By Thiyam Ningol, Dr. Nalini, Africa
Judge Arman loved accuracy.
Always all the files on his office table were sorted properly and kept in the appropriate trays. All the correspondence papers, which arrived to his office, were attended promptly. Some of the files, which he had to re-read, and pay more attention, were brought home, to work at his leisure time in his private study room. But all the same, he had at least opened and read the paper before.
Manisha, his wife noticed that that day he had come with an unopened manila envelope. It was an ordinary 4x4 brown envelope, with his name printed on it in bold, nothing special. It was not the envelope, which drew Manisha’s attention. That day he was unusually quite, not depressed looking as such. But she knew something was disturbing him. He was not able to concentrate. He greeted the children very casually, unlike other days when the moment he came back, all the children, according to seniority, had to give the day’s report of their activities and achievement in their classes. The day when he had to deal with a sensitive and difficult matter, he usually politely apologized to the children and went to his study room.
He went to his study room but came out immediately and told his wife and children not to wait for him for dinner. He was going for a walk. The youngest son, 6 yrs old, was even surprised.
“Papa! You going for a walk?
His question was not answered. Just ignored. But no sign of embarrassment or anger. Manisha shushed the boy showing her right index finger touching on her lips. After giving food to the children, Manisha stole a moment and peeped in Arman’s study room. The manila envelope was there, thrown in the middle of the table. She picked it up to see from where and whom. No significant address or name. In the right lower corner, a word was scribbled in pencil “Maka”. It was not opened yet, an unusual habit of Arman, strange; it didn’t look like an official paper also. She quickly returned the manila and continued serving the children. But her thoughts were with the manila envelope.
After about one hour Arman came back with the same look. He did not look refreshed or tired after the walk. Children had already gone to their bedrooms. He nibbled at the dinner served by Manisha. Neither of them spoke a word. Quietly he excused himself and went to the study room. Before going to bed, Manisha passed by the study room just to say good night. She found him slowly rocking on the chair, staring at the ceiling aimlessly with the envelope still unopened in his hands. On other days, she would have just given him a good night kiss and gone to bed alone. But Arman’s condition worried her.
“It is this envelope, isitn’t?” She didn’t expect an answer, but she got it.
“Yes it is from my sister.”
Manisa wanted to ask so many questions –suddenly from where this sister had appeared, where she was; was she elder or younger to him, why he never told her that he had a sister and many other questions. But seeing Arman, she thought it was best to reserve those questions for another time.
“I think you should open and read it. In case you want to tell me anything or discuss anything, I will be awake for some time. I am going to read a journal while lying down. Just call me”. She gave him a tender hug and left.
“ Maka”. It is the word, which Arman had been trying to forget it everyday for the past 3 decades. In his childhood Maka meant everything and everybody to him. When he needed love, protection, consolation and food, Maka was the only word, which he uttered. That day, the same word written with the shabby hand writing in pencil in the corner of the envelope was torturing him, tormenting him, tearing into pieces, making him confused, remorse and angry at the same time.
His inner voice had prompted to open it. He had tried several times but failed. No courage to know the contents. He knew if not then, at one time or the other he had to open it. Finally with the shaky hands, he picked up the envelope, tore the edge slowly and inside found a full dossier written with the same shabby handwriting.
Maka, her name was Malika. Arman could not pronounce the full word Malika, so he used to call her Maka. She never went to school. The only teacher she had was her young brother Arman. At night, under the dim light of the kerosene lantern Arman used to teach her how to read and write.
Manisha woke up early morning. There was no sign of Arman on the bed. The pillow did not show the sign of being slept on. She came to the study room and there she found him. She had never seen him like that before. It scared her. One glance at him told her not to ask anything. Through the corner of her eyes, she saw the envelope was opened and papers were lying scattered. She gave him a soft kiss on his right cheek, no response. She waited for Arman to say something. Silence. At the end, she excused herself saying that she would bring some breakfast to the study room and they would have it together. Before Manisha even left the room, Arman got up from his chair and went to the bed room. Without a word, dressed up in a hurry and walked out.
Manisha found a cup of cold coffee. It appeared he wanted to remain awake the whole night, but it was not touched.
Manisha’s inquisitiveness increased. She did not have the habit of prying on Arman’s papers. But that strange yet very meaningful envelope made Manisha break her own principle.
Being Saturday, the children would not be waking up early also. She sat down on the chair and her fingers started flipping on the pages.
“Dear brother Arman
Before I die I wanted to let you know that I never left you. I don’t think I will live any longer. I have got this dreadful disease; slowly it is dragging me to my final destination. I only wish I can complete writing this letter. There is so much to tell you. Only this desire of wanting to write this letter is inspiring me to hang on.
I was only 7yrs old when you arrived in this world. I hated our mother with all my heart. She was never there for me. I only saw her in the mornings. She used to leave enough food for me for the day and she would be gone till the next day morning. I never knew my father. After you were born that was when she stayed at home. But then she became very sick. I do not remember her going out again. Some male friends of her used to bring us some money and food. May be among them one was your father. I never understood that a baby should have a father. I knew children are born by the mother. And I knew you are my brother born by my mother. That was all. I never asked mother and nobody told me about a father. Not long after you were born, our mother died. I do not remember the details. Some people took our mother out of the house and they said that she would never come back. Indeed she never came back.
After she died we were taken to different places. I was taught how to feed you and how to take care of you. May be they were our relatives God knows. But nobody kept us for a long time. After few months we were brought to an orphanage.
For few years we had the safest childhood. We grew up without worries about what lay ahead of us. I was helping the orphanage people serving food to the children, in disciplining and bringing order to our surroundings.
Father Joseph used to visit our orphanage very often and regularly. Whenever he visited us, he enquired about our general life and in particular how I was coping up with your upbringing. You attended the nursery classes along with the other children. By the time you reached the age of starting primary school, one day Fr Joseph called me aside and we had a long discussion. He rekindled my ambition and forgotten dream. He said that he had noticed my ambition to make you somebody and your determination and ability to excel. There was possibility to make it a reality, but for that I had to work a bit harder and might be to distance from you a bit.
I was 14 yrs old and was not afraid of working hard but to be separated from you was unthinkable. At the end, Father convinced me that it was for our brighter future.
You were taken to a mission school under Father’s supervision and I started working as a maid with an extended family, earning a meager salary which I had to deposit it to Father for your school fees. In the late evenings, I came back to the orphanage to resume the duties. In that way, at least I had a place to stay.
Days and months passed. We were together only during your vacations. Soon that too became rarer. You grew up out of my sight. Instead of coming back to the orphanage during vacations, Father informed me that you would be helping in the school and I would get in touch with you through him. From time to time, Father brought your photos of receiving prizes, trophies and many others.
You remember when you came to visit us after completing your primary school? I was 21 and you were 14, a completely different person. Looking at you and hearing about your success, made me so proud. But soon you left for your secondary school and that was the last time we had ever a meal together.
Not long after that I had changed my employer. Life was becoming tougher at the orphanage. They needed more space for younger children. Some of us who started earning were told to leave the place and survive on our own.
I stayed with a family as a stay-in maid. I was at the peak of my youth. My youthfulness became my enemy. I became a prey to the master of the house. I lost my virginity.
With difficulty, I escaped from that house and found a shelter with another family. For few months things were running smooth. Before I realized, same thing happened in that place too. My request for little favors were not granted but for keeping quite when the master intentionally squeezed my bosoms or private parts while nobody saw us, I was silently showered with handsome monetory and material gifts.
Then came a sudden about-turn of my life. I despised the church teachings, the good faith and mannerism taught in the orphanage. “If I cannot earn a living with dignity, why not I snatch without effort”- the satanic decision made me walk on the wrong path. Too late to regret.
I ganged up with a few friends, rented 2 shared rooms for 4 of us. We joined the other girls, in the streets at night. For the first few months we felt great: - plenty of fun, easy money, no sweat, could afford to buy new cloths to suit our lifestyle.
I still continued having contacts with Fr. Joseph and thus I was well informed about your well being, progress and success in your studies.
Father noticed the change in my behavior. He hinted it would affect you indirectly. He knew and I knew there was no other alternative. Beside the nominal fee I was contributing for your studies, I could even top up some extra as your pocket money.
I remember very well; it was some months before you gave your O-level examination that the catastrophe happened. The most unexpected!
You suddenly flung open the door of the guesthouse room where I was romancing with my elderly and loaded client. When you saw me, you stood still as if spell bound. After calling me “names” and spat on my face you stormed out. I didn’t have the courage to stop you and explain.
Later when my client demanded explanation from the guesthouse manager, we came to know that his son, best friend of yours, was involved in an accident and was in critical condition. You promised him to bring his father at any cost. You did what you had to do and I paid the price for my mistakes.
That day was my last to physically involve with any man. But I had already sunk too deep. No way out except to swim in the mud. I became sort of a pimp. Somehow luck was on my side. My business prospered. After few months, Fr. Joseph called me to inform that you had passed well, but you have told him that you would not like to be connected with me any more and you would not accept any type of help from me. But in order to continue your studies, you needed quite a lumsum of money. Father could not arrange for any sponsor. Father and I wanted so much for you to be an educated man. So we agreed that I would foot all the fees as an anonymous well-wisher and I requested him never to reveal this matter to you. You would have never doubted that I could pay such a big amount at a go.
Things were going very well. You completed secondary, joined the university, graduated as a lawyer. As I mentioned earlier I never left you. I attended your graduation at the university. That day was my happiest day. I gave you a hug and congratulated you from the bottom of my heart. In the crowd you did not recognize me and I have changed a lot in my appearance as well-too fat for comfort.
As my dreams have been fulfilled, slowly I started distancing myself from you but I continued visiting Fr Joseph to hear about you. On several occasions I have seen you with your family. I adore you all from far.
For the past few months, my health has been deteriorating. The doctors have confirmed my doubt about my sickness. I have lived long enough to suffer and enjoy life. I have achieved my goal. I have defied doctors’ advices. I am ready to die.
When you receive this letter, you contact Fr. Joseph. He will confirm the truths of the contents. If you think you can forgive me, please come to see me at least for a moment.
Arman felt as if lightning had struck him. He felt dizzy. He supported his body from falling by clutching on the chair till his knuckles felt numb. No strength to stand up, no mind to think. He closed his eyes and tried to focus on the contents of the dossier.
He reeled back mentally his past days. He could not even imagine clearly how she looked like. Feeling of guilt and ungratefulness to the sister who sacrificed whole of her life made him uneasy. “What was he going to tell when they meet? Will she forgive him”- endless questions were wandering his mind.
“ Tomorrow is Ningol Chakouba, I will beg her, I will do anything till she forgives me and request her to be with me tomorrow for Ningol Chakouba.”
Suddenly he stood up and left the house without telling anything to anyone.
Fr. Joseph was pruning his favorite rose branches when he noticed somebody approaching towards his gate. When the figure came nearer, he realized that it was Arman. The confused, blank look and simply staring without a word, made Fr. Joseph realize that Arman has read the letter at last.
“Should we go and see her?” Fr. asked.
That was not the time to wait for an answer. Without delay, they drove towards the hospital.
On the hospital bed, a female figure was lying; barely breathing; difficult to recognize; only a skeleton covered with folded skin.
When she heard Fr. Joseph’s voice, she made an effort to open her droopy eyes.
There were two figures standing, one was slightly bending to talk to her, the other figure looked blurred. She tried to adjust to the light of the room.
Suddenly, there was a sparkling look on her face. The right corner of her lip twisted slightly upwards as if trying to smile. The dry, scaly, skeleton only left hand opened slowly and stretched towards the blurred figure. She had recognized him. Arman took the stretching hand. Wanted to say something but no sound came out. He knelt down and kissed her on the forehead. There was a little gasping sound from Malika. Slowly her eyes closed, never to open again. The grasp of her hand loosened. The moment she had been waiting for had arrived.
Everybody was celebrating Ningol Chakouba. Ladies were dressed their best. Fathers waiting for their loving daughters, brothers driving their sisters with bunches of children and Arman?-he was carrying the coffin with his sister inside.
When other brothers and fathers were offering the most delicious traditional cuisines to their loved ones, Arman was lighting the funeral pyre of his sister.
The author wishes all the readers HAPPY NINGOL CHAKOUBA.
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