The village is named Ouguri, after the lake. Jayanti gazes at the huge lake from the shore. Someone is getting into a canoe to go fishing. The headman’s six-fingered nephew perhaps, a lucky fellow, famous for how his net always snares the heaviest haul. Some say he waits by the lake, hunched in the shadows, accompanied by a fiendish water demon.
Turning her head, Jayanti sees her son, Deepak, sitting patiently with two fishing rods, waiting for the floaters to move. She is irritated. After passing his higher secondary examination he had attended Soingaon College for a couple of years. But after flunking out, he now wastes his time fishing or wandering around the village. As she walks along the shore, she also sees her eldest daughter, Joya, moving the day’s catch from the bamboo traps, the jakoi into the khaloi.
The sun is setting on the other side of the lake. A warm orange glow spreads over the area.
“I’m back, Ma,” her youngest daughter, Bijoya, calls out from behind her. Jayanti turns around.
“Wait, I’ll be there soon. Change out of your uniform, your sister will make you something to eat.”
She walks back from the lake slowly, sits down on a low wooden stool in the courtyard, takes the brass blade, and starts sectioning areca nuts.
“Make me some tea,” she tells Joya.
Joya brings her a bowl of steaming tea and a couple of sweets on a plate.
“Good, now get down to studying before your father comes back. You can’t afford to fail the high school exams again.”
Joya hangs her head and goes back inside the house.
Jayanti regrets being so harsh with her daughter. The money her husband Champak makes as a daily laborer, and her own income from weaving and sewing, appear to have been wasted on Deepak and Joya, both of whom failed the examinations this year.
Tring-tring. Startled, she turns. Her husband enters the courtyard on a ramshackle bicycle. Its rattle is louder than the bell. Two laden bags hang from the handles, one with greens and vegetables, the other with lentils and sugar.
“Hold the bicycle, Jayanti,” her husband says, trying to maintain his balance. She grabs the handles quickly, steadying the bicycle so that he can dismount. The stench of country liquor assaults her. Her husband is tottering.
Joya and Bijoya run out joyfully on hearing their father’s voice and take the bags off the handles. Jayanti props the bicycle against the wall of the house. “Ooh kota!” she exclaims in disgust. “What a horrible smell. How can you drink so early?”
“Hey shut up, don’t you speak, I drink vodka—I have vodka water. I—I drink vodka,” Champak boasts loudly in broken English, thumping his chest.
“Fine, fine, no need to shout. The neighbors will hear,” Jayanti tries to hush Champak in a low voice.
“You think I care even little? I work oil company—Digboi, Digboi—I speak English,” Champak screeches back.
Whenever her husband comes into a bit of money, he drinks and makes a ruckus at home. The children find the situation unbearable too.
This abuse of alcohol is spreading throughout Ouguri as well as neighboring villages. The young men start drinking early and develop serious ailments by the time they are in their thirties.
Alcohol and work have crushed Champak. Sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, ribs protruding so prominently they can be counted, the torn shirt that hides nothing. The trousers he bought years ago at the Soingaon haat are so worn out that it’s a mystery how they stay on his waist. He falls on the low stool instead of sitting on it—he’s so drunk he’s swaying like a bamboo reed caught in a gust of wind.
She goes into the kitchen. Joya is putting away the groceries. A liquor bottle rolls out of the pile of vegetables.
Snatching the bottle, she rushes to her husband and says, “Don’t you have any shame? All the swill you drank wasn’t enough, you had to bring more?”
“Stop your bellyaching—I’m drinking with my own money, what business is it of yours? I have brought food for you as well. Pork liver and meat—cook it properly.”
Champak continues grumbling, then vomits, keels over, and promptly passes out. This man is torturing her; the deep lines in her face make her look much older than her forty years. Her body is already wrecked by gastric problems, she can endure no more. She pushes Champak, saying, “Get up, get up, what have you done?”
He doesn’t move. She fetches a pail of water from the well, pours it on his head, and then tugs and pushes his inert frame with Joya’s help and lays him on the bed. She finds it difficult to carry his weight nowadays, a sharp pain shooting from her waist down to her feet, making her feel limp. She puts on the wraparound she bathes in, cleans the puddle of vomit, and then pours two more buckets of water on herself near the well.
Daylight is fading—they need to light the lamps. On the veranda, Joya quickly cleans the soot-darkened glass tops of the kerosene lanterns. Kerosene is expensive, and there is not much to spare—they use one on their study table and the other only when they have to. Jayanti uses an oil lamp in the kitchen.
Jayanti tells her two daughters, “Get to your studies, I don’t want to hear a peep out of either of you. Where is your brother? Is he still fishing?”
They say nothing, as they already know that their brother has gone out. Jayanti goes into her bedroom, puts on an old smoke-stained garment, and enters the kitchen. She turns for a glimpse of their estate from the veranda. Six years ago they had cleared almost five acres of land in the Soingaon Reserve by the Ouguri Lake. The vast area around them turns pitch dark as soon as evening falls. A handful of oil lamps twinkles in the distance, but the croaking of the frogs and the chirruping of the crickets make for an eerie atmosphere.
Jayanti pulls the bundle of dry branches collected from the jungle by the children closer to the makeshift stove and lights a fire. She puts the rice pot on it, chops the vegetables, and prepares the spices and condiments for the meat. The fish Joya caught earlier are already dressed.
There’s a noise outside, as though something has fallen over. She runs out into the courtyard where she sees the bicycle that she had propped up against the wall lying on the ground. The nuts and bolts have come even looser. Jayanti picks it up and carries it inside.
The damaged bicycle on the floor brings back an old image, as sharp as a jagged bolt of lightning. Jayanti used to cycle to school with her girlfriends. One day she fell off on the way and discovered that the rear wheel was all but flat.
Some men were working at the building site for a Digboi Oil Company rig. A tall, neatly turned-out young man stepped forward, picked up her bicycle, and asked, “Are you hurt?”
An embarrassed Jayanti tugged her clothes from her knees all the way down to her feet, and shook her head. The man collected a pump from the digging site and re-inflated the tire. That was how they met. His name was Champak Nath, and he was from Goalpara.
Jayanti smiles. This shabby, scruffy, badly-dressed man used to be so handsome, warm, and caring. She puts the bicycle away and peeks at the sleeping Champak, who’s curled up with his thin hands on his chest. A tender feeling touches her heart.
Jayanti suddenly remembers the rice and rushes to the sputtering fire, feeding it some more branches. Gazing into the flames, which are now roaring again, she is lost in her memories once more. His attractive appearance and charming behavior had lured her adolescent heart, setting off colors as vibrant as the red poinciana.
Jayanti grew quickly after that chance meeting—both physically and emotionally. They continued talking, stealing moments as she went to and from school. One day he passed her a letter confessing his love for her. Her happiness was dashed when her father found out. “I’m warning you,” he said, “I’d better never hear of you talking to him again, or else . . .”
She knew that her family would never approve, that they would never agree to her marrying this stranger from Goalpara in West Assam. But her feelings for Champak only intensified.
On the last day of her matriculation examinations she packed her schoolbag with clothes, sought the blessing of the deities at home, and prayed for her parents’ well-being.
She felt sad about the sister closest to her in age, but there was no time to look back. She got on her bicycle in a hurry, as if she were late for the exam. And when the exam was done, she eloped with Champak.
No one from her family went looking for Jayanti. Perhaps her father had declared her dead.
Champak painted a rainbow on her eighteen-year-old heart. Clutching his hand, she started her new life wearing rose-tinted glasses. They lived in Digboi for about eight months, but she had barely begun the life of her dreams when a shocking incident took place.
Jayanti takes the rice off the fire and puts on the pan for the meat.
That day too she was cooking their dinner. There was already a new life inside her body. Champak rushed in from work late, in a panic, looking for all the world as though someone had whipped him.
“What’s wrong?” Jayanti asked.
“I got caught, Jayanti. Ratan and the rest of them asked me to go with them, but the guards caught us.” Wrapping his arms around her, he began to cry like a child.
Jayanti started shaking him. “What’s the matter, tell me everything.”
“They’ve been stealing company property and selling it. Ratan bought a motorcycle last month, and tonight they asked me to join them, because I wanted a motorcycle too.”
“And then?” Jayanti shouted.
“I made a big mistake.”
A scream tore through her. That was the day the rainbow in her life changed its hues.
All of them went to jail. As expected, Champak lost his job. Even today, Jayanti trembles every time she remembers.
With the doors of the oil company closed to Champak, a pall descended. It was impossible to look into Champak’s eyes. After getting out of prison, he tried desperately to make a livelihood, but failed.
Then one day, when Jayanti was pregnant with their first child, he told her, “You know the old fitter at the oil company, Noren Kolita? He’s inviting us to go live in his village.”
“Doesn’t Noren Kolita live here?”
“He’s going to retire next month, so he’ll be going back to his village, Soingaon.”
“Soingaon? Where is Soingaon?”
“Soingaon, in the Kamrup district, beyond Guwahati.”
The world Jayanti knew stretched no farther than Dibrugarh. Beyond that she had heard only of Guwahati—very far away, involving an entire day’s traveling. They would have to go even farther. How far was Soingaon exactly? But she had no choice, for there was no other viable option. After his release from prison he had been too ashamed to even leave the house, and she was assailed by a host of worries and anxieties. Champak seemed to have come up with the best option.
“I don’t know, I don’t feel very good about it, but do what you think is right.”
Happy to have obtained her consent, Champak said, “Don’t you worry now, we’ll take a train to Guwahati, you’ll have no difficulty, and then it will be around two hours more by bus.”
Jayanti surrendered to whatever time and fate would lead her to. The vivid poincianas began playing before her eyes.
They had only a few thousand rupees. For these new warriors in the battle of life, managing two meals a day had become a grand dream.
Sitting in front of the fire, Jayanti recollects her life at Soingaon. Champak shook off his torpor and started working as a daily laborer. He even became a sharecropper for Noren Kolita. Deepak was born in the two-room hut that Noren Kolita built for them in his compound. How happy they had been that day. Joya came two years later. But when she had told Champak a few years later she was pregnant again, this time with Bijoya, he flew into a rage.
“What did you say? How will you feed another mouth?”
Gulping in fear, Jayanti said, “I’ll manage, just the way I’m managing now.”
“What are you saying? Here I am working till all hours of the night to pay for everything, do you understand any of this?”
How the man had changed. Imagine so much hostility for a baby yet to be born.
“Joya,” she calls out now.
Joya appears by the kitchen door.
“Bring some more firewood,” Jayanti tells her, “and then see if your father has fallen off the bed.”
Joya goes out to the bundle of twigs they had collected and left to dry in the courtyard, gathers some of the sturdier branches, and passes them to Jayanti before returning to her studies.
Jayanti shoves two of the sticks into the flames, her mind going back to the time spent in Soingaon by the bank of the Kolohi. Those were happier times for her. They made just about enough to cover daily needs, but it was peaceful.
Bijoya was born, and while initially Champak was not pleased, he grew to love and care for the young child. Some days after she was born, Champak said to Jayanti, “I am thinking of buying some farmland in Monjora village, what do you think?”
Jayanti felt like jumping with joy. They would finally have a home in Monjora on the banks of the Kolohi.
But, man proposes and God disposes.
Five or six years later, in 2015, the year Deepak took his matriculation examinations, the rain began to come down. It seemed as though millions of pitchers overhead were emptying themselves everywhere, for three or four days straight, swelling the river banks. The Kolohi was not particularly shallow, and its bed held abundant rocks and silt.
The government quarried sand from riverbeds like the Kolohi’s, and Champak worked on these projects under the lessees, contractors, and supervisors. The intensity of the rain that particular year made all the villagers who lived by the Kolohi fearful.
“This will be it, the villages are going to drown, time to pack up whatever you can and get ready to leave if you want to save your life.”
Champak and Jayanti prepared too, packing their things and holding their children close. That night was dark, the rain unceasing. As parts of their dear village broke off and fell into the increasingly dangerous river, Jayanti felt her very flesh being torn off her body. The house they had built with their own hands, the garden they had filled with plants and trees were consumed by the raging river in front of their very eyes. Within moments they became destitute. Nature’s relentless fury left them speechless.
The life they had made for themselves by the Kolohi was eroded with the same ease as the banks of the river. The cries and sighs of those who had lost their homes covered the embankment like a thick blanket. The Kolohi was cruel—just like she rested to provide fertile ground for agriculture, she also flooded her banks every year, turning the lives of many people upside down.
They had lost everything. Where would they go, what would they do? They stayed in government relief camps for some days, but it wasn’t possible to live there forever.
When they left the relief camp, Champak and Jayanti joined the ranks of the people who moved into the nearby reserve forest. Joining hands with neighbors from the Bodo and Rabha tribes, they began clearing the land together. They were aware that building a village here was illegal, but in this battle the need for survival was a stronger weapon than law and order.
The displaced people cleared enough land to build two villages. The enormous lake in the middle of the reserved area was called Ouguri in the east and Solsoli in the west. Jayanti and her family worked hard to clear their portion of the land, planted bamboo and banana trees, and harvested rice and vegetables. The lake was filled with fish; many made a living by selling them at the Soigaon market.
The colors of Jayanti’s life changed again. Without a proper job, slaving to ensure two meals a day for his family, Champak started drinking heavily. He drank country liquors like sulai and laupani, made by the nearby Bodos, and became loud and combative. Jayanti worried that he would get drunk and fall into a ditch.
It was a miracle that he had made it home today with those bags hanging on both sides of his bicycle, which he could barely control when he was sober.
“Isn’t dinner ready yet? Why is it taking such a long time?” Champak calls out from the bed. Jayanti shakes herself out of her reverie and blows on the flames to make them burn more strongly. The rice is done, the pork is simmering nicely.
“Joya,” she calls.
It is usually Joya’s responsibility to clean the floor where they eat and lay out the plates and bowls as required. Jayanti suddenly remembers she has not heard her son in some time. Is he not home even at this late hour? Where is he, what is he doing?
She looks at Joya who is leaning against the door. “Isn’t your brother home yet?” she asks.
“No,” answers Joya.
The veins in her forehead pulse. Where is he so late at night? “Take the plates out, do you not hear your father shouting?”
Rising to her feet, she walks briskly toward the gate. There is deep darkness all around, but still she peers into it in all directions—and sees her son approaching, dimly lit up by a swarm of fireflies. He seems to be in a daze. Spotting her, he asks, “What are you doing here at this hour of night?”
“Kota mora tu!” Jayanti says in exasperation. “I came out looking for you. Where were you out so late?”
She leans forward to smell his breath—has he started drinking as well? But she doesn’t smell alcohol and lets out a sigh of relief.
Jayanti feels better now. A gust of wind makes her shiver.
“Come in now,” she says in a softer tone.
They sit on the floor in a circle for dinner by the light of the oil lamp. Jayanti starts serving everyone, looking at each of them in turn. Champak takes a few small bites of his food. Jayanti has not sat down to her meal yet, in case anyone wants a second helping. His mouth full of food, her son asks his father, “Have you heard, Deuta?”
“Heard what?” Champak sneers.
A bat flies past outside, flapping its wings.
“I heard at Tilleshwar Dai’s house they’re going to evict us,” her son says.
“Evict?” Champak asks with grudging curiosity.
“Evict?” Jayanti repeats, loudly.
“The government will clear out the villages in the reserve,” her son explains.
“Why? Where will we go? Why will they make us leave?”
“Why should they let us stay? This land is owned by the government. We built villages illegally,” Deepak says somberly.
Champak sobers up. “We’ll see who has the balls to throw us out. This is Champak Nath you’re talking to.” He rises to his feet with bravado.
Deepak says, his eyes on his plate, “Tilleshwar Dai said he will file an appeal with the local forest officer for rehabilitation consideration. Let’s see.”
Joya’s and Bijoya’s eyes widen—they forget to eat. Jayanti, who has just sat down to eat her own food, is in complete disbelief.
“You’d better eat, Ma, the lamp is about to go out,” says Joya. She begins clearing the empty plates.
Jayanti feels dizzy. Every corner of the room seems to be shaking. She glances at the smoking oil lamp, its flickering, blackened tip. It is about to go out. She stares at the tip, her senses overwhelmed by a picture-perfect image of an azure sky over a blue, brimming Ouguri lake, lush green rice saplings swaying merrily in the wind on its shore, an image that disintegrates like the wisps of smoke running into her eyes, making them water. Her throat is dry, and she feels like she is floating. She had begun to dream new dreams, would they die now?
Her fantasy of a rejuvenated life with her family in Ouguri village is turning out to be a mirage. Just as a huge tree uprooted by a powerful storm crashes slowly to the ground, Jayanti falls off her low stool in slow motion.
“Are you all right, Ma?” Joya and Bijoya rush to her and try to lift her off the floor. Deepak runs up as well.
Her vision fills with a series of images rushing past—all the people she has met in her life. Her half-remembered parents, the dream she had left her parents to follow, the house by the Kolohi, her home in Ouguri, all the dreams she has chased and never been able to catch.
When will her trials end?
Is this the end, just like that? What happened to her roots?
Clutching her children’s hands, she tries to raise herself from the floor.
“Shipa” © Madhurima Barua. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2023 by Syeda Shaheen Jeenat Suhailey. All rights reserved. Developed through the Write Assamese project, a collaboration between Untold and BEE Books, supported by the British Council and KfW Stiftung. This story will appear in the anthology A Fistful of Moonlight: Stories from Assam, forthcoming in 2023 from BEE Books in India and MacLehose Press in the UK.