Wales Arts Review is very excited to publish this exclusive translation of multi-award-winning writer Ramkumar Mukhopadhyay’s “Bonomali’s Return to Earth” as the latest instalment in our series exploring the field of transnational literature, in partnership with the the Centre for Transnational Creativity at Bath Spa University (which is now running an MA in Transnational Literature). We feature this new story, as translated by Ahana Chaudhuri and Sreejit Datta with Siân Melangell Dafydd and the author, at a translating workshop organised by Literature Across Frontiers at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, February 2015.
Bonomali comes to stand under the tree. Many roots float above the ground. They’ve been there since the tree’s beginnings. The main root has dug deeper into the ground so the topsoil has washed away by water. By now, the withered upper roots are loosely attached to the soil.
Bonomali looks carefully at the tree. From the ground, it has grown skywards. Its skin is covered with circular rings. For forty to fifty years, some leaves have shed and others have been cut away. Whether shed or cut, every year, they’ve left their marks on its skin. The tree has grown to the embrace of the sky but those marks, forty to fifty years old, are still visible.
Putting his sickle on the heap of roots, Bonomali wraps a loincloth around his waist. The cloth is just five hands long, so it isn’t much trouble. Taking it from the front, he covers his buttocks and pushes the ends through the gap between the cloth and his lower back. The ends look like a large mole. Bonomali checks that it’s securely in place with his hand.
He rubs his hands on the ground. Inserts the sickle between the base of his spine and the cloth. Then comes to the trunk. Stops there. Checks if the sickle is properly in place. He pulls the cloth a little higher. Still, there is hesitation in his mind. As if somewhere, something is wrong.
Bonomali is going to climb a palm tree for the first time today. So far, he has climbed a mango tree, a guava tree, an amra tree, a neem tree and even a tamarind tree but this is his first attempt at the palm tree. If you search a village, you would perhaps find one person who can climb a palm tree. The cement-like, oily skin of the trunk makes everyone’s heart throb. Three years ago, Binod slipped from the top just before he reached the bello. He immediately lost his life. Yet, Bonomali agreed to do this because he has been without work for two days. Mid-Bhaddor, you don’t know how many days of work you’ll get. And there’s a first climb for everybody. It’s by climbing and climbing again that you become an expert. Cutting palm leaves is more profitable than anything else. The climbing and cutting would take half an hour, and carrying would take another half an hour. Three rupees for cutting and two rupees for carrying. Five rupees in total. Which other work earns you five rupees an hour? So, for his own sake, Bonomali suggested cutting the tree to the Brahmin family.
Bonomali takes the climbing rope from around his neck. He puts it between his fingers and stands a while, leaning on the tree trunk. In a flash, he is aping up the tree. After climbing a few feet, he ties his feet with the rope. It will mean a fatal fall if he fails. One slip and he’ll go straight, either into the water or onto the ground. A fall on the ground would shatter his skull, and into the water would slit his guts. No, there’s no crocodile down there in the water but taal-sangas are kept there to soften. Those wooden poles are tightly bound with cords to erect bamboo poles so nobody can steal them. A fall onto one of these and it would be a clean death. He wouldn’t even have the chance to cry out for his dad.
Once his pranaam prayers are done, Bonomali grabs the trunk and starts aping up again. With eight leaps, he goes up the length of five hands. His heartbeat slows down a little. Fear is gone now. He dares taking bigger leaps as well. After ten or so such leaps, his feet skid down a little. He grabs the tree firmly. His feet don’t slip, but the stub to which the rope was stuck breaks. It’s a small matter. But even though it is small, Bonomali’s heart starts pounding. His palms, elbows and shoulders hurt as he goes up the uneven skin of the trunk. In his two bum cheeks, he feels a slight twinge of pain. After taking a bit of rest, he again starts leaping up. He leaps forward like a hopping frog. There is a bend at a height of six hands or so. He will go up easily once he crosses that. This is his fourth calculation. He has already completed three full calculations.
After crossing the bend, Bonomali feels that the sweat beads from his forehead are getting bigger and running down his sideburns. He lightens the load on his legs. Now that he has come a long way up, he dares not calculate by looking down. He leans forward. He feels that, with every leap, a drop of sweat trickles through the hairs on his back, very slowly. The higher Bonomali goes up, the lower the drops trickle. At one point, a drop vanishes under the loincloth. Once that is lost, a lot of drops start appearing from the pores of his body. Tiny droplets swell to a huge drop. The drops from his forehead trickle down between his brows, to the hollow of his cheeks and finally to his lips. Salty. He wipes this side and that side of his face on the trunk to dry himself. Rests a little, restores himself a bit. Again starts bounding. With those bounds, he gets to the top of the tree in one breath.
He stops about five hands below the very tip of the tree. Now, to ascend very carefully. As they say, the topmost two and a half hands of the palm tree is the difficult part. The palm bello makes this part slippery as oil. Hands and feet could skid. With small, small bounding, Bonomali peeks through the drooping leaves. Weaverbird chicks chirp. Hearing the shuffling among the dry leaves, they sense danger. After going around the tip of the tree once, Bonomali understands how tricky this matter is. From below, it seemed a smooth climb but it’s the man who actually climbs who gets to understand the extent of the difficulty. Bonomali goes round and round and stops. Gives some time for the drop of sweat that’s accumulated on the tip of his nose to drop. Then he reaches for a bello, carefully avoiding the saw-like teeth of the bakhari. Now some relief. A little rest for his fatigued legs. Now the only thing left to do is to lift up his right leg a little. He finds that it’s not very comfortable, climbing while holding onto a bello. He goes for the next. He tries one and leaves another. He doesn’t get anywhere despite two or three attempts at lifting his leg. It would be the end of his struggle if only that one leg could be lifted but that leg won’t go that high. Never before had he realised that there was such a gap between his hands and feet. Meanwhile he gets sweatier, swears a few times. The thought of climbing down occurs to him once, but there’s such a stinging pain around his waist that he won’t dare heading down without resting. Looks here and there and grasps the bello above tightly. It’s upward-facing; there’s no fear of it breaking off. Holding the bello tightly in his right hand, Bonomlali lifts his body up slightly in between two other bellos. He holds his breath in order to gather strength. Then, slowly, slowly lifts his right leg and tucks it in at the base of the lower bello. Right away, he takes two long breaths. He sits upon two bellos and leans back. Takes rapid breaths. Bonomali’s two eyes are shut.
Finally, Bonomali realises how loud his heart goes thump, thump, in his chest. The fear has already crept inside his body. This really is climbing with life in his hands.
Suddenly, Bonomali thinks, what’s all this is for? For his tummy? For his wife? For his kids? For the others?
Certainly, Bonomali is no sage or a village chief capable of deep thoughts. Big words are unintelligible to him. Whatever he is, he himself doesn’t know. When farm work is available, he does farm work; in the winter he collects sap from the date tree, he parties with the crowd, prepares khichudi in the festivals, he raises other people’s cattle, plays the khol drum while wearing a garland of tulsi around his neck for a hari-chanting band and, if he gets no work, he nicks things. Not that he always nicks things to quench his hunger. Sometimes, greed gets the better of him. Last time, while he was putting bamboo poles in a pond, he saw the wife of the Poddar family who had got herself a new set of elaborate earrings. At midnight, Bonomali sneaked into the Poddars’ front yard. Having carefully lifted her mosquito net, he placed his hand on her ear when the Poddar wife pounced on him and bit his ear. The members of the house ran at him with sticks and poles. In one quick dash, Bonomali reached the banks of the canal. From that night, Bonomali’s left ear lobe was half missing. People get deaf with age, Bonomali became bereft of his ear at just thirty. People call him ‘Bonomali bitten-ear’ now.
Climbing so high above this world, Bonomali gets the chance to think through things in his own way for the first time. A thought occurs to him, when he is batting off a fly that buzzes around his ear, but now the thought won’t leave him alone. Why bear so much suffering? If he jumped from here, it would end of all his suffering, no pain after that. No infamy.
He had tried to bring about a change in his fortunes in so many ways, just to manage two square meals a day. He had heard of some getting rich by gambling but his luck turned its back to him. In the process, he has lost the few bits of precious bronze tableware he had. Rikshaw-pullers have become millionaires with lottery tickets, dahi-wallas become billionaires, he’s also heard. Every year, he buys ten lottery tickets through Bishtupur-goers. A million is a far away thing; he hadn’t even managed to win ten rupees. For a while, he frequented meetings and rallies. He became greedy while following the announcement that everyone would have equal rights to land. He hoped that all the land from Mukhujjes, Chatujjes, Dattas, Goylas, Nandis would be equally distributed to the Bonomalis. He calculated that one haal of farmland would fall to him. He had his eye on an eight-bigha plot that belonged to Jogen Nandi from Dattabandhi Mouja. Days went by, days came by, but the land did not come. The sharecroppers had registered themselves, but there’s no record of daily labourers. They have fixed wages but who will pay you the right price when there are more people than demand? Sowing and chaffing would still be paid for, but what about other periods of the year? Phagoon, Choitro, Boshekh, Joishti, Bhaddor, Kattik – in these months, it feels like he’s so much in trouble that someone’s got a bamboo up his arse. That’s it. Sins wear off as days go by. To live is to suffer. The way to real life is down there, straight down.
There could still be some solace if things were all right at home. For some fifteen days, his mind had been full of trouble. One early evening, he noticed a pile of steel utensils outside the kitchen window of Megha and her family. Bonomali had gone out after a cosy evening siesta but Megha’s granddaughter, who had been whining from way back last night, was still at it the next early morning. A stomach-ache or some such – it must have been. Unable to make much of the situation, Bonomali returned home. Peeking through the hole in the wall to call his dear wife on returning home, he saw Kishto, the petrol man lying there, making a Radha of his wife.
Life has been unbearable since seeing the nitty-gritty. If you live, you die. All you have to do is lower your head and relax your hands, and you’re free from everything.
A gush of wind comes and Bonomali clasps the bello tighter. Eyes open. Hearing the cry of the weaverbird from the swinging nest, he stops the nest from swinging with his hands. Bonomali gets a huge shock as he looks down. For the first time, he looks down with a calm head. One look and it seems as if everything has changed. Familiar things look strange. He looks up at the sky. The sky seems so near. A flying bird seems a lot larger. He again looks down. Never before has he seen such a vast space with his own eyes. He looks at the people, they’re so much like dolls; tiny, tiny ducks; plums can’t even be seen. Bonomali opens his eyes wide after rubbing them with his hands. The same tiny, tiny figures. As though the people are kings, queens, clowns or beggars from a puppet show. The houses are like shacks. Anukul Singh, who normally roars like a tiger, is screeching. Even the familiar roads from his days and nights seem unfamiliar.
The thoughts he was having just a few moments back no longer match with his newfound world. His plan to plunge down also changes. He doesn’t get another chance to think it over as the world down there has been transformed. With wonder in his eyes, Bonomali sees his dear wife, with his son in her arms, passing under the tree. She is asking Nada whether she has seen him, Kotta, the master of her household. She laments that it’s already two o’ clock but there’s no sign of him. Neeta, the maidservant of the Brahmin home had put a two-rupee note in his dear wife’s hand when she was on the way to her in-laws. With it, she’d bought some puffed rice. She had gone out looking for him with the boy in her arms. Bonomali feels that even this is unfamiliar. He can’t even provide oil for their heads, can’t provide everyday rice, still his dear wife heads out looking for him, with the boy in her hands. He doesn’t dare call out. Probably, she would start wailing at the base of the tree, and bang her head on the trunk. His wife walks away.
Bonomali hacks at the bello. One by one, the leaves fall. Gradually the tree becomes bald. He takes the weaverbird nest from the leaf below and hangs it on the leaf at the very top. Strokes the body of a chic with his hand. He knows that they’ll one day fly into the sky. He looks up to the sky. He is very near that sky.
Bonomali looks down. Everything is picturesque. The world, perhaps, has really changed. Dancing, crying, scalding, swearing, pissing into the pond while holding up his cloth, entering the prayer room, chasing away cattle, feeding kids, making the bullock walk around the sugarcane machine, fishing – everything is like a play. Just like watching a story unfold in a puppet show each time it comes around.
He starts to head down. About midway, he takes his eyes away from the tree and looks down. Sees a fish jump in the pond. Still water breaks with every wave. Everything seems almost like before when he looks around. The old world. Bonomali again wants to climb up the tree. Either to look at the world in a new way or to jump from the tree to get rid of the old world. But, by now, Bonomali has no breath left in him to start climbing all over again.
He comes down. Holds onto five bellos tightly. He starts dragging them. Five Bonomalis or five palm leaves go on their way, brushing their chests against the gravelly road.
The palm leaves, dried, will become fuel.
Dr Ramkumar Mukhopadhyay was born in 1956 in Kolkata. He has PGCTE qualification from EFLU, Hyderabad, and a PhD from Jadavpur University (1992). After being the Regional Secretary (East India), Sahitya Akademi, for a number of years, he is now Director, Visva-Bharati Granthana Vibhaga, Kolkata.
A prolific writer, Dr Mukhopadhyay has to his credit 8 collections of short stories, 7 novels, two travelogues, a book of criticism and one of essays. He has also edited a number of anthologies of short stories and poetry. His work has been translated into English and Hindi, and converted into radio-play.
He has been honoured with the ‘Somen Chandra Award’ of the Government of West Bengal (2000), the Galpamela Puraskar (2004), Katha Award (2005), Bankimchandra Smriti Puraskar of the Govt of West Bengal (2007), Saratchandra Smriti Puraskar, Bhagalpur, (2007), Sis Puraskar (2008), and Gajendranath Mitra birth-centenary Award (2009). He has also been honoured with “Ananda Puraskar” of Ananda Bazar Patrika in 2013 and “Dwijendralal Roy Literary Award” in 2014.
Sreejit Datta is a writer, translator and singer. He divides his time between Kolkata and Shantiniketan, where he is working as a PhD scholar at the Centre for Comparative Literature in Visva Bharati. He writes poetry, short fiction and plays in Bangla. He is currently working on a body of 19th century Bangla religious lyrics known as Brahmasangeet as the greater part of his PhD thesis. He has proficiency in English, Spanish, Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Persian and of course, Bangla. His current interest in translation comprises of translating Wilfred Owen, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Amir Khusrau and Faiz Ahmad Faiz into Bangla.