Usenet 2012-03-18 17:48:30
Mother, desolation & the blaring radio
A short story by Ramdarash Mishra
Sunday, July 20, 2003
It was only yesterday that I had returned from the
village after performing the last rites of my mother. A
peculiar loneliness enveloped me. All around there was
nothing but desolation – the broken banks of the river,
the big chinks in the soil, ravaged landmarks, withered
trees and an all-pervading stench of death.
“The morale of the public is very high. It has
courageously persevered in spite of all the hardships and
I am greatly impressed by this resolute public
determination…” I was startled by the oratory of a
minister who had just returned from a tour of the
drought-stricken land on the radio.
I turned the volume down and the thundering voice turned
into a helpless silence. I felt some satisfaction. This
helpless voice synchronised with my own drooping spirits.
Alighting from the bus I walked towards the village. I
felt as if a vast vacuum had entered me. For long I
continued watching this vast and desolate expanse with
lifeless eyes and then slowly started walking towards the
village. I could see the low-lying moist bank of the
river – a path often traversed by me in this part of this
On those occasions, the fields had been green with
growth, the up-lands full of pulse fields, the tracks
resounded with the foot-falls of the farmers and village
girls floated around gleefully. Today there was nothing
but silence all around. In the sad sun of the winter, the
earth lay empty and parched. I found myself walking
through the gloomy foot-tracks of the fields. My mother
is dead. The gloom deepened.
People are no longer people. They have become humankind.
A few of them could be seen bathing in the river. They
watched me approach with vacant eyes. On the bank, a few
half-clad children had spread their tattered clothes to
dry. Tied in a corner was an old boat.
Beyond the river lies rugged low-lying land with vast
stretches of sand. Every year, the floods wash away all
the greenery, leaving behind desolation and hunger, like
a happy dream with by helplessness and scarcity.
This year there were no rains and no floods. The Kharif
could not be cultivated and there was no prospect of a
Rabi crop. The up-lands had some streams and tube-wells.
The low-lands were entirely dependent on their own fate –
to be ravaged completely in case of heavy rains.
I found my legs giving away. I had walked almost five
miles without resting. There was no road, no carriage,
nothing except uneven foot-tracks. The minister had been
on a tour of the flood-affected area and the famine-
stricken districts by car or aeroplane. Everywhere, he
was hailed and garlanded.
On the thatched cottage roofs were forlorn gourd vines.
The sun was setting. When I reached home, I found father
driving the bullock away from the fodder with a thin
pole. With his newly-grown beard, his lean figure looked
all the more grief-stricken. I went and stood before him
without greeting him (One does not greet while in
mourning). He looked at me for a while. I could see some
fleeting emotions on his dead face.
There was a loud sound. I looked around with apprehension
and found that the bullock had broken loose of the
tether. Why should the bullocks not break loose when they
had nothing to eat? Earlier, they would break loose
several times in a day. But now, they did not have the
strength to do it that often. They had no flesh on their
“One of them is dead,” informed father. I couldn’t bring
myself to speak. He kept on talking. “There has been a
terrible famine. There is no fodder for the animals nor
food for men.”
He was sitting on a wooden stool. I sat down on a cot.
Aunt Devaki, a friend of my mother’s, emerged from within
the house with a water-tumbler, I was stunned for a
while. It looked as if Ma was coming with that tumbler in
her hand. I was assailed by innumerable memories. Every
time I came to the house, Ma would come out with a
tumbler of water for me.
“She came yesterday,” said father pointing to her and
then fell silent, as if surrounded by a whirlpool of
“Your mother really wanted to see you. But you could not
reach in time.” I was in turmoil. I could visualise her
tender, loving eyes. My life passed in front of me – at
every moment, in every trial, mother would always be
around. And when I went to the city, poor mother had to
stay back with father. I, their only issue, was now
living with my family in town.
Whenever I visited her she would always say, “I know I
will not be able to see you when I die.” She would grow
restive when I prepared to leave for the town. Every
time, I would dismiss her apprehensions with a smile.
This would make her all the more uneasy.
On more than one occasion, I had asked her to come along
and stay with me in town. But she would never agree to
leave father. And father could never think of leaving his
I suddenly realised he had asked something. “Father, I
did everything possible to reach here on time. But there
were several problems. The letter reached me one week
late. It took two days to get leave and make the
necessary preparations. Another two days were spent in
“Yes, we live in a different world. That is why it takes
so long for the letter to reach. And the government,
perhaps, is not even aware that there is this small
district in the nation,” said father, his voice full of
“What did mother die of?”
There was nothing serious with her except that she
complained of stomach ache. But recently, she had a
severe burning sensation in her stomach. The doctors here
gave her some digestive condiments but it did not help.
She used to scream all night because of the pain. One
day, it was all was over.
I know mother had always been complaining of stomach
pain. I had a similar pain myself which the doctors had
diagnosed as hyper-acidity. I seemed to have inherited
this from her. The doctors had explained that if not
checked, it usually led to an ulcer – a kind of knot in
the stomach which can later burst and infect the whole
organ. To cure it, you need a lot of milk apart from the
“What was her diet during her ailment?” I asked, even
though I knew the situation of the village.
“What else do you get here except gram and corn? That
too, is hard to get these days. Hunger plays havoc here
and you cannot buy food even if you have money.”
So mother had died eating peas and corn. Even during her
ailment, she could not get a proper diet. To some extent,
I felt responsible for her death. I could neither get her
proper medication nor send enough money for treatment.
Thinking of money I felt in my pockets and found the 100
rupees. In fact, my delay had been because I had been
trying to arrange the amount. What is the use of one’s
livelihood if one cannot even spare that much during
times like these?
“Pitaji, I had only 100 rupees with me which I have
“That is all right. During such times, one has to manage
somehow.” He made no comment on the amount of money. In
fact, he never had. He had never asked me for any money
for the household because he knew my limitations – the
limitations of a son living in a town with a family.
There is rationing in town. Everyday, the leaders deliver
speeches on the radio: “The nation is passing through a
critical period, food grain should not be wasted, serving
food to more than 100 guests on festive occasions is a
But most functions are well-attended. A 100 people are
served food in the open and another 400 eat behind the
curtains. The other day, a marriage was solemnised
between the daughter of a rich man in my locality with a
minister’s son. Whenever I hear these leaders on the
radio, I switch it off. These leaders are nothing but
selfish, pedagogic traitors.
It was late afternoon. I had to buy a few things and
started for the market place in the nearby village. There
was deathly silence all around. It instantly brought to
mind the silence during the plague in the village when I
had been a child. It seemed as if a violent storm had
just gone by. People greeted me but they seemed
strangers. A few people squeezed along the wall in the
sun. Some were counting small change from their soiled
clothes. A few women were taking out lice from others’
hair while still others were busy making cow-dung cakes.
The stable was deserted. Only a dog was lying inside. At
every door, children with empty bowls in hand, were
crying. They had swollen stomachs, were thin as skeletons
and had a look of utter helplessness in their eyes.
I could see the fields lying neglected. “The fields are
lying unattended,” I started talking to myself. “Namaste
Baba!” greeted a shadow turning towards me. “Baba, when
nothing is going to grow, why should one waste even few
grains? Why not eat them at home?”
“Where are you coming from?”
“There is no work to be found. We used to work in the
Champaran fields during this season. Because of the
drought, there is no work there either. We have been
running from pillar to post, trying to find some source
“What are you carrying in that bundle?”
“Now what can I say master? This is the only thing left
with us – the bark of the tree-trunk. But now we don’t
even have any trees left here. Whenever we peel off the
bark from some one else’s tree, we are subjected to abuse
So human beings have to eat tree bark – how unnatural?
But this was nothing new for me. Isn’t it unnatural for
man to eat the grains salvaged from animal waste?
Farmhands eat it. Dudhai was my farmhand. He followed me
to the market. I heard a bird crying. Looking up, I saw a
big one with a smaller bird in its clutches. I continued
looking at it.
“What are you wondering at master? Even the birds have
changed. They wander over the fields the whole day but
fail to spot even a single grain. They die of starvation
or, in utter helplessness, kill the smaller birds of
their own tribe.”
Gradually, the screaming of the bird ceased. The
scorching heat took on an ugly gloom with the loud snorts
of the pig. It seemed like a cemetery. “The cobblers of
Chamrotti are feeding themselves on pigs. It is the only
food left.” Dudhai then went ahead towards his hut and I
went on slowly by the Harijan basti towards the market.
There was a much bigger crowd this time, but no hustle
and bustle. All the people were idle. There were no
bargainings or hassles. The grocer was sitting in his
shop as the people, without any money, walked silently
by. A few tried to get some items on loan but were
Soon I was disturbed by the wailing of a goat. The
butcher was slaughtering it. A few people, including a
constable from the police station and the peon of some
babu were standing around. Dogs were fighting for the
blood oozing out from the slaughtered goat. A few goats,
tethered to a tree, looked on with apprehension in their
eyes while kites screamed above. The whole market-place
seemed to quiver with a vague terror.
Darkness spread its wings. I was lying on the bed, lost
in myself. It seemed as if mother would soon come with a
tumbler of water and sit with me. She would spend hours
enquiring about the welfare of the children.
I could not sleep. I was startled to find father beside
me crying silently. Since I was pretending to be asleep,
he continued crying. I tried to suppress my own sorrow.
Next morning, at around eight o’clock, I went out into
the garden. There was a heavy mist hanging around the
desolate fields. The sun seemed to make a futile effort
to shine through. A few people were sitting along the
walls. On their faces, one could see the deep traces of
the damp, dark night.
I was suddenly reminded of my childhood. In spite of my
woollen coat I shivered.
“Dudhai is dead,” said someone.
“Dead? It was only yesterday that I had met him,” I said.
“Yes bhaiya. The poor man passed away in the night. He
was a very good man.” Death has nothing to do with you
being good or bad. It seems we are used to hearing the
word good for everyone who dies. But Dudhai was a genuine
person. Since he had been my farmhand, I had seen him
through several phases of his life. “Two more Harijans of
the village have died.” said someone.
“And no one is aware of their death?”
“Death is no longer news. It appears to be visiting every
house. No one knows when the next man is going to die.”
I went ahead and found a dog dead due to the cold in the
night. Its body was surrounded by a crowd of crows.
The rituals of mother’s funeral were over. It was brief.
I had always been against these rituals. But I had to
observe them because of the villagers. They still
censured me for not spending money on the puja. “A good
soul like her deserved much more,” they said. Although I
suffered all this silently, I did lose my temper at a few
people. I asked them to go to the wedding parties of
ministers, rich people and leaders if they were so
enamoured by crowds. In times of such acute food
scarcity, I had neither the money nor the desire to spend
Aunt Devaki was ailing. She had been my mother’s friend.
I decided to visit her. She lay on a cot with a tattered
quilt over her. Uncle was sitting nearby in a pensive
mood. Apart from these two, there was no one in their
family. Their only son Manna is working in Calcutta in
some jute mill.
“What is wrong with aunty?”
“What do I know son? She was all right yesterday. It
seems that she caught cold during the night.” In a single
day’s sickness, I found aunty reduced almost to a
skeleton. In between pauses, uncle said, “She has been
sick only for a day. But she has been starving for
Aunty groaned and her eyes rolled up a little. I was
taken aback. I found in her my own mother’s eyes. “She
has been longing to see Manna but the poor boy has no
money to visit her,” said uncle.
In a plaintive tone, aunty said, “Son. My friend breathed
her last without being able to see you. How noble she
was! The village has become desolate with her passing
I found my aunt’s eyes piercing through me. Now I
understood how my mother too must have suffered when she
died – the same pain and the desire to see her son for
one last time. An empty earthen pot fell and broke into
several pieces. Perhaps a mouse in search of food had
I felt like giving some money to aunt. Although I put my
hand several times in my pocket, I could not gather the
courage to bring the money out. Moreover, I had to return
to the city. After sometime, I left her.
I repeatedly pleaded with father to accompany me to the
city and live with me. But he only mumbled softly, “Yes,
there is nothing left here now. But we do have our fields
and ancestral house here.”
“Why don’t you sell them off?”
“God forbid. What are you talking of? Does anyone ever
sell ancestral property?”
“But father, what will happen to them after you? Do you
think that my children will come back for farming?”
“Yes, I know they will not come here. You can sell them
when I pass away. But how can I leave them?”
Father did not agree to my pleadings. While I was
preparing to leave, I learnt that aunt had expired. I
found myself rooted to the ground. I had seen my own
mother’s eyes in hers. I had not been able to see mother
before she breathed her last. But I saw her in aunt.
Once again, I found myself walking. Soon, the village had
been left behind. I saw father becoming smaller and
smaller as he stood mutely watching me from atop a small
mound. Once again, I found deserted villages, vast
stretches of sand, and the broken bed of the river.
The child suddenly increased the volume of the radio.
“The people are braving all with great perseverance and
courage and their morale is high… no one will be
allowed to die for want of food.”
I got up and switched the radio off and busied myself in
Courtesy – The Sky Before Her and Other Stories Radha
Read the complete news at:
Panchaang for 22 Ashadh 5104, Sunday, July 20, 2003:
Shubhanu Nama Samvatsare Dakshinaya Nartana Ritau
Kark Mase Krishna Pakshe Bhanu Vasara Yuktayam
Revati-Ashvini Nakshatr Sukarm-Dhriti Yog
Bav-Balav Karan Saptami-Ashtami Yam Tithau
Hindu Holocaust Museum
The truth about Islam and Muslims
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