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The Crier— Swapnamoy Chakraborty

Feb 22, 2023 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Bengali by Nandini Gupta

 

The Crier by Swapnamoy Chakraborty

Image used for representation.

 

There you see the river. Its waves lap at the rocks, whirring and knocking, dancing a Baha dance on the water. The name of the river is LiguRa.

The word LiguRa means ‘perennial laughter’. A LiguRa Biti is a an ever-smiling lass.

The river fills up with water for only three months. Rest of the year, it stays dry. In the month of Baishakh , the water does not come up even to the knees. The river is sapped and muffled. Yet, the people here call it the LiguRa. We would say laughter. Sparkling with laughter, always. 

This is the rainy season.  Here, the rain is sometimes a gentle patashali dance, sometimes a vigorous chhau . The chhau-rain pours tumultuously. The red water charges in from the fields, from the forests, and the hillocks, filling the river to the brim. The river spills over with joy.

Have you ever seen Padmabati’s jhumur dance?  Only then, will you see that she, LiguRa, is Padmabati! The river, at this time, becomes Padmabati. Padmabati is the name of a danseuse.

On a rainy day, Charan Dakua travels along the banks of the exuberant Padmabati. He leaves his footprints on the wet ground. Rather, the prints of his slippers. Charan’s plastic slippers are tied to his feet with strings. Else, they would stick to the gluey mud. So, his slippers are imprinted on the red clay. Charan is not just a dakua, or crier. He works as a bagali, or goatherd, too. He has to. The job of a dakua does not earn a living. Charan’s father and forefathers also worked as dakuas. There weren’t as many bicycles and motorcycles then, nor were there mikes and radios. There were no panchayats either. The village was run by the majhis and the mankis. A village was headed by a majhi, several villages by a manki. The job of a dakua was to carry the orders, announcements, news, and bulletins from the majhis and the mankis to the people of the land. He would beat his drum and cry out his message. But the majhis and the mankis no longer hold sway over the villages. Now there’s the panchayat instead.

Neither do the majhis and mankis have a stronghold on the panchayat any more. Yet the local panchayat has retained the services of a dakua. The son of the village headman becomes a headman; the son of a dakua becomes a dakua unless he is dumb or tongue-tied. Lihar Mahato, Charan’s father, was retained by the Laikusudi Panchayat. When he died, Charan was taken on.

Not just Laikusudi, the neighbouring villages of Lalgarh, Machkandi, KaNkhuriTaR, also employ dakuas. They have no option. There are no roads here. Except a few that are patchy. Broken. Forget a motorcycle, even a bicycle ride entails plentiful jolts and bumps. Walking is the only way to get around. A khakri stored in a sack, goes where the sack does. Charan walks from village to village carrying news. He beats his drum. If there is a road, he rides on a van and uses a mike. If there are only gravelly paths, his feet and his drum come to the rescue. At the Pradhan’s orders, Charan Mahato goes from block to block, and to neighbouring villages. Beating his drum, he cries, “Listen up folks, on such and such day, at the pay-rimary school house of Laikusudi, all the small kids will get polio drops.”  Or, “On such and such day, new sal saplings, new bea’tfickin[1] saplings will be given away at the BDO office, tot’ly free, no need to pay.” In the same manner, he informs them of the biplah card or the BPL card. He also gives them information about the voting santers.

But the government books do not make any mention of a dakua’s salary. The local panchayats here pay their dakuas a monthly sum. But it is meagre. The dish empties before a fistful reaches the mouth. So, they said, “Why don’t you take the animals of the village grazing, Charan? All the goats and the cattle. Every household will pitch in to pay you.” 

Charan is the kind of person, who if asked if he wants a mango, says yes, if asked if he wants berries, says yes. So, if grazing goats makes for some extra income, why would he not.

Thenceforth, Charan grazes animals. Not only those of Laikusudi, but also from a couple of adjacent villages. Not just goats, some sheep too.

Here, the villages do not sit cheek by jowl. The distance of Mechekanda from Laikusudi village is 10 songs; DhanukTaar is 5 songs away from Mechekanda. Charan measures distances in songs. Songs he listens to as he walks. On the radio. Look, there goes Charan, look at his dress, he is wearing a full-pantool, and plastic slippers tied to his feet with strings. Also, a shirt with two pockets. Oh no, two are not enough. He has sewn a long strip of cloth onto his dress to create one more pocket. It holds 4 large batteries. A small ‘transistor radio’ sits in his breast pocket. It runs on pencil batteries. Pencil batteries are small and weak. They do not last long. The cost adds up. Instead, he uses the big batteries used in torches. When the torch batteries drain out, they cannot light up a torch, yet they can keep a radio going for a while. He puts 4 such batteries in a battery holder among his clothes. Two wires protrude from the two sides of the battery holder and come to the radio.

Charan walks, his ears tuned to his radio. His radio catches Calcutta and Ranchi stations. Sometimes even Jamshedpur .

Charan started early today. He has goats from 3 villages with him. In between the villages, there are rocky meadows filled with broken stones, where bushes, trees and shrubbery are plentiful. He grazes the animals there. Or he goes into the forests up in the hills. In the evening, he returns the goats to their owners. The goats are smart, they know their villages. As they approach a particular village, the goats belonging there herd together. But Charan does not go grazing the days he is summoned on crier duty. He also does not graze after Labaan, or Nabanna, the harvesting festival. After the grains are harvested, the lara or the stubble remain. The animals find food in their own villages.

Charan is now at the riverside. There are goats in front of him and goats behind him. The bank on this side of the river is stony. Some of it lies fallow. In the summer, there are only pebbles here. Now because of the rain, some grass has sprouted. Some new leaves have sprung. There are waves in the river. There is the sound of water. The water plays with leaves. Charan clicks off the radio. The river dances a jhumur. Children’s chatter drifts in with the wind. Some children cross the river, from this side to the other, holding their books aloft. They are students of the Laikusudi school located on this bank. They live across the river. Babaijor is on the opposite bank. So are the villages of SaNribasa, Kuthera and Phooljhor.

There are no schools on that bank. So, they cross over. Charan notices an object floating down the river. A book! The book flies towards him. He hears the shouts of children. In a flash, he removes his shirt and jumps into the water. The strong currents would have carried the book away, had it not lodged itself into a crevice. Charan rescues it. He recognizes the portrait on the cover. Vidyasagar . Charan has read the Barno Porichoy , a book written by him. Charan studied till ‘kelass theeree’.

Charan climbs up from the river bank, the book clutched to his chest. He usually carries his radio in his chest pocket. He is not wearing a shirt, but a song emerges from the radio within his heart. A sereng, as the people here would say. Charan hears it clearly.

Charan shakes off water from the book, then holds it aloft and asks, “Whose book?” 

The children come running. On getting his book back, the owner looks at Charan and smiles so that another song chirps inside Charan’s heart.

Charan listens to the children and understands that the river has filled up since the previous day. The water level has risen dramatically in one night. They are worried about making their way back after school.

A few kids had taken off their clothes. They dress quickly. Some are smart. They have brought thin towels to dry themselves. One boy says, “We can’t go to school from tomorrow.”

In an instant, Charan transforms from a crier to a headman. He wears the face of a leader, stretches his arm out and says, “Who is making that evil talk, eh? Nothing doing. Come to school you must.”

One of the boys says, “How can we? The river’s pounding at the banks. The water’s higher than our heads. We can’t swim with one hand, hold up books and clothes with another. We will get carried away.”

The crier says, “Leave it to me. I ‘ll do something.” Some of the children laugh. They say, “The river is in spate! What can you do?”

Like a real leader, Charan clears his throat, turns his voice up and says, “You’ll find out in good time, what I can do and what I can’t. Now, you go to school. Do your studies and all.”

The kids walk down the path through the field, talking and laughing. Like a swarm of twittering birds. In a while, the school bell rings.

Two years ago, the village of Laikusudi  got its own school. It has classes up to four. The schoolhouse has four walls: four porches on the four sides and a room in the middle. Four classes are held on the four porches; the room in the middle has a table a chair and an almirah. This is the teacher’s room. The teacher’s name is Shyamachand Murmu. He cycles to school. He lives in Kesarboni, which is one Anurodher Asor (Songs On Request) away on the bicycle. The teacher arrives, opens the door, then opens the almirah. From the almirah, he takes a brass gong and a wooden hammer. He hangs the gong on the neighboring Mahua tree , and beats it with the hammer. Clang! Clang! Clang!

When the children assemble, he gets them to put up 4 blackboards for the 4 classes. He passes in and out of the room in the middle to get to the 4 classes in turn and teach them. When the sun god touches the crest of the Pakunda hill, he beats the gong again to signal the end of the school-day. Then he goes home. There are reports about midday meals starting soon. The children will get food. There has been talk about it in the panchayat.

Charan cannot take the goats very far. The Humda hill rises from the bend of the river. There, bijou grass, chechra leaves can be found; on the Chendu hill, a little farther off, there are many jackfruit trees. He plucks leaves off the low branches of the jackfruit trees and gives them to the animals; they respond with a thousand-beasts-worthy ruckus. Today he does not go that way. The sun god is about to bend down towards the Pakunda hill.

Guldasta, with its Bouquet of Songs, has begun on Ranchi radio; so, the time must be half past two. Het! Het! He drives the goats homewards. With the Laikusudi village just one bend of the river away, he hears the school bell ring.

Charan speeds up. He reaches the bank before the troop of children do.

This time, he speaks not like a leader, but more like God’s messenger. “I’m here. Don’t you worry.” The children crowd around Charan. The goats surround him too. Like a stamen in a flower, Charan stands at the center, ringed by petals. Charan Dakua lifts up both his arms and calls, “Listen, my babies, you must go to school. Even if the river is full. There’s no excuse. I will be here twice a day. I’ll take care of your books. Clear?”

The floodwater rises in waves and creates drumbeats in the river.

Charan calls, “All you boys, take off your clothes. Come here. Put your books down, I’ll carry them.”

He points to a large rock. “Girls, you go over there. Take off your clothes. There is nothing to be ashamed of.”

The boys quickly undress. There are 10 or 12 of them. Girls are fewer. Only five.  Some of the children are from Santhal families, others from Mahato or Sabar families. All children are the same. You cannot tell them apart.

The children get into the water. The currents in the river hurl them around. They fall. They fight the water with both arms. The waist-deep water soon reaches up to the chests of the taller children, to the necks of others. Some of the kids are delicate and cannot fight the waves. Charan quickly enters the water, wearing only his koupin, the strip of cloth covering his parts. He holds out his hand.

When all of them have climbed up the other bank, Charan is relieved. He must now get the girls to cross. Their dresses are still damp from the morning crossing. Clothes do not dry quickly in monsoon.

One of the girls is from class 4 and she had not undressed. The other girls had taken their cue from her and had kept their clothes on. Their wet clothes will give them a fever, make them sick. So, Charan tells them, “Take your clothes off. It is for the sake of your lessons. There is no shame in that.”

Charan bundles the  children’s clothes together. He collects their books. There are no strings or tapes, so he ties them with his own ‘full-pants’. He hoists the bundle over his head and crosses the waters. Like Basudev , carrying the infant Krishna on his head.

Kangsa he will slay!

He places the books on the bank and says, “Put your clothes on, take your books, and go that way.”

Then, he returns to this bank.

He gets the girls across in the same manner. When they depart, they each leave for Charan a smile and a gazeful of Indira Awas Yojana Home-building Scheme.

The next day Charan appears on the dot. The river has swollen further. The current is stronger. It rained in the night.

The kids wave to him from the far bank. Charan makes a Karanja flower with his fingers and beckons. They approach. Charan crosses the river and reaches them. He takes their clothes and books. Today he has a sack into which he puts everything. The bed of the river is cluttered with boulders through the year. Now they are not apparent. The water reaches to Charan’s waist, sometime to his chest, or to his chin. When he climbs up on a submerged rock, the water goes down to his waist or chest. If the water rises above his head, the books will soak. He would not be able to swim with one arm. O God Inder , don’t let the water go so high, please.

Thus, Charan gets the children across. He cannot tend to the animals as he should. He tells the villagers, “Better tie the poor goats up till the rains stop. So many snakes and leeches about in these jungles.” 

So a month passes, with Charan present at the riverside every single day. Until it is the middle of the month of Bhadra . The water begins to recede. When the water goes down, the children would be able to walk across without his help. Charan feels sad. O God Inder, do not let the water go down so fast.

He has made friends with the kids in this time. He knows each of them by name. He knows their homes. Henceforth, he would not  get to meet them ‘daily daily’.

Kaash blossoms everywhere. Wee cloudlings gather in the sky. In the fields, the stalks of paddy stand tall. The river is calm. The water reaches to the children’s knees. Charan is no longer needed.

Back to grazing. He is not unhappy to get the goats back. Some of them have had babies. The young kids leap and gambol in the fields planted newly with paddy. Only the radio is gone. It is broken. A repairman comes to DhanukTaR on market days. He says it is beyond fixin’, better you get a noo (new) radio.

There’s no way he can get a noo radio. Maybe later, when he has some money. He will think about it. Charan hears the school bell ring. A sound he did not much hear in his own childhood. The school was two villages away from his home. That meant a very long walk. His schooling did not continue for long.

Then suddenly the school bell stops ringing. Because bells do not ring in schools after they have been closed down. Charan is told that the schoolmaster has left for another job. Charan thinks that he might have taught the children himself, if only he had studied a little further. He would not even want to be paid a teacher’s salary.

Days pass, the year turns. Once again, the sky is overcast. Raindrops fall. The bell rings in the shut school inside Charan’s heart. 

Charan does not need a shirt any more. The shirt was for the radio. For the batteries for the radio. Now there is no radio. There is no shirt. The river-crossing is child’s play. But there is no school, there are no children.

From time to time, he is the crier again. He announces the Annapurna Yojana, the BIPLA, the Biddo office meetings.

The BIDDO office is an hour’s walk from here. Amlashol is one and a half hour away. Jhargram is very far away. He has been to Jhargram 4 to 6 times altogether. There he saw televisions in the shops. Here, the villages do not have electricity. The Pradhan says it is due soon. Poles will be erected, wires will be strung. Electric current will come galloping along those wires. Then it will be the dakua whose job it will be to go around crying, “Who all wants electric curren’, put in your applications, quick, quick…”

Who knows when. Charan has been hearing about it since his childhood. Let alone electricity, even the school closed down.

Once again, the rains have arrived.  The kids have no school to go to. Some run into the Sal forest to pick rugra mushrooms , some ramble around in search of chhatu mushrooms . Mushrooms sprout in the forests in the rainy season. The boys gather them. Some set about fishing with sungi or small nets. Dogs flock to the porch of the schoolhouse in the afternoons. This is their refuge on a rainy day.

Suddenly, one day the bell rings again. Charan hears it go clang clang clang! A new teacher has arrived. Charan goes to take a look at the new teacher. He is fair and wears glasses. He is from Lodhashuli. He will live in the schoolhouse, they say.

He goes to the panchayat and asks, “Shouldn’t I go crying? The kids need to be told!”

Charan tells everyone about the new teacher. He goes to every neighbourhood, every village. The opposite bank of the river is not part of his beat. Yet he crosses the river. The name of the river is LiguRa. Which means laughter. The river is laughing.

He will tell the villages on the opposite bank about the new teacher. He will say, “Hear, hear, the bell  rings again in the  school that was shut down. A new master has come. Hear one and hear all. Send the kiddies to school again, o my brothers…!”

Charan returns to the river. The water is swelling.

He will carry the children across on his shoulder.

In my body, love blossoms,
Blossoms and blooms, oh,
In my body, love blossoms.

Inside his heart, the broken radio begins to sing.


[1] Saplings distributed under the beautification program. 


Also, read a collection of short Italian poems by Gabriele Borgna, translated into English by Patrick Williamson, and published in The Antonym:

Artefacts Of Disruption— Gabriele Borgna


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Swapnamoy Chakraborty was born in Kolkata. He started his writing career with short stories. His first short story was published in 1972, and Chakraborty’s first bookBhumi Sutrawas published in 1982. His book Abantinagar won the Bankim Puraskar in 2005. His work is both critically acclaimed and well-received by readers.

Nandini Gupta is a professor of Electrical Engineering by day and a writer and translator by night. Her translations of modern Bangla poetry have been included in anthologies of Indian and International poetry, and her translation of Buddhadeva Basu’s memoir was published by Parabaas.

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