Memories are tricky. Some titillate you, some waft in like the smell of fresh bread from the oven, and some draw you back in time, just to remember a forgotten name.
My memories of Borkhola are tinged in various shades of green. Of fresh tea leaves, mostly. And the smell of sweat when I played with the Santhal boys, just behind our tea estate, where the laborers lived. The Santhals were brought to the British tea estates in the late 1800s, but they remained indigenous. Living on the fringes of a small village, bordering the jungles, they were the first to face the wrath of the elephants and lose their children to the leopard cats. They danced around the fire at night, and the jungle beat of their drums could be heard reverberating in the hills. The memory of that rhythm is fading.
The winter memories beckon, of the empty paddy fields, the tea gardens in the hills, and of Nara Tilla, the single barren hillock that I could see from my terrace. It can't be far, I thought to myself, and I must roll down Nara Tilla one day. That seemed like a singular purpose for the longest time in my boyhood. I can't remember having any such concrete goals in my adult life now.
A laborer's boy and I had gone in search of that lonely hillock one day, just to roll downhill. The journey to the hillock was arduous, although it didn't seem so far. And on the way down we went over the touch-me-not bushes at breakneck speed. The fever that followed lasted 18 days. There are memories of Ma removing the tiny thorns from my body. That pain is still palpable. I can almost feel the harsh edges of the thorns under the skin of my palms, close enough to pull out but deep enough to hurt. Just like it hurt when she walked out the door, taking a part of my soul with her.
I can't remember the name of the boy, though. He tied a red thread around my wrist when I was leaving Borkhola. Protects you from the baghdasha, he said.
Thirty years later, I had never seen a leopard cat in my life.
***************************** After Ma passed, I had not gone back to Silchar, but the winter offer on the return flight was irresistible. Everything seemed to have changed in Borkhola. There were so many more shops. "There's a big mall coming up near the bazaar," I was informed, but I went walking to the Santhal village. There was Nara Tilla in the distance, and I could see a trail of smoke coming up from the village. As I approached the gathering of men and women around the fire, an acrid smell of burning flesh hit me. There was a dead animal hung above the fire, and everybody was cheering. The fur was burnt black, and the body had gone stiff. One man was turning the body with a long stick, to ensure it gets cooked evenly.
"Sujan, isn't that you?" I heard a man calling out my name. He was a bearded man, squatting a few feet away from the crowd. "Am Ramdass, do you remember me?" There was Ramdass, my childhood friend and ace archer. He taught me how to make a bow and build two kinds of arrows. The thotti is to stun, and the gajal is to kill with piercing. I didn't have to tell him about my failing memory, so I just smiled and sat next to him.
"Nara Tilla, Ramdass, how can I forget? What are you people up to? Aren't the forests officials going to trouble you later?
"Oh, it was a baghdasha that we trapped after almost a month. It had taken away three babies last month from us," he muttered, "Dushman, dushman. The forest babus will turn a blind eye."
"I heard you've become a sadhu, Ramdass? That you are a clairvoyant of sorts?"
He smiled, exposing his burnt sienna teeth. "You've grown shorter than you were, Sujan. And don't worry, she will come back one day, only you have to unburden yourself of her memories first. But when she comes back, you won't want her anymore."
***************************** I don't know how one can "grow" shorter, but something tells me it means I lack the vision of a taller man, who can see clearly till the horizon, where the sun sets behind Nara Tilla.
(a story by Sujan Bhattacharjee)