Epitaph

by Jackie Kabir

lit03‘YOU know I heard someone passing by my room wearing anklets. The noise came from the veranda, taking down the four steps and crossing my room, and went towards the back of our house.’
Suman looked at me with a mouthful of food with a quizzical look in his eyes. He kept grinding his chapatti as he spoke with a smile, ‘You are so imaginative! Why don’t you write some fiction? Seriously you could do well in the field.’
‘What? You don’t believe me?’
‘Well, wish I had time to sort that out? I have an office to attend, so please pass me my tea. Don’t want to be late.’
So we quietly had our tea. After he left I sat outside on the veranda. It was green everywhere I looked. I was quite excited about coming to stay in this teagarden when he got his job; it had been two weeks since I got here. It was a beautiful bungalow, made in the British era when tea plantation was in vogue. There were three bedrooms and a guestroom in the house. The sitting room was very big; it took up almost half of the house. Perhaps they would often have parties. The front of the house had a long veranda with wooden banisters. The four steps led on to the grass on the lawn. On the left was an open grass field where there were some weeping willows. The largest one had a wooden swing hanging from it; it moves in the wind, inviting any passerby. All the bathrooms were at the back of the house; the strange thing about them is that, each of them has a door leading to the backyard. Presumably, in the earlier times these were the doors through which cleaners came in. My cleaner-cum- cook came in early in the morning and went away after dusk. There was a gardener; he was doing something in the garden and I called him.
He was a man in his mid-fifties I thought. Should I ask him about the ringing of anklets from the previous night? Would he laugh it off just like Suman? I walked down the stairs to the garden; the sun was warm on my shoulder. The soft green grass wet my feet on my exposed skin. I felt as though I was walking on a foamy velvet carpet. He greeted me leaving the work he was busy with.
‘As-salamualaikum!’
‘Walaikum as salam. Is there anyone who walks around at night around this bungalow?’
‘Hmm… No. Why do you ask, madam?’
‘I heard someone walking past with anklets on her feet.’
He squinted his eyes and put a dusty hand on his forehead tying to shield his eyes from the blazing sun. My back also started burning in the heat. He said, ‘We heard stories but never found any evidence of it being true.’
‘What story?’
‘My grandfather’s father said that there was a sahib who lived in this Bungalow in the British era. He may have been the first one to live here. Tea plantation began at that time in Bengal. Earlier we didn’t have tea in this region. But sahibs liked having tea so they started growing it. When the sahib came, he had this beautiful maid who worked for him. She was very fond of the Sahib and he asked her to marry him. The girl’s family opposed because tea planters may be poor but had some dignity. It was against their custom to marry a white man. Naturally the father protested. So the sahib didn’t let her go when she came to work the next day. He married her. She was happy living in his house. But the family felt insulted by the marriage. So they used some kind of voodoo craft. The girl fell severely ill and then died. The sahib was so heartbroken that he didn’t let anyone go near the body for two days, then when people around came to bury her he adorned the body with all the jewellery he had bought for her. He made a concrete grave with a heavy slab on top to bury her. And she was buried in that concrete grave.’
By now my back was burning from the heat of the sun as it was getting higher and higher in the sky. He concentrated in his work as he resumed and I walked back to the bungalow with a heavy heart. Since that night and many nights to follow I could hear the lady with the anklets to walk around my house more distinctly. It was almost as if I was living this nameless woman’s life in my head whenever I was alone. I will call her Nupur.
Nupur walked in the house one day wearing a blue sari with a thin border of embroidery above her anklets, the end of her sari was wrapped around her slim waist and tucked in. Her boss, a white man in his early thirties, looked up from the paper he was reading. For a few seconds he paused, all his thoughts left his mind, making him blank and outline of this very simple, rural girl took possession of his whole being. He took control over him after the few minutes, but those few minutes changed his life completely. Now his main focus would be to wait out the hours and minutes and then seconds for Nupur’s arrival at his place. His eyes would follow her every movement. He waited for her to finish her work and talk a little about life in general. But she never waited. After she finished cleaning the house, she quickly sped off, like a butterfly that flits about in different flowers before finally flying away. So his waiting began yet once again. It was not like he missed his daily chores, he went about doing them mechanically, going into the admin office, talking to his managers, checking the income and expenditure and the balance and finally taking a stroll in the garden in the evening. He walked down the narrow strips of dusty paths which snaked its way into the green garden of tea leave plantation. Sometimes he saw some workers walking about. Everyone was visible from waist above since the tea plants covered the lower part of the body. He secretly hoped to see Nupur on his walks but she was nowhere to be seen. He walks to the end of the garden where there is bridge under which a brook flows by coyly leaving the sandy shores on the sides. The sand and the water on it shine in the sun that decides it’s time for it to set. The sahib turns back towards his bungalow.
The sahib was up the next morning even before the cook. He made up his mind to tell Nupur about how he felt about her. So he waited, when the cook gave him his morning tea, he asked to run an errand for him. So that he could talk to Nupur alone. He was apprehensive about how she might react to what he had to say to her. Then there was the barrier of language, culture and class. He wasn’t sure as to how he would begin. He looked far ahead, the birds were chirping, takkhak made its tok-tok noise up in trees. His eyes went back to the wooden fence and the small gate through which she would walk in any moment now. Time was merciless, he couldn’t remember if it ever crawled so slowly. He checked his pocket watch, which he would hang to his suit when he dressed up, now it was on his tea table. Finally she walked in with slow and light steps. She wore a red sari today. He stopped her by calling her name. She never looked up at him even if he was in front of her. Surprised she came near and stood awkwardly in front of him. He told her how he felt about and she gaped. She trembled and put her hand on her mouth and what sounded like a shriek came out and she moved away to the far end of the veranda. He walked to where she stood and asked her if he could touch her. She just looked at him with teary eyes. He took her in his arms and said that he wanted to marry her if she didn’t object. The poor girl couldn’t believe her luck or if what the sahib said was true. Could it be a plot to seduce her? Didn’t men of his stature covet women like her? But it seemed that the sahib was serious for he arranged everything for their simple, unceremonious wedding. He took the cook to the marker and bought the best sari and everything that were necessary for a Bengali wedding. The wedding took place without the consent of her parents. Within a month of their marriage the girl fell ill, which gradually led her to her death. The sahib could never get over Nupur and mourned till the day he died.
The events were played and replayed in mind as I walked around the garden, sat down to have tea in the veranda. I could almost see Nupur with a silver nose-pin and the anchal of sari wrapped around her waist as she walked around the house. I heard her footsteps every night. Every single night. My husband took me to a doctor. He was a friend, a nice gentleman in his early forties. After hearing everything he prescribed some medicine and asked me, ‘Are you free this afternoon?’
‘Yes, I am why?’
‘I would like to take you for a walk if you don’t mind.’
‘Oh, I would love that.’
‘Fine, I will come around at 4?’
‘Okay!’
So we went for a walk, my husband was home and he happily joined us. We walked to the opposite direction to where I usually walked. This part had a look of small town as the road was cemented, and bi cycles and cars passed by.
After going quite far, my doctor informed me.
‘Did you know that there was another version to the sahib’s story?’
‘Really?’
‘It’s just that after marrying the girl, the sahib took her back to his home in England and after many, many years she fell ill and wanted to see her homeland desperately. So he brought her back home and here she died of natural causes.’
We came to what looked like a jungle at the end of the road. There was a concrete slab that peeped from the green bushes around. He pointed to that and told me, ‘And there lies the girl we were talking about. Quite peacefully I presume!’
I let out a long sigh and smiled.

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