CHAPTER EIGHT: THE SOUTH BECKONS!
The next few days went on eventless, which effectively meant that nothing new or unexpected happened during this time. Our routine life was now very different from the way it was planned, when we had come to Calcutta for our holidays. My aunt was still held in isolation, locked from the outside and her switch between an apologetic housewife and an aggressive lady with a masculine voice, had now been accepted as the new way of life. The house now had even more visitors, some relatives from my aunt’s family, who added to the population without adding anything to the pool of ideas available. My father was still in charge, although, even he was clueless and devoid of any ideas, and while no one ever challenged him or his judgment, there was a sense that people had started to discuss his inability to find a solution to this problem, or suggest a new step.
My uncle, was a broken man!
Then one day, my aunt, after hours of screaming and cursing in her aggressive persona, had drained herself of all her strength and had collapsed to the floor near the side window grill. Meanwhile, one of the kids next door, a boy called Papai, almost of my age, had climbed up the fence wall to take a peek at her through the window. Papai used to be a regular visitor to our house, before the main gate was closed shut to outsiders, and he was not the first kid to try this method to get a closer look at my aunt. But that day, Papai saw something that made him run straight to me and whisper in haste;
– “Auntie is talking in her sleep!”
Finding something new after many days, I immediately ran with him towards the side window, but my father had noticed the two of us, and sensing we were up to something, decided to quietly follow us.
I was the one to climb up the window ledge, which was beyond my height then, and peek into the room inside. My aunt was lying on the floor with her face up, very close from the window, and she was indeed mumbling something in her sleep. In order to listen more carefully, I held an index finger to my lips to make Papai go silent, and then placed my ears to the window bars to get a better listen. And for sure, I heard the words;
– “Dokkhine jaa, dokkhine!” [Go to the South!]
Once convinced of what I had heard, I turned my face back towards her and a chill went down my spine. Her eyes were now wide open and she was staring straight at the window! But she wasn’t looking at me directly, in fact, maybe over my head. And then, I felt a warm breath behind me and turned to see my father’s face above mine, also looking into the room and at my aunt. And it occured to me that my aunt was actually looking straight at him. I must say, and it was hard to explain properly, but that straight gaze at my father, had something about it. It wasn’t the usually aggressive eyes that we had been used to seeing lately, instead, it almost had a feeling of helplessness in them, as if they were begging out at my father.
My father shooed us off immediately and all three of us walked away from the window together. Then we went back to our daily life, almost forgetting about this little incident, which was not exciting enough to even share with anyone. Another day went by and we entered the 9th day of the terror calendar, which started the night my aunt went missing for the first time. Incidentally, this was also supposed to be the last day of our planned holiday trip, as we had chalked out a program for two weeks, and my father was supposed to return back to his work. But under these extraordinary circumstances, that schedule did not seem to have much relevance, and I was sure that we would be there a while longer. While nothing new had happened lately, there was one positive outcome from this lack of progress. The neighbours, who had been mostly irritating and intrusive for the last week or so, had started to lose interest due to this lack of new action. The peeping eyes were fewer, and the gossip gradually moved on to other interesting topics happening around them.
That evening, while we were all seated on the floor in a circle and having our dinner served by my mother, my dad suddenly declared;
– “I will be traveling tomorrow morning, for a couple of days.”
– “What do u mean? Where to?” My uncle was surprised and curious.
– “I don’t know yet”, my dad didn’t look too excited, “but we can’t just sit here and hope for something to happen by itself!”
– “But there must be something in your mind?” my uncle sounded insistent, almost impatient.
– “I really have no clue. But I can’t just do nothing. You have to take care of things here in the meanwhile. Dada, (elder brother) please give him the support he needs for the next couple of days, and maybe, just maybe, something will happen for the better!”
– “But …” My Jethu, the eldest brother among the three, had some question of his own, probably for the first time.
But my father gave him a very cold glance, which stopped him from completing his question. It was a clear signal that he would not be taking any further questions at that time. So my uncle dropped it as well and without another word spoken, all of us finished our dinner, although we kids did look up at each other from time to time. But my father and both my uncles continued their meal without a pause and without, for once, looking up at each other. It had occured to everyone by then, that my father had not asked them for an advise or a suggestion, but had merely informed them of a decision he had made.
Next morning, I woke up as early as 5 am, to see the entire household awake, and my father all showered and ready for a trip to the unknown. My mother had woken up early as well and had prepared a few Rutis (Chapatis, the Indian flatbread made of wheat four) and some vegetable to go along with it, and had packed them in a small tiffin box, which she now handed over to my father. My father gratefully accepted it and stuffed it inside a cloth side bag, which also had a spare set of shirt and trousers, apart from a cotton Gamchha (A thin cloth used as a towel), a pair of slippers and a toothbrush and paste.
Everyone, in that foggy morning, remained witness to a decision my father had taken, admittedly without any structured plan. Each of us had questions aplenty in our minds, but we were all wise enough (or scared enough) to understand, that there were no answers to them and thereby, refrained from asking them. But with my father set to leave the house, for who knows how long, everyone else felt very helpless, and probably even hopeless.
Finally, it was time and my father, accompanied by the entire household, reached the main gate and after a pause, turned around and looked back at the people he was leaving behind, a crowd of confused, uncertain people, most too scared to even think what might happen from here. His eyes seemed to be moist.
Then he turned and walked out of the gate slowly, kept along the main road and within minutes, disappeared into the morning fog.
The next part of the story was learnt from my dad’s narration to me at a later point. So I will keep narrating it, as I had heard from him.