Mr. and Mrs. Barua at last agreed to listen to the advice of their friends Mr. and Mrs. Chaudhury.
“If you want to keep a servant you must follow us. Agree to educate him. Search for a boy who is keen to read. Everyone knows that now-a-days even a peon needs to have a matriculation degree. So look for such an ambitious poor boy and get him admitted into a night school. Of course, you’ll not get his full service, and visitors generally come in the evening. But if you want a staying kind of person, you must cope with that inconvenience. And there is an advantage that you must not forget. Such a servant need not be given any salary since you don’t get whole-time service from him and he gets a chance of schooling. Of course, you’ll have to pay his fees and buy him textbooks and notebooks. Still, you’ll be lucky because now it’s so difficult to get a servant, you know. We Assamese are so lazy — that’s why many of us are so poor. Yes yes, Mrs.. Barua, it’s the best possible arrangement. Let him cook two meals in the morning, there is your fridge, so no problem really. After that you need not bother whether your servant goes to a school or to hell (everyone laughed at this); you just enjoy T.V. programmes. Then he’ll return and warm up the meal ….”
Voluble Mrs. Chaudhury went on emphasizing her point which kindled a ray of hope in Mrs. Barua’s bosom. These fugitive servants had given her a lot of trouble. They came and they went. Compared to the boys the girls stayed longer — one had to admit that. But Mrs.. Barua became wary after seeing Thoon Thoon Bhaben Saikia’s film Sandhyarag. Thoon was now a grown up young man and these loose young females were not at all trustworthy. So Mrs. Barua did not want to keep a girl-servant.
Thank God that this time Mrs.. Chaudhury had given them such valuable advice. Lawyer Mr. Barua’s clients always supplied him with man-servants. One such client was happy to procure for them one such man-servant or ‘boy,’ with these words: “In the villages the number of landless people are ever increasing. Their sons cannot become cultivators and have to come to the towns in search of jobs. That’s why the slogan ‘back to the village’ is utterly meaningless now. We villagers should now trumpet, ‘let’s go to the towns!’’’
This fellow is as talkative as Mrs.. Chaudhury — a resigned Mr. Barua thought wearily. Anyway, when the client dumped Hareswar in their home, the entire family circled around him and began a kind of interview. As usual Pinky was the first to initiate the process.
|“Who are the other members in your family”?
“Apart from my mother, I have a small sister.”
“Have you been in anybody’s house before?”
“No Baideo, I was studying.”
“Who paid for your education, your mother?”
“My mother is too poor. I collected firewood from the jungle and selling those paid my fees. Of course, my mother also works in the paddy fields of the rich cultivators. She also knits fishing nets and weaves eri chadar and then sells them in the market.”
|“What does your sister do?”
“Chandra is too young to do anything.”
“Oh! your sister’s name is Chandra — that means Moon? Ha, ha, ha … Anyway, you have many sources of income. Why have you come to our home then? Perhaps you just have to read in a city school…” Pinky laughed again.
“No Baideu… it became impossible for me to read in the village school.”
This time the least important member of the “interview board”, who was none other than Pinky’s father, said to his daughter: “Pinky, the English words you are using seem to be difficult for Hareswar. So let me talk, dear. Hey boy, Pinky is right, you and your mother definitely earn a lot. Why have you come to our house then?”
“Sir, we may work a lot, but earn very little money. It’s only in the towns that people work less and earn more. Our hard-earned money is not enough to maintain us.”
“Papa, the boy is so audacious! (Pinky again started to talk) Hey Mr, do you know how much money a person spends for education in the cities? Only after that kind of spending he gets a job. Without investment none can earn a lot of money. Anyway, how old are you?”
“I don’t know my right age, Baideu. My mother says that once there was a war between Pakistan and our country, when many Bengalies fled from their country and came to Assam. Many of these people came to our Boko area and I was born at that time.”
“Oh, you are referring to the independence struggle of Bangladeshis. Then you are right for your age. So your Boko is full of Bangladeshis. Soon we’ll really be swamped by the Bangladeshis, Won’t we?’’ Pinky’s father intervened, this is a rather important subject.
But Pinky’s line of thinking was very far from her father’s, and so she continued talking to Hareswar, paying little heed to her father.
“What! you are thirteen? Then you’re older than our Moon, but you look much younger! Oh, such a dwarf you are! Ha, ha, ha ….”
Baideu, I have been cutting branches from trees since my childhood and carrying them to the distant markets. Perhaps those logs pressed down on my shoulders and my growth was stunted.
Pink laughed out loud. What a logic?
“How funny! All this time we had been learning that hormone-secretion makes people tall or short, but today we have been rewarded with another important explanation – ha, ha, ha!”
In the meantime another very important member of the “interview board” joined them, who was engaged in other vital matters all this while.
“Pinky, Hareswar is a very long name, let’s cut it short and call him Hari.”
“Alright Ma, we’ll call him Hari. Ai Hari, why have you abandoned this cutting business? Couldn’t you really earn enough money by selling toys?”
“Money was not the only cause, Baideu, we boys go to the nearby forest which is about four-five miles away from our village. After cutting and collecting branches from the trees we come home and after quickly taking our food go to school. But now the forest-guards are very strict. If we are caught we are beaten ruthlessly. Poor Pabin’s leg was badly damaged by such a beating and Uncle Rama was confined in the beat-office for one whole day. He was even bound with ropes meant for cattle and given grass to eat. The guard told our dear Rama Uncle, ‘Rama, you’ve acted like a brainless cow. Don’t you know that cutting trees is harmful for the country? Fools like you have ruined our country.’ Baideu, after Rama Uncle’s confinement I didn’t dare to go to the forest anymore. That’s why I left home and came here to read and to serve at your home. But one thing I can’t understand, Baideu. We’ve seen many contractors cutting and felling big trees, but in their case the forest-guards seem to be blind. Even the forest officials close their eyes. We know that they take bribes from these ….”
But Hareswar couldn’t finish his sentence because Pinky’s mother shouted at him:
“Look at this midget, how he goes on prattling! There’s little doubt that he’s a very cunning boy. Only God knows how he’ll behave here. Hey Katia you’ve come to our house to be a learned man, but do you know that you’ll have to cook and do all other household jobs?”
Pinky was choked with laughter.
“Katia! This funny word means a dwarf, doesn’t it? Oh Ma, what an appropriate name. I tell you, from now on I’ll call him Katia, not Hari.” Mr Barua, who was the lowest in stature in the “interview board” despite being the senior-most in age, silently left the place, wondering whether the boy would be able to stay on under the reign of mother and daughter.
But belying his fears, Hareswar stayed. He was admitted into night school. The fear of forest-guards, the heavy burden of carrying logs, the memory of pain on his shoulder overwhelmed him. Compared with that his new job was much less difficult. So he served the household so diligently that even the most exacting of persons like Mrs. Barua was satisfied. Classes in the night school were generally less regular than classes in the day school, because there were frequent power-cuts and the teachers were regularly irregular. So Hareswar’s absence from home was not prolonged enough to bother the family and if visitors arrived before Hareswar left for school, Mrs. Barua didn’t allow him to leave. Yes, Mrs. Chaudhury was right, this was the best possible arrangement for keeping a servant.
Though Moon was younger than Hareswar, he studied in a higher class. A student of class seven in Don Bosco School, Moon was very interested in class five student Hareswar’s school, study, class-friend, teachers etc. So whenever he got an opportunity he pestered Hareswar with a wide gamut of questions such as the following:
“So the students in your class are very naughty, aren’t they?”
“Yes Moon, very very naughty. They stand up when the ‘sirs’ enter the class, but in the case of the Madams they don’t show even that little respect. If I stand up they make fun of me — ass, rustic, fool — they taunt me! If the madams admonish them they don’t care one whit. And our Chaudhury madam — she teaches us geography, but only in name, because most of the time she tells us film stories….”
“Film stories? What film stories?”
“Madam tells us about the films she sees in the halls and on Sunday on the t.v. She also asks us whether we are interested in films, whether our masters allow us to see films on t.v.”
“My God! You have such horrible teachers. But the students must enjoy her class.”
“Don’t they? They shout in joy and request her to tell the story she had seen on t.v. last sunday.”
“Yes, sometimes she does.” At this point Hareswar giggled.
“What’s the matter? Where’s the fun?”
“Our English teacher does not know English very well. That day she asked us to translate a piece from Assamese into English. When I finished and produced my notebook before her, she gave me a correct sign against all the sentences. When I came back from school I told Pinky Baideu about my translation with pride. But Pinky Baideu found many mistakes in my translation and told me that our English teacher was an ass.”
After both Hareswar and Moon guffawed for a while, Hareswar became grave.
“Moon, why should brilliant teachers work in our school? They are so poorly paid. One day Chaudhury madam told us that all her salary was spent in movies and dresses — it was such a small salary.”
“Enough of your teachers. Now tell me about the wicked things that you students indulge in.”
“They smoke and I’ve heard that some of them even drink.”
“Where do they get money? Surely they steal from the money they’re given for shopping? This is a general practice among servants.”
“You’re right, Moon. Parama actually boasts about the many ways in which he cheats his master. Sometimes he buys 400 grams of sugar but says that he’s bought 500 grams. He gives false accounts all the time. One day he put away all the money and then cried that his pocket was picked.”
“Oi Hari, what do these thieves learn in school? Do you know where this Parama stays? I would inform the family about this dacoit.”
“I don’t know in whose house he stays. But how many households will you warn? Almost everyone steals.”
“How much have you yourself pilfered so far, Hari?”
“Do I go to the market that I get a chance to steal?” Hari retorted. “Then where do you get money to buy bidis and other tidbits?”
“Have you ever seen me smoking? Can you give any proof that I smoke?” Hareswar spoke in a severe voice. He was not afraid of Moon or his father.
But Moon taunted him: “Oh you incarnation of Mahatma Gandhi! It’s impossible to remain honest after reading in that school among those rogues.”
Although Moon looked down on Hareswar, he was the only person whom Hareswar loved and talked freely with. Sometimes Moon gave him chewinggum and cadbury chocolates. Moon studied in an English medium school, but he didn’t talk in the Anglicized manner of his sister. So Hareswar found it easy to converse with Moon and also believed that Moon liked his company — otherwise why should he come to talk with Hareswar whenever he got a chance? Of course, Moon was only interested in his school and the students.
“Oi Hari, your night school rogues must be talking about the dirty relationship between boys and girls. Let me also hear some of it.”
Hareswar bit his tongue: “Shame, shame, Moon, you mustn’t hear about such dirty things. Our boys are really very bad, they discuss such things that I just turn red in the face.”
“Hari, please, tell me what they discuss.” Moon was very eager.
“No, no, I can’t utter a single word of what they say. They are very dirty, quite unutterable!”
“Please Hari ….”
“No, never, never….”
“Oi Hareswar, I’ll give you the whole packet of chewing-gum — please tell me what they talk about.”
That day Hareswar was saved by Thoon whom Hareswar feared a lot and who was the reason for Mrs. Barua’s anxiety about young maid-servants. This eldest son of the house was not easily available; he didn’t talk much and seemed to be unaware of Hareswar’s presence. Nevertheless, Hareswar was mortally afraid of him.
When Moon became too pressing that day, Thoon suddenly appeared on the scene and asked gravely: “What rubbish are you talking about?”
Moon hurriedly answered: “Hareswar was telling me about the deplorable condition of their school. The students don’t respect their teachers and the teachers are also no good.”
“Oh, it’s quite natural that the students would be like that. Don’t you know that the school is really a Nalanda University?”
At that moment Pinky joined them and Thoon’s remark made her burst into laughter. But formidable Thoon didn’t linger there and left the place.
“Moon, do you know why Thoon compared Hari’s school with Nalanda University?”
“No, Baideu, I also have no idea.”
Pinky laughed aloud. “You yourself are a product of Nalanda University, so how would you understand?”
Then she continued, “Once Nalanda University was so famous that students from distant parts of the country came to study there. Our Don Bosco, St. Mary’s, Holy Child and other such schools generally have local students — understandably, because these are not famous like Nalanda. But your school is different… oh, what knowledge-hungry students come to study there from different regions! You’ve come from Boko in the South, some come from Nalbari Rangiya, Goalpara in the North, some come from Sonapur, Chandrapur in the East, while some others come from Salkocha, Bijni, Bilasipara in the West. Yes, students from all parts of Assam throng there. Oh, what a wonderful lot! All servants and lowly people questing for education. What moral standards can you expect from this ‘Nalanda’? They have no deal, no ambition … Oi Hari, you’re also a student of this high citadel of learning, tell me what is your ambition?”
Pinky had used the English word ‘ambition,’ so he asked, “What’s the meaning of ambition, Baideu?
“Ambition means the dream to become a great man.” Moon tried to explain the meaning of the word.
This time Hareswar promptly spelt out his ambition: “I’ll be like Girish kaka of our village.”
Pinky and Moon remained silent for a moment, then erupted in laughter.
“Moon, people’s ambition is generally to become scholars, scientists, literateurs, philosophers, professors, engineers etc. and their role models are Gandhi, Nehru and others like them. But our Hari’s ambition is to be like some villager called Girish. Ha, ha, ha! Oi Hari, who’s this great man?”
“Girishkaka and Mahendrakaka both hail from our village. Girishkaka has become a magistrate and Mahendrakaka an engineer. The Headmaster of our M.V. School told us: boys, two persons have brought glory to our village –they are Girish Deka and Mahendra Haloi. I want you to follow their footprints. Baideu, I like a magistrate better than an engineer. Our Shanti Mahi was a maidservant in Rabin magistrate’s house in Boko. I went to visit her twice with my mother. Baideu, that was my first glimpse of a great man. Later, when our headmaster told us about Girishkaka and Mahendrakaka, the huge, beautifully decorated house of Rabin magistrate flashed upon my mind. Since then I’ve cherished the am-um, oh, what’s that word Baideu?”
Pinky was almost convulsed with laughter. And after that a new name was added to the list of names they reserved for Hareswar – Magistrate.
Hareswar was sometimes slapped by Mrs.. Barua, but Pinky never gave him any corporal punishment. However, one day she did slap with all her force.
That day Pinky’s college was closed. Moon and Hareswar also didn’t go to school. The movement over foreign nationals was in full swing and the movement leaders had given a call for class-boycott. At first Mrs.. Barua also participated in all the programs of the movement, but afterwards, when her children lost one academic year and class-boycott became a regular feature, she became incensed and the target of her wrath was her friend Mrs.. Saikia. She began to criticise her: “Betrayer! Hypocrite! Outside her home she is a great leader of the movement and makes the students say farewell to their studies. But she herself sends her children to Barjhar Central School so that their studies are not hampered or interrupted.”
Mrs.. Barua tried to get Moon admitted to Central School but failed. So her grudge against Mrs.. Saikia swelled up. Meanwhile, class-boycott evoked two opposite kinds of reactions in her. Class-boycotts unquestionably hampered her children’s studies, but at the same time also ensured that Hareswar stayed home.
Thus forced to stay at home one day, Hareswar asked Pinky: “Baideu, did you join this movement in the beginning… that is, two or three years ago?”
“Yes, that’s why we had to lose one academic year.”
“In our village, we also joined the movement. Dhiren was a very brilliant boy, but he came from a very poor family in our village. Somehow he had continued with his studies by getting scholarships and giving tuition. He studied in a college in Guwahati. But when one academic year was lost, it became impossible for him to continue with his studies. Loss of one year is a great disaster for people like him.”
“One must make that little sacrifice for the country. Some people make sacrifices much greater than that… they even lose their lives,” Pinky said solemnly.
“Baideu, in our village people say that this movement has inflicted many more losses in the villages. Far greater number of people have died in the villages than in the towns. The ‘C.R.P.’ has also terrorized the villagers much more. The people also say that we villagers have come forward to sacrifice our lives in order to save our mother-tongue. But you city-people don’t love and respect Assamese, because your real mother-tongue is English. I’ve found proof of this in your family. I’ve never seen you, Thoon dada and Moon read any Assamese book.”
Hareswar was duly punished for his audacity. Pinky slapped him with all her might.
“Scoundrel, dwarf … you’ve become impossibly audacious! Studying in ‘Nalanda’ you think you’ve become somebody. We’ll drive you away from our house right this moment. Go and search for a house where you’ll get a chance to study. Nowadays you won’t find soft-hearted people like us ….”
But Hareswar didn’t lose his place in the Barua household. Mrs.. Barua scolded him soundly and after sometime Pinky was appeased.
One day Hareswar had just reached school when he heard that classes were cancelled. The New Year Bihu festival was imminent, and a Bihu song and dance party had arrived from a distant village. As usual, they had been provided accommodation in the school. Now their school would remain closed even though Bihu was still three days away. When Hareswar thus returned home he found Moon on the street smoking in the company of another boy.
“Moon, what’s this? You’re smoking?” Hareswar was nonplused.
At first Moon panicked but then quickly became bold. He couldn’t show any weakness in front of his friends.
“yes, I smoke. What’s that to you? Are you a servant or my guardian?” Moon said harshly and then turning to his friends, said: “This servant of ours is very impertinent. You may think that he’s younger than me, but no, he’s much older. Only, he’s a dwarf… Oi Hari, why are you loitering here? Perhaps you’ve ‘bunked’ your class. Go home immediately. And listen carefully; if you tell anybody that you’ve seen me smoking, I’ll teach you such a lesson that you’ll not forget.”
The days went by. Hareswar spent a year at the Barua household. He was still studying in the night-school and appeared in the annual examinations. His result was mediocre. Moon couldn’t fare very well either although like most of his classmates he had private tutors to guide him.
Moon’s face now sported a stubble, but Hareswar’s face remained smooth prompting Pinky to remark that Hareswar was actually a tribal boy — after all Boko was a tribal-infested area — and his real surname must be Basumatary or Rabha or something like that. This ‘Chaudhury’ was a fake surname; he had created this false identity to hoodwink them.
Moon, who was now at the threshold of youth, called Hareswar one day and led him to the latter’s room. This room that Hareswar nested in was really a place under the staircase, and so it was very small and congested. Hareswar had hung some old calendar-pictures on the wall, making the atmosphere of the room claustrophobic.
Moon sat down on Hareswar’s bed. He had a few glossy magazines in his hand. The house was very quiet. Pinky and her mother had gone somewhere, Mr Barua was busy in his chamber with some client, and as usual, Thoon was not at home.
The atmosphere of the house, the unnatural glow on Moon’s face — these combined to send a shudder across Hareswar’s body, comparable to the feeling he experienced while collecting wood in the forest.
“Hari, come, let’s see the pictures. I’ve found the magazines under Thoonda’s bed.”
“But Thoonda’s door is closed.”
“Stupid, don’t you know that there are duplicate keys? For a long time I was waiting for this opportunity. I’ve already got hold of the duplicate key. My friend Rahul’s elder brother also has these kinds of magazines. Do you know, Hari, that our Thoonda drinks too? I only smoke — what can I do, no money — but when I have money I’ll also drink like him: Rum, Whiskey, Champagne.”
While leafing through the magazines, Moon uttered words which showed that he was feasting on something with his eyes: “Ah, Hari, look at this woman what hips, what boobs … and look at this one, she’s got nothing on! My God ….”
Watching the student from the good school in action, Hareswar of ‘Nalanda’ started sweating. And the younger brother had collected the material from his elder brother Thoon who also studied in a good school. O Hari (thus Hareswar addressed his namesake God almighty), what surprises may emerge from the chests and bed of the other sibling, who also studied in a good school. Yes, Hareswar had no doubt that similar things would emerge from Pinky’s bedchamber as well!
Translated from Assameese by Pradipta Borgohain.
NIRUPAMA BARGOHAIN. Is an Assamese writer whose career began as a lecturer in English. But she soon moved onto journalism. She is at present a column writer for three Assamese daily and weekly papers. Awards have come her way in plenty including the Sarasvati Award in 1987, the Basanti Devi Bordolai Award and the Hem Barua Award of the Assam Sahitya Sabha in1989 and 1994 respectively. In 1994 and 1995, she was the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award. Has published extensively. Has 33 novels and 15 short story collections to her credit.
PRADIPTA BORGOHAIN. Teaches in the Department of English, Guahati University. She is a writer, critic and translator. Has received the Katha award for translation in 1997.