Andrew Greaves was the new Manager of the Nalabari Tea Estates in Assam . He was in the grips of a cultural shock.
“Not all the stack of books I’ve read over the months, could have prepared me for this primitive country. Jungles, tea-gardens, and hideous -looking tribals – This Assam!”
“Stop grumbling Man,“ said another Planter. “You’ve just arrived. The place gets you after a while. None of the Tea-planters want to go back, even though some of them are tottering. Can you expect such luxury at home? The servants, the adulation, the perks, and a big bank balance stashed away in some tax haven! Why do you think we don’t want the Locals to take over?”
It was early winter in Assam . The sun had begun to set at 3 O’clock in the afternoon. In the tribal Apa-Tani colony, women bustled about in a rush to complete their chores. Soon the men would be back, tired and ravenously hungry after a long day’s work.
The houses were made of wood and bamboo – long thatched structures built on high stilts. In the courtyard of the last hut, Bunia was pounding paddy. A noise behind the trees made her look up. The unexpected appearance of a white man startled her. But quickly regaining composure, she moved forward and looked coyly into his blue eyes.
“Who are you?” she asked in English.
Andrew was surprised.
“How do you know English? It’s the last thing I expected to hear in this God-forsaken place.”
“Then you are new to these parts. Don’t you know the Baptist missionaries have been working here for years? I studied at the missionary school for sometime”
“You are beautiful. Just like a wild orchid.”
Bunia blushed a pretty pink and fingered the beads around her neck as much as to say
“Can’t you see, I’m already betrothed?”
But Andrew who knew nothing of Apa-Tani customs, continued to stare at her.
“If only her face was not covered with tattoo marks, and her pert little nose not disfigured by those cumbersome nose rings, she could have really been a beauty,” he thought.
“The men will be back shortly. I must go.” she said, and glided away, filling Andrew with an inexplicable longing.
“Lust at first sight!” he thought.
The Assam tea-gardens were run by British managers. They had their own clubs, and various forms of recreation. Andrew had not yet been introduced to these pleasures, and so took to exploring the countryside.
“You may get lost, Sir,” said his bearer. “May I come along?”
“That won’t be necessary. I’ll be careful.”
When he came upon this clump of huts partially hidden by trees, Andrew decided to investigate. He had heard of the colorful tribals of Assam . He crept up behind the trees and peered through the bushes. He was struck by the agility of the girl, as she shifted the pounding pestle from one hand to the other, as though she was playing a game. With her feet, she swept the paddy into a depression in the floor. Her skin was fair, and her hair was pinned in a coif atop her head. She wore a thick bordered skirt, and a short blouse to match.
“Her movements are so supple and effortless, unlike the stocky peasant women of my own country,” thought Andrew.
He watched the activities in the courtyard for a long time, until the men came home.
“What an ugly lot!” he muttered.
They were dressed in colored loin- cloths, with several bamboo rings encircling their waists. A bow hung from one arm, and a shaft of arrows was hoisted on the back. The knot of hair on top of the head was pierced with an iron skewer, and a string of beads fringed the forehead.
“What a fancy dress ball!”. Andrew smiled.
Ruba moved ahead of the others. He winked at Bunia and she smiled back. Soon this beauty of the tribe would be his bride. For almost five years he had worked and saved to pay the bride price. Six healthy mithuns and four buffaloes had changed hands. And the beautiful multicolored beads she wore were part of the bride-price.
In a few weeks they would be married. Ruba yearned for his maid. Apart from her beauty, she was accomplished by tribal standards. She was educated at the Missionary school, could speak English, and sew beautiful clothes.
Feeling his admiring eyes on her, Bunia blushed, and climbed the short ladder into the interior of the house. At the door, she stopped and looked towards the copse. She could see the white man moving among the trees. She stood there for a while, until she heard the soft purr of the motor.
The face of Bunia haunted Andrew. Often since their first meeting, when he was in no mood to visit the Club, he’d drive down to the Apa-Tani colony, and watch her as she went about her work. These became the highlights of Bunia’s life. Most times she could only look and smile. But sometimes, when there was no one around, she’d walk up and exchange a few words.
“The white man’s magic has begun to work on me,” she thought.
She took no pleasure in planning her marriage. When Ruba called, she hid indoors on one pretext or the other. At night she lay awake, thinking of those incredibly blue eyes. Her body would tingle with strange longings, as she whispered to herself,
“I wish I were his.”
But in saner moments, she chided herself.
“What madness is this? How can I ever belong to a white man?”
And yet she continued to dream that Andrew Greaves would take her away and make her his wife. Absconding with a lover was acceptable in her culture. The couple would lie low for three days, and when they returned to the village, all was forgiven.
“Only the bride-price will have to be returned to Ruba. But what of that? The white man
will give me all I want.”
She fancied herself in fashionable clothes and soft lingerie.
“Won’t that be wonderful! I hate these coarse homespun clothes I have to wear day in and day out.”
Ruba was a disturbed man.
“The marriage is hardly a week away, and Bunia shows no enthusiasm at all. What have I done to displease her?” he thought. “I must corner her today and ask why she hides from me.”
That evening, he returned earlier than usual. Bunia was nowhere in sight. Then he saw a movement among the trees behind the huts. As he approached, he heard her soft laughter, and felt desire mounting in him.
Her face was flushed, as she came running towards him.
“Why are you talking to the white man?” he asked angrily.
“I was only telling him the way out of the woods.”
“So long as it’s only that. Why don’t you speak kindly to me anymore?”
“Time enough for that.”
She ran upstairs into her hut. Her body was tingling all over. The thought of Andrew’s strong arms around her, the pressure of his lips on her own, were still fresh in her mind.
“I want you, I want you,” he had whispered, until Bunia suddenly afraid, had pulled away.
“I will not marry Ruba,” she decided. “I’ll go to the white man. He alone can make me happy.”
There was great feasting on the eve of her marriage. The noise of drums and cymbals rent the air. The tribals were getting ready for a night of revelry. Bunia stealthily slipped out and took the short cut through the forests, to the Nalabari Estate. Even so, it was four miles.
The lights in the bungalow were ablaze. A party was in progress, and couples packed the room as they danced cheek to cheek. All of them were white.
Bunia crouched below a window, peeping in from time to time. At last she spied Andrew. He had a girl in his arms and seemed oblivious to all else. They moved out to the patio, and Bunia could have almost touched them. Andrew held the girl in a tight embrace and kissed her.
Bunia couldn’t suppress a sob. She dashed off as fast as her legs could carry her. Tears blinded her eyes.
“I must get back before I’m missed. Ruba must never know of my humiliation.”
But Ruba had noticed her absence. He knew she had gone to the white man.
“I’ll bring her back. She’s such a foolish girl.”
As he neared the Estate, he saw a crumpled mass on the main road.
“Bunia!” he cried, “What happened to you?”
She lay in a pool of blood, her right leg badly crushed.
“These God-damned Army trucks,” he cursed, “These unfeeling speed-maniacs. How am I to get her to the Mission hospital? It is the only hospital on the North banks of the Brahmaputra .”
When another truck came by, Ruba stood in its way and pleaded for help.
Tuesday was the day when sick laborers from Nalabari Estate, came to the hospital for treatment. Andrew walked into the ward, to see one of his employees, who had been mauled by a bear. He gasped when his eyes fell on the unconscious girl in the next bed. The same nymph from the wild he had held in his arms and kissed, a few days ago.
The doctor had caught up with him.
“She came in last night. It’s such a tragedy. She was run over by an Army truck, very close to your Estate.”
“Close to my Estate? What was she doing there?”
Then like a flash he knew that she had come in search of him.
A young Apa-Tani man stood gazing down at her. His eyes were red with weeping.
“This is the boy she was to marry today,” the doctor said. “He seems to be in shock.
I had to amputate her right leg. I don’t even know if they’ll have money for a prosthesis.”
Andrew realized that his flirtation had brought about this tragedy. He felt both guilt and remorse.
“When she’s ready for a prosthesis, I’ll be glad to pay for it.”
“But why should you bother?”
“It’s the least I can do.” he said, as he walked away.
“Strange man!” thought the doctor. But when he looked across at Ruba, the hate in his eyes told him all he needed to know.