Chronicle of a Horse: Part II
Amar Mitra won the Sahitya Akademi award in 2006 for his novel Dhruva Putra. He also won the Katha award for short story in 1998. Aswacharit – Chronicle of a Horse, won the prestigious Bankim Award from the Government of West Bengal in 2001.
This modern masterpiece is the fabled tale of a horse and its keeper as they travel through the violence and greed of our modern India. Perhaps they are real. Perhaps they are not. For they are in reality the horse and charioteer of Prince Siddhartha left behind in his search for salvation. In this magical work of art- past and present ; ancient and modern times ; age-old History and stark reality are contritely juxtaposed.
The sea is their savior. Ananta Sar would have died without the sea. There is nothing left except the salt. Sea water becomes heavy with salt in winter. During high tide, water reaches the land of Lykankhas. High tides during the full moon and the first moonless nights. The water is trapped in huge holes. Once the tide retreats, the holes are full with salted water. Salt mixes with the land. Once the water becomes thick under the sun, it is purified and poured out on polythyne sheets. Salt granules are collected as the water dries up. Ananta Sar’s father and grandfather used to dig pit, plough lands. Now there is no land. Salt is the only mode of survival.
Dense clouds arrived abruptly. The season of salt digging has come to an end. While Sripati was returning from Lykankhas, Ananta asked him, babu, could you give me some work?
I already have some men at work.
Bring tourists to my hotel, you’ll get some commission.
As long as the cloud is floating in the sky, suffering knows no bounds. Ananta is waiting for the month of the sun—the Aghrahayan. Some salt diggers of Alonkarpur have lands, digging salt is an extra income for them. Ananta Sar does not have any extra income.
Salt is labor. While burning in sunshine all day to dig out sea salt, diggers mix their body salt also with that salt. A proverb says, you have to give salt to get some.
Giving salt means giving labor. Searching for droplets of white crystal with your sweats falling on your feet.
Once, this country fought a huge battle over salt. Local people participated in that war. Ananta was not born at that time. It all was a hearsay for him.
Lykani or naykani is the colloquial for Noukali. Noukali lives in the sea. She is the keeper of the sea. Anyone who has seen her, never forgot her face. How beautiful she is! Worship her and then go to the sea, you have nothing to fear. And if the goddess is dissatisfied? She turns the boat along with its passengers towards the wind. The person along with its flesh-and-bone body will dissolve into air. That wind will come running towards the land from the sea. It will only sigh and sigh.
Salt diggers know this. Lykani came here by ship. Seven sisters arrived at seven different places by the sea. One of those seven sisters is Nykan. Her temple is located right on this shore. It is very old and wrecked now. In earlier days, Nykan’s lions were kept tied to Azan tree in the profound depth of the forest. All these are hearsays. Ananta knows, everyone knows. Common people do not get to see Azan tree.
Nykani’s eyes lit up at night. She walks over the sea with her huge volume of untied hair. Before the storm of 1349, there was only a temple in the woodland. Light could never break the sky-high barrier of trees. The tied lion would sometimes growl from the depth of the woods. No one has ever seen the lion, only heard it growl.
It was the time when the British had already banned the salt diggers. Military cantonment was in Hirapur. They were leaving behind burning villages in a row starting from Ranisai, Chandanpur, to Mirgoda. Police would shoot at the sight of locally made salt, and burn houses. People still talk about two of these policemen. They’ll be in people’s talks for a much longer time.
This story, like the one of Lykani, is spread by people. Magnitude of a goddess and people’s war get intermingled. It is said that the police was burning villages after villages in search of the salt diggers, and Goddess Lykan went straight to the deep woods and untied the lion. The sea snarled in fury.
Lykankhas had colossal tamarind trees. Goddess took shelter in one of them. She tore off the tree, untied the lion from its chain, and went off to the sea in a craft. With her hairs flowing, Lykani was sitting on the craft, combing her hair constantly. Clouds were being formed off her hair and roofed the sky in its entirety. An impending disaster started.
Wild waves flushed out the force. The sea burst open the fishery dam and entered the military cantonment. The salt diggers were saved from the British.
Thus, Lykankhas was shaped. The sky-high colossal trees stooped to the ground. The land became barren. Far away, the sea was blue. Sand started to sizzle. Trees are unsoiled now. Lykankhas turned into an arid region. Goddess called the salt diggers.
Where did all the police go? They were vanished. Nykani turned them into air. They lost their color and started to ramble in the wind. And the whirlwind struck the trees. They shuffle from south to north, and north to south. Nykani sends the wind to all her sisters. Fuleshwori lives in Fulboni Khaas of Odisha; Lankeshwori is in the north, at Paaniparul Barongo… all of them play with the winds, the policemen.
On his way home, Ananta Sar asks his daughter, do you not remember the color?
The girl starts shaking her head.
Ananta again asks, what did you see if you didn’t see the color?
Horse! Colorless! The wind!
Ananta Sar feels scared in the core of his heart. Did the girl witness Nykani’s curse?
Sripati babu has been riding the horse since ages! Whoever rides that animal, feels like a king. His father, grandfather, and his father— all rode horses. His ancestors were Dewan.
Kunti mutters, I’m not sure of its color. Father, can it be of white color?
I’ve seen Sripati Babu’s horse. It’s snow white. Tourists don’t ride that horse. It has red less cover on its back.
Yes, I know that.
Then that horse must be white. Bhanu babu wanders with that horse as if it belongs to him.
The one which we saw the other day.
Can you remember it? Asks Kunti’s mother Saraswati.
Oh! Have you not seen Sripati Babu’s horse?
Yes, of course! Said her mother, it’s white indeed.
Then we all saw the white horse the day before yesterday, Said Kunti.
Really! Ananta tries to confirm.
It must be so. If it’s Sripati Babu’s horse, then its color must be white, Kunti tries to put it logically.
Ananta Sar does not realize his daughter’s logic. They reach a canal after crossing the grassland. It’s high tide now. kunti looks back towards the east. The sea is visible from here. Partial moon is visible behind the cloud. Moonlight has roofed the grimy grassland. Kunti wanted to spot the horse again, after two days. In the twilight, her mind was occupied with the thought of the horse. But, nothing was there.
Ananta says, be careful. Undercurrent is too strong.
They cross the water slowly with strong grip of feet, and climb up the fishery dam. They will walk a little to the north and again down towards the west. Upon reaching the dam, Ananta’s wife Saraswati asks, did Sripati Babu say anything about any work?
He came in search of the horse.
No, to ask about the horse’s color, says Kunti.
It’s all the same. Knowing the color only confirms whether the horse belongs to him, assures Ananta.
Which one? Asks his wife.
The one which is lost, says Ananta.
Walking slowly, three of them fall silent. A few moments later, Ananta’s wife says, there’s no work in Digha. Could you not convince Sripati Babu to let us work in his hotel?
He wants me to be an agent for tourists.
Well, do that then.
Ananta smiles, this is neither the month for salt nor for tourists; who visits in monsoon!
Then go to Hirapur and meet Shatpathi Babu, says Kunti unexpectedly.
Ananta was stunned. He had left Rajani Shatapathi’s house long back to settle in Alankarpur. Now he is not Shatpathi Babu’s servant anymore. Hirapur’s memory seems too distant now—two years older than even her daughter. For sixteen or seventeen years before that, he was a like a bonded labor for Shatpathi Babu. Shatpathi Babu was like a landlord. He had massive landed property in Bengal as well as in Odisha in his possession. Ananta had spent a lot of time in his farmhouse. He still shares some of those memories with his wife. If he could satisfy Shatpathi Babu with his service, then these sufferings of salt digging would not have been a part of their wandering life. His house in Anlankarpur is in government’s land. The charm of the cold, glossy floor of Shatpathi babu’s house is not accessible to him anymore. Because, he became greedy. He wanted the Barga. The servant who used to earn his bread by carrying an umbrella for Shatpathi Babu, wanted to become a cropper.
Kunti asked, will you take me to Hirapur?
I want to see Shatpathi Babu’s house.
For no special reason so far!
Ananta mutters, I’ve lost my face. I was his close servant, didn’t have any financial crunch. Babu used to take me everywhere with him; to Taalsari; to reach his farmhouse in Ishwarpur we had to cross Chhannoneshwar, Balimunda—and he would always make me accompany him.
Ananta stopped muttering. During the paddy season in Aghrahayan, Ananta managed and supervised everything. Out of ten measures of grain, the landowner would take six measures while the farmer would get four. That place was different. The farmer wouldn’t get more than the owner. Owner used to decide how the grains should be divided between the owner and the farmer. Shatpathi babu used to select new croppers every year. Shatpathi Babu and Ananta would visit the farmhouse of Ishwarpur, In every Baishakh. Hundred bighas of land would be distributed and two hundred farmers would gather to be the cropper of that season. No one would say a word in front of Shatpathi babu. They would just mutter, babu, I would like to be a cropper this year.
Babu would be at the crest of his temper. The servant would replicate him. The chief of police would come in the evening along with other people and Ananta would cut chickens for them. He enforces his babu’s command with more keenness than is expected from him. Babu sits with the police chief till the dead of night and enjoy the company of women whom they would bring from Cuttack. Kunti’s mother knows everything. Ananta shared his memory with her after their wedding. Kunti knows it from her mother. Saraswati says, it was a grave mistake on her husband’s part. They could have a much better life in Satpathi Babu’s farmhouse. Why would a servant want to be a cropper? Ananta didn’t think straight.
Ananta says, I also used to farm three bighas of land.
You used to do your own work, did Babu love you? Asks Kunti.
Kunti mutters again, will you take me to Hirapur?
Queries and responses are all the same. Permanent servant should not register himself as a cropper. His morale went haywire during the settlement. Babu was in Cuttack at that time. His son was taking ride to Kanthi day and night. Party was registering Barga croppers’ names in the survey. Party worker Nirmal Karan asked Rajni Shatpathi’s servant Ananta, will you register yourself as a cropper?
You do farming, don’t you?
I have three bighas.
Who takes the crop?
Babu takes it. All of it. He takes care of my finances instead.
I’m his servant.
Surveyer started to laugh, and said, it will be equally divided into two parts. Tell me your name, and mark of your land. Tell me everything.
Kunti asked, and you told him everything?
No. I waited for three days for Babu to return. Babu came back after three days, and said, let’s go Ananta. We have to set out for the Balimunda Ishwarpur farmhouse.
Ananta told his wife, you go back, I’m going to Digha.
What’s the point! The night is so dark.
Where do you see the darkness? It’s a full-moon night.
Kunti said, yes, please go. Tell Maiti babu that the color of the horse is white.
Yes, his horse was white, assures Saraswati.
Doesn’t Ananta babu know that? Ananta felt confused.
Why not! But then again why did ask about the color?
Strange indeed. Ananta saw a yellow reflection of the moon on his daughter’s face. The girl is looking at the moon, over the south-east side of the Pine forest. Kunti said the truth. Hotelier Maiti babu behaved very strange. How could he forget his own horse’s color? Muttered Ananta. Like him, Sripati babu’s senses seem to be out of control these days. he came to Satapathi babu’s house at the age of six. He turned sixteen and from sixteen to twenty-three and got a well developed physique. A kilogram of rice was nothing for him. He could easily gorge on ten watermelons. Babu was affectionate of him. He would message babu regularly. Babu was planning to get him married. The possibility of a wedding would excite him. They went to Ishwarpur in the month of Aghrahayan. Two miles they crossed on foot. Upon reaching the farmhouse, he saw a beautiful woman. Aboni Pator, another servant of the farmhouse said that woman was Babu’s mistress. She came by herself from Cuttack. Ananta was stunned. In that evening, he started the topic.
Babu asked, where is the Katki woman?
They say, Barga is for the good of people, asked Ananta.
Babu said, Aboni is already in charge of the kitchen! Why is she there!
Ananta said again, babu, they are registering names for Barga.
Night is very cold here. Where is that woman?
Ananta repeated his concern for the third time. And then Shatpathi babu heard him. He was shocked and sat up straight. What did you say Ananta? He asked.
The woman from Cuttack appeared in dark, and called out.
Ananta said, didn’t you hear? Babu was calling you for so long.
What an amazing voice she had! As if someone was playing flute. She replied, I was sharing a few tips with Aboni.
Babu forgot everything that Ananta was saying. He called her, come here, Radhe! Go away, Ananta.
Kunti said, Maiti babu has forgotten the color of his horse.
Or, did he come to know whether it is his horse.
Then what about the color? Asks, Kunti.
It’s the color by which a horse can be recognized, replies her mother.
What’s he searching for- the horse or the color? Kunti seems utterly confused.
Seems he’s searching for the horse. Says, her mother.
No, perhaps it is the color. Kunti mutters.
Ananta says, I’m leaving.
Mother and daughter took the downward road towards Alankarpur. Anant Sar started to walk along the fisheries’ dam, towards the lights of Digha. He was in speed. He wanted to meet Sripati before he would start smoking weeds. Sripati is now involved in many things. If he’s under the effect of weeds, then he would be different. If he sits with that nurse madam of that hospital, then it will be difficult to talk about it. Even talking to him when he’s smoking pots is better for these kind of talks— he might understand it or not. Even if he does not understand, Ananta may get a few bucks. Sripati had told him that any information would be paid off. Well, this is definitely some kind of information. Babu, the color of your horse was white. That white horse came to Lykankhas that day. Kunti spotted it alright. Kunti was intelligent. Brains is something he never had. That is why he spoke his heart out to Babu’s mistress. In reality, she didn’t hail from Cuttack. Her in-laws were from Chandaneshwar, and parental home was in Mohanpur. Mohanpur was not in Odisha, but in Bengal. Her in-laws threw her out. She went to Cuttack to work as a maid, like many other women deserted by their husbands. Babu spotted her there, gave her some money and directions. She followed that direction. Babu and his likes used to provide some land to their mistresses. Babu had vast land in Ishwarpur. She would also get some by satisfying his Babu. Her union with her husband did not bring any contentment. She wept profoundly. Her husband was old. She had an affair with a shopkeeper’s son. What could she do? She didn’t have any control over her heart.
Ananta said, everything is decided by fate, Ma.
What kind of a man are you? Radha was furious to be addressed as Ma.
But of course! You’re my babu’s mistress.
Bless me that I can spend my life in keeping him satisfied and contended. The shopkeeper’s son was of my age; I didn’t forget him; but he broke apart my family-life by chasing me to my in-laws’ house. Said Radha while wiping off her face.
Ananta asked, do you know anything about Barga?
Yes. My father is a cropper.
What if I register as a cropper for babu’s five bighas of land.
And that was it. Suddenly babu called for him in the evening. Babu’s mistress was sitting near him. Her well-shaped ripe breasts were undone, her saree was rolled exposing her thighs; she was caressing babu’s belly. Water, alchohol, and meat— everything was there in front of him. Even in the dark, Ananta could see that babu’s eyes were bloodshot. Babu tried to keep straight and his shadow was trembling on the wall. He was standing at the door. Babu called his mistress Radhika with utter passion.
Radhika roared out in laughter and said, yes my charming flute! Tell me.
Babu touched her breasts and told her to massage his hands.
It was Ananta’s job. They used to talk a lot during this massage session. Babu would always be the key speaker. Upon arriving in Ishwarpur, babu used to call for him in the evening.
Ananta once told him about a cropper named Ramai Pator, Ramai is saying that the division of crops should be like his village.
And that is…?
He would take three part while we’ll take one part. He’s trying to start a rift, you need to sack him.
Ramai was sacked. Many a land-expectants would come to meet Babu. Babu would change the farmers, he never granted the same land to the same farmer two years in a row. The farmer becomes affectionate about the land if he farms it repeatedly. It becomes difficult for him to leave it. And the rift starts. The farmer starts to consider the land as his own.
Babu asked, what have you said to Radha?
Radhika touched her cheeks on babu’s cheeks, came closer. Starting to nurture his hair, she said, leave it. Now is the time to enjoy.
Radhika exaggerated his thoughts, much more than he actually said. Trust was destroyed from a seventeen year old relation. Babu’s mistress whispered her version of the story to babu, and babu was furious. Radhika had said, he’ll grab all your properties, he’ll start Barga on them.
Ananta came near the sea. Sea-dike took a left turn here. He got off the dam and started to walk along the shore. High tide of the full moon night will soon flood her feet. He climbed up the stairs of the stony guardwall. Even a few days back, this sea-town was full of voices, sound and clatter. Now, there is silence. It will be more silent in monsoon. Still, the weekends are a little different. A handful of strangers visit the town. If Sripati Babu engages him in some work… will he not do so? He has brought the news of the color of the horse. What’s the color? It’s the color of broken waves. Babu, that horse indeed had color. I was wrong.
Hotel Somudropakhi is located on Shibtala Road, on the way to the Shiva temple, opposite to a cafeteria. The upper floor was built only a one and a half year back. He has been here before also. He souted out loud, Sripati Babu, are you there?
Middle aged cook came out from the small hut in front of the hotel, what do you want?
What for? Tell me.
It’s about Babu’s horse.
Horse! The cook laughed out. Where’s the horse?
Isn’t it white?
Yes, it is. What about that?
Ananta kept quiet. Cook is a jute merchant. He and his wife behave as if they own the hotel. Ananta mumbled, it is white, isn’t it?
May be, either black or white. Cook starts smoking, the girl who comes to the market to sell salt, isn’t she your daughter?