Translated by Rajarshi Kalita and Mukuta Borah
© 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.
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.
Rajarshi 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.
Mukuta 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.