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Fiction

The Smell of Bamboo Blossoms

By Yeshe Dorje Thongchi
Translated from Assamese by Aruni Kashyap
The natural world brings both profit and ominous change to a village in this narrative by prominent Assamese writer Yeshe Dorje Thongchi, a finalist for the Armory Square Prize for South Asian Literature in Translation.
A large, shallow river with pines on the opposite bank and mountains in the distance
Nameri National Park. Photo by Debuapriyo, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Instead of fish, rats are swarming the Kameng River—an unprecedented phenomenon! These days, as soon as the sun sets behind the Rang Hills, hundreds and thousands of rats come out from the thick bamboo forests that sprawl on both banks of the river. The rats are not only destroying crops and marching around inside houses, chewing everything they encounter, but they are also swimming across the Kameng River despite its strong currents. Maybe they are trying to breed or are searching for food.

Along with the rats, people hunting them has also become a regular sight. As soon as the hundreds and thousands of rats run toward the river at dusk to swim across it, the riverbanks are flooded with people trying to hunt them. Every rat hunter carries two sticks and a flashlight—it’s all they will need for the hunting expedition. The Kameng is a broad and deep river with a current so strong that it is impossible for people to swim across it even during winter, when the water level is lower. But these little rats are strong. They swim across the quick monsoon river from one bank to another and back again so easily. When close to the bank, the wet and exhausted rats require some kind of support to crawl up. The people waiting on the banks hold their sticks out. The rats crawl onto them. The hunters hold their flashlights between their teeth and hit the rats hard on their little heads with their second sticks. In this way they create a hillock of rat carcasses on the bank by dawn. They gather several bags of rats in a single night, and that’s how the villagers living near the Kameng River and in Seppa Town earn some quick money. They skewer four rats on a short length of bamboo after cleaning and hollowing out the intestines, smoke them for three or four days, and process them into tasty meat. Four cleaned and smoked rats fetch twenty rupees in cities such as Itanagar or in the markets of Naharlagun. In places like Aalong in West Siang district and Pasighat in East Siang district, they can sell them at even higher prices. That’s why the people living on the banks of the Kameng are happy with the bamboo blossoms.

*

Tarak Dadao went to the riverbank every day to kill rats. Saddled with the debt he had incurred for his wedding, he knew this was a golden opportunity to earn some money. He was the one who discovered the bamboo blossoms deep inside the forest one day. He had carefully chosen the bamboo plants before felling them. He had dragged them out with great effort and heaped them together with their leaves and twigs, and it was then, when he had started to clean the twigs and leaves and branchlets, that he noticed clusters of seeds—round, dark green, thick-skinned—hanging from the bamboo. He was surprised. Bamboo had been an intimate part of his life since his birth, but he had never known bamboo to produce seeds. This was a nabhuta nashruta incident—never seen before, never heard of before. He plucked a seed and smelled it. It smelled exactly like raw bamboo. Within the thick green skin was something that looked like wheat grain. He chewed a grain, and it tasted like bamboo shoot. He thought it could be used for food. He fished out his cane naara and filled it to the brim with bamboo seeds, after which he cleaned the bamboo plants, made a raft out of them, launched it on the Kameng, and started traveling toward Seppa. From the raft he saw that the bamboo on both banks of the river was bearing flowers as well as these seeds, like soft, green new paddy.

A few suns later (as they say here) that day, Tarak reached Seppa. He brought the raft to the bank, tethered it to a tree trunk with a rope, and walked home. He was tired but happy. He would be able to give Medak a gift today. She loved eating bamboo shoots, and he was sure she would love bamboo seeds as well.

When he reached his tin-roofed house, everything was silent. He pushed open the tin door, making a ker-ker-ker sound. When Medak realized her husband was home, she climbed down from the bamboo bed.

“What happened, why is it so dark?” He was a little annoyed.

“No power today,” Medak replied.

“That doesn’t mean you should sleep in the dark. Please light the fire.” Medak said nothing. She started to make a fire.

What had happened to Medak, who on other days would wait for him impatiently at the gate of the compound? Something must be wrong, he thought.

Though he was exhausted and hungry, and despite her odd behavior, he found himself overflowing with love for her. After all, she was still with him in spite of all the hurdles, the fights with her parents, brothers, and the community. He still felt that the life he led with Medak was a dream from which he might wake up one day,

“I’m starving, is there anything to eat?”

“There’s some rice, but no curry. That old Matung Burha ate everything before leaving. What would you like with it?” She started to cough.

“Is your cough worse?” He came closer to Medak and put his hand on her forehead. “I think you have a fever.”

“I haven’t been feeling well. The cough is getting worse, I think. Tomorrow I will go to the doctor again,” Medak said.

“I will come along. I will talk to the doctor.”

“No need. How long can we continue living like this in Matung Burha’s house? We need to finish building our own house soon. Should I make some hot fried rice for you?”

“Okay. But tell the doctor everything, make sure he checks you thoroughly. One more thing, look at what I’ve brought you fromthe forest.” Tarak fished out a bunch of bamboo flowers from his naara.

“What are these?” Medak said, feeling the seeds with her fingers after she put the rice into the heated oil.

“These are bamboo seeds. I think they will be very tasty. We should peel off the green skin and try boiling them.”

“I’ve never heard of seed-bearing bamboo. How can bamboo bear seeds like paddy? What if they’re poisonous? We should show them to Grandpa Matung before we boil them.”

Matung Burha owned the house in which Tarak and Medak were living. He was a lonely, single man, with no one to call his own. People said he was around a hundred years old, but he didn’t look it. None of his contemporaries were still alive. But though he was old, he was quite strong. He lived in a modest house of cane and bamboo, did odd jobs, and depended on the generosity of others for his meals. When Medak eloped with Tarak, Matung Burha had provided them shelter in his small house. Since it was just big enough for one person, Burha went to live in Chama’s house.

Medak had just been married to Tero Chingi, who paid the costly bride price. But as soon as she had reached her new husband’s house, even as the guests were busy dancing and singing, she ran away to Tarak’s village, Jejudada. It was only after Medak was dressed in her bridal clothes and sent to Chingi village that she realized whom she really wanted to spend her life with. On her way to Chingi, she had kept imagining Tarak calling out to her. She was already far away by the time the people of Chingi noticed she had gone. They didn’t know where to look for her. The villagers asked the inhabitants of neighboring villages, and when no one offered any leads, they concluded that she had been kidnapped by ghosts.

Tarak was surprised when he heard of Medak’s mysterious disappearance. He had been in love with her for a long time. So he was heartbroken when she married someone else, then worried when he heard she had vanished.

When Medak arrived in Jejudada, she couldn’t gather the courage to go to Tarak. She knew he loved her, but she had never given him any encouragement. She had left Chingi and her husband on impulse. Now she took shelter in the forest near Tarak’s village and lived on wild fruits for several days. When Tarak entered the forest to cut bamboo, she confronted him and declared her love. They traveled to Seppa together and hid in Matung Burha’s house for many days. When word got out, it led to a fierce argument between the Chingi and Dada tribes. But since the Dadas—Tarak’s tribe—had the larger numbers, the minority Chingis were forced to settle for double the bride price from Tarak to leave Medak alone.

When they arrived at Chama’s house, Tarak took the seeds out of his naara and put them on Matung Burha’s palms. “Grandpa, please tell us what these are.”

The old man picked up one seed and examined it, held it close to his eyes, smelled it, and chewed it. Suddenly he looked horrified. “Where did you get these?” he screamed.

Before Tarak could reply he continued, “The bamboos are flowering again! These seeds are a bad omen! Now rats will rule over people. They will devour the paddy, the maize, the wheat, everything! People will die without food. Village after village will be destroyed. Oh Doni Polo, did you keep me alive this long just to show me this? Just kill me, please kill me.”

“Why are you so upset? Please tell us what happens when bamboos flower,” Tarak said, trying to calm the old man.

“I haven’t spoken about those times to anyone, but one day I will.”

Excerpt from the story “বাঁহ ফুলৰ গোন্ধ” © Yeshe Dorje Thongchi. From the collection বাঁহ ফুলৰ গোন্ধ. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2023 by Aruni Kashyap. Published in partnership with the Armory Square Prize for South Asian Literature in Translation. All rights reserved.

English

Instead of fish, rats are swarming the Kameng River—an unprecedented phenomenon! These days, as soon as the sun sets behind the Rang Hills, hundreds and thousands of rats come out from the thick bamboo forests that sprawl on both banks of the river. The rats are not only destroying crops and marching around inside houses, chewing everything they encounter, but they are also swimming across the Kameng River despite its strong currents. Maybe they are trying to breed or are searching for food.

Along with the rats, people hunting them has also become a regular sight. As soon as the hundreds and thousands of rats run toward the river at dusk to swim across it, the riverbanks are flooded with people trying to hunt them. Every rat hunter carries two sticks and a flashlight—it’s all they will need for the hunting expedition. The Kameng is a broad and deep river with a current so strong that it is impossible for people to swim across it even during winter, when the water level is lower. But these little rats are strong. They swim across the quick monsoon river from one bank to another and back again so easily. When close to the bank, the wet and exhausted rats require some kind of support to crawl up. The people waiting on the banks hold their sticks out. The rats crawl onto them. The hunters hold their flashlights between their teeth and hit the rats hard on their little heads with their second sticks. In this way they create a hillock of rat carcasses on the bank by dawn. They gather several bags of rats in a single night, and that’s how the villagers living near the Kameng River and in Seppa Town earn some quick money. They skewer four rats on a short length of bamboo after cleaning and hollowing out the intestines, smoke them for three or four days, and process them into tasty meat. Four cleaned and smoked rats fetch twenty rupees in cities such as Itanagar or in the markets of Naharlagun. In places like Aalong in West Siang district and Pasighat in East Siang district, they can sell them at even higher prices. That’s why the people living on the banks of the Kameng are happy with the bamboo blossoms.

*

Tarak Dadao went to the riverbank every day to kill rats. Saddled with the debt he had incurred for his wedding, he knew this was a golden opportunity to earn some money. He was the one who discovered the bamboo blossoms deep inside the forest one day. He had carefully chosen the bamboo plants before felling them. He had dragged them out with great effort and heaped them together with their leaves and twigs, and it was then, when he had started to clean the twigs and leaves and branchlets, that he noticed clusters of seeds—round, dark green, thick-skinned—hanging from the bamboo. He was surprised. Bamboo had been an intimate part of his life since his birth, but he had never known bamboo to produce seeds. This was a nabhuta nashruta incident—never seen before, never heard of before. He plucked a seed and smelled it. It smelled exactly like raw bamboo. Within the thick green skin was something that looked like wheat grain. He chewed a grain, and it tasted like bamboo shoot. He thought it could be used for food. He fished out his cane naara and filled it to the brim with bamboo seeds, after which he cleaned the bamboo plants, made a raft out of them, launched it on the Kameng, and started traveling toward Seppa. From the raft he saw that the bamboo on both banks of the river was bearing flowers as well as these seeds, like soft, green new paddy.

A few suns later (as they say here) that day, Tarak reached Seppa. He brought the raft to the bank, tethered it to a tree trunk with a rope, and walked home. He was tired but happy. He would be able to give Medak a gift today. She loved eating bamboo shoots, and he was sure she would love bamboo seeds as well.

When he reached his tin-roofed house, everything was silent. He pushed open the tin door, making a ker-ker-ker sound. When Medak realized her husband was home, she climbed down from the bamboo bed.

“What happened, why is it so dark?” He was a little annoyed.

“No power today,” Medak replied.

“That doesn’t mean you should sleep in the dark. Please light the fire.” Medak said nothing. She started to make a fire.

What had happened to Medak, who on other days would wait for him impatiently at the gate of the compound? Something must be wrong, he thought.

Though he was exhausted and hungry, and despite her odd behavior, he found himself overflowing with love for her. After all, she was still with him in spite of all the hurdles, the fights with her parents, brothers, and the community. He still felt that the life he led with Medak was a dream from which he might wake up one day,

“I’m starving, is there anything to eat?”

“There’s some rice, but no curry. That old Matung Burha ate everything before leaving. What would you like with it?” She started to cough.

“Is your cough worse?” He came closer to Medak and put his hand on her forehead. “I think you have a fever.”

“I haven’t been feeling well. The cough is getting worse, I think. Tomorrow I will go to the doctor again,” Medak said.

“I will come along. I will talk to the doctor.”

“No need. How long can we continue living like this in Matung Burha’s house? We need to finish building our own house soon. Should I make some hot fried rice for you?”

“Okay. But tell the doctor everything, make sure he checks you thoroughly. One more thing, look at what I’ve brought you fromthe forest.” Tarak fished out a bunch of bamboo flowers from his naara.

“What are these?” Medak said, feeling the seeds with her fingers after she put the rice into the heated oil.

“These are bamboo seeds. I think they will be very tasty. We should peel off the green skin and try boiling them.”

“I’ve never heard of seed-bearing bamboo. How can bamboo bear seeds like paddy? What if they’re poisonous? We should show them to Grandpa Matung before we boil them.”

Matung Burha owned the house in which Tarak and Medak were living. He was a lonely, single man, with no one to call his own. People said he was around a hundred years old, but he didn’t look it. None of his contemporaries were still alive. But though he was old, he was quite strong. He lived in a modest house of cane and bamboo, did odd jobs, and depended on the generosity of others for his meals. When Medak eloped with Tarak, Matung Burha had provided them shelter in his small house. Since it was just big enough for one person, Burha went to live in Chama’s house.

Medak had just been married to Tero Chingi, who paid the costly bride price. But as soon as she had reached her new husband’s house, even as the guests were busy dancing and singing, she ran away to Tarak’s village, Jejudada. It was only after Medak was dressed in her bridal clothes and sent to Chingi village that she realized whom she really wanted to spend her life with. On her way to Chingi, she had kept imagining Tarak calling out to her. She was already far away by the time the people of Chingi noticed she had gone. They didn’t know where to look for her. The villagers asked the inhabitants of neighboring villages, and when no one offered any leads, they concluded that she had been kidnapped by ghosts.

Tarak was surprised when he heard of Medak’s mysterious disappearance. He had been in love with her for a long time. So he was heartbroken when she married someone else, then worried when he heard she had vanished.

When Medak arrived in Jejudada, she couldn’t gather the courage to go to Tarak. She knew he loved her, but she had never given him any encouragement. She had left Chingi and her husband on impulse. Now she took shelter in the forest near Tarak’s village and lived on wild fruits for several days. When Tarak entered the forest to cut bamboo, she confronted him and declared her love. They traveled to Seppa together and hid in Matung Burha’s house for many days. When word got out, it led to a fierce argument between the Chingi and Dada tribes. But since the Dadas—Tarak’s tribe—had the larger numbers, the minority Chingis were forced to settle for double the bride price from Tarak to leave Medak alone.

When they arrived at Chama’s house, Tarak took the seeds out of his naara and put them on Matung Burha’s palms. “Grandpa, please tell us what these are.”

The old man picked up one seed and examined it, held it close to his eyes, smelled it, and chewed it. Suddenly he looked horrified. “Where did you get these?” he screamed.

Before Tarak could reply he continued, “The bamboos are flowering again! These seeds are a bad omen! Now rats will rule over people. They will devour the paddy, the maize, the wheat, everything! People will die without food. Village after village will be destroyed. Oh Doni Polo, did you keep me alive this long just to show me this? Just kill me, please kill me.”

“Why are you so upset? Please tell us what happens when bamboos flower,” Tarak said, trying to calm the old man.

“I haven’t spoken about those times to anyone, but one day I will.”

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