Sibananda Kakoti is a renowned Assamese story writer. He is best known for his story books– Amrityu Amrit, Gagini Pani Tur Kiman…, Bordoisila , Pratham Jan Desapremik , Baraniya Alibat and Alibatot. His stories have been translated into various languages including Bengali, Hindi, Marathi and Nepali besides English. Kakoti received All India Katha award for his short stories and Centenary Literary award given by Asom Sahitya Sabha.
This story Boroniya Alibaat: Endharor Pod originally written in Assamese by Kakoti is translated into English by Madri Kakoti.
Just when you thought all the kids had walked home, when you thought you had seen all of them going by that very road they take homewards from school, in couples, talking, or alone, kicking the stray pebble and worrying what to say when they showed the latest test results, there-with the setting sun as their backdrop, would be the two boys, every day. They looked almost alike with their shared look of utmost interest in what the other was saying and, ofcourse, in their blue Hawaiian shirts and khaki shorts.
Shorts. That was a matter of excitement and discussion during all these walks back from school alright. They weren’t in standard seven yet, a grade which established one’s maturity to wear trousers or a dhoti. And being in standard sixth, they couldn’t wait! In the beginning of the year, their school had hosted the regional sports meet. It was then that they saw their townie counterparts walk through the fields wearing smart pants. Their head master had so far not let his boys wear trousers; it had to be the dhoti. But reaching that point where your world looks at you, nods its head and considers you a man grown-up enough to dress like your father does- well, it’s a time well worth the entire wait!
Both of them had given a lot of thought into the matter. Neither one being very tall could have carried a dhoti well, but both wanted to. That too with desires so powerful that if they could have, they would have willed the days left till the first day of their lives as seventh standard boys evaporate! None of this was dampened by the fact that every time one of them would mention wearing a dhoti to school, his mother and his sister would snigger, pass one of those all-knowing mother-daughter glances and ask him to grow up a little bit first. Or by the fact that even if the other one did grow up, his father won’t buy him a dhoti because he couldn’t afford one. After all, the white marwadi dhotis cost a hell lot more than did those worn out half-pants at the Saturday market, didn’t they.
Poroma and Rajen- they never hurried back from school, never. Even though they studied in the same class, had the same tasks and assignments to finish at home, they never discussed studies during this walk back, ever. This was their time, ‘their’ own. This stretch of walk had seen the most insightful discussions in probably the history of all the sixth standard boys in their school! (Poroma had brought that up once and Rajen, shyly, had concurred.) Sickness in the family, responsibilities, having to grow-up more quickly than kids of his age did, in short life had taught Rajen much more about itself than to anyone else. And Poroma’s fascination with Rajen began right there.
Rajen was like this endless supply of information for him. One that he could refer to at any time and be sure of not being disappointed, ever. Rajen was his own book of mysteries, his own oracle- one that always had the answer no matter what the question was. Villages, fields, neighbourhoods, their own village, their own fields, their own neighbourhoods…there was nothing that Rajen didn’t know. Poroma knew and understood very well that Rajen knew much more than he did. Even about the saang– yes that too… And so…his questions never ceased! Sometimes, as they walked on that road that waded its way through the fields touching a few small-big-villages on its way, Poroma would look at the little cracks that the occasional bullock-cart and regular feet of villagers had made on it, and wonder if all the questions he had asked Rajen would fit snugly into each one of them.
Their talks veered endlessly; covering every single common idea that might have struck them. On and on, unless Rajen missed school because he had to stay back and take care of his sick father, or because he had to help his mother finish the work in the fields that she had taken up or because he had to pick up the stick and steer someone else cattle to farm someone else’s field so that that night’s dinner could be had, or because… But no, this stretch was sacred…to both of them. At this time, while returning from school, the two boys would be away from everything else in the world- their studies, their sniggering sisters, their parents, their worries, their fears…everything. The only thing in Rajen’s mind would be Poroma’s question and the only thing in Poroma’s mind would be his answer.
So it was just like any other day when Poroma suddenly asked Rajen, ‘How do people buy land, eh? How do they sell it? You know anything about that?’
Rajen didn’t answer him right away. He never did. He would usually ponder upon the question, sit on it for some time, try to take the feel of it, weigh out his answer in his own mysteriously mazed mind, and then enlighten Poroma by revealing the ultimate truth about whatever it was. Poroma realised the routine and didn’t bother him, until they reached the Jori. The Jori was a part of their daily homecoming. They would stand in its shade for some time, look around at the lush fields and talk, just like that. Today, however, Rajen was too silent, much to the dislike of the answer-hungry Poroma. He prodded again, trying to show enough interest to merit a quick answer, ‘Oi, tell me… you can’t see the land moving about, right? It stays in the same place… how does it get sold then?’
Rajen took a long breath, as if gearing up for the long revelation. He closed his eyes, taking out the necessary books of reference from the library of his mind, and laid them in front of Poroma, neatly stacked, ‘The land doesn’t go anywhere, uh-huh, it stays right here. But the act of buying or selling it happens in a building down in the town. The people there have rolls and rolls of paper, like the notes that we write in, only white and kind of thicker.’ Poroma stood with rapt attention, so much that he did not fail to notice the slight tremble in this neat pile of information as Rajen went on, ‘These papers are printed with different colours, in the shapes of some flowers I think, some three inches from the top. Everything happens on these papers only… And after you sign at the bottom right hand corner of these papers, or dip your right thumb into ink and place it there to draw a thumb of your own, you can no longer come and till your own land from the next morning. As soon as the town magistrate stamps these papers; the land is no longer yours… you have sold it…’
Poroma digested the knowledge, but couldn’t help but ask, ‘How do you know all this?’
Rajen pointed to a piece of land right in the middle of the fields that were around the Jori. ‘A long time ago, Deuta used to till that land with his father and brothers. He tells me of a time when sometimes, he would do the job all alone, too happy to be the responsible elder son to notice the huge share of work. He has stories of the times when that huge piece of land would give us food enough to last the entire year and more! You know Poroma, he is always the happiest when he talks of that time. But then, he goes on and reaches the point when they went to the building in the town and Deuta saw his father draw that thumb in those papers. Deuta was told that from the next day, he would be tilling only half of his field.’ Poroma followed his gaze and saw that piece of land where he comes to see Rajen in the days he can’t come to school. Rajen saw him watching and said, ‘I have seen that half of the field grow smaller each year, right in front of my eyes. What we have today is not even half of what Deuta tilled in his time. And every time Deuta goes to that building in the town, I get to till even less… that’s how I know.’
Poroma asked again, ‘Have you ever been to that office, drawn that thumb or written you name or anything?’
Rajen answered, ‘No I haven’t. I don’t want to go into that building ever. But Deuta has… I have seen the papers where they sign though… Deuta was ill once, so he couldn’t go to the town. Mohajon was kind enough to send the papers home for Deuta’s signature. And you know what? These papers were not alike! Their flowers were different and Mohajon told me that every page cost something, and depending on the cost of it, the flowers would vary…’
They walked home eventually. Leaving Poroma to ponder upon pages that looked different according to their price, Rajen thought about the last time his father had gone to town, and the second last time, and the third last time… everything that happened after his father came home from the town, was the same. It was always the same, even the feel of the night-time air, pregnant with hidden sorrow and ringing with his mother’s sobs which she tried to muffle with the money that she clutched in her hands. Deuta would come home with a box of sweets, and sometimes, those who bought their land would send home one. They would be the same sweets every time, bought from that shop near the building in the town. His father would never take one, nor would Ma. And after some time, Rajen had stopped eating them too. He didn’t remember why. The only thing he recalled was the intense sense of being sick at the sight of them, the same fat, round, red gullas, nimkis and thick, dripping jilapis. He didn’t understand why, but somehow, the sweets didn’t make him or his parents as happy as they should have.
Nor did the money. The day after a trip to the town, every time, Rajen’s mother would take his father to the hospital and get medicines with it. She would run around the entire evening, clearing debts at shops and buying groceries for the month. But after a few days, the money would be finished… a lot many difficult days would come and go, his father would grow sicker by the day… and then, once again, his father would bring home those sweets…
Poroma stood outside his house and looked at his Mama’s car standing in their courtyard. His uncle had been home too many times the last month. He would go into his father’s room and have long and detailed discussions about God-knows-what. But Poroma had picked up something in the last few days… his father was about to buy some land. Confused and at loss about how, where and why, Poroma had turned to the only place of solace for his troubled mind that he could think of- Rajen. And how he had helped! Armed with his new found knowledge, Poroma confidently walked towards the doorway with plans to dazzle both his parents and his uncle of his understanding of a business as grown up as buying and selling land.
Just about then, Poroma’s father and uncle came out of the house. ‘Uh-oh! Is Mama leaving already! How will I talk to him about…’ Poroma stopped his thoughts when he saw what his father was carrying… a box of sweets. So… his father had already bought the land, the deed had been done. There go his plans for impressing him with insight into how to do it! But wait, what was his father doing with the sweets? Rajen had said they are sent to the house of those who sell land…
Poroma was in his own thoughts when he heard his father telling his mother, ‘Yes, yes… I told you, everything went well… there is no more paperwork or formality left. Just this one thing…’ he smiled, gave her the box of sweets and said, ‘Have this sent to their house, will you? He forgot them in the car when we dropped him at his place.’
Poroma heard an errand coming his way and was about to take the way around the house and take the back door entry when his mother spotted him and said, ‘There you are! Now, quick, go and wash yourself before you have food,’ she put her arms around his shoulders, ruffled his hair and added, ‘and then you have to run to Rajen’s house and give him his sweets!’
A chill ran down Poroma’s entire spine. No, this couldn’t be! It just couldn’t! How could his father buy land from Rajen’s father? How could his father make him a party to this… this… betrayal of friendship? How could he stand there in Rajen’s house and give him the sweets, when he knew that they hated them? Why did he have to do this…
Poroma thought only of his impending task the entire evening. He tried to postpone it as far as possible, doing the only thing that his heart thought right- rebel, in its own way- ‘No, I am tired!’ ‘No, I have homework to do!’ ‘No, I don’t want to!’ etc. until his mother threatened to tell his father about what he was doing. Poroma reluctantly picked up the sweets and walked his way to Rajen’s house, through the darkness of the night, one that equalled the sorrow in his heart.
He stood by the edge of the village pond, the road around which led to Rajen’s house and looked at that one tattered hut, standing solitary in its sorrow under the sky. All the fireflies of the night, all the moon in the sky, all the stars…somehow, were not able to light up its face today. Poroma was in half minds to turn around and say that nobody was home. But he would hardly be believed and moreover, conditioned by his absolutely honest and upright father, he was never comfortable lying.
Poroma walked up to Rajen’s door and stopped of shouting out his name to come out when he saw that the door was ajar. There was an eerie silence, absolute, yet broken at constant intervals by the rhythmic sobs of Rajen’s mother from somewhere inside. Poroma peeped in. Rajen’s father sat in the bed, tired and dejected with a face darker than the already dark room. Rajen stood by his father, looking at his three little brothers and a sister, all bent over their homework by the light of the single kerosene lamp in the middle of the room that was trying its best to stay alive but was actually spouting more soot than a flame. Suddenly, Rajen’s youngest brother coughed-a tiny little cough, the flame flickered and Poroma saw that someone had come inside the room, picked up the lamp and walked off with it; saying, ‘I will get this filled tomorrow…’ In the light that was moving away quickly, Poroma saw that none of the people had moved. They stayed where they were, how they were, stuck in the grief that some of them didn’t even understand.
Poroma never called out to Rajen that night. But just as he walked by it, a little muffled ‘plop’ echoed through the waters of the village pond, and in the dead of the night, no one, not even Poroma himself, saw the ripples that it made.
 A common term for the Hindi speaking people in Assam who traded in clothes.
 A elevated bench made out of thick and big bamboos split in the middle and laid side by side. The saang is the place where various people of various age meet at different times of the day in a village to discuss different matters at hand. For the author and his village, the saang is a matter of huge cultural importance.
 A kind of local tree.
 Address term for father.
 Address term for the village landlord.
 Address term for mother.
 Rasgullas: a white, soft sweet.
 Salted crackers.
 Jalebis: swirly deep fried syrupy sweet.
 Address term for maternal uncle.