Today as I sit down
in my home in the crowded Tinkonia Bagicha area of Cuttack, I find every little
bit of my heart has come out of my chest and flown to another world.
That very heart, to which I have been listening ever since I was a child, something that I have never seen, something that none can ever see, ever, not at all. That heart which, who knows lies hidden where, in which unknown embryo; but instead of lying curled up in the innocence of love, it comes out, elongated, eventually becoming so long that it could encircle the earth a number of times. That heart of childhood is no longer with me. What is left is only a kind of image of that heart.
Perhaps a piece of my father’s heart remained in his worn-out hands. At least I believe so. When I was about five years old and I followed him wherever he went with my little hand in his, it seemed as if my father’s heart was throbbing quietly by itself, there in his palm. That is what my unreasoning mind says. I remember vividly the time of immersion of the clay images of Durga, in the early morning of the 11th day of the month of Aswina (October), when my father and I walked out of our government quarters on the bank of Kathajodi at dawn towards Chandini Chowk, where the gods and goddesses in their scintillating arches were lined up prior to their ceremonial immersion in the river. The deafening sound of different drums, coupled with excited talk, seemed to make the waters of Kathajodi quiver with an unknown consciousness. And my mind breaks away from me as I watch, entranced, and keeps dancing in the hypnotic eyes of the goddess.
My childhood was spent mostly on the bank of the Kathajodi in Cuttack. My father was the superintendent of the boys’ hostel of Ravenshaw Collegiate School. Sri Baidyanath Mishra was assistant superintendent. The water and winds of the Kathajodi somehow changed the brilliant light of day: there was no darkness in the shadows of the light, instead there were those staircases of happiness which I loved to scale. My father was allotted quarters in the upper storey of that hostel, where my parents and I lived. My younger brother was born after three years, and as the firstborn, I was the jewel of my father’s eye. A sense of pride always filled me when I accompanied my father out; I felt like touching the sky.
The students in the hostel liked me a lot. Among them were the illustrious Sriram Chandra Das and Sri Gokulananda Kanungo. I remember they would pick me up and carry me to their rooms. At that time they were around 15 or 16.
The Nanda Deula (main temple of the area) was adjacent to our quarters. Our back door opened to the yard of the temple. The rise and fall of my life somehow synchronised with the sounds of the temple bell—an invisible bond between us. As I stood there, something would come brushing against me and go away, leaving me behind, in the dreams of my childhood.
Did these moments of mystery bring a sense of loneliness? Or, some meaninglessness? I cannot tell today, however hard I may try.
The first five years of my childhood passed by on the bank of Kathajodi. Life went on. I did not know the difference between living and dying. Sometimes the fear of death comes into life for no reason. I had such a feeling when I was four.
I do not remember the date. The year could be 1932 or 1933. It was a hazy, warm afternoon. We two brothers and my mother were in our quarters. I cannot say what I was doing. But what still flashes in my mind’s eye is the sight of my mother sitting on a cot, holding my younger brother in her lap. At that time my brother must have been six-months old.
The water and winds of the Kathajodi somehow changed the brilliant light of day: there was no darkness in the shadows of the light, instead there were those staircases of happiness which I loved to scale. My younger brother was born after three years, and as the firstborn, I was the jewel of my father’s eye. A sense of pride always filled me when I accompanied my father out; I felt like touching the sky.
The afternoon, all of a sudden, ceased to be an afternoon. It would be around half past one or two. Suddenly the second hand of the clock seemed to stop moving. An unimaginably loud sound was heard from a distance. I could not make anything out of it as there was not even a speck of cloud in the sky. It was incomprehensible, a moment of fear.
Almost immediately, after that rumble in the distance, came the sound of my father’s running feet as he speedily ran up the stairs. My mother sat stunned. My younger brother was on the cot, still in mother’s lap.
My father dragged me and ran downstairs, straight to the yard of Nanda Deula through our back door. Asking me to stay where I was on the grass, he rushed back again to our quarters.
I have not yet forgotten the fearful earthquake of that day. The death toll and destruction of houses in Bihar were in the thousands. The fear that entered the mind remained for years. Orissa was not affected on that scale. I do not know much about the loss suffered elsewhere. I was comfortable in my home with my parents.
I have not yet forgotten the deep love my father had for me. I cannot forget what happened 75 years ago, that warm summer afternoon as if Father came rushing into the house on a white stallion with fabled wings and led me away to a safe place far away. Today, I have the same feelings as I had of old; he loved me the most as I was the eldest.
I have not yet been able to tell the difference between good and evil, I did not know how I was. Most of my life, I feel, has been spent in a sort of twilight, between darkness and light. Darkness and evil have been synonymous in many ways; evil has always meant not causing any harm to anybody. But my life had only just begun, and I did not know what awaited me, either in darkness or in the light in the years to come.
I have spent my entire life in the ambit of ignorance. To think of that time is to feel bad, and to feel good too. Everything about my father, his love for me, is unique. I realise I owe everything to him in the little goodness that is in me today. Strangely, I had never seen the shadow of my father, whereas shadows of others appear to come out of their bodies and smother me.
Time has passed like a dream, like the wisps of high cloud of autumn. I have not been able to come out of the jaws of the crowded shops at Tinkonia Bagicha which is my home. Beginning with the road itself, everything has changed: the hand-pulled rickshaw, the road of red mud; that old peepal tree on the square beside the pond that is no more; the pain and sweat of the labourers carrying the clay images of the goddesses on their shoulders; the elaborately decorated tajias and the tiger dance on the day of Muharrum. The road on which I stood beside my father, my tiny hand in his, to watch the processions go by is still lying as it was decades ago. And that look of innocence in the face of that young seven-year-old girl who, like me, stood watching alone the same scene with her father.
Death is in life itself, I know this much. There is absolutely nothing special in the year or moment of one’s birth and death, neither past nor future.
In life, with the passing of someone you desire most by your side, something gets lost; it does not matter if the person is real or imaginary, and that absence in course of time turns into life itself. When the dead body of my grandfather was put inside the coffin on the veranda and the lid was nailed, my father’s intolerable cry pierced my heart as nothing did else. I never knew an grown man’s cry could have such an effect.
But I have not wept at the death of my father or at my mother’s. Today I suffer from the thought that perhaps I did not love them. My eyes are the clouds floating in the sky, the cloud that has no body, no air and water of one’s own country, a world of its own that keeps drifting from one country to another but never rains. These eyes of mine seem to taunt me: what do these eyes do? They do nothing with no water or tear in them, not even a drop, these eyes that cannot see the world even though they look at it. Since childhood these eyes make me a lost person, they make my life lost. They kind of rush into a venomous dark holding onto my unknown heart.
Today my father’s cry on that day comes to my mind, the cry of a baby from whose hand the toy seems to have been snatched by somebody. I have not forgotten that cry, that crumpled face. And, why should I forget that at all? All those taken together, that cry, that love, those many fears, many worries, not just his own but of others’, the many colours, the many kinds of blue in the sky, so much hatred, so much humiliation, the admonition in the eyes, so much garbage, so many prayers, so many words have made the façade of time behind which I have been able to hide myself as a seed, just a Jayanta Mahapatra.
I have not wept at the death of my father or at my mother’s. Today I suffer from the thought that perhaps I did not love them. My eyes are the clouds floating in the sky, the cloud that has no body, no air and water of one’s own country, a world of its own that keeps drifting from one country to another but never rains.
Today my grandfather’s hunger comes to my mind, the world of which, despite all my efforts, I have not been able to imagine. And sometimes I feel like living in a state of unrest, as I think of myself learning against the walls of someone’s broken shack, getting wet in the water dripping through the holes of thatched roofs in the slums, easing my conscience as I place some money in the hand of a mother who has lost her child and being with her for a couple of hours.
How do I say that I love all these things? For the last 81 years I have carried this hunger with me, how much longer will it continue? At the end of one’s life, how can one say what is right and what is wrong? The journey of life has been strange indeed.
After living in the government hostel for five, rather six years, we moved to our grandfather’s house, which was close to the Muslim seminary. At that time Cuttack was a big village, and our house stood by the main road. Across the road was a Muslim settlement and Paana sahi, inhabited by people of a lower caste. There would be this inevitable eruption of violence almost twice every four years, and people from either side would pull out bricks from our compound wall and hurl them at each other, until the police would arrive at the spot; but the day after everything would be back to normal. There was no electricity then, neither in the street nor in our house; and every evening a man would come with a little ladder and a kerosene jar and light the lamp posts for the night. For me evenings remained as such: light hanging from the lamp post, humiliated like the schooldays of mine, defying me, sitting upon my body and mind. It was a kind of darkness from which it has been difficult for me to extricate myself.
But the darkness in the mind never dispels. It remains like that, still, unmoving; it is there before you could see it. Studying in the Stewart School along with the children of the rich people in the town, I could not somehow stand straight, be my own self. Besides, I was the youngest in my class. To escape from my bullying classmates I slipped into the world of dreams, the kind one comes across in books I loved to read. In the recess I would go to the bank of the pond with an English book in my hand. My heart learnt many things from these books: I learnt how to lose myself; from the books too I heard the songs of rivers and springs, and how one gets a sense of immortality from the words that filled the pages I loved. And I tried to see through those words.
School over, I would head right away for our house. But here, beside the seminary, the water of Kathajodi did not lap on the brick walls of our new house, on the leaves of the deodars that surrounded our courtyard. That warm light of feeling from the riverbed did not leap and dance in my father’s eyes. An ash of some kind began to fly aimlessly in my world.
As an Inspector of Schools, my father began to be transferred to different schools in the district. His new job was to inspect the minor and lower primary schools. And in this house lived my mother, my younger brother and I.
My father had to stay from time to time at distant places like Ganjam, Russelkonda, Gunupur and Purusottampur. He would only be home for a couple of days in two months. The entire burden of the house rested on me. As far as I can recollect my mother was never that healthy, she suffered from stomach ailments. As there was no elder person in the family, I had to do the household chores, besides my studies.
Today, I remember doing all the household jobs as I grew older. World War II began when I was 11, in 1939. The landscape of Cuttack began to change. Office buildings had protective walls built around them, walls around Ravenshaw College’s campus came up, and there were air raid shelters here and there. With the establishment of an Air Force base at Charbatia, across the Mahanadi, fighter planes began to fly at odd hours over Cuttack. We had to wrap thick paper around our oil lamps at night to keep the light from scattering outside. There was scarcity of food. Not getting flour and sugar, we began to manage simply with rice pancakes and pressed rice. Sometimes when Father was able to bring some ghee from the interiors of Orissa, I took my rice and dal with ghee and lime juice with much relish.
But a sense of emptiness gripped me in the house. My mother’s hawk eyes appeared to be always on me, the suspicion in her eyes unmistakable. I suffocated in the barbed wire of her eyes.
She scolded me on every count, which I found unbearable. She would complain to my father when he was back home after two months. I have no mood to relate those things in detail right now. My mother was not happy with me despite everything I did. At least that is what I still feel.
When she was ill, I would do all the jobs, both small and important, which included herding our cows back to the shed at dusk. Things like that. I kept worrying that I had little time to read. When I lay in my cot facing the wall I nurtured only a wisp of a dream, a dream to be a pinch of ash, which would fly in the wind and settle as ash in somebody’s garden of affections.
“I have no eyes, no ears;
don’t blame me if something strikes you”
have been playing with the wind since my childhood; my life is made up of its many touches. True, I have not seen the wind, but my instinct sways with its varied playfulness; if it is sadness now then it is meditative the next moment. It has always pulled me towards it with its inaccessible, inexplicable qualities; it rejuvenates me in a way that can’t be understood. It has a childlike talkativeness of its own; and I ask myself: is God like that perhaps, like wind? Maybe, I couldn’t say.
I have not been able to know the wind till today, nor God. Neither did I sense any wisdom or doubt or disbelief at any time. It was like a window for me, surrounded by dark walls. And through that window I witnessed many happy things, enjoyed many delightful moments of existence.
My life-song began sometime, somehow in the wind, this song that can embrace, but cannot speak. I learnt how to make toy aeroplanes with paper. And when I threw these paper planes into the air, I felt like flying with them, floating away in an imaginary contentment. At that time you are not reminded of any bitter words, or of the troubles of the world. Neither your mother’s nor your classmates’ taunts affect you. Sometimes small things turn into larger ones, losing their sting, at least that is what I think, and those petty, insignificant things can take on giant shapes.
One day a real aeroplane interrupted my dream world of paper planes by landing in a small field in Cuttack. That was when I was 10 or 11, I don’t exactly remember. We became restless to see the aeroplane when it landed. At last when it landed on the Fort grounds, we went there, our excitement overcoming us. There was a huge crowd around the plane. Of course, I could not go near it, but it seemed as if the plane was a white stork sitting coolly on a field of grass.
I do not remember those days. The ground beside the old fort where the plane stood is now Barabati Stadium. The field where the Bali Jatra was held is no longer the same; no longer same is the formidable moat that surrounded Barabati Fort. What remains of those old battlements is just the ruined stone gateway to the fort. Today, it stands abandoned and alone, like an aimless sentry. That gate can no more hear the terrifying war cries of old, the birth cry of a baby on a distant shore. The eyes of that door are closed today; they have gone blind in the darkness of living in the present world.
Evening succeeds morning; morning moves into evening. Nothing changes. Our awareness or uncertainty remains unchanged in the process of the passage of time, and I have not doubted it. But my mother’s suspicious nature stayed as of old; the same doubts and disbelief went on and on, endlessly.
I do not think my time in our house ever passed happily. Today I do not think I spent my childhood in freedom and joy, among my few friends. And I think: does anything that happens in childhood influence everything in later life; does one have to face this unexplainable despair without ever being aware of it?
I learnt to live like an ant-lion, pushing my tiny head into my sand-pit. But like that ant-lion I did not forage for ants. I remained in the sands of books, which made me go into many new lives, and different worlds. Because there were any number of English language books I could lay my hands on, I began to sense the power and beauty of the language within me.
But I never felt like remaining confined to the house. Freedom was the first thing that mattered to me. I told myself I must one day leave this house of mine. I will do whatever I am asked to do elsewhere, but I will never, never live here anymore. As I grew older, this desire to leave the house grew stronger in me. I remember I would be nearly 13 at the time, I can’t be sure.
A day came when I made up my mind to leave the house that very night. I hid a pair of shorts and a shirt in a small bag. I cannot tell for sure why I had decided I would leave at the stroke of midnight. Today the events of those days are blurred, not so vivid in my mind. The rain had let up; in that wet evening a net hung over my head, that net was silenced by the beating of thousands of wings, and there was neither a question nor an answer with me. Only I experienced a deep desire to leave the house. Only darkness and the shapeless deodars surrounded the moment.
By the time my mother went to bed it was around ten. Beside me was my younger brother. Extinguishing the light of the lantern I lay in my bed. My heart was pounding. The walls were far from being still. Like huge fruit bats with dark wings the walls rushed towards me, screaming. Soon it was midnight, and suddenly there was a barking of pariah dogs, howls from those dogs who live in the streets. I sat up on the bed, half determined, but could not gather enough courage to leave.
A jackal howled very near the house. I knew it was midnight. But I could not leave. There was a strange fear within me, the fear that laughed at me from inside the darkness of the night, and my childhood looked at me askance, maybe the light in the eyes of my childhood was that of the evening star the light of which cannot reach the earth.
Also in those eyes was a mournful look that wished for love of some kind but could not have, and I stood silently outside the hope that was mixed with anxiety, silent, without taking a breath, without knowing what was happening inside me, aping the soundlessly palpitating heart inside me.
My classmates who had been continuously bullying me in the school hadn’t changed their tactics. I cowered under their looks. When my mother came to know of these things, she hadn’t any advice to offer me, I met whatever fate I was to meet at her hands; but what was significant was that it seemed to me at the time that cowardice would never stop nagging me throughout my life.
I feel like that even today.
A victim, I am afraid of entering big malls or restaurants and meeting unknown people, I cannot tell why. The amorphous wounds of the mind close all doors to the body. There is an indomitable urge in me to crumple and fly away like dust even today, as it was then.
At the age of 13 or 14 I wanted to get out of myself, to reach out to the world, and girls brought a smile to my face. I began to feel an irresistible urge to touch somebody and be close to him or her. Something resembling a common desire to eat or take a nap. But my hands remained close to me, almost tethered to me without being tied.
I watch the princess go floating in the clouds, and it’s almost impossible to I lose myself in her body. I also cannot roam aimless in those nameless days, through the lonely hours, wanting to be someplace where there is nothing for me to leave my name behind.
And it seems to me that there is an unspeakable sadness in the beauty of girls, as also one comes across in that of a river, or grass or birds, which cannot be segregated and viewed separately. They are all intermingled. It was always somewhat satisfying to daydream of those girls who lived in my neighbourhood, to imprint the images of Chhabi, Maya, Mini on the blank page of my mind. But nothing really ever happens. The daydreams don’t even appear on the lips of time. The only thing that does come out is a sort of inertia that is disturbing.
The sky is an endless, blue joy; that’s what I feel. But once it is evening that sky is not there. Instead, man enters different worlds, as if time and place within us take a turn. In the innocent and sympathetic dark, sorrow leaves our bodies for some faraway place, without ever looking back, sowing tears like seeds on nearby grass and rock. Any untoward incident turns into an event.
On one such rainy evening my heart had stumbled over a soft and silent hurt, perhaps just to see the rain of tears all the days of my remaining life. I was 14. And that play of my life was enacted between my cowardice and my wish to win. I will not call it a play. That was an innocent, profound moment whose voice still fills up the lifeless pauses of my interior life.
It was evening. The air was damp after a shower of rain, the June darkness an elegy. Suddenly a friend of mine rushed into my room where I was studying. Inside the house were my mother, younger brother and my baby sister who was just eight or ten months old. My friend was seemingly excited. Without preamble, he whispered in my ear, “Be quick, come, don’t ask why, just here. Close by!”
In the adjacent house lived a girl younger to us. They were poor, but everyone in the family was gentle and humble. My mother did not like them, asking me not to be friends with them as they were of a lower status. I never appreciated this arrogant attitude of my mother.
Yes, the girl’s name was Mitali. She was about 13. As I entered her house, I found her standing alone in the darkness; there was no one else to be seen. I remember only my friend smiling.
And Mitali, her face timid, like a hare’s. Something resembling a kind of faith hovered there, something she perhaps felt I would not break. My heart began to pound in an unknown fear. In the darkness I could see her crumpled, pale yellow frock and her bare feet. Her face remained in the half-light as she stood with her back to me.
What happened next has not paled with the passage of all these years. For the next moment I found myself standing close behind Mitali, my body pressed against hers, and both my hands were inside her frock. In the embrace of my hands were two tight and perfect little breasts.
That touch, however fleeting it might have been, in a way changed the direction of my life.
This incident could be seen as obscene, according to the morals of the time; but I have never thought it to be so, neither then nor now.
Four or five minutes later, when Mitali and I looked at each other, the language of our eyes seemed to tell us that we were we, and then we merged with everyone else, and if the world were to stand like a judge before us, let it do so with empty hands.
The first touch. A silence benign.
A beginning of faith.
What I touched was so uncertain, and yet, was its purpose to sanctify?
I could never see what I had accomplished that evening.
Until today that first touch has remained with me, acquiring an uncommon power. I cannot explain that either. Whatever gives us room for air could come to us in any form. Here was a different kind of faith for me, and it helped to bridge the charms of my life, overcame the meannesses of my mother.
The voice of darkness was not the answer I sought; it brought me myself. Something went mute as in the process of the blooming of a jasmine in the night.
It seemed to me that the fragrance of that trampled tiny flower of the grass could encompass so much of my unspeakable sorrow.
(This is a translated excerpt from the autobiography that
Jayanta Mahapatra is writing in Oriya.)