Shardulshundori: Sirsho Bandyopadhyay

Singapore, 1920: Curtain Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From ‘Mahanadi’: by Anita Agnihotri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Poem: Rumi

I never tired of thinking of you, my beloved
Do not deprive me of your compassion

This jar of water, this water-carrier
Must be exhausted with me

A parched fish remains within me
Never given enough water
To quench its thirst

Show me the way to the ocean!
Shatter these half measures
All these tiny containers

All this is sorcery
And mortifying

Let my hut be swept away
By the wave that rose last night
From the depths hidden in my heart

Just like the moon, Yusuf came down into my well
Even if the harvest of my hope has been flooded
What does it matter?

The flames have risen over the tombstone
I seek neither knowledge nor honours
Nor is respect desired

I only want music and this dawn
The warmth of your face on mine

Travellers of heartache are gathering
But I shan’t go with them

This is what happens every time
When I have to end a poem

A deep silence envelops me
And I wonder in astonishment
Why I have been pursuing words

[Translated from the Bengali version included in Rabisankar Bal’s ‘A Mirrored Life’]

So Much Poetry There (A Life of Rumi) – Chapter 1: Rabisankar Bal

You have not read this particular kitaab of mine before, though some of you may have read my account of thirty years of travel. People refer to it as my travels now, but actually I was on pilgrimage. Wandering from one land to another over thirty years, it struck me that there is no end to pilgrim spots on this earth; you could even say that the world itself is a pilgrim spot. Sheikh Ibn Battuta salutes the earth wind fire water air again and again.

Touch me to check for yourself if you don’t believe me, I am indeed Ibn Battuta. I do have a longer name, of course. Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Abdullah Al Lawati Al Tanji Ibn Battuta. I left Tangiers in the Hijri year 725, 1324-25 by the Christian calendar. Crossing one town after another, the first extraordinary city that I reached was named Alexandria. I felt I had arrived at a blue city. This was where I met Imam Burhanuddin Al Arz for the first time. It was from him that I heard of Maulana. The secret manuscript that I am about to read out to all of you features Maulana as its principal character. If my idiom seems topsy-turvy, not the language of literature, pardon me. From what I have seen and understood of Maulana, he cannot be captured by the language of literature. Can you put the strains of a flute in words? But still I have tried, if only for myself, to create a limping account of this radiance. Maulana’s life is like a patterned quilt. I shall be gratified if I can present even one or two of those patterns here in this majlis to all of you. Allah be merciful. All praise to the almighty, the keeper of the world, the supreme lord of Judgement Day. We only pray to you, seek help only from you. Show us the simplest path. Show us the path of those whom you have blessed, not the path of those whom you are enraged with, or of those who have lost their way.

‘You want to travel in different lands, don’t you?’ Imam Burhanuddin asked me one day.

– Yes, such is my desire.
– When did this fancy overtake you, my friend?
– I had been to the hamam for a bath late one night. There was no one there. It was the night of the full moon, which was floating in the water of the hamam. I played for a long time with the moon in the water. I’ve never wanted to live at home since then.

The Imam burst into laughter.

– No one can stay home once the moon has struck them. Now that you are out, travel the world.

To tell you the truth, I did not really want to wander far and wide then. My only desire was to visit Mecca. But the Imam sahib instigated me. ‘Off you go, then,’ he said, ‘Go and meet my brother Fariduddin in Hindustan. I have another brother in Sindh, Ruknuddin Ibn Zakaria, and one more in China. Tell them about me.’ At once I determined to visit all these places, and to take news of the Imam sahib to his brothers.

That was the beginning of thirty years of wandering. One day I arrived in Anatolia in the course of my travels. Anatolia. The name spoke to me like the call of destiny. A song was concealed in it. And I decided that I would have to visit Konya, its capital. As the Imam sahib had said, this city was the Maulana’s playground. The amazing whirling dance was born here. I passed the fort at Tawas and the town of Milak to arrive at Konya. A city of water and of gardens, Konya. It has risen after a cataclysmic flood, Konya. St Paul, along with Barnabas and his disciple Timothy had come here. The Christians’ conference took place here. Even after being ransacked by the Crusaders, Konya was revived as the capital of the Selzuk sultans. Not even the invasion of the Mongols could vanquish the city. And the people of Konya? The entire world seemed to have gathered here. Besides Turks, there were Greeks, Arabs, Indians, Iranians, Armenians, Venetians, even the Chinese. It was from this Konya that the glow of love spread to Samarkhand and Bokhara. So the Maulana wrote.

I heard many stories of the Maulana’s magical life from the Imam sahib of Alexandria. He told me, ‘Maulana’s poetry is written on every rock, every tree, on the road to Konya. But you must discover it. And listen, examine the inns carefully. That’s where the soul of Anatolia is hidden. Maulana said this world is an inn, where we wait in the depths of winter for the first day of spring, when the ice will start melting, the road will be visible, and our caravan will be on its way again.’ The Imam sahib used to say such strange things. One day he told me, ‘Anatolia isn’t just a place, another name for the soul is Anatolia.’

Anatolia got a new lease of life when the Sezuk sultan Ala Aladdin Kaikobad ascended the throne In 1219 AD. There was a wave of construction everywhere, with new mosques, walls and inns coming up. Trade routes radiated out from Konya towards Constantinople, Aleppo, Mohshul, Tabriz – and even further, to the port of Sinop on the Black Sea, to Mediterranean harbours. And countless inns on either side of these roads. Konya was an important centre of trade then – only Baghdad was comparable. When I reached Konya sixty years after Maulana’s death, it was just as lively, as full of spirit. Konya would awake to the sounds of the water being splashed on the roads after the azaan at dawn. Then came the water-carriers, transporting water in goatskin bags on camelback from the canals outside the city to every home. The washermen rushed from one house to another, collecting dirty clothes. Masons squatted by the road, waiting for work. Konya was coming alive. The lilting tones of children reading out loud from the Koran could be heard. Fragrant vapours rising from the water suffused the hamam. Shops opened for business, talk of buying and selling gathered momentum. A lunatic walked past, muttering to himself. A girl’s face appeared in the window of a house, the window emptying as soon as someone’s eye fell on it. Only the memory of a beauty floated about in Konya’s air. All writing is actually a short-lived attempt to hold on to memory. The secret manuscript that I am about to read from it also a memory, the memory of Maulana, whom I have never seen. But how can I write about my memories of a person I have never seen? I have asked myself this question repeatedly. And a voice has asked me in return, ‘Do you love Maulana?’

– Yes.
– How?
– I don’t know.
– Let’s say you lose yourself completely as you love, you do not exist anymore. Is that how you love Maulana?
– I don’t know.
– Then begin, Sheikh. This ignorance will lead you to Maulana eventually. You have to move forward so that you can cook yourself.
– Cook?
– Do not question everything, infidel. You will realise as you write. You are the food, you are the one who eats, you are the cook.

Many years later, when I reached Tangiers, I completed dictating my accounts of my travels to a scribe and then turned to write Maulana’s life story myself. I felt I would have to write this story in my own hand, for I have heard the strains of the flute, the melody that weeps to go back home.

Moom – Chapter 1: by Bani Basu

The Agarwal family had worn itself out just paying the dahej for its daughters’ marriages.

‘Ladki dushman, daughters are devils, pray to God not to send another ladki to our family…’ His father’s urging rang in his ears as Hridaynarayan’s father started his working life.

After all these years, the prayer was fulfilled. No more daughters. No more women. Finished. Done with.

These Agarwals were baniyas from Jaipur. They didn’t belong to Haryana. Their home was in the village of Kharak in the Ajitgarh area of Jaipur. Pink sand was mingled with their complexion once upon a time. But then all that was long gone. Traversing the deserts of the north-west, they had been living in eastern India for many years now in search of a living. Now the skin of their men was like copper. The women were fair. But the colour of their skin no longer held the vigour of the flower that burst through the rock in the dry winds of winter and summer. Never mind the women. Ladki dushman.

That didn’t mean there was a river in the village of Kharak in Ajitgarh. Only a canal. When it swelled with water during the monsoon, it was time for farming. Rainwater was the only hope. The only water that could be drunk was underground. Tubewells about a hundred yards deep were needed to pump up the water. The water was sweet and healthy. It had been filtered by all the rock, gravel and sand it had passed through, after all! They grew bajra, jowar, some daal, a couple of vegetables. Relying in that dry village on the water from the rainwater from the canal and the sweet water pumped up through the sand, they may even have ploughed the land once, pugdis on their heads. The history of farming began to disappear from their bodies once they took up trading. And after they settled in the prosperous trading centre of Jodhpur, it vanished completely. Why Jodhpur, why the town nestling by the desert, why not the more luxurious pink city Jaipur were questions that the Agarwals of Ajitgarh or of Jodhpur would not be able to answer. All over the world, compelled to earn a living, people are abandoning the land of their birth in search of greener pastures all the time. The dreams of the homeland of Canaan or of Eldorado are not those of just a single nation. This yearning, this passage, is to be found the world over. A glance at the horizon of eternity will reveal the irregular silhouette of a vast human migration. Asians are headed for North America, Europeans towards Asia; Arabs, Persians and Turks from middle-Asia have spread across India and Africa, the Chinese are constructing Chinatowns all over the world. Within the continents, these migrations are even stranger, even swifter. Punjabis are becoming Calcuttans, Bengalis are becoming Telengis, people from Telengana are settling down in Delhi, in Haryana. Why the Punjabi can’t earn his bread in Punjab and has to move to Calcutta, why the Bengali prefers to live in Maharashtra, and why the Keralite in the tea-gardens of Assam, are very difficult questions to answer. Who knows where fate has decreed your meals will come from.

The main branch of Hridaynarayan’s family still lived in village Kharak in Ajitgarh. This was the family of his dadaji’s brother. They still traded in grain in the Ajitgarh area. Every branch had one or two sons and a swarm of daughters. Because of the paucity of sons, the families were still quite united. Relationships had been maintained over three or four generations. They met whenever there were weddings in the family. Their homes had electricity now, there were schools too, but they had remained somewhat rustic. When they visited, they still slapped their thighs in loud, passionate arguments over why an Agarwal boy had to marry a girl from a different sect, why the son-in-law was a Maheshwari, whether this particular Agarwal belonged to the Garg lineage or the Singhal lineage. Hridaynarayan didn’t like their miserly ways, their crude manners. But there was a tug at the heartstrings too. And besides, what of the girls’ weddings? He had to pitch in. These were responsibilities of the entire clan.

The Gangaur festival continued for a fortnight after Holi over there. Bedecked elephants and camels would be paraded. Dressed in long ghagras running for forty yards, nose-studs, ear-danglers, pendants round their throats, arms covered in glass bangles up to their elbows, anklets at their feet, the girls would join the procession. That’s why the natives of Ajitgarh in Calcutta would start feeling homesick as soon as Holi came. And what of the slice of moon floating in the clean air of the countryside like a slab of ice in winter? In that moonlight melodies floated out of village homes… ‘e manoa re, e gudiya re, nidiya aa jaa re…’ – ‘my heart, my girl, come now, sleep…’

So since Hridaynarayan’s grandfather had forsaken all those festivals of Gangaur and those moonlit nights to set off for Jodhpur, it’s fair to assume he was an enterprising man, that he wasn’t in the least bit interested in surviving through relentless battle against the unbearable heat, drought and cold. Maybe his loving mother had cried her heart out, maybe his conservative father had heaped curses on him. But nothing had deterred him.

Jodhpur was the Eldorado of trade. For centuries trade between middle Asia and India had taken place along this very Jodhpur-Jaisalmer route. Camel caravans would traverse the Thar Desert from one end to the other. Those bustling days of overland trade had never quite been wiped away entirely from Jodhpur. There wasn’t a product his grandfather hadn’t traded in. Tie-and-dye fabric, silk-embroidered footwear, camel-hair blankets, silver-inlaid brass objets d’ art, yellow sandstone utensils… the list was endless.

The rented house he lived in was close to where the tourist bureau in central Jodhpur now was. That was the house in which Hridaynarayan had been born. Later they moved to their own haveli near Sardar Market. The house with the staircase running outside, all the way from the ground floor to the second, was his childhood. Most of the downstairs rooms were used as godowns. As offices, too. But there was one room set aside for them to sleep in at the height of summer, for all their mischief. With his father’s sister, Badi Munni, and her sister Chhoti Munni.

Those two Munnis, Badi and Chhoti, were enemies number one in Hridaynarayan’s life. It was because of them that he was uprooted from the land of his birth to be despatched to this dirty, sultry city with its humid air-currents, the city that had set such a rot in his habits that he could no longer go back either. Not even if he had the means to.
He found it easy to recollect, whenever he wanted to, the image of Badi Munni, Chhoti Munni and himself eating black bajra rotis with dahi. On summer days all three of them had watermelon slices in their hands. You couldn’t get any other fruit back then besides watermelon. His first taste of fruit like oranges, apples or grapes came when he was older, when he came to Calcutta with his father. Now those desert regions had been transformed, high-quality grapes were being grown, other fruit and some vegetables too. Back then if you could get some sangri or some guar ki phalli subzi it felt like a festival. Pickles used to be preserved in large jars, left to dry all year round. Hungry? You always got ghee-soaked roti and pickles. Dadima used to make karhi. With green moong or mot ki dal alongside. Besides, there was buffalo-milk too. Nothing more. The next day you got rice. But then even at this age he was ready to walk a dozen miles for that meal of bajra roti with dahi and heeng ki achar.

But no, unlike Bengalis, Hridaynarayan wasn’t the kind of person to spend his time wallowing in regret and nostalgia. Jodhpur was his birthplace, which he had been forced to leave. A businessman can set down roots down wherever he can grow his business. Mumbai? Then off to Mumbai. Bangalore? Then off to Bangalore. He’ll go even where God himself has not if it means profits, he’ll spend his entire life in that godforsaken spot.
‘Ey Shyamlal, paani.’

Well? You got your glass of water, didn’t you? It’s not as though the water isn’t brought to you. Not that you’d care if it wasn’t. Their women were used to fetching water from the distant dam in rows of brass pitchers. This tribal ability to suffer, to toil away, was in their blood. So a lack of easily available water for drinking was no hardship either. They were willing to suffer any hardship if it was for business and profits. Hridaynarayan was no exception.

He had turned eighty and was now in his eighty-first year. A robust frame five feet eleven inches tall. Complexion like burnt copper. Close-cropped grey hair. His eyebrows were grey too. Bushy, shading the eyes. He didn’t have much of a moustache or beard to begin with, and he always shaved closely. His usual ensemble was a dhoti and a kurta. A thick gold chain with a golden medallion. A thick strand of the sacred thread was draped around him. He washed it himself with great care. Back in their days their fathers used to perform something like the ceremony involving the donning of the sacred thread. That practice no longer continued. For instance, his son Jagdish had no sacred thread. Hridaynarayan wore a red vermilion mark on his brow. A little elongated. He could still sprawl on the gaddi like political leaders. The only thing he couldn’t manage was the speeches. He didn’t even talk unless absolutely necessary.

‘Ey Misir, send bahu to me.’

Or ‘Have the bills been paid? Send reminders.’

Or ‘Write a letter to Ladli.’

Or ‘Send five hundred and one rupees to Pinki. Pota’s passed his exams.’

It was a holiday at the Kalikrishna Tagore Street office of Agarwal & Sons. But employee-attendance was hundred per cent. For it was Agarwal-ji’s eightieth birthday. The office, too, had been decorated like the Metro with thick marigold garlands. Yellow marigold alternated with saffron. Special pujas to Ganesh-ji and Bajrangbali-ji were underway. The office with its three partitions was filled with the tangy scent of incense. One round of Tiwari’s samosa and kachori and of Haldiram’s bhujia and laddu had already been served. Everyone – manager-ji, typist-ji, accounts clerk-ji, the doorman, the driver, the porter – had eaten. Maharaj had arrived to cook lunch, he was putting the khichri to boil. Gajar ka halwa was being stirred in a pot, he was making alu-matar and dahi-papri ki chaat too.

If anyone imagined Hridaynarayan’s birthday was celebrated every year they’d be wrong. The fact was that they were selling a large share of their business to the Chhabarias. All the employees at the Kalikrishna Tagore Street office were being transferred to the new ownership. The idea was to use the occasion to give the long-serving employees a treat, give them something to celebrate. These people were decent employers, the employees were in fact a little disappointed.

The Chhabarias had thrown a huge party the day before at a Theatre Road hotel. There too Hridayanarayan’s eightieth birthday was used as the ostensible occasion. But that didn’t mean he had dressed up specially. He had put on the fine dhoti and spanking clean kurta that bahu had set out for him, the chain with the medallion round this neck, his lips reddened with paan, a good deal of his uncovered feet and ankles, three times fairer than his face, visible from the back. He had on a Rolex watch, a diamond ring, there was a blood-red coral ring too, and the traditional vermilion mark on his forehead. The Chhabarias were even more aristocratic businessmen. The guests comprised eminent people in their social circle, such as government officers, judges, advocates, barristers and renowned doctors. Mobile phones in hand, they got out of Cielos and Opels, Maruti Esteems and Mercedeses. Pagers kept buzzing in their pockets. Was conversation even possible? Three messages arrived for Doctor saab Jaiprakash Seth. Emergency operation. Putting his plate of kulfi down, he barely managed a wave at Hridaynarayan and at Prabhudayal Chhabaria before leaving. The government officers were drinking with the new generation of businessmen. When Chhabaria tried to introduce Hridaynarayan to them with the words, ‘This is our grand old man,’ they just looked through him indifferently. Chhabaria realized they were no longer in any shape to offer their wishes to the person who was the primary reason for this party.

The next day a gathering with Hridaynarayan’s intimate circle of people was scheduled at home. Returning home around ten at night, he saw his third beti Ladli and fourth beti Pinki had arrived from their respective homes. Ladli was accompanied by her daughter-in-law and youngest son. Pinki had come with her husband. Her college-going son and daughter, and Ladli’s two elder sons would arrive the next day.

They were chatting with bahu. The daughters had brought huge quantities of sweets.

‘You don’t seem eighty, pitaji. My shaadi seems just the other day. Your eyebrows were black then, though.’
Ladli was well-built like her father, heavily-built like her mother. Naturally. Mother of four children, she was the daughter whom fate had smiled on. She used to be very cheerful and a pet. First her father’s, now her husband’s. May she remain happy and loved always. This love had been purchased at a high price. Despite that you couldn’t always make it last. To each their own fate.

His youngest daughter Pinki brought him his nightcap of milk. Bahu prepared it every night. Misir normally brought it for him. That was how he liked it. He didn’t want to be too intimate with his near and dear ones. Today, though, Pinki insisted on taking the glass from Misir and bringing it herself.

Pinki was dressed in a chiffon saree with red and yellow prints. Well-being oozed out of her, so did her complexion. Watching her, Hridaynarayan felt his heart brimming over with joy and pride. Such well-being, so much joy, so many achievements – he had given birth to aaaaaall of them. Where had this aurat with the black hair and round fair face been? She had been in a state of nothingness, a complete ‘no’. Only after he had arranged her passport and visa did she manage to leave that darkness of non-existence and descend as the light of life. Was he not some kind of bhagwan then? The Almighty?

Ram! Ram! Blasphemy. Was this the time to express such ghamand? On his eightieth birthday?

Pinki didn’t glance at the play of expression on her father’s face. Even if she did, she didn’t notice it. Wherever she looked, she was always face-to-face with her own happiness. Her husband, his love for her, her son, her son’s glorious future, her own joy, amongst all the joys that special joy was her own.

‘Change into your nightclothes and get into bed, bapu, after that I’ll give you the glass,’ she said, urged on by her joy and dutifulness. Milk was life for these people. So many feasts, such elaborate meals, but he didn’t touch any of it. He hadn’t tonight either. Fixed mealtimes, fixed bedtime, a glass of milk before bed. A glass of life.

Lalla lalla lori
Doodh ki katori…
Lalla lalla lori
Doodh ki katori…

Holding his bowl of milk, Hridaynarayan floated away into a milk-white reverie. Let the daughters and the grandchildren chat. Let bahu take care of them. Eighty years of habit were holding a warm bowl of milk to his lips. It made him sleep so soundly. Warm sleep. Bubbles of milk rose everywhere. Evanescent, they drifted away in the air. In his sleep he poured the foamy milk endlessly from one glass into another, more foam, more foam, a glass of foam atop a glass of milk. Life and the celebration of life.