The Sanctuary of Modhumida

  • লেখক: Siddhartha Ghosh, Translation- Samrat Laskar
  • শিল্পী: Team Kalpabiswa

The warm touch of a glow-worm bird, almost as big as a pigeon, breaks his sleep. That dream again! It has returned to Bidur after an interval of several days.

Bidur throws a slanting glance at Srimati. She is still in deep sleep, dishevelled and content.

Bidur instantly closes his eyes as if to shut out the revelation of any deep secret. The mind travelled back to the days when he had started to smoke. The cautious way in which he kept his face away and talked with the minimum movement of lips to avoid detection.

Forbidden thoughts wrapped in coloured covers! For the first time in their twenty-two years of conjugal life, he is indulging in guilty fantasies.

In spite of all his efforts, he cannot exercise any self-control. His hand is now unconsciously playing with the steering of his car. Again, he is late for his office today. The vacation, instead of rejuvenating him, has produced exactly the opposite result. He has become rather lax in his duties.

The drive-in area of Space Travel Centre is not unfamiliar to him. Before stepping out of the car, Bidur takes a quick glance over the passbook of the Bank of Cairo. This is his personal account. Salary doesn’t get credited here.

Bidur downloads a copy of the reservation list from the computer. The date, January 17, seems fine. There is an office tour on the 13th. He is supposed to return on the 16th. He has planned to spend that day secretly in a Kolkata hotel, and then, on the next day, he would leave earth behind for another kind of expedition. None will suspect if he returns after enjoying in Modhumida for three days. It is quite normal for him to stay out of the station in an official tour for ten to twelve days at a stretch.

But… There is an unexpected snag on the booking counter. He has by that time completed most of the formalities, has even drawn a cheque. But the machine is unwilling to issue him any ticket. The green screen blinks on, “Special case. Verification required.”

There is no way Bidur could have made an honourable exit from this embarrassing situation. It is too late.

“Sorry, sir, you have to take special permission from the Director. You have already made a family trip to Modhumida the last month, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but is there any law …?”

“No, sir, this is not a question of legality. Director sir himself will inform you face to face.”

The booking clerk is polite, but the tone of command is not to be missed.

However, when he meets the Director, he is surprised. He had no idea that Arin had taken charge of this department. It’s a blessing in disguise as official enquiry is going on against Arin, and the charge is that of corruption. The file is presently lying on Bidur’s table. Surely, Arin is not unaware of that.

“Why are you framing new regulations? If anyone wants to go for a tour twice within a month, what’s the big deal?” Bidur tries to tilt the balance of power to his favour.

“Please, calm down. Let me deal with him first.”

The booking clerk just puts a file on Arin’s table and makes a hasty exit.

Arin now looks at him directly, “There’s no restriction on your going twice. But, it is our duty to inform you beforehand that you shall not get the cordial reception like the first time.”

“Cordial reception?”

Arin has, in the meantime, offered him a Canadian smoking tablet. The flavour is excellent. One cannot expect such flavour in any indigenous smoking brand.

Arin continues, “It is not possible to keep you in the dark. But, there is a request. If you kindly disclose what exactly transpired in Modhumida, maybe I can….”

Arin is trying to be helpful! That means he has guessed something. A cunning fellow, this Arin. No worries. Bidur can use it to his own advantage. Arin is surely smart enough to know what to disclose and what to keep within himself.

It all started when during the dinner, Srimati placed three tickets in front of all. For five years, there had been no Christmas tour for the family. She had had enough. Without waiting for Bidur’s initiative, she had herself booked three rocket tickets. They would start on the twenty-third.

Even before Bidur could say anything, twelve-year-old Bappu sprang up, “Ma, where are we going? Will there be monorail? If no video-game then ….”

“Not those things. Moreover, none plays video games in a tour.”

Bappu changed tactics, “At least, then buy a polaroid cine-camera for me. I can spend my time clicking photos. What are the main attractions there, ma?”

“Nothing special. It would be just a vacation for us. Time for leisure. Nothing more.”

Slowly loosening the knot of his tie, Bidur asked, “Any hill station…?”

“Hill station? Of course not. Do you expect me at this time of the year to pack all the blankets and woollen garments and board the rocket? We are going to Modhumida this time. I have heard that during this time, it is less crowded. We can avoid the rush. And there are so many exotic animals on that planet; no restrictions on hunting those too.”

“Hunting? Can I also? But I need a machine gun!”

“Tara tutta tara tutta”, Bappu instantly started mock firing across the room with his imaginary machine gun.

Despite all the efforts, they were overburdened with luggage. Bidur had to manage the binoculars and heavy cameras. Srimati carried ten water bottles on her shoulders. She was quite finicky about drinking water which she always carried from home. Then the pieces of baggage. Three polythene suitcases, one attaché case filled with medicines and one folding dressing table for cosmetics.

“Find two porters for our luggage,” throwing those words at Srimati, Bidur rushed away to the take-off counter. The tickets needed to be stamped.

There was a problem with the porters, though. One porter would have sufficed for their luggage, but the syndicate was insisting on three. And the rate was quite exorbitant, too; it would cover half of the helicopter fare from Kolkata to this launching pad. Some heated arguments ensued.

“Number of your rocket?” enquired one porter with a red fibre helmet at last.

Srimati felt relieved that her strong stance had borne some fruit, “Mercury 517.”

“Very crowded. No chance of a seat”, the porter turned his back.

Bappu protested, “In no way, I shall stand inside the rocket….”

Srimati had to pull his ear to stop him from whining. Mercury Travel was cheaper. But they had not declared to Bappu that the seats were unreserved. Fifteen hundred seats— all filled? People these days have too much money in hand!

Srimati had to admit that without the help of the porters, they would not have got the two seats. Already more than a hundred tourists had cancelled their tickets on the spot. But the third seat couldn’t be arranged. When Bidur arrived, there were almost two hundred people huddled in the cabin passage. Bappu had to sit on his mother’s lap, much to his chagrin.

“All doors will close within a minute. After that, those who are standing should be sent to the different luggage chambers of the rocket.” The announcement ended.

Just when Bappu had started playing cricket in his pocket-computer and Srimati was getting ready to apply her golden lipstick, the ticket-checker approached them.

While punching their tickets, he kept on staring at Bappu, “How old is he?”

“Eleven.”

He was not convinced. Out came the Ageometer from his pocket. He touched Bappu’s forehead with the device and looked in the display screen.

“As I suspected. It shows eleven years seven months plus. He is not allowed to sit on the lap.”

Bidur had no other option but to get up. Bappu took his father’s seat.

The ticket-checker returned after putting Bidur in hibernation in a coffin-shaped glass container. He issued a coupon, number 215, to Srimati. At the end of the journey, Srimati could claim back all their luggage, including Bidur, by showing this coupon.

Observing the worried countenance of Srimati, the ticket-checker assured her, “Nothing to worry about. Your husband will not feel the strain of this three-day-long journey at all. You will find him completely refreshed.”

“Thank you.”

“Expenses will be saved too. We will not charge for his food. During hibernation, the requirement for food gets very limited. Of course, whatever is needed will be provided free of cost.”

En route to Modhumida, the rocket stopped in three stars. When it reached its final destination Modhumida, there were only around a hundred passengers left. Srimati felt quite relieved. They had not made any prior booking in any hotel. Had there been a rush of tourists, it would have been difficult for them to get accommodation.

Unlike the Kolkata rocket port, there was no problem here with the luggage. The transport department would make the necessary arrangements. Of course, Bidur was out of this equation.

He was soon seen coming towards them with a wide grin on his face. Srimati’s mind raced back to their early years together. Time couldn’t alter human habits much. During their honeymoon days also, Bidur was exactly the same. His smile appeared only after reaching the destination. Until then, he would appear very tense.

Bappu was now leading them with the machine air-gun in his hand. During the journey, he had learnt from his mother many details about the animals of this planet. The most dangerous looking was Modhumidus – a creature of sixty feet in length, several sharp fins within the body like the whales. It could move equally well both on land and water and could even change colours like chameleons, but totally harmless. In the last decade or so, the time from when humans started to travel on this planet, almost four thousand and five hundred Teromidus have been hunted down by humans. After the hunting of this particular creature was banned, the number of travellers has also dwindled significantly. But, there were other exotic creatures too and absolutely no restrictions on hunting those.

Srimati’s hand, in the meantime, had found shelter in Bidur’s hand. There was a tremor of anticipation. She threw a seductive glance at Bidur, who was kind of expecting that. That was why family trips were important.

They were now in the palatial reception area of the rocket port. Spacious and luxurious. Hotels, restaurants, market complex — all were there. 

Bappu got transfixed in front of a toy shop, “Ma, look, a radio-racing car!”

“Not now, dear. Maybe at the time of our return …”

When a young girl approached them with a red velvet tray in hand, initially, they mistook her for a salesgirl. Not surprising as her appearance did not give any indication that she was in government service. That’s commendable, Bidur thought. The Indian government was at least giving some care to make these tourist centres attractive. 

Attaching a small, circular device with each of their dress, the girl warmly welcomed them. She informed them the device was a gift from the government. It was an automated translation device, which would help them to communicate with the indigenous Modhus.

With a deliberate shrug of shoulder which formed a ripple in her hair, the girl continued speaking in a hearty way, “The language is very complicated. I have been here for the last two years, but no progress so far.”

When Srimati made a query on the hotel booking, the receptionist was prompt in her response, “No need to worry, madam. The cab drivers are all helpful and very informative. They also act as guides. But you must always ensure to check that they are licensed by the government with proper stamps and dates. Happy journey to you all.”

As soon as they arrived at the motor stand, they were instantly surrounded by the drivers of electric autos and nuclear taxis. Haggling through the process of usual bargaining, Bidur and Srimati decided that they would avail the auto. Yes, they had to get down from it while crossing the two rivers, but why should they hurry on the first day of the tour? The difference in fare was substantial.

Some cab drivers tried to impress on them that there would be a problem getting rooms in the hotels if they were late. It was not convincing. Judging from the number of tourists, it didn’t look that the tourist season had yet reached its peak here. 

Kolkata and Bengalee, when these dual identities were confirmed, five Bengalee cab drivers attempted to solidify their claims on Bidur and his family.

“Where are you from, sir? Bhawanipur?”

“Or near Hatibagan…?”

One young, intelligent cab driver in the meantime had focused his attention entirely on Bappu. It didn’t take him long to impress the child. He had also gathered all information about their Kolkata address from Bappu. From the pocket calculator-shaped digital device, he had fished out the name of the Naskars, their neighbours. They had travelled to Modhumida in the last year only.

But perhaps even that information would not have been enough to convince Bidur to board his auto. One older cab driver was smart enough to show Bidur the family group photo of Asesh Sarkar from the calculator printout. One of Bidur’s maternal uncles. To be honest, Bidur had no idea that Asesh mama had travelled to Modhumida with his family only three months back.

But Bappu had already developed a liking for his auto-driver uncle. He refused to look for any other option.

The vehicle rushed through the density of the blue-lotus forest. The air was heavy with an exotic aroma. There were no big trees as such, only overgrowths of creeper-like plants. 

Bappu was in the front seat, beside the driver. He was least interested in the botanical varieties around him. Driver uncle had already informed him of a three-legged snake-like reptile, Dengri. He was sitting tensed with the binocular firmly fixed on his eyes. 

The young driver, Tirki, was smart and an extrovert. He was offering a running commentary on everything around. Of course, he was not considering it as part of his duty; he enjoyed talking.

More than the exotic flora and fauna, Srimati was keen on the other inhabitants of Modhumida. Where were they? The humanoids Modhu (female) and Madhu (male)?

“They are not allowed near the rocket port or around the main highway. You can, of course, see them in the town area. They either work in the hotels running errands or labour as porters. What can we expect more from these dullards?” 

“How are they as humans?” Bidur voiced his query. 

“Humans? You are calling them humans, sir?” Tirki couldn’t suppress his derisive laughter, “Only their body shape is like the humans. Their blue skin colour is distinctive. Please don’t call them humans.”

“Anything to be afraid of?” Srimati was feeling a bit uncomfortable.

“Nothing at all. You will be in the town, the only town in Modhumida. We, humans, have built it. All your sightseeing would be in the protected area. Everything is under our control. No accident has taken place in this area. But, one unsolicited piece of advice. It is better not to get overly friendly with them.”

“Why so?” Bidur was excited to know the reason.

“We do not yet know everything about them. These humanoids are usually very docile, but recently there has been some disturbing news about them. A few months back, five volunteers of the Indian Religious Service Association went to visit their villages but never came back. We have no idea what happened to them. Thereafter, tourists are not allowed to move beyond the protected area. You must admit that ten to twelve years is too short a time to unravel all the mysteries of a large planet like Modhumida ….”

Suddenly Tirki had pressed the brake of the auto. “Hush. Don’t make a sound”, he whispered.

Then he came out of the auto, taking Bappu along with him. Srimati was about to protest, but Bidur gestured to her to remain silent. All their eyes have now seen the colourful insect perched on a roadside creeper. It looked something like a cross between a bird and a butterfly.

Tirki took Bappu forward and then gave him a soft prod on his shoulder. Bappu fired instantly and hit the target. Tirki picked up the dead insect from the ground.

Srimati was feeling a kind of nausea. She didn’t like such killing. “Dump it on the ground.” Her voice sounded shrill.

“It tastes better than chicken, Boudi. If you have no objection, I shall take it home.”

“My first hunt, my first hunt!!!” Bappu was ecstatic.

Hotel Star Rise was though a bit of disappointment. Half-clean rooms, cracked toilet basin, late dinner, but all these cons were annulled by the beauty of the Modhumida dawn. All of them were enjoying the unparallel beauty of sunrise through the transparent glass wall in their room. The morning sun rays touching the hillocks and verdurous valleys— they could spend the entire day indoors appreciating such scenic beauty.

The collective trance was interrupted by a knock on the door.

Even before he could fasten the cord of the dressing gown properly, the knock was repeated. Bidur rushed to open the door. A Modhu was standing ready with their bed-tea. During the transfer of the tray, Bidur couldn’t resist himself to have a quick look at her figure. It was enticing enough for any man to forget all his worries and disappointments. To be honest, this was the first time Bidur was checking any Modhu from such close proximity.

The Modhu said something but nothing was comprehensible. Putting the tray on the bedside table, Bidur came back with the microphone translator device attached in his dressing gown.

“Will you have Modhumida Special Omelette in the breakfast, sir?”

“What is that exactly?”

“It is made from the egg of a local bird, Tingi. Tastes almost like an egg of a duck but a bit sour.”

The girl was smart. She was looking straight at Bidur while talking. 

Looking over his shoulder, Bidur sought Srimati’s suggestion. Then he placed the order, “Only one special omelette. The rest should be conventional Indian dishes. Clear?”

“Of course, sir.”

“What’s your name?”

“You can ask for number five over the phone.”

Half an hour after their breakfast, Tirki arrived. It had already been decided yesterday that they would go local sightseeing. Bappu was not in the room. After hurrying through his glass of milk, he had already rushed upstairs to play table tennis with some newly acquired friends.

Bidur asked Tirki to lead Bappu into the car. Bidur and Srimati would get themselves ready in the meantime.

Skirt and blouse had made a pleasant transformation on Srimati. She looked at least ten years younger. While putting on her shoes, she, however, sounded a bit cautious, “We must not allow Bappu to mix so freely with the others. None of the fellow lodgers looked impressive.”

“That’s really none of our concern. We will spend most of our time outdoors. If we spend so much time in the hotel, Bappu will obviously look for friends here.”

“You have a point. But you must admit that we have found Tirki because of Bappu only.”

“Really? I thought only last night you were grumbling that Tirki had led us to this substandard hotel.”

“Was I? I don’t remember. Come let us hurry. We are getting late.” Srimati tried to hide her embarrassment

Before starting the auto, Tirki informed that there were different kinds of sightseeing packages here— five-point, seven-point, etc. etc.

Bidur interrupted him, “Use your own discretion. Just keep in mind that we must return by the evening.”

“Well, in that case, we may take a detour. It would be less congested. Don’t worry, no extra charge.”

“Uncle, will I get the opportunity to hunt?”

“Of course.”

The next hour was spent clicking pictures of gorgeous insects in the forest. Two film rolls were exhausted. All the pictures were clicked from the running auto.

Just when such unparallel natural beauty had started to get a bit repetitive, the street abruptly ended. There was a wide valley in front of them on the fringe of the forest.

“Is this a tea plantation? Was not aware that these brutes are capable of farming activities.”

“No, this is a medicinal plant garden. If you go inside, you will find different kinds of medicinal plants inside—almost three hundred and fifty species. But be careful of one thing, don’t pluck any leaves or flowers. They are very sensitive about such things.”

Bidur was still surprised, “You are telling me that this beautiful medicinal-plant garden is the work of these Modhus?”

“Yes, indeed. We have not yet unravelled the secret. These modhus don’t know about agriculture, they can’t write, they have no culture, literature or music, but somehow they are very advanced in medicine. If any one of them gets sick, they simply come to a garden like this and eat the leaf or flower from the appropriate plant or herb and get cured. There are approximately seventy to eighty medicinal-plant gardens across the planet with identical arrangements of plants and shrubs within.”

“From what you are saying, it looks that they certainly have some latent scientific talents.”

“Long ago, it might have been the case, but now they are no better than animals. They rather remind us of the cats which eat grasses and herbs while feeling sick.”

As they trudged inside, they could see many Modhus and Madhus in groups taking care of these plants. The females were wearing a ghagra-like dress made of violet coloured leaves. The males were wearing a kind of local headgear with their modesty protected by a wooden guard around their loins.

“Nomoskar sir”, Bidur was startled to hear a salutation in Bengali. He turned back to see a smiling photographer approaching them. Two cameras were dangling from his shoulder, and in both of his hands, he was holding colourful local dresses.

“Photograph? Wearing the local dresses of the Modhus and the Madhus?”

“That will be fun”, Srimati sounded interested.

But Bidur was reluctant, “I can click the photo myself.”

“But sir, what about the group photo? All tourists want that. No extra charge for the dresses.”

After the photo session, the tour continued. Even after hunting four aquatic and three terrestrial quadrupeds, Bappu was not satisfied. He wanted more. Tirki had carried tinned foods, but Srimati was not willing to have them. She insisted on having lunch at a decent hotel back in the town.

It was almost three when they finished lunch. Tirki suggested, “Why don’t you complete your marketing today? There are many duty-free shops here. You will get things at a much cheaper rate than in Kolkata.”

“Can we get good quality perfume here?”

“Anything you want, Boudi.” 

“Radio-racing car?” now it was Bappu’s turn to ask.

“Of course, dear.”

So, Srimati and Bappu went shopping. Tirki accompanied them. Bidur, however, decided to return to their hotel. He was tired, but that was not the only reason.

“Send number five to my room.”

Putting the receiver back in place, Bidur positioned the chair in front of the working table in such a way so that sitting in the chair, he could observe the door at an angle. While he was removing his shoes, the expected knock was heard.

“Come in.”

She was now wearing a sari in the traditional Indian style, which had made her more alluring. Human or humanoid, her beauty was unparalleled. Was it an exception, or were all the Modhus beautiful like this?

“Can you bring me a cup of tea?”

“Sure.” Going out, she suddenly stopped. “There is also a special pink liquor of Modhumida. A lot of tourists prefer that. Instead of tea…?”

“No problem. You may bring it.”

Bidur was rehearsing on his mind the way to ask her to accompany him for few minutes.

That was not necessary. While pouring the liquor in the glass, she herself said, “You might be feeling lonely. I can give you company.”

She sat by the side of the bed. Bidur had emptied the filled glass in a rush. Modhu whispered, “The room is a bit hot, no?”

Without any more words, she removed the upper part of her sari and exposed herself.

“Now, tell me, Arin, what was I supposed to do after that? We were there for seven days, and our relationship continued for those seven exciting noons. I couldn’t get over those times even now. Had I been younger by a decade or so, surely my marriage would have ended. Unbelievable experience.” Bidur is candid.

“Not unbelievable. You may rather call it unearthly. That is the proper term for your kind of attraction. But you just talked about the possibility of breaking your marriage. Though it might have been possible, there is surely no chance of starting another family in such cases.”

“Didn’t get you.”

“These Modhus are of different species than us. They are biologically incapable of bearing a human child. So, any kind of relation with them is not considered illegal.”

“Who is bothered about legality? I feel guilty that I have violated the sanctity of our marriage. It is like a burden. Particularly whenever I think about my image in her body. That is the obvious proof of my guilt. A kind of colourful witness of my transgression. It can’t be erased in any way. Isn’t it?”

Though perplexed, Arin doesn’t show it. Except for some minute details, he is aware of everything that is happening in Modhumida. But the image, colourful witness… what kind of drivel is this? Bidur had never seemed a puritan before. It doesn’t fit that he would start babbling nonsense under the burden of guilt. The details need to be confirmed.

That is a smart move by Arin. Had Bidur anticipated that Arin was not aware of the image, he would certainly not have continued further.

“You never got involved with a Modhu?”

“I didn’t get time for that. I have joined here only six months back. There are seven tourist centres in the space. I have not yet visited Modhumida and Mimiwoka.”

“I see.”

Arin now brings his face closer to Bidur, “Mr Sen, even if I have not physically travelled to Modhumida, I am aware of everything that happens there. To be honest, you may also say that everything happens there as I desire. Just, for example, I am sure you will not be happy to know that your family tour to Modhumida was also pre-planned by us.”

“What?”

“Yes, it was a kind of pre-planned, conducted tour. You were thinking that you were travelling on your own. No, everything was planned. Tirki, number five virgin Modhu— were all part of the package.”

“Really? May I ask why so? What did I do to deserve such a grand treatment?” Bidur sounds sarcastic.

“Not only your family, we often select tourists and offer them conducted tours like this for our publicity. That is why there is a problem this time. The same grand facilities cannot be repeated for a single person within such a short interval. You might be expecting grand treatment this time too, but…”

“I am expecting nothing. I don’t want your official favours again. I want number five. By the way, who has informed you that she was a virgin? Maybe the tout had earned extra with this piece of misinformation. Henceforth, you should ensure to check the backside of the modhus. My image is the third one imprinted on the back-album of number five.”

In the next few minutes, Arin extracts all information about this image mystery. While mating with human males, the image of those human lovers gets imprinted like tattoos permanently on the back of the Modhus. There is nothing to suggest that this feature is unique to number five only. 

Ordering two cups of coffee for both of them, Arin moves to the restroom. He needs some time alone to digest this strange information. These Modhus are barbaric but also very mysterious. They might have more such hidden features. We must be very careful dealing with them, Arin ponders.

Why not use this information about number five as a weapon? He can easily blackmail Bidur and close the official enquiry against him. But no. That would not do. One thing might lead to another. Bidur Sen is just an ordinary officer. The bigger fishes might also be exposed. Arin cannot risk that now. At least, not yet. He must play smart. For the time being, rocket service to Modhumida must be discontinued.

Returning to his cabin, Arin offers the coffee to Bidur. “Mr Sen. Your information is very helpful. It has helped us to take the final call on Modhumida. We are closing the planet for the time being. It will benefit you all.”

“I am not in a mood for a joke”.

“I’m not joking. There have been suspicions about the activities of these Modhus. I think that they have seen through our plan.”

“Plan? What plan?”

“It is not possible to exterminate the Modhus through violence. There are many constraints. But, we have to exterminate these brutes completely to rule over that planet. A scientific plan has been devised. A kind of enforced sterilization. The Modhus, both the males and females, lose their ability for reproduction if they mate with the humans.”

“Oh, I was then a soldier in this Grand Project of yours?”, Bidur’s laughter reverberates through the room.

Arin doesn’t join in this laughter. He has suddenly remembered that Bidur was not the lone soldier on that trip. Srimati had also performed a similar role.

Not only Bidur’s but Srimati’s noontime activities in Modhumida were also meticulously planned. All arrangements were made for her so that she could spend her time in uninhibited pleasure. But did Srimati’s image also get imprinted on the back of that Madhu who mated her? That needs to be confirmed.

Original Bengali story: Avayaranyo Modhumida

Tags: Samrat Laskar, Siddhartha Ghosh, বাংলা থেকে ইংরেজি অনুবাদ, ষষ্ঠ বর্ষ দ্বিতীয় সংখ্যা, সম্রাট লস্কর, সিদ্ধার্থ ঘোষ

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