The Stemmed Flow
Nongthongbam Kunjamohon Singh *
Badarpur Junction. Looking around to check for any familiar faces was proving futile. It was better to get hold of a seat, so I got into a second class compartment. No one else had entered. I spread the hold-all on the long bench and sat down. Bored after looking at the melee of passengers milling around, I opened the copy of 'Hindustan Standard' that I had bought from 'Wheeler'.
Just as I was about to read the main headline, I heard the loud cries of 'chai garam, chai garam' intruding upon my ears. A head thrust inside from the open window continued, 'Cha lage Babu, garam samosa' (Need tea Babu, hot samosa?). My tempers frayed but there was nothing I could do about it, except to turn away my face after saying 'Na'.
Turning my face to the newspaper, I saw the headline in bold, 'China attacks India yet again, troops converge near the Mac Mohan line'. I hardly got beyond the first line before it started again, 'Paan, cigarette. Babu, paan cigarette lage' (Paan, cigarette. Babu, do you need paan, cigarette?). This time, I said 'na' with just a hint of anger. I decided that this time, I would not bother at all. I would not turn up my face from the newspaper. Even without looking up, I was aware of people getting up and down around me. It was none of my business. Let them do what they had to. After all, I did not have to worry about my seat. The news was getting interesting: 'China ignores Colombo proposal'.
'Oh! It's our Oja!' I was startled. It was the voice of a woman that I had not heard in my ears for a long time. I turned my face from the newspaper and saw her face that had the hint of a smile. The features had changed a bit but I could recognize her well. She kept the child she had in her lap on to the bench and bent down to pay her obeisance.
The handsome bespectacled man by her side folded his hands to greet me. Though I did not know him, I assumed him to be her husband. But he could be some other relative too! To clear my doubt, I asked, "Bina, he is…". Bina kept smiling shyly.
So, they were indeed a couple. They made a good match. Bina did not lack in beauty after all. Her husband spread the hold-all on the long bench before me. They sat down, keeping their child between them. The child was beautiful too and one never tired of looking. If only my Jiten had been alive…
I must have been lost in my thoughts while looking at the child intently when Bina treaded upon the world I was in, "Oja, it has been a long time. Where are you headed?"
True, it had been a long time. It would be about five years now. We had not met since the year I married and she passed her matriculation examinations.
"I am going to Shillong. What about you?"
"Digboi. We had gone home for the holidays."
Then it struck me. Bina's father had mentioned one day that her husband had a job at Digboi.
The train started. The child remained transfixed on the world he saw unfolding around him. People who had come to see off or receive their loved ones remained behind waving their hands as the train moved on. If some had tears while bidding good-bye, a few did so with a smile. The junction slowly faded away from sight. In the sky above, the stars twinkled brightly. The child turned his face towards us; perhaps he was afraid of darkness.
"Come, sit with me," I said leading him to where I was sitting. He had no inhibitions. Bending slightly, I hugged him close and asked him, "What is your name?"
"Master Dilip Singh."
"Good! Good!" I hugged him just a bit more. "And what is your father's name?"
"Shri Ranjit Singh"
"Oh! How nice!"
Just then, the noise of the train crossing a bridge made it impossible to hear anything else. When the bridge crossing got over, Dilip's father got up and said, "My apologies but I am going up. Please continue. I am dying to sleep. I had not been able to sleep yesterday too."
He promptly went up without paying any heed to my suggestion that we talk a bit more. With him gone, I did not continue with the conversation. Bina remained seated looking at something in the darkness outside without batting an eye. What was she looking at: Was it the course of bitter sweet memories that she was confronted with now? Along with her, I suddenly reached a long forgotten cornerstone of my life that I had long left behind.
I had no idea how long I remained brooding. Bina's question made me wake up instantly, "How is Inamma doing?"
The child was no longer with me. He was sleeping next to his mother. I had no idea when his mother had taken him.
I answered as quickly as I could, "It's been two years since she left me for another world."
After a silent pause, she asked again, "What about the boy?"
"He followed his mother. It's been a year now."
I had not turned towards her all this while but I looked at her direction when I answered her questions. As I answered the last question, she made a sound. I looked at her and saw tears falling from her eyes. That was Bina. This was her true nature. She never could stay unaffected whenever she heard about other people's woes. I knew it now: she was sorry for me. She could see clearly how I would be living my life without anyone to look out for me. She knew her teacher did not care much about the world around him.
I was a teacher then. Since the salary was not much, I took up tuitions. My classes were well appreciated and there was no dearth of students who came home for tuitions. Bina came for the classes along with her friend Ibemhal. They were to appear for their matriculation examinations and were diligent in their studies. The smile never left her face despite the distance of more than a mile that she took to come for her classes. She never missed her classes, even on the days that Ibemhal did not turn up.
She always brought the pick of the Leihao flower along with her. Even if she had none to offer to my Indomcha, she always had a Leihao for me. My aunt often said in jest, "How caring she is of her Oja! She always ensures her Oja gets one!" Hearing this, Bina would lower her face shyly with a slight smile. Whenever I chided her for lagging behind in her studies, her tears would flow.
One day, my aunt started the topic of my marriage prospects to which I said, "How will I find a woman? I must be the most unfortunate man ever. No woman has come forth to say she loves me."
My aunt retorted, "Why would women not love you? You do not lack in looks. But will a woman ever admit her feelings first? She would express it by gesture and attitude. It is you who has failed to recognize this. You are a simpleton, oblivious of what is around you."
I did not realize the truth behind Indomcha's words then. Six months later, when the fallen leaves of autumn were swept off in the frenzied cries of the spring cuckoo, it brought a new beginning to my life as well. All my students came over to share their happiness on the day. But for whatever reason, Bina was not present. It struck me then that there might have been some truth in my aunt's words.
I did not realize when I fell asleep. I woke up with a start when the train jerked as it reached some station. When I opened my eyes, I found a shawl covering my body. It surprised me no end for I had not covered myself. The shawl was not mine, either. But I knew who would have covered me up. She would have surely have done this to ward off the cold from her Oja. She was awake. "Here, it's no longer cold," I said, handing back the shawl. Dilip's father too climbed down.
In between small talk and freshening up, we did not notice the train having reached Lumding. Since we had to change trains we stepped down, taking our belongings. Keeping our things in the waiting room, all of us went to the railway restaurant. As I was about to pay for the food, Bina said with just a hint of anger, "Oja! How can you?" And just as suddenly as a flood drying up, she said gently with a smile, "I am no longer the student who could not stand up for herself. I run a household now. Will I not have this privilege of serving you during this chance meeting after a span of five years?
I had to give in quietly.
Soon, we reached the down train. Twenty minutes later, the whistle started to go off. All three of them walked me off till the platform. I took out a five rupee note and handed it to Bina's son. When Bina animatedly tried to say something, she stopped when I said, "Silent! You cannot say anything."
Once the salutations were over, I climbed on the train, which began to start off slowly. Soon, the distance grew and the three of them: mother, father and son remained behind waving at me. After a while, just as the train took a slight bend, I saw in a blur Bina's hands which had been waving at me, wiping the tears away from her eyes with the ends of her innaphi.
Oja: Honorific title for Teacher
Leihao: a flower given pride of place in worship (Magnolia champaca)
Innaphi: upper garment worn by women
* Nongthongbam Kunjamohon Singh wrote this article for Hueiyen Lanpao
This is translated from Manipuri by Chitra Ahanthem
This article was posted on December 24, 2014.
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