Gaurav Deka is a writer from Guwahati, Assam. His fictions, poetry and reviews have been published in The Open Road Review, The Tenement Block Review, Café Dissensus, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Bombay Review, Anti-Serious, DNA-Out of Print, Northeast Review, and The Solstice Initiative, among others. His fiction “To Whom He Wrote From Berlin” won The Open Road Review Short Fiction Contest, 2014. He lives in Delhi, India.
“Dhon, you’re back? We’ve been waiting for you! Get into the car. We must leave immediately,” Maa exclaimed, shoving a suitcase into the back seat of our Red Wagon-R. She wore a green pator mekhela-chaador. It made a loud rustling noise as she hurried towards me, like dry kodom leaves being raked after a storm.
I had just returned from school and hadn’t even made it past the front gate of our house. Deuta was already behind the steering wheel, turning the key. From where I was, I could only see his back – stiff with charge as the engine jumped to life.
“But why…? Where?” I asked, flummoxed by the chaos.
“I’ll tell you on the way,” she said. “Just get into the car. Now! No need to change out of your uniform. We’re going to Senimara.”
On the way she told me that Bordeuta, my father’s elder brother, had suddenly disappeared from the house. Just before Deuta was leaving for office Bordeuta’s wife, Borma, had called. She had broken down over the phone and told Maa that for the last few days her periods had been irregular and she hadn’t been sleeping with her husband. Instead she had been sleeping in another room made of dried red-soil and thatched walls – on a bed of hay spread on the floor.
As custom dictates, during their periods women aren’t supposed to touch their husbands or their beds. They are allowed only to sleep on mats made of freshly raked hay from the cowshed. By morning, they are supposed to burn the hay; they can’t even feed it to the cattle. So, that morning after Borma completed this ritual, she went to her husband’s room, and found him missing. Normally she would take her regular post menstrual bath with cold water from the tube-well mixed with khar – water filtered through the ashes of a banana tree – to purify herself and thereafter put a grain of joha-rice in her mouth, before proceeding to her husband’s room. But that morning she had dreamt of the same jol-kuori, a water fairy, who, according to Borma, had once tried to kidnap Bordeuta and take him away to her land. She had appeared in Borma’s dreams again after many years, threatening to steal away her husband, promising that she’d be successful this time. As soon as she had opened her eyes, Borma had rushed to her husband’s room to check if he was still there; he wasn’t. It’s like he had vanished without a sound.
By the time we reached Senimara, it was beginning to get dark. The sky had turned watery-red, like my father’s eyes. He had driven the car through the length of the state without stopping, without having uttered a single word. It was summer, the air was dusty and the roads gleamed with brown-red mud. The A.C. was on full blast. I wondered how I would sleep at night in Senimara where the electricity supply is so poor. Every second hour there is ‘load shedding’, making the rooms smell like sweat-stained clothes.
When I was much younger, I used to visit this place – my grandfather’s house – every summer. Bordeuta would take me out to the paddy fields. There, he’d watch me play with the pigeons, chasing and running after them. Sometimes, I’d get to feed them rice grains. I used to even have nick names for them: Bhutki, Kengti, Tipsi and Koina. In the evening, he would take me out to the market and ask me to recite poems in English in front of his farmer friends. I would be embarrassed and shake my head from side to side. He would still coax me, promising to buy me gas-balloons if I recited the poems in front of his friends. On our way back, I clutched onto the balloons with my tiny fists. Just before entering my grandfather’s house, in the courtyard, I would loosen the threads and see them fly away, disappearing into the darkness. In the centre of the courtyard, a fire would be lit, where Borma and Putuli-Pehi baked potatoes and brinjals. I would sit down and ask Bordeuta where the balloons fly to. He’d tell me: “Porir ghoroloi”. The Fairy Land.
Borma wasn’t around when we arrived. She had gone out with Noren-Ka, her eldest son, to look for Bordeuta. I recognized a fire burning in the same place in the courtyard as my childhood. But there was no cooking anymore . A heap of metal weapons – machetes, spears, and knives – lay sprawled by its side. Thirty odd men sat in a circle around it, holding one another’s hand and whispering among themselves. When they saw Deuta, they stood up, like students rising quickly when a teacher enters the classroom. Putuli Pehi, my father’s unmarried sister, came out of the kitchen carrying cups of buffalo milk-tea on a brass plate and placed it near the heap of metal. Punakan-Ka, who worked with Bordeuta in the fields and who was still sitting by the fire, looked at her earnestly as she put the plate down silently and walked up to Maa. She took the suitcase from Maa’s hands, pulled out the remaining bags from the car and went inside. When Deuta called out her name, she reappeared and stood by the door for a moment. Her head hung low like a drooping banana plant. “Putuli, our brother…” His next words reduced to a falling quiver. Putuli-Pehi ran to him, fell at his feet and started wailing like a village widow going hysterical seeing her husband’s dead face.
Punakan-Ka dashed over to comfort her. Deuta too, tried to calm her down and pulled her up from the floor. He let Punakan-Ka take her to a corner and lean against a wall. Maa went into the kitchen and rushed out with a glass of water. Her mekhela rustling wildly behind her. She sprinkled a few drops on Putuli-Pehi’s head and made her drink the rest like one does with a child. Then a voice from the crowd yelled, “Bow, where were you? Any news of Dada? Did you find him?”
Borma was walking in through the bamboo gates of the backyard. She didn’t address the questions. She kept walking ahead, the betel-nut cracker dangling from her waist and her long grey hair loose on her shoulders. She sat at the edge of the veranda (separate from the men but close enough to hear them), careful not to touch anyone by mistake and exhaled a long, deep sigh. “I think he’s been taken by the jol-kuori,” she said. “The thing appeared in my dreams last night.”
Putuli-Pehi, gasped loudly. Few men from the group sucked their teeth and broke into a buzz. Others dashed to pick up their spears and machetes. Maa, still standing beside Putuli-Pehi, shrieked, joining her hands in prayer, “Ye Ram!” Deuta didn’t move, didn’t look at Borma or Maa either. He just stared into the fire and clicked his tongue, “Tch! Tch! Bow, which century are you from?” he scoffed. “What kind of mumbo-jumbo is all this?” Borma looked away, pulling the end of her chador to her face, wiping her moist eyes.
Punakan-Ka grabbed Deuta’s arm tightly and said, “No-No, Dada. That’s completely possible. There are such things. People living near the Kumho river have reported spotting jol-kuoris and Baaks.”
“What rubbish, Punakan?!”
“Dada, how can you forget?” Punakan-Ka exclaimed. “Everyone in the village knows how that malevolent ugly thing, that Baak, took away Talukdar’s son from near the river! He’d gone there fishing. The Bodo women who went to sell liquor in the evening saw him sinking into the water. His hands sticking out and shaking. And later, when they came to tell his wife, they saw him there sitting in the drawing room sipping tea. At once they knew it’s an imposter. The Baak is known to go back to the wife of the dead man, sleep with her, produce children and live with them for years in disguise, Dada. It was only Rekib-Bez who could drive that thing away using his sorcery, and that too after much toil.”
Deuta gave a wry laugh, “Tch! Tch! Punakan, you Dooms can never be cured. Good that we didn’t give our sister to you and turn her into another nutcase.”
Punakan-Ka scowled, flared his nostrils and hawked a large wad of spit on the ground. “Dada, we might not be descendents of bell-metal makers. Might be of lower caste. Might be fishermen. But we don’t let our sisters rot unmarried at the mercy of our dying mother and father and run to the town with our wives and children.”
“You filthy low class scum… how dare you?” Deuta barked, ready to pounce on him.
“Enough!” roared a voice. Deuta stopped and turned to the crowd. It was the Gaon-Bura, the village headman. He looked frail and grey, much older from when I had seen him as a child while reciting poems in the market. His face had twisted to the left side of his face. He plodded ahead with the machete in his hand and glared at Deuta.
“Nauman,” he addressed him in the local dialect, “my little brother, you may not believe in all these things. And rightly so,” he curled his lips. “You live in the city. How will you know what happens here? When your brother fell ill, we genuinely thought your city doctors could help him. It was I who asked him to go to you with Noren. But we all know what happened there. We all know how he was treated at your place. Like vermin!” He turned to look at Maa. She seemed to shift uncomfortably in her spot. “Your wife served him stale bhaat in steel plates on the same table where you people ate fish in bell-metal plates. We also got to hear how she gave him only black tepid tea, every morning, without milk and that too in the same unwashed steel glass every time. You people detested him just because his face had twisted and the doctors declared that he had an incurable disease. And you call us superstitious?” He turned back to Deuta. “And you, Nauman! You were his brother. His own blood. How could you just let him rot in that municipality hospital? When did you become this stone hearted man? We never thought you could do such things. It was us, his village friends, who asked him to come back than suffer such shame and humiliation.”
“That isn’t true, Gaon-Bura Daangoria. You can’t just blame me and my family without knowing the complete truth,” Deuta said, his eyes turning red and moist again. “He was diagnosed with oral cancer. Only we know how it felt. We couldn’t tell anyone. Couldn’t disclose it to Noren or Bow or anyone here. All the people who kept calling, asking me stupid questions about how long my brother would live now. We tried our best to hide it from him. We kept him in that hospital only because the doctors assured us that they could remove the tumour by surgery. But then God knows how he came to know of it and then suddenly decided to leave the hospital and come back here. When I asked him, he only said he didn’t want to be a burden on us anymore.”
“Precisely my point,” the Gaon-Bura said. “Why did he have to feel that he was a burden on you people? Just because you people made him feel that way.”
“Well, I can’t help it if you think that,” Deuta sighed. “But come what may, I will never believe that he was taken by a jol-kuori or a ghost. You people are just being imbeciles here, wasting your time by making such foolish conjectures.”
“We aren’t making any conjectures,” Punakan-Ka interjected angrily. Two men came running to his side lest he hurled himself at Deuta. He waved a hand at them as if dismissing an argument. “We all went in tow and searched the entire village. When we didn’t find him anywhere we decided to check the banks of Kumho. There, one of the Bodo women told us that she’d seen him last night sitting by the sand, under a betel nut tree. He sat there plucking at the leaves, completely unmindful of what he was doing as if waiting for someone to come and take him, she said.”
“And that’s your prize witness?” Deuta snickered and shook his head. “A dim-witted Bodo woman who sells liquor on the banks of the river and sleeps with the fishermen! Anything she’d say you’ll believe, right? Did you ever check how inebriated she was?”
“Nauman, why don’t you believe us for once?” the Gaon-Bura snapped. His face contorted into an ugly frown. “I myself have been a victim. What more proof do you want?” He started beating his chest with his fist. “Look at me! See my face! How do you think this happened? That cruel jol-kuori tried to take me away too. She dragged me to the river. When I resisted, she beat me up so badly that my face became distorted, you see, like your brother’s.”
But Bordeuta’s face had become twisted because of the cancerous tumour pressing on his facial nerve, that’s what the doctors had said. Or maybe not. What about this man confessing the story of his twisted face? Was he lying? In front of all these people? In such a grave situation? I felt a rush of cold-air suddenly sucking at my chest, making me breathless. Deuta didn’t say anything. He only looked at Maa who was sighing in despair. Punakan-Ka sat there holding his head and pressing his temples hard. Maa and Putuli-Pehi still sat near Borma. Putuli-Pehi rubbed her back as Borma sobbed into the corner of her chador. Maa looked at Deuta and gestured for him to continue remaining silent. She put her hand around Borma’s shoulder and for the first time spoke to her, “Bow, tell us the whole story. What happened exactly?”
Borma wiped her nose and stood up to tell the crowd how she had always known of jol-kuoris kidnapping married handsome men from the village. Some twenty-five years ago, she said, around the time her father had gone to Guwahati to pursue his studies, Bordeuta had to go to the paddy fields alone. He had no helper in those days and had to work long hours in the fields under the sun. He didn’t have time to come back home for lunch or any rest. He would ask Borma to cook some joha rice in the morning so that he could carry it to the fields wrapped in a dried banana leaf with some salt and lemon. After eating it, he would lie down for a while under the shade of a kodom tree before resuming ploughing and sowing. This went on for a month, until one day he came back from the fields, shaking and shivering all over, and asked Borma to sit near him for a while. He put his head on her lap and curled up like a foetus, with his hands on his chest. When Borma asked him what the matter was, he confessed that a beautiful girl had been visiting him every afternoon over the course of the past week. She’d stand by the kodom tree and talk to him, asking him if he found her beautiful and if he’d like to marry her. When Bordeuta told her that he was already married with three sons, she asked him if he was ready to leave them for her. When Bordeuta declined, she only smiled and told him that come what may, he had to marry her. She’d soon take him away to her land. Borma immediately realized that the girl wasn’t a human. She had already known of jol-kouris capable of taking any human form and beguiling men in order to take them away.
The next day, she did not allow Bordeuta to go to the fields. Instead, in the wee hours of the morning, both of them went to the house of Rekib Bez, the village witch doctor, and told him the entire story. Rekib Bez, without showing much curiosity, asked Bordeuta to take off his shirt and turn his back to him. When he did so, Rekib Bez pressed an empty bell-metal plate to his back and summoned it to remain there. As Borma watched, she saw the plate getting stuck to his back. It was as if he had applied some invisible glue on it. He then asked Bordeuta to sit straight and started chanting into the plate, sprinkling water on it from a brass pot. After some time, he called Borma and asked her to look into the plate. What Borma saw made her legs go numb. It was a naked green-coloured creature that looked like a human with scales all over its body and long wing-like fins for hands and legs. It had the face of a human girl and it seemed to be looking straight into Borma’s eyes.
When the plate finally came off, Rekib Bez told Borma that it was a jol-kuori trying to seize her husband. But she needn’t worry anymore. The plate had sucked her into itself and now she could never do any harm to Bordeuta.
Photo by Moz Rauf
“But after so many years, I saw the same jol-kuori in my dream threatening to take my husband away,” Borma continued. “I somehow knew I would not be able to save him this time.”
It was beginning to lighten up in the east. The fire was slowly dying and all the men gathered around it had picked up their spears, knives and machetes, preparing to leave. Perhaps, by now they had already given in to fate. They were convinced that Bordeuta, indeed, had been abducted by a water fairy and there was no way they could retrieve him. Deuta, however, was nowhere to be seen. He had left midway during Borma’s story, not wanting to hear the rest of it. He didn’t want to believe in anything that reminded him of his underprivileged childhood: the poverty, illiteracy, and ignorance that his family lived in, and the realization that he too was a part of it. It was only when the sun had finally come out, and all of us had retired to our respective rooms and houses, that he came back, carrying Bordeuta’s dead body slouched on his shoulders. And stood in the courtyard, screaming like a wild animal.
He had found his brother hanging from a noose fastened to a tall, thick branch of the only hollong tree in the backyard. Bordeuta’s eyes were still open and his tongue was hanging out of the side of his mouth that had deviated to the left side of his face. When Deuta knelt down and placed the body on the ground, screaming louder than before, hitting his head with his own hands, Maa rushed to hold him back. Deuta pushed her aside and slumped to the ground, crying and beating the hard earth with his fists. The thick brown rope still lay coiled around Bordeuta’s reddened face. He didn’t look dead at all with his eyes open. I walked up to Deuta and sat near him. My eyes failed to move from the rope around Bordeuta’s neck and I felt my voice dying into a choke. I moved closer to Deuta and held his head on my lap. As he sobbed, I rubbed his head and tears began to run down my own cheeks. After a moment he looked up at me, clenched his teeth and whispered, “I killed him, Dhon. I killed him.”
Then he dug his face back into my thighs and muffled his howls. Maa stood frozen, unable to move from the veranda. Putuli Pehi ran out crying and shouting to call Borma and Noren-Ka. By then Punakan-Ka had come back with the group of men and they all gathered in the courtyard. They no longer had weapons with them. Nor the fear of being killed by a ghost or a fairy. They only stood there, glued to their spots, and didn’t come near. As if summoned into a charm by the witch doctor, staring aghast at the dead body and at my father gasping with guilt.