The tender morning sun peeps into the little room through the cracks of the termite-sculpted, half-broken window, and comfortably sits on the wall of Sanatombi’s mud-house. The wall is as colourless as the fate and the fanek of Sanatombi, and proudly flaunts a two-year old calendar from the IMA medical store. The half-lit room shows three figures - Manikanta the man, Sanatombi the wife and Shashikanta, the child. The man and the child, by virtue of their being the present and the future bread-earners of the house, are seen sleeping on the only bed in the room, while the wife is somehow happily asleep on an old torn mat spread on the mud floor.
It would take less than sixty seconds for you to count the items in the living cum bed cum dining cum kitchen room - one bed, one steel trunk, a wooden chair with a broken handle, a small table divided into two halves - one half heaped with old books, cheap note-books and half-chewed pencils and the other half, a home to unattended dirty clothes. In the eastern corner, lies a cooking station which has been made using six bricks placed in a way that the mouth of the oven is wide enough to accommodate maximum thick dry twigs. Utensils, like the furniture, are minimum- a rice pot, a kadhaai, two bowls, a jug and a spoon. There is no plate seen as the food is always served on the banana-leaf. They name it tradition, we call it poverty. There is also a clothesline that stands between the kitchen and the sleeping zone, serving as a poor partition between the two.
Sanatombi opens her eyes and looks around. The men are fast asleep. The husband is snoring badly, with his hands on the chest and the mouth wide open. She gets up from the earthen-bed and wraps the inafi tightly around her body, for mornings are usually cold even during summertime in this hilly area of ‘Shaamu- leikai’. Legend has it that this region had hundreds of thousands of elephants during the British Raj, and hence the name, Shaamu-leikai, shaamu meaning The Elephant. Manikanta is a farm labourer who works in the fields of Hari Babu, the village mapu. Hari Babu is a powerful Shylock of the village and owns about thirty hectares of land as well as a dairy. Like him, Manikanta too owned a good amount of land in the village many years ago, but now he has lost everything to the power and treachery of Haribabu. Manikanta now survives on a meagre wage of rupees thirty-five a day, which is half the amount fixed by the government. He does not protest and goes to work every morning. But he does not get to work every day. In fact, for the last five days, Haribabu has not called him for any work in the fields and Manikanta’s betel-leaf stained trouser pockets are empty, except for a beedi or two that he had managed to borrow from one of his co-workers. Shashikanta, their only son, goes to the local paathhshaala run by the priest of the village, Atomba Sharma. He is an average student who suffers from a slight deafness as a result of nerve damage, but a surgery is clearly out of question at the moment.
When Sanatombi had got married to Manikanta ten years ago, he owned two small plots of land and three cows. They lived in a bigger house and ate nice food. She had saved some money after marriage and had successfully seduced Manikanta to gift her a gold chain and a pair of silver anklets from the local jeweler, for she loved to look beautiful. Manikanta then, was fond of her fair face and fairer bosom and had promised to always fulfill all her desires. But unlike bad times, good days die an early death. The man had to sell his fields and cows and gold and house and labour to Hari Babu to repay a huge loan that he had taken to start a new business. The business was a total flop show and soon they were forced to move into this tiny suffocating cell of a house. But Sanatombi didn’t give up. She always hoped that her husband would give her back everything - money, gold, silver, cows, and sex. But now Manikanta is most of the time, lost in grief and despair, and hardly has time to look at her pigmented face or listen to her woman-demands. Sanatombi even suggested that she should start working at Hari Babu's house as a house-help, but Manikanta's man-ego would never allow that to happen, even if they die of starvation!
This morning, when Sanatombi opened the door, she got extremely disgusted at the sight of fresh wet animal faeces lying in front of the door, and even before she could understand anything, she stepped on it. She began cursing the invisible creature and muttered, “It must be the neighbour's cat. How many times did I tell her to keep a watch on it? This is not the first day, it's happening almost every day. It releases its waste in front of my house, breaks into my kitchen through the broken window and spoils all the hard earned food that we make... there's got to be a limit... I won't tolerate this anymore.”
The mercury was rising outside and within her too. She rubbed the foul foot against a stone and washed herself repeatedly till she felt okay. She now hated the cat and wanted to teach it a lesson. When she returned, Manikanta was already awake.
She asked, “Shall I make you some tea?”
“No”, came the cold reply.
“Bring some rice today. Only a handful is left. Thankfully, there's some milk left for Shashi.”
The husband did not reply and left for the fields. He must find some work today or his family would die in a few days.
Shashi's mother ran her fingers through his hair, and softly whispered to her son.
“Dear, get ready for school. And today you will have milk for breakfast.”
“No. I hate milk. And I am not hungry. I will have rice when I return,” replied the boy of eight.
Sanatombi could not cry at her fate in front of her son. He left for school and soon she began to prepare the day's meal - last one cup of rice, one and a half boiled potatoes and a raw cucumber as salad. When the rice and potatoes were done, Sanatombi could not resist the idea of taking a nap on the bed. She had not used it for years, after Shashi began understanding things too early.
It was just a few seconds into the nap that she heard a noise in the room. As soon as she opened her sleepy eyes, she saw the big white cat almost reaching for the lid of the rice pot. She shouted and rushed towards it, but by the time she reached near it, the rice had already been spoiled. Furiously, she threw the wooden chair at the stubborn animal but it missed it, and the creature escaped the blow and fled. Sanatombi was fuming like anything. She broke into tears.
“What would I give him to eat when he returns?” the mother, once again, cursed her fate.
“Milk... where's the milk?” She was happy to find it untouched and unmoved in the jug where she had kept it the night before. “Thank God. My Shashi will have this milk if nothing else”, she murmured to herself. But just then, she had a better idea.
When Sashikanta returned from school around ten-thirty, he looked very hungry. He called out his mother but could not find her in the house. Then he looked for her in the backyard where she was busy washing clothes.
“Ima, I am hungry. Give me something to eat.”
“Sana, just wait for some time, the food is almost ready at Leima aunty’s house. Let me finish this work and get it for you.”
Shashikanta waited for ten more minutes but his mother did not show up. With the intolerable hunger playing inside his body, he opened the lid of the rice pot and found it empty. He muttered an abuse, kicked the pot, and reached for the milk-jug. Within seconds, he emptied the contents of the steel jug – one-day old milk mixed with a huge amount of pesticide kept for the shameless white cat of the neighbour's house!
- Fanek: A straight ankle length skirt worn by Manipuri women.
- Inafi: A piece of cloth covering the upper portion of the female body.
- Shaamu: Elephant
- Leikai: Locality/ Area.
- Mapu: Head/ Owner
- Ima: Mother
- Sana: A loveable person.
(Copyright: First Published in Muse India, Issue 71, January-February 2017)