Childhood Love

By Roma Das
Translation: Jugal Kalita


It was a time when the biggest excitement in my life was wandering aimlessly in groves of mangoes, plums and berries by our home. It was a time when unbounded happiness and enjoyment came from making little paper boats and floating them in the open moat. It was a time when I spied mythical elephants in the white clouds on a clear moonlit night. This is a story of that era and the tender state of my mind during those days.

I vividly remember even now. Just behind our home in Guwahati, there was a large mango grove. After crossing the grove, if you would follow a narrow twisted trail under the tall bamboos, you would see a small, ancient pond. It was almost dry, and it was perpetually covered with overgrown weeds. If you continued walking along the pond for a while longer, you would get to the railway track. On the other side of the track was a very long grove where betel nuts and betel leaves grew in abundance. On one side of this grove, there was a small hut, half thatched, and half tin-roofed. In the front yard of that little house, we saw a woman named Xeuti everyday; she used to weave clothes in her loom, bending down, under a pomegranate tree from which hung bright red fruits that were obviously ripe. During those days, the main location for our secret gatherings was the front yard of this solitary house; it was the place where all our excitement found unchaperoned expression.

I vividly remember even now. When we ventured out on our expeditions under the trees, in search of green mangoes and limes, with little pocket knives and packets of salt ensconced in our pockets, our long journeys always ended under the cool shadow of the fruited pomegranate in Xeuti's yard. Without her permission, we used to assemble on the big rocks in her yard, spread out the delectable finds, share them happily among ourselves, and consume them with great relish.

Every time Xeuti saw us huddle in a group in her front yard, she would come up from the loom on which she constantly worked. She would join us, and like a little boy, she would partake in our jokes and merriment. With open palms, she would also request her share of mangoes and limes.

I think it was because she mingled with us so well that all of us idolized Xeuti and called her Baai, older sister. We used to tell her tales of our juvenile experiences. Sometimes, we made small talk with her saying that if she had a little boy like us, we would have liked and adored him. We would have made him the leader of our group for our expeditions.

Although we solaced her saying such things, we clearly realized that, for unknown reasons, Xeuti's home was utterly empty. We knew that no other soul but she lived in that house. We never saw anyone visit her at home. Even when we wanted to visit her, we had to do so in secrecy, away from everyone's eyes.

Xeuti was always a bit hesitant when she mingled with us, due to these societal hindrances. She always maintained a safe physical distance. Even if we begged her, she never sat among us when we parleyed in her own yard. Never, even in jest during our playful animations, would she touch us. Even on request, she would never give us a pinch of salt, or any other items from her kitchen. If we were thirsty and wanted some water, she would raise water in a bucket from the well in her yard and would pour it on our folded palms from far above, so that there was no chance of contact.

Because we received Xeuti's affections from the distance she maintained intentionally, each of us felt a strong but ineffable attraction for her. Even though sometimes we got punished or yelled at, we tried to visit her at least once every day. Even at night, when in bed, I used to think about Baai Xeuti's loving eyes and affectionate manners. It would occur to me that if I could hide my face in her bosom and go to sleep hugging her, it might have been nicer than coddling with my grandmother. Although I dreamed to be with Xeuti, I understood that as long as my parents or grandmother were alive, it was utterly unattainable.

It was noon on a sultry day.

I still remember the events of the day very clearly. I was all alone, chasing a brown mongoose, throwing tiny pellets at it. I was jauntily following it through the middle of our big back yard, toward the railway track.

Suddenly, without even realizing, I was in the betel nut grove near Xeuti's house.

I hid behind a betel nut tree, and stared at Baai Xeuti, sitting at the loom. She was laboriously weaving in rapt attention, like she did every day. Probably, she was in the middle of a project weaving an intricate, floral pattern in eye-catching red using little bamboo guides. On this particular day, radiant in the reflection of the red yarn on her face, she looked even more beautiful.

Spurred by an attraction which I did not fathom myself, I was staring at Xeuti's face from behind the betel nut tree. Suddenly, my eyes drifted from her face to the porch. Seeing not one, but four tiny kittens playing merrily, I suddenly forgot my surroundings and ran toward them. Gently, I grabbed a beautiful kitten with dark dots on its snow-white body, and hugged it close to my chest. Then I ran to the woman and requested, ``Baai Xeuti, would you please give me this kitten?''

Hearing my voice come out of nowhere, Xeuti was taken aback. With playfully teasing eyes, she looked at me, smiled and said, ``Oh, Xoon! I can never give this kitten to you.''

I inquired, ``Why, Baai Xeuti? Why can't I have it?'' Xeuti kept on smiling and said, ``Xoon, I have already promised the kitten to your friend Mukut!''

I failed to understand her little prank. I was very hurt. I looked at her in tears, and said, ``Baai Xeuti, if you have really promised to give the kitten to Mukut, it's OK. But I think you should give it to me, and not to him. Because I can tell you without any doubt that I love you more than Mukut does, more than all the other boys. Since I love you so much, I come to see you at least once a day, although grandma disapproves and sometimes beats and scolds me for it.''

I think Xeuti could not keep pretending her nonchalance after what I said from the depth of my heart. She walked to me, held me close to her, and sat me in her lap. She started caressing my hair, and said, ``Xoon, I know your love for me very well. Because I know you love me so much, I was simply teasing you. I will not give this kitten to Mukut or anyone else. I have chosen it for you from the very beginning. You can come and take it soon, when it's a little bigger and doesn't need its mother's milk any more.''

Sitting on her lap, my little heart was wrought with happy emotions. It was the first time Baai Xeuti had touched me. In an excitement I didn't understand, I immediately started to rush home in a swift canter.

I ran into grandma at the edge of our expansive back yard, and squeezed her in an impulsive hug. In excitement, I blabbered stupidly, ``Grandma, grandma! I will tell you a secret.''

My effervescence caused her to suspect something. She glared at me, ``You rambunctious child! You must have done something terribly mischievous. Otherwise, why would you run back home in such a hurry?''

I could not remain silent much longer and blurted out, ``Grandma, I haven't made any mischief. I found myself near Xeuti's house by mistake. From a distance, I saw four beautiful kittens playing on her porch. She has promised to give me the most beautiful among them-a white one with dotted skin. I will bring it home in a few days.

Although I spoke with great animation, grandmother did not understand my feelings. She flew into a cruel rage, pulled me along by the hand, tied me up to a post of her loom, and punished me hard with a cane.

I didn't know why she was hitting me, but my mind rebelled at the unjust punishment. Even though my back was being cruelly caned and I was jumping in pain, I yelled at her in anger. ``Stupid grandma! You are very unfair. You are making a big mistake. What's wrong in visiting Baai Xeuti? You don't know her, but she is a very nice person. Even if you punish me, I will still keep on visiting her. You can't keep me from loving her...''

From that day on, after hearing such frightful words, grandmother started keeping a very strict and watchful eye on my whereabouts. She also took extreme care in physically blocking all the trails that I could conceivably take from our back yard to Xeuti's house. From that day on, I spent all my time inside our newly-fenced home. It was as if I had been sent to jail.

I spent all my waking hours thinking about two things: reestablishing the lost connection with Xeuti, and fetching the kitten she promised me.

One day, after much thinking, like lightning, suddenly a solution came to me.

It was almost certain that I would neither be able to visit with Xeuti, nor would I be able to bring the kitten home. So, I decided to sneak to her house, get the kitten, and give it to Mukut who would raise it on my behalf. I thought it would be very unlikely that my grandmother would ever have an inkling of what happened.

As I kept thinking about it, this option became more and more attractive. I became impatient; I started constantly looking for an opportunity to escape.

One afternoon, my opportunity arrived. Observing some slackness in my grandmother's vigilance, I ran to the edge of our backyard. Like a jailed man, groping in darkness for escape, I overcame the six feet of fence and several other obstacles. I came to the betel nut grove, and single- mindedly ran towards the house.

My emotions which had been suppressed for so long were overflowing on this day. I could not control myself when I approached Baai Xeuti who was rolling yarn on a reed tool. I ran to her from behind, and furiously hugged her with great strength. I hid my face in her long hairs and wept uncontrollably.

Baai Xeuti must have felt a deep sense of my hurt seeing me weep like that. She held my hand tenderly, lovingly pulled me on to her lap, and gently inquired, ``Xoon, why are you crying?''

In a flash, all my love for her came out as if in a flood. With my face hidden in the depth of her bosom, I asked, ``Baai Xeuti, Baai Xeuti! Why does my grandmother forbid me from visiting you?''

Xeuti didn't know how to respond to this unexpected question. She stared at me awhile without uttering a word, and finally said, with her eyes flooded with tears of great pain. ``Xoon, my doll! I have been banished from society. That's why...''

Not following the meaning of what she said, I innocently asked again, ``Baai Xeuti, does it mean it's wrong for us to come and visit you, just like my grandma says?''

Xeuti became all the more lost in emotion at my question. She sat motionless for some time, and heaved a deep sigh looking upwards to the wide heavens. Without looking at me, and with her face very close to my ears, she explained, ``It's more than wrong to come here, my son! It's a sin to come and visit me; it's against tradition and religion. It's quite likely that it condemns one to hell. But, I know, my little prince, that it applies only to older folks. When a pure child like you comes to pay me a visit, and hides his face in my lonely bosom, it gives me heavenly pleasure for a few moments. I don't think it's a sin. But, only God can tell for sure.''

As if in great fear, Baai Xeuti gently sat me down on the ground beside her. She stood up, and started wiping her flood of tears with the tip of her riha.

Seeing Xeuti's tears for the first time in my life, I became confused. I wanted an escape from the uneasy situation that I found myself in. So, I started toward home without telling her about the little cat, the main reason why I ran to her like a lunatic in the first place. To my surprise, Xeuti did not try to stop me.

It was midday. I was walking back home through the silent grove under the fierce sun. I was deeply perturbed and lost in thought as I walked.

A great calamity befell me near the dry pond.

I had crossed the pond, and was about midway back on the meandering trail under the tall bamboos. Suddenly I saw a strange and sinister-looking dark object emerge threateningly from under the bush. I was unable to recognize it. I gave a piercing shriek in great fear.

The scream instantly dried my throat. My fatigued legs started trembling in fear.

Overcoming the great danger, sometimes grasping on to trees and bushes, and sometimes crawling on the ground, I arrived at the edge of my backyard and jumped inside the fence. Seeing my grandmother waiting, I hugged her two legs in utter helplessness and fell to the ground with a thud.

I do not remember what happened after that.

When I regained consciousness, I was laying helpless in my grandmother's bed. Everyone was surrounding me and staring at me with worried faces. Grandmother had a full pitcher of water in her hands. ``Oh, my dear Xoon! Let me pour some more water on your head; it will make you feel better. I have also prepared some herbal medicine. You will feel better after you take it.''

``I will go to the medicine woman Maalini, and get a freshly-woven chord, incant it for exorcism, and tie it around your upper arm.''

``I have told you so many times not to wander into the groves all by yourself and become a victim of the strange things that live there. You never pay the slightest attention to what I say.''

``I know that evil witch mixed potion in what she fed you. Oh, well! She doesn't know any better. If I am truly your grandmother, I will teach her the lesson of her life.''

``That bitch! That disgraceful, shameless whore of a woman! That lowliest trash of society! Why does she have to cast an evil eye on a little boy from a respectable family? If she longs so much for a family of her own, why did she desecrate her own body in her impetuous youth? We still have rules and regulations, laws and traditions in the country. I have made up my mind. We cannot let that filthy crone ruin this neighborhood of upstanding citizens.''

``Get well as soon as you can, my baby! I will then go to the district court and file a complaint against her to the authorities. I must get her arrested. If the authorities won't do anything, I, myself, will hire some ruffians to smash her house and her belongings to smithereens. I will make sure that this adultress cannot live here, and scheme against, and terrorize our beautiful children.''

I heard all the violent tirades and loud threats my grandmother was spitting out at Xeuti. I tried my best to counter her, but I was so weak that not a single word I said was audible. The exhaustion and the fear of the specter made me very sick. High fever slowly overcame me. My limbs started shivering violently from tremendous cold. The fever soon turned into typhoid, and I lay in bed-sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious-for about a month.

After a long and tortuous period of four weeks, I felt a little better and had the energy to sit up on my bed. I surmised that the world around me had changed altogether.

It seemed the high spirits that my parents and grandmother usually had were lost. Even my friends were subdued. Everyone's face seemed expressionless, dark and brooding.

Seeing the stark faces, I was afraid to inquire about the reasons for the overwhelming moroseness. But, one lucky moment, I found Mukut, all alone by my bed and asked, ``Mukut, what's wrong? Why don't you talk to me like you used to?''

Mukut scanned the room cautiously, and told me in a hush, ``Xoon, you don't know because you were very sick. Because of the severity of your illness, we were not allowed to come close to you all these days. Since you are a little bit better, only now we have gathered the courage to come near you.''

I asked Mukut the question, whose answer I anxiously had awaited from the very moment I regained consciousness. ``Mukut, how is Baai Xeuti doing? Have you seen her recently?''

Once again, Mukut looked around carefully, wearing a grave face. He came closer to the bed and said almost inaudibly.

``Xoon, it's a long story. I don't think I have the time to tell you everything today. Moreover, you are not fully well yet. Once you are back to normal, I will tell you all.''

Hearing such ominous words, I impatiently grasped his hand and pulled him closer to me, pleading, ``Mukut, I know I am weak, but I can't wait a moment longer. Tell me right now if Baai Xeuti is alright; I don't know why, but I have had very disturbing thoughts. Did she have an accident like I did?''

Unable to skirt my request, Mukut sat by my side, and continued in a low voice. ``Xoon, you have guessed right. Xeuti Baai had a very big accident. She is no longer here.''

``Has she vanished? Where has she gone?''

``She hasn't gone anywhere. She is dead!''

``She is dead!''

``She committed suicide a few days ago.''

``Oh dear! Why did she do such a terrible thing to herself?''

``I think it just happened.''

``From the moment she came to know of the sudden terror that visited you on the way back from her house, she became restless. Day after day, she came and stood by the gate of your house to find out more about your condition. But, your parents and grandmother did not let her come inside even once. Every day they hurled loud and harsh insults at her.''

``Hearing you were extremely weak, she came, one day, with a ripe pomegranate and some grapes. On that day too, your grandmother chased her rudely away. Not only that, she got the old hag Jaapori to snatch the fruits from Baai Xeuti, and throw them into the gutter.''

``Towards the end of your sickness, when you were still suffering from high fever, every night in sleep you raved about a kitten. Hearing this, Baai Xeuti came with a kitten one day. Even on that day your grandmother and old Jaapori did not let Baai Xeuti cross the gate. They shouted all manners of insults at her and forced her to leave.''

``As a result of all this, Baai Xeuti was very distracted; she stayed home most of the time.''

``Your grandmother and your parents did not stop harassing her at that; they couldn't forgive her for what happened to you. They went to the court and filed an official complaint with the magistrate. A few days later, policemen in uniform came and surrounded her house. They threw all her belongings out on the front porch. They tried to force her to leave her house. She pleaded with them by saying she would leave by herself in a few days.''

``I think it was the day after that, that your condition became suddenly very critical. The doctor said only the night would tell. Hearing this, we became very morose, and secretly went to her house to let her know. She cautiously invited us inside and spoke to us very sadly. ``My children! You all are very dear to me. I have never thought evil of Xoon, even for a moment. I have never done anything remotely inauspicious for him. I have been praying to God day and night for his health. Even then, if I made any mistake or I sinned without knowing any better, I am fully prepared to atone for it. You are my witnesses. I promise, if it brings back Xoon's health, I will very gladly sacrifice my body for him. I just want Xoon to feel better. I don't want him to suffer. I don't want him to die.'' ''

``Baai Xeuti hanged herself that night, inside her own house. And, surprisingly, you started getting better from that night onwards.''

``The day after, we secretly went to see her empty house from a distance. We saw a large number of uniformed policemen. They looked in every nook and cranny of her house, wrote things down in their notebooks, and took her dead body in the yellow hospital van.''

After recounting all this, Mukut, whose eyes had become red and were dripping tears, stared silently at me for a long time.

Overcome by a flood of pent-up emotions, I also could not say anything, and held fast to his hand. Mukut was silent for a while longer. I broke the silence and asked him, ``Mukut, do you know anything about the kitten that Baai Xeuti wanted to give me?''

Hearing my question, Mukut undid my grasp, walked out of the room, and returned after a few minutes. He came back with a beautiful, healthy, white, polka- dotted be-ribboned cat.

``Xoon, this is the cat that Baai Xeuti wanted to give you so badly. On the last day of her life, when I visited her, she had told me, ``Mukut, I had chosen this kitten for Xoon. But it's my bad luck, I can't give it to him in person. That's why I am giving it to you. Please take good care of it, and give it to Xoon when he feels better.'' ''

Saying so, Mukut handed me the kitten like a sacred memento of the departed soul we both cherished. Both of us hugged the kitten in our bosoms, and wept uncontrollably in a pain that we could never convey to others. There was no end to our tears; it was as if our weeping eyes would never know any repose.

Even to this day, when we remember Xeuti, we remember the helpless session of weeping that the two of us shared over her.

Every once in a while, in my mind's eye, I visualize Baai Xeuti's compassionate eyes from a distance. I see her sitting under the luscious pomegranate tree, weaving clothes on her loom!

Sometimes, when I am not busy, I try to reflect in my own mind. What was it in the sparkle of Baai Xeuti's beautiful eyes that made a child pursue her attention and company so passionately? Was it a youthful crush? Was it juvenile attraction that was transient? Or, was it love, whose depth we still cannot fathom despite the wisdom that adulthood has given us.

 


Translated from the Assamese original ``Abuj Maayaa,'' Axomiyaa Galpa Gussa, edited by Maheswar Neog, Jogesh Das and Narayan Sarma, Axom Xahitya Xabha, 1984.

Roma Das (1909-1981) is a well-known Assamese short story writer. He is most well-known for his romantic stories.

Jugal Kalita teaches computer science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The translator thanks Jennifer Mulson, Joan Stephens, and Mary Lou Haag for their comments on earlier versions of the translated story.