Monday, November 26, 2007

The Jackfruit Tree - Vanneihtluanga

Translated by Margaret L. Pachuau
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The life of that jackfruit tree was even more meaningless than that of an emaciated, withered tree. It was a tree that had been tormented by different classes of laborers as well as immigrants, and it bore those scars well. The lower limb of the tree had been mauled beyond recognition. Over a huge fork in the tree there hung an empty cement bag, a lone slipper, a ramshackle hoe and an old lungi. On the other fork, there sprouted a couple of tender young leaves of the jackfruit tree. And beyond all this, as far as the eye could see, one could catch a glimpse of a huge rain bearing cloud, high up in the sky and it abounded in such a manner, that it seemed as though the sun would no longer shine on the face of this earth. One could also note that the rest of the jackfruit tree was struggling for survival, with young shoots as well as shriveled leaves. A piece of rope was fixed firmly amidst the branches and there was a huge sheet of waterproof cloth securely attached to the other end of the rope. At the interconnecting point of the rope and the sheet was perched a loudspeaker, and at the bottom of the same, there were several community benches. A lot of people sat on these benches, people belonging to this very earth, ordinary people like you and I, sitting neck to neck. And upon gazing carefully you could even see very famous faces there. And gazing beyond those faces, you could see a coffin that contained human form. It was nevertheless, a very ordinary coffin, yet it was complete with a tiny bunch of flowers atop the lid. Beyond the cameraman one could observe the grieving family. You probably would not know them too well. And lest you did not know the person in the coffin, I shall reveal all. And even if you do not want to hear about it, I shall still make it a point to tell you: about my lover, someone whom I cannot forget. I shall tell you now and you will undoubtedly be astonished. Some twenty years ago, she was indeed my very own damsel. Now it may sound as if I was calling her by that term just because there are not too many who would know about this incident, or perhaps one could even put it down to the fact that she was now dead. But actually, I am the kind who could just always claim, “I hardly touched the hem of her skirt”, yet in spite of all this, she was my very own damsel. I shall tell you about it and you too will find the incident rather peculiar.
Twenty years ago, the place where this jackfruit tree grew was merely a leveled piece of land. There were no other trees in that area and children would use this jackfruit tree for a goalpost while playing football. There was a house situated nearby and I often went in and out of that house, perhaps just about as often as its owner. It was not as if I frequented that house because of its material comforts, nor was it because I was impressed by the goodness of heart of its inhabitants…Pi Pari and her daughter Nonovi. Actually, it was because of the black trunk underneath the bed in the confines of their bedroom. On the side of the box was inscribed the letters, L.S.Lushai, and inside the trunk were bottles of drink. They always had at least ten well hidden bottles, and I kept their secret because drink was the one thing I loved most. L.S. Lushai was the erstwhile owner of the house, and he was married after he joined the army. Hardly had his daughter turned three when the insurgency ensued and he fled the army and went underground. After that there was no news of him. During the peak of the insurgency the army would often seek out various houses. While displaying the photos of soldiers of the Indian army signified in a sense, an element of peace, yet for this mother and daughter duo, it was not quite the wisest measure to display their father’s photograph. In fact, they had to do away with all his belongings altogether. They dug a hole in the ground, and they buried all his belongings, along with his box under the reeds of grass. At peacetime, they dug out the trunk and they discovered that a rat had made its nest inside the box and everything had been chewed to shreds. Only the trunk was left undamaged. There was little else to do with it, except to put it to good use for earning their living. It became their treasure chest. Musing upon the past once in a while, Pi Pari would reflect pensively in moments of nostalgia,
“How I regret having destroyed even the minutest of his photographs.”
And saying this, she would lament vehemently every once in a while. Though L.S.Lushai and I were never contemporaries, one look at his daughter Nonovi’s countenance and personality revealed that he was indeed one, whose memory deserved to be upheld in honour.
Nonovi was a lovely damsel, in the prime of her youth, and had she been from any other family she would have quite been the talk of Aizawl town. Though she was the daughter of a poor widow, she was arrayed from head to toe in a prim and proper manner that was just enough to entice any young male visitor to the house. So much so that there were quite a few of us who wanted to hug or caress her especially after a few drinks. Yet she was not the type one could just fondle at a whim. She conveyed the impression that she disliked men, and this seemed to emanate from the fact that she had several suitors in waiting. And so she would flee from the ribald young men, and escape into the world of the written word in the confines of the bedroom.
My name is Laldailova, people call me Daia, and most often even those who are younger or older than me, refer to me as “Pa Daia”. My father had once been a very successful businessman in the bazaars of Aizawl. Actually, if I were to disclose his name most of you would know who he was. We were three brothers, and all of us chose drink over business. After our father’s death we sold the store and wandered astray. My elder brothers died of alcohol abuse, and I alone remained. I was educated at Dawrpui School and was more interested in cowboy books, rather than my school text books. I was more caught up with Dusty Fog and bowie knife, and in the prime of my youth I was more interested in wearing jeans and riding in reconditioned jeeps and hunting with a knife. It was rewarding to capture an animal at hunt but it was equally marvelous to feast on a dog when we came back empty handed!!
At first, I was merely a social drinker, and I would drink only in the company of friends. After a time it was the wine that became my friend. Shortly after, drink became my food, my life…in short it was my very bloodline. So much so that in my early twenties, my face bore the ravages of drink. I looked much older than I actually was. People often thought that I was over thirty, for my body was weak and I did not even feel the lure of young women. As such, rather than making an attempt at enticing Nonovi, I was more contented sitting by the hearth, next to Pi Pari, who in turn would regale me with tales of her youth. In fact on days when I was more excessively drunk I would simply sleep over. The other men who stepped inside that house simply regarded me as a regular inmate of the house, almost akin to a stray dog, and as I was small in stature, the young men would utter, “Where is Pa Daia? Turn the stools around he might be underneath” when I was not around.
And apart from joking in that manner they never considered me as a threat, especially over Nonovi.Yet strangely enough, I, who was barely coherent enough to distinguish between day and night, became the person that Nonovi loved. I would often contemplate over the matter in ernest, as I lay awake at night. I was indeed astounded. I had sold off all my material wealth, and my countenance was little to be proud of. There was little to speak of in terms of my future as well. Indeed there was little reason as to why she chose to love me. There was one reason though: hers was a family that was bereft of a father; it was just the two of them, a widow and her daughter, and both required stability and security. This was what Nonovi cherished inwardly. I was one whom she could identify with, and thus she had in her own way, decided to make her overtures. Yet it was not quite right. I did not deserve this for I was unfit to marry her. At first I did not like the situation. My drinking suffered because of my predicament. As time passed I tried to ignore the situation but it was all too difficult to make light of the matter. When I tried to run away it was impossible, and I was truly in a dilemma. I tried not to pay heed yet whenever some youths caressed her even in jest, there arose an urge in me that I had never felt before. So even if it was not love, one could attribute that to jealousy, and it even made me ponder, “Am I a bottle of drink or a man? If I am a man then I ought to take hold of myself.”
One night just as soon as I had entered Pi Pari had to attend to the death of a close relative in the vicinity, “Awi, awi, awi, he was my only brother, and as my father is no more, I shall have to be there. Pa Dai, you keep house. The wind is howling. But no one will come tonight, there isn’t any drink around.” Saying this she briskly wrapped her shawl around herself, and sauntered out.
Nonovi and I sat down together. The wind began to blow furiously, and Nonovi sat close to me, I did not know whether I was afraid of Nonovi or the wind. I stood…Nonovi stood. To hide my embarrassment I closed the door…she followed me. I opened the door and went outside and brought in the chicken coop…Nonovi followed me outside. I took refuge under the dense jackfruit tree…Nonovi followed me still. We stood… face to face. The lightning flashed. Her countenance was radiant in that flash of lightning. Suddenly the power supply was switched off and amidst the lashing rain and wind, Nonovi embraced me. I then became a man.
What transpired in the darkness and the wind and rain, under the immense thickness of the lush jackfruit tree, was something unknown to the entire world. Only the wind, the rain and the jackfruit tree knew.
I cannot comprehend what happened. Though Pi Pari’s house often beckoned, I was not enticed anymore. I searched for other pastures. In the meanwhile Nonovi sought me out, and conveyed that she suspected she was pregnant. I laughed at her in my drunken stupor; she wept, and cried helplessly, “The child I am bearing will never be fatherless”
“How?”
“I will decide for myself."
I heard that in her despair she had found solace in the arms of another man. She had chosen wisely; for he was the wealthiest young man amongst her suitors. Later on, I learnt that they were married. Apart from that I heard nothing else.
And truly speaking, apart from what I have narrated, I knew little else. My life was even more tumultuous than ever, and in retrospect I realized that it was the most horrible period of my life. I was drunk all the time. Yet I even married several times in the meanwhile, and my wives often left me for other men. Of course, when that occurred I would cast them out from the house, and take another wife. My family found me a muster roll job, which took me across several villages. In the meantime, I tried to live my life anew, but in vain, and I was even suspended due to my excessive drinking. I did not have a house in Aizawl anymore. All my relatives were dead, and so I wandered about aimlessly, I even sold zu* and was kicked out of my lodgings many times in the process.
I had a daughter who lived with her mother. At length after a span of twenty years, I was back at Aizawl. I sold swine gathered from other villages. But even in my deepest drunken revelry, I never forgot Nonovi.She flashed across my mind’s eye at all times, and her countenance, amidst the wind across the jackfruit tree soothed me always. In times of joy or sorrow and despair I saw Nonovi’s face and I do not recall passing even one night without a glimpse of her visage. Why then did I shrug her away despite the intensity of my desire for her? Ah! It was simply because she was too good for the likes of me. While other men were possessed by spirits, I was possessed by Nonovi.
Last evening we arrived from Champhai with a truck load of swine. The owner of the swine was a rich man from Champhai, and he would buy swine from the neighboring villages. He would bring these to Aizawl, every once in a while and my task was to guard the swine on the way. This was my tenth trip. It was not profitable, but it kept me busy and I drank less than usual, and I even began to feel that the company of swine suited me well. In fact I spent more time with the swine rather than with men, and I hardly had any friends. Last night was more hectic than other nights, for there was a pig that was being bullied by the others and so I stood amidst the swine at the back of the truck on order to ensure that no harm prevailed. Rain lashed about and I was caked with dirt amongst the droppings of swine.
At dawn I sat amidst the swine, and tried to sleep. Sleep evaded me, as Nonovi flashed in my mind’s eye. I tried to take a swig of the drink in my bag, but was afraid that in my drunken stupor her picture would not be as clear, so I dared not drink. The more coherent I was, the clearer her countenance became, or so it seemed. At that instant I chose Nonovi instead of drink, even though she was by now, another man’s wife. I decided to seek her out this time round in order to set eyes upon her one more time. We reached Aizawl at daybreak, and we put the swine in their pen .The path was rugged and I paused for rest, puffing away at a cigarette. As I was enmeshed with the droppings of swine, I did not even enter the house, but waited some distance afar. A man who wanted to buy swine stood next to me, reading the Vanglaini daily, I gazed up at the paper, “Lalpiannovi (Nonovi) will be buried today.” I grabbed the paper from him and read it carefully. Nonovi, my Nonovi, it was…
Had it not been for the jackfruit tree I would never have been able to find the house. The once familiar space near the jackfruit tree as well as the courtyard where the children would play was all buried in the construction debris nearby. A new house had been erected and the scenario was very different. Where was the door, the stack of firewood, the chicken coop, the L.S.Lushai trunk? None of these were to be found. And the one I cherished most was now lying in the coffin. During the photo session, some people near me whispered,
“Now the community will breathe a sigh of relief.”
“Ironically yes, the family was a troublesome lot.”
“I have no idea what happened after Pi Pari passed away.”
“Nonovi inherited everything and she sold most of the land .Those two standing there are her children, and they are what is left of the family.”
“Who will stay with them?”
“They are mature adults; Rinmawia is unlike other young men of his age. He is one of our leaders at the Young Mizo Association; ironically, it was his mother who maimed his reputation”.
“And Rinmawia’s father?”
“He died sometime back, he was an alcoholic. As for Nonovi she peddled everything, not only drink, and this is why she had such a short life”
Silence ensued, and I paid even more heed.
‘Has it been ascertained? HIV?”
“Of course, the hospital authorities had swathed her in plastic sheets. The wind and rain will soon lash out. Let’s use this as an excuse to get out of here in a hurry.”
I did not wish to listen anymore. Nonovi’s two children were standing behind the coffin, weeping copious tears of grief, with none to comfort them. The younger one was a lass of about sixteen, and it was as if she were endowed with the very same features as her mother. She reminded me of the time Nonovi and I first met and the memory of it made me tremble. Rinmawia, her brother, a young lad of about twenty made my hair stand on end. Even though, I was filthy from the ride, and though my body was gradually decaying, my eyes were quite alright. I could recognize my son Rinmawia, at first glance even from a distance. I wanted to go across and hug the weeping youth and claim him as my very own. But I glanced at myself and realized that I was filthy with the droppings of swine, and so I stood in utter disarray. I knew that if I stepped forward, I would be regarded as a lunatic, so I stood befuddled. I stood immobile and shivered violently. I glanced at the jackfruit tree again; for it was the only thing that was familiar to me…I would do according to its bidding. For even though it was on its last legs of life, it was still so profound. Why should I not reveal to Rinawma that he was my son? None of us were faithful…I was alive yet been ravaged by sin, Nonovi had been crushed to death by sin. Yet the accusing fingers pointed at us by society were not quite fair, for the path laid out for us by fate had indeed been tumultuous. And though we were considered akin to dirt, I felt that we were still quite clean.
All this was not understood by the world, yet the jackfruit tree comprehended it fully. As proof of its empathy, it was still alive in spite of being shunted about by humanity. As long as the jackfruit tree was alive Rinmawia ought to know the truth. Let others think what they will, I would go ahead. The photo session was over and there were black clouds swirling in the sky above, and all at once lightning struck. A gust of wind blew from the east, and everyone rose in unison, even as the plastic sheets swiveled around. The jackfruit tree gave a great creak. I tried to run towards the coffin, while the crowd made an attempt to run towards my direction. We ran helter skelter, and I fell. A group of young men put the coffin in safer confines within the house and there were others who wanted to proceed with it towards the graveyard. Some argued about the absurdity of it all. Outside the rain whipped the plastic sheet and nearly pulled down the jackfruit tree in the process. Thundershowers arrived.
A violent gust of wind swayed over once more and the world grew darker. Chaos prevailed. The wind blew the garments that hung within the jackfruit tree in wild disarray. The jackfruit tree tried its level best to muster up enough support to rise once again, and I was witness and supporter all at once. With the final thrashing of the plastic sheet it creaked violently, and amidst the streaks of lightning I saw Nonovi’s face…no…the jackfruit tree…it fell. I witnessed the end even as I myself came to a final halt. My son was no more.
Wake up. Come forth, lightning, thunder, wind, rain, in horrifying deluge, bring on your bowl of curses together and pour it forth, I will bear them all. Heat your fires of hell all the more, add all your curses together, and shower them on me alone.
“You there! Why are you standing like a statue? These aspects are not for witnessing pleasure, lend a helping hand”
I did not answer him… instead I delivered a devastating blow.
…………
I woke up at the Aizawl police station,all swollen and bruised, with blood all over me.A man in brown uniform woke me from within the room, and I could barely walk. There were some people talking amongst themselves,
“…I doubt whether he was drunk. He is not fit to be spoken to.”
“He is a lunatic, why have you kept him in custody the entire day? Just release him…has he any belongings?”
“Only the rope that he was bound with.”
“Throw it away; he might hang himself with it.”
Slowly I stepped out into the street.Amidst the throngs of people in Dawrpui locality, I gazed tearfully at our old house. The present inmates were unknown to me. No one knew me either, No house beckoned.I turned left and crossed over towards the myriad taxis at the stand. All at once I heard the melodious sounds of a choir,

“There is a beauteous place
The wonderful place of the saved
A blessed, glorious place
Way beyond the clouds”
I realized that it was the Dawrpui Church. I used to worship there when I was younger.
“How very beautiful! Who are they?”
“The presbytery choir, they are practicing.”
I walked towards them.
“If only they were throwing a feast.”
I heard their laughter but it did not matter.
Inside the Church a man stopped me and gazed at me in astonishment.
“What do you want?”
“How beautifully you sing! It touches my heart.”
He was silent and gazed at me for a long while.
“Poor man, so you want to repent of your sins?”
“Yes…but it is not permissible.”
“Why, who would refuse you?”
“The jackfruit tree.”
* traditional rice beer
~~~

2 comments:

diary said...

Your new site is awesome! I'm getting to read all these stories I wouldn't have known about otherwise. Thanks for your efforts; it's greatly appreciated.

Vanneihtluanga is such a good writer, I love his subtle way of writing. And Mona Zote is deep!!

Storyteller said...

Thank you so much, diary. I agree, Vanneihtluanga is a good writer and I especially enjoy his humourous writings. The people who will someday get to do research work on his writings are lucky people. And about Mona, she's one in a million! I love her intricate, intensely dense, highly allusive writings.