Category Archives: Translation

SUEZ CANAL

Indira Goswami

An excerpt from The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar (Zubaan)
Translated from Axamiya by Aruni Kashyap
Touch Photo : Nitoo Das

Touch
Photo : Nitoo Das

Even today, as soon as her shift was over and she’d seen off the eight borkandazes who worked under her, Thengphakhri stood staring out at the setting sun as it played games on the broad chest of the Brahmaputra. The river looked like a pregnant woman with a blood red cloth wrapped around her. Thengphakhri stood staring, waiting for a special steamer to come in.

“Will Captain Hardy really come back? What if he doesn’t?” She thought, as small drops of sweat gathered on her forehead.  At headquarters, she had heard that several steamers had come and gone. Each had brought soldiers. The camps near the border of Bhutan were gradually becoming plump with them, she’d heard.

Thengphakhri preferred not to share her agony with anyone. But a faint line like a trident became visible on her forehead. Thengphakhri had much longer hair than other Bodo women and when she stood in the sun, it glittered like gold. It was just like the sheen on the skin of a gom snake, which leaves its burrow after a long time. Her beauty and personality mesmerised everyone. They had just one complaint: why doesn’t Thengphakhri speak?

She spoke barely a word or two throughout the day. Her grandfather Tribhubon Bahadur understood something of what went on in her mind even though she remained silent most of the time. What was she thinking? What does she want to say? He was almost like her mentor, just as Macklinson Sahib was her mentor in her professional life. Both could be cruel as well as kind.

Two large steamers were coming towards the river bank. They looked like two huge hippopotamuses.

Thengphakhri always followed Macklinson’s orders. It was he who’d reminded her that kindness was misplaced when she collected taxes from the people. She was a Tehsildar. Whenever she came upon a taxpayer who hadn’t paid his taxes for the third time, her borkandazes created a ruckus in the courtyard of that house.

“You can’t escape this time. Bring, bring all that you have for us!” they would scream.

Once when this happened, the poor tax payer who had defaulted, brought out everything he had in his house: pots, plates, glasses. His naked children carried everything  out of the house and left it all in front of her. She was sitting on a chair made of guava wood. She could not bear to look at the faces of the children and even that day she hadn’t been able to look at them. Macklinson Sahib too was present, just as he always was. He sat on his horse and observed her. On the very fi rst day he had cautioned her, “You won’t be able to become a good administrator if you are soft. If you don’t have a strong personality, there is no value in your beauty.”

He went on, “Remember, during my tenure, instead of getting substitutes in lieu of unpaid taxes, I have received the half-dead bodies of two of my Izardars. The borkandazes had to carry them on horses and bring them back to the tent. The tax payers wanted to kill those izardars.”

Thengphakhri had said, “Sahib, do not worry. In our society, people have great respect for women.” He had laughed loudly, “I have seen that! Yes, yes, I have! Thengphakhri, you are the greatest proof of that fact. When you stand in the courtyard of a tax payer’s home, there is pin drop silence. No one utters a word. Not a single word! A miracle, it is a miracle, did you know that?”

Thengphakhri photos 3After she was promoted to the post of Tehsildar at the beginning of her career, one of her borkandazes had cut open the body of a taxpayer who hadn’t paid for the third time with the bhakheri-sword that was lying in his own compound. Not a single word was uttered by Thengphakhri. Macklinson Sahib was sitting on horseback even on that day, watching everything. When he saw her face, he screamed loudly, “A Commander-in-Chief doesn’t show weakness and pity! That is not the true behaviour of a Commander-in-Chief. You must understand that a real Commanderin- Chief is made of stone. But you Thengphakhri, you are great!”

~

Thengphakhri stood up and stared across the river again. The sun was about to set now. The Brahmaputra had wrapped a blood-red cloth around her body once again. Red clouds covered the sky. They looked like the blood-stained feet of the priest who had entered the temple amidst the sonorous sounds of bells and conches. She craned her neck and saw that Roopsingh Dafadar and the other borkandazes were getting their horses ready. Roopsingh brought her horse to her

They would have to return to Bijni before midnight. Without a word, they mounted their horses and rode forward. The khat-khat sounds of the hoofs were the only sounds to be heard around them.

The borkandazes were completely silent. A little ahead, they saw a large group of elephants cross the road in front of them. This must be an elephant’s dandi. They rode slowly. The sound of crickets was clear. But what was that other sound? Was it a tiger? Her grandfather had told her that when the Mughals ruled Goalpara for about twenty years, they had killed around two thousand man-eaters. With great relish Tribhubon Bahadur would narrate how Mr and Mrs Michael had been crushed under the legs of  a wild elephant. Tigers ruled supreme from the borders of Ranpur to Bijni a wild elephant. Tigers ruled supreme from the borders of Ranpur to Bijni.

Once, there was a locust attack. God-knows-where they had come from. The whole sky was full of them. Villagers stood in front of their houses and stared at the sight. Everyone thought the locusts would go upstream but they didn’t. It looked as though someone had thrown a black net across the sky and it had spread itself over them. Gradually, that black net started to come down to the ground. That was the fi rst time Thengphakhri had seen the white mark on the wings of the locusts. It was because of this that the Assamese called them ‘kakoti’, giving them a caste status. She recalls all this very often, especially when she returns to the head offi ce with her borkandazes after work.

Hardy Sahib had taught her to ride a horse and use a gun. He had arranged the horse for her on his own. But anyway horses weren’t a rare thing. There were far more valuable things that Bijni sent regularly to Bhutan—dry fish worth fi ve hundred rupees, oil worth two hundred rupees, silver ornaments worth nine hundred rupees and eight tangon horses and totas worth eight hundred and twenty rupees. The British officers in the Company had bought those horses.

Hardy had brought her a handsome horse. He had informed her grandfather earlier that he would be surprising her with it. She smiled as she remembered these things but she hid her smile from her borkandazes. She did this because she had failed in her fi rst two attempts to mount the horse. When she had fallen to the ground a second time, she had held Captain Hardy’s shirt firmly with her hand. His shirt had torn immediately. Was he wearing a very old shirt that day? When she had fallen to the ground he had held her hair and pulled her up. Eeesh, those images are so clear in her mind. He had used her thick crop of hair like a rope.

How much he used to talk all the time! So many tales just about horses! Who had discovered the saddle, do you know Thengphakhri? When she couldn’t pronounce saddle properly, he had made her say the word twenty times. Each and every thing was clearly imprinted in her mind and she vowed that she would become an expert horse-rider one day. She would be able to ride the horse, and say ‘saddle’ properly.

Suddenly the borkandazes started to sing. They did so often to dispell their loneliness and to amuse themselves.

My dear, don’t cry, don’t cry,
We are not marrying you off to
Anyone but a Bodo man.
Not even a Garo guy,
Nor a Nepalese guy,
Don’t cry, don’t cry, my dear.

My daughter is as beautiful as a princess,
Her face oval and long like the leaves of star-trees
She is neat and clean, like my son-in-law’s silk,
O my dear daughter, the princess,
Who has a beautiful face like the leaves of tora-trees.

Thengphakhri’s procession moved ahead, listening to these songs and singing them. Memories from the past started to close in on her like a python, suffocating her with their weight.

***

Indira Goswami, popularly known as Mamoni Raisom Goswami is one of the most celebrated writers in India. Born in 1942 she has published several creative and scholarly works in Assamese and English. She has been honoured with the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1983 for the novel The Rusted Sword, Assam Sahitya Sabha Award 1988, Bharat Nirman Award 1989, Sauhardya Award from Uttar Pradesh Hindi Sansthan of Government of India 1992, Katha National Award for Literature 1993, Kamal Kumari Foundation National Award 1996 and in 2000 she won the country’s highest literary prize the Jnanpith Award. For her unparalled scholarly work in the field of Ramayani Studies she was awarded the International Tulsi Award from Florida University. Her ongoing pioneering efforts to bring peace in Assam through her crucial role in the peace talks between banned militant outfit ULFA and the Indian Government has brought a ray of hope to the twenty-eight years violence ridden atmosphere of the state. Words from the Mist directed by Jahnu Barua is one of the many biographical films made on her eventful life. In 2008, she became India’s first Principal Prince Claus Laureate, a prestigious award from Prince Claus Foundation, Netherlands, for her contribution to literature , culture and attempts to bring social change. In 2008, she became India’s first Principal Prince Claus Laureate.

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Filed under Fiction, Issue 8, Tin Trunk, Translation

KATHONIBAARI GHAAT

Mahim Bora

Translated by Rajarshi Kalita and Mukuta Borah

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

Those hills of coals lay heaped on the miserably eroded banks of Brahmaputra.  The viridian waves of jhaobon packed sandbanks were exposed now as the water had receded and were rippling as far as the eyes could see. The Brahmaputra waters almost reach the gravelled main road during the monsoons. Now, as the water retreats, one needs to get down a good way to the ghaat. Bamboo slivers and wasted fences were laid out on the sand, putting together a path for folks to move. The lone tea-stall revealed itself under a straw roof plonked upon split bamboo palings dunked into the sand. The sling-door made from patches of empty kerosene tins, that was once raised had now turned into be another roof running parallel to the main roof.  Underneath, once a couple of split bamboo are placed on the four bamboo posts, you get a fabulous “bench”. You can sit there and have a cup of tea; buy a bidi, light a cigarette, chat. I wasn’t doing any of these; rather I was intently looking at the sun that seemed to have transformed into a gigantic bowl of vermillion. The ferry would arrive at nine in the night, or that is what the rule is. I had reached the ghaat much before dusk set in.  And before my eyes, the teeny-weeny waves, with their teeny-weeny hands as if smeared themselves with the vermilion and ran off to see some mou-mel somewhere.

As if somebody has smashed every bit of the vermillion in anger over their bodies; somewhat was akin to a woman with a bare forehead.  My mind turned lonesome. Very few passengers could be seen. A couple of Nepalese were there, with their wives. A few labourers too, from the tea-estates. The vehicles from the tea estates that used to bring boxes of tea and take back coal have kept Kathonibaari Ghaat alive. The hazy smoke from the distant tea-mill has already begun blending with the darkness. The boot–a permanently moored boat where essentials for the ferries are kept–that looked like a black demon, the khalasis who worked there, the people of the labourer kind, the small family of the tea-stall and us, and the travellers, were all engulfed by the dark.

The chiming of anklets along with a whooping noise raised curiosity. A bullock cart was seen through the gaps in the straw and reed wall. The cart-driver descended and gently lowered the yoke to the ground. The couple of bullocks began sniffing at the few blades of grass here and there and it was then the green shade of the curtains in front of the cart came into view. Immediately the mind turned verdant and started rippling like the green curtain. A sprightly boy of fifteen or sixteen hopped down.

Along with the cart-driver, he brought down a tin-trunk, and kept it on the ground. After a lot of exertion and strain, the box boarded the head of the cart-driver. The boy took him away, showing the way ahead to the boot.

The mind started quivering once again. The figure that came out of the cart could be seen quite distinctly; because the last dangling particles of light were just disappearing, and stood facing the river, after tidying the clothes on the body. The boy and the cart-driver came close. Taking down stuff such as a hold-all from the cart, they dawdled towards the boot. My eyes followed them.

The boy and the cart-driver appeared after a while. After giving him some money for a cup of tea, the boy ordered him to tie up the bullocks, “Tell them that we arrived safely, do you get it?”

Settling that, the boy went back to the boot. The cart-driver gulped down a ‘single’ tea and a Kol-biscuit. He answered the question of his kind, the labourer passenger sitting near him in the shop. Ten miles to go.

The ten-mile journey of the cart began. The dim light of the lamp that was lit in the ghaat hung on for quite a long distance. On a curve, all of a sudden, it vanished.

The weak light of a candle flickered on one end of the boot.  It seemed that they too have selected that area. My luggage is also there. That area is the only comfortable part in the entire boot.  A hurricane had just lit up near the entrance of the boot. Another was in front of the shop. These three pegs of light robustly erected the tent of darkness. Splash! A loose clod from the bank somewhere ran off and dived into the water. Somewhere very near, right on the edge of the water, one could distinctly hear the cackling laughter of some selekona fish.  I looked at the piles of coal.  Like disguised demons of children’s tales, they advanced menacingly towards me.

My mind pined to go to my spot on the boot (or to know more about the new passenger?). I went ahead into the boot over the strong wooden cross-bridge. Inside the boot, as if all sorts of smells—of tea boxes, of paint, of asphalt, dried fish, burnt coal—had started a chorus after rinsing themselves in laupaani in the hazy darkness; as if somebody had opened a large wooden chest in front of your nose after a long time. This whiff of the flats is one of my favourites. The people from khalasi and other similar classes were busy finishing their meal before the ship arrived.

Beyond the spot I kept my luggage, the Nepalese family, after spreading the blankets, has begun singing a song of lengthy tunes. Further away, a few men, probably Santhals or Oriyas, have situated themselves in a circular fashion on a blanket amidst the railings and have started munching something very hastily. Perhaps it is roasted rice. And right near my luggage, having nudged my suitcase and my bed-pack just a little aside, the boy has spread out the hold-all, and by lying downon it he had immersed himself into an English cine-magazine under candle-light. The girl sat near the bed-head looking disinterestedly towards the paper.

Not knowing what I should be doing, I simply moved my suitcase. The girl looked at me. But she had to look for a while to see me through the candle light. What happened then was that I got a chance to momentarily spot her face framed by the candlelight. The boy too looked at me in a similar manner placing his magazine on his hand. When I bent over to shift my suitcase, the light from the candle licked my face as well.

The boy sprung up hastily. And the girl, well – she also pulled up her veil onto her hair-bun.

“Your suitcase? We’ve just kept it a bit aside. We’ll squeeze in, you spread your bed.”

I was taken aback by the ardent intimacy of his tone. I have been embarrassed quite a few times because of forgetting people too soon. No, that is not the case…I don’t remember seeing him anywhere.

“Oh no, It’s alright! Both of you (the veil!), I mean, you…. sit comfortably. I’ll manage.”

I had already hidden my bed-pack wrapped in a blanket (soiled now) behind my suitcase using finger-tricks. But how will I take care of the discoloured suitcase that has been turned into a sentry? By the way, he belongs to a good lineage; the roots lie in English steel, but who cares about pedigree? When he saw the two things being lifted, the lad shouted indignantly, “Are you planning to move elsewhere? That would really hurt us.”

The boy indeed began pulling in his hold-all.

“No, both of you rest yourselves. There’s no knowing when the ship’s going to come. There’s no fixed time. And sometimes it doesn’t arrive at all.”

“This’s exactly why you should stay here. There aren’t many passengers, and to top it, there aren’t any Axomiya folks. My baideo and I were discussing just that. Even if we could meet somebody….”

I realized that the boy was as scared as his elder sister. I had actually done this trick to remove my ‘vagamond-marked’ suitcase and the bed-pack. Now, my pack of clothes can peek through the veil. Having spread out the bed-pack, I sat in the direction of their feet.

“It should be time to get our tickets. Let me check. Where should I get the tickets for?” There was still time before tickets were given out. But I could find nothing else to ask.

“We’d be going to Jorhat.” The boy answered, sitting up respectfully.

“To Jorhat? But today’s ferry is going downstream.” I answered, pretending to be shocked. Because only the ginger-merchant doesn’t keep track of ships! There are no signs at all of them being so.

The boy was delighted to lessen the load off my mind. With the same delight that a boy from the fifth standard feels while explaining something to a boy from the sixth standard, he explained to me that they will catch the “down steamer” to Xilghaat, and then would reach Jorhat directly using state transport. “We must reach Jorhat by tomorrow. It’s essential.” The words and dialogues were drawing me. Though the the woman who seemed to be their daughter-in-law was sitting aside with typical awkwardness, a momentary glimpse of her face gave the impression that she too was engaged actively in the conversation. I was pondering over this perplexing quality of being able to turn oneself so “alive” without a peep from the mouth. She must have been married just a few days aog; there was a hue of turmeric on her skin that I could clearly notice even in the weak light of the candle. A fragrant stream of turmertic and oil from amidst her hair and the dulai. on her body has made a river-mouth in my nose.  She had a full face and round hands like longish balloons. The radiant yellowish complexion and the colour of the pat-silk made her look like a painted subject. Nowadays, such a build isn’t seen often.

Suddenly I remembered, the young man had asked me something, and is a bit discomfited too not having received an answer.

“Oh-oh, did you ask something about me? I’m also going to Xilghaat, my home’s close to Xilghaat.”

“Then it’s really good. The ship reaches Xilghaat within the night. Having met you would be of great help. Isn’t it, baideu?

Baideu was fiddling with the magazine.  Her ears were on our conversation.

She raised her head, and kept looking towards her younger brother affirmatively.

Someone had embossed the smile on her entire face with ripe colours. How would the forehead have smiled otherwise? Do the nose, eyes and chin smile too? Can such lush ebony eyebrows too beam so delicately?

It was time for the ferry to arrive just like other days. I stood up to go and enquire about it. The boy wanted to fish out some money to get the tickets. I checked him saying that the bell for the ticket has not yet been rung, and even if tickets are sold, I can get them with my own money. The money can be paid back later.

“If there’s still time for the ferry to arrive, could we have tea?” I asked, just as I was leaving.

The boy looked at his sister’s face. The sister groped in the hold-all with her fingers and said, as if to herself, “Where might be the flask?”

I heard her voice, for the first time. Sombre, yet endowed with softness a tad like butter –I am not really sure if such a description would fit the voice of a person.

The young man whisked out the flask. I went near the railing after taking the flask. A river-dolphin nearby popped its head to look at how advanced the night is. Somewhere, some soil eroded noisily into the breast of the river. The tired cadence of a madol is floating through from some faraway tea-estate.

There appears to be no hope of tickets being given. The ferry must have been stuck on some sand-bank. The ticket-master spoke out crossly. The last earthquake, it appears, has left a sand-bank in the ticket-master’s sleep.

The family of the tea-stall owner has finished eating. The children have lowered the things of the stall from a bamboo chang and were ready to go to bed. The plump middle aged shopkeeper was engrossed in a game of bridge along with three other persons after laying out a mattress on the front chang. One of them spoke out the moment I reached, “It’s already ten, need to go.” “This game,” another answered while shuffling the pack of cards. Nobody has seen me. I didn’t play spoilsport and began watching the game. “Heart one”, “Spade one”, “No trump”, “Two clubs”, “Three Diamonds”, “Double” etc started becoming like the sound of crackers. The game started and then came to an end. The part that insisted on the last game, i.e. the shopkeeper also underwent a lot of “down”. The three of them got up to leave after that. I realized, all three were employees in the tea estate – they play bridge here at night.

I was looking piteously at the face of the storekeeper which resembled a “spade” now. It was now that he became aware of me. “Do you need something?” He asked softly.

“I needed tea, but will you be able to provide?” I asked, glancing at the children getting ready to sleep. “Of course, I suppose the ferry won’t come at all tonight.” A small boy has already sprung to our side.

“One cup?”

I forwarded the flask to the boy, “Three.”

“Oh, you have your family?” The tea stall owner went on, “Tell us if you have any trouble. If you want to eat, we will arrange that as well. You can have tea, hot water or anything you need, even in the night.”

He was quite fat, swarthy and middle-aged. Gentleness could be seen on his face. Intimacy stirred the tune of his voice. I understood after a short conversation that the children were motherless. They were the only ones who comprised his humble household on the sands of the Brahmaputra.

The people of this world made me feel so good. So much of love, affection, sympathy! My mind felt warm. I expressed a few words of gratitude, paid for the tea and I returned to the boot after almost an hour. I got to know from the ticket master that there are no hopes of the ferry coming. Not before the last phase of the night. I advanced towards our spot through a narrow and gloomy path between two rows of tea-boxes.

The roasted-rice party was popping rice-puffs in their noses. We could hear the song of the Nepali family rising to the seventh scale once. The same has now reached the eighth in long yawns and sluggish stretches. The film magazine has also snoozed off comfortably on the boy’s chest. Having found the companion for the night., the poor guy is absolutely relieved now.

His sister sat on the side of his head, and must have been waiting for me. When she saw me, she raised him gently, “Varun, won’t you have your cup of tea?” There was no needless anxiety in her voice, no irregularity in her actions. I realized she was self-confident and also could lay trust in others. My hesitation reduced considerably.

“Varun”, I called out.

All three of us sat down for tea. I had already procured three earthen glasses from the shop. They brought out coconut ladus and two or three other food items from the suitcase. When I tried to go a little away with my portion, objections were raised. I was forced to eat where I was seated itself. “Spread your bed well, Varun, get the mosquito net up as well. You can sleep tight then.”

“Won’t the ferry arrive?” I felt as if both had asked simultaneously.

“What’s going to happen, Varun?” His sister asked anxiously. I wouldn’t have believed that anxiety can also make somebody beautiful. But why are they so anxious?

“Do you’ve very important work, Varun? In Jorhat?” The sentence slipped out of my mouth suddenly.

“We must reach Jorhat tomorrow, by any means.” His sister replied to me straightforwardly this time, though with a bowed head.

“We’ll think tomorrow what to do tomorrow, isn’t it, Varun?” Varun found a great ally in my words.

“Indeed so! Why does my sister keep on imagining needless thoughts? They have written, ‘No worry’.  You’re also a minor-pass; don’t you understand the meaning of ‘No worry’?”

“But what about ‘Come sharp’?” she replied looking at her brother, smiling a little shyly.

Bhinihideu’s a lily-livered person. He wants you nearby like he’s on death’s bed even when he has a headache. That’s why ‘Come sharp’.”

I saw in the candlelight that her entire face was flushed beautifully. “No worry, come sharp” – what mystery does lie in these words!

“Is there any ailment?”

“Bhinihideu had a cycle accident. In the hospital now, it’s been two days since we got the telegram. I wasn’t there; I just reached yesterday after my school had closed. It ‘s the time of leaves in the estate, “season time”, so my father too couldn’t get leave.”

Varun spread out the bed spaciously after my repeated requests. He raised the mosquito net three corners with a lot of effort. Baideu went off to sleep without a word. I got to know a little more about Varun’s family after a little chit-chat. My address was also noted down. Sometime later, Varun too fell asleep.

Kathonibaari Ghaat was fast asleep. Caught in the snare of slumber, the boot too started drooping drowsily. The annoying sound of footsteps somewhere, of the ticket-master or some khalasi, could be clearly heard right unto the end of the boot. Some soil from a nearby precipice crashed down.

On the other side of the Brahmaputra, a tiger is lurking on the path of its prey in the darkness of the Kaziranga (must be). Some mystery is lying and blinking its eyes in the distant sand-banks, amidst the kohua and the jhaubons, in the broad, dark waters of the Brahmaputra. A few stars have crowded together and are sneaking in quick looks to find out what the mystery might be. In the bank nearest to the boot, some laundry-girls with dishevelled hair are splashing clothes – “Sop-sop-sopath!” Dhet! Those are the waves!

The young man, or Varun, is in the ninth standard in the town high-school. What did he say the name of his father is? He works in the tea-house in one of the tea-gardens. Head tea house? Most probably so. It is ten miles away from the ghaat. It has been one and a half years since his elder sister got married.

She has been called back just after a week. It is a minor injury. But what about “Come sharp”! He cannot stay away from her. Very loving….if only this night had been one and a half years back! And I haven’t had a cycle accident now….dhet!

The candle fluttered out in the breeze. It felt good in the dark, but it seemed inappropriate. I lit the matchstick. Having found a half-consumed stick of mixer, I lit that up and extended the burning matchstick towards the candle.

I was startled. The voice of the elder sister. “One might get some sleep, in the dark.”

“You haven’t gone to sleep?”

“Dozed off a little. Sleep seems to evade me.”

Naturally. The candle stayed unlit. Resting on the railings, I kept on looking sharply towards the direction the ferry might come from. Candle-light won’t do, I must get the light of the ferry.

I didn’t know how long I stayed that way. Suddenly a commotion started. Words like “Ferry”, “Ferry”, “light” etc were accompanied by the bell for tickets and the thumping of people walking.

I lit the candle hurriedly. The sister had already sat up. She woke up Varun goading him with both hands. A startled Varun also woke up.

“The ferry’s arrived, Varun.”  As if, after a lot of hullabaloo and lingering I have brought information that’s like “A boy’s born”. I went off to get the tickets after asking him to roll up the bed.

I understood immediately that there has been some mishap as soon as I saw the face of the ticket-master. Signals have been received from the ferry that repair works need to be done. Therefore, tickets will be issued later on. The ferry was limping ahead towards us. Varun came and stood near me some time after. Once the news was broken, he went back to inform his sister.

Dawn was breaking out.

I went down to the bank. Some arrangement must be taken care of.  They must reach Jorhat today by any means. After the morning-deeds, I shook off the drowsiness with a strong cup of tea. I made them prepare three good cups of tea after getting them to fry fresh luchis. The ferry arrived and a couple of passengers alighted. I saw that Barun is coming down to the bank accompanied by another youngster.

Dada, dada, Mamu’s arrived. He’s come from Jorhat on the ferry. Didn’t I say so, there’s no need to worry.”

Mamu has arrived looking all worn out after the loss of the night’s sleep! A related brother-in-law of the sister, He is almost of the same age as Varun, maybe a little older. “What’s the news from Jorhat?” I asked looking at Mamu; it was Varun who replied promptly, “It’s good, since our departure’s getting late, he‘s sent to take back.”

“Take back? Why so?”

“If she leaves, I’ll take her; otherwise I thought I’d myself go back after the spree, and thus I came.” Mamu replied this time. “So what’re you going to do now?”

Nobou wants to leave, at any cost. Therefore, we’ll hire a boat and catch the first bus to Jorhat. The ferry’s stuck in the sand, something’s broken down. It’ll leave only after repairs. So, it’ll get late if we go by ferry.”

“In that case Varun, arrange for baideu to freshen up. Both of you go. I’ll get the tea brought in.”

Both of them left after Varun had handed over the flask in his hand. After allowing them time of an hour or so, when I returned to the boot along with tea and breakfast in the hands of a shop-boy, Varun’s sister was chatting merrily with Mamu after having her bath that morning. The shadow of worry that was during the night is no longer there on her face.

“My heart skipped a beat when I’d seen you first.”

“I’ve already said, if you don’t want to go, you can go back to the estate.”

“Oh no, both of you can come back after dropping me off. It’s nice that you’ve arrived. Last night a person really helped…..”

I had arrived. She drew her veil just a little more and her shyness simply turned her crimson. The shop-boy left after leaving the paraphernalia of tea behind.

“Where’s Varun gone?” I looked at Mamu.

“He hasn’t come back after having gone to freshen up,” the answer came from Mamu’s nobou. And immediately engaged herself in pouring out tea. Tea and breakfast was forwarded to me and Mamu.

“Not for me, I’ve just had some.”

“Have to eat again.”

Wow! I moved off a little with my glass of tea.

“The boat’s been arranged. It’d be better to wrap up soon. The tea’d get cold, don’t wait for Varun. Isn’t it, Mamu?”

“Ya, right now. The bus to Jorhat will reach Xilghaat at nine.”

The boatman from the West started rowing to the tune of Varun-Mamu’s song.

“Brahmaputra, Ganga, ma oooo,

Botaahe haalise gaon,

Mathura Puri-loi jao

Kaaxe sopai diya nao.”

The boat started shooting like an arrow on the waters downstream. I looked at Varun’s sister and Mamu’s sister-in-law (Mine? What of mine?). She is listening intently to the song of Varun and party. The smile which was wedged upon her face was rising and falling noiselessly to the rhythm of the song. And that vermilion mark! What a blazing red flame of fire is it! The complexion of the face in the morning sunlight has turned golden, nay, has taken on the hues of raw turmeric joints. The colour of gold is lifeless.

A picture of a happy home. Mother and father-in-law, brother-in-law, “Can’t even survive if he doesn’t find you” – a husband. That is why it’s “Come sharp.” “You’re also a minor pass-out, don’t you know the meaning of ‘no worry’?’” “Have to eat again.”….

Of my many days as a vagabond moving around among tea-gardens looking for a job this was a day that had come to me, a night out of my many nights – as the boat progressively approached Xilghaat, my mind increasingly grew more and more despondent.

Suddenly I saw that the vermillion mark on Varun’s sister is gleaming like blood. When she stooped her head over the boat a little, the sparkling reflections from the waves shot all across her face. As if the waves will carry off her vermillion mark after carving it up.

The boat approached the ghaat. Xilghaat.

The bus arrived as soon as the tea-chapter ended. Government bus, runs by the clock. This is where we part. Varun and his sister went and sat on the “second seat”. Varun was effusive in his praise.

“Do drop at baideu’s home when in Jorhat, you remember the address, don’t you?” Varun’s sister, with a warm look, also spoke out, even more than Varun. “And if you’ve to go through Kathonibaari ghaat, you must visit our home in the estate.”

It was not verbal formality; it was a call from the heart. The bus honked. The sister gently signalled a namaskar, raising both her hands to her forehead. I also gestured one in return. But Mamu?

Mamu has not yet got up from the tea-stall. I hurried to the tea-stall after informing the driver, to send Mamu. Mamu is scurrying a sewing-machine on a cigarette.

“The bus’s leaving, Mamu.”

Mamu braces up after throwing away the cigarette. “It has been a pleasure meeeting you,” Mamu kept on looking at me with an agitated restlessness. “Will definitely meet someday, the bus is about to leave – you go now,” I somewhat shoved him on. The horn hoots once again. Mamu is now perspiring in agitation. “Yes, I’m going, but how’ll I go? Kokaideu had a car accident and everything’s over the next day! My arrival is just a make-up.”

Mamu leaped on to the bus. The wheels of the bus, rotating rapidly, disappeared amidst the curves of the Kamakhya hill.

“Kathonibari Ghaat” (1955), Galpa Samagra by Mahim Bora. Ed. Hiren Gohain, Guwahati: Golok Raimedhi Smriti Prakashan, 1993.

Mahim Borah (1924 – ) is one of the most respected authors of Assamese Literature, especially renowned for his short stories. He has won numerous awards such as the Sahitya Akademi, Assam valley literary Award, The Sahityacharya honour, and  the Padmashree Award in 2011. He lives in Nagaon, Assam.

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Rajarshi KalitaRajarshi Kalita teaches English Literature at Shyamlal College, University of Delhi. His area of interests include cultural studies, popular culture and popular fiction, colonial historiography, translation and North Eastern cultural history and politics.

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Mukuta BoraMukuta Borah is a doctoral fellow in the Department of MIL&LS, University of Delhi. She is currently working on women writing on conflict from Assam She also teaches English literature and language to post graduate students of IGNOU. Her area of interest includes comparative literature, translation studies, ELLT, literature and visual documentations/representations of the diaspora and American literature.

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YATRA CHAKRA

Satish Singh

Translated from the Hindi by Abdullah Khan

Illustration : Avirup Ghosh

Illustration: Avirup Ghosh

The Circle of Journeys

Whenever we move from a village to a city
Or from a city to a village
Everything changes
Air, soil, water
Whisperings of new wind
The fragrance of new flowers

We move to a new place again
But old memories remain stuck
To our consciousness
Their fragrance and flavour intact

The winter morning
The garden-fresh sun just out of its hidings
My train stops
On a unknown platform
But the name of the city is familiar to me
I could barely read – “Patna”
On a wall stained with red paan juices

I am amazed at the deepness of the city
As I walk around
To explore the city

When I see ‘Agamkuan’ I wonder
How emperor Ashoka
Might have killed his 99 brothers
A psychopath must have resided in his body
Bloody dreams must have infested his eyes
He must have been a heartless man
With a conscience devoid of
Empathy or compassion

In my dreams
I see the River Ganges
Shrouded in darkness
When I woke up
I find the river is on ventilators

The filth littering the streets
The vehicles clogging the roads
The concrete jungle
Women walking naked in the markets
The shattered mirrors of grace and honour
The demise of thoughtfulness

In this age of rapid transition
The cool breeze no more sings the ballads of spring season
The moon no more sprinkles its golden moonlight
Rivers, winds, trees and humans
Have been deprived of the life giving rays of the early morning sun

Mankind is not yet dead
But is breathing its last
I have an overwhelming impulse to cry loudly
But I manage to control my feelings
I fear I will be branded insane

Will the flutter of the wind
Give melody to its melody-less whisperings
Will the courtyard of my house
Be fragrant with sweet memories of the past
When I set out on a new journey?

***

Satish Singh is a Patna based poet and freelance journalist. An alumnus of Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, he writes for leading Hindi dailies like Jansatta, Navbharat Times, Hindustan, Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, etc. He has also published one poetry collection.
Abdullah Khan writes on literary and social issues for a number of Indian and international publications, including The Hindu, Brooklyn Rail, The Friday Times and The Daily Star amongst others.
Avirup Ghosh is a PhD student at Jadavpur University. His research interests include visual arts, storytelling and ethics of representation.

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Filed under Poetry, Translation

The Journey

Imran Hussain

Translated from Axamiya by Mitali Goswami

The story of Rabeya, a fiercely independent woman in lower Assam, who earns a living after her divorce by selling firewood, travelling to Dhubri town every day

Photograph : Rupam Sarma

Gaurang River, Bilasipara
Photograph : Rupam Sarma

‘How can that be? We must follow the rules of the Shariat.’

‘I shall not follow these rules. Let go of my hand, let me go.” Rabeya said, trying to loosen Hannan’s grip by twisting her hand this way and that.

The little station of Bahbari sprang to life as soon as the red-hued train steamed in noisily. Its shrill whistle mingled with the call of vendors and the chaotic rush of daily passengers excitedly making their way towards the train. Behind Simal, Phulbanu and other firewood sellers, Rabeya rushed to enter the third-class compartment. Balanced precariously on her head were four bundles of firewood.

As the women entered the bogey the rest of the passengers set up a hue and cry.

‘Go elsewhere.’

‘Don’t let these dirty women come in here,’ some of the passengers shouted.‘

A young dandy in faded jeans wearing pointed Beatles shoes stood at the door barring their way. He kicked at the bundles and one or two of them fell down. Like an enraged tigress Rabeya sprang at him shouting abuses and saying that the train was meant for all and was run by the government for people like them. Turning to the boy, she asked in a loud rasping voice, ‘why did you kick out my bundles?’

Indignantly the boy retorted, ‘Show me your ticket first.’

Glancing around Rabeya wondered loudly how many of the other passengers had tickets and turning again to the boy she asked, ‘and who has made you the ticket collector.’

Embarrassed the boy muttered under his breath, ‘Listen to her, cheap whore. You are Not worth a two rupee note!’

‘Whore! Me a whore? What did you say boy? Rabeya is my name and if I open my mouth the likes of you will run naked on the streets. Don’t I see you scooting into the toilets every time the ticket checker comes this way?’ Pulling her sari tightly over her waist she advanced a little towards the boy.

Alarmed, the boy retreated to a corner seat. The other passengers too fell silent, unwilling to provoke her further. Only a Bengali gentleman raising his head from the Ananda Bazaar Patrika he had been reading remarked, ‘Let them be, that is how they earn a living after all.’

Turning to the women he raised his voice and said, ‘No more shouting from you, sit quietly.’

Seated amidst the baggage and bundles of firewood in the narrow passage, thirteen-year-old Dulali, gaped at her aunt in wonder and amazement. Bapre! she thought, quite a tigress, this aunt of hers, how she could silence ‘Pointed Shoes.’

So, it was not only in their village but in the outside world too that her aunt’s tongue worked like a double-edged sword. Yet three years earlier who would have thought that her aunt Rabeya would turn out like this?  Why she was as silent and as obedient as a cow but barely three years since her talaq what a change has come over her!

She still remembered clearly all that had happened on that day; everything was deeply etched in her memory; Hannan, her uncle, Rabeya’s husband, had invited Maulbi Keramat  for lunch and had sacrificed Rabeya’s pet duck for the occasion. Dulali too was in their house lending Rabeya a helping hand; though saddened by the loss of her only duck, Rabeya was getting the meal ready. Outside their ramshackle hut Maulbi Keramat and Hannan Miya were whiling away the time between magrib namaaz and isa namaaz in small talk. Starting with the rituals of namaaz, rozah, zakat, shariat, hadis, haram, halal, hayez, nafez, zanaza, quayamat they went on to talk of the tortures of hell which awaited unbelievers. But gradually Keramat Maulabi went on to describe the ‘hurs’, the heavenly damsels, created for the pleasure of the virtuous Muslims in their afterlife.

The excited voice of the Maulbi was clearly audible through the cracked reed wall, ‘Ha re Hannan Bhai, listen to what the Hadis says, Ma La Ainur Rayatoon Uwala ijunoon Samqyat. It means that the beauty of the hur is such that no human eye has seen or human ear had heard about. Allah has made us mortals from dust and the heavenly hurs from fragrant musk, Kasturi and Jafran.

‘Ahhare! Just think how beautiful they must be.’

‘Not man alone, it is said that even the divine Gibraiel Alaissaliam once lost his senses after seeing such a hur.’

‘Maulabi Saab, how many hurs will, a devout Muslim get in his after life, what does the Hadis say?’

Hannan wanted to know and the Maulbi replied, ‘The Hadis says that over your married wife you shall have the services of seventy such hurs. Just think, seventy times the pleasure of one earthly wife.’

‘Pleasure of earthly wife,’ Hannan almost snarled out, ‘Which earthly wife knows how to please her man. All these are artless and charmless creatures.’ Uttering the words between gritted teeth Hannan turned to the Maulbi and in a softer tone requested him to wash his hands, as it was time for namaaz. Both Hannan and the Maulbi then came to the verandah.

When Hannan extended his hand towards the water jar to find it empty, he shouted out in anger. Since he had remained drowned so long in the fantasies of the heavenly hurs, when the ungainly picture of Rabeya’s dark lanky frame and slightly buck-toothed face came to his mind, the shout ended in a string of expletives.

Meanwhile inside the hut a not-too-happy-Rabeya was thinking of her pet duck and how fond she had been of it. It had also begun to lay eggs recently. She remembered how it would waddle behind her as she walked around the courtyard doing her chores. She only had to call out ‘toi… toi… toi…’ for the duck to come strutting to her side. The duck would spend the entire day in the dirty ditch behind their house and come to her at mid-day and evening quacking hungrily demanding that Rabeya should feed her. And now that duck lay dead in front of her, sacrificed for the Maulbi’s meal. Distracted as she was Rabeya must have forgotten to fill the water jar for the Maulbi’s uju.

Roused by her husband’s shout she ran out of the kitchen almost knocking into Maulbi Saab. As she stopped short in shock, Hannan did in public what till now he had done only in private. Raising the aluminum jar that he was still clutching in his hand he began to rain blows upon Rabeya shouting ‘shameless stupid woman.’ One of the blows hit her face breaking a tooth; blood gushed out and streaked her face. A terrified and bewildered Dulali witnessed the whole incident through a crack in the mud-caked reed wall of the kitchen. Yet as silent as ever, pulling the end of her sari to cover her head and tearful eyes, Rabeya proceeded to the well to fill the jar.

Seated dumbfounded in the kitchen Dulali’s first thought was to run away, to go back home to her parents. But she did not do so. She could not leave her aunt now; She spent that night awake upon the gunny bag she had laid out to sleep, witness to a night of unspeakable torture upon her groaning and whimpering aunt.

At dawn after his morning prayers Hannan advanced steadily to the bed where Rabeya lay like a tree felled by a storm and spoke out the dreaded words:

‘Ayen Talaq! Bayen Talaq! T alaq T alaq Tin T alaq

T alaq, T alaq Talaq.

And then he walked away turning his back on thirteen years of married life. Before leaving, he left the mehr  of twenty-one rupees under her damp pillow.

***

‘Hai-re! Dulali, are you dreaming open-mouthed! Run and get the bundles, the train is leaving.’ Dulali— brought back to reality by the words of her aunt–jumped down to collect their bundles. Before she could collect them all the train made a movement and Dulali jumped in again leaving two bundles still scattered upon the platform. On seeing just one bundle in Dulali’s hands, Rabeya let out a scream, ‘The other two bundles?’

Her aunt’s anguished tone pricked Dulali to the core. Lifting a hand to her lice infested hair she somehow managed to mutter in a faltering voice ‘the train began to move.’

‘Hear that, landlord’s daughter are you! The train began to move! Do you know the price of a single bundle of firewood?’ Gritting her teeth Rabeya spoke roughly, the gap in her front teeth adding a strange harshness to her face.

Dulali, subdued after being scolded in the midst of so many people, stood a safe distance away from her aunt. Little drops of sweat, sparkling like the little glass stud on her nose, began to gather on the two sides of her nose. The helpless look on Dulali’s face reminded Rabeya of her own daughter, her only daughter. When Hannan had not been able to repay debts he had forcefully married their daughter to a Kabuli moneylender. Poor girl, her tender frame had not been able to bear the brutish bulk of the man. Her first conjugal night had also been her last leaving her dead upon a blood stained bed. There had been the same look of helplessness on her daughter’s face then. A long and deep sigh shuddered through Rabeya’s lean frame, as it always did whenever she thought of her daughter. Gazing for a while at Dulali’s tender face Rabeya spoke softly, ‘It’s all right, No use worrying about it now.  Such is our fate. Now come and find a seat.’

Dulali ran her eyes over the compartment. No, none of the seats were empty. Both the berths were fully occupied. On one berth sat a dhoti-clad Bengali man, near him a young girl in a bright sari her hair tied in a low neat bun. Next to the young girl was an elderly woman wearing spectacles. On the opposite berth sat a pockmarked Maruwari man and next to him the boy who had quarreled with her aunt; who was wearing old jeans and very pointed shoes. Near them a little space was empty but she did not want to sit near that rude boy, so she sat on a bundle of logs beside her aunt.

Her heart was heavy at the loss of the two bundles. She knew that felling and collecting firewood was no mean task. One had to enter the forest at the crack of dawn avoiding the hawk eyes of the forest guards. Then to track down fallen branches and gather them into bundles and to run out again—stealthily in a dog-running speed without the slightest sound—carrying as many bundles as possible on one’s head. And then to lose all, even chastity, if caught by the guards. And then—the run to the station, to board a train to town— where the firewood would fetch a better price. These few days with her aunt had taught her a hard lesson indeed. She deeply regretted that she had not been able to load all the firewood into the train.

Dulali turned her face—which had darkened like the monsoon clouds—towards the window. She sat there gazing outside; sadly. Everything seemed to be moving backwards. Trees, green fields, telegraph poles and perched atop these poles were lone birds. It was two years since Dulali’s father had died of throat cancer. A kind and mild natured man, one who couldn’t hurt even a fly, how terribly the he had suffered in his last days. Towards the end he had not been able to swallow even a mouthful of rice. Yet he remained concerned for his wife and three daughters. The younger ones were too little to understand but Dulali and her mother could understand and not a morsel could they eat in peace. Yet, her father would drag himself to the kitchen to enquire whether they had eaten. His last thoughts were about them, and of what would happen when he was no more. She remembered how he had lain listlessly in bed for the last two days, too weak to move, his deep set eyes following their movements in the room. It was only when the water that her mother poured down his lips trickled out that they realized that he would drink no more ever again. For a long time after that her mother’s wails seemed to echo round their hut. A still youthful Saketan was now left alone with her three daughters. She was then only in her thirties. Her condition seemed like an invitation as friends turned foes and covetous glances followed her wherever she went. Some men began to hover around her like a bunch of bloodthirsty hounds. Seeing no way out she finally decided to marry an elderly mason. But the mason’s age did not deter him from troubling Saketan all night long.

Their new house had only one room, so Dulali and her two sisters slept on gunny bags on the mud floor out on the verandah. Tired out after their day-long play the two younger girls would sleep soundly while Dulali, always a light sleeper, would lay awake distressed by the sounds of the creaking bed, which sometimes continued till the crack of dawn. Embarrassed at first, Dulali would try to shut out the sounds by lying rolled into a tight ball. Later she took to sleeping at her maternal uncle’s house, nearby. But Saketan was not too happy with the arrangement. Dulali was growing up and no one could be trusted. Finally Dulali decided that she would stay with her aunt Rabeya, and help her to collect and sell firewood.

But an infuriated Saketan protested. Seated in her sister’s kitchen she told Dulali, ‘Let this husbandless slut of a woman do whatever she wishes but you cannot, you now have a father to feed you, you are not a destitute.’

But Dulali remained adamant; she would stay with her aunt. Unable to reason with her daughter an angry Saketan slapped her sharply on the cheek and muttered under her breath, ‘Do you want to roam around like a homeless slut and become a whore?’

A silent observer so long, but hurt by her sister’s words, Rabeya now spoke up, ‘Let us see for how long your new husband continues to feed his step daughters.’

Not a month passed that Rabeya’s words came true.

One morning as she sat lighting the fire in her earthen stove Saketan and Dulali arrived. Saketan’s face was tear-drenched.

‘What is it Bai?’ Rabeya asked her elder-sister. ‘Why is your face as dark as a burnt pan? What is wrong?’

Saketan broke down and wept. A bewildered Rabeya sat nearby looking at her sister’s forlorn face. A little later Saketan stopped weeping and sat gazing sadly at the blazing hearth. she spoke at length, ‘The mason says that he will not feed the children of another man. Now how is it possible for me feed all three of them? He wants me to marry Dulali off. Keep her with you and let her earn her living by selling firewood.’

Rabeya had not forgotten her elder sister’s recent barbs yet now her eyes grew moist on hearing her sister’s words. Indeed Dulali had begun to ‘draw attention’. Her own problems were many, yet Rabeya did not have the heart to refuse her sister. Yes, she agreed, Dulali could stay with her.

Dulali had accompanied Rabeya into the woods several times to collect firewood. But this was her first trip to Dhubri town. This morning Dulali had felt a strange exhilaration as she entered the deep woods to get the firewood. Her heart beat faster and she felt like prancing as if she were a deer of the forest. She was glad to escape the stifling nights at her own home. Now each day she would go to Dhubri town to sell wood with her aunt. She would earn and then her stepfather would not taunt her any more. May be she would earn four to five rupees each day. But not today, she thought, remembering the bundles of wood she had left lying on the platform. Who knows what they would be worth?’

‘Dulali,’ Rabeya called out, ‘What are you worrying about?’ Dulali, who had been sitting dejectedly with her cheek resting upon her hand, made a slight movement before answering, ‘Those bundles, we left back at Bahbari.’

Rabeya let out a laugh. ‘Such things happen at the beginning, slowly you will learn everything; don’t sit there worrying. Go to the end of the bogey and pull our bundles into the toilet. Hurry up; the ticket checker will be here any time.’

Dulali did as she was told, but the stench in the toilet almost turned her stomach. She retched and felt like throwing up. Holding her nose with her right hand and the bundles with her left she somehow managed to accomplish her task. The others had already stacked their bundles in the toilet. So heaving one last bundle to the comer of the corridor Dulali returned to her aunt.

On seeing Dulali, Rabeya took a long pull of the bidi 15 in her hand and pointing to a vacant seat told Dulali, ‘Go and sit there and don’t get up even if somebody asks you to.’

Dulali saw that the pock marked Maruwari man was laying full length on one of the seats and a little space was vacant near his feet. That was where Quarrelsome Pointed Shoes had been sitting. She debated whether to take the seat or not, she worried if the boy should come back. Sounds of laughter floated in from the entrance and Dulali glanced that way. She saw that Pointed Shoes was hanging on the door rail and laughing and talking with another boy. Hesitantly she advanced to the seat and sat huddled in the edge.

The slow rhythm of the train and the lull of the scenery outside was strangely soothing to Dulali. Her tired eyes shut. The disjointed conversation of the passengers created ripples of unknown thoughts in her mind. She seemed to drift into a stupor. As her drowsy lids became heavier and she drifted into an unworried sleep she perceived a strange sensation in her thighs. Immediately alert she looked down to find that the Maruwari was rubbing his foot on her thigh and the more she huddled and moved to the side, the more the foot advanced to creep stealthily under her frock and seek out her tender thighs. She looked towards her aunt but found that Rabeya was nodding in sleep, seated upon a bundle of firewood and maintaining a strange balance with the rhythm of the train. Near her Phulbanu was also fast asleep with her head resting on Rabeya’s shoulders. Dulali too got up from her seat and seated herself beside them.

Sometime later the train left the green fields behind and after crossing some green signals, dilapidated huts and a few red brick houses came to a stop at the Golockganj railway station. Dhubri town was now only two stations away. But the route was different and the engine had to be joined at the other end. So the train stopped here for almost half an hour. Here many new people boarded and some left the train. Vendors came shouting. ‘Le.. Chai!!’

Yet Rabeya did not stir from her deep slumber. In the next track their engine passed them letting out hot whiffs and short whistles. It shunted down and joined the train at the other end with a great jolt. Some time later the train began to move again yet Rabeya slept on strangely unmoving. But an hour later as the train began to steam into the Dhubri station Rabeya woke up with a start calling out to Dulali to fetch their bundles from the toilet.

Hurrying to the toilet and not seeing the bundle she had kept in the corridor Dulali called out to her aunt. Promptly Rabeya rushed to her side and on seeing that not only the bundle but also the quarrelsome boy was missing; she drew her own conclusions. The boy must have kicked the bundle out of the running train. Such things had happened to her before; she knew very well how these cowards acted. Instantly a sigh formed in her poverty stricken careworn mind. A sigh, which came from the depths of her heart to escape in a string of abuses, ‘Son of a whore, what will you gain by throwing out my bundles. Rascal, bastard, servant of your wife.’

Rabeya’s angry voice resounded in the compartment. For a long time the words hung in the air and people jostled past them to reach the doors. They echoed on the empty walls and got down along with Rabeya, Dulali and the four remaining bundles of firewood.

2

That morning while running down the railway track with three bundles of firewood on her head Dulali had tripped several times and the pebbles had cut into her feet. Unused to carrying such heavy weight she had been out of breath for most of the time. Now that she had nothing to carry her head felt lighter but her heart was burdened with remorse. She fervently hoped that they could sell the remaining bundles quickly and at a good price. Quickly, they did sell but not at a good price. At the first crossroads an idler type of boy who had been standing talking to his friends, forcibly took snatched away two bundles and pushed four rupees into Rabeya’s hand. At first Rabeya held on to the knot of the bundles and angrily at first and then with entreaties pleaded with the boy to raise the price.

But to no avail, a rough push from the boy silenced her. Quietly they proceeded to the market place where they got a good price for one of the bundles. But the sale of the last bundle almost cost Dulali her life. As her aunt negotiated with a customer over their third bundle an elderly gentleman came up to Dulali and asked her to carry one bundle of firewood to his house nearby. Heaving a bundle on to her head the man asked her to follow him down a narrow dingy alley till they reached a house. Opening the bamboo barred gate she followed him to the courtyard where turning to her with a strange gleam in his eyes he caught hold of her hand and asked her in a leering tone, ‘What is your own price girl?’ Uncomprehending at first she stood dumb for a moment but when the man did not leave her hand she let out such a yell that he let go and Dulali ran to the safety of her aunt’s side. After that Rabeya stood for a long time in the man’s gate letting out a stream of filthy abuses. But no one came out of the house.

A much-subdued Dulali now began her journey back home with her aunt. Her enthusiasm of the morning had been replaced by a deep depression. She declared that she would never come to sell firewood again, that she would rather stay home. Unable to persuade her to change her mind an angry Rabeya with Dulali in tow proceeded down the dark railway track towards the platform. Sensing her aunt’s anger, Dulali felt very lonely. The unfamiliar surroundings, the descending winter fog and the advancing darkness made her feel even lonelier. Following her aunt’s footsteps Dulali advanced without a word. Some time later she noticed a small speck of light advancing towards them from the opposite direction at a steady speed. Unable to figure out what the strange light was Dulali clutched at the end of her aunt’s sari from behind. When the speck of light was just ahead it seemed to burn brighter for an instant like a tiny ball of fire. Suddenly she realized that a man smoking a bidi was in front of them. Holding tightly to her aunt’s hand Dulali hoped they could safely pass by when breaking the stillness of the night her aunt’s rough voice rang out, ‘You! Why have you come again? Did I not tell you that day itself? Move back! Let us pass.’

‘Rabeya,’ it was spoken like a sigh, but the voice was familiar. Something like a whiff of cold air with a thousand fingers seemed to rise from Dulali’s feet to her head as she stood trembling. It was Hannan’s voice! Hannan who had left Rabeya three years ago.

‘I am very ill unable to eat. I cannot even walk properly. A little work makes me tired. Forget what has happened. Leave the past, what has happened has happened… now you must come back home Rabeya. Who knows how long I will live, at least be with me these last few days of our life.’

‘Oi!  Now that you cannot walk you remember Rabeya. All these years did you think of me, and what about your new bride? I heard that you had married again at Goalpara… a girl young enough to be your daughter. Doesn’t she look after you?’

‘Don’t talk about that one. She has run away long back.’

‘Ran away? Or did you give talaq to her too?’

‘Na…she ran away,’ he spoke impatiently, ‘With a vagabond. It has been a year now;’ Hannan’s words gave Rabeya a strange thrill of pleasure as if some cooling balm had been laid on her burning heart. Disgust and happiness took turns in her mind and shivered through her very frame.

In the dancing rhythm of that strange emotion she gave a shrug and spoke, ‘Ran away! Good for her. Better to run away and live with a partner of her choice than ‘to be tied to one as old as her father. Good! Very Good.’

She shoved Dulali and said, ‘Hurry, let’s go’ and started to walk away towards the platform. But Hannan did not leave their side and walked along with them to the platform. In the platform he took a step forward and stood facing Rabeya. Rabeya tried to walk away but he caught hold of one of her hands and began to pull at her.

She screamed out, ‘Why have you touched me? I am no longer your wife. Let me go.’ Instead of letting go he caught her even more desperately. Like a drowning man grasping at a straw he grasped her hand and pulled it up to his chest. A surprised Rabeya raised her eyes to his face. Strangely her husband of so many years now seemed like a total stranger. In these three years he had aged a lot and had become thinner. His slight frame seemed to be shrinking under his dirty kurta, she noticed. Hidden by his white cap and long beard his face was barely visible in the dim light of the platform. StilI she saw that his lips were trembling, and that tremor caused ripples of a strange sorrow in her mind. She could feel it rise in waves, weakening her, as she whispered, ‘Let go of  me, people are looking.’

Encouraged by her whisper Hannan caught her hand with greater force and lowering his voice to an intimate whisper said, ‘I have spoken to Keyamat Maulbi. He is ready: After three periods he will grant you taIaq. You must sit for nikah with him Rabeya.’

‘Nikah! With that old devil?’ Screamed out Rabeya.

‘It has to be with someone, only one iddat[ii] after your talaq can your first husband marry you again’, Hannan spoke in an authoritarian voice.

‘Impossible, I shall never marry again. If you want me back then take me to live with you.’ Voicing an impossible proposal Rabeya stood awaiting an answer from Hannan.

Taken aback, Hannan seemed at a loss for words for a moment then with a smile on his face as if reasoning with a rebellious youngster he said, ‘How can that be? We must follow the rules of the Shariat.’

‘I shall not follow these rules. Let go of my hand, let me go.’ Rabeya said, trying to loosen Hannan’s grip by twisting her hand this way and that.. Dulali too catching hold of her aunt’s waist pulled from behind. But they failed to loosen Hannan’s hold on Rabeya.

Tightening his grip Hannan spoke between gritted teeth, ‘Don’t be foolish, and just hear what I have to say, Maulbi Saab has promised, he will not touch you at all these three months you only have to sleep with him once, that too only for the purpose of Hilla[ii]. For one night only! For the sake of Allah, do it!’

All the time that Hannan was speaking Rabeya kept trying to free her hand. When he stopped speaking she too stopped struggling. Standing straight with a peculiar glare in her eyes, she stood looking at Hannan. In the play of light and shade of the platform her face had taken on a strange hue. Hannan too looked straight into Rabeya’s eyes meaning to gauge her mind. Her eyes seemed to sparkle like blazing charcoals. A curious Hannan leaned forward towards her. A strange smile seemed to hover round Rabeya’s lips.

That smile advanced to his ears whispering, ‘Only one night!’

Part question part answer, the three words uttered by Rabeya puzzled Hannan. Not knowing how to answer he stood there his lips spread in an idiotic smile. At the instant a ball of spit landed directly into his half open mouth.

Like a blood sucking leech suddenly sprayed with lime, Hannan seemed to recoil and shrivel up. He let go of Rabeya’s hand and stepped back a little. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand he yelled, ‘You spit into my mouth! What do you think? Now that you can earn a little you think you can do as you like. I will see how you come to Dhubri again to sell firewood. Now you just wait and see what I can do. Do you think I will not get a girl? Wait and see, within a month if I don’t bring home a young and fresh bride, someone like Dulali, then you call me a bastard.’ Saying so he hurried past Rabeya and Dulali jumped down the platform and headed past the railway track to the other side.

Rabeya knew that his threats were like the hissing of venom less serpent. In a shrill voice she too screamed out, ‘Who says you are not a bastard. Only a bastard will want to marry a girl of his daughter’s age. And what happened to the one you had married, that hur from heaven, why did she kick you on the butt and run away with someone else.’

Rabeya would have said more but Dulali clutched her from behind urging her to let it pass.

Wildly Rabeya turned to Dulali screaming out, ‘Why… Why should I let it be? Did you not hear what he said that he would marry someone fresh and young like you? Will you marry someone like him, of your father’s age? You want to leave work and sit at home. See if your stepfather does not find someone like Hannan to marry you off in a short time. What will you do then? Sit quietly for Nikah.’

‘No.’ Dulali’s anguished cry rang out in the platform. ‘You will not marry and you can’t sell firewood. What will you do then? Tell me, what will you do?’

‘If I get someone I like only then will I marry, otherwise not. I will sell firewood. If I come with you for a few more days then I will even be able to do everything myself.’

‘It is not easy. You will have to become hard like me. Your tongue must be as sharp as mine. Can you?’ Rabeya, with disbelief clearly written in her voice, asked Dulali.

An unhesitant Dulali replied, ‘Yes, I can.’

A surprised Rabeya stood looking at Dulali for a while. Then suddenly pointing to the hazy figure of Hannan moving down the railway track she said, ‘That man has insulted me. He has done me a lot of harm. He has tortured me all my life. Can you insult him in return, abuse him in front of my eyes?’

Without a moments delay, renting the darkness of the night and the hovering fog Dulali’s steely voice rang out, ‘You slave of your wife! Show us your face again and I will break your teeth with one blow of my firewood. Son of a whore! ‘

A stunned Rabeya stood looking at Dulali’s face.

A previously unseen newly sculpted hardness in Dulali’s face gave a jolt to Rabeya. She stood, dumbfounded beside her niece.

Imran Hussain writes in Assamese and is the author of the critically acclaimed short story collection Hudumdeo Aru Anannya Golpo. His deeply political and subversive fiction blends folklore, myth and contemporary reality in complex ways to represent life in contemporary Assam. With only eight short stories to his credit, he has been able to find a permanent place in the canon of Assamese literature. He can be reached at : hudumdao@gmail.com

Mitali Goswami is a translator and critic. She teaches English at Handique Girls’ College, Guwahati.

[i] The period of three menstrual cycles spent by a Muslim woman at the home of her new husband if she is given talaque by her husband. The divorced woman is supposed to spend this time in isolation and mourning and to refrain from using fragrant oil, perfumes, mehendi, silk fabrics and other  items of luxury. She must also abstain from chewing betel nut, colouring her lips, talking to or visiting neighbours and relatives. During this period she cannot get married to another man.

[ii] If a divorced man is to remarry his wife, then it can be possible only after the purification ritual of hilla, a word derived from hallal or sacrifice. According to this ritual the divorced woman must get married to a second man and have complete conjugal relations with her second husband, go through the rituals of talaque with her second husband before she can she remarry her first husband, if he so wishes. This custom is referred to as Hilla in the Shariat

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ARE YOU, BEAUTIFUL

Chandraprabha Saikiani

Translated from Axamiya by Uddipana Goswami

Are You, Beautiful

Are you, Beautiful,
That distant
Picture of agony
Or are you the poetry
Of my soul?
Are you the rising sun?

Far away the horizon
Distant as are you
Yet you feel so near
You appear, and disappear
You call out and go afar,
I can never never touch you.

Outside my door
The bokul tree
Is brightly blooming
People going and coming
Stop, watch, admiring,
I look too and feel it’s you.

You come often
You leave frequently
I can feel your breath on me
As the evening sun gently
Goes downstream,
Bidding adieu.

In the western sky
Sparkle hues bright
Blinding my sight
I wait, sit tight
Hoping to meet you,
While a fire burns inside.

You sit beside me
Stringing a garland
To adorn me
Why, I can’t see,
You didn’t give it to me.
Why did you trample it?

On my doorstep
I shall be sitting
You will arrive someday
The road far away
Will come near one day,
I shall wait, awake even in sleep.

You shall place a garland
Around my neck
I shall pick the flowers
You choose what verse
You wish to write,
To read only to me.

Poems and tales
Have lost their way
So I pluck at the bina strings
Music and things
All take wings
Wandering around, gone astray.

Tales of the road
You tell me all
As I sit in silent sorrow
Today finally, I do know
How beautiful you are,
How heartless in the end.

All life long

All life long
Saddled with separation
Singed by the sorrow of parting
I thought I would never think
About him anymore
I thought I would never cry.

Rolling around
Like the tears in my eyes
There came a time when
The tears did end
I thought I wouldn’t dry
Those tears anymore
I thought I would never sigh.

Half the night
I spend awake
Deep in thoughts of him
Work half done,
My mind on the run
The day sets with the sun.

My waning life’s
Hopeless days pass me by,
After the monsoon
Comes autumn, the xewali blooms
My countless dreams
Die in their dreams
Awake I only see
Everything around me is hazy.

In the fire that burns my soul
I see to my surprise
To make my heart calm
The gems of your two eyes,
They bring me hope
Of a new day
Your memories embalm
Me with peace.

The days of aghon
Wintry nights of puh
In magh, the full moon
Bring back memories
In the breezes of phagun
I can feel you breathe
Like the sun in sot,
I swelter in the heat.

Amidst it all, beautiful
Your recollections
Build once again for me
Your reflection
Even in the fires of separation
I find the light of peace
The fire in my soul
Is quenched by your vision.

It holds the hope of a new day
To show me the way
My tears become the xapta-xindhu,
Nectar of heaven,
My lifelong
Fire of separation
Burns softly today, again.

(From Chandraprabha Saikiani Kobitamala, a collection of her poems from 1923-1955)
Chandraprabha Saikiani (1901-1971) was an activist and reformer. She was born Chandrapriya Majumdar but she later assumed the name ‘Chandraprabha Saikiani’. In 1919, she was the only female delegate at the Assam Chhatra Sammelan at Tezpur where she spoke against opium trade. In 1925, she attended the Asom Sahitya Sabha at Nagaon and led other women participants to protest against the practice of making women sit separately, listening from behind a screen while the men talked. The following year she set up the Asom Pradeshik Mahila Samiti. She was a crusader for women’s and child rights and she fought against child marriage and dowry. She was jailed several times for her participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1932 and again in the Non Cooperation Movement of 1942-43. Saikiani was in love with the writer Dandinath Kalita and had a son with him. They never married, and Chandraprabha had to face social stigma for being an unwed mother. The Sahitya Akademi winning Axamiya novel, Abhijatri (1999) by Nirupama Borgohain, is a fictionalised account of the brave woman’s life. In 1972, Saikiani was awarded the Padma Shri shortly before her death. Uddipana Goswami is a poet and writer based in Guwahati, Assam, and Editor of Northeast Review.

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Filed under Poetry, Translation

SHRINKHOL (THE CHAIN)

Bhabendra Nath Saikia

Translated from Axamiya by Rashmi Narzary

pigeons by Nitoo Das

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.

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Filed under Fiction, Translation

CHINNOMOSTA

Ashapoorna Debi

Translated from Bangla by Arunava Sinha

A 19th century Bengali painting of Chhinnamasta. Source: Wikimedia

The sunlight had slanted down from the tops of the trees to the corner of the yard… the school bell had just rung. The bride and the groom were due on the ten o’ clock train. The journey home from the station should take half and hour at most, no more.

There was no time, therefore.

‘Your alpona is so slow, Monti,’ fretted Jayaboti. ‘Is my daughter-in-law supposed to step on wet paint? It’s got to be dry and glittering, or what good is the bouchhatro?’

Monti lived at her maternal uncle’s house so that she could go to a Calcutta school.

It seemed she had recently earned special fame as the alpona artist at Rabindranath Tagore’s birth anniversary celebrations. Although her classmate Mallika Ghosh ascribed the entire credit to Monti’s fingertips, which were apparently like champa blossoms, this wasn’t to be taken seriously.

Swelling with pride at her daughter’s prowess, Monti’s mother had brought Monti to Joyaboti’s house for the alpona. Joyaboti’s only son was bringing his bride home today after his wedding.

But Monti’s skill from school didn’t seem to be proving effective today.

The sight of the huge yard had left the poor thing gasping for breath.

It was one thing to run her paintbrush over the polished floor of the first-floor hall in school, and quite another to paint enough lotuses and leaves to cover this enormous paved courtyard.

The champa blossoms were about to wilt instead of flowering. On top of which there was Joyaboti harrying her. Monti blazed with fury at her mother.

She was no less furious with Joyaboti. With an air of ‘it’s easy to say, try doing it yourself’, she eventually resorted to repeating the same lotus pattern all over. She knew all the modern, even ultra-modern, designs, but couldn’t remember any of them.

Meanwhile Joyaboti’s fingers were itching.

Even if her fingertips didn’t resemble magnolia buds as Monti’s did, Joyaboti used to be no less famous for her artistic skills. She used to get invitations from adjoining neghbourhoods during pujas, weddings and special occasions. Joyaboti could stun the relations-by-marriage with her skilful creation of the special gifts for the wedding night, the duck made of chhana, the fish made of kheer, the lotus made of butter, the peacock made of daal, etcetera.

She had even decorated the fruit-bowl for the new sons-in-law of different families hundreds of times.

And then there was the alpona. Not just on the pinri, but also on the floor.

Truly praiseworthy efforts. She had painted such magnificent bouchhatras on cowdung-slathered yards that everyone who had seen them had been forced to admit unanimously that Joyaboti’s dexterous hands had made even the dead courtyard floor smile.

And this was actually a paved yard – which Jayaboti had relaid the year her son passed the matric examination, fired by the sweet dream of the imminent advent of a daughter-in-law.

But although she had perfected her art painting the bouchhatra for other people’s daughters-in-law, when it was time for her own daughter-in-law’s entrance, Joyaboti no longer had the right to display her handiwork on auspicious occasions, for the Almighty had curtailed her powers.

Ever since her son’s childhood, she had spent many nights with her husband plotting and planning his wedding through loving exchanges and mock quarrels. The couple’s hopes for their only child knew no bounds. But heaping ashes on all these expectations, Debnath had slipped away happily.

For Joyaboti there remained the burden of joyless responsibilities.

Her son’s marriage was no longer a wonderful dream, but harsh duty. She wouldn’t be able to rest till it had passed off peacefully.

Joyaboti’s distant sister-in-law Kanaklata, who would formally receive the bride, was rustling about in a stiff new Benarasi sari. Joyaboti had bought this particular sari using money from Bimalendu’s scholarship to fulfil her wish of welcoming his bride in a new sari.

Now she had unlocked her safe to give Kanaklata the sari.

Setting the dudhe-alta stone in place and adjusting the end of her sari, Kanakalata said flatteringly, ‘She’s not as good as you, mejdi, you’d have had it all done in no time at all.’

With a quick glance in the direction of Monti’s mother, whose face had fallen at this, Joyaboti quickly said, ‘The things you say, chhotobou! Imagine comparing a little girl with this old hag. Just look at how much she has done already. I’m only hurrying her because it’s time for the train.’

Sensing that the wind had changed, Kanaklata adjusted her tone at once. ‘Of course, of course. Not comparing – just saying. Fate! You did it all your life for others but now you’re not welcome in your own home. You should have been the one dressed in this sari, welcoming your son and daughter-in-law.’

‘Never mind all that, chhotobou. Can you check whether the milk is ready to boil. It must boil over as soon bou enters.’

Joyaboti was not inclined towards trivialising her deep-seated pain by introducing a cheap sentimental note to the proceedings.

The newlyweds arrived even as they were arranging things.

‘Why did you materialise and not remain in my dreams?’ The lover’s statement extracted from Tagore’s poetry can easily be applied to the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law in the Bengali family. After all, don’t the majority of mothers of male children build all their visions and aspirations around their sons’ marriage? Isn’t a nymph without wings the dominant figure in the dreams of every mother with a grown-up son?

Since imagination knows no bounds, many fantasies and images of sublime grace play around this figure in her dreams. The resolve borne of the bitter experiences of her own life are reinforced by her self-confidence. She will show that it is possible to treat another woman’s daughter as her own. She feels pity for those who have earned the title of ‘toxic mother-in-law’ after getting their sons married, and compassion towards those who have brought dark and ugly daughters-in-law home. Whenever she sees a beautiful face out on the streets, her curiosity about the girl’s caste and gotra mounts.

Especially when it comes to those who, like Joyaboti, are the mother of but a single son. The ultimate and all-important objective of their life is to thread their son’s life with that of a beautiful young woman and turn him into a householder.

But what happenes when the image of one’s dream appears, gives itself up in flesh-and-blood form?

No, that’s not the right way of putting it. Many problems would have been solved had she given herself up. Modern women don’t even give themselves up to their husbands – leave alone to their mothers-in-law! They don’t give themselves up – they only appear as themselves. As their real selves.

The subsequent events involved attempts to make the daughter-in-law give herself up, and a combination of distress and distraction at not giving oneself up.

But still, even modern society would have very few examples of the way Bimalendu’s wife assumed her real self immediately after her advent as a bride. Doubtful of her ability to control a city-bred woman, Joyaboti had selected a country girl, but Pratibha aced the city upon arrival.

Had anyone ever heard a bride taunt her husband within her mother-in-law’s earshot: ‘And to think I was told you people were well off… I can see just how well-off! Not even a proper mirror to do my hair! You shouldn’t invite a decent girl home till you’ve got your home in order – get it? Your idea of decoration is to make curtains with torn clothes. What a joke!’

Joyaboti overheard all this as she swept the veranda.

Being the first shock, it almost numbed her arm. Joyaboti had been known hereabouts as someone who did up her house well, a woman of taste. Each of the tins in her larder was polished and perfect. Her shelves and cupboards were shining and resplendent with ample jars and bottles. Joyaboti kept her home neat and clean, all her trunks and boxes and chests and safes were wrapped in saris, she kept the beds spotless, and even her pillowcases had tassles. How many people in this village could match all this?

To prepare for the arrival of her daughter-in-law, Joyaboti had cut up an old voile sari of hers to make curtains for all the windows in the house –becoming a veritable object of envy for her neighbours in the process. ‘It’s only a daughter-in-law, not the queen,’ people said. ‘What’s all the fuss about?’

And it seemed the rich man’s daughter was amused by the way Joyaboti did up her home with such care. Joyaboti pricked her ears to find out what Bimalendu’s response was, but his voice wasn’t heard.

Had Joyaboti’s scholarship-winning graduate son been turned dumb by the authority of Class Nine?

What else but dumb? It was Pratibha’s voice she kept hearing. ‘The very thought of having to live in this backward village makes my blood run cold. What do you mean our Hoogly is a village too? We have running water, lights and fans… is there anything missing? Baba, honestly! Couldn’t he have found me a groom from some other place? Imagine being married to someone from Tribeni! I hear there’s a deadly malaria here too. Death awaits me.’

Jayaboti had always been calm of temperament, but now she felt her blood boiling suddenly. She uttered a sharp invective in her head against her son, with whom she had never so much as raised her voice in the past.

Had Bimalendu’s tongue been paralysed? Was that why he couldn’t answer? But what could she do – she couldn’t possibly part the curtain and enter her son and daughter-in-law’s room to deliver a suitable response herself.

It was true that she couldn’t, but a telling riposte to each of the statements whirled in her head constantly.

She seemed to lose both her strength and her inclination to sweep the floor till it was spick and span and then take the pitcher to draw water.

To think this was the kind of girl Bimalendu’s bride had turned out to be!

The outcome of Joyaboti’s long penance! The fruit of her lifelong hope!

But still she couldn’t say anything directly. Even the slightest discrepancy in behaviour was impossible. Nor was it possible to complain to Bimalendu.

What if he countered with: ‘So you were eavesdropping on your son and daugher-in-law?’ What would she say?

Therefore she had to keep her rage under a lid, lay out the tea as she did every day and call out lovingly to her daughter-in-law. She even had to lodge affectionate complaints and accusations against her for not eating enough.

But within her seethed a sullen bitterness. All her noble intentions of treating her daughter-in-law like her own child were cast aside by this single attack.

About a  fortnight later Bimalendu took his wife to her parents’ home and returned to Calcutta.

Joyaboti appeared to breathe a sigh of relief.

But why did it turn out this way? Why did Jayaboti not miss Bimalendu? Bimalendu’s sorrow at parting was faint, not strong. His departure was as natural as the guest leaving after the festivities had ended. Just like the bride, Bimalendu too seemed only to be an invitee.

And yet, ever since his college days, Joyaboti had always turned this departure of Bimalendu’s into a tragic event! She would start weeping three days in advance. For which she had often been scolded roundly by her husband.

How had this ocean of tears, which could brim over at the slightest provocation, dried up?

Even after the umbilical cord is cut, an invisible thread binds mother and son together – but had this bond now been snapped by a similarly unseen blow?

Was tidying up her home – which had become disorderly over the past few days – so important for Jayaboti that no sooner had her son and daughter-in-law gone out the door than she began to turn the house upside down to clean it?

Freedom might be desirable, but is it easily digestible?

Can one be comfortable after consuming it?

A couple of months later she had to voluntarily bring up the subject of getting her daughter-in-law over. Bimalendu had come home recently on some holiday or the other. Joyaboti felt that her son appeared weighed down and disappointed.

His glances at his mother seemed accusing.

Usually, whenever he came home, it was with his mother that he talked late into the night during dinner. The neighbourhood went dark, but in Joyaboti’s house three days’ worth of kerosene were used up in one night.

This time Bimalendu finished his dinner in five minutes and rushed upstairs, not even telling his mother he was done. Joyaboti stared at his retreating back in surprise.

By the time Joyaboti had completed all her chores and gone up to the first floor late at night, her son was fast asleep. A writing pad and an uncapped fountain-pen lay near his head. Shading himself from the lantern with a book, he was deep in sleep.

He had always been partial to sleep, happily slumbering when he should have been preparing for his exams, using a book to cut off the light from the lantern, his notebooks strewn all around. Joyaboti would take away the lantern and carefully arrange his books and notebooks in a neat pile.

Tonight she only lowered the flame silently and went to her own room, lying down on the bed. So mister was writing to his wife! Which was why he did not have a moment for his mother.

The very next day Joyaboti proposed getting her daughter-in-law over.

Bimalendu seemed to have been loosely prepared. Not even for form’s sake did he say, ‘What’s the hurry, let her stay there for a while.’

This time the bride moved in for good.

That Pratibha was now here to stay was evident – not a hundred per cent, but a hundred and fifty per cent – from her behaviour. How long could one remain courteous with a daughter-in-law such as this? Should a new bride not be a little shy, a little retiring, a little gentle? Hadn’t Pratibha ever observed how other newlywed brides behaved?

Pratibha talked back, stomped around the house, and performed reckless acts. Not even five days had passed after her arrival when Bimalendu came home for the weekend. Joyaboti had washed her clothes quickly so that she could make Bimalendu something to eat. But she was astonished on entering the kitchen!

Putting the kettle on, Pratibha was kneading the dough to make nimki.

Watching her in stunned silence for a minute, Joyaboti said harshly, ‘Did you have to enter the kitchen in unwashed clothes, bouma?’

Poking the nimki with the edge of the khunti, Pratibha retorted acidly, ‘What do you mean unwashed clothes? Didn’t you see me with your own eyes washing my clothes?’

‘Why shouldn’t I, I’m not blind, am I? But what you put on are the clothes on your rack. And you’ve been sitting on the bed since then, haven’t you!’

‘Does one have to stand on one foot in your household after putting on freshly washed clothes? I had no idea,’ said Pratibha, abandoning her cooking and getting to her feet, her face flushed. Being fair of complexion, she turned red easily.

The kettle boiled over, the water spilling into the clay oven. Joyaboti stood transfixed. What should she do? Coax her daughter-in-law back into the kitchen, or complete her unfinished task herself?

Both were equally impossible.

Suddenly she observed Bimalendu going out for a walk without having had his tea and snacks. Probably for the first time in his life.

Pratibha must have complained.

The days passed.

Her son grew distant slowly, her daughter-in-law began to establish her supremacy. Joyaboti only watched with helpless rage.

Bimalendu did come home every Saturday, staying through Sunday and taking the morning train back on Monday, but how much of his time did Joyaboti get anyway? How many times did she even set eyes on him?

When he came home he asked one or two cursory questions about her health, nothing but obligatory enquiries. And once he had entered the temple of his goddess, there was no sign of her son anymore.

When a disgusted Joyaboti called him for dinner at ten at night, Bimalendu came downstairs, ate in silence, and went back upstairs.

Joyaboti did cook all her son’s favourite dishes out of sheer habit, but she no longer seemed intent on sitting by him and forcing him to consume all of them and vowing to kill herself if he did not.

She only felt more enraged when he did not eat properly.

One day she had even blurted out, ‘Let bouma cook for you from now on. With me you neither eat properly nor enjoy what you’re eating.’

But instead of being embarrassed, Bimalendu hurled a blazing look at his mother and said without hesitation, ‘How mean-minded you’re becoming. I’m surprised!’

Joyaboti sat there, her face red with humilation, without retorting. Whom was the retort for anyway? Her son was in the first-floor boudoir by then.

The habit of visiting people at home is alive and strong in the villages, especially if there is on occasion for a visit. And the arrival of a new bride was definitely such an occasion. All the women of the nighbourhood had gathered at Joyaboti’s house to find out how she was getting along with her new daughter-in-law.

Unwilling to demean herself to others, Jayaboti chose to extol her daughter-in-law to them. But even a twelve-year-old girl in our land had the intelligence to see through this insincere, artificial praise.

Having gathered all the relevant information from Joyaboti, the visitors even went upstairs to peep into the bride’s room, collecting some intelligence there as well.

Pratibha couldn’t be bothered to come downstairs to show her regard for the neighbours by offering them seats. But she had no objection to a detailed conversation with anyone who might join her upstairs. After all, she needed an audience to whom she could furnish proof of Jayaboti’s rudeness.

Not that the audience was reluctant to listen.

Indeed, it was vastly entertaining to hear all the stories and then go back to Jayaboti, pretending surprise with their palms on their faces.

‘Here you are praising her, have you heard what she has to say about you?’

The baro-ginni – the wife of the eldest brother – in the Lahiri family pulled out her tin of dokta from the end of her sari after asking the question.

Joyaboti tried to maintain her disinterested façade. ‘Why, what did she say?’

‘You’d die of anger if you heard, mejobou, but it hurts us. When you have just the one son, it’s tragic when she doesn’t turn out to be a girl after your heart.’

Jayaboti said with a display of detachment, ‘When there’s no heart in the first place, how can she be after my heart? All that was burnt on the pyre along with him. All I want is that they should be happy.’

‘That’s all very well, but so long as your’ve alive you need these things. A daughter-in-law should be looking after you – but this one’s a naval officer! There I was being nice and telling her, the maid hasn’t come, it’s ekadoshi, your mother-in-law is slaving away, can’t you at least do the dishes? She snarls at me, “I have no idea which star is in the ascendance today – I don’t have an almanac at my elbow after all. She doesn’t even like it if I help.” Can you believe it!’

Joyaboti had heard all this many times, but still she flared up at being blamed in front of others. ‘So it’s all my fault now. She’s convinced that sheep of my son of the same things and now spends all her time upstairs doing no work. Not a step will she take to help me. She will only do the things she wants to. Makes my blood boil when I see her doing the chores.’

The façade of civility fell away. Why should Joyaboti bother about her daughter-in-law’s reputation when the daughter-in-law was criticising her openly?

Cupping her cheeks, Lahiri-ginni said with a show of regret, ‘But Bimal has a heart of gold – doesn’t he protest?’

‘Even gold turns to lead in the hands of the right alchemist, didi!’

‘I don’t know! This is Kalyug for you. It’s not like you have a dozen sons, just the one – and imagine his wife taking him away from you within days of the marriage! Why are good souls made to suffer so!’

Lahiri-ginni might not have stopped there, for a very pleasing atmosphere was being built up, but her granddaughter Lavanya appeared as a spoilsport. ‘Come quick, didima, baba is here, maami is asking for you…’

However delicious the gossip, she couldn’t stay here after being told of her son-in-law’s arrival. Lahiri-ginni left.

Jayaboti could not.

She remained, as still as the pots and pans in her hand.

Once appearances have been stripped away, the situation becomes lethal. Neither combatant bothers with the niceties.

Joyaboti complained tearfully to one neighbour or another virtually every single day, unburdening herself. Pratibha gathered sympathisers at home, reciting the mother-in-law-nama to them through the day before stirring herself late in the afternoon to do her hair, have a bath, dress herself, and go up to the terrace or write to her husband.

When she returned Joyaboti performed the household chores loudly, banging things around, and expressed harsh opinions in a voice that her daughter-in-law was meant to hear… the target alternated between curling her lips contemptuously and making a rude counter-statement.

Still, all of this was tolerable – what was not tolerable was the change in Bimalendu. And yet she could see every day that he could never get enough of his wife’s company.

Joyaboti commanded no respect as a mother anymore.

Besides, she had developed a bad new habit – lingering near the window of her son and daughter-in-law’s room on the pretext of doing her chores.

Alas! Why this degradation?

Not only was there no happiness to this, but it also made her unhappy. Had she not eavesdropped, would Joyaboti ever have had to hear what she did? ‘Jealousy! It’s nothing but jealousy! Widows are very jealous, I’ve always noticed. Just because their own joys have been wiped out, they seethe with jealousy at others’ happiness. She can’t stand your being with me or talking to me a for a couple of minutes. Her heart breaks.’

Maybe Bimalendu did make a faint protest, but so faint that Joyaboti couldn’t hear any of it. It was her daughter-in-law’s retort that was audible: ‘How will you understand? She’s so meek and harmless in your presence… All I ask is, does all the criticism about me fly on the wind to reach the neighbours’ ears? It must be someone here who’s spreading them. Here I am begging and pleading with you to take me to Calcutta…’

‘I’m begging and pleading with people too for a house, Pratibha my queen. Haven’t found a single one.’

Who said that?

Bimal?

Was Jayaboti alive? Were her faculties intact? Was there any need to keep living?

But still she had to serve the food and call them to dinner.

Such was Joyaboti’s plight. There wasn’t even a third person in the house to summon them downstairs to eat. Not that she called them with her voice dripping with affection. These days Joyaboti spoke in a manner foreign to her own nature – ‘Well, will the nobleman’s daughter deign to have her meal? Or is her maidservant expected to wait with the pots and pans till midnight?’

If a person had to sit down to dinner on the strength of an invitation such as this, how was she expected to remain good-tempered?

On her part, Pratibha stomped downstairs aggressively, eating carelessly and scattering her food everywhere. Pointing out shortcomings in the offering, she smiled contemptuously… Apparently no one even considered eating at her parents’ house unless three different kinds of fish had been made. Apparently she had not been aware before her marriage that it was actually possible to eat even when the quantity of rice was higher than the quantity of the accompaniments. And so on.

After yet another observation of this kind from Pratibha, Joyaboti laid out a bowl of shojne kharar chachchori for her after serving the rice.

‘What’s this supposed to be?’

No longer hurt by Pratibha’s prickly questions, Joyaboti answered in just as prickly a tone, ‘There’s no need to suffer through your meal because of a lack of accompaniments, bouma. The more you can eat, the more I’ll cool.’

Pushing the bowl away with the back of her hand, Pratibha said, ‘That doesn’t mean I’m dying for a mound of chachhori like an old and feeble widow. Why did you have to waste it by giving it to me, you could have kept it for yourself. You’re so greedy for it, after all!’

‘What! What did you just say, bouma!!’

A strangled cry emerged from Jayaboti’s throat, like a wounded beast. Her entire body seemed to tremble at this new display of unbearable audacity.

Not that Prtibha was put out. With a chuckle she said, ‘Am I lying? You devour bowls of chachhori every day. You think I haven’t seen?’

Joyaboti might not have felt as though she were engulfed in flames if Pratibha had been lying… It was not a lie, it was far too much of the truth. Joyaboti had been partial to shojne khara all her life.

The tree was right in the yard, always full of fruit. And Jayaboti had to cook it every single day for herself… How Debnath used to laugh about this. But though he laughed, if he discovered there wasn’t enough on a particular day, he made up for the shortfall himself from the tree.

People laughed when they heard – but many a time he had used a penknife to slice large quantities of the danta when Joyaboti couldn’t manage on her own.

When she complained, he said, ‘Never mind if the neighbours laugh! The empress will be in a foul mood if the amount of danta chachhori isn’t sufficient. What will I do then?… And am I doing a bad job? Check for yourself!’

As a child Bimalendu had often lent a hand too.

The neighbours were not unaware of Joyaboti’s weakness. Despite the presence of the tree in her own courtyard, other people also gifted her the produce of their trees every year.

No one had ever dubbed this weakness ‘greed’. Nor had they taunted her about it. They looked upon it with affection.

And now Bimal’s wife had jeered at her so brazenly.

Joyaboti had become much more vociferous these days, but still this assault silenced her… She could not remember how she managed to slip away, go to her prayer-room and lock the door.

Just as people lose their senses when attacked unexpectedly and run away following their natural instinct for survival, Jayaboti too seemed to escape for the specific reason of self-defence.

But at whose feet did she throw herself to convey her grievance?

When had the resolutely earthy Joyaboti ever prayed to the gods so ardently?

Why did she need Darpahari Madhusudan, slayer of pride, so desperately today? Was that why she banged her head repeatedly on the floor as she prayed to him?

But who had ever had any proof that Madhusudan had such keen hearing? He had always been infamous for his deafness. Did Jayaboti’s plea have to penetrate his consciousness quite so instantly today?… And how strange, did the valiant hero have to use his strongest mace to destroy the pride of an insignificant creature like Pratibha!

Did he not even consider that the formidable weapon would shatter not only Pratibha’s arrogance but also the applicant’s heart? Was he so very insensitive?

Or had he responded to Joyaboti’s inconsiderate prayer by recklessly flinging his murderous weapon in a fit of annoyance, which was why it had unexpectedly struck Bimalendu?

Or else, how could Bimalendu Mitra, who leapt on the road from the footboard of the tram with ease twice a day, have to jump directly into the path of a bus?

Did Joyaboti overdo her desperate pleas that day? Was that why she now stood as lifelessly as Bimalendu’s lifeless body on the hospital bed, unable to muster the strength for any more appeals even after her son’s horrifying death?

The neighbours whispered, ‘The hag can’t take this, she will go mad…’

But in practice it turned out that going mad wasn’t all that easy.

Besides the dark circles under her eyes and the gauntness of her cheekbones, no other change was visible.

Once again, when winter had barely arrived, Joyaboti was seen sitting with her back to the sun, laying out pellets of bori in the sun – til, posto and chanchhi kumro boris in separate bowls. Without anything missing from her usual expertise.

At the end of winter she was seen fiddling with jars of aamshi and kul pickle.

She was seen fetching water in her scrubbed and shining brass pitcher from the river instead of using the water from the draw-well, which would have meant running the risk of the dal remaining half-boiled.

Just today I saw her snipping off the tips of pumpkin stalks and piling a basket high with them.

Therefore it was easy to picture Joyaboti in her ramshackle kitchen, cooking shorshe-baata, lanka-baata and posto-baata with close attention.

But then that is the way of this world…

Even with a broken heart people don’t neglect their own requirements.

Of course, Joyaboti still had to serve Pratibha her meal and then call out to her – who else would do it? Bimalendu had wiped out all possibilities of a third person in the house by going away.

Serving a spotlessly white aatop rice in a black stone plate, Joyaboti still called out, ‘Bouma, o bouma, come downstairs to eat, ma.’

Wasn’t the warmth in her voice palpable? The relations nearby could hear her… and were surprised at this display of love and generosity on Joyaboti’s part.

Already dripping with affection, her voice grew more ardent when coaxing and cajoling. Fanning away imaginary flies, Joyaboti said, ‘It won’t do to say you can’t eat anymore. You have to survive, haven’t you? God has taken away all hope of eating delicacies – what choice do you have but to eat this shaak-paata-danta-chachhori of the luckless widow? Don’t leave the rice uneaten ma, let me give you some more danta.’

In the collective mind of feminine society, curiosity about the habits of the fresh widow is no less intense than that about the habits of the new bride – possibly more intense, in fact. Therefore… Kanaklata, Lahiri-ginni, Monti’s mother and the rest of them frequently arrived at just the right time at Joyaboti’s house.

Looking at them, Joyaboti made pensive complaints. ‘Just see how little she eats. I keep telling bouma, we cannot die, we have to live. The widow’s lifespan lasts forever, how will you survive unless you eat properly? Yes, it’s all this kochu-ghechu and shaak-paata that you will have to eat. Fate!’

The guests agreed in unison.

They melted not just at Joyaboti’s distress, but also at this evidence of her compassionate heart… Another person might have thrown the daughter-in-law out, branding her ‘cursed’.

But… was it just Joyaboti’s voice that they heard, without looking at her expression? Were the softness and empathy that the affection in her voice suggested truly reflected in the look in her eyes – or in the venomous smile lurking in the faint creases at the corner of her mouth?

Ashapoorna Debi (1909-1995) wrote more than 150 novels and around 2000 short stories in Bangla. Winner of India's highest literary award, the Jnanpith, among many, she is best known for her trilogy on three generations of Bengali women, Prothom Protishruti, Subornolota and Bokul Kotha.
Arunava Sinha translates classic and contemporary Bengali fiction into English. The latest of his 17 published translations is Dozakhnama; Conversations in Hell by Rabisankar Bal.

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