The tender morning sun peeps into the little room through the cracks of the termite-sculpted, half-broken window and comfortably rests on the wall of Sanatombi’s mud house. The wall is as colorless as the fate and the fanek1 of Sanatombi, and innumerable cracks have developed in it over the years. Multiple layers of cobwebs and dirt seem to add a sense of mystery to the beauty of the area. The wall proudly flaunts a two-year old calendar from the local IMA Medical Store, and since the time it was hung, no one in the house has ever bothered to shift it from its original position. Just next to it, there hangs a wall-clock which fortunately shows today’s time, unlike its old wall-mate. The half-lit room shows three human figures – Manikanta, the man, Sanatombi, the wife and Shashikanta, the child. The man and the son, by virtue of their being the present and 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 just sixty seconds (or less) for one to count the items in the living-cum-bed-cum-dining-cum-kitchen room – a wooden bed, a steel trunk, a plastic chair with a broken handle, a small table divided into two halves – one half heaped with old books, thin cheap note-books and half-chewed pencils, and the other half, a home to unattended dirty clothes piled up one on the top of the other. In the eastern corner of the room, one would find a cooking station made up of 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 and a small mud chengphoo2. There is no plate seen in the vicinity as the food is always served on the banana-leaf that they get from their backyard. 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 inafi3 tightly around her body, for mornings are usually cold even during the summers in this hilly area of Shaamu4-leikai5. 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 laborer who works in the fields of Haribabu, the village mapu6 or headman. Haribabu is a powerful Shylock of the village and owns about thirty hectares of land as well as a dairy. Like him, Manikanta too, had owned a good amount of land in the village many years ago, but now he has lost everything to the power and treachery of fate and Haribabu. Now Manikanta survives on a meagre wage of rupees thirty-five a day, which is less than 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 or at his big house. 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 primary school run by the priest of the village. The boy is an average student who suffers from a slight deafness in both ears as a result of nerve damage. But he has not been taken to the hospital once, and chances for it to happen in the future also seem nil.
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 her desires of body and soul. But unlike bad times, good days die an early death. The man had to sell his fields and cows and gold and house and labor to Haribabu 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 never gave 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 him that she should start working at Haribabu’s house as a house-help but the man-ego of the husband would never allow that to happen, even if they die of starvation!
This morning, when Sanatombi opens the door, she gets extremely disgusted at the sight of fresh wet animal faeces lying right in front of the door, and even before she could understand anything, she steps on it!
In no time, she begins cursing the invisible creature, “It must be the neighbor's cat! How many times did I tell her to keep a watch on the cunning creature? 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.”
“What’s wrong with you?” comes the question from Bimala’s mother who came to take a dip in the village pond early this morning.
“Oh nothing Iche7!” Sanatombi quietly rubs the foul foot against a stone and washes herself repeatedly. She now hates the cat and wants to teach it a lesson.
She returns and finds Manikanta awake.
“Shall I make you some tea?”
“No,” comes the cold reply.
“Bring some rice today. Only a few grains are left in the chengphoo. Thankfully, there’s some milk left for Shashi.”
The husband does not reply and leaves for the fields. He must find some work today or his family would die in a few days.
Shashi’s mother runs her fingers through his hair, and softly whispers into his ears.
“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,” replies the boy of eight.
Sanatombi does not cry at her fate in front of her son. Shashikanta leaves and soon she begins to prepare the day’s meal – last one-handful of rice, one and a half boiled potatoes and a raw cucumber as salad. When the rice and potatoes are done, Sanatombi feels like taking a nap on the bed. She has not used it for years, ever since Shashi began understanding things too early.
Just a few seconds into the nap, she hears a noise in the room. As soon as she opens her sleepy eyes, she catches sight of the neighbour’s big white cat almost reaching for the lid of the rice pot. By the time she shouts and rushes towards it, the bad guy digs his mouth into the food. A furious Sanatombi grabs the plastic chair and throws it at the stubborn animal but it misses the target and once again, the cat manages to escape through the window.
She breaks into tears that tasted only bitter.
“What would I give him to eat when he returns?” the mother, once again, curses her fate.
“Milk... where’s the milk?” She remembers…
“Thank God it’s untouched and unmoved in the jug. My Shashi will have it if nothing else.” She murmurs to herself.
But just then, a great idea strikes her…
Shashikanta returns from school around ten-thirty and looks very hungry. He calls out his mother but doesn’t find her inside. He then looks for her in the backyard where she is busy washing clothes.
“Ima8, I am hungry. Give me something to eat.”
“Sana9, just wait for some time... Let me finish this work and get you some rice from aunt Leima’s house. They’ve cooked fish today…”
Shashikanta waits for ten more minutes but his mother does not show up. With the intolerable hunger playing inside his body, he opens the lid of the rice pot and finds it empty. He kicks the pot, utters an abuse and reaches for the jug. Within seconds, he empties the contents of the steel jug – one-day old milk carefully mixed with a huge amount of pesticide kept for the shameless white cat of the neighbour’s house!
1. Fanek: A straight ankle length skirt worn by Manipuri women.
2. Chengphoo: A mud container used to keep rice-grain.
3. Inafi: A piece of cloth covering the upper portion of the female body.
4. Shaamu: Elephant.
5. Leikai: Locality/ Area.
6. Mapu: Head/ Owner.
7. Iche: Sister.
8. Ima: Mother.
9. Sana: A loveable person.