Fear of Death and Endless Sorrow
My elder sister and I used to sleep together on a two-and-half-feet broad wooden plank as hard as iron with our heads laid on the same pillow. I mistook my own sister Guna as the daughter of my uncle, Padmeswar. The villagers too teased as her Padmeswar’s daughter because she was Fair-looking and blonde like our uncle. She was very close to me and I joined her in all pretty details of her household work and preparation of her favorite dishes, for I took her for my cousin was afraid that she might desert me at any moment. She was my constant companion in all my activities right from games and sports to going to school. While on bed at night I used to put one of my legs across her waist-this habit of mine still remains. Sometimes my heart palpitated and a long shudder passed over my body when my uncle talked of taking her away. An inexpressible sadness haunted me because of a mysterious fear of missing her forever. I got up at night after she had fallen asleep and began to watch her very intimately from her head to feet in the dim light of the kerosine wick. Rather hesitatingly I stroked her toes and fingers, and repeatedly observed whether or not they resembled those of my own. Surprisingly enough, even in those early days I found out a sort of resemblance in her little finger, and the projecting itself as hillock like that of mine. I brought my little fingers to a slight contact with hers: rubbed my nose very carefully with her nose without waking her up. One day while I was doing it my sister made a jerky movement in her sleep. At this I burst in to tears and she too woke up and joined me, ‘what’s wrong with you, my brother? What’s the matter?’ I still do not know why I began to weep. I was perhaps a child irrational fear of death-a deep-rooted fear of missing my dear sister. For the sake of dispelling such a fear that haunted my mind I whispered to myself, ‘Oh! the moon and the sun, you must not take her away from me. I shall give you anything you want in return…’
A deudhai observed, ‘Her days are numbered, there is now no use of crying for her. The witch doctor coming from a far-of region said, ‘The winding thread of her reel has just come to its end. It is now God’s wish that she should be released from her earthy confinement and go back to her abode.’ Groaning on her death bed she frequently pointed to her head. She ran a high temperature with a splitting headache. She could not speak and the tears that rolled down her checks stained the white bed-cover with spots. In my later age the facts of her death haunted me. Once during my university days, when I had been hospitalized at the medical college for typhoid her memories aroused in me the fear of death.
The day of her death brought to me an extremely disturbing experience of my early childhood. A haunting fear of death stayed with me all along like a sadness. Before her death I had neither witnessed death nor understood it. Instead, I remained assured that a man died only in his old age. But her premature death frightened me with a fear of death as all my beliefs had proved wrong. Eventually the situation had got such a turn that two young boys (Rajen and tutu) guarded me
All the time moving beside me like a shadow. I startled even at a gentle call from behind and rather unconsciously cried aloud. The elder sister of my father kept a rust-coated clasp knife and an iron ring hanging from my neck in an attempt to dispel my fear. I was also asked to keep beside my bed blunt siakle. The young boys who guarded me all through had been with me for two or three years. Gradually I developed a profound intimacy with them, for Rajen could nicely play the nicely bamboo flute and sing, Tutu had the natural ability to amuse people by jesting with sprightly sense of humour. Surprisingly, in those tender days I could appreciate the sound of the flute and the song and the magic melodies made my fear- ridden mind temporarily free from its woes and worries. It was also for the first time in my life that I spoke slang learnt from them because thy often uttered certain words and sentences before me which I had not heard till then. I came to know in later years that those words had been the slang words not use in civil society.
The death of my sister Guna caused my mother to weep bitterly. She lamented in the tune of traditional Missing ballad (caban) and I also wept inconsolably with her. The nature of our weeping was sometimes different. It was a kind of blending of anger and woe which sometimes made me rather exasperated. I broke anything into pieces either by beating it down or throwing around. Sometimes I would knock my head against anything because of some inner disturbance I felt. My head still bears many such injury-marks. When ceaseless weeping rendered me unconscious, people picked me up and laid on the bed. The real understanding of death slowly dawned on me when people washed her body, shrouded it with a piece of white cloth and were waiting to bury it.
Guna was in fact my own sister—A child of my mother and the daughter of my father. She was not, as I thought, my cousin. This fact made me all the more sad and an inexpressible feeling silently tortured me more than the cause her death. Even today I cannot forget that heart-rending grief. What I came to know in my latter years is that she was sold to my uncle in return for a pair of battle-nut and leaf and a coin (valuing a quarter of a rupee). Our family traditionally believed that one could get rid of diseases by such practices. That is why each and every child of our family was sold ceremonially to others in expectation of our good health and spirit. It was treated as a special custom in our family to visit buyer-families on special festive occasions such as bihu with a bagful of areca-nut, betel-leaf, snacks, Apong and so on. We were to offer a respectful bow at their feet.
The ripe figs were among the favorite fruits of our early childhood. We moved around in crowds to it them. One need not do much labour to it figs for they were up for grabs at arm’s length. But I’ve not any taken fig since the day of her burial at a place under a fig-tree encircled by clumps of bamboos. After her death, a couple of years later I happened to see her grave while accompanying our domestic help to the bamboo-grove to cut some mature bamboos.
Ripe figs had fallen from the tree and covered her grave like a carpet. The juice oozing out of the cracked pale- reddish figs flowed to the ground. This sight reminded me of my sister’s agonized face on her death-bed. The fig-juice seeping out of the cracked figs brought to my mind the early image of tears rolling down from her left eye. The inconsolable woes of bygone days once again assailed me from some dark unknown recess of my heart. I burst into tears and wept in tune with the hacking of bamboos by the boy. The fibers of the ripe figs looked like the congealed forms of her heart’s agony. The pains that she could not express on her death-bed seemed now to have burst out. Even, now in rainy seasons, when I see figs, green or ripe, floating, in the rain puddles, they seemed to me like her eyes drifting aimlessly. I had hardly overcome the grief when my younger brother, Bhabesh, died untimely for want of proper medical care and our whole family had to endure the woes of death again. My mind still leans on the fear of death and endless sorrow it brings in its wake.
|Indian Review Notes :|
Mishing: one of the ancient riverine tribes in upper Assam, India, with a rich tradition of folk culture, oral literature and colourful ethnic costume.
Deudhai: A member of the priestly class.
Bihu: The national festival of Assam.
Apong: A traditional fermented beverage made from rich.
Sun: worshipped as mother-goddess by the mishing.
Moon: The male god as father in mishing folk-belief.
[ad#Jiban Narah – bio]
Jiban Narah (born 1970) is the author of six books of poetry in Assamese. Considered a popular and influential poet in his home state, he has been translated into other Indian languages, including Bengali, Hindi, Manipuri, Marathi, Oriya, Gujarati and Tamil. A book of English translations of his poems, The Buddha and Other Poems, appeared earlier this year. He is also a writer of fiction and essays. He works as a college lecturer in Nagaon, Assam.