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An unenviable Encounter

A short story by Karunamay Sinha

The car had come to a silent stop, without so much as a hint of a jerk. But the snooze broke all the same. Raghab’s eyes opened without a hint of sleepiness as though he weren’t waking up from a slumber. The driver’s seat was empty. He blinked his eyes, yawned and caught a glimpse of his driver’s receding form heading towards a knot of people a little distance away. Must be a landslide. It is a common occurrence in these hilly terrains. But that is during the rains. Well, sometimes shiny October mornings are not spared too. Rains stopped only a few days ago. He looked out the other window of the car. Serpentine strings of vehicles could be seen stranded on hairpin bends. Must be the road had been blocked for quite some time. He found his driver walking back towards the car, absorbed in some thought. As he came close to the car, his eyes fell on his officer.

‘A big landslide, Sir! Looks like we’re stuck for some time.”

He said nothing. The driver walked towards another, smaller knot of people, perhaps his fellow drivers, relieved that he had informed his officer and was now free to enjoy his time until the blockade was cleared. But a little later he appeared at the car window and leaning towards him said, ‘Why not you straighten your limbs, Sir? Take a walk; you can relieve yourself too!’

Not a bad idea, he thought. ‘Well, all right,’ he said and got out of the car and, standing on his toes, stretched his hands and gave a vigorous yawn. Then at a leisurely pace he stepped towards the spot where labourers were slogging away at clearing the blockade as expeditiously as possible. A man in khaki was overseeing the work. Raghab tiptoed his way to the other side of the blockade, careful not to get his shoes soiled with the soft sticky mud. He had spotted a comparatively less crowded space on the other side of the blockade where he could relieve himself. Perhaps his plan has gone awry. He had gladly taken up this task – making an inquiry into an alleged misappropriation of funds by a Block Development Officer in collusion with the local Samiti leaders. Gladly because his village, his place of birth where his mother still lived, was not far from the place. He expected to save time and spend a night or two with his mother.

This was a sore point – an awkward predicament in his otherwise successful, well-arranged life. His mother would not live a choking city life with her son. She was used to a stately life in the village with command and authority over scores of share croppers who dreaded her, respected her and at times – when faced with misery and want – turned to her for succour. She loved disciplining them, browbeating them and at times showering affection on them. Several times did he try to persuade her to part with the landholdings and live with him, her only heir, who would never have anything to do with agricultural land. But his mother, thoroughly feudal that she was in her attitude, had little faith in the efficacy of an invisible bank balance. She didn’t believe that the surrealistic concept of well being with no perceivable wealth could hold good for generations to come. There was no dearth of people there to look after her. She had no cause for anxiety about a lonely existence in her old age.

A faint smile creased his cheeks even as he sighed. His mother’s distrust of modern bank balance-credit card economic security was irremediable.

‘Raghab!’ a faint, diffident tone rang in his ears, as though coming from the depth of his own erratic thoughts. He was just preparing to tiptoe back to the other side of the blockade, his fingertips clenching the creases of his trousers and one leg already off the ground to take a step past the first blob of sticky mud. He froze there, looked around to make sure it was not a figment of his imagination. Then as, certain that there could be no one to utter his name there, he set down the foot on the targeted space, there was another. Someone was calling him. This time, there could be no mistake about it. He looked around with probing eyes. On the side of the cliff was standing a female labourer smiling at him. Her teeth were almost non-existent, but her gums were very prominent and unusually red.

It struck a chord. He knew the smile, for sure. Some scanning device began scanning his memory at a mad speed. Yes! He could never forget that smile. He retraced his step, turned towards the woman and took a few desultory steps.

‘Ino didi, aren’t you?’

The smile widened with a touch of pleasure and accomplishment. But no words followed. He knew she wasn’t the kind to utter too many words. She was born with a peculiar speech disorder. Not exactly dumb. Her voice was something like the screeching of mice and there was a slight lisp in her speech. She was all gums when she smiled; and she smiled all the time. A flood of memories transported him back to his childhood in one swift stroke.

Ino didi was the daughter of a marginal farmer of the village. She was known for her trademark smile and zero ill-will against anyone. Everyone in the village loved her, and trusted her to do just what she was told. Her family was in some way closely related to theirs. He never had the occasion to find out if there were blood ties between the two families. In all probability, it was closeness between a landlord and his loyal, trustworthy tenant farmer.

Whatever, one very memorable day of his childhood was all about Ino didi. He was not more than four years old then. His parents had gone on a day’s tour of a religious shrine. He’d later learned, it was to soothe their broken hearts – broken at the death of his older brother – that they had made the trip. However, they had left him in the care of Ino didi. For they knew Ino wouldn’t do anything other than what she was instructed. Perhaps her parents were given the overall charge of looking after the child. But it was Ino didi who was there all day long playing with him. He could never forget that day. He had made life hell for the poor, introverted girl. He must that very day fulfil all his long-cherished desires when his parents were away; particularly his desire to explore the neighbourhood. And Ino didi was particularly instructed not to allow him out of the compound. His persistent pestering had broken down Ino didi’s resistance. They had strayed into the woody patch behind the house. The tall trees with dark shadows gathering at their bottoms had a kind of primordiality that had always exerted a pull on him. A fairy tale world was awaiting him there, inviting him to come and explore the mysteries of the shadowy world – shadows with weird schemes of sunlight. At noontimes, when the house wore lonely looks with only his mother cooking in the kitchen, he often tried to steal a foray into that world. But his mother would invariably foil his designs with uncanny astuteness. It was this Ino didi who had opened the door of his fantasy world that day. Once inside the mystic world, Ino didi had become a child herself. She had plucked some kind of wild berries and offered him. The juicy berries had a strange sweet-and-sour taste. Then there was the sighting of that strange creature on a tree – lizard-like to look at but bigger in size and with strange colour combinations. It almost flew from one branch of a tree to another. He had sighted it first and attracted Ino didi’s attention to it. Ino didi’s gaze had frozen for a few seconds before she had grabbed hold of his hand and broken into a run for their dear lives. ‘Blood sucker,’ she had explained later. It sucked blood from the navel of young children like him.

Strangely, he didn’t remember anything else about Ino didi except - much later - a word or two being spoken by the village people about Ino getting married. He hadn’t known what kind of a match had come to marry Ino didi and from where. All these years, he had never once remembered a thing about the poor girl of the village whom everyone pitied, everyone loved but nobody considered anything beyond that.

‘I can’t believe this! Where’s your husband? What’re you doing here? What does your husband do?’ he couldn’t wait to find out everything about Ino. Then, from Ino’s grudging, almost reluctant replies, he learnt her husband was a day labourer. They’d shifted to these parts recently; for it was easier here to find work. They earned better here. Her husband has earned a name as a skilled hand at jobs like mending fences and thatch-roofing houses. He is never short of work, goes out every day to day-labour at residences in the neighbourhood. She works for the highway maintenance people – tarring a worn part sometimes, cleaning the sides and sometimes removing blockades caused by landslides as she was doing now. Altogether, she wasn’t unhappy. Her kids? The elder one works for the forest order suppliers, has married and lives separately. Two have died; the youngest one – a girl – goes to school.

Raghab found nothing more to ask. Ino didi’s story was so brief, and uncomplicated. He stayed put thinking what more to say. Neither did Ino seem to have anything to enquire about him. Perhaps she had known he had become a big officer; there was the unmistakable awe in her eyes, awe of talking with a big man. He groped for a parting word but found none. The all-powerful bureaucrat in him wondered if propriety required that he extend a favour to Ino. What favour could he extend to a self-contained woman who had no complaints in life? Ino most certainly wasn’t a scheming snob. She expected nothing out of her once-upon-a-time familiarity with a little child who had now become a big man.

But it didn’t seem easy on his part to just get away from his Ino didi without something appropriate done to express how happy he was to see her after ages. Something inside him said he owed something to his once-upon-a-time playmate, whom he had, out of naivety, considered his elder sister. But he wasn’t sure what it was.

Fortunately for him, the man in khaki had decided to allow the small cars to pass. There was a commotion and busy movements. He grabbed at the change of scene, turned around to take a quick look at what was happening around, and then with an air of extreme hurriedness took himself off uttering some incoherent words of no particular meaning.


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