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The Sal Tree Or An Occult Narrative— Satadal Mitra

Feb 5, 2023 | Fiction | 1 comment

Translated from the Bengali by Shamita Das Dasgupta 

 

Tribal Santhali community

Image used for representation.

 

Leaning on a bamboo pole, Sarat Baske cranes his neck—that is, as much as it can be extended beyond the shoulders, and blinks at the sky. Even from this angle in the yard, the sun remains hidden. He shades his eyes with his left palm. Sarat tries to guess what time it is… seems late. Such scorch! Like Singhbonga is out to char everything to cinders. No wonder he feels ravenous. Sarat ponders, “‘Tis late… time for food.” He raises a rattle in his 72-year-old throat… “Monjari, yo Monjari… Where are you?” Right then he notices, the shadow of the blood-red sandalwood tree in the front yard caressing the berry tree in the corner. Huh! So, it can’t be that late. Sarat ponders. Then, why did his hunger call to him so early? He’s embarrassed. Maybe Monjari hasn’t heard his holler—otherwise, she’d raise a ruckus. Ah, the ailment of the aged… getting chased by hunger often. Sarat stretches out his swollen right leg more. He is drowsy. And a bunch of crackpot thoughts invade his mind. What else can an old man do but chew the cud of the past—especially when the whole village is totally empty! Every house is vacant. Except for a few old ones, women and menfolk, girls, and boys, have all left the village. Sarat ponders. He reaches for the discolored plastic bottle next to him and pours some water into his mouth. He takes a piece of cloth towel and wipes his back. This shaky movement makes the whole world sway in front of his hazy eyes. 

It was a clogged-up day just like this one. As though Singhbonga had destroyed the universe. Maybe it was the month of Bhador , as the ditch in front was full. Was the Sal tree in Jaher’s yard a bit smaller then, or was it as tall as always? Feels like it was the same. Yeah, but the village was not so bare of people. Sal, mahua , palash , banyan—the surrounding forest flourished. Wild boar, fox, kulai, rabbit, and python—there was everything there. He was only a tyke then. He used to wait all day for his father to return.

Father was a bonded laborer in a rich babu’s household. He left home even before the sun rose—his father. The rich people’s village was beyond one and a half kos of forest and a waterfall. He was a workhand for Narayan babu. During the farming season, he tilled; and in other months, he tended to the cows and buffalos, gardened, and took the rice paddy and mustard seeds to the city on a bullock cart—all that his father did. He’d get food daily, clothes once a year, and a bit of cash at the end of each month. But father never ate his evening rations. He knotted the allotted rice in a rag and brought it home for dinner.

One night, he declared that he won’t be able to get home the next evening. The Babu was throwing a huge all-night party and he’d have to stay there. He’ll skip one night and return the following sundown. Little Sarat fretted the whole day… When will the sun set! His dad had promised to bring him sweets. Where was Maa—had she gone to fetch water at the falls? Time stood still for wee Sarat.

This is how old and dozy Sarat spends his time. The images dance tremblingly in his ancient sight, as though a video’s playing. The young’uns rent videos during festivals. Sarat has also seen them a few times. The burn outside smacks him hard. Dust and straws swirl upwards in an eddy. Sarat watches them with slothful eyes. Or maybe he doesn’t see anything. The village feels eerie. Not a soul’s around. Fulmoni next door—Sarat can’t hear a peep out of her. 

Ah ha! Just watch that clever Kyoto bird! It has inserted its beak into the broken neck of the tube well to seek water. But that joker has never given a drop from birth. Kyoto doesn’t know that. Sarat mumbles. Have both Monjari and Fulmoni gone off to fetch water from the spring? At the waterfall, water trickles into a hollow all night. They’d fill their pitchers with handfuls of that water and return. It mustn’t be too late then. Why is he so hungry? Oldman Sarat can’t fathom it. His eyes strain with craving and heat.

So, his dad showed up at dusk. Sarat saw him from afar and ran to him. His bundle was full of puffed rice sweetened with molasses. He had tied monda , darbesh , goja in his waistband. Ah, how delicious they tasted! He could still feel the taste on his tongue! The geezer licked his toothless gums.

“Hey Pa, what festival was the Babu celebrating?”

“Liberty, sonny! Bharat became independent last night. What a carnival! What lights! The babus raised a flag. Yes, it was one great event!”

“What’s liberty?” Little Sarat, ignorant Sarat, had questioned his dad.

“There won’t be any poor people in the independent country—Bharat. We’ll get to eat twice a day.”

That day, Sarat’s father had nodded his head like the Babu

“Rice and daal twice daily?” Little Sarat couldn’t believe his luck!

“Where’s this country called Bharat, Pa? This forest, this soil, these hills, are they all in the country of Bharat?”

“The babus have said that our Jungle Mahal, the Santhal Paragana, and this Jharbhum, all are in Bharat. Besides, the Santhals have fought to throw out the Sahibs . The babus said, after all, Sidhu-Kanho were also Santhal. And lord Birsa had called for ulgulan . The babus were saying all that. God Gandhi , Subhash Chander , Jaharlal and they were mentioning more names. All of them know how to read and write. They know so much! I must also educate you! That’s all the babus said.”

That day to little Sarat, his father seemed nearly as tall as the Sal tree on Jaher’s land.

The whole world beyond Oldman Sarat’s tired vision wavered and quavered. Was the Sal tree as tall as it is now, or was it just a tad tinier on that day? Sarat can’t remember. Toothless Sarat chews the cud.

For a few days, he’d walked three kos and crossed the waterfall to attend the babu-school. The master took one look at the bare-chested boy in a loincloth and asked, “What, you jungle ghoul, you wish to be a babu? When you see an elephant crap, don’t wish to shit like it.” Everyone guffawed. Like an idiot, Sarat had joined the laughter. He sat behind everyone with his head down. But he couldn’t quite understand the babu-lingo. This wasn’t his Santhali! Nah, he never went back to that school again. His dad beat him soundly for it, but still, he wouldn’t go.

He recalls that agony—Oldman Sarat’s hand unknowingly strokes his own back. And right then, the hunger-pain raises its head once again. The old man looks up at the blazing sun, but he doesn’t know what time it is. In that total desolation, sunrays shiver. Time itself shudders. Sarat swirls his tongue on his toothless gum. Instantly, the hunger is shriller. Ah, ha! Yesterday’s khichdi was so tasty! Sarat ponders. Will the policemen feed them khichdi again today? When Monjari and Fulmoni come back, he’ll go to the Khari field. Sarat tautens his right leg. After walking a kos yesterday, the ache in his leg has sharpened, and the knee is swollen. Sarat gently rubs his inflamed right knee. A smile plays on his lips. What an absurdity! The doctor said that he must eat good food—egg, fish, meat, fruits, and root vegetables! Tears had sprung up in his eyes at the words. What was the police doctor saying? He nearly couldn’t remember when he had last eaten a mouthful of rice—and he was supposed to eat good food?

They had asked Fulmoni to go to the hospital for a checkup. Fulmoni shouted and bawled herself sick. Just to go and come back from the hospital would cost her twenty plus twenty, forty rupees bus fare. She gathers wood and whatnot in the jungle and makes ten or twenty rupees if she manages to take it to the town. And she can’t do that often. They are old folks.

Alas, Fulmoni’s fate is rather dreadful. Her husband, Kattik, was Sarat’s playmate from the bare-bottom days. It’s been a while now… Kattik was returning from the forest with woods he had chopped. The ban-babus beat him up badly. Then they sent him off to jail. Kattik’s son, Otul, and Sarat pleaded together from door to door to get him released. To reimburse for his sins, Kattik had to sell off the few utensils he had along with the four kottah of land he owned. From then on, the man turned bizarre. He mumbled continuously—”This jungle, this land belongs to Santhals —ours… why not!” The guy walked about aimlessly. 

But Otul was a good son and minded Sarat a lot. When Sarat grew old and lost his strength, Otul, farmed his land as a sharecropper, along with his own. Ah, fate! Oh, fate! Sarat, the old dog, touches his forehead. He breathes out noisily and the air around drips a little. Everything in Sarat’s line of vision starts to jiggle again.

Where did Monjari go? Has she gone to the jungle to collect wood? No, that’s impossible—the place is teeming with police. Sarat ponders. Monjari is turning old too! What glint she had in her eyes once—like lightning. How she danced at the Baha festival with palash flowers in her hair! Baha festival—they could drink mahua then. Oldman Majhi had strictly prohibited it. But after all, it was a festival—what dazzle, what shine! The madol drums were sounding—dhitang! dhitang! Sarat danced—youngster Sarat! Monjari danced. She had come to visit her kin. They had just completed the rice harvest. Those who had left home to work as field laborers in the East had returned. Everyone had rice at home—every home had a little money. They sneaked behind Joga-majhi and talked to each other with their eyes. After that, they got married. Jaher-era, Mnoreko, sacrificed chickens to Marang-buru . They wrapped three pieces of raw turmeric, rice, and crabgrass in a mango leaf and buried it at the center of the wedding space. Oldman Sarat’s face was pasted with the amity of Spring. 

Monjari grew like a well-watered vine as marriage touched her. 

“Don’t sew together leaves, Monjari.”

“Don’t you dare build a clay oven, be careful!”

“Don’t travel alone to the forest or the waterfall, Monjari.”

Monjari was pregnant. Jahar came. The cord that tied mother and son was cut with an arrowhead. Sarat’s father was beside himself with joy. He didn’t know what to do. It was Sarat’s father who had named his grandson Jahar. Jahar was the king of the country named Bharat—he was a strong king. 

Who’s the king of the country Bharat now? Sarat doesn’t know. Was Jahar the king of Bharat even at that time? His son was a toddler then. The babus from the city used to come to the forest, to their village.

Where did Monjari go? 

“Monjari, oh Monjari, where are you?”

Sarat yells. The vibrating soundwaves shake up the desolate universe. The dregs of fluid left in the nearby dry pond begin to shudder. Sarat senses it. He rubs his eyes. Is he getting senile in his old age? The dry scorching hotness blows around him. It eddies up dust and bits of hay upward. The world trembles in front of Sarat’s vision. 

At that time, there was no water in the pond either. It was a blistering day like this one. 

The city-babus come and go—they stay in the village. The babus know a lot of reading and writing. They say—”Santhals are tribes of warriors, they are Sidhu and Kanhu’s kinfolks. With only bows and arrows, Sidhu and Kanhu had fought heroically to rid the country of Sahibs.” All that is written in books. They say, this red earth, this forest, and the sky, are ours. The Dikus have wrenched all that from us and kept us ignorant. If we side with them, again our lives will change for the better. They say, if we kill traders and hoarders, we will be liberated. 

The young’uns in the village are excited. Their eyes are fierce. Then the babu’s village is set on fire. Sarat’s father bemoans it.

“This is unfair, wrong! We have survived because of the food the traders provide. They are like gods. Sarat, don’t commit this sin. Marang-buru will be upset.”

The next day, the police enter the village. Stomp—stomp, stomp—stomp—what noise their feet make. One’s heart pounds. Glare from their gun barrels blind Sarat. The police mercilessly beat anyone they could lay their hands on—young-old-women-boys—with firearms and clubs. How viciously they beat!

“Confess, you scoundrels, where are the rest of the men?”

“I don’t know, lord!”

A policeman smashes the knee of old Mangla with his rifle butt. The old man howls in pain. The police drag him to the car. 

Sarat had learned all this later. At the time, he was walking through the deep forest holding onto his wife and son. The band of babus had fled the night before. His father had stayed back in the village. Just like Sarat is left alone in the village now—Oldman Sarat. This is what happens in a war. Sarat ponders. His eyes are drawn to the Sal tree on Jaher Thaan’s land. The Sal was as tall then as it is now. Sarat ponders. It remains as it was then. Life is just like that, thinks Sarat.

Ah, only if Monjari returns! Once she comes back, Sarat will go to the police station to have khichdi. Hunger is on the move again. Sarat elongates his neck to look. Alas, the shadow of the red sandalwood has not yet left the berry tree. It can’t be very late then. Time isn’t passing for Sarat. He exhales deeply. And then, the universe starts to dance in the old man’s vision.

Jahar had planted the red sandalwood tree near the rubbish heap. He was a teeny lad then. A new school at Kharidanga had been established. Not one babu-village was nearby. The neighboring villages belonged to Santhal, Orano, Shabar, Mahato, and Keote. For a couple of years, Jahar walked two miles through the forest and jagged land to attend school. They used to feed students meals then. That was also a pull. The tummy would at least be partially filled. But he couldn’t grasp the babu-language. He struggled through two classes and then gave up. He learned to sign his name. 

Sarat breathes in deeply. His chest expands in pride. The Red Party was ruling then. Lots of things happened. Sarat ponders. Pancha’at was founded. It was going to be poor people’s raj, they said. The home that Sarat had gone to burn belonged to trader Sunil Panda, a leader of the Red Party, pancha’at head. He distributed saplings at school during the monsoon season. Jahar brought the Krishnachura home and planted it there. It has grown like a weed. It’s resplendent in red blossoms now. Babus said that we must grow trees, and make the world green. Ha, ha, ha!

It’s hard to tell if Sarat is laughing or crying. The large mango orchard that was there on the Namo land, has disappeared in the dark of night. It seems the orchard had become a babu’s exclusive property. Just look at it—if Santhals break a couple of branches in the forest, they are accused of an evil deed. But the ban-babus make whole jungles vanish by cutting down trees. 

When Jahar couldn’t go to school anymore, he became a cow herder for the babus. After all, one’s stomach must be fed! 

Sarat exhales raucously. He looks outside with his cloudy eyes to figure things out. In the stagnant air, the world shivers.

“I’ll go to Bombai , Pa.”

“Where is that dear?”

“It’s a huge city—beyond a big sea. There’s much work there and lots and lots of money.”

“Beyond the sea—that’s so far away, son! This waterfall drops into the bank of a river. That river meets a larger river, and that one breaks through the land and the jungle to jump into an ocean. That’s a long way away, son.”

“No Pa, if you sit in a train, you can be there in two days.”

“Don’t go, my son, listen to me. There’re no hills there, no forest, none of this red soil. You won’t return if you go there. We are people of the jungle, my son. No one survives when they lose their roots.” 

“Should I then live here half-fed, half-starved, walking the jungles like a ghost? Money flies in the air there. Lots of money. Shibu Mahato told me. I, Gonsha, and Sonatan, all are going with Shibu. He gave us five hundred each. Keep this four hundred. I am keeping a hundred with me—after all, it’s a foreign land. I’ll send you whatever I can every month and come home after a year. It’ll pass just like that. Pa, make your heart strong. 

Sarat sits like a zombie and then cries out—

“Oh ho! Shibu is a first-class swindler. And you are making plans with him? Oh my! Listen to me, listen, my dear son. I can’t make my heart agree to this.” 

Jahar was a young man. He wasn’t going to listen. He did whatever he wished. His young wife, Lakkhi, was home with their baby son—Sidhu. No one could stop him. 

And then, Gonsha came back alone. How awful he looked! The strong young man had turned into a panting old one! There was a slit in his abdomen—raw and livid. He was given two thousand rupees and put on a train and could barely make home. 

It was a stormy day. Since morning, the sky was dense with clouds. Sidhu was a little older by then. Sarat had enrolled him in the Kharibhanga school. Sarat was restless but his grandson insisted on going to school that day. It seems it was the day when the country Bharat had become independent some twenty-five years ago. Sidhu, Mithun, and Mongal had all come back at noon jubilantly chattering. The rain hadn’t started yet. They all shouted—”Independence, Independence!” On one hand, they held a packet of sweets, and on the other, a flag on a tiny stick—tricolored. 

Hah! Independent Bharat! Sarat hasn’t figured out what country is that. He knows that the Santhal Parganas, this Jharbhum, is not Bharat. Otherwise, why can’t trees grow abundantly here? Why do the babus axe them down? Otherwise, why can’t the river flow freely here? Why do the babus dam it up? Otherwise, why can’t they walk without care into the forest? 

That’s the day Gonsha returned home without Jahar. Jahar was lost. Monjari had whimpered for him for a few days. Sarat was strong then. He farmed for the babus and in his little land, he grew dingily, khero , and gourd vegetables, to barely make ends meet. In addition, Monjari gathered kendu leaves and worked during the farming seasons to keep the household running. Jahar’s wife, Lakkhi, wasn’t idle either. Not a woman in the Majhi community sits idle and eats like the women in the babu community. Sarat’s heart crumpled when he looked at her—she was a young woman. The unhappy woman kept her mouth shut and worked hard. Poor thing! Sarat’s choked breath falls on the gloomy air. 

His grandson has brains. He never failed a class in school. Sarat is the one who named him Sidhu. He had heard the story from his Pa, and the city-babus who had come to the village to kill the landowners. Sarat was a strapping young man then, Jahar had just been born. They, too, told stories about Sidhu-Kanhu and lord Birsa. That babu, his name was Tushar or something similar, kinda’ soft looking, lovely face, big eyes. Curly hair tumbled down his forehead. He often sat under a shady tree, writing. The others said, he was a poet and wrote plays. He told Sarat stories. Stories about this country, their own chronicles. He said the country isn’t free yet. The poor are still bonded to rich traders and landowners. The Babu used to dream, and that dream seeped into their hearts. One day, this country would become liberated, it’ll be red all over, red like the palash and shimul flowers—like Singhbonga at dawn. When the country is independent, people like Sarat will get to eat a belly full of rice twice a day. 

Once again, clotted breath trembles out of old Sarat’s chest. Sarat pushes down on his hands and moves a little. He rubs his back with his rag. The Krishnachura tree near the garbage heap shudders again. The tiny green leaf buds are nearly invisible but the whole tree has dressed up in red. There’s no water, no cloud, only this burn—yet, just look at how it has decked out. It’s flaming scarlet! Sarat ponders. He remembers the words from long past that he had nearly forgotten. 

That time, when they had lit the farmers’ village on fire before the babus ran, they had placed something in a sack and buried it in the corner of the rubbish heap. They had covered it with hay and trash. Sarat had watched them but had forgotten it, as he himself was hurriedly fleeing the village. What a scatterbrain he is! A man’s memory is like the birds’—it changes nonstop. Jahar had planted the Krishnachura tree in the same corner. 

Monjari and Fulmoni are not around. Where did those two old women go? Have they wandered into the forest to gather leaves and wood? Why are they so late? When can they walk to the police barracks to eat khichdi? Time’s moving fast toward midday. His appetite has sharpened even more. Withered Sarat rubs his tongue on his toothless gums. When will Sidhu come back? Will his grandson go the way of his son and daughter-in-law? Will he never return? 

When Sidhu had grown a bit and began to attend high school in town, his mother, Lakkhi, with other men and women from the village, had gone off to the east to work as a laborer. They used to travel every year—but that year, she didn’t return. She set up house with a young man. Sarat didn’t mind it at all. After all, she was a young woman. But the look on Sidhu’s face brought a piece of sadness to his heart. The boy had lost both his father and mother at a tender age. But Sidhu understood and didn’t say a word. 

He graduated class ten from the city school. No one had studied that much in the village. Shibu, Mongal, and Mithun, all had dropped out somewhere in the middle. Everyone told him, “Your luck is about to turn, Oldman Sarat. Your grandson is sure to get a government job now.” But the education brought Sidhu closer to disaster. He didn’t get a job like the babus, nor could he farm—till the soil or plow the land. Even so, Sarat was proud—his grandson has achieved so much! Sarat pulls in a lungful of air and lets it go. The stagnant atmosphere leaps about. Hot air touches the Krishnachura tree—a few red petals float down on the searing, rough ground. 

Going to the city and getting educated have opened Sidhu’s eyes. He gets into fights with the Pancha’at chief often. He’s a young man and has eaten the fruit of knowledge—so, he argues willy-nilly. They said Sidhu would certainly get the Pancha’at job. But who do you think got the job—the Pancha’at chief, Sarada Kisku’s brother’s son. Sarada used to sell kendu leaves to wholesalers at the market. He carried his load on his head. Now he rides a mo’bike . In a few years, he has built himself a three-story concrete house—shiny and amazing! The Tushar babus had said the whole country will become red. Now, every corner is crimson–red. But what kinda red is this? Sarat’s father never had a full belly of food, Sarat doesn’t either, and neither does Sidhu with all that education tucked away. And then there’s bullying—today a march here, tomorrow a meeting there, you must attend and donate. Donate to the Red Party. You are from the Red Party—our people, they say. What’s this party like, where is it, Sarat doesn’t know. This red is a kindle— it’s burning everything to the ground. Sarat chews the cud in the soulless morning that feels like midday. Scirocco blows round and round. Air swirls up picking up dust and grass chips.

“Why won’t my old grandfather and grandmother get pensions for the elderly?”

“You can’t say there’s no rice in the ration shop! We heard that sacks of rice arrived yesterday. Why won’t you give it out? We have walked three miles for it, and now you say there’s no rice. You’ll sell all of it and put the money in your pocket. You expect these simple people to keep on starving? That’s not going to happen, Anilbabu!”

The blaze carries the flame from here to there—Sarat can’t keep track. Only, he gets scared. Fearfully, he looks out with his rheumy eyes. It’s all barren—empty—not a man to be seen. Even the dogs have scurried away. 

So, one day the government came. They said this whole land will be taken over by them—”You will have to move out. You can’t farm in the red soil. So, they will set up a company factory. Iron will be made. And they will make electricity. A business worth thousands of rupees.” The government’s tongue drips greedy saliva. 

“Where will we go?”

“The government will make houses for you—permanent structures. More, you’ll get money—lots of money.”

“The money will evaporate in a few days. From the times of our fathers and grandfathers this land has been there—this forest, this cascade, they have fed us, clothed us. The land is our mother. We will not hand over our land.” 

“We are doing this for your benefit. Or else, the police will arrive. Think about it, y’all.” The government’s smooth face is a mask of stone. 

“But no one can possess tribal land—it’s the law.”

“But who makes the law? The government, right? If the government wishes, it can take any land for the benefit of the country and its inhabitants.”

“But then what is this country and who lives in it?”

The government doesn’t respond and strides away in arrogance.

The silent people yell in unison—”This land is ours; we won’t surrender it.” Millions of years old soil screams—”No!” Trees say—”No!” The waterfall peals—”No!” The breeze howls—”No-o-o-o!” The ancient people, like Sarat, do not understand, or perhaps they do. Because the ravines on their faces deepen, they become even more primeval.

In the empty hours when Singhbonga pours fire all around, Sarat—Oldman Sarat leans his back against a bamboo pole. He stretches his legs tautly, his eyes drowsy. A few shadowy images flit through his dozy mind—as dry leaves flying around in hot draught. 

But the administration didn’t listen! As the Baha festival ended, the government marked all the forests, lands, canyons, and waterfalls and declared all this was theirs. The country belonged to the government. The law stood by. Who makes up the law and for whom—the Sarats of this world do not know. 

One day the government came to Kharidanga—a huge meeting! Ministers, leaders, Pancha’at heads, party, factory owners—all assembled. Coconuts were smashed, ribbons were cut, conches were blown, flowers were strewn, and photographs were taken. Countless TV crews! There were lines and lines of cars and police. Sarat couldn’t be there to see it all but heard from the young’uns. They were nervous enough to witness all of it from afar. 

A little later, a piece of news blew back. When the leaders, ministers, and owners were returning and rushing toward Kolkata with police beeping in front and behind, about three kos away, someone blasted a bomb on the paved street. No one died. A police car had turned turtle next to the Soran. A crevice had opened over the whole Soran.

Sarat’s lazy toothless lips break into a smile. He had no work that day, so he sat sketching on the front yard clay with his nails. Who knows by which whim, his drawing takes the shape of a car. He got mad at this crazy impulse and immediately crossed it out. He then erased it with his heel. The image re-enters his sluggish mind. Sarat grins a sleepy smile. The image disappears quickly, as Sarat snores. He falls into a deep slumber.

The police raided that very night. They arrested anyone they could lay their hands on and transported them. The only ones to survive were the ones who had already fled. The ones who were trying to stop them were thrashed thoroughly. Sonaka’s arm was broken, and Mongli’s one eye was gouged out by the police. Oldman Sarat couldn’t figure out what to do and when he howled, “Hey babus, what’ya doing? What’ya doing?” they threw him on the ground. From that day onward, his knees hurt a lot. Sarat still can’t walk properly. It seems all of them had flung the bomb on the road of Kharidanga.

The Majhi and Maroa communities roared aloud—”This is an insult to us. The government and the police must apologize.” They conducted meetings, organized marches, and blocked roads by felling trees. The young and the old, women and men, all came out on the streets. All carried bows and arrows, rods and spears, in their hands. 

“The government has jailed our people unfairly—they must be released. We may not have rice in our bellies, but we have dignity. We demand a response for this abuse; the police must seek forgiveness.”

Everyone was afraid of the obdurate Majhis. Babus came from the city, various parties came, and crowds of TV, and newspapers people too. Their pictures were taken. A pretty girl from TV took Sarat’s photo. Everyone came but the government. It seems they couldn’t say sorry because they’d lose their dignity. They released many of their people from jails because of the mounting pressures. But they wouldn’t let go of Otul, Shibu, Mithun, Sushil, Shanti, Budhan, and Manik. They charged them as Maoists. 

Sarat doesn’t know what a Maoist is. The police kept transferring the boys from this jail to that one. Shanti, Budhan, and Manik were just young lads—they were in classes seven and eight only. They were accused of blasting the bomb. What absurdity! 

Sarat exhales in a gust. His sleepiness ends. The Sal tree and the flame-red sandalwood shimmer in his dozy vision. That night Sidhu had run away. He returned after a few days but had to bolt again. The police not only did not beg their forgiveness, but they also tortured them to no end. The government’s honor had been damaged by the poor, haughty, rustic people. They were honorable gentlemen of the cities! The rural and the deprived were not supposed to possess any integrity. Why? Even though Oldman Sarat has reached the end quarter of his life, he doesn’t quite know.

Sarat is hangry. He chomps on his gums distractedly, as though he’s chewing the cud. Sidhu didn’t return to the village for some time. Some days, he came back in the darkest hour of the night and disappeared again. He had joined the Forest Party. 

Sarat now understands who the Maoists are. The government has labeled the boys of the Forest Party as Maoists. After the incident of a year ago, one or two outsiders start to enter Sarat’s village. They are not like the soft babus of town but like Sarat and his fellowmen. They appear suddenly like comets and quickly vanish again. They reason with the boys. They try to create a group with them.

“This is your ancestral land. Why should you let it go? Never!”

“You don’t have rice in your pots, nor light in your homes, no education, no employment. You have this forest, this land, this waterfall, and the river. They want to dislodge you from here.”

“They take woods from your forest, dig stones out of your property, mine iron and coal from your lands, and with that, they decorate their mega-cities. The towns and metropolises glisten.”

“You don’t have potable water in your village. There’s one tube well that doesn’t work from day one. You must walk a kos to the falls to collect water. You walk three kos to get food rations. But you don’t get your rations every time. And the controller of rations builds a Pancha’at mansion.”

“You die with your bellies hollow, you die of diseases and ailments. There’s not one doctor around, no medicine. In Kolkata, new hospitals are coming up every day—for the rich only.” 

“They want to remove you so that they can set up factories here. Will you get jobs in those factories? No. There is coal and iron inside this earth. That’s why the government wants to forcibly wrench this land from you and hand it over to foreign companies. The leaders of this administration, ministers, will earn crores upon crores and you will be displaced and become even poorer. The government will give away this river, this cascade, and everything to overseas companies. They will sell water, but you won’t be able to afford that water. The government is obligated to them—if you die and rot, they couldn’t care less.”

The men of the Forest Party incite Sidhu and his compatriots. They become excited. They, too, belong to the Red Party. But they are not quite like the Red babus—that’s a relief! Sarat ponders.

“The Dikus, along with the foreigners, are draining your lifeblood like leeches. Even sixty years after independence, your life hasn’t improved. It has deteriorated even more. This independence is a lie. This independence is for the privileged—basically to rob you, the forest dwellers. It is to extort from the poor. You need to go into battle for your own liberty, for your own power. Today, the government is unjustly turning you homeless. You move from place to place. You haven’t been able to farm. Your boys go hungry, they don’t have a rag to wear.” The Forest Party members talk to Sidhu and his brethren. The eyes of Sidhus turn bloodshot. 

It’s about independence again. How many times must this country be liberated? Oldman Sarat sighs intensely. He looks out. On his netted eyes dance the Sal tree, the flamingly crimson red-Sandalwood. The trees rock their heads like Sarat.

Just look at Fulmoni. They haven’t returned yet. Where are they? If they are late, the khichdi distribution will be over. Bet the notion has slipped their mind. Sarat moves—his hips ache from sitting in one place for a long time. He rubs his rag on his back and shoulders. Suddenly, the lonely day quakes—noise rises from underground—mach-mach, mach-mach. Has a Dalma herd entered the forest twisting the trees apart? Oh lord! Sarat can’t even hide in a hurry—he has a game leg! No, he realizes his mistake. Not a herd of elephants but a group of police have entered the village. Are they carrying khichdi with them? Sarat ponders. He licks his dry cracked lips.

The police come and the ground trembles. One of them raises the handle of the tube well and then lets it go. 

“Bastard! The tube well is broken.”

In the empty village, they lay their eyes on Oldman Sarat. 

“Hey old man, do you have drinking water?”

Sarat holds on to the discolored plastic bottle tightly.

“What kind of water do you want to drink? Water of the jungle people?“

One wipe his face with a wet ‘kerchief. 

“Where have the young guys of this village gone, geezer?”

“I don’t know, babu.” 

“Oh yeah! You don’t know! You’re lying.” 

“Not a lie. I don’t know.”

“Tell the truth! Where are the others?” The air shakes at the shouts of the police. Hot air blows helter skelter. A silent Sarat looks on with confused eyes.

“Really, you asshole!”

Sarat’s quiet is taken as haughtiness by the law enforcers. One kicks Sarat’s stretched-out swollen legs with a booted foot. Sarat loses consciousness for a while at the throbbing. From behind his closed eyelids, not tears, as all blood and other liquids in his body have dried up, but some salty sadness oozes. A word drifts out from a zone between awareness and oblivion—“Khi…ch…di…” The gang of police laughs out loud—Ha…ha…ha!

“The old bastard wants to eat khichdi. The Maoist turd wants to eat khichdi! Bugger Mao!”

A wad of spit hits old man Sarat’s face. Its dampness stirs Sarat up. The Sal tree in the far-off land of Jaher swims into his vision. The young Sal tree of yore is touching the sky today. Its shadow has spread over the whole village. The shadow envelops Sarat too. He feels its caress of love. From homes here and there, frightened, and diseased ancient Sanatans and Sukhis, and old women, peek out and are sheltered by the shadow. Sarat watches as a swan and a pen fly to the top of the sky-high Sal tree. But that’s not a Sal tree! It’s the waves of water flooding the world. 

A fish brings up a bit of earth at the order of Thakur Jiu , which floats away in the flood. Then the turtles bring up crinkly earth on their backs and make a pile. From that, Thakur Jiu creates the primitive universe. There, his favorites, Pilchu Harham, and Pilchu Burhi—the ancestors of Sarat and his kind—inhabit. Pilchu Harham and Pilchu Burhi cackle aloud. The heated summer air, too, chuckles at that sound—Ha, ha! 

The world bursts at the sound of the police’s hilarity—Ha, ha! One policeman lights his smoke as he pees and throws the burning match to the rubbish pile. The pile’s desiccated straw and crisply dry leaves, parched in the hot sun, catch fire. The dry wind pulls the flames toward the thatched roof of Oldman Sarat. The police crack up merrily at the fun of it all.

And right then, a blast shakes the earth. The policemen are torn to pieces and strewn about. At the touch of the flame, the treasure that had been secreted for so long, without warning burst on this scorching summer day of two thousand nine.

It’s an old story, Sarat was a young man and Jahar was a little boy—that Tusharbabu was a nice man—his big eyes were brushed with dreams. Sarat ponders. The swan and pen place Sarat on their backs and fly off to the sky. Sarat notices from up there how the Sal tree in Jaher’s yard has grown in length and width! And how that red-sandalwood tree that Jahar had planted is full of red blooms, even in such sweltering heat! Sarat floats away. Pilchu Harham and Pilchu Burhi have called him to them. They are the ancestors of Sarat and his kind. 


 

Translator’s Note 

 

In the short story, The Sal tree or An Occult Narrative, writer Satadal Mitra has woven a spellbinding story of a marginalized and fairly unknown community—the Santhals. With poetic imagery, Mitra has brought the living conditions of this community to life. The exploitations and deprivations the community endures daily have been portrayed in gentle prose, yet the righteous anger on behalf of the tribe burns subterranean and is hard to miss. I must particularly mention the language the writer has utilized to tell his story. It is supposedly high Bengali as spoken by Santhals, whose vernacular is Ol Chiki. While Mitra does not use unadulterated Ol Chiki, his language provides a glimpse and taste of communicating with an insider of the Santhali community. Unfortunately, the nuances of the language are impossible to translate into English. That is a serious shortcoming of this translation.  


Also, read a French fiction by Fulvio Caccia, self-translated into English, and published in The Antonym:

Lady With Fur— Fulvio Caccia


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Born in 1961, Satadal Mitra hails from Lavpur, Birbhum. That is where he started his education but later moved to Metiaburuj, Kolkata where he has remained for the past forty years. The open free lyricism of the laterite soil of Birbhum keeps blending in his narrations of the sweat and grindings of the lives in Metiaburuj. He is a poet and an author. His work includes novels: Maatirdurger Sena, Khonondihi, and Jiolbawt Kingba Nimjibon Katha, books of stories: Shalgachh Kingba Atiloukik Akhyanguchho, Naren Bhandarir Jibab Brittantwo, and Nishitala, poetry collections: Likhi Nodijawl, Poro Mrittwika Harano Jonmo, Munibaan, etc. He has been a print technologist and now lives in Joka, Kolkata. 

Shamita Das Dasgupta is a cofounder of Manavi, the first organization to focus on violence against South Asian women in the U.S. She has taught Psychology, Gender Studies, and Law at Rutgers University and NYU, authored five books, written a bunch of academic papers and monographs, and is still conducting training for DV and SV practitioners in the U.S. and India. In her retirement, she is enjoying writing mystery stories in Bengali.

1 Comment

  1. Sukti Sarkar

    Sad that even after seventy five years of independence, this story had to be written. Reality remains as grim. Shamita Das Dasgupta’s translation has successfully communicated all the nuances of the Bengali story by Satadal Mitra.

    Reply

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