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Translated Fiction: Art

Their father could not afford to give a facelift to the house. Moreover, he could not muster enough enthusiasm to even attempt it. He must
translated Assamese story in English
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Translated from Assamese by Ranjita Biswas.

The first thing Prasanta did after he got up in the morning was to instruct his sister, “Bhonti, take down those photographs and calendars from the wall right away. The workers will come by 8 O’clock. Who will keep an eye on them once you leave for college?  In all likelihood, they’d break half the things. Who cares for others’ goods anyway?”

Bhonti did not seem to pay much attention to her brother’s tirade of words. Still cocooned under the blanket in her bed, she shot back, “So what, even if they break a thing or two? The way you’re going on! As if an original Picasso is adorning your precious wall! Oh really, the things mother used to collect! I feel so mortified when guests come to our house.” 

Prasanta did not take kindly to his sister’s defiance. Sipping tea, he retorted with all the superiority of being the elder brother: “No, do as I say! Huh! Showing off your knowledge! Talking about a Picasso original, are you? Do you know whether he was an elephant or a tiger? What have you learnt in college? You can’t even correctly write a sentence in English. I haven’t seen you touching a good book either. All you’ve learnt is to wear fashionable clothes and talk insolently. That’s why I always say, what’s the point of sending these girls to college? Waste of time and money. These colleges have turned you girls into painted dolls, only fit for exhibitions.”

“And the boys have become clowns!” Bhonti giggled as she flaunted Prasanta’s T- shirt which proudly displayed Marilyn Monroe’s smiling face.

In truth, Bhonti was very happy today. For the first time in her life, at least as far back as she could remember, painters were coming to their house. Ah, the ugly bare walls would be white-washed at last! Their father had built the house even before they were born. Perhaps that was the last time the walls were ever painted. Now the walls seemed to carry only the memory of that good fortune. Dirt, dust and smoke gathering through two decades morphed into a new colour– the colour of decay that hung about an old beggar on the street and his tattered loincloth. 

Their father could not afford to give a facelift to the house. Moreover, he could not muster enough enthusiasm to even attempt it. He must have concluded that spending on the repairs was a waste of good money. In his time he could buy a ‘mound’ of rice with that money. Life’s experience had taught him that in this world the most important thing was rice. Life could go on without other paraphernalia, but rice? His whole life centered around procuring morsels of grain for the family. The children grew up thinking  that the walls of their house needed to look a little whiter, a little brighter. If possible the decrepit house should have been demolished and be replaced by a new house– like Bishaka’s or Swapna’s. But as it was out of the question, at least the walls should have had a semblance of respectability. From the days Bhonti and Prasanta felt the need of ‘should have’, they pestered their father to white-wash the walls. One day Bhonti received a resounding slap for her constant whining. 

“Not happy are you with this house? At least you have a roof over your head. Now you want a fresh coat of paint too?” her father had raged. 

 

Later on, however, he conceded, “Yes, I know, the walls need painting. But in my lifetime I can’t see it happening. Let Prasanta do it when he starts earning.”

Yes, the old man could not do it in his lifetime. He breathed his last still looking at those grey walls.

In truth, Bhonti was very happy today. For the first time in her life, at least as far back as she could remember, painters were coming to their house. Ah, the ugly bare walls would be white-washed at last! Their father had built the house even before they were born. Perhaps that was the last time the walls were ever painted. Now the walls seemed to carry only the memory of that good fortune.

Only very recently the family has seen better days. Prasanta has managed to get a good job. After a few years, he planned to build a new house in its place. But until then, he meant to renovate the old house. And today was the day to start painting the house. 

Her arguments with her brother notwithstanding, Bhonti finished her breakfast quickly and then proceeded to take down the pictures hanging on the walls. As she did so, she grumbled, “Oh, really!  What kind of taste Ma has!” 

Her mother came into the room just at that moment. As she lowered herself on the cane chair, she sighed and said, “My dear! These things seem ugly to you today. But do you know what hardship I went through to save, coin by coin, to buy these items? I simply don’t understand what can be better than these pictures of gods and goddesses.”

Bhonti was now taking down a picture of Lakshmi- the Goddess of Bounty. She handed it to her mother impatiently and said, “Now take it! You keep your gods and goddesses where you like. I won’t let these funny pictures hang here.”

Swiftly, she brought down more pictures: Ganesha with his trunk, Hanuman the monkey god, kneeling down in front of Sita in Ashok-vana, Krishna with his flute under a Kadam tree. Her mother looked on without blinking as her daughter’s contemptuous hands moved on. Each time Bhonti snatched a picture, she felt as if hard nails had dug into a secret corner of her heart and blood spurted. She did not understand why it felt so painful. She could not put a finger on what was being taken away from her. Was it the cruel hand of youth– the ever new? The one  that destroys the old ruthlessly? Was life composed of only the present and the future? Isn’t life about the past too– a past that treasures sweet memories, consequences of past deeds or unrealized hopes? Did Bhonti want to make a clean slate of her past? Her soul cried in desolation. But she hesitated to express her inner turmoil. To whom would she go begging for mercy? To those who discarded the past as if of no consequence? 

The walls need painting.

But then she had to. This time she had to put aside her fear of humiliation. Bhonti was aiming at the last picture on the wall. The picture was not of any deity in the Hindu pantheon but of a colourful butterfly resting on a rose embroidered lovingly on cloth. Her husband himself had made the sketch. It was long ago– just after their marriage, even before Prasanta and Bhonti had arrived. She used to feel very lonely once he left for office. There was nothing much to do around the house. She was not educated enough to spend time reading novels like modern housewives. One day, she confided in her husband about her feeling of forlornness. Her husband teased her, “Do you feel lonely because you’re on your own or because you miss me? If I am the real reason, then do something. You can keep busy with embroidery. Your time will fly and you can decorate the house too with your handiwork.”

He himself had drawn the picture on one of his free afternoons. As she started her work, she discovered a new life. She wove her dreams, memories and sorrows with threads from multicoloured skeins on the lazy afternoons. Spring, summer and then monsoon passed without her feeling bored. Her barren hours without the man she loved were now filled with the perfume of roses and the wonderful colours of a butterfly. She felt a deep sense of fulfillment. Yes, time was not getting wasted. Time stood still– in the creation of art; her dreams and loneliness guided her fingers to create a world of beauty.

And now, Bhonti was ready to destroy that world– taking down from the wall that very piece of art while she commented carelessly, “Now take this! Throw it away or keep it locked in a box– whatever you like. People will only laugh at you if they see this work. Why, you couldn’t even manage to embroider a rose properly!”

Her mother got up from the chair abruptly. Trying not to show her agitation, she begged, “Good or bad, I want the picture kept there. One bad picture isn’t going to make a whole lot of difference to you. Your father really loved that picture.” 

Bhonti did not relent. “But father isn’t there any more! Who’s going to love it now?” she asked defiantly.  

She wanted to say something but could not utter the words. She dropped down on the chair as if all the energy had left her. Bhonti’s question hit her emaciated chest with its protruding ribs like sharp flints. Yes, who was going to love it now? Her eyes moistened with tears. She wiped the corners of her eyes with the end of the sador. She sat bowed with the unbearable burden of utter loneliness that comes with impenetrable darkness. The darkness  of death. Life ebbs away like this– she tried to console herself.

Images courtesy: Pixabay & Libreshot

Homen Borgohain (1932 -2021) was a foremost Assamese author, journalist and intellectual. He was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in Assamese language in 1978 for his novel Pita Putra. He was also the President of Assam Sahitya Sabha from 2001 to 2002. He dealt with issues of urban life with deep understanding in his short stories. His non-fiction writings and editorials are regarded as chronicles of contemporary times and which also reflect his wide-ranging interests. His autobiography ‘Atmanuxondhan’ is considered to be one of the most valuable contributions to the Assamese literature.

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