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Dhrubajyoti Borah
Date of Publish: 2015-08-15

(Dr Dhrubajyoti 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.

Arindam Borkataki, Literary Editor nezine.com)

hunger

Dhrubajyoti Borah

Translated from Assamese by Shantana Saikia

Farman is walking across the wheat field. He is a thin, spare man with a narrow waist and a well-built chest. Yet for all his thinness, he had a surprisingly firm and supple body. His pointed chin appears more prominent because of his goatee beard. Above his big nose, his eyes are almost lustrous. With his slightly bent body, he rather resembles a sickle or a curved knife. Over his bare torso he has draped a dirty towel. His loin is covered with a green lungi (a one-piece cloth) loosely tied at the waist. Slightly lifting his lungi with one hand and carrying a dao and a bundle tied with a dirty cloth, he walks in long strides, unmindful of his surroundings.

The wheat has begun to ripen. The yellow bristles peep out here and there from the vast greenery of the field. A light breeze creates a soft ripple over the field, producing a soft humming sound — a unique music that vibrates through out.

On all sides there was nothing but the vast open field — clear, empty. Far to the north, clumps of bamboos and trees of the village could be seen. To the south was nothing — just bare. There was a river somewhere, on that side- the Brahmaputra but it was too far and could not be seen from the field.

Farman is hungry; he has been hungry since the morning. Farman knew the pangs of hunger well ever since his childhood. In fact, hunger and he were old friends and by now he could identify the signs of hunger only too well! First there is a burning in his belly, the empty stomach cries out in desperation. Then there is nothing. After a while comes the uneasiness, an indefinable pang gnaws continuously at the stomach and the region just below the chest. The pain finally subsides to a dull ache, curiously numb apart from a twinge now and then. Towards evening, the day’s hunger brings in a languor that overpowers his mind and body.

Yes, Farman knows hunger well. These pangs are certainly not new to him. They are merely symptoms of the first day. Farman has experienced hunger for days. The second day brings about an irritation. Curses, foul words come out automatically, a benumbing fatigue sets in so much so that it becomes impossible to work. An uncontrollable urge to eat anything, just anything, takes over. But the third day is different, easier — no pain, no ache, no anger and no irritation. There is an odd light-headedness, as if physical weakness is complimented by a lightness of the mind. Thoughts and tensions disappear; the blank mind fails to register the world around it. People appear like shadowy silhouettes seen through a hazy mist; their words, indecipherable ghostly whispers. The thought of food no longer titillates the appetite. Incoherent thoughts flit through the mind without leaving any impression. A dead weight like lead presses down upon the mind leaving nothing but an unconscious emptiness. And the next day — the next day exhaustion seems to seep through the body leaving him a mere zombie- without any control over his faculties. Lips move, words pour out without volition, meaningless, even to the speaker himself. Yes, Farman is too familiar with hunger.

Yesterday, he had eaten a little in the afternoon — rice, a curry of wild herbs, chilli and a little salt. How long has it been now? Another afternoon? Twenty-four hours? That is nothing. He has gone hungry for three days at a stretch. A mere twenty-four hours is nothing.

The wheat has begun to ripen. The grain, however, is yet tender. A milky secretion comes out if you bite it. About a couple of weeks to go for the harvest. There will be work then. But no work for the present. The fields are full of vegetables ready for picking. But you do not need tired hands for picking vegetables. It is the planting season that brings work. The tiny islands created by the drying river in the winter are full of vegetables. There is food everywhere, within sight; but for the poor, there is nothing to eat.

Farman has been looking for work for five days now, without any success. He went wherever he could, asking for work. But no one needed labourers now. Monowar Ali’s huge plot of land was teeming with cauliflowers and cabbages. He had asked for work there too.

‘Let me do it, let me cut the vegetables and pack them for the market.’

‘No, no. Leave it. I can manage.’ Ali had almost barked at him.

‘Then shall I take the sacks in the carts and put them on the bus to Barpeta?’ He had asked hopefully. Perhaps he will be allowed to do at least that much. Half a day’s work, but enough to take care of his lunch.

‘No need. My men will do it.’ Farman’s hopes were dashed.

He was helpless. At last he went to Moazzin Ali’s house. Ali was a rich man. A local leader, he was a politician and was on good terms with people. Farman approached Ali for work.

‘What job can I give you? I don’t have too many plots under cultivation. What can I give you?’

‘Haven’t eaten for two days.’ He increased one day deliberately.

Oh, oh! Ali commiserated. ‘But work? What is there to do? Not enough to need a labourer. But alright, just clean up the cowshed and tether the cows.’

‘Okay’

‘But hey! eat something first.’

‘It’s alright. Let me finish the work first’.

He had worked till late in the evening. He had asked for cash, half a day’s wages. Ali had refused and given him two kgs of coarse flour. He had tied it up in a bundle without a word. But he was furious. On his way back he abused and cursed everyone he could think of.

By the time he reached his neighbourhood, it was time for the evening Namaaz. No namaaz today. Who can pray with an empty stomach? He muttered to himself.

Passing along the narrow alley, he suddenly saw his neighbour, the rich Keramat preparing to say his namaaz on the roadside. For a moment, he hesitated and then hurried to Keramat’s side. Keramat, the rich farmer and Farman, the pauper sat together on the roadside and said their prayers. In the west, the sun was about to set and the sky had turned a mellow orange hue.

(2)

He was a mere lad when his father had died, barely fifteen or sixteen years old. They were poor. Not just them but everyone living in that ‘char’ was poor. One could count the rich on the tips of their fingers. Matabbar. Matigiri. Dewani, one or two petty businessmen and of course the Maulavi. Yes the Maulavi too. He may appear to be poor but he belonged to the ranks of the rich. He may not be wealthy but he had a social standing. Everybody respected him, held him in awe. He was assured of a meal everyday at somebody or other’s house. It was only the poor like him, who had no respect, no status. They were the lowliest of the low!

They used to live in a low thatched two roomed shack made of bamboo and straw. Every year floods would destroy their house and they would have to rebuild it. It was a yearly affair. However not all the lands were inundated by the floods. Only the low-lying areas were affected. The high lands of the chars did not suffer serious damages except when the waters in the Sawolkhowa River rose really high. As far as he could remember, their house was under waters only once. They had had to leave their house for a safer and higher place along with several other families.

Yes, he remembers those days only too well! His two sisters were very young. He had a brother too, but he died. They were, in fact, quite a number of siblings; he has lost count how many. Most of them had perished, just like the falling petals of a gourd flower.

He could remember his childhood vividly. His parents were young but his father had looked like an old man to him. Every morning his father, a labourer, would go out in search of work while the children would remain at home with their mother. Those were happy times for they had nothing to do but play in the mud the whole day. The rising water during the monsoons did not always submerge their house but the sandy soil of the char would become soft and squashy. The feet would sink when people walked on it. The floor of their house would be perpetually covered with mud brought in by their dirty feet. They would then sleep on a bamboo cot but their mother would still do her cooking on the dirty muddy floor.

During the monsoons everyone’s feet would be muddy all the time. The children, however, would continue with their games oblivious of their of surroundings. They would play inside their house, going out was forbidden strictly. By the time their mother came to clean them, they would be literally wallowing in the muck like buffaloes in a muddy pool. Their mother would wash them in the evening. It was also difficult to get water. The bank of the river was knee deep with soft mud, which made it extremely slippery and consequently dangerous to fetch water from the river.

The wet earth would emit a strong raw and dank odour. Was it like the stench of stalks of jute plants kept under water? Or wasn’t it? He used to love that raw smell. But now, on an empty stomach the very memory of that smell made him want to throw up! Yuck! He spat on the floor.

Preparing his meal of boiled flour, his mind went into a flashback to his childhood. Thoughts without any sequence went flitting through his mind. Who had died first? His father or mother? He could not remember. Was it his father? Yes, his father had died first, his mother followed a few months later. His thoughts were confused. Hunger did this to you! Working on an empty stomach, even thoughts refuse to stay on track! Nowadays he could never remember things in their proper sequence. His sister, immediately after him, had already been married off when his father died. Yes, it was before his father’s death, he remembered it well. Their only cow had been sold and arrangements made for her nikaah. New sarees had been bought for her at Barpeta. But she too had gone to a poor house- not as poor as them, of course, his brother-in-law had a small plot of land. They managed to get a little produce out of it. She was poor but not a pauper like him. Their father did not live too long after her marriage. Yes, he remembered clearly now. He had found a job of ferrying bamboos. The bamboos had to be piled in stacks and floated down the river like some rough rafts. His father had come back from work one day and taken ill suddenly and just as suddenly, he had died. A few months later, his mother too died. Not even a year had gone by! Those were harrowing times. They had had to go through much suffering after their father’s death. There would be nothing to eat at home and they would starve for days. Their mother would work sometimes and sometimes not. It all depended on finding a job, which was rare. Little as he was, he too would go looking for something to do, anything- to earn a meal. Most often he would be turned away- he was no good, too small to be of any use. Then there was Niyamat, the cattle trader. Niyamat would visit their mother regularly. There some talk of a nikaah also; at least that is what the villagers had said. He had heard the rumours. Niyamat already had two wives. But no, his mother could not marry Niyamat. She died before that. Something must have gone wrong. May be it was the medicines; the bleeding just wouldn’t stop.

So only two of them were left – he and his youngest sister. And how she grew! It was strange how in spite of their life of near starvation, she grew up to be so pretty. He marvelled at her beauty. She had the complexion of the pink sand, her body as supple as the tender cucumber. He was worried about her. Yes, he was old enough to be concerned for his sister.

It was Matabbar who had brought the proposal. The groom was from the other char- three villages away from his own. He was a rich man- landed, with cattle, granaries full of harvest, commanding respect in the society. He was married twice- one wife had died about a year back. And his age? Well, no one knew for sure. Admittedly, he was slightly on the wrong side. But surely he couldn’t be more than forty! And his little sister? She was fourteen, no, fifteen. Right! She was fifteen years old.

‘Arrey, who cares about a man’s age? He should be capable and healthy, that’s all.’ Moazzin Ali had told him.

‘Good family, good man- generous at that, what more do you want? What a huge house and such a big family! He has already married off two of his daughters. Your sister will be happy. What more do you want?’ Moazzin had gone on.

He had remained silent.

‘Don’t be a fool, just marry her off. Don’t go playing with fire.’ Moazzin warned him. ‘ Beauty in a pauper’s house is nothing but a curse; she will be nothing but trouble to you. Think of your honour, your prestige! He will marry her, keep her in luxury. If you keep her at home, what guarantee do you have that she will not run away? Worse, if some goon takes her away by force? Where will be your reputation, your honour, then? There will be unnecessary bloodshed. And if the case goes to court! Are you sound enough to hire a lawyer? Will you be able to pay his fee? Where will you get the money from, not even if you sell yourself twice over!’’ Moazzin Ali had really scared him.

His sister had not made any protest. She had gone to her new house without a murmur and she appeared to be genuinely happy. The fact that her husband was old enough to be her father, that he had a wife and children, did not seem to bother her at all. ‘Shit! A woman is valued at even less than an animal!’ He spat out in disgust.

His brother-in-law had presented him with a new pair of lungi and shirts and a hundred rupees in cash. He had been pleased, his heart had lightened considerably. After that he has been to his sister’s house many times. She is indeed thriving in her new house. No children so far but her comfort could be measured in her girth .It was a wonder how soon the slim girl was transformed into an obese woman. She looked like a bloated she- buffalo to him. She was always richly dressed and decked in gold ornaments- he was convinced they were of gold and she made sure that her brother noticed them! He was aware of this and that’s why he pretended not to see them.

The sight of his well-fed ox-like brother-in-law brought up a curious sensation in him. His brother-in-law always wanted to take advantage of his helplessness. Always tried to get him to do something or the other. ‘As if I don’t understand the old devil’s designs!’ He would boil inside. He refused to take the jobs offered by his brother- in law. He did not like him but that did not stop him from visiting his sister regularly. She would feed him; give him a little money on the sly. But before leaving he would always ask his brother-in-law for money- a five or ten rupee note. He would never be refused but the money would invariably be accompanied by a knowing smile. At the sight of his brother-in-law’s condescending expression, Farman would seethe with an impotent rage.

(3)

The dust storm swelled up and took the shape of a betel nut tree. Indeed, it looked exactly like a betel nut tree covered by a vine of paan; only, it was always in motion, not rooted like the tree. With a moaning sound, it moved in circles from one place to another.

The wind had risen noisily, dispersing the dry sand of the char. One such gust of wind would begin its circular dance and pick up from the bosom of the char dust, sand, dry leaves – a bundle of rubbish and every thing would spin and whirl in the rising crescendo of that intricate dance. The cone shaped burden would rise higher and higher and when the momentum of the wind could not keep the balance any longer, it would break, vanishing as suddenly as it had appeared.

A whirlwind was sweeping across the char. Cones of dust leaped and danced about crazily. Farman covered his eyes with his palms to protect them from the flying sands.

He was returning home – a lonely figure, against the setting sun in the evening sky. He was exhausted. For a month now he had been on the move. He tried to remember all the places he had been to- all the places to the north and south of the river.

He had gone in search of cattle, he and three other falengis. He had been out of work, idling at home when Mansoor came and asked if he was interested in trade. He hadn’t made any reply just kept listening quietly to him. He knew that Mansoor was an old hand in the trade. For many years now, he has been involved in cattle trading. He used to supply cattle to Bangladesh, Rangpur, Dhubri, Kochbehar- lots of places. He was rich, must have made a lot of profit in the trade, Farman wondered aimlessly. His clothes were expensive. Farman noticed his green silk lungi and crisp, embroidered kurta. There was a benign smile on his betel nut stained lips. Lived in the lap of luxury, he thought, that was obvious. His countenance radiated the warmth and contentment of a well-fed man. Mansoor had said to him,‘Farman Miyan, you don’t have any work, do you? And where will you find work now in this season! Even if you do find something, it wont be anything more than an ordinary labourer’s job and honestly, what will that fetch you? A mere pittance! Its useless- too much work and too less money. Better you come with me, work hard and earn big money. Tell me, how long has it been since you have eaten a proper meal? Come with me.’ Mansoor repeated.

‘Where?’ spitting out the bile that rose to his mouth, Farman asked disinterestedly.

‘Where?’ echoed Mansoor, as if he was surprised by the question? ‘To trade of course! Where else? Don’t you know my business?’

Farman knew that Mansoor dealt in cattle trade. But somehow, he could not bring himself to show any enthusiasm in the whole business. Did growing hunger make one more sluggish? Or was it weariness? He wondered desultorily. Whatever it was, it left him listless. He had no desire to work. He just nodded his head.

‘Be ready tomorrow morning. We’ll have to leave before namaaz. Come, come; Come and see the world. Just think of the places you’ll see, the people you’ll meet! So, will you come?’

Farman said he would. Mansoor beamed, showing his betel nut stained teeth. ‘So, Farman falengi! Off to trade now, are we?’ He joked.

‘Haven’t eaten for two days. How can I go?’ Farman said.

Mansoor ‘s grin disappeared. He took out a wallet from the pocket of his kurta and counted five one rupee notes. Giving the notes to Farman, he told him to eat a good meal and buy himself bidi, matches- whatever he required for the journey. Farman had sat quietly with the notes in his hand, long after Mansoor left. Then he shouted for his neighbour’s little girl-

‘Hey Zulekha! Where are you? Come here.’

The girl appeared after awhile. He gave her three one rupee notes and told her to tell her mother to prepare rice and egg curry-

‘Tell Baijaan to cook a nice meal. I shall be out on business early tomorrow.’

He sat motionless, holding the remaining notes after the girl had gone. The winter sun reddened bosom of the char and the evening fell quietly, drawing a veil of darkness around it.

The next day they had covered a distance of nearly twenty miles, covering village after village. They were four of them including Mansoor. Mansoor had contacts in most of the villages. They would meet these people first and find out who had a male calf or a barren cow, an old ox or an old cow. After gleaning the information, Mansoor would decide on the houses to visit first. One by one they would begin their visits. Mansoor would strike up a conversation with the owner of the house and very casually veer their talk towards the cow or the ox he was interested in. When the owner took them to see the cow, they would surround the animal, pretending to inspect it. And then would begin their act. The three of them would loudly discuss the faults of the cow, mostly imaginary, while Mansoor would pretend to ignore them and continue his chat with the owner.

Tsk, what a famished calf! All skin and bones!

Too puny, won’t be very tall, not strong enough to till the field.

-Look at its teeth. The hooves do not look very healthy either.

The drama would go on, Mansoor pretending to stay out of it. Now and then, he would ask- ‘Hey! Does the calf look very sickly? Check properly, don’t want it to die on the way.’

Farman had been clueless at first. He failed to understand why the falengis found out hundred and one faults with a perfectly healthy cow and reduced it to a frail and feeble one. Gradually he began to understand that it was a trick of the trade, this was a method by which cattle was purchased at a price much lower than its actual rate. Soon enough, he too became adept at these tricks.

With the poor, who desperately needed to sell their calf, whose need of money was urgent, the falengis were more ruthless in their faultfinding. Mansoor too would discard his animated air and drive a hard bargain. Finally, the animal would be bought for almost a token amount. On the other hand, if the cow belonged to an important person, they would sometimes pay more its actual price. One had to be respectful; you couldn’t antagonize an influential person- Mansoor would tell them. They would usually conduct their business at night and leave as quickly as possible.

It was comparatively easier to buy cows in Muslim villages than in Hindu villages. Hindus did not easily sell their cows. Mansoor visited some villages himself. To others, he sent his Hindu middlemen.

Mansoor had friends and relatives in many villages across the char. Usually, he stayed with them for the night. Farman and the other falengis would camp out in the open fields. They would light fires to keep out spine-chilling cold and keep watch over the cattle.

At some places Mansoor would sell the cows to other traders at a profit. These people would, in turn, supply the cattle to different places- some would go to households, some to cattle markets and still others would find their way to Bangladesh.

It was a tough job; in truth, herding cattle in an open field on a winter night, was indeed a tough job. No matter how fast you secured them with ropes, some cows would invariably stray from the herd. In fact, he could well remember how once one she- calf had started running back to the village it was bought from. Farman had had to give a long chase before he could catch her and bring her back.

One night, Mansoor took aside the other two falengis and talked with them for a long time. He then left hurriedly. No one said anything to Farman, however, the next morning, they woke him up rather early. He was only told that they would have to cross the river to the south. They crossed the river in a small canoe. Farman had never come to these places before- the high and raised land to this side was unlike the low-lying sandy land of his familiar northern side. There were thickets of dense woods and the villages were much bigger. They walked along the river silently. It was barely dawn and people were not yet up except one or two who had come out of their houses. Falengi Irshaad said to him-

There, that is a Rabha village. Beyond that, there in the low-lying land, is the Hajong village. Hajongs are refugees from Pakistan.

Farman said nothing. They crossed a small wood and reached a brick house hidden from view by shrubs and wild growth. Farman’s companions went inside the house. After a while, a short and stocky man came out. His eyes, still heavy with slumber, were two narrow slits like the mouth of a snake. They all went inside the house and had tea.

They did not stir out of the house the whole day. In the afternoon they had a meal of rice and curried chicken. Farman did not understand why they were hiding in that house but he was too tired to ask any question. He lay down on a heap of straw kept in a corner.

He could hear the other falengis address the snake-eyed man as ‘ustaad’. He heard him telling the others about cattle and mentioning some people. Listening drowsily to the snatches of conversation between them, he assumed him to be another middleman, before falling off into a deep sleep.

Farman woke up with a start. The two falengis had shaken him. He could not make out how late it was. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he ate his meal. It was way past midnight when they had followed the snake-eyed man out of the house. Farman was afraid but he did not dare to question them. No one uttered a single word.

He could guess that they were nearing a village. They waited quietly near a copse. Gradually as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, Farman realized that they were standing next to a cowshed. In a flash, everything became clear to him. He was terrified. He could hear his heart hammering loudly. Desperately he turned to Irshaad but before he could utter a word, Irshaad hissed –‘shut up. If you open your mouth, I’ll kill you.’

The stocky man and a falengi went inside the shed. They fed salt to one or two cows and deftly brought them out. Without a sound, they disappeared into the darkness on to the other side of the char. Farman could feel himself shaking like a leaf but there was no time to be scared. One by one they entered three different sheds. At last only Farman was left with the stocky man, the two other falengis had already melted into the night with their catch.

Before daybreak, they met on the bank of the river. He saw a falengi hand something to the man. In the soft light of dawn, he saw seven cows- two pairs were bullocks! Hai Allah!

There was no boat this time. They would have to swim across the Brahmaputra with the cattle. Farman desperately held on to the tail of a big bullock. Irshaad and the other falengi chased the rest of the herd across the river. Farman had no idea how long it took him to cross the river or for that matter how he managed to do it. Three cows and four bullocks! A catch of no less than five to seven thousand at least! What had he done! How could he commit such a gunaah? Hai Allah! As the enormity of his sin struck him, he was almost paralyzed with shock.

Farman did not have the slightest inkling of what happened to the animals after that. Mansoor gave him a bundle of hundred rupee notes and said-

Well done, Farman falengi! You must prove your mettle again.

The ‘business’ had ended for the time being. Farman returned home with the money tucked in his lungi. Confusing emotions of fear and euphoria rocked his mind. Wasn’t what he had done a sin? He shivered. Then he touched the money to calm his disturbed mind.

The dust storm was still dancing its mad dance. Gusts of wind still dispersed the sand from the breast of the char.

continues...

(first part of the English translation of Dr Dhrubajyoti Borah's novella bhok)

(Shantana Saikia a translator, writer and teaches English at Bahana College, Jorhat )

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