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Fish of a Dead River

Dr Smriti Kumar Sinha
(Translated by Ramlal Sinha)

It’s Sunday. Getting out of bed, Rajen read the wall clock ­­­– 9:40 am. He massaged his head with the palms put together. Notwithstanding the palms going much higher up, there was no trace of hair – a mini-stadium. His was an arduous elevation from a clerk to the superintendent. Why wouldn’t ageing cast a shadow on him? Seema kept a cup of lemon tea on the table. Taking a few sips, he went out to the verandah making dull thuds. He lighted a cigarette and plumped down on the arm chair. The fat deposits in his body shook, as though a tremor rocked the earth. He stretched and yawned. His breath was still reeking of alcohol –‒ strong defence liquor. His boozing the night before was beyond his limit. In the past, to dodge Seema, he had to use snuff to overlap the reek of one or two pegs. As he graduated in boozing, the insomniac liquor bottles had to stand erect in his bedroom throughout the night. Seema had issued him the NOC long back. After all, she too attained a standard. Puffing a cigarette, Rajen kept looking at the lake. The sunshine was scorching. The transparent water of the lake was dazzling like the veil of a night club dancer. The water of the lake looked like distilled one, but its underneath was full of thickly grown algae. That brute fact would deceive one who had never dared to swim in the lake. 

Offices, quarters and kirana shops sprang up in lines, on the either side of the lake. Till the recent past, it was a village, with vestiges galore. A bovine-dark man angling in the lake, sitting under a giant kapok tree, was a great brawny brute of a man. A vulture was perching atop the tree he was sitting under. The fishing rod was floating with the bait in the line. The unfailing bait was made of country liquor waste. Rajen saw this gigantic angler there, day in, day out. The angler caught big fishes, very often. Sitting under the cotton tree, a youth was quizzing the angler. Maybe, he was a newly posted official. Puffing a cigarette, Rajen was listening to the chit-chat between the two with rapt attention. 

“The water is calm, without any tumbling or bubbles of gulping carps. Can you engage any fish?” the youth questioned. 

“Of course, but all the big ones have gone much deeper. Algae have grown so thick that if a man slips, it will be very difficult, nay impossible, to fish his body out. Fishes hardly can cross the green blanket to come to the surface. When there was current…,” the angler said. 

“Current?” the youth questioned in astonishment. 

“Yes. This river wasn’t a dead one. It was the Rukmini that followed this arched course. When both ends of the stream got constricted, some government labourers, accompanied by some local miscreants, closed the mouth and let the river go straight. That led a sulking Ganga to desert us,” the man said. 

“Oh, I see. It wasn’t a case of remote past then,’’ the youth reacted. 

“No, no. Not even forty years. When there was water current, silvery fishes were seen playing and swimming in shoals. There was no trace of algae,’’ the man said. 

“It can be made free from algae even now,” the youth made a glib comment. 

“Making it free from algae?!’’ an astonished angler kept looking at the youth. “You, the youth brigade, should gird up your loins and come forward with spades. Let the Rukmini follow her own course,’’ he said. 

“Right,” Rajen shook the cigarette on the ashtray, and thought. “Youth come forward, right ‒ a buzzing phrase for student leader Rajen, some twenty-five years ago. Its inherent meaning is crystal clear now. Wow! The angler is no less of a philosopher.” 

“Clear all algae in cannels, beels, ponds, lakes and in households. Clear the one that hangs like patches of cotton under my eyebrows,” smitten suddenly by conscience, Rajen’s mind cried out. An instinctive Rajen pressed the cigarette hard against the ashtray. 

“Get your teeth brushed. It’s 10 o’clock,” Seema came out to the varendah, and said. 

“Umm,” Rajen responded to her with a nasal nod, staying put on the arm chair. 

“It’s a holiday. Why don’t you teach the kid?” Seema said after a while. 

“Why? Don’t the tutors?” “Theirs is a routine teaching. 

The kid is fond of your teaching.’’ “Fond of my teacging?” Rajen sat upright, and took notice of Piku, his 10-year-old son. He was waiting near the door with a book. His blue eyes were beaming with hopes. He was a meritorious lad with gifted inquisitiveness. He would make strides, if taken care of. However, he was denied paternal guidance. In fact, Rajen was avoiding his son. He was apprehensive that his bad habits might get transmitted to him. 

Seema, however, felt that Rajen no longer loved his son. She had the notion that boozers are bereft of any affection to their children. With a smile Rajen called his son, who wasted no time to sit on his father’s lap. “What sum do you want to get worked out?” Rajen asked his son only to be bemused when Piku said: “Moral Science, not Mathematics.” “You mean moral study! Hmm,” hawking, Rajen kept looking at Seema with his eyes wide open till Piku’s bristled hair pricked his chin. He came back to his senses. He passed the buck to Seema, and said: “Piku, go to your mom. She will make you understand the lesson.” “No no, I can’t,” Seema rejected outright. “Why not? You had Education as a subject in Bachelor’s degree. That apart, you had a brief stint as a teacher in a private school before joining the government job. Even if you have forgotten...” Rajen couldn’t complete his sentence as a sullen Seema kept staring at him. “Hmm…it’s OK. Piku, I will engage another tutor from tomorrow for Moral Studies and literature. Keep the lesson aside now,” Rajen stammered. 

The poor lad entered home with a pale face. No sooner had Piku left the place than Rajen activated his vocal cord against Seema. “Have you gone crazy? How can I teach my kid Moral Studies? Why do you put me to shame with the help of my own kid?” “Why can’t you do that? What’s lost if you just read and tell him the meaning?” Seema said as though to make Rajen fire back. “Why can’t… you do that? You too are a graduate.” “Let’s stop.” “What do you think? Is any morality left in this venal and drunkard father? For long twenty- five years, I have not handled any file without bribe. I utter hundreds of lies in the office. How can I advice my son not to tell a lie, not to do anything illegal? Mahatma Gandhi, Vivekananda...” Rajen seethed! “Ok, no shouting! If not advice, you could have just explained what’s written in the text,” Seema said. “I could have had it been twenty-five years ago. One can tell thousands of lies to others, but never to oneself.” 

One-time ideal student leader, Rajen, is a frustrated father today. He went on: “Won’t I be bemused when Piku will listen to my advice and accept it verbatim in good faith? I do respect my son.” “I too,” Seema joined him. “Don’t tell me ever to teach Piku,” Rajen said. “If need be, I will engage more tutors,” he added, and limped towards the bathroom. 

Rajen soon took a trip down the memory lane in the solitary bathroom. Solitude is the home address of memory. Brushing his teeth in front of the mirror, he kept thinking of his plight. “What an enviable persona it was!” The mask he put on was the root cause of all troubles in his life. Nostalgia gripped him – a kid Rajen picking up dried cow-dung cakes on the river bank, going to the primary school with a slate pressed in the armpit, munching water lily and enjoying the affection of all for being an intelligent boy. 

His college life too made a quick flash in his mind –‒ students’ union, the language movement, court arrest, detention in examination, first encounter with Seema, crazy love, both passing the examination together and tying the knot in haste. Till their marriage they did follow an ideology. He got married, without a job to support himself. 

On his lookout for a job, he stepped into corruption raj, and then let everything loose. He got a job by paying `10,000 that he had managed by selling three bighas of arable land. Since then, he has been out to make quick bucks. He has been blessed with children. His native house was replaced with a concrete structure, and the area of his total arable land increased manifolds. TV sets, freezers, cars, promotion and a government job for Seema; all kept coming fast replacing peace in his life. 

As if to let people know that they could mint money by dodging income tax, ailments of aristocrats became a part of their life. While Seema was suffering from Melina, Rajen was from frequent heart attacks. They were blessed with children but not to be proud of. These days, children are ashamed of their parental identity. They shy away from making others know the departments of their parents. Rajen’s eldest son was a brilliant boy, but went astray. He took to wine, ganja, drugs and turned into a parasite to the family and society as well. He doesn’t care about his father. 

The daughter, on the other hand, has made her father hang his head in shame. He has no way out but to leave her in his native house, where too some are murmuring about her murky past. Fat financial contribution to the Mahasabha and the Sahityasabha has, however, had an effect on the commoners who don’t dare to raise the issue openly. 

Plugging all these holes, he is going to be bankrupt. Just to ensure marriage of his sons and daughter a smooth affair, he has to maintain his good reputation in society, even though that has a telling effect on his exchequer. This apart, he is in need of a platform as his foothold after his retirement. His service days are numbered. 

His youngest son Picku is no different from his eldest one in intelligence and studiousness. If this too goes astray! His last hope! What a plight! Parents can’t discipline their wards. They’re apprehensive of their wards firing salvos at them! The entire generation is fragile. Isn’t there any way out of the gutter? Isn’t there anybody to root this out? All are corrupt; society is also corrupt to the core. There’s no fresh air to breathe. Only suffocation! This is life! Heaving deep, Rajen came out of the bathroom and sat near the dining table, and was sipping tea. Less sugar? Maybe, his mind itself was bitter. 

“Where is Picku?” Rajen asked Seema. “He was sitting in a huff in a corner of the verandah. Piku, Piku, where have you gone?” Seema went out calling her son. “Has he gone to the lake? If he slips...! Can’t you even keep watch on...?” Rajen pushed the cup aside and went out. “Hi mom, dad, come and see!” an exciting call came from Piku, and that was enough to calm the throbbing hearts of the couple. “Hurry up!” Piku kept shouting. 

Seema reached Piku first, followed by bulky Rajen, gasping in quick succession. “See, see, a big carp came out from the rock bottom of the lake. Wow! So big!” An overjoyed Piku started clapping. “Oh, yes!” stunned Rajen and Seema exclaimed together. 

The fish first came to the surface of the lake and heaved a sigh of relief. It then shook its tail fin to get rid of the patches of algae stuck on it. “It has come out! How has it crossed such a thick blanket of algae? Wah, wah!” Rajen started talking alone, incoherently. The angler came running and started to dangle his unfailing bait, almost in the mouth of the carp. The fish ignored it and kept playing, swimming with its ventral side up. 

Tumbling in the joy of being freed from the blanket of algae, the fish suddenly swam past in a breakneck speed, leaving a trail of current in the dead river, momentary though. “Wah!” Rajen said, and kept looking at the trail. He called his son, “Piku, dear me, come on. What lesson do you want me to teach you? Let’s go and start now.”

(Translated from the original Mora Ghator Mach in Bishnupriya Manipuri. Dr Smriti Kumar Sinha is a professor of Tezpur University. Ramlal Sinha is an associate editor with Seven Sisters Post) Courtesy: Seven Sisters Post


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  2. A pleasant read. All short stories of Smriti Kumar da are wonderful but being in vernacular language it deprives many who does not know how to read the vernacular medium. This wonderful effort by Ramlal Sinha is highly appreciated. looking forward for more.


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