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Dhrubajyoti Borah
Date of Publish: 2015-08-22

(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)

IV

Nothing was more conducive to man’s happiness than the knowledge of money in hand.

Farman was happy too. The feel of the crisp notes gave him a sense of security he had never experienced before. The first few days passed away as if in a dream. He would count the money and put it away with utmost care. He would ponder for hours what to do with it. At last he decided to buy himself some good clothes and visit his sister. This time he would not go empty handed, he will take sweets for them.

He boarded a bus to Barpeta and bought himself a green, cotton lungi and a shirt and a vest. He already possessed a cap but its colour had faded from white to a light shade of brown. So he bought a cap as white as the feathers of a crane. Attired in his new clothes, he went to his sister’s house. The surprised look of disbelief on his brother-in-law’s face gave him a surge of joy. He realized too that he was being treated differently this time, given respect. His brother-in-law asked him if he had found himself a job.

‘Trade!’ He replied shortly.

‘Very good, very good!’ His brother-in-law voiced his approval.

His sister’s behaviour too had changed perceptibly. He noticed that she was more solicitous towards him. She had never shown the slightest pleasure in his earlier visits, was always reluctant to talk to him. But this time, she just couldn’t have enough of him; she simply refused to let him go. It was as if her brother’s newfound respectability had added to her status in her household. On his previous visits, he would stay for lunch without being asked; this time his sister had a chicken killed in his honour and repeatedly asked him to take lunch with them. He was pleased by the hospitality of his sister and her husband. For the first time, he felt himself being treated as an equal by a fellow man. His sister brought up the topic of his marriage. Her husband enthusiastically supported her. He too agreed shyly. It was all very nice and pleasant, he thought. Then just as suddenly, the foolishness of his actions struck him. Hai Allah! What was he doing? He has not even learnt the ropes of business and already he was dreaming these fantastic dreams! How could he be so carried away? Behaving like some mighty Baadshah, he was!

During lunch, his shrewd brother-in-law asked him about his business. He noticed that as soon as he mentioned ‘cattle trade’, his brother-in-law had stopped eating. With his hand still raised in mid air, he looked at him intently for a few moments.

‘With whom?’

He answered.

‘Haven’t been stealing, I hope?’

‘Of course not! Why would I steal?’ He had protested a shade too loudly.

‘Well no, I mean, he is notorious, that man. Everybody knows about him, so I thought I should warn you. You just be careful, that’s all.’

Farman’s pleasure evaporated. He finished his meal and left quickly. Often, the image of the snake-eyed man would float in front of his eyes and make him shiver. Would he be able to find his house? He wondered. No, he was sure he couldn’t and thank God for that! He certainly had no wish to see him again! His thoughts went to the small bag of money tied in a knot in his lungi. Stealthily, he groped for it. After all, these pieces of paper had served to fill his empty belly! They were his only security.

His money was beginning to dwindle rapidly. With money in hand, he hadn’t felt like working. But now, the old fear came back to him. He had already spent more than two hundred rupees! His savings were slipping through his fingers like sand. He shouldn’t have wasted so much on sweets for his sister, he thought regretfully. After all, it was not as if she didn’t get to eat sweets in her own house! He really shouldn’t have spent so much.

With a little money he repaired his house and thought of starting a new business. But what business could he start? What could he do? Nothing came to his mind. So despite his brother-in-law’s warning, he decided to go to Mansoor. But Mansoor too was away. Helpless, he had no other option than to look for a labourer’s job once more. He must save the little money that was left at any cost.

He found a job with a Matabbar three villages away from his own- that of a field labourer. The Matabbar had a farm at some ten miles distance from the village. He will have to go and work there, for which he will get his meals for free and earn a daily wage of two rupees. It was tough but there was nothing to do but take it.

The job was back breaking. They had to work from morning till sunset in the searing heat without any respite. By the time they stopped for the day, their hands and feet were stiff and numb from the day’s toil. By the time night fell, Farman’s only wish was to gulp down his food and crawl into bed. Labour in a jute farm was more arduous than in any farm and the food they were given was barely edible. Within days, all the labourers were burnt to a pitch black by the sun. Their conversation invariably revolved round the topic of their sufferings, their hunger, and their misery- as though they had forgotten the existence of other things of life. Rarely would someone raise the subject of women and their discussion spiced up. One of their mates had come newly from Bangladesh and would speak of his land often. They found it difficult to understand his dialect but from what little they could grasp, they understood that the land of Bangladesh was extremely fertile, its rivers large and the women! There was no such woman to be seen on this side of the border. They were beautiful, their complexion like the pink pavda fish- soft, smooth, fresh!

Such talk would make Farman see red! ‘And what made you leave this land of plenty then?’ He would snap at the boy irritably.

The boy would remain silent.

‘What crap! Who would want to slog in an unknown land if he had food in his own house? Rubbish!’ He muttered to himself.

In the afternoon, when the heat of the sun reached its peak, the silvery sand of the char would glitter and dazzle the eyes. The far off houses and trees became blurred. The breath became shorter and came in gasps. Sweat would flow and it became imperative to rest the dehydrated body in the shade of the make- shift shacks built for the purpose. But there was no respite from the merciless sun. Perspiration flowed freely and unless one drank water frequently, it was painful to pass urine. The cool breeze disappeared. Towards evening, when the intensity of the heat lessened somewhat and the wind blew, people were able to get back to work.

He noticed the girl one such hot day. She was short but well formed. She was wearing a deep purple saree with a dark border. Her face was broad, flat but remarkably sweet and attractive. She would come with three tiny kids to fetch water from a small stream near their field everyday. Her home was in the village on the other side. He felt like talking to her but could never muster up the courage. One day, as she was passing him, he abruptly asked her name. For a moment, She appeared to be at a loss for words. He repeated his question.

‘Hamida’, she replied softly, not looking at him.

How old was she? He tried to guess. Fourteen, fifteen? She was not a small girl.

‘What about your family? Who is there in your house?’ She made no reply.

After that he would try to meet her whenever he could and draw her out. His mates were highly amused by this and he became the butt of their jokes. They would tease and advise him constantly. One or two would even pass lewd comments making him angry. He didn’t want to discuss her with anyone.

Some things just happen, without any planning. It was one of those things. Before he could grasp the implications of his action, he had brought Hamida home with the help of his friends. He had worn his best dress; she was impressed and looked at him admiringly. He had not said anything to her family, not asked for their permission .He was told that Hamida’s sick father had created a ruckus over the matter. It had taken some effort on the part of his friends to cool the old man’s anger.

His dark and lonely two-roomed hut was lit up by the presence of Hamida. Zulekha’s mother and his other neighbours were surprised at first. But they were happy at the prospect of having a new bride in their midst. Their first enquiry had been whether they had had their nikaah or not and then they had happily taken the initiative in calling a quazi and having the ritual solemnized. There had been a small feast and after everyone had left, Farman went inside. All of a sudden, a curious sensation engulfed him- on his usually unoccupied cot, was sitting with her head covered with a veil, a young, unknown girl, who was supposed to be his wife.

V

Fear! An unnamed fear possessed him. Or was it hesitation? Whatever! He couldn’t be sure what it was. Blowing out the kerosene lamp, he had lied down on the cot. And she? She was sitting there- silent, still. After a while, he had called her to sleep. Quietly she had come to his side and just as quietly, come into his arms.

What would he say to her now! He was at a loss for words, tongue-tied with awkwardness. After what seemed like an eternity, he softly asked her- ‘Hamida, are you scared?’ She shook her head. She was not scared. He felt a rush of tenderness for the soft, young girl snuggled against his chest. Gently he drew her closer to him.

In the darkness of the night, their breathing became heavier, laboured. He wanted to possess her, to make her completely his. She had asked him to wait. Not that way, it would be a sin. She had then covered their primitive bodies with her saree. Yes, like this. In a flash of excruciating pain, Hamida had held Farman to her tightly and become one with him.

The wind blew and beat against the char with a monotonous regularity. Towards dawn, the cool breeze blowing from the river on the south would brush noisily against the branches of trees, the thatched roof of their hut but they remained oblivious to the sound of the wind and the tranquil dawn, the gradual lightening of the sky, gently unfolding like the soft petals of a lily.

His house looked different, it positively glowed! Hamida swept and cleaned and polished it in such a way that within days, it lost its old, shabby look. She pestered him for all the things required in a new household and bought pots and pans and other nick-knacks that she wanted. For a month they remained lost in their own world, wrapped in each other. Then one day Farman counted his money and realized that it was almost finished-only about forty rupees was left! He was frightened. For the first time, he was really frightened, not for himself; this has always been his lot- his pockets are empty, he cannot find a job but the hunger is ever present. But now the circumstances have changed. He is no longer alone- he has another mouth to feed. Moreover, there was also the question of his self- respect. He couldn’t let Hamida go hungry!

The monsoons had arrived. The river was in spate. It was not easy to get jobs at this time of the year. He moved from place to place in search of work, to all the people he knew. Sometimes he got one day’s, at other’s half a days work. This was not the season of cultivation and so not much work was going around. He went looking for Mansoor twice without any success. God alone knew where the man had disappeared! He was becoming desperate, willing to take up any job- do anything he could lay his hands on. The rising waters also made it inconvenient to move about.

Then one evening, for the first time, they had to go without food. A sense of humiliation, sadness and helpless fury took hold of him. Even Hamida had looked scared but she tried not to show it. Bravely, she had tried to console him, told him that he was sure to find something the next day. He had wanted to believe her even as knowing that it won’t be easy. There was no work to be found.

After that it had become a routine affair- their days and nights of fasting! Previously it was one belly that would be empty and now there were two, that’s all!

It was early morning and he was still asleep. Hamida had risen as usual and gone out. Suddenly, the sound of vomiting broke his sleep. Jumping down from his cot, he hurried outside and saw Hamida retching desperately. Zulekha’s mother was standing beside her and questioning her. He saw Hamida shaking her head sharply.

As soon as Hamida came inside, he asked what was wrong. She said it was nothing, she had just felt uneasy.

‘But what did Zulekha’s mother ask you?’

‘She asked if I was about to become a mother.’

His heart skipped a beat. ‘And what did you say?” He held his breathe.

Hamida’s eyes filled with tears. Looking at him sadly she said, ‘no.’

It was as if a burden had lifted from his mind. He felt considerably lighter- ‘but why are you vomiting? Aren’t you feeling well?’ He was concerned.

Hamida had remained silent for a few moments and then said in a voice heavy with unshed tears, ‘I was feeling queasy. I was hungry and my stomach was churning horribly, bile came to my mouth and I just felt like throwing up. Its just that we are fasting almost regularly these days.’

An unexpected, unseen bolt of thunder struck him and he remained rooted to the spot!

‘Never had to go hungry in Baba’s house.’ Hamida said in a choked voice. As soon as the words were out, she tried to control herself. Coming near him she put her hand on his arm and tried to reassure him, ‘Don’t worry. I am sure you will find a job today. And tonight we will really eat a nice meal.’

VI

The raft was sturdy, made of a good many bamboos secured tightly with ropes and strong enough to hold quite a number of people together. There was no fear of it capsizing or sinking under the weight of its load, but very difficult to steer all the same. A long pole had to be plunged into the water and the raft given a boost in order to make it move. Farman and another labourer named Quader were rowing the raft. Two other men were following with a similar raft. After a long hunt for something to do, he had found this job of ferrying bamboos. It was a strenuous task as the bamboos had to be brought from quite a distance through the river and its channels. The periodically rising waters of the river would damage a lot of houses in the char. Bamboo and straw was required to repair them and a contractor had given Farman the job of transporting the bamboo across the river.

He was away from home for a long time, not just once but twice. He hadn’t wanted to leave Hamida behind but there was nothing that he could have done, at least he had found something to do. Laborious though it may be, they were assured of a meal, if nothing, he tried to console himself. The first time he had left her alone, Hamida’s eyes had filled with tears. He had borrowed from here and there and asked as a loan from the village grocer and tried to provide her with a little ration of rice, flour, salt and a few rupees. He had brought rations for her again that first time when he had come for a brief stay of two nights. But his meager provisions hadn’t been enough and Hamida had been fasting one meal a day while he had been away.

How long has it been since they were married, six months? Perhaps a little more than six months and it was indeed a wonder how, in spite of their poverty, their starvation, she had grown prettier! He was amazed by the fact that she had grown so much taller, so much fairer. He could feel his heart constricting with a rush of pleasure and a twinge of sadness at the same time.

Gradually staying away from home became a routine affair for him. He would be gone for days and there was nothing he could do about it. He was helpless. Every time that he paid his occasional visits home for two or three nights, he would be worried whether she had enough to eat. His life wasn’t easy either; hunger hadn’t quite left pursuing him but he was accustomed to it and it was about Hamida that he was anxious.

He had found Hamida changed in one of his visits. There was a noticeable frostiness in her behaviour but he couldn’t gather the courage to question her. The last time he was home, he hadn’t been able to leave much for her; even now, he hasn’t brought anything substantial. He was unsure how to approach her; something in her demeanour stopped him from taking her in his arms, making love to her.

The next evening Hamida had told him that Mansoor had come asking for him several times. He had been startled.

‘Why was he here?’ His voice had sounded harsh to his own ears.

‘He said he was looking for you- was here thrice.’

‘What did he say to you?’

‘On the first day, he inquired about you and then asked for a glass of water before leaving. I think he was surprised to see me, it seems he didn’t know about our nikaah. He was asking after you, Zulekha was here too and she told him.’

‘And after that? Why did he come again?’

‘He said owed you some money, something about your dues left from your previous business. He gave the money to me.’

‘What! He gave you money?’

‘He said it was yours, he owed it to you.’

‘Why, why did you take money from him?” Farman had shouted at her. He had come near her and shouted in the same agitated way-“He is not a good man- dangerous! Why did you take money from him?’

Hamida had retreated in fear and then said in a freezing tone, ‘I took it because he said it was your money and if I hadn’t taken it, how would I have survived? There was nothing to eat at home.’

Farman had stormed out. The nights of chars are never completely dark. Clusters of stars always twinkled and illumined the night sky. The evening breeze had cooled the heat of the day and provided the much needed soothing balm but Farman was not aware of anything except that there appeared to be an insistent buzzing of some pest in his ears.

(…….To be continued)

(second 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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