Translator: Siba K Gogoi
Bangles jingled. I looked around. I saw no one. After a while, a bawarchi put a liquor bottle and a glass before Berkley Sahab. He fetched me a cup of coffee. Berkley Sahab had already started drinking. I, too, started sipping my coffee but my mind was wondering where Chameli Memsaab was.
Berkley Sahab was gulping down one bottle after another. I was amazed at his drinking prowess. He was sitting, puffing on his pipe intermittently, immune to any external influence. Maybe he understood I was not feeling at home. He told me he was very happy that day because I was beside him talking and drinking coffee.
I felt embarrassed. So I didn’t object to him. But I couldn’t hold back my curiosity about him anymore. I simply said: “Why don’t you go back to England?”
“Shut up. Who are you to ask that question?” yelled Berkley Sahab, hurling a look of spite and hatred at me, just as a snake would spreads its hood immediately after being injured.
I bowed my head. Berkley Sahab, realising that he had reacted sharply, walked up to me and patted my shoulder, and asked me not to get him wrong.
I didn’t misunderstand him.
It was getting dark. I took leave of Berkley Sahab. When I was returning home, one thing was lingering on my mind: why is there so much disparity of human life? Someone gets everything in life, someone doesn’t get anything. The pain of not achieving what one wants can be deeply felt in the harshest moment of life. Someone experiences that moment, someone doesn’t. That moment did not come to Berkley Sahab either.
In the dead of night, Berkley Sahab told me of things about his life, things that were perhaps – or perhaps not – known to others in the tea estate. But I guess no one knew what I knew about him.
Berkley Sahab told me how he fell in love with a girl, called Chameli, working in the tea plantation, how his love for her deepened, and how he finally brought her to his bungalow. He didn’t hide anything about his feelings for her; he candidly asked Chameli’s father, Birbal Sardar, if he would allow him to take her to his bungalow. Birbal Sardar found no reason to disagree. Chameli of Line 2 became Memsaab. Chameli Memsaab.
Days went off well for Berkley Sahab and Chameli Memsaab. It was not long before a misfortune befell them. Berkley Sahab had a gnawing suspicion that Chameli was out of condition, which he initially chose to overlook, treating it as a simple thing. He let his physician friend know the matter the day he had come as a guest to the tea estate.
After examining Chameli, the doctor looked grave. “It’s a case of leprosy. Her body shows clear symptoms of the disease,” said the doctor. Berkley Sahab breathed a sigh of frustration. Chameli cried. Berkley Sahab couldn’t bear seeing her cry. He decided that Chameli would live separately. He had a house built to the east of the tea plantation. All the people on the tea estate came to know of this. Berkley Sahab arranged for her treatment but it yielded no result. After a few months, Chameli gave birth to a baby girl. That day Berkley Sahab, forgetting all his sorrow, smiled and so did Chameli. Then came a day when Chameli laughed until she wept. Berkley Sahab became very sad again. The growth of the hands and legs of the little girl was not in proportion to her age. She had not spoken a single word even after three years of her birth. The doctor said: “.....”
Berkley Sahab was overcome with grief. The worse was yet to come.
He made a point of seeing Chameli every day but never stayed with her at night. That day, too, he went to Chameli. When he wanted to leave Chameli in the still of the night, she told him that she would probably never get well, for her entire body was becoming dysfunctional. She wished him to give her company as she felt something was going to happen to her that night.
Berkley Sahab didn’t stay back. He consoled her with deep love and then went away.
Chameli also left him. And she was gone.
Next morning there was a commotion on the tea estate. Berkley Sahab arrived at the scene. The body of Chameli was still hanging at the school. A green saree was wrapped around her neck. It was a ghastly sight. Flies were swarming all over the body and a stench pervaded the air around the school building.
Berkley Sahab told me those things impassively. After some time, he finished off the bottle and asked me to follow him into the inner part of his bungalow. It was a neatly ordered room with a bed in a corner. A mosquito net hung on the bed. As I was hesitant, he himself took me close to the bed. Pointing to the bed, he said: “Look, she’s sleeping.”
A girl, as innocent as a flower, was sleeping, a girl who will never live like a human being; hers is a living death. On hearing the jingle of bangles I turned my head. The ayah was coming. Perhaps, she had woken up from deep sleep. She saluted her master. I looked at the face of the girl through the tiny holes in the mosquito net. I wanted to see on her face the face of Chameli who I had never seen but only heard about. While I was gazing at the girl, Berkley Sahab said: “I’m just waiting for her death. I’ll return to England once she is dead.” I looked at him as though I didn’t understand what he said. “She must die, my boy ... must die,” said Berkley Sahab. His voice later broke when he cried. I didn’t ask him anything again. Without turning back, I came out of the house. I didn’t have the courage to look back at Chameli Memsaab’s bungalow.
It was well into the night when I reached home. Pehideu and others were sleeping. After entering my house, I saw food was kept for me in a room. I silently washed my hands and face. I didn’t have any desire to eat. I drank a glass of water before lighting a cigarette. Niloy was snoring raucously. I opened the window. A light breeze wafted in. I again looked at the bungalow with the reddish tin roof. Lights were still on there. Perhaps Berkley Sahab was still there. Who knows how long he will stay like that. I went to bed leaving the window open. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Still, I’ll have to sleep. I’ll have to drift off to forget everything.
The eyes of my mind remained restless.
“Xon da, does man become a ghost after his death?” This is a question from Niloy. Pehideu feels “Berkley Sahab is a bad man, a man of bad character, and has earned a bad name.”
“She must die, my boy... must die...,” Berkley Sahab had said. The smell of green leaves of verdant tea bushes... Memsaab... Chameli... Chameli... Chameli...
Nirode Choudhury, one of the most well known Assamese writers, has written many stories. A number of his works like ‘Chameli Memsaab’ and ‘Banahanxa’ have been made into classic movies