My heart swells with pride and joy at the thought of my little cousin brother, ‘Three Cowries’. If anyone could have ever been my soul mate, it was he. I was only eight and he seven, when he passed away. It was inevitable as he had a heart condition but more appropriately, because he was a boy….
My aunt could not have a healthy son. All the sons that she had given birth to had died either at birth or as toddlers. The girls were healthy and alive. So this time when she had again birthed a boy, she had instructed her maidservant who lived with the family to be his mother at a price of three cowries. Ahalya, the midwife and maid, had bought the baby boy by paying three cowries to my aunt. The pale and frail boy was now Ahalya’s son but being brought up in his own parents' house. This was the arrangement made to avoid the curse that was hanging on all boys that his mother gave birth to – it was a hope to trick destiny and make her son live.
I and Three Cowries were the best of friends in the crowded joint family setup. In the beautiful hill station of Hazaribagh during the times India was ruled by the British, we shared everything we possibly could and were inseparable. We went to school together helping each other carry our heavy satchels on the way and chatting merrily about life in general. We never felt tired in spite of those long walks as we would be busy in our innocent banter. But that was before Three Cowries had been diagnosed with the heart condition. Needless to say, my aunt was heart-broken. Destiny had failed her again......
The saddest days of my life were when I had to go to school without Three Cowries. As his disease was discovered and he came under the care of doctors and family members, there were times when he could not make it to school. He would be wrapped up in woolens and seated smugly in the house courtyard to watch the birds and squirrels. When I returned from school in the afternoons, we would make it up by trying to climb the trees and chasing away my mother’s hens and ducks from their roosts. Collecting the raw green mangoes from our own mango tree was our favorite pastime. And we did all this while the ladies of the house rested in their respective rooms. After all, they would soon have to get back to work preparing the evening meals and other chores. As it was, the lunch menu used to be a varied one with different courses. First, something bitter, like bitter gourd or neem with little rice, then pulses and rice with some fried vegetables, then came fish or mutton curry with rice or puffed fries made from refined wheat dough that swelled up like balls when deep fried, called poories and finally sweet-sour liquid chutney made from various kinds of fruits like raw, green mangoes or berries. On occasions and Sundays there would be rice porridge too. Poories could be had with any meal – breakfast, evening snack or even at dinner. They had to be fried one by one. The mothers must really be weary, I thought. However, in spite of this heavy schedule, on many afternoons, I used to find my mother sewing clothes for the old, weak, infirm, sick, and the infants. She would bring soft cotton cloth or wool and sew or knit comfortable clothing items. Most of Three Cowries’ clothes were products of my mother’s handiwork.
As the days progressed, poor Three Cowries had to give up many of the luxuries of life that I was entitled to. Poories, accompanied by a delicious potato dish that was our favorite snack was now kept away from Three Cowries. This was really unbearable for me. I just could not get a morsel of this down my throat anymore. My eyes would well up and I would run out the house with my plate, go round to the back of the house till I reached the window of Three Cowries’ room. There, I would whisper his name to draw his attention. Three Cowries was weak and had to lie in bed most of the time. Fortunately, his bed was near the window. As his head would appear from the window and he would peer into my eyes, I would hand him a poorie roll with the potato tucked inside it and urge him to eat before anyone entered his room.
“My lovely friend!” he would squeal with joy. I was more of a friend than a sister. This continued with other goodies that Three Cowries was not permitted to eat. Delicious rice cakes, sweets made with clarified butter, and deep-fried dishes were passed on to him through the window regularly.
One day, I could not share my food with Three Cowries because I had developed fever and cold. I was confined to my room thinking of my dear cousin. I did not have to wait for long because soon Three Cowries came to visit me. The maid carried him to my room and placed him on a chair that was pulled up to the side of my bed. “Did they give you sweet lime juice, Three Cowries?” I asked him with concern. “ Yes, sister,” he replied. “They gave juice to me also,” I told him innocently and happily. As both of us had had the juice, there was no question of not being able to share my food with him today. I was served similar boiled and insipid food like he was as long as I was unwell and this pitiable common thread that temporarily bound us gave us immense happiness.
One day my father came home with a big tin of foreign cookies. He used to bring this most coveted gift every few months and it would be a memorable occasion for all of us cousins to surround him and wait with bated breath while he opened the beautiful tin to display the array of variously sized and shaped cookies. We could all have our moieties only after this ceremony. These were the luxuries that the British times afforded us.
One day this ceremony was held in my absence. I was busy taking notes at my friend’s place as I had missed school while I was ill. I returned home late in the evening. As the cycle rickshaw pulled into the cobbled pathway jangling its bells and stood in front of my home, I saw Three Cowries smiling gleefully at me from his position in the maid’s arms. He had been waiting for me and as soon as I entered the house, he opened his closed palm and exhibited its contents in front of my eyes. It held two coconut cookies – my favorite ones. The maid’s eyes had welled up. “Three Cowries has been holding them in his custody from morning lest your unscrupulous cousins deprived you of your share,” she informed me, both sadness and pride glinting in her eyes. Similarly, I often held two mango seeds in my hand sometimes for hours till I reached home and we both could suck on the succulent seeds together, sitting face to face and expressing our enjoyment of the delicious stuff with our eyes, smacking our lips and clucking our tongues oblivious to everything but ourselves. My fingers would be sticky and go stiff with holding something for long but that did not ever bother me. Our bonding was unique because with nobody else could I share my thoughts just with my eyes. Three Cowries understood me best.
As his disease progressed and the elders of the family whispered scary messages and made fearful eye contact whenever the doctor examined him, I and Three Cowries remained unaware of what was to come. All this while, we only thought of what our next moves in the courtyard would be in the afternoons when the sleepy town rested. Three Cowries became paler, thinner and sunken-eyed. But who noticed? We were deep in our conversations and games.
But the day finally arrived and I had to be deprived of my best friend. I do not know how my aunt bore it but I tried to make her smile by eating my friend’s favorite food from her hands. Poories and potato curry. I would carry this dish to my aunt thinking that she would feel happy by remembering it was Three Cowries’ favorite dish. She would feed the dish to me patiently with her own hands. As a grown-up I understand now that it was a vicarious pleasure she indulged in. She would smile and continue to feed me while I chatted on about Three Cowries and what else he loved to eat. But once I left her room, I would have tears in my eyes and perhaps she in hers. I never revealed to her that I had fed him those dishes all throughout his short life even though I knew those foods were proscribed for him. I felt guilty for his death. Perhaps, I had poisoned him?
As I grew older, I immersed myself in studies during those grim, empty afternoons that reminded me of the little frail boy. The ducks and hens were at peace or seemed to be so.
I became a doctor and learnt about various diseases. I learnt that the food I had been stealthily giving Three Cowries were not proscribed for the disease that he was suffering from but rather prescribed. In fact, he needed that kind of nourishment, which he was actually being deprived of. Medical science had progressed and prognoses, prescriptions, diagnostic techniques, medicines - all had changed. I heaved a sigh of relief and the burden of all the years melted into a ball of glowing love, warmth and beautiful memories.
Nandita Chakraborty Banerjji: Author of the novel THE MYSTERIOUS DREAMS