An excerpt from The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar (Zubaan)
Translated from Axamiya by Aruni Kashyap
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?”
After 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.