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Old story, new moral

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The floods in the river Kosi seem to come and go at their own will as it happened again this year and nobody seems any the wiser. A short story by PHANISHWARNATH RENU,written 50 years ago, on the annual ritual and the mileage that politicians get out of it. Translated from the Hindi by Rakhshanda Jalil.

Eventually, rats were found to be responsible for the breaking of the Bardaha Dam. Rats had dug up countless tunnels through its foundation, making it weak and porous — in less than a year!

Depression in the Bay of Bengal causes a cyclone. Snow on some Himalayan peak melts. Rain-heavy clouds begin to gather and unleash their fury over the dense jungles of the Terai. The plains await the impending catastrophe, tense and still.

The cattle grazing by the banks of the Kari-Kosi river sniffed something in the air and shied away in startled panic. An old cow ran helter-skelter with her tail in the air. The old cowherd looked closely at the water in the river. He cupped a handful and sniffed it. It smelt of the earth and was reddish-ochre. Reddish water meant water from the hills — did it mean floodwaters were soon to be upon them?

The young cowherd laughed at his fears. But the shivering in the bodies of the animals increased. They stood in a herd beside the riverbank staring at the swirling waters and began showing increasing signs of panic. And not one of them — not even the newest-born calf — put his mouth to the grass to graze.

Fields of tender wheat, corn and jute spread on either side of the tributaries of the Kari-Kosi — the Panar, Bakra, Lohandra and Mahanadi rivers — as though someone has painted the land a rich, dark green with a coarse thick brush. Mango groves and courtyards echo with the sweet songs of Madhushravani. And in the air there is the heady smell of the red, fuchsia and yellow veils belonging to the brides fluttering in the breeze.

The easterly wind sings and dances and whirls inside a bamboo grove. And keeping tune with it countless spirits and demonesses swing from the branches of the trees chuckling and whooping with fearsome delight.

In the patter of the rain a piteous indistinct cry emerges from the darkness to shiver through the village — He-e-e-e-o-o-o-o-o!

The spirits of the bamboo grove run towards the fields with countless flickering fireflies studded in their veils. Mothers clutch scared children to their bosom. Someone standing in a field far away beside the river bank again cries out for help. He-e-e-e-o-o-o-o-o!

Why is the goddess of the fields crying in the middle of the night? Is disaster about to strike?

The cry for help becomes fainter and in its place there is a roar, a terrifying thunderous angry growl: Gooo-o-o-o

The growl seems to be coming closer. The people from the northern-most villages shout in one voice: “Floods! O God, help!”

“The waters of the Bakra river are sloshing past its eastern and western banks. There is water up till the waist beside the boundary of my fields.”

“Have pity on us, Queen Kosi!”

Can there be floods even after the Kosi Barrage has been built upstream? ... Can man win against Mother Kosi? … See what happens when you try to dam the Kosi!

A bolt of thunder crackled and lightning strikes one of the fields. The world is drowning in a liquid darkness ... It is the end of the world … Disaster! Catastrophe! Hapless helpless villagers attempt to pacify Mother Kosi by beating their drums and cymbals and singing songs of appeasement. Young men set about cutting lathes and bamboos to construct makeshift shelters. Shrill voices emerge from fearful throats to the accompaniment of drums and cymbals: “O Mother Kosi, I fall at your feet! I will offer flowers to you-o-o-u-u... “

And dancing to the tune of these words, Kosi Maiya comes traipsing into the village and within the blink of an eye, fields and granaries, homes and barns and trees — everything begins to dance to this tune: Ta-ta-thaiya, ta-ta-thaiya, Dhin-tak-dhinna, Chhamak-kat-chham!

Now there are no drums and cymbals, no songs and pleas; only clamour and confusion!

“Mother! Help! I’m gone! ... Father! Help! ... Watch it! ... Be careful! ... There, there... Hey Sugni! ... Ramlalva! ... O Dear Lord Mahadev! ... I am drowning! Help! ... The water has reached the chest in the courtyard! ... Not here, not here! This thatch is not strong enough! … Snake! Snake! ... Where is the rope? ... Here, pass the sickle... Ta-ta-thaiya, ta-ta-thaiya, Dance, Dance, Kosi Maiya, Dhin-tak-dhinna, Chhamak-kat-chham!”

In the patchy light of early morning the old vulture sitting on the plume of the tallest palm in the village saw: for miles all round there is nothing but swirling, lapping ochre waters, and in the middle occasional islands of what were once villages and in these villages one or two houses and sitting on their roofs a huddle of people. And there, in the distance, the corpse of a buffalo — and beyond that drowned fields showing the drooping plumes of wilted maize.

The clouds are gathering once again. The wind is picking up once more. Mercy! Have mercy on us!

*

The dream of this area’s lifelong Servant of the People — the candidate defeated in the last elections — has finally come true! Mother Kosi has given him yet another opportunity to “serve” the people. Hail to thee, Mother! May you live long! This time, God willing, he will not rest till he has defeated his opponent. He is busy trying to establish telephone contact with the District Magistrate and various Ministers of State: “Hello! Hello!”

The regional correspondent of a major Delhi-based newspaper has come across a major breaking news story after years, but: “What? You don’t have telegram forms? ... Trrrrinnngggg.”

“Hello, I am the party leader Sharma speaking. About 50 villages are completely drowned. No, sir, not boats, villages ... villages are drowned. The DM must be informed, sir. ... The MLA? ... But sir, he is from the opposition party! …”

The party worker caught hold of the newspaper reporter at the post office counter, took him to his camp and said, “Write... let it be remembered that such a flood has never struck before...”

“But 10 years ago...”

“Who remembers what happened 10 years ago? Now, write, as soon as I got the news I reached the flood-affected areas in the middle of the night... Mine should be the very first response in print.”

The reporter uses his journalistic horse sense: “But the MLA has already given his statement — to the First Press of India — on the telephone itself.”

Sharma’s face fell ... God has granted him this opportunity to serve the people after so long and the opponent gets first shot at making a statement to the press? The enemy gets to be first? At the time of the Chinese invasion too he had got left behind in making speeches and collecting funds. And this time, again?

“Look here, how many flood-affected villages did I say? 50? Make it 250 ... If more villages are affected we will get more ‘relief’ for this district. I can do anything for the good of my people and my district. And if it so pleases God, by tomorrow 200 villages can get submerged.”

Early next morning the reporter sent another urgent dispatch: “Last night another 250 villages were submerged due to the breaking of the Bardaha Dam.” And Sharma was working the telephone lines again: “Hello! Hello Patna…”

The traders and moneylenders of Rampur kasbah were quick to understand that such an opportunity for ‘auspicious gain’ does not come every day. At the time of the Chinese invasion they had missed the bus. This time while all the fuss was going on about the drought God had sent them the floods.

“Brothers! Brothers! This evening. There will be. A grand assembly. Of the people of Rampur. At the local town hall. To set up a committee. For the flood-affected. Brothers!...”

“It’s come! The relief wagon has come! ...”

“The Minster for Irrigation is coming!”

“Donate generously, Brother, give rice-clothes-money...”

“Long Live Freedom!”

The boys of the two schools of Rampur kasbah — the Middle and Higher Secondary — took out processions, singing songs and collecting old clothes. By evening they had split into two groups. The quarrel flared from arguments to abuses and knives and bamboos being taken out to beat each other.

However, the servant of the people, Sharmaji, was elected undisputed to the post of Chairman of the Relief Committee.

All the famous leaders of the major political parties have descended on Rampur kasbah with their entourage of “workers”. Each has set up his own camp. A group of government doctors and nurses has arrived. Government officers are occupying every room in the Dak Bungalows. A Coordination Meeting has been convened. Each political party has proposed the name of a representative for the Vigilance Committee. Almost every party is split into two groups: the “official” group and the “dissident” group. In every camp, a half-buried discontent smoulders.

“... Tomorrow the Chief Minister will make a ‘flying inspection’.”

“... The Union Minister for Food and Civil Supplies is also flying down.”

“.. . The Minister for River Valley Development has issued a statement.”

“.. .And the relief is on its way. Ten trucks laden with rice-flour-oil-cloth-kerosene-matches-sago are on their way.”

“Brothers! This evening. There will be a public gathering. In the Municipal Grounds. Where the strictest discontent will be expressed. Against the present government’s relief efforts. And the arbitrary setting up of the Relief Committee….”

*

Helpless, starving and thirsty people surrounded by water on all sides — marooned atop thatches, trees and mounds — saw the boats arrive.

The nearest boat has a flag — a Congress flag!

The one behind has one too — but it is a different colour!

“... Long Live Mahatma Gandhi!”

“Huh? Why Mahatma Gandhi? What has he to do with anything?”

“Don’t get so excited, or the branch will break.”

The boats draw closer. The Servant of the People himself rides the first one. “Brothers, even though you did not vote for me in the last election, I contacted the Chief Minister, the Food Supplies Minister, the Irrigation Minister as soon as I heard of your plight...”

The workers of the opposition party ride the second boat. In one voice, they oppose Sharmaji’s claims: “You are using the government boat and government aid to wrongfully campaign for the Party...”

Sharmaji’s boat sprinkles the submerged villages with speeches and goes away. The people in the boat directly behind it oppose every word.

“A bigger boat is on its way.”

“Brother, is there only a boat coming or does it carry something? The children are faint with hunger. My daughter is about to die…”

Two dozen boats plied the waters till the evening, gathering people. At night the relief officer told the vigilance committee in plain words: “The boats must not carry the flag of any political party... Nothing should be given without taking a thumbprint or signature... We simply can not provide bidis ... It is unethical to either praise or criticise any political party while distributing relief supplies. Those who continue to indulge in such practices will henceforth not be given any responsibilities by the Committee.”

There is no work yet for the doctors and nurses. They are busy playing ‘indoor’ and ‘outdoor’ games — “Game-ball”... “Two spade” ... “Hey Miss Bannerji” ... “No trump”.

Arrangements have been made for the flood-affected villagers on the high ground near the railway bridge — under the trees, beside the haat, in the school compound. And also for people to stay in villages where the floodwaters have not entered but which are surrounded by high waters. Boats ply the waters regularly, carrying rations to and fro. Several groups of doctors and nurses have been deployed to run health centres at such places.

The waters are gradually receding. The ferrymen are beginning to feel cooped up in the camps. These free-spirited people hear the news of the receding waters and become restless. They are creatures of the water. They can stay for months in mud and water. ... Their thumbs have blackened with all the thumb imprints they have been giving. ... No, no ... That dog-faced officer was trying to entice my Sugni, did you know? ... A bunch of thieves, that’s what they are!

A major newspaper from Delhi published an expose: “The engineers of the Public Works Department have shown remarkable short-sightedness in building several small dams on minor rivers and their tributaries, such as the old distributary channels of the Kosi. That is why those villages which were never affected by the floods, are submerged under water this year. Inept government servants…”

Another daily newspaper placed the blame squarely on the officials of a neighbouring country and said, “In building a barrage close to the border of our state, the neighbouring kingdom has stopped the drainage outflow of all the small rivers in northern Bihar. A flood such as this would never have happened had the concerned officials bothered to consult our experts before building the barrage.”

The local rag declared the flood a “manmade” calamity and announced: “It isn’t the neighbouring state, but the oarsmen of the neighbouring country who have drowned us!”

Eventually, rats were found to be responsible for the breaking of the Bardaha Dam. Rats had dug up countless tunnels through its foundation, making it weak and porous — in less than a year!

*

A flock of vultures is soaring in the skies. Countless dark wings — like black clouds hovering overhead. And on the earth bloated carcasses of dead animals. And destroyed crops and rotting plants in the fields.

The stink! Oh, that terrible malodorous smell!

Straggling groups of people — heads bent, clutching babies, herding their pitifully few cocks, hens, goat and sheep, some on wagons and carts, others on their shoulders — are returning to villages where not a trace of their huts remains nor even a pinch of grain in their fields. But their feet are racing homewards. After nearly 30-35 days of hellish exile, a flood of love has overwhelmed their hearts — love for their homeless villages and mud-filled fields.

The gods have come once again to live in these spirits buried under government relief, debt and assistance. For days they have fought amongst themselves for survival and pleaded with government officials for relief supplies. Greed made them fight, steal, covet... Satan had come to roost in their hearts.

In the month of Ashwin the sun appears without fail to awaken the earth. Green tufts of grass glimmer in the drying mud.

A skein of wild geese circles above, crying “paink-paink”. At this moment everything seems dear and sweet — even the kites, crows and vultures. Are those cranes in the water-filled ditches or Koka flowers? Branches of the Haarsinghar are heavy with sweet-smelling flowers. The lilt of welcome, of new arrival, is in the air. The mother is coming! That beggar woman? Is she the Goddess Annapurna, the provider, the fertile Mother Goddess?

The Ashtami moon laughs amid the clear serene waters of the Kari Kosi.

A collection of short stories by Renu, translated by Rakhshanda Jalil, will be published shortly.


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