#ReadWomen: Written in Tears by Arupa Patangia Kalita

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

and pigeons.

 

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s