We live in the Dabaka Mauja. We are Kumar folk, potters by caste. We used to make earthenwares for the grown ups and clay toys for the young ones. We sold them in the bazaar and from door to door and managed to squeeze out a living from that craft. Of late, our business came to a standstill. All kinds of foreign goods have flooded our land. The imported toys have driven out our clay rattles, legged dishes and small limepots from the market. Utensils of iron and aluminium and China wares have banished our earthenwares to the jungle. Knowing no better, we gave up the profession of our ancestors. We have taken to agriculture with what little land that has come down to us from our fathers and grandfathers. Farming is the only means of subsistence for us now and here again we feel the pinch of competition with outsiders who are steadily driving us to the wall. We are not strong that we can push them back. Our pockets are empty. People help only the rich. We cannot please the Land Settlement Officers of the Government. Hence our destitute state. Alatibai also belongs to our village. She is our neighbour and is the same caste as ours. Patmugi is Alatibai’s daughter. She calls me Dadai, that is, paternal uncle. I know when she was born. She has grown up right under my eyes into a fully formed young woman. Looking at her who will say that she is only a poor potter’s daughter? You cannot tell her from a revenue officer’s daughter.
Now a Brahmin lad from Bakata came to our village and fell for her. She was likewise enamoured of him. That was the will of God. The young Brahmin came to live with her as chapania or dependent husband. All of us did our best to make Patmugi break with him, but could not turn her heart away from him. She even turned a deaf ear to her old mother. As the matter stood, we called a Panchayat. The young man clutched his sacred thread and swore before the Panchayat and also promised in writing in a sheet of paper that he would not abandon his beloved Patmugi till his death. He had even given up his precious caste for her sake, he added, appealing to the gathering to consider how dear to his heart he had held her. Assured by his protestations, we argued among ourselves in this manner, “God who manages everything had chosen to throw this poor, homeless destitute of a Brahmin boy in our midst and we were expected to do something for him. We must give him shelter. Let him stay in our village as one of our own caste.” We were happy that in him our sonless Alatibai got a son.
Time has changed. Deadly sins like untruth and prostitution have grown stronger than ever and have swallowed the world. Now you cannot trust a man on his word. You are sure to be deceived if you judge a man from his looks and outward act. That domesticated Brahmin, the dependent son-in-law of Alatibai chose the other day to abscond from his home without leaving behind any clue of his whereabouts and that again, after having lived with Patmugi as a husband for over a year. No one could tell where he had gone so suddenly. Being unable to find her husband the young wife cried bitterly. We combed every creek and corner but failed utterly to track him. In the end, exhausted as we were, we came to the conclusion that the poor chap must have accidentally met his death. It must have been so, otherwise how could he have parted from such a beautiful wife? There was no report of any quarrel or even of a casual altercation between the pair. It was not without reason that the mother-in-law had taken tender care of her son-in-law. His dignified bearing and amiable manner had kept the entire village pleased with him. People used to talk among themselves that it was by dint of her sheer good luck that Patmugi had got such a jewel of a husband. But, ‘but’ brought in its train several other ‘but’s. Then one day there was an end to all the speculations. Will you believe what I tell you? The other day, word reached our village that the young Brahmin was then living with his family in Bakata. As soon as he came home his people put him through the rites of purification and took him back into their caste. He married again, a Brahmin girl this time and was living happily with her. Patmugi simply refused to believe the story. The report, she declared emphatically was fabricated and floated by some wicked person to slander her dear husband. That was what she believed. “If you do not believe,” said I to Patmugi, ‘then let me go to the spot personally to settle this dispute between the eyes and the ears.’ And accordingly, walking through mud and water, I arrived at Bakata. From what I heard there with my ears and saw with my eyes, I became terror stricken. What we had heard then was true. The young Brahmin had actually done the nasty thing. I had a mind to meet him and talk over the matter with him, but could not manage to go near him. His people formed a solid wall around him, sealed all approaches and kept him safe from all sorts of assaults from outside. They were going to catch hold of me and pull me to pieces for my labour. I had to run for my life. Believe me, it was a narrow escape.
Patmugi heard everything from me. Poor thing! She began to cry loudly beating her breast with her fists. Her mother’s condition was pitiable. For three days at a stretch she lay in her bed without taking a morsel of food or a drop of drink. At first I tried to persuade them into accepting the matter as it was. I thought it would be better to bear the calamity without grumbling. But I did not myself get persuaded. Then I argued that Dharma would suffer if there was no punishment for that act of betrayal. So I took Alatibai and Patmugi with me and we walked all the way to Rangpur in order to lodge a case at the Court there.
It was the month of Chait. The sun was very hot. On the way we felt very thirsty. We saw an outenga* tree growing on the road side. I looked up and saw that the tree was laden with ripe fruits. Patmugi turned to me. “Uncle”, she said, “I am very thirsty. At least my lips and the insides of my throat are parched”. Would you pick a tenga for all of us to chew? I climbed the tree and plucked three ripe outengas. As I was descending, my eyes fell on the face of Patmugi who was looking up. I have had seen her so many times, but never had I seen a prettier face before. I got one step further down and my eyes felt right on hers. I stopped dead looking amazed and remained there without a word. How beautiful was she! What an excellent pair of eyes did she have! My eyes could no more see the next step as they stayed glued to her face. Now, what Patmugi had seen through me I cannot tell, but she smiled at me and said, “Uncle, what are you waiting there for? What are you exploring? Come down and see that you do not have a fall”. I was at my wit’s end to hear her voice. It was so sweet! I did not know that her lips could produce such music. I did not dream even that her voice contained such honey. I do not know why I felt so feverish at that moment. My body sweated all over. Some how I pulled myself together and touched the ground, almost sliding down the trunk. All I was coming down my chest rubbed it self against the tree and suffered a slight abrasion of the skin. The same Patmugi who had a few moments ago looked so exhausted and rest-less with thirst, then put on a different appearance. She seemed to have retained her composure and freshness. Her face was all smiles.
What had come over me? Could anybody tell what had happened to me? I could not understand the meaning of my gross behaviour and was thoroughly puzzled. And Patmugi’s face, faded till a few moments ago, was no more pale but radiant with smiles. Her tired limbs were more active. Where did her exhaustion vanish? This was her state, and she was yet to get a bite at the ripe Outenga! And having been refreshed with the fruit, may be, she would sweep me, this old man of an uncle up and away to drop me from the sky into the Manas Sarovara. Until a moment ago was this very girl, half dead with sorrow, missing over the deceit and misconduct of her husband. What made here gay so soon? What caused me to behave in the queer manner I had done? Indeed, I have seen Patmugi since the time she went about without clothes. She can be said to have grown up right under my loving care. What became of me? What befell her? Was there some evil spirit living on that tree? Somebody, who cast an evil spell on us both? I am two score and a half. Patmugi is a young woman of seventeen only. She is of my daughter’s age! One feels shame even to dream of such things. God, what have you done to me? I am thoroughly ruined. I have got a wife and children too. Did God forsake my body, His place being taken over by the spirit of the outenga tree. I felt convinced, I was possessed of some evil spirit. The same spirit, I was sure, also possessed of Patmugi’s body. She showed no sign of fatigue. She forgot to chew and suck the slice of the fruit her mother had given her, and kept looking at me with steadfast were passing through her head at that time?
Like a mail train pushing along the pair of rails, these thoughts flashed through my brain. Patmugi shook me up saying, “Take the outenga, uncle, Give up your fruitless thoughts. How you do dream! Let me look at your chest”. She laid her hand on my bosom. She must have heard the fast beating of my heart. “Oh dear”, “She said”, your chest is covered with bruises all over. Thank God, The injury is not deep”. I turned pale with shame at her comment. The injury was not deep indeed! What injury did she mean? As I tried to push the slice of the outenga she gave me, through my lips, it touched the tip of my nose instead. She laughed merrily at my discomfiture. I felt more embarrassed. I turned to Alatabai and said, “Sister, I do not know why I feel so feverish now”.
“You did a nice thing, “said Alatabai “to climb the tree in the midday, of all times. All kinds of ghosts and sprits, the gods of the land and the gods of the water come out at this hour and play about amorously.”
After this episode, we resumed the road to Rangpur. I kept silent but Patmugi continued to chatter all the way. Her mother, surprised at the sudden spirit of her merry talk said, “What is the matter with you, Patmugi? What is the meaning of all this talk and gaiety? I am scandalised by the queer way you two are behaving today. Once I am back at home I will feast the holy men with a reddish brown duck. I have made up my mind to do that. Indeed, I have.”
As we walked on, many and diverse thoughts passed through my mind. I could not remember an occasion on which I looked on Patmugi with thoughts and passions other than the innocent. Was any dirty thought lurking in my heart? There was no question of any such thought residing in her heart. Why did I then behave in a strange and confused manner? What did her many smiles indicate? Did she get a glimpse of the depth of my heart? Was she so sharp witted? Did she understand everything? I felt more miserable musing over these things and could not look up to her for shame. Was her excited delight born out of my defeat? Strange indeed is a woman’s character, made up of stranger elements. That slip of a girl stood astride with ease a dry and shriveled old man of fifty. Strange indeed are the ways of God.
Arriving at Rangpur we went to a powerful lawyer. There at the outside, we fell an easy prey to the lawyer’s clerk. He gave us a lot of trouble demanding this and that. With a long list of the costs he laid his hands on our purse and relieved us of almost half of the amount we had brought with us. When the lawyer himself gave us his estimates including his fees, we were utterly disappointed. “Father”, I said to the lawyer, “we do not have that cash ready on hand.”
“Pay me whatever amount you have”, said the lawyer. “I will file a law-suit now. You may pay the balance later. The case is strongly in your favour. I will bring that scoundrel to book”.
We parted with the few rupees left in our purse. Then all of a sudden, Patmugi said “Father Lawyer, I won’t prosecute. I have made up my mind.”
The lawyer wanted to know the reason, and she continued, “I have already had enough. I do not like to get my husband convicted.”
“Why did you then come here?”
“To find certain proofs”.
“Proofs of what, if I may ask?”
“Proofs of the betrayal, the cruelty and
the weakness of the male sex.”
“Yes, Lots and lots.”
“Everywhere. I got it earlier. I am getting it even now. Father, you wasted your valuable time for us. Be content with the few rupees we have given you.” So saying Patmugi walked out of the lawyer’s chamber noisily.
The lawyer sat on thunder-struck. “This is not an ordinary girl” he muttered after sometime. “She is very proud and self willed.”
We had nothing to say to that. So we bowed to him and left him there to move out and follow Patmugi. The lawyer’s clerk craned his head and called out loudly to tell us that there was still something more to be done.
Patmugi turned her head to retort, “Let it stay as it is. We won’t hear any more.”
On our way back Patmugi kept the same gay posture. She was all merry laughter, restless joy and radiance. I walked on silently. Her mother walked on silently. As we passed by the outenga tree, Patmugi teased me saying, “Uncle, won’t you climb once again for a tenga? I am not thirsty though may be, you are.”
I did not say anything to that and quickened my steps with eyes downcast. I left Patmugi and her mother at their gate, hurried home, washed my hands and feet and went straight to our family namghar (Chapel). I fell prostrate before the seat of God and prayed to Him most fervently to forgive me the sin of the momentary aberration of my mind on that day. I did not know if I had got back my former self. But for the next few days after that, I did not go to Patmugi’s house.
Then suddenly one day Patmugi came to our home. And she said to me, “Uncle, please forgive me. A man does not and cannot fully understand a woman’s character. They say, even the Gods do not. The only ambition of a woman is to get a man fully under her control. What kind of a person that man may be does not matter much. During the last few days I saw a lot and learned a lot of things. I do not want any more of that vile Brahmin. All the same, I do not like to do him any harm. God is truth and truth alone is God. There can be no greater duty for a man than to serve God. I fell pained to see the sinful acts committed in the name of Dharma. Our Mahaguru Shankardeva has thus defined Dharma in the Kirtan:
Behold the image of Narayana in all living things. This alone is Dharma and the rest is all illusion.
You will meet God through devotion. The same Shankara guru has also shown us the best way to worship God:
Regard friends and foes alike. That is the best
way to worship Krishna.
We cannot see God with the eyes of flesh, but we have His creation before our eyes. God is pleased if one tries to lighten the burden of the sufferings of the poor and the downtrodden. Even Lord Krishna has said that the man who regards others as Vishnu becomes free from all sins and vices.
“I have firmly made up my mind. With the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi as my motto, I am going to dedicate my life to the service of my country, particularly to that of the poor and the downtrodden. From tomorrow no one will find me in my former state. Give me your blessing, uncle, that this poor niece of yours may fulfill her wishes.” So saying, Patmugi bowed to me and hurried away. I was left gazing at her like a fool.
I sent the above manuscript to a critic friend of mind seeking his comments. I hoped that he would commend my short story. If he approved of it, I could send it with some confidence to some magazine for publication. Once it is printed, other critics will not criticise it severely. If they did, I could use the support of my friend, an eminent critic as a weapon against them. Now my friend sent his comments in the form of the letter given below. Dear readers, the letter will acquaint you with the fruit of my labour.
My dear friend,
I read your manuscript, but could not make up my mind as to what I would call it. If you call it a short story then the humdrum occurrences at your home and mine will also be stories. Where is the plot of your story? There is neither plot nor art therein. I could find no moral, no convention and nothing in the name of technique. It was full of nonsense. Alatibais friend is an old man of fifty and by the custom of our villages he is a distant paternal uncle of Patmugi. The old man has got a wife and grown up children at home. It appears that the old fellow is a man of some discretion and piety too. He has seen Patmugi growing up in his presence. During that long period, he never had had the aberration you have described but had it only while he was sliding down the tree! The situation transcends both the probable and the improbable. The young woman abandoned by her husband, tortured by his deceitfulness is, wearied to the point of exhaustion by the long walk on her way to prosecute him. And she was delighted to notice the queer behaviour of her old uncle, her venerable guardian and her weariness suddenly vanished. Then having spent their hard earned saving she said, she would not prosecute. Her old mother and her prudent uncle both heard her words and agreed without a protest. Was there a more ridiculous situation than that? Even the reason she showed against prosecution was far from convincing. Then came her decision to join Gandhi’s Congress, on the plea of serving the nation. Well, all this may be your ‘Midsummer Nights’ Dream but it is hardly a short story. Do not print, or it will make you a laughing stock. Hope, you will not mind my saying so.
Notwithstanding my critic friends’ warning, I printed the short story in the Banhi,* to be read by readers not endowed with any critical faculty. It will be a good thing if someone finds something in it. Even if he fails to see any merit in the story, it will in the least fill a few pages of the Banhi. Besides, there was no short story for this issue of the magazine. The readers who grumble when there is no story will get one. A black leopard will do for a tiger, a handful of dried jute leaves will do for a handful of pearls sometimes. Likewise, my tale, for a short story. In the least, the readers who cry hoarse for a short story in the pages of the Banhi will at least get here a string bag if not a litter to ride on for some distance. So is my hope. Is it going to be fruitful? I would add here that if during the ride in air the string bag snaps, the reader will not fall down from a great height.
* The Banhi, an Assamese monthly edited and published by the writer from Calcutta.
* English translation from the original by Sunil Kumar Barthakur.
Lakshminath Bezbaroa (1864-1938) was a great Assamese personality and celebrated pioneer of modern Assamese literature. He was one of the literary stalwarts of the Jonaki Era, the age of romanticism in Assamese literature when through his essays, plays, fiction, poetry and satires, he gave a new impetus to the then stagnating Assamese literary caravan.
Father of the Assamese short-story by common consent,Bezbarua in his short stories tried to depict life with its joys and sorrows.These stories reflect his strong social awareness.He experimented with the new form trying to blend it with the native technique of telling a tale and this perplexed the critic.But the best of his stories are among the best in world literature.By collecting and publishing the folk tales of Assam he did to his people what the Grim brothers did to the Germans.
Bezbarua was more than a writer,he was an institution by himself.He bullied his people, his readers, coaxed and cajoled them, laughed merrily with them sometimes to the point of being flippant and in short ,used all the tricks of his boyhood as a serious and comic writer to rouse them from their slumber,to make them face the reality of the changing times with wide open eyes.He taught his people to be justly proud of their rich heritage and to feel shame for their age old vices and new ones creeping in with the coming of the British.All this he did with his books and his mouthpiece the ‘Banhi’published from Calcutta.A life long exile in West Bengal and Orissa,working in the jungles as a timber merchant,he was a cosmopolitan.He married into the Thakur family of Calcutta.These connections have enriched his short stories where we find a large gallery of memorable characters drawn from those parts of British India.His ‘O mor aponar Desh ‘ has attained the status of an anthem for Assamese people and has not lost its electrifying influence .He died in Dibrugarh while on a visit to his motherland.