Echoing in a Lullaby: Nandini Sahu

Nandini Sahu
There are many stories about love. But there are some stories of love, not precisely love-stories, where one can see a common human being turning uncommon with the touch of love.

Love and lullaby – aren’t they virtually the parallel terms? Teacher and adoration—aren’t they synonymous?

I lived in the United States for past ten years. The place where I live in India with my daughter since past two years, was supposedly a jungle a few years back. Muddy, dark, back waters leading where nobody knew, near Gopalpur-on-sea, a village turning to a small town. Working in the university in the nearest township Berhampur ,Odisha, I drive ten  kilometers every day, and drop my daughter Neera on the way in her public school. I have decided to live here, because I always wanted to live life looking at the blue. Now this place is slowly turning into a port, and engineers from the state as well as the national capital throng this area every day. It’s becoming a city of flowers. My daughter has learnt to sing William Black and Shelley in place of “Ahe dayamaya visva bihari”; and her Miss has replaced her grandmother. The teacher Miss Shruti Palo who prefers to be called as Miss Paul, speaks Odia kindly, like Katrina Kaif  speaks Hindi, tells her stories. She has introduced her to Rath Yatra as the ‘Car Festival’. She takes them on excursions sometimes and shows Lord Jagannath, Kainchamali, the wooden horse, the jute bags, Pipili canopies, and tells them, “See children! Have a look at our ancient culture.” Neera reads out her paragraph writing in the evening to me on the topic: ‘Our Villages’-- where the villages are shown as places out of this world, where strange creatures lived, and life was weird. Where people and cows walked on the narrow lanes together, people ate rice thrice a day, women wore nothing but saris, children had hardly any homework or classwork except listening to stories, mugging up the multiplication tables in a singsong manner. This summer vacation I took Neera to my village, because she had to prepare a project for her social studies on ‘Our Rural Odisha’. We went to the place where my widowed father lives with his widow mother, some 200 kilometer away from Berhampur.

My grandmother is eighty eight years old, but still strong in her mind, if not her body. She told Neera stories of her childhood and her village. Neera thought it was some ghost story, a fantasy. Great-grandmother, Budhimaa, was a liar. How could a metro girl have believed that in the past, life was beautiful like poetry?

Life was like poetry when we were kids. Early morning the scavenger woman brooming the roads. Mowing of calves to suck the left-over milk from mother cow’s breast after the milkman had collected his day’s milk. We would get up with the metallic sound of fuel coal dropped into tin containers for measuring. One dabba, a tin container, was 50 paise, supplying kitchen fuel for a week. Mother carefully watching, lest the coal-wallah might cheat. But did anyone cheat anyone? Pata mausi scrubbing utensils with ashes near the well. There was an eternal fight between Pata mausi and Phula-budhi, the old woman supplying flowers for our daily puja, since Pata mausi got fresh flowers for people for less money than the old woman. Sudama bhaina bathing his buffalo near the well that reminds Neera of her Mom’s car washer. Mother sprinkling cow dung water in the backyard, father sipping tea while listening to All India Radio. “Aakasha-vani. News bulletin  by Gouranga Charana Rath.” Madana going to the temple with stolen flowers, chanting mantras all the while; Oshibou scolding someone, perhaps her daughter-in-law. Our neighbor’s name was Chairman Digal. Villagers fancied giving peculiar names to their children. Proper names were truly connotative in the sense that whatever was precious – for example kerosene – was a prospective name. Whatever was a respectable position or job, was also a prospective proper name. That is how, many villagers ended up giving weird names to their kids, like Chairman Nayak, Kerosene Pradhan, Amitabh Bachchan Digal, President Nayak, Darmendra Nayak or Hema Malini Pradhan.

It would be still dusk. I and Raju bhaiya, my brother, would brush our teeth sitting  beside the well and drowse. Chairman Digal’s mother coming to the well to fetch water would nag. Grandmother would us get hot water to mix with a bucket of fresh cold water from the well to bathe, then braid my long hair into two folded banana plaits with  red ribbons of floral patterns. My two eldest sisters were at home, all the time doing  embroidery on hanky or window screens, waiting to be married off. I and Raju going to Hatapada UP School, to class one and two, respectively. The school looked like a warehouse from a distance.

There were teachers like Padhy Sir, who oiled his hair so much that he had acne all over his forehead. There was Sabita didi (in our schools, teachers were addressed as didi even if they were sixty years old!), who was young and beautiful, whose saris I used to touch and feel sitting on the front row while she would be writing on the black board. There was Sahu Sir, our Maths teacher, whose Draconian law scared us to death. Deduct whatever less marks you have gotten from one hundred, and get ready to be whipped that many times by him.

And then, there was Budhi didi, the class teacher, in fact the only teacher for all subjects, for class-I.My favorite teacher.

 I still didn’t know what her actual name was all those years. She was fondly called as Budhi didi by all, may be because she was the oldest among all the teachers.

 We would reach the school at 7 am and there were prayers. “Aahe dayamaya visva bihari, ghena dayabahi moro guhari”. Some naughty boys would replace the second line by “tuma bariade saga kiyari, tume kete khumti khunti khaucha, aame magile tike na daucha.”,(which meant, you have spinach all over your backyard, which you don’t care to share with us) and I would giggle. Sahu Sir, the Maths teacher,would stare at me, and I would squeeze into the lap of Budhi didi.

 Then the roll calls. Class-I was never a class room, it was a verandah, like open theater, with a black board and a chair in the centre. Budhi didi would be sitting on that for a while, then get down and sit with us on the floor, wiping our nose, picking lice from our head, telling us stories, singing songs, teaching us the alphabets by writing on our note books, making faces to tease us, feeding us if we were hungry, giving us wild berries which were forbidden at home; and even singing a lullaby to put us to sleep on her lap if we were sleepy. She was with us in the same floor from 7 am to 1 pm, sharing life with us.

Budhi didi was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Why she had only one sari, off white or it had grown grey by being too old, I couldn’t understand. My mother and grandmother had so many saris, father used to get new saris for them at lest thrice a year. My father was the village Sarpanch, and we were quite well-to-do. I wanted to gift some of our saris to Budhi didi. Even I asked her once, that if I could get her a few saris from home, and she said no, one should never steal. One should never tell a lie. Wash your hands before and after eating. Touch the feet of your parents. Don’t be jealous of anyone. Do good and be good. Whatever she told was like the Veda for me. She truly represented the simplicity of a villager. She was more than a mother to us children.

During roll calls, she would mark all of us present, even without looking. Because we were never absent in her class.

Her face was angelic, with disengaged features – a flat nose, wrinkles, uneven teeth and bright eyes -- she was very beautiful in my eyes. She had a  motherly fragrance, the smell of love. Her bosom was soft. She was the best teacher, she taught us numbers, alphabets, music, just everything,all subjects. We never did projects, we had no holiday homework, no study tours, no unit tests, no semesters, but our learning was long term and brain-based. Whatever she had taught us, is still printed in my mind, saved permanently in my hard disk.

She was not only teaching us. She was preparing us for life. We learnt piousness, generosity, honesty, truthfulness and empathy from her. We learnt the alphabets of love from her.

During winter mornings, the headmaster Mr. Valentine Pradhan, one more person with a connotative proper name, asked us to come down and sit in the sun, because the verandah for class-I was too cold. On one such occasion, I left my school bag open and went to relieve myself in the fields as we had no washrooms in our school, to the utter surprise of Neera. In the mean time, Budhi didi was busy with some correction work and other children were playing. A cow entered the ground where our bags were kept and ate away my Maths book, almost half of it!

“Oh God! Today Maa will beat me. What shall I do now?” I went on crying.

She lifted me onto her lap with her left hand. I was reed thin, was hardly fifteen kilos when I was in class I. (And my Neera is fifty kilos when she is in class V . After all she is child of luxury, a pizza, burger, French fries kid!)
She patted my head and wiped my face. “Don’t cry mama”, she addressed us as mama out of love, “I shall copy the entire book for you from my book, ok?”

She actually did that, overnight. Was she alone at home? Had she no other work at home? My mother and grandmother were busy all the time cooking, making wadi, pickles or cleaning the house. In the school she had not a moment’s break, with sixty naughty children in her class, making her crazy.

After many years, when I was young , I went to see her in her house during my annual vacation, she told me for the first time that she was Aparna, not only Budhi didi, and she got married when she was hardly fifteen years old, had two children; then one day her husband got converted to another religion and went to England with the kids, leaving her behind, for he had found a beautiful woman whose brothers sponsored his foreign trip and a job abroad. She was a loner. She tried to see her children in us, give a meaning to her life by taking care of us selflessly. She had heard that her children were married and settled in London, she had grand children now.

But I had never seen tears in her eyes. Always a smile, motherly comfort, heavenly patience, womanly self-confidence. That made her the most lovable, most beautiful woman.

Budhi didi used to reach Hatapada U.P. School, our school, very early in the morning. At least half an hour before other teachers. Because she took care of the mid-day meal for the poor children. The government  had a scheme of mid day meal made of daliya for the children below poverty line. Budhi didi used to cook it with utmost care, because she thought that the cooks supplied by the government were very careless, they never cared about hygiene and taste of the food. By the time we would reach the school, the aroma of freshly cooked daliya upma would be in the air. I would start salivating and wait for the tiffin break at 9 am and discreetly go and sit in the row of the poor children to gulp daliya. I never wanted to eat the paranthas and cauliflower curry that my grandmother  packed for me and Raju in two separate boxes. I used to give it away to some other child. Budhi didi always noticed this.

“Don’t do this mama. Your parents will not like this. This food is not for you.”

“Why Budhi didi? This is so yummy.”
“You find this yummy? Only boiled daliya with salt?”

Now whenever I cook daliya for Neera with milk, sugar and dry fruits, I don’t get that aroma of the daliya of Budhi didi’s cooking. But it makes me nostalgic, for sure.

Class-I was over, and I had to study in the same school for another four years, with other teachers. But my weakness for Budhi didi was never less. I would spend sometime before our classes began ,then the entire tiffin break, again the chutti time with her. Chatting with her, touching her, leaning on her shoulder, running away when she would try to pat  my back for some mischief I did.

Time is a universal phenomenon, as certain and unstoppable as death. Undaunted by the sun’s truant ways, it ticks away mercilessly, merging day into night and vice-versa, with unwavering precision.

Time balances, levels all—that’s a separate matter. Time is a great leveler—that is immaterial for Budhi didi kind of people.

This year I reached our village, which can hardly be called a village anymore, with Neera. Neera got busy with my father and grandmother, taking details about village life from them for her Social Studies  project, and was literally pampered by them.

I wanted to see Budhi didi . My father told she is in a very bad shape. I rushed to her hut, and discovered that she was lying on her bed, talking to herself.

“Ninu, you came mama? I knew you would come.”

Hardly and she begun, then a short, stocky and dark old man entered the room with a woman, pretty older than me. But she had a striking similarity with me! She was her daughter and he the father of the daughter, Budhu didi’s husband, who had left her years back.

Did she love me so much because I resembled her daughter? But no, she loved every child! Panic-striken, Budhi didi looked here and there, seeking something she couldn’t find. An empty water jug and an upturned tumbler were kept on the table, and they hadn’t bothered even to fill that.

I suddenly felt low. My excitement to give her the good news that I am going back to the States on a fellowship for three years, with Neera, vanished. I had decided to spend the whole of June in the village, to give Neera an understanding of rural India, and to give myself some good time with my father, grandmother and Budhi didi. Our tickets were booked for the first week of July.

Why have these people come after all these years? When did they come? Why is she looking so bewildered? She caught hold of both my hands and whispered something. Then sobbed. Her sighs and sobs filled the backyard and darkened my face. She leaned on my chest like I used to on hers when I was in class-I. Then wiped her tears herself and told, “Ninu, this is my husband and my daughter. See, how much she looks like you! But no! She is not like you. She has never loved this old woman.”

 She continued, “After retirement the headmaster wanted me to be the children’s hostel superintendent. There is a small hostel in Hatapada U.P. School now. But I denied. I wanted to live and die in this house, where I had come as a bride years back. Now these people are asking me to vacate this house because they want to sell this property off and go back. They need money. I was dying to contact you mama! I knew that you would come and take me to Gopalpur. At least I can spend the last few days of my life peacefully. They are asking me to shift to the old age home today itself. Their papers are ready.”

She was speaking restlessly. It was not good for the heart of an old person. I asked her husband and daughter to leave that room. She put her head on my lap peacefully and tried to sleep. As if it were her last sleep the very last one. I had got daliya for her from home. I fed her a few spoons before putting her to sleep. Liquid food got spilled out from her mouth.

I was perhaps humming a lullaby to her,bewildered, echoing the lullaby of my childhood, that she used to sing for us. Noiselessly she opened her eyes for a few moments and stared at me, as if I were her erudite preacher.      

Bio: Prof. Nandini Sahu is a major voice in contemporary Indian English literature. She has accomplished her doctorate in English literature under the guidance of Late Prof. Niranjan Mohanty, Prof. of English, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan. She is a poet and a creative writer of international repute, has been widely published in India, U.S.A, U.K., Africa and Pakistan.  Apart from numerous other literary awards, she is a triple gold medalist in English literature; she has received the Gold Medal from the hon'ble Vice-President of India for her contributions to English Studies in India in the year 2019.
       She is the author and editor of thirteen books( fourteenth book under publication) titled The Other Voice, The Silence (a poetry collection), The Post Colonial Space: Writing the Self and the Nation, Silver Poems on My Lips (a poetry collection), Folklore and the Alternative Modernities (Vol.I), Folklore and the Alternative Modernities (Vol. II), Sukamaa and Other Poems, Suvarnarekha and Sita (A Poem), Dynamics of Children’s Literature, Zero Point, published from New Delhi. Presently she is the Director, School of Foreign Languages and Professor of English at Indira Gandhi National Open University [IGNOU], New Delhi. Prof. Sahu has designed academic programmes/courses on Folklore and Culture Studies, Children’s Literature and American Literature for IGNOU. Her areas of research interest cover Indian Literature, New Literatures, Folklore and Culture Studies, American Literature, Children’s Literature and Critical Theory. She is the Chief Editor/Founder Editor of Interdisciplinary Journal of Literature and Language (IJLL), a bi-annual peer-reviewed journal in English.

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