Guilt Bag

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By Rupanjali Baruah
The eyelids are heavy, the corners pull to keep him awake in spite of his wish to fall asleep. His nose is moist with the morning mist but he must ignore it and be more attentive to his two eyes only, they must not become obtrusive in what he is about to to do in a few minutes. The sheaves of rice grains will be quite soft and tame, they will easily receive the slash of the sickle of his left hand. His gaze falls however on something else; a loathsome thing with eyes that are looking at him rather balefully. This is pathetic; it should not have come into his view, not now at least. He turns glaring at the creature and curses under his breath and says, “Don’t look so sad, my dear, I am tense too, aren’t we always in such situations?” He does not wait for its answer, its silence compensate in a more loud decibels than what it would have said in a long desultory speech. He turns away and moves quickly to be away from its insolent gaze. Somehow this creature made him think of other things.

“Damn!” he mutters again, “it took my thoughts away from the rice grains.”

He walks through the thin partings in the furrowed field full of the heavy smell of ripening crop. He looks back to see if the creature is following him; he is nowhere in sight. It is probably still sitting on the green edge of this field. Too soon in fact he has left it, this mere white haired dog that it is. He could have whistled and it would have come along. This early morning emptiness is too much to bear all alone, even a silent creature like this dog would have eaed it. If he had patted its curly head, maybe it would have run alongside him.

He stumbles against something, a stray can and two glass bottles, debris of sorts left behind by someone, useless things perhaps of the previous night. Interruptions again. He kicks them vehemently and moves ahead. He is at an area shaded by a large tree. He doesn’t know its name, probably a lime tree, its leaves look warm and friendly. He picks up a pale flower and smells it, it is intensely sweet-smelling. It unknots him and eases his worries about the inadvertent delays. Unforgivable delays. Time ticks on, still he has not begun what he has come to do here in someone else’s rice field. He kneels and believes that thousands of rice grains will soon be at his feet, he will fill his bag quickly and carry it back to his granary. No one should know about it.

Suddenly he feels jarred, does not know why. Somewhere a bell tolls the hour, it is early for others to leave their beds. In another hour or so though they will awake and come to the field, this place will become full of noises of feet moving hereabout on dry grass and weeds.

He walks ahead a little more quickly, looking for ripe heads of crop. He is impatient to lacerate them as fast as he could, with the instrument in his hand. He wants to think of nothing else now, his eyes must see only the golden things scattered on this patch of rice field. The grains in fact impel him to go to them, fill them inside the cup of his two hands and unfill them inside the large gunny bag hung on his back. He picks up one small grain, crushes it gingerly between his teeth; it is dry and tasteless, but when these grains are sieved, weaned and cooked in hot boiling water, he will then certainly savor a full second helping of this same thing during his next mealtime. He slurps back the trickle of mouth-water gathering surreptitiously at the right edge of his lips as he thinks of eating.

He had planned this about a week ago on a sultry evening when he saw his neighbor’s son heave a heavy bag of rice grains from the rice field to the granary next door. He had not noticed the full swollen bag of rice but the bits of rice grains that had escaped from a mere slit in the bag which made a long thin trail on the ground. He wanted those grains, they belonged to no one, and so they might as well belong to him. And just then the idea had struck him, there will be more lecheries, this is what they called those sheaves of grains lying waste on the rice field. Perhaps there will be more than he will be able to carry home in one single day.

He sorts out the grain from the husk, they outnumber ten to six. ‘Never mind’ he reassures himself, ‘I must take what I want. The bag is almost full now.’ The weight increases minute by minute and his happiness too grows heavy with it. He loosens his fist, suddenly his back slumps too and again his eyes want to sleep. His back stiffens, it will remain so until he puts this bag in the safety of his granary floor. He will carry this guilt bag only once.

A sound approaches. He crouches behind a low bush, some sharp thistles eat into his flesh. He is not alone, not anymore. His single hope dies awkwardly, nothing but fear stays with him. He hears someone hum, a woman’s voice, it rises in spirals over his head. He is unable to see the face of his intruder; this is what she is, walking into an area which in the last half hour or so is his own domain. He cannot allow her to trespass or take away what he has seized as his own.

He begins to think of measuring his means of escape. He has no one to share this with, not even that god-damned dog. He curses unnecessarily again. He must make his own case of defense before this unknown woman, perhaps with easy vocabulary, simple innuendoes to expunge a misdeed. And his bag of rice? He may have to beg her to let him keep it or at least borrow the bag at a price. He cannot think about the consequences too far beyond this. He listens, there is nothing, the hum of a song too is gone.

He shrugs that thought aside and instead replaces the bag of grains on his back and walks the way he came. The husks crackle under his feet. A smell rises and mixes with the pollens of the lime tree. He is too tired, almost dead-fingered, they are of no use to pick up that single grain of rice at his feet. He has enough in his bag, he will not need to scrabble for grains again or so he believes.

His hunger will soon plod him back to the rice field with the same guilt bag slung on his back.

The creature with the curly white hair sits where he had left it, his eyes still look balefully at him.

(Rupanjali Barua is a noted author, wrtier and intellectual based in Guwahati. An artist and a profilific literateur, her books have been published by major national and international publication houses. She lives in Guwahati where she edits her publishing house, Wordsmith Publishers.)