Syed Waliullah (as narrated by Amar Mitra)
Those who have read Lal Shalu, Kando Nodi Kando or Chander Omaboshya know that Syed Waliullah (1922-1971) is a writer’s writer. I recall his other tale—the short story Keraya—which is the name for the ‘pitcher of jaggery’ .
Once the mahajan delivers keraya, the two boatmen shall set sail on their country-boat. They had come to the haat to procure keraya. But the mahajan has eluded them. He is nowhere to be seen. Will it be that the majhis will have to return with an empty vessel? Sometimes there are such days. Yes, sometimes only fate. Their families, by the river, await their return eagerly. There is an etim (orphan) boy with them on the boat. He works for them, in return for food. Meanwhile, an old man, at the threshold of death, climbs into the boat, lets his body lie on the hull and starts to wheeze. He is about to die. He wants that his family members should watch this portentous event of his life. He can die in from of them. The boat will row past his village. Could the majhis kindly leave him there on their way back? But can he articulate this to them, a dying man’s last wish? Instead he just sprawls on the deck. The majhis have noticed him. But their mind is set on the still-to-arrive keraya. Will the mahajan really give them a miss today? May be if they can ignore the keraya trail, the old man may survive till his village? But that was not be. They wait. And the old man awaits his death. The etim boy sleeps close to the feet of the dying man. As his life force drains, the old man wakes up, as if in a stupor and kicks him. The boy does not move, lost as he is in deep slumber. To the dying man—it seems everyone is dead—the boy, the night, the deck. All dead as timbre. The old man had a child—who had died of snake bite. Is this boy who lies near his feet his own? Could it be so? He sleeps. Since sleep is death. But life, life’s pull, is magical and so the old man, who is immersed in death, still kicks the boy. Kicks him hard. The boy wakes up this time. The old man wants to address him. He realizes in a daze that this boy is not his own. This boy is alive. His son is dead. All around there is death. Still he calls him. There is no night. Death lurks on the far side of day. The old man howls, squeals actually —Baapjaan!! Baapjaan re!! But at that moment he realizes, this is not his son. And he closes his eyes, one last time. The dead-body now sleeps on the deck. One of the boatmen comes and lies close to the body. The other man keeps vigil and then they take turns. After a while, they set sail with the dead-body. They reach the dead-man’s village,late at night. News spreads and the family of the old man comes out, wailing. They take charge of his body. The majhis set sail again. The two boatmen on two sides of the boat. Star spread night. The boy sleeps again. The sound of the river is the only one that can be heard. Till the end of the universe.
All this we have known. All this we may have dreamt. But Waliullah’s quill takes us to a plane, from where there is no respite. No succour. No turning back. It beckons us and we give in. Give in, we must.