Pitambar Mahajan was sitting in front of his house. His shoes were covered with a thick layer of mud, but he did not remove them. He looked at them with pride, he and the Gossain of the Satra were the only ones who possessed shoes in this remote village.
Pitambar was in his early fifties. He had once been a robust man, but his worries had slowly eaten into his healthy body. Folds of skin hung loose beneath his chin. He talked to others with averted eyes and a bowed head. His sight was always directed to the ground beneath his feet, burrowing into it as if looking for something.
Heavy rain had soaked the ground and water had collected on either side of the village. Half-naked children played in the water or stood here and there, fishing with bamboo-poles. With the rains, there was everywhere a rank growth of all sorts of plants and creepers like halechi and nalakochu. Flying frogs jumped from puddle to puddle and sometimes hit the legs of the passers-by.
Pitambar was staring intently at a chubby, naked boy trying to pull out his fishing line entangled in the leaves of a nalakochu plant. Suddenly his thoughts were interrupted by the grating voice of the village priest Krishnakanta. “You have no child to call your own! Why do you devour that child with envious eyes? Every time I have gone to and returned from the temple, I see you sitting there like this! What about your wife? Is she better now?”
Pitambar replied hesitantly, “I have taken her many times to the Civil Hospital at Guwahati but it is useless. Her whole body is swelling now.”
“So there is no hope of an issue, is there? Very sad, indeed. There will be no one to continue your family line.”
Pitambar remained silent. The priest stood near him for some time. He was wearing an old dhoti well above his knees and a Punjabi made of endi cloth, the colour of dried sheepskin. His shoulders were covered with a cotton wrap. As Krishnakanta had only two teeth left, his mouth and cheeks had caved in and created two hollows in the face. When he spoke, his face would twist into a weird expression. His small eyes carried a cunning glint. His sparse hair was parted in the middle.
Krishnakanta bent down and whispered in Pitambar’s ears, “What about another marriage, eh?”
Pitambar removed his chaddar and wiped his face with its end. Before he could reply, the eyes of the two men were drawn towards a young woman passing by. She was Damayanti, the widow of a young priest from the Satra. Her rain-drenched clothes clung to her body. The colour of her skin was that of the glittering foam of boiling sugarcane juice. Her figure was rather plump, but she was immensely attractive. People said all sorts of things about her. Some even called her a prostitute. Perhaps the first Brahmin prostitute of the Satra!
Krishnakanta called out, “Hey, Damayanti, where are you coming from?”
“Can’t you see these cocoons?”
“So now you have started mixing with that crowd of Marwari merchants, eh! When the need arises, one stoops to washing even goat’s feet, as the saying goes, is it not true?”
Damayanti did not reply, but bent down to squeeze out the water from the wet folds of her mekhala. Her blouse had stretched tight and was pulled up, revealing the white flesh which to the two men looked as tempting as the meat dressed and hung up on iron hooks in a butcher’s shop! Krishnakanta turned his eyes away almost immediately, a little self-consciously, but Pitambar kept on looking, enthralled by the sight. Damayanti straightened up and, without glancing at them, walked away; her, mekhala rustling.
“I hear that she eats meat, fish, and everything.”
Krishnakanta nodded and said; “This girl has brought disgrace to Bangara Brahmins. She has thrown to the winds all restraints and rituals prescribed for widows.
“Yes, yes! I have myself seen her once exchanging two baskets of paddy for a pair of kbariya fish!”
The priest exclaimed, “Hai! bai! A widow and kbariya fish! chee, chee! Kalyuga! Kalyuga!”
“Shut up, you Brahmin! Why do you want the whole world to know about a Brahmin widow eating fish? It is the same everywhere, I hear. On both the North and the South banks of Brahmaputra. These old customs should end.”
Pitambar stopped to swat some flies, buzzing around him, with a corner of his chaddar. In the mean time Krishnakanta sat down with a sigh on the stump of a severed tree near by.
Pitambar asked, “What about your jajamans for whom you perform religious ceremonies? How do they look upon you nowadays?”
“You know everything, still you ask me! My elder brother quarreled with me and snatched away most of the business. I am now ruined!”
“Bapu! You don’t know Sanskrit well. Your brother has spread this news everywhere and probably that’s why your jajamans do not want you.”
Krishnakanta denied it hotly, “Ah! Ah! Now you tell me, how many Brahmins on the North bank can speak Sanskrit like Narahari Bhagawati? We studied together in the Sanskrit tol. He used to be caned very often but not once did I get any. I know why I have lost so many jajamans. Even the Brahmins well versed in all the four Vedas are starving to death. It was once easy to get a sacred thread, two pairs of dhoti and five rupees every month from each jajaman’s house. Nowadays, they don’t want to observe the rituals. To avoid expenditure, our old jajaman, Manikanta Sarma, took his two sons to Kamakhya and performed their thread ceremony there! Mysanpur’s jajamans have now started performing the shraddha of their fathers and mothers together at the same time.”
Pitambar listened to Krishnakanta without a word of assent or dissent. All the while, his mind dwelled on the brief glimpse of Damayanti’s white flesh. He had never seen such soft burnished flesh before. It was not as if he had not seen or touched a woman’s flesh. There was his first wife. Then he had brought a second one with the hope of getting a child. Now she lay bedridden with rheumatism. Her whole body had become rickety. She was like a bundle of bones dumped in a corner of the bed. He had trodden the road to the hospital at Guwahati so many times that the soles of his shoes had worn out. The fear of having to die without an issue had almost driven him out of his mind.
Pitambar’s ailing wife, lying in bed in the mud-walled house, could see the priest standing outside. She indicated with her eyes to a servant standing nearby that he should carry one of the mundhas outside for the priest to sit on. Pitambar, absorbed in himself, did not notice the mundha nor knew when and how it came to be there.
Krishnakanta stood up and said, “People of the village are gossiping about you, that you have gone off your head. What do you think? Don’t you know that there are many people in this world who are childless like you? Just try to look at it in a different way. After all, it is all illusion!”
Pitambar’s head dropped. The priest could see the grey hair on his head. His clothes looked worn out, unattended. Only his shoes, though muddy, were intact. He felt a kind of pity for this man. Once upon a time he was so handsome that people had called him gora paltan. Now he had money, a granary full of paddy, everything. Still he was not happy! Suddenly a thought struck Krishnakanta. He looked around. He could see the open door of Pitambar’s bedroom and the reclining body of his wife. He could even see her eyes, burning like those of an animal in a dark jungle, as if she were straining with all her might to catch what he would say next to her husband. The intense stare of those glowing eyes, even after traversing that long distance could be so heartrending! The priest could not have believed it possible.
But he made up his mind. He bent down and whispered in Pitambar’s ears, “I can help you out of this agony.”
“Yes, this time it is absolutely pucca!”
“I do not understand you!”
“This time there is no question of an unsuccessful pregnancy! She has gone through four abortions and every time she has buried those evil things in the bamboo grove behind her house.”
Startled, Pitambar cried out, “Are you talking about Damayanti?”
“Yes! yes! yes! Nowadays Brahmin girls are even marrying fishermen. The daughter of the Gossain on the Dhaneshwari riverbank married a Muslim boy! Gandhi Maharaj has shown us the path. That’s why I am telling you.”
Pitambar exclaimed in a surge of excitement, “What is it you are saying?”
“If you want, you can make Damayanti your own!”
Krishnakanta turned his head and looked again towards the bed-ridden wife of Pitambar. He could still see the two glowing embers in her face. She was staring steadfastly at him.
Pitambar stood up. Here was Krishnakanta, putting into clear words what he had only been dreaming about! Overwhelmed with gratitude, he went up to him and tried to clasp his hand. Krishnakanta shrank back to avoid his touch. He had just taken his bath and had to go and bathe the idol of Murlidhar in Gossain’s house. If this man touched him, he would have to take a second bath.
Pitambar’s condition was like that of a drowning man suddenly sighting a colourful sail. He did not know whether to touch the priest’s hands or his feet.
“So you had this in your mind for quite a long time, didn’t you?”
Krishnakanta again cast a glance at the invalid woman. This time her eyes were shut tight, probably in a spasm of pain racking her body. Pitambar kneeled down near the priest’s feet and entreated earnestly, “Only you can do it! Please help me! She is a Brahmin. I will keep her in all comfort!”
A cunning smile played for a moment on Krishnakanta’s toothless mouth. “Hum, well… er! I’ll see about it. I’ll have to come again a couple of times. Then there are her two little daughters to be taken care of.”
Pitambar got up with confused emotions and made his way to the bedroom. When he entered through the door, he saw his wife open her eyes and look at him. She now saw him opening the wooden box where they kept money and other valuables. A little later, he closed the box and went back to the priest.
Krishnakanta took the money, twenty rupees in cash, and went away humming under his breath.
A week passed. Pitambar waited anxiously for the priest, his mind on tenterhooks. In these past seven days, he had seen Damayanti passing by his house on her way to Gossain’s place, carrying cotton for making sacred threads. The sight of her body heightened the turmoil in his mind. Her hands and feet were as soft as mango saplings. Her hair cascading down her back was reddish brown in colour, the colour of rust on a canon. His obsession for her gave rise to strange hallucinations.
People said that she was born at Rauta on the bank of Dhaneshwari river in Kamrup. There is a belief that nowhere else can be found girls as beautiful as the Brahmin girls born on the banks of Dhaneshwari river. Pitambar was now convinced that this was absolutely true.
Pitambar took to sitting outside his house daily. At this time of the year, Damayanti came regularly for gathering kollmu and other vegetables, which grew rampant along the drains bordering the road. Her two little daughters, skinny and naked, usually trailed behind her. Their thin and undernourished bodies looked incongruous beside their mother’s healthy and voluptuous body.
One day, Pitambar gathered enough courage to go near her when she was plucking the green leaves and said, “You will catch cold if you stand like this in muddy water every day.”
Damayanti looked at him, her eyes wide open with astonishment. But she did not reply.
Pitambar said again, “I’ll send the servant. Tell him to collect as many greens as you want and….”
But he could not finish the sentence. She looked at him again and Pitambar’s eyes could not meet the intense, disdainful stare she gave him. He left the place hurriedly and sat down on the tree-stump in front of his house. He could again see his wife lying on the bed, like a bird with broken wings. In the morning, she had seemed all right, even moved around the room a little but now the bed had claimed her again. Anger welled up inside him. Pitambar threw an angry, disturbed glance in her direction. He could even hear the dried-up joints of her ailing frame creak. It was time for the next dose of her medicine but he did not get up. He looked at his shoes, took out his handkerchief and started, cleaning them. He glanced often at the road, impatient for the sight of Krishnakanta. Suddenly Pitambar heard the sound of cartwheels. He knew what it was. His tenants were bringing his share of boka dhan, the rice harvested in July on his land. Normally, he would have been very happy at the sight of these carts laden with paddy. He would inhale with great pleasure and satisfaction the fresh fragrance of newly harvested paddy and rush to the carts to count the number of baskets as they were unloaded. But now he remained where he was. However, his servants came out immediately and started carrying the baskets to the granary. When this was done, the tenants were offered tea, jaggery and parched rice which they gulped down with obvious enjoyment. They then went to the well, washed their hands and took pan and betelnuts kept separately for them. When they came to say goodbye to Pitambar, they told him, as usual. “Ah! You don’t have children. All your granaries are now overflowing with paddy! Who will eat them? And you are growing old. Now is the time to worship god and offer charity and alms.” Pitambar did not reply. His eyes turned to the open door through which he could see his bed-ridden wife. Her eyes were open. A glass lay below the bed. She had perhaps taken a drink of water. It was long past her usual medicine time.
Pitambar now thought that he should give her the medicine. He removed his shoes, got up and put them aside in a corner. As he was about to cross the threshold, he suddenly heard someone coughing behind. Krishnakanta at last! He ran back and put on his shoes. His wife’s eyes had followed his movements, expecting the medicine. But now she closed them wearily again. The fire in her eyes had gutted out.
|Pitambar asked impatiently, “Bapu! What news have you brought for me? Tell me! Quickly!”
In his excitement he had even forgotten to offer him a seat.
“Tell me! Tell me! What is the news?”
The priest glanced round in all the four directions. The invalid was lying on her bed like a corpse. She was not going to hear anything.
He whispered into Pitambar’s ears, “Just listen! I have dug up information. Right now her womb is empty. It is not even one month since she buried the evil fruit of her last pregnancy. Her tiny daughter said that this time her mother used for digging the grave a crow-bar given by that student who goes to Sariali college on bicycle. He is a boy of loose morals from a very rich household. During the college hours, he used to go straight to Damayanti’s house and hide his textbooks in the basket of rice. His college fees paid for her cosmetics.”
The priest lowered his voice still further and barely whispered, “On the bare floor! In front of the little girls! Hari, Hari! They copulated shamelessly. This time it was obviously that student’s child.”
Pitambar heard everything in frosty silence.
The priest continued, “I told her about you. She was infuriated! She spat out. That pariah! How dare he send this proposal to me! Doesn’t he know that I am from the Jajaman Brahmin caste and he, the vermin, is a low-caste Mahajan?’ I told her that when she was wallowing in the slime of sin, where was the question of high caste or low caste? She was not getting any proposals for marriage from Brahmin boys. Who would marry a widow? That too with those daughters of hers. At least you are prepared to marry her, who is like a piece of sugarcane chewed and thrown away. I told her straightaway that you would take the Panchayat’s consent, arrange a havan and marry her with due formalities. She questioned me about your wife. I told her that your wife was like a straw which may be blown away anytime, that you would keep her in great comfort. I even told her you were the only man in the Satra who wears a pair of costly shoes! Suddenly she started crying. I don’t know why she cried. Then she wiped away her tears with her chaddar and said, ‘Nowadays I am not keeping well. I would like to lean on something solid and permanent.’ I told her, ‘How can you remain in good health? I have heard that four or five times you have got rid of those evil things from your womb. If the Panchayat takes up this matter, it will be a terrible thing for the Satra. Even if somebody goes to your door for a glass of water, he will be fined twenty rupees. You have been spared only because you are a Brahmin girl. But for how long?” She replied, ‘What could I do? I had to live. They even stopped their orders for sacred threads and puffed rice. They considered me impure, contaminated! And those tenant farmers! They have turned into thieves and don’t give me my share of paddy. They take advantage of my helplessness. In these circumstances, where could I have gone with my two tiny daughters? I have not paid the land revenue. The land, too, will be auctioned off! What can I do?”
Pitambar grew impatient. “But what about my proposal?”
“Yes, yes! I am coming to that. She wants to meet you. On the full moon night. At her dhekal, the room in the backyard for pounding the paddy.”
Pitambar was overwhelmed. Krishnakanta took this opportunity to whisper in his ears, “Come, take out forty rupees for me! The mosquitoes are playing havoc. I want to buy a mosquito net.”
Pitambar went inside the house. He saw that his wife was awake. He paid no attention, and went straight to the wooden box. He took out the money and turned round to go out of the room. The sick woman was staring at him. He burst out, enraged, “Why are you staring at me like that? I will pull out your eyes!”
Krishnakanta heard everything, understood everything. Taking the money, he whispered to Pitambar, “Look, if she stares too much, give her a dose of opium. She is not quarrelsome like your first wife. Probably, she feels deeply guilty for not bearing a child for you.”
And he burst into toothless laughter. The invalid lying on her bed closed her eyes again. The priest, becoming serious, continued, “But that bitch Damayanti has a great hunger for money! It’s all right now. You can touch her in the dhekal….” Pitambar threw a glance at the sleeping woman inside. He could see clearly, in spite of the distance, small beads of sweat on her forehead.
It was a full moon night in the month of August. Pitambar took out his best clothes. He wiped his shoes clean by hand with loving care. He took the mirror outside into the open yard and examined his face. He had shaved in the morning. Peering into the glass, he saw the criss-cross of wrinkles on his face. He thought it looked like a fish caught in a net.
He set out for Damayanti’s house. He had to cross a thick Sal forest. Her house lay beyond the forest on the outer edge of the village. It was an ideal place for Damayanti to carry on with her nefarious activities and hide her sins.
The moon looked like a deer, skinned and quartered, her dappled skin wrapped round the clouds. The succulent flesh of the deer. In Pitambar’s eyes, the moon became Damayanti, naked and voluptuous, her breasts soft and rounded like the stomach of a pregnant goat. And the shaft of her body like a tender bamboo shoot. He lowered his eyes. No, no, he could not look at the sky any longer. He walked faster. Near the Sal forest, a pack of jackals flashed across the path. He reached the gate. Silently he slipped inside and entered the courtyard. He saw the dim kerosene lamp burning in one room. He peered into the room and saw a child fast asleep near a cluster of jack-fruits and baskets of rice. The other girl was writing something on a small slate.
Damayanti was observing his movements from the dhekal. She called out, “Hey! Here! This way!”
Like a duty-bound soldier, he turned round quickly and went towards her. A clay lamp of mustard-oil was burning near the pounding horse. She was leaning against a ramshackle wall. Pitambar did not dare look into her eyes. He felt afraid. Suddenly it struck him that it was all an illusion! Her figure before him in the dim light too was an illusion! His thoughts were cut short. He heard her say, “Have you brought some money?”
He was stunned. He did not expect that her first question would be this. He said quietly, “Here! Take this! Whatever I have is yours now.” He took out a small string purse from his waist and put it in her hand. Damayanti thrust the purse into the cleavage, inside her blouse. She took the lamp and guided him to the room where earlier the little girl was working on her lessons. They found both the girls fast asleep, clinging to each other. Damayanti then took Pitambar to an adjacent room, damp and dark. There was a low bed, made of guava wood. It had been given to her deceased husband at the time of Gossain’s funeral ceremony. She blew out the lamp….
Two months had passed. It was late evening. Pitambar left the dark room in haste to get back to his house. Damayanti went to the well languidly and started taking a bath. Just then, the priest entered the courtyard. He remarked sarcastically, “You never used to take a bath after sleeping with the Brahmin boy. What has happened now?”
Damayanti did not reply.
“Eh! He is from a lower caste, is that it?”
Suddenly Damayanti broke into a run in drenched clothes, to the far corner of the courtyard. She bent over and started vomiting. Krishnakanta stood still for a moment, stupefied. Then he shuffled up to her and said to her gently, “This must surely be Pitambar’s….”
Damayanti still remained silent. “Ah! This is good news indeed! That man was yearning for a child.”
Even now she did not say anything.
“So I will now go and give him the good news. He will wed you openly.”
He came near her and whispered, “People are shocked and horrified by what is going on in this house. There was talk, off and on, of calling a meeting of the Panchayat. And listen! There was another thing. Something very serious! That three-month old foetus you buried behind the bijulee bamboos. One day a fox dug it out, swallowed part of it and left a half eaten limb in Gossain’s priest’s courtyard. You know the one who gives the Gossain’s Murlidhar his ceremonial bath. He had a hard time getting himself purified. By swallowing two glasses of cowdung water.”
Damayanti started retching again, her mouth wide open.
The priest continued, “Inspite of knowing this, Pitambar is prepared to marry you. Listen, with my hands on the sacred thread I tell you, this time, if you do not save yourself from sin by taking hold of this chance, you will surely burn in hell-fire!”
After giving to Pitambar the best news of his life, Krishnakanta said, “So, at last, your dreams may come true. If she does not destroy this child, then you can rest assured that she will marry you.”
Pitambar was sitting as usual on the tree-stump in front of his house, wearing his prized possession, the shoes. When he heard Krishnakanta’s words, his whole body trembled. Was it really true? Could it be his own, his very own child in that woman’s womb? But then, it must be the truth! This Brahmin would not probably utter lies. It is really my child!
He stood up, restless, agitated, and started pacing up and down in front of his house. Krishnakanta said, “At this age! To become a father! It’s really fortunate, a miracle!”
Pitambar kneeled at the priest’s feet and entreated, “Please, Bapu! Don’t let my hopes be shattered. You know my background. My forefathers were brave warriors. They fought those Burmese invaders. You know that! If this lineage is snapped, if there is no son to carry it on, what tortures my soul will go through, only this doomed sufferer knows! And now this seductive sorceress holds my life in her hand. Oh Bapu, tell me! What should I do?”
Krishnakanta lifted one hand in consolation and said, “Like the vulture keeping vigil over a corpse, I’ll guard that woman. Not only that, I’ll give a strict warning to that old hag not to give any of her evil herbs and roots to Damayanti for abortion. But all this is not possible without money. I’ll require lots of money!”
This time Pitambar did not have to go inside the house for money. Only that morning, he had sold all the jackfruit from his seven trees to a merchant from Orput, and he had the entire roll of currency notes in his pocket. He took out the roll and placed it in Krishnakanta’s outstretched palm. The priest blessed him and left.
When Pitambar entered his house he had to encounter again the piercing, unblinking gaze of the sick woman. He was perturbed by those accusing eyes but only for a moment. Then he was his usual blunt and callous self. He growled, “You barren bitch! Why are you staring at me like that?”
Pitambar became almost insane with happiness. He would sit in his favourite place outside the house and dream about his child in Damayanti’s womb. He pictured the different stages of growth of his unborn son. He dreamed that the boy, in the first flush of youth, was taking him for a walk along the river bank. The long golden thread of his family lineage was pulling them forward into a glorious future, into the distant horizon where heaven and earth fused, colours mingled and exploded into light.
He took out with the help of his servant an old box perched on the rafter of his bedroom. He cleaned the dust and the cobwebs sticking to the box and taking it to a corner of the room, opened it stealthily. Inside there was a package wrapped in cloth. It contained some half-burnt pieces of his father’s bones and a string of gold beads his father used to wear round his neck. On his death-bed, his father had given this string of gold beads to Pitambar. It was the old man’s wish that he should put these gold beads round his son’s neck. His father had told him that these gold beads would be the golden steps, mounting which his son would carry forward the family flag.
Pitambar gazed at the relics for some time and then repacked them carefully in the same cloth. He replaced the box in its original place on the rafter.
Days passed by. Pitambar became impatient. He had heard that a five-month-old foetus in a mother’s womb cannot be destroyed. He waited, nervous and agitated, for this precarious period to be over. Each day was like a mountain, which stood before him. Every day he imagined that he heard the footsteps of the woman coming towards him. He heard her telling him to make arrangements for the havan. She would say plaintively, “I cannot stir out of the house now. Look, how big my stomach has grown! I have been thinking! Hindu, Muslim, Brahmin or Kayastha. All these are like broken pieces of an earthen pot. There is no meaning in these words. I only want a man from whose body real blood flows when his flesh is cut open.”
In Pitambar’s overwrought mind, the spirit of Damayanti loomed, vivid and beautiful. He could hear the musical notes of anklets from her smooth bamboo shoot-like ankles.
Three months passed. Now almost everyday Pitambar strolled along the bank of the Dhaneshwari with his youthful son. The dream pursued him persistently, day and night.
It was the month of August.. The storm had broken in the afternoon and it was raining heavily. Pitambar went to the room near the dhekal to close the door. His wife was staring at him. He stood still. The wide open eyes shone like snakes flashing past in the dark. Suddenly, the storm lashed out a gust of wind. All the oil lamps flickered and died. It was pitch dark. Over the roar of the storm, he heard crashing sounds. What was that? Surely lightning had struck a tree in his courtyard and split it into two., Which tree was it? He wondered! He rushed out. His servants were already there, moving the heap of coconuts from the verandah to the dhekal. Some coconuts had been blown into the courtyard by the raging wind.
Gradually thunder and lightning abated but the rain continued pouring heavily in sheets of water. Suddenly Pitambar heard somebody calling out to him. Lantern in hand, he rushed out to see who it was. A figure loomed into view, completely drenched, dhoti held high above the knees. He had an old torn umbrella in his hand. The man was very thin, almost like a skeleton. He came towards Pitambar. What was it now? Holding the lantern higher, Pitambar looked closely at the man. It was Krishnakanta! Pitambar exclaimed. “Bapu, you? What is it? Why have you come in this foul weather?”
With great difficulty the priest reached the verandah and shut his umbrella. His hands were trembling. He looked extremely agitated. He squeezed out the water from his dhoti and said to Pitambar, “Your first wife died under an inauspicious star, Pitambar. That must be the reason for what has happened now.”
“What? What did you say? What is wrong now?”
“It is said in the Shastras that when a person dies under this inauspicious star even the shortest grass in the courtyard burns to ashes. For you, now, everything has burned to ashes!”
Pitambar cried out in alarm, “What has happened? For God’s sake, tell me quickly!”
“Alas! She has destroyed it. She has got rid of the unborn child. She will not carry the seed of a low-caste. She is a Brahmin of Shandilya gotra. Oh, Pitambar! Pitambar! She has destroyed your child!”
The youth walking along the Dhaneshwari suddenly slipped and fell into the river….
One day, in the middle of the night, Damayanti woke up with a start, disturbed by sounds coming from the backyard, as if someone was digging the earth. Alarmed and frightened, she woke up her elder daughter. Both strained their eyes. Yes, there were distinct sounds of digging, coming from the direction of the bamboo grove behind the house. That was the very spot where both mother and daughter had some nights before dug a pit for the aborted child! Yes, that was the night when both mother and daughter had been terrified by the frequent howling of the jackals, the daughter holding the earthen lamp while Damayanti dug the earth with a crow-bar in jerking movements and scooped out the loose earth with nervous hands.
Thuk! Thuk! Thuk! Thuk!
They carefully opened the window and looked out. They saw a man, digging, in the dim light of a lantern hung from a bamboo tree nearby.
Damayanti’s heart started beating fast. Was it Pitambar? Yes, it was really him! He was digging the earth with single minded determination. Gradually the tempo of digging increased. The Mahajan’s whole body and face assumed a terrible, violent aspect. He dug and clawed the earth frantically with frenzied energy.
Damayanti’s body started trembling, from head to foot. Her heart beat violently. What should she do? Should she shout? Should she keep quiet? Such a terrible thing was happening!
No! There was no response!
Thuk! Thuk! Thuk! Thuk!
“Why are you digging, Mahajan?”
Pitambar looked up, but did not reply.
Thuk! Thuk! Thuk! Thuk!
Damayanti became frantic. She shouted furiously. “What will you get there? Yes, I have buried it! It was a boy! But he is just a lump of flesh, blood and mud! Stop it! Stop it!”
Pitambar raised his head. His eyes were burning. “I’ll touch that flesh with these hands of mine. He was the scion of my lineage, a part of my flesh and blood! I will touch him!”
Translated from Assamese by the author.
INDIRA GOSWAMI. Is one of the pre-eminent contemporary Assamese writers. Goswami is known for her novelty of themes, the freshness and originality of her style and for her use of the vernacular for expressing her indignation at oppressive social customs. She is considered an expert on the Ramayana literature and has produced a number of works on the Assamese and Hindi Ramayanas which have won her many prestigious awards like the International Tulsi Award, 1999, given by Florida International University, Miami. She won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1983 for her novel Mamare Dhara Tarwal. Her other widely read novels are Dontal Hatir Une Khowda Howda, Nilakanthi Braja, and Tej aru Dhulire Dhusarita Prshtha. Her candid autobiography, Adhalekha Dastaveja, published in 1988 and its English translation, have won critical acclaim in India. She has received many other awards including the Assam Sahitya Sabha Award, 1988; Bharat Nirman Award, 1989; Sauhardya Award, 1992; Katha Award, 1993; Kamal Kumari Foundation Award, 1996. In July 2001, Goswami was awarded the Jnanpeeth, India’s highest literary award.