THE GATHERING OF A CLAN, THE SEARCH FOR A BRIDE AND A FAMILY RIFT: MEET KOLI BOU, THE AUNT WHO WAS OBSESSED WITH SKIN FOR MOST OF HER LIFE.
I discovered my aunt’s name entirely by accident.
That day, in the living room of our ancestral home, the extended family had gathered to play spectator to a riveting drama. The eldest son of my aunt, my first cousin Biplob-da (name changed), was to be married and had posted the invitation card to the ancestral house in Teteliguri. He wasn’t having his wedding in Teteliguri, but in Nagaon, where he moved a few years ago.
Biplob-da, the first son of the clan was having a wedding not in his ancestral village: in the village his father was born; he was born; he had grown up. This was a shock my uncles and aunts couldn’t digest, and was the reason behind that round table conference. The younger generation didn’t have a say in matters of this sort, but we crowded around anyway, for an earful. The aim: for the family to decide on a fitting epistolary response to Dangor-borma for that humiliating invitation card, where the names of the elders in our family weren’t even mentioned. As the debate raged on, I picked up the invitation card. I couldn’t find Dangor-borma’s name there.‘Where is Dangor-borma’s name? It is not even here!’ I asked one of my cousins,
My cousin, older and wiser than me, frowned and told me it was there, look properly.
‘Where? I can’t find a name Koli Das’.
Wiser and Older Cousin hollered at me, ‘Shut up, Ronjit!’ She used my pet name. ‘That is not her name. Her name is…’
All those years the name everyone used to refer to her was not the name given to her at birth. True, who would name their daughter Koli, a less-than flattering word, meaning dark skinned? The Mahabharata’s Draupadi, who was serenaded by five husbands, was dark-skinned too. But she had a beautiful name that highlighted her skin colour: Krishnaa. If Borma’s parents had wanted her name to remind her of her dark skin, surely they would have used something like that, not Koli?
Why didn’t I ever think about it?
Maybe because so many names of so many of my aunts in our village were just odd.
The village midwife, was called Kotikatonee because, people say, one of her butt cheeks was sliced away by a moving vehicle when she was lying drunk by the side of the road after drinking horlang—Karbi rice beer. One of my aunts was called Baghjopianee—The Woman Who Jumps like a Tiger—not because she could jump like a tiger, but because she was married from the village called “Baghjaap” (Bagh = tiger; jaap = jump); no one in the village remembered her birth name. Another aunt was called Bengenakhaitee—Brinjal Eater. All my cousins grew up believing she was called as such because she ate too many brinjals. It was only later that we discovered that the name was derived from where she came, a village called Bengenaklhuwa (Bengena = bringal; khowa = to eat), and nothing at all to with the consumption of brinjal.
From then on, though we always called my aunt “Dangor-borma” or “Dangor-khuri”, everyone in the village referred to her as Koli-bou, Koli-bai, Koli-borma. But because of this peculiar normalization of racism that exists in our culture, it had escaped my mind that they used that name only when she was not present. In front of her, they were respectful, even though a pejorative reference to her skin colour had replaced her real name.
Did she know?
For long, my father’s eldest sister’s daughter remained single, working as a nurse for very little pay at a hospital in Guwahati. At family gatherings, Dangor-borma would always wonder aloud in front of guests, ‘Can’t you guys find a good match for her? My god, she is so light skinned and slim and yet no one wants to marry her? I don’t believe that! Her guardians are just not working hard enough to find a match for her.’
Dangor-borma was obsessed with skin for most of her life. It was only later, when her only son decided to marry, that the obsession became compulsive: she wanted a light skinned bride for him and every other qualification became immaterial.
My Dangor-bortta, my father’s eldest brother and Biplob-da’s father, passed away before my father was married. Dangor-bortta worked as a compounder in the local dispensary. During his lifetime he managed to buy some land and build a modest house near the market area. The coconut trees he planted around the house are still there. Though the house is in a prime location and they had farming land not very far from it, the earnings from that land weren’t enough for the family. It was rumoured that when my father had married in 1983, Biplob-da had joined the banned separatist outfit ULFA. But no one could really establish if that was true or he had just fought with his mother and disappeared for a few months just to scare her. It seemed like a cruel thing to do to his widowed mother. But I suspect the outbursts of the adolescent stemmed from a yearning for a life her limited earnings couldn’t meet.
My mother spoke fondly of Dangor-borma, especially about her unconditional, immense love for me because apparently, when I was a baby, I looked exactly like Biplob-da. Whenever Dangor-borma would tell me that, I would laugh and say, ‘Really? All babies look the same Borma!’ Just a few days after I was born in Silchar, she had rushed to the city in Southern Assam to assist my mother who lived alone with my father who was posted there. She washed clothes, cleaned the house and cooked for her. And Ma was the only person in our entire family who didn’t use that pejorative, unflattering name, ever. Ma maintained that with Dangor-borma’s “almost-six-foot tall, well built body”, dark glistening skin and lustrous hair that hung near her waist, she was the most beautiful among all her sisters-in-laws. She was soft spoken and rarely scolded us kids. For some reason, maybe because she was soft-spoken, maybe because she was too tall, she never had to raise her voice to us. There was something in her personality that rest of my aunts didn’t have. They’d resort to screaming when they caught us doing things they didn’t approve of: bathing in the pond just before sunset, playing in the hay when “it would make your skin itch and bleed”, eating the mature bulbs of water-lilies on the paddy fields of winter months and drinking honey from beehives that formed in the cracks of large stones.
But a few years before her son’s wedding, when Dangor-borma’s second child, her youngest daughter, passed away, she changed. Once, I landed at the Tetelia bus stop and walked briskly towards her house near the marketplace screaming ‘Borma, we are here’, and my father had told me that they didn’t live there anymore. She, together with Biplob-da, had moved to Nagaon for good. An unknown family, who asked if I would like to drink some water, now rented that house where a fat black cat lived, sitting on my lap and purring whenever I visited.
The people in the village talked about her departure. The extended clan said she shouldn’t have left the village where her husband was cremated, shameful. Ma was the only one to say that it was her choice and she wasn’t going to a strange place. She had gone to live with her childless, aging and sick sister, and wanted Biplob-da to complete his studies and apply for jobs in Nagaon. All she wated was a secure future for her son, something that our critical extended clan couldn’t provide. That is how Dangor-borma vanished from our lives, until she made that explosive comeback in the form of a wedding invitation on which was written her real name.
And what a beautiful name it was.
My mother disagrees with me when I say that Dangor-borma made a comeback with that letter. After moving to Nagaon, her ties with our extended family were reduced, not absent. She would come for weddings, but would leave in a few hours, never staying over. She would visit during Bihu but wouldn’t stay for more than one night. We would complain about it, ‘What is wrong with you? Can’t you stay back for a few days? It is Bihu after all. The Bohag Bihu is celebrated only once a year, you know!’ But she had other “commitments” to her younger sister and brother-in-law who had taken over the financial needs of Borma and her son. But soon after Biplob-da got a stable government job, she started visiting us. She visited us and said, “‘Biplob says he is single. He has no one in mind. Now, all of you guys must help me find a good girl for him.” She made this appeal to everyone in the family.
We were happy that she was back, because although we had had those ego-issues with her in the years past, she was still our aunt, who we loved, who loved us. Every uncle and aunt came up with a list of girls of marriageable age, and she set out on her bride mission by making a longlist with the aim of turning it into a shortlist.
This is how it would happen. My cousin and aunt would express their interest in visiting a prospective bride’s family through a third party and then decide on a date. The girl’s family would keep their homes clean and stocked with delicious dishes cooked by the girl and await their arrival. They would chat. I am not sure if the girls were asked to sing songs, walk or were interviewed or given ‘private time’ with the prospective groom but I heard that from each of those trips, Dangor-borma would come back with numerous complaints.
‘She said that she doesn’t eat mutton. How will they live together? She would have to be able to cook mutton, because he likes it a lot.’
‘That girl in Komolajari village? No way, she has three tiny moles on her chin. If we marry her, we wouldn’t have to buy black beans for the rest of the life.’
‘I had almost finalised on the girl in Jagiroad, but you know what? She said that she would want to complete her PhD after marriage. Please don’t send me to see such girls again. Ask them if they have completed their education. I don’t mind if she is highly educated, but she must complete all her desired degrees before marriage.’
‘She is too short. When they would walk together, it wouldn’t look good.’
‘She has a broad forehead. It is not an auspicious sign.’
‘She speaks in such a singsong voice that it gets on my nerves. I would go mad if I have to live with such a daughter in law.’
One afternoon, we got a distress call from one of the aunts in our ancestral village. Ma had just returned from work. She spoke on her on the phone and told us that Dangor-borma was driving everyone crazy. That she had rejected all the eligible girls in the entire region and hadn’t been able to come up with a shortlist even after so many months.
I asked what the problem was. Ma said the family suspects she would prefer a very light skinned girl, but wouldn’t spell it out any more than she has already. What else could be the cause for such absurdity? Anyway her son doesn’t really look like Brad Pitt, and isn’t the most talented and clever. All he has is a government job, some land and a very boring personality. Eventually, my father offered to put him in touch with two families in Guwahati who were looking for grooms. But he told Dangor-borma that she couldn’t go with him.
‘Let him decide on this own. Let the girl and the boy meet and decide on their own. You don’t have to select a girl like you select fish in the market. Basute basute goi gela borlithe haat dibigoi.’ He murmured a proverb for her.‘But make sure they are from good families.’ She said helplessly.
‘I don’t really know corrupt politicians, Dangor-bou.’
‘I am just saying. They should be able to adjust. They have to be cultured.’
‘They are from good families.’ My father said, impatient to end the conversation.
Biplob-da came to our house the next day with lots of sweets. For a two-day visit, he brought several pairs of shirts and pants. The next day, he took two hours to get dressed. He asked my mother several times how he looked. Many years before, when he was sixteen and when my twenty two year-old Ma had first entered the family as a bride, they had become like friends. I could see the remnants of that friendship in the playful way that they talked. I wasn’t sure if Ma knew his first crushes. Crushes you have as a sixteen-year old on the best girl in the class who would never go wrong in anything she did.
If I remember well, the first woman was two or three years younger than him. She lived in the Ganeshguri area and owned a shop of her own. She had completed “some computer course” after graduating from a college in Guwahati. Since she couldn’t find a job, she had taken a small loan from a bank and opened a computer training center for local children. In those days only a few expensive schools taught computer science, but parents wanted their adolescent children to learn how to use computers, so she earned well, probably bringing home more than a government job would have earned her. The next woman taught in a CBSE school as a post-graduate teacher. Her father was a highly ranked government officer – the kind of family that Dangor-borma could brag about, if Biplob-da married her. He chatted with both of them at their work places and returned quickly. He said nothing to us about the girls except that he enjoyed meeting both of them. Ma told my father that something could really happen because the girls were smart, intelligent and attractive.
‘This is insane!’ Ma said, when he gave his answer a few days later. ‘This is totally insane.’ She picked up the phone, called my other aunt in Teteliguri and screamed. ‘This is madness.’ She told my father and me. ‘His reasons are so stupid.’
‘What did he say?’
‘So. He said he would marry the girl one who runs a computer training centre but mother is saying that they don’t want him to marry a Shopkeeper Girl. Dukani Suwali nalage bule!’
‘Oh God’ My father said.
‘Oh God.’ I said.
My Elder-Wiser Cousin was present that day because she was visiting us in Guwahati. ‘Khuri’, she told my mother, ‘None of these things matter. I know exactly what kind of a bride Dangor-borma is searching for.’
Dangor-borma took offense when we expressed our irritation with her selection process. She accused us of not being supportive and not being invested enough in the process, despite being family. She said she would use her contacts in Nagaon and find someone on her own. Her sister would help her. Her brother-in-law would help her. And they would not criticise her for being so picky. After all, this is a matter of her one and only son who has a stable, permanent, government job. Oh lord, we said, sighing.After a few months, we heard that she had finalised the date of the wedding without informing us. Although we were hurt, we didn’t discuss it much. Rather, there were speculations about what the family would do during the wedding because this was the first wedding in the family for a long time and that too, of the clan’s first ‘son.’ One of my uncles sent a someone to check the tin, the garden, the pillars of the abandoned house that Dangor-borma owned. The family who rented the place asked if they would now have to leave because Biplob was getting married and we said that we might need the house for different purposes. We shall let you know, my uncle answered. My aunts planned what to wear and what to buy for the wedding. They had a not-very-tense, women-only round table conference and came up with a list of gifts for the bride and the groom, and furnished it to their respective husbands well in advance with a cautionary warning that it wasn’t negotiable.
But then we got the invitation card, and it was as if a bomb had been dropped.
We would go to the wedding only as guests. We wouldn’t build the pandal. We wouldn’t bathe the bride and the groom. We wouldn’t clean the house and cook food and cut vegetables and play Zubeen Garg songs and dance in our own music system.
We would go with gifts. Eat. Return.
This time, the round table conference was tense. I think it was my youngest uncle, who passed away in 2011, who took out a sheet of paper and said, ‘Alright, tell me what to write?’ I peered at the invitation letter wondering where the hell “Koli Das” was while getting hollered at by Older-Wiser Cousin. But we didn’t write a word. We couldn’t come up with a fitting epistolary response. We just didn’t go to the wedding. No one. They nursed their wounds by blaming us and we nursed our wounds by blaming them for snubbing us. There was, as if no space left for reconciliation. Dangor-borma’s obsession for a certain kind of bride created a chasm that is irreparable.
But what kind of a bride did she find for her son? These were the days pre-Facebook, and pre-Orkut, so we didn’t see any wedding photos because the wedding photos of that function were tucked away in glossy albums sitting on camphor-smelling racks somewhere. Several years later when I was in Delhi that Older Wiser Cousin, then living in Guwahati, called me in my newly bought cellphone. It was a pretty fancy Nokia phone with an FM radio. The display was black and white.
‘Oi. I met Biplob-da’s wife.’
‘Really? Was she nice? How did she look?’
‘She is so boring. She teaches in some college, or so they told me. They could lie also. Just to brag that he managed to get hold of a Professor Bride.’
‘How does she look?’ After all that happened, that’s what I really wanted to know.
‘Umm, I don’t know how to explain, Ronjit.’ She paused. She said nothing for a long time. Then broke her silence. ‘She is fair. Very, very fair. She almost looks white.’
Text: Aruni Kashyap
Illustration: Naasha Mehta