The Girl I Met in Darjeeling
The last time I saw her she was crossing the bridge across the creek. She had stopped for a second, possibly to look around for a beetle or a firefly and then moved on. Holding her little brother's finger, she sang to herself some Bengali rhyme which at that hour reached all the way to my room. I was by the window looking at those clouds sipping my evening tea silently. The sun had not shone in three days. Incessant rain had brought all sorts of insects into the house and Soham da struggled hard to keep the scorpions away. Such was Darjeeling! All my life I yearned to be here and somehow now I felt out of place. Yet she kept me here, Madhavi.
Madhavi was the eldest of four children, two being twins. She didn't know her age and we guessed it was 6 or 7. Her father had died a year ago and now her mother worked at households and in the field. The first time we had met, she hid behind her mother. She used to come with her mother almost daily holding two of her younger brothers by their fingers while her mother held the youngest girl by her bosom. She would look after the kids while her mother swept the rooms and cleaned the mattresses. She avoided me for a reason she told me later. She thought bad people lived in big houses and good people endured poverty. So true!
One morning, the boys and Madhavi were running in the garden when one of them fell and scraped his knee. Almost then, I picked him and called for Soham da to bring some ointment. I cleaned his knee and applied some ointment while she saw me from a distance. Later, all the kids were each given a piece of chocolate and that afternoon we had lunch together. Kadhi Chawal. And two days later, Madhavi was sitting on my lap telling me stories her father had told her.
Alone as I was, Madhavi was my sole comfort.
Ritumona had died two years back. Doctors said she had a rare form of tuberculosis and her days were numbered. I left all my work at Calcutta to spend those last days with my dying wife. We didn't tell her but somewhere I felt she knew about her consuming illness. She would cough all day and sleep all night. No medicine or herb seemed to ease her pain. We took her to Rahimbaba. It was said he could do wonders. I remember telling Ritu I loved her and how we would go to Darjeeling to see the mountains once she recovers. She never did. The night she died, she made me promise her I would write. That I would leave the job I hate the most and write. And then she slept on my lap like a baby, never to wake up again while I cried alone. I don't remember much of what happened later. Three weeks later, I packed my stuff and left for Darjeeling to keep the promise I made to her.
Madhavi did not go to school and so I decided to teach her myself. Soham da was entrusted to take care of the younger ones while I taught her grammar and mathematics and some music. She was a keen learner. I saw something in her eyes: the thirst to know more which kept me motivated. Once I visited her hut and heard her singing "Kya se kya, ho gya?" She hid as soon as she saw me. I smiled after years that day.
Seeing her I would forget Ritu. I would forget all miseries and loneliness. Now I felt at home. And all of that was due to her. Madhavi!
Later that year, during monsoons I had to leave for Calcutta. Soham da and Madhavi's mother were given leaves for two weeks. And when I left, I promised Madhavi I would bring her a set of color pencils and crayons. Soham da gave her some patishapta and I bid her farewell.
All the way, I thought of her and how she had changed my life!
It was still raining incessantly when I returned back to Darjeeling after 15 days. Since Soham da was not home that night, I ate some aloo-poori left from the journey and retired early. Next morning there was no sign of Soham da or Madhavi. The rain was heavier than ever and I stayed inside all day. Perhaps they had assumed I had not returned yet.
Soham da came back early morning and told me something that would haunt me forever.
Madhavi was no more. Five days after I had left, she was in her fields sleeping beneath a tree when some guys from the neighboring village raped her and left her to die. Some passer-by took note of her lying on the ground and took her back to the village. The local doctor was out of town and by the time they managed to procure a cart, Madhavi was already dead.
I couldn't say a word. Soham da stared at me for a while and then went away. She was the only human being I felt attached to. No words could describe the grief I felt that day.
Nothing could describe the grief I feel every day!
The culprits were caught. One of them had left a chain behind which was later identified. However, none of them went to jail. One morning, they forcibly took away Madhavi's youngest sister from her mother and returned her only after she withdrew the complaint. She was threatened, her crops were burnt and her goats stolen away. And all this happened when I was away.
How little did I know how right Madhavi was! It's the poor who suffered, it's them who lost.
I visited Madhavi's mother later that afternoon. Everything had changed. It seemed as if even the younger ones realized they had lost her. She wept in front of me and then brought me a glass of water. In her eyes, I could see her loss. I could sense the insecurity she felt over the future of her children. I could feel how shattered she was. And at the same time, I knew how strongly she would face it. Poverty doesn't allow you time to grieve. You get up and start again. And this single mother of three small children now made me feel small.
I tried to give her some money but she refused. Perhaps this was how her life had to be. Perhaps God isn't as good as we think of him. Perhaps he has traded with the Devil. Or perhaps, he was and is, the Devil, himself.
With the help of Soham da, I was able to get Madhavi's mother a piece of land in her native village and some goats. They shifted with whatever they had left off. At least, they would be safe with her parents and brothers. Before she left, I asked Soham da to give her the card Madhavi had made for me before I had left for Calcutta. It said- Come back soon Suri da in Bengali. She needed it more.
I left Darjeeling, the other night, forever.