Rumjhum Biswas’s prose and poetry have been published in India and abroad, both in print and online, including Per Contra, South, Words-Myth, Everyday Fiction, Danse Macabre, Muse India, Kritya, Pratilipi, Eclectica, Nth Position, The King’s English, Arabesques Review, A Little Poetry, The Little Magazine, Etchings and Going Down Swinging. Her poem “Cleavage” was in the long list of the Bridport Poetry Competition 2006. Her story “Ahalya’s Valhalla” was among the notable stories of 2007 in Story South’s Million Writers’ Award.
“Shiuli!” called Nityananda as he peered into the dark. The pre-dawn air was chilly even though winter was months away. Nityananda hunched his shoulders and tried to draw the threadbare shawl tighter around him. Shivering as he rubbed his elbows in an effort to increase the circulation, Nityananda wondered how many more seasons his old bones would take. He prayed God would let him live long enough to see Shiuli married and Laltu and Poltu settled. “Shiuli! O Shiuli!” But the girl was nowhere to be seen. She must have gone to the pond. Nityananda had half a mind to go there and drag Shiuli back. It would be heartless, no doubt, but the girl had better learn early how hard their lot was.
Shiuli was eighteen and under happier circumstances would have been married already, with a child or two to show for it. But the double tragedy of losing both parents to Cholera one after the other in a span of just four weeks had turned Shiuli into a surrogate mother for her two younger brothers from the tender age of twelve. The boys, twins, were four years old at that time. Shuili’s three other siblings had also perished in the epidemic that swept their whole district, mowing down village after village. It was a miracle that three of his grandchildren managed to survive. Nityananda knew he was lucky. God had been merciful and spared a portion of his family when he could have taken them all in one fell swoop. Still Nityananda rued his fate. He wished that he had died instead of his son and daughter-in-law. God’s mercy was cruel. Or else why would able-bodied young people like Nityananda’s daughter-in-law and son die instead of an old man like him? Why would they, who were barely able to eke a living from the few animals and the little land that they owned, be assaulted by this sudden new scourge of such epidemic proportions? Why God why?
Shiuli had wanted to study. From the time she could hold a slate and chalk, she had followed her grandfather about repeating the letters of the alphabet and writing them down after Nityananda had scratched them out on the dry soil, frowning and wrinkling up her snub nose to see the letters better. Shiuli never let go until she had fully grasped Nityananda’s lesson for the day. The girl was smart. By the time she was seven Shiuli could add or subtract a whole bunch of numbers in her head and write full sentences. Haripada, Shiuli’s father used to be so proud of his clever daughter. Being the youngest child – the twins had not yet been born then – she was easily his favorite.
“Shiuli will be a teacher,” Haripada would say, picking up Shiuli and swinging her above his broad shoulders. “Every time our Shiuli walks past adjusting her spectacles and brandishing her ruler, everybody in the village will say, ‘Namoshkar Mashtarni Didimoni, namoshkar!”
Shiuli would giggle delightedly. Then, Nityananda would pipe in with a twinkle in his eyes, “But our Mashtarni Didimoni will say namoshkar to me, with folded hands every time she leaves for school, because I was her first teacher!” And Shiuli would promptly swing towards her dadu, her darling grandfather, from her father’s perch and grab his arms.
Yes, they use to have many dreams about Shiuli, dreams that were as sweet as the jasmine that scented their garden in summer. They would lie down under the stars and talk about Shiuli’s future even though Madhobi, Nityananda’s daughter-in-law, grumbled under her breath that the rightful place for girls was in her husband’s house and Shiuli was better off learning to cook and clean instead of getting her head full of frivolous ideas. Shiuli’s mother had her reasons. Neighbors often passed snide remarks about Haripada’s and Nityananda’s dreams. Besides, girl children were normally never allowed to finish school in the village. It was not the custom. At the most they studied up to class five or six. The village elders disapproved of so much attention paid to girls. They frowned upon girls gallivanting around after puberty. The earlier you married off a girl the better it was; there were few troubles and the groom’s family was usually willing to settle for less dowry, because the girls were fresh and tender. Nityananda himself had brought Madhobi home when she was barely fourteen and practically illiterate, but well versed in household duties and an expert cook. Madhobi was only twenty eight when, already weakened by multiple pregnancies and miscarriages, she succumbed to the Cholera epidemic when it hit their village. Haripada did not get a chance to mourn his wife for long. He followed some weeks later, after watching three of his children writhe in pain and die, one after the other.
Nityananda wiped the tears that pricked the corners of his rheumy eyes and trickled down. He went in to wake up the boys. Laltu and Poltu helped him feed their cow and the two goats. Meanwhile Shiuli fed the chickens and ducks. They had their breakfast of tea soaked with puffed rice only after all their animals and birds were fed. This was the first thing they did each morning, and it had been their routine ever since the rest of their family had died. The children had insisted on it; they could never bear to eat until all their four legged and winged family members had had their fill. The three children’s world revolved around these mute creatures that demanded their love and gave back in full measure with their nuzzling and cooing and clucking, following them about whenever Nityananda and his grandchildren were nearby. Shiuli always chattered with the chickens and ducks as if they were her own babies. She also chattered with the cow and the goats. But ever since the ducklings had hatched, all three children had become unnecessarily attached to them.
Not becoming unnecessarily attached to their livestock was something that Nityananda, being a life hardened and practical man believed in staunchly. His own behavior towards their livestock was gruff, not that it made much of a difference as far as the animals were concerned. They still went up to him and followed him when he was near them. Nityananda scolded them as he stroked the larger animals or threw a handful of puffed rice at the chickens and ducks. Nityananda knew that attachment created problems. Like that time when he had to sell the year old pie-bald male kid to the butcher and Laltu and Poltu had cried for days. Shiuli had consoled them and given him black looks side by side. She would never know how bad Nityananda had felt that day; as if he had sold his own grandson. But he had had to do it. What choice did he have? There was the loan to be repaid and taxes too. Someday, when they were grown up, they would understand.
Nityananda crossed the narrow four poster bed sized bit of courtyard that separated his room from that of the boys. He bent his head to avoid the strands of thatch hanging over the low doorway. He didn’t like to wake the boys up so early. They were so young; if they didn’t play and read and have fun now when would they ever? Time flows like a river and never stops for even a moment, thought Nityananda to himself. Soon the boys would be lost to manhood. The pleasures of running down a field or splashing in the water would be lost to them. The magic of a new world unfolding day by day would be gone forever. But what could he do?
Laltu and Poltu went to the free government primary school. Before they left for school in the morning, they helped Nityananda with the cow and the goats. Together they untied the animals and led them out down the village road. Once they reached a customer’s house, either Laltu or Poltu called out while Nityananda sat down on his haunches to milk the cow. The boys were quite adept at milking the goats, but Nityananda still preferred to do the cow himself. There was time enough for his grandsons. He measured and poured the milk from the pail into the vessel that his customer handed over. Laltu collected the money or wrote the amount and date in a notebook kept especially for those who preferred to pay at the month end. After that they moved on to the next house and then to the next, until all their customers were served. This was a slow and sometimes tedious process. It would have been better for Nityananda’s old bones if the boys’ took the milk to their customers later on in the day. Raw milk didn’t go bad if you kept strips of straw in the cans. It stayed good for atleast an hour or two. But people liked to buy milk that they could watch being milked straight from the cows. So Laltu and Poltu had to be woken up at the crack of dawn, even during holidays. Today however, they seemed to have got up on their own. Nityananda rubbed his eyes and looked again. The grass mats that served as their beds were empty.
“Shiuli! O Shiuli! Laltu! Poltu! Where are you?”
No one answered.
Suddenly feeling alarmed, Nityananda hurried out. He looked to the right and left and then went down to the pond. In the brightening morning light, though still misty, he was able to make out shadowy shapes huddled near the pond steps. He called again. The shapes remained still. A broken sob caught his ears. Nityananda ran towards the sound.
He found them sitting there, hugging the ducklings. This time it was Shiuli who was crying her heart out. Laltu and Poltu were crying too and trying to comfort her at the same time. Shiuli, bent over with grief, sat holding the ducklings to her bosom which would have held babies had their circumstances been different. Shiuli, weeping her heart out as if she was going to lose her own children to sickness. Shiuli, who no longer ran up numbers inside her head or read fluently from the day old newspaper that Nityananda sometimes brought home from the village school master’s house. Shiuli, who had grown day by day into an exact replica of her mother, and turned into a quiet dutiful woman, a good cook and a devoted home-maker.
Nityananda felt his heart cracking up under the weight of sorrow. His eyes stung, but the tears remained inside. He wished he could weep like these children. Hold the half grown ducklings to his bosom; shower them with kisses. But what was the use of getting emotional? This wretched bird flu had hit every village for miles around. The men in white suits would be coming over to claim the little ones, any day now. Any day.