Time to Fly
(The original story was written in 90’s and is included in author’s Odia anthology Sabuja Upatyaka (ISBN: 978- 81-906605-3-7) under the title ‘Udibar Bela’ and is first time translated into English. For Western readers, this story may torch light on the Eastern milieu of socialization for girls in society.)
That was the first letter ever addressed to Suparna. Before that, a greeting card with the picture of a boot house in Mumbai had come to her from her cousin who studied in Bhubaneswar. He had sent cards to all the children and one of those was for Suparna.
Her anxiety was swinging in the hands of her father’s elder brother. Who has sent her the letter? Her contact was confined to her home and her school which was a girls-only school. There was no chance of any letter from anyone. Her uncle, without his glasses, was taking time to read the name on the envelope, “Who, Jay……….Jay”.
“Jayanti?” Suparna muttered, unable to control her anxiety. She had come to know about this girl called Jayanti only15 days ago. An excursion bus had stopped in front of their house on its way from a girl’s school near Rourkela. It was between seven-thirty and eight o’clock in the evening. The bus had stopped so the girls could go to the washroom and there had been a power cut in the town. Some young guys roaming around in the paan shops started loitering around the bus. The teachers of the girl’s school were scared and wanted to leave as soon as possible. She had met Jayanti just for a moment when she had come to her house to use the toilet and they had exchanged addresses in her brother’s room.
Uncle said, “No, not Jayanti; it is Jaydev.” Jaydev? No, she was not at all familiar with this name. She was in eighth grade in a girl’s school. Before this, even in the co-educational school she attended, she did not know anyone called Jaydev.
Uncle had a tinge of sarcasm in his tone. “Your father was asking Soma, ‘Why her college friends are coming home?’” Suparna could not listen to all the other comments he was making. She was shaking with fear and shame.
She had felt a new kind of attraction looking at the boys but there were always restrictions. She could not go out to the market at will; cycling around was unimaginable; she could not even jump around on the rooftop or climb on the guava trees; she could not laugh loudly or sit in front of an open window. She remembered clearly that she had to sit for seven days in a room where no men could come -- that first experience of puberty, that feeling of meaninglessness. Why this? Why that? The questions kept changing her appearance. When she came out from the dark, she had kajal in her eyes, red bindi on her forehead, and blushing cheeks -- a beautywith heavy feet that could not be touched by the torments of the heat.
Finally uncle gave her the letter. As soon as she got the letter she ran to the place behind the new stationary shop set up by her uncle. The letter had been from Jaydev who had come to Cuttack to do his diploma in engineering. He had found her name in the penpal column of a monthly magazine and sent the letter as a courtesy. He had extended his hand in friendship.
Somebody had given her the postal stamp with a picture of the moon and the Apollo spaceship. Suparna had been very excited to see the stamp and had kept it with her as she really liked it. As she kept thinking what she could do with the stamp, she kept it inside the novel she was reading. And then she used the stamp to send her details to the penpal column of a monthly magazine. She never imagined that the Apollo stamp would be instrumental for a new relationship.
This was the first time she was thinking a lot about the relation with the boy. Since childhood, she was always more friendly with boys than with girls. When she was born, no one in her family or her uncle’s family had any daughter for three or four years. And even after her birth, no girl was born in the household for several years.
Her mother always talked about amazing things about Suparna’s birth and how she had only one thing in her mind: the birth of a son -- her own son. It was a winter night. Even the severe cold could not disturb her mother. On the other hand, she kept on putting all her strength to open the door so that Suparna could come out but she would not. She was beating and hammering from inside to come out from the closed cave. Her mother narrated the incident in a strange way. Maybe it was laziness or maybe it was the excitement of having lived through the time -- the time when her mother was really unhappy.
“I must have prayed for a son to all the gods and goddesses I could remember. You know your father, right? He was upset because I had two daughters previously, one after the other. You were born at three in the morning. Your father had been to Kharagpur on business. I had cried throughout the night. I prayed to all gods. ‘Oh God, make this girl into a boy by the end of this night.’ I must have opened the cloth to check whether you had turned to a boy. Old Sadhua had been to fetch the nurse. He kept on consoling me throughout the night when he saw me in that state. In the morning your aunt came and kept on smiling behind the corner of her saree. Your father did not look at my face for almost 15 days. Your grandmother had come to cook special food but she also, along with your aunts, did not stop to spare a word or two. Special food to the mother for this girl child! As if a mound of gold has dropped from heaven!”
Suparna was never a mound of gold for her family. But she became a way for a mound of gold as a male child had been born two years after her birth. Grandmother was patting her back while combing hair and was saying, “Yours is really a golden back, who carried a boy for your mother.” She was telling to her mother, “Remember, you will give her a sufficient quantity of gold jewelries during her marriage as dowry.”
There was no science behind it but certain events were attached to it. Suparna’s mother said that her granny had fed her mother a worm from Suparna’s shit putting it inside a banana, with a hope that the next one would be a male child. How horrible! Suparna felt like vomiting when she thought about it. She felt sad for her mother’s destiny; for the destiny of all women. Why did such things happen to women?
Since childhood, she had been dressed up like a boy. Her hair was cut in a boyish style, so much so that they used to shave her on the neck and around the ears. Her nick name also sounded like a boy’s nick name. Even for a long time after her younger brother was born, she was always dressed like a boy. Moreover, there were no girls in the family when she was growing up; so her childhood was spent with boys playing with swords made from stems of plants or iron rods and throwing stones at piles of cigarettes boxes. After she was a bit older, her cousins started learning how to ride bicycles; she followed suit. She sharpened the thread for kite flying and roamed around with a kite.
Sometimes Suparna had to take charge of their shop which had a dealership in controlled commodities. Her father used to entrust her with the responsibility of the shop when the manager of the shop went home on leave. The shop was attached to the godown so some servants were always around. When her father was not there, some of the servants would come and mutter a few words of film songs near Suparna who would sit near the cash box. The older servants would sometimes shout at the younger ones or take them away from the area. Suparna never liked all those pranks of those young boys but even then, she never complained to her father. Under the garb of the boy, a girl was always a girl. Some people would look at her with excitement while others would give her dirty looks. She had to bear this. Otherwise, how could a bold girl like Suparna tolerate all this? Or maybe she just shrugged it off.
But Jaydev’s letter had brought for her a bit of fear, a bit of hesitation. She had pondered over whether she should reply to the letter and then suddenly, she sat down to reply. Before that, she had written essays and letters on notebooks but never on the envelope. How would she address him? Dear friend? Jaydev? Or, Brother Jaydev ?
After the exchange of three to four letters, she felt more and more comfortable. This was a bold step for Suparna in their family. Her father used to be so busy with his business, he did not know who was studying in which class nor did he know when anyone was sick with diarrhea or typhoid. By that time, Suparna had three more brothers and sisters. In spite of all his busy schedules, his family was expanding. When the children were to be born, he would stay at home; he would be sad if the baby was a girl and happy if the baby was a boy.
But Suparna’s mother no longer tolerated this kind of reaction from her father. Plus, her mother and father were not always on good terms anymore. Suparna’s mother believed her father gave more importance to Suparna’s aunt compared to her. No one knew how much truth there was but Suparna’s mother said those things when she talked about the past. “What can I say, my dear daughter? All three of you girls were born one after the other. Your father is not so good afterall. Your aunt was persuading him to marry again. Your aunts would not look at my face in the morning because I was condemned for not bearing a son.”
Even after her two brothers were born, there were occasionally misunderstandings between her parents over her uncle’s household. Uncle was without work for a long time after his huge shop had to be shut down because of a case over sales tax. Some money was being spent on the case. In the meantime, Somani, her cousin, was studying medicine so money could not be sent regularly. So Suparna’s father sometimes sent money. Apart from this, uncle had a habit of inviting the rich and famous to dinner. By that time, he had gotten into the habit of borrowing money and spending it. He used to sell property which belonged to all the brothers. Sometimes he would mortgage the common property and get a loan from the bank. There was always a lack of money in uncle’s household. The harvest from his land would not last for a year. The land was simply not enough. He had to buy rice and this was an unusual thing for the family. Suparna’s father used to help him at times. And this was the reason behind the fights between her parents. Suparna’s mother used to be very angry. She used to say, “Who helped me when I was in need? How much they have tormented me? How they had ridiculed me? This man does not have any brain. I hope I have seven daughters so that my children would get the money and there would be nothing left to give his brother.”
One day, Jaydev came over to their place. Her uncle’s younger son came and informed her that somebody was looking for her.
‘Who will look for me?’ Suparna thought. Her friends from school always came straight into the house. Who is this person standing at the gate looking for her? Until today, everyone used to request Suparna to please go and inform her father. Who is looking for her now? Suparna came out hurriedly.
He must have been 18 or 19 years old with a thin and tall figure. As soon as he saw her he asked, “Can you recognize me?” There was no chance of recognizing him; they had never exchanged pictures. Nonetheless they could each figure out that they were Jaydev and Suparna. Suparna was dwarfed in the presence of Jaydev. Suparna had put on a red frock printed with flowers. She lifted her face and looked at the boy. He smiled and said “I am Jaydev.”
A shiver ran through Suparna -- the same Suparna who could cross crowded streets with her bike; who ravaged through the town; who could rebut anyone without hesitation. Will she say Namsakar? What would she talk about? Jaydev was standing at the gate, the same place where Somani’s friends used to come and gossip for hours. But this was different.
Suparna never felt uncomfortable when Somani was standing and gossiping with her friends but some people in the household were uncomfortable. Some approved of it while others criticized it. It was not exactly approval but they had to come to accept the fact that without this gossiping with boys, Somani could not get on with her education. For the first time, they had seen the sight of the dissection of a frog which lay on a tray and Somani expertly cut it through with scissors. While she was still doing her ISc, everyone in the household accepted she would study medicine. So no one ever complained about boys coming over to the house.
By that time Somani’s cousin brother had started working in the nearby subdivision. He used to come home sometimes on Sundays or during some holidays. He and Suparna’s uncle never got along because uncle wanted to sell him at a heavy price in the marriage market. But he always found some fault or other with each and every girl who was shown to him. According to him, some girls were squint-eyed; some were limping; some were stammering. Everyone was talking behind his back that he had had an affair with someone. But her brother got along quite well with Suparna’s father, who consulted her cousin brother on everything.
Once an unpleasant incident happened with Somani when her brother was visiting home during his holidays. It seemed like it was election time. Some students from the college came home to do some election propaganda around ten o’clock at night. Before they could meet Somani, they came across her brother. No one knew why matters became serious but there were some attacks. Suparna’s father, who came home a few minutes after the incident, had supported her brother. More than her brother’s attacks, her father’s support for him created a different kind of situation at home. Uncle was angry. And so was Somani. The sights of Somani gossiping with boys at the gate were not seen after she left for medical school.
After a long time after his first visit, Jaydev was once again appeared at the gate. Wondering where she could have him sit, she took him to her brother’s room. That room used to be vacant after her brother had left home.
In front of her brother’s room was her uncle’s newly opened stationery shop. Her uncle had mortgaged their home and got a loan from the bank with which he got his daughter married and set up the shop. Somani’s elder sister was dark and had to be given a lot of dowry for her to get married. Even though the shop was kept open throughout the day, uncle never used to be in the shop. Instead, he would spend his days at the card club. Apart from the shelves on both sides of the room, uncle’s shop and brother’s room had only the curtain as a partition. So whenever any customer came to the shop, one of the children would go and sell the goods at a price of their choice.
Suparna had no choice but to take Jaydev to that room and got him seated because at that time, her grandfather’s old house was being rebuilt. Everything was gone except for a bedroom and the kitchen. Suparna left Jaydev sitting in that room and went into another room. Her father was suffering from malaria at that time and shivering very badly from high fever.Her mother was pressing his legs on top of the blanket. Suparna went and stood nearby. Her father’s shirt was hanging on the bed poles. She was scared to ask; but she had no choice.
“Baba, may I have two rupees?”
“Why?” he asked.
“A pen friend is here. I want to get some snacks for him.”
“Pen friend?” both the parents questioned at the same time.
Suparna could not say anything. Baba was perhaps irritable because of his illness and with an irritating tone said, “Take it.”
Suparna put her hand inside his pocket, took two rupees, and fled to the nearby shop to buy some snacks for Jaydev. Even after he ate the snacks, Jaydev kept on sitting there. Suparna had thought that she could get him to go after the snack but this thought proved to be wrong. When Jaydev showed no sign of leaving, Suparna asked him, “Do you have any work to attend to here?”
“Not really” said Jaydev. “I just came to see you again. Do you know when the next bus to go back to Cuttack is?”
Suparna felt blood draining out from her face when she heard those words from Jaydev. She became pale. That meant Jaydev was not leaving just then because from their place, the bus to Cuttack left around three-thirty and the train was at four o’clock. So will he sit here all this time?
In the meantime, the aunts had peeped into the room. A few of them had already asked, “Who is he? Why is he here? How does he know you?”
Suparna was unable to explain the concept of ‘pen friends’ to her aunts. Apart from that, what could she talk about with this boy whom she had just come to know?
Suparna left Jaydev in her brother’s room and went inside the kitchen in the pretense of doing some household chores. Since her father’s illness, her mother could not fully attend to the kitchen. That’s why she had to help her sister in grinding the spices and cutting the vegetables. But of course, she went and checked on Jaydev to see what he was doing.
Jaydev was sitting in the empty room. No one went inside the room and he didn’t come out of the room. That was when it all happened. Uncle had come back from the card club to take his lunch. He may have asked Jaydev something when he saw him sitting in her brother’s room. Aunt or someone may have complained to him. During that time Suparna’s elder sister Minani was arranging food on a plate for Jaydev. Suparna was getting the salt and the water. Uncle got into Suparna’s bedroom. When Suparna’s mother saw him, she covered her head with saree and left the room.
Uncle was saying “Just come and see. You were accusing my Soma, now come and see what your daughter is doing.”
She was dumbstruck with the words of her uncle. These were perhaps the final words; these were perhaps the ultimate secret -- to bring an end to the long anxiety welling up inside Suparna. The clouds that were hovering for a long time had at last rained. The girl who had not gotten over her childhood innocence suddenly became old with those words.
Minani was numb for a moment as she was serving rice. But her father never got up. He didn’t shout at Suparna. He did not say, “Throw the boy out.” Uncle kept on hoping her father would say something but her father never uttered a single word. In the other room, Suparna could feel her father’s helplessness. There was a difference of eight years between Somani and Suparna. A small question was perhaps haunting him -- the helplessness of a father perhaps?
(Translated by Gaurav Nayak
Edited by Paul McKenna)