Story

The River Knows

Bulbul Chowdhury

Translated by Akbar Hosain

 

Now the river Lokkha has turbid water; the current is strong. The waves are hissing all the while. As if the hissing sound reaches almost the bottom of the earth. By day and at night Kadira, the kaviraj hears the sound. On the other hand, the gangrene on his neck is fast spreading to his arms, back and chest. He would not live much longer.

When the darkness of the dawn fades, Falu arrives. Allah knows where he has collected these capsules and tablets from. Very often he murmurs: if he gets some injections, the infection would be a little cured.

Kaviraj won’t be cured. Yet, he hass to take drugs, and it makes Falu happy. It is almost  a law to receive your fellow people’s love. Kaviraj had an amiable relationship with all. What happens at the end?

Falu asks, ‘What about calling in a doctor? If you agree, I can manage one by forcing my gun.’

Kaviraj does not reply. A fox has been prowling around the spot from yesterday. He would die. Then the beast would come to take its share of flesh from his body. Life is at stake; where is the time in thinking of the corpse after death?

Falu asks intensely, ‘What?’ ‘Tell me one thing.’

‘No, calling in a doctor means inviting other dangers here.’

‘The doctor will be able to pick out the juitta (a kind of sharp and fatal weapon) from your body. Then the capsule would work well. You will get ointment and bandage. Think of an injection. The infection has to be cured.’

All is true. His life might have spared if he saw a doctor on the first day. In that case, the gangrene might have been controlled before long. Death is the ultimate penalty for murder; he is not alone, they are four. In this circumstance, treatment by a doctor is impossible. So, Kaviraj has complied with Death’s deal. A hole has been dug on the bank of the Shitalokkha behind the dense bushes and trees. It’s just a yard wider than a human grave. The height is of a man’s sitting position. There he is lying like a dead man. He could not see his son with intent after its birth. His baby boy is three months old. Its time passes in sleep. It’s little wonder he would not recognize his father. And Kaviraj is heading towards afterlife. He is doomed to suffer in hell. Let it happen. Suffering is due for the committed sin. A part of retribution has to be suffered on earth; the rest will be finished in the hereafter. But what sin the innocent baby has committed!

Falu smokes a cigar. He asks Kaviraj, ‘Will you take a puff?’

In reply Kaviraj shakes his head faintly. There’s left no more energy than this. The breath is stuffed with rotten odour. His own body. The gangrene is steadily spreading across the whole body. It’s also decomposing the inside of the body. It will infect even his liver. Or he will die much earlier than that phase. Only God knows.

Falu holds a cigar on the lips. It burns out in the air. He is totally fed up. He has no taste for food. His complexion is dark. That dark has turned darker living continuously a life of terror. Kashem hid himself. No news of Ramij. All the four had equal share in committing the murder. The three of them tightly held Nazu Khan. And  Kaviraj slaughtered him with a hatchet. All of them were dripped in Nazu Khan’s blood gushing out swiftly. After breaking into the door, the gang stepped on the floor and Nazu Khan fiercely struck them with a juitta.

In the dark, the weapon pierced into the right shoulder of Kaviraj.  He had to take in the assault. If dripped in one’s own blood, the man under attack would feel thirsty for killing the target. He was a man with fairly good physical stature. He took this attack with easiness. Having killed his target, Kaviraj walked one- and- half- a- mile path. Then, he took self-refuge on the bank of the Shitalokkha. The stick of juitta pierced up to his bone. No hope for life without operation. But if they had attempted to organize the treatment, the whole team would have been caught red-handed. Kaviraj accepted the reality.

Falu sits in the opposite facing Kaviraj. His face looks pale and sad. His nose smells the rotten flesh. He cannot face the man as he feels uneasy. Often, time passes in silence. That moment, it seems to him, Kaviraj has passed away. In the next moment, when Kaviraj begins to talk, the light of hope shines. What is the benefit out of it? Could this kind of wounded man survive in any age without proper treatment? He calls out, ‘Kaviraj.’

‘What?’

‘You’re taking medicine. Does it relieve your pain?’

Kaviraj gives a wry smile and replies, ‘Yeah.’

‘Ah, you could see the results if you got an injection. What can I do? If you want, I can make arrangements. And I can call in a doctor; his life will be at stake if he discloses anything.’

Kaviraj nods his head and says, ‘No. Sin begets sin. Murder begets murder.’

A fox is walking solitarily behind the bushes.  Kaviraj does not inform it to Falu. What’s the benefit? If the juitta were picked out in the beginning, there was some hope of life. Then capsules would have worked well. Now the conspiracy of death lurks in front of him. Lots of germs are in his body. Everyday he is rotting. But Kaviraj feels no pain. Even if he felt any pain, it’s deep down his flesh and blood. That pain could not reach the surface of his body. Someday he would be burned in hell. In fact, the burning of thought and agony of the conscience are no less tortuous than the bodily pain. Along with Kaviraj, Falu also suffers from anguish. And so Falu wants to know: Why did you commit the murder, Kaviraj? The surrender of all the arms to the government would have been much better. In that case, such a danger would not have happened. If you have a gun in your hand, you gain power. Men are good and naïve without guns.

There stands an old debdaru tree before Kaviraj. There’s a big hole in the bottom of its trunk. Here lives a pair of Indurgoma snakes. When Kaviraj came out in the afternoon, they saw him. Certainly they were amazed to see him. What did they see for a long time staring at him and lifting their hood? It would be better if he died. If they bite him, his body will be full of poison. His body will turn blue. Then being thirsty for death, he calls in a tone of intense whimpering, ‘Come, come, snake. Stretch out your hood. Give me a fatal bite. And let me die.’

His time has come. Why waiting for life? No remedy. Death is inevitable. If indurgoma comes in the dark and gives a fatal bite on his body, he will be finished by that poison. Now he is very helpless in the face of Falu’s questions. Why did Kaviraj butcher the man? The answer is hardly known. He learned to make drugs with various herbs from his father. Though he treated patients moving from door to door, it was forbidden to take money from them. His earning was not fixed from any dependable source. He inherited a home from his father. So from his birth he had been accustomed to starving one or half a meal. As if Kaviraj’s voice sounds a plea. He replies, ‘Poverty.’ ‘Mere poverty pushed me to the brink of death. I didn’t commit the crime willingly. Look, Falu, you look, why it happened.’

Falu also suffers from extreme poverty in life. He has three sons and two daughters. All are big-bellied. Still, he somehow manages two-square meals for his family. What wrong was there if Kaviraj took money for treatment? If want were a reality, he could have taken fees from his patients. And he could have maintained his family. Now he is a wanted killer. Which one is a greater sin? Again, Falu is a member of the gang. Why did Falu join the bunch of hooligans? Then he thinks, wants, perhaps, he had wanted some more food for his children; some more nice dresses for them. At last, Falu committed the mistake in following Kaviraj.

Kaviraj calls, ‘Falu.’

‘What?’

‘Won’t you come to see me next morning?’

‘What do you say? I wish I could pass the night with you. My wife will object. You know very well where my loyalty lies. My wife is very scared.’

‘Yeah, yet, do you know what my mind tells?’

‘What?’

‘My mind tells me, I will die tonight.’

This reply pierces Falu’s heart. The fear of death is also intense in him. Kaviraj will die a slow death. Someday he will be hanged to death. The police have been searching across the thana. Of course, nobody’s name is clearly written in the list of suspects. As the saying goes, ‘The sin does not leave its father.’ In the end, all the three shall be arrested. There’s rumour of suspicion in the face of people. There are so many people of Noakanda. Of them two are missing. No news of Kaviraj. One day, everything will be brought to light. From the clue to the murder, Falu’s name will also come to light.

All his words have ended in worry and fear. At night, sleep does not glide into his eyelids. He shall be hanged to death following the trial of the court. Nightmare as sharp as spade haunts him. The other two accomplices have hid themselves. Still, he cannot go away leaving Kaviraj alone. He waits for the end. Who will bury the ill-fated man if he leaves? After the death, the corpse will have to be processed before the rotting smell spreads out in the neighborhood. The morning sun peeps over the trees. The clouds overcast everything. The thunderstorm strikes in the sky. And the madness of waves rises in the muddy water of the Shitalokkha. The clouds rumble far, far away. As if the river heard the call of love. Waiting for rain, the river becomes turbulent. Kaviraj says, ‘It’s better if flood rushes in, then I will be washed away. That’s a relief.’

How should Falu reply? It will be a favour if Azrail takes away his life-breath. Meantime, the smell of rotten flesh has started spreading from the shade of forest towards the people’s way. He fears that the police might be informed. The death bell will ring then. At home, Falu’s wife knows all about it. The children find their father’s movement strange. He wonders what questions they can raise. His lips get dry in fear. And in this situation Kaviraj raises a queer question: ‘Why did we fight in the war?’

The four men took training for the Liberation War. All had immediately the answer to this question. Still, Falu remains silent. The motherland set free as they all fought the war. In place of a Pakistani flag, they have hoisted a Bangladeshi one. Amid all green there’s a circle of red. That is blood-red. The blood that flowed in a streaming line. Kaviraj stabbed Nazu Khan’s throat with a hatchet. The blood gushed out. And Kaviraj was blood-soaked gushing out from the strike of juitta on his shoulders. But everywhere the colour is the same. His sense of colour is blurred in the red of the flag. Suddenly, dripping blood from Nazu Khan caught up his sight. The whole world turned red, fully red. What he muttered quietly, he himself was unaware of.

Kaviraj replies in a tone of telling story. He asks, ‘Don’t you know? Then listen. We fought for people. You don’t agree?’

Falu nods his head as if the whole thing were clear to him. He replies, ‘Yeah.’

‘Have you forgotten the whole story? Pakistanis killed our police brethren. Killed our soldiers in thousands. Cought our intellectuals and fired on their chests.  Bangabondhu was imprisoned in Pakistan. Why, you also know a lot of anecdotes of Birangana? Have you forgotten how many died?’

In an instant, Falu touches the ankle of his left leg. In the battlefield, a bullet had swiftly struck the margin of his ankle-skin; so he did not need to have his leg cut off. Still, the sign of bandage and stitching is intact. For the whole life, the trail will be there; it won’t be blurred. The bullet might have pierced his chest that day. That would have been better. He would have been a martyr then, according to religion. And the ultimate shelter of the martyr is jannat. Why didn’t he die in the war? Perhaps, before long he will have to be hanged to death due to the murder he committed. A nation’s love for their freedom fighters is as intense as the hatred they have for a murderer.

Kaviraj mutters, ‘In reply to their blood-shedding, we also killed the Pakistanis wherever we came across.’

That is right. In the war, Pakistani soldiers were killed by them. That was not murder. Today, to remember from the past, a question arises in Falu’s mind. After two days of 16 December, a Punjabi soldier was fleeing in the dark. Maybe, he was chased in the battle and was isolated from the group. All day he hid himself in the jungle like Kaviraj. He looked for the way to life in the dark of the night. At last, he was captured by the villagers. He became helpless, speechless and pale. He did not express even a desire to spare his life. Though the announcement to end the war was decreed, Falu could not resist his craze for revenge. So he blind-folded the soldier and made him stand along a tree and fired three times on his chest. If somebody surrenders in war time, it’s customary not to kill them. Then, was that Falu’s first act of committing murder? And Nazu Khan, the second victim?

The clouds float away in the northern horizon. The morning sun peeps far above the tree branches, giving out sunshine. Falu gives a sigh of relief. He says, ‘I’m getting terribly afraid, Kaviraj.’

‘Why?’

‘If it rains, you will get drenched.’

‘Didn’t I tell you I want death? If storm comes, let it come. Let it drive me away from here and strike me in the river. Let the snake bite me. If foxes come to eat up my rotten flesh, let me not resist.’ Kaviraj replies.

Falu feels at a fix what to reply and says, ‘Eat a little jau (a kind of rice porridge).’

‘No.’

‘Not hungry?’

‘What hunger? Don’t you see my throat?’

Falu has no worry over the bad smell of the rotting flesh. He never covers his nose with a patch of cloth. Now he goes ahead to hear Kaviraj’s call. It’s impossible to cure the rotten part. It has been pierced up to the bone. Much of the flesh has been rotten. A big part of the throat has been affected. Perhaps tomorrow when Falu will try to feed jau, it will not reach his stomach, rather it will flow and leak out through the hole in the throat.

‘Falu.’

‘What?’

‘I practiced kaviraji (herbal medicine) for people’s sake. Many patients were cured. And I received love. When the war started, I rushed out to fight against the enemies holding arms in hand. All my previous records were good. What I did at last, Falu, can you tell?

‘Stop. Stop, Kaviraj. What has happened has happened. Now let’s think of a solution.’

Without waiting for a reply, Falu lights a cigarette with an impatient hand. He says, ‘I’ll have to go now. I have to buy some fish. I can’t flee. To tell you frankly, people look at me suspiciously. My heart bursts out in fear and thirst.’

Kaviraj remains silent. His eyes get soggy. After smoking two puffs, Falu puts out the rest of the cigarette pressing it on the dump earth. He stands up like a man who has lost his way. He takes some steps along the river. The path goes behind. Suddenly realizing his mistake, Falu walks back to Kaviraj and says, ‘I’m out of sense. I walk into a particular direction, but later discover that I’ve arrived at a place I did not intend to come.’

Then after crossing the shade of all forest and shaggy groves, Falu disappears from Kabiraj’s sight.  Kaviraj becomes alone. He made a name by practicing kaviraji. He became a freedom fighter. After the Liberation War, it was the time to submit guns and other fighting weapons. His rifle was not found in time. His wife hid it. She remained tongue-tied about it and didn’t open her mouth by any means whatsoever. He knew the reason after three months. At the eleventh month, Shorpun gave birth to a baby. There was intense rain on that night. Even one or two water drops fell into the house. His wife asked, ‘When will you buy chon, (a kind of tall grass for thatching roof)? Else, my son will be drenched.’

With his wife’s words, immediately his body gets heated. Kabiraj stretched a feverish hand on his wife’s eyes and face. He had learned some knowledge from his father to treat women. The rest he developed by himself. Then, after eleven years Kaviraj’s medicine has worked? His treatment is successful. He asked in a trembling voice, ‘When?’

‘What you want? Son or daughter?’

‘As Allah wishes.’

‘You’ll have a son.’

‘How do you know?’

‘My mind says so. What my mind says shall be true.’

The next day the gun was found on the bed. Kaviraj had fought with this gun. Having got it, he took it in his hands, but Shorpun protested, ‘No.’

‘Why?’

‘Can I ask you something?’

‘What?’

‘What will you feed your son?’

‘I’ll be a day labour to feed him.’

‘You’ve no rest from kaviraji. You’re called in from home to home. All day long you make medicine. Where’s your time to go to work?’

‘Then what do you ask me to do?’

‘Hold this gun.’

‘Then?’

‘Afsan returned home after liberation. Did he surrender his gun? Now he made a brick-built house.’

‘What shall I do?’

‘Robbery. Burglary. Why do I need to tell you? Huh, what’s the use of a gun?’

‘Killing and murdering?’

‘Why killing? If you have a gun in your hand, people will be frightened. Then, you’ll snatch what you can…taka-paisa.’

He was a Kaviraj. He was also an enlisted freedom fighter. At the end, he’s going to die as a killer. The fault was Shorpun’s. Indeed, he was persuaded by her. And behind her stance was the worry over the son’s uncertain future. How could a three-year son have responsibility on the father’s guilt? Then,can Amin be responsible? In the dark of night, the man poured down a big sack of notes of taka before them and said, ‘All is yours.’

‘Why?’

‘Though people do not know, I do have the information. You have the gun. Only one assignment- you’ll have to slaughter Nazu Khan. Job is job, Kaviraj. The bullets of the gun will not work well. If Nazu Khan survives, I myself will fall in danger. You’ve to keep it in mind.’

Suddenly the clouds roar. The weather is getting worse. A great surge of water may strike. How long it will take to stir a storm! Kaviraj might live up to the night. He heard that in times of hanging, they want to hear the last wish of the convict. If that offer is given to him, he will wish to see his son for once. Then he will have no regret in the eternal sleep.

The fox comes closer with more courage. He is gradually overcoming his fear. His wish is going to be fulfilled. Only the distance of some time!. The rotting is going on. The smell of rotten flesh perhaps has made the fox ravenous. Kaviraj wants rain. Let storm and tempest come down. If the river swells up and the waves wash him away, let them take him. He will surrender to death.

Tear drops roll down from his eyes. Warm. Some drops reach up to his lips. He knows the tear drops are salty. Now he has no feeling of taste or distaste. A leaf falls down because of the wind and gets hooked into the pus. Without looking, Kaviraj can guess that it is debdaru.

A part of the colour is yellow. Next moment, sound of alert footsteps reaches his ears. They are Shorpun’s. His wife comes close and places her tender hand on his head. Kaviraj asks, ‘Where’s my son?’

‘Sleeping.’

‘Why’ve you come leaving him alone?’

‘Thunder is in the sky. What a shed you have! I fear the storm.’

‘If you’re drenched, you’ll have fever and cough.’

‘I damn care. I’m not thinking of that.’

‘My son feeds on your breast. He’ll also suffer.’

‘So much you know?’

‘I was a Kaviraj. How did I make medicine without knowing?’

Shorpun doesn’t reply. She digs her finger through her husband’s hair. Suddenly she becomes cold when her attention goes to the gangrene. Worms have taken shelter on the spot. Then she begins sobbing and says, ‘Kill me. Kill me.’

Kaviraj has deep voice. He replies, ‘I do not blame you.’

‘Why won’t you?’

‘You’re my son’s mother. You have to feed him. Go, go home.’

The wind blows with hissing sound. The rain drops fall on his body piercing the shade of trees. The lightning flashes. Shorpun looks at her husband’s leg without a blink. His body has swollen abnormally. She feels scared to look.

Kaviraj reproaches his wife, ‘Go. Go away. My son will ask for milk. Then where will he find you? If he cries in extreme hunger, all will come and create a scene. Everything will be known.’

Crying out in grief, Shorpun runs away. That cry is mostly covered under the surge of the storm. Everything is true. Like death, good or evil in humans is also eternally immersed in life. Today he is going to embrace an unnatural death. This death is the atonement for the sin he has committed.

The storm hits and blows up the shed. The whole horizon is being submerged in torrential rain. Thousands of people fight for life in the river water. But Kaviraj has little energy to move or stir.

He feels sleepy, overcome by fatigue. The rain drops fall and wash away the pus from the gangrene. Rainwater accumulating on the adjacent areas rush into the river. And by that thrust of the water current, Kaviraj drowns and floats away. At one time, the river Lokkha receives the man.

 

Translated by Akbar Hosain

Lecturer Dept of English Comilla University

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