Ghumi Stories

The Tower of Babel

By Nabanita Sengupta

Jharkhand: Photo Courtesy; Wiki

Raya was little more than three-and-a-half years old when her world suddenly became full of strange babbles. She could not understand the changes in her surroundings, in the people around her and the way they spoke to her. And in turn she went silent. Well, almost.

All that her little mind could remember was a long journey. She remembered her old room and the people there. She also remembered how her mother used to show her a picture of a long thing on wheels called a train. Her mother had told her that they would be travelling by train. She also remembered the journey and how, just as in her mother’s stories, huge trees, houses, farms, vehicles and even people flew past her window. But after a while everything grew dark and she had to sleep on a hard, narrow bed. Of course she took a long time to fall asleep and her mother had to keep on trying various means to make her comfortable. But just after that Raya found her world completely changed. She missed her old world, its people sorely; and would often cry for it. The solace that only familiarity brings to children was suddenly missing. 

Meethu, her mother, was having a difficult time managing Raya’s mood swings and trying to control her tantrums. The active and cheerful child had suddenly turned into a sullen cry baby with perpetually puckered lips. The reason, she rightly thought, was perhaps the change of location – the shift from the familiar to the strange. But they had relocated from Calcutta to this obscure township in Jharkhand recently because of her husband’s job and returning to Calcutta was not even a possibility in the near future.

On her part, Meethu was quite in love with the new place – calm and quiet, free from the tensions of an urban life. But what she loved the most was the greenness of her surroundings that wrapped Ghumi like a cosy blanket. She loved their small two roomed apartment which stood at the end of a series of such houses. These were all factory owned houses. The tar road ended with the boundary wall of her home and from there began a kutcha* road. Theirs was the last of the houses in the factory colony beyond which began the panchayat* area. 

Each afternoon she and her daughter used to take the kutcha road which led them to the river side. She let Raya run around the place, not letting her go too close to the river. For that brief period of time the chirpy little girl in Raya returned each day. Meethu did not want to miss these trips at any cost as she realised whatever it was troubling her little girl, the river side could heal it, even if temporarily. These trips reassured the mother in her that the little girl was not completely lost in the throes of sullenness; that there was still a chance of reclaiming her natural cheerfulness. But, each day, as soon as they reached the vicinity of their home, Raya turned petulant and sullen. 

Apart from Raya’s tantrums, Meethu was struggling on another front too. Ghumi was a place where people had gathered from different parts of the country, tied by a common source of livelihood, the factory. So the commonly spoken language was Hindi there. There were pockets of other vernacular communities too — like a group of Malayali speaking families often held get-togethers and would interact in their mother tongue, similarly a group of Bengalis did the same. But the majority of the people spoke Hindi. That Ghumi was located in the Hindi speaking belt was also a reason for that. Meethu had yet not picked up that language and was trying hard. The only person with whom she could practice speaking it unreservedly was her husband. Otherwise, in the gatherings she felt tongue tied out of diffidence. So whenever her husband, Asim, was free, she struck up a conversation in her heavily accented, broken Hindi. 

It was a chance discovery or perhaps a result of Meethu’s constant monitoring that she realised Raya’s crankiness increased in geometric progression whenever they spoke in Hindi. The little one would glare at them and throw a volley of unfamiliar sounds, gesticulating in anger. Meethu, to confirm her finding, tried switching back to Bangla and she saw that it calmed her daughter immediately. The difference was glaring. It was then that the worried parents realised the root of the problem. But they did not know how to help the little one! Even if they stopped conversing in Hindi in front of her, how would they keep her isolated from the society! They themselves were quite an extrovert couple and had already made friends in the neighborhood. At loss for a proper solution, they decided to give her some time and also to minimise their social interactions for a while. 

But Ghumi had other plans for them. Their neighbour, whom all the kids of the locality addressed as Dadima*, came as their saviour. The silver haired woman had taken a liking to this young Bengali family. She had got used to Meethu’s broken Hindi and enjoyed talking to her for some time at least each day. But she too, out of her own experience, had realised Raya’s discomfort. An extremely observant woman, she had seen the child tug disgruntledly at her mother’s anchal* each time they spoke. She had also heard Meethu expressing her anguish over the child’s behavioral changes. So when Meethu did not come for her daily chitchats for a couple of days, the elderly woman realised something was amiss. She could see them going to the river in the afternoons, so health was not an issue she was sure. 

After a serious contemplation, she visited little Raya’s home with a katori* full of laddoos*. As she called out the little girl’s name from the door, Meethu was a trifle hesitant. She saw the elderly woman and her katori and she cast a glance at Raya playing by herself on the floor. Immediately there was a change in the girl’s demeanour. Dadima called out Raya again, this time in a soft coaxing voice and showed her the laddoos. The little girl’s face mellowed a bit, though she did not take a step forward. Dadima entered the house, kept the katori on the table and whispered to the little girl in a heavily accented tone – ami tomar bandhu (I am your friend). 

Besan Ladoo: Photo Courtesy: Wiki

The little girl’s face broke into a dazzling smile at the sound of the familiar words and she stretched her hand to point at the laddoos. Dadima put a laddoo in her hand and repeated in a heavily accented Bangla – ami tomar bondhu, Dadima (I am your friend, Dadima). Raya took the laddoo and repeated, ami Raya (I am Raya) and pulled the elderly woman towards her toys. Meethu watched in happy amazement as the childhood innocence found the end of her miseries in the comfort of age old experience. 

Dadima broke the ice that day that had been gathering around the little heart. But she did not stop there! She instructed the people of the neighbourhood to stretch their linguistic skills and speak in whatever broken Bangla they could, to put the little member of their community at ease. Slowly, the incorrect, broken language became the balm that healed the little girl’s scared heart. And Raya took wobbling steps between familiar and the unfamiliar vocabulary to find her own space in that harmonious community. 

*kutcha: Unpaved

*panchayat: Village council

*anchal: Loose end of a saree

*Dadima: Grandmother

*Katori: small metal bowl

*laddoo: Indian sweet

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,, and Different Truths. She has presented many research papers in India and abroad.



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