Urmi Chakravorty | January 2023
‘The darkest night is often the bridge to the brightest tomorrow’ – Jonathan L. Huie
One more night of this nagging, pounding rain, pelting down on the asbestos rooftop, thumping against your ribcage with vengeance.
You lie wide-eyed on the coconut coir bed, the frayed mattress sprouting uneven lumps at unexpected places. You keep shifting your weight all over the cot…it continues to nudge and poke at your back. Just like the thousand doubts and thoughts relentlessly prodding and peeking into your mind.
A large wall-mounted photograph stares at you from the wall in front. You try to focus on its new, shining glass case to avoid glancing at the weather-beaten face of a 58-year-old man enclosed within.
This was a face you knew so well, many moons back, when you were young…in love…and so full of dreams. Upen, you, and little Hima. And your home and the grocery store that Upen ran in the village. Your small, contented microcosm where love and trust formed the oxygen to your breath. Before a tempest called Rebati struck it!
The single-strand jasmine garland adorning the photo frame has withered in the infamous August humidity of Assam. You unconsciously grimace as you inhale its sickly, stale whiff. You sport a small, wry smile.
Isn’t this similar to spousal tenderness that has long wilted and putrefied, leaving behind an unpalatable stench? The stench of complaints, unanswered questions, betrayals and regrets?!
You had chosen to stay back, once the thirteenth- day prayer ritual of Upen got over. Upen was gone, but the thirteen long years of knots and tangles needed to be ironed out. Rebati might need help to clear up, is what you had explained to the hordes of relatives who were curious to understand the dynamics between Upen’s old wife and new.
Outside, the rain continues to bucket down for the second night straight. You lower the flame flickering unsteadily inside the small lantern placed beside your cot.
Not sure how much more oil Rebati can spare for the lamp…God alone knows when the electricity will be restored! You gingerly step outside the two-bedroom tenement that was once your marital home. This modest but comfortable brick-and-mortar house, one of the very few in this village, had once been your safe space. Now, it generates
The clammy winds play with the loose tendrils of hair around your lined forehead. You carelessly brush them away. In the process, the small, black bindi between your dark, pensive, almond eyes comes unstuck. You choose to ignore it – the bindi. Earlier, what was always a deep shade of vermillion accentuating your peach-and-pink skin tone, now stands at a simple black.
Standing on the porch under the slanting tiled roofs, you take a deep breath and look around. Through the veil of rain, you try to catch a glimpse of the lush paddy fields stretching infinitely at a distance, separated from each other by low mud embankments. You notice a few dark sal trees towering over the fields, like silent sentinels.
They used to be low shrubs when you had last seen them, some thirteen years ago. How time flies!
And to the far right, where the dirt road snaking alongside your house, curves and takes a turn, lies the bridge. This footbridge, made of narrow, wooden planks held together by bamboo posts, serves as the lifeline of this small village in the Bagribari subdivision of Dhubri, Assam. You wonder why, even today, it should remain the only medium of connection between this village and the nearest town…between the unhurried, idyllic rhythm of this natural haven, and the perfunctory, prosaic pace of its urban counterpart.
Back then, you always crossed the unstable bridge with a prayer on your lips, what with that wide rivulet flowing under it. The rivulet, as Upen narrated to you after marriage, had broken away from the mighty Brahmaputra and had meandered here. Like a naughty child gone astray. But the grand, paternal Burha Luit, as the old river is affectionately called here, continued to sustain and feed his offspring with his blessed waters. And again, it was across this teetering bridge that you had dragged the 15-year-old tearful Hima and two steel trunks, swearing never to return again, a week after Upen brought home his new bride, Rebati.
The clouds thunder again – this time, much louder – even as a jagged flash of silver forks across the charcoal skies. Sleep eludes Rebati. Glugging down a few mouthfuls of water, she rises from the thin mattress laid out on the floor – one of the mandatory mourning metaphors for a new widow. She stretches her slim, taut body and looks out of the window. Her groggy eyes gradually train themselves to pierce through the enveloping darkness and identify things. It is the same unchanging vista outside. Unlike the house and her life, where everything has changed. In the blink of an eye, literally. A sudden cardiac arrest – a first and fatal one – a few nerve-racking moments of confusion, agony and helplessness, and Upen was gone. Just like that. To the realm of quiet and peace, away from all conflicts and accusations.
38-year-old Rebati was initially inconsolable. But long years of struggle with her own orphaned childhood and her perpetual efforts to fit into her maternal aunt’s family, who had reluctantly adopted her, had sown in her heart the seeds of fortitude, hope and resilience at a very early age. Thus, after about a week of intense grieving, Rebati picked up the threads of her fragmented existence and darned it with some semblance of normalcy.
Upen and Rebati’s bond was never the stuff poetry is made of – romantic, lyrical and dream-like. If anything, it was the opposite. Rebati, with her dusky complexion and average looks, was pragmatic, down-to-earth, and industrious. And a good twenty years younger than Upen. In addition, she had the gift of foresight and prudence. Upen, on the other hand, was the quintessential happy-go-lucky provider who had hopelessly fallen in love with Rebati, who had always been a burden, a kink-in-the-eye, for her aunt. But then, when was love ever about a perfect couple getting together? Wasn’t it always about two imperfect, mismatched people learning to accept and respect each other’s differences? And with time, attuning themselves to this new normal?
Rebati ties up her long, cascading hair into a bun and secures it with a broad pin. She unbolts the door and steps out into the porch carrying a tiny oil lamp. The concrete feels cold and slippery under her bare feet. The rain is coming in torrents now, splashing and tumbling down unhindered. It crashes against the undergrowth that has burgeoned during the monsoons. The moist, algae-scented air outside invades her nostrils as she pulls out a low stool just outside her room and sits on it. A momentary misgiving assails her conscience, but she quietens her mind soon enough.
No one is around to notice me sitting on the stool here…it’s too dank to sit on the floor, anyway.
She takes in the entire nebulous surroundings in one clean sweep though she doesn’t dwell on any one particular object. In the absence of light, her other faculties have become hyper-sensitive, especially the aural and olfactory senses. The monotonous drone of the rain helps calm her mind. She catches sight of the bridge ahead. Scrunching up her eyes, she peers through the watery curtain that threatens to blur her vision.
Why is the bridge swinging and swaying so dangerously? Hadn’t we secured the bridge afresh just last year? Floods and rains are nothing new here. But today, something is amiss, for sure…even the planks are rattling against each other…
A few stray droplets of rain seep in through the roof and settle on Rebati’s lustrous bun. She shifts the stool to avoid the wetness on her hair. And then she spots Jomuna – Upen’s first wife – leaning against a concrete column outside the second bedroom, her temporary residence.
Disarrayed, Rebati gets up and mutters an apology, carefully avoiding Jomuna’s eyes. Beautiful eyes that give nothing away – calm, non-committal, non-judgmental. Rebati is not sure what is more embarrassing here – being caught outdoors at midnight as a newly anointed widow, or caught using furniture – again, as a newly anointed widow. On her part, Jomuna is also momentarily startled. She didn’t expect anyone to intrude on her rare midnight tete-a-tete with herself.
You get back your bearings first. You clear your throat – your time-tested way of acknowledging someone’s presence. Age and experience do come with their perks, after all. Equanimity, for example, is one of them. The same equanimity which you had failed to display thirteen years back when Upen brought home Rebati. You had fumed and fretted…wailed and wallowed in self-pity. Or was it guilt? And self-mortification? At not having noticed the red flags well in time? You did notice this demure, young girl, didn’t you? With dreams in her heart and fetters around her feet, she would often visit your shop to buy essentials for her adoptive family. Paan, matchboxes, cigarettes, biscuits, soap and sundry items. You had often seen her chat endlessly with Upen. You had smiled indulgently.
Poor girl has no one to talk to at home, no one to guide her. Good she’s found a father figure and mentor in Upen.
When Upen started coming home late without any logical explanation…when he sat out in this very porch well past midnight when you could no longer stay awake…when he hungrily caressed you and explored you but never quite met your passionate gaze…you missed all the tell-tale signs, so complete was your trust in him! Mid-life crisis was, obviously, something you had never heard of. A man’s need to feel validated; his eternal quest for an elixir of excitement and youthfulness; his urge to stall and reverse the ruthless march of time – these were concepts you could never comprehend nor accommodate in your rigid, time-bound, domestic regimen. And so, while you cooked and cleaned and tended to the adolescent Hima, Upen found someone who was willing to understand and entertain these urges and partner with him in his wild, exuberant fantasies.
Upen’s premature departure placed you both in unsettling circumstances. Rebati was insistent that you join her in performing the funerary rituals. You had smirked inwardly.
The girl remembers that I still remain the legally wedded wife of Upen, his only real spouse. Their hush-hush temple marriage…what sanction does it hold in society?
The urgency in her voice, breaking and choking over the trunk call…the intermittent sobs…and your own judgement, together convinced you to visit the village and free Upen of all his worldly tethers. Purge him of all his flaws and frailties. All your colleagues at the dairy unit at Dhubri, where you worked, had advised you against it.
“Let him rot in the hell fires, Jomuna…he deserves no mercy!”
“How can you even consider going there, Baideu? After all that the man has done to you…”
“You actually want to stand by the woman who bulldozed her way into your life and your home, Jomuna?”
Ignoring all their well-intended words of caution, you took the first available train from Dhubri to reach here. The cremation was over – you missed seeing Upen’s mortal remains one last time. Secretly, you felt relieved. The sultry weather in these parts ensures that the dead do not linger too long in these worldly confines. Not very many relatives cared to visit you in the village. Initially, you were surprised, indignant. Then you realised. Distance and dissociation had played their part well. A death, and two estranged women sharing the same roof, was clearly not everyone’s idea of a family gathering!
You and Rebati worked in civility and consonance during the mourning period. The latter’s occasional breakdowns did not escape your eyes. You wanted to feel sorry for her, to reach out to her, but your inbred hate told you otherwise.
“Baideu, you haven’t slept? Is it too humid inside?” You wrest yourself out of the past, hearing Rebati’s gentle voice. “They couldn’t fix the transformer this side because of the rains. Plus, the bridge has been creaking a lot since yesterday. Guess that’s why no one wanted to carry heavy equipment across it.”
You remain quiet. In the past few days, you’ve mastered the art of restraint and reticence. But then, there are concerns that need a voice, you decide…questions that demand an answer. Wasn’t that a major reason why you came back here after all these years? You inhale, long and deep, count till ten (your guaranteed mood modifier), and begin.
“Rebati, now that the rituals are behind us and the guests, too, have left, can we have a heart-to-heart talk?”
You almost enjoy making Rebati squirm.
“I’m due to retire in a few years’ time, Rebati. And my job doesn’t entail a pension. Hence, I was wondering if we should calculate the total worth of Upen’s property and divide it between ourselves, once and for all. That way, we would both know our assets and plan our future expenses accordingly.”
“I’m glad you finally decided to talk, Baideu – I was wondering what held you back here after the shraaddh ceremony.” Rebati’s mouth curves into a knowing smile – very different from the vulnerable, wide-eyed expression she had when she first set foot into your home with Upen. Her borderless, white saree now is a far cry from her resplendent bridal splendour, when you had last seen her.
“Baideu, would you believe it if I told you that Upen has left me nothing, except for the tiny store that hardly makes any profit these days? For the past few years, we’ve been struggling with finances. I’ve had to cut corners every day to meet our expenses. Luckily for us, I had a difficult childhood, as you probably remember, and that has taught me to be frugal. Besides, it was just the two of us, so somehow, we managed. But believe me, Baideu, there is no cash or assets that I can spare.”
Rebati’s voice holds a realness that makes you want to believe her. You find a genuine look of wistfulness in her eyes. But almost immediately, your steely, pragmatic self takes over, and you snigger, “No cash, no assets…really, Rebati? Whatever happened to the ancestral house that he had? And the small plot of land that he had bought for Hima when she was ten?” You can barely conceal your acerbity now. “Look, Rebati, I do understand your insecurities, your apprehensions. Upen left very suddenly. You probably feel you’ve been cast out into the turbulent seas with no shore in sight. It’s a sinking feeling, yes. In fact, no one knows it better than I do!” Here you pause briefly for effect, and then continue. “But I have to think about my Hima, too. Our Hima – Upen’s and mine. Plus, my own twilight years. I never demanded a penny from you two in all these years. No maintenance. I started from scratch…worked overtime…brought up Hima well, and got her married. In fact, I was so relieved when Hima’s in-laws never asked for any dowry. And to think, the boy is so well educated and settled! God has been truly kind, for once!”
You suddenly realise you’ve poured your heart out to Rebati. And that makes you feel foolish and naked. In the flickering haze of the lamp, you try to scan Rebati’s face for her reaction to your needling words. But you’re left surprised – she looks unusually composed, collected, in control. You feel a twinge of jealousy gnawing at your heart.
Such unshakeable Zen…what a priceless aura of detachment…how does she manage to shield herself so well against all this negativity, censure and insinuation! Outside, the blustering winds and the pounding rain create a dissonant chorus that breaks the train of your thoughts. You shut the door of your room from outside to block out the spray. Somewhere close, the branch of a tree seems to bow and break. The heaving and groaning tug at your heart as it keels over to the ground. A gurgling, eddying sound reaches your ears. Instinctively, you look towards the bridge and are appalled by what you see.
How come the waters below the bridge are visible from here? Oh, no! The swollen waters are churning against the bamboo posts that hold up the rickety bridge. Has the water level risen so high? Hope that’s not a portent. Hope the Burha Luit is not emptying its surplus into this rivulet!
“Looks like you really don’t know anything, Baideu? Hima hasn’t revealed anything to you? Good…Upen would have been happy!”
Rebati now draws the stool closer and sits on it, facing Jomuna squarely. The latter returns her look, an unruly gust of doubts, queries and grudges fanning the embers that have long been smouldering in her heart. Rebati starts speaking in a polite but slightly raised pitch to beat the natural tumult all around.
“Destiny never blessed me with a child, Baideu. But Upen would speak to Hima on the telephone about twice or thrice in a year. Upen would usually call up on Hima’s birthday or on some festival. He had Hima’s best friend’s residence telephone number. I think you know till here, Baideu?”
Without waiting for Jomuna’s guarded affirmation, Rebati continues, “About three years ago, Hima once called up Upen herself. She sounded quite agitated. Her wedding had been fixed and she was happy. But the groom’s side was demanding dowry – a motorcycle and two lakhs in cash. There was no way you could have arranged for it. Hence, Hima turned to Upen. On the sly, of course.”
Rebati stops briefly while Jomuna looks completely flustered and ill at ease. Her eyes dart here, there, everywhere…she uses the pallu of her saree to wipe the beads of sweat that are poised to slide gently down her glabella. She looks deeply betrayed!
“Upen was concerned, like any parent should be. He wanted to discuss this with you,” Rebati explains. “But Hima was adamant. She forbade Upen from calling you. She knew you wouldn’t like it. But she also wanted things to work out for her. You were over burdened with responsibilities, in any case. What could she do, Baideu?”
Jomuna listens to her, stunned. A vital chapter of her life had played out among Upen, Rebati and Hima, where Jomuna had been made the proverbial outsider, oblivious to all that had transpired. “It was a tough call for us to make. Upen sold off his ancestral property and spent a large part of his own lifelong savings to fund the bike. I gave away the only jewellery set I ever owned, to the local goldsmith, in lieu of cash, which Upen personally handed over to the groom’s parents at Dhubri. That was the only day he met them. Thereafter, there was never any communication between us. They were happy with this unexpected windfall and agreed to keep it under wraps. This was a secret meant to be carried with us to our graves. The marriage got solemnised without a hitch – we were grateful. Money, I guess, sets many wrongs right,” Rebati feebly chuckles, “though, you may find it difficult to accept this disclosure, Baideu.”
You continue to lean against the concrete column, an array of thoughts swirling in your mind, like the waters of the Burha Luit outside. The revelation of the last few minutes has impacted your soul like nothing ever has – not even when Upen abruptly ended your marriage without as much as even a last goodbye!
Hima, your little angel, who you trusted more than your own self, had liaisoned with the same people who had once wreaked havoc in your life. But this time, the tables had turned – this time, they came as a messiah, as guardian angels, who steered Hima out of a difficult or maybe, hopeless situation, and lent stability to your lives.
The wave of animosity which you always harboured against Rebati, seems to ebb, slowly but surely. You have always been your worst critic. And now, it is no different.
Have you been too harsh towards Rebati in all these years?
Probably. But it is this anger, this humiliation, this festering wound, that acted as a balm. Over the past thirteen years, they became the panacea that helped heal your heart, broken into smidgens by Upen’s insensitive rejection.
While the storm outside is getting fiercer, you feel an unusual calm within. It brushes away the cobwebs of resentment that have clouded your mind all these years. You suddenly feel lighter inside…and partly sorry for Rebati. You realise, you both form an overlapping pair of circles in a Venn diagram with a shared pool of sadness and regret.
Aren’t you two kindred souls, conjoined by destiny, floating around, trying to gain a toehold in this hostile universe?
Is it destiny, then, that has brought you two together on this dark, fateful night, so you could talk…share…heal…pretty much like the art of Kintsugi, which you had once watched on the National Geographic channel on your television?
A roar of thunder jars your senses. You find Rebati, too, looking ahead in tangible fear. The skies are coughing out thunking gusts of water and the winds howl and moan like a raucous dirge. You gasp as the tiny flame of the lamp loses its unequal battle and the porch is enveloped in ominous shades of ebony. And then, in a cataclysmic twist, the wooden boards of the life-giving bridge crash and creak and finally, give up their struggle against the elemental forces. You cup your ears as the tethers snap, and with a deafening roar, the structure splinters and collapses into the wrathful river below…breaking through the musty vegetation, sending nocturnal animals scampering through the wild undergrowth. You are too shocked to react, even as the foaming, frothing waters, disturbed by this rude displacement, spill out of their muddy confines into the flanking paths and fields.
“Baideu, is this the dreaded apocalypse that people talk of? Shall we all die now?”
After what seemed aeons, these terror-stricken words in a tiny voice float into your ears from another universe. With some effort, you shake yourself out of your benumbing daze. You look around and try to trace the source of a comforting warmth that is shrouding you, overriding the dark, dank winds. Suddenly you realise it’s Rebati – she’s embracing you tight, arms wrapped around you, her face buried in your bosom, breathing hard, and trembling like a frightened child.
“The bridge is gone…there’s no electricity…the storm has snapped the overhead telephone wires…we are completely cut off from the world, Baideu!”
“Keep faith, Rebati. The townspeople are already aware of the electricity issue – they will surely send a team tomorrow morning to fix it. And that is when they will find out about the bridge, too.”
You gently pat Rebati on her back and hug her tight. The deluge seems to have washed away thirteen years of anathema, rankle, and incrimination, and breathed life into your moribund equation. While the bridge over the rivulet has breached, it has catalysed the joining of your sundered hearts, of your past with your present, across the river of time.
A couple of hours pass – you and Rebati spend them in silence, sitting companionably on the porch. You discover an organic synergy within your reawakened self. The rain has marginally diminished. You inhale the damp air – it smells of bruised vegetation and fresh possibilities. And finally, the first sinuous ribbons of rose and gold tear through the grey vault, bringing with them the promise of a new beginning.
Glossary: Paan – betel leaf  Baideu – elder sister  Shraadh – a Hindu ritual to pacify and free the departed soul from this world
Urmi Chakravorty is a former educator who has imbibed lasting life lessons from both her roles. Her articles, short stories and poems have found space in The Hindu, The Times of India, multiple social and literary platforms, and several prose and poetry anthologies. Reviewing and editing are other areas she dabbles in.
Urmi won the Orange Flower Awards, 2022, instituted by Women’s Web, for writing on LGBTQIA issues. She recently secured the Second position in the National Poetry Contest conducted by S7 on Google. More often than not, her pieces reflect her credo and enclose a slice of her soul.
Photo via Unsplash
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