, comfortable in the arms of those who absolutely adored her. From where this small party of stranded travellers stood, even the station office at a distance gave a despondent look.
Purnima felt uneasy. Already post pregnancy blues and the long journey by train had claimed a heavy toll on her body and mind. Added to it was the unusual calm at the platform and Kishore’s absence. It became a bit more than she could handle; yet she had no option. The tensed and bewildered looks on the other faces belied to her their state of mind and she realised that she had to think of something fast; only she could lead them to a safe place, the only safe place she could now think of — her home. It must have been the bundled infant that she was cradling near her bosom that gave her the required strength and clarity of mind.
Mind has its own way of conjuring things and right at that time she found herself going back to those bloody images that were splashed all over newspapers and television in Calcutta during her stay with her parents there. Riot had exposed its ruthless claws all over the country and the city of her maidenhood too had fallen prey to the monster. Still Calcutta was comparatively less affected, being far away from the epicentre of all troubles.
The Prime Minister had been assassinated and the entire country was ablaze with hate crimes. One man’s action escalated into a prejudice against an entire race and suddenly no one knew who could be trusted. But Purnima had her faith in Ghumi. She was relieved that Kishore, her husband, had returned to the calm and peaceful township of Ghumi, where he worked. There at least nothing could disturb the peace. She could never associate violence with that beautiful township of krishnachuras* and palash*.
Her first journey to Ghumi as a newlywed was still vivid in her mind. It was the beginning of her love story with a place that only deepened with the passing months. In spite of being a thoroughly city bred girl, it did not take her long to succumb to the unique charm that this place had to offer.
Flanked by a river and a hill, Ghumi was as fresh and vibrant as a teenager living a life of bounty as well as discipline. The residents were tied together in a disciplinarian regime, strictly maintained by the regular factory shifts. Since each and everyone drew their livelihood from the factory and its corresponding offices, they had to follow the pattern of life set by it.
To a newcomer like her, such intrusion seemed annoying yet reassuring. Purnima was not much fond of the factory siren that signalled change of shifts for its employees and also decided her everyday routine; yet as a new wife, she felt a grudging gratitude towards those bellowing giants for maintaining regularity in their lives. In the first few months of her unsupervised domesticity, away from both sets of parents and in the land of her husband’s work, the factory siren took up the role of the mother-in-law, ensuring an order amidst the desired and novel anarchy of this new phase of their conjugality. Since then, in the past few years that she has been living in Ghumi, she township drew her into the radius of its unique aura.
It was her mini-India — within a radius of a kilometre from her house, Purnima had made friends with a Malayali aunty, a Punjabi family and another Gujarati one. Apart from that, there were a few families from Bengal and Uttar Pradesh too. All these were people who had relocated from their hometowns in the different states of the country to earn a living in Ghumi.
The women from these houses would often meet for afternoon sessions of tea and gossip. They would return to their houses only when the siren sounded the end of the evening shift — time for their husbands’ homecoming. They would gossip about the latest neighbourhood scandals or about home remedies, and even new recipes. Purnima learnt how to cook various snacks from these ladies. It was an idyllic life where even discords didnot survive for long. At times she wondered at the harmony that this life offered. Was it some fairy tale that she was living through? The happy princess in her abode before the witch struck!
Her years in Calcutta had not been too happy, punctuated by bitter family feuds regarding property ownership and a latent competition that marked every lifestyle change — be it a for new television set or a new vehicle or acquiring a telephone connection. All these acquisitions of consumer items were not just simple moments of joy but at times, of one-upmanship as well. The city droned on like a bumble bee in a monotony of its self-imposed rat race and Purnima never felt herself anything more than an inconsequential entity in a sea of other humans. In contrast, Ghumi in its simplicity became the home she had always wished for. Its peaceful air enticed her to its fold to the point that she completely fell for its utopian charm.
But the vibes that emanated from the railway platform at that moment was very different from those feelings that she had long nurtured in her heart. She pulled herself back to the present. Asking the group to wait, she called the young man away from his pretty wife to accompany her to the station master’s office. But the futility of that feeble attempt was visible to them even before they reached there — the two roomed structure was not only abandoned but also brutally vandalised. She suddenly felt a chill down her spine.
Where was Kishore? The import of his absence from the station only now hit her fully and she had to lean against the nearest wall to steady herself. The young man accompanying her wanted to help, but the habitual shyness of an introvert male confronting a strange woman left him at a complete loss. He merely stood at one side and kept looking at his toe. It took a few minutes for Purnima to regain composure. After all, her precious little one was still wrapped in a bundle of clothes close to her bosom. She could not let go so easily, not without an earnest effort.
Her house was about fifteen minutes walk from the station and she had to take them all there in safety. Yes all, including the unknown couple whom they had known only for the duration of that journey and their familiarity was just a few stray conversations old. She realised that she could not leave this couple stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no one coming to pick them up. Perhaps, it is in such difficult times that we come to terms with the humanitarian soul lying within us. She had long realised that they were new to this place so now she finally asked the man — where will you go from here?
— I have no idea. My uncle was supposed to pick us up but as you can see he too hasn’t arrived!
I think we should stay here and catch the next train home, he added after a thought.
Purnima returned to the rest of the party, the young man in tow, and asked all of them to follow her, completely disregarding the conversation she had a few moments ago. They walked through a narrow lane along the railway tracks, unsure about the dangers lurking along the main road. Worries regarding her absent husband made her stomach lurch vehemently. The lane was dark and full of stones, but as it was along the railway lines, every now and then, there were abandoned compartments left unattended. Purnima felt those might provide them with a shelter if the need arose. They moved quietly, making as less noise as possible, their eyes forced to take in the devastation and ruin all around.
The cloth shop near the station was fully torched, only rubbles lay scattered around — deceased witnesses of Mr. Balwinder Singh’s once thriving entrepreneurship. Purnima stood routed to the spot for some time. Tears of pain, fear and anger trickled down – just a few months ago, before visiting her parents, Balwinder bhaiya* had helped her select dress material for all her cousins. He was a nice man, a bit shortly built for an average Punjabi male. Perhaps, to compensate for that, he sported a huge turban, which Purnima always felt, was precariously balanced on his head. This could not have been a minor clash.
The road smelled of burnt clothes and plastics amidst the pervasive silence. Recollecting herself and mentally preparing for further bleak scenes ahead, she stubbornly prodded forward with the infant in her arms. The rest followed her, as if in a trance. But the rest of the journey did not present them with any more distressing sights except a few uprooted light posts and a couple of battered vehicles as a reminder of the simmering violence.
Purnima, in spite of all her worries about her husband and their own safety, could not help wondering about Jaspreet aunty, her next door neighbour. The fate of Balwinder’s shop had pointed out to her the vulnerability of Jaspreet aunty and her family. The two women of unequal age had spent so many carefree evenings together — Purnima listening to the elder one’s bawdy Punjabi folk songs and reeling with laughter — that Jaspreet had become an irreplaceable part of her life at Ghumi. What had become of them in this world where everything had suddenly turned so ghastly and unreal! All through her way home, Purnima prayed hard. She prayed for her family; she prayed for Jaspreet aunty’s family and for all those she knew.
As this tired party reached her home, everything was dark inside. She could sense human presence within, so asking everyone to wait; she slowly tiptoed to the door and pushed it. It opened by itself but she could not see anybody. Just as she was about to switch on the lights near the door, a hand stopped her.
Even in the dark she knew it was Kishore. Assuring him of her silence and comprehension, she quietly went out to bring the rest of the party in. If Kishore was surprised to see the unknown couple, he kept quiet. In silence he escorted everyone to the bedroom and asked them to wait. Taking their baby from his wife he held both of them close, in a warm embrace of happiness and relief. As they hugged each other, they could feel chunks of weariness slowly melting away from their bodies, rejuvenating them. He did not want to let go, but quickly controlled his emotions and took her along with the baby to the next room, leaving the rest behind. The tired passengers had found a safe haven in his home but he needed his wife and child for something more important.
Unable to leave that night to escort his family home, Kishore had remained rooted to their front window as soon as he heard the train whistle carried into his house through the quiet of the night. After the longest half an hour of his life, he could spot his wife with their baby huddling cautiously along with his brother and sister-in-law. There was another couple too whom he could not identify.
He realised, his wife must have brought them home in absence of any other alternative. He did not mind. After all, in such times, providing a safe stay was all he could do. And God knows, he had been trying to do that since morning. As that tired party approached the gate, he moved away from the window and kept the front door opened. He wanted to keep noise at its minimum, not sure if any miscreants were still around. So he quietly stood by the door, waiting for Purnima to step in. Thankfully, Purnima too was cautious enough.
This morning’s events had rattled him completely. It was in broad daylight that a group of armed men attacked Jaspreet aunty’s house. By then he knew about the fate of Balwinder. So, he had forced the mother and her young son to shift into his house a little before those hooligans broke in. And what a sensible decision it proved to be! He knew his house won’t be spared the search too, so he quickly gave the boy a rough haircut and asked aunty to dress in Purnima’s clothes, complete with sindoor and bangles. Thankfully, the men did not look under the beds or they would have discovered chunks of hair hastily shoved under it. As the men approached his door, Kishore recognised Vimal, a nearby house help, among the hooligans; for a moment he dreaded that his little ruse will be discovered.
But then he saw recognition followed by understanding flicker quickly across Vimal’s eyes when the unruly group entered his house. Kishore at once realised they were safe. There was probably still some humanity left — Vimal did not reveal the identity of his employer. There had been times when Jaspreet aunty would send medicines for his mother or some goodies for his sister. She had even helped him with his father’s funeral. It was his turn to return those acts of kindness today. So Jaspreet aunty passed on as an elderly relative of Kishore, waiting for his wife and the baby – a little deceit of kindness that tied the two men from two diverse strata of society in a secret, unbreakable pact. The rest of the frustrated crowd smashed across his table and glass showcase before leaving to hunt for fresh targets, displeased at having to return empty handed.
Purnima could not believe what she saw when she followed Kishore to the other room! Lying huddled on her bed was Jaspreet aunty. The lady who would always be clad in bright hued loose kaftans or chiffon salwar kameez was lying on her bed wearing a simple beige coloured cotton sari!
Her teenage son was sitting by her side with his head hung low, shorn of its neatly tied turban; in its place stood a set of unevenly cropped hair as if the barber has left his job midway. He did not even look up at her, too embarrassed at his new condition. When Jaspreet aunty looked at her, the eyes were blank – the shock of the morning incident had drained all emotions out of them. Purnima stood looking at them aghast, tears involuntarily sliding down her cheeks. She needed no explanation to understand what had happened. She moved to the window and peeped out — the ravaged bungalow of the Singh’s stood still, waiting for its inmates’ return. Jaspreet aunty called her near and held on to her tightly: “Your uncle is safe, currently under the factory’s protection. Tomorrow the factory along with the paramilitary is going to mobilise a protection and anti-riot force. We shall be safe, but we shall never be the same again”.
Her last line kept echoing in Purnima’s ears. She thrust her baby into the old woman’s arms and watched her frail and furrowed face gradually light up. Tears of love welled up in the eyes which even a while ago were so blank and dry.
“You are my child’s Jassi nani* and my dearest aunt and that can never change. Ghumi can never fail us. Keep faith,” Purnima asserted wholeheartedly.
As the old woman and her son started playing with the infant, Purnima suddenly felt a huge weight lifted off her shoulders and tiredness take over as she slumped down in peaceful fatigue beside the bed. The siren announced the beginning of night shift and Purnima felt assured that her world would return to being the same again, irrespective of its scars.
*krishnachuras : brightly coloured flowering tree
*palash: red flowering tree
*bhaiya: brother, an affectionate and respectful term used in India
*Jassi nani: Jassi grandmother, Jassi being the short form of Jaspreet
Dr. Nabanita Sengupta is an Assistant Professor in English at Sarsuna College Kolkata. She is a creative writer, a research scholar and a translator. Her areas of interest are Translation Studies, Women Studies, Nineteenth century Women’s writings, etc. She has been involved with translation projects of Sahitya Akademi and Viswa Bharati. Her creative writings, reviews and features have been variously published art Prachya Review, SETU, Muse India, Coldnoon, Café Dissensus, NewsMinute.in, News18.com and Different Truths. She has presented many research papers in India and abroad.
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