If you follow the narrow, crimson path off the state highway at Banspahari in Midnapore, if you cross the Dhenkia river and travel towards the sal and mahua forests, the serpentine path will ultimately take you to Dhenkia village at the foot of the hillocks. That path was once a concrete road — now so freckled with broken patches and potholes that for the entire stretch of your travel, it will appear as a huge red serpent in front of you, a snake that travels on its zigzag way into the forest. Near the hillocks is the Dhenkia village. Absolute silence reigns there. Silence and the sound of the wind and the dove’s call.
On that footway as you approach the village, surely will you find Jamuna’s mother. The sickle in her hand shines as brightly as her teeth. She cuts babui grass and makes babui ropes. Now that the fields are bare, autumn’s basket is filled everywhere with keona flowers, the staple food of the villagers. You’ll have open fields here for as far as your eyes will travel — fields that look like an endless and undulating flood of genial waves, amber waves that make you tipsy and forgetful. The flowers grow here in silence, like the men and women. They grow and bloom in abundance, enthrall the air with an unearthly yearning before dropping off and becoming part of the soil that once helped them to bloom.
There, near that secluded and sleepy hamlet, close to the profuse efflorescence of the sal and the mahua forests, near the warm embrace of the tempting verdure of the hillocks, nearer those shadowy fields where on moonlit nights the rhythmic drumbeats will make you as melancholy and listless as the wind that blows at random, you will find Jamuna’s mother lost in a reverie as she looks at those hillocks gently kissing the horizon. The hillocks beckon secretly and if you go near, they will fill your lap with all the exuberance of autumn’s blessings. Yet, in the midst of such wealth, the woman’s lap is vacant since that day when her daughter went to the forest never to return.
Autumn is here again but the scent of the festival is absent. On market days, when she takes eggs to the farmers’ markets of the nearby towns, Jamuna’s mother will get to see the huge bamboo structure where the image of the goddess Durga will be installed. But she will remain far away from the scent of the festivities, trying to hide her anguish in the apparent placidity of the quiet fields around her remote village. The cuckoo’s call early in the morning and the evening breeze that makes the forest whisper will tend to her soul away from the tumult of the festivals held in the distant towns of Belpahari, Bhulabheda, Pachapani. Life’s sap has dried up; and Jamuna’s mother is like those dry twigs that border the village path, their contours obscured by dust. The government has arranged for solar lights in the towns, even some of the broken roads were repaired, the wind would sometimes blow the strains of music from the b|aring microphones of the Puja pandals to the loud, unintelligible ruckus at the village market. But nothing brings the air of the festival anymore. The mind is out of tune with it. Moreover, festivals don’t fill the stomach — that’s why the sad eyes of the villagers of Dhenkia roam along the path and disappear beyond the hills.
Jamuna’s mother’s only possession is a hen. When the hen lays eggs, she goes to a village market thirty miles away to sell them. The money she earns is used to buy rice. She offers me a keona flower with a smile. Then she takes her eyes off my face and looks at the ground while wrapping the babui rope around her fingers. Her lips tremble, her eyes fill with tears. She looks away.
The courtyard of her home is spotlessly clean and there’s a broken oven in one corner. Rice is boiled on that oven;only when the hen produces eggs. When she and her husband eat rice, they remember her daughter. Jamuna went to the forest long ago to join an armed rebel group. Her corpse was brought home one autumn evening before last year’s festivals. She was covered with a white shroud. A shroud that erased the life that once throbbed in that tidy courtyard and followed the mother to the fields leaving small footsteps in the dust, life that would tremble in the thin fingers that once decorated the mother’s hair with red flowers.
Every year when the dry, open fields will fill their laps with kash flowers, they bring to the mother’s mind the shroud that covered her little girl when life no longer throbbed in her. Her playful and ever-smiling Jamuna, her dusty and rumple-haired Jamuna, so endeared. In the afternoons, on her way to her hut, Jamuna’s mother watches the forlorn fields covered by that white shroud and stretching towards the melancholy of the hardly visible horizon. Then her steps become sluggish as she relives a fateful moment in her mind. Why did Jamuna have to go so soon? Could she fill even one empty stomach with her death?
Birsardar Munda, Jamuna’s husband, looks like a landlord because of his huge moustache. When I remark on his appearance, he breaks into a loud laughter. The sound reverberates in the fields and echoes from the green hills.
“I am a landlord for sure,” he smiles.
He takes off his shirt and brings one of his shoulders closer to me.
“See, am I not a zamindar?”
I can see that his shoulder is swollen with sores and ulcers, clustered sores as thick and merciless as the broken soil of the summer. The woodcutter carries wood on both shoulders.
“We eat pickles cooked with ants, we heal our shoulders with dry leaves,” says he.
Birsardar’s emaciated frame can’t hide the fact that in his youth he was solidly built. He will walk all night carrying the logs to the markets. He would walk and walk and when out of breath, he would take shelter under a tree and light a bidi, have a puff or two, and he would be off again. He was as strong as a buffalo then.
Today is a festival day in Birsardar’s hut. A festival without the image of the gods and goddesses, a festival without neon lights or microphones. It’s a festival day because after a long time they will eat rice today. Rice, a plate full of rice, rice not as white as the shroud that covered Jamuna on her last day, not as refined, not the best rice. Still it is rice. I look on as Birsardar eats from his plate made of sal leaves, the plate full of coarse, red rice. Birsardar takes some rice in his hands, rolls the weight into a ball, touches his index finger;to another single sal leaf that serves as a side plate and eats.
“What’s on that plate?” I ask because I can see it is empty.
“Oh!” he replies, “There’s salt in it. Can’t you see?”
He touches the leaf with his finger again and takes the finger to his tongue and makes a sweet little sound that tells me how he relishes his food.
“But there’s no salt there!” I am loud with my protest.
“If you think there is salt, then it is there. Otherwise it isn’t there. It is always easy to eat your rice if you imagine that there is salt in another plate.”
Birsardar’s reply makes me dumbfounded. My eyes travel across the courtyard, leave the periphery of their sparsely thatched hut and seek to hide the tears in the bosom of those distant hillocks.
A pure autumnal light filters through the leaves. Birsardar finishes his meal and lights his bidi. As he smokes, and fills the air with a strong pungent smell, his eyes close as if he is intoxicated with the rice that filled his stomach after a long time, I find him growing taciturn again. In that trance-like state Birsardar’s face tells me that he is lost in a dream — the dream that erases the hunger of Amlasol, Belpahari, Banspahari, Dhenkia …