A HOUSE OF DESIRE

Original in Assamese: Najma Mukherjee
Translation: Dr. Merry Barua Bora


The narrative takes up the grave issue of extinction of storks in several areas of Assam illustrating how human encroachment upon habitats has wrecked havoc. Ironically showing how the natural world is facing serious threat due to reckless human activities, the story uses satire subtly to show the workings of Darwin’s theory – the idea of ‘adaptability’ looked upon as the only viable strategy for survival for a species on the verge of extinction. The uniqueness of the narrative lies in its ability to create a locale where human emotions are seen to merge with those of the natural world and vice versa sing the universal theme of death.

At last the people set their eyes on the swamp, too. They had earlier approached the government with their claim. It was approved. They were allowed possession of the swamp. A host of people gathered, with the Officer on the lead. He commanded with bloodshot eyes, ”Fence the swamp”. Hearing the utterly powerful Officer’s words, a fusion of feeling – of delight, excitement, anxiety and nervousness dawned upon the people. Instantly myriad hands, each carrying bamboos of various sizes appeared. Without more ado, even the boundary wall was demarcated. This portion is mine, that’s yours, and for the Officer they enclosed a portion with care. A well shaped plot.

Initially when they learnt about it, they were quite disconcerted. They stopped taking food. The nests on the Kadam* tree by the swamp were astonishingly serene. Children and their mothers were not around. Only the fathers flew down flapping their wings. Some cowered down at the banks of the swamp. Some strode about – walking far away with lazy steps and retreated again in same pace again. Close by, the fishes swam with a lively or sluggish rhythm, with an air of indifference.

At night, the assembly commenced. The grave, elderly uncle of the children spoke, ”Can we abandon the site in this manner? We’ve been here for three generations. This is our source of livelihood. Man can’t be left to act according to his whims. Mother earth is ours too. Besides, even we have fondness for the place.”

The nephew, an adolescent, spoke in support, “Uncle is right. This injustice shan’t be tolerated.”

The girl said, “It would be improper to sit down doing nothing, Uncle!”
*A big tree which bears flowers.
  
At the other end of the swamp, was the residence of the social worker who voiced her concern for the downtrodden. When in the morning, they hesitatingly raised the matter before him, she smiled and said, “Hey, my service is meant only for human being, not for you.”

They retreated striding in long steps. An expression of anguish, resentment and dejection were evident on their faces. As if they had been a group of some kind of helpless, abandoned beings perched at the edge of the earth - a little push from anyone is enough to hurl them out of this world.

Some of the younger ones were wandering beside the swamp. Seeing their representatives back, they came forward. None uttered a word. They were all very anxious.

The atmosphere turned gloomy. Uncle flapped his wings and perched on the Kadam tree, without a word. Only a few days back he had built his nest with twigs of mango and jackfruit trees. The core was so beautiful. Spherical, deep. At night he could have a sound sleep. He closed his eyes and shivered. The face of the Officer flashed before his eyes. His Khaki dress, his hat, the bulge of the pistol in the pants pocket!  Small and big bamboos. As if someone is piercing the swamp with spears. Streams of blood gushing from his body. He visualised himself and his family soaked in blood. Someone got ready to hew the Kadam tree. He shivered. Instantly he flew to the wood apple tree nearby. From that tree he could have a look at the city afar.How the place had changed before his eyes! It is here that he had grown up since his childhood. Only, he was not born here. The silk cotton tree around faraway village sheltered them. The hills were nearby, beside the hills were the marsh and swamps covering wide expanses. There were small pockets of forests nearby. The villagers often came here to collect firewood. Sometimes they collected branches and stubs, sometimes they hacked down a tree collectively. At such times, it was a festive occasion for them. Endless laughter and mirth prevailed. One fine day, the silk cotton trees were gone.

Rendered helpless, his parents came to this place when he was still a baby in their laps. His siblings were born here.

Coming of age, he has seen that there is an endless stock of food in his place. Let alone fish, it was an endless supply of snakes, toads and what not. Of course that had been long ago. Things are not the same now. Even then, whatever remains now is quite something. In a nutshell, the place is plenteous, no concern about food and shelter. Perhaps this is the reason for their fondness towards the spot.

His hairline is thinning. The hairs that are left are stiff.  Nor is he of a tender age. Eight years have passed. She passed away long back, poor thing ! Sorrow, not age made her bid farewell. The loss of their only son. As he slowly pushed aside those live memories and looked down, he saw the crows making din over the carcass of a cat – country crows and ravens. With the ravens taking an upper hand, the country crows dared not go near. When the ravens were engrossed in tearing off the carcass, they would jump forward. But they retreated with fear the moment the two ravens looked up.

He shook his body once. Sitting idle would not help. Something has to be done. Looking around, he got ready to fly. Destination was neither far, nor was it very near. He began to fly southwards. Flying awhile, he would stop. He flew again. They were not accustomed to flying long distances. On reaching the government quarters where the Officer lived, he flew down. He rested a while at the small turning. His heart was beating fast. He regained his breath. A feeling of fear kept tormenting him. He walked forward at a snail’s pace. At the Officer’s front entrance he stopped. The gateway was open. Just beside, a car was parked. Looking here and there, he went towards the courtyard. At the very doorstep the hale and hearty cat of theirs was having a nap. Seeing him, it sprang up with a jerk. Intending to impede him, it observed his unique body, his pouch near the throat. Pushing aside the curtains of the sitting room, the Officer came out with brisk steps. Getting ready for office. Just behind him was madam with a briefcase in hand. Bowing low, respectfully he began, “What will happen to us ? Where shall we go, Sir ? And can we go even if we want to ? It’s a matter of convenience and provision. The swamp has been fenced. It is heard, the Kadam tree shall also be felled !”

“Of course, it will be felled.”

“Where shall we go?”

“Just listen to him. How am I supposed to know where you’ll dump yourself ?. The swamp will be filled up with earth from hills, trees will be chopped and a beautiful house shall be built. I’ll live happily with my wife and children. I’ll keep dogs and cats.”

“And what about us?”

“Hey! How dare you argue? A tight slap will shatter your face. Should have thought of them, eh? Oh! What an effort to acquire it ! How will you comprehend, you swine? Be out of my sight! Otherwise ...” the Officer brought out the pistol from his pocket. He was angry. But little did he tremble with anger. When things are under absolute control, the antagonist can be easily overpowered, man makes an unimpressive show of daring – the Officer made such a show. He shrieked out of fear for life. Madam is trying to pacify her husband. Casting sideways glance, he sat in the car. She remained standing, somehow not collapsing. With compassionate eyes madam observed him closely and as she was about to enter indoors, she sat down with a thud on the cane chair placed on the verandah. She started coughing incessantly. She had difficulty in breathing too. The elder daughter came out running. She kept spraying something into her mother’s mouth for a while. She became a little normal. Then, with her daughter’s support she went indoors, slowly.

All this time standing, he was witness to this sudden chain of event. He regained his sense only when the watchman shouted – “Aye Kya dekh raha hain ?... Madam ka dum bandh hone ja raha hain... Aur yeh sala ... ja bhag…” he came out running before the stick hit him on his back.

A sense of void engulfed him. He was sapped. In fact, it was not the body, maybe it was the mind. All zest is lost when the mind is weary, the body gets exhausted too.

It was noontide. Slowly he began his homeward trip. He was too weak to fly. Nevertheless, he kept flying. Now his only shelter was his nest. Nowhere else on earth would he get peace, he knows.

Perched on trees his nephews were brooding. Seeing him they came forward. They had gone out in search of some alternative place of shelter nearly. But no suitable place could be found. Every bit was possessed by men. Trees and forests had also been chopped down entirely. Hence, the change of place would no longer be possible. Instead, let there be a change in lifestyle. Otherwise, a successive decline in numbers will bring inevitable extinction. The environment itself wouldn’t permit survival.

He liked the idea. It was acceptable.  The dejection and frustration that came upon him as he came out of the Officer’s house was beginning to vanish from the inner depths of his mind like mists of winter. Right, they wouldn’t go anywhere from this place. They would continue living here, albeit through different means. He expressed his instant decision. There’s no place left to build a house of desire. So leaving aside the thought of changing the place, let’s change ourselves. 

The nephews were enthusiastic – oh yes, yes innovative strategies of living should be mastered, uncle, fresh strategies. Actually they believed in romanticism, eager for adventure. This is the creed of youth.

The younger ones looked at him. Their enthusiasm knew no bounds at his words.

“It’ll be very good, very good indeed ! What a variety of dishes manfolk have?”
“No, no it’s not possible. We’ve never been like that. Brother, don’t just trifle over it” – said the agitated younger brothers.

The girl came forward – “Uncle is right. Is there any other way out? However you won’t find anything better than this.”

“What’s it? Let’s hear” – the indifferent ones chorused.

“I suppose you’ve taken note of the number of eateries the city has.” The girl raised her head in the direction of a hotel. “Many dishes are cooked there. Fish is always prepared. The people eat. The leftovers – look, these are the bins, they throw the leftovers into these bins. Not only rice, dal, fish, meat, pulao, samosa, kachori, sweets – leftovers of every kind are dumped into these bins. We shall feast on those. And live on the terrace of this cinema hall. Gorgeous gradient red terrace. People seldom come here.”

Coming forward, he made it clear in a single utterance – “Forests and wetlands are steadily being transformed into residential plots for human beings. So we shall take shelter on the abandoned terrace of the multistoried buildings, eat from the dustbins, are you all ready ? The brothers answered wryly – “Yes”.
The nephews cried in unison.

“Of course, yes.”

That day onwards they were absolute city storks. However, despite residing in the city so long, still holding on to their old life and behavior, they couldn’t become perfect city dwellers.

Their standard of life changed. They relinquished the mores of their forefathers. They spend the nights on the terraces of the building. Waking up, they fly down. Their ties with the swamp snapped. They eat the leftovers from the dustbins. Then they cower down upon the terrace.

In between much has happened. The nights are sleepless. A fine-looking spherical core.

- as if sleeping in such an abode, they ease, as if in a daze. And little by little they slither down the slope of the terrace on to the ground. They toss and turn. They wake up. Again often this happens too – in the stupor they seek out for branches and leaves of trees with their wings. No, no the beautiful, sloping red terrace can’t provide their needs.
 
It seems to be a hasty retreat from nature. There’s no need to read the eyes of fishes’, snakes and toads neither is there a need to ponder over thoughts. The romance of preying upon them exists no longer. There’s no bustle of work, there’s no need for patience either.

Unperturbed life. Perhaps this is modernism. Consequences are unknown to them. Certainly, time will show the way. Who else in this world, is more powerful than time?

Within no time the Officer filled the land, hacked the Kadam tree and constructed a handsome house. A picturesque one. He gazes from afar. One fine day he saw the Officer and madam along with the children and their dog and cat enter the house.

Once in a while, he comes across the Officer. He looks at him with furious eyes. He doesn’t bow low. Nor does he move about spiritedly. Life glides in its own pace. Once in a while, he goes to the dustbin. Of course very seldom. He doesn’t want to be caged in the self imposed strictures. He ardently longs to move about in water. All dreams of yore increasingly blur into haziness.

In spite of this, a sense of longing for that gratifying place makes him stroll in the busy pathways. Lowering his head, he undertakes make-believe fishing. He walks beside the Officer’s house too.

That evening too, he was doing the same thing. Suddenly, he stood still on hearing lamentations from the Officer’s house. Heart rending lamentations of the Officer and his children. What could have happened? Standing at the entrance, he tried to make out. Yes, right the man is wailing – “Alas, alas ! I’ve lost everything – everything.”

All of a sudden, streaks of shimmering quiver ran through his veins – certainly some misfortune has befallen them – well. Pain, agony, danger, misfortune – let him now understand these – pensive, he reached the huge iron gate at the entrance. The gateway was open. The watchman was sitting at a corner of the courtyard, crestfallen. Panic stricken, he moved forward. But the watchman didn’t pay heed at all. Availing the opportunity, he reached the courtyard swiftly. Packets of incense sticks and marigold flowers lay strewn all over the courtyard.

Even at this dusky late October, some of the men were warming up themselves, standing at a corner of the courtyard, by the fire.

Inside the Officer was lamenting incessantly. He went indoors. Seeing him the Officer’s lamentation increased –“You’ve come?  Come, come – oh I’ve lost everything – how hard I tried – I couldn’t save my wife ...”

His body was shivering as if his thoughts seemed to say – Look at the omnipotent’s  condition. How helpless he is? Laugh ... have a hearty laugh ... avenge yourself ... this is the time…    

His heart was beating fast. Memories of some impish boys climbing up the tree to carry his child away, eyes of the child and the grief-stricken look of the mother who succumbed to sorrow, long  back, came to him. But he was unable to differentiate those eyes -the mother’s from the child’s. He felt his head swaying, his body seemed intoxicated. He even forgot to breathe. Instantly, he took a conclusive decision. Suppressing malice and the desire for revenge, he proceeded … stood beside the bereaved man with words of consolation ... the Almighty ... 

The officer replied--“Didn’t I pray ... I pleaded the Lord ... don’t, don’t make my children orphans, don’t do this to me now ... oh God! ... I swear upon You ...” the man couldn’t speak further.

“What did He say?”

“Oh! He didn’t care at all ... without a second thought.”

Sitting on the cane chair the Officer covered his face.

The man facing a tough test of life was exhausted physically. His heart melted in sorrow. He wanted to overwhelm the Officer with words of sympathy.

Now it’s the time to pat the Officer’s body with compassion, give him support and to lay him to sleep on the soft bed – slowly he came very close to the man. A pair of shrunken beaks moved towards the huge body. Even with his embracing pair of wings – the stork failed to lift him up.

Neither could he reach out nor could he lift the man up!


About the authors

The author, Najma Mukherjee is a well known Assamese short story writer and satirist. She is much known for her distinctive mark in the field of creative Assamese literature. Her serio-comic creation ‘Pop Asomiya’ is for what she is much known for now-a-days. ‘Pop Asomiya’ is a book being published by ‘Banalata’ which talks about the lately prevailed changes in the Assamese language and culture in her exceptionally witty style. The book was much applauded by the readers. Apart from that Mukherjee is a veteran columnist in leading newspapers and magazines of Assam. She is an Associate Professor in the department of Assamese, Cotton College, Guwahati, Assam.

The translate author, Dr. Merry Barua Bora is an Assistant Professor (Sr) in the Department of English, Cotton Cllege, Guwahati, Assam. She has contributed articles to research journals; written chapters for both (Major) and PG (English) textbooks under Krishna Kanta Handique State Open University. She is a Visiting Faculty at TISS, Guwahati Campus.  She is interested in translation work.



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