The Death of a Pip-squeak
By Jogesh Das
Translation: Manjit Borah and Jugal Kalita
``Dear Lord! Oh Lord Krishna!" Dhoneerum called out god's name as he paused at the familiar gate. Why was the mansion eerily silent in broad daylight? The building was old, two-storied and built from wood. The high and broad concrete foundation added later to strengthen the aging house was overgrown with a layer of moss. The stairs leading to the second floor seemed barely stable. The doors and windows were wide open, but there was no sign of a moving soul inside. The flower plants in the front yard were fresh and blooming, but were still. There was not even the slightest breeze! A plank of wood was missing from the wide gate. The large, open gate resembled a pair of open jaws. Dhoneerum refrained from considering it a sign of evil although his heart trembled in anticipation of something terrible. Once again, he called on god for solace: ``Lord Krishna!" Then, following local custom, he spat on the ground to deter any evil power that might be lurking.
He proceeded to walk inside the compound. He really had no choice. Hesitation would not achieve his objective. He must plead his case before the Mouzadar , the hereditary tax collector, in-charge of all the lands in the area. Even if he could not present his situation before him, Dhoneerum was determined to meet Borbopa, his oldest son. Although the old officer was very kind, he was miserly. He did not spend a single paisa without a pressing necessity. The officer was very old now. So, Borbopa looked after the province. Borbopa was a very angry young man. He was the man who terminated Dhoneerum's job as a long-time orderly and caretaker of this house. Dhoneerum remembered the day when Borbopa had a temper tantrum after burning his own bed while smoking. On another day after the cows entered the flower garden, Borbopa almost hit him in extreme fury! One morning Dhoneerum failed to wake Borbopa up on time to catch the train. As soon as he sullenly returned home from the station, Dhoneerum got his punishment: a hard smack on the face, a fine worth a month's wage, and fiery scolding.
However, the root cause of Borbopa's anger at Dhoneerum was another story. Although Dhoneerum knew it, he did not have the courage to broach it to anybody: Dhoneerum had planned to ask Rupeswari's hand in marriage. Borbopa could not stand the idea of Dhoneerum marrying Rupeswari, whom everyone called Rupey for short.
Borbopa was widowed and was the father of young children. Therefore Dhoneerum procured Rupey, an orphan child, from a neighboring village to work as a live-in maid looking after the children. With the passage of time, Rupeswari began to grow into a voluptous young woman. In Dhoneerum's mind, Rupey became a fairy. He was mesmerized by her burgeoning beauty. He constantly thought about her lovely hands and shapely legs. He dreamt of drowning in the depth of her comely eyes. Her heavenly smile almost killed him! His whole body shook in unspoken lust every time he laid his eyes on her. Rupey, the child, had become a remarkable young woman! He pined to ask her hand in marriage. But, Borbopa came to know of his secret thoughts, summoned him, and direly warned him in the absence of anyone else: "If you set your eyes on Rupey again, I will surely kill you!"
Dhoneerum knew his station in life. He was a lowly employee, completely powerless in front of the cocky and incredibly rich young man. He did not want to die at Dhoneerum's hands and decided to forgo his love for Rupeswari.
Instead of climbing onto the high concrete foundation, with his heart fluttering in fear, he stepped along the side toward the front courtyard. Would Borbopa take pity on him? It would have been entirely different if Xorubopa, the tax collector's younger son, was around. Xorubopa used to secretly give him money when he requested. But now he was abroad in America. Still Dhoneerum continued walking. If he was unable to convince the tax collector to exempt him from the steep land-tax due to financial hardship, Dhoneerum would not survive till the end of the year. His widowed sister was living with him with her two young children. His mother was very old. She could hardly walk without stooping almost all the way to the ground even with a walking stick. His sister was frequently sick and bed-ridden. She was completely useless. But what would he do? How could he throw his own sister out on the mean streets? She used to lead a miserable life with her poor husband. But even he died! Before she had gotten married, she had expected her older brother to bring her gifts now and then. Her brother worked in town, with the Mouzadar 's household. He had access to many good things in life. But Dhoneerum could never give her anything of value before she got married. When he came back to the village, fired from his job, with a month's meager wage, and in utter humiliation, she was at her husband's. He couldn't afford to give her anything even now that she was again back home with him. Damn, what could be more shameful!
This year, the flood destroyed the entire winter paddies, the main source of his income. Summer crops were growing well. However, everything was in god's hands! Dhoneerum decided that it would be unwise if he paid his yearly taxes selling the small quantity of paddy in the granary saved from the previous year. He had already spent all his savings paying for his sister's medical treatment. But, the taxes were also due. How would he know that the flood would kill his crops? He knew that he would be in great misery if he could not, at the very least, get the tax date postponed for a few months. Borbopa could easily do so if he so wished. His sister's two children, Monie, the boy, and Toonie, the girl, were going to school. How would they go to school without food? Good god! If he could take Monie out of school and make him till the field, it would be a great help. If he could spend a little more money and continue the treatment, their mother would recover. He sacrificed Rupey, the love of his life, for Borbopa's needs. Borbopa wanted her to satisfy his desires. How many times he saw Borbopa flirting with her all alone! He saw them together in Borbopa's room when he went upstairs to fetch the old officer the day's newspaper from his bedroom. He saw them when he went upstairs to ask Borbopa money for grocery. He spied them together when he went upstairs to get the shoes of the old officer's wife to take them for repairs to the cobbler. Rupey blushed when Dhoneerum saw her in such a state. She would take the chador and hurriedly cover her breast, and adjust the rest of her clothes. Borbopa would smile nervously. Dhoneerum's heart ached terribly on such occasions.
There was nobody even in the inner courtyard! How strange! The physical details of the house where he worked for eight years had not really changed. But it seemed somewhat unfamiliar to him today. The tall wooden pillars and the old wooden stairs had not changed over time. Just as he remembered from years ago, the kitchen stood the same with its smoke-covered walls, as if too lazy to change. The wire for hanging the screen that partitioned the main house and the kitchen was still there. But in spite of all the sameness, he still felt as if something was missing.
He walked up to the verandah on the main floor of the house. With some hesitation, he knocked on the railing. There was no response. He was at a loss. When he looked upstairs he saw the verandah on the second floor. He also saw the door to Borbopa's room with its dark green curtains. He did not see anything else.
Holding on to the railing of the verandah, he stood there facing the open courtyard. He must see someone today and must succeed in getting the tax deadlines extended. Many things flashed through his mind as he stood there. The flood ravaged winter paddies. The thriving summer crops. His ill sister. Poor Monie and Toonie! Of course, the thought of the taxes were always uppermost in his mind.
Who was that? He barely caught sight of a woman coming out of the kitchen. The woman stopped, seemed perplexed at his sight, and raced quickly towards the kitchen and the backyard again. Wasn't it Rupey? He vividly remembered what was there in the backyard directly behind the kitchen. He remembered the raised concrete platform for washing dishes. There used to be a heap of firewood next to it along with a barrel for storing water. Nearby, right next to the small thatched outhouse there was the small vegetable garden. There were also a few fruit trees, and the thorny madar tree on which the betel creepers grew. There were some betel nut palms with an undergrowth of ferns and grass on the ground. There was also a leteku tree on which lots of sour, but tasty fruits grew during the summer. Finally there was a row of pineapple bushes along the periphery. Yes, that was definitely Rupey! She looked more beautiful than ever. She was in full bloom, he thought. Of course, the happiness in her life and the luxurious living were showing. Had she gained a little weight? In the fleeting moment during which he saw her, she looked a little heavier than he remembered.
She ran away after seeing him! Of course she did. Borbopa could not stand their friendship. However, when he worked at the house, she used to talk a lot to him whenever she got an opportunity. She laughed and played jokes with him. Once he had held her hand while collecting betel leaves under the madar tree. She had blushed, had taken her hand away, and had said softly, ``Go away!" Another time he told her that he would elope with her on a grand horse-drawn carriage! She had blushed and had thrown a plank of wood at him. Aaideo, the tax collector's wife, had seen their playfulness from the kitchen window and had smiled. How embarrassed he was! She then ran away from him.
He, however, could not ask her to marry him. Before he could do that Borbopa gave him the ultimatum, and then later sent him away with a month's wage. Oh, well! Let it be! Why should he challenge these rich and powerful people for a woman? There are so many girls in this world! Some are like Rupey, some better than her and some worse. But, when he returned home from town, he quickly realized that he did not have the luxury to think about women. He had to repair his dilapidated house. His old man was no more. His mother was very old. He alone had to take care of the farm and could no more afford to work outside. He had to reclaim the land which his father had mortgaged to a rich neighbor who was now trying to snatch it from him.
How would he think of girls? He said to himself, ``Forget it!'' Then his diseased and hungry widowed sister came back, along with the children---Monie and Toonie.
Still, he kept on staring the way Rupey ran. Women are strange! However many problems one might have, they still controlled one's eyes! One would crave to look at them!
Someone was walking down the stairs barefoot. Taken a little aback, he looked back. It was Aaideo, the lady of the house! Seeing him she adjusted the veil covering her hair. For some reason she held on to the railing and stopped. Maybe she wanted to turn back, but she didn't. He wanted to greet her, but he couldn't. His throat had dried up. Looking at him and then down at the stairs she came down slowly. Didn't her beautiful face seem pale? She was, however, very composed. She was not talking to him, not even smiling. He had returned here several times after he was fired from his job. Aaideo always smiled and talked to him. She treated him to tea and sweets, and prepared betel nut and tobacco for him. Once she asked him if he was planning to get married. She talked to him like an old acquaintance.
Something was definitely wrong today. Her eyes seemed very dull. Her long eyelashes were moist. The corners of her large and normally bright eyes were red.
She must have been weeping. Oh, dear! Seeing her in sorrow, he realized how much he liked her. He greeted her as soon as she reached the bottom of the stairs, "Aaideo!" She forced a smile, "Hello Dhonee!" No, that could not be her open and beautiful smile! What was the matter? But he could not be forward enough to ask her directly
Aaideo said, "Please sit down. Did you come a long time ago?"
Sitting on a bench, he replied, "No, Aaideo, I just came in. Is the master in?"
Aaideo was holding on to the railing, and was staring at the courtyard. She didn't reply. He asked again, "Aaideo?"
"Huh? Oh, yes! He is home, Dhonee. The master is here. Did you want to see him?"
He was shocked. Aaideo was acting so strange! What was going on? He was in a quandary. He did not know if he could ask her troubles. He said, "Actually, yes. I wanted to see him." Then, suddenly he remembered the children--Borbopa's children. How strange! He almost had forgotten them. As soon as he remembered, he asked, "Where are the children, Aaideo? I haven't seen them yet."
Aaideo replied, "My sister-in-law had come to visit us yesterday. I sent them away with her for a while. Go ahead; help yourself to the betel nuts. There they are, on the serving tray. Cut them yourself. I will tell my husband about you." He looked at the tray of betel nuts which was on the bench he was sitting on. She walked up the stairs. He thought while preparing the betel nuts: Why did she send away the children to a relative's house? Maybe they could stay away from home all by themselves now; they sure were growing up fast. Their aunt's home was not far anyway.
He had almost finished chewing the betel nuts. Nobody had yet come down to talk to him. On other occasions the tax collector used to call him upstairs, or Borbopa used to come down to talk to him. Today, even Aaideo did not come back. Where did Rupey disappear? Nobody took so long to do the dishes! She never did anything in the outhouse where firewood was stored! She never worked in the vegetable garden. Maybe, she was collecting pineapples for a snack?
Dhoneerum almost jumped upright when he heard heavy footsteps upstairs. The master was finally coming down! He was a tall and very handsome man. He wore eyeglasses with a thick frame. He was wearing his favorite white shirt with two large pockets. He was holding the long and crooked cane in his hand. He paused after walking down a couple of steps. He stared at him for a moment. Dhoneerum bowed and paid respect to him. This was the first time he ever bowed to him. Earlier he need not do so since he was an old employee of the household. But today he found the situation somewhat frightening. Aaideo was behaving so differently. Rupey had not showed up to say hello in fear of Borbopa. Moreover, he was here to plead either for forgiveness of his land tax or get the payment day postponed.
"Come on upstairs, Dhonee," the master said. He walked back up again. Dhoneerum heard the heavy footsteps again. He was going to his study. He discussed official business there. Dhonee hesitantly followed the tax collector. Yes, the master was a quiet man, but he never saw him speak so less. He looked back before taking the first step on the stairs; he was sweating. He was glad that nobody was watching him, not even Rupey.
He finished climbing the stairs. The door to Borbopa's room was closed. Where did Aaideo go? Was Borbopa in his room? Dhoneerum felt uncomfortable in the absence of the children. He would have felt at ease noisily caressing them, talking to them, and playing with them.
He stood in front of the master's study. Sitting on a cane chair the old man was looking out the window. His eyes were not even blinking. The cane was on his lap. He addressed the officer, "Sir!" The tax collector turned to look at him, but returned to continue looking out the window. Neither talked for about a minute. Dhoneerum waited patiently.
"I thought you were going to come and visit us one of these days. Tell me, why have you come?" Dhoneerum hesitated at first, but slowly told him everything. Who knew how the taciturn officer was going to respond! Dhoneerum was a little frightened. After he finished, both remained silent for some more time. Finally, the master said without looking at him, "Your sister has been sick for such a long time. Have you taken her to a doctor?"
Rubbing his hands, Dhoneerum meekly replied, "I had very little money. I spent it all on her doctor's bills. Now she feels a little better. But she has to take more medication. Sir, I never thought the flood would destroy all the winter crops. Otherwise I would have definitely saved the money for the land taxes this year. I am in a dire straits. I beg for your mercy, sir!"
The old man calmly ordered, "Get me a piece of paper and a pen!" Dhoneerum bent courteously and promptly walked across the study. He picked up a sheet of paper and pen from the corner table. He also a fetched a heavy book to support the sheet as he wrote. During his eight years of service as the officer's orderly he had done this many times. The old man started writing a note. Dhoneerum waited at a distance. One should not be looking over the shoulders when an estimable person engaged in writing. But why was the master writing a memo? Usually, he just spoke to Borbopa face to face, if he needed to convey any message. He suddenly pondered: the master had expected his visit to the mansion. Then why did he ask him why? He was perplexed. He did not know; he did not understand!
Folding the sheet of paper, he said, "Go and give this to Borbopa." He took the note. He returned the paper and the pen back to their place. The master also instructed, "See me again on the way out, Dhonee!"
But how was he going to see Borbopa? The door to his room was shut. Then he suddenly noticed that the door was open now! Did Borbopa open the door because he somehow knew his father was sending him a memo? The dark green curtain to his room was fluttering in the mild wind. He must have opened the door just now. Lifting the curtain Dhoneerum gingerly walked inside.
Good Heavens! Borbopa was sitting at a corner of a huge bed with his head down. He weakly looked up as Dhoneerum stepped in. His hairs were unkempt. From the stubbles on his face, it was clear that he had not shaved in several days. There was a tired black patch around his eye and eyelids. He was wearing a light purple home-woven shirt, not buttoned. His suriyaa . the traditional flowing dress, was also dirty.
What a sorry state the perpetually furious and power crazy Borbopa had fallen into? What has God wrecked? Dhoneerum, who used to tremble in Borbopa's presence, felt a pang of sincere pity for the young man. How sad it was!
Borbopa finally uttered, "Come on in, Dhonee!"
Borbopa sounded so mild and friendly! Why should he not? His mother, Aaideo was such a nice and refined lady, almost a goddess! Her genteel nature must have rubbed off a little on him. He stretched his hand and forwarded the letter, and asked softly "Are you not feeling well, Borbopa?"
"No! Nothing is wrong! Sit down!"
Borbopa invited him to sit down in his own room! It was awfully strange! Borbopa pointed at the stool near the trunk. But Dhoneerum dared not sit! He had never done so in his life. Borbopa read the note from his father. The house seemed very dark and gloomy. The screens were tightly drawn on the windows. Only one screen was pulled back a little allowing a scant intrusion of light. Borbopa's face also looked grim and exhausted.
Borbopa finished reading the memo and looked back up at him. His eyes were glowing red in the midst of the large dark spot all around. He stared at Dhoneerum's eyes without blinking. Dhoneerum moved his eyes off of him. He gently requested, "Why aren't you sitting, Dhonee?"
Finally he timidly sat the stool a little away from the bed and sat down on it. Borbopa looked him straight in the eye again. Once again he read the memo. Didn't the master write about land taxes in the memo? What did he write then? Dhoneerum had to retell Borbopa his sad state of affairs. The ravaged winter paddies, the bane of the flood, the lusciously growing summer crops, his sick sister, the two growing children---Monie, Toonie, ...
At last Borbopa spoke, "Dhonee, you must continue your sister's treatment at any cost. She doesn't seem to be doing well at all. Keep visiting the doctor. These days, everyone seems to get sick more often. I am telling you, take it very seriously. We should also see what we can do to help you with the taxes."
Dhoneerum sat there still, almost dumbfounded. It was as if he was hit by thunder. Did the master write all this and more in the memo? No, he could not have written so much! Then how was Borbopa repeating his father's thoughts exactly? Whatever might have been the case, he did not understand it. It was gradually becoming dark. The sun was reaching the bottom of the horizon. It was almost dusk. Borbopa walked to a window, and said, "Dhonee, did father tell you anything about Rupey?"
"About Rupey? No, he didn't mention anything, Borbopa!"
Good God! What's wrong with Rupey? Why should the conversation be about Rupey when they were supposed to talk about taxes? Didn't she just run away from him because Borbopa strictly forbade her to even talk to him? Borbopa said, "Listen carefully, Dhonee! We need your help. If you don't, we have no other way. Don't worry at all about the taxes. We will take care of them. And, take these two hundred rupees for your sister's treatment. Don't you worry a bit!"
This was completely new! This was the first time Borbopa had said such kind words to him. Dhoneerum could not believe his ears! He believed it though! These are moneyed people with their strange whims. But, then out of the blue, Borbopa suddenly sprung a bitter surprise without any introduction, "You will have to take Rupey home with you! She is four months pregnant."
Dhoneerum jumped up from the stool and stood erect. The unexpected news and the accompanying request from Borbopa almost stupefied him: Rupey was four months pregnant now!
Now he realized why she seemed a little plump when he saw her earlier. It was the reason she did not have the courage to see him face to face. The reason why the house was so dead silent at high noon. It was why the children were packed off to their aunt's. It was why Aaideo's eyes were damp from incessant crying. It was the reason the master and Borbopa were saying the same things to him. It was why the master had been expecting him.
Borbopa continued without looking at him, "If you do not agree, then we are done for. Our family's prestige will be in the gutters. Dhonee, only you can save us! Us as well as Rupey, whom you love."
Borbopa came closer and stuffed his hand with a bundle of ten rupee bills. Maybe two hundred rupees; maybe more. The feeling of the crisp bills on his hands made him feel good. He could do many things with two hundred rupees. He needed only about forty for his sister's treatment. The rest would be extra. He could buy new clothes for Monie and Toonie. But what about Rupey? She was four months and showing. What would he do with her?
Borbopa pleaded with him, "Dhonee!" Dhonee replied, "Let me seek the master's advice, Borbopa." Briskly, he stepped out of the room. He could barely see Borbopa's face from near the door; but he looked so sad that Dhoneerum felt sorry for him.
He ran into Aaideo on his way out. She was climbing up the stairs. She looked at him with her swollen eyes and said, "Don't leave so soon. I am making tea for you. Please wait downstairs."
She was a real lady! Aaideo was so nice and genteel! He felt sorry for her. He hesitantly decided that he would take Rupey with him at least for Aideu's sake.
He would somehow take care of whatever happened later. He says, "Yes, Aaideo!"
The master made him stand very close to him, and said, "Dhonee, if you take Rupey with you, not only will you save us from this predicament, but you will help her too. She will live better. But, you will have to be a little more clever. If you think carefully, this will help you too. Since you are responsible for the household now, how will you survive without a wife? If you take her with you today, you will also benefit along with us. We will also help you any way we can."
Dhoneerum kept quiet. If he accepted Rupey as his wife, it would be a great relief for the master, Borbopa, the younger son living abroad in America, Aaideo and Rupey. The master promised Dhoneerum would be saved too. There is a saying in Assamese: When one offers flowers and sacred black basil leaves to God on a rude platter made of plantain sheaths, the platter receives God's benediction along with the far more deserving flowers and sacred leaves. Association with the rich and the famous would rescue him---an absolute nobody, a pip-squeak---from his otherwise wretched future. Hobnobbing with the powerful tax collector and his family would do him a lot of good. Now, he was like the worthless platter, and the others were like the flowers and the sacred leaves. Right! It would help everybody. In the process, he would also gain a wife.
When Aaideo offered him a cup of tea and sweets, he was sitting on the bench downstairs. It was already dark. There was a bright electric lamp hanging from the ceiling. Today also Aaideo gave him tea in the same bronze tumbler as she always did. She gave him home-made coconut sweets on a piece of paper. He looked at Aaideo very affectionately. She did not expect anything in return for the kindness she showed him. Not even today! It was so unlike Borbopa and the master. He finished the tea, washed the tumbler, and left it on the verandah of the kitchen. After chewing the parting betel nuts that Aaideo gave him, before bidding farewell, he wanted to ask her where Rupey was. But before he could ask, he noticed her standing in the dark courtyard with a bag in her hand. He didn't ask Aaideo anything. Why should he involve her? He had not discussed anything about the situation with Aaideo. Moreover, Aaideo was a goddess. She was like the sacred flowers and leaves offered to God.
He quickly touched Aaideo's feet as a sign of respect and said farewell. Aaideo was taken a little aback, but did not make any comments.
He issued a command to Rupeswari who was standing in the darkness of the courtyard, "Come on Rupey! Let's go home!" Without uttering a word, she walked by the high concrete foundation, and started to follow him. He also did not say anything. He did not look back either.
There was a horse-drawn carriage standing near the gate. Borbopa was waiting in the dark. He opened the door for Rupey. Then Dhoneerum got in and closed the door behind him. Borbopa signaled the driver to start. Dhoneerum forgot to say good-bye to Borbopa. He was reminiscing and pondering over the fateful turn of events: One day, a long time ago, while flirting with the beauteous Rupey under the madar tree, he had facetiously teased her saying one day he would elope with her on a grand horse-drawn carriage!
This is a translation of an Assamese short story called "Kol-potuwaar Mrityu." Jogesh Das is an established Assamese short-story writer and an accomplished novelist. Glossary
"Aaideo" is an address that roughly translates to "My lady." It is also used to refer to a lady.