Durga knew her knees would continue to punish her throughout the winter. It was autumn now and they were already troubling her. The pain would only get worse as it got colder. Durga gritted her teeth as she struggled to get up. The walking stick would have to bear the brunt all day, she grimaced. As she managed to get onto her feet finally, Durga decided to go about the house and light the lamps. It was a laborious thing to do. The house was big enough. At one point of time, it was an almost sparkling mansion. Now it looked like a ‘fashion disaster’ amidst the glittering housing complexes around.
The tulsi angan was now full of weeds and even as she pulled them out, more weeds sprung up each day. Durga lit the lamps and blew the conch shell and completed her evening Puja. Her grandmother had followed the same ritual each evening and as a little girl, Durga would look forward to this time. Her mother and aunts had also held on to the tradition, almost fiercely. And Durga was doing the same now.
But things had changed. The house was cracking up, Durga’s bones were cracking and all relations she had held dear were falling apart. This house, built almost a century ago, had seen better times. Durga still remembered the hustle and bustle around the courtyard each morning. Uncles and aunts and cousins and her brothers and sisters would make sure the house never felt silent.
Her great-grandfather had worked in the Barrackpore cantonment and had built the house by the river. At one point of time, the house was an imposing structure and shone almost aggressively. Durga would often feel that it was the reflection of the house that would bully the river. But now it was the river that was eating up the house, little by little. One portion had buckled under pressure and had given way a couple of years ago. A flash flood had lashed onto the walls that faced the river and it could not hold up any longer. Durga sighed. The house was behaving like her knees. Like the staircase challenged her knees, the river challenged the house.
The shrill sound of the telephone broke Durga’s reverie. She wondered how that pre-independence piece still worked. She let it ring and ignored it. As it stopped there were more sounds. That of conch shells. Durga closed her eyes and prayed to her namesake. Ma Durga had come again. And like the previous year’s nothing much had changed. At least for Durga.
Durga was very young that year when her parents were on their way to Kolkata. And they never came back. For a long time, Durga wondered if they had gone for a vacation. But reality dawned soon and harshly. Durga being the oldest of four siblings would have to take responsibility. In her preteens then, she had to grow up quickly.
Durga sat at her grandfather’s rocking chair and checked it once more. This was probably the last piece of furniture that was still in a usable condition. As she closed her eyes scenes flashed before her. It was just a month after she had lost her parents. Her younger brother had failed in school and someone would have to go and meet the teacher. The loving aunts and uncles had suddenly all become busy with their lives. Her grandfather was interned too. Durga had to take up the responsibility and it was just the beginning.
Well-being of her siblings had been the only thing on her mind since then. Giving up school was easy. Durga had never loved books. And her mother would always remind her that she would have to get married eventually. It was no use reading too many books. She would sit and help her siblings to complete their homework, press their clothes for school and fill up their tiffin boxes.
With her grandfather’s death, things around the house started changing very quickly. Suddenly no one liked each other any longer. And the kitchen was the first thing that was divided. Durga watched with anxiety as her aunts were out to divide the silver and copper utensils. Durga did not care. As long as she wouldn’t have to cook she was absolutely okay with these changes. But the relief was short-lived. Fifteen-year-old Durga soon realized that she would have to fend for herself and her brothers.
Life fell into a routine after that. Losing loved ones had also become a routine. One by one the uncles and aunts passed away. Then one of the oldest servants fell from the parapet and died. The cousins started moving out of Barrackpore too. Now it was just Durga and her brothers. That was also the time when there were many suitors for her. But she knew it wasn't love that they had in mind. It was the house that they wanted. The majestic house, the mango and coconut orchards and the imaginary wealth that people expected her great grandfather to have accommodated were high on the list of these suitors. Durga did not let any of them get close. Her friends had sometimes suggested that they could look for a suitor for her. But Durga had never encouraged such communication. She had her brothers to take care of. Her friends would often remind her that her brothers would eventually move out of this house and start leading their individual lives. Durga would laugh at them. She was the center of her their universe. Her brothers even consulted her before changing a shirt. And why would they leave this majestic house or her?
The eldest of her three brothers earned a scholarship and wanted to study medicine at Calcutta Medical College. Durga remembered that one time she had been to Kolkata. She did not like the city at all. There was so much noise. And when they visited her cousin’s home she realized the magnanimity of the mistake they had made. People lived in pigeon holes and match boxes in the city. And they shared a building with five other families. There was no courtyard and a shared terrace. She had come back to their Barrackpore home with a heart full of grief. Such fools her cousins were.
And why would she leave this house? Her brothers would always be there to take care of her. That same year the first crack in the house was spotted. The banyan tree that had sprung up in the mango orchard about two decades ago was now spreading its roots toward the house. It had started spreading to the western wing. A little crack had developed and Durga was quick to act. She had got hold of a laborer and cemented the area. The tree would cause no more problems she had thought.
But Durga had lost sleep soon. Not over the banyan tree but over her brother. He had refused to come back from the Medical College. He had stopped writing letters and stopped attending to phone calls. He had informed her in straight terms that he had no intention to get back to Barrackpore. Not that year, not ever.
Durga walked on egg shells since then. Secretly she even wished her younger brothers would fail. But that did not happen and it took only two more years for them to leave Barrackpore. One had gone all the way to Delhi, another to Kolkata. Durga reminded herself that it was only a career option. They were not discarding her or the ancestral house.
Now it was just Durga all by herself. She would not know what to do with her time and one day by accident reached her grandfather’s bookshelf. The books kept her company, but deep down in her heart, she waited for her siblings to come back. Each time they came back for vacations she would ask them if they had any intention to get back to Barrackpore. But they would laugh and tell her that they could not stay away from this home or her.
The oldest of the three brothers had come back once he had obtained his medical degree and a job. He had told her about the staff quarters he was assigned. Durga was sure her days of solitude would end. But it hadn’t. When she had asked her brother if she could go with him, he had reminded her about how much she had hated the feel of a big city. Since then Durga had stopped hoping.
Little by little the letters had stopped. She had realized that her brothers had grown up now. She wasn’t needed anymore. They would come back once in a while. Like when they chose a wife or when they wanted their first born to see their ancestral house. But they would go back too. And leave behind Durga, now aging and grayed.
And it wasn’t just Durga. The house was lonely and aging too. No one seemed to care for the house. Even the mango trees had stopped flowering now and the children from the neighborhood had also stopped coming. The river had taken its toll on one side and when it caved in a neighbor had warned Durga of the potential risks.
But the river was not the potential risk for the house or for Durga. The risk was her brothers and cousins. They wanted to sell the house. There were builders who were ready to offer a whopping amount of money. Durga could live in an old age home, her youngest brother had suggested. Not with them of course, but in an old age home. Durga had fought with all them, fiercely. But they had reminded her about how outnumbered she was.
The shrill sound of the phone reminded her about them once again. They would be coming here the next morning. Tomorrow was the last day of Durga Puja too. And it could as well be her last day in the house.
Durga decided to not sleep that night. Instead, she sat on her grandfather’s rocking chair and thought about better times. She thought about times when this house was majestic and wanted. She thought about stories when she was younger and this house was brimming with people. But things had changed now. Bit by bit they would bring down the house, tear apart its pillars and raze its bricks. That was what her brothers called ‘development’. Durga did not understand. They would also throw her out of her house. Maybe that was ‘development’ too.
As morning approached Durga got up from her chair and decided to climb up to the terrace one last time. She wanted to see the river. Since the time the flash floods had damaged the house, this part of the terrace was closed for security reasons. But one last time, she challenged her bones. The conch shells blew as she climbed the last step of the terrace. She wondered if she could see the reflection of the house one last time. Undaunted Durga stood at the side now damaged by the floods and waited. The conch shell blew again and Durga tried to see herself in the waters below. She slipped.
And she smiled. In a few hours, they would immerse her namesake too. It was better to be immersed that to be abandoned thought Durga as the river embraced her. There would be no old age home. She had kept her promise to her grandfather. She had not let them break the house while she was alive.