Tag Archives: Mitra Phukan

A Full Night’s Thievery

Mitra Phukan

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

Modon Sur was of course as well aware of this custom as anybody else. Gradually, it became ridiculously easy for him to lift jewellery from tables near the bed. He felt the need for further challenges. Cautiously at first, therefore, and then with ever greater degrees of confidence, he began to lift the pillows from beneath the heads of the sleeping beauties themselves

The late forties of the last century.

The air was clean and the streets uncrowded.  True, there were very few cars in the town, people preferring mostly to walk it to nearby places. At a pinch, they would cycle to work, or perhaps take a ricksha. Even so, there was an air of spaciousness about this little town of Rupohi in Western Assam that was not seen in too many places in the rest of the State, even at that time. The British, who had moved out only recently, had left the town with a legacy of parks that fronted the broad and beautiful river, enormous fields where football could be played, and was, with gusto and skill, and large, spacious bungalows that gave the elite quarter of town an air of gracious charm.

It was still a town where people had appellations based on their professions. Himadri Dutta, the doctor whose jolly exterior hid a fierce determination to keep Yama away from the town, was known, inevitably Himadri Daktor. Or sometimes, if the person referring to the middle aged medic was much younger, he was called “Daktor Babu.” Lawyers Prasanna and Tridib were known as Prasanna Ukil and Tridib Ukil. Teachers in the school were known as This Mastor or, if a woman, That Mastorni. The policeman was naturally Daroga Babu. The merchant selling groceries in the largest store in town was known as Ajoy Dukani, literally Ajoy the Shopkeeper. This was because the town was not yet crowded enough to have more than a few people of each profession.

Of course it wasn’t as though the town consisted of upright and learned people only. Like any other self respecting town, there was a thief as well. For having a local thief was a marker of the affluence of the town itself. Those neighbouring villages and little townlets that did not have a known thief were looked upon with pity by the people of Rupohi. Poor things! They were not deemed to be prosperous enough to support a full time thief, somebody who could proudly sport his own designation of “Sur”. Thief. Of course there were cattle lifters and grain pilferers in these other towns, but they did not really count, for theirs were deemed to be petty thieveries.

Modon, the official thief of Rupohi, therefore, held a position, if not of honour, exactly, at least of recognition in the town. Modon Sur. That was the name he was known by, and he never objected to being hailed by this handle in Rupohi’s marketplace. “Oi Modon Sur, do you know anything about the disappearance of the chair from my veranda last week?” somebody would shout across from the fishmonger’s shop. Modon would put on an injured air, and say, “Chair? Wooden chair? What would I do with a chair, Dada, I have only a hovel, where will I keep it?” And his demeanour would be so humble, so convincingly honest that it would not even register with the victim : if Modon Sur had not taken the chair, how did he know it was a wooden one?

It wasn’t really true, though, that Modon Sur lived in a hovel. His residence was a hut on the outskirts of town, beside his paddy field. For Modon Sur, in spite of his designation, was only a part time thief. Rupohi was not large or prosperous enough to support a full time one.  And after all he could hardly expect the townspeople to support him, financially, in a more direct way, through donations and handouts, for instance, just because they were honoured by his presence there. In any case, he had a wife and two young children to support, and thievery in a place like theirs was still a chancy business.

Modon Sur hadn’t been born or brought up in Rupohi. He had only settled down there because the paddy land was available. In the village where he had been born, he had been quite a successful cattle thief. Still, he hadn’t started practising his original trade in Rupohi till the time his crop had failed in the third year of his residence there. He had wanted to become respectable, and in any case all these night shifts were taking a toll on his health. He had heard the big educated people, sitting on their verandas in their bungalows talk of this many a time while he lurked in the bushes nearby waiting for an opportunity to enter the house and go about his work. Night shifts for nurses and people like them were ruining their health. Well, he too was a night shift person, though like many in his profession, he had a day job too. These days, he only practised his craft in order to keep his skills honed. He didn’t want his thievery skills to turn rusty. After all, who knew when they would be required?

Even now, so many years after settling down in this friendly town, he only stole things that he was almost sure that the stealee, the person he was stealing from, could replace without too much trouble. Things such a pira, a wooden stool left outside the kitchen, or perhaps a few brass utensils that had been left out to dry in the sun, and been forgotten by the careless new cook’s assistant of the house. Modon Sur’s forte was lifting clothes from the clothes horses, the wooden alnas on which were placed the gamosas, saris, dhutis, panjabis, and other articles of clothing of a family

Modon Sur was  thin of build and dark of colouring, as befitting one whose work required him to blend into the night. He also had a philosophy, a doctrine, about the justifiability of his alternate profession. A thief like him, he believed, was highly beneficial to society. His work made people careful. Without the disciplining effects of his thievery, housewives grew lax and left their clothes outside on the line at night, even though it was well known that doing so brought in evil spirits into the house. It gave Modon Sur a feeling of pride that women feared him more than they did evil spirits. He had heard matriarchs telling new and foolish daughters-in-law of the house, “Bring in the clothes, Bowari, it’s almost dark, can’t you see ? While you sit and idle away your time with gossip, Modon Sur will come and take away all the clothes…”

He was in the thoughts of menfolk, too, he knew, as shadows lengthened and lamps were lit and the evening prayers were chanted in the domestic shrines at dusk. Bicycles, left leaning against a wall of the front verandah, would be brought into the inside courtyard of the house, and chained securely to the guava tree near the well. Shoes left lying carelessly here and there would be brought into the inner verandas, near the bedrooms of the responsible people of the house.  Even though he only came out on moonless and sometimes rainy nights to purloin from homes, his shadow lay on the homes of the town every evening.

Every true professional has an area of expertise in which his mastery remains unchallenged. In Rupohi itself, for instance, Jiten Mastor’s knowledge of the history of the area was immense. Himadri Daktor’s ability to chase out all kinds of aches and pains afflicting the legs and feet of men was acknowledged to be second to none. Similarly, Modon Sur, too, had an area of expertise. His skill in lifting clothes from alnas was widely respected. If the clothes horse was near a window, it was an invitation to Modon Sur to come in and take away all the stuff that was piled on it. And even if the alna was at the opposite end of the room, several yards away form the window itself,  it was but the work of a moment for Modon Sur to poke in the special iron contraption he had himself invented, and pull out the muga mekhela sadors, the paat kurtas, the eri shawls,  and decamp. Sometimes, bags and jholas too, would be left hanging there. These would be a bonus for him. Clothing fetched a decent price, but if the jhola contained a purse with five or ten rupees and maybe a few annas, he felt that he had earned his keep for a whole month.

The strange thing was not that Modon Sur was never caught. After all, many thieves roamed the land whose skills were of such a high order that they always eluded being caught. The really amazing thing, the one thing that anointed Modon Sur as a master, was the fact that he always seemed to have a watertight alibi. He could never be nabbed and put behind bars for the disappearance of the butcher’s bicycle because, why, that very night, at,  in fact,  that very hour when the bicycle was likely to have disappeared, he was seen at a Naam Kirtan congregation at the other end of town, singing soulfully to the image of Krishna and keeping time with the cymbals in his hands.

How did he always have this kind of an alibi? It was a secret that he took with him to the grave (metaphorically speaking of course…he was cremated, with full honours when he died thirty years after the events that will presently be described here :  a highly respected, even prosperous farmer who came to be addressed with respect. By then, the appellation “Sur” had dropped off from his identity. )

But we are getting ahead of the story. Another thing he was careful about was not to have any of the stolen goods in his home, or shed. He took the purloined stuff straight to his contacts in the other town from which he had emigrated here, who were waiting just outside the town’s boundaries to receive the goods. It was this kind of clever planning that earned Modon Sur the admiration of even those who were the targets of his thievery.

In the largest official bungalow of Rupohi lived the town’s Magistrate, he who was in charge of the administration of the town. Not a Collector, because Rupohi was not the headquarters of any district. Still, the simple townspeople held the Magistrate in great awe, because, even though he was a brown skinned person just like themselves, the people who had lived in that house before him had all been Sahibs and Memsahibs, who had gone back to their island across the seven seas after Independence. Some of that awe that they had vested those whites with rubbed off on those who lived in that house for a long time.

The current incumbent of that rambling red bricked bungalow was Animesh Choudhury, who had been posted to the town just a couple of months before the events of this story. Tall of build and imposing of demeanour, he brought dignity and a great reputation for fairness and efficiency to his post. But more than even this was the fact that he brought to the town his large family, consisting of his wife and six daughters and his small son. The daughters ranged in age from twelve to nineteen, and the son was only five. Even though the eldest two were married, they were often at their parental home, for their husbands were on transferable jobs and they liked to come and stay with their parents while the husbands settled into their new postings and arranged their quarters before sending for their wives.

The girls caused quite a stir in the little town. Though there was quite a good girls’ school in Rupohi, they were tutored at home by a series of teachers who came in from the school in the evenings. However, the girls were in the habit of taking the air on the river bank every evening. Though their large lawns fronted the river, the view was impeded by walls and hedges. All six girls therefore went right out of their gate, to the concrete promenade that bordered the river, without fail every evening. They usually took along their little brother with them, and often sat for a while in one of the parks adjoining the riverbank while the little boy played.

The girls were of course beauties. How could they not be good looking when they came from such an aristocratic lineage? Tall, not thin, but not fat either, and with skins that glowed like the setting sun in October, they would stand out, singly, in any crowd of people. In a group, they were simply devastating. When they went to watch the Durga Puja celebrations that year, their beauty, whispered the awestruck townspeople, rivalled the Devi’s herself.

And their clothes! It was said they went to Calcutta especially to shop for the latest fashions. Instead of the simple muga and paat and cotton mekhela sadors that the townspeople wore, they put on beautiful silk and muslin saris brought from Calcutta. Their blouses were bordered with fine lace, and their hair was always uptwisted in the latest fashion in chignons. As for their jewellery…ah! Of course the Magistrate Sahab was a rich man, but even so! It was said that his wife herself came from a family that was so prosperous that they had gifted her a huge black trunk full of jewellery of purest gold when she had got married. And probably the girls had added to that storehouse, for their necks, wrists and earlobes twinkled and gleamed and glistened in the light of the setting sun on that river bank as they took in the fresh air.

In short, they were loaded with jewellery. And costly apparel. Enough to get any self respecting thief’s hands itching.

Of course Modon Sur was only a petty thief. Still, it wasn’t as though he hadn’t, in his time, pinched a gold chain here or a finger ring there, selling them in the market for a sum that was in fact less than that of a cow in those days. All that gold was really inviting. And it wasn’t as though they would miss the stuff. There was that huge black trunk stowed away somewhere.

Besides, (and here one falters in telling the story) the fact is that Modon Sur rather enjoyed some of the perks of his profession. One was the feeling of power that pinching even a small an object as a cushion from a cane chair gave him. The other was, frankly, more shocking, especially in those prudish days. In fact Modon Sur himself never actually admitted it even to himself, but…the fact was, he enjoyed the sight of all those women in the houses he had come to burgle, lying supine on beds, their clothes all awry, delicious bits of their body exposed, and even more delicious bits hinted at…In fact, many a time Modon would come away without having actually burgled anything, but quite happy nevertheless at the sight of the sleeping girls and women of Rupohi. Of course in no way was this any kind of disloyalty to his wife, to whom he was quite devoted. But he felt it was quite all right to ogle the prostrate bodies laid out so invitingly in the houses he visited at night. It was like staring, open mouthed, at the women he saw in the bioscope that came to town occasionally. They, like the women he burgled, were from a different world.  He would never have dreamed of touching them, except in the line of duty, as it were.

Still, here was a double bonanza! And added to it was the extra thrill of actually going into the lion’s den and decamping with the loot. Delicious! The Magistrate’s house had two durwans, of course, who were supposed to guard the gates, and the house, taking it in turns. But that in itself posed no problem for Modon Sur. Many of the big houses had durwans, but in his experience, they were creatures of habit, and as prone to sleep-wake cycles as the rest of humanity. It was just a question of studying their schedules for a few nights, and planning accordingly.

Of course stealing jewellery was a totally different challenge to that of lifting bicycles. Modon Sur realized that he would need to hone his skills in this department further. This actually suited him fine. It was only February now, and quite chilly at nights. The fog from the river crept into the town at night, laying its damp fingers on everything. It sidled into homes, as well, making people sneeze and develop the sniffles. Everybody in Rupohi kept their windows closed at night in these months. It was only after Bihu, in mid April, when the sun took on strength again, that people began to sleep with their windows open. Luckily for people like Modon Sur, electricity had not yet come to Rupohi at that point. When it did, he was sure that people would sleep with their windows shut even in summer, when instead of punkha wallahs, this thing called “current” would make fans twirls around on ceilings making rooms as cool as though this was January, even in August.

So that gave Modon Sur a couple of months, if not more, to plan a heist that was shaping up to be possibly the biggest heist of his career. Big, in terms of risk, glory, and spoils. If he could sell off the gold at a decent price, he thought he might retire from his night shift career. Perhaps though he would keep a couple of pieces of jewellery for Senehi, his wife. He would not be able to give them to her immediately, of course. Perhaps he would bury them in the earthen floor under their bed, and take them out only after the Magistrate had been transferred to another town, which would no doubt happen in a few years’ time.

In the meantime, there were two areas of research that he had to conduct. One: did the punkha wallah pull the rope to swing the cloth punkha on the ceiling even at night? Modon Sur was almost hundred percent sure that he was sent off when the women went into their rooms to sleep. After all, no woman liked the idea that the punkha wallah could at any time climb up and peep into the room of sleeping girls and women. Most women were prepared to sacrifice this comfort for privacy. This bit of information was easily got. Modon Sur sent out a few feelers to those professional punkha wallahs whose job it was to tug at the ropes that manipulated the cloth fans above the main rooms in the offices of Rupohi. Within a week, without drawing any attention to himself, he was in possession of the information that the punkha wallahs at the Big House were all sent away at seven in the evening. In fact, none of the bedrooms had any provision for punkhas at all. And also, all the help – armies of them, excluding the durwans – lived in a large complex that was connected to the main house through a pathway. They, too, retired there for the night after cleaning up after dinner. This happened by nine thirty, ten at the latest. For Rupohi was a town that went to bed early in those days.

Secondly, and more important: did the women take off their jewellery at night? True, there were thieves who pulled chains from women’s necks, but Modon Sur was not one of them. Purloining, not robbery, was his job description. Well, he would take along his contraption, he thought. If he found that the jewellery was not accessible, he would make away with the clothes on the alna . That too would satisfy him, if not monetarily, then at least from the point of view of professional pride.

And so it happened that for a few months, the more prosperous villages and the little towns around Rupohi began to report a spate of jewellery thefts. Nothing much, to begin with. A small gold chain left carelessly on a table near the window. Perhaps a ring, kept under a pillow while its owner went out to the outdoor toilet at night.

Modon Sur’s greatest asset was his total calmness. He had nerves of steel, which ensured that his brain worked alertly and coolly even as he was lifting a chain from right beside a sleeping girl. Besides, his fingers were deft, and his steps light. In all cases, without exception, it was only much later, when Modon Sur was safely back in Rupohi, making sure he was seen in the shops or in the fields by potential witnesses, that the theft was discovered in the village or town an hour’s journey away by bullock cart, when its owner went in to make her bed, after her bath.

Gradually, as Modon Sur’s confidence levels grew, so did his boldness. He began to purloin jewellery in ever more risky situations. In the heat of Rupohi’s summer, most girls and women kept aside their jewellery while they slept, in order to be more comfortable. After all, even the purest gold chafed terribly against skin made even more tender in the horrendous humidity of Assam in summer. On the other hand, it was considered inauspicious for the house if its daughters and daughters-in-law went about with necks, earlobes,  wrists and fingers bare of gold. To get around this, therefore, they usually took off their jewellery last thing at night, and pushed it under their pillows for safe keeping. In any case, it was considered the sign of industriousness and good breeding to make one’s own bed in the morning, even if the household had many helpers to do the other work. There was therefore little risk of some maid purloining the gold in the morning if the mistress forgot to wear it after her morning bath.

Modon Sur was of course as well aware of this custom as anybody else. Gradually, it became ridiculously easy for him to lift jewellery from tables near the bed. He felt the need for further challenges. Cautiously at first, therefore, and then with ever greater degrees of confidence, he began to lift the pillows from beneath the heads of the sleeping beauties themselves. After a few such missions, he was able to judge to the last inch where the jewels were likely to be kept, at which precise angle and point they would be located. Usually, for some reason, they would be located almost directly under the flowers embroidered in red, green and blue at the corner. (Here it must be mentioned that it was the fashion in those times to sleep on pillows whose covers were embroidered by the women of the house themselves). It became the work of a moment, eventually, for Mondon Sur to locate the jewels under the pillow. And in any case the beds were always pushed against open windows in those days of summer, in order to catch every cooling breeze from the river that came that way.

Once or twice, if the chain around the sleeping girl’s neck was a thin one, and if the girl herself was alone in the room and was, in addition, a slender specimen of womanhood, Modon Sur even went so far as to snatch the chain from around the said neck. This was a new thing for him. He knew it was much more risky to snatch a chain from a neck than it was to pick it up from tables and from under pillows. Still, such was his confidence in his prowess that he attempted that feat with aplomb. By the time the girl in question realized what was happening, and called out for help, he was already quite far away from the scene of the crime. Even so, he had decided not to attempt this again, even if things seemed easy. It was just too risky.

And so, these days, he only lifted from under pillows and from tables and beds.  It was only after he had put away the jewels in the jhola that he always carried slung crossways across his chest that he allowed himself to indulge in the perks of office. If the girls and women were pretty and lissom, he let his eyes linger over the curves of their bodies, before finally making off. Of course there was nothing of the voyeur in this action of his. Rather, Modon Sur’s eyes took in this offering of female beauty spread out before him much as an art lover would a painting by some great Renaissance master.

. In the meantime, he also familiarized himself with the lay of the land, as it were, in the Magistrate’s compound. This he did by sauntering past the gates every evening, his demeanour casual-seeming but his eyes taking in every detail of the house as it was visible to him. He also located a fine, mature mango tree near the back wall of the house. The long, leafy and sturdy branches of this tree spread out over the wall itself, and hung low over the adjoining lane. Fortunately, this particular lane was deserted not just during the night, but also during most of the day. Modon Sur spent many an evening fruitfully employed, up on the mango tree, gazing at the grounds and the house before him. Here too, the bonus was that he could take home some choice mangoes for Senehi  and the children every night.

IN a few weeks, Modon Sur knew almost as well as the occupants of the house themselves which rooms were occupied by the girls, and which by the Magistrate and his wife. He had of course no intention of disturbing that personage himself during his night’s work. That would be tempting Fate. He also familiarized himself with the habits of the two guards. The day guard was not really of any interest to him. However, he was not surprised to find that the night guard would give a couple of turns around the compound, and then doze off in the guardhouse. He would wake up every now and again with a start, and start banging his stick against a wall or post, shouting something unintelligible all the while. After which, he would go back to sleep. Modon Sur had surmised right at the beginning that the guards would not pose any problem to him. And now he was only proved right. Thank goodness though, the Magistrate was not a dog lover. There were no dogs to wheedle over and feed sleeping draughts to in this particular house. With guard dogs, things became more difficult and time consuming. Not impossible, no, but difficult.

The decision that he was ready to “work” at the Magistrate’s house came to Modon Sur, quite suddenly, one night. He was on his way back from a heist at the neighbouring town. It had been a good night’s work, one of his best so far. His jhola was chinkling satisfyingly at his side, full of gold ornaments, and silver anklets. Besides, he had come across a plateful of pithas too while he was going through the rooms. It had been standing temptingly besides the kitchen window. Munching on them as he cycled back to Rupohi, Modon Sur was filled with satisfaction.

It was a beautiful night…not moonlit of course, for that would have not been suitable for his work. As a person whose toils made him think in ways that were different from most other people, Modon Sur’s notions of natural beauty too were coloured by his line of work. So, while others extolled the virtues of a “purnima” night, lit up by the silvery beams of the full moon, Modon was happiest under a dark, “Amavasya” sky, moonless and shadowy. Indeed, others would not find it easy to find their way home in this darkness, on a night as black as coal. But Modon was not a successful thief for nothing. Whistling softly to himself, he rode his cycle back quite confidently through the narrow mud lanes of the area. He could see in the dark, and relished the aromas of the night flowers all around him, as well as the soft breeze against his skin.

That was when the idea came to him. He was having a run of good luck. Like all thieves, Modon Sur too was highly superstitious. He believed that when luck, Fate, Bhagya, whatever you called her…when she smiled on you, she did so for a certain period of time. And when she looked somewhere else, or began to frown at you, then the bad luck, too, came for a fixed amount of time. Certainly, this was a time when Bhagya Devi, Lady Luck, was smiling on him. Why not take advantage of this, and strike at the Big House this very night? The conditions were just right, and he himself was as ready as he would ever be. His footfalls had never fallen softer, he fingers had never been nimbler. In a flash, he made up his mind. Yes, Tonight would be The Night.

The lane at the side of the house was empty, as usual, and quite dark. Soundlessly, Modon leaned his bicycle against it, and prepared to climb the spreading branches of the mango tree. The jhola, with its burden of gold, thumped against his side. Besides, it made that chinkling sound at every step he took. And in any case, the buttons on the jhola still left gaps through which the smaller gold items could slide out. He realized that it was not really practical to carry it around with him as he proceeded with his final heist.

Impossible to leave the jhola on the bicycle.  After all who knew better than him, how the minds of thieves worked? Even a person who was deemed honest would bend his morals if he found this bag with its precious burden lying unattended in that dark lane. Modon decided to take it into the compound with him, and leave it leaning against the tree. He could pick it up on his way out.

Carefully, making sure that nothing fell out of the jhola while he climbed the tree, he went across the wall, and then climbed down the other side. He had made this trip several times before, and was, by now, very much at home here. Still, he moved around silently as he prepared for the work ahead.

First, he took the jhola off from his shoulder, and leaned it against the tree. Then, taking off his sandals, he tied them together and slung them around his neck. This was part of his preparations. All the while, he kept a look around the compound, which now lay under the blanket of darkness. If his eyes hadn’t been used to it, Modon would not have been able to make out a thing.

He began to move quietly away towards the girls’ bedroom. Glancing back once, he saw that his jhola, with its precious burden, had fallen to its side. He came back again, and picking it up, stood undecided about what to do. What if a stray animal came up and scattered its contents…yes, he made up his mind. Taking the jhola, he went to a nearby golonchi bush. The plant was now in full flower, its creamy blooms seeming like soft stars in the darkness. Carefully, he fastened the jhola to one of its branches. There. It was safe from the inquisitiveness of animals now.

In a couple of minutes, Modon was at the window of the room which he had rightly surmised to be the girls’ room. It was in fact like a dormitory. Large and tall ceilinged, Modon could see, by the light of the hurricane lantern that burned dimly in a corner, that it was a kind of dormitory. Each of the five beds was placed against a window. Four of them had one occupant each, while one had two girls sleeping. The youngest two, he surmised, dismissing them. They were unlikely to have much gold on them.

The women were certainly sound asleep. He could hear the even breathing of the six ladies. It was a strange sound. He had never, truth to tell, seen so many females all stretched out, somnolent, in one room. Resisting the urge to stare, he looked around.

The windows had the usual iron rods placed horizontally across to deter people like him. No problem there. His practiced eye judged that he could easily put in his arm to scoop up whatever was left lying around.

But where was it? The loot, where could it be?

And then, suddenly, he saw the pile. A pile of gold that gleamed even in that darkness, heaped up carelessly on the table next to one of the girls. She was probably one of the older ones. Silently, Modon moved to the window beside her bed. Yes, he would be able to reach the table, he thought, quite easily. No doubt she, this older daughter of the Magistrate, had thought that by placing her sleeping form between the table full of gold and the window, she was protecting the pile. Well, in the morning, she would find out how futile it had been.

Modon rolled up the sleeves of his dark coloured shirt, and flexed his fingers. All right then. This was it…He put in his hand, and slowly, moved it towards the table. Quietly, with practiced ease, he grasped the pile. Almost all of it came up in his grasp. Carefully, swiftly, he started to take out the pile.

And then…

Reba, the Magistrate’s eldest daughter, was spending some time with her parents and sisters and brother. Soon, it would be time for her to return to her husband, who was even then shifting from one town to another. In the meantime, it was wonderful to be able to giggle and laugh with her sisters and parents, without a care in the world, as though she had no responsibilities …

That evening as usual, all the sisters took off their jewellery and put it on the table beside Didi’s bed. It was quite safe there. And of course it was too hot to sleep with it on. All those chains, rings, bangles …and those earrings! How they made their skin itch!

The girls, as was their habit, talked and giggled well into the night. It was well past eleven when they drifted off, one by one, their murmurs dwindling to occasional whispers, and finally dying out altogether. Reba was the last to drift off to sleep.

She awoke a couple of hours later, fully alert. She wasn’t sure what had woken her up, but she knew there was something. Without stirring, she listened. She heard her sisters’ even breathing. Everything seemed all right there. But something…

She remained quiet, but opened her eyes a crack. Not fully, but enough to see her surroundings. The light from the lamp in the corner showed….ohmyGod…Krisno, Krisno! Ohohoh!

Reba stifled the instinct to scream, and watched, fascinated, as the dark and hairy arm slowly came in through the window. Like a rabbit hypnotised by a cobra’s hooded stare, she watched it lift up a fistful of jewellery, and then start to take it out carefully.

OhmyGod. She should do something. She should…ohmyGod what if no sound came out from her throat, like in nightmares….? What if he throttled her or something…?

The hand was almost out of the window now.

It was the sight of her thick gold mangalsutra dangling from the hairy hand that brought her to her senses. Her mangalsutra, given by Probir  during their wedding just two years ago. And this thief, this robber, was actually taking off with it, that too, right under her very nose! Literally. And what would Probir and his mother say if they knew she was sleeping with it off her body? She was supposed to wear it night and day. Indignation coursed through her being, displacing the fear at last.

Modon’s concentration levels while at work on his “night duties” were always high. His brain seemed to work in high gear, and all his senses, his antennae quivered alertly. He was focussed, at this moment, in drawing out the fistful of jewellery through the gap in the iron rods of the window without disturbing the sleeping owners. Yet he was aware also of all the other things that were happening in the room. The sleeping forms, the even breathing of the six girls, the shadows thrown by the lantern…he was conscious of them all. What he did not realize, though, was that the woman on the other side of the wall was now awake. To say he was startled when the woman decided to take matters into her own hands would be a gross understatement. He had in fact never been more astounded, frightened and shocked, all at the same time, ever before in his life.

Reba’s scream, “Sur! Sur!” came out shrill and strong. But it was not that which stunned Modon so much. It was the fact that she simultaneously grabbed his arm. And right after that initial scream, she bit down hard on it.

Pain coursed through Modon Sur’s arm, radiating upward in agonizing waves. Of course his fist automatically unclenched itself. The jewels fell in a shower on Reba’s body, but she continued to clamp down with her teeth on his arm.

There was turmoil everywhere. The other five sleeping forms had of course woken up at the first scream. Through the pain, Modon’s bewildered mind registered that after the first surprise, they, too, were now screaming at the top of their lungs.

“Sur! Sur!”

“Kon aasey! Who’s there?”

“Deuta! Ma! Come quick! Something bad is happening…eeeee!”

“Eeeee! Durwan! Where are you? Eeee, bring your lathis…”

“ Help us! Help! There’s somebody inside the room!”

“He’s murdering Reba Didi!”

Of course this was not technically correct, but possibly they could not see him as he stood outside in the dark. Through the fog of pain and shock, Modon’s mind registered this fact as a ray of hope. All was not lost, not yet.

The noise levels in the room were horrendous. Five women, screaming at the tops of their lungs, unnerved Modon Sur completely. The sixth still had her teeth around his forearm, but even she was uttering high pitched though unintelligible sounds.

Modon’s instincts, honed finely over a lifetime of thievery, took over. With a supreme effort, ignoring the pain, he shook his hand free from the woman’s mouth. He could feel blood dripping down from it, but he blocked his mind to it. Quickly, like the shadow of a fleeing bat, he ran back to the mango tree. Without looking this way or that, he was up and then over, in a moment. His cycle was as he had left it. Mounting it in a trice, he turned around and pedalled off into the dark.

Behind him, there was pandemonium. The Magistrate and his wife were told the whole story when they came rushing in. At first, there was consternation when the lamp was turned up and Reba’s bloody mouth was seen. However, it soon became apparent that the gore was not hers. The screams had subsided, but the girls were still sobbing hysterically.

“Such a huge man, Ma!” moaned Rina, the middle girl. “A monster, I tell you! Black as coal, with eyes that were full of blood.  He was wearing nothing on top…such muscles, Ma, one flick of his wrist to Reba Didi’s neck, and she would have been like a chicken. Dead in a minute.”

(Here, let us fast forward twenty years. Rina has now become an acclaimed writer of fiction. Possibly this childhood trauma has had something to do with it.)

The room filled up quickly with the help, who rushed in, pell mell, into the house. The sight of the blood on Reba’s face was enough to send two of the maids into a dead faint, while a third fell on the floor with a thud, screaming and thrashing her feet around. The staff became so engrossed in this little side drama that they gave it their full and fascinated attention.

The durwan, disturbed by all this noise, woke up at last, and began to shout, “Jaagte Raho! Jaagte Raho!” automatically, groping for his stick and topi.

(Here it must also be mentioned that though the Durwan was in great danger of losing his job, the intercession of his – the Durwan’s – weeping wife, who fell at the angry Magistrate’s feet the next morning and refused to let go till he relented,  saved the man his salary. The Durwan retired many years later on a full pension. Till the end of his days, he recounted this incident proudly. It is a trifling matter that in the recounting of the tale, it was he who caught the famous dacoit and rescued the six damsels from all kinds of horrors. Perhaps if he had been literate, the Durwan, too, would have been a noted fiction writer.)

Of course there was no question of sleep. Reba had a full and complete bath, while the others took turns to count the jewellery. It was all there, thank God. By the time they had all stopped chattering and counting, dawn was breaking.

“But how did the man come in?” wondered the Magistrate. Followed by his fluttering brood, he walked out, in full majesty even though he was wearing his pyjamas, following the trail of footprints that led to the mango tree.

“Ah!” he said, not without admiration. “So that’s how the thief entered the house! Mali!” he called the gardener. “Make sure that no branches cross over the wall any more. Lop them all off!”

Turning on his heel, he was walking off when something in the golonchi shrub caught his attention. A jhola! A dark, buttoned bag, hanging from a branch. Curiously, he walked up to it, and unhooked it. The chinkling sound that it made could be heard even above the excited chatterings of the women of his family, who had all followed him out.

The Magistrate opened the buttons, and peered inside the jhola. Fistful after fistful, he took out the gold jewels. Balas, bautis, chains, jhumkas, even a slim waistchain emerged. The women watched, stunned into silence.

“Obviously, the thief came here after robbing some other homes,” he said, in his most impressive tones.

IN the silence of the dawn, not even a bird chirped. Finally, Rina, always known for her boldness, stepped forward.

“But Deuta …now that it’s here with us, we should keep it, na? It’s ours now, na? That’s the law, I’m sure…”

The Magistrate turned and looked at this child of his loins. With a voice like thunder and eyes that sparked lightning, he roared, “No, it is not the law! Teaching me the law, are you? This will go with me to the office, where it will be held securely till the real owners are found. Real owners, do you hear! From wherever it has been stolen. Now we have to find out who the thief is…should be easy. After all, he has Reba’s bite marks on his right arm.”

But Modon Sur was not caught, then or ever. For he had taken the precaution of having a bad fall before entering his own home that night. The bite marks on his arm were now unrecognizable, camouflaged as they were by the injuries he had incurred. Not just his arms and legs, even his face was bruised and bleeding when the Arm of the Law came in next morning to question him.

And only Modon Sur, out of all those people who figure in this tale, ever talked about it to anybody else, ever.

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan is an Assamese author, translator and columnist. Her first novel The Collector's Wife (2005), is set against the Assam Agitation of the 1970s and 80s. A Monsoon of Music (Zubaan Books, 2011) is her  recent novel.

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Mapping the Horizon

Guwahati Gaze  Mitra Phukan  Bhabani Books, 2013  352 pp, 320 INR

Guwahati Gaze
Mitra Phukan
Bhabani Books, 2013
352 pp, 320 INR

Mitali Goswami

What does one think about as one gazes into the horizon or at the surrounding cityscape? What are the questions and concerns that arise in one’s mind and pass into oblivion as one goes about ones routine of activities?  Does one pause and ponder and then take the trouble to articulate ones concerns? The answer would mostly be in the negative for most of us. But there are always exceptions to the rule. One such exception is the column, ‘All Things Considered’ by the multi- faceted writer, novelist, columnist and classical vocalist Mitra Phukan, who has just published her latest collection after the success of her two novels The Collector’s Wife (2005) and A Monsoon of Music (2011).

Guwahati Gaze is a compilation of 50 essays from the aforesaid column, published by Bhabani Books. These 50 essays are selected, albeit reluctantly, out of a total of 130 or more articles that the writer has published in her fortnightly column over a period of five years, from 2007 to 2011 in the Sunday Reading supplement of The Assam Tribune. They reflect the writer’s concern about Assam, about its changing face and socio-economic transition over the years, its cultural ethos and quintessential characteristics and qualities that set it apart. It is a penetrative gaze, not overtly critical, but a tongue in cheek, witty and ironical one, that goes deep into the social and psychological dynamics of the state of Assam and the Assamese people. Born out of “an urge to communicate and a need to share experiences with others”, this volume is evidently a labour of love, penned thoughtfully for that community of readers who form her world of virtual friends. Interestingly  the writer abdicates the all knowing authorial position and formulates the essays as a series of what she terms, “conversations” that make them so easily readable and comprehensible, making them almost a two way communication between reader and writer. No matter how transient the newspaper column tends to be, some impressions seep deep down to the reader’s consciousness and become, for reader as well as writer, a process of self discovery. This collection, while gazing at Guwahati and thence outwards to the world, provides a strong vantage point not only to assess oneself as a social being but also to enjoy God’s plenty and variety as they filter out of the writer’s consciousness, experience and creative imagination.

The compilation is divided into four sections, ‘We the Asomiyas’; ‘Guwahati Guwahati’; ‘Melodies and Tongues’ and ‘Modern Life’, and each of these sections — succinct and witty at the same time — take up different aspects for discussion. ‘We the Asomiyas’, offers penetrating insights into the Asomiya psyche highlighting in the first essay  ‘The Asomiya ABCD’,  the particular traits that characterise the Assamese community, as for instance the love for Bihu and Bhupen Hazarika,  the fetish for fish and the gamosa, the problems of insurgency and influx and so on. The list could go on but this A to Z of the Asomiyas offer a good enough bird’s eye view of the community as a whole.

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan

In the same section, in her write up entitled ‘Modern-Day Cruelties’, she raises certain very pertinent gender related issues like the restrictions on the participation of widows in auspicious occasions or again on food, attire or even the application of the dot of sindur by the priest after any ritual or worship where the widow is studiously left out — reminding her again and again of her loss. Written in a somber tone this essay brings to the fore issues that are normally swept under the carpet.

The Great Indian Urinal’ , from the section ‘Guwahati Guwahati’,  delves mock ironically into the propensity of the general  passers-by to use the street corners and walls of the city as convenient places to relieve themselves. Phukan enlivens the telling all the way with her characteristic humour. The writer’s keen observation is evident in pieces like ‘A Women’s Walk’ and ‘The Shillong Connection’ in the first of which she dwells upon the subtle changes that have occurred in the ways in which women walk or stride as the case may be. In ‘The Shillong Connection’, she speaks of the close and nostalgic connect with Shillong that many Guwahatians feel even today, recreating thereby an era and a feeling that many can still identify with.

The Hindustani classical vocalist surfaces in the third section of the book entitled ‘Melodies and Tongues’, where she takes an inroad into some of her pet topics, language, music and musicians makes for an interesting read.  The vagaries of modern life, lightened considerably by the grace and goodness embodied by the subject of  an essay like ‘The Anonymous Compliment Giver’, form the subject matter of the final section.

The book starts with, and is peppered throughout, with a close, much needed, scrutiny of the typical behaviour and thought patterns exhibited by the Assamese people, highlighting both the positives and the negatives in an easy conversational style, using everyday examples and parallels. It is a telling that provokes an introspective journey and carries a few  serious messages  in the garb of an easy going manner.

Collections like these bring to mind the foretelling of thinkers and critics like Georg Lukacs and Theodore Adorno, who have prophesised that of all the genres of literature, the essay, particularly the cultural-philosophical essay, with its tentative and skeptical spirit and freedom from dogma, is most likely to be the reigning form in the modern age. The essay, in short, was — and perhaps remains — the ideal form for ages of transition and uncertain values as we are passing through now. As such, the book gains significance and makes interesting read  for the serious and casual reader alike. Unlike a novel, it need not be read from cover to cover and hence can be read over a period of time without losing the thread of thought. Considering  the time constrains that modern day people live and work under this is indeed an added advantage.

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

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