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Under the Bakul Tree : Can Ashim’s Choice Really Save his Family?

Experience the rustic beauty of Assam with Under the Bakul Tree by acclaimed author Mrinal Kalita, recipient of the Bal Sahitya Puraskar award. Follow Ashim’s journey as he faces tough choices and heavy responsibilities. Translated for the first time from the Assamese, Under the Bakul Tree is a coming-of-age tale that celebrates hope, determination, and the power of true friendship amidst the struggles of poverty and a flawed education system.​

Under the Bakul Tree
Under the Bakul Tree || Mrinal Kalita


Ashim lay sleepless on the bed. He was restless. The moonlight crept in through the slats in the reedmat wall and scattered on the opposite side. He could see the starry sky through the slats. Ashim didn’t like it in the slightest. He didn’t like the scattered moonlight floating inside the house and he found no beauty in the star-filled sky that appeared to him through the slats in the wall. The scattered moonlight looked like lumps on the skin of a leper! As the thought crossed his mind, he felt a sudden jolt in his body. He felt as if he was becoming mentally ill.


For the last few days, he had been thinking about the same thing over and over again. But he couldn’t arrive at a decision. He turned to look at the face of his Deuta, his father, who was fast asleep beside him on the same cot. He then looked at his mother and sister who were sleeping on the next cot. He could see their pale, rundown faces in the moonlight. An acute pang of pain filled his heart. His feelings towards his mother and sister were always very clear. However, that was not the case with his father. He was never quite at ease around him. And, of course, he didn’t know whether to feel sorry for his father or be angry at him. Whenever he had to face him, a kind of uneasiness weighed Ashim down.


Ashim got out of his bed silently. Removing the horizontal bamboo pole which held the door shut, he opened the door and stepped out of the house. Cowbells rang a couple of times in the cowshed. Occasionally, hoots of owls came travelling from somewhere. Dew drops were dripping relentlessly and a thick veil of mist shrouded the area. Shivering in the cold, Ashim got down from the veranda and went to the cowshed to fetch a bundle of firewood which his mother kept there as cooking fuel. Then, taking out the small kerosene lamp from the house, he tried to light a fire. It was only after a few tries that the fire began to burn properly.


As the warmth from the burning logs soothed him, Ashim tried to analyse the whole matter with a calm mind. He would need a sizeable amount of money for admission into class X as well as for buying textbooks, notebooks and so on. Moreover, after a few months, he would again need money to fill up the form for the matriculation examination. And even if he was able to pass his board exams, he couldn’t dream of studying in a college. His sister, Ajoli, had been promoted to class VII this year. Up to class VIII, the government provided all the textbooks and exempted school fees for female students, but after two years, money would be needed for her studies too and he needed to think about that. On the other hand, his father’s income by now had dwindled to almost nothing. Occasionally, his father earned a little bit of money by working as a daily wager. But whatever little his father earned, was always used up by himself.


Ashim turned his thoughts from his father for the time being as it would only demoralize him further. He thought of his mother. He felt deeply for her. It concerned him that her health was deteriorating day by day. Apart from doing all the household chores, she worked as a house help for two or three families. In return, she received some rice and vegetables. On the top of all this work, she also had to look after the cow.


And what do I do? I only study . . . Ashim felt that he was a burden on his mother’s shoulders. As he thought about it all, over and over, staring into the fire, his head became heavy. Then, all of a sudden, not wanting to dwell on his thoughts any further, Ashim made a firm resolve. It was done.


He had decided. He would no longer attend school. As it is, his academic performance had deteriorated to a point where he could not even dream of passing the matriculation examination. If he gave up going to school, Ashim decided that he would get enough time to provide some respite to his mother. As he thought about it, he felt a bit lighter. All these days, thinking about the same thing in a relentless loop had drained him both physically and mentally. But now, after taking this decision, he felt much lighter, as if an unbearable burden had been lifted off his head.


Get your copy of Under the Bakul Tree by Mrinal Kalita wherever books are sold.

My First Earning – An Excerpt

June 1979
For several days, I stayed at home. Initially, I helped my mother in her household chores. I also liked to look after the cattle. I woke up early in the morning, took the cattle for grazing along the hills and also helped in milking the cows. When I prepared the husk for the cattle, it used to get stuck all over my body. My mother then helped me tidy up. After my bath, I would bathe the cattle and in the evening, I again took them for grazing. This routine continued for around three months. By now, the monsoon had arrived and the work at the farm was increasing. Hence, I changed my routine and started taking an interest in working at the farm. The processes of plantation intrigued me and I began to help my father in the farm.
One day, when I was with my father, the mat (account- keeper) came to him and informed him about a plantation job available in the village. He said that every worker would be paid a sum of Rs 5 per day.
As soon as I heard that, my eyes gleamed with excitement. For me, a sum of Rs 5 per day was a huge amount. It struck me that not long ago, we didn’t even have Rs 2.50 for my school fees. Compared to that, Rs 5 seemed like a jackpot! I was motivated to work hard for it.
I was lost in excitement. Earning this money would help me pay the fees of two of my siblings. I felt as if I had landed an incredible opportunity. I wanted to do the job anyhow and informed the mat about my intentions. He looked at me with scorn and left the place. His reaction was natural as I was only eight years old at that time and the task demanded power and stamina. No eight-year-old was fit for the job.
But my mind would not take no for an answer. I needed the job and was ready to work hard for it. However, I was an eight-year-old at the end of the day and had to ask my father for help. Initially, he was reluctant and refused to listen, but later, my determination to help with the family’s situation made him talk to the mat.
The very next day, I was in front of the mat once again. My father tried to convince him about my abilities. I was disappointed by his earlier refusal to let me work for him and did not want to be subjected to it again. He initially hesitated but when I reassured him of my dedication, he agreed and explained how to go about the work.
The work was with the forest department for its new campaign to plant some trees in the village. I had to work at the plant nursery, which was situated some 4 kilometres down the hill. I had to collect the plants, carry them on my back, travel uphill to the village for another 4 kilometres and plant them. Once all the trees were planted, I had to go back again and get more seedlings.
It was the day before I was to start work. The excitement about my new job didn’t let me sleep. The next day I woke up before sunrise. Once awake, I saw that it was raining outside. In the hills, when there is heavy rainfall, it becomes difficult to walk down the hill. The soil becomes wet and there are high chances of losing balance, slipping on the mud and hurting oneself badly. Hence, we were often advised to not go down the hills during heavy rains. That day too, because of the harsh weather, I was told by my parents to not go out. But nothing would deter me. I felt as if this job was the biggest milestone I had crossed in my life and not even the heaviest rains could stop me.
I didn’t listen to my parents and rushed out of my house. Since I had been told to reach the place by 8 a.m., I picked up my pace. The way to the nursery in the heavy downpour wasn’t easy at all. I slipped a few times and the constant rains made it more and more difficult. But I didn’t look back and continued walking.
When I reached the nursery, to my utter shock and confusion, I couldn’t see a single soul there. There was absolutely no one around! I was in despair. The sudden happiness and excitement of reaching the nursery, working and earning was shattered. I roamed about and found a guard sitting there. When I inquired, he replied that due to the heavy rains no one had shown up yet. Seeing my dejected face, he suggested that I could wait if I wanted for them to arrive.
I decided to wait. By now, the rain had slowed down. It was merely a drizzle and yet no one came. The guard told me to come back the next day. I left the place completely dejected. I didn’t sleep a wink that night. It was a dark and foreboding night. The moon was nowhere to be seen as if it was hiding behind a curtain of clouds. Just like the moon, I felt lost in desolation, trying to hide my feelings and my tears in a ragged blanket. I had been looking forward to my first earning but the day ended with no money in my hands. The rains had completely stopped by then and the sky was pitch- dark and still. I kept on tossing and turning throughout the night, waiting for sleep.
In the morning, I woke up with the same enthusiasm. The gloom of the previous night seemed like a forgotten thing. I got ready and rushed to the nursery. Fortunately, the work was in progress and the presence of the mat was a sign of relief for me. After talking to him, I picked up a sack full of seedlings and a spade. The mat instructed me to complete at least two rounds in the day, so I carried the sack of plants on my shoulder and went up the hill with great enthusiasm. At that time, I felt as if the sack of plants was no ordinary sack; it was a magic box which would gift me my first earning. I kept on walking briskly for the next two hours, planted the seedlings at the designated place and walked down to the nursery to collect more seedlings. The same routine continued for the entire day. I was so involved in the work that I even skipped lunch. Food was the last thing on my mind.
By evening, I realized that I had actually enjoyed the work and had developed an interest in planting the seedlings. When I went to the nursery, the mat was happy as I had completed three rounds of planting. He took out a small bag from his pocket and took out a note with five written on it and gave it to me.
That moment is still fresh in my mind, as if it was only yesterday. It was an inexplicable feeling, something that till date counts as one of my happiest memories. My first earning! I was on cloud nine.
When I reached home, my mother was still in the kitchen waiting for me. I looked around for my father and spotted him lying on a khaat, a string bed, in the courtyard. I gave him the money. He stared at me for a few minutes. I saw tears welling up in his eyes but at that time I was too young to understand his emotions. He slowly patted my back and told me to give the money to my mother.
Perhaps, this was the moment when I stopped being a child. In just a day, I had shed the cloak of childhood and became an earning member of my family.


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