Short Story: Bakudumbari (Originally written in Telugu as బాకుడుంబారి by Mallipuram Jagadeesh and translated to English by Sowmya V. B.)16 min read
Sowmya V.B. translates a powerful story written originally in Telugu by Mallipuram Jagadeesh that narrates the tale of a tribal village and its fight against a mysterious illness.
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Translator’s Note: The story describes how life in a tribal village changed with the arrival of mysterious illnesses and how the local politicians and officials want to take advantage of the situation. In the legends of the village’s tribals, Bakudumbari is a creature with a man’s head, without a torso, body or legs. It preys upon lonely travelers in the forest. The author relates the legend to the real life Bakudumbaris in the lives of his people.
“There was once a forest, so dense even a crow couldn’t enter. It was so thick even an ant couldn’t step inside. It was noon. The birds napped in their nests, and tigers that went to hunt stepped into ponds to hydrate themselves.” Jogulu began the story and paused to light a cigarette.
On the other side of the campfire, Anandu and Somalu nodded their heads and eagerly waited for Jogulu to continue. Even the darkness that surrounded them appeared to be very interested in the story.
“At that hour, Kondadu walked into the forest with an axe on his shoulder. Although it looked like a casual walk, he was, actually, quite anxious and afraid.”
“Why?” Somalu interrupted.
“It was so quiet around him, even an ant’s chirp could be heard clearly, and it worried him.”
“Kondadu was tired from cutting the wood all morning and wanted to rest for some time. He found a tree to rest under and walked towards it. At that moment, he heard the sound of dried leaves crushing behind him. He turned back and saw nothing but wind and his shadow.”
Jogulu was amused to see that rapt attention from the two boys. It seemed like they were all sitting in the silent forest of that story. As the campfire glowed, the boys moved closer to him, and their shadows grew longer. Anandu asked, “Tell us what happened next.”
“Kondadu sat on a rock under the tree’s shade, and slowly dozed off in the cool breeze from the tree. After an indefinite amount of time, he woke up as he heard someone calling him “Konda… Konda…”. He turned around, saw no one, and froze in fear.”
Jogulu stopped to take a puff.
“Jogulu….”, they heard someone calling from behind.
All three were startled. Storytelling stopped abruptly and both the kids patted on their chest to assure themselves they were safe. They relaxed after noticing their teacher Sridhar approaching them, wearing a skull cap and a shawl.
“Didn’t you sleep, sir?” Jogulu enquired.
“Leave that aside, what about you?” Sridhar asked back.
“It is too cold to sleep”
“That is true. It seems like you are telling a story.” Sridhar joined them at the campfire.
“These boys pestered me. So, I started something to engage them.”
“Please continue, I will listen too!” Sridhar said, warming his hands.
Jogulu started again.
“Kondadu wondered who would call him in the middle of the day in a forest and turned around. There was no one. As he was about to close his eyes under the tree’s cool breeze, he heard it again. “Hey, Konda, come here for a moment.” The voice seemed closer now.”
“Did he respond, then?” Somalu asked in excitement.
“He would be dead if he responded!” Jogulu replied instantly.
“Why?” Anandu asked.
“That is Bakudumbari.”
“What is that?”, both the boys asked in unison.
“Bakudumbari roams in the forests. It has a man’s head, without a torso, hands or legs. If we ever venture into the forest alone, it will approach us calling our name. Our fate is sealed if we respond to it. It would pounce on us and suck all our blood. No one knows how it finds us and we cannot track it either. No one has ever seen it face to face. We just know its presence by that call.”
The boys were listening to Jogulu with full attention, eyes wide open. Sridhar laughed to himself looking at their faces. They have the same sense of wonder in the classroom too. These children come from nearby hills, and any new piece of information excites them. As a teacher, Sridhar finds that curiosity infectious. These two boys from sixth grade are his favorite students too. They always shine bright like plum and cashew fruits and are always together.
Sridhar was reminded of a past incident.
One day, all the children sat in the verandah. Sridhar was teaching them to sing a few patriotic songs when he noticed that Anandu and Somalu are missing. “Where are our plum and cashew fruits?” – Sridhar asked. He always referred to them like that.
“They went hunting,” someone replied.
“Hunting? Where?!” Sridhar was surprised.
“Mastaru (teacher), come here. They are hiding behind that wall.” One of the students told him discreetly.
“Come out and stand here,” he called them.
They both came from the darkness and stood in front of Sridhar in the verandah, which looked brighter because of the electric lamps. They seemed to have rolled in the sand and the school uniform appeared discolored. Their hair was disheveled, and the uniform was torn here and there.
“Sir, ask them to show what is in their bag!” other children shouted. It was then that Sridhar noticed the bag hanging from Anandu’s shoulders. He looked at them and gestured to them to come forward.
“No, sir. Please,” Anandu protested. In the meanwhile, one of the children pulled the bag, and something fell off on the floor. Under the bright light, everyone saw two quails, a slingshot, and a few balls of wet soil. Sridhar couldn’t believe what he saw.
Both the children stood there, with their heads hanging down. Sridhar tried telling them that hunting is unsafe for children, and that the slingshot could have hurt them instead of their targets. As he made them promise they will never hunt like this, the boys had tears in their eyes.
Everyone stepped back when the flames from the campfire suddenly rose. Despite the cold breeze, it felt warm there. The shadows in the dark looked like nature’s mystic oil painting on the canvas of darkness, in the campfire’s glow. The hostel with its empty rooms looked like a ghost yawning with its mouth wide open. This school had poor attendance even on regular days. In periods like this when there are several consecutive holidays, all students become a cross mark in the attendance register. However, these two boys were always around. Sridhar enquired about this with Jogulu.
“Where will they go, sir? Where can they go?”
“Why do you say so?” Sridhar asked back, now curious.
“Their villages are deserted.”
“Strange, why will entire villages be deserted?” Sridhar did not understand where Jogulu was heading in the conversation.
“It is a long story.” Jogulu took a deep breath.
“What is that?”
“What can I say?” Jogulu started.
Anandu and Somalu stared at the campfire indifferently.
“One of them belongs to Deruganda and the other one is from Vamasi. Both the villages are on the east and west sides of the Jeguru hill. There is a tunnel at the bottom of the hill. It is so cold and dark inside that we cannot enter the tunnel. Yet, people pray to the tunnel, cut a hen as an offering to it, and just go inside with a lamp.
“They want the soil inside. It is black soil and turns into a light reddish color when mixed with water. The locals believe that sprinkling this red soil in the house and using it to draw pictures on the front walls keeps ghosts away and welcomes the gods into their homes. This is why they spared this hill from shifting cultivation, their common practice. They believe it is the hill of the gods.” Jogulu lit his cigarette and released a few rings of smoke. Taking a deep breath, he started again.
“Keeping the current situation aside, the hill saw better days in terms of human activity. Villagers from both sides took their cattle there every day for grazing. The sounds of cattle moving around were heard all over the hill. Some of the cows strayed away and ran around, and the didiga, the wooden bells hanging from their necks, made a strange kudu-kudu sound as they swayed rhythmically. Music from the villagers’ pinlakarra, the traditional flute and tudumu, a type of drum, added to the merry. It is all gone now. The hill seems dead and silent like a graveyard today.
“Why so?” Sridhar asked, approaching the campfire again.
“How can one answer that question?” Jogulu fed a few dry sticks to the fire and started narrating the past as the fire rose again.
“One day, an old man from the Toyika (family name) family started vomiting and had diarrhea after sunset. He wasn’t alone. His entire family started seeing these symptoms. Ejjodu, the village priest, prayed for the family and offered a hen to Jakara, our village goddess. Eventually, he too gave up. Villagers were convinced that Maasadu, who had been roaming in the forest for a while now, was behind it. They searched for him all night and found him sleeping somewhere in the forest. They then dragged him to the middle of the street, with his hands and legs tied up. By that time, the three people in the old man’s family who fell sick passed away and their relatives started crying. What can be done? It went too far by then,” Jogulu paused for a moment.
“What happened to Maasadu?”
“What else? The villagers suspected he performed black magic and was behind these deaths. They forced him to confess, by verbal and physical abuse. Unable to bear the beatings, he …”Jogulu completed the rest of the sentence through his eye movement.
The campfire felt like a funeral pyre at that moment. It was very quiet outside.
Sridhar shivered listening to this story. What could have happened on that day? The hills may have resonated with Maasadu’s screams. The last breath in him would have left by making the darkness even thicker. Mother forest would have shed silent tears looking at her children’s innocence and stupidity.
“Do you know who Maasadu was?” Jogulu asked, staring at Sridhar.
“Who?” Sridhar responded with his eyes.
“This boy’s father,” Jogulu replied, pointing at Somalu.
“What? Really?” Sridhar was surprised.
“He was perhaps only a few months old when his father died.”, Jogulu continued. “By the next morning, the village was occupied by politicians, journalists and government officials. The villagers told the journalists that four people died in the incident. The papers mentioned diarrhea as the cause of death. This news was followed by a statement from our local MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly). “We can’t set up a borewell at this height. There is no road facility either to this village. It would be better to move the village to the foot of the hill,” he suggested.
“Rehabilitation. Did they ask everyone to vacate the village afterwards?”
“Government did not do anything. It happened naturally.”
“What do you mean?”
“Those deaths did not end there,”Jogulu paused. Silence prevailed.
“One day, a visitor to the village fell ill, and died before he left. The sorcerer is no more, but his sorcery persists, they said.” Jogulu was carefully building his narrative.
“Everyone looked at Maasadu’s wife with suspicion. She knew what was going to happen next. Leaving her infant at home, she left the hill overnight. After that, Somalu’s grandfather raised him for as long as he could, and finally enrolled him in this welfare hostel. He too passed away recently, and Somalu became an orphan. No one dared to stay in that village after all this happened. Thinking that it is a cursed place, the remaining three or four families moved away from this place, into the unknown world.” Jogulu ended his story.
No one said anything for some time.
Somalu dozed off while Jogulu narrated the story and was smiling in his sleep. Perhaps, he had a dream. Who made him an orphan? What is the reason for the villagers’ ignorance and superstition in this modern world? Sridhar remembered seeing several children without parents, cared for by old and ailing grandparents. What is going to happen to tomorrow’s generation? Where is all this leading to? Who is responsible for this situation? How many orphaned kids are there in the hills around this area? How many of them are in this school? Where do all these children go during holidays?
Smoke from the campfire rose, making Sridhar breathless for a moment.
“What about Vamasi?” Sridhar asked, rubbing his eyes.
“Do you remember the day when elephants attacked the village last year?” Somulu asked as he softly blew over the fire.
Sridhar shuddered thinking about that incident.
It was a fearful period. No one knew when an elephant would attack. The tuskers came to the hills from Lakhari forest on the other side that belonged to Odisha state. Newspapers wrote that trees were stuck down, and forests were destroyed to build a paper mill in that area, which led the elephants to migrate here. Humans managed to scare them for some time with drumbeats and fireworks. After a while, the elephants lost their fear and started retaliating by destroying homes and trampling on people, wreaking havoc in the village. One photographer and seven tribals, three of whom belonged to the same family, died in last year’s incident.
The minister wanted to visit the hill after this incident but could not climb beyond a point. So, the corpses were brought down for his viewing. They were just meat balls, not human bodies anymore. It was a scary spectacle of human remains. The minister expressed his grief and declared government support for the families of the victims, announcing one lakh (100,000) rupees per family. The gesture was applauded, and all the outsiders left after a few photographs and interviews.
“Our hardships during that period are just indescribable,” Jogulu remarked.
“One of the dead people had a family member who was supposed to arrive from Nellore.”
“What?” Sridhar was curious.
“What is he doing in Nellore?”
“He migrated to that area and worked as a laborer in fishery and poultry farms, doing tasks such as mixing the feed and spraying fertilizers.”
“How did he manage to go so far? Why?”
“The middlemen who hire laborers come here looking for people to recruit for such jobs.”
“Oh, okay. Anyway, did that guy from Nellore arrive?”
“Yes, but he would not return.”
“He was already sick when he arrived. Apparently, the smell of the fertilizers did not suit him. He fell seriously ill as soon as he came here and never got up. Do you know who he is? It was this Anandu’s father.”
“Oh”, Sridhar felt sad looking at a sleeping Anandu.
“That was when the Mandal Revenue Officer came here along with several others,” Jogulu adjusted the sticks in the campfire.
“To tell the tribals to leave the hill and move downwards.”
“What do you mean?”
“They wanted to empty the village”
“If there is a village on the hill, it would need a road, drinking water supply, and some means of transport to go in and out of the village. Since all these are difficult to set up on that hill, they offered to look for a place on the foot of the hill, closer to the road.”
“Did they go?”
“Who is left in the village to move, anyway? Two of the five remaining families migrated to Nellore and Vijayawada. Two families were destroyed by the elephant menace. The only remaining one… “, Jogulu paused.
“What happened to him?”
Jogulu looked around, closed his eyes, and nodded his head strangely and silently.
“He went away with ‘those’ people”, Jogulu replied, with his eyes closed.
“Who are they?”
“Annalu (Brothers, used to mean Naxalites)”, he opened his eyes.
The fire suddenly rose.
So, the naxal movement reached this place. There is some consciousness about the outside world, then. How did it arrive here? The area beyond these hills has a decades old history with revolutionary movements. Why is this tribal hamlet so backward, then? There is education and wisdom among the people in the surrounding areas. But clearly, it is still a long way to go here. What is happening here? Why did all these tribal hamlets on this Jeguru hill vanish? Who knows how ancient these settlements are! How many generations of tribals dreamed of their future on this land? They must have done a lot of shift cultivation, growing several crops in this area. Many festivals must have been celebrated here with tudumu beats and the tribe’s traditional dhimsa dance.
Now, everything looks like dead fossils. It is almost as if the hill is crying. Sridhar got very disturbed thinking about this.
“You have to visit the hill once, boss,”Jogulu commented.
“Yes, I agree. When shall we go?”
“Let us go tomorrow. Last Sunday, a car arrived here, bringing a new person in it. Our village’s secretary accompanied him. I think I saw that person somewhere…,”Jogulu closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to remember.
“They collected the soil and some rocks from the hill in two bags, and made me carry it down for them, and then went away taking those in the car.”
“Yes, I remember who he is. He came with the minister and collector earlier, and then started organizing some meetings in neighboring villages. He used to talk about village assemblies and resolutions. It is the same guy.” Jogulu lit his cigarette over the campfire.
The cold wind blew strongly. Something interested the dogs in this darkness, and they started barking loudly. Both the boys, who dozed off before Jogulu ended the story he started, startled in their sleep for a moment. Perhaps, Bakudumbari appeared in their dream.
Bakudumbari. The uneducated tribal people may have created this story to protect themselves and their fellow tribesmen from going alone into the forest and falling prey to any potential dangers. That may have been a fiction, but there is a real Bakudumbari now. It empties villages and goes around from village to village and hill to hill, calling their names and swallowing them away like sugar balls. In the story, it only has a head. In reality, it only has a mouth, which it uses to both call the names and to swallow.
Something was burning nearby, and there was smoke emanating from that. In that darkness, Sridhar tried to estimate how far that smoke spread.
“I don’t understand all this, sir. All these cars, meetings, and new faces mean something. Something is happening,”Jogulu said, releasing some cigarette smoke.
“There is no mystery, Jogulu. They want to dig the hill, and for that, no one should live on it. If there are people, they would ask questions. So, politicians and officials appear indifferent as the villages empty themselves one after another. They drive everything behind the scenes to achieve their goals. Each hill is eyed by one millionaire, who is supported by the ministers. They do what they want to do silently, the way water spreads underneath a mat, and we don’t notice it. I wouldn’t be surprised even if those maestris who regularly come to seek laborers for faraway lands are also arranged by these people. Do you know Donambai Sitampeta village nearby? What happened to Kannedhara hill there? Before we realized what was going on, half of the hill vanished.”
Jogulu shook his head and moved closer to the campfire. All his sleep was gone. Sridhar was lost in his thoughts.
The night got colder and there was some dewfall. Slowly, the fire extinguished too, hiding itself in the leftover sparks. The two children were sleeping on the floor. Sridhar brought them inside and covered them with blankets, with Jogulu’s help.
Dawn will break soon. It is still dark here, and they really need some light.
Sridhar stared at the sleeping Anandu and Somalu, and their innocent faces.
“These boys should wake up, become slingshots and songs of inspiration,” he told himself.
Jagadeesh Mallipuram is a Telugu writer whose short stories appeared in various Telugu magazines over the past fifteen years, and have been published as two collections, Silakola, 2011 and Guri, 2018. He also published a collection of poetry in Telugu, Durla. His stories depict the lives of the people of Savara tribe, who live in the eastern part of Andhra Pradesh state in India, and how changing times and the arrival of other groups into their regions impacted their lives.
Sowmya V. B. lives in Ottawa, Canada and is a Computer Science researcher by profession. She translated Telugu writer, Kondapalli Koteswaramma’s aAutobiography Nirjana Varadhi into English as “The Sharp Knife of Memory”, Zubaan Books, 2015. Her translations of a few Telugu short stories appeared in Indian and international webzines over the past one year.
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