Island
 
 
By Sarojini Sahoo
 
 

It was an unusual day. That dew-soaked morning Arundhati was not alone. Leaving her house, she had seen Mr Rawal, an officer of E-6 rank, Mr Tiwari (E-1) and Mr Mishra (E-5) pass by in front of her house, shabbily clad, hair unkempt and faces inwashed, tinged with sadness. They had cast furtive sidelong glances at her house, their heads bowed.

Exactly at that moment Arundhati covered the distance between her veranda and the tennis court in one leap. Walking briskly she overtook the three, feigning total ignorance and pretending not to be surprised to see them in such outfits at such an early hour. For Arundhati had got wind of the matter. She knew there was no escape for her until she reached the next turning and vanished from sight. Someone might break the news at any moment and then how could she possibly face such a situation!

Her desire to slip away from all social custom and convention like a puff of air or a fistful of water—was that a sign of complexes or of unsociability?

Once her quick steps had taken her beyond the colony she felt as if someone had flung open the doors and windows of a closed room and turned the morning into an experience of dewy freshness. Everyday she had to cross the officers’ colony, and then staff quarters, to reach the main road near the labourers’ colony to catch her bus.

Many in the officers’ colony did not approve of Arundhati’s taking the road running through the staff and workers’ colony. The hatred and discontent of the officers has led to the raising of a wall across the rode between the staff quarters and the officers’ quarters. The concentrated anger of the unruly children of the staff, however, had caused the wall to be razed to the ground during the holi that year. A new wall was built with redoubled vigour and vengeance two or three day later. Arundhati named it the Berlin wall. At one side people had cut a breach in somebody’s fence and opened a pathway towards the officers’ colony. Arundhati used that pathway everyday.

She had caught a glimpse of Mrs Rawal and Mrs Mishra through the window as she primped infront of her dressing table just before going out. Both seemed needlessly worried and restless – evidently they were preparing to go somewhere. Arunshari woke Asitya up, “Hey, get up ! Do you hear, perhaps MD’s mother passed away. I don’t have time, I’m going. You should call on them at least once. Rather than caring about propriety we should care more about the fact. it would be quite tough for us to get on here if we don’t go.”

Aditya’s eyes were instantly free from sleepiness. He realised that Arundhati was making good her escape after passing the buck onto him.” Why don’t you so one thing”, said Aditya, “Just stop by their house on your way to work.”

Arundhati replied while putting the duplicate key, her hankie, etc. in her purse, “No, I can’t go. I’m arready late .I’ll be delayed still more if I go. What’s your difficulty ? you don’t have to go to the office now. Besides, you needn’t go to the office if you are going to the MD’s.”

She wondered if Aditya had gone; unless he had, the whole thing would take on a different colour. If she were living on the other side of the Berlin wall, she would probably not have cared about all these niceties. They had moved to this side with Aditya’s promotion.

After the promotion Arundhati had been most eager to move to this side. She harboured a deep grudge against her former colony. The noise of the scantily-clad children outside as one came out of the house, the crowd of women picking lice, the men calmly playing cards clad in their underwears, the intimacy of betel-chewing men barging into the house without rhyme or reason, all this was intolerable for her. After the promotion she had pleaded with Aditya to leave that colony, for fear her children would go astray mixing with the uncivilized children there.

There was no vacancy, nor any possibility of one, on the officers’ colony except for this house. Once a guest house, it had become more dilapidated and uglier with each passing year. Besides, it was as if someone had severed its connection to all the other houses. On the left side of the completely secluded house was a moat-like drain, ten to fifteen feet deep, while a hundred feet away on its right was a tar road.

Some did not like their shifting to this side, apprehending problems of adjustment with these people who were so full of complexes. Others advised against shifting because, with no other house nearby, no one would come to their rescue if their’s was broken into. Still others imagined the house to be haunted. Despite all this Arundhati had taken a fancy to it from the very day Aditya had brought her by scooter to see it. He had told her, ‘Give it a thought. You can shift if you like. But don’t blame me afterwards.”

That was in autumn just after the rains. The house had just been given a fresh bath when Arundhati reached there, riding pillion. A red-coloured lonely house at the top of the hill. Each room was like a hill. Three windows in the bedroom. There were shelves in the kitchen for the gas oven, heater and other necessities. The dining room was quite spacious. Arundhati felt a little unhappy over not finding a basin stand. She instantly thought of installing a new basin. There was a commode and a bath tub in the bathroom. The bungalow was set in a garden of mango, neem, teak, rotha, guava and berry. Perhaps there had been a flower garden once, but it was now on ruins in the absence of a boundary wall. Only a few bougainvillea creepers lay on the ground here and there. From the veranda, beyond the slope at the foot of the hill, a lake could be seen. Stretching your vision a little further you could catch sight of a river.

One felt like decorating the veranda, the main attraction of the house, with a few garden chairs. Uninhabited, it was littered with cow dung and goat droppings.

Once Aditya had unlocked the house after picking his way through cow dung, goat droppings and urine stains, Arundhati had exclaimed, “such a big house ! One feels like getting list here.” She had felt the same way on an earlier occasion, when Asitya had removed her from her village and brought her to his work place for the first time. Aditya had opened the lock after getting off the rickshaw. It was like a mess with no boundary wall on front. The drawing room literally bordered on the road. Arundhati had remarked as she opened the door. “such a small house!” Aditya knew it was difficult to please Arundhati, so he had preferred to remain silent.

After entering the big house Arundhati had called out, cupping her hands in front of her mouth, ”jhumu, jhumu,jhumu !“ the echo was returned instantly. She had called out her son, Badsha’s name. The four walls had called back, Badsha, Badsha.

Leaving her son and daughter to play with the echoes, she collected tasar cocoons from the outstretched branches of the unknown, skyscraping tree. Arundhati was not acquainted with these golden nests.

She had fallen in love with the house, despite the marks of water seepage on the left wall on the bedroom and the unclean toilet. She had said, “ Let’s move in on an auspicious day.”

It was indeed comforting, this move to the officers’ colony, where there was no crowding of naked children and no rustic shouting and swearing. Arundhati had said to Aditya, ”This probably is the difference between this side of the Berlin wall and the other.”

But everything has its own unique character .one is different from the other. Arundhati was both surprised and charmed to see Mr Mishra of UP,of E-6 rank, who lived on the other dide of the tar road, playing with her children on her veranda the day after they shifted. An officer of E- 6 rank had allowed her children to ride on his back ! After all what was their locus standi?
They had just been promoted to E-1 rank. Seeing her Mr Mishra said, “Hello! sister–in–law. Is Sahu Saheb not at home ? “Arundhati was pleased to hear this, though saheb didn’t go well with Sahu. Aditya had been known as Sahu babu on the other side of the Berlin wall. He had now become saheb after crossing the threshold of status. Thar day Arundhati told Aditya, “Mishra Saheb is very nice. He doesn’t have an iota of pride.“ Smiling, Aditya replied, “It is difficult to know these people. Take care how you relate to them.” Arundhati answered angrily, “you are on the habit of finding fault with everything.”

Despite her disagreement with Aditya, she got to know life on this side within a short time, and has her share of bitter experiences. As they had come to the other side of the wall after promotion, they were not accepted by the other officers already living there. Arundhati couldn’t fit into their neat pecking order. Besides, so many incidents, big and small, occurred in her life that she felt suffocated even in open space.

One day Mrs Nauak, who happened to hail from the same district as she, had paid a visit to her house. Arundhati hurriedly prepared cauliflower pakoras. Picking up a pakora, Mrs Nayak said bluntly, her nose raised, “Our children will not touch pakora without sauce.”

Arundhati was in for a shock. How trivial sauce is! It was as if someone has pricked her heart with a needle. See how easily she was shown her place in the class divide, yet Arundhati had to swallow her pride, although she was far more educated than Mrs Nayak.

One day Mrs Mishra started shouting at the top of her voice from her garden at the sight of Arundhati, just back from leave, “See how cauliflowers, radishes and carrots are disappearing from our garden ? Why, we never knew what stealing was earlier. How dare people do this ?” Arundhati would probably not have felt bad even if Mrs Mishra had cried herself hoarse narrating the same incident to her acquaintances of the road, but when she directly accused Arundhati saying the same thing had never happened when Mrs Behera lived next door, Arundhati was terribly hurt.

Though Aryndhari suffered the humiliation, she could not brimg herself to say the people on the other side of the Berlin wall were not thieves. She could not tell Mrs Mishra she had liced there for five years and that her record was clean. She could not tell her she had often seen her Personnel Officer neighbour’s wife and her maid stealing vegetables from the garden.

Rather she had shrunk herself into a nutshell of civility after all these incidents. She had told Aditya, “our house is an island. We shall mix with the officers’ colony if we like. If not with them, then with the senior staff. If we so like, we can also associate with the people from the other side of the Berlin wall.” Yet she never had rime to enjoy the natural scenery, sitting on her beautiful veranda, except on Sunday evenings. Nor did she have time to collect tasar cocoons from her beautiful cemented courtyard or to peep into her neighbours’ green gardens.

However, after living on this side, Arundhati was sure at least of one thing, that people living here were insecure. They had sold their likes and dislikes long ago. They couldn’t even sing or dance heartily.

It was as if everything was turn by remote control, and the remote control was in the hands of one person, none other that the MD. People competed with each other to curry favour with him.

Arundhati was under the impression she was free from all this. For this reason she was not a member of the Ladies Club. For the same reason she did not visit anyone. That she was not free, however, was brought home to her one day when Mrs MD,on a morning walk, had met her and asked, “how do you like this place ?” Arundhati had been amazed and surprised to learn that she was known to Mrs MD.

She had only made a brief reply, smiling, “Fine.”
“ Out house co,,ands a view of whatever takes place on your house.” Having said this, she had smiled, and, with quick steps took the little bridge over the moat-like drain and was gone.
Was it a winning smile ? Or was it something different? The strange smile got entangled in her head like the loose end of a thread. The trees formed a tight mesh around her house, but despite this she too had come within the range of the MD’s remote control.

As a result a ban was imposed in Arundhati’s house on walking, smiling, talking, quarrelling, disco dancing, climbing the iron bar on the veranda lime a monkey, on lungi and vest, on naked feet, on the bare-bodied servant and on the irrational assertion of masculinity on the part of Aditya.

“ This isn’t your staff colony. Why do you howl and scream like a savage?”
“ When will you learn not to eat outside? Who asked you to walk on the ground with naked feet?”
“ Why mummy? Why can’t we dance and eat outside? You never restricted us before?”
“ No my son, you shouldn’t act like that. There is a witch around, she will notice you.”
“ What is a witch, mother?”
“ A witch is an evil woman. Anyway, what will you get out of this? Only remember not to do what you are forbidden to.”

This had gradually thrown Arundhati into a situation of helpessness, for news about what saree she wore, who visited her house, and, whether they came by car or by Hero Honda, used to reach Mrs MD.

Mrs MD asked Arundhati as she gave her a lift in her jeep, “I suppose you are being visited by your father.”

“ How did you know ?” asked Arundhati.
“ Mrs Mishra was telling me.”

Arundhati then understood through whose eyes Mrs MD looked at her house.

Perhaps that os why Arundhati felt a sense of guilt and fear of having made good her escape despite knowing full well about the death of Mrs MD’s mother–in-law. So she had returned home very early that day. On reaching home she found an unusual stillness everywhere. There was not even the buzzing of a single fly in the colony,. The pervading gloom had reached its climax.

Arundhati had no idea how long MD’s mother had been unwell. She had heard about it from Mrs Mishra only a week back. Mrs Mishra had said, “Tell me what I should do. Today is papu’s birthday. there’s no getting away from observing it. Do you know what has happened in the meantime ? Do you know about MD’s mother being admitted to the Cuttack hospital?”

“ IS that true?” asked Arundhati.
“ How come you are the last to know? Who do you thing is minding his job? The civil executive engineer, Mr Rout, the accounts officer, Mr Padhi, the personnel officer are all attending on her there. The old lady is absolutely at her last stage. Will it be proper to have a celebration under such circumstances? I am praying for her to live one more day at least. Please say a prayer for me,” Mrs Mishra had said this in a very worried tone.

Mishra Saheb’s family celebrated the birthday in their house secretly with a few close friends. The old lady on this side of the Berlin wall was nor yer dead, so gloom prevailed for the past week. There was no sound of television, music or dance. There was no evening walk in starched and ironed sarees, and no rummy at the club.

Mrs Mishra had told her in the evening the night before,” Do you know that the ambulance has been sent for? Ihave a feeling the old lady is probably gone. The personnel officer came for the ambulance; he probably went back around ten o’clock. If there was nothing serious, why was the ambulance sent for? They might return any moment. Get ready. We shall step out as soon as we hear the news.”

Arundhati was almost ready, dressed in a presentable saree. She had also hurriedly cooked the evening meal of roti and curry. She looked through the window again to see if Mrs Mishra was calling her.

No, no such thing happened before she went to sleep. Mrs Mishra did not come to call her. But in the morning she knew from the pale appearances of Rawal Saheb, Mishra Saheb and others that they had returned in the night and the bad news had spread quickly.

Arunshati suddenly felt as if Mrs MD could see her through the the wooded growth. She panicked. It might look bad; she should call on them at least once.

Arundhati was setting off for the MD’s residence. Ot was as if a sweet fragrance circulated everywhere. Mrs Mishra was drying her wet hair. She called Arundhati over to her and said, “Perhaps you are going to Mrd MD.”

“ Yes. Has the body been taken to the cemetery?”
“ Long ago. I have just had my bath. Still it is better you should pay them a visit. yes. change your saree; wear a dull-coloured saree, and, of course, slippers on your feet.”

Arundhati’s heart was pounding like mad as she approached the gate to the MD’s residence. She found out from the watchman that the Memsaheb was at home. While she was in a dilemma whether to enter the hall from the veranda, the sweeper of the house came out and enquired if she was looking for the Memsaheb. He had hardly finished his speech when Mrs MD entered the hall with hurried feet. She probably had a chore to attend to. The moment she saw Arundhati, she welcomed her into the house.

Arundhati was unable to decide whether to sit down or to remain standing. She had no idea what to say by way of consolation or sympathy. Asking her to sit for a while and assuring Arundhati that she wouldn’t be a moment, Mrs MD went inside. Two large plates with salted pastry and sweets were placed on the centre table in front of her. Arundhati had the feeling that the entire existence of the house was reduced to those two plates.

Mrs MD came bacl after about five minutes. She had just had a bath.she said, “Eating and sleeping have irregular for the last few days. Besides we kept a vigil over the body for the whole of last night. My mother-in-law was immensely fond of me. She breathed her last only after drinking her last spoonful of water from my hand.” Arundhati did not know why just at that very moment she remembered somebody else’s version that while Mrs MD’s mother-in-law was alive, she had been consigned to the servant’s room.poinring her finger at the sweets, she asked Arundhati to help herself.

“ No, thank you.”
“ Then have some salted pastry.”
“ No, no.” Arundhati nodded her head in the negative.

At that moment Mrs Nayak entered, carrying something in a utensil. Her eyes seemed swollen with excessive weeping. She did not even look at Arundhati. “Did you light a clay lamp on a bed of sand? A nail has to be hammered into the wall”, she said looking at Mrs MD.

Arundhati stood up, thinking it would not be proper to stay unnecessarily long. She said, “You must be rather busy now.

” Oh Yes, I really am.”
“ I could have come in the morning, but I was totally in the dark about it”, said Arundhati. She continued, “I leave the house quite early in the morning .” Mrs MD smiled a little, but her face then became stern
“ How come you didn’t know ! I thought I saw your husband here when the body was being taken away for cremation.”

Arundhati was caught-her face flushed crimson with shame. She was speechless. She returned home quietly. She felt as if a pair of eyes were following her. Standing on her lovely veranda. She felt as though a pair of eyes were watching her through the trees and the leaves. She went in and shut the door. She had desired such a solitary island. But then she wondered if there existed any such island on this earth where another man had not set foot.

 
     
     
 
 
 
 
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