Spring in Hell : Nirupama Borgohain

Rajib hadn't got up from bed yet. If he wasn't shaken awake he never got up. Therefore, among Mina's chores of the morning, dragging a husband out of sleep was paramount. It was no mean task, because Rajib really resisted waking up. It was as if he was still a school-boy, and Mina his mother. The child had to be woken up, his breakfast made ready, and he would have to be goaded to leave the house. He had to be dispatched to this early-school and his tiffin packed up. For a school-boy didn't she have to do things exactly like this?
"Why don't you get up? Get up: It's already seven, when are you going to office…????
Rajib worked in a Central Government office, in  Delhi. His house was an hour away from the place where his office was located in this sprawling city. So he had to get out of the house before nine, and to catch the bus on time after the morning's round of essential activities, he simply had to get up at seven. Yet Rajib was immensely lethargic,  in the matter of getting up early, and so Mina had to wake up Rajib the way she would wake up school-going children.
Jagua's mother who lived nearby, didn't have to shove her son awake. Jagua was about five or six. He was not of an age to start the life of a labourer, and there was no school. Consequently there was no compulsion to get up early. Still. Jagua emerged from his jhuggi before the sun rose, pushing aside a "door" of sack-cloth, and squatted on the open space nearby to look around. Around evening or night perhaps he defecated too, because a terrible stench rose from the place around that time.
 Mina got up around the same time and opened the door and strolled out to their verandah without washing her face. The newspaper bound up with a black rubber-band would be lying there in a corner, -although it was so early. Mina bent down to pick up the paper and freeing the paper from its shackle of the rubber-band, glanced through the head-line. A few red and blue pieces of paper floated out from the newspaper where they were tucked in and lightly landed on the floor.
At first, Mina used to pick up these papers and look at their contents before she read the newspaper. But now let alone read them, she didn't cast a sideways glance at the crisp red and blue papers lying on the ground. Let them lie around like that. After some time Kanchi would come and sweep them• away. It was nothing but trash. Really, the people here were loaded with money. And they knew how to earn. Otherwise, would they spend so much on private advertisements? 
What a wide variety of advertisements could be found in these red and blue leaves of paper which Mina read so avid)), at first. An English medium school for small children had been opened at 22, Kirti Nagar; the Principal was experienced, educated and responsible. The guardians should immediately enrol their children in this school and ensure their futures. Dr. Narayan Hemrajani's coaching-class for college-going students was being run in House No. 1 adjacent to the bus-depot at Saraswati Vihar. Coaching here was cheap, very cheap, and seats limited — so please enquire today to avoid disappointment. Dr. PlOip Thomas's eye-clinic was located on the third floor of DDA Flats, 34 Rohini Marg. It also mentiOned that he`114,/as an optician at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. Get your eyes checked by him…
Colourful trades and colourful ads. Only once Mina had been tempted by an advertisement in such a brochure: The address was 2C, Pocket UV, Shalimar Bagh. English speaking was taught here. Mina had studied in the Assamese medium Tarini Charan High School from a young age, and was married to Rajib after passing her B.A. from Handique College. She was not bad in studies, but couldn't speak English properly. It wouldn't have mattered really, but the nature of Rajib's job was such that he would have to roam all over India, and it was awkward if she couldn't handle the English language fluently. Mina had carefully preserved that particular ad, but she was too bashful to reveal her desire to enrol in that institution to Rajib.

The businessmen hawked their trade and professions through these colourful pieces of paper and came to some understanding with the newspaper vendors through which the advertisement brochures were distributed in people's homes., When Mina first arrived in Delhi, she had found these advertisements novel, but she didn't find them so any longer. Now these papers only managed to irk her a little. They simply messed up the place.

After picking up the newspaper, Mina's gaze inevitably swivelled to the nearby jhuggi. When Jagua came out from this jhuggi that Was no larger than a coffin, Mina felt as if Jagua was also squeezed tight inside that little shanty like the newspaper squeezed inside the rubber-band, and that like the newspaper whose rubber "bond" was released by Mina, he too was freed from bondage after he emerged from the shanty and stretched his limbs and little frame.

The house that Mina and her husband had taken on rent was new. Delhi was expanding in this direction and houses were being built here all the time. Many house-owners had erecd foundations for building houses, while many others had kept their houses vacant even after building them. Mina realized that those houses were not lying empty because there were no prospective tenants. In fact, there Was no dearth of tenants in Delhi. But once tenants got in, it was difficult to dislodge them and the house-owners wouldn't be able to move into their own houses when they really needed a place to stay. At present many of these owners were working in some distant places and were on the verge of retirement, or were staying in Delhi itself in some convenient Government quarters from where their offices were near, and the educational institutes for their children also near.

The sparsely-populated locality seemed like a "ghost- town" in some western movie. In fact, even the great market- complex building stood like an epitome of desolation near Mina's home, as if to complete the picture of a "ghost-town." 

After Rajib left for office, a kind of dumb silence weighed down on Mina's breast in this bleak place. Therefore she regarded Jagua and his family living in the nearby jhuggi, as sources of mental solace and companionship. Of course, this  family also vanished in the morning. Sometimes they came back around noon, and sometimes they didn't. After lying down on bed after lunch with a book, Mina pricked up her ears to catch the voice of Jagua and his family instead of concentrating on the book.  Even if they didn't return at noon, they arrived in the evening with great commotion, shattering the  raveyard stillness of the "ghost-town."

Mina and her husband had taken the house on lease for a year after duly paying an advance. However, had they not run into Bharadwaj whom they knew in Assam, the house-owner Vinod Nahata would never have let out his house to them. Vinod Nahata was not only Bharadwaj's friend, he would  also be Bharadwaj's neighbour one day. This was because the land on which Jagua and his family had their shanty belonged to Bharadwaj. Bharadwaj said that once his house-loan was sanctioned he would start building a house on this land, and then Jagua's family would have to leave. So, very soon their jhuggi might be torn down and in its place a splendid house would be constructed, by labourers who lived in  jhuggis like the one where Jagua dwelt with his family.

Mina had never seen shanties like this before. A small structure, somewhat like an Eskimo's igloo, had been put together by scrounging bricks from here and there and layering and binding them with mud. Perhaps an igloo would be larger than this shanty. Mina was astonished: how did Jagua, his parents, younger brother and baby sister enter and live in that tiny house? It was as if Jagua and his family-members shrank in size like the genie in a bottle in an Arabian tale, in order to squeeze into their home. The roof of plastic sheets, torn and tattered gunny-sacks and tarpaulin seemed to further press down the shanty. When Jagua's parents pushed aside the curtain of sacking covering their only door to enter the shanty, Mina got a fleeting glimpse of the interior which was a source of great wonder and curiosity for her. Strange— inside that small cave there was a bed wrapped around with rags in one corner, a small and battered trunk, an aluminum kadai, and a few plates. There was also a locked and covered rusty old tin. One day, when Mina saw flour being taken out of that tin, she realized that the family's most precious possession was hoarded in that eceptacle which was also locked up for good measure. Otherwise there was a possibility that in their absence some pauper or a thief might push through that door of gunny-sacks and pilfer the flour. Who knows, may be something of the sort had already happened in the past, and that's why the tin was locked up. However, after observing the condition of Jagua's family, Mina had the feeling that even a poor thief wouldn't take the trouble to ransack their box.

The family had another possession which lay right near their doorstep, and not inside the jhuggi. This was a chula or a kind oftove, which was lit by Jagua's mother in the evening to make rotis. Once in a while she made some curries too. Otherwise their night's repast consisted only of the rotis. The flames that leaped up from the chula wavered too much to clearly display the features of the family which gobbled the rotis near their jhuggi by the light of the chula's fire. At that time, these dimly seen creatures of semi-darkness presented a prehistoric tableau to Mina. 0 no, not really— Mina thought. Actually they were like ghosts in this "ghost-town."

Not that Mina felt any surge of pity when she saw the frugal meal being eaten. It seemed as if the hot and puffed rotis would be very tasty. Mina herself failed to make such hot and puffed rotis despite her best efforts. Of course, roti and not rice was a staple diet for people in these parts. These people were bound to be more adept at making rotis than Mina.

However, while the hot rotis themselves were inviting, the entire atmosphere was so squalid that Mina felt like throwing up when she really thought about one of those rotis. This spectral lot, wearing dirty rags and with dishevelled and dirty red hair, had made a veritable hell out of the place where they dwelt. Curiosity drew Mina's gaze in their direction, but as her gaze fell on that hell she averted her eyes. The tiny rickety baby might be suffering from malnutrition and may not have enough to feed on, but it was amazing the amount of stool and urine it could evict from its body. They must be feeding her some awful stuff. Although the mother cleaned up from time to time, watery stool often stained the ground near their jhuggi. In the arid climate of Delhi people normally didn't have a problem of running noses, but an unending stream of mucus issued from Jagua's nose. He wiped the mucus on the acks hanging from their roof of plastic-sheets, aggravating the squalor of their hell. Apart from this, a lot of dirty refuse was scattered around the jhuggi. Servants of a few neighbours also dumped garbage, taking advantage of the unoccupied open spaces. Even the ownerless mongrel dogs capitalized on the situation, leaving their excrement on this "no-man's-land." The vegetable-vendors also threw away their withered or rotten vegetables when they reached this spot.

However, Jagua's family didn't impose upon Mina in any way apart from daily announcing their filthy, dirt-poor existence in front of her eyes. Only, Jagua occasionally came and hanging on to the iron-gate, stared at Mina reading a book or sewing on the verandah. At times like these, Mina felt a slight pity for him and went inside to get a biscuit for him.
          
One day, as Mina was giving Jagua his biscuit, Jagua’s mother also came and clutching the iron-gate, asked Mina with a smile about the State from which she came. After Mina satisfied her curiosity, she asked the woman about the State from which she came. Apparently they were from Madhya Pradesh. After her husband died, like many other people she also came to Delhi with her two children, hoping to eke out a livelihood here. However, apart from gaining means to a livelihoOd, she also a gained a husband. The baby at her lap was a gift from this second man in her life. They were now engaged in the construction of the new houses which were being built. Yes, she took her children along, and they purchased something near the site itself and ate. No, there was no great problem. Someone was bound to run at least a temporary eating-joint near these construction-sites. The four of them managed to subsist on what husband and wife earned. However, they had to save a little too for the times when there wouldn't be any employment. When Jagua grew a little bigger, it would be a big relief because he could also be put to work. How did her previous husband die? When he went to gather bullet-shells, one unexploded shell suddenly burst, taking off his head and limbs.

Mina was momentarily stunned by this casual revelation by Jagua's mother. A shudder passed through her body. Only a few days earlier she had read a report on this particular topic. In some part of Madhya Pradesh the police were given fire  arms training. Some of the bullets used for this training didn't explode. The wretchedlyecoor tribals of the State went scouring for these shells and sometimes met with sudden death when the shells exploded in their faces suddenly. 

So Jagua had lost his real father in one of these incidents that Mina had read about in the newspapers.

Mina couldn't while away all her hours in Delhi simply by surveying Jagua's family. In fact, she didn't really see them for more than 10 to 15 minutes a day. Some days she spent roaming around the streets of Delhi. Initially, she couldn't travel alone. If Rajib didn't find some time for her, there was no way she could go out. But she had become familiar with many routes and streets now, and felt no apprehension about riding in buses alone.

What could she do apart from roaming around? Rajib went out early in the morning, and came back around seven in the evening or even later. He didn't always find a bus waiting conveniently for him. In any case, it was a great distance that he had to travel. The supermarket was near Rajib's office, and sometimes he was late because he dropped in there to do some shopping for the home. Because of all these reasons it was only rarely that Rajib could give his lonely wife some company in the evening.

Therefore Mina rode Delhi's buses in an almost aimless manner. The buses hurtled along very rapidly. The bus-stops were well-shaded by trees and very comfortable. Sometimes the bus travelled a long way on a route that was lined by trees and forests and parks on both sides. All told, Mina really enjoyed riding aboard Delhi's buses. Moreover, now it was the middle of March, and it was spring in Delhi. It was not just the pleasant weather which made travelling a joy. The flowers that had burst resplendently into bloom everywhere in the city were a sight for sore eyes, and they animated people's hearts. It was not only in the parks that one could see a carnival of flowers. The hillock which was the circle from which the radial roads led off, was/also transformed into a carpet of colourful flOwers by the conc4ned authorities. Mina gazed at the splendid display of flowers with rapt and admiring eyes, and hummed silently to herself : "Because beauty chants a prayer for blooming the whole night, the morning is chocked with flowers and flowers." Really, Delhi's spring intoxicated Mina.

The columnists who wrote the city-diaries that appeared in Delhi's newspapers, were also ecstatic in their descriptions of the spring and of the riot of flowers. Mina wondered whether these  journalists could identify all the flowers that they named: poppy, pansy, hollyhock, carnation,  ornflower. May be they could, otherwise how could they compare a pansy to Karl Marx's head? 

When Mina started describing these flowers after Rajib returned home, he released a mock sigh and said : "My spring disappears into my office files while you enjoy your spring among colourful flowers. What a difference of fortune between two creatures living in the same house!" When Mina heard Rajib say things like this, the thought somehow strayed into her head that Jagua's family's spring was spent in a far worse manner, because it was spent among bricks, sand, and cement. 

For the last two days Jagua hadn't accompanied his parents to the work-site. He either lay  upine inside their cave of a shanty, or sat among the rubbish in front of their home with a forlorn look on his face. In reply to a query from Mina he said that he had fever, that's why he had to stay at home. Without touching him Mina realized that Jagua was indeed not well, because he had not promptly and greedily bitten the biscuit given to him by Mina but was sitting there clutching it. At the same time Mina also realized that his illness was not severe. Although he was not running around, he had picked among the rubbish heap for pieces of paper, torn rags, and discarded coloured bags of potato chips and cornflower, and with these, had constr ted a toy shanty in front of their own jhuggi. Had he been really ill, he would simply have laid down.

Two days after Jagua fell ill and the day after he erected his toy-shanty, Mina went to the market. Strangely enough, she felt no urge to go. .She felt as if she had left behind her ailing baby berlind to go gallivanting on her own. However, she realized that she was exaggerating her feelings. Therefore she grabbed the shopping-bag and walked to the bus-stand with, a swing in her steps without even looking back at the lonely Jagua.

The market was far away and it took Mina about three hours to come back. This time however she couldn't help darting an anxious glance towards Jagua's jhuggi when she reached home. There was even a little guilt mixed with the anxiety. Then she halted in her tracks. How had spring suddenly bloomed on the door of Jagua's jhuggi? Weren't these red, blue, yellow, and violet flowers and leaves? Which magician's touch had made this possible? When Mina made herself take a few more steps she understood the mystery of the arrival of spring in Jagua's jhuggi.

The sick and lonely boy must have suffered from ennui sitting and sleeping at home. How could his mother sacrifice a day's wages and keep him company? How could she pass a hand across his fevered brow, and distract him from the pangs of illness with terms of endearment? A day's wages — may be it was less than a man's, and far less than what she rightfully should have got due to the unjust machinations of her employers. Nevertheless, they were wages, means to a livelihood. No, the mother could never sacrifice a day's wages simply in order to provide her, son with. love and care. Moreover, the illness was not a threatening one.

That must be the way things had happened. The lonely boy must have got bored stiff keeping himself company. Therefore Jagua had decorated his hut with the multi-coloured brochures that Mina had disdainfully discarded and he himself had carefully preserved, giving the onlooker the illusion that a splash of spring from the city of Delhi had brilliantly decked up this hell.

Mina gazed at the scene without moving for a while. 

(Translated by Pradipta Borgohain)