The long wail of the siren blasts across the early morning air , waking up the inhabitants of the oil town. Including me.
It is Sunday today.
The steady creak of the wooden planks , aged with time and footsteps, announce Ma's footsteps to the kitchen, where she would be making " bed tea" for us.
We never have it in bed, but she insists on calling it bed-tea.
The creaks sound heavier. It is my father, getting ready for work.
Well, it's a holiday but my father always make his regular rounds to the refinery on a Sunday. Much to Ma's irritation at times. Ma would rather go to the nearby Tingri Sunday Market for vegetables, and the occasional poultry.
I can hear Ma calling out to my father for his tea, my father walking up to my bedside, can feel his lips on my forehead as he kisses me goodbye.
For some strange reason, I still keep my eyes firmly shut. It's Sunday after all.
And I like dreaming anyways. Dreaming about fantasy lands and travel and magic and miracles. I always have magical powers in my dreams.
The domestic sounds increase in intensity. My father revving up our old family Amby, the sound of the car backing up and driving off, Kamla the maid making beds, the rustle of the jalpai plant outside my room....
Breakfast is the usual puri and potato curry, with omelettes. Ma asks Kamla to keep father's portion aside , warming up on the iron stove.
The iron stove is one of the many remnants and reminicenses of the British watermarked oiltown of Digboi. A dot in the north eastern tip of Assam. My home.
I can see Ma absentmindedly playing with her food on the table and ask her what's up.
"Just thinking of all the question papers I have to set today for the second terms," she replies. Ma is a language teacher in Carmel School. She teaches my class too. Class VIII.
I know when to stay out of Ma's way when she uses her firm voice. So I take my Enid Blyton , walk down the wooden stairway to the garden and sit under the old deodar tree. It's my favourite spot.
Where I can be unseen but can hear Ma calling out to me. Or hear my father drive up the driveway. Or my sister running around with Bimal, Kamla's son.
Time stands still. And flies at the same time, sometimes. The heat of the afternoon sun overhead tells me it's lunchtime. And Ma would be making her special mutton curry with potatoes.
The thought of it makes me hungry. I peer out towards the house, trying to catch a glimpse of Ma. Or the car. No sign of either.
Ma must be busy making Kamla clean the house. Sunday is also a thorough dusting, polishing day for Kamla.
The sudden call from Ma shakes me out of my usual reverie. And something in her voice tells me it's not a call for lunch.
"Your father is very late. And he hasn't called as well. I have been trying his phone number since the last two hours. Go and try Sharma uncle's number."
I wonder why Ma sounds so worried. Father is late at times. Well never this late, I must admit. Sundays are just a one hour visit.
I spend the next one hour making calls to every number in the refinery, asking for my father. Noone has seen him.
Ma is trying to concentrate on her papers, but I can see her worry.
Her sharp voice, calling out to Kamla or my sister, is tinged with a shaky nervousness.
Finally she can wait no more. She looks at me, hoping I nod a yes as I furiously dial another number. All I can manage as I look at her is a shake of head.
Ma quickly changes her saree, grabs her bag and walks down the driveway, me in her wake.
"I am going to the Singh's garage. Your father had mentioned that the car is giving trouble- think he is there. You stay near the phone, in case he calls."
I nod. Dumb. Not knowing what to say. I want to go with her. It's a long walk down the winding road down the hillock and a longer walk to the nearest rickshaw stand near the railway station. Everyone drove their own cars in the oiltown.
As I turn back to go inside, I feel Ma's hand on my shoulder. She gives me a quick kiss and says," Don't worry. Father is fine."
I nod again. I seem to have lost the art of conversation today.
Time crawls now. Every second is an eternity. No phonecall. I can hear the phone in his office cabin ring almost angrily, trying to tell me that there is noone around. I still keep trying. Keep whirring the numbers- 3369.
I hear a rickshaw bell and run outside. Ma pays the rickshaw wallah and looks at me, with hope." Is father back?"
I was about to ask her the same question. We look at each other in silence.
For the first time, Ma dials the numbers she knows she has to. For help. Silent tears flow freely down her face.
I stare at her. Stare at my sister, bawling away in Kamla's lap.
It is late evening. Our house is teeming with people.
Uncles. Aunties. The Police Inspector. The Oiltown Security officer. My maternal uncle from the neighbouring township, Duliajan.
Phone ringing incessantly.
Ma talking loudly, recounting how father had left normally for his morning visit. For the hundredth time.
Small circles being formed on our verandah, as the senior uncles, the senior officers discuss the best ways to search.
More phonecalls. Kamla serving tea on trays. With biscuits that remain untouched.
I am lost in the sea of people. I don't want anyone to see me.
I slip out into the darkness. To my comfort seat under the deodar tree. My fear of snakes and rats quelled temporarily by a greater fear. One that is biting me, clawing me in a tight grip.
I wish I could slip into my usual dreams. Where magic and miracles rule and I have magical powers. Today the dreams seem to evade me. And I am a powerless little girl
I look at the last car finally driving out. Hear Ma calling me out. Her voice now laced with fear.
As I walk back into the house, the home where I grew up, surrounded by father's love and ma's care, I know that things would never be the same again.
This was Sunday. September 9th, 1984.
The day we lost our father. He never came back.
And with that day, our lives changed forever.