Writer Mitra Phukan translates the short stories of Sahitya Akademi Award winning author Harekrishna Deka from the Assamese in Guilt and Other Stories. The stories present a searing vision of the human condition while also brining alive Assam through unforgettable images.
The following excerpt is from the story 'Guilt' where an old woman, the sole eyewitness to a crime, is forced to confront a chilling memory from her past. This excerpt is being reproduced with permission from the publisher Speaking Tiger Books.
A few handfuls of dhekia lie in front of Durgeburhi, their fronds wilting in the heat. It looks as though there is little hope that these last few bunches of fiddlehead ferns will be sold today. Durga sits in the shade of Badan's shop. Like her, a couple of others also sit by the roadside and hawk simple country vegetables and greens such as bamboo shoots, dhekia greens and kosu tubers. The railway crossing is nearby. The shuttle-train that passes on the tracks twice each day, morning and evening, usually pauses at this point for a couple of minutes. The passengers who alight from the train sometimes buy a few things from the hawkers here.
Her face is wrinkled, her sight has dimmed, yet Durgeswari cannot really be called 'old'. She is only about fifty. But in this neighbourhood, everybody calls her Durgeburhi, Old Durga. Some rowdy students of a nearby college come and sit on the gate of the railway crossing and create a huge commotion every day. They harass everybody in sight, and nobody can escape their unkind tongues. They plague one and all so badly that decent people avoid going on that road if those students happen to be around. Old Durga, too, has not escaped their attention. Actually, it is these students who are the authors of the epithet 'old' in front of her name, given to her even though she is only middle-aged. Once, one of them had mischievously taunted her. Durgeswari had given chase to the gang, cursing them and their ancestors mightily all the while. But after this incident, their ragging of her had become even worse. And now, every time they see her, they yell, 'In Shiva's matted hair, Is Durgeburhi's lair!'
From the time of that incident, Durgeswari has been generally known as Durgeburhi.
Durgeswari appears at this spot very early every morning, though there is seemingly no need to arrive so very soon. But she appears before anybody else does to reserve for herself the prime spot where shopkeeper Badan's roof casts its shadow on the ground.
These days it is not really vital for her to come here and hawk vegetables. Her son, a strapping youth who has never seen his father's face, works as a peon in an office near their house. But Old Durga cannot give up her habit of selling vegetables in the market.
With the money that she earns in this manner, she hopes to bring home a wife for her son one day.
When the sun gets stronger, the shade afforded by the roof of Badan's shop shrinks in size. Still, it is not possible to follow the shadow and sit closer to the shop: Badan will be displeased. And who can sit in the fierce glare of this sun? The shuttle train has, in the meanwhile, left, so there is very little hope that these last handfuls of dhekia will be sold now.
The fronds cannot be stored, either, so Dugeburhi will have to utilize them for her own meal.
As Durgeswari prepares to leave, three shadows come to rest on her wares. Thinking perhaps the shadows belong to potential customers, she looks up, and gets an unpleasant shock.
Three men, dressed in khaki, are standing in front of her. Durgeburhi quakes inwardly whenever she sees men in khaki. However, screwing up her face to present a brave front, she mutters, 'I'm going, I'm going, after all I haven't built my house here, have I?' She gathers up the green fronds and puts them into her cotton bag.
At this, Constable Kalita speaks, 'Hey, old woman, wait a minute, our A.S.I. Babu has not come to evict you from here!'
Still, Durgeburhi does not feel at ease. What other motive can this daroga have for searching her out, if not to evict her? But the mystery of the policeman's presence there is soon explained.
'Old woman, do you remember the corpse that was found on the railway tracks over there, just about a hundred yards from where you are sitting now? Well, tell us " did you see the corpse?'
The old woman remembers. Yes, a corpse had indeed been found on the tracks very early in the morning, just the other day. The head had parted from the rest of the body, sliced clean by the wheels of a passing train. The old woman is about to answer, but something makes her pause.
Three college boys pass that way. They yell out lustily, 'In Shiva's matted hair, Is Durgeburhi's lair!' Durgeburhi begins to tremble. Is it caused by anger, or by some other emotion?
Certainly, the old woman had seen the corpse. And not just the corpse, she had also seen other events that had taken place.
On that day, she had got up at cock-crow, as usual, and, gathering together the leafy mustard greens that she had collected the previous day, had walked the two miles to this spot. On the way, she had crossed the community Puja pandal. There had been just a few days left for the Puja festival to begin. She had seen an image-maker busy painting the image of the goddess. He must have woken early in order to finish the remaining work on the image before the festival started. She had gazed with fixed intensity, not at the goddess, but at the ferocious aspect of Mahishasura, and at the clay likeness of the severed bull's head. Durgeburhi always found it difficult to believe that the severed, lifeless head of the bull, and the great Asura, were two facets of the same living being. She had, however, been gratified to see the wicked Asura's approaching death, caused by the wound in his breast inflicted on him by the goddess.