Translated Fiction: Freedom (Part II)

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Translated by Ranjita Biswas from the original Assamese story ‘Kranti’.

Ours was a morning school. The classes finished by 11 o’ clock. I used to roam around by myself after school. For whatever reason, I elicited a hostile attitude from the children of my age and they avoided my company. Sometimes they put wild berries with thorny stems on my curly hair which were very difficult to extract. At other times, they pulled at the frill of my frock. But I knew how to take care of myself. Even when I met one of those tormentors alone, I never tried to take revenge. I could foresee, even at that age, that it would mean only more trouble for me afterwards. Besides, physically I was weak. They said that I was fair like the coagulated first milk of the cow after the birth of her calf. Ma used to dress me in milk-white frilly frocks. I was so tiny that even when I was seven or eight months old, my father could easily hold me in his palms. This provoked one of his best friends to give me an appropriate name – “Pakhi”, (bird) the featherweight one.

When I was about four, I heard the story of a princess from Philip ‘koka’-grandfather as we addressed him. He was our neighbor in the town. The princess was a Libra. And even at the age of fifteen she weighed a tola. I remember, when Grandpa Philip had described this princess to me, his big palms resting on my back covered it completely. He had snow-white hair even on the brows. One Christmas day, someone brought two socks filled with gifts from Philip koka’s house. I found them by my pillow. In the morning, I saw Ma crying. I saw Deuta busy but sad too. In the afternoon, a person lifted Philip koka from the bed and put him in a long wooden box and then pulled down the lid. From my mother’s lap, I looked on, astonished at the scene. My hands clung to the socks filled with a pretty silk frock, a tin of baby powder, and a plastic box filled with chocolate pastries. There was also a blood red gift paper sprinkled with gold dust. It was rolled like a royal decree with two golden rods at both ends. It’s still with me, carefully locked up. The gold dust and the color of the golden rods have now faded into the shade of dull sunlight. On the paper was written with trembling hands, (Merry X’mas to my dainty Pakhi. From Santa Claus.” Most probably, the gifts for me were discovered only after his death and somebody had brought them to me following the Christmas custom. I was supposed to be that frail princess. When Grandpa Philip teased me that I weighed only a tola, his face used to break into a hundred lines.
But my poor health didn’t persist for long. I had heard that my mother was quite sick at the time of my birth and that’s why I was born so weak. I am not sure if Deuta gave me some medicine or supplement, but by seven years of age , I started growing rapidly. Now that health also permitted, I became naughtier still.

Rajpratap was my cousin. He was the son of my father’s elder brother and was older to me by a few years. For some reason, he was also a loner like me. I didn’t see him mixing with other boys. After school, I used to follow him everywhere as he flew his kite. I would look on eagerly as he rolled the string of the kite, taut with grainy manja (a mixture smeared on kite strings). As he held the reel, it moved on its thin sticks jutting from both sides so fast that soon it looked blurred as the momentum picked up. But Rajpratap’s hands would be rock-steady. I had often wondered how come the reel could move so fast on these hands. I longed to hold the instrument as the kite became a coloured dot in the sky. Raj told me that the kite was pulled along by the wind and that made the reel spin. He scolded me almost everyday; so I had no hope of fulfilling my desire of flying the kite. When I nagged him sometimes, he threatened to slice off my neck with the roughened string. But a strange attraction made me follow him everywhere like a puppy though he gave me a tongue-lashing at the slightest opportunity. Thus we two lonely souls came to spend our wild childhood together.

I followed him everywhere after school

One day, I was busy picking latumoni– those berries we played with because they were inedible. Then Raj told me a strange thing. His elder brother was home from the town along with two of his college friends. Their house was huge, almost like a palace. His brother occupied the room in the corner. One day he emptied the room of all the furniture except for three wooden chairs and a rather odd-looking three-legged round table. The three young men shut the door but Raj managed to peep through the corner of the curtain. His brother checked and made sure that nobody could spy on them. Raj told me that a pair of ghosts had visited the room. He could hear the sound of a storm accompanied by lightning and rain from inside the room. The ghosts were in black silk clothes spangled with golden motifs. The boys apparently asked the apparitions many questions. The ghost answered in writing. Evoking ghosts like this was called ‘planchette’ I was informed. I rolled the word on my tongue a few times but I was not convinced. How could there be a storm inside a room, and rain pouring in too? I couldn’t help laughing aloud and teased him, “So you take me for a fool?” then I ran away with my precious berries wrapped in yam leaf. Raj followed me with his long strides. If he could catch up with me he would pull out half of my hair, I was sure.
Suddenly I heard Raj screaming. I looked back; he had stopped midway. He must have twisted his ankle I thought but didn’t go back to help him. What if he was only pretending, and when I was near he still attacked my long hair?

The next day was a holiday. By 9 o’ clock in the morning, I was already out, playing. Raj called me to his house. He took me to a room next to the barn. What I saw astounded me. Some days back, Rajpratap’s mother had suffered from a severe bout of dysentery. She was undergoing treatment under my father. She had to be given at least fifteen bottles of saline drip. Raj had put aside those bottles and syringes. Now I saw a coiled snake in one of the bottles. Its neck was pierced by a needle. And as with a patient, a bottle of saline water was kept by its side. The water in the bottle looked muddy. The snake’s body was swelling from the neck up. It seemed now to be too big for the bottle. It was still moving a little. Now Raj brought it out of the bottle gleefully. Then he placed it on the road in front of the house. At a short distance a group of people were discussing something excitedly. As both of us were on our way to find out what it was all about, suddenly a jeep flashed by and ran over the snake. Its body burst out with a hideous thepek sound. The pink flesh scattered here and there. It was awful. Repulsed, I spat out the hideous feeling with my spittle and advanced towards the crowd. But who were those two? A man and a woman were under a tree looking down at the ground and searching for something without looking up to the crowd. I was reminded of the ferris-wheel in the park. They looked as if they were moving on it in slow motion. They would stop at a point and then move in the opposite direction in a circle. When I ran towards them to check what they were looking for, someone in the crowd shouted, ‘Hey girl, don’t go there! If the police find you there they’ll arrest you. What an incorrigible girl!’

The three young men shut the door but Raj managed to peep through the corner of the curtain. His brother checked and made sure that nobody could spy on them. Raj told me that a pair of ghosts had visited the room. He could hear the sound of a storm accompanied by lightning and rain from inside the room. The ghosts were in black silk clothes spangled with golden motifs. The boys apparently asked the apparitions many questions. The ghost answered in writing. Evoking ghosts like this was called ‘planchette’ I was informed.

I didn’t care and advanced towards the couple anyway. A few policemen were standing nearby. Rajpratap was inspecting the police jeep. It was the one that trampled over his snake. Going nearer, I stopped in confusion, not understanding. The pair was hanging from the fork of a branch of the tree; their necks were tied with the same rope. Their feet hung a little over the ground. From time to time their bodies were spinning slowly. Blood that ran down their lips had clotted by now. Oh, what a terrible sight it was! Seeing me, one of the policemen shouted in irritation. And then one of my uncles in the village thumped my back resoundingly and dragged me away from the spot. I felt as if I had just alighted from a ferris-wheel moving at a top speed. The memory of the dried blood at the corners of the lips of the hanging bodies disturbed me again and again.

At night in bed, I held on to my mother tightly. Blood, a fast moving ferris wheel and ugly sight of the dead snake danced before my sleepy eyes. Outside, a wind pregnant with rain whined. It brought to me a vision of black silk-clad ghosts. Were they the planchette ghosts? Rajpratap’s brother had invited them to the village. Didn’t they go away from the village? Suppose they stayed back?
From outside flashes of lightning and howling wind invaded my sleep. I clung to my mother and muttered repeatedly, ‘Ma, I am so scared!’ but she did not seem to bother. She admonished me saying, ‘Keep quiet, you’ll wake up your father.’ Her lack of concern and sympathy added self-pity to my fear. Helpless tears trickled down my cheeks. I jumped down from the bed and went to the next room where my father was sleeping. I dug my fingers into his arms and whispered, ‘Deuta, I am very scared.’ He was not angry. ‘Don’t be afraid, my dear!’ he said, ‘Let’s see if there’s anything to be scared about,’ to reassure me, he took out the torch from the drawer and flashed it on every nook and corner of the room. I felt very safe as I huddled in the wide expanse of his chest. I touched his arms tentatively as he wrapped them around me, protecting me from all the evils in the world. I soon fell into a deep sleep.
As I said, the whole village was under a spell of dysentery. Due to this, my father had stayed back in the village for a longer period than usual to treat the patients. People had immense faith in him; they said that he just had to take out the stethoscope and feel the chest and the patient was cured. I dreamt that my father’s hands had transformed into a stethoscope and it draped itself around me with great tenderness.

To be continued…

Images courtesy: Subhajit Paul, Wikimedia Commons.

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