Rourkela

The tar on the street roads always appeared fresh. Like it had been rolled out last evening. It smelt new too, or perhaps I imagined too much. The reason could be that they were the roads inside the college campus. The campus stood protected like a fortress, if you think of it that way. High compound walls stood on most boundaries, secluding it well from rest of the town and creating a different world of sorts. On the boundaries that hadn't been walled, stood small hills. Pure absolute wilderness which were inhabited by tribes. So, coming back to the street roads, they always appeared fresh because there wasn't much traffic. Inside the campus. The professors cycled to work, some even walked. The students too followed suit. The college was located centrally inside the campus, the hostels where the students were put up were scattered all across. In between the college and the hostels, were located dozens of staff quarters where the professors lived. There were auditoriums, stadiums, activity centers, laboratories, libraries. And everything was connected by the streets. Always pitch black, always fresh, not a crevice in place. Not one puddle. They were almost as manicured as roads could be. And shrouded by trees on both sides, without a gap. Some flowering, some just plain yet verdant. 

The monsoons created a bit of a hullabaloo though. Or rather the late summers. It got really hot, and it did because I remember once the mess in the hostel had closed for summer vacations and I had run out of pocket money to go out and eat, I made instant noodles after heating a glass of water in the sun. Anyway, on afternoons of days that had been that hot, the sky would give in and a storm would fill in the usual vacuum of our adolescent hearts. It would break a couple of boughs of trees. The next morning before we chased time on our cycles and ran to meet the cut off for attendance in class, we would find the streets covered with leaves. Probably the sweeping staff were understaffed or what. Or there was no sweeping staff. But the leaves would be every where on the streets. Yellowed and browned and drenched in overnight rain, the leaves of many many kinds of trees would just lay on the black tarry streets and soak again in the moist smell of the earth. 

Seeing this untamed beauty of flora, unabashed, I would decide to bunk classes that day and stay on in my hostel room. At lunch time, I would give the sickly mess lunch a go and order kaju fried rice and garlic chicken from the shanty restaurant that fed me loyally for my entire time there. I would unwrap the food from the aluminum foil and eat, sitting at the window staring at the streets, the leaves, the hills and what not. I would assume, I had my entire life ahead of me. I was just twenty. That's a lot in years, but still very young, very naive. The decade of life that started then, aged me by two decades, if not less. 

In the evenings I would stroll a bit, the earth would have dried up in the oppressive heat of the day. There would be couples taking walks, holding hands, chatting. There would be the cake seller who sold small cakes, muffins and brownies, and sweet breads, all home baked in a glass box fashioned like a shopping cart. He would ring this onerous bell, announcing his presence, softly though, but infrequently and without rhythm. It would be alarming at first, but I would miss the cake seller if he took an evening off. 

Ruchira

Ruchira was seven years old. Her little brother was four. Or she was eight, and he was five. And their mother decided to take them for a small summer vacation at her maternal house. It being summer, the distance between her husband's house and her maternal house had reduced by half. The river, on which a bridge had been under construction for years, had dried up. And if they crossed the river by foot, they cut down the distance by half. But the river still had knee deep water in which seven year old Ruchira would definitely drown. Their father carried them one by one in his arms to the other bank and on the final trip drove his scooter through the water. Ruchira had always been afraid of water, but she could see the sand underneath and was pretty calm being carried across it. The little brother had been asleep all along.

Their mother's maternal home was located on a cul de sac, the village ended there. A dozen uncles and aunts lived in the house, surrounded by a boundary of tall betel nut trees. The house was built in the shape of an L and two well groomed trees occupied the courtyard between the two arms. The nieces and nephews visiting during summer and winter would be enticed to jump and pluck candies tied to the lower boughs of the trees in some sort of a game. Ruchira was one of the little ones, she couldn't jump much, but participated nevertheless. 

Outside the boundary of betel nut trees, lived their first neighbor. A very old woman, who looked like a sack of bones, wore a dirty white sari and lived in a mud house with a thatched roof. Everyone referred to her as nani. She didn't have any next of kin. She survived by selling milk from the couple of cows she reared. She kept chickens too and sold eggs. But she was getting weaker and sicker and the children stayed away from her house except when they caught a glimpse of her while playing crocodile and water.

Ruchira's little brother was a crier. And every time their mother went to the market or the temple or to visit an old friend, the child would wail. To soothe him, an aunt or two would carry him to the garden across nani's thatched house. They called it bagaan. It was a common village garden of sorts, a rustic translation of a park. There was a pond in the middle of it and ducks swam in it all day long, between tendrils of water lily. The ducks calmed the child with their subtle acts while Ruchira stayed engaged in the water lilies. Huge bougainvillea trees covered the rest of the garden, with some old and sagging jackfruit trees, scattered here and there. At the end of the bagaan was an old shiva temple which opened only for a couple of hours in the morning and evening. But they barely ever went there. On their way back, nani's cows would continue to entertain the child and he would return smiling. 

The household was a big one, there was hardly any time to sit around. Meals were cooked and barely finished before the preparation for the next meal began. Considering this, they had hired a tribal boy as a household help. His name was Ajit. Looking at him, anyone would surmise that he was far away from home. One of the uncles had rescued him from the jungle, or so the lore went. Ajit went about all the chores like clockwork. Brought home the groceries, strung out the laundry to dry, cooked meal after meal, washed the dishes, watered the plants, went from day to day pumping out energy from his endless inner well. But come Sunday afternoon, he would be nowhere to be found. Ajit had been given a cycle to run errands. On Sunday afternoon, Ajit would clean the cycle, clean himself, neatly oil and comb his hair, put on fresh clothes and go the movies, all by himself. And return late in the night, without a care in the world. The family members, fixed together a dinner of left overs or with much difficulty and lacking Ajit's fluidity of motion between the kitchen shelves, cooked something palatable. 

Ruchira enjoyed her stay at her mother's maternal home. The rooms were large, airy and sunfilled. The kitchen was sooty with grey walls. Between the large rooms, there were a few tiny rooms. Somebody's study, somebody's pooja room, or a store room filled with items no longer useful. Such were the houses back then.

Ruchira's mother didn't have her children on a leash. Ruchira and her brother were left to be by themselves as far as they behaved. Ruchira would wonder around the house from room to room without a care. In one such room, hid an old uncle who made Ruchira hold his slimy ugly penis. Ruchira didn't understand what she was quite doing. She was made to feel she had no other option. She hopelessly stared at the man's face and did as instructed. Deeply ashamed after she escaped the man's hold, she frantically started searching for her mother. She saw her mother sitting amongst her sisters and other women of the family on the floor of the kitchen and giggling away. 

In her seven year old head, she assumed everyone had seen what she had been subjected to and that they were making fun of her. There be no way on earth that was the case, but she was too little to take that risk. So quietly she turned away from the kitchen and shut herself out.

Coriander

When I was ten, every winter I would try to make a Christmas tree out of a deodar branch in the backyard. And fail at it. I would envisage a beautiful thing with litchi lights. But never go all the way. In a few days, my deodar branch would dry and fall off and I would forget all about it, until next year.

Another wintry activity was feasts. Everyone feasts during December. Our father worked in a near by small town, at that time. The office turned into a makeshift home of sorts for folks who traveled from far off places and went back only on Sundays. The office staff decided to close for Christmas holidays after having a small feast and the children were invited as guests. 

On the day of the feast, we got dressed prim and went to father's office on time. We folded our hands and greeted all of father's colleagues rather obediently. Someone took us to tour the town on foot. The pooja pandal was the cynosure of the market place. Men hung around it drinking tea and smoking bidis. Younger men, who exerted ownership over the pandal, had just been done with their annual repertoire of festivals. Starting with Ganesh Pooja in August, to Durga Pooja in September, Lakshmi in October and finally Kali in November. They were fluxxomed collecting contributions, organizing processions and decorating and discarding. 

Tired after our walk around the town when we returned to the office, it had been shut earlier than usual on account of the feast. We entered through the backdoor. The cooking had begun. The children helped around chopping a cucumber or two for the side salad. But mostly were sitting around and getting bored.

When the time came, banana leaves were rolled out on the floor and sprinkled with water. Steamed rice and spicy hot chicken curry were served to all the  participants of the feast, starting with the children. Fresh coriander leaves were fetched from the kitchen garden meticulously maintained by the folks who stayed over nights at the office. Green chillies for some of the adults. 

I hardly remember what we looked like as children that young. I have no memory of what those colleagues were like. I barely remember what father used to be like back then. But I remember flavors of the curried chicken and how it filled the entire corridor where we sat in rows, against both walls. And the overpowering coriander. The chicken had been cooked in pestle crushed spices, since nobody had no grinder. 

After the feast, we folded our hands again and bid goodbye to all. On the way back, a slight chill had filled the air as we crossed fields of cabbage and cauliflower. Fields of cabbage and cauliflower, ah. Such a sight to behold, flowers sprouting from the ground. When we reached home, we saw mother having her cup of tea on the porch. 

Saturday Night Live

This was a long time ago. I was getting a master's degree. In a hilly wintery town. A friend happened to visit. He was traveling, at random, for touristy reasons, or more. And happened to be in my town. We decided to meet up. It was a Saturday. My schedule was quite hectic. I squeezed out an hour in the afternoon at a coffee house near his hotel. 

Back then, nobody knew what platonic meant. We were all so young and feelings could just crop up. But with this man, I was absolutely sure it was platonic. He was not unattractive. In fact he was quite successful. He spoke lucidly too. But the content suffered from a dearth of humor. He was quite straight and logical. He asked questions as if seeking to gather information, which I eagerly dispersed. But that was that. Things were unemotional. And it was good that way. I didn't even ask if he was seeing anyone. Nor was I interested in finding out. I have never been curious about other people's lives and have respected their privacy. He casually protected his without seeming to even try. We were smooth.

The coffee house was a quaint little one run by a woman and a girl in overalls waited around a half a dozen tables. Things were slow. We ordered our drinks and almost forgot about it. My friend spoke about his work and how he was looking to break out. Probably quit, start out on his own. He asked about my writing. I don't remember what I told him. My mind was fertile then. I wrote prolifically. He read my stories, from what was apparent. That kind of attention makes me feel special and I bask in it, secretly. He also maintained a journal, a travelogue, a collection of his neat experiences in life, unlike my messed up depressed shit. We exchanged notes. 

When the coffees showed up an hour later, the waitress in overalls apologized, it being a Saturday and all, weekends are always crazy. We drank in big gulps and he got the cheque. We were old fashioned that way, and he being the one with a job and me being the one still in school.

Just before we left the coffee house, he startled me by telling me that his evening looked empty and he'd go wherever I was headed. I had plans of stopping by at the Kali temple. I have always been a fan of Kali's badassery. And have been a regular on Saturday evenings for more than half of my life. But I usually go alone, I told him. It's my weekly purge and it's done better alone. But, what the heck.

We hailed a cab to the Kali temple on the river front. After sitting in the temple hallway with eyes closed for a bit, we made a few rounds of the courtyard. He obviously commented on the architecture and lighting and blah. I too shared some stories I had heard about the heritage of the temple, about how the goddess used to be the king's ancestral goddess and beautiful that she is, she's rich too. We laughed, sitting on the river steps and traded stories. 

Visitors dropped coins in the river. There went a belief that coins dropped made wishes come true. Neither of us harboured any wishes, I guess. We didn't drop any coins and made friends with a little kid who fished out some of the coins with a magnet attached to his fishing rod. 

Burning

When Nivedita came of age, her mother tried to set her up with a colleague's son. Said colleague had three sons and was in a hurry to get the eldest one married because the second son already had a girlfriend and was in a hurry to settle down. Nivedita didn't understand this hurry to settle down. She sought romantic love. At the behest of her mother she, however agreed to meet the eldest one. The colleague's family had invited Nivedita's parents to a religious ceremony at a temple near their place. Nivedita, awkwardly draped one of her mother's saris and tied her hair back. She surprised herself at how grown she appeared.

In the temple's courtyard, the colleague's family entertained numerous friends and family. Nivedita and the eldest son were introduced quite cordially and they spoke for not more than a few minutes. It didn't feel special, except for the newness of faces and voices, nothing underneath outstood. 

The matter fizzled out. Noone mentioned it again. A few months later, Nivedita heard that the prospect got married. To some nice homely girl. A year later, they had a son. Nivedita, moved on. She changed jobs, she switched cities and faced the obvious and not so obvious nuisances of life. On a quiet ordinary afternoon, she got a call from her mother.

Her mother called almost every afternoon, there was nothing unusual about that. But the conversation that followed chilled her very bones. There had been an accident. The colleague's daughter-in-law had burned herself in a gas leak. She was in the ICU and was battling for her life. Her son was only three years old. Nivedita was shocked beyond words. 

A few days later, she heard that the daughter-in-law had died. Everyone knew she was going to die, the way she had been charred. Nivedita kept thinking about the little motherless boy. The story she heard was that the daughter-in-law turned on the gas in the morning without suspecting a leak and caught fire immediately. The husband tried to save her and sustained some burns. The boy woke up after hearing the screams but they managed to throw him out of the kitchen and he escaped unhurt. 

The little boy was sent to live with his grandparents so that his father could grieve properly. He took a second wife a year later and  continued to live in the same house. The little boy grew up at his grandparents and visited his father and step mother rarely. 

Nivedita's mother made sure she got every step of the story correct. All the happenings in the life of someone whose wife she might have been, were relayed to her religiously and without mercy. Nivedita, however, couldn't handle the shock even after it reached her third or fourth hand. She kept imagining many random things. But mostly, she kept mentally gasping about how narrowly she had escaped death. 

Had she married that man, she would have died a terrible death. So everytime she turned off the gas, she double checked, triple checked, went back to the kitchen and checked again, and then one more time.