Memoir / Essays: Sundori

Rhiti Chatterjee Bose

There was an enormous four track railway lines, a huge pond teaming with fishes, and right by the pond was our garden. The messy overflowing garden with wild flowers and fruit trees surrounded our house; it was home to many birds, frogs and a very naughty mongoose. I lived there with my Baba, Ma and my Ammu, my grandmother. The house was big, sprawling over two floors, opening up to a second-floor terrace. On clear nights, you could see numerous stars from the terrace, and we didn’t even know their names. To us, they were a splatter of tiny lights across the ink blue sky, with the North Star shining the brightest. Baba would often take Ma and me upstairs and told us stories that were born out of the stars. Our house in the little sleepy town of Barrackpore was truly what they call as bliss. The days I lived there could be counted not in years, but in love and happiness.

Although all these are a memory now, but it is still fresh as yesterday in my mind’s canvas. The thrum of the tracks when the trains passed by throughout the night became the throb of my heartbeats.  The water rippled in the pond every now and then whenever a big Goods carriage train would pass. On stormy nights the shuddering, quivering trees would dance in a rhythm matching the pulsation from the tracks. A lot of people who came to visit us hated it, couldn’t sleep at night from all the vibrating noises and creaks from doors and windows, but I loved it. The strumming of the tracks when the trains passed by still tugs at my heartstrings. 

Many animals would get hurt at the tracks, some even died from the trains that passed by in full speed. When a bigger animal like a goat or a cow died, Vultures gathered, feasting on the carcasses. Sounds morbid I know, but to an eleven-year-old me, it was just fascinating. I watched them, dancing in circles, tugging on the flesh and eating their fill, through our upstairs windows. I have grown up seeing vultures roaming about our terrace, they had terrifying eyes and sharp beaks, yet such enigmatic presence. I was strictly told by my parents not to disturb them when they were there. I obeyed.

It was the summer holidays. The days were hot and the nights humid, filled with the thick, sweet aroma that came from our Jasmine bushes. One morning, parents were having their morning tea; I sat nearby with my Grandma, both of us reading our own books. As we were all lazing about, we heard a shriek coming from the neighbours’ courtyard, quite out of place on a bright sunny morning like that. The four of us ran to our back garden following the stream of screams. Minati

Kakima was screaming at the top of her voice, looking disheveled, and pointing her fingers towards places where we could see nothing. My mom approached the boundary wall that divided the two houses and asked her in a calming manner, ‘Boudi ki hoyeche? What happened?’

Shakun!’ she panted, ‘In my kitchen, walked right in…’ She couldn’t finish her sentence and broke into sobs, ‘brings bad luck for the family, you know,’ her husband completed for her.

She gathered her breath and said, ‘I told him before not to build a house by the railway tracks, such ominous things keep happening, no one listens to me…’ and once again, her voice trailed off behind her sobs.

The little me was pretty dumbfounded as to how a bird like a vulture could bring bad luck. So I looked at my Baba for a better explanation, he lowered his voice down to a whisper and said, ‘Some grownups believe a lot of rubbish, it’s nothing.’ Then he raised his voice a little more and asked our neighbour, ‘Where is it now?’

Manab Kaku nodded his head and pointed nowhere really, ‘Jaani na dada, it ran away somewhere, we didn’t see.’

Baba said, ‘Strange, a walking vulture!’ he asked again, ‘Are you sure, it didn’t fly off?’

‘Who cares where it is!!! Now I have to go arrange for a Satya Narayan Puja to ward off the evil it brought along.’ He huffed. Baba chuckled softly.

Slowly, the few people who had gathered dispersed, talking about the walking vulture and the bad omen. Ma and Ammu went indoors to get back to their tea and books. Baba stood there curiously, in silence. I stayed by his side hoping to catch a glimpse of the walking vulture. He looked at me and said, ‘Vulture’s won’t walk around, unless it’s hurt. Maybe it has hurt her wings, that’s why was looking for a place to rest.’ I nodded; this theory made a lot more sense than a walking vulture trying to bring bad luck for a family.

‘Come’ he said, ‘Let’s look in the garden, maybe she is still here.’

I followed.

The back garden was clear, no signs of the so-called ill-luck bearing bird. We tiptoed towards the front garden and there she was. Right at the corner of the boundary wall which joined the two houses, behind the Jasmine bushes. I stepped forward, and Baba put his hand in front of me, ‘Stop’ he said, ‘We don’t want to scare the poor thing off, do we?’

It felt like the bird looked straight at me with her eyes full of terror and anger, piercing my little body. I shuddered a little.

‘Let’s go’, Baba said softly

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘She is scared, she needs to rest, and we better not disturb her. Also it’s wise not to tell the neighbours she is hiding here or else they will pounce on us with more theories of omens and bad lucks.’

He took my hand and we left the way we came.

He walked indoors and told my ma, ‘We found her.’

Ma looked up from her book and asked ‘Is she hurt?’

Baba said ‘yes, we will put out some water and food later for her, for now let her rest.’

‘So you don’t believe in the omen then, Ma?’ I asked.

She smiled, ‘No beta, animals are fine, it’s the humans which scare me more.’

Looking at my bewildered face, she said, ‘Go upstairs now, finish your shower before breakfast, someday I will explain what I said, for now just remember, animals and birds don’t carry bad luck.’ I nodded and left.

Later in the afternoon, as I watched from my upstairs window, I saw the bird sleeping, and my father gently stepping forward and setting a bowl of water in front of her and a piece of raw fish and walking away quietly.

Baba named her ‘Sundori’ meaning beautiful.

She stayed for four days, not touching any food that we gave, just drinking the water from time to time. On the fifth morning when I looked out of my window, my heart sank, she was gone.

I had hoped that she would stay a few more days.

Baba seemed a little sad too.

So I told him, ‘Don’t worry Baba, she will come back one day to visit us.’ He smiled.

But Sundori never returned.

One day I asked Baba, ‘Why didn’t Sundori return to us? We were nice to her, weren’t we?’

He kindly placed a hand on my head and said, ‘Some of us are a bit too wild, our souls are not meant to be tamed by the lure of food or water, we need to fly, we need to fly away so far that no one can bind us with earthy offerings.’

I didn’t understand much of what he said then.

But now, when I look back at that memory, it all makes sense. Not all of us are to be tamed; it is okay to remain wild and reject all mundane offerings of this world and its domesticated people. A life lesson from a father to his little girl, which she would remember all her life long.

Sundori, I am glad you remained to your sky, unbound.

Bio: Rhiti is an Artist and Art Therapist. She has a teacher's degree from Manchester Metropolitan University, UK and Post graduate diploma in Psychotherapy and Child Psychology from School of Natural Health and Science, London, UK. 

She is the founder of the art company ArtIsana, focusing on art Counselling, art classes and art exhibitions, providing a platform to new and emerging artists. Co-Founder of a community library called Kitaabshaala, which not only provides a reading space to book lovers, but free classes to underprivileged children, and also a safe space for LGBTQIA community. Founder of Incredible Women of India, which is now under Readomania. 

She is also a published writer and poet. She is a mother of two kids and based in Bhubaneswar.

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