Shiva Kumar Rai
A torrential downpour had just stopped. The gusty wind from the south had thrown apart the few small patches of clouds that had become whiter now. Blue, washed-up patches of the sky appeared at places where the cloud had disappeared. There was no blot of hatred anywhere. After a spell of madness, nature had become tranquil now. The only thing that murmured now was the brook washed by the tears of cloud. This roaring of the mountain brook was echoing from the mountain caves where it had struck.
Coming out of his hut, Rané Majhi, the fisherman, placed his right palm upon his eyebrows and looked up at the sky, and then turned to have a look of the mad river once. A stout man, rather short of height, he was clad in a pair of black daura-suruwal that were quite old, andpatched up at more than ten places, worthy of calling it a tatter. His waistcoat too was black, decked by a dozen of white buttons woven in a row. His old khadi cap had lost its original color. As he stood folding his trousers up to the calves, he looked quite peculiar.
With keen eyes, Rané stared once or twice at the roaring river, God knows why. He then lifted a small net in his hand and headed toward the river. He squatted on a stone made slippery by algal outgrowth, and looked left and right. The handmade ditch-trap was intact, while the damming at the confluence had been carried away. He took a deep shy once, expressing dejection. A short-built man, Rané hopped from stone to stone and reached several yards downstream. On seeing the pool called Gobré Daha filled with water up to the brim and white forth moving in circles, he threw in the net in his hand, making several rounds in the air. After a short while, he pulled out the net with his robust, muscular hands. Ten to twelve fishes that had come together with pebbles, grains of sand and weeds, started writhing on the dry shore.
This was how Rané earned his living. His father was also a fisherman like him. He died one night, some twelve years back, caught up in summer flood in the month of Shrawan. His memories were perhaps concealed by the dust of oblivion.
Ordinary people dread ghosts and ghoul. They believe that if they walk out at night, they would catch the spells of ghosts, vampires and such other evil spirits. But, in Ranés case, all these were baseless issues. He was himself a man with a ghost’s soul, ready to ascend to the rank of a ghost anytime. When people of the weary world slept into deep sleep, their consciousness entered a phase of dreams and there was a deadly stillness outside, Rané went out with a burning torch in hand, and thrust his hand into ditches where schools of fishes lived. In the flickering light of the unstable torch, his face, weathered by sun and rain, appeared quite appalling. His white eyes tucked in his forlorn and ghastly face scanned all the rivers and brooks, mountains and walls. The river-ghosts perhaps shuddered on seeing this living ghoul.
Once again, Rané threw his net into the same greenish pool, making it make several circles in the air. Many fishes, driven mad by the flood, got caught up. Flickers of joy ran over his smoldered, listless face. His eyes turned lively.
He started sewing up the pile of fishes into a thin bamboo-skin split.
Rané had lost his mother while he was still a child. He was all alone in a fast-changing world. He had his own imaginations about a wife. He had in mind a small household, a son who had just started walking along the river bank, and who would, on seeing him catch fish, walk quite near and ask in a toddler’s lisp, “Baba, lemme catch some fishes too.” In slight irritation, he would shout, “Oh Goré’s mother! Come; take him away.” Or else, when he came home tired from the market after selling fishes, his wife would receive him joyfully with a glass of black tea. At such a moment, he would feel the pleasure of a settled life.
Hanging the fishes woven in bunches and hung on a bamboo pole, Rané headed for the marketplace. His trousers were wet up to the knees, while there were blue scars on his feet, especially at places that had bumped against the rugged stones of the river, and blood was spilling from the bruises. Though rain had made the chill quite biting, the warmth of hope in his heart kept him moving. He was decided about making more profit than usual that day.
At the marketplace, a man said, “Brother, how much is your fishes?”
“Eight aanas1 a kilo.”
“Why so high for fishes found so abundantly in a river?”
“What price is this, considering my labor?” said Rané, looking at his festered wounds and bruises. He thought, he should have set a higher price for his fishes, though he himself didn’t know what price he should tag for them.
By 5 p.m., he had finished selling all his fishes. He counted his earning; it was clean ten rupees. His hopes took even deeper roots. If he sold in the same way, he would make at least 150 coins a month. His two-month labor would draw an income that would suffice for him a build a cottage of his own and usher a wife.
Rané’s dreams started extending roots in every direction. His attention was now drawn by a new shop that stood on the roadside. A maiden, some twenty-five to thirty years old, appeared standing at the door. Though she didn’t have the full bloom of her youth, she still had a dull hue of vestigial youth.
“Brother fisherman! Why don’t you sometimes drop into our shop for tea?”
Rané considered it unwise to miss this opportunity, hoping to hold at least a short talk with the maiden. He said, “Oh, why should I refuge the offer? Bring whatever you have.
The maiden set aside some sel2, potato curry and tea and for Rané. Then she said, “Shall I bring some fish too?”
Rané looked into her display dish. There were fishes in red spices, perfectly fried and looking quite inviting. His tongue was soaked in drool. He asked, “How much?”
“Two aanas a piece.”
“For a single piece of a fish?”
He was startled, being unable to get his estimation resolved.
The woman gave a casual answer: “It’s the same fish that costs eight aanas a piece on reaching a hotel. And you think two aanas is too high?”
Rané was convinced that fish should cost high. He realized that he was selling them cheaper than necessary. However, both he and the maiden—two big patrons of fish—had not realized the real cost.
Rané recalled the same musing again: a small cottage on a riverbank, and the company of a wife! He paid a sudden look on the maiden. He had the feeling that for some time, his heartbeat stopped. Soon, it started pounding in a louder sound. For a brief span of time, his thoughts became unbridled. He asked, “Where’s your husband?”
The woman nonchalantly said, “I sent my husband ahead of me. His parents are in town. Father-in-law loves me, but mother-in-law is a scoundrel. She considers me an eye-shore. So, I left them alone and came to stay here.”
The last sentence she spoke made his hopes smirk even more. He appeased himself: ‘Her widowhood would do me no harm. She is still quite young. More, she might love me more because she is a widow. All I need now is some money to manage a cottage.’
At the moment of parting, the widow said, “Brother, keep coming from time to time. We shall meet again soon, if death spares us both.”
Rané was elated beyond measures.
By the time Rané reached the river, the clock had struck seven. His body had unprecedented enthusiasm, and his heart was filled with joy. His youthful soul was spilling all over. Time, however, was the same dark night of the month of Shrawan. He wondered where the stars and constellations had hidden. The sky was overcast with clouds. From the forlorn faces of the clouds, tears seemed ready to fall any moment. The thunder bellowed out. The roar struck all the mountain ranges around, and echoed. The river was flowing on its own accord with its usual gurgle.
With a burning torch in his hand, Rané moved toward the river. Thunder roared again. Though he was a man of no fear, Rané was deeply terrified once. In the flicker of lightning, he remembered the austere face of the dead husband of the widow, though it seemed to him nothing but a sudden flash of memory. The thunder roared on, seemingly warning him not to enter the river. But then, why would he listen? His mind was firm on a single ambition: he shall earn double the usual and fulfill all wishes of his heart.
Once again, Rané returned to the same pool called Gobré Daha and threw his net. The light from his torch had rendered the fishes quite inactive. His net caught some twenty-five of them in one shot, consisting of katla, asala and budhuna. He continued fishing, thrusting his hand into school after school. All he found were fishes, and nothing else. He checked all the bamboo fish-traps set at different locations in the hand-made ditches. They were full of fishes. Rané had neither hunger, nor any measure of thirst. His wishes were taking wings. He didn’t mind his physical labor.
A dark cloud rose in the west. From the top of the hill, a gusty flow of floodwater rushed downhill making a deafening noise. Rané didn’t have the slightest feeling that together with the flood-water, Yamaraj3 was coming down. On hearing the approach of flood from beyond the stone wall, Rané started gathering fishes from the riverbank. Before long, a tail of the gusty torrent touched and swept away all his fishes. Rané was crestfallen on seeing the harvest of his labor gutter away with the flood, but he was little aware that together with the fishes, he too was under the grip of floodwater. The only thing his mouth uttered as he was flowing down the river was this: “The price of these many fishes…”
He was submerged under the floodwater before the sentence was completed.
All that remained now were Rané’s wishes, desires and ambitions. They had sprung from the same Gobré Daha, and died in the same.
The air was soon gripped by still silence pervading all around. Rané’s net had long been buried in the sand. The dying sparks of his torch could still be seen, seemingly waiting for Rané. A cold wind incessantly blew from the gorges on the hill. The incessant crooning of the river reached every nook and cranny of the hill. There was no rupture of any kind in the usual law of nature.
[Trans: Mahesh Paudyal]
[Shiva Kumar Rai (1919-1995) was born in Sikkim province of India. Later, he moved to Darjeeling of West Bengal, got educated there, and entered politics, rising as high as to the rank of a deputy-minister. He also worked for All India Radio, Kurseong for some time. In literature, his fame rests in novels and short stories. His published works include story collections Frontiers, Yatree, Bada Dinner, Khahare and Shiva Kumar Raika Kathaharu. Khahare won him the prestigious Sahitya Academy Award in 1978. His novel Dak Bangla is also considered a landmark.]
1A unit of money in Nepal. One aana is one-sixteenth of a rupee.
2circular flour doughnuts typically Nepalese
3Yamaraj is the god of death, according to Hindu mythology