With huge collections of coal heaped around and the eroded bank of the Brahamputra laid bare, the greeny waves of the newly grown grassy weeds on river—silted sandy bosom vibrated to the last edge of vision. The river, during summer, reaches out as far as the gravelled road. It is receding now and it takes one to walk a little distance to the main road. Pieces of battered bamboo and chippings have been placed on the sand to help an easy passage. Only a haggard tea-stall proclaimed its existence through its small thatched roof supported by bamboo posts pitched on the sand. A sort of shed, made of kerosene Oil-tins on the front side of it, looked like another roof when resting on poles. Two severed bamboo pieces served as a bench. One could sit, sip a cup of tea, smoke and chat merrily as one liked.
But l did neither, I was only gazing at the setting sun that looked like a disc of vermillion. The steamer would arrive at 9 p.m. on schedule. I came pretty early and arrived before nightfall. The small waves slowly disappeared from vision as if they with their nimble fingers partook the vermillion and ran away to join in a soiree. It appeared as if somebody suddenly dropped all the vennillion on them in great fury. The sky looked like a widow.
Passengers were not many and I felt very lonely. A Nepali couple and two or three tea garden labourers were present. However, till then the river-station looked busy and gay on account of the trucks and vehicles noisily carrying tea-chests and coal to and from it. The hazy smoke, spiralling over the distant factories had also mingled with the dark. The float-dock posing as a black demon, a few labourers and crew, the humble family of the tea vendor and a few souls called passengers have been gradually enveloped by the growing darkness. Just then, a rattling sound caught my attention and made me curious. A bullock-cart was seen coming and then it halted. The Cart-man lowered the yoke to the ground. Bullocks were also released from the cart. As soon as my eyes fell on the green-coloured screen hung on the front side of the cart, my mind became greened and fluttered like the screen. A young boy of fifteen or sixteen jumped out of the cart and with the aid of the cart-man took out a steel trunk. The boy proceeded towards the float-dock followed by the cart-man carrying the trunk on his head.
Once again my mind quivered. A human figure, distinctly visible, came out of the cart, arrayed her drapery and stood facing the river. The boy and the cart-man came back and drew out the luggage and went to the dock. My eyes pursued them. A few minutes later, the boy followed by the cart-man came out of the float-dock. The boy gave few bucks to him and said, “Go back as early as possible and tell them, we have arrived safely.” Thus saying, the boy returned to the dock. The cart-man took a cup of tea and biscuit in a hurry. On being asked by a passenger of his community, he said that he would have to go about ten miles. Then his ten-mile journey began. The flickering light of the hurricane lamp tied to the can was seen to a long distance till the cart made a detour and disappeared.
I saw a thin candle light at the stem of the float-dock; perhaps they must have chosen the place for repose. I remembered I also kept my luggage there. The place was indeed good and comfortable as well. Two other lights were also visible, one in front of the gangway to the float-dock and the other in the tea-stall. These three lights seemed to have pitched the tent of darkness. I heard the sound o1` an erosion on the bank very near to me; some ‘Selekona’ fish were tittering and giggling jocosely on the fringe of water. I heard them very clearly. I looked at the hummocks of coal. They seemed to have rushed towards me like fabulous demons in disguise.
I became extremely eager to go to the place (should I want to get fresh with her 7). Slowly I moved towards the float-dock across the wooden plank bridging the bank and the float-dock. There were tea—chests. Coal tar, dry-fish, burnt coal etc. all around, which together produced a peculiar stench. I felt as if a box, closed for several years was opened before my nose. Nevertheless, this peculiar odour of the float-dock was very favourite and familiar to me.
The crew and their associates hurried to finish their dinner before the steamer arrived. A few yards off from my place, a Nepali couple laid out their blankets and started singing. Some ‘Santhals’ or ‘Oriyas’ by the side of the railings, sat in a circle and swallowed something, probably fried—rice. Just beside my luggage, the boy, keeping my suitcase a little aside, stretched out his ‘Hold-all’ and lay on it with a film magazine in his hand. The lady was seated at one end with her eyes disinterestedly fixed on it. Indecisively, as I could not think what to do, I touched my suitcase. The lady raised her face and looked at me. It took her some time to see me from inside the halo ol the burning candle. But for me it was an opportunity to behold her mien profiled by the faint light. The boy cast a cursory look at me when his hand was still on the magazine. While l bent my head a little to keep my suitcase properly, the candle light caught my face. The boy got alert and quickly squatted and the lady also drew the veil across her hair-lock.
“Excuse me please, is it your suitcase? We kept it aside, please don`t mind. Now do please arrange your bed, we shall sit somehow.” The boy uttered these words in such a familiar hint- that I got nervous at first. Earlier on several occasions I found myself in very awkward position for having failed to remember familiar persons. Now I tried to recollect but could not remember to have ever met him.
However I replied courteously. “No, no, I am quite comfortable here. You (Could I use ‘Tumi’ i.e. ‘You’ in second person in plural as it would include the lady also who was married and in veil?), I mean, you please sit comfortably I shall do elsewhere for me.”
Meanwhile I succeeded in concealing my bedding (wrapped up with a blanket but awfully dirty) beside the suitcase with a trick of my finger. But how could I save the discoloured and disfigured suitcase which I kept as a sentry to guard the dirty bedding. Of course it belongs to a good family, origin being English steel but who cares for the origin?
I was about to remove my baggage from the spot when the boy woundedly screamed, ” Do you want to leave this place’? No, no, we shall be very sorry if you do so”. While saying, he began to wind up his own hold—all which he laid out.
“Oh, No, you please take rest. There is no certainty when the steamer arrives. Sometimes it does not come at alI”. I replied quickly.
“That is why you are to stay here. Passengers are not many and not Assamese gentleman is seen. My sister and myself just talked about it and thought if we could meet someone.” The boy said.
I understood that his sister was equally afraid. But I knew I wanted to get away from them only to take away the poor disfigured vagabond-like suitcase and the sleazy luggage away from their view. I feared lest the mystery might break out at any moment. Nevertheless, I spread out my so-called bedding and seated myself beside them.
“I think it’s time to purchase the tickets. And your tickets? I mean, how far are you going?” I had to break the silence when nothing else was found to talk about. “We have to go to Jorhat.” The boy answered politely.
“Jorhat? But it is down-steamer today.” I asked in surprise because I know, as the proverb goes. “Only a ginger-vendor does not take note of a steamer.” But there was nothing as such with them.
“Oh, yes, we will take the down—steamer up to Silghat and from there we shall take the State transport bus. We have got to reach Jorhat tomorrow by any means. It‘s very urgent.’” The boy thus explained and felt a joy which a student of Class V would have when he gets an opportunity to explain something to a student of Class VI.
Not the meaning but his words attracted me much. Although the lady was sitting aside silently, what little I could gather through the cursory glances I cast on her was that she also verily took active part and equal interest in our parlance. I was only brooding as to how she could make herself so ‘meaningful and vibrant without uttering a single word. She must have been married recently. I could explore the sacred unction of ‘Mah-Haladhi’ on her body even in the faint light of the candle. A sweet romantic fragrance emitted by the wedding—oil and `Mah-Haladhi’ and the ‘Dolai’ lavishly spread over her body seemed to have created an estuary before my nostrils. With her full-phased visage, beautifully carved hands, bright yellow lustre of her body and her typical Assamese silk apparel, she looked like a live portraiture. She was a rare beauty indeed. Meanwhile the boy asked me something but I could not hear it clearly.
“You must have asked me something, yes, I am also going no silghat. My home is nearby”, I said.
“Then it is quite good. The steamer reaches Silghat by night. Your company will be a happy and helpful one to us. What do you say sister?” The boy turned his face at his sister. She was then scamping through the pages of a joumal quite uninterestedly. Her real interest was centred in what we talked about. She now raised her head and looked at her brother giving an impression that she was fully chiming in with what he said. A serene smile vibrated her lips. I only wondered how could every part of her face- her nose, her eyes, and her chin scintillated the sparks of her smile. But how could the smile be so radiant on her forehead and her deep black eye-brow? I felt somebody had cast the smile in deep red colour on her mien.
It was time for the arrival of the streamer on usual schedule. I stood up in order to get the information. The boy wanted to give me money to purchase their tickets. But I told him the tickets would be issued after the bell and I shall purchase their tickets with my own money which he could pay me afterwards.
“I think, we can have a cup of tea if there is time”. I said as I stepped out to go.
The boy looked at his sister. She was then busy searching the flask in the hold-all. She spoke as if to herself, “The flask was kept somewhere here”.
For the first time I heard her voice, deep but as soft as butter. I did not know if this simile was appropriate. The boy took out the flask and reached out to me. I went out and stood near the railings for few minutes.
There was no hope of tickets being issued now, for the steamer must have gone aground somewhere and it needs to be repaired. This was what the weary and wry-faced ticket master told me.
Mahim Bora (6 July 1924 – 5 August 2016) was an Indian writer and educationist from Assam.He was elected as a president of the Assam Sahitya Sabha held in 1989 at Doomdooma. He was awarded with most notably with the Padma Shri in 2011, the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2001 and the Assam Valley Literary Award in 1998. Assam Sahitya Sabha conferred its highest honorary title Sahityacharyya on him in 2007.