People thought she was not like this as a young girl. It afflicted her only after she became a ‘professor’. But I, who have almost been her shadow in our years of growing up together, always knew that absentmindedness was like a stamp of Majoni’s being.
We grew up together at the Oil India Limited (OIL) campus at Noonmati, a beautiful little OIL township in the outskirts of Guwahati city. There was a bus stop right in front of the club at the township centre from where we took Bus No. 4 for seven years to Holy Child School. In fact, both of us were in the same class and shared the same bench. After school, we came back in the same bus and walked from the club bus stop to our homes that were in the same lane, opposite to one another. Half an hour later, we would be together again either playing with the other kids or lazing around at the lawns in front of the club, or walking the narrow lanes of the campus in circles talking about crushes, heartaches and dreams.
The OIL campus was very vibrant. Something or the other would always keep happening. The Bhogali Bihufestival in January, for instance, when our mothers prepared for the pitha competition a month in advance or theRongali Bihu festival in April, when the college going girls would choreograph and train us to dance the Bihu on stage and sing choruses as well. The boys were also a part of it and it was great fun. Then there was Saraswati Puja on the campus when girls – from the tiny tots to the older ones – would dress up in lovely mekhela chadarsand flock at the Puja pandal for blessings and the bhog. There were other festivals and celebrations too during Eid, Diwali, Christmas, New Year’s, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, Shankardeva’s Tithi, Sports Day, Cultural Nights with some renowned artist being invited to perform throughout the night.
During one such festival, a few of us were gathered to prepare a chorus. The obese college going girl Uma was our trainer. She had picked a Jyoti Sangeet and started month long rehearsals with us. Uma had a pretty face but her ever expanding body attracted more attention. We called her ‘Gaj Gamini’ – the one with elephantine grace and laughed at her as much as we liked her. We blamed her mother for her state. Her mother, for us, was the Mother Gaj Gamini who cooked mouth watering food and stuffed herself and her child to the point of obesity. Weighing more than her daughter, the woman almost confined herself to the house, which was on the third floor, as walking up and down those stairs was a mammoth task given her bulk.
Once, at the rehearsals, as we stopped for a break, Gaj Gamini took us to her house for some tea. Mother Gaj Gamini was happy to see all of us and in a matter of some minutes, laid out a platter of food. There were potato chops stuffed with meat, luci with aloo bhaji, and a baked dish of potatoes and fish. All of us got excited about the spread of potato dishes and steered the conversation to food at the dining table. We revealed our glee through many expressions.
“Oh, Aunty! I just love aloo (potato). Look at what all you can do with it!”
“Yes, Aunty. She is right. Aloo is perhaps the only vegetable that goes with everything and can be had any time.”
“Aunty, how did you make this aloo chop? Which meat have you used for the stuffing?”
“Know what Aunty? Aloois a favourite with my entire family. There are times when we only have boiled rice and aloo pitika. Yummmm. Thinking of it makes my mouth water!”
Thus, the conversation continued and the subject hovered upon the aloo. After all of us were satisfied and it was time to leave, Mother Gaj Gamini showed us to the main door. We took turns to say good bye and thanked her for the wonderful food. Everybody had something good to say about the food. But when it was Majoni’s turn, what blurt out from her lovely mouth stunned us all. She looked earnestly into Mother Gaj Gamini’s eyes and said, “Thank you, Aloo.” That was it. Gaj Gamini dropped Majoni from the chorus with an excuse that there were more girls than required and since Majoni was quite tall, she had to go! Apparently, her height would be a visual distraction on stage for the audience! As for Majoni, for the next six years, she tried to convince us that what she meant was “Thank you, Aunty.” But well, all of us heard what was uttered, even if that was not intentional. At that time, though I had not realized it, it was my first brush with Majoni’s absentmindedness.
Soon after, we got busy with our final examinations. The day our Math paper got over, I met Majoni outside the school gate and she was all upset. Not that she was ever good at the subject, but by the look of her face, this time she had fared particularly bad. We didn’t speak much to each other and silently got on Bus No. 4 that came to fetch us. The whole journey, Majoni kept brooding over something. Finally our bus stop at the OIL township arrived and we made our way to the exit to disembark. Just then, a voice cried out from the back of the bus,
“Majoni!” Both of us turned to look back and saw a young man waving at Majoni. She recognized him and smiled.
“Coming back from school?” he called out.
“Yes,” she nodded and turned to look at the fast approaching bus stop.
“I believe your exams are on. Had a paper today?” She craned her neck once more and said “Yes” before quickly turning back to look at the bus stop as the bus slowed its pace.
“How did your paper go?” he cried out again. By this time, the bus had come to a stop and Majoni looked at him one last time, said “yes” with a charming smile and quickly got off the bus. The Math disaster must have made her respond like that, I thought as I walked home by her side laughing to myself.
As the days passed, I began noticing how absentminded Majoni was. She would forget little things, as well as important issues. Like the first day of our matriculate examinations. Her father drove us to our examination centre. I was a little nervous but Majoni was panicky. She kept on uttering weird concerns – “Oh I hope I know answers to all the questions”, “What if I can’t complete the paper?”, “What if we are late?”, “What if I make silly mistakes”, etc.etc. We reached the centre an hour early, with enough time for our nerves to soothe and to seek out our respective seating arrangements. Majoni found her room was on the ground floor while mine was on the second floor. I quickly settled into my seat, exchanged best wishes with those around me and patiently waited for the question paper. At the same time, there was a commotion on at the ground floor. Majoni had forgotten her Hall Admit Card. She was trying hard to convince the invigilators that she was honest and that she forgot the admit card by mistake and that she should be allowed to take the exam.
The invigilators, on the other hand, insisted that she call up home and ask someone to fetch the card while she waited at the entrance. She, of course, would not be allowed inside the premises without it. Thus, Majoni was already under spells of fainting when she called up home from the centre office and told her mother to send her father back with the admit card as soon as he reached home. It was soon time for the examination to begin and a clerk escorted Majoni out of the premises. She cried in terror as she waited a whole forty minutes at the entrance before her father arrived. He looked like he had flown on the Guwahati streets full of traffic and like he could kill her. But for the sake of his daughter’s mental balance, he said nothing. Majoni grabbed the card and rushed back to the room. By the time she took the question paper in hand, she noticed that those around her were already asking for extra sheets. Her heart beat wildly and she started shaking. Every time she picked up the pen, it would fall off her shaking hand. She just couldn’t get a grip. “Ma’am! Ma’am! I can’t hold the pen!” she cried out and the invigilator turned to the sight of a girl shaking like one possessed. Majoni was immediately transferred to the Sick Room, where a nurse attended to her, trying to calm her with water and some pill. It was after good fifteen minutes that she could hold the pen and finally write her answers. For being in the Sick Room, they granted her half an hour extra. And that was how Majoni acquired the passing marks.
By the time we reached college, Majoni’s affliction had worsened. Also, around that time, our fathers had retired and we shifted to our respective houses outside the campus. Our houses were now at the two ends of the city; which meant we got to see less of each other. I went to Cotton College for higher studies while Majoni found herself a place at Handique College. Both the colleges were close to each other, but our classes and after class tuitions kept us so busy that we could somehow manage to meet only once or twice in a month. Once, Majoni and I were coming out of a restaurant when a car came and stopped in front of us. A good looking young man spoke from the driver’s seat, “Halo! Where to?” Majoni gave him a cold look and royally walked away. The young man’s friend sitting next to him laughed and said, “Aren’t you past that age to tease girls?” The good looking man replied, as if in a state of shock, “She’s my cousin!” And that is when I could recall where I had seen him. I had attended his wedding three years ago at Majoni’s invitation! As I rushed my steps to catch up with Majoni, I almost shouted at her, “Didn’t you recognize your cousin?” “What cousin!” she retorted, “I would know my cousin anywhere.” It was only when we met again for coffee a month later that she admitted that it was indeed her cousin, who came to their house that very evening to give her a sound piece of his mind for embarrassing him like that in public. She was upset how she could not recognize him. “Know what? Maybe I was thinking of something else when he stopped his car by us.” I simply nodded at her proposition, but in sincerity, I was bewildered because many a time, she was beginning to see through even me in public places.
I haven’t been in touch with Majoni for years now. The last time we met was when, obviously by God’s bountiful grace, Majoni had cleared the medical entrance exam and found a place in the waiting list. Both of us had gone to the Kamakhya temple at Neelachal Hills to pray for her. A miracle did happen and she became an MBBS student at one of the medical colleges in Guwahati. Around the same time, I left for Delhi for higher studies. After nine years, armed with a doctorate degree, I let for Germany for a post-doctorate course. It took Majoni exactly the same time, instead of the usual five years, to earn an MBBS degree. What I heard from people in the medical fraternity in Guwahati is that the Dean, who was sympathetic to Majoni for her quiet and amiable nature, called her to his room, arranged all medical equipments on a tray, put the tray in front of her and made her pledge that even though she would be allowed to pass her exams this time yet she would never touch these equipments ever in her life. So that is how, after graduating from the medical college, Majoni found herself a job at a primary school close to her home.
The doctor in her surfaced one unfortunate afternoon when a student fainted under the glaring sun during the assembly. She rushed to his side, took his pulse and delivered some twenty hard knocks with her knuckles on his forehead. The school principal thought that was a way bit too much but said nothing thinking of the MBBS degree held by her. It turned out that the summer heat had made the boy faint but the hard knocks by Majoni rendered him unconscious for the next two months. The school came under the boy’s relatives’ attack and soon protest marches against it were taken out on the streets by various organizations. The media wasn’t behind either. It drew up a caricature of Majoni’s medical expertise by publishing her failure reports year after year. And as if that was not enough, the circumstances under which she finally got her degree were also disclosed and mocked at. Finally, the school principal requested Majoni to resign.
These days, Majoni is at home and as a therapy, her parents coerced her into painting – a task she really was good at as a child. It isn’t surprising that within months she turned out great stuff and soon her talent became widely recognized. Now, almost every two months some organization or the other requests her paintings for exhibitions. Besides, she has opened a therapy school for the mentally disturbed or anguished at her parents’ house and has a fast growing clientele. Her clients address her as ‘Professor’ and she has failed all attempts in telling them that she is not one. Now she doesn’t care anymore. A professor or not, that’s not going to make a difference to the work she is doing. Major Assamese newspapers are now profiling her work and she has become quite a celebrated artist and therapist. But just in case you are wondering if she has got herself rid of her absentmindedness, then in all probability it is unlikely because people, they tell me, often call her the ‘absentminded professor’ behind her back.
Pitha: Traditional Assamese sweet dishes
Bhogali Bihu, Rongali Bihu: Festivals in Assam
Bihu: A traditional Assamese dance
Saraswati Puja: Festival dedicated to the Goddess of Learning
Mekhela chadar: Traditional Assamese dress worn by women
Shankardeva’s Tithi: Shankardeva was the greatest social reformer of Assam. Tithi refers to anniversary.
Jyoti Sangeet: Songs composed by Assamese cultural giant Jyoti Prasad Agarwala
Luci with aloo bhaji: Soft breads with potato sabji
Aloo pitika: Mashed potatoes
Kamakhya temple: Famous Mother Goddess temple in Guwahati, Assam
Juanita Kakoty, 33 years old, is a freelance writer and journalist. She has written on the arts, cultures, travel, food, etc. for publications like The Deccan Herald, The Thumb Print, India Today Woman, The Assam Tribune, etc. She is from Assam, a northeastern state of India, and holds an M.Phil. degree in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Having taught at two Indian universities, she is now taking a break from academics and concentrating on feature stories and photo-documentation. Her published work is available at her blog juanitakakotywrites.blogspot.in
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)