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Biography
Abul Bashar is a Bengali writer from the state of West Bengal in India. He was born in 1951 in Hamarpur in the Murshidabad district. His works include a book of poetry, SLOGAN THAKE SHLOKE, short story collections, SIMAR and NIRBACHITA GALPA, as well as the novels PHUL BAU, SPARSHER BAIRE, and JAL MATI AGUNER UPAKHYAN, a children’s book and travelogues. He won the Ananda Purashkar in 1988 and Shiromani Award in 1994. He is an editor at DESH magazine in Kolkata.

DARK CLOUDS GATHER ON KALIDAHA’S SHORE

- by Abul Bashar (Translated from the Bengali by Ratna Ray and Catherine Fletcher)

Annapurna’s father had a storehouse.  He used to stock rice and paddy in Rarh. The eastern part of the district is called Bharh while the western part belongs to Rarh.  Past the southern border of the district is Kalantar. This is the way the land is laid out.  Bharh covers the slopes of the river Padma.  Rarh is hilly and elevated, land yielding a good quality of paddy.  Vegetable growth is negligible, but Kalantar’s terrain produces good quantity of paddy.  The soil there is darker than a dark buffalo.  The people of Bharh often travelled to Kalantar to work as wage labourers in hard times.  They used to cross the district’s border and tramped for hours to reach Kalantar.  Did that make them foreigners?  People used to go there when there were only two crops per year: aush (in the autumn) and amon (later in the year) or at most, green crops in March, unlike today’s high yielding crops.

But the business of hoarding has never been prestigious.  Her father was a man of rude feudal mentality, with eyebrows like a hairy caterpillar, white hair on his earlobes and nostrils with goggle eyes. Villagers could never talk to him while raising their gaze.  

"What for have you come for, seedeater?  Don't touch my feet, stupid—No!"

"Babu, I’m Ketan Mahato, your brother-in-law’s son.  There’ve been hard times.  We’ve eaten up all the seeds.  Beat me, babu, whack me with your shoes!  But I beg you, give me a basketful of Betai. 1 "   

"Stop! Stop, rascal!  Stop your prattling. Look at me straight!  What will you do with Betai when there’s a drought on?"

"Babu, Shil's Almanac tells us that rain will come soon and there’ll be flooding.  All of my neighbours will sow Betai.   Only you can help me now, babu."
    
"Hey, listen.  First pay back the interest from last year.  You’ve sown one basketful of Begunbichi in Shirshadihi, haven’t you?  Settle that account first, you wretch!"

Ketan Paramanik went quiet.  Half farmer, half jeweler, his bald head began to sweat profusely.  He was caught in his own trap.  Not even half, he was a quarter-jeweler.  And he couldn’t craft subtle designs.  He only got orders for ordinary silver ornaments.

Her father was not only a hoarder, he was a seed mortgagee.  To sort out this confusion you first have to know what a seedeater is.  A person who eats up all the seeds in hard times and can't save them for the next planting is called a seedeater.  Seeds are the most precious asset a peasant family has.  There are some peasants who preserve seeds even in penury.  But they were pitifully very few.  In other words, seeds were lent by him.  Even in her infancy, Annapurna learnt that ‘seedeater’ was the most cursed word in the world.


She could separate Betai from Begunbichi since early childhood.  Betai was coarse rice with black husks.  Then there was Nona.  Both Nona and Betai grew in water but they differed a lot.  Nona grew well in calm water.  It didn’t die until it flooded.  Betai, on the other hand, possessed remarkable strength. Sown on the river bed, it stood erect over the river.  Like cane, it was strong and durable.  When the water level rose higher in flood season, Betai would show its magic, raising its head over the water.  Anno knew all this very well.

Betai had different joints like a human body; it seemed to have knees, a waist, chest, throat and even lips.  It was flexible like cane.  Thin, white, jutting roots grew under these joints.

With rain pouring from the sky and floods swelling at its roots—how was Betai able save itself?  Its throat sank, then its lips, next its forehead... until Betai drowned.  It could stay under water for two and half days.

Anno would go to watch the river with her father. The big channel alongside the river was full to the brim. The embankment cracked.  Paths were waterlogged.  If it stopped raining, if the river receded three or four inches, Betai would rise again to salute the sun.

"Oh God, I pray to thee!  Let the river calm, the sky clear.  Spare Betai this time!  I bow down to thee, oh Water God, God of the Sky, River God...  Save us, save Betai, let it rise again," Anno used to pray.  The thoughts of drowned Betai still make her sorry.  Even her father could feel her sorrow.

"Don't worry, my daughter, Betai will survive.  It can hang on for three to four days. It may get weaker but will never die.  It’s really amazing."

    "Why does it fight, Papa?" she would ask.

    "It feeds the poor farmers, my girl!  Babus won't eat coarse rice.  They like fine rice.  Babus can't digest Betai."

    "Does that make you a babu, Papa?   You can't eat Betai!"

    "I'm not a Babu.  I’m a Mahajan."

    "Are you greater than the Babus?"

    "Of course."

    "Why?"

    "The Babus can only read and write; they can’t identify seeds."

    "What about me, Papa?"

    "You are Annapurna, Goddess of the Corn. Feed the hungry. Distribute seeds if they ask for them."

    "Which seeds, Papa?  Nona, Pathorkuchi, Begunbichi, Betai, or Basmati?"

Her father bubbled with laughter. "Listen, Ma, nobody sows Basmati in Bharh, the land of the poor peasants.  Besides, it floods every year.  Even I have never sown Basmati, Anno."

    "Why, Papa?"

    "If a flood washes away all the Basmati seeds, then I will become a pariah.  People know that I preserve all kinds of seeds and these will never be lost.  Seedeaters can be certain that they can collect the seeds again from my granary.  My name is Golokpati, preserver of seeds.  But I'm very, very particular about my interest.  You'll take after me.  We make a profit of only one sixteenth of a rupee.  For one basketful of seeds you'll take back the same with only one small bowl of seeds extra, you’ll see!"

    "I can’t manage all these things, Papa!"

    The father assured the little girl with a smile, "You can do it, dearie."

    Anno muttered to herself, "I’m a woman.  I won't live in my parents’ house forever. God knows where I’ll end up after my marriage!  Who will be my man?"

    While in her teens Annapurna had a crush on a young man—but who would make a proposal to her father?  The boy came from Akherigunj where the Padma overflows every year.  He came with a sack to borrow Betai seeds.  He didn't look like a peasant boy, rather the brother of Lord Krishna.

    "Who are you?"

    "Indra."  The boy replied in a submissive tone.

    "Surname?"

    "Ojha." 2

    "Can you utter spells?"

    "Spells?"

    "Yes, the spell which saves a snake-bitten person."

    "No."

    "Then what else can you do?"

    Indra kept mum.  He got confused.  Anno began to giggle.  Indra became more perplexed.

    "My Grandpa knew spells." Indra hesitated a bit, then continued, "He saved the life of Junior Chowdhuri of Shether Dighi, bitten by a poisonous snake.  Cured, he bestowed some property on my Grandpa.  But land earned by charms gradually erodes.  All that’s left is what’s at the edge of the river.  So my father sent me to fetch Betai seeds. Will you please lend me half a quintal?"



    "Haven't you had any seeds left?"

    "No."

    "Why?"

    "We have no Betai seeds."

    "Do you have any Nona?"

    "No."

    "Then?"

    "Nothing, actually."

    "Do you want to buy seeds?"

    "No.  I've heard you lend seeds."

    "We do."

    "Then lend me some please!"  Indra returned Akhergunj with sackful of seeds.  But within a year he came back with the same appeal.  Now it was clear to Anno that Indra belonged to a seedeater family.  She became disheartened.

    "There’ll be no seeds.  First you must pay back what you borrowed from Anno last year," Golokpati declared.

    "Sir, there was a devastating flood.  Even Betai couldn't resist.  It began to rot.  Please give the seeds to me this year.  I promise I'll return the interest from both years together.  I swear in the name of Goddess Manasa..."  Indra trailed off.

    "Hey, Mr. Yessir, can you drive a cart?  Because seven of my carts are going to Rarh.  If you can drive a cart, then you'll get some seeds. Otherwise, no.  Anno, don't open the granary."

    Golokpati went towards the field with a coloured towel on his shoulders.  Annapurna stood on the doorstep.  She had a frosty look in her eyes.  Her father had no faith in Indra, and he had forbidden her to open the seed farm.

    "I don't know any spells, Anno," Indra desperately pleaded, "but my father can expel the venom of a snake by charms.  My Grandpa was an expert in the art, of course, but my father has also earned a reputation.  If I lie, my father's spells won't work."

    "You studied at the high school, didn’t you?"

    "I did.  But that hasn’t helped me get a job.  Why do you ask?"  

    "It's nothing. Do you believe in spells, Indra?"

    "No."

    "Oh, I see."  

    Indra looked down, then departed with the sack tucked under his arm.  Heart heavy, he was brooding over many things.  He really had no idea what spells could do.  His Grandpa, father had led a life of charms, obtained land with their power.  There is no system of exchange in a sorcerer’s universe.  They can't sell their spells but are able to save others.  The joy of saving a life is the greatest reward of this art.  His father didn’t actually plough his Grandpa’s land, offered with gratitude by Junior Choudhury.  Now the river was about to devour that land.   Indra's father didn’t bother with that eventuality either.  He strolled from village to village chanting spells.  He was a strange sorcerer with little attachment to his family or to the material world.

    So Indra had to support his family, and he gave up his studies at college. He doubted spells, but didn’t want to disrespect the spellchanter.  Indra considered his father to be supernatural.

    The previous year, when Indra came to beg for seeds, he hadn’t mentioned his father's whereabouts, though Annapurna had inquired about charms.  Indra wanted to shield his father from others, because his charms were actually ruining his mother and himself.

    With downcast eyes Indra carried on walking diagonally along the path through the cornfield.  He was of a lower caste, an Ojha.  Golakpati Chakraborty, an upper caste Brahmin, had rejected him.  What a terribly rude man!  The hairs in his nostrils and on his earlobes along with his eyebrows had made him look very stern. He had mocked Indra with his "Mr. Yessir", yet he wouldn’t let him touch his feet.

    "Those who preserve seeds—are they all this erratic?  Why are the seeds stored only their granaries?"  Indra sighed.

    It was spring.  The guards in Golakpati’s field looked wonderful in the golden hue.  They were piled on the hoarder’s seven carts about to leave for the Rarh.  And would return with the paddy. There were seven carts but six carters.  Now it was clear to Indra why Mahajan had asked him to drive.

    "Hey, what about you?  We need another driver.  Banshi is suffering from dysentery.  Betai isn’t easy to digest.  It often causes the shits.  Don't worry!  You'll be paid well.  Besides you’re a seedeater.  What babu asked you, you do.  C’mon, let's go to Itesarai.  Not by Panchagaon.  I know a short cut…" the head carter tried to coax Indra.

    "I don’t have the right clothes to travel," Indra hesitated.

    "Okay, so you'll get new shirt in Munshi’s shop near the turn off to Ullaspur. What do you think, babu?"

    Golakpati nodded and said to the gangman, "Let Indra drive the cart with a manageable bull.  And, yes, buy clothes for him at Munshi’s."

    "Okay, babu."

    Indra was given a robust and well trained bull.  His cart followed just after the gangman’s.  Indra was confused.  Life had forced him to be a carter.  But he was stunned when he stopped at Ullaspur.  Sitting on her knees on the floor of Munshi’s shop, Annapurna was choosing shirt for him.

    "Ma, since you are choosing his clothes, make ’em nice—hey, Indranath, c’mere—but don't choose a very fine cloth, girlie.  Then Ojha’s boy will get embarrassed," the gangman joked.

    "What for?  He ought to wear what I choose.  He’s not actually a cart driver.  He’s only going on an adventure."  She picked out an expensive Punjabi suit and smiled at Indra very softly.

    "It's not an adventure.  I'm going because I have to go.  But I've never worn such expensive clothes.  Please, don't choose those for me," Indra pleaded.

    "Why not?  If I’m offering—"

    "Please, they won't suit me.  We’ve eaten your seeds, Anno.  Now these expensive clothes would make me feel shameless.  Maybe you can't sympathize."

    His words shocked Annapurna. "We have eaten your seeds…"  This pathetic confession touched the chords of her soul.  A sudden trembling overpowered her.  She’d never felt like that before.  Nor she had met such a seedeater... soft, modest and shy. "Those who eat seeds in hard times, do they ever feel embarrassed like he does…  You think I can't feel it?" Anno muttered to herself.   All of a sudden she threw the Punjabi to Indra and spoke out in a commanding tone, "You must wear what I choose.  Nobody disobeys us.  Wear this dhuti.  Haven’t any shoes?  Alright.  Kinkor, buy a pair of shoes from the Sens on Papa’s account.  Go ahead."

    The carts came back within a week.  Indra looked like a bridegroom in his new attire. At first Golakpati was taken aback. "Who is this character, Kinkor?" he bellowed.

    "Your cart driver, babu…" Kinkor replied timidly.

    Annapurna stood at the doorstep of their long corridor. She jumped at the sound of her father's voice.

    "A cart driver in this dress!  Who gave him these clothes?  Are you kartik?  Who are you, boy?"

    "Sir, I'm Indra, Indranath Ojha. I've come from Akherigunj. Your debtor..."

    "Hmm!  In those clothes?"

    "I didn't want them, babu..."

    "Then why are you wearing them?  Have you paid last year’s debts?"

    "No."

    "Aren't you ashamed, kartik?  Do you have any idea how do you look?"

    These words thrashed Indra into the bowels of the earth whose surface is rich with seeds.  An abysmal darkness engulfed his being.  The world became coarse and heavy just like Betai rice.

    "You seedeater, now you’re making my head throb!  Take off your clothes and bring your sack.  Is there anybody here?  Come and give him his dues."  Mahajan entered into the house through another door.

    These words frayed Indra’s nerves. He felt dizzy. He gagged. His pulse flagged. How did he look actually?   He had put on the clothes on the road back, when about two miles were left.  Anno forced him to wear those things, but when the carts started to move, he wore his tattered shirt again because the carters mocked him. He didn't actually want to touch the clothes again. During the journey, the carters had taunted him, calling him "Jamai, Jamai!"

    "How do I look actually? Like the Kartik God?" he asked himself.

    Indra had not seen himself in the clothes in a mirror, or in water, or even reflected in anybody's eyes. In such an embarrassing situation it occurred to him that he had rushed to Madhavpur from Akherigunj on the Padma’s banks just for the Betai seeds, which couldn't be found everywhere. Golakpati Mahajan had the reputation that he’d never refuse anybody.  It seemed that if the world were in need of any kind of seed, even God himself might pray to Golakpati for it.

    The Mahajan had thousands of granaries. Each of them bore the name of the particular seed stored there and were marked in chalk with the correct spelling by Annapurna.  Indra felt a strong urge to visit the farmhouse.  "Seeds!  Only seeds!  Oh God, the noble seeds you spilled are sleeping here peacefully," he imagined.

    Indra learnt the art of writing on grains.  One of the six carts sent for collecting paddy had brought Basmati rice and, oddly enough, Indra drove that cart.  Such a wonderful fragrance charmed his senses!   There was a little hole in one of the sacks, so Indra collected a handful of rice.  In Kandi, on the return journey, while the carters were relaxing under trees, Indra bought a Sonamukhi needle from a grocery.  He made it his brush and carved letters on the grain of Basmati: "Basmati tumi amar."  He wrote these fifteen letters on the fifteen grains and tied them inside a white rag.

    From time to time Indra entertained himself with this.  Holding the rag, he exhaled a puff of air from his mouth, then recited a line from the song of Manasa-- "Dark clouds gather on Kalidaha’s 3 shore"-- as if he were casting a spell on someone!  On whom?  Indra was not such a fool to utter a name!  He could, at best, demonstrate his influence and say, -- "In this rag is rice.  What is boiled rice called in formal Bengali diction?  I do cast spell on her!"

    Next, Indra blew the dust from the cement floor and cleaned it again with his towel. He took off his dhuti and dressed himself in his old tattered shirt and non-starched pajama. He kept his shoes by the pillar and put on his old sandals fastened with a safety-pin. They were so worn out that Indra had to tread very carefully.

    Anno stood on the doorstep.  Indra hesitated for a few moments then asked her to return his sack.  He also noticed her moist eyes.  She collected the sack from the corner of the verandah, "Why don't you take it?" she asked.

    "What?"

    "Betai!"

    "Alright, give it to me then!"

    Indra stood with legs astride, opening his sack.  Anno brought the scale and weights, measured half quintal of seeds and poured them into the sack.  Anno's hand touched Indra's finger.  She trembled and lowered her eyes.

    But the next moment she looked at Indra's face and spoke just like a mahajan: "You owe us one quintal and ten kilograms. You’ll give it back after the harvest, got it?"

    Indra failed to sense the note of suppressed tears which rang in her voice.  He abandoned the sack and descended the steps.  He started walking away with his heart heavy and downcast eyes.

    "Why won’t you take it?" Anno yelped.  There was no reply.  "Why not?!"  her voice choked with passion.

    "No!"

    "Please!  Indra, please!  Don't get angry!  Listen to me!  Papa doesn't want anybody to return empty handed..."

    Indra then turned back and said, "I live in Akherigunj, Annapurna.  Akheri means the end, the terminal point.  After that there’s only water.  It’s one of the end points of India.  We can never be angry with anyone in creation.  I know very well that I'll never return the seeds.  Something pricks me—it’s better to die than to be a seedeater.  Padma is chasing us, Anno -- I can't spare a single moment.  I’m off."

    Suddenly he reappeared.  He shoved the rag with fifteen letters on Basmati under the thatch of the cow shed. Then he ran along the path.

    Anno rushed to the thatch of cow shed, pulled out the rag and opened it.  She found fifteen grains of rice, but couldn't make out anything.  She tied the rag again and hurried towards the road.  But Indra had gone far; she stood motionless with melting eyes.

    Anno did not throw away the rag.  Throughout the evening she couldn't decide what to do with it. Night came.  The March wind began to blow in waves over the roof of their large house; dust veiled the sky again and again.  Gazing at that a thought suddenly came to her: "The grains in the rag must certainly carry a spell.  Why else would Indra tuck it into the thatch and flee?"

    Anno laughed to herself as the idea came to mind. "Whom had Indra charmed actually?  Did he want to win her heart? "  All these thoughts brought tears to her eyes.  Then she swallowed the grains with a glass of water.  She had no idea that Indra had written letters on the grains. She was in a daze.  She smiled and, at the same time, began to cry.

    At night she couldn’t sleep, only tossed atop the bed.  At dawn she remembered that Indra knew no spells himself.  But there were many who had the power.  One of them could have cast a spell on the grains and advised him to tuck them into the thatch.  The more she thought about it, the more she became lovesick and restless.

    "Indra cast a spell on me.  So I have to go," she said to herself.

    There was a dirty bird who was a seedeater.  Whenever Anno opened the granary it would rush to gobble up seeds.  It was a daredevil with sharp nails and great courage in its wings.  This cock was called Chunilal.

    "I'll go to him, he’s not as brave as you are," she told Chunilal.

    "To whom, to whom?" Chunilal blinked its eyes.

    "To he who has no bright wings that dare to soar..."

    "To whom?"

    "To he who has neither sharp claws nor beak.  But I must go.  I’ll go forever..." Anno affirmed.

    "Then take the Betai seeds that can survive for two and a half days."

    "Of course!  I'll take all the seeds that we could possibly need, and I won't come back, Chunilal."

    "Hey, you’re Chakraborty Mahajan’s daughter!  How dare you go to Kalidaha?  Your society will cast you out..."

    "Shut up!  I've already told you I won't come back."

    Anno called the cart driver and arranged the seeds in the carts.  She imagined that, in some strange land, a dark-blue cloud had painted the sky.  She'd also dress her darling Indra to her own liking.  "Dark clouds gather on Kalidaha’s shore" - the words from Manasa’s hymn reverberated in the core of her soul.  All the earth’s seeds were placed in the cart with great care.  Not only paddy seeds—jhinge, karala, chilli, brinjal, cucumber--everything, all that a man could require.  She had taken wheat, sesame, barley, mustard seeds--everything that could grow in Bharh’s soil. The seeds were accompanying Annapurna with flying colours as if they had crowns on their heads.

    Anna reached Akherigunj, the terminal point of India, just before sunset.  The Padma here is deaf and dumb and surges obstinately.  The tongues of innumerable waves were licking farm houses, orchards, soil like a villain.  Just licking them and gobbling them up!

    Haranath Ojha was stunned.  He panicked even more when Anno touch his feet.  His mud house was quaking with a cracking sound from the violent gusts of wind coming from the Padma.

    The carter was about to bring down the seeds from the cart.

    "Father, I've brought the Betai seeds.  Please call your son," Anno pleaded.

    Haranath was at a loss and couldn't utter a single word.  Suddenly he raised his hand to the carter and one word slipped off his tongue: "Stop!"

    "Why, Father?  I've come here to stay."

    She noticed Indra, coming from the shore of the Padma with a bare chest and spattered all over with mud.  He had on only a lungi and a bamboo mathal on his head.  He was flabbergasted at first glance, noticing Anno’s melting eyes. Then found the sacks.  He checked them, untying the knots of each one.  It took some time.  At last he looked into her eyes.

    "Won't you take them, Indra?"

    "No."

    "Not a single seed is dead, Indra.  They’ll all sprout, they’ll bloom.  Please accept these.  Betai will rise up, Indra. I won't go away.  Please don't refuse me."

    "None of these seeds will reach the soil, Ma.  Some will float in darkness, some will fly over Kalidaha, exposed... they’ll have no shelter, no soul, no heart.  Why should I keep these seeds, Ma?  Seedeaters pray for seeds, till there’s no soil left.  But Padma has swallowed it all.  Yesterday, at dawn, we lost our land.  What's the use of seeds now?   Now we’ll leave for Kalantar.  Please go back. "   

    "Indra, put the yoke on the bull's neck..."

    "Come here, help me please!" Indra asked the cart driver to assist him. He looked very stiff and indifferent.

    "Come, get up.  Sit under the cover, Sister Anno.  Dusk is coming," the carter pleaded with Anno.

    Wiping her eyes, Anno did what she was asked.  The cart began to move.  Anno looked behind her.

    "Won't you come with me as far as the road, Indra?" Anno pleaded.

    Indra kept pace alongside the cart. "Padma has ruined not only our family.  Soil erodes every year. Houses, market, shops – she’s swallowed everything.  You can find it in the newspaper,"   Indra said, breaking the silence.

    "Why did you run away, Indra?"

    "When I came back, the land of Grandpa’s spells was under water.  What else could happen to us?  Everything is under water."

    "Then why did you cast a spell on me, Indra?"

    "A spell?"

    "I counted the fifteen grains of rice. Why did you do that?"

    "I wrote on the grains.  Actually I've no faith in charms. Why would I cast a spell on you?"

    "What did you write?"

    "Why should I tell you?"

    "Please, tell me, this is the last time we’ll meet."

    "Basmati tumi kar?"  To whom do you belong , Basmati?

    "But there are only fourteen letters!"

    "I didn't dare make it fifteen, Anno.  It’s better that we have no land now. Otherwise you wouldn't go home!"

On the way home, Annapurna guessed what the fifteen letters on the grains were.  "Basmati tumi kar?"  To whom do you belong, Basmati?  At that moment Chunilal bruised her heart with its sharp claws and tried to gobble up the letters as it flapped its wings. "Basmati tumi Amar."  Basmati, you belong to me.
    


1  Betai: cheap and coarse rice, eaten by the poor
2  Ojha: originally the title of a sorcerer
3 A large lake, home of a monstrous snake, who was killed by the god Krishna