> Creative > Short Story  
Arindam Borkataki
Date of Publish: 2015-08-01

The forties were the carrier of the wave of modernity in Assamese Literature. But modernity in its true sense began in the fifties with the poems of Navakanta Barua and the short stories of Saurav Kumar Chaliha. What we perceive by a ‘modern mind’ is the unfurling of newer horizons of knowledge through new research and investigations; and the eagerness of the already inquisitive and investigative human mind to be more and more inquisitive and investigative. The inquisitive mind, instead of taking the social rules, regulations, norms etc for granted, rather would think of getting rid of traditions and accept new trends and norms. With the novelty of his themes and his new technique of narration, Saurav Kumar Chaliha led the way as the pioneer, to new realms of Assamese Literature in the field of short stories. Saurav Kumar Chaliha’s first story was written in 1944 and till the end of the last century, his 56 stories have been published. The identity of Assamese literary magazines were defined by magazines such as ‘Bahi’, ‘Jayanti’, ‘Abahan’, ‘Ramdhenu’, ‘Prakash’ and ‘Gariyashi’. The only person who could give a new concept of modernity, in each phase of magazine-centric Assamese Literature was Saurav Kumar Chaliha. Because of his vast mental expansions and his interest in different subjects, his stories imbibe a universal appeal. Also his stories keep the Assamese Literary writers alert and conscious about modernity and their self elevation. He is not only the ‘beginner’ in Modern Assamese Literature but also a ‘trendsetter.’

Saurav Kumar Chaliha can be established as one of the best narrators of modern Assamese short story. Modern Assamese short story has two major trends. First is the rural social life centred and the second is the urban life centred. Assam’s urban centric consciousness took its shape after the arrival of the British. The Colonial mentality of expansion of the market culture of the British led to the extension of the English language and literature which made possible some positive influence of western civilization and culture among the educated Assamese class. The experiences of first and second world wars, as a part of the British Colon, had presented the clear scenario of the broken harmony and determination of life to the modern educated class of Assam. Saurav Kumar Chaliha is the story writer, who, armed with both the experiences, could carry a noviceness not only in the subject of theme of the short story but also in its structure and construction. Secondly, as Jyotiprasad Agarwala went to Berlin to learn music, similarly Saurav Kumar Chaliha too went to Germany to study Physics and the change in the nature and character of his stories after his return from Germany, can also be discussed elaborately. His prior stories were his anguish against the extension and expansion of the civilization of Industrialization. But his later stories carried his views on the music centric German culture and modernity. With these experiences he expressed in his stories the urban-centric life-consciousness of post-independence Assam.

In Chaliha’s stories we witness the reason for a juxtaposition of two opposite entalities; one, the post-independence instability, uncertainty and the other as said in Myth of Sisphus, people deprived from ‘memory of a lost home’  and ‘hope of a promised land.’ These character’s instability, uncertainty and failures make them not only indifferent to life but also unperturbed by death. The combination of self ridicule and ironical puns make his characters represent the metaphysical reality of the change in Assamese people’s life-consciousness. The architectural quality of Saurav Kumar Chaliha’s stories resembles a Greek temple. “A building, a Greek Temple, portrays nothing…..The building encloses the figure of the god, and in this concealment lets it stand out in the holy precinct through the open portico. By means of the temple, the god is present in the temple. This presence of the god is in itself the extension and delimitation if the precinct as a holy precinct. (Heidegger: Poetry, Language, Throught)”. The presence of Saurav Kumar Chaliha in his stories is similar to the presence of Gods in Greek temples. His stories do not necessarily represent the civil society only. The main subjects of his stories are limited story and thematic content. But while trying to follow the modern scattered detachment, Saurav Kumar Chaliha gives an impression of his own sense of  reality. He realised the need of organic inspiration in the solitariness created by the indefiniteness of the speedily changing modern civil society.  In the midst of that indefinite reality and the hope of calm serenity, he wrote his milestones stories. As student of literature I feel that the artificial crude urban world was not only the only source of his stories. After introducing melancholy, hopelessness, solitariness in Assamese literature, his stories brought about that concept of masculinity which gave a positive outlook to life and world. (Arindam Borkataki, Literary Editor nezine.com)

 

Saurav Kumar Chaliha in his own words (Source - www.sauravkumarchaliha.org.)

Nothing is permanent, only change. Nothing is constant, only    death. Every heart-beat causes us a wound, and life would be a continuous bleeding to death if there were no narrative-art. The art of narration gifts us those assurances which nature denies us: a golden time that never rusts, a springtide that does not wither away, unclouded joy and eternal youth.”(Ludwig Börne)

Nature has also denied me many things (e.g. - to take but a single instance – I’ve not been given the strength of will to assert my views or my stand in private and public life), and maybe I’ve been trying to make up for those deficiencies in a roundabout way with pen and paper, and have perhaps tried through such efforts to feel some ‘cloudless joy’. Maybe this is the yearning of the subconscious mind- I wouldn’t know, a psychologist might. But I am not without doubt if those endeavors have attained the level of ‘literature’ (or ‘prose’). To hear the word, one feels that ‘prose’ is an aristocratic adjunct, a high-toned classical thing. There is of course nothing aristocratic about my writings, but perhaps even those mundane pieces have given me some happiness, some satisfaction,  a few perhaps ‘cloudless’ , most others basically  ‘clouded’. But at the same time there is always the conscious feeling that these writings are not entirely my private, personal stuff to be put away in my drawer, that these would be printed on the pages of books and magazines, read over the radio. That is to say, these words would be transmitted to the perception of the reader, and if as a result the reader also feels some resonance of my happiness, only then would those words be of any value, otherwise meaningless. Fruitful or futile, the writer wouldn’t be able to say; only the reader would.

 

RESTLESS ELECTRONS

Saurav Kumar Chaliha

Translated from Assamese by Dr. Dhrubajyoti Bora

Nikhil woke up in the morning to the strains of Ravindra Sangeet, a song not heard before. He strained his ears to follow its lyrics in vain. Opening his eyes he saw transparent light in his room. Through a hole in the window a sunbeam from outside streamed  in like a small thin line, its path clearly  marked out by the confused scatter of the floating dust particles. Linear propagation of light...

The smiling calendar girl from the wall in front greeted him. Reflected sunlight from the blades of the table fan dazzled his eyes. Stretching out his hand he opened the window. The faint voice of the child of his neighbour memorising word variations, the joy of white clouds from the blue sky, and overpowering everything, the strains of the morning Rabindra Sangeet from the radio floated in. The musical notes of the melodious singer mingled and dissolved with the happy waves of his reasonless elation like two  coherent harmonic  waves. He paused on the way to light the cigarette he had put on his lips - the matchbox tumbled into the bed with a small sound.

He remembered about last night. Looked  with distaste to the film magazine lying near his pillow. And with more distaste than that he looked at his wet clothes, on the bed. Suddenly the fine morning was ruined for him, became a failed one. Why couldn’t he warmly greet the morning sunlight? A  hopelessness...

Beginning of the everyday routine. Handing him a cup of tea his elder brother’s wife Bou said, ‘You have to bring me those yards of cloth today without fail. You keep putting it off.’

‘Huh’ he replied quite inattentively. The last night’s experience then seemed to him like a hideous unreal dream.

‘No huh, take the money and start now. Otherwise the frocks won’t get stitched in time...’

Yes, really hideous. But he was not willing to hold himself responsible for it. What’s the problem to own up your wrongs? Are you such a coward? Don’t you have that much of moral courage?

‘Frock?’ He suddenly started up. Questioned like a man lost.

‘Why, aren’t Sontis’ family coming day after tomorrow?’ Bou said, widening her eyes a little, ‘for Ila and Neela...’

O yes, he remembered. Day after tomorrow his sister Sonti was coming. The faces of Ila and Neela floated before his eyes. They must have grown bigger than before, yes, and possibly more lovable.

‘O Bou, please tidy up my room today.’

Bou couldn’t help laughing. Nikhil was afraid. Sonti would not leave him alone if she saw this chaos in the house.

‘That will be taken care of. Now you get started.’

‘Why are you in a hurry? There is plenty of time.’

Bou made a strange face. Nikhil was suddenly surprised. He suddenly realised what the hurry was for. Bou was keen to show her heartfelt love for Ila and Neela. He thought as much.

‘Manu’s room has to be cleaned today. Sonti’s habit of going after things! If she finds a little dirt ‘its enough.’

Bou smiled an innocent smile. Is Nikhil a sceptic? Why couldn’t he take the smile simply? He thought that Bou would immediately put the broom in maid Vimla’s hands and start cleaning up the room. His sister Sonti would surely say - Father will see that for his daughter his daughter-in-law is getting cobwebs in her cloth... even leaving her own son in bed.... Sonti would further say that impressed by her display of sincerity father will silently praise his daughter-in-law, feel thankful to her. That smiling hint about Sonti’s obsession with cleanliness, did it not also contain a hint of an unavoidable fate?

Or, lately he had turned into a man of very low mentality... ‘in the name of caring for father, Bou is looking after her own interests,’ when did his sister Sontiba put this kind of thought in his mind? chi chi-!

‘What happened to Ranu’s wound? Are you applying Burnol to it?’

‘Doing it. The wound doesn’t seem to heal.’

A line of worry appeared in Bou’s face. Nikhil thought it  was genuine. Bou placed a piece of bread in Nikhil’s plate automatically. Nikhil saw Bou’s expression was really genuine. He bit into the bread eagerly... What had brought about this change?

‘Ailments don’t seem to leave the house. Oh, have you heard, Nabin’s mother got worse last night - doctor came at about two or half past two at night.’

‘Is that so?’

‘Yes. They are giving some one lakh or two lakh penicillin.’

Bou smiled at her admission of ignorance. That penicillin is measured in units of lakhs that was possibly like an incomprehensible joke to her. Nikhil found her smile beautiful ... she came out as a simple village belle. Again automatically Bou stretched her hand out and adjusted Nikhil’s shirt collar that was turned inside due to carelessness. Cleverly saving his pack of cigarettes from coming into contact with Bou’s hand, Nikhil got up.

Sound of coughing. Dry cough. Father was getting up from sleep. Surely he had not slept well last night. The eyes said it. The old man was burdened with a thousand worries. With the sound of his father’s wooden sandals came the busy rustle of Bou’s clothes, the light feeling in Nikhil’s mind disappeared instantly again. He  could hear sister Sonti’s sarcasm - ‘Oh, poor Bou hasn’t got a moment’s respite after father has got up from bed’.

Again, again, Nikhil - you are indulging in these low thoughts.... Water was already given in a small jug for washing, Bou hurriedly came and changed it with a large pitcher...

‘Moina’

He went and stood near.

‘Take money from daughter-in-law, change the pipe of my ‘hookah’. It’s completely ruined.

‘OK’

The pipe was really damaged. Spotted with dark stains. The receptacle was also rusting. The edge of the earthen ‘Chillam’ was broken. With an expression of unhappiness the old man was smoking. Fidgeting at times; casting a disgusted look at the handles of the chair. Bed bugs had surely appeared in the chair again. Only the other day Bou had  killed the bugs by pouring hot water.

His mind became agitated again. What had been Bou doing? Always busy with her own naughty children.

Turmoil raged inside his mind, felt great hatred for himself, last night’s hideousness, displeasure with Bou - may be unfounded... suddenly he felt a great revulsion for the entire neighbourhood, the faces of the selfish... opportunistic people floated before his eyes like a movie.

‘Bou, the bed bugs have possibly increased again. A bottle of DDT has to be brought today’, - he went into the kitchen.

‘DDT is not good. Absolutely useless. ‘Ranjan spoke in a knowing manner. He indifferently observed the kitchen walls blackened with soot.

‘Where have you come from - so early in the morning?’

‘Mantu is running a fever since yesterday - I came to borrow the thermometer.’

‘What has happened?’

What else! Running a fever due to flu. A thermometer is required for that.’ His face showed irritation. It was clear that he was unwilling to give importance to the flu.

Bou looked worried. Ranjan clearly understood that Bou was not happy to give the thermometer. If it broke? If lost? One surely couldn’t accept a replacement or the price out of civility. But still...

Bou tried to bring a heartiness in her voice to enquire about Mantu’s fever. Unseen by the others Nikhil grimaced and Ranjan felt a little uneasy.

‘The kitchen has become very dark,’  Ranjan tried to change the situation. According to Nikhil, Ranjan was a pedant. Proof of it came soon - ‘No scope of reflection of light - the walls have become so black.’

‘Yes, the smoke also disturbs a lot, makes tear come out of the eyes.’

‘What is Moina doing? Can’t he call a carpenter and have the two  windows mended a little?’

Ranjan cast an authoritative glance towards Nikhil. Sitting in a low stool Ranjan extended his legs with indifference. The matter of Mantu’s fever caused no reaction in his mind. He thought about other things. The sunrays were reflected from the tea cup in his hand.

‘Bou, look this way. Do you see this curve on the tea inside the cup?’

‘Where? Yes, yes, I see it now.’

‘Do you know why it is seen? Moina, do you know it or not? It’s called caustic curve. When sunlight...’

‘What’s it called? Kosti -’ , Bou laughed out.

‘Enough. You don’t have to advertise your learning. We needn’t understand all those...’ ... Nikhil’s voice had a tinge of irritation in it. His mood was bad since the morning.

‘Yes, don’t know the ABC and I would read the ‘Ratnavali’, Bou said. ‘I have lots of work to do. Where do we have time to understand all that?’

She nicely made it understood that she lacked time. Pulling out the vegetable cutter she started cutting vegetables. Bou’s gay smile however couldn’t bring back Ranjan’s spent enthusiasm.

‘You don’t have interest in anything. And  Moina here, he will either sleep throughout the day or loiter around. You are going to hell’.

‘I am going to hell? Why, for not understanding your - what’s called - that caustic curve?’

‘If you had heard me would it have been a great mistake? People should have an interest to know new things.’

Demonstration of wisdom ! Bou lifted her eyes from the vegetable cutter towards Ranjan and smiled one of her derisive smiles. That didn’t seem to affect Ranjan. Nikhil suddenly  became agitated. Interest to know ! He had known enough - which he would have been better off without. He had learned many nasty things, many have taught him grotesque things. And he was reaping the harvest from that. What Bou must be thinking looking at his thin, worn-out body, at his pimple covered face?

‘Ignorance’, he said slowly, ‘ is a blessing’.

‘That’s true only when it is foolish to be wise.’

Nikhil was put off. He had never thought about it in this way. For the first time he looked towards Ranjan with admiration. Did Ranjan see that? He looked away quickly.

‘Great,’ Bou said, ‘now that both of you are at it, how many more hours will your lecture will continue?’

Ranjan tried to avoid the old man’s eyes. But his eyes were alert ... ... Worries of the world had weaken the old man, the eyesight must had weakened also, still it was difficult to deceive him. Ranjan sometimes became surprised - such a firm body still. He seemed to wobble, about to fall down while walking, but he never did fall. He felt sad, his face showed compassion, Nikhil became surprised, Bou possibly a little distressed, Ranjan made a great effort to hide it, he brought in a smile of amusement to his face - as if he was amused really - and whispered, ‘Unstable Equilibrium’.

‘Is it that you, Ranjan?’

He went and stood near, scratched his head. Told him about Mantu’s fever.

‘When are you leaving? When does the university open?’

‘On twenty-second. I will leave on the nineteenth.’

‘Are you studying properly? You must get a first class. Nothing did happen to Moina.’

Moina let out a sigh in the next room. He was sorry. But...

‘You must go to Shillong once in between. Are you busy with anything?

‘Shillong?’

‘Go and see Dhan once. Yesterday I received a letter from Bap. He had again turned quite violent. You must go tomorrow.’

Lines of worry on the old man’s face! It didn’t occur to Ranjan to find out similarity between the curves he had known and the lines on the face of the old man. He only became a little worried.

Slowly, and with great calmness, Nikhil’s father explained everything to Ranjan. For the last seven months or so, Dhan’s been paralysed and meanwhile his mind gets disturbed - nearly mad he becomes.  Worry, terror, lots of trouble. His madness is increasing. The old man himself was unable to go. Nikhil had lots of work here itself. He wanted to ask about  Kon once. But looking at the old man he did not have the courage to do so. He was very much annoyed with Kon.

The old man’s face showed calmness. The old man’s face showed anxiety. He stretched out his hand and brought up the newspaper, he stretched out his hand and searched for his spectacle case. Ranjan saw that the old man was not getting the spectacles lying near by. That meant he was not able to see it clearly - of course the thing was a small one. That meant, Ranjan thought, the accommodation of his eyes had become less. How could Moina watch with such indifference the plight of his old father? He was a hopeless, good-for-nothing chap. Something had to be done.

Something surely had to be done, the father also thought about it. Old age would make him helpless and cripple - the old man was not ready to  accept that. He had never himself complained to anybody nor had he remonstrated before anyone. He didn’t know any opportunism and therefore he had suffered. Lots of money had been spent, he had paid lots and lots,  but had  got little in return. Health was going down day by day, the house was crumbling down, Moina’s mother had died long back, Bap seldom enquires about him, he has a suppressed dissatisfaction... but his mind didn’t allow him to talk openly about it with his daughter-in-law. Failing in the examination and without deciding whether he would appear again or not - what was Nikhil doing with himself? No time to look after the home. Dhan’s madness  above all these — he was compelled to sell a plot of land the other day... nobody was willing to talk nicely even for a little while, everybody wanted to avoid the old man. With a weak body, dimming eyesight, the old man tried to feel the pulse of the world from the newspaper...

‘Bank stops payment...’

A prominent headline in the second column on page three. It was as if his eyesight dimmed suddenly, suddenly something started playing inside his brain, a vermin bit suddenly in his right palm, caused great pain and sucked a little blood. From the upper floor of the corner house, the incessant sound of a sewing machine came in, the old man couldn’t make out the sound. The sunlight was waning, the daughter-in-law possibly passed by carrying something in hand, the clamour of his grand children could be heard, and near by, through the door, Ranjan and Moina had possibly gone out.

Ranjan and Moina stood by the window. On the veranda of the house in front, advocate’s daughter Niru sat smartly in the cane chair.

On the pretext of studying for her intermediate arts examination she  held a book in hand but furtively glanced towards them time and again. She was not bad to look at, dimples  appeared in her cheek when she smiled. Nikhil sometimes fell prey to her glances. Ranjan commented - ‘Coquetry’. Today morning, when Nikhil saw her, he became angry. A white cat jumped into Niru’s lap, Ranjan barely could suppress his laughter. Niru became more distressed. Her married sister came out from the house, sat near her and became busy with knitting, Niru became busy with her book.

‘Your father’s eyesight is gradually deteriorating’.

‘Huh’

‘Nonsense. What do you mean by ‘huh’? I always get angry when I think about you. What are you doing? What is the matter with you? Is your relation with your own home only economic and biological?

Nikhil didn’t say anything.

‘Would you appear in the examination this year or not?’

A commotion. The brigade of small children came in noisily. The little brother fell from Illa’s lap crying. There was a  tug of war between Runu and Phunu over a wooden horse. Funu slapped Runu crying in high pitch.

‘Silence!’ Ranjan roared.

Silence for a moment. Then commotion  again. Everyone discovered a new enjoyment. Everybody shouted ‘silen-silen—’

‘Boomerang’, laughed Ranjan. Nikhil laughed forcefully. This gang of little children failed to evoke any reaction at all in his burnt-out mind. Why couldn’t he join in their senseless laughter?

He felt himself to be useless, who was not capable of any work that could be done in this world, one who had been gradually ruining himself. Two little boys ran by the road in front, together they started flying a kite. The piece of yellow paper slowly reached a great height and its red tail fluttered in the air. Leaving her sewing machine for a while the wife of the Dutta-household looked at it for some time, Niru cast a glance of disdain. A smile slowly broke on Ranjan’s face,  some equations, some diagrams, some parallelogram of forces started playing inside his mind. He wanted to explain the theories regarding why a kite and an aeroplane flew to Nikhil, but when he looked at Nikhil’s face his desire vanished.

An expression of irritation, of disgust, appeared on Nikhil’s face. The people of the neighbourhood had started to become busy gradually. He saw it and thought about their low mentality, their opportunism, their greed for money. Naren’s mother had been ill in bed for ten days but the advocate living in front did not deign to enquire even once. Dutta and his wife were swelling up taking bribes. Dealing with Kerosene and CI sheet on the black market, Mahendra Barsaikia was busy constructing his latest-design house. Lalit’s mother, that old hag, was  moving from house to house gossiping about others. Khagen Das a wartime contractor and currently a mysterious figure become blink drunk all the time. New radios had arrived in the neighbourhood and the din they created made life unbearable. The wheels of the new De-Soto and Ford cars turned lazily as they moved out of the garages in the neighbourhood. The condition of bank clerk Rambabu, the lawyer’s clerk Chandi Kalita and the strata they belonged to turned slowly in, into the opposite direction. Chandi Kalita’s youngest daughter’ s frock was torn, baring her chest and it couldn’t be replaced for last three months...

Indira Barua went by the road, a living symbol of make-up and natty dressing . Muktiar Ramani Sarma watched with disdain through the window. Dutta’s wife wrinkled up her nose and turned her sewing machine faster for no reason, Abani, a third year student, stood still at the shop on the pretext of lighting a cigarette. Indira’s scandal was gradually increasing in the neighbourhood.

Placing his ‘chaddor’ on his shoulder, professor Bhatta got onto his cycle. Jhunu came running carrying a football and a hand pump.

‘Please pump up  the ball, dada,’ Jhunu asked Ranjan. Clad in white shorts, Jhunu’s cheeks were round like a football. Girija Sarma, the manager of the next door, mess alighted from his bicycle - a healthy, gentleman wearing costly suits. He had become rich running a cloth shop.

‘Jhunu come with me, I will pump it up for you.’ Jhunu went running with Girija. Nikhil borrowed the cycle. He was always reluctant to borrow anything from people like Girija. He could barely tolerate the boarders of the mess next door, they appeared to him like something of a vulgar type. Still...

There was not enough air inside the tyres of the cycle. Leaving Ranjan he went to fetch the pump from Girija. The door was bolted from inside. Thunu’s shouts came from inside. Thumping on the door, a sweaty Girija came out leaving the ball on the floor, Thunu came out nearly crying - buttoning up his shorts.

‘Oh, this!’

‘May, let the whole neighbourhood go to hell’. Startled, Girija Sharma the husband of a pretty wife and father of two children bumped into the door ledge and fell down.

Trying to analyse Girija’s character, he stopped many a times. What was he himself? Physician, heal thyself...

He remembered an incident of two months back. Next door neighbour Rambabu’s sister-in-law had arrived only a few days back. Acquaintance with him was barely of two weeks. One evening, he, the cultured gentleman, jumped over the wall ...still, what a coward he was, he then realised, panicking suddenly, he
had fled ...

Niranjan talked about Freud. expression of suppressed desire. Must be that only. Freud, Freud, Freud! He would turn mad. Why, all the obscenity that surrounded him on all sides, all the ugliness all around, the pictures of film stars on the walls on both sides of the road, the suggestive books and the sex magazines scattered on the tables, the sidelong glances of the drove of ‘Indiras’ with their swollen breasts! Weren’t these  in any way responsible for his disorder...?

Jati Babu came in and sat down.

‘Interesting news, Police arrested Kamini Sarma in the morning today.’

Leaving her work behind, Bou came in with great enthusiasm, ‘why? why? Tell me everything in detail.’

‘Opium smuggling; clandestine dealings in opium was detected.’

Learning of such travails of a special patriot Bou became exuberant, she pressed them to tell the whole story. Father heard the news from the other room. He knew Kamini Sarma well. He kept silent. ‘These are the leaders of our society. Corruption everywhere. This is but only natural, the terrible fetid stench that comes out from the rotting body of capitalism in its death throes - these are only the manifestations of that,’ Jati Babu said.

Nikhil did not comment. Bou heard it with interest, though she did not understand it properly.

‘Capitalism,’ Jati Babu parroted a line he had got somewhere, ‘stands on its last legs.’ How long will this corruption continue? There is a limit to the tolerance of the people.’ Nikhil was amused. Had Jati Babu turned into a real communist at last? He looked at his silk kurta with a little dissatisfaction. Bou had also observed it. A communist (for example our middle sister’s son) meant a perpetually dirty creature with dishevelled hair — Bou’s idea was like that.

‘Communist lecture doesn’t suit you,’ Nikhil said laughing.

Jati Babu was little annoyed. He could understand the hint.

‘The objective of communism is not to decrease the standard of living, but to increase it.’

So Nikhil kept quiet. Coming out he could feel the excitement in the air. In the afternoon there was a public meeting on the issue. Rumours and speculations. The ‘adda’ of the tea stall had become animated with this. The Socialists had become busy, to demanding due punishment for Kamini Sarma, ‘johor coat’ clad young men were sticking up wall posters.

‘The doings of the Socialists are ludicrous.’ Jati Babu pointed to a poster in disdain, ‘you can call them  gutter inspectors’. They like to create trouble over small things.  But it’s a sham when it comes to real issues.  When revolution is mentioned, Jay Prakash keeps quiet. An opium trader had been caught, and they think it’s a great event and make loud noises over it. On the other hand, they beat their victory drums after betraying every labour strike.’

Jati Babu’s vituperations, in Bou’s language.

Nikhil wanted to tell him, ‘You are but Moscow’s agent. You do whatever comniform asks you to do, why should ‘high brows’ like you involve yourself in troubles over an opium dealer.

Had Nikhil suddenly turned  socialist? He laughed himself.

Politics is a troublesome thing - he thought. It is a thing for third-rate people, somebody had said somewhere. Possibly true.

What would Kon have done?

Perhaps he would have said, ‘Kamini Sharma should be shot in the road. His lecture would have increased in intensity, the parties of the ‘dalals’ would have fled gradually. Dalal ko halal karo - away with all touts, middleman, it would have gradually become unbearable to Jati Babu, the arguments would have gone off in tangent - whether the present time was a revolutionary time or not, whether standing in election was a correct Marxist position or not, and in the end - whether Stalin betrayed the world revolution or Trotsky had spied for the Germans?

Who were  actually fighting for the good of the country? Nikhil became confused, became troubled, felt ashamed of his ignorance.

Few days back he had been to his uncle’s place. His uncle was the manager of a tea garden in upper Assam. Amidst the orderly and beautiful tea bushes he sought a little carefree. Sound of the factory running, rhythm of Jhumur dance, rumble of the lorries, he liked all this. He thought he would while away the time watching birds sitting on telegraph wires or reading books. He wanted to read some light literary stuff. Jati Babu had sent a volume of ‘Two leaves and a Bud’ with a long letter. He had kept it in his box with Huxley and Halt Crain. He read Virginia Wolfe’s Jacob’s Room; Meredith and Hardy...

The books were not finished. Unrest started in the tea plantation. And out of curiosity he had to read printed communist handbill (increase of wages, demand for suitable quarters, the affair of scolding a fitter, etc.). He had to read the call for struggle of the Panchayat Union - cyclostyled; the compromise proposals of the socialist - lecture from atop a truck and news written by staff reporters in the newspapers. The coolies one day surrounded his uncle’s house, someone had manhandled the Sahib, the communists and the socialists blamed each other, coolies held a meeting, meeting of the Board was held. The police came, bullets flew, the military came, comments and statements, arrests and expulsions, enquiry committee and tribunal...

He came back. Where was peace in the world? Everywhere in the world ‘oppressed peoples’ (favourite words of Jati Babu) struggles were going on — Jati Babu said — and why should Assam be left out of it. Considering the situation in Assam the movements here should have been faster.

Jati Babu said that the movements were but  the preparation for struggle. Father said, ‘lawless elements’ (reference the editorial of his newspaper). Kon had said to Bou, ‘we are passing through a revolutionary period - these are only expressions of that.’ Ranjan was immersed in his differential equations, Bou thought about Runu’s stomach upsets.

Kon was wandering around avoiding the eyes of the police, Jati Babu was moving around giving his scholarly lectures, Jawaharlal was talking about lots of plans, due to the socialists nothing but paper posters could be seen on the walls bordering the road.

What do the people want? Very simple, they want to eat, they seek the right to live like men. Fine, but why so much of groupism, such complexities?

Jati Babu said, ‘Sorry, but you are naive’.

Most probably. Maybe Ranjan  too. Ranjan was not ready to accept it. He blamed all the political parties, and praised all of them one day after seeing a joint statement. Jati Babu tried to explain to him the main points and reasons of difference of opinion and the troubles amongst the political parties. Ranjan said, ‘wait, think of an atom. There is positive charge in its centre and circling it are the negative charges. Proton and electron. In addition to these two are the  Neutrons - the chargeless particles. In the world there are the good and are the bad; there are the correct, and the incorrect, and in addition there are the neutrals - the Neutron,  yes, you can call them neutral. Each thing has two sides to it, see it from the atom. Why should the political parties be an exception? Why should the people be out of it? How would you leave out the society? There are lots of complexities between force and counterforce - starting from the atom to everywhere.

‘Agreed.’ Jati Babu couldn’t get at his intention.

‘You are trying to convert me (Jati Babu forcefully moved his head from side to side in denial, but Ranjan went on). Good. But why is there difference between proton and electron, what is the reason, if I don’t concern myself with these things, do you have any objections?’

‘I am not really getting at what you are trying to say’

‘You will understand. I have acknowledged the difference, but I don’t feel like writing a thesis on it , whether you feel the need I don’t know. From their antagonism, some truths emerge before us — there are facts, there are figures.

Basing on that, say, we design the radio valves. Remember, electron and proton are found in their millions, even in a little matter. The number of atoms held by a drop of water, with that number of tennis balls the whole world can be covered. Therefore like a great body of population, the laws of electron are also purely statistical. On that basis, on the basis of these broad statistical laws, without going into their antagonism, their contradiction. If I can give you a new valve - which - (wisecracking show, ‘pedanticism let loose’ - Nikhil smiled) would increase the amplification, increase fidelity, will you have anything to complain about?’

‘Obviously not. But...’

‘I want to say precisely that.’

‘I couldn’t follow it,’ Jati Babu looked dismayed - ‘but the initial part of what you said is admirable dialectics. Still...’

‘I don’t have anything more to say. Just think over it.’

What Jati Babu thought couldn’t be made out, possibly he thought that he should not try to explain things to Ranjan any more. From his utterings - Jati Babu couldn’t  really make  out what actually Ranjan was.  Escapist or deranged mind? (‘I mean perverted.’)

Who are moving around with what kind of thoughts? Suddenly he was shocked out of his reverie. A group of college girls passed near by. He looked mechanically. Possibly a greedy expression appeared in his eyes. He was ashamed. When he reached home he realised that already he had again become deranged. Following his glance Jati Babu saw picture of a Hollywood glamour girl on the wall. A symbol of bad taste. Advertising obscenity in the name of a thrilling story set in South sea islands. ‘Cinema, theatre, literature and radio - through all these media peoples’ taste is being degraded in the interest of the capitalists. So that people can stay away from revolutionary thoughts, so that militant  mentality won’t develop in  their mind. Towards that end only, these divisive measures are being taken by the Hollywood capitalists,’ Jati Babu said.

The matter struck him as an especially strong point of communist propaganda. However, he didn’t dare to protest. He remembered Niru, remembered the Khasi girl of Shillong. Remembered how Mahibulla master severely thrashed his daughter one day  for the offence of ogling on the shy, and how after that incident the window of his house was completely closed. To put all the blame on a particular social system struck him as a laughable thing. Who would he hold responsible for his own strange thinking and his maddening thoughts? Should he agree to Jati Babu’s sayings? Jump from Freud’s ‘healthy mind’ to the communist’s ‘healthy society’? Jati Babu said, ‘Mans’ thoughts are dependent on his surroundings’ -

On his surroundings! Their neighbourhood !

Yes, it might be true... Still, he clenched his teeth in  futile anger against some invisible power. He became angry on himself for not being able to analyse and think simply like Jati Babu. He sought a refuge, he held everyone of them guilty, he wanted to draw  the curtains of his window and cry ..., he thought like a mad man, thought like a pervert, he burnt Makhoni’s letters, smoked many cigarette, and looking at the smoke curling up he ultimately felt a sort of  self-satisfaction... as if he had arrived at a firm decision with a stable mind ... he rejected everyone of them.

‘She also lieth in wait as for a prey, and increaseth the transgressors among men... her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death...’

‘Interesting!’ Suddenly Jati Babu shouted, ‘who has torn off the paper that was struck here.’

Yes, somebody had torn off the paper that had Kamini Sarma’s incident in it. The picture of the Hollywood girl was still there near the torn piece like something without an enemy in the world.

‘The Police tore it off,’ the panshop owner said, handing over the pack of cigarette to Nikhil. Jati Babu glanced towards Nikhil in such a way as if that incident had suddenly exposed some deep secret about the social system.

‘Police also like glamourous girls?’

Jati Babu’s laughter struck Nikhil as something obscene. Somehow he could not enjoy his humour. The panshop owner understood it possibly, he laughed exposing his red beetle-nut stained teeth.

Jati Babu’s expression slowly disappeared. In the glow of fluorescent lamp from the stationery shop, Nikhil didn’t find Jati Babu repulsive, he looked like a family man devoted to  his wife. He started buying small things for his wife - Nikhil thought his face had softened with a tender expression.

Jati Babu also has a family! Pickpockets, scholars, terrorists, lumpens, communists, capitalists everybody raised a family, it thing struck as something really strange. Ranjan said - it is a support one can depend on, one can put his mind to, an occupation where one can fulfil his duty - for these reasons possibly man starts a family. Marx also had a family, whether Jati Babu would consider it from a biological angle only ? He thought. Ranjan said, ‘He does not want to prove his theory, but its  his belief, may be a strange belief. The water particles in the clouds - even for their construction, a fine dust particle is needed, a nucleus, an electron, a support;  trying to explain Milikn’s determination of electronic charge - Ranjan had commented like a philosopher. For stability, for construction, a base is required. In Wilson’s cloud chamber also, dew drops formed on electrons, the same thing, a support, something to rely on the way - a family - wife, politics, mathematics or a violin.

A very rash surmise, irresponsible conclusion - thought Nikhil.

Union with one’s wife is for a son’ - Niranjan had commented, lasping into Sanskrit (‘Putrarthe kriyate Varjya’) he had a derisive smile on his face. Jati Babu protested, severely criticised  our old reactionary philosophers and their holy books. There is no liberty for women in capitalism, only in socialism would women flower to her full potential - Bou liked that comment very much that day, it was very apparent from her talk.

The evening floated away in waves of thoughts.

Home. An uneasy silence. Had father gone to sleep? The lights are out in his room. Faint sound of an orchestra floated from the mess near by. He nearly fell down bumping against the threshold. Tired with the day’s work, Bimala had rested her head against the wall near the door and had dozed off to a half-sleep. He suddenly gave a start and thought whether father had woken up in the commotion? From the light bulb in the front veranda of advocate’s  house light fell on the threshold, Bimala’s sleeping figure could be seen clearly, light shone through the window panes of Niru’s room, she must be studying hard for the exam ... hope father hasn’t woken up? No sound, surely he had not woken up. He crossed the room on tip toe - looked towards the curtain of father’s room. Father must be sleeping. With his high blood pressure, excessive anxiety, and dimming eyesight, father had no option but to take refuge in his bed from the evening. Sometimes one or two aged people from neighbourhood came to visit, then they would sit outside in the near dark veranda and  talk in a low voice, discuss things, share their thoughts. No excitement from the brilliantly illuminated road outside touched the old men, in the fag end of a long, troubled - painful life, his father lay like a cripple...’

The kitchen. The mother had dragged Phunu from sleep and was feeding him rice. Fish bone repeatedly got struck in his throat and he looked at his mother helplessly. But Bou wasn’t able to pay attention to him, Bou repeatedly seemed to get distracted.

Leaning on a pillar he heard the bad news from Bou. Everything became disarrayed, he felt as if there can be no worse news in the world than the failure of a bank ... his father’s worried face floated before his eyes, it was as if he saw the lines of anxiety had not yet made their appearance on it. There is pain in this world, we have to bear the pain, we have to bear these with equanimity  the pain and the bad news, we must pass the  tests of God without faltering - a philosophy like this, a attitude like this, being a son, why he could not develop? Why, his father had not felt it necessary to talk to him even once on this - he had accepted the news with equanimity. The serene, unconcerned face became brighter in his mind’s eye, he wanted to bow his head in respect, it was as if he wanted to say spontaneously - father, I am also readying myself for the coming bad days with courageous unconcern, I am also your son. Worrying about tomorrow I won’t shrink in my duty today. ...Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof...’

But why couldn’t he? ‘The pity of it,  Iago, the pity of it!’  about to bow his head he stopped, he remembered he was a worthless, useless son without any moral fibre; he felt that instead of indulging in useless sentimentality he had some responsibility to bear.  - He was the son of a home where the mother was no more, the younger sister had died, he was the eldest of a  home where a  younger brother was insane, yes, a thousand times, he was the eldest (The eldest brother Bap had practically no relation with home).

But what would he do? What did he know?

Leaving everything aside had father gone to sleep in search of peace? He peeped through the gap in the curtains. There flowed soft conversation in the room. Father’s mosquito net was not yet fixed, the large old trunks and cabinets all around stood like some indistinct statues. A faint light entered through the window near the headend of the bed and fell on the big old table, on the old books kept on it, an  antique smell and feeling pervaded the room. The room reeked with smell of tobacco, father smoked sitting on the bed, gurgling sound emerged from the hookah. Sitting on a chair by the side of the bed, Karunababu was blowing at the chillum, in the weak glow that emerged occasionally, their faces could just be faintly made out - at other times Nikhil would have thought, two characters from a Dickens novel had come to life.

Karuna Babu greatly respected father, but he did dare to offer any sympathy in his troubles, but he was always ready to offer company.

Through his long association  with the old man he had found an ideal man - who had, through all the tempests of life, never allowed any blemish to fall on his character, who had not done anything unjust despite the various opportunities. Despite helping everyone who had not asked any favour in return, nor had he complained even once. Just the other day, under his very eyes, the cheat Naren had fled to Bombay without clearing the debts - causing him harm no end, still the old man...

‘That he would disobey me I never thought.’

Nikhil’s heart trembled. Was he speaking of him?

‘What shall I tell you ! These are the curses of the times, ‘Yuga dharma.’

Karunababu lost the thread of talk

‘He should have looked towards home at least once. He has seen the condition.’ Father’s voice had a note of unhappiness without rancour.

‘Why are you unhappy? He has a conviction, he has realised that this way is  good way; he is guided by his conscience. He has not joined the underground for child’s play,’ Karuna Babu tried to explain.

Father didn’t say anything. The sound of smoking in silence. He didn’t want to oppose anybody’s belief. Still, had it been after completing studies - no, no boy of the present generation wanted to understand these things. As if studies are of no consequence. They say ‘education for slavery’. He didn’t want to argue about the education system. Maybe he had started liking Kon better than Moina from the last few days. Kon at least was trying to do something.

But doing what? Gangsterism, robbery, murder. That’s what one heard. How could the old man support those? He had prayed to God to bring his son back to good ways, to the correct path, but had God listened. His own son had gone down to the level of inhumanity,  the old man’s heart darkened at the thought.

‘They have created unrest in the country, people have seen this only. Where is their loyalty to the country?’

‘We have apparently seen that only,  but how many of us have tried to understand the real thing? But my mind never says that Kon and his group — but why only Kon’s group, everybody, everybody from different parties — they all had to do these for an ideology.’

A heartfelt conviction sounded in Karuna Babu’s voice.

‘Violence,’ the old man said slowly, ‘under any pretext violence is sinful.’

‘That’s a matter of opinion.’ Karuna Babu at last stated boldly. The old man was somewhat surprised.

‘They say, that means a group of people say, the government today is totally fascist. There is no scope to start an organisation openly - whether among the peasants, labourers, middle class — there is no opportunity for starting any organisation at all. No freedom to hold a meeting, people don’t have the right to write a few words in newspapers. Therefore armed revolt - what you can say, capturing power through a revolution - they see no alternative to that. Violence is required for it. They say, ‘The end justifies the means.’

A sarcastic comment from the old man -

‘Killing, robbery, arson - that means these are justified!

‘A revolution implies atrocities,’ Karuna Babu said with courage.

Silence for some time.

‘I did not oppose him as such,’ the old man said slowly, ‘if he wants to go for a cause, I do not have the right to oppose it. But he took a very drastic step...’

It was as if the old man blurted out of a long-held secret, the mind became lighter with it. As if a confession. The doubts cleared immediately from Nikhil’s mind. He felt his father’s words to be a sort of blessing on Kon, a shower of congratulatory permission. It was as if he  realised anew that Kon was his brother, he had a close relationship with Kon. Father’s assent to Kon’s deeds (likely to have born out of unwillingness) would definitely touch Kon, no matter in what inaccessible, impenetrable places, in what kind of terror-filled life or hunger he found himself in. The feeble sound of the orchestra suddenly became clear, somebody must have increased its volume, as if a piece of merriment suddenly floated in to the tune of his father’s words...

Karuna Babu came out. He adjusted the spectacles, looked once the old man’s room, then called Nikhil -

‘Where is your Bou? Ok, ok, there is no need to call her — Listen, go and bring Nalini doctor at eight o’ clock in the morning tomorrow. I have talked to him today.’

‘Doctor Nalini?’

‘Father’s blood pressure needs to be checked.’

Nikhil felt ashamed hearing Karuna Babu. Karuna Babu however didn’t pay any attention to him. He himself was a little ashamed, he had uttered some high sounding words before the old man. To remove the layer of bitterness from the old man’s mind, he had given quite a lecture in support of the boy even against his own will.

His own asthma was getting worse, Karuna Babu said. He came back seeing him off to the door. Father had not slept till then. In the soft glow of the dying embers one could make out that he was thinking. Where is Kon now? What are the travails of a life on the run? He is not ill with some serious disease, is he? Who knows, what he might be eating from where... remembered suddenly about Dhan, remembered his desire for higher education, he wanted to send him to England. He remembered Moina’s friend Amal, his ship must have sailed from Bombay on last tenth, Moina had given the news. Dhan, yesterday’s bright student, is now mentally deranged! Suddenly as if a bomb went off somewhere, a pistol cracked, a group of peasants snatched away rifles from the police who have put such poison inside the peace-loving Assamese people, the simple peasants — this clamour, this trouble all around, this intermingling of smoke and cordite on the road... he felt as if Kon had been captured, he was being beaten mercilessly, kicked in the chest with boots - a terror entered his mind, a sense of apathy came over for a moment... He had not seen Sonti for a long time, she would arrive soon - it would bring  a good feeling anyhow. In the opaque darkness his gaze fell on the wall opposite, could make out the outline of Gandhiji’s picture his hand lifted in a gesture for peace could discern the peaceful and serene expression of the face, his  mind turned bitter  lost his faith in mankind. People crucified Jesus, shot dead  Abraham Lincoln, and going down to the level of animals finished off Gandhiji too.

What would people live with in this world?

The shadow of war hanging overhead, the terrifying prospects of atom and
hydrogen bombs, a sick, opportunistic, violence prone human race... the glow of embers slowly died down...

The door to Manu’s room seemed open. Nikhil saw it was crammed with small knick knacks. He remembered, Bou had arranged the house today, elder sister Sonti was coming - he remembered that.  The room was quite clean - Bou definitely had to work much. He blamed himself, how he, the young man, had floated around allowing Bou to work like that. She had not said anything, but had she not disliked him at heart. He felt nice towards Bou suddenly, anyway was she not the wife of his elder brother. How she, in addition to looking after her unruly children, had been running the broken household! Did he ever had to suffer for anything in Bou’s presence.  Oh,  the talk of sister Sonti about the trait of ‘showing off’, had father ever got any discomfort even for a small thing from Bou? ...if the dirt  of life surrounds Bou, for that can she be held responsible? He thought about his own situation. The face of Bou feeding Phunu rice floated before his eyes - the inattentive face of Bou. His complex Bou had also genuinely felt the sorrow of loss of money in the bank. Bou’s life had been bound up indivisibly with this home - both in pleasure and sorrow - This household’s happiness was Bou’s happiness, its sorrows, Bou’s sorrows.

Eldest son Makhan had gone to sleep resting his head on the study table. He felt sleepy.

The light  bulb holder in his room had gone out of order (shall have to show it to Ranjan). Dirty red kerosene burnt in a lamp, the glow had touched Makhans face. A wall lizard climbed on the list of algebra formulas pasted on the wall before him, the shirt put on the handles of the chair had fallen off to the ground... suddenly he became angry with  his neighbours. Playing the radio day and night they had created obstructions to the study and exam preparation of the  boys of the locality. Easy money ! Bhuban died suffering from typhoid, but they didnot turn off their radios even for a day. Maybe this was what Jati Babu had called the curse of civilisation... he turned down the lamp, did not feel like waking Makhan. He entered the kitchen.

Bou was not there. She was asleep in her room. Bed bugs had appeared in the bedstead, laying the bed on floor and holding Runu near her bosom Bou had gone to sleep with her children, tired. Moonlight entered through the window. He suddenly discovered the picture of ‘glorious mother’ in Bou’s face - the feeding bottle shone in the moonlight. He could make out the closed ‘Kirtan Ghosa’ at her head end - the leaves reddened with vermillion. Sometimes she turned its pages all alone...

For sometime he stood without moving.

Bou had actually not gone to sleep, in some house at a distance there was some ‘Naam’, religious chanting, a sound entered through the window intermittently. In her sleep Bou heard indistinctly - ‘O Gopala, Govinda, O Son of Jadu, we take refuge in Krishna’s feet’ - in a sublime peace Bou had forgotten the complexities of the world - the sleep was about to overcome her, Bou forcefully tried to hear the chants.

Suddenly she woke with a start. Maybe a mosquito had bitten on her forehead. Moina called, ‘Bou, O Bou, get up.  Won’t you give me dinner?’

The sound of drums and cymbals slowly disappeared, the chanting nearly came to an end. Putting on the light Nikhil started to write a letter. He had not written to Makhani for a long time. Surely she was not able to forget him. He now blamed his convoluted mind for his senselss dislike for her.

The old days came back to his mind in a variety of ways. College and cultural movement, girls and showing off. Anarchy in all things - the days passed in the company of an intellectual circle. Makhani and her singing, a little of communism, a little of poetry, a few years filled with hypocrisy and self-delusion...

Suddenly remembered  Kon and Dhan. Amal was now on a ship bound for England. Misra’s restaurant floated  into his memory again. Remembered its intellectual ‘adda’. A partitioned cubicle inside. They frequently occupied the room, sweated profusely trying to meet the obligations of credit. In the sarcastic comments of Misra’s partner - his elder brother (who had the habit of trying to pull up the trousers about his waist in vein) the intellectual circle was distressed, maybe the boys working there also laughed at them secretly. They heartily enjoyed the music from the radio of the shop, their editorial board created storms in a tea cup over  their cultural magazine. They tried to remain disassociated from the self centered people outside, tried to keep distance from economic and political complexities. None of them were seen in any meeting of college or outside, never joined any procession, when the news bulletin started in the radio their face showed irritation. High thoughts, poetry and drama, girls and love letters. Still there was no dearth of unpleasant events - avoiding the ‘no credit’ signboard they cleverly entered the shop, Misra’s elder brother’s face reflected irritation occasionally, the sales boy hinted at the bad habit of sitting for an hour with a single cup of tea, to denigrate them, Misra’s brother occasionally turned off the radio, put off one of the two lights, and their dramatic exclamation returned like a taunt to their own ears - ‘light, more light’...

Still they were able to create a splendid situation away from the garbage and commotion of this world - they were proud of that. Maybe a procession of labourers and middle class people passed outside with great commotion, roaring vehicles passed, Misra repeatedly turned off the radio in irritation. Lampooning radical thoughts and communist propaganda, denouncing the roaring vehicles of the money greedy rich, they remained immersed in their own narrow but momentum-filled situation, stable, certain and carefree. The lights of the shop suddenly went out. A fuse had burnt out somewhere, some cups and plates fell down somewhere, a shout and a commotion, the strains of ‘Bhimpalashi’ stopped abruptly. Still, animation didn’t return to the circle, a match stick flared in  the darkness, one after another long  white cigarettes entered it from the dark, strange shadows of cups and saucers and men fell on the walls, only the cigarette ends glowed in the dark, the group of bohemian intellectual patiently sat for reconnection of the electrical system (unable to fix the lights at home Ranjan that day realised the uselessness of his education, for the first time he felt disrespect towards an education where there was - no relation between theory and practice...)

But in the end everything became meaningless. Where did the members of their circle floated away, oh, what had they become ! Amal was on the way to England, Jatin was eating  C-division food in jail, some became teachers, some clerks, some professors. Everybody was going on with their own business, Himangshu vanished. One day he was listening to music before the cinema hall, suddenly he met Biresh. Both the friends could not speak for sometime out of happiness, then Biresh slowly revealed himself. He offered State Express cigarettes from his pocket, invited him to watch the movie in special class, the bright light of the theatre shone on his face, eyes and expensive sweater. He simply expressed his misgivings at this new found aristocracy of a clerk of the supply department, Biresh didn’t hesitate to confess, yes he took bribes, took it by design, on principle.

‘Gather the manna my brother, everyone in the world is moving around with the intent to rob.’

Biresh had accepted the philosophy of the materialistic world. They talked about many things. Who was where, what Jatin was doing in jail, what was the news about Makhoni? Amal’s journey to England; sarcasm regarding their cultural efforts, the rotten ways of the world - Biresh himself had become a friend of corruption. What’s the news about Narayan? Narayan Hazarika? Why, he had committed suicide long back.

Nikhil was dumbstruck for some time.

‘There is a tide in the affairs of men...’

‘What did you say? Oh, Shakespeare! I have forgotten everything brother...’

Very natural, very  natural. How  would Shakespeare survive amidst files, accounts and Marwari businessmen? The loudspeaker music stopped, it was time for the movie to start, Biresh took leave hurriedly.

He moved around on roads as if in a trance, as if the world was floating - he was floating. ‘There is a tide ...’ The people were talking loudly — what were they thinking? Creating only waves of sound, Ranjan used to say. Narayan Hazarika! The world had then killed him in the end! A great promise had died! He felt suddenly as if Ranjan’s words were right; the world is nothing else, but a play of  waves, words, songs were only waves in the air. The sunlight and heat were some waves only ... electromagnetic waves. Even the electron was also wave - waves of probability. Wireless waves in the radio. All the words, all the happenings of the world are matters of continuous garlands of waves - coming and going, a dynamic undulation - that would come and leave. Narayan too came, he had left. Father might...

 

 

The train also came and the train left. Leaning on the gate of the crossing he watched the light of the distant signal with Jati Babu and Ranjan. The rail fare had been increased by the rich men’s government, Jati Babu said. Ranjan did not say anything, Nikhil did not say anything. The comment was quite out of context, Jati Babu realised. Like small boys the three of them were waiting to see the train as if it was a thing they have not seen before. The thought surprised them. The three of them saw the distant red light, Nikhil did not find anything to say, Jati Babu became hesitant to bring in the hint of ‘red world’, ‘merely a wave with wave length of 6563 x 10 -8 centimetre’ - Ranjan did not like to comment thus. Buying cigarettes from the nearby Nepali shop the three of them waited there, as if the eternal scene of coming and going touched all of them in that frozen corner of the town in the silent night. A huge mechanical monster, a giant like the one - eyed giant  Polyphemus, piercing sound of the whistle, unromantic compartments crammed with crowds (‘travel comfort is not for the common people’ - Jati Babu) and the loud working of its  pistons (‘thermodynamic cycle’ - Ranjan), the train amazed them and passed away.

As like a floating wave ...

Only manifestation of difference of  longer or shorter wave  length, therefore of red or yellow; the essential difference between  Roentgen ray and gamma ray...

Ranjan is a learned fool, thought Nikhil.

‘The whole matter is beautifully dialectical.’ Jati Babu said, ‘From increase and decrease of quantity occurs a qualitative transformation - that’s one of the main things of dialectics. Transformation of quantity into quality and vice-versa.’

Jati Babu is a canvasser, Nikhil thought this time.

The night became quite advanced -  long back, the religious chanting stopped long back. The people had gone to sleep. Sound of father’s coughing.

Late at night the motor car of mysterious Khagen Das returned. Opium trade? No, the signs of night revelry clear on his face. Wine and women...

Sound of father’s coughing — faint but clear. Diminishing sound of Khagen Das’ car. Night had the power to cause pain ...

‘But dawn would break at last.’ Head seemed to reel, memory of the train came to mind. Makhoni was going off to her father-in-law’s place on that. Wheels of that train seemed to be turning inside the head...

 

The wheels brought him back from sorrow to happiness. Phunu’s new tricycle bumped in the door. Madness of motion in the three wheels, along with it the free laughter of a child (Sontiba’s  husband had bought him a new tricycle).

Coming home after a long time an unending stream of words emerged from Sonti’s mouth. Ila, Nila ran and hid behind their mother at Nikhil’s voice, their hair repeatedly fell on their forehead. Phunu, Runu and others started a cacophony of happiness, Bou threatened to beat them up with Makhan’s ruler, they hid themselves behind the door. Brother-in-law brought biscuits for them. Brother-in-law laughed, Bou also laughed. Even a thin smile appeared on father’s face.

Sister Sonti had put on weight, Ila Neela had become very lovely. Brother-in-law was quite hefty to start with, a big face, big bush shirt, big moustache. In two days his friendship with Makhan bloomed. He had great interest in sports. Both of them talked nothing except the sports field...

In two days the house changed like magic. Sister Sonti cried greatly at the condition of the house, Bou thought silently - ‘oh, look at her’. New curtains fluttered  in place of the old dirty ones, cobwebs disappeared, brother-in-law brought a large quantity of fruit for father from the market. Sonti arranged for small fishes to be brought for father everyday, ‘small fishes are beneficial for eye ailments.’ As if somebody had smeared lime on Bou’s face...

Ranjan brought bad news. Dhan’s condition was extremely frightening. He beats whoever he gets near him, doctor’s head got split in his ravings. Father silently took to bed, brother-in-law  gave up talking about sports, sister Sonti again started crying.

‘There is only sorrow in our fate.’

‘No use being a pessimist,’ Jati Babu tried to reason.

Silently the watches of the night passed. To break the uneasiness brother-in-law started telling his travel tales, the fascinating stories of Ajanta and Ellora.

After some time the situation became bearable. Nikhil did not say anything, nor did Ranjan. As if Ranjan wanted to stop talking with Nikhil, he had such a feeling. ‘I have heard all about  your exploits,’ Ranjan said, ‘what did you do with Blue bell?’ Nikhil hung his head like an accused... Dhan’s condition repeatedly came to everybody’s mind. Suddenly brother-in-law realised that nobody was paying attention to his talk. Sonti was sobbing, Bou was looking sideways at the new curtains with displeasure, Ranjan and Nikhil’s faces showed enmity, Jati Babu attentively tried to hear some sounds from father’s room.

Maybe Jati Babu was feeling sad for father.

Brother-in-law suddenly stopped his lecture.

‘What happened then, what happened?’

‘No - let it be for today.’

No body protested, the time passed in uneasy silence.

‘Brother Ranjan, please do me an extra.’

Makhan spoke in a whisper, as if dictated by  the situation. Ranjan felt relieved getting  to do a thing he could. He immersed himself in Makhan’s geometry.

‘What will happen to father? Rubbing her eyes Sonti said breaking the silence.

‘Yes, one feels sad,’ Brother-in-law let out a sigh, ‘there is nobody to take good care at this old age -’

The words hurt  Bou. After saying it innocently, brother-in-law realised that he had done an unjust thing. He became angry with himself.

Bou and Sonti rapidly exchanged a glance. Both Nikhil and Ranjan didn’t like it.

‘Kon had only that to do.’ Sonti said unhappily ... ‘They have started trouble in our plot of land. Father told me today, the peasants there had stopped giving us our share of paddy.’

‘Disturbed area was declared there on day before yesterday.’ Brother-in-law said without having anything else to do.

‘Full fledged terrorism has started there,’ Jati Babu added. ‘Land owner’s house has been burnt down, granaries of the rich are being looted -’

‘Those are your job only’, Nikhil said.

‘Not ours, communists do not do such things. Communism and terrorism are not the same.’

Silence for some time.

‘Whatever little paddy we got, that also is gone now,’ Bou said.

‘Kon - at this old age of father ...’ brother-in-law suddenly stopped.

‘People like father are selfish’, it came out suddenly from Nikhil, ‘the paddy is gone - what’s the matter, one has to let go things that will go anyway.’

Everyone was surprised hearing such talk from Nikhil - Sonti got angry.

‘Have you ever thought how the household is running? You also talk such?’

‘For greater interest -’

‘For greater interest, ha, Jati Babu said slowly. ‘But what Kon and his friends are doing - we call it terrorism.’

Ranjan became angry with both Nikhil and Jati Babu.

‘In what type of society did your father try to become a man? Jati Babu, you only say in that time there was tremendous oppression of British imperialism. The social system then did not give them any ansurance of life, food or shelter. And in that situation they could make a livelihood only by great labour. Now if today those means of livelihood, that plot of land and the little paddy go away from their hand, won’t they be sad for them? Are they to be blamed for their desire - of private property?’

Jati Babu and Nikhil looked at each other.

‘Aren’t you not responsible for failing to convince the older generation?’

Jati Babu did not say anything.

‘Jati Babu will convince people against terrorism?’ Nobody knew why suddenly brother-in-law became sarcastic. Everybody was surprised. A great leap from football, cricket  to politics.

‘Oh, but they want only communism -’ Bou said as if she had not understood.

‘Definitely’. Jati Babu became a little agitated ‘Don’t Kon and his friends call this terrorism? What do they call it?’

‘Partisan warfare,’ Ranjan quipped.

Jati Babu paused. He groped for his collection of theories.

‘Is Jati Babu a communist?’ After all this time Sonti asked in surprise. Jati Babu remained silent as if acknowledging it.

‘My feeling is,’ Ranjan said, ‘considering the situation of our country, a communist has either to be in jail or has to go underground.’

As if somebody had slapped Jati Babu. Brother-in-law uneasily shrugged and shifted in his seat. Bou really did not understand, Sonti-ba tried to smile sympathetically. It was as if Ranjan had totally exposed Jati Babu’s hypocrisy, Nikhil had such a feeling, Ranjan felt bad saying thus...

A very uneasy silence filled the room. As if to end it somewhere some trouble occurred in the electric wires - the light went off. In the darkened room father did not know about it. Sonti-ba’s baby started crying in her lap. Brother-in-law bumped into  and sent the bell metal betel-nut stand crashing to the floor with a loud clanging.

‘This light is a trouble’ Sonti-ba said with irritation.

‘Yes, it creates trouble from time to time.’ Bou said.

Bimala brought in a lighted lamp.

‘Why does it happen?’ Brother-in-law asked Ranjan.

‘The stream of electron gets stopped.’ Ranjan tried to complicate the matter.

‘Yeah, I get it perfectly,’ brother-in-law quipped.

‘Let your electron go to hell,’ Nikhil said.

‘Would understand if you can mend the light’; Sontiba said, ‘What have you studied?’

‘Theoretical Physics’. Nikhil quipped sarcastically.

‘My theory is much better than your practice.’

Both brother-in-law and Sontiba suspected something at the tone of the voice. What was Nikhil’s practice? They looked at each other.

‘Talk of sending electrons to hell; suits you only, you have gone to hell anyway.’

‘What’s the matter, what has happened? Sonitiba became eager. Bou was clever, she did not show any interest.

‘It’s nothing, nothing,’ Ranjan tried to change the topic in haste, ‘who hasn’t gone to hell?’ Yes, who hasn’t gone to hell, Sontiba thought, Anima came today, her old college friend Anima Mazumdar. Now she sings in radio too, works as professor of Botany. What a ‘cynical’ one she has become. Still unmarried. The old simplicity had greatly disappeared. The enthusiasm, emotion and excitability of  yesteryears seemed to have vanished. Meeting a class friend after a long time brought such joy to her, she thought she would for some time leave the world of feeding bottle and oil cloth and go back to the old days. But...

Jati Babu wanted to take leave. He had to enquire about Karuna Babu. His asthma bouts had increased again.

‘Sit for some time more,’ Bou said.

Jati Babu was not liking it much. Ila Nila had fallen asleep in the corner bed. Looking at them he started thinking something silently. Brother-in-law became busy with the newspaper. Somebody was writing about jet propelled fighter planes used in the Korean War. What is jet propulsion? He wanted to ask Ranjan, but he kept silent. Today father also asked about it at  noon, but he couldn’t say. Making brother-in-law sit near him father had read the newspaper at noon time. And brother-in-law understood that father was of the firm opinion - that after Gandhiji’s death the Congress was going to the dogs. He was also not happy with the UNO’s role in Kashmir and Korea. It was becoming clear day by day that the general assembly was under control of America. Why don’t the Americans leave Korea? The people there would be able to settle their troubles themselves. Brother-in-law had said, the far eastern people had a great hatred for the whites from long before. A customs superintendent who has seen many of their countries had told a tale about an incident in a Japanese harbour, he told it to father today... the conversation went on well for some time, but the old man suddenly felt that brother-in-law was not happy talking to him. His face filled with a petulance... like a small boy, realised that his historical necessity had possibly ended, Dismissed brother-in-law on the  plea of a little sleep. Brother-in-law was relieved, but he felt it a little deep inside him also, a thorn started pricking inside his mind.

‘No, I  better get up, have to go to enquire about Karuna Babu once. It’s necessary to enquire about Nabin’s mother too.’

Jati Babu became busy to leave.

‘What is Nabin doing nowadays?’ Sonti-ba asked.

‘He... the rascal, the spy...  he has become an informer,’ brother-in-law suddenly exploded, ‘Today he gave toffees to Neela, asked, had Kon come to meet his sister? Thank God he had not come. I did not understand at first, afterwards only I realised. His mother is at death bed at home, what are these he’s doing.’

‘What can he do, the poor fellow, they are in such a poor state, and on top of that the mother is in this bad condition...’

As if Nikhil tried to plead for Nabin, ‘Economic hardship is such a compromising situation...’

Jati Babu said, ‘Capitalism ruins people by these ways. Just think, Nabin is a boy of the neighbourhood, your friend for such a long time, a known person -’

Suddenly Jati Babu stopped in hesitation. He felt himself to be a very shameless fellow.

Why these things involving the little girl?’ Sontiba cursed Nabin to her hearts content, Bou also said a few words in anger. This kind of machinations with a small girl - Nikhil was mortified. Jati Babu once spoke of personal freedom and its lack in India - he remembered it. A small body is born in our world, meant a new human offspring came to our planet. Just think, what would be the amount of bitterness through which it would grow up. Some demons had made the planet a captive one - their preying malevolent gaze penetrates everywhere. The child would grow up in this beautiful world suspicious of his own shadow, and everywhere the black shadows of suspicion and doubt..., distrust and hatred would fall.

Would the shadows of doubt and hatred fall on? Ila and Neela’s beautiful innocent faces too...

Jati Babu went away. He was feeling unhappy. Who had explained to a man like Ranjan the concept of ‘partisan warfare’? Does Ranjan read or understand Lenin? His gaze went towards the darkened room of father. A victim of bourgeois propaganda - the old man was fast asleep. Discontent against the new generation laid pent up inside his mind, but what had the present social system given him? Yet, this simple honest old soul,  this older generation, who was responsible for not getting them as a valuable alley? Who watched with indifference their slide into the mire of a bad propaganda machine? But where was the opportunity for the leftist to disseminate their message? The fascist government did not give any opportunity. Kon and their friends say a single action, a single confrontation is more effective than tons and tons of leaflets. But Kon belonged to an opponent party. In the whirlpool of political superstition. Jati Babu’s thought became more and more complex...

Conflict releases thoughts - ‘Action releases thought from its blind alleys and vicious circles ...’ they say. Still terrorism is a hated thing. Action — does action mean terrorism?’

Brother-in-law walking by his side, said. ‘Our people always have borne the brunt, Kon and his friends say now is the time to show that the people can also hit back.  Blood for blood policy. It has became necessary to break the laziness and inertia of the people.’

‘Bank has been looted, granary has been looted, has the people’s inertia gone away by these acts?’

Nikhil was trying to get at the root of the matter from all these complexities. He suddenly remembered Goethe - Surprising everybody, he suddenly shouted out,

‘In the beginning was the act.’

Ranjan was surprised the most. The reaction of Nikhil’s doings with Bluebell had not disappeared from his mind. The talks of Bou, Nikhils father, brother-in-law, Sontiba and Nabin had caused his head to reel. Felt as if everybody’s sanity had disappeared, he was getting entangled unwillingly in everybody’s every kind of affair. Strange talks were emanating from strange mouths. Why do banks fail, he was also compelled to hear all about it from Jati Babu. The matters of Dhan, Kon and Anima, and Makhoni created confusion in his thought. Unstability, decay and uncertainty. The sun’s dying, Nikhil’s father is dying. The fluids evaporate out of the saucepan full of milk, alpha particles are emitted from radium every moment, restless electrons  scatter  through the radio valve grids. Nothing has any certainty anywhere, from particles to wave and right after that particles from waves; a state of anarchy apparent everywhere... people are rebellious, restless, disobedient of laws, the electric particles have broken the law by refusing to follow the potential furrier, Dirac had broken the laws of mathematics with his delta function...

‘Ranjan, aren’t  you going home? The night has gone far?’

‘Shall leave in a little while, what shall I do going home?’

‘How are you studies? The exam...’

‘Going on to an extent, want to leave this place soon, don’t feel alright at all here.’

Sontiba smiled, indicating sympathy.

‘Have decided to go early, leaving day after tomorrow.’

‘Day after tomorrow? Won’t you see Anima’s musical function? Ila and Neela would dance in it, they are requesting very much. Anima has become very proficient in playing the sitar-’.

‘Oh, my sewing - I have lots to do to complete it.’ Bou remembered that Anima had given her to sew two colourful chaddors for Ila, Neela’s dance. ‘Sonti, the chaddors must be done today, don’t you go to sleep.’

‘When they grow up I will enrol them in Udayshankar’s troupe,’ brother-in-law said with some pride. Sonti also felt some pride, Bou smiled once. ‘Everybody say, they dance very beautifully at such a tender age.’

Nikhil wanted to see Ila, Neela’s much admired dance, but thinking about the environment of glaringly bright lights of the musical function he shrank. Two soft faced girls would dance, Anima would play the sitar in unison, people would enjoy, would smile. In the bright light the smiling men and women, Bou and Sonti-ba, Ila, and Neela would appear as romantic. And to the rhythm of music Jati Babu would give his unbearable comments, Girija Sharma would be seeking opportunities with a lustful gaze in his eyes, and possibly, like an uncultured boor, Ranjan would try to explain the music as a sum of Fourier waves. Girls with their budding bosoms would move around nearby, he himself would get excited, possibly ‘demonic’ thought would cross his mind. Khogen Das was sponsoring the musical function, how would the atmosphere be affected by his pushed out chest and slight smile?

‘Is the function on the day of ‘Janmastami’? Bou was trying to count out the days. Bou would not be able to spend much time there, lots of  work would remain to be done at home, she would have to leave early. Tunes of some chants would possibly play indistinctly inside her mind; alone with the baby in the empty house, her mind would repeatedly fly off to the light and laughter of the musical function.

(That’s what exactly happened, Bou felt bad, Nikhil too. somebody possibly sang - ‘Hail storms raged tonight...’)

‘Feeling very hot, the heat from the lamp is too much,’ Bou said.

Ranjan said, ‘Wastage. The lamp is burning too much.’ Bou turned down the flame.

Waiting for sometime he said, ‘Wastage is the main thing; only two per cent of the amount of energy that is released by burning oil, is used by us for our sight, reading and writing. The rest is wasted, means the rest is not utilised by us. You can see, how much heat is being generated?’

‘What is science doing about it?’ Brother-in-law asked.

‘They are trying to invent light without heat. I am thinking, that this great wastage of energy, how to stop it, or to convert it again to light to bring illumination to the needed areas. Theoretically, its possible. Because any kind of energy — light, heat, electricity, magnetism, sound — is transformable to another. Just think, if I can do that — with what bright light the whole world would fill up!’

‘Utopian,’ Nikhil said. Realised after saying - it was not appropriate.

Bou smiled.  Sonita-ba did not pay any attention to this boyish talk. Brother-in-law showed some interest, but the net result was that Ranjan felt let down. Ranjan remembered Jati Babu, he surely would  have said - Scientists today cannot invent anything and use it for the welfare of the people. Capitalism has turned the scientist into  slaves of capital. The capitalists have their authority over everything from razor blade to atom bomb. Suppose you are able to present the world with hundred thousand lumens of light, but who would allow you to  use them in this world?

Ranjan left with an irritation born out of failure to find a reason. Bou’s dinner was nearly ready, Moina and others would shortly go for dinner; better to leave before he was asked to join in. Sonti-ba slowly went to sleep in the chair, brother-in-law yawned a long yawn, Nikhil went out. Coming in Bou saw that Sonti had fallen asleep, the baby’s milk was lying in the bottle unfed,  a silence of an uninhabited house — not a single word, not a single sound, the wind came in, the curtains fluttered. Bou’s gaze softened, taking Sonti’s baby in her lap, she started feeding it...

Several days later, when he awoke from sleep in the morning, he was surprised, Sonti-ba’s soft hand was caressing his face. Why were the radios silent today, he became still more surprised. When he got out he saw Ranjan and brother-in-law sitting at the breakfast table and laughing, Bou was laughing, Sonti-ba was laughing. Ranjan pointed - Girija Sharma was going  with the radio of the mess loaded, in a cycle rickshaw. A contraption like a calling bell fitted to the plug of the fan emitted grating sounds.

‘Taking it to the repair shop, Ranjan said smiling. ’I want to  see the expression on the face of the people of the radio repair shop. They won’t be able to repair it, there is nothing wrong with the radio. The trouble is here. I have fitted this buzzer, do you see it. Its grating sound is creating trouble in their radio. The poor fellows have not understood it.’

‘The things you do!’

‘Serves them right. Have caught them scientifically. The children of our neighbourhood cannot  study in peace due to their radio-playing.’

What was a buzzer, how did it act, Nikhil did not feel the urge to understand, he joined in the laughter.

‘If there time for the tea to be ready? Let me finish shaving.’

Ranjan sat down with brother-in-law’s razor set to shave.

‘My shaving set has already been nationalised or what?’

‘Jati Babu was just entering, the pun did not touch him. He laughed loudly.

‘What’s this sound?’ he asked.

‘Rehearsel for the cultural function. Orchestra for Ila and Neela’s dance.’ Sonti-ba said beaming, ‘Anima took them out in the morning.’

The sound of the orchestra came from the nearby house. This was the second cultural function. In the first Ila and Neela had met with unprecedented success.

Nalini doctor came in. Tea was forgotten. Everybody went to father’s room. The column of mercury in doctor’s blood pressure measuring instrument rapidly went up.

Everybody’s face reflected concern and fear. Nalini Doctor, reassured, said, ‘you take complete rest. So many people are there in the house.’ A few coughs escaped from the old man’s throat.

‘Yes, I need rest.’ He happened to glance towards Bou. He thought something.

Nalini doctor went away. Everybody went out, the old man called back Moina. ‘Daughter-in-law also needs rest.  How she will keep on toiling the whole day with so many children? You go to Nalini once, he will give some tonic.’ Bou suddenly cried outside the door unseen by others. In the other room Sonti-ba mumbled, ‘Father is so simple, ‘what he sees from outside he takes it to be true...’

The brilliant atmosphere of some time back did not remain so totally. Already a black shadow had been cast on it. People again sat at the tea table. Bou went in to the kitchen. Ranjan suddenly leapt up. Runu was trying to climb the steps. He was unable to lift one of his legs to the high step, repeatedly he failed. Ranjan reached him, observed him for a moment. Runu appeared to be on the verge of giving up his efforts. As if Nikhil awoke from sleep anew, he also leapt up. He gave Runu a leg up.

Climbing up became easy now. Runu rapidly climbed up the steps one after another- one step, two step — ultimately he stepped into the top rung.

The sound of the orchestra in the neighbour’s house reached its cresendo. Bou and Sonti-ba came out of the kitchen. Bou’s eyes still had the stain of wiped tears, Nikhil observed it. He looked at Runu whom he had pushed up to success, heard his victor’s laughter, heard the climax of the orchestra. He brought out a smile onto his face - from the recesses of his heart, caught Ranjan by hand, dragged him to the table and made him sit down. He wanted to say something to Bou and Sonti-ba.

‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ he said.

(Translation of the story Ashanta Electron - Saurav Kumar Chaliha)

Translated by Dr. D.J. Borah

( Dr D.J. Borah is an eminent novelist, historian, essayist and social scientist of Assam. A medical doctor by profession, he is currently the President of the Asam Sahitya Sabha. He was awarded the Sahitya Akademy award for his Novel "Katha Ratnakar" in 2009 and the Ambikagiri Raychoudhury award of Asom Sahitya Sabha for his novel ‘Kalantarar Gadya’ in 2001.)

(A video link of the film Saurav Kumar Chaliha: Profile of a Time Capturer by Noni Teron, in video section)

 

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