Guwahati,

Fiction

The Wilted Flower

 

 

Fiction:

There are no flowers at Bauri Gate.

Bauri Gate has dust and a smell compounded of sweat, urine, horse-dung and exhaust fumes. Its walls are streaked with the yellow of human urine and the red of paan-juice spitting. It has flies - the horse-fly, sucking nectar from heaving horse-flanks; the human-fly, inebriated with human sweat; and the large and beautiful bluebottles, buzzing lazily over heaps of warm horse-dung.

Bauri Gate has inhabitants of varying vocations. It has also its quota of pimps and prostitutes and other nocturnal operators. But, of course, Bauri Gate is the unofficial headquarters of tonga-drivers. Almost everyone in Bauri Gate has something to do with horses. I remember Bella, the black-bodied prostitute with beautiful teeth. She laughed like a horse and liked to have her flanks tickled.

Bauri Gate is a lively, bustling community. Only the uncharitable refer to the place as a social jungle and to its inhabitants as the scum of society. The metaphor is, however, inappropriate, for society, as a jovial halwai readily put it, is not milk. As to it being a jungle, I have already said that there are no flowers at Bauri Gate. Whoever has heard of a jungle without flowers?

Nowadays, whenever I am tired of being what I am, I wish I were an angel and could grow a flower at Bauri Gate. When I first went there I had no such aspiration. Coming from a none-too-rich but well-sheltered family, I had never seen what is called the seamy side of life. When I left my family and my town to join the Institute of Fine Arts, I had to find a place to stay in the big city. By choosing a poorer section of the city I could kill quite a few birds with one stone. Since lodgings would be cheap, I could save money. I would not only see the seamy side of life, I would be it.

I have a fascination for painting the human face. The human anatomy is beautiful and fine from any perspective, artistic or otherwise. But the human face is finer and more difficult to paint. A face is much more than mere eyes, nose and lips; it is the showcase to an individual's personality and moods. To imitate naturalistically a face which is registering deep emotions requires skill and patience. A place like Bauri Gate, I naturally supposed, would provide numerous models for observation.

I rented two rooms on the first floor of a large, barrack-type building. It had a large courtyard from which the occupants could watch the patch of blue sky above while they gossiped and in winter sun themselves. Outside, there were rushing vehicles and dancing pedestrians and deafening clangour. But hardly any of this penetrated the thick walls of our building. It was strangely quiet, if not peaceful, inside.

Amongst the earliest acquaintances in that building were Hazibaba, an elderly tonga-driver, and his motherly wife. They were a five-member family, not counting the horse, of course. The eldest was a boy of about fifteen. The next was a frisky little girl aged eight or nine. The youngest member of the family, Pappu, was a cretin. He had a bulging forehead and a grotesquely stunted physique. But it was his face that interested me. His lips were permanently twisted in a half-smile. This gave his face a most mature expression, as if he was mocking the world with an "I know all about you" look. Once I saw him crying. Tears flowed down his cheeks but his lips remained twisted in that flowerlike, omniscient smile.

In fact, it was Pappu who first brought me into contact with Hazibaba's family. Every afternoon Hazibaba's wife took out an old and battered sewing machine to her corner of the quadrangle and stitched clothes to augment the family budget. Hazibaba and his son, who worked as an apprentice at a tea shop, would be away at their jobs. Nimmi, the little girl, would be away to school. Pappu would crawl around his mother, sometimes smiling at the pieces of brightly-dyed cloth, sometimes tugging at her petticoat demanding attention. She would either reprove him gently or else pick him up lovingly. They made a fascinating twosome as I watched them from my perch at the upstairs window.

I had made a few preliminary sketches of the mother and her child and wished for permission to do a full-length painting. That was when I met Hazibaba and he readily acceded to my request. I also requested him not to let his wife know that she was being observed till the painting was complete.

The first meeting led to other and lengthier ones. At first he maintained the deferential attitude that the illiterate often reserve for the so-called educated. But within a few weeks the frost melted, and I grew intimate with the family. Very soon I was even invited to after-dinner gossip sessions and let into family secrets. I began to understand how people like Hazibaba lived. Somehow my newly acquired knowledge made me sad. They were a happy enough family, with the usual family troubles and hopes. So I could not quite fathom why I felt so sad.

What appalled me was the faith they had in what Hazibaba termed his kismet. The word to them was perhaps synonymous with God. They often thought of the future, but had no means of providing for it. They were too busy eking out enough money for the present to be able to save for the future. Hazibaba and his horse were the main providers of the family. His daily income averaged about five rupees. His wife earned about twenty rupees per month. The son was a mere apprentice and received a meal and a few annas daily. With this income they had to provide fodder for the horse, repair the carriage, pay the rent and feed and clothe themselves.

The biggest burden on the family was, of course, the little cretin Pappu. He had to be given medicine regularly. The poor, smiling idiot smelled like a hospital ward. With all these expenses, saving anything for the future was impossible, Hazibaba explained to me. "But God forbid it," I asked, "What will happen if someday something happens to you?" With a smile Hazibaba reiterated his fatalistic philosophy.

Months passed, yet I could not finish the mother-and-child canvas. Life at the Institute kept me away most afternoons from my window. It was only on holidays and Sundays that I could find time for this work. 

Often, on such afternoons, I felt too lazy to work and merely sat at the window, gazing at the child at play and the mother at work. It may have been an absurd way of passing the time, but somehow the antics of the child amused me. I looked at the two with the same enjoyment I had derived when, as a child, I scattered bread-crumbs on an ant-hole and watched for hours the ants carry the crumbs away.

The mother was very fond of the child. While working, only half her attention would be upon the machine. She kept a wary eye on Pappu. One of her pet fears was that one day he would waddle out through the main door onto the street outside. With the heavy and fast moving traffic outside, the poor idiot would stand no chance of survival. Often a monkey-nut vendor would pause outside the door and cry out his ware. Pappu recognized that voice and, on hearing it, he would make for the door. But his mother would stop him and sometimes herself go out and get him some nuts.

Then, one day, Hazibaba's kismet turned sour. His horse, which he called his son, collapsed on the street and died. All the loving care which the family had bestowed upon it was of no avail to the ailing, undernourished animal. With its death a part of Hazibaba also died.

The precarious economic equilibrium in the family was suddenly upset. Without his horse, Hazibaba was helpless. He had no money to buy a new one. He could borrow only a part of the money from his acquaintances, and I offered to lend him some from my own meager resources. But this was not enough. Obviously, Hazibaba had to find some other form of employment until he could save enough to buy a new horse.

Accordingly, he set out on foot the next day in search of work. He returned late at night, weary and exhausted, with a couple of rupees to show for his day's labours. He had gone to the station to work as a porter, he informed me. But he had neither a license nor a uniform. The passengers did not trust him and the regular porters almost beat him up. So he went and unloaded some trucks and earned two rupees.

This continued for some time. Try as he might, Hazibaba could not earn enough to save much. Without a regular job, depending entirely upon kismet to find him odd jobs, Hazibaba wore himself out trying to make enough money. Lack of money brought on added anxieties, frayed tempers and general discontent into the once-contented atmosphere of the family. Whenever Hazibaba returned empty-handed, he would wear a dark look upon his face and vent his frustration upon his wife and children. His wife never retorted or did anything to provoke him.

She knew that Hazibaba's bursts of temper were very short. When he had spent his anger he would repent and resume his usual, mild-mannered self. But the former family atmosphere was missing. Perhaps the only person to have a smile on his face all the time was Pappu. Perhaps he smiled his all-knowing smile at the temporal preoccupations of these ignorant mortals.

One afternoon, I was looking down at the sunlit courtyard and Pappu's mother working harder than ever at her machine. Pappu was his usual, inimitable self, sniffing and exploring. After some time Pappu went to his mother and began tugging at her petticoat. The mother tried to ignore him but Pappu persisted. Suddenly she flared up and pushed the child away. Pappu began to smile tearfully. The mother soon repented and bent down to pick him up and soothe him. I received the shock of my life, not at her temper which I suppose was natural, but at the strange expression on her face as she looked at the crying child. I could not understand it then. I think I can, now.

And then the inevitable happened. Hazibaba, whose frame was not built for the heavy work he was doing, wore himself out and fell seriously ill. For two days he had high fever. It left him weak and exhausted. A doctor prescribed medicines but said that what he needed most was food and rest.

Now the family was completely stranded. A few neighbours came to their aid. Fortunately, I managed to sell my first canvas for the "princely" sum of fifty rupees! This I gave to Hazibaba's wife. But it was not enough. I hastily painted some calendar-type landscapes and went a few blocks away to the crowded market area and tried to sell them. I had luck. My effort yielded me more than fifteen rupees. With a lighter frame of mind I returned to my dwelling. 

When I reached the house, I saw a large crowd gathered on the street in front of the main door. They were looking down at something. I pushed my way and saw the twisted body of Pappu lying in a pool of blood. He had not lost his smile even in death. His small hands were tightly clenched. A policeman bent down and pried open the fingers of the right hand. Out of the clenched fist of the dead child a bright 10 paisa coin rolled out into the dust.

I felt sick all of a sudden. I wanted fresh air. A vendor, taking advantage of the big crowd, was trying to sell his ware, monkey-nuts, which Pappu so loved to crunch. I heard him shout: "Monkey-nuts, come and get them. Monkey-nuts, come and get them. Ten paisa per packet, come and get them."