Bhabendra Nath Saikia
Translated from Axamiya by Rashmi Narzary
Photo : Nitoo Das
The kind of excitement that overpowers a fisherman when a harmless water-snake catches his bait, that sort of an excitement ran through Ambika when she came face to face with Kalidas. Undesired, unpalatable, fearsome, yet a venom-less snake. Despite anger and frustration, some fun could yet be had by tugging and pulling at the thread of the fishing rod and at the same time, getting anxious at the thought of disengaging the snake from the fishing-hook.
Immediately upon stepping onto the wide, asphalt road after having come along the pebbled path, Ambika took a look at the faraway market. Then she moved forward for a distance in deep thought. Just then Kalidas called, ‘Why! Isn’t it Ambika? Whoa! And these are pigeons, eh! Where did you get these? Where are you taking them?’
Ambika got the impression that Kalidas was following her and at the last stretch he took the narrow, winding path through the undergrowth of shrubs and bushes to cut short his way. Otherwise how would he appear there so suddenly from nowhere?
‘So? Where did you get the pigeons from? You don’t even rear pigeons at home!’ making query after query, Kalidas started walking along with Ambika.
Ambika was getting exasperated explaining about these pigeons since yesterday. She was coming from Jagannath’s place. Since quite a few days, Jagannath’s relations with his home were almost non-existent and it wasn’t even sure when this relation would be restored. For he was occupied in the meeting. It was the work of arranging for a huge public assembly. Several days earlier he had gone and given rice husk to be pounded, de-husked and cleaned at the mill but he hadn’t had time to go and collect it. On the other hand, at home there was no rice. So Jagannath’s wife called for Ambika to pound a few baskets of rice at the dheki at home. The whole of the day before yesterday and the first half of yesterday, she worked at the dheki and having done the pounding, she was returning with some rice in the basket, covered with a bamboo platter. It was around that time at the field far away that work on the great public assembly began. Ambika could make out a few persons perched atop the marquee that was built to stand higher than the heads of the people. She had been hearing about this meeting for quite some time now but in comparison to all that, she didn’t feel that the field was crowded by enough people. However, the actual meeting was in the evening. Then maybe a lot more people would gather.
Another thing, when sitting near the dheki and boasting about her husband, Jagannath’s wife had said that initially, people from every village of this mouza were to come to this meeting. However, disagreeing over some issue, about ten villages on the other side of the railway tracks, including Chandrapur, split away. It seemed those villages too had organized a separate meeting in the field at Chandrapur. But Jagannath told his wife with conviction that being situated right at the edge of the town, it was to this meeting that more people would come. Pondering over these things and looking at the meeting at the distance, she moved ahead. Just then, sounds of the drum, the cymbals, conch, urooli and the clapping of hands fell upon her ears. Stopping in her tracks, Ambika stood staring towards the meeting. And she saw that from among the people atop the marquee, a large number of birds took flight towards the open skies. Now where could the birds have flown from?
Ambika’s gaze abandoned the people in the marquee and started to follow the birds. Bewildered by the sounds of the drum and the cymbals, the birds momentarily started flying haphazardly. The clapping of hands and the loud applause from the people made them change the direction of their flight every now and then. And at one point of time, a part of them gave up hovering above people’s heads and came away towards the village. They flew this way and that for a while and then started flying towards Ambika. They even flew down. Ambika noticed they were pigeons. Even as she watched, they flew lower and lower and at one time, one of them flew down and landed on a bamboo shed close to Ambika. The shed had been abandoned by a vendor because he ran a loss. Then one more landed. And yet another. Then the whole lot. Even after having landed, they frequently started looking this way and that way in shock. It appeared as if Ambika’s presence once again terrorized them. For a moment, Ambika stood frozen. Then she took out a handful of rice from the basket and started scattering them, little by little, upon a clear space by the side of the road. Then at one time, the pigeons stopped looking around with anxiety and one by one, they flew down to the place where the rice was scattered and started pecking at the grains.
Eventually, they even ignored Ambika who, as she scattered the rice, slowly closed in on them. Then in one move, using the bamboo platter, the sador around her and her hands, she swooped down on some of them and caught them. In an instant, the pigeons which did not get caught flew away whichever way they could. And in Ambika’s bamboo platter, sador and hands, four pigeons got entrapped. She put them along with the rice in the basket and covering them with the bamboo platter, Ambika brought them home.
And since the moment she arrived home, a kind of commotion was created. Of her five children, the two that were home first raised a ruckus asking her where she got the pigeons from. Putting the pigeons down on the floor under another bigger, half broken basket, apart from saying things like — don’t raise a hue and cry, don’t touch the basket, beware if they fly away and such other firm, chastising words — Ambika didn’t say anything else.
On the other side of Ambika’s courtyard was old man Dayaram’s house. Sitting under the eaves in the front of his house, from morning to dusk the old man would blink and peep, to observe the ways of the world. He blew away every worry and contemplation of creation through puffs of smoke as he drew in and exhaled from the tobacco chillum which his only aid, his old woman, set up for him. Hearing all the commotion, he asked, ‘What’s it, Ambika? Where did you get what?’
‘What did you hear me getting? Haven’t got anything,’ Ambika shouted from inside.
‘Do you think having said that you found nothing will do? Now why do you hide things? Where did you get those pigeons from?’ The old man started shouting in an unmindful voice.
‘Eh! Now don’t make a big issue out of nothing. You just be quiet, will you?’ Ambika retorted.
Then on the old man spoke as if he was talking to the skies and the winds. ‘Okay, for now I shall remain quiet. But don’t think I’ll leave it without looking into it all. Where these pigeons are from, where they were heading to, whose pigeons are missing, do you think I’ll stay without finding out? I’ll see that I get it enquired in the entire village. You wouldn’t tell when asked decently. There surely must be something, for which you are keeping things.’
The ruckus got bigger after Ambika’s three older children arrived home from the public meeting. Their faces, withered from having roamed about in the meeting ground without anything to eat or drink since morning till late in the afternoon, lit up upon hearing about the pigeons. Till now the two younger ones put their ears to the ground and kept looking at the pigeons through the weaves of the basket and through the little opening between the border of the basket and the ground. The younger son broke out a fine stick from the broom and poking the pigeons with it, he made an effort to make them as restless as himself. But the oldest son lifted a corner of the basket the moment he arrived and peeked into it. Ambika started shouting and preventing him lest the pigeons fly away and immediately the boy too shouted out, ‘But these are the pigeons that were flown away at the meeting! We had been standing very close and watching them. Where did you get them, ma? How did you get them? Did you go to the meeting? How did you catch them?’ His questions came in such a torrent that words shied away from emerging out of Ambika’s mouth.
Words instead emerged from old man Dayaram who was sitting on the veranda on the other side of the courtyard. He said, ‘Why don’t you say so? Pigeons from the meeting! Go, return them where they ought to be.’
‘Where should I go and return them? Have I even gone to the meeting to catch them?’ Now this time Ambika was truly furious with the old-man for always interfering into every little thing, speaking sometimes the truth and at other times, not.
Even for the old man, this was the only thing in his life that remained to be done. He said, ‘Oh! So you haven’t caught them, the birds themselves flew into your basket!’
‘But of course they did!’ Ambika snapped back. However, deep within her, she felt scared too. What if the old man really makes it public in the village that she had captured pigeons flown at the meeting? What if the organizers of the meeting come and stand in her courtyard? Even though she was scared, she didn’t find anything that she could do at the moment other than ask her children to stop making all that noise.
But the children spent their entire waking hours thinking about the pigeons. The eldest son started nagging his mother, ‘Ma, it’s been really long since we had meat curry. Do cook some pigeon meat today.’
The elder daughter asked, ‘Tell me, Ma, what will you do with the pigeons? Will you give me one? I’ll rear it?’ The younger daughter kept shouting after her, ‘I too want one…!’
The youngest son whimpered for a long while asking for one end of a rope to be tied to one claw of a pigeon and letting him hold the other end. Then he gradually started crying loudly and after some time, fell asleep. The two older sons had once again gone to the meeting in the evening. At night, the moment they headed homewards, the thought of having pigeon meat for supper came to their minds and they hastened their steps. They stood quiet for a while upon reaching home and then without uttering a single word, they had bland, curry-less rice and got into bed. After placing the grinding slab and the grinding stone on top of the basket when at last Ambika too went to bed, fatigue and annoyance bore down as heavy upon her as did the grinding slab and stone upon the basket with the pigeons under it. As she tried to fall asleep, the faint murmur of voices from old man Dayaram’s house fell upon her ears. Might the old man still be talking about the pigeons? Could there be someone else in his house other than the old woman? Should she go out into the courtyard and quietly listen to what they might be talking about?
But soon after, the old man’s house fell silent. How long after that, Ambika could not exactly assess, there was first a dragging noise and then a thud in the other room. Ambika instantly got out of bed and taking the lamp in her hand, ran into that room. She only saw like a flash of lightning, a shiny, black weasel passing through a gap on top of the wall. She looked towards the basket with which she covered the pigeons and saw that the weasel had already pulled down the grinding stone. This time Ambika put up the wooden chair as well over the basket.
Throughout the night, Ambika’s sleep broke a number of times. Creaking and knocking sounds kept upsetting her. On other nights, foxes howled among the bamboo groves but tonight a couple of them had reached right up to her plinth. The piercing sound of their calls broke the slumber of the eldest son. Without opening his eyes, he asked in blurry words, ‘Why have the foxes come so close, Ma?’
‘Ah, well! To eat the pigeons, what else will they come here for!’ Ambika said with infuriation.
‘I’ll be happy if they do. You anyway didn’t let us eat them.’ And saying so, he rolled over and went back to sleep.
Ambika held back all the air of a deep breath for a while in the abyss of her heart and then she too changed sides without any noise. She saw no possibility of sleep coming to her in the remaining hours of the night.
She could not. No, she yet could not. She could neither rear the pigeons, nor could she let either her sons, the weasel or the foxes eat them. She could not rear any other creature which ate, to survive, whatever humans did. And she also didn’t have the strength to do something like eating up their meat and letting the pigeons go waste. What did he say? Haven’t had meat curry for a long while? What long while, when did he even have meat curry? When his father was alive. Eh, you ought not to keep such things in mind for so long, child.
As soon as the pigeons flew down from the skies to the ground, a thought flashed through Ambika’s mind—at least a few rupees. Jagannath’s wife would give some more rice. The rice together with these few rupees—at least two days’ meal and the month’s oil and salt. The children’s hue and cry made this thought roll and tumble a number of times in her mind. Sell? Or else, won’t sell. Cook one? The two sons were really hoping for some. Or should every one of them be flown away? Wonder what episode old man Dayaram would create. But late at night towards dawn, she abandoned all stray thought. It was the money that really mattered.
In the morning Ambika asked her eldest son to cut and bring a tender bamboo. He brought it. Ambika asked, ‘Can you slice fine sticks and make a cage?’
Old man Dayaram called out from under the eaves, ‘Don’t be so arrogant, Ambika, is he someone to slice fine sticks and make a cage? Does your face get defiled if you ask me to make the cage? Let’s see, hey, bring that bamboo. Now go inside and get the long-handled knife. So, how many pigeons are there?’
The boy replied hesitantly and with a sullen face, ‘Four.’
Instead of one, the old man made two small cages. And as he worked, he kept talking to himself—it would be good no doubt if the same person takes all the four pigeons. But what if someone buys two? If he seeks the cage to carry the pigeons? Then you’ll be in trouble! Where will you keep the other two pigeons till they get sold?—and he went on saying such things.
Ambika put the four pigeons in twos in the two cages. And when the sun descended from the ridge at the top of the roof of her house, she started walking with the cages towards the market at the edge of the town two miles away. As she set out, the younger children cried aloud. Without saying anything at all, the oldest son set out of the house, ahead of his mother and towards the opposite direction. The middle pair sat on the plinth, pretending to be oblivious to every happening around them. Ambika wanted to reprimand the middle pair asking why they couldn’t pacify the crying, younger ones by taking them up in the arms and sitting them astride on the back. But without saying anything she walked out of the gateway. All of them were upset, it was better not to scold and rebuke.
Ambika walked in deep thought for about a mile and a half. Then as she reached the broad road, she could see the market at a distance. Just then, right in front of her, abruptly appeared this Kalidas. Venomless water snake caught in a fishing hook.
Since yesterday, right up to a while ago till she left her gateway, how much ever these pigeons made her talk was more than enough. So immediately she didn’t have much of a mind to answer Kalidas’s question. And that too, Kalidas’s question!
Proceeding a little distance, Kalidas let out a strange laughter. And then he said, ‘Come on, I know it. Even if you don’t tell me, I know it. These are pigeons that were flown away at the meeting yesterday, aren’t they?’
Ambika turned her neck and opening her eyes wide, looked towards Kalidas. Kalidas went on, ‘I went to the old man yesterday, you know. You all might have slept by then. It was then the old man who told me about the pigeons. He said, she would only sell the pigeons. But as she carries the pigeons to the market some envious person from the village might bother her about the pigeons being from the meeting, so you keep an eye on the situation. You too go up to the market if you can. People from the village loiter around there as well. If someone raises any fuss, come up with some cleverness and sort out the matter. I said hmm and approved of the old man’s suggestion but wondering and mulling over whether I should go to the market or not today, I happened to come this way for some other errand. But now that I have met you, come, let’s go to the market.
Ambika looked straight ahead as she started walking. Irritation and rage gathered frowns upon her forehead. After a while Kalidas asked, ‘Why! You don’t even speak!’
‘What came upon that old man to tell you so much?’ she snarled back.
‘Now why do you have to vent your anger on the old man? He said all that only for your good.’
‘Damn, my god!’ Ambika seethed within. A greater intensity of her irritation showed up in the way she took her steps.
Kalidas said, ‘Whatever the old man said, he said well. If you don’t like my accompanying you, say so. I’ll go back.’
Ambika didn’t say anything in reply. She felt a little frightened too, to immediately ask Kalidas to return. Some trouble involving the pigeons might in fact crop up. Moreover, the thought why the old man kept piling Kalidas on her again and again, sat heavy on her.
Kalidas belonged to the same village. He was of the same age as her husband Neelakanta. Neelakanta and he took land on lease, to cultivate, from the same person. After their marriage, Neelakanta often told Ambika that the two were like minded as well. And it seemed it was from Kalidas that Neelakanta heard for the very first time about Ambika. An orphan who grew up working at her maternal uncle’s place. As for her two brothers, the less they heard about Ambika, the happier they were. And so on. Something about her struck and one day Neelakanta married her. Well, not that getting married meant much ado though. It was just treating about fifteen people to tea and sweets and taking Ambika away. But soon after he had to leave his own house. He took a greater liking to Ambika’s village. Neelakanta had hardly told old man Dayaram about a small plot of land when the old man asked him to take the land at the front of the courtyard, bamboo from the yard, two Golden Shower trees for posts and whatever else he required. Very soon a house came up on the courtyards of old man Dayaram and in that house, came up Neelakanta’s household, complete with five children. Then one day Neelakanta passed away, leaving emptiness for Ambika in that household.
Before Ambika’s and Neelakanta’s marriage, Kalidas suffered from some severe illness. People talked that even after having recovered, some fault in his brain remained. According to Neelakanta, there remained no such fault. It was just for the greed of property that his elder brother spread these things to conspire against him. Then after some time, none but he himself knew what overcame him and Kalidas left the village. News once came that in some place very far away, he engaged in some trade in bell-metal and brass and made a lot of money. Then at one point of time word was sent to him that his elder brother’s home and family were completely ruined, he was asked to return to save the homestead. Kalidas did not return then. He only appeared in the village around three years back, with no one else with him. It seemed he did not find time to get married. He found time only to earn money; it seemed he even brought a whole bag of it with him.
Sitting in old man Dayaram’s courtyard, he would shake his arms and legs as he regaled in the narration of his many tales of bravado of the past twelve years. Once when her heart felt relatively lighter, Ambika suddenly asked him, ‘Such a brave heart that you are, couldn’t you bring a woman with you?’
‘O yeah? Do you need to be a brave heart to bring a woman?’ Kalidas showed much surprise.
‘Do you hear what she says, dedai? It is only those that stay back at home who bring women. The brave hearts wander about far and wide, in unexplored land and risky waters, engaging in battle and hostile adventure. Isn’t it, dedai?’
‘Ah! So now the brave heart has come home, eh?’ Ambika laughed.
But after a few days, this laughter of Ambika’s withered away. Kalidas was sitting and chatting at her place. The children were playing rough and tumble up on the bed. By the mellow light of the lamp, Ambika’s face looked very serene and soft. However might she be, her shadow on the mud-plastered wall seemed to be that of a youthful woman with fullness of body. Kalidas kept looking at the shadow for a while. Then he said in a light note, with a smile, ‘Do you know something, Ambika? My mother had once come to see you for marriage with me. Did you or did you not know?’
Shock and dread suddenly made Ambika as motionless as a bird on a tree would be, when it heard a weird, sharp sound close by. The way it remained still yet anxious to guess the nature of the sound, Ambika too remained thus, absolutely still, and looked at Kalidas. Kalidas kept smiling like an idiot. Ambika’s eyes were unable to tolerate even that idiotic smile for more than a fleeting moment. Pretending to pick up a slice of betelnut peel, she hurriedly brought her face away so that no light fell on it.
Kalidas asked again, ‘Did you know or not?’
Still looking away from the lamp, Ambika replied in an unclear note, ‘Well, I know nothing of all that!’
This time Kalidas let out a loud laughter and then said, ‘That means you didn’t come to know at all. In fact, it was I myself who had sent mother, you know, I said, go, even you have a look and come. Ma also liked you a lot. But what was to be done? Around that same time Neelakanta said—I am marrying Ambika. He not just said, deep in his heart, meanwhile, he had gone really far with the thought. Then I said—okay then, go marry.’
After this Kalidas once again let out a laughter and asked, ‘Had Neelakanta not told you of all these things? Yes, indeed, why would he, anyway? He would, only if it were something to be told.’
Ambika didn’t find any words to say. During such times on any other day, she could bluntly tell Kalidas, ‘You get going now, it’s too late in the night. Your meal of rice must have turned crisp by now.’ But that day she felt her strength was waning to say anything addressing him. Instead, aiming at the children tumbling about on the bed, she asked with a tender yet emotionless voice, ‘Will you kids now go on shouting and screaming or have supper?’
Two of the children made their mother’s question a part of their game of roll and topple and screamed at the top of their voices, ‘We’ll have supper! We’ll have supper!’
If two of them don’t oppose what the other two say, then the game wouldn’t go on. So the other two shouted, ‘Won’t have supper! Won’t have supper! We’ll go on shouting!’ For a while, a challenge between the two factions arose as to which faction had greater force in its voice and which faction could speak the words faster. Taking advantage of this excessive brouhaha, Ambika moved away from Kalidas and advanced towards the door of the kitchen. The very fact that Ambika was at a loss for words was, that day, deeply satisfying for Kalidas.
‘These children! Why are you making so much noise? Go, now quietly have your supper and get to bed,’ saying so, he himself came out into the courtyard.
Like a bird huddling in quiet gloom under the leaves due to some apprehension, that night Ambika too lay bent and limp, huddling among her children.
Many a day passed since. And on all those days, Ambika talked about many a thing with Kalidas. But never on a single day could she straighten the bends of her mind in front of him. Many a day she thought—Assuming there were no twists and turns in Kalidas’s words, she would stand before him with straightness of mind and soul. But even as she kept thinking so, Kalidas would once again and suddenly let out a laughter and say certain things that left her totally dumb. He might have said, ‘Now look, I am a man and alone, till late at night I keep laughing and giggling with you, sit here joking and talking with you, couldn’t you for just one day say—you man without a wife! you have already spent a half of the night here, so why do you have to go home for the remaining half, just for the sake of going home? –but you don’t. And do you know what I keep thinking of, after going home? – I keep thinking, okay, if she didn’t say so. Why, couldn’t I myself say—that—Ambika, what of going home now. Get me a sack, I’ll lie down here.
The two older sons would never sleep as long as Kalidas stayed. And he would stretch out that while with his words till it was well into the night. Such was the gravity of his words. Sometimes Ambika’s teeth fell into a clench, and at other times she tried to shut his mouth with a stern response. But most of the times, she sat motionless under the weight of shyness and fear.
And sometimes, all of a sudden, Ambika felt —should I ask him, why didn’t you marry another girl after that? But the very next moment after the thought came to her mind, Ambika bit the tip of her tongue. No, no, this couldn’t be asked of him. He would take one meaning from it and drop it elsewhere. There was no knowing through what gesture of words he would toss her into some pit. Whenever something light and witty like this came to Ambika’s mind, she always restrained herself with double the caution. And she decided — she herself would anyway not let talks go up the futile path. Rather, if she noticed even Kalidas being the least light and flighty, she would clip his wings as well. Sometimes she thought of getting him straightened by whipping him up with a sound piece of her mind. And yet again, she didn’t have a mind to do so. She felt like there was not enough venom in him that was worth such a whipping.
But one day Ambika was forced to make firm her mind and her voice. That day old man Dayaram called her under the eaves and having sat her down with affection, asked, ‘Well, Ambika, this Kalidas had been whole heartedly wishing to have a meal cooked with your own hands. Why don’t you cook a meal and feed him?’
Fury instantly surged through Ambika. She snapped, ‘I myself am passing days with a stomach only half filled. From which granary am I to bring, then, to feed him?’
The old man said, ‘Eh, things don’t lie low just because of a dearth of things, you see. Fish, meat, whatever you need, he would surely bring in. The main thing is—it’s your yearning that is needed.’
‘O!’ As if Ambika understood a whole lot of things right away. He had stealthily gone very far. What else might he have said? Then he might have said many a thing to old man Dayaram as well.
No, no, this wasn’t the way it ought to be. Ambika intentionally opened her mouth. ‘What purpose do you have, coming to interfere in these things? He has money, he has wealth, wishes to eat fish and meat, wishes to have sweets, why doesn’t he go to a hotel in town and have all of it?’
‘Eh! You haven’t understood the matter.’ The old man said in an explanatory tone, ‘Come on now, he doesn’t wish to eat sweets from the hotel. Cooked with your hands….’
Ambika didn’t let the old man finish what he was saying.
‘Whether he feels or not, at least you should have felt ashamed and embarrassed! I can see that it was you who gave him all the indulgence to get into the house. He doesn’t at all have the courage to come straight to my house, he would first come to yours. Would take advice from you. And having taken that, at one opportunity, dart across the courtyard to come to my place. I’m warning you today and let him come, I’ll warn him as well—that from today onwards, he doesn’t ever cross the courtyard to set foot upon my threshold!’
‘Hey listen now, listen! Why are you so furious? Old man Dayaram asked with a naive, serene and placid smile.
Ambika asked with greater sternness, ‘Why are you advocating so much for him? I am a single woman. Today he would chat with me, tomorrow he would eat a meal from my hands, the day after he would spread a sack in a corner and lie down there and the next day, on my bosom…!’ As if for a moment anxiety clasped Ambika’s throat and choked her. After a while, on the verge of crying, she said, ‘How may I continue to stay in this village after that?’
For a while, both the old man and Ambika fell silent. Then the old man said slowly, with a soft voice, ‘Ambika, it is true that I am advocating for him. But do you know why I do so? All these years you have stayed right in front and have been seeing it all. I have no lack of wealth and grain. But apart from that, I have nothing. My life is about to be over. But till the end, it remained empty. That’s why, I feel very happy every time I see anyone in this world receiving anything he seeks. Neelakanta asked for some land, I gave the house too along with the land. Just so a home and family may settle. My joy upon seeing people getting whatever they wish for is getting greater with each passing day. Otherwise, what will I look at to bring me some pleasure? Now this Kalidas, I feel he too will become a destitute like me after a few more days. Today he wishes to have a meal from your hands. What’s wrong in it? He should get to eat. You are getting frantic to keep hunger at bay. If this trauma of yours can be done away with, then may it be so. May it be right in front of my eyes. Only then will I derive joy, you see.’
After a brief pause, the old man spoke again, this time with melancholy in his voice, ‘And you speak of staying in this village. Do you suppose the people adore you now? Or do you suppose they don’t despise you because of your wretched poverty? Now look here, Ambika, people need a village to live in, not to suffer life. Ambika got even more frightened that day. The words the old man spoke that day with a faint, feeble voice shrivelled her much more than did his usual loudness. She wanted to vent out all her anger on Kalidas. She started getting frightened even thinking of just his shadow. In indirect ways she made him understand—that he severe all relations with Ambika and Ambika’s household.
And as Ambika wished, Kalidas put up such a front as if all exchange of words with her had come to a stop. But having observed one thing greatly amused Ambika. As if remaining without talking to her was also taken by Kalidas as just another good game. What an amusing gesture he showed as he walked up to the old man’s veranda without talking to her! He wouldn’t speak but how he smiled whenever his eyes met hers! Ambika couldn’t really decide whether to laugh or to cry. One day on a sudden impulse, she asked him, ‘Now why do keep sniggering this way through a clinched mouth?’
Kalidas replied, ‘Because you don’t let me laugh with an open heart.’ Having said the words, he started to guffaw.
That Kalidas. Venomless water snake caught in the fishing hook. Kalidas walked close to Ambika along the remaining way to the market. But not much of an exchange of words took place between them. At one time, to properly cover her head with her sador, she brought both the cages to one hand. Then Kalidas hurriedly asked her, ‘If it is uncomfortable, then give here, let me hold the cages.’ Ambika said no.
But the moment they reached the market, it was Kalidas who took all the initiatives in the dealings. Ambika had come to this market a number of times but she came to sell ferns, mint, drumsticks, mature betelnut, leafy vegetables and such other stuff. Never to sell pigeons.
‘Come this way.’ And Kalidas proceeded towards a definite place in the market. Fish, mutton, poultry, pigeon, tortoise—in general, all kinds of fish and meat were bought and sold in that place. Kalidas took a quick look at the whole row right from one end to the other. Then he strained and stretched his neck to look this way and that a couple of times more and then he said again, ‘Boy! there are no other pigeons today.’ And he said, ‘Then we’ll have to sit right here.’—the place to sell ducks and pigeons was next to that of the fowls. Standing on a small, empty space therein, Kalidas called Ambika to him.
The fat and robust, moustachioed, lungi-clad vendor nearby started throwing narrow, side-glances towards Kalidas, Ambika and the four pigeons. The man was a big trader. His booth had a shed. He himself sat upon a wooden bed and all around the bed lay a great number of large cages. Some of the cages were empty but most of them had clusters and clusters of fowls in them, each fowl of a different colour and form. Only in one cage, a collection of ducks sat upon their bellies—probably—dozing. Kalidas asked as he would to a neighbour upon coming to a new place, ‘You don’t have pigeons, do you?’
The man said, ‘No, not today. Day before yesterday, a score and five pigeons were all taken away. Only on Sunday when I go to the big marketplace will I be able to fetch some more.’
Kalidas asked, ‘Who took away every one of the score and five pigeons?’
‘For that meeting yesterday, the volunteers took them all. It seemed a lot of pigeons had to be flown away at the meeting. If I had pigeons, it seemed they would have taken more.’
‘At what price did you sell them?’ Without wasting any time, Kalidas immediately got down to establishing a friendship with the man. Ambika looked just once into the man’s eyes with much fear, and then bent her head low. She sat pulling herself together, all bent and wilted, just like another of the four pigeons. Having got away from the villagers and the children, weasel and fox and everyone else, did she at last have to come upon this man?
‘Well, I didn’t get a good price. Such big pigeons—just like those—we sell them for three rupees a pair. But day before yesterday, the volunteers took them away for two and a half rupees a pair. They pressurized me—for the cause of the people, for the cause of the meeting—so I gave in.’
‘Then even we won’t sell them for less than two and a half rupees a pair, what say?’ Kalidas asked in a note of kinship, sitting down on the ground next to Ambika, ‘Right then, Mahajan, tell me one thing. Why are pigeons flown at a meeting?’
Like a well versed person, the mahajan repeated to Kalidas whatever the volunteers told him, to reduce the price of the pigeons—Pigeons are very calm-headed birds. These birds are auspicious for man, they bring peace. So for the good of the nation and for peace amongst countrymen, these birds are flown away at meetings. The way the Goddess is satisfied and peace prevails upon mankind when flowers and other offerings are made at a prayer, similarly, there reigns harmony among brethren and people’s wishes are fulfilled when pigeons are flown at a meeting.
It seemed the volunteers had also said—the place over which the pigeons fly will be blessed with great prosperity and good opportunity. If one pigeon somehow happened to fly over your booth—wow—what should I say, there’ll be no looking back for you!
Kalidas turned his face towards Ambika and said in a low voice, ‘Did you hear that? Even as they fly overhead, wishes of the people below are fulfilled, there is peace and prosperity. Well, not to talk about you, they landed and let themselves be caught in your hands. Now at least there should be peace for you, your wishes should be fulfilled. Now what wish might you be having?’
Ambika was getting restless, having remained terrified and speechless for long. Now she wished to speak a few words to make herself feel light. With an impassionate voice she said, ‘What wish can I have! Along with the children, I just need to have two square meals a day.’
‘But why do you need to have the worry of two square meals a day, I don’t seem to understand.’ Having spoken the words, Kalidas looked at Ambika with an innocent look in his eyes. Ambika’s mind got shaken seeing that look.
Gradually, the flow of people increased in the market. Kalidas kept a watch to see if anyone from the village came this way. And if the nearby mahajan heard someone among them starting to talk with Kalidas or Ambika about the pigeons, it would call for trouble. No, no one like that had come. All of them were unknown people. People were buying chunks of meat from the mutton stall. When Kalidas and Ambika arrived, three goats hung there with almost all of their body’s flesh on them. Even as they watched, one of them vanished. In its place hung just a piece of rope. After buying the meat, people bought potatoes and onions from the shops just opposite to the stall. They might have bought spices as well. One person, holding a large piece of a rohu fish hanging upon a piece of string made of green, tender bamboo in his hands, was bargaining with the mahajan for fowl. Kalidas intensely observed the events for a while and then asked Ambika, ‘Why, Ambika, is your tongue salivating?’
At first Ambika didn’t give any reply and just looked the other way. Kalidas asked, ‘Ah, so you’re hiding your face and swallowing your saliva, eh?’
This time Ambika answered, ‘The tongue will salivate only when there is saliva. Those have long dried up.’
‘Now that’s a lie, come on.’ Kalidas disagreed. ‘When the calf stops suckling, the cow does not give milk. But that doesn’t mean that her milk had dried up. Again calf, again milk. Today you eat a meal of meat with great flavour and taste and you’ll see that tomorrow, at the mention of meat, your tongue will dribble like crazy. These are not things which dry up. They just wait inside the body, understand?’
Ambika didn’t show any hint of whether she understood or she didn’t. She just tugged and pulled at the edge of her sador and set it right.
A couple of military men came to the mahajan’s stall nearby to buy fowls and for a while, raised quite a hue and cry. They put their hands into the cages and made an attempt to gauge the amount of meat the fowls had by feeling around their chests and belly. They haggled and shouted in the process of bargaining. While weighing a few selected fowls, they argued over the few stones which were used in place of weights. Two of them came near Ambika and Kalidas and having held the cages up in their hands, they slowly rotated them this way and that way to look at the pigeons inside.
‘You say whatever needs to be said,’ said Ambika and sat looking elsewhere. However, even Kalidas did not have to say anything to the two military men. After sometime they put the two cages down upon the place where they were before and moved away. Then Kalidas spoke with a pressed voice, ‘They hadn’t at all come to buy! They only came to have a look at you.’
A hot flush came over Ambika’s ears and her head. Kalidas started to chuckle. Shame changed the colour of her face and she turned this face towards Kalidas as if to forcefully utter some words, ‘What’s there in me to look at?’
‘Whether you know what’s there in you to look at or you don’t, or whether you know it and yet feign ignorance, that’s upto you. But what we know, we know for sure. And that is definite.’ Kalidas looked into Ambika’s eyes. His eyes twinkled. As if Ambika felt the heat of Kalidas’s glance all over her body.
The hours were passing by. Dusk was slowly descending. A few among those shopkeepers who had menthol lamps made arrangements to light their lamps here and there. After some time, a raging fire burnt with the aid of rags, spirit, and such other things on each of those lamps which would spread a steady, bright light.
Ambika was worried. It would have been better had they sold off the pigeons to those customers who had offered rupees two for a pair. It was Kalidas who, upon the words of the mahajan, held on to the price of rupees two and a half a pair. But it was already evening now. At one point of time, the pair of pigeons in one cage made some gentle, gurgling noise and expressed sensation. And seeing that, Ambika said, ‘Even they might be feeling hungry.’
As if Kalidas’s tongue was filled with mirth. He said, ‘Not hunger. Don’t you see, the pair of pigeons in the other cage happen to be female. And in this cage, one is male, the other female. Be it in the cage or in the market, they recognize each other.’
Ambika licked her lips once and then said, ‘It’s been late. It’ll be a problem if we can’t sell the pigeons.’
‘Why won’t they sell? They will. There will appear people who know of the wonders of pigeon meat. Do you know one thing, Ambika?’
Ambika looked into Kalidas’s eyes.
‘Pigeon meat is very hot.’ Pausing for a moment, Kalidas spoke in an incredible manner, ‘Having eaten pigeon meat, it is out right difficult to bear its heat all alone.’
No sound escaped Ambika’s mouth. As if something was wrapping her up from one side. She sensed a bizarre, tingling sensation all over her body. Did it feel like this within the wrap of a snake? But no, not that she was scared. Not that her body tingled and tickled upon the touch of a snake’s cold body. Rather, she sensed a heat. Did she feel like this on hearing of the heat in pigeon meat?
Pausing for a while, Kalidas said, ‘I’ve been thinking of one thing, Ambika. I myself will buy the pigeons. Potato, onion, spices, whatever else is required, I’ll buy those as well. Let us have a good meal at your place today.’
Just then, a few young girls and young boys wearing colourful badges on their chests entered that section of the market where fish and meat were sold. Shouting and cheering in great joy, they bought fish, they bought vegetables and at last crowded around the mutton stall. Kalidas got fervent seeing them. He got up and moved away from where he was sitting, and after some time again returned. The news that he gathered was that, the young girls and boys were volunteers of the last meeting. At the conclusion of the meeting, today they would feast in great delight. Gathering more strength in their bodies after the feast, tomorrow, it seemed, the young people would go to see what meeting the people of Chandrapur were organizing and how.
Having given this useless piece of news, Kalidas said in a soft voice, looking into Ambika’s eyes, ‘So what have you decided, Ambika? Come let’s have one meal. So many fowls, so much mutton, so much fish, everything in the market got over. So many people will have a feast, don’t we too have the capacity to have a feast? Let’s have. Ha? Ambika, let’s have. At least feel the taste.’
By now lamps were glowing in shop after shop. The faraway lamps blinked. The flames of the lamps around Ambika and Kalidas quivered restlessly upon the caress of the mild breeze. Kalidas’s face glowed in the light of the menthol lamp of the fowl-stall’s mahajan. Even his eyes glistened. The pigeons sat nuzzling each other, as if silent with restrained breath. Not enough light fell on Ambika’s face. Her forehead and neck were sweating.
‘So that’s it then. You sit for a while, I’ll come right back.’ And Kalidas walked away to buy potato, onion and spices.
Ambika wiped her face and neck with the end of her sador and made an attempt to move a little and sit. And as she moved, as if a whole lot of flesh in the various parts of her body too moved and swayed. Her body shook in the same manner as did a pitcher half-filled with water. As if she hadn’t noticed that there was so much flesh on her body.
She sat staring towards that place where the pigeons were till a while ago. May it be then. Hmm? May it so be. If the pigeons which flew down from the skies amidst the auspicious sounds of the drum, the conch, the gong and urooli wish to grant some gratification…
Just then four young boys appeared frantically in that place.
Pigeons! Where? What? No pigeons? Damn! It won’t do without pigeons. Even if not twenty five, then at least twenty, fifteen, ten. How many are here? Four?
They were volunteers of the meeting. The colour of the badges on their chest was different. They were volunteers of the meeting at Chandrapur. The meeting’s tomorrow. Pigeons were needed at the meeting.
‘Let’s take these four, then we’ll go and look for more in the other market. And if we don’t get any more, we’ll have to make do with these four,’ one of them said.
Ambika swallowed her spit frequently. She looked helplessly all around her as if searching for someone. Within just a moment, she battled with many a thought. Then she said in a choked voice, ‘A man went by saying he would buy these pigeons. You’ll get if you search for in the village.’
‘O no, no, from whichever house in the village you take, after having flown away at the meeting, they would again return to that same house. We don’t want such pigeons. Give, say how much you’ll take. You explain it to the man who told you that he would buy, tell him that the pigeons are needed for the meeting, for the cause of the people, for peace among mankind, for prosperity. Explain it, he will understand.’
As if all the blood of her body collected in her head. Her whole face and neck sweated all over again. Mustering all the strength of her body and mind, as if she engaged in yet another massive wrestle of words with some unseen force.
‘Tell us, how much do we give?’
Ambika looked at the boy’s face with pain in her eyes.
‘So, how much?’
Ambika swallowed her spit once and said in a vague voice, ‘Two rupees for a pair.’
She once again wiped her face and neck with the end of her sador.
Bhabendra Nath Saikia was a novelist, short story writer and filmmaker who won the Sahitya Akademi Award for his fiction, several Rajat Kamal Awards for his films and the Assam Valley Literary Award for lifetime achievement. This story is published with permission from The Chain and Other Stories, edited and translated by Rashmi Narzary (Nirvana Sutra Publication, 2012). The Kindle edition is also available.
Rashmi Narzary is an author, columnist, editor and translator.