People come shopping to this house even before sunrise: adults, adolescents, below thirty years, above thirty, nearing forty, above forty even. One of them would come and push open the door for us. The money arrived before we could open our eyes. Money, money, money. You have everything if you’ve got money.
If you have money you’ve got the world at your feet. Only the one with cash is the king. True?
No, it isn’t. In spite of money we had very bad luck. Because the owners went on a strike, vehicles stopped running and we couldn’t get the stuff. Whatever little we had was also finished. It’s painful to watch them now. The man who lived by his wits in order to have the good life had been pushed to the limits of suffering. After enduring the torture, saliva dribbling down his chin, he simply got up and went away. He said he would keep searching until he found it somewhere.
It was late at night when someone knocked on the door.
Tamo, Tamo, ho Tamo, please open the door. It’s me, your younger brother Subhash. Don’t be suspicious. Police, minister, whoever, let me do the talking. You know what your brother’s made of.
It’s true. The police arrest him every time. Only to release him after a few hours. One day because the minister said he couldn’t be released, they didn’t release him. But that evening, Subhash brought the minister with him. The minister had been won over by Subhash. I opened the door and called
Iteima, your younger brother’s going to die. You must give me whatever you’ve got. Love your brother a little, please. What shall I do? There isn’t even a pinch left, Subhash. Your Tamo also left after losing his mind. It has been three days since he had left. I don’t know where he is. Whether he’s dead or alive?
Don’t give me excuses Iteima, you must give me something. I’ll give you all the money you want.
Oh, it isn’t money, Subhash. Please love your brother at least one more time. Even a sachet for ten rupees. What shall I do now? -Don’t you believe me?
Please see if a small packet was left behind in the litter where you used to hide. Maybe between the bricks of that wall a small sachet was forgotten or overlooked. Don’t you love your younger brother just a little bit. Iteima. Your brother is finding it very hard to bear. I can’t stand it anymore.
Your Tamo scoured the place and used up everything. You don’t seem to believe me when I say that he also went away after going crazy.
Then, Iteima, give me a knife or a blade, I’ll cut up my face. I’m suffering a lot, Iteima. I’m in agony.
He fell at my feet, and started crying noisily. Dawn broke
In the courtyard, groups of two or three hung on – some standing, some sitting. It seemed as if death or an illness had struck the house. No one spoke. They didn’t even look at each other. It was the grotesque spectacle of people suffering from wrenching, intolerable pain. All of them in unrelieved suffering were waiting for their Tamo to return. Someone had brought the news that Tamo would come that morning with the stuff. At least ten grams would arrive. “Where has this most powerful white powder come from! What has it done” Looking at their faces, none seemed like a living human being. They all resembled blighted, stricken trees. Somebody came on a bicycle and asked the lot:
|Have you heard? Subhash is dead.
What did you say!
He hanged himself this morning.
What are you saying! Where did this happen?
In his room, Iteima.
Subhash dead. Only last night, no, a few hours ago, clutching my feet. he was crying ‘Iteima I’m in torment… I can’t bear it anymore.’ Then completely shattered he went away. Like a crumbling house, he stepped into that darkness. I was helpless. Sobbing, he asked me to rescue him from his suffering. Subhash, at the hour of death you must have blamed me. But I did no wrong, Subhash, I didn’t wrong you. If I had the stuff I would have surely given it to you.
When did Tamo leave?
More than a couple of days now, it’s the fourth day today.
Whom did your Tamo tell he would come back today?
Didn’t he tell you anything before he left?
Nothing at all. He only said he would look around until he found the stuff.
They all kept very quiet. I examined their faces, one by one. Apart from the withered-leaf looks, I couldn’t find anything. There was a stirring in my mind, as if I should tell them something, but the words didn’t come. A few among them were wiping their tears.
Should we live to suffer? His voice was hypnotic. I was drawn effortlessly like a magnet drawing a small needle. After seeing him I got even more attracted. I couldn’t set myself free. I didn’t know who he was. He called my uncle ‘elder brother’, my aunt ‘elder sister’. What manner of greeting was that – I found it amusing. When I heard his voice for the very first time I wanted to see him immediately. I took a peep from behind the door. ‘Handsome too’. I felt happy inside. Seated on a squatting stool, he spoke with a smile playing on his mouth. He did the talking, and his friends did the listening. Most of the time, he was not accompanied by more than one friend. Sometimes my uncle would sit with them.
One day my uncle wasn’t at home. He and his friend were drinking. My aunt, seated beside them, provided whatever they ordered. They nearly finished a half-bottle. For us it meant business. If they drank more we stood to gain. But if he drank in excess I felt I would lose something. The half-bottle was finished. A posse of policemen entered without warning. My aunt and his friend got up abruptly, while he still remained in his seat. When they saw him, the cop with a star saluted him. ‘Is Saheb also here?’ He replied laughing, ‘I was just relaxing for a while. should I step outside?’ ‘Oh, it’s all right, continue relaxing, please. But today we have the excise people with us. so, elder sister, let’s pay, a brief visit.’
My aunt’s face fell. She kept on looking timidly from one to the other.
He got up slowly and went out with the one with a star. The other cops also followed. It appeared that they left soon after because there was silence. After a while, he returned and sat down again.
Quite a big official too – I thought. His companion said We should go. I feel so ashamed today.
Let’s sit on for a while. (Turning to my aunt) Sister, please give us another half, we’ll leave after that.
He sat down again. completely at ease.
What’s all this about being ashamed. Shame is for silly virgins. Nowadays, even young girls have become very clever.
My god! what’s he talking about. Does he know I have been peeping?
I stopped looking. I slowly sat down on my bed. I was listening to him.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Shame results when you don’t approve of something you’re doing. When you feel it is wrong – then you feel ashamed. Right? Then you won’t earn happiness either. If I keep thinking the food I’m eating is bad and eat it still, if I believe my method of earning is wrong – then I shall never possess what people call ‘happiness’. Wait, tell me for what reason do we human beings live? To suffer?
Have your drink at least- and then continue the lecture- please.
He was silent for a while. He must be drinking his portion of the booze. I can visualize how he must have gone about it. While swallowing, he would smile. Then he would start talking. Is everyone interested in what he says? Does he pick only those who would listen to him quietly, and befriend them?
What we humans seek is happiness. To seek the road to happiness is life. Ascetics, sages, monks, godmen, you name them, all are seeking happiness through the path of their choice. Isn’t it? First man looks for the wherewithal to survive. After finding the means to live, he looks for the way to happiness. To live and to find happiness in everything you do is the honest thing. I would like even Gandhiji to agree on this. The official takes bribes, the minister takes bribes and the police officer takes bribes. The clerk and people of his ilk, all of them. They’ve got to. Money is needed for happiness. All the measures to obtain money are right.
I cannot agree with that at least. But this is the law of the world. Leave aside humans; even insects and mosquitoes crave happiness. It is for the sake of happiness that insects prey on each other and the victor eats up the victim. This is the rule framed by your god.
Would you like to challenge god? Should we humans too turn into insects and mosquitoes?
No, we won’t.
Is he drinking, or has he lost the debate? Why is he silent? Is the other fellow going to defeat him? Isn’t he a voluble talker? He seems to have been beaten by a question. If he was going to be beaten, he should have stopped talking.
Oh, no, he hasn’t.
Why should we become insects and mosquitoes? Man is wiser than all the animals. That’s why, surpassing animals, in a more savage and accomplished style, we humans should kill each other. I don’t want to kill a man right away. I would like, whoever can, to decimate the adversary through tact and cunning.
I hope they don’t quarrel. To win an argument surely he can do without provocative words. His friend seemed to be in good humour. On other days he would speak about magnanimity. The wind was blowing in a different direction today. But he always footed the bill. Others would cajole him into spending. But for his ‘words’ today! How much money does he have anyway to show off like that? If I get the chance I’d tick him off for his own good. It would be nice if he came once when my aunt and uncle were out. But does he even know that I live in this house?
Even when that chance came again and again at my own contrivance, without expressing a word of what I intended to say, I left my uncle’s house with him. Those days, just being near him would make me tremble, stutter even, and now I shout to his face. He does it too. The selfsame mouth that uttered those delightful words now abuses me.
Should I return to my aunt’s? What am I doing? I have dwelt on the question a hundred thousand times. Is this fate? Or foolishness? Of course, it all happened because of my foolishness. How naive I’ve been. Now the right thing would be to look for independent means to live by myself. It isn’t right to continue living in this house. Still thinking about it. I became the mother of two children. Then this house apart. I seemed to have forfeited all the places where I could plant my feet. And now. I have four kids.
He’s a thief. When I discovered that he’s a pickpocket my eldest son was crawling inside my belly.
God, make this child die as soon as it’s born. If I had known some months earlier, I would have finished it off inside my womb. Oh god! What am I thinking? My own womb to become my child’s grave. But isn’t that better? Yes, much better. My son, the son of a thief. Even if a hundred destinies bestowed it I don’t envy this fate. Who would? In this undesirable state, the years just rolled on, one after the other. The police come frequently to this house; sometimes they take him along. Returning, he would say,
Didn’t I tell you? If you have money, everything’s possible. Is it wrong if I divest those asses, of money that they haven’t learnt to keep securely? It’s exactly like picking it up when you find it. The cops take it away from me again, you know that. Everyone likes easy money.
Won’t you think about the children at all? What will happen to them when they grow up?
What’s the use thinking about it? To turn me into what I am, did my parents plan and make it happen? Did I, desiring it, mould myself into what I’ve become?
Who made it happen then?
I don’t want to think about it, stop it. I don’t want to listen.
I don’t know when he ceased drinking. It was a long time since he drank. One day I found him in bed lying on his back in silence. From his expression he seemed to be in some sort of problem. Approaching softly, I sat beside him and asked – ‘What is the matter?’
His eyes only gave me a cursory look. He seemed to be smiling too. I looked at him intently. He isn’t usually like this. What had happened? Something unpleasant must have occurred. But I didn’t know what to tell him. It’s very difficult to talk to him. To his ears, whatever I say is no different from the humming of crickets and grasshoppers. But seeing him, weighed down by thoughts, I couldn’t help being worried. Not knowing what to do. I caressed his breast gently. His hand clutched my palm, and he said smiling – There’s nothing wrong in cheating and swindling. For so long I’ve lived by my wits. Everyone else does it. Only the method differs. But for my own enjoyment should I deceive my children, lie to them – I can’t find the answer to this one. The children are the ones I deceived, even if I feel people are people and the same, my mind doesn’t agree.
Someone called from outside, it sounded like Ibobi.
Tamo. Is Tamo in?
Ibobi? Have you come?
He got up abruptly and went out clutching a shirt.
Once he goes out there’s no telling when he’d return. It seemed he was beginning to love his children a little. O god, please make him a good man now.
Believing that he had stopped drinking and learnt to care for his children I was happy, only to discover that he had graduated to opium. After smoking the stuff outside the house, he began using it at home by keeping a hubble-bubble. Because he had a smoking partner, a sit-in of two or more, before long our house changed from an opium den to an opium shop. The children were growing day by day. What is he up to? Should I live elsewhere with the children? But where should I go? Should I hang myself? There will be relief only if I’m dead. But what will happen to my children after my death? If my children and I die together by consuming poison he would be happy indeed. How long can I live in this condition?
The longer I stayed on, the more the situation became nightmarish. After opium it’s Number Four now. Heroin. I wasn’t aware at what point he switched.
If death is the highest pleasure, this is the second best pleasure after death.
Then should I use this drug myself? I have never seen a costlier intoxicant. I started with a liquor den. Became an opium dealer. Now I am forced to sell Number Four. Only a dewdrop sprinkle of this powdery substance wrapped in a small packet costs ten rupees – Some take ten, some five, or may be only one of this ten-rupee-sachet. I found a few unmarried young women of the neighbourhood also using this drug. They take it from me surreptitiously. Unable to watch their plight I provided them. It was just not possible to deny them. For this panacea, owners of cars, scooters, motorbikes, jeeps, many would come. Very well-dressed people come to the house. Shabbily dressed, poor and trampish-looking ones too seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of cash for this powdery drug. Morning, afternoon, night, invariably. Before sunrise they utter – ‘give me a little’. Late at night, even in the wee hours they come and wake me up, they arrive and express their burning need – ‘we cannot live’. When they get what they are hankering for, happily, very happily they leave.
The strike was over. It’s been six days since vehicles have started running again. Not one of them brought the man who only wanted the ‘good’ life.
Iteima, don’t worry. A man will not die just like that. If anything bad had happened we would have got the news long ago. He must be enjoying himself somewhere.
He is a man who loves pleasure. He must be having the time of his life. Under the spell of drugs, he must be living without a thought for the world. Having steadily advanced on pleasure’s path, maybe there wasn’t any means whereby he could retreat. Maybe he had found the height of pleasure.
Bijay came and said again.
Iteima, we’re gathering information. We’re trying very hard. Don’t worry.
He gave me a packet one day,
Iteima, sell this in small amounts or in bulk, do what you want. Reimburse only the cost price. Use the profit, Iteima. You must not let the children starve.
It’s been the fourth time since Bijay gave me those packets.
Another day he said,
Iteima, hand the stuff out and let them go. Don’t allow anyone to sit until Tamo gets back.
And once he woke me up at night.
Iteima, the cops are after me. I heard they’re also looking hard for Tamo. That must be the reason why he had to go into hiding. I’ve got to keep a little far away- myself for a few days.
What about today?
I don’t know, I can’t stay at home either, I’ll work out something.
Why don’t you stay here?
No, Iteima, as Tamo isn’t around people will talk. Give me a hundred rupees instead. I’ll return the money as soon as I get back.
He left with the hundred rupees.
Often at night I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t help worrying about that debauched man. But as Bijay said if death or illness had occurred I should have got the news. If the police had nabbed him we would have got the news too. But where is he? Should I spend some money on that wise woman Aunt Indu spoke about? If he’s alive he must be having a good time. Can he live happily elsewhere and treat me like a piece of wood that doesn’t feel hunger or thirst? Always thinking about his enjoyment. As if I am not a human being. As if I am not a woman. But where should I look for him?
The nights passed, one after another, nightmarishly, without much sleep. Bijay who went with the hundred rupees, returned. He gave me back the money. He now looks after whatever I lack. Bijay told me:
Iteima, Tamo will surely come back.
Translated from Manipuri by Robin S Ngangom
Manipur is a state in the North-East of India. A place well known for its scenic beauty, Manipur has been torn by secessionist activities the last years. Writers from the region however have expressed anguish over violence and blood-shed, and the trauma of separation that it brings. Yumlembam Ibomcha, in this story, narrates a poignant story of love and waiting. He is a well-known Manipuri poet and short story writer. Recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award for his short story collection Hanglakkanu Wahag Ado Ngagom, Ibomcha writes poetry in English and Manipuri and teaches literature at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong.
Robin S. Ngangom. Writes poetry in English and Manipuri. Teaches literature at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong.