An old mango tree behind a mud house. A narrow road, dark-brown in colour, runs beneath the tree. And a name echoes in the damp air of the afternoon sun – Devi, meaning ‘Goddess’ in Bengali. A woman – Rittika Dey, the mother in the white Ambassador, is walking alone on the road. She wears an untidy yellow sari. Her thin figure with its perfectly black curly locks stops in the shade under the mango tree and yells out: ‘Devi!’ A pause now, and her pulse beats twice. ‘Devi?!’ Another pause, half as long as the previous one. ‘Eei Devi!’ Her voice reaches a crescendo on the second syllable.
Standing under the mango tree, she looks around her – towards a pond down the road, a hundred yards away, subject to the imperfections of my ability to estimate distance. She has already been there a little while earlier today. Her black eyes narrow into two thin lines as she investigates the people bathing on the bank. She sees three figures – two elderly women and a girl. The sight of the girl makes her a little restless. The girl’s torso is more or less visible but her face is hidden behind one of the old women. With equal anticipation and irritation she gets on her toes; she moves her head, first to the right and then to the left to get a better view of the girl. This does not help. She contemplates heading to the pond herself but now the old woman blocking her view does a favour and gets into the green water. The girl reveals herself – she is squatting on a stone in the ghat, talking with the other old woman. Seeing her short hair and light brown skin, Rittika recognises Tuni – Rajat Datta’s daughter.
The calm wind suddenly picks up, sending an unexpected chill through her body and a loud rustle through the leaves of the mango tree. She takes the aachal of her sari and wipes sweat off her face. For the last two hours or so, she has been searching for Devi, her six year old daughter.
As usual Devi had gone out to play with her friends in the neighbourhood after breakfast. But today she was not back before midday for her bath. One pm and she was still not back. Rittika – Ria to everyone in the village – then set out in search of her. She went to the playground, but didn’t find Devi or any of her friends. A visit to Shonali’s house, one of Devi’s closest friends, revealed that Devi had not been to the playground today. The search for her daughter had taken Ria to the brook on the outskirts of Kalabon where Devi sometimes went with her friends and the mango garden (there was a possibility Devi had gone to steal mangoes) in the neighbouring village of Kashbagan. All her inquiries gave no insights as to the whereabouts of the six year old. When she came back home around 3 pm, she had genuinely hoped to find Devi. She was wrong. And now here she is, standing in the shade of the mango tree behind their mud house, still searching for her daughter.
‘Where did that girl go? Just wait till I get my hands on her! She spends the whole day outside. No more of that from now on!’ she thinks. But she can feel her heart pounding rapidly in her chest. Though she doesn’t express it, there is a fear in her mind; a fear even she does not fully understand.
She looks back into the other direction of the road. The bright green paddy waves in harmony with the wind. And now she sees a figure emerging from where the road disappears behind the bamboo bushes. A girl, with a yellow shirt and dull green frock, her skin is the dark-brown of the wet soil of paddy fields; her perfectly black hair is messed up – Devi! Ria watches as the girl slowly walks back home. She doesn’t call out to her. Devi doesn’t notice her mother; with a bowed head and slow steps she enters her home through their non-existent gate.
‘Where have you been? I have been looking for you for the last two hours! Where have you been all day huh?’ demands Ria as she enters into their hut through the light blue coloured door. She is equally relieved and angry but the relief does not show in her words. Devi has her back turned to the door; she is sitting on the clay-coated floor. She does not reply.
‘And what is this you have got on your clothes? Oh maa! You’ve got mud all over your body. Hey, tell me! Where have you been?’ Ria demands with heightened agitation as she walks up in front to get a look of the girl’s face. She sees Devi looking down at fairly large cut in her left ankle while squeezing some marigold leaves with her hands.
‘How did you cut it?’ her voice is a little softer now. Devi applies the crushed marigold leaves to the cut; a home remedy for cuts and bruises in this corner of the world. Still getting no reply from the girl she resumes her agitated blaring with even more ferocity, ‘Hey! Answer me! Look!’
Ria grips her hand tightly and gives a sudden jerk. To her surprise, Devi looks up at her and starts crying. Her cheeks, nose and most of her forehead is covered in partially dried mud. She has a few bruises on her cheeks and a small cut on her chin. A tomboy, Devi regularly gets scolded by her mom for causing mischief, sometimes even getting beaten. ‘If you were a boy, I think I would have killed you by now’, Ria used to joke with her. Devi rarely cried; and when she did it was because of the physical pain of being slapped or her hair being pulled or both. But right now, her mother did neither and the cut on her ankle and the bruises on her face don’t seem painful enough to make her cry. But here she is, weeping noiselessly. Two thick streams of tears emerge from her eyes and flowed down through her cheek, clearing away the dirt in their way; leaving (or so it seems to me) two mud-paths on her cheek, of the same dark-brown colour as the mud-road that went beneath the mango-tree behind their house.
Her mother’s agitation gives way to confusion and then motherly sympathy. ‘Devi, what happened?’ she asks, wiping away the tears from the girl’s eyes. And now more tears and this time it is accompanied by audible sobs. ‘Got a beating by someone; have you? Any of the big girls hit you?’ Devi shakes her head and now there are more tears and louder sobs. ‘Hey, don’t worry.’ she presses her wet muddied face to her chest, ‘Come, we’ll go to the pond. It is so late! I haven’t bathed too…have been searching you for the last two hours!’
And now, the yellow afternoon gives way to the blood-red twilight. Devi’s tearful visage, Ria’s serious look – all these fade and instead the unceremonious sight of Ria squatting out on their courtyard, attending to their cow and its 3 month old calf emerges. The day is the same, I know it. Having finished milking their orange Desi cow, it is now the calf’s turn to drink what was rightfully his. She picks up the red plastic bucket containing the collected milk. She frowns – the desi’s yield is getting less each day. Walking back to the kitchen with the bucket in hand, she has a passing thought about her husband Shubhankar.
‘I’ll be back in two weeks’, he had promised as he head out in search of work to Vikrampur three days ago. As she passes by the door of their hut, she peeps inside. Devi is lying awake on her bed. She had fallen asleep after her late lunch and has been sleeping for over two hours. Seeing her awake Ria speaks.
‘Good thing that you are awake. Get up and sweep the floor, then do the Puja. I’m preparing your milk. And I don’t want to hear any complains. The way it’s going, the cow is going to stop giving milk in a few days anyway.’
Devi did not make any movement and kept on staring at the ceiling.
‘Oh! And another thing’ Ria says as she slips out of her, ‘Where did you find this slipper? The right slipper isn’t yours. This one is much bigger than our left one. How did you exchange it?’
Devi replies to an entirely different question ‘I told you, I went to pluck mangoes from the garden with the bigger girls.’
Ria does not reply. She enters the kitchen and gets absorbed in her work. Devi slowly gets up, and takes the broom to do as she was told. Had anyone been there, they would have found a few liquid pearls running through her cheek as she wept again in silence.
Sound of the front gate being closed with unnecessary aggression. A gate shuts close here, while the sonorous sound of the act opens the doors of reality in my mind. Ah irony – thou art a genius! The iron latch of the steel gate still oscillates while its tintinnabulation, a hangover of the initial metallic clang, gets fainter and fainter. I can hear it – my ears are sensitive to sounds, especially metallic ones.
Someone has just entered the apartment. Not knowing who it is, I keep my ears open. The sound of boots emerges from the concrete floor of the corridor outside. I think I can recognise the feet. Tap-tap-tap – three loud, quick taps enter my ears, each tap coming from a height slightly greater than the proceeding one. And now, a solitary stomp and it resumes again: tap-tap-tap. Manik Datta – Bubai to everyone; I recognise the 17 year old boy, in his final year of school who lives on the first floor. That is his trademark – a rebellious closing of the gate and six taps and a stomp on the landing to climb the two flights of stairs to the first floor. And with it he, wakes me up from my thoughts. And as I always do after waking into the real world, I look at my clock. The two thick black hands lie almost in a straight horizontal line, the larger of the two pointing at 9 and the smaller one at 3; while the second hand is perfectly vertical for the moment, pointing at the golden 12 in the white background. Ah, the beautiful symmetry of it all! I can’t help but feel a twinge of joy; while waiting for this temporary symmetry to end. The second seems to take longer than usual, but I am smarter than that.
Click! Eventually the second hand moves, while the minute hand shakes just that little bit (or is it my imagination?). And now I realise it is 2:45 pm. I get up and sit on my bed, wrapping the blanket more tightly around me. Ah, it is so cold today! Maybe I find it more so because of the fever. Contradicting my own ideals, I feel my forehead. ‘Oh my! You are burning Abdul.’ my consciousness says to itself, ‘Definitely no shower today!’ I lie down again and reposition my white pillow; pulling the blanket over me to cover my head and try to fall asleep.
Ah denial! I seem to have been tying as to act as if nothing has happened. Oh spell ill out! Don’t lie to yourself! Devi – that girl, nay THE GIRL – I was possessed by her all this while. Who is she? Is she for real? I would like to play psychiatrist and ask questions to myself had it not been for the fact that I did the same innumerable times before. Also, I am exhausted now and falling asleep promises to be comforting.