Video: Bikash Dihingia reads a section of “A Wagtail’s Song” in the original Assamese.
Do we find every answer we seek?
Is life all about solving questions without answers, or finding questions for the answers we already have? The beauty of a garden is said to fade once the wilting flowers are plucked out. Is this what happens to the pleasures of life when we bury the past in favor of the present?
Closing both my diary and my eyes, I leaned back in my chair. The ceiling fan whirred overhead with a faint melody. My desk lamp gazed down at the diary as though trying to read its pages. The only other light came from a low-watt blue bulb, and from a cluster of fireflies that had flown in through the open window, adding their glow to the tiny room.
My exams were coming up, the pressure rising day by day.
School in the mornings. Private classes in the evenings. Homework at night. After dinner, I would study until about one or two a.m., then wake up at six sharp the next day to tackle the same routine. My only personal time came in a few moments around midnight. Every night, after the clock struck twelve, I took out my diary and poured into its pages all the thoughts that had been badgering me during the day.
I owned those minutes. They were mine alone. Even though I never let a day go by without opening my diary, I wasn’t always able to find something to put in it. I was often seized by despair and emptiness, by messy thoughts and unhappy images, when I sat down to write.
At times like this I yearned for a cigarette, so that I could release all my troubling thoughts with the smoke, but I couldn’t summon the mental strength to light one. I wanted to bawl my heart out too, but I couldn’t do that either.
I was a boy, you see, and boys didn’t cry.
I was a good boy, and good boys avoided bad habits and rude language.
I was a model boy, in fact—and model boys respected their elders and heeded their parents.
“There’s another you within you. A you chained up inside your mind. That is the you I see and feel.”
The Silkori was flowing quietly in front of us. Wagtails were prancing around on the grassy bank, dancing and burying their noses in the sand. We were sitting together in silence that afternoon beneath the hollong trees, watching the water flow past. That was when he had spoken up, interrupting the stillness.
For the longest time, his words kept ringing in my ears.
Another me within?
What a strange claim! How was it possible that there was another me buried within? And how could someone else feel his presence even before I could?
I knew he had far greater knowledge and a better understanding of things than I did. I was not as worldly. I had never learned to be, nor had I found ways to seek such experience.
The wagtails looked on as he laid his head on my lap and closed his eyes, his nostrils flaring with every breath.
Emotions never felt before awakened in my heart.
“I will have to go away after the annual exams,” I whispered hesitantly to him—my best friend, Surya Deep—running my fingers through his hair.
In a flash, he grabbed my hand and placed it over his chest.
“Where?” he asked, looking up at me from my lap.
His heartbeats traveled through my palm, becoming one with my own pounding heart. I couldn’t understand what his eyes wanted to tell me then. I didn’t realize what he had said without speaking.
“My father has been transferred to Guwahati,” I answered. I couldn’t keep looking at him. I saw him tearing up. It was as if he wanted those tears to lead him to me—so that he could swim across the salty stream into my eyes and travel downward to make his home in a corner of my heart.
Lost in his eyes, I became a stranger to myself as I uttered those words—all because of that unfamiliar sensation stirring within.
A boat suddenly came into view near the opposite bank of the Silkori. Someone was out fishing in the river.
How badly I wanted to embrace Surya, but how could I? Boys weren’t supposed to hug boys. Boys weren’t supposed to be attracted to boys either. I recoiled from myself in fear.
Was I not a boy then? The other me he was talking about—was he like our classmate Pallav?
Pallav had been bullied by everyone in our class. The boys taunted him for his effeminacy, calling him Maiki and Leddis—“female”—and Pallavi, the feminine form of his name. It was no surprise that he preferred the company of the girls, though he often burst into tears around them, too.
I am not like him at all. I am normal, just like every other boy, there is no other me hiding within, I assured myself.
Back then, almost all our classmates and teachers knew how close Surya and I were. If one was absent, the other would mope.
Ours was a higher secondary school with many students, so, our class was divided into three sections. Surya was in Section C at first, but that year, the teachers transferred him to mine, Section B. I barely knew him before that. He had been no more than another classmate, our interactions limited to saying hello to each other, to thumps on the back while passing each other in the hallway.
One day, I left class to get a drink of water. It was the science period for Section C. Surya was absent-mindedly staring out the window. Walking past him, I noticed he had a smaller book concealed within his science textbook. Feeling a pair of eyes on him, Surya scrambled to hide the book. He must have thought a teacher had spotted him. When he saw me, however, he abandoned his efforts and, squinting at me, covered his mouth to stifle his giggles.
I felt an odd sort of joy.
What was the book? I wondered. Why had he chosen to read it instead of paying attention to his lessons?
How desperate I was to talk to him.
Did his parents love him the way my parents loved me, I wanted to ask him. Did they too make him kneel in the courtyard for hiding other books inside his textbooks? Did he lie about things? Did he know how to swim? All these questions, and many more.
It didn’t take long for us to become best friends after his transfer to Section B. We often jumped over the school wall during recess in those days to sneak off to the riverbank. Sitting by the coolly flowing Silkori, he would tell me stories from all the books he had read, while I coached him on the things he was unable to understand in class. He taught me how to sky-gaze, climb trees, and float in the river, while I . . .
Actually, I couldn’t teach him anything meaningful.
“I don’t miss home when I’m with you,” he would often tell me before parting.
Away from the monotonous life my parents had forced upon me, Surya Deep opened up a wide new world to me. When I was with him I forgot all my parents’ warnings and rules, the way they worried about me. Even my memories of canings faded.
Unfortunately, the two of us were caught one day. Our principal called up our parents and made a point of telling us off in front of the entire school. Grief clouded my father’s eyes. I wanted to cry my heart out, but no matter how agonizing it was, I couldn’t let myself break down. I remembered how everyone had teased Pallav.
“Oi, are you a maiki? Crying over the smallest things! Can’t we have a little fun with you? Leddis, salla!”
No, I could not let myself break down.
Away from prying eyes, I felt Surya squeezing my hand.
When we returned home, my mother made me kneel in the courtyard. I did as I was told without a word of protest.
“What has come over you?” she kept asking me. “Why did you go to the river with that boy? Didn’t you stop to think what would become of us if something happened to you?”
I had no answers. I remained kneeling with my head bent, staring at the ground as I counted the strokes of the cane on my back. Surprisingly, I felt no tears welling up. Perhaps I had already become as impervious as a stone.
My parents brought me up with a great deal of love, but also with an extremely firm hand. My father had given my mother free rein to discipline me however she saw fit. My grandparents and other relatives were strictly forbidden from interfering in the matter, for such attempts had always led to arguments in the household.
The years went by and I grew older, but my parents continued treating me like a child. They still dictated all my likes and dislikes. Every day they reminded me of the sacrifices and hardships they had endured for my sake. Against every dream of mine they pitted at least a dozen things they had been forced to give up on my account. I had learned by now that I was nothing more than the fruit of their labor. The sole aim of my existence was to realize their unfulfilled dreams.
“There’s another you within you.” Surya’s words echoed in my head.
That afternoon, we had made our first and last visit to the river after getting caught. Our annual examinations were looming; they were barely a week away.
I was furious with him. Perhaps because he wanted to introduce me to the one I had kept hidden. The side of me I wasn’t yet ready to meet.
“I never want to talk to you again,” I told him. Then I walked back home without looking back.
We were so young then. We were the same age, but Surya knew more of the world. He was far better with feelings too. His mind was freer, more open than mine. I had always envied him for this, even if unconsciously.
But the envy turned into fury that afternoon. After all, he had discovered my hidden self before I had. I could have anticipated it. But Surya, like his name, was the sun itself. A shining star unable to conceal his light.
“Who are you running from, me or yourself?” he had cried out, watching me walk away.
My anger grew even more, engulfing me.
Guwahati wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar place. I had accompanied my mother to this concrete jungle many times during the holidays to visit her brother—my maama—who lived in the city with his family. When my father chose to take a transfer to Guwahati from Bokulbari, it was my maama who helped our family buy a small piece of land in the city. The construction of our new home began immediately afterwards.
Oh, to think of the many dreams I had to leave behind in Bokulbari! Plans for a long stay at my dear friend’s home after our examinations, plans to go around the neighborhood during Bihu singing together, plans to look for baby parrots in the forest on the opposite bank of the Silkori . . .
But my parents had already made up their minds.
Ma had never liked living in Bokulbari. I knew this well enough. The conservative society in the village had kept my progressive mother from dressing and behaving the way she wanted. She had borne it all for the sake of my father, who dearly loved the place where he had been born and brought up.
But, deeply concerned about my education, Ma had often made sharp remarks to my father during our final days in Bokulbari.
“He has to get into a good school before his matriculation examinations. Here he will only slip out of control . . .”
Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t any “good school” nearby which could meet my mother’s expectations.
Then there were my maama’s calls, adding to the pressure.
“He will have to take his matric exams in two years! How will he get good marks if he stays put in that village of yours? Send him to us. We’ll get him admitted here, and—”
But there was no question of my mother letting me live on my own. And as for my father . . .
At last, after much deliberation, the decision was made. My father set about making arrangements for his transfer, proving once again how much he loved me.
For the sake of my future alone, he left his home in Bokulbari to settle elsewhere. The list of everything my parents had forsaken for me had now grown heavier.
The new chapter of my life in the glitzy city began as I started in class nine at an expensive and reputed Guwahati school.
How odd, how peculiar city life was.
My classmates welcomed me by teasing me and calling me a gaonliya—a country bumpkin. They also taught me how to swear. I learned a new curse every day.
“Oi! Stay away from Xopun. He is gay.” Two of my new classmates-cum-self-proclaimed-well-wishers told me once. Still immersed in my past, I wasn’t yet spending time with anyone new. Xopun had merely tried to be friendly.
“Gay? What does that mean?”
The boys burst out laughing. I had sealed my own reputation as a gaonliya.
“It means he likes boys!”
Their explanation gave me goosebumps. The afternoons spent with Surya by the river began spinning around in my head.
But I wasn’t ready to be another Xopun, to be teased or bullied or made a laughingstock. So I imitated the other boys.
I grew more and more wayward by the day. I abused substances I never intended to touch. Devoured films I never intended to watch. I was drawn to every forbidden thing. I was forcing myself to become like my classmates, while still trying to be the son my parents wanted.
It was all so tiring at times. Lonely too. I missed Surya constantly, longing to leave everything behind and sit beside him by the river.
It had taken me too long to realize that he was the only one who truly knew me. That day on the riverbank, he had been trying to help me prepare for war. A war I hadn’t seen coming at the time.
I slowly tried to do away with my memories of him after leaving Bokulbari.
I never went back to our old home after moving away. I fell in love several times in those days (or pretended to?). I did everything I could. I relished the forbidden joys of youth, and yet, I never felt happy. Not truly.
Even during the most intimate moments with my lovers, Surya’s flared nostrils kept flashing before my eyes. The soft curves of a girl against my ribs only reminded me of the way Surya’s chest heaved with every breath. My relationships never lasted. My lovers always left me.
I couldn’t find anyone else to share the restlessness inside me. It wasn’t like I didn’t try, but there was hardly anything more I could do without risking my reputation and becoming the butt of everyone’s jokes. What I wanted most of all was to lead a normal life.
In trying to find someone who understood me, someone who could fill my heart with light, I faced one disappointment after the other. I was desperate to meet Surya. I missed him so much.
Him. Bokulbari. The Silkori. The prancing wagtails.
The more I tried to forget them all, the stronger the memories became over time.
I even tried to stalk him on social media, but he was nowhere to be found.
“Is he even alive?”
A hidden desire to be reunited with him kept all such thoughts at bay. How is he, I wanted to know, how does he spend his days without me?
And yet, I was hesitant to ask any of my acquaintances about Surya. (My attempt, I suppose, at what they call sulking.)
Does he not think of me at all, I wondered?
I busied myself working to fulfill my parents’ dreams. After all, they had sacrificed everything for me. I was the only one they loved; this was why I didn’t even have siblings.
To calm down, I started writing in my diary. By now, I was aware that I had begun harboring resentment toward my parents. I no longer loved them as much as I was supposed to. Yet, I couldn’t deny that they had my best interests at heart. They were only tough on me because they loved me.
“I have grown up, Ma.” I often wanted to scream. “I know the difference between good and bad. I know which paths to take and which to avoid. Let me breathe freely, Deuta. Let me think for myself. Let me choose!”
My screams remained black letters scribbled across the diary’s pages.
“Ma, I am only straying further, you know? Deuta, I no longer feel attached to the two of you. I know this is a bad thing, but I just can’t seem to love you anymore, no matter how hard I try. And yet, I cannot protest—you gave birth to me. Gave up so much for my sake! I have to do my part and give back. I have to return what I owe you. I cannot upset you at any cost.”
The lock screen of my phone lit up, accompanied by a slight vibration.
Surya Deep sent you a friend request.
The words shook me to the core. Thump-thump-thump . . . my heart was hammering away.
I clicked through to his profile. A nameless hope had walked into my life after such a long time, filling me with happiness. I could barely wait to see my dear friend for the first time after five long years.
But his page rekindled all my indecision. The sight of him in his profile picture, smiling next to a girl, triggered a pang in my heart.
This was the kind of feeling that had kept me from loving myself, kept me from being comfortable with who I was.
Now I could feel something stopping me from accepting the request.
Why? Why did this keep happening to me? Why did these feelings I was so desperate to deny keep forcing me to be attracted to Surya?
Was this what they called love?
I sat up in shock.
No, I couldn’t let this happen. My parents would lose face. What would my classmates say? And the girls who had left me? I did not want to be a rumor. I did not want to be a topic of ridicule and gossip.
I shut the window, closed my diary, and turned off the light. At last, I fell back on my bed.
“That is the you I know and feel.” A young Surya’s voice reverberated in my ears.
The Silkori looked swollen. Rows of crepe-myrtle blossoms stood swaying on its banks as Surya held me in his arms beneath the hollong trees. One of the dancing wagtails came to perch upon his shoulder. Our breaths mingled. His sweaty nose brushed against my nostrils. A boat made its way to us across the Silkori. With a smile, Surya took the hand of the girl who had rowed up on the boat. Crepe-myrtle petals filled the river. I kept looking at the two of them from under the tree. The river flowed on as I stood and stared. They went down the purple water, eventually disappearing in the distance.
A vacuum engulfed my heart. The wagtail came to sit on my shoulder. A scream rose in my chest.
At that moment, I awoke with a shudder. I now had even more questions for Surya, the one who had haunted my dreams until sunrise.
Did he too yearn for me as I did for him?
How was he? Where had he been all these years? Did he ever think of me in the days we were apart?
My phone buzzed the moment I turned it on.
You have a new message.
The message was from Surya.
Why do leaves fall in the autumn?
Why do partings bring sorrow?
Why do the banks stand still while the river moves?
Once again I had no answers, only a hundred questions wriggling in my head. My pride evaporated. I began typing a reply.
By now, the sun had emerged smiling, disturbing the sleep of the concrete jungle.
I stood up and opened the window toward the east. A million rays of sun, of Surya, rushed in to caress my face.
© Bikash Dihingia. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2022 by Hiya Harsita. All rights reserved. Developed through the Write Assamese project, a collaboration between Untold and BEE Books, supported by the British Council and KfW Stiftung. This story will appear in the anthology A Fistful of Moonlight: Stories from Assam, forthcoming in 2023 from BEE Books in India and MacLehose Press in the UK.