KAMALA

- by Bharati Mitra

[ I ]

My good name is Kamala. I was born in the year 1919 at a village in Barishal named Jhalokathi. My family members called me Shona. Though Shona literally means "gold" people normally use the name to mean "precious". 
 
The villagers respected and admired my father, the village Post Master, not only because of his job, but also because he was a man of honesty and integrity. 
Often they would visit our home and wait hesitantly having placed the freshest harvest from their garden or a fluttering fresh catch from their pond in the middle of the courtyard for my parents to come out and appreciate.    
We were eight siblings, the oldest, our "dada," being twenty-two years senior to our little sister Heera. In fact, you may think this rather odd that our "boudi" gave birth to her first born, "Baby Darling," or Dulal as he was called, a year before Heera was born. As I grew "older and wiser," at around age thirteen, I started to wonder if it was at all embarrassing for my mother to have been, at some point in her life, an "expectant" grandmother. 
Heera was six years my junior and there were two brothers, Chuni & Manik, between us. Heera was the love of my life…the apple of my eye. I carried her around and took care of her like a little mother until she learned to walk. Ever since she was a toddler, she followed me around like a shadow. She cried when my brothers and I went to school and on Sundays and holidays, she insisted on being a part of everything we did. 
Heera and I would go out with the boys to steal half-ripened mangoes from Rai-bari's mango grove, only to be chased out by the guards. At community meetings, Mr. Rai would duly report these misdeeds to our father, hoping to embarrass him, but usually without success. My father was a calm and relaxed sort of person. There was hardly anything that could throw him out of composure. He laughed openly at the news of our misdeeds and later told mother about it almost by way of a joke. Mother, however, took these pranks rather seriously and punished us severely. Once she threw us in a dark storage room where there were nothing but three chairs. She tied up my two brothers, Chuni and Manik, each to a chair with strong strings made out of jute. I thought she would spare me, but no such luck. She grabbed me and in spite of all the resistance, succeeded in tying me up to the third chair, picked up Heera (who, no more than a toddler, was looking on nervously) with an annoyed grunt, and stormed out of the room, locking the door behind her. 
That evening there was no dinner for us. We cried ourselves to sleep on those horribly uncomfortable chairs. The following morning our father came in with an exasperated expression, untied each of us, and showered us down at the well. We were later wrapped up in soft cotton towels called "gamchha," and sent to Kolu-didi in the kitchen. There we were fed hot "jhol-bhat," or fish-stew with rice, and then taken to bed. I remember how we had all run a fever from the trauma and later thought twice before going back to the mango grove. My mother's punishments were like that…always a bit too severe for the crime. 

[ II ]

We traveled far and wide each year, since travel by rail was free for the Post Master and his family, to hill stations, big cities and even to sea-side locales. A large number of peons and clerks worked under my father and at least one or two of these youngish fellows always accompanied us when we traveled. They would carry our luggage, fetch us tea and snacks at important stations, set us up at boarding houses and pretty much tend to our every need. Even though it was a lot of work accompanying a family of ten, they too benefited from these trips by being able to visit wonderful far away places which otherwise would remain quite unaffordable to them. 
One of my most favorite of these peons was Jhoru-dada, simply because he never regarded us as anything else but his own family. He would talk to my parents respectfully but fondly, he would tease us youngsters until we were ready to cry, but in other instances indulge us with sweets, balloons, rubber balls, pencils and erasers, and every little thing that we coveted and he could afford with his measly pay. 
My mother would be annoyed at Jhoru for "spoiling" us this way, but Jharu always smiled. “They are just children…they will get over this soon enough," was his ready answer. 
I would never forget the year when we had planned to travel to Bhubaneshwar. 
My mother had packed a lot of prepared food for the long journey. However, she forgot to pack "Lady Kenny," my most favorite sweet. As the train was about to leave the station, I somehow found out about this shortcoming and felt cheated and started to howl. 
Jhoru came quickly to my side but it took him a few minutes to decipher, through the wails, what it was that was bothering me. As soon as he understood, however, before my mother could stop him, he was out of the train, running towards the only sweet shop just outside of the train-station. 
He was quick as a flash, but alas, as Jhoru ran back, our train had already blown its final whistle and was well on its way out of the station. We were all leaning out of the window, my brothers yelling at the top of their lungs, warning Jhoru that he was about to miss the train, my mother screaming, asking him not to risk his life and suggesting he came in the next train. My father and I were the only silent ones…one a seemingly detached spectator, the other stupefied by the impact of the drama. 
Jhoru ran as fast as he could. As he was trying to grab the hand-rail of our compartment and at the same time keep the Lady Kenny's, packed in a large earthen pot, from dripping sugar syrup, his hand slipped and he fell, right under the wheels of the train. 
My father ran to the emergency chain and pulled it with all his might, but by the time the huge locomotive, weighing thousands of tons, finally came to a screeching halt - Jhoru had lost his right leg…completely. 
There was a mangled mass of bleeding flesh jutting out of the right side of his crotch, where his leg once was. He had been dragged a few yards by the train and practically thrown onto the tracks, and was bleeding from his head and other parts of his body as well. He was simply a bloody mess. The most incredible thing out of all this was his sheepish smile, a smile of embarrassment, it seemed, as he somehow managed to crawl back onto the platform. People were running to him from every direction. My father too jumped out of the train and ran to Jhoru. This was the very first time I saw him weep. He grabbed Jhoru's semi-conscious body, held it to his chest, and wept uncontrollably. 
Needless to say, our trip was cancelled. The train was held up for four hours inconveniencing all the other passengers. Jhoru was rushed to the local hospital where he died the next day. I have not as much as looked at a Lady Kenny ever since. 

[ III ]

Just a few months after Jharu died from the train accident, one late night, my brother Panna, who was two years my senior, had a cholera attack. No one knew that he was ill or how ill he was. He woke my mother up with a frantic cry, "I need to go!" 
She was annoyed to have to wake up from a deep slumber and barked at Panna, asking him to stop crying. My mother was an extremely hard-working woman and a perfectionist so ended up doing most of the household chores herself, in spite of having several hired help, and thus, slept deeply at night. 
She accompanied the child to the family's latrine perched atop a wooden structure. It had a wooden floor with an opening right in the middle and a large round wooden container strategically placed underneath, at the ground level. The container was emptied and cleaned by a "Harijan" woman every other day. Panna wanted to hold my mother's hand as he climbed the stairs. This annoyed my mother to no end. 
"Ten years old and still needs assistance to go to the bathroom! You are on your own, do you understand?" She hollered. Panna staggered up the staircase and entered the latrine, but once inside, soon fainted from the ravages of the deadly disease. 
My mother, after waiting a reasonable length of time, started calling his name impatiently. As there was no answer after repeated callings, she ran up the steps with lantern in hand. Finding Panna practically swimming in his own feces, she let out a blood-curdling scream. No one heard her. The latrine was situated at a remote corner of our piece of land, as far away from the main house as possible. 
My mother was a strong woman in mind and body. She somehow lifted Panna up on her shoulders and carried him back to the house…understanding the severity of the situation, knowing that these may be the last few breaths her son was taking. 
Panna fought for his life until dawn. As the first faint rays of crimson streaked the early morning sky, his last breath went out to meet the cool November breeze. 
Didi, our oldest sister, was the first one to know, after our parents, that Panna was no more. Her loud wail woke us up. My mother had turned to stone. She stared blankly at the wall. My father…yes…cried for the second time in a year. He wept silently while streaking Panna's wet hair with a trembling hand. The local "kobiraj" came over duly to write the death certificate. I remember our family was quarantined for two weeks and had to take preventive medication daily. However, many other cases of cholera broke out in the village that month and we finally decided to take that accursed trip to Bhubaneshwar after all.