The House by the Giant Teak

Listen to me, Nobi. There are things I have done that I’m not proud of, but I was very young then. As far back as I can remember there was always a wall separating you from us. Sometimes I wonder which day it was you drew up that wall?

Ma said that when you came to live with us, you were three and I wasn’t born yet. On her deathbed, your mother, my father’s sister, Minoti Pehi, asked my father to look after you as his own flesh and blood, and father had promised he would. Minoti Pehi was father’s only sister and it felled him when she had eloped with the alcoholic Nripen; but when Nripen died of cirrhosis of the liver, father made peace with your mother. Clobbered by her death, father announced he would not procreate and for a year my mother was on the pill. Then one evening, watching your little feet play hopscotch in the back yard all alone, father changed his mind. I was born because father wanted a playmate for you, Nobi. After that, my parents had Dhan, not because you refused to play with me, but because I think they wanted a boy. Those days everyone wanted a boy if they had only girls.

With your raven hair bunched high in a ponytail, you climbed into a yellow school bus that honked unceasingly at our gate whenever you were late, (and late you always were, weren’t you Nobi?) and went to an expensive English-medium school while Dhan and I walked to a ramshackle school a few blocks away where the English teacher taught English lessons in Assamese and where Dhan, with other children in the kindergarten, sang: Humpetty Dumpetty sat on a waal; Humpetty Dumpetty had a get phol. What is this deal about English anyway, most people unaccustomed to how we grew up where we grew up, might ask. But you, like me, knew you earned respect if you spoke English fluently, without stammering or gasping for word or air. That made heads turn. Heads turned when you spoke, Nobi.

Even father, who wrote applications in English for our neighbours, when it came to speaking the language, faltered, stammered and flapped his tongue in search of the right word. There was something he saw in you, Nobi, which he did not see in us, for that lacuna in his own education that he sought to fill through you. In the rest of his free time, which was very little, he laboured with the Oxford English Dictionary, noting down the meanings of every difficult word you encountered in your textbooks. These words and their winding meanings you memorised in the morning just as Dhan and I memorised the multiplication tables.

You were steadily climbing father’s ladder of hopes. What you were on your way of achieving through books, I sought to achieve through house-work. I cleared the cobwebs, washed the dishes, ironed the clothes, scratched at the rings left behind on the table after tea, and once made egg curry to surprise Ma. What a fool I made of myself! I'd made the curry without removing the egg shells. How it became a tale Ma narrated to everyone who visited us! But that didn’t stop me until one evening when Deepti Mahi, who often visited us in the evenings, made fun of me: ‘Now that you are an expert at keeping a house in order,’ she said, ‘we can marry you off. Shall I look for a groom for you?’ Furious, I ran inside, thinking if nobody would dare say such a thing to Nobi, then why me?

You would return from your fancy school with a head full of fancy ideas. Do you remember the time when you sat sulking on our front veranda and, after Ma asked you, like ten times, you muttered sheepishly that you wanted to eat an apple pie? Ma, who made cakes in the pressure cooker – cakes with a deep brown crust that stuck to the bottom of the cooker, the crust that Jaan and I scraped and filled our mouths – had no clue what an apple pie was. Never seen or heard of it. But Ma had to make it for you so she asked a few neighbourhood aunties but they all shook their heads. Afterwards, when she leafed through the picture dictionary and chanced upon a picture of an apple pie, she concluded that an apple pie was just some bits of cooked apple stuffed into a malpua. What a fancy name for an unassuming malpua! She’d sounded so relieved. You see, my dear cousin, you had a head full of elegant ideas and a temper if these failed to materialise. Once you didn’t speak to any of us for two whole days because father said your idea of a summer picnic was impractical. Summer is forty degrees where we live and who goes for a picnic in July? Father reasoned with you. But you wouldn’t listen. The English girls in the English books you read ate apple pies and picnicked in the summer, you replied, and you origamied your body back into your favourite foetal position. Between Dhan and me, we had a nickname for you – dontia do, that letter of the Assamese alphabet shaped exactly like a sleeping baby.

When we read our lessons after evening prayers at home, you would sneak up quietly behind me like our cat Meru waited to pounce on mice, to catch me mispronounce a word. ‘ “Water”, not “waatar”!’ you’d say. Belittled, I’d stop reading aloud and later stopped reading my English lessons at all. I began failing in English. When I failed a fourth time and father said I had a thick donkey’s brain, I cried and asked Ma why they wouldn’t send Dhan and me to your school. The fees for Nobina’s school were beyond father’s schoolteacher’s salary, Ma reasoned. Why does Nobina get to go to the expensive school then? I argued. Because, mother said, unfazed, turning the rotis, smearing them with a little oil, her mother left her money. I didn’t know what to make of that, Nobi, but it answered the questions rattling inside me. Why, for instance, if I accidentally broke an egg, Ma wouldn’t stop ranting about how overpriced things had become, whereas father would write to publishers in Delhi and order costly books for you? It became clear why you had an air about you, walking as if a few inches above the ground, ahead of us; why you never joined Dhan and me in the playground in the evenings; why you never helped in any household chores. All along I had convinced myself that you’d inherited your mother’s illness, that you were dying, because only in the light of your imminent death did the preferential treatment you received at home, your being above admonishment, the relentless fulfilment of your demands, the air of tragedy about you and your lack of interest in us make sense. The thought of your death had allowed me to be tolerant, even sympathetic towards you. But I didn’t know any more and, because I didn’t know, I began to hate you.


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