Short Story: Sunset in the Hills
The old woman knelt before the medley of images in the little prayer room. Some were made of brass, some of clay. There was even a papier-mâché lingum. Her wispy grey hair was still wet, and hung in coils from her back. How she managed to bathe at the unearthly hour of 3.30 a.m. was a feat her daughters and later her daughters-in-law had given up marveling at. The mist outside was thick. Some of it crept inside the house like long tendrils of ether, the ghostly limbs of a perished past. She finished her prayers quickly, with a feeling of guilt. All these years, even when her house had been full – with her children, her husband’s myriad needy relatives and the servants – and the parting in her hair proudly branded with vermilion, she had never ever cut short her twice-daily ritual in her little prayer room. She got up, clutching at a knee, and wincing at the pain in her joint. Her grandson was coming all the way to Shillong from Kolkata, just to see her. He had flown to Guwahati and would be coming from there by car, with his wife and her little great-grandson. She had not yet seen him, but her heart swelled with longing.
She hurried to the vegetarian kitchen, one of two kitchens in the rambling wooden house, where even garlic and onions were banned. The other was the original, larger kitchen, set a little away from the main house but connected to it by a narrow bridge-like corridor. That was where the rest of the family’s food used to be cooked. Now there was little use for it. There were only the three of them left, herself and the youngest two of her children – a daughter, now grown into a thirty-four-year-old spinster who preferred the vegetarian meals cooked by her mother, and a twenty-eight-year-old scatter-brain who preferred the company of the Hill people to ordinary Bengali boys his own age.
Every time she thought of the Hill people she sighed – an old, tired sigh that seemed to escape from deep inside her, followed by an involuntary, barely perceptible shake of her head. It wasn’t like this in the old days. Back then there was no hatred between them and her own kind. She considered the Hill people’s customs to be shockingly matriarchal and liberal, but they hadn’t resented the bookish Bengalis and their babu ways, not so much, not then. They hadn’t begrudged them their government posts or the slopes where their homes sprang up like so many red-capped mushrooms. Even Kabi Guru Rabindranath Thakur had drawn inspiration for his poetry here! The climate was much colder then. Her daughters would set out bowls of syrup or juice in the veranda to freeze into lollies in the chill of the night air! Peaches, apricots, plums and pears spread their fragrant blossoms far and hung their fruit low, providing the boys from the nearby Laban Boys High School with a lavish bounty on their way back from school! The fires of dissent hadn’t yet been stoked. There was no smoke then either, save for the wood-fed cooking fires curling up from chimneys.
But all that had changed. Just like her house. Once bustling with people and merry with the laughter of children, her home now bore a tired battered look. Just like their ancestral home in Sylhet. But she had been too small to remember any of it. The stories she heard were eye-stingingly smoky with nostalgia though. Perhaps her kind were destined to be refugees for generations to come, shunted from one home to another. She was too old to go anywhere. She had lived here, in Shillong, in this house, since the day she had arrived as a seventeen-year-old bride. That was sixty years ago!
The old woman smiled sadly to herself as she cut the vegetables, resting her right knee against the bonthi’s wooden board while her hands deftly worked against its sharp metal blade. As her mind went back to the past, the voices and laughter of the people she had known and loved wafted in from all corners of the house – friends, relatives with children of their own. Now they were all either dead or had moved away. Gone from this picturesque little hill town to the cities, scattered all over India. Gone for the promise of a better life, and gone because politics, distrust and hatred had replaced the easy camaraderie between two peoples that her generation had known. Large cauldrons of shining copper and brass were used for cooking then. She remembered the two Nepali boys, who used to lift the heavy vessels, serve the food and keep her kitchen clean. They were always laughing and joking among themselves, never taking offence when they were reprimanded for any mischief or mistake they’d done. A friend once remarked that having a meal at her house was like eating at a wedding; there were so many dishes and so many people to share them with! She stared at the empty corridor. The children would be made to sit there on aashons, their bell metal plates and tumblers set before them. The Nepali boys would serve them, sharing their chatter, as they went from child to child.
Her sons coaxed her so many times, to come live with them in Kolkata, Guwahati, even Delhi. They were worried for her safety. Let the house be, they’d told her. Rent it out, but come away. Times were different now. Why invite trouble? It was true, you couldn’t even sell your own property to a buyer of your choice. It had to be someone from the hills, at the price they set. When did Bengalis in Shillong turn into foreigners? Or had their forefathers been blind? Or had they been they foolishly indifferent? Whole generations of them?
The old woman had refused to move. At first, she gave her unmarried daughter as the excuse, but afterwards she stopped bothering with excuses at all.
“It’s no use,” she told them. “I can’t leave this place. This is my home. This is the house that your father built for us. This town is as much my home as it is to the Hill people. They can’t take it away from me. I don’t think they will. We have lived side by side for so long…. No, let me be. This is where I belong.”
She started kneading the boiled and mashed green bananas into balls. Her grandson, granddaughter-in-law and little great-grandson (oh, thank you, Lord, for letting me live long enough!) would be here with her today. The image of her grandson as a baby rose before her: chubby, sloe-eyed, and always smiling. Now she would see his son, his little one! Her great grandson was sure to look like his father! She had only seen her granddaughter-in-law once, at the wedding. A pretty girl, but shorthaired. City bred. Would she like this old place and its old people?
“How time flies,” she thought. The sun was already high up in the sky. The mist had vanished. Plump clouds were gathering for another burst of feathery rain. She had finished making the koftas, and the payesh was cooling on the table. It was a three-four-hour drive from Guwahati.
“They should be here any minute now,” she muttered to herself. “Now where did her daughter go? Did she bring the sari down from the cupboard? And the kurta and the baby cardigan? She had given her the money to buy the presents a week ago. The clothes looked nice enough, but would her grand daughter-in-law like them?
“You worry too much, ma,” her daughter had said. “Of course, she’ll love them. And if she doesn’t like the sari, she can always cut it up and make a night gown out of it!”
Her daughter spoke wisely. Nobody wore saris these days. But what else could she give? Gold prices had touched the sky.
The sound of a car crunching to a halt outside her house interrupted her thoughts. She hurried out. There they were! The little one all rosy and dimpled (just as she had pictured him!) looking around in round-eyed wonder. His mother, uncomfortable in a sari, was settling her face into the right expression for the occasion. Her grandson, getting on the plump side now – his wife must be a good cook, she thought approvingly – was running down the cobbled path and up the white stairs, past the creeping Lipstick Vines and Black-Eyed Susans, to catch her up in his arms.
“Dida! Dida!” he cried, twirling her round and round.
“Put me down, you naughty boy,” she said, laughing.
Her grandson’s wife was catching the mood too. She was hugging her daughter and smiling at her son, who seemed just a little awkward in her presence.
“I’ve made your favorite koftas,” said the old woman to her grandson, but smiling at them both. She took her great-grandson from her. But the child immediately started to bawl.
“He’s a little tired and dazed,” his mother apologized. “Everything’s so new to him.”
They went inside the house. The boy’s mother busied herself with the child, coaxing him to suck at his water bottle, adjusting his clothes. But the old woman’s grandson was gazing around the house with pleasure, his eyes glowing with memories. The memories that she shared with him.
“Dida, it looks the same,” he said at last. “Only so much quieter, and sort of empty.”
“They’ve all left for the cities,” the old woman replied.
But her grandson was too occupied with the past to catch the sorrow in her voice. He was running about the house now, recalling the years gone by, excitedly pointing out familiar objects to his wife. Each piece of furniture and knickknack had its own story. For the old woman the memories were rushing in again now. She sank down into a chair and let them wash over her, greeting them like old friends. Her house was full of people again, just like in the old days. Laughing, squabbling, teasing and complaining.
“Dida, these koftas are the best in the world!” Her grandson still talked with his mouth full, she noted fondly.
“Leave some for me, you hog!” from his wife who was feeling quite at home now.
“Mumm, mumm,” murmured the child possessively clutching his empty milk bottle. He didn’t mind sitting on his great-grandmother’s lap any more. He had decided it was an experienced lap, though a bit bony. The old woman watched them finish the meal. She watched the young wife and her daughter clear away the table.
“Now you too must eat, Dida.” Her granddaughter-in-law’s voice was like a soft caress.
The baby had fallen asleep in her arms. She felt she could hold him all day. But, concerned that their Dida hadn’t eaten, the boy’s mother took him and laid him down on the old woman’s cot. Then they all sat around her in her vegetarian kitchen, chattering away while she herself ate. Her knees bunched under her chin, her thin, almost translucent hand mixing the rice and dal on the bell-metal plate on the floor, she ate with great relish. Her happiness flavored the simple meal with the rich aromas and spices from those long-gone days.
They continued to chatter, her grandson, his wife and her daughter, while she lay down on her cot, next to her great-grandson. The baby smelt of talcum powder and milk. He felt soft and warm, just like her children, and her nephews and nieces had, before they had all grown up and gone away.
“How time flies,” the old woman sighed. “Everybody leaves. And after me? This house will only harbour ghosts.”
The sun was beginning to dip low. The valley was awash with red, gold and mauve. Grey smoke wafted lazily above the pine trees. The birds had begun to descend noisily on their nests.
“Dida?” Softly, afraid to intrude on her thoughts, her grandson touched her hair. “Dida, we have to go now.”
She looked up at him confusedly. Where were the others? And he had grown up so fast?
Her great-grandson looked at her with compassion and regret. His face was loomed up from the first shadows of the evening, eyes wet and shiny. She felt her house beginning to grow empty again. She wanted to say, “Stay awhile. Just for a few days.” But the words remained in her heart unspoken. It had been very hard for her when the first of her children left. But she had learned to live with the absence, every time, time after time. They still loved her. This she knew. But they also had their own lives to live. And the cities were where prosperity and security waited. Besides, what future did they have here? Her youngest two children should have left as well. Nevertheless, she was relieved that they had remained. Though she still felt guilty for her daughter.
“Yes, Dadubhai.” She kissed them both on their foreheads. But when the little one caught hold of her finger, she found it hard to stop a tear from falling.
The old woman stood waiting at the gate while the car strained up the steep narrow path leading to the main road. She waved and smiled her wrinkled smile, squinting in the gloaming to still see their faces. Her granddaughter-in-law was quietly wiping her own eyes. Her grandson’s face was set in that men-don’t-cry grimace she remembered so well. The car jerked forward. The sun slipped out of the sky, pulling down the light with it. And then she couldn’t see them anymore.
Picture Credit: Kuheli Biswas Das
Shikhandin is the nom de plume of an Indian writer who writes for adults and children. Her published books, as Shikhandin, include Immoderate Men (Speaking Tiger), and Vibhuti Cat (Duckbill Books), with another forthcoming in 2020. A novel and a short story collection were published previously. Shikhandin’s accolades include, pushcart nominee by Aeolian Harp (USA) 2019, winner of 2017 Children First Contest curated by Duckbill in association with Parag an initiative of Tata Trust, first prize Brilliant Flash Fiction Contest 2019 (USA), runner up Half and One Short Story Competition (India), Shortlist Erbacce Poetry Prize (UK), 35th Moon Prize (Writing in a Woman’s Voice: USA), first runner up The DNA-OoP Short Story Contest 2016 (India), second Prize India Currents Katha Short Story Contest 2016 (USA), first prize Anam Cara Short Fiction Competition 2012 (Ireland), long list Bridport Poetry Prize 2006 (UK), finalist Aesthetica Poetry Contest 2010 (UK), Pushcart nominee by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2011 (Hong Kong). Shikhandin’s work has been published worldwide. Notably in HuffPost India, Scroll.in, Asia Literary Review (Hong Kong), Eclectica (USA), Per Contra (USA), Markings (Scotland), Himal Magazine (Kathmandu), Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine (UK), The Nth Position (UK), Mascara Literary Review (Australia), Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Hong Kong), Stony Thursday (Ireland), The Little Magazine (India), Out of Print (India), Sybil’s Garage (USA), Pushing Out the Boat (Scotland), South: A Journal of Poetry (UK), Off the Coast (USA), Etchings (Australia), Going Down Swinging (Australia), Scoundrel Time (USA).
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.