It was a night she would remember all the days of her life. It was the night before the day when the fate of the baby in her womb would be decided. As though it also sensed the turmoil in the mother’s mind, the baby kicked around in the confines of its watery world most of the night, making the mother more agitated. She could hear the even breathing of her mother in the next room, but her father seemed restless. He had got up several times to pass water and walked noisily on the bamboo platform adjoining the back of the house. She heard him clearing his throat and blowing his noise. She wondered if he, too, was crying. But that’s absurd she thought, she had never seen her father cry, even when her elder sister had died. She marvelled at her mother who was sleeping so soundly as though tomorrow was going to be just another day when she would wake up before dawn, cook the daily meal, ear and go to the field to battle with the weeds, trying to coax the crops not to give up on a poor woman and her hungry family.
The pregnant girl, whose name was Imnala, knew what would happen in the meeting the next day, requisitioned by the wronged wife of the man whose child was kicking inside her body. She would be called names of the worst sort, they would point out that she already had a bastard daughter by a man who had even refused to give the child his name, thus telling the world that he was doubtful whether he was the one who fathered it. How it had hurt her when the news was brought to the family that the father of her newborn baby refused to send a name for the child, thus casting aspersions on the mother’s character! He had come wooing her when she was the reigning beauty of the village. Among her many suitors he was the most ardent, overwhelming her with a deluge of expensive gifts and daily visits. He was courteous with his parents, who thought him immensely suitable for their daughter because he came from one of the major clans of the village and a junior engineer to boot. Instead of their strict vigilance when other suitors had come calling, they encouraged the liaison, hoping for an early marriage.
But things began to change from the day he sent word that he been called away on some important business and would as soon as he could. Days went by with no word from him, months. And then news trickled in to the village that Imnala’s suitor had joined the Naga underground army and had gone to China for training. Not only that, it was also rumoured he had taken a wife from the female recruits of the outfit and was living with her in the training camp. The family was devastated, especially Imnala as she knew for certain now that she was pregnant. She remembered how one day he had persuaded her to visit him at his parents’ house in the village where he was staying alone as his parents were living in town at the time and had succeeded in breaking down her initial resistance with words of tender love and passionate advances. From that day onwards, till the day before his disappearance they had met every day and made love in that house. When Imnala expressed her fear of getting pregnant, he assured her that he was going to marry her very soon and what if their first child should come a month or two early; it would still be theirs, wouldn’t it? Completely bowled over by the man’s ardour and pledges of eternal love, she became his willing lover and on the pretext of going to a friend’s house, the spent those heavenly hours with the man she loved and who, she thought, loved her in return.
Imnala was at that time studying in the eighth class in the high school in a town called Mokokchung and was spending her winter vacation at home in the village. She was a beautiful girl and was accomplished in all the arts that a girl of her age was expected to be. She was hard-working too, a fine weaver and a great housekeeper. Her mother was always happy and relaxed when she was at home during vacations as Imnala was a big help nor only around the house but also in the rice fields. But this particular vacation was to change the fortune of the entire family.
Now the very thought of this man brought an ashen taste to her mouth. Her daughter was now four years old and she loved her dearly, but all through these years, she refused to even take the name of the man who not only betrayed her but also humiliated her in the worst manner by refusing to acknowledge the girl as his daughter. But the villagers, who knew what had been going on, said that God shows his own justice to man: the little girl was the spitting image of the renegade father! It was perhaps God’s justice to a wronged girl then, but it was going to be a different story on this particular day when an aggrieved wife was going to bring in charges against her of breaking up a happy family by her promiscuous behaviour with her husband. On such occasions, village custom gave the aggrieved party a lot of leeway: to hurl abuses including physical assault, within a reasonable limit, and imposition of a fine in cash or kind. Most important of all, the fate of the unborn child would be determined on that day, depending on the admission or denial of parentage by the man involved. It would be decided there whether the other woman could claim any child support, or if the child was male, whether he would be entitled to any portion of fie father’s inheritance. Imnala wondered too, if the child were a girl, would she suffer the plight of her elder sister? If a boy, and if the father cast doubts on his parentage, would he have to live with the accursed title, ‘child of the street’? In Ao society for a boy to be thus branded was to become a non-person. He could not claim kinship with any clan and therefore would not be able to sir on any assembly of men when he grew up. If he wanted to marry, whom could he choose, since he was not able to claim membership in any clan? For all practical purposes such persons are effaced from the social network of existence. Imnala was thinking, how could she live on with two such children? What would it do to her ageing parents, especially to her father who was now one of the patriarchs of the clan and who had had a distinguished career as a gaonbura for many years?
It was precisely because of old Tekatoba’s credentials that the young contractor from town, the father of the unborn child, sought him out and persuaded him to be his partner in the road construction work. This young man, whose name was Repalemba, generally called Alemba, belonged to that new breed of high school dropouts who mingled with young engineers and were given small contracts as part of the government’s policy to keep such young boys from joining the underground outfits. Because of his hard work and honest execution of the earlier petty contracts, Alemba had been given this substantial contract for building the road leading to the village. A big contract meant big capital investment, which he did not have and which he knew he could never hope to raise on his own. He was the only son of a poor widow and though he had an uncle in government service, he was only a head clerk in the D.C.’s office with five children to feed. Besides, his uncle had disapproved of his giving up school and scoffed at his ambition of becoming a government registered contractor. They had earlier had a serious falling out over this issue and Alemba would rather die than approach his uncle for help.
So when, he came to the village looking for a partner and approached the gaonbura, the old man at first hesitated: what did he know about contract work, how would he deal with overseers and chase after the bills in the engineer’s office in town? Young Alemba said, “Don’t worry uncle, you can leave all that to me, all that you need to do is to provide the earnest money for the work and some working capital so that the work can be stared immediately.” The old man spoke to his wife about the proposal when he had finished she merely spat into the hearth where they were sitting and said, “Why do you worry me about things that I do no understand? All I can say is, when will you buy the timber for the new house, about which you have been bragging for the last ten years?” He persisted, ‘Alemba said that I can double my investment within a year, then we can not only buy the timber but the CGI sheets as well.’ The old woman got up and said, “Leave me alone old man, I am tired and I am going to sleep. Do what you want.”
In the end, the old man provided the required security deposit or earnest money as they called it and also the initial working capital and the work started immediately as the young contractor had promised. Under the supervision of the enthusiastic contractor, work on the road progressed satisfactorily and he was allowed to submit the first running bill. True to his word, as soon as the bill was passed, he returned half the money that the old man had lent him, saying, “Uncle, this is only half of your capital that I am returning to you now, from the second running bill you will get the rest of it. The final bill will be made after the work is complete. I am keeping all the expenditure accounts so that we can have an accurate assessment of the profit, which we will share on a 50-50 basis.” Old Tekatoba was impressed by the sincerity of the young contractor and replied, “There will be no need to show me your accounts; I do not understand these things. I will happily accept whatever you give me as profit because I trust you.’ After Alemba left, old man chuckled to himself and said, ‘I cannot wait to see the old woman’s face when I bring home the timber and CGI sheets for the new house!”
On the business front, everything seemed to be going on smoothly. But something else was happening in the gaonbura’s household. Every time AIemba came to the village to inspect the work of the labourers, he brought presents for Tekatoba’s young daughter, he brought meat and vegetables for the house and stayed on chatting until the old woman had to offer him dinner. Sometimes he would drop in when the old couple went to the field and chat with Imnala, regaling her with stories of how the girls in town were carrying on with the young officers of the Indian army and adding that it was impossible to, trust any man these days. They could either be working as spies for the army or the underground or may be even double-crossing both for a few bottles of run and a sack of ration rice, which he said was inedible after he had eaten the fine quality of rice in her house. Imnala was flattered that he was giving her so much attention and buying presents for her. Tekatoba knew that he was married and had two young children and so he thought that whatever kindness he was showing to his daughter was purely out of natural pity for an unfortunate girl. But as time went on, Imnala caught herself looking forward to his visits and had to tell herself to be careful about being too friendly with him.
One day when Imnala was lying in bed with a headache and fever, Alemba came to the house. Her mother was drying paddy on the bamboo platform; after a while the old woman said, “Since you are here Alemba, let me go to my friend’s house who is also ill. She had sent word for me to visit her. I won’t be long. So please keep an eye on Imnala till I come back.” This was just opportunity that he was looking for. He said, “Don’t worry aunty take your time, I have to wait for uncle anyway”. After the mother left the house, he peeped into the bedroom and asked Imnala if she would like a cup of tea. He knew that there was a pot of tea already on low fire as was the custom in every village household and all that he had to do was to pour some into a cup and carry it to her room. Imnala was not really thirsty but in order not to offend him, she said, “All right I would like half a cup.” When he entered the room with the tea, he saw that there was nowhere for him to sit except on the edge of the bed because the only chair in the room was piled high with blankets and sheets. He put the cup on a small table near the bed and as he sat down, he noticed that Imnala was disturbed by his presence and was about to say something. Before she could do so, he quickly asked her, “How are you feeling? Shall I massage your head a little?” Imnala, startled by this hint of intimacy, said, “No, no I am all right” and tried to sit up, but when she raised herself she was overcome by dizziness and fell back on the bed. He jumped up and rushed towards her in alarm and instinctively put his hand on her body. A gesture made in momentary confusion was all that was needed to initiate the inevitable. The touch so innocently executed seemed to ignite hidden fires in both and in spite of her awareness that what was happening was not only wrong but also extremely dangerous for her, she gave in to a primeval urging. They made love for the first time on her sick bed. Afterwards, without saying anything, Alemba went out of the room shivering, as though with a fever. When the old woman returned from her visit, she found him dozing by the fire, and when she peeped into Imnala’s room, she found her fast asleep as if the fever had already broken and left her body.
What started almost as an accident grew into an uncontrollable passion for both and in due course, the inevitable happened. Imnala became pregnant out of wedlock for the second time. The village was agog with the news and tongues began to wag: “What can you expect from a girl like that? The old man’s greed has landed him with a second bastard grandchild.” The wicked ones joked, “She too is greedy, you know what I mean?” and they would burst out laughing at their own ribald wit.
After the news of her pregnancy became public, Alemba’s visits to the house became rare and Imnala remained indoors most of the time. When her friends visited her, she tried to tell them that he had forced himself on her. But even while she was saying the words, she herself did not believe this, and years later she would confess to her best friend that it was like a hungry person being offered a feast and that, honestly, she could not resist the offering! And this night she recalled how the touch of a man after so many years seemed to release a hidden spring and how the sense of rejection by a man she had once loved so passionately was being wiped out by the touch of another who was equally persuasive in his ardour. It was as if her body had come alive again and was responding to a natural impulse. Even in the dead of the night when she was thinking of the day ahead, the memory of that touch made her shiver again with remembered sensations.
When Alemba came after a long absence, the old man only enquired when the work would be finished, as though he was anxious to cut off all connection with this young man who had brought this new misery on his family. Alemba was stricken with an acute sense of guilt and rejection at the abrupt words, and tried to explain. But the old man brushed him aside and said, “What is done cannot be undone. I am only thinking about the child.” Alemba understood what the old man meant; it was his way of asking him not to put Imnala in the same position as the time when her little girl was born. The young contractor did not reply. All that he said before leaving was, “Uncle, the final bill is being prepared and you will get your share of the profit very soon.”
“Profit,” the old man thought, “what have I gained from my partnership with this man but shame? My family has once again become the object of ridicule. I have lost face not only among my clansmen but in the entire village. Even the old woman refuses to say anything to me. Her abuse would have doused the fire in my heart, but now her silence is burning me more. As for that no-good daughter of mine, she has the audacity to tell her mother that I am partly to blame for what has happened! She told her that I should have agreed to let her marry the widower when he asked for her hand; at least, she says she would not have to be in this position today. But how could I have allowed such a thing to happen to her? She is young, beautiful and deserves a better husband.” Suddenly he caught himself and sighed, “A better husband? What man will think of taking my beautiful daughter as a wife now?”
The old woman on her way to the field a few days later, was confronted by a relative of Alemba’s wife and told that a meeting of the village council had been requested by the wife to deal with lmnala’s case. This was the first time she heard about it, though It came as no surprise because it was customary for the council to sit over such cases. That evening when she told her husband what she had been told about the meeting, he simply grunted and said nothing.
In the meantime, Imnala had a message from Alemba telling her not to worry about the child, that everything was going to be fine. She felt like tearing her hair out and shouting, “What about me? Is everything going to be all right for me ever again?” Her whole life lay shattered now, her mother had not said a word to her since the discovery of her pregnancy while her father rarely went out now. He sat morosely on the bamboo platform all day. Her brother came one day, only to leave her smarting with shame and hurt at his abuse, her sisters, too, came to enquire how she was feeling, not once mentioning Alemba’s name. Her young daughter became increasingly troublesome, crying and throwing tantrums at the slightest provocation. In short, life became a living hell for everyone in the family.
Then came the day when, as custom dictated, the maternal uncle of Alemba’s wife came to see the old man with the information about the summons from the wife’s family to attend the joint meeting to be held in the presence of village elders. Before he left, he told Imnala’s father, “Make sure that she is there with the customary escorts.” It was not as if Imnala’s father was ignorant of custom, but by saying this, the uncle was merely complying with a social duty. On such occasions, custom decreed that only maternal uncles or cousins on her mother’s side could escort a girl to the meeting.
On the night before this dreaded meeting, the old man told his wife, “Tell that daughter of yours nor to open her mouth too much. Or else she may be slapped with a much bigger fine than we can afford to pay.” The wife retorted, “You tell her yourself. Isn’t she your daughter too? And that rascal. Wasn’t he your partner?” The old man was taken aback by the vehemence of her retort. This was the most direct accusation that his wife had hurled at him. He wanted to shout at her but he had no words with which to counter her accusation. He merely turned his back and pretended to go to sleep. But all sleep eluded him as he recalled the events of the past year and half. Did he purposely ignore the telltale signs when Alemba’s visits sometimes seemed unnecessary? Why hadn’t he told him not to bring so many gifts for the family? Should he have gone into the partnership at all? There could be no answers to these questions except the certainty of the shame and ridicule that awaited the family the next day.
On that fateful day, as usual, the old woman got up as soon as the first cockcrow could be heard in the distance and started to cook. She knew that the all-important meeting would be held only in the evening as was the custom and saw no reason why she should stay back home moping or picking up a quarrel with either her husband or the morose daughter. She might as well get away from the stifling atmosphere at home and put in some useful labour in the field. She ate the morning meal all by herself and prepared to go out. But before leaving, she went to her daughter’s room and hissed at the supine form, “Keep your mouth shut tonight girl if you don’t want the sky to fall on you and the child in your stomach.” Imnala heard her mother but she kept quiet. The old woman went out and collected the usual things for the day, tobacco for her pipe, rice for the mid-day meal, a small dao and a hoe and, picking up her tattered shawl, she went out to join the other villagers heading for the fields. She kept up with the others and even exchanged a few pleasantries with some. Looking at her, no one could have guessed at the emotions churning in her heart making her breathless at times. Beyond the village boundaries, she deliberately slackened her pace and fell back. As she walked alone for a while, all the outward show of normality and nonchalance seemed to abandon her and she slumped down on a boulder by the wayside. The tears that she had willed to stay within, gushed out with such force that she almost choked and she felt that the immense heartache hidden from everyone so far, was clamouring to burst out from the confines of her bruised heart. She had no control over these forces now and sat there alone weeping, for quite some time. She wept for the daughter so helplessly caught in the web of youthful passion; she wept for her husband who had only wanted to build a good house for the family and, above all she wept for herself for being a mere spectator of the sorrow now engulfing them all, including the innocent unborn child. She even thought that she should have persuaded her husband to accept the marriage proposal of the widower for Imnala. Now she recalled what her mother used to say: “Remember, in our society a woman must have the protection of a man even if he happens to be blind or lame. A woman alone will always be in danger.” At that time she had simply laughed but now the words came back to haunt her as she sat there weeping for her daughter. She got up quickly when she heard voices approaching, and composing herself, walked away quietly before the latecomers could catch up with her.
For Imnala, it was another dismal day. Her daughter had suddenly developed a fever and was crankier than usual. She noticed that her father merely pecked at his food, which he served himself. Normally it was she who would serve him and fuss over him if he did not eat properly. Today, everything had changed: her fate hung in the balance, she would have to face and bear the scorn and abuse of Alemba’s wife and the censure of society whose balance of justice always tended to tilt against the woman. A married man was equally guilty, but today she would be the sole accused. Even then she was strangely calm. She discovered that she no longer dreaded the outcome of this meeting; some mysterious energy was working in her and she was determined to face her accusers with her head held high. ‘Come what may,’ she thought, ‘I shall devote my life to bringing up these two children in the best way I can. I shall finish my high school, get a job and educate them. I shall spend every ounce of my energy so that they have a better life than mine.’ These thought seemed to revitalise the woman who had only a few hours ago, grappled with fear and utter despair in the darkest night of her life.
Imbued with energy derived from this new vision of life, Imnala swept the house, cooked the mid-day meal and managed to soothe her daughter so that, as the day progressed, the fever came down and she was a happy child once again. Towards evening, Imnala took a long bath and wore her best clothes. The father was surprised to see the change in his daughter but pretended not to notice anything out of the ordinary. The mother came home in the evening to a clean and spruced up house but she too, said nothing. She merely washed up and took her usual seat by the fire to drink tea and smoke her pipe.
When the maternal uncle came, accompanied by a cousin, Imnala was ready. The mother gathered the grandchild to her and watched her daughter in silence. The father got up to greet the escorts and taking the uncle aside to the bamboo platform at the back, said to him, ‘Whatever the council decides tonight will be something your niece has brought on herself. I ask nothing of you but that you will bring back my daughter’s body to me when everything is over.’ Behind these harsh and seemingly callous words lay the fervent but indirect appeal of the father, which actually meant, ‘Please protect my daughter as best you can. See that they do not abuse her physically.’ There were instances where under similar circumstances a girl’s hair was chopped off and her clothes stripped off ‘to shame her’. The uncle did not say anything and the old man stood there alone, long after the parry left the house.
It was not known immediately what actually transpired in the meeting. They only said that Alemba behaved like a ‘true man’ and managed to keep his wife’s party from being too belligerent and abusive. Apart from this, no one was willing to say anything more. Very early the next day, the villagers saw Alemba and his wife going off from the village to their old life in the town.
When Imnala was brought back home by her uncle, the father once again got up to greet the parry. Only the uncle spoke to him briefly and the old man thanked his brother-in-law for having fulfilled his customary obligation and said “You have restored my daughter to me whole and for this may her clan never forget your great service. You have upheld the honour of her mother’s clan in a fine manner. May the bond between our two clans ever flourish.” With only a nod of his head in acknowledgment, the uncle silently walked out of the house accompanied by the cousin.
Left to themselves now, the family did not say anything to each other, bur unlike many previous nights, they sat down to eat their meal together, as though by mutual agreement. Though the meal was the usual fare, every one seemed to savour it as though it was a feast. Imnala even fussed over her father and coaxed him to eat more, knowing fully well that he was only pretending when he said that he was not hungry. There was no talk during the meal but each one of them seemed content in the knowledge that the dreaded storm had come and gone, leaving them only a little dishevelled in its wake. After a long time, all three of them, Imnala, her mother and father welcomed the hour of sleep because they knew that there would be no dreadful spectres to haunt them from now on.
It was as though a festering wound had finally ripened and erupted, letting all the pus and bad blood out of the system. The pain remained, but at least the threat of fatality had passed. The breath-choking, mind-numbing agony suffered by the whole family seemed to ease off, leaving only a dull ache where it had once throbbed so relentlessly. Nevertheless, even if the pain should eventually diminish and disappear, the scar left by the wound would always remain on them like a disfigurement.
Imnala’s life would never be the same again; she would have to fend for herself and her two ‘illegitimate’ children as best as she could. She would have to bear the stigma of being an unwed mother all her life. She knew that her parents would never abandon her, but there was nothing she could do to wipe away their un-shed tears or answer their silent recriminations. The one consolation amidst the chaos of her life was that her unborn child had been given the right to call someone ‘father’ in a society where acknowledged paternity was crucial for a person born out of wedlock. In spite of this social ‘insurance’ for the child, Imnala was aware that there would be many difficulties for her and her children. But she was determined to take life one day at a time, and tonight, despite all her apprehensions about the future, she would sleep well because her unborn child had heard the father say, ‘You are mine.’