My earliest memory of Rokon Mama is of a tall, gaunt figure with a sallow face and a wispy beard. He used to arrive early in the morning and stand in the front yard. Putting down his tin suitcase, he would wipe his face and forehead with the sleeves of his panjabi and call out to the elderly matriarch of the house, “Boro Amma, I’ve come.” Nanu, my grandmother, would rush out to meet him.
Nana, my grandfather, rarely spoke to him except for an occasional dry, “Are things going well?” Eyes averted, Rokon Mama would nod awkwardly and the man of the house would leave. Nobody else in the family was welcoming toward Rokon Mama except for Nanu who settled him in a room on the ground floor. The room used to be locked through the year and Nanu always referred to it as “Rokon’s room.”
Rokon Mama’s arrival meant a lot of good food. It was not that we ate poorly, but whenever he visited, Nanu would prepare special fish and mutton curries with fragrant rice grown in our own fields. She would take out jars of pickles and marmalade she made throughout the year. Since he visited in the winter, she would also prepare rice pudding made with date juice, rice cakes with molasses, as well as other winter delicacies. Her treatment of Rokon Mama was very different from the way she treated her own children. She seldom spoke to her two sons and daughters-in-law, though she was never unkind. Neither was she close with my mother, her only daughter. Among her grandchildren, I was her favorite. But when Rokon Mama came, I would lose my pride of place.
Rokon Mama always left our house with several bags full of food and other goodies. Coming to think of it now, I was quite jealous of him during those days. Moreover, he did not pay much attention to any of us, and it was clear that he came to see Nanu only. I took my revenge by making faces at him behind her back.
On regular days, Nanu would tell me stories as she worked in the kitchen. If she was in a good mood, she would tell me about her childhood days. She told me about her grandmother who helped pierce her nose and earlobes. “We had to have six ear piercings,” she said once. Another time she said, “My father, your great-grandfather, was a skilled hunter. When he was young, he once killed a tiger.” Her stories were from another world, and I eagerly devoured them. She told me she got married at age fourteen, and her mother-in-law caused all sorts of trouble. “What did she do, Nanu?” I asked. Nanu looked at me with a frown. “Wicked things. She often poured ground pepper in my bed spreads and made me wash them. Even worse, if she was in a bad mood, she would make me go without dinner.” I shuddered in horror. But young that I was, I knew that mothers-in-law were nasty creatures—one reason why my mother lived with her parents even after marriage.
When Rokon Mama was with us, Nanu would not tell me stories. She would hum a strange tune while cooking and I could never catch the exact words—they seemed to rise out of long-forgotten days and unfathomable pain. I once ran to her and hugged her asking if she was hurt. Nanu paused in the middle of her cooking and hugged me back. She kissed the top of my head and said, “I am singing for a young wife, pet. A wife who lost her husband and her home.” I wondered who she was talking about. A friend? A cousin? Was the person dead?
My grandparents’ home was in a small town in the outskirts of the capital city Dhaka. Nana’s parents were apparently from a northern district, but he had chosen to move to this area for business when his children were young. He had built a two-storied house surrounded by an orchard with mango, jackfruit, guava, lychee, and other fruit trees. It was his gift to Nanu and she could do whatever she wanted with it. Nanu planted many more trees. During the summer and monsoon months, the fruits would ripen and she made sure that none of them got stolen by the greedy neighbors or their children. Twice a day she would walk around the grove with a staff to chase out any intruder.
Every year, a part of the harvested fruits was consumed by the family, another portion distributed among friends and neighbors. An even larger share fetched a good amount of money. Through the months of June and July, the house would be aromatic with the ripe fruit. Nanu, my mother, and my two aunts would be busy making guava jam, mango bars, and pickles. She would often give me ripe guavas to chop so that I did not feel useless in her busy kitchen. The guavas would go into a huge pot of water and be boiled for hours. There were no pressure cookers in those days and it would take a while for the guavas to turn into pulp. I watched them strain the mushy guava pulp, then add sugar and water to be boiled again for long hours into a thick guava juice. A few drops of zarda and lemon juice would be added, and when it was ready, I would be the first to taste the guava jelly.
In Nanu’s orchard, there were rows of tall coconut and betel nut trees. Harvest time for the betel nuts ran from September through November, and the ripe betel nuts had a pungent smell. My mother and aunts spent a lot of time preparing them for the market, and Nanu divided the profits among the three. It was their pin money.
Meanwhile, from the proceeds of the fruit sales, I noticed Nanu always kept a portion for Rokon Mama.
Murad Mama’s wife once complained, “Ma keeps the best things for Rokon bhai.” That was the one time I saw Nanu get really upset. She snapped, “It’s not your husband’s money I’m giving, girl. If you don’t like my ways, go back to your parents’ house.” My aunt’s face went white and she tottered away from the place. My mother whispered, “Ma, why did you say that? You know she has lost both her parents.”
Nanu asked, “What about Rokon? What does he have?”
Mother went quiet. After a while she said, “Rokon bhai is unlucky. But don’t you think you’ve given him enough…?” she could not even finish when Nanu said quietly, “Don’t say another word. Just go.”
Mother also fled.
My small heart was struggling with conflicting emotions. I did not really like Rokon Mama, but I also understood that there was nothing vile in him. He was a quiet sort and did not bother anyone in the house. I looked up from shelling the peas and asked softly, “You love Rokon Mama a lot, don’t you, Nanu?”
Nanu shook her head and gave me a strange smile “His mother is dead and I have to do what I have to do.”
“Who are Rokon Mama’s parents, Nanu?” I asked timidly. For some reason I was afraid to ask the question.
Nanu did not reply immediately. Then she sighed and said, “Run along. Enjoy your time. I can never give Rokon enough.”
When Rokon Mama arrived the following winter, I waited for him with all the curiosity of an eleven-year-old busybody. I wanted to know more about him. I had asked Mother too, who just hushed me up. Nanu had set his breakfast separately from the rest of the family. There were four different kinds of pithas along with flat bread and mutton curry. He was devouring the bread and curry. “You’re the only one who treats me well, Boro Amma. This year was particularly tough in our village. The villages of North Bengal are all suffering. So little water in the river. The wells have dried up.” Nanu piled his plate with more food, and for the first time I realized that Rokon Mama probably did not have enough to eat throughout the year.
After he was done with breakfast, I approached Rokon Mama with a big smile. He was a bit taken aback and asked hesitantly, “Is this Mymuna’s daughter?”
Nanu nodded as she cleared things away. “Yes, that’s our little bird, Munia.” She did not look at me, so I could not see if she was pleased. I asked, “Do you live far away, Rokon Mama? Why don’t you come more often?”
Rokon Mama’s eyes lit up and he laughed. “Boro Amma, your granddaughter is so much like you!”
Nanu smiled. Rokon Mama ruffled my hair and said, “Nobody in this house is happy to see me. When you are gone, Boro Amma, I’ll never come here again.”
“What kind of talk is that?” Nanu barked. “I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.”
I knew he was right, though. Until that day, I did not like him much either. I thought of him as a thief who stole my grandmother’s love. Little did I know what the world had stolen from him before he was even born. But why nobody liked him was a question that no one would answer.
“Can’t Rokon Mama live here?” I asked as I sat with the womenfolk during lunch. My mother was spooning gravy onto my plate and her hand trembled when I asked the question. Neither of my two aunts said anything. Nanu was quiet too. I ploughed on, “He is so skinny. He must not have enough to eat at home. And we have so much here. Nanu, can’t you ask Rokon Mama to live with us?”
“How can he?” one of my aunts finally mumbled. “He’s not a family member.”
“But he calls Nanu ‘Boro Amma,’” I said knowingly. I had developed a theory of my own regarding Rokon Mama’s identity. It was something I caught onto from my aunts, who would make snide remarks about him being an ‘illegitimate son.’ That was quite a difficult word. What did it even mean?
When I pressed them, my elder aunt said, “He is a child from the river—do you understand? He came floating down the river.” My second aunt laughed, but her laughter had a secretive ring to it. Then they begged me not to mention any of this to Nanu. I reflected on what they said and recalled the story of the prophet Musa—the adopted son of the Pharaoh of Egypt. Didn’t he come floating down the river? But who were Rokon Mama’s parents? Did they really put him in a basket and sail him off?
Nobody seemed eager to discuss him at the table and Mother told me rather sharply to finish my food rather than fooling around. Since Nanu did not say anything, I refrained from pressing further.
After lunch, I went to find Rokon Mama. I felt that talking to him might solve the mystery.
I found him by the pond at the southern side of the orchard. He was chatting up the ducklings. “Yes, I come here every winter. Look how happy you are with your siblings! I have siblings too, but they don’t recognize me. I’m an outsider to them.”
Giddy with my own findings, I ran up to Rokon Mama and said, “Rokon Mama, I spoke to Nanu so that you could stay with us. What kind of a son are you that you stay away from your own mother? Nanu loves you so much!”
Rokon Mama gaped at me uncomprehendingly. “What are you talking about?”
I was impatient. “Nanu’s your mother, right? Your real mother?” I blurted out what I had painstakingly put together. “You are from Nanu’s first marriage, right? Not that anybody ever told me that she was previously married. But only a mother can love her son the way she loves you. And Nana never even looks at you! I know you lost your parents when you were little. You’re a child of the river, like the prophet Musa. You’re Nanu’s firstborn, right?”
Rokon Mama laughed so hard that he could hardly speak. The ducks were alarmed and retreated with their brood. At length he sobered up and said, “Munia, you’re an even better storyteller than the old woman of our village. My goodness!” He laughed again. Then he shook his head and said, “A mother like her would never leave her own child behind, Munia! No!” His eyes were clouded and he turned away from me.
I stood there for a few seconds stunned, and then ran home. I hid myself in the attic for I had surely made a stupid blunder. I imagined Rokon Mama telling my tale to Nanu and the two of them sharing a good laugh at my expense. But I was still half convinced of their relationship, and felt indignant because he refused to own it. After several hours of sulking, curiosity got the better of me and I came down again. Nanu was busy in the kitchen and her usual self. Rokon Mama had obviously not told her anything. I lingered for a bit and wondered how to bring about a happy ending to their story.
Before I could launch another attempt, however, I stumbled upon something that made me realize that there was a big mistake in my calculations. I was chewing a mango bar and eavesdropping on Nanu and Mother when the latter referred to some event that had happened many years ago. My ears pricked up as I heard the name of Rokon Mama. Nanu said that Rokon Mama was born a few months after Murad Mama, my eldest maternal uncle. Now, how could that be? If that was true, he couldn’t be Nanu’s son from a previous marriage. In fact, he couldn’t be Nanu’s son at all! I could sense blood rushing to my face and I was mortified to even think of the gibberish I had uttered before a stranger. I decided not to speak of it again.
Rokon Mama continued to be a walking enigma for me through the next few years. He was a winter guest who came to visit like the winter birds. As I grew into my teens, I developed a kind of affinity for him. He could be quite a charmer if you caught his fancy. His eyes lit up when he told stories of the djinns and fairies that whisked away hapless villagers to some fairy-land by feeding them magic sweets. His fanciful tales were very different from the ones Nanu told us—she never deviated from real life.
When I turned fourteen, my mother said I was a woman now, which I hated. Being a woman meant covering up your body, going out less, and dealing with that horrid monthly thing. Who wanted to be a woman? I was frequently short-tempered and angry at my male cousins. At this time, people in the house started talking about moving to the city. Nana’s business had expanded and he had already bought a house at a place called Nawabpur in Dhaka. But what about this house? It was too good to sell. Nana was wondering where he could find a trustworthy and capable man to look after this place. We could also come back to visit on weekends or holidays.
Rokon Mama’s name came up again. This time it was brought up by Nanu.
It was late afternoon and the sun had just come out after rain. Nanu sat with Nana in the veranda after lunch. I stood in one corner of the veranda, fascinated by the sunlight glistening on the rain-cleansed leaves. The crows were cawing nearby. My mother and aunts were in the kitchen cleaning up, so no one else was around. Nana let out a big sigh and said to Nanu, “You’ll never give up on Rokon, will you?”
“How can I?” Nanu’s voice was sharp. Nana gave a feeble laugh. Was he nervous?
When Nanu spoke again, her voice was controlled, but there was an edge that I had never heard before. “If it was not for our son Murad, I would have gone back to my parents too and forgotten about you all.”
Nana slowly said, “It all happened so many years ago and you still…”
“You men do things without thinking and drop the burden on the women and children. You never thought of your wife or son when you brought that hussy into the house. And then you had no qualms renouncing her child, your child, after she died giving birth—as if it was his fault! People call him a ‘child from the river.’”
The old man remained silent. Nanu paused for breath and said, “It’s high time you recognize that son of yours.”
I stood transfixed by a drop of water refracting and magnifying the veins of a guava leaf. It gathered and grew in brilliance.
In the distance, a lone crow went on cawing.
I recalled Nanu’s song in the kitchen—the words that I never quite caught. I had asked her once if she was in pain.
Two evenings later, I saw Rokon Mama sitting by the pond, as was his habit. Instead of being chatty, he seemed pensive. Nana had offered him a job as a caretaker and Nanu coaxed him into accepting it. Nana had also offered to buy him land elsewhere.
Rokon Mama glanced at me but did not say anything as I went over to sit by him. I felt sorry that his father refused to own him. Did Nana still blame him for the death of that other woman, as Nanu seemed to imply?
I dared not look at the man who sat beside me in silence. My thoughts turned to the young wife who lost her heart and home so early in her marriage. I watched the carefree water-fowls as the dull pain in my heart became acute.