The Old Man of Kusumpur

By AMAR MITRA  

Translated from the Bengali by ANISH GUPTA

Fakirchand of Kusumpur set out on his way to meet the Big Man. A bundle of meagre belongings hung on his back from one end of a cane stick that rested on his shoulder. Old Fakirchand walked with a slight stoop.

It was moments before sunrise, and the March morning was soft and cool with a genial air and the earth still pleasant to walk on. The cocks were still crowing. Swarms of little children were already out in the open. Old Fakirchand walked slowly, as though measuring each step, and raised both hands to his forehead in obeisance or ‘pranam’ to the rising sun. Yes, his eyes felt better and so did his body. In the brisk morning air, he touched his rheumy eyes with his cold hands.

Fakirchand was about three-times-twenty, but already the world appeared hazy to him, his limbs trembled, his skin hung loose, and innumerable wrinkles crossed his face. At this age, the ripe old man felt the desire to meet the Big Man of Kanyadihi, situated on the bank of the River Subarnarekha, some twenty miles away, beyond the forest of Durgadiha.

Of late he was passing through a state of mental turmoil. He decided to go and see the Big Man, whom he had never met before, because his sorrows were not one but many. His eyes, for instance. Fakirchand knew the Big Man would refer him to a village doctor, a wizard, the very sight of whom would heal his eyes. Of what good was it to remove a cataract, he thought: Clear it once and it comes back again! But the Big Man had many medicines, he knew of many wild herbs. Oh, it was ages since he had last seen the good earth with a clear, transparent vision.

His son, too, caused him much pain. The fellow had eloped with a village wench to distant Chakulia, where he managed to get himself a job of sorts. But life at this age, without a son, was not worth living. What point was there in having given the boy life if, at this fragile age, he was to be left to fend for himself, old Fakirchand brooded as he walked along. He knew the Big Man would have an answer. He expected him to find a way that would bring his son hurrying back, abandoning his woman of love.

And about his plot of land, the Big Man’s advice, he knew, would be providential. Fakirchand was a loner. His wife was long dead. Keeping possession of his land was driving him to his wit’s end. His enemies did as they pleased; they carried away every sheaf of unhusked rice that stood on his field. Just one word from the Big Man and Fakirchand would know how to treat the rascals!

And even though his wife was dead and gone, Fakirchand’s sixty-year-old blood still ran warm in his veins. If only the Big Man named a good girl: Even now the old man’s eyes lit up, his mouth watered, passion swelled within him at the sight of a well-formed woman.

Hence Fakirchand had braced himself for a meeting with the Big Man of Kanyadihi. The night before, he had dreamt his own death. The villagers, a bumptious lot, were hovering like a bunch of vultures, waiting for him to die. The moment he breathed his last, they swooped down, tearing at his possessions. But Fakirchand would not let that happen. He would meet the Big Man and tell him all.

Fakirchand had been hearing of the Big Man ever since he moved to Kusumpur fifteen years ago from beyond Parihati. It was only after he moved to Kusumpur did he find a home and a patch of land. The village was rife with tales of the Big Man’s great deeds. All things moved, it was said, according to his wishes, everything changed according to his dictates. He had never before cared for the Big Man, but now he did. He felt restless.

One could never tell how the mind would behave when the body grew old and infirm.

Fakirchand’s wife had gone to heaven, his son ran away with a wench, leaving him lonely to guard his own little kingdom—a thatch hut and a piece of land—like the Yaksha of the legends. Many in the village wished him dead, but he was not a person to give in easily. If only his eyes were healed, he would once more live it up with the warmth of his blood, he mused as he walked.

Leaving the dusty bushes and the dry ponds of Kusumpur behind, Fakirchand found himself in a gently undulating, open, barren field of saffron gravel. The sky soared infinitely above, the moor stretched unhindered to the horizon and the light poured down from the heavens in a warm, incessant stream. In that thick light, the old man made his way, charting his course to a distant destination that lay beyond the moor, beyond the villages, and beyond the forests.

Fakirchand’s mind grew dim. He remembered with difficulty the days when he first came to this region. It seemed a long, long time ago. It was when an awesome flying machine of war had broken apart in the sky and come crashing down on the plains of Nishchinta. Fakirchand now heard a drone, like that of one of those machines of yore, approaching from afar. He turned his head and looked heavenwards, into a brilliant and dazzling sky. A helicopter, hanging on its revolving blades, flew by towards the air base of Kalaikunda.

The sun changed colour, the light thinned into a brassy glare.

Fakirchand crossed the field. The day was still cool, but the sky seemed to have receded far, as he approached a narrow dirt track winding through a wilderness of tall grass and thorny shrubs.

He crossed that, too, and stood before a canal in which waist-deep water still flowed. With summer advancing, it would be reduced to a mere trickle, but after the rains, it would again swell to a height more than that of a man and a half.

There used to be a bridge across the canal. But it had disappeared. Fakirchand looked left and right, but found no trace of it. Had he come the wrong way? No, not quite, he thought. The old banyan tree stood all right at the crossing of the Baburbani canal. The tree was there, but the bridge was gone, without a trace.

Fakir studied the water with his foggy eyes and sensed a sharp current beneath. He stood helpless on the banks of the canal, which was the only source of water in a sprawling, draught-prone place. He knew there were layers of silt beneath the water and a treacherous current. He remembered old Nakphuri, who died of drowning while fishing in the canal one monsoon month and was washed five miles away to Kadamdihi.

It was a hopeless case, thought Fakirchand, surveying the surrounding. His body was too infirm, his eyes too weak to brave a crossing. Memories of Nakphuri came repeatedly back like horrid and cautioning visions, making him sink into a stupor. And as he stood transfixed, not knowing what to do next, the day grew brighter, as the sun rose higher in the sky. It was just then that the notes of a flute wafted into his ears, bringing him back to his senses. He scanned the surroundings for the one who played so sweetly, and, before much time had passed, a black man appeared with the flute like an apparition from the void. At long last, Fakirchand had found someone.

“Where are you going, old man?” the black man asked, lowering the flute from his lips.

“To meet the Big Man,” Fakirchand said, taking a step forward.

“The Big Man? Who on earth is he?”

It was Fakirchand’s turn to be surprised, and he let off a jeering giggle at the young man’s ignorance. How was he to describe the Big Man—it was as impossible as divulging the secrets of the bird and the bee. So he broke into a song, hoping that the black man would understand the allegory.

Who spreads the smell when the flowers bloom.

Who brings rain borne by the clouds?

The flowers blossom and He makes the smell waft.

The clouds gather and He makes the rain come down.

The black man listened with wonder, and Fakirchand told him many, many things about the Big Man.

“Are you telling the truth?”

“Yes, I have no reason to lie. You don’t know of my sorrows. My son has deserted me; my wife is dead. I have none one at home. My eyes don’t see well. But I know the Big Man will set everything right.”

“Oh! Then he must be as powerful as God!” exclaimed the black man, whose skin was as lustrous as the first clouds of monsoon.

“Yes, very much,” Fakirchand agreed.

“Then proceed,” said the black man and turned to take his leave. But Fakirchand held him by the arm.

“How will I cross the canal” Fakirchand asked.

“How do I know?” the black man tried freeing himself.

“Carry me across,” Fakirchand pleaded with a tremulous voice.

“What will you give me in return?”

Fakirchand promised everything! He would tell the Big Man about him so that the black man was left without sorrows. “I’ll request the Big Man to make you happy.”

“Really?”

“Yes, of course, I am mentioning the Big Man not for nothing.”

With a quick, effortless jerk, the black man lifted Fakirchand on to his shoulder and went down into the canal. As he waded through the waist-deep water, the black man told Fakirchand, in bits and pieces, the tales of his woe.

The black man’s name was Chhotosona Mandi, whose life seemed as barren as the fields of March. He was deeply in love, with the daughter of one Bankim Hansda, and the girl loved him, too. But it meant nothing. Hansda would not give him his daughter’s hand, never.

Fakirchand’s body quivered with pleasure at the thought of marriage. “But why wouldn’t he marry his daughter to you?”

“Because I have no house, no land.”

“Ah, the greedy swine,” thought Fakirchand with laughter building up inside him as Chhotosona Mandi stepped out of the water on to the canal’s other bank.

“I’ve helped you cross, so be sure to tell the Big Man about me,” said Chhotosona Mandi. “Tell him that a youth as fresh as the clouds, loves a woman of Asanbani whose name is Bishnupriya.”

If only the Big Man brought them together, his sorrows would be over. He wished he could go along with Fakirchand, but his hands were tied, he had to go and work as a labourer. But he would be at the same spot the next day, waiting for Fakirchand’s return. He would help him across the canal again and would expect to hear the good word.

Saying this, Chhotosona Mandi let himself go in the bright sunlight and blew into the flute again, the strains of which were carried far by the wind as he disappeared out of sight on the other side of the canal.

Chhotosona Mandi’s affair was indeed a sad one, thought Fakirchand, and resolved to tell the Big Man everything, as he resumed his journey. The old man made a slow headway along the dry, saffron dirt track, on the one side of which was a low lying field, and a small thickly wooded hillock on the other. The day was warm. It was the last day of March. The wind was laden with the smell of Sal, Mahua and myriad flowers.

Twenty years ago, he was strong as a buffalo. Some of that strength must have still lingered; otherwise, how could he come this far on a hot day? With his limpid body, hazy eyes he waddled along doggedly.

Gradually, the day grew white with heat. Unfiltered sunlight struck his dark, glistening body and broke up into flares as though from sparklers. He felt his throat drying up, his face felt hard and baked, his mouth tasted bitter, and his body burnt like desert sand.

The old man’s eyes became dimmer still and flights of hallucination crossed his fading vision. He was in the midst of a wood and ravines. His progress slowed down. He gasped for breath. With his tongue he sought more air and wetted his dry, parched lips. He knew it was still a long way to the big Man’s house and felt intimidated.

Then a strange thing happened. Old Fakrichand heard people singing. He wondered who were the joyous lot who sang when the sky rained fire. He followed the sound, and the forest soon thinned, revealing a clearing. Men and women, Santhals all of them, were gathered there, singing without a care in the world despite the oppressive heat. Fakirchand silently drew closer, his head dizzy and darkness enveloping his eyes.

“What’s happening here?” he asked, running out of breath.

The Santhals looked at him curiously.

“Where does it come from?” asked one man.

“Would you like some rice cake?” asked another.

Fakirchand felt as though his skull would crack because of the heat. He sat down in the shade of a young Neem tree.

“We are performing ‘salui’ puja,” he heard someone say.

“Give me some water to drink before I die,” mumbled Fakirchand, loud enough to be heard.

Some of those who stood around called for water and others brought it in a shining pail.

Fakirchand first applied some to his scalp before drinking to his heart’s satisfaction. His sight came back to him and he took a long, deep breath.

“Why is your puja being held here?” Fakirchand asked.

Someone said something but he was too drunk to be coherent. The women started singing again.

Fakir skewed his eyes to have a look. Just then someone ordered the singing to stop.

“An alien has come among us. We must speak to him. No singing now, please,” the voice said.

“Where are you going?” asked a veteran Santhal, too drunk to stop swaying.

“Kanyadihi.”

“Where do you come from?”

“Kusumpur.”

“Kusumpur to Kanyadihi — that’s a long way to go! But why are you going there anyway?” the Santhals seemed eager to know. 

Fakirchand felt more at ease now. He ran his eyes over the faces that crowded round. All the eyes that stared at him were bloodshot.

“I am going to meet the Big Man.”

“Who is he, the forester, a forest ranger?”

“Rubbish” snubbed Fakir, surprised at their ignorance. So he told them all that he knew about the Big Man and his greatness.

“Why? We don’t need any Big Man; we are happy without him,” said one.

“Shut up,” another cut him short.

“We have our sorrows,” he continued, “our sorrows pile up to the skies.”

Old Fakirchand batted his eyelids and cast sly glances at the shapely young women. “Tell me of your sorrows and they will all be over,” he said absent-mindedly.

“Yes, we’ll speak. Will you care for a drink?” asked one, nudging him by the hand.

“How can I? I am going to see the Big Man.”

“Then listen. Bad times have overtaken us. The salui festival can no longer be observed with pomp. We don’t get good Sal trees any more. The forester sends them all to Kharagpur. We can no longer sacrifice a boar at the ceremonies and my daughter will, in all likelihood, run away with an outsider. We don’t get timber, we don’t get game to hunt. The Marang Buru is not happy with us. If we drink, police get after us and pack us off to Jhargram.”

The man hid his face between his knees and cried. Those who stood around cried too.

“Look, old man, you are like a god to us. Don’t go away without accepting our offerings. If you don’t like ‘handia’, have rice; if you don’t like rice, have water,” they pleaded.

They forced Fakirchand to have rice. But he had no taste for it. He felt like throwing up, but it was good that his belly was full. He stood up, ready to depart. The Santhals followed him. “Tell the Big Man about us; tell him to give us back our good days,” they said as they saw him off.

“Be here tomorrow. On my way back, I will have a word for you,” Fakirchand assured them.

The old man set out again. He had not gone much farther when he squeaked with suppressed laughter, but fell pensive again. He was moved by the sadness all around. “I must carry these words of sadness to the Big Man,” he said to himself. The sun had slanted already. A deep booming sound reverberated through the somnolent wilderness. Were the clouds bursting? No, bombs were going off in Kalaikunda. A mock battle was on, ripping the silence apart.

The sun was going down fast when Fakirchand neared the forest of Durgahuri. He still had the forest to cross and two villages and a field beyond that before he could reach the banks of the Subarnarekha on which Kanyadihi was situated. The Big Man lived there— tall, fair and in the pink of health. He must have greyed by now, Fakirchand tried to figure out. He had not seen the Big Man ever; whatever he knew were all based on hearsay.

He recounted the things he must say to the Big Man—about Chhotosona Mandi, the Santhals and about himself. There was no point in surviving like the Yaksha—either he must have a wife or his son must come back, Fakirchand thought as he walked, without realising the sky had disappeared behind a thick foliage overhead.

He was deep inside a forest. Beams of sunlight pierced through the cover of leaves here and there amidst vast pools of darkness. These forests had contained so much to fear in the days gone by; now they were different. Yet, there were mysteries galore. God Baram still made his rounds of the forests silently, invisibly, riding on his favourite animals. Beneath the towering Sal trees lay heaps of horses and elephants made of burnt clay; somewhere in the forest’s elusive depths one could still run into the seat of the demon goddess, Rankini.

The old man walked along the eerie path and found himself in trouble again. Three distinct tracks branched off in different directions and Fakirchand did not know which one to take. He was faced with yet another confounding predicament. Again, he stopped and looked left and right as he often did when helpless, not knowing what to do next. And, then, he noticed something move at the foot of a Sal tree. A man, was it? He wondered.

“Who is it that comes this way?” Fakir called out, feeling nervous.

The figure waved back at him, beckoning him near, he distinctly saw with his hazy eyes. His heart began to pound in fear. A ghost, a genie, moving like a man? Fakir asked himself. But there was nothing he could do. He was lost in the forest and had to seek help.

He moved closer and what he saw made his hair stand on end. Yes, it was a man indeed, who spoke in whispers. He looked hideous, his body dismembering from leprosy. His face appeared moist and bulbous and he lay limp on the forest floor.

“Which village do you belong to?” Fakirchand asked as he threw a coin towards the ill-fated man.

The man did not care to touch it. Other coins lay where they had fallen. Forsaken by society, of what use was money to him? Fakirchand stood transfixed and quiet.

“Death has had me,” moaned the man. “Where are you going, to which village?”

“Kanyadihi, to meet the Big Man.”

The man sat up, but said nothing.

“How long has it been?” asked Fakir.

“It will be five years this May.”

Fakirchand felt uneasy standing near him. He could not bear the sight of that horrid, disintegrating face.

“Which way is Kanyadihi?” he asked the leper.

The man did not answer. “If you saw the Big Man he would surely prescribe good medicines,” Fakirchand said again.

“Who is he?” asked the leper, this time his voice echoing in the forest.

A chill ran down Fakirchand’s spine. He told him slowly, haltingly, all that he knew about the people of Kanyadihi. The leper listened with distended eyes and stretched forward to feel the old man, but Fakirchand stepped back, avoiding his touch.

“I’ll tell you the road to Kanyadihi, but promise me you will tell the Big Man about my misfortune. If I am cured, I would like to roam the village streets again,” the leper said, his voice becoming increasingly hoarse.

He showed Fakir the way and the old man promised the leper to return with the medicine the very next day.

“If only the Big Man touched you once, your body would be healed,” he repeated.

Fakirchand resumed his march with haste. His heart was heavy. A fine youth wrecked by a terrible disease, the thought kept turning in his mind. He will tell the Big Man about him, too. Had they not helped him, Fakirchand would never have found the way to Kanyadihi, where the Big Man lived. He was sure that the Big Man would provide succour to them all.

The sun slanted towards the river in the west. The old man walked listlessly on, and then, suddenly, not far away, he saw the sand banks of the Subarnarekha spreading like an endless, white band across the earth. Kanyadihi must be there, the Big Man’s house must be there! The exclamations involuntarily went off within him.

He walked even faster now. Oh, what immense suffering people endure! he thought as he walked. But without suffering who would know what happiness is. It was only in search of happiness that he had come all this way, hadn’t he?

The evening grew sullen. Fakirchand ran out of breath with excitement. With his lean body, sagging skin and weak eyesight, he had endured much strain. He felt awfully tired. His body seemed to bend and break. If only he could rest awhile! And if in that place of rest his wife were with him and his son by his side, his pain would half disappeared. He would once more sit back and stare at the world with ethereal pleasure. He would go and have the cataract removed, and if it reappeared, he would go to Kanyadihi with his son. His son would carry  him on his shoulder, or would arrange a palanquin, if possible. The Big Man of Kanyadihi would then heal his eyes and make the world appear sharp and clear. But that was not to be. So, at the twilight of his life, he came to meet the Big Man all alone, risking his body and soul in an arduous trek on a terrible day in March.

He walked with a tremulous heart. Shadows stretched far and long. The sun went down in a pool of blackish red. Old Fakirchand felt melancholic, remembering his ruined family as the day neared its end.

He at last reached the banks of the Subanarekha. But was it Kanyadihi? Was it the place where the Big Man lived? The sullen wind had no answer; it only blew hissing past.

The river had swallowed up much of the village. A few structures stood scattered, reminiscent of a hearth. Babla trees crowded the place and wild bushes grew in abundance, and not a soul was in sight. The old man strained his eyes in the hope of seeing somebody, for this must be the Big Man’s village. Beyond, no village could exist; the river had taken a fearsome bend.

Fatigue and hopelessness began to overcome him. His body felt limp and bloodless. Perhaps this was not Kanyadihi at all, he thought; maybe, he had come the wrong way. Maybe, it was somewhere else, somewhere around.

Gradually, darkness spread itself. The wind from across the river blew hard into the old man’s face as he felt the darkness thicken around him. The footloose old villager still looked for people and he did chance to spot someone, coming his way with a lantern in hand. Fakirchand pumped all the strength into his lungs and called out at the passing man, asking him to stop for a while.

“In which village does the Big Man live?” Fakirchand asked.

“The Big Man?” The stranger stood askance in the dark.

With a quivering voice, Fakirchand told the man about the munificence of the Big Man, one who gives shelter to the tired, unendingly speaks of life, solves insurmountable problems with inconceivable ease, the one to whom people go seeking succour for all suffering.

The stranger broke into a harsh metallic laughter.

“You dream of such a man on earth, old fellow? Such men don’t live anymore.” The stranger shook his head and went his way, leaving Fakirchand standing alone.

A pale moon rose like an ochre egg. There was nobody in the vast expanse that lay between the moon and Fakirchand, not even the Big Man; only the sand dunes and the river seemed familiar. Everything seemed shrouded in mystery. The old man’s mind began to fail, everything seemed to go wrong. “You didn’t wait for me, Big Man. They say people like you don’t exist anymore. How will my suffering or that of Chhotosona or the leper or of the Santhals ever end, if you are not there?” Fakirchand muttered to himself.

He walked down to the sand dunes where the grains of sand glittered in the faint moonlight. Standing on a sea of sand beneath a benevolent sky Fakirchand cried out in frustration and anguish, “How can I sit on guard eternally like the old Yaksha, how will I live with my hazy eyes, Big Man?”

The river was there, but the man was gone. He had departed silently, leaving behind all the sorrows and sufferings; and yet faith  persisted in the old man’s mind.

“If you had to go away, why didn’t you carry all human miseries with you?’ The old man spoke to the river in whispers. He perked up his ears and listened to something—the sound of feet wading through water. “Who goes, Big Man?”

Fakirchand tried to dash towards the sound, but fell spreadeagled on the sand. He lay on the dune like the sky lies on the earth and all stirrings sank into a cosmic silence. Only much later, a flying machine, flashing its red and green light in the elemental darkness, broke the silence.

The following day the others waited where Fakirchand had asked them to, in the forest and by the canal. But the old man did not return that day as he had promised. He did not come the next day either, or on the day that followed.

But he will, one day, they thought.

Amar Mitra was born 1951 in Basirhat, a small town in the state of West Bengal, where his familyfamily migrated from the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. He has authored 30 novels, 4 books for children, and 10 collections of short stories.He was awarded with Sahitya Akademi Award (India’s top literary award) for his novel Dhurbaputra in 2006. He has also received the Bankim Puraskar Award from Government of West Bengal for his novel, Aswacharit in 2001, the Katha award for his short story Swadeshyatra in the year 1998, among other awards.

Anish Gupta is a senior journalist who has worked for leading Indian publications such as the Amrita Bazar Patrika, Sunday, Hindustan Times and The Bengal Post. He is currently associated as a translator with bangla.boomlive.in, a website that busts fake news on the social media. He also lends editorial support to English publications in Bangladesh. He began his career as a documentary filmmaker, co-directing a prize-winning film on the Munda tribe inhabiting the present state of Jharkhand in eastern India.

 

The Old Man of Kusumpur

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