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Dhrubajyoti Borah
Date of Publish: 2015-08-29

(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

 

(Continued from previous part)

 

Chapter Seven

It was easy, so easy to follow the wrong, the forbidden path, one only needed to find the way and the rest was simple. One could be enmeshed in the mire deeper and deeper until there was no way out of it. Farman had never quite looked at it this way. There had not really been any need to philosophize about life. But now, as he cooked his meal, random thoughts crossed his mind. In an isolated corner of the char, dense with scrubs of rushes and away from the contact of his fellow men, Farman was cooking his lonely meal under a shade of straw and hay. For long three months now, he has stayed away from home. In these three months, he had been home barely twice, that too at night- furtively, under cover of darkness. He was filled with regret, a strong sense of shame and deep hatred towards Mansoor when he thought of the past few months. This was not what he had wanted and only Mansoor- Mansoor alone who was responsible for his misfortunes. Mansoor had cheated him; taken advantage of the trust he had placed in him and seen to it that he would never be able to face his friends again!

His new life had begun with a seemingly insignificant job. He had scolded Hamida for taking money from Mansoor but after his initial anger had cooled down, he had been filled with curiosity- did he really have some payments pending? What if Mansoor really owed him money? But it was not only his curiosity that took him to Mansoor. His money had run out, there was no food at home and there was no prospect of finding a job soon. His steps led him to Mansoor’s doorstep automatically. Mansoor had pretended to be disturbed by his request for a job. He appeared to be lost in thought for what seemed to be an agonizingly long period to Farman. Stroking his cheeks thoughtfully, he had said- ‘This isn’t the first time you have worked for me and you are efficient too. But right now I don’t have anything that I can give you. However, there is someone I know, a friend who will be able to do something for you. I am going to send you to him but you must remember that whatever work he gives you, you will have to do with utmost trust and sincerity.’

‘If you can keep trust, be faithful, you will be looked upon with kindness- people will take care of you. But if you break that trust and open your mouth, there will be trouble- deep trouble for you. Do you remember Keramat- the one who used to live in the village across yours? Well, he wasn’t so bad but the poor fellow was drowned. There was no sign of his body even. He used to work for me, did you know that, Farman? But he tried to double- cross me.’ Farman had felt a shiver run down his spine at Mansoor’s words. It was obvious that Mansoor was threatening him that once he joined him there would be no return. He hadn’t committed himself that day, mumbling that he would soon let him know; he had beaten a hasty retreat. Mansoor had not said anything but Farman had detected a faint smile of derision on his betel nut stained lips.

Despite his misgivings, he had returned to Mansoor, he was forced to- their empty bellies had driven him to Mansoor again. He could remember the times when he used to be haunted by the eyes of the snake-eyed man but it was Hamida’s eyes that he feared now. He had come to dread that mute look of reproach in her large eyes.

Mansoor had sent him to Khaledbhai- one of his special cronies and after making him work in his house for a few days, Khaledbhai had sent him with a bag to be delivered to one Kalita, a shopkeeper in Barpeta, after repeatedly instructing him to claim the bag as his own, should someone ask. He had opened the bag in a lonely spot out of sheer curiosity. The heavy bag contained a few pieces of silver jewellery, one or two utensils of bell-metal and two pieces of wood. He had realized his errand only he could not understand why the pieces of wood were there.

His duties defined, he began to commute regularly to Kalita in Barpeta, Mishraji of Barpeta Road and several others in Howli and Bongaingaon. At times, another accomplice would accompany him but mostly he went alone. Khaled had not allowed him to go home for many months. Whenever he expressed his desire of going home, he would defer it to next month. It was hardly a distance of twenty to thirty miles and whenever he thought of Hamida he wanted to rush to her. ‘Don’t worry about your wife. She is getting her rations regularly. She is fine.’ Khaledbhai would tell him.

He had gone home on leave once. He had taken powder, face-cream and an expensive saree for her. It was obvious that she was eating well. The short, young girl had transformed into a tall, mature and beautiful woman. Mansoor made sure that she did not want for anything, he came himself with her supplies or had them delivered through one of his men, she had told him. He would listen to her quietly, without any outward reaction but inside, he would feel heart contracting painfully. He was furious at his inability to speak up- to protest, yet he would still be silent, his heart seething with his pent up fury. Hamida did not ask about his work even once. It seemed to him that she wanted to avoid him, to maintain a distance between them. Was it so? He couldn’t be sure but he could feel the distance between them. His precious ten-day leave becomes interminable to him and Farman returns to Khaledbhai after eight days.

Police! Police has been looking for him. Hastily, Khaledbhai sends him away from his house. Farman is terrified. It is true that he was with the thieves but he hadn’t stolen anything. He would simply wait at an appointed place where the others would hand over their loot to him. His instruction was to deliver these things to Khaledbhai’s contacts, beyond that he had played no part. But now police was on his look out, they had found out about his involvement in the thefts. And so here he was, hiding in this God-forsaken corner of the char at Khaled’s advice. It has been almost two months that he has been cooped up in this place. There was nowhere he could go, no one he could meet. He was forbidden from going home, forbidden from going to Barpeta. He thought he would go mad from sheer loneliness. He had forcibly kept the man who had come to give him his rations for a night. He didn’t have much information and could tell him little. All he could say was that the police was still looking for Farman.

He made up his mind to go home. He has stayed away from Hamida long enough- it has been more than two months that he saw her last. Sitting under the starlit sky, he would yearn for her, wish that she was by his side. No, he had had enough of skulking like some animal. He would definitely go home, he decided.

Deliberately he had been late in reaching home. His house was in darkness; the door was fastened on the outside. But where was Hamida? There was no sign of her, where could she have gone at this time of night? Stealthily he went to Zulekha’s house. Zulekha’s mother seemed perturbed by his presence. Pulling her veil closely about her face she haltingly said in reply to his question that Hamida had left with her brother some six days ago. ‘Her brother?’ He was alarmed. ‘But Hamida doesn’t have a brother!’ ‘She said he was her brother.’ And no, Zulekha’s mother had no idea when she would be coming back; Hamida hadn’t said anything to her. She was reluctant to talk to him any further. Quickly she went inside.

He was bewildered by the turn of events. Some thing had gone wrong- terribly wrong. He was at his wit’s end, Mansoor- it was Mansoor who first came to his mind. He must find Mansoor- yes, that’s what he must do. Immediately he retraced his steps to Mansoor’s house but Mansoor was not at home. He met Siddiqui, Mansoor’s right hand man. Siddiqui accosted him in the gate itself and asked roughly, ‘Why have you come here? Don’t you know the police are on the look out for you?’

Mansoor was away, had been gone for more than a week. Nobody knew when he would come back. This was not his only residence; he had many other houses, many other addresses apart from this. He could be staying at any of these places, who knows? Farman couldn’t bring himself to ask Siddiqui about Hamida. He felt a wild, blind rage rise up from his guts, his fists were clenched and he could feel himself shaking uncontrollably. He was drained of senses as a paroxysm of frenzy took over. Siddiqui shouted, ‘Niyamat! Rahim! Where are you?’ –two men wielding clubs materialized next to Siddiqui in the darkness. Siddiqui put his hand on Farman’s shoulder and said quietly- ‘Farman Miyan, forget about your Hamida Bibi. She will not go back to you. She says she will not be a wife of a thief. She is happy and comfortable where she is.’

Chapter Eight

He had blundered back like a mad man. Afterwards, he could not recollect how he had got back that day. He was demented by a desire to avenge himself for the injustice done to him but he knew there was that there was nothing that he could do, they were too powerful. A deep bitterness possessed his soul. Upon reaching home, blindly he had groped for the kerosene-lamp and lighted it. From his small bundle containing all his earthly possessions, he had taken out his cleaver; its sharp edge glittering as he held it up against the shadowy light of the lamp in that semi-dark room. He will hack everyone to pieces- Hamida, Mansoor, Khaled, Siddiqui- every single one of them, yes! That’s what he would do! And then, then he would give himself up to the police and the police will hang him-but wait! Was the police really looking for him? Had he been framed after all? His brain was addled. What should he do now? Should he burn down the damned house with the lamp? Finish with the whole bloody business! Better still, let him slit his own stomach and wrench out the insides. Then he could scream at the whole world to come and see for themselves what had turned him into a thief-he would show them his intestines- ‘look at these! These are the culprits! They have made me into the pariah that I am today.’

He hasn’t eaten anything the whole day. Hunger made his stomach rumble. An agonizing pain racked his insides. Hunger and the mental shock completely devastated him. Thoughts without any link what-so-ever kept going round his mind- the only thing he was sure of that he wanted to kill some one- any one he could lay his hands on. But he didn’t do anything. Sapped of all energy and emotion he fell on his cot and fell into an unconscious slumber. The kerosene lamp burnt for a while, till the oil lasted and afterwards dipped and its flame burnt out in a screen of smoke.

The next day he remained inside his house, not for the fear of police- thoughts of personal safety hadn’t even entered his head. He just remained hunched in the same position unthinkingly. Over night, he could feel himself turning into an old man. Did his hair turn white too? He thought so. By evening the intensity of his hunger increased so much that he felt like retching violently. Mechanically, he looked around the house to see if there was something to eat. Inside an earthen pot he found a few grains of rice. He took it out and cooked it. He ate the plain rice woodenly without thinking of adding a pinch of salt also.

He went out with the cleaver in hand. Aimlessly, he wandered through the villages in the char in the dark night. What was that, a cucumber plant? Some body must be growing cucumbers. He could see the long, fresh cucumbers clearly in the moon- light. He plucked as many of them as his towel would hold. Then without giving it a second thought, he chopped the plant in two with his cleaver and went towards the market, some two miles away. In the morning he sold the cucumbers to a vegetable vendor at one rupee-there were quite a few kgs of them. With the one rupee note in hand he went to a tea stall and had a cup of tea with stale bread. For the first time in his life, he stole for himself, yet his face betrayed not the slightest change of expression at what he had done.

Nowadays he never left the house at daylight, venturing out only after the sun had set. At times he stayed away for three to four days at a stretch. People rarely saw him during the day and had they seen him, they would have found it difficult to recognize him with his rough and unkempt look. By now he knew the all the lanes and alleys of the char and the addresses of the people who would be interested in his spoil, so it was easy for him to sell the stuff he had stolen from the houses of the poor. He did not really steal for money but went about it in a rather mechanical and dispassionate way. The only thing he dreaded was hunger- the thought of going hungry would make him cringe and he tried to keep his belly filled to keep this fear at bay. Fear of hunger finally turned him into a thief.

Vegetables, poultry, goats, utensils, clothes, bicycles – he stole whatever he could lay his hands on, he wasn’t particular about his pick. Like an animal on the scent of its prey, Farman began to prowl among some thirty to forty villages of the char. Did people suspect him? He wondered. Perhaps they did. He would sometimes note a look suspicion in the eyes of some of them. Stealing was not uncommon in the char, people were used to petty thefts that happened all the time. It won’t be easy to pin it to Farman. Moreover, unlike professional thieves, there was no method or pattern in his stealing. He entered every body’s house-irrespective of whether they were rich or poor. One small bowl of expensive bell metal or an ordinary plate of aluminum- he wasn’t choosy, anything would do as long as it served to satisfy his belly.

That day he had traveled really far. He had no particular destination in mind and had merely rambled on. In his hand, were the ubiquitous small and tattered bundle and his long knife. That day his bundle had contained about a kilo of rice flakes. The char was silvery with moonlight, and the moon itself looking like a small and round fruit. There were faint rings of white light around it. The ghostly light played a game of hide and seeks as it alternately created shadows among the bushes and brightened the open spaces of the wide char. A mild breeze swayed the rushes and the leaves of the trees. He had walked on absent-mindedly- had he come this way before? No, he hadn’t, he was certain. His surroundings were unfamiliar. He must have come along way. There, in the distance was a small hamlet. But he won’t go there, not right now. He will take a short nap. Nowadays he could sleep anywhere- just spread his towel and lie down; there was no problem. He could easily sleep for one or two hours. In a slightly raised ground darkened by the shadow of a tree he spread his towel and lied down.

It had been dark still- the dawn was a long way off and the villages sleeping soundly, looked dead in the dark. All was silent- not yet time for birds to chirp and the cock to crow. Farman stared intently at the village for a long time. Slowly, he went forward- that house! The house in the corner-that should do. He will break into that house, he thought. The house was a little away from the cluster and would be safe. Like an animal on the trail of its prey, he crept ahead stealthily. A sudden premonition stopped him- should he perhaps not attempt it today? Should he go back? After all there was no need. The rice flakes in his bundle were enough to last him for two days. No, he couldn’t go back now, He went forward propelled by sheer habit. The owners didn’t appear to be too rich or too poor from the sight of the house. They would belong to the middle layer, he decided. Such houses were the best. The rich had guards and the poor had nothing more than a few pieces of aluminum utensils but these sort of people did not need guards and they possessed a few things of value. Such houses were the safest.

Far off, a dog barked loudly. Immediately a chorus of barking followed. However, there were no dogs this side of the village. Careful not to make a sound, he went forward. The door was simple- made of bamboo. He had become expert at opening such doors. Loosening the securing at one or two places with his knife, quietly he pushed the door open. It was pitch dark inside. He tried to guess his bearings. He didn’t want anything much. He knew where people usually kept their utensils- one or two of these and that would be enough.

A bright ray of torchlight made Farman jump. One ear-piercing scream and someone grabbed him tightly. There were three of them sleeping in that house, three young men. Farman couldn’t escape, not that he really tried to.

Confused shouts, babble of voices filled the air. There was an air of excitement. Farman could sense the crowd nearing him. The light from several torches and lamps illuminated the dark night. He was surrounded on all sides. By this time they had already bound his hands and legs tightly. He was sitting awkwardly on the ground. Some one kicked him hard on his back and made him roll down side ways.

It was easy, very easy to tie some one and thrash him, kick him and beat him up with a stick. He had no idea how many people were beating him or how severely they were doing it. He did not scream. The groans came out automatically. Could people really hate some one so much? He felt salt in his mouth-blood was pouring out from his broken teeth. He tried to spit out the blood but was unable to do so. He lay on his side and tried to roll himself up into a ball. At least one side of the body was spared the thrashing.

In the morning, the whole village turned up to look at him and with that the beatings also increased. As if it was the duty of every man who came to see him to give at least one slap, one kick. The young boys were more enthusiastic than the rest. Not content with the kicks and the slaps, they started throwing stones at him. He had been lying on his side but as the stones started hitting him, he cringed and tried to roll up his body even further. There spread over his countenance, a look of utter terror, his lips were pulled back revealing his teeth. Like a caged and wounded animal, he started to whine.

The enthusiasm and consequently the savagery of the boys increased. Nobody tried to stop them, not even the elders. Everybody was happy at the unexpected and the free entertainment provided by the spectacle.

At the approach of the Maulavi, yes, it must have been the Maulavi; the boys scampered away. The short and elderly man cried out on seeing his plight. The torture stopped.

An officer and two constables had come to arrest him. They had been out the previous day investigating a theft some two or three villages away. They couldn’t find the thief and were returning in the morning when the Maulavi and the other villagers handed over Farman to them. They were thrilled at their unexpected luck. Taking out a copy from his pocket, the officer noted down the names and the address. Finally, after a good breakfast they were ready to go. It was a long way to the police station. They would have to cycle through the char to reach the main road. Still, it would be evening by the time they reached the station.

His legs were untied. He was handcuffed and a rope was tied around his waist. The officer led the procession followed by a constable in the middle who tied one end of the rope to the handle of his bicycle. The second constable pulled up the rear. In the middle of the small procession across the char, Farman walked on with quick steps pulled along by the rope around his waist.

He did not reply to the policeman’s queries. Like a dumb man he just followed them. He remained unmoved even when the constable behind him hit him with the stick. The policemen were talking among themselves. According to the officer, all the thefts that had taken place in that area in the last two years, were the handiworks of Farman. Farman made no protest; he remained unmoved as if he nothing affected him anymore. As he ran beside the cycles he thought of nothing in particular. And no, he wasn’t hungry either.

The morning sun brought with it the first indication of the heat that would set in later. People were coming out to their fields. The season of sowing had begun.

They reached a sort of bifurcation of the road. Sort of, actually there was no real road in a char. Where ever two paths well trodden by people crossed, they formed a kind of charali. Usually there were a few trees in that corner and one or two shops where an assortment of soap, betel nuts, cigarettes, bidi and tea would be sold.The policemen got down from their cycles. Immediately, they were surrounded by people on all sides all agog to know the name of the thief, where he was from. Proudly the havildar introduced Farman as a notorious thief who had tricked the police for a long time and now finally caught in his net. He made sure that the people realized what a great role he had played in arresting Farman.

The crowd praised his bravery. Everybody narrated the thefts that had taken in their own villages. The havildar appeared to be galvanized into action. Declaring Farman to be the root of all the trouble, he started to beat him mercilessly. A thrill of exultation went through the crowd. With the air of rounding off a game, the policemen tied Farman, cowering with fear and pain, to a tree and went to a shop to have their much-earned cup of tea.

The same spectacle occurred at two more places. In the afternoon, they reached a point where several roads crossed one another. There was a big tea stall there. Having tied Farman to a tree, the policemen entered the stall. Farman sat motionless but his eyes moved constantly looking at one thing, then another. The crowd gathered again to have a look at him but he remained impervious to all the attention he was drawing. One constable came and put a glass of tea beside him. The constable took off his handcuffs and after cautioning the crowd to see that he did not escape, returned to the stall.

The tea tasted like lukewarm sugar water. He started sipping at his tea. Some one from the crowd asked if he was indeed a dangerous thief. He did not reply. With the same detached air, he began to rub his body with his calloused hands. Some body had thrown a half-smoked cigarette near him. He picked it up and started puffing on it. Seeing this some one gave him another one. He took it without looking at the person and lighted it with the butt in his hand. Inhaling deeply, he let out the smoke through his mouth and his nostrils. The crowd was perplexed by his odd manners and left after whispering among them for a while.

Only a boy remained, a sweet and good-looking boy. He wasn’t more than twelve or thirteen. He wore a blue checked kameez over sparkling white pajamas. He had sandals too. His hair was combed neatly. Farman had noticed the boy staring at him. When the crowd dispersed, the boy slowly came near him. Wide-eyed in anticipation, Farman stared back at him. “Has he too come to beat me?” He was afraid.

In a soft and gentle voice, the boy asked him, ‘Why did you steal?’

A current of shock went through Farman’s body. At the kind words of the small boy, he experienced an unexplained, indescribable sensation inside. Something pulsating inside his head seemed to snap. He began to shake uncontrollably. All of a sudden, he became agitated. His eyes bulged and glaring at the boy, he stood up abruptly. Fearfully, the boy went back a few steps. Farman’s lungi came off as he rose in haste. Grabbing at the falling lungi, without any warning, he began to wave it over his head like a flag. Stark naked and waving his lungi frantically over his head with both his hands, Farman began to shout in an unnatural voice, - hunger- hunger-hunger. (ends)

(Last 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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