A Boat for a Cowrie

He keeps the monograph of his old village in his shirt’s pocket, a crumpled piece of paper frayed at the edges that tell of tales that it has been with him for a long time. Some details of that village are missing but the broken edge of a boat stuck in the backyard’s mud is clearly superimposed on it. That edge pierces some corner of him, that boat had been his soul mate on many quiet afternoons, some thirty years ago. It is perhaps now decrepit though his memory of those hours passed with it is fresh still. He had sat on it to watch the sun fade behind him while the old peepal tree cast an awesome darkness upon a particular patch of water near where he mused for hours. He would look more deeply into that dark patch because he believed a truth would surface from it and he turned always to the boat to help him find it.

He cannot forget that watery grove and the silence in that deep pool of water. Is it because the boat stands upon it that he cannot forget it? Maybe. The boat still haunts him wakes him up often to the sound of water lapping against it, he then talks to the boat, tells it everything that happens to him. Sometimes he murmurs too many things, some he does not understand, some he pretends to understand; both are periods of his self- fooling, he is aware of it. Today he is so many miles away from it though the whole village is there somewhere and the boat too and yet not in the same way that it used to be. So he often looks at the monograph in his pocket to see everything very clearly as it were he is almost there.

The sound of two crows cawing at each other at some irregular intervals suddenly woke him up. He stirred, looked at the room at the bed where he lay. This house near a busy city street where he lives is so separate from that village in which he grew up. He feels dissipated living so far away from it and more because he knows that he is to be blamed for it. But what could he do? Some incidents and some words had driven him out of it though he is unable to part from so many things like that smell of hemp drying in the lazy afternoon sun as it idles on the neighbor’s courtyard behind a dilapidated wooden gate. He often veered toward that smell though he was so many distances away from that courtyard and the gate. The boat probably does not stir again because no one sits upon it to talk to it. And he? If he went back to it will he be that same boy of eighteen again! He would, he must because the village, the boat and everything about it runs in his blood. He can never deny the boat from awaking him.

The wind chime hanging on the northern wall tinkled, the sound took him suddenly to a dawn when herds of cows bellowed and passed their mud hut, the tinkling of bells hanging from their thick necks were the pre dawn sounds that would awake him to the smell of tea brewing somewhere next door. He would then for some minutes clasp in the small hollow of his palm the snug feel of a thick mist that gathered suddenly outside his door, that sensation mingled with the rustle of wet reeds that would soon begin to dry and crackle under his feet with the sun peeping from behind a thicket of bamboo trees. He forgot nothing, that sudden detailed splash of water as someone pulled up a tin drum of water from a nearby well, that sound would hurry him up, someone would shout at him twice, the second time it always came out a little harsh and that would amuse him. Why someone’s temper flared up so easily over little things he failed to see. And that thought though made him leave his bed very quickly and also because the long walk to school was one thing he did not wish to miss, it gave him abundant time to brood over many things particularly those long lines of a verse that his father made him learn by heart every day. He would then go seriously over the twenty lines of the poem, which was his assignment for the day. His father did not read much but he was aware of one thing that his son was given to too much musing and so he made him read and learn a few definite lines or a passage everyday and when he returned home at dusk if the boy performed his task well he was rewarded with a new book and a tender pat on his back. That encouraged him to take the forty- minute walk to school to rehearse the lines over and over to perfection, he would then listen to the sound of words as they fell traipsing against his ear drum. His voice had a dissimilar ring from that of what he heard in the voices of others.

All those learning are now superimposed almost erased by what has happened to him year after year as he entered into the trappings of a city-bred man. He disliked it and the more he thought of it the more he longed to return to his village to sit upon that old boat again. Here in the city the earth does not suck in his senses it cannot intoxicate him with that particular smell when the first shower of rain fell. When the soil upon a city street cracks with summer heat he cannot feel a similar crackling noise inside his bones then.

The thought prepares him to go to his village.

He would take the early morning bus. His wife did not question him because she understood the look in his eyes, that same restless deep search for a cowrie shell in a little boy’s eyes. Will he find it this time? He had returned a few years ago with a disjointed face of the village. He had not said to his wife a word about it though she had guessed most of it. And the matter did not end there though she thought it would. She could not know that the village followed him wherever he went and that the boat often gestured to him like a long lost friend.

He went inside the bus and took a seat near a window and placed his night bag on the floor beside him. Someone shouted in a hoarse voice the day’s destinations. So many things rushed towards him as it were they were also eager to reach him. He tried to think of something else, something different from the thought of what he would find at the end of the bus road. The query came back to him over and over as in a refrain “ is it going to be the same again?” He shivered as some layers of events began to scale down before his eyelids. The landscape of memory is like a green fjord that is sometimes bleached white sometimes dark unclear like the colour of a russet sunset that flicker and disappear quickly at dusk. Suddenly he wanted to trace with his fingers the dark warm shades of water as the river gurgled after a long night of rain. He wanted to chisel some words upon it border those letters with the languid heat of the particular joy of a discovery.

A secret it was. He had found it when he first laid his eyes on a dancer’s midriff. She was part of a gypsy troupe who came to revel the villagers at the beginning of spring that year. He had never seen a woman like her before she stood on the narrow makeshift platform like a sculpted figure coming alive from a silver frieze. She gyrated to keep pace with the beat of the drums he then found something, which he had always guessed about a woman. Some unknown truths raced towards him then saturated him with a kind of heat that made him suddenly cry and laugh at the same time. It exhausted him when he found it not easy to assemble all the contours of her from that short glimpse that he had had of her. He had seen only a small fragment of a whole mystery. He wanted to see more. That thought remained with him for a long time after she had left. Sometimes she was just a piece of fiction unreal nonexistent because he erased several portions of her deliberately and superimposed her with some other faces of women. He was happy to live with that false picture of her though she would creep into his thoughts and would not let beautiful fragments of other memories to survive in him. She was so him a favorite rune, more mysterious than other real things just as the village is.

It took him less than two hours to reach near the village. The bus stopped at a corner and just then he felt a tight knot somewhere in his gut. He stroked the monograph, it reassured him, yes, it was there safe unchanged inside his pocket. He got down from the bus, took a few quick steps toward the familiar path. He inhaled deeply. The soil is alive with the smell of reeds. He picked up a loose dry piece of earth, it crumbled easily between his fingers, a shiver ran then up his spine. He ran, the night bag swung, hanging loosely from his left arm. He forgot it and all other things, he saw his two feet running toward only one thing, he knew exactly where he must be.

He took a short by pass to the backyard, this way he would not meet others in the house. He turned a corner and stood under the old peepal tree, it swayed and yet it did not look happy. Somehow it looked taut so thin. He took a few more steps toward it, he would soon be very near the boat. He looked for it, the boat was not there, where could it be missing? He had left it here, its edges dug deep into the secured earth under the tree. Someone could have removed it. A slow whimper rose to his lips. The boat was his last link and someone dared to usurp it. He searched further ahead he saw a pale light fire burning there. It was the last remnant of a ritual of a festival where the folks of his family had stood around a ceremonial fire that morning. He walked towards it, he looked for the remnant of his boat there, he was sure it would be there. He picked up a piece of wood, its edges burned weakly from the hour- long fire. He ran his fingers slowly tenderly upon it. Yes, he found it. A smile came to his lips. Someone had carelessly pulled out the boat from under the shade of the old peepal tree, used it to burn in a ritual, it had burned but that burning was a mere thing, nothing could destroy it thoroughly, not even the fire that licked at it because the boat, the piece of wood belonging to the boat belonged to him.

He quickly put it inside his night bag. He ran back the way he came. The night bag swung merrily hanging from his right arm; it too shared his happy discovery. A part of his village, a part of his memory of a village- the boat was once again with him. He whistled softly, his eyes glowed too they were the eyes of a little boy who has found his lost cowrie shell, finally.

Rupanjali baruah