Let’s call him Makhanlal. As the name suggests, he was an ordinary, average kind of fellow, but he was held in high esteem at home. For he was the first college graduate in his family. His grandfather had had seven sons, those seven sons had borne another thirty-two, and who knew how many more those thirty-two had produced – it hadn’t quite ended yet. But not one of these tall and able specimens of masculinity had got past that barrier of school yet; some had tried and tripped. There was no end to Hiranmayee’s – Makhanlal’s mother’s – unhappiness about this; she needled her plump husband Raghab so much about it, at every opportunity, that the man couldn’t say a word in retaliation. Both of her elder brothers had b.a. degrees, she herself had read up to class nine at the Nilfamari Girls’ High School. So the day her first child – and first son – Makhanlal was born, she vowed to ensure that he earned a B.A.
Fulfilling her pledge hadn’t been easy. The atmosphere at home was imbued with the somnolence of the orthodox landowning classes. For generations it had not occurred to anyone that they might have to work for a living, so no one was too concerned with drinking from the fount of learning. And while their affluence had certainly diminished, the attitude had prevailed; the menfolk still lazed their way through the day, bathing at two in the afternoon, luxuriously eating their luncheon off plates surrounded by several bowls of delicacies, and then happily, serenely, embracing their bolsters in readiness for their naps. This siesta was a family tradition, and they had not abandoned it despite their having become paupers. The dearth of money certainly hurt, but the pain of earning it was even more intense.
Hiranmayee’s Raghab spent his days in this way, and would have continued to do so, had Hiranmayee not vowed that her son would earn a college degree. Languishing at the family residence in the country wouldn’t do, it just wouldn’t. So as soon as Makhanlal passed his school examinations at the village school, she goaded her husband into moving to Calcutta. As agreeing was the easiest option, Raghab acquiesced; in the process, he gradually had to give up his aristocratic habit of indolence. Soon after arriving in Calcutta, he liquidated some capital to set up a small shop in Bhabanipur. Needless to say, this too was at his wife’s advice. Hiranmayee had finally convinced him that they wouldn’t be able to keep body and soul together much longer if they kept reliving the memories of their landowning days. Investing her brains and her jewellery – which was of course her husband’s capital – she provided him with a business to run.
It soon became a thriving carpentry shop; Raghab was interested in woodwork, and had even built some furniture with his own hands. So although he started reluctantly, gradually his work became his passion. The one thing he couldn’t give up was his siesta, but barring those two or three hours, the rest of his day was spent at the shop. The goddess of wealth looked upon him favorably because of this diligence, and her favor made him even more hardworking. Within a couple of years, a new establishment was born: the South Calcutta Furnishing House.
Raghab had wanted Makhanlal to get involved with the running of the shop from the beginning: to immerse himself, learn the ways of the trade, become familiar with the smell, the touch, the colors of wood. As the workload increased with the growth of his business, he was increasingly eager for his eldest son to begin helping him. Wasn’t the intermediate degree enough – why go further? What good would a college degree do? The business star was in ascendance; if this good fortune wasn’t made use of right now, what if it gave them the slip? Wasted logic! Even if everything was lost, Makhanlal had to get his degree. The day they received news of Makhanlal’s having passed that hallowed b.a. examination, you can imagine Hiranmayee’s joy. Her dream of twenty-one years had finally come true. So pleased was she that her happiness gave birth to an impulsive proposal: she said, “I want to get him married.”
Strange, isn’t it? Does anyone believe, today, that a BA is the only qualification required for marriage? A mere college graduate, Makhanlal was no more than a boy. How could he get married!
But there was nothing strange about it as far as Hiranmayee was concerned. First, this was a family tradition – not one of her uncles or her father had crossed eighteen without marrying. Even if you were modern when it came to education, you remained traditional where marriage was concerned. Theirs was an affluent household, and a bride would only make their cup of joy brim over. And the boy wasn’t one of those typical, bespectacled midgets – just see how handsome he was.
Yes, he was indeed handsome – there was no denying this. I know – knew – Makhanlal very well; at twenty-one he was a burly, powerful giant who looked thirty-two. Large and ungainly, he had prominent teeth, a manly, hair-covered chest, enormous shoes that caused great consternation when they were sighted lying around. Seeing as he could easily pass for a father of three, it didn’t seem suitable for him not to be married. Moreover, the bride was already at hand: Subhadra-babu was their next-door neighbor, and Hiranmayee had picked his daughter out a while ago. Was the reason her beauty or her father’s wealth, you ask? Neither. Subhadra-babu was a semi-impoverished college professor, and the girl – I heard the details from Makhanlal – was not exactly what you would call beautiful. But the learning! The father was a scholar and Malati – the girl’s name was Malati – was no less of one herself. Having earned three stars in her final school examinations, she was now in college, apparently glued to a book even during her meals. And what an assortment of books all over their house, my God, had anyone ever seen the likes of it? It could be said without the slightest exaggeration that Hiranmayee had never seen so many books with anyone in her own family, that was for certain. Her husband’s ancestral home contained the smallest library in the entire village; no reading habit had taken root. Her Makhanlal followed in this mold; whether he had a college degree or not, he had not cracked a single book. Their family was truly peculiar.
Perhaps the idea of choosing a bride on the basis of her collection of books sounds unusual, but as you’ve probably realized this was where Hiranmayee’s weakness lay. If the family disposition was to change, a bride from a scholarly family was essential – this was Hiranmayee’s reasoning. In other words, just as she had attracted the goddess of wealth through the bait of wood, now she wanted to use the lure of a bookish daughter-in-law to attract the goddess of learning. Their backgrounds were beautifully compatible – why not get it over with in July, she decided, November was still a long way off.
Laying out an elaborate meal for her husband, she broached the subject. Raghab was amenable but for a different reason: a big fat dowry would enable him to expand his business. Hiranmayee dismissed the idea at once, saying, “If destiny wills, the money will come on its own – why should you have to beg for it?”
“No, no, it’s not a question of begging, just that . . . Avinash-babu was saying the other day…”
“His shop is next door to mine.”
“The liquor shop? Ugh – a wine seller’s daughter?”
“Not exactly a wine seller, his background is different. Seems interested, too. Maybe you could take a look at the girl – it would make sense all around . . . “
“Enough. I’m the one who’s done all the thinking for you – don’t get in the way now.”
“As you please. But will a professor’s son-in-law still be interested in running a shop?”
“Is that what’s worrying you? My Makhan isn’t like that. I can promise you he will take over the responsibility for our family very soon.” Hiranmayee turned to her son. “Well? I hope you agree?”
Makhanlal was sitting by his father, eating – he paused at this question. He said nothing and, looking very solemn, only lowered his face and started to trace patterns on his plate. The answer was obvious, you could see as much; shoulders that were broad enough to support the entire family were not going to find it troublesome to bear the responsibility of a slender young woman.
Are you wondering whether there’s a history to this? Yes, there is. Mother Nature never spares us from her wiles – even he, so powerfully built, with his broad, hair-covered chest, cannot prevent a tiny flower from budding within.
The thing is, Makhan ran into Malati virtually every day. “Ran into” is perhaps the wrong way of putting it; he could see her every day. Their neighbors’ inner veranda was visible from his room, and there was hardly a day when a light breeze clad in a sari didn’t lead Makhanlal’s mind to wander. Of course, like a true gentleman – or perhaps in embarrassment – he averted his eyes immediately, though not without stealing a glance or two. Sometimes Malati would bring a cane chair with her to the veranda. She seemed supremely oblivious to the fact that someone close by was watching her, or could be watching her – she sat there and read, laughed, spoke loudly, hummed songs with her brothers and sisters. Everyone knew you weren’t supposed to stare at a lady, but if the lady chose to present herself before you all the time, you weren’t expected to gouge out your own eyes, were you? Many a time Makhanalal was not even aware of what he was gazing at, but the moment Malati left the veranda for her room, he realized why his eyes had been roving. And was it just the eyes? Had the heart beneath his wide breast not been beating faster too?
This was the history. Hardly anything – and yet, was it entirely insignificant? Makhanlal, you’ve guessed correctly, was a bit of a simpleton; unlike the quick-witted city boys, he had not acquired a great deal of the knowledge of certain subjects they had learned of at an early age, precocious fellows. He was happy to be able to see Malati, indeed he felt as though he really knew her. Did he know that in Malati’s universe her well-built neighbor did not even exist? Did he think about it? Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but when he did think of her, it wasn’t as anyone other than an intimate. Hence he was not very surprised at his mother’s proposal – nor was he overjoyed, accepting it as inevitable. He even drafted out in his mind that first night in bed, how he would talk to her; how he would conduct himself with the occupant of the next-door veranda when she became occupant of his life. His first question would be: did you ever see me from your veranda? What would her reply be?
A day or two later, Hiranmayee got down to business. After lunch she changed into a mint-fresh sari with a red border, marked the vermilion on her forehead so it was a little more prominent, popped a paan into her mouth, and headed off to the professor’s home. When she returned, her smile had been wiped out; nor was any other kind of pleasant expression displayed on the mouth that had earlier consumed paan so happily.
Raghab was home napping, as it was siesta time. But this day, his age-old habit was broken. From his room, Makhanlal could hear only the sound of his mother’s voice speaking continuously, occasionally interrupted by the sound of his father’s soft comments – but every time she raised her voice, he could hear what she was saying.
“What? A shopkeeper! A shopkeeper’s son! And what do they have to be so pompous about? A professor? And how much does he earn anyway? All our property, all those boats, all those celebrations – have they ever seen anything like that? No. They didn’t even give me a hearing. ‘We’re not thinking of her marriage yet, she’s still a child!’ Child indeed! How much more of a tomboy will they let her become? Like him? My son is as good as anyone else. Hasn’t he got a college degree? Isn’t he a good boy? Does he lack for food and clothing? Where will they find a more suitable boy? She’s so dark, what prince will take her away on his golden steed? They were so fortunate that I . . . oh!” It was the same story over and over again. Raghab probably fell asleep, and Makhanlal gave up trying to listen. But he could still hear his mother speaking, on into the afternoon, for quite a while longer.
Hiranmayee smarted under the insult for a few days. The added injury was that as much she wanted to get her son married, she wanted even more for him to have Malati as his bride. “I told them, ‘If you’d like Malati to continue studying, we’ll take care of it, a daughter-in-law with a b.a. would be a matter of pride, we have no demands by way of dowry,’ but they didn’t even entertain the idea. Oh my God, their arrogance. But why – may I know why? Is it because they eat their pathetic meals at a table?”
“Oh, please be quiet, Ma!” Makhanlal protested, in a low voice. “The houses are so close to each other, what if someone hears?”
“Let them,” Hiranmayee moved towards the professor’s veranda and raised her voice a few decibels more.
“Do they think I’m scared of them? Do they think I’m going to beg them? Huh, I have such a wonderfully eligible boy in my son, what do I have to worry about? Take my word for it, Makhan, a day will come when they will burst with envy when they look at you. I guarantee it.”
The storm continued thus for a few more days, then the topic of Makhanlal’s marriage faded gradually. Avinash-babu, the liquor shop owner, got his daughter married off by July, and many other virgin foreheads were touched by vermilion, but the subject of the marriage of Mr. Makhanlal Ghosh, b.a., and his special ability to shoulder the responsibility of a wife never even came up. Certainly there was no lack of unmarried girls in Bengal that year, but despite all her talk Hiranmayee just didn’t take the initiative. Why not? Couldn’t she have got a wonderful bride for her son and astonished the professor’s family? Would that not have been her natural response? Certainly. Just why she behaved to the contrary, I cannot say. Had she really imagined she would be able to wreak some kind of extraordinary revenge on that scholarly family? There was no indication this would ever be realized. A month went by, two months; not out of a sense of courtesy, or even out of mere neighborliness, did the professor’s wife pay Hiranmayee and her family a visit, although Hiranmayee had visited them a few times now. The veranda remained as uncaring as before. There were still gusts of laughter, the flash of a sari, but Makhanlal no longer looked her way.
You think it was out of grief? No; Makhanlal possessed that singular virtue of not understanding grief or rejection. The truth was, he had no time. He woke in the morning, ate a frugal breakfast and went off to the shop, came home for lunch and took a brief rest, then went off to the shop again, only returning late in the evening. He had taken most of his father’s responsibilities on his own broad shoulders. Practically all of them, actually. His enthusiasm was matched by his enterprise, and if he lacked for a brain in that great big head of his, he compensated for it with sheer hard work. I saw him back then, working like a horse, shuttling between different places in town. When did he have the time to think of the talented daughter of the erudite professor?
No, he did not have the time for this. Only, he felt a little uncomfortable whenever he passed the professor’s house on his way in and out of his own home. Suddenly he felt he was too tall, too fat; maybe his clothes were dirty, his gait and posture terrible. The professor’s drawing room was on the ground floor, by the road – try as he might, Makhanlal could not resist stealing a glance every once in a while. Did he see anything? Nothing, only a blurred hint of something behind the curtains. Sometimes the curtains would part by chance, and then he could see . . . an unknown world. In the house Makhanlal had known since birth, everything was unkempt; even clean meant half dirty. But here was a well-decorated room, in it a gracious welcome: paintings on the walls, rows of books. A different world altogether. Laughter, snatches of conversation, perhaps the flash of a sari. Some days it would so happen that Makhanlal’s feet refused to move, at that moment. The heart within his muscular chest beat a little faster; suddenly the carpentry shop, that hand-run printing, all felt as dry as wood, as anemic as paper. But whenever he felt that way, he lengthened his stride, ran to catch his tram, and forgot everything in the rush of work.
It was the middle of the second year of the Second World War. There was a feast of money in the interiors of the supply offices, you could smell it in the air. Like many others, Makhanlal headed towards it – maybe a little apprehensively, but the returns were undoubtedly beyond his wildest expectations. It helped that he looked older than his years; maybe his powerful frame evoked trust, or perhaps he had more staying power. Whatever the reason, he succeeded in getting a lot of quick orders through contacts and persuasion. And then when Japan joined the war in winter, it simply – but all of you know what happened . . .
It was a strange time. There were no people in Calcutta, you couldn’t add another person to Calcutta, Calcutta bombed, thousands of people dying on the pavement. The two-paise stuff cost twelve annas; neither rice nor sugar, coal nor salt was to be found; all you could get was khaki, jobs, and a bounty of easy cash. It seems amazing to think about it now, and it seemed as amazing back then to Makhanlal. Perhaps it was destiny – or was it his mother’s blessings? – but anything he touched seemed to trigger an avalanche of money. A fortune in quick cash was to be made by supplying material to the armed forces. He used to get practically a porter’s load of cash, he couldn’t fit it into his pocket; the notes were bundled up in newspapers and deposited in the bank. Every day he’d deposit more money, write out fat checks, and somehow the days, weeks, months and years went by. He had lost track of day and night when one morning he discovered he had become a millionaire. Really.
Where there used to be a small shop in a lane, there was now a huge factory, a showroom on the main road. Makhanlal was now the provenance of a hundred people’s bread and butter. Both his younger brothers quit college to join him at work, and this time Hiranmayee raised no objections. As for Raghab, he was now retired, retired on full pay! His landowner’s spirit soared and thrived on the vast current of his son’s accomplishments; every morning he would buy enormous quantities of food for the day’s meals, then gossip with his wife, enjoy a leisurely lunch sitting on the doorstep of the kitchen, spend the afternoon sleeping and, sometimes, discuss the accounts in detail with Makhanlal at night. Since his son had taken on the responsibility of earning, he had returned to the responsibility of spending. Of both spending and not spending, actually – in other words, how much to spend, how to spend it, how much to save. Raghab was involved in resolving these complex issues, and Hiranmayee’s approval of his participation in their financial planning was so assured that Makhanlal didn’t have to do anything at all in this respect. He didn’t have the time, nor the inclination; brimming over with the impulse of the work itself, he was actually relieved to leave everything to them. Food and clothes were plentiful now – the food even more than the clothes – but even when food prices were going through the roof how much could you eat, and the burden of having a lot of money caused no less worry than the anxiety of not having enough. Appearances remained unchanged, however, still stamped with the untidiness of poverty: no one would have realized that the family’s earnings had not just doubled or quadrupled, but grown tenfold.
You think it was self-discipline? Not exactly, though perhaps they had not indulged in small luxuries, preserving their riches for large-scale displays of affluence. For securities held their faith! Raghab kept buying up land, not to mention Hiranmayee’s gold and jewellery purchases. Soon, it was time to arrange the daughters’ marriages. Very soon for the elder one, if traditional norms were to be applied, though as for the younger girl, Hiranmayee’s second vow was to get her through college as well. She would be the mother of not just a son with a b.a. degree, but also a daughter with a b.a. degree. “Let them see, let them realize we’re no less when it comes to academics.”
The ‘them’, of course, referred to the next-door neighbors, and mostly to the vain wife of the professor. Learned your lesson? If only you had agreed to the marriage, your daughter would have lived like a queen, my son’s a millionaire now.
Hiranmayee had been going so far as to send news of their good fortune through the shared domestic help; she didn’t once forget to inform them of her family’s wealth. Certainly not on the day Raghab purchased a half-finished house in Ballygunge. Her messages reached their recipients, but the professor’s family never broke its silence. Its obliviousness to its neighbors equalled Hiranmayee’s inability to forget about hers. Strange was her competitiveness, extraordinary her desire for vengeance.
It was now said that the professor’s household could no longer afford meals. Perhaps this is what happens when the gods smile on you; even Hiranmayee’s desire to lay waste to her neighbors’ self-sufficiency was almost fulfilled. Very pleased to hear this, she re-counted the story to her son in great detail.
It was certainly a story worth recounting. The professor had apparently not received his salary for six months; his obscure college had never paid salaries properly. They’d pay eighty and extract a receipt for two fifty. So never mind the airs and graces now, the professor’s family was actually bankrupt. He’d survived on private tuitions and writing guidebooks. Now that there was a shortage of paper, nobody was publishing guidebooks anymore, and with everyone getting jobs left, right and center, who needed a private tutor? Apparently things had come to such a pass that . . .
Having listened silently till this point, Makhanlal asked, “How did you come to know all this?”
“Well, Harimati does the dishes at their home too. Yesterday she was saying she can’t continue there – after all, these poor people all do this work for a living, if they don’t get paid . . . Never mind servants, apparently they don’t even get provisions every day – and the girl is supposed to take her b.a. exams this year, the fees have to be paid . . .”
Here the dutiful son Makhanlal may have said something to the effect of, why discuss other people’s affairs; maybe he made an even softer protest. Hiranmayee changed her tune immediately, “You’re right, of course, what business is it of mine – just that I was thinking of the girl, she couldn’t get married and now she can’t take her exams, so what I’m saying is, enough of educational lessons, if you agree I can organize a different kind of lesson!”
The thickheaded Makhanlal was unable to read between the lines of this subtle proposition, so she elaborated. “Should I sound out the professor’s wife? I’m sure they’ll be gratified if we so much as throw a bone their way!”
Her face suffused with a victorious smile, she looked at her son; but Makhanlal’s normally grave face looked almost stern, and he left without saying a word, only muttering “Ridiculous!” under his breath as he left. It wasn’t entirely clear for whom the comment was intended.
He was late getting home that night. As he passed the professor’s house he suddenly remembered what his mother had said. Pausing, he raised his head to look at the house. Dark – except for a light in a first floor room where a fan whirred, its huge, dark shadow moving around the wall at regular intervals. This was all that could be seen – nothing else. His mother was probably wrong on all counts, they seemed just fine. At least, this was what Makhanlal tried to believe. But how much could you make out looking into a first floor window from the street?
A tiny thorn lodged itself in Makhanlal’s heart. It would prick him every now and then. Were the neighbors really in such a bad way? No, no, all this was his mother’s imagination! She loved to think they were in trouble, she was troubled by needless envy – so she exaggerated and dreamed things up. But what if she were right? She could be, couldn’t she? But what business was it of his, what could he do, what was there for him to do – nothing, nothing. There was nothing for him to do, even if, right next door, they were – assuming his mother was right – short of food and clothing; he would not be able to do anything despite his largesse, which exceeded all needs or expectations. Makhanlal’s thoughts pained him in a strange way and made him angry with himself – am I like my mother, am I not able to forget about them either?
Meanwhile the turmoil of the war continued, day after day, month after month. It seemed the war wouldn’t end during this lifetime. But where was the hurry: how many times did people get the opportunity to make money, especially Bengalis! And meanwhile, Raghab plunged himself heart and soul into the Ballygunge house: raw material was bought at controlled prices, and the contractor assured him that the work would be completed in four months. The ungainly appearance of their home, the lack of striking furniture – Hiranmayee wanted revenge three times over for all of this too. Brand new beds, tables, chairs, and wardrobes, made to measure according to the dimensions of each of the rooms, were being built at their own factory. Makhanlal bought teak at sky-high prices, and poached craftsmen from Park Street pledging double wages. Yes, Makhanlal joined his parents’ enthusiasm, their “conspiracy” against what they had been – not exactly out of choice, what option did he have? The good thing was that his workload increased. Come hither, O work! You’re the savior of the hapless soul who has nothing else in his life, who has gathered no riches of the mind. Makhanlal was now in such a state that he was relieved only when he had pushed through the train of actions and thoughts that made up the day to the deep sleep of midnight. All he wanted from the day was that it should go by. Some days passed without a bath or a meal – he neither noticed nor cared.
But Hiranmayee noticed, and rebuked her son in a suitably affectionate manner. How long would his health last like this, how could someone who needed to move around so much not get himself a car? Hadn’t Tarapada down the street spoken of a car . . .
“Couldn’t get it, Ma.”
“Hah! Not get it once you’ve decided you want it?”
“Never mind, I’m doing all right without one.”
“This is a terrible habit of yours, you’ll get others all they want, but you’ll be a miser when it comes to yourself. How can people take those crowded buses these days!”
“Everyone does, Ma! Even girls.”
“Girls! Don’t talk to me about girls. They’re not girls anymore – every last one of them has become male. Bags slung across their shoulders – they’re a sight, each of them. Oh, by the way, the professor’s daughter has got her b.a. and found herself a job. The father is going to live off his daughter now.”
As soon as this subject came up, Makhanlal sidled away, and started shaving before the mirror. But Hiranmayee followed him and said, almost to herself, “How does it feel? It’s hurting now – oh, if only I’d agreed to her marriage then – if only I’d known – so why not come out and say it?” Hiranmayee inevitably found her way back to the same issue over and over again.
A few days later, Makhanlal was on his way back from Dum Dum in a taxi when he stopped at a red light by the governor’s residence. It was nearly evening, closing time at offices; even looking at the buses made you afraid. Three or four girls stood on the pavement, on their way home from their offices. How could they take a tram – would they even be able to? Why worry about all this, they did it every day, they were used to it. But Makhanlal glanced at them again. This time it seemed – perhaps it had earlier too – one of the faces was familiar. Yes, it was she – the professor’s daughter. The taxi had stopped close to the curb and Makhnalal could see her clearly; he had never seen her so close. Malati was looking at the road hopelessly. Her face wore the gracefulness of fatigue: weariness seemed to suit her beautifully. Makhanlal glanced at her, then at the empty space on the seat beside him – twice or thrice her glance came his way, but never once did their eyes meet. Should he call her? But how would he address her? And would . . . would it be right? What if she was offended, what if she said . . . What if she said nothing . . . But . . . While he vacillated, the red light turned to green, the taxi started moving; that hopeless anticipation Malati and those other girls had, of taking a tram, was left behind.
Makhanlal had been headed home, but he suddenly changed his route and went off to Chitpur, to pick out a mirror for their dressing table, for their new home. I recall working at a Bal Harbour Real Estate firm, and working with this type of situation.
Several months went by.
Raghab’s house was almost complete, the furniture was ready; all that remained was to choose an auspicious day to move in. Hiranmayee was busy inspecting everything they owned, selling off useless stuff, trading in old saris for aluminum utensils, distributing worn out clothes to the needy. Still, there were all these ancient trunks from her father-in-law’s time, the paint had worn off, some of the locks had broken, but they were very strong. One morning she was wondering what to do with them, when her youngest daughter Lakshmi ran up and told her the police had surrounded their neighbor’s house.
“Yes, Ma, the police – and lots of people. Come and take a look!”
Lakshmi tugged at her mother’s hand, but this was unnecessary. This was, after all, something everyone had to witness, not just children but also adults. Especially Hiranmayee. Her first stop was at her veranda facing the road. There was a small crowd outside the professor’s house, and the policemen’s red headgear was glittering in the sun. The downstairs door was wide open – it appeared to have been smashed in from the outside; some people rushed in, while another man hammered at the professor’s brass nameplate and took it off the wall, throwing it on the road. Hiranmayee looked on, hypnotised. Four porters brought out the professor’s yellow upholstered sofa and put it on the pavement; then came the chairs, then the center table . . . Passersby stopped in their tracks; the balconies and windows of all the nearby houses bore eyes that blazed with curiosity and fearful amusement, perhaps accompanied by a little pity.
Hiranmayee’s gaze moved to the veranda inside the professor’s house. From here you could see their veranda too, and images of daily life; you could hear floating snatches of laughter, of music, of the tinkling of the joys of life, all of them oblivious to the neighbors’ existence.
That veranda was now empty and silent. The doors and windows were shut, there didn’t appear to be anyone inside. Harimati had revealed everything to her: the professor’s family owed months and months of rent, and the landlord had now asked for their belongings to be taken by the court.
Everything would be dragged away. And then? Would they be dragged out on the roads too – the professor, his wife, their two young children and that office-going, graduate daughter? Would the professor be handcuffed in full view of everyone and taken away? Oh dear – really? Poor fellow, how sad, what a scene!
“What a scene!” Hiranmayee ran off to tell Makhanlal. “They handcuffed the professor and took him away.”
Calculations of wood, steel, nails, and bolts swirling in his head, Makhanlal was preparing to go to office when Hiranmayee flew in and gave him details of what had happened.
Makhanlal was late leaving for work that day. What he thought when he heard the news, what he felt, I have no idea. As for what happened afterwards, I will recount it the way I heard it from him, with my imagination filling in the gaps. By then, he discovered as he went out to the veranda, many more of the neighbors’ possessions had been dragged out onto the pavement: bookcases stuffed with books, the dining table, a radio, a gramophone, large, framed paintings. Makhanlal took one look and returned to his room. Hiranmayee arrived to continue her litany: “Oh dear, how sad for them, but then how will our worrying about it help, it was fate, and then again, why call it fate if you don’t keep your spending within your limits” – but Makhanlal neither responded to any of this nor looked his mother in the eye. “It’s very odd,” she continued, “there isn’t a trace of anyone at home, have they run away? But then they’ve been living in the neighborhood for so long, they must be embarrassed to be seen . . .” Etcetera, etcetera. When none of this could get her son to break his silence, Hiranmayee asked, hoping for an answer, “Aren’t you going out today?”
Makhanlal said, “Hm,” but kept sitting. So Hiranmayee had no choice but to go away, returning to the veranda to continue observing the goings-on. By then it had all become stale. The fresh excitement of the morning had vanished; the curious eyes had disappeared from nearby balconies; the busy morning was underway. Everyone was in a rush to get to work, to get the cooking done; staring with your mouth open at someone else’s affairs wouldn’t get you to the office, and how long could you gape, anyway. Besides, this would obviously take a lot more time to wrap up. On the pavement, under the sun, lay the professor’s impotent furniture – the bed with bedclothes still in place, his writing desk, cups and saucers, the electric fan. More was on its way, households didn’t survive on just a handful of things. Hiranmayee decided not to tarry any longer, asking Lakshmi to man the observation post and going off to the kitchen to supervise the cooking.
When sympathetic neighbours went back to their own lives, when curiosity was buried under sizzling sounds from kitchens, when the buzz around these sensational events had almost been reduced to the level of daily mundanity, this was when a door in the house opened and a girl emerged – the same girl whose fluttering sari on the next-door veranda had once so touched the thick-skinned Makhanlal. He hadn’t set eyes on her for a long time now, but that day, sitting in his room, Makhanlal saw her, seemed to recognize her, definitely recognized her. He leaned on the railing for a bit, raised his hand to sweep his hair off his forehead, and then suddenly returned to his room, the door shut again. What he did then was a little strange, perhaps you will laugh at it. Why he did what he did was something even he didn’t grasp, but at that moment, he told me later, it “came upon him,” everything seemed to happen on its own.
Makhanlal refused to delay any longer, slipping his feet hurriedly into his sandals. His ungainly frame emerged onto the street. The heap of furniture on the pavement had almost reached their own home, and the varnish on it was glittering in the eleven o’clock sun. He wended his way through all of it and stood before the house next door. The wide-open door posed no obstacle before him, and discovering the staircase – without hesitation or doubt – he went directly upstairs. The drawing room was like a new widow, only a picture hung on the wall, like a blood-red memory of a long life. In the next room a few blackened, perspiring laborers were tugging at the family’s belongings; Makhanlal went past them in long strides. There was just one more room, in the corner, its door closed. Was the family in there? He knocked on the door – no response. Another knock, and then a light push on the door got it to swing open; the scene inside no longer remained hidden from his eyes.
It was a small room. There was nothing in it except the four white walls, though the marks on the floor where the furniture had stood had not yet been erased. Huddled on the floor were the inhabitants of the house: the professor, his wife and daughter, and the other two children curled up on the floor, asleep, one’s legs on the other’s body. Having seen these people only from a distance, suddenly seeing them up close in these unusual conditions jolted Makhanlal into realizing how distant, how remote they actually were. Why was he here? What could he do?
They were silent, too. The professor raised his eyes only to lower them immediately, and his wife didn’t raise hers at all. The only one who stood up, briskly, was Malati – of course Makhanlal hadn’t forgotten her name in all these months.
She came to the door quickly and said, “You? Why are you here?”
Her tone was rough, without a trace of welcome in it, and yet Makhanlal heard music. “You? Why are you here?” could only mean that she had recognized him, that she knew who he was. His uncertainty fell away, boldness suffused his soul. He spoke without effort, “I had to come. Something needs to be done.”
Malati was probably about to say something, to utter some protest born of strong self-respect, but Makhanlal left immediately. The landlord’s people were on hand, and he spoke to them and resolved everything within the hour. The professor joined them, speaking in a feeble voice, even objecting as much as he could in the circumstances to Makhanlal’s intervention. Eventually, when everything was settled, when those same perspiring laborers returned everything to its place and proceeded to arrange things properly, then – by then – the professor was so exhausted he couldn’t even utter conventional words of gratitude, for which Makhanlal was extremely thankful.
The rest of the day passed in flight for him. How lovely the day seemed, his work, the people, Calcutta – possibly he loved the entire world that day. And the kindness of the world too seemed limitless; whatever he asked for was being granted with one word, there seemed to be no obstacles at all, anything he wished for seemed to materialize before him instantly. His journey back home after his day’s work was different too. Every day, he returned because he had to, because even exhaustion set its limit – but that day it felt as though someone or something was awaiting his return. The night and the breeze seemed to suggest as much.
His feet slowed down naturally before the professor’s house. The rooms were lit up, the shadows of the fan blades were whirling as usual on the first floor wall. Surely everything was fine, there could not have been any other problems, but still, he thought, let me check. Was it pure philanthropy? Didn’t he have an ulterior motive? Just as this question occurs to you now, it occurred to someone else too. And that is where this story ended.
As soon as he knocked softly, the downstairs door opened, and it was Malati who Makhanlal saw standing before him. He would have been happier had it been someone else, but it was too late to retreat now.
“I just came . . . “
A completely unnecessary announcement, and when the person he’d addressed said nothing in response, even the dim-witted Makhanlal realized its redundancy.
“ . . . find out if everything’s all right . . . “
“Please come in.” She spoke like a doctor inviting a patient in. “Yes, everything’s all right.”
Makhanlal entered. When he looked around everything seemed fine: the pictures on the walls, the books on the shelves, the radio in the corner, all just as he had seen on his way to and fro past the house. Once upon a time he had imagined a lot of joy in this room, but now, finally here in this beautifully arranged setting, his daylong happiness seemed to fizzle out, to have no basis, no meaning.
“Please take a seat.”
He didn’t want to at all, but something seemed to compel Makhanlal.
Malati sat at a distance and said, “I knew you’d come. I was waiting for you.”
Makhanlal felt a tremor run across his stout body at these words.
“There’s something I want to ask you.”
“Why did you do this? Don’t be silent, answer my question.”
Makhanlal looked into his interrogator’s eyes and realized he had erred.
“Why did I do this? I have no idea.”
“You have no idea? Then let me tell you. The self-satisfaction of philanthropy is no mean thing. It feels wonderful to be given a chance to help the poor. The gratitude of other people is delicious, isn’t it?”
Every word tumbled out of this modern, educated woman’s shapely lips with lucid articulation. On hearing so many obscure words all at once, thickheaded Makhanlal became even more stupid. He could say nothing in response.
“And besides, you have your own motive too. You decided that you would bring us under your control and take revenge on us.”
Makhanlal could hear nothing but meaningless sounds in words like motive and revenge. He groped for words, just as a person gropes in the darkness, but could find nothing to say, nothing that he could say.
“But what you’re thinking of will not happen, it can never happen.”
Now Makhanlal stood up and said, “I thought nothing, maybe I have created problems for you, those problems . . . please forget them.”
“Only after your money’s returned can we forget. But get it back you will. Maybe it will take time, but we will definitely return it.”
“Another thing. Do not come to this house again – never, not for anything.”
Makhanlal turned near the door and said softly, “No, I will not come.”
Back on the road, Makhanlal walked past his house. He walked around for hours that night, with that awkward gait of his indecently proportioned body. The thoughtful darkness of the blackout was sympathetic, if uninquisitive.
The room had been echoing with the contractor’s deep baritone all this while. As soon as he stopped, night descended more heavily on the waiting room, attendant to its expectant silence. From afar, penetrating the veil of fog, came the sound of shunting, like a stifled moan during a dream, and from even further the sky was rent by the anguished cry of a dog. When the sounds died away, the Delhi man coughed mildly and said, “Is that the end of your story?”
By Buddhadeva Bose (translated from the Bengali)