The scene was magnificent. A pyre was burning and the peasants, all drunk, were chanting bolo hari, hari bol; bolo hari, hari bol. Some were crying loud, some were sobbing, some sat terribly silent.
It was monsoon. The fields and ponds were alike with water everywhere. The rain stopped for a while and the dark clouds disappeared. Instead, streaks of fleecy cloudlets covered the face of the setting sun. A huge tamarind tree stood resolute by the burning pyre.
The pyre was laid on a rugged brick structure in a raised land by the side of a big pond. Men and women sat on haunches circling it. A thick column of grey smoke billowed upwards. Now and then, the peasants sprinkled kerosene onto it, and the fire flashed and dazzled their eyes.
The boy was half-burnt; his skull and bones were not engulfed yet. Men, meantime, stopped mourning, and women, eyes swollen and faces weary and pale, were sobbing still.
“Ahaha! Such a nice boy he was!” mourned a middle aged fat peasant woman.
“He never looks at girls. He walks fixing his eyes to the ground. He has no foul habits like drinking, smoking or gambling. Ah! Such a nice boy he was,” rued another peasant woman.
“A model lad he was. Tomorrow he would be betrothed and tonight he died. So early the boy took his life! A girl might have a past. And for that he died!” grieved the fat woman and spat with a reproachful mouth.
“Don’t call her a girl. She’s a randi (a prostitute). Ahaha! The witch ate the boy before laying her step into her love’s nest,” protested a beautiful woman with large liquid eyes and floating dark hair.
The fat woman nodded and said, “Huh…I heard her story. Her mother eloped with a man, and her father drank at Jharia’s shop. Day long he sat there and drank. At night he came back and beat her. She didn’t resist. She bowed at his feet and lay cold like a lump of dead flesh, and her father out of rage beat her more. Then he howled, groaned, and spasmodically kissed her wounds. Villagers knew it all. But they didn’t meddle.”
“The girl then became desperate,” the fat woman continued. “She began to play truant from school and visited the line hotels. Thus she earned a few sullied notes and with it she took care of her ailing father.”
The pyre was smouldering. Women chattered and chattered with more animation. And men were drinking and brawling at a farthest corner. It seemed they had already forgotten the suicide of the lad.
The fat woman raised her hawkish voice and asked, “Arre, tell me, who die for a girl? Stupid boy! Is there a poverty of girls? So many beautiful girls were fluttering around. My own sister stays at home unmarried for seven years. What’s bad about the match?”
None disagreed and many of them even claimed that it would have been a manik joar (a perfect match) as the boy had no voice and your sister no ears.
Meantime the sun secretly sank, but the rumours didn’t cease. It was a life time chance. Usually the rustic housewives kept them shut to their crooked huts all day. And in the evening they sat on the front yards and gossiped. The topic was invariably dull, old, and cold. But today is a funeral day! And the bride was a harlot!
For an hour and a half the pyre was smouldering, and heavy smelly smoke wrapped them all. Some spat, some coughed, and some sneezed. The body lay hidden under a huge stack of logs. The drunkards now sprinkled kerosene, now led bamboo poles underneath it. Each time the knots of the poles burst, the peasants jostled in joy, and shouted bolo hari. A few hurriedly brought a pair of worn-out tyres, poured kerosene on them, and threw under the pyre. The fire leaped head high and the entire place was alight. The women who were still busy with slanders took sudden notice of the rising flames. They gave a mournful look at the angry fire and sighed for the boy.
The boy was burning and his parents wailing. They sat on a heap of broken musty bricks, frenziedly tossed their heads and thumped breasts with sickening hands. Neighbours clasped them. A woman took a pail of slimy water, and poured on them. Another took a hand fan and began to air.
Nobody noticed the arrival of the night. The fire ate the corpse up. The women trudged towards their huts. The father sat, laying one hand on his shriveled, freckled face, and the boy’s mother, pale, hair disheveled, sat beside petrified. Her eyes seemed to be popped out. Nobody could read their faces, such a funny look they wore!
Darkness thickened. The crowd thinned. The dying sparks twinkled amid the debris of ashes. The sky was overcast again, and a fine drizzle set in. Some peasants ran for a shelter in a nearby tin shade. The parents didn’t move. Crystal drops of rain trickled down their wrinkled cheeks. Four or five drunkards, drenched in the drizzle, took a mango twig each. They queued, and one by one put a twig on the dying pyre.
An hour passed. The drizzle ceased, and from the gloomy sky little stars began to twinkle. A cold breeze blew. The peasants felt cold. Minutes ago four drunkards hauled boy’s parents home.
The boy was burnt, and the peasants crushed his skull.
The drunkards now admired themselves in the rippling pond. They soaped and gurgled. The yellow frogs croaked and the crickets ceaselessly sang. Yonder the fireflies waved up and down over a thickened bush. No night birds hoot. Foxes squeaked in the distant bamboo bush, and somewhere in the village the dogs whined.
The peasants gave a last look at the dead pyre and dragged themselves to their neighbourhood hoarsely chanting bolo hari, hari bol. The half-asleep children got scared and clutched at their mothers at bed. The old counted their waning days, and felt sad for Dahia. Such a nice boy he was!
(First published in Cherry Toppings, an anthology of poems and stories, ed. Jhimly Chakrabarty, Notion Press: Chennai,2018, ISBN: 978-93-5311-538-8)