Purnima Soren got up from her cot and stood next to it. Till three-four days ago, this simple act of rising from the cot and standing up would have been hesitant, even cautious. For this was a strange room in a strange house in a strange village. But no more. She couldn’t afford to be hesitant any more. Three-four days ago, she’d have been wary of even a creak if she turned on her cot. Now, she could go out and shout.
She had embraced that strange house in that strange village, for she had herself chosen to come and live here. For she had come out of love and faith. She had already accepted this house—strange, so far, and unwelcoming as well—as hers. This was where she would have to live the rest of her life. This was where she intended to live the rest of her life. With Gopal Hansda.
The house belonged to the family of Gopal Hansda. Purnima had come here with Gopal. Gopal had brought Purnima here with, apparently, the best of intentions. That he would marry her and they would live together in that house. Yet, the house was still strange. And so unwelcoming that its walls seemed to scream at her to just run away. No one would care if she just walked out of the front door, the way no one cared if she got out of her cot or remained lying there the entire day. She knew that she would have to remain in that house and stay alert; stay safe; that she couldn’t let her guard down as long as Gopal did not return to her side to make that house and that village familiar to her. She knew that she would have to stay put with all her determination if she needed to know the reason behind Gopal’s disappearance.
Seven days ago, Gopal brought her here. Two days later, Gopal just disappeared. And no one would tell her anything. Neither did anyone tell her to leave, nor did they tell her where Gopal was. Practically no one in that house spoke to Purnima. As for the rest of the village, they spoke to her mostly out of curiosity and a kindness which, Purnima deduced, wasn’t entirely genuine. She was just there, like an ankle-high shrub growing beside a wall which no one wanted, yet no one bothered to uproot.
The room was dark. The rest of the house had light bulbs which glowed with electricity. The first two days, this room too had a light bulb. But since the day Gopal disappeared, that light bulb too had disappeared from that room. Every sunset, Purnima lay in darkness, swatting mosquitoes, staring through the cracks in the door at the lights glowing outside in the rest of the house, but she could not go out and seek some light for her room. She had willed herself to stay on in that house but she did not feel she had the right to ask for anything. Despite her willingness to stay put in that house, she knew that, without Gopal, she just did not belong there.
Purnima picked up her dupatta from the cot and draped it around herself. Then she shuffled to the door of the room and unplugged her mobile phone from the only luxury she had been allowed in that house: access to a socket point at which she charged the phone, a device that Gopal had purchased for her and had cost him eleven-hundred rupees. The display lit up the entire room and she saw that the phone was fully charged. However, the signal inside the room was not strong enough. She would have to go out of that room and out of that house to make a phone call. She opened the door and stepped out.
The house was abuzz. There was a song playing somewhere, most probably on a mobile phone that was more expensive than the one Gopal had given her. There was the aroma of something cooking. There were people talking. But no one noticed her. Even if they did, they did not. Purnima held her head low. She did not raise even her eyes. From her limited field of vision she could tell that there were at least four people in front of her in the racha. She could even tell that of those four people, two were women while the other two were men. Yet, not one word was spoken to her, not one word was spoken about her. She was certain that eye contacts must have been made between the other four people, that unspoken signals must have been passed between those four people—“Look, she’s come out of the room!” or “What have we been laden with?”—but Purnima was made to feel not even the slightest hint of those signals.
Slowly, cautiously, like she had been doing the last five evenings, Purnima shuffled along the periphery of the racha to the front door and silently slunk out. Outside, the kulhi was mostly dark, except for a glow not far away from a solar-powered street lamp. There were people, but Purnima wasn’t sure if they’d speak to her. However, she was sure that she didn’t want to speak to anybody. So, like the last five days, she avoided those people and the glow of that street lamp and, swiftly, turned around the side of the house towards an open space.
The village was at the foot of the Dalma hills. It was difficult to find proper mobile reception in that area. Yet, the mobile phone reception in that open space was better than it was inside the house. Purnima dialled Gopal’s number.
The number you have dialled is currently switched off.
She tried two more times and got the same message, in Hindi and English. It had been the same story the last five days.
She dialled the only other number she could think of at that time and had been dialling for the last five days after failing to connect with Gopal: the number of the doctor at the government hospital who had examined Gopal and her seven days ago.
“Hello.” The doctor picked up the phone.
“Hello,” Purnima’s voice was almost a whisper. “Hum Purnima bol rahe hain.” This is Purnima speaking.
“Haan, boliye.” Yes, please speak.
“Gopal kahan hai?” Where is Gopal?
Purnima felt her heart come up to her mouth as she asked.
“I do not know where Gopal is,” the doctor said. “Trust me, please. I told you this before. I too am trying to call him up, but his phone is switched off.”
“Who will tell me where Gopal is? No one here is talking to me. Could you please ask the police to look for Gopal?”
“I really do not think I should get involved with the police for your private matter. That is not our duty. We can only ask after your health. Our health department cannot do anything more than that.”
The doctor hung up.
Purnima stared at the phone display till it glowed. When it darkened, she broke into tears. She took care to weep silently. Her tears might be heard in the still mid-May air. And she was too proud to let anyone hear her crying. Especially the neighbours. She could not afford to have the other villagers talk about her. Gopal’s family might not like it and may have her thrown out of their house. Where would she go then? Who else did she have other than Gopal? Where else would she live if not in Gopal’s house?
When she knew that she couldn’t cry any more, she fiddled with the phone, wondering what she should do next. She wouldn’t call her own family. They had told her to die when they came to know that she had chosen Gopal over them.
The only thing left for Purnima to do was to return to that strange room in that strange house in that strange village and try to claim her space there.
If Jamshedpur, the cosmopolitan Steel City by the river Subarnarekha, can be considered Delhi, then the twin towns of Adityapur and Gamharia on the other side of the river Kharkai could be called the Noida and Gurgaon of Jamshedpur. Two fledgling satellite industrial townships that had risen beside an established industrial township. Two rising industrial zones where apartment complexes and scrapyards lay adjacent to each other; where dealerships of luxury cars with their glass façades hid remnants of villages behind them; where automobile factories, steel plants, factories producing industrial parts, beverage bottling plants, and more apartment complexes and more one-storey settlements sprawled close to one another.
A little over a year before the pandemic, at a steel factory in Gamharia, Gopal Hansda and Purnima Soren had met. He worked with machines, she cleaned the place. Both of them—like all the labourers there—worked under a contractor, and both of them—like most of the labourers there—were migrants in Gamharia. Not migrants from very far away, but far enough and, most importantly, penniless enough to not be able to travel from their homes to their workplace every day.
Gopal was from a village called Monodih, some 5km off the highway that ran from Jamshedpur to Ranchi, by the Dalma hills, about 20km from Gamharia. Purnima was from a village called Sankardih, some 5km off the highway that ran from Jamshedpur to Chaibasa, a bushy expanse of land, again about 20km from Gamharia. Monodih was to the north of Gamharia, while Sankardih was towards the south-west.
Gopal had a motorcycle, while Purnima could travel between Sankardih and Gamharia by the various buses and autorickshaws. Yet, as they couldn’t afford the luxury of petrol and transport fare, they lived in Gamharia itself, in rented rooms that took away a good portion of their wages. They came home, of course, every three weeks or so, stayed a night—and, if possible, a day more—then returned to work again. Their payment—not exactly adequate—was on a daily basis, so missing even one day’s work was expensive.
Once they met and fell in love with one another, even those occasional visits home ceased. They needed to spend more time with one another. They travelled together to Jamshedpur and strolled hand in hand in the Jubilee Park or shopped for clothes and trinkets from pavement stalls at the Tuesday market in Sakchi. One day, they went to the new P&M Mall, but didn't spend much—they just watched the stores and people. They ate street food in Adityapur. They sat together at a secluded spot by the Subarnarekha in Kandarbera. They went and prayed together at the Joyda Mandir. They drove to the Dimna Lake and even as far as to the Chandil Dam.
On their way back to Gamharia from the Chandil Dam, while riding on the Ranchi-Jamshedpur highway, before turning right at Kandarbera to go on to Gamharia, Gopal often pointed towards the Dalma hills on the left and told Purnima, “There. My village is that side. Just beneath that hill.”
Monodih. Gopal’s village. Purnima had come to know, from Gopal, nearly everything about Monodih and Gopal’s family. He told her about his parents; his eldest sister who was married and whose husband was like a guardian; his elder brother and his wife and their little daughter. He spoke very fondly of his younger sister who was studying in high school. Purnima knew where the road for Monodih separated from the highway; she knew how far one would have to travel from the highway to reach Monodih; she even knew how many houses there were in Monodih and how many rooms there were in Gopal’s house.
Except, Purnima had yet to see Monodih with her own eyes. Gopal, despite riding with Purnima on the same road that took one to Monodih, had never taken her to his village! But Purnima knew she would go to Monodih one day, because Gopal had told her, “I’ll marry only you.” Purnima too told Gopal, “I’ll marry only you.” And she allowed Gopal, one day, to take her to her home in Sankardih.
And that was when a shadow of uncertainty started eclipsing their romance. “Is this why you have stopped coming home?” Purnima’s brothers asked her. “No need to work any more. Stay at home. We’ll get you married this year.” When Purnima couldn’t convince her family of their love for each other, she packed some of her important things, left home early the next morning, and escaped to the only place where no one objected to her being in a relationship with Gopal and where she had some measure of the very vital financial independence: the steel factory in Gamharia where she worked.
She told Gopal everything. And Gopal told her that she wasn’t the only one who had had to face opposition. His family too was opposed to him falling in love with just any girl because they had already found a girl for him. His elder sister’s husband was the matchmaker and there was no way his family could refuse him.
“That is why I never took you to my village even though we passed so close to it,” Gopal told Purnima. “Because I knew that my parents wouldn’t agree to our marriage.”
“What do I do then?” Purnima had started getting worried. “I’ve left my home for you. And you’re telling me all this now? If you don’t marry me, I’ll go and jump from the Chandil Dam.”
“No, no, no,” Gopal held Purnima’s hands. “I’ll marry only you. Trust me. I’ll marry only you. I’ll take you to my home. To my village.”
That was in March 2020.
A couple of days later, a nationwide lockdown was imposed.
A couple of weeks later, the management of that steel factory in Gamharia realised that with the factory shut down they could not afford to either pay or keep their workers. They told their contractors as much.
“Leave, if you can,” was the terse instruction the contractors gave the workers on their payroll. “We won’t be able to pay you now. We’ll get in touch when the situation comes under control.”
The situation would not come under control.
In May 2020, most workers, including Gopal and Purnima, ran out of their savings.
There was no way they could continue to stay on in Gamharia. They had to leave for their own homes in their villages.
But where would Purnima go?
The last she saw her family was the night before she packed everything and returned to Gamharia. After that, there had been only three phone calls in nearly two months.
“Die, then,” one of Purnima’s brothers had told her when she called home one day. “You left this house and chose to return to that man in that factory of yours! Why are you calling us now?”
That was the last time Purnima had spoken to anyone in her family. That was when Purnima decided that she would either go with Gopal to Monodih or just kill herself.
True to his word, though, Gopal packed his own stuff in a backpack, had Purnima sit pillion on his motorcycle with all her belongings, put on masks and helmets, and they left Gamharia for good. They would get married and live together in Gopal’s house in Monodih.
But the shadow of uncertainty was just growing denser.
Gopal had taken Purnima to his house even before he had been able to convince his parents and brother-in-law about his relationship with Purnima. On the highway, they passed by villages the main streets of which had been barricaded with thorns and branches felled from trees. On those barricades, handwritten posters were tacked. Those posters, written in Hindi, said: ENTRY OF OUTSIDERS NOT ALLOWED. They passed groups of men walking, carrying bags and sacks on their heads, backs, and shoulders. Except an occasional truck or a motorcycle, there was no other vehicle on the road. No car, no bus, not even a bicycle. It was as if the world had lost its life. Though alarmed, Purnima didn’t think much of what she saw. She had Gopal with her. What could go wrong?
But Gopal’s parents refused straightaway to let Purnima enter their house. Despite the risk the young couple had taken to ride all the way from Gamharia to Monodih, dodging policemen and the strict lockdown guidelines, Gopal’s family refused to allow them even an inch of space to sit and rest in their house.
When some villagers from Monodih intervened—“Where will this girl go now?”, “Let her stay for some days and then things may be worked out with her family”—the situation got to a point when the highway police patrol had to be informed.
Gopal, Purnima, a few men from Gopal’s extended family in the village, and a few men from Monodih who were speaking in Purnima’s favour were taken to the thana in Chandil under whose jurisdiction Monodih came.
“We don’t know who is Purnima,” someone from Purnima’s family yelled into the phone when they were called. “We don’t care whether she is dead or alive.”
“I’ll marry only her,” Gopal announced, pointing towards Purnima. “And I’ll stay in my own house because that is my house as well. If anyone dares to drive my wife out of my house, I’ll see them.”
So, it was all settled, the police ordered Gopal’s family to allow Purnima and Gopal to live together in their house in Monodih and get them married when the lockdown was lifted.
But before the couple could be allowed to live in Monodih, because everyone was wary of people from other places even if it was just 10km away because “God knows what disease they might bring with them”, Gopal and Purnima would have to follow home quarantine guidelines, and so they were both taken to the government hospital in Chandil.
“Does the house have separate rooms for them to stay?” the doctor asked.
“Yes, yes,” a man from Gopal’s extended family nearly dismissed the doctor.
“Yes, our house has a separate room for us,” Gopal answered the doctor’s query calmly.
“Fine,” said the doctor, tired already, and exhausted by the drama that had just unfolded before him. “We’ll check on you every day. You too may call us if you notice any symptoms.”
Gopal and Purnima were given a separate room in the house. They were used to each other’s bodies, so sharing a room with Gopal was no issue for Purnima. The issue was living with Gopal in Gopal’s house without being married to him. The issue was wondering how soon—or whether or not—Gopal’s family would accept her. Till then, Purnima slept on the cot, while Gopal slept on a palm leaf mat spread on the ground.
No one from Gopal’s family talked to Purnima. Gopal’s young niece—a child of eight or ten—was fascinated by Purnima and tried entering the room she had been given. Purnima smiled and called her inside. But Gopal’s mother was quick to admonish the little girl.
“She has a disease. Don’t go near her.”
And the little girl fled, only to stare at Purnima from behind the doors.
There was no question of Purnima being allowed inside the family’s kitchen and the inner room where deities and spirits were supposed to dwell unless she was formally accepted into the family as a bride. So food for Gopal and Purnima was brought to their room by Gopal’s younger sister. Purnima knew Gopal was very fond of his younger sister. But her arrival in that house ensured that they hardly exchanged a word even though the brother made every effort to bring the sister on to his side. The eldest sister and her husband, on the other hand, called up the family nearly all the time to have “that shameless girl from Gamharia” thrown out of the house. Gopal heard it all and so did Purnima. Gopal assured Purnima, “Everything will be alright.” He squeezed her hand as he assured her. That was the only touch they shared in that room. They wouldn’t touch any more than that as long as Purnima wasn’t accepted in that house, they’d decided.
“Food,” the younger sister merely announced as she placed two leaf plates piled with rice, vegetables, and a little something like onions and chillies outside their room, three times a day. She said nothing more.
“What if we need more helpings?” Gopal laughed as he asked his sister on the second day.
“Just call me,” the sister said, turned, and went away.
A filled water bottle or two always remained placed by the door. Purnima knew it was the younger sister who brought those. Purnima knew that she perhaps cared. But it was still too early to conclude anything. She was still in a daze.
The pandemic made sure that both Gopal and Purnima were treated not only like outsiders but like untouchables—in Gopal’s own house. Would it have been the same had she not come with Gopal? Would it have been the same had Gopal agreed to the match decided by his parents? Perhaps it wasn’t the disease. Perhaps it was a person. Quite certainly, it was her.
The couple wasn’t allowed steel plates and tumblers. They ate from leaf plates, drank from plastic bottles. They discarded their used plates. They went bathing and to the toilet together—to the woods close to the hills, to a canal that came from the Chandil Dam. The women of the family did not accompany Purnima. Gopal was her only companion, she was Gopal’s only companion, all the time. People in the village talked to Gopal, and they also tried talking to Purnima—but she did not know what to talk about with them. She was still an outsider, a stranger. She was not needed there.
Two days passed.
Gopal gave Purnima company. Purnima gave Gopal company. Purnima’s fate in Monodih was still undecided but, with Gopal by her side, she was hanging on. She was hopeful.
The staff from the hospital called them in the mornings to follow up on their health.
“You’re doing well? No symptoms? Good.”
On the third day, some men from the village called Gopal out of the house. Purnima knew that Gopal knew them, because she heard Gopal laughing and chatting with them.
“Where are you going?” Purnima asked Gopal when he entered the room and started changing into a pair of jeans and a shirt.
“I’ll be back soon,” Gopal told her. “Don’t worry.”
Four to five seconds of silence passed between them before Gopal, quite abruptly and as if preoccupied with other matters in his head, brushed his lips against hers.
Purnima’s heart started pounding then.
No, this doesn’t seem right.
But she held on to hope. She brought her face close to Gopal’s and placed her lips gently against his.
That was the last time they touched each other.
After seven days in Monodih, Purnima now feels that she should have held Gopal’s hands, his body. Maybe she should have embraced him. Maybe she should have grabbed his body and stored some part of him within herself. His touch, his smell, his sweat, maybe a hair or two plucked from his chest.
She could not. And she had, perhaps, lost him.
Gopal had gone away with those men that day. She did not even ask Gopal who those men were. Gopal had told her to not worry, so—despite being worried—she pretended that she wasn’t worried. For Gopal.
After two days of waiting, she had come out into the racha and screamed, “Where is Gopal?”
No one answered. No one talked to her.
She had rushed towards the niece, weeping, “Where is your uncle? Please tell me where he is. Please ask your parents where they’ve taken your uncle.”
Nothing. The girl’s mother just pulled her away and everyone retired to the various rooms in that house. She was left alone in the racha. Having nowhere else to go, she returned to the room she had been sharing with Gopal.
Purnima refused food for two whole days. After that, she realised that starving oneself was not a solution.
She went to the woods and the canal alone. She avoided anyone who tried approaching her. Who could she trust?
Five days, and Gopal hadn’t returned. His phone too was switched off.
Every two hours or so, she went outside the house and dialled Gopal’s number, but it was always switched off. There was only one person she could expect any response from: the doctor at the hospital in Chandil who had examined Gopal and her. So she called him. The doctor had no idea where Gopal was, but at least he talked to her, asked her if she was doing okay.
Purnima knew the route out of the village. She knew how to go to the thana. But could she risk it? Gopal’s family wanted her out of their house, so they could very well shut the doors on her if she ventured too far from that house and that village. With her gone out of the house, they could very well claim that she went on her own. How would she claim her space in that house then? How would she have Gopal returned to her?
She had to stay put. Gopal’s house was her house. Because he had told her that he loved her and would marry her. Because he had told her that he would be back soon.
Purnima returned to that room she shared with Gopal in his house in the village of Monodih. She knew that house and that village, despite all of it being still strange. Perhaps, all she had to do was wait. As long as it took.
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar has written prose in English, and translated prose and poetry from both Santhali and Hindi to English.