GOLAM (Slave)

"When, in the months of November and December, it begins to snow in Guwahati, the little children go wild with joy. The streets, the rooftops, the flowers and trees, the vehicles, are all covered with snow. It is as if the entire city is clad in an apparel of endless white; the whole world enveloped in translucent white light. Sometimes the waters of the ponds become frozen. Wearing crampons and colourful caps, the children rush out of their homes excitedly, carrying their skis, sledges and roller skates with them. Flinging snowballs playfully at each other, they giggle and fall on the slippery snow. Sometimes they go skiing on the more sloping areas of the city. The water in the swimming pool in the front-yard of Ronju and Anju's house freezes, and the snow that has fallen in it throughout the night has made it even with the rest of the yard. Gleefully, Anju and Ronju skate across the pool. A sloping patch in the front-yard which has filled up with snow has made it possible for Runumi to push her little sister around in a wooden box which has casters attached to it. And we, our jackets buttoned up to our necks, have come out to watch the snow. The sharp, frosty morning breeze pricks our cheeks and ears like needles. Snowflakes, light as cotton-balls, fall on our faces and clothes and begin to melt. Over there, a few boys are making a snowman. And, out there, Herr Barua has opened the white, snow-covered gate and has stepped outside it. Around his neck hangs a bright blue muffler. He is looking for his car that he had parked in front of the house. But the car, embedded in the snow, looks more like an Eskimo's igloo. Ach! How will he get into the car now? Frau Barua waves goodbye at Herr Barua and peers into the letterbox. But that, too, is covered with white snow. Frau Barua rubs and warms her hands on her apron and proceeds to scoop the snow out from the letterbox ..."


Frau Mueller read this portion of my German essay aloud. She took off her ancient pair of spherical glasses and exclaimed: "Wonderful! Looks like there's not a single grammatical error here. Very impressive! Hmm." Then she continued, a little hesitatingly: "But ... I'd no idea it snowed in your country like it does here." Frau Mueller reached out for the huge globe that stood among the books on the crowded table. She gave it a brisk twirl and peered at what was India. "I was right ... the Equator runs below - the Torrid Zone - Assam ... Assam ... Ach! Here it is! Now, where's Guwahati?... ummm ... Guwahati ... well, looks like it isn't ..."

"It's not marked on the globe, I guess," I said hurriedly. "Here ... here's Shillong - the capital - on the hills, quite cold there ... a little below it lies Guwahati ..."

In a bid to dodge Frau Mueller's question, I quickly embarked on a description of the hills of Shillong: "The land of the Khasis - winding, hilly roads, like those villages in the hilly regions of Bavaria. Streams and gorges, and pine trees - like your Tanne trees - huge waterfalls that are used to produce electricity. Weather cold or pleasant; popular tourists spot during summer. About a hundred kilometres by car from the plains. But the one-way traffic is an inconvenience. And yet ..."

"Hmm... hmm," Frau Mueller nodded her head - covered liberally with white hair - and listened earnestly (though with a feeling of surprise) to my words. Then, she proceeded to mark certain parts of my essay with a blue pencil.

I have been sent to this lady of the Pedagogisches Institut (a teaching institute) by the German business-management (or business-administration) firm, which I had joined on a "training course" and which has brought me here to Germany. To take a test on my proficiency in the German language. As of now, I am still a novice. Once I pass this test, I shall be duly employed as a Beamter or regular employee. At the end of my training, I shall be awarded a diploma.


Frau Mueller said that she had read a lot about Japan and India, and that she had a great desire to visit India some day. God willing, she would like to see the country some day. And she would like to take along her children Gretchen and Fritz - to show them the fabled lands of the east (not to collect diplomas, though). The lady was rather mature in age, but she seemed to possess a boundless appetite for adventure and enjoyment.

"Na ja, Herr So-and-so! I must admit that your piece has baffled me. Your German revisions and sentence-constructions are quite appropriate. But there are a couple of elementary mistakes that are quite unpardonable - they would throw a schoolboy into fits of laughter. And yet, this piece is ..."

There was a pall of incredulity on her sanguine, affectionate face.

"Na ja! As a matter of fact, it's a good piece. Anyway, it was a pleasure knowing you."

Picking up a few pieces of coal from a bin that stood in a corner of the room, she tossed them into the firepot. As she stoked the embers, perhaps she suddenly recalled that I came from a tropical country.

"You must have felt rather cold when you'd first arrived here, didn't you? But then ... going by the description in your essay ..."

Once again, a faint line of bewilderment surfaced on her forehead. And then it disappeared.

"I hope the room is warm enough for you. You may take off your coat if you're feeling too warm ..."

"Thank you, Frau Mueller," I said. Now that I had her permission, I took off my coat and hung it on the back of the chair.

Bending her head over my essay, she made a few notes on the pages. And then, jotting down a comment, said:

"Tell me something ... this affair called ‘Business-Management' - of course, I know nothing about these things - but don't they teach such courses in your country? You see ... you had to come all the way here to Germany to obtain a diploma ... I mean ..."

She raised her head and continued: "I mean ... I'm told that our business and trade policies and procedures differ from those of other European countries. Then ... surely they will be very different from those of Asian countries. Of what use would your diploma be to your country?"

What could I say by way of a reply? All I knew was that I had to get hold of the diploma somehow. And go back to my country to wave it in front of my people. A diploma from Germany! Promotion guaranteed! The first few years I'd not be able to buy myself a piece of land, or even a car. But at least I will have returned, wouldn't I? After all, they have all "returned" - Ram, Shyam, Jadu - for various reasons, all in one piece. Otherwise, wasn't life useless? Futile? So why should I grieve over my impending departure? Had I owned a piece of land, I'd have had it mortgaged. Had I been brilliant, I'd have managed a scholarship. Well, since all this wasn't to be, I've flattered "those kinds" of people, taken leave-without-pay from my job back home, and, finally, here I am! If I could just about manage to spend these few remaining months...

But Frau Mueller would never understand these things. So I told her briefly: "It would help in fetching me a job."

"Oh, I see!" She replied, still confused. And then, as if to wind up this tedious topic, she gathered the pages together and, setting them aside, said:

"Fine! I'll try and send my report on your language-test immediately. Congratulations!"

So that means I've passed the test!

"Thank you, Frau Mueller!"

She told me that she would be very happy to know what the Rieckmann und Rieckmann Company had in store for me.

"Sure, I'll let you know," I replied - a raise of a hundred-and-fifty marks at one go - and, pretending to lift the coat, I proceeded to rise from the chair.

"Anyway," said Frau Mueller, glancing at her wristwatch, "it will be almost twenty minutes till my next candidate walks in. An Iranian fellow, is here to train in the management of oil pipelines. An absolute green - hasn't done a whit of the assignment I'd given him, I'm sure..." She looked again at her wristwatch. "It's time for the 11 o'clock coffee break ... ummm ... may I offer you a cup of coffee? ("Thank you, Frau Mueller!") ... Well, now that this hassle over the language-test is over, you will be able to wind up your work here and, God willing, return home in six months' time. You must be quite homesick here. Well, what's your family back home like? ..."

I remembered the day of my departure...

 It has rained hard all through that month - almost incessantly. And the narrow path that led from our house in that interior part of the city to the main street - the path where no vehicle or rickshaw could ply - has become a veritable river-in-spate. So we make our bare-foot "office boy" carry my belongings, while my brother and I take off our shoes and socks, roll up the ends of our trousers, and prepare ourselves to cross the "ditch". My two sisters are used to walking on that narrow path everyday, their mekhelas hitched slightly up, their sandals in their hands. But that day I don't allow them to accompany me and see me off to the main street. Reason one being, once I get onto the taxi, they would start howling - extremely embarrassing, such situations! - - and, consequently, I would be unnecessarily delayed. Reason two: with the rains our house has been invaded by all kinds of creatures - tiny frogs, snails, various kinds of insects and bugs, and a whole assortment of hairy caterpillars and scorpions. Both of them have been stung by those scorpions, their hands red and swollen, and with those blobs of lime on their ears - that ready remedy for such stings - they looked quite a sight!

A third reason: I have often seen young children squat naked in rows by that dry pond at the back of our locality (wonder what the grown-ups did!). They are the  children of unscrupulous, callous people who have dirtied the area with all kinds of trash - dilapidated shacks where they made wooden chairs and tables, heaps of rotting vegetables, kiosks where they have set up business selling cheap plastic stuff, wallets, goggles, and hawaii-chappals - utterly oblivious to their surroundings. And now that the rains have waterlogged our lane, its numerous potholes have filled up with innumerable dubious stuff, and among the various foul stench emanating from it, a stale, damp malodour .... No way! Their feet would fester with sores.

I bowed and touched the feet of my mother, my father, and of a couple of elders who have come to say goodbye. I can see my mother wiping her eyes with the ends of her sador and hear her sniffing loudly. Perhaps she has caught a cold, now that the kitchen walls are damp with endless spatterings of water and sundry other things. There, I can see the roof leaking at a particular spot. (Come the rains, and Mother begins to lose her cool. The enclosure where the maid washes the used utensils is surrounded by water on all sides. The utensils remain unwashed in a heap in the kitchen). In between her sobs Mother looks anxiously at her bare feet, her hands clasping the curtain. (She is petrified of centipedes - apparently her body goes into paroxysms of fright when she sees one - and now, at this moment a thousand Centipede-Expresses are in motion all over the room. At the slightest feel of something on her feet, she leaps and lets out a terrified squeal - "Help! What's that thing over there?" she screams). Father , his socks-clad feet in chappals, bids me goodbye - last-minute counsel, do's and don'ts (he is a retired teacher). A hookah in his hand, his voice coarse. Father suffers from rheumatic ache and, in times like this, his temper is as irritable as a school-matron's. And, to top it all, this dim, damp and tiny room - in fact, this entire house - is infested with mosquitoes that buzz in his ears, with bugs that bite him wherever he sits, and he raves and rants at every hint of disorderliness. Scratching himself all over, he pulls at his hookah. I guess it's only after I will have left, after my sisters and others will have gone away, when, finally, Mother will be able to serve him slices of mango and a cup of tea in solitude, will Father's grim voice shed a bit of its harshness. But not for long, I'm afraid. For, the moment he draws the cup to his lips, there shall be a fly sitting there, and over the mango-slices shall hover a swarm of houseflies. He shall refrain from venturing out in the evening (how could he possibly navigate the sea outside?) and, instead, with a frown on his face, light a lamp and settle down to read the Asom Bani : rains damage crops at such-and-such a place. Floods, floods, floods! Famines here, epidemics there, outbreak of cholera elsewhere Therefore, spiralling prices of food-grains. Rains wear away roads, destroy bridges, make roads unnegotiable. Passengers stranded in bus terminals and railway stations that have become virtual oceans. Rickshaw-pullers flee the scene. Trains, post and telegraph systems, road communications, all come to a grinding halt. Crowds of people who have lost their homes or the thatched roofs of their houses. Etc, etc ... a few of the major headlines. And "The Varshamangal Festival" being organized by the Madhugunjan Cultural Club at the District Library Auditorium will be inaugurated by celebrated Academy Award-winner....

My brother Niren goes to college. Like his fellow honey-seekers of the Madhugunjan tribe, he, too, is of the romantic sort. I can well imagine what he will be up to after he has seen me off to the airport. He will hitch up his pyjamas (stained by mud-sprays from passing vehicles) , curse the Municipality, and walk into our lane. As he would take the lane, his glance will fall on the spanking new house of Manik Babu, our Ward Councillor. And, shooting his regular sinister look at it, he will hurl his choicest abuse in that direction (for, by some miraculous design, the approach to Manik Babu's house was the only navigable part of our locality). Here endeth all social obligations. But, petty matters, these. Then just about managing to reach home, he will take off his pyjamas and kurta, slip into my sister's sandals, ask her to fetch him a cup of tea, and walk into his room. I am not sure whether, at the requirement of “The Varshamangal Festival,” he will reach for the poems of Sanchayita on the bookshelf (would depend on his mood then) wherein it is stated that in our country the serene, ever-youthful rainy season is incomparably beautiful, exquisite, without par, a time when "the rain keeps falling, quiet and incessant", while we youngsters, mired in deep sorrow, sit across one another, staring at each other's faces like fools (perhaps because we couldn't step outdoors). (And now we may safely keep our eyes and ears shut. After all, since people abroad have labelled him a great poet, we may certainly believe whatever he says to be the Truth: how beautiful our country is! How clean and full of placidity! A tranquil, peaceful land of dreams! With the onset of the monsoons, every city, village, street, the forests, become that much more clean and lovely. And incomparably so!)

Of course its consequent dilemma would be something like that of my essay ... there goes Niren Dutta to the District Library ... Ach! Will he manage to hold on to his sartorial dignity till he reaches the main street?

*                *                *

I sipped the coffee. Ah! It was delicious! And now, finally, my dreams were coming true. I must send some money home next month, maybe about 300-400 marks. So that the walls of my father's room and the leaking roof in my mother's may be fixed a bit.

Once I get back home, I must request Manik Babu to help me repair the approach to our house and maybe dig a couple of drains (have them covered if possible) - make an attempt (that's the least I could do - otherwise it would cause great inconvenience to us, to my sisters). The rest of the locality is outside my ken. And why should one person bear all responsibility? After all, I had "burnt all my ships" to come to Germany. I haven't come here all the way only to go back home and worry my head out about other people's problems, have I? I am no fool!

It was now time for the Iranian guy to come into the room. Frau Mueller rose from her chair, shook my hand, and couldn't help remarking that my piece entitled "A Description of My City," my German Aufsatz, was absolutely to her liking, totally devoid of mistakes, very apt - the work of a mature hand. Had she been aware of this before, she would have asked me to write a longer (and more difficult) piece - say, something like ... if we took up the following topic - "A Description of My City After the Snow Melts"...

I fervently began counting my stars, but couldn't help breaking into a smile.

"More or less like in our country, it seems ... at least from what I can gather from your Aufsatz," said Frau Mueller after some thought, running her fingers through her white strands. "The melting snow, the red rooftops, the details of things, the gradual disappearance of snow from trees and roads and the surroundings, things revealing themselves in their true forms, once again the stirring of life... Of course, at first, the dust, the mud and the melting snow create a dirty slush - at places one can see shallow puddles of water. Of course the snowploughs will arrive soon and within a few hours will scrape everything clean. (Now that the city-fathers have taken the responsibility of keeping the city clean, there's no need for the ordinary citizen to worry over such matters). There are parts of the city, though, where those huge vehicles cannot ply. But, by the grace of the Almighty, we have been able to make alternative arrangements. For instance, my house is on a narrow lane named Klinkerfussgasse - have you ever been there? - it runs by the Jakobi Church. These huge vehicles can not ply there. So the snow in front of our house is shovelled by my two children. And, since our neighbours are old and have no young, able-bodied persons to help them, I've told Gretchen and Fritz to clear the approach to their houses, too. Anyway ... I guess you do the same ..."

Somehow I managed to hang on to my smile, and, with a slight nod of the head, kept listening to her. I thought - if I ever have children, I will give my "Gretchen" in marriage to somebody who has been to this country. My "Fritz" I shall send here to earn a diploma. And here Frau Mueller talks about getting the children to clean up other people's houses. Is she all that daft? The snow has ceased to fall - rather, the rains have stopped. Will I, I wonder, ever be able to write about the glorious self-revelation of our roads, of the drains in our city? About the stirring of Life in our pock-marked lane, in the slums of the refugee-colony near the pond behind our house (I shall refrain from talking about the stench). No, I shall not be able to write for this lady an Aufsatz on these things. For, to tell the truth, I do not have enough knowledge of the German language to do so. I guess what I have done is rather obvious: I have pinched everything from an essay - "Snowfall in Our City" - which I had found in an old Anglo-German book entitled German in Easy Steps.

 Only, I have changed the name of the city and replaced "Our City" with "Guwahati."

Saurabh Kumar Chaliha
translated from the Assamese by Liza Das