By Holiram Deka
Translation: Jukti Kalita
A few old-style horse carriages. A few old and new buses. Some tired coolies. And a large number of passengers going to different destinations. These constituted the lifeblood of the Guwahati-Shillong bus station. Every activity took place very slowly at the bus station, like a heavy clock run by electricity. Such a clock looks dead at first sight. But if you watch with steady eyes for some time, you would find that the minute hand waits motionlessly for a full minute and then suddenly springs up with life for a few seconds. Exactly like an electric clock, every activity in the bus station was punctual-but the pace was lethargic. The long distance buses traveling from Pandu to Shillong came on schedule. There were separate buses for the rich and the poor. The buses with inexpensive tickets, called lower-class buses, waited at the station for a long time loading passengers. The goods trucks, which were all painted in saffron, came and left without caring about the waiting humanity. The passengers, who were all dressed up for long distance travel, usually sat inside cozily and waited for that auspicious moment when the buses would start. Those who got tired of waiting or were bored, temporarily got up from their seats and then walked down from the buses. They loitered outside. Those passengers who were from afar and had not seen mountains before, wondered about what was going to happen when the buses climbed high up.
They prayed for god to be with them when they marched into the belly of the mountains. At one such moment, a man in torn, dirty clothes, between eighteen and twenty years old came to the station. He had a cane in one of his hands. There were pox marks on his face. He was smiling. But two things were dearly missing from him-shoes on his feet and vision in his eyes. From the way he acted, it could be understood that this place was not entirely unknown to him. Some workers at the bus station and many of the coolies knew him. When he arrived at the station, many people recognized him and said hello, ``Hi Sultan!'' Several people came to talk to him. He smiled and said in Hindustani, ``I have finally decided to travel today!'' ``Where to?'' inquired everyone. He answered ``To Shillong.'' ``Why?,'' they asked further. ``I am going to visit my older brother in Shillong.'' They found humor in his answer and laughed loudly. Perhaps they were proud of their eyesight and disparaged his blindness. However, he was not bothered by their insulting tone. He merely told them he had to urgently go to Shillong because he had not heard from his brother for a long of time. He shakily walked to a bus and boarded it.
Half of the bus carried lower-class passengers and the other half carried goods. ``Hey, you! Get off the bus! You don't have a ticket!'' Someone yelled at him. The man caught him by his hand and led him out. Without a murmur of protest, he got down from the bus and pleaded with the man, ``I haven't gotten any news from my brother in a long time. I have to travel to Shillong. But, I am too poor to afford a ticket.'' Most people around him did not show any compassion; they sneered him away. It was as if a poor blind man could not have a brother, an unfortunate person like him was not entitled to feelings of love and affection. Tears welled in his eyes and rolled down his cheeks at his own helplessness. But it was a hot sunny day; the tears dried up soon and his face soon lighted with a smile.
Regaining his composure, Sultan started loudly singing one of Kabir's spiritual verses, written several centuries ago. He sang well. He had a sweet voice and the lyrics were meaningful. Everyone around him stopped talking. Perhaps most of those who had gathered around did not understand the Hindustani language of the song. Maybe, the lyrics of the song sounded strange to them. But what a pleasing tune he had, his pock-marked face and his eyes had such a glow, his thin lips had such a pleasant smile! During pauses in his singing the listeners showered warm accolades on him, ``That's great! What a voice! What a song!" Many lower-class passengers temporarily got off their buses and surrounded him. The bus and the truck drivers also mingled with the crowd and listened to him in spite of warnings from the officers of the bus company not to waste time gathering around the singer. Because the whole space was filled with people and because even the drivers were listening to Sultan, the buses could not leave. The passengers who were traveling on the luxury buses and who had paid a lot of money to travel comfortably and on time, became exasperated. The lower-class vehicles were scheduled to leave first. Finally, an officer of the bus company approached Sultan and spoke with him. ``Well, I can't let you on any bus without a ticket, but do you want to ride on one of the uncovered luggage trucks? Remember that if you fall off somewhere on the way to Shillong, the blame will entirely be yours.'' Sultan heaved a sigh of relief and responded happily, ``I will ride anywhere you allow me, sir!.'' The soft-spoken employee asked him where in Shillong his elder brother lived. Sultan did not know. He only knew that his brother lived somewhere in Shillong. Finally, a porter led him to a luggage truck, and he effortlessly walked up and sat on its flat bed like a mahout embarking an elephant. The crowd of listeners dispersed soon. They went to their respective buses. One by one the buses left quickly. The air around the bus station seemed to have retained some of Sultan's cheerfulness!
It was raining lightly when Sultan reached Shillong in the evening. The tiny electric bulbs overlooking the city streets looked like dangling stars. The dim light enabled one to walk carefully on the side of the road, avoiding motor traffic. But for Sultan who had been blind from his childhood, the lights weren't of any help. Just after getting off the bus he had tried his best to identify the voice of the man who allowed him to board the bus. He was not lucky enough to hear that voice again to ask any questions. Sultan acknowledged the man's help to himself and thanked him. He put the torn cap on his head and started walking slowly along the main road. The cars, which only the rich and the famous could possess, passed by him. The cars sprayed mud from the unpaved road on to his clothes and his body. Somehow, he sensed the slope of the gutter by the road on one side and the mud of the road on the other, and started walking in between the two.
Sultan realized only now that he did not know his brother's whereabouts in Shillong and that locating his brother would be a monumental task. He had heard from someone that his brother cooked for a white man, but did not know who it was. Of course, he also did not know where in Shillong this white man lived and where he worked. He was quite unfamiliar with the names of the whites anyway. He had a hard time pronouncing and remembering their names. He must have heard the name of his brother's employer, but he had forgotten it. In any case he needed to find out the name now. Where would he go now? How could he find someone who knew his older brother? His brother's name was Hussain. Knowing only that much would have been enough in a village but now he was in a big city, the state capital. Whoever cared for the poor here? People were recognized here by their money, their titles and official positions and their big houses. Only if he could somehow remember the name of the white man for whom his elder brother worked! In this dark, damp and rainy night, he could not expect help from anyone. No one was going to give him directions and guide him to his brother's place.
In time, the roads became deserted. He felt the deep silence of the night around him. Out of fear and uncertainty, he became a little nervous. His body twitched every few minutes. His tired body and mind became more weary. He put his hands into the bag he was carrying to see if he had any bread left. He searched for a half-finished bidi in his pockets, thinking smoking would help regain composure. He did not find anything at all in his possession. He just pitied himself and extracted a smile out of himself. He wanted to sit down and take rest. But where would he sit? The ground was too wet.
As he kept walking, the speed of the wind picked up, the rain drops became larger and lightning became more frequent. The repeated lightning forewarned the coming of a treacherous night. Sultan thought that the weather was against him. He wondered if he could get shelter for the night somewhere. But where would he go looking for shelter in the middle of the night? Then he started hearing the sound of cars, noises of men talking and the laughter of women at some distance. He thought if he could reach there, they may be kind enough to give him shelter. So he approached the place from where all the noise came. As he approached the gate of the enclosed compound, the security guard asked him, ``Hey! Whom do you want?'' The guard was speaking Hindustani. Sultan was a little encouraged because he thought the guard was from the state of Bihar too, just like he was. He thought that the man might know of his older brother, or at least could provide him shelter for the night. So Sultan approached the guard and said, ``Oh brother! I am blind. I have come searching for my older brother. My brother's name is Hussain, my name is Sultan and we are from the Arrah district of Bihar. Do you know my brother?'' The guard said, ``This is a club house for the white folks. Get away from here! It is time for the women to leave. You will break your bones under a car if you don't go away.'' Soon, the cars which were about to leave started blowing their horns because their path was blocked. The headlights were bright. Even Sultan's shadow was very clear to everyone. The drunk voices started shouting at the guard from inside the cars. The security guard took revenge on Sultan. He became angry and shoved Sultan violently back to the street.
The road became extremely quiet. There was no one on the road. If he suddenly heard someone's footsteps, he asked, ``Sir! Can you please tell me where my brother lives? His name is Hussain.'' No one would even reply. Finally, the rain stopped. Sultan enjoyed the light breeze that followed. He looked up to the sky and prayed, ``Almighty God, help me locate my brother! You know that I am tired, weak, and blind. Won't you help me tread these unknown paths?'' God did not respond. Neither did any human being. Thus, his brother's whereabouts remained unknown to him. Also, his hope of finding a shelter for the night remained elusive. A sense of unexpressed anger arose in his mind. The target of his wrath was God he had been seeking help all along. He felt guitly at being angry with God and tried to please Him in his own way by singing a song. It was such a mournful tune. It would move even a very cold-hearted man.
But, only the rows of pine trees by the roadside listened to his solemn song. Neither any human being nor the Almighty responded to his prayers. He could clearly hear the sound of water rippling in the creek nearby, and that of raindrops hitting the leaves. But not a living soul seemed to listen to his unrelenting request for help. What could this pitiful blind boy do? He was extremely weary. Yet he kept dragging his tired body step by step into the darkness of the night in search of his beloved brother.
Kumari Sahera Banu was a professor at the Lady Kane College. She taught mathematics, but devoted a lot of time to reading literature. She was a quiet person and did not pick up arguments easily. She was not really known for her romantic exploits. She was interested in the progress of women in the society. During her days in college, she had earned the nickname of Sahara, the desert. She was sleeping in her room at the girl's dormitory when she heard a voice singing not too far away. She listened intently, to the very sad tune. Unable to sleep any more, she rose from her bed, came out and stood on the verandah. She felt the shivering cold of the rainy Shillong night. A few rain drops fell on her face. The droplets were tiny in size but felt almost solid. Sahera again heard the melancholy voice wafting towards her. It was definitely not a happy man singing out of pleasure. It was someone with a broken and disillusioned heart, singing aloud the bitter sufferings of his life. It was as if the blood of a destitute soul was splattering out on to the streets. Once again, the sky was fully overcast. The lightning started striking again and in the din of the thunder, the lyrics of the song that was coming out of the darkness became unclear. Then it started pouring very heavily. The raindrops kept banging on the tin roof of the house and produced a loud noise. Miss Sahera's clothes became wet. But she was so enchanted by the music coming in her direction that she did not leave the verandah. She did not feel like going back to her cozy little room.
Then there was a lull in the music. Now, she could clearly hear the sad, pitiful voice of a man. ``Oh, big brother! Where are you?'' She heard him say loudly again and again. He lamented, ``I am Sultan. Oh, dear brother. Help me!'' She realized that it was a helpless young boy looking for shelter. But, what could she really do? She lived in a girl's dormitory of a college run by missionaries and had to abide by strict rules. She was an unmarried woman and it was not safe for her to go out in the middle of the night. It was inappropriate to go outside and bring the man into the house, however needy he might be! What would the principal of the college say when she found out? Men were not allowed in the women's dormitory at any time. Such an action on her part, though morally right, might even lead to her dismissal from her teaching position. However she was moved when she again heard the boy's voice, ``Oh, dear big brother. I am Sultan. I am looking for you.'' Sahara could not wait any longer; she would have to help the owner of the voice, someone who needed help desperately in the middle of a cold rainy night. She went out and looked for the security guard to get the keys to the locked main door. But the guard was no where to be found. So, she walked back to the verandah.
Thunder struck repeatedly once again. Sahera could still hear Sultan's deep-throated crying. Then all of a sudden it seemed that a big ball of fire fell to the ground from high in the sky with great swiftness. And then everything became eerily quiet. Sahera did not hear that pitiful voice any more.
In the morning, the professor saw the motionless body of Sultan by the road near the girl's hostel. Sultan must have been lying on the ground in the middle of thunderous rain. He might have been struck by thunder and killed. Sahera felt extremely sad. Even now during rainy and distressful nights, whenever Sahera is awake, she hears that fearful voice singing disconsolately in the pouring rain. The memory of that motionless body prostrate on the ground also becomes vivid in her mind.
Holiram Deka was the first Assamese Chief Justice of the Guwahati High Court. Jukti Kalita teaches marketing in Baruch College of the City University of New York.