She snickered as she uttered her name, “Dhaleshwari”. I smirked.
“Didi, you continue with your studies. Dhala won’t disturb you”, her mother Sarala assured me.
“Doesn’t she go to a school?” my mother asked.
Wiping the sweat off her face Sarala nodded her head in disapproval.
“Take a look at the news, do you think we should trust them so much?” my father had warned my mother. I guess it was my mothers’ fondness for Sarala that she cinched my father not to worry.
It was purely by stroke of luck that my mother had managed to get a maid like Sarala. We had been to Kajolmashis’ place at Konaban where Jaydevmesho was deputed as a Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) with Tripura State Rifles (TSR). Those days our old house help had left and my mother had been desperately searching for a replacement. Sarala was employed at their police quarter. But she yearned for a job in the city with an increased pay. Hearing the account of my mothers’ plight on how she has been managing without a help, Kajolmashi handed over Sarala to us, “Don’t worry didi, you take Sarala with you. I will get another. We are full of helps at TSR and getting a maid is not at all a problem for us”. My mother was euphoric. First, Sarala needed no police verification. And second, she would be with us 24 x 7, a great relief to my mother.
Since then it had been six long years that Sarala was employed with us. She would never take a leave. But each year during the month of April she would take a months’ leave and visit her native, Longtharai valley. She belonged to the Tripuri clan and that was the time for their festival Garia puja.
Sarala was a widow and mother to a son and a daughter though she hardly spoke of her family. We too never probed further. She was good in her domestic errands and that was all what we needed. But one thing about her would bother me. During the occasion of Durga puja my mother would always gift her a new sari, but she would never wear it. She would take that sari along with her during her visits to her native.
“Why don’t you wear them?” I had once asked. “These are precious ones and is only for my daughter. I will gift them to her at her wedding”, Sarala had smiled.
It was during one of her trips to her native that she brought Dhaleshwari along with her.
“Maa, this is my daughter and would be staying with me from now on. You need not worry about her food. I will share mine with her”. Sarala always addressed my mother as “maa” and my father as “dadababu”. After a brief discussion within my parents Dhala was allowed to stay with us. My mother ensured that Dhala not only got a new mattress to sleep but also provided her with a square meal. She had in fact rebuked Sarala on her idea of sharing her food with her daughter.
Hailing from the Tripuri tribes both Sarala and Dhala had typical mongoloid features and preferred speaking in Kokborok language among themselves. With us they would communicate in broken Bengali. Dhala was younger to me. While I was thirteen and according to Sarala, Dhala was eleven years old. Though she resembled a kid of nine years. She was skinny but was very fair.
Initially Dhala refrained from talking with any of us. While her mother catered to our household chores, Dhala preferred sitting quietly near our kitchen door.
Gradually Dhala started adhering to minor chores at our place. Instead of sitting the whole day Dhala would massage my mothers’ legs as she suffered from arthritis. She would also pluck my mothers’ grey hair, a quality which my mother highly appreciated. My mother would hand over a one rupee coin if Dhala managed to remove 50 of them, and I knew Dhala cheated on this. My mother would close her eyes and rest while Dhala plucked her black ones as well. I once caught Dhala and had yelled at her, “I will give you one tight slap. Why are you removing all my mothers’ hair?” However I didn’t have to do anything, Sarala came running from the kitchen and yanked Dhala with a slap. Dhala wept and my mother had scolded Sarala for hitting her daughter. “And you, keep your mouth shut. I have not asked you to supervise Dhalas’ work”, my mother had also warned me.
Dhala started watering our flower pots and our garden at the backyard, an errand which my mother carried earlier. She also scrubbed my mothers’ puja’s stuff, oiled my hair, combed and tied my plaits during my school. It was from Dhalas’ head I got lice in my hair. She would scratch her head, pull out a lice and “pat” she would crush it with her nails. I tried copying her but failed. I remember my mother chopping both mine and Dhalas’ hair and emptying bottles of Mediker shampoo (anti-lice treatment shampoo) on our heads. I was elated to find that Dhala carried more lice in her head as compared to me. To add to the precaution even Sarala had to wash her hair with that anti-lice treatment shampoo. My mother also ensured both Sarala and Dhala washed their hair every weekend with that treatment shampoo. For us, cleanliness mattered and both Sarala and Dhala adhered to our instructions.
My parents would be at work when I returned home from school. I and Dhala would then play in our backyard which was a miniature woodland of holly trees and native shrubs, each of them trimmed as if they were green flames. We would run around the trees and enjoyed plucking out the weeds that grew between the honey colored bricks which supported our rose beds. I could not recall the day when Dhala not only became my friend but also turned my confidante. She would try teaching me their traditional Lebang Boomani dance in which I failed miserably and I would in turn try to teach her Kathak and Odissi dance steps which she failed to grasp. We would laugh hysterically at our failures, then would settle down on our porch where she would narrate me stories of her village. Dhala had never seen her father and would refrain from answering any questions when I asked about her brother. It appeared quite strange even to my parents that Sarala too avoided talking about her son. “Who is there at your village home Dhala?” I would still enquire and she returned me a blank gaze saying they had two cows, three goats and ducks which were taken care by their neighbors. “And your brother?” that she would never reply.
Dhala was with us for exactly one year when during the month of April it was time for Sarala and Dhala to visit their native. Even I had my summer holidays during that period and pleaded Sarala not to take Dhala with her. “Manu, this year we will return within 15 days. We won’t even stay for a month”, Sarala had gently replied before leaving with Dhala.
But they never returned. My parents waited for two months and then hired a new help. I tried to dissuade my mother from hiring a new one, “Let’s visit her village and find out what’s wrong, they still have their clothes at our place. Mummy, listen they will surely return”. Ignoring my pleas my mother would carry on with her chores and I had no choice but to sit and study. I would return from school and now instead of playing in the backyard I would either settle down with a book to read or practice my dance steps. My mother once again took over the charge of watering her plants, something which Dhala did and I would turn misty eyed.
But then time proved the best healer. Both Sarala and Dhala got blurred in my memories.
My mother would often speak to Kajolmashi on phone and during one such conversation I overheard her mentioning about the sudden disappearance of the mother daughter duo, “Sarala stayed with us for seven years and we have no clue what compelled her to leave without a notice. She had even left her goods at our place……….”
The following year during the state assembly elections my father, a government employee was deputed to Longtharai valley as a presiding officer. Those were the days when the ATTF (All Tripura Tiger Force) were notoriously famous for their terrorist activities. And Longtharai was a highly volatile area. My fathers’ car was escorted by the police. The poll at that region needed to be conducted under high security. I remember my mother praying the whole night for his safety. And her prayers were answered. My father returned by nine the next evening. The poll had been peacefully managed at the valley and my mother heaved a sigh of relief.
Next day it had been an off for my father. My mother had left for her work and would return only late in the evening. I had already returned from my school. I tiptoed to my fathers’ room and peeked in. He was at his study table.
“Baba”, I called out.
My father turned towards me and from his looks I could make out he knew what I would ask him. He took a long pause before speaking to me.
He pointed me to a broken trunk which he had brought along with him yesterday. We had noticed it, but by that time my father was too tired to answer our questions on it.
“Open it Manu”, my father gently said.
I did as said.
Lo and behold, it was Sarala’s. The saris which my mother had gifted her were neatly tucked in it along with some imitation jewelries. It also had an unused comb, a sealed bottle of coconut hair oil, some hair clips and a half-filled Mediker shampoo bottle. There were some coins too, mostly one rupee ones. I suddenly felt that a thunderbolt had struck me. Those were the coins which my mother had given Dhala during those sessions of grey hair plucking. A faint smile crossed my lips. I looked up at my father in anticipation.
“Manu, I have never lied to you”, I was unsure why my father was suddenly saying a quality of him which I already knew.
He took another brief pause.
“He had buried their bodies”, my father was almost whispering. “Bodies, buried; what do you mean baba?” I was confused.
“Manu, you are too young. You won’t understand everything, and as I said I cannot lie to you”, my father patted my back.
“And this broken trunk?” my speech faltered as I spoke.
“He came in disguise and handed it over to me in the night. He didn’t want any memories from his past”, my father breathed heavily as he spoke. Each word he spelt came with lot of efforts.
I almost asked my father “He? Who is he?” Realization struck. I knew him.
“He is now a part of the guerrillas. The same people, who had robbed off the modesty of his mother and sister”, my father fumbled for words.
“And the cops, what were they doing?” I was panting now. “You will understand once you grow up”, my father replied.
I wanted to ask about the cows, goats and ducks. I wanted to ask about their neighbors. The initial trauma was too much for me to bear. I could only manage to say, “These saris are for Dhala’s wedding. Daddy we must keep them safely”. My father refused to speak any more.
Years later after I had completed my graduation, while dusting our store room I discovered that trunk. It was all covered in dirt. I opened it, the saris lay tattered the same way those intruders had ripped off their dreams, clothes and flesh that fateful night.
About the Author
Rimli Bhattacharya is a gold medalist in Mechanical Engineering from National Institute of Technology, and also holds an MBA in supply chain management. Her essay on mental illness in the anthology “Book of Light” published by Speaking Tiger Publications caught much attention in literary circles. Her writings have appeared in several magazines. She is also a trained classical dancer (Kathak & Odisi forms).