(Translation of the short story “Gulaam” by Sourobh Kumar Chaliha in Assamese )
“The children beam with joy when it snows in Guwahati in the months of November and December. Roads, roof-tops, flowers, trees and vehicles – everything gets covered with snow. It is as if the town becomes clad in a single white garment. The world appears flooded in white transparent rays of light. At times, the water in the lakes freezes. Sporting colourful caps and snow boots, the children play outdoors with their skis, sledges and roller skates. They throw snowballs at one another. They shout in abandon joy and slide down the ice. They ski on the slopes of the hills.”
“With great pleasure, Anju and Ranju also skate across the icy lake in front of their house. The water in the lake has frozen. Constant snowfall during the night has made the snow almost as high as the banks. The slopes in front of Runumi’s house are also covered with snow. She is sliding down the slopes with her little sister in a wheeled wooden box.”
“Buttoning our jackets right up to our necks, we walk outdoors to inspect the snow. The morning breeze cuts through our cheeks and uncovered ears like prickly needles. See, the boys are making a snowman! Opening the snow-covered gate, Herr Baruah walks to the main road. He is wearing a blue scarf around his neck. He had parked his car in front of the house and is now searching for it. But the snow has made it look like an igloo. Well! How can he now get into the car?”
“Frau Baruah steps out of the house and waves Herr Baruah a good-bye. She wants to check if there are any letters in the mail-box. Even the mail-box is covered with snow and ice. She warms her hands by rubbing them against her apron, and starts scraping the ice from the box.”
Frau Mueller read my German essay up to this point. Then, she took off her round ancient glasses and remarked, “Marvelous! Marvelous! There is not a single grammatical mistake!! This is very nice. Really!” However, with a note of suspicion, she continued, “I didn’t know it snows in your country.” Frau Mueller turned the globe on her table, spotted India on it, put her glasses on once again and peered at the region. “That’s right! The equator runs below India. Here are the tropics! Now, this is Assam. Where is Guwahati?”
I promptly replied, “Perhaps, it’s not marked on the globe.” I wanted to evade the question that Frau Mueller would inevitably ask. So, I immediately started a description of Shillong. “This is Shillong, the capital of Assam. It is situated on the hills and is very cold in the winter. Guwahati lies just below it.”
“Shillong is the land of the Khasis. There are many winding hilly roads in the city. It is just like the villages of Bavaria, although much bigger. There are many streams, passes and gorges. The are shapely pine trees everywhere. The Government generates electricity from the huge waterfalls nearby. With its cool mild climate, Shillong is a well-known summer resort. It is about a hundred kilometers from the plains if you drive. The road to Shillong is an one-lane highway; that’s a real problem. But even then…”
“Okay! Okay!” Frau Mueller lowered her ruffled head of white hair. She listened to me enthusiastically, but seemed a little surprised. With a blue pencil, she marked my essay in several places.
The firm in Germany to which I had come for a training in business administration had sent me to this lady of the Pedagogic Institute. She would test my knowledge of German. At present, I was on probation. If I passed the test I would be appointed a regular employee in the company. On completion of my training, I would be awarded a diploma.
Frau Mueller said that she had read quite a lot about India and Japan. She was particularly interested in visiting India if all went well. She would also like to take along her children, Gretchen and Fritz, to visit these countries of the Orient. (Definitely not to earn a diploma!) In spite of her advanced age, she was excited about everything. “I must say that your essay has surprised me. Your knowledge of German grammar and sentence construction is fairly accurate. However, you have have not captured all the nuances of the language; sometimes that may make our school children laugh if they read your composition. Even then, the essay…” I detected a sign of slight indecision in her kind, red face, “…on the whole is good.” She continued, “It was really nice, getting introduced to you.”
The lady picked up few pieces of coal from the bucket by the table, threw them into the fire-place, and perhaps remembering that I came from the tropics added, “Perhaps, in the beginning, you found Germany very cold. But, from the description in your essay…” Once again, I sensed a little hesitation in her speech. “Is the room warm enough now? You can take off your coat if you are too hot.” “Thank you, Frau Mueller!” I said, took off my coat, and hung it on the chair.
Frau Mueller lowered her head and scribbled a few more notes on my essay. Writing some comment on it, she asked, “Really, I don’t know anything about the field of business administration. Still, tell me something! Is the field not yet advanced in your country? Otherwise why would you come from so far to get a diploma here?” With a conceited smile, she asked, “As far as I know, our economy and our companies are strikingly different from even those in other European countries. Definitely there must be pronounced differences with those in Asia as well. How, then, will your country benefit from your diploma?”
How could I faithfully answer such a pointed question? I wanted to get this diploma in any way I could, and return home in a few months. Then, however irrelevant to my job, I could haughtily exhibit it to my colleagues and superiors at work. With a German diploma, a promotion at the office was soon inevitable.
Of course, once I returned, during the first few years, I would neither be able to acquire a piece of real estate nor a car! But then, I would be back in my cherished homeland! Everyone who travels or lives abroad eventually returns home for various reasons. Life is meaningless in a foreign and inhospitable land. Why should I become an exception and try to linger abroad? If I were rich in Assam and owned a piece of expensive real estate, I might have mortgaged it to meet my expenses in Germany. Had I been really intelligent, I would have applied for and received a scholarship. But being neither rich nor bright, the only way to make ends meet in a foreign country or anywhere for that matter, was to indulge in flattery. I had come here on leave without pay from my job. I must make some money here and save a few pennies before I left.
But how could I possibly explain all these sordid facts to Frau Mueller? Briefly I said, “It will help me in my job.” “Oh!,” the lady exclaimed as though she did not fully follow. Hoping to end this meaningless conversation, she put the sheets of paper away, and said, “I will try to send the report on your language test today itself. Congratulations!” I knew that I had passed the test! “Thank you, Frau Mueller!”
The lady said that she would be very glad if I would let her know the decision that Bickman and Bickman Company would make about me. “I will definitely let you know,” I said. I knew I would get a raise of a hundred marks per week, although I didn’t care to mention it to her. I picked up my coat, and started to get up from the chair.
Frau Mueller looked at her watch and said, “There are twenty more minutes till my next examinee arrives. He is from Iran and has come for a training in the monitoring of petroleum pipe-lines. He is very lackluster. Perhaps, he has not completed any of the work that I had asked him to do at home.”
She looked at her watch again, “It’s time for a coffee break! Can I offer you a cup of coffee? Now that you have crossed the hurdle of the language test, you can complete your training in six months and return home. You are so far away; perhaps, you feel homesick! Who do you have in your family?”
Suddenly, I was transported back to the day when I left home for Germany. The scene flashed before my eyes as if it was only yesterday. It was in the thick of the rainy season. It was pouring down almost incessantly. My home is in the outskirts of the town. The narrow lane from the house to the main road was already a flowing river. It was impossible to drive a car or pull a rickshaw. So, I handed my luggage to the barefoot office peon whom I had summoned for help. My brother and I removed our socks and shoes, and rolled up our trousers, and got ready to walk up the lane.
My sisters were accustomed to this lane since they walked to school every weekday. They would hold their slippers high in one hand, and lift their mekhela-sadors with the other. But on the day of my departure, I forbade them to accompany me to the main road.
The first reason was that, the moment I would get into the taxi, they would both start wailing in unison. This would embarrass me; I would also get delayed. Secondly, during the rainy season, our house is infested with frogs, snails, caterpillars and various other insects. Both my sisters had already been stung by caterpillars. They had rashes all over their hands. As remedy, they had smeared ground lime in their ears. They presented a terribly dishabille appearance. Thirdly, behind our neighborhood, near the pond that is dry except during the rains, lived immigrant people of obscure origins. They had set up their businesses of cheap wooden furniture, rotten potatoes and onions, plastic goods, wallets, goggles, and Hawaiian slippers. They are gross, undisciplined, and loathesome. I had sometimes seen their children stark naked, sitting in rows by the side of the pond, shamelessly emptying their bowels in public! Where and how their elders relieve themselves is a mystery! Now, with the rains, the water from that filthy, malodorous area had flown into our lane. All sorts of disgusting and unhealthy garbage had accumulated in small pits everywhere. A nasty, foul, and damp odor had filled the air. My sisters would develop wounds in their feet if they walked on the lane now!
I sought the blessings of my parents and other elders who had gathered to bid me good-bye. My mother was sniffing and rubbing her eyes with the ends of her sador. Rain water dripping through the kitchen walls had dampened the house. Perhaps she had caught a cold. Rain water also leaked in through the roof in the bedroom. My mother becomes testy in the rainy season for many such reasons. The concrete slab in the backyard where utensils and dishes are washed was surrounded by mud on all sides. The maid was unable to go outside in the rain and do the dishes. Dirty dishes were piled up high everywhere in the kitchen.
Between her sobs, my mother grasped the curtain on the main door, and consciously kept looking at her bare feet. She was extremely scared of the kerelua, a type of milipede abundant in Assam. Her hairs stood up on their ends when she saw these creatures. At this time of the year there were innumerable such creatures on the floors, and they form queues that look like express trains. Whenever my mother felt something stick to her foot, she jumped up, and cried out in fear, “Ugh! What’s that?”
I also saw my father’s feet in his cheap pair of shoes. With the hookah in his hand, my father, a retired teacher, imparted forbidding and valedictory advice to me in his characteristic rough voice. He is a rheumatic patient, and in the rainy season he is as ill-tempered as a nagging school mistress. Moreover, at this time, mosquitoes buzzed around in his dark and damp room. Also everywhere in the house, there were bedbugs now. They bit whenever one sat down. My father got irritated and scolded us at the slightest pretext. Rubbing his skin, he was smoking the hookah, lounging in his chair.
I imagined that on that fateful day, after I had left the house, and after my neighbors had gone back to their own houses, Mother would give Father a few pieces of sliced mango and a cup of tea. Only then would his voice soften. But this would not continue for long. A fly would rest at the very spot on the rim of the cup where he took a sip and a swarm of flies would start circling the pieces of mango.
That evening, father would not go out anywhere. How can he possibly cross this ocean of nauseating water? Lighting the kerosene lamp, he would read the Axom Bani, the popular weekly newspaper. His forehead would form a desperate knot. Floods, floods, floods everywhere! Scarcity of food in one place, death in another, plague in the third!! Definitely there would be a rise in the price of food grains. Roads were damaged in the rains, and many bridges had fallen apart. Bus and railway stations were flooded causing great inconvenience to passengers. Railway services were interrupted. Rickshaw pullers had fled the city. Mail, telegraph, and telephone services were temporarily suspended. Tens of thousand had become homeless. The floods present a perennial problem of immense magnitude in Assam, with no solution in sight. Meanwhile, the paper also reported that a monsoon festival was being organized in the District Library under the auspices of a cultural organization called The Madhugunjan, the Sweet Melody Club. The festival would be inaugurated by a distinguished award-winning author.
My brother Niren, a college student, is one of the romantic types who flock to organizations and clubs such as the Madhugunjan.. I visualized what he would do after seeing me off at the airport. He would roll up his mud- stained pajamas, curse the Municipality Board, and enter the lane to our house. Manik Babu, the ward councilor lives on our lane near the main road. Standing in front of his house, Niren, in his usual habit, would give vent to the grievances that he held against the councilor. The reason for Niren’s venomous outbursts was that, for some mysterious reason, only the portion of the lane up to the ward councilor’s house was paved. That’s how my brother displays his social responsibilities.
Entering the house, he would take off his pajamas and the Jawahar coat. He would then wash his feet and wear my sister’s slippers. Asking her for a cup of tea, he would go to his room. Possibly encouraged by the monsoon festival, he would pick up the copy of the Sanchayita, a book of poems by an acclaimed poet, that lies in his book shelf. The poet declares that the purity of rain, like the grace of youth and the pulchritude of a radiant sunset, is beautiful – beyond comparison.
Normally, on days when it rains incessantly, the young ones in our house sit facing one another, and gaze sympathetically at each other. Our eyes portray a sense of sadness, because it is impossible to step outdoors. However, I must remind myself that we must keep all such derogatory opinions about the rains to ourselves. Critics abroad have amply praised the poet. So, his description is definitely truer than what we natives think and see! Of course, our country is so beautiful, so clean, so tranquil that it represents heaven on earth, an abode of peace, a veritable Elysium!! The rain further cleanses every town, every village, every road, and every forest, augmenting their paradisiac beauty and loveliness!!!
But, on return to the harshness of reality, we would confront a situation just as in my essay: Niren Dutta would step out of the house to go to the District Library. Well! Now, how could he sustain the cleanliness and purity of his vaunted intellectual existence, and still reach the main road after wading through the filthy lane? The coffee I sipped satiated me. Yes! Finally my dream was going to be fulfilled. Next month, I would send home three to four hundred marks. The walls of my father’s room and the kitchen roof would be repaired. Returning home, I would have a discussion with the town councilor – Manik Babu, and arrange for paving our pathetic lane, at least up to our house. I would also pursuade him to improve the situation with the sewer drainage, possibly get them covered. I would at least make a sincere effort because otherwise, my sisters and all of us face great inconvenience. I could care less about the other problems of our neighborhood. Why should I shoulder all responsibilities? Had I taken all the trouble to come to Germany to study so that I could go back home and alleviate the problems of all the people in the world? Was I so stupid?
It was time for the Iranian candidate for the language test to arrive. Rising up from her chair, Frau Mueller shook my hands, and again repeated that the description I had written in German was beyond her remotest imagination. It was absolutely flawless; it seemed like an account by an experienced author. Had she known earlier, she would have given me a lengthier and a more difficult assignment. For example, she would have required me to describe my home town after the snow starts melting.
Secretly, I flinched, but managed an outward smile. “So far as I can infer from your account, as in our country…” Frau Mueller slowly ran her fingers through her white hair and continued, “The snow slowly melts. The snow cover gradually disappears from the red roofs, the trees, and the roads. Things reveal themselves in their original shapes and colors. The cars and the buses, and the din and bustle of everyday life return. The dust, the mud and the melting snow have made the roads dirty and produced scattered puddles. But soon the cleaning trucks will arrive to clear the snow and the slush. After a few hours everything will be as clean before. The city- fathers have taken the responsibility of maintaining public cleanliness, and the citizens need not worry at all.”
“But the trucks are not able to go into narrow lanes, and in such areas, thank God, we have learnt to take the necessary steps ourselves. For instance, take my house. Have you ever seen a narrow lane by the name of Klinkerfyusgasey? The lane runs by the side of the Jacobi Church. The trucks cannot go into our lane So, my children shovel the snow in front of our house. The neighbors on both sides of my house are old couples, and are not able to shovel snow themselves. So, I have asked my Gretchen and Fritz to clear the snow in their houses as well. Perhaps in your country too…”
With a smile on my lips and a slight bent of my head, I was listening to Frau Mueller. If in the future, I have children, I will try to get my “Gretchen” married to a boy who has returned from higher studies in Germany. I will also send my “Fritz” to Germany to get a diploma. And here, Frau Mueller was telling me about getting her Gretchen and Fritz to shovel snow in someone else’s house! Was she utterly naive?
If I were asked to write an account in German, describing the appearance of my town when the snow melts or after the rain ends – how our narrow lane or the refugee colony or the thatched-roof houses reveal themselves – I knew I would not be able to write such a description. For in reality, I had no advanced knowledge of the German language. The essay that I had written was not an original piece. I had plagiarized the account from an essay entitled `Snow in Our Town’ that had appeared in an old German-English translation book named `Easy German Lessons’. I had simply changed the names and had replaced the words “Our Town” with “Guwahati”!