by Jagadish Mohanty
Translated by Karunakar Mohapatra
Hearing that my son was reading at Rayagada all my acquaintances were somewhat surprised and asked in incredulity Rayagada! In Rayagada? As if Rayagada is not in Odisha, not on this earth, nowhere in this universe.
From the Rayagada railway station going towards Nakua hill my son stood still looking at it: Father, do you see that hill? It seems as if, a man is sleeping contentedly.
I too saw that and was surprised: yes, so it looks!
At a short distance from MIITS Engineering College, the Naxals had landmined a stretch of the road. It was evening. A police vehicle was blown up. My son showed me the spot. Towards Bhubaneswar from Rayagada, a few kilometers from J.K Paper Mill colony, a little after Amalapet, the road was broken up, tar and all. That day I felt happy. In the middle of the road an ash-coloured hole – a sign of the revolution. Rebellion, then is still alive!
It was 1969 or 70, I don’t remember exactly. From the border check post of Jamshola Ghat, at a distance of 8 to 10 kilometers from there lies Bahadogoda township. National Highway6 and 36 meet there. From there I got into a bus for Ranchi. Ghatshila, Tata, Chandil and two or three more bus stops – I don’t remember the names now. Then Ranchi. The bus left in the morning and reached Ranchi by about four or five O’ clock in the afternoon. It was a bus belonging to the Bihar road Transport Corporation. The conductor told to me ten rupees without ticket but eighteen rupees with a ticket. He first taught me the nationalization of corruption. Inside that bus I read from a newspaper that the police had arrested in Jadugoda jungle, a group of Bengali naxalites and an English woman with them. Jadugoda jungle is in between Ghatshila and Tata. How thrilled I was! Revolution, then, is not far away?
I was under the impression that the fat black man sitting at the counter of the familier hotel was an Odia. Later on I came to know that he was a Telugu. He asked me smilingly, “Visiting your son, sir?”
“No this time I have some other business”.
“What other business?”
I was a bit unprepared for such a question. How can I tell him, why I came there. Could I tell him? Finally I told him, “A friend lives here. I have come to meet him.”
Known hotel, familiar people, and familiar smell. Even the room is familiar, the strange musty smell of the room, the bed and the sheets – everything had a familiar, strange obscene feeling of a layer of dirt.
The hotel boy changed the sheets switched on the T.V, fetched the remote control from the next room. Saw that the pelmet of the window was broken, the screen was hanging somehow, may fall down any moment.
After arranging my things, I took out the letter from the suit case. His letter.
His handwriting was round shaped. Very beautiful. Why then, did he not continue his study? Wrote poems but did not go to college. Could have sat at the cash box in his father’s saw mill. But leaving everything behind, why did he roam in the jungle?
I opened the letter. He has written: My dear friend!
Was I ever dear to him? Far back in the seventies we met twice or thrice. In the intervening years I have received only two letters from him. This is his second letter. Between these two letters a gap of probably twenty years. With such little contact have I become dear to him?
We first became acquainted at the Cuttack convention of the S.F.I. Then he stayed with me in my hostel room for two or three days and took his meals in the hostel mess. He used to vanish during the day and came back at night to sleep. It was a pleasure to listen to his talks. He used to say then that he was immersed in Naxalite activity. He had gone underground then.
In his absence I once opened his bag. There were some books by Gananath Patra, some poems, a few copies of Samukshya and Frontier magazine, a Khurdha-made bathing towel, a brush and paste, nothing else. Not even an extra pair of pants and shirt. Whereas he was not poor, his father was a man of property. This I came to know two years after. We met once at Anugul bus stand. I was on my way to Belpahad to my elder brother. At about one or two o’clock at night in front of the hotel Neel Kamal we met. He embraced me with joy. I noticed that he was not changed at all. Unshaven beard. He was smoking a lot of Charminar cigarettes then. He caught hold of me and said, “I won’t let you go. Let’s go to Athamallik.”
Almost forcibly. He quarreled with the bus conductor to get back the money I had paid for my fair. Then we came to Athamallik by a truck which had gone to Talcher from Athamalik carrying a consignment of timber. There I saw in Athamallik his father’s large saw mill. He has made a pile of money from timber business in such a small place like Athamallik. He had a three story building. He put me up in a wooden structure at one end of the saw mill. In the midst of the saw dust, the noise of the saw mill running and general commotion he read me his poems. I saw two things there for the first time.
The Red Book of Chairman Mao and the special technique used in using saw dust to fuel in a handmade oven. The heat generated by such a process is quite intense.
“Dear friend”. He had written, “Come to Rayagada at least once. I shall take you to the villages on the other side of Nakua hill. There you will see what real hunger is, what poverty is. Come once, I will show you what exploitation means. I will show you how the old mother of Nadu Mangeji Kandha died of starvation, when Banana was selling at 10 for Rs.5.00. The Govt. said she died due to lack of nutritious food. You come, I will show you another Odisha from Bhubaneswar. It is the Odisha of Rayagada. You come. I am confident after you return from here your thoughts and ideas, your style of writing stories, your attitude and outlook everything will undergo a sea-change. You will then see that the whole of Odisha is a Rayagada and it is shivering in high fever. You will see a salon on the Hati Pathar road in Rayagada. Its name is Vizag salon. Emanuel Majhi works there. Tell him my name and he will bring you to me”.
He addressed me as “Dear friend” in the second letter, as he did in the first.
When the first letter reached me, at that time use of telephone was not so widespread. People used to wait for the post man. The first letter was of that period. He ended the letter with “Yours Bipin”.
Who is this Bipin? Do I know anyone of that name? I could not recollect immediately. I looked at the address: Bipin Nayak, Manikeswari Saw Mill, Athamallik. Then I remembered the saw dust oven, the Red Book of Mao Tsetung, the sound of the saw mill running and in the midst of it all recitation of poetry. It appeared to a real close. A dear friend indeed.
“Dear Friend”. In the first letter he had written: “Although my postal address is the saw mill, you will not find me there, if you come. I would be at a distance of 25 kilometers from Athamallik. In the jungle, by the side of a stream with flat stones all around, I have built a house all by myself. This place does not bear any name. I do not know on what latitude or longitude it stands. But then sometimes I feel this earth is completely new and is created for me. It is, as if, we are the first human beings here.
No electricity here, no phone lines, nor any path for the post man’s cycle. Here I have set up my home. My wife Surubali is here with me. In her womb is growing a new life created by my own seminal fluid. If it is a son, I shall name him Stalin; if a daughter Gargi.
For my house I have dug out the clay, Surubali prepared the mud dough. We did not know the technique of building a house. In the process we came to acquire all the mechanical knowledge associated with it. I felt, man is the source of all strength. If we had not built the house, this great dignity of human being would not have been revealed to me.
I called up a few men only for thatching the house. Otherwise everything else I and Surubali have done. Even the twig woven doors. You won’t understand the tremendous pleasure we derived from building our house with our own hands. In every dust particle of this house we mixed our own sweat, our memories and our labour. Sleeping on a bare mat on the floor of this house is more satisfying than comfortable bed can give.
You may think that I am exaggerating like poets. But that life can be lived like a poem, I realized only when I came to this jungle. For the first time I realized what hunger is, or fear or attachment or love. For the first time I realized how beautiful life is and how necessary it is and how small is the real claims of life.
Now Surubali and I have reclaimed a piece of farm land. Next year I shall have a pair of bullocks and start cultivating. We both will work in the field. I will plough the land and she will take out the weeds. I will raise the seedlings and she will carry them to the threshing yard. I will harvest them, she will blow away the tare.
Now we are the primal male and female. We work throughout the day, prepare the field, put up bonds, and turn up the soil. In the evening Surubali cooks rice. When it boils, Surubali sits there with her cheeks on her knees tending to the fire. I sit at a distance and write poems in the light of a kerosene lamp. I read the poems to her. It is surprising that she understands poetry. She expresses her opinion freely regarding the quality of the poems. Nature has taught her the secrets of poetry.
Hati Pathar road, Vizag salon, Emanuel Majhi and ridding piggyback on a motor cycle through the lush green fields extending to the horizon, hills, chimneys of distant factories, trucks plastered over with Telgu letters jumping down the road towards an isolated village behind Nakua hill. What is the name of the village?
At one end of the village an asbestos-roofed school house. Headmaster’s office occupies one end of the building. Then class rooms from 1st to 5th standard. Then I met him in an empty room. Mustache and beard turning grey, but the hair on the head has not turned white yet. A lungi and a sleeveless banian made him look like a Telgu school master from a distance.
On the blackboard a worked out sum was still there. Nobody thought of wiping it clean with a duster. A stringed cot covered with a handmade quilt and bed sheet. In a corner some clothes were hanging on a rope. Below it an earthen pot on sand with an earthen plate cover and a glass for drinking water. Beside the wall a wooden crate on which were kept some old books and papers. A framed photograph of himself with an Adivasi girl in their youth, a nose-ring and a flower-tattoo on her fore head was noticeable. In the other corner a kerosene stove, a small cooking pot, blackened a curry pot. A few plates and cups upturned on the ground.
The room is so full of dust that you feel it when you walk. I looked around. There was an old torn broom behind the door. A mat on the floor. On it some papers, a book, two pens, spectacles. He was probably sitting there, writing. He just got up. Seeing me he was surprised: you have come? Unbelievable. I never thought that you would come. Come, come, come inside.
Nearly thirty years ago, we had become acquainted. He wrote to me after reading one of my stories. Then one day, all on a sudden he arrived at Ravenshaw. After two or three days’ uneasy stay he went away. For the second time we met at Anugul, Athamallik. After a long gap this is our third meeting. Where is Surubali? Her child about to be born? What happened to the mud hut made by his own hand in the jungle of Athamalik, his farm land? Many things were unknown to me. There was a lot to ask.
“Everything got lost. That’s how it happens. That is Nature’s law”, he said. Caressing his unshaven beard twice or thrice he said this. His finger nails were uncut and blackened, I marked. But his eyes were wide and impressive. I could not fathom whether they expressed indifference, or apathy. There was no smile. Rather a sort of gravity pervaded his face. Probably, he was somewhat desert-minded.
He had said, “Life is like this. It flows like a spring. It does not stop. Goes on changing its surrounding. To stop is to die. If the water of the spring stops flowing, will it remain a spring? No it stagnates and becomes home to insects, amoeba and moss”.
I could not get any information about Surubali from his philosophy. What story was hidden behind his leaving the mud hut in the jungle and coming to Rayagada did not become clear. I said, “Bipin, leave aside these ramblings. Tell me what really happened”.
“Surubali left me”, he said and added, “Of course she cannot be blamed for leaving me like this. She was a girl of the jungle. I am a child of the town. I wanted to leave the life of a townsman in the midst of the jungle. There was difference of culture between us. We both had to adjust. Then one day we decided no, it is better to go our separate ways than to continue to leave in this uneasy adjustment”.
These are all unsolved arithmetic problems for me beyond my thought and comprehension. Seeing the puzzlement in my eyes he had said, “You don’t believe me, no? Then listen again. I don’t know if I can explain anything better”.
Surubali needs the gruel of the kernel of the seeds of mango and tamarind to feel satisfied. I need a plate of hot rice. In summer, plenty of Mahul, Mango, Jamun made her forget the taste of hot rice. Red ants and their eggs in the hollow of a tree, mahul flower, young bamboo soot and eel fish in the stream – everywhere Nature has stored food for Surubali. But for me an oven and hot rice. I needed too a pinch of salt, two green chilies, a drop of mustard oil. Between us these things – an oven, green chilies, mustard oil and salt created the gap.
I shall not blame Surubali. She was like that. I wanted to be like her but could not. Mine was the inability to be her fit partner. One day I told her, go, fly away. I release you from your cage. That day the cheerfulness in her eyes was something to be seen. She was like a deer free of her enclosure. Her going away enchanted me. How beautiful freedom is, I realized that day. While going away she did not forget to take Stalin with her. How far motherhood is animal-like, she gave an eyewitness proof of that.
But Rayagada? Why Rayagada? How Rayagada? At my question he looked at me with his wide eyes. He said, “Have you read the novel ‘Shiba Bhai’ of Gopi Mohanty? It was written fifty years back.
I have not read Gopinath Mohanty so far. That is my shame.
From Muniguda station to Kalyanpur station. Now-a-days Kalyanpur is known as Kesingpur. Nearly is J. K. Paper Mill. Leave it aside. Between these two stations is the Niyamgiri mountain range. It stretches for 36miles and achieves a height of 5000feet. Below this mountain range flows the river Nagaabali. In that mountain range lived the Dongria Kandhas.
Dongria Kandha – the males are nearly six feet tall and quite strong physically. If you had come here fifty years back, you would have seen the Dongria Kandha with two or three nose-rings, ear-rings, a strong but small rod of brass or bell-metal tucked into the bun of hair, on the head, glass beads round the neck, a thick metal wrist band and a sharp curved knife hanging from the loin cloth round his waist.
Today if you come to Rayagada you will be surprised to see the Dongria Kandha. He does not have that outfit now. Now he wears pant and shirt. No nose-ring any more. He has come down from above the mountain to the valley of the Nagabali and has set up homes beside the river. Fifty years ago, for fear of the tiger Dongria Kndha was urinating inside the hut at night. Now there are no tigers in the jungle around Rayagada. The houses of Dongria Kandha no more look strange. They are provided homes under Indira Awas Yojana. In our school many children of Dongria Kandhas are reading.
He got up to prepare tea. He poured water into the saucepan for three cups of tea and he said as if he is offering an apology, Nagaraju has come. He has gone to bring some Sambar meat. It is good thing that you have come. I shall feed you Sambar meat. But fresh meat is not available here. Dongria Kandhas keep dried meat. You can say decomposed meat full of bacteria. It smells but very tasty. You can eat and know.
Bipin’s description made feel like vomiting. I had goose bumps. Bipin said, this is the difference between our cultures. Why, you don’t feel like vomiting when you eat dried fish.
Nagaraju came. By this time his tea in the cup was cold. He had a thick moustache, dark complexion. He looked nervous. Seeing me he felt afraid and forgot to say ‘Laal Salaam’.
Bipin introduced us. I was a comrade and wrote stories.
Was I comrade, Bipin’s comrade? I remembered our college life of the seventies Cuttack Convention of SFI. In front of Ravenshaw college on the dais of martyr Pradipta’s memorial service a speech delivered by Nabakrushna Choudhury. Strange excitement of writing slogans on walls during the night.
Still then was I comrade? Ever? Has not Bipin read any of my writings? How does he find signs of revolution in my stories? How?
Bipin introduced: this is Nagaraju. Naxal worker. My favorite comrade. Today we shall visit his home. Shan’t we? Nagaraju said he could not procure Sambar meat. Before he entered the village people said that the police were looking for him and advised him flee.
Bipin seemed not to care. Said, he read in the paper how Sabyasachi Panda hoodwinked the police and attended his mother’s funeral rites at Nayagarh and came back.
Nagaraju hails from Vijayanagaram. From his college days he was interested in Marxism. First became a member of SFI. Then a Naxalite. Candra babu Naidu’s police once arrested him. While being taken to the court he was escaped from the clutch of the police. On the run since then, has not visited his home.
Police is on the lookout for him. If they arrive right now? My middle class mind was apprehensive. My family will be ruined. In the seventies some had called me to participate in action.
At that time I could not take up the step. My middle class family, middle class hopes and desires and its achievements and failures kept me back. Those who called me to join action did not go to the jungle of Gunpur or Rayagada. Simply a kind of fear kept me away from the revolution.
Today in the afternoon of life Nagaraju as if, is calling me again to join action. Even now those things are still possible for me.
Nagaraju swallowed his tea in one gulp and said: I am going. The police may reach here any moment. They have quite a few detectives in the village.
Bipin seemed not to care for his words and said: Sit down for a little while. We shall chit chat. Tell me how is your family?
This Nagaraju is very dear to me. Do you know why? His present and my past are not different.
Nagaraju smiled. He said: I am teaching Telugu to Swetalana. She now can read and write.
Do you know who is Swetalana? Nagaraju’s wife. She is a Kandha girl of this village. Now they have built a house in the jungle and live there. That’s why Nagaraju reminds me of my past. I had not changed Surubali’s name. I could not change Surubali. But Nagaraju is careful. He has changed the name of the Kandha girl to Swetalana.
I remembered the first letter of Bipin: For my house I dug up the earth, Surubali prepared the clay. Now we are preparing a field. Next year I shall buy a pair of bullocks and start cultivating the land. We are now the primordial man and woman. We work at the land throughout the day. In the evening Surubali cooks. When rice starts boiling Surubali keeps her cheek resting on her knees and keeps looking at the fire. I sit at a distance and write poetry in the light of a kerosene lamp.
Nagaraju went away making me uncomfortable. I and Bipin are silent. On the blackboard an unsolved arithmetical problem is hanging. Nobody felt the necessity of wiping it away. After a long silence Bipin sighed deeply and said: You are a story writer. You can say. Tell me why this happens. In the unending flow of time, one story repeats itself again and again. Why? Or how?
I did not have any answer except a long sigh.