The lane outside the crematorium offers a strange view – life and death co-exist in antagonistic compromise. The tea stalls, the kachori shops, the flower kiosks continue their own business, occasionally interspersed by the arrival of dead bodies and mourning relatives. There is a brief hustle-bustle, but only very briefly – till the dead body goes inside the gate of the crematorium. And then everything is back in its own pace – tea vendors carefully measuring out tea in glasses, just-mourners fixing deal with the crematorium staff, also-mourners waiting to take leave from grieving relatives….
Shinjini smiled to herself as she observed this. Technically she shouldn’t have. Only a few hours ago she was pushed into the status of being an orphan. But perhaps she was too used to mourning now. Twelve years ago when she had lost her mother she felt she wouldn’t be able to survive any more. She didn’t have a proper meal for three months. Her father stayed away from his work at Phuldungri and spent days with her –trying to comfort her as much as he could. And then, slowly, life became normal. She herself offered to stay in a hostel because she knew it would be difficult for her father to hop between Kolkata and Phuldungri every now and then. So by the time she actually grew up she had learnt to live on her own.
“Guriya, what do you plan to do now?”. Shinjini turned to look. Her uncle waited for her answer expectantly. She looked around. Almost all the other mourners had left except her uncle and Abhi.
“What would I do ? What would I do now…..May be go with you Mamu….for the time being.”, she replied, almost incoherently.
“That is fine Guriya. My question is about the follow-up rituals. During Didi’s time your Dad refused to undergo the follow-up rituals……”
“And you all had to bear the brunt of the unkind remarks by our so-called relatives”, she completed his sentence a tad sarcastically.
“ Hmm….That is true but then I had no control over your Dad”
And what makes you think you have control over me? Shinjini wanted to ask this question in return but restrained herself. She did not want any dispute right then. “ Whatever you say Mamu”, she replied instead.
Her uncle looked visible happy. He suddenly seemed to relish his position of importance. “So then, I will have a talk with the priest and finalise. Then we will have to inform the relatives for the common ceremony”.
Common ceremony ! Which would mean hordes of relatives gorging in on sumptuous meal in exchange of a few words of sympathy! Shinjini shuddered and closed her eyes. Images of her father’s final days hovered in front of her eyes – battered with throat cancer, his final days of feeding meant liquid diet through tubes!
“Can we not leave out that part ?”, she suggested.
“But that is important Guriya. Without that, the rituals are incomplete”.
She felt a surge of bitterness travel through every bit of her body. She battled with herself for a second and then resigned to the situation. “ Okay then….I will follow….every single bit of the rituals, but on the fourteenth day I will go”.
“Where to ?”
“You mean you will take up your father’s NGO work?”
“Development work!”, she interjected emphatically.
“ And do you think you can do all this alone ? Who will go with you ?”. He sounded vexed.
“ I will give a try atleast. And Abhi will go with me”, she replied, though she felt too tired of this question and answer session. She turned to look at Abhi. She knew he wouldn’t object. They had planned it during the long hours of wait at the hospital corridor. Though, she knew well that he wouldn’t have objected even if they hadn’t planned. She could trust him that much atleast!
*** *** ***
Thankfully, Sadhuram Tudu was there at the station, otherwise they would have never been able to squeeze themselves inside the Tata Magic which would pass through Phuldungri. The vehicle was already half-full by the time they had reached the spot.
“Hey look out! Make way, make way for Didi and Sir. They are coming all the way from Kolkata”, Sadhuram had alerted the co-travellers while hopping in; raising his voice to the highest pitch possible.
The poor villagers had been so deeply alarmed by his warning that most of them were ready to sit on each other, offering empty space to the guests from the city. Some had even offered to get down till Shinjini intervened and stopped them from doing so. But in no time, the vehicle was filled to the brim and bursting.
The road from Pahargunj station to Phuldungri was dusty, arduous and long. But Shinjini enjoyed it somehow. The red, dry road lined with trees of Saal, Mahua, Simul ushered in many memories of her childhood. The scent of dry leaves, dust and mountain flowers reminded her of the days with her father and mother. Autumn had just arrived and a cool breeze touched her forehead now and then – playing with her curls. She looked at Abhi. Sandwiched between a sleepy villager and a crying child, he looked every bit a picture of distressed soul.
“ Difficult, isn’t it ?”, she laughed.
Abhi looked embarrassed. He was always a soft person. “No, no, it is fine. Quite perfect”, he tried to sound cheerful.
“Aah….this is why I had told Sristidhar to book a car for you. That moron is useless!”, Sadhuram grumbled from the front seat.
“ It is okay Sadhu. Perfectly okay. Infact, I am quite enjoying the journey”, Shinjini tried to comfort him.
Sadhuram was about to give some more explanation when the vehicle suddenly gave a violent jolt – having made way to a huge pothole. The passengers were all tossed high up and flung down again.
“Ouchhhh”, Shinjini cried out in pain.
“ Welcome to rural India Ma’am”, Abhi smiled and winked at her. She felt like killing him!
*** *** *** ***
They sat in a circle – Sadhuram Tudu, Sristidhar Soren, Malati Soren, Bahamoni Kora….’Compatriots’ – that is how her father used to address them as. Today, standing in front of them, Shinjini fought with an overpowering sense of grief, threatening to rupture the guard that had so long prevented her tears from spilling out.
She cleared her throat and then began to speak. “I…I am new to this field. The last time I had visited Phuldungri was when I was of eleven years…..lots of memories are attached to this place….of my father. Though mom and I were his official family, his real family were the people of Phuldungri. I want to take up from where he had left. It won’t be easy I know but with support from you all I ….we will. “
“ We are with you Guriya didi. We will not let Babasaheb’s dream go waste.”, Malati spoke in a soft voice. Her eyes were red already.
Shinjini changed her topic. She did not want the atmosphere to be heavy or sad. Her brief travel through the area in the afternoon had given her a basic idea about what was needed to be done. She shared her thoughts with the team.
“We need to have a village meet first. That gives an opportunity to share the ideas with the villagers and get their opinion on the issues”, Sristidhar suggested. Shinjini smiled. Within herself she appreciated the democratic way by which her father had brought up his comrades. She also felt the need to clarify Abhi’s role in her life and in the organization. She could already sense the brimming curiosity among the local people about him.
“ Well, this is all for today. But before we disperse I would like to introduce you to Abhi – Abhinav….He is my childhood friend. He is here to support our work. We thank him on behalf of the organization for volunteering to work with us”, she tried to keep her tone as formal as possible. She did not know of any other way to introduce him. Abhi stood up and folded his hands in a namaskar. The others greeted him in return.
*** *** *** ***
The crowd that had gathered to listen, enthused Shinjini to no end. The entire stretch of the Banyan shade was teeming with people. What encouraged her more was the overwhelming number of women who had gathered at the meet. Some had come in groups, some with their wailing toddlers but they looked eager nevertheless.
“Guriya didi, you may start now”, Malati whispered into her ears. The words sent a shiver down her spine. She glanced once at the overcrowded venue. Till yesterday she was her Dad’s Guriya and now she had to step into his shoes. She clasped her diary and began to speak.
“ I…I am Guriya….”, she fumbled. Bad Start! She thought of her father for a second and then began to speak again. “ You have known my father and his work. He lived for you all. And now that he is no longer with you all, I am here to be beside you all. It won’t be a giant leap perhaps….a small step at a time but there will be positive changes happening in and around Phuldungri. To my mind, the first thing that needs to be addressed is the issue of livelihood. Since agriculture is the prime source of livelihood, little changes in the way and method of agriculture can bring in dramatic changes”. She knew by now that floor was all hers. Eloquently she spoke in detail about modern farming techniques – how the usage proper fertilizers, pesticides and high quality, hybrid seeds can bring in vast differences in farm produce. She was about explain the virtues of modern agricultural tools when a booming voice interrupted from amidst the crowd.
“Excuse me Ma’am. You do speak well. And you mean well too. But don’t you think these ideas actually are a dent on the tribal life – their indigenous way of living ? “
Shinjini looked at the faces in the crowd and then identified the speaker. A tall, dark, young man clad in half shirt and jeans looked at her amusingly. Anger – that was the only thing that wanted to overpower her senses. She glanced once at Abhi. He shook his head slowly. She understood what he meant. She knew it too – she had to keep her cool.
“ So, you mean to say that the only way these people can progress is by clinging on to traditional system?”, she asked sarcastically.
“ Yes, perhaps…..that is one way our people can progress”, he replied seriously, stressing on the word ‘our’.
“ Then they should have reached the zenith of progress by now!”, she counter- argued.
“ Yes, we could have…..only if we hadn’t succumbed to the pressure of modernization. Rampant usage of chemical fertilizers in the recent years is only damaging the soil fertility. The ideas you are suggesting ma’am are already being practiced by our people, at the cost of their future. And this is one thing that your father was against”.
The mention of her father jolted Shinjini a bit. Was her father really against these modern systems? Then why hadn’t Sristidhar, Sadhu or Malati spoken about it ? She looked at Abhi helplessly. By now he had come and stood next to her. “Are you through? Have you finished your speech Mr…..whoever”, Abhi hissed unnaturally. He too appeared perplexed by now.
“Rajat Mahato. You can call me Rajat”. The young man came forward nonchalantly. He hardly looked perturbed.
Ofcourse, his purpose was served. The entire crowd by now was divided into two groups- one who were curiously witnessing the verbal face-off and the others who had thronged near the area where Khichdi was being cooked for the participants. Most among the second group had even sat down with their Saal leaf plates, waiting for their share of steaming hot khichdi.
“Your intention is very good Ma’am…..and your purpose is also clear but your approach should be different”, Rajat Mahato continued to speak.
“ We’ve had enough of your discourse Mr.Mahato. We are not interested in your approach theory. Some other day may be”, Abhi dismissed him.
This too did not agitate him. He returned a smile instead. And Shinjini noticed that every time he smiled he left traces of dimples on his cheeks. It looked unusual for a man to be blessed with dimples but somehow he looked curiously cute with those.
Having been cut short he walked to his motorbike parked under the guava tree.
“ There is a special fair after four days. Attend it. You will surely like it!”, he spoke even while starting his motorbike.
“Ugh! How much he speaks!”, Shinjini couldn’t help remarking.
“Leave him! At every place you would find such rots!”, Abhi concluded.
Shinjini felt disappointed at this unusual turn of events but the villagers seemed hardly bothered. They were happy to attend the feast and having discovered a successor to their Babasaheb they were all the more happy.
*** **** *** ***
All the villages in and around Phuldungri appeared to have assembled at the fair venue. Giggling young girls tried out glass bangles – red, green and golden; married women toyed with the usual red and white combination. A few of them who had managed to save some extra money bargained for some gold coloured earrings as well. The children fought on about each and every issue – from sharing coloured sweets to deciding on which clay doll looked less distorted. The men concentrated on the local brew of rice liquor. Strangely, most of the liquor sellers were women. They would causally find a corner and sit with their alluminium pots and in no time men would dot around them, waiting for their glass of the liquor.
Shinjini walked around the fair ground with Abhi, Malati and Sristidhar. By now she was a known face in the area. The last four days had been hectic – organizing small, village-level meets; arranging for door-to-door interactions. Though her focus was still on livelihood, she somehow steered clear of the issue of modernization. It wasn’t that Rajat had influenced her much but he was true on one account – that her father too had been an advocate of indigenous life practices. His writings, his diary – which she had chanced to lay her hands upon, had convinced her of this atleast. Abhi wasn’t much convinced though.
In the meanwhile she had information in bits and pieces about Rajat too. Contrary to what Abhi and she believed, he was not a political leader or even an associate. On the contrary, he was a city-bred, well-educated young man till his father- an ASP of the region was killed by a terrorist bomb very close to Phuldungri. Rajat, rather than being adverse to the people of the region, took it upon himself to counter the conflicts in the area with positivity. These were local versions of his story. “ Rural people normally love to idolize city-bred people and brand them as messiahs”, Abhi had laughed heartily. “ Does that hold true for us too ?”, Shinjini had unnaturally reacted to this argument. It had resulted in a’ no-speak for half-a-day’ among both of them.
A group of youngsters, dressed in football jerseys in various hues trooped past. “Rajat dada has been organizing football matches for young people during every mela. He says this way the young people won’t throng around the liquor stalls.”, Malati whispered. Before she could say further, Rajat Mahato walked past, wearing a jersey himself – with a whistle secured with a chord, hanging about his neck. He paused to smile at Shinjini and her team. Ah, his killer dimples! There was a slight, very slight murmur in her heart. Hell, why!
“ I thought you do support indigenous practices Mr.Mahato….and local liquor is a part of the tribal life-style, isn’t it ?”, she couldn’t resist taking a dig at him
“ It is…Ms.Roy, only thing, with liquor you never know when you are actually crossing your limit. After a glass more, the thin line between culture and habit sadly gets lost. And with young people, it doesn’t take long for the habit to become an addiction. What do you say Ms.Roy? ”, he volleyed the question back to her and smiled. Ah, why does he need to smile unnecessarily? Shinjini turned away her face briefly. Rajat didn’t wait for her answer; instead he ran fast to catch up with his group of players.
Shinjini shifted her focus to a bangle-seller.
‘Ah, red bangles!”, she exclaimed like a child. Abhi laughed at her childishness though Shinjini did not miss the faint hint of tension in his face that he was carrying since afternoon.
*** *** *** ***
Why wouldn’t the heaviness go away? She didn’t expect Abhi to stay on forever, did she ? Abhi was never her boy-friend; he was her best friend. Infact, though he was the only person in the world she would ever rely on, she was never comfortable with the fact that she would ever settle down with him eventually. Though friends and relatives and even her father had hoped that the friendship would culminate into marriage, she had never entertained such thoughts herself. Then why on earth was she feeling so lonely all of a sudden? Wasn’t it enough that he had accompanied her to this God-forsaken place and spent some really hard months with her? Infact when he had announced that he might be leaving she was quite upbeat about it, though he himself seemed pretty upset.
“ I really, really, really don’t want to leave you like this Jini. Infact, I feel like a betrayer myself. But father is very sick and mother says that unless I go back, our business would be ruined. I really wish I can settle things there and come back here one day”.
She had laughed away his hesitation, though she did notice that he had used the word “back here one day” instead of “back here soon”. “Silly boy! Ofourse you need to rush back! That you have been with me for more than two months is a bonus in itself dude! And you know I am more than thankful to you for this.”, she had chuckled. In fact she hadn’t even felt bad standing on the platform, next to his window-seat. Rather, he did look terribly upset.
“I will miss you Jini. And this place too.”, he told her. And she knew his words were sincere. Then why was she suddenly feeling so abandoned after seeing him off at the railway station ? Sristidhar had hired a jeep this time because she wanted to return alone. But now she wished she had travelled back in a public vehicle; atleast the humdrum around would have diverted her mind forsometime. The earthy breeze, the setting sun, the crawling darkness were only adding to her misery. And she hated the radio that played on inside the jeep. She wanted to be alone.
“Stop the jeep Balaram!”
“But didi, Phuldungri is still far away and I have been hired to drop you till Phuldungri”, Balaram sounded puzzled.
“I insist Balaram….please….don’t make me talk.”
“But they will scold me”.
“I will call them up and explain”, she insisted.
Hesitantly Balaram brought his vehicle to halt.
*** *** ***
Shinjini had no idea how long she had been walking. Aimless, directionless, purposeless…she had just walked on and on till she realized she was too close for comfort to the vast tracts of forest area. The sun had begun to set and a shroud of orange-tinted darkness was descending all around. Thankfully the tail end of the main road was still visible. Shinjini turned back to walk up to the main road when she noticed them. A pair of eyes staring at her! Yes, those eyes were only looking at her. Wild elephant! She felt numb and breathless. Originally moving in herds, she knew by now that a lone elephant- abandoned or in search of her herd -would definitely mean danger. The mammoth looked at her with alarming coldness; blocking her reach to the main road. Her only option was to willingly walk towards the unknowns of the deep forest. Moments passed like centuries, as she thought of ways to escape the steely look of the elephant. All of a sudden, even before she realized, a motorbike zoomed past , scooping her along. In the next moment she found herself seated on the back-seat of a motorbike. She did not know who the rider was or where she was heading to; right then, she wasn’t even interested in knowing. She was too tired to think rationally!
“ Hold me tight! We will have to make a ride uphill. There is no other option. And keep your eyes tightly shut! Going uphill is no joke.”, the voice commanded.
Rajat Mahato! A lightning made a touch and go through Shinjini. What was he doing here? She had many questions to ask but there was something in his voice that made her want to depend on him- for the time being atleast. She held him tight. His khadi kurta made a brush against her nose. He smelt of red soil.
*** **** ***
When she finally opened her eyes she was shocked by what she saw. They were right at the top of a hill. Amidst the pitch black darkness, little dots of light illuminated the base of the hill – giving proof of a sleepy town below. Right in front of their eyes three Sadhus sat in front of burning fire singing songs in praise of God and intermittently raising their hands in unison. They sang in colloquial Hindi. Contrary to what one would normally expect, they hardly seemed shocked by the presence of two mortal souls. They casually glanced as Rajat precariously parked his motorbike, balancing it between rocky crevices.
“Joru ?”, the oldest among the three asked him.
He smiled and shook his head in affirmative. Shinjini had limited knowledge about colloquial Hindi but could somehow decipher the meaning of the word. Wife ? How could he ?
“How dare you call me your wife ?”, she demanded.
“Just shook my head. Didn’t give much thought to it.”, he replied casually. He then cleaned a space near a boulder and called her. She kept standing. Why would she listen to him ?
“Sit here”, he insisted.
“Why did you have to come here?”
“ We had a choice between an angry elephant, wild animals and three men on a hill-top. I thought the third would be safer. Atleast I can reason with them”, he laughed heartily.
Shinjini looked at him. The golden glow from the burning fire gave him kind of an aura – his dark skin glowed like molten bronze. In the past two and half months Shinjini had come across Rajat several times and in different avatars as well – talking about kitchen garden among women, teaching seed preservation technique to farmers, organsing health camps for children….. And every time she had come to the same conclusion – that he was talkative, overwhelmingly assertive and eccentric as well but there was something in his simplicity that made her heart miss a beat every time she saw him.
Either it was her thoughts or the nip in the air, she did feel kind of a shiver. Reluctantly she sat down on the cleaned spot.
“Wait, I’ll get something”. He walked towards the singing men and spoke in hushed tones till one of them vanished behind a cave like structure. The man resurfaced with a torn and tattered blanket and handed it to Rajat. He walked back like a winner – smiling and exhibiting the hardly-there blanket.
He carefully seated himself beside her and put one end of the blanket over himself, casually throwing the other end over her. Then with absolute casualness he caught one of her arms tightly and pulled her closer.
“Excuse me!”, Shinjini sprang up from her seat.
He looked slightly taken aback and then grinned. “Awh! Don’t mistake my intentions…..This is a hill-top with very small surface area. Unless we secure ourselves, there is a chance that we might slip off while sleeping! Forget the gender part ma’am, we are friends-in-distress here.”.
Friends? Shinjini gave up. How could she possibly argue with a person who was beyond logical reasoning? She chose to smile instead – atleast she could do that as a thank you gesture.
He stared at her for a brief while and then gave a return-smile in abundance.
“ Forgive me, but frankly, you do look kind of good when you smile”, he remarked.
Shinjini felt exasperated. Was this supposed to be a compliment?
*** *** ***
Shinjini could not believe her eyes. She had not realized when she had actually slept off but what she woke up to was beyond imagination. The entire hill was covered with shrubs and in those bloomed little white flowers with a heady, intoxicating fragrance. Touched by the nascent morning sun and veiled with a misty morning fog the hill looked speckled with snow-flakes. She stared in awe at the beauty that nature had to offer. She felt divine.
The three men were probably asleep behind one of the boulders. Only the ashes from the cinders remained a lone witness to last night’s soiree.
Tip-toeing from behind, Rajat came and stood next to her.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?”, she exclaimed.
“They are Ma’am!”
“Not Ma’am – Shinjini or Guriya…whatever. We are friends-in-distress, remember?”, she teased him.
He shook his head.
“ And thank you – for saving me and for staying awake the entire night while I dozed off”
He looked visibly embarrassed. “Do you know the name of these flowers?”, he tried to divert the topic.
“No. But they are so beautiful….and their smell…..beyond words”. Shinjini closed her eyes to let the fragrance overpower her senses.
“They are called Jhumni. They bloom only for two weeks and only from mid-night to early morning. When they bloom their perfume intoxicates even the wild animals. The locals call it ‘scent of love’.”
She opened her eyes and caught him staring at her. Their eyes met briefly. Then he walked down a few steps and grasped a handful of the white beauties.
“You know, during this time the local tribals have a festival of love to coincide with the blooming of these flowers. If a boy likes a girl he gives her a handful of these flowers”. Saying this he stood in front of her with a palm full of the flowers. It took a few seconds for her to realize what he intended.
“Only like ?”, she smiled.
“Only like…..The men are permitted only this much. It depends on the girl to accept it or not”.
“What if a girl likes the boy too?”
“She accepts the flower”.
“And what if she likes him a bit beyond…..I mean a little nearer love ?”
“Then she accepts the flower and encloses them within her palm”
“Like this?”, she said and took the flowers from his hands and clutched them tightly within her palms.
“Call me Guriya”.
“Can I re-christen ? How about Jhumni ?”
“That would be fine”.
“Then Jhumni it is!”. He clasped his hands over hers.
They looked at each other in silence. She let her eyes do the talking, he let his dimples do the rest. The scent of love had already enwrapped them in its magic spell.