He had been cycling since afternoon. It was now almost dusk. He felt extremely tired.
If only he could rest for a little while...

It appeared that the youth who was cycling beside him understood what he was feeling. Suddenly raising his hand, he gestured him to a stop. The youth also got down from his own bicycle. As he alighted, he noticed the picturesque surroundings. The place was near the highlands. A stream came tumbling down from the hill and flowed past a huge rock. The sound of the brook, as it murmured and gurgled on its way, floated up to him.

Pushing his bicycle towards the rock, the youth gestured towards him, indicating that he should follow. As he neared the rock, he observed it closely. The water was bright and clear, as though a young girl from the hills had come rushing headlong down the slope, chuckling happily to herself.The simile rose, unbidden, to his mind.

These days, his mind searched for metaphors and similes whenever it was confronted with something that was unfettered and unimpeded.The youth stood on the rock, and surveyed the surroundings. He then removed the bag from his shoulders, and, looking towards him, said, “There is no danger here.You can rest for a while.”

The word “danger” had a strange effect on him. How many shades of meaning lurked behind the word! His eyes strayed to the bag that the youth had placed beside him. Even though the youth had kept its contents hidden from him, he could guess what was inside. This object inside the bag ought to have evoked fear in him. It was, after all, the very symbol of all that was to be feared.

However, strangely enough, he ceased to worry when he heard the youth’s words. Without his realising it, the youth’s calmness had spread to his mind. There was no danger here, and so there was no need to be alert. Neither soldiers nor security men would come here. But, for him, what danger could there be from soldiers and security men? Was he not instead endangered by the contents of that bag?

Yet surprisingly, as soon as the youth said that there was no danger here, his mind was at peace. And the other strange fact was that when they had been cycling to this place, and indeed, even now, the contents of that bag imparted a sense of security, a sense of reliance, not just to the youth alone, but also to him.

As if to prove that there was no danger, the youth said, “I am feeling quite warm. I’ll have a dip in the water. Will you come?”

He, too, was feeling the heat. It was not yet summer but the weather was hot, and he felt the oppressive humidity. But he did not wish to bathe at that odd hour.

It would be inconvenient if he were to catch a cold or a cough. For him, as well as for the youth. And also for the organisation to which the youth belonged.

Shaking his head, he conveyed his refusal.

The youth took out a gamosa, a homespun towel, from the bag and plunged into the stream.The bag remained on the rock.The stream had only a moderate amount of water. Unconcernedly, the youth began to bathe.

Once more his eyes strayed to the bag. How carelessly the youth had left it lying there! Sometimes, he was amazed. It was as though the youth and he had secretly developed some kind of understanding between themselves. The weapon inside the bag was the sign of a relationship between them.

But for quite some time now, it was as though a change for the better had taken place. This changed relationship was illustrated by the carelessly thrown bag. It was a portent not of danger, but of something else. He was a prisoner of faith; the youth trusted him not to attempt an escape.

If he so wished, he could pick up the weapon inside the bag and get away. But he knew that he would not do so. This incident of the carelessly thrown bag seemed to change the very nature of his captivity.

There was a grassy patch beside the rock. Near it was a tree which shaded the grass. He went to this patch of grass and lay there on his back. He would rest till the youth finished his bath. He looked at the branches of the tree above him. A beautiful bird of many colours was sitting silently on one of the branches. He sat gazing at the bird. An often heard phrase came to his mind: “free as a bird.”

He was not very familiar with the world of nature. He could not identify the bird. Perhaps it was a kingfisher? It had a long beak, and a blue body. Perhaps there was fish in the stream.That was why the bird could not leave the place. It was bound by an invisible bond. As free as a bird!

The youth came splashing out from the water. The kingfisher suddenly took wing, frightened by the sound of footsteps. The youth put on his clothes again. Having wrung out the wet gamosa, he put it back into the bag. He slung the bag on his shoulder, and, looking at him, said, “Come, let us leave.We must reach the village before it gets dark.”

Both of them climbed onto their bicycles again. He rode in front, the youth followed.

The hostage and his keeper. Both were now pedalling with the same idea in mind. A safe shelter from the soldiers and the security forces. It was as though he had arranged his own captivity. When news of the soldiers’ approach reached them, he felt the same anxiety as the youth and those in the organisation. And when they came to know that the soldiers had moved away, or when they reached a safe shelter, along with them, he, too, felt the same relief.

Guilt and Other Stories

Excerpted with permission from Guilt and Other Stories, Harekrishna Deka, translated from the Assamese by Mitra Phukan, Speaking Tiger.