At a time when my corporate career spanning three long decades was going nowhere and I’d lost interest in city life, I felt the urge and a necessity to retire to some quiet place and profession to escape my addled life and forget my daily drudgery.
Over the years I’d grown comfortable with my solitude and turned into an impregnable fortress of loneliness. Not that I was a loner to start with but because people continued to fail me, disappoint me I turned into one. Loneliness was not something which bothered me anymore.
I owned a house in the country forty miles away from Bhubaneswar, in the eastern state of Odisha, where I could lead a slow and quiet existence. My ancestors had lived here in Hirapur all their lives, but my only memories of the village are of those few days I’d spend there as a kid with my parents during summer vacations. As I grew up I lost the inclination to visit my village and my parents, not being the assertive types, did not force me either. I lost touch with my village.
The current generation of villagers there hardly remembered me and could not come to any inference about me and my motives. They just knew me as the heir of the family. I, being a person not adept at the art of socializing, didn’t care to make any effort to gain acquaintance even with my immediate neighbours around my village house, an old dilapidated building next to a small pond surrounded on all sides by a dense wild growth. The villagers after an initial bout of curiosity stopped to bother me and left me obtusely isolated. Uninterrupted I carried on with my existence like an old male elephant who’s been driven out of the herd but I wandered nowhere; stayed restricted to the closed premises of my ancestral house.
A few days later, I caught a girl sitting on the verandah outside a few times. I ignored her as if she did not exist. I had no intention of starting any new association in my current phase of life and moreover I was not even sure how long I’ll last here.
For the next few days, I had sightings of her unmistakable occupation of the verandah. The sightings grew to an extent that she almost became a permanent fixture outside my house like one of those black crows constantly hovering over my house. I noticed her powerful presence but try to keep her out of my mind. I made my hands and eyes to pretend just as they were busy writing an epic, but my mind refused to obey. And I looked towards her and for an unknown reason uttered a word which implied nothing.
As if on some kind of alert and waiting for this call, she waved at me “Did you call me, sir?”
Unwittingly I nodded “Yeah, what’s your name? What do you want?”
She replied with authority she is Chanpa, a common name of a flower with strong incense. I also soon found out that she had no one in this world and no place to call her own. I listened to her story with an indifference that I’d reserved for rest of the villagers.
I was not really interested in her story, her past or any of her background. I’d nothing to lose in this world. I was plain disinterested with everything in life, including starting an innocuous conversation with this simple village girl. I tried my best to ignore her, but there was something cryptically magnetic about her.
For her age, she seemed to have inordinate patience and she seemed lonelier than me. People bothered me when they wanted to get close to me. Here was this small girl who was always around me almost like my shadow, but was content remaining to herself. Perhaps, her loneliness attracted me.
I now started observing her more closely. She must have been around seven or eight. Her stature was below the ordinary height for her age, and she was very slightly built. Her manner had nothing striking about it. The most remarkable of her features were her two deep large round eyes. They seemed to have a penetrating power which could make past seem like present.
A few days later, one evening as the smoke smelling of earthy dinner began to spiral up from the village, and the cows returned to the cowsheds, an army of cicadas chirped on every branch and in every wild shrub around my house and it was pitch dark, it felt a little eerie. Probably because I was still unaccustomed to the dark evenings of this remote village. While trying to light my little Doomba oil lamp, I saw the familiar contours of the small girl still standing outside.
I called out “Chanpa.”
As if she was sitting outside waiting just for this call she replied sharply, “Did you call me, sir?”
“What are you doing here?” I enquired without really expecting an answer but more out of uneasiness.
“I have nowhere to go, sir. Your house was always closed, since the day I can remember. This has become my home.” was her assured answer.
She continued after not getting any response from me “Sir, I’ve no one in this world. I do odd cleaning jobs at the village temple and eat there. Like other students I can’t go to school and spend my time here on this verandah when I’ve nothing else to do.”
And she entered my life. There was something about her voice which was so honest and endearing. Maybe it reminded me of my daughter who was now married and busy in her own life, far away from this country. It reminded me of past when I had people in my life I could called my own. Thus altered my conviction of staying in an exile. Chanpa was now an inseparable part of my life. She had a few stories to tell and I also had a few which I told her. She would sit on the floor near my feet, as our stories were exchanged.
On some evenings, seated on my chair in the corner of the big empty room, I would call up memories of my own home, of my late wife, my mother and of my daughter, of my past city life where my heart was sad – of memories which were always with me, but of which I could not somehow talk about with anyone else in this madly crowded world. I found myself recalling my past aloud in the presence of the simple little girl. As we talked, it would often get very late, and sometime I’d fall asleep right there on the chair.
It was one of the famed monsoon of coastal India. It seemed as though the showers of the season would never end. Ditches, pools, and rivers were all overflowing with water. During the day all you could hear was rain, and in the nights the decibel increased along with the sound of persistent frogs croaking everywhere. The village roads became forbidden, and the entire village was cut off from the rest of the world. But I stayed connected with a little soul; my only connection with the world.
I had nothing to do. I sighed, and called out “Chanpa” She was right there sitting on the verandah busy chewing her nails.
Hearing my voice, she ran up to me breathlessly, saying “Were you calling me, sir?”
“I was thinking,” I opened the subject, “of teaching you to read.” And then for the rest of the afternoon I tutored her on the English alphabet.
Chanpa was a bright student. In a short span of few weeks, she had got as far as writing a coherent sentence. I was passing on my knowledge to her, but not necessarily wisdom. She seemed to be much wiser for her age and often amazed me with her profound thoughts on life.
On one of the heavily clouded morning, my pupil who had been long waiting outside the door for me to call her, not hearing it like usual, slowly entered my room. I was lying on my bed, down with fever. I called her name, my throat shivering with pain.
She turned at once and asked: ” Were you sleeping, sir?”
I said in an aching voice: “I am not well. Feel my head; do I’ve fever?”
I could feel her touch. It was the coldest thing to have ever touched me. It felt as cold water splashed on my forehead.
My ailing body needed a little rub on the limbs, on the back and forehead. I yearned for the touch of soft hands of caring femininity- that of a mother. Chanpa, somehow aware of my mind, stepped in to fill that void which had come into my life after my wife passed away.
It had been three days now. The showers dragged on doggedly and so did my fever. The solicitude of an elderly mother was written all over Chanpa’s puerile face.
Chanpa said: “Sir, I think we need to call a doctor” as she hurried outside. I could hardly catch a glimpse of her in the dingy dusk of the cloudy day before she was gone.
The next morning when a hand gently slipped the thermometer into my mouth, I could faintly know that the doctor had arrived. The door was kept open since the last evening. I laid motionless in the same state as Chanpa had left me, not even caring to shut the door. The doctor was followed by a couple of villagers, complete strangers who had come into the forbidden place to help this reticent old man who had refused to be friendly with them. I was in the care of my couple of my neighbours, completely unknown people who for some reason decided to stay back to look after me.
In a couple of days the sky somehow relented to clear up and I also started feeling a little better. The doctor, a very cheerful young man, who was doing a round around the village returned for a visit.
“Where is the little girl who had come to my place the other night?” so saying the doctor placed his hand on my forehead. I enquired back “Chanpa. Yeah, where is she?”
As loud as my feeble body would allow, I kept parroting: “Chanpa, Chanpa….”
The sound of the flower’s name reverberated in my old shaky house. But that was no reason for my friendly attendants to look so appalled. They looked as if a thunder had fallen next to them.
One of them coming out of the trauma sought an answer out of the mystery “Which Chanpa, we’ve never seen any girl at your place!”
I told them about Chanpa; whatever I’d come to know about her in this short time. There were things which I knew and could feel but could not portray in words that others could possibly comprehend.
But what I found out, put me into the same state of bewilderment as the rest of the crowd in the room. And probably left me more grieving than the rest of them.
Chanpa, the girl who had become a part of my lonely existence in this remote village, had died three years back. The massive cyclone that had swept Odisha did not spare many in the village; Chanpa had also been a victim of nature’s unfair, arbitrary powerful rule of slaying people in this earth and moving them to a different world. Sometimes the shadows stay back with us, a little longer to make up for the wish to survive.
As I was about recovering from the stupor, I could hear the story of my little friend:” Chanpa stayed with her mother in in your outhouse – a humble mud hut, just behind your ancestral house. They had no one else in this big world. The cyclone came and brought with it a rapid flood. There was no time to escape. There was none to help others”
Chanpa and her mother’s story was more tragic than anyone else in the village. My neighbor continued “Chanpa and her mother had used ropes to tie themselves together to a tree at night, so that they wouldn’t be washed away or drift apart. Nature had different plans; it swept away the tree in the deluge that that followed the cyclone. Their bodies were found stuck together, a few miles away and a few days later”
A strange calm of desperation, slightly tinged with fear, passed through my frame. Chanpa was not there before my eyes, but I could feel her presence. Probably she had enough of me and finally moved on to another world.