Translated from the Assamese by Anindita Kar
The main stem of the river runs south of Baghe island. ‘Rijaap’—the southern forest reserve lies further south. These days they no longer call it the ‘rijaap’ but ‘sensuri’—a distortion of sanctuary in the local patois. The forest is a lot clearer than what it used to be in the past; many internal routes have been carved out. Fields of cane and wild grass have been grazed bare; wood smugglers and poachers have plundered the forest to its very core.
Earlier, he was drawn to a strange force, an unfathomable tug that made him follow anyone who’d ask for his company into the forest. The very act of going was intoxicating. He went with the fishermen, and the deer hunters; he followed the farmers too. Those were boat journeys. Where the river ended, dense forests unfurled. To find one’s way through it, navigating the cane forests dodging, squatting, scrambling over rough grounds, moving deeper into the wilderness, perching atop a tree through the mosquito and wood-ant bites and staying put behind leaves in silent suffering, to keep note of each smell and allowing the rhinos and tigers to pass, to wait until the forest guard was done patrolling a couple of times, and then to descend, take a fishing net to the forest stream or shoot a deer that has come down for a drink of water— take two people to drag the carcass to the boat, and then leave—an unmistakable mystery surrounded everything. The shivers running through the body and mind—fear, bravery, hesitation, courage—all coalesced to form that mysterious ‘something’ that pulled him again and again into the forest. Those nocturnal hunts are now a thing of the past. There is neither time nor opportunity for it. Nor are these as enjoyable as before. These days, people hardly go fishing or deer hunting. All one can find are rhino poachers who go on hunts that are worth lakhs of rupees. These are very different from the fish or deer hunts of yore. These involve gun violence between humans. These are hunts, not after mystery, but after greed. It has been years since he last went to the southern bank. The mysteries of the south return from time to time as vague memories to his mind.
Baghe island is a huge expanse of land. During the rains, it erodes on the edges but never sinks. When the waters rise, the locals shift base from smaller islands like Lokhe and Thote to Baghe hauling the cattle along. During floods, even deer and tigers move to Baghe and stay there until the waters subside. Occasionally, a tiger or two stays back, wreaking havoc amongst the villagers. After the incessant rains of the past few days, the waters have risen for the first time this season. The river’s bosom is heaving. It has washed away the tiny chars. The unevenness of the surface gave way to puddles and quagmires here and there. In the first wave of muddied waters have come floating down dry leaves and twigs, trash, and garbage, pieces of wood and cane, half-burnt timber and hay, coal and dung, and human excreta among other things. It is an old smell that fills the air anew. At the peak of monsoon, when the river flows with a heightened frenzy, when whirlpools take frightening turns and eddies burst, when strange sounds choke the dark, nymphs come a-chatter and the sea-god blows his conch, an eroding Baghe island sticks its nose out gasping for breath. A strong desire pervades everything here. Somewhere beneath this desire is a little fear, and beneath this fear is the lust for life—to live one day at a time and wait. That, in short, is life on Baghe island.
After the first bout of the incessant downpour, the sky has cleared, and the peak of the hills in the far north and the fringe of the forests in the south have turned a deep, smoky blue. The dry, dusty terrain of Baghe has turned verdant. The sandy strips of land at places have put on a thin armor of grass. Weeds are expanding their colonies everywhere. The rain-battered jhao plants have once again straightened their backs and grown into thick bushes. At places, overgrown reeds and ferns are blocking all routes for the drought, at others, the brown grass multiplies itself.
This constantly shape-shifting world has made Edhan one of its own. He loves this vast, endless river, its many riverine islands, these tiny streams. He feels like he too is one of them. But sometimes, some strange fear lurks within. Meandering through the streams spread over the landscape are the shimmering floodplains of the north, and the steadily growing herd of young and old female and baby buffaloes—his family for the past ten or twelve years. They are all he has to call his kin. He spends his days in their company without thinking of his past and future. His future is absent from his consciousness, and his past keeps getting fainter.
Nothing remains of the people and things he held dear in the ten or twelve years of his life before arriving at the island. Everything from that era is lost. Or, maybe, it is the
past that lost him. The time from where he has been erased still exists somewhere in fragments suspended in thin air; like blood, like white flesh, like dried skin, like sweat, like tears. He will never get them back together. Paths that led to his past are now lost. Thick forests of cane have encroached upon him from all sides, and he does not know the way out.
The first to go was Pitai or the man he addressed as Pitai. Edhan has never been fortunate enough to know what that word means. The word brings to his mind the image of a cranky, thin, faceless man not willing to waste a word on them. It reminds him of a raw, gaping wound on the man’s calf. Now when he thinks of it, he realizes that the frequent cane thrashings must have cut into his flesh and festered into sores, but the wounds never healed as they were left untreated. He remembers Pitai’s dead, blackened fingernails. He was told that when one doesn’t confess his guilt, the police inject needles into the nails. This man, his father, was an infamous, tainted thief. His name was Chirakali. He had gained such notoriety in his profession that any incident of theft in that neighborhood came to be branded with his name, the name itself served as a verb for pilferage—“Ram’s cow was chirakalied last night”—and, for the same reason, if there were any reportage of thievery around, two police constables on a bicycle would come and fetch him to the local police station. After some days when he would be released, he would return half-dead, his whole body aching. On the days he would be at home, he would spend most of his time spread-eagled on the chaang or bamboo cot of the dark inner room, or tend to the backyard kitchen garden. He would pluck leafy edibles, paint a face on a clay pot with lime and lamp-black and plant a scarecrow there to ward off the evil eye, or write a notice to thieves that read: “No Objection”. He would spend the evenings alone smoking cannabis. Nobody knew where he went at night. Though, in the end, it was typhoid that took him. Edhan only remembers the pouch-like shape that his father’s dead body made as it was laid on the ground, covered by a soiled piece of cloth. As for Mai, he feels something like her shadow brush past him even now. He remembers her face, although bits of it have been blurred by time. He remembers how she rinsed his hair with elephant apple seeds and rubbed his back while bathing. At night, they slept in the same chaang. Although his sister Punimai slept in the middle, Mai would always place a hand on his body and hold him. In his sleep, he felt her running her hand through his hair and back.
He had to drop school before he could complete his fourth standard. His slate was so worn out that it had no frame and even the corners chipped off, and since he couldn’t afford to lose Srirampuriya papers to stitch notebooks for geography and mathematics, he had to suffer caning from the schoolmaster Maneswar Pandit. He left school soon afterward. Who will go willingly to be punished? One day, early in the morning, his mother bathed him, oiled and combed his hair, wore him his best shirt, and left him at the neighborhood goldsmith Mahodar sonari‘s place to tend to the cows. Before leaving, she ran her hands over his face and back just as she used to do every night in bed. Since that night, when he slept alone on an empty burlap sack spread over the earthen floor in Mahodar sonari‘s house, he began to lose his mother little by little.
The ‘sonari‘ tag stuck to Mahodar even after he had long left the gold jewelry business. Now, he is a full-fledged farmer and has amassed huge land and property. He has kept ownership of half of the lands where he employs laborers to farm, the rest has been rented out for adhi or sharecropping. In the village, a goldsmith has little work and lesser earnings, but back-biting aplenty. So, while the proverbial goldsmith doesn’t spare even his mother’s earrings to steal gold from, this man turned his back on this vocation and the infamy associated with it and took to mortgaging and interest business. However, reluctant to completely let go of this ancestral trade, he set up a gold jewelry store at the village crossroads and appointed a distantly related nephew to run it while he quit the trade himself. His mortgaging and interest business continued, his family and property expanded, and his house got a sturdily framed metal roof. He employed two to three laborers and took to farming, got a concrete well constructed for the village school, donated two piles of tin sheets to build a manikut at the local namghar, and appointed a Nepali man to look after his buffaloes at Baghe island where he had set up a dairy cattle farm.
And one day, Edhan parted from his herd of cows at Mahodar sonari’s house and moved to Baghe island to work on the buffalo farm with the Nepali Chhaila.
The unfamiliar world of Baghe island in the middle of the river so trapped him that he slowly drifted away from his familiar past. The mysteries of this river that seemed to have no beginning, no end, unknowable, and the uncertain kinship that he felt towards this strange new land of Baghe were beyond his comprehension. The more he desired this place, the more rejected he felt. Together with Chhaila Nepali, Edhan would take the buffaloes to graze, bathe them in the river, bring them fodder, burn chaff and coir and fume the place to ward off mosquitoes and fleas, throw away the dung, sweep and mop the place clean, and help the milkman load the cans of milk on his boat after Chhaila was done milking the buffaloes. He performed these chores without betraying any sign of unease or grievance. For no specific reason, he was happy here. He would try to play on Chhaila’s flute and swim as far as he could. Sometimes, he would take a boat ride with Chhaila and sail across the river for a long distance. He would feel terribly lonely in that boat right in the middle of the river. The river would want to take the whole of him in its embrace… he would get scared… then take a leap of faith and surrender himself completely to the river. Chhaila would moor the boat to the shore of some Nepali farm. There they would eat curd or puffed rice with jaggery in bowls made of jackfruit leaves and drink black tea. That is how he returned to the company of people. Once in a while, he would ride on the boat along with the milkman and sail home to meet his mother and Punimai for the day. With renewed vigor, he would return to Baghe. The island would feel dearer to him.
About two years later came the news. A highly unexpected one. Even after getting it confirmed, there was still a lot that he needed to know. It left him stupefied. The pain demanded to be felt intensely, as though something precious was lost, or many things precious. In one single stroke of fate, he turned into a wretch. His mother had eloped with a carpenter from Barpeta. She took Punimai along. He remembered this man clad in khaki shorts and a vest, with a pencil stuck to his ears, crafting chairs, benches, stools, peera in the neighbor’s verandah just on the opposite side of their lane. He and a bunch of young boys would swarm in to see how the wood was sliced with a handsaw and smoothened with a wood planer. The man appeared to him like an asura. He had seen asuras with Durga idols and during bhaonas. The only thought that comforted him now was that asuras inevitably die. Sometimes, his heart swelled up like a monsoon river, at other times it would shrink like a drought-time stream. Anger, ego, defeat, and rejection tormented his tender soul to lose itself. He got evicted from his own past, and the shallow stream of his memories evaporated just too soon. The road to his past was overrun with vines of oblivion. The muddy, dusty lanes, the trees, the river and fields, the kholiguti games played under the peepal tree at the street corner, the afternoons spent baiting sengeli fish in Jokhinipukhuri’s clear waters, and the taste of sugarcane and sweet potatoes stolen from someone’s backyard—all those things that tied him to his village had slackened their grip on him. A thin layer of darkness descended on them, and in that darkness was the debris of a couple of obscure faces—thoughtless, lifeless, woody. The only remnant was ashes, where he could not find traces of anything else.
He moved closer to the river. The vast river extracted from him a deep sense of attraction as well as fear. He has seen the river alter itself day and night, through rain and through the drought. He has seen the madness of the river in the restless bubbling currents of her muddied waters, seen its thin, meditative, green slowness of gait in winter, and seen the silver sheen in its flowing ripples on a summer afternoon, seen all of it without thinking, without grasping, spellbound. He has seen how the river would gently pull him closer to itself, and tag him along playfully, and would again chuck him out buoyantly, play with his body, caress it. He spent his nights in the silent company of the flowing river. The conversation, in an unuttered language, filled up his time. Sloth units of time crawled their way through many unworded questions and unpronounced answers. He came to know many things, understood them, and became aware. A world of his own came into being. On some pitch-dark monsoon night, as the waves burst, a sudden, strange, unannounced warlike cry would shake his heart to the core. Those were moments that could evoke the highest degree of every primal emotion in the human soul. All of a sudden it would be daybreak, and the sun would flood the riverscape in no time. There is a kind of ruthlessness in the shadowless afternoon sunlight on a cold winter’s night. It demands a helpless, non-negotiable surrender. He knelt before the forces of nature and gave in.
So much water flows through the river, incalculable, unending. Throughout days and nights, without a moment of pause. Where do the waters go! He would think, stupefied. He has heard they fall into the sea, but what thereafter? And then the river shrinks, loses its strength, and looks robbed. He would walk across it with his herd of buffaloes to distant chaporis. His attraction towards the river, its endless mystery, inexpressible kinship, everything would remain constant. The fear would subside a little at times but never go away, lying dormant somewhere deep within. In due time, the river would swell up all over again, anew. He could feel the flow of time. He realized that something changed in his mind, his body, his thoughts, and his perceptions. He grew into a man. The waves of transformation from the outside world came crashing into the shores of his inner world. The waters woke up a commotion within, then everything went still again.
One day, at a little distance from their farm, another Nepali named Chhabilal came and established his farm. A farm of cows it was primarily, with just two buffaloes. A wife, two kids, and the bovines were his family. Chhaila occasionally took Edhan to Chhabilal’s farm. Edhan used to be uncomfortable in the company of humans. He could not answer the questions that Chhabilal’s wife asked him out of love and concern, but he ate the puffed rice and jaggery, roasted corn, and sugarcane offered by her, and eventually became comfortable in her company. He took to addressing her as Naani, and before he knew it, she became like a mother to him. Naani appeared to him more beautiful than the image of his mother lingering in his memory. Her face was bright, lovely, healthy, and full. Knowing her, he came to know what a woman is. He would sometimes become restless just to see her, to talk to her, to be with her. Naani’s love and care slowly led him out of that inner world in which he had imprisoned himself. Leaving the herd of buffaloes to their own, he would run to Naani, severely suntanned, and on reaching, request her for a glass of water. Naani would run her hands over his face and head, looking at him with loving eyes. He would become the self he had lost.
Baghe island is not a habitat for tigers. But occasionally, a tiger from the southern forests strays to this side. When it does, it looks for a cow or a buffalo to feast on. The moment the domesticated lot would smell the tiger, the jingle of bells tied around their necks, and the collective thud of their hooves as they ran helter-skelter created a bedlam. Shouting at the top of his voice, and beating a bucket as hard as he could, Chhaila would run to the herd. Lighting a torch, Edhan would run after Chhaila to chase the tiger away. For quite a few days afterward, they would stay alert and would keep a fire burning near the barn. After two or three days of failed attempts, the tiger would go away. Perhaps the pangs of an uncertain future and the possibility of death made him return to the village woods on the northern bank or the safe givens of the wilderness on the southern bank. That year, a mindless, adamant tiger created havoc for about a month on their farm. After a lot of troublemaking, it seemed that he finally disappeared. But in reality, the sly tiger had only changed his game plan. One afternoon, leaving the buffaloes to graze, Chhaila went to Chhabilal’s place for a cup of tea. As one of the young females strayed from the herd and got trapped in the tall grass, the tiger attacked her from behind and tore off her food pipe. Without a whimper, she fell to the ground. The tiger dragged her carcass further in.
In the evening, when she could not be seen, they searched for her in the adjacent forests, shouting out her name. There was no response. The next day, a flock of hungry crows helped them locate her half-devoured carcass—the tiger’s leftovers—in the middle of the forest. The very next day, with guns, men, and other paraphernalia, Sonari set forth toward the forest. If not killed at once, the tiger that has got his taste of a buffalo would come back again and again for it. He spent one night in a treehouse. On the second night, as the tiger came forward to drag the half-eaten carcass, Sonari shot him dead.
Furious, he chucked Chhaila out of his job and entrusted Edhan with all the responsibilities of the farm. In the last few months, the production of milk in his establishment had fallen significantly. Many buffaloes had grown old and stopped lactating. Many new cattle houses had popped up, and due to the rising number of buffaloes, enough grass was not available. But he blamed Chhaila for the fall in milk production. Since Chhabilal came up with his establishment, Sonari saw Chhaila with suspicion. And he held Chhaila solely responsible for the death of the buffalo by the tiger. By now, Edhan was a grown-up man. Sonari believed that he could take care of the farm alone.
But Edhan was unhappy. He had known Chhaila for more than ten or twelve years. In his life hemmed in by the river from all sides, his relationship with Chhaila was mechanical, a clockwork co-existence. Although Chhaila could never approach his lonely, cloistered self, his departure left Edhan friendless in the outer world too. His duties increased, he could not leave the buffaloes alone even for a moment. He had to deprive himself of Naani’s love and care and her delicious offerings. Sometimes, he would risk leading the herd of buffaloes as far as Naani’s place and leave them to graze there, just so that he could rush to Naani and drink water from her hands and rush back again.
Usually, milkman Khemraj used to set out with his boat early morning, collect milk from all the nearby dairy farms, load the boat with cans of milk, and row to the north bank. There he would supply milk to smaller milkmen who peddle milk and to cheap roadside tea stalls. He would sell a portion of the milk to a man assigned to ferry it to the southern bank. Among the confectioners in the southern bank, there is a huge demand for milk, but there’s not much profit if one includes the travel expenses.
These days Khemraj does not come to collect milk. He has expanded his business. Additionally, he has lucked on a lot of money through gambling. He has renovated his house, bought a green sports bicycle, and keeps meeting people with connections to contest the Panchayat elections. Now he is an employer. He has employed a man to collect milk. His name is Hurrmal. Can’t say about his origins, but he came down the river as a boy, and on coming here he first used to wash cups and glasses in a riverside tea stall. As a grown-up man, he peddled milk door to door independently, and that was how he came into contact with Khemraj. Soon his independent business failed. As his debts towards Khemraj rose, the latter stopped supplying him milk and sent him instead to the southern bank to supply milk on his behalf on a daily-wage basis. When the south bank business flourished under Hurrmal, Khemraj replaced him with a relative, being the shrewd businessman he is, and instead made Hurrmal collect milk from different farms.
Now and then, Edhan heard a few stories about his old world from Hurrmal. But that world was now unfamiliar to him. Hurrmal’s stories did not spur any curiosity in him. His childhood, and everything from that childhood, was related to his mother. When he lost his mother, these things died too. His childhood became cold, unhappy, and dark. No illusion or mystery was left in it. The isolated landscape of Baghe island, the ever-present river and the herd of buffaloes, Chhabilal and Naani, the milkmen, the Bihari fishermen who would spend all day catching fish in some pond or beel— these made up his reality, and he had no intention to return to or look back towards his past. In excess of this present reality, even the slightest thought of the future did not occur to him. Strangely enough, sometimes he remembered his father, with whom he barely communicated, whose face even is just a blur in his memory. Thief, ill-tempered, infamous, indifferent, friendless. The thrashings of the police, long periods of torture in custody, the dangerous outcomes of his nightly missions, and the vicious insinuations of people during the day—it was as if his father consciously invited these things. These thoughts kept piercing him like a thorn that could not be located or plucked out. And when, almost subsequently, he thought of how he had taken the side of his mother throughout, how he considered himself safe in her presence, his heart darkened, he felt suffocated.
Hurrmal brought him strange news.
“Have you heard about your mahajan? There’s something wrong with his sister-in-law.”
When Hurrmal explained his riddle, Edhan understood that his mahajan’s motherless sister-in-law Beli has been desecrated and that she has not washed herself for three months. Edhan was never comfortable talking about such things. Hurrmal, however, felt no tinge of shame in talking explicitly about these things. He loved gossip and shared it for free. As the word goes, Sonari’s father-in-law called for a meeting at the namghar. With a mysterious laugh, Hurrmal told Edhan that one after the other, six names came out. Beli herself had exposed each one of them. It turned out that from juveniles and unmarried adults to middle-aged fathers, everyone had had their share. Who would take the responsibility? The verdict of the namghar remained unresolved. Mahodar sonari brought his sister-in-law to his place, to the shelter, and care of her elder sister.
This piece of information coming in from Hurrmal caught his interest, although he felt a sense of shame too. He felt pity for this never-seen-before sister-in-law of Mahodar sonari. Somewhere he could relate to her condition. Because shame had once stained him too, he too was once abandoned by everyone.
A few days later, Sonari arrived here on a boat with two daily laborers and some bamboo poles. At a little distance from the farm and Edhan’s hut, he started some construction. He bought hay from the nearby chapori, and within three days a hut stood there. After another two days, at dusk, he turned up again, this time with some luggage, utensils, bedding, and Beli, and left her here along with a maid. Before leaving, he called Edhan to the boat side, and said to him, “Listen, my sister-in-law has been blemished. Father-in-law is a lonely man. Moreover, you know how it is in the villages. Let her stay here for a few days. As the thing subsides, and people begin to forget it, I will send her back. You take care if she needs anything. I will come from time to time.”
Edhan could not construct a reply. The boat left.
The next day Hurrmal said to him, “The vulture is awaiting the cow’s death, you know? It will pounce on the carcass the moment it dies.” This time he didn’t break up the riddle, but Edhan could sense something sinister.
Eventually, he got used to the situation. Beli came to be seen outside the hut now and then, not that she had any other choice. But he could not talk to Beli without some hesitation. Hurrmal, on the other hand, had no shame or inhibition. He carried on with his usual loud merry talks and banter even with Beli and normalized the situation. The regular visits of Sonari, Beli’s indefinite wait to return home and the singularity of life on Baghe island—eventually these things came to be considered as natural as Hurrmal’s chaotic behavior. But somewhere Edhan had his reservations. He wanted to share his feelings with Naani, but something stopped him. He could not even answer the questions Naani asked him.
One day, Beli sent Hurrmal off to pass some urgent piece of information. In the evening, Sonari arrived with a woman. Someone seemed to hustle about in Beli’s hut lighting a fire, boiling water. Later into the night, he heard Beli’s painful groans. He could not sleep that night.
He went to the barn, and patted the buffaloes, then sauntered along the river for a long while. Then he came back and perched on his chaang quite late into the night. Perhaps he too was looking forward to something, waiting for some answers, restless for the uncertainties to end. He could not tell the time, but he was just about to doze off when he heard the cry of a baby. He sprang up, almost in a trance, and in the grip of a strange excitement, went out and stood in the dark. Baghe island was ensnared by darkness, stars were randomly scattered in the sky above, the buffaloes were quiet and asleep, and in the distance, the river flowed heedlessly. Once again, a painfully sharp but short half-cry of a baby drifted towards him, piercing the darkness. For a moment, the world around, the steadily floating moon, and even the river stood still. He stood motionless for some moments, but clueless about what was happening, he staggered back inside and lay down in his chaang again.
Two days later, he heard the gruesome details from Hurrmal. Hurrmal had hunted out the details from the woman who came to deliver the baby. By that time, the corpse of the baby had sated the appetite of the big fish of the river. The news tormented him for a few days. Like someone hallucinated, he kept himself closed in a dark room after work. Beli could no longer be seen outside. After a few days, he went to Naani to unburden his heart. Naani meanwhile had come to know the entire story from Hurrmal. She had been tch-tching the entire time.
“The brother-in-law himself stuffed salt in the newborn’s mouth. Tch-tch-tch. What kind of a man is he? Human or animal?” Naani expressed her disgust.
Then slowly things got back to normal. Here, things get back to normal easily. Here, nature is fierce, and humans are insignificant. The vast river, endless expanse of sands, the infinite sky, and roving waters. Nature overwhelms, and predominates. Human smallness, lowliness, grief, mundanity, and sin remain unnoticed.
Beli would come out of her hut at dawn, and before anyone else woke up, she would bathe in the river. Cooking would be taken care of. Even now, Sonari made frequent visits, in the forenoon, in the afternoon, and returned in the evening. Hurrmal came, and in the same jolly mood as before, demanded a cup of tea from Beli, then loaded the cans of milk on his boat, and went away.
But soon Edhan noticed a change taking over Hurrmal’s demeanor. His loud-mouthedness gave way to a seriousness of conduct, as though some thought kept disturbing him, although he managed to always wear a smile. His conversations with Beli increased but came to be carried out in muffled tones. He would even walk into her hut searching for her. And when he talked to Edhan, his eyes would wander, looking for Beli.
One evening Hurrmal paid a visit to Edhan. He said that he had some work at Chhabilal but thought of coming around to have a chat with him too. A few nights later, he heard Hurrmal’s voice again outside his hut. This time too, he had the same excuse—he had come to meet Chhabilal to discuss something that went wrong in the milk sales count. The next time Hurrmal did not have to explain things. In the semi-darkness, he saw Hurrmal walking out of Beli’s hut and towards his. Dumbfounded and stupefied, he stood inert in the front yard. As Hurrmal came closer, he too was stunned. Their faces were not properly visible to each other, but both of them were aware of the few uneasy moments that lazily ticked past them. Edhan became suspicious.
“Dear friend,” Hurrmal was trying to act normal. He didn’t speak. Hurrmal rested his hand on his shoulder. He didn’t move.
“There are many things to be told, I will tell you everything someday,” Hurrmal said. He stood silent. He could feel his heart growing heavy.
“See you.” Fending his way through the dark, Hurrmal walked towards the ghat.
Edhan lost all peace. All kinds of evil thoughts kept troubling his mind. One afternoon, he heard Sonari raising a hue and cry inside Beli’s hut. That evening, before taking his boat back home, Sonari came to Edhan and enquired, “Sultan and his group find a boat anchored on this ghat every night. Whose boat is it?”
Sultan and his group of Bihari fishermen fish all day and return here at night. As he was trying to frame an answer, Sonari answered on his behalf, “Hurrmal’s?”
“Yes,” he half-pronounced. “He comes to meet Chhabilal sometimes,” he added without much conviction in his voice.
“That son-of-a-bitch goes to meet his brother! Bastard! Dog! Is there no ghat on Chhabilal’s farm to anchor the boat there?” Mahodar sonari burst out in anger. Edhan felt as though each of these words was aimed at him.
Sonari stomped off towards his boat and fetched the oar.
He climbed back up the slope. From there, he looked at the river for a long time. Darkness descended. Monsoon was here already. The river was swelling up, becoming restless. A few river vortices were spinning out noisily. The soil eroded little by little. He turned towards the huts. Beli’s hut sank in the dark. Inside, a feeble reddish light was fighting the darkness. Although the waters were increasing, the floods hadn’t arrived yet. No story of any intruding tiger was heard yet. But all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a strong smell of the tiger reached his nose. He grew alert to the impending danger to the buffaloes. A breeze whizzed past him. It sent a shiver down his spine.
The next day, while measuring out milk, he said to Hurrmal in a low voice, “Mahajan has come to know of it.”
“That you bring your boat here every evening. He is angry.”
“Let him be. I’m saving money. By the end of the month, I will flee. The old vulture will keep waiting.”
“To where? Your home?”
“No. I will tell you before I leave. Don’t share it with anyone.”
He did not say anything. He does not like trouble. And he could sense it was awaiting them. Hurrmal is a strange fellow. He had a premonition.
It was a cloudy day. Since afternoon, balls of cotton came floating in the wind. This was a sign that the waters will rise; maybe, it will rain tonight. A stillness engulfed everything.
Since Chhaila left, Edhan had not played on the flute. Cutting a piece of bamboo that Chhabilal had once given him into the desired size, he tried to make a flute out of it. Heating the edge of his knife in the fire, he tried to cut holes in his flute. Slowly, he was feeling better. He moved away from the surrounding stillness of the world. Holding the flute, he cleaned it with a swipe of his palm and brought it to his lips. Just as he was about to blow into it, he heard a terrifying, fatal cry. Leaving the flute, he jumped out of bed, and just as he walked out of his door, he heard a death cry like that of an animal howling in agony. Initially, he could not make out the source of the noise. But the very next moment, in the faint light peeking from under the clouds he could see Beli, clad in white attire, running towards the river. He instantly ran after her, but on second thoughts, came back, took the cutlass tucked in his lattice walls, and ran riverwards.
After covering a little distance, he saw Beli climb back up the river slope and run towards her hut. He stopped there, and asked, “What’s the matter?”
She clasped him tenaciously, and in a breathless, barely audible voice, cried, “Killed him, they’ve killed him, they’ve killed him…”
He freed himself of her hold with all his might and ran towards the ghat. Beli fell to the ground.
From up above the slope, he could hear the swift, forceful sound of oars. In the faint light, he saw that the fishing boat of Sultan and his men was sailing speedily. He too ran along the banks of the river. He saw that a solitary boat was anchored on the bank. This was the boat that Hurrmal brought, he could identify it. He looked around here, there, and everywhere but didn’t find anything. So he ran back towards the settlement. On seeing him, Beli stood up. “Haven’t found him yet,” he blurted, still on the move.
From the walls, he took a flaming torch used to drive off tigers, lit it up, and darted towards the ghat. He walked into the waters, and looked at every nook and corner on the plains, but could not find a trace of anything. The river was flowing as usual. The waters have risen. The banks are quiet. The weather is running chill. An empty, abandoned boat lies anchored on the shore. Other than the sound of waves of the river lapping at the boat, there was complete silence.
The next morning, a different man came to collect milk. The man informed that Hurrmal went away somewhere without telling anybody and that he could not be found. He quietly measured out the milk. The day rolled by like any other, and so did a number of days that followed. Beli was no longer seen outside her hut. The maid would do all the outdoor work. Sonari visited Beli’s house and went away almost immediately after. He talked to Edhan, offered some advice, and left. Edhan shoved the abandoned boat out of the water with some poles of bamboo and dragged it up to the shore. This must have been a boat that Hurrmal stealthily brought in from the north bank.
About a month passed. One afternoon when the sun was about to set, when Edhan was nearing his hut after tethering the buffaloes in the stables, something strange caught his sight. In the far distance, he saw the figure of a woman standing on the shore looking towards the river, her hair let loose. The red celestial ball was about to sink, the waters too had turned red and sparkled. Scattered throughout was an amber glow. Beli looked less like a human, and more like a disembodied spirit. He was frightened, he got the chills. But an unearthly emotion drew him towards her. She did not hear his approaching footsteps. He stood close to her and called.
She was startled but did not turn. She wrapped her sador around her.
“One should not stand here at dusk, let’s go.”
Beli did not budge. He waited for some time, then said in a more commanding voice. “Let’s go!”
The sun went down and darkness swallowed the world. Beli turned and walked back. He followed her. With the end of her sador she covered her nose and turned her face away. He could hear a strange sound. She stopped midway. He too stopped not knowing what else to do.
“Don’t cry. Forget what happened,” he said. She calmed down a bit. The night darkened. Both of them stood there like statues.
“I had warned him,” Edhan said. She kept quiet, then slowly unlatched a secret door to her heart, “Brother-in-law wanted to keep me.”
He was shocked. He could now grasp the meaning of Hurrmal’s vulture riddle. He clicked his tongue in disgust.
Sensing that Edhan was on her side, she said, “I told him I have already faced enough disgrace. This time if you want to have me you will have to marry me and take me home,” blowing her nose.
“What did he say?” Edhan asked the most obvious question that followed.
“He didn’t agree to that. He said he’ll build a house for me here itself and keep me here. He’ll write some property in my name. I asked him to send me to my father’s home. Someone or the other will definitely turn up to take me as a wife. Perhaps that is what made him suspicious.”
“Let’s go now, it’s already dark.”
With slow, retired steps, they retreated from the shore. Beli picked up the conversation from where she left. “Now, after so much has happened, he wants to send me back home seeing no hope.”
He became restless. “It’s good for you. Everything will be fine after you spend a few days at home. People will forget.”
She slowed down and stood quiet. Then with some hesitation in her voice said, “I can’t go home now,” as though she was offended with someone, perhaps with herself.
“Why can’t you?” he asked, frustrated. With low-cast eyes riveted to the ground, she muttered under her breath, “I have not washed myself for two months. How can I go home? I’m carrying another sin.”
It was as though someone had poured something into his ear when he was off guard. Her words clogged up his ears. He could not hear a word more. He struggled to stand still. He shot her a look of perplexity and disbelief. He moved closer to her. His blood was running faster in his veins. His voice betrayed shock, anxiety, concern, and a host of other emotions. He asked in a cold, stern manner, “Open up… What’s the matter, tell me frankly.”
This frightened her. She looked up at his face but could not discern any emotion in the dark. Lowering her eyes back toward the ground, she said, “Hurrmal said he would marry me. That he would take me away from here. He said he had contacts with some confectioner on the south bank.” She uttered the words in a jiffy, as though she wanted to get done before he could get the time to act or say something. But he had nothing left to say. She could see his straight, sturdy body hang limply on itself. He stood transfixed, statue-like. In the dark, the face of a baby flashed in his mind’s eye, like a rising blood-red sun. A hairy, black hand forces a handful of salt into the baby’s mouth. The face of the baby distorts and turns blue. In his ears rang a fatal piercing cry, no, just the half of it.
The next day he could not concentrate on his routine work. The same thoughts kept meandering in and out of his mind. The memories of his mother kept haunting him the whole time. Many old questions inhabiting his heart created new chaos. The woman, hardened by poverty and fate, must have felt so miserable and helpless when she decided to abandon her own son. It was as though he understood his mother for the first time now. Perhaps his mother was ashamed to confront him. Perhaps she believed her son would not want to see her face again. The solid mass of ego and anger that had accumulated over the years melted away, and the vapor of memories made the heart heavy. The most tender note in the whole world, the cry of a baby, kept ringing in his heart.
He brought the cattle back to the stables before dusk. He seemed to have made up his mind about something. There was urgency in the way he worked. He felt himself to be one of the herd that he had been tending to all these years. Something within him changed. In his youth or early adulthood, he went across a swollen river to the southern bank, navigating his way through the mysteries of the night into the dangers of the forest. Today, the forest called him. He tied a pole of bamboo to the boat lying on the sand and kept it ready to row. With all his might he pushed the boat down into the river as though it was not him but someone else working through him. As though a long-dead infant suddenly turned into a man of twenty-five years. He went into the hut and brought his knife, and without the least hint of hesitation went to the stables, caressed the animals, and cut off the cords that tethered them. Then he went and called out Beli. She came out to the yard.
“I have come to ask you something. I’m leaving. What will you do? Will you come with me?” There was no hesitation, no clumsiness. In simple, straightforward terms he uttered those words as though someone else spoke through him.
“Where to?”—came a muffled question mixed with both fear and disbelief.
“I don’t know where to. But towards the south bank,” he said.
What did all these mean! She was perplexed. Baffled. He grabbed her hands. She took a step backward but did not free her hands from his clutch.
“I have made the decision presuming that you want to leave. But even if you don’t, I will. Say now, will you go with me?” It was as if all the desires of his deceitful life came rolling down wrapped up in this single question. She thought sensibly. What is he saying? This is an impossible thing.
“But I…” she stopped mid-sentence.
“What I…?” “Speak up…” he demanded. She searched for his eyes in the dark and said in a clear voice.
“I’m carrying a…” Before she could finish her sentence, he pressed her hands in a firmer grip and jerked her.
“That’s why I’m saying. Come with me. You can’t let the past repeat itself knowing it all too well. Come with me. Do you hear me? Let’s get out of here.” He tried his best to convince her.
A few long and deep units of time passed. Slowly, the hands that he was holding changed into tight fists. She began to shiver. She was losing her senses and was about to fall unconscious, her body tipping to his side. He held her tight and supported her back on her feet.
“Get ready to go. Just you. No belongings. It’s a small boat. I’ll go and leave your maid in Chhabilal’s custody.”
Currently, the sky spreads endlessly overhead with numerous stars abloom that light up the earth in illusory ways. Below is the living river. The rains have made it voluptuous. They can hear eddies burst. And see whirlpools form here and there.
“Will we make it to the other side?” Beli, sitting close to him on the boat’s thwart asks him anxiously, her eyes fixed intently towards the other side even in the dark. Like a boy who’s just reached puberty, his entire body, every cell in it, every drop of blood running through him is invigorated with violent energy. As though moved by her question, he too looks towards the other side, clad in mystery. In his mind, he has no doubt as to the answer. He gives his body a break from the constant paddling. He takes a long glance at her, then rolls his eyes over the distant traveling sky, the pitch-dark earth around him, and the river that takes them in its stride. He feels like floating through a dream. He holds the paddle once again, takes a deep breath, and says, “It does not matter even if we don’t make it.”
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