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Prehistoric— Manik Bandopadhyay

Sep 3, 2022 | Fiction | 2 comments

Translated from the Bengali by Nishi Pulugurtha

For Bhiku, the entire monsoon went in great pain. Toward the beginning of the month of aashaad, his gang was caught robbing Baikuntha Saha’s workplace in Basantapur. Of the eleven members involved, only Bhiku escaped with a deep gash on his shoulder. He ran for almost ten miles overnight and spent the rest of the night hiding amid the weeds under the bridge at Mathabhanga. He trudged on for some more time to reach Pehlaad Bagdi’s home at Chitalpur. 

Pehlaad did not give him refuge.

He looked at the wound and said, “That does not look good, buddy! It is going to fester and that body of yours will bloat. What do I answer, If people find out? Had you not committed the murder, I’d have considered…”

“I so wish to kill you, Pehlaad.”

“Not in this life, buddy.”

The forest was nearby, about five miles to the north. Bhiku took refuge there. Pehlaad chopped some bamboo and cleared a portion of the otherwise inaccessible part of the forest and fixed a machan. He camouflaged it with some leaves and said, “All tigers and other animals have headed to the hills in this cloudy weather. This will be comfortable for you till the snakes get you, Bhiku.”

“What do I eat?”

“This cheere and jaggery should do, eh? Also, I am going to get rice every once in a few days. If I come frequently, people might get suspicious.”

Pehlaad bandaged the wound on the shoulder with some herbs and left with assurances that he would return. Bhiku ran a fever at night. What Pehlaad had said proved to be true. The wound on his shoulder worsened. His right hand swelled up and was paralyzed.

Even though tigers did not inhabit the forest during the monsoon, Bhiku stayed on the machan for two nights battling mosquitoes and other insects; he removed leeches from some or the other part of his body under excruciating aches and fever. The rains drenched him and when the sun shone, the stifling heat and humidity wrung every bit of energy he had left. Those bloody insects pestered him day and night, not allowing a moment’s respite. Pehlaad had given him a few beedis which he smoked. There was cheere to last him three to four days but there was not a bit of jaggery left. Though there was no jaggery left, the red ants that got to it days ago still lingered on that spot. Frustrated at not having jaggery, they crawled and bit him, causing more pain and trouble. 

Bhiku cursed Pehlaad as he struggled for survival. He exhausted the last drop of water by the morning of Pehladd’s visit. He waited in vain, until the evening, for Pehlaad to return. When he could not bear his thirst, he made his way to the nearby canal with indescribable difficulty to fetch about half a jar of water to drink. He munched on some cheere to suppress his raging hunger. With one hand, he kept squishing the ants, and insects. He put leeches all around his wound, hoping that the poisoned blood would be sucked out of his body. When a green snake peeked from the sinjuri tree near his head, he kept vigil by staring at it for two whole hours with a stick in his hand. He constantly beat the surrounding bushes as noisily as he could to keep away the snake. 

He will not die. No way. Although he is human, he would survive as a wildling. Pehlaad went to visit his relatives in the village. He didn’t return the next day too. He got wasted on toddy there. Not even for once in three days did it occur to him as to how Bhiku was managing to survive in that forest. 

Bhiku’s wound festered and oozed red pus. His body swelled up a little too. The fever had subsided a little, but his body ached. Overcome by pain, he slipped into delirium, as if sloshed on toddy. He could no longer feel hunger or thirst. The leeches plumped up like pointed gourds, bloated with the blood from his body, and fell off— Bhiku no longer followed any of it. Bhiku kicked the pot of water, it toppled on the cheere which got wet and began to rot and reek. Pehlaad went to check on Bhiku after returning from his jaunt. When he saw the state in which Bhiku was, he shook his head gravely. He had brought a meager helping of rice, fish, and pui saag curry for him. He sat down by the man as he ate all of what he had brought. He then went home and returned with his sister’s husband, Bharat, and a small bamboo ladder. 

Both of them laid Bhiku on the ladder and took him home. Inside the house, they fixed a bed of sorts with hay and laid him there. Bhiku had a tough soul. Despite a shelter as minimal as this and without any medicine or care whatsoever, he slowly won this battle with death gradually, in about a month’s time.

But his arm did not improve. It shriveled up like a dead branch. Soon, it worsened so as to cease whatever little mobility it had until the limb was rendered useless.  

After the wound had healed, Bhiku began to step off the bamboo ladder with one hand when the house was empty. One such evening, he made a move. 

Pehlaad had gone out to drink toddy with Bharat. Pehlaad’s sister had gone to the pond. His wife was putting their son to sleep when she saw Bhiku looking at her lasciviously. She tried to leave, but Bhiku forcefully grabbed her hand. 

But Pehlaad’s wife was the daughter of a baagdi.

For a man with a weak body who had only one hand left, it was not easy to take her down. She freed herself and left cursing. When Pehlaad returned home, she told him everything. 

In his intoxicated state, Pehlaad felt that such an ungrateful person should be killed once and for all. He wanted to spank his wife with a thick bamboo stick and crack Bhiku’s skull with it. But even in his inebriation, he realized it was impossible, no matter how much it needed to be done. Bhiku held fast and flashed his sharpened daa with his left hand. So, instead of bloodshed, they exchanged obscenities. 

“I spent seven rupees on you, return it and get lost!” said Pehlaad at last. 

Bhiku said, “I had a band tied around my waist. You stole it.  I’ll leave when you return it.”

“Who the hell knows of your waistband?”

“Return my waistband, Pehlaad, if you want to be spared. Else, I am going to slit that throat of yours into half, like what I did to the gentleman in that house… I have made myself clear. Only when I get it, will I leave.”

But Bhiku did not get his waistband. In the confrontation, when Bharat came in too, both of them united against Bhiku and were able to maneuver the situation in their direction. Except for biting into Pehlaad’s shoulder joint, the handicapped Bhiku could not do much. Pehlaad and his brother-in-law sized him up well and left him in a battered state outside their home. The scar that had healed burst open and blood began pouring from it. Wiping the oozing blood with his hands, Bhiku trudged away. Nobody knew about his whereabouts for the rest of the night. However, Pehlaad’s home went up in flames that night and the whole area was in an uproar. 

Pehlaad beat his forehead, “Oh, my misfortune. Oh, misfortune. An evil eye has fallen on my house. Oh, my misfortune.”

Though he was scared of police inquiries, he, unfortunately, could not even mention Bhiku’s name. 

It was from that night that the second phase of Bhiku’s primitive, terrible life began. There is a river beside Chitalpur. After setting Pehlaad’s house on fire, he stole a small fishing boat and set it afloat. He was not in a position to row. With a thick piece of bamboo, he just somehow managed to keep the boat straight through the night. Till morning, he hardly made a little progress as he depended completely on the water current. 

Bhiku was worried that Pehlaad would reveal his name to the police. In his anger and thirst for vengeance, he had forgotten about the repercussions. The police had been on the lookout for him for quite a while now. More so after the murder at Baikuntha Saha’s house. In no way, the vigil would have been reduced. If the police had got information from Pehlaad, they would be scouring the neighboring area. It was dangerous for him to be around a radius of 20-30 km from the area. But Bhiku was desperate. He had been starving since yesterday evening. After being beaten up by two strong men, his weak body had become even frailer. In the wee hours of the morning, he reached the banks of the district town and anchored his boat there. He cleaned up in the waters, dipping repeatedly to clean the blood from his body. Then, he entered the town. He was famished and his vision blurred in hunger. He didn’t have a single paisa with which he could buy some muri to eat. He spread his hand in front of the first man he encountered in the market and asked, “Can you give me some money, sir?”

His hair was matted, tangled, and unkempt. A soiled brown piece of cloth was tied at his waist, and his hand dangled like a rope. The man must have taken pity on his sodden appearance and given a paisa to him. 

Bhiku said, “It’s just one, give me another.” 

This irked the man, “I gave you one, isn’t that enough? Get lost!”

For once, it felt as if Bhiku would hurl a vulgar cuss word. However, he controlled himself. Instead of cursing him, he looked at the man with bloodshot eyes for a while and then went into the grocery shop to buy some muri which he hungrily started gobbling. 

That was his initiation into begging. 

Within a few days, he learned the rules of one of the most primeval professions in the world. The way he mastered the language and the way he pleaded made it seem as if he had been born into the profession. He no longer cleaned his body. The hair on his head remained matted and in clumps as families of lice made it their home.

At times, he scratched the hair on his head like a madman, but he wasn’t sure about chopping it. While begging, he got an old coat that he used to cover the wound mark on his shoulder. Even when it was very hot and humid, he kept the coat on. The shriveled limb is his biggest advertisement and he would in no way cover it up. Hence, he tore away the right sleeve of the coat near the armhole. He also managed a tin mug and a stick. 

From morning till evening, he stationed under a tamarind tree in the market and begged. In the morning, he had some muri. In the afternoon, he went into a garden near the bazaar and cooked some rice for himself in an earthen vessel on a makeshift brick oven. Some days, he cooked fish, and on other days, he cooked a curry. After he ate, he sprawled under the banyan tree and enjoyed his siesta. Then again, he went back under his tamarind tree. 

Throughout the day, he moaned and pleaded, “Hey Baba, if you spare one paisa, god will give you, hey baba, one paisa.”

Like many old stories, the Sanskrit saying “bhikayang naibo naibo cha (never to beg),” is untrue.  Throughout the day, thousands and thousands of people passed by Bhiku, and on average, one in fifty pay him a paisa or half of it. Half annas are more in number, so Bhiku should earn about 5 to 6 paisa per day. However, he earned about 8 paise a day. The haat was held twice a week. His earnings on the day of the haat were never less than a rupee.  

The rainy season was over and the river banks turned white as the kaash bloomed. Bhiku rented a rickety shanty owned by Bhinnu Majhi at a monthly rent of 8 annas and slept there at night. He got hold of a kantha, belonging to a deceased malaria patient. He stole straw from houses and spread it under the kantha and slept in peace. At times when he wandered into the town to beg at various homes, he managed to get some old clothes too. He folded them into a bundle and used them as a pillow. At night, if he felt cold from the river breeze, he took a piece of cloth from the bundle and wrapped himself. 

As he was living in peace and eating well, Bhiku regained his former health within a few days. His chest expanded. And as he moved, the muscles and sinews of his healthy hand and his back rippled with rejuvenated vigor. As he regained his lost strength, his manners too turned more and more abrasive. He still begged the way he did earlier in a suppliant manner, however, when he was denied, his anger began to unleash. If there was no one around, he would even curse a passerby who ignored him. When he went to buy something for a paisa, he would expect something for free. In case someone refused, he would almost hit the shopkeeper. If he saw women bathing in the river, he would stand on the banks, watching them under the pretense of wanting alms. When the women got scared by his presence, he derived a sense of pleasure. When they asked him to go away, he did not budge an inch and stood laughing wickedly.  

At night, he turned and tossed on the bed that he made for himself 

But this life without women, without company, felt bland. He longed for his earlier eventful life of excitement and action.

He would drink toddy and create a huge ruckus. In an inebriated state, he would spend the night at whore-houses. Every now and then, he would attack homes and would beat, rob, and disappear overnight. He would tie up and beat a husband in front of his wife, watching their reactions keenly. When a mother was forced to watch blood stream down her son’s body and screamed in pain for her son, he watched such sights under the torchlight. He knew no greater pleasure than such cries of pain. In order to escape the clutches of the police, he had to spend hiding in forest haunts. Such times were days of bliss for him. Many members of his gang had been arrested a number of times and faced jail terms but the police had been able to arrest him not more than once. When he, along with Rakhu Baagdi, had kidnapped Panaharshripati Biswas’s sister, he was sentenced to a seven years jail term but no one could keep him behind bars for more than two years. On a rainy evening, he scaled the jail walls and fled. He then went into a house by cutting through the fence and robbed it. He attacked a woman in broad daylight near the pond. He shut her mouth with his hand, and he made her remove the chain around her neck and the bangle that she had worn. He ran off with Rakhu’s wife to Noakhali and then by sea to Hatia. Six months later, he left Rakhu’s wife and joined three different gangs at three different points in time. He attacked and robbed several villages. He has no memory of their names now. And most recently, he split Baikuntha Saha’s second brother’s throat into two. 

What a thrilling life it used to be and what has it turned into now!

A man who enjoyed killing people has now been reduced to one who just curses a passerby who refuses to give him alms. His physical strength is just the way it used to be, absolutely perfect. But he does not have the ability to use that strength. So many shopkeepers sit alone at their shop late into the night, counting their day’s earnings. So many women live alone in their homes while their husbands are abroad. Instead of taking a sharp weapon in his hand and threatening them, he lay quiet under the thatch of Bhinnu Majhi’s hovel. In the darkness, he gently rubs his right hand and regrets his state. Amid innumerable weak men and frail women, Bhiku was the only one with great courage and strength, if only his hand had not been rendered useless. People can have such fates too!

However, he could still accept this misfortune. Regret was enough. But Bhiku could no longer bear to be alone. 

At the entrance to the bazaar, a female beggar used to beg for alms. She wasn’t too old and had a well enough body too. But below the knee of one of her legs, she had a huge blobby festering wound. It was because of this wound that she earned more than Bhiku. She took great care to see that the wound did not heal. 

Bhiku often went and sat beside her. He asked her, “Doesn’t the wound heal?”

The beggar woman said, “Of course it does. If I apply ointment, it will heal immediately.”

Bhiku said with care, “Heal it then. Apply ointment and let it heal fast. When it heals, you will not have to beg. You can stay with me.”

“Why on earth would I stay with you?”

“Why won’t you? I will give you food, and cloth to wear. I will keep you in comfort, you can sit with your legs folded. What’s not to like in that?”

The beggar woman was anything but easy to persuade. She put some tobacco leaves into her mouth to chew and said, “When you drive me out in a few days, how will I get this wound again?”

Bhiku promised that he would always care for her, tempting her with the happiness that he would provide. But the beggar woman did not agree at all. Bhiku returned, dejected. 

The moon rose in the sky, the ebb and tide of the river and the gentle feeling of winter lent an intoxication to the senses. The bananas in the banana plantation beside Bhiku’s thatch were now all over. Bhinnu Majhi bought his wife a silver ornament with a profit from the banana plantations. The palm fruit juice became intoxicating and tempting. Bhiku’s hatred changed to love. He could no longer control himself. 

One morning, he woke from sleep and went to the beggar woman. He said, “Ok, come along with your wound.”

The beggar woman said, “Couldn’t you come earlier? Go, get lost, and be with yourself.”

“Why? Why do you say that?”

“You think I said yes to you and am waiting for you? You see him there, I am with him.”

Bhiku looks in the direction to see a young beggar like himself, sitting. Like his right hand, this beggar’s leg from the knee downwards was shriveled up. With great care, he spread out that limb in front and sought alms in the name of Allah. Standing beside him is an intact wooden leg.

The beggar woman said, “Why are you sitting here? Go away, I tell you, if he sees you, he will kill you.”

Bhiku replied, “As if everyone can kill. Do you know I could kill ten like him?”

She replied, “If you can, go and deal with him. Why sit beside me?”

“Leave him, come with me.”

“Do you want to smoke, dear? You felt a revulsion when you saw my wound, why should I bother about you, you scumbag? Why should I leave him? Do you earn like him? Do you have a house? Go away or I will curse you.”

Bhiku left. But he did not give up hope. Whenever he saw her alone, he would come and stand beside her. He tried to talk to her and would say, “What is your name, girl?”

They knew one another for some time but never felt the need to know each other’s names.

The beggar woman laughed, revealing her black teeth. 

“You are back again. Go to where that old man is.” Bhiku sat beside her comfortably. A number of people these days give him some rice instead of money and hence, he has a bag on his shoulders. He takes out a banana from it and offers it to her saying, “Eat. I stole it for you”.

The beggar woman immediately began to peel the lover’s gift and relished it. Happy, she asked, “Do you want to know my name? People call me Paanchi, Paanchi. You gave me a banana, I told you my name. Now, get lost.”

Bhiku did not budge. He had given her such a big banana and he was not the one to be content with just knowing her name. As long as he could, he sat there, fuelling his acquaintance with Paanchi. Unless one came down to their level, one would not realize that they were getting acquainted. It looked as if they were cursing one another. Paanchi’s partner’s name was Bashir. He tried to get acquainted with him too.

Salaam Miyan.

Bashir said, “Why are you here? Salaam Miyan, my foot. I will hit you with one stroke and squash your head.”

Both exchanged expletives for a while. Bhiku had a stick in his hand and Bashir had a huge stone. So, they did not exchange blows. 

While going back to the tamarind tree shade, Bhiku said, “Hey, I will see to your end.”

Bashir replied, “If I see you talking to her again, I will kill you. Allah doesn’t matter.” Around this time, Bhiku’s earnings lessened. 

There was no new folk walking along this path. When compared to those who tread that path, the number of new passersby was less than a handful. Most of the passersby had given Bhiku alms once, and they no longer felt the need to give him alms again. There is no shortage of beggars in this world. 

Bhiku was just able to manage somehow. Except on the days of the haat, he was not able to save any money. This was a matter of concern to him.  

In the winter season, it would be difficult to sleep under the open thatch. He needed a room that would be enclosed all around, the location did not matter. If he did not have a proper shelter and money to provide for two square meals, no beggar woman would be willing to live with him. His income had reduced so much that in winter, it would be difficult for him to have a full stomach.

He had to increase his income, no matter the means. 

If he continued to live here, he realized that there was no way to increase his income. There was no way he could rob and steal, he could not labor hard for it. Unless he murdered someone, there was no way he could snatch money with just one hand from anyone. He did not want to move from this town, leaving Paanchi behind. His mind rebelled against his fate. When he saw Bhinnu Majhi lead a happy familial life right next to his thatch, he felt jealous. There were times when he felt like setting fire to Bhinnu’s house. As he wandered along the river, he felt possessed. He felt that unless he was able to get all the food and the women in the world, he wouldn’t be satisfied. 

Bhiku spent some time in such a dissatisfied state. Then, late one night, he put all his valuable possessions into his bag, the money that he had saved was tucked securely into the cloth around his waist and left the thatch. One day, he found a long iron rod by the river. Whenever he got the time, he sharpened one end of the rod. He put this weapon into his bag. 

It was the new moon and the stars shone brightly in the sky. Stillness prevailed in god’s world. It was after a long time that Bhiku was out in the open at midnight with no one around, he felt an inexpressible joy. “Oh god, if only you would have spared the right and taken the left,” he muttered to himself.

He walked for half a mile and entered the town through a narrow path. Keeping the bazaar to his left, he treaded the small lanes of the sleeping town and reached the other end of the town. The concrete road into the town led out to this part. The river meandered here and was a distance away from the road for two miles, then turned right, flowed for a mile or so, and then changed course and flowed south.

For some distance, a few houses could be seen on both sides of the road, at little distance from one another. Fields, forests, and river banks could be seen further away. Along one such forest, a few poor folks had set up a habitation. Among them was Bashir’s small hut. He gets up early in the morning. With the wooden leg, he trudges noisily to the town to beg and returns in the evening. Paanchi cooks using dry leaves as fuel and Bashir enjoys a smoke. At night, Paanchi wraps old clothes around her leg wound. They lay beside each other on a bamboo bed and keep talking in their disrespectful language till they doze off. As they sleep, a foul smell emanates from their bed, and their bodies, spreading through the thatched roof into the air around. 

Bashir snores in his sleep. Paanchi mumbles. 

One day, Bhiku followed them and had a look at where they lived. In the darkness, he stood behind the back wall of their hovel in the taro forest straining to hear their conversation. He then moved to the front of the hut. Paanchi had not bolted the door of the small beggar hut, she had just kept it closed. Bhiku slowly opened the door and let it be on one side. He then took out the iron rod from his bag. Outside, there was some light from the starlit sky. Indoors, it was dark. He did not have a second hand to light a match. Standing inside the hut, Bhiku thought that it was not possible to figure out the exact position of Bashir’s heart. If the left-hand stroke did not fall on the right spot, there were chances that Bashir would raise a cry. That would cause problems. 

He thought for a while and then moved towards Bashir’s head and thrust the rod three inches into the crown of the sleeping Bashir. There was no way to understand the impact of the blow in the darkness. Even though he realized that the rod had penetrated his head, Bhiku could not be sure about it. With one hand, he strangled Bashir. 

He said to Paanchi, “Stay quiet. If you shout, I will kill you too.”

Paanchi did not shout. She mumbled in fear.

Bhiku said again, “Not a single noise. If you want things to be alright, keep quiet.”

Bashir became lifeless and Bhiku removed his hand from his neck.  

He took a deep breath and said, “Put on the light, Paanchi.”

When Paanchi put on the light, Bhiku looked at what he had done with great satisfaction. Bhiku’s pride knew no bounds. He had killed a young man with one hand. He looked at Paanchi and said, “Did you see, who killed whom? I had told you then to leave miyan. He wouldn’t go far. He had said that he would chop off my head. Oh miyan, come, do it now.” Bhiku shook his head mockingly in front of Bashir’s body and began to laugh loudly. Suddenly, he fell quiet and said, “Oh lass, why are you quiet? Say something, you woman. Or should I finish you too?”

Paanchi trembled and said, “What will you do now?”

“You will see. First, tell me where he kept all his money?”

Paanchi found out the secret place where Bashir kept his money with great difficulty. Initially, she behaved as if she had no clue about it. But Bhiku held her by her hair and she could not but reveal it. 

The entire savings of Bashir added up to quite a bit of money, almost a hundred rupees. In the past, Bhiku earned more than this by killing a man. But he was happy. He said, “Paanchi, do you want to pack this all? Then, we can set off. The moon will be up soon and we will be out in the open.”

Paanchi packed up her stuff. She held Bhiku’s hand. Limping, she walked out of the hut onto the road. Bhiku looked to the eastern sky and said, “Now the moon will rise Paanchi.”

Paanchi replied, “Where do we go?” 

“We will go into the town, not the river bank. We will steal. We will keep in hiding near the window at Chipatipur and then at night, we will go into the town. Walk fast, Paanchi! It is a long way.”

With her wounded leg, Paanchi found it difficult to walk fast. Bhiku stopped suddenly. “Your leg troubles you a lot, Paanchi?”

“Yes, it hurts.”

“Do you want to ride on my back?”

“Can you?”

“Yes, I can, come along.”

Paanchi held onto his neck and climbed onto his back. Carrying the heavy load on his back, he bent low and began walking fast. The fields along the way faded in the faint light. The navami moon glowed from behind the trees. God’s world was calm and quiet. 

Maybe that moon and this earth have a history. The darkness that emerged from the birth of people like Bhiku and Paanchi is and will forever be part of them, and the world of their progeny. This darkness is prehistoric; all the light of the world cannot balance it all, ever.


Also, read Dhirendra Mehta’s short story, translated from Gujarati to English, and published in The Antonym Magazine

Renovation— Dhirendra Mehta


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Manik Bandopadhyay (1908-1956) was an Indian Bengali novelist and is considered one of the leading lights of modern Bangla fiction. During a short lifespan of forty-eight years, plagued simultaneously by illness and financial crisis, he produced 36 novels and 177 short-stories. His important works include Padma Nadir Majhi (The Boatman on The River Padma, 1936), Putul Nacher Itikatha (The Puppet’s Tale, 1936), Shahartali (The Suburbia, 1941), and Chatushkone (The Quadrilateral, 1948).

Nishi Pulugurtha is an academic, poet, and writer based in Kolkata. Her publications include a monograph on Derozio (2010), a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019), an edited volume of essays on travel, Across and Beyond (2020), a volume of poems, The Real and the Unreal and Other Poems (2020), and a collection of short stories, The Window Sill (2021). The second volume of poems is forthcoming from Writers Workshop, Kolkata. She also writes about Alzheimer’s Disease.

2 Comments

  1. Santanu Chacraverti

    This is one of Manik’s best.

    Thanks for the translation, Nishi. I enjoyed reading it.

    Reply
    • Nishi Pulugurtha

      Thank you

      Reply

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