Short Story: Hari Jadu Madhu

2022-07-30 10:02:47 By : Ms. Amy Qian

The short story travels to the unreal reality of the protagonists intersecting in the milieu of Assam. Do you know Assam means peerless?It is derived from the word asama.

Hari: Snorting, the truck emits thick clouds of black smoke — the smoke spreads and curls towards me — the rickety prehistoric vehicle shakes and murmurs, its twelve wheels eager to turn, it wants to fight one last battle against the helplessness of the failing engine and decaying parts on this stagnant afternoon—

The three-way intersection is deserted — on the roads, the tar is melting — the distant towers, trees, roads, and houses look grey and blurry — a thela-wallah is sleeping on Kalita cabin's bench — the annoying sound of ongoing construction wafts from the colony in the south— a trekker passes suddenly (a siren blows in the distant concrete sleeper factory!) — there is no wind — the leaves of the arjuna tree are still — a sun burns bright — three dogs bark and wrestle along the way and disappear behind the public toilet. The truck lets out another prolonged growl—suddenly a soft wind stirs the leaves, and some windblown plastic bags and empty packets of chanachur and gutkha come spiralling across the street — 

Despite having to watch all this like a still CCTV I don't allow boredom to get the better of me, the sun may rise and the sun may set but I will wait for him, I will take his insults, curses, and threats if needed — Some laborers, probably from the sleeper factory, pass by talking at the pitch of their voice.  My hearing faculty ignores the unwanted sound waves rising from the collective din and waits instead for the cree-ch-ch-chh sound of a small car hitting the brakes... 

The sun dips a little, I open the file, take out the form from the pocket and unfold it, read it, fold it again and put it back in with a gentle press of the hand. I ask the kid at the tobacco shop for a Flake and puff rings of smoke as I think. I have already enquired thrice — he hasn't arrived yet, but he was supposed to... A bunch of college girls get off the bus and amble away laughing — I don't understand why they get an education—their cautious and well-rehearsed gait, their artificially acquired accent that is more like a hotchpotch of the written variety of Assamese are strategies meant to make them rise, to increase their rate in the wedding market.  I turn my head away.  

None of it impresses me anymore — these woman-related things are faltu preoccupations — I've buried these thoughts long back in college — yet the heart is a moron — I'll have to tame it like a stray bitch —

These days even my sister Aimoni has taken to saying things: Dada, do something!  No work is too big or too small.  

But I can't go and sit in my brother-in-law's grocery store at her word —

I don't have to weigh goods all right!  Just handle cash.

Roni said the other day, 'Dada, this month you'll have to make do with just three… I'm a little strapped for cash.  Three thousand…' 

I haven't told anyone — my father, Roni, Aimoni — that I haven't been sitting idle — I've tried so hard these two years — appeared in all kinds of interviews... 

Was I really born in an inauspicious hour as my father said that day?

The sun dips further. A black-faced handyman emerges from the underside of the truck (he was there all this while). The truck starts with a rattle — all its parts — the engine, the chassis, the nuts and bolts and the iron panels wake up clattering — and thus begins the journey — the driver presses the accelerator and the engine revs up noisily emitting a foul smell and black smoke — I cover my nose and mouth the same way we all do at the notorious turning of Bharalu. Things weren't like this, no they weren't — in the days of my past — there was the river, the field, and them (I light the mouth of another cigarette) 

...When Sunday mornings came dressed in robes of bright sunshine, the three of us raced with the echoes past the vast fields of stubble by the Jagaliya river (once I stumbled and fell with a thud and my knee began to bleed profusely, they lifted me and washed my wound in the river's waters, Jadu tore his vest, Madhu ran and brought some nagarbera leaves, panting…) and got to the house of the Mahantas. A swarm of kids from our neighborhood crowded outside the three windows, amidst the brouhaha of the peeping kids we smiled and clapped and watched Ramayana. When Mahanta's son Pranab, with due permission from his father, let us inside the house, our chests swelled with pride. Our shirts and pants had multiple tears but our hearts were whole back then. We sat on the bare floor —uttering a single word was forbidden — and watched the colossal clash of thousands of arrows and the pashupatastra with our mouths wide open. Once we saw millions of lamps burning like a starry sky. Lord Rama was just arriving home at the end of his long exile when Mahanta thundered. You scum of the earth! Did you eat a rotten cow before coming here?

We were petrified, we looked at each other's faces as though silently explaining to each other — no, not us, we are not guilty — those seated on the couch tightly pinched their noses — I felt dead within — the world began to spin — we pleaded again and again that we were not guilty — but Mahanta refused to believe us… 

Since that day the three of us parted ways... We have buried that past forever in search of a future and that search is still on — patiently and painstakingly I have built the livestock shelter in the farm, had it roofed over, installed the hand-pump, cut out the bijuli-bamboo poles with these inexperienced hands of mine. Now all I need is him, I'll talk to the manager, I finally need this much help. I'll give it all my blood sweat and tears.

Jadu: I have invested time day and night in the branch — ignored Barnali's complaints and Rishabh's demands — became a burning example of dedication — Therefore I don't deserve this kind of treatment — The boss has just made countless threats to me that point to terrible consequences, humiliating me in his restrained manner, and I silently sit through this verbal attack, a mix of abuses insults and warnings. But am I solely responsible for the bankruptcy of the branch the way he is projecting in his detailed PowerPoint presentation of NPA (Non-Performing Asset) — am I the only one to blame? I've already downed two cups of coffee. Is the branch truly suffering the consequences of my generosity? They cannot transfer me to Mizoram or to the mountains of Arunachal for this! Yes, every time I saw the sad face of a young man, something happened inside me that made me give in, as though the face carried telltale signs — I am a poor man, Sir, how will I run my family— that was before my wife Barnali, or son Rishabh, came into my life. Now I have my own family, I want a decent amount of success in life. I understand that I need to grow a new outlook on life —

I drive my car down the Lokhora road — smooth and classy like a New York street — a whiff of something unpleasant — a foul stench —the smell of rot, a decomposing dog or something else?  I hold the steering wheel with my right hand and the handkerchief with my left (maybe it's a dog, its innards exposed). I suppress an urge to throw up — I finally drive past this long trail of the filthy smell but find myself on the heels of a truck.  On its back are the words: You evil-eyed one, curse be upon you! I feel anger surging within me. I want to hurl abuses at someone with all my might. Things weren't like this in the days of my past, when we ran past the paddy stubble by the riverside on pearly bright mornings... When I fell into the Nepalis' canal — I was gasping, I had inhaled a lot of water — I beat my hands frantically but couldn't keep myself afloat, I clearly remember that slow death-like feeling of near drowning…Madhu grabbed me by my hair and pulled me out, Hari pressed my chest hard with the heels of his hands to let out the water…   

When the 9 o'clock flower bloomed, we arrived at the house of the Mahantas, washed our hands and feet and lowered ourselves onto the bare floor where our posteriors put down roots.  I remember, a grand celebration swept Ayodhya that day, as happens in our village on Kati Bihu, lamps were lit outside every home, and suddenly Mahanta roared in anger startling each one of us — you sons-of-bitches, lousy creeps, who's stuffed himself with a rotten cow this morning?

How do I erase the monstrous image of Mahanta from my mind, the way his index finger kept pointing at us and his tree-felling roar? If I see you all here again… We could not say a thing, our shirts had missing buttons and our pants had holes in the butt carelessly patched. How can I forget it! 

I will harden myself. I remember reading somewhere — Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell! — I want to prove to the world that the boy who had no buttons on his shirt…

I pass a mob; a bike is lying flat on the road. God!  Something wrings my chest — a thought- It could have been myself– my anger subsides — I am walking on a tightrope balancing with a pole of bamboo, the slightest error could throw me into an abysmal pit. Barnali keeps giving me those reminders — You have a long way to go, you have many more ladders to climb —Now my branch is new, so are my responsibilities. I have to be dedicated and stern... 

My car slows down, crosses little groups of people, and takes a slow turn past a prehistoric truck that rattles and groans emitting thick black smoke.

Madhu: My mind is calm, although I know that not only will I be fired from my job, but I may even be jailed. I need to hand over to my mother the little money I have saved. I am not worried about imprisonment; I have transcended many such unseen prison walls in my life — 

That man embezzled our arrears of five years, we would tremble at the loud blow of his whistle, he would cane us like medieval feudal lords beating up their slaves, treat us like dogs, under his torturous supervision  I lost my little finger while working in the sleeper factory last night, and yet I bore the pain and continued to work without protest — I readied the moulds, poured sand, carried them into the steam chamber by the lift, not allowing myself to get tired at all until he told me, in a voice of utter ridicule — You stink!  Your body stinks!   

That's when I lost it — an iron rod was lying there, I picked it up and hammered him to death, screaming — you swine! What smell is it, what smell have you got?

This fucking smell has haunted me all my life... It was the day of Rama's return to Ayodhya. We were running past the harvested paddy fields by the riverside... The city of Ayodhya was shining like countless glow-worms under our bokul tree, the heavens were raining flowers. The next instant, Mahanta was kicking the three of us out of his house— our vests were torn, our trousers had no buckles, we tied them to our waists with coconut coir strings, we had no objection to sitting on the bare floor...   'These Dom boys must have eaten a dead cow!' 'They won't let us watch the episode in peace!' 

I was sobbing aloud (we were in the ninth grade, Sarbeshwar sir had made us memorize the preamble to the Constitution, and certain things about the world touched us too...) 

I took them to the river's bank.  In its clear stream we dipped our feet. We could not trust one another. Anxiously, we asked each other — who will own up to the smell? Who is to blame?  

: Jadu, was it you?   : I swear by the dark-skinned god!  : Hari, you?   : I swear by lord Krishna!  : Madhu, you?   : I swear by the mother goddess Kali!

Tears welled up in our innocent eyes as we swore in the name of God. We remembered the grave injustice that led Lord Rama to forsake the huge royal court of Ayodhya and wander through the forests. But somewhere we had our doubts. As we were boys from poor neighbourhoods, it was likely for our bodies to smell foul. We sniffed each other's bodies, but couldn't be convinced, and with that unresolved question our friendship ended on the banks of that river of our adolescence... 

I walk past a battered old truck, rusty,  panting like a dog with its tongue stuck out, I hear the faint wail of a police siren, I roll up the blood-stained left sleeve of my shirt, I need to quickly withdraw the money so I can hand it over to my mother... I move up the flights of stairs clutching the tattered passbook, there is a long queue in the counters, all the employees look very busy, the Cashier madam is counting the money, and everything is happening in its routine manner, the world is spinning...  Something happens. The earth stops spinning on its axis.  

I remember the blood from someone's knees in the river's waters, someone gasping for breath in the Nepalis' canal, three boys sniffing each other's bodies on the banks of the river... 

Twenty years later!   Twenty years later!!  

I recognize this bearded young man waiting in front of the manager's cabin with a loan application form and land documents in his hands.  

I recognize the handsome new GM on the manager's chair looking intently at the computer screen.  

I feel as if a dark corner has suddenly lit up!  Ah! This is unreal. 

Like a cruel spectator, I will watch this play unfold, and when the curtains fall I will announce myself, and although the river won't be flowing in front of us, I will tell them that the question from our past still haunts me, and that I am still looking for an answer. The Ramayana case from twenty years ago will have a fresh trial today… (translated from the Assamese by Anindita Kar. It was first published in Natun Padatik, 2013)