Excerpted from Arupa Patangia Kalita’s book of short stories, Written in Tears, translated from the Assamese by Ranjita Biswas. Out now in a special Harper Perennial keepsake edition.
The Girl with Long Hair
Mainao stands on her toes at the threshold of youth. She is
a cheerful, attractive girl with small, twinkling eyes and
rounded limbs taut with the touch of sun and rain. Her complexion
is a sunburnt brown, with tints of copper. When she laughs, her
small eyes crinkle and look even smaller.
The firstborn in her family, Mainao has three younger siblings.
Her father teaches in a primary school about three kilometres
away; her mother takes care of the household. They are not too
badly off; there is enough rice in the granary, cattle in the shed and
arecanut trees and betel-leaf creepers aplenty in the kitchen garden.
This is the year of Mainao’s all-important matriculation exam.
She works hard at her lessons morning and evening, although
she’s not very bright at studies and would much rather do the
household chores instead. And how well she does them! When
she swabs the courtyard, it looks so neat that you could eat off the
floor! When she cuts loose the warm shawl woven with a faroumegan
motif from the loom, even the pigeons on the roof seem
to coo their approval: ‘Why Mainao, you’ve worked our eyes and
feathers into the loom so deftly!’ When she weaves an arnai chador
in the dhekia pattern, the ferns underneath the arecanut tree bow
shyly, wondering, ‘Are we that pretty? O Mainao, you’ve made us
look so good with your weaving!’
Mainao has long lovely hair that reaches down to her hips,
black and silky and well-oiled. When she gathers it all up into a
bun at the nape of her neck, it looks only a little smaller than her
head. She is rather proud of her hair. She washes it with jetuka,
henna leaves and hibiscus flower petals. She begs her mother for
money to go trim it in the beauty parlour in the town about a
kilometre away. Her parents scold her sometimes because of the
preoccupation with her hair. But who can be angry with Mainao
for long? She will be crestfallen for some time and then grin.
Nowadays, she likes to imitate a Hindi film heroine with long hair.
Like her she embellishes her hair with colourful clips. However,
her mother and others who see her busy with the household
chores—swabbing, weaving, cooking—are not aware what goes
on in the girl’s mind. When she returns from the parlour in the
town, she washes her hair with hibiscus or jetuka leaves and then
with the colourful clips adorning her hair stands near the gate in
front of the house. At these moments, can anyone peep into her
mind? No. Secretly she plays and laughs with a young man. Th e
image of the young man is vague; he is somewhat similar to the
handsome young man who courts with his songs full of yearning
and running on the sea beach with the heroine whom Mainao
adores. Sometimes he seems to look like the son of the headmaster
of her father’s school, who is now studying somewhere in a distant
city outside Assam. When she thinks of him, she seems to be
assailed by the citrus scent of a lemon flower.
Th e headmaster’s son had visited their house once. His father
had sent some papers to her father through him. He was home
on summer holiday. Mainao had served him tea and steamed
tekeli pitha filled with ground sesame seed and jaggery. After he
finished off three at a go, her mother had asked if he would like
to have some more. He had asked for two more. Mainao’s parents
had praised him a lot. After he left, the house was filled with an aroma like that of lemon flowers. He perhaps had bought the bottle of perfume in the city where he was studying, she thought.
She wanted to ask him if he could bring a bottle for her as well
the next time he came home. She would pay, of course! She had
some money stashed away from selling three pigs, chickens
One day as she went to the town with her friends she tried to
inhale the perfume bottles in the shop that sold cosmetics. She
was disappointed; not a single bottle had that lemonish aroma.
So she bought another, quite nice though, in a beautiful bottle.
They had reached home late that day. Her mother was waiting
anxiously at the front gate, her father cycled to the four-lane
junction searching for her. Reaching home, she faced a barrage
of admonishment from her parents. Wasn’t she aware of what was
happening all around? Th e andolon was at its zenith. How many
boys were like the son of the headmaster, anyway? Most of the
young men had left their studies or work and joined the agitation.
Th e boys had learnt lots of new things, even how to use the gun
and ammunition. They had a lot of power now. Even the elderly in
the society were scared of them. Th e demand for their own state
had changed a lot of things. Wasn’t Mainao aware of it?
Mainao does not bother much about these things. Sometimes
people come out in processions, sometimes there is a call for a
bandh, sometimes the boys get into skirmishes with the police
and the army personnel, but those things had been happening
elsewhere, not in her village. She has heard from others that there
were even shootings between the rival parties sometimes. But
these meetings, processions, people piling into buses and trucks
to hold public demonstrations, or shutting down roads and train
lines, have been happening since long—what’s the big deal? She
has grown up seeing all this. Her ears are tired of listening to the
same old instructions from her parents—don’t go there, don’t do this, and so on. Th ese things have happened and will continue
happening is her philosophy. For these mundane things, why
should she stop going to the bazaar if she needs threads for the
loom, or when she wants to buy a pair of earrings, clips for her hair
or a chain? So she gets very angry when her parents go on and on
with these warnings about trouble. Isn’t there anything else to talk
about except this?
About the book:
A half-burnt bus passes through a city charring everything alive and beautiful in its wake. The newly wed Arunima watches helplessly as the aftermath of her insurgent brother-in-law’s absence engulfs her husband’s large, loving family. Ayengla secretly supplies food to the insurgents until, one day, a horrible act of violence changes her life irrevocably. A bold and sensitive witness to her times, Arupa Patangia Kalita is one of the most powerful voices in contemporary Assamese literature. Written in Tears brings together some of her best novellas and stories set against a surreally beautiful landscape torn and scarred by conflict. This is a mighty chronicle of the disturbing and searing history of aggression and hate that has plagued Assam for decades.
About the author:
Arupa Patangia Kalita has received the Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad Award (1995), Katha award (1998), Sahitya Sanskriti Award (2009), Lekhika Samaroh Sahitya award (2011) and most recently, the Sahitya Akademi Award (2014). Ranjita Biswas received the Sahitya Akademi Award for her translation in 2017.