NEIGHBOURS

Original author: Shri Mahim Bora
Translator: Uttam Boruah

Having returned from office in the afternoon, I saw the nearby empty house getting filled with a number of small children. I thought this house amongst all in the town would remain empty till the end. A house with bamboo pillars on the soil foundation. In the name of the kitchen, there is a roof, leaning towards the corner. That means, at one corner the tying with the bamboo has given away. Once, there was a fence surrounding, one or two bamboo sticks here and there still declaring the heritage. The covering over the toilet had long been taken away by storm. Last family staying here requested the host over and over but could not decrease the rent and better the house, and therefore left the house having bowed down to the unshakable rock. Yet the municipality considers this to be livable and hence the present force has gotten the authority to live here.

Lots of people come and go, who takes account of them. After tiresome office works, I got fresh, took the cup of tea and sat on the chair easefully opening up my legs. The kitchen-boy gave the plate for refreshment and kept standing before me. I understood that he would tell something.

That means the newly arrived woman of the neighbouring house came to borrow rice. She would return it the next day. Her husband went out to bring rice and cereal in the noon itself, but has not returned yet. They have not eaten yester night, in the morning too, even now also there is no rice. He told that without asking the babus of mess, he cannot lend rice.

What a problem it is! Debt of rice immediately after arrival. I was just about to tell something, and then I saw that the housewife of the next house had reached the threshold feeling that I have arrived. What I was telling was rolled and became, “give it”.

He went to give rice and I took a sip of the tea, he again came- she is asking for firewood also- she does not know where to buy firewood close at hand.

“Give whatever she wants. We need only to pass the week somehow.” I know she will again come to ask for salt also. That is why I put the matter off forever.

Thereafter I saw a group of small children gathering around their mother.

Thin, starving, wearing a frock, a pant over the naked body, someone totally naked and someone wearing a pair of torn slippers or cloth-shoes. I had no patient to count. But I could not think that this woman can be the mother of so many children. There was a blue sadar over her body coloured with colouring soap. Due to lack of colouring skill or indifference towards cleanliness in colouring, it looks dirty. The mekhela was colored with green colour. Along with that the dissolving colour of the flower on the edge was dirtying it. In fact the multi-coloured dress had created an unimaginable statue. Eyes were deep and lifeless. The jaws were visible. It seems, while walking her legs somehow managed to drag the body along. There was nothing called energy anywhere in her body.

The group fled away taking rice and firewood. Two other members of the mess- Nath and Sharania came together.

Some people have come to the nearby house- I informed them. I saw no expression on their faces. After being fresh, they came for tea.

“They borrowed rice.”- I gave the second news.

Lines on their forehead became dense. But, without telling anything they took long sips of tea.

“Some firewood as well”, third news.

Both raised their heads, also their eyes.

The kitchen-boy came in and completed the news, “Took salt and chilies also.”
“Chilies?” Sharania was shocked. “Will there be chilies for me?” he looked at the cook’s eyes.

“Yet another week to get the salary, will firewood be sufficient?” Nath looked excited.

Biting the bread Sharania asked, “Have to ask for rice and firewood on reaching? Where has the man gone?”

Who will answer? He did not look for answer.

Hoi Hoi like shouting made our unaccustomed ears shocked. It was nothing but the sound of different choruses of the children with the darkening evening. They had to pass the evening till the meal got ready. A few sing, “carriage of big men”- some of them sing in rhythm, “there are twelve months in a year, listen boys”- some were shouting keeping tune and probably a few were crying bitterly. Each one of them were tuning with some instruments. Broken pots, dishes and bowls, bed made of bamboo- they took as musical instruments whatever they got.

Three of us looked at each other’s faces. Truly a family has come to the nearby house. Quietly we came out giving ourselves relax with the thought that in future also we would get to hear ‘the chorus’.

When I returned home it was nine at night. Two others had not reached yet. I gathered some new information from the cook. For instance, they had owed a few potatoes and a few pots of kerosene. Within half an hour, the chorus of the evening got transformed into striking, crying and wailing etc. Since there was no sound of the children now, I assumed that after eating they had slept due to tiredness. But, the name of what was started now was “devil’s song”. A man had been roaring inside the house. From the voice, it could be assumed that the man must be healthy with a brave heart. The woman also had been replying equally. Her voice was sharp and shrill.

“Where have you been so long since the noon, telling me that you are going to buy edibles? What would I give these duckling-like children to eat? I don’t know anything and anyone here in this place. Nothing to eat in the morning, last night, afternoon, even you are not there till nine. How would I feed these children?”

She continued first few lines in the same flow, due to over force towards the end the voice came out like broken. As a result she coughed many times.

Taking this opportunity the man started roaring with more force. With deep voice he started speaking- why should you know where do I go?

“What do you people inside know? Why have you left your children to sleep this very evening? Huh! Look! As if somebody has left making packets of salt and oil, rice and cereal. You can bring whenever you go.”

I understood, he had been getting role of Bhima in Bhaonas without any controversy.

The housewife had been speaking with a suppressed voice for long. The neighbouring people had seen her and she had taken this step for not letting these people to know about the quarrel. Along with that, she also had understood that this step was meaningless. Yet this time she answered with a voice as small as possible:

How much time it takes to buy rice, salt or mustard oil? You recognized the wine-shop very soon, but the shop of salt and mustard oil…”

Suddenly she stopped having a protest. A sound like khat came. Probably she was given a shatter.

“Got it? Got the fruit? I drink, I drink wine, have I drunk with your money? Every year…can I pass my days looking at your ducklings?”

He continued punching on both the body and the heart. She could not bear the punch on the heart. She had been giving an artificial effort for not letting the neighbours to hear till this point, but this time the restraint is opened. Leaving the artificiality of the voice, the woman roared.

“You don’t feel ashamed. You shameless drunkard! Ducklings… whose? Since morning, the children have not got anything to eat- I had to borrow rice, cereal and firewood, and then only they got something to eat. Showing masculinity.”

This time the man became aware of his duty. “You borrowed? Spoilt my respect? From where? Tell me, -where did you go to ask for? Today, today; either you will live or me.”

A sound of breaking bamboo fence came. Only two bamboo sticks were standing on the boundary; probably he had broken one from those.

Will he strike in the night? “You will not tell?” My heart was shaken at his voice. It was not a voice, but sound of breaking stones on the hills.

“I will punish you like Jaymoti today. Tell me, where have you borrowed salt and rice from? Who gave you things in this new town only on asking?”

“Doesn’t matter, wherever I get it from”- a challenging voice was there in her voice.

He stroke as if somebody has given a violent strike on the back of a thief-like bull. She cried with utter pain. Only one shouting- ‘I’m dying-‘.

The figure I saw in the afternoon, could never shout louder than that. Next time, another sound of a strike came. This time no sound was heard from the woman- only a short hissing sound was there. Probably to turn the breathing she sounded like this. Thereafter, she shouted, “Somebody help me.” The voice was like a moaning sound towards the end.

“Stop, I’ll chop you off if you call somebody. I don’t care anybody. Do you know, only at one knock I Bholanath can shake seven white houses.”

Again another strike was heard. Forgetting the unities of time and place, she started wailing. Probably the children are awakened, but they remained still due to the fear of their father. But this time they could not stop and started crying along with their mother.

“Stop- stop- I’ll chop off your heads. I’ll lose my respect only because of you?”
After a heavy stormy rain, one or two left behind stones fall down and like that a few sounds of slap, fist and shatter were heard.

I was sweating on the forehead in excitement. I turn back, Nath and Sharania were standing by me. They were smiling looking at my face. Probably, at my concentration.

“Let’s go and make him flat with some boxing-” biting the teeth, Sharania said.
“In fact, a family has come” Nath made us understand his speech of deep experience.

Nobody’s comment matched with my mental condition. Can he suspect this woman even now, even after leading a conjugal life at least of 20/25 years.

Nath could understand what I was thinking. “Are you not getting the myster?” With a light smile he looked at me making his eyes mysterious.

“Both one who suspects and the suspected get self-satisfaction. Nobody can understand the flow of contentment underneath these kinds of strikings, roarings and groanings.”- with great wisdom Nath told us.

Sharania did not even try to understand Nath. As if I could understand something- though it was not clear, with that expression I kept on looking at his face.

“Haven’t got? There is scope to suspect even at this age- that means she is still beautiful- is it not a matter of self-satisfaction for both sides?”

I became angrier after getting Nath’s analysis clear. “Then all these atrocities, strikings were meaningless.”

Sharania was about to step out. He would give the man a few punches calling him outside. After much counseling it was decided- next day, they would call the man and explain that he had spoilt the quiet environment of the neighbours. But, he would be explained with threatening. According to Sharania, he would groan to the threatening. Then Sharania would break his chin with boxing.

Moreover, instant interference will make the foundation of the doubt stronger. It was Nath’s disposal.

The sound of crying came to an end. The children were slept.

After dinner, everybody in the mess slept. I could not sleep till late night. Some small tinkling sounds were coming from the neighbour’s house. Probably some repairing or mending was going on. After some time it also met an end. Probably they slept. Suddenly, Bholanath’s voice hammered over the silence of the night.

“Where is my meal?”

I was heavily shocked. Where is my meal! Means? Raising the head from the pillow I tried to listen.

“Are you kidding? It was the second violent tremor- “Today! If I don’t get food, I’ll eat you.”

“Everybody has got his hands and feet. Cook and eat.” With enough courage the wife replied.

A groaning sound came preceding a suppressed cry, at which I got up and sat. Probably he would kill the woman.

“Go away. Don’t show me your dry affection- go.”

Affection- means? I looked at sleeping Nath, he is snoring too much. After some time, the tinkling sound of utensils from the house gave me some comfort.

Towards late night, I lied down. I thought I will get up late in the morning. I was left shocked by Nath and Sharania’s violent dragging. There was bright sunshine outside. The force of neighbourhood was creating hue and cry- harmony of many choruses.

Leaving me no space to think, they dragged me towards the window.

Through the window we saw the grassy courtyard of the neighbour’s house. A tall, thin and somewhat starving figure was sitting on a stool. By him, leaning towards the stool, the woman I saw yesterday was sitting, keeping her legs intact.

‘This Bholanath’ was concentrating on the search of different kinds of louse from his wife’s head.

Suddenly, the woman’s eyes met ours. Tearing apart the darkness of the face, whole of the blood of her body became visible.
We did not see the scene of the woman bringing her legs closer and pulling the veil aside in shame.

Note: Kathanibari Ghat, a collection of twelve short stories written by Padmashree Shri Mahim Bora in between 1947 and 1960, first published in 1961 and the present edition which Mr. Boruah has used for the translation was published by Banalata, Dibrugharh in December, 2013. The story which Mr. Boruah has translated titled, “Ochar Chuburia,” (here, Neighbours) is taken from this anthology (page, 54-60).


About the translator-author: The translator, Uttam Boruah has recently completed M.A. in English from Tezpur University. He spends most of his leisure time in reading novels, particularly of Assamese literature and society. He aims to be a teacher and translator and wants to involve in socio-cultural, economic and educational issues through his writings. He has been staying at Teok, Jorhat, Assam.


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