Translated from original in Assamese by Rupanjali Baruah
It was a day in the month of January, the year was 1991. I was then in Vellore for my sister Mandira’s (Joon) treatment for her brain tumour. In every eight to ten days, I had to visit Madras (now Chennai) to buy her medicine. The distance between Madras and Vellore could be traversed by bus in approximately four or four and half hours. Buses plied at night too. So there was no difficulty in returning the same day.
By evening of that particular day, I could collect that specific medicine called DDAVP by paying double its price from a pharmacy in Madras after I had gone around for the whole day in search of it. Though the pharmacist charged me a high price, he then seemed to me a godsend because after Joon had been operated upon for her tumour that was growing beside the pituitary gland, she developed another ailment – artificial diabetes (Diabetes Insipidis). There was only this medicine DDAVP to save her from the terrible consequences from this dreaded disease. I don’t know if the conditions are same today but in those days, this medicine was manufactured only in one country in the world – Switzerland. One bottle of it lasted only fifteen days.
I hurried carrying the bottle of medicine in my hand and arrived at the bus stop for Vellore around 8.30 pm. I got the last ticket on the bus that was just getting ready to depart. I took the seat that the conductor pointed out to me. And then all the desperate anguish and fatigue that I had gone through while I had waited for that rare medicine suddenly left me and so I sat down, heaving a sigh of relief.
Our row had four seats. A teenaged girl sat next to me, besides her sat her younger brother and next to him was a girl in her twenties. Apparently they came from the same family. The bus began to move. I heard them converse among themselves in Tamil, I could not understand them. I had an English magazine in my hand. A little later, the girl beside me asked me in fluent English if she could borrow that magazine. I smiled and with an affirmative gesture gave her the magazine. A smile full of easy eagerness spread all over her face and I could discern that her sharp observing eyes meant to say more. We introduced ourselves in the manner as most passengers do. The girl next to me was Gita, she was reading in class IX, the boy was her brother Tathagat who studied in class VI and the other girl was Lata who had just passed her B.A. She was Gita’s elder sister. Their parents sat in front of us. The family had come the previous day from a place near Vellore to Madras; the reason was to discuss about preparations regarding Lata’s marriage with the groom’s family in Madras and to let the boy and the girl meet to know one another and such other matters.
The moment I said that I was from Assam, the three of them sat up showing a lot of interest. They put too many questions at me on Assam, particularly Tathagot and Gita. Lata quietly listened and whenever we turned toward an amusing anecdote, she would just smile. The children’s amiable nature and their many questions to know more about Assam truly touched me and so, keeping in mind the tender ages of Tathagot and Gita, I tried to give answers to their queries as simply as I could. They had already read a lot about Assam’s Kaziranga and its one-horned rhino, the winter in Shillong, its orchids and pine trees, the war cemetery of Kohima, Manipuri dance.
In order to set their curiosities to rest, I told them with my natural love of the Northeast about all those excursions I had undertaken on agile elephants’ back conducted by Assam Tourism, of those experiences where I had seen wild boars, deer, the thrilling sight of thousands of white herons flying away together, the tea gardens scattered in and around Kaziranga that resembled a green carpet, the sound of the wind shattering through the pine trees in Shillong in the month of January. When I mentioned that the sound seemed as it were someone was wailing, it startled Gita and made her suddenly clasp my hand and pull it to herself. That feeling tugs at me sometimes. And I also told them about the weeping willows by the side of Ward Lake that looked much like a newly married Indian bride trying to veil her demure face and how under those trees, too many young Khasi boys and girls met everyday with happy merrymaking. And I told them about the long meandering grey colored, snake-like road that I had traversed several times between Shillong and Cherrapunji, and whenever I crossed that stretch of road, it seemed to be the long lustrous hair of a young woman. Gita also put questions at me about the Assam Movement; she said she had read about the foreigners’ issue in the newspapers.
The Tamil Nadu Government bus whooshed ahead through the night. It halted only once for a minute; we bought some peanuts from a vendor and shared them among us. The bus then moved on. I came to know by way of our conversation that Gita loved to paint. Her sharp watchful eyes had made me assume that she had a natural flair for finer things. And just then I remembered Neel Pawan Barua (Neelda) under whose kind supervision so many children and youths have derived inspiration to take up art and whose art work I believe deserves entry into the world’s any major art platform. Gita had never heard of Neel Pawan Baruah but through her interest in art she had been familiar with the art work of great masters like Gaguin by going through books on them in the library. She mentioned that she had observed M.F. Hussain’s work with interest. True, I have never ventured to try my hand at drawing anything apart from those that I had to do under compulsion during my school days; nonetheless visual language has always fascinated me. When color and the magic of lines successfully bring alive the content of a painting, it gives me endless joy of a discovery. I told Gita about my views on art and about my feelings for art. I told her about my experiences in visiting the frequent exhibitions at Jehangir Gallery where I could see the new creations of different artists of the world. And I also told her about the art work of Neel Pawan Barua, Benu Mishra, Hemanta Mishra, Prasenjit Duara, Pulak Gogoi and others. I told her of all those paintings of those artists that which I could with my limited knowledge faithfully recall just because Gita showed a sincere interest in them. She listened with interest and I accepted her request to show her some of those art works when she would visit Assam.
Gita asked me several times why I do not paint. A terrible question, I do not yet know how I am to answer that. Nobody had told me to take up painting nor did I see any piece of good art work in my childhood. It was during my college days that I began to find opportunities to know and understand art. So I told Gita the truth about the whole matter. And yet again, Gita pursued me with the same question; why I had not taken up art lessons in my college days? The second time the question made me feel that I had committed a grave crime by not learning to paint, at least this was what the probing made me feel. I did not know what I was supposed to say – and in not being able to give a satisfactory reply I instead smiled rather sheepishly at her. I could not give an inane reply to those grave and serious questions because that would hurt her. So I did not say anything though I made it quite clear that I had never truly given a serious thought to that matter. I could not know what Gita thought of it. I urged her nonetheless to carry on with her own interest in painting. I did not realize how late it was since we were so taken up with our conversation. It was only Lata who reminded us that it was close to midnight. An hour later, they would get down and then sometime afterwards I too would arrive at my destination.
When she heard about the hour, Gita like a little girl rested her head on my shoulder and said aloud: “Let me sleep here for a few minutes.” And the word promptly left my lips “ok.” A few minutes passed in silence. Suddenly Gita sat up as it were she just woke up from a deep sleep and in a very casual voice said to me: “Please give me your hand.” I did not know what this sweet but serious looking girl was up to. Like one in a trance, I held out my hand. She put something into my palm and said: “Keep it with you.” I looked at my hand feeling strangely happy and amazed and saw that it was a bangle which Gita had pulled out of her hand to gift it to me I clasped the bangle with a profound feeling and without quite being aware of it I retreated back those long twenty – four years and stood quite close to Gita in her school days. And thus with equal childlike innocence I too put in her palm the Wilson pen from my shirt’s pocket and in the same breath, said to her: “Keep it with you.”
In the pale glittering light inside the bus, I could see that in an instant a joy had spread across Gita’s face. And her sharp twinkling eyes meant to tell me of many other things.
Meanwhile, the bus arrived at a particular stop. Many scrambled to leave. Gita and her family too joined in. Everyone said their polite goodbyes. I invited Gita’s family to visit Assam. I reassured Gita “I shall take you to Kaziranga, Shillong, Cherrapunji, and show you the rows and rows of pine and willow trees.” Gita did not say a word. She got down slowly smiling a little mysteriously. I got down and walked them over a little ahead. The bus then began to move again. Though they were physically moving more and more away from me, I felt them returning closer toward me. Gita’s enigmatic smile still lingers in some corner of my heart, I am yet unable to fathom it clearly and there still remains in my palm that beautiful gift from Gita - a piece of bangle.
I do not know where Gita is today. I would not know if she still continues to paint or if she ever came to visit Assam, I would never know about that but I still cherish that short meeting with that girl who carried a cheerful faith in living though she was just then at the threshold of her youth, her conversations that were so full of abundant feeling of sincerity are alive in me just as her bangle which I treasure still with loving care.