Everyone knew her as Laati. Growing up, I always thought that was her name, as in her proper name. It was only when I started to actually understand the meaning of the word “laati” in Nepali that I realised it was a term for her inability to speak. Laati in Nepali meant someone who was dumb, both literally and figuratively. As I started to learn the language both spoken at home and taught in school I realised this word was applied to girls and women who acted stupid, were stupid or were just plain dumb. Laata was the male counterpart for Laati. Laati was not a very nice word though; it could be flung as an insult, it could be used to rebuke thoughtless girls, it was also sometimes used as a term of endearment mostly by men for women, but that never really made sense to me.
Laati was this woman who used to live with and work for a kindly neighbour who took care of her food and shelter for whom she did odd jobs around the house. Her speciality was caring for the cattle, fetching fodder and looking after their upkeep. I do not remember ever wanting to enquire about Laati’s age, or her past, or her story. I never really thought someone like her could have a story. Now, in hindsight, I wonder why I never even tried to give her the benefit of doubt. Laati was thus just Laati, a simpleton who looked perfectly simple and was treated likewise by those around her.
Laati was short and squat with a round Mongoloid face set on square shoulders, set on an oddly square body. Her toes were kind of humongous though, spread across her wide feet. She would always wear a short lungi, a wrapper of sorts that reached only halfway down her legs, exposing her knotty calves and cracked heels in a rather unappetising way. She wore blouses atop her lungi, from which one could see safety pins hang. Nestled in the safety of her breasts would be her packet of chewable tobacco, her supari, maybe some money, and whatnot! This convention of women carrying stuff in their blouses amused and intrigued me. I wondered why women had to do that—store stuff in their blouses as if their bosoms weren’t struggling hard enough to fit decently into them. And then I realised their lungis didn’t have pockets like the trousers men wore. How I wish lungis came with pockets now, so women too could enjoy convenience clothing like men.
So Laati used to come to our house every afternoon to collect food for the cow and to meet and greet my grandmother and aunt. During her visits, she used to converse with my aunt and granny with grunts, elaborate hand gestures, exaggerated expressions punctuated by some really laboured breathing. It was quite a scene really, and quite amusing to watch her “speak” that way. The gruntings were modulated into long and short ones, deep throaty ones, phlegmy ones, high-pitched ones, accompanied by the twitching of her facial muscles, the intentional pointing of her lips, the screwing up of her eyebrows. It was such a wonder to watch Laati communicate, and the best part was my granny and aunt used to understand her!
Conversation was truly an art for Laati. I, for one, could not salvage any meaning from Laati’s grunts and gestures. Her way of communication was an art in itself, albeit an art that lived by Laati’s own rules. Out of curiosity, I would ask to be handed out snippets of the conversation Laati would be making and boy would I be surprised at the contents! From what I could gather, Laati seemed to know what people did and where they went and why they did so, down to the very last detail. She had so much information within her and her accounts were not just concocted, but true! She was a keen observer of people and manners and seasons and family affairs. I was quite confounded by the wealth of information and knowledge she had about people, places and things. This was the kind of information perhaps even those of us who were “normal” could never glean.
Laati was our daily dose of neighbourhood news, our daily dose of sparkling conversation one could only make with her. And in many ways she was our daily dose of fun and even joy. From what I had learned from my grandmother, Laati had been taken in kindly by this aunt in our village who took care of her. However, life hadn’t been exactly kind to her. It was even said that she had been raped by some man. These things happened to most women, but more so to women like Laati, our aunts said. They even spoke of some home for disabled women like Laati in Relli Road where one could get to hear of horrible stories of rape and molestations committed on hapless women who could not speak of their horrors. Many had even borne children whom no one would come forward to own or acknowledge. Thinking of these women and their horrible fate sent shivers down my spine and made my blood boil. I could not conceive of such cruelty done to women who could not even articulate their pain, or simply say that they had been wronged.
I had also heard Laati had birthed a stillborn child. My mother told me about how she used to make frequent trips to the graveyard where her child lay buried and mourned her loss in solitude and silence. I pictured her kneeling on the mound of earth already covered by vegetation—no one would even notice it housed a precious life that could have been—and wrestling with a pain that could not be put into words. Grieving, reminiscing, wailing, choking … in a language no one could comprehend.
This knowledge became such a burden for me, it made me rage, it broke my heart. Seeing that I was so upset, my aunt said these things happened to most women all the time. It was just that nobody spoke out about them. And then, just like that, nobody remembered. In Laati’s case, she could not even speak out, even if she had wanted to.
I wondered how Laati could still manage to smile, to make conversation, to make us smile even after the ordeals I had heard she had gone through. I was completely overwhelmed by her resilience and her radiance, her zest for life. I wish I’d taken more time to get to know Laati. I too had somehow accepted the adjective laati to stand in for her proper name. I too had fallen prey to the complacency that everyone around me had adopted as a way of life. When I left home for college, I no longer got to meet Laati, I no longer remembered her. I was too caught in my own happy-go-lucky bubble, not knowing I was never really the centre of my universe.
When news came in that Laati had passed away, I was home for the holidays. I didn’t go for the funeral. My grandmother and aunt went to pay their last respects. They told me there were more people at the funeral than they had expected. They told me Laati was laid up in a wooden coffin, wearing white, looking peaceful and rested. I couldn’t help wonder if the man who had wronged her had come to the funeral too. Whether he had breathed a sigh of relief now that she was dead and gone; or whether he knew his guilt would haunt him forever.
I always associated Laati with this perpetual victimhood, which I now regret. Laati was not a victim, neither was she in any way pitiable or awkward. She was one of a kind, really. She had a great work ethic, she did her job right, she hardly failed to show up at our house to collect what she needed for the animals in her care. She carried her own stock of tobacco and never spread her palms out in expectation as I had seen many other men doing. (Yes, some men wait for other men to rub their tobacco and lime together and hand it over to them to tuck into their mouths!)
Most importantly, Laati was a skilled conversationalist. A keen observer of life and living, of human behaviour and mannerisms, of the fickleness of those self-righteous people who deemed themselves worthy enough to condescend upon her. She was a gifted critic, a lover of life, and that is how I like to remember her now. Laati the sparkling conversationalist, Laati who taught me so much about the façade that we call social responsibility, Laati who taught me how wrong I had been to assume my world was perfect. Now, I worry I don’t even have a world I can claim, almost everyone believes it’s a man’s world. Everyone except Laati. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say she answered to no man. She didn’t speak in any “man-made” language, she spoke in her own language, and on her own terms. And although Laati never ever said a word to me, it is her voice that I hear all the time. Telling me it will be well, convincing me this is our world too, nudging me out of my own silence, daring me to speak as she did, not in the language of men, but in the language of the heart, the soul, the mind, and the body.
I wish I knew your name, dear Laati.
You were hardly ever what they called you, but so much more.
About the Author
Abrona Lee Pandi Aden is from Kalimpong in West Bengal, India. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Sikkim University (Gangtok, Sikkim), where she has been teaching for the past seven years. Her research interest, broadly speaking, is the politics surrounding representation of gender in Literatures in English and regional literature in English translation.