Story : The Stagnant River

~Jiwan Kshetry~Jiwan Kshetry

It was a not-so-cold day of early December on the southern plain of Terai. The fog had just started descending to the land from the sky but the cold proper was yet to grip the population majority of which lacked the adequate clothes to tolerate it. The day was thus warm and pleasant from the morning. The river which had a dam built downwards was in slow motion as if to share the calm of the surrounding. The small bubbles and other tiny particles of debris were floating glittering bright with the rays of light that fell on them at acute angle. The warm yet cool rays of light traveled in bands between the Sisau trees that lined the eastern bank of the river. The images of the trees in the water seemed to touch the blue sky at the bottom of the river.

A crow flew across the river to sit on a branch of a tree on the other side as few others were heard crowing at distance interrupting the calm of the morning. The distant rumbling of the speeding vehicles with their blazing horns reminded what a rush was there in the real life in the city. A cartoon like sketch of a human being lay there in front of Ramesh, carved in a block of concrete probably meant for keeping the belongings of the deceased before they were cremated in the adjoining cemetery. The sketch looked pretty distorted despite the utmost effort of the artist to make it look like a human being; this is probably why so few among the people are successful artists.

The ‘Ghat’ or the cemetery bore a deserted look as the morning sun made it look perfectly tranquil. The partially burnt wooden logs scattered beside the river made it clear at least one corpse was cremated in past few days. A piece of cloth was seen revolving along a small circle in the water close to this bank. Ramesh was suddenly filled with sympathy for those who died planning throughout their life and failing to implement even a single of them. Even those who died after aging adequately kept planning for years, let alone the unlucky ones who are forced to leave this world earlier. This gloomy reality reminded him of the desperation with which he had exited his room to take refuge of this cemetery in the early morning; quite unusual by any standards. The tranquility in this remote corner of human dwelling had almost made him forget the sorrow that was there in his personal life. ‘How can an unfortunate creature like me afford such pleasant moments?’ he ruminated as often.

The sun was now closer and warmth was growing. And this warmth in winter was an uncommon commodity in this section of earth where the fog ruled almost the whole of the winter. The shadows of the trees were now shorter and the floating particles in the river seemed to travel faster. More crows were now flying tree-to-tree and the chirpings were of more variety. The dew drops on the leaves of grasses began to vanish though the leaves in the shadows of trees were still wet.

Suddenly a beggar appeared as if from nowhere. He was probably of Ramesh’s own age but looked much older with the wrinkles gifted by poverty all over the face. He wore a dirty grey shirt that was probably white when new with a pair of pants that most have been black when they were bought by some benefactor. He had a long face with untidy beards looking longer than they actually were by the emaciation that made the facial bones protrude. He was also wearing a rusted thin jacket that was unable to cover the front part of his trunk as there was no working zipper. As he came nearby, it turned out that he was not a beggar instead did the precious job of scavenging the useful things out of the waste: there was a huge sac made by sewing many pieces at his back that contained the plastic bags, papers and many other materials collected from the heaps of the waste. He walked stooped burdened by the weight of the luggage and was apparently moving to other location from the city and had taken the unusual short-cut through the cemetery.

“He is probably more unfortunate than me,” Ramesh guessed and hoped to get some solace by talking with him. He politely invited this prematurely aged man to seat beside him. The man hesitated at first but eventually obliged as probably this was his time to take some rest even otherwise. After making little formal talking, he began a query about the past of this strange man. This scavenger was probably having difficulty speaking with a gentleman and was frequently looking for excuses to leave. Ramesh was able to coax him into telling part of the story. He was from a family of relatively good fortune until a terrible disaster befell on them erasing all those fortunes, but he was apparently unable to explain what exactly the disaster was.

“We had a good home beside a river in the mountains. We even had a cowshed with a cow and a kid water buffalo. I had two brothers and a sister. My father used to fish in the river and mother? Well I never knew what my mother looked like. Those who have their mothers are the lucky people in this world. Those who lose them early are destined to suffer….” The stranger forced himself to silence and stood up suddenly. “It is already too late for me, master, I leave now.” He did not wait for the approval of Ramesh and walked faster than he had came.

This story reminded Ramesh of a poignant story that he had heard decades back in the village when he was a kid. A couple was charged of a serious misconduct and expelled from a village with their two children. The already poor family had now become destitute and took refuge in a small hut erected on a small piece of land carved on a steep slope beside a river. The nearest human dwelling from there was at one and a half hour walking distance. They began fishing in addition to working in the fields for daily wages and were somehow able to make a livelihood.

Once the obviously poor couple was going through particularly tough moments and they had been unable to earn any money by working for weeks. The scanty stock of foods had depleted and frequency of their meals was reduced from twice daily to once daily for days. One day the husband decided to make a breakthrough and set out for a longer period so that he could go to distant places to work and earn some money. To some extent, he was successful. But when he returned back with some money and grains his still-beautiful world was annihilated by this cruel thing called hunger. His wife was lying down motionless on a mat on the floor; pale, bluish and silent. To his shock, the two kids were still feebly sucking her nipples. No one ever knew when she died as she was ice-cold when he touched. It was certain she had starved herself to feed whatever grains were remaining to her children. Though extremely fragile physically and mentally, the family of the three survived the disaster and the incident made the villagers lenient so that the man got work more frequently and they also gave him some grains even for no work.

By now the rag-picker had vanished at the other side of the trail leaving no trace of his presence at this stretch of land. The story of that ill-fated couple and their children made him difficult to resist drawing similarities between those kids sucking the nipples of their dead mother and this poor fellow who had also lost his mother early and was now employed in a job that carried the least decency and honor possible in the society. A surge of guilt passed through Ramesh as he recalled his dreams of childhood that were full of fantasy to eradicate this cruel thing called poverty from the world. After almost three decades later, he was no different from the every other gentleman who had dreamt big but achieved little. The sense of gloom increased and his mood was getting darker though it was about midday with bright winter sun illuminating the world with only traces of fog in the horizon. Even the mountains were now visible in the north with a grey haze of winter. The water in the river seemed to move faster and the shadows of the Sisau trees had moved from west to the north of the trees themselves.

The crux of his problem was that he was fired from the job the day before for no apparent reason and he found it difficult telling this bad news to his family that lived in a remote village behind those mountains. This brightness of the day, this tranquility of the riverside was only making him restless and he shivered with the thought of some day ending up carrying that huge sac on the back. Over the years when his attempts to ascent along the ladder of prosperity with honesty at the job went to vain, he was the witness of a exponential growth in the fortune of the bosses who were better than him only in terms of manipulating the system so that their brazen act of stealing the public money were hidden with a thick veil. His life had been stagnant like this river with a dam downstream that forces it to stagnate against the law of nature. Every time he attempted to flow like a genuine river, like the ones between the mountains, some obstacle came like the dam and he was forced to watch others flowing fast to reach the ocean of prosperity leaving him far behind.

He stood up suddenly and threw a small stone to the river creating a ripple that travelled to all directions. Even though he escaped from his room in the morning to take refuge of this tranquil place, there was no escape from hunger and he was now pretty hungry. Now he would have to go back to room and feed himself as yet he was not as destitute as the family that lived at that riverside during his childhood. Only thing was that now he had to create some ripple in his real life that could form the beginning of a dynamic life that flowed like a untamed river.

(Source : Jiwan Kshetry’s Blog)

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