Farman walks across the wheat field.
He is a thin, spare man with a narrow waist and broad shoulders. Yet for all his thinness, he looks surprisingly sinewy and supple. His goatee makes his pointed chin appear even more prominent. Above the big nose, his eyes are almost luminous. He stoops slightly as he walks, resembling a curved knife.
He is wearing a green lungi tied loosely to his waist. A dirty cotton towel drapes over his bare torso.
Lifting his lungi with one hand and carrying a dao and a bundle tied to a dirty cloth in the other, unmindful of his surroundings, Farman walks on in long strides.
The wheat has begun to ripen. The yellow bristles peep out here and there from the vast greenery of the field. A light breeze creates a ripple over the field making a soft humming sound — a reverberating music.
Far to the north, there are thickets of bamboos and trees bordering the village. To the south, there’s nothing. As far as one can see, there’s nothing but open fields — bare and vast.
Beyond the empty fields, there is a river somewhere — the Brahmaputra. But it’s far off, not visible from the field.
Farman is hungry. He has been hungry since the morning.
Farman is intimately familiar with these pangs of hunger. Since his childhood. Hunger and he are old companions. Now he can discern the signs of hunger without a doubt.
First, there would be a burning sensation in his stomach — a desperate cry from his empty belly. Then there would be nothing. This would be followed by a sense of unease, as the indefinable pang relentlessly gnaws at the pit of his stomach and the region just below his chest. Eventually, the pain would subside to a dull ache — curiously numb, apart from a sharp twinge now and then.
As the evening falls, the day’s hunger would result in a stupor. It would overpower him mercilessly, mind and body.
Yes, Farman knows hunger well.
These pangs he is feeling right now are certainly not new to him. They are the symptoms of the first day of hunger.
The second day would bring about an irritation. It would start with an overflow of swear words at slightest provocation. This would be followed by a benumbing fatigue so much so that it would be impossible to keep working. Then he would be taken over by an uncontrollable urge to eat anything — just anything.
The third day is different, easier — no pain, no ache, no anger and no irritation. There would be an odd light-headedness. As he grows weak, his mind would go blank.
When this happens, the blank mind fails to register the world around it. Thoughts and worries disappear. People look shadowy like silhouettes seen through a mist. Their words come to him as indecipherable ghostly whispers.
On the third day, the desire for food no longer titillates. Incoherent thoughts flit through his mind without leaving any impression. It is like a dead weight, like lead pressed upon the mind. But it leaves no impression, only an unconscious emptiness.
And the next day?
The next day, the exhaustion would be so complete that he would lose control over his faculties — mind and body. His lips would move and words would come out without volition. Meaningless words. Meaningless even to him.
Farman is all too familiar with hunger.
Yesterday, he had eaten a little in the afternoon — rice, a curry of wild herbs, a green chilli and a little salt. How long has it been now? Another afternoon? Twenty-four hours?
That’s nothing. He has gone hungry for three days at a stretch. A mere twenty-four hours is nothing.
The wheat has begun to ripen. The grain, however, is still tender. If you bite into it, all you get is a milky sap. There’s still a couple of weeks to go for the harvest. There will be work then.
But there’s no work now.
The fields are full of vegetables ready for picking. But you don’t need hired hands for picking vegetables. It’s the planting season that brings work.
The tiny islands of sandbars created by the dry river in the winter are full of vegetables. There is food everywhere. Within sight. But for the poor, there is nothing to eat.
Farman has been looking for work for five days now, but without success. He went wherever he could, asking for work. But no one needed labourers now.
Monowar Ali’s huge plot of land was teeming with cauliflowers and cabbages. He had asked for work there too.
‘Let me do it. Let me gather the vegetables and pack them for the market,’ he had pleaded.
‘No, no. Leave it. I can manage,’ Ali almost barked at him.
‘Then shall I take the sacks in the carts and put them on the bus to Barpeta?’ he had asked again. Perhaps he will be allowed to do at least that much. It is half-a-day’s work, but enough to take care of his lunch.
‘No need. My men will do it.’
His hopes dashed, Farman was helpless.
Finally, he went to Moazzin Ali’s house.
Ali is a rich man. A local leader and a politician, he is always on good terms with the people.
‘What job can I give you? I don’t have too many plots under cultivation. What can I give you?’ Ali told him.
‘Haven’t eaten anything for two days,’ he deliberately added one more day to his hunger.
‘Oh, oh!’ Ali clucked his commiseration. ‘But work? What is there to do? Not enough to need a labourer. But alright, just clean up the cowshed and tether the cows.’
‘Yes, sir!’ Faman was relieved.
‘But listen , eat something first,’ Ali called out as he started to walk towards the cowshed.
‘It’s alright. Let me clean the cowshed first,’ he had shouted back, partly because he was glad to be doing something, and partly because he was afraid that Ali would change his mind.
He worked until late in the evening and asked for half-a-day’s wages in cash. Ali refused and gave him two kg coarse flour instead.
Farman tied the coarse flour up in a bundle without a word. But he was furious. On his way back, he swore and cursed everyone he could think of.
By the time Farman reaches his neighbourhood, it’s time for evening namaaz. But no namaaz for him today.
Who can pray on an empty stomach? He mutters to himself.
Passing along the narrow alley, he notices his neighbour, the rich Keramat, preparing to offer his namaaz by the roadside. For a moment, he hesitates and then hurries to Keramat’s side.
Keramat, the rich farmer, and Farman, the pauper, kneel together on the roadside and say their prayers.
In the west, the sun is about to set and the sky is the colour of a mellow orange.
Farman was just a boy, barely fifteen or sixteen, when his father died. The family was poor. Not just his, everyone in that char was poor. Everyone, barring a handful. You could count them on the tip of your finger — Matabbar, Matigiri, Dewani, one or two petty businessmen, and of course, the Maulavi.
Yes, the Maulavi too was rich. He may have appeared to be poor but he belonged to the ranks of the rich.
He wasn’t wealthy but he had a social standing. Everybody respected him, held him in awe. He was assured a meal everyday at someone or the other’s house.
The poor like Farman had no respect, no status. The people like Farman were the lowest of the low.
Farman’s family used to live in a low-thatched two-room shack made of bamboo and straw. Every year the floods would destroy the house and they would rebuild it.
It was a yearly affair at the char. However, not all lands were inundated. Only the low-lying areas. The higher grounds did not suffer serious damage except when the waters in the Chaulkhowa River rose really high.
As far as he could remember, their house was under water only once. They had had to leave the house for a safer and higher ground along with several other families.
He remembers those days only too well.
His two sisters were very young. He had a brother too, but he died. He had, in fact, a large number of siblings. He has lost count. Most of them perished. Like falling petals of a gourd flower.
Farman remembers his childhood vividly.
His parents were young. But his father always looked like an old man. Every morning, his father, a labourer, would go out in search of work while the children would remain at home with their mother. Those were happy days, for they had nothing to do but play in the mud the whole day.
The rising water during the monsoon did not always submerge their house but the sandy soil of the char would become soft and slushy, their feet sinking deep into the mud when they walked. The floor of their house would be perpetually covered in mud too, brought in by their dirty feet. They slept on a bamboo cot, but their mother would still do her cooking on the dirty muddy floor.
It felt only natural that during monsoon everyone’s feet would be muddy all the time.
So the children would carry on with their games oblivious of their surroundings. The only condition imposed on them was that they would have to play inside the house. Going out was forbidden. By the time their mother came to clean them, they would literally be wallowing in the muck like water buffaloes in a muddy pool. Their mother would wash them in the evening.
But it was also difficult to get water. The riverbank would be muddy, going up to the knees. The soft mud made the approach road to the river extremely slippery. It was, therefore dangerous to fetch water from the river.
The wet earth emanated a raw and dank odour. It was like the stench of jute stalks kept under water. He used to love that raw, sharp smell.
Now, on an empty stomach, the very memory of the smell makes him want to throw up.
As he prepares his meal of boiled flour, Farman’s mind goes into a flashback of his childhood — thoughts without sequence flitting through his mind.
Who died first? His father or mother?
He doesn’t seem to remember.
Was it his father?
Yes, his father died first, his mother followed a few months later.
His thoughts are confused. Hunger does that to you. On an empty stomach, even thoughts refuse to stay on track.
Nowadays he can never remember things in their proper sequence.
His sister, the one next to him, had already been married off when his father died. Yes, it was before his father’s death, he remembered it well. Their only cow had been sold for the nikaah. New saris were purchased for her from Barpeta. But she too had gone to a poor household, not as poor as them, of course. His brother-in-law had a small plot of land. They managed to get a little produce out of it.
His father did not live too long after her marriage. Yes, he remembers now.
His father had found a job of ferrying bamboos across the river. The bamboos had to be piled in stacks and floated down the river like some loosely bound rafts.
He come back from work one day and took ill suddenly and just as suddenly, he died. A few months later, his mother too passed on. Just as suddenly. Not even a year had gone by.
Those were harrowing times after his father’s death. There would be nothing to eat at home and they would starve for days.
His mother would work sometimes. It depended on finding work, which was rare.
Small as he was, he too would go looking for something to do, anything to earn a meal. Most often he would be turned away — he was no good, too small to be of any use.
Then there was Niyamat, the cattle trader. Niyamat would visit their mother regularly. There was talk of a nikaah too; at least that’s what the villagers said. He had heard the rumours.
Niyamat already had two wives. But no, his mother could not marry Niyamat. She died before that. Something must have gone wrong. May be it was the medicine; the bleeding just wouldn’t stop.
So only two of them were left — he and his youngest sister. And how she grew!
It was strange how in spite of their life of constant starvation, she had grown up to be so pretty. He marvelled at her beauty. She had the complexion of pink sand, her body as supple as a tender cucumber.
He was worried about her. Yes, he was old enough to be concerned for his sister.
Matabbar brought the proposal.
The groom was from the other char, three villages away from his own. He was a rich man, landed, with cattle, granaries full of harvest, commanding respect in society. He was married twice, one wife died about a year back.
And his age? Well, no one knew for sure. Admittedly, he was slightly on the wrong side. But surely, he couldn’t be more than forty! And his little sister? She was fourteen, no, fifteen. Right, she was fifteen years old.
‘Arey, who cares about a man’s age? He should be capable and healthy, that’s all,’ Moazzin Ali had told him.
‘Good family, good man — generous at that, what more do you want? What a huge house and such a big family! He has already married off two of his daughters. Your sister will be happy. What more do you want?’ Moazzin had gone on and on.
Farman remained silent.
‘Don’t be a fool, just marry her off. Don’t play with fire,’ Moazzin warned him. ‘Beauty in a pauper’s house is nothing but a curse; she will be nothing but trouble to you. Think of your honour, your prestige. He will marry her, keep her in luxury. If you keep her at home, what guarantee do you have that she will not run away? Worse, if some goon takes her away by force? Where will be your reputation, your honour, then? There will be unnecessary bloodshed. And what if the case goes to court? Are you sound enough to hire a lawyer? Will you be able to pay his fees? Where will you get the money from? Not even if you sell yourself twice over!’
Moazzin Ali had really scared him.
His sister did not protest. She went to her new house without a murmur and she appeared to be genuinely happy. The fact that her husband was old enough to be her father, that he had a wife and children, did not seem to bother her at all.
A woman is valued at even less than an animal! Farman spits out in disgust.
His brother-in-law presented him with a new pair of lungi and a shirt and one hundred rupees in cash. He was pleased.
After the wedding, he has been to his sister’s house many times. She is indeed thriving in her new house, no children so far but her comfort could be measured in her girth.
It’s a wonder how fast the slim girl transformed into an obese woman. She now looks like a bloated she-buffalo. She is always dressed richly and is decked in gold ornaments. She would make sure that her brother notices them.
He was aware of this and that’s why he pretended not to see them.
The sight of his well-fed ox-like brother-in-law brought up a curious sensation in him. His brother-in-law always wanted to take advantage of his helplessness, always tried to get him to do something or the other.
As if I don’t understand the old devil’s designs! Farman would fume silently.
He refused to take the jobs offered by his brother-in-law. Still, it did not stop him from visiting his sister regularly.
She would feed him; give him a little money on the sly. But before leaving, he would always ask his brother-in-law for money — a five or ten-rupee note. He would never be refused but the money would invariably be accompanied by a knowing smile.
At the sight of his brother-in-law’s condescending expression, Farman would seethe with impotent rage.
(Extracted from ‘Hunger’ by Dhruba Jyoti Borah, translated from the Assamese by Shantana Saikia (Red River, 2020); published with permission.)
Dr. Dhurba Jyoti Borah — DJB to his friends — is one of the most powerful voices in the contemporary literary scene of Assam. Equally at ease with both at fiction and in non-fiction, DJB has published more than ten novels. His trilogy comprising Kalantarar Gadya (Prose of the Tempest), Tejor Andhar (Darkness of Blood) and Arth (Meaning), based on enquiries into the turmoil and tragedy of Assam during the insurgency, has been hailed as a major literary creation of the present times. Borah’s major non-fiction works include a monograph on the medieval peasant struggle (the Moamorria uprising) of Assam; a study of development of Assamese language into a modern national language and a book on the national question and self-determination. His books on the history of the WWII, the French Revolution and a two-volume work on the Russian Revolution are the first books on these subjects in Assamese. His fiction has been translated into Hindi, English, Bengali, Malayalam and Bodo. He received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2009.
Shantana Saikia is a translator, writer and teacher. She currently works in the Department of English, Bahona College, Jorhat, Assam. A student of English literature and avid reader, she is currently busy in her research and translation.
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