It was a Sunday, the day of weekend marketing and a rest-day for the plough and the field.
Purnakanta was awake and was sprawling in his bed with a long yawn. His eldest son was working out an arithmetical sum, possibly one of subtraction. Five cannot be subtracted from two, so a digit must be borrowed. And the figure becomes twelve and when five is subtracted from it, the result is six. The digit on the left is three. When three is subtracted from three, the result is zero. that is. three is equal to three. In course of this proceeding the boy muttered some words like “again”, “but”, etc.
But how could he borrow ten so easily, and that too when he actually borrowed only one? Neither one nor two but straight away ten. But who else would give him ten? No. no, three cannot be reconciled with three. Were it so, his three sons would not have quarreled so often. Of course, three cannot be subtracted from three. Thus was Purnakanta arguing himself while still lying on the bed.
Meanwhile in the kitchen, his wife, the second and the youngest sons were all plunged in a near-fracas over shares of morning snacks, quite a usual phenomenon. His wife was heard saying- “only a little bit of molasses is left in the earthen pot, now if you take that too, how can I offer a cup of tea to your father’? You got enough of it, how much do you require?“Your father would go to the market today and fetch more for you.” But before she could complete her instructions she began to shout ~ “Don’t take that ounce of milk, I have kept for your father. Can I offer him tea without milk in the morning?”
Purnakanta heard his wife, her every word and he began to ruminate them, suddenly he relished a fun and burst into a loud laughter. He saw the morning rays peeped through the reeded-wall, and he slowly pushed aside the improvised bamboo-made window that suspended from a bamboo piece fixed on the wall, He clearly saw that the sun was rising above the bamboo groves and felt the sun is rising because it has certain duties to perform. But he had no work as such to do and no use getting up so early because he had nothing worthwhile to take to the bazaar for sale.
It wouldn’t be proper on his part to deprive his young kids of what little they had to enjoy. He felt.
Purna lit a ‘bidi‘and was still on bed. Someone came rushing in, his second son who picked a quarrel with his mother for a bit of molasses a little while ago.
“Dad, won’t you get up? Won’t you fetch me molasses from the bazaar today?” He shot his questions almost in the same breath. The eldest son who was still busy in his sum in the adjacent room promptly butted in, “Dad, when you go to the bazaar, please get me one quire of Srirampuri Paper. My Geography copy has since finished. The teacher will not spare the rod if I fail to have a new one.
The youngest of his sons came up, his face, hands and mouth all smeared with soaked rice flour. His demand, a patent one—”Dad, bring me two lozenges.”
“Their mother came in and asked Puma to get up. She held the youngest son by her left-hand and giving an indication of ‘three’ to her husband with her lingers, said, “I have seen and found three only. Please see if you can procure some other green vegetables or fruits in our own garden? She then left for the kitchen with her son.
Purnakanta knew very well what his wife meant by ‘three’ with her indexes. He had already seen it. That is why he could not come to a final decision as to what he should do. His wife came back and finding that her hubby was still lying on she spoke to him in a plaintive tone that she had lot of chores to do and his tea might also get cold.
Puma got up this time lest he may miss his morning tea. He lost no time in having a wash and was seated on a stool in the veranda. His wife gave him a cup of tea and stood by him to make her humble submissions.
“Please see if you can afford to have me few yarns of number forty. For want of yarn, the gamochas (Assamese towels) have been rotted in the loom. I am also in dire need of a washing-soap. If possible, please get a piece at least for me.”
“Washing-soap? How strange! I remember I purchased one-fourth seer of it last Sunday. Have you finished so early?” Purna retorted.
“You are mistaken. You gave a piece nearly a fortnight ago. Your clothes have been washed twice since then and the children’s too. This apart, I need it for my own bath sometimes? She submitted.
“For your own bath? Leave it, you are not to become an ultra-modern lady by using soap in bath.” Purnakanta commented while he was sipping his tea. He, however, made no effort to understand what she actually meant by her own bath!’
In the meantime, Tanka, a very close friend of Purnakanta arrived. Purna called him in and offered him a stool to sit. Tanka slowly lowered from his shoulders his load of so-called merchandise suspended on either end of a flat bamboo-wand.
Purna and Tanka received initiations together after their marriages. They were since then fast friends and naturally the relation between the two was more spiritual than anything. Tanka’s home was about a mile away from Purnakanta’s. He had to pass by this road en-route to the bazaar.
“l got up early in the morning and repaired a damaged part of a bamboo-fencing. I could collect nothing except a few lemons and ‘Kaldils’ and a few bunches of ‘Athia’ banana (a coarse and larger variety of banana). That’s all what l have today for sale in the market? Tanka thus gave a brief of his works of that morning. “This is just the way to live and thrive, is not it’?” Purnakanta looked at his friend and smiled.
Puma”s wife then appeared her face almost half-covered by her veil and offered him (Tanka) a cup of milkless tea put on a shallow metal salver, after cleansing the floor with her right-palm. This was the usual manner in which she entertained him whether with betel-nut or with tea. Standing aside, she looked at her hubby and said, “He (Tanka) has done all he could, but our Kumbhakarna (meaning her husband) is just up from bed and has yet to go to the garden to collect fruits orvegetables whatever is available? By then, Puma had his last sip on his cup.
“We are going short of milk these days. The cow kicks if her udder is touched”, Puma said.
“Sell it out and get a milch cow.” Tanka added while sipping his tea.
“Oh, no, friend. I can’t do that. It will be highly irreligious.” Puma followed up.
“Forget about your ‘dharma’ you are still living in the olden days. Well, look here, the age has since changed considerably and you will not thrive if you hold fast to old ways and old things. After all we want milk for the children. Then only they will have better brains.” Tanka spoke glibly though with an intemperate tone.
Purna’s wife followed him up and feelingly said, “But where from the children would get milk. When milk was available we kept a small quantity at home for tea and the rest was regularly supplied to Mohori’s house on credit so that the land revenues due to the Mauzadar could be met from that money. The Mohori, however, deceived us as he did not credit the amount in our account. And the inevitable took place; we received an order of confiscation. These men offer us six annas a seer whereas it sells one rupee a seer elsewhere.” In the same breath she continued aphoristically, “Everybody whips a knife at a tottering tree; it is an eternal truth.” All what she had said was nothing but a personal saga of her woes which she expressed to a co-sufferer only to assuage her pangs.
In the meantime Puma got into the garden. Tanka chewed nuts and enjoyed a smoke offered by Mrs.Puma. She stood reclining against the door and spoke in a depressed tone, “There is actually no saleable goods to take to the bazaar save few bunches of ‘Malbhog’-banana (a kind of banana of better taste). Like an egg bereft of yolk, only three bunches worthsale could be had from the whole cluster. Others are all lean and undersized, not fit for sale. I kept them concealed in the barn and they are all ripe by now and emitting a luring scent. I had a mind to offer it as an ablation to God in one prayer but he (Puma) said he would fetch one anna for each banana in the bazar and half a seer of gram would suffice for the prayer. But now the problem is- how to bring these bananas to light.If anyone of them, especially the youngest one, beholds them, I am sure, everything would be over within seconds. His is a bite as good as that of a tortoise.”
Tanka was listening to her all the while. He thought of speaking something as a reply to her. As a matter of fact, he had nothing to say. But even then. Tanka hesitatingly added, “of course, it is true that ‘Malbhog banana` contains great nutritious value and helps build children’s health to a great extent. The complexion undergoes change and transforms into thin that of the banana itself. The townsfolk buy them for their children and that is the reason why their children are all sharp in their studies and look handsome too. Ours are all haggard-looking and fragile like the lean and thin bananas?”
After this short but meaningful parley, Mrs. Puma went to her Dheki (pedal) for husking the paddy.
During this interval Puma collected a few ‘Bhat-Karalas’ and two or three ‘Kal dils’ and hurriedly finished his bath. He was now ready to start. He took a piece of linen, and opened the barn and drew out the three ripe banana bunches, they were all of quality size, the girth of each banana hardly covered by a grip and proportionately long and covetable indeed. There were also some lean bunches which were not sufficiently ripe or they might not come up to taste even if they became ripe in course of time. It was almost certain that these three bunches would, at least, fetch no less than three rupees, if not more.
“The expenses for a quire of paper and a few yarns can be best met. The ‘gamochas’ would also sell, one and a half rupees each. Molasses must have to be purchased; salt and lozenges too. Pulse and fish, however, do not figure in the list now.” The thought flashed across Puma’s mind.
Scarcely had he stealthily wrapped up the bananas with the linen and come down from the barn when his second son, who was then busy playing somewhere, suddenly appeared.
“Dad what have you got there‘?” He promptly queried.
“No, no. nothing; you have been playing somewhere. why have you come? Get away and go to your play.”
Puma found no other device to parry him and skip over the predicament. But within a fraction of a second his son came up to him and grabbed the package.“Hey, hey. leave it, leave it. it will be damaged? Puma almost screamed.”But what is it that may get damaged‘?” The boy quickly intercepted. In course of this battle between the son and the father the linen gave way and the bananas glittered like gold through the chink.
“Oh, it’s banana, banana, ho, ho, banana; where have you got it? Give me one dad, only one, please.” The boy jumped in joy, his eyes gaping in dismay. And in no time his youngest son came running from somewhere, joined the chorus and began grizzling for a banana. Only his eldest son who was a little grown up, stood aside not very far away. He was reasosably silent and thoughtful.
Hearing the noise, their mother left the pedal and came out to see what it was about. Tanka also stood up and came nearer. But the outcry for a banana did not die down even at their sight.
She immediately brought a cane and brandishing it began to shout.
“You never took your snacks without molasses, nor you ate rice without a special fry. But where from would they come unless the bananas are sold in the market?
But this rejoinder produced no effect. nor were they to be cowed down by her threat. They wanted only banana — that’s all. During this affray, Pumakanta lifted the package to his shoulder and said. “Quite a lot of bananas are left in the bam for you, they will get fully ripe tomorrow and you can enjoy them. On having heard these words, his second son ran towards the barn. but the youngest one remained steadfast to his original demand. He did not believe in a remote gain. The eldest one drew nearer his younger brother, held one of his hands and init quite low voice began to console him, “Don’t be sorry. Dad will get you lozenges from the market, but lozenges can be brought only if the bananas are sold.”
“No I must have lozenges and bananas too.” He promptly snapped still hugging his father’s legs, and fixing his eyes on the bananas on top of his father’s head.
“You should not worry. Dad will buy molasses for all of us and paper for me.” The eldest one tried to bring home a sense to his younger brother.But the boy was adamant and brooked no solace
which he considered as hot as chillies, as it were. Puma looked at his wife indicating that he wanted to yield to. With sullen firmness in her face she said, “No, not even one. They are not going to be content with one, but three. We will get three annas for three bananas and you can buy at least one seer of salt, a little quantity of molasses and a piece of washing-soap. These three bananas- they will only swallow and that will be the end of it; nor can they improve their brains with three bananas.” She jolted off and grabbing her youngest son to snatch him away from Purna added, “lt is no use spoiling the bunches by taking away three from it. nobody will buy it.” Purna received a sharp emergency signal from her eyes to start without further delay.
Tanka and Purna went out. Goods were not too many to carry on his shoulders with the help of a bamboo wand. Puma felt little awkward also as he was not used to it for a long time. He read in the High school for one or two years. But he remembered nothing now, not even his mother tongue let alone English. ‘Practice makes perfect,’ otherwise not. He had a bicycle once, age beaten though, with which he carried his loads to and from the market. A few days back the bicycle had been confiscated for only eight rupees and would be sold in public auction if the arrears were not paid. He could have this money by selling the ‘Gamochas’ which could be made if only the yarn was purchased. Puma knew that he would earn few chips from the sale of the bananas but then he would have no saving from it.
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.