This story was first published in an Odia magazine in 2009 and till now it has not been anthologised in any of my Odia short story collections. Hindi and Bengali translations of this story are anthologised in my short stories collections Rape Tatha Anya Kahaniyan (ISBN: 978-81-7028-921-0) published by Rajpal & Sons, Delhi and Dukha Aparimit (ISBN 978 984 404 243-8), published from Bangladesh by Anupam Prakashani, Dhaka) respectively.
We were as if roaming around a stump. I was feeling restless and terrible. But still, we could not get away from it. It was perhaps we did not have a way out.
I was tired of trying to make her understand but she failed to comprehend. Finally, I decided not to meddle in her affairs. Let her think whatever she desires and do whatever she wants. I can’t say whether it was a common incident or a rare one. While the incident appeared very insignificant to me, she gave it a lot of importance. The problem laid there. When I said forget it and move on she got irritated, protested loudly, and gave even more importance to the event. Eventually I left her to her state of mind. Slowly she enclosed herself just like snails hide themselves in shells.
I observed she was not at peace with herself. Had she been calm, she would have come to me and chatted. But she even stopped coming over to my place. I was perturbed with her behaviour but was helpless to anything about it. What right did I have over her other than trying to make her understand?
She was much younger than me. But still we became friends because we were neighbours. She was only comfortable around me. Both she and her husband thought little of the other less educated women living around us.
She used to come to my place in the evening and we used to sit and chat. Every morning we went on a walk for two-and-a-half kilometers. Previously she used to get up around seven to seven-thirty in the morning. Once when I was returning from my morning walk, she saw me from her balcony. As I was about to climb the steps, she was waiting for me on the verandah. “You go on walks? You never told me? I used to go for walks with my mother before my marriage. I gave up the habit after I came here. When do you start? I will come with you.”
“Of course, there is no need to ask,” I replied pleasantly. After that day we went on morning walks every day. Previously when I went alone I found myself in the greenery beside the roads, in the gentle sky before dawn, in the cool morning ambience, and in the deserted streets. Sometimes I felt I was with the divine Creator, as if He was invisibly present with me. I was filled with eternal peace on those days.
No, I never enjoyed walking alone on the road. People looked at me with awe. Maybe I appeared different from others because of my serious attitude and my profession. Once when I was on my morning walk, I heard sounds of heavy footsteps behind me and imagined that somebody was following me. I was all alone on the road which meandered like a long snake. Dawn approached. My heart started beating rapidly with fear. I was so worried with fear I forgot about my own self and my divine companion. Slowly as the sound came closer, I turned back in my attempt to face the unknown fear; I was almost sweating by that time. As soon as I turned the youth said, ‘Madam, Namaskar” and walked away. The boy looked familiar. Afterwards I remembered that he was once my student.
In a similar incident, a heavy man was moving towards me. It appeared from his style of walking he could crush me on this deserted road if he so chose. I forgot my own self and my divine companion for a few moments. I was covered with sweat when I crossed him with my face down. That heavily built man walked away without a single word and I moved on, each of us going in our own separate direction.
All these experiences made me fearless and my morning walk soon became an everyday ritual. After she accompanied me I had to lose my own sense of self and my divine company as if it was another rhythm of life. I had to accept this new rhythm without any complaint and hesitation. We shared everything starting from current events to domestic help issues. We never realized the distance we crossed as we chatted and walked.
If ever she was sick, she would let me know the day before she wouldn’t get out in the next morning and so I cancelled my walk that day. This morning walk had brought us together and we became very good friends. If anyone ever saw us without our partner they would ask us about the absence of the other.
We never gossiped about others; we were at peace. Her parents and even her husband advised her to maintain her friendship with me. It appeared as if she had accepted me as a friend with whom she could share her joys and sorrows. No, we never entertained any envy or jealousy between us as neighbours; neither did we share dishes with each other.
She was very sensitive. She used to be very sad if anyone ever told her anything. I used to console her. I advised her not to pay attention to others. In this world, many people say many things without any purpose or for destructive purposes. They never think if they are hurting others with their words. So if one pays attention to others, one is bound to be unhappy.
She used to like me because of these remarks. She used to say, “We should not bother about others when our families get along.”
Gradually I came from the immaterial world to the practical one. I had lost my identity and my divine connection a long time ago. Nowadays, it was only my parental place and hers; my maid servant and hers. We even talked only about our conjugal lives and our children. We used to talk continuously on our way to the banks of the river and back. On both sides there were bushes. At a distance a path led to the river from the cremation ground and in another corner was a lonely house which we knew to be a storehouse for magazines of ammunition. In that lonely house submerged in mud, gunpowder was also being stored. Every morning when we went for walks the man in charge of the security at night finished his duty and another security guard began the shift which followed. We always started back when we reached that storehouse for gunpowder. On our way back I plucked dudura flowers and leaves from the bel tree for worshiping Lord Shiva]. She used to get dry sticks to boil neem water for our baths.
As I struggled to walk I narrated to her about a murder in the storehouse for magazines; a security guard had slain another security guard. And sometimes she narrated her dream about a man who resembled a bear crushing her in the dead of night.
Sometimes even though I did not want to get up at five-thirty in the morning, I used to wake up and get ready changing my dress for our morning walk just because she was waiting for me. She also put on her alarm in her mobile phone and was always prompt for the walk lasting for about half an hour to forty-five minutes. Early in the morning when people would meet us on the road, they would comment, “You are really health-conscious women.”
She would sometimes say, “This is the only freedom I have throughout the day; otherwise I have to follow him everywhere. Whatever I do I do for him. But one should live for oneself at least for a few minutes every day, na?”
She visited her parents and stayed at their place for two months. I gave up my morning walk completely then and would stay in my nice warm bed. No one disturbed me there; neither my identity nor my divine companion. I would not go out in the quest of anything. It was almost June-July by the time she came back after spending two months at her parents’ place. It sometimes rained but not every day.
Her first question to me on her return from her parents’ place was, “Are you walking these days?”
I smiled and said, “No. I stopped after you left. I did not feel like going alone. I was lazy and kept on sleeping.” She smiled and replied, “You stopped your walk because of me. Should we start again tomorrow?”
“That would be great,” I enthusiastically answered.
“Yeah, same time.”
From the next day, our walks in the morning resumed. This time, she had got a nice pair of jogging shoes she had brought from her parents’ place. She wore them and shyly commented, “When I was at my parents’ place, I used to put on these shoes when I went on my morning walks there. They were lying at home so I got them. How do they look?” They were white-coloured action shoes. I was happy as it would feel like I was now going on a real walk.
That day, as we walked between the bushes on the road, a one-and-a-half foot snake suddenly slithered across the road in front of us and then vanished into the jungle. Every day, we came across dead scorpions, lizards, and sometimes we saw dead snakes lying on the road crushed by vehicles but we had never seen live snakes before. That day, we did not go to the magazine storehouse. Instead, we turned back right at that spot.
Generally during our morning walks, we encountered two slopes. We went down them on the way to our destination and up them on the way back. We got a lot of exercise when climbing up. On the day we saw the live snake, we did not go down the slope; we came back. On our way back, we only talked about snakes. Why are there so many snakes in this area? Why don’t they kill snakes here? I related during the twenty years I had lived here, there were no cases of anyone dying from snake bites.
The next day I forgot about the snake and got ready for the morning walk. However, my walking partner didn’t show up at the usual time. When I knocked on her door, she answered it, arranging her saree on her head as if she had just woken up. “I was asleep,” she said sleepily and somewhat embarrassed. She had not even put on her walking shoes yet.
As we moved forward on to our usual road, she stopped abruptly and said, “We won’t take this road today. There are snakes there.”
The only option we had was to take the other route through the colony to the main road and then from the main road through the thana bazaar and then we would walk on the footpath and come back through the colony again. We had decided we would take that different route. No one from the colony was awake yet. The road was deserted. We walked on chatting with each other. I was talking about something and she kept on answering with “yes, yes.” I really wasn’t paying attention to where she was or if she was even answering to me. Suddenly she screamed. It was then I noticed a youth crossing us on a bicycle. I thought early in the morning she had been talking to the milkman. The youth had overtaken us on the road with his cycle. She exclaimed, “Did you see what he just did?”
“What do you mean?” I responded.
“Here, he banged into me here,” she said and pointed to a place on her back in the shoulder blade area near her neck.
“Really?” I was shocked. “I thought he was your milkman and you were talking to him. How I could not even know when all this happened? How could anyone have the audacity to do this inside the colony?”
The youth turned back and looked at us from a distance. He was a labourer of about twenty-two or twenty-three years old. I was not in a situation to run and catch him. I could not imagine how to react to such an unlikely incident. We came back. She was upset and kept on saying she still had pain.
I had never had such an experience during my long time living there. I came back and sat down silently. I could not understand how such a great event could have occurred in my presence yet I was not aware of it. The youth had come and attacked her from behind like a treacherous assassin. How had I not even heard the sound of his bicycle chain or wheels?
I was worried about the incident until the children woke up. Around nine-thirty, I was drying clothes in the balcony when she called to me from her balcony. “What happened?” I asked.
“I’ll come around,” she said, and briefly disappeared.
I had to do my prayers yet but still, I opened the door for her. She said, “I took a shower after I came back. I really hate it. I feel as if my flesh is coming out. I had never experienced such a thing in my life. My friends used to tell me how they faced such situations when they traveled in the town bus. But I never traveled in the town bus. Our official vehicle used to drop and pick us up from school and college. I can never forget his face.” She was restless, nervous, and was obviously still upset. After telling me, she began to cry.
I told her calmly and motherly, “Forget these things as accidents. It was not our fault. The man suddenly attacked us from behind. The most amazing thing is that we had left our usual route and God knows why we chose to take this route. Perhaps the inevitable happens just like this.”
When she heard these words, she became more upset rather than becoming calmera. In a very sharp voice she replied, “How can I forget? You fail to understand my suffering. How could you not know that all this happened to me?”
Even though my identity and my divine companion were not with me, my attention never went in that direction as if I was too absorbed in my own thoughts rather than pay attention to my surroundings. I then confessed, “To be truthful, I never knew what happened until you told me. Why didn’t you kick the cycle?”
“I had gone straight from bed. I had just washed my face. I guess I was not fully awake. Nothing happened to you; it happened to me,” she answered.
“The same incident could have happened to me, if I were walking to the right instead of left side that day,” I offered, trying my best to calm her down.
“Yes,” she replied with sadness.
“These are all accidents. When an accident occurs, who can predict what will happen?”
She got up again from the sofa and said, “What should I do? I am really suffering inside. I cannot share this with anyone. My mother had called but I could not even tell her. If my parents come to know about it, they will shout at my husband and make an issue of it all? Was it his fault anyway?”
The face of the youth flashed in my mind. He was a local tribal lad. A black shirt covered his dark skin. ‘Where was he going that early in the morning anyway?’ I thought. ‘What was he thinking when he did that? Was he suddenly under the influence of a devil or was he drunk or high? Perhaps disaster comes like this.’
“See, nothing happened to you,” she said like a child, repeating herself.
I looked at her with amazement. What did she really want to say? Had the incident happened to me, she would have not been happy but would have had the consolation that I too had the same experience. I dusted away her resentment towards me and asked her, “Have you told your husband yet?
“No, I haven’t. I haven’t told anyone -- just you.”
“Then don’t tell anyone,” said. “Just forget it like it was a bad dream.” She walked out without any response to my words. Throughout the day, neither of us came out of our houses. She did not visit my place in the afternoon as she usually did. The next day, I saw her again in the balcony around nine-thirty or ten. She asked, “You stopped your walk?”
She quickly went inside before I could answer. After a few minutes our calling bell rang. I opened the door and saw her standing there. As she entered inside, she said “I told him everything today. After all, he has shared all his secrets with me. He knows everything about me. What will I gain by keeping this incident hidden from him?”
I thought to myself, ‘this girl did not do the right thing. Tomorrow if there is a fight amongst them, her husband will cite this incident and shout at her, even though it was not her fault. This was just an accident.’ I asked her, “What did he say when you told him?”
He said, “How could this have happened when you were with me? Why didn’t she say anything to the youth? How could you let him get away?”
“What could I do?” I replied feeling very helpless. “Before I was even aware of the incident, he was quite far away. Like I told you before, I thought he was your milkman.”
“Why should he be our milkman?” she replied, irritated. He said “I let you go because she would take care of you. How could she keep quiet?”
“Why doesn’t he realize that the same incident could have happened to me if we were on opposite sides to where we were? I am also a woman like you. He should understand this,” I reasoned.
She was very unhappy with my reply and left. The next day I woke up as I normally did, changed my nightie, and put on my walking attire. As usual, I climbed down the stairs and stepped out onto the old road. I did not come across my identity or my divinity that day because my mind was still clouded with the events from the previous day. I did not come across the youth of the other day either. When I returned home, I saw her standing on her balcony. By the time I climbed up the stairs, she was already on the verandah. As soon as I reached the top, she asked, “You went for your walk?”
“After all that?”
“And you weren’t scared?”
“No. Why should I be scared? We don’t stop living because there is death or injury in this world. We have to face storms in life but that doesn’t mean we have to stop enjoying life, does it? Life is a series of accidents. Does that mean we can let go our habits?”
Perhaps she did not understand the meaning of my words. On the other hand, she asked, “No, but what if that youth came back?”
“No, no. He will at least not come back within this period. I will not leave him if he comes again,” I continued. “The fact is we are women and as such, we will always have fear. That’s the reason why I went. I had to get the fear out of my mind. Had I not gone, the fear could have stayed inside me forever. I would have been shackled.”
“What are you saying?” she asked, trying to grasp what I was saying to her.
Instead of answering her, I smiled and said, “You look very pretty in that saree. But what are you up to so early in the morning? Are you going to your village?”
“Not really. He does not like me wearing salwar kameez. He asked me to put on sarees instead. Apart from that, he is a little scared after the incident. He told me it was better to wear a saree.”
I gave a deep sigh. I knew something like this was going to happen. Eventually, this girl will shut the doors and windows and lock herself in and the unseen shackles will bind her legs forever. But would it be her decision or his? Did she have the option of thinking for herself?
I stopped thinking about what weird ideas she must be nurturing about me. Before leaving, I said, “Okay dear, as you wish.”
(Translated by Gopa Nayak and Edited by Paul McKenna)