In the palatial bungalow, my life began as a servant girl at the age of seven. With a European landscape garden, a generous portico and lavishly furnished drawing room, it was a beauty to set one’s eye on. I barely remembered how I had landed there. My primary responsibility was to look after Avir, a four-year old boy. Every morning I would brush his teeth and wash his face. After breakfast, I would massage his body with olive oil under the sun. Before noon, I would bathe him and then rub him dry with a soft towel. Then I would dress him up with fresh clothes and comb his hair. The most important part of my job was to feed him lunch and dinner on time. My other daily duty was to wash his clothes after feeding him lunch.
By the time I was around twelve, I attained puberty. Thereafter, I was relieved of my duties for five days in a month. During those five days, I was not allowed to enter the bungalow nor touch Avir. During those five days, a boy called Rosard, who was about a year or two older than me, took care of Avir. As I grew up, new charges were added to my list of responsibilities. I had to dust the furniture of the house, sweep and mop the floors, and change the bed linens of all the bedrooms. Avir’s mother was a beautiful woman with benign eyes. She found fault in everything I did. A slap or two during the day was never an unexpected reward. Yet I was grateful to her as she was the one who had given me a name immediately after my arrival. Until then, everyone had called me “Oyi girl”.
Avir’s father was an unpredictable man. When this tea planter drank alcohol, he would become ferocious, and his wife would lock herself up in the bathroom and spend the entire night there. By morning, the crisis would pass, along with it the noisy violence. There would be peace again until his next session of alcohol.
Avir’s elder sister Vimmi was kind-hearted and she was very gentle with the servants. Since I had never gone to school, she taught me how to read and write the alphabets. Within a few months, it made me capable of expressing myself through meaningful sentences. She also taught me how to swim in the river that ran by the southern boundary of their tea estate. But I often felt sad for her. Although she desperately wanted to please her mother and her father and be proud of them by being caring, loving and studious, it never seemed to happen. By the time Avir was eleven, he was sent to a boarding school in Darjeeling. He would come thrice a year during his vacations and we would play badminton. When he grew up and became taller, he loved to play cricket with Rosard. Rosard was a loving boy. He would occasionally gift me a thing or two- bangles, lipstick and sometimes a nail polish. But I never wore them for the fear of reprimand by Vimmi’s mother. Rosard promised me that he would marry me one day. I began to have a sense of myself as having a happy future. But in their bungalow, as a rule, a servant girl could not marry a servant boy.
Avir grew up to become a handsome young man. It was not until he completed his pilot training and came for a week that my confused dream turned out to be a nightmare. Avir was to leave and his mother caught us red handed while he was handing me a gift- a saree. After he had left for the airport, their mother became furious. I cried and screamed as she dragged me to the backyard slapping and kicking. She hastily locked me up in the room where cattle feed was stored. With my hands and feet tied, I was left without food. In the middle of the night, Rosard secretly sneaked into the room with food. He untied my hands and legs and then washed my face. As I ate the food, he ruffled my hair.
“I’ll soon get you out of this place!” He said hopefully.
But the next morning, on the strength of the estate doctor’s medical certificate which mentioned that I was not mentally sound, I was packed off to a lunatic asylum. This whole thing was done without the knowledge of the servants or anyone else including Rosard.
After a little over six years in the asylum, one summer morning I was released. I had no money. I had nobody to give me a job. In Jokaisuk, no family would employ a woman with the history of an unbalanced mind. There was no one to help me live my new life. Rosard was my last hope. I was sure he would help me with something to live my new life. With that intent, I walked on for miles under the scorching heat with my only belonging- a bag carefully clung to my shoulder. It had my clothes and the certificate from the asylum doctor that I was now mentally sound. I had a little over twenty rupees in my hand which could fetch me half a meal.
I reached the bungalow. But the security guard didn’t allow me to enter the gates. He told me that Rosard had fled the bungalow a few years ago, and Vimmi was married and lived in a foreign country. Disappointed, I returned to the estate market and entered a tea stall. It was a noisy place, full of workers who were sipping tea and talking loudly. A well built man, apparently a truck driver, entered the stall and sat down on the chair across the table. As I sipped my tea, he gave me a smile and asked a thing or two. I answered him reluctantly. But it seemed that he had a soft heart. He assured me of a job in a town where he was going to deliver a truckload of tea chests. With the possibility of an earning, my mind was relieved from the immediate anxiety.
“Are you this nice to every woman you meet?” I asked him.
“No,” he replied, “your innocent face just happened to catch my eye.”
I set out on that journey with him. There was another man with him. He was the handyman. We travelled for hours and then in a little town, they stopped for their meals. The driver told me that he would get my food there. I sat in silence. An hour later, they returned with two other people. One was a monstrous figure with an old pair of boots at his feet and a tattered leather jacket around his body. And the other was a woman wearing a black robe that covered her face all but her eyes. She stared at me curiously as though she had known me for a long time and was now somewhat surprised to see me in the cabin of the truck. The monstrous man inspected me from head to toe and said something to the driver. The driver handed me a banana and then winked his eye at the giant man. They exchanged wicked smiles. I spotted an evil motive in their glances.
As the driver set the truck in motion, my nervous fear continued to rise. We were now driving through a hilly forest with gigantic tropical trees. After a while, I gathered enough courage to ask the driver where he was taking me. The brows of the giant man rose dangerously in suspicion and his face turned grave. My throat went dry.
“Let me get down!” I shouted. All of a sudden, the giant man turned towards me and gave me a tight slap. I felt a terrible pain spreading from the ear down to my jaws. I started to cry. I was now sure about one thing that they were heartless demonic creatures.
My midnight, it seemed like they reached their final destination. It was a dense jungle. We were ordered to get down and then led across a tall bamboo gate. There were wooden cottages hung from a height of about twenty feet above the ground on forks of giant trees. The surrounding area was barely visible due to the pitch darkness caused by the dense canopies of tall trees. A wooden stairway led to each tree-house. Outside, jackals were hauling. Sometimes we heard strange sounds of branches of trees twisting and breaking and falling to the ground. An owl hooted from time to time.
In the morning, we noticed that there were more cottages, and there were more men and women inside them. We could presume from their conversations that most of the men were visitors but the girls and women seemed to be permanent dwellers. They lived in tree houses beyond ours. And then there were men with guns on constant vigil.
In the evening, sitting around a fire in the open area, some men were drinking and smoking. Khushboo, my co-passenger on the truck and I peeped through the windows. They were talking and laughing loudly. Some of them made jokes of one another and laughed. Then a few girls wearing very little clothes appeared on the scene. They began to entertain the drinking men by swaying their hips and waving their hands in the air. After a while, some of the men rose to their feet and began to twist and swivel their bodies. An hour later, they became wilder. They yelled at each other and fought fiercely like wolves. Two young men got angry with one another for a girl. One of them wanted to take her away to a tree house while the other felt offended by this act. In the scuffle that followed, one pinned down the other on the grass. Then two other men rushed to the spot and held him down by his neck on the ground as he fought back swinging his legs vigorously in the air. The giant man with the old pair of boots at his feet and the tattered leather jacket around his body got so infuriated with them that he took out a small gun from inside his jacket and shot through the forehead of the young man on the ground. His body convulsed violently and within a few moments he died.
We had no idea how we had spent those painful years in immoral captivity. From the very first day we had landed there, our minds started to think how to escape from those demons without having our bodies shredded by their primitive fingers. But an escape without being devoured by tigers or trampled by wild elephants looked impossible. Despite the daily pain, our fondness for each other grew and it brought light to our crushed hopes. Khushboo’s idea of an escape had slowly been turning my fears into boldness in some invisible way. One day the sky was overcast. In the afternoon, sitting on a wooded stool behind her, I was combing her long hair. We were getting ready for our duties of the night. After some time, there was lightning and thunder in the sky. A rain started to pour. The smell of earth around us from the first shower of the season delighted us in some way. Accompanied by a fierce wind, soon the rain progressed into a torrential downpour.
It had been raining incessantly for days. The base of the giant old trees weakened. And one night, the tree with the tree-house where the giant man lived, came crashing down. There was much shouting and yelling as the security guards, servants and some of the customers of the night rushed to the spot of the avalanche. As the commotion rose, we quietly climbed down the staircase of another tree-house where we were entertaining two customers. We slipped through the gate without being noticed.
Intermittent lightning illuminated the vast wilderness, showing the stretch before us. It was a pathway the mountain people used to ascend to their orchards up in the high hills. We hurried through the dense forest, Khushboo following close behind me. We could only hear the wind rushing through the trees, twisting them this way and that. It was full of leeches, beetles and poisonous snakes and yet we braved forward, descending the distance rapidly along the narrow track. Sometimes we slipped, fell and then rose to our feet again. Sometimes we bruised our arms and legs and our chadors were ripped. But we stumbled on. Pain swept through our flesh and bones. We could feel the silvery threads of rain were drumming down on our tainted and wounded bodies. On our way, we noticed a leopard dragging down the body a dead deer into the hollowed recess along the base of the cliff we were climbing. At another place, we noticed that a family of wild elephants was breaking tree branches and munching the wet leaves. The streaks of lightning glinted on their big bodies. We swiftly lowered our heads and took shelter behind a bushy tree. Our legs went numb and the fear caused cramps in our stomachs. We waited with impatience. A few moments later, the herd slowly melted away into the trees. We hurried along the slippery footpath, moving through the deepening shadows. At one point, we reached a swift-flowing river. We waited with anxiety dreading if the security guards were following us along the footpath. If they found us, they would certainly recapture us and then return us to the filthy prison.
The sky was turning maroon under the slowly rising sun. We took off our soggy clothes that had soaked the rain water for hours. We made them into two bundles and tied them each to our back. Both of us plunged headlong into the waters. The current under the surface was so fierce that we were nearly swept away. Every time we drifted along the current, we managed to swim a few inches toward the opposite bank. Our muscles had gone weak. Just as I was reaching the bank, I heard a scream. It was Khushboo. She was being swept away at a frantic speed. It was so slippery that I kept sliding down at the shore. Khushboo was screaming incoherent words of panic. Before I could have a grip on the exposed roots of an oak tree, Khushboo’s faint voice was gone. By the time I realized what a grave tragedy had struck me, the fear of the security guards returned. So I quickly dressed up. Without wasting a moment, I hurried down along the footpath.
At the end of those nine strenuous hours, I reached the town the demons had stopped for their meals. I noticed a bus with its destination painted in bold in its front- Jokaisuk. I boarded it and sat down wearily. When most of its seats were occupied, it started off honking loudly. I slept the entire length of the journey.
By noon the bus reached Jokaisuk. I got down and walked past a line of garments shops, a petrol pump, a pharmacy and reached the bank of the Brahmaputra. The wind blew the damp smell of the river in my face. Fishermen were netting fish. At the sight of the river, I felt like taking my bath. Hiding behind tall grass that grew on the sandbank, I washed my clothes first and then hung them under the sun on the river weeds. And then I had my bath. It felt as if the waters of the mighty river washed away the dirt from my body and mind alike.
I returned to the main road and sat down at the foot of an acacia tree. I had been so heavily burdened with the thought of my survival that I hardly had had the time to think about Khushboo. I couldn’t save her. I began to grieve. I broke down into lonely sobs. I cried inconsolably as the slow sense of regret pierced through my heart.
“Oyi Lonita! Aren’t you Lonita?”
I heard someone calling me. I didn’t know when I had fallen asleep. When I opened my eyes, I noticed a familiar face. I rose to my feet and then stood in front of him. I could not believe my own eyes. He looked on for a full minute. He was decently dressed in a white shirt and a pair of brown trousers. I stepped closer and was ready to hug him, but I stopped in time. I stopped because I knew how I looked in my ragged mekhela and chador. He stepped closer and then put his arms around me. Words failed to come out of my quivering lips. And suddenly he hugged me. I could feel my tears were running down his shirt. I felt his right hand fingers rolling through my hair.
As we walked away from under the tree, I wiped my tears with the chador. We walked past a line of shops and entered a restaurant. We sat down at a table for two. He ordered two meals for us. As I spoke, he listened to me with undivided attention. When the meals came, we began to eat, and our conversation continued. He looked keenly at the scars of cigarette-burns on my face- the evidence of torture inflicted by the demons. As I narrated the events of the bygone years, he could not believe his ears. There was a remarkable transformation in his appearance and manners. The boy of my childhood was now a handsome man. We were meeting after what looked like eternity and I was so busy telling about my life that I almost forgot to ask him if he was married and if he had children. Then he began to tell me about himself. Not long after my departure from the bungalow, one day Vimmi’s mother had discovered that a gold necklace was missing from her wardrobe. The family had concluded what appeared to them as the obvious and handed over Rosard to the police.
“A criminal case of theft went on for over a year and then the court sent me to the prison where I spent a few more years.”
He went on.
“With the experience of all those years I realized one thing that the question of one’s survival depends not on one’s endurance but on the person’s capacity to free themselves from evil and stay away from its sources.”
He paused for a minute.
“There was no light in my life after you had suddenly disappeared from the bungalow. And after I was released from the prison, I roamed the streets of Jokaisuk like an unsettling spirit.”
Despite the fact that I had shared with him about all the misfortunes of my life of the intervening period, Rosard accepted me wholeheartedly. His old love for me sprang up as did mine for him. The old memories made his eyes bright and shining. They shone on me and on all about him. I felt a strange joy. It left me hungry for I knew not what. His words were beginning to fill my heart with a sudden something, perhaps hope and meaning.
Rosard was running his own business with a dozen cars and jeeps that transported tourists to the Himalayas. He lived in a village which was a few hours’ away in the lower Himalayas. He frequently visited Jokaisuk on work. We finished eating. He paid the bill and then we left the restaurant. Walking slowly, we reached his car which was parked under a tree. He started the engine and then stared into my eyes with an expression that was both tender and affectionate.
“Why are you looking at me like this?” I said to him, feeling nervous as I was and not knowing how to react. He modestly lowered his eyes. My lips began to quiver. As my face grew pink, he remained silent and his eyes now looking at the road ahead. I felt as though I was standing between two mirrors. I could see my images on both, one of the horrid past and the other of a bright future.
We got down from the car and began to mount the damp uneven stone steps. A giant panda cub was munching bamboo leaves. He paused to greet us with a friendly look. It was a semi-circular footpath that led to a hilltop. When we reached the top, a beautiful little garden revealed itself. It was full of flowers and orchids. We entered the cottage through its little portico. As I stepped inside the cosy drawing room, a pleasant smell of the Himalayan teak greeted my nose. Rosard led me into his bedroom. We looked across the large window and the snow-capped oceanic waves spread before us, one after another in endless rows. To the left, lay beneath the sky a mountain lake. To the right, the four-hundred year old monastery stood with hope and optimism. With the drawing room, two bed rooms, the kitchen and the small veranda, it was a beautiful cottage. We reached the backyard and Rosard showed me his orchard at the slope of the hill. On the slopes below, clouds were sweeping the lush canopy of the trees.
“Can you imagine we’re standing at an altitude of three kilometres from the level of the Arabian Sea!’ Rosard smiled.
My new life began with a regular walk in the woods. It helped me relax and release all the negative energies of the past. Then a teacher, upon Rosard’s request, started to give me advanced lessons on the English language. I wanted to become a tourist guide so that I could help Rosard in his business. A second teacher trained me on ethnic dance. Dancing broke the inertia of my body and mind alike. I began to respect myself as it broke down the sense of hatred towards my own body. It repaired my mutilated self-esteem and uplifted my shattered sense of dignity. It lessened my hatred towards the male voice, the male scent and the male groans of ecstasy. Dancing gave expressions to my hidden optimism. I overcame fear, the fear to trust someone, the fear to live life, the fear of disease and the fear of death.
Rosard helped me to learn how to let go my regrets and angst that disturbed my mind again and again. He taught me how to shift the mind from negative thoughts to positive imagination. Rosard made me feel how much I mattered to him. Overall, I felt myself complete; physically, emotionally and spiritually.
One day, I realized that I was pregnant. It immensely delighted Rosard and the sense of creating another human being brought enormous pleasure to my mind. In a few months, the baby began to kick inside me. I craved to hear its first cry. Rosard frequently took leave from his work to take care of me. He would make my bed and fluff my pillows. He would give rubs to my back and massage my head. I often wondered how true love could act as a source of pure delight and the absence of it could be a source of agonizing pain.
When the day arrived, I began to feel the cramps. Rosard quickly shifted me to a hospital an hour’s drive away. I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. We named him ‘Rolon’, ‘Ro’ from his father and ‘Lon’ from his mother. We came home after a week. I became busy with Rolon. After he went off to sleep, I would do the household chores, and then I would sit down by the bay window and write. Looking at the scenic lake, I would pen down the events of my life. It launched me into a creative odyssey. Thus I began the celebration called ‘life’.
About the author:
Sidd Burth is an Indian novelist and short story writer. He was born in Assam and attended Guwahati University and Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta. Sidd is a social enterprise expert and runs a management consulting company which helps start ups to become successful enterprises. He began writing fiction in 2007. His first novel The Poison Earrings (2016), is an adult mystery romance set in India, USA and France. His upcoming work of social realism entitled The Attackers of the Night is set in Assam, London and Mojave.