Velvet Mites by Basanta Kumari Patnaik

    translated by Rohan Kar

    “Auntie, I sold the house,” said Nanda with a dry smile, as she continued eating.

    Dheera’s mother’s face wilted. She wanted to protest, but what came out of her mouth was merely an echo of Nanda’s announcement- “You sold the house!”

    “What else was I supposed to do with it, Auntie? I’ll be provided living quarters wherever I get sent to for work…besides, this is the only way I can manage my expenses abroad for these two years. It is not as if I have any donors!”

    Feigning the air of someone who is managed to get a massive burden off their shoulders, Nanda stood grinning.

    Without stepping out, she will not be able to nurture her ambitions –Nanda is acutely aware of this. As long as she’s home, she will constantly be forced to dwell on the memories of all who lost to time; no one will give her any heart to peek into the future. And so, she wishes to go far, very far…to someplace where she would be able to escape the gentle spectres of her past- her mother, father, brother, and this place she calls home. During these two years, she will lose herself entirely in her books. Until she completes her M.A., she will not come back.

    “Darling, how will you manage there? You barely get around to your three-square meals here. At this rate, you will completely wither away at the end of your two years there, won’t you? You are going to be in a foreign land…even if you are starving, who is going to check on you?

    Nanda’s grin was now bordering on a chuckle. She decided to interrupt her aunt’s torrent of concerns.

    “Oh, Aunty! The world has come a long way. Who even cares about such silly things anymore?”

    Try as she might, Dheera’s mother could not wipe away the look of bewilderment from her face. She looked uncertainly at Nanda.
    “Poor orphaned girl…if only she could hear herself!”

    In an attempt to silence the voice in her head, she shifted her attention to Nanda’s plate.
    “Here, darling, have another banana cutlet. Just one more?”

    “No, no, I’m good,” protested Nanda gently, her mouth still full of food.

    “A good thing should always be had in moderation. Or else, it loses its charm. Let me take my own sweet time with this.”

    Dheera’s mother put two more cutlets on Nanda’s plate.

    “Won’t you have some more curd?”

    To prevent the imminent contact of her aunt’s steadily advancing hand to her plate, Nanda hastily covered it with both her palms.

    “Please Auntie, no more, I’m already full to the brim…I don’t have any room left even for a sip of water…anyway, you’re the one always telling us to never stuff ourselves,” said Nanda, with as much firmness as she could gather.

    “All you girls do these days is throw tantrums! Each one of you is more puffed up than the next. You are in the prime of your youth…you can make short work of even boulders…instead, you lot end up whining and gasping after just a few pecks!

    Dheera’s mother got up and left. Nanda’s gaze, which was no longer fixed on her plate, tailed her distractedly. For the next few moments, as she kept looking at her, musings of varying hues eddied in her mind.

    How boundless was this woman’s love and affection! Nanda’s Auntie Dearest…with her coconut broomstick-like frame. Despite being well-heeled, in all these years, never had Nanda seen her put on an extravagant piece of clothing. On the odd occasion that she took this matter up with her, she always shot her down with a snarky retort.

    “You girls better worry about your own sense of fashion…why do you expect an old-timer like me to play dress-up?”

    She reminded Nanda of her other aunt, from her father’s side. Their features bore a tremendous likeness to one another. Except, this other aunt owned a saree with a distinctly red velvet border. When she draped it around herself, every path she trod on seemed to acquire a celestial glow.

    How splendid would Dheera’s mother look in it!

    Once she lands a job, she will buy a saree just like that for her aunt.

    Dheera cut in on Nanda’s cascade of thoughts.

    “Oi, where is your mind at? You have not touched your food in a while. Are you upset over what mother said? She has this problem…does not stop serving until you are bursting at the seams. I absolutely hate it when anyone tries to force-feed me.

    “No, Dheera, if anything, we are lucky that we get to hear things like this,” said Nanda, with a wistful sigh.

    As Dheera directed her attention back to her plate, Nanda found herself thinking, over and over again, about all the things her own mother used to tell her. If only she were alive today!

    ***

    Two years later.

    Everyone has gone their own way after the university exams; Nanda, however, has stayed put. For a little while, she will be teaching at a school there. Now that she has sold her house, what else could possibly lure her back home? Yet, her heart remains ill at ease. Every now and then, the longing to return to those old friends, to that old house becomes impossible to quell. She has not kept in touch with anyone…Dheera wrote four letters to her during her first year, of which Nanda has not replied to the last three. Dheera must be angry… it is okay, within a few days her results will be out; then, she will write back. It has been so many days anyway, surely, she will not mind waiting for a few more?

    The school holidays are fast approaching. University results are out. Seeing her name in the first division column, Nanda’s eyes could not help but well up- her mother could not see this, her father could not see this, her brother could not see this. There is no one to partake in her success- in plain sight, they hoodwinked her and one by one, departed before their time. Amidst the vast skies and seas, she has been left all alone. To this day, her father’s last words ring in her ears. “Nanda, I had always wished to see you teaching in a college…I’ve spoken with your mother…she’ll never obstruct your path.”

    Nanda’s mother forsook her on the heels of her father’s demise. Today, she has fulfilled everyone’s wishes; still, her own desires lie unfulfilled. There is no one to lend an ear….

    Her mind circled back to Dheera’s mother. She is the only one who is left. Only she would celebrate her wins unconditionally…like a mother…back home Dheera, too, would have appeared for her exams…who knows how she fared? Maybe she did well. All at once, she is overcome with a feverish yearning to go back home.

    Home!! The home she sold before coming here… but, of course, there are distant relatives who would take her in. After copious amounts of deliberation, Nanda finally made up her mind to head back.

    Eight more days until she gets her break from school. Nanda is done with shopping; she has grabbed a little something for everyone. Now, she can breathe a lot easier. Just one thing remains- a saree with a red border for Dheera’s mother.

    Though she has scoured one shop after another, the sweltering heat leaving her head splitting and her flesh incensed, she has not been able to find the saree she is looking for. Lugging around a bag chock-full of odds and sods, she has spared no shop in sight, posing the same query to them all- “Do you have a white saree with a red velvet border?”

    “We do.”

    The answer brings the throbbing in her head to a halt, if only briefly. Awash in keenness, her eyes light up.

    “Can I see?”

    Nanda sits down.

    First, the shopkeeper fetches a pile from their most expensive section and keeps it in front of Nanda, only to be met by her stabbing objection.

    “I’m not interested in any of these. Show me a white saree with a red border.”

    That pile gets cleared up. In its place, appears another, this time comprising clothes made from sheer fabrics. While they untie it, Nanda deftly glances over the remaining borders occupying their shelves.

    “I think you might have been mistaken…I want a white saree with a red velvet border. Are you following me?”

    “Exactly as plush and bright as a red velvet mite.” Ever so often, these words perch themselves on Nanda’s tongue but they never take flight. How could any shopkeeper make sense of this?

    Then, she stages another charitable attempt at providing clarity.

    “Deep red- like vermillion.”

    Invariably, the shopkeeper’s face shrivels up at Nanda’s demands. Leaving the piles unattended, he scouts out one or two sarees with red borders.

    “Here you go.”

    “No, not this red.”

    Dejected, Nanda soon makes herself scarce.

    After facing a string of disappointments for two consecutive days in this fashion, her eyes suddenly chanced upon a saree with a red border kept inside a glass cabinet one day. It belonged to a small shop. With immense purpose, she walked inside and requested them to let her have a look. Such was the redness of its border, and so sublime its glisten, that it could transfix any pair of eyes it met. Nanda could hardly conceal the shimmer in her eyes. This is just what she had been looking for since the last two days!!

    Wrapping the saree in a piece of paper, Nanda started for her room. There were still six days remaining until the school break.

    ***

    Though she had brought along her little cousin, Nanda was struggling to wrest herself free from the company of her thoughts during their journey – Dheera will straight up refuse to talk with her…she has not bothered to check in with her since a full year…that is why she is sore…she’ll certainly give her an earful. It is all right…Nanda will even put up with a thrashing… Dheera will certainly understand why she could not write back? Just how terribly disconsolate could she be?… For the past two years, she had completely estranged herself from the world at large…if one were to ask her what she had the night before; she would probably end up returning a blank stare, such was the degree of unconsciousness that had gripped her.

    The salt cedar tree, the one she holds extremely dear, is beckoning to her from afar…the buildings with whom she is all-too-familiar are inching closer to her, one at a time…how drastically has this place changed in a mere couple of years…yet she has remained as is- not a single thing about her has changed…would Dheera have changed? Probably not…and Dheera’s mother? Would not she be delighted to see her again! To date, Nanda has not quite been able to forget her characteristic slender lips and the slight smile that sits pretty on them…whatever the torment of Dheera’s wrath, curses, and blows, that smile would wipe it all clean…!

    Pushing the gate open, Nanda lets herself in. She is all agog to see Dheera. She looks around- there is no hint of Dheera anywhere. Bracing herself for Dheera’s rebukes, she keeps walking, caution binding her feet, a smile plastered on her face. Dheera is reading. She lifts her head and gawks at Nanda, unfamiliarity writ large across her eyes. Nanda does not lose heart; she was not expecting any better.

    “I know you are upset with me, Dheera…and that’s totally valid…but think about me once…who else do I have but you?”

    Dheera turns her face away in the other direction. Nanda is not going to give in till she elicits a response from her.

    “Look…I got a saree for Auntie…what do you think?”

    Excitedly, she starts unfolding the saree, allowing the smile on her face to get broader and broader.
    “I did not tell you earlier because I thought you would make fun of me. Truth be told, I have been meaning to do this for the longest time- to buy her a saree with a red velvet border once I start earning…you come from money, it is different for you…but an indigent like me has nothing more valuable than this….”

    Resting in unhurried grace across her arms, the saree holds Nanda’s gaze spellbound.

    “Listen, do you think Auntie will laugh at this saree?” she asks, rather startled.

    Seemingly out of nowhere, her ears pick up a familiar voice. Dheera’s mother, who is walking toward her daughter, stops in her tracks. Nanda turns her head- there at the entrance, is the portrait of a widow. With an alarming urgency, her eyes remain fixated on this portrait. Her mouth hangs open…the red border of the saree, in an act of stone-cold derision, slips from her grip and falls onto the floor.

    Nanda is stunned into silence. She is frozen slack-jawed. A storm has unleashed itself in her heart- a storm of memories. In the past two years, Nanda had not blotted out the whole world- she had simply veiled herself from the one she knew intimately. She had come back to gauge, she had come back to understand whether she had changed or not…however, her world had shifted drastically in those two years. This world was now pointing a finger at her, saying, “If you don’t spend every single day of your life with me, if you don’t spend all your days trying to know me better, this is how I will change.”

    Not a single peep has escaped her mouth, and yet she is running out of breath, gasping as if she had been talking incessantly. Sure, the world has changed. The world has changed, and, in the process has set fire to all its infinite joys. But, has the air changed, too?

    Rohan Kar is a writer, translator, and film maker based out of Cuttack, Odisha. His short fiction has been published in the Monograph Mag, and in the anthology, “Room No. 312”, published by Walking Bookfairs. He takes a keen interest in things existing at the intersection of culture, language, and policy.

    Basanta Kumari Patnaik (1923-2012) was an Odia novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, and essayist. She completed her MA in economics from Ravenshaw University, Cuttack. She founded the publishing firm Shanti Nibas Bani Mandira along with her brother; it was active from 1959-1962. Her three novels, Amada Bata, Chorabali, and Alibha Chita brought her into the limelight and established her as a writer of formidable skill and insight. Amada Bata later went on to be adapted into a well-recognized Odia film by the same name. She is a recipient of Atibadi Jagannath Das Samman, Odisha’s highest literary award, conferred by the Odisha Sahitya Akademi. She was the first Odia woman writer to be feted with this prize and to date, remains the only one.

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