Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala
IT WAS NOW morning at the confluence of the Sunkoshi and the Tamakoshi rivers. The Sunkoshi flowed down from the north with a powerful gush while the Tamakoshi came from the east, like a thread, and emptied into the Sunkoshi. There perhaps were only a few who could cross the Sunkoshi, but anyone with robust thighs could easily walk across the Tamakoshi. On the banks of both these rivers, one would scarcely see any vegetation. The trees appeared standing at a distance in honor of the rivers.
When the first ray of the morning sun fell on the riverbank, the four of five people that had cuddled together into a mass woke up with a start like a wound scalp peeling off the skin of the earth. As soon as they were up, a single question rose in the mind of each of them: “How should we fill our bellies?” They faced one another, seemingly understanding their friends’ sentiments. The widow set her eyes on Goré. She addressed everyone and said, “What arrangement of food had you made, when you left the riverbank? What sort of food did you have in your minds?”
The widow’s words stupefied each of them.
Goré said, “I am a homeless man.”
The old man said, “I had one, but I too have become homeless now. But sister, if you had a home, why are you here?”
The widow, who did have a home, was a crow in the flock of swans, as she smiled while others looked forlorn. It could not be ascertained whether the four men were beggars or porters—porters if they found work, and beggars if not. Like Goddess Annapurna, the widow fished out some chiura from her bundle and distributed. Atop each one’s share, she placed a piece each of chaku. Excitement returned to everyone’s eyes suddenly, and a feeling of deep reverence for the widowed filled their hearts. Adding some chiura into Gore’s share, she said, “You are quite young. Maybe you have more hunger than others do.” Addressing all of them, she further said, “I am heading toward Madhes. I have no husband; my parents-in-law take me for an eyesore. My husband’s brother did have some scarce love lost for me, but I couldn’t continue for long at a home without husband.”
Her last sentence pricked the heart of all the four men. It was not an ordinary thing for her to leave a feeding home, blaming the absence of her husband. They started respecting the widow even more.
Adding some chiura from her share to that of Goré, she asked, “Where are you going? I didn’t see you eat anything last night. You slept hungry. I came and slept near to you because I had no friend. All through the night, I deeply sympathized with you.”
Bhoté asked in utter astonishment: “Why should you sympathize with us? We are not your husbands. Nor are we your sons or fathers.”
“You are humans,” the widow said.
When morsels of chiura fell into their bellies parched since the previous evening, they sensed a supply of energy. So they started talking with fresh enthusiasm. The old man said, “Sister! Four of us are not related anyway. None of us has a home. We have stopped finding work here. We are on the move, hoping to find jobs. On hearing you, I felt we should move toward Madhes. What do you say to it, friends? Should we move down to the lowlands? We can perhaps find enough food there. I remember having been there once carrying a load.”
All of them instantly decided to move toward Madhes. The four men and the sole woman started moving south. The old man narrated events from his past life. He said, he had once earned a lot of money and had bought a piece of land covering an area of seventeen ropanis. Later, the affairs became worse. He was a young man then. He could carry loads and earn his living. But now, he no longer had that strength. Else, why would the old man laze around, hungry? He was fast nearing his death. He was loitering only because the flames of hunger were too intense to be contained easily.
The widow said, “I am interested to settle permanently in Madhes. I can maintain a small farm. They say, farming is quite easy there; we get land for free. I couldn’t continue here. The grumbling of my parents-in-law is beyond toleration. More, the place where one’s husband dies is simply quite dreadful.”
Bhoté and Dhané were listening to their conversation with interest. Yet, they were not adding any word. Goré apparently was quite tired. He was walking behind everyone, dragging his weary feet. The widow waited for Goré to catch up. When she stopped, everyone else stopped too.
When Goré was near enough, the widow said, “Are you tired, Goré? The sun is quite scorching. Maybe your head is burning. Take this cloth; cover your head with it.” She took out the white cloth she had over her head and placed it on Goré’s head.
All of them resumed their walk. The old man was old only in age. He walked on the lead, taking long strides. Bhoté and Dhané walked on his two sides, listening to his stories. On finding them absorbed in his past narratives with such interest, the old man was even more encouraged. He spoke on and on, adding some moss to the bare facts. Bhoté and Dhané continued to listen with awe. They deeply revered the old man from their hearts.
The widow and Goré walked slowly at the rear. Goré was around twenty-five years of age, and the widow of around thirty. Goré was rather reserved and equally shy. His caving cheeks had shrunken further due to many days’ labor. The eyes were quite dull. The widow asked, “What will you do, going down to the plains?”
“No idea,” Goré said.
“Won’t you settle down? Aren’t you interested to farm and get settled?” the widow asked.
Goré said, “Where’s the cash?”
The widow said, “In Madhes, you can get land for free if you want to cultivate. You don’t have to buy a field. You don’t look that aged, after all. Get married. Look after your wife. Raise children. How long can you wander like a vagabond?”
The widow fired another abrupt question: “Don’t you like women?”
Goré raised his hood and paid a strange look at the widow. “Why shouldn’t I like them?” he asked.
The widow started a long explanation: “I am going to the plains to farm; to get settled. But a woman alone cannot run a family, you know. She needs a man to support her. I just got a feeling: why shouldn’t you and I make up a family?”
Goré gawked at the widow in dismay. The woman added rather insolently, “Aren’t I worthy of you? I am older in age, granted. But what harm does that do? I have carefully maintained my body. No one has touched me since my husband died. I didn’t have any child; this kept my body fit and fine.”
Goré stared at the woman with astonished eyes. The widow said, “Goré, for a long time, I have been craving to have a family of my own. My husband died quite early. I fear that my desires will dry out in my heart. Can’t I bear children? Where are my kids? Where is my home? Where is the man that’s mine?”
Suddenly, the widow’s face turned quite forlorn. Her countenance turned rosy. Her head drooped, and she walked in silence. For quite a long time, they did not exchange words. Soon, the day waned into dusk.
Breaking the pervading silence, the widow said, “Goré, I have some jewelry with me. I also have some money. We can buy a strap of land and build a home. If you become mine, you shall own all these things.”
Some distance further south, the old man, Bhoté and Dhané sat on a large stone, waiting for the two. On seeing them come near, the old man shouted from a distance, “Shouldn’t we put up here? What do we do for food?”
All the eyes turned toward the widow. She said, “There’s some chiura left in my bundle. It may not fill our bellies. But it will keep us going.”
They sat down and started eating chiura. Then they cuddled by the side of the way and lay there, making the sky their canopy.
Tired of the daylong walk, they slept off as soon as they reclined.
The old man woke up with the coming of the first brink of the morning sun, and coughed. Everyone else woke up too, but Goré was nowhere to be seen. Startled, the widow shrieked, “Where’s Goré?”
The old man calmly said, “Maybe he went somewhere else. We should be moving now. There’s no food left with us. We should reach the plains at all cost by evening. We can find some food there.”
The widow’s heart grew heavy. She was astonished to see ruthlessness in the hearts of all three of the men there: the old man, Bhoté and Dhané. She was surprised to see them unaffected, when a friend of their difficult days had suddenly disappeared.
She gathered her bundle. Her heart swelled with fear.
Her jewelries were gone.
Everyone else got ready to move. But the widow continued tying up her bundle again and again. On seeing her do so, the old man asked, “What are you doing? Let’s hurry up; else we won’t reach even by night. That will leave us starving.”
The widow said in a pathetic tone, “My jewels are gone.”
Astonished, everyone looked toward the widow. The old man said, “Where were you moving with all those things? Maybe Goré made away with them. Once the things are lost, there’s no point in lamenting.”
The widow was irked by the old man’s words. She screamed, “Shut up, antique! I had woven many dreams around my jewelries. I had thought of selling them and buying a field, getting married, making a family and getting a son. All my dreams are shattered.”
Having said this, she burst out into a loud cry. The old man went near, patted on her shoulders and said, “Why are you crying, sister? Whatever is stolen is gone. You will find a way in the plains. You will get both a husband and a home. Do not panic. Come; let’s move.”
The woman stood gawking. Then she walked, following the old man.
After reaching a distant hilltop, the old man pointed at the extensive plain to their south and said to his friends with enthusiasm, “Look! That is Madhes. That’s where we’ll find a rescue. We shall find food to our satisfaction there.” A flicker of hope ran through the eyes of Bhoté and Dhané. Their cheeks, down with hunger, glowed up with rosy hues of satisfaction. With their mouths stretched up to their earlobes, they stood grinning, letting wrinkles deck all their faces.
But the widow showed no enthusiasm. She was past her youthful age. She had hoped she would use those jewels to attract a young man into her life. She had dreamt to fulfill her long-standing desire for a home and a few kids. But all her craving crumbled like a sand castle. Nevertheless, she too stared at the plains to their south, imitating others.
Trans: Mahesh Paudyal. Source: Silver Cascades.
 rice—boiled, roasted and parched to make dry snack that can be stored for long
 a bar of sugar molasses cooked for a long time with currants, and made hard and dry
 a Nepalese unit of measuring land area. One ropani is roughly about 32 square meters.