Whether an Apocryphal Story?
I set this apocryphal story down not expecting you to believe it. You’re unlikely to have smelt, touched, or been in the environs that bear testimony to it, where it tosses on the tongues of everyday people. But whoever has any belief in the liminal state between authentic and fiction, between life and death, will, in all likelihood, find some grain of truth in it.
Inglam Mangpho, with a squint and an imposing moustache, who narrated the story to me, alluded to physicist Schrodinger’s cat—the cat made famous by being both alive and dead at the same time. So, he said, was Loso—a tribal in the tea gardens of Assam. Alive and dead at the same time, just one of the infinite possibilities in the infinite existence of alternate universes!
Has a tree ever died of love, or a woman for the lack of it? Or a man imperfectly alive when his liveliness was dead, been dead to realize that he was living piecemeal? Only to discover the fullness as much as the emptiness of the universe, and been indifferent in his purgatorial existence?
I, for my part, am inclined to believe the retired tea estate manager because I’m biased!
Over a cup of the bitter brew that is the Assam tea, Inglam Mangpho began his story:
“The tale begins in a mishmash of green. Bottle-green tea bushes interspersed by the soft airy green of the Sau Koroi shade tree, abutting the menacing sap green of the forests. It was pouring incessantly, shrubs soaked, ground muddy. Loso had had nothing to eat for two days. His wife Poraini had shooed him away when he had asked. Dejected and hungry, he put a plastic bag over his head and went outside.
“Loso trudged towards the forest through the slushy soil, dragging his left leg with great difficulty, born as he was with left leg shorter than the right and tapered below the stump. ‘A curse of vile ancestors,’ his mother had told him.
“On rainy days like these, one could hardly find anyone about. The plantation workers were huddled in their line-rooms, five or six tiny adjoining units purpose-built. Weekly wages were at subsistence level, sanitation and medical care poor, it was a life on the margins.
“The flush or the harvesting season had been over two months ago. The family hadn’t had enough to eat since then, because Poraini hadn’t been paid her weekly wages. She, a heavy rounded woman with a blunt nose and a strong firm jaw, picked tea leaves for their family of four, which included her mother and young step-brother. Loso was perennially fearful of her.
“In the dense undergrowth of the forest, Loso could hear toads croaking to their hearts’ delight in the downpour. If he was lucky today and could catch a toad or two, Poraini could fry them for dinner.
“Nobody gave Loso any work, ridiculing him instead for his leg. He believed it was God’s infinite grace that Poraini had agreed to take him as a husband. It was another matter that she hardly treated him like one, abusing and showering him with profanities at will. Once he’d seen her flirting with a man at the tea-shop. Raged in anger, he’d quietly limped away, sat under his beloved Sau Koroi and wept until his eyes hurt. It had become something of a habit for Loso to go under that particular shade tree in the middle of the garden and tell it about his daily woes. The long-leafed Assam variety of tea was found to thrive under the light shade of Sau Koroi tree, native of the Assam forests when the forests were first cleared for tea bushes in the 1840s. Therefore, thought Loso, the land belonged so much more to the Sau Koroi than even to a tea tribal like Loso, who had been brought here a century-and-half ago by the British as plantation workers from across the country. Four generations on, the tribes could hardly lay their claim to the land, frequently attacked in attempts at ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the native Bodos. Local skirmishes often turned violent, times when he retreated under the Sau Koroi!
“Soaked to his skin, Loso sat by the narrow, swift stream formed by the torrential rains. He coiled his thin limbs together and buried his chin, waited for his catch. Never had any luck, today was no different. Yet he persisted. Poraini wouldn’t let him in empty-handed. Loso prayed to Marangburu, God of the forests. In his head, Marangburu answered him—he’d already used up his share of luck being married to Poraini and having her feed him the morsels she threw at him each day.
“Loso smiled at the irony. So sad and angry was he, that he felt like laughing hysterically. He wanted to scream his lungs out in order to be heard above the clatter of the pouring rains. Only if anybody would listen…
“He went home when the three-quarter moon was up, shining through the drifting, breaking clouds. In the moonlight, the wet tea leaves glistened. Loso was shivering, with cold or fear he didn’t know which. The bamboo door of their line room creaked as Loso gently pushed it. Inside, Poraini and her mother were seated across a warm fire chewing tobacco. Loso fathomed they’d already had their dinner. Poraini looked at him grudgingly. She’d be far better off without him. She put two dry rotis on a beaten aluminum plate and slid it across the room. Loso grabbed the plate, gobbled the rotis. Then he removed his wet clothes and piled them on the floor. It was the chill of a January night but he hadn’t got a change of clothes. He coiled himself once again on the rug just inside the door and, in the feeble warmth of the dying fire, was soon fast asleep.”
“’Dui poisar murud nai, baisa ke nai roti bhangchhi.’ (‘You can’t earn two pence and you just sit and eat’)
“Poraini thundered as Loso crouched on the broken floor and stared blankly. Her eyes were red, and if she were capable of it, Loso thought, she’d eat him alive. Kicking the pile of wet clothes that caused them to fly out of the room and fall beside the well, she flashed her overgrown canines like a lioness would dare a prey, and barged out of the room.
“The morning had begun ominously. Sleep had not the balm to soothe his pains or poverty. Loso stood up and, dragging himself to the well, cleaned the clothes. Poraini’s mother sat at a distance and watched him with a smirk. As he finished and put them on the clothesline, she seemed to grind the tobacco in her mouth with increased vigor.
“The first out of four flushes of the tea buds was yet two months away. But Loso could smell the rich intoxicating aroma as he strolled through the muddy pathway between the bushes towards the shade of the Sau Koroi later in the day. Sweet breeze, the harbinger of an early spring, was heady with the fragrance of the tender blossoms. Blue from the misty mountains in the horizon smudged into the skies. Wherever Loso dreamily gazed, the palette of green across the rolling tea plantations breathed life and youthfulness into him.
“Under the tree, Loso searched for communion and solace. Lamented his ill luck. When on the brink of tears, the tree shed its light leaves in a bountiful shower on him, making him look up and appreciate the beauty. When his emotions ebbed, he hugged the tree trunk.
“The tree told him about her loneliness, away from the forest amid tea bushes. When the forests had been cleared for the plantations, her siblings were turned to logwood, and she was left uncut to provide the tea bushes shade. She wept too. Her light crown swayed, prayed to the clear emptiness above her, as though for redemption. Droplets of rain, residing in her recesses, fell upon Loso. He held the tree in a long embrace. The Sau koroi proclaimed her love for Loso. She said that she was his Tusu!
“Tusu? Loso thought of his wife adoringly. In spite of all her tongue lashing. If only she loved him as much…
“Tusu was the goddess of the Tribes, worshipped as a daughter and friend, often as a beloved, a confidante. From folklores of his people, Loso knew that she was the daughter of the Kurmi king, who had killed herself by jumping into the funeral fire of her husband Sitaram. They worshipped her the day before Makar Sankranti. Epitome of love and sacrifice, like Sita or Savitri. Makar Sankranti, celebrated on thefifteenth day of January, was just two days away.
“At day’s end, hungry, Loso returned home. Poraini’s mother was sitting outside, in the shadow of the wall. She was once a tea picker too, no longer could tread the long distances with the heavy cane basket on her head. Poraini had made a thick rice broth the smell of which hung in the tiny dwelling. She was probably away for some Tusu gaan—couplets in praise of Tusu—at a neighbor’s, preparing for the celebrations ahead.
“Loso didn’t like her being away. He wanted to tell her he loved her. If only he could provide for her. He did not consume the broth. That night, he left home. He had to make a man of himself before he would ever meet Poraini again.
“Loso crossed the tea plantations dragging his feet along, then outside the village and into the wilderness. The forests were dark and wet. A mongoose scurried across, a sudden flight of wild bats, an owl hooted at the intruder. It was, thankfully, not raining, but the winds whizzing past were chilling Loso to the bones. He prayed to Marangburu, and trudged on.
“For once, the rustle of the trees rattled him. At the next instant, he sensed a long thread slithering behind him. He had been taught in childhood not to look at vipers in the eye so as not to antagonize them. Abiding by that rule, Loso did not turn, only quickened his steps. The black-and-yellow Banded Krait crept majestically sure of its domain, wary of the encroacher, marking a deep ridge with its vertebra. If it bit him, severe neurotoxins would shoot up like rockets through his thin limbs, the envenomation taking only seconds.
“As Loso slowed down in mortal fear, he felt its broad black snout on his left heel, hard and slimy…”
Never had I seen Inglam Mangpho so dripping with pathos. I took one large gulp, just to make sure the brew was tea, not Sulai. Tapping the arm-rests of the cane chairs we were sitting on, laid on the balcony of his bungalow overlooking the tea shrubs, he said,
“Have you noticed how sturdy and elastic these are?”
I’ll admit that I was startled at this change of track. What of cane? But he seemed quite unperturbed, gazing over the horizon where the faint lines of an abandoned temple showed in the dimness. The glowing ball of fire had long retired leaving the horizon to break into a treasure trove of hues—red, magenta, peach, orange.
Inglam Mangpho, I hadn’t realized, was expecting an answer. Failing to get one from me, he continued,
“How we’re oblivious to things we see and touch every day. Just like Schrodinger’s cat, we are alive yet dead to our surroundings. Then we are dead! As dead, we’re more alive, revisiting the life, surreptitiously changing some of it through the many alternatives that did not happen…”
If he still expected that it would elicit a response, I simply had none! So he continued.
“Next morning, Loso found himself in a clearing at the end of the forest. Picking up the pieces of his body and soul, he decided to carry on to where his destiny led. By midday, he had crossed the Naranarayan Bridge over the mighty Brahmaputra, and then, badgering on like a marathon runner on the last lap, he reached Goalpara.
“Goalpara was a small trading town on the banks of the river Brahmaputra, dealing in tea and rubber. It also sold cane, a grass growing wildly in the forests. In Goalpara, Loso roamed the streets for several days, begging for food and sleeping on the pavement at night.
“One night, the proprietor of a small shoe shop took pity on him and engaged him as a salesman. Loso’s sweet talk and humble ways impressed many a customer and the shop began to do exceedingly well.
“The proprietor was overjoyed. Loso never took leave and even began to supervise the tiny manufacturing unit at the back of the shop. Gradually he learned to make shoes. The shoes Loso made were sturdy but light, and customers began to ask specifically for them.
“He increased Loso’s salary three folds, and with his family, went to the temple of Kamakhya Devi to pray for their sudden good fortune.
“One day, sitting all by himself musing over his life and Poraini, Loso thought how he had been found ineligible for simple humanity, sidelined and mocked all his life because of his leg.
“He had a heart too. And love in his heart.
“Loso began to observe and study how nature had designed man’s legs—stiff, yet bouncy, with a spring-like flexibility, carrying the body weight, however bulky. Nearest thing that came to Loso’s mind was the easily available cane. A search ensued for the right type of cane. Reasoning that cane shaped like an inverted question-mark would be perfect to imitate his leg, he finally found one in the forests. The workers helped shape his prosthetic leg. First time he tried them on, he was overwhelmed. They were so light and fitted him so well that he felt he could run on them!
“The prosthetic leg was his answer to the social ostracism of a marginalized man. When he wore it, he walked only with a slight hunch. Loso wanted to go home to Poraini, but something stopped him. His master was not yet back, and he could not betray him. And then, after all, Poraini might be violently angry with him. She may throw him out again. Maybe she had married that man at the tea shop…”
Inglam Mangpho threw the uncertain terms at me, like a master story-teller. I was gaping at him in wonder. Seconds later, I asked, “Did Poraini really think Loso was gone for good?”
“When the soul dies the body dies too. Unable to bear the separation of a confidante, and a lover in Loso, the Sau Koroi tree in the village had died. She had given her heart away to Loso. And when he had not returned to her, the tree had lost her will to live. Sau Koroi had wilted and scattering its dead leaves over the tea shrubs, it had become a dry log. Without the shade of the leafy tree, a mysterious disease had spread through the tea bushes. They had stopped yielding the soft buds. Fumigation was attempted, and when that failed, the land was heavily fertilized. The tea garden did not come back to life. It had to be closed down. The workers lost livelihood.
“The beautiful, round Poraini was now malnourished and diseased. She and her mother foraged the forests for roots and bulbs, sometimes the odd toad. Blood oozed from once nimble fingers. On a good dry day, they collected twigs from the forest. It took twelve hours to collect a head load of firewood which sold for just five rupees in the local market. Poraini would then boil a handful of grains in a large pot of water. When the broth was just about translucent, mother and daughter greedily drank it.
“In a drunken frenzy one afternoon, a group of Bodos attacked the tea garden. Bodos were also poor tribes. Poor and starving, they mounted on other poor and starving. But they were better organized, had invisible political patronization.
“It was a Dance of Death. They looted the little money that the people had. Barging into small homes, they threw away their baskets and utensils. Their anger not avenged, they committed other unspeakable atrocities.
“Poraini had hugged her mother and cried herself hoarse. And then it had been worse…”
“Days passed by. Poraini and her mother were dying of starvation. Dejected, her mother had suggested they could survive by only one mean.
“And so one day, on the highway leading up to Goalpara, in the darkness of the night lit only by the flickering bulbs hanging from the high masts, Poraini had stood in a row of many other gaudily dressed women. Her rounded body was now gone, and the wrap of diaphanous silk hardly camouflaged the bony frame and hungry belly. She pretended to mask her hollow cheeks and blank gaze with a toothy smile that actually gave away her nervousness, the undercurrent of ignominy wrought large in her eyes. Men passing by on foot or on vehicles sized the women from head to toe. The lecherous ones tried to pull or grab them; some drew a hard bargain in hushed tones.
“One night, Loso passed by in the town bus towards home, happened to see Poraini. He was stung by disbelief. Could it really be his wife?
“The bus had whizzed past before Loso could get a confirmatory answer.
“The next night, Loso disembarked one stop early and walked briskly, the throbbing in his heart threatening to incapacitate him. Poraini was at her usual spot. She was smiling at every prospective customer. Loso approached her and they started walking along the dark corridor. His disbelief turned to rage and then like the embers of a dying coal fire, turned to hot ashes. Poraini had been speaking excitedly—where she belonged and how the night was sweet.
“Poraini had failed to recognize Loso. She had never quite looked him in the face with any attention or interest. The man she had derided for being afflicted by the ‘curse,’ no longer dragged his leg behind him. If at all, he may be said to walk with a slight hunch. He was presentable and appeared wealthy. Then she flung the question at him that completely destroyed his soul. Where was he taking her tonight?
“Like water on burning embers, he felt a wave of pity, a surge of guilt. After all he was a husband who had vowed to look after her. She was his Tusu! And it was he who had abandoned her.
‘’’Babu, mai ke kotha nibi?’ (‘Sir, where will you take me tonight?’)
“The old accusatory voice of Poraini jolted Loso. He took out his wallet full of crisp notes that were his entire month’s earnings and handed it over to her. Then, in a swift move, Loso bolted from the place.
“The night wasn’t going to humor him. On his bed, he was swamped by a surge of thoughts. He spent the hours waiting for morning.
“When the skies blushed, he decided to leave for his village. He had to. He had to reunite with Poraini.
“He had to wait a long time for the long-distance public bus. Things had changed so much since he’d been there. By the time Loso got off the bus at the tea garden, having changed buses twice en route, it was nightfall. There were few men about, and when he looked back, the couple who’d alighted behind him had melted in the darkness of the alley. Loso walked alone, towards what he recognized as the same tea shop, once abuzz with activity and people, now empty.
“The incandescent bulb hanging from its tin roof swayed in the rapid gusts of wind. The owner sat with his head bowed down, and his shoulders hunched in resignation. Loso wondered why the village looked so deserted. The sound of his approaching steps made the man call out: realizing he was not interested in any tea, warned him that he wouldn’t find anyone in the line-houses. He didn’t wait for Loso to swallow the spit rising in shock. Six months ago Bodos had burnt all of them down. Fifty-nine people burnt alive. Nobody from the gardens survived.
“Loso couldn’t believe what he had just heard. Hadn’t he seen Poraini just the other day with flowers in her hair and that toothy smile?
“No! No! No! It couldn’t be. He ran and stumbled. He thought the snout of the Banded Krait licked him. He fell on the mud track. The envenomation would take only seconds—the poison will run in his veins. He ran still. Away from the purgatorial existence in which he was entrapped. He ran and ran, until he emerged by the flickering light of the lantern hanging at the gatekeeper’s rickety hut just before the rows of line houses. He stopped there, confused. A haze hung softly like a veil on the land. In the shallow dimness, hearing the cry of a cicada, and the rustling of dry leaves, he began walking. Past the estate manager’s bungalow devastated by the frenzied mob. A hound of blind bats flapped out. A stray dog obsequiously followed him. At the intersection of pathways, one leading up to the gardens and the other to their line rooms, he stood in mournful reverie. The disheveled place lay naked under the quarter-moon. He crossed his Sau Koroi standing menacingly dark and brooding, with its bare bony arms outstretched into devilish blackness, begging for redemption still. Then he went up to what was once his home. Everywhere, a stony silence chiseled him, bore into his mind, chipped away his flesh. When the soul diesthe body dies too.”
Inglam Mangpho repeated the last line: “When the soul dies the body dies too.”
As he concluded the story, I thought I saw a tiny colorless speck on his cheek in the fading light. Without as little as a goodnight, he retired to his room. I heard him secure the latch, the sound of the deadbolt.
Inglam Mangpho’s apocryphal story took on shades of the famous physicist’s views on the transitory, when, after not meeting for a year, he bumped into me in a different city, at a busy bazaar.
Over coffee, he asked, “What do you think—was Loso dead before he died?”
Mandira Pattnaik‘s writing appears in magazines and journals in fifteen countries, including in Lamplight Magazine, Passages North, Watershed Review, Best Small Fictions 2021, Best Asian Speculative Fiction 2021, ORCA, and others. Her fiction has been included in anthologies and nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2021 & 2022, Best Microfiction 2021 & 2022 and Best of the Net. More work at mandirapattnaik.wordpress.com