Subal had few expectations, and, therefore, few regrets. But actually he looked quite pleased these days. Prices were so high you had to swallow all the humiliation just to survive, other than the minnows, the big fish seemed to have fled, both the nets were rotting in the corner – he had to buy from the wholesalers to sell in the market – making profits of more than three or three-and-a-half rupees meant having to wait endlessly – but still Subal’s heart thrilled at his unexpected fortune. Four and a half thousand! Just by smearing this thumb of his with ink and pressing down on a piece of paper, he could make four and a half thousand. Subal stole a look at his right thumb every now and then these days. As though he were mocking himself with a show of his thumb. Had anyone in his family ever seen or even heard of four and a half thousand rupees at one go? They had never even managed to make ends meet.
About a quarter of a kilo of the bele remained unsold, the fish was slowly turning yellow, bluebottle flies were swarming – Subal had lowered his price all the way to two rupees twenty five paise a kilo – still no one would buy them – an old man circled nearby – he was hoping Subal would come down to a rupee and a half eventually. Suddenly Subal decided in a burst of generosity not to sell the rest of the fish but take it home. Netai had been waiting for a while, all his fish had been sold, Subal would go home with him. Taking his basket, Subal said, let’s go, Netai. Back’s aching I’ve been sitting so long. Got a bidi?
No, dada, I have to get some, answered Netai. I have to get a kilo of rice too.
– How much is the rice today?
– Two twenty, that too, the damaged stuff
– Let’s go then, it’s at least fifteen paise cheaper at Baguiati.
Netai was slightly sophisticated, he dressed in shirts. Kept his money in a plastic packet. Subal couldn’t be bothered, he had a red pouch tied around his waist under his dhoti, his bare body glistened. Having a vest and a shirt meant taking on the trouble of washing them – the body needed no laundry. A dip or two in the pond – that was enough. Netai bought his rice, and chillies. Subal had collected the state rations the previous day – they wouldn’t need rice for a couple of days now – he bought half a kilo of salt, changing his mind at the last moment about buying bidis. A smart move – Netai was buying some – if Subal bought some too he couldn’t take one from Netai. He’d buy his own later instead, after Netai had taken the turn in the road towards Keshtapur.
Back on the main road, Netai said after lighting up, how quickly the houses are coming up here. You can hardly recognise the place any more.
Recollecting his fortune, Subal said with a touch of pride, things always change. I’ve seen a crocodile here with my own eyes… its open mouth thi…i….i…s wide…
– A crocodile?
– Oh yes, a crocodile. And the goddamned fish around here, huge bowaal and chital… and look at it now. All filled up, buses running on the road.
– Aren’t you selling your land, Shobol-da? Three and a half thousand it’s gone up to, I heard.
Three and a half? That’s nothing. It’ll go up to ten, Subal said like an expert. I’m not selling now, I’m no idiot.
Netai lived deep inside Keshtapur, a mile and a half away. Subal’s house was visible from this spot. A couple of vultures were perched on the palm tree. The bastards were there every day. Canals ran down both sides of the road. The one on the left was old, it had always been there. The one on the right was new. A new road always had a canal running alongside. The road was made with the soil from digging the canal, but the canal on the right didn’t run continuously, there were gaps. That is to say, there had originally been gaps, but the rains this year had flooded the entire place. Fresh rainwater gurgled along, it was perfect for tiger prawns to breed. Stepping off the road, Subal rolled his dhoti up. He knew where the water was shallow. He had to haul his dhoti up all the way to his waist, setting off waves as he pushed through the water, Subal reached home – even his yard was submerged this year – the pumpkins and green chillies he had planted had all been spoilt. By god, no one had ever seen such rain.
But all this rain pleased Subal too. Let the yard be flooded, let there be water in the kitchen – but the fields and canals and ponds and lakes were all a single vast sheet of water now – there was water in Sengupta-babu’s garage, even their car had been almost completely submerged, the gentlemen all had to splash their way to office with rolled up trousers – Subal had laughed his guts out at the sight. That arrogant bitch of a maid who worked there – even she had to stuff her sari all the wau tp her bum… Besides, Subal had benefited, too. Large fish had floated into his pond – Subal had surreptitiously dumped sacks stuffed with cow dung in his pond – the large fish would never swim away once they had smelt cow dung. Let the water drop a bit – Subal would get his nets out. The tulsi had survived the rain, however – the tulsi bed was at quite a height.
It was all because of this tulsi. All this used to be wild marshland, with reeds and fisheries. There was no counting the number of generations in Subal’s family who had lived here. They had actually been quite well off in Subal’s grandfather’s time, Subal had a few memories of those days. His grandfather used to supply fish to the zamindars at Paikpara. He went bankrupt trying to buy a new fishery at Mahishbagan – went belly up after selling all his land and everything else. And what kind of price could he have got for the land anyway – who would buy all this marshy land, after all – two hundred, two twenty five an acre – that too without any proper measurement. But things changed – people from the government came and set up tents – bringing silt from the river in thick pipes they filled the marshes – it began to be called Salt Lake. A road was constructed on this side – VIP Road – with separate arrangements for movement along both sides. The few Barui and Sapui families who used to live here were thrilled with the rate of four and a half thousand per acre and promptly sold their land and moved. Subal wouldn’t have stayed either. He had five brothers, the rest of them all sold their share of the land and moved to Hatiara and Kaikhali, their pockets bulging with cash, but Subal couldn’t join them because of that tulsi and because of his mother. Subal’s share of the property was their ancestral home – Subal’s mother Bagala flung herself weeping to the ground beneath the bed of tulsi: will you sell the house? What do you think? Don’t you know the eldest son of the family dies with blood flowing from his mouth if you sell the family house? Kill me first, kick me to death – I’ve given birth to a clump of thorns – money’s turned their heads – your hand turns leprous if you uproot a tulsi. Not that Subal was one to be swayed by tears – given the price of four and a half thousand, all these laments were like trying to trap fish with torn nets. But his wife became scared and put her foot down – and when Bagala threw herself at Subal’s feet, even he was flustered – a mother reversing roles and touching her son’s feet, Bagala hammered her forehead repeatedly on Subal’s toes.
Subal’s house was on the other side of the road, it had barely survived. If the government had demanded it he couldn’t have raised a finger. Bagala’s hysterics would have made no difference – Haridas Sapui down the road had not wanted to sell to the government, the Marwaris had offered him a better price – but the road would run through his land, he was forced to sell it to the government eventually at the lower price. The government hadn’t asked for Subal’s land, but many others had pleaded with him to sell, the cycle company wanted it to build a road to their factory, the Senguptas had wanted it too because it adjoined their property, the price had jumped all the way to four and a half thousand – that too for less than an acre – Subal had refused. His mother wouldn’t live much longer. Once the old woman kicked the bucket Subal could offer his thumb impression and get his four and a half any day he wanted – the thought was an unremitting source of pleasure. And maybe the price would climb even more meanwhile.
Subal was forty-one. He had nine children, seven of them living. His eldest son hawked vegetables in Hatibagan, he lived with his wife over there – didn’t keep in touch with his parents. Subal’s wife was an annual baby machine – she had let up only for a couple of years in between, but there was no trusting her, who knew when she would be in the family way again. The children splashed about in the flooded yard – they couldn’t be bothered about the water spilling into the bedroom. Subal lost his temper the moment he saw this. The middle daughter Kushi as the worst of them, never mind managing her brothers and sisters, the hussy ran wild herself. The girl was the devil incarnate – she stole food from the kitchen, she stole food from her siblings – as greedy as a demon, putting his basket down on the porch, Subal shouted harshly – Kushi, come here.
Her sari was bunched above her knees, letting it down while she was still in the water, Kushi approached her father apprehensively, adjusting her sari over her breasts. Subal clutched a handful of her hair, asking, what were you doing there? Huh?
Kushi’s head hung down, in a nasal voice she whined, a fish, there under the tulsi…
Slapping Kushi relentlessly, Subal said, a fish? I’ll stick it your mouth you slut, you daughter of a whore, won’t help the family, why don’t you die? Die, bitch, die! Fucking around in the water? The boy’s got a fever, him too…
Emerging from the kitchen, Subal’s wife also began to rain blows on Kushi’s back, screaming, shitface won’t listen to anything I say, didn’t I tell you to make the chilli paste… Kushi was well-developed physically, she didn’t look sixteen – her brothers and sisters were all quite thin, she was the only one her parents derived any pleasure from beating up. Kushi didn’t weep even after the thrashing, she just went into the kitchen with a stony expression.
Subal awoke before dawn every day to walk all the way to the wholesale fish market in Duttabagan, buying fish there to sell it at Nager Bazar. By the time he covered the long distance back home on foot after his sales were done, the sun was overhead. It was his regular habit to beat up his children as soon as he returned home. Wasn’t it because he had so many stomachs to feed that he was dying of work? Slapping a little mustard oil on his head, Subal took a couple of dips in the canal. Then he spread the mat out on the porch and sat on it. He had issued an edict – he would eat first, followed by the children. If he didn’t stay healthy, who would feed this army of demons? If he were to fall ill, no one would lift a finger to help him. His wife brought him an enamelled plate heaped with rice. Digging a hole in the mound, Subal poured the daal in and made a mash. Then he ate the whole thing with great relish, accompanied by whatever his wife gave him on the side – a maachher jhaal or kumror shaak. He licked the plate so clean and shiny that they could get by without washing it afterwards. After his meal, Subal took a long nap. Awaking just before evening, he lazed a bit, on some days he gave his children another round of beating, or tried to mend the bamboo fence around the house, or climbed on the thatched roof to count the tender gourds – smearing them with lime if he found any of them worm-infested. On other days none of this caught his fancy – even when it was almost dark they didn’t light lanterns at home – oblique beams of light from VIP Road played on the water in the canal – he fidgeted for some time – then strolled off to Keshtapur, where he drank some hooch with a couple of old pals for twenty paise, discussed the possibility of starting a big fish-selling enterprise with Netai. Back home, he first downed a few chapatis with gur, topping them with glasses of water till his stomach felt bloated, and then went to sleep. The evenings that he didn’t drink – the hours just didn’t pass on such days – he hustled his wife for an early dinner – grumbled about the wasteful use of kerosene, worrying only about how quickly he could turn out the light and go to bed. There was just the one bedroom – the children slept in a row on sheets of jute and swaddling on the floor – Subal next to the door. One side of the porch outside was covered – Bagala slept in this space. On these evenings Subal smoked continuously, a different itch took hold of him before sleep could – when his wife came to bed after cleaning the kitchen – Subal pounced on her near the door – he didn’t care whether the children had fallen asleep or not – he rummaged through his wife’s body for some time, squeezed it – skinny and emaciated, she panted like a set of bellows – on some nights she wept softly in grief, one more enemy in the womb, and as for you – do you still enjoy all this even at this age? Subal laughed loudly like an idiot.
When Subal wasn’t home the children wandered all over – when a car stopped on the road they sidled up to it and stared open-mouthed – they couldn’t tear their eyes away from the beautiful, fair-skinned, well-dressed ladies and gentlemen – the two boys scavenged cigarette butts, soda-bottle caps and bread crusts before running away. Haran was twelve – he was the only one to have been going to a primary school for some time now. Subal’s wife could not control the children – she tried only to keep an eye on the middle daughter Kushi. Ei Kushi-ee, ei bitch, where are you? If Kushi didn’t respond, she instructed whichever of the children was nearby, go find out where that whore has gone. Go, shitface. Kushi came up panting, why are you yelling? I was only standing on Bhaipee Road. Gesticulating wildly, Kushi’s mother said, you expect me to pray instead of yelling? Let your father come home – what do you have to go stand by the road for? You think I don’t understand? Look at your sari – tits spilling out, a grown-up girl running wild – trying to cover her breasts with the end of the her sari, Kushi said, you didn’t buy me a blouse, everyone’s got a blouse…
Buy you a blouse? I’ll whip you. You should be happy I don’t make you run around naked, don’t get enough to eat, wants a blouse – and how some people can stuff their face!
A couple of cars were parked, four or five gentlemen were talking, pointing to their house and waving their arms. Subal was there too. Bagala looked on, her eyes probing like fishing hooks. Those dacoits must have come to tempt her son again. Holding her ground, Bagla shouted, o Shobol, Shobol, what are you talking to them about now?
Ignoring her, Subal continued his conversation. The visitors slithered a long way down the slope from VIP Road. Positioning themselves by the canal, they leaned back for a view of the house. Kushi stood by her grandmother – one of them ran his eyes repeatedly over her sinuous frame. Shielding her, Bagala continued shouting, o Shobol, listen to me, come listen to me before you talk to them. Blood will flow, I’m warning you, my father-in-law’s home…
Subal turned to snarl at her through clenched teeth just the one time, shut up. Else I’ll make you shut up for life. He resumed his conversation with the visitors with great attention.
Subal returned after quite some time, practically jumping for joy, with wads of money in his hand. Bagala was pale with fear, her lower lip kept curling in terror – pouncing on Subal, she said, what have you done, have you given them your thumb impression?
Yes I have, answered Subal with a mysterious smile.
– What, even without waiting for me to die?
– What are you fainting for? Listen to the whole story first. Talk about being a woman. Always dying of fear. Haven’t I promised you not to sell the house as long you’re alive? You’re not dying so easily either – women live longer in poor families.
– But what is it? Why were those people here? What’s all the money for?
– I haven’t sold the house for heaven’s sake. Just got thirty rupees free. They’re going to put up a picture here – they’ll pay fifteen rupees a month for it.
– They’ll pay you to put up a picture? What picture?
– How should I know. Some picture. A hoarding.
– What’s a horting?
– I told you, a picture. Fifteen rupees every month – damn what a lucky day, god has put money in my hand, here you are, he said – I’m going to Netai’s.
– Every month!
Overcome by a burst of generosity, Subal promised his mother a four-rupee blanket. Haran demanded paper and pencil – else he would be thrown out of school. Buy a blouse for Kushi, will you, said Subal’s wife – she’s filled out so much. People stare. It suddenly seemed as though this fifteen-rupee increase in their monthly earnings would solve every problem in Subal’s family.
The equipment arrived on a truck three or four days later. A few brisk young men in shirts and trousers walked past the pond to arrive at Subal’s house. Two strong iron posts were planted on either side of the building. Metal left its mark on the soil here for the first time, and an enormous picture was attached to the poles. A picture of an airline. The entire picture was a lovely intoxicating blue, in the right-hand corner a plane in mid-air, to the left a scene from a city in the distance, its buildings with spires like temples, as though this were a picture of the abode of the gods in heaven, below them ran a couple – a man and a woman – holding hands, the woman’s skirt had flown up a long way, how beautiful her legs were, the curve of her breasts was pleasing too. Written in large English letters across the middle of the picture were the words:
FLY QUANTAS TO THE WORLD
The picture ran from one end of Subal’s house to the other – the young men put everything in place in about three hours and left. The picture was so shining and new and eye-catching that, never mind the children, even Subal stared at it open-mouthed for a long time. The very look of his house seemed to have been transformed. Now everyone would look at his house as they passed by on Bhaipee Road. God, what a picture, they looked alive. The girl seemed to have started running this minute, holding the man’s hand, she was running, still running. The roar of the plane would be heard any moment. And those houses? Exactly as though the skies had parted by chance to offer a glimpse of heaven. Subal shook the iron posts to examine whether they had been planted firmly enough in the soil. Then, with his eyes on the picture, he ran his hands lovingly over the post. Even the palm tree next to his house had been dwarfed by the picture. A pair of vultures perched on the tree. The bastards simply could not be got rid of. Subal decided to cut the tree if needs be. But would the vultures perch on the picture then? He couldn’t let that happen. The picture seemed to have become Subal’s property in this short span of time.
It was a day of momentous excitement for the children. Even Kushi kept turning round to look at the picture. It made her so happy, she could not decide what to do, whom to tell about it. How lovely the girl was, and the boy was handsome too. Kushi had seen many ladies and gentlemen – many cars passed this way on the airport with such people in them – but none of them was as beautiful as in this picture. How broad the boy’s shoulders were, and the girl’s legs were so pink and ripe – the clothes that she was wearing must be very expensive.
Haran was the only one in this family to have recently become literate, none of the others could read either English or Bengali. No one had understood the words written across the picture. Haran spelt them out solemnly, f, l, y, fly, which is an insect. Insect my foot, the others responded in a chorus, where do you see any insects in there. That’s what it says, what can I do, Haran responded gravely. Haran’s younger brother Nobu was the most precocious of the lot – look, Ma, you can see the girl’s bum, heehee. As soon as Kushi slapped him without provocation, her mother snarled, what did you slap the boy for at this time of the evening? He hasn’t done anything. You’re getting too uppity. I’m going to break a rod on your back.
Since something so wonderful had happened at home today, Kushi had expected there would be rice for dinner. Her mother didn’t even tread that path. Subal was out celebrating with hooch. Kushi had to knead the dough for the chapatis. A couple of chapatis each certainly didn’t satisfy her, in fact they whetted her appetite further, rice was far better, even a single mouthful gave some comfort. Kushi sat neat the kitchen the door, kneading the dough, darkness closed in quickly, frogs croaked, one of them sounded exactly like a small boy wailing – must have been grabbed by a snake. The place became infested with water snakes in the monsoon. Turning her head, Kushi realized she could no longer see the picture in the darkness, the vultures could be heard fluttering their wings on the treetop.
Kushi became restless as soon as a piercing whistle, like the cry of a squirrel, was heard. She looked at the road with probing eyes. Quickly rubbing her hands to get rid of the dough on it, she said, will you make the chapatis, Thakuma, the dough is ready.
Why, where are you off to, her mother screeched in the kitchen.
– I’ll be back in a bit.
– In a bit? Where do you think you’re going at this hour?
Kushi knew how to screech too. For heaven’s sake, she said in rage, am I not allowed to go for a shit?
She stole away to VIP Road around the back of the house. As the cars whizzed past, Kushi skipped across the road to other side, clambering down the slope to a spot beside a berry bush by the water. At once a young man pulled Kushi firmly into his arms. Holding a packet near her face, he said, I got this for you. You love alur chop, don’t you?
Kushi was constantly scolded and beaten by everyone at home all day. Moreover, she always felt hungry after her meals. Here was the only person who was good to her, who gave her things to eat, who kissed her. His name was Tabu, he worked as a fitter in the cycle factory. Kushi began to bolt the alur chop and beguni – delicious and deep-fried – he had brought her. And meanwhile Tabu slipped his hands under her sari began to knead her tender breasts. After she had eaten a few, Kushi said, don’t you want some, Tabu-da? Ei, don’t do that, it tickles, heehee.
– Shhh, don’t shout.
– Not there, I’m really going to shout if you do.
– All right, you silly girl.
Moving his hands from Kushi’s thighs, Tabu rested them on her buttocks for a moment before they began to wander again. As soon as Kushi stirred and twisted and lay down on the ground, so did Tabu by her side.
They lay on the slope in the darkness – cars passed by continuously above them. No one could see them. Kushi whispered, they’ve put up a picture at home today.
– What picture?
– Haven’t you seen it? God, it’s so beautiful – you won’t believe it till you see it. It’s dark now, come tomorrow morning.
An agitated Kushi suddenly jumped as though terrified. As though she were confronted with a supernatural scene. A passing headlight had lit up the advertisement hoarding painted in fluorescent colours, the entire scene glowed briefly, becoming invisible again as soon as the car had passed. Kushi asked, did you see it? Did you? You didn’t?
– What, see what? Speak softly, if some bastard…
– There, see, our house.
The scene was lit up again by another passing headlight. Spotting it, Tabu said, ah, advertrise.
– What does it mean?
– When did they put it up? It’s beautiful.
– Isn’t it? Did you just see the boy and the girl …
Each time a passing headlight illuminated the picture briefly, Kushi raised herself in eagerness to see it. Tabu’s busy hands roamed all over her body, she no longer stopped him. When he brought his mouth close to hers, drawing blood from her lips with his teeth in his hurry, Kushi said, lapping up the salty trickle with her tongue, why are they running, Tabu-da?
– Will they take the plane to where those houses are?
– Yes, mmm…
– Where’s this place?
– I don’t know. London, maybe – which means England.
– Why did they put the picture up at our house?
– Can’t you be quiet, oh, how I love you, mmm darling, I’ll bring you chicken cutlets tomorrow.
– They’re both so beautiful, aren’t they?
Even as an unequalled delight ran through her body, Kushi kept turning her head to gaze at the picture being lit up every now and then in the darkness.