Crack of dawn: Phoringis seated in the verandah chewing betel nut. After a while,lifting the heel of his right leg, he extracted a bidi from the loop of his dhoti. Twisting the thread tied to the bidi with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, and puffing into it he turned to the open door and said, “Hey! Do you hear me? Is the husk burning in the fireplace?
Lahori, wearing a dark green mekhala, chadarand a red blouse, a pot by her side, was just about to direct her lively footsteps to the river to fetch water. Hearing her husband’s voice she stopped, said “Yes, the husk is burning in the fireplace, but why do you ask?”“Go, kindle this bidi for me,” said Phoring. A disgruntled Lahori replied, “I’ve spoiled my eyes puffing that hookah for you earlier. And now how do you expect me to light the bidi for you? Unperturbed Phoring said, “Hey! Did I ask you to puff the bidi? Just puff it into the husk. It will kindle on its own.Lahoriput her pot down and took the bidi as she went inside. Phoring looked at her. Poor soul! After finishing her household errands, she bathed and putting sindoor in the parting of her tresses she was just about to go to the river side. And he intervened. After a while she handed him the bidi. Tilting his head slightly, he took the bidi.
He squeezed the bidi into his fist through the gap between the forefinger and middle-finger of his right hand. Now positioning his lips in the small gap between his thumb and forefinger he savoured the long puff. At times he would open his mouth wide and let the ashen smoke out. The smoke mingled with the mist of winter.
Standing close to him, Lahori wiped her eyes. She wrapped herself with her chadar properly and said “I am going to the river.”
Phoring didn’t utter a word. There were droplets of water falling from her wet mekhala chadar which she had hung on the bamboo pole in the courtyard to dry. Beside the loom the bottle gourd plant was growing luxuriantly on the bamboo support that was put up the last week. Unthinkingly, he licked the ashes from the bidi and gaped in that direction. But in his flushed eyes appeared the faces of Rotia and Kolia. Pondering over his crop fields he had lost his peace of mind since last night. How can he forget what Rotia and others had done to him? Barely three years back had he had to mortgage his crop fields measuring five bighas, his only resource, when Lahori fell ill. Now Kolia says the principal and interest over these three years accumulates to an amount which is well above the actual price of the land. Poor man! These years he didn’t even get a morsel from the land. Still, the land was his. Now that is gone as well. And Lahori too did not recover. They’ve given up all hopes of having a kid in their lap. Is this what providence had in store for them?
The worry of procuring meal for two people…for the last three years he had either worked as a share cropper or labored at the Gaonburha’s house to secure their meal. Yesterday, after hearing what Rotia and Kolia said, he was crestfallen. “Phoring, I would like to clear all transactions within the month of Magh.” He’d pronounced this at Memera’s shop.
…he was sitting, cowered. Lahori returned. “What is it that you’ve been meditating upon since then?” There’s not a crumb for the night. Go to Gaonburha’s house after having something.” But he was not willing and so Lahori said, “Then be ready to starve!” To this he retorted sarcastically, “Oh! You needn’t worry; I’ll see to it that your belly is full!
Lahori remained silent. The rice she had set aside by handfuls every time she cooked is there in the earthen pot. ..If there’s no way out, then that rice… She went to the kitchen. She blew the fire and warmed two bowls of water. She took one bowl to Phoring and had the other herself, sitting beside him.
It was the month of Magh. There was a drizzle this morning. It’s chilly now. He covered himself tight with his endi shawl and looking at his wife said, “It’s gloomy today; I feel like having some rice cakes today, can’t you fry a few pieces for me? I won’t have rice.Lahori, disheartened said,“But where’s the rice for rice cakes? We don’t even have some in our granary. Do we evenhave rice for our meals? The granary is empty.” Phoring felt that his hope of relishing the delicious rice cakes became dim. Sighing he said, “then what’ll happen? There’ll be no rice cakes it seems!
Lahori was distraught hearing her husband’s words. With a soothing voice she said, “Just go around and see who’s thrashing the paddy. You can ask for some.” Listening to his wife’s words he felt into deep thoughts and then as if planning a trick he wrapped his shawl and went out.
Having found a neighbour thrashing paddy, he sat in the courtyard beside it and began talking about mundane affairs of life. The neighbour kept himself busy with his bullocks while thrashing the paddy as Phoring went rambling about this and that. “It seems you had a good harvest this year,” he said picking a few grains from the ground into the palm of his hand,as he put the rice into his mouth after blowing the husk away. The man replied, “Not at all, its perhaps forty maunds. But what are the newest developments about your debts and liabilities?” Phoringdescribed how he had lost his land at the hands of the money lender and added that his wife was yet to know that the land has been grabbed by the money lender as he was unable to repay the interest as well the principal.“How do you plan to earn your livelihood now?” asked his neighbour. “As of now I’m working at Gaonburha’s place. Let’s wait and watch…oh…oh…oh… my tummy….its aching, unbearable….oh lord, help me….I am dying…”saying so Phoring began tossing and turning over the grains with his shawl over him. The sticky grains were now all over his thick endi shawl. He rolled over the grains making sure that there were enough grains on his shawl and groaning, his rose to go home. On reaching his home, he shook his shawl and was content to have collected quite an amount of grains. Lahoriwas jubilant. She made a big fire to boil the grains and put them out in the sun to dry.
Phoring was squatting in the middle of the courtyard. Putting the grains out to dry she told him, “Keep an eye. Birds might pick the grains. But you’ll not get to eat rice cakes before tomorrow.”Phoring agreed.And she dried the grains, pounded them, cleaned the husk and began making rice flour. She served Phoring his dinner in the evening and having done with her chores for the day, she kindled the fire and began frying the rice cakes. Phoring fell asleep after his dinner. Lahori fried several pieces of rice cakes and kept them aside on a bamboo tray. Then she devoured most of it and put away a few covered in a bowl. Before going to sleep she roused Phoring and said, “I’ve fried the rice cakes but I’d like to put forth a condition – the one who wakes up early tomorrow morning shall have only one third of the total cakes, the remaining two portions shall go to the one who wakes up late.” Phoring agreed to his wife’s proposal and fell asleep again.
None of them woke up from slumber though the sun ripened into bright maturity the next morning. Both went on snoring pretending to be in deep sleep. At last Phoring felt that he couldn’t pretend further with all odd errands waiting for him! Let his wife have two portions of the rice cakes, he’ll be happy to have a single portion! Thinking thus, he woke up. Seeing him wake up, his wife remarked from the bed, “You woke up before me, hence you’ll have a single portion and mine is twice!”
He said, “Alright, you’ll have twice my share.”
Uncovering the bowl, he was astonished. Only this few? What about his pompous pretention? His tummy ache? His rolling over the grains with his shawl and his coming back home groaning… last night’s cunning grin.…Lahori seems to have surpassed him!
Keeping his thoughts to himself he asked Lahori, “Where are the rest of the cakes?”
Surprisingly enough she replied, “from where do I get some more cakes? Whatever is in the bowl is all that could be made. You have one portion from those and keep twice the share for me.”
Just then his eyes fell on the bamboo tray that hung on the wall and the marks of the raw rice cakes were still there on the tray. He counted them and it came up to sixty! He asked her nothing as he came out and sat. After a while she joined him. As she handed him the betel nut, he uttered the adage, “prophecy comes forth as the spirit rests in the rod, sixty cakes were devoured, without a soul to take note.” She was overcome with embarrassment as she grasped the veiled import of the maxim. But the very next moment she lifted her head and asked, “how do you know?” And she was in tears when she agreed to hehis query about the missing rice cakes.
Phoring brought her close to him saying, “Don’t weep Lahori…I can’t bear to see you in tears, dear!”
Choking, she said, “You’re a seer, why did you keep this secret from me? You must have discovered so many of my secrets. Alas! What’ll happen now? With compassion he said, “Don’t worry my dear; your covetousness is all that has been laid bare to me time and again, in my reckoning and nothing else.”
Lahori was unburdened. But there was a sudden feeling of melancholy too. How erudite her husband is but how pitiable his condition was! It seems he could take up the craft of a soothsayer!
With the pot at her waist on her way to the river same feelings came back to her mind. When she found the womenfolk at the river side she elaborated upon her husband’s out of the ordinary merit. And the word spread from one to the other. After a couple of days, DamodarKalita from the neighbourhood approached him – “Phoring, my black cow is missing you know. We’ve gone searching for her here and there. But need I worry when you are here? Then there was Ghunusa’s mother too who said, “Seek Phoring’s counsel, he’ll offer an instantaneous clue.
Incidentally that day Phoring had noticed Damodar’s cow grazing at the thickets behind his backyard. He asked Damodar to look for the cow in that direction. Damodar was spellbound to find the cow within no time at the hinted site. And thereafter Phoring’s fame as the seer spread far and wide – went beyond the precincts of the remote hamlet; his fame spread to the sub-division, the district, and the headquarters to reach the capital Dikdarshanpur.
The officer was from the village. His official personal assistants were sent to bring Phoring to Dikdarshanpur. On receiving the summon Phoring was scared to death. He was in dire straits…neither could he defy the summon, nor could he dare make erroneous prophecy…oh lord! To put me in such a fix at this age! Hey daredevil! Won’t you rejoice now that there’s a summon for your man from the capital, from the Officer himself! But Lahori was jubilant that Phoring had been summoned by none other than the Officer himself. Contented she said, “At last the lord has showered His mercy. There’ll be an end to our days of misery. You are so blessed with an amazing gift, why should you let it wilt into oblivion?” But Phoring expressed his doubts and apprehensions as he said, “No..no..no..none of you’ve assessed the real import…” I’ve been trapped by the devil himself this time, he thought to himself. But he can’t unveil the whole story. What does Lahori understand of all this? But that he’ll have to go, he knows for sure.Hunger or greed, its death all the same for him.
On his trip to Dikdarshanpur, Phoring embarked on a vehicle with a red light. Wiping tears from her eyes Lahori packed separate bundles of clothes and utensils for him. But the men in trousers and shirts said, “You needn’t carry all these. Our chief shall make provision for everything.
There was a glance of melancholy as he looked at her. Her eyes reflected melancholy too. Implications were poles apart, however. He was writhing in agony. She in pangs of separation.Phoring turned away. If only he could veil his eyes with the thick façade of guile he could become another YogendraBrahmachari or an Indraswami. Isn’t this the way these men are born? Numerous lies, cunning, cheating pile up and mingle in the consciousness over a long time to attain the sanctity of truth. And this truth eventually spreads out to strengthen itself evermore. In this, the greatness of being is bound to be defeated.
On his way to Dikdarshanpur, Phoring felt flighty as he reached the strip of road that twisted and turned. The men from the city made him lie down on the seat of the vehicle and said, “Master, you’ll get used to all this after a few days.”
‘Master’…Phoring was taken aback. What’s happened to these men, what are they saying? He is a mere wage earner, at Gaonburha’s household. He has brought to fruition successfully, his craftiness merely thrice in his entire life till now. Will he be able to pull it off in a place like this? This is certainly not the place to accomplish his rustic craftiness.
Reaching his destination he was flabbergasted by the grandeur all around. Houses, adornment, electric lights, vehicles and what not! Good lord! Slowly the vehicle entered the premises of the officer. The campus was fortified by security men. Strict arrangements of security were made so that not even a fly could escape into the inner walls. The leaves would not move in the breeze nor would the birds chirp without permission.
–“Master, do come in.” The men ushered him to a spacious room where he seated himself. Thereafter, for almost an hour he was given the know-how of opening and closing of doors, operating electric switches, using bathroom-toilet, getting hot water, cold wate in the taps. After this came another one who delivered the skills of using crockery while eating along with the use of spoons and fork.
Phoring is seated on the bed. No not bed, it seemed Lord Vishnu’s celestial couch. The soft bed gave him the sensation of delicate tenderness as he sat upon it. Slowly, sitting in an upright meditative posture he began ruminating about this and that. Initially Lahori inhabited his thoughts but eventually she vanished like the trees that fade away from sight while travelling in a bus. His thoughts too trailed off to obscurity. From this to that his mind kept wandering and after a while he couldn’t reminisce what was he actually thinking about?
The Lady was coming towards his room in measured steps, accompanied by her maid who was carrying an offering of mouth fresheners. Folding her palms as a mark of respect, she took her seat on the sofa. Gesturing her maid to leave, she asked Phoring to have her offering kept on the table beside.
– will have, my Lady.
The Lady assumed that the Master speaks in future tense. With earnestness she enquired of him, “Master how do you like the place?”
– Most astounding, good Lady, astonishing! Hark my Lady…
“Once foretold by counting
Another by perceiving
Slipped away a vat of grains by cunning
Now the trap has been laid for Phoring
The Lady’s countenance lightened. Seeing this Phoring was somewhat reassured. Now he faced her.
– Master! The Lady uttered.
– Yes, my Lady!
– Master, I have a desire, will it be realized?
– all colours become paler for the emaciated my Lady! Its pale all around.
The Lady paid her obeisance as she left the room. At night she disclosed to the Lord – “Do you take note? He’s the best seer. He speaks a strange diction. I enquired how he finds this place.” “What was his reply?” the inquisitive Officer asked. The Lady recalled Phoring’s ambiguous reply. He said that Phoring has been trapped!
“This implies they’re locusts. Entrapped by us. Who else shall be the victor? Hence make arrangements to send me to Indraprastha”, observed the Lady quite analytically. The Officer continued, “What else did he say?” And the Lady explained how Phoring indicated that all colours become paler for the emaciated. And it’s best to make a clever move when people are obsessed with the paleness all around.
Phoring now sat recoiled in the middle of the bed resembling the goat brought to be butchered. Little by little night crept in. Sleep vanished from his eyes. He knelt on the bed. He felt an irresistible desire to have a puff. His hands felt for the bundle of bidis and the matchbox which he had brought along with utmost care, in the pockets of his tattered wear. But will this be tolerable here? He became restless. After having fed upon eatables which he had never imagined his tummy too was showing signs of subdued rebellion.
He looked around the room. The flaunting of affluence – electric fans overhead, walls bedecked, embellished floors – a room with such adornment was something which he could never fancy in his entire life. He mused over his own dwelling. His cherished abode, the bottle gourd plant beside the loom, and the angel of his abode, his beloved Lahori…
He opened wide his unaccustomed eyes. His lifeless, cold eyes were limping back to life. Suddenly they were fixed on a picture that hung on the wall. A woman’s body tinted in hues that were akin to the colours brought by Katiram from the town to spread over the setting of the seven heavens during the performance of Chihnajatrabhaona. Who’s she? Her pepper and salt tresses, the fine dark lines below her eyes, she’s unable to open her eyes wide. Barely clad, her expressionless eyes gazed into the void. As his eyes caught sight of hers, he was reminded of his mother, his darling mother too who had left this world so many years ago…Ai…Ai…he muttered the words of his mother, “Don’t worry Phoring….the Lord has kept a grain even for the insect, the Lord will provide for an anchor, child!”
But did his anchor defend him? The likes of Kolia and Rotia gobbled up every bit. His ingenuousness vanished from then on. He had to take on sly means to slip away the vat of grains owing to his greed; he embarrassed Lahori by counting the rice cake marks on the bamboo tray and Ghunusa’s good for nothing father! Couldn’t he seek out for his cow nearby?
– who’s knocking?….timidly he opened the door and was awestruck. The Lord himself! How plump! And what a pot belly!
His left hand closed into a fist. Showing it to Phoring he enquired, “Master, can you reveal what my fist encloses, what can it contain?”
Timidly, so as to escape the impending anger of the all powerful Officer, he replied, “In a fist can be hidden kismet of Assam!”
- O how very true! The kismet of Assam, the throne of Assam! The Officer exclaimed
excitedly. He held up his open fist in front of Phoring’s eyes. A bizarre smile swept across his eyes and countenance. Phoring stood there gazing at the lines in the Officer’s palm, his eyes and his visage. Little by little, his eyes brightened.
Dr. Merry Barua Bora
About the Translate Author:
Dr. Merry Baruah Bora is an Assistant Professor (Sr) in the Department of English, Cotton College, Guwahati.
She has contributed various articles to different research journals both national and international. Dr. Baruah is well known for her lucid style of translation. She is associated with writing textbooks for undergraduate and post-graduate courses in the context of Indian university system.
She is a Visiting Faculty at TISS(Tata Institute of Social Sciences), Guwahati Campus.
The name of the protagonist derived from the Assamese word meaning grasshopper or locust. ?
An Assamese word meaning the beautiful one, commonly used to address one’s beloved. ?
Traditional Assamese clothes for women. ?
A kind of thread made from the endi larva, shawl made of this, traditional clothing. ?
A unit of measure of grains, prevalent in Assam. ?
An Assamese name ?
A classical Assamese drama penned by MahapurusaSankardeva. Such plays are known as ‘Bhaona’ in Assamese. ?
About the Author:
The author, Najma Mukherjee is a well known Assamese short story writer and satirist. She is much known for her distinctive mark in the field of creative Assamese literature. The author has two short story collections. The uniqueness in each of her stories are the far different subject matters along with her totally different and lucid style of depiction in each of those.
Apart, her serio-comic creation ‘Pop Asomiya’ is for what she is much known for nowadays. ‘Pop Asomiya’ which talks about the lately prevailed changes in the Assamese language and culture in her exceptionally witty style, was much applauded by her readers. ‘Pop Asomiya’ made people laugh,but it was not only a mere laughing stock. It had a deep rooted underlying meaning associated with it.
Mukherjee is a veteran columnist in leading newspapers and magazines of Assam.
She is an Associate Professor in the department of Assamese, Cotton College, Guwahati, Assam.