The Size of Sorrow by Rongili Biswas

 All I remember is the sombre whisper in the middle of the night, through the depth of my sleep.

A group of a dozen would scamper along, white kerchiefs tied round their heads. Others would have their funeral caps on.

They muttered the holy prayer under their breath. From afar their mumblings resembled the sound of the wind hissing through palm fronds. 

Their hurried walk intrigued me. Accompanied by that sibilant whispering, they would ceaselessly exchange places. And create a pattern with steps —one indecipherable from the other.

When they drew near, sitting behind the window, still half-asleep, I saw them carrying a bundle wrapped closely in white. The swaddled chunk would confuse me, and I would ask my father what that was. 

‘A child’s corpse’ he would reply. 

The air hung heavy with the flowering Jasmine in the backyard. An unknown bird trilled from a hollow in the Tamarind-trunk. The moon, a shining crescent, would cast a white light in the room. 

It was then that I would lie down again. Stock-still. And wait for the men to return.

Gradually, the sound sieved through the nightly murmur took a definitive shape for me. As though, if one wanted to touch grief, one could — the puny, undersized cadavers would let that happen. As though pain was something irrevocably contained in those unmovable masses wrapped in white. 

The burial ground was fifty meters from our house. At any hour of the day, people would come with their ritual-mumblings, half-hiding their grief-hardened faces, exchanging hands that would hold their small corpse and swapping steps in the process. As days went by, a vague sense of longing took hold of me, and I would often wait for them to come with their deeply enfolded treasure. Beyond the nights. And Beyond daybreaks.

***

Past the cemetery wall, the small tea-stalls and the  grocery shops, the unmanned railway crossing and the cattle sheds, past the hay-cutters’ narrow space, between rows of shanties was the shop for designing mound-shrouds. Elaborate designs of sequin were woven on their green or pink bases with threads of gold making up the border. 

When spread over the mounds, their golden frills flew wild with gusts of wind, and when rain came, the half-soaked earth lent them a smell of its own. 

I found the spangled beauties – the way they clung onto the moist graves – almost tender.

Sometimes, while coming back from school, I stealthily made a detour to go and see the owner of the shop weaving designs on the velvet-fabrics painstakingly. That he, a middle-aged man with a pock-marked stern face, could weave such magic on velvet, was confounding. While I peeked and looked at the tilted signboard where in a child’s handwriting was written ‘Aftab Ali’s Embroidery’ in amazement, all he did was to throw a glance as if in disdain, and thereafter ignore me completely. 

Hours would pass amid the smell of the fresh-cut hay, countless trains would leave deafening the silence of the warm afternoons, and the never-faltering hands would move ever so lightly over the silvery edges of the graveyard swathe.

Sometimes he  would call out to his five-year- old daughter and send her for some errands. Her name was Zarina — a stunningly beautiful, bubbly kid, always happy to be out when her father needed her. Their house was on the verge of a back-alley that bordered the puny embroidery- shop — a one-room tenement with crimson floor, upon which several cracks made quaint designs. Often, while she was in the common yard, talking to a stranger, or dancing to her heart’s content, her mother would call her back so she could look after her toddler brother. When she had no errand to run for either of her parents, Zarina played with a thin, shapeless doll, cosseting it as much as she could under the circumstances. 

Sometimes, with that unforgettable divine smile, she invited me to play with her, and together we would deck her treasured doll up. 

***

Once I saw the shop closed for three days in a row. On the third day, as I turned away undecidedly, someone called me— a woman with a strangely pale skin, whom I had seen in the locality only once or twice before.

‘They have all gone for the burial.’ She said.

‘Burial? 

‘You do not know? Aftab Ali’s daughter had died a couple of days back.’

‘Zarina —’

‘She slipped and fell into the cemetery pond, close to the darga, none knows why she went there in the first place,’ she added.

I could see the afternoon sun getting gradually overcast by clouds. It could rain, I thought. I suddenly felt very thirsty. It was still one of those months of unrelenting summer. And the day was sweltering. I wanted it to rain. Quite heavily, that is. Comforting myself with the thought of an imminent downpour, I walked slowly back home. 

***

Many years later, when I took the turn through the maze of narrow lanes toward the burial ground, the dimly-lit shop was unmistakably there for me. Everything was unchanged — the cattle sheds, the hay-cutters’ deafening machines, the open gutters by the side of the road, the eternal busyness around what was without doubt the narrowest lane in the world. I stood before them, as if waiting for something to happen. I could see Aftab Ali moving his hands. Like years before. When I drew near, he looked up. He seemed doddering old to me, his face shriveled through old age and perhaps through something that was not far from insanity. He seemed to recognize me immediately. 

‘Child, you have come?’ He almost whispered.

‘Remember me, do you?’

‘Of course, I do, sit here, want to see whether I still work or not?’ 

He suddenly lowered his voice even more, and his thoroughly wizened face lighted up a bit.

‘I am weaving this for Zarina, my daughter, you remember her?’

Then he unfolded before me what seemed to be an epic work. It was hard for me to recall seeing anything more beautiful ever before. 

I muttered something to the effect that he needn’t have to do this excruciating thing to himself so many years later. Positively not.

‘So many years? I started this on the very day she died.’ He said.

‘And it was never finished?’

‘It is not meant to be finished. Can’t you see? To me she was never gone. Since no one would ever tell me how much she has grown lying in the earth’s womb all these years, I needed to keep going.’

In the distance, a train was pulling out of the station. Within a few moments, it disappeared from my sight. When the tracks cleared again, I tried to find the traces of a horizon that once bordered a vast field. 

On whose edges— in the midst of the near-flattened mounds with velvet shrouds adorned in silvery-threads — our collective sorrow had irredeemably lost its size.

Rongili Biswas is a bilingual writer and musician based in Kolkata, India. She writes in English and Bengali (her mother tongue). She has published a novel and a collection of short stories and has edited three books. She has also published fiction, creative non-fiction, memoirs, travelogues, features and reviews in journals, literary magazines and periodicals including The Telegraph, RIC Journal, Café Dissensus, Raiot, thespace.ink, Mad in India (Tendance Floue Editions),Humanities Underground, Yawp Journal, Muse India, and Wion. Rongili has recently finished writing a novel on nineteenth century French literature and Gustave Flaubert. She is the winner of two literary awards. Her novel ‘That Jahangir who disappeared from custody’ has won the prestigious ‘Bangla Academy’ award (2015) and one of her stories, ‘The Ballad of the Palm Trees’ has won the ‘Katha’ award (2005) (the best story of a year in a language in India). An  economist by profession, Rongili has published widely in development and public and political economics.