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Translated Fiction: Kajro (Part I)

Tilgo got up and went to the hearth where the cat was fast asleep on the little heap of ash. He picked it up, held
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This story was translated from Konkani by Vidya Pai. Vidya Pai has translated eight Konkani novels and many short stories for leading publishers like Oxford University Press, Harper Perennial, Sahitya Akademi, National Book Trust, Katha, The Konkani Language and Cultural Foundation, Mangaluru, etc. The Konkani story appeared in the monthly ‘Jaag’ in October 2021. It was made into a Konkani film, ‘Kaajro’, that was well received.

Goklem woke up around midnight and poked at her husband with a stick, ‘Get up ……’ she called. Tilgo got up at once and struck a match to light the oil lamp that stood close by.
‘I want some tea, my throat is parched’ she said. Goklem often woke up in the middle of the night. She had been moaning loudly just a while ago and at such times Tilgya’s sleep would get disturbed and he’d sit up in bed puffing on a beedi. But he had been sleeping soundly today and his eyes had only snapped open after being prodded with her stick.
Tilgo got up and went to the hearth where the cat was fast asleep on the little heap of ash. He picked it up, held it by the ear and set it aside. He cleared the ash from the hearth, arranged some dry twigs and bits of wood and lit a fire. He poured some water into a vessel and placed it on the hearth.
There was a small shelf above the hearth with some seven or eight tin cans arranged on it. He opened the can of tea powder and dropped a pinch into the vessel. He knew that the sugar can was empty but he opened it anyway and noticed that there was some sugar stuck to the sides. He poured a little water into the can, dissolved the sugar with his finger and poured the water into a glass, topping it with some hot tea. He took a tiny sip ….the tea was sweet.
He took the tea to Goklem and she gestured to him to set it down. ‘No sugar….?’ she asked.
‘There was a little bit. I’ve put it in your tea,’ he said as he helped her take a few sips. The sweetness filled her mouth and she felt a bit better as the warmth coursed through her body.
‘I’ll take you to the big hospital in Bambolim next week. Many people come back from there fully cured…..’ he said.
‘Do you have the money? You have already borrowed money for my treatment, don’t borrow any more. I would have done some work and earned some money if I could, but the wretched creature that I am …..’
‘Don’t utter such inauspicious words, I’ll arrange the money. The fields are ready to be harvested and the villagers will need cane baskets and winnowing pans and reed mats for the threshing. I have made five sets of cane baskets and winnowing pans. I will not take a share of the grain after the harvest this year, I shall ask for money instead……’ Tilgo was engrossed in telling his wife about the plans he had made but she had shut her eyes and fallen asleep and was snoring in a short while.

He was sitting there leaning against the wall, when suddenly a thought struck him. He got up and grabbed the little cloth bag that was hanging from a peg on the wall and flopped down again. He emptied the contents of the bag onto the floor. There were two or three tiny boxes, some scraps of paper with words written in English, a few coins and a twenty rupee note.
He set the money aside and began to open the boxes. The first two were empty but there was something wrapped in paper in the third box. He undid the paper and saw that it was a coin … what could this be, a brass coin perhaps, he said to himself as he turned it over in his hands and inspected it closely.
‘Goklya, I’ve found the coin you were looking for. Get up, see ….’
Goklem opened her eyes and Tilgo placed the coin in her hand. Her face lit up and she broke into a smile as she stroked the coin that was nestled in her palm. Raising herself with great effort she leant against the wall, ‘My mother gave this to me. It’s a gold coin,’ she said.

‘Let me ask someone in the village if it is made of gold,’ Tilgo suggested.
‘No. They won’t tell you the truth. Let me keep it with me. I won’t lose it,’ she gazed at him trustingly, a faint smile on her lips. A dimple would form on her left cheek whenever she broke into a smile, but her cheeks were sunken now and her eyes had receded into dark hollows.
Tilgo took down the drum from the peg on the wall. He had wiped it clean yesterday and was hoping to play it for a while.
‘Where are you going with the drum?’ Goklem asked.
‘The villagers will celebrate Dussehra tomorrow …. don’t you remember?’
‘Who, but you, can remind me of all this? But there’s one thing I do remember…. it was three years ago, on this very day, that I fell ill and took to my bed. You play the drum very well. I enjoy listening to you.’
‘Really?’
‘I would accompany my father to the Dussehra festival in our village. He played the drum very well.’
‘I know. He was my uncle.’ Tilgo laughed aloud.

There was a lot of activity at the Ravalnath temple since morning, and there was reason enough for this. The bridge across the river had been built before the rains set in and a road flanked by electric lamp posts led right up to the temple. The bridge had been opened for public use and some of the youngsters in the village had invited the Member of the Legislative Assembly to the Dussehra festivities. The MLA had promised to come.
The young men had been cleaning the area around the temple for the last eight to ten days. They had decorated the temple with brightly coloured flags. The villagers were convinced that since the new bridge had been built spanning the river there would be a larger influx of visitors to the temple during the Dussehra festivities than there had been in previous years.

There was a lot of activity at the village temple

Tilgo woke up early that morning and helped Goklem with her morning ablutions. He had gone to the village the previous day and bought a packet of biscuits and sugar for twenty rupees. He lit a fire in the hearth and made some tea.
‘Get the medicine from Saguna apa’s house,’ she reminded him as they drank the tea.
‘Yes. He sent word. I’ll pick it up on my way home this afternoon. Here, take this pill,’ Tilgo gave her the medicine she was to take in the morning.
‘I’m sick of these pills.’
‘You have to take them. How will you get well if you don’t?’
‘I’ve lost my sense of taste. Even water seems tasteless and insipid. I’m fit to die, now.’
‘Don’t say that. I have no one, but you. There is no one from our caste in this whole village.’
‘I have only one regret.’
‘And what is that?’
‘I couldn’t give you a child.’
‘Don’t fret about such things now. Get some rest. I must go to the temple, the villagers must be waiting for me.’
It was three years since Goklem had taken to her bed. They had consulted four or five doctors but she had not improved. Tilgo was saving money so that he could take her to the hospital at Bambolim.
He put on a shirt and trousers and hung the drum from his shoulder. He slung a small cloth bag on his other shoulder and set out for the temple. When he got to the centre of the village he beat on the drum three times in a bid to rouse the villagers. One by one the people emerged from their homes and gathered at the temple.
Early this morning in accordance with the Dussehra rituals, the tenth garland has been ceremonially placed around the idol of Lord Ravalnath and the deity will now set out to meet his sister, goddess Santeri. The tarangam or decorated pole with the image of the deity on top is ready, and the gaonkar who will hoist it stands close by. The sticks begin to beat on the drum. Huhh ….huhh ….huhh… the devotees chant in unison, their voices grow more intense. The drum begins to pound. It picks up speed ….. the buzz of sound created by people’s voices and the pounding drum echoes all around. The spirit of the Lord takes possession of the gaonkar and in a state of frenzy he grabs hold of the tarangam, hoists it onto his shoulder and rushes out of the shrine.

The temple of goddess Santeri is in the middle of the forest, at a distance that can be covered in around twenty minutes. The gaonkar with the Lord’s tarangam hurtles down the narrow forest path at a rapid pace because Lord Ravalnath is eager to meet his sister. It is only once every year on Dussehra that the deity makes this ceremonial visit to his sister’s home. There are hundreds of people in the procession following the tarangam. There is only one man in front of it, pounding on his drum at a feverish pace.
By the time his duties in the temple were done the sun was high overhead. Tilgo stopped briefly at Sagun apa’s house to pick up the medicine and learn how to administer it, before making his way home. As he deposited the drum, the cloth bag and the medicine on the verandah the cat rushed out sensing his presence and began to mew and gambol about his legs.

Tilgo was saving money for Goklem's treatment

‘Aggo, I’ve brought medicine for your Goklem. Let me grind it to a smooth paste, then we can have lunch,’ he said. He glanced at Goklem who was sitting propped against the wall, as he made his way to the hearth. He opened the rice bin and took out a fistful of raw rice that he tossed into a vessel. He filled a small pot with water and took everything to the verandah. He washed the grinding stone and slab and then poured some water into the vessel to wash the rice clean. He emptied the rice on the slab and ground it smooth. He untied the bundle of medicinal herbs and leaves and ground them into a smooth paste too. He extracted the juice from this paste and poured it into a glass so that half the glass contained medicinal juice and half of it was water.
He took the medicine to Goklem’s bedside and found her staring blankly with her eyes wide open. Tilgo gazed at her for a moment, noting that her eyelids didn’t flutter even though her eyes were open. He set the glass down.
‘What’s the matter, Goklya?’ he asked, shaking her by the shoulder as her neck lolled to one side. He straightened her head and neck with both hands as a wave of emotion emerged from the depths of his being and he began to sob like a child. ‘Forgive me, Goklya, I couldn’t take you to a good doctor,’ he wailed.
Tilgo rose to his feet trying to control his emotions; he knew that he would have to be strong to perform the rituals of death all by himself, since no one from his caste group lived nearby.

By the time his duties in the temple were done the sun was high overhead. Tilgo stopped briefly at Sagun apa’s house to pick up the medicine and learn how to administer it, before making his way home. As he deposited the drum, the cloth bag and the medicine on the verandah the cat rushed out sensing his presence and began to mew and gambol about his legs.

He shoved Goklem closer to the wall so that she was propped up against it, and then removed the thin quilt that covered her body. The rituals of death demanded that the corpse be in a seated position, so he first folded Goklem’s left leg into position and then carefully folded the right one over it. He stretched both her hands making them rest against her belly.
As Tilgo lit a fire in the hearth in the bathing space he was overcome with worry about the Dussehra rituals, who would play the drum in the temple, now? The villagers would have to be informed. He made his way to the Chief Gaonkar’s house, but the man was not at home. He told the Chief Gaonkar’s wife what had happened and returned home. The news soon spread through the village.
Tilgo opened Goklem’s little iron trunk that contained three or four saris that the gaonkars had given her when they celebrated weddings in their families. There were an equal number of blouses too, but there was only one long skirt. Goklem was very fond of the blue sari so Tilgo drew it out for her final journey. He placed a container of oil, some cotton wicks, a matchbox, some joss sticks, flowers and some vermilion powder on a tray.

The arrangements were done, no doubt, but where would he bury his wife? Tilgo was dumb struck at this thought and the ground seemed to slip away from under his feet. He lit a beedi and drew deeply on it, lost in thought….
There was a time when no member of the Mhar community, who could play the drum on festive occasions throughout the year, lived in Derodem village. The villagers would hire some outsider from this inferior caste whenever it was necessary. On one occasion they invited Soma, Tilgya’s grandfather, to the village and Soma arrived with his drum slung about his neck.
The villagers discussed the matter with Soma and it was decided that he would get land to build a hut. He would be paid three thousand rupees to beat the drum at the Dussehra, the Kallo and the Shigmo, the three major festivals celebrated in the village. He could go from house to house collecting alms on festive occasions and could weave baskets and other implements from cane and reeds for sale in the village. Soma was happy with this arrangement.
The villagers marked out a plot of land and Soma built a thatched hut where he began to live with his wife and child. His wife walked out on him because he misbehaved with her under the influence of drink. She didn’t come back and Soma brought up his son all by himself. The boy must have been twenty or twenty two years old when Soma vanished, one day. No one knew where he had gone, he vanished without leaving a trace.
Tilgya’s parents also met with an untimely end. They were crossing the swollen river that flowed past the village when they were both swept away by the raging stream. This sequence of events makes it clear that this family had never had occasion to bury a family member. But Tilgo was faced with this predicament today.
He made his way to the Chief Gaonkar’s house and squatted on the low compound wall.
‘What is the matter, Tilgya?’ the Chief Gaonkar asked.
‘Goklem is dead, Gaonkara….’
‘I know. You should be relieved. You’ve taken care of her for three years now. Don’t get upset. Dead people don’t come back. Wait till Diwali is over and get married again.’
‘Do me a favour, Gaonkaranu ….’
‘What? It’s Dussehra today. Don’t sit at my door with such a mournful expression.’
‘Give me a bit of land.’
‘Land! What do you need land for?’
‘To bury Goklem.’
‘No. You won’t get land. No one in the village will give you land to bury a corpse.’
‘I’m in deep trouble, Gaonkara ….’, but the Gaonkar didn’t wait to listen to his woes. He vanished into the house and didn’t come out again.
Tilgo waited for him to emerge but neither the Gaonkar nor anyone from the family appeared at the door. He got up with a heavy heart. He was confused and didn’t know what to do.
There were four or five houses that belonged to the farmers in the village and Tilgo decided to approach one of them for help. When he got to Vasu’s house the man was sitting on his porch puffing on a beedi.
Tilgo bared his bruised soul, ‘I need a patch of land to bury Goklem, dada,’ he said.
‘Ask the Chief Gaonkar.’
‘I’m coming from his house. He says No.’
‘In that case you won’t get a patch of land from anyone in this village. We are outsiders who have settled in this village. We must do whatever the original settlers, the gaonkars, say. We are with them, always.’
‘Ye … Vasu! Are you planning to give him land?’ The Chief Gaonkar saw Vasu talking to Tilgo and called out to him.
‘No gaonkara. Where will I get land?’
‘Tilgya, come here.’ The Chief Gaonkar summoned Tilgo to his side. ‘There is a massive Kajro tree just across the river, you can see it from the river bank. Bury her under that tree. And don’t forget to stack large boulders over the grave or wild animals will dig out the corpse. There’s one more thing ……. Don’t come back to this village. You have no sons. You can go wherever you like. We have asked someone else to play the drum today at the Dussehra rituals.’ The Chief Gaonkar turned away and strode briskly towards the temple.

To be continued…

Images courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

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