HAPPY AND SAD
Dr. Barbara S. Sangma
A small hillock stands above the smaller hillocks dotting the village as far as eyes can see. All of them have experienced the transforming touch of human hands; and are now flourishing areca-nut, black pepper, banana gardens.
Hidden well below this vegetation are dwellings of people. A government servant was on his way to the village and observed a newly built shed on the highest ground of the highest hillock. It was a raised shed with bamboo matted floor and corrugated tin-roof. It was open, no walls. He had never been to the village. He was not worried. He would find his way to the village: one did not lose ones way in Garo Hills.
The breeze enjoyed an easy traffic wafting its way about. The swaying branches and leaves tell that the wind was around. Sometimes there is a swish and then silence leaving a shaky leaf or a fallen twig displaced. It was the month of April 2020.
And showtime for the wild flowers.
The man’s nose picked up the subtle fragrance interspersed by strong fragrance in the air. He knew the tantalizing smell. The wild flowers of spring and their season of vengeance!
He approached the shed, felt the breeze but was not really conscious of it; inhaled the fragrant air drawn from the verdant surroundings but thought nothing of it. Oblivious of a luxury that men in some parts of the world would pay a quarter of their annual incomes to enjoy, he stopped to gaze nonchalantly. He leant against one of the four posts of the shed. He noticed that the bamboo craftsmanship of the shed was not that good.
The Garos in the rural areas of Garo Hills, in the state of Meghalaya, were known for their bamboo craftmanship. However, the shed looks like one in the weekly market built by a person from plain area not used to working with bamboos.
Either the builder was lazy or he was in a great hurry.
After a while, he whistled into the air and descended the hillock.
By evening, he walked up the same hillock. He watched the shed from between the trees. His body language betrayed a longing to get to the shed.
Looks like there’s going to be company.
He espied two kids- a boy and a girl seated atop the shed. They were bent over a mobile phone. He reached there almost breathless and dropped himself heavily on the bamboo floor of the shed.
His sigh of relief was rather exaggerated. For the benefit of the children, he said to himself.
He took in a long breath and dangled his feet. He noticed the children had put away the phone and were looking at him.
“What are you doing…?”
Shy look was all the answer he got. Then the man saw a note book and pencil box near their seated forms.
Up to some games! I never would have thought any villager there could afford a smartphone and that too for kids. Some country bumpkin indulging the kids!
He spread his hands palms down on the bamboo matting and leaned back. He felt the urge to check his phone but thought it better not to.
A slight nod from the little girl coincided with a ‘ping’ sound on his phone and he felt the vibration in the trendy bag he had slung diagonally….
There’s network connection. Relax
He told himself. The kids were not looking at the phone anymore. They just sat and looked past him as if he had interrupted them. They appear reticent but not afraid.
Are all the children in the villages like this?
he questioned himself.
“Carry on with your phone…”
Now the girl smiled shyly and swayed her upper body from side to side.
She must be older than the boy. They could be about 10 and 8 years of age?
The man looked around, taking in the flourishing garden. He tried not to look at the children.
I have disturbed them too much already. How come they are here, just two children!
He wanted so much to stretch himself and lie down full length on the bamboo floor. He began to feel the perspiration on his body drying up with the gentle promptings from the breeze. He could afford the time.
But am I welcome? Will the two kids like my company? I get the feeling that they are waiting for me to go away so that they can get back to their mobile phone.
He stole another look at them.
An open shed. Two children. A mobile phone! Evening time! Atop a hillock!
Stuff that mystery tales are made of.
Then he got up quite reluctantly and began walking away. His vehicle was parked on the side of a rugged lane some 40 minutes’ walk away.
“Are you done? Was the network ok?”
He stopped dead on his tracks!
Someone was talking to the children. No wonder they appeared ‘not afraid’. Then he heard a small sweet voice of a girl…
“No baba, I am yet to write….”
The man retraced his steps as the father of that girl said, “All right, I shall wait…”
The passer-by asked the other man,
“Are you the father of these children? I thought they are on their own playing games on mobile phone.”
The man replied,
“Oh yes, I am the father and this is my garden. I was doing a little work down there…”
he pointed to a clump of bamboos that he had cut.
“I’ve been bringing the children here every evening around this time for about a week now. My daughter has to check the mobile phone for online classes and assignments. There is no network down in the village. See this shed, I had built this in a hurry just so my children here will have a place to sit and do their homework. This place is the only spot where network is available.”
“Ah, I was wondering what the children were doing on their own and with the mobile phone…. Now I know. Very sad about the network!”
“This pandemic has brought about a lot of problems. I do not have problems with children having home work but only the internet connectivity is a great worry for the whole village.”
“I wish children were spared so much trouble. Thank God, internet is accessible at least in this place.”
“What about you, how come you are in this place? You seem to be from town….”
“Yes, I am from Tura, from Health Department. I came to apprise the village Dispensary of the prevailing COVID-19. The village will have to meet soon. Now on my way back…”
As the adults talked, the children worked on. The girl was bent over as she looked at the phone which her brother held for her, then wrote on her notebook.
Then man walked towards his vehicle, happy and sad!
Dr Barbara S. Sangma is an Assistant Professor of English in Don Bosco College, Tura in the state of Meghalaya. She has published two books: A·chik (Garo) Theatre: A Case for Indian Folk Theatre (2016) and a poetry book String in a Lute () (2020) and co-authored Midong Kaa (Post-funeral ceremony) (2017) with two others. She has also contributed a few topics to edited books and university journals. A nature lover and a passionate teacher, she is deeply concerned about the plight of students, especially of those who has no access to online classes. This short story was inspired by a picture posted on Face Book of a small bamboo shed built by a man atop a hillock to enable his daughter to attend online classes, as that was the only spot where internet network could be accessed.