Thaballei :: A Short Story
Lamabam Viramani *
Put out the light, will you? You can daydream with it off. What people say is also important."
The sun had set. My mother's nagging had started. As usual. Closing the doors and windows as soon as darkness fell, putting out the lights she starts her daily ritual. One thing or the other. "Since dawn, the roads and lanes had been dark with siphais, it's only now that they have left."
"What have they done, Ima? They're there to protect us."
"Is that why they're said to have done this and that, day in, day out? Pretending to be courageous, uhng? I'm warning you, you'll meet your end unexpectedly."
She'd potter around till I put the lights out. Checking already closed doors and windows, jabbering, jabbering, "Don't say I didn't warn you. Just because you want to disobey me, disregard my words, don't go when someone calls you out late. You're to wake me up immediately."
Knowing it was useless to argue, I went to bed. After double checking the entire house, she too went to bed. And then all was finally quiet.
Ah, the pleasure of life in such moments. I had no job, no workplace. So no earnings. No food nor clothes to my heart's content. I didn't mind this much - it's my fate! A time will surely come, I told myself But then unbidden the thought arises - this inability to laugh freely, to cry when the feeling arises, to say what you want to ... about this life in which you have no knowledge of what will happen later in the day, what the morrow will bring ...
It's too damned early. What else but to dream. That freedom's all I have. I have to call Thaballei now...
I remember her, Thaballei arrives. Smiling, she comes to sit by me. "What's it, Tai'bi? Want me to massage you?"
The only one who still loves me, who worries for me. Eager to please, actions match words. Her tender hands press my back, waist and legs. What pleasure! The honest, sincere caress from the heart's chosen! Her bangles danced, providing the rhythm to her sweet words. The song.
"How I'd have enjoyed had someone also massaged me like this!" Thaballei's words startled me. Could she say such things! "What did you say, Thaballei?"
"Tai'bi, what happened about your job? I'm just saying that there's one who'd become old before that."
Tai'bi: A shortened form of address, made up of the generic "Ta" a marker of respect for elder brother/older man, and "Tai'bi" possibly from the name Ibotombi or Tombi.
"Don't change the topic, Thaballei. Say again what you just said." "It's just this: Men pretend not to know a woman's heart."
"You mean, I'm a coward?" I made to get up. But Thaballei was up and quite far away.
"Thaballei, Thaballei! I say, wait, Thaballei."
'Ahng! What happened? To whom?" .
Ima got up in panic. My dreams have woken her. Such embarrassing moments are beyond count.
"It's nothing, Ima."
She took a deep breath. "It's strange. Even in my dreams my mind is disturbed." She drifted back to sleep. It was quite late, past eleven. I decided not to think of anything. Breathing deeply, I tried to sleep.
Suddenly I heard the sound of a vehicle stopping at the gate. I pricked up my ears. Some people walking. Ima's words came to my mind. "No going out when someone calls you."
The sound of heavy footsteps. Then they moved, towards Thaballei's house. Voices. That abruptly stop. Now pindrop silence. But no one leaves. The Takyelpat incident which rocked the State came to mind - the rape of a married woman. In front of her young son and crippled husband late one night. By siphais.
Surely Thaballei's feeling let down. She must be saying, What use are you as a neighbour?
And we were not neighbours alone, she was also my love, my heart's companion. Just mother and daughter alone in the house. How meek they must be now!
About two years ago they moved in next door. To my delight. At last a neighbour who was a bit better off than us, someone good hearted. Unfortunately, within a year, Thaballei's father died. She was secure in the knowledge that a younger brother was there. Where had he gone?
I had also asked around and searched. Now I was the only male member in the two families.
That is why Thaballei often says, "Tai'bi, let's do something so we live together."
But I haven't had the courage to say yes. She'd ask every single day, "Tai'bil When will your job be settled? If there's no money, we'll think up something."
Whenever this talk came up, anger simmered within me. But whom to blame? After graduating, many were the tests I took, but I always got left behind in the interview. I know the reason too. But my heart could never agree to kowtowing and bribing. I didn't have the money either.
In the end I too was caught in Shija Yaima's trap. How she knew that I had sat for the written test for that particular job is a mystery. On the very day the result was out, she landed up at our doorstep.
"Let's not miss this chance. The interview starts tomorrow." Ima and I paid no attention. Ima merely said, "What's the use,
Ibemma, of becoming one of the singers in the pala?"
The woman was not deterred. "Don't join the chorus, and you don't get the khudei. No matter how sweet the voice, or how wellversed, if you don't fawn over a teacher, there won't be any invitations. That's how the times are. If you want to snap up the khudei, do what others do."
"A hundred or two hundred is not much. But from where can I, a widow, get that much money?"
"Would we starve ourselves saying we have nothing, Iche? There's something called compulsion. And even if someone can afford to pay, his money won't be accepted if he hasn't cleared the written test. There are also many who don't know where and to whom the money is to be given. And tomorrow when the age limit to join the service is crossed, what earthly use is money? I'm just saying that you'll repent afterwards."
Undeniable truths. My mother was caught. I did not interfere. A portion of my father's plot of land was mortgaged off to Thaballei's family.
But the money paid, the result of the interview, that had seemed as though it would be out any day, was stalled. Tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, a week, a month. After some time Shija Yaima arrived again, saying, "It's hard, but wait another week. This time, it's for sure. The paper's with the minister. If you don't believe me, send someone known to the minister to find out. I've even arranged to have you posted at Imphal."
And the talk came round to money. "But then, Ibungo, a little more money has to be necessarily added."
It was as if she was asking us to return money she had lent us, so vehement was her insistence. So finally a portion of our plot was sold to Thaballei's family. But seriously, I might not have met Thaballei if the land had not been sold off to her family.
What angered Thaballei most was my silence. What was I to reply? I am not fond of lying or bluffing. Neither was she. No way except to turn it into a joke.
"If you're tired of waiting, why don't you obey your mother?" These words infuriated her further and enraged, she would walk away. It would take a week at least to bring her around.
It's been a while. I still haven't heard the heavy footsteps leaving their house, nor the sound of the vehicle driving away. What are they doing inside that house? I worry. Thaballei, how are you! And your mother?
Someone knocks at the door. Ima wakes up. She murmurs to me, "Don't come out." Then lantern in hand, she goes, opens the door. "Thaballei, you?", she asks.
I don't hear Thaballei's reply. Ima says, "Hei listen, don't you even know the meaning of shame?"
No reply to that either. They entered my room. In the light of the lantern, I see a frightening figure coming slowly towards me. Thaballei! Not a shred of cloth on her body, her breasts smeared red. Nail marks had left no part of her breasts untouched.
She approaches me steadily. Ima brings her a cloth. Thaballei throws it violently away. She's neither laughing nor crying. Her eyes bloodshot, she stares as if she wants to devour me. And she moves, relentlessly moving forward. She scares me. The Thaballei whom I never wanted away from me for even a moment - I fear her now.
Standing there like the fierce goddess Bhairabi, not a bit of shame in exposing those parts of her body that she had always kept hidden behind her clothes, she says, "Look Tai'bi, this body which I guarded with great care, for you, isn't it beautiful?"
It was revolting. I could not watch. Nor speak.
"Why turn away? This is the body you treasured... Thaballei's body. These imprints left by various hands - you hate it as you do leftover food, don't you?"
My lips seem glued together. My body is numb, I can neither move nor turn, except turn my face away.
"That won't do, Tai'bi. See! See the beauty of a violated woman's body."
Ima tries hard to stop her, but Thaballei comes and climbs on top of me.
"You coward! Eat the leftovers." She holds one blood smeared breast with her hands, shoves it into my mouth, filling it completely. I cannot breathe. I try to shout.
"Is anybody there? I'm dying!"
"Ibobi, can you hear me, Ibobi."
Ima shook me awake, her hands on my shoulders.
"Move. Sit up." I was drenched in sweat.
Ima's shouts bring Thaballei and her mother running. Thaballei asked in a voice of concern. "What happened, Tai'bi?" Taking a deep breath, I answered. "Nothing."
Translated by Tayenjam Bijoykumar
* This short story by Lamabam Viramani was published at The Sangai Express
This article was posted on October 13, 2012.
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