Old Story, New Moral
By Phanishwarnath Renu
Translated from the Hindi by Rakhshanda Jalil
Depression in the
Bay of Bengal causes a cyclone to rise.
The snow on some Himalayan peak melts. Rain-heavy clouds begin to gather and unleash their fury over the dense jungles of the Terai. The plains await the impending catastrophe, tense and still. .
The cattle grazing beside the banks of the Kari-Kosi river sniffed something in the air and shied away in startled panic. An old cow ran helter-skelter with her tail in the air. The old cowherd looked closely at the water in the river. He cupped a handful; it was cold and sweet. He sniffed it. It smelt of the earth and was reddish-ochre.
Reddish water meant water from the hills -- did it mean floodwaters were soon to be upon them?
The young cowherd scoffed at his words and laughed at his fears. But the shivering in the bodies of the animals increased. They stood in a herd beside the riverbank staring at the swirling waters and began showing increasing signs of panic. And not one of them -- not even the newest-born calf -- put his mouth to the grass to graze.
Fields of tender wheat, corn and jute spread on either side of the tributaries of the Kari-Kosi -- the Panar, Bakra, Lohandra and Mahanadi rivers -- as though someone had painted the land a rich, dark green with a coarse thick brush. Mango groves and courtyards in village after village echoed with the sweet songs of Madhushravani. And in the air there is the heady smell of the red, fuschia and yellow veils belonging to the brides -- fluttering and drying in the breeze. And a sweet sinfulness awakens in the heart of the middle-aged farmer lying atop the rough platform to keep watch over his tender milky corn as his eyes fall on the group of robust dark young Musahari women busy cutting the wild spinach growing among the crop. He begins to sing songs of viraha in a loud and lusty voice.
"Beat the old ape! Look at him, lusting after pomegranates in his old age!" says one of them.
And the rest break out into a fit of giggles, falling over each other.
Within seconds the dark giggling Musahari girls disappear into the evening gloam, as do the jute fields. And the sun that had guarded over them too sinks below the horizon. Darkness descends.
A drizzle starts. An intoxicating, unchecked joy kept hidden inside the heart all the year round takes the form of a monsoon raga and emerges in full-throated abandon: "It was love that caused Lord Rama to build a bridge across the waters... "
The easterly wind sings and dances and whirls inside a bamboo grove. And keeping tune with it countless spirits and demonesses swing from the branches of the trees chuckling and whooping with fearsome delight.
In the patter of the rain a piteous indistinct cry emerges from the darkness to shiver through the village -- He-e-e-e-o-o-o-o-o!
Is it a woman who has lost her way and is calling out for help in the darkness?
The spirits of the bamboo grove run towards the fields with countless flickering fireflies studded in their veils... Mothers clutch scared children to their bosom. Someone standing in a field far away beside the river bank again cries out for help. He-e-e-e-o-o-o-o-o!
Why is the goddess of the fields crying in the middle of the night?
Is disaster about to strike?
The cry for help becomes fainter and in its place there is a roar, a terrifying thunderous angry growl: Gooo-o-o-o
Is it the roar of an airplane overhead?
The growl seems to be coming closer. The people from the northern-most villages shouted in one voice. A shout emerged from countless terrified throats: "Floods! O God, help!"
"The waters of the Bakra river are sloshing past its eastern and western banks. There is water up till the waist beside the boundary of my fields."
"Have pity on us, Queen Kosi!"
The people of this area call every big and small stream Kosi... Can there be floods even after the Kosi Barrage has been built upstream? ... Can man win against Mother Kosi? … See what happens when you try to dam the Kosi!
"What will happen now?"
A bolt of thunder crackled and lightning struck one of the fields. The light in the eyes of the villagers dimmed... The world is drowning in a liquid darkness ... It is the end of the world … Disaster! Catastrophe!
Hapless helpless villagers attempt to pacify Mother Kosi by beating their drums and cymbals and singing songs of appeasement.
Young men from the villages set about cutting lathes and bamboos to construct makeshift shelters.
Shrill voices emerge from fearful throats to the accompaniment of drums and cymbals: "O Mother Kosi, I fall at your feet! I will offer flowers to you-o-o-u-u... "
The only literate madman from the northern-most village goes about reciting verses from the poet Nagarjun to the accompaniment of the drums, saying over and over again: "Ta-ta-thaiya, ta-ta-thaiya, dance, dance, Kosi Maiya!"
And dancing to the tune of these words, Kosi Maiya indeed comes traipsing into the village and within the blink of an eye fields and granaries, homes and barns and trees -- everything begins to dance to this tune: Ta-ta-thaiya, ta-ta-thaiya, Dhin-tak-dhinna, Chhamak-kat-chham!
Her mouth gaping wide, riding atop a gigantic crocodile, the ten-armed Kosi sweeps heedlessly on, laughing and playful, surging on and on.
Now there are no drums and cymbals, no songs and pleas, only clamour and confusion!
Yet the youth are steadfastly at work -- putting up raised platforms and shelters above the swirling waters, slashing banana plants to make enclosures … While there is breath, there is hope!
"The water has reached the verandah!"
"The calf is being swept away! Hold it! Catch it!"
"Whose house has fallen?"
"The water is swirling about the waist!"
"Who is that climbing the palm?"
"The water has entered the house! Father! Help!"
"Climb onto the thatch!"
"Mother! Help! I'm gone! ... Father! Help! ... Watch it! ... Be careful! ... There, there... Hey Sugni! ... Ramlalva! ... O Dear Lord Mahadev! ... I am drowning! Help! ... The water has reached the chest in the courtyard! ... Not here, not here! This thatch is not strong enough! … Snake! Snake! ... Where is the rope? ... Here, pass the sickle... Ta-ta-thaiya, ta-ta-thaiya, Dance, Dance, Kosi Maiya, Dhin-tak-dhinna, Chhamak-kat-chham! "
In the patchy light of early morning the old vulture sitting on the plume of the tallest palm in the village saw: for miles all round there is nothing but swirling, lapping ochre waters, and in the middle occasional islands of what were once villages and in these villages one or two houses and sitting on their roofs a huddle of people. And there, in the distance, the corpse of a buffalo -- and beyond that drowned fields showing the drooping plumes of wilted maize.
The vulture spreads its wings and takes off.
A gaggle of wild geese is searching for its nests and eggs. The lapwing is singing its doleful song of doom and disaster.
The clouds are gathering once again. The wind is picking up once more. Mercy! Have mercy on us!
* * *
The dream of this area's lifelong Servant of the People -- the candidate defeated in the last elections' -- finally came true! Mother Kosi at long last gave him yet another opportunity to "serve" the people. Hail to thee, Mother! May you live long! This time, God willing, he will not rest till he has defeated his opponent. He is busy trying to establish telephonic contact with the District Magistrate and various Ministers of State from the office of a merchant in Ramnagar: "Hello! Hello!"
The regional correspondent of a major Delhi-based newspaper has come across a major breaking news story after years, but: "What? You don't have telegram forms? ... Trrrrinnngggg."
"Hello! Hello! Hello Purania, Hello
, Hello Kathiyar! ... Trrrrinnngggg." Patna
"Hello, I am the party leader Sharma speaking. About fifty villages are completely drowned. No, sir, not boats, villages ... villages are drowned. I can't hear you... Sir... The DM must be informed, sir. ... What, sir? ... The MLA? ... But sir, he is from the opposition party! … Sir? Sir? … Hello? Hello?"
The party worker caught hold of the newspaper reporter at the post office counter and took him to a tea stall to give his account. But the tea stall was not the best place for such a narration. So he took him to his camp and said, "Write... let it be remembered that such a flood has never struck before..."
"But ten years ago..."
"Who remembers what happened ten years ago? Now, write, as soon as I got the news I reached the flood-affected areas in the middle of the night... Make sure my statement goes off today. Mine should be the very first response in print."
The reporter makes use of his journalistic horse sense: "But the MLA has already given his statement -- to the First Press of India -- on the telephone itself."
Sharma's face fell ... God has granted him this opportunity to serve the people after so long and the opponent gets first shot at making a statement to the press? The enemy gets to be first? At the time of the Chinese invasion too he had got left behind in making speeches and collecting funds. And this time, again?
"Look here, how many flood-affected villages did I say? Fifty? Make it two hundred and fifty ... If more villages are affected we will get more 'relief' for this district. I can do anything for the good of my people and my district. And if it so pleases God, by tomorrow two hundred villages can get submerged."
After giving his statement to the reporter he called an "urgent and critical" meeting of his party workers. The issue he failed to mention in his statement came in for close scrutiny at this meeting: "The kasbah of
is under threat this year because of the dam built at Bardaha last year. If there is nowhere for the water to go, it just might push its way till the wagoneers' neighbourhood by the morning. " Rampur
The brave workers who lived in the wagoneer's neighbourhood looked at each other. A silent signal passed among them and a resolution was passed to engage in some secret activities.
Early next morning the reporter sent another urgent dispatch: "Last night another two hundred and fifty villages got submerged due to the breaking of the Bardaha Dam." And Sharma was working the telephone lines again: "Hello! Hello! Hello
Patna, Hello . . ." Patna
The traders and moneylenders of
kasbah were quick to understand that such an opportunity for 'auspicious gain' does not come every day. At the time of the Chinese invasion they had missed the bus. This time while all the fuss was going on about the drought God sent them the floods. Who would not wash his hands in the river Rampur Ganges if it flows past their door! Their godowns and granaries became empty overnight. Their books and ledgers became perfect and accounted for. They gave generously to every government and non-government appeal to donate for the flood-stricken. But wheat? Where was the wheat?
The government servants clamped government locks and seals on their empty godowns.
"Brothers! Brothers! This evening. There will be. A grand assembly. Of the people of
. At the local town hall. That is. The Theatre Hall. To set up a committee. For the flood-affected. Brothers! Brothers! ..." Rampur
"Dear Brothers! Tonight there will be a great family drama on the silver screen of the Ansari Touring Cinema... Dear Brothers! Tonight..."
"If you don't have eyes, you have nothing! Those brothers who suffer from redness in the eyes -- Qr watering eyes -- Or those who have cataract and night blindness -- Must try our company's famous and renowned ointment..."
"What shall I do, dear Lord, I am stuck with an old man..."
"It's in the papers! It's in the papers! The latest news about this district! Two hundred villages are drowned!"
"It's here! It's here! The cheapest cloth from
! ..." Bombay
"It's come! It's come! The relief wagon has come! ..."
"It's come! It's coming! Three dozen boats are coming! ..."
"The Minster for Irrigation is coming!"
"Donate generously, Brother, give rice-clothes-money..."
"Long Live Freedom!"
The boys of the two schools of
kasbah -- the Middle and Higher Secondary -- took out processions, singing songs and collecting old clothes. By evening they had split into two groups. The quarrel flared from arguments to abuses and knives and bamboos being taken out to beat each other. All day long the boys from the Middle school shouted slogans, sang songs and when it came to putting down the leaders' names for the records the boys from the Rampur walked away with all the credit. Beat them up, the rascals! Higher Secondary school
However, the servant of the people, Sharma ji was elected undisputed to the post of Chairman of the Relief Committee. The MLA came in for a lot of drubbing from the people: You were going on and on when you had come to ask for our votes; now, forget about 'relief supplies from the government, you haven't been able to get us even a single broken-down boat? ... Come on, answer us ... how did this flood happen? ... If no one listens to you, you must resign."
The MLA's "militant workers" were absent or else things would have begun with stone-throwing and gone on to ...
All the famous leaders of the major political parties have descended on
kasbah with their entourage of "workers". Each has set up his own camp. Rampur
A group of government doctors and nurses has just arrived. Government officers are occupying every room in the Dak Bungalows. A Coordination Meeting has been convened.
Each political party has proposed a representative's name for membership to the Vigilance Committee. Almost every party is split into two groups: the "official" group and the "dissident" group. In every camp, a half-buried discontent smoulders.
"... Tomorrow the Chief Minister will make a 'flying inspection'."
"... The Union Minister for Food and Civil Supplies is also flying down."
".. . The Minister for River Valley Development has issued a statement."
".. .And the relief is on its way. Ten trucks laden with rice-flour-oil-cloth-kerosene-matches-sago are on their way."
"…. Yesterday the Vigilance Committee meeting lasted all night"
"Brothers! This evening. There will be a public gathering. In the Municipal Grounds. Where the strictest discontent will be expressed. Against the present government's relief efforts. And the arbitrary setting up of the Relief Committee…."
"Brothers! Come! Tomorrow at 10.30 am. To Launch. A fast unto death. In front of. Comrade Choube. The Resident Relief Officer. . . "
"…. Go, go, go away, you rogue. You have no faith. No faith and no shame. Go, go, go away, you rogue…."
* * *
Helpless, starving and thirsty people surrounded by water on all sides -- marooned atop thatches, trees and mounds -- saw the boats arrive.
The nearest boat has a flag -- a Congress flag!
The one behind has one too -- but it is a different colour!
"'... Long Live Mahatma Gandhi!"
"Huh? Why Mahatma Gandhi? What has he to do with anything?"
"Don't get so excited, or the branch will break."
"A third boat! No, it isn't a boat. It's the corpse of a cow with two vultures sitting astride it."
The boats draw closer. The Servant of the People himself rides the first one. A 'mike' is fitted on his boat. He has been laying the groundwork, as it were, from far off: "Brothers, even though you did not vote for me in the last election, I contacted the Chief Minister, the Food Supplies Minister, the Irrigation Minister as soon as I heard of your plight..."
The workers of the opposition party ride the second boat. In one voice, they oppose Sharma ji’s claims: "This is most unfair! You are using the government boat and government aid to wrongfully campaign for the Party..."
Sharma ji is the Chairman of the Relief Committee. He is unmindful of the opposition. He carries on: "Brothers, you must give your names down to every last man to our workers. Do not clamber onto the boats all at once. Brothers, we have as yet little staff. The boats too are few. So you must distribute whatever little there is peacefully and amicably among yourselves..."
The boat carrying the Chairman of the Relief Committee sprinkles the submerged villages with speeches and goes away. The people in the boat directly behind it oppose every word. A few workers step off the boats -- carrying ledgers and account books.
"A bigger boat is on its way."
"Brother, is there only a boat coming or does it carry something? The children are faint with hunger. My daughter is about to die. . ."
Two dozen boats plied the waters till the evening, gathering people. At night the relief officer told the vigilance committee in plain words: "The boats must not carry the flag of any political party... Nothing should be given without taking a thumbprint or signature... We simply can not provide bidis ... It is unethical to either praise or criticise any political party while distributing relief supplies. Those who continue to indulge in such practices will henceforth not be given any responsibilities by the Committee."
There is no work yet for the doctors and nurses. They are busy playing 'indoor' and 'outdoor' games -- "Game-ball"... "Two spade" ... "Hey Miss Bannerji" ... "No trump".
Arrangements have been made for the flood-affected villagers on the high ground near the railway bridge -- under the trees, beside the haat, in the school compound. Arrangements have been made for people to stay in villages where the floodwaters have not entered but which are surrounded by high waters. Boats ply the waters regularly, carrying rations to and fro. Several groups of doctors and nurses have been deployed to run health centres at such places.
The waters are gradually receding.
The Musahar and ferrymen are beginning to feel cooped up in the camps. These free-spirited people hear the news of the receding waters and become restless. They are creatures of the water. They can stay for months in mud and water. ... Their thumbs have blackened with all the thumb imprints they have been giving. ... It is far better to beg for a living than to touch the halwa-puri provided as 'relief. No, no ... That dog-faced officer was trying to entice my Sugni, did you know? ... A bunch of thieves, that's what they are!
"Brothers! Before you leave the camp. You must. Inform your 'in-charge'. People can return. To those villages. Where the water has receded. Twine-Bamboo-Poles. And other essentials. Shall be provided. For your relief and rehabilitation. …"
"Brothers! It is important that you know. That gross misappropriation. Of funds. Has taken place. In the supplies directed towards your relief. You must. Raise your voice. Against the existing committee. . ."
"Brothers! Brothers! Hear! Hear! Friends!"
With cries of "Brothers! Brothers!" the announcers belonging to the two opposing parties began by calling each other liars and thieves and ended up in fisticuffs. The police resorted to "lathi-charge" to maintain peace and harmony. Several flood-affected people ended up spending the night in police custody.
A major newspaper from
published an expose: "The engineers of the Public Works Department have shown remarkable short-sightedness in building several small dams on minor rivers and their tributaries, such as the old distributary channels of the Kosi. That is why those villages which were never affected by the floods, are submerged under water this year. Inept government servants. . . " Delhi
Another daily newspaper placed the blame squarely on the officials of a neighbouring country and said, "In building a barrage close to the border of our state, the neighbouring kingdom has stopped the drainage outflow of all the small rivers in northern
Bihar. A flood such as this would never have happened had the concerned officials bothered to consult our experts before building the barrage."
The local newsweekly, or shall we say the district rag, declared this flood a "manmade" calamity and announced: "It isn't the neighbouring state, but the oarsmen of the neighbouring country who have drowned us!"
Rats were found to be responsible for the breaking of the Bardaha Dam. Rats had dug up countless tunnels through its foundation, making it weak and porous -- in less than a year!
"... Read! Read! ... The latest news! There is a state-wide agitation! Preparations are underway. For a No-Confidence Motion. Against the present government! A fast-unto-death. At the Chief Minister's residence!"
A relief boat carrying fifty tins of kerosene and ten sacks of flour and rice is said to be lost in the waters of the Panar rivulet... Drowned!
The opponents of Sharma ji have filed a suit against him. Let them! Sharma ji's task is accomplished. The district is echoing with the praises showered on him. All the heartache of losses incurred during the Chinese invasion and the defeat in the last election is gone. He has reaped the benefits several times over... Surely there is a God somewhere... There is justice.
.. .Brothers !
...O my countrymen, let the tears seep into your eye...
* * *
A flock of vultures is soaring in the skies. Countless dark wings -- like black clouds hovering overhead.
And on the earth bloated carcasses of dead animals. And destroyed crops and rotting plants in the fields.
The stink! Oh, that terrible malodorous smell!
Mud everywhere -- and wriggling earthworms -- and crawling insects -- on the rotting corpse of the earth.
Straggling groups of people -- heads bent, clutching babies, herding their pitifully few cocks, hens, goat and sheep, some on wagons and carts, others on their shoulders -- are returning to villages where not a trace of their huts remains nor even a pinch of grain in their fields. But their feet are racing homewards. After nearly 30-35 days of hellish exile, a flood of love has overwhelmed their hearts -- love for their homeless villages and mud-filled fields... For miles on end their footprints are embossed on the mud.
The villages are coming alive once again.
The gods have come once again to live in these spirits buried under government relief, debt and assistance. For the past 30-35 days they have quarreled and fought amongst themselves for life, for survival, they have begged and pleaded with government officials for relief supplies. Greed made them fight, steal, covet... Satan had come to roost in their hearts. .
In the month of Ashwin the sun appears without fail to awaken the earth. Green tufts of grass glimmer in the drying mud.
A skein of wild geese circles above, crying "paink-paink". At this moment everything seems dear and sweet -- even the kites, crows and vultures. Are those cranes in the water-filled ditches or Koka flowers? Branches of the Haarsinghar are heavy with sweet-smelling flowers. The lilt of welcome, of new arrival, is in the air. The mother is coming! That beggar woman? Is she the Goddess Annapurna, the provider, the fertile Mother Goddess?
Blowing a life-giving chant into the idol of mud and clay, the child of the soil cried: Mother! Forgive us!
Everywhere drums begin to beat to mark the beginning of prayers.
The Ashtami moon laughs amid the clear serene waters of the Kari Kosi. A fragment of a song sung by the refugee boatmen from Bengal breaks and wafts away -- like the delicate blossoms of Rajnigandha flowers: "O my brotherrrr!...O-O-O-O... "
The only literate madman in the district is going around reciting this one line from the poet Nirala: "A lump of soil has become a sugar-coated sweet."
(Rakhshanda Jalil has translated a collection of short stories by Renu entitled Phanchlight and Other Stories, Orient Blackswan, 2010.)