“Again staring at me in that way? Are you?”
“Why what’s happened? I’m not ogling at you! But my good old friend,” I say, “I am thinking of the horrible flood that has overtaken large number of people at Assam and Bangladesh recently. They had no time to even look for what are the essential things they would carry before leaving for the rehabilitation camp. The river Brahmaputra was in spate for some time and the Government had given sort of warning too but they thought that to be a routine affair as they are usually accustomed to such situations. All on a sudden at the dead of night the river not only flooded their villages but entered their courtyards. Oh! run, run, run! What a run!”
“Why, were you there?” she asks with a mischievous face, with wrinkles spreading on her cheeks but without fading her usual beauty even at this ripe old age.
“Why in T.V. they’re showing the plight of the people running. You neither see anything nor read, of course you will give an excuse that you don’t know reading, but by that one can’t excuse oneself for not having any curiosity of whatever happens around.”
“I thought you were there, I didn’t find you anywhere for the last couple of days,” she laughs. Any way, sit, I shall bring good sweets and tea for you.”
“Good sweets, at this time, how do you get them?”
“Oh, that has been arranged,” she assures.
She goes out to arrange for my food. Not that there aren’t my wife or others to entertain me but she loves doing it.
Fact is, whenever such occasions arise I think of her fate; what would have happened? She is from Midnapore district of West Bengal. There used to be floods in the past in rivers like Damodar, Ajay, Keleghai, Kangsavati and more such rivers and their tributaries in the vicinity. Of them Keleghai was more sober than others. We were accustomed to see procession of such displaced people coming from those districts to the Calcutta metropolis. Some lived by begging, some by doing odd jobs and some died in some corners of the city. When flooded, their hearth and home would be inundated, crop would be damaged and cultivation would be impossible till receding of water. To save their lives they used to come to the city. It used to be a yearly exodus. But such calamities have now become news of the past due to some permanent measures taken by the Government to arrest such occurrences.
Once when she with her younger brother was walking through a field for some errand, the black clouds overhead thickened, the blowing wind was in check, crows, kites and cattle- egrets became apprehensive. Crows and kites were flying helter-skelter, closing their wings, expectant. The brother and sister too became apprehensive of the approaching rain as it would be the beginning of rainy season after a spell of drought. The dry bed of river Keleghai, usually not so dangerous, could not be discerned easily though the boy knew it. To shorten their distance to reach home they sped through the river bed. Cows were running, birds tried to take shelter behind the huge trees, people were lesser in the surroundings. The two, brother and sister, almost ran out of fear. And it came, the huge rain, breaking in the season. Suddenly they were carried by huge gush of water coming from behind carrying large number of men and cattle. Like chattels they were flown by water without any consideration. This happened for some time when everyone tried to save himself or herself, swimming or struggling somehow. The rain and the river had already been in action for some time, it is sure. Trees were uprooted, snakes and calves were carried holding the same log together. She too got hold of a broken branch and was flown to a long distance. No doubt that many died on the way. The water left them on a bank in the late evening.
She lost her brother but found a few people from her village and accompanying them reached Calcutta for the first time in her life. She looked too beautiful compared to her folk and would have been consumed and left on the wayside and if such things did not happen she would be leading a wretched life any way. But God comes to rescue some even unasked for.
Bewildered, hungry beyond comprehension, with nothing but the tattered sari on her body, she took shelter beside our gate and slept or swooned without a trace of awareness through the night. The morning was fresh after the rain swept night. City people were enjoying the coldish morning after spell of long heat. Sun greeted them. They would not know of the calamity that had befallen their counterparts in the countryside until they opened the morning paper. My father, coming out for going to the vegetable market as usual, found her at the gate. Not sure whether she was living, he called a servant and two of my uncles from inside to look whether she was living and himself left for the market. When my grandmother knew of it she asked them to bring the body inside. And by that time the weak body sat up. She was then taken care of by the women of the family under the guidance of my grandmother to whom she is ever grateful.
She was given to work in our joint family house. She did miscellaneous jobs and grew up from age sixteen to now seventy six. Although urged, she never tried to go back to her village home or tried to search out someone of them for she felt that her people had taken it for granted that she had died. Now the oldies of our family have left for the other world but she lives. She is ten years older then me. I faintly remember her coming or do not remember but just pretend to have had her view when she entered our house. Eventually she became a member of our house. She now has a room for her own and directs people working in the house. She is specially fond of children and looks after them, herself she never tried to have one. To tell you the fact, I loved her and still have some intimacy with her, more of it none of us can tell anybody.
Presently she ccomes back with a big dish full of sweets and savories, knowing full well that I love sweets though Doctors warned me sometimes to abstain from taking such things at this age even without any sure sign of diabetes. I ask, “How long did we not see each other?”
“Well, it’s long since, I didn’t see you,” says she and comes close by. “Begin, you must be hungry” she says.
“Okay. What about you?”
“Oh me! You take,” she says and looks straight at my face. “What, if I had been lost on that day and no one took care of this wretched life!”
“Someone would surely have taken care of such a girl as you were.”
“God forbade that so we are so close today,” she says calling me by name, as usual. We exchange glances before I begin. Someone, may be my wife, passed by the door without a word.
It is long back that everything happened. Now everything is a story. Only we are here. That Calcutta no longer exists. It is Kolkata with so huge a population that it seems it cannot absorb such an exodus from time to time though time knows that everything is adjusted in times of exigencies.
© Aju Mukhopadhyay, 2011