They say that Oikoli, my grandmother, was a woman of exceptional beauty. She was tall, fair, had a beautiful jawline, a dainty nose and a heart of gold. Considering her unusually smooth and luminous skin, her height and her beautiful figure, she did not seem to belong from Basket Village nor from the entire Gold Island. She was the tall, fleshy and generously proportionate kind, the kind that all men of all age must love. It so happened that this woman’s hand was fixed for the hand of Medok, one of the wealthiest men in the island.
But that marriage was not to happen.
Oikoli was in love with a widower named Pakkom Amo. Something about Pakkom Amo had stolen Oikoli’s heart away. What exactly was it I don't know so I have to beg for your forgiveness and just go ahead with whatever I know. They say marriages are made in heaven and fulfilled on earth. Or maybe it was my grandfather Pakkom’s looks, his voice, his exceptionally skilled hands, or maybe the smell of his body, destined to be hers for all the warm nights she was to spend with him inside a white cotton canopy. Or perhaps the thing that won her heart was the stories he told, stories that must have gone through all the twists and turns of plots just in order to flatter her. And also to fill her head with lewd images, because it was a known fact that the members in Pakkom’s family did not hesitate to speak about the reproductive organs when touched with inspiration. Here I must repeat, one cannot tell. Love is too hard to define. All that can be told is Oikoli my grandmother, fell in love with Pakkom my grandfather, and vowed that if she marries anyone she would only marry Pakkom…
Oikoli raised Eri Silkworms for her project “Elopement with Pakkom”. Now raising silkworms was exhausting because the worms devoured the castor leaves at an incredible speed and you had to keep the supply coming. You easily saw the bluish-green castor leaves disappearing right in front of your eyes, you could actually hear it disappearing if you just drew down the curtains of your other senses and concentrated on your auditory sense. Cchauhkk cchhaukk cchhhaukkk went the silkworms ccchhaukkk ccchhhaukkk ccchhhhaukkk came out a universe of sound. At night Oikoli covered them with leaves and went to sleep, and the next morning she saw them all grown up and nibbling at the leafstalk, because everything else that was green in color had been devoured. All that remained were their tiny, black, perfectly round, pepper-like shit and the leftover skeleton of the leaves. On alternate days she plucked aside the soft and squashy worms and threw away the leftovers so that the silkworms crawled on a neat valley of green and sweet smelling food again.
In a few weeks the worms turned blue or yellow in color, and stopped eating. They now crawled away from their food and turned up their heads as if looking for something. Until then they never looked up from their eating, but now they are sort of in a hurry to move on to their next stage of life. They now need a place to wrap themselves in their silken thread and metamorphose into butterflies. So Oikoli picked up their fat bodies, examined them one by one by holding them up to her ear and rolling them between the fingers—if it made a crumpling papery noise then it had stopped eating and was ready to build a cocoon, if not it was not yet ready—she put the ready ones into a cluster of leafy bamboo twigs.
Thus begins the metamorphosis of a silkworm. But the metamorphosis is not allowed to be completed. The white and almost luminescent cocoon-balls are plucked out from the bamboo twigs, wrapped in cloth and then dipped into a huge cauldron. The burning logs and sticks send up their flower like tongues and the water boils over. In due time the steaming cocoon-balls are transferred into a basket and the young maidens, married women, old grandmothers, farmer boys, who were all gathered for that very occasion, dig into the basket. They check the mushier end of the cocoon-balls with their hands, tear open the cocoon and pull out the larva. The hot and steaming larva then goes straight into the mouth and into the stomach, and the cocoon is kept aside.
Sitting on the floor of her bamboo-house high up above the ground Oikoli sent the spindle swirling down—there was a tenderness, a sense of purpose (and a sense of urgency too) in her act—and transformed the white mushy cocoon into thread. She was very adept at the handling of distaff-and-spindle. She could do it walking too, and it was a sight that inspired awe among cheerful kids who ran around naked. They would momentarily stop their play and watch the woman with the slice of cloud on her hand and the rotating thing in the air that seemed to miraculously keep on rotating—‘Will she allow me to do it?’ was the natural question that popped up in the mind of these kids. And since it felt like a sacred activity meant only for women they hesitated to ask and have a go at it. And this way Oikoli got her thread ready, arranged the warp out of it, and began her weaving.
She went down her bamboo-house and between the file of bamboo stilts she wove her ege-gasor sitting behind the loom. The sand on her legs, the itchy feeling of invisible insects mixed with the sand, the poultry that liked to dig up soft soil and play with it—covering itself in soil and then shaking them off from its feathery body in a cloud of dust—all these were part of her weaving routine and her dreams of marital bliss. She controlled the bamboo-machinery below the warp with her feet, and her hands slid the shuttle to and fro, double-smacking in the weft and making the customary Thap-Thap! noise. She was weaving her own destiny. And every act she committed was an act inspired out of love.
And just as planned, on the night she was to run away from her home to the home of Pakkom, she “tied” her fate and the ege-gasor that she had woven to the Goddess Kamakhya: if the goddess fulfilled her wish she would offer the shawl to the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, and from then on every year a new one, as a token of gratitude. It was a decision of the heart she had made, and for better or worse she would forever love that man with his honeyed tongue whom she had chosen for her husband.
The goddess granted her wish, she was wedded to Pakkom, and the handsome man whose long pyramidal nose was a perfect match to her thin, soft and shapely one, allowed the invisible reins on his hands to fall off. And those fingers danced, played and squeezed to their heart’s content.
The newlywed bride was made to climb up the ko:bang of the house whose steps were wrapped in slippery green leaves, as was the custom of the people in Gold Island. A dozen hands stretched out to ensure that the bride did not slip. The villagers, gathered there for the occasion, danced to the uproarious beat of the drum and the piercing and twanging sound of flattened musical instruments. The music buried all feelings of fear in Oikoli and gave her courage and happiness. She was starting a new life.
The house rested on top of hundreds of bamboo stilts and was half-a-mile long because those days the entire Amo families of Basket Village stayed together. There was a hierarchical division of power in the house: an older member of the family could box a tooth away from a younger member for no apparent reason save that he was unhappy with the fellow's conduct. Pakkom was the third and youngest son of his father who was himself the third and youngest son of his father. That put him in a somewhat uncertain position in the standing of the house. By birthright he was superior to many in the family but in age he was even younger than some of the sons of his first cousins. This gave him leeway to avoid going to work in the paddy field. He stayed back at home and his work consisted mainly of running errands for the senior-most people of the house. These senior-most people were old men who had seen life and now saw things differently. They were fond of Pakkom and in effect they taught him how to talk, and how to walk, and how to smoke opium.
Pakkom and Oikoli’s were the third family from the front entrance in that half-mile long home, segregated from the rest by the presence of their own raised earthen platform where meals were cooked. Over long and short days and nights that came and disappeared, they gave birth to three children: the first was a girl who was named Oipun Amo, the second was a boy, named Pukon Amo, and the youngest, also a boy, was named Kaising Amo. He was not excessively fond of his own children.
Pakkom did not like to stay too often at home with the family. He had an addiction to opium. Sometimes he was sent to buy some salt for breakfast and he returned when it was night-time. At other times he would pick up the bronze plate in which he had just eaten his breakfast and walk out, never to return with the plate (which he sold off somewhere). Oipun was keen on her studies and was the earliest to rise from bed and the first to go to the field, so that she could go to school on time. The school was about three miles away and situated beside the leprosy missionary house. On the way she had to swim across the Subansiri River which was filled with white fishes that had long beaks like the scissors of a surgeon. Sometimes Kaising, her youngest brother, followed her to school. He noticed that her sister brought along a towel with her with which she wrapped around her bosom before she took off her school clothes, then she swam across the river with her left hand holding the books and clothes above the water. The rest of the school-going boys and girls got completely naked and crossed the river. Most of the boys stayed behind for catching fish, never making it to school. These truants made spears out of the rushes and speared at the long-beaked fishes the whole morning, and when afternoon came they returned with their school-attending classmates back to their village. They were happy to have skipped school. The parents at home were happy that they brought back fishes to eat.
Oipun took her studies more and more seriously, reading late into the night and waking up at dawn, and when she became the first rank student of her class and word got out thanks to her school teachers, the villagers felt proud of her too. Pakkom had nothing against her doing well in her studies but the villagers had begun to bother him. They were now advising him to change his ways for his daughter’s sake, telling him to buy her books instead of spending all his money on chasing dragons. People speaking to him like that hurt him. So he was mostly away at an old man's house across the river where the two of them lighted the pipe and smoked in peace.
But when he was home he never sat idly; he was exceptionally good with his hands. Making do:la, a large type of basket, was Pakkom’s specialty. This staple bamboo-product of the Tani clan, about five meters in diameter, was made of thin sheets of bamboo interwoven into each other. Pakkom’s fingers were so dexterous that he took only about thirty minutes to make one. Bamboo stalks could be found everywhere and thirty minutes was nothing. He sold them and in this way he earned some money for the family.
And when he had sat at home for long enough, and his soul felt trapped, he once again paid heed to the wild calling him—he climbed up his elephant and left the house and the Island. Pakkom disappeared for months at a stretch, travelling to all corners of the Northeast, mostly catching baby elephants with fellow experts and selling them to wealthy families.
He and his elephant-catching-friends had to dig traps and infiltrate the elephant families of the wild. It was hard work, digging the soil, cutting the wood and sharpening the bamboos, but the thrill of the hunt always more than compensated for the work. Hidden behind the ears of their tame ones they would infiltrate the families of the wild, never fearing that they might be trampled to death or their body cleanly hollowed by a tusk, and would nudge and direct the young ones towards the pits. It was a dangerous business but they were evidently good at it. Elephants are intelligent, lovable and emotional creatures. Separation was painful. The baby elephant shed buckets of tears from its sad, frightened, pitiful eyes. Memories of happy times with its parents flooded the baby elephant’s mind, which now instead of making it happy added a hundred times to the painful longing for them. The baby elephant’s first month of captivity was the hardest and Pakkom’s special task (because he was gifted with a voice that could speak to elephants) was to mourn for its loss with lullabies, and to sing to it daily until he succeeded in easing its pain.
Only when the dog in the house was found to have disappeared since the morning, only then could one know that he was returning home: the dog would reappear by the evening with Pakkom and his elephant. He used to love returning home: he wanted to be with his wife again after the long separation.
*One winter evening Pakkom was on his way back home sitting on top of his elephant. Not a soul was in sight, the night’s shadow was thickening fast, and the blue smoke from firewood burning inside somebody’s kitchen was hanging low in the fields and obscuring the lonely path. All of a sudden he heard a strange and soothing music wafting towards him. Forgetting his thoughts of home and his wife, he gave a tap at Rani with his hand and stopped her, and instead of heading homewards he guided her towards the source of the music, and came upon a mud-house. Inside was a group of men enjoying an evening of music. Unable to restrain himself, Pakkom went in and sat down in one corner of the mat along with the others. After he had listened at some length his fingers itched to have a go at the strange box-like instrument the person in front of him was playing. “Can I try?” he asked. “Do you know how to?” he was asked. He did not reply but sat beside the instrument, the like of which he had never seen before in his life. His hands felt it and (after a few quick misfires) they found a life of their own. In a short time he started singing too and the audience started applauding. That way the night passed in great revelry and entertainment. Pakkom left the house late in the night with many invitations from his new friends to come and see them again. Only many years later did he learn that the instrument he had played instinctively that night was called a Harmonium. The harmonium was truly the most magical instrument he had played with his hands. Many years later one of the men who had been sitting inside that hut-house would happen to pass Basket village, and that’s when the night’s musical incident was related. He, unfortunately, could not meet Pakkom because he had been dead by then.