13 August 2015
FICTION: What ails Brojen Barua?
“Lokhora! Lokhora!” shouted a lean fellow, announcing the destination, in a sleeveless banyan that has become a dirty grey from its earlier white colour. Like a ballet dancer he flung open the back door, leapt on to the foothold at the same time, and balanced himself gracefully as he stood there keeping the door ajar with one hand. Three people got off, stooping to avoid hitting their heads on the ceiling of the Tracker, and another three standing on the pavement stepped in. There were already four passengers sitting in the row behind the driver. And three were squeezed in the front seat alongside the driver such that when he changed gears, he roughly brushed his fist against the knee of the passenger sitting next to him. Women, therefore, generally avoided sitting in the front row.
“Oi! Move from there!” cried out Brojen Barua agitatedly from the netted verandah of the house. “How many times should I tell you guys not to park yourselves here!”
The people in the Tracker didn’t see him, but the driver started the engine and sped away. Brojen Barua was getting tired of these Trackers that had converted the spot right outside his gates into a stop. This had happened in the last two years or so with these vehicles almost taking over public transport in Guwahati. They were now seen in every nook and cranny, covering parts of the city where no buses go. “Who gave you the permission to make this a stop?” he often barked at them. And they ignored him, looking at him as if to say, do you own the road?
After the Tracker left, it was not even ten minutes when another showed up. Brojen Barua, nursing a perpetual strain because of his stiff neck, thought better not to waste his voice. It was nine in the morning and it was not just the Trackers that were disturbing him but the grunts and growls of the vehicles that plied by incessantly. There seemed not a moment of respite from the cacophony. And Brojen Barua wistfully rolled his eyes, as he always did when the irony of changing times flitted through his thoughts. This lane had been named after Bishnu Rabha, kala guru, a much beloved cultural icon of the Assamese people, who left behind a legacy of musical compositions decades ago. But with the rise of apartments over the years, the lane had come to be home to many migrants from outside Assam. Especially for those from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab who have been lured into Guwahati by the coal trade in Basistha. And for them, Bishnu Rabha held no meaning. It was just a name on the signboard at the mouth of the lane in Beltola Tiniali. And with time, as the density of these high rise apartments and population increased, this lane came to be known simply as Bhetapara Road because it led to the newly developed Bhetapara area and beyond. As people forgot it as the kala guru Bishnu Rabha lane, it began to generate a different kind of music night and day. This was created by the continuous rush of vehicles, robbing the peace of the people in the neighbourhood. And residents like Brojen Barua, who had been here for more than 20 years, longed for the old days when this side of the city was the outskirts and when quietude still defined its character.
Brojen Barua hated these Trackers but he couldn’t stop his daughter Majoni, who taught at the university, from taking it to Jalukbari, from where she walked up to the wing that housed the Political Science department. Majoni had finished her MPhil from Delhi School of Economics and joined Gauhati University as a guest lecturer to start the centre for Sociology, under the head of the political science department. Next year, in 2011, it would become a full fledged department she was told, where she would definitely find a permanent position. Brojen Baruah was extremely proud that his daughter taught at the university, but the fact that she took a Tracker to work unnerved him. Every now and then, the newspapers and news channels flashed gory images of accidents involving Trackers, and it made him break into cold sweat. He shared his concern with his daughter, but she brushed it aside saying, “It is all luck, Deuta, accidents happen even inside the house. Besides, I am paid just eight thousand rupees per month, until I become permanent, which means I cannot afford a driver to take me in the car, wait for me there till I finish, and then bring me home.” How often her mother had chided her for not learning to drive. “The car sits there while you travel by Trackers!” she would say. But Majoni never developed an interest in driving. She never felt the need too; she found public transport quite convenient.
But that day, sitting in the verandah, it was not the Trackers or Majoni travelling by these vehicles that disturbed Brojen Barua. Something else was gnawing at him. All of 70 years old, he sat there in his knee-length Bermuda pants and a white sleeveless ganjee, uncomfortable with the pain in his neck, looking at the row of fireballs, the red fiery flowers, sprouting out of the ground amidst tall green leaves, skirting his garden which had turned a bit unruly this monsoon season. He thought of calling Biju the next day, the unemployed 25-year-old graduate from Haflong, who was earning his livelihood clearing gardens and painting people’s houses these days. Brojen Barua’s wife always gave him lemon juice in such weather whenever he came. Her heart went out to him, educated but reduced to such menial work. She told him that she would pray for him so that he got a good respectable job someday.
But trying to focus his thoughts on the garden was like trying to distract himself from a nagging ache. A former additional chief engineer with the irrigation department of the state, and known for his honest dealings, Brojen Barua now ran his household on his pension, which was decent enough, supplemented by the rent he received from a family who lived in a two-room accommodation behind his four-bedroom two-storey house. While in service, he managed some savings through investments in LIC, NSC and the like. But most of it was spent in later years on funding his two sons’ masters in business administration in Delhi, where they eventually settled down; Majoni’s wedding to an engineer with OIL India, who now live together in the OIL campus at Noonmati; and the knee replacement surgery of his wife last year. The doctors said that his wife should rest as much as possible after the surgery but the problems of finding a regular domestic help meant that she had to mop the floor of the house every once in a while. She did this by standing in a way such that she did not have to bend or squat.
And, the most pressing of concerns, Brojen Barua had been buying water at two hundred and fifty rupees per day for the household for the last two years. The flats that had come up all around his house, he always said, were responsible for this. The builders had bored deep down into the earth for supplying water to the hundreds of families in a single housing complex. Which is why, families like his, who still lived in their own compounds, began to face a dearth of water. They would either have to bore deeper down, which meant an expense of a few lakh rupees, or buy water every day. A small blue coloured van came to Brojen Barua’s house in the mornings and the man driving it would dismount the vehicle near the pipe that dangled from the terrace, behind the house, attach it to the one that came out of the tank perched behind the van and transfer water from it to Brojen Barua’s Sintex water tank up in the terrace.
“It’s time to leave this place,” relatives had been suggesting for a while. “There is no water, no house help, and both of you are growing old. Put this house up on rent or sell it and take up a two bedroom flat somewhere, or better, go live with your sons in Delhi.” Last year, when Brojen Barua had complained of uneasiness and strain in the heart, his wife wobbled up to the autorickshaw stand on her unsteady legs, looking for transport to the hospital. There was no time to call Majoni, who would take at least half an hour to reach. The doctors said it was nothing major and only that he needed to be more careful in the future. But a fear had gripped Brojen Barua. What if something happened when he went back home and there was nobody around to help? How much could his wife take, considering the state she herself was in? Panic hit him hard and he almost had a heart attack. All this happened while he was still in the hospital, thankfully, and he was kept in the hospital for the night, with his son-in-law as the attendant. Everyone is right, he thought as he lay in the hospital bed, it’s time to let go. But let go, could he really?
It was in the early 1980s that Brojen Barua built this house. He designed it himself, trained as he was in civil engineering, and supervised the construction. It turned out to be a beautiful two-storey house. People often stopped in their tracks to take in the beauty of this white house. Seasonal flowers would be abloom in the patch of green between the gates and the house. And this patch of green was lined with shrubs pruned into uniformity, with a little driveway to the side that led up to the garage, in the corner, shielded by cascading bougainvilleas. One of the boundary walls was lined with banana trees and the long leaves gently swayed in the breeze, while a hedge peeped out between the two other boundary walls visible from the street. Brojen Barua took pride in it like it was his child. And it indeed had been a part of him all these years, witnessing the tears and joys of his family.
For more than 20 years , the house had seen his wife and him age, his children grow up and his struggle to keep their dreams afloat. It had absorbed the sweat of his labour and had offered them warmth, hope and protection. It had stood by him through earthquakes, thunder and storm. His dear daughter’s wedding had taken place within the house, and all these years, it’s solid presence had instilled a sense of pride in them. It was home.
Lying in that hospital bed, reeling under the panic attack, Brojen Barua’s mind wandered. Perhaps it was time to live the last phase of his life away from his dearly loved house. But wouldn’t it be difficult to shed the identity that had grown on him all these years? The whole neighborhood knew him. People often referred to his house while giving directions, “Our house is in the same lane as Brojen Barua’s house, you know, the beautiful white house right at the mouth of the road at Beltola Tiniali.” His house had become almost a landmark around here, even with the emergence of all the housing societies in the vicinity. Would he be able to shed his identity that had come to be so intricately woven with this house? The house and land began to mean more to him, especially after his retirement when he took to gardening. Brojen Barua now grew rows of vegetables behind the house and beautiful flowers in front and up on the terrace. Could he give all this up? What would he do in a flat? Where would be the space for gardening? And if there was, how much of it would there really be to take up a good deal of his time?
That morning sitting in the verandah, looking out at the green patch outside that had turned unruly without care – after all where was the time in the last few months with the daughter’s wedding and all those hospital visits and such – Brojen Barua speculated the possibility of moving out. And this pained his heart. He could move to Delhi with his wife and live with one of his sons. But that was an option he would rather not take. Delhi? And speak in Hindi for the last few years of his remaining life? No! Besides, the sons’ lifestyle did not quite agree with him and his wife. And then they were yet to be married. Who knows how the daughters-in-law would be? Would they resent the elder couple’s presence? And, as was the custom, nobody went to live with a daughter and son-in-law. Visit them, yes; but live with them? So what was the other option? Continue to live here and face water woes, help woes, and panic attacks – what if suddenly something happens and there is no one around. His tenants, a young married couple, leave for their offices in the morning and come late in the night. Most of his old neighbours, old like him and living with a spouse like him, are away for months visiting sons and daughters across the country. The old couple who live in the house right in front, in fact, have been away for almost a year now. They are at their son’s in Chennai. And he didn’t know anybody who lived in the numerous blocks of flats in the neighbourhood. What if something happened and nobody was around? So should he and his wife go to his sons? Would he want to let go of the house? This is what was tearing him apart all this time, and it was even more turbulent than his stiff neck, his water worries, than his anger at the Trackers that stopped right in front of his gates, the Trackers that his daughter took to the university, which made him so anxious that he did not rest as long as she did not call up to say she had reached safely.
~ Juanita Kakoty is a communication consultant with Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, India. She has been published in Earthen Lamp Journal, New Asian Writing, Writer’s Asylum, Deccan Herald and the Thumbprint.~Read more short stories published by us.