First year exams keep Debraj and Shankar away from home. What makes the situation worse is that it is the month of Bohaag and Bihu celebrations are taking place all round.
By Dr. Saumya Shankar Chowdhury
Debraj and Shankar woke up to the buzzing of mosquitoes near their ears. There was no electricity. It was expected. In hot April months in Dibrugarh there was load shedding every two hours. Debraj and Shankar had joined the Pharmacy course a year back and stayed in Santipara on rented accommodation, as the hostel rooms allotted to them were under repair and the ragging by seniors in the makeshift hostel in Khalihamari near the police reserve was too harsh for them.
They paid a rent of Rs 400 and in the 90s, it was pretty economical. Over and above, they spent an amount of Rs 300 each on rations and kerosene for the pump stove. Debraj came from a business family in the tea town of Golaghat, a distance of around 180 kms from Dibrugarh. The business at one time was good if not thriving and they could afford to send the younger son to Dibrugarh for a diploma in Pharmacy. He would then open a chemist shop.
Shankar came from a remote village in Lakhimpur where annual floods did away with most of the crops and livestock. Inspired by the thought that there was no medicine shop in five villages in their neighborhood, and after failing to get admitted in college for a Science degree, he decided to join the pharmacy course. And Shankar agreed that he had nothing better to do.
Dibrugarh had opened to them new vistas- a cosmopolitan culture, a huge market, smartly dressed people, cinema theatres, book stores, cloth merchants, glittering wine shops and new ideas. Shankar, who came from a poor farming family and hardly been to any decent town save Lakhimpur a few times, was more impressed.
They soon realized that the town was divided into two categories of people. Those who were associated with the medical profession and those who were not! They were happy most of the time, more so as there was peace after classes with no seniors to rag them.
But this April both were sad. Sad because it was the month of Bohaag. Bihu celebrations were everywhere and they were away from home. They had to appear in the first year examinations. The college was closed for Bihu and they had very less time to prepare for the exams.
They missed the fun and the frolic of the Husori, the late musical nites with orchestra playing into the wee hours of the morning, the bonhomie with their childhood friends, the mobile theatre, the stares into the kohl laden eyes of the potential winners in the Bihu Kunwori contest; the smiles and the dimples in those cheeks which would transport both 18-year olds to a different world; the smell of new clothes. And countless other yearnings!
The mosquito bites notwithstanding, both talked about their dreams to each other and with great reluctance Shankar offered to make tea and Debraj volunteered to ride his cousin’s Raleigh bicycle to get a couple of freshly baked patties for a rupee each from the cheap bakery in Bansbari.
He would get a loaf of cheap moldy bread for their morning breakfast and then both would munch puffed rice with green chilies and mustard oil while preparing for their first year university exams – the main reason why both could not travel to their respective homes as the exams were to be held in the last week of the month of April or the middle of Bohaag.
By the time the tea was made and the puffed rice mixed with salt and some mustard oil for the evening snacks to nourish their weak brains during the study session, Debraj was back with the patties and bread. The tea was too sweet and smelt of kerosene. But they had had worse teas before. Shankar apologized and suggested that he add some ginger. Both agreed. Meanwhile a fierce wind was blowing.
The electricity was yet to be restored. Debraj managed to light a mosquito coil while Shankar had lit the only lantern in the room. He was bare chested and sweaty due to the high humidity. Shankar put the mosquito net and got inside as it was too hot to keep a cloth to cover the upper part of the body above the waist. The mosquitoes would be kept at bay for the time being.
Adjusting his shorts, he gulped the sweetened-ginger-laced-kerosene smelling tea and munched at the patties and kept the bowl of puffed rice aside. The wind was howling outside as Debraj fastened the hooks on the door and shut the windows tight. The glow from the lantern flickered in the wind and with difficulty they tried to concentrate on their lessons. The main paper was a day away and they had to make the most of it.
Barely had they got to the end of the first couple of chapters that the wind gave away to rain. It was fierce and strong. The gentle pitter patter of the raindrops on the tin roofs turned to a crescendo. The rain was pouring and the wind threatened to force open the wooden windows. The door came ajar a couple of times before Debraj pushed a heavy stool against the door.
They caught a glimpse of the flooded courtyard and the rain pouring in torrents in the small verandah. They studied some more before the lantern flickered and died away. With an umbrella, Shankar went to the small kitchen in one corner of the verandah. The rain lashed at him.
One of the windows was open and the dal and potato curry cooked during daytime and kept separate in two utensils had spilled on the floor. Shankar cursed himself. He went to the edge of the verandah and peed in the courtyard in the darkness, looking at the locked doors, annoyed that the other tenants were fortunate enough to go home for Bihu.
Shankar grabbed the tin of puffed rice and the loaf of bread. There was water in a pitcher in the room. The box of matches was wet and he couldn’t possibly go out in the rain to get one. He had recovered from pneumonia last winter and couldn’t risk it again. He had to be serious about the exam.
He fastened the window in the kitchen, locked the door and returned to the room. Debraj had in vain tried to light the lantern with the small ember from the mosquito coil. Both cursed their planning as they had slept during the day and had not prepared for the exams then. Now, they had no light. No matchstick to light the stove for a rice and mashed potato meal. The electricity was not going to be restored for atleast a couple of days.
Both decided to eat puffed rice, drink water and sleep early. They talked some more in the darkness about the timing of the exams; Bihu, which they were keenly missing and the various Bihu song and dance performances in town, which they could not attend. They were silent for some time and agreed not to discuss the Bohaag Bihu that Bohaag and gear up to prepare for an unseen future from the next day.
The heat had reduced considerably due to the rains. The pitter patter raindrops came like a lullaby, lulling them to a dreamless sleep and by the time the rooster sounded in the morning, both awoke rested and fresh, ready to tackle their lessons. The rain had stopped but the surroundings were flooded.
Debraj and Shankar studied almost the entire day. They took a small break to take turns cooking a simple meal of boiled potatoes, egg and rice. They spent the barest minimum time on ablutions and had tea a couple of times. The rain came again in the afternoon and it was as heavy if not heavier than the previous evening.
Both were tired and had an early frugal supper of the leftovers from the midday meal. Both were gently snoring even as the water of the mighty Brahmaputra found its way into Dibrugarh and inundated the Medical College in the other part of the town, which also housed the Pharmacy Institute.
Early next morning, both dressed and set off for the Pharmacy Institute. Collecting their admit cards, pen and pencil, both took their umbrellas and wore chappals instead of their sole pair of leather shoes which would surely see their last day of usage in the flood waters. Both rolled their trousers upto their knees and braved the water logged roads.
Their contents were neatly wrapped in a cellophane paper and put in a plastic bag. Debraj pedaled the bicycle furiously in the rain but water on the road made it difficult to ride smoothly. Shankar who sat pillion with the plastic bag in one hand, held the umbrella for the duo. He could feel his clothes getting drenched.
They hit a patch of road near Thana Chariali which was not flooded and in the sparse traffic they smoothly negotiated the road upto Khalihamari. At this point, Debraj usually took a short cut to Graham Bazar through the police reserve but on that day it was nigh impossible. They were facing the river.
In a split second decision both agreed to keep the bicycle locked at Mrs. Saikia’s house. Debraj knew her as a familiar face from his daily rides to and fro to the institute. The lady smiled and agreed to the proposal and wished them luck. Now they would have to wade through the water waist deep and avoid the drains. There might be snakes.
As they were contemplating on their next move, Shankar waved to a boatman who was fishing. He shouted to him in the rain, requesting him to ferry them to Graham Bazar from where they would catch a rickshaw. The boatman laughed saying that he had ventured out to catch fish and had plied his boat on this road after a decade.
But Shankar pleaded and persisted with the boatman for a full 15 minutes. The boatman sighed and yielded on the condition that one of the boys would have to row the boat and that a sum of Rs 50 was to be paid in advance.
Between the two, both emptied their pockets to collect Rs 35. They were losing precious time as Shankar was ranting about the large heartedness of the Assamese people in times of distress and that he would pay the remaining amount the following day. The boatman finally yielded when Debraj gave his bicycle key and pointed in the direction of the house where he had parked it.
They rowed the boat by turns but it was Shankar who was the expert rower. He faced the ravage of the floods annually back home and rowed his family possessions every year to safety. It was almost 15 minutes to nine by the time they met the crossing on Graham Bazar. Water had receded somewhat and they could walk a few hundred meters on the road towards Paltan Bazar.
The boatman pocketed another Rs 20 and left, much to the glee of the delighted duo who would have to haul a cycle rickshaw to reach the Institute in the Medical College campus. Managing to get one, they urged the rickshaw puller to pedal fast and paid him a tenner, which was surely above the normal rate. The rickshaw puller smelt of cheap liquor and pedaled in a trance as they reached the institute building,10 minutes later than the appointed time.
Not a soul was in sight. They rushed to the examination hall and found it locked. Both panicked. Debraj felt sick. He checked the routine. Surely it was the correct day for the exam. He remembered copying it a couple of weeks back. They went to the block where the office of the administrator was housed. A bored looking guard left even as they waved out to him.
A few scraps of paper were lying on the verandah near the nearly empty notice board. The office was locked. Shankar got hold of a few and began to read them absent mindedly. He smiled sadly. It was an office order, dated a few days back. From the few lines which were readable, it was sufficiently clear that the notice had been issued almost 10 days back and that the examinations for the first year were postponed till June on the orders of the District Authority for there was a warning on floods in Dibrugarh.
Illustration by Sid Ghosh
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Dr. Chowdhury is an avid writer, who in his professional life is a medico for the past 20 years, currently with a Central government Public Sector Undertaking. His first anthology of short stories, Barak To Doyang, was published by the National Library, Guwahati, in 2012. Besides writing, he has a keen interest in music.