Chiru clearly remembered the day his house was flooded by consoling faces of dejected-looking men and women swathed in conspicuous white. He had never seen so many white saris and dhotis before, so many heads bent in gloom, so many bodies of men and women standing as still as they were right now.
While his father solemnly stood at the door, exchanging inaudible words with the daroga, his mother’s disheveled hair and tear-soaked cheeks caught his gaze. His rickety toy slipped from his hand with a decisive thud. He had never seen his babu or ma in the states they were in right now.
His babu, a jolly fellow for most part of life, had been the proverbial light-hearted village simpleton. He used to carry Chiru on his shoulders, while spoiling Simti with delectable portions of cotton candy at the fair. Ma on the other hand was the usual hard-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside housewife dreaming all the big dreams for her children. She believed in rapping their knuckles and diligently overfeeding them as a sure shot way of ensuring they become ‘big’ men and women in the future. In this regard, they were the first family in the village to send Simti to school. And continued to do so even after she got her first period. The only time Chiru had felt jealous of their affections for Simti was when she stood first in her senior class. He had gone and sat dejectedly by the stream’s curb while babu and ma stuffed rosogolla after rosogolla into Simti’s already-bulbous mouth. She wore a new frock and dearly held on to her new Geometry box. Soon after, she came and sat beside him. This was the first time he had felt forgotten by the world. Terrible. He sullenly stroked the waters with a tawdry twig.
‘Arrey, chottey sarkar! Why are you sitting like this?’
‘babu and ma love only love you. There toh is nobody to love me.’ She smiled.
‘Arrey dhat! They are happy that I got good marks. Otherwise they love you more…’
‘No, no. I always get poor marks. That’s why they love me less. Now toh they don’t love me at all!’
‘Arrey! Ok, I will tell you how I came first. Would you want to know?’
His eyes twinkled, ‘YES!’. She took a page from one of her notebooks. The sight of a blatantly torn page widened those already twinkling eyes. ‘You write a small prayer on this…umm…like “God! Help me get good marks” fold it like this and sail it away.’ They both saw that paper boat obediently take the course of the river. ‘That’s it!? That’s your secret! Hahahaha’, Chiru was ecstatic. So were babu and ma when brother and sister came back from the riverbank. Chiru: already an expert boat-builder, beamed. While Simti’s notebook, silently bore the brunt of such vigorous sibling bonding.His parents had been as ecstatic when he topped his class in the next semester. Amidst all that celebration, he tightly hugged Simti, intensely feeling indebted to her for sharing her secret, as if it was owing to those paper boats alone that he managed such marks.
He had never seen his parents so disheveled and dejected as they were now. His eyes roved about the congregation. Everybody they knew was present there, each adorned in their own hues of gloom. Even the sightless mukhiya had come, hobbling on his stick while peering through his thick as sugarcane spectacles.
The only person missing there was Simti. His six year old instincts had an unsettling, sinking feeling. Even before he could fully swallow the situation, or attempt to put his finger on it, he was quietly taken through the back door to a relative’s house in the other village, where he stayed for a few days before returning home. Ma and Babu had taken turns to go and see him. On all their visits their faces wore a grieving, hollow silence. Their eyes maintained their averted aspect. Their silences seeped into him. Protima mashi complained of Chiru talking in his sleep. Babu decided to bring him home after hearing this.
After he came back, he realized how much things had changed at home. The atmosphere stifled him. The air seemed heavy and laden with a single question, ‘Where was Simti?’ The question bore like a hook at his throat but he didn’t know whom to ask for answers; his mother seemed possessed by silence; her eyes stared into the vast blankness of the fields from dawn to dusk. His father was suddenly too busy to speak to him or to take him fishing. Silences as thick as barnacles began to grow on him.
A few mornings later, when he couldn’t bear Simti’s absence anymore, nor could he see two alien people that silence had turned his parents into, he went to Raha, the urchin who used to help his father with his boat and nets. Innocently he uttered those two forbidden words that ma and babu had seemed completely oblivious to, ‘Simti kothai?’
Raha’s countenance had always been very elder-brotherly towards the siblings.While clearing the nets, he suddenly realized how he had been caught in a net called innocence. The question sharply jangled whatever elder-brotherly notions he had nursed till now.
He thought for a moment. For some reason, or for that same inexplicable reason that sat at the heart of ma and babu’s silence, he couldn’t bring himself to tell Chiru the truth. He was slightly flustered before blurting that ‘Simti left home. She now lives across the river among the mangroves!’ He pointed to the obscure mangrove groove on the other side of the river.
Even a child of six shouldn’t have believed it! But Chiru, in his desperation to find an answer, did. Bewildered, he tried to imagine why his elder sister, at once so responsible and mature and moreover the topper of the class would do such a thing! He blankly stared at the mangroves whose labyrinthine nature suddenly assumed a menacing quality.
Raha had been very adept at hauling-in heavy loads of fish from the sea. But for the first time he felt the burden of an inconvenient truth.What he could have said but didn’t and why, dawned upon him at dusk. Raha was amassing the catch of the day. He saw Chiru sitting beside the river bank and vigorously writing on loose sheets of paper. He then neatly folded them into sharp looking paper boats and sailed them away at the delicately ebbing waters. He asked Chiru, half irritated, as to what he was doing!
Chiru calmly narrated to Raha how Simti had taught him to make these boats. And how writing prayers on them made them come true. Chiru also went on to add, ‘this is the only way I can reach her. I don’t know her address but I know that when she’d see paper boats as these, she would know that her younger brother is missing her. Only I can make paper boats as these because she taught me to…’ Those words were barked by confidence born out of conviction. And a terrible innocence, Raha reflected.
A little farther away from that point, those paper boats huddled together near the drooping branch of a tree. While walking to the bangla shop, Raha’s eyes perchance fell on that innocent looking fleet naively struck amidst the branches. Water had percolated and moistened them. Chiru’s tiny hands, in the process of making those boats, flashed before his eyes. At once he felt guilty. And helpless! He climbed near the shallow of the banks and picked up the boats one-by-one. He wasn’t found loitering at the bangla shop that evening.
As soon as dawn broke the next day, Chiru jumped out of bed and instinctively ran to the banks. He saw a dozen colorful boats huddled together beside the nets. An elated shout of joy pierced early morning silence. A sea of mynahs joined him. His parents were startled by the sudden wave of happiness! He picked them up one by one. Each had something scribbled on it, addressed exclusively to him.
“Dear brother! I am very well. I am sorry I had to leave. I miss you and think about you all the time. Please do well in your class and study hard. Love, Simti.’
Just as he finished reading those, the joy it brought, coupled with the melancholy of previous days, poured from him like torrential rain. Raha quietly walked towards the child and held him from behind, ‘I told you she wouldn’t forget you.’ Startled, Chiru turned back and tightly hugged him as if he were Simti herself.
As soon what had happened sunk into him, Chiru ran back to the courtyard and started scribbling to his sister,‘ Didi! I miss you. Mother and Father have stopped speaking. Mother keeps sitting by the window and stares into the skies. Father doesn’t play with me anymore. He has even stopped taking me to the fair. The other day, Father called some of your friends and gave away all your clothes. I didn’t let them take your hair band and anklets. I even hid your favorite nose ring. I have kept them in my small wooden box. I miss you all the time. There is no one to tell me stories or walk back from school with me. Please visit us whenever you can. Your loving brother, Chiru’. He decorated the letter with caricatures of birds, animals and abstract designs. He also drew a portrait of the four of them, beneath which he wrote, ‘this is for times when you miss us…’
He then folded the letter into a larger-than-usual paper boat, ran towards the banks and happily sailed it away. Raha stood beside and observed all of this; the letter, the drawings, and the innocence that accompanied the gesture. That familiar feeling of guilt mixed with dread started filling his heart. The same feeling of dread made him pray that when the time came to tell the boy the truth, he shouldn’t be the one telling it. He didn’t even want to be around.
This exchange of letters went on for a month. With each letter, Chiru became happier. His happiness bore on ma and babu’s silence as hypodermic needles. While their incompetent attempts at dealing with truth brought silences, Chiru was a river of words flowing on paper, which found its way into the river. He started speaking to his sister through his letters. Raha’s meager pay was spent on paying the village scribe for writing replies. But all of them were seemingly real!He consulted elders, shop-keepers, friends and everyone around him, looking for answers to questions Chiru had asked.
But with each letter, he realized how difficult it was to lie to someone who believed you with all his heart! And what it took away from him every time, to keep that lie alive.
Chiru’s letters had now become like everyday conversations. Most of his notebooks were front-cover and back-cover with nothing in between. Chiru’s parents had known what was happening. They ignored his countless pleadings to cast a glance at those letters. Ma looked at them once, only to turn away her face. This further confused him as the letter was a very happy one. Finally, they decided to let the boy remain happy for as long as time permitted.
Time’s generosity ended forty days hence. The daroga came and asked Chiru’s father to come along to identify a body they had found four miles downstream. Evidently it was a girl’s body, bitten by fishes, rotten and mutilated. The anxiety of this moment had filled ma and babu’s silences since the beginning.
And now it had arrived.
Until now, the mourning, the grieving, the tears, the silences; had signified an absence, a vacuum, a loss.To see that loss in flesh and blood, or rather mutilated and marred by a river for forty days was something each of them was preparing for.
Everyone, except Chiru.
Just as they all had known until now, how an angry river had swallowed Simti on a stormy evening.
Everyone, except Chiru.
That evening they brought her home. She was unrecognizable. It was unrecognizable. The river had indeed swallowed her and left the marks of its outrage all over delicate, bird-like body. Chiru had been prancing from nook to nook, reading and re-reading the last letter he had received. It hinted, albeit very feebly, that his sister might pay them a ‘surprise visit’ sometime soon. Or so he wishfully thought, and liked to think as he continued to think so.
He entered the room to be caught off-guard by a congregation similar to the one he had seen a few days ago. That unsettling, sinking feeling crept into his breath. Something wasn’t right! This time though he wasn’t taken away through the back door.
He was left in the same room. He collapsed! The shock absorbed all his faculties.
Suddenly, there was too much to comprehend. Paper boats, letters, his sister’s words, and the unrecognizable body that he knew were hers; all of it bounced back and knocked the teeth of his thinking. He fainted. Just to come back to his senses even before anyone shook him or sprinkled water on his face.
At first he didn’t weep, or speak. He simply stared.His mind had been kicked in the teeth; neither wailing nor tears would issue from it! And then he erupted! He caught hold of Raha and started wailing like a wolf child. He spitted invective, and cursed him for doing this to his sister, and lying to him, and hiding from him all that had happened. The people in the room were astonished by the force of sorrow that erupted from the young boy’s heart. Chiru kept kicking Raha’s shin and punching him and cursing him until he was tired of crying anymore. He simply collapsed in Raha’s arms and fainted again, while Raha, Ma and Babu profusely wept to themselves.
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Glossary of terms:
- Daroga: Policeman
- Babu: Father
- Ma: Mother
- Rosogolla: White, round Bengali sweetmeat
- ChotteySarkar: Term of endearment, meaning in the context, little one.
- Mukhiya: Village headman
- Mashi: Mother’s sister.
- Simti Kothai: Where is Simti?
- Bangla: Cheap village liquor