Speechless Mountain

Original by Dr. Kanakalata Hathi
Translated, from the Odia, by Suchona Patnaik

Rumours and gossips abound about Gopa. There are many voices about her, beyond what is true. Talks do die down. Tomorrow tends to forget today. Again some dark shades of whispers engulf Gopa. Some don’t understand why do people love to gossip. Gopa never seems to be wavering by any such stray remarks. Her eyes beckon, her words cast a magical spell and her conduct remains suave. Gopa exudes an aura of sweetness which fascinates people who gravitate towards her. A calm demeanour, an endearing smile and her graceful conduct make Gopa more attractive. Gopa is middle aged and works as a Professor. Not an amazingly beautiful woman, but certainly a charming person. She teaches history. She is generous and open to all. She doesn’t call anybody for company nor does she turn away anyone. She looks unfathomable and inscrutable. She shies away from intruding queries about her family details and points to a young boy of seventeen or eighteen and says, “He is my family, what else you want to know!” People may say things about her, but nobody can conscientiously give away any facts about her. Gopa usually evades questions about her marriage. When asked, she either smiles or falls silent. Her silence is meaningfully deep. 

 It has been quite some time that Gopa has been teaching in the same college. It being a private college, there are no hassles of transfers and relocation. One generally gets emotionally attached after spending few years at a particular place. The rumour mongers are not just the strangers in the town, but her colleagues and acquaintances also speak ill about her. Gopa never confronts anyone; she takes it all in her stride and quite gracefully at that. It isn’t in her nature to quarrel with anyone. A professor of History is not her only identity, there is another as well. Gopa is a poetess too. No one knows for how long she has been writing, though it seems it has been quite a few years. However, she doesn’t write as frequently now as she used to earlier. Once in a while she pens down a poem or two for some magazines. When asked about her poetry, she just smiles that makes her all the more intriguing.

Gopa’s flair for writing brings her in contact with people of similar interests. She used to receive a number of letters in this regard, which raised the suspicion of her colleagues. Some of the letters never reached Gopa. She knows all of this but neither confronted anyone nor complained about it to the authorities. Gopa had many visitors in a day. People used to meet Gopa on the pretext of some work and she knew their pretence. But it made people gossip more about her. Everyone had his own version of story about Gopa and her unmarried status only made it all the worse.

Years passed by but the rumours about Gopa did not seem to die down. Maybe this is what our society thrives on! All of this did hurt Gopa. Many a time, she thinks of relocating to another place, yet she cannot. She realizes a change of place would not guarantee a change of people’s opinion about her. A disquieting maze of whispers seems to follow her all through. Gopa’s visitors are mostly inquisitive acquaintances in the guise of visitors. The visits are an excuse to intrude into her personal life, into the space that Gopa keeps shielded. A minute’s visit would often linger into an hour. They would twist the conversation to find a chance glimpse into her much speculated and maligned privacy. But they would always fail before Gopa’s stoic silence. Her students also often approach her, with their doubts in history. She is affectionate towards her students. While clarifying their doubts, the agonising moments of her loneliness wither away. But her colleagues and peers entertain a different view on this. To them it is her subterfuge to be in the company of boys. What education a teacher of such character could impart to her students!

Gopa isn’t really alone. She does have a family; father, mother and her siblings. Her parents passed away and the siblings set up their own nests. Life went on. Gopa chose to be independent and single. Often she was a mysterious entity to her own family. Gopa liked to write poems and in course of time got to know Sumay. Over a period of time, they came closer towards each other. Gopa’s personality, grace and conduct fascinated Sumay. Their feelings bloomed with a reciprocal longing for each other. It so happened that once Sumay proposed to Gopa for marriage. Gopa was taken aback. 

“Marriage?” she asked, totally bewildered. 

“Why not? What do I lack?” asked Sumay. “I have not thought of marriage,” replied Gopa. 

“If you haven’t, now is the time,” retorted Sumay. 

“I can never marry you, Sumay.” 

Sumay pursued her, trying to convince Gopa, but she held on to her “No” as the final answer. What ensued next in the room remains hazy in Gopa’s memory. However, she does remember some of Sumay’s words, “Your love was a sham, and women with poetic traits are invariably unfaithful.” “Such women can never be happy with one man.” “Deep down, I always believed you are not what people think of you, Gopa. But today I realize it is true indeed!” “What was the need of this farce, Gopa, if you never wanted to marry me?” This decision of Gopa’s also disappointed her family. Gopa stood frozen, to their detestation. As days passed by Gopa felt suffocated in her own home, with her own family. She could no longer take the words of abhorrence. She felt like going away from the cynicism and bitterness around her which had nearly engulfed her. It was then that Gopa decided to take up the teaching job in another city. She relocated and set up a new home, an unfamiliar place. She remained loving and affectionate to people. But again the same gossip followed her and fastened her like a noose.  Gossips clung to her and she was writhing within to get free. Not going anywhere during holidays and vacations, postal correspondence with a few, people visiting her, and, lastly, Gopa remaining unmarried all crystallized into an obnoxious reputation. But all these merge into her silence. For her to live is to struggle incessantly. Life is so endearing and precious that she cannot recede into the abyss of self-annihilation.

Gopa was in Kolkata to attend a conference. On her way back, as she waited for the train to arrive, she felt someone was pulling her saree. She turned around to see a kid, barely four years old, standing behind her. The boy looked scared and his eyes looked puffed and teary. His clothes were soiled but he appeared to be from a decent family. When Gopa inquired, he could only say his name, “Tutu,” neither his parents’ name nor his address. The pitiable look in the child’s eyes did not allow Gopa to leave him behind and return home. She was a woman after all! Being an affectionate loving woman, how could she be so heartless as to leave a weeping child alone? Gopa was now in a dilemma. She couldn’t decide if she should take the child to the police or to her home. So she decided to first feed the child well and then took him along to the police station. She knew that the boy was a lost child. At the police station she came to know about a train accident the previous day which kept everyone busy. She did not want to leave the child to anyone’s care. Gopa left her address and the child’s photograph at the police station, in case someone came looking for the kid. On her way back, Gopa did not forget to buy new set of clothes for the kid. Tutu evoked the maternal instincts in Gopa. She was no longer worried for the kid. Instead she was thankful to God that she met him, otherwise the child might have ended up being a child labourer somewhere. This very thought was disturbing Gopa. She was reassured that she took the right decision. Tutu grows up with Anurag as his certificate name. He is her only child, her anchor today and for times to come. But that day Gopa didn’t bring Tutu home alone. Along with Tutu came a lot more slander. Who would have believed in the truth! Everyone cast aspersions on her and her character. Gopa never explained, as before. The truth got immersed in her silence. Rumours were afloat that Tutu was her illegitimate child, who she had kept hidden in an orphanage and brought home when he was grown up.

Anurag doesn’t remember much of that tender age when Gopa brought him home.  He addressed Gopa as “Maa” and his world revolved around his Maa. Gopa too had brought up Anurag in the best way she could. She put him in a good school and tried to fill in his life with as much happiness as she could. As Anurag grows up, the fearlessness in Gopa is dying down. She starts becoming panicky, restless and worried. Her bond with Anurag is such that she can’t imagine spending a day away from him, though she doesn’t know how the next day will begin! Gopa can apprehend as if Anurag wants to ask her about something but is unable to. At that moment he looks withdrawn, lost in a world of inexplicable emotions. Questions might be falling upon him. Yet how can Gopa unravel the truth! It has been a prolonged period of lingering indecisiveness to confide in Anurag the truth. When will the moment of revelation come!

Gopa feels quite lonely at times. Her youth has withered with time. She sees every morning the ruins of the past. She feels morose. And to spend the day well she takes asylum in the room where deities are enthroned. After the prayers she begins her Yoga practices and meditation. Her day then lapses into the routine chores. 

“Why do you practice Yoga, Maa? Is it really important for good health?”asks Anurag. 

“I do it for my mental strength, because I need it for you. Yoga does help in physical fitness too.”

“But Maa, people say….”And Anurag stops without saying anything further. 

“What do people say, Anurag?”

Is Yoga the way to sublimate her passion? Alas! How could Anurag ask this! He lapses into silence. His words get stifled in his throat. Questions churn his thoughts, his eyes say it all. Gopa could understand but couldn’t say anything. Anurag takes a pause and asks, “Where do you go every year during vacation? You never tell me, I don’t ask you. People say ugly things about you. I can’t bear their sneering talks; they slice into me like a knife. But I don’t have the answers to silence them.” 

“Yes, my child, I am a very lonely person. I am neither anyone’s daughter nor anybody’s aunt. In this big wide world I am alone.” Gopa realises the time has come to reveal the truth to Anurag. She remains reclusive the whole day. The next morning she takes Anurag with her to Kolkata. Though many years had passed by, still Gopa went there every year during vacations to inquire about Anurag’s parents.

Anurag falls at Gopa’s feet when he encounters the truth about his past. All his allegations against his mother flow out of his eyes in deep reverence. He trembles with guilt and says, “I am only your son, Maa. No one can come and snatch me away from you.” Gopa hugs him tightly and they both weep inconsolable. “Why did you not marry, Maa? Because you had to take care of me?” asks Anurag, still weeping. 

“You have given me the joy and pride of motherhood, my child. What else would I have got from a marriage? Everybody needs a child for the obsequies, and I have you. I know you will discharge your duties well.” 

“Stop, Man! Don’t say anything further! How can I ever live without you?”Anurag cries out with folded hands.

A few days later, Gopa met with an accident. Anurag rushed to the hospital on hearing the news. Gopa was unconscious. She had lost a lot of blood. Anurag wailed and requested the doctors to save his mother’s life.  Gopa was an epitome of resilience. She lived her life on her own terms. She had no regrets and no qualms in accepting Anurag as her child. A woman, who put up a strong fight all her life, could not be defeated so easily by death! Gopa regained consciousness, and saw Anurag’s tear-soaked face. She called Anurag near her and gave him Sumay’s address. She asked him to send a telegram to Sumay informing about her. Anurag didn’t understand, but he did as Gopa instructed him. Gopa’s condition was deteriorating. Anurag was distraught. In the meanwhile, Sumay reached out and headed straight to meet Gopa. This is the day that Gopa had waited for all her life! “This is my son, Anurag,” Gopa tells Sumay. “He has lost his parents and I don’t want him to be alone. You have to take care of him, Sumay, after I am gone.” 

Tears roll down Sumay’s eyes. In a trembling voice he assures that he will take care of Sumay. 

“I did not call you here only for this, Sumay, I want to reveal the truth to you.” Anurag wants to leave the room but Gopa gestures him to stay back. “You know why I refused to marry you the day you proposed to me? So that I can see you on a day like this!” Sumay could not comprehend what Gopa intended to say. He looks at Gopa, clueless. “I was told, I am destined to be a widow, losing the man within days of marriage. I never wanted to lose you, Sumay, never in any condition. But this is what the lines on my palms prophesied.” Gopa cries like a child. All her life she wrapped her emotions under a smile only to let it out today. 

Sumay is stunned. “Gopa, you wasted your whole life for a mere superstitious prediction? You lived on silently with the pain of ugly rumours and gossips?” Sumay failed to bear with it. 

Gopa regains her composure. “Had you not come, I couldn’t have shared this with anyone. The untold agony would have receded into silence forever. So much bliss! I feel peace within.”

Gopa became silent! Winter froze on her soft lips. She winged away from the encaged slavery of all rumours and swampy gossips. Anurag stood there, tears welling up in his eyes. He wanted to scream aloud and tell the world the last words of his mother. His mother was a speechless mountain, who kept alive a thousand wounds, but never uttered a word to anybody. Anurag wanted to wail, but couldn’t, and was slowly turning into a silent mountain himself!

Dr. Kanakalata Hathi is a renowned writer from Odisha, India. For the last three decades she has been writing stories that show her deep and sensitive brooding over life and society. Her stories are collected in two anthologies, Nirbaka Pahada (Speechless Mountain) and Kuhudi Ghara (The House of Mist). She has also translated regional writers into Odia, a language that has been granted the status of a classical language by the Government of India.

Suchona Patnaik is a doting mother, a caring housewife and a PhD research scholar from India. She is keen on translating Odia stories to English for wider redearship of the rich Odia literature. This translated story is a small attempt in that pursuit.