மாணிக் பந்தோபாத்யாய்: ப்ரகோஇதிஹாசிக்

ப்ரகோஇதிஹாசிக் என்பதை இதிகாசத்துக்கு முந்தைய என்று மொழிபெயர்க்கலாம். உண்மையில் “கல்தோன்றி மண்தோன்றா காலத்து” என்பதுதான் இன்னும் பொருத்தமாக இருக்கும். ஆங்கிலத்தில் primeaval என்று சொல்லலாம்.

இந்தச் சிறுகதையை படிக்கும்போது எனக்கு 21-22 வயது இருக்கலாம். கரக்பூரில் விடுதி நூலகத்தில் எடுத்துப் படித்த புத்தகம். கதை என்னைத் தாக்கியது. வாழவேண்டும் என்ற வெறி கதையின் ஒவ்வொரு வரியிலும் ததும்பி நிற்கும். படித்துவிட்டு ஒரு அரை மணி நேரமாவது சும்மாவே உட்கார்ந்திருந்தேன். The story throbs with life என்ற ஒரு எண்ணத்தைப் பகிர்ந்து கொண்டதுதான் மலையாளி ஸ்ரீகுமார், கன்னடிகா ஹர்ஷா, தெலுங்கன் முகம்மது ஜாமா கல்லூரிக் காலத்தில் உயிர் நண்பர்களாக மாறியதின் தொடக்கம் என்று நினைவு.

மாணிக் பந்தோபாத்யாய் முக்கியமான வங்காள எழுத்தாளர். இந்தக் கதையை 1937-இல் எழுதினார். புர்பாஷா என்ற பத்திரிகையில் வெளிவந்ததாம்.

மா. பந்தோபாத்யாய் எழுதிய கதைகளில் இதுவே மிகப் பிரபலமானதாம்; அவருக்கு பெரும்புகழ் பெற்றுத் தந்ததாம்; நிறைய மொழிபெயர்க்கப்பட்டதாம்.

கதை இன்றைய பங்களாதேஷில் சுந்தர்பன் காடுகளில் நடப்பதாக எழுதப்பட்டிருக்கிறது. சிறு வயதில் மா. பந்தோபாத்யாய் இந்தப் பகுதிகளில் நிறைய சுற்றி இருக்கிறார், விவசாயக் கூலிகள், நெசவாளர்கள், மீனவர்கள், படகு ஓட்டுபவர்கள் போன்ற பலதரப்பட்ட உழைக்கும் மக்களோடு பழகி இருக்கிறார். அவர்கள் எத்தனை சுலபமாக குற்ற வாழ்க்கைக்கு தள்ளப்படுகிறார்கள் என்பதை நேரடியாகக் கண்டிருக்கிறார். குறிப்பாக “கீழ்ஜாதியினரான” பாக்டிக்கள். இவர்கள் அன்றைய மிராசுதார்களின் அடியாட்களாக வாழ்ந்திருக்கிறார்கள். அந்த நிலையிலிருந்து கொள்ளை, கொலை என்று வாழ்வது வெகு தூரமில்லை. பிச்சை எடுப்பதற்கும் வெகு தூரமில்லை.

அன்றைய வங்காள இலக்கியம் மேல்தட்டு, மத்திய தர வர்க்க பின்புலத்தில்தான் எழுதப்பட்டதாம். “கீழ்ஜாதியினர்”, முஸ்லிம்கள்தான் பெருமளவில் ஏழைகள், அவர்களைப் பற்றி எழுதப்படுவதே அபூர்வமாம். அந்தச் சூழலில் இந்தச் சிறுகதை ஒரு இடி போல இறங்கியதாம்.

என்ன கதை? பிக்கு கொள்ளையன், கொலை செய்யத் தயங்காதவன். ஒரு கொள்ளையின்போது ஈட்டி குத்தில் அவன் தோளில் பெரிய காயம். போலீஸ் அவனைத் தேடுகிறது. நண்பன் பெஹ்லாத் பாக்டி அவனை காட்டில் ஒரு குடிசையில் ரகசியமாக்க் குடி வைக்கிறான், அவ்வப்போது உணவு கொண்டுவந்து தருகிறான். கடும் காய்ச்சல் ஏற்படுகிறது. பெஹ்லாத் வேறு வழியில்லாமல் வீட்டுக்கு அழைத்துச் செல்கிறான். பிக்கு உயிருக்குப் போராடுகிறான், ஒரு மாதம் கழித்து கை சூம்பிப் போய் ஒற்றைக்கையனாகி விடுகிறான். ஆனால் பிழைத்துவிடுகிறான். நண்பன் இல்லாத நேரத்தில் அவன் மனைவியை கற்பழிக்க முயல்கிறான், ஒற்றைக்கையனிடமிருந்து அவள் தப்பிவிடுகிறாள். பெஹ்லாதும் இன்னொருவனும் பிக்குவை அடித்து விரட்டுகிறார்கள். ஊரை விட்டுப் போவதற்குள் பெஹ்லாதின் குடிசை பற்றி எரிகிறது.

வேறு ஊருக்கு செல்லும் பிக்கு பிச்சை எடுக்க ஆரம்பிக்கிறான். சூம்பிய கையைப் பார்த்து பிச்சை போடுகிறார்கள். பழைய சாகசங்களை – அடிக்கும்போது ஏற்படுத்திய பயம், திருடிய நகைகள், கடத்தி வந்த பெண்கள், கூட்டாளியின் மனைவியோடு ஓடியது என்று பல – நினைத்து வருந்துகிறான். கால் புண்ணிலிருந்து சீழ் சதா வடியும் பஞ்சி என்ற ஒரு பிச்சைக்காரியைப் பார்க்கிறான். அது குணப்படுத்த முடியாததா, குணபப்டுத்தினால் என்னுடன் வாழலாமே என்று கேட்கிறான். அந்தப் புண்தான் என் மூலதனம், குணப்படுத்திவிட்டால் யார் பிச்சை போடுவார்கள் என்று அவள் பதில் கேள்வி கேட்கிறாள். பிக்குவுக்கு புண் உறுத்துகிறது, போய்விடுகிறான். ஆனால் சில நாட்களுக்கப்புறம் புண் இருந்தால் பரவாயில்லை, வா என்று அழைக்கிறான். அவளோ போடா மயிராண்டி, நான் ஒரு நொண்டிப் பிச்சைக்காரனுடன் வாழ்ந்து கொண்டிருக்கிறேன் என்கிறாள். நொண்டியை இவனால் எதுவும் செய்யமுடியவில்லை.

பிக்கு பழகிய பிச்சைக்காரனாகிக் கொண்டிருக்கிறான், அவன் ஒற்றைக்கையனாக இருப்பது கவனத்தை இப்போதெல்லாம் ஈர்ப்பதில்லை, வருமானம் குறைந்து கொண்டிருக்கிறது. சமயம் பார்த்து ஒரு இரவில் தூங்கும் நொண்டியை தன் ஒற்றைக் கையாலேயே கொன்று அவன் பணத்தைத் திருடிக் கொள்கிறான். பஞ்சியை அழைத்துக் கொண்டு வேறு ஊருக்கு கிளம்புகிறான். பஞ்சி நடக்க கஷ்டப்படுகிறாள். பஞ்சியைத் தன் முதுகில் ஏற்றிக் கொண்டு பிக்கு நடக்கிறான். கல்தோன்றி மண்தோன்றாக் காலத்திலிருந்து எல்லா உயிர்களிலும் கொழுந்துவிட்டெரியும் உயிரின் ஆசை, இருள் அவர்கள் இருவரிலும் அணையவே போவதில்லை.

பிக்குவின் ஒவ்வொரு செயலிலும் தெரிவது விலங்குத்தனம். சமூகத்தின் நியதிகள், நீதி, நியாயம் இவை எல்லாம் அவனுக்குத் தேவை இல்லாத கருத்துக்கள். அப்படி ஏதாவது இருக்கலாம் என்று கூட அவனுக்குத் தோன்றுவதில்லை. தான் வாழ வேண்டும், தன் விருப்பங்கள் நிறைவேற வேண்டும், அவ்வளவுதான். மாசு மறுவற்ற விலங்கு. ஆதிமனிதன். ராமன் இல்லைதான், ராவணனும் இல்லை. எந்தவிதமான வருத்தமும் (regret) கிடையாது. ஒரு விதத்தில் கர்மயோகி. நியாயம் அநியாயம் என்றெல்லாம் யோசிக்காத குருக்ஷேத்திரக் கிருஷ்ணனின் மறுவடிவம். வாழ்க்கையின் உன்னதத்தை நெறிகளே அற்ற ஒரு மனிதனின் பாத்திரப் படைப்பு மூலம் வெளிப்படுத்திவிடுகிறார்.

இதற்கு ஓரளவு சமமாக சொல்லக் கூடிய நாவல் நிழல் முற்றம். எத்தனை கீழ்மையும் குரூரமும் இருந்தாலும் இவ்வளவு குரூரமான, வாழ்க்கையைப் பற்றி எந்த நம்பிக்கையும் உருவாக முடியாத நிலையிலும் வாழ்வதில்தான் பொருளிருக்கிறது என்று சொல்லும் நாவல்.

ஆங்கில மொழிபெயர்ப்பு கீழே. கட்டாயம் படியுங்கள் என்று பரிந்துரைக்கிறேன்.


Pragoitihasik (Prehistoric)

Manik Bandyopadhyay, 1937
Translated by Nandita Datta

The entire monsoon had been terrible for Bhikhu. The whole gang had been caught when they had gone to rob Baikuntha Saha’s business house at Basantapur in mid-June. Of the eleven, Bhikhu alone had been able to run away after a spear had pierced his shoulder. Running through the night he had reached the bridge with the broken headstone ten miles away and had hidden through the day in the thick growth of bulrushes with half his body down in the mud. At night, walking eighteen more miles, he went straight to Pehlad Bagdi’s house in Chitalpur.

Pehlad had not given him shelter.

Pointing at the shoulder, he had said, “That sore’s not an easy one, mate. That’ll rot. The body will swell. When they come to know, where’ll I be? If you hadn’t murdered…”

“I’ve a mind to murder you, Pehlad.”

“Not in this birth, mate.”

The forest was near – about five miles to the north. Bhikhu had no alternative but to take shelter there. Pehlad himself cut bamboos and built him a raised platform in the thick overgrowth of sinjuri trees in an inaccessible part of the forest. He even made a shade of palm leaves over it.

“The tigers have all moved to the hill-top. If the snakes don’t bite you, this’ll be comfortable enough, Bhikhu,” he said.

“What shall I eat?”

“Why, what about the pressed rice and jaggery I’ve given you? I’ll bring some rice every two days. People will grow suspicious if I come every day.”

Pehlad left after bandaging his shoulder with herbs and assuring him of coming again. Bhikhu had fever that he realized the next day how right Pehlad had been; the wound in his shoulder had turned septic. His right arm was terribly swollen, and he had lost the power to move that arm.

In that condition, drenched in the rain, braving insects, pulling out a leech from some part of his body by the hour, panting with fever and the pain of the wound, Bhikhu spent two days and two nights on that narrow platform in a forest which even tigers shun during the rains. He was drenched when the rainwater came pelting down at a slant. When the sun shone, he gasped for breath in the intense, almost palpable humidity. He did not find a moment’s respite from the tyranny of the insects. Pehlad had given him a few bidis. He had smoked them all. There was no jaggery left, but the red ants that had come swarming for it were still crowding the platform. Bhikhu alone was feeling the sting of their frustration all over his body.

Wishing Pehlad’s death, Bhikhu yet fought for his life with all his might. Right in the morning of the day when Pehlad was supposed to come, even his water pot went empty. Waiting. for Pehlad till the afternoon and unable to bear his thirst any longer. he took the water pot to the narrow stream some way down and having filled it climbed back to the platform again; his suffering then cannot be described in words. When he was blind with hunger, he chewed some pressed rice to fill his stomach. He crushed the ants continously between the fingers of his one good hand. Catching hold of leeches. he himself pressed them round his wound so that they might suck the poison out. At one point, seeing a green snake peeping near his head, he sat with a stick in his hand for two whole hours looking in that direction and after that, for an interval of an hour or two, he kept on noisily beating the bushes around with the stick and made as much noise as he could with his mouth to scare the snake away.

He would not die. lie would never die. In such condition, a wild animal cannot live; but he – a human being – he would certainly live.

Pehlad had gone to a distant relative’s house in another village. He did not come even the next day. At the wedding festivities in his relation’s house he had drunk a great deal of toddy and was lying in a stupor. In the three days that he spent there, not once did he think how Bhikhu’s days and nights were passing in the forest.

In the meantime, gangrene had set in into Bhikhu’s wound and a reddish ooze had started trickling out. His body had also slightly swollen. His fever had gone down a little, but the unbearable, suffocating pain all through his body had overcome Bhikhu and thrown him into a torpor exactly like the intoxication of toddy wine. He did not feel hunger and thirst any more. He did not even feel it when the leeches sucked his blood and, swelling like tender little palwals, fell down from his body themselves. Pushed suddenly by his foot the water pot fell down and broke. Wet in the rain inside the bundle, the pressed rice started rotting. Attracted by the reek of his wound, foxes hovered around below his platform.

Returning from his relation’s house and going towards the afternoon to find out how Bhikhu was, Pehlad solemnly shook his head at what he saw. He had brought with him a bowl of rice, a few small fried fish and a little cooked sag for Bhikhu. Sitting near Bhikhu till the evening, he himself finished them by and by. Then, returning home, he made a small step-ladder of bamboo and came back with Bharat, his brother-in-law.

Laying Bhikhu on the ladder, the two of them carried Bhikhu home. They made a bed of straw on the loft in Pehlad’s but and stretched Bhikhu on it.

And so strong was Bhikhu’s grip on life that with only this shelter, no medical treatment and almost no nursing to speak of, he hovered on the threshold of death for a month, till he gradually won a victory. But his right arm did not ever heal. It withered like the dead branch of a tree and turned inert and useless. At first he could, with great difficulty, move it ever so slightly, but in the end. even that was lost to him.

When the wound in his shoulder started healing, using his only arm, Bhikhu used to come down the bamboo ladder when outsider was present at home. And one evening he made a blunder.

Pehlad was not at home at the time. He had gone out with Bharat to drink toddy. His sister had gone to the river. Pehlad’s wife had come to the room to put her little son to bed. Seeing the look in Bhikhu’s eyes she was about to run off quickly – Bikhu caught hold of her arm.

But Pehlad’s wife was a Bagdi woman. It was not easy to overpower her with his left hand alone and in his weakened condition. Freeing her arm with a violent push, she left the room, hurling abuses. When Pehlad returned, she told him everything.

In his state of drunkenness Pehlad felt that it was his duty to make short shrift of this ungrateful wretch. After giving his wife a blow with the stout bamboo staff in his hand, he went to break Bhikhu’s head with it; then he realized, even in his intoxication, that however great a duty it might have been, it was a practical impossibility. In his left hand, Bhikhu was tightly holding forward his chopper. Therefore, instead of bloodshed, there was an exchange of obscenities between them.

At last Pehlad said, “I’ve had to spend seven rupees on you. Give me the money. Give it, and then get out of my house – get lost!”

Bhikhu said, “I had an armlet tied at my waist. You’ve pinched it. Return me my armlet first — then I’ll go.”

“Who knows anything of your armlet?”

“Give me back my armlet. Pehlad, if you don’t want trouble. This I’m telling you, if I don’t get my armlet. I’ll slit your throat open, same as I did to Saha-babu. Give me my armlet – I’ll go right now.” But Bhikhu did not get his armlet back. Bharat arrived in the middle of their quarrel. The two of them cornered Bhikhu. Weakened and crippled, Bhikhu could not do much more than get a bite at Pehlad’s armpit. Pehlad and his brother-in-law beat him half dead and turned him out of the house. Bhikhu’s healing wound opened and started bleeding; wiping the blood with his hand and panting with fatigue, he went away. Nobody could fathom where he went in the darkness of the night. But in the small hours, Pehlad’s home caught fire and created total chaos in the Bagdi locality.

Pehlad beat his forehead and kept. uttering, “Oh hell! Oh hell! The devil had come to my house. Oh hell!”

But the poor man dared not utter Bhikhu’s name for fear of the police.

The second phase of Bhikhu’s primitive, uncivilized life began that night. A river ran by the side of Chitalpur. After setting Pehlad’s house on fire, Bhikhu stole a fisherman’s boat and let it sail along the current. He did not have the strength to push the pole; holding a flat bamboo like a rudder, he somehow merely managed to steer the boat straight. So he was not able to sail far before daybreak.

Bhikhu had a fear that Pehlad would let his name out to avenge the burning of his homestead. In his anger he would not pay heed to his own danger. The police had long been looking for him. After the murder at Baikuntha Saha’s house, their efforts had been redoubled. If Pehlad turned informer the police would search the entire neighbourhood. It was dangerous for him to surface within the radius of twenty to thirty miles. But, by then, Bhikhu was desperate. He had had nothing to eat since the previous afternoon. His feeble body was still stiff with pain after the tremendous thrashing from two strong young men. At dawn he reached the landing stage of the sub-division town and tied his boat. He bathed, dipping again and again in the river, and washing the blood marks off his body, entered the town. He was faint with hunger. But he did not have a single pice on him to buy some puffed rice. He put out his hand to the first man he met in front of the market and said, “Please, babu, give me two pice.”

The gentleman looked at his thick, rough, matted, dusty hair, the mud-coloured dirty strip of torn cloth wound round his waist and the limply hanging arm as thin as a rope, and perhaps felt compassion. He gave him a pice.

Bhikhu said, “Just one, babu? Give me another.”

The gentleman got angry and said, “Give you one – and that wouldn’t do? Go – scram!”
For a second it seemed that Bhikhu would hurl a horrible abuse at him. But he controlled himself. Instead of abuses Bhikhu looked daggers at him with angry red eyes and then and then moving on to the adjacent shop, bought puffed rice with the pice and started swallowing it greedily.

That was his first lession in begging.

In a few days he had learned all the codes of the most exposed department of the oldest business in the world. He had mastered the gestures and language of his appeals as if he were a beggar by birth. Now he did not even clean himself. His hair was soon matted into clusters and many a family of lice kept increasing theri numbers in it. At times Bhikhu madly scratched his head with both his hands, but he was frightened to cut off his evergrowing hair. He had earned a torn coat from begging. He wore it in the muggiest of weater to hide the mark on his shoulder. The withered arm was the strongest advertisement he had when begging; he could not afford to cover up his limb. So he had torn the entire right sleeve of the coat from the shoulder. He had also got hold of a tin mug and a stick.

From morning till night he sat begging under a tamarind tree by the side of a road near the market. He breakfasted on a pice worth of puffed rice. At noon he entered a deserted garden a little further from the market. Under a banyan tree, he cooked rice in an earthenware pot on an improvised fire. In an earthenware bowl, he sometimes cooked small fish, sometimes vegetables. His stomach full, he leaned against the same banyan tree and pulled contentedly at a bidi. Then he again went and sat under the tamarind tree.

All day long he cried in a gasping whine, “Please, sir, one pice. God wil give you if you give me. Please, sir, one pice…”

Like many another ancient proverb, the shloka, “Nothing wi ever he gained by begging”, is really untrue. From a thousand to fifteen hundred persons passed Bhikhu throughout the day and on the average one person out of every fifty gave him one pice or a half pice coin. If the number of half pice was more, he earned five to six annas a day, but usually his income was nearer eight annas. The village market sat there twice a week. His income was never less than a whole rupee on market days.

The monsoon was over now. Both sides of the river were white with catkins. For eight annas a month Bhikhu had rented the broken shed attached to Binnu Majhi’s cottage. lie lay there at night. He had got hold of a dilapidated but thick blanket from a man who had died of malaria. He spread the hay that he stole from people’s houses, and then spread the blanket on top of it, and slept soundly. During his occasional forages for alms to householders in the town, he had been given some torn clothes. He rolled them up into a bundle and used it as a pillow. If at night there was a nip in the damp air rising from the river, he opened the bundle and wrapped himself up in a piece of clothing.

The life of ease and filling meals soon brought him back the health that he had once had. His chest expanded. The muscles on his arms and back started rippling with each movement of his limbs. The excitement of suppressed strength gradually made him an-ogant and impatient. He still begged, piteously reciting the jargon he was used to, but his anger knew no bounds if he was refused. If the street was deserted, he hurled an obscene abuse at the man who had refused him alms. If the shopkeeper did not give him an extra helping when he bought something for a pice, he was almost ready to beat him up. When the women went down to bathe in the river, he went and stood at the edge of the water, pretending to beg. If the women were alarmed, he was happy. if they asked him to go away, he did not budge but bared his teeth in an impertinent grin.

At night he was restless in the bed he had made himself.

He was becoming tired of this joyless life lacking the company of a woman. His mind yearned for his reckless action-packed past life.

In those days he would raise a real racket after drinking earthen cup after cup of toddy at the shop; he would walk into Basi’s room with unsteady steps and spend a drunken night there; and occasionally, at dead of night, they would go in a gang to a household and then creating a bloody havoc, they would loot the money and ornaments and disappear in the darkness. The indescribable expression on the face of the wife when her husband was bound and beaten up in front of her eyes, the wails of the mother when blood spurted out of her son’s body – what more exciting addiction was there than to watch that expression in the light of the flaming torches or to hear those moans and wails? It seemed he had heal happier then – even though because of the police he had to abscond from one village to another and hide in forests and jungles. Many of his gang had been caught and sent to prison many a time, but in all his life the police had not been able to get him more than once. That time, when with Rakhu Bagdi, he had abducted Sripati Biswas’s sister, he had been sentenced for seven years; but nobody had been able to keep him locked up for more than two years. One rainy evening he had scaled the walls of the jail. After that, all by himself, he had cut openings in fences and burgled households; he had clapped his hand over the mouths of young women alone at the waterside and robbed them of their bangles and the chains round their necks in broad daylight; stealing Rakhu’s wife from him he had run away with her to Noakhali, and from there, across the sea, on to Hatia. Six months later, he was back, having deserted Rakhu’s wife in Hatia, and then he had become the leader of three gangs in succession and had committed robberies in so many villages so far apart – he did not remember all their names. And then, only the other day, he had slit in two at a stroke of his chopper the neck of Baikuntha Saha’s second brother.

What a life that had been, and what it had come to now!

He, who had loved killing men, merely vented his frustration by sneering at the traveller who refused him alms. His physical strength was still at its peak; only the means of applying that strength was lost. In so many shops shopkeepers sat at dead of night, checking their balance sheets, with bundles of notes in front of them. In so many houses the men went abroad on work, leaving their women behind. And, instead of becoming rich in a night by merely bounding down in front of them with a sharp weapon in his hand, he lay quietly under Binnu Majhi’s shed.

Feeling his right arm in the darkness, Bhikhu’s regret knew no bounds. Among the innumerable cowards and weaklings on this earth, he, with his spirit and his strength, was yet a non-entity only for want of an arm! Did ever man meet such fate?

Yet he could hear this misfortune. Regret brought its own anodyne with it. But Bhikhu could no longer live alone.

Right at the entrance of the market sat a beggar woman. She was young. Her body was tight. But on one leg, right from under the knee to the foot, she had an oily, weeping sore.

It was this sore of hers that brought her more alms than Bhikhu.

That was the reason why she took such care for that sore not to heal.

Occasionally Bhikhu went and sat with her. “That sore – it won’t heal, will it?” he would say.

The beggar woman said, “Why not? Just a matter of putting medicines!”

Bhikhu eagerly said, “Then heal it. Put the medicine and heal it quick. You don’t have to beg once that sore’s healed – know that? I’ll keep you.”

“Who said I’d stay with you?”

“Why? Why won’t you stay? I’ll feed you, keep you in comfort, you won’t have to do a thing. Why do you say no?”

The beggar woman was no fool. She pushed some tobacco leaf into her mouth and said, “And then, after some time, when you drive me away, where shall I get this sore from?”

Bhikhu promised to remain faithful till death. He tried to entice her with rosy pictures of happiness. The beggar woman would not bend. Bhikhu left disappointed.

The moon rose in the sky. The tides flowed in the river. There was a hint of abandon in the bracing air of winter. The clusters of bananas growing in the banana orchard beside Bhikhu’s shed were gone. With the money earned from the bananas, Binnu Majhi bought his wife a silver waistband. The ferment in the Palmyra juice gradually strengthened and deepened. Bhikhu’s repulsion evaporated in the heat of desire. He seemed unable to control himself any longer.

Waking up one morning, he went straight to the beggar woman. “Well, then, come along. Come with your sore and all,” he said.

The beggar woman said, “Couldn’t you come earlier? Go to hell now. Go and eat cinder from the brazier.”

“Why? What’s all this about eating cinder?”

“You thought I was pining for you? High hopes! I’m living with him there.”

Looking that way Bhikhu saw that a bearded beggar, lame, and even as young as he, had found a place for himself at some distance. Like his own right arm, this man’s leg had withered from the knee downwards. Spreading it in front very carefully, he was calling upon Allah to attract the compassion of all around.

A short wooden leg lay by his side.

The beggar woman said again, “Don’t you dare sit down! Move on, run! I tell you he’ll kill you if he gets an inkling.”

Bhikhu said, “Oh, beat it, every bastard talks of killing! I can kill ten like him single-handed – keep that in mind.”

The beggar woman said, “If that is so, go and dare him. What are you doing here with me?”

“Give him up. Come to me.”

“Oh my darling! Have a fag! My sore had put you off – why should 1 have anything to do with you, you scum? Why should I give him up? Do you earn like him? Do you have a room? Be off, or else I’ll raise hell.”

Bhikhu retreated for the time being, but he did not give up. He came and stood near the beggar woman whenever he found her alone. Making an effort at intimacy he asked, “So what’s your name?”

So devoid were they of identity that they had not even thought it necessary till now to ask each other’s names.

The beggar woman grinned showing her black teeth.

“After me again? Go to that hag there.” Bhikhu squatted down near her. Since many people gave rice instead of money, Bhikhu had now taken to slinging a bag from his shoulder. He took out a big plump banana from his bag and said, “Here, eat it. I stole it for you.”

The beggar woman at once peeled her lover’s gift and gobbled it up. Pleased, she said, “Want to hear my name? Panchi they call me – Panchi. You’ve given me a banana, I’ve told you my name. Now get going.”

Bhikhu did not show any sign of budging. It was not for the mere luxury of hearing her name that he had made an offering of a big banana like that. He squatted on the dust as long as he could and exchanged pleasantries with Panchi. Unless one could go down to their level, one would never know that these were pleasantries indeed. It would seem that they were abusing each other. Panchi’s man was Bashir. One day he even tried to strike an acquaintance with him.

“Salam, mian.”

Bashir said. “What are you up to? Why do you keep coming this way? Salam mian, indeed! I’ll crush your skull with one blow of the stick.”

This was followed by a verbal war of the coarsest kind. They did not come to blows for Bhikhu had a stick in his hand and Bashir carried a stone.

Before he returned to his tamarind tree, Bhikhu said, “Wait, I’ll do you in.”

Bashir said to Panchi, “I’ll kill you, by Allah, if you talk to him again.”

Bhikhu’s income fell at this time. New travellers did not travel down the same road every day. In two months’ time the number of newcomers lessened in proportion to the number of regulars. Many of those who had given alms to Bhikhu once did not feel he need to help him a second time. There is no dearth of beggars in the world.

Bhikhu could barely make ends meet. Except on market days he could not save a pice from his income. Worries beset him.

Living under an open shed would be difficult in winter. He needed walls of some kind round him, wherever that might be. No young beggar woman would consent to live with him unless she had a proper shelter and two meals a day. And yet, if his income fell the way it was falling, he would perhaps not be able to provide his own self with square meals in the winter.

He would have to raise his income by hook or by crook.

He could not think of any means of increasing his income as long as he stayed here. lie had no means of taking to burglary : he had no means of turning into a labourer; it was impossible to snatch away money unless he committed a murder. He had no wish to go away from this town leaving Panchi behind. Bhikhu’s heart rebelled against his own fate. The happy family life of Binnu Majhi righ next to his shed caused him to burn with envy. Sometimes the desire to set Binnu’s house on fire gave him no rest. Wandering by the riverside like a madman he sometimes thought that he would find no peace till he had killed all the males, owned all the food an all the women in this world.

Bhikhu spent some more time in such torment. Then, one night, putting all his valuables in the bag and tightly tying all his savings in the inner end of his dhoti, Bhikhu came out of his shed. He had one day picked up an iron rod about a cubit long by the side of the river. Rubbing it against a stone in his leisure time, he had made one end of it sharp and pointed. He put this weapon in his bag too.

In the darkness of the new moon the stars were glittering all over the sky. There was silence and calm on God’s earth. Having come out after long years to prowl in the deserted world of midnight with a terrible plan in his mind. Bhikhu suddenly felt an unspeakable joy. He suddenly muttered to himself, “If only God had taken the left and spared the right!”

Walking down the riverside for half a mile, he entered the town through a narrow path. Keeping the market to his left he wandered through the narrow lanes and by-lanes of the sleeping town till he reached the other end. It was here that the metalled road to the town left it behind. After going by a different route for about two miles, the river then turned and flowed a mile or so alongside this road before changing its course again to the south.

Up to a certain distance a few isolated houses could be found on either side of the road. After that there were paddy fields and occasional plots of fallow land covered with undergrowth. It was by the side of such a cluster of bushes that some wretched people have cleared some space and had erected a few hovels. One of those hovels belonged to Bashi. Waking up at dawn each day he clattered off on his wooden leg to beg in the town and returned in the evening. Panchi set dry leaves on fire and cooked rice. Bashir smoked his hokah. At night, Panchi wrapped strips of cloth round her sore. Lying side by side on a bamboo cot and conversing in their sharp filty language, they fell asleep. A rancid rotten stink rose from their nest, their bed and their bodies, and emerging through the holes of the thatched roo, mingled in the air outside.

Bashir snored in his sleep. Panchi muttered in an undertone.

Bhikhu had followed them one day and marked their hovel. Now in the darkness, he carefully went to the back of the room, and putting his ear to the bamboo wall, stoof for a while in the clumps ofyam. Then he came round to the front of the roo. In the beggars’ hovesl Panchi had merely closed the door without bolting it from inside. Stealthilymoving the loose door to one side, Bhikhu took the rod out of his bag and clutched it tihtly. He entered the room. There was starlight outside but in the roo even that meagre ligt was lacking. He did not have the extra hand to light matches. Standing in the room Bhikhu calculated that it would not be possible in the darkness to estimate the position of Bashir’s heart. if the left-handed blow did not find its mark, Bashir would have the time to raise a hue and cry. That would be terribly inconvenient.

Pondering for a few moments and moving towards Bashir’s head, at one go he pushed the sharp end of the rod about two inches into the crown. There was no way of knowing in the darkness whether or not the blow had been fatal. Bhikhu thus could not feel assured even after knowing that the rod had gone into the head. With all his might he clutched Bashir’s throat with his one hand.

“Silence! One sound and I’ll finish you off too,” he told Panchi.

Panchi did not shout; she only whimpered in terror.

Then Bhikhu told her again “No noise! Silence, if you care for you life!”

When Bashir’s body became inert, Bhikhu removed his hand from his throat.

He paused to regain his breath and then said “Light the lamp, Panchi.”

When Panchi lit the lamp, Bhikhu looked at his handiwork with deep satisfaction. His pride knew no bounds for having finished a strong man like that wih his one and only arm. Turning to Panchi, he said, “Look! See who brushes off whom! I pleaded with him again and again, Mianhhai, you can’t overshoot the mark,give up the idea. Mianbhai was piqued. Says, I’ll bash your head in! Have it your own way — hash my head in, Miiinbhai.” Bowing in great sarcasm near Bashir’s corpse, Bhikhu bobbed his head this way and that and roared with laughter. Suddenly enraged, he said, “Why has madam lost her speech? Come on, talk, you slut – Shall I do you in too – what?”

Trembling, Panchi said, “What will you do now?”

“See what I do! Where does he keep all his savings – tell me that first.”

Panchi had discovered with great trouble the place where Bashir hid his money. At first she pretended ignorance. But her resistance gave way as soon as Bhikhu stood over her and clutched her hair.

The amount Bashir had saved in his entire life was not very small. It came to more than a hundred rupees in rupee and eight anna coins. In the past Bhikhu had earned much more than this after having killed a man. Yet he was pleased. He said, “Make a bundle of whatever you want to take with you, Panchi. Then let’s start while the night’s still deep. The crescent moon will rise in in a little while. We’ll be able to see our way from here”

Panchi tied her bundle. Then taking hold of Bhikhu’s hand she limped out of the house and on to the road. Looking at the eastern sky, Bhikhu said, “The moon will rise in no time, Panchi.”

“Where are we going? Panchi asked.

“To the district town. I’ll steal a boat from the landing. We’ll hide in the rushes opposite Chiptipur in the daytime. Then at night — straight to the district town. Now, put on speed, Panchi, we’ll have to walk two miles.”

Panchi was finding it difficult to walk with her sore leg. After a while Bhikhu suddenly stopped still. “Does the leg hurt a lot, Panchi?”

“Yes, it hurts.”

“Shall I take you on my back?”

“But how can you do it?”

“I can. Come.”

Cling to Bhikhu’s neck, Panchi hung on to his back. Bent in front with the weight of her body, Bhikhu took to the road with long strides. The paddy fields on both sides of the road lay languorous in the hazy light. The thin crescent moon came up in the sky from behind the trees of the distant village. There was silence and calm on God’s earth.

There is perhaps a history of that moon and this earth. But the inherited continuum of darkness that Bhikhu and Panchi had gathered from their mothers’ wombs, that had been stowed away in their bodies when they came to this earth, the darkness that they would leave hidden inside the fleshly contours of their own children — that darkness is prehistoric. The light of the earth has not been able to reach it till this day — it will never be able to do so.

தொகுக்கப்பட்ட பக்கம்: இந்தியப் புனைவுகள்