Title: The House of Twining Roses
Author: Nabina Das
Publisher: LiFi Publishers
Year of Publishing: 2014
Throughout the morning session, I couldn’t have him speak more than two sentences.
“My name is Aribam Ngangom. I work for Manipur Times.”
“Like Aribam Syam Sharma!” I quipped.
It was meant to be a compliment. Aribam Syam Sharma was a celebrity. A filmmaker and artiste from Manipur.
“I’m Nalini Datta,” I said.
His eyes were cold steel. Like the one he once held in his hands, he said much later. It was a cool March morning on the first day of our Annual North East Media Fellowship Seminar in the wood-scented north-eastern hill town of Shillong. We took in the view across the lawns of Hotel Pinewood, one of Shillong’s finest.
Of the twenty gathered, Mr. Sharma, Sumana and I were the organisers. We gorged on our English breakfast early. Plenty of bacon and ham, usually not a staple if the seminar were to be elsewhere in India. We North-easterners, often touted as omnivores, were pleased with the menu although there was aloo paratha and lassi too. The nine o’clock introductory session was where we all formally met. I delivered a small speech to the participating journalists after Mr. Sharma spoke. Our chief program coordinator, opened with a keynote address. About forty or forty-five and with a conical face, Mr. Sharma spoke with his characteristic tardiness. His lips pursed even the longer, rounder vowels but he made his point clearly. If he ever needed to raise his voice, he raised his thick eyebrows as well, elongating his conical face even more. He always dressed semi-formal.
My colleague Sumana was thirtyish, dusky, and pleasantly pixie-faced. While she smiled even during trying times, her black eyes sought out any problem before solving them quietly. She always wore cotton saris neatly pleated and loosely tied her shoulder-length hair, even while rushing to work. I was almost about her age, and could easily furrow my brows under pressure. But because she was a good one-arm taller than my five-one height, she treated me like a kid sister and advised me generously.
Sumana nudged me when Aribam Ngangom spoke those two sentences and went silent.
From ‘the jewelled land’—in India’s map you can see Manipur’s shaped like a pearl teardrop—Aribam’s was one of those faces that you couldn’t attach to any age—he could’ve been thirty or forty. But his low-pitch voice was heavy like an old man’s. The prominent lines on his face could have come from overexposure to the weather if he lived a hard life in the villages.
Later I saw a couple of lines, scars, one on the left cheek, the other high on his forehead close to the hairline, sometimes getting hidden. He wore his hair short, almost an army buzz cut. Sitting one spot away from him in the conference room, I saw his locked hands over the table were rough and blunted, as though used to chopping logs, not filing reports. If I thought Mr. Sharma excelled in sporting a completely expressionless face, here was his competitor. In a clean-shaven wide squarish face, Aribam’s eyes were beady and still, like two dark dots on a brown paper bag. Just about five-seven, he appeared well-muscled. Packed tight like a mountain bear.
“We’re all rice eaters!” I said to him during lunch break. To lighten up.
He didn’t reply. Rice piled up high on his plate, with chicken curry. From across his seat, he eyed me once or twice—I remained nonchalant in my business-suited stature and the strict high bun—chewing perhaps the slowest. Full-bellied, we went back to the afternoon session titled ‘Personal Accounts’.
Afternoon waned. Of the seventeen mid-career journalists with dreams to crack the Big Story one day, Aribam and another were left to speak. From my ‘seminar experiences’ I knew some yawned secretly, some craved coffee, and I was already planning the next day.
“Mr. Ngangom, it’d be a pleasure hearing you,” Mr. Sharma said.
“I came to Manipur Times after my village schooling.”
“He speaks a lot!” Sumana nudged me again with a whisper.
Aribam rambled slowly: his rural upbringing, education in the town, his writing. Said he took a break for some ‘field work’ before getting back to reporting. “Please tell us more, do.” Even the usually unruffled Mr. Sharma seemed interested.
Aribam’s brown paper bag face appeared puffy. He probably reflected hard. Journalists often do have unique experiences too fantastic to reveal. In Manipur, we knew life was sometimes difficult and dangerous: insurgency, unemployment, seasonal calamities. Aribam spoke of living
inside forests, braving floods and landslides, building homes in ravaged villages. And then his voice rose. He complained how the ‘mainstream media’ barely focused on life in India’s
backwaters. We agreed. Cricket, politics, films and fashion constituted the daily menu in ‘mainstream’ newsrooms. Rural struggles and developmental issues had little oomph value.
That’s why we were here, inside Hotel Pinewood’s conference room, working with dedicated journalists to help set an alternative agenda. We shared Aribam’s concerns. Applause poured in. Still looking upset, he mumbled that in the name of controlling insurgency, the army and paramilitary were clamping down brutally on his people, the Meiteis. Imphal city toed the line of Big Brother Delhi, while villages burnt. No one said much about this. These were controversial issues even among conscientious journalists.
I hardly got a chance to speak to Aribam the next one and a half days. Too much work too fast, Sumana’s help kept me going. With the media fellowships and citations awarded—Aribam among one of the winners—things came to a rapid close.
We were having a ‘going-away’ party until the next annual meet. In a log cabin by the majestic Lake Umium outside Shillong town, plenty of good food and liquor made everyone happy. It was like a college party. Because I knew quite a few participants personally, I also knew who could sing, recite or tell a joke.
“Ah, look who’s talking!” Sumana said. “I know you sing, Nalini. Get started now!”
I hesitatingly sang a boatman’s song that seemed to make an impact. The assistant editor chipped in with a song he claimed to have learned on a fishing village trip after a devastating cyclone. The political correspondent recited a tribal lore with couplets about a woman’s plight. Normally shy, Sumana too sang a Bollywood movie song where a peasant praised his ancestral land. The gathering got boisterous. On a second request, I sang the lore of Lord Krishna from Assam,
of when He comes deceiving the householders to meet Radha, His ladylove. ‘He’s a liar, He is divine/He’s a thief, He is mine’—thus gasped Radha. Alcohol-infused and relaxed, everyone cheered this one wildly. Love stories do not fail, especially not if they are about gods who behave like mortals! At the last refrain, there was very loud clapping. Aribam was clapping with his coarse heavy hands. I noticed earlier he was barely drinking. Unlike the others, he didn’t get stuck like a fly on the sweet rum and the kebabs and pastries. He clapped long, ignoring the stares. Then started singing in his language Meitei, of which I knew only a few words. He sang throatily and kept beating on his thigh clumsily with one hand. Also for the first time he smiled. Sumana and I slowly joined his beat. Others followed suit. What a party!
“My wife was raped by the paramilitary,” Aribam said unceremoniously on our way back. Party over, we’d hit the road. Evening light wasn’t dead yet. Two big Matador vans had been hired. Aribam sat next to me. His mouth was near my right ear, so hearing him was easy. The breeze from his side of the window blew my long hair into my eyes.
“They flushed the village and questioned my wife. Said I was a terrorist, an insurgent. I was late in coming back from buying charcoal from the nearby town. They dragged Ranja away. I spent months hiding inside the forest. They kept coming back, picked up many others. This was when I’d just started as a rookie reporter with the Times.”
He glanced at my cheek. Gently disentangled an errant hair strand of mine.
“They caught me later. Locked me up and beat me bad.”
His face was distorted in the falling light. Voice heavy and angry.
“Here are the scars…” He swerved with the Matador and drew away respectfully. “Later someone bailed me out. Gave me a gun. Ranja’s pain had made me a madman. I killed one of those dogs. Now no one came after me. I hunted them. Staying away from writing was painful too. I resumed my reporter’s job a couple of years later.”
Aribam looked through the window. It was dark outside now.
“Nalini, don’t bun up your hair. You look better this way.”
The road from Shillong to the plains was not treacherous. Not very serpentine. But Matadors are impatient vehicles. They hurtled down the hills hurriedly rattling our bodies with us topsy-turvy inside. Like life does with us humans all the times.
About the Book:
This is a collection of stories that span the lives of women and girls caught in the snare of history and society. The travails of the partition of the Indian sub-continent, a neoliberal India, non-resident joys and fears, and also coming of age in surroundings that are familiar or held hostage to a politics of fear – these are the themes subtly addressed in this volume. There are also stories about men searching for identity and justice, as well as ideal and memory – their portrait framed all along by the normative environment around.
The foreword is by Ashok Banker.
About the Author:
Nabina Das is the author of three poetry collections and two fiction books. Born and brought up in Assam, she’s based in Hyderabad. Her forthcoming poetry collection is Anima and the Narrative Limits. The above story is from her short fiction volume The House Of Twining Roses (2014).
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