I am on a wooden boat with mother and baby brother, crossing the buzzing, high-current Diyun Hka river from the Miao bank to the other side, where Adui’s (maternal grandma) reclusive hamlet resides. I can’t wait to see this hamlet. I’ve come here after eight years.
The boatman — a bamboo hat over him, sunburnt face and dusty sand-sprinkled clothes — rows his boat against the potent current with a smooth wooden oar, taking a U-shaped route upstream to arrive at the opposite bank. The sandy riverbed is visible from the boat through the transparent, beryl-green water. Only sand down there, not even lumps of green, the current too brawny to permit vegetative growth, the water too transparent for reticent fishes to reveal themselves. It is this same river that flows downstream to pass by father’s village Wakhet-Na, but with calmer attitude.
After Adui left the world, only the younger maternal uncle’s family stays at the village now. The other uncle lives in town, across the river. When we reach uncle’s raised bamboo platform house, I can’t recognise the location at all. It is a new house built on a high-lying area, what was once the slope of a densely-wooded hill. The old house — of my childhood memories — has been abandoned due to its proximity to the river, a river which has become more unpredictable with each passing year, with each new monsoon flood more ferocious than the previous one.
Also there were too many haunted incidents in that old house after Adui’s death. Like the time when the family sitting around the kitchen fire had to rush to uncle’s room after hearing him yell his lungs out on his bed. It was a near dark room, with only a kerosene lantern burning on the wooden-planked floor, drenching the room in faint, orange light. Uncle said that when he woke up from sleep, he saw an old lady’s face staring at him from the roof of the mosquito net around him. He was sure it was not Adui’s face, but some unknown, unrecognizable lady. Aunt — his wife — massaged his frigid soles vigorously; she was confused if this was some hallucination as a consequence of uncle’s opium-smoking. According to her, this sort of symptom– of impromptu, extempore screaming — never happened with him before.
Meanwhile, aunt and cousin receive us at the new house. Cousin’s little puppy yelps and barks his disapproval of strangers. ‘His name is Happy,’ cousin informs while stroking his furry neck, thus hushing him up. Judging by the puppy’s bulging abdomen, he looks as happy as his name. ‘He eats a lot,’ aunt comments when I squat to poke puppy’s bulging abdomen in amusement.
Uncle arrives in the evening with his mahout — his opium partner — for dinner. He has three elephants. Mother scolds uncle when he offers a glass of whisky to me. ‘He’s big enough now,’ uncle retorts.
Mother turns to me and says, being offered a drink doesn’t necessarily mean I have to accept it. (She won’t give up, this lady). ‘I’m big enough!’ I reply in an irritated voice and lift my glass.
‘Cheers then,’ uncle utters. We clink glasses and take a sip. I feel so-adult-adult already. After dinner, uncle and the mahout smoke opium; the mahout, relentlessly talkative while uncle, in total silence, only stares at the fire and occasionally smiles at some of the mahout’s tales. The mahout is an Adivasi who was adopted by a local Khamiyang family and speaks fluent Singpho as well.
Aunt comments that uncle and I belong to the same silent-man category and she wonders if we would speak to each other if we travelled a night journey on a bus, sitting together. I think we won’t. Father is another who belongs to this category. I don’t think I ever spoke to him while on a night bus. He just sits and day-dreams. I sit and day-dream, too.
I refuse to open my mouth to counter aunt’s silent-man jape with a funny one-liner or something. I smile and pluck loose fragments off the burning wood and feed it to the fire. I wonder what happened to Adui’s old house, and the orange trees around it. Are they still there?
‘I want to see the old house tomorrow,’ I tell mother. She is the type who believes that Nats (spirits) roam around abandoned places and such places are not meant to be intruded, for fear of offending them. I am adamant. I have to see, no matter what. She agrees but warns me not to go to the river next to the old house. (As expected. River Nats.)
She narrates how a cousin, while frolicking in that river with his friends in waist-deep water suddenly fainted and nearly drowned. When he regained consciousness, he said he felt someone pull his leg inside the water. The dumsa (village shaman) — who supposedly acts as a medium between this world and the spirits — was summoned. It must be Adui’s spirit playing mischief on her beloved grandson, the dumsa had diagnosed.
Come to think of it, grandma was indeed the mischievous sort; playful with grandchildren like a care-free schoolgirl, an uninhibited bundle of unadulterated joy. She does look the type who would annoy her grandkids even after she turned into a ghost after death. I can imagine her ghost pulling her loved one’s hair or pinching the skin to satiate her appetite for wicked pleasure.
Aunt sends her pre-teen daughter and a neighbour girl (who is about my age) to accompany me to the old house. It seems I inspire no confidence in anyone and is expected to get lost in the woods more often than not. So, neighbour girl has been sent with us as bodyguard. I am amazed at her flawless skin. A village girl who doesn’t use any sort of cosmetic, just wakes up and washes her face with river water, not even soap, and look at the quality of her skin — spotless, unpimpled, unfreckled face.
Pot-bellied Happy sniffs and follows his master behind. Why does he sniff every leaf, every stone on the way? They are not dog food, Happy dear. Stop sniffing around.
The old house is in ruins. Roof has caved in and only its concrete pillars have withstood time. It is surrounded by uninhibited growth of weeds and shrubs. Colonies of wild umbrella mushrooms inhabit the moist, dilapidated wooden stairs. The sight of ripe oranges on trees is a delight to the eyes. While on the way back after plucking oranges, I feel a sharp sting on my left sole.
Even though my whole attention was on the jungle path below, in order to avoid trampling on squishy, rotting fruits and upturned wooden planks with sharp ends of rusted nails protruding from them, I’ve managed to step over one of the nails. I am damn sure that nail was not there a second ago. The thick nail has pierced through my rubber slippers and about an inch into the sole. When I pull the nail out, a small portion of muscle fibre protrudes. After a minute of limping silently, both the girls start to wonder what’s wrong with my gait.
‘I stepped on a nail,’ I confess at last. Neighbour Girl searches something among the bushes, plucks some leaves, chews it and covers the bleeding wound with the paste.
At the house, mother washes my swollen foot with warm salt water. She and aunt have some sort of a brainstorm about local remedies practised in similar cases before. Local remedies are the only option till swelling subsides and then I can walk the miles of narrow jungle path, cross the river and get a Tetanus Toxoid injected in the nearest hospital.
Their first experiment is to apply a fragment of cotton fabric dipped in hot mustard oil to the open wound. I howl like a caveman after first dose. I would rather jump from the house and land head-first on a hard, giant boulder than a second dose of this hot oil therapy. Aunt suggests something less painful, less inhuman. The bulb of a new idea sparkles in her mind around dinnertime when everyone is sitting around the fire. An old lady — neighbour girl’s granny — has come to watch the spectacle. She had been entertained by my howling throughout the day and wanted to advertise some of her own ideas.
Aunt grips a cut piece of roasted ginger between bamboo tongs and brings it near my wound, ‘Get ready.’
‘Wait!’ I pause. ‘I think I’ll turn my head back. Not looking at the procedure would make it less painful.’
Earlier, I howled. Now, I roar. And sweat. And my skull’s insides burn. How to describe this pain? Perhaps it is equivalent to the pain experienced when a werewolf claw pierces through your abdomen, grabs your liver and twists it one-hundred-eighty-degrees clockwise. Then the very next instant, he twists the twisted liver one-hundred-eighty-degrees back, anti-clockwise this time. Perhaps my pain is as terrible as that.
‘A hotter piece of ginger should be used,’ teases the wrinkly, old lady, grinning in pleasure.
‘When your uncle does this, you will scream louder,’ aunt says, as if to comfort me that she gave her dose as humanely as possible.
‘I think I’ll take off my jacket. It’s getting hot,’ I reply and give my consent for more hot ginger therapy, if that’s what she wants. The muscle protruding out of the wound is burnt black now. Later, old lady ties a sacred white thread around my wrists and chants words of blessings for me. She jokes, ‘When you become a doctor, don’t forget we three doctors treated you today.’ I will also not forget the way everyone sat around the fire and chortled to their heart’s content while I yelled in irrepressible pain.
As usual, uncle arrives around dinner time with the mahout. The mahout is filled to the brim with attitude. He looks at my wound, smiles cruelly and suggests that a hot iron rod should be applied over it. He claims it would be painful today but the next day, I’ll be riding a bicycle at motorcycle’s speed. (Yeah, and then I’ll chase you with a cheetah’s speed. And I’ll catch you and crack your skull with a rock with Hulk strength.) This is a sure-shot, instant cure, he assures me as he inhales from the bamboo opium pipe.
When uncle presses my wound with hot ginger, he doesn’t let it off even when I bellow my lungs (and intestines) out. It is ten times more dreadful than aunt’s. I punch the creaky bamboo floor to counter the pain.
‘Didn’t I tell you that you’ll scream louder when your uncle does it?’ aunt can be heard shouting from the kitchen.
Since opium is an analgesic, I want to ask for a few puffs from uncle and the mahout but refrain. They’ll not believe my medical need. They’ll think I have a narcotic craving. I feel helpless. Though I’m a medical student, my knowledge is absolutely useless here without a pharmacy or hospital.
I hop on one leg to move around the house. Since it is a split-bamboo floor, hopping makes a lot of noise. It is precarious descending down the steep and narrow log ladder, so I have been allowed to urinate from the edge of the veranda itself. Uncle lets me lean on his shoulder for support, to walk me out of the door. The door is too narrow to fit two men walking shoulder to shoulder at the same time. I accidentally time my hop at the same time uncle crosses the doorway and our shoulders get locked there.
Emptying the bladder by balancing oneself on a leg is another new problem. I have to concentrate on two things – (i) To balance myself on a leg, (ii) To make sure the urine doesn’t wet my lungi while balancing myself. On my debut, due to inexperience, the liquid sprinkles all over my healthy leg.
I can’t micturate from the veranda at day-time so I learn to walk with the help of a bamboo pole. Mother tries to act as a coach. Lift this foot. Lift that foot. Like this. Like that. Don’t jump so much.
The bathroom is far away from the house. I make countless back-and-forth trips through the day; countless up-and-down-the-stairs as well; and I’m disgusted at the fact that I have to depend so much on a bamboo pole. By evening, I throw the bamboo and try to walk like a free man, on two legs. I discover it is not as arduous as I imagined.
‘I can walk! I can walk!’ I yell triumphantly.
Aunt can be heard commenting from inside the house. ‘Of course, you can walk. All your legs needed were some exercise. You are a doctor and you know nothing.’ Soon others join in — the old lady included — with their opinion about doctor people. Mother comments that doctors insert needles and cut and stitch up human flesh with such a casual air of nonchalance about it, and when I — a doctor – am wounded, I don’t allow anyone to touch my wound. That’s right. No human hands touched my precious wound. Only that lucky piece of ginger got to smooch it as deeply as possible.
On the third day since my wound, I suffer a — sort of like a — nervous breakdown while mother is washing my wound with salt water again. I am in pain but ceaselessly laugh for more than fifteen minutes non-stop. Nothing funny has been said or seen but I keep laughing uncontrollably. There is a huge, green pumpkin behind mother and I feel an urge to smash it to smithereens.
I express my pain only during hot oil therapy and roasted ginger taps. Beyond that, I bottle up my sufferings silently. Perhaps this episode of idiopathic laughing is an outcome of pent-up emotions.
‘Why are you laughing like a madman?’ mother scolds me, totally confused about my behaviour. I am bewildered myself but can’t stop guffawing, no matter how retarded I look.
Singphos believe they are surrounded by numerous spirits or Nats who control their destiny. All diseases and bad luck are caused by these Nats to harass mortal beings, which can be cured by appeasing the spirits with appropriate sacrifices and rituals.
A dumsa — Singpho shaman or priest — is summoned in the evening to make peace with the offended Nat. I am too sleepy to recall the items arranged on a circular bamboo tray before him. Candles, incense sticks, flowers, betel leaves with rice grains on them, boiled eggs surrounded by ginger paste on a laphaw leaf and bamboo tubes filled with rice beer.
When the dumsa starts chanting, he is supposedly making contact with the Nat and making negotiations to forgive me for whatever I did that offended him or her.
(I only plucked oranges. Why are you upset with that, O moody Nat?)
Witnessing the dumsa busy in conversation with Nat(s) is unlike human-to-human interaction. He was normal a while ago. Now, he looks a totally gone case and in complete trance.
Other village people who accompanied him comment that my wound is somehow related to the fact that I’ve come to see Adui’s place after eight years, that her spirit is offended with the fact that I stopped coming to the house after she left the mortal world and wounding me is a way of displaying her displeasure and some sort of souvenir or memento presented to me to remember my visit here.
If that is so, then grandma has still not changed. She is still the same unpredictable, joyously unrestrained lady she was when she was alive, intruding into the mortal world to harass me instead of introverting herself within the boundaries of the realm of spirits.