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|by Kumud Biswas|
The name of the village is Kashipur. It is very small, smaller still is its zamindar; yet he is so powerful that none of his tenants has the temerity to raise any voice against him – so complete is his authority.
It was the birthday of his youngest son. Having finished the puja held on the occasion the family priest Tarkaratna was returning home. The summer month of vaisakh was almost over, yet not a shadow of a cloud was anywhere to be seen and fire seemed to be dropping down from the rainless sky. The vast burning field extending to the horizon was cracked everywhere and through its innumerable crevices its moisture was evaporating continually into the atmosphere like smoke. If one kept on looking at that flaming vapour rising like a snake one felt dizzy as if one was intoxicated. On its verge by the side of the village road stood the hut of Gofur the Mohammedan weaver. Its earthen boundary wall had fallen down, its compound had merged with the road and it had helplessly surrendered its privacy to the mercies of the passers by.
Standing under the shade of a pituli tree Tarkaratna shouted, “Hey Gafra, are you at home?”
“Why do you call father?” responded Gofur’s ten-year old daughter Amina, “He is down with fever.”
“Fever, you said? Call the rascal. He is a wicked fellow, a mlechha (non-Hindu)!” The noise of this altercation made Gofur come out of his hut shivering with fever. A bull was tied to an old babul tree that stood by the broken wall. Pointing towards it Tarkaratna asked, “Tell me, what’s this? Aren’t you aware that this is a Hindu village and its zamindar is a Brahmin?” The summer heat and anger made his face red and it was natural that only harsh words should come out of his mouth, but Gofur kept gazing at it without realizing the cause.
Tarkaratna said, “In the morning when I was passing by I found it tied to this tree. It is midday now and I find it still tied to that tree. If the bull dies the zamindar will bury you alive, you know that? He is not an ordinary Brahmin!”
“What shall I do father, I have fallen on a very hard time. For the last few days I have been down with fever and I am unable to graze him on a leash for I feel dizzy and cannot walk.”
“Then let it loose to graze on its own.”
“How can I do that? The paddy is still in the field waiting to be harvested, the hay has not yet been gathered in stacks and the grass on the ridges between the plots have been burnt by the summer heat, how can I let him loose?”
This somewhat softened Tarkaratna, “Then at least tie it in a shady place and give it some straw. Your daughter must have cooked some rice. Give it a bowl of starch adding some water.”
Gofur made no reply. He only let off a deep sigh and helplessly kept gazing at the face of Tarkaratna.
“You don’t have even that? What have you done with your share of the straw? You sold it to buy your own food? You didn’t think it fit to keep even a single bundle for the bull, you butcher?”
This grave accusation made Gofur almost speechless. “I got a few bundles in my share this year, it is true”, said Gofur at last in a subdued voice, “but the zamindar kept them as his last year’s due. I fell at his feet and begged for a few bundles and told that I would not flee away from his village. I also told him that this rainy season I shall make do with some palm leaves to thatch my one-room shanty where I live with my daughter, but without any straw my Mahesh would surely die.”
This made Tarkaratna smile, “You love it very much I see, you have named it Mahesh! It makes me only laugh.”
Ignoring this taunt Gofur went on, “But the zamindar showed no mercy. He gave me only some paddy that would last me about two months, but all the straw he kept in his own stack and my Mahesh was deprived of even the smallest bit of it.” He almost broke into tears but it failed to elicit any kindness in Tarkaratna, “What an idiot you are! Won’t you repay what you borrowed? You are living in a Ram rajya (Utopia) yet you will only blame the zamindar. Just the manner of the lowest caste that you are!”
Diffidently Gofur replied, “Why should I do that? I don’t blame him. But how can I feed Mahesh? I share-crop only four bighas of land, the droughts have totally burnt their crops during the last two years in a row and I cannot manage two square meals a day even for myself and my daughter. And look at my hut – when it rains I cannot lie down to sleep, I have to spend the night with my daughter sitting huddled up in a corner. Look at Mahesh, each one of his ribs you can count – I beg you to lend me a few bundles of straw so that I can feed him at least for a day or two …” Supplicating like this Gofur suddenly sat down at the feet of the Brahmin. Tarkaratna sprang back a few steps in consternation and reproachfully said, “Do you dare to touch me, you devil?”
“No, no, I won’t. But won’t you lend me some straw? I saw you have as many as four stacks and what I am asking is so little you will hardly feel. I don’t mind if we die of hunger – but my Mahesh is so helpless, he only keeps staring and tears roll down his eyes.”
“You want to borrow, but how will you repay?” asked Tarkaratna.
Eagerly in expectation Gofur replied, “I shall somehow manage to repay, I won’t cheat you.”
Mocking his anxious voice Tarkaratna said, “Won’t cheat! Shall somehow repay! You joker, give way and let me go, I am getting late.” He gently smiled in enjoyment of his own joke, took a few steps forward but soon stepped back frightened and angrily said, “Oh, it’s coming with its horns raised, will it attack me?”
Gofur stood up and pointing towards the fruits and the packet of rice in the priest’s hand said, “He has got their scent and wants to eat them.”
“It is as good as its master, doesn’t get straw but must have rice and banana to eat! Now tie it away from the road or else it will kill someone some day, its horns are so sharp.”
Tarkaratna left in a hurry after this. Gofur silently kept on gazing at Mahesh. Looking at its deep dark eyes full of pain and hunger he said, “They have much, too much indeed, but they won’t help anybody. Let them do as they please ----.” His voice became choked and drops of tears rolled down his eyes. Drawing nearer he gently began to pat the bull all over and whispered into its ears, “Mahesh, you are my son! you have served me for long eight years, now you have become old. I cannot feed you well, but you know how much I love you!” In reply Mahesh only stretched out its neck and enjoyed the caress with its eyes closed. Gofur wiped his tears on the bull’s back and continued in a soft voice, “The zamindar took away your food, even the village common he settled with tenants for money, now how do I keep you alive in these hard times? If I let you loose you will either eat others’ straw or spoil others’ gardens – what do I do with you? You are not strong as before and nobody wants you. They tell me to sell you at a cattle market-----.” The very thought of this once more brought fresh tears in his eyes. Wiping them he looked around and tearing some straw from the half-rotten thatch of his hut he offered to Mahesh, “Eat this my son and be quick, otherwise ---.”
“Yes, my child.”
“Please come in, your meal is ready.” Amina came out of the hut and standing at the gate said, “You have again taken out straw from the roof and given it to Mahesh?”
“But I heard you to take it out from the roof?”
“I didn’t exactly -----.”
“But the wall will fall down.”
Gofur stood still. Only one room was left and he knew it well that if he did like this it would also fall down by the next rainy season. But he found no other way out.
“You give me the starch to feed Mahesh.”
“There is no starch today, it has been absorbed by the rice.”
“Is that so?” Gofur was speechless. Though still a child his daughter knew it well that in these hard times nothing should be wasted. Washing his hand he went into the room. His daughter had served his meal in a brass plate keeping her share in an earthen one. Looking at his plate he said, “Amina, I am feeling chilly, should I eat anything when I am still having fever?”
Amina became very anxious, “Just now you told me you were feeling very hungry?”
“Perhaps I had no fever then.”
“Let me then save the rice for your evening meal.”
“But stale food may aggravate the fever”, said Gofur.
“What should I do then?”
Gofur appeared to think very hard over this problem and as if he had found out a solution he abruptly said, “You better give it to Mahesh and cook some rice for me in the evening.” In reply Amina kept gazing at her father’s face and before leaving nodded her head, “All right, father.”
This made Gofur blush, for this trick which was played between the father and the daughter was well understood by them both and was noticed perhaps also by someone else from above.
~~ 00 ~~
A few days later Gofur was sitting in his veranda very much worried. Since last night his Mahesh has been missing. As he was ill it was Amina who was searching around. In the afternoon she came home and told, “Father, Manik Ghosh has sent Mahesh to the police station.”
“It can’t be true,” said Gofur.
“Yes, it is true. Their servant told me to ask you to search at Dariyapur pound.”
“What did he do?”
“He had entered into their garden and destroyed the plants.”
Gofur was stunned. He had feared all kinds of accidents except this. He was very meek as well as poor and therefore never imagined that any of his neighbours would ever do such a thing to him -- especially Manik Ghosh who was popularly known to be very respectful to both the Brahmins and cows.
His daughter prodded him, “Father, the day is almost over, won’t you go and bring back Mahesh?”
“No,” replied Gofur.
“But they told me after three days the police will sell him in the cattle market.”
“Let them sell,” said Gofur.
Amina didn’t know what a cattle market was, but several times she saw how at its very mention her father used to get upset so much. Today she slowly left the place without further uttering a word.
Under the cover of darkness of the night Gofur went to Bansi’s shop and said, “Uncle, please give me a rupee.” He kept his brass plate under the cot. Its weight etc was familiar to Bansi, for, so far it has been pawned as many as five times, each time for a rupee. This time also therefore he raised no objection.
Next day Mahesh was again found at the usual place – the same babul-shade, the same rope, the same stake and the same container empty of fodder and a pair of dark, wet and hungry eager eyes. An elderly mussalman was examining it very closely. Gofur was silently sitting huddled up near by. The old man took out a ten-rupee note from the corner of his chadar and after handling it several times to smooth its creases offered it to Gofur, “I won’t bargain for less, I am giving you full ten rupees.”
Gofur silently accepted the note and remained quiet. But as soon as two companions of the old man went to untie the bull he got up and shouted, “Don’t touch the rope, I warn you!”
They were taken aback. The old man asked, “But why?”
Gofur replied in the same angry tone, “Do I have to explain? It’s mine and I won’t sell it, it’s as simple as that.” Saying this he threw away the note.
They said, “Then why did you take the advance yesterday?”
He took out a two-rupee coin from the fold of his loincloth wound around his waist and said, “Here, take back your advance.”
To avoid an inevitable quarrel the old man said smiling, “You are putting pressure for a few rupees more, isn’t it? Pay him two more rupees to buy sweetmeats for his daughter. Are you happy now?”
“But I tell you, nobody will pay a single farthing more.”
“No,” Gofur vehemently repeated.
The old man was extremely annoyed, “Whatever value it has is but for its skin, otherwise has it got any flesh left?”
“Shut up, you ---,” uttering an abusive word suddenly Gofur ran into his house and threatened in a loud voice that if they did not leave the village at once he would get them punished by the zamindar’s servants.
To avoid an affray those people left and within a short while Gofur was summoned by the zamindar. He realized that the matter had been duly reported to him.
In the outhouse of the zamindar there had assembled a large number of people. With his eyes red in anger Shibubabu said, “I don’t know how severely I should punish you Gafra. Don’t you know where are you living?”
With folded hands Gofur replied, “I know. I am very poor, otherwise I would have paid you any fine you would have imposed today.”
Everyone was amazed. They knew this man to be very obstinate and hot-tempered. In a piteous voice he said, “I shall never do it again sir.” He then pulled his own ears and rubbed his nose on the ground from one end of the compound to the other.
Hearing the whole story everybody was aghast. They were certain that only the religious piety of the zamindar and the fear of his strict rule prevented the happening of such a sinful thing. Tarkaratna was also present. He enlightened the assembly by explaining the scriptural meaning of the word ‘cow’ and the reason why such irreligious people should not be allowed to live within the outer limits of the village.
Gofur did not utter a single word. With a bowed head he accepted all the humiliation and harsh words as his due and came home with a light heart. He begged some starch from his neighbours and fed his Mahesh. He caressed it all over and softly whispered so many things into its ears.
~~ 00 ~~
The month of jaistha was nearing its end. Unless one looked at its skies one could hardly imagine how severe and cruel could become the summer heat that had begun to rise in the closing days of the month of vaisakh. Not a touch of tenderness was anywhere to be seen. That this sky would ever change its appearance and become once again cool and heavy with clouds was difficult to believe. It seemed that the fire that was raining from the flaming sky would not stop to do so until everything was burnt out.
At noon of such a day Gofur had returned home. He was unaccustomed to work as a daily labourer. Besides, he had recovered from fever only about a week ago. He was still very weak and became easily tired. Yet he had gone out but failed to find any work. He had only suffered the scorching heat. Hunger, thirst and fatigue had made him almost blind. From the compound he asked, “Amina, is food ready?”
Amina slowly came out and silently stood holding a post. Getting no reply Gofur shouted, “Is food ready? No, but why?”
“There is no rice, father.”
“Why didn’t you tell me in the morning?”
“I had told you last night.”
Grimacing he imitated his daughter, “I had told you last night! Can one remember what is told at night?” His own harsh voice made him more angry. Grimacing again he shouted, “How could there be rice? Do you care a bit if your sick father gets anything to eat? You will only gobble rice four or five times a day! From now on I shall keep the rice under lock and key. Give me some water, I am terribly thirsty. Tell me, there is also no water!” Waiting a few moments when he realized that there was even no water he lost all control of himself. He rushed to his daughter and slapped her on the cheek very hard and said, “You worthless girl, what do you do whole day? So many people die every day, why don’t you also die like them?”
Amina made no reply. She wiped her tears, took an empty earthen pitcher and went out to fetch some water. As soon as she left Gofur became repentant. He alone knew how he raised this motherless child. He knew it well that his daughter was very affectionate and hard working and could not be blamed. Till the paddy from his fields lasts they can hardly afford two full meals a day. Some days they take only one meal while sometimes they go without any. To have five or six meals a day was absolutely impossible as it was untrue. The reason for absence of water was also not unknown to him. There are two or three ponds in the village. All of them have gone dry. There is some water in the pond at Sibubabu’s backyard. But it is not accessible to the public. In other ponds holes have been dug where water collects. Large crowds always compete for that scanty supply. Being a muslim Amina cannot even approach near them. For hours on end she keeps standing at a distance begging. She gets water only when someone becomes kind and pours some water into her pitcher. All this he knows. Today either sufficient water did not collect in those holes or in the scramble for water her daughter was totally ignored. When he thought that some such thing must have happened today tears welled up in his eyes. Exactly at that moment the dreaded armed footman of the zamindar appeared in his compound and shouted, “Gafra, are you at home?”
In a bitter tone Gofur responded, “Yes, but why?”
“The babu has sent for you.”
“I haven’t taken my meal yet. I shall come later.”
Such audacity could hardly be tolerated by the zamindar’s servant. Addressing in abusive terms he said, “My orders are to take you by force beating with a shoe.”
But in this world for a poor man to swear by so high a dignitary is not only futile but also dangerous. Fortunately such small voices do not often reach the ears of those who are highly placed. Otherwise it would have been impossible for men like Gofur to live their lives in peace. It is of no use to describe in detail what happened next. But suffice it to say that when after an hour or so Gofur returned home from the zamindar’s place his whole face was swollen. The chief cause of this severe punishment was Mahesh. As soon as Gofur had left home Mahesh also tore its rope and went out, entered into the zamindar’s house, spoilt his flower garden and the paddy that was spread out on the compound to dry in the sun. When at last attempts were made to catch it, it fled after injuring the zamindar’s youngest daughter. This was not the first time, such incidents happened earlier also, but were pardoned because of Gofur’s poverty. He would have been pardoned this time also if he had begged for it as before. But Shibcharanbabu has now taken strong exception because of his boasts that he is a free citizen, pays his taxes and is not anybody’s slave. Gofur had calmly born and did not protest against the beatings and the humiliation he suffered. Returning home he lay down quietly, he seemed to have lost all sense of hunger and thirst, but inwardly he was burning like the summer sky. He was unaware about the time that passed in this manner when he heard his daughter’s cry for help coming from outside. Quickly he ran out of his house and found that Amina was lying on the ground, water was trickling down from her broken pitcher and Mahesh, as thirsty as dry desert sands, was drinking that water. In a moment he lost his mental balance and became almost insane. With both hands he took the ploughshare he had kept last night for repair and with all his might struck the lowered head of Mahesh.
Only once did Mahesh try to raise its head and then its body, emaciated by hunger, fell down on the ground. A few drops of tears from the corner of its eyes and a few drops of blood from its ears rolled down. Once or twice its whole body shivered, it stretched out its legs as far as possible and then it breathed its last.
Amina cried out, “Father, what have you done, our Mahesh has died.”
Gofur did not stir, nor did he reply; he only kept staring at another pair of deep dark staring eyes and sat as still as a block of stone. Within hours the cobblers who lived at the end of the village got the news. They tied the dead body of Mahesh to a bamboo pole and carried it to the wasteland where carcasses of animals are disposed. Gofur shivered to see sharp knives glazing in their hands and without uttering a word he closed his eyes.
His neighbours asked him to take the advice of the priest Tarkaratna and they thought that this time Gofur would have to sell his homestead to meet the costs of the ritual of penance.
To all these Gofur made no replies, he only kept sitting quietly, resting his head on his folded knees.
In the middle of the night he called his daughter, “Amina, let us go –”
She had fallen asleep in the veranda. Wiping her eyes she sat up and asked, “Where, father?”
Gofur said, “To work in the jute mill at Fulbere.”
She was surprised. Earlier even in the hardest of times he had never agreed to do this, -- more than once she heard him to say that there it is very difficult to save one’s religion and the honour of women.
Gofur said, “Don’t waste time, my child, it’s a long walk.”
Amina wanted to take with them the water drinking pot and her father’s brass plate but Gofur dissuaded her saying, “Leave them my child, they will meet the costs of the last ritual of my Mahesh.”
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