I was very young at that time, but I don’t remember exactly how old I was. However, I clearly remember accompanying my grandmother on her trips to the naamghor. She would walk regally and I would, sometimes walk by her side, sometimes skip ahead of her. Whenever we came across any neighbours on the road, I remember them asking the same question, “Grandma and little grand daughter walking together, yes?” Then they would pinch my cheeks and some would even kiss me soundly on my cheek. I dreaded their mushy kisses as their mouths stunk of betel leaves and nuts. I would wipe clean my cheeks with the back of my hand as soon as they kissed, and they seemed to enjoy this act of mine very much. I suspected that they kissed me just to annoy me and have fun at my expense.
I would sit quietly in the naamghor while the bhokot sang out from the Kirtton. His voice resounded in the small prayer hall with the sound of cymbals and the clapping of the women. Taking advantage of the loud clapping sound and the clanging of cymbals, some women would simply gossip away about their neighbour’s daughter-in-law who went to work while the mother-in-law did all the household work, about children who would steal into their neighbour’s gardens and climb trees to pluck guavas, about elderly Bengali women who would steal flowers blooming in other people’s garden to offer those in their puja, about whose pickles were the tastier of all, and what not. They would chat and at the same time clap their hands to keep the taal of the hymns. Often they would miss the right place of claps and ‘thap’ – their clap would fall at the wrong moment when the rest of the women’s palms were still suspended in the air. Grandma would sometimes join in the gossip, but she never missed her claps’ timing. I would sometimes watch her palms as they came together in a loud clap, watching carefully if she clapped at the wrong moment, but she never once slipped. “The owl-faced one is keen” clap “on Rambha’s daughter, she often” Clap “calls her to her house on the pretext of chatting,” clap “but I can tell that she wants to make her” clap “her daughter-in-law…Ramoko naam oti anupom Ramoko naam Ramoko naam… ” with claps she would join in the hymn, and then after a clap, “Just imagine, that beautiful Menaka for that Ghatotkoch!” Clap!
“Here’s a bottle for you,” Toru-aaita took out a small bottle of tamarind pickles for me. My eyes lit up as I thanked her voicelessly with a shy smile. Later as we walked back home, grandma eyed me holding the bottle to my heart lest it fell and broke, and said, “Did you ask her for pickles?” Well, I did not really ask her, but the other day when I went to her place with grandma and she offered us puri with tamarind pickle and scrambled eggs, I enjoyed the pickle. She saw me licking the sticky sweet and sour paste off my fingers with relish and said that she would make a bottle of tamarind pickles for me. I did not say, You don’t have to take the trouble or anything of that sort. I just smiled. That did not mean I asked. I gave a long explanation to grandma. She did not seem to like the fact that Toru-aaita had given me a bottle of pickles. I couldn’t understand why. After all, she too took bottles of pickles to give to most of the women in the naamghor. I reminded her of that. She seemed to become more annoyed. “The women and their families like my pickles. They say that I make the best pickles. No one can make pickles like me.”
“But Toru-aaita’s tamarind pickle is so tasty.”
“Is that so? Fine then, I will give away my pickles to Mili and Jonky. I won’t keep any for you.”
That struck me solid, for Mili, Jonky and I were competitors for grandma’s love. If she made a sweater for Jonky he would walk about with a smug smile on his face. If I had a sweater from grandma I would make it a point to wear it whenever my cousins came to our house. I did not like the way grandma gave away the bottles of mango and lime pickles to my cousins. After all, I helped grandma take out the bottles for sunning; Jonky and Mili never came to help her. Though whenever they came to stay with us, I enjoyed our playing sessions, I hated the evenings when they would kneel on the bedside and sing out two prayers from the Naamghosa. I knew “Our Father in heaven” but nothing from Naamghosa. So, I did not like to see grandma patting them and praising them for knowing their prayers from our holy book. I tried to learn the prayer, in fact I was soon able to learn and sing it well. But I did not sing with them, for I did not want them to tease me that I had copied them. I had my own way of getting even with them. Whenever, on rare occasions of course, they went to the naamghor with us, I would join in the gossip of the women by simply smiling and nodding, showing that I knew every bit of what they were talking about while my cousins were left sitting quietly, uneasy with the people they were not familiar with. I knew each of the women who went to the naamghor.
Owl-faced grandma might look as dark and round-eyed as an owl, but I enjoyed the way she talked. Her eyes would go rounder, her hands would flap like the wings of a bird and she would make all kinds of facial expression. “Menoka is a lovely girl” her hand would fly out “and her embroidery works” her eyes would go rounder “lovely as her hands”. She would turn her head trying to judge the thoughts of others from their faces, as if she knew that they talked about her fondness for Menoka.
I always tried to keep some distance from Soru-aaita. She had this habit of slapping one’s arm as a kind of full stop after every sentence. I remember Taru-aaita losing her balance and falling sideway when Saru-aaita gave her a slap on her arm after what she thought was a classy joke, “When pigeons today cooed I thought that Mithu was talking to me!”
When Mithu talked, her words rolled in such a way that a dozen sentences sounded like one sentence with no comas and full stops. She always complained of one sickness or the other. Toru-aaita once fell sick and missed Naamghar Kirtton for some days. When she came back she was welcomed with a lot of questions on her health and offered all kinds of medical advice. Mithu aunty began, “Your stomach is okay now thank god but my stomach is going to be like yours I am sure because I had to go to bathroom thrice yesterday first time a little loose the second time also loose like first time third time very loose so I must be suffering from some kind of cancer problem like Nitin Das when he suffered from intestinal cancer and he began by having loose motion and I know that he had loose motion three years before cancer was detected but you never know for I think that must have been the starting point that’s why Toru-baidew you should investigate more and I too will go to a doctor tomorrow and who can be a better doctor than our Doctor dada and he’s everyone’s Doctor-dada and do you know that Doctor-dada’s daughter Rukmini is also going to be a doctor and I am thinking…”
I too used to call Biren Hazarika Doctor Dada as everyone did. His wife, Majani-aaita would come with stories of how her husband treated patients. Once Niku-aaita complained of heart pain and the neighbourhood’s favourite Doctor-aaita was called to examine her. Like Mithu aunty Niku-aaita would always complain of one health problem or the other. They are two of the same kind. So women in the naamghor referred to them as ‘Senior Aah-uuh’ and ‘Junior Aah-uuh’.
Now when Doctor Dada was examining Senior Aah-uuh with his stethoscope, he found a big lump above her breast and saying, “What’s this?” he took out a bunch of keys. “This is so heavy. No wonder your heart pains under its pressure. Why don’t you give away your keys to your three daughters-in-law? Let them manage the house now. With this bunch on your heart it will be a never-ending ache.” The women in the Naamghar talked again and again about this incident, though everybody was present when Doctor dada’s wife had narrated it. They found it such a juicy bit of a story that whenever one brought it up they would all laugh again like some new joke they had just heard. Actually Senior Aah-uuh was a very possessive and strict woman. She did not let any of her daughters-in-law cook. They were allowed to cut vegetables or wash the rice and dal grains. But they were not allowed to cook even the rice. The kitchen was her domain and she was the reigning queen of her home. “My sons cannot eat anyone else’s cooking. They are so used to my cooking.” She would boast before anyone who came to her house and she made it clear to everybody – insiders as well as outsiders – “It is my house.” But I liked visiting her. She would make all kinds of snacks for Grandma and me. In fact, I would wait eagerly for our next visit to eat her besan-fried palak, kheer cakes, alu chops or luchi with that special curry of hers.
Then there was Pramila-aaita who was not very popular, as they all considered her very proud. While everyone wore mekhela-sador, she was the only one at that time wearing a sari. They sarcastically considered her very stylish for going against traditional customs. Her husband was always suited-booted like a sahab and I found the pair quite attractive. When once or twice I saw Pramila-aaita I found her so different from the rest of the lot that I would stare at her. She talked differently and on different topics too. The others found it very uncomfortable when she came to the naamghor. I could feel it.
But it was just two or three times that she came to the naamghor. Perhaps she too realized that they were a different lot altogether, interested only in other people’s life. But her world was a different one – a world of books. When I visited her house once with my mother I found her sitting in a room with cupboards full of books and then when she sat with the sitar in her hands she looked like Goddess Saraswati. I was amazed at the way she played the sitar – musical notes resounding the house. It was my mother who had seen the sitar on the divan and had asked her to play something and with a smile Pramila-aaita had complied to her request. A talented woman. She looked so exquisite to me. Why should a goddess go to a namghor and sit with mere humans, and those too fault-seeking faulty humans? I argued with Grandma when she said that at her age Pramila-aaita should spend her time praying. Grandma showed her displeasure at my argument by not knitting the sweater she had started for me for a whole week.
During one of my visits to India, I showed my two teen-aged children the naamghor.
“It’s a lovely place,” they commented.
But to me the place no longer looked ‘lovely’. A concrete structure with figures of different gods and goddesses had come up with all kinds of bright colours. Gone was the simple Assam-type structure with its small wooden gate; gone were the people who were the soul of the naamghor, gone was the bhokot who used to distribute prasad that the women took back home wrapped in gamosas. The Naamghar today looked alien to me in an alien neighbourhood where tall apartments housed families who were total strangers to me and also to each other. Nobody talked about the people of the neighbourhood for each family was an island. My house, at the end of the busy lane full of traffic and full of strange footsteps, stood quietly with garlanded photographs adorning the silent walls.
Srutimala Duara is a bi-lingual writer. She has written four collections of short stories, three novels and a poetry collection in English. In Assamese she has a collection of stories, four books for children and a novel. She is an Associate Professor in English, Handique Girls’ College, Guwahati.