A fistful of chamomileBoju accepted my flowers, lovingly took me in her arms, smiled and said, “Nati…my dear nati. You are my favourite person in the whole wide world.”
Nissim Raj Angdembay
Boju looked at the clock once again with mechanical tediousness, slightly agitated, with her forehead creased like an ancient origami. She sat down by the window next to the veranda, clasping a porcelain cup my late grandfather had brought from Paradesh. She had finished her tea long ago, before her current perplexing uneasiness, yet she held onto the cup with tenacious optimism. “Ama, do you want more tea?” my mother asked. My grandmother shook her head. “If I drink too much tea, I’ll get gastritis,” she said. For now, the dusty roads of our little village are an audience to her unanswered longing.
Boju is no stranger to those empty roads snaking around the fields of Madhesh. Although a daughter of the nameless hills that characterise much of eastern Nepal, her family emigrated South for better opportunities. The great earthquake of Nepal was already a distant memory by the time she called those flat rolling plains her new home, and it was only recently that the King of Nepal decreed the right to own any undeveloped land they wanted, as long as they cleared out the timber from the sal forest that dotted much of Madhesh then.
Sharp like the khukuri that he wielded underneath his neatly-pressed daura suruwal, Boju’s father claimed vast swathes of land and effectively became a local zamindar. Through his diplomacy and a stroke of luck, he arranged Boju’s marriage to my grandfather, who hailed from the other end of eastern Nepal. The arranged marriage bore her twelve children; all but half survived past infancy.
“Boju, look what I have in my hands!” I said, clasping some wisps of chamomile from the nearby garden. The garden was lush with colourful chamomile, planted a few months ago as Spring sprung up after the biting frosts of February. “Nati…” she looked at me dotingly before she was interrupted by my mother, who hurriedly ran up to reprimand me for my mischief. “Chhora! Why did you pluck the flowers, you badmash!” she said, twisting my ears a little. “Buhari…” Boju interrupted her in my defence. “It’s just a few flowers. Besides, the amount he plucked hardly makes any difference to how much we can sell in the market.”
“Boju, what are the flowers for?” I asked inquisitively.
“They’re medicine,” my Boju replied. “The big people in Paradesh have been buying it to drink as tea, or so I heard. We sell them.”
“Yuck! Flowers as tea?!” I exclaimed, surprised and a bit repelled by the idea of someone mistaking flowers for a drink. “Yes, nati,” my Boju said, “it heals your body, they say.”
Our conversation was interrupted when I saw a figure walking in the far background of those dusty roads. It looked like my father, and I excitedly announced, “Look! Look! Papa is returning home!” papa was a loving father who always brought toys and such whenever he returned home. From afar, I could spot that this time was no different, in his hands, I could make out a silhouette of something sharp and rectangular. Boju, upon hearing my excited shouts, placed her cup down and stood up to look at the figure walking towards her along those dusty roads.
Boju furrowed her eyebrows slightly but relaxed them immediately afterwards. She motioned to her walking stick and wrapped a Dhaka blanket loosely around her. I sprinted ahead of her to welcome papa, wondering what he brought along with him this time. Upon hearing the commotion, my aunt and mother also hurriedly put on some slippers and moved towards the gate. Perhaps, they were curious about the new toy as well.
My father finally arrived after a few minutes, and I excitedly asked him to show me what he had on his hands. He glanced at me, at first with a bothered look, and then smiled dully. “Chhora”, he said. “I don’t have anything for you today. This thing…,” he propped the rectangular thing against his figure, “…it’s adult stuff. You should go and play! Tomorrow, I’ll get you something really nice.” My inner child was disappointed. Why didn’t papa bring me something today? I wondered.
Dinner time was something I always looked forward to. We had a large and sturdy sal table where we all gathered together to enjoy whatever my aunt or my mother had cooked for that day. Until a few years back, my Boju would insist on doing all the cooking, but now she was too old and too weak to do much. Sometime in the evening, I did hear a rooster cackle sharply, perhaps because papa was not as nimble with his khukuri, so I knew that we were having chicken tonight.
“Chhora! Come for dinner!” my mother shouted. I ran to the dinner table where the whole family was seated, this time, the atmosphere was a little more opaque than usual. My uncle, who would normally have a shot of local raksi with his meal, had nothing but a tall glass of water. Papa, my mother and my aunt all looked a little tense, so I interjected to lighten up the mood. “Boju!” I said. “Papa said he will get me something nice tomorrow. Do you think he’ll get that toy car I’ve always wanted?”
“Chhora”, my mother replied. “Don’t bother your old Boju. Let her rest.”
I was confused. Was something wrong?
Papa looked at me and opened his mouth slightly as if to speak. But he said nothing. After a while, he hesitatingly spoke, “Chhora, your Boju has cancer.”
I did not understand what “cancer” was, nor did I understand the severity of it. I listened to the quiet, dignified conversation for a brief while, but as it was all “adult talk”, I lost interest and focused on my food instead. The chicken curry today was especially well cooked, and I had just received two big boneless chunks of meat to go with my rice. I wondered if Boju had prepared today’s dish.
That night, I was awoken by the sound of an engine. I could make out the dim lanterns from the door gap as I heard hurried footsteps. There was a mysterious buzzing and a quiet sobbing coming across the room. As I started to make my way to the door, the omnipresent humming of the engine started to grow quieter gradually till it died, and I could only hear the quiet sobbing of my aunt and my mother.
I got out of my room and went outside to look for papa. The sooty lanterns appeared freshly lit, and the smell of exhaust fumes and diesel filled the air. I found my mother and my aunt sobbing together next to the chamomile garden. “Mamu, where is papa?” I asked my mother. My mother’s eyes were red and could not say much before my aunt weakly responded, “Bhada, papa is with Boju. Your uncle and your papa are taking Boju to the health post.” “Oh, what happened to Boju?” I asked, a little worried. “She suddenly felt very sick…but don’t you worry!” my aunt said courageously, wiping away her tears. “You shouldn’t be awake at this time! Go sleep!” she said, deflecting from her own worries. My aunt picked me up and took me to my room, and left. I fell asleep soon after.
When I woke up the next day, I heard Boju’s familiar voice coming from the courtyard. I hurriedly went up to her, where she was surrounded by papa, Mamu, my aunts and my uncles. She looked frail and tired more than usual. Her Dhaka blanket was wrapped too tightly around her. Everyone looked gravely worried except for Boju. Papa was holding the rectangular thing he had with him yesterday and was reading off of it. “Blood…not good…sugar…okay…,” papa droned on and on.
Knowing Boju was sick, I rushed to the garden and grabbed as many of the chamomile flowers as I could.
My mother, who was watching me, yelled, “This badmash! What did I tell you? Don’t touch the flowers!” She was about to twist my ears once again, but I managed to rush up to Boju with a fistful of chamomile. “Boju!” I said excitedly, handing her the flowers. “You should make this into tea, and you will be alright again!”
Everyone fell silent. Boju accepted my flowers, lovingly took me in her arms, smiled and said, “Nati…my dear nati…” I was happy that my plan worked. “You are my favourite person in the whole wide world.”
I hugged Boju as she stroked my head and placed some of the flowers on my hair. The conversation between adults continued after a while, and I found myself once again falling asleep in her arms. The air was warm and gentle. For now, everything was going to be alright.