It was a sultry afternoon, normal of coastal places in the month of May. The sapping swelter spread unrelentingly over the whole village and there was not a breath of wind stirring. The large cranky engine of a tractor made a grumbling noise as it passed Ambuja Bagicha, an orchard adjacent to the SH–01 near Tangiapada village in Khurda district. The noise was enough to wake up Ambuja Charan Santara, aka Ambuja Budha as he was commonly known.
Having woken up livid at the clamour and for not completing his quota of sleep, his eyes reached the bushy mango grove, which is quite a pleasant place for an afternoon siesta. During the daytime when it did not rain, he’s made it a habit to sleep under this mango grove whose shade was cool, deep and very relaxing.
There was a lot of action going on near the grove, with the koels, crows, parrots, monkeys and village kids all attempting to evade the orchard owner, despite being well aware of his nasty reputation. Ambuja would employ an empty mustard oil tin as a drum to produce a loud sound to scare away the birds and monkeys but he had to be on extra vigil for the human intruders. This kept him busy for most part of the day.
Ambuja looked around. There was no one in sight; everyone would keep a safe distance from Ambuja, a six-footer with a hunky moustache to go with his a hefty physique. To further supplement his clout and prowess he had amassed a lot of wealth and acquired vast stretches of land in and around his village, quite a lot of it illegally by force and guile. Not by popular choice, but a legacy of terror he had turned into the undisputed leader of the village. He claimed to be an ex-wrestler. Though he was no more active in wrestling and had lost some of his brawniness, yet even today no one could dare to look straight into his eyes, more so when he was high on marijuana or Ganjei as the locals preferred to call it. He was eighty four now.
Over the last decade Ambuja had carefully built this place, where the story is set, with a lot of passion. He had for long set his eyes upon this land, which was close to a large perennial pond and being near the highway was very accessible as well. He would spend most of his time here away from his house in the nearing village. The orchard which looked like a mini forest from a distance had all kinds of trees – Banyan, Peepal, Neem, Guava, Coconut, Jamun, Mango and some other native varieties, some of which had stood there for years and much before Ambuja acquired the property.
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Ambuja had been a greedy collector all his life, who had a special fondness for landed property. He never missed an opportunity to grab a land in and around the village, especially when someone was in distress. He’d a special eye for this piece of land which was owned by Shakuntala’s husband, who died in an unfortunate circumstance when a tree fell on his head. Shakuntala, a quaint little woman was pious, illiterate and credulous as a baby. Like many other women in the village, she had little idea about her family’s landholdings; her husband’s untimely death had put her in a very precarious position.
Like a vulture waiting for his opportunity, Ambuja reached Shakuntala’s house along with his accomplice Chakara, a village tout and a distant relative of Shakuntala. He started conversing to her on a note of consolation:
“Sister Shaku, your husband Damodara was a good man. Cruel are the ways of almighty. It’s such a great misfortune for all of us. May his soul rest in peace. ”
Upon hearing a mention of Damodara, Shakuntala began to cry and sob with grief, with her face buried in her hands. But soon coming back to herself the new widow stood silent. She had heard of Ambuja’s ill reputation. Without even comprehending what he precisely wanted, she had the presentiment of something terrible. She decided to stay silent.
Ambuja continued from where he left “Sister, you have the burden of solely shouldering the raising and wellbeing of your son. Sukuta is barely twelve years old. You’ve a barren piece of land near the road. I’d spoken to Damodara about this earlier. I want to build a rice mill on that land. Why don’t you lease it to me? You will get a monthly rent.”
She still remained silent, unwilling to budge.
Ambuja made a final offer:
“I promise to take Sukuta off your hands. I will raise, care and educate him like my own children in return for the land. You won’t have to part with him.”
There was no more impish boy in the whole village than Sukuta. He was sent to the village school but he could learn nothing much and would customarily remain in the same class for at least a couple of years. He would prefer suffering the blows on his backs, slaps on his cheeks and cane whacking to completing his homework or learning his lessons. He had grown very stubborn over the last few years as well. So it was a relief of sorts to the mother to have someone take care of him. Chakara, as he’d enacted many time before, reassured her that it’ll be all fine. The orchard was the only piece of land she owned, but the widowed mother agreed to the offer
Ambuja further assured “You are just leasing out the land, not selling it. I will also pay you two hundred rupees every month for your expenses.”
Being an unlettered woman, Shaku did not grasp the terms and conditions. She did not even know how to sign. Chakara softly instructed her to dip her right thumb in a black fluid ink and put the impression on a piece of paper. The unfair deal had been struck.
Ambuja was not very regular with the monthly payments to Shaku, but when she persisted he more often than not relented and made a partial disbursement. Somehow couple of years passed. In these two years, Sukuta had turned worse. He’d started finding a secret pleasure sessions in smoking Ganjei lingering for hours, enshrouded in thick fumes of strong smelling smoke. The villagers would often find him in the company of Ambuja and other addicts. They even reported that to Shaku, but as it often happens at this age when one is a man too premature and boy too late her unruly son would turn a deaf ear towards her. If she tried to reprimand him too harshly, he’d retort back with a filthy language much beyond his age. Shaku could easily discern that Sukuta was a lost cause and fully in Ambuja’s grip but she was helpless; she’d already lost and she did not want to lose her only son.
No one can control his fate, more so Sukuta who was fast vanishing away from Shaku’s life into a vapoury, hazy zone of his own. He was falling apart. Even his mother could not arrest the fall, which fate had pushed her son onto. One day he just vanished away, from everyone. No one knew where.
Shaku was used to Sukuta not returning home for days together. But then a week is a long time and upon not hearing any news about him, the first place she went to was the most obvious choice – Ambuja Bagicha. On hearing about Shaku’s visit to his place, Ambuja sent one of his servants to dismiss her, but a mother who’s just lost her son is the most powerful force in this world.
Like Bheema had challenged Duryodhana to come out of his hiding…
Shaku shouted “Ambuja”
She repeated “Ambuja”
Ambuja thought it wise to avoid her.
Shaku challenged him at the top of her voice “Where is your manhood, Ambuja? Are you scared of a lady? Why are you hiding?”
Tempers flared up. And like Duryodhana, unable to control himself Ambuja accepted the challenge and came out shouting:
“Old lady, you are a fool. You fate-less witch, you snatched away life from your husband and now your son. You deserve this. Go and do whatever you can!”
Sometimes the strength of a woman’s outrage is greater than all the codes of the creation, fair at times and mostly unfair. She cursed Ambuja:
“The same land which you have taken away from me by deceit will kill you. Ganjei could not kill you, but this land will choke you to death.”
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“Now” back in this present time Ambuja said to himself “I am eighty four. I am strong as a bull. I will go on to live till hundred”
But there was one thing that bothered him. Though the widow had turned mad and mute by then, she seemed to follow him everywhere; even in his dreams.
Somewhere deep inside, the widow’s curse kept him constantly unrestful. Even the magic of marijuana could not free him from his anxiety.
He never dared or cared to openly show his frustration on Shaku, nevertheless he would contrive a hundred petty ways of causing her harm. None of them had any effect on her.
For some unknown reason, maybe because of growing old, his fondness for the Bagicha had reached its peak. Though still very strong and active, his movement was now restricted to the confines of the cursed orchard.
He got up to look around. He reached a mango tree. He had a special fondness for this mango tree; he’d himself planted the sapling belonging to special mango cultivar called Sugar Baby, which he’d got from an acquaintance’s orchard when he’d been to Andhra to visit his nephew’s son. This round and green variety of honey-smelling mango oozed a sweetness, even more delicious than the famed Rasagolla of Odisha. It was so tiny that you could easily pop the whole fruit into the mouth. “Just perfect” were the words that arose in his mind.
“The first batch of mangoes are ripening” Ambuja pondered, looking admiringly at the tree.
And then, a tiny mango fell down – the first fruit of the special tree he’d planted. Instinctively Ambuja ran to pick it up. Though the pond was near, he could not wait to wash it. It was magnetically enticing.
In a moment, upon pressing the itty-bitty mango in the middle and squeezing, everything except the skin slipped into Ambuja’s mouth. It felt like heaven, but the joy did not last long.
The seed of the mango had got stuck in Ambuja’s throat. A horror came into his eyes. His heavy features started twisting in torment, and with a thud, as though he had taken a potent and paralytic poison, he crumpled up on the ground. A cold shiver passed through his body and he turned still. Within seconds, the seed which could have grown into a new life, had choked life out of him.
One of the boys, who’d just come to work in the Bagicha, saw him lying there under the tree. He screamed out loud for help. Soon a few villagers reached the spot.
‘He’s quite cold,’ said one of the villagers touching the dead man’s palms. ‘He must have been dead for some time.’
The hefty stiffened body lay almost covering the entire orchard. The shocked face with its wide open mouth stuffed with fright and dismay and the ripe mango was covered with dust. There were flies over the body feeding on the fruit. His eyes remained intractably open, as if desperately trying to stay alive. Even in death, Ambuja appeared intimidating.
Come evening, amongst other visitors arrived Shaku.
She stood there with a look of conquering contempt on her face. She leaned over him heartlessly. She put her hand on his heart and then she pulled down his upper eyelid.
“He is quite dead” These were the first words she had spoken for months.
Debasis Tripathy always passionate about words, rhythm and rhyming, started writing seriously a little late. Since then, within a short span, he has had his writings featured with several reputed journals. To make a living he is stuck in very crowded city called Bangalore, where he is a married man with a clever son who asks difficult questions.