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Sibananda Kakoti
Date of Publish: 2017-09-23

The Horn of Plenty

 

There is no straggly growth on Nanda Babaji’s face, no matted hair on his head either. Even now almost always he shaves himself clean with the swish of his razor. He has a haircut each month and even at sixty plus his thick crop is almost ravenously black. Yet the villagers call him Nanda baba, Nanda Babaji.

Nanda’s old house with the wide courtyard in the centre of the village opposite the old namghar is still very much there. The neighbours use the wide yard for threshing at harvest time or drying the grain on the mud and dung plastered yard or for functions and feasts of the community. Huge banana trees cut and made into plates and stuff are stacked in neat rows there. And then there are the children of different age groups busy with their own games. The house has remained closed for these many years now. Nanda, the sole owner of this ill-kept house sleeps with nonchalance in an isolated, quiet hut near the patch of bamboo at the other end of the village where the bridle road ends. He chose to live here away from the village quite a few years back. He wouldn’t leave the village but he stays away from his own house. He is Nanda Babaji since then.

He had built the tiny hut himself with poles of Sal trees he had himself felled from his own backyard. There is another hut at the other end and a granary opposite that. The smaller hut has walls with doors and windows where he spends his night. The longish other house without walls is quite like a namghar. One end is walled in where an altar with a sacred book and all around pictures of gods and goddesses from the three-headed Brahma to Radha-Krishna and Hara-Parvati and almost opposite the pictures quite a few tridents of various lengths dug into the floor. A domboru hung from a still taller trident a bit further in. This can be taken off and played. Under it was arranged a dotara, a veena. A stout gourd shell was the base for a well-oiled shiny ektara and on a mat next to it there were a khanjarika made of monitor lizard skin, small and medium pairs of cymbals, one drum (khol) and a pair of nagaras. The rest is open with no walls revealing a scrubbed and plastered floor. The mats hang from the pillars.

Nanda Babaji had given a character to the place, not with trouble really but with loving care and routine and a discipline followed neatly for so many years to go unnoticed. He hardly ever goes out to the village. He has no quarrel with anyone and was never present at disputes, mels or whatever. This cottage at the end of the bridle road is a farm house; his ancestral house is in the middle of the village. That was his father’s house; this one is Nanda’s own. This farm house that he has built with so much labour and care, complete with garden, orchard, prayer house and all does carry a significance for the villagers but he doesn’t know if it is a full and thriving household. For some, it is Nanda Baba’ dhuni where he has his chillum companionably and sings kirtan . An exclusive, quiet place. For Nanda, this is his home – a place of loving labour and worship.

The feel of this different meaning or worth had dawned on Bokul suddenly one night when he had just about started understanding things. He had seen Nanda Babaji once or twice before that. He had also come to their house- till the yard only where he would stand, exchange pleasantries with his father and leave. A clean-shaven neat person with a serious look who used to wear a long-sleeved white vest with a white gamosa with green borders wrapped round. This was quite different from what the villagers wore normally. That was the only difference. Everything else was the same, apparently. But yet, he was different from all the villagers. There was something you cannot quite know, cannot really understand.

He woke with a start at midnight. He was still not grown up enough to sleep alone all by himself. He couldn’t quite make out at first whatever was playing somewhere. The dug-dug beat of the domboru pierced the darkness to spread over the village. He was quiet for a while trying to see what it was. It must be the domboru yet he woke his mother up, “what sound is it, Ma?”

Though woken up from deep sleep his mother took no time in saying, “Nanda Baba is playing the domboru, go back to sleep.”

He did but woke up again and the domboru was still playing. “Ma?” His mother immediately replied “Nanda is possessed today – will play all night. Cover your ears with your pillow and go back to sleep”.

He kept listening to the domboru beats and after a while – said, “Possessed? What does ‘possessed’ mean?”

“You don’t have to know what ‘possessed’ means at this hour of the night. Sometimes Nanda Babaji plays on the night long…”

“But why?”

“Just like that”

“Why just like that?”

“He feels like it – he does it. You’d better sleep now. You will know when you’re grown up.”

He doesn’t know what he will understand when he grows up. Maybe Rajen will know what this being ‘possessed’ means. There were many his age in the village but Rajen and he are always together – be it going to school or anywhere else. They are in the same class and both are equally good in studies. But Rajen undoubtedly knows certain things much better than he does. Rajen stays with his mother at the other end of the village. Rajen’s mother Sikun is Sikun pehi (aunt) to him and all their mates. They stay alone in a small neat cottage in the middle of a wide yard full of trees, nuts and betel leaves among them. This neighbourhood is comparatively new – a kind of extension.

Sikun had married on time. Seeing the vivacious Sikun in the prime of her youth the groom from Majgaon had promptly taken her away in marriage, in April. But something went awry midway. In the month of September, she gave birth to a long-limbed, fully formed baby plump as a musk melon; with bright staring eyes. There was much gossip; subdued whispers first, then loud and clear, meant to be heard. After the eleven day mandatory wait for the ritual cleansing Sikun was taken back to her house in a bullock cart. No one knew for certain what had transpired. Sikun did not utter a single word about the whole thing either. Her brothers set up a new homestead for her in their land at the other end of the village.

Since then Rajen and Sikun had been staying alone. Sikun took it all in her stride and without any fuss. She had never nursed a private sadness either. She helps plant paddy seedlings, weaves clothes at her loom and does sundry other things for her maintenance. Rajen is growing up normally. She does think a lot about Rajen growing up and sometimes even worries. There is no worrying about where Rajen’s father is or whoever he is. That does not seem to be Rajen’s concern either. He is kind of subdued right from his childhood. He sees the vermillion dot on his mother’s forehead, which Sikun kept, and that was about enough for him. He had never known or seen his father, whoever he may be. He goes to school with Bokul and spends much time with him even outside school, in the fields, at play or at the Namghar. Bokul’s people are comfortably off but that had never been an issue in the village. The two of them were growing up together normally in the village.

Sikun’s worries crystallize into a panic because Rajen is proving to be rather good in his studies. At school and even in the village people are beginning to talk about it. It’s alright till he is at school but once he clears the school finals what could Sikun possibly do? However much can her brothers or the villagers help? It was no business of his to be so good in his studies, she sometimes thinks. Had he failed or been generally dumb there would be no problems whatever. He could have worked as a bonded labour for his keep and some wages too. But whatever can she do now? Rajen’s brilliance was steadily becoming visible. Sikun has only her prayers to fall back upon.

Rajen was explaining what being ‘possessed’ meant to Bokul as they walked back home from school. They dance to a kind of frenzy, like one gone crazy – the dancer or the devotee singing or playing - this happens for a few moments – that is being ‘possessed’. But however do they do it? Rajen had no clue as to why Nanda babaji was sometimes ‘possessed’ like that. On the way back from school if they take the bridle path they can see Nanda’s house near the bamboo grove. The house with the big courtyard was always neat and well manicured. Nanda baba’s dhuni was on one side of the courtyard in the longish house without walls like a namghar. Everything was always in order. Sometimes they find him lying back on a mat or tuning and playing his tokari. This is a common sight for the villagers but Bokul feels somehow drawn towards it. He would actually like to go in. How does the man stay all alone? Why is he ‘possessed’ on some nights?

The granary at the end of the big courtyard fills up at harvest time each year. Nanda does it all himself. He will be the first at his field in the morning with his plough. All the hard work Nanda seems to manage with ease and pleasure. His pair of huge white oxen and his firm grip on the shaft of the plough seem to force the grain from the field. He always has a rich harvest and his granary overflows. Whatever does this solitary man do with his abundant crops of rice and mustard and all the money earned? Whatever he saves for and wherever he keeps his savings – no one has any idea. The village is rife with speculation. Some think he will have a big temple built while others say he will go and settle in Badarikashram or Haridwar. But Nanda’s wealth far exceeds these requirements.

Apparently Nanda has no attachments, no material wish or aspiration. But whatever will he do with all the money? People do talk about it but no one dares ask him. Nanda is a serious, grave sort of fellow. He doesn’t slog in greed or passion. He doesn’t lend money on interest. He never takes the chance and sells his grain at higher prices in times of want or need. He sells these usually at the normal rates. He leads a simple, ascetic life and his expenses are minimal. His simple clothes and food, tea and biscuits for the Bhakats or devotees who gather at his dhuni for the kirtan. Another regular expenditure is for the grass, the tidily rolled grass he buys at the weekly market. He can make his own pellets (puriya) of grass and never opts for the strong mohini bhang. He is happy with what one or two guys from Deobali village who pack the home grown native grass in rolls. He keeps them safe stuck near the dhuni. This is all the expense he incurs, the rest is savings. This is what the village people cannot unravel the mystery of.

Nanda is unconcerned, totally indifferent. He is not in the least bothered by what others think or may think. It is not for nothing that he has chosen to stay isolated at the end of the village leaving his big house right in the middle of the village. He lives isolated by himself, without any involvement in what was happening around him. After a hard day’s labour he stretches out on a mat spread near the hearth and goes back to his field again in the afternoon. He does his pranayam and profound meditation. Prays routinely with faith and after that a long, lingering drag at his chillum. But that, too, is always within limits. He wouldn’t let anyone cross the limits either.

He wants to spend his life programmed in a straight line without any clutter. His daily evening kirtan does not depend on whether others came or not. His routine is undisturbed and he never disturbs others. The kirtan at the dhuni and the domboru beats cannot disturb the villagers from his chosen distance and isolation.

Nanda would sit on his single mat and meditate in silence as he does his bit of pranayam. After quite a while he takes down the domboru and beginning in a slow bilambit pace he moves up to a crescendo and then stops. No one disturbs him at this hour. Nanda sets a personal order which is at variance with the order followed at the namghar. He immerses himself completely in this and is soon lost in the profound sea of thought. Soon the devotees or bhakats will trickle in and take their appointed places. With darkness descending Nanda stops and bows to those gathered. The preparations for the evening’s sankirtan start and with that the initial rounds of the holy chillum. They all get busy according to their skill and expertise. The instruments are tuned and Nanda takes up his domboru even though he can play all the instruments. Hemram, old and hunchbacked, his neck peering out from behind the protruding back like the shell of a tortoise, takes up the clasp knife. The place, complete with a small brass pitcher and knife was Hemram’s.

Baneswar takes up the khanjarika, Joli the dotara, Bogiram the cymbals, Jatin the drum as Sonaram clears his throat for he has to start the proceedings. While the tuning goes on, Sonaram is about to begin a verse. The grass is cut and readied and Hemram fills the chillum and presses down the grass with his thumb and sprinkles a drop or two of water till he thinks it’s done.

Even though the dhuni is Nanda’s and he has the right to sit and pray at the head, the first drag is always Hemram’s. He is the oldest and even when he offers the chillum everyone waits for him to initiate the process. Slowly and deliberately Hemram lights it and draws. At about the third draw it begins to smoke. He draws, lingeringly, his cheeks fill up and then with an abrupt movement, he passes it on to the next person without even looking up. The tiny chillum comes to life between the lips of the other person with the same crescendo and abrupt stop. Meanwhile Hemram’s entire face seems to let out smoke. The smoke keeps coming put with each exhalation. By the time the chillum makes its complete round and is back with him he has another chillum ready which begins its rounds like the one before.

By this time all the preparation for the initial kirtan are over. The chillum that comes alive invests them with another kind of life – ready for a chorus. Sonaram begins his hymn and they all join in with their instruments and voices. Most of the songs are mystical about the transience of matter and spiritual bliss. This life is unmeaning like a tree with its roots scoring the sky and leaves and branches downwards – these are the lofty sentiments in their communal kirtan. The music rises to a crescendo and the chillum makes its rounds as they all get passionately involved and taken up losing themselves in the resonance. Life and youth, man and matter, power and pelf…are all so unmeaning and transient...

Sikun would not quarrel with all these. Her life is unmeaning and youth fleeting – but she is now in dire need of that transient, unmeaning pelf. She’s been moving from pillar to post in the village to gather some money. A tidy sum in fact. She would work and pay back.

Rajen has cleared the school finals with honours. He and Bokul showed equally brilliant results, carrying honour to the whole region.

Bokul is going to Guwahati for higher education. Rajen should at least be able to join the college in town. Sikun is entirely bewildered, crestfallen. She doesn’t have the respite to rejoice at her son’s brilliant showing. Whatever she did succeed in gathering was but a drop. She can hardly look him in the eye. Bokul would leave the day after tomorrow. His uncle would come and take him. Sikun’s son will be left in the village. But Rajen too deserves to study in a big college. His face is dark and sad.

Rajen is lying on his back in the bamboo platform which serves as a bed. The kitchen in the enclosed veranda is small. Sikun is looking at him through the kitchen door. Rajen’s eyes are closed but he is awake. He could guess where and how his mother was standing with his eyes closed. He said, “Don’t go around asking for money, I am not going to study any further.”

His mother said nothing. The room was silent for quite a while.

“Bokul is leaving the day after. Can I ask him to dinner tomorrow evening?”

Bokul had food with Rajen many times. Sometimes they even share whatever is there after school to go and play. But the last few days they are nearly avoiding each other. After having spent the last few years so closely together, they are parting, perhaps finally. They are grown up enough now to understand all these. Bokul relishes the food at Rajen’s. Sikun makes delightful herb-curries with fingerlings. But what would happen from day after?

The floor is always mud-plastered white and shining. The room in front was a bit wider and big. A bamboo platform close to the wall served as Rajen’s bed where he also studies. There is another such bed, in the other, smaller room.

Rajen and Bokul were lying down till dinner was ready. They are almost reduced to monosyllables today.

Sikun was in the kitchen. It was no elaborate affair but she was in no hurry today to come out of the kitchen . The darkness outside was getting thicker as the evening deepened.

Finishing their meal they took the wooden seats and rested them against the wall. Sikun would eat later and had been there waiting with a ladle should they want something. A small lamp flickered nearby. The atmosphere inside, uncertain and filled with unanswerable questions was getting more and more tense. Rajen took the small pitcher and went to the backyard to wash his hands and mouth. Bokul just kept standing till Rajen came and gave him the pitcher. A cool draft came in to the room through the door left ajar. The wind was also silent, pondering. Rajen’s mother kept sitting as before, with the ladle in her hand.

Bokul took the ghoti from Rajen and went to the backyard to wash his mouth and hand. The door opened wide with a creak and a tall spry and big-boned man came in. He had to stoop to come in. A thin cotton shawl draped his shoulders. But it was Nanda – Nanda Babaji.

Nanda stood tall and straight right in the middle of the room.

Everyone was taken aback. Sikun stood up with a start, Rajen almost clinging to her. Outside, beyond the door, unseen by them, stood Bokul. Without any preamble, Nanda looked at mother and son for some time. Sikun was struck dumb, couldn’t even ask him to take a seat.

“I have come to know everything”

Nanda took a step towards the platform, took out a big packet wrapped in red cloth from under his shawl, put it on the platform and said clearly, with deliberation :

“There’s a lot of money here. I have never counted them. He can study for as long as he wants with this. Keep the money. Start an account in his name at the Gaonliya bank at the Saturday market.

Nanda paused, took a breath, then, looked straight at Sikun, said. “Don’t ask anyone for money.”

Grave, intense, clear yet very slow and deliberate. Nanda had his say and stood for a while looking at them. In the flickering lamp-light Nanda’s eyes could not be seen clearly. He put his hand on the door handle and said, “I’ll make a move now.”

But he had to pause at Sikun’s call. Nanda looked back and waited, taking his hand off the door handle.

Sikun hadn’t called Nanda but her son Rajen. Her face and expression couldn’t be made out in the flickering light. She looked towards Nanda at the door sill and simply said, “Bow down to your father…”

Bokul woke up again at midnight… the dug-dug of the domboru was floating near. The relentless, non-stop sounds continued reverberating in the whole village, in the fields and the sky – till daylight.

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Sibananda Kakoti

Translated into English from Assamese by Pradip Acharya

 

 

About the Author

Sibananda Kakoti (1958) is a leading Assamese short story writer and playwright. His collections include Amrityu Amrit, Gagini Kiman Pani, Bordoisila, Prathamjan Desapremik, Jalsabit Sesh Sanj, Amlobristi, Baraniya Alibat. Kendra Bihin Britta Aru Anyanya Natak, is his collection of drama. He received Munin Borkatoki Award for his collection of short stories “Amrityu Amrit” in 1995, the Katha award for creative fiction for 2005, for his short story Jalsabit Sesh Sanj and the National Award for Radio Playwright for the script of “DUH SAMAY SAMAY” in Assamese language in 1992. He has participated in a number of literary meet organised by Sahitya Akademi and attended SAARC festival of writers’, 2009 representing India in Assamese Language.

 

 

 

 

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