Swastyayan Shreyam | April 2022
The shiny dark brown, about three and a half feet tall, slim human figure comes running urgently, as if almost being chased by a scolding. The black, trimmed hair on his head is wet, probably from sweat. His somewhat lesser brown cheeks are noticeably red and glossy and warm, and the eyelashes bordering two red, swollen eyes are beautifully glued in bunches as if strands of grass soaked in dew. Probably from tears.
Just before storming inside the small mud hut, the boy’s eyes meet his mother’s, for a brief moment. She is drying red chilies outside.
“What happened?” She asks the tall, stick-thin source of scolding chasing the seven-year-old boy.
The pair of ears attached to the two corners of the sweaty, red cheeks raises alert inside the house, listening carefully to the conversation outside. And examining and absorbing each expression in it.
“This boy is really hopeless, Ayesha. He howls looking at the corpse of a beheaded goat at the temple premises! I am telling you, he is not going to be of any help for us in the future. Such a girl!” The scolding becomes a frustrated complaint before finally turning into a hopeless regret of a father. A concerned father. A father worrying about his son’s future worth even in the moment of anger.
Perhaps, as sensory organs, the eyes and ears are somewhat codependent. Or, perhaps not. But the moment Nazm hears his father’s frustrated outburst, his already red, swollen eyes again get flooded with a bout of generous tears. And he can no longer hear the rest of the conversation. Or, probably it does not matter anymore.
He sobs and sobs until his bony chest layered with tender thin skin chokes for oxygen. His ears have lost contact with any auditory range already. In front of his very eyes, right at this moment, the tears form a huge red whirlpool of blood. And he witnesses himself drowning in the circling current of blood or tears, and he witnesses it with certain apathy. Perhaps this is the kind of apathy he should have shown towards the headless body of the goat in the temple premises. It was lying stiff, lifeless in a pool of blood. Just like him.
This is what guilt does to you – it digs a pit for you in a bottomless ground. And once you are inside the pit, all your identification with the outside world is lost. Including your breath. Including your ears or eyes, or touch. You just keep sliding in – irrespective of your will.
But nobody tells you these things when they need to be told the most. On top of that – Nazm is too young to be aware of any such thing. Until he learns.
Something soft and familiarly light, like a feather, blows a mild breeze on his right cheek, then touches his hair, and gently pulls him out of the whirlpool. Quite effortlessly, though he thought he drowned pretty deep! He opens his eyes, and still senses blood dripping from his body. Blood or sweat or tears – eventually it’s all the same thing.
“Go and feed Kaalu”, his mother says softly. Her fingers are still running in his hair, but her gaze is fixed towards the door. He closes his eyes again, without moving his body that is lying curled up on the floor like the head of a safety pin. Ah — this breeze is so soothing!
But she gets up, so does the breeze from his hair. So does he, reluctantly, following her towards the door. It is painfully scorching outside, as if a totally different world from the inside.
Kaalu comes running as Nazm sits on the edge of the small verandah. There is actually no need to feed Kaalu per se – displaying the characteristics of a perfect goat, it keeps chewing something or the other all day long. But while coming back from the paddy fields, Nazm usually gets one or two twigs from trees on the way and feeds the leaves to Kaalu sitting on the same spot in the verandah. More of a friendship ritual – he has no other friends anyway. There are children of his age in the village – or older and much older, or younger and much younger to him – but there are no friends. Perhaps because their lives are fundamentally different in ways he can see clearly – the houses they live in, the schools they go to, the things they play with. They go praying inside the temple with the family, Nazm has never entered the temple. Many times when he has walked through the temple premises with his mother or father, as that is the only way to the village pond, his eyes would glow in curiosity looking at the temple. So both his cautious parents have instructed him, very clearly, to keep his feet off the temple.
When the children go to the school, Nazm goes to the paddy field. Actually, a few, a very few, of the village children also go to the field with their elders, but they sit in a different group. Eat in a different group. Sometimes when they offer him food, it does not feel like a very spontaneous act. Feels generous. Feels courteous. But nothing sort of easy and simple like him sitting with Kaalu and feeding it.
And Kaalu does not have any other friends either. Poor guy – it doesn’t even get to go out of the house boundary. If it goes out and gets lost, someone or something might feast on it – his mother had told him. So, they keep it tied to a wooden post with a small rope.
With his slender, long hands, Nazm draws Kaalu closer and holds it close to his chest as if being tied with the same rope to each other, comfortably, and inevitably tight. The black, silky hair on its body is shining like a thousand spears in the sun. He runs his fingers through Kaalu’s black, shiny skin just like his mother does through his hair. This sunlight, this warmth is beautiful!
“So, what is it – we are not going to work there anymore? It was almost getting over. At least we can complete that and get the payment.”
Burying his head in Kaalu’s back hair, Nazm looks at his mother from the corner of his eyes. She is talking to his father. The father is sitting on a cleaned, neat portion of ground in front of the house, with his back to the verandah and to the mother. The mother is tossing and turning the sun-dried red chilies on an old, borrowed newspaper impatiently – something that Nazm has seen her doing for years now. The same kind of pale yellow, wrinkled surface lying obediently facing harsh sun, the same red slit skin shining like the seeds of a coral wood tree – the only exception to the scene being his mother’s demeanor today. There is an underlying urgency and helplessness in her face, in her voice, and in the way her fingers are moving through the dried chilies today – as if she is trying to sort burning pieces of coal with her hand.
There is no response from the father. He is sitting still, like a stone, with his back facing them. We don’t know if he can hear her talking to him. But then, he can’t turn deaf or into a stone all of a sudden, can he? The sun is pretty harsh, and it’s a summer afternoon. His lean back, dark brown and toned, is shining like it may peel off ablaze at any moment. Why is he sitting in the sun like that? Why is he not responding at all – has he really turned into a stone?
Perhaps he was going to sit like that till eternity. Or perhaps, he did sit like that till eternity, until eternity came to an end as the sun decided to hide its face under a dark excuse for the day. It is going to be a difficult – a difficult, silent, long night – something tells Nazm.
“Ma, are we not going to work in Krishnan uncle’s paddy field tomorrow?”
The house is sunken in silence. His mother is cooking vegetables for dinner with such utmost quiet that perhaps the bugs rounding the light bulb are making more noise by flapping their wings. Nazm asks the question to break the suffocation of the silence. But he understands, instinctively, that there is something much more grave at play than just stopping going to work.
It is dark outside, he wonders if his father is still sitting there, transformed into a stone.
“No, we are not going.”
“It got over.”
Got over? But she mentioned earlier that it was almost getting completed. Of course it did not get over. Then??
“Then whose field are we going to work in, tomorrow?”
Nazm tries to push, to see if he can get a reply that makes sense to him. A seven-year- old, but we all have our own ways of knowing things. Of finding things out. Ways of innocence, and ways not so innocent.
“No one’s…! Then the day after?”
Ayesha takes the pot off the stove and almost rams it on the floor. Perhaps the heat got to her fingers through the protective plastic coating. Or perhaps she wanted to convey a feeling. Perhaps she was hurrying to take a pause and then to explain something to Nazm, for Nazm wasn’t going to give up. Not without an answer, or a scolding that would shut him up.
Before we get to know which of these would have been his fate, Nazm’s father walks in and sits next to him. His mother lays the plates on the floor and starts serving dinner to all three of them. And they start eating, silently, listening to each-other’s chewing of food.
“We have to leave. How much money do we have?”
Nazm’s father continues eating, concentrating on the plate, as he throws the question at Nazm’s mother. As if he is not talking, but just chewing – chewing the words, or some thought.
“Where are we going to go?” She replies with a question. Her right hand stops moving on the plate, and there is no food in her mouth at this point. Nazm cannot make out if she has swallowed the portion of food she was eating, or it is stuck somewhere in her throat between the mouth and the stomach. Thankfully, he has already finished eating.
“We’ll see. Probably to (Bangla)Desh. Or probably to another state. If we don’t leave now, they are anyway going to chase us away. At least it is better to leave while we still have got food to eat.”
“But what happens to our house? And this is our home.”
“You can carry the house on your back, if you wish to. And by all means, I am willing to stay, all you have to do is to prove to each person in the village that our forefathers have been living in this land for years. Also prove that we are just like them, only from a different community. And, also that we are legal citizens of this country though we do not have a stamped document to prove this.”
At this point, the man gets quite irritated, and stands up to wash his hand. The lady keeps sitting, playing with the remaining food on the plate. Her face is down, eyes staring at the food. But looking into something deep, deep down through the plate – probably at the question of their future meals.
With time, things always start making sense. And emotions change. Perspectives change. People grow – no matter whether they want to. Life does not give you a choice when it comes to experiences.
His father’s anger earlier in the day is starting to make some sense now. Not that this was the first time he scolded Nazm for crying, or being weak. Many times he would ask him to toughen up – to plant the rice seedlings more firmly, to have a tighter grip on the sickle, or to quickly transfer the fishes from the fishing net to the bucket instead of staring at them as they go fishing in the village pond. His father is amongst the very few people who can get into the huge pond without any fear, so he is often asked by the villagers to fish for them. When his father walks home proudly with a good share of fishes and the fishing net on his shoulders, Nazm looks at him in awe.
And he thought he was never going to be able to fish like him – he did not want to. He never needed to. He looks at everything beautiful with the same awe. The fishes, the goats, the rice field gently dancing in the wind while the sun slowly rises up. The children who don’t play with him. The temple he can’t enter. The berries he’s not supposed to pluck. Everything.
But right now, the tall, lean shadow of the irritated, agitated man slides effortlessly in his mind and morphs into the image of the stone-turned man sitting in the afternoon sun. Underneath that stone cold silence of the toned brown back, he can see a thousand bruises fading in, one after another, like someone lashing incessantly with a leather whip. And he can see drops of blood springing in through the bruised skin like a disciplined caravan of red ants walking forward to go home. And he feels bad.
He feels bad for his father the way he feels bad for Kaalu for being tied up to a post all day. And he feels a sense of friendship towards him, for the first time, instead of fearful respect. And he wishes to be like him, and to be the way he wants him to be in order to help him.
Before falling asleep, Nazm asks his mother why they have to leave. She tells him a story, half of which she heard from others, half interpreted her own way. In that story, Nazm sees a lot of people – lots and lots of people crossing the border secretly from the neighboring country Bangladesh to land in different villages of the state he lives in. And then they settle down, make houses and family and children and grow further in number. Initially they work at other people’s farmlands, like his family does. Then they acquire lands. As they keep growing in number, they get into rivalry with the indigenous people for livelihood. They start to ask for equal rights and demand their language or beliefs to be implemented. Disputes take place between the indigenous people and them over land, rights, languages – gradually turning them hostile towards one another.
“Are we one of them?”
“No, we are not. Your grandfathers and great great grandfathers were born here, in this village.”
“Then why do we have to leave?”
“Because, after the Rahmans, we are the only family in this village which belongs to the same religion as those people. Actually…that has never been a problem. The problem is –,” she almost speaks in soliloquy, “now one has to have some papers to live in this country. If you don’t have those papers, that means you have come here from elsewhere and you will be asked to leave. The Rahman’s are wealthy, and they have their documents. So, they get to stay. But we don’t have any paper to prove that we are originally from here.”*
“Why don’t we have the papers?”
“Because we never needed them, until now. And none of us know how to read and write…”
Nazm wants to ask if they really have to leave, but he senses that his mother has no answer to that. So, he imagines walking out of the village, leaving everything forever. The green, muddy paddy fields. The whistles through the tall, slender trees in the summer afternoons. The dancing silver fishes in the pond. The shade in the verandah. The drops of dew from the roof. The cozy piece of floor they sleep on.
He imagines his father carrying the heavy bags they have packed up, and walking along as he waves goodbye at children he has known but has never played with. He imagines smiling at them while their eyes are filled with tears for him. And then he falls asleep, wrapped in the warmth of those imaginative tears.
When he wakes up, it is early morning. He wakes up hearing a cry – a shriek, and realizes that it is his mother’s. Startled, he runs towards the scream – out of the door that is flung open to find her sitting, actually half lying over someone’s body on the ground.
His heart sinks and for a few moments, he stands still. It is no secret whose body that can be. But if he moves closer and takes a look at it, there will be no denying. There will be nothing, nothing to protect him from the collapsing sky at that moment.
There are a few people scattered over the ground, around them. Someone comes and holds him by the shoulder, and takes him near his mother lying over the body. He can see the face now. His father’s. Of course!
His father looks like he is sleeping, without having to wake up for work in the morning. But Nazm knows he isn’t. He isn’t sleeping, he isn’t going to get up. It is weird – how can his father be lying like this, on the ground, surrounded by people? The one who scorns at displaying any weakness! And how can anything so grave happen all of a sudden, just between a moment of sleeping and waking up? Weird, weird.
Weird. The people gathered are talking about how it happened, or what might have happened. The man was found by someone in the village pond, floating, face down. He was dead when found.
How can he drown in the pond, the one who caught fishes in that pond all his life? Weird, weird – they say. And why would he go to the pond so early in the morning, without any business there? No one knows when he got up from the bed, and walked out of the house. No one – not even Nazm’s mother. Perhaps he did not want anyone to know.
Why would he drown himself? How would an expert swimmer drown himself? Nazm thinks and thinks in order to find an answer to the questions floating around him in whispers. Did he drown himself in the pond in the same way Nazm was drowned in that whirlpool of blood? What did it feel like – did it feel like getting numb to his own suffocations while watching his own self sliding away from everything? What is the pond looking like right now – is it red, with blood?
There was still a small pool of blood under the beheaded neck of the goat. Its brown body was healthy, well fed, without any other wound or injury. But it was stiff – even from far, looking at it, anyone could tell that it was stiff like dried timber. Even if the head would have been intact, Nazm would not have not mistaken it to be sleeping. Something from it was gone, something indescribable. Something you know when it is no longer present.
His eyes grew big at first, then he looked towards the commotion on the temple floor. There was a gathering, with people laughing and talking after a celebration. He did not see the celebration taking place, but he could feel it in the air. How strangely even invisible things leave marks in the air. Like a celebration getting over, like a life getting over. How easily you can sense it!
“The Baruahs offered a goat to the temple today. From now onwards, they are again included by the village community.”
Walking alongside, returning from the village pond, his father had told him.
Well, not something Nazm would care about. He knew the Baruahs, he had worked in their paddy field last year. Then the eldest Baruah boy brought home a girl from a different village, without getting married. According to the village custom, their family was outcasted until they performed a few rituals in the temple. It is a small village, everybody knows everybody.
Perhaps he knew the sacrificed goat also, in some way, without knowing its name. Perhaps something about it was familiar to him – maybe the helplessness with which its body was lying. Maybe the probable cry it made while being dragged to the temple. Maybe the innocence with which it walked with its owner to the temple just to be dead. Something felt familiar, though he could not point out what – because it created a small hole inside his lungs as he breathed looking at the body, and climbed up his throat till the corner of his eyes. And he could hear his father, stunned and irritated –
“What the hell are you crying for?”
And his walk gathered pace, then turned into a run. Being followed by a father who got angrier with each drop of tear he was shedding.
The last few drops of rain, like reminiscent of a time from another world, are still hanging from the roof. Nazm keeps staring at them, eyeing almost each drop hanging on the edge, as if he is trying to guess exactly at which moment which drop will fall. It is still a solace, to feel that there are things you can predict. Even if crazy, meaningless stuff, like the falling of a drop of water.
It has just been three days since his father passed away, but their eyes could house the tears only till the half of the second day. Grief needs a certain luxury of leisure in order to be felt.
The villagers are taking turns and getting food for them from the day they buried his father. But people don’t just come in and offer food or favor and leave, do they? People sit, and talk, and offer advice. People want to share – emotions and thoughts. And in turn, transmit – fears or desires.
They aren’t really thinking about food – Nazm and his mother – but just like eating, sometimes accepting isn’t about choice. Accepting, or being accepted – actually all acceptances are transactions in the hope of being included.
So they sit and listen to everyone who invites themselves to their house, morning to evening. His mother hugs and cries with each group of ladies who visit them while Nazm wonders how much tears a lean, tired human body can produce continuously. Until, of course, it all stops in the evening of the second day.
Between the lamenting sentences, cherishing memories and empathetic consolations, someone brings up the topic of their future. With the head of the family gone and the law categorizing them as illegal migrants, their future days in the village look as blurry as November haze in the morning paddy fields. Has Ayesha thought about anything, for this is high time? With the seven year old dreamy boy, she needs to step up and shoulder all the responsibility now. Life is tough, oh yes, it is so heartlessly tough!
His mother keeps listening while he keeps wondering at the worldly wisdom of the village womenfolk. Encouraged by the timid silence of the audience, the advice keep pouring in. And as the words of advice keep growing in number, his mother’s cry keeps turning inward – into a sob, then a snuffle, then a sigh – just like a hurricane turning smaller and getting in a snail shell.
“I don’t want any more food from them”, that night, he tells his mother.
“Don’t say anything to them.”
The house now is empty, and silent, with only two of them curling up in its bosom. There is no other house at least within a hundred meters of radius. Yet his mother talks to him in a whisper. The raindrops beginning to fall on the roof sounds louder than her voice. And more authoritative.
“…Untimely rain, not good for the crops.” The village spokesperson stands next to Nazm, and looks exactly at the same drop of rain hanging from the roof that Nazm is looking at. He has come to ask if they need anything, as today being the third day after the burial. The villagers will not bring food from tomorrow.
“Can we resume working in the paddy fields again? His father is no more, but the boy is very good at everything. I promise we both will work twice as hard…”
Nazm’s mother’s plea dissolves into a faint sob towards the end. Such times are difficult, even a seven-year-old boy can sense that such times are difficult to utter a ‘No’.
The spokesperson pauses for a while, and in those few seconds of silence, Nazm can clearly hear the man’s heart fighting a battle. Probably he really wants to say ‘yes’, or probably he has no sympathy for them but doesn’t know how to dismiss her without feeling guilty – who knows? There is no certainty about another human mind – there is only probability.
“I will see what I can do. But the government has already passed the bill and law is law. Even if we want to, how long can we shelter you from the law?” Finally he manages to say, politely.
‘I will see what I can do.’ Nazm knows what it means. He had accompanied his father to the district court several times to meet someone, in the hope that they would be able to produce a document as the proof of their citizenship in this country. This was what that man had also said to his father. Every time.
The village spokesperson turns to leave, and Ayesha retreats to the house. Nazm stands still, like a stone, between the house and the departing man. Along with the man, their thin hope for the future is also slipping away into a dark, empty, unknown vastness. So vast that it is scary, because you don’t know where you are and how far you can go. If you scream, you don’t know how far the sound will travel – whether it will touch something and come back so that you can hear. Or, whether it will get lost somewhere you have no idea of, unheard, like you are.
In an attempt to hold onto something, Nazm haphazardly looks around and the moment he lays his eyes on anything, it disappears into thin air like water vapor. The only thing that is still visible, and concrete in the midst of the vanishing light is Kaalu – grazing just like any other day. Oblivious, innocent, stupid.
He unties Kaalu from the wooden post and grabs the rope in his hand as he runs to catch the village spokesperson just near the temple. For the first time in life, Kaalu trembles, and resists, and fights refusing to follow his lead. For the first time, Nazm does not pay any heed.
He asks the man if he can offer Kaalu to the temple, as sacrifice, and be allowed to live in the village in return. The man says he will see what he can do, and drags Kaalu to the temple premises as Nazm watches, standing still, lean and brown and tired, drowning slowly in a whirlpool of blood under his feet. Blood or sweat or tears, it is all the same thing.
* The story is based on the illegal migration issue between the Indian state Assam and Bangladesh, and the Citizenship Amendment Bill (which was later passed as the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019) that was introduced to address the issue.
Swastyayan Shreyam is an instructional designer by profession. Her work has previously been published in many reputed Assamese magazines and in two English anthologies — ‘Advent’ and ‘Coronicles’. She has also published a book of-tales — Tale-Telling Sinister Times.
Photo by Yashasvi
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