Unsung River13 mins 335 13 mins 335
The rivers were in spate. The water level in the Kathajodi had risen to twenty-four feet. The waters of the Kuakhai river licked the highway. Deluge in Dharmashala, Aali, Bhadrak, Bhandaripokhari. No news from those places. Their household help, Bhagiya, reported to Ma what he had overheard in the marketplace. “We are from near Aali, Ma, if you go to the right you will reach the big bungalow, don’t take that road, go left. Do you think our village still stands? Varaha only knows!” He had gone to the market to fetch mutton.
“You checked for the red seal, didn’t you?”
“Yes, Ma. Apparently cattle and people have been carried away.”
“Where’s the sauce? You forgot the sauce! Go back to fetch it.”
From within the house a gruff voice asked, “Has he got butter?”
In low, hushed tones, Bhagiya said, “I forgot, Ma. The stories of the flood distracted me. I will go again—”
With a toss of her head, her chubby face darkening, Medini Debi said, “You stupid fellow, you will never change! If you remember to get five things, you forget two. You forgot the butter, how am I going to serve Babu his toast-and-butter breakfast? Go! Run, fetch it!”
Bidyabhushan alias Chungi Babu rested on the sofa, reading the newspaper. Soft music came from the radio. From his lips hung a half-smoked cigarette. Next to him on a round cane table was an ashtray. The morning, a muted yellow; a clammy, wet drizzle.
Yes, the flood was mentioned in the papers. The current status was yet to come in, all aid would be given, a hue and cry would be raised. Yet floods are indispensable to Odisha. Was it not in the midst of floods that this land had been born and had grown? The ugly face of the flood should not make one forget how beneficial it was. So much loam was deposited on the land, so much fertilization of arid soil. Many learned men expressed this view.
The clammy wetness outside made the warmth of the house all the more desirable. “Are you giving me some tea?” His drawling voice reached Medini Debi.
A sweet voice replied from inside, “Yes! Yes! I’m bringing it.”
The dark clouds swelled overhead. Two huge white moustaches curled upwards from the dark clouds, then curled downwards. Two huge mustaches on a blackface. What a beauty!
Chungi Babu craved some exotic food. If only a whole roasted chicken stuffed with a smaller chicken would arrive for him. And the small chicken would be stuffed with boiled eggs, raisins and nuts. Yum! Delicious! And on another plate beside the chicken would be a plate full of fruits—a bunch of grapes, luscious red apples, plums; on another plate, a pudding. In this godforsaken place, even if you had the means you could not find exotic food. He would have to wait. Culinary skills would grow. The cities would expand. But the tea was so long in arriving. He could hear the clinking of crockery and the jingling of gold bangles.
“What’s this? Just tea? Warm water?”
Medini laughed. Sharp, sparkling white teeth. And those lips! On her earlobes, her jewellery glittered. Her fragrance cast a spell over him—it was not just a fragrance but a culmination of the efforts of so many people in so many factories—the fragrance of her bath soap, hair oil, and her creams. Chungi Babu experienced quiet arousal. With a half-smile on his lips, he put down his cigarette and softly humming a song from a Hindi film, rose to bolt the door from inside. Laughing coquettishly, Medini sprinted towards the door: “Stop! I have so many chores to attend to.”
“Uff! Chores! Chores!”
“Will the chores get done on their own?”
“Isn’t Kiya at home?” Kiya was their five-year-old daughter.
“She has gone to her friend’s house. Chowdhury Babu’s house.”
“You let her go in this rain?”
“Can anyone stop her when she wants something? Since early morning she’d been insisting ongoing. She’s taken an umbrella. Danei has gone with her. Let the child go and play there for a little while.”
“And Nata?” Their ten-year-old son who studied in an exclusive English-medium school. “He has a morning school. The driver took him to school half an hour ago.”
The dark clouds rumbled overhead as the rain intensified. What intensity! Chungi Babu turned on the radio. In living memory they had not experienced such a flood. The dykes had burst. Floods everywhere. Many cattle lost. People, too, had lost their lives. Entire villages swept away. The crops rotting. Thousands starving, homeless. The Calcutta-Madras railway line disrupted in places—roads closed.
Bhagiya arrived on his cycle, soaked to the skin, bringing the butter.
“You took so long!” Medini complained.
Bhagiya explained. The driving rain slapped him across the face. The road was not visible. His wet clothes clung to his body. Medini frowned, and wrinkling her nose, said, “Ok, go and change.”
Bhagiya changed, and coming out on the verandah, said, “Those whose houses have been washed away, would be sitting somewhere in the rain, drenched to the core. No food, no drinking water, water all around and the torrential rain pelting down on them. Poor things!”
Slicing bread, Medini said, “Fate! Who can control one’s destiny!”
Bhagiya said, “Who knows what havoc there is in our village! Who survived and who didn’t. The advancing waters spared no one. They say the stench of rotting carcasses makes the stomach churn. The wells and ponds are full of water, dark and muddy. No drinking water. The houses gone, you have nowhere to sit and nothing to sit on so you squat on the mud under a tree. No food. Stay alive by munching on leaves. For miles around, no building, water everywhere. A dread fills the mind. Stay still where you are—don’t move. And the crops, Ma, we were expecting such a good harvest—all washed away!”
“Why are you ranting like that? If you want to go, leave, but give me a substitute before you go. And don’t ask for a salary advance, it’s the middle of the month.”
“As if you have to wait for the end of the month, Ma. You are the veritable mistress of the storehouse of Goddess Lakshmi. She is there for you whenever you want. And yes, there are still more rumours that I gathered from the marketplace. Those who have lost their all in the floods will get aid—a collection drive has been initiated for them.”
Interrupting him, Medini said, “The government will take care of the afflicted. Why this call for donations? Don’t we pay income tax?”
“Let the government give,” Bhagiya said. “But when fellow human beings are suffering, others donate to put their conscience at ease. Thousands of volunteers braving all discomfort are working tirelessly in the flood-afflicted areas. When children are wailing in hunger, how can a sentient human being feast in peace? If the government gives five rupees, let others give three, five and three make eight. Everyone should contribute, however small. Everything will go towards alleviating the distress of the flood afflicted. The time to give is now. You too contribute something, Ma. Ask Babu.”
The rain beat down mercilessly. Pitch dark outside. Medini said, “Go about your chores Bhagiya, don’t preach! Oh, the benevolent one!”
The breakfast spread was laid on the table. Some toast, biscuits, boiled eggs, omelettes, pared apples. Some tea. Chungi Babu was eating. Medini chatted with him as she stood in attendance. The lights were switched on even though it was daytime. Medini laughed and said, “Listen to what our Bhagiya has to say. He says everybody should contribute towards the flood relief. Give food, give money. Contribute generously. The flood has afflicted the entire state, why should we be held to ransom!”
Chungi Babu said seriously, “Yes, the flood has been very intense. We haven’t had anything like this in a hundred years.”
Feigning anger, Medini pouted, “I’ve been asking you for so long, take me to see the floods, so many people are enjoying the sight, but not me.”
At that moment there was a loud clap of thunder and the power supply was disrupted. The light went off, the fan stopped whirring. At nine o’clock in the morning, the dull light of dusk streamed into the house. Chungi Babu said, “What is there to see in a flood? Only swirling muddy waters, what else? Imagine miles of muddy waters stretching out to the horizon, that’s all.”
Both of them speechlessly watched the pounding rain. Outside the window, the garden stretched for a few yards—it was in disarray, battered by the rain.
“This rain is good for the plants. They haven’t got this kind of rain in years.” Chungi Babu said.
Medini shouted, “Look out of the gate! The gushing waters! God! What waters!”
“We will be blessed with a loamy deposit. This sandy soil could do with some loam.”
“The sand may get washed away.”
“No, fertile soil from other places will be deposited in our garden.”
Suddenly Chungi Babu said, “Look, I forgot Kiya is in Chowdhury Babu’s house in this rain. Call her. Find out what she is doing.”
Medini called. With the receiver to her ear, and her body bending slightly forwards, she breezily chirped into the phone, “Hello!”
Chungi Babu continued looking at her as she spoke. Suddenly, her face fell. Putting down the phone, she said, “Where is Kiya? Where is Danei? Apparently, they left an hour ago.”
Chungi Babu’s heart pounded. “Danei is quite foolish.” He said: “He would have set out carrying the child. And then when challenged with the fury of the rain, perhaps he is sheltering on somebody’s verandah—Bhagiya! Bhagiya!”
Bhagiya set out with an umbrella. Another half an hour. The anxious parents waited at home. Gouranga Babu had been called twice. Friends in the neighbourhood had also been contacted. The rain appeared to abate. The newspaper boy delivered the newspaper. Chungi Babu yelled in irritation, “So late! If this continues, I’m not going to subscribe to this paper.”
“Sorry sir! But it is raining so heavily!” The newspaper boy left. Chungi Babu’s irritation increased. He shouted, “This is what the world has come to. Whoever goes out, stays out. Take the driver. He would have dropped Nata in school, why hasn’t he come back? Must have taken off to meet his friends. We don’t need such a driver. I’ll terminate his services, wait and see! And Bhagiya? He behaves like a veritable lord!”
The newspaper lay in front of him. Medini couldn’t stop looking at it. Suddenly she exclaimed, “Oh my God!” The front page was full of pictures of the devastation caused by the floods. The glistening eyes of an old woman standing under the eaves of her house as if in a cage, staring at the vast expanse of water in front of her—the pathetic story of Odisha’s flood began with her. There on top of a mountain a crowd of people, jostling each other, surrounded by a sea of water. The still waters stretched far and beyond, in places, the tops of trees jutted out, tiny isolated grasslands. My God! Is this a railway track? Or the skeleton of some dead animal? And this something that looked like a boat? The huge utensils used for making jaggery. And this? What’s this?
Medini Debi stared nonplussed at the picture of that solitary man. It wasn’t a man, it was a corpse. One hand raised skywards. Surrounded by water, a two-pronged tree. And where the tree forked, this corpse had nestled itself. As if the two-pronged tree were designed to cradle him in this deluge. Who was this man? Where was his house? And who were his family members? From where has he come to rest eternally in the fork of this tree? No sign of life anywhere around. The solitary corpse epitomised the agony of the human race.
Together, Medini Debi and Chungi Babu looked at the photograph. Medini Debi broke the silence by letting out a deep sigh. Exactly at that moment, a white something floated across the gate. Two feet long. It looked like a corpse. Bhagiya shouted from outside, “Babu! Ma!” Like a man possessed, he ran out into the driving rain, and rushed to the left. Medini Debi felt as if a thousand hammers were pounding her chest. Her body trembled as she cried out weakly, “Kiya! Kiya!” and crumpled to the floor unconscious. Chungi Babu did not wait, myriad lights flashed across his eyes like fireworks. Tugging at his hair with his left hand, he howled like a wild animal and rushed into the pelting rain to join Bhagiya outside.
Medini Debi regained consciousness after some time. She opened her eyes. For a while, she could not recollect anything. And then the scattered threads of what had been happening came together. Kiya carried away by the flood. Danei would have gone to relieve himself. Kiya, fascinated by the water, would have walked to the edge of the road, and then—
“Kiya! Kiya! My Kiya! Oh….” A primal cry rose from her lips, tears streamed from her eyes. She felt helpless, a pauper, as she restlessly beat her head against the floor. Then she composed herself and sat still, but she could not stop sobbing. The house was quiet, there was no one around. Outside, the rain pelted down mercilessly. No one could hear her sobs, no one would see her in this state.
The light was glowing in the house. In front of her lay the newspaper—with that picture—in the midst of the deluge a two-pronged tree on which rested a corpse.
She looked around the room with eyes that did not recognise anything—for a while,st the house became a stranger’s. And what was familiar was this picture, as if she was somehow a part of it. Millions would have floated away like this corpse—so many Kiyas—drowned in the waters; houses gone, fields gone, strength gone, life gone.
“Oh! My Kiya!” Her heart-wrenching cries shattered the walls of the house. “What happened? What happened? Why are you screaming like that?” Chungi Babu was shouting into her ears. “Ma, Ma, Ma!” Bhagiya and Danei were calling out. Kiya stood in front of her, howling. “Listen! Stop crying! Look! Kiya is here, right in front of you.” It slowly pervaded her consciousness. Kiya was not dead—she stood in front of her. In spite of the deluge, humanity was not dead. Whatever the ravages, man shook himself free. These two ideas twined themselves into Medini Debi’s consciousness. When the rain became fierce, Danei had taken shelter in Chemi Babu’s house with Kiya. Chemi Babu was Chungi Babu’s friend. And what floated past the house had been an old female goat, Chungi Babu and Bhagiya explained.
Bhagiya’s eyes, too, strayed to the picture in the newspaper. He was turning over the pages and looking at it. He said, “Oh! Mahapuru, this is so scary! Such a demonic flood—never have we seen anything like this—all is gone, gone!”
Chungi Babu sighed deeply and said, “What a tragedy!”
While caressing Kiya, Medini Debi continued to look at the picture. Her bosom heaved as her breath rose and fell. It was as if the core of her being had been shaken. Her head drooped as if she alone had managed to escape the fury of the floods with her child while everyone else was stranded—her own people, some alive, some dead.
Looking up at Chungi Babu, in a soft, compassionate voice she said, “You are safe and dry. Only lip sympathy won’t do. Aren’t you going to do anything else?”
The accusation in her burning eyes was stark. Startled, Chungi Babu mumbled, “Eh?”
As Bhagiya looked at them with wonder and joy, his jaw dropped.