An Assamese short story by Hemanta Barman
ORIGINAL TITLE : Matir Chaaki
Translated into English by Biman Arandhara
He travelled by train, his mind restless. Soon he would be arriving in the town he had left behind. Was it still the same? Or, had it undergone change? He had spent his school days in this town; he felt like being sheltered by the hills around it and the huge trees that lined its lanes and bye-lanes. Even though he had spent his childhood in the midst of water, he could never come to terms with the beautiful wide river; he had never felt close to it.
He did not talk with anyone on the way. The town, his alma mater, the hostel – everything shuttled to and fro in his mind. He would pay a visit to Father. After spending the day in town he would resume his onward journey in the evening. Would Father recognise him? They had not met for a long time. Father must have become old. Some of the people associated with the institution must have retired. Wonder if Seema Maam was there or not!
He used to be quite close to Seema Maam. The slender-bodied lady was very affectionate by nature. He had a feeling that she was fonder of him than of the others. Of course, this was just his assumption. She must have got married and shifted to another place. He continued with his journey reminiscing about the past. He showed no interest in his co-travellers or the road that they had left behind, engrossed that he was in his thoughts.
He got a start when the train came to a sudden halt. It waited for the signal to enter the station, blowing its whistle. He looked out of the window, but could see nothing. The last time he had left, the station was very small. The train moved like a slug; it must have got the green signal. The passengers got busy packing up their belongings. He carried nothing except a rucksack.
The sight of porters entering the coach made him realise that they were in the station area. He did not hurry. Let the others alight, he would get down leisurely, he thought. His destination was just a little distance away from the station and it would take him about half an hour to reach there. He went to the basin and splashed water on his face. The coach had in the meantime been vacated. Slinging the rucksack over his shoulder, he got down from the train. Before walking towards the exit he bought a few dailies from Wheeler’s. As he neared the exit, the station shook. A deafening sound shattered his ears. It could be a booming sound or a bomb explosion. The people ran, terrified. Some bumped into him as they scurried out of the station. An old woman fell to the ground after being jostled by the people. ‘There’s been a bomb explosion’! someone shouted. An announcement was heard on the PA system of the railway station, ‘Dear passengers, please don’t run, stay wherever you are.’ The sound of the explosion had not yet died down. The sky above not far from the northern end of the station was covered in spiralling smoke. As he tried to guess the distance, more explosions could be heard. The railway police personnel too started running, with a few of them taking up position at the gate. ‘The court has been blown off. Bombs have exploded near the capital complex also,’ somebody told someone. The people remained huddled together. He could not decide what to do. Suddenly everything seemed to have come to a standstill. They could hear another announcement, ‘Curfew has been clamped in town, passengers are requested to remain on the platform.’ Sounds of siren from police vehicles and ambulances drowned the town. He returned to the platform. Not feeling like going to the waiting room, he placed his bag on the floor in the open and sat down.
He boarded the night bus, deciding to visit the town on his return journey. Except for some streetlights, the town was otherwise in darkness. The shops were closed, the streets deserted. Only police vehicles made the rounds. The bus started its journey and soon left the town behind and reached the main road. It proceeded in the darkness. He looked out of the window; nothing was visible. Far in the distance the odd oil lamp-like light flickered. He did not enjoy travelling by a night bus, but he had to, as he must reach his destination early; time was at a premium for him. One day it was along this road that he had come to the town. Later he had to leave the town for some place outside the state. And today he was returning home along this road.
His previous journey was uncertain. Sorrow had devastated his young body then; his mind was restless. Father’s words of consolation too could not influence his mind. He had simply kept on looking into the distance through the window of the bus with awe in his eyes. Flowers bloomed in the distant hills, the forests appeared dark green. Where would he go! What lay for him at the end of the unfamiliar road! These worries had sometimes troubled him. Now he was back, full of hope in his heart. He was returning to the village of his childhood. He had not seen the village for the last twenty years. He had not met anyone from the village during this period. No one enquired about him; he too could not make enquiries about anybody. He did not know if he had any relatives; nobody came seeking him. He wondered if his house was still there. He got angry with himself; how would his thatched shanty that he called his house, survive so long? Twenty years was not a small period of time! Was the village headman alive? The headman had bidden him goodbye. He remembered the huge bakul tree and the namghar. The fragrance of bakul flowers raided his nostrils.
The bus proceeded, piercing through the dark. One side of his mind too was in darkness. Just a little light was left there like in an oil lamp. That light had sustained him so long. He wondered how he managed to travel around. He was not tired of doing so, he did not allow himself to be tired. Whenever darkness pressed him down, he would try to wriggle out of it. He would try to run. He had never attempted to escape, always trying to breathe. There was no end to his journey just because he had to keep breathing. He must go back, the road was beckoning him. He was here for a brief period. He could have come back forever, but what would he do? Who did he have? Where would he live, who would he seek? So, there was no end to the journey.
He reached his destination early morning. The place was developing into a small township; the number of shops had grown. People were taking tea at a small shop. He took a cup of tea and asked the shopkeeper how to reach his village. The shopkeeper gave him a questioning look; he had never heard of that village. Just then an elderly man stepped forward, ‘Son, I am going that way, you can come with me. Passenger vans are available to take us there. First let me have a cup of tea.’
The people gathered there for tea discussed the bomb explosions that took place the previous day. One of them said, ‘I had a narrow escape. I had just crossed the flyover when I heard a deafening sound. After that it was all screams, fire, smoke, ash. Many people died. The police arrived late.’ The middle-aged man had travelled by the same bus with him.
He boarded the van with the elderly man. As soon as the vehicle started moving the old man began to talk, ‘Son, the village that you are talking about does not exist anymore; the river washed it away long back. No one knows where the people of that village migrated. Only one man known to me knows about the village. His name is Bapuram the ferryman. You will have to visit him. His small hut is situated beside the channel; it’ll take you quite some time to reach there. You shall have to walk east through the paddy field from the spot where the van has its final stop. Hey ‘pilot’, show him the way, will you.’
His mind became restless. Each of his journeys was uncertain. His leaving was goalless; his return had a goal, but the destination was not in sight. The van sped on, sending dust into the air. Along the way some passengers alighted from the van, some others boarded it. The old man bade him goodbye and got down at a place. Where had his village disappeared! Actually it was not their village; he and his mother had come and taken shelter there. The village gradually became dear to them. He looked outside. Dish antennas of TVs could be seen here and there. The village of yesteryear was no longer there, he thought. He got down alone at the last stop. The driver pointed to the east and said, ‘At the end of this road you will come to a paddy field. The path along the field too will come to an end at one point. If you look farther ahead from there you will see a few huge trees. That is Simalubari, you can head straight for there. The place is a bit eerie, but don’t be scared. From there towards the south there is an animal track. At the end of that track you will come to a road used by humans. The ferryman’s house is located at the end of that road.’
He walked in the direction as told and soon came to the field. In the distance he saw Simalubari. The field was sandy, bereft even of grass. He started walking, but found it difficult to tread along the sand. The huge field had been covered in sand. He trudged on very slowly as his feet slipped on the sand. He saw no vegetation except simalu (silk-cotton) trees. Not a bird could be seen or heard. An odd dragon fly hovered around. He felt tired after walking some distance. As he looked around, he saw patches of elephant grass and decided to rest there for a while. He drank some water and bending some grass, sat down on it. He did not feel like thinking about anything. The darkness of his mind seemed to have grown in size. By the time he reached the main road, the sun had risen overhead. Beads of perspiration appeared on his face. He proceeded with slow steps towards the house in the distance.
The wretched condition of the dwelling convinced him that it was the ferryman’s house. Of course, there was no other house around. The courtyard was spic and span. The door was partially open, with no sign of anybody inside. He tapped a few times on the wall. No response. He sat on the floor of the verandah and remained so for a long time with a blank mind.
‘Wonder who we have here and what could be the purpose of the visit?’
He looked in the direction of the voice. It was a beautiful girl supporting a pitcher of water on her waist. With one hand she held her mekhela slightly raised. Startled, he could say nothing in reply and simply looked on at the girl. The girl lowered her head and asked again, ‘Wonder who we have h…’
‘I have come from a distant place. Can I meet Bapuram the ferryman?’
‘Father is on the riverside; he will be back for lunch after some time. In the meantime, you can have a wash and freshen up. Oh my, you are sitting on the floor. Please get up, let me fetch you a mat.’ The girl brought a big mat from inside and spread it on the floor. She brought him water in a big pot and extended a gamocha to him. After freshening up he brightened up within. Only light seemed to radiate from the damsel.
He was dozing off and woke up at the conversation between the girl and her father. He had even had a dream. Over lunch the ferryman asked, ‘Son, I wonder what the purpose of your visit could be?’
He told the ferryman in detail why he was there.
The ferryman did not recognise him. At the mention of the village he paused for a while. ‘Not only that village, the river swallowed fifteen villages. How will you find it? Of course, I have heard that a char (highland formed in the river by deposition of silt) has formed at the site of the village. Reaching that place will be very difficult for you. Only the helmsman from the fishing community can take you there. You will have to wait a day or two; first we will have to find out if the helmsman is available or not.
‘But where shall I stay?’
The ferryman looked at his daughter, who was waiting nearby to attend to the two men as they ate. Serving them some fish curry she said, ‘Ask him to somehow adjust here, father.’
He did not want to trouble others. He had come from outside the state in search of his village, but it was non-existent now. Where would he go? The ferryman was from his village. After the river washed away the village, the people got scattered.
He did not realise how two days passed. The ferryman’s daughter took him around. She told him that their village had existed seven-eight kilometres away. She showed him the small offshoots of the mighty river. Crossing the ditch she took him along the yew shrubs to a rivulet. They would reach the newly-formed char only after walking along the rivulet to the middle of the mighty river.
He was surprised that a taciturn man like him was becoming so talkative. The girl listened to him attentively. Her moist eyes saddened him; he could have refrained from saying it all.
‘How are you carrying all this in your heart? Tomorrow the helmsman is supposed to take you there. I shall accompany you, father has asked me to. We must leave early morning. Father has been able to guess who you are. The village headman is no more. Now, go and take a dip in the ditch, lunch is ready.’
‘I cannot enter the water.’
‘The mermaid will take me away.’
‘You are scared of the mermaid? But a mermaid takes away only someone she loves.’
Although they left early morning, the helmsman arrived late as he took time finding someone who could manoeuvre the boat to the middle of the river. He himself had not steered a boat for a long time and came only because he could not refuse the ferryman. They belonged to the same village and he was now the eldest person in the village. He knew everybody in the village very well.
It was almost noon by the time they set sail. The sun shone bright. The helmsman mentioned, ‘Aikon’, and the ferryman’s daughter offered a pair of tamul-paan to the river and prayed to it. He remembered his mother; she too used to pray to the river every day.
The boat reached the big river. The helmsman steered the boat, the other man rowed it. He sat face-to-face with Aikon, who kept fiddling with the water with one hand. He looked at her. Seeing him staring at her she lowered her head and asked, ‘Can you swim?’
‘No. And you?’
‘Well, we have grown up in the midst of the water.’ He was scared of water. He held on tightly to the plank of wood on which he sat with both hands. He had seen the devastating form of the river. The whirlpool of that fear was still fresh in his heart.
‘We are in the middle of the river, son. Sorry, I have not been able to give much attention to you. Now, from the place where you wish to go I can make a guess who you are. That’s why I am steering the boat even at this advanced age. I shall find peace of mind when your wish is fulfilled. As you see, the river has washed away the villages. The fields have turned into deserts. We got dispersed … Betharam, row the boat towards Moinamoti Chapori.’
The old man’s words made his sadness surge up. His mind went back to the past. Somehow he controlled his tears. With his head lowered, he said, ‘I am giving you all a lot of trouble, bordeuta (father’s elder brother). I am also an unexpected guest at Aikon’s house. But I can’t help it, I have lost everything. I am running after whatever I remember; but that too is turning into a mirage.’ He could not speak further.
His words saddened Aikon. She placed her hand gently on his. Tears flowed down his cheeks.
The boat now sailed downstream. His words saddened the two men also. Everyone wandered in his own mental world. The boat reached the chapori (highland formed by deposits of river sand and silt).
Betharam asked, ‘Where do I dock the boat, atoi?’ ‘Take it a bit towards that side, I think it is a little shallow there. The slope too is not steep.’
As soon as they landed on the chapori, he ran up the slope. The chapori was green with vegetation. He also came across an occasional tree. Like the helmsman had said, the village was towards the south. He proceeded in that direction. He looked into the distance and could see nothing but water. Beyond the other edge of the water there were chars. After proceeding southward he stepped back a few steps. He imagined that the namghar along with the bakul was right there. The village headman’s house was over there. The headman’s huge garden was full of trees, bamboo and flower plants and fruit trees. It was in one corner of that garden that the headman had built a house for him and his mother.
Like today one afternoon his mother too had come here by boat along a tributary. He was then three years old. Life was very tough for them after his father had abandoned them. His mother too had no one to call her own. The village headman was her distant relative; he did not turn her away. They began staying there. His mother ran the family working part-time at people’s homes. After about a year she sent him to the primary school in the village. Every evening she would light a lamp at the base of a wood-apple tree some distance away from the village and offer her prayers to the river. He used to accompany her every day. He remembered that somebody had tied a piece of red cloth round the tree. His mother would light the earthen lamp and then kneeling down, chant something as if in a prayer. Sometimes he would stick close to her, sometimes he would stay far.
He remembered how the river dug its way up to the wood-apple tree. The village folk too used to talk about the impending danger. The weather became calm after some days of rain. The swollen river looked like the sea. At the time of lighting the earthen lamp he would look at the river. That day his mother was not keeping well. Still she went to light the lamp with him. ‘I’ll be back after lighting the lamp, you stay here, don’t go near the river.’ He looked for the spot where the wood-apple tree once stood. He stopped a few paces from the spot where the boat was docked. Yes, the wood-apple tree must have been right here. He felt tired and sat down on the grass. Aikon walked towards him. The sight of her made him remember his mother. That day he had watched her light the lamp from the distance. Suddenly there was a big sound of earth crashing. A huge chunk of land disappeared in the river right in front of his eyes. There was no sign at all of his mother and the wood-apple tree. He saw a few green leaves going down the whirlpool. He screamed at his mother.
That whirlpool had been bombarding his heart for the last twenty years. He would go down and then rise again in the swirling water. He removed the grass in front of him and made a small mound. He took out an earthen lamp, wick and also some oil from his bag. He placed the lamp on a leaf, oblivious to the presence of Aikon, the helmsman and Betharam behind him. After lighting the lamp he went down on his knees like his mother. He had brought the lamp very carefully all the way from Bangalore. The village headman had entrusted him to a missionary Father. The Father took him to Guwahati and ensured his education. After he completed his schooling, the Father taught him carpentry. It was a step towards standing on his feet. As he became an expert at one vocation after another, his workload too increased. Now he had landed a job abroad. Before leaving the country he was here in search of the village. He did not reveal all this to anyone except Aikon. He did not know how long he remained on his knees, looking up upon feeling somebody’s touch on his back. Aikon.
‘Son, the sun has set; let’s go, we have to cross the river.’
He rose. Betharam made a protective device with tree leaves and placed it round the burning lamp. He gave the helmsman a questioning look.
‘Son, the wind cannot blow out the lamp anymore.’ ###