Shardulshundori: Sirsho Bandyopadhyay

Singapore, 1920: Curtain Call

Priyanath was slowly sinking into the quicksand. The deep yellow mass of sand had the tight consistency of mud. The dense, impenetrable, yellow sludge closed in on him, entering his nostrils, his mouth. Priyanath was choking. Suddenly the deep yellow began to change colour in some places to orange. An unusual coppery orange.

Priyanath tried to recollect where he had seen this particular shade before. But even before he could remember, he had a view of black stripes on a tawny background, and was simultaneously overcome by a sharp, foul stench. It was a familiar smell. The raw odour of tiger urine. It wasn’t just in the jungle but also in its cage that the tiger sprayed its urine to stake its territory.

Even in his benumbed state, Priyanath wanted to laugh, reminded of a strange habit of his own. Wherever he went with his troupe, he always urinated beneath the open sky after the last post of the main tent had been driven into the ground. It was Fatikchandra, mad Fatik, who had been the first to observe this peculiar practice of his. ‘So you’re staking your territory, Priyababu,’ he had brayed one day.

The stripes appeared even clearer now against the tawny background. Priyanath reached out. His fingers sank into coarse, thick fur. A rumbling sound emerged, which he recognised at once. Lakshmi. The Royal Bengal tiger whom he considered no less than his daughter. Lakshmi and Narayan had been tiny balls of cotton when the King of Rewa had gifted them to Priyanath. He used to give them their milk himself, using cottonwool wicks to drip it into their mouths.

Lakshmi was as good as her name, totally obedient and utterly devoted to Priyanath. Narayan wasn’t naughty either. Both of them knew as soon as Priyanath went up to their cages, leaning their heads against the bars and purring for his caresses. But Lakshmi was more than a daughter. As a baby she would often refuse to return to her cage, adamant about staying with him. He would have to let her sleep in his tent, next to his bed. On some winter nights she would even climb into his bed, nestling against him.

Where’s Lakshmi, where are you? Why can’t I see your face? About to lose consciousness, Priyanath tried to keep his eyes open with great effort.

But what was this? This wasn’t Lakshmi! The body was a tiger’s, but the face was a woman’s. Was it a woman or a demoness? What did she want? Why was she slithering up to him like a giant python, bringing her face so close to his?

‘Who are you? What do you want?’ Priyanath screamed.

The woman’s lips tried to form an answer, but all Priyanath could hear was a purring. The kind that his tigers made when they wanted his attention.

But what was she saying? Listening closely, Priyanath detected her slurred speech. ‘Will you kiss me? Give me a kiss. You’re so brave. Why don’t you kiss me?’

The words sounded like groans, but they seemed familiar. Who was it who used to talk this way? Who? Someone he knew very well.

The woman’s face was inches away from Priyanath’s now. Suddenly she said, ‘Kiss me here, right here…’ and turned her face away.

Priyanath gasped. One side of her face was all but gone. Someone had ripped off part of her jaw in a fury, leaving only a misshapen lump of flesh where her neck and shoulders should have been.

Opening his mouth to shriek in horror, Priyanath realised that only a rumbling sound was emerging from his throat. The mangled face was still bleeding profusely. His white vest was soaked, turning red with blood.

He tried to push the face away with both his hands, but his hands only passed through air. The woman broke into peals of laughter, which turned into maniacal rage the very next moment. Heaving with anger, she said, ‘You can’t, Priyababu, you can’t. You can try as hard as you like, but you can’t push me away.’

She clung to his neck with arms that ended not in fingers but in fearsome claws. Priyanath tried in a frenzy to extricate himself. He was panting, desperately trying to draw deep breaths. The bed, the entire room, was awash with blood. It flooded into his nose and mouth, suffocating him.

A terrified Priyanath woke up with a start. He had fallen asleep in the comfortable wicker chair next to his desk. His clothes were sopping wet with perspiration. Beads of sweat streamed down from his face.

He sat there for a while, trying to normalise his breathing. My god, what a horrible nightmare.

An electric bulb was burning brightly in the room. It was hurting his eyes. These lights had been introduced to Calcutta a few years ago. They must have come to Singapore even earlier. But Priyanath was not yet accustomed to them. He had always travelled with his circus from one village to another, performing in the countryside. The glare was painful. He couldn’t open his eyes properly.

Priyanath squinted at the adjoining bathroom. He needed to wipe off his perspiration. The towel was in there. But he staggered as soon as he got on his feet. His head began to reel.
He clutched the side of the desk to save himself from falling. Sheets of paper were strewn on its surface, all of them prescriptions from European medical practitioners. Doctors in Singapore had tested his blood and diagnosed jaundice. He had led an indisciplined life for years, with irregular meals, on top of which there had been frequent bouts of fever, along with searing headaches. He used to swallow fistfuls of painkillers, which had apparently harmed his liver severely. Visiting Penang with his troupe, he had fallen so ill that he had had to be taken to Singapore for treatment. The doctors had grounded him after a thorough examination, warning him that he wouldn’t survive unless he was treated immediately.

Since then Priyanath had remained imprisoned in this hotel in Singapore. But he was close to losing his mind in worry. He had barely managed to restart his circus after a great deal of trouble, and there was no one besides him to ensure that everyone in the troupe was fed properly and looked after, and that the animals were taken care of.

Priyanath sighed. His elder brother Motilal used to shoulder all the responsibilities of his Great Bengal Circus at one time. Priyanath did not have to concern himself with anything but the performance.

But Mejobabu was extremely bad-tempered. It wasn’t just with outsiders or with other members of the circus, Motilal had often fought bitterly with his own brother too. But then they had always made up. Despite all their conflicts, Priyanath was certain that Motilal would never be able to turn down his younger brother.

But there was no opportunity for patching up after their last feud. Motilal bid goodbye to the world suddenly.

What ensued after this was even more unbearable. Motibabu’s eldest son Motilal decided that he had come of age, and demanded to see the accounts. He even had several arguments with his uncle, claiming that Priyanath was single-handedly destroying the circus founded by his father. But he refused to accompany the troupe on its performances, or to find out for himself how such a large circus was managed.

Priyanath sank into gloom as he mused about all this. None of his own sons had evinced any interest in the circus, concentrating on their education instead. His second son, Abanikrishna, was a lover of the arts, just like Priyanath himself, and had already developed into a skilled artist. He wrote regularly to Priyanath, although each of his letters bore the same message, of the family’s financial hardship.

It was true that they were helpless, unable to cope. Just the other day a letter had arrived to inform him of mounting debts at all the neighbourhood shops. While none of the creditors was yet to visit them at home to demand their dues, they had let it be known that this could not go on.

Everyone at home was hopeful that this time, too, Priyanath would bring some money from his profits, as he usually did. But Priyanath himself was reeling under loans. Whom could he possibly tell that he had borrowed money at high interest rates to pay for this tour his circus was on? He had no idea how he would pay back his loans.

The only person aware of the situation was his friend Kazi Kader Daad, who had lent money to Priyanath in several instalments to help him overcome this difficult time. Priyanath had learnt from Abani’s letters that Kader Dead had even helped his family out in Calcutta with money occasionally.

When would he repay his friend for this favour? And how? Priyanath was at his wits’ end.
He was still discomposed. It was May, a hot month in Singapore. Priyanath felt as though his insides were on fire. He was perspiring profusely, his tongue was coated, he could barely keep his eyes open. He was overcome by exhaustion. Pouring several buckets of water over himself might bring some relief.

Priyanath stumbled towards the bathroom, only half conscious, groping for things to clutch. But halfway there, his head began to reel again.

With nothing to hold on to, Priyanath was about to lose his balance and fall. One of the posts on his four-poster bed appeared to him dimly. He tried to grasp it, but failed. His tall frame spun and collapsed on the corner of the bed.

Made in the western style, the bed had a low upright plank at its foot. Priyanath had fallen across it on his back, his hips resting on the patterned length of wood. The lower half his body was partly dangling, partly on the floor. The portion above the waist was slumped on the bed.

His head, however, had struck the floor with great force. It was a wooden surface, which was why he had not fractured his skull. But two streams of blood were flowing from Priyanath’s ears, pooling on the floor. His eyes were open, and the eyeballs had rolled upwards, inert.

The opening orchestra began to play with the ringing of the third bell. The solemn notes of the trumpet, clarinet, and English horn filled the tent.

Priyanath was still aroused by the sound of this music. it made him joyful, freeing him of all burdens. He remembered none of the financial uncertainty or the trouble of managing the troupe or the worry of how to run his household. On the contrary, he felt as though he were making a fresh start.

Priyanath swung cheerfully on his trapeze, his head pointing towards the ground. The upside-down face of a 12-year-old girl approached and receded alternately. She was also swinging upside down on her trapeze. Her nose-stud glittered, and stray strands of hair were stuck to her sweat-covered brow. Fervour shone in her dazzling eyes.

Priyanath called out to her, ‘Don’t be afraid, Sushila, let go. Let go at the end of the next swing.’ With a covert smile Sushila said, ‘Why should I be afraid? I know you’ll catch me, Priyababu.’

Fire of my reverence: Shakti Chattopadhyay

Fire of my reverence
Incinerate me
First, torch the two feet that can no longer move
Then the hands which hold no love or order today
Now icebergs of flowers in the crook of the arms
No more responsibility settling on the shoulders
Burn them in proximity to life
Stop a moment, then destroy
The silent seat of knowledge coloured by truth and lies
Save the pair of eyes
Maybe they still have
Something left to see
When the tears have stopped flowing crush the eyes
Don’t burn the garlands and bouquets dishevelled with fragrance
A loved touch lives on their bodies
Let them drift on the river freely, wilfully
Fire of my reverence
Incinerate me

From ‘Mahanadi’: by Anita Agnihotri

Flowing out of the Hirakud reservoir, the Mahanadi flows south for some distance, through Sambalpur and then to Suvarnapur or Sonpur, before turning eastward towards the Buddhist district, passing the hills and forests of Tikarpara and going on to Nayagadh district, and finally to the sea through the plains of Kendrapara and Jagatsinghpur, which are split by rivers running through them. All this comes much later, however. The town of Suvarnapur is drenched in the love of many rivers. The Tel is the longest tributary of the Mahanadi, renowned for being a witness to the archaeological history of southern Kausala. IN addition, the Utei from the tribal land in the south, the Sukhtel – which cuts through drought-seared Bolangir, and the Ang from deep within Bargarh-Padmapur all flow into the tributary. All these tributaries merge with the Mahanadi north of Sonpur; the place where the Tel joins the bigger river is named Vaidyanath. Sonpur was once a subdivision in the district of Bolangir, but it has been a full-fledged district for the past 15 years,

The new district does not appear particularly ostentatious. The town is as rustic and haphazardly laid out as many other sub-division towns. Old and new houses adjoin one another, there are open drains and vagrant bulls. Vegetables sold on the roadside. Lanterns in ramshackle huts turned into shops. When you look at Suvarnapur today, you won’t know how bustling a kingdom it once was, how many histories of victories and defeats have been written here.

But Sonpur has the Mahanadi. Like a decaying zamindar family’s classic sari spun with a single gold thread, the river has brought the murmur of running water to the district and town, to villages and markets, it has brought irrigation with the Bargarh canal system, greening the areas in and around Binka.

Walking down the narrow lane to the ghat at Tentultala, Subal discovers this extraordinary sight – or achievement – almost every day. This river. It is no lifeless geographical landmark, it is a beautiful, magical and distant woman from his own family. There’s some old human habitation in this part of town – the lanes are dirty, uncared for. The stone layers have peeled off, with mud and slime accumulating. The house that Subal lives in is an old, small building, the bricks exposed. Subal and his family cannot afford a higher rent, and the landlord hasn’t bother with repairs. It’s almost as though he wants the building to collapse on its tenants.

There’s just the one room, with an area for cooking next to it, separated by a wall rising halfway to the ceiling. The walls are decaying, untouched by paint for many years. From the half-covered cooking area, Gouri, Subal’s wife, has told him loudly, we’re out of cooking oil. She always reminds of something or the other they’re out of when he’s about to leave – rice or cooking oil or spices or kerosene or daal. Only the absence of rice and kerosene affects Subal’s practised ears, the other shortages do not come in the way of daily life.

Satya sir has been responsible for Subal’s interest in living in a city. Professor Satyendra Pradhan. Subal studied literature in college, where Satya sir taught the history of language. But his lectures effortlessly included geography, archaeology, social history and economics. Even a small town can contribute to the life of an intellectual. Like others, Subal too is attracted by magazine stalls, bookshops, libraries, DTP centres, movie halls and gatherings over cups of tea or coffee. He has neither much money nor many friends – but it is the town that Subal considers his sphere of existence and thought. It is no longer possible to go back to the dilapidated home in the village and live a starving existence with this parents and brother. He prefers his hungry life in the town. His mind, at least, gets nourishment. Yes, there’s the river too. As Subal stands at Tentultala Ghat in the morning, waiting for a long day of unemployment to be born, the blood in his veins begins to agitate in despair. He is not remotely adroit with words; nor does the stirring magic of poetry infect his thoughts. But still, Subal does write some verse these days, alongside his prose. This is the upheaval of the anguish that flows from the bereft feeling which confronting beauty leads to. Subal hesitates even to acknowledge it to himself.

Satya sir is coming today. It takes a lot of time to negotiate the roads crowded with cycle rickshaws and cattle. So the ghat is the best location. Satya sir has retired from teaching and lives in Sambalpur now – he doesn’t care to settle down in a single place. His students, who live in different places in eastern India, keep inviting him, or perhaps an educational institution – he’s happy if his ticket is paid for, he goes wherever he’s invited, to read a paper or give a speech or just meet people.

The teacher loves the Mahanadi. He often spends the night on the large passenger boats moored on the river. On moonlit nights – when the moon is full or soon afterwards, during torrential rains or in spring or in autumn, when the moonbeams and the waves create ethereal beauty – Satyendra loves gazing at the water. Sometimes he asks the students of Suvarnapur to join him, listening to them as they read poetry. Subal has visited him too. Satyendra has taught him with great care the histories of the temples and ghats and kings of Suvarnapur. Such knowledge is of great use for all sorts of research, it even earns money when offered to scholars doing their fieldwork. Satya sir keeps a quiet eye on opportunities for Subal to earn some money. He often initiates these himself, passing on Subal’s address to travellers and researchers.

Satya Pradhan’s hired car will reach the ghat at Tentultala along the road that leads into the city, running parallel to the river. This is where the town begins, and, along with it, the traffic congestion.

This time the teacher has told Subal, I want to travel on the rive by daylight, hire a boat. That is what Subal has done, telling Gandaram the boatman to make himself available, although he has paid no advance, which is why he has felt a stab of anxiety at dawn, what if the boatman does not come?

How beautiful the expanse of the river is in the morning. Across the water stretching to the horizon, the golden hue of the sandbank on the other side is visible. The clouds are reflected in the clear water. Near the bank the water is dark green – is it green or emerald – lightening gradually to sky blue. Rocks rise out the water, large or small, enormous at some places.  Although not visible here, strong rock structures can be seen in the north, where the Tel flows into the Mahanadi. Satya sir says the rocks on the river-bed at Sambalpur are much narrower and steeper. Why? Is the current stronger here, tormenting the rock, cutting into it deeply? Water cutting into rock is an unusual image, a strange thing to happen. Water was force, rock does not, rock is helpless. Long, narrow dinghies lie in parallel at the ghat. The boatmen take as many as forty or forty-five passengers across on them. It might look fragile, but it needs four people to row these ‘Kausli’ dinghies or ‘dinghas’ when the river swells in monsoon, and the current becomes sharper. Even slimmer dinghies ply in the Mahanadi – they’re called ‘Huli donga’s. The boatmen cup their hands to use their fingers as oars, which is why these small craft named after fingers, the local word for which is ‘ahuli’ or ‘huli’.

‘Ho…oi Sobalbabu!’ It’s clear from the sound of his voice that the boatman Gandaram Nayak is drunk out of his mind. He drinks even in the daytime, for he cannot row otherwise. He is dressed in a short-sleeved banyan and a dirty dhoti, with a gamchha with a pattern of checks wrapped around his waist. Hereabouts people wear rings and amulets made with nails from boats. When people need them they turn to the boatmen. These rings are certain to solve difficult, even impossible problems, such as a daughter who can’t be married off because she’s too old. Where does this power come from? From the fact that since the boats go across the river, the iron on them can help overcome problems.

Getting out of a wheezing Ambassador, Satya sir crushes Subal in his arms. Gandaram is staring with a frown, not sure whether to smile or not.

Let me introduce you, Satyendra says after Subal had recovered his joy, this is Smita Khujur, from Jharkhand. She teaches in Delhi, having heard of our beautiful river she’s come to see it.

Subal stares at Smita in astonishment. She’s as dark as he is, tall, her hair piled high on her head. Not a trace of jewellery anywhere on her. The coarse handspun sari she’s dressed in suits her beautifully, on her left wrist she wears a watch with a broad black band. Smita is gazing at the river, charmed. Then she extends her hand to Subal. His palms are perspiring in embarrassment. Smita says, I’ve seen this river even more beautiful in Chhattisgarh, where it is born, but here it looks completely different.

The Kosli donga takes a slight turn and begins to move northward. Gangaram sits at the prow, his helper at the stern, Smita on a plank in the middle, with Subal next to her, forced to sit there by Satyen, who’s facing both of them.

The water is green, the river flows pleasingly. There are fast currents even near the bank, giving rise to waves. The gurgling of the water is soft but constant. A bird is calling in the distance, a continuous, metallic sound with occasional pauses. Leaning to her right, Smita really dips all her fingers or ahulis in the water. The green water flows over them, the sunlight making dappled patterns on the surface. There aren’t any crocodiles, are there?

Before Satyendra can answer Gandaram exclaims, crocodiles, here? You can find them to the south of Satkosia, there’s a crocodile project there.

Smita turns to look at him. Gandaram has unhealthy puffiness beneath his eyes and on his cheeks, induced by alcohol. His forehead is wrinkled, though his jet black hair makes it difficult to guess his age quickly.

This isn’t his real name, Satyendra tells Smita with a smile. He speaks so softly that only Subal should be able to hear him, but because the boatman’s attention is on everything except rowing, he speaks up loudly.

My father’s name is Neelkantha. My parents were filled with fear after losing two children in a row, a daughter and a son. So my mother sold me to a Ganda or an untouchable when I was a baby. I have been called Gandaram since then. I was sold with the faith that death will not summon a child touched by an untouchable. There is even the practice of passing on a child to a washerman  in this area.

Smita laughs. A water partridge flies past simultaneously, calling out, twaang twaang.

 

Every Sunday: Binod Ghoshal

Oooh, how scared I was at first, god! Don’t blame me, OK? Isn’t everyone a little scared on their first plane ride? When the plane suddenly left the ground and zoomed into the sky, I shrank back in fear and grabbed his hand tightly. I had taken the window seat so that I could look down. I was reassured when he put his hand on mine lightly. He… who?

My husband, who else? This wasn’t his first time on a plane though. He has to fly to Bombay or Delhi on office work every two or three months. He’s been to America too, twice. As soon as I heard I decided to ask him to take me along next time. He would have no choice. I’ve been dying to see America ever since I was a child. He’s a ‘handsome Brahmin, senior post MNC, 29/5’9″‘ I’ve seen very few men as fair-skinned as him. A full head of thick black hair. His cheeks turn a light green when he shaves, because he uses some brilliant ideas to add style and impress the ladies. How handsome he looks then. I wish I could… no, but his body always gives off a lovely fragrance. I start smelling of it too after he’s been by my side for a while. What IS this fragrance? I wear perfume too, but the scent is never as good. We’re going to Bombay now. We’ll spend two days there and then go to Goa for our honeymoon. Hee hee. We only just got married. We completed the eight-day rituals a couple of days ago and left today. He won’t get leave later. I’m going so far away for the first time in my life. I feel funny – both joy and anxiety. Restless. I must remember to call Ma as soon as we land in Mumbai – I must, I must. She worries for me so much. She’s worried for me all her life. The plane is so nice. A very lovely air-hostess served us coffee a little while ago. She smiles constantly. She seemed to bend over a little too much when serving my husband. No, it’s just my weird ideas. I look down through the window. Oh my god. Everything is so small. How high up are we?

The roads, the land, the people, the rivers, the hills, the seas… everything’s tiny. I am ‘below 23, exquisitely beautiful, convent-educated’. My heart trembles at the thought. I lower my eyes.

My husband has a huge jewellery shop on B.B. Ganguly Street. Everyone knows the shop. They advertise so much. White and yellow lights glitter on the glass walls all day. He’s ’43/5’1″, a little shorter than me. Never mind. His complexion too… but forget all that. He’s rather… er… fat – but you can’t have everything. He spends all day in front of the fan in the shop (very thrifty, no air-conditioner yet), beads of perspiration on his face. The back of his kurta, his underarms, the creases in his neck are all sopping wet with sweat. He has flowing locks like on the idols of the gods, and greying sideburns. A gold chain dangles around his neck, going down all the way to his navel. Four gold rings with thick stones inset on his right hand, and two on the left. I am encased in ornaments too. They have their ‘own house in N. Calcutta’. As old as it is large. There’s a sleepy, lazy, dank smell as soon as you step in. A dark staircase leads to the first floor. A pile of dirty dishes beneath the tap on one side of the square yard – such an enormous house, but perpetually quiet, like a summer afternoon. Only when the maid comes does it wake up to the sound of the dishes being washed. This house has many owners, many families, but these people are the only ones who live here. All the other doors are locked. Their family is extremely conservative. The women are not allowed to go out on their own. Here I am barely thirty. I’m a ‘W.B. Swarnabanik, genuine fair beauty’. Although they had ‘no demands’, my father had to give them a lot of things. This husband of mine has become a dullard, measuring out gold and counting notes all day. No interest in anything. At night… never mind. I was introduced via ‘photo and correspondence’. I had sent the same one that I send everywhere, the postcard-sized photograph in a green sari. They were happy with it. The negotiations and wedding took place quickly. They don’t know I’m a divorcee. They weren’t told before the wedding, and they’ll never come to know either. I was married off from my maternal uncle’s house in Uttarpara. None of my neighbours in Diyara know of this marriage. So how will these people come to know? They think I’m first-hand. You know, hiding the facts scares me. But I keep it under wraps…. But my daughter? My six-year-old daughter?… I look at the floor again.

This husband of mine has an income of ‘six lakh annually’. His ‘first wife died in an accident’. They have ‘two two-storied houses in Calcutta’. One of them has long been given out on rent, however. He’s a ‘computer engineer 30/5’6″‘. His first wife died within two years of their marriage. I still don’t now how – and I have no wish to know either. Let sleeping dogs lie. I’m fine as I am. They had said ‘widow or divorcee preferred’. ‘Homeloving slim minimum qualification graduate genuine fair beautiful girl wanted contact on phone 7-9 AM.’ I got my father to call at once. They liked everything about me – my height, figure, complexion, hair, nails, teeth, gums. This time I did not hide the fact that I was divorced. Why should I? That was what they wanted. And it wasn’t my fault. Who doesn’t fall in love and get married these days? The boy was from our neighbourhood. My friends tried to convince me that he was a bad sort, a scoundrel, don’t fall into his clutches, you’ll be ruined. Let him go. I couldn’t. Within a year and half of our getting married, it was he who left me, our daughter still in my arms. I used to live the way ‘genuine homeloving’ girls from middle-class families are forced to live when they slink back to their father’s house after being kicked out by their husbands. At least my daughter was going to school, getting decent food. I don’t blame my parents at all. They had tried to persuade me, but I hadn’t bothered. Love is not just blind, it’s deaf too. My father’s old-fashioned stationery shop opposite our house limps along, panting like a tuberculosis patient. My brother is in his second year of college. So many stomachs to fill. How long could the shop and the paltry interest from the post-office savings have sustained us? I didn’t hide a thing – I told my husband everything. They had said they had ‘no demands’. Indeed they didn’t. Just the shankha and sindoor and a sari and, on my father’s insistence, a ring for my husband. He had bought a car just a few days before the wedding. A silver Santro. A real eye-catcher. I didn’t allow the plastic seat covers to be removed – it would only mean dust gathering on the seats. How dusty it is in Calcutta, my god. The two of us went for a drive the night after the wedding reception. When the car was racing past Victoria Memorial down Red Road, oh god! I can’t explain how it felt. He was driving. A saxophone (I learnt the name from him afterwards) on the car stereo and driving at high speed – I had goosebumps. But I realised in a couple of days he isn’t particularly interested in me physically. I wonder why. Maybe he has another girlfriend. Maybe he’s been pressured into marrying me instead of her. Or is it something else – because of which his first wife had died or something? To hell with it. I don’t worry, frankly. He hasn’t even touched me all these nights. I haven’t asked either. I don’t have those needs anymore. They vanished long ago. It’s enough not to be a burden on my father. I don’t fret about whether he likes me or not. They had wanted a divorcee, but ‘childless and unencumbered’. Is my daughter not my encumbrance? I have to leave him too.

I never thought I’d be able to leave this pathetic West Bengal and go to the USA. True, I still don’t know the name of the place in the US where we live. But how long will it take to find out? ‘Same or different caste, divorcee with child’ – they had ‘no objection’ to anything. I am ‘willing to live abroad’ and ‘smart and below thirty-five’ – so getting in touch was soon followed by the registered marriage. And then straight to this place by plane. My husband is a little on the old side, that’s all. Thoroughbred American. His grandmother was apparently Bengali. Although I talk to him in broken English now, I’ll teach him Bengali soon. He is an ‘established businessman’. He was also married earlier. The marriage broke up barely a year later. His son from his first wife is twenty-eight. He doesn’t stay with his father though. I had already realised that the old man was not looking for a wife but for a trustworthy maid to do the household work. I have no problems. I’ve had my daughter admitted to a good school. Such lovely books, and what a fine school uniform. They have computer studies even at this age. It’s so different in this country. She goes to school in a shiny bus every day. Their school bus. Cakes, biscuits and chocolate at recess…. she’s sooooo happy. She even has her own room at home. Such a little girl and a room of her own… hee hee. Of course, she hasn’t accepted the man as her father yet. All in good time. But I don’t even know these people well enough. I’ve heard people here change wives as often as they yawn. The old man still wants it, though. Even though I hate it I don’t have a choice… But what if he throws me out with my daughter when I’m no longer new? If he leaves me suddenly what will I do in this foreign country with my daughter? No, there’s no need to be so greedy. Better to live in one’s own country.

No, really, this time I actually am veeeery happy. My husband is a straightforward man. Detached from most things. Spends all his time with his books and students. ‘Permanently employed’ schoolteacher. Earns about twelve thousand. Not too bad. Apparently he had made up his mind not to marry, but eventually, thanks to the efforts of his friends, mister agreed to marry at forty-two. Tremendously ‘religious and idealistic’. On my part I’m a ‘Brahmin, good family, religious-minded, vegetarian, broadminded, below thirty-four, B.A.’ Though I haven’t actually passed. I failed in one paper and didn’t take my exams again. But then he wasn’t going to ask for my results, after all. I am ‘Thakur So-and-So’s (foremost added) disciple, reasonably beautiful.’ I was about to feel very happy because he was ‘5’7″ permanently employed, divorcee with child acceptable’… but there was a box number, and I didn’t write to box numbers anymore. A good deal of money and several ‘suitable postcard-size colour photographs’ later, I had never received a single reply. A ‘phone number’ was the best option. The rejection came quickly. You didn’t have to wither away, waiting. When I saw a residential address I did write sometimes. I take tuition classes for three children in the lower classes. I have to pay for my daughter’s school fees, transport, books and notebooks, pencils, water-bottle, shoes, and my own things out of the five hundred and fifty I earn. How many letters can I write to heaven in expectation of a reply from god? I’m embarrassed to ask my father for money for these things.

I spend all of Sunday afternoon in the ‘Bride Wanted’ columns. My eyes lap up each and every word – ticked, unticked, highlighted. My mother asks wanly now and then, ‘Any luck?’ I respond as lightly as I can, ‘Nothing worthwhile.’
The afternoon rolls on. I get tired of it all. My eyes ache. The ballpoint pen lies glumly on the mat next to me. It cannot underline any of the ads. I am same/different caste, genuinely homeloving/working, below twenty-three/below thirty-five, extremely fair/wheatish, exquisitely beautiful/pleasant appearance, East Bengal/West Bengal, Brahmin/Sunni Muslim/Gandhabanik/Namahshudra, rational/devotional, convent-educated/minimum high school, first-hand/widow/divorcee, contact on phone 8-10 AM, no communication necessary without photograph… all, I am each and every one of these. Only, I’m not unencumbered. My six-year-old daughter. So what, says everyone. Put her in a boarding school. Happens all the time these days. I can’t. I’m the only one she has. Doesn’t let me out of her sight for a moment. The first thing she does when back from the government school, perspiring in her thick terrycot uniform, is to look for me. She’s terrified if I’m not there. I don’t know why. The more she grows up, the more afraid she seems to be getting. I cannot live without her…

Afternoon slides into evening. Waking up from her nap, my daughter says, ‘I’m going out to play, Ma.’ I fold the newspaper and rise to my feet. I’ll try again Next Sunday.

Mahesh: Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay

I

The village was named Kashipur. An insignificant village, with an even more insignificant zamindar, but such was his authority that you could not hear a peep out of his subjects.

It was the birthday of the zamindar’s youngest son. Having performed the holy rituals, Tarkaratna the priest was on his way home in the afternoon. The month of Boishakh was drawing to a close, but there was not even a trace of clouds anywhere, the searing sky seemingly pouring fire on everything below.The field stretching to the horizon before him was parched and cracked, with the blood in the veins of the earth escaping constantly through the crevices in the form of vapour. Gazing at it coiling upwards like flames made the head reel with drunkenness.

Gafoor Jolha lived on the edge of this field. The earthen wall of his house had collapsed, merging his yard with the road. The privacy of the inner chambers had all but surrendered itself to the mercy of the passer-by.

Pausing in the shade of a white teak tree, Tarkaratna called out loudly, ‘Are you home, Gafra?’

Gafoor’s ten-year-old daughter came to the door to tell him, ‘What do you need Baba for? He’s got a fever.’

‘Fever! Call the swine! Monster! Godless creature!’

The screaming and shouting brought Gafoor mian to the door, shivering with fever. An ancient acacia stood next to the broken wall, with a bull tethered to it. Pointing to it, Tarkaratna said, ‘What’s all this? Have you forgotten this is a Hindu village with a Brahmin zamindar?’ Red with rage and the heat, he could only be fiery with his words, but Gafoor stared at him, unable to understand the reason for the outburst.

‘When I passed this way in the morning it was tethered there,’ said Tarkaratna, ‘and now on my way back it’s still tethered the same way. Karta will bury you alive if you kill a bull. He’s a devout Brahmin.’

‘What can I do, Baba thakur, I have no choice. I’ve had this fever for several days now. I collapse every time I try to take him to graze.’

‘Then turn it loose, it’ll find food on its own.’

‘Where can I turn him loose, Baba thakur? The winnowing isn’t done, the grain is still lying in the fields. The hay hasn’t been sorted, the earth is burning, there’s not a blade of grass anywhere. What if he eats someone’s grains or hay—how can I turn him loose Baba thakur?’

Softening, Tarkaratna said, ‘If you can’t let it loose at least give it some straw. Hasn’t your daughter made any rice? Give it a bowl of starch and water.’

Gafoor did not answer, only looked at Tarkaratna helplessly and sighed.

Tarkaratna said, ‘No rice either? What did you do with the hay? Did you sell your entire share without keeping anything for your beast? You butcher!’

Gafoor seemed to lose his power of speech at this cruel accusation. A little later he said haltingly, ‘I did get some hay this year, but Karta moshai took it away to pay for taxes left over from last year. I fell at his feet, I said, “Babu moshai, you’re the supreme authority, where will I go if I leave your kingdom, give me at least a little hay. There’s no straw for the roof, we have just the one room for father and daughter, we can still manage with palm leaves this monsoon, but my Mahesh will die of starvation.”’

With a mocking smile, Tarkaratna said, ‘Really! What a loving name, Mahesh. I’ll die laughing.’

Paying no attention to the taunt, Gafoor continued, ‘But the lord had no mercy on me. He allowed me some rice to feed us for two months, but all my hay was confiscated and the poor thing got nothing at all.’ His voice grew moist with tears. But this evoked no compassion in Tarkaratna, who said, ‘What a man you are. You’ve eaten up everything but don’t want to pay your dues. Do you expect the zamindar to feed you? You people live in the perfect kingdom, still you bad-mouth him, you’re such wretches.’

An embarrassed Gafoor said, ‘Why should we bad-mouth him Baba thakur, we don’t do that. But how do I pay my taxes? I sharecrop four bighas, but there’s been a famine two years in a row—the grains have all dried up. My daughter and I don’t even get two meals a day. Look at the house, when it rains we spend the night in a corner, there’s not even enough space to stretch our legs. Look at Mahesh, Thakur moshai, you can count his ribs. Lend me a little hay, Thakur moshai, let the creature feed to his heart’s content for a few days.’ Still speaking, he planted himself on the ground near the Brahmin’s feet. Leaping backward hastily, Tarkaratna exclaimed, ‘My god, are you going to touch me?”

‘No Baba thakur, I’m not going to touch you or anything. But give me some hay. I saw your four huge haystacks the other day, you won’t even know if a little of it is gone. I don’t care if we starve to death, but this poor creature cannot talk, he only stares and weeps.’

Tarkaratna said, ‘And how do you propose to return the loan?’

A hopeful Gafoor said, ‘I’ll find a way to return it somehow Baba thakur, I won’t cheat you.’

Snorting, Tarkaratna mimicked Gafoor, ‘I won’t cheat you! I’ll find a way to return it somehow! What a comedian! Get out of my way. I should be getting home, it’s late.’ Chuckling, he took a step forward only to retreat several steps back in fear. Angrily he said, ‘Oh god, it’s waving its horns, is it going to gore me now?’

Gafoor rose to his feet. Pointing to the bundle of fruit and moistened rice in the priest’s hand, he said, ‘He’s smelt food, he wants to eat….’

‘Wants to eat? Of course. Both master and bull are well-matched. Can’t get hay to eat, and now you want fruits. Get it out of my way. Those horns, someone will be killed on them.’ Tarkaratna hurried away.

Gafoor turned towards Mahesh, gazing at him in silence for a few moments. There was suffering and hunger in the bull’s deep black eyes. Gafoor said, ‘He wouldn’t give you any, would he. They have so much, but still they won’t. Never mind.’ He choked, and tears began to roll from his eyes. Going up to the animal, he stroked his back and neck, whispering, ‘You are my son, Mahesh, you’ve grown old looking after us for eight years, I can’t even give you enough to eat, but you know how I love you.’

Mahesh responded by stretching his neck and closing his eyes in pleasure. Wiping his tears off the bull’s back, Gafoor murmured, ‘The zamindar took away your food, leased out the grazing ground near the crematorium just for money. How will I save your life in this year of starvation? If I turn you loose you’ll eat other people’s hay, you’ll spoil their trees—what do I do with you! You have no strength left, people tell me to sell you off.’ No sooner had Gafoor said this in his head than his tears began to roll again. Wiping them with his hand, he looked around surreptitiously before fetching some discoloured straw from behind his dilapidated house and placing them near Mahesh’s mouth, saying, ‘Eat up quickly, if not there’ll be….’

‘Baba?’

‘Yes, Ma?’

‘Come and eat,’ said Amina, appearing at the door. After a glance she said, ‘You’re giving Mahesh straw from the roof again, Baba?’

This was just what he was afraid of. Reddening, he said, ‘Old rotten straw Ma, it was falling off anyway…’

‘I heard you pulling it out, Baba.’

‘No Ma, not exactly pulling it out…’

‘But the wall will collapse Baba…’

Gafoor was silent. The house was all they had left, and no one knew better than him that if he continued this way it wouldn’t survive the next monsoon. But how long could they go on?

His daughter said, ‘Wash your hands and come, Baba, I’ve served the food.’

Gafoor said, ‘Bring the starch out Ma, let me feed Mahesh first.’

‘No starch left today Baba, it dried in the pot.’

No starch? Gafoor stood in silence. His ten-year-old daughter knew that when the times were bad even this could not be wasted. He washed his hands and went in. His daughter served him rice and vegetables on a brass plate, taking some for herself on an earthen plate. Gafoor said softly, ‘I’m feeling cold again Amina, is it safe to eat with a fever?’

Amina asked anxiously, ‘But didn’t you say you were hungry?’

‘Maybe I didn’t have a fever then, Ma.’

‘Then let me put it away, you can have it in the evening.’

Shaking his head, Gafoor said, ‘Eating cold food will make things worse.’

‘What should I do then,’ asked Amina.

Gafoor pretended to think before solving the problem. He said, ‘Why don’t you give it to Mahesh, Ma? You can make me some fresh rice at night, can’t you?’ Amina looked at him in silence for a few moments before lowering her eyes, nodding, and saying, ‘Yes, Baba I can.’

Gafoor reddened. Besides the two actors, only someone up there observed this little charade between father and daughter.

II

Five or six days later, Gafoor was seated outside his front door with an anxious expression on his face. Mahesh had not been home since yesterday morning. He himself was too weak to move, so his daughter Amina had searched high and low for the bull. Returning home in the late afternoon, she said, ‘Have you heard, Baba, Manik Ghosh’s family has taken our Mahesh to the police station.’

‘What nonsense,’ said Gafoor.

‘It’s true, Baba. Their servant said, “Tell your father to look for him in the Dariapur pen”.’

‘What did he do?’

‘He got into their garden and destroyed their trees, Baba.’

Gafoor sat in silence. He had imagined all manner of mishaps that might have befallen Mahesh, but had not anticipated this. He was as harmless as he was poor, which was why he had no apprehensions of being punished so severely by any of his neighbours—Manik Ghosh in particular, for his respect for cows was legendary.

His daughter said,‘It’s getting late, Baba, aren’t you going to bring Mahesh home?’

‘No,’ answered Gafoor.

‘But they said the police will sell him in the cattle market after three days.’

‘Let them sell him,’ said Gafoor.

Amina did not know what exactly a cattle market was, but she had repeatedly noticed her father becoming agitated whenever it was mentioned with reference to Mahesh. But today she left without another word.

Under cover of the night Gafoor went to Bansi’s shop, saying, ‘Khuro, I need a rupee, and deposited his brass plate beneath the raised platform on which Bansi sat. Bansi was familiar with the exact weight and other details of this object. He had been pawned it some five times in the past two years, for a rupee each time. So, he did not object this time either.

Mahesh was seen in his usual place the next day. Beneath the same tree, tethered to the same stake with the same rope, the same empty bowl with no food in front of him, the same questioning look in the moist, hungry, black eyes. An elderly Muslim man  was examining him closely. Gafoor mian sat nearby, his knees drawn up to his chin. When the examination was over, the man extracted a ten-rupee note from the knot in his dhoti and, smoothening it repeatedly, went up to Gafoor, saying, ‘I don’t need change, take the whole thing—here.’

Holding his hand out for the money, Gafoor remained sitting in silence. But just as the old Muslim’s companions were about to the untie the bull, he suddenly jumped to his feet, saying belligerently, ‘Don’t you dare touch that rope, I’m warning you.’

They were startled. The old man said in surprise, ‘Why not?’

Still furious, Gafoor said, ‘What do you mean why not? It’s mine to sell or not. And I’m not selling.’ He threw the ten-rupee note on the ground.

They said, ‘But you took an advance yesterday.’

‘Here’s your advance.’ Retrieving two rupees from the knot in his dhoti, he flung the coins at them, and they fell with a clatter. Realizing that a quarrel was imminent, the old man said gently with a smile, ‘You’re putting pressure on us for two rupees more, aren’t you? Go on, give his daughter two rupees more. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?’

‘No.’

‘Are you aware that no one will give you a better price?’

‘No,’ said Gafoor, shaking his head vehemently.

The old man said in annoyance,‘What do you think? Only the skin is worth selling. There’s nothing else in there.’

‘Tauba! Tauba!’ A terrible expletive suddenly escaped Gafoor’s lips, and the very next moment he ran into his house threatening to have them thrashed within an inch of their lives by the zamindar’s guards unless they left the village at once.

The possibility of trouble made them leave, but soon Gafoor received a summons from the zamindar’s court. He realized that word had reached the landowner.

There were people both refined and unrefined in court. Glaring at Gafoor, Shibu babu said, ‘I don’t know how to punish you, Gafra. Do you know where you live?’

Bowing, Gafoor said, ‘I do. We’re starving, or else I would have paid whatever fine you think fit.’

Everyone present was astonished. They had always considered him an obstinate and bad-tempered man. And here he was on the verge of tears, saying, ‘I’ll never do it again, karta.’ He proceeded to box his own ears, rubbed his nose into the ground from one end of the court to the other, and then stood up.

Shibu babu said indulgently, ‘All right, enough. Don’t do all this again.’

Everyone was shocked when they heard the details. They were certain that only the grace of the zamindar and the fear of punishment had prevented the abject sinner from committing worse trangressions. Tarkaratna was present, and provided the scriptural analysis of the word ‘go’ for cow, enlightening everyone as to why it was forbidden to allow this godless race of heathens to live within village limits.

Gafoor did not respond to any of this, humbly accepting all the humiliation and vilification and returning home cheerfully. Borrowing the starch from the rice pots of neighbours, he gave it to Mahesh to eat, murmuring many endearments as he stroked the bull’s back and horns.

III

The month of Joishtho was drawing to a close. The sun was still harsh and severe in the sky. There was no trace of mercy anywhere. People were afraid to even hope for change, that the skies could again be moist and pleasurable with the weight of rain-bearing clouds. It seemed that there would be no cessation to the flames burning constantly across the entire, fiery earth—that they would not die down till they had consumed everything.

Gafoor returned home on such an afternoon. He was not used to working as a labourer on someone else’s fields, and it had been only four or five days since the fever had subsided. He was as weak as he was exhausted. Still he had gone out in search of work, but all he had got was the unforgiving heat and sun overhead. He could barely see for hunger and thirst. Standing at the door, he called out, ‘Amina, is the food ready?’

His daughter emerged slowly and stood grasping the post without an answer.

Gafoor shouted, ‘Not ready? Why not?’

‘No rice at home, Baba.’

‘No rice? Why didn’t you tell me in the morning?’

‘But I told you last night.’

Contorting his face and mocking her, Gafoor said, ‘Told you last night! How can anyone remember if you tell them at night?’ His harsh tone doubled his anger. Contorting his face even further, he said, ‘How will there be any rice? Whether the sick father gets any or not, the grown-up daughter will eat five times a day. I’m going to lock the rice up from now on. Give me some water, I’m dying of thirst. Now tell me we have no water either.’

Amina remained standing with her eyes downcast. When Gafoor realized after waiting a few moments that there was not even any water to drink at home, he could control himself no longer. Striding up to his daughter, he slapped her resoundingly, saying, ‘Haramjaadi, what do you do all day? Why can’t you die?’

Without a word his daughter picked up the empty pitcher and went out in the heat, wiping her eyes. But Gafoor felt heartbroken as soon as she went out of his sight. He alone knew how he had brought up his daughter after her mother’s death. He remembered that it was not the dutiful and affectionate girl’s fault. Ever since they had run out of the paltry amount of rice from the fields that he had received, they had not had two meals a day. On some days, just one—or not even that. That Amina could eat five times a day was as impossible as it was untrue. Nor was he unaware of the reasons for the lack of water to drink. The two or three tanks in the village were all dry. The little water there was in the pond behind Shibcharan babu’s house was not available to ordinary people. The water that could be collected by digging a hole or two in the middle of the tanks was fought over by a crowd of people.

Being a Muslim, the young girl was not even allowed near that water. She had to wait for hours, requesting for some water, and only if someone took pity on her and poured her a little could she bring it home. He knew all this. Perhaps there had been no water that day, or no one had had the time to take pity on his daughter during the battle. Realizing that something like this must have taken place, Gafoor found his own eyes filling with tears. At that moment the zamindar’s footman appeared like a messenger of death, screaming, ‘Gafra, are you home?’

Gafoor answered bitterly, ‘I am. Why?’

‘Babu moshai has sent for you. Come along.’

Gafoor said, ‘I haven’t eaten yet. I’ll go later.’

Unable to tolerate such audacity, the footman uttered an expletive and said, ‘The Babu has ordered me to flog you and force you to come.’

Gafoor forgot himself a second time, uttering an unprintable word in retaliation and saying, ‘No one is a slave in the kingdom of the empress. I pay my taxes, I shan’t go.’

But for such a small man to give such a big reason was not just futile but also dangerous. Fortunately, such an insignificant voice would not reach the ears of the important man it was meant for—or else he would have lost both his home and his livelihood. There is no need for an elaborate account of what ensued, but when he returned from the zamindar’s court an hour later and lay down in silence, his face and eyes were swollen. The primary cause of such severe punishment was Mahesh. After Gafoor had gone out, Mahesh had broken free from the post, entered the zamindar’s yard, eaten his flowers, spoilt the paddy put out in the sun, and, when about to be caught, had made his escape after knocking the zamindar’s youngest daughter to the ground. This was not the first time it had happened, but Gafoor had been pardoned earlier on grounds of being poor. He might have been pardoned this time too had he begged and pleaded as in the past, but what he had said—that he paid his taxes and was no one’s servant—was the kind of arrogance from a subject that Shibcharan babu, being a zamindar, could never tolerate. He had not protested in the slightest against the thrashing and the humiliation, bearing it all in silence. Back home, too, he sat coiled up in silence. He had no awareness of hunger or thirst, but his heart was burning just like the noonday sky outside. However, when he heard his daughter’s stricken cry from the yard, he leapt to his feet and ran outside to find Amina lying on the ground and Mahesh lapping up the water trickling out of the shattered pitcher. Gafoor lost his mind in an instant. Picking up the plough-head he had brought home yesterday to repair, he smashed it down repeatedly on Mahesh’s head.

Mahesh tried to lift his head just once, but his starving, withered body slumped to the ground. A few teardrops rolled out of his eyes, along with a few drops of blood from his ears. His entire body trembled once or twice, after which, stretching his front and hind legs out, Mahesh died.

Amina sobbed, ‘What have you done Baba, our Mahesh is dead.’

Gafoor had turned to stone, neither moving nor speaking, only staring at a pair of unblinking, bottomless dark eyes.

Within an hour or two, a group of cobblers from one end of the village arrived, slinging Mahesh up on a pole and taking him to the dumping ground. Gafoor trembled when he saw their shining knives, but closing his eyes, he didn’t say a word.

The neighbours said that the zamindar had sent someone to Tarkaratna to find out what should be done next, ‘You may have to sell your house as penance.’

Gafoor did not reply to any of this, burying his face in his knees and not moving.

Late that night he woke his daughter up, saying, ‘Amina, we must go.’

She had fallen asleep outside the front door. Rubbing her eyes and sitting up, she said, ‘Where will we go, Baba?’

Gafoor said, ‘To work at the jute mill in Phulbere.’

His daughter looked at him in astonishment. Despite all their troubles her father had never been willing to work at the jute mill. She had often heard him say that it was impossible to maintain one’s faith there, that women had neither honour nor protection.

Gafoor said, ‘Hurry up, Ma, we have to walk a long way.’

Amina was about to take the tumbler and the brass plate her father ate out of, but Gafoor stopped her. ‘Leave them here, Ma, they will pay for my penance for Mahesh.’

He left in the dead of night, holding his daughter’s hand. He had no family in this village, no one to inform. Crossing the yard, he stopped abruptly beneath the familiar tree and suddenly burst into tears. Raising his eyes to the star-studded black sky, he said, ‘Allah! Punish me as you will, but my Mahesh died with a thirst. There was no land he could graze on. Do not forgive the sin of whoever it was who did not let him eat the grass you gave us, or quench his thirst with the water you gave us.’