There is a way to grow old. It isn’t time for you to learn yet, Maa says. That perhaps could be another reason why birthdays make you unbearably sad. Answer midnight calls, thank everyone for the wishes, throw a party in the evening, have friends over to partake in the leaving of a year behind, make merry and see the evening off. Along with it, you also let pass the realization that the true purpose of the body is to disintegrate. The next day, you wake up a year older, and find your mother, who’d never made a sound while sleeping before, suddenly breaking into loud heavy snores. You fear she’s growing old. Her vocal cords, you think, have calcified without the knowledge of luster. You make a mental note, lying by her side coiled like a foetus on the other bed. Her breath rises with ragged amplitude, knocks off the cold air of the room and falls discordantly. You turn, watch the movements of her chest. A dark outline, an inverted parabola rises like a tide and recedes to the coast of her body. Slowly, you gather, time doesn’t wait for the revealing of truth. And that is how you learn to imagine your mother’s death.
For all practical purposes, it can be a heart attack or an allergic reaction. Maybe a fall from the stairs or plain old age. Maybe guilt corroding into her skin or perhaps the shock, from which she will never be able to emerge, when I will tell her the truth. But what if by the time I decide to tell her, she has already left? In fact, going by the logistics of my imaginations of her death, she was already meant to leave before I would meet Bipul in Bhomoraguri, just by accident over a cup of tea. Meant to leave before he would lecture me on the smallness of the town I live in. That some places are meant to be left behind, he’d say. The North East of all places is one. For it only forced him to flee. To another world. Another life. Though he had spent a large portion of his childhood there. She was meant to leave before he would tell me that I was different. That I deserved to have an identity. My own politics. My stand. And not lose myself it in the garb of being a victim of conflict. Of bullets and bomb blasts. Of being called “chinkis” and “separatists”. Meant to leave before he would drag me to the mighty red river bleeding before my eyes, my Brahmaputra, on the banks of which I had grown up listening to the dirges of the fishermen. And how he would reveal, that to flow was to waste. Only the dead floated, he’d say. That I could choose to be alive, choose over a life away from the mountains, away from the hills – the ruins of Bamuni, the caves of Nilachal – where my echoes would be heard and not put behind bars. Meant to leave before he would leave me stacks of letters, still littering my bed, his love beaten into every word, his yearning woven into them. Meant to leave before he would call up and plead for the last time: Pranjal, this world will never understand. There’s no point waiting. Just come down soon. But she didn’t. She had to wait till I left.
Right now I am hurtling through the proverbial crazy Mumbai traffic, sitting in a tethered auto rickshaw. There are so many of them waiting in line to depart. I wonder how motion is the greatest challenge and yet a never-failing business. All of us want to move, to drift, and to change. To reach somewhere, we do not know. It’s a chiaroscuro of city lights that guide me at the moment. They seem to dance to Kishore Kumar’s chalti ka naam gaadi plugged in on a loop, booming from the jukebox below the steering-handle. It’s a good device to escape the honks blaring from everywhere. A device to soothe the anxiety and the wait you often feel while moving through unknown cities: that before you reach almost everything would be finished. For no real reason; except the conditioning of the fear that it is easier to get killed or lose your loved ones to death in bigger cities. But then, some people do not choose to die anywhere else except in their homes, Maa says. I refuse to die anywhere else except the bed in which your father breathed his last. Assamese mothers are a little too dramatic. That is true. Ours is a slow-sad race. Withdrawn and cornered. We certainly have reasons to complain. Years of violence do leave traces, don’t they? Though it isn’t quite there anymore. No ULFA, no SULFA, only NDFB, KLNLF, NSCN, NLFT, and so on. But these men are fighting for a greater Bodoland, a greater Karbianglong, a greater Nagaland. No, not any greater Assam. That dream is forgotten by now. Hence we Assamese mustn’t worry. We belong to India and can remain herein. Our mothers like other Indian mothers can afford to be sad, dramatic and sentimental. They can die peacefully.
But for now, home is too far. Maa is already on the train back to Bhomoraguri. I’ve seen her off at the station, and still haven’t told her the truth. Perhaps she’ll know of it through a letter I will send her, months later, from Dartmouth. In it, I will write to her that I want to return. Perhaps she will only know of my missing her and be overjoyed, and not the other half of the story. I, perhaps, will not tell her anything about it, not plagued by the fear of being branded as a criminal but by the fear of breaking her heart to death. But as I’ve said, for now, home is too far and I can let my imaginations rest for a while. At least until I reach the place Maa and I were staying in. I need to pack my luggage and reach the airport by 11:00 pm. The flight is at 1:30. And I’m worried; it’s a long way from CST to Kandivli. The roads are jam-packed. I don’t know if I’ll reach on time. I also need to send a mail to Bipul informing him of the flight details. I have a habit of leaving things to the last minute. I’ve always believed in the art of slowness. Bipul doesn’t like things late. He’s been conditioned to be ambitious. To run. To rush. To flee. But is an ambitious man, in truth, capable of love? Perhaps not. For the very night I will land in Hanover and make love to him, I will smell something tepid in his breath. His movements will be stiff and his hands will not search for things a man grapples to relocate in a lover’s body – with a hopeless anxiety – having him in his arms after long. I will only feel his measured arms around my body in a clumsy embrace. Night after night. And the more he will re-assure me every morning of his growing tiredness and the stressful immigrant experiences, the harder I will find it to forgive myself for leaving Bhomoraguri, and to believe that the delusion of love is capable of survival beyond physical closeness.
Four months after my arrival, it will begin to snow in Dartmouth. And one day while returning from the university, suddenly in that unrelenting cold, I will be plagued by the memory of a poem on “the thing about leaving”. I will not be able to recall the title of the poem. Will not be able to recall the boy’s face who had gifted it to me. But just that he was one of those many who would fall for their seniors in school. Boys who’d be shy and withdrawn. And perhaps fearful they felt differently from the rest of the world. Boys who’d eventually learn to pine for men reading poets who wrote of their troubled homelands and the inability to return. Poets who wrote of the ultramarine waters of the Jhelum and the snowcapped Himalayas. Poets who wrote of the fabric of Cashmere, the songs of Begum Akhtar, and of dead post offices and mailmen. But that will be all from a remote memory of my seventeenth birthday. And when I will tell Bipul about it, he will listen coldly and ask me to take a break if I feel the need to. Go for a month and come back. And if all these things happen too late, after I’ve exhausted my imaginations, after Maa has passed away, I will perhaps not return. Or take a break.
As of now Maa is still alive. And I haven’t exhausted my imaginations of her death. Her train is crossing over M.P. and it has started raining here heavily. It subsides for a minute and pours all over again. Stops again, and starts again. The moisture in the air, all around, makes the road ahead haloed like a slow-motioned world. The evening is caught between the scent of mortar and puddles reflecting the nearing night, shining like light on fish scales. A chanawala runs into the crossings, the moment the lights turn red and the traffic halts. Inertia hits. The world is dead for a minute. It’s the moment of life for many. Two local eunuchs lean against the window of an SUV and gesticulate their practiced misery. The chanawala elbows his way, a thick black thread looped around his neck, a small metallic ganesha dangling mindlessly as he lets his head in and says, ‘Chana, Sahib?’ There’s a moment of stillness. We look into each others’ eyes like long lost lovers and then he withdraws. And runs ahead without another word. I turn around, and look out of the window, calling him back. The lights turn green and the rain washes the salt off my face. If Maa had been here, she would have said: He picked up your sadness, Dhon.
But why would she say that? It’s Bipul’s birthday I realize. I’ve been calculating for the last many days. And feeling sad all over again. Birthdays make me sad. All the time. Last year, around the same time, I was working in a small dispensary in Bhomoraguri as an intern. Women there complained of being raped by armed militants in their dreams, and the village men of their penises vanishing overnight. That year, I could only manage a late birthday letter for Bipul. Our house, like all others in the colony, was a two-bedroom Assam-type with gabled roofs. Just outside was the namghar, the community prayer-house, where women from around the neighbourhood gathered in the evenings to sing kirtans of Srimanta Sankardev. Maa never liked going there. She didn’t like to participate or talk about her son with the other women. She only liked to sit in front of the dressing table mirror and sing old Hindi songs loudly as she combed her hair in the pale light of dusk. Nights came early like the far away songs of the boatmen, returning home, injecting a strange melancholia into the air. A mango tree loomed like an old guardian outside our window, swaying and fanning us down on nights of load-shedding. Maa would often say, how it must feel the same in places near the sea.
“Dhon, please take me to Bombay once before you leave,” she said to me one night, leaning on the window-sill. “It’s a beautiful place, I’ve heard. I want to see the sea once before I die.”
I told Maa that once the scholarship letter from Dartmouth arrives, I will write to them to book the tickets from Bombay. We shall fly a week before, spend our nights in a low budget lodge by the sea, and then I shall send her back on the Brahmaputra Express.
“You’ll be able to take the train, right?” I asked, imagining another horrifying scene.
“Don’t worry, Dhon,” she smiled, pulling my cheeks. “Nothing will happen to me. Don’t think I’ll die. I’ll be all safe.”
She would pull me closer and I’d dig my face into her breasts. She smelled of old cotton. And of dried jasmines and boroline. Later that night at twelve, I lit a candle and wrote a belated-birthday-letter to Bipul.
By the time we reached Bombay, all the hotels near CST were full. We couldn’t find a single low budget place near the sea. So, we rented a service apartment near Thakur Village in Kandivli. From there we booked a cab and went all around South Bombay: Gateway, Taj, Bandra, Colaba Causeway, Chowpatty, Siddhi Vinayak, Haji Ali, Juhu. All of these in the flash of a day. But the real fun, like all adventures, began at night; when for hours we sat by the sea in marine drive sipping instant coffee from plastic cups. And chatting about our imagined future. My life in Dartmouth, her life back in Bhomoraguri, the distance separating us, the resilience to live through. And whenever her voice quivered, I placated her with the re-assurance of returning every year for a month. Like the poets who wrote pages over pages about “returning”, but never did.
The rains have finally stopped. Kandivli is almost shutting down. Maa must be the only person awake in her compartment, thinking of me. As I walk past the watchman, through the rows of buildings rising up like a single giant wall, as sounds die and the lamps bathe down the night, as brown wild moths rise up to life before my eyes and as the world changes darkly outside, I think of Bipul and his last mail on “deprivation”. How in his signature straightforward way he had told me, that we learn to desire, to love, only by deprivation. We strive to fill the gap and the inability to do so is called “missing.” When I corrected him, saying that he must be talking about nostalgia he dismissed it with a loud sigh, calling it overused and literary. “We are defined by what is not there.” His voice plays in my head, as the elevator lifts me up to the seventh floor. And thinking of deprivation, I begin to imagine of Maa once again. Soon I’ll walk out of this lift and see her drooping face, sad with the knowledge of my departure. She’ll catch the smile on my face and know that I’m thinking of someone I’ll meet soon. She will not ask. I will not utter a clue. Instead, I’ll begin to pack things up hastily; plug in my headphones as I do so and think of wishing Bipul “Happy Birthday” with a wet kiss, for the first time, at the Hanover airport. And thinking of him, within the imagination, my mind will drift into a childhood, I haven’t lived in real. Not in this current life. But that which I remember again like the familiar halo of a slow moving parallel world – where I’m still a child. We, Maa and I, are in an old house by the sea in Bombay. I’m writing a poem on the thing about leaving, and can smell old cotton somewhere. I have a habit of lying face down on Maa’s chest and listening to the sea outside the window while she pats my back and hums the words of an old Hindi song. Almost inaudible and broken. But then I know it’s her favourite from Dev Anand’s House no.44, “teri duniya mein jeene se to behter hain ki marjaaye”. Against the roaring of the waves, the smoothness of air meandering through the contortions of her windpipe is inviolate. There are dogs in the beach scavenging at each others’ advantages – copulating at the hour of the routine. The howls rip into the wild notes of the sea. She is beginning to fall asleep below me: un-snoring, quiet and young. She is slipping off slowly. To death.
Gaurav Deka is a Delhi-based writer and a psychotherapist. His fictions, poetry and reviews have been published in the Himal Southasian, Papercuts, Livemint, Out of Print, Hindu BLink, The Bombay Review, Open Road Review, among many others. He was the winner of the Open Road Review Short Fiction contest, 2014.
(‘If It Happens’ was previously published in The Four Quarters Magazine.)