(Translated from the original Assamese "Jodi" by Stuti Goswami)
It perhaps could have happened otherwise. … But it happened that way… and a mild excitement resonated all over. It was as though people had suddenly found a new drink to guzzle. The newspapers registered a sudden rise in circulation.
And I pondered over this woman’s destiny. So many changes had come over her life’s journey. Her body—more than that her mind —were to be readied for an uncertain road ahead. Probably it had grown tremendously restless within. Confined to her shed for several days, she now wanted to go out. But she knew not where ……...
Of course things are no longer as simple. . Any moment, a malicious remark might fall upon her ears. Any moment, an offensive yell might pierce her heart. When her mind is working properly, such words pain her no end. It is then, that she silently weeps. But today in all probability//probably that river has dried.
Occasionally, the symptoms (re)surface. During such moments an iskra flares somewhere within her. A blazing wind swirls and attempts to rise inside the caverns of her brain--almost overpowering her with the desire of breaking everything down and plunging into the river to let it swallow her in its folds. But even then, the fierce desire to live lingers. At the last moment, she abandons all thoughts of annihilation.
Frantically she runs. Stones in hand, a swarm of school boys run after her. The street dogs too join in the chase. Her soiled clothes fly irreverently in the wind as she runs faster to save herself from this assault of stones and barks. Her unkempt long tresses fly wildly behind her.
In time, tired and out of breath, the woman lurches onto the verandah of the decrepit post office.
Presently, she is contemplating a stroll on the streets like the other respectable dwellers of the city. Somehow, she is reminded of Alaka Baideo. That day when she had first visited her, along with some others, Alaka Baideo had handed her a handful of notes. That money is still there—tied into a bundle at one end of her soiled saador. Nearing the bazaar, she even feels like buying herself something to eat. But I suppose she won’t be able to do anything of that sort. The man at the cash-counter would be in a hurry to send her away with a stale bit of bread or some leftovers. Apparently, there is some difficulty in letting this woman mingle with the crowd that can afford to spend money on itself.
Probably the same thought came over her as well; (for) at once she withdrew from the vicinity of the sweet shop she was approaching. However, her attention was suddenly riveted by a photograph on the front page of a newspaper hanging in one of the stationary shops nearby. For a moment there was a glint// a glint passed over her face. It had been ages since she saw herself in the mirror. Still it wasn’t difficult for her to recognize her own photograph.
Scars left behind by chicken pox on her pale withered face figure prominently in the photograph. Her eyes, pale like a dead fish’s, reveal the want of proper food and healthy environment in her life. In the photograph, her eyes have a haunting look…a frenzied expression, that one confronts in horror stories. Encompassing that hysteria are some powerful letters… nay, devouring flames of fire in the form of letters …Of course, that fire can no longer harm her.
That day when the girl from the newspaper had arrived to cover the news, she had brought along with her a camera. She had taken out her notebook and asked many questions. Occasionally her mobile had beeped. The voice at the other end had stressed that this was a scoop-news with incredible news-value. The girl too must have realized that this incident had tremendous news-value and that everything depended on a proper presentation.
Four months ago, in a shack in a isolated corner of the city, an injustice has been committed on this woman. For three months, this felony—like so many others the world over —had not seen the light of day. And then, the misfortune began. The woman’s enlarging belly gradually began attracting attention. The searching eye of a multitude generated a massive wave of curiosity. Today, a question suspends in mid-air.
Someone is heard ruing —“humanity is dying a sad death.”
“Such culprits should be dragged through the streets and feted with sandals”, someone thrusts his rapier into airy nothingness
A third remarks, “men are not to be trusted anymore”
A fourth prophesizes out of experience—“What’s the use? Few days on, people will forget all this and life will go on.”
Comprehending all this, my sixth sense paints me a frightening future. I fear lest this woman chooses the path of suicide. Yet I have not discerned in her any sign that might substantiate my fear.
In the meanwhile, the symptoms have recurred frequently. On several occasions, she has had to run for life, to save herself from the assault of youths and barking dogs. Out of breath from running long, she seeks refuge in the verandah of some empty school building or a dilapidated post office. Out of sheer pity, if someone has thrown a roti or two her way, she has devoured that with utter relish. Yet , her mind is still working properly to not feel like gnawing at the roti thrown on the ground.
That day, Alaka Baideo and her friends had been nice to her. They told her they came//had come from a Mahila Ayog formed by the Government to work especially for women like her. She was told that there exists in this world a ferocious beast called man who has --like all other beasts- piercing nails and teeth. Of course she couldn’t understand why Alaka Baideo’s friends had brought along a video camera with them.
These days, curiosity fills every eye that inundates the roads. Surprisingly, no one seems interested in hurling stones or abuses at her. If not anything else, the newspapers have at least given her, albeit indirectly, a respectability. This case of wrong done to a mentally deranged woman in the dark of the night has been taken seriously.
One day, a group of students comes to her and tells her reassuringly, “Do not fear. We are with you”,
One day, a group of men in kurta-pyjamas approaches her and tells her—“Do not worry. We are with you.”
With time however it is getting increasingly blurred as to who stands beside whom. The kurta-pyjama party has claimed that the accused belongs to the party in power. Whereas, the most powerful leader of that party has termed such accusations as part of a conspiracy to dent the image of his party.
In a subsequent issue, the newspaper has carried a/the photograph of a wane faced rickshaw puller. According to them, this man is responsible for the crime. However, refusing to leave the matter halfway through, they have requested the readership to look forward to the next issue where they promise to satisfy the reader’s curiosity with the confessional statement of the accused along with a detailed report.
Amidst all this, the police came to her with the photograph published in the newspaper. Maintaining a safe distance, two women constables became anxious to start their interrogation… Seeing the photograph however , the woman suddenly became livid. It was as though a squirt of hot air burst out of her sanity , raging in a tornado inside the caverns of her brain. As though one possessed, she started running bizarrely-- like a mad horse.
Not in the verandah of a post-office, not in a school, this time the woman found refuge in the lock-up of a police station. But then it is inconvenient for the Government to provide shelter to such people. For one, supporting such people for a long time entails considerable expenses. Secondly, the Police thana is vulnerable from regular intrusions of precarious people as television reporters and women’s rights activists. Eventually the woman was returned to her hovel...
For several days now, she has been holed-up in the darkness like a frightened bug, rusty knife in hand, sitting on the edge of her broken cot. Three young men from a local NGO has had to return without seeing her. The freelance journalist from a women’s magazine who had hoped to do a cover story on her has had to return without seeing her.
And I ponder as to what would have happened had this befallen a beautiful, rich young woman instead of this diseased, helpless, lonely woman. What would have happened had this incident occurred, not in these dirty, stinking surroundings but in the soft velvety bed in some posh locale. What would have happened had that newspaper journalist found herself at the centre of such a betrayal?... or had it been Alaka Baideo’s college-going daughter…?
Nah!! It is futile thinking all these things anymore…
I came to know that, owing to the untiring efforts of the Mahila Ayog the Government has promised financial assistance to this ill-fated woman. Consequently, Alaka Baideo and her associates are extremely busy these days. However, it has been reported in sections of the media that a rift has already appeared within the Mahila Ayog over this money…
Is there nobody on whom one can repose some faith? I question myself indignantly. Of course I noted that the lady had no such indignation writ on her face. Presently, she walks underneath the open sky… unhurried, deep in thought. I try to gauge. Where is she heading to? Alaka Baideo’s residence? The newspaper office?.
The woman cannot decide. She loiters about the streets aimlessly. Tired, she rests awhile on the steps of a mandir. Seeing her condition a devout-looking man hands her some Prasad to eat. Eventually she returns to her hovel.
Outside, the storm is still raging. The supposed confessional statement might be someone’s making! Someone might even have allured him with money to forcibly frame charges against him? The concerned denizens of the city have written to the editor of the newspaper demanding a proper enquiry into nabbing of the real culprit. A city-based Rehabilitation centre that shelters such woman is trying its utmost to take her under its care. But will Alaka Baideo’s group will allow this case to slip out of its hands?
This matter has been further complicated by something else, that is currently causing much agitation. It is feared if the rickshaw puller is proven guilty, (keeping religious considerations in mind) the city might break into communal outburst. A fundamentalist organization has already threatened against this woman delivering her child.
It saddened me to see that this woman is mentally unhinged to comprehend these issues. At the same time, it reassured me to see that her present condition would at least enable her to leave this world silently— unaware of the many bitter truths of life. These earthly pain and disillusionments will not bother her as much as the civilized denizens of society accustomed to a normal way of life.
For several days on end she has been trying in vain to catch some sleep on her broken bed. In her present condition, she badly needs some rest. But, does she sleep peacefully? Does she ever dream?
I can make out that she is dreaming a dream. In her dream, a shadowy figure approaches her and stands right next to her. A face—indistinct yet discernible—stoops close to her scarred face... and she screams—“do not draw near…do not touch me”.
The face that resembles the one in the newspaper speaks, in a hushed tone—“but in the end, you embraced me too, didn’t you?”
I notice that even in her dream, the woman shrinks in embarrassment....
This means (that) even in the midst of an injustice, a mishap this woman has had her moment of bliss, one that she would probably never have had in any other way. Thus, there was no likelihood that it could have happened otherwise.
With my sixth sense I sought to feel the soul of this mentally disturbed woman—unhinged and deteriorating. I helplessly endeavored to fathom the depths of her silences …the tempest raging within her. To me, the world appeared insufferably ugly. I felt as though , with each passing day, it is growing ever more difficult to survive in this world. Yet, beneath this desolation I also realized that, one moment of happiness can sustain life in this bleak world.
Deep in slumber, the woman gently touched the bloated belly…
That one touch shook me up all of a sudden. I-- the life attaining contours inside her womb, felt my veins fill with love inside my as-yet unformed body.
And I decided that I shall be born. Leaving all hazards far behind, one day—I shall take in my first gulp of air under the open sky. With all of my five senses I shall feel and enjoy the sights—sounds—essences of this beautiful world.
And One day, before long, I shall embrace an ailing, helpless woman in a decrepit hut…and speak to her, “Maa”.
Published on 21-09-2009 in the Durga Puja special edition on 'melange' the Sunday Supplementary magazine of 'The Sentinel'