My editor told me to refrain from writing a strap for this story. ‘Let the readers grasp the grief and be by themselves. It is that grim a story,’ she said.
In Cherrapunji, the rain got so dense that the visibility went down to zero. The drops are large enough to poke and prod you to discomfort. The wire dividing the road and valley are forever drenched.
Yet, Meghalaya is her home.
On the empty rain-drenched mountain roads, the moist green moss spreads itself thin. Flowers bloom unhindered on the sides. In the midst of this magic, lies Ms Wajiri’sarrack shop. It was a lone shop at the mountain bend, very few people came to Wajiri’s shop. On days of a bad earthquake, the shop would shake furiously side by side. It steadied after a few seconds. She is a single woman from the matrilineal Khasi tribe of Meghalaya. In her tiny shop, she sells tea made with strong Assam tea leaves, biscuits, Maggi and the local rice, and pork dishes.
Every morning, Wajiri wakes up to the sound of the rooster crowing at the start of dawn. From her tiny window with lace curtains, she can watch the old man carrying potatoes to sell. The potatoes are smeared with fresh mud and held in a cane basket, on his back. His gait is slow and bent. The fog and the clouds diligently enter the room, bathing her in the morning light with a biting touch. Wajiri puts the kettle on the stove for her strong cup of tea to wake up her senses. She then puts out the biscuit packets, the jars of the sour fruit, the berries as she stacks them neatly to start the day. Wajiri wears her hair in a bun and cleans her teeth with the skin of the raw betel nut before the little mirror hanging precariously on the wall of her small room. She does not linger on the sight.
Wajiri uses the little shed outside her room as her shop to earn her living. Most nights, the stray dogs sleep on the gunny sack she uses to stop the rainwater from entering her room. She doesn’t mind this. The heat from the dogs’ bodies enters her room through the gap below the door. On days of desperation and anguish, this warmth keeps her alive. She knows she won’t be alone for too long. She will be like the rest, living in a full home with Biswas’s children.
For years, she has been waiting for her Bengali lover, Mr. Biswas to marry her and take her home. Biswas had arrived in her lonely life on a rain-drenched evening. He was sad for reasons unknown to her. But there was a light in his smile that touched her heart. She offered him arrack to calm his nerves. He was cold from the winter rain, dripping to his toes. She offered him the heat from the coal burning in her mud stove. The rains poured incessantly. Biswas made himself comfortable and offered to help her cut the betel nut that Wajiri sold in the shop. Soon Biswas began frequenting her shop. They shared an unspoken comfort between them. Wajiri soon fell in love with Biswas. He gave her hope and warmth on evenings when the wind hissed like a snake in the mountains ahead. Wajiri worked with all her might during the day. She waited every evening to drink arrack with Biswas and sleep in his arms.
Biswas promised her that he would soon tell his mother of his love for the tribal queen. He called her his Syiem.
The potato seller stopped at her shop for a cup of tea, some pork, and rice. As he ate, he said Biswas won’t come anytime soon. His wife was getting ready to deliver their third child. Wajiri ignored his monologue. She knew the bond she shared with Biswas. He belonged only to her. The potato seller shook his head. Biswas is lying, he tells her. He has a Bengali wife and two children. It is common knowledge. But Wajiri refuses to acknowledge these stories about her lover.
The four years of waiting have taken a toll on her. Ms. Wajiri is now shrivelled and old. Her wait has been arduous, with long nights flooded with tears mixed with the Cherrapunji raindrops. She ruminated on the excuses Biswas made, each time she wanted to meet his family. He never spoke about them. He never stayed the entire night either. She recalled the day the strong earthquake shook off her roof. She had begged him to stay. He did not. He left her with the cracks on the walls of her home and in her heart.
Wajiri felt the weight of her grief swallow her heart. She sits quietly with her hands cupped in her little palms, chewing her betel nut and leaf, even as they left a red stain on the side of her thin lips. She ardently watches the two mynahs facing each other on the rain-drenched wires. They chirp and flutter their wings in harmony. The sun is almost fading, and the town ahead lit bright as the roads ahead are empty and dark.
Wajiri guesses the length of the drop down to the jagged edges. She shuts her eyes and without a backward glance, drops her body into the Cherrapunji Valley.
The myna birds are the only witness to the red checkered flying jainkyrshah and her free fall into oblivion. From afar, it resembled a failed parachute falling slowly, with the wind knocked out of its sails.
The lantern flickers and dies on Maggi packets left lifeless, abandoned. The two birds cosy up to share their body warmth to manage the cold inside what was once Wajiri’s old room.
The mountains of Shillong remain unwavering in their place.
Wajiri’s life was a silent act of prayer and her death was equally shrouded in a silence that is omnipresent in the quiet beauty of the place. The death of Wajiri did not make it to the local news, nor did the police check on her disappearance. It was just another case, a statistic best forgotten. Most blamed the arrack and her loose morals, turning the page to another chapter, another life. Biswas never mentioned her name either.
It’s that story where you can’t nail one issue and hence, a statistic at the end. Who was Wajiri? A woman who despite her matrilineal upbringing did not believe she was able to live, love and laugh despite the odds? How do you find a number to that?
Excerpted from Nautanki Saala and Other Stories by Mohua Chinappa, with permission from OakBridge Publishing
(Mohua Chinappa is a writer, voice-over artist and a podcaster based in Bangalore)