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Consuming home

Nitoo Das | Updated on January 16, 2018
Born to the river: The rains brought with them oversized, fluorescent insects, water collected in kitchen utensils, and Ma’s garden of roses, jasmines, balsams. Photo: Nitoo Das

Born to the river: The rains brought with them oversized, fluorescent insects, water collected in kitchen utensils, and Ma’s garden of roses, jasmines, balsams. Photo: Nitoo Das

Nitoo Das

Nitoo Das

A Guwahati childhood is inseparable from wondrous foods and their sonorous names

For places I desire, I write travelogues. How else do I make them mine? Mountains stacked like forgotten ellipses in Ladakh, the indecisive stealth of rising mists in Meghalaya, Goa’s fishermen who move with the tenacity of Sandpipers: I have appropriated them all. What are travelogues if not appropriation? For Guwahati though, the place where I was born on a rainy May evening at the Satribari Christian Hospital, my words could only frame food.

Khorisa. Tengamora. Bhedai Lota. Bhut Jolokia. Thekera. Posola. The words rhyme in a long aah! A child’s cry. Everything seems to stand for something else. Tengamora is magenta soured by death, Bhut Jolokia, an idiomatic gasp, and Bhedai Lota, nothing more than a fart plant. These are poems from my never-ending series ‘Consuming Home’, where Guwahati becomes a mess of signs: food that is mashed, fermented, bloodied, and turned from raw and living/livid to the false order of poetry.

The poems appear like the floods of the Brahmaputra. Seasonal loss, pitch-black afternoon skies, Bordoisila, a woman screaming for her mother. I have written about the Brahmaputra, too. The river that rushes by my home. The place I return to every year. This is where I saw my first birds. Pani Kauri, Bor Tukula, Hargila, Dohikotora, Kona Musuri, Dolpunga: the almost-forgotten names survive in unfamiliar regions of the mind. The river — large, cruel, grey — is the maqta in my ghazals: the other self, the disguise, the one that says no to embankments.

It was here that the Jokhini lived. By the winter sands, beneath the makeshift fishing rafts strung as one with evening song and laughter, we saw her picking lice from her hair. Sometimes, we saw her feet and knew she could not follow after us. The long row of gnarly trees changed shape once night arrived just like her. The Bokul tree near my friend’s house was her favourite residence. On our way home after play, we used to stick the tiny flowers on our nostrils with spit. The flowers, brown by then, touched by the fragile glue, soon fell off our noses. The leftover sweetness of the Bokul stayed with us as we walked.

I walked a lot in those days. I walked back from school, walked to play with friends, walked to markets, walked from Silpukhuri to Ambari, from Chandmari to Zoo Road Tiniali, from Bhorolumukh to Pan Bazar, and walked when I had to pursue a woman everyone called Doiboki Pagoli. I walked because Guwahati was slight and walkable. I walked also because sometimes the two rupees of the rickshaw ride was too much money. Those were the years of the Assam Agitation. I was seven when it started in 1979. And, my pencils (like cities) eroded until my fingers could no longer hold them. They needed the support of the hollows of old pens. The stubs of pencils and the hollows of old pens complement each other in times of a city’s small poverties. Our dolls knew poverty more than we did. Nima and I went through a phase when we made our own dolls. Marbles for heads. A rag as body. Smaller marbles for breasts. Woollen pom-poms for hair. We made them obsessively, and by the end of one particular summer vacation, we had an army of tiny rag dolls. Christ-like, with their cloth-arms outstretched, they waited for the passion of the narratives we gave them. These lies were important. My childhood in Guwahati was as fragmentary as the stories that pieced it together.

When it rained during the slow summers away from school, I changed into a teacher and taught the pillars at Nima’s home. The pillars were blue and stubborn and refused to remember the easiest rules. Even my wooden ruler, employed with much enthusiasm, could not wake them up from their silences. We made up Bihu songs, kept brothers out of our domestic business, and wore towels as sadors. The rains brought with them oversized, fluorescent insects, water collected in kitchen utensils, and Ma’s garden of roses, jasmines, balsams, and some strange vegetables grew sloshy and we had to trip gingerly on a row of bricks. Everywhere, there were worms. They turned the earth over, ate and shat mud, and built a hundred homes. Miniature turrets with spy-holes. I knew a spell to stop the rain. I was a child-witch with tools of red chilli, broom-twig, and a handful of gibberish. Nonsense had its uses.

Winter was insignificant. The river dried up; it did not rain. Only Magh Bihu with its fires and thievery saved it from desolation. The sleeping river converted into a bustling bazaar with immense fishes bought and sold to mark the end of the harvest. I associate mid-January with Sitol Maas or Kulothi: the words with their fried sibilance, the heavy ‘k’ and ‘th’ with the round ‘lo’ at the centre, still triggers primitive responses within me.

It is a poem-in-the-making and may well remain incomplete, much like the lies of my childhood in Guwahati.

Nitoo Das is a birder, caricaturist and poet. She teaches at Indraprastha College for Women, New Delhi

(In this monthly column, authors chronicle the places they call home.)

Published on September 30, 2016

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