Kula Saikia

The Bridge

That frog, with its intestines flattened under the wheel of a rickshaw, the planes that vroomed overhead, the innumerable insects that swarm around me, the sound of rain falling, the umbrella in my hand, ready to be switched on against a sudden gush of wind, the fading, yellow beam from the torchlight, the road swallowed by the two-hour-long loadshedding, the irritating noise from a generator in some roadside shops -- these have been with me for the last fifteen minutes. These passing things entered my psyche, unaware. My footsteps were slow, slower than those that passed me on the road, the sudden flash of car lights led me, instinctively, to lower the umbrella against it, apprehending a question from someone "Where do you go at this hour?" I moved ahead quickly, to avoid it. Just now, a Maruti car sped past me, it splattered some mud water upon my brown trousers, and before I could swear and call that driver 'indecent', he had gone a hundred yards ahead of me, and then, I realised, quite sheepishly that there was no decent man near me.

     The rain has stopped, the umbrella was still held above my head, out of habit. I meditated upon one thing -- how easily man becomes a slave of habit! I had passed this road several times before during my school days. I could not see any remarkable change in it, except that a few houses have sprouted like mushrooms here and there. Several new houses have filled up many vacant plots, those of old ancestral houses have been sidelined by these huge, arrogant construction sites. I have accepted these changes, otherwise, where will be the charm of an altered world? I do not pass this road every day, sometimes, I pass it quickly by car and so I do not notice much of these altered things. Though I have been away from it, following the call of service, yet, I have never quite forgotten it. Sometimes during holidays I come home and spend quiet hours indoors with my wife and son and do not bother to venture outside upon these familiar sites. Bipul had his schooling here. He had travelled here and there with us, and there was a constant fear in me that he would spoil studies, and so, we decided to keep him here until his college days are over. The college he reads in, is well known. I too had studied there, once. A car passed by me, at high speed. I stood aside and let it go; some more mud water again got splattered upon my trousers. I took a right turn, involuntarily; what a strange thing is memory! When I had stepped out of home, I had my fixed destination and I had tried not to upset it. I suppressed a strong urge to sit upon that bench in Tanuram's shop. I might meet some old friends there, I fear it. The shop looks a little different than before, it is adorned with many attractive things. That must be Tanuram's son, he will not know me. Two candles were lit inside the shop. I bought a packet of cigarette and lit one carefully. Here I had puffed cigarettes secretly, I had chatted with Soumen and Bhadra, while sitting on a broken bamboo bench. We had then exhausted all topics from films, drama, how to woo women etc. And when that noise of a closing shutter told us that it was time to leave, we would not leave. Today, Tanuram's son will not know me, some young boys may come to chat with him.

    About twenty yards away from the shop, the bridge begins. There is a preparation to replace the wooden one with a concrete bridge.

    The rain drops clattered upon the raised tin sheet of that shop. I sat there, dispassionately. I tried to concentrate on that last puff from the cigarette butt. The bridge has been like this for many years. The timber begins to rot, angry murmurs rise in many homes, it becomes a piece of news flashed in the local newspapers. For a few days, a signboard comes up, prohibiting the passing of heavy vehicles, a few years would pass this way. A contractor will come suddenly with a new commitment, work will go on for sometime, it will be left half-done because of the shortage of funds, a minister will be gheraoed by the local men, a small fund is some times released for it. Life carries on across that makeshift bamboo bridge, by the side of that unfinished bridge. This is a regular thing. This is a bitter reality to those students who live on the other side of the river. The town people know that the bridge is the only reason why the local college could not progress well, so far. Those who can afford it, send their wards to study in the city college. For the last three decades, things have moved like this; this river has divided the town, it has created some division in some minds, straining relationships between them. I threw the cigarette on the wet grass, it hissed and went out.

    I walked out of the shop, past that signboard 'road closed'. I tried to read that, how certain things do not change with time. I walked down the narrow road and reached that makeshift bamboo bridge. In that crackling noise, some memories returned to me. The stream below me is just the same, I can feel it, maybe, a few fishes are caught in that fishing net. I awake suddenly to that sound of a bicycle bell, I leaned against the bamboo railing and let it pass, the bicycle rolled over it, carefully, a few men with shopping bags, passed me, quickly.

    Maybe, I would meet Bipul here, somewhere. He must give up walking out in the rain without an umbrella and a torchlight. He would sit for an examination soon. His mother was not too pleased when I had set out in search of him, his friends might tease him because of it, and then, he would be angry with me. I did not listen to such lame excuses. I knew I would find him chatting with some friends, somewhere, this way. It should not be a shameless thing that on a dark, stormy night, a father was looking out for his only son.

    I reached the end of the bridge and stepped on the main road. I must wait here for Bipul. The tent house was closed. A herd of cattle took shelter in that verandah. I know I will recognise Bipul by his familiar gait, I will know his footsteps even in the darkness.

    There was Miliram's tea shop here, before. We used to chat and have tea after an evening of gossiping near the bridge. This was a good place for gossiping. I still remember, Gayatri had told me about her decision to go to a city college, while sitting in that No.2 cabin room in that tea shop. She had explained that her father could not wait till the bridge was built, her father did not take it easily that she should struggle so much to study here, he was certain that if she did not join a city college, before two years to her final examination, she would be ruined. I had tried to measure in what Gayatri had said, how much sincerity was there in our intimate conversations in that small garden behind the college library. I had seen her tears and realised that she was not taking this parting too easily; to her, I was someone precious. Still I had said nothing; it is true, it was not fair that she should suffer so much to attend college from this town, like what her father had said, she must go to that city college, stay in a hostel, this distance would not make any difference to us. Nothing had changed much after that night as I had left her at the gate. College, university, service, marriage, everything happened like definite, systematic incidents. I have not seen her, in these last thirty years. I have heard that Gayatri was married to a professor. And afterwards, I did not hear much about her, in the demands of a family and a job, Gayatri became immaterial to me.

    I left the verandah and walked certainly towards that gate in front of Gayatri's house. It crackled to life. I forgot Bipul. As I threw the beam of the torchlight I saw that everything was just the same, inside, as it were, time has stood still, here. Has anyone seen me? I reached the verandah. In the thin candlelight, I could see that woman, dear to my heart. This is Gayatri; age has made her more charming. Would she recongise me?

    Gayatri asked me, where have I been, what have I been doing these last so many years; she wanted to know my whole history. Her husband died two years ago, she is now living with her father here, she has joined as a teacher in the new high school. She is beautiful like before. The smile that catches her in mid-sentence, that dream to lead a life with certain principles, have, perhaps, not left her, yet. Was she like this then? I tried to remember. Is she still angry with me? How does she hide her anger at our forsaken dream? I did not know anything about them. I was only telling her, "I'll come again, now we can meet easily whenever I come to this town, I will visit you too!" Gayatri was saying, 'Do come, when you can, I'll try tomeet you" and some such things. As I rose to go, Gayatri pointed towards here daughter in the next room. "Isn't she like me?" -- she declared proudly. I could see through the drawn curtain Gayatri's daughter's face; she was busy talking to a young, sturdy boy in a red striped shirt. Their intimate conversation took me back many years, to those evenings I and Gayatri had shared together. "Namita is sweet," I told Gayatri. Gayatri opened the gate. Beyond this gate, had the bridge been built, Gayatri and I would not remained on these two separate river banks. I knew, Gayatri will keep on looking at me, until I disappeared beyond the street corner, she would then close the gate lightly, she would stumble upon that floor of memories.

    I was walking homeward, with a new sensation. I was thinking about Bipul, about bringing him home. He would come, he is a boy now. The loadshedding would be over soon. I must reach home before the street lights lit up the road. I walked quickly, across that makeshift bamboo bridge. I let that man, walking behind, pass me.

    "Bipul," I called out, he halted. I threw the beam of the torchlight at him. His red striped shirt looked beautiful in that flickering light I could set that he has a young, sturdy face. He came under the umbrella. We walked across that bamboo bridge. Maybe, he was still thinking of Namita. And I? Some thoughts rose in me too.

    "Young boys like you should approach a minister, and build that bridge soon" -- suddenly, the words left my lips. The bridge is so vital to them, to their relationship. Would Bipul and Namita understand it?

Translated by Rupanjali Baruah