With the thunderstorm ceasing and sudden departure of the inclement weather, Rana decided on opening the drawing room window. He loved the cool breeze wafting through the crevices of his body, especially after a shower. The window had gigantic glass panes supported by movable panels forming the frame. The house was built under supervision of Brigadier Bannerjee, Rana’s dadu. The room smelled of rain, a mild, distinct, earthly odour.
He sauntered towards the dining space, a capacious area with a cherry-red sandstone table in the centre. Rana grabbed a bottle of water and wolfed down the contents at a swig. The breeze was now pushing against the edges of his bath-towel, trying to eke out a pathway. He lighted a cigarette, inhaled the first drag, and ambled towards the drawing room window. The weather was showing signs of change and Rana took in as much of the dank air as his lungs could.
The cold breeze made his nipples erect. With his long fingers he felt their porcelain hard pinkish tips. As he loosened the bath-towel, a sudden gust of wind made it slip, exposing his muscular legs. He stood there naked, staring at the pine trees that were swaying now as the wind gathered strength. The mountain looked tawdry with the little specks of light. It seemed as if some enormous beast was stationed at a distance, dressed in an eighties disco costume. Rana remembered that it was the time of Loosong, the year ending harvest festival in this small town of Lachung. His helper, Bahadur, had narrated to him about the festal pomp and glitz, that took place during the last few days of the Tibetan calendar. A time when the townsfolk attends dances at the monastery, eating ghutuk, the traditional noodles containing a handsome amount of dried cheese and drinking chaang, the famous millet wine served in bamboo barrels. Bahadur once got the beverage for him, when he was down with fever during the first few days of his stay.
Bahadur was his only companion in this sedate town. He came early in the morning, made him breakfast of poached eggs, buttered toast and steaming momos. Rana had always been an abstemious bore but since his stay here, he had been a little indulgent with food. Bahadur stayed miles away in a village and would climb up the path everyday to cater to Rana’s needs. The Bhutias are hardworking and amiable people. They love attending to their guests with a certain sense of alacrity.
In this sleepy town of North Sikkim, situated on the China border, Bahadur managed his livelihood by taking up his family profession of driving. Rana felt a fraternal attachment with him, something that developed during his stay at Lachung, sequestered from friends and family. Bahadur was his sole confidante. Rana would talk to him while eating, as Bahadur squatted on the floor smoking bidi. He talked about the city, his exhaustive office life, his attic room where he hashed up with his high school girlfriend and about Ranga Pishi.
Ever since Ranga Pishi’s death Rana has been suffering from a sense of displacement. Something that compelled him to flee the city and embark on a clandestine existence here with Bahadur. The dank air reminded Rana of Ranga Pishi’s wet tresses brushing against his cheek. Her conch shell bangles, starched cotton sarees, betel juice stained teeth, all appeared hazy to him. For once in his life he could not distinguish between them. They all collided, creating tension.
Rana rushed to the washroom and doused his head into a bucket of ice-cold water. Looking at the mirror, the next moment, Rana felt his eyelids drooping, a sense of grogginess engulfed him and he sat on the freezing washroom floor, legs spread apart, head bowed, close to his navel. He could see an infant swimming in a pool, getting drowned, but trying hard nevertheless, to catch hold of something that would save his life. The pool gradually transformed into a deluge, similar to a tentacle monster trying to choke the life out of the infant, gasping for breath.
Rana tried to move his legs but felt a sudden numbness. All his strength seemed drained out of his body. The quiescent life among the mountains cast a Shamanic spell on him, that trapped Rana in a bubble of dormancy. He tried to think of the galumphing kids at the Rumtek Monastery. Those agile cherubs, who seemed ebullient like a fluffy oven-fresh bread, floating in an idyllic canvas, with the mountain as a profound, sublime backdrop. He thought of Ranga Pishi’s tales, spanning two landscapes, now separated by barbed wires. Whenever Rana was reminded of Ranga Pishi’s journey, he heard sounds of clanking pots, whispers of anxiety and busy footsteps as a community moved in hope of a peaceful land to settle. Ranga Pishi, his father’s cousin, was among the many who migrated from now Bangladesh to India in the late sixties owing to the threats posed by a civil war in the then Pakistan. Crossing the border on a star-lit night, succoured by three youths studying at the Dhaka University, Ranga Pishi came to the house of Brigadier Bannerjee in Calcutta.
His summer afternoons at the house were spent gorging on raw mango pickle made by Ranga Pishi and stories from a land where she ran among the paddy plants under the tangerine sky. Ranga Pishi’s stories enchanted him, as he slept there, head resting on her lap, while a swarm of grasshoppers danced in the air, an indication of the approaching rain. Since childhood, it was Ranga Pishi who showered Rana with all the maternal love and care. His baba would be vexed at him, if he asked about his mother. When he grew up a little, he was totally oblivious of her absence. Ranga Pishi was his world. She would pamper him with his favourite rice pudding, coconut balls, sweet yoghurt and would offer him a bite from the stuffed betel leaf.
Rana could hear his phone ringing. He pushed himself up and staggered towards the dining table. The screen flashed Baba. He dragged his weary legs towards the front porch ignoring the sound that appeared to him like the whining of an irascible infant. It was dark outside and he felt the chill slicing his skin. The maddening din of the crickets added to the beauty of the night. There were a number of questions that disrupted his peace within. Who was his mother? Why did baba become frosty whenever he asked him about her? Why did kakababu bypass all his queries?
He remembers the day he turned thirteen and there was a huge party thrown by baba. It was a bit more opulent than the usual birthday bashes. That very day a man came to their house. He was in his twenties and looked handsome. He limped while walking. Baba was piqued at his presence and kakababu ordered the darwanjis to throw him outside. The man was looking for Ranga Pishi. There was a huge commotion in the drawing room with all darwans using their strength on him.
It was late at night and Ranga Pishi was counting the beads when Rana barged in. He saw Ranga Pishi cowing down at his incessant demands at knowing the identity of the stranger. She bent forward and whispered in his ears, “He is your brother, my only son, Benu.” She broke down into tears, and Rana could feel his shirt soaking all her pains. Benu was Ranga Pishi’s only son, removed from her after his birth. For baba, dadu and kakababu, he was an ugly stain on Ranga Pishi’s life and needed to be erased. Benu was a war baby.
Ranga Pishi assuaged her pain by diverting all her attention towards Rana, mothering him with all her emotions. The numerous times he asked her about his mother, she curtly replied, “Isn’t Ranga Pishi a good mother?” Benu’s eyes haunted Rana ever since that day. Is Benu something more than his cousin? Why did he feel that uncontrollable pull towards him? Who was Ranga Pishi? Why did she sequester herself from the other members of the household? The questions shall never be answered. They have all been reduced to ashes along with Ranga Pishi. Baba and kakababu resisted Benu from performing the last rites. Rana saw a teary-eyed man in his thirties being shoved off into a van and taken away from their house.
The rain had commenced and Rana was on his kness smelling the wet grass. Deep down he knew, this was the end of all. Ranga Pishi, his childhood, his search all were converted to indistinguishable mass of grey powder that kakababu scattered on the Ganges. The sky above was fortunate enough to vent out all its pains, crying like a bride leaving her home. Rana lay still on the ground, his bare body absorbing the pains of the parting bride. He dreamt of a land white as a peeled almond, where the air smelt of Ranga Pishi’s wet tresses. A land where the paddy plants swayed with the rhythm of the breeze and all his answers gambolled under the tangerine sky.
Next morning, Bahadur found him dead.
baba: father in Bengali.
beedi: South Asian cigarette containing tobacco flakes wrapped in Tendu leaf and tied with a string.
chaang: A Tibetan alcoholic beverage made from semi-fermented millets or barley or rice, considered essential in religious and social occasions and served in large bamboo barrels. Used for medicinal purposes.
dadu: grandfather in Bengali.
darwanji / darwan: the gatekeeper in Hindustani
ghutuk: traditional Tibetan noodles consumed during the Loosong and Losar festivals; it consists of dried cheese and nine other ingredients.
kakababu: uncle in Bengali.
Loosong: The year-end harvest festival celebrated in the north of Sikkim and some parts of Tibet with great pomp and glitz.
momos: steamed meat dumplings; a Tibetan cuisine
Ranga Pishi: an endearing address for aunt in Bengali
saree: garment for women
Illustration by Alan Van Every
Samyak Ghosh was born in North Bengal in May 1988. He is pursuing Post Graduation studies in English Literature from Jadavpur University, West Bengal. A voracious reader, he takes special interest in South Asian Politics, Migration Studies and the Studies in Masculinity. He loves writing poetry and short stories. He currently lives in Salt Lake City, Kolkata and is associated as a volunteer with The Akshayapatra Foundation, a NGO working towards eradication of child hunger. Some of his poetry can be read on his blog.
Are you a short story writer?
Why don’t you submit your best short story to the
New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology?