BOOK EXCERPT

This Assamese novel about Bengali Muslim settlers uprooted from their homes resonates sharply today

A translated excerpt from Rudrani Sarma’s novel that tells the story of people rendered homeless by Partition and natural disaster.

Rarely do we come across fictional accounts that document the Partition of India and Pakistan from the perspective of ecologically abandoned populations living in Assam’s hinterlands, the Chars. Ballad of the Grass (Kaanhibunor Maalita) by Rudrani Sarma is a novel that throws light on the East Bengali Muslim settlers of Assam. This excerpt – translated from the Assamese by Dhrijyoti Kalita – shows how resistance against partition and endurance of the “camp” was doubly jeopardised by the massive earthquake of 1950 in Assam.


What an unsightly world this camp is! As if an enclosure for cows and pigs. With sheer force, people are being shoved in. Apparently, there is no space to step inside. Faeces and food lie overlapped. Shame and loathing seem to have subsided for the settlers here.

Meherunnessa had a few relatives in Mymensingh. One of Gafur Matabbar’s (her deceased husband’s) paternal cousins had also left during the partition. There had been no correspondence with such relatives for a very long time. It would not be difficult to search for and find them though. But this is not the time to stay at a relative’s place for just a few days. Who knows, given the homeless conditions, they might not entertain the burden as well.

Unable to survive the camp, some families have already taken refuge with their relatives. It is easy to take care of guests for two or three days. But who would unroll a red carpet for guests with an indefinite stay plan? Meherun finally decides not to go to her relative’s house. It is better to face torment and death here rather than be shrugged off by others.

They have now entered the fourth month. How long one can live idly, sitting inside the camp? An outsider passing by would always cover his nose with a handkerchief. But what about the insiders! This fetid, obnoxious stench. Newborns wailing, little ones hopping around and the elders breathing out sighs. The heat has almost decomposed those that are glued inside. Reeking urine and faeces have blended with the smell of human sweat. One dare not even peek at the back. Faeces lie fattened upon the rain water. On sunny days, they dry up and stiffen on the surface. A bunch of worms wriggle beneath.

“Hai Allah! What have you done with us?” On occasion, such words spontaneously come out of Meherunnessa’s mouth – it is the merciless truth laid bare by her experience. One cannot imagine living in this hell for much longer. Everyone is talking of returning home. Assam is their beloved land. Their own home. Their children were born there. They have grown up swimming and playing in its rivers. They have played with the supple reeds by the rivers. Have melded kinships with the blooming mustard flowers...

Their lives are entwined with those environs. Hearts are tethered to that land. Leave aside Pakistan, even if you ask them to reside in Mecca or Medina, they would never be able to build such an association.

Meherunnessa would easily become heavy-hearted with such thoughts. She would like to cry, but not a single drop of tear would fall. As if the tears have all dried and ossified. They would never melt. Agonies have now become even more intense.

They will go back. The situation is almost normal now. No one is going to stop them from returning. As soon as they can, they are going to return to their own homestead. It is always peaceful in your own place even if you are unable to keep the wolf from your doors. Often Aaslam (their younger son) would ask Meherunnessa – “Aamma, aamra baaitte kobe jaamu?” (Mother, when are we returning home?) What does he even understand – a ten or eleven-year-old little boy? Meherunnessa has asked Abdul Gani and Kaasem (elder sons) to make the necessary preparations to go back. Monsoon is here, it will be a lot easier to ply by the river.

The day they thought of returning home, the earth trembled. Nature can create puppets out of people and make them then dance under its palm. Humans think we are the one and only doers. Time and again nature favours annihilating this human pride. Although humans can only try to understand the causation of natural events, nature stands out peerless yet for human control.

In the huge tremors, lots of people’s houses have collapsed. Many low-lying places have been elevated and have now become shallower. The shallow places have gone down. It is better to wait for two more days under such circumstances.

Nothing could stop them after two days.

It is monsoon time in the Brahmaputra. People are rowing out in a shoal upstream. Some of them have planned to come later. Boats stretched out all in one go could be a punishing task. They might collide and chances of toppling over abound.

As the boat plies upstream, the ride seems even scarier. Had they known about such challenges earlier, they would have never chosen the water route. They had never imagined that they would be witnessing such a horrible sight. There was, moreover, no one to caution them beforehand. The earthquake had severely vandalised places in the upper realms of the Brahmaputra. Planks of wood and bamboo, elephants, buffaloes and human corpses all come drifting downstream. The swollen corpses floating on the waters now look so ghastly. The flooded river is transporting them all like in an impassive routine.

How gruesome!

How obscene!

The stinking, foul scent. It enters the nose and reaches the brain at once, giving it a kind of sting. As if one would retch and throw up.

The boats are demanding more careful rowing and steering. Let the end of this journey come as fast as possible! The little ones are petrified. The elders, with their dried up throats, look on in anticipation.

Water! They seem to realise now – the journey being made by river, the thought of potable water has not occurred to anyone before. Now that throats have dried up and have almost affixed inside, they desperately want water. Water? The children are dying of thirst as well. But, where would they get water? Of course, one cannot afford to drink these foul-smelling waters. The rotten corpses are floating everywhere.

Surrounded by water on all sides, yet not a single drop to drink. They would stop the boats at the sight of a village perhaps on the river banks. Thirst has fatigued all of them by now.

The boat travellers stand totally stupefied by the appalling circumstances in front of them. They do not have the slightest inkling that damages have taken such an enormous toll in Assam. The tremors have wobbled this part of the planet beyond recognition. Who knows what might have happened to their family lands?

Stopping the boats on the river bank, some young boys have gone towards a village to collect water. All are dying for water. On top of that is the blazing hot sun. As if, the scorching rays would burn them down to ashes.

Suddenly, there is a thought in Meherunnessa’s mind. In this situation, it would be better to halt at Rahima’s (their elder daughter’s) husband’s place first before moving on for home. It is just further upstream the Beki River. In few days, they will get a better understanding of the overall scenario and then they can safely return home. She has informed Abdul Gani about this. But it is he who is protesting. He thinks it is difficult to assess the attrition the massive earthquake has inflicted on them. So instead of halting at Rahima’s, it is better to head home. Moreover, they have already had their share of a hard time, not a single drop of water to drink. They can certainly bear with a little more of it. Things will fall into place once they reach home. The rest of the travellers are also returning to their own lands.

From the Brahmaputra, Abdul Gani’s family travels along the Beki and finally they reach home. The house has sagged, but the articles inside are still intact. The animals – ducks, chickens and goats – are no longer there.

Meherunnessa gets inside to have a peek. Where is Matabbar’s armed chair? There is a void in that place.

A loud cry is craving to leak out through the barriers of her heart. She tries to keep it under control. Perhaps, her son would give her a light scolding – you have your house despite all the calamities and you seem to be attached with that chair even now?

The toradhan is still in its place. It has dampened though. She must improvise some food out of that now. All are starving. There is no time to think about the chair anymore.

Meherunnessa could wait no longer. No time to look here and there. Exhausted and ravenous, little Aslam is already fast asleep on the floor.

Meherun looks at the dheki (wooden rice pounder). It is there intact as before. The place around is a tad littered. The timber-hollow is full with water. She cleans up all. Then she starts pounding the toradhan.

Two days later, Toren Boro from the nearby hamlet brought back their three goats. Soon after they left, he told them, the goats that remained tied up kept bleating. As Toren Boro was passing by, he took the bleating goats along with him. Knowing that they have returned now, he has come to hand over the goats. Of all, Aslam seems the most exhilarated to get the goats back.

Around five days later, Boloram Das from the neighbouring village arrived. Gafur Matabbar’s wooden chair was safe at his home, he informed them. The blowing wind had left the doors ajar; on his way to the fields, Boloram Das noticed that a chair was lying there in the abandoned house. People knew that it was Matabbar’s chair. Anyone could have appropriated the property from such an inviting position. With the help of a labourer, therefore, Boloram took the chair to his home. He has come to inform them now after knowing that Gafur Matabbar’s family has returned. Now either Abdul Gani or Kaasem must go and bring it back.

From under her veil, tears ran down from Meherunnessa’s eyes – the eyes that had ossified and had ceased to cry. She raised her hands and asked for blessings. Is this not her own place? The people here are like her family. She has never asked for a separate behest (heaven). This is her behest! This is her behest!

Excerpted with permission from Ballad Of The Grass, Rudrani Sarma, translated from the Assamese by Dhrijyoti Kalita.

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