The Getaway

Rajan got down from the bus, slung his night bag upon his left shoulder and as his feet touched the ground, a sudden shiver ran up his spine. He feels it every time he arrives at this spot, about three kilometers from his ancestral house. This spot shares, in some way, the magic of a plot of land he identifies always as one that ran in his veins.

Seven bullock carts pass him. They are heaped with some dry, green matter sealed with night soil. They heave eastward, away from the dust filled glare of the setting sun. A smell hangs in the air. Rajan does not loathe that it emerges from the sooty earth beneath his feet. This smell has no vileness, like the other that assails his nostrils each time he passes the municipal trucks on the city roads, as they carry garbage to and from the dump yards. Those trucks then look like ogres ready to swallow filth as much as they can. Some spill out, spread the smell more; that makes him gasp. A curse then comes upon his pursed lips, those curses but soon perish, become mere monosyllables of profanities, drowned as they are by other city noises. Minutes later, when the trucks move away, clattering noisily down the narrow lane, silence suddenly descend upon him, like a thing snapping out of some tight edges. He savours it hastily, his temperament becomes like that of a watchdog, ears sharply quirked to pick up interruptions to his sojourn with that piece of silence.

In the middle of a village track Rajan stands, he feels no need for pretences. Here silence will stretch interminably unless the twittering cry of a swallow or the coarse bellow of a cow terminates it. It is mid afternoon, his uncle would not be back from the rice – field yet. Rajan decides to go to the room upstairs. It is a dark, vapid room. It has one small window towards the east, only a small patch of the sky is visible through it. He would sit on the wooden floor; watch the big, fat country rodents scurry upon it. He would not flinch or shoo away the geckos that always cling or crawl upon the walls. He would feel at home with them, he always did, because they are creatures like him, belonging to that room upstairs. It is his getaway, in a way.

Rajan opens the gate, it protests creaking noisily, other noises seem to cease instantly then. He expects a volley of canine noises to emerge from the kennel; two greyhounds are reared there. The kennel is empty. A sinister possibility comes to his mind; he shudders and looks quickly away from the kennel to the large house facing him. He walks towards the eight - rung ladder at the rear. The ladder has two of its middle rungs missing, just as he had found them in his last visit, some six years or so ago. His uncle takes such matters lightly, and now that his wife is dead and gone, he would never bother about it. Rajan clutches the two weak bamboo rails on either side of it; he expects one of the sodden planks to give way under the pressure of his feet. A few light steps land him at the top of it. He takes his feet dragging, slowly, near the door to the room on the western wing. Rajan thrusts his head, opening the door slightly, takes a curious peep into it. It is damp, unkempt, a dead cockroach lies among the debris of dry leaves, its puny legs are spread–eagle, raised in an upward appeal to someone to carry it elsewhere. Rajan does not grudge that dead insect, today he will grudge nothing.

No one would locate him here upstairs for an hour. That hour passes quickly. Rajan hears a commotion downstairs. In the babble of words he distinguishes his uncle’s voice asking someone to light the lamps. Sometime later, the commotion dies the house becomes quiet. Rajan does not stir, a silence seeps into him and a movement could snap him out of it. And then, he remembers how he had first found it, this room and the silence in it.

A child of ten, he was then scampering up and down a ladder that led to the roof of this big house. When he made it to the top of it he had shrieked. His uncle heard it downstairs, snorted loudly. Rajan then escaped through a small window, came into this room upstairs. He sat huddled behind a door, for how long, he did not know. And suddenly he discovered a silence from the four walls surrounding him, as if the room wanted to swallow and at the same time protect him. The feeling lasted only for a few minutes. Some one found him, chased him out of it. He then ran out into the rice field, roamed among the cows and cowslips, threw stones at the fishes in a stream, picked up some yellow flowers, tasted their clammy sweetness stuck between his teeth and gullet. And still he could not forget that room upstairs. A fear but tugged at him, because, he had for the first time in his life, a secret he could tell nobody. And with it came another fear – someone had told him that spirits lurked in the petals of yellow flowers, in the one he had eaten that day. By evening when his stomach growled noisily, he was certain, those spirits rolled and squirmed inside him; they were angry because he had eaten them. Later, he had to listen to a long tirade from his uncle and in reply Rajan had to give a lengthy explanation about his long absence. And yet, Rajan did not give him a full account of it. How could he speak about the spirits that he ate from yellow petals, or of the fishes that whisked away when he threw stones at them and about that room upstairs? No, he would not. They were his stock of joyous secrets. His uncle listened to his half- hearted explanation that did not quite please him; it made him feel like a captor unable to tame an elusive eel. The boy had slipped out of his hand he knew it.

In his subsequent visits, Rajan kept himself away from that room upstairs. He could not say why, perhaps, because his uncle’s two daughters played their afternoon games there. Those games did not stir his juvenile interests until an incident happened in his seventeenth year, during one of his yearly visits. One afternoon, Rajan heard the shrill chatter of the two girls; he then heard the voice of another, a woman’s. He tiptoed upstairs, stood outside the door; he caught only a few snatches of a conversation. Suddenly, it made him angry, he had discovered that room, the haven it offered him and the two girls used it, now there was another who trespassed. How could he allow it? That thought quietly obliterated other thoughts from him. He slipped away quickly down the ladder, looked recklessly about that whole evening for something to scare them out of that room. An hour later, he returned, a weird mask in hand, it would be the weapon against them. The room then seemed quiet. The sharp cawing of crows in the backyard told him they were there, probably, searching for birds’ eggs in a thicket. Reassured, he entered the room, it was almost in darkness, only a pale light from the western sky filtered in, fell upon the floor through the small, open window. And then he froze, he stood before a fair, bare back of a woman, water dripped, meandering upon it from long, black tendrils. At the sound of his footsteps, she whirled round and then he took in everything at once; the kohl lined eyes that sparked another kind of light, the full broad lips that parted slowly in surprise, while her hands tried clumsily to gather the dishevelled cloths around her.

He did not say a word. He did not know what a boy of seventeen should say to a woman in such a situation. He just looked at her. Suddenly, she laughed throatily, to her, perhaps, the situation was a laughable one. That laughter made his face hot, that hotness slowly spread downward to his thighs. He turned and ran outside.

He never saw that woman again in his uncle’s house. And yet, he could not erase that laughter replace it in his mind with the laughter of other women he has met since then. He ends up equating her kohl – lined eyes with other women’s eyes and that equation then becomes difficult for him to sum up.

He hears a sound outside. Rajan goes out of the room, walks along the long verandah. He hears it, that throaty laughter again, after so many years. He quickens his pace, follows it and arrives outside his uncle’s bedchamber. The door is left ajar, Rajan sees her, she is sitting on a bed, his uncle is reclining his head against her, guffawing loudly and spit dribbles out of the corner of his thick lips.

Rajan’s head whirls, that laughter rings inside his head, it follows him, runs with him across the long verandah, down the ladder, where two of its rungs are missing, he could fall if he misses it, he does not think about it, only that laughter surrounds him entangles the crevices of his feet as he scampers, stands panting near the gate outside. The laughter metamorphoses him slowly into an insect, like that cockroach that lay in the debris in that room upstairs. Rajan’s feet turn puny they are immobile to move him. The metaphor of a man with an insect at that moment becomes quite close. Rajan waits too, for someone to carry him elsewhere .

Rupanjali baruah