My mother was like any other mother in the world of her time. She would sit at our bedside for hours together worrying and praying if a stubborn fever refused to subside or she would wait at the decrepit wooden gate with a furrowed brow if one of her children wasn't back home after the school hours. During mealtime, she would pour most of the things on our plates virtually leaving nothing for herself. I still wonder how she could survive on such frugal food at that time of her life when she had to slog ceaselessly to make our life going.
In most of the evenings she was busy cooking dinner for this huge family though her snooping gazes would never fail to keep track of the goings-on beside our study table. If anyone was caught napping, she would come surreptitiously to give a tight slap on the offender's shoulders. Fighting inside that ramshackle little room of ours, considered as the abode of God by my mother, was rated as the biggest transgression and the delinquent was sure to receive a liberal dose of thrashing from that harassed lady. Sometime it was really difficult to put us to sleep in a new moon day when the faintly flickering kerosene lamp was extinguished after dinner and our mother was still busy washing the utensils in the backyard. From that obscure place, she would scream in her carefully contrived shrill voice, 'You all better go off to sleep. Kanthola is coming this way shortly.' Immediately there would be a hushed commotion, we would huddle together in panic and close our eyes in an eerie anticipation when howling of the jackals from the nearby wood might conveniently provide a very formidable backdrop. Soon sleep would slyly come there to take care of the desolation pervading the air. During our childhood, Kanthola came to represent all that is associated with a brooding evil. Another entity called Burhadangaria, a tall, fair and a very dignified old ghost also crept into our realm of thought during that period. We were told by our mother that unless we behaved ourselves well, if we quarreled among ourselves or if we refused to go off to sleep on time, that apparently poised ghost would come under an uncontrollable rage and devour us mercilessly.
We grew up in our cozy nest called home to leave it one day for the city for pursuing either a career or education. When I left home for my college education, my mother held my hands for sometime, tears were trickling down to inundate her very beautiful and placid face. That was the first time I could see tears in her eyes. When the village people were discussing about her howling for days together after her husband's sudden death in a road accident, we could find it difficult to believe. Her impassive face never betrayed any sign of agitation or intense emotion during our growing up years. Crying or for that matter a loud laughter could never be associated with her potent existence in that time of her life. Once much later being unable to contain my curiosity I asked her about the reason of her not crying even once in the intervening period between my father's death and my going to the college though there were many difficult times concerning our health, education or finance. She replied with a straight face, 'Tears wouldn't have fed you. It would have invited pity which I never wanted…..'
Whenever I came back for a brief period during college recess, she would invariably fret over my falling health. She would carefully collect different medicinal herbs from the backyard garden and cook delicious items with those green herbs for lunch or dinner. A glow would flicker over her face when she passed on the news about my brothers getting coveted jobs or promotions though she steadfastly refused to leave her humble abode to be with her well-settled children even for a short period. She even declined to have her house reconstructed. 'Let it be like this. Your father built it with his sweat…..'
I got a job in the nearby city. She was elated but as usual refused to join me in my new life. 'I might come sometime' was her typical refrain. After a year or two I was transferred from that city to a distant one. This time she was worried. 'You are going far. It is the time you get married. Otherwise who would look after you if fall ill? If you like someone you may tell me. I'll go and fix up the engagement.'
'I am leaving that to you ma. I do not have anyone in my mind at the moment.'
She looked for a girl and very soon my marriage was solemnized with one of the eligible girls of the nearby city. My wife was a simple, hassle-free girl who tried to adjust her liking or disliking with that of mine. We set up a new home in the new city. Initially it was a rented apartment. But within months, we decided to buy a plot of land there in a suburb and constructed a tiny, doll-like house. My wife set up a beautiful garden in the portico and an orchard in the empty backyard. We went to the village again and invited our mother to be with us in our new home. She smiled at the suggestion and told us very sweetly, 'Next time…It is for sure.' On our part we knew it for sure that she had got no desire to leave her exclusive domain, her kingdom, in that village home for anything and that realization saddened me enormously. While building the house, I kept a small, private corner for her in the study room so that she could read her books and say her prayers in peace in case she changed her rigid posture and came to live with us for a change though there was not even an iota of hope.
But then there was a sudden change in the situation. A son was born to us. As soon as that news was conveyed to her she reached my home the next day itself. A lady who never ventured out of her village till then and who never showed any inclination to go anywhere traveled three hundred kilometers by bus along with a village lad, to reach my house just to have a peek at her grandson.
'So long you were my baby, my little kid. Now you are going to lose this place to this bundle of joy, my little grand-son.'
I could hear a crackling of joy in her otherwise brittle voice. That time she lived with us for sometime till she was sure that the new mother had learnt all the tricks of child rearing. Every morning she would massage the baby's body with warm mustard oil and then bathe him with lukewarm water with such an amazing speed that I sometime looked at the entire exercise with lot of awe and wonder. When it was time to leave, I pleaded with her to stay for sometime. But she seemed to have remembered suddenly that it was the time for hatching fish in the pond in the backyard.
She came again. She was concerned about the not-too-robust health of her grandson. 'He should be fed more.' She surveyed our kitchen garden, carefully picked up some herbs and started cooking some exotic mix-n-match curries for him. My son was a naughty little brat who would talk in his own incoherent words about so many things like the cattle stock running amok on the street or the birds chirping away in glory on the trees around. He would try to reach out to them through his wobbly walk in the open front or the backyard. But whenever the time for meals came, he would keep his mouth shut with as much strength as possible to summon for a little man like him. His grand-mother devised some new strategies like beating two stainless bowls and singing loudly against that backdrop of musical noise. He might gulp down something in the resultant confusion. After sometime the novelty of that strategy also wore off. Then the elderly lady started dancing cosmic dance of Lord Shiva to the little one's amusement. His mother would push something down the throat when his mind had been totally glued to his grand-mother's esoteric dance.
That time also she pushed off after sometime for her village home on the pretext that she would have to engage some laborers to clean her orchard.
She came again when her grand-son had started running around the house causing lot of consternation to his much harassed young mother. During day time, the front gate as well as the front-door was always kept locked. Our house was looking like a junkyard with all the broken pieces of the decorative items of the living room. But the real problem came in the late evenings when he was put to bed after the evening meal. He would try his best to run away from the bed to go outside. 'I want to play there…' His index finger was pointing in the direction of the front yard.
His mother already weighed down with fatigue and exhaustion was totally aghast at this unjust demand of her child. I looked at my mother. She smiled sweetly and looked at my direction, 'Have you seen the Kanthola of late?'
'No…Oh! Yes….' I was little bit flabbergasted.
'I've also seen him that day. He was looking more ferocious with his protruding eyes and sharp teeth. He was looking for children who refused to go off to sleep after dinner. I told him that our Baba, my sweet, little grandson, was too good. He always went off to sleep quietly after evening meal. Kanthola then went away in search of some other naughty children…'
Baba, as we started calling him by that time, put his face against his mother's bosom, his little hands clutching onto her heaving body. After sometime Baba was fast asleep in the same curled up posture.
This continued for some time. We all heaved a sigh of relief for getting away so easily from a persistent problem and we thanked our mother profusely for bringing that elusive, hibernated Kanthola to life again. But our euphoria was short-lived when one day Baba pronounced gallantly during bed-time that he had already killed the dreaded Kanthola and he was no longer scared of him. No amount of pacification or threat worked that time. We all had to spend a sleepless night.
Next day, Baba and his grand-mother were watching a serial on National Geographic on wildlife in Africa. Suddenly a huge panther was shown on the TV screen, a close-up of the animal clearly showed its sharp teeth, spiky fangs and the way he was chasing a prey and devouring it. Baba's face coruscated in sheer dread at this ghastly sight.
'What is this Aita?'
'A tiger, it's a dangerous animal! He looks for anything that refuses to sleep after dinner and eats that kind of offender. The deer which was chased and eaten up just now was not sleeping after its evening meal. It should have kept itself indoors after dinner and slept. Good that this naughty deer was punished.'
'I am a good boy. I never refuse to sleep after dinner,' Baba's face was wrapped up in a thick blanket of fear and his quivering voice was clearly betraying his innocent emotion. From that day onwards, Baba would go quietly after dinner to bed, eyes closed and body pressed tightly against a pile of pillows arranged as buffers between the wall and the bed.
Baba grew up pretty fast. My mother came every year to spend some time with her grand-son. She used to take lot of delight in his different antics and passionately observe most of the mundane things associated with his growing up as if they were the most extra-ordinary events taking place in the life of her gifted grandchild. If he could solve a simple sum in school, she would go on extolling his extra-ordinary accomplishment to the amusement of all. Baba was equally passionate about his grand-mother.
But she would invariably go back to her village home on the pretext of some pending work in that ramshackle family home. The last time I went to see her there, she was looking visibly old with wrinkles taking complete reign of her otherwise lucid complexion.
'My friend Sheetala died. They have sold the property. I mean the children. They are all settled in the city. Who would like to come back here? The grocery-shop owner bought it. He is going to tear it down and build a warehouse. He is eyeing our house also.'
'We are not going to sell this property,' I screamed in panic. Sheetala Mahi was our neighbor for many years and she was my mother's only friend in the village in those days. They were well-to-do people with an ornately designed house in a vast courtyard. She remained her friend and confidant till Sheetala Mahi passed away in her sleep all alone in that huge house. That time I told my mother that I couldn't leave her alone in this house at this stage of her life. 'You must come to live with us. Now that even Sheetala Mahi is no longer here to give you company….'
She looked over me towards the backyard and her eyes filled up with tears, 'Let me die here. Your father died in this very soil, his body was laid here under that tulsi tree and I can always feel his presence in this house. I am never lonely in this house…'
I left the house soon afterwards though my mind was overwhelmed with an inexplicable pain.
Time flew. Baba passed with flying colors. He passed his Class XII Board Exam too with equal aplomb. Now he is an Engineering student in another city. In one of these days I received a phone call from the village grocer, a prosperous businessman who expanded his business to the nearby cities and acquired Sheetala Mahi's house a few years back, 'Your Mataji is on the highway. She wants to go away……'
My mother is on the highway! The highway is quite far from her house and she had never ventured out there. I sensed trouble. I drove at a breakneck speed to reach there. I could see her surrounded by a jeering crowd, totally distraught and disoriented. 'Ma, I've come.'
There was no flicker of recognition on her face. 'I want to go home. Please take me home…..'
'Mataji has lost her memory. She has been talking incessantly about going home, not to this village home, but somewhere else……' the neo-rich businessman announced. 'She cannot live alone here. It's better if you take her with you. You can think of selling your land and house. Don't worry, I'll pay a good price for it. There'll be no cause for regret…'
I held my mother's hands and told her affectionately, 'Let's go ma.'
She immediately occupied the seat beside me to start her journey towards an undefined entity called home. Crowd who gathered there to enjoy the sight dispersed slowly passing caustic comments about the plight of an old village woman at the hands of her indifferent children.
From that day onwards my mother became a permanent member of our household. Most of the time she kept on talking about going back home, a make-believe thing thriving in the realm of her imagination. Every morning she would patiently wait for her long-dead brother to come and pick her up from this house, the house of a stranger. Sometime I am just an acquaintance, sometime her authoritarian father-in-law, sometime a brother-in-law but never her dearest youngest son.
We never heard much about our grand-mother's place during our childhood years. Our grand-parents were long dead. My mother's elder brother also died in a mysterious illness in Kolkata when he was pursuing medicine there. They were a prosperous landlord family but lost their glory in a series of mishaps. During our childhood days, that family didn't exist in our thought as we were too busy in our own carefully crafted small world. But that maternal family has become an all-pervasive living entity of late with my mother's elder brother playing the pivotal role. My mother keeps on talking to her brother for hours together. She would raise some questions and then she would give the answer posing as the brother.
'Look Dada, some people have conspired to kill me.'
'No one can do you any harm. I'm there.'
'Some thieves tried to rob me that day.'
'I'm going to thrash them.'
'Please take me home.'
'Ok, I'm sending a car to fetch you.'
Baba has come during his college vacation. I was worried about Baba's reaction to the vegetative state of his dearest grand-mom with whom he used to share lot of warmth in the past. But he took everything in its stride and started handling the situation with lot of maturity.
'Where is my brother? He was supposed to come. But he got delayed.'
'He is in Vaikuntha. With Lord Krishna,' Baba looked upwards to indicate that Vaikuntha was somewhere there above the sky.
'Oh Good. How he is coming here to pick me up?'
'He is coming by a chariot.'
His grand-mother was happy at the news of her brother visiting her soon from Vaikuntha. One day she cried a lot over the death of their pet elephant, Ragini. Baba had to persuade his grand-mother really hard that day so that she ate something. 'A big war is going to take place here soon. We must eat something fast and then run away to a safer place.' She immediately started eating.
A new problem has suddenly cropped up with my mother. After dinner she would refuse to go to bed. She would insist on going to the Home along with her brother, 'He is waiting there to take me home.'
She would try to open the door. It became a gargantuan task to put her to sleep. One day Baba winked at me and told with a grave face, 'Don't look outside Aita. Kanthola is waiting there out to pounce on anyone who doesn't go off to sleep and dare to venture out in the dark.'
My mother was looking pale. She immediately went to bed and closed her eyes with a rare determination not seen during the last several days. She was fast asleep after an hour or so. It became her routine for the next few weeks. We also felt relieved for getting away so easily from a persistent problem plaguing the household where no amount of coercion or persuasion had worked earlier.
But then one day she said, 'My brother has chased Kanthola away. I am going out with my brother now.' She looked unwavering. She didn't sleep the whole night and nor did we. Next morning, at the breakfast table, Baba showed a photo published in the front page of the local paper: A huge Royal Bengal Tiger feasting on a deer.
'Aita, look at this. An angry man-eater! Eats everyone who refuses to sleep after dinner.'
She looked closely at the photograph. Her face changed its colour. 'Can he come here? I mean near our house?'
'Yes, he can be invisible and can invade any territory. He is not scared, not even of your brother,' Baba declared to the amusement of us all.
'Can my brother kill this tiger?'
'No, he has already run away. See, your brother has not been seen here of late.' His grand-mother vigorously nodded her head in total agreement, 'Yes, he has not been seen anywhere near me since the last few days.'
She was weeping like a little child and Baba was trying to comfort her by holding her frail frame affectionately against his lean, muscular body. That evening she immediately went to bed after dinner and turned her face towards the wall. With her eyes closed, she told her grandson, 'Baba, if the tiger comes here, tell him that I have gone off to sleep.'
Soon my mother was fast asleep curled up against a pillow.
(Leena Sarma is a popular Assamese writer and novelist. She is a senior officer in the Indian Railways and is based in New Delhi.)