A Story by Gabriel Rana. Translated by Nagendra Sharma
The rich and thick profusion of plum-tree blossoms atop the steep hillside scarred by landslides give rise to a peculiar sensation in me – my fast-paced footsteps come to an abrupt halt – and I keep on gazing incessantly at those flowers. My love towards these blossoms of plum-tree was born almost simultaneously with my arrival in this village as a school teacher. I wish this plum-tree was always in blossom so that I could have an opportunity of gazing at them unceasingly and forever! But, alas, that’s not to be …all too soon, and just in a matter of days, these blossoms would yield place to green foliage and my eyes would be left, once again, fondly pining for the oncoming spring season.
I see many things changing in the meanwhile – small children growing fast into bigger individuals, the Bains tree beside the house outgrowing the height of the roofs, and the like. The steep land-eroded cliff in front, which presently features Uttis and Chilaauney trees – was it like this in the earlier days? The flood and landslide of 1968 swept away the tiny cottage and the cowshed beside it – to God knows where! I used to dream of small and blissful domesticity for myself, a world akin to it – made up of a similar cottage, a cowshed and a conjugal harmony. It had become a daily routine with me to stealthily oggle at Chyangba’s wife as she wended her way, a pitcher adjusted besides her waist and water spilling over, towards her house. That bastard Chyangba – how adept he was in singing Tamang selo songs and to enliven the entire village with his lilting tunes on festive occasions such as the Dasain and Tihar! A more dexterous singer, who had in him the capacity to cock a tuneful snook at young damsels, thus teasing them to near-mortification, there was no one else in the entire village.
The only bitterness in the Chyangba couple’s life appeared to be the absence of children – they hadn’t any; everyone was aware of the countless puja worships and propitiations she had offered to the deities beseeching the gift of a child – even spending freely out of the meagre sale-proceeds of the milk she vended.
If I was enamoured of Chyangba’s songs, he also found immense pleasure in coming to me for an occasional light banter…
On occasions when he was boozed with an overdose of jaand, the local brew, his joviality took rather weird turns. I recall, not without a little amazement even today, what he had told me once while holding me by the arms – “As…it is futile for me to expect offsprings from this wife of mine – you could as well take her for yourself if you so like – I would rather get wedded to another wench from Pahaad, my ancestral village in Nepal.”
In an astounded disbelief, the only reply I could make on hearing him was, “Nonsense, a wife isn’t a chillum of ganja hemp that one keeps on passing on to whoever is near at hand with alacrity!”
He wasn’t the kind of man to take things lying down, however; nor was his counter-poser of a kind that I couldn’t have comprehended. “Isn’t it better to hand over the stuff to someone when it ceases to be useful (to myself) rather than throw it down the gutter…?”
What could I reply now? The only thing I remember clearly was my tongue-tied discomfiture as I would try to switch over the topic of discussion to something else.
But never did one hear Chyangba thrashing or tormenting his wife for her failure to produce his progeny. We always used to see the couple going about their own ways in pursuit of their respective vocations. All of us could see the two trudging downhill to the marketplace once a week to fetch their supplies of the daily necessities of life – only that, on his way back from the bazaar mart, a jaanr-inebriated Chyangba would make it straight to my place of residence to promptly and unfailingly raise the topic of offering his wife to me once again!
I also remember the question I had put to him while he brought up the topic the next time. “Why do you want to give away such a beautiful wife to me simply because the two of you failed to produce any children? You could as well marry a second time without casting her off…?”
He delivered a rather long sermon to me in reply to my proposition that he he could have two co-wives living together. “The instance of sautaa co-wives coming mutually to terms is almost unheard of; it may be a rare exception. That’s why I would rather spare my wife the prospect of having to live unhappily with a sautaa; on the other hand, it is my wish that she spends the rest of her life in the happy company of a compatible gentleman. I do not know, Sire, how you feel about it…”
Of course, I always felt embarrassed and awkward to hear Chyangba repeatedly make a similar proposition; and I also recall the counter-question I had put to him one day, “So I take it that you have already had a talk with your wife on these lines?”
“Yes, of course; what’s the difficulty in my talking such things over with her! My wife is determined not to stay with a co-wife under the same roof, but would rather prefer to take another husband, if someone to her liking was forthcoming.”
“That means you have also talked to her about me…?”
“Yes…I did talk once – she almost died of shame,… but would she ever say ‘no’ to a proposal designed to give her a respectable ‘sir’ like you for a husband? What do you think?”
Naughty Chyangba’s preposterous proposition would give rise to a tumultuous war-of-words within myself – what if she’s someone else’s wife ? She doesn’t at all compare unfavourably with any city-bred damsel – smart, blithe and buxom that she is ! Besides, she is ever jolly and open-minded, as if she is completely unaware of what suffering is. I remember quite well how I had felt at the time – I had already concluded, in other words, that it would be no crime on my part to accept her as my wife should Chyangba did ultimaterly decide in favour of bringing in a second wife and discarding the first one.
I recall, too, and not without a sense of bashfulness, that once I had, on the impulse of the moment, given my word to Chyangba that I was not averse to the idea of accepting his wife as mine own. This happened one evening when he came to my room in a fairly high intoxication, broached the subject once again and announced that he would like to come to a decision in respect of her rather early, as he would be leaving for his ancestral village sometime after the impending Dasain festival. But nature willed it otherwise – neither Chyangba’s scheme nor that of mine came to fruition…
Just as the Dasain festivities were on, came three consecutive days of non-stop downpour. So heavy was the rainfall, indeed, that it sent shivers down everyone’s spine. One night, there was a sudden and loud uproar that reverberated throughout the village – people were seen scurrying helter-skelter with burning brands and lighted hurricane-lanterns in their hands, shouting and screaming. I also rushed out of my residence to find myself in the midst of the crowd. I heard someone addressing me and saying, “Sir, a landslip has swept away Chyangba’s home and hearth; both his homestead and the cowshed are gone!”
I ran fast in a frenzy until I reached the top of the landslided cliff. But I felt someone’s hand catching hold of my arm and pulling me behind; I also heard him say, “Sir, what are you doing? You nearly killed yourself by falling down the precipice!”
And he was right – I was keen to let myself go down the landslide. How I wished, alas, that I had gone the way Chyangba did – that would at least have brought an end to the story. But as it is, it wasn’t destined to end that way…
As I stood among the crowd that had gathered above the land-slided cliff and as I found myself looking down, with unblinking eyes, as far deep down the crevasse as possible, I heard someone comment, “Poor Chyangba’s wife, the plum-tree she had so painstakingly nurtured and grown was left untouched by the landslide – it’s the only thing that has been left behind…”
It is thus that my eyes have since craved eternally for the sight of a plum-tree in bloom, year after year. So many things have changed around me since then, but I find my yearning and pining for a blossoming plum-tree remains as undiminished as ever…
[Courtesy: Sheet of Snow, an anthology of sixteen Nepali short stories, translated into English by Nagendra Sharma and published by Nirala Publications, Jaipur and New Delhi,1997.]