It wasn’t exactly early evening – nearly twelve-thirty in the morning, in fact. Suddenly there was a huge uproar from Flat No. 7, where Ganesh-babu lived. I paid no attention at first – for generosity was not one of things that the nineteen families who occupied the holes in this enormous mansion of nineteen flats could be held guilty of.
Therefore I was no longer in the habit of displaying curiosity at an uproar.
When things seem to be going out of hand, I usually slip into my sandals and slip away.
But there weren’t many instances of a melodrama being enacted at this hour, except in Shashadhar-babu’s flat. ‘Shashadhar-babu drinks, so…’ explained Boudi. ‘Rubbish!’ countered her husband, my brother. ‘We’ve been working in the same office for twenty years, how could I not have known if he was a drunkard? It’s his wife who’s mad…’ As for me, I couldn’t tell a lunatic apart from an alcoholic.
Whatever the truth might be, we often had to wake up at midnight to be listen to every word of this domestic strife.
But as far as I knew, Ganesh-babu’s wife was away.
I thought I saw her get into a car the other day with her trunk, bedroll and children. Well then? Ganesh-babu’s voice was prominent, which meant he was one of the participants. But who was the other? How had Ganesh-babu found the strength to go on this way? Who had inspired him?
Trouble was, the commotion was growing louder. Such choice phrases as ‘Trying to murder me’, ‘have you arrested’ and ‘my god’ could be heard. Should I get out of bed? What was the matter?
I had another problem – I felt faint when people made such scenes. Condemn me as a ‘coward’ if you will – but this is the truth.
Wondering whether to get out of bed, I stayed in it.
The gale was getting weaker. Small mercy – at least it had not been necessary to summon the police. I had been terrified, wondering when the police would start banging on the door. Their judgement was hopeless; they might well have arrested me instead of anyone else.
It wasn’t the police, but there was a banging on the door.
Not loudly, but accompanied by a loud voice.
– Are you asleep, Thakurpo?
Jumping out of bed, I opened the door. – What is it, Boudi?
– Kurukshetra. How could you sleep through it all, Thakurpo?
– My crime?
– What do you mean! A thousand salutes to you, honestly. No wonder I call you a saint. Are you telling me you didn’t hear the hullabaloo at all? Ganesh-babu was about to be murdered.
– About to be?
Relieved, I didn’t hesitate to speak up – about to be murdered? Not actually murdered? God is merciful, but who was the would-be assassin? Against whom was the murderous battle staged at midnight?
– So this is what you think, Thakurpo? That our only mission is to kill people? That’s why you haven’t married, right? Do you know who had turned up to murder him? Lalit-babu’s daughter Sarama.
It was becoming difficult to sustain indifference.
– Lalit-babu’s daughter? She was trying to murder Ganesh-babu? What do you mean?
– What do you suppose? Miss World was caught stealing.
– Stealing? Lalit-babu’s daughter? In Ganesh-babu’s house?
– Yes, my dear. Everyone knows she’s the first among thieves. Just because you stroll through life with your eyes shut. No one dares keep money in their pocket out of fear that she will steal a rupee or two whenever she can.
Overcoming my astonishment, I said – Wait, let me get this straight. Ganesh-babu was in his room, wasn’t he?
– Of course he was. She thought the rogue was asleep, so she crept in.
Needless to say, Boudi had no reservations when it came to use of the language; to make herself clear she used both classical and modern allusions.
– All clear so far. But after that? Did she try to stab him in the heart or strangle him?
Boudi was irritated. – Not at all. She had just opened the drawer quietly when Ganesh-babu woke up and grabbed her. Whereupon she picked up the heavy brass tumbler from his bedside and smashed it down on his forehead. Oooh, so much blood! Nani’s mother’s nephew bandaged him. Imagine a woman being so ferocious!
With some hesitation, I said – But this is just one side of the story, isn’t it? It could also have happened that Ganesh-babu himself had a bad intention…
– Why couldn’t it have? Anything is possible. I don’t consider the scoundrel a good man either, but remember that this was not Lalit-babu’s house but Ganesh-babu’s.
This was true. She was right. Boudi may have been uneducated, but she understood logic.
I was silent for a few moments. Then I asked – What did she do when caught?
– Oh my god. Don’t even ask. At first she was blustering. ‘So what?’ ‘I’m glad I did.’ ‘Pervert.’ And so on. Then she stood like a wild horse, refusing to budge. People swarming everywhere, but she couldn’t care less. Eventually her father whisked her away, practically beating her up.
Dada could be heard coughing in the next room.
Not coughing exactly – pretending to cough. In other words, he wished to inform his wife that he was awake and suffering the pangs of separation.
Following the natural order of life, Boudi’s enthusiasm was diminished. Summarising the rest of her statement, she disappeared.
– Go to sleep. Sorry for waking you up with my story. She may have left after these words of politeness, but sleep eluded me now. I had often seen Lalit-babu’s daughter… going up and down the stairs, in the veranda and balcony. But I hadn’t heard her talk overmuch. The more I tried to picture the tall girl with short hair and an aggressive attitude, the less I could reconcile her with Boudi’s description.
Could Boudi’s accusation be true?
Where was the furtive, cowering air of the thief?
* * *
Had I myself not been puzzled over the changing weight of the contents of my pocket recently? It was true that I had a reputation for being absent-minded, but it was happening so often that even I had become alert.
But I had not said anything, for if Boudi got to hear, the maid would be persecuted mercilessly.
Was it Sarama then?
Could the impossible be possible?
Despite my misgivings, I said nothing.
* * *
The days passed…
I saw the girl moving about in the same aggressive manner, her short hair flying. And the money in my pocket still didn’t add up. But I felt no inclination to be watchful.
I caught her red-handed, just as Ganesh-babu had.
I had just returned home from the last show at the cinema – I was stunned when I switched the light on.
Sarama was poised before my open suitcase.
I had never realized the meaning of the word ‘perplexed’ so deeply before.
– Switch the light off, switch it off at once.
A sharp, low command.
– Why should I? I said with great difficulty. – Run away. Quick.
– Why should I run away?
Her tone was as hostile as her gestures.
Annoyed, I said – Do you intend to throw a tumbler at me instead of running away?
– Oh, you’re being snide about Ganesh-babu, aren’t you? I’m glad I attacked the swine. I’ll do it again if I have to. Do you know I can throw a brick at him if necessary?
– Now I do. But I would be delighted to know what you’re doing with my suitcase.
To tell the truth, although I could see her sitting before the open suitcase, I did not have the sensation of being in the presence of a dangerous thief.
Shutting the lid loudly, Sarama rose to her feet and said belligerently – No need to be proud of your suitcase. All my effort wasted. There’s nothing in the suitcase, only rubbish.
I was vastly amused.
The thief had no stage fright! She was lecturing the householder for not having anything worth stealing. Definitely entertaining!
It’s possible that I would not have been quite as amused had the thief been Lalit-babu’s son and not his daughter. There was no point denying the enchanting influence of a young lady. Although I was fully aware that I should get rid of Sarama before anyone found out, I kept talking simply because I was tempted to – I had no hesitation even in sharing a laugh with someone who had entered my room to steal my things. Smiling, I said – Indeed, it really was wrong of me not to have left something valuable in the suitcase, don’t you think? But why this terrible habit? Taking things from people without telling them…
Sarama asked angrily – Why shouldn’t I have such a habit? Will anyone give me money willingly?
– But why should they? Who gives money away without reason?
Sarama was worked up at my response. – Oh yes, I know very well no one gives money away without reason. But what are we supposed to do? Should we starve to death?… Don’t you see how badly the landlord’s son insults us every day because Baba cannot afford the rent?
– That’s for your father to sort out. I spoke gravely.
– ‘For your father to sort out!’ How good my father is at sorting things out! Sarama mimicked me. – As if Baba can even understand. He’s drunk twenty-four hours a day.
Now it was my turn for an acidic retort. – And so like a dutiful daughter you earn money to pay for his alcohol. Not a bad way of doing things – no hard work required.
Sarama seemed to explode. – What else can I do? Have I been educated? Can I get a job and make a living? Do you prefer hearing what that scum Ganesh-babu says?
While I didn’t exactly know what Ganesh-babu said, I had a pretty fair idea from what had happened the other night.
I said with a grim lack of humour – I have no desire to know what Ganesh-babu says. But there’s no credit in stealing to pay for our father’s drinking. You can’t call that bravery.
– Who says it’s bravery? Who says it’s creditable? Sarama seemed reckless now. – You’re a decent man, you’re the best among the people here, but even you say such things. Don’t you understand? Don’t you realise Baba beats me black-and-blue if I don’t get him money? He beats me up and pushes me into Ganesh-babu’s house.
Suddenly she did something incredible.
Even before she had finished speaking, she burst into tears and flung herself on my bed.
Imagine my plight.
I couldn’t pull her away, but suppose someone saw? What was I to do?
Who would believe that Sarama was in my room only to steal money?
Should I make my escape quietly?
The door to the other room had long been barred. I couldn’t go out on the road either, for the main gate was locked by now.
Should I remain rooted to the spot like a fool?
I had no choice but to go up to the bed and say – Listen, you have to go now, there’s a good girl. This isn’t right. Here’s all the money I have, take it and leave, I beg of you.
– I don’t want your money. Rubbish. How much will you give me? How much can you give me? How long will it last?
Guiltily I asked what my responsibilities were.
– But what else can I do?
– You can do everything. Save me from his misery – I beg of you. I can’t go on like this.
She neither got out of my bed, nor raised her face. Still lying face down, Sarama uttered these words.
The sight of a sobbing woman in my bed was a strange feeling. This strange scene made my skin prickle amidst the silence that enveloped us. She no longer seemed arrogant, it was hard to believe she was a thief. How beautiful her pose was on the bed…
Gazing at her, I seemed to enjoy the sight of her heaving and weeping on my bed…. I was surprised… intoxicated…
* * *
– Ah, I see. Now I realise why Thakurpo has been talking to himself at this hour of the night. He isn’t alone, he has company.
A chill ran down my spine.
Boudi was in my room.
– Excellent. So our Sarama knows how to steal all kinds of things. Don’t you agree, Thakurpo? She’s not just a petty thief.
Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t force a single word out.
Boudi did the talking for all of us. – So even saints are led astray? But shame on you Thakurpo, it’s one thing to slip and fall, but another thing altogether to do it in the mud…. Never mind, shut the door before you make up, Thakurpo. If other people see, they will say terrible things about us if not about you. I’d better go; if your Dada sees me here he will refuse to see my face ever again.
I had the power to rescue Sarama this instant.
I could save her from ultimate disgrace… from the hands of extreme ignominy. In Boudi’s presence I could put my hand on her head and say – Get up, Sarama, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Just as well that Boudi has come to know. Come, let us seek her blessings together… There were plenty of wonderful things that the language would allow me to say.
It was not even sinful to lie in order to protect someone seeking sanctuary… but it wasn’t easy either.
Just because we had been forced to take shelter in this pigpen because of the post-war situation, our blood had not turned red, after all. So, forsaking the lure of platitudes, I followed Boudi out of the room to explain everything. With great contempt I said, ‘Are you mad, Boudi? You think that thing and I…’