As I was ramming down a disturbing amount of clothes and other “essentials” into boxes and suitcases that my family had accumulated over more than 20 years of our tenancy at Mr. & Mrs. Gomes’ house, I realized we didn’t need so much. We could have easily done away with half the luggage. Dead weight was all that was to me, slowing the process of moving and delaying my inevitable sinking into a bed and crossing over to sleep. I was tired. After a whole day of packing and unpacking, I finally found a bed in my new room. That night right before I went to sleep, I tried but I could not think of a single memory of sleep at the last place I called home.
Memories suffer from a bit of activity bias. No one remembers not doing anything, and with sleep, there are certainly no specifics to giggle over in the morning, except dreams. We remember sleep by association like students memorising letters and characters through mnemonics. You aren’t going to remember sleeping day after day in your bed, but that one sleepover at your friends house might just be your most cherished memory of sleep.
In search of memories related to sleep, my mind opened up a portal to my mother’s maiden home. It is a bit strange and a bit sad to think of the place as I don’t go to my maternal grandfather’s (nana’s) house anymore. Although I have visited the neighbourhood a couple of times in the past decade, I cannot remember the last time I stepped foot inside the house my mother and her siblings grew up in. Growing up, such a grim possibility would have kept me sad for weeks.
Away from home, this quaint little town of Chaibasa helped form a golden triangle of refuge for me and my sister — the other two points completing the triangle were Santragachi, where we still live, and Adityapur, my paternal grandfather’s house.
While all three places had their distinct small-town charm, Chaibasa offered a way of life very different from what we had at Adityapur and Santragachi, both of which are areas populated with office-going, factory-working migrant families and as such are accompanied by lack of space and the problems that come with it.
My nana, a mathematics teacher, had bought land and settled in a then unpopulated area, which would grow into a neighbourhood now known as Xavier Nagar. While the economy of Chaibasa is dependant on small-scale industries and mining, Xavier Nagar presented a totally different economic and social reality, in that all the residents were Adivasis and all of them were teachers in nearby schools. Xavier Nagar and, by extension, Chaibasa felt familiar and offered freedom to explore the relatively large tract of land that nana had — for a kid growing up in a migrant family in a small rented apartment away from his roots discovering how amazing his roots looked was something. Most importantly, it felt safe there. And although, the people there looked at me differently — my sister and I were the kids from the “big city” (Kolkata) — nobody treated us differently for being Adivasi, for we were among Adivasis.
Safety for me, among the more immediate physical and mental concerns, is the ability to sleep without a worry. I had two frightening encounters (not direct) with guns in Adityapur, which was not the safest of places when I was growing up, giving me nightmares as a kid. Ironically, one of my strongest (yet hazy, if that’s possible) memory of sleep in the safe haven of Xavier Nagar is of an afternoon when I was rendered vulnerable to chheeta.
Afternoons at nana’s were a turbulent affair, mostly involving me and my friends running around doing what children did before the age of cellphones or my mom scolding us to sleep. On some afternoons, sleep came easy after a heavy bowl of maar bhaat (rice along with starch), pickle and a vegetable (I enjoyed putkal, a sour fibrous dried flower usually prepared with potato), while on others, we didn’t care and sneaked out to pick mangoes by the bucket shaken off the trees by strong winds. It was one of the latter afternoons. I was out playing in the sun and had apparently wandered off to one of the many spots on nana’s land that were said to have a dark/evil aura around. That aura latched onto me, as I was told. (I believe it was sunstroke.) Among the tribes, charcoal is considered as a natural deterrent to chheeta. My mother, aunts and grandparents always insisted that we carried a small charcoal nugget in our pockets and stayed away from such diabolical spots. That day, I was apparently carrying none in my pockets. I don’t exactly remember what happened, what I was doing outside in the sun, or how I got inside the cool mud-walled house. But there I was on a stool feeling as if I were tied stiff to something, unable to move. I could still hear my nana’s raspy but sweet voice saying things, maybe giving directions, I cannot remember. I only have a faint memory of my nana rubbing some undesirably sweet-smelling extract all over my body. A screen of that overpowering smell erected itself around me and the voice grew distant and the already uncharacteristic surroundings of the house faded into darkness.
When I woke up, it was morning. I still smelled of that extract, but it was faint. (I recently asked mother what it was. She was not sure, but said it could have been a tuber of a plant locally known as gaiboch.)
Like any regular morning at nana’s, the smell of hot tea wafted towards me as I made my way to the kitchen, with a stomach rumbling with hunger, past the onions hanging upside down like bats in a cave. The aroma of tea joined forces with the smell of chapati being roasted on the tawa. The small blocks of wood crackled as one of my aunts fed them into the earthen oven (whence came the charcoal for fending off chheeta). My senses seemed restored, but I still could not shake off the sensation of that smell wrapping me into a cocoon, and oddly enough, whenever I think of that day, I can picture myself asleep bundled in a blanket that had been left too long in a trunk filled with gaiboch.
Ill health, financial trouble and worry for a wayward offspring had broken the man down. My nana had always been frail but his swiftness and strength on display on the field ploughing, sowing, reaping seasonal vegetables never for once gave away how old he had gotten, until one day when he was hospitalized.
It was the first time, as far as I can remember, we had traveled to Chaibasa on a non-vacation trip. And it is my last prominent memory of sleeping in Chaibasa – not in Xavier Nagar but a small room at a hospital. My cousin and I had volunteered to watch over nana the night before he was to be discharged. He was still weak but was better than when he was admitted. His voice raspy and almost inaudible. We had to lean close to hear him ask for water or to assist him to the washroom.
We took turns sleeping. When I helped nana to the washroom, I could feel my fingers sinking into his brittle bones. His skin almost wrapped around my thumb. I had to be careful. Just as careful as nana had been when he treated me for chheeta. I might not agree with what my nana thought ailed me that afternoon years ago, but he made me well and my mother and her siblings countless times before. That night in the hospital room haunted by the smell of medicine and piss, I barely slept. But it was enough to make a wish for nana’s health. The next morning, we took him home. He got better and we left for Santragachi not knowing that I would not be able to return for his funeral many months later.
As the years passed, I started sitting among grown ups when they talked late into the night. It was then I realized that Xavier Nagar wasn’t the idyllic place I had imagined. The people there were no different to meanness and jealousy. And suddenly, my safe refuge wasn’t safe anymore. Things escalated after the death of the patriarch and fall outs lasted long enough to make us forget the beauty of Xavier Nagar.
I slept peacefully that night. The day’s hard work offered perspective to my body unaccustomed to labor that doesn’t involve punishing my back and my eyes. More importantly, it brought back memories of sleep and reminded me of a time and place I so dearly miss.