By Nakul Chandra Bhuyan
Translation: Khanindra Pathak and Jugal Kalita
Savest me thou, O God
From this tidal world!
It was noon. The sun was shining brightly. Sixty year old baaiyon Dhonbor was laying on the bamboo cot. He was reciting prayers almost inaudibly. He had been bed-ridden for more than a month. He was suffering from severe blood dysentery. His son Monbor came in and stood near the bed.
``My son!'' he turned to his son, ``I feel extremely uncomfortable today. I am afraid today is the last day of my mortal life.''
Dhonbor waited for a moment. Then he started singing another prayer.
With all humbleness
I pray, O God ....
Monbor sat by his father and massaged his weak feet. The father looked at his son and spoke feebly. ``Monbor, I want to tell you something before I die! Many years ago, I eloped with your mother from a Bihu fairground. As a result, there was a meeting of the village elders in the community prayer hall. They ordered a feast for the whole village and asked me to pay twenty rupees along with a basket of rice and sugar, and a jug of milk to your mother's father. My father and uncles accepted the judgment. I bowed in front of the elders. They blessed me in the name of God. We were married!''
The old man closed his eyes and fell silent. Monbor waited awhile and asked, ``Father, tell me more. Please don't stop!''
The father swallowed a belabored breath before continuing, ``Monbor, my son! In that merry fairground, your mother was by far the best dancer. In her youth, she could dance like a fluttering butterfly. Each of my friends was dying to marry this beautiful maiden. A few serenaded her with Bihu songs and asked her hand in marriage. With a quivering heart, each pestered her many times over several days. Finally, after a tortuous period of ten or twelve days, your mother gave her verdict and sang:
I can leave my lovely mother!
I can desert my dearest father!
I can even disown my own brother!
But Dhonbor, my love,
I cannot live without you,
I will poison myself
If I cannot have you!
Hearing your mother's heartfelt declaration of eternal love for me, my pals deserted the fairground in great sadness. They sat on the edge of the road by the fairground and pondered over their collective rejection while chewing betel nut.''
He stared at his son's eyes and paused a few moments. His daughter-in-law brought him his medication. After taking the medicine he recounted, ``It was almost evening. The festival was over. Your mother, with her friends, set on foot for her home. I came and stood by my friends who were chatting. While walking by us your mother gave me a furtive glance. Your mother's home was on the way to our house. We, the boys, also followed the girls. On the way, I found your mother standing under a bakul tree. Very cautiously, I inquired, ``Would you elope with me? Let's do it right now!'' Without uttering a word, she silently followed my lead. After seven days there was that fateful community meeting at the prayer hall. The elders accepted our marriage and legitimized it. Didn't I mention that meeting just now?'' The tired man again took a pause.
Monbor was unable to understand why his father was reminiscing this ancient incident now at his death bed. Anyhow, he was listening attentively. His father started again although his voice had become quite weak and he gasped for his breath. ``When I was returning home from that community gathering, near the dense stand of bamboos near our home, Dhoneerum appeared from nowhere, came running at me and all on a sudden gave me an ear-popping slap with all his strength. He yelled, ``You traitor! I had expected to marry Bihuti all along. Now, you have snatched her away like a cruel eagle swooping down on its prey. This is my revenge! I had to do this. I am sorry! Please forgive me. I will not think about Bihuti any more, from this moment.'' Dhoneerum quickly ran away. It happened in a flash. I was dumb struck.'' Drops of tears rolled down the old man's cheeks.
Monbor stood up. He could not help but remark, ``Father, you never told me that Uncle Dhonee ever slapped you? You two are such good friends! You collect firewood together, you fish together!''
Dhonbor sighed, ``Yes, we are best of friends. I remained a friend to repay that slap with one of my own. But Dhoneerum is very sly. He is so clever that I never got a chance!'' He signaled his son to come closer. Grasping his son with outstretched hand, he continued, ``I can never forget that smacking Dhoneerum gave me! Even in my death I will not forget it. I am going to die soon, son. I am not going to live to repay Dhoneerum in kind. Listen to me, my son! If you can hit him for me then only my soul will be at peace.''
Monbor promptly replied, ``Father, I swear by your soul, I am going to hand Uncle Dhoneerum his overdue smack with my open palm as soon as I possibly can. I give you my word. It's the least I can do for you!'' The old man put his hand on his son's head, ``Monbor, you are your father's son! You will do well in life. I bless you!'' He started praying again,
Savest me thou, O God
From this tidal world!
Village Bahonigaon in the Jorhat area was the village of Biraai, the hangman. Biraai, who could take credit for hanging countless men from the noose, was most infamous for his hanging, on behest of the British colonizers, Moneerum Dewan and Pioli Phukon, two of the most respected patriots and freedom fighters Assam has ever produced. As anywhere, the village had some good men and some bad. During the Non-cooperation Movement against the British, people of the village used to smuggle hand-made cotton clothes to the volunteers of the Congress Party which spearheaded the struggle for independence. A few young men of the village were even jailed along with the Congress volunteers. On the other hand, there were some people in this village who robbed strangers on the road at night.
Here lived Dhonbor. He was one of the richest men in the village. He had two granaries of rice, a large herd of cattle and a pair of water buffaloes. He grew a rich variety of seasonal fruits in his ample acreage. He was a respected figure in the village. Dhoneerum also lived in this village; but he was not rich. In fact, there was a time when he was becoming poorer day by day. The year after Dhonbor eloped with Bihuti, Dhoneerum too eloped with another girl from the Bihu festival. Dhoneerum's wife had no parents; both had died when she was very young. She had an older brother and a sister-in-law. The brother was notoriously tough. Though the villagers tried to cool him down, he was furious. He threatened to report the incident to the police. Dhoneerum was very scared, and had to mortgage his farm with a businessman from the Maarowaari community to obtain one hundred and forty rupees to get his assent to the wedding. That loan which had a prohibitive rate of interest made Dhoneerum one of the poorest men in the village.
Dhonbor was a childhood friend of Dhoneerum. Following his suggestion, Dhoneerum cultivated sugarcane and cabbage, and sold them at a profit in the markets in the tea plantations that dotted the country. This helped him to get his land back from mortgage.
Since then Dhoneerum and Dhonbor became good friends. They were such good friends that they were always seen together: going to the jungle to collect firewood, fishing, or in any other activity.
Dhoneerum visited Dhonbor every day in the morning as well as in the evening since the day his friend became ill with blood dysentery. Almost every night, Dhoneerum melodiously sang prayers from the Kirtan sitting by Dhonbor's side. Prayers soothe a suffering soul, especially when one is about to leave this world.
For a few days the baaiyon felt better. So, that Sunday, Dhoneerum went to the weekly market in Titabor to sell some betel nut, cabbage, pumpkin, chili and other fresh produce he had grown on his farm.
On his return home, Dhoneerum was dumbfounded to hear that his friend had died right after he left for the market. The baaiyon had felt well enough to take a bath at noon. He collapsed while pouring water on himself and soon passed away without regaining consciousness.
Dhoneerum immediately walked over to his friend's house. The neighbors had returned from the cremation and were solemnly sitting on the porch. Dhoneerum called out to Monbor, ``Oh, Monbor! My son! I am so unfortunate that I couldn't even be with my friend during his last moments.''
Suddenly Monbor rushed out of the living room, like an arrow, toward Dhoneerum and slapped him on the face with all his strength. Everyone was at a loss regarding what transpired. Dhoneerum yelled out reflexively, ``You ingrate! You swine! I came to pay my last respect to a dear friend, and you have nothing better to do but hit me! I will kill you right now.''
Angrily, he grabbed a machete and ran towards the culprit, ``I will dispatch you to where your father went!'' Without the slightest delay, Monbor fell prostrate at Dhoneerum's feet and started crying aloud. A few from among those sitting on the porch sprang up and held Monbor down by force; they assumed that he had gone berserk with grief over his father's death. Monbor started speaking slowly, ``Please forgive me, Uncle!'' He then laboriously explained what his father told him before his death about the overdue retribution. Monbor touched the older man's feet once again.
Lovingly, Dhoneerum raised Monbor from the floor. ``Oh, well! Let's forget what happened and not talk about the distant past any more. I understand your motivation. What your father told you is true. In spite of that, your father was my dearest friend. Only with his sound advice, I got out of my large debt. But I never forgot. I was always careful lest your father take revenge on me. Later I thought, perhaps after turning to religion, your father forgot all about my assault on him. Anyway you have done a son's job! You slapped me! We are even. Your father is happy in his heavenly abode. Now you must absolutely and properly perform all the religious ceremonies and festivities honoring your departed father. I will provide fresh cowÕs milk needed for the ceremony.''
Monbor's old mother Bihuti, the beautiful dancing lady of many springs ago and the bone of manly contention in the past as well as now, was sitting sadly on the porch with the others. She walked up to Dhoneerum, looked him in the eye and said, ``I never understood any of you. That's why you are all called men!''
Baaiyon: An elderly man who leads prayers and performance of religious plays in the village with his dhol, a special type of percussion instrument. Normally, he is accompanied by several others instrumentalists in his performances. He is well-respected in the village.
Nakul Chandra Bhuyan (1895-1968) was a well-known Assamese historian, playwright, and a short story writer.
Khanin Pathak is a Ph.D. student in the field of mining engineering in the University of London. This is the translation of a story called ``Motaa maanuhÓ by Nakul Chandra Bhuyan, from the book Axomiyaa Galpa Gussa, eds. Maheswar Neog, Jogesh Das and Narayan Sarma, Axom Xaahitya Xabhaa, 1984.
The translators thank Satyendra Sarmah and Cindy Crabtree for their comments on a earlier version of the translated story.