AT THE DEATH OF A RIVER

Original in Assamese: Mahim Bora
Translated by: Bibekananda Choudhury


Dhaneswar spread the fishing net on the courtyard to dry, put the bamboo wicker basket on the edge of the verandah and poured water on his head emptying most from the pitcher kept on the courtyard. Then he rubbed his body a few times making the characteristic sound. He also rubbed the legs forcefully from his knee down with a loofah. The bath was ceremonially finished by pouring the remaining water on his waist. Then he dried his torso and head hurriedly and changed into a dry hand-woven towel.

But the itching in his legs started immediately after. His bright teeth glittered more brightly in a grimace.

He moved with brisk steps towards the house and called his wife, a bit loudly, with a tone of urgency, ‘Hey, here, fetch a lamp, let me massage some kerosene, the itch is back already.’

His wife responded swiftly and handed over a lamp, saying, ‘How would you take the meal if you smear your hands with kerosene now?’

One side of Dhaneswar’s face was cringed with grimace; the pain resulting from itching caused by the water infection was shooting from that side. Now, if he has to reply to his wife, he has to give it a fresh crease, changing from the originally set one. The process itself is quite painful. Moreover, the pain from the legs would shoot up to the brain. The resultant benefit would be that his wife would be beaten up at the slightest pretext. So he bellowed as loudly as possible keeping the cringe intact, and poured out some oil from the lamp onto the palm and rubbed on the legs with both hands. As he felt somewhat relieved from the pain, he cleaned both hands with some soil to get rid of the strong smell. His wife, who had been waiting by, immediately fetched a mug of water and poured on his hands before he could get the chance to hurl an invective again. 

Then he started shouting. Can there be a more foolish land? Where else would you find a place where a flowing river is killed? Did those rascals get the independence from the British just for this? One cannot stand in that stagnant water for even half an hour – the feet get severely infected.

His wife carried the casket containing the fish through the inner courtyard and kept under the loom-shed. A few women from the neighbourhood also gathered there, to satiate their curiosity about the catch. Their husbands too went fishing – each of them returned with only a handful of small varieties.

Dhaneswar simply gets irritated by such activities. Especially he can’t just tolerate the presence of the one called Bhadre, wife of Nalia. She is sort of a witch, whenever she has been sighted on the way to fishing trip, the entire effort practically went in vain. It has been proved many times already. And even on those days he could catch a few, Nalia’s wife would make such a fuss that, it’s only after he gets the fishing net sanctified again by paying a quarter to Ratan Burha that he could go fishing to avoid returning with an empty casket next time. Whatever big be the catch by her husband, Dhaneswar’s catch would always be better, his fishes would be brighter and the tiniest ones appear quite big for her. But still he controlled his anger and passed a general comment, ‘you will see what a big catch I could get as it will be taken out to clean! It is the same small ones as everyone else could net. This no longer remained that Kollong of yesteryears, it’s just a putrid-pond. Where would the fish breed, when there is no water at all? What independence had we attained that they choked and killed a flowing river bubbling with life! Why these wisecracks who can foresee and plan for a long future could not comprehend that the fishermen community had also been killed in the process?’

Dhaneswar came out to say these words gesticulating angrily after entering on to the kitchen for his meal. Though the womenfolk gathered there to have a look at the catch felt little annoyed initially at his angry reaction, they found a new interest in his speech that touched the vicious problem affecting everyone and shaking off the displeasure stood rooted gazing at him.

Finding an eager audience, Dhaneswar momentarily forgot the exhaustion of half a days fishing trip and the resultant hunger. Taking a position facing them, standing at the entrance of the kitchen he continued in a jarred voice:

Forget about the days of our forefather’s, even till three years back here, in this Kollong, leave aside Langijaal, one could get, I myself did, three days complete household expenses by using just three times the khewali jaal. Then naar fish was not considered edible, people just buried the entire amount in the lemon tree. Because, then it was a vibrant river full of life! So, innumerable shoals of fishes swimming upstream from Luit entering into Kollong and also carried along during floods chose it to be their permanent abode. Today even after fishing since morning till night, just look what I got – the catch couldn’t even cover the bottom of the basket fully. That too just because there was a little water in that hole. Next time one would be able to ride a bike on the bone dry riverbed. The entire area has been converted into a hyacinth forest. Clumps of thickets has totally covered the bed of Kollong. Should one exterminate a river just like this? Hasn’t the government also slayed an entire populace too alongwith that? How would the people on riverbank find their livelihood? Those who possess a bit of arable land, would cultivate it, but what about those whose livelihood centre around fish? what would they do?

Then, Dhaneswar stopped suddenly. What is the use? There is no sense in lecturing these women inside one’s house. How many times did he mention these in the Naamghar, put forward the proposal through the member in the anchalik panchayat, but the waves died down there itself before the words fell into the ears of the government. The floods of Kollong hurt the people on the other side, eroded away the plinths of wealthy people of Nagaon town, so why would the bigshots bother about problems of these ordinary people? He stopped himself from going for another speech and shut his mouth pronouncing something like ‘ohh’ to express his anguish, arranged the gamocha on his shoulder to subdue the emotion, and entered inside. The meal – it is the soaked remains of what had been cooked last night. They cannot manage three square meals a day. Forget about three, there are many in these villages that thrive on only one, some even has to forego food on alternate days. He does not feel bad for himself, it is that the school going children are also to take the previous day’s soaked rice – they don’t have anything to take even after returning from school; how they’d get the energy to comprehend the tough lessons? He feels bad for his aged father. After spending his halcyon days like a baron, enjoying a respectable position in the society, being at the forefront of every activity, he has been pushed to a position of poverty during his last days of life. His health also deteriorated after his mother’s demise. Fish, milk, curd, cream was abundant in his days – now one can’t even get a drop of milk for a proper cup of tea.

He sat down for lunch in a confused state of mind.

The group of women appeared to have understood every word to heart spoken by Dhaneswar. All of them sat down fetching a dukhori peera each. They are of the same age of Dhaneswar’s wife - all are friends and neighbours. They go out together to work as daily wage labour to plant paddy seedlings, to harvest the matured paddy and to harvest the pulses or mustard cultivation in the sandbars. They go out in groups of twos or threes to vend the fishes in neighboring villages. So they need not require to be attended to when they come for a visit or drop by, they make their own seating arrangement, find the arecanut-betel-leaf-lime stocks for themselves like a member of the family.

As Dhaneswar entered inside, Bhadre, the wife of Nalia spoke up as in soliloquy, ‘Though he might even mean us referring to as land-rich, but that is history now. To settle the grocery dues and the land taxes he had decided to sell the plot to the village merchant. Though high land, but because of the Kollong flowing by, it contained the requisite moisture and was highly yielding too. As the Kollong dried up, the yield practically came to nought. If one cannot eke out the tax even from a plot of land – what is the use of being the owner? That’s what my children’s father is saying, we got to shift to the north bank selling off everything here.

Though she started speaking in a mumbling tone, gradually it gained energy to reach a level of normal conversation; she concluded by uttering the last sentence looking with a questioning gaze at Pabhoi.

Pabhoi had pushed a tamol into her mouth, pinched off a bit of tobacco leaf to add to it, chewed it for a while and as she was just getting up to spit out the overflowing juice mixed saliva she found the question hurled by Bhadre directed to her, and as she too had something to reply to it, closed her lips tightly, nodded looking at Bhadre, gestured with her right hand to mean something like wait, went to the backyard, spat, and tried to start her reply from that point onward.
‘Wait, listen, that day when I went to the village taking those ferns and arums, with some moa fish, no one wanted to exchange for paddy, rather they offered cash. No one has paddy to spare – they don’t even have enough for themselves. Bamungaon, Gosaingaon, Kalitagaon, Kochgaon, Dayalbarigaon, Ramtamuli – no one in all these villages had paddy to feed their family for the year. Hardly would you find a couple of such families. Everyone had been saying that the fields lost its sap and production dwindled after Kollong was closed.

Several women started saying together; just at that moment they heard someone clearing the throat at the front entrance. So they stopped right there and pulled their veils over their heads. The old man, Dhaneswar’s father, held the silim (smoking pot) towards his daughter-in-law and said, ‘Just put some burning charcoal. It is stuffed with tobacco. Joydhan has come.’ He was, of course, listening to all their discussions.

The lady of the house, took the silim and said looking at the other women,’What to say about the condition of firewood – the charcoal just die away instantly. We do not even get some good firewood; what a problem we are facing in cooking!’
This is another topic that everyone had the bitter taste of. So all of them supported her with comments like ‘We face the same condition too’, ‘What a mess’, ‘Days are not far when we would have to feed our long tresses in the hearth to cook’, etc.

The old man came forward a few paces and stood solemnly facing them. Crop cut hair, rather than saying hair, one could say a plate of rice powder laid before in an aai sabah. Eyelash, eyebrow, hairs on the neck, the long hairs near the ears, hairs on the hands, everything is white like rice powder.

The old folk looked once at the veiled faces and then started as if addressing all -
‘Sashya haribo, mashya haribo, haribo birikhor guti
Bar bar manuhar bakya laribo, laribo dharamar khuti

(Produces would dwindle, fishes would disappear, trees would stop producing seeds. Respected people, the public leaders would speak blatant lies, religions would tumble)

Where would you get firewood? Are we left with a mature tree somewhere? Where is produce, where are the fishes, where is justice? Whatever is going to happen and what has happened, what has our Mahapurusha written down:

There would be famine – people would die of hunger
The king would deal severely with his subjects for tax in that situation
The royal servants would would create chaos
The pain in people’s mind would never die.
Bodies would dry out for want of food
The people shall turn into demons in Kaliyug
The merchants would malpractice in trade
People would thrive on evil deeds
The evils would prosper
The evil would win with money power
Paddy would become tiny like an atom
Big trees would turn into small shrubs.

And what our Madhabadeva had written –
The son wouldn’t obey the father
The younger of the older
The wife would not listen to her husband
The slave of his master
The womenfolk would procreate frequently
In the Kaliyug
The girls would attain womenhood
When she turns sixteen

The old man did not recite to tune. He just uttered every word deeply with clear pronunciation shaking his fingers. Then what hasn’t happened, and what remains to happen? The river was literally killed openly while everyone looked on passively. It’s not paddy, but illusion is being used in trading. Famine, Royal repression. Is the damming of a flowing river not royal repression? Then?

By that time Dhaneswar finished his meal and came out rubbing his hands and face dry with the gamocha. His wife was handing over the silim to her father-in-law and at the same time blowing into it to keep the charcoal burning. Everyone was dumbstruck. The old man was continuously and spontaneously chanting from the holy books. One use to hear such things at so many places, so many times, but it never hit everyone broadside in such a manner and create such reverberation after hitting the eardrum. The professes quoted in those holy books have manifested in the form of truth now at the ultimate stage of Kaliyug, to the lives of a small village on the bank of Kollong. But why one should say just a small village? It has manifested as the ultimate truth to one, two, three, hundred, thousands of villages. This village gradually dried up as we just looked on, all the people dried up, like the Kollong flowing by their frontyard drying up. There is no water on the river, no fish in the water, no paddy in the fields, no vegetables in the backyard, no milk in the cow’s udders – everything has been lost. The Kaliyug has snatched everything – the kaal has snatched everything. The pain felt in the heart could not be covered any more by the veiled artificial sobriety, everyone looked at each other’s face and supported rather loudly the old man’s words and wherever possible, chanted along – even repeated.

Dhaneswar picked up a tamol from the bota and came out to the front through the rear door and backyard. His father carried away the silim outside blowing continuously. The group of women stood up to leave. Dhaneswar’s wife hurriedly put the fishes in a small basket, picked up the grass, threw away the snails, covered with a small banana leaf and then with another basket inverted over it. Though it is already midday – if it is not taken out immediately for vending, it would start decaying by afternoon and it would be difficult to find a buyer. Bhadre would also accompany, because her husband does not have the experience to sell the fish.

Dhaneswar came back once again to remind his wife so that she would not exchange the fish only for paddy and not to accept cash. Then he entered the bedroom, put on the vest and went out taking the pack of playing cards.
His wife shouted from behind, ’Don’t just spoil the entire afternoon playing cards on the bank of Kollong. There is not a drop of kerosene and mustard and also even a spoonful of salt.’

The anger shoot up to the brain of Dhaneswar – it is always nothing, nothing, nothing – wherefrom should he fetch? If there is nothing one would not eat, let there be only rice. But still he suppressed his anger and his protruding pair of front teeth became more prominent as he reacted, ‘Don’t sell the fish for cash, exchange twenty small fishes in one share and take a basketful of paddy for each share.’

‘Ok, ok’, - but his wife could not remain calm any more. She reacted harshly, ‘Why just a basketful, they would exchange for a full big one. As if the people have a huge stock to spare that they would offer a basketful for a share of twenty small fish. Go try yourself sometimes. How much haggling one has to do to vend a share. Once you go, then only you would understand.’

‘If the rate per kilo of moa fish is Rupees four, then why would not a portion fetch a l basketful of paddy? If I would take them to market, I would hold the balance in such a way that the hapless customers would not be able to understand how I would make but twenty pieces of moa fish weigh two hundred fifty grams that is of one rupee value.’

‘Yes, definitely it would be. But I would have to stuff each fish with pebbles then.’

‘That’s nothing unusual. In the towns if one has to sell huge barali fish in whole they stuff with stones picked up from the road. The rice vendor mixes five kg of paddy and fine grain stones each in a maund of rice. If it is not done, they argue, their ‘business’ just won’t thrive. Ok, I agree that one need not stuff the moa fish with pebbles, but why did you throw away the snails, then? Those tiny variety always remain with the fish, naturally caught on the net alongwith fish, it is nothing we have mixed.’

‘Those are the misdeeds that have devoured the country. So the people are finding themselves totally helpless.’ – His wife interjected remembering her father-in-laws recent words.

‘Now look at that woman of principle. The country does not run by words from the holy books.’ He suddenly stopped midway to speaking something and left the place with brisk angry steps. Arguments are never-ending, so what’s the use of it! Everyone refer to the holy scriptures, but who bothers to adhere to it?

His wife just wrapped her body with a clean Reeha, tied an end tightly to her waist, placed the straw hoop on her head, carried the basket containing fish outside and lifted it onto her head shutting the door and called her neighbour Bhadre, ‘Hey Bhadre, are you ready yet? Come, let’s go.’

The women came out from the neighbouring house and they went out to sell the little amount of fish they got – to a village about two miles afar. There isn’t any other village that could exchange for paddy, even if there are a few households that do have sufficient paddy for themselves – they are reluctant to exchange for it.

A little later Joydhan came out from near the old man. Seeing Dhaneswar walking ahead, He called a long call. Dhaneswar stopped. Joydhan is middle aged, Dhaneswar calls him ‘uncle’. For a few days now, Joydhan has started joining the group of Nalia during their midday sittings. Dhaneswar, Nalia and few others sit down under the shadow of the Kendu tree and enjoy the time playing a few hands of ‘twenty nine’. Joydhan, though has not learnt the game, watch sitting near them.

All of them reached the Kendu tree.

‘What did you discuss with father during the noon?’- Dhaneswar asked casually while spreading the gamocha on the grass and putting the pack of cards over it.
Nalia, Pado, Dhani – the three other playmates took position accordingly.

‘What is there to listen to those talks? Whatever the land property was there, I sold it to the village merchant. Now what is left is the plinth of the house a backyard. The village merchant has expressed interest to take it also if I wish to sell it. That’s what I said to your father, he is the honourable member of the village, seniormost  in the community too. 

‘Where would you wander away selling off the land? Dhaneswar queried while his hands worked on the packs and handed to Pado for distribution.

All the others kept looking at Joydhan taking the cards on their hands. That very Joydhan, whose muscular physique and long hair had been the object of envy of most youths in the entire area, and by the power of which he could always get to play the role of Bhima or asura(demon) for last twenty years at a stretch – that very Joydhan, the pride of the village is going to leave the village for ever with a number of children and a marriageable daughter. Jayanti, his daughter just stands out amongst all the girls of her age. Some talk about her marriage was heard too sometime back.

‘Why, what happened to Jayanti’s marriage? Some relation came forward sometime back we heard so.’

‘That’s the thing’, Joydhan lit up the half smoked beedi stuck behind the ear, puffed a few quick ones and continued, ‘My wish is to settle the marriage from my ancestral property. Whatever I would get from selling I would spend the marriage and afterwards move to the northern bank taking the leftover amount. I would be able to carry on my ancestral business too if I stay near the Brahmaputra. Here the scope is finished for ever. Even the nets got rotten and damaged by lack of use and care.’

Joydhan kept looking with thirsty eyes towards a dilapidated boat lying overturned very near to the bank of Kollong. Even the card players forgot to call looking at the cards at their hands. Everyone gazed through Joydhan’s eyes at the boat. That boat lying there is representing the current pathetic condition of Joydhan who had a busy throbbing life that had been put to an end some ten years back. The Kollong wharf was situated under this very Kendu tree. Then government boat used to ply here – gutia boat, maarboat. Joydhan was an expert with the rudder. Vehicles, bullock carts, so many men and women, boys and girls, people attending fairs, school going children, teachers, so many types of people crossed by. Joydhan’s dexterous hand never left any scope for any accident. This wharf provided for employment for several local youths too. The day when the terribly big machine struck its first blow on the first pole, that blow actually struck directly on the heart of Joydhan. The maarboat used to be tethered to this Kendu tree.

The bridge on Kollong came to a reality only because the country attained independence. The bridge was built, and, had there been a provision to collect a tax of even a paisa from each person crossing over on foot, two paisa from every person riding a bicycle, eight annas from each vehicle, the cost of building the bridge would have been returned and his job (considering he would have manned the toll gate) would also have been saved.

Whatever Joydhan pondered puffing the beedi – it appeared for the ones accompanying him as if everything flashed on their mental screen like a movie. All of them lit a beedi each throwing down the playing cards. There is no chance that the game would turn interesting today. There had been a river named Kollong in front of them. Now hyacinth has covered it from end to end – choking it fully. Even shrubs of reeds and other clumps of aqueous plants have grown here and there. The few remaining water holes scattered here and there have also been devoured by hyacinth. Nowadays, the government has provided tubewells and wells in every village. The young womenfolk staying along the bank of Kollong do not need to come to Kollong carrying pitchers on their waist. Herds of grazing cows walk on the dried bed of Kollong searching for water to drink, and they fall sick on consuming it. The future generation would not be able to enjoy the unforgettable picture of the village folks bringing in countless herds of cows for the ceremonial bathe on the morning of first day of Rongali Bihu! The overflowing water of Kollong in spate after the torrential rains would never again cover the paddy fields with the fertile layer of silt and the myriad varieties of fishes from the Brahmaputra would not provide nutrition to the inhabitants of a district on both the banks of Kollong. And the biggest thing is that the primary source of livelihood of a community thriving on ancestral business living on the banks of Kollong for several generations has been strangulated along with a sparkling, flowing river.

Would our community survive? Is it not going to perish? – Dhaneswar hurled the question to the assemblage keeping his gaze fixed on the dying river.

Joydhan threw the stub of the beedi and lit another. The same feelings have encompassed everyone like being enshrouded by hyacinth, the same questions arising in everyone’s mind.

When Kollong was alive, then thousands of lots of drifting hyacinth had been carried along by its strong current. They do sometimes try to stick to the bank to settle down – but do they succeed? They would always be swept away by some subsequent waves. But when the current, the driving force is gone, what happens? Look at our children here? Which one is good at studies or diligent in duty? They just loiter around wearing pants, neither useful this way or that way. Not only our village, it has now become a common problem in all adjoining villages. They are just wandering aimlessly killing the precious minutes discussing useless topics for long hours, chatting at tea stalls and hotels blocking the table for long hours and also playing vice games like cards and dices. They are not engaged in any useful occupation – be it trade – education – forget about highly paid magistrate’s job. The labourers imported from far outside are earning Rupees six a day just by carrying and strewing a few baskets of gravels on the surface of the road. Though some of us had joined in, the others, rather than encouraging him are jeering and sneering them. As we all started talking rather than actually working, the godly power of the nation to build a rampart overnight has been lost. A stagnant river would eventually be enveloped and choked by reeds, hyacinths and aqueous plants.

The playing cards fell down from their hands long back. No one was interested in the game. Everyone looked on to the river with a look of despair and impassion. The river Kollong lie still, motionless, like that one with a untimely widowhood and premature ageing just in front of their eyes. 

Langijaal : A kind of triangular shaped fishing net, tied to bamboo poles.
Khewali jaal : A smaller fishing net with lead ball attached along the periphery to make it sink
Dukhori peera : a low stool made out of a single piece of wood
Silim : an earthen tube-like tool to light the tobacco for  smoking like hookah
Reeha : A long and wide piece of traditional clothing wrapped around a woman’s upper body
Namghar ; the community place of worship
Aai sabah : a prayer attended by the womenfolk in the community
Kaal : the ultimate power, time
Kaliyug : the last of the four yuga or era, when sinners are professed to reign
Bota : a brass plate with or without a stand. It’s a custom in Assamese society to show respect by offering tamol, gamocha etc. on the bota
Maar boat : A large size boat able to ferry vehicles across.



About the author-translator: Bibekananda Choudhury, an electrical engineer by profession, has completed his M S from BITS-Pilani in Systems and Information. He has also earned a diploma in French language from Gauhati University. He has got published works (both original and translated) in Assamese, Bengali & English in popular periodicals and newspapers. His translated poems has been published in 'Indian Literature', ‘Poets International’, Poetry International’, Rupsi Bangla etc.  'Suryakatha', the Bengali adaptation done by him of the Assamese novelette in verse in the same title by Prayag Saikia was well accepted. His English translated publications include – one short story collection and four poetry collections and one Information Book on Kaziranga, apart from few others in manuscript form. He hails from Bongaigaon and presently stays at Guwahati.

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