Jesus Christ’s Photo
S y e d A b d u l M a l i k
The difference is that I tried to hide my feelings but they disclosed it. I think the art of hiding one's fear is also a kind of bravery. Actually, I did not want to hide my fear to prove myself a brave man. Moreover, I was not at all happy to pretend in this way. I had to do it only to prove before them that I was the able caretaker of the family, in the absence of my brother-in-law. That is why, even though I was frightened inwardly, I had to say boldly - "What are you afraid of? Let them be Sipahee (Soldier)! They won't eat us. They are also human beings like you and me." I know it very well that they won't eat us, but they can treat us like beasts, and in most cases, they did. I had not experienced this type of cruelty till now, albeit luckily, I have heard so many tales of their cruelty. So inwardly, I was terribly frightened. Why not? Everyone knows about the misdeeds of these Gora Sipahees, they can kill anybody anytime, can torture anyone. It seems they do not have any sympathetic feelings for the native people.
I have heard some interesting stories about the Gora Sipahees from others and had read about them in some books, but now in real life, wherever I went, I could see the Goras. Though they stay very near to our house, still we do not have or exhibit any interest in them. Of course, sometimes a few of them come to us, talk for a while. If we understand, we give them a reply; otherwise, we simply go away, giving a smile. Actually, there were not too many chances (courage too) to become intimate with them. To us it is loud and clear that they should leave this place, as soon as possible.
My sister, two nieces, our cook and myself - these are the members in our family. My brother-in-law went to Calcutta for some dental problem. So, at present I am the guide of the family. My sister might have trouble looking after the family in the absence of her husband. Moreover, the entire area was infested with the Goras. That is why I had to stay with them. We could have gone to our native home, but my sister said that to leave so much property without anybody's care would not be proper. So, I had to stay with them as a caretaker.
About a hundred gauges away from our house, there is a big military camp. Sometimes, so many soldiers came to stay there, and sometimes, it was quite empty. Sometimes they used to converse among themselves in very loud voices. We listen to their conversation carefully and try to understand. When we hear of some misdeeds done by the Goras to the natives, we become pale with fear. The soldiers do not stay in one camp for long, which is why we do not have a proper assumption on them.
Slowly I got some courage; felt that the guns they carry were not as dangerous as we thought. Only when they fired them, then did it become dangerous. But my sister and my two nieces always carry an inexplicable fear for them.
Nowadays, like my neighbours, I too go for an evening walk along with my two nieces. Actually, I stand near our gate while my nieces play in our front yard. Seven year old Khupi is the elder of the two and Rupi is younger. Both of them are very cute. Sometimes I feel proud to be the uncle of such beautiful kids. My sister keeps an eye on their activities by peeping through the curtains every now and then.
At first I did not notice it, but suddenly Khupi ran up to me and whispered - "Uncle, can you see that Sipahee? How he is looking at us!" I looked in the direction where Khupi was pointing and saw that a soldier was sitting on a fallen tree and looking at Khupi-Rupi. "Nothing will happen. Go and play". I tried to assure her, though inwardly I was also frightened. "I won't play here. He is looking at me. I am scared," Khupi said. I said the soldier was not looking at them. She was making a mistake. But Khupi-Rupi did not play thereafter. Actually, I was terribly frightened. So, when they decided not to play, I felt relieved. Who knows, what was in the mind of that Gora. Why was he looking at them? That night Khupi told the incident to my sister. She was also frightened. I said, "Why are you getting upset? They are also human beings. Don't they have any fear? Let them come to do any harm, I shall teach them a lesson." I spoke as if I were a mighty brave man.
The next evening they did not go out to play. It relieved me too. I know it very well that instead of buying a thermometer, it is better to buy quinine, though it is bitter in taste. And my sister knows it very well that I do not have the strength to handle a Gora in a scuffle.
Though Khupi-Rupi did not go outside the next evening, I became curious to know about the Gora. The next day I peeped through the curtain and saw that the Gora was sitting, looking towards our house. I scrutinized him properly - he was about forty-five years old and well built. It could easily be seen that behind his tough military exterior, there existed a weak, pale man. It was as if he was surrounded by an unknown sorrow.
Khupi-Rupi did not go out to play for the next four or five days in a row. Within this period we almost forgot about the Gora. Suddenly, one day I remembered him and the place where he used to sit. He was not sitting there! Probably their platoon has shifted to some other place. Anyway, from now onwards, we can live freely! He won't return. I thought to myself. Now Khupi-Rupi can again play in our front yard, as they used to play previously. But to our utter dismay, the Gora returned after about three days. When the troops marched in front of us, I saw him. On seeing them, Khupi-Rupi were somewhat frightened at first. But I encouraged them to carry on with their play. At that moment my sister called me and I went inside. When I returned, I was surprised to see the Gora standing behind the girls. He was fondly looking at them and his face was glowing with happiness. Once, when Khupi went to bring the "Guti" (the ball) she happened to see the soldier, then, with a terrible cry, she ran away from the spot. Startled by this sudden outburst, the soldier tried to stop her and said "Baby, Baby! Here's a lozenge for you. Come and take it!" But Khupi had already left the spot. I was shocked at this unexpected development.
Suddenly, the words like "hospitality", "manners" came to my mind and I went outside to invite the soldier to our house. In the meantime, the soldier had already come inside through the gate. He entered the drawing room and sat down on a sofa. Khupi-Rupi came to the room from inside the house and stood hesitatingly beside me. After a few silent moments. "Can you give me some water? I feel very thirsty." - he said in a very faint voice. "Today I marched 23 miles" - he added. My sister brought him a glass of water. "Come take the lozenge" - he again called Khupi-Rupi. At first they did not move but when I asked them to go to him a little harshly, they went to him. He pulled both of them and made them sit on his lap. He seemed very happy at that moment. I brought him a glass of juice, which he accepted gratefully. By then it was 6.30pm I switched on the radio. There is a news item from London at that hour. On hearing the very first line of the bulletin, he cried, "It is London, isn't it?" I nodded. Touching Khupi-Rupi's hair, he listened to the news. The news ended after ten minutes. I saw a pall of gloom again descend over his face. Then he asked the girls their name.
They did not understand English, so I answered for them. "Oh! Tupi and Rupi" - he pronounced. As he pronounced Khupi's name wrongly, the kids began to laugh. Everyone was silent again after the kids stopped laughing. It was he who broke the silence after a while. "I too have two little daughters back at home - Evalina and Daisy. Evalina is about the height of Tupi and Daisy is as sweet and little as Rupi." I thought his voice mellowed with affection at the memory of his daughters. "We got married in the last War. I thought they wouldn't call me to war, as I am an old man now. But I was wrong. Now my wife, Evalina and Daisy are alone at home. God knows how they are!" I did not know what to say at that moment. He asked the girls to finish the entire lozenges in his hand and this time, they did not hesitate. Then he continued, "There is a lawn in front of our house. Sometimes a gentle sea breeze blows in from the sea. We used sit on the verandah of our house, me and my wife, while my daughters played on the lawn." I could feel his emotion from his voice itself. Slowly he resumed, "The memory of my daughters disturbed me when I saw Tupi-Rupi playing that day. Whenever I see little girls like these, I feel an ache somewhere inside me. But no one calls me Daddy! I meet so many little girls like my daughters.and I love all of them as my own daughters.but no one calls me Daddy, no one!"
I desperately tried to find words to console him. In front of me now I met a loving father, who lived behind the harsh façade of his military attire all the time. And I was at a loss in search of a word. They stayed in the camp for eight more days. During this period, he came to our house every day, bringing lozenges for Khupi and Rupi. Then he would sit down on the lawn of our front yard and watch the girls play. One day I was sitting on our drawing room, Khupi-Rupi were on his lap. Suddenly the soldier began to talk, "When will this war end? I have to wait for months to get a letter from my daughters. Sometime I become so upset that I want to leave all these and go back home. My daughters will probably be grown up girls when I get home."
The day when the troops left this place, I was not at home. When I returned, I saw Khupi-Rupi sitting very sadly. When I enquired about the reason, they said sadly, "Gora left today." "So what? He had to, sooner or later. He won't be able to win this war by playing and spending time with you." I took them inside. But their mood did not change. My sister brought a photo from inside. "What is this?"I asked. "The Gora gave this,"replied my sister. I looked at the photo; it was a photo of the Gora with two girls. They are sitting on his lap. One was about ten years old and the other slightly younger. They had golden hair.
May be they were Evalina and Daisy. "Is this Jesus Christ's picture?"my sister asked. "No it is a photo of Jesus Christ," I said. That night I could not sleep for a long time. Will the Gora be able to reach his home one day to see his grown up daughters?
Translated from Assamese by Mukut Borpujari
Courtesy: The Assam Tribune (2003)