The story below was published in the 2022 edition of Luitor Pora Mississippi ( From Luit to Mississippi), Annual Magazine of Assam Sahitya Sabha North Anerica.
A Beautiful House
The last nail was hammered in, the taut wire was strung across the nails and the huge, framed photo hung with utmost care on the wall. It was a photo of a large sunlit house on a hill fronted by a garden and a river flowing languidly below. The sad eyes of Dr. Talukdar glanced once over the hung photo and then closed again. No one in the room could tell if it was a glance of approval or acceptance of the fact that the deed was done
It had been a long journey for Prabal from the muddy fields of his ancestral village to the metropolitan capital city of the state. All throughout the monsoon season the village would be under water. Houses built on stilts to avoid being under water existed precariously, never ever sure if they would survive the next storm. Major mode of transportation during the recurring annual floods was country boats. The local village school situated on higher grounds would survive the calamity but on more occasions then one would be a shelter for domestic animals than students. Prabal knew from his earliest childhood that his ticket from that wretched existence was education. So rare were the days when he would miss classes even on stormy days. Early on he became an expert swimmer to navigate the waters around his house. His parents were worried that someday he would be swept away by flood waters but such was his dedication that if his father or older brothers refused to row the boat to take him to school he would swim to school. Sometimes he would arrive in school only to find that he was the only one present, even teachers did not dare to come to school on those days. People used to call him crazy and call him names behind his back. But young Prabal was not to be deterred. His single minded pursuit paid dividends and Prabal passed his primary school finals with flowing colors securing a scholarship for obtaining the first position in the district.
From that time there was no holding back Prabal. There were no schools for higher education in the village. So his parents were forced to send him to the house of a distant relative in a nearby town. The life in the town was not all rosy for young Prabal. He was forced to do many household chores in the morning before going to his school and after coming back from his school he had to help the lady of the house, who was his maternal aunt in relation, in preparing evening tea and meals. However, whatever little time Prabal could manage he would spend on his studies. It was difficult for him to study late at night as his aunt would scold him for spending precious kerosene by keeping the hurricane lamp on so late at night. So Prabal would get up early in the morning before anyone else and much before his aunt would shout from bed, “Prabal, please make tea for me and uncle.” There were days when Prabal would miss his home, especially during the summer breaks when the school would close for more than a month but he could not study as his aunt would utilize his services for house work full time. If she caught him studying during the breaks sometimes she would taunt him by saying unsavory words: “ look at the genius here, he is going to save the world by inventing this or that”. She was jealous that even though her son and daughter used to go to a better school and were taught by tutors at home, it was Prabal who always used to produce better results. The day when the results were out would always be worse for Prabal because he would be destined for special punishment on those days. Prabal looked forward to the winter breaks when he could go home for a month and would come back to his uncle’s home only after Bhogali Bihu. That month he was a free bird and he would fall in love with his village for a brief period of time but his sight was set higher. The day his high school finals results were out Prabal was finally out of the misery of staying with his aunt. Securing a rank among the first ten in the state, his ticket to the premier institute of the state was punched and he never looked back
Fast forward thirty five years and Dr. Prabal Talukdar and his nursing home were the talk of the town. Married to his medical college sweetheart, Pratibha, herself an eminent physician, the Talukdars were a power couple in town. Their two children, a girl and a boy, both went to out-of-state medical colleges and then for higher studies abroad. Prabal had built a magnificent house in one of the posh localities of the town. Unfortunately as the town started to grow and soon became a metropolitan city, their area started to become waterlogged frequently due to unplanned growth. Prabal used to joke with Pratibha that he left the village but the village did not leave him. Many times during rainy days the ground floor of his grand home would be under knee deep dirty water. Prabal would be angry and often suggest to Pratibha that they should move to a different place in the city. However the nursing home was near their house and Pratibha did not want to move because of the convenience. Sometimes she had to stay in the nursing home late at night after work for emergencies and she could come back home in five minutes after work. So she would demur.
The situation came to a head suddenly. Prabal’s son Mridul, after finishing his MD, decided to stay back and work abroad. It was a setback for Prabal. He always thought that he would pass on the nursing home to his kids once they pass away. His daughter, Nandita was the eldest, came back from abroad after her studies but stayed in New Delhi married to her college sweetheart. They were well settled in Delhi and did not want to come back home to take care of their parents’ nursing home. Mridul had shown some interest but when he finally found his soulmate his plans changed. Prabal still harbored some hope that Mridul might reconsider. He arranged the wedding ceremony of Mridul with his sweetheart in a grand scale in town, even flying in his would-be daughter-in-law’s parents and relatives to town, arranging for them to stay in nice hotels. But as fate would have it, it started raining incessantly from the night before the wedding and by morning the street in front of Talukdar home was like Venice. The wedding became a mess and Mridul was just inconsolable. Then and there Mridul decided not to come back to take charge of the nursing home.
It was the last straw for Prabal. He was heartbroken. He decided to build a house on a hill top so that he would not have to deal with flood waters again in his life. And what a house he built. It was a grand home, situated on a hill, surrounded by gardens all around and the river flowing gently below. It took a few years to build and it took a toll on Prabal’s health. Taking care of the nursing home and construction of the grand home at the same time was not easy at his age. The house was some twenty five kilometers from the nursing home and it was not easy for Pratibha to leave the nursing home and look after the construction. The house warming party of the Talukdar home was the talk of the town. Anyone who was anybody in town was invited to the party. Mridul and Nandita with their families flew in for the house warming. Mridul’s wife was enchanted by the house and the surroundings and for a brief moment Prabal thought that things might work out for the better.
And then the disaster struck. Maybe it was overwork, maybe it was the strain of arranging the grand party or maybe overindulgence of food and drink, Prabal suddenly collapsed to the floor of the large drawing room in front of all the guests. There was utter chaos. Pratibha tried her level best to give her beloved Prabal the urgent medical care that was needed but to no avail. By the time Prabal was brought to the nursing home, he was dead.
Pratibha never went back to the house again. The house was left under the care of an old servant to tend to the gardens and keep the house clean. Whenever Nandita and Mridul would come to town, that was few and far between, they would stay in the house like staying in a resort. Pratibha would visit but would not stay, going back to the old home and her nursing home. She absorbed herself in her work more and more. Her health started to fail and she became chronically ill and became a permanent resident of her own nursing home requiring twenty four seven medical care. Bills started rising and Nandita and Mridul were feeling the financial pinch. It was also not possible for them to leave their professional careers and be a full time caregiver to their mother.
Sitting at the office of the nursing home administrator Kalpana Barua, Mridul told her that the entire fund from the proceeds of selling the home to industrialist, Mr. Agarwala, was deposited in a bank account from where the daily bills for the treatment and upkeep of Dr. Pratibha Talukdar would be transferred to the nursing home account on a regular basis. As a favor he asked Ms. Barua if he could hang a framed photograph of the home built by his father.
“ Ma, look at the photograph on the wall”, Mridul told Pratibha, “ it was our home”. Pratibha just glanced at the photograph and closed her eyes.
“What’s wrong Ma? It’s a photo of the house my father built.”
“ Yes, but he is not there”.
“ Look at the garden Ma. So beautiful.”
“Yes, bereft of children. Now you go and let me sleep.” Dr. Pratibha Talukdar closed her eyes. Her mind was reciting Leo Tolstoy’s “ How much land does a man need” and Tagore’s “Death, you are my beloved lord” as she was slowly passing into a deep sleep from where no one returns.
Mridul had just reached his parents’ old house when his phone rang.
“ Yes Ms. Barua, what happened?”
“ I am sorry to inform you sir that your mother just passed away in her sleep. Even in her death she thought of you. The fund you deposited won’t be needed for her care any more. May I request you for something sir?”
“Yes, what is it?” Mridul was dumbstruck.
“Can we keep the framed photograph of the house. It’s a beautiful house.”
“Yes, a beautiful house bereft of children”, murmured Mridul.
Pranabendra Sarma, January 3, 2021
San Jose, California