Fragrance of the Past | Short Story
The old pensioner Janarddan Choudhury, now in his seventy-fifth year, returned from his usual morning-walk, and as usual, was going to wake up the still sleeping members of his family by shouting aloud at them, but then he stopped abruptly. For the last several years he has been regularly admonishing everyone of his family, servants not excluded, and tried to awake them on time. But that day when he heard with his own ears Bormaina, his eldest son, reporting to one of his friends about his father’s habit (a form of torture he said), the old Janarddan Chaudhury felt that his ‘authority’ over the house was gone and that a new era had begun in its place.
He overheard in the middle of their talk – “In my father’s time, they had many people to work, there were three or four servants, and no compulsion for studies at night. Children were not given to do much home work. There was no club life, everyone could have a good sleep. Now with so many people and children, we have such a big family and only a boy and a maid to help and even they are changing daily. The women have to bring up their children, so it is quite natural that they do not get up early in the morning. My father is an old man, so he has less sleep, but he feels that no one ever enjoys sound sleep.”
Choudhury did not want to hear further. Immediately he took his walking stick in hand and went out to his friend Late Borkakoti’s place. He has to oversee the matrimonial arrangement of the only son of his friend Late Rajani Borkakati. So he has to go to them frequently.
Such complaints are always made by all against him. Even the servants and maids of the house complain against him. Bormoina once remarked, ‘It is because of our father that the servants change so frequently.’
That day Choudhury thought deeply about what his son said. He could not deny the complaints of his son. But for the last three years, that is before his wife left him alone in this world, why did he not understand fully what was happening now-a-days? Every morning when he went out for a morning walk to the river side, he needed to brush up, water to clean his face, a towel and his most important priority, the cup of morning tea, he always got those necessary things. But after his wife’s death, just after three and four months, these regular things became irregular. Among his three daughters-in-law, if one became a mother, another became pregnant, and may be the third one had a cold – this way all the rules have been changed.
The old man requires his meal at 10 am, the members of the house have school and office and that is why he regularly got his meal six days a week at the proper time. But on Sundays or on some other days, everything is different. That day rice would be served at one O’clock. But he remembers his wife had told all the three daughters-in-law about his gastric problem.
But with whom will he be angry now? With whom can he argue, with whom can get angry for a small mistake like delay in giving a cup of tea? She had left him three years ago. Nearly fifty years ago she sat with him in front of the sacred fire and thus she took her first step in this house, and suddenly three years ago, she had high blood pressure and forgetting her promises, left him alone in this world.
After marriage they became the parents of five children. After the marriage of their two elder daughters and even after the marriage of their third son, they felt it difficult to think that they were now really old. His wife gained weight, her hair lost its natural lustre, but he himself felt it hard to think that he was getting old. This is only an indication of age, he told himself, not old age itself. Because it was only the other day, he felt, that they got married. Like their youngest daughter-in-law, Bormoina’s mother came to this house as a newly married beautiful bride. Could time fly so fast! When? How has it gone? In this span of time they have sent their two daughters to their in-laws’ places, they arranged marriages for all the three sons, a wholly new life began before their eyes.
He still remembers the day three years ago. And that day he had felt a really different feeling. He had just left his wife in the funeral pyre and come back home. But when he entered the house, he felt the presence of his wife Bormoina’s mother, in the house. He felt that time that she would come out and give him water and towel to clean his face, she would take the towel from him and would back to the kitchen and prepare some tea for him. She would go stand by him after giving the cup of tea.
As days went by, he keenly felt her absence. Why do men get married at a young age? They have plenty of sources in young age. They could lead a good life if they are not married. But in old age, a man is secure only with his wife. But for women, it is different, they are a distinct race – they can have some other interests like sons, daughters-in law, grand-son, grand-daughter.
He knows some men who get married in old age. He had even chuckled at those men in his young age. But today seventy five year old Janaddan Choudhury wants to tell the world in a loud tone that what he discovered in this world – yes, seventy five is the best age for a man to get married. Yes, the only security for a seventy five year old man is his wife.
The old man sits on the sofa of the veranda and different feelings come to his mind. One by one everyone of the house starts to get up from bed. Everybody looks at him and hurriedly leave the place. But today he is not in a mood to shout at anyone. He can completely understand that an era has come to an end and a new time has come. In this new age, his position is irrelevant. This is life, this is nature.
Today is the date of taking his monthly pension, so he starts walking to the district court with a stick and an umbrella in hand. He does not want to ride a rickshaw today. In his time, a family could live simply by the money he got for pension. One day Bormoina told him that the money he gets from his monthly pension is hardly enough for his needs for a fortnight.
Though Bormoina told such things in relation to the present day situation of the state, Choudhury felt a slight ache in his heart. Then one day when Choudhury bought a bunch of Malbhog bananans for a rupee and seventy five paisa, he had to take to bed with a headache for three days.
To retrieve the money from the court is also another kind of experience. From Nazir’s office he has to take the paper and then go to the treasury – but it is really painful. In the court, where he used to sit on chair in an office, now someone else is sitting. But now it is neither the same court building not the same room with that the huge ceiling fan which was made of wood and thin ropes.
Now it is a well-furnished room with electric fans, some costly tables and chairs and of course, the seats are always occupied by new faces. Unlike those days, now nobody welcomes him, nor do they show respect by standing up from chairs. Everyone wore disguised looks on their faces, specially those elderly pensioners.
He was stunned to discover that the clerks wanted money from him also, from him – who once worked here. But he knew that if he offered a single five rupee note to them to have a cup of tea, in no time they would protest and burst out ‘No, no, what are you doing?’ Really, they are now of no use. Even the Government itself does not need them. The Government wishes that they should not lead a long life and get pensions. Bribes were taken in their time also, even if somebody came without bribes, he did not talk to them properly. Still, things were not like today. Because the English saheb was very strict and if a common man complained before him, he very quickly took decisions.
Times have changed, even the place has changed. Even in the last five years, the Guwahati city has changed significantly. It was changing day by day. Not a single vacant plot was available. Houses, flats everywhere and the Jubilee field was destroyed by establishing some water tanks.
Some people have the reins of leadership in the state. They destroy the hills, cut trees and build houses. Everywhere it is full of unfed, unclad, ugly beggers. Were the present DC of Guwahati an Englishman, he would not have left the banks of the Brahmaputra as dirty as it is now. The people from other states have come to this place and established many factories, mills and finally settled down here. But where will the future generations of Assam go in search of even a simple job like of a peon or chaprassi? To which state? To those states where population has grown so much? He thought about the British rule – may be there was no independence, but Assamese people lived a good life at that time.
After counting the money he kept it in the pocket and a mixed feeling darkened the mind of old Janarddan Choudhury. Usually when he goes to Panbazar, he goes to a sweet shop and takes some sweets and goes back to his home. Even today he did the same thing. He thought of taking a rickshaw, because the city buses were always crowded with people. Even citybus goers don’t like the old people, they don’t want to vacate the seats. He gets down at Uzanbazar and as usual he goes to the fish market. Three years ago, he regularly bought boliyora and cheniputhi fish. Boliyora fish was his wife’s favourite and he himself liked cheniputhi. But now he has lost interest in fish. Because fish is not available now a days and if he gets some, nobody can cook it to his taste like what his wife prepared. Anyway, after a long time, he has seen some really fresh cheniputhi fish and without any bargaining with the fisherman, he buys it for three rupee.
When he reaches home, he has givens the packet of sweets to his youngest daughter-in-law and the bag of fish to the maid servant and after washing his face, he lowers his tired body in the arm chair in the veranda. Unknowingly the two toes of his legs keep the rhythm of the song he is singing. Some strange chantings move in his lips like flying bees. Grandsons and daughters in-law can feel that after a long time their grand father or father-in-law is happy. Choudhury himself could not find out the cause of his happiness. Maybe the money he gets from the pension reminds him of his working age, his happiness, his past life.
Maybe the dazzling cheniputhi fish remind him of his wife like a light of a torch. But the dreams – in this state of mind, one should not imagine such dreams. ‘Ah’, he utters a word and moves his body and waits for the cup of tea to be brought by his youngest daughter-in-law.
Very carefully his youngest daughter-in-law brings a cup of tea with some sweets in a plate.
Choudhury makes a movement to eat his favourite Lalmohan and shouts out suddenly, ‘Makan, Makan, don’t give these sweets to the children. These taste Sour!’ He throws his sweet to a nearby crow. The dog in the corner run to have it and it almost takes out the piece from the beak of the bird.
Meanwhile, the children start coming from school and they enter the kitchen to have their meals. But after a few moments all of them rush out making some sounds like ‘chee, chee; ouk, ouk’ – holding their noses. Suddenly the maid comes out of the kitchen with the fish. She hides her face with one of her hands.
What happened? The oldman is still in the dark. The maid produces the fish and says ‘Deuta, the fish is rotten. I want to clean them but the smell spreads everywhere.’
‘Aa; how can it be so! I am not smelling anything bad. They are such fresh fish. I had examined them closely before I brought them.’ He is still not getting the smell. Really amazing, all of them feel the smell, only he is not getting it. He has lost his sense of smell and it is a sign of his time for death.
The maidservant turns her face and speaks out ‘Deuta, are you not getting the smell? It has spread upto one mile. Now a days the fishermen colour the fish. But when you bring it home, its colour has changed to black.’
‘Throw it away, keep it in the corner of the kitchen garden. Put it near a citrus tree,’ he says.
‘Uh! Such types of injustice happening in the world!’ He even throws the rest of the tea from the cup. ‘Pour phenyl water in the kitchen ...’ he shouts out in anger.
That day he went out for the walk earlier than before. Anger, dissatisfaction and hatred all such feelings rushed upon the old man. Now his hatred and weariness crossed the boundary from his house to the world.
He walked by the bank of the Brahmaputra. Now fish is being sold by colouring. This truth is known to the maid who works in his house. He can’t cope with the world. Like the evening he thinks of the day – in this 75 years of life, he never experienced a day like today which is full of loss and bitterness.
The old man looks at the small boat in the river.
‘Tawoi Deuta, have you come for the evening walk?’ the old man is startled and he looks back. Near him a young married couple are standing . For a moment he looks at them, he tries to remember the faces. ‘Tapan, see, my eyes could not recognise you properly. But the address you used made me remember you. Oh, daughter-in-law has also come with you for walking.’ He keeps his eyes on the bright face of the woman.
Suddenly she makes a move and touches the feet of the old man with her right hand, and holds her chadar in one hand. The old man suddenly withdraws his legs and keeps his right hand on her head. ‘Enough, enough, be happy, my girl, now get up, it’s OK. On that day you had visited my place. But I went to some other place, I had some work. Good matching, it seems great. God bless you.’
‘OK Deuta, shall we make a move?’ Folding his hands into a namaskar, Tapan takes leave from him.
His friend late Borkakoti’s son Tapan was married just ten-twelve days back. Though he was the guardian of their marriage he did not see the bride before. Though the couple had visited his home, he was not at home that day and that is why this was his first introduction.
Borkakoti had got daughters from his first wife. When his wife died without a son, he got married again. But after seeing the face of his only son Tapan, he had to follow his first wife’s road.
The old man will give the bride a gold ring. But the government has made the situation impossible by controlling gold. That day when he went to the bazar, he came to know what was happening around the world. Now gold costs rupee two hundred per gram.
Selfishness of the Government, like many problems, filled up the mind of seventy five year old Government pensioner Janarddan Choudhury. But suddenly all the waves of his mind calmed down. Some different kinds of feelings brought some fragrance to his mind and body, like the cool breeze of the Brahmaputra. The couple had left him just now and they let out a very pleasant fragrance. Where, when did he get the smell? The scent slowly calmed down his mind, body and person. Right, the scent has come from the hand which he kept on the brides head. What a surprise! Like a thief, he looked hither and tither and hurriedly took his hand upto his nose, and inhaled it to the full, turmeric, a variety of scented oils, a mixture of those scents could only have come from the hair of a newly married bride. ‘All the scents of Arabia’ are of no use before this. He knows the scent from the last fifty years. Seventy five-year old Janarddan Choudhury looks at the newly married couple. They then slowly become invisible in the mists of the cloudy evening.
Translated from Assamese by Mukuta Borah