In March the winds blow hard in these hills, crisp and cold, defying the early-spring sun.
Riiaka, eyes half shut, clutched her sheaf of papers and her handbag tightly and braved the wind with determined steps. She had no choice but to let her jainsem flap freely on her lithe body, like a bird in panic.
It was one of those days she left her registers at home and had to write her class notes on borrowed paper. In the great hurry, for she overslept, she couldn’t find matching tights to wear beneath her skirt to match her jainsem. Riiaka enjoyed wearing trousers and salwar kameezes but not so long ago the locality boys had sent threatening messages to all the college going girls to avoid wearing ‘foreign clothes’ or else…. Riiaka wasn’t quite sure about the status of trousers, so a few still hung casually in her cupboard. The salwar suits were quickly tucked away deep inside a huge trunk under some old curtains.
Riiaka had passed the Main Post Office, the banks and was about to reach the photo studio opposite the old Presbyterian Church, when the wind suddenly swept her papers down unto the ground. As she watched them floating in mad ballet swirls, her jainsem lifted up to her armpits and blinded her. She closed her eyes tight, steadying her legs and her nerves, angry, embarassed. Her nails dug desperately into her bag which contained five hundred precious rupees for her weekend shopping on the way. Some pork and vegetables for the family and fruit for herself. The season of oranges was over and her mother and grandmother had stopped eating fruit. They will now wait for the plum and pear trees to bear fruit. Riiaka was different. She could never do without fruit. So she will buy some papaya and grapes and pomegranate from the Bengali fruit vendor in Police Bazaar. “She’s different” her grandmother would mutter, smiling. Her mother would nod and keep the fruit in a bowl made in China, rimmed with red hibiscus.
Riiaka could feel the human traffic sail past her, defying the wind. She pulled her jainsem down impatiently, confused, angry, as her bag thudded on the pavement. As she reached out for it, bending, another pair of hands brown and strong got there first. She watched them lift up her bag and in the process noticed the black Bally’s that shone like a mirror, the grey flannel trousers, the navy blue blazer and the amused brown-black eyes and tousled mop and then a voice. The voice seemed to have travelled from a long distance and emanated the warmth of honey and woodsmoke, the fragrance of musk and cigars. ‘Here you are, your papers, all of them. Some have got a little dirty but….’
“Thank you, thank you, it’s okay. My goodness, really nice of you, thanks …bye.”
“You’re frozen. Come let’s have a cup of tea some where….”
“What? No, no, please. I had tea in college before I left. Lots and lots of tea and singharas and lalmohans. Thank you, bye, bye.”
“Oh! OK. Your jainsem is so beautiful. I love blue, it’s my favourite colour.”
Riiaka fled. She raced down the pavement without looking back. She didn’t stop till she had crossed over into police Bazaar and mingled with the sea of people. She walked quickly clutching her bag, her papers and her fear close to her heart. What if some of her locality boys had seen her talking to a ‘dkhar’, a plainsman, an outsider. Whet explanation will she give? If they want to harass her they will pretend they don’t believe her. That’s all. There was no one to protect her — no father, no mama, no brother. Her brother, Ribok, walked out of the house after a massive argument with her mother. Riiaka’s stomach churned and tears welled up at the memory. “Mai was wrong, so wrong, so wrong, Why didn’t I speak out?” How could she? How could she refuse to hawk part of the property for the loan Bah wanted? Starting a Car Care Centre was his dream. He is a boy – so what, so what? Mai, so what? He, too, is your child. What tradition? In a world where money has replaced all values, things have to change Mai…. How could you? She was leaning against a pillar near Dreamland Cinema, tears streaming down her face. The kind-faced Marwari who owned the shop took out a clean handkerchief and gave it to her. “It’s the wind, beti, it’s the wind. So much grit in your eyes. Good for you, beti, if it all comes out.” Riiaka smiled weakly and thanked him. She walked down the dark, dank steps slowly, counting each one, to divert the pain inside to unknown alleys.
Captain Vinod Sarin walked down to the Ward’s Lake and watched the water lillies changing colour in the fading light. He walked slowly trying to sort out his scattered thoughts but the wind kept whipping him, disintegrating each word into smithereens. He crossed the pretty bridge that spanned the waters, climbed up the slope and sighed with relief at the welcoming sight of some shelter from the onslaught of the wind. The little bar in the Pinewood Hotel was empty but bright and cosy as he sipped the warm brandy. Slowly his thoughts began to settle down. Vinod smiled. He saw, all over again, the perfect body sailing, almost, with the wind, blue, cornflower blue jainsem flapping on it like seagull wings, the little heart-shaped face, dark brown eyes (so much like his) and lips that pouted vulnerability and warmth. He loved the way she got nervous and rattled off the goodies she had devoured for tea at her college canteen. The way she referred to samosas as ‘singharas’ and gulab jamuns as ‘lalmohans’. He found it so charming, so North Eastern. His heart pounded as he took out a piece of paper from his wallet and quickly scribbled what he could remember. Name – Riiaka Synrem – College – St. Mary’s Class – IInd Yr Pol. Science, Address – Hazlemere Cottage, Jaiaw. There was something else after Jaiaw. He searched his memory desperately but to no avail. He summoned the young Khasi waiter. “ I am not Khasi, Sir, I am Garo. Wait, I’will call Cyril, he’s Khasi.” Cyril solved his problem. It was Langsniny, Jaiaw Langsniny. It was a tough job for Vinod to memorize all these facts as he gathered the dancing papers on the footpath for the girl in the blue jainsem.
It was tough but worth it for, at last, Vinod was sure of one uncertainty – who he wanted to marry. It felt a little crazy. A wee embarrassed he looked around the room in case some one had read his thoughts. Tonight he would ring up his father in Jalandhar and tell him to stop looking for prospective ‘ bahus’. Mala Buaji especially should be firmly informed of his decision. He chuckled at the thought.
Riieka opened the white wrought iron gate and waded through the heap of fallen leaves speckled white with pear blossoms that the wind had brought down. She rang the bell and stumbled in right into her grandmother’s ample bosom.
“Sorry, sorry Meirad, sorry….”
“It’s all right, It’s all right, but why are you so pale darling? Iris ko Iris, make Ri some tea, she’s freezing. So what if you didn’t get the pork darling. I’ll make some vegetable stew with shrimps, all right? You have to eat well. You have to dance next month in the Shad Weiking. Next year is a long way and may be, may be you’ll no longer be able to dance, no darling? What do you say?”
Her grandmother gathered Riiaka in her arms and chuckled happily in anticipation of a possible wedding in the house.
Only virgins participate in the after-harvest thanksgiving dance held annually during April and May. Riiaka and her brother danced every year except once when the family was still mourning the death of her only ‘mama’. They also danced in neighbouring villages and in their native town, near the Bangladesh border. Virgin girls and also boys and men of all ages, gorgeously arrayed in silks, velvets and brocades and jewellery of gold, silver and coral move reverently to the music of the traditional pipes and drums. The Shad Suk Mynsiem (Dance of Peaceful Hearts) is the only form of community worship among the Khasis. Those who are not converted into other religions and who worship one God (U Blei) who is imageless and formless, who is Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Omniscient.
“Of course I’ll dance, Meirad. Of course, I will. I only wish Bah was also here”.
“Quiet Ri, don’t mention your brother’s name in this house. He left, didn’t he? He got married to a Christian and left.”
“Meirad, that’s not true, you know it’s not true. You and Mai refused to help him… his wife is a lovely woman….”
“Quiet, quiet. Have your tea and take a little rest. This weather has unsettled you.”
Riiaka swallowed her words and her tears. She had had a long discussion with her cousin, Saralin who was a junior lawyer. Traditional laws were separate, she had said and it all depended on the elders of each family, especially the maternal uncles. They can decide how much the sons of the family should inherit. Her only ‘mama’ was no more. She would start attending the clan meetings, Riiaka decided. She would consult the elderly mamas of the clan. That was the other alternative, the only one.
She sipped her tea. Suddenly her teeth chattered and her hands shook spilling brown stains on her blue jainsem. Supposing some locality boys had seen her talking to the ‘ dkhar.’ ‘Dkhar’. All at once, brown black eyes floated up meeting hers and she could smell the strong aroma of woodsmoke and honey and musk and cigars, fragrances so strange yet familiar, so distant yet so close. She hugged herself and looked around the room in case a prowler had read her secret thoughts.
His father said he needed time to think. In fact, he said Vinod should think even harder. It was his life and the whole episode– for God’s sake– sounded so unreal and the huge decision based on it so immature, so impractical. Vinod kept quiet right through the tirade. Deep inside, he was so grateful that his father didn’t, as feared, scream his lungs out and write to the Commandant. His father was so calm.
After a week Brigadier Vivek Kumar Sarin rang up his son to ask if better sense had prevailed. Vinod replied in the affirmative. He was even more sure of his decision. He had been watching the girl going in and out of college, followed her to her house in a borrowed scooter (but didn’t go in) and had spoken with her twice over the phone. She shared the same interests as Vinod .. reading and music , cooking and gardening, the outdoors and Yoga. Yes, she loved salwar kameezes and tandoori chicken. She knew where Dalhousie was and could even spell it.
His father’s response was silence. A long silence that refused to break even after Vinod kept shouting “Daddy can you hear me? I love you. Take care.”
Finally, infuriated he e-mailed his father — “Daddy, you are so dry. So unromantic. Your life is one straight line. How would you know what true love is. True love happens like this. Yours was an arranged marriage but Mai, she was an artist, she would understand. I wish she was here. All the same I love you Dad. Try to understand.”
Riiaka bolted her bedroom door and put on the heater. Then she removed the cover from the trunk, unlocked it and creaked the lid open. Out came eight nine curtains quickly flung unto the floor, her hands shaking. Riiaka looked carefully around her room checking each curtained window with her eyes. Satisfied that no one could possibly peep she took out a pale pink and lilac salwar kameez suit from the trunk. She spread it out on the bed and stroked it gently, straightening it. Then she removed her ‘ jainkayrshah’ and the dress and did a little pirouette towards the dressing table. Brushing her hair vigorously till it shone. She coiled it into a French bun at the nape of her neck. A newly bought Lakme ‘Kaajal’ darkened her eyes and made them even brighter and larger. She used a pale pink lipstick to match the suit. Then, soundlessly, holding her breath she stepped into the salwar and knotted it and let the kameez slide down her body down to her knees before she zipped it up. The ‘dupatta’ she flung around her like a long scarf. The pink flecked with gold lit up her face, a face that glowed like an autumn sky.
Riiska lifted the dupatta and moved it around letting the colours play in the light. Yes, lilac was closest to blue since she didn’t have a blue suit. From a little oval-shaped mother of pearl box she took out a ‘ bindi’. As she looked at the mirror she saw nothing else but a little blue circle dotting her forehead. Her eyes had filled up and her whole being was enveloped in the aroma of woodsmoke and honey and musk and cigars.
Captain Vinod Sarin opened his mail not a week but nine days after he spoke with his father. Brigadier Sarin sounded very happy and buoyant and sent his best wishes and promised a visit in May-June when the heat sets in the North. After some home town news he ended with a longish paragraph “Vinod, you called me dry and unromantic. You are wrong, my son. I too, got hit by a whirlwind once and that also in Shillong. What a coincidence son! She was a beautiful Khasi lady, a widow, who worked as a stenographer in our office. She had just joined. I was getting posted out and your mother had left with you, as you had to join Prep School. It was crazy of me and I felt terrible for the lady and when I had to tell your mother Vinod, a girl was born out of that union, that dreamlike summer infatuation or whatever you choose to call it. Vinod, I would like, if it’s all right by you, to meet her and her mother when I come in the summer. 1 don’t remember the exact address but she, too, lived somewhere in Jaiaw. Try to find out. The name of the house was Hazlemere Cottage, the lady’s name was Iris. Love Daddy.”
BIJOYA SAWIAN. Is a creative writer and translator of traditional Khasi literature. She is the author of The Teachings of Elders and has compiled a collection of Khasi folk tales for the Sahitya Akademi. Has contributed greatly to bringing Khasi writing to the mainstream.