We spent our childhood being childish to our hearts’ content, Nungshitombi and I. We swam the waves of the river naked, we dipped, we dived.
She used to run very fast. She was lean. Everything that I could do, she could do too. We would get into fights often. I would tug her hair. She would bite. We never crossed a line, but never let each other off either. We roamed through forests from our childhood together; sometimes me leading, sometimes her.
Sometimes we would go stealing fruits from other people’s trees. She loved fruits. Once we were chased. We ran trying to get away. But she couldn’t run very fast that day. She was wearing a phanek. She would often say, you can’t run fast in a phanek.
I said, “Nungshitombi, hold the phanek in your hand and run. You’ll get caught today!”
That’s what she did. And then we ran like the wind. The owner stayed far behind, unable to catch us. We were panting, we were worn out. We were laughing too.
I said, “You almost got caught today. Why’d you wear the phanek?”
“Ima asked me to. She scolds me if I don’t wear the phanek.”
“I don’t know!”
She started wearing the phanek. I went alone to steal fruits from then on. She stayed at a distance – watching me – waiting for me to bring the fruits. She wasn’t really used to waiting and watching. But that’s what she did. She started to take my help in a lot of other things too. Things that she could do herself, that she did herself, she started not being able to do. But she was never inferior to me by any standard. I felt mad thinking that she was being lazy, being spoilt. I got angry at her, scolded her. Tugged her hair. But she didn’t bite. It was like she became weak. Whether it was because of her phanek or her mother, I don’t know. I don’t know who made her so weak, who stopped her.
We played a lot with the sand at the riverbank. Making sand castles. Then breaking them. We didn’t know the difference between making and breaking then. We just knew the game. The pleasure of playing. The joy in playing was in building and breaking. We only thought about that day, the happiness of that day.
But surprising me, she said one day, “Let’s not break them anymore. What’s the point of making a house and just breaking it?”
“What would we do then?” I wanted to know, “Just leave it here?”
“Yeah, we’ll just leave it here. We’ll play tomorrow too, won’t we? We’ll do that tomorrow.”
She was the one who started talking about tomorrow. We left it for tomorrow. We called it “hayenggi yum”. We made a few more—those too became hayenggi yum. Those houses were so amazingly beautiful. We thought about the ones we broke. We would have so many if we still had those! And it would be so beautiful! For the first time I felt the contentment of creating—of tomorrow. But I didn’t know the future of our sand castles.
She dressed up as Radha one full moon. Stood before everyone in the posture of a dance mudra wearing a potloi. I felt really bad looking at her. Burdened with jewellery—the coil of her hair, her neck, her arms. She was bound in the potloi. Her movement was slow, weak, almost still.
I asked Ima, “Ima, isn’t it hard for Nungshitombi?”
“Why would it be hard? What’s so hard about dancing? When you play all day does that seem hard? Look how pretty she looks!”
Pretty! That’s pretty? It didn’t convince me. No matter how pretty it looks, I would never wear a potloi. I would never wear it. I was sure it was hurting her. I was certain it was hurting Nungshitombi.
“Ima, will she wear a potloi tomorrow too?”
“No, she won’t. She won’t wear it once the dance is over.”
“She won’t wear it ever again?”
“She’ll wear it once more, sure, when she gets married.”
When she gets married! My sister wore a potloi too when she got married. Then she left us. I was really upset that day.
I asked the next morning, “Nungshitombi, did it feel good dancing? Didn’t it feel bad wearing a potloi?”
She didn’t say anything. I kept asking her again and again.
“Tell me, did it hurt? Did you feel good? You didn’t, na? It felt bad, na Nungshitombi? You don’t like walking so slowly at all, do you? You don’t like that at all, do you?”
She didn’t say anything at all.
“Let’s race,” I pulled her hand. “You’ll start running first. It will end when you touch the ground. You’re the one who’ll win. Just run really fast, okay?”
She didn’t agree. She just hung her head low and walked away in silence. Then I broke all the sand castles. Our houses of tomorrow, our “hayenggi yum’s”. In anger.
Ima said, “Can boys and girls ever play together!”