Another: Tanmoy Mukherjee

Ashutosh-babu made his blunder as he was rushing to get on the tram at Ballygunge Phanri. Missing his footing, he went down in a heap. Evening crowds, the street choc-a-bloc with buses and taxis, auto-rickshaws whizzing past. As he was wondering whether his mis-step would send him under the wheels of a tram or whether it was a minibus tyre that fate held for him, he fell headlong on a wooden floor.

What was this? How could the tarred road of Ballygunge Phanri turn into a yellow wooden floor? Looking around him, Ashutosh could only see impenetrable darkness. Nothing much was visible. This was magic. He had been in Calcutta earlier, but where was he now? Had he died, then? Had a bus come from the back and smashed his head to pulp? This was too much pressure. It wouldn’t have hurt to have died at 42, but the LIC policy was due to mature next month. What if his wife couldn’t manage things properly?

He felt a sharp pain in his side. Should he have been in pain if he was dead? He had no idea. There was no blood on him or anything, but then a spirit shouldn’t really have bloodstains. Still, Ashutosh-babu was astonished at the shabby appearance of the afterlife. There was neither the gloss of heaven nor the frenetic activity of hell. Just this yellow wooden floor.

When his eyes had adjusted to the darkness Ashutosh-babu discovered that all kinds of objects were strewn on the floor. A comb, a wallet, a spear, tickets to the cinema, a pen, a mortar and pestle – an extraordinary variety. Ashutosh felt deeply intimidated. Was he dreaming, then? He pinched himself.

Benu-mama from Bhadreshwar had taught Ashutosh as a child how to deliver a lethal pinch. He groaned in agony.

Ashutosh got to his feet slowly. He needed to walk around and survey the place. But how would he walk, the floor was littered – books, bottle-caps, old inland letters, cigarettes, tonic water, and so much more. This was making him very uneasy.

‘New here?’

The high-pitched bellow caused great consternation to Ashutosh-babu. Turning around, he discovered a decrepit old gentleman lying less than five feet away, a blanket drawn over himself. His age seemed beyond human reckoning, he could well be ninety. All he had by way of physical features was yellowish skin drawn taut across his bones, and not a single hair on his scalp. Clouded eyes, sunken cheeks. He seemed to be trembling.

‘And what might your name be?’ the old man asked.

‘Ashutosh Mitra, sir. I was on my way to Park Circus but I slipped while trying to get into a tram. I don’t know how I got here. Who are you? What is this place?’

– A different dimension.
– I beg your pardon?
– A different dimension.
– What’s that?
– Meaning. Two dimension. This dimension. That dimension. None of those. This is another dimension.
– Pardon?
– Why can’t you understand? Let’s say you put a pen on your desk. But it’s nowhere to be found two minutes later, although you’ve searched the desk with a toothcomb. And then half an hour afterwards you discover the pen exactly where it was. Doesn’t this happen all the time?
– Yes sir, it does.
– So the thing is, many objects frequently slip out of the dimension we occupy on earth to arrive here in this different dimension. You could call it an exception-cum-error of nature’s.
– A mistake on nature’s part?
– Right you are. Most of the time the error is corrected by nature’s own laws. And so the lost pen finds its way back to the desk. Things that disappear unexpectedly are also restored equally unexpectedly. But once in a while they remain trapped in this dimension till infinity.
– My throat is dry.
– Don’t worry. It’s an illusion. Physical sensations like hunger and thrust do not slip into this dimension. There’s no illness or disease either to speak of. How else could I have been hale and hearty even at the age of a hundred and fifteen?
– Er, did you also slip from Earth to this other dimension?
– Yes, I did. Not that too many people make it alive into this dimension, for their dimensional equilibrium is very high. Once in a while they do, though, especially when they’re flung downwards from a height, there is a slender possibility in those cases. In the past eighty years I haven’t seen more than seven or eight humans arriving here. But in most cases they returned to their original dimension, a few in a couple of minutes, some in a couple of seconds.
– But you? You stayed on?
– Yes, what can one do. Destiny. I had nurtured many dreams for my original dimension. All gone to hell. Exceptions like these are not very common. But what to do. I’ve been an optimist since birth, but the trouble is that optimism has no value in this dimension.
– Er, sir, how did you arrive here? Like I missed my footing when trying to get on a tram…
– Air-crash. I made a calculated jump from the burning plane a few seconds before it was to hit the ground. There were definite chances of survival. But who can protect you from god’s will? I landed directly on this yellow wooden floor.
– When did this take place? And where?
– In ’45, I think. I was on my way from Saigon to Manchuria. The plane lost control suddenly when flying over Formosa…
– You…you’re…you’re…
– Subhash…Subhash Bose…
– Ne…ne…ne…

Ashutosh opened his eyes to the sensation of water being splashed on his face. He realised he was lying flat on a pavement in Ballygunge Phanri, surrounded by at least a dozen people. The man who was checking his pulse said, ‘It was a near thing. Very lucky.’

Overwhelmed, Ashutosh declared, ‘Jai Hind!’

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.

In Diamond Harbour with Ruby: Sandipan Chatterjee

For four years now Ruby has been asking to go to Diamond Harbour. And I’ve resisted. The woman Ruby calls Bashona-di goes there. I’ve never been to Diamond Harbour. I’ve heard that the mouth of the river is not far away. I’ve heard that if you stand on the roof of any of the houses, stand alone on the roof, stand alone on the roof in the dead of night, you can hear the roar of the ocean in the distance. No matter whether the roof is on the first floor, second, or fifth. Apparently there are no dogs on the streets of Diamond Harbour. Or so people say.

Meeting Ruby is all I’ve done for the past four years. Movies, restaurants, kisses in a cabin, exploring her flesh – especially her breasts – and so on. There’s been no sex. It’s quite difficult for this thing to happen with your girlfriend in Calcutta. It’s impossible in the home of married friends, for they have mothers and sisters and children. But when those who are pure contrarians – that is to say, those who have occupied their flats with nobody but their wives, and have no children yet, or have infertile wives – shut their front doors, they may at first sight seem to be slamming it on the face of not just their parents or brothers or relatives, of not just their nation and race, but of the entire world. But that’s not the case. Harbouring hopes of using their flats is futile. For the wife herself is installed there. The goddess incarnate.

The Calcutta hotels ask you to disclose your identity. What is the relationship between you? If I were to say, she feels the pain when I’m hurt, the other day I stubbed my toe on a brick on the road, it wasn’t I but, here, she, who exclaimed, ‘ooh,’ so that’s our relationship – that won’t do. But no questions are asked if I were to take my wife, whom I haven’t remembered to kiss in the past four years, anywhere. Besides, to check into a hotel with someone not your wife you need, at the very least, a suitcase. An entire set of luggage would be even better. And yet no luggage is required if you go with your wife. Who knows why.

But go to Diamond Harbour, there’s no need for a suitcase of luggage. No licit or illicit. No questions.

There are a few standard hostels in Calcutta, of course, on Kyd Street or Sudder Street or Royd Stereet for instance, with no obstacles. But there you need the one, infallible, relationship. Between whore and client, that is. The receptionist will inevitably think Ruby’s a prostitute. Otherwise why should the rickshaw-wallah, who had already been paid three rupees for a ride of just two furlongs from the Geological Society, still get a commission of ten rupees from the hotel? I cannot accept anyone mistaking Ruby for a whore. So we can’t go there.

But, Diamond Harbour. Just Diamond Harbour. Where you need to take nothing but the traditional tumbler and blanket of the migrant.

There’s probably no restaurant in Calcutta where we haven’t been. About four months ago we found Calcutta’s last such undiscovered restaurant, with a cabin (‘an oyster with a pearl’). It was April, the cruellest month, there were sparks on the tram wheels and the stones were hot, when, suddenly on the left while walking towards Park Street from Royd Street – Ing Ping! What! Had this been here all along? Never seen it. When did it from the heavens? Ah, just the way we like it. A narrow, dimly lit corridor as soon as you enter. Four or five tiny cabins on the left. After a sharp turn, two rows of cabins, this time in both sides. A deluge of cabins, as though you’re in the blue belly of the dragon. In which, as far as we could see through the flying curtains, were seated ings and pings in pairs. Or, loving couples. Lit by shaded firefly lamps inside, the darkness much stronger than the light. Ah, a slice of heaven!

Taking our seats in the first empty cabin we found, sharing a plate of ‘Ing Ping special chow mien’, I put my fork down to sink my hands into Ruby’s breasts, telling her with great affection, ‘All other females have flesh here, Ruby. They’re just females. But you alone are a woman. Only in your breasts do I smell perfume.’

No, not perfume. Perfume isn’t the correct word. Quite wrong, in fact. Actually, I get the unmistakable scent of sandalwood from her breasts. But smell of sandalwood reminds me of rotting corpses. So I call it perfume.

But I cannot usually say such things. Let me explain how I could tell her that her I smelt perfume in her breasts. The fact is, yesterday in the Students’ Hall – or was it the day before? – some poet or the other was being honoured, or some such idiocy. It was evening. I was walking past Goldighi, I heard a young gap-toothed poet recite these lines from a veteran poet. he had definitely said perfume.

I memorised the lines at once, so as to not forget them, and decided to let them loose on Ruby the very next time we met. The original lines were in rhythm, though without end rhymes. But even as prose shorn of emotion, they didn’t sound bad. At least, Ruby became quite vulnerable on hearing them.

So, we went on for about four months on the scent of the perfume. But how much longer could it go on? August arrived in no time. The Bengali month of Bhaadro. The month of dogs. of dogs on heat, as they say. The sincere lovemaking of canines on Calcutta’s streets. ‘Have you seen a couple yet this year?’ I can’t keep myself from asking Ruby.

‘Meaning?” Ruby hasn’t understood yet. The evening rain has just stopped. We’re walking along a Lindsay Street in painted in watercolour hues towards that very same Ing Ping. On our way we spot a rock pigeon drinking the dirty water flowing out of the drainpipe of the UP Handloom store, Gangotri, under the impression that it’s a mountain stream. Each sip is followed by a dozen swivels of the neck, with a puffing of feathers and throwing of defensive glances all round. It’s drinking poisonous water, but it’s guarding itself against hawks. Although there isn’t a single predatory bird in Calcutta’s skies. Gene-coding, after all.

I ask in English as we walk, ‘Meaning, have you seen a dog and a bitch mating as yet this season?’

‘Oh yes,’ Ruby answers in English too, a little shy, but quite animated, even interested. ‘I have. And in broad daylight too.’

‘When?’

‘Just the other day,’ she says, the hair swaying across her back. ‘The day before yesterday.’

Ruby never allows me to part the hair cascading her shoulder. ‘I’m very ticklish,’ she says.

A long silence. Then I ask, ‘Where?’

‘Just outside our office, right beneath the big Jenson & Nicholson ad that says whenever you think of colour think of us.’

They don’t need a hotel, I reflect with a sigh. What do we get in broad daylight? The funeral pyre. All lit up. Flames. Only love needs an intimate, darkened room.

I say, with a touch of pique, ‘Why must you be the only one who sees all the interesting things.’ Ruby smiles, her eyes lowered. Her chin on her breast, as usual. It’s true that we, the lovers of Calcutta, say such unprintable things to each other. Or, we cannot keep ourselves from saying them. Who else is listening, anyway?

We cannot speak like that young poet. These are all metropolitan beams of sunlight, admittedly somewhat dusty, but these are what we dry our clothes by, not to mention brighten our lives with. In this way we travel from the flesh on the breasts to sandalwood or perfume and then from perfumed sandalwood to the flesh on the breasts.

The last time I saw a dog and bitch copulating was beneath a broken-down lorry loaded with wood for the pyres at Nimtala crematorium, next to its tyres. Even that was about three years ago. The thing was that my sister-in-law’s husband had died that morning A doctor. I heard that he has groping amongst the medicines piled on the rexine-covered table in the bedroom – piled with all kinds of ampoules and capsules and tablets and strips – with the words ‘Pregnisolon, Pregnisolon’ on his lips when he collapsed to the floor. End of story.

We were informed at once on the telephone, but it was Sunday, and Ruby and I were supposed to watch a film at noon. So I told Ranu, ‘Mr Basak is coming from Siliguri, if I don’t have lunch with him today I won’t get the contract for lining the Teesta with boulders.’ She knew it was worth three and a half lakh. So she said, ‘Come directly to the crematorium then. They’re not taking the dead body out till late afternoon.’ Dressed in a white sari with a blue border, Ranu got ready with our daughter. A perfect embodiment of mourning.

‘Drop us near Banchharam Akrur. Ring to find out what time they’ll leave.’ She added in a quiet, grief-stricken voice, ‘Don’t have beer today, please.’

I went straight to the crematorium from the cinema hall. No one was there yet. I checked all the corpses laid out by the electric furnaces to ensure I wasn’t making a mistake. Dhurjoti wasn’t among them.

There was an empty cot outside. The corpse had just been taken in. Pulling the heap of flowers and bouquets down to the ground and kicking away the copy of Jagadish-babu’s Gita and the burning joss sticks, a billy goat the size of a calf was munching on the abundant rajanigandha stalks. The vial of sandalwood scent had broken under its hoof. I noticed scent dripping down the mashed, leftover stalks.

So I left the crematorium and went back a long way towards Ahiritola. I would be able to accompany the funeral procession for a while. This was where the animals mating by the tyres beneath the lorry stopped me in my tracks. The corpse arrived in no time. ‘Ah Arun, here you are, oho, so hot…’ Ranu’s brother, s sales manager with the Steel Authority of India, drew me into the procession, and as soon as he said, ‘bawlo’, and before he could utter the ‘ri’ of ‘bawlo hari’, I shouted ‘haribol’ without restraint and joined in.

But never mind all these things from three or four years ago, let me go on with what I was saying about the things from three or four months ago. It’s the month of Bhaadro now. From the scents of sandalwood and perfume, Ruby wants to take me to the flesh of her breasts.

‘Let’s go to Diamond Harbour.’

‘D-i-a-m-o-n-d-h-a-r-b-o-u-r?’

‘Uh-huh. Diamond Harbour. You’re behaving as though I’m asking you to take me to Long Beach or Miami. As though you’re hearing the name for the first time, as though I haven’t been asking you to take me there for four years. An hour and a half by bus. I’ve got all the information. We’ll take the six o’ clock bus back. Home by eight.’ Saying all this without pausing for breath, Ruby stopped, her chest swelling as she drew in air. ‘Plenty of hotels there?’

‘They don’t want to know the relationship?’

‘Not at all. At least, not at Hotel Apsari.’

‘Who told you?’

‘Basana-di said. She goes alternate Saturdays with Sukanta-da, our chief accountant.’

‘Second and fourth?’

‘They come back on Sunday.’

‘Didn’t you say Basana-di’s husband knows everything?’

‘What do you think. She’s not scared of her husband like you are of your wife.’

Ruby and I are in our fifth year together, but I’ve not been able to tell Ranu yet. Ruby has said many times, ‘I don’t want to break your home. Especially Binti, I have no intention of takng her father away. Just tell your wife I exist. That you’ve met me.’

‘I give you all you want. Is there anything you don’t get from me? You want to take your wife and daughter to Kalimpong? Go, then. Your daughter’s finished school, you want to give her a colour TV, go ahead. That project in Ahmedpur, you ran short of ten thousand, you broke into my fixed deposit to give you the money. The only thing I’ve been asking for these four years is, let’s go to Diamond Harbour for a day. We’ll come back the same say, you can sleep next to your wife at night. Can’t you give me even a single day?’

Saying all this in the restaurant, Ruby pouted and shook her hair over her back. Clasping my hands, she brought her face closer, inviting a kiss. I move her hair away and try to kiss her shoulder.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ She moves away as though struck by lightning, then offers her neck instead. I bury my lips in it for a kiss. Under a tiger’s kiss this turns into the throat. I sink my teeth in. This is the first taste of Ruby’s blood on my tongue.

‘Ruby,’ I say, licking her blood with my tongue. ‘We’ll go. It’s Tuesday. We’ll go on Saturday morning. Tell Basana-di to book a room for us at Apsari. It can be done on the phone, can’t it?’

In the light and darkness of the cabin the scent of sandalwood drifts into my senses, pushing away the mashed rajanigandha stalks.

The roar of the ocean wafts in from Diamond Harbour…

Ruby loves me and Ranu does not. I married Ranu a long time ago, after ten years of being in love with her, from the time I was in college. I did not realise before getting married that there’s one thing which married life doesn’t need at all. And that’s love.

‘Ruby loves me,’ I inform Ranu on returning home on Friday evening. ‘Can I go to Diamond Harbour with Ruby tomorrow?’

‘Who?’

‘Ruby.’

‘Who’s Ruby?’

I give Ranu a summary of the past four years, even before I’ve finished smoking my cigarette. After which I stub out its glowing head in the ashtray.

There’s no time to read the newspapers during the day. Ranu reads them all at night. After I have told her everything she folds the newspaper lying on her lap. A second fold. She keeps folding it, making it as small as a book, a diary, a packet of cigarettes. Her face appears as pale as a seashell. Her expression is frozen.

‘Go if you want to. But no one returns from Diamond Harbour.’ Pulling a sodden piece of wood out of the burning pyre, she tosses it away.

A single-storied hotel, beyond the town, by the river. Strangely, there are indeed no dogs on the road. Although it’s Bhaadro. The river isn’t visible from the hotel. The roar of the ocean isn’t audible.

Apsara? It was more like a beggar than a nymph. A dirty green sheet on the bed, bought cheap from a village fair, a tiny, bare and bedside table made with wood used for packing boxes, with a dented tin ashtray. A small handloom towel on it. A bucket of water by an attached drain. A mug and and a used bar of soap on a mossy brick. There’s a fan, but also a power-cut.

Such a miserable set-up, and yet nothing catches my eyes except Ruby. With one, perfectly-timed shot, she has eclipsed everything else. Having seen her even once, who can take his eyes away from her?

I am astonished on seeing her at the Esplanade bus-stand. I stare at her with what-have-you-done eyes.

‘Not looking good?’

‘But all that hair… it used to cover your entire back…’

‘Ever since Ma died I’ve been going to a parlour once a month for a shampoo. Can’t do it myself. This one time I found there was a new girl there, Kim. She showed me a framed photograph, saying, this cut will suit the shape of your face. And how much longer do you intend to stare,’ says Ruby, with an edge to her voice, tilting her head like a bird. ‘Stop gaping.’

‘They call it a bob cut, up to the shoulders only.’ She smiles, her eyes lowered.

This is Ruby’s chin-on-breast smile. In all these four years, she has never smiled without her chin touching her breast. I’ve seen this smile of Ruby’s, exactly the same one, somewhere before. Every time I see Ruby smile, I wonder where I’ve seen it. I’ve never managed to remember. This time too, I don’t.

Ghawrong!

The fan begins to run suddenly without notice in the middle of the afternoon, and at top speed. Sand flakes off the walls.

The only window has no curtain. Shutting it, Ruby switches the light on. Lying down beside me, she says, ‘Just like being in a tomb, isn’t it?’

‘The fish was delicious, wasn’t it? Such big pieces.’ Suddenly Ruby jumps up. ‘What’s this on your waist?’

‘How would I know what’s on my waist. What is it?’

‘See, just like this one.’ For the first time Ruby lifts the mane off her shoulder to show me.

There’s a deep red patch covering about nine inches of the skin on Ruby’s shoulders. No, it’s wrong to call it red. Quite wrong. Violently angry is closer to the mark.

I see. So that’s what it is. This is the reason she’s never allowed me to lift her hair and kiss her shoulder. A beauty complex.

‘Is that where you’re ticklish?’ I say, about to sweep her hair aside and kiss her. There. Ruby turns her face away. ‘I have absolutely no sensation there,’ she says, pursing her lips.

‘But you used to say all this time…’

‘I just used to. I didn’t let you kiss me there because I feel nothing. I wouldn’t even know.’ With her chin-to-breast smile and a sharp look in her eyes, she says, ’Look, even you don’t have any hair her.’ She leans over her discovery on my waist with the curiosity of a scientist. ‘Well, am I tickling you?’

’Tickling? How?’

‘What do you mean, I’m rubbing a matchstick across your skin, you should be tickled. I’m not either, you know.’

Running her tongue over my right cheek, Ruby lowered her eyes and smiled. Suddenly, crossing the ocean, a photograph floated up in my head. What was her name now… aaah… yes, Pauline Parker. Her name came back to me accurately across the ages. At the age of 18, she killed her mother in the town of Canterbury in Australia. A group photograph in school uniform with her classmates, four years before that, with a tie round her neck. Everything else was perfect, only, she was smiling with her chin on her breasts. Her hair also ran as far as her shoulders, a bob. The disguise achieved by the hair cascading on Ruby’s back had prevented me from recognising her earlier.

I read about Pauline, along with her photograph, in Colin Wilson’s ‘The Encyclopaedia of Murder’. That was in the early 70s, not exactly the other day. Early on October 2, 1913, she murdered her widowed mother with a hammer used to break coal. ‘Why did you pound her head this way?’ The judge asked her. Holding her head high, she stood in the pen and said, ‘That’s personal, I shan’t answer.’ Judge: Had you already decided to kill your mother? Pauline: yes. Judge: How long ago? Pauline: Four years ago. On January 3, 1914, she was sentenced unanimously to be hanged till she was dead in Canterbury Central Prison.

Fear is rising from my frozen feet like steam. Ruby keep talking, ‘Tell me, have you had it from birth? I noticed mine when I was 16. The Lutheran Mission was advertising in the papers, if it isn’t congenital… I asked my mother, have I had this from birth, Ma? I don’t know, she said. I poked it with a needle, there was no response. I didn’t check after that. Who knows how far it has spread. To hell with it…’

Ruby put her arms around me.

‘My father was even more broad-chested than you,’ she told me, rubbing her face on my chest. What was running through her head?

So there were no dogs in Diamond Harbour? A bitch yelped outside the window. Must be the beginning of lovemaking. How could dogs not be on the street in Bhaadro?

‘The Lutherans’ ad said this thing doesn’t happen without prolonged and perpetual sexual or membrane contact. My mother’s breasts dried up immediately after my birth at her father’s house in Bankura. What was I to do? A Santhal woman was hired. Her breasts were full of milk. I was a plump and chubby baby, you know. She developed leprosy afterwards. Is the nipple a membrane, do you know? But then you’ve sucked me too, endlessly. There. You’ve got it from me, I’m sure.’

It’s full moon tonight.

‘Listen, do you know a skin-specialist?’

There will be a high tide tonight.

‘Both of us will see a doctor as soon as we get back to Calcutta, all right? Leprosy is curable, isn’t it?’

Cannons will have to be fired tonight to break the wall of advancing water tonight.

‘I woke up last night, you know. Didn’t go back to sleep. The maid sleeps in the same room. I didn’t switch the light on, in case it woke her up. Sitting up in bed I began to think of Diamond Harbour. I’ve never been here before either, just like you. As soon as the church clock struck three, alarms began to go off in the rooms of the National Medical college hostel. So many of them. Ground floor, first floor, second floor, it was like a fire of sounds. The five-storied building was burning furiously. And on ever floor, the ground and the first, the second and the third and the fourth, all these boys were running about in their lungis and pyjamas and underpants – all bare-bodied. I realised that their final exams are in September, which is why. I wanted to go back to my college days too…’

Lying on her stomach, Ruby keeps talking. The frill at the edge of her petticoat has ridden up her fair, powerful thighs. Like curtains going up. In the dark her body looks like the silhouette of a hill on the horizon. The moon is rising. It’s evening outside.

There, on the skin of her shoulder, is the reflection of my unseen waist, like red turning to black, a livid patch of nine inches. There is no longer any sensation on these two spots on her body and on mine. Ruby keeps talking. She doesn’t know any more what she’s saying. She doesn’t know when she’ll stop. She has no interest in finding out whether anyone’s listening.

Are we going back tonight? Possibly not. It’s full moon. There will be a high tide. A cannon will have to be fired to break the wall of water. Even if the roof is only on the first floor, if I go up alone tonight, I’m certain I will hear the ocean roar.

No Lies In Her Fire: Asha Naznin

01

‘Ma, every time you tell me the ‘No Lies in Her Fire’ story you never finish it…’

‘Because you fall asleep.’

‘No! One night I didn’t fall asleep, but you said, “No more tonight.”‘

‘Maybe I was tired.’

‘Tell me tonight. It’s the 26th of Agrahayan, your wedding anniversary. You must tell me the whole thing today! Please!’

‘All right, I’ll tell you, but you still have to wake up in the morning and mustn’t be late in school.’

‘No, I’ll wake up on time, you’ll see. Now tell the story.’

02

It was the 19th of Agrahayan. Jonaki and her friend Nandini were on their way back home from school. On foot, like every day, just like penguins, their heads lowered, their books clasped to their breasts. Beyond the head of the main road, two young girls on the narrow ledge separating two fields. Their homes were a short distance away. Jonaki and her family lived in a modest hut three houses down from Nandini’s family. It was the month of Agrahayan. Lush crops.

Suddenly four young men appeared ahead of them. Before the girls knew what was happening, the men clamped their hands on their mouths and took them away. Into the rice fields. Where they stuffed handkerchiefs into the girls’ mouths. Nandini’s dreams of joining the police, Jonaki’s hopes of turning around her family’s fortunes – all of these turned into cries of anguish, swept away over the rice fields. Wild laughter seemed to be coming from the stalks of grain. When one stopped, another began. But the two innocent girls’ sobs didn’t stop, their tears mingling, their muffled groans merging into one. Their final attempts to free themselves had blended with one another too.

The Azaan for the Asar Prayer wafted in from a distance. This stretch might soon become busy with worshippers going back and forth.

Shall we finish them off with the scarves, boss?

‘No way, It’s election time for Abba soon, we’d better not get involved in murder. And why kill pussies? The more pussies, the more fucks, you know that.’

‘What if they talk!’

‘You think they’ll take the risk? Everyone will say they’re bad girls, bad. If it comes to that, we’ll see.’

‘Let’s get out of here now…’

They left like the wind.

03

Jonaki could hear voices. Opening her eyes, she found dusk had descended along with murmurs of people. She was surrounded by nearly fifty people. How long had she been unconscious? Someone had covered her with a sheet. Soon she heard her mother shriek. ‘Who has done this to my daughter? Who? Why did you punish us this way, lord? What did I do to deserve this?’ Jonaki, a daughter of an impoverished peasant from the village, barely 15 years old.

There was a hum among the people. Jonaki saw no sign of Nandini anywhere. Their books were scattered nearby. Some people carried Jonaki into a van parked a short distance away.

The van lurched along the bank of the river Lula. Jonaki had been born in the beautiful village of Lota, a sub-division of the district of Sylhet in Bangladesh which had sprung up next to the Lula.

The stars were twinkling in the sky, while a swarm of fireflies flew around the yard – it was on such a night that she had been born. The neighbours named her Jonaki, for the fireflies. It wasn’t as though Jonaki was particularly pretty, but she was very fair, almost like westerners. ‘Here comes the foreigner,’ the village boys would chant whenever they saw her. Which was why she was the centre of attraction in the village. Jonaki studied in Class Eight of the school in Lota. In behaviour and in speech, she was calm and composed. But today everything had fallen to pieces.

The van was hurtling along, running through rows of kash and processions of fireflies. In this darkness and turmoil, Jonaki was delirious. ‘Is it because of all your sadness that you’ve left the light for the darkness, star of happiness? Do you shine in the night sky to dole out sorrows to everyone, like me? Do you need a companion, a partner in your misery? Will you take me?’

Kamal Rahman, sitting in the van, said, ‘She’s burning with fever. Babbling. Drive faster.’

Jonaki had realised that this man was sitting by her side. She addressed him as ‘Chacha’. It was on his request that her father hadn’t stopped her from going to school. Very few people in the village liked Kamal Chacha. Most of them considered him an atheist. His voice comforted Jonaki.

‘Hurry up, driver’- Kamal urged the driver again.

The aged Hatem Ali, one of the village elders, said, ‘Drive as you do normally, if fate holds death for her, who are we to stop it? And what good is it for her to live anyway? There’s no sense in driving rashly in the darkness and overturning the van.’

Jonaki felt like leftover food as she listened to Hatem. She wanted to embrace the word death. A gust of cold wind buffeted her. How was she to present herself to society now? In the darkness of the night she pleaded with the angel of death, ‘Take me to the stars.’

Comforting her, Kamal said, ‘Have a little patience, my daughter, pray to Allah, he takes care of everything, we have to remedy this, it’s not your fault, the fault is of the one above, who sent you as a woman to this clan of men.’

Jonaki felt a spark running through her.

People could destroy the society of the body, but who had the ability to destroy the society of dreams? Two lines from her textbook rose in front of her eyes like an angel – ‘Those who are unjust and those who bear injustice must both be trampled underfoot with equal hatred.’

‘Stop talking like a godless man, Kamal!’ Hatem Ali’s roar devoured the silence of the night.

04

The van came to a halt in front of Keramat Ali’s chamber. He was the only doctor to speak of in the village.

Jonaki was brought in and laid on a small cot in one corner of the chamber. It was curtained off by a sari.

Hatem said, ‘Can you check her, doctor – she’s probably lost her virginity, but take a good look to make sure.’

‘If women roam about the fields under the pretext of getting an education instead of looking after the home, this is inevitable,’ said Doctor Keramat, drawing the curtains closed.

Then he plunged into the task of assessing Jonaki’s virginity. With the torch in one hand, he pressed down on her thigh with the other. The lantern winked next to them. The doctor examined her with his fingers. Kept examining her. He just wouldn’t stop. Putting his hand on Jonaki’s thigh again, he said, ‘Your honour is in my hands. I can declare that you’re still a virgin. I can give you all the comforts of a queen, are you willing? I’ll build a separate house for you if you like, you won’t have to live with my other wife. Do you want a life of luxury or do you want to bring the poison of disgrace on yourself and be forced to jump into the river?

Jonaki stared at him blankly. From her thigh the doctor moved his hand to her breasts. She was unruffled, silent. In stark contrast to the way she had trembled in the rice fields hours ago. Still. As though she were a stone, without sensations. Someone peeped in, asking – how much longer, doctor? Quickly withdrawing his hand, the doctor said – just checking whether her heartbeat is all right, I’ll be there in a moment.

The villagers were gathering outside the doctor’s chamber. On any other day, they would have been back home by now, preparing for sleep with their doors bolted.

Emerging outside the curtain, the doctor declared boldly, ‘Friends, there’s some good news, Alhamdulillah, praise the lord. The blood is from a cut over her knee caused by a bamboo stick or a shard of glass. But they tried very hard to rape her.’

Now a group of people parted the curtain to go in. They badgered Jonaki with their questions. ‘Who has done this sinful thing? Who is it, Jonaki… tell us.’

Jonaki stared at them, her eyes as heavy as rocks. Under the faint light of the lantern a question occurred to her. Would she also have been considered a sinner by the villagers if the doctor had declared that she had lost her virginity?

That was how she had felt on seeing everyone clustered around her when she had regained consciousness in the rice field. ‘I must have committed some awful crime, that’s why these people are staring at me this way.’

Jonaki didn’t know what to say. Almost inaudibly she asked, ‘Where’s Nandini?’

‘Oh yes, Nandini and you usually come back together, does that mean Nandini saw who it was? Did Nandini see the swines?’ Several people threw a barrage of questions at her.

‘No, Nandini came back early today, she doesn’t know anything,’ said someone, pushing through the crowd. It was the schoolmaster. Nandini’s father.

‘Khalu, Khalu,’ Jonaki sobbed, calling out to him. The schoolmaster put his hand on her head. He looked very worried. Even in the dim light of the lantern the tears in his eyes were visible. There was an impenetrable blackness in them.

Meanwhile there was a hubbub. Kashem Joardar, a candidate of the next Chairman election in the village, appeared there. The doctor’s chamber was bulging with curious onlookers. Some of them went out to make room for Kashem and his entourage.

‘I believe a few people saw the chairman’s son Jamir and and some of his friends running away from the rice fields this afternoon. Jamir is no saint. What happened, Jonaki? Who did this?’

Pindrop silence descended on the doctor’s tiny chamber. A couple of people retreated at once, preferring not to associate themselves with this scandal. Most people who had been fuming at the thought of rape or attempted rape calmed down. Jonaki’s eyes widened in surprise.

Kashem said, ‘There must be justice. If you don’t want to speak, I shall talk this over with your parents and decide on a course of action.

Someone in the crowd said, ‘But her parents have already disowned her.’

‘But her virginity is intact!’ disclosed Hatem loudly.

‘They were told a short while ago, they don’t even want to see this wretched girl’s face again.’

‘Will you let this girl stay with you for a few days, mastermoshai? Until a meeting or hearing takes place. The chairman has apparently gone to the town, I don’t see any chance of a resolution till he returns.’ There was a plea in Kamal’s voice.

The schoolmaster was torn. On the one hand it appeared to him that taking Jonaki home would make it easier to brush everything under the carpet. At least rumours wouldn’t start flying about his own daughter. But what if people suspected she was a victim too? What then? And what if Jonaki blurted out her friend’s name to someone in an emotional outburst?

‘If no one has any objection I can let Jonaki stay at my house, she will be well cared for,’ proposed the doctor.

‘No, let me take her to my house, my daughter has been very upset about her friend ever since she heard what happened, thank God she came back early from school today.’

Everyone agreed in unison, with the exception of the doctor. The schoolmaster took Jonaki home, along with some medicines.

05

The schoolmaster managed to chase the villagers away that night. ‘We’ll discuss this again tomorrow morning,’ he said. ‘Please leave now, it’s midnight already.’ When someone asked about Nandini, he answered, ‘Nandini’s asleep.’

Jonaki was given shelter in Nandini’s tiny bedroom. An owl hooted in the distance. The coconut tree crashed on the tin roof repeatedly. The doors and windows were shut. Nandini’s mother lay next to Jonaki, facing away from her. She wept continuously, stopping only once to tell Jonaki faintly, ‘Wake me up if you need to go to the bathroom.’

‘Okay, Khalamma.’ She didn’t get the opportunity to ask any more questions.

The scene in the rice field kept floating up to Jonaki’s eyes. Two girls and four animals. Jonaki wanted to forget all this. She thought of her parents. With a sigh, she tried to shift her thoughts to something else. Her conversation with Nandini a few days ago occurred to her.

Nandini: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Jonaki: I want a job, I want to bring some joy to my parents in these hard times for our family. You?

Nandini: I want to join the police, but my father says it’s not a respectable job for a woman.

Jonaki: Hehehe, police! Why the police, of all things? How strange! I’m afraid of the very sight of them.

Nandini: That’s exactly why. Have you seen the boys in our village these days? They stare at us like they want to gobble us up. It’s filthy, the look in their eyes.

Jonaki: I’ve seen them too, it’s terrible. But they won’t do anything to you – you’re the schoolmaster’s daughter, after all. I’m afraid of them, you know?

That unknown terror closed in on her. The girl couldn’t sleep all night. Just as she had dozed off in the morning, the schoolmaster’s wife woke her up in a flurry of excitement.

‘Chairman sahib is here, he wants to talk to you.’

‘What should I say to him?’

‘I don’t know, ask Nandini’s father. Just don’t bring my daughter into this, Nandini is at her cousin’s wedding. She wasn’t anywhere nearby when all this happened.’

‘Is Nandini all right, Khalamma?’

‘Of course! why shouldn’t she be all right? Think of yourself, forget about her.’

This was not the Khalamma Jonaki knew. When she left, Nandini’s father came in. As soon as he entered, she began to sob again, saying, ‘Khalu!’

But the schoolmaster seemed a stranger. He sat down in the chair by the bed. No one spoke. The very air seemed motionless. There were beads of perspiration on his forehead.

Wiping his sweat on his sleeve, he said, ‘Look, what’s done is done. Since the doctor says there’s been no great damage, I think we should accept this. Society is unforgiving, you know. If we try to protest, we’ll only add to our own misery, and be robbed of our dignity. In fact, we’ll have to leave the village. Some people have even lost their lives trying to talk about such things. Chairman sahib is waiting in the sitting room, he wants to talk to you, I’ll ask him to come inside, tell him…’

‘What do I tell him, Khalu?’

‘That his son wasn’t involved in yesterday’s incident. You can name the other three if you want to, or not, it’s up to you.’

‘All right.’

The schoolmaster’s wife sat next to Jonaki, her head covered by the end of her sari. Osman Talukdar, the chairman, entered, accompanied by three people. Jonaki was ready, sitting on the floor and leaning back against a wall. She greeted the chairman, ‘Assalam Alaikum.’

Returning Jonaki’s greeting, the chairman said, ‘You can tell me everything without hesitation, I will take all necessary steps. The elections are coming up, as you know, and the enemy is trying to malign me in every possible way. So I want to find out from you what’s true and what isn’t. I dropped everything as soon as I heard and came to the village.’

Jonaki looked at the floor in silence. There were many things she wanted to say, but she wasn’t allowed to. And she couldn’t force herself to say the things she didn’t want to.

‘Do you know the people who attacked you?’

‘Yes, I know them all.’

Lines of anxiety appeared on the chairman’s face. ‘How many of them? What are their names?’

Jonaki named three of them. And stopped abruptly.

A happy smile appeared on the chairman’s face, like the expression on the face of a monarch after winning a war. ‘Don’t worry, I will bring each of them to justice and have them put away in jail, I’m calling the police at once…’

‘No need to go to the trouble of calling the police, chairman sahib, why don’t you set up a village court and hold a trial yourself?’

The chairman seemed to have been waiting for just such a proposal. With a smile, he said, ‘You’re right, Mastermoshai.’

06

Seven days later the village court was in session with the three accused. All the eminent personalities of the village took their seats. One of them said, ‘Boys do these things at this age. It’s best to overlook this.’

Another said, ‘Get them married – everything will be sorted. They’re desperate to be married.’

Kamal said, ‘But there must be exemplary punishment. Our mothers and sisters cannot be dishonoured this way in our village.’

Someone else exclaimed, ‘Stop right there, Kamal Mian, you’re an atheist. If everyone’s either our mother or sister, whom will our sons marry? Ha ha ha!’

The court set up to try the rape had turned into a comedy show.

Someone asked, ‘What I’d like to know is, why should a woman be walking through the fields alone? What kind of a man will not be tempted by a woman?’

Many people laughed. Then another of those gathered asked, ‘The question is, when there are so many girls hereabouts, why would these young men target a poor peasant’s daughter? Her father would have sold her for five hundred taka if only they’d asked.’

Hatem said, ‘Stealing and wanting to steal are not the same crime, do all of you agree? Since there was no rape, but only attempted rape, just let them off this time with a few tight slaps. It wouldn’t be right to ruin their future, they’re young after all, pardon them.’

The three young men were made to kneel, clutching their own ears. The chairman rose to slap each of them.

Declaring that they wouldn’t repeat such sins, the three of them sought the forgiveness of the village elders with smiles on their faces.

‘This isn’t justice,’ said Kamal.

His protests fell on deaf ears. Sensing the mood of the other members of the jury, Kashem Joardar adopted a safe stance. He would have to keep these people on his side to negotiate the electoral currents.

Then Kamal said, ‘What will happen to Jonaki now? Her parents couldn’t be persuaded, they won’t let her come home.’

Now the chairman stirred. ‘Let me say something openly. I want to take care of Jonaki. She has a future, after all. I feel very sorry for her. I’m ready to arrange the marriage right away if that’s what all of you would like.’

‘She’s still in school, she’s still young. Would marriage be right for her at this age? I’ll look after her if needs be.’ Kamal was all worked up.

‘Oh but you won’t marry her, Mian. Would it be legitimate to take care of a woman without marrying her? It might have been different if you’d already been married. But a woman cannot be kept in the custody of an unmarried man,’ declared Jabbar Mian, another of the village elders.

Everyone agreed.

07

Jonaki’s wedding took place at the same court, within an hour. The Imam from the mosque conducted it. The rapists, Dr Keramat, and the chairman appeared by turn in front of the bride’s eyes. A little later she discovered herself draped in a red sari – Jonaki dipped in blood. How life could change in just seven days!

Drawing her aside, the schoolmaster had told her urgently, ‘Think it over, you’re 15, the chairman is 52. His first wife killed herself, no one knows why. His second wife died last year of kala-azar. You know all this already. And his son won’t leave you in peace; what will you get from a family like this?’

‘A little ground beneath my feet. Will you give me a place to live in if I don’t agree to the wedding, sir?’ She used the ‘sir’ deliberately to convey to the schoolmaster that theirs wasn’t any close bonding. It was an exchange between a teacher and a pupil.

Jonaki had exposed the rusted, feeble, cowardly nature of the teacher, who only paid lip service to education and reform. He left slowly.

A ball of fire was growing in her heart. She was seared by its flames – for a young man. She had received an anonymous letter barely a month ago, tucked into her maths textbook. She had recognised him at once from the handwriting. Nandini’s elder brother. She liked him, too. She hadn’t met Nayon even once after the incident. He must have taken Nandini away somewhere. Were they really with their cousins?

Like a blood-soaked bird she entered the chairman’s house as his wife. But the only image in her head was of a wild stallion. The quiet, serene girl grew impatient and restless, constantly whipping the horse in her thoughts through every waking moment. So that it could fly in the air and send an arrow through a throne somewhere. The rice field, the chilling wind that night, the flowers that set the woods aflame, the magic of the tiny letters in the book, all mingled into one. There was just the one thing hovering above her head. The wild stallion.

08

Jamir was thunderstruck. Who’d have thought his father was suddenly going to marry her? The girl he had taken in the rice fields was now in his father’s bedroom. His stepmother!

He didn’t go home for the first few days. What was he going to tell his father? If he had an inkling of the wedding he would have prevented it at any cost. But now? Making the slightest noise might mean his father’s losing the elections. Jamir knew very well that his father was even willing to make any sacrifice for victory. Such harsh punishment for a mere rape! He hadn’t faced as much trouble even after committing murder. Jamir began plotting ways to get rid of Jonaki after the elections.

Meanwhile, Jonaki’s wardrobe had been transformed. She really did look like a wealthy queen in a royal palace. The girl who had never been fortunate enough to wear a single beautiful dress in her childhood now appeared to be the inhabitant of another planet when she looked at herself in the mirror. She had grown up hearing stories from her mother about how they had once owned everything – land, overflowing granaries, a large house. But Jonaki’s birth marked the decline of their fortune. The affluent farmer became debt-ridden.

But Kamal Chacha had told her a different version. Two successive unseasonal floods had killed their crops, submerging their golden harvest. Her father took a loan from the moneylender, after which he had to give up all their property and holdings. In helplessness and rage the farmer would take it out alternately on his wife and little Jonaki by beating them. Kamal Chacha would end his story by saying, ‘Your father used to be a good man, but he lost his head after going bankrupt. Once you get an education and find a job and bring the joy back into your parents’ lives, everything will be all right.

Days passed, a month passed, Jonaki had no news of Nandini. She heard that Nayon was back in the village. Rumours swirled – Nandini had been admitted to a new high school, Nandini had herself got married after her cousin’s wedding, to a groom who had just returned from overseas, and many more such stories. Jonaki’s hands and feet began to sweat – Nandini was alive, wasn’t she? The schoolmaster usually took the same road home as they did, about an hour later, had he spirited his daughter away himself? Nandini was alive, wasn’t she? She couldn’t think anymore, she felt numb.

Jonaki sensed the heartbeat of a new life within her. She remembered the month of Agrahayan, the rice field, the stricken cries, her wedding night a week later. She had been whipping the wild stallion twenty four hours a day, harder, even harder, without anyone noticing.

She began to bring the domestic staff under her control. She tipped the servants with or without reason, even converting one or two of her husband’s political goons into her devoted admirers.

09

There was just a month to go to the elections. Osman Talukdar would have to make a trip to the capital Dhaka, even though his popularity in his village was at its peak. Never before had he earned the kind of plaudits that had come his way after marrying the helpless girl.

It was the month of Chaitra. There were sparks of fire in the air. On such an afternoon the chairman set off for Dhaka. That evening Jonaki sent for Jamir on the pretext of discussing something ‘important about the elections’.

Jamir lived on the ground floor of the chairman’s two-storied house. Jonaki lived upstairs.

There was a family room just outside the bedroom on the first floor, which was where Jamir appeared. He had not been to this floor since his father’s marriage, living like a visitor in his own house. He confined himself to his room when he was home. Someone entered the room slowly.

‘An important matter, I have to tell you in private.’ Jamir looked up to discover Jonaki.

He followed Jonaki in, his eyes on the floor. She asked him to take a chair. Jamir sat down in his father’s room, feeling extremely ill at ease. His eyes stopped at Jonaki’s swelling stomach. She shut the door and locked it in a flash.

An anxious Jamir jumped out of his chair. ‘What’s all this… I don’t understand.’

‘I want to see how strong you are. Hold me now. Imagine it’s the month of Agrahayan, imagine we’re in the rice field.’

‘Have you gone mad? Just because my father’s married a lowlife bitch like you don’t imagine you hold all the aces. Just wait till the elections are over, I’ll throw you out like a dog.’

‘But I cannot wait so long. I shan’t let a wild animal stay in this house anymore, you see.’

Jonaki tore her own clothes off and wrapped her arms around Jamir, just the way he had wrapped his arms around her five months earlier.

And then she began to scream, ‘Help! Help!’

The servants broke down the door and entered. At once the news spread through the village – he had raped his mother!

10

Jamir was tied to a tree. The same tree near which the village court had heard the rape case.

Jamir’s relatives had gathered. They were also at the receiving end of abuse from the villagers. The crowd was a tinderbox. Raping one’s mother! Kashem Joardar added his voice to the villagers’. ‘No trace of this sin must be allowed to remain in this village. Raping your mother!’

Thousands of people from nearby villages rushed to the spot for a glimpse of the man who had raped his mother. ‘She isn’t my mother,’ shrieked Jamir.

At once people started throwing stones at him. ‘She’s your father’s wife, you swine.’ Condemnation descended on the village.

No one bothered to listen to what Jamir wanted to say.

The chairman rushed back home. But the journey from Dhaka took almost a day. He returned to discover his son tied to the banyan tree. His still, lifeless body was slumped at an unnatural angle.

Chairman ran up to his only son like a madman, embracing him. Who dared strike the chairman’s son? Osman Talukdar wept uncontrollably. He did not remember the last time he had cried.

The chairman’s companions were bewildered and confused. Some of them began to untie Jamir, while others tried to apprehend the people connected with the incident. It might have been possible to catch one murderer or two or even ten – but how would they catch the entire village?

The chairman went home, leaving his son’s corpse behind. With rage in his eyes and murder in his heart, he shouted to Jonaki, ‘ How dare you trap my son?’

‘Your son had the courage to rob me of my dignity. The same courage. I had only wanted to put my rapist in an iron cage, but the villagers here took advantage of the training that you have given them in taking the law into their own hands. These are the wages of your sins.’

‘I asked you for the identity of the attackers, you didn’t name my son. You bitch!’

‘If I had named your son you would have had me killed at once, wouldn’t you?

‘How dare a woman from the <a style="text-decoration:none;" href="http://www.aluminiumgutteringcompany.co.uk/”>gutter like you speak that way? I knew on the wedding night you were no virgin. I’ll divorce you at once.’

‘I have no objection. I still don’t know whose child I’m carrying – whether it’s Osman or Jamir or…’

‘Liar, cheat, I’ll finish you at once.’ The chairman clutched his chest. There was a pain on the left side. He collapsed to the gleaming floor.

11

The story had ended.

Palki couldn’t sleep. She shut her eyes and pretended to sleep, but all she could see was her mother’s face. Turning to face the other way, she only wept. And muttered, ‘There was no lie in your fire, Ma, I love you.’

In the bedroom at midnight, there was a sudden torrential downpour in the eyes. The twenty-seven-year-old mother let loose a melting glacier of water

A Life: Buddhadeva Bose

Gurudas Bhattacharya, Vachaspati, the seniormost teacher of Sanskrit at Khulna’s Jagattarini School, had an accident during Bengali literature for Class Nine.

‘Amaar projagawn amaar cheye tahare bawro kori mane…’ The pundit stumbled on the sentence. Cheye? Did that refer to the Bengali word for glance? Or for desire? After some thought, he explained the sentence as, ‘The King says his subjects want him, they desire his sanctuary, but they respect the king of Kaushal more. Grammar has been distorted a little here.’
The boys on the first bench exchanged glances. Then one of them stood up to say, ‘It’s fine, sir. The word “cheye” in this case is used for comparison, in the sense of “than”. My subjects consider him more noble than me. See, it says a little later, “Are you so bold as to imagine you can be more pious than me?’

‘If only I were an Arab bedouin rather than this,’ the boy next to him recited.

Gurudas did not respond. Accepting the correction made by his students, he continued teaching the poem. The bell rang.

It was the last period. Collecting their umbrellas and books, the other teachers left for their homes, while Gurudas made his way to the school library. The library was nothing but three cupboards full of books in one corner of the staff room, most of them textbooks obtained as free samples. Among the more valuable volumes were several hardbound sets of the Bengali literary magazine “Probashi”, a Philips atlas of twenty years’ voltage, a Chambers Dictionary, and three Bengali and English-to-Bengali dictionaries used by students. Clearing his throat, Gurudas said, ‘Can you unlock this cupboard, Nabakeshto?’

Not even the servants at school paid much attention to the Sanskrit teacher. And Nabakeshto donned the mantle of bearer, doorman and gardener single-handedly. ‘The library is closed, sir,’ he answered with a touch of insolence.

‘Never mind, just unlock it. I need some books.’

‘But I have to leave for Rasoolpur rightaway – my daughter’s in-laws have invited us…’

‘That’s all right, you can go. Leave the keys with me.’

‘All right then. Don’t forget to give them back to me before eleven tomorrow. You know how strict the new headmaster is. And lock the door of the room before you go… here’s the padlock, see?’

Unlocking the cupboard, Gurudas planted himself in front of it; with a glance at his back, Nabakeshto gathered his bundle, wrapped in a gamchha, from its place beneath the table – he was taking a bunch of grapefruits from the tree in the school yard as gifts for his son-in-law.

No one was allowed to take the dictionaries home; Gurudas spent a good deal of time leafing through the two Bengali dictionaries. The light grew dim, the silence of a provincial evening thickened inside the room. He forgot to sit down, forgot his hunger, his internal senses seemed to soak up the rows of letters. Today’s incident had wounded him – he had not been able to capture the meaning of a word which millions of adults and children used every single day without a thought. How could he – he was a teacher of Sanskrit. He had learnt Sanskrit, but not Bengali. But he was a Bengali – that was the language he spoke. He seemed to realise for the first time that the Bengali language was not Sanskrit, not even a corrupt form – it was a complete, living, changing, evolving, independent language, the spoken language of seventy million people, their mother-tongue. ‘A living language, the mother-tongue’ – he repeated the words in his head several times. But prowess in one’s mother-tongue was not automatic, it needed nurture.

Gurudas noticed that none of the dictionaries included the word he had tripped over that morning. He was reminded of other words used in similar fashion – “thekey”, the Bengali word used for “from” or “since”, or “dyakha”, used for “seeing” or “meeting” or “looking after”. This was how the Bengali language perfumed the task of the Sanskrit verb-ending. None of this was in the dictionary. There were mistakes – mistaken explanations, even mistaken spelling. How were the students to learn? And I – how am I to learn?

It was late evening by the time Gurudas returned home. His wife Harimohini asked, ‘So late?’ Gurudas did not answer. He ate his dinner in silence. ‘Are you ill? You aren’t eating.’ ‘I am not ill.’ He went to bed early that night.

Jagattarini School began at eleven in the morning, and the district school, at ten-thirty. Gurudas went to the district school around a quarter past eleven the next morning, spending half an hour in the library before breathlessly entering his own class in the nick of time. It was Saturday the next day – from the school he went to the only college in Khulna. He had a nodding acquaintance with the Sanskrit teacher there (here, too, it was he who taught Bengali). They conversed for some time, and he flipped through three or four books in the library – but his restlessness did not leave him.

No, he had not found it – he had not found what he was looking for, anywhere. Could there not be a complete Bengali dictionary, which had room for every single word, both Sanskrit and vernacular, in the language, which included every combination, every application, every colloquial usage, which would enable the Bengali language to be learnt, its nature to be understood, its unique creative spirit to be appreciated? The college professor had said there was not a single such book. There were a few good ones among those he examined, but in a workmanlike way – where was the dictionary that one could use for real scholarship?

The biggest bookshop in town was Victoria Library. In the evening Gurudas asked for a look at a major Bengali dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary. Having leafed through them for a few minutes, he said softly, ‘There’s something I want to discuss, Rebati-babu.’

In a small town, everyone knew everyone else. The owner looked at Gurudas over the rims of his glasses.

‘It’s Saturday – may I take these two books home? I’ll return them to you first thing Monday morning.’

‘Take them home?’

‘I’ll handle them very carefully – won’t soil them, won’t crease them – I’ll look after them. I need them urgently, you see.’

‘Someone’s already ordered those books, Panditmashai.’

‘I see.’ Gurudas’s fair, lean face reddened. A little later he said, ‘Then I’d better buy them.’ He had to wage a terrible war against himself, but… he had spoken, he couldn’t take his words back now.’

‘Pack these books for Panditmashai…’ Rebati-babu made no further reference to the books having been ordered.

‘But I can only pay next month.’

‘Hmm…’ Gurudas sent up a silent prayer, ‘Let him not agree, o lord.’ But Rebati-babu’s mouth softened.

‘Very well. But on the first of the month, don’t forget. We run a very small business, you know… sign here, please.’

He had got them at a discount by virtue of being a teacher. Thirteen rupees and fourteen annas – nearly a third of his salary.

Gurudas browsed through the two books late into that night by the glow of a lantern. His grasp of English was poor, but he had no difficulty in realising the difference in the presentation of the two books. And yet this was just a condensed version, he had heard that Oxford had a giant dictionary too.

Before going to sleep he mused over Panini, considered the sheer extent of the Sanskrit dictionary “Shabdakalpadruma”, and recollected Vidyasagar. An extraordinary talent for grammar, unbeatable enthusiasm for analysis, bottomless vocabulary. He used to have them all. What happened to them?

Harimohini had planted flowers in a fenced-in corner of the small yard. She was watering them with her daughter on Sunday morning when Gurudas came up to them, smiling.

‘Shibani, go check if Nidhu-r ma has brought the milk.’

‘Later. Listen to me first.’

Harimohini paused and looked at him.

‘I’m about to start something new.’

A ray of hope flashed across Harimohini’s face. Had the match for Shibani been finalised with the Chatterjees of Nimtala then? Their elder daughter Bhabani had been married into a high-born family – this was the other daughter. She had turned fifteen, if she didn’t get married now, then when?

‘Have they sent word?’

‘Who?’

‘The Nimtala Chatterjees.’

‘No, that’s not it. I am going to write a dictionary of the Bengali language. I made up my mind last night.’

There was no flicker of expression on Harimohini’s face.

‘You know what a dictionary is, don’t you? A collection of words. The meaning of words in the Bengali language, similar words, usage of words, and so on. There isn’t a book like this at the moment.’

‘Not a single one? You’re going to write it?’ Harimohini felt a burst of pride. ‘Will it say anything about gods and goddesses?’

‘Everything.’

Yes, everything. Unknown to Gurudas, a smile spread across his face. He had fallen asleep last night as soon as he had come to this decision – a deep sleep. And when he awoke this morning, he discovered his mind was calm, his heart, cheerful, and his body, healed and rested, while support for his endeavour radiated from the branching rays of the sun in the sky. As though nature had been waiting these last few days only for his resolve to do this: as soon as he accepted this, satisfaction spread across the heavens, and the movements in his body acquired an easy rhythm. Gods and goddesses – of course he would have to include then. But all the gods? All their names? He would have to determine which of them belonged to an encyclopaedia and which, to a dictionary. Which of the Sanskrit words could be considered Bengali? What to do with Brajabuli? What were the indications that a word was part of the Bengali language? Would he have to add words which were not in circulation but might be required? There was so much to think about. So much to think – but even Harimohini’s flowering plants were urging him to start at once.

Gurudas had been to Puri once as a student, he was reminded now of his visit. He could see just such an ocean stretching ahead of him – a succession of waves, hollows, whirpools, effort… the horizon in the distance. On this ocean his raft would have to float, this was the sea he would have to cross. For a moment Gurudas felt his skin prickle.

After lunch he brought the subject up again with his wife.

‘I was thinking of the dictionary.’

‘Yes, what?’

‘The thing is, I need some material. Books and things.’

‘Very well.’

‘Very expensive books. I was thinking, Chakrabroty-mashai had made an offer for that acre of land back home…’

‘You’ll sell it?’ A shadow fell across Harimohini’s face. ‘We have nothing else, and the girl’s growing up too.’

‘We can survive on what we have.’ Gurudas could not inject too much confidence in this assertion, so he tried to compensate with a soft smile. ‘That is to say, I will survive, and once your son’s grown up you’ll have nothing to worry about.’

‘The things you say! I think only about myself all the time, don’t I? But I shan’t let Nobu be a teacher like you. You know Netai, my nephew? He’s passed his Matriculation examination and joined the Railways. Sixty rupees a month already – and extra earnings on top of that.’

Gurudas did not approve of the final statement, but swallowing his criticism, he returned to the original subject.

‘Just the Railways? Nobu might even become a deputy magistrate like my brother,’ said Gurudas, throwing a sidelong look at his wife. It was a calculated ploy – he was fully aware of Harimohini’s reverence for his stepbrother’s status as a deputy magistrate.

‘Do you suppose I could ever be so lucky? But then, everything is possible if the gods smile on us, isn’t that right? That reminds me, I’d sent you sweest after Lakshmi-puja the other day, but Shibani said you didn’t have them.’

‘I touched my forehead with them – that’s better than eating them. Listen, I’m giving the land to Chakraborty-mashai then, all right?’

‘Giving it? We hardly have anything anyway – and there’s not only the girl who has to be married off but also the boy whom we must leave something to.’

‘Everything will be done. But I cannot turn back now.’

‘Cannot turn back – what do you mean?’

‘Wealth is by nature temporary, but…’ The pundit groped for the right word, and then turned helplessly to emotional appeal. ‘I have made up my mind – are you going to stop me now?’

The land they owned was in Nandigram, about an hour away by steamer. Gurudas paid a visit during the Janmashtami holidays. A house, fruit-bearing trees, a small pond, some farmland. Some? It was about seventy acres in his grandfather’s time. After being divided up, about eight acres had come to Gurudas. He had had to sell nearly two acres for his elder daughter’s wedding, and now another acre. Never mind, at least he was getting a hundred and fifty rupees. Rummaging through the books at home, he even found the old Sanskrit dictionary printed in Bombay – it had belonged to his father – and, how fortunate, the Sanskrit grammar that he had borrowed from a schoolmate and forgotten to return. The first thing he did on returning to Khulna was to buy two reams of the cheapest paper, which Shibani laced into a notebook.

On the first day of the Puja holidays at school, Gurudas travelled to Calcutta, where he had to put up for three days at a boarding house in Sealdah. Two more Bengali dictionaries, Suniti Chatterjee’s book on linguistics, an ancient (but excellent) Sanskrit-to-Bengali dictionary found after scouring the pavements of College Street and Chitpur, a Bengali grammar written by an Englishman, Tekchand and Hutom Pyancha published by Basumati, Kaliprasanna Sinha’s Mahabharata published by Hitabadi. He didn’t dare ignore Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Theory of Words” when it caught his eye – poets were the creators of language, might as well find out what he had to say. All this accounted for nearly fifty rupees. Then there were the new clothes for Durga Puja, a pair of shankhas each for Harimohini and Bhabani, a dhoti for his son-in-law, a pair of rubber slippers for Nobu costing a rupee and thirteen annas. He had to spend eight annas on his way back on a porter to carry all the books – that really pinched.

They had a wonderful time back home that year during the Durga Puja. Harimohini stayed back with the children, while Gurudas returned to Khulna the day after Lakshmi Puja. He cooked his own meals, and read all day. He found the English difficult, but managed to make sense of it, and it grew easier the more he read. Drawing one of the notebooks made by Shibani to himself on the day before Kali Puja, he wrote the first letter of the Bengali alphabet, ‘Aw’ in a large hand. Fifty words were written that day. The school opened three days later, the family returned, and his leisure hours shrank.

Gurudas set himself a routine. He woke up at five in the morning to write for two hours, and then drank his share of milk, went out on private tuition, bought the day’s provisions, and returned. This gave him a little time before his bath. He had to take private classes in the evening too – the exams were approaching – but he didn’t go to bed until he had put in a couple of hours of writing. Gurudas was making smooth progress.

Winter came. There was no light before six in the morning, and this was when the pressure of checking annual exam papers intensified. But the Christmas holidays were approaching.

He had to visit Calcutta again during the Christmas vacation. The subject was like Draupadi’s sari – unfolding constantly, an unending mystery, one whose depths you kept sinking into. How would he prove equal to this task – he, a mere Gurudas Bhattacharya, a minor Sanskrit scholar? He did not know his way on this road, had no clear idea of where he would find the bricks and cement needed to build this structure. In Calcutta he laid siege to the Imperial Library: the days passed navigating his way through the dense jungle of comparative linguistics. Many of the books were written in German, with an abundance of Greek letters and a thick growth of Latin, Gothic and Persian references, as though the immense vegetation of the Aryan languages had stretched up to the sky, spreading its branches far and wide. Sanskrit alone had never given him this feeling of kinship with the West, with the entire world. For the first time he set eyes on the Monier Williams Sanskrit dictionary, he discovered Skeat’s etymological dictionary too. Ten days passed cramming his notebooks with jottings.

When he was about to set off for Calcutta again during the summer holidays, Harimohini could not keep herself from objecting mildly.

‘Why must you go to Calcutta again?’

‘Do you need me here?’

‘I was thinking of the expenses. The boarding house costs money too.’

Gurudas had thought about this as well. The examination season was in the past, and not many studied Sanskrit these days, he had no private tuitions. Thanks to a supply of food from the land back home they managed to survive on forty-five rupees – but barely. They could afford coarse rice and dal and their clothes – anything more was virtually impossible. But… he simply had to go.’

‘Doesn’t your mother’s brother live in Calcutta?’ said Harimohini. ‘You could always…’

‘Of course not, how can I stay a month at someone else’s house? And he’s only my mother’s cousin – I haven’t met him in years… it’s impossible. But I’ll manage – don’t worry.’

‘It’s all very well for you to say that, but I spend sleepless nights.’

‘But why?’

‘Have you decided that Shibani will remain a spinster?’

That was true. He had to accept that his daughter was showing signs of womanhood. It was time for her to be married. But… how?

‘Why so anxious? She’s not even fifteen yet. Many people don’t even think of marriage till eighteen these days.’

‘You of all people are saying this? Your family the Brahmin pundits of Nandigram didn’t allow their daughters to pass the age of ten.’

‘Why shouldn’t I? Didn’t Rammohan Roy speak up against idol-worship? Didn’t Vidyasagar introduce widow-remarriage? They were Brahmin pundits too.’

‘Those who get their daughters married at eighteen also give them the chance to go to school and college, all right? They don’t let them rot at home and turn into liabilities. Do you have it in you?’

Gurudas’s lean, fair face grew pale. She was right. He had no response. He must try to arrange a match.

From the matchmaker he learnt that Rameshwar Banerjee of Hatkhola in Calcutta was looking for a bride for his third son. Rameshwar had been a professor at Sanskrit College during the single year that Gurudas had read there. He decided to plead with Rameswar in Calcutta to provide a safe passage for his daughter.

In Calcutta Gurudas rented a ‘seat’ in the cheapest room in a boarding-house he was familiar with. His meals were at a ‘pice hotel’ (which he had discovered on his previous visit; for four paise you could eat so much that you didn’t need a second meal). His days were spent at the Imperial Library, at the university library, wandering among second-hand bookshops, and seeking audiences with renowned professors. He had sensed a new requirement: instructions, advice, discussions – he had brought along all the pages in his notebook, in case anyone had any constructive comments to offer. It wasn’t easy to meet professors – some had gone to Darjeeling, others were busy. Only two deigned to meet him. Leafing through the notebooks apprehensively, both of them said, ‘Excellent, it’s coming along very well, you must complete it.’ When he enquired whether a detailed discussion was possible, he learnt that both were engaged as chief examiner for the B.A. exams, and did not have the leisure even to die at present.

One day he overheard a young man at a book shop on College Street. The buyer was looking for a book on the history of Bengali literature; turning over the pages of two or three, what he uttered was clearly weighed down with nausea. ‘Dead! All dead! Rotting and ingested with worms which this swarm of professors is picking out to eat. They collapse when they see living literature. Rabindranath was born in vain.’ The young man disappeared, his sandals flapping.

Chuckling, the shopkeeper said, ‘Subrata Sen speaks as forcefully as he writes.’

‘Who was that?’ Gurudas stepped forward. ‘What did you say his name is?’

‘Subrata Sen. You haven’t read him? Very powerful.’

At the boarding house he normally drank a large glass of water and went to bed – his exhaustion taking him beyond the hot weather, the stench, and his hunger in an instant. But sleep eluded him that night, the young man’s statement ringing in his ears constantly. And you, Gurudas Bhattacharya, engaged in composing a dictionary of the Bengali language – what do you know of Bengali literature? Ishwar Gupta, Bankim, Michael – and that was it. The young man had named Rabindranath – some people said he had injected new life into the Bengali language, but you know nothing about him, you haven’t read him at all. And these new writers – take Subrata Sen, for example – language lived through transformation in every era. It would die if it were to lose this power. And if a dictionary could not provide a portrait of this evolution, what use was it?

He had to think of the whole thing afresh. A dictionary was not a compendium of explanations for students, not a list or collection, not an immovable, static, ponderous object. Its essence lay in the flow, in movement, in showing the path to the future – to move ahead it had to gather sustenance from the creative work that writers were engaged in constantly. It would have to be replete with hints, allusions, advice, even imagination – just like a flowing waterfall glinting under the light. He would have to read literature – living works, current, changing literature – all that was being written, read, said, heard in the Bengali language – all these were his ingredients.

He came back home bathed in a new glow. Within five minutes of his return Harimohini asked, ‘Did you meet Rameshwar Banerjee?’

‘I did.’

‘What did he say?’

‘In a minute.’ Gurudas sat down on a mat, leaning back against a post. ‘They have many demands. They’re well-off, you see.’

‘Who’ll marry your daughter on the strength of her appearance alone?’

‘A thousand rupees in cash. Twenty-five bhori gold. All expenses. Provided they like the girl. But… can we afford all this? I’d better make some more enquiries…’

Sighing, Harimohini went away. Evening fell.

This time Rameshwar had brought a ream of fool’s-cap paper from Calcutta. It was cheaper there, and available at even lower prices if bought by the ream. He had nearly exhausted his older notebooks. He had to scribble copiously – scratch out bits, make changes, there was new information every day. And yet he wasn’t even done with the first letter, ‘Aw’.

Gurudas got down to work calmly. Some of it involved reading. He had avoided reading the newspapers all this time, but now he had to scan a couple of Bengali dailies every evening at the public library. And he left no Bengali book he could get hold of untouched. Happening to read Rabindranath’s “Ghare Baire”, he was astounded. Could the Bengali language actually be this way? This was not Hutoom, this was Kalidasa. Not even Kalidasa, something else altogether.

His notebook and pencil were always in his pocket. He took voluminous notes. Most of them would not prove useful, but who could predict what would?

The Bengalis’ forms of self-expression became the subject of his discoveries. He listened closely when his wife, son or daughter spoke; with so much interest that he often did not grasp the content, and forgot to answer. What he wanted to know was not what they were saying but how they were saying it. When the younger students raised an uproar during the lunch-break at school, he lurked unobserved behind them. At the market he kept his ears peeled for rural dialects. When he went home on holidays, he sought out Muslim peasants and made unnecessary conversation with them – they had a special way of speaking.

And he had to go to Calcutta during the longer vacations. He learnt the Greek alphabet, took help from a priest at St Xavier’s School to understand the rules of Latin grammar, even had to visit madrases for Arabic and Persian. Hardly any books were available in the provinces – for this too he had to visit Calcutta.

How did he afford all this. Cheap boarding houses and pice hotels, but still? Gurudas had made arrangements, getting rid of another acre of land, this time without telling his wife. He didn’t know anyone in Calcutta particularly well, feeling beleaguered if he had to speak in English. Nor did his soiled clothes evoke respect from anyone. He had to discover everything he needed all by himself, with the help of that eternal quality, effort, the capital that god endowed every human being with. Effort, endeavour, waiting, patience. It took him four hours to do an hour’s work – he was lighting rows of fireflies and pushing through the darkness. But there were lights at every street-corner – like signals for trains in the blackness of night.

Summer holidays once more, the monsoon once more. The rains were torrential that year. Earthworms burst through the kitchen floor in July. Leech in the front yard. Snakes here and there. On some nights seater streamed through gaps in the tin roof – having found dry spots for the children to sleep, the parents stayed up all night. After seven days of incessant rain, Gurudas opened his safe one day to get the shock of his life. Instead of his best books, what he saw were millions of termites wriggling about. Fifty pages of Suniti Chatterjee’s book were missing, the third volume of the Mahabharata was in shreds, the Sanskrit dictionary from this father’s time crumbled in his hands when he picked it up. The day passed battling the termites – he poured in four annas worth of kerosene.

Immediately after this accident a ray of hope emerged; Shibani’s marriage suddenly seemed a likelihood. The groom was from Barishal, recently posted here at the Khulna steamer station. The groom’s family approved of the bride, and made no demand for dowry – only the cost of the wedding, and shankha and sindoor for the bride. This was no cause for concern – Harimohini still had some ornaments.

The wedding would not take place before March, but Bhabani was overcome with joy when she heard. At long last she would be able to visit her mother. She lived in a large family, surrounded by her in-laws, at Madaripur – she didn’t even have the chance to visit her own family during Durga Puja.

Shibani ran up a fever after the rains. When the fever didn’t go down even after a week, Gurudas sent for the kaviraj. He prescribed plenty of red and black pills – but to no avail.

On the twenty-first day the official assistant surgeon turned up. His fees were four rupees, and he stomped about in boots. Typhoid, he said after examining the patient. Give her nothing but glucose. Pour water over her head morning and evening. Here are the medicines. Note down the temperature at four-hour intervals. Inform me after three days.

The medicines were bought with borrowed money. The doctor came once a week – paying his fees was a near-impossible task. Milk and fish were stopped; Harimohini’s deity was given a quarter of her regular rations.

Shibani lost weight, the fat disappeared from her cheeks, her discoloured teeth grew bigger and uglier. Then came the day when her hair had to be cut on the doctor’s orders. Her scalp needed water, the more the better. Harimohan poured water over her daughter’s head every hour, but Shibani was delirious.

When she died, her limbs had withered away to resemble sticks, her breast was like a seven-year-old boy’s chest. And this same girl was sixteen, healthy, full of grace. The ornaments put aside to pay for the wedding were used to clear the debt to the doctor.

Gurudas returned home at ten at night after the cremation. It was the end of February, winter was on its way out. He felt rather cold – wrapping a shawl around himself, he sat down next to his wife, who was slumped on the floor. The night passed in the same position.

A long night, but the sun rose finally. Harimohini had fallen asleep, while Nobu was curled on the floor in cold. Covering his son with the shawl, Gurudas carefully slipped a pillow beneath Harimohini’s head. Then he want out, spread a mat and sat down with his notebook. This last one had also been made by Shibani. For a moment, all the letters blurred. Wiping his eyes on the end of his dhoti, he set down more letters next to the blurred ones.

Five more years passed, the dictionary was in its seventh year. He was done with twenty-four letters, up to ‘Thaw’.

The words no longer flowed. What had started as an extraordinary, thrilling joy had turned into work now. Work, duty, responsibility, compulsion. The madness of discovery was gone, the excitement of gathering material had dissipated. He had an enormous quantity of information at his disposal now, the roads were familiar. It was time to work, it was time for nothing but work. Daily work, weekly work, monthly, annual, continuous. No likes, no dislikes, no reluctance either. This was an immaculate world, where the individual’s specialities were dead

That year saw the fruition of a long drawn-out effort of Jagattarini School’s – the government finally approved grants. Teachers’ salaries were increased; Gurudas’s monthly earning leapt to fifty-five rupees – it could even get to seventy or seventy-five eventually. In that same year Nobu, or Nabendu, vaulted over the hurdle of the Matriculation examination. Not just that, he got a job almost immediately. A job with the Railways, as his mother had hoped.

A few months later there was tragic news: Bhabani had become a widow. And within two months she appeared in her father’s yard with close-cropped hair, dressed in a widow’s garb and holding three children by the hand. Her late husband’s parents was no longer willing to shoulder the burden of their daughter-in-law, without whom they couldn’t survive a moment once. ‘They are not as well-off as before, my brothers-in-law have several children, and he didn’t leave anything for us, Baba.’

Her father said, ‘Don’t worry. Nobu has a job now. I’ll look after all of you.’

Gurudas went to Calcutta during the summer holidays that year – after a gap of two years. He couldn’t postpone things anymore, it was time to find a publisher.

In his canvas shoes, holding a dusty umbrella, he scoured the summer pavements from Goldighi to Hedua with his manuscript stuffed into a tin trunk. Finally he came across Bharat Press in a lane off Sukia Street. They published old Sanskrit and Bengali books, and were inclined towards dictionaries. But the proprietor Bipin-babu said, ‘We cannot judge how good your dictionary is. If you can get a recommendation from someone worthwhile, we’ll think about it.’

‘Such as? Whose…’ Gurudas was too embarrassed to utter the word recommendation.

Bipin-babu mentioned three or four people. The very first one was that of the Vice-Chancellor of the University.

Gurudas arrived at this gentleman’s house the next day. About a dozen people were waiting in a small room. As the day progressed, a crowd of people waiting for an audience filled the open space in front of the house. Dhotis, western suits, Madrasis, Punjabis, even saffron. Some paced up and down, some leaned against the railing, some peeped over the swing door before ducking behind it. Young men, old men, women, helpless faces, grave expressions – but all of them similarly afflicted by the need for solicitation. The clacking of typewriters, the ringing of telephones, the bustle of orderlies and clerks – it was impossible to tell who had got an audience and who was waiting in despair. From seven the clock moved on to eleven – there was no hope of a meeting today.

Gurudas slipped while getting off the tram on the way back, hurting himself. Putting tincture of iodine on his bruises, he rested on a plank in the boarding house all day. When he awoke the next morning, his hips were aching. But still he got into the second-class coach of the tram with his trunk.

No luck that day either – four hours passed, alternately sitting and standing. Four successive days went by this way.

On the fifth day he arrived even earlier, in case he could get in before anyone else. He discovered only two people already there. A man of dignified appearance walking across the yard stopped suddenly on seeing him.

‘What’s the matter? Here again?’

‘I had to come again, because…’

‘You haven’t met him yet? Haven’t I been seeing you every day? Well, what do you need?’

‘I have composed a dictionary of Bengali. It’s about this dictionary…’

‘Oh, a dictionary? Of Bengali?’ The man surveyed Gurudas from head to toe, not omitting his tin trunk. ‘You’ve actually brought your manuscript?’

‘Just… in case he wants a look… if he has the time.’

‘Very well, sit down. Go straight in as soon as he arrives. Through this door here – there’s nothing to be afraid of.’

He really did get an audience, along with a slip of paper with the words, ‘I endorse this book for publication’ along with a signature.

Five hundred copies of each of several slim volumes would be published, each costing one rupee. The books would not be bound. Half of whatever was left over after paying for costs would go to the author, but if expenses were not recovered within a year, the writer would recompense the publisher.

These were the terms of the contract. Bipin-babu kept the manuscripts for the first four letters, ‘Aw’ through ‘Dirgho-ee’, and Gurudas received the proofs within a week of returning to Khulna.

Six volumes were published in a year; the vowels were done. But Bipin-babu welcomed him sombrely the next summer. ‘The books aren’t selling at all. There they are – see for yourself. An entire dictionary is available at ten rupees, who’s going to pay six for just the vowels? And who cares for so many details? I couldn’t cover my costs, but I know you cannot recompense me. I can absorb this loss, but if you want to publish further you’ll have to pay half the costs. If the books sell, I’ll recover my costs first, plus thirty per cent commission. The rest will be yours.’

‘Half the costs? How much?’

‘It takes between two hundred and two-fifty to print each volume. You’ll get bills.’

Gurudas left another six volumes of his manuscript with the printer. With each volume being printed, he sold half an acre of land. Eventually nothing but the homestead was left, and then that was sold too.

By then ten more years had passed. Gurudas was almost through with ‘Baw’; all the letters up to ‘Dontyo-naw’ had been published. Meanwhile his hair had greyed, he wore thick lenses in nickel-framed glasses – but despite the spectacles everything seemed blurred at night. Harimohini was suffering from arthritis, she couldn’t do the household tasks anymore. The entire family was under the care of the lean, indefatigable Bhabani. She paid a little extra attention to her father, offering him whatever she could – a little milk or fruit, or some juice. When she had a few moments to spare, she leafed through his dictionary. Gurudas had taught her, the first child of his youth, a little Sanskrit and Bengali. She knew her grammar, and had even picked up proof-reading skills. There were times – perhaps on the morning of a holiday – when Gurudas sat outside the house, writing, while Bhabani sat at his side, turning over the pages of books, not talking. They never spoke – but they were happy, both of them.

Nabendu now had a salary of seventy-five rupees. He lived in Calcutta, his job was to check tickets on trains leaving from Sealdah Station. His days passed travelling on trains, but he rushed home whenever he could, and he handed over a decent sum of money to Gurudas every month. It was thanks to him that they survived even with three growing children. Gurudas could afford to go Calcutta from time to time, and Harimohini did not come to know that they didn’t own any land anymore, that they actually had to buy all their provisions now.

Harimohini busied herself in finding a match for her twenty-seven-year-old son. Nabendu wasn’t willing, he said he was trying to get the post of station-master – it would be better to marry after he had settled down. Actually, it was the state of the family that had made him reluctant to add to his financial burden. But Harimohini insisted, and he was married in May.

Along with new quilts and sheets, a painted box of toiletries, and the fragrance of vaseline and scent, the new bride also brought in a wave of joy into the house. A beauteous girl of fifteen. A little pain was unavoidable too; reminded of Shibani, Harimohini wiped her eyes covertly.

Nine months after his wedding, Nabendu slipped while trying to climb into a moving train and fell on the tracks. By the time he was pulled out his heart was still beating in his mangled body, but not long enough to make it to the hospital.

His wife was seven months pregnant at the time. She fell unconscious when informed, and delivered a premature, dead baby four hours later. She never succeeded in getting back on her feet; overcome by childbed fever, suffering for six months, she finally vanished into the shadows like an insubstantial shadow herself.

Gurudas received one thousand five hundred rupees from Nabendu’s provident fund, and another two housand rupees as ‘compensation’. And a few months later, just before Durga Puja, the war between Germany and England broke out.

From ‘panchambahini’ – fifth column – to ‘anubidaran’ – splitting the atom – Gurudas collected many new words during the six years of the war. These would have to be added to the appendix. But his work didn’t progress significantly during this period, he only got as far as the Bengali letter ‘Law’. Nor could he publish beyond the Bengali letter ‘Raw’; printing had become four times as expensive, and paper was hard to come by. Meanwhile, the landlord suddenly demanded seventeen rupees as rent for the house for which Gurudas had been paying seven and a half rupees all this time, the price of rice vaulted from four rupees per maund to forty, kerosene became too expensive for lanterns. And his eyes began to trouble him. The doctor said he had developed a cataract in one of them, and that surgery was necessary. This meant a trip to Calcutta and a cost of about a hundred and fifty rupees. He dismissed the proposition as soon as he heard it – it was more important to remain alive, even if on only one square meal a day.

They survived on Nabendu’s three and a half thousand rupees. He dipped into it to pay for Bhabani’s daughter’s wedding, which cost about five hundred. Despite controlling his expenditure strictly, the rest melted during the war years like ice put out in the sun. He had returned his daughter-in-law’s jewellery to her father.

It was during the war that Harimohini learnt that they no longer owned a home of their own. But she was not perturbed – she had lost that ability. She had turned inert after her son’s death – somewhat deranged. She seldom spoke, just eating her meals and staying in bed most of the time, and suffered from arthritis. Her teeth had fallen off, she was an old woman now.

Bhabani stood like a pillar, resilient. Her sons Amal and Bimal were in school. The elder one passed his Matriculation examination and joined Khulna College, where Gurudas intervened with the principal to ensure that he would not have to pay any fees. Bimal gave up studies suddenly and, applying his own judgement, got a job at the ration shop, where he learnt to pilfer. When the sixteen-year-old’s mother found out, she used a piece of wood to take the skin off his back.

Gurudas was penniless when the war ended. His salary and allowance at the school amounted to sixty-three rupees, but because of his age the authorities were pleading with him to retire. After much begging, he secured an extension of two years – he would have to leave after that.

But suddenly the problem of employment became a trivial one. Rivers of blood began to flow over the country, after which the country became independent. Khulna was allotted to Pakistan. Waiting and watching for a while, Gurudas decided to go away with his family.

It’s best not to talk about how the journey was made. Partly on foot, partly by train, occasionally on a boat across a river. Their belongings (such as they were) were left behind; they took only absolutely essential clothes, a few utensils, and his case of books. The published copies, handwritten notes, and… and virtually nothing else. All those books he had collected with so much effort since childhood had to be left behind.

Although they were unencumbered, the journey was not an easy one. He had grown old, his vision was dimmed. His wife hobbled. Amal and Bimal actually had to carry their grandmother at times – but how far can you walk bearing the weight of a heavy old woman? They had to pause for rest beneath trees, while Harimohini shrieked with arthritic pain. Rain. Sun. Dust. Droppings. Flies. And hordes of helpless people. Two babies were crushed to death by the crowd at Ranaghat Station.

It took ten days to get to Calcutta. They passed a week at Sealdah Station, eating nothing but muri, and were then transferred on a lorry to a camp at Bongaon, where they were served a lump of rice and dal at two every afternoon. Gurudas recovered a little on this diet, but there was no respite from Harimohini’s cries of pain.

Finally the lord took pity on her. Cholera broke out at the camp, and her heart gave way after she had emptied her stomach out several times. They could not cremate her themselves; government officials gathered bodies wholesale and took them away in a black vehicle.

Two months later they were given shelter at a refugee colony near Kanchrapara. Rows of one-room bamboo shanties, with a little space to cook in. A pond nearby, a tube-well for fresh water at a slight distance. Still, Bhabani set up a household despite the limitations. Amal got a job at a nearby mill, which helped them survive somehow. Bimal went to the dogs, spending all his time outdoors, smoking and watching films, though no one knew how he got the money for it.

Gurudas pulled out his notebooks again. One eye was clouded over with cataract, the other had dimmed too. Every moment of daylight was priceless. He went outside as soon as the sun rose, while Bhabani brought him a cup of tea and a little muri. Bhabani had to have her tea with her father – he insisted on it. Gurudas had discovered tea towards the end of the war. It really provided energy, and suppressed hunger too. Starting with the first light of day, he worked till the last rays of the sun faded. He sat cross-legged, his notebooks on a small stool, and just two or three books open around him – whatever he had been able to salvage from Khulna. When his back ached, he placed a book beneath the small of his back and lay down for a few minutes. It brought relief.

The next month Bhabani made him a bolster. And that same day he wrote a postcard to Bipin-babu at Bharat Press.

The reply came two days later. Bipin-babu had asked after him, expressing pleasure at hearing from him after such a long time. Demand had picked up for his dictionary recently, the previous editions had almost sold out. It was necessary to publish the subsequent volumes now. The money realised from the sales of the earlier volumes would be enough to publish the new ones – Gurudas would not have to pay any more money. Bipin-babu would be obliged if Gurudas could inform him when the new manuscripts would be available.

After a few more letters had been exchanged, Bipin-babu agreed to provide a monthly ‘assistance’ of fifteen rupees. Gurudas saved some of it to get some new books all over again. Several volumes were published in succession over the next two years; he got as far as the letter ‘Dontyo-shaw’ meanwhile.

The following year Gurudas finished his dictionary, while it took another two years to publish all the volumes. He had to read everything in print once more: the corrigenda, the appendices, everything. The ‘Great Bengal Dictionary’ was completed in fifty-two volumes. It had taken him thirty years. He was a young man of forty when he began – now the hair on his head was white, his back was bent, his cheeks were like crevices, his veins protruded on his skin. He was blind in one eye, and had marginal vision in the other.

Gurudas took to his bed a few days later. The task for which he had conserved the last drops of his energy had been completed, he no longer needed it. He recalled Shibani, Nobu, Nobu’s wife. He recalled his wife. ‘Don’t perform my last rites, Bhabani,’ he told his daughter. ‘I don’t believe in any of it.’

But he simply suffered in bed. Death wasn’t at his beck and call.

Meanwhile, there were murmurs in Calcutta about his dictionary. One Gurudas Bhattacharya had apparently composed a dictionary – an outstanding achievement. Word spread by word of mouth – to the university, to literary gatherings, to newspaper offices. Those who bought the dictionary praised it, those who didn’t praised it even more.

Eventually a young journalist appeared in a jeep one day, accompanied by Bipin-babu from Bharat Press. Gurudas did not speak much – he had no strength. Covering her face, Bhabani answered all their questions in a soft tone. A sensational report appeared in the next day’s paper, peppered with magnificent words like sacrifice, dedication and devotion.

And so Gurudas became famous.

It was the fifth year after Independence. The government had announced literary awards. Someone one the committee proposed Gurudas for an award. Gurudas Bhattacharya? Oh, the dictionary. Well… well, one has to admit he has accomplished a mammoth task, written thousands of pages. And, we hear he’s in financial difficulties, eking out an existence in a refugee colony – it would be a spending gesture. Something to capture the popular imagination with. You’ve seen how “Swadeshi Bazaar”: has praised him, haven’t you?

Gurudas was chosen to receive the award.

In reply to the official communication, Bhabani wrote that her father was ill and unable to visit Calcutta in any circumstances.

One of the younger ministers said, ‘Very well, let us go to him. People will approve.’

Therefore an enormous car drew up at the Kanchrapara refugee colony at ten o’ clock one morning, escorted by a jeep showing the way. A minister of the independent state emerged from the car, accompanied by two high officials, and two orderlies in shining red uniform. The same young journalist, a government clerk, and a photographer with a camera jumped out of the jeep. The car could not come up all the way to the door. As children and women watched with bulging eyes, they walked along the narrow path between rows of shanties to Gurudas’s hut. The tiny space was suddenly filled with people.

There was no room to sit – the ceremonies were conducted with everyone standing. The minister said a few words. A silk shawl, a bouquet of lowers, and one hundred rupee notes tied with a silk ribbon, amounting to five thousand rupees, were placed on Gurudas’s bed. The cameras clicked, Gurudas’s weak eyes blinked at the flash- popping bulbs.

He lay still on his back, his hands gathered at his chest. His expression did not betray whether he was aware of what was going on. But when the guests had moved away from his bed, when their demeanour suggested they wanted to leave but were staying back only out of embarrassment, Gurudas spoke clearly but faintly. ‘Turn me on my side, Bhabani. This is very funny, but if I laugh I will be insulting all these people. Make me face the other way.’ The eye with cataract was still, but laughter flashed in the other eye for an instant. Bhabani turned him over on his side carefully.

He died the same afternoon. His grandsons and the young men from the neighbourhood took him to the crematorium draped in the same silk shawl and covered with the same flowers.

He had made a single statement before dying. ‘Keep the money, Bhabani, it’ll prove useful for you.’

[ Original story: Ekti Jibon (1957) ]