After the two men crossed the river to set foot on the path leading to the village, the prowling bands of decrepit mongrels – self-appointed sentinels of the village – started an awful racket with their baying. The village folk who were warming themselves near their own hearths at home, hazarded the following guess for the din:

“Must be folks from the south bank, visiting kin in all likelihood.”

One of the visiting strangers who was utterly disdainful of the challenges of the dogs as they yapped at their heels and darted around frantically made a remark:

“Go on, scat! Barking is all you fleabags are capable of! Now Salpati of mine, what manner of village is this? It’s hardly dusk and yet there is not a single soul on the streets. Just because it’s winter time should the whole pack of them bolt in like this?”

Not being able to see through the darkness to look at what lay ahead, the other man’s feet sank into a pile of fresh cow dung. He almost lost his footing and was momentarily in danger of falling flat on his face and hurting himself. Suddenly, he became livid at the ways of this village.

“Salpati, these villagers of the north bank are not like us, south-bankers.”

Wiping his feet off the dung with a dew-drenched Arum leaf picked from the road, he continued: “Filthy, backward, barbaric – that’s what they still are, these folks. And damn lazy too. Didn’t you see – dusk is still a little while away, but you don’t see anyone stirring on the streets. Not paying any heed to whether the sun has decently set or not, men and women, the old ones and the little brats – the whole lot of them go into a huddle near the fire. Salpati, just a minute, let me roll myself a smoke. My lips are quite stiff with this chill.”

Fortunately, a bundle of hay set aflame by someone was still smouldering on the spot where the decision to roll up a smoke was taken. It was the practice among these villagers to burn hay like this so that they could have the alkaline juice from the ashes to wash their clothes with the next day. The man who had proposed the smoke-break gave a cry of glee as the warmth from the fire travelled to his feet: “What luck, Salpati! Before the fire burns itself out, let’s squat here in comfort and enjoy our smoke, it won’t be long before the fire dies down completely. It’s only hay after all.”

Without waiting for the concurrence of his companion, the man sat down. The other one had no other recourse but to squat by his side as well.

Dragging at his smoke and looking around, the man spoke up: “Salpati, there’s not a thing I can make out in this blasted darkness. We have put behind us Mohghuli village, or not? Which village is this?”

The other man replied: “A fine one to pick on with your query! Have you forgotten that this is the first time I have set foot on the north bank? Get up, get up, the folks to whose home we are headed would have had their night meal and everything...and might be fast asleep by the time we get there, at this rate. Then we’ll simply have to clutch our rumbling stomachs and toss and turn on the bed the entire night, in sheer hunger.”

Getting up, they resumed their trek. It was the month of Magh, in the waning moon. On both sides of the path ranked bamboo, banana, betel nut and keseru and many other trees. The shade of these trees seemed to deepen the gloom of the night.

The men groped their way forward, barely making out the path that lay ahead in the starlight that was made pale and indistinct by the dense fog. Actually, they should not have been this late. Had they been able to catch the first ferry on the Brahmaputra, they would have reached their destination while there was still light. But due to the punctured tyres of the Disangmukh-bound bus, about an hour had been wasted. As part of the waiting second batch of ferry-passengers, they had to wait half a day, yawning loudly and twiddling their thumbs and toes.

Now they walked in silence for a while. Suddenly they heard the sizzle of fish smacked down on a heated pan; the sound was coming from a house they were about to pass. The smell of fried fish wafted in. Instantly, hunger pangs were felt, and their mouths started watering uncontrollably. Swallowing his own saliva, one of them said: “O Salpati, when will we reach the home of your new kin? The hunger I feel in my belly is really fierce!”

Salpati opened his mouth as if to reply, but it shut off as if of its own accord. A hissing noise whistled out from his nostrils, as if he was sniffing out something. A few minutes later, he noisily cleared a great lump of phlegm from his throat and shouted jubilantly: “Almost there, almost there, Salpati! Not very far off at all now. Say...a mile at the most.”

The other asked in some amazement: “Since when have you been able to gauge distances through the act of sniffing?” His companion spat vigorously again and said: “We have reached the Dom village, you know. From the village of the Doms to the village Lahon where we are headed is only a mile farther.”

“But how could you make out that this is a Dom village in this awful darkness?” The other asked again.

“What are you saying, Salpati? By the stench, what else? Don’t you sense how the very air is thick with the smell of fried fish? That gives it away, that this is a Dom village. It seems that today the whole village has mobilised itself to fish in some lake. There’s no end to streams and lakes and ponds in the north bank region. And these water bodies are choked with fish. I’ve seen that while being in the house of my own bhinihi: the day when the villagers go to fish in a body, every soul returns home with a catch comprising some hundred to hundred-and-twenty fish – ari, gagol, and sol and rou. We Ahoms and the Kacharis have this great advantage – the fish that can be eaten raw is eaten raw, the rest is dried and preserved for six months to a year. It’s different and more difficult for the other Hindu folks. The fish they cannot gobble up immediately have to be buried at the feet of the betel nut trees and such like, to be used as manure. Today the Doms have probably hauled in fish by the cartload. So the aroma of burnt fish hangs over everything. We passed through Kari village and Mohghuli village just now – did you get the smell of burnt or smoked fish then? I am not saying that the people of those villages don’t eat smoked fish, because they do. But you’ll also get the smell of fried fish there, and of course, the smell of oils and spices and curries and lentils. But among the Doms you’ll get no such smells. All you’ll get is the smell of raw fish and burnt and smoked fish. The use of oil is probably foreign to them. March on now, I’ll prove to you that the spot where the smell of burnt fish ends the village of these Doms does too....”

The man couldn’t finish his sentence. A harsh cry, like the sound of a hundred breaking utensils, ensued from the impenetrable darkness near the road, and stunned him into silence, and for an instant robbed both of them almost of their breath.

A spectral voice fired these words in their direction: “Oi, you swallower of your own spittle and phlegm, oi, you maggot- overed diseased creatures, you less-than-female weaklings, whom are you calling Doms? Come and get to know Old Mother here, I’ll lash you with my torn and tattered mekhela till your noses meet your mouths and lips and nobody recognises your faces, you hear? Hey there, Soneswar, hey there Kalimon, don’t cower under your wives’ mekhelas and sleep the sleep of the dead. These dirty dogs from nowhere are calling you Dom, Dom, in your own home. If you call yourself men, go and grab those filth-eating creatures by their collars and bring them to me. Let me give them a few juicy ones across the face with my mekhela....”

The wayfarers were petrified with terror. They were in unfamiliar, alien territory; if any of the village young men accosted them and gave them a few hearty blows and thumps, what could they do apart from quietly swallowing their humiliation? If they were to thus get manhandled by these outcastes, and then not undergo some purification ceremony after going back to their village, they’d be tainted by a great sin. All that meant a lot of complications. Keeping their mouths shut they hurriedly made their way out. It’d be a huge relief to somehow put behind them this village.

The Collected Works of Hemen Borgohain

Excerpted with permission from “The Fisherman’s Daughter”, from The Collected Works of Homen Borgohain: Short Stories and Novellas, translated from the Assamese by Pradipta Borgohain, Amaryllis.