Every morning Gauri Pehi rose at dawn and rushed through her routine work. Getting up, she would sweep the house, the courtyard, take a hurried bath and then enter the kitchen. She would keep mumbling to herself as she fried fritters for breakfast. After everybody had finished breakfast, Gauri Pehi would start her second phase of work: chopping vegetables or cleaning fish. Sometimes she would sit for a while and rebuke somebody. At times she would cry and sometimes laugh. After everybody in the house had started with their daily chores, she would sit under the margosa tree till she got her call for lunch.
It was not always like that. When Pehi’s mother was alive she hardly had any time to rest. Her mother was bed-ridden for years and bedsores covered her body. Pehi’s time passed nursing her mother. Now after her death, she had these few hours for herself.
All the fifty years of her life, Pehi had spent shunting between the kitchen, the courtyard and the margosa tree. That such a day would come to her life was beyond people’s imagination. The light and dark crevices of her mind were in utter confusion. There Pehi was sitting on her haunches. Today was altogether a different day for Pehi. Since morning, she had not entered the kitchen. Her breakfast was brought to her bedside, and they gave her warm water to bathe in the bathroom! Her sister-in-law made her bed and her brother came to enquire about her meals. This undue importance seemed intolerably intriguing, and confused Gauri Pehi.
Pehi was sitting on the bed. Lifting her mekhela, her hand touched the tiny white spot on her thigh. For fifty long years the spot had been in the same place – the size of a small pea. She shuddered. Pictures started racing before her mind’s eyes. She was then a girl with long, lustrous black tresses. Pehi saw herself as a bride. A stout man was dragging her from the room to the courtyard, the bride pulling her sador to cover her head, her teeth gritted to regulate her sobs. The man left her sprawling on the courtyard. He roared like a lion. “They have cheated me into marrying this diseased woman.” A few neighbourhood women came to watch the scene. The man tried to raise the woman’s mekhela to show the cause of his anger, but the bride pulled it down with all her might. A middle-aged man strode to her and grasping her long hair shook it vigorously. “This witch – she has come to ruin my son’s life!” She slowly lifted her mekhela and now the pea-like spot was clearly visible in the sun. Everybody shouted in unison, “Come on, send her away!” “Go and leave her at her father’s place.” “Don’t let her take anything!” “Keep all the ornaments we gave her for her joron!” She cried helplessly and the man now dragged her outside the gate.
“Ma…… has she taken her bath?” Outside Pehi heard the manly voice. Her brother’s wife came in. “Gauri, what are you doing? Gautam has already taken out the car, and you are still not ready!” Her younger brother’s wife gave her a new pat mekhela and a sador with a border. “You need not wear that dress. Wear this.” Her elder sister-in-law handed her an ivory box. “Ma had left your ornaments. You can take them with you.” “Pehi, wear your light gold chain. You will be going with your son, in his red Maruti. You should at least wear something on your neck.” Her niece said. She had come from her in-laws to bid farewell to Pehi.
Pehi stepped out of her room towards the well, but her sister-in-law stopped her. “I have put warm water in the bathroom. You will also find the soap.” Pehi lifted her head to say something. Before marriage she bathed in the bathroom but after her return they had stopped her from doing so and had written her off as a mad person. “Mad woman! God only knows what she would do in the bathroom.”
Pehi poured a mug of water. Then taking the fragrant, white-cake of bathing soap, she hesitated. As if the touch of water inflamed the pea-sized white mark!
Pehi again emerged as the new bride – the beautiful girl with the bright, golden-yellow complexion. Five times they had chased her away, and five times she had been sent back. The fifth time she took with her a fair, chubby baby boy. Again they sent her back, keeping the baby. She did not want to leave behind her baby. The man had a difficult time in sending her away. Locking up the baby in a room, her mother-in-law spattered filthy words at her. They tied her with a rope and put her on the back of a bullock cart. The nineteen-year-old nursing mother implored, begged and cried out her heart, but to no avail. Her plight made even the cart-driver shed tears. She made a vain effort to loosen the rope, she bled. Milk dripping from her breasts mixed with blood, showed on her sador.
Pehi came out of the bathroom. The whole neighbourhood was there, especially the womenfolk. Someone combed her partly grey hair and made her wear the new dress. Pehi sat among them like a stone statue.
They did not see her retreating to her past. Fate had indeed dealt a heavy blow on her. She yearned for her little one. When people from her husband’s place came, she sent word through them. “If he marries again will he give me back my son?”
Throughout she saw her sister-in-law bearing and rearing children. She waited and waited for years. And she became a mad woman. She started mumbling to herself, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, sometimes shouting at others. Yet nobody came with the news of her son.
Her sisters-in-law and her niece were packing for her. Her niece was saying. “How can she go in one dress? What will a mad woman….” Pehi’s elder sister-in-law stopped short when she saw the handsome man watching them. “Ma, are you ready? Let’s go then. We have a long way to go!” Pehi stared at the young man. The sight of the chubby baby flashed before her mind’s eye. Who would say that the handsome, bespectacled man was her son?
Pehi sat still. Someone was tying her hair into a neat bun. Pehi felt as if some unknown hand was rubbing away the vermilion from the parting of her hair, taking out her bangles and dressing her in a white garb. How many years had passed by?
Pehi’s luggage was loaded in her son’s car. The womenfolk sat surrounding her. Romola Jethai remarked, “It’s Gauri’s sheer luck that she can die at her husband’s place!” Now, they were talking about her son. “How handsome Gauri’s son is! Like a prince. Not only that – he is also a famous doctor. Poor thing, had to grow up tortured by a step-mother.”
Somebody wanted to force Pehi into the car. “No no no”, she forced her way out of the car. “Mama, I wonder whether I am doing the right thing taking her away. All these years she had stayed with you, the last days of her life…?”
Pehi’s sister-in-law came forward. “No….., no, its alright. She is fortunate. At least, she would die, staying with you. All these years we have kept her.”
Pehi’s two younger brothers were standing next to each other. A stench touched their nostrils – the smell of their mother’s bed sores. The mad Gauri had nursed her. Suddenly everybody grew excited to put Pehi inside the car. Pehi wailed, she sobbed. No ….. no, she did not want to go. The picture of a bullock cart floated before her eyes. The cart-driver standing with a pair of white and black bullocks, the shrill cry of the baby, the nineteen-year-old girl tied with a rope and left in the cart. A strong hand held her pinioned to the cart, Pehi making a vain effort to set herself free. The soothing security of the margosa beckoned her. It stood like a beam of light in her otherwise dark world. She cried out shrilly, “No…….. no…… no!”
The handsome young man looked at the old woman on the rear seat. He frowned. Was it a mistake? Pehi’s father had bought a plot of land in her name right in the middle of Guwahati. The thought brought some sort of solace to his mind. Everything was ready. Only a thumb impression and then a house, a chamber and a nursing home in future. The car started moving.
Pehi was wailing now. In her subconscious, she heard the cry of a baby. “No no no!” The young man looked again. How would Namita put up with her! Even if she did, what will people say? It is alright, something should be done. He had already told his uncle that his mother needed treatment. He would send her to a mental asylum. Who would blame him? Yes, she should be treated!
The waiting women near the gate let out an uruli.
Translated from Assamese by Snigdhamalati Neog