Every day Bathunda rose from bed before the sunrise. But today he lay asleep even after the glowing sun kissed his yard. He had no strength to rise from bed.
He visualised again yester night’s terrible incident. Bathunda left house early in the morning. He hoped of buying some rice anyhow. But at night he returned home with empty hand. His wife and children were still waiting for him. Bathunda could not look at them. He accused himself that he was an unlucky man. He shouted in pain and rage, “No longer I can bear the burden of the family. You shall not depend on me. Think other ways to earn money and fill your stomachs.”
After this outburst Bathunda looked somewhat relieved. He began to believe that his liability as a husband, as a father ended.
Bathunda inherited not a patch of land from his forefathers. With his two daughters he separated from his elder brother. Then like other landless peasants of the village he began to live on forest land. He hoped that one day his poverty would be a thing of the past. However he lasted poor for life.
Although he freely got an acre of land in the outskirts of the forest, he could not hire ploughs for its cultivation. Like his fellow farmers he could not go ahead. After some days he had to give away his land to others. He thus became a landless labourer and seller of fire woods.
Every day he left house either to be hired as a labourer by some landed men or to bring home fire woods. In evening either by selling his sweat or fire woods in the haat he would buy some bare essentials like rice, oil, chilly, etc. and trudge towards home. Many days he would come back home empty handed. Those days the whole family would have to survive by eating wild roots, potatoes, bananas, smashed weeds. Sometimes they would even starve for two or three days.
Last three days Bathunda’s family along with other families of the forest was starving. They depended heavily on selling their daily labour or fire woods. But who would hire hands daily? Or who would buy fire woods daily? Selling sweat or fire woods daily was the feats of the fortunate few.
Bathunda for some days madly searched landed men to sell his labour. But he failed. Hopeless one day he trudged towards the forest. With logs on his shoulder he hobbled three miles and reached Chakbazaar. But the bazaar was already crowded with fire wood sellers. Who would buy from him? A few were lucky. They were able to sell. Many could not. They sat with dry face. Meantime the sun set. Bathunda was still waiting for buyers. He hoped that somebody would come and buy woods from him. But nobody came.
When darkness thickened Bathunda out of sheer frustration hid his load of logs at a place and returned home with empty hand. He saw his two children sleeping peacefully. They cried and cried for food and at last in empty stomach they fell asleep. Under moonlight in the yard his elder daughter, Tharlee and his wife were eagerly waiting for him.
His wife saw his man and hurriedly called her children, “Children, rise, rise. Your father has come home.”
These two children loved their father very much. At home they clung to their father for this and that. Hearing their mother’s call they jerkily rose from bed and came out of the room. Like other days they hoped that their father would fondle them. But Bathunda instead of caressing them derided himself. He could not rear them with food and clothes.
The sun came over head and Bathunda was still lying in his bed. The thought of passing of one more day was possibly afflicting him. Yester night he was somewhat relieved from agony and anxiety by giving out his anger to his wife and children.
He glided from one end to the other end of the bed and watched sunrays keenly entering into his room through holes. He tried to imagine what other members of his family were doing now.
For some time there was no trace of awakening in the house. There was silence as if nobody was near the house. After a while Bathunda heard his wife’s voice, “Tharlee, I with your little brother and sister, am going to forest in search of weeds and creepers for making liquor. Some rice is to be collected by begging. If I get we can make liquor for selling. Your father is asleep. Take care of him.”
Bathunda thought they had gone. A picture flashed before him: his wife and two children were begging from door to door. Unabashed they were telling villagers tale of their poverty and suffering and starvation. But who would listen to her?
Brooding over his misery Bathunda felt spasms of appetite in his stomach. He could not decide if he would rise from bed or not. If he rose, would it make any difference in the house?
He now realised that only two living beings, he and his nubile daughter, Tharlee were present in the house. Tharlee stood in the yard like a stone. Possibly she was gathering courage and steeling her mind to save her parents and younger brother and sister from starvation.
After a while Bathunda heard Tharlee speaking with someone. They stood at the doorway. He understood that Tharlee had invited a man to the house. The man entered the house with his cycle. The moment they reached the yard he got the man by his voice. He was none but Sonaram. Villagers knew that Sonaram had illegal business of timber. By unlawfully selling timber to his city clients he made a huge wealth. For his wrongs he did not repent. With that money he had bought food and drinks that would last for years. Often he came here to drink homemade liquor. He drank, shouted and then went away. In this area he had relations with many families.
One day Tharlee was alone in the house. Sonaram took this advantage. He came and asked Tharlee for liquor. Tharlee denied him and Sonaram in rage flung a hundred rupee note on her and asked her to sleep with him. Tharlee in protest burst into rage, crumpled the note, and threw it on his face. When her father and mother returned home and heard their girl’s bravery, they kissed her from head to toe.
But today Tharlee herself invited Sonaram . Bathunda on his bed was perspiring in apprehension of something ominous. He had no strength to rise from bed. From yesterday he was a broken man, a heap of bones.
Bathunda heard Sonaram speaking in low voice, “It seems nobody is in the house.”
Tharlee nodded confirmed, “You may say that. We have no furniture. Come and take rest on my bed rather.”
Bathunda thought that Sonaram kept the cycle reclining on the back wall of the house and followed Tharlee and entered directly into the room. Tharlee meekly said, “We have no tea, no betel leaf or nut. How can we grace you?”
“No, no, nothing is needed. Tell me now why have you asked me to come to your house.”
“Nothing particular,” cleared Tharlee. “Have your anger been assuaged or not?” Tharlee looked soft and subdued.
“No, no. Why shall I stay enraged? Being intoxicated I have created a scene that day. Let that pass. I don’t want to remember it. You rather deserve thanks for not divulging my words. Because…”
“No, dada, that day I have not understood the value of life. So I made a mockery of you. Today I understood that purity of body and mind hardly matters when one starves. You have given me a hundred rupee note. I have returned that. Today you may give me a hundred rupee note. I won’t return it. If you desire you may come daily and keep your notes here.”
Bathunda heard Tharlee’s voice getting slowly choked. He heard sobs of her daughter too. Covering his face he wanted to be blended with the bed. He felt that a great fire was engulfing him. He beat his breast and wanted to shout, “Let it be burnt, let the house be entirely burnt.”
(*this story is translated into English by me from Sujit Sarkar’s Bengali translation of Hareswar Basumatari’s Bodo shortstory”Upay”. It is taken from Bengali translation of selected Bodo short stories, Bodo Galpa Sankalan, Trans. ed. by Subrata Mukhapadhya, 2012)