Translated from the Odia by Dr. Snehaprava Das
“Are you there, bhauja?”
Nilamber called from outside, craning his neck as he tried to look through the door. Sukanti gave a start. “This man will not leave me alone!” she thought in desperation. She was changing her sari, preparing to light a lamp at the platform of the holy basil. “I will have to offer the evening worship now,” she returned gingerly. “Won’t it do if we have a talk tomorrow?”
“Why not? Everything can wait . . .” Nilamber sulked. “But you must know it is high time you made a decision. Almost everyone has collected the relief money except me. I have been waiting all these days keeping only your interest in mind. Do as you wish, but do not blame me afterwards.” Nilamber said like pronouncing an ultimatum and melted away in the thickening darkness.
Sukanti breathed a deep sigh, quickly buttoned up her blouse and wrapped the sari around her. She had known the hungry look in his eyes more than often. Without any reason, he would let his obstinate hand rove on her shoulders and her back, in a pretence of affection. But Sukanti abhorred it. The touch of his obnoxious hands singed her body. She understood that the man was taking undue advantage of her. But she could not complain because she knew she could not manage alone in this village without his support and assistance.
She lit the wick at the holy basil and draping her head with the end of her sari bowed, intoning her prayers, venting out her inaudible grievances as she did so. “O mother goddess, why did you spare my life? Why did you keep me alive to rot in this ruined homestead in company of the wild dogs and jackals?”
In fact, not much was left of Raipur, an old and renowned village by the sea. The super cyclone of 1999 had shoved most part of the village into the sea. In another two months, it will be two years since the cyclone had wreaked havoc in her life. The raging tides washed away home, family, and the life she had built up in the past ten years. Even as she looked on, her husband Brajakishore and her parents-in-law were swept into the sea. She had, miraculously, got stuck to a branch of a tree. She clung to it, as it drifted miles away to some unknown village. She woke up to find herself lying on a deserted patch of sand by the sea, alone. Slowly, like images slipping away from a montage, memories made their way back. She wailed piteously, cursing the cruel fate. But the roar of the sea drowned her screams. She was rescued later. “Where are you from? Which village?” they asked as they moved her to the relief camp. She spent about a week in the relief camp and returned to her village bringing some utensils, polythene sheets and blankets. The village wore the look of an abandoned graveyard. Everywhere there were black patches of mud and slush, stinking, rotting carcasses of livestock, the pathetic and ugly remnants of decimated houses, broken rafters, and bamboo posts. It was a festering hell. She shut her eyes in dread. Hunger roiled inside but all she wished for was a little poison to bring an end to her life than food to stay alive. That would have spared her all the pain and suffering. Slowly others too returned to Raipur, the village where Sukanti had once had a happy household. Only twenty-six people out of the two hundred from twenty-two families had survived the cyclone.
But the sight of old Mahapatra who had escaped the disaster filled her with a revulsion that overpowered sorrow. “Why on earth did death spare this reprehensible man? Did death too shrink away from touching him?” Sukanti was filled with an unspeakable loathing.
The enmity between the Mahapatra and the Parida family ran through generations. She had heard from her husband Brajakishore Parida that the grandfather of this old man Mahapatra had murdered Brajakishore’s great grandfather by driving a pike into his chest following a fight over the harvesting in a disputed farmland. The Mahapatras, a resourceful family, had many trusted henchmen on their side. The combined strength of men and money fetched a decree, all too easily, in their favor. That year, during the month of Ashwina, a strife over harvest escalated. The goldsmith community of the village claimed the lush green paddy stalks undulating in the gentle autumnal breeze over a disputed patch of land, as their own. The entire village got divided into two sections, one supporting the Mahapatras and the other the goldsmith family, the Paridas. Disobeying the prohibitory order under section 144, the henchmen of the Mahapatras had barged in and started reaping the crops. Brajakishore’s great grandfather could not bear to watch the men of Mahapatra reap away the crops he had grown with his blood and sweat. He rushed to the field wielding a staff and landed heavy blows on the back of the man who was in the front, reaping the paddy stalks. The grandfather of this old man Mahapatra perhaps had kept a pike hidden somewhere under a clump of paddy stalk within an easy reach. Almost instantly he drew out the pike and even as others shouted at him to stop, he impaled it into the chest of the old man Parida, Brajakishore’s great grandfather.
Brajakishore had not witnessed the incident but had heard about it from his own grandfather. Whenever he recounted the gruesome tale before his wife, his nostrils flared up in rage as if the sixty-year-old moment appeared right before him assuming a new reality that was even more horrendous. The image of the mound of freshly reaped paddy drenched in the blood spurting out from old Parida’s chest flashed past before his eyes. People ran away from the paddy field as if chased by some live terror. Police came almost every day to inquire into the matter. The frequent wrangles between the supporters of both the families that followed had turned the village into a battlefield. Slowly with the passage of time, the acuteness of the hostility wore off and peace returned to the village but the spark of enmity between the Mahapatras and the Paridas had never died.
The mayhem had taken both the families in its ruthless sweep. The angry sea swallowed ten members of the Mahapatras, his wife, two sons and their wives and the grandchildren. Their big house now stood dejected and forlorn, shrouded in a sepulchral silence. Sukanti often saw old Mahapatra slumped alone outside the ruined house, his empty gaze roaming aimlessly across the sky. Sometimes he beat his chest with the fists of his hands. For a brief moment, Sukanti’s heart softened. She looked at the naked, ugly remains of her own house and reminisced the happy days she had spent there with her family, the ecstasy of her husband’s embrace. Both she and the old man were victims of the same catastrophe.
Both of them were living through the aftermath of the debacle, sharing the same bitter experience of loss.
Lucky were those who succumbed to the killer cyclone, someone had remarked. Absolutely right, Sukanti thought. Only the ones who survived it had to live through sheer hell. Every moment was a moment of living death.
She had often contemplated upon dying by suicide but could not bring herself to kill herself. Perhaps she lacked the courage it needed.
The crumpled packet of seeds the old woman who came with a group of volunteers from Cuttack brought, had induced a fresh hope in her. It had inspired her to make a new beginning.
She remembered the day. It was almost three months after the cyclone. A relief party from Cuttack came to the village.
She lived alone inside the polythene fenced shelter that was her home now. She did not talk to anyone. A loud yet unheard wail of unbearable woe seared her heart. She just kept sitting outside her polythene-fenced shelter looking emptily at the sky.
The volunteers of the relief party distributed blankets, lanterns, breads, and other food items to the people. An old woman came up to her. She ran a sympathetic hand on Sukanti’s back and asked tenderly, What do you need?” Sukanti could not speak. The agony that choked her voice ran down her eyes in wild streams. The woman sat by her waiting patiently for quite some time. Before she left, she pushed a crumpled paper packet into her hand.
Before going to sleep, Sukanti, driven by a dull curiosity, opened the packet and emptied the contents on her palm. Seeds! What was she going to do with them? Vexed, she threw the seeds out through the window.
Nilamber came the next day. He, like Sukanti, was the lone survivor of his family. His house was washed away in the flood, and so were his mother and wife.
“You need not worry bhauja,” Nilamber had said. “I will take care of everything. I will see to it that you face no problems in collecting the relief amount for the rehabilitation of the homeless, compensation for the livestock lost, and the ex-gratia amount for the dead. I don’t ask you do anything in return. I will get the rice and you just cook it for me. You know, like you I too have lost my kins. I promise I will always be by your side in your hours of need till the end.”
Sukanti looked at Nilamber . His face was pale, and his eyes were heavy under the shadow of gloom. Her heart went out to her. Poor man! At least there was one person in the whole village who assured her of his support. Old Mahapatra might be cursing the cyclone for sparing Sukanti and depriving him of the opportunity to grab her homestead.
“The old man has gone out of his mind. He sits on the front veranda and keeps rambling,” said Nilamber . “He is now looking a little better after learning that the government will be paying compensation and ex-gratia for the lives lost. The other day he was inquiring from me how much the government would be paying as ex-gratia per deceased member of a family.”
It had rained that afternoon. Nilamber sat on the veranda outside Sukanti’s polythene-fenced shack, his eyes feasting on the youthful, well-proportioned body of Shukanti, her full red lips, the sleek length of her hair, the buxom hips. God has perhaps designed her beautiful shape in a sweet leisure. A look at her voluptuous figure and her beautiful face always sends a wave of hot fluid rushing through his veins. The face of his dead wife Tilottama begins to fade away from his memory. He decided that he will marry Sukanti at any cost.
After ten days or so she had thrown the seeds away, Sukanti noticed to her amazement that tiny saplings of green had sprouted out of them. The backyard of her shack looked like a carpet of fresh green. “Could life spring even from its ruins!” she asked herself. Thereafter she engaged herself assiduously in tending the plants. After a few months, her backyard turned into an orchard of fruits and vegetables . . . papayas, pumpkins, bottle gourds, cucumbers, ridge gourds, drumsticks, green chilies, and many more. Sukanti felt grateful to the old woman who had given her the seeds. They were not just seeds, they were a lesson, the harbingers of another life. They taught her that living is an ever-continuing act. Life never ends. Quite astonishingly, it begins at the very point where you think it has ended.
It was late in night. How late, Sukanti had no idea. Sleep eluded her. She sat outside her shack gazing absently at the stars. She turned her eyes to look at the shack facing her own on the other side of the street. Old Mahapatra lived there, all alone. Sukanti had seen him doing the cooking. The door of his shack remained shut most of the day. The old man spent most part of the day in the premises of the temple of Lord Shiva talking to people. He returned home in the evening and cooked. After eating, he went inside and closed the door. Sukanti sympathized with the old man. Poor fellow! Sometimes she thought she would give the old man some vegetables she grew in her backyard. What is the point in carrying on the enmity further? All issues that could have triggered forth a conflict had been long since resolved. The cyclone has taken care of it. It had wiped away his family and erased the old man’s ego and pride.
But she could not bring herself to go to the shack on the other side of the street. Her feet refused to move. She dropped the idea.
She turned her gaze again up at the sky. There was a big moon. It was a full moon night perhaps, Sukanti thought. The gentle breeze of the month of Bhadra caressed her. The memory of Braja gnawed at her heart. She crossed her arms over her chest and broke into tears.
Nilamber stood his bicycle in front of her shack and rang the bell. Sukanti would be coming to the block office with him.
“I do not have any papers with me,” said Sukanti as she locked the front door from outside.
“I am there to take care of everything. Why do you worry? Half of Odisha has been swept away in the floodtide. Who would expect us to have the papers or documents? The government has waived all restrictions pertaining to that. You might think of the political people as vultures, but they help us at such hours of crisis. In the worst case, I would stand as your witness.”
Sukanti sighed deeply. Nilamber had been a great help during the hard times
“May everything be well with you!” she said gratefully.
“But you happen to hold the key to my wellbeing,” Nilamber said with a broad smile.
“Do you know Sanatan is marrying Malti tomorrow?” he added seriously as if he was revealing some important secret.
Sukanti looked at him, wide eyed. “How could he marry the widow of his younger brother? The elder brother-in-law and the bride of the younger brother are not supposed even to look at each other in face. It is a sin!” she exclaimed in an accusing tone.
Nilamber laughed aloud. “The cyclone and the flood have erased all such improprieties”
“But I can never approve of it!”
“What is the harm? It is almost like marrying a stranger, there will be the same curiosity of discovering each other, no?” Nilamber smiled. It was an obscene smile and Sukanti flinched away from it.
“Besides,” Nilamber said again, “both of them will be given ex-gratia for every member of their respective families who has lost their lives. It will be quite an amount. They could make a fresh start with that.”
Sukanti, however, was still finding it difficult to accept.
“You wait by that temple,” Nilamber said pointing at the temple. “I will come there after having sorted out the matters relating to the documents and papers. The puny political leaders and the small-time functionaries of all political parties are milling around. They are making every little thing a political issue. Someone might assure you to get things done for you. Don’t you go with anyone. I will come having set everything right. But you don’t decide things . . .”
“What things?” Sukanti asked trying to sound ignorant.
“About us,” Nilamber returned. “Would you and I be living alone in our own separate shacks like this forever? My visits to your house time and again may not be accepted easily by the people. I do not know whether you do not really get my point or are just pretending to be ignorant. But all such complications will be put to rest if we marry.”
“Nilamber!” Sukanti cut in, her voice reproachful.
Nilamber stopped short. He looked at Sukanti, question in his eyes.
“What are your plans for the future, then?”
“I have nothing to plan . . . no choice to make,” Sukanti said dejectedly. “But I too have a heart . . .”
“Well! What does your heart say? What is its choice? Or would you prefer that old man Mahapatra? Of course, that would be a better choice in one way. The old fellow will receive the ex-gratia amount for ten deceased members.” Nilamber retorted scornfully.
“Think before you speak,” Sukanti snapped, her voice oozing out hurt and humiliation.
Nilamber was beginning to feel frustrated. Sukanti was eluding him in this manner for the past one year.
“You will get ex-gratia for two people and I for three,” he softened his voice and tried to explain. “Now that in our village Raipur the practice of the elder brother-in-law marrying his younger brother’s widow has started, no accusing fingers will be raised at us. We will have enough money to make a new beginning. We will build a house with a concrete roof and raise a family.”
Sukanti had no inclination to discuss the subject. Nilamber’s face looked like that of a sly fox when compared to her dead husband’s. “Give me a couple of days to decide,” she said to drop the discussion.
“What do you need two days for? There is no one left either in your paternal family or in the family of your in-laws whom you can seek suggestion from. Well, it is okay with me if you want it that way. But you must let me know of your final decision latest by tomorrow evening. And here . . .” Nilamber shoved a paper packet into Sukanti’s hand. “Keep this packet carefully. Return it to me tomorrow evening if you decide against my proposition,” he said.
Quite a number of people had gathered in the temple premises by that time. They were looking at both of them curiously. Embarrassed, Sukanti walked away from the place in quick steps. She was fuming inside.
She could hear Nilamber’s angry voice behind her.
“What are you all doing here? You people can never get rid of the habit of poking your dirty nose in other people’s affairs!”
Sukanti reached her shack. Her head was aching badly. She tried to think. She knew it was not possible for a lone woman to spend a lifetime without male support. All their farmlands had been shrouded in layers of sand and not fit for cultivation for at least three years. How would she live? Marrying Nilamber might be a possible solution. It would reduce her responsibility by half.
She sighed and pondered over its flipside. Would it be wise to build up a lifetime relationship with a lecherous fellow like Nilamber? Could she trust him? What would she do if Nilamber took away all her money and escaped to either Surat or Calcutta?
Suddenly, the other alternative that Nilamber had suggested in a feat of anger flashed in her mind—about marrying the old man Mahapatra. The man was nearing eighty. Many of his contemporaries have left the world. This man perhaps has a longer lifespan.
She spent a sleepless night. The memory of the mayhem that devastated her life came back to her in nightmarish images. The wind danced, whirled, and hissed like a spirit possessed. As the night grew, the speed of the wind increased beyond belief, as if it was determined to uproot the entire village. When the wind slowed, the floodtides came, like moving walls of water, inundating the battered village. The houses, people and the livestock and her dreams went inside the monstrous jaws of the raging tides.
Sukanti sat up with a jerk.
Her eyes roved wildly around. There was no one else in the room. The night was silent and still. Was she dreaming?
She had heard people at the block office talking about old Mahapatra yesterday. He would get nearly twenty or thirty lakhs as compensation. Whoever took the chance of marrying the old man would be really lucky. The huge amount as well as all the landed property would be passed on to her.
Should she take that chance? Sukanti thought and in the next instant admonished herself. That would be pure selfishness, and greed.
A voice spoke inside her. “What is the harm? This is one of those rare chances. Grab it without delay. That wolf Nilamber will maul you otherwise.”
As the faint light of the predawn swept over the shack, Sukanti got up and walked into the garden at the backyard. She took a quick bath, changed into a comparatively better-looking sari and combed her hair. A strange excitement prodded her on. She cast a look at the cucumber creepers laden with fresh, lush fruits. Without waiting, she plucked a few cucumbers. She went to the tree of the crepe jasmines covered with starry white flowers and plucked out a basketful. She put the cucumbers and the flowers and the packet Nilamber had given her last evening on a plate and came out of the shack. Standing outside, she glanced at the shack of Narottam Mahapatra facing her on the other side of the street. Like all other days, Narottam Mahapatra was walking back to his house from the temple, intoning some mantras. Sukanti waited till he unbolted the front door and went in. She drew the drape over her face and walked hesitantly up to the veranda. Mahapatra came out carrying a pot of water and washed his feet. He looked at the approaching figure of Sukanti disbelievingly. Braja Parida’s wife in his house! It was something difficult to believe.
“Who is it?” He asked softly.
Sukanti let the veil drop off her face.
Mahapatra looked closely at her. She looked bright and beautiful. The glow on her face lit up the faint darkness inside the house. Fate was hard on the poor woman. It made her a widow at this age! He felt sorry for her.
Sukanti bowed at his feet respectfully. He intoned his blessings.
Sukanti put the flowers at his feet. She also placed the plate of cucumbers and the packet Nilamber had given her. Mahapatra, surprised, stepped a few feet back.
“What is all this?”
“The flood had washed away so many things. Can’t it wash away the poison of enmity from our hearts?”
Slowly, Narottam Mahapatra picked up the packet and opened it. The next moment there was a look of startled wonderment in eyes as if he had discovered a diamond in a heap of garbage.
He smiled. It was the smile of a real man.
“Are you sure?” He asked. “You know that I do not have many days left here.”
“Yes, I have thought over it a lot.” Sukanti replied. Her voice was low but firm. “Who knows how much time we have been granted here! So many people younger than us have left this world much before time. I give you my word that I will serve at your feet as long as I am alive.”
Without saying anything, Mahapatra went inside the house. He came back a little after. There was a gold necklace in is hand. He held it out to Sukanti. But she did not take it. She bent her head and stretched her neck a little. A wild throb of excitement was raging through her.
While returning from the temple that evening, Mahapatra stopped by Nilamber’s house.
“Nilamber, my son!” he called softly. Nilamber came out.
“Yes, mausa! What is it?”
Mahapatra handed out a five-hundred-rupee note to him. “This is the price of the floral coronets you have bought for Sukanti. You have been a great help. Sukanti and I are getting married in the village temple next Wednesday. You must attend the ceremony.”
Nilamber looked blankly at old Mahapatra. The news struck him with the force of a thunderbolt. He stood rooted to the place, his face wearing a deadpan expression, the five-hundred-rupee note hanging from his limp fingers.
Narottam Mahapatra strode away in a hurry. There were so many arrangements to be made.