Translated by Margaret L.Pachuau
To begin at the very beginning, I must concede that each one of us has, during our lifetimes, been through the capricious changes that only time can bring – times of difficulty, unease, joy and sorrow – in varying degrees.
I am known for being gentle, good tempered and rather laidback. I am the kind who has neither great name or fame. But I am not ashamed of this, considering that a majority of the people in this vast world are like me. However, the incident that I am to narrate will always occupy a larger part of my mind.
It has been a long time, yet I recall everything vividly. The incident, the cause of my misery and lifelong tears, that dismal October night, at the Hotel Odyana, Zolawn.
After my transfer from Sialton village, I, along with my family, was headed south of Mizoram to my place of posting. We bade tearful farewells to our friends, promising to keep in touch.
Enroute to my new posting I had to take a short detour to Aizawl for a couple of days. My wife and our two children – my seven year old son and nine year old daughter – stayed behind at Hotel Odyana, the best hotel in Zolawn, along with all our belongings, to await my return. Our reunion the next afternoon under the bright sunshine was a happy one. Sitting down to dine, I decided that even the mundane sound of our children squabbling over the cutlery was amongst the most joyous sounds in the world. We all looked at each other and we knew we were happy.
As there wasn’t a bed large enough to accommodate all of us, I decided to sleep in a separate room while my wife slept with the children. After dinner they left to pick flowers from the hotel’s sprawling lawns, and I busied myself with some office work. It was then that it all started…
I deliberately avoided reading the paper, but at the same time it held a strange allure for me, dated and old though it was. I opened its pages and came across the personal column, something that had not been there before. At once I saw the insertion –
D, if you could see my heart, it is bleeding now – D
However, another barely legible insertion on the right hand side of page three caught my eye, beseeching and beckoning me towards a bygone era. I read the insertion, my heart beating wildly,
Dorothy and her little daughter, due to unfortunate circumstances, entered St Mary’s Convent. It may be recalled in this connection that Dorothy married a handsome man, who later drank himself to death two years ago. Since then life has been a hard one for her. She was originally a tea girl of M locality here.
I read the item over and over again for I knew it was her…it had to be her and none other…it was her way of letting me know about her sad predicament.
A long forgotten milestone, incidents that had been relegated to the back of my mind came floating back in front of my eyes – as fresh and alive as those days of spring when the allure of romance with my one and only Dorothy had played havoc with my mind. It was as if it had all happened yesterday. Time had not erased her memory. What was it about her that so appealed to me? I could remember every aspect of her being – her attire, her physical features, her personality and most of all, her delicate forehead fringed with the curly locks of hair that so suited her. I also recalled her lovely smile…You must realize that I could perceive Shillong more clearly through my portrayal of Dorothy. I could not think of anything else, not even of my own family. Dorothy had implanted herself eternally in my heart and soul. A long time had indeed passed since we parted, but she seemed to grow more vividly beautiful with each passing moment. Unable to hide my emotions any longer I cried aloud, “Dorothy, I still love you the most.”
I had never experienced such deep affection for anyone else. My knowledge of love and romance was gathered from the novels I had read. But being in love with Dorothy was a wonderful feeling, and because I had never had the experience of loving anyone, I committed myself to this affair with a vengeance. And reader, I must confess here that this was a grave aberration.
Dorothy was not from an affluent family. An ordinary girl but due to her, Shillong and its locales were like a pleasure dome for me. She made my loneliness and solitude a thing of the past. The romantic in me felt that she was even more exquisite than the loveliest of flowers. She had little occasion to dress up, as she had to earn her living as a tea girl. But when she did, she lent a new meaning to the term “Perfection”, the way she tied her hair with a yellow silk scarf, exposing her delicate forehead and the thick gold earrings. I can still recall the red and white shoes she wore on such days. She was contented with everything, so it was always a pleasure to be with her. Such was her impact on me, the most beautiful, the most marvelous Dorothy. Was it any wonder then that time failed to erase her memory?
Like any other couple, we made certain demands on each other during our courtship. For instance, if I didn’t acknowledge her in public she would reprimand me. Why did you not greet me the other day? If I didn’t go to her tea stall she would ask, Why didn’t you come over? Don’t you know I wait for you? If I did go and spoke less she would chide, Why do you not speak when others are around? Why, o, why, so suited Dorothy.
One windy March day I saw her walking across the fields with a friend, kettle in hand. The fierce wind tugged at their garments till finally, unable to go any further, they sat down on the grass, laughing. I ran down and sat next to her. Her friend went away. We gazed at each other, she and I.
“What brings you here?” she asked.
I said, “There’s someone whom I love dearly. Her name is Dorothy, she stays somewhere around here and I’ve come in search of her. Do you, by any chance, know here?”
She replied, “I certainly do. She’s my best friend. What do you want of her?”
“I wish to know how long she intends to keep me waiting. Could she please confirm my status in the name of love?”
“In the name of love? Surely you must be joking. Anyway it’s getting late, I’m only a poor girl who has to earn her living. Go ahead, study hard.” She got up.
“Will you meet me at the cinema tomorrow?” I pleaded.
I had not expected her to come but Dorothy, as unpredictable as ever, was there. The sight of her from a distance made me ask myself, Is it a dream? Together we watched Do You Love Me? starring Maureen O’Hara.
I am not easy to please. And doubt, anger, pleasure, joy and even pain must have reigned in my mind.
Yet I remember those little things not worthy of mention, that so please the ears of lovers.
Yet I remember those little things not worthy of mention, that so please the ears of lovers.
That day, lying on the bed of Hotel Odyana, I recalled the letters that I had written – appeals befitting a lover’s conscience. If she cared for me at all, I pleaded with her to tell me so and if not, to sever all connections.
D, if you could see my heart, it is bleeding now
Smiling, Dorothy had said, “I think I am much more anxious than you, D.”
We went to a secluded place, and I recall pinning some flowers in her hair. She spoke first, “So you don’t plan to ever return?”
“No, if you don’t love me.”
“Do you know how terrible it would be if you don’t come back?”
“If you loved me, things would be different. To not return then would be even more painful for me. You know that.”
She threw an indulgent look at me and tilting her head towards my face, laughed. “Listen D, even if I did love you, what would you propose to do with me?”
And I, in my utter innocence and lack of experience with women, had no suitable answer. Yet her coy challenge excited me and summoning all the courage I could muster I replied, “Why hoino, this is what I’d do,” and took her in a long embrace.
Oh, the intensity of that spell, it was our one moment in time when the earth ceased to be and the pleasures of life turned ethereal and eternal. When I awoke from my stupor, Dorothy drew a long sigh, “Ah! If only fate decreed that I were a Mizo girl,” she said.
She had greater foresight about the impending cloud that was to cast its shadow over our relationship. On my part, I had no inkling whatsoever of the phantom clouds that were to ruin it. When she was by my side there were none of those thoughts of darkness. My vision was blighted by her magical aura and I could foresee nothing else.
“Unless you tell me the truth I shall not go home,” I declared purposefully, refusing to stand up.
She wanted to know how much clearer it would be, but what I wanted from her was some kind of affirmation, futile though it was.
“Listen D, our final exams are almost here, after that I shall leave for Mizoram. Why are you detaining me like this without a real reason? Your countenance does not seem cruel, why then is your heart so?” I beseeched, holding her hand and stroking the smoothness of her skin. “Tell me, D. Life seems impossible without you. I tell you, I’ll die without you.”
She avoided my gaze. And then suddenly, as if waking from her reverie, said, “Listen, you say that you cannot leave. Surely you’re joking. Go ahead with your exams, do well and go home…”
“Will you please wait for me?” I realized then that it was what she wanted of me.
“Certainly,” she had replied.
That was enough to help me achieve my happiness. Dorothy had promised to wait for me. I knew then that I had no other rival. I alone occupied her heart. What bliss, what utter joy! But I also reminded myself that our world encompassed our parents and families as well. You know how these things are – the opinion of the family and such other things mattered, come what may. She gazed at me tenderly and from the look on my face she could decipher that my feelings for here were earnest and true. She was a clever woman, and from what I could make out from our relationship, my affection and love for her far exceeded hers for me. She was always in control of her emotions while I always took leave of my senses. I tried to reach for the stars without climbing, while she searched for the stars with the help of a ladder.
After those heady days of courtship, studies and my forthcoming exams took a backseat. But, much as I wanted to meet here, I could not. I met her friend though and asked about her. She was extremely loyal to her and did not respond truthfully. At last she said that Dorothy was to be married to a local Khasi youth. Dorothy was reluctant to meet me. Anyway, it would have been difficult for both of us to know how to react, even if we did meet. I spent the rest of my academic session in Shillong with a heavy heart.
When I reached Mizoram, it was with a burdened, weary heart. My mind was scarred, filled as it was with the memories of Dorothy. However, I tried very hard to overcome my heartbreak and emphatically promised myself that I would never return to Shillong. Time passed slowly and painfully, and during this interval, I was offered a job at Sialton. I met my wife Nguri there and was reminded of Shakespeare, the wise bard’s words. Men are April when they woo, December when they wed.
For me, I think it worked quite the opposite way for I was deeply in love and utterly happy. To tell you the truth, when I first courted Nguri, I was December or January or perhaps even February (all due to Dorothy). Nguri was responsible for making me forget all about Dorothy and my unhappy past. She was all that I could ever want. And as for my daughter, often I’ve thought that she’ll put all other beauties to shame, so fine were her features and her countenance. Yes, I was as proud of my family as they were of me. In fact we would have no qualms about singing, “Wondrous beauties we claim not to be, our charming looks suffice for our village.”
We were, as I stated earlier, a happy contented family and Nguri and I were very much in love. With Nguri by my side I had nothing to fear, nothing to regret, for she was my strength and my inspiration. Even if Dorothy were to reappear in my life things would not change, I thought – so confident were we of our love for each other and of ourselves. Ah! If only one knew what the future held.
Reading the message in that hotel room, I realized that Dorothy still occupied a greater part of my thoughts and sensibilities. Reader, was it that fatal step towards doom? Yes, she who I thought I had forgotten was still etched upon my being. My mind raced back to the time when I was a carefree youth. Her memory revived a festering, yet long forgotten wound. My scarred heart and hurt pride, which I thought had healed, were still very much in the throes of passion. Deep down I knew she was suffering. I pictured her in the convent chapel praying to Mother Mary for deliverance from her woes, and oh, how I pitied her. Where was I when she needed me most? I was at Hotel Odyana, at an obscure place called Zolawn , lying in bed with her memory for company.
The bustle of my family entering the room jolted me back to the present. Nguri and my son asked, “Why didn’t you answer? We kept calling you.” All three of them were there beside me and yet, so lost was I in thought that even though I registered their presence, I was unable to answer their queries.
Nguri went on, “Don’t you like the sleeping arrangements that we’ve made? We’ll spread the mattresses out on the floor so that all of us can sleep together in one room.”
This too did not elicit any response from me. “All right, if he refuses to talk to us let’s leave him alone.” Nguri walked off with the children.
I could hear my daughter saying, “Ka pa is being mean, isn’t he, Ka nu? As it is we are the only guests here with just ourselves for company.”
Nguri answered, “Go tell your father that your brother and I will sleep in the other room, and you could sleep with him.” As always, my wife was afraid of upsetting me or making me unhappy.
My daughter, with her usual enthusiasm, happily agreed to her mother’s suggestion and bounded back into my room. But I did not even glance at her. (My dear Mami, you whom I love more than anything else, was it not surprising that I did not even spare you a glance?) Deeply hurt and upset, she ran away from the room with tears in her eyes. I could hear her crying pitifully in the next room and being comforted by her mother. Dorothy had cast such a strange spell on me that nothing could wake me up from my reverie. All my thoughts veered towards her. I could picture myself waiting in anticipation for here in the parlour of St Mary’s convent.
The receptionist would enquire, Who do you wish to meet? and I would state, Dorothy and her daughter.
She would then pass on the message to Dorothy. I could even imagine how tremulously Dorothy’s heart would beat upon seeing my name. Suddenly I remembered that I had a photograph of her tucked away somewhere in an old suitcase in the other room where my wife and children were staying. I ran to the room, rummaged through the suitcase and grabbed the notebook. Back in my room, I gazed lovingly at the picture of a long gone, yet unforgotten love – Dorothy. As I looked at it, every aspect of her features and every strand of her hair which I had not stroked for the past nine years came back to mind. Nothing had changed with the passage of time – her earrings, her eyes, her lips, ah, her lips…lips I had spoken to, had caressed with mine.
Yes, I shall be as honest as possible. I called out to her time and again, yet from the haunting beauty of nature at twilight, no one responded.
Dusk gave way to the swift darkness of night. Moonlight streamed down and cast its magic, but none of it registered. I chided myself, for this was not the way things should be. I had to get away from the stifling confines of the hotel. Maybe take a walk. Without telling anyone I went out to the open courtyard of the hotel. Were it any other night my wife and I would have sat together, waiting for the children as they played, but all that was a thing of the past. For the present and this evening in particular, Dorothy beckoned and I belonged to her.
Before we parted, Dorothy’s friend had begged me to at least say my goodbyes. We did manage to meet, but as there was not much that could be undone, both of us said very little. Dorothy, I shall go away but there will always be a place for you in my heart. From Mizoram, I shall look towards the hills of the north and imagine you at the Khasi and Jaintia hills – I remember telling her all this and the words lingered in my soul. So this night too, under the soft moonlight, after nine long years, I gazed nostalgically towards the north.
As a youth I had indulged in alcohol sometimes, when anger at Dorothy overtook me. For a long time now I had been free of its clutches, but now temptation sneaked in. I was so firmly in the grip of the devil, wanting that contentment of the heart through alcohol that the famed lyricist Lalzova spoke of. I told myself that here is a man in trouble, his honour at stake. There was no one to drive away the evil thoughts. So I walked all the way to Zolawn village a little distance from the hotel, with the sole intention of getting drunk.
“Ka pi, do you have zu?”
“I have one pot of the sweetest zu.”
“That’s not enough, bring me another just as sweet.”
I gave her a two rupee note and presently she was back with two pots of rice beer. She tried to ask me about myself, looking at me with wonder and embarrassment. I did not disclose much but brought out the photograph of Dorothy instead.
“Madam, have you seen anything like this before?” I asked her.
She peered at it in the firelight and asked, “Is she human?” I told her that she was perhaps too old to see it properly and that this was an angel who was pure and beautiful. Gazing at Dorothy’s picture, I drank the night away.
Deep into the night, way past two in the morning, someone shook me awake, screaming, “Wake up! Wake up! Your family…Odyana...fire…”
I heard loud, frenzied screams and panicked cries. The town crier was calling, “Wake up all you who sleep tonight…Hotel Odyana is on fire!”
I leapt up and ran aimlessly towards the hotel, falling and stumbling along the rocky path, calling out, “Nguri, Nguri, don’t fear. I’m coming.”
How often I fell and in what state I reached the hotel I have no idea. It all happened in a flash and was over before I could decipher anything. When I regained consciousness I was told that a new day had begun. I was at the house of the village chief and was being treated by the village compounder. I did not answer the chief’s queries, all I could do amidst these strangers was to call for my family – Mama, Mami, Nguri.
My hair was singed, my clothes and body badly burnt…no, I will not go into details. I had tried in vain to rescue my wife and children. They were dead and I was alive…alive to regret the fact that I had not been with them in death.
It was the nightmare of coming to terms with the reality of the present that haunted me. I am sure there were people who had tried to deter me from leaping into the flames though I cannot recall who they really were. All that I could piece together was that, as I had gone away without telling anyone of my whereabouts, my wife had faithfully waited for me after the children had gone to bed. She had sat up long into the night, forgetting to put out the lamp.
The fire had first been detected from their room, but because they had been so deeply asleep they were the last to wake. Oh, to think that I had lost the gift of a lifetime because of my own foolishness. Words could not really describe the way I felt…the remorse, the shame. Oh my beloved family, you who were so pure and holy, how I do miss you even now!
I resigned from my job. I had to make a few representations in court and after the legal proceedings were over, the full impact of how alone I was, finally hit home. I started wandering mindlessly. All I could hear was Mami’s voice prompting me, “Ka pa, go ahead, just go on ahead,” and sometimes I was unable to stay in one place. All I could do was go on and on. Sometimes I would ask, “Mami, do you forgive me? Where will I go? I don’t know where to go anymore.”
I wished that Nguri and Mama would say something too, but all I would hear was Mami’s voice telling me, “Ka pa, go on…”
I plodded on, ready to undergo every hardship. I came to know what it was like to be hungry and despairing, to wander in thirst, roam about like an animal in the wild and suffer alone the raw elements of wind and storm…to suffer the biting cold of the deep forest, to hear the strange and eerie night sounds out in the solitude and loneliness of the wild…Yes, it was my hope and prayer that somehow the wild beasts would take pity and devour me. Mami’s plea to go ahead with life led me nowhere, and so I traversed the length and breadth of Mizoram.
Time went by slowly and painfully. Summer in the hills lost none of its beauty, with tender shoots and buds giving way to greenery everywhere. Birds flew amidst the haze engulfing the forests, their lonely calls echoing in the hills, filling me with utter loneliness. I managed to exist, yet I could no longer belong or even participate. I kept wandering for precisely two years. Though my savings for my children’s education gradually depleted, I still had some savings in the post office. It was for this reason that I went to Aizawl, and from there, in the month of April, to Zolawn. This is where I am now, writing this short but important saga of my life.
People were good to me, immensely compassionate after they understood the extent of my remorse and suffering. With th help of the Zolawn villagers and their chief, I was able to lay a tombstone for my family. It was made in the finest mould for I felt that they deserved the very best. I thought even passersby who gave it a fleeting glance should feel the same. I laid a beautiful garden around the tombstone. Hotel Odyana,which had been burned to ashes, had been constructed anew on a much grander scale and life went on.
I still had no definite plans. One Friday evening I went and sat by the tombstone of my departed family. It was then I realized that I had long ceased to hear the voice of my daughter. Not since I came to Zolawn. Her voice used to be a constant reminder of my terrible guilt, and there were times when I dreaded hearing it. But now…I gazed eagerly at the names etched upon the tombstone and asked, “Mami, why is it that you don’t speak anymore?”
Yes, since one cannot just die, I had to go on living, cross boundaries and broaden my horizons. I reasoned to myself that this was what my family would have wanted, going ahead meant living life to the best of one’s abilities. I am well-educated. The world was cruel that was for sure, but its inhabitants too were just as sinful. Life was unfair. I decided that as one who could still have at least forty years more of life, I would devote it henceforth to the service of others. That very night, I went to the village chief’s house to tell him about it.
He was delighted. “Ka fapa,” he said, “it is indeed an honour for me to tell you that you’ve been forgiven your sins.”
The chief and his wife had always been good to me. Ever since my life had taken a turn for the worse, they had implored me to become the headmaster of the village school hoping that though I was a sinner, the job would help reform me and perhaps bring me back on the right track. So this new turn of events made them truly glad.
The chief asked,”My son, your decision to teach is final, isn’t it? Let me dispatch the town crier to proclaim the good news.”
And thus it came to pass that the person once referred to as “Sialton official” came to be known as the teacher of Zolawn.
A couple of years ago, one terrible night, Zolawn had been awakened by the call, “Wake up all you who sleep tonight…Hotel Odyna is on fire…” This time the call was, “Wake up all you who sleep tonight…I bring tidings of great joy…”
The chief’s wife was the first to congratulate me. I stretched out my hand, smiling perhaps for the first time since the loss of my family. Then at the suggestion of the chief, we all bowed our heads in prayer.
The entire village congregated at the church where I was assigned to preach a short sermon. There was enthusiasm all around. I was delivering the first sermon of my life. I looked around, raised my arms and gestured the crowd to come closer. Then walking towards the pulpit I began, “Come one, come all…you who are sad and burdened…”
C Thuamluaia wrote essays and short stories in both Mizo and English. His works in Mizo include the short stories Leitlang Dingdi, Sialton Official and EngTin Awm Ta Zel Ang Maw? besides several essays. His works in English include the essays The Disaster, Christian Festival, The Days that Followed. Many of his writings including Chawngtinleri Puan Thin Tlang, Lakher Chanchin, Heavenly Sinner, Post War and Pre War of
, and a play Mizo Lalho Inkhawmpui are lost. A teacher by profession, he was also elected as MLA for a tenure at the Assam Legislative Assembly. He died in 1959. Assam
Sialton Official was first published in Mizo in the Mizo Students’ Association Monthly Magazine, Oct – Dec, 1973, and has since become a staple in the Mizo literature syllabi at the degree level. Ms Pachuau’s English translation was begun in 2003 and published in March 2004 in The Heart of the Matter, a collection of short stories brought out by Katha and the North East Writers' Forum.
Picture: Pi Pu Sulhnu by Tlangrokhuma, oil on canvas.