The story of Mahesh’s hunger and Gafoor’s helplessness
(By Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay; Translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha)
The village was named Kashipur. An insignificant village, with an even more insignificant zamindar, but such was his authority that his subjects went in awe of him.
It was the birthday of the zamindar’s youngest son. Having performed the holy rituals, Tarkaratna, the priest, was on his way home in the afternoon. The month of Boishakh was drawing to a close, but there was not even a trace of clouds anywhere, the searing sky seemingly pouring fire on everything below. The field stretching to the horizon before him was parched and cracked, with the blood in the veins of the earth escaping constantly through the crevices in the form of vapour. Gazing at it coiling upwards like flames made the head reel with drunkenness.
Gafoor Jolha lived on the edge of this field. The earthen wall surrounding his house had collapsed, merging his yard with the road. The privacy of the inner chambers had all but surrendered itself to the mercy of the passer-by. Pausing in the shade of a white teak tree, Tarkaratna called out loudly, ‘Are you home, Gafra?’
Gafoor’s ten-year-old daughter came to the door. ‘What do you need Baba for? He’s got a fever.’
‘Fever! Call the swine! Monster! Godless creature!’
The screaming and shouting brought Gafoor Mian to the door, shivering with fever. An ancient acacia stood next to the broken wall, with a bull tethered to it. Pointing to it, Tarkaratna said, ‘What’s all this? Have you forgotten this is a Hindu village with a Brahmin zamindar?’ Red with rage and the heat, his words were fiery, but Gafoor, unable to understand the reason for the outburst, could only stare at him.
‘When I passed this way in the morning he was tethered there,’ said Tarkaratna, ‘and now on my way back he’s still tethered the same way. Karta will bury you alive if you kill a bull. He’s a devout Brahmin.’
‘What can I do, Baba Thakur, I have no choice. I’ve had this fever for several days now. I collapse every time I try to take him to graze.’
‘Then turn him loose, he’ll find food on his own.’
‘Where can I turn him loose, Baba Thakur? The winnowing isn’t done, the grain is still lying in the fields. The hay hasn’t been sorted, the earth is burning, there’s not a blade of grass anywhere. What if he eats someone’s grains or hay—how can I turn him loose, Baba Thakur?’
Softening, Tarkaratna said, ‘If you can’t let him loose at least give him some straw. Hasn’t your daughter made any rice? Give him a bowl of starch and water.’
Gafoor did not answer, only looked at Tarkaratna helplessly and sighed.
Tarkaratna said, ‘No rice either? What did you do with the hay? Did you sell your entire share without keeping anything for your beast? You butcher!’
Gafoor seemed to lose his power of speech at this cruel accusation. A little later he said haltingly, ‘I did get some hay this year, but Karta Moshai took it away to pay for taxes left over from last year. I fell at his feet, I said, “Babu Moshai, you’re the supreme authority, where will I go if I leave your kingdom, give me at least a little hay. There’s no straw for the roof, we have just the one room for father and daughter, we can still manage with palm leaves this monsoon, but my Mahesh will die of starvation.”’
With a mocking smile, Tarkaratna said, ‘Really! What a loving name, Mahesh. I’ll die laughing.’
Paying no attention to the taunt, Gafoor continued, ‘But the lord had no mercy on me. He allowed me some rice to feed us for two months, but all my hay was confiscated and the poor thing got nothing at all.’ His voice grew moist with tears. But this evoked no compassion in Tarkaratna, who said, ‘What a man you are. You’ve eaten up everything but don’t want to pay your dues. Do you expect the zamindar to feed you? You people live in a perfect kingdom, still you bad-mouth him, you’re such wretches.’
An embarrassed Gafoor said, ‘Why should we bad-mouth him, Baba Thakur, we don’t do that. But how do I pay my taxes? I sharecrop four bighas, but there’s been a famine two years in a row—the grains have all dried up. My daughter and I don’t even get two meals a day. Look at the house, when it rains we spend the night in a corner, there’s not even enough space to stretch our legs. Look at Mahesh, Thakur Moshai, you can count his ribs. Lend me a little hay, Thakur Moshai, let the creature feed to his heart’s content for a few days.’ Still speaking, he flung himself to the ground near the Brahmin’s feet. Leaping backwards hastily, Tarkaratna exclaimed, ‘My god, are you going to touch me?’
‘No, Baba Thakur, I’m not going to touch you or anything. But give me some hay. I saw your four huge haystacks the other day, you won’t even know if a little of it is gone. I don’t care if we starve to death, but this poor creature cannot talk, he only stares and weeps.’
Tarkaratna said, ‘And how do you propose to return the loan?’
A hopeful Gafoor said, ‘I’ll find a way to return it somehow, Baba Thakur, I won’t cheat you.’
Snorting, Tarkaratna mimicked Gafoor, ‘I won’t cheat you! I’ll find a way to return it somehow! What a comedian! Get out of my way. I should be getting home, it’s late.’ Chuckling, he took a step forward only to retreat several steps in fear. Angrily he said, ‘Oh god, he’s waving his horns, is he going to gore me now?’
Gafoor rose to his feet. Pointing to the bundle of fruit and moistened rice in the priest’s hand, he said, ‘He’s smelt food, he wants to eat…’
‘Wants to eat? Of course. Both master and bull are well-matched. Can’t get hay to eat, and now you want fruits. Get him out of my way. Those horns, someone will be killed by them.’ Tarkaratna hurried away.
Gafoor turned towards Mahesh, gazing at him in silence for a few moments. There was suffering and hunger in the bull’s deep black eyes. Gafoor said, ‘He wouldn’t give you any, would he? They have so much, but still they won’t. Never mind.’ He choked, and tears began to roll down from his eyes. Going up to the animal, he stroked his back and neck, whispering, ‘You are my son, Mahesh, you’ve grown old looking after us for eight years, I can’t even give you enough to eat, but you know how much I love you.’
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