Translated Fiction: Freedom (Part I)

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

When I look back at my life so far, and try to arrange it in sequences, I think of the males who have figured at different times in my life. I try to think of those who have left an indelible mark on my soul from the earliest years and then, the first name that automatically comes to my mind is my Grandpa (‘Santa Claus’) Philip. But no, even before him, someone else figured in my life. He was the one who first introduced me to the experience of death. I was touching him when he was dying. He was a black tom cat. As I sit now to reminisce about the “men” who have influenced me through all these years, it’s the tom cat that first comes to my mind.
He was quite old by the time he arrived at our cowshed one wintry night. Though I was six years old at that time, I was rather short for my age and so I had to stand on tiptoe to get a glimpse of him from the kitchen window. I saw him sitting at a safe distance from the cows. There was a heap of straw near the shed. He lay down there though I could see that he could hardly get any warmth from the heap of straw. Ours was a locality where every household had all the latest gadgets for ensuring physical comfort. So there was no need for a makeshift fire outside in the compound to keep away the biting cold. Mother used to light up a fire in the cowshed in the evening to smoke out the insects that disturbed the cows but as soon as it was free of them, she poured water on the smoldering embers. Sometimes while trying to get a glimpse of the cat, my legs hurt. Mother had a very beautiful handbag made of black fur. When the hair of the black cat stood up, bristling, he looked exactly like that bag. It seemed to me as if Ma’s precious bag was lying abandoned on the straw dump there. Somehow the idea didn’t appeal to me.

The cat came the next evening too. And, on the following two days. On the fourth evening, I stole some milk from the fridge after finishing my dinner. I put the milk in a polythene packet and found an ingenuous way of keeping it within the cat’s reach. I dug a hole with a spoon near the shed and placed the packet in such a way that it looked like a bowl of milk. I kept watch until he came. I felt very pleased when I saw him drink the milk a little later. I couldn’t be sure if he felt my presence but I saw him staring steadily at my kitchen window for a long time. After sometime, he rolled into a ball and went to sleep contentedly on the haystack. Meanwhile, Ma kept nagging me to go to bed. I went stealthily to the wardrobe, opened it and touched the soft fur bag hanging from the hook. Ma didn’t allow me to handle it. What would I have done- I ask you, tear off tufts of hair from it like pieces of meat? As my fingers caressed the softness, after some time, the cat and bag seemed to merge into each other. It left me feeling confused.

I kept on stealing the milk without being detected for another week. Then the cat stopped coming. A few days later, there was a kirtan at our place. Ma and the others in the family were busy arranging for the bhajan. In the evening, Ma made me wear a dress that covered me from head to toe, as if I was an astronaut. The nam-kirtan was to continue till late into the night and the doors of the house were to be kept open though it was still very cold. Being the experienced mother as she was, she knew that I would grab at the opportunity to roam around the compound. Hence the precaution. And as expected, I was enjoying my temporary freedom with gusto and strolled around the cement courtyard. Then suddenly, I saw the tom cat walking slothfully towards me. He came up to my waist. He tried to rub his face on my tummy once, and suddenly, collapsed on the ground. I couldn’t understand what was happening and knelt down. I touched his body. Until then I had only seen dead bodies of ducks and chickens brought in for cooking. I had a vague idea about the difference between being alive and dead. Now I realized that the cat was no longer alive. But I couldn’t reconcile with the idea that he was like the dead poultry either. He was my friend. And he was not like the ducks and chickens meant for the dinner table. I touched my own chest and then the cat’s chest. My father was a doctor. So I was familiar with this task of feeling the heartbeats. Then I put my ears to his chest. His still body convinced me that he was dead. I picked up the spade lying nearby and went beyond the fence near the cowshed. There was a garbage dump where I was heading for. The outline of the dump was soft with muddy earth and it was full to the brim with rubbish. I dug a hole about one and half feet deep and buried the cat there. I topped the place with earth and leftovers. I still remember how I had then thumped on the spot with all my force after I finished my job.

I had a vague idea about the difference between being alive and dead

Sometime later, we left the town to return to our ancestral house in the village. Here again, I met a black tom cat. I didn’t like him at all. Right from the beginning, it seemed to me that he was after me– conspiring against me, and always on the lookout for an opportunity to do me harm. One evening, as I was going to the bedroom after a wash, the light on the corridor suddenly went off. I was about to step on the doormat kept in front of the room. While my right foot fell on the mat, my left foot fell on a fat hairy rope. Instantly, there was a hissing sound as if there was, not one, but ten snakes hissing together. The rope slipped away immediately. In the dim light coming in streaks from the bedroom, I saw two green eyes glaring at me. Just one and half inches below them, I saw two gleaming rows of white teeth snarling at me. I realized that the black cat was ready to pounce on me. Today when I look back, I find that in my whole life I have never been so terrified. And never since then have I encountered such a moment of horror. Even now at times the memory of those fluorescent teeth and glowing eyes strike terror in me.
From a very young age, I have felt this excruciating pain whenever the Keteki (common hawk-cuckoo) bird sings. Her desolate voice makes me feel very restless. When I hear her singing in the distant jungle, I always visualize her perching on the bare branches of a tree all by herself. Even to this day, I haven’t been able to picture a Keteki and vibrantly green tree together.

I remember my first Bihu celebration in the village very well. Just around the corner of our house, there was a peepal tree. It’s still there. From that crossing, the main road of the village forked out into three smaller paths. I saw young men and women dancing on that crossing enjoying their Bihu festival. Next morning, I saw a bright-red bordered gamosa (a woven towel from Assam) wrapped around a tree. I recalled the papaya tree in our house in the town. It was unusually tall; it never displayed any blossom. But the other trees standing along flaunted many flowers. Once, Ma had wrapped a piece of her old mekhela around the tall tree. It was supposed to be a male tree. The whole purpose of the ritual was to make the papaya tree change its sex to a female one. But when I saw the beautiful gamosa full of red motifs encircling the peepul tree now, it looked different though I was quite sure that it was a male tree too.

From a very young age, I have felt this excruciating pain whenever the Keteki (common hawk-cuckoo) bird sings. Her desolate voice makes me feel very restless. When I hear her singing in the distant jungle, I always visualize her perching on the bare branches of a tree all by herself.

A few days later, on a hot afternoon, I heard the duet of a Keteki and a cuckoo. The cuckoo seemed to be singing from a distant jungle while my beloved Keteki was quite nearby. Hearing her from such proximity, I went looking for her. The unseen shackle with which Ma had curbed my freedom in the town had suddenly been slackened when we moved to the village. Even when I went searching for berries or sunbathed lying on the haystack in the open, she didn’t seem to mind. Often, I also found her absent-minded. Deuta, my father, visited us in the village from time to time. During his stay, I was a model of good behavior, almost like a doll. I was not scared of my father but somehow even a naughty child like me was hypnotized into obedience in his presence. My restless legs lost their tempo when he was in the house and I did whatever he asked me to do.

The day I ran after the Keteki, Deuta was not at home. But when I approached the big peepal tree I saw a rather dull-looking bird. Ah! Was it my elusive Keteki? I ran very fast but the bird flew away by the time I reached the spot. Disappointed, I walked through the narrow lane running between the paddy fields. This road ran up to Highway 37. Just before it met the highway, the road became very steep as if it traversed a hillock. As I walked on the ascending path, I felt the romance of climbing hills engulfing me.
When I reached the metal road at last, and my eyes came up to the level, a strange light caught me unawares. In the bright sunlight, the surface of the road shone like a sparkling river. Yes, I was sure that it was a river I saw and not Highway 37. But after a few moments, I realized my mistake. It was a road after all. Only the brightness of the sun made the tarred road shimmer like a flowing river. I remembered Deuta telling me about the people getting lost in the desert and how their thirst made them fall prey to the tricks of the eye and they saw pools of water amidst the sand dunes. And how many a traveller would fall unconscious, unable to bear the disappointment when they discovered the truth; some even died. He also told me that I would be able to understand about the mirage when I grew up. Was it a mirage I was experiencing that day? I had come down running after the Keteki but within seconds she flew out of sight. After that day I have never seen the bird. Yes, that day, I had experienced not one but two mirages.

 

To be continued…

Images courtesy: devianart

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