• Parabaas
    Parabaas : পরবাস : বাংলা ভাষা, সাহিত্য ও সংস্কৃতি
  • পরবাস | English | Story
  • The Boatman and His Wife : Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay
    translated from Bengali to English by Mandar Mitra

    It was Tarini's habit to walk with his head bowed. He was a remarkably tall man. Having bumped his head often against doors and ceilings and even low branches of trees, he had acquired this habit the hard way. Only when he was on his boat, ferrying passengers across the river, he would hold his head high. He would stand upright on his long and narrow boat fashioned from the trunk of a palm tree, and with a long pole, he would push his boatload of passengers from one bank to the other.

    The monsoons had arrived. A large crowd of travellers who had gone for a dip in the holy Ganges on the occasion of Ambubachi[1] were on their way back, and had assembled at the ferry ghat on the Mayurakshi. The travellers were tired, and they were all in a hurry to cross the river.

    Tarini was smoking his hookah. “That's enough, ladies, that's enough!” he called. “You're all heavy with the loads of virtue you have acquired.”

    “Just one more, please. Just this boy.” pleaded an old woman.

    From somewhere else, a voice called out, “Hi Sabi, stop grinning like that and climb up, will you?”

    Sabitri, the young girl who was being thus summoned, was in the company of some other girls from a neighbouring village. They were immersed in their own banter, and Sabi, doubled up in mirth, called back, “You go ahead. We'll all go together on the next trip.”

    “No my dear, you'd better come aboard right away. If all of you get into the boat together, it'll be sure to sink,” said Tarini.

    “If it does, it'll sink because of all those virtuous old ladies you've taken on board,” the saucy Sabi retorted. “They've all had ten to twenty dips in the Ganga. We've only just had one dip apiece.”

    His hands folded in mock deference, Tarini said, “My lady, maybe you've had just one dip, but you're practically carrying the Ganga's holy waves on your heads!”

    There was a shout of laughter from the crowd. With his pole in hand, Tarini leapt onto his boat. Kalachand, his assistant, was collecting the fare from the passengers. “Mind none of you cheat on the fare! Sure you've all paid?” he called. With a shove to the boat, he too climbed on board.

    Tarini pushed the boat along with his pole. “The Lord protect us! Say the Lord's name, all!” cried Tarini. All his passengers echoed him, and the woods on either bank of the river echoed their chant. Beneath them, the turbulent Mayurakshi chuckled maliciously as it flowed swiftly along. “I suppose you could chant my name too,” said Tarini, with a smile. “After all, I am taking you across.”

    “Of course, my son,” said an old lady. “If Tarini[2] doesn't take us across, who will?”

    Suddenly, with a jerk, Tarini pulled up his pole. Irritably, he called out to Kalachand. “Hey Kele, where's your strength gone? Haven't you eaten anything? Hold the oars like a man! Can't you see how strong the current is?”

    Tarini was quite right. This turbulence was typical of the Mayurakshi. For seven or eight months in the year, the Mayurakshi would be like a patch of desert, its wide sandy bed stretching desolately. But with the advent of the monsoons, it would become a frightening monster: miles of the land adjoining the banks would be flooded as its muddy waters rushed along in a torrent. Sometimes, tidal bores several feet high would wipe out everything in their way – huts, farmhouses, and whole villages – and flood the entire area. Mercifully, this happened infrequently. The last time this had (??delete) happened was twenty years ago.

    The sun began beating down hotly on their heads. A man unfolded (??unfurled? opened?) his umbrella.

    “Don't put your sail up, sir,” warned Tarini. “You might be blown away.”

    The man folded back his umbrella. All of a sudden, a commotion that sounded like desperate cries for help was heard from further upstream.

    The travellers on Tarini's boat shifted in alarm. Unruffled, Tarini kept pushing the boat along with his pole. “Take it easy, y'all. Nothing has happened to us. A boat must have sunk off the Olkura ghat there. You there, lady! Why are you quivering? You sir, will you hold on to her? Why are you scared? We're almost across.” They were indeed close to the banks.

    “Kele!” called Tarini.


    “Here, hold the pole,” ordered Tarini, his eagle eyes scanning the river.

    Kalachand went over to Tarini. As he handed the pole to him, Tarini cried, “There, there! Can you see? She's sinking!” He dived into the rushing waters. A number of elderly women cried out, “Tarini! What'll become of us?”

    “You, ladies! Don't call at him like that! You'll sink too, if you do that.” admonished Kalachand.

    Amidst the muddy waters, something white could be seen. It would sink, and then resurface a few yards away, and disappear again. Tarini was rapidly swimming towards the thing, fighting his way through the current. He seemed to be in his elements, quite at home in the water. As Tarini closed in on the object, it sank; Tarini, too, dived. Very soon, he surfaced a short distance away. He was holding something dark and black in his hand. He turned a little, and swam along against the tide.

    The onlookers on both banks watched him with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. Soon, on one bank, a loud cry of “Thank the Lord!” was heard. “Has he reached shore? Is he safe?” shouted the people from the other bank.

    By then, Kalachand was speeding across the river on his boat.

    It was a stroke of luck for Tarini. The person he had rescued happened to be a young woman, newly married, from a well-to-do family from the neighbourhood. It wasn't a boat that had sunk off the Olkura ghat. The woman, heavily veiled, was attempting to shift her seat on the boat, and had reached out her hand to hold on to the edge of the boat. Not being able to see properly through her thick veil, she had reached out too far, lost her balance and had fallen in. She had swallowed a fair amount of water, but was otherwise unharmed, and was quickly nursed back to consciousness.

    She was very young – a girl really, no more than thirteen or fourteen years old – and quite pretty. The jewellery she was wearing – earrings, a nose-ring, bangles, and a necklace – was intact. She was still panting. In a little while, her husband and father-in-law arrived at the ghat.

    Tarini bowed to the older man. “My respects to you, Ghosh moshai.”

    The girl quickly pulled her veil over her face.

    “Don't be embarrassed, child. Get your breath back,” chided Tarini. “Too much of bashfulness is what led to this accident.”

    “What reward would you like, Tarini?” asked Ghosh moshai.

    Tarini scratched his head for a while in puzzlement. He wasn't really sure what he wanted. Finally, he said, “Give me eight annas. That'll buy me a flagon of booze.”

    “I'll be ..!” exclaimed the vocal Sabi from among the onlookers. “Ask for something expensive, man!”

    This seemed to bring Tarini to his senses. He lowered his head in embarrassment, and with a bashful smile, said, “A nose-ring with a chain, Ghosh moshai.”

    Once again, from the crowd, Sabi called out. “So your wife wags her nose in your face, does she?”

    The crowd laughed cheerfully.

    The young girl had not taken her veil off, but now, from behind it, she held out a comely hand. On her palm, lay her golden nose-ring and chain, glittering in the sun.

    “Next Dasahara, I'll give you a set of clothes and a shawl,” promised Ghosh moshai. “And here's five rupees for you.”

    Tarini bowed again in gratitude. “Sir, if I could have a sari instead of the shawl...”

    “Certainly, Tarini, certainly.” Ghosh moshai assured him with a smile.

    “I'd like to see your wife,” said Sabi.

    “Oh, she's just dark and squat and ugly,” retorted Tarini.

    That night, when Tarini returned home, he was thoroughly drunk, and was walking with some difficulty. “Hey Kele, who's dug all these trenches in the road?” he inquired irritably. “Trenches everywhere – trenches every where – trenches – here's a- a- another–”

    Kalachand was also inebriated. He just grunted.

    “Waterways!” said Tarini. “If these were all waterways, could've swum home. No ruddy trenches or ruts. Just water. Fill everything up.” As he weaved and stumbled along, he flailed his arms in the air as if he were swimming.

    Tarini's house was near the edge of the village. Sukhi, his wife, was standing at the door, holding a lamp. Tarini started singing, “New nose-rings have come to town...”

    Sukhi grabbed him by the arm. “That's enough, come in now. Your food has gone all cold and dry.”

    Tarini pulled his arm away, and rummaged in the folds of his clothes. “First, the nose-ring. I'll put it on for you. Where's the nose-ring? Where's that ruddy nose-ring now?”

    “Some day, you'll do this once too often, and that'll be the end of me,” remonstrated Sukhi. “I'll kill myself if you do it again!”

    A bewildered Tarini stared at her. “Why? What have I done?”

    She looked at him the way a mother looks at a wayward child. “The river's in full spate, and you...”

    Tarini roared with laughter, startling the moist darkness of the rainy night. After a while, he stopped laughing and looked at Sukhi. “Tell me, would you be scared if you were in your mother's lap? It's Mayurakshi that provides for us. Why don't you answer me? Hey!”

    Sukhi wasted no more time on words. She turned and headed towards the kitchen to put the night's meal together.

    “Sukhi! Hey Sukhi! Hey!” Tarini called after her.

    Sukhi did not answer. Tarini got up and made his way towards their hut on unsteady feet. Sukhi was busy laying out their meal. Tarini grabbed her from behind, and said, “Come with me at once!”

    “Let me go, I say. Let me go.”

    “You'll have to come, I said,” shouted Tarini. “A hundred times – a thousand times.”

    Sukhi pulled herself free. “Let me go. All right, I'll come with you.” Pleased, Tarini let go of her. Sukhi left the kitchen with their plates.

    “Take you on my back, and dive in at Ganutiya, that's what I'll do,” mumbled Tarini to himself. “We'll go ashore at Panchthupi.”

    “So you will,” said Sukhi. “Have your food now.”

    On his way out of the kitchen, Tarini banged his head on the doorframe. This reduced his exuberance a little. He started up again as he was eating. “Remember the last time? Rescued two whole cattle. Fifteen bucks – only five bucks less than a full twenty – that's what that cheat Madan gave me. How do you think you got those bangles on your wrists? Think some rich uncle of yours left them for you?”

    Sukhi was preparing a cooling drink that would sober Tarini a little. “That bloody Madan,” continued Tarini. “Cheated me, he did. To hell with him. It paid for Sukhi's bangles anyway. Don't care if he didn't give me my due. Some day, he'll be drowning in the Mayurakshi... give him a good dunking before I pull him up.”

    Sukhi handed Tarini the drink, and looked through the folds of Tarini's loincloth. She unearthed the nose-ring and three rupees. “What happened to the other two rupees?” she asked.

    “Kele. Gave them to that Kele. Take it, I said.”

    Sukhi did not protest; that was not her wont. Tarini started muttering again. “The other time, when you were ill... Not even the post dared to cross. The police officer was sitting on the banks (??bank?) fuming. That's when I got the money to buy you earrings. Go to the river now, go and stand on the banks and call out – come here you bloody river, and sure enough it'll come to you. Just go and try.”

    “Wait,” said Sukhi. “I'll go and get a mirror and put the nose-ring on. See how I look.”

    Tarini lapsed into a pleased silence. Sukhi placed the mirror in front of her and put the nose-ring on. Tarini stopped eating and stared at her, gaping a little. When Sukhi had finished, he held up the lamp in his unwashed hands. “Let's see how you look.” Sukhi blushed with pleasure. The burnished skin of her face glowed in the lamplight. Tarini had lied to Sabi. Sukhi was slender and beautiful. She was Tarini's pride and joy.

    Even though Tarini was drunk, what he had proclaimed was quite true. Thanks to the Mayurakshi, Tarini never wanted for anything. Every year, on the occasion of Dasahara, he would make a thanksgiving offering to the Mayurakshi. This year too, on Dasahara, Tarini had made all arrangements for the thanksgiving ceremony. Both Tarini and Sukhi were wearing new clothes for the occasion – the clothes they had been promised by Ghosh moshai. The sandy bed of the Mayurakshi was glittering in the hot summer sun. The rains had not yet arrived. Keshto Das was standing on the steps of the ghat. He looked skyward. “Put your heart in it, Tarini,” he exhorted. “Let's pray for the rains. May the river floods its banks! How will there be a good harvest otherwise?” It was indeed the alluvium brought down by the Mayurakshi that made sure the land remained bountiful.

    Tarini smiled. “Ah, you're right. But you know what people say? They say the bugger prays for the Mayurakshi to flood its banks for his own selfish ends. But it is the Mayurakshi that brings prosperity to the land... Hi Kele, grab the goat! It's running away! Grab it!” The sacrificial goat had had enough of staying put on the hot sand of the river bed.

    The ceremony was completed without further ado. Tarini had had his fill of liquor, and was sitting on the steps of the landing-stage on the river. “You'll see... in ten days' time, there'll be a flood. A rushing, gushing, flood,” he was telling Kalachand.

    “But this time, you have to let me rescue anything that's still floating. This time, I'll bring them to shore, ok?” replied Kalachand.

    Tarini laughed drunkenly. “Just three bubbles in the vortex, glub – glub – glub... That'll be the end of Kalachand.”

    “What did you say, you bastard?” shouted an infuriated Kalachand.

    Tarini drew himself up for a fight, but Sukhi intervened. “If the bore is not too strong, say if the water rises till that fig-tree over there, then Kalachand can handle it. And if the torrents spreads (??spread) beyond that, then you can get into the act.”

    Kalachand fell at Sukhi's feet. “Spoken like a true spouse,” he blubbered drunkenly.

    The next day, they started working on their dugout. From morning to evening, the two of them worked hard on the boat with hammer and chisel, and turned it into as good as new. But as the weather grew hotter, the wooden hull cracked under the sun's glare. All through Ashar[3], there were no floods. Indeed, it hardly rained – only an occasional shower or two. The little rain that fell was not even enough to cover the river bed. All through the land, a low moan of despair began to make itself heard, as if all the people were whimpering for fear of an impending doom, or as if this were the faint sound of a wail of lament, borne on the wind from afar.

    Tarini's earnings, too, had all but dried up. He earned a few paises carrying the cycles of government officers on his shoulders as they crossed the river, and squandered the money on liquor. There was much coming and going by the government officials around this time. They were all engaged in investigating whether there was truly any hardship in the country. As a bonus, Tarini would also get the cigarette butts they had thrown away.

    But with Shravan, came the floods. Tarini was much relieved. The day the river breached its banks, an overjoyed Tarini dived from atop the high banks into the river, and splashed around in the already restless, surging waters of the swollen river.

    But on the third day, the river was once again reduced to a knee-deep stream. Tethered to a tree, Tarini's boat was bobbing gently on the waves. Tarini and Kalachand were sitting on the boat, waiting for some genteel traveller who would not want to wade across the river. The two would then push the boat across.

    Evening (??The evening?) was drawing near. "What do you think is going on, Kele?" wondered Tarini.

    "That's what I was thinking too," said Kalachand in a worried tone.

    "Never seen anything like this," continued Tarini.

    "That's what I was thinking too," repeated Kalachand.

    "Just look at the sky. Bright blue," said Tarini, looking at the sky. "No trace of cloud, even in the West."

    "That's what I was thinking too," answered Kalachand.

    Suddenly infuriated, Tarini landed a slap on Kalachand's cheek. "That's what I was thinking too! Is that all you can say? That's what! That's what!” he mimicked.

    Kalachand, non-plussed, stared at Tarini's face. Unable to bear Kalachand's look, Tarini turned away. After a while, he suddenly stirred as if he had sensed something. “The wind's turned, hasn't it, Kele? Isn't it blowing from the West now?” He jumped onto the bank as he spoke, and picked up a handful of dry sand and trickled it through his fingers onto the ground. But the breeze was too slight, and it was not clear that it was coming from the West. Nevertheless, Tarini said, “Yes, from the West all right – just a wee bit. Come Kele, let's go have a swig. I have a few coins with me. Took them out of Sukhi's little bundle today.”

    Kalachand was pleased by this affectionate invitation from Tarini. As he fell in with Tarini, he remarked, “Brother, your wife certainly has money. You're sure to get something to eat when you go home. It's us that's in a fix.”

    “Sukhi's wonderful, Kele. Wonderful,” agreed Tarini. “If it weren't for her, I would starve. That time, when my brother was getting married...”

    “Hang on a moment,” interrupted Kalachand. “There's a taal[4] lying there. I'll just pick it up.” He ran down into the adjacent field.

    A group of people were waiting under the shade of a tree close to the edge of the village. “Where are you all headed?” asked Tarini. “Where are you from?”

    “We're from Birchandrapur,” answered one of them. “We're going to Bardhaman to work.”

    “Has it rained there?” asked Tarini.

    “No rain, but they have a canal.”

    Very soon, despair spread through the land like wildfire. It was as if the famine had been lying in wait just beneath the surface of the earth; it now found its way out through the fissures in the soil, and assumed a monstrous form. Ordinary householders began jealously guarding their stock of provisions. Casual labourers began to starve. People started fleeing the country / from the famine in hordes.

    One morning, Tarini came to the ferry ghat and found that Kalachand had not turned up. Hours passed and still there was no sign of him. Tarini got up and made his way to Kalachand's house to look for him.

    “Kele!” he called. No one answered. Tarini entered the house; it was completely deserted. There was no one there. He went into the neighbouring house; that was deserted too. Indeed, it was not just one or two houses, there was not a soul to be seen in the whole neighbourhood. Tarini walked to the adjoining neighbourhood, and was told that all the people in Kalachand's locality had left the village the previous night.

    Haru, the headman, said, "I told them so many times not to go, but they didn't listen. We'll go to prosperous / wealthy (??) villages and beg, they said."

    Tarini felt a strange uneasiness grip his heart. He stared at the abandoned village and heaved a sigh.

    "Are there really any rich people left?” continued Haru. “They're just putting on a show. They're worse off, actually. Even if they're starving, they can't admit it. You know that village there? What's it called, now? Palashdanga. One of the squires in Palashdanga hanged himself. Driven to it through sheer want."

    Tarini shivered.

    The next day, the ferry ghat presented a horrible spectacle. The dead body of an old woman was lying in the field adjoining the ghat. Animals had gnawed at the body / Some of it had been eaten away by animals. Tarini recognized the body. The wretched woman was the mother of a family of cobblers. The old woman could not walk on her own, and the rest of the family had been wishing her dead the previous evening. They had fled, leaving her behind, when she was asleep at night.

    Tarini delayed no longer. He hurried home. "Sukhi, take a few clothes and your valuables in a bundle. We can't live in this village any more. We'll go to the city. We'll get work as daily wagers there."

    As they were putting their meagre belongings together, Tarini noticed that Sukhi had no ornaments at all, besides the obligatory conch bangles. He was shocked. "What about the rest?" he asked.

    "How do you think we survived for so long?" replied Sukhi with a wan smile.

    They left the village.

    One evening, after about three days on the road, they halted near the edge of a village for the night. They had found two ripened taals which they were having for dinner. Suddenly, Tarini got up quickly and went out into the open. As he stood there, he called “Sukhi, hand me my towel.” He dangled the piece of cloth from his hand and began watching it closely. Towards dawn, when Sukhi woke, she saw Tarini was still sitting up, sleepless. “Didn't you sleep?” she asked in amazement.

    "No, I didn't feel sleepy," said Tarini with a smile.

    Sukhi began to chide him. "What will I do if you fall ill? Carrying on like this... we should have stayed at home.”

    "Do you see, Sukhi? Do you see?" responded an elated Tarini.

    "What on earth do you want me to see now?" replied an irritated Sukhi.

    "The ants are carrying their eggs higher," said Tarini. “It's sure to rain now.”

    It was quite true. Sukhi saw millions of ants climbing up the walls of the dilapidated house in an orderly row. They were carrying tiny white eggs in their mouths.

    "You're just being wishful," said Sukhi.

    "The ants know,” replied Tarini. “If they stay in their holes, the rain will wash their nests away. See how the wind is blowing? Straight out of the West!"

    Sukhi looked at the sky. "The sky is shining bright and clear,” she said.

    Tarini was staring in another direction. "It won't take long for the clouds to arrive. See there, the crows are picking twigs - they're repairing their nests. We'll stay here today, Sukhi. Let's see how the weather turns out."

    The boatman's judgment had not been mistaken. Towards evening, the sky became overcast, and the wind from the West grew stronger and stronger (began to blow harder)(??).

    "Let's go, Sukhi,” said Tarini. “Let's head back."

    "Now? At this time of day?" replied Sukhi.

    "What are you worried about? I'll be with you, won't I? Put this cover on your head. This drizzle is very bad for your health."

    "And what about you? You're made of stone, I suppose?"

    Tarini grinned. "I'm practically made of water. I dry up in the sun, and I fill out / grow fat (??) again when it rains. Let's go... here, give me the bundle."

    The weather worsened. The wind was restless. It would rain for a little while, and then it would stop. After a while, the wind would blow stronger, and it would begin to rain harder. On their way back, it took them only two days to cover the distance that they had covered in three when they were leaving the village. It was evening when they got home. Tarini immediately left for the river bank. “I'll go see what the river's like,” he said. He came back elated. “The river's brimming, Sukhi!”

    When Tarini woke the next morning, he immediately left for the ghat. The sky had a menacing look, the wind was blowing in a gale, and it was raining hard. Tarini came back in the afternoon. “I'm going to the blacksmith's,” he announced.

    “Do have something to eat before you go,” implored Sukhi.

    Tarini seemed to be in a hurry. With a worried look, he said, “One of the big rivets in the boat has come off. If it weren't for that... If the bore weren't too high, I could have managed. But the river's in full flood / beginning to look like the sea (??). Come and see for yourself.”

    He made Sukhi accompany him. She stood on the tall banks of a pond belonging to the Pals, and caught a glimpse of the Mayurakshi in full spate. The seemingly limitless expanse of the river stretched as far as she could see. Clusters of foam were rushing along on the surface of the reddish water like so many flowers afloat on the stream. “Can you hear its roar? The waters are going to rise further. You go home, I'd better run along. Otherwise the boat won't be in a fit shape to ferry people across tomorrow.”

    “Look at the weather...” said Sukhi, fretfully, but Tarini paid no attention to her. He went out into the wind and the rain. It was dark when he returned home. He was hurrying back, when he seemed to hear a strange, drumming sound. Yes, he was sure of it. He was only too well aware of what the sound meant. It heralded impending doom. It was a signal that was used in the villages by the river to warn people that the river was about to breach its banks.

    Tarini's village was flanked on one side by the Mayurakshi, and on the other by a narrow tributary. The way into the village lay over a rickety footbridge made of bamboo. As Tarini walked along the village road, he found himself unable to locate the footbridge. He wondered if he had come the wrong way. He peered into the darkness for a long time and figured that the bridge was still a fairly long way off. The flood waters had reached where he was standing. Initially, the water was just about wetting his toes, but it was ankle-deep in a few moments. He listened carefully for any sound, but all he heard was the wind and the water, and something that sounded like a roar. In a trice, his body was covered by scores of small insects, insects that were fleeing from their holes in the ground. Tarini dived into the stream.

    He swam swiftly across the flooded field. He was shocked when he got to the village. The flood waters had entered the village. The village roads and houses were already submerged in waist-deep water. The villagers were standing about, crying out to each other in fear. Dogs and livestock were calling piteously. But rising above all these sounds was the roar of the Mayurakshi, the howling of the wind, and the pouring rain – they drowned out the cries of the villagers the way the shouts and wild laughter of marauding robbers drown the frightened cries of their victims.

    Tarini found it difficult to find his way home in the darkness. He stepped on something in the water, something that felt like it had been live once. He bent down and picked it up. It was a goat kid, dead. He dropped it, and made his way home somehow. “Sukhi! Sukhi!” he called.

    From inside the house came Sukhi's answer, in immeasurably relieved tones. “Here I am, in the house.”

    As Tarini entered their house, he found that the water was already waist-deep in their yard. Sukhi was standing on the raised entrance to their hut holding on to the rafters, the water swirling about her knees.

    Tarini took her by the hand and pulled her out. “Come away at once! You shouldn't be inside at this time – if the walls collapse, that'll be the end of you.”

    “I was just waiting for you,” said Sukhi. “Otherwise, you'd have had a hard time looking for me.”

    They made their way out onto the road. Tarini hesitated. “What do you think we should do, Sukhi?” he asked.

    “We'll just wait here. We'll meet the same fate as everyone else,” replied Sukhi.

    “What if the waters rise higher, Sukhi? Can't you hear the rush of the water?”

    “You don't think the waters will rise any higher?” replied Sukhi. “If it does, what'll be left of the land? Would the good God destroy his own creations?”

    Tarini tried to feel reassured by this argument, but he did not quite succeed.

    There was a crashing sound, and the flood waters surged around them in waves. “That was our house,” said Tarini. “That's it Sukhi, let's go. The water's already up to my waist. You must be up to your chest in water.”

    Suddenly, they heard a desperate cry in a woman's voice. It was difficult to identify the voice or tell where it was coming from. “Help! My baby has fallen into the water. Oh my child!”

    “Wait right here, Sukhi,” ordered Tarini. “Answer me when I call.”

    He disappeared into the darkness, only his voice could be heard. “Who's that? Where are you? Whose child has fallen in? Answer me!”

    “Here, over here,” came the reply.

    Tarini called out again. For a while, the voices were heard raised in call and reply, and then they fell silent. Almost immediately afterwards, Tarini's voice was heard: “Sukhi!”

    “Yes,” she replied.

    “Hold on to my waist, Sukhi,” called Tarini in the direction whence Sukhi's voice had been heard. “Things don't look good.”

    Sukhi did not say anything. She held on to Tarini's loincloth. “Whose child was it? Did you find it?” she asked.

    “Yes, I did,” replied Tarini. “It was Bhupati's son.”

    They waded through the water, treading carefully. All this time, the water level was rising. “Climb on my back, Sukhi”, ordered Tarini. “But where's this we're at? Eee...!” Before he'd finished, they were swept off their feet and deep into the flowing waters. But they rose to the surface almost immediately. “It's the river we're in, Sukhi. Get off my back and hold onto my loincloth. Just keep afloat.”

    They floated along with the tide. The darkness that surrounded them was impenetrable. Only the wind whistled in their ears, mingling with the roar of Mayurakshi's rushing waters. Driven by the wind, the rain hit their faces like tiny bullets. They lost all sense of time. They were carried along by the current like so much flotsam for what seemed like days, months – an eternity. Their bodies were also beginning to grow stiff. Occasionally, their breath would be stifled by the waves of the Mayurakshi.

    Tarini began to be alarmed by the way Sukhi was clinging on to him. She seemed to be growing leaden. “Sukhi! Sukhi!” Tarini called anxiously.

    “Yes?” replied Sukhi as if in a stupor.

    “Don't be afraid! I'm...”

    The next moment they were sucked into the swirling depths of a vortex. He gathered all his strength and tried pushing through the water. Soon, he felt that they had resurfaced. But Tarini was only too well aware of the danger that lay ahead of them: in just a few moments, they would go under again. He tried to swim his way around, but a cold wave of fear swept him: Sukhi had wrapped her arms around him in a desperate clasp. “Sukhi! Sukhi!” he cried.

    They were drawn into the whirlpool again, spinning in the water. Sukhi's deadly grip was bearing him down. He was losing all his strength. He couldn't breathe. He felt as if his heart was about to burst. He tried to loosen Sukhi's stranglehold, but Sukhi clung on to (??delete on?) him even harder. Air, air! He desperately needed to breathe. In agony, Tarini clutched at the waters around him. His flailing hands fell on Sukhi's throat. An instinctive anger flared up within him, and Tarini's hands closed around Sukhi's neck. He was no longer human: his rage made him a wild, primordial beast. He gathered all his strength in his fingers as they tightened around Sukhi's throat, squeezing the life out of her. All of a sudden, the leaden weight that had been pulling him under like a rock tied around his neck slipped off, and at once, Tarini surfaced. He opened his mouth and breathed in lungfuls of air in great gulps. All his flesh and blood craved just two things – light and land.


    [1] Three consecutive days of fasting, observed particularly by Hindu widows.
    [2] Tarini literally means one who rescues or takes across.
    [3] the first month of the rainy season.
    [4] Fruit of the palmyra palm.

    The original story, 'Tarini Majhi' first appeared in .....

    অলংকরণ (Artwork) : Ananya Das
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