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The lesson of the quilt

Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih | Updated on January 24, 2020 Published on January 24, 2020

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In the 1920s, the Shillong-Sohra road was merely a dirt track used by horse carts and people travelling on foot. In those days, it usually took several hours for people to go from Shillong to Sohra. Often travellers had to make overnight stops at the wayside inns found in the many villages that dotted the entire route — rarely would they risk journeying at night since it was dark and lonely and dangerous.

That was also what happened to a man from Shella, a village on the Indo-Bangladesh border, one winter evening. Because he had left Shillong rather late, the night found him when he had travelled only as far as Mylliem, the coldest place in the Khasi Hills. Therefore, because of the dark, the loneliness and the terrible cold, especially for him since he lived in a warm place, he immediately went to look for shelter in one of the wayside inns. However, all the inns were occupied. In desperation, he took the advice of someone who directed him to the hut of an old woman living a little away from the road.

The old woman, who was simply called Men Mahu, welcomed the stranger with the usual warmth and hospitality for which the people of Mylliem were well known. She said, “Come, come, Bah, sit near the hearth so you may be warm... Actually, my house is not an inn, Bah, I have never given lodging to anyone before. You see, Bah, my house is small, I don’t have any spare room, and I don’t have anyone to help me. I live with my only son, who is too busy working in the fields. But Kong Jngir, my neighbour, said you could not find a place anywhere, so what to do, I have to help you out, no? I hope you don’t mind staying in my humble house.”

As soon as he entered, the man immediately went near the fire to warm his hands, which were so cold and numb that they seemed to be no longer a part of him. Expressing his gratitude, he said, “Don’t you fret, old mother, I’m very thankful to you for giving me board and lodging, otherwise where would I have gone?”

“But as I said earlier,” Men Mahu explained again, “my house is small, and I have only two bedrooms, one for me and one for my son, which means that you’ll have to sleep in this room... I hope you don’t mind that. If you sleep near the fire with a nice thick quilt, you should be quite warm the whole night.”

“It’s all right, old mother, I don’t mind where I sleep; I’m really grateful just to have a roof over my head.”

After he had sat near the fire for some time, and the warmth had returned to his freezing body, the man began looking around carefully. The room where he was served as a kitchen and living room and was quite a big one. In the middle of the room was the hearth, and just above it was a bamboo platform where the old woman kept firewood and other odds and ends. In a corner to the west were two doors leading to the two bedrooms. In another corner to the east was a kind of hollow about eight inches deep, 10 feet long and eight feet wide. The hollow, paved with stones, was used as the washing area. At one end of it, there were earthen pots where water was stored. The pots were black with age. Indeed, everywhere he looked, he could see, with the help of the firelight and a little lamp on a cornice, the room was black with soot and smoke. The planks on the floor seemed as if they had never been washed even once. He said to himself, “This old woman really has dirty habits. Look at her clothes, how filthy and ragged! Even an arrow would find it difficult piercing through all that filth! And what about the food? Ugh, it must be horrible!”

At that very moment, Men Mahu took out the rice pot, the curry vessel, plates, a wooden ladle and a wooden spatula, saying: “We’ll have our food now, okay, Bah, my son has also come... The only thing is, I don’t have any nice curry to give you, only these mustard leaves boiled with salted dried fish... I hope you don’t mind. Shall we eat now?”

The man looked at the rice pot and the curry vessel, burnt black by the fire, and he looked at the food, and his mood immediately soured. He said to himself, “Who would eat this kind of food? Mustard leaves and a potful of water, only two small pieces of dried fish? And the mustard, did she even wash it? I’m not eating this stuff. The rice, of course, I’ll have to force it in, just to avoid this growling hunger, but...”

In a tone that betrayed his displeasure, he said, “Give me only rice and salt, it’s enough.”

“Why would you eat only rice and salt, Bah? Take the fish broth also, although, I admit, it doesn’t seem much.”

“No, no, no, it’s enough,” the man said quickly, and then under his breath, added, “The rice because I have to.”

“What did you say, Bah?” Men Mahu asked him.

“I said it’s enough; I don’t eat dried fish.”

The old woman had actually heard everything but pretended ignorance and only said, “Ooh.”

Sometime after the meal was over, Men Mahu took out a bamboo mat for the stranger to sleep on. She also brought some old sacks for him to use as a pillow and a very thick quilt, stuffed with rags and sewn together from old clothes.

The man looked intently at the quilt: It was old and dirty, sewn together from rags. What if it’s crawling with bugs? Yuck, that thing would quite suffocate me with the stench! Aloud he said, “It’s okay, it’s okay, don’t give me that quilt. I have a thick shawl, and this fire is quite warm, I’ll be all right.”

“How can you be all right with just a shawl in such a frigid place? When the fire goes out, you’ll simply writhe about on the ground! Take it, Bah, take it, don’t be so fussy.”

But the man stubbornly refused. “It’s okay. I’ll be warm enough, don’t force me...”

“All right then, if you say so,” Men Mahu replied, now fully understanding that the sight of the old quilt really made him nauseous. “I’ll just keep it in this corner for now,” she added as she went into her room.

The man laid the bamboo mat near the fire, arranged the old sacks carefully and went to sleep, covering himself from head to foot with his shawl. As long as the fire was burning in the hearth, he felt quite warm and was soon fast asleep. But when the fire went out after an hour or so, he woke up to a raw, freezing cold that he had never before experienced in his life. He shivered all over. His feet were numb and his body felt as if it was covered with ice. He bent over and curled himself into a ball like a pupa in a cocoon, but still, he could feel no warmth at all. He clenched his jaws and ground his teeth and shoved his head between his thighs, but the biting cold crept up from the planks, crawled into his feet, bit into his body and penetrated his very bones. Finally, not able to withstand the onslaught of the stinging, hurting wintry chill, he sat up to rub his body and his feet. At that moment, he saw the old dirty quilt that Men Mahu had left in a corner and immediately crawled towards it. Dragging it to his makeshift bed, he pulled it over his body and tried to go back to sleep, quite forgetting about how old and filthy it had seemed to him earlier. Presently, he could feel the warmth stealing over him again. He made himself more comfortable beneath it and, after a while, fell once more into a deep sleep.

When they got up in the morning, Men Mahu and her son saw the man fast asleep under the quilt. Now she understood everything, and on the spur of the moment, she decided to teach him a lesson for treating her with such arrogance. “I gave him the broth, no, he was revolted by it!” she said to herself. “I offered him the quilt, no, he was revolted by it too! But now, who’s snoring happily beneath it, huh? I’ll teach him some manners, just you wait...”

She fetched a large stick from the courtyard, dragged the quilt away from the sleeping man and began beating it with all the force at her command, cursing and berating it at the top of her voice, “You shameless creature!” She began rebuking the old quilt. “You brazen hussy! When people did not want you, why did you force yourself upon them!? Don’t you know they find you revolting? Where are your manners? Where is your self-respect? Today I’ll beat you up till you hop about like a frog! I’ll beat you up till you remember the lesson for the rest of your life!”

The man, who understood that the old woman was really rebuking him in giving the poor quilt a pounding, got up immediately. Gathering his belongings together, he ran away from there as fast as he could with Men Mahu’s son darting after him, demanding payment.

It was from then on that people started calling the inhabitants of Shella “The quilt-thieving Shella.” And if you ask me for the moral, I would say, ‘The wise know how to counsel.’

 

Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih teaches English literature at North-Eastern Hill University Shillong. His debut novel, Funeral Nights, is forthcoming from Westland in 2020

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Published on January 24, 2020
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