The heart-attack was instantaneous; the huge smile writ large on his face. Prabhakar Goswami, ironically, died a happy man…
Two months earlier, his slap had connected hard on his daughter’s cheek but the instantaneous regret of his action had hit him harder. In that momentary lapse of reason, the remorse seemed prophetic of the immensely sorrowful time he was to face…
Prabhakar Goswami’s mansion in posh Kharguli Hills, Guwahati, was the proverbial aristocratic Asomiya household of the respectably wealthy third generation tea planter. It had everything of conceivable material luxury that the fine produce of four gardens allowed. What added to the wealth were the “human values” within that household - those gems that constituted his family – Malobika, his wife and Niharika, his daughter. Precious were the values that he had painlessly inculcated in them – he was boss! They proposed, he disposed. He dictated, they obeyed. Period. Self-righteousness had the perfect address in the world.
Mian-bhai was a part of Goswami’s household. He had rendered long years of service. His flowing beard on his thin, emaciated face had turned completely white over the years. That green checked lungi with that immaculate white kurta on his frail frame was a normal trusty sight and he completed all assigned chores with aplomb. “Mian-bhai, the hedges… Mian-bhai skin the fish … Mian-bhai, the maid’s gone home, please mop the house today…” Mian-bhai never complained, only delivered. Twenty-three years of yeoman service included cradling infant Niharika to taking care of her current twenty-one-year-old adult self. Mian-bhai had had an accomplished career within that hallowed Goswami compound.
In this wonderful setting, one lovely spring morning, cropped up an unsavoury name. “Papa, can I have a word with you?” “Now, sweetheart? I am leaving for the gardens in an hour.” “I like a boy… he loves me too…” she blurted, unpractised, extempore, her voice quavering. Unfamiliar conversation in the Goswami living room! Prabhakar’s sweeping gaze caught Malobika twitching the ends of her chaador as she stood trembling behind the sofa and Mian-bhai in the distant corner, on his haunches, mopping the floor, his ear alert to the conversation. “I am listening, my pet. Who is he?” “Papa, will you be angry?” “Of course not, dear.” Prabhakar believed he always had his temper under control, the edge in his voice today notwithstanding. As Niharika halted in her confession, eons seemed to tick by. “I am waiting, Niharika.” “Papa, he is a good boy. He is with the Indian Revenue Service, posted in….” “Oh?” Prabhakar cut in, his voice was now a menacing whisper. “Ok… well?” Niharika noted the whisper and wanted to put off the conversation; that would have indeed made life different than the way it had turned out. But then she just blurted out. “Papa, his name is Basanta Chutiya.”
The force of the slap sent Niharika sprawling right into the reassuring arms of Mian-bhai. “Choootiyaaaaa?” Prabhakar’s rasping undertone reverberated right across that massive living room. He did not shout, never did. In anger, he always whispered, and it was unbelievably intimidating! “Careful with your choice of names, darling. I don’t want to unnecessarily shoot anyone!” That hiss hung in the air as he walked out. Basanta Chutiya! At that moment, the name stank in the whole of Kharguli…
Reaching his tea estate on the north bank, Prabhakar’s mind was in turmoil: violence was an unprecedented occurrence in his household. His palms still hurt even after five hours; he agonized over what his dear daughter was going through. He just had to call her; she would obviously understand that he was apologizing. “Hello…” came that silvery voice over the phone. Prabhakar had often wondered how Niharika managed to offer such a wonderful “hello.” It was something between a cuckoo’s call and a nightingale’s song. That “hello”, even under her current duress, refreshed him more than the best tea his four gardens produced. “You ok?” For all the regret, his voice still came out in a whisper. “Yes Papa, I am sorry. Please forgive me.” Her hurt voice tugged at his heart strings but he refused to let them snap. “Take care. I trust we will not have anything to discuss on this after I get back home tomorrow. Am I clear?” “Yes….Papa.”He hung up feeling much better. After all he had apologized!
Tomorrow became tomorrow forever! Niharika’s cell-phone switched off at 12 midnight; she was gone! And with her went his fondest “hello.” A petrified Malobika had no explanation; even Prabhakar’s frightening, confrontational whisper couldn’t elicit any worthwhile information. Seven excruciating days passed since his daughter disappeared … and in those seven days, Prabhakar began to notice that Mian-bhai had not come for work. His last memory of Mian-bhai was him consoling Niharika after his slap! An acrid air of debauchery wafted in! What the bloody hell had actually happened? And where was Mian-bhai? Hey, now what was that bastard’s actual name???
With a vague hunch, Prabhakar reached the Sijubari locality of Guwahati: Mian-bhai supposedly resided there. Making his way along the filthiest of by-lanes, the cynosure of hostile, suspicious eyes, Prabhakar made his enquiries with whoever he felt could provide him information. “Mian-bhai? Who Mian-bhai?” asked one. “Oh Mian-bhai… do you mean Rahmatka?” asked another. Prabhakar felt he was getting closer! And then a lanky youngster: “Rahmatka … yes, yes … he recently married once more, the third time … a young, beautiful Asomiya girl!” Heart hammering, Prabhakar probed further. “Uncle, Rahmatka married this girl around a week back and left immediately for his ancestral home in Sylhet.” Sylhet? In Bangladesh? Where in Sylhet, you asshole? Prabhakar virtually scavenged the address from the young informant’s soul!
Sylhet! Prabhakar, armed with his licenced .32 Colt, was determined to get his daughter back. He would shoot and be lynched in the process – no problem. Death was not his immediate dread. The squalor of that Third World village was revolting. Was his daughter really living here? As old Rahmat’s third wife? What on earth had she done? It seemed a village bereft of women; all he noticed were green lungi-clad men and other human forms that were burqa-clad. Brandishing his revolver, he enquired. Yes, the village-folk knew Rahmat – recently returned from Assam with a new wife. Yes, she was young and Asomiya. That way Sir … Yes, beyond those thickets was his hut and his other wives. “Where is Rahmat?” demanded Prabhakar, his firearm visible to all. Suddenly a posse of rough hands caught hold of Prabhakar’s collar and quickly disarmed him. “Get out!” someone yelled, a yell that resembled his own whisper! Shakento his wobbly knees and yet resolute, Prabhakar tried reasoning in chaste Bengali, “Listen! My young, naïve daughter has been kidnapped by your Rahmat. She is innocent, ignorant of the realities of the world. Please let me take her back. Please!!! Where’s Rahmat? Can I meet him? Can I please talk to my …. well … son-in-law?” The hostile crowd did not notice the wince in those last words but relaxed their grip on him.
Three burqa-clad women emerged from the hut beyond the thickets and eyed Prabhakar with utter hostility. The tallest among them, who also seemed the youngest, from Prabhakar’s distant perspective, passed a note to a spindly youngster who sprinted to Prabhakar. Still eyeing the tall woman and with shaking hands, Prabhakar unfolded the piece of paper. In English handwriting that seemed ‘unsurely’ familiar, he read: “Please forgive and leave. Whatever’s happened cannot be undone. This is my fate. I am not sure YOU decided it. I will always respect my fate. Please leave now.” The note was unsigned. The hostile crowd stood surrounding him and Prabhakar gingerly made his way to his car – his bloated ego completely deflated!
Back in Kharguli, Prabhakar spent his days in retrospection: reliving his life, his actions, even his philosophies. Where had he gone wrong? Why did he have to face this unbearable social ignominy? He kept staring at his cell-phone, willing it to ring and hoping to hear his favourite “hello” at the other end. Yes! He would forgive and forget everything. He would himself take her proposal to Chutiya, if that would make Niharika happy. What was that she had said? He was a revenue service officer, wasn’t he? All he could comfort himself with was the thought that he owed an explanation to Chutiya. Well, the young man should at least know what had happened to the girl he had loved and if he would forgive Prabhakar for perpetrating all this - this life-altering situation. But how? How would he reach Chutiya? He did not even know where the young man was posted currently. As he sat nursing his drink that evening, having shut himself from the world the past few days, Malobika haltingly walked up with a small chit in her hand. “I found this in Niharika’s drawer as I was cleaning her room.” The chit had a number written on it. It seemed to be an unfamiliar cell-phone number; it somehow did not seem to be from Assam. Prabhakar felt a rush of adrenaline, a burst of prolonged quick heartbeats. What was this? Should he try it? Maybe it was some friend’s number who could at least provide a reason for Niharika’s abominable decision. Or was it a Bangladesh number? Prabhakar fished out his phone. With trembling hands, he dialled. He totally ignored a sudden searing pain in his left arm!
It was a normal ring tone at the other end. Once, twice….. on the tenth ring an unmistakable, silvery voice that sounded something between a cuckoo’s call and a nightingale’s song answered: “Hello!” “Niharika???” “Yes? …Papa???” Prabhakar’s face broke into a smile – a huge smile – the smile of the happiest man on earth. The left arm simultaneously hurt too hard and he collapsed, defecating on the spot.The heart-attack was instantaneous. And fatal.
Prabhakar Goswami died instantly, with ironically, the smile of the happiest man on earth plastered on his face forever!