Although Nayan had entered the mess with a smile on his face, two distinct changes immediately possessed him. First, he stood grounded to the spot as if he were thunderstruck and second, the small cloth bag hanging on his shoulders landed on the ground with a dull thud. His eyes widened and he muttered, ‘Unbelievable, can it be true?’ However, the grand marquee that stood like a newly built castle, throbbing and fluttering, replied, ‘Yes, it is true’.
Immobile, dumb and with starstruck eyes he stood; we did not notice it though. Like the old days, Ankur made his move, snatching his bag and peeking into it.
‘Aha! Narikolor laru, Tilor pitha.’ Like Archimedes after his novel discovery, Ankur screamed and ran haywire with the bag in his left hand and making the best of his towel with his right hand (he had just come out of the bathroom) and chasing him were all the hungry dogs like me and the others.
After a bite into a delicious pitha, I looked at his face. Why hadn’t he moved? And where are the curses gone? Our petty quarrels, obscene words flung at random, the swear words, where are they today? Nayan showed no signs of life as I approached him, his face wore a deathly pallor, his visage as still as corpse. I felt his pulse. He was alive alright but...
Among his luggage, the rickshawalla had unloaded a heavy sack too. That is the best part of Nayan’s vacations; whenever he returns from his village, fresh fruits and vegetables always accompany him to our mess, to be journeyed into our willing stomachs.
I pulled at the sack; it felt heavy. Ankur, being always experienced at undoing knots, helped me out in my job and he peeked into the sack and declared with a frown ‘Rice and a jackfruit!’
‘A jackfruit!’ We all screamed unanimously. I did not learn the art of swallowing a jackfruit, it sticks in my throat (Cerelac boy syndrome – according to Nayan), Ankur detested it, as the very smell of jackfruit reminded him of his childhood diarrhoea; but Nayan is crazy about jackfruit -that’s why all these masterplans.
‘Son of a demon,’ Ankur muttered.
We were about to kick him in anger, but Nayan hadn’t moved yet. Reality was still beyond his grasp. How could he believe it? It was Monideepa’s marriage marquee.
In fact, none of us could believe it at first. However, we came very late into the story. Panwalla Ikram spread the news, Monideepa’s classmate Rohan precipitated it and finally, Monideepa’s maidservant confirmed it. Bechara Nayan, what a heartbreak. Just been away for fifteen days and on his return from home today, Monideepa was getting married.
‘Engineer from New Jersey, came, saw and conquered, today is the marriage and on eight of next month, phuuu...’Ankur was enacting the motion of an airplane, but Nayan was not listening. He was still looking at the marriage hall.
‘I don’t believe it,’ he said in a low whisper.
We didn’t, too, how could we? She was the life of our mess. Her smile, her looks, the sight of her when she came to the terrace to dry her long hair – that cascading mass of jet black ripples! Sweet caresses of the snow white puppy.
‘Oh! Wish I were a dog.’ Nayan expressed himself. Without any denial, all of us admit– she had us on, she was a source of encouragement for all of us.
‘Come on, forget it buddy,’ Ankur consoled.
‘How can I?’ Nayan managed to speak out with tearful eyes.
A sudden rage seized me. ‘Shameless creature’, I shouted, ‘Since how long have you been engaged, ha? You are talking as if you two were lovers, I wonder if she can even recognise you and you are behaving like a big Devdas.’
‘How can she not know me? She eyed me every day when I walked around.’
‘My foot!’ I screamed, ‘Then why the hell did they not even think of inviting us?’
‘What!’ Nayan jumped and went blank once again.
It was nothing unusual. All this rush and running about, only daughter of a very rich father, that, too, an NRI for a groom; what were a group of mere college goers in a rented house just in front of them? So, it was nothing unusual. What was usual was that we had our scanty meal and fell to the intoxication of rice-induced sleep.
After about an hour I woke, Ankur was still fast asleep. Through the window I could see the marriage rituals begin. The pandal throbbed with life and activity. Nayan’s bed was empty; he was neither in the verandah, nor in the bathroom. Besieged by all kinds of fear, I woke Ankur.
‘Come on now. It’s okay, he isn’t that type,’ Ankur yawned.
Lighting a cigarette, I looked out. The air smelled of rich flavours. First, there was the aroma of female perfumes, then that of cooked delicacies gradually caught my nostrils.
‘That’s chicken, pulao and chole and... And... yes, that’s gajar ka halwa... that might be rasmolai (Hai! It’s been months since I had my last plate of rasmolai). My mind raced to identify the delicacies and the rats inside my tummy had already started their boxing practice season. I looked at Ankur and figured he felt worse than me.
We placed ourselves in the position of the guests and daydreamt about the dishes, but somehow Nayan’s jackfruit crept into it and we both eyed each other with disgusted looks. Nothing would make us eat that, even in the time of the worst famine.
Suddenly, Nayan appeared, clad in shiny shoes, a well-creased shirt and a red tie and put an end to our thoughts.
‘What’s the matter? Aren’t you all coming?’ Nayan asked.
‘To the marriage, of course.’ He talked as if he was going to college.
The die was cast. The sweet aromas had caught us both by our noses and hunted us to our doom. The protests were weak against Nayan’s arguments and even a so-called moralist like Ankur gave in, too. And I...well, what of me, only God knows what boring films I had to endure, how many important classes I have bunked, but going to an uninvited marriage was going to be a first time experience. I laid my morals to rest, and we crept behind Nayan. But he! Well, he was of a different mould altogether. Chest puffed, a big present in his right hand and he walked in style. We enquired about the gift, but he didn’t reply. The present was heavy, we debated–
‘A pressure cooker?’
‘A dinner set?’
We kept thinking.
We stepped into the rush. Video camera lights greeted us and we took to our heels. Wise men say– ‘There is nothing wrong in doing something wrong until you leave any proof’. We scurried among handsomely suited men and lurked behind beautiful women, hid among the pretty giggling girls and looked across the sulking males. We drank the rich perfume of prosperity and bathed in the glory of the latest things and waited for the materialistic (i.e. food).
While we were happily waiting, the thing happened-
– The climax
Ankur passed a comment at the girls, as he does in college?
Then, Nayan must have broken down and wept?
No man, it’s neither that.
Then what happened?
It was nothing of that sort. Just a small mechanical misadventure. Video cables were scattered everywhere...
Our dearest Nayan, while we were busy being peeping toms, our very own Nayan, unwittingly tripped on a video cable wire.... He was looking forward ... and he continued to move.... and he fell.
‘Who is that poor fellow?’
‘Are you hurt?’
It was nothing, but along with Nayan, our hearts, too, fell, and so did the gift! Something burst out of the wrapping and rolled and rolled ... and rolled. Everyone gave room and eyes bulged out of their sockets when at last it stood still. A moment’s silence; and then a burst of screams, a wave of exclamations.
A jackfruit.... THE JACKFRUIT....
It’s a jackfruit??
Torpedoes propelled us, missiles gave us their speed and a whirlwind landed us in our mess.
It’s midnight .The groom will be here any minute now. We haven’t had anything like supper. We didn’t have the heart. Nayan coolly pulls a cigarette.
‘Self-esteem gone, Monideepa gone, brought the jackfruit with so much of anticipation, and that, too, gone.’ He was muttering. I envied Janaknandini Sita, as she was able to escape with her self-esteem intact into the heart of her mother. Throughout the night, the word kept ringing into our ears....jackfruit ... jackfruit ... jack of a fruit ...jerk fruit.
Translation: Kamal Nayan Baruah
The original story in Assamese was published in the Assamese fortnightly, Prantik, and is a part of the recently published creative fiction – Jatra by the author.