“Matla*…Matlaaaaa… Please. Don’t go.”
She woke up to find herself alone. Tears ran down her beautiful, porcelain face. It was the same dream that had visited her for years. At times she dreamt every night. She would beg him to take her along. But like always the nightmare ended abruptly. Sometimes there were none. She laid awake waiting for him to appear.
Was it a dream or a nightmare?
Wiping away her tears, Radha saw the horizon brightening. This was the day she had been waiting for. Going home after five long years…it was difficult to believe it. She had shopped for each and every one in her family. Saris for women. Dresses for her cousins. Dhotis for the uncles. A coat for Hari.
Visiting the farmhouse was also a part of her plan. It was in 1985 when she had first been there. Sixteen, still in pigtails and knee-length frocks!. That’s when her path crossed with Matla’s. Maybe he is still in Purulia*. Or he might have moved away for work. But Kaka would be there. This time no one would stop her as she was free! The sole heir of the Chaudhary family, it was time she decided the course of her life. She renewed her packing with a new-found vigor.
~The ride home~
The car was on time. Hauling up her bags, she knew it would be a long ride. But who doesn’t love the exhilarating journey of homecoming. The book lay untouched on her lap as she soaked in the sights of the countryside. The lush, green paddy fields. The modest, thatched huts. The series of coconut trees. The cluster of bamboo plants. They brought back memories of her childhood spent amidst nature in a sleepy town called Durgapur. Theirs was a joint family teeming with relatives and many lonely souls her grandfather had given shelter to. Her father ran a successful publishing house. On weekends he focused on the properties that had been bequeathed to him. She would often accompany him on those tours.
The car stopped for a while at the Dhabas* which lined the main road. Famous for their sweets, she packed boxes for her relatives. The essence of joint family was still intact though there were distinct functional units for everyone.
It was dusk when the car reached Chaudhary Mansion. She was greeted by the sound of conches and the women ululating, expressing their gratitude to the reigning deity. The tulsi-mandapa* was alight with innumerable diyas*. She sighed. How badly she had missed these customs. How she had yearned to be closer to her roots…But Baba snatched it all away. Shrugging it off, she let out a hoot. Instantly another hoot followed back. She giggled in childlike glee. She hooted again. This time there was no reply but a loud thud. A dark mass rolled off the pillar colliding into her. She was prepared for she caught it on time. “Goodness Hari, you are as round as ever. What is your wife feeding you?” Hari, an orphan from their village, had been sheltered by her father and in course of time, had become a good friend. He helped her unload the cases and took turns in carrying them inside.
The household erupted in joy. Ma rushed out and embraced her. The starched mulmul* sari and the familiar talc filled her senses. The cousins came running followed by their children. Yes, this was what homecoming was!
The days went by in happiness. It was a grand reunion. And then the day arrived when she, the only daughter of Late Krishno Chaudhury, would perform his Shradh*.
~The last rites~
Radha sat beside the officiating priest, following his instructions. Chaudhary had died mysteriously. A robust man, with no ailments, he adhered to a strict regimen. That night was no different. He had had dinner and retired to his study. It was not till dawn that his wife realized Chaudhary hadn’t slept in his bed. Alarmed, she had rushed out. Chaudhary lay sprawled on the brown Mahogany table, eyes wide open in shock.
The girl who had been banished from the house five years ago was summoned home. Else the last rites would remain incomplete. As she poured the holy water into the earthen pot, she prayed for Chaudhary’s Mukti*. She would never understand how a man who sheltered and nurtured weaklings could also be brutal.
With Baba gone, she was free. The caged bird had finally been allowed to fly. That night, she expressed her desire to go back to the farmhouse.
“But Bitiya let the past remain as it is. Why are you digging it up again? And your father would have never…”
“Ma, Baba is gone. And with him all those restrictions. I have to go back and apologize to Shambhu-Kaka. I…I need to meet Matla. Haven’t I suffered enough?”
Mother had remained mute. Her tears were the only answer that she had.
Next morning as Radha set out, Ma handed her a small casket.
“What is this?”
“Your father’s. This was a well-guarded box of his. His instructions had always been to open the box after his death. I don’t know what secrets he had guarded. The keys are not there. You may break it open. But not now! I don’t want to be privy to his secrets…”
~The summer of 85~
Hari drove her to their farmhouse, situated on the banks of River Ganga. It was a beautiful property dotted with coconut trees. The only sounds that emanated in the property were of the gentle waves lashing at the shores, the trilling of the crickets, the occasional quacks from the flock of ducks and the faint beats of the Madol*.
Memories of a summer flitted in. Baba had promised them a vacation of fun and frolic. Excited, they had set out for the farmhouse situated in the outskirts of Bengal. Her parents were planning to transform the property into a tourist spot. Shambhu-Kaka and his son Matla were the sole work force. Santhali* by origin, they had transformed the barren land into a property of immense commercial value.
While Baba remained busy with his marketing strategy, Radha spent most of her time with Shambhu-Kaka. She woke up with the rooster and followed him around. He acquainted her with the numerous animals and birds that lived on the property. There were days when Radha stayed back at Kaka’s cottage which was situated within the premises. He would feed her delicacies prepared by him. But Matla chose to stay aloof. She knew he observed them from afar. Three years older to her, he appeared wary. He could also be shy, she assured herself.
Everything changed one afternoon. Radha accompanied Kaka and Matla on their fishing trip. They had hauled a good catch and were headed home when a storm started brewing. Shouting at Matla to row the boat faster, he asked the frightened girl to duck underneath the wooden bunk. A sharp cry from Matla drove the girl out from her shelter. As she gazed in wonderment at the thick, swirling mass of water, a sudden burst of wind sent her toppling over the boat. She sunk into the dark, frenzied mass. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t rise up. Instead, she sank deeper. And then suddenly, she found herself being pulled up. She could breathe finally.
That night, as she sat huddled in a blanket in Kaka’s cottage drinking a concoction brewed by him, she saw Matla staring at her. He no longer appeared distant. Was there affection in his eyes? Or was it something more than that? Later Kaka told her how the boy had jumped in after her, putting his own life into jeopardy.
The ice was finally broken. A new bond was formed. As the vacation drew to an end, Radha and Matla became inseparable.
The night before her departure, Matla invited her out for a boat-ride. Her nod sent him prancing away in delight. A tiny voice whispered that it would be a memorable ride.
As the full moon shone in its glory, Radha slipped out in stealth. Matla stood waiting beside his boat which gently swayed in the high tide. She slipped. A pair of strong, brown hands caught her before she fell. Making her sit on the edge, he rowed the boat out towards the Mohona*. Once there, he left the oars and sat beside her humming a Santhali song. He took turns in explaining the song. A love song, dedicated to her! Throwing her hands around his neck, she wept in happiness.
The first rays of the sun woke them up. It was late! Panicking, they started rowing back. A fleet of boats was already advancing towards them. As they drew nearer, Kaka and Baba became visible. In no time, they reached them. Chaudhary slapped Matla and dragged off Radha, oblivious to Kaka’s cries. That very day she was packed off to Durgapur. She never went back to the farmhouse. She never saw him again.
An examination conducted by the family Gynecologist confirmed her virginity, much to the relief of Chaudhary. But Radha never forgot the humiliation that she suffered. Kept under strict supervision, all her liberties were curbed. Baba had probably thought that this way she would forget Matla and move on. He was wrong. Every night Matla came back to her in her dreams. She tossed and turned around in sleep. She begged him to take her.
By her eighteenth birthday, Radha was determined to find Matla and begin life anew. Hari helped her chalk out the plans. That night they slipped into the car. But at the gate stood a figure patiently awaiting their departure.
“Have you lost your head? If Baba finds out, he will kill both of you. I won’t be able to help you this time. Why can’t you wait for some more time?”
“How long Ma?”
“Bitiya, have faith in me. Now let’s go inside.”
Next week, Radha found herself on her way to a well-known college in the hills where escape was ruled out. Her wings were clipped again!
Years passed. She completed her education with a promising career in academics. But her heart lay elsewhere – in Purulia*. The nightmares were her constant companion. She lived with them hoping to resolve them someday. If Baba came to know that she still loved Matla, he would bay for his blood. A blue-blooded mingling with a tribal was unheard of. Thank God, she bore the brunt while Kaka and Matla were spared.
A phone call early morning informed her that Baba was dead. She knew that the day was not far when she would be reunited with the love of her life.
Dusk had set in by the time they reached. While Hari went off in search of food, she set out for a stroll in the campus. Obscured by waist-high bushes, the property appeared ill-kempt. Going past the coconut trees, she came upon the cottage where she was once a constant fixture. It lay in shambles. A wave of melancholy hit her. If only they had returned that night…the consequences would have been different. Fighting back tears, she decided to look for Kaka and Matla the next day. They couldn’t have gone far.
The lamps in the farmhouse stood rusted and uncared for. They missed the caring hands that would wipe away the dust every evening and set them alight. Those hands had often massaged her temple when she fell asleep in that hut. “Kaka….” She let out a cry.
A strange rustling broke through her cries. She looked up to see the tall, brown frame of Matla. He looked the same. A bit taller? Maybe…The twinkle in his eyes remained. She remembered how the shy boy expressed through his eyes. And she read them very well.
“Matlaaaa……I am here! Please forgive me. I took a long while to return.”
Covering her face, she broke down. Matla stood motionless.
“Won’t you speak to me? Say something….please?”
There was no answer. Tears coursed down Matla’s eyes. Not waiting for an answer she flung herself into him. She felt the taut, muscular arms close her in a tight embrace.
She jerked up. Why was she lying on the grass beside the pond? And where was Matla? A dream again? That was Hari calling out for her.
A quick dinner followed. They went around the property admiring its location and noting down the areas which needed work. A plan was chalked out. Content, she reclined in one of those vintage armchairs in the verandah. Looking at the moon, she wondered. Was it Purnima* the next day? The moon did look fuller. Her thoughts went back to that full-moon night years ago -her last with him. She drifted off to sleep.
Radha dreamt of Matla. He picked her up from the arm-chair and gently carried her across the verandah into the bedroom. Covering her with the blanket, he left.
The rooster next door woke her up. Finishing off breakfast, they decided to drive around the village looking for Kaka and Matla. No one recollected them. That was strange! How could they vanish! Radha remembered that Matla had an aunt who lived beside the Ganges. Maybe she had a lead.
“Hari, lets search for a tribal family along the banks of the river.”
“But that would take long!”
“Check for a surname Soren or Hansda*. You can start from the other end while I start from here.”
Hari scampered away. It was late in the evening when they came back to the same place from where they had started. Panting, they sat down. Noting her crestfallen face, he muttered, “We will start afresh tomorrow.”
Disappointed, Radha sat out on her verandah that night. She was tired of the wait.
A soft hum woke her up. Matla sat beside her singing the tune she loved. He finished the song, caught her hand and pulled her up. He led the way in the moon-lit night, while she followed him mesmerized. Clouds hovered around the moon but it shone in its brilliance. They had reached the river. A lone boat stood swaying in the current. Lifting her up on his broad shoulders, he climbed atop the boat. Settling her down on the edge, he rowed it away. They were at the Mohona again.
“Matla, I know you are furious with me. But won’t you speak to me? Won’t you tell me what happened that night after Baba took me away?”
There was silence.
The man maintained his silence. The soft hum began again. She noticed that he did not move his lips. Rather it came from deep inside his throat.
The river that night was calm and peaceful. Keeping her head on his shoulders, she closed her eyes in bliss. The last she remembered was her head sliding off his shoulders. Matla laid her down on the soft plank. Anchoring the boat, he came back to lie down beside Radha. That night she dreamt of her union with Matla.
A splash woke her up. She was all alone on the boat. Matla was nowhere to be seen. Dammit. He always vanishes. Happily humming, she found her way down the boat. That’s when she saw the key tied to her dupatta. What key is that? Who tied it to her pallu?
On returning back to her cottage, Hari was nowhere to be seen. Radha’s eyes fell on the casket. She tried hard to break it. But the lock remained invincible. That’s when the tiny key clicked. Inside lay an assortment of gemstones; they shone in multiple hues. And carefully folded in the midst of it was a letter yellow and frayed.
It was addressed to her!
When you find this. I will be gone! Please try to forgive me for all the sins I have committed. I haven’t been a good man. I have done great injustice to your mother and to you. And for that I am suffering. I am unable to sleep or eat.
I thought I had everything. Money and power!
I hired Shambhu to look after my properties. Loyal and faithful he trusted me. It was just before my marriage to your mother that Shambhu got married. I fell for his wife. I sent out Shambhu regularly to work on the other properties and took advantage of the hapless girl. Weak and scared, she dare not tell anyone. Who would believe her? Soon she was expecting. The child was mine – Matla! I was relieved when the secret died with the girl during delivery. But things spiraled out of my control when you spent the night with him. How could a tribal boy mess around with a blue-blooded Chaudhary?
That evening after you left, I had thrashed the boy. I had beaten him till he became unconscious. Shambhu stood a mute spectator. And then when he regained consciousness, I had asked him one question. Why did he mess with my daughter? That stubborn boy had the gall to tell me he wished to marry my daughter. How could he utter it! How? I…I.. cut off his tongue. He bled till death in his father’s lap. Early next morning, I had his body dumped into the Mohona.
Please forgive me. I destroyed your life and your mother’s. And I killed my own blood-Matla. Every night he hovers around me…blood dripping from his mouth begging your hand. I don’t think I can bear it any longer.”
Radha couldn’t read beyond this. Is that why Matla doesn’t speak to me anymore? All this while it had been his spirit that had haunted her. But the letter had no mention of kaka.
That’s when Hari burst in. “I have found Kaka. Let’s go.”
Radha lives in the farmhouse on the Ganges with a bed-ridden Shambhu Kaka. Every Purnima, she waits for Matla to row her out into the Mohona.
Matla: A river in Bengal. Also denotes someone who is fierce and passionate.
Purulia: A place dominated by the tribal population in West Bengali
Dhaba: Road-side eateries on the Highway mostly catering to vehicles that plies there
Tulsi-mandapa: An erected platform built around the holy basil plant where every morning and day the women of the household oil lamps, blow conches and pray.
Diya: Earthen lamps
Mulmul: A soft cotton fabric
Shradh: Last rites for a dead person
Madol: A musical instrument played by the trials
Santhali: A tribe which occupies parts of West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa
Mohona: The point where the river meets the sea
Purnima: Full-moon night
Soren/Hansda : Tribal surnames
Note: My maternal grandmother hailed from the Santhal Parganas in Jharkhand. This story is from one of the many incidents she had mentioned to me. All pictures used in the post including the cover is the property of the author and may not be used for any purpose without any prior authorisation.
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