The market was about one and a half miles away. Both of them walked hurriedly. Haladhar met them on the way. He was a pretty grocer, bearded and pot bellied. On the bazaar day, he used to ambush his defaulters who happened to pass by. That was his normal business on the bazar—day.
“Hello, Purnakanta, what have you brought today for sale?”
“Oh, uncle, I could procure practically nothing worth-sale. Only three bunches of bananas, a few ‘bhat-kerlas’ and ‘kaldils.’ That’s all.” Purna replied politely.
“‘Kaldil?’ Possibly of the large variety, I believe? Let me see. What is its price?” Scarcely had he finished his words when he caught hold of the bag and was dismayed at having seen the three bunches of ripened bananas.
“Hello, Puma. The banana is really very fine. Have me one bunch at least, if not more. How much do you charge for it?”
“One anna for each banana. Please hurry up, Uncle. We are to reach the bazaar in time.” Puma answered.”What do you say? One anna for each banana? Do you think. it is a town or a city area that you will charge whatever you like’? Take two paise only for each and not more.”
“No, please, I can’t. They will fetch me no less than six paise each in the bazaar.”
“Why six paise, you will get two annas each. But sir, do you remember that you took one seer of molasses, one seer of salt and one—fourth seer of tobacco on credit about three months back’?’Haladhar promptly quipped.
Purna stood dumbfounded. He forgot altogether that he took some commodities on credit on his way back from the bazaar on one occasion when he could not sell anything in the bazaar on that day.
Puma was not a regular customer but even then Haladhar absolutely on good faith, gave him his necessaries on credit.
“Everybody comes to take only, but never to pay”, Haladhar added. Puma felt a sting in his heart.
At last, after a spell of haggling, one bunch of banana, one Kaldil and some ‘bhat-keralas’ were given to Haladhar in return for the debt he owed to him.
Puma, however, felt little relieved of the load which he had so long carried, At least it was three minus one.
On having arrived at the entrance of the bazaar Purna handed over his bag over to Tanka to avoid an octroi of two paise for his trifle of a merchandise. A gain of two paise is quite something to count for him.
The frontage of the bazaar-area had been already occupied by other petty traders. Both of them chose a space a little aside near a shady tree and arrayed their exhibits of sale. Tanka entrusted all charge of care and sale of his goods to Puma and went away to buy one yard of loin-cloth for his wife. His wife gave him her entire savings-one and a half rupees to purchase it.
Puma was awaiting his customers. The day was extremely hot. Not very fm from him was the fish market. The flies were buzzing around. Perhaps some of the fish got stale owing to excessive heat. It seemed as though the fish—buyers outnumbered the flees and it looked like a fierce battle. Purna dared not visit it although he had a mind to do so. He, however, wanted to have just a glimpse of it and not to purchase because he knew well that he could not. And to go there meant to augment his temptation. It was no use being there in this crowd. Only two weeks back he took few fish from a ‘Pohari’(a woman fish-seller)under pressure of his children.
The local doctor, clad in white shirt and shorts with spectacles on, appeared and stood in front of Purna’s improvised shop.
“The bananas are really very fine; how many did you bring for sale?” The doctor enquired.
Pat came the reply-“Only these two bunches, sir. In all, there were three good bunches.”
“Have you kept only one bunch at home? Your children should enjoy them in plenty. lt is quite a nutritious food. The Government. also gave a lot of publicity about it. Don’t you see that picture-:‘?” The doctor pointed to a picture pasted on the trunk of the tree. Puma looked at the picture and saw a healthy; smiling baby with a bunch of banana. a few fruits and fish around it.
“That’s nothing, many things are written in books and many things are displayed in such pictures.” Puma held out bunch before the doctor.
“How much do you charge for it? “
“No. no, sir you are not to pay its price. These belong to my own orchard? Puma answered in a soft voice.
Puma remembered well how his eldest son was saved from sure death by this doctor who took nothing in return except the cost of medicines, His wile with tears in her eyes gave him a petty present—a ‘gamocha’, as a token of her deep gratitude for him. That’s all what he got. Now how could he take money from him for a mere bunch of banana? It will be unfair and unjust on his pan to do so.
The doctor offered him eight annas but he refused to accept, He therefore bought some ‘Kaldi1s’ and ‘bhat-keralas’ and paid four annas to Puma. The page accompanying the doctor put the goods into the bag and they left the place.
Three minus two is one.
It does not matter, Puma silently recounted, ‘What he has done is nothing wrong. The doctor should also remain pleased. for he may be needed at any time} His name was some Rahman, a middle—aged man but without any children, hailing perhaps from Sibsagar.
No sooner did Puma stand up to go near the tree than he heard a familiar voice close to him. He looked back and saw the Mohori.
“Hello, Purnakanta, what are you doing here?” Mohori came up and asked. He was a middle—aged man, voice tartly sonorous and hair partly grey but well-groomed and popularly believed to be more powerful than his boss? Mouzadar.
Before Puma could reply, he added, “Hello, you say you did not have milk to give to others?”
Puma was greatly surprised to hear Mohori’s comment and politely said, “No uncle, I never tell a liel I could not have even a drop of it in my morning tea. You can ask my friend who will just arrive from the cloth-market.” Mohori knew that what he himself said was a stark lie. But he just had a try at Purna and took a chance to reduce him to submission. And in the same breath Mohori continued. “It’s no business of mine to go to your friend and verify your words. Look here, whatever dues I had to pay to you for milk have been adjusted against your current revenue dues. The order of confiscation that had already been executed was a penalty for your default in the previous years. Anyway you collect your money somehow and clear up your dues and your bicycle released. Else it will be sold in auction.”
Pumakanta shivered and gaping his mouth in surprise hesitatingly submitted, “I think, I had no arrears of the previous years.”
“That I don’t know, you go and see for yourself`. I have said my sayin·g.”
Mohori simulated ignorance. He, however, quickly changed his tone and turning his eyes towards the exhibits, he asked, “I believe, these things belong to you, isn’t it‘?”
‘Actually this banana-bunch belongs to me and the rest to my friend”, Puma quickly replied.
“The bunch is really attractive. Of course, we don’t get share of such good things. Only when you are in trouble, you will come to me and then call me affectionately- ‘Uncle, Uncle.’ How much do you charge for it?” Mohori looked at Puma and his fingers started scanning the bananas. Slowly he lifted the bunch and suspended it from his hand with the help of a fibre-string of a mid-rib of a plantain leaf.
Puma did not feel like dilating on this banana-issue any longer. He, as if, swallowed everything about it and suavely replied, “I think, the whole bunch will fetch me no less than one and a half rupees.”
“Whether it is one and a half rupees or hundred rupees you take it at my house. Haven’t you given a bunch gratis to the doctor? I have learnt everything from him. I only tested you how you behave with me. Look here, things have changed nowadays. You reserve compunction for the doctor because he sells spurious drugs. But you can`t have a soft comer for one who saves you off and on from cheats and confiscations; you only mock at by showing your thumb finger?
“No. never, uncle, for God’s sake ….” Puma immediately snapped though politely.
“AII right, you will take its price, whatever it is. I shall entrust it on the day of public auction of your property? Mohori pretended to be greatly enraged, jolted off, leaving behind such an impression as if he was a man of some mettle and worth, that he too can exercise power over others in his own way. ·
Puma’s friend Tanka had just arrived with a bundle of loin-cloth in his hand and a feeling of disgust pervading his face.
“Everywhere blood squeezers are about. I tried seven shops but I could not get a yard of cloth less than one rupee and twelve annas per yard. What I have seen, everybody is a lord over the poor cultivators like us right from ministers and MLAs down to the petty traders. I tell you frankly my friend, there is pejoration everywhere, but a time will come when things will undergo change and come under a new social set-up.” Tanka vomited all his bitterness he experienced in the market a little while ago.
‘But whatever the social set—up might be under any regime, everybody turns a Ravana on reaching Lanka. The poor remains a poor. Free has become the country no doubt, but freedom counts somewhere else. Oh! You have asked about the bunches. I just got relieved of the burden. Now it is completely three minus three and that’s the end of it.” Puma heaved a sigh of relief and narrated all what had happened. Tanka, greatly exasperated, snapped at him sharply, “What sort of man are you? What’s that moral that made you accept his face? Couldn’t you make him kiss the mud with your carrier-wand’? Fuh! Fuh! What a travesty! You snatched everything from your children at the cost of their pleasure. But now what have you done? My body burns like anything from head to toe. I tell you, had I been here, Mohori could have gone home not before facing a music.“
“Forget about that, friend. Who can wrest away my destiny? Not even the Raja(Ruler), let alone others.” Purna replied with a passive resignation.
He then went out to go round the bazaar requesting Tanka to wait for some time. He was really afraid; Tanka, when in rage, might go even to the extent of snatching the bunch of banana from Mohori’s hands. Even he himself could not have escaped but for the fact that they were fast friends.
But what`s to purchase now’? He must have to buy papers.Puma therefore, proceeded towards a small book stall. His eyes suddenly fell on Nomoram selling molasses at a place. He was his class-mate, both of them read in the same school. Nomoram was almost surrounded by a crowd of buyers. His younger brother was collecting money sitting just beside. Nomoram was so busy with the weighing scale that he did not have time to breathe. At one time he stood up to relax his body and break the monotony. He saw Purna and said, “Hello Puma, how do you do? I did not see you for a long time.”
“I also did not see you for a pretty long time. How are you?” Puma reciprocated.
“]ust pulling on somehow. Do you require molasses?”Nomoram looked at Puma.
“No …. No…. Please…. I am just having a look only.”Puma seemed to sweat while uttering the words.
“How could he now request Nomoram to give him one seer or half a seer of molasses on credit? Doubtless he was his school friend and in those school days Nomoram used to bring them sticky molasses, boiled sugarcane juice, and sometimes sweetened refuse of pressed sugarcane. Puma, however, always got a large share because he taught him arithmetic. But could he ask him for credit in front of so many people especially his brother? Puma in nolens volens thought over and over again and decided to brook restraint and try Nomo the second time. Thence he slowly stepped towards the bookstall. Nomoram meanwhile got busy with his scale.
Puma stood before the stall and enquired, “I actually need Srirampuri Paper. How much to pay for a quire please?”
“One rupee only.” Sharp came the reply.
“My Lord! How can we educate children?”
“That’s right. But what today? There’s no help. Any way, how much do you require?” ‘Ilhatstall owner queried.
“Only half a quire. But I don’t have so much money to pay for. Would you kindly give on credit for two or three annas only‘?” Puma’s tone nearly verged on entreaty.
The salesman was not to be plied so easily. He awfully grimaced his face as if, he tasted a bitter fruit and began his rhetoric forthwith – “It’s no use asking me for credit. So many people earlier took paper on credit for their children. Those children might beget children by now. But the arrears have not been paid as yet. The record is still there in my khata.”
“What you say is absolutely right. But I have only four annas with me. Please give whatever you can against four annas.”
Puma got the papers and moved away and was about to negotiate a turning when
he saw that the doctor was buying potatoes. The potatoes were of good quality, attractive and worth buying. An incident flashed across his mind. His eldest son once happened to taste a good potato-curry in a marriage ceremony. Since then he had been pestering his mother to prepare a like-one. But he couldn’t help. It was not possible on his part to purchase potato at such a high price.
Before he was espied by the doctor Puma slipped away. It was pretty late also. Tanka might have sold all his articles by now. Puma, on his way back, thought of trying Nomoran the second time. Nomoram finished his sale and was busy packing his left—overs. Puma came up to him and said, “Hello, Nomo, you had a good time today isn’t it?”
“No, not so much. But then the molasses was a very fine one.”
“Actua.lly I also need it But felt little awkward to express it in presence of so many buyers. I was not sure whether you would mind it or not.” Saying this, Purna sat near Nomoram.
“Why didn’t you tell me then‘?” Nomoram asked.
“I wanted on credit.” Puma replied.
“But even then, you could have asked me to keep at least, one seer of it for you. What sort of man you are, I can’t understand? Nomoram spoke in a plausible manner.
“What little residue is available in the tin would be enough for me. To tell you frankly, I don’t have a farthing to pay for.” Puma said submissively.
Nomoram instead, looked at his brother warily and quickly took out four annas from his pocket. Finding that his brother was busy in packing. Nomoram, to escape his brother’s sharp eyes, secretly slipped the chips to Purna. and spoke to the ears of his brother, “Hello, I am so sorry; there is not an iota of molasses in the tin. Please go and buy from elsewhere.” And then in a whisper he continued, “Please don’t worry; pay me later on whenever you can.”
For a moment Puma stood motionless his heart heavy but sodden with gratitude. He retired slowly from the place. Home-bound Tanka and Puma were on their way back. Lozenges, yarn and soap- none of it had been purchased. The usual noise of the bazaar, the pageantries and diverse faces he calm- across- all had slowly vanished.
But too clear and vivid a picture emerged in his vista- the portrait ol his youngest son crying and begging him in tears rolling down his cheeks and falling in drops, on his (Puma’s)feet, in sheer desire to get nothing more than a banana, and the placidly sad and haggard figure of his eldest son trying to console his younger brother and that of his second son hovering round unrelentingly pining for a banana.
Purnakanta was about to burst into a deadly laughter for the second time but withheld it, lest men on the street might take him for a madcap.
POHARI : A woman Fish-seller common in Assam.
KUMB HAKARNA : One of the brothers of Ravana of epic fame, who slept for six months at a stretch.
KALDIL : Musa inflorescence.
BHAT-KERALA ; A kind of non bitter fruit of momordica charatia family.
DHEKI : A wooden-pedal for husking paddy.
GAMOCHA : Assamese towel.
MOHORI : A persomtel in the staff of Mauzadar for collection of revenue.
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.