The news spread like the wildfire: Rama was found hanging from the branch of a tree in the jungle. She was last seen going to the jungle to fetch the dried foliage the previous day. Nobody inquired about her till late in the evening that day as it was usual for her to turn up late for some obvious reason. The other morning, however, it could be no longer ignored and the neighbours went to the jungle in search. On the way they met with the terrified villagers of another locality who were heading back to inform them after what they saw in the jungle.
To sum up, the scene was extremely unpleasant. The tree was not much tall and the branch was barely two metres above the ground. As such, her feet almost touched the ground as if they were reluctant to agree with the arrangement of the brain to end the life of every other organ. The rope used for binding the grass had found the worst job ever. The bamboo-made basket lay few metres away, inverted as if declaring the closure of the only chapter of life of Rama. With the eyes closed, the facial expression was remarkably emotionless with the head tilted to the left side. The froth at the corners of mouth gave way to a long mark of dried saliva all the way to the chest. In no time the tree was surrounded by the crowd from three or four surrounding villages except those who were too horrified by the description and feared the evil spirit.
The jungle, usually marked by a silence with occasional chirping of birds, was suddenly transformed into a huge bee-hive with humming and the murmurs. The awe-struck people had already engaged in hypothesizing the event as the people in the back jostled to get a glance of the body. A group of three young men was dispatched to the district headquarters to inform the police. Surprisingly there was no one crying for the departed soul as happens after demise of every person. The elders of the village were in the front and discussing what to do next.
This was not the first case of suicide in the village. Nor was it the first suicide by hanging. What was new was the way the villagers responded to the incident.
Her in-laws were more panicked than grieved; even their utmost pretension could not hide this fact. The house looked now more deserted than ever but something told that it was somehow expected. What followed were the formalities: the arrival of police who cut the rope and took the measurements and the photographs from different angles. Then the body was rapped with the white and yellow clothes and transported to the district headquarters where the post-mortem procedure was to be performed.
It was like the annihilation of the world for Sudha, Rama’s mother. Her first response to the news was the erratic scolding to the boy who had brought the information. Though he had been cautioned not to tell her the news directly, the boy could find no one else in the house. He talked awkwardly for some time about some nonsense that he could put in the words. Finally he stammered: “Rama aunty.......... yesterday.............. in the jungle.........” Sudha was alarmed, caught the arm of the boy and asked: “what in the jungle?” The boy did not no how to pronounce the word that he had planned not to tell her himself. Now there was no way out, so he tried to be more indirect: “when others went to the jungle yesterday, she was found hanging from a..........”
He could no longer utter another word as Sudha was suddenly transformed to somebody else. He was mostly terrified and slightly confused to face the situation alone. After fumbling for some time and cursing the boy, Sudha finally regained her composure but took a few long breaths and collapsed. By this time three or four other women had arrived and eventually understood what had happened. ‘Guhar, Guhar’, they shouted for help and rushed to bring water to revive Sudha. Her teeth were clinched as in epilepsy making it impossible to open the mouth. Finally somebody got the iron stirrer used for preparing the porridge, manoeuvred it to open the mouth to put some water in the mouth.
It took long to revive Sudha completely, by which time all the villagers had gathered surrounding her in a failed attempt to dissipate some of her grief with consolation. In contrast to the village of incident, the mood was extremely gloomy in this village where Rama had spent her childhood and teenage. While many women were unable to stop crying even while consoling Sudha, many others were sobbing and frequently went to the corners to give the tears their share of flow. It was the month of February when the mood is supposed to be bright with the exit of the chilly winter yet before the entry of hot dry days. That year the winter had seen less fog and thus the dry and hot days had arrived earlier, as if anticipating the flow of tears in this tiny village where the night seemed to set in the early afternoon.
Sudha had now begun to recount the old days in agony; mixed with shrills in between, repeating countless times how much she loved her only daughter, how she had compelled her mother to keep living in this hostile world. With many other women joining with her with their own recollections, and attempted consolations, all this gave rise to a melancholy that can be created in a circumstance like that only. From a distance it was difficult to determine if it was a choir performing traditional music.
Sudha was not the only widow in the village; indeed a widow could be found every fourth household in the village. It was not clear if it was due to the longevity of the women folks or premature death of the men, one factor was the usual age difference between spouses. Exceptional thing about Sudha: she had lost her husband earlier, in her late twenties; she refused to get married again even though she had no son to secure her old age. She had struggled too hard to save Rama from the insults and harassments a child of a widow was bound to suffer. She had done her best to educate Rama though it was simply beyond her means to send her to the college after she passed her school leaving exams.
She had grown much eccentric after sending away her only family member. After initial talks of ‘being able to perform one of the vital duties of life’ by securing the family for Rama, she had been increasingly reluctant to share her emotions with the neighbours as was usual. Something was troubling her but nobody was able to ask directly what the matter was. All the barriers were now swept away by the stream of tears and she was opening up: how badly the in-laws including the husband were treating Rama. How her poverty had finally strangled her daughter as the theme of all the duels in Rama’s home were, one way or the other, related with the ‘staining the honour’ of the boy’s family by the way she managed the marriage ceremony. Frank people told it was nothing but the paucity in the amount spent for dowry items that was at the root of the problem. The inexplicable turmoil Rama was in went only worsening as her husband had maintained a ‘distance’ from her and drastically reduced the frequency of coming to home from the city. It became increasingly clear that he had married Rama only because his parents insisted him to have a mannered daughter-in-law. Nobody from the village could ever know if he had practically married another girl in the city, not an unlikely option.
What followed then was the thing that occurred for the first time in the history of the village. Sudha decided to sell the little piece of the land she had in order to fight a case against the ‘murderer’s family’ hoping that will give peace to the departed soul of Rama to see the husband behind the bars. She had little use of any material thing, so was not dissuaded by the neighbours who warned her against risking the ultimate means of survival, the land. She became more impulsive and listened little to others though pleaded the teachers in the local school to help her in approaching the court. Sleep was now beyond her grasp, she was found talking to herself whenever the neighbours came to see her.
Five years have passed since. Rama is little talked about in her village. Nobody seems to talk about her husband either. They have also forgotten exactly when he was in the village last time or how long he spent in custody. His parents are doing as usual though more isolated then earlier, and appear working harder as the loss in fighting the case was followed by cessation of occasional ‘donation’ from the son.
Sudha’s village too has changed little. That bleeding wound inflicted on the village now appears to have healed with the scar: the abandoned hut of Sudha that is all set to collapse. Nobody is sure now when asked where she had gone. One day she was not there in the hut and nobody has seen her since. Many think she has assimilated herself in ‘Holy Ganga’ that is not far away. Others think she has gone for pilgrimage with whatever money was left. Nobody is sure and no one will be surprised if she again appears cleaning utensils in front of the hut.
When told about the story of the awkward hot in one corner of the village, a boy in early teenage years asks his mother: “what would have happened if Rama’s father had not got married altogether? That could have avoided all this disastrous misery and suffering.” That was what his mother also used to think sometimes. She also had the question, not the answer. That imagination was absurd yet fascinating. The other day, Rama came in her dream and answered the question: “was that the exception? No. That was the part of the routine instead. Was the misery or the suffering the result of somebody being born? No. That was the visible component of some larger than life phenomenon”. What is that phenomenon, after all? Even I have been thinking about it for quite some time though I am still not close to answering that question.
13th Feb 2009, Bhairahawa