The fields are bursting with grain. Mother Nature’s glowing yellow sari seems scarcely able to contain the bounty of Kalu Sheikh’s couple of acres. Kalu Sheikh has a couple, his brother Moni Sheikh has one, and beyond these lie fields belonging to other villagers. Sidhu Morol’s field adjoins Kalu’s.
Kalu arrives and stands awhile by his fields. Then he slowly walks to his hut near the village center.
The bolts of the doors are tied with tough rope, just as they had left them. Distraught, Kalu looks around. His brother’s house too is bolted and tied, just like his. Kalu sits down wearily on the porch. So have they not returned? He is very thirsty, and his head feels strange.
After resting awhile he suddenly thinks, perhaps they returned after all but have left on some errand. True, not a single footprint marks the dust at the doorstep. It doesn’t look like anyone has been here for at least a month. But he doesn’t want to think about that. Kalu stands up. If there is an earthenware pot in the house he will fill it, drink some water, and then go fetch them. Perhaps he can borrow a fistful of rice to cook.
Looking at the field, his eyes fill with tears. What terrible times they were, these past four months. All the little kids, his grown son Habib, Habib’s wife and mother – eight or nine of them wandering the streets. Then three of the children dying, Habib’s wife bearing a dead infant and falling half-dead herself with fever and starvation. How they’d turned a corner and he’d lost them, old Kalu Sheikh could not tell. Kalu’s wife was with the two kids, Jamir and Fakir. Suddenly, he saw they were not with him. He’d searched for them on Kolkata’s streets for days. People said trucks came and took people away, but they couldn’t say where. Kalu thought, perhaps they’d all returned home to the village. That was what they’d decided after all, to go home when the rice ripened. If only they could stay alive begging these few months, Allah would not fail them in the end.
Kalu’s eyes blur, and he wipes his tears. Distractedly he mutters, “My babies, so much rice has grown. You did not get to see any. I would have filled your stomachs today.” The fields fade from Kalu’s vision, and all he can see now are the skeletal figures of the three little ones. They hadn’t gotten much in the city, and rice only fortuitously, not even enough to fill the bellies of the little kids. Reassuring the children, with boundless hope they’d wandered the streets day after day. If only they could stay alive a couple more months, everything would be theirs again. Then …
Kalu opens the door of his house and steps in. No, they hadn’t returned. The water pot, the empty rice container, the utensils, everything is covered with dust. The floor, smoothed long ago with mud and dung, is covered with rat holes; the vermin have half-destroyed it with their diggings. Kalu stands silent. Then he takes up the pot and steps out.
He’ll fetch water from the Chowdhury’s big pond, and see if Habib has brought his wife and mother somewhere along that way. Perhaps he should get hold of some rice for them. This time Allah has not withheld rice.
Several people have come to the pond to bathe or fetch water. Carrying his pot, Kalu draws close to the steps on his side of the pond. From the other side Potit Ruidas calls, “Kalu Sheikh, you came? Is everything okay?”
Kalu puts his pot down. “Yes, I came. Have you seen Habib?”
“No, brother,” Potit replies, bathing. “Have you all come back? Your field is so full of grain. All of them have grain.” He sighs. “But there are no people left.”
Potit finishes and leaves. Kalu splashes water on his face and head and sits quietly for a while. So they haven’t seen Habib!
Drinking some water, he fills the pot and moves into a little shade by the steps. Nearby a few people from the emptied village come to bathe. Some know him well, some only a little. He looks so scrawny and unkempt that he is hard to recognize. Kalu thinks, I will ask at Sidhu’s house, he might have news of Habib. It is getting late in the day. He slowly rises.
Sidhu Morol’s house is set a little further behind Kalu’s. His door is open. In the courtyard stands a thin cow, her calf nowhere to be seen. Sidhu has a dog, now as greedy as it is snarly. It barks at Kalu. The patio of the house is overgrown with weeds. No one has plastered the mud-and-dung doorstep for a long time.
Kalu calls, “Sidhu brother, are you home?”
From inside a tired voice replies, “I am here, who are you? Come in, I have a fever.”
Kalu enters and stands by the door. “I am Kalu Sheikh. You are lying with fever? Brother, have you seen Habib, his mother – have you seen them? Have they come by? You have no one here? I see your fields too are full of grain.”
The skeletal Sidhu tries to sit up and fails. In his sunken eyes, tears suddenly glisten. After a while he says quietly, “Yes brother, there is rice. Ram got very sick, fever, stomach trouble, his mother too got a fever. They both passed away.” A teardrop or two trickles from the corners of his eyes. “Old bones endure. Even with starving, getting a fever, I’m still alive. But they didn’t make it.”
Kalu too is weeping. “Yes brother, we too left three children in Kolkata – Fati, Ayesha, Sona. They shriveled up with hunger, for rice. Now so much grain …”
Both fall silent. In front of the house they can see Sidhu’s rice plants bent over with the weight of their bounty. “Did you bring the others back?” Sidhu asks.
Kalu rises. “I thought I would find them back here, so I came. I wonder where they went! They didn’t come this way?”
“But no. I didn’t see your wife and kids here. But I’m lying here with fever, I’ll ask my boy and girl when they come, in case they know something.”
Kalu Sheikh spends the rest of the day without food, searching for Habib and his mother in the village. No, they have not come by. In the evening Sidhu’s daughter brings a couple of fistfuls of rice and says, “Kalu uncle, cook and eat a little bit. Tomorrow you can look in another village, perhaps they came there. It takes a while to walk all this way.”
Potit Ruidas suggested the same. Most of the huts in the village are empty, even the brick house seems so, and one can almost count the footprints on the paths, they are so few. Cows, calves and bulls have also vanished, for people had sold them before they left. Those who had managed to hide away some rice, only they are still here. Others have fled. Are they alive? No one knows. They haven’t returned.
Kalu somehow cooks the rice. He can barely lift it to his mouth. He thinks, perhaps his Kobila is gone as well – and the two little kids, Fakir and Jamir? He recalls Sidhu’s words, old bones endure. His head spins and his eyes fill with tears. Giving the remaining rice to Sidhu’s cow and dog, he lies down at their doorstep. “I can’t go back to that empty house, let me lie here tonight,” he says to Lokkhi.
She smiles sadly. “Lie here, brother, let me get you a mat.” His rags won’t hold off the chilly mist flowing off the fields on a winter night. Kalu stays awake not only because of the cold, but because of his thoughts.
Before the night ends, his mind has filled with hope. Perhaps indeed they are in another village, resting before they come home. They haven’t eaten for so long, perhaps they are weak or feverish. Sidhu pulls his rag around him and leaves before sunrise for the neighboring village.
He knows almost no one there, but even those few he knows seem not to be around. Whom shall he ask, who knows his family, how will he describe what he needs? He can’t figure out what to do. He steps towards one or two of the shrunken, ragged, half-starved figures that pass by, but doesn’t speak up. He wanders deliriously here and there, searching. They are five – Habib, his mother, his wife, and the two children. If only he can see even one!
This village has almost no better-off houses. The huts are virtually all empty, and the few people around look like they won’t last for long. Their fields too are laden with grain. Yet, of the ones who still live, who hunch by the roadside, some look distant, others stunned or fearful. The harvest? Whose harvest is it? Will those men not come to take it away again? And who will eat the grain anyhow, who will cut it? Those who were to eat it, the beloved ones, so many of them are no more. Those who are around have barely the strength or the will to harvest it; they are stunned with grief, fear, fever. Once in the morning they come out onto the village path, then they go sit in their broken-down thatched huts. In the afternoon perhaps they get a malarial fever, wrap a rag around themselves and lie down.
Kalu wanders from one village to another. If he sees a gentleman, he approaches shyly. Everyone is afraid he wants rice, will ask for rice. “No, babu, I don’t want food,” Kalu tells them. “I came to look for my Kobila and my children, we are Muslims.” He doesn’t want food or shelter, just searches for his scattered family. Today Allah has fulfilled his need for food and shelter. Some people say kindly, “No, we haven’t seen any Muslims in this village.” Some shout in annoyance, “Listen to him, as if we keep tabs on where his Kobila is!”
Some nights he sleeps on the porch of an abandoned house in another village, some nights he returns home. A dozen days pass in this way. In the adjoining fields of Kalu, Sidhu and Potit, the rice becomes ripe. Sidhu’s son Nitai gets a couple of friends together and they start cutting it.
Kalu lies uncaring at their doorstep, his back toward his fields.
Now Sidhu can somehow drag himself out to come and sit by him. “Brother, have a puff of tobacco,” he says, and offers him the bowl of his hookah. Kalu sits with it in his hand. If he tries to draw from it his eyes fill with tears, and he sets it down.
Sidhu asks, “What happened, did you choke?”
Kalu rubs his eyes and replies, “Don’t know.”
He sits and looks into the distance. Lokkhi has gotten a couple of friends to help measure the grain, clean it and put it away. Nitai’s field is now all harvested. One evening Nitai says to him, “Kalu uncle, my field is finished. Now we will all do yours, tomorrow or the day after.”
Kalu looks at him numbly and says not a word.
Sidhu calls from the house, “Yes, if everyone does it together, your work too will be done, not to worry.”
Kalu sobs out loud.
He hasn’t thought about cutting his grain, about the harvest. He can barely look at his fields. He can scarcely think.
The two younger ones’ eyes don’t stay dry, and Kalu’s sorrow revives Sidhu’s grief as well. But Sidhu still has Nitai and Lokkhi. Perhaps one day his wounds will heal, perhaps one day this courtyard will fill with the small footprints of Lokkhi’s or Nitai’s children. They won’t know about Nitai’s mother, or about Ram, but perhaps Sidhu will hear their sweet laughter and forget the silence and desolation of these terrible times.
Lokkhi wipes her eyes. “Kalu uncle, don’t cry. Auntie is old, perhaps she can’t walk so well any more. And Habib brother is with her. You cook and eat a bit today, tomorrow you can look again. They know it is time to cut the grain. They will come.”
Nitai adds, “Yes, do that. When you return, I will harvest your field.”
“If only you hadn’t left the village, brother!” Sidhu says. “Then these things wouldn’t have happened.” Kalu wipes his eyes and sits silently.
“If there was rice at home to eat, would they have gone, father!” argues Nitai. “The whole village emptied out …”
He becomes quiet. In front of his eyes he can still see the pageant of government officials in their decorated uniforms. People fearfully stepping back from their storage areas, showing them the grain kept for the next planting. Some got a little money, some got none. Why, by what law, they had stripped the village of grain in a single day, Nitai never found out. Just one or two of the better-off homes were able to retain their stores. They were the ones who had gone to pay their respects to the inspector sahib. Nitai and others had bonded their fields to these very families and borrowed rice from them, and so had managed to survive. Otherwise, wouldn’t he too have had to leave? Still, Ma is dead, and his brother too.
Lokkhi builds a fire between two bricks and says, “Kalu uncle, make some soft rice right here.” He mechanically puts a pot on the fire. Everyone in Lokkhi’s house finishes dinner, and Kalu’s rice too is cooked. Night gathers. Sidhu is frail, so Lokkhi closes the door to his room and calls, “Sleep in the spare room tonight, Kalu uncle, it’s too cold outside. Don’t stay up any more.”
Kalu is leaning against a wall in a stupor. “Yes dear, you sleep now,” he replies.
The night becomes deeper. Kalu knows the time without ever having looked at a watch. He stares at the horizon, sleepless, sightless. The three little ones come to mind, then Habib’s mother, Habib, Fakir, Jamir, Habib’s wife, everyone in his brother’s house. All were together. Cutting the rice, threshing it, putting it away, so much work and so much joy they took in it! For the harvest celebration at the Chowdhury house, Habib’s mother would offer them newly cut rice, and they too would give some raw rice, milk, molasses, fruit and sweetmeats. They would feast together. Now no one is there. They say they will harvest his rice. But what will Kalu do with it? Who will eat it? For whose meal will they cut it? Some time ago, when the fire cooled, the dog ate Kalu’s dinner and it is now sleeping soundly.
A red light spreads over the east. Kalu sits up and then slowly steps out from the doorway. From both sides of the narrow path, his own heavily laden spikes of rice bend over and touch him – Kalu recoils as if they were snakes. Tears run down his face. Overcome, he wants to walk as fast as he can beyond the fields, beyond the village. But where will he search? Did they indeed get lost in that great city? Or …? He cannot think about the Or. Far away he sees a few figures. Perhaps they know something, he thinks. True I don’t know them, but they might know. Perhaps among them he will see Habib, Jamir … at least one of them.
Government officials have come to check how much rice is in which village. Leaning their bicycles against a tree, three men in khakis come and stand by Potit Ruidas’s field. Admiringly, the men, as rounded and well-nourished as the ears of new rice, say, “What a harvest!”
Potit was threshing the rice. He hears them and freezes in fear.
One of the khaki-clad men asks, “Whose field is this, yours?”
“Yes,” Potit replies fearfully.
“And that?” Only a small heap remained on Sidhu’s field, for measuring.
“That belongs to Siddheswar Morol.”
A few people gather beside Potit – Nitai, Lakshmi, Potit’s brother and his friends.
“And that one? It’s not cut at all!” asks an officer with a mustache like a giant fly.
“It is Kalu Sheikh’s,” says Nitai.
“He didn’t cut it?”
“They’re not here,” said Potit. “They went away at the famine time …”
“It’s a huge field, how many are they?” One of the men is writing it all down in a notebook he has taken out of his pocket.
“They were perhaps nineteen or twenty people. Kalu Sheikh, his wife, their four sons and two daughters, one son’s wife, his brother Moni Sheikh with two families, perhaps seven or eight children.”
“None of them returned?” the fly-mustachioed man says in surprise. “Won’t they cut all this grain?”
“Kalu was here, it’s four days now that I haven’t seen him,” Nitai replies. “We don’t know anything about Moni Sheikh. They left around the monsoons.”
The officers stand in the lifeless village, by the bounteous fields that were planted by the very people who fled during the famine, and write everything down.
Kalu Sheikh’s two acres, Moni Sheikh’s one, Pitambar Kumar’s less-than-one, Saraswati Maiti’s little bit, Sona Bouri’s field shared with someone else, everyone’s name they write down. Only, where the owners are cannot be written.
The khaki-clad ones ask, “You know them?”
“Yes babu, we live here since childhood. Of course we know them.”
They climb onto their bicycles and go on to the next village. As they ride from one almost-deserted village to another the golden heads of the rice plants bend over onto their path, as if in desperate pleading on someone’s behalf.
Jyotirmoyee Devi (1896-1988) is fondly remembered for her poetry and her short stories, which were characterised by her sharp wit and careful sociological critiques. Her stories often focus on women in Rajasthan, where she grew up, and in Bengal at the time of Partition.
Madhusree Mukerjee, a former physicist, has served as an editor at Scientific American magazine and is the author of two books, Churchill’s Secret War (2010) and The Land of Naked People (2003).