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) ]

Ten Days of the Strike: Sandipan Chattopadhyay

It was September 27, Thursday. The month, October. The toilet of Shubhobroto’s flat had now been blocked for ten days in a row. The morning of Tuesday before last. Before going to the market, Shubho normally checked, to the accompaniment of a cup of tea and two biscuits, how the week would go. That day, too, he had just fixed his eyes on Aries when his seven-year-old daughter Pinky came out of the bathroom and said, ‘Bapi, the pan filled with water when I pulled the chain.’ ‘Hmm,’ said Shubho, hoarsely.

‘Yes, it’s still full. Take a look.’

Shubho had never heard of such a thing. They had eventually twisted the arms of the company sufficiently to extract an eight per cent bonus. Screaming ‘We want’ and ‘Meet our demands’ for the past one-and-a-half months had almost deprived him of his vocal cords. And at last, since the sky really was looking blue now, since there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky, he had assumed that, as before, this time too the Durga Puja holidays would go well. What strange mockery of the gods this was at such a juncture.

Shubho’s ancestral house was in Ahiritola, on Joy Mitra Street. Five years ago, when the company had moved to Joka from Behala, he had also been forced to move home with his wife and daughter. After all, a three-shift job couldn’t be held down from Ahiritola. The house was over sixty years old, and thirty of his years had been spent there at a stretch. But even in that house he had never heard of anything like this. Naturally it didn’t seem believable.

Shubho rushed to the bathroom, still holding the newspaper. There he saw, what rubbish, there wasn’t a drop of water in the pan. There had been, certainly, because of which some stool was still stuck to the sides. But there was no more water now, all of it had flowed in. So without going in for any more chain-pulling, he filled the ten-litre bucket and dumped all of it into the pan.

Oh god! Look, not only had water and stool come rushing up, racing each other to fill the pan, but they had also overflowed onto the bathroom floor. He swooped down on the sweeper’s broom to at least clean the floor before Kuntala turned up. Her mania for cleanliness had reached a stage where, except for sex, everything at home had been classified as ‘yours’ or ‘mine’. So much so that their toothbrushes on the glass tray above the basin didn’t dare knock against one another. In fact, even the plastic clothesline on which Kuntala’s and Pinky’s clothes were hung up to dry was different from his – theirs was the shade of deep anger. Although he had had this explained to him repeatedly, in his mild rush after his bath to get to work, he had hung his towel on that line one day and then – good god – what a row! All the way through dressing and eating, the bickering had continued up to the moment he had shut the door behind him. He had even suspected that she would throw the rest of her invectives at him from the veranda. So Shubho quickly tried to at least… Just as he’d thought. The girl had told her mother. Or perhaps the racket made by those ten litres of water had made Kuntala rush out of the kitchen and turn up in person to investigate, the end of her sari tucked into her waist. Although the bathroom floor was more or less clean, the toilet was still a grotesque mess of shit and piss. His pyjamas were wet up to the knees.

‘Oh god!’ said Kuntala. Untwisting the end of her sari from her waist, she clamped it on her nose with a force which suggested that she wouldn’t stop until she had unwrapped the entire thing.

The first thing Shubho did was to run to Gopal-babu, the ancient tenant on the ground floor. He dealt in milk products in Notun Bajar, quite a solvent business. Spreading out ten-and-odd saris on the bed, his wife was explaining her Puja gift purchases to him, while he was saying,’O no no no, this one suits you, don’t give it away.’ He wasn’t particularly pleased when Shubho entered suddenly through the back door and appeared in the bedroom without so much as a by your leave. ‘What is it?’ he asked.

On hearing the whole story, be said, ‘Come now. You realised it today. We’re ground floor. Our stuff hasn’t been passing since last week.’

‘What! But you never told me! How did you manage?’

‘Come now. We’re refugees. Came over and settled on a platform in Sealdah Station. Never mind us. Me and my son go shit in that field there.’

‘What!’ Shubho gulped. ‘And the ladies?’

‘They take a rickshaw to my wife’s sister’s place over in Unique Colony. Why don’t you tell the landlord?’ Changing the colour of his eyes like a cat, Gopal-babu smiled dirtily and said, ‘You’re very thick with him.’

He had been living there for fifteen years. His rent hadn’t been raised by a paise. In five years, Shubho had voluntarily increased the rent he paid by Rs 25, in the hope of a few drips and drops of favours. A bolt on the door had broken, the landlord hadn’t bothered to have it repaired. To rub salt into the homeless Gopal-babu’s wound, he had put up a tin-roofed room under his very nose and taken in a Muslim tailor named Liaqat Ali as tenant. The new tenant had no toilet. Apparently he raised the iron lid of the septic tank at dawn every day and, along with his offspring, defecated inside directly. And today Gopal-babu was being snide with him about the landlord! Shuhho really had been mistaken. When merely letting out a two-room flat brought in an advance of ten thousand rupees that wouldn’t have to be returned, twenty-five a month was nothing but a pinch of snuff.

His lips had assumed the shape of the letter o for a long time now. Seeing him in a fix, Gopal-babu probably felt sorry for him. Changing his tune, he said he and his family could cope, but Shubho and his family were cultured people, their case was different. There was something Shubho could do – he could go to Kalikishto-babu, the Conservancy Block Officer of the ward. Nutu’s tea-shop near Pushposree Cinema Hall – that was where the gentleman was to be found every morning. If Shubho went right away, he’d see him there. Kalikishto-babu would find a solution.

At that moment Gopal-babu got a phone-call from Notun Bajar. Grabbing the receiver, he said ‘Hello-who-yes-no-yes-no-yes-yes-no…’ into it. When he found Shubho still standing there, he arranged his fingers and the upturned palm of his left hand into a Bharatnatyam pose, telling Shubho to go quickly.

The gentleman was middle-aged, with the muscular appearance of those who deal in shit and cheese. A two-day stubble on his cheek, without a single white hair. Shubho found him exactly where he was supposed to be. And yes, Shubho was definitely efficient, for he managed to get the gentleman into a rickshaw and straight home within fifteen minutes. Sitting on the sofa, Kalikishto-babu took a luxuriant pinch of snuff between his fingertips, some of it spilling onto his half-dirty kurta. Gesturing towards the TV set, he asked, ‘Watched the Olympics?’

‘Yes.’

‘Not as good as the Russian one.’

‘No. But…’

‘Saw the P. T. Usha thing? Choo-choo.’

‘Oooh, Just a hair’s breadth.’

‘Yes. Juuuust a little more…’

‘The Bengali newspaper had the best headline – Usha touches gold and returns.’

At that moment, quite a lot of fried-rice, with two – yes, two – entire sweets arrived on a quarter-plate, carried by – not Panchidi – but Kuntala herself. ‘Tea or coffee?’ she asked

‘En-no-no. Tea…’

Shubho saw Kuntala standing by the curtain. He didn’t hesitate anymore and said, ‘Well, Kalikrishno-babu, about our toilet… ‘

‘That’s being taken care of. I’ve told Tulsidas. He’ll be here any moment.’

The bell rang downstairs almost immediately. Pinky ran to the balcony. ‘Is that Tulsidas?’ bellowed Kalikrishno-babu.

Before removing the lid of the first tank downstairs, Kalikrishno-babu asked Shubho to step away. Even Gopal-babu drew the curtains of his windows. Standing astride the opening to the septic tank, Tulsidas rotated a long, curved pole inside. Because of the horrible, fearsome stench, the windows of the first floor closed one by one. Only Kalikrishno-babu stood tapping his nose with his index finger, while Shubho held his handkerchief over his nose.

Putting the lid back, Tulsidas jumped down from the cement tank. Shubho noticed his splendid physique for the first time. He was completely naked except for the short dhoti wrapped around his waist, at least six feet tall, with thick hair on his chest, and an aluminium disc hanging from a chain around his neck. Shubho suddenly recalled that their print of Nandalal Basu’s painting Kiratarjan, which used to hang for at the head of their dining table, had fallen to the floor during a storm, the glass breaking. It would have to be framed again. Tulsidas said, ‘The tank isn’t completely blocked yet. It’ll work for a few days more. But vanishing is a must.’

Vanish? What was that? To make something vanish was to hide it. Like making a corpse vanish. Or stolen goods. What was it that was to be made to vanish here?

Kalikrishno-babu said, ‘Do you know how long it’s been since the tank was cleaned?’

‘I know,’ said Gopal-babu, drawing the curtain. ‘Eighteen years.’ He drew the curtain back. Kalikrishno-babu said to the man behind the purdah, ‘That does it. Do all of you use acid to clean your pan?’

No reply. Shubho said, ‘We do.’

‘Then don’t,’ said Kalikrishno-babu.’The insects that breed in the tank eat up the stool, that’s why the water flows easily between the tanks. Four tanks in all. What happens is that if the acid kills off the insects, the outlet of the first tank gets jammed with stool and dead insects.’

Shubho said something that had occurred to him right at the beginning. ’Kalikrishno-babu. The sanitary privy in our Ahiritola house is at least forty years old. But it never…’

‘Look. That is in Calcutta. It is connected to the central sewerage. Goes straight to the dumping ground in Dhapa through the underground system. And this is Behala. It’s a personal system here.’

‘I see.’ The basics of socialism and capitalism became somewhat clearer to Shubho.

The meaning of ‘vanish’ also became obvious. It was nothing but the use of a bundle of rags tied to the end of a long bamboo pole. Since there wasn’t enough, Kuntala had to hand over a frilled petticoat. The drawstring was removed to tie everything together, but it didn’t work. So Kuntala eventually had to offer her scarlet, for-her-majesty-only, plastic clothesline. Then, fill the pan with water and apply a vacuum-pressure on its mouth with the rug-covered battering ram. This, in short, was vanish.

But, worse luck, not even half an hour of vacuum pressuring could clear more than an arm’s length of the stuff. As soon as it had been used once or twice more, the pan filled with stool again.

That’s how it had stood on the sixth successive day. All this time, a yard or so of shit had been clearing up on its own every night, while Shubho managed to make another arm’s length worth disappear with fifteen minutes of effort every morning. The three of them somehow managed to do their business once a day, their faces covered. But for the last three days, the stool had accumulated in the pan without budging an inch.

Shuhho had been urinating outdoors since the beginning. The bathroom was a completely forbidden zone to him for this particular activity. Kuntala had made it clear on the very first day. ‘You can do that wherever the hell you can. Don’t you set foot in the bathroom.’ But two days ago, seeing that the stuff in the pan hadn’t cleared at all, she dealt a heartrending blow. ‘You can shit outside the house too. I don’t know where.’

As a result, for the past two days Shubho had been unloading where Monica – a former student of Kuntala’s – lived, across the road. He went over only after the men folk had left for work. He had had to take casual half-days at his office all those days. Never mind that, but not only was it embarrassing for a thirty-five-year-old man to use the toilet in someone else’s house, it was also, oh god, no little trouble. First, which of the mugs to use? Then, there were pieces of red-blue-yellow-differently-coloured soap on the window sill. Obviously, one was Monica’s, one her parents’, one her aunt’s or brother’s. Alas, couldn’t there have been one colour from the vibgyor exclusively for Shubho? Crossing the road every day with a mug from his own toilet was unimaginable. He had clean forgotten to pull the chain the day before yesterday. Of course, it wasn’t as though there had been any stool left in the pan. It had all disappeared while cleaning himself afterwards. But Kuntala sent him back all the same. Glaring, she practically shouted at him, ‘Go pull the chain. Someone else’s toilet, after all – shame on you.’

So, for the last two days the stuff in the pan had remained in the pan. Covering their face, shutting their eyes, mother and daughter had been unloading on the existing heap. There was no question of pouring water in either. The pan would immediately fill with water and, now, it wouldn’t even flow. Instead, it would splatter them. Kuntala’s foresight had consequently forbidden Pinky to spit into the pan. Indeed, Kuntala was more dedicated than the Anand Marg people in her quest for cleanliness. One felt, not sorry, but like weeping for her.

There was no option now but to clean the four tanks. If the Municipality were informed it might be done, but that would cost Rs 4,000 and neither the landlord nor Gopal-babu would pay a paise. Kuntala had still been willing to pawn her jewellery. But Kalikrishno-babu said the Municipality wouldn’t send its vehicle before six months. So it had been decided that he would employ a dozen sweepers overnight to clear 80-90 per cent of the stuff in the first tank, on a payment of Rs 300 for the moment. Six months of relief, at any rate! ‘Where?’ Kalikrishno-babu answered with a half-wink, ‘What business is it of yours? Here and there,’ swinging his arm in an arc that included India as well as the rest of the world. Shubho’s earlier notion of the word vanish would be given this new interpretation in the early hours of Sunday – even before the birds had risen. Or so things had been fixed. Which meant four more days in hell.

Actually four more days in hell wasn’t the right way of putting it. It was quite wrong, in fact. As in all small flats, the toilet was separated from the rest of the bathroom by a six-foot-high partition. Which meant that it was exposed at the top. The unbearable stench flowed out, filling the flat at all times. Not even incense could keep it at bay. So Kuntala had hung up a packet of Odonil in each room – including the kitchen. And – this was a lack of foresight on her part – the constant scent of five packets of Odonil bad turned the entire flat into a unique two-room toilet, complete with kitchen, storeroom and dining space. So, instead of four more days in hell, four more days in the toilet would be a better way of putting it.

It was about three in the morning. Cring-cring, cring-cring. The phone was ringing downstairs in Gopal-babu’s flat. Even a sound as soft as this could wake Shubho up. But he went back to sleep with its sounds in his ears.

Kuntala woke him up about fifteen minutes later. His mother had died a little earlier.

She had been quite old. This time her cold had taken a detour towards pneumonia. Even a couple of weeks ago, she had appeared to have turned the corner. He hadn’t been able to check on her during the toilet crisis. Did she have to take the opportunity to escape this way?

‘What went wrong so suddenly?’ he asked absently.

‘They didn’t say. Come on, hurry up. Go to Madhu-da. Ask him to get the taxi out.’

‘Y-yes, I’m going.’ Holding up his pyjamas with his hands he was running to the bathroom to urinate. Kuntala objected mildly, ‘Where do you think you’re going? The pan’s full. Nothing’s gone down all night. You’re going out, aren’t you?’ Meaning, do it outside.

‘O yes o yes,’ he said and, unbolting the door, was about to totter out bare-bodied, trapped between semi-somnolence and grief for his mother. Kuntala handed him a singlet. The first thing he did outside was to squat by the open drain.

Sunrise was some time away. One of his elder brothers was standing by the small iron gate. Putting his hand through the window he unlocked the door of the taxi and said, ‘Ah, you’re here. Come in. Couldn’t let you know earlier. O ho, o ho.’

The Ahiritola house was dilapidated. Nearly all of it was now under Shubho’s brother’s control. There weren’t enough rooms for everyone, so only when someone died did one of the young men get married. The eldest brother had died quite young of cancer, and his wife had moved with their children to the room on the roof. Shubho had got married. Their mother, of course, had delayed things considerably, and Shubho’s brother had no choice but to shift her downstairs from the first floor. Setting up a bed in a corner of the dining room and laying her on it for her final repose, he had got his nephew Boltu married the month before. The room that Shubho had shared with his eldest brother a decade ago was now in the joint possession of the family deity and his brother’s youngest son Punpun.

Ignoring the formal gestures of deference for her brother-in-law, Kuntala led Pinky directly into the dining room. Shubho sat with his brother in the front room. His brother switched on the table-lamp and the fan. Some plaster flaked off the walls, falling on the floor. They were both quiet. When the cook came and asked, ‘Tea or Viva?’ Shubho’s brother said, ‘Tea? Mmm… um…’

‘Viva then?’

‘Viva gives me wind. OK Viva.’

‘Tea for Chhotobabu?’

Shubho nodded. His brother’s chest heaved as he sighed. ‘She drank all the holy water in my hand and then passed away. Before that she threw away all the medicine Gouri had given her.’

Shubho was silent.

He was thinking of the last time he was here. His mother had obviously known she didn’t have much time left. Taking his hands, she had said, ‘Come back soon. I want water from your hands before I die.’ Since her illness began, Shubho had been visiting twice a week anyway. Suddenly, out of the blue, while all the toilets in the world were in working order, theirs had to be the one to be knocked out.

Shuhho was her favourite child. Before her got married, he had taken her on all the pilgrimages she had wanted to – Kashi-Vindhyachal, Haridwar, Kedar-Badri. At Vindhyachal he had been a bit short with her about something. That had done it – the old woman had disappeared from the dharamshala. A terrible loo was blowing in the middle of the afternoon. Searching for her all over, he had finally found her beneath a banyan tree. The way she had turned away her face in rage on seeing him was not to be forgotten. Only after much pleading had he succeeded in getting her into a tonga.

That last day he was here, his mother’s meal had just been served. When Shubho’s sister-in-law saw a couple of rats scurrying about, she exploded. ‘Oh, Ma, can’t you even shoo them off?’

What a moonglow had spread over her face! Between the rise and set of a faint smile, she had said, ‘What can I do? I used to shoo them off. They’d run away. Now they don’t pay any attention. So I call out to god now.’

That night Shubho had told Kuntala. ‘I’m bringing Ma over tomorrow.’ ‘Your brother won’t let you. Ma still wears that necklace. Besides,’ Kuntala had said, ‘Ma won’t leave her home either.’

‘Of course she will, of course she will,’ Shubho had said, thumping the bed. ‘Does she have to die in a damp room amongst rats and cockroaches? Must Gouri talk to her that way? Can you imagine how she must be treating Ma?’

‘Yes, bring her over if you can.’ Kuntala had sounded keen.

It hadn’t been possible. The toilet had become blocked immediately afterwards.

It was getting light outside. A taxi drew up. Shubho’s sister Kamala and her husband Jagadish got out amidst the ear-shattering din of street dogs barking. Switching off the table-lamp and draining his cup of Viva, a final sip, Shubho’s brother rose to welcome them. As he walked off, he said, ‘I believe your toilet’s choked?’

Drinking his tea, Shubho felt his bowels stir. He hadn’t yet been to the room of the dead. His entire being was telling him not to go in there, not to witness the one completely believable thing in life that could not be disbelieved at all.

He went to the toilet instead. A toilet that needed the light to be switched on even in the daytime. The light revealed an uneven wall and hundreds of cockroaches. A cracked, scarred pan. The sweeper came just once a week. No cistern. And yet, because it was connected to the central sewerage system, look, just two mugs of water made the shit dance away.

As Shubho’s brother’s wife touched his mother’s forehead with the bangle and vermilion of the married woman before she was placed on the cot that would take her to the crematorium, all the other married women, including Kuntala, lined up behind her – while Shubho’s brother told the photographer, S. Kumar, ‘For the rituals I want a photograph of my beautiful mother, absolutely young,’ – Shubho entered, threw a single glance at his mother and averted his eyes. Her final expression, when she was still alive, hadn’t yet been wiped off her face. ‘Thank god!’ it seemed to say.

His brother was still saying loudly, ‘O ho, is there anything I haven’t done for my mother? When she had cholera… Shubho was a little boy and she was pregnant with Kamala…’ Shubho took the opportunity, put his head on his mother’s feet and said, softly, twice, ‘Forgive me, Ma.’

There was a long line of corpses in front of the electric furnace at Nimtala crematorium. It was evening before Shubho’s mother’s turn came. Before bathing her and dressing her in fresh clothes, during the rite of ‘severance of earthly ties’, the priest at the crematorium said, ‘All this is mine,’ and started taking everything away, from the old clothes to the amulet tied around the corpse’s arm. There was a tight knot in the sari, which simply couldn’t be loosened. All of them bent down for a closer look – Shubho, his brother, his nephew, his brother’s brother-in-law. What could it possibly be? Gouri had already removed all the jewellery. Shubho’s mother had displayed her last remaining possession – the necklace at her throat – just a few days ago, telling everyone, ‘This is for Pinky.’ Gouri would never hand it over.

After a great deal of tugging and clawing, the knot was loosened and a twenty-rupee-note was found. No one knew how long it had been there. It had undoubtedly been washed several times. Holding the pulpy currency note gingerly, Shubho observed a distinctly displeased expression on the priest’s face. Taking his hands, he said, ‘Look, purutmoshai, you can still read the serial number, you just have to go to the Reserve Bank office, they stand outside on the pavement, they’ll keep a rupee at most.’ Shubho apologised repeatedly for his mother’s inconsiderate behaviour.

Dressed in her new clothes, his mother entered the furnace on a trolley. Just like a slice of bread in a toaster. At a touch of the hotplate inside, the flames leapt up. The enormous gates of the furnace came crashing down.

The next day, Friday, they went back to Behala. Shubho had phoned his office the day before, getting a verbal sanction for a fortnight’s leave. Maulik would come by with the application form. In the taxi, Shubho recalled the thought that had occurred to him the evening before while standing chest-deep in the Ganga. How would he go to Monica’s place the next day in this outfit – in the traditional garb of a son who had lost his mother? Of course, it was a matter of one day only. He was already done for today. And early on Sunday, 80-90 per cent of the stuff would be made to vanish. Which would mean six months of relief. Really, Shubho’s mother’s death had changed Kuntala overnight. She hadn’t mentioned the toilet even once. She would definitely cope with it one day more. And oh, Sunday was the first day of the Durga Puja fortnight. The morning programme on the radio would return like the childhood poem, ‘It’s dawn, night’s gone,’ waving its blue flag.

Back home, spreading sand between fresh bricks, Shubho and Kuntala were huffing and puffing for all they were worth over a nearly extinguished fire of sticks and wood – fanning was forbidden – with a boiling pot upon it, when, suddenly… whoosh whoosh!

What was that? They looked at each other with reddened, streaming eyes. Yes, the heartache of one was now, because of the smoke, rolling down as the tears of the other. But the language of their eyes was the same. Wasn’t the sound coming from the bathroom? Their eyes expressed the same hope. Pinky had run to the bathroom before anyone else. Opening the doors of the toilet, she screamed, ‘Bapi! Ma!’

Kuntala raced to the bathroom behind Shubho. What could this be but divine intervention? Despite a little stool still stuck to the sides, the pan, my goodness, was absolutely empty. There was no doubt that the pipe had opened up miraculously, and all the stuff had rushed out and sunk somewhere!

Shubho poured in an experimental mug of water. Did you see that, it just slid away like a gleeful rat. He couldn’t hold his impatience any longer. The muscles in his arm hardened in expectation of the ten-litre bucket filled with water. He poured in all ten litres at one go.

With bulging eyes he stared for a few seconds at the unblemished and clean white of the pan. Just like the inside of his thick head, which also felt clean and shining. His head had never felt so weightless! Swivelling, he did something very strange. He held his daughter up to the sky, piercing the roof of the bathroom with his screams. ‘Ma! Ma!’

Putting his daughter down, he shook Kuntala, his face lighting up as he told her, ‘Yes yes, Ma! My mother, Kunti! Ma couldn’t stand our trouble any more. She’s cleaned the jammed outlet in the tank with her own hands, believe me, look, my hair’s standing on end.’

‘You loved me so much, Ma,’ wailed Shubho, rolling and writhing on the straw-and-blanket bedding laid out on the floor. He sobbed noisily. Neither Pinky nor Kuntala could calm him down. In the kitchen, the food of mourning boiled in two side-by-side earthen pots on the brick stove, turning to bricks themselves.

The Umbrella: Kaberi Roychoudhury

Just the one umbrella at home, and that too with about fifty holes in it. Finding its way through these holes, the sunlight flashed on the hair and face. When it rained, pearls dripped from the head. Losing an umbrella like this was bound to create anxiety and unhappiness at home. Which was just what had happened. It wasn’t clear yet how the umbrella was lost. But it was believed to have flown away.

Yes, flown away. Because when Indu’s father Bhakti-babu asked for the umbrella on such an unreasonably rainy day, Indu said, just a second, Baba, I’ve put the cat under the umbrella. Else he’ll be completely soaked where he’s lying by the water tank. And the poor thing can’t even move. I’ll get it for you.

Bhakti-babu expressed his sympathy for the cat, which had recently fractured his hip. I’m glad you did, he said. But I have to go out, so you’d better help him beneath the tank, or else make a bed for him on the staircase.

Oh my god! Where was the umbrella? Indu was dumbstruck when she skipped up to the terrace. The umbrella? The cat was there. The water tank was there. But not the umbrella.

The sky was overcast, and there had been heavy spells of rain since morning. A storm had blown up a short while ago. Would it ever stop? But it had quietened down now. A light let’s-fly-away sort of wind was still blowing. Just the right environment to feel utterly distracted. In an instant Indu’s imagination took over. She felt as though someone had been in her heart, but now she was flying away. She didn’t know where. She was only cutting a path through the wind – it was obvious to her that she was airborne. Indu was nineteen now. She turned her eyes to the sky. Her glance paused at the line of green in the distance. A song began to play in her head – this maddening wind and rain-soaked day… And at that moment Bhakti-babu called out to her from the ground floor, Indu! Indu! The umbrella? Indu scoured the roof. But there was no sign of it. How strange! She ran down the stairs. Observing her expression, Bhakti-babu said, is the cat all right?

The umbrella isn’t there, Baba!

What do you mean, isn’t there?

I mean it isn’t there. The umbrella’s nowhere to be found on the terrace. I had opened it over the cat, mind you. Indu’s mother Sudha came running, having heard part of the conversation between father and daughter. She said, have both of you been smoking hashish or something at midday? What do you mean the umbrella’s gone? Let me check.

Give it a missed call, will you, Bhakti-babu quipped.

Baba! Indu almost screamed. Baba, you… she said, and chuckled. Bhakti-babu looked at Sudha apprehensively, scratching his head diffidently. Habit, he said.

Sudha was angry already. And with Bhakti-babu joking about it, Indu decided it would be unwise to laugh and sent the giggles bubbling up within her right back where they had come from. Meanwhile Sudha came rushing down from the roof, a worried expression on her face. It’s true, she said, the umbrella isn’t there. There was an uproar at once. Everyone had an instant and distinct opinion on the possible destination of the umbrella. I cannot make any sense of this, said Sudha. Where could it have disappeared from the terrace? The front door was locked, so no one could have come in and walked off with it. And I personally closed the door after the maid when she left. Bhakti-babu grew angry. Why must you suspect the maid? Without her you’d have been unmade by now. Sudha didn’t appear to pay much attention. She was deep in thought, her brow furrowed. Bhakti-babu said, listen, Indu, you don’t think this is the umbrella’s revenge for all the torture the three of us have inflicted on it, do you? Indu trusted her father’s imagination implicitly. She was fond of giving in to flights of fancy as well. Her imaginative powers had happily taken wing of late. Just the other day a kite had tumbled on to the roof; picking it up happily, she found a name written across it: Tirthesh Sen. Her heart leapt. She had these strange sensations quite frequently these days – although she had no idea why. Unprovoked depression, unjustified delight, an unnecessary wish to sing or dance. Her mother looked at Indu suspiciously whenever she seemed to be behaving uncharacteristically. What’s wrong with you, she asked.

Even if she answered, nothing, her mother’s frown didn’t vanish. It was an annoyance. Her heart had lurched when she saw the kite. She had been watching a kite-flying contest just a short while earlier. One of the kites was brought down, and it drifted onto the terrace of their house. It had a length of string trailing behind. As she wound the red, sharpened string around her palm, her imagination took over. And then just a single thought all day and night. She kept seeing the red string. She could see the starch being boiled, with the ground glass and barley stirred in. And a red dye. Someone had wound the string between two lamp-posts and was sharpening it with this powder. Who was it? She could not see him. His image floated into her imagination. Night passed, dawn came – passing through the doorway of her fantasies, she fell asleep. The sharpened red string and the kite. And the figure as her companion.

Today Indu grew perturbed at her father’s observation. Not impossible, Baba. Just the one umbrella, with a thousand holes. We never even thought of mending them. One of the spokes was jutting out – I managed to stitch it back into place. The poor thing had to keep going with the stitches. On top of which the three of us didn’t exactly allow it any rest.

Sudha was listening to the conversation between father and daughter. When Indu stopped she said, and what does that prove? That the umbrella has stormed out into the unknown? Sudha hurled burning glances at her husband and her daughter. Then she said, honestly, what strange ideas. Lunatics. I live with two lunatics. Oh god, what a life!

Still, Indu’s father had made her conjure up a destination in her mind for the umbrella. She was comforted to think that it had left home in a fit of hurt and anger. For she, too, wanted to go away for the same reason now and then. In a sense, although its departure had made her sad, it had also given her joy. But at this moment she felt defeated by her mother’s argument. For it was indeed impossible for the umbrella to have walked out on its own – as impossible as it was for her to leave home. So she said, what do YOU think, Ma?

Try to remember whether you’d already brought the umbrella downstairs, said Sudha. Maybe you’ve forgotten – people forget things they hold in their left hands. You have to pray to the god of lost things with a pinch of salt to recollect.

Should I do that? Nothing more expensive than salt, right? I’ll do it at once.

Finally Bhakti-babu laughed. Is there an idol of Mr Lost and Found? How will you pray otherwise? Sudha glared at her husband. Don’t joke about gods, I’m warning you, she told him. Turning to her daughter, she said, go change out of that salwar into clean clothes, Indu. I’ll give you a bowl of salt. Put the bowl along with a glass of water in a corner and say in your head, god of lost things, return what’s lost and have some salt and water. Say it thrice, all right? Bhakti-babu chuckled at this. Does Mr Lost and Found suffer from low blood-pressure, he asked. If he has high pressure he shouldn’t be having salt. He’ll kick the bucket at once.

Sudha could clearly see the flames in her own head, a fire raging out of control. Observing the mounting rage on her mother’s face, Indu sensed trouble and quickly said, come on, we can’t be late. You’re going out, Baba, aren’t you? You’d better go now, the rain has almost stopped. We’ll look for the umbrella.

Bhakti-babu left, walking into a gentle drizzle. A debtor who had evaded him for a long time had telephoned of his own accord, promising to return his money today. So he simply had to go. Sudha was still grumbling, all these jokes about gods and goddesses – how could anything good come of them? Imagine suggesting that the god of lost things would kick the bucket. Horrible. Go, Indu, pray with all your heart. The gods test us, to find out whether our devotion is genuine. Where can the umbrella have gone, after all? The gods are testing us. Let me tell you that people can turn blind even without losing their eyes if the gods are angry with them. Shut the door when you’re done with your prayers, all right? Indu’s mother would get angry if she argued. So, although the question popped into Indu’s head, she did not ask, why Ma? Instead, she said, all right, Ma. But she couldn’t keep herself from asking, but I haven’t ever seen an idol of the god of lost things, Ma, how will I pray to him?

This was true. Sudha looked troubled for a moment. Then she had a brainwave and said, just shut your eyes and say, have some water, have some salt, god of lost things, and return what’s lost. That will do the trick. When I was a child we found many lost things this way. Go now.

It wasn’t clear whether the god of lost things had had any salt and water. Sudha was disturbed. She knew only too well that if the lost object was not recovered, Bhakti-babu wasn’t going to stop at jokes.

The hours passed. Sudha and Indu combed the entire house for the umbrella, but without success. Bhakti-babu returned before evening, and asked about the umbrella as soon as he arrived. Indu signalled to her father not to joke. Sudha was already dejected.

Bhakti-babu changed tack when he saw how gloomy his wife was. He said, you know what, Indu, we have this very bad habit of assuming that only humans are living beings.

A dispirited Sudha curled up next to father and daughter. What’s that you’re saying, she asked.

What do you think? If only we had considered that the umbrella is a living being too. I remember now how battered it became from constant use. What colour was it, do you recall?

Maroon, Baba. Although you couldn’t tell any more. The colour had faded completely. And all those holes on top of it. Indu’s heart was bleeding now. You bought it for me when I was in Class Five, Baba, she said.

Bhakti-babu was astonished. It’s been serving us without any help for so many years, he said. From Class Five in school to First Year in college!

Yes, Baba.

We never repaired it, did we?

Not even once.

It was bound to leave. There’s only so much one can take.

Sudha sat, her eyes lowered. She was looking woebegone. It had been four months since they had started using the 100-watt bulb, after the tubelight stopped working. The yellowish glow from the bulb gave the room a melancholy look. The rain raged outside. There were frequent claps of thunder. Raising her eyes, Sudha said, what nonsense the two of you have been talking! Madness! Did the umbrella grow legs or wings with which to walk or fly away when it wanted to?

Bhakti-babu smiled. The same familiar smile. Do you suppose you can walk away whenever you want to, Sudha, even if you have a pair of legs, he asked. Probably not. Or else you would have left long ago.

Sudha was startled. What sort of conversation is this, she said. What a nasty thing to say in the middle of the evening! Which hellhole would I go to?

Hellhole is right. Where can the wife of a lower middle class man like me go? If only you’d been a rich man’s wife, your life would have been glamorous. And not only would you have had the courage to abandon your family, but there would also have been a place for you elsewhere. You would have had so many suitors.

Sudha was taken aback at first. Her expression betrayed several instantaneous reactions to this. Positively indignant, she said, but since I’m not, there’s no point saying all this. For now I’ve asked the maid to arrange for an umbrella. She said dozens of peddlers visit their slums every day. They sell umbrellas too. You can get one for fifty rupees. She’ll get us one if we give her the money.

So I shall. But first let’s have some tea. Bhakti-babu jumped off the bed where they had been sitting. I’ll make the tea today, he said. Real Punjab-style tea. Looking at his daughter he said, tell me afterwards whether your father’s a good cook or not.

Enough. There’s no need to make the tea now after you’ve been soaked in the rain. As Sudha stepped forward Bhakti-babu took her hand and forced her back down on the bed. Make sure your mother doesn’t fuss too much, he instructed his daughter. Don’t let her budge, all right? Indu was enjoying this. The rains had created an atmosphere where the three of them could have a cozy chat after a long time.

Sudha was feeling uncomfortable. She didn’t like it at all when men entered her kitchen. She was certain that Bhakti-babu would turn the place upside down just to make two cups of tea. What’s wrong with your father today, she kept muttering. What’s he doing all this for. Wait and see the state he leaves my lovely kitchen in. I’ll have to work twice as hard.

Why can’t you be quiet, Ma, Indu scolded her mother. Can’t you see how happily he’s making tea for us? I’ll clean up after him, all right? Now sing us a song about the rains.

Sudha practically jumped out of her skin. Me sing? Have both of you gone mad out of grief for the umbrella?

Indu chuckled. Do we seem mad?

What else? My music has long boiled away along with the rice. Have you heard me sing in the past twenty-one years?

You do sing. Alone, though. We’ve heard you. Even Baba is full of praise for your singing.

Bhakti-babu had made three cups of tea. The small room was suffused with its aroma. Try it, he said. You and I will make khichuri tonight, Indu. Your mother gets a rainy day holiday.

Wow! Indu leapt to her feet. Fantastic, Baba. A delicious khichuri and beguni… we must have beguni, Baba.

Do you know what spices to use?

Chillies, cumin and bay leaf. Don’t worry.

Sudha was listening, flabbergasted. She laughed at the discussion over spices. Are you throwing a party to celebrate your grief at losing the umbrella, she said.

Ha ha ha. Bhakti-babu burst out laughing. Listen to your mother, Indu, he said. Am I throwing a party! Ha ha ha… You’re right, I am.

What’s going on?

Have your tea.

Sipping her tea, Sudha felt she was tasting nectar. Bhakti-babu was captivated by the expression on her face. He gazed at his wife. And then he seemed lost in thought for a while. But he overcame this overwhelmed feeling in a few minutes and returned to his normal self. Looking at his daughter, he said, think about it, Indu, the umbrella had been unhappy for such a long time. Indu merged with her father’s imagination. She could now see clearly how unhappy the umbrella was. It was true, the umbrella had indeed looked rather hopeless and disheartened now and then. But then it had also looked surprisingly new at times. Musing on all this, Indu was surprised – she had never wondered about this earlier. If she had paid attention then, this calamity would not have taken place. Bhakti-babu kept talking, you’d put the umbrella beneath an open sky – this was probably the first time it had got the chance to stand all by itself under a vast sky. A cloudy sky such as today’s would make even you and me wish we could fly away. Don’t you wish you could, Indu? Yes, Baba, nodded Indu. But cloudy skies make me so sad. I just want to sit in silence. I remember my old friends – a sad feeling, but also a happy one at the same time. And when clumps of white clouds float on the glittering blue sky in liberated laziness with a we-can-go-wherever-we-please air, how I wish I could fly away. Somewhere far, fa-a-a-r away, Baba.

Don’t you wish you could fly away too, Sudha? Don’t you? Tell us.

Sudha was feeling most unsettled today. Bhakti-babu had never said such things all these years. It was turning out to be such a topsy-turvy day. No, Sudha shook her head. I don’t. The caged bird never feels the desire to fly away.

Or maybe it does, said Bhakti-babu. They don’t even realise when their wings turn useless form disuse, like our appendix. When the wings grow heavy, they cannot fly even if they wish they could. And we imagine they’re not interested. How deeply we think. Heh! The very next moment Bhakti-babu addressed Indu. Just picture the scene, the instant the umbrella saw it was alone… and the enormous sky above its head… he was reminded of all his unhappiness and the wind told him, run away. The yellow bird fluttered its wings to show him how to fly, and signalled him – at once he set his tiny body adrift on air currents. Bhakti-babu’s eyes were closed. He continued, and then, such joy! It felt so free once it left the ground for the air! Freedom! Independence! Aaah! It took deep breaths to its heart’s content – and kept flying… kept flying… kept flying…

Indu was flabbergasted and Sudha, astounded. Won’t the umbrella miss us at all, Baba, asked Indu. It’s grown with me from Class Five… to First Year. We miss it, Baba. Won’t it want to come back?

Miss us? Of course it will. But it’s hard to say whether it will want to come back. This is its first taste of unfettered freedom, you see. After so many years of subjugation, it will lose itself in the joy of independence – who knows which river or forest or mountain peak it will fly off to? It might break when it lands. Or it could fall into someone’s hands – who knows.

It won’t be keen on falling into anyone else’s hands, Baba. Bhakti-babu smiled. The smile held regret, repentance, and a subtle hint of happiness. You’re right, he said. Just think of the experience it has shored up already. Sudha had never been so astonished in her life. Forgetting her tea, she was gaping at father and daughter. Finally losing her patience, she said, what madness is all this. Are you also going to be flying off along with the umbrella? Rubbish! It’s just an umbrella! How can it be sad? How can it suffer? For heaven’s sake! Enough – you want khichuri tonight, right?

Bhakti-babu burst out laughing again. Not you, not you, Sudhamoyee… we will cook tonight, you will put your feet up and relax.

Baba! Did you just call Ma Sudhamoyee? Indu smiled in surprise.

What a lovely name your mother has. And we’ve shortened it to Sudha. Do you know how different Sudha is from Sudhamoyee? Sudha is nectar, and Sudhamoyee? She who is replete with ambrosia. Oh. How we forget in the course of using something that it has life… a name, character, desires, disinclinations. No, I shall call you Sudhamoyee from now on. No objections allowed. Come, Indu, let’s you and I show your mother that father and daughter are second to none.

The cooking began with great fanfare, as though it was a giant ceremony. Sudha stood at the kitchen door, laughing. She wasn’t allowed to cross the threshold today. When Indu was about to put in a second tablespoon of turmeric powder, she burst out in protest. No more… enough.

Bhakti-babu glared at her. You’re bossing us again. It’s become second nature for you. Didn’t I tell you to go sit like a princess on the bed? You can issue your orders, and we will bow and scrape and obey you. Go at once.

Why don’t you go, Ma, Indu chivvied her.

Sudha’s feet were frozen at the kitchen door. About to return, she couldn’t help throwing a backward glance into the kitchen. Ancient yellow walls. The 60-watt bulb was dim with soot and grime. The plaster was flaking off the walls at several places. But still this was Sudha’s favourite spot in the house. She kept looking back. The double fragrance of rice and dal was in the air. To Sudha the sound of the khichuri being cooked seemed perfectly in tune with the incessant rain outside. It occurred her to that she never got a whiff of the food she cooked. And today she could sense it sharply even from a distance – she was enjoying it. Sudha went back to her seat on the bed, where she had a sudden urge to open the windows and gaze at the rain. This startled her. She had never felt such an urge before. How peculiar. What would her daughter think if she found Sudha staring at the rain with the window open? And her husband? Would he spare her his jokes? And yet the urge was growing stronger – an urge to which Sudha soon gave in. She stood at the window, having opened the shutters. She was being splashed by raindrops. Sudha’s eyes, face and neck were getting wet. And a cool breeze alongside. So sweet, so very sweet. A current of pure joy swept through every part of Sudha’s being. Swept through her. Someone started humming within her, this maddening wind and rain-soaked day… it was raining. Things in the distance had become invisible. The lamp-posts were getting drenched in the rain. The road was deserted. Sudha was singing. Someone inside Sudha was singing.

She had not noticed when Bhakti-babu had come up behind her. When the voice inside her stopped for a moment, lost to the world, Bhakti-babu put his hand on her shoulder. So embarrassing! Sudha felt shy. As she tried to shut the window quickly, Bhakti-babu said, don’t. You look so lovely in the rain today Sudhamoyee. How long it has been since you sang. Did you want to fly away? Hmm? We really neglected the umbrella, you know. Bhakti-babu ended with a tiny sigh. Raindrops were splashing into the room. Carried in on the wind, the rain drenched Sudha and Bhakti-babu, as well as the room. Bhakti-babu was also gazing into the distance. The umbrella has taken revenge, he said. How far can it fly anyway with that ravaged body? It’s probably lying face-down somewhere. I’m feeling awful, Sudha. it gave us protection from the sun and the rain and storms unhesitatingly, and we only used it and threw it aside. Used it and threw it aside. Sudha had probably caught a chill. She was coughing. Shutting the window, Bhakti-babu scolded Sudha mildly, dry yourself at once. You’ve managed to pick up a cough, haven’t you? You must go to the doctor tomorrow. Indu! Bhakti-babu called out loudly. You must take your mother to the doctor tomorrow. He sped off to the kitchen, still speaking, returning in a short while with Indu, holding a steaming plate of khichuri. Not on the floor or on their rickety woodworm-infested dining table – today the meal was laid out on sheets of newspaper placed on the bed.

Sudha ate, waving the steam away with her fingers. Her face looked exquisite. She did not recollect when she had last eaten anything so delectable. The salt, spice and sugar were all in perfect proportion. Bhakti-babu watched Sudha, entranced. He did not remember when he had spent so much time looking at her nose, her eyes, even the mole on her throat. Isn’t Ma beautiful, Baba, said Indu. If only I looked even a little bit like her.

Bhakti-babu nodded. He said, we really did neglect the umbrella. I wish we had been given another chance. He continued in chagrin, you could have told me, Indu. How do you expect me to remember everything?

Sudha still could not believe the business of the disappearing umbrella. She was eating, but her mind was wandering. The tale of an upset umbrella was unreal to her. The thought of its unfurling its wings and flying away was just fantasy. Interrupting the exchanges between father and daughter, she said, will you two stop? You’re outdoing each other will tall tales.

It had been an extraordinary day. After many years, Bhakti-babu spent the evening babbling till he fell asleep. Do you remember the first time I saw you, Sudhamoyee, he asked.

How could I not? You were gobbling down the food. About to retort, Sudha suddenly felt embarrassed. Shut up, she said. Rubbish.

I’ve neglected you. How much can a humble schoolteacher do anyway? But I know I could still have paid more attention. Don’t you ever feel angry with me, with this household of ours, Sudha?

Why don’t you shut up. Sudha could feel her heart melting into a puddle. The rain sounds so loud, doesn’t it, she said.

I’m upset about the umbrella. I wouldn’t have felt this way if we’d lost it on a bus or tram.

I don’t understand either. Where could it have gone? Covering the cat one moment, gone the next…

It took the chance to fly away.

No idea. Sudha didn’t want to think about it any more. Her body was demanding the comfort of sleep – she closed her eyes.

Morning came with a clatter and bright sunshine. The leaves were shiny and smooth after bathing in the rain. Indu was the first to wake up today. Brushing her teeth, she went up to the terrace to enjoy the beautiful dawn. And then she rubbed her eyes several times. She checked again. And again. The umbrella was standing silently in a corner of the roof. Its arms and legs folded, its head bowed, looking guilty. Sunlight flashed on its rain-washed fabric. Indu couldn’t believe her eyes. Was this their umbrella? Or was it one that had escaped from someone else’s house? She couldn’t be sure. There hadn’t been anyone on the terrace the night before. She felt a stab of fear. Almost running downstairs, she shrieked, Ma! Baba! The umbrella! Wake up quickly… Indu’s screams awoke Sudha and Bhakti-babu.

Baba, the umbrella! On the terrace!

What! The last vestiges of sleep in his eyes vanished in a trice. His eyes bulging, Bhakti-babu asked, whose umbrella?

Sudha had climbed up to the roof already. She was shouting from the terrace, come and see, quick. Our umbrella is back!

The faded maroon umbrella still stood in a corner, leaning against the wall, head bowed, ungainly. Bhakti-babu, Sudha and Indu exchanged glances – their eyes wordless, only asking, how is this possible. I searched very carefully, said Sudha. So did I, Ma, said Indu. How?

Bhakti-babu advanced slowly towards the withered, sickly umbrella.

Heeng Kochuri by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay

We lived in a single room in Hari-babu’s bamboo-and-tile house. Several families lived in the same building. One room was occupied by a bangle-seller and his wife. His name was Keshab. I addressed him as Keshab-kaka.

When water flowed in the pipes every morning, everyone would line up with their pitchers and bowls and cans and buckets near the tap, and quarrels broke out between the tenants.

My father would tell my mother, we can’t possibly live here. These people behave like barbarians. We must move soon.

I cannot say why we never moved. I think it must have been because we were poor, because my father had no money.

Across the road from our house was a rice warehouse, and next to it was a godown for gur, opposite which stood a municipality tap. A screaming and jostling crowd would collect water from this tap every day. I had even seen women fighting with one another.

Thus we spent a year in that house, from one June to another.

It was in June that we had left our village home. In the village Kali and I had built a hut at the edge of the bamboo grove, next to a thorn apple bush. Kali, who was stronger than me, had carried several bundles of berry leaves and branches. What a perfect hut we had made, the two of us, just like a real house. That’s what Kali would say. He had fixed an abandoned bird’s nest to the thick branch of a tree. He had said that nocturnal woodpeckers or lapwings would lay eggs in that nest in the middle of August or on the moonlit nights of September.

It hadn’t been possible for me to check on all this, for we had moved from the village in June to this house of bamboo and tiles.

I kept recalling the hut on the edge of the bamboo grove in the village, which Kali and I had built with so much care, and of the bird’s nest fixed to the branch of the tree – had the woodpecker laid eggs in it on a moonlit September night?

This house in Calcutta was far too constricted for space, far too congested. I sat in the tin-covered veranda in front all morning, watching the neighbours line up for water, the gur being unloaded from a bullock-cart to the warehouse, a young wife gazing at the road, just like me, from the window of the two-storied house in the corner. Sometimes I bought chhatu at the Bihari man’s shop on the main road at the head of our lane. The main road was full of vehicles. I had never seen a single horse-drawn carriage in our village. I could never have enough of seeing them go by, but my mother wouldn’t allow me on the main road for fear that I would be run over.

A row of houses of bamboo and tiles, just like ours, stood a little further away, at the other end of the lane. I visited these houses sometimes. They were kept neat and clean and were well-appointed, with mirrors, dolls, glass showcases and pictures on the walls. Each of the rooms was occupied by a woman. I visited all of them – usually in the early evening, sometimes in the morning too.

One of the women in those houses was named Kusum. She loved me very much, and I loved her too. I spent much of my time in Kusum’s room. She chatted with me and asked about our village. She belonged to a place called Bardhaman. But now she lived in this room.

Kusum said – I love you so much. You’ll come every day, won’t you?

– I love you too. I do come every day.

– Where is your village?

– Ashshingri, in Jessore.

– First time in Calcutta?

– Yes.

Kusum would dress up beautifully every evening, putting a teep on her forehead and some sort of flour-like powder on her face. She would do up her hair too – how well it suited her! But she wouldn’t let me stay in her room at this time. She would say – Go home now, my babu will come.

The first time I heard this I asked – Who’s babu?

– There’s someone. You won’t understand. Go home now.

I would be upset. I would say – Let the babu come, I’ll stay. What can the babu to do to me?

– No, go away. You mustn’t stay. Be a darling.

– Who is this babu? Is he your brother?

– You won’t understand. Go home now.

I was very curious to see who Kusum’s babu was. Why did she tell me to go home?

I did see him one day. A portly man with long hair – he was holding a packet of food of some kind. At the shops they gave you food in packets like these, made with dried leaves. We didn’t have leaves like these in our village – if you bought murki or jilipi at Hari’s shop, he wrapped them in lotus leaves.

Unwrapping the packet, Kusum handed me a large kochuri, saying – here you are, eat this on your way home.

I bit into it, it was delicious. I had never eaten a kochuri like this in the village. The kochuris that Hari made were fried in oil and nowhere near as delectable.

Delighted, I said – Lovely! And what’s this flavour?

Kusum told me – It’s heeng. This is a heeng-kochuri. Go home now.

Kusum’s babu said – Who is it?

– The son of the tenants opposite the tap. Brahmins.

Turning to me, Kusum’s babu said – Go home, khoka, go home now.

I thought of asking, why can’t I stay, what’s wrong with my staying? But when I looked at Kusum’s babu, I didn’t dare. He seemed a bad-tempered sort who might hit me. But since then, I waited as a rule till Kusum’s babu arrived, greedy for my heeng-kochuri. But would Kusum hand me two kochuris before anything else every day and say – Eat this on your way home?

Kusum’s babu would say – Oh, I forgot. I’d meant to get a couple of khasta goja for him. I’ll bring them tomorrow, I promise.

I wasn’t afraid any more. I said – Don’t forget, all right?

Chortling, Kusum’s babu said – I won’t, I won’t.

Kusum said – Go home now, khoka.

– I won’t go now. Why can’t I stay?

Kusum’s babu said something in response, I couldn’t quite understand what. Kusum told him angrily – what a thing to say to a child!

When I went home I asked my mother – Have you ever eaten a heeng-kochuri, Ma?

– Why?

– I have. So large, and it smells of heeng.

– Where did you get it?

– Kusum’s babu brought some, he gave me one.

– Naughty boy, haven’t I told you not to go there? You mustn’t.

– Why not?

– Because. You shouldn’t be going there. They aren’t good people.

– No, Ma, Kusum is very nice. She loves me so much. Gives me heeng-kochuri every day.

– Don’t you show me your heeng-kochuri! Don’t you get enough to eat at home? I’m warning you not to go there.

I didn’t go to Kusum’s room at all for the next two or three days. But I couldn’t stay away either. I went back, without telling my mother. Kusum asked – Why didn’t you come?

– My mother has warned me not to.

– Then you’d better not come. She’ll scold you.

– That’s why I didn’t for two days.

– But now you’re here again.

– Because I love you.

– Oh my darling. I hate it too when you don’t come. I miss you so much.

– So do I.

– It’s all my fate. I’m worried about your mother scolding you.

– I shan’t tell her. I miss you if I don’t come. I’d better go now.

– Come in the evening.

– I will.

* * *

Fulfilling our pact, I went to Kusum in the evening. When Kusum’s babu arrived, he said – So here you are, chhokra. Why did you go missing these past couple of days? I’d brought khasta goja for you, but obviously your fate didn’t mean for you to have any. Give him a couple of kochuris, will you?

– Bring the goja tomorrow.

– I shall, master Brahmin, glutton Brahmin. I’ll bring amriti and jilipi too tomorrow. Ever tried an amriti?

– No.

– I’ll bring some tomorrow, you must come.

– But don’t tell anyone. If my mother finds out she won’t let me come.

– Does your mother scold you for coming?

– Hmm.

Kusum intervened quickly – ‘Never mind what he says. He’s a little boy, don’t take him seriously. Go home now, khoka. Here’s your kochuri. Eat it on your way home.

– No, I’ll finish it here and have a glass of water, or my mother will find out.

– I shan’t give you water here. Drink at the tap by the road.

Kusum’s babu said – Why won’t you give him a glass of water here? What harm will it do?

Kusum told him harshly – Be quiet. I cannot serve a glass of water to a Brahmin’s son. That’s my punishment in this lifetime. It’s bad enough that I give him food with my own hands.

I was very upset with Kusum. Was I not good enough for her to give me a glass of water? As I was leaving Kusum said again and again – Come tomorrow morning, all right?

I didn’t reply.

The next morning I found Kusum slicing vegetables. She said – Come, khoka.

– I’m not talking to you.

– What! Why? What have I done?

– You said you couldn’t give me a glass of water. You didn’t, yesterday.

– Is that all? Sit down, khoka. You won’t understand. You belong to a Brahmin family – we can’t serve you water. Understood? I’m making achaar, want some? It’s not done yet. I’ve only just added the gur to the kul…

And so Kusum and I were friends again. I forgot all my anger and hurt as soon as I was handed the kul-achaar. We sat and chatted for a long time. Then I went into Makhan’s room, next to Kusum’s. Hundreds of dolls adorned her room. On a wooden shelf lay apples and mangoes and litchis and many other amazing things all made of clay. A perfect apple! A perfect mango!

Makhan said – Come, khoka. Don’t touch all those clay toys, sit down here. They’ll break.

– Why do you smoke?

Makhan said with a smile – Listen to the boy! People smoke, don’t they?

– Do women smoke? My mother doesn’t. My father does.

– Listen to him. Those who smoke, do.

– Kusum’s babu will give me khasta goja.

– Really? How nice.

– Where’s your babu?

Makhan giggled, covering her mouth with the end of her sari.

– Hee hee, just listen to the boy, the things he says! Hee hee… Kusmi, come listen to what your boy’s saying…

Makhan seemed older than Kusum. Kusum was the most beautiful of them all. She addressed Makhan as didi.

Kusum came in and led me away to her room. She had told me not to go into anyone else’s room. In truth I only went in the hope of getting something nice to eat. But I had no idea when the other women’s babus could come. So disappointment awaited me in this respect. Taking me into her room, Kusum scolded me. She said – What do you have to talk about with them? You’re a little boy, you’re not allowed into the other room, stay here.

– I want to go to Prabha…

– Why? What for? Who knows what you’ll say there. Silly boy. So greedy for food. Didn’t I just give you kulchur?

I said in a tone of pretended astonishment – I didn’t ask for anything. Ask Prabha.

– All right, no need to go to Prabha.

– Can’t I go just once? I’ll be back in a moment.

To tell the truth, the real attraction in Prabha’s room was not so much food as it was a parrot.

The parrot would say – Ram ram, who is it? Go away, kakima, kakima. Whenever I entered it would say – Who’s there? Who’s there?

– My name is Basudeb.

– Who’s there? Who’s there?

I laughed. It was such fun listening to the parrot prattle. He sounded exactly like a human. Who’s there? Who’s there?

Outside the room, Prabha asked – Who’s that in my room?

She was cooking. She came running with a ladle dripping dal. I asked with a smile – Are you going to beat me up?

– Oh, it’s the mad little Brahmin. I was wondering who it could be at this hour of the afternoon.

– Don’t you have any kulchur? Kusum gave me some. Delicious.

– Kusum has a rich babu. I don’t, do I? How do you expect me to make aamchur and kulchur?

– Kusum’s babu will give ma a goja to eat.

– And why not? He’s dedicated that huge shop of his at the crossroads to Kusum. Never mind them. As they say, you’re so vain, I could die…

I told her apprehensively – Don’t be angry with me, Prabha.

– No, why should I be angry? Just sad, that’s all. I’m a one man whore too. We didn’t just sail in here, you know. I left home at fifteen when my luck ran out.

– Why did you leave home?

– Why tell you all those sad tales? What will you make of them? Wait, my dal’s burning. Words won’t fill my stomach.

– Should I go?

– Come into the kitchen.

Prabha was dark, quite plump, with a mole like a black hornet on her nose. She gave me hot jilipi and muri to eat one day. She didn’t have too many things in her room, besides the pet parrot in the cage.

Prabha was cooking a broth with the chalta fruit. The chalta slices were being moistened in a marble cup. I hadn’t tasted chalta in ages, not since we’d left our village. The trees lining the pond in the field would be bursting with ripe chalta at this time of the year.

I asked – Where did you get chalta, Prabha?

– At the market. Where do you suppose?

– They look delicious.

Prabaha didn’t reply. She went on cooking.

I said – Where are your parents?

– This sinful mouth cannot answer.

– Won’t you go home?

– What home?

– Your home in the village?

– I’ll go home to hell.

– Do you get kul in your village? We have so many kul trees.

Prabha did not respond. She carried on cooking. A little later she covered the clay oven on which she was cooking with an upturned bowl, made tea for herself, and sipped it from a glass around which she had wrapped the end of her sari. She didn’t ask me whether I’d like some. Not that I drank tea – I was only allowed the cream off the top.

Prabha began to tell me about the cows in her village home, how much milk they gave, and how the pond next to their house was full of fish. She would never see all this again.

Then Prabha did something extraordinary. She asked me – Want to have a little rice and chalta?

I said apprehensively – I do. But Kusum mustn’t find out.

Prabha asked, laughing – Why are you so afraid of Kusum? What if she finds out? Eat now.

I had barely mixed the chalta broth into the rice when I head Kusum say – Is the little Brahmin with you, Prabha-di? I’d better send him home, he’s been here a long time, he doesn’t live here.

I ran to a corner of the kitchen to hide, my hand still smeared with rice. Kusum entered before Prabha could respond and saw me. She said – What’s this? Why are you in a corner? Are you hiding? Who’s this rice for?…

Turning to Prabha in surprise, she said – He’s a child, Prabha-di, not in his senses. But have you lost yours too? How could you serve him food?

Prabha said, subdued – He kept talking about the chalta, so I thought, a little rice with the…

– No, shame! Come with me, khoka. We already have a lifetime of punishment to deal with, I’m not going to increase my burden of sin by feeding a Brahmin boy. Come… do you have food on your fingers? Have you been eating already?

I answered shyly – No.

– Come with me, let me rinse your hands…

As Kusum was about to lead me out, Prabha said – Poor thing, you didn’t even let him eat. He’d barely begun…

– No, no need to eat. Come.

Kusum proved stricter with me than even my mother. I had to abandon my meal and come away. Taking me to a corner of the yard and pouring water on my hands, she said – why are you such a glutton, khoka? Don’t you remember you’re not allowed to eat there? Shame on you! I’ll give you kochuri in the evening. Don’t ever go in there to eat. You at least are a child, but she’s not, how could she serve a Brahmin’s son… really, the things people do…

Naturally Prabha couldn’t hear any of this. She wasn’t even nearby.

I said – Don’t tell my mother, all right?

– Can you imagine me telling your mother? I have better things to do.

– She’ll beat me up if you tell her.

– You deserve it. That might stop you from being so greedy.

When I returned home my mother asked – Where were you?

– There on the road.

– You didn’t go anywhere else, did you?

– No.

But one day I was caught. It was Kusum’s fault. She told me – Come khoka, let’s go for a walk. Want to?

It was late afternoon. Not very sunny. When I saw we were crossing the tram lines I said fearfully – My mother doesn’t allow me to cross the main road. She’s told me not to.

– I’m with you, don’t worry.

Crossing the main road, we went a little further on and entered a slum of hovels. The houses stood on either side of a narrow lane. The building we entered was also full of women, without any men. One of the women said – Come Kusmi, it’s been so long. God, it’s not like we don’t have men-friends but does that mean you must forget us?

With a glance at me she said – Who’s this boy? He’s very sweet.

– He’s from a Brahmin family. Lives in our lane. Follows me around.

– How nice. Sit down, khoka.

– The boy’s a glutton. Give him food and he’ll be happy.

– Ah but what do I offer you? I have kul-achaar, want some?

Without a thought I blurted out – I love kul-achaar.

Kusum snarled at me – Is there anything you don’t love? So long as it’s food. No, he has a cold, he mustn’t have achaar. Never mind.

I was heartbroken. Kusum didn’t let me have the kulchur. Where was this cold of mine? I love kulchur so much.

After spending some time in this house, we went to another one. They too asked several questions about me. I was given homemade haalua in a bowl. Kusum didn’t let me eat this either. Apparently I was suffering from indigestion.

Kusum escorted me back across the tram lines shortly before evening fell. A tram was approaching. I said – Wait, Kusum, I want to see the tram.

– It’s getting dark. Your mother will scold you.

– Let her.

– Oh, the boy’s so bold.

– Why did you say that, Kusum? Why didn’t you let me have the kulchur? They wanted me to.

– You’re a child, what do you know? People have dangerous diseases in those neighbourhoods. You think I’ll let anyone serve you food? You think you can eat anywhere you want to? You have no idea. Do you know what disease some of them might have?

– What does ‘men-friend’ mean, Kusum?

– Nothing. Where did you hear it?

– Weren’t they telling you?

– Let them. What’s it to do with you? Such a naughty boy.

Before sending me on my way, Kusum said – Come, he must have got the kochuri by now. I’ll give you some.

– Yes. I’m hungry.

– Is there ever a time when you’re not hungry? If I ever ran into your mother I’d ask her why her son is so greedy.

– So what if I am? You’ll give me the kochuri, won’t you?

– Come along.

– Has he brought goja?

– I don’t know.

– Will you give me goja tomorrow?

– How dirty this lane is, my god!

– Will you give me goja?

– Yes yes I will. Now just take the kochuri and leave me alone.

That evening Kusum walked me to the municipality tap and left. I told my mother the truth. I’d been to Kusum’s house, and she’d given me kochuri. My mother scolded me soundly and threatened to tie me up. She did tell my father at night, but he didn’t seem to pay much attention.

* * *

I got a fever the next morning. I had to be in bed for four or five days. An ancient doctor examined me and prescribed medicines.

My bed was laid next to the window. One afternoon I discovered Kusum on the road, peering at the house opposite ours. Makhan was with her. She was standing two houses away.

I called out – Kusum…

Turning round, Kusum saw me. Calling to Makhan, she said – This house, didi, here…

My mother was at the municipality tap. Kusum and Makhan came up to the window.

Kusum asked – What’s the matter with you? Why haven’t you come?

Makhan said – Kusmi’s dying of anxiety. What’s happened to the boy, she keeps saying. So I said, let’s go find out.

I said – I’ve had a fever for five days now.

Kusum asked – Where’s your mother?

– Go away, Kusum. If my mother sees you she won’t let me visit you anymore. I’ll come as soon as I’m better. Go now.

They left. But Kusum was back on the road the very next day. Very softly she said – Can I come?

My mother wasn’t home. I knew she was at Baidyanath’s shop to measure out the dal. She had left a short while ago, telling me before she went – Make sure the cat doesn’t get chhoto-khoka’s milk; I’m going to get some dal from Baidyanath’s shop.

Beckoning to her, I said – Come.

Standing outside my window, she said – How are you?

– Much better. I can have rice tomorrow.

– I brought a couple of oranges. Want them?

– Quickly.

– Don’t forget to eat them.

– I won’t.

– Come over when you’re better.

– I will.

– Rice tomorrow?

– My father said I can.

– I’ll come again tomorrow. All right?

– Come. But don’t come up to the window till I say so.

– All right. I’ll wait quietly on the road. Do you know how to whistle?

– No. Come when I wave.

Kusum came on schedule the next two afternoons. One day she brought Prabha along too because she wanted to see me. I shan’t lie, Prabha gave me a couple of oranges too. I used to hide them beneath the pillow, and eat them when my mother wasn’t in the room, tossing the pulp out through the window.

I went to Kusum’s house twice after getting better.

Then something happened, which led us to leave our house in Calcutta and go back to the village. One day, while my mother was opening a bottle of soda-water, a shard of glass went into her hand. There was blood everywhere, spurting out of her wrist. Everyone came running. Bipin-babu from the corner room put some sort of medicine on her arm and bandaged it. But her arm did not heal, getting worse by the day. She couldn’t cook anymore, and would cry in pain every night. The doctor visited regularly. My maternal uncles were well-off. When they came to know through a letter, one of them arrived and took all of us away to their house.

It was the middle of July. The taal had begun to ripen on the trees. There were many of these trees by a huge lake next to a field in the village where my maternal uncles lived. I remember picking up a ripe fruit from the ground the very first day.

My mother’s arm healed here. In the middle of September we went to our own village. We couldn’t go to Calcutta anymore. My father also wound up the establishment there and came home.

* * *

A long thirty years later.

I lived in a boarding house in Calcutta, working as a clerk. My wife and children lived in the village house. On a holiday, as I was chatting with my college friend Sripati, he said – Last evening, you know, while walking down Premchand Boral Street – painted faces on both sides – horrible!

– I’ve seen them too. I have to take the same route. But I see them differently. I know them very well. I used to visit their homes quite often once upon a time.

My friend exclaimed in surprise – You!

– Yes, I! I swear!

– Rubbish, I don’t believe it.

– Very well, come with me. I’ll prove it to you.

About fifteen years ago I had found my way to Nandaram Sen Lane and visited Makhan at home. Neither Kusum nor Prabha was there. Makhan was the only one in the group still to be living in those houses.

I took Sripati to Nandaram Sen Lane. Makhan was still there. Her hair was quite grey, and she looked like a witch, with toothless gums.

When she saw me Makhan said – Come in. How are you?

– Do you recognise me?

– Oh my god, how could I not. You grew up right in front of our eyes. By the way, I’ve tracked Kusum down.

– Where? Where is she?

– She works as a maid at a boarding house on Shobhabazar Street. The first building on the left. A dilapidated two-storied house next to the temple. They’d taken me to the temple the other day, that’s how I found out.

With Sripati in tow I found the boarding house. It wasn’t evening yet. I asked the cook in the kitchen downstairs – Where’s your maid?

– She’s gone to the market, sir, she’ll be back soon. Why?

– I have to talk to her. Her name is Kusum, isn’t it?

– Yes sir.

A little later a tall thin woman – a typical maid – entered through the front door and appeared in the kitchen. The cook said – These gentlemen are looking for you, Kusum.

I stared at the maid in astonishment. Was this what the beautiful Kusum of my childhood had turned into? She may not have been as old as Makhan, but still, Kusum was an old woman now. She couldn’t be described as anything but one. I remembered her face, but this aged woman had nothing in common with it. Unless the cook had told us, I’d never have known it was the same Kusum.

Kusum looked at us in surprise too, asking – You’re looking for me? Who sent you?

– Makhan did.

– Which Makhan?

– Makhan the landlady from the Nandaram Lane.

– I see. But why are you looking for me?

– Come over there. There’s something I have to tell you.

– Let’s go into the dining room.

In the dining room I asked – Don’t your recognise me, Kusum?

– No, sir.

– We used to live in Nandaram Sen lane. I was eight. My parents were tenants at the barber’s house. Remember?

Smiling, Kusum said – I remember. So you’re the mad little Brahmin? How you’ve grown. Are your parents alive?

– No one’s alive.

– How many children?

– Five.

– Sit down, my dear, sit down.

After we had chatted for a while Kusum asked us to wait and disappeared somewhere. A little later she came in with two packets of food and handed them to us.

I hadn’t remembered. But as I was about to eat, I did. Four large pieces of heeng-kochuri. At once I remembered Kusum’s babu and the heeng- kochuri. I was reminded of the boy thirty years ago and his greed for kochuri. Kusum must have remembered. Or not – I didn’t know. As I ate the kochuri, my mind took me across the dusty gap of thirty long years directly to the spot on Nandaram Lane next to the roadside municipality tap, in front of the gur warehouse, where Kusum was still a young woman of twenty-five, and her babu still came regularly with a packet of heeng-kochuri.

(Translator’s Note: The Hindi film ‘Amar Prem’ and the Bengali film ‘Nishipawddo’ were both based on this story.)