Translated from the Bangla by Shritama Bose
We are extremely poor. Nonetheless, we do own about three-and-a-half cottahs (around 2500 square feet) of land next to the Sitanala canal. Not just two-crop land, it’s three-crop land. Aman during the aman season, boro during the boro season. In addition, there’s pulses in the rabi season, during the high and dry winter days. Sesame and linseed, gram and pigeon pea. A variety of vegetables to boot.
The land doesn’t cultivate itself. One must offer ‘jon’, labour. Our father would dig his teeth deep into that land all day, like a daily labourer. Now cutting grass, now tilling the soil. At times stroking an ear of the crop with the deepest affection. Otherwise, he would simply sit and stare unflinchingly at the land like one with nothing to do.
There would be nobody in the surrounding areas, they’d be completely deserted. Even farm hands, herders and such like would have disappeared from the farmlands. Perhaps the ‘dhaypchu’, the drongo would be making its ‘bhu-i-chung’, ‘bhu-i-chung’ noise while spinning around in knots like the yarn on a shuttle ahead of impending twilight. At most a kingfisher or two would be seated in an untiring wait by the watering hole. —
Our father would still be sitting tight by the edge of the land! Forget the neighbours, I’d even heard our mother ask –
‘What do you do?’
‘Why, I talk.’
‘Talk to the land!’
‘Yes, and not just talk. The land laughs, and cries.’
Ma would leave with a sulky face, and say –‘This is why people call him crazy!’My father would just smile, man of clay that he is.‘Let people say what they will, the land even sings – if only they could hear!’
Evening was about to fall. A time when crows and eagles sneak into their nests. The reen-reenyan insect (cricket) begins its ‘reen-reen’ buzz. Snakeheads shuffle around in the rice marshes. A windy sound arises out of the land like smoke and spreads. According to Baba, if you listen closely, that is when you can hear the land’s music, the earth’s song.
That’s as for the song. On rainy days Baba gathers from that land ‘dadua chingda’ or prawns, ‘dimaal kankda’ or crabs with eggs, and ‘kunchia’. Kunchia – as in a longish fish that resembles eels. It helps improve blood flow in humans.
And it wasn’t just Baba, but Ma as well. No matter what she said, while out for work Ma came in with her hands full of tender bits of water clover for us from that same land. Murrel or snakeheads pierced on the edges of clams and oysters.
Be that as it may, this land of bounty could offer nothing last year. The aman crop was so-so, but the boro was a total failure. Disease struck the crop just when the land was streaming with ripe green saplings. The leaves gradually yellowed, the paddy turned sickly.
It was a fashionable species of crop. High-yielding. Ratna, Jaya, IR 8, IR 36 and various other varieties of paddy. Pile on the fertilisers, the pesticides! We were extremely poor. Where could we find the money to pour pots of fertiliser or spread poisonous oil across the fields?
Our helpless father ran about the fields and meadows, looking for lumps of cowdung. After all, these fields and meadows are where the cow and buffalo herders bring their cattle together to graze. At the end of the day, cowdung is an important organic manure. It isn’t going to be left lying around in the open! The dung-pickers wipe the fields clean of it.
We don’t even have a khatkhana! What khatkhana for people who don’t even own cows? A khatkhana is a hole where the khat, or cowdung from a family’s shed accumulates all round the year. The larger the khatkhana, the wealthier the family. For example, Hira’s father, Kaliprasanna’s father and Amulya’s father in our village.
Last year Baba had used a fascinating means to protect the crop against disease by collecting cowdung and spreading it by the roots of the paddy crop. The villagers were all praises for him. But what of that? The rains came and killed the half-dead.
This is a common occurrence during the season. The paddy is just about to ripen, or is standing in the field nice and ripe, or is lying in the farm after the harvest – and it begins to pour cats and dogs!
The rain kept falling on and on. Baba sat with his head in his hands. And it wasn’t just rain, there was hail, and the windy air, to boot. Even our unlettered mother tried to console our father by repeating the sage Khana’s utterances. ‘Saturday’s seven, Tuesday’s three, Other days bring but a day’s spree.’
A day’s spree, all right! The rain stopped after a full thirteen days! By then our soon-to-ripen paddy was well nigh destroyed. The grains could not form properly. It was still some relief that the crop was standing. Harvested crop lying in the farm was prone to sprouting in the wetness.
In the current year so far, our parents’ behaviour and manner of speech suggested that Borobil remained where it always was. Laughing, singing, dancing.
The seeds were sown at the base of the Bhudbhudi waterfall. The saplings turned out tender and well-nourished. Then the land was turned to clay with a rented plough. Us naked minions carried the seeds for sowing. Splashing through the mud and water, our mother and sisters transplanted the paddy.
– Now, look, look there! Fresh green saplings dancing in the field. As if three cottahs of land were too little to hold them in! The tips of the paddy spilled over in every direction.
So many ‘bagadulu’, or flying grasshoppers swarming over the field! Humming kaak-kuiri. Snipes and jacanas join in harmony.
The earth, earth, earth. Isn’t the earth of Borobil also keeping tune? – “Dha dhin dhin dha | Dha dhin dhin dha | Na tin tin ta | Tete dhin dhin dha –”
No disease or sickness. This weather is quite healthy and conducive to the cultivation of paddy. Our father is jolly. Looks like our mother too is free from all worries. In fact, I often see her mockingly say to our father –
‘Do you hear it?’
‘The song of our boro land’s earth?’
Baba says very excitedly –
‘Of course I do. Very clearly.’
Like mother, like daughters. My two sisters also join forces –
‘Sing it for us, will you?’
Baba says with folded hands –
‘Not a word! Always know that such things are never to be uttered!’
Seeing all this, I’d feel yet again, Oh dear! How poor we are! There’s so much in this world, and yet all we care about are the three-and-a half cottahs of land by the canal. Waking, sleeping, dreaming, for Baba it was always Borobil and Borobil!
In the meantime Hira’s family set up a brick kiln. Kaliprasanna’s brother Ullu bought a motorbike. Amulya actually came to own a husking mill and rice-husking machines. With all the smoke from the coal and smell of diesel and petrol, our village turned all modern.
Our father wasn’t in the least affected by any of this. He only had eyes for the persistent gleam of Borobil! Borobil, Borobil. Laughing, singing, dancing.
Rubbing his eyes in the coal smoke one fine day, Baba saw from a distance white storks sitting in Borobil. He rubbed his eyes thoroughly again and saw – they were storks all right! Numerous white storks! Seated greedily on the edges of the paddy for some fish, perhaps.
But when he went close – no storks anywhere! Some forty to fifty cows had entered Borobil and were unconcernedly chewing away at the crop. Buried upto their stomachs in the crop, the cows showed us only their backs. From a distance they could be mistaken for white storks.
Stunned, bewildered. Initially our father could form no idea of what he should do under the circumstances. There had been no disease or pestilence and yet, we had nearly half the crops tucked away in the tummies of these speechless beasts.
Left with no other option, our father went into the field with his whip and hit the cattle to drive them away. And at that very moment Damodar or ‘Damu’, the herder of Hiralal’s family cattle who was all this while busy playing with his mates, descended on the scene like an evil portent.
He started to shout, all incensed –‘Why are you hitting them for just a little graze?’
The cows had ruined the entire paddy field. A little graze alright! In that state of extreme agitation, Baba now turned from the beasts to that king of beasts, the herder Damodar alias Damu, and began to flog him instead. Just his legs, not his body.
It doesn’t matter where the whip landed; no matter what my sisters said, our mother and I agree that at that moment, our ruin was set in motion. Plodding on the edges of the clay road, rubbing themselves against the bamboo fences by the road to shake off dust, sometimes climbing on each other’s backs, the cows returned home at twilight.
Bewildered and with the whip still in hand, our father followed them. He looked like one who had lost his all. Like a stork caught in a storm. He came into the house and slouched down in the courtyard.
Once she had heard all, our mother said –
‘You shouldn’t have done that.’
Like a half-wit, our father asked –
‘Whipped that boy.’
‘What do you mean? You expect me to sit still as they steal my bread?!’
‘So you must whip him for it?’
‘To save my share of bread, I am willing to even kill, if need be!’
As he kept flinging his whip on the floor, our father’s eyes turned bloodshot. Seeing our father in this terrible form, our mother fell quiet. She asked us to leave. Then, while walking away herself, she still called out –
‘Watch out! They are going to isolate you!’
This made our father quadruple his speed in flinging the whip, and he eventually smashed it. Then he cast the broken piece into the darkness at the rest of the village and used a good few cuss words –‘You’re going to isolate me, are you? Well then, try it!’
The evening rolled away. In observance of an evening ritual, flowers of the snake gourd and the spiny gourd blossomed as in a fizz. On any other day the five of us would be out in the courtyard on our cots, playing at riddles, counting the stars and joking away to glory.
Today an unspoken fear caused the broken lamp to spout endless amounts of dark smoke. We sat around it, not saying a word. In time, the messenger arrived to call for Baba – five notables from ten villages had gathered at Haribashar. Paan and beedi have been arranged. You are being summoned there, come.
No sooner had he heard the call than our father started to follow the messenger. Tall, lean. Dense curly hair all over his head. ‘Baghjugni poka’, or fireflies, swarmed around his head. Baba didn’t want it that way, but it was my two sisters and I, not Ma, who accompanied him.
Haribashar was chock-a-block with people. There were people from the local village council, too. Within minutes of reaching there, I again realised just how poor we were! That’s because both my sisters were slinking up to young men in the crowd and pleasing them in different ways and pleading on our father’s behalf, so that they would speak in his favour.
The trial began and ended in a matter of minutes. To start with, Damodar alias Damu walked up in tears to show everyone his legs. The scars from the lashes could actually be seen from his knees all the way down to his feet. Each scar stood out like the stripes on a catfish. The legs had bloated up.
Even we shuddered at what we saw. The judge-notables also said –
‘It wasn’t right of you to hit him so, Girish!’
Girish, as in our father Girishchandra. He systematically argued in favour of defending the properties and rights of small and poor farmers. He neither bent nor budged. He said there was nothing wrong with what he had done. And for good measure, he sought compensation for the destruction of his crop.
‘Not so fast, Girish. You would have received compensation if you hadn’t taken up the whip. Hira’s father Srinivas would have had to shell it out. Given the facts and being fully conscious of them, the five notables from ten villages rule that –
’‘A fine of ten thousand rupees. To be ‘isolated’ if unpaid.’
We are very poor. We just don’t have the money for my father to take all that cash for the fine and throw it at the notables’ faces! So all he could do was to growl a good deal before them and say that forget ten thousand rupees, he wouldn’t spare even ten paise for them!
As a result we got ‘isolated’. In other words, we were barred from accessing the services of the washerman and the barber, from sharing a smoke, from approaching the river ghat – from everything. All this time I hadn’t the foggiest notion what being ‘isolated’ meant. But my two sisters wept rivers the moment they heard it. Ma fell unconscious, Baba walked off with a ‘Let it be’ to I know not where at that late hour!
Being ‘isolated’ felt no different that night. The moonlight was flooding our courtyard as abundantly as anybody else’s. The shadow of our neighbour’s house also fell upon our little farm. But, the next morning we felt in our very bones what it was to be ‘isolated’.
We never had a constructed latrine. Morning or evening, we would always have to go out into the fields. Save our own Borobil and the house, there weren’t any fields to go to! All the rest belongs to someone or the other. Unable to squat there, we now had to go far, far away, past the boundaries of the village. Where elephants rambled. It was still alright in the daytime, but at night? The men were fine, but what of the women? My mother and sisters had to suffer a lot. This wasn’t a matter of one or two days, it was to go on day after day! Nobody knew for how long! Asking would not elicit an answer, Baba seemed imperturbable.
Going to the fields was still alright. But where was the fire for lighting the stove? Without the stove being lit, how were we to cook or eat? There had been days when I brought scalding fire on our rice-serving spoon from Bakhul’s Gyan uncle or Rabhan uncle’s place, on Ma’s instructions. Today I was refused, and tears came to my eyes. When he learnt of it, Baba threw at us a box of matches, which had just three matchsticks! Our mother managed to invent a way of keeping the flame in the stove alive with just those three matchsticks. For that you needed lots and lots of wood. Every now and then I would see Ma throw a piece of wood into the fire and then blow at it through a bamboo log. Her eyes would turn bloodshot in no time.
Fire we got, but what about water? Two government wells stood at the two ends of our village. The two sisters headed in two directions. Forget raising water, the villagers didn’t even let them touch the parapet! Baba lost his temper at the sight of the unsuccessful sisters. Why go after wells, he said. Why can’t you go to the waterfall? Waterfall? But that was a long way off, past the village lands! And yet our sisters started waltzing off to the waterfall at dawn and at dusk, every now and then. Sensing trouble, one day my mother grabbed one of them by the hair right in front of my father and then – That sister spent an entire day weeping with her head on my shoulder and retching loudly every once in a while.
And it isn’t enough to have fire and water for a household. Doesn’t one have to go to the market? To the forest to fetch firewood? All the forest that stood within the village limits apparently belonged to the village council! Off limits for us, as a result. The twigs that Ma and the sisters foraged for fuel from the surrounding woods also ceased to come in. Our father set out for the market on the other side of the river, all decked up, to buy salt and cooking oil. He had to return from the ghaat itself, crestfallen. The ferry port, over which the village council held auction rights, would not let us step on a boat. We began to eat rice without salt, oil or condiments.
While doing this and that, our mother abruptly collapsed to the floor with her head in her hands. “I can’t take it anymore!” she said. The sisters immediately rushed and clung to her as they cried. I kept gaping at Baba’s face. In the absence of the barber, his hair and beard were growing wildly. I ran my fingers through my hair to catch his eye. Ma suddenly lashed out in a flash of fury –
‘You’ve got neither plow nor tiller! Do you really think anybody will rent those things to you to till that land?’
Only now did Baba’s lips part!
Only now did tears stream out of his eyes!
A few days later Baba returned from somewhere, feet all dusty, to declare –
‘I sold off the land.’
Startled, Ma grasped a stumbling Baba.
‘It wasn’t even registered. What do you mean you sold it?’ she asked.
Baba untied the edge of his dhoti to reveal a stack of notes –
‘That’s what I went to the Chhatinasol registry office for today.’
For a while there was silence all around. Everybody stayed mum. In all these days no bird had ever perched on the roof of our house. All of a sudden a crow was heard to caw. One first, and then another. Baba said –
‘Pack everything! Do not shilly-shally. We leave the village tonight.’
No sooner had they heard this than my sisters began to sob and snivel. But our mother was stunned. How many times did I call! Not a word. It was the same with Baba. ‘Baba, o Baba!’ Without responding, he walked off to somewhere, stamping his feet as he went.
We finished packing. On the other side of the dry lands, the sun bopped off. Flowers of the silk squash and the sweet gourd fizzed forth in householders’ fields and on the roofs of their homes. All we had to do now was wait and wait – for the night to deepen, for the rest of the village to fall asleep. Only then could we commence our journey, away from all eyes.
Our mother wrapped the end of her saree around her neck to offer worship to something. At the end of it she prostrated herself on the ground and touched the floor with her head before standing up. My sisters and I followed suit. But our father remained unaffected, stubborn and unyielding as ever.
The moonlight was fine, papery. As she stood in the courtyard, Ma unfurled the edge of her saree from her neck and uttered –
‘Who do we owe anything to?! Why should we hide? Come, let’s just leave.’
The night had deepened, but it was yet some time for midnight. We set out with our bags and bundles. Not a soul on the deserted dirt tracks of the village. The drone of the cicadas was all one could hear. A slobbery dog appeared from nowhere and joined us. We went from five to six.
As soon as we had set foot outside the village, Baba said –
‘There’ll never be another chance to see my Borobil. Let me take one last look at it!’
We had been walking straight, we now turned left. There, there was our Borobil! Except that it was ours no more! Nonetheless, Baba almost scampered towards it. We followed him. And what a sight we saw! The green saplings spread across the field’s expanse were glistening and gliding in the paper-fine moonlight. The bits that had been devoured by the cows seemed to have given way to an even thicker outgrowth of vegetation. Our mother whispered –‘The grains are forming after fertilisation! Milk is accumulating in the crop!’
Baba was sitting with his arms wrapped around the paddy crop. He now flopped flat on to the ground, his body stretched out. We thought Baba was listening to the Borobil’s song. There, you could hear the Borobil soil keeping time – ‘Dhin-tere-kete-dhin — na…tere kete dhin — na —’
Ma was sitting with Baba and the paddy crop wrapped in her embrace. The dog was loitering around. All we had was three-and-a-half cottahs of land. Even that’s gone now. I was only starting to realise how poor we were now! Ma said –
‘We’ll have to stay here until the break of dawn.’
We don’t quite know what happened to Baba. We don’t. Our mother knows everything.
aman – one of the three annual rice crops harvested in West Bengal, sown in June-July and harvested in November-December.
boro – another of the three rice crops, sown in December-January and harvested in May-June.
Nalini Bera, based in Howrah, West Bengal, has been writing about Bengal’s marginalised peoples for the last four decades, with over two dozen novels and hundreds of short stories to his credit. He won the Ananda Puraskar in 2019 for his novel Subarnarenu Subarnarekha.
Shritama Bose is a financial journalist based in Mumbai. She has an undergraduate degree in English from the erstwhile Presidency College, Kolkata.