21st August, 2019.
North Lakhimpur, Assam.
‘Fill-up this form please,’ Sneha said; she sat on the other side of the glass table wearing a white Kurti. Why is she wearing all white? It isn’t a funeral. I looked around; the room washed in azure blue, pink plastic roses blossomed with dust at each edges. It was fancy. I looked at Anubhab, my only heir; his eyes- they didn’t sparkle with love, they were cold.
I glanced back at Sneha. She gave a comforting smile. I don’t want to be away from my grandson. Wished I could speak through mind. Wished my son would listen.
‘Deuta (Father), you will be fine it’s just for a few days?’
He signed his part, didn’t bother a read. It’s okay. Anubhab must be having a hectic schedule. It’s just for a few days, remember.
‘Come soon,’ I smiled.
They shook hands, threw his unconcerned-joyless smile as he paced himself outside. He left.
4th October, 2019.
‘Where are you? Why the hell are you so late?’ Anubhab making his tenth call to the bus. He screamed louder every time, cursing. Work has saturated his life; I am barely a part now. That cold-reception, his distant emotionless smiles: I wished he was the same son when he was ten. I wished I hadn’t had the need to catch a glimpse of my grandson yesterday.
I waited in the car, those flashbacks haunted my mind as the morning sun reflected through windshield. I stepped out, pulled my trolley; Anubhab was still on his phone. I could see his face frowned read his cursing lips, my eyes yearned for the bus. I needed to be away from that despiteful son of mine.
7:00 a.m. At long last the bus arrived. A rusty piece of steel painted in red and off-white, its windshield cracks sparkled from miles. OLD AGED TO TAWANG, an American old hag smiled in the banner screening its hood. Conductor, almost my age. Seventy-five. He didn’t show his happy eyes.
‘Delete our number,’ he said to my son. I felt agreeing. Took the thirteenth seat. My favourite seat number. Glared the emptied bus as I straightened my spine.
I waited for his goodbye. I guess he was late for his office then.
North Lakhimpur, Assam.
10:00 a.m. Blazing heat scorched the streets, sizzling aroma of jalebies populated the troposphere, conductor screamed at every human he saw and the driver honked. Oh it was irritating. It was still half a mile from our old aged home, vendors stood against their bulky pan with boiling oil- perspiring, shaping fresh jalebies. Mandaps suffocated with people struggling to offer their bit of prayers to Maa Durga even during the blazing daylight.
I missed Jorhat.
They waited in a queue holding their bags. Sneha dressed as a tour guide, greeted me as she got in the bus first. I looked at my watch, it was ten already. Everyone took their seat number, Arun hassled with Suraj for he his seat. Well, I wasn’t surprised they didn’t want the seat next to me. Their intense choice of words greeted every pair of eyes. Annoying!
Fill your stay with bitter silence, appreciate the despairing loneliness, dole out your irked gaze so no one gets close and you wouldn’t be discontented when no one likes. It wasn’t solitude but those flashes of losing my family, my son; engraved my soul with misery. I wanted to be alone.
Life suffocates until you crawl begging for mercy.
‘Stop your nonsense. Arun, take my seat,’ a sweet voice from the frontal, heads turned to the words. She stood there, away from her seat endowing an annoyed stance at Arun and Suraj. A white mekhela (an assamese traditional attire) dotted with green petals around doha (strings designed out of the mekhela) wrapped around her, the right hand held her red flocculent hand bag.
It didn’t look good.
The whole dummied up as the driver started the engine, its powerful noise rattled every wizened soul in the bus. Me too. I admired the flourishing paddy field. These nonsensical dramas that’s a part of their everyday life, Bloody retards. I hated them.
I hate my life. God, what has changed my son?
‘Good Morning,’ the same voice; I remembered despite my memory wrinkling with my age. She took the seat beside me, I felt the bump. Her hands jiggled through the huge hand bag she placed on her lap; Huh! that annoying sound of polythene. Damn Lady, Shut it down. The paddies soothed my mind. I preferred them.
Greetings, friendships, family… everything impairs life. At this point I don’t believe I could handle much.
We left for Tawang; the tea gardens tract bordering the highway; I wondered why does greens pacifies me, why does it always find me in my lowest. My head rested on the cushioned seat- inclined; eyes witnessed the enchanting panorama. Ah! The air brushing my skin, Exhilarating. It was quiet, we had crossed the Satajaan Bird Sanctuary. I saw a sign. It was quite startling like I was young again. Uncommunicativeness, ah! Perfect. I looked around, the whole buried in their dreams; a comforting sullenness and then it happened. The cursing nose of Abhishek, it hadn’t had enough erasing my every relaxing hour. I still endure those traumas of my first night in the ‘Sweet Old Aged home’, battling every positions to cover my ears; When the sun shone bright through my window. Oh! I knew I survived hell.
Suddenly her eyes came to life, she got on her feet- red eyes, wrinkled veins pumped in blood reveled themselves. She banged her knapsack on the seat. Oh! It was terrifying. I could sense she wanted to kill someone. I just didn’t care. She marched to the back; I wanted to tilt my neck and catch the glimpse of her screeching but the wind, that invigorating breeze. I stared that highway again.
‘Nisha Ji, What the hell? Why did you put that in my mouth?’ an infuriating high pitched sound from the end seats.
‘So she is Nisha,’ I said in my mind. ‘It’s a beautiful name.’ She was already on her seat- eyes closed, peaceful breaths, face turned towards roof, her hands cuddled the huge bag she placed on her lap.
I wouldn’t care but I suddenly realized- It was first time I sitting next to a woman other than Reema; my late wife. Nisha had those peaceful naps, the same sweet eyes, Ah! and her wizened smile just took me to the past. She was gorgeous just like her.
Oh God! Please give me back my son. I beg you.
3:00 p.m. People rushed through streets, cars parked everywhere across the crossroads and the endless honks. Oh God! this nonsense, make it stop. The air wasn’t relaxing, those heavy carbons in the atmosphere blackened the wind… I couldn’t breathe. Rusted steel roofs covered every shop. Damn, it was hot there. The bus stopped at BAIKUNTHA’s.
‘Slept well?’ I looked at Nisha, she jolted awake when the bus stopped. Deep breaths- first, second one… a last breath.
‘Uff!’ her hands jiggled again through the hand bag, she pulled out a pink bottle this time barely fitting her both aged hands. She lacked strength. I held the bottom, she took a few gulps.
I didn’t want to help. Shit, my hands moved.
‘Thank you,’ she said with a smile. She was nice. ‘Have delicious lunch- veg, non-veg, roti, tea… everything you like at Baikuntha,’ the waiter thumped the bus door, kept yelling the same line many times. I tell you when you are hungry these explosion of words, honks and the dazzling sun just blows up the old brain.
‘Aren’t you hungry?’
‘Umm… a bit,’ I could have said better.
How could my son hate me?
‘Baikuntha is the best here,’ and she went on with her story of her previous visit to Tawang, her last visit with family. Interpreted every scene of her journey- the calming landscapes, relaxing snows and that I should probably put on my sweater as soon we cross Bomdila. She chewed the food once in a while, bit by bit description required a lot of mouth movement; no doubt she wasted.
Baikuntha was the best hotel she visited in her life-time. Her exact words were ‘If the world would end tomorrow, I would like to taste Baikuntha’s chicken biryani for one last time.’ Honestly it wasn’t that great and when everyone keeps staring, you barely enjoy eating. They were astonished.
Everyone rushed for their seats as the engine started. I took a few puffs at peace, the driver joined me. We smiled.
‘Next stop, Bhalupung,’ he said and the bus moved at a smooth velocity.
‘I am Nisha Talukdar,’ She broke the silence. I could feel her love for gossips now.
‘So, why do think your offspring left you?’
‘Excuse me.’ I didn’t like the question. My son didn’t leave me; it was the Satan possessing him. My son could never do that. I stared the scenery.
‘Sorry if you felt hurt, but you know we all suffer the same fate here… believe it or not.’
I preferred the silence. She wasn’t nice, her words as if cursed my soul.
‘Sorry Anurag, I didn’t want to hurt you.’
‘Anyway, was the Baikuntha’s biryani tasty?’ she had a delighted face, her eyes looked at me searching for a yes.
‘Yes.’ I whispered. Didn’t want to talk, but I felt trying not to be rude.
‘I knew you would like it. Well! No-one can dislike Baikuntha.’
A few seconds of silence. Those peaceful moments, reminding my horrifying fate. The green lands, the highway they weren’t musical now.
‘Why don’t you talk much?’ and there she was again, with another effort for a conversation.
‘I don’t feel like.’
‘You know… It’s been five years since my children left me with these people. These people aren’t bad Anurag, spend some time with everyone… you might feel at home again.’
‘Don’t you miss your children?’
‘Huh,’ her eyes wet, she pulled out a handkerchief, blew her nose brutally… tears poured down her old cheeks, ‘A mother can never tolerate her child away from her, sir. I call thousands time they didn’t receive, I spent days separating myself from everyone, I hated my life. I even believed the children were possessed by Satan. I prayed every day, every second to God, sat against the phone hoping it might ring for me.’
I still prayed in my imagination. Obviously, I wanted to be with my family.
The sun blazed out its fainted luster, chilly air quivered my sluggish bones with nightfall. I closed the window. She hushed herself. I kept listening. You can never be rude to the weeping ones.
‘Anurag, I would just share one thing. In this world you have no-one except yourself not even the ones you think as family.’
‘How did you survive this five years?’ I wanted to know- How could a human live without love.
‘At some point of time you will lose hope and faith; in everything,’ She rested her head, covered her eyes and her face with those soft weak hands.
I felt her pain. That persistent pain of separation. Hope of having her child back again in each words she spoke. I felt that.
It was finally dark, blue LED’s lit along the edges. It was like the new aged films with a whole world of nudity and disco bars. She ended, I relaxed myself on the muffled seat- a few deep inhales. I wasn’t sure what I felt at the moment, I couldn’t understand if it was the sadness of not seeing my son until last breath or to live the rest of life in misery accepting the fate.
‘Anurag da. Are you ok?’
Some inaudible words, a hand on my shoulder- jostling, I slowly opened my eyes. Nisha pressed my shoulder, Sneha held a cup with a distressed face, Suraj and Arun stood there with the crowd. Of course, I didn’t know everyone’s name.
‘Are you okay?’ Nisha and Sneha said at the same time, a coughed voice. ‘Do you need to see the doctor’
‘No. No. It’s okay.’ I paralyzed, I didn’t tell.
‘You scared us all,’ Sneha gave me the cup of tea, it was cold; she took it back in a jiffy, poured me a warm one. Reassured the mass on my well-being, it was odd having surrounded by everyone on bus. I took a sip; it was a decent cup of milk tea.
‘Feeling better,’ Nisha had the same look as Sneha.
I didn’t feel like talking.
‘Umm…’ Please be quite, I want some peace.
‘Okay, everyone, get back to your seats and please be patient all will get to enjoy Sneha’s world’s best tea.’ She looked proud of herself. I took a re-fill. She was overjoyed. Nisha didn’t look satisfied.
‘You like this shit?,’ Nisha whispered leaning to my side as Sneha walked to the back. ‘Baikuntha’s is much better; you would even ask for the third cup.’
I chuckled. She was amazed, yet she joined me. It was somehow funny, still love that minute; I relish those seconds of happiness.
Bhalukpong, Arunachal Pradesh.
6:30 p.m. The bus slowly parked beside the highway, Sneha stood up.
‘Speech,’ Nisha said looking at me. We smiled.
‘We have reached Bhalukpong. Today we will stay at the Blue Sky Hotel,’ She guided us to the hotel, a few meters from the stop. It was a long day; for me, I barely dragged myself and my bags. Cigarettes saved my day.
A dinky chandelier hung on the roof although only the white LEDs’ lightened the reception. Nisha eased up to me, smirked at me showing the sign- NO SMOKING. ‘Don’t smoke, it kills you,’ she added.
‘We are dead anyways Nisha Ji.’ I tried a smile.
‘Still,’ she said and fastened herself to the group. She didn’t look pleased with my response.
I did say the truth; we were dead souls, breathing with belief to get back home one day. We laughed, it was our drug.
‘Okay everyone,’ Sneha walked to us clapping hard with her both hands. ‘I have made the payments, keys are with me, make your group of three and ladies don’t worry we have two room for the four of us,’ She seemed cheerful.
‘Anurag you can stay with me,’ Sharma said in his dull voice, lazing himself on the only chair in the room. ‘Everyone’s grouped. We two will have an entire room. What do you say?’
I agreed. Well, what options did I have. Sharma and I retired on our beds, the second we stepped into our deluxe suit. The brown velvet drafted with abstract golden strips covered the walls, it was wonderful; hazy glow beneath the false ceiling. Ah! those dreamy lights bewitching me into dreams.
I took a snooze.
‘Anurag… Anurag,’ Nisha’s feeble voice; I recognized. Sharma wasn’t in the room, tried rolled my eyes all over the room- no he wasn’t there, I opened the door hardly seeing things.
‘Let’s go for a walk.’
It took me some time to figure out.
‘Nisha Ji, I don’t think I would go.’
‘Just a cup of tea, it’s close by, C’mon you will feel refreshed.’
More sleep would have been refreshing. How could you say no to a request? Besides I liked talking with her, mostly listened to her gossips, it was like when we were teenagers- friendships, happiness, vows of being friends forever. I was living, again, when I smiled with her; agony, anxiety- ingested my soul yet I could smile.
‘That’s the place,’ She led me to the busy corner. After marching more than a mile for a cup of tea, I realized I didn’t want tea, a chair was all I wished for. Busy food trailers stretched on either sides of the pavement, masses clustered the zone, hustled around every shop, twinkling coloured lights lengthened across the heavens. Beautiful.
‘Ah! a refreshing soup.’ She took a large sip. Her delighted face; I knew it might have matched Baikuntha’s.
‘It’s good,’ It felt I should add a reply. She smiled.
‘What happened to you on the bus?’
‘I felt asleep.’
‘Of course… but it’s a lie,’ Nisha stirred her soup.
‘What?’ Astounded, Numbed. Damn, how did she know?
‘I mean you lied, right?’
Explored every part of cerebrum in search of the perfect words. Didn’t find one. How the hell did she know?
‘Anubhab, my only offspring…… He was lately suffering a hectic schedule, he was drained- physically and mentally. Those days we spoke less, he avoided any encounters. Those old good days when we all gossiped in the verandah, laughing as Ankara, my daughter-in-law, brings the morning tea,’ I could hear my heart pump, my soul endured those painful flashbacks.
‘One day he comes to me as I read the morning paper, rolling my eyes over the Sunday special. He says: Deuta, I have been very busy lately and Antara too couldn’t take care of you properly because of Niyor, my grandson. So we were thinking, for your good health if you could stay at an Old aged home for a few days until my work lessen again.’
My eyes drenched in tears, hands trembled, soup fell off, I held on to the bench, I looked up as Nisha help me drink some water and the mob, they froze: each pair of pupils gazed me.
‘Are you ok?’ someone said, I couldn’t find the face.
‘Let’s go,’ Nisha held my hands as we walked back.
Lord, what have I done wrong? Please give me back my family.
‘Thank you Nisha Ji,’ It was 8:45, we crossed a few shops in that lightless street. ‘I think we should pace ourselves,’ Sneha had asked us be back by nine, and I didn’t want to listen one of those annoying speeches.
‘It’s okay Anurag. Sneha won’t annoy.’
The light from one of those stalls reflected her smile, it was comforting. I smiled. She being by my side, I felt an unusual relief.
‘Seize the moment, Anurag. We suffer a miserable fate; Well, we can’t do anything about that. Why not we live the little time we have.’
I collapsed on the velvety mattress, Sharma kept on the dreamy lights. I realized three things: I had the worst life, all of us did; I found the finest friend, Nisha; be happy, we don’t know when we might have to leave it’s called life.
I closed my eyes.
5th, 6th,7th and 8th October, 2019.
Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh.
Sneha had us arranged four Tata Sumo’s, we departed even before the Sun showed itself. As Nisha quoted, I had to put my sweater when we crossed Bomdila. It was Chilly. We rode through the clouds, snow coated the land, I wore my warm gloves, Sneha endowed her historical speech on every monastery we went across, Nisha… well, she smiled when I looked at her.
Sneha guided us to almost everywhere, we stayed at ‘The Sky Point’. It was beautiful, Nisha was disappointed, she wanted the Baikuntha’s biryani. I laughed quiet often now, prayed to God daily. Arun and Suraj, we are friends now, in fact all of us would sit against the fire in the evening, we chuckle, smoke, sometimes share our cold fables. We lived.
I owe Nisha. We still walk holding our hands.
I wish we could stroll again sometimes, on the snow, alone, holding our hands before we return. I wish I could go home again.