The first time Anil brought a man to his room, his mother Neerumoni went to the backyard and sat on the stone beside the red hibiscus plant for a long time. Then, she picked up the brass pot and went to the large one-acre pond to take a lazy bath— swimming from one end to the other, making noise in the water. She didn’t want to hear the lovemaking sounds.
With wet clothes on, completely oblivious to the change of clothes she had brought tucked under her arm, she sat on the banks of the pond and wept. “Even he has acquired his father’s disease,” she thought, mourning her only son. When she assumed it was time those “disturbing sounds” must have ceased, she returned home slowly. But to her horror, mild moans were still audible from his room. She kept the fresh pot of water brought from the pond on the clammy kitchen floor, went to her bedroom, lay down on the bed and wept.
She was too familiar with those sounds. She was Brahmin—a high caste, and when she was seventeen years old, Anil’s father had come to learn sorcery from her father. Quite surprisingly, her father, known as the stingiest person in the village, appointed him as the new caretaker of his farms and agreed to teach him sorcery for free. Later, she had come to know that Horo was close to her younger brother, Nilambor, who had put in a special request for that purpose. Much later, after she had settled down with Horo with one child on her back and another growing in her womb, when she came back from the fields one afternoon to hear sounds of two men heaving and moaning in her bedroom, thickening the silence of the hot summer afternoon, she rushed in thinking someone was terribly sick. She did not find anybody sick inside, only her younger brother and her husband naked on the bed. Their muscular bodies glistened even in the dark while they rocked in a rhythm. She hadn’t gone to the pond to take a long bath and cry that day. That red hibiscus tree was just a sapling then and the stone was slightly taller, almost-black and larger for it hadn’t disintegrated as much as today. She was too confused and shocked to know what was going on. She couldn’t cry. She had run back to the fields. Some time later, a very happy Horo was back with his short white cotton gamusa looped between his legs, she noticed red teeth marks on one of his thighs and somehow stopped herself from crying aloud.
Anil was visibly happy too. When the boy was about to leave, she didn’t ask him who he was because he could be anyone and Anil could lie. She hadn’t seen him before; he must have picked him up from somewhere; maybe they studied together or worked together for the “party”. She didn’t care, and when Anil asked her for the third time if she was feeling sick and why she was in bed during the day, she lied to say that she had a headache. She knew he had expected her to boil some tea. Even if not with milk, he had wanted some black tea with sugar, not the usual tea with salt—that was usually drunk because sugar could not be afforded everyday. The boy’s voice was deep and sonorous. He had said they could have tea another day perhaps in the Tetelia Market that would be on their way to the bus stop.
Her husband’s disease had ruined her life. Many nights she had spent burning beside him, sliding her finger between her legs and crying at her climax—not out of happiness, but out of desperation, out of hatred for her younger brother, who she had thought was closest to her and not to the man who had married her saying she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Yes, she had eloped with him. High caste Brahmins were not allowed to marry anyone below their caste and he belonged to the koch caste, a royal tribe, but yet lower than Brahmins in the caste rung.
They had spent several months in one of his aunts' houses in a remote village called Hatimuria and they had come back and settled in their village only after Anil had been born. That aunt was no more. She had died a year after Anil brought a man to his room for the first time. He was twenty-nine then and hadn’t yet graduated even after four attempts to pass the final exams. Horo had died in an accident a couple of years ago and she had married her three daughters off at different places. They were all married off at a very young age, a little after the counter-insurgency operations started and all the elders in the village advised her that if she didn’t get them married, an Indian soldier might “touch their bodies, and no boy in this world would be ready to marry them”. So, she hastily married them off to men double their age even before they had turned twenty. When four girls from their village and a woman pregnant for six months were raped by the army in the village, she thanked God she had listened to the elders.
She had noticed then that Anil wanted to have a separate space for himself. During meals he would often say that he did not like to disturb her sleep when “party meetings happened” in his room while she tried to sleep in the next room after a long day. She hated those party meetings and hence didn’t want to release any funds to create an extension to the house. One thing she liked about Anil was that he handed her all the earnings from the fields every month and did not ever keep anything for himself. Every Sunday or Monday morning, he asked her for a few rupees to buy betel-nut, tobacco, cigarettes and she gave it out without asking a question. When after several months of implicit requests, she did not respond—because she dreaded the idea of the meetings that made him flunk in his college exams year after year until he grew such a thick moustache that he started to feel awkward going and sitting with slim and young boys and girls—he began to keep a little money for himself separately before handing her the rest. That had been the beginning of Anil having a space entirely for himself, she thought.
With the money, he bought those long seron-straws that grew like wild grass near river banks in the silt to weave the roof, cut fat bholuka-bamboos from their backyard garden where the red hibiscus flower plant and the disintegrating black stone were, and built a single-room hut, two feet away with a four hands-high soil veranda. The next day, when he was shifting his things from the main house into the new room, he kept saying how good the new arrangement would be. He didn’t look at her eyes, but he stressed now that she wouldn’t be woken up to the sound of debates during “party-meetings”, she would be able to sleep well and her blood pressure would not rise above normal as it often did. He left most of his childhood items—mainly books and some clothes from his younger days—in the main house. Later, when he said he was going to sleep and shut the door, she sat in his old room for a long time. She picked up the shorts and wondered how tiny this man had one day been. Then she laughed thinking, of course he was tiny, he had come out her stomach after all. He was smaller, yes he was.
No sounds came that night but the next night she couldn’t sleep. She stood near her son’s door and listened to the sounds and in the wee hours of the morning, when the bamboo door creaked she hid herself. Promud’s fair skin was glowing, she could identify him instantly. He was Nirgun’s younger brother, around seven years younger than Anil. Nirgun was the leader of the party that contested elections against the party Anil was a member of.
People said, in a few years, Anil would become the Village Headman and everything would be changed for the family: there would be sugar in the kitchen—to be had with tea, there would be as many as seven to eight silk dresses, she would have gold ornaments to wear and they would eat meat everyday. She only thought of duck-meat when the village women said these things about her bright future, and when she thought of the ornaments, she would stare at the mirror for a long time, always in a state of shock for she found herself uglier each time. She craved for the reflection she used to see on the village pond during those days when Horo used to hold her hand and say that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Yes, she was. Of course she was. But after he acquired that disease and started pulling her own brother under his quilt in her absence, he didn’t remain the passionate lover he was. He would hold her in a sense of desperation and push her petticoat up to her breasts and enter her. But she hadn’t liked it that way. She had liked to be naked in his arms and laugh and laugh, get tickled. She had wanted him to go down on her the way he used to before their marriage, on the wet sands near the village stream. Later, after their intense and passionate lovemaking she used to sit naked on the sands, the wet, sharp, sand grains pinching her butt, his limp penis stroking the side of her thigh while he dug his nose into her hair, her chest. He had had long hair, like sturdy suntanned farmers during those days used to have. Long hair, that gave him a wayward look, like farmers with muscles who smelled like coconut-water when they sweat after making love. But she came to associate that coconut-water-like smell with the smell of her younger brother and her husband making love, because that night when she slept beside him, he didn’t smell like that, it was the bed that smelled so.
Gurmail Singh, that long-haired tall and well-built North Indian soldier from Delhi, was probably the only person who Anil loved, or who loved Anil. It could have been both ways because she had seen that man deeply caring for him. The army that had left the village was back again that winter. The sense of fear spread in the village had returned once again. The rare comfort of sitting around a fire for a long time after dinner was lost as petrified people preferred to sleep early. During the night, young men hid in the granaries, the forests and the hilly tracks all night out of fear.
The army really didn’t care; they could kill anyone who they found suspicious and no one would file a case against them. Even if anyone did, their family’s fate was sealed. So, it was better to run before the army decided to comb the village in search of separatist rebels. On one of those nights, when the sound of boots came nearer and nearer while Anil and his mother were at dinner, they were startled. Their dog was barking and hearing him, the dogs in the whole colony had begun a helpless howl. It almost created a ghostly atmosphere. On hearing those sounds, the rest of the neighbors had locked their doors and hushed their children. In the air, the smell of unknown flowers and fresh cow dung floated. Gurmail Singh came that night with several other soldiers. He looked like an officer since the other soldiers stood at attention while he relaxed. He asked if they had anyone else in the house and when they said “no”, he didn’t scream in Hindi like other officers had done before. He called Neerumoni “Mother”, and asked for some water. While she was inside getting him a glass of water, she found him eying Anil suspiciously. In a desperate move, she started screaming in Assamese that he was not a separatist rebel. He hollered at her to shut up. He drank the glass of water she had brought him and pushed Anil towards the main house asking him to show him around and help him find if anyone else was there. When she tried to go in, the other soldiers pointed the gun at her and asked her not to move. A while later, from the bedroom, she could hear Anil uttering a series of helpless, muffled no-nos and then weeping like a child. It was evident from the grunts that he was trying not to scream. After a point, he let out a louder scream and then gradually his whimpers became sparse, before everything became silent. She stood there and started to weep. She didn’t want to scream and let the whole village know because if they knew, he would be turned into an object of ridicule. The man was murmuring something in Hindi, out of breath. Neerumoni didn’t have the courage to go in after the soldiers left, but could hear her son weeping in the silence of the night. When he careened out of the room with his head bowed and walked towards the pond, she rushed in with the kerosene lamp and checked the bed because she didn’t want to think about the trail of blood that dripped from his body while he walked away. They never spoke about it.
The blood looked like a red rose blooming on the white bed sheet, and the room smelled like coconut-water. She sat there and cried. She wished Anil didn’t look like her, didn’t have that pair of stretched eyes with bow-shaped brows that allowed him to play Draupadi—the character from the Hindu epic The Mahabharata who married five men simultaneously—in the village production. People said he looked exactly like her, and when Anil as Draupadi cried during the public-stripping scene, a lot of women in the audience took out their hankies.
But that Gurmail Singh, who was responsible for that patch of blood on her white bed sheet, tuned into Anil’s love interest soon. He started to visit him every other night and those same sounds invaded her sleep. She didn’t understand how it happened, how Anil ended up liking “this hirsute who had committed atrocities on him”. The smell of coconut-water kept chasing her and wouldn’t let her sleep. She didn’t want to ask him nor could he tell anyone in the village because if she told the story of that smell to anyone else, it would only go against her own son’s reputation and life in the village. The army stayed in the village for two years and Anil was the happiest man in the village. Every month he went to different places such as Shillong, Guwahati or Haflong with Gurmail and brought different gifts for his mother. Villagers came to see Gurmail for suggestions and for the first time, they were not scared of someone who worked for the Indian army. He was, after all, one of them if he was their prospective Village Headman’s closest friend. Yes, that rumor grew too, that Anil had great connections in the government through the tall army officer who he was friends with and it would be prudent to vote him to power instead of Nirgun, who was not very honest. When Gurmail left, Anil cried a lot and so did Neerumoni, and so did several other villagers. The girls who had tied rakhi on his wrist on the full-moon day and called him their “brother” came with beautifully pattered cotton gamusas and gifted them to him. Gurmail cried too and three months later, when he came with his wife and two daughters, the whole village came to meet him with more gifts.
After several years, Promud had started to visit him again, filling up the gap that Gurmail had created and Neerumoni was angrier than ever. She didn’t know what it was that made her unhappy and angry, but she knew that she disliked the boy. She somehow couldn’t trust him—wasn’t it his brother who had dared him to stand in the elections and said he might lose his life in the process if he did? Anil hadn’t told her for a long time that he had gotten a life-threat. One day when she heard it at the women’s meeting at the village prayer hall, she left the rituals unfinished and rushed back home to wake up a sleeping Anil who sounded peeved. He said that Nirgun was a clever politician, not so foolish that he would kill someone and destroy his entire political career in the bargain. She told him that he should still be careful. But he had rebuked her for being so chickenhearted. So, when he started spending time with Nirgun’s younger brother, she was worried. One day she had even blurted out that he shouldn’t be roaming around “with that effeminate boy who had eaten the head of the beautiful wife he had married, and who had committed suicide a month after their wedding”. Annoyed, Anil had left in a huff. Pramod continued to visit him every night and leave early in the morning when even the crows were asleep in their nests.
That day, he had left for the election campaigns earlier than usual. They were going to campaign in the Maloybari area; he had told her before leaving, had eaten whatever rice was leftover from the previous night with a fresh green chilli and limejuice. She had felt sorry that he was eating such a frugal meal but before she could say anything, he smiled and said that once he won the elections, things would change and they would eat meat everyday and that he was sure to win. Like any other day, she pushed open the door of his room after he left and entered to clean it but to her utter surprise, she found a buck-naked Promud sleeping on his bed. Her blood boiled; the smell of coconut-water made her crazy and she didn’t know why she started to beat him with the broom screaming and shouting, “Get out, get out,” asking him if he wasn’t happy for being the cause of his wife’s death. In the early morning golden sunlight, the whole village saw a naked Promud running for his life, wheezing and howling, across the village. Anil came late at night, he didn’t have dinner. Both of them hadn’t ever spoken to each other about what she thought were Anil’s “preferences”. So Pramod’s matter wasn’t discussed either. In the middle of the night, she heard him crying. She felt sorry for what she had done.
But the damage was done. The whole village started to hoot at Promud as “Anil’s wife” and after four days, on the evening he was publicly humiliated by a band of guys at the Tuesday Market, he went to his brother’s room and gulped down a whole bottle of sleeping pills. Nirgun went into a rage. He went from house to house insisting that everyone in the village knew his father had suffered from “that disease” but that did not mean his son could destroy the lives of younger men by dragging them to his bed. The village elders agreed and said he should be taken to the bej who could cure him but Nirgun said he didn’t believe in “all those” and that he would file a case. He stressed that it would be an important thing to do because he had, after all, been the prospective head of the Village Council and people should therefore know his real character. On the fifteenth day after he had taken those pills, Promud was brought back from the hospital. He was accompanied by a police officer who went straight to Anil’s house, woke him up and asked Promud if Anil was the person who had cajoled him into his room for a chat and had then forced himself on him.
A bewildered Neerumoni went from pillar to post after the arrest but the villagers were too ashamed that it had become a huge scandal, the name of the village was associated with that “shameful disease,” and the news was published in the local papers. Lots of reporters came and some of them were talking about something called “Article 377” that could go in favor of Anil because it had just been repealed. Neerumoni noted down that number diligently on a piece of paper. She phoned Gurmail and told him to make a call on the number “377” because the kind reporter from Guwahati who had come with a large camera, a strange car with a huge umbrella on top of it and had had her eyelids colored blue had mentioned that it could be used to save her son. When Gurmail heard that, he started to weep on the phone. He wanted to say something but he couldn’t say anything beyond the sentence that he would leave everything in Delhi to come and help her. Things were sorted out when he came. Within two days, he used his influence, made many calls on his mobile phone and urged Anil to call a Village Council meeting. Anil did not agree initially and kept saying, “they will kill me”. Finally, Gurmail said he should stop behaving like a madman and that no one was against him or after his life. That they thought it was just a disease and he would just have to go and say that he would take good medical care once he became Headman. They would thenvote for him anyway. Anil said he would withdraw his nomination papers. Nirgun’s party was the ruling party and they were using every means to malign him. Though some sensitive reporters had come last time, reporters from some of the numerous satellite channels that raised a mountain out of a molehill might come to make him out to be some sort of a demon. Gurmail said he had nothing to worry about, that he was with him; and he should just agree to fight the elections.
They ate meat that day. Duck-meat. Gurmail had shopped, just like those days, days when he used to take Anil out to spend holidays in the hill station Shillong, in Guwahati City and to buy him new clothes; the days when he used to call Neerumoni “Mother”. She slept well that night even though the sounds invaded her ears and she found that same smell of male bodies in the morning when she went into Anil’s room to arrange his books, make his bed and arrange the stack of newspapers after Anil had read them. Neerumoni had cooked the duck meat with banana flowers and stir fried it with ginger and garlic paste. Gurmail said it tasted like the immortal nectar of the Gods and she had laughed, blushed, laughed and laughed.
That night when Anil went to pee in the backyard at midnight, someone tried to stab him with a sharp knife but he raised an alarm and the knife only mangled the flesh on his arm. The whole village gathered as Neerumoni wailed and cursed, and Gurmail ran out with his gun to find who it was. He was shouting, “Come back coward,” in Hindi. An old woman from the village made a paste of marigold leaves and put a layer on Anil’s wound. Someone found a fresh wad of cotton and tore some clean cloths into strips and bandaged him. The bleeding stopped. But it only made him more and more miserable.
Day after day, Anil slept. He didn’t show any interest in the election campaigns and avoided repeated calls from the senior party leaders in Guwahati. “They will kill me,” he just kept saying. The village experienced a lull. The villagers murmured amongst themselves about what could be done. They resembled and hummed like a band of swarming locusts. One evening, the villagers began to trickle into his courtyard. When the women saw that their men were going to visit Anil, they were curious. They said, “Why shouldn’t we go too,” and, “Who knows if we explain things to him he may yet stand for the elections,” to each other. So they nodded their heads at one another,combed their hair, slipped their bangles on, pushed betel nut withthin wads of tobacco into their mouths and followed their men. When the children started to follow them, they said, “Go away, we will be back soon.” But the children followed them too. They also perhaps had sensed that something was about to happen... That afternoon, when Anil agreed in front of almost the whole village that he would contest, a young man from the village came up to him to whisper that Nirgun had come to know about this meeting and that his brother ,Promud, was a few meters away, not daring to come near his house. “Promud is crying. He has asked me to ask you if you will ever forgive him. He says, “Ask him to stand for the elections and I will vote for him.” He handed over a small crumpled paper to Anil in which was written, “It was my brother who forced me to do all these things. I love you still.”
Anil woke up due to the strong smell of kerosene and petrol around him. He wondered why he was dreaming of weird smells when he was in the arms of the man he loved most. He brought the naked body of Gurmail closer and dug his nose deeper into his chest. He put his arms around his waist. They had made love so passionately after a long time and he was feeling happy-tired. The bed was wet with their sweat and he took a deep breath, taking it all into his lungs and once again he smelled kerosene and petrol. “Anil!” Gurmail was screaming at the top of his voice. He was pulling his pajamas up and asking him to run. Anil didn’t know what to do and Gurmail only said, “No need to dress, it’s only me, only me”. The house was on fire: the newspapers that had been collecting for ages, the clothes, the almirah and the old wooden furniture that had been there forever: everything was on fire. Someone flung the door open. Anil had wrapped the bed sheet around his waist by then. It was his mother, “They are trying to kill you,” she screamed. “Someone had set the house on fire, someone had locked this door.” He stood there, not knowing what to do and it suddenly struck him that this could have killed his love and his mother and that it was all because of him. In the courtyard, he howled and cried, and Gurmail said, “Shut up, it’s not because of you. I am going to find who did it”. His mother hugged him and cried. He clung to her and said that it was all because of him; that he shouldn’t have agreed to contest the elections. He should instead have gone to the forests with Gurmail and never come back.
That was first time he came out to her and they both stared at each other. His mother’s back was to the house. It was burning down and he kept his eyes on the flames engulfing what had been home, for he couldn’t look at her eyes anymore. He had built the house to carve a space of his own, the house had implicitly told his mother what his “male needs” were, and now, before that burning house, he was telling her that he loved Gurmail, and that he wanted to live in the forests with him.
The whole house was on fire now and his mother was howling, saying something he didn’t understand. He released himself from Neerumoni’s arms in a fleeting second and started running towards the house. “Leave it, leave! Life is bigger than the things you are trying to get!”—that was the initial cautionary phrase that came out of her mouth but when he went in and latched the door from inside, she knew, he hadn’t gone in to bring back anything special. She wailed and clawed at the ground. Gurmail came in a bit late. He had gone in search of the person who had set fire to Anil’s home. By this time the whole neighborhood had woken up to an unusual smell—that of burnt human flesh, the smell of burnt human flesh.