|Primal passions 3|
At about this time, Bhikhu’s earnings started declining. New faces were rare in the streets. And if there were some, their number decreased to a handful within a couple of months. Most of the regulars found it pointless to give Bhikhu money every day. There were so many beggars around.
Bhikhu struggled to survive. Barring the two days of the open market, he couldn’t put aside a single paisa. He was worried.
When winter set in, surviving without a thatch on his dilapidated shelter would be difficult. He would have to get a proper hut that was walled and thatched.
If he didn’t have enough money and a roof above his head, no young beggar-woman would agree to move in with him. But in his present situation, his dwindling resources could not feed even one mouth. He would have to find a way to increase his income.
He had no way of doing that here. He couldn’t steal or rob; he couldn’t work as a manual labourer, or mug anyone with one arm unless he murdered his victim first. He didn’t want to leave the town and Paanchi behind. His mind rebelled against his misfortune. To see Binnu the boatman and his happy family next door filled him with resentment. Occasionally, he had this urge to set Binnu’s house on fire. He wandered the riverside like a madman, with a burning desire to wipe out all the men of the world so that he could enjoy all the food and women himself.
Some more days were spent in distress. Then, late one night, Bhikhu packed all his precious belongings in his sack, tucked his savings in his waistband and left his shack. He had found an iron rod about a yard long on the riverbank. He had sharpened one end on a stone into a deadly spike. He put this weapon in his bag as well.
Stars spangled the moonless sky. There was tranquil silence on God’s earth. It had been a while since Bhikhu walked down dark, deserted streets with a sinister plan in mind and it made him wild with anticipation. "God, if only you had taken the left arm and spared the right," he whispered to himself.
He walked by the river for about half a mile and entered the town through a narrow road. Keeping the market to his left, he walked through the lanes and alleys of the sleeping settlement till he reached the other side. This was where the main road left the town. The river meandered on for another two miles before flowing along this road for about a mile, and then it turned away southwards.
On this stretch, the houses were few and far between. Then came the paddy fields and marshy ground beside the jungle. In one such area, a handful of impoverished, unfortunate souls had put up a few shacks to establish the poorest of neighbourhoods. One of the huts was Basheer’s. Every morning, he left home on his peg leg and hobbled noisily into town to beg; he would return in the evening. Paanchi built a fire of dry leaves and cooked rice; Basheer sat around smoking. At night, Paanchi bandaged her leg before getting into bed. The two lay in their bamboo cot and talked in their harsh, vulgar accent until they fell asleep. A stuffy, rotten smell emanated from their nest, their bed and bodies and wafted skywards through the hole in the thatch to blend into the night air.
Basheer snored. Paanchi mumbled in her sleep.
Bhikhu had followed them one day to see where they lived. He now sneaked to the rear of the hut and waited by the fence, listening carefully. Then he went to the front. Beggars don’t have locks on their makeshift doors. Bhikhu carefully pushed the door ajar, grasped the spike firmly in his left hand and entered the room. Outdoors, there was at least a faint glow from the stars, but inside the hut it was pitch dark. There was no way Bhikhu could light a match with one hand. As he stood in the middle of the room, Bhikhu realised that it was impossible for him to determine the exact location of Basheer’s heart. He would be striking with his left hand. If he got it wrong, Basheer would surely raise an alarm, and that would be a huge inconvenience.
He thought for an instant, moved to the head of the cot and with one swift thrust, plunged the sharpened spike six inches into Basheer’s skull. In the dark, he couldn’t tell whether the blow had been fatal. Although he was sure that the spike had gone through the head, he wasn’t satisfied. With immense power, he seized Basheer by the throat.
He turned towards Paanchi and growled, "Be quiet; I’ll kill you too if you try to scream."
Paanchi didn’t scream. She just whimpered in terror.
Bhikhu spoke again: "Not a sound. If you value your life, be dead quiet."
He let go of Basheer only after the body was completely still.
He took a deep breath and said, "Light the lamp, Paanchi."
After Paanchi had turned on the lamp, Bhikhu stared at his handiwork with a sense of fulfilment. He was so proud to have been able to finish off such a powerful man with just one arm.
He turned towards Paanchi and said, "See… see who killed whom? I told him over and over again: Miyanbhai, you’re crossing the limit, let it pass. But Miyanbhai got irritated and threatened to bash my head in. So why don’t you do that, Miyanbhai, please do bash my head in." Bhikhu lowered his head, turned it from side to side and rolled with laughter as he contemptuously faced Basheer’s corpse. Suddenly, he got angry and said, "And has her ladyship lost her voice? Say something, you hideous woman. Or do you want me to finish you off too?
Paanchi trembled with fear and muttered, "What are you going to do now?"
"Watch me," replied Bhikhu. "Where did he keep his money?"
Paanchi had discovered Basheer’s hidden stash with great difficulty. She feigned ignorance at first, but when Bhikhu grabbed her by the hair, she spilled the beans.
Basheer’s lifelong savings added up to a substantial amount — over a hundred rupees in loose change. In the past, Bhikhu had made much more by killing people. But this hoard made him particularly happy. "Pack what you need, Paanchi," he said. "Let’s hit the road while it’s still dark. The navami moon will be up soon, we’ll go the rest of the way in the moonlight."
Paanchi put together a bundle. Then she took Bhikhu’s hand and limped out to the road. Bhikhu looked eastwards and said, "The moon will rise any moment now, Paanchi."
"Where are we going?" asked Paanchi.
"To the city. We’ll steal a boat. We’ll hide in the jungles around Chhipatipur (Shripatipur) during the day, then go straight to the city at night. Hurry up, Paanchi, we still have a couple of miles to go."
With her weak foot, Paanchi was finding it difficult to keep up. At one point, Bhikhu suddenly stopped. "Does your leg hurt, Paanchi?" he asked.
"Carry you on my back?"
"Will you be able to?"
"Sure, come on."
Paanchi put her arms around Bhikhu’s neck and clambered onto his back. Bhikhu leaned forward under her weight and started walking briskly. The rice fields on either side of the road lay motionless in the dim light. The moon rose from beyond the trees of the distant village. There was tranquil silence on God’s earth.
Perhaps that moon and this earth have a history. But Bhikhu and Paanchi carried a legacy of darkness hidden in their genes, a darkness that they would breed deep into the bones of their children, a darkness that was primeval, a darkness that the light of this civilised world has never been able to penetrate. And never will.
Translated from the Bengali story ‘Pragoitihashik’ (1937) by Ahitagni Chakraborty with TLM
Almost half a century after his death, Manik Bandopadhyay (1908-1956) remains
one of the masters of modern Bengali literature