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14 - 20 Jan , 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
SHORT STORY

She had lost most of her fear of him, and looked on him now as a strict but abundantly providing guardian. Life was pleasant, with plentiful good food. Hard work she was well acquainted with.
Rahman also was not displeased with his matrimonial deal. He had acquired a good worker, who demanded little. A mature wife might have had a will of her own. He could see Nabbo's awe of him, and it flattered him. He made it a point to make her remember that he was the master. She had been an unwanted homeless village waif, and she should be made to feel grateful to him for providing her home and food.
A RUSTIC TALE It was on a Friday afternoon, when he was returning from the nearby mosque where he used to go to pray, leaving Barkat to take care of the farm, that as he neared the house he heard Nabbo screaming. He hurried towards the house, only to realize some ten paces later that she was actually shrieking with laughter. He found her doubled up with mirth, tears of uncontrolled hilarity streaming down her flushed cheeks. Barkat stood very close by, his hand on her elbow.
"What is going on?" he roared.
Barkat sprang back guiltily, but Nabbo kept on rolling with amusement.
"Your Barkat is so slow. We were playing 'Catch Catch', and he could never catch me."
"I did."
"Only after I'd reached the post."
An intense wave of anger and jealousy swept over Rahman. The two of them belonged to the same age group, he was the outsider. Even though Barkat at nineteen was seven years older than Nabbo, they belonged to the same generation. They could still play and joke together.
"Get back to your work," he shouted at the boy. "It is about time you started earning your keep. And you," he turned to the still happily amused girl, "you still have not daubed the chicken pens with clay, as I told you to do a week back." (It was actually two days.)
The second incident occurred a fortnight later. Lado and Bela were in the house, having come over in the afternoon. They had brought over also ten year old Bhalo, a cousin. The latter was standing in the centre of a circle made by the others holding hands. Rahman coming from outside immediately noticed Barkat next to Nabbo, gripping her hand and swinging it up and down to the rhythm of the song they were all singing together. At the moment when he came forward he noticed the two of them looking at each other, she with unconcealed enjoyment, he, it appeared to him, with fervent admiration.
Rahman's anger took complete control of him. Striding forward, he landed a harsh blow on the boy's head, then turned and cuffed Nabbo, who started crying. The other girls were more puzzled than shocked. They were accustomed to such scenes, but in this case could not understand the cause.
"Why are you not working, you good-for-nothing, free feeder?" Rahman shouted at the boy.
Barkat would have accepted the beating and scolding as it would not have been for the first time, but in front of all the girls he felt humiliated.
"I have done everything, what more do you want me to do?' he retorted angrily. "Shall I feed the animals a second time? Or a third time? Or flood the fields with six feet of water?"
"Don't you dare answer me back, you son of a dog! Get out! Get off my farm, and never show your face in this place again!"
Nabbo, frightened, ran inside the house and started scrubbing again the already gleaming pans. The three visitors turned towards their home.
Rahman's anger was not appeased. He snatched the pan from Nabbo's hand and hurled it outside the house. "Why are you making pretence of working? You have not come to this house to work. You have A RUSTIC TALEcome to eat and sleep and play and have a good time with that boy. If you like him so much, I have a mind to send you away with him. The two of you can be happy together."
"We only asked him to join in because there were not enough of us. Your brother's grand-daughters –"
"Don't talk of my brother's family. They are decent people, not homeless hungry beggars without a relative in the world."
Nabbo was insufferably miserable. She was, in truth, more so on Barkat's account. She had seen the shock on his face at the insulting dismissal. Because of the closeness in their ages she had always looked on him as a friend and companion, as she did not on her husband. But it had never entered her head that there was anything wrong in that.
As Rahman's rage subsided, he wondered in what way to approach his ex-employee to get him to come back. Obviously, he and his inexperienced wife could not manage all the work on the farm by themselves. But there had been a look of fury on the boy's face which had never been there before. He would have to get Rahim to coax him back. The boy must himself be keen to return, seeing his parents were very poor and unable to support him. It was he who used to support them.
But he must be taught a lesson first, and taught to keep his distance from his master's wife.

Barkat's resentment had not died down. To be shouted at and turned out in front not only of Nabbo, but all the other girls also, was unbearable. And he could not understand what he had done wrong. All his tasks had been completed. The Sa'yeen was only jealous that he himself was too old to play. Let him do the work himself. The old geezer wouldn't be able to manage a day without him.
But where was he to go now?
Work was not easy to find, not with abundant food, a place to live in, and a small regular salary.
How would his parents manage? His Baba and Maji had just one goat which provided them some milk, and a few yards of land on which they grew some sickly vegetables. He regularly, more or less, sent them twenty rupees a month to help them live.
But actually he was thinking more of himself than of them.
His proposal for his promised Manu had been accepted primarily on the basis of his steady earning, otherwise there had been other boys, better-looking than him, he knew, also wanting to marry her.

To be continued...


 
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