"Patrons of A Letter Box" by Nirendra Dev : An English Short Story (WBRi Online Magazine)

Patrons of A Letter Box

By Nirendra Dev

A Short Story

Nirendra Narayan DevEditor's Note: Nirendra Narayan Dev (nirendev1 [at] gmail [dot] com), an acclaimed political journalist, is a special correspondent of The Statesman, New Delhi and author of the books Ayodhya : Battle For Peace, The Talking Guns North East India and Godhra A Journey To Mayhem. Nirendra was born and brought up in India's northeast and his father served with paramilitary force Assam Rifles. His blog is at bestofindiarestofindia.blogspot.com.

We have previously had an opportunity of talking to the author and have posted the audio recording of the interview.

This is Nirendra Dev’s fourth short story in the series. His earlier short stories published on Washington Bangla Radio are ‘The Pawns’, ‘Arms of Comfort’ and ‘The Guiding Sun, Soothing Moon’.

The struggle of memory against forgetting is one of the foremost of struggles. History holds the monopoly of the business of keeping memories alive. Standing in this landscape – isolated – I often picture my memories like a shattered mirror. Pieces all over. But the tales of two of my patrons would always be fresh in my memories.

It is difficult to appreciate the life of a ‘Letter Box’ in the landscape of a tiny Jotsoma village in Naga hills unless one has experienced. It was equally unique for human beings. There are certain places surrounded by a halo of excitement, if not romance. Jotsoma was one such place. In late eighties it was a small hamlet with the diversity from other Naga villages with a spacious campus housing state’s only Science College. The unseen wave of modernity was rubbing shoulders with Naga tradition. The institution was notoriously famous for churning out dozens of doctors and engineers every year. The ratio of successful doctors and engineers was quite higher than the pace they could find jobs or alternate source of employment.

A dense thicket of trees in the north marked the beginning as well as the end of the village in the south. In fact, trees were all around; even the college for would be medicos and technocrats looked nestled amid the towering pine and other jungle trees.

The empty dwellings, the tinned ceiling and bamboo walled houses and the noisy chicken pens were other attractions. The streams of fresh water attracted young boys and girls to bath while the thick marshy tract of mangroves added the aura of romanticism.

I was tucked away some 20 yards from the village post office and thus often stood neglected. As a result many a times, letters dropped in my belly remained with me for weeks and sometimes months – dieing and rotting their natural deaths within me. In other words, the letters posted never reached their destinations. And in the age of mobile-less and email-less era, none knew. For long this fact remained masked even from me, may be.

Thus many hostellers would draw near me and wonder with their melancholy eyes – why there is no reply to their letters to their girl friends. A look of hurt innocence would loom large.

I kept this fact within myself. My silence was combination of voluntary decision and also a kind of repression. Often like men in agony, I thought, silence is golden. But my silence also sought to make a statement. The folly lay with the erring post man and his other colleagues in the post office as none bothered to attend to the letters dropped with me.

Friendship used to be a vital element of social life in Nagaland among Nagas themselves and also between Nagas and non-Nagas.

Loyalty to friendship – if they had committed – has been always a great Naga virtue. Unlike most communities, Nagas have a very sense of gratitude for friendship. In many places I am told of life-long friends turning against them overnight evidently in self-protection and pursuing their self-seeking goals. But Nagas would not; just as they would not forgive any act of betrayal – even wrongfully perceived ones. In such an era stood starkly different, the friendship between Joydeep Chakravarty and Khrito Angami, my two patrons.

They were bosom friends and would share everything – their food, drinks, agonies and of course happiness. For long this used to be the talking subject in the college canteen. None suspected a gay-friendship between the two; yet the manner in which they stuck to each other easily raised eyebrows as well as attracted huge appreciation. They ought to have liked each other from the first meeting, if not the first sight. Both shared a remarkably similar sense of humour. Studying Science in the mad-race to score marks was being idiots – was one common refrain between the two.

Both liked as well as disliked the same kind of people – starting from college mates to the teachers. The physics teacher in particular – Dr Kamleshwar Prasad – and his insistence to force students to buy his “notebook” – ‘Phyisics – Made Easy’ - they both found downright irritable.

The friendship continued for long.

But mid-way in their academic career, Joydeep Chakravarty had to move out to Shillong as his family also moved out with the transferable job.

The nomadic kind of life style is not quite surprising in this part of India as many office goers here have transferable jobs.

Just when the Joydeep’s father transfer order came and Chakravartys were all decided to move out to idyllic hill station in the region – Shillong, Joydeep almost had confessed to his friend. “This transfer to you could be a major event; that your buddy is moving out to a new place. Well, for us this has been going on for three generations. My grand father had migrated first with his family from Sylhet, now in Bangladesh,” Joydeep had said.

The words weighed much surprising to Khrito than they were meant for.

Joydeep continued, “we have since stayed in Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, Mumbai and even Delhi….. We are not settled yet. At least my parents are not”.

Khrito could, however, sympathise with the disturbance in his friend’s mind. But there was nothing much he could do except to pledge him his friendship --- lifelong like a “true Naga”, as he put it.

The Angamis are valiant Naga tribe with many stories of their friendship. The culture, I presume, often has very little to do about a community’s history. Otherwise, what’s the rationale behind a violent history of the Nagas? Their warm heartedness is often lost in the din the long-drawn political conflict with the mainland India; and the violence of hatred --- often romanticized as insurgency and even guerilla warfare.

* * *

Things often progress faster then they are expected. They also progress in different direction. The trickster called ‘future’ is often wrapped in clueless masks. Some events are some steps ahead of the protagonists. My patrons were no exception.

The fear of the future has often made me melancholy - staring towards the misty sky over Jotsoma village.

The Shillong, once prided being the education hub of the northeast, suddenly was faced with gory politics of ethnic tension. In that eventful year, the violence reached its peak. The academic year for thousands of students almost stood threatened.

Predictably Joydeep and his parents were worried. They wanted to explore the possibility of appearing the crucial university examination from Kohima.

“Thank my stars, at least both the places have the same university,” wrote Joydeep to Khrito.

He also wanted to know if he could come to Khrito’s home and appear the exam. It was the most expected kind of missive from a friend in need to a true friend; who would swear by its lofty ideals any day, anytime.

Khrito did not take a second to decide. He simply told his mother that Joydeep would come to their place and appear the final examination.

Khrito’s mom too was excited. She had developed a special liking for the Bengali boy; who would jokingly call her ‘Mashi Ma’ – mother’s sister. Khrito’s mother was a woman of few words, but she liked to host Joydeep.

“My sister died many years back, when I was hardly 6,” Khrito’s mother once told Joydeep. “You have given me my sister back,” she had said as moist gathered around her two emerald green eyes.

Khrito got into the business of writing the letter to Joydeep, telling him not to delay but decide quickly about filling up of the forms and other formalities as required by the university regulations.

“Friendship is not a myth. It cannot survive with ifs and buts, particularly the friendship we shared for so long. There should not be any hesitation – whatsoever in your mind. If we cannot bank on each other during these difficult times, when else we could. You are most welcome to come and stay with us. My mom’s only condition is that when we both are together, we should avoid gossiping during study time and over drinking the Naga Madhu ( the country liquor).

Do not delay further. Yours truly -- Khrito”

But at the end of the day; the irony about future is no one can see into it.

I also cannot say how things would have turned for Khrito and Joydeep if both had acted in different manner than what they did.

The truth is therefore stranger than fiction. The fiction should make sense, the reality does not do that always. Another annoyance of life is that it often does not give a complete story, the way someone would love to have it.

Days passed. Joydeep neither came, nor responded to Khriti’s message. Ultimately, came the day of submitting forms for the university examination, Khrito was a bit worried. Why is Joydeep not coming, he wondered.

The bitter truth was that the letter never reached Joydeep. It could not. Because it still lay in my belly. Joydeep took his friend Khrito’s ‘silence’ to the heart. Joydeep was shocked but thought may be that’s the way life should be.

Out of sight – out of mind. So Khrito has nearly forgotten him and was hesitant to welcome him to his house for a few days stay. Meanwhile, the linguistic ethnic tension in Shillong was deteriorating. Joydeep feared the poison of tribal-non tribal divide has landed into Nagaland also. Khrito Angami and his family could not be seen accommodating one Joydeep Chakravarty in their house.

Obviously, he felt let down. Joydeep’s eyes were veiled with tears when he tried to reflect on this sense.

Equally on the other side, Khrito’s eyes would look moist. The scheduled date of submitting forms went by. So Joydeep would miss a year, he drew the conclusion.

On the other hand, Shillong was burning. The day Joydeep moved out towards the college to submit his form, violence erupted in the streets of Shillong, once hailed as the Scotland of East.

A tiny petrol bomb sailed across, hit the car setting the vehicle on fire. Joydeep fell victim.

The news of Joydeep’s death made headlines – the next day as immediately after that day’s assault, the state chief minister had to resign paving the way for President’s Rule from New Delhi.

Khrito did not know; how to react. His mother wept for hours but he did not.

The next day, in pensive mood he walked towards me. He was blaming himself for Joydeep’s death and also partly cursing me. - You damn letter box, why you failed to deliver the letter to Joydeep?

I was able to understand the demure pathos Khrito took in his heart and mind. A sense of guilt. A sense of hatred towards man’s vanity about linguistic creed. A sense of hatred towards the ‘Letter Box’ and the un-oiled and unaccountable postal system.

Years have passed by. Khrito still comes to see me. A cursory look at Khrito’s face mirrors my agony. I feel ashamed; lowering my gaze for the folly of my masters – the unaccountable postal system.

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