Season of pineapples

The plane abruptly descended, its body jerking as it passed through a thick air pocket.  I looked out of the window at the scaled down version of the world below. A vast expanse of green stretched out, broken into neat rectangular patterns. The Brahmaputra wound across the land like. a giant necklace shining in the afternoon Sun .  Everything seemed so quiet and serene.

 

“Are we landing?” asked the passenger next to me, a young Engineering student coming home for her vacation. Before I could answer, a female voice crackled through the sound system. “Please fasten your seat belts. We are about to land at the Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport…..” The girl gave a sign of the Holy Cross. The plane landed perfectly taxing to a halt on the far end of the runway.

 

I was back home in Guwahati – exactly after two months – from New Delhi where I taught at a college. Usually I came home only during the vacations. But this unscheduled visit had been in response to my Grandfather’s urgent summon. Grandfather, a retired army colonel lived in Nartap, a village near Sonapur on the outskirts of Guwahati. He cultivated pineapples on several acres of ancestral land he owned at the village, earning a tidy amount selling his ripe pine apples. Every year, for the past few years, during harvesting time, my elder brother, a doctor settled in Guwahati stayed with Grand-father and helped him maintain the accounts. It was not a difficult task but Grandfather was notoriously bad with calculations. Besides he was an extremely finicky person with fixed notions about things and would not let anyone other than my brother and — with a little reluctance– me to assist him. Unfortunately, this season, just a week before the harvesting, my brother slipped in his bathroom, and fractured a leg. He became unfit for his sojourn in Grandfather’s estate. As a substitute, Grandfather sent for me, to replace my brother. Knowing how much he relied on us and because I shared a special relationship with him, I applied for a months’ leave from my teaching job and took the flight home.

 

At the airport, Grandfather was waiting for me – a tall immaculately dressed ram rod stiff man with a thick moustache and light blue eyes that seemed out of place on his hard craggy face. At seventy two, he looked and acted like a man much younger than his age. Grand father had a flamboyant larger than life image. A much decorated officer and war hero, he had been one of the first officers of the Indian Army to enter Decca during the Bangladesh war of liberation in 1971. After retirement, Grand father settled in his ancestral village, living a solitary life in his sprawling bungalow on top of a hillock. A widower after just five years of marriage, Grand father’s only child – my mother – too had expired three years back, leaving both my brother and me as his sole heirs.  Grand father’s daily needs were managed by Maheswar, a local Karbi youth who lived with his family in a annex to the bungalow. Those of us who were close with him knew that beneath his blunt and outspoken nature, Grand father was a warm and sensitive person with the curiosity of a child. He was both loved and feared by the villagers. Largely due to his influence, not a single youth of the village had joined any extremist organization. He helped many youths of the village secure jobs in the army.

 

As we drove past the dust and grime and noises of the city and sped up the tree clad hillside, the air became fresh and invigorating. We reached Nartap after an hour’s drive from the city. Grandfather’s estate was located at one end of the village. The car entered through the large iron gates of the complex and wound its way up a narrow graveled path. It pulled up in front of a pretty bungalow with a wide porch, covered on all sides with thin wire mesh. Maheswar was waiting on the steps outside. He collected my luggage and carried them to the guest room. It was the same room I stayed during the last time I had come here.

 

From the window of the room, I had a panoramic view of the hills and valleys surrounding Nartap.

 

“That’s Meghalaya,” said Grandfather pointing towards a cluster of huts on the slope of a hill in the distant horizon. My eyes scanned the green and unspoilt; terrain spread all around the horizon.

 

It was almost a decade since I last visited my Grand father’s house at Nartap. Nothing changed in these ten years. The green hills; the giant trees; the narrow dirt tracks; the quaint little houses – everything seemed untouched by time.

 

The pineapple harvesting began a day after my I came here.. Grandfather had been waiting for my arrival. Our work started around nine in the morning and was over by three in the afternoon. Much of the actual work was done by the three caretakers of the farm, all retired army men from the village. My job was to keep tabs on the sale proceeds and maintain a proper account of the labor and sundry payments. For the first hour or two, Grandfather would supervise the activities, fussing and fretting over us. But after same time, his patience petered out and much to our relief, he withdrew from the scene. Every evening after I completed my task and handed him the day’s collection, Grandfather and I sat on the porch of the bungalow. As the evening melted into darkness, Grandfather would announce grandly, “Time for our sundowners”. Maheswar promptly appeared pushing a trolley with glasses, ice bucket, soda, snacks and a large bottle of whisky. Over two large pegs of whisky for himself and a small one for me, Grandfather entertained me with stories from his military experiences. His great sense of humor and acting ability made him a wonderful story teller. I enjoyed listening to him. We got along very well, liking each offer’s company.. It seemed that the only thing Grandfather didn’t like about me was my extended bachelorhood. It irked him that I was yet to have a family of my own.

 

One morning, towards the end of my stay at Nartap, I woke up to find Grandfather sitting in my bed, besides me.

 

“Good morning, Grandpa,” I said. He broke into a wide smile, making the lines and wrinkles run helter skelter on his craggy face.

 

“Have you seen that house with blue roof?” he said pointing towards the hills.

 

I sat up on my bed and looked out of the window at the nearby hills. On a hill in front of Grandfather’s estate partly concealed by a large mango tree stood a house with blue tiled roof shining in the morning sunshine. I noticed the house for the first time. The blue roof gave it a distinction not seen in any other house around.

 

“Now have a look at this”. Grandfather said thrusting a photograph in my hand. It was a postcard size black and white snap of a young woman with large oval eyes, snub nose and slightly parted lips, set in a round face framed by curly shoulder length hair. Something about her face – half sensual, half innocent struck me as quiet unusual. It was a face that could easily attract anyone.

 

“Who is she”? I was curious to know.

 

“Jenny Kathar!  She lives in that house. She is unmarried like you”, Grandfather   said with a wink.

 

“She may be the one for you. Visit her one of these days and when you go, don’t forget to take along a crate of pineapples” he added thumping me on the back with a hearty laugh.

 

The days passed quickly. Every day, I looked at the photo of Jenny Kather. There was something in that face – something exquisite—that I found quite bewitching.

 

It was the last day of my stay at Nartap. The harvesting had been over and the stock of pineapples was almost empty except those kept for our own consumption. and as gifts for the neighbors. Grandfather was a happy man, more cheerful than ever. He earned much more than last year. I was also happy to fulfill my responsibility and help him without facing any trouble…

 

That evening, I decided to visit the house with the blue roof. Maheswar packed a dozen of the finest pineapples of the Kew breed in a bamboo crate and handed it to me. The Sun was well on it way to the west. The shadows lengthened and the afternoon’s oppressive heat subsided. The air became cool and soothing.  The cawing and chirping of birds returning to their nests to roost occasionally broke the evening’s stillness.  I took the narrow trail used by the villagers between the two hills to avoid walking from Grandfather’s estate all the way uphill on the main track to the next hill. It was a pleasant trek though at some stretches, the narrow trail disappeared under a thick over growth of foliage and I had to clear my way through using a bamboo staff. After walking for about 15 minutes, I came to that portion of the trail where it joined with the main motor able road on the next hill.. Another fifty metres walk on the narrow road, and I saw the house with the blue roof – a dainty structure on a grassy mound. Behind a white wooden gate, a pebbled path led to the house. I walked up the path to a large wooden door in front of the house. I knocked on the door. A little boy opened the door and looked at me inquisitively.

 

“Does Jenny Kathar live here?” The little boy nodded his head and moved aside to let me in. He darted inside. I entered the living room and sat in a double seater cane sofa with red upholstery. In the faint light, my eyes took a few seconds to see things clearly. The room was tidy and tastefully decorated. Several figurines of fairies and cherubs stood on a glass topped centre table in the middle. An olive green carpet filled most of the wooden floor. On my left, a framed photo of Jenny Kathar, an enlarged copy of the one Grandfather had given me adorned the wall. A divan occupied the space beneath the window. Long white lace curtains from the window pelmet descended in a heap on the divan giving the small room a feel of coziness.

 

I heard soft shuffling sounds of footsteps outside. An old lady gently walked into the room and sat on the divan near the window. She pressed a switch on the wall nearby and a bulb in a tulip shaped lampshade hanging overhead lighted the room with a soft glow.

 

“What can I do for you, son?” the old lady said in a soft hushed tone. Her face had a strong resemblance with Jenny Kathar’s. She was most likely her mother or aunt or may be, her grandmother. I introduced myself mentioning Grandfather’s name and handed her the crate of pineapples.

 

“Thank you so much,” she smiled delightfully. “It’s so nice to hear about your Grandfather. His house is just on the other hill but it is so far away. Its been a long time since we met. How is his health?”

 

“Fit as a fiddle. Do you know my Grandfather well?” I said.

 

“Know him well? Your Grandfather was the hero of our times. We called him Dev Anand. Both of us studied in the same college. He was two years my senior. We stayed in adjacent hostels. Always we came home traveling together. My parents entrusted me to his care.  After graduation, your grandfather disappeared somewhere. Later, I heard that he had joined the army.  He was away all these years. I lost track of him. Even after he retired and settled here, we hardly met. My health does not permit me to venture out of my house. Your Grandfather too rarely comes here. I haven’t even seen him for the last few years.”

 

The old lady warmed up to the conversation. ..

“Is Jenny Kathar inside?” I asked, looking at the familiar photo on the wall..

“Jenny Kathar”? The old lady looked at me with amazement. “Don’t you know who I am.? I am Jenny Kathar ”

I was stunned.  It took me a few seconds to recover myself.

“I thought that was Jenny”, I said pointing at the framed photograph on the wall.

 

“Of course, that is Jenny Kathar, couldn’t you recognize me?” She said throwing herself back and forth with laughter. “That photo was taken so many years ago while I was still in College. I still remember your grandfather taking me to the studio. People said, I was quite a beauty then, not this ugly old creature you see now.”

 

Everything seemed like a dream.  .

 

The light went off plunging the room in darkness. Jenny Kathar , sauntered towards the window and drew the curtains, letting the moonlight inside. She returned to the divan. The room was now bathed in a bluish glow. Everything appeared soft and rounded. I looked at the old lady. Her wrinkled face disappeared.. Instead, I saw a young woman with large oval eyes and slightly parted lips on a face that was half sensual, half innocent.

 

That evening, Grandfather was in an unusually sober mood.  For the first time I noticed a hint of tiredness on his face.  He didn’t ask me about my visit to the blue tiled house. Or about meeting Jenny Kathar.

 

Something kept me from broaching about it myself. We had an early dinner and Grandfather quietly retired to his room for the night.

 

The next day, on my way to the airport for my flight back to New Delhi, my brother rang me.

 

“I hope everything went off well”, he said.

 

“Yes”, I said,” Everything was fine”.

 

“Good .There is something I want to tell you now. I thought that you wouldn’t enjoy your stay at Nartap if I had told you earlier. Grandfather has been detected with the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. He doesn’t know about it yet. Of course you couldn’t detect anything wrong with him either. It’s too early for the symptoms to show. Only sometimes his memory plays tricks with him”

 

***

 

The plane flew high above the clouds. The passenger next to me, an old lady in dark sunglasses and grey cropped hair was dozing off. Now and then, her head slipped from her seat and dropped on my shoulders. Every time it happened, I gently pushed her back to her seat without waking her.  I looked out of the plane window.  All around there was an endless expanse of empty sky.

***

 

Bhaskar Phukan

Bhaskar Phukan

The author is a civil servant with the government of Assam. The views expressed in the article are his own and in no way represent the Government of Assam’s views. Feedback: bhaskarub@gmail.com.