Organic: Narendranath Mitra

“… therefore we have to examine the basis and the accuracy of the commonly accepted ideas on heredity. From physical structure to mental abilities and proclivities, how much is passed on from parents and from ancestors on the father’s and mother’s sides of the family to descendants? And how does the influence of the environment – the climate, family education and practices, the company of friends – modify heredity and control the course of life?…”

Switching the radio off, Karabi said with a gesture of annoyance, ‘Same old lecture again. Here I was hoping for some nice music, but…’

Lying back in the deckchair, her friend Basab Mukherjee the doctor was smoking quietly. Suddenly he said, ‘Oh did you turn it off?’

‘Obviously,’ replied Karabi. ‘Do you want to hear ridiculous lectures by unknown people?’

‘You can’t tell for sure whether it’s ridiculous. The man isn’t exactly a non-entity, though. He’s a university scholar, a professor at a college here…’

Karabi was deflated, but didn’t abandon her argument. ‘What if he’s a scholar,’ she countered. ‘And just because he’s a professor…’

‘That’s not all,’ said Basab, ‘I do know Mriganka Majumdar quite well.’

‘Ah, I see now,’ responded Karabi. ‘So that’s why you were listening to the talk with such attention. It’s true, I too love listening to my family or friends on the radio or on the phone.’

She was about to turn the radio on again when Basab stopped her. ‘What’s this, are you turning it on again? No, don’t.’

Now I said in irritation, ‘But why? Didn’t you say it was your friend the professor?’

‘But I didn’t say we have to listen to the lecture in its entirety. And besides, I don’t care to listen to my friends on the radio – I don’t have a ear like your wife’s.’

‘Of course you don’t,’ I smiled. ‘You can at best tuck a leather stethoscope into your ear, but how will you have a jewel-bedecked organ like my wife’s?’

‘That’s true,’ Basab smiled as well.

‘Then you don’t want to listen to your friend’s talk?’ asked Karabi.

‘No, I don’t,’ replied Basab. ‘I don’t enjoy these talks of Mriganka-babu’s at all. He should realise how much they hurt Sudatta, how much she suffers. The reaction that these speeches…’

Curiosity flashed not just in Karabi’s voice, but also on her face. ‘Who’s Sudatta?’

Basab looked embarrassed at his impulsive statement.

‘Sudatta is Mriganka-babu’s wife,’ he said gravely.

‘Then why should she mind listening to her husband’s lecture?’ enquired Karabi. ‘Really, the things you say!’

‘That’s true,’ I said, trying to lighten matters. ‘Even a meaningless talk by one’s husband and a tuneless song by one’s wife are probably the sweetest to each other’s ears.’

My joke fell flat, for Basab still looked solemn. Ignoring what I had said, Karabi looked at Basab. ‘What’s the story, Basab-babu? Of course, if it’s confidential…’

‘Very confidential,’ said Basab with a smile. ‘I might have been able to satisfy your curiosity to some extent, but it’s difficult to tell you.’

‘It needn’t be,’ said Karabi. ‘My nerves are no less strong than anyone’s else’s.’

‘Women always think and say that at first,’ Basab smiled again. ‘But what happens eventually…’

Impatiently Karabi said, ‘We’ll wait for the end to see what happens eventually. But if you do want to tell us, please start from the beginning.’

Flicking the ash from his cigarette, Basab said, ‘Very well then, listen. But from the middle, not the beginning. Because not even I know how it started…

All this happened during the riots. The dispensary was not particularly crowded that day. Most of my patients were Muslim, who couldn’t visit the Hindu neighbourhood because of the aftermath of the riots. Nor was it safe for me to venture into their area. But groceries wouldn’t wait for riots to end. And buying them needed money. I was quite upset. Normally there would be a crowd of patients till nine or nine-thirty at night, but that evening the dispensary was emptied out by eight o’ clock. The few patients from the neighbourhood who did turn up usually received their treatment out of courtesy. Sending them on their way, I was thinking of leaving, when a taxi suddenly stopped with a loud noise in front of the dispensary. Sensing the arrival of a patient, I sat up eagerly, tidying my desk in a flash. The visitor had entered by then.

He looked familiar. Hesitating, I said, ‘Take a seat, please.’

Taking a chair, the handsome, well-built man of twenty-seven or twenty-eight said, ‘I don’t think you recognize me. We had studied at Scottish together for a couple of years.’

‘Oh yes,’ I said, ‘I remember now. Your name’s…’

‘Mriganka Majumdar.’

‘It’s been a long time,’ I said.

‘It has,’ he agreed. ‘Look, I’m here to see you for a special reason.’

I looked at Mriganka-babu. Tall, strong, fair of complexion, with a broad forehead and back-brushed hair. I didn’t see any signs of illness. But then ailments are not always visible at first sight. Not even to a doctor.

‘Tell me.’

Glancing around the dispensary, Mriganka-babu said, ‘It’s absolutely confidential.’

There wasn’t another soul in the dispensary. Across the partition dividing the room, Ramesh the compounder was nodding off on a stool in front of the medicine cupboard. Haridas the servant was not nearby either. He was probably chatting at the paan-and-cigarette shop down the road.

‘You can tell me here,’ I said. ‘And if you’re uncomfortable here, we can go into the cabin next door.’

After a glance at the door leading into the cabin and at the taxi waiting outside, Mriganka-babu said, ‘My wife is in the taxi.’

I had already realized that there was a lady in the vehicle, but pretending that I had only learnt this now, I said, ‘Oh please bring her inside.’

‘I will if necessary,’ he said.

‘Would you like to go into the cabin then?’ I asked.

‘No need, I’ll tell you here,’ he responded. ‘She is in the family way. But we don’t want it. You understand?’

‘I do,’ I said. ‘How long?’

‘Slightly advanced stage,’ he said. ‘Fourth month.’

‘Quite advanced,’ I said, ‘not slightly. There’s nothing to be done now. And besides, if you don’t mind, why are you even considering this option? Do you have other children?’


‘Well then? And besides, it’s best to be careful about these things beforehand.’

‘We did take precautions.’

‘Did they fail? But how can you not even allow a child or two to be born? How old is your wife?’

‘Twenty-three or so,’ he said.

‘It’s best to have a child at this age,’ I told him.

‘I know,’ said Mriganka-babu, ‘but I simply cannot persuade her.’

In surprise, I said, ‘I don’t understand why women do not care for motherhood these days. If you’d like to bring her in here, I can try to explain things. And besides, there’s nothing to be done now. No reasonable person will agree.’

‘Other doctors have said the same thing,’ said Mriganka-babu. ‘Very well, why don’t you try to convince Sudatta. I don’t want anything like this at all. I know very well how high the risks are. But still she won’t listen.’

Mriganka-babu fetched his wife from the taxi. Tall, slim, fair and beautiful. She seemed quite healthy, displaying no sign of fatigue or tiredness even in this condition. I could not understand the reason for her peculiar demand.

‘Come into the cabin here,’ I said.

The lady looked pleased. As though she had received promising news.

All of us entered the cabin, sitting side by side on the padded bench.

Before I could speak, the lady said, ‘You’re willing, then. Can you do it?’

‘No one can,’ I shook my head. ‘Why are you even considering such an impossible step?’

Sudatta seemed to pale for a moment, but the very next moment she said in agitation with a red face, ‘Look, I haven’t come to you for a moral lecture. Several doctors have given me the same lecture over the past month and a half. Tell me whether there’s a way or not, no matter how much it costs…’

Offended at hearing a beautiful, educated, well-bred woman say such things, I said, ‘It isn’t a question of money. Let’s put aside the question of ethics too for now. But when there’s a risk to your life…’

‘Risk to my life!’ Sudatta wailed helplessly. ‘You have no idea how I’m burning to death every moment. My stomach turns continuously, I feel nauseous all the time. It’s a thorn in my flesh. I cannot stand it, I simply cannot. Please save me. Rescue me from this filth. I shall be grateful to you forever.’

I looked at Mriganka-babu in surprise. He looked in silence at his semi-hysteric wife.

It was Sudatta herself who spoke a little later. ‘Explain to him, explain everything. There’s no need to conceal anything.’

‘But disclosing everything will not change medical science, Sudatta. We disclosed everything to the other doctors too,’ said Mriganka-babu.

‘Tell him too. I’m sure he can offer us a solution.’

Mriganka-babu indicated that I should accompany him into the next room. Sudatta remained in the cabin.

Hesitating a little, Mriganka-babu finally told me briefly, ‘My wife was in Lahore during the riots in north India.’

‘With a relative?’ I asked.

‘Yes, that is where the accident occurred. We managed to rescue Sudatta from a small state about three months later. But she simply cannot return to a normal state of mind – all she does is visit one doctor after another. And yet I know very well that in this condition there’s nothing that doctors can do, or should do.’

‘No,’ I nodded. ‘We must explain things to her and calm her down.’

‘Of course,’ said Mriganka-babu. ‘I have tried my best. What else is it but an accident? We must wait for the proper time.’

‘Why don’t you send her to her parents?’ I asked. ‘She might be at peace there.’

‘Her parents are dead,’ said Mriganka-babu. ‘She has a distant uncle and aunt. I did force her to go to them, but she came back in a day or two. They know everything, and they’re not willing to shoulder the responsibility.’

‘I have bothered you unnecessarily,’ said Mriganka-babu, rising to his feet. ‘Your fees…’

‘Absolutely not,’ I told him. ‘I’d have liked to have helped you, but in this condition… However, if you need me later…’

‘Certainly,’ said Mriganka-babu. ‘We will definitely need your help, we’ll have to arrange for a hospital when the time comes. I don’t know many people here…’

‘That won’t be a problem,’ I assured him. ‘I know the people at Carmichael particularly well. All the arrangements will be made there. Don’t worry.’

‘Thanks very much,’ Mriganka-babu responded. ‘Why don’t you visit us at home one of these days? My house is on Beadon Street. I’d be delighted if you came. Those college days really were the best, you know.’

‘You’re right,’ I said.

Pausing, Basab glanced at Karabi. She was leafing through a magazine in silence. But I had no doubt that she was as keen as before on listening to the rest of the story. ‘And then?’ I asked.

Lighting another cigarette, Basab said, ‘I met them several times over the next five or six months. The better I got to know them, the more my respect for Mriganka-babu grew. To tell the truth, I did not hold the good boys of college in high regard. I believed that the frontbenchers and the first-class degree holders were quite third class when it comes reality. Mriganka-babu changed my viewpoint. His own subject was chemistry. But his interests were not limited to chemistry – he was eager to know about the other branches of science too, as well as literature, politics and sociology. However, what attracted me most was not his erudition, but his amiability, courtesy and civility. I was particularly pleased to see the ease with which he had accepted the accident that had taken place in his wife’s life. Whatever I may say, I am not sure whether I could have accepted it had it happened to me.

Mriganka-babu told me one day in the course of conversation, ‘You must have been surprised by our behavior that evening. I knew it could not be – I was not willing to take the slightest risk. But what could I do, I simply could not persuade Sudatta. It was to get you to see her that…’

‘I realized as much,’ I said. ‘Or else someone like you would never have made such a strange proposal …’

When she reached an even more advanced stage, Sudatta finally desisted from her attempts. She too realized that there was no choice but to wait for the end – no one would help her, no one would be able to help her.

But although she had stopped trying, the whole thing continued to bother her. One day she said with great indignation, ‘I no longer have any faith in your medical science.’

I was silent, not inclined to defend the medical sciences. Mriganka-babu had told me in great detail how much his wife was suffering. Sudatta could not shake off a constant feeling that she was impure and infected. She trembled even in her husband’s deep embrace, or turned stiff. Mriganka-babu felt a certain stiffness too in response to his wife’s behaviour, but his patience was infinite, and his scientific tolerance, astounding. There was no limit to his efforts to bring his wife back to normal. Earlier, Mriganka-babu did not like going to the cinema or the theatre, considering them harmful for his work. Sudatta would go with other friends and relatives. But after the incident, Mriganka-babu himself became her companion. Not that Sudatta wanted to go out very often, preferring to stay holed up inside the house day and night. But it was I who had suggested not leaving her by herself. It would be better to move about at this time, so that she got some light and fresh air. She had to be kept cheerful.

Of course, Sudatta did not take any of this advice. On the contrary, she subjected her body to as many hardships as possible. She didn’t bathe or eat on time, torturing herself in different ways. Her objective was obvious.

One day Sudatta asked, ‘Can’t something be done so that this thing inside is destroyed on its own, Basab-babu? I cannot endure this anymore.’

I could make out that she would send for me sometimes precisely to say such things, to discuss such possibilities. Mriganka-babu was also keen that I visit them, and that Sudatta talk about these things with me. This would help her find an outlet for all the hatred and abhorrence bottled up within, while offering her some satisfaction and relief.

Then there was a new development. Mriganka-babu told me the story. A distant aunt of his used to live in Varanasi. Visiting Calcutta to have her eyes treated, she stayed at Mriganka-babu’s house for some time. I arranged for her to be admitted to the Medical College. She had cataract in both her eyes, and would need an operation. Mriganka-babu’s aunt not only had bad eyesight, but was also hard of hearing. She had not heard of the riots or of the crisis in Mriganka-babu’s life.

But however weak her eyesight might have been, Sudatta’s pregnancy did not escape her notice.

‘How many months? Have you done the ceremonies?’

‘We don’t believe in all this, pishima,’ Mriganka-babu told her, shaking his head.

‘Why should you?’ she said. ‘Godless Christians, the whole lot of you. Do you know what happens if you don’t do the rituals? The child grows up greedy, drooling all the time. You won’t be able to take it in your arms, your clothes will be ruined. Do the ceremonies while there’s still time. Give her whatever she wants to eat. You’re not feeding someone else’s daughter – your own child who’s living in her womb will taste all this good food through its mother’s tongue. But then it’s like father, like son. You’re as much of a miser as my brother is.’

Mriganka-babu’s father had lived in Calcutta for some time, going back to this family home in the village once things had quietened down. All his property was over there, and he had to look after everything himself.

It was Mriganka-babu’s aunt who made all the arrangements for the rituals, bullying her nephew into buying whatever was necessary. She made the sweets herself, bought new saris, and presented everything to the would-be mother.

Out of her husband’s aunt’s sight, Sudatta threw everything into the drain. Summoning her husband she said, ‘Maybe pishima has no idea, but why must you humiliate me?’

And then she began to cry into her pillow, refusing to bathe or eat or go out.

Mriganka-babu’s aunt stayed in hospital for nearly a month after the surgery. ‘Tell me if you’d like me to stay,’ she told Mriganka when leaving. ‘Someone should be with her at this time.’

‘I don’t want to hold you back, pishima,’ said Mriganka-babu. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get a nurse.’

A little upset, the aunt said, ‘Vey well, let me know once it all goes off well. Don’t forget to send a postcard telling me whether it’s a boy or a girl. May god Bishwanath send you a son. I’ll send offerings to his temple. The boy will be named Bishsheshwar.’

‘It’s almost time for your train,’ Mriganka-babu told her. ‘Better finish your packing.’

Another family of tenants lived on the ground floor of Mriganka-babu’s house. Husband, wife and mother-in-law. The wife had not had a child. Several doctors and kavirajs had been consulted, many vows made at different temples. Amulets and lucky charms adorned her wrists and throat. Sometimes she told Sudatta, ‘What are all these western ways of yours, didi? A precious jewel is coming your way, and I don’t hear a sound. Winter’s coming. Get some clothes and socks ready. You’ll be in trouble afterwards.’

‘We don’t need those things,’ Sudatta said in an attempt to avoid her.

‘What do you mean you don’t need them?’ said the woman. ‘Maybe I haven’t had a child of my own, didi, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know anything. My three sisters have thirteen children between them. If you don’t get some swaddling clothes ready now, it will be very difficult later. Very well, if you’re not up to it, get me the wool, I’ll knit them for you, you won’t have to worry about a thing. People desperate for a baby don’t get one, and you…’

When Sudatta didn’t get her any wool even after this, the woman got her own husband to get some and began to knit socks and caps.

‘This is the limit,’ Sudatta told her husband. ‘Better tell them everything. Let the entire world know – horrible, horrible, I can’t take this anymore…’

But Mriganka-babu could take it. I never saw his patience crack in the slightest in his conversations and behaviour with his wife.

Eventually it was time. As you know, I was the house surgeon at Carmichael for some time. They still hold me in high regard. There was no problem. A cabin was booked for Sudatta, and two nurses were engaged. I requested Dr Bose from the ward to take special care of her. Still Mriganka-babu said to me, ‘I would be gratified if you could be present…’

‘There’ll be no need,’ I told him with a smile. ‘Still, I will make enquiries to the best of my abilities. I’m also making arrangements to be informed on the phone immediately after the delivery.’

Even Sudatta smiled at her husband’s anxiety. ‘There’s nothing to worry about, don’t fret so much…’

The smile on Sudatta’s face appealed to me very much. So did her way of reassuring her husband. She herself appeared to be confident. At long last, there would be a release from anxiety, worry and discomfort. All the arrangements had been made with the hospital authorities already. After the delivery, the nurse would take the child away, and then hand it over to the sweeper or someone like that, or else to an orphanage or something. The hospital would make all the arrangements – Mriganka-babu would not have to be involved. They did get such cases here from time to time. The nurses knew what to do – they only had to be paid. The money was never wasted.

‘But whatever you may say, Basab-babu, I’m not happy about this,’ said Mriganka-babu. ‘I have never knowingly resorted to lies. And now I have to be involved in all this deception.’

‘What’s the alternative?’ I said.

‘Don’t pay any attention to him,’ Sudatta said firmly. ‘No better arrangement could have been made.’

The nurse rang me from the hospital in the morning. Sudatta had given birth to a son in the early hours of the morning. Mrs Majumdar hadn’t suffered too much. The child was well too – quite a healthy child.

I gave the first half of the news to Mriganka-babu.

‘Let’s pay Sudatta a visit,’ she said.

I was a little irritated. Why draw me into this? ‘I’m busy till one in the afternoon,’ I said.

‘Very well, we’ll go at one then.’

We arrived at the hospital together, parting the curtains to enter Mrs Majumdar’s cabin with the nurse. Both of us paused as soon as we crossed the threshold. A nurse was sitting on the tool, holding the baby – wrapped in an expensive towel – out in her arms. And Sudatta was gazing at her child. Her eyes held no loathing, no antagonism, not a single sign of discomfort or unhappiness. A deep sense of peace and satisfaction had made Sudatta’s expression entirely natural, beautiful, and tranquil.

But she was flustered when she saw us. The blood rose on her wan, exhausted face. The next moment she scolded the nurse, ‘Take him away from here. Who asked you to bring him here?’

The nurse stared in surprise for a moment before leaving with a chuckle. I was looking at Sudatta, and had no opportunity to observe any change in Mriganka-babu’s demeanour. I saw no contortions on his face when I turned to him.

A little later he asked his wife lovingly, ‘How are you, Sudatta?’

It took some time for Mrs Majumdar to regain her composure. Lowering her eyes, she said, ‘Very well.’

‘I was so scared,’ said Mriganka-babu.

After a silence Sudatta said, ‘There was nothing to be scared of.’

Mriganka-babu seemed to smile. ‘No, I’m relieved now.’

We went out of the room after a while. Suddenly Mriganka-babu said, ‘Cancel all the arrangements, Basab-babu. We’ll take him home.’

‘What!’ I was astonished. ‘How is that possible? And why should Mrs Majumdar agree? Don’t try to do this, Mriganka-babu, don’t complicate things further.’

Lighting a cigarette, Mriganka-babu said, ‘There’s nothing complicated about it. Motherhood is the simplest thing in the world, the clearest.’

‘What are you saying,’ I protested. ‘Motherhood doesn’t exist in a vacuum these days. Society, respect, all sorts of superstitions, the sense of convenience and inconvenience – all these things are connected with it. The mother’s love that you saw on Mrs Majumdar’s part might just be temporary, merely physical.’

‘All love is,’ said Mriganka-babu with a smile.

He paid no heed to my objections, and cancelled all the arrangements made with the nurses at once.

‘But Mrs Majumdar…’ I said.

‘I’ll manage everything,’ said Mriganka-babu. ‘Don’t worry.’

His voice was more than a little annoyed. ‘Why should I worry?’ I told myself.

Mriganka-babu took his wife and son home a week later. I heard that Sudatta had objected strongly. But Mriganka-babu had paid no attention. ‘Are you mad?’ he had said. ‘Maybe he isn’t as beautiful as you, a bit on the dark side, but that doesn’t mean you will leave your own son behind.’

Mriganka-babu telephoned me after they had reached home, saying, ‘It’s all sorted. I’m sorry to have troubled you so much…’

‘Not at all,’ I said.

A patient of mine, a labourer, was in my dispensary at the time, accompanied by his wife and two children. The son was the older one. He was there to have his wife treated. Examining her, I prescribed medicines. When the elder boy saw that the younger one, a girl, had climbed on her mother’s lap, he made the same demand. The husband took him on his own lap.

‘You son loves you, doesn’t he?’ I asked.

‘Yes, daktar-babu,’ he answered. ‘He follows me about everywhere.’

I smiled to myself. The boy was his wife’s son from her first marriage. He had been my patient for a long time – I knew everything about them. He had married his present wife after the first one had died. The boy used to be in her arms then – and now he had happily abandoned her lap to sit on my patient’s. It was all a matter of habit, of practice. Considering Mriganka’s willpower, nothing was impossible for him.

I didn’t keep track of Mriganka-babu for a year after this. They did not try to keep in touch either. I had chosen to maintain a distance. My company might not have been preferable or pleasant for them.

But about a month ago, Mrs Majumdar suddenly rang me and said she was ill. If I could visit her at home, she would be very obliged.

‘Very well,’ I said. ‘But where’s Mr Majumdar?’

‘He’s out of town.’

I had another call to make in Haripal Lane. By the time I was done there it was one-thirty in the afternoon, after which I went to Mriganka-babu’s house.

Their old retainer Amulya had known me since last year. With a smile he said, ‘Come in, daktar-babu, you haven’t been here in a long time.’

There did not appear to be anyone severely ill at home. I followed Amulya upstairs. Mriganka-babu and his family had rented three rooms in this building. One of these was his library, a second one was the drawing room, and the inner room – the largest of the three – was where Sudatta’s household was located. I saw that the doors to the two other rooms were padlocked.

Sudatta stood at the door when she heard me come in. ‘I thought you wouldn’t come.’

She seemed to have become more beautiful – her earlier frenzy had disappeared. Her face was serene, solemn, but there was a hint of melancholy beneath her eyes.

‘What are you ill with?’ I asked.

‘Must you ask about illness the moment you step in?’ she smiled.

‘No one summons the doctor in wellness,’ I said.

Sudatta did not answer.

A child of about a year was asleep in a cradle inside the room. ‘I hope your son’s well,’ I said.

‘Yes, there’s nothing wrong with Bishu,’ Sudatta said.

‘Bishu?’ I asked.

Blushing a little, Sudatta said, ‘We took pishima’s suggestion. His name is Bishsheshwar.’

Taking the padded chair, I said, ‘Very nice name. So no one’s ill. I was worried when I heard. Glad everything’s well. Did Mriganka-babu leave town suddenly?’

‘Yes, he’s gone to Nagpur. Apparently a new variety of guinea pig has appeared there. He wants to collect a few specimens.’

‘Guinea pig!’ I exclaimed in surprise. ‘What does he want with guinea pigs!’ Sudatta replied, ‘He needs them for his cross-breeding experiments.’

‘Cross-breeding!’ I said.

Sudatta looked into my eyes. ‘Yes, biology is his main subject now. Heredity…’

Suddenly she said, ‘I can’t take it anymore, daktar-babu.’

I tried to smile. ‘When you’ve married a scientist, these little nuisances…’

‘Nuisance!’ Sudatta said sharply. ‘Is a scientist’s wife not human, daktar-babu? Is she a rat or a guinea pig?’

Sudatta told me the entire story. Pointing to the locked rooms, she said, ‘Both those rooms are now full of biology textbooks and bottles stuffed with worms. He probably wanted to put Bishu in one of those bottles too, but maybe you don’t need so much care when testing for the effect of the environment on human beings.’

I was flabbergasted. ‘What are you saying?’

Sudatta explained that she had tried her best to have Bishu sent away. But Mriganka-babu had refused. Who ever gives away one’s own things? Bishu was nothing but a thing for Mriganka-babu – an ingredient for his experiments. But Sudatta could not bear to see all this. Mriganka-babu had arranged for expensive toys, clothes and food for Bishu. He enquired after the child at least three or four times a day, took him in his arms, kissed him too. Then he suddenly inspected Bishu and took notes. How could Sudatta endure the look in his eyes?

I didn’t know what to say. After a silence, I rose. ‘I’m in a hurry today Sudatta-debi. For now…’

‘No, stay a little longer,’ she stopped me. ‘I have something else to tell you.’

‘What?’ I said in surprise.

Sudatta was silent for a few moments, hesitating a little. Then suddenly she said, ‘Look, this time too I want… It’s not as advanced as last time. Surely you can help me this time.’

Startled, I asked, ‘What are you trying to tell me?’

Sudatta had been speaking with her eyes on the floor all this time. Now she looked at me directly. The same frenzied look in them. As though she couldn’t tolerate it this time either. Today too her entire body was shaking with an unknown hatred and repugnance.

Like last time, Sudatta looked at me directly. ‘I’m sure you know what I want. I don’t wish to provide material for your scientist friend’s comparative studies.’

Basab stopped, lighting a cigarette. I was about to say something, but Karabi jumped up and turned the radio on quickly. Neither a talk, nor a story, but a song.

A request show.

‘Thank goodness,’ said Karabi.

(Originally published in Cerebration)

Unfaithful: by Narendranath Mitra

O bouthauren, shonen, eida ki tetrish nawmborer baari? Is this No. 33, bouthauren?’

Humming as she patted the baby in her arms to get him to sleep, Mamata had come up to the front door. When she heard the call, she peeped outside. A married young woman of about twenty-five or twenty-six was standing on her doorstep. She was dressed in a short sari with a blue border, her head not fully covered. A broad streak of vermilion in her hair, and a small round dot on her forehead. A set of the thick white traditional shell bangles adorned each of her arms, along with two sets of glass bangles. It was clear at first glance that she was a lower middle-class housewife. Her complexion was on the darker side, and she was thin, too. But still she had a pleasing appearance. Her nose wasn’t particularly sharp, but her features were soft and smooth, and her manner of speaking, sweet.

Walking up to her, Mamata said, ‘Yes, this IS No. 33. Why?’

Without answering, the woman continued, ‘And is the karta named Niradbaran Mukherjee?’

‘Yes it is. Do you want to meet him?’

The woman smiled covertly now, saying, ‘No, not him, I have a letter for his wife, boudidi. I’ve been asked to meet you. Here’s the letter.’

Accepting a folded piece of paper with her own name and address on it, Mamata smiled again. ‘How did you know I am his wife? There are other tenants here.’

Smiling back, the woman said, ‘Don’t try to deceive me, bouthauren, one glance is enough to know who you are.’

Mamata had unfolded the letter and started reading it.

‘Dear Mamata, the other day at the cinema you mentioned you needed a maid. But since I couldn’t find anyone new, considering the difficult situation you’re in, I’m passing on our own Taranga. Not entirely though, half and half. She has been working with us for a month and a half – but how can she survive on a single job? She’s been pleading with me to get her another one, and you need a maid too. So I thought, if I must give someone a share, it might as well be you. Taranga too wanted someone we know, “well-bred people like us”. I told her, I’m sending you to someone who’s even more well-bred than we are. Discuss the salary with her – we pay her twelve rupees. Doing the dishes, fetching the water, helping in the kitchen, getting the charcoal – she does it all. A good-natured sort. You’ll see for yourself. Yours – Ashima Maitra.’

Reading the letter, Mamata said happily, ‘Ah, so Ashima’s sent you. Come in. Just look at Ashima – she lives down the road, but still she has to write a long letter. She can’t stop writing letter, can she. Come in, Taranga.’

An extremely cheerful Mamata re-entered her house with her new maid. The search for a maid had been going on for some time, but she hadn’t found anyone she approved of. Mamata had actually quarrelled with her husband and his younger brother over this. They had even got hold of a couple of aged candidates, but Mamata had rejected them as soon as she set eyes on their appearance and their behaviour. How vain they were! They seemed to think of themselves as the king’s attendants. Besides, none of them was willing to accept less than fifteen or sixteen rupees. How could you spend so much on a maid? She had met her friend Ashima at Rupasree theatre the other day. Mamata had happened to mention her plight in the course of their conversation – how harried she was because of the lack of a maid. ‘I shall get hold of a maid for you somehow,’ Ashima had assured her.

She had kept her word by sending one round to Mamata within a week. It really was hard to find such friends.

Mamata laid out a mat on the veranda for Taranga to sit.

But Taranga was hesitant. Perching tentatively on a corner, she said, ‘What’s the mat for bouthauren, people like us don’t need mats, the floor is good enough.’

‘Why should you sit on the floor,’ said Mamata. ‘Use the mat. Where do you live? Tell me about your family.’

Taranga and her family lived in the refugee camp at Narkeldanga. Her husband was alive, but so what? He had been bedridden for six months – with not a few illnesses: asthma and acidity among them. The camp authorities paid for their rations and provisions, but that did not cover medical treatment and other occasional needs. And besides, there was the future to think of. Which was why Taranga had started working. Her husband Kunja Das has objected at first, but she had paid no attention. ‘I’ll stop once you get better and start earning. But we can’t afford to sit tight only for the sake of honour. You need milk, oranges, fruits – the camp won’t pay for all this. We need money, don’t we?’

‘Don’t you think I’m right?’ Taranga asked Mamata.

Mamata nodded. Taranga was right. Mamata went on to extract much more information from Taranga. Their home was in the village of Kharisar of Faridpur district. They belonged to a family of weavers, but she had never seen anyone either in her own home or at her in-laws actually work a loom. Her father was a trader, and her husband used to peddle gamchhas at markets. But illness wore him down so much that he no longer had the strength to carry his load of gamchhas around. Who was going to feed them if they had no income? Meanwhile the price of rice had risen to twenty or twenty-five rupees a maund. They heard on the grapevine that arrangements had been made in Calcutta for food and shelter for the poor. Trusting the rumours, Taranga and her husband had accompanied their neighbours to the city. But Taranga didn’t like living on charity. They would leave the camp as soon as her husband got better and started earning on his own. They would have their own house to live in independently, like decent folk.

As she told her story, Taranga was suddenly reminded of something. Sounding abashed, she said, ‘Now look what I’ve done, I’ve been chattering all day bouthauren. But I haven’t asked the important questions. What’s my work going to be? How many of you here?’

‘Don’t worry about that,’ said Mamata. ‘You’ll do the same things that you do at Ashima’s. As for people, there’s the Mr Mukherjee whose name you had memorised, his brother, me, and our Dolon here.’

Pointing to her sleeping son on the swing, Mamata said, ‘How many is that Taranga? Count for yourself.’

An embarrassed Taranga said, ‘Of course not, bouthairen! Ki je kawyen! How can human beings count each other? I was only asking because of the work. By the way, should I finish here first and go to the other house, or do their work before coming here?’

‘Whatever is more convenient,’ answered Mamata. Then she added with a smile, ‘Ashima is your original employer. You’d best do their work first.’

‘No bouthauren, they aren’t that kind of people,’ said Taranga. ‘I come and go as I please and do my work, they don’t interfere. There’s no one like dadababu either. Very down to earth. And didimoni may be going to college, but she’s not stuck-up or vain at all…’

‘Didimoni meaning Sudhanshu-babu’s cousin Ila?’ interrupted Mamata.

‘Yes, bouthauren,’ answered Taranga. ‘Very simple, even-tempered, girl. But lively too. On the day that I started work she asked me all about my name and home and family, just like you. She said I have a lovely name. I could die of embarrassment.’

‘You do have a lovely name,’ smiled Mamata. ‘What if you’d been called Khenti or Panchi or Jashoda or Manada instead of Taranga? I’d have changed your name, I wouldn’t have spared you. I’m very fussy about named, Taranga – I’ve changed my son’s name thrice. Yes, Ila certainly is lively. My brother-in-law too. He’s very serious normally, but when it comes to a bit of fun, he’s a different person.’

Taranga started work at Mamata’s home the next day. Since the bathroom adjoined the kitchen, fetching the water was not an arduous task. Mamata’s family did not use too many utensils – they were quite considerate in that sense. But Taranga herself was the most diligent – she never shirked her work, doing it flawlessly. Not only Mamata, but also Nirad and Nirmal, the two brothers, were delighted with her neatness. You couldn’t get a better maid. Taranga didn’t limit herself to her assigned tasks – whenever she got the opportunity she also arranged the shelves and swept the floors. Cobwebs didn’t have a chance with her, the moment they caught Taranga’s eye she removed them with a coconut shell.

One day Mamata told her, ‘Someone who didn’t know better would mistake you for the housewife. They’d think you were doing up your own home.’

Embarrassed, Taranga replied, ‘The things you say, bouthauren! You cannot enjoy work if you’re afraid of it or think of it as someone else’s. When you consider every task your own, there’s no such thing as hard work, bouthauren.’

‘Learn from her, boudi,’ declared Nirmal from the next room. ‘Even after seven years of marriage you haven’t learnt to think of your husband’s home as your own – your housework is so lackadaisical, as though you’re in office. But it’s taken Taranga only a few days to…

Suppressing her laughter, Mamata said, ‘Very well, I’ll see how much housework your college graduate wife does…’

‘Ila didimoni from the other house would make a perfect match for chhoto dadababu here,’ whispered Taranga. ‘She may go to college, but she’s not vain at all.’ Mamata smiled, ‘Don’t tell me, tell chhoto dadababu himself.’

A week later Ashima said, ‘What’s it like working for them, Taranga? What kind of people are they? You haven’t told me anything.’

Leafing through her logic textbook, Ashima’s sister-in-law Ila said, ‘Not told us! Taranga cannot stop praising them constantly.’

‘But then I’m not lying, boudi,’ said Taranga. ‘Bouthauren there really is a very nice person. She treats me like family. And dadababu likes me too. Chhoto dadababu even asked me for a cup of tea the other day. “We don’t believe in caste, Taranga,” he said, “not just tea, we can even eat a meal you cook for us.” He’s very lively. Just like didimoni here. They’re very well matched.’

Ila went away, burying her red face in her textbook. Ashima giggled. The prospect was not to be ruled out. Mamata’s family were Rarhi Brahmins while Ashima’s were Barendra Brahmins, but that didn’t come in way of a marriage these days. Besides, Mamata’s brother-in-law Nirmal had a steady job at the telegraph office. Ashima considered writing to Ila’s mother.

But Mamata didn’t stop at Nirmal, she also sang Mamata’s praises. Mamata had given her one of her own blouses the other day on seeing that Taranga’s blouse was torn.

‘Let me see,’ said Ashima, approaching Taranga with curiosity.

As a matter of fact Taranga was dressed in that very blouse. Both Ila and Ashima noticed that it was practically new. A beautiful blouse with fine embroidery on the sleeves and the neck – usually no one gave away such things to a maid.

Ila and Ashima exchanged glances.

A couple of days later Ashima gave Taranga an reddish-brown old handloom sari with a wide border.

‘Why are you giving me a sari, boudi?’ asked Taranga in surprise. ‘What will I do with it?’

‘Wear it, of course,’ said Ashima. ‘This short and dirty sari of yours doesn’t match such a lovely blouse. Wear it with this one, they go well together.’

It wasn’t as though Taranga wasn’t tempted by the sari, but she said hesitantly, ‘No boudi, people like us don’t deserve such saris.’

‘Just take it,’ Ashima said almost like a rebuke. ‘If you can wear such a fashionable blouse, why not this sari?’

Eventually she said, ‘I’ll be very unhappy if you don’t take it, Taranga.’

‘Give it to me, then,’ said Taranga.

When she saw Taranga wasn’t dressed in the sari the next day, Ashima was annoyed. ‘What did you do with the sari, Taranga?’

‘I’ve put it away, boudi. It’s such a good sari. I’ll keep it for special occasions.’

Ila said, ‘Very well, I’ll give you another sari for special occasions. But please don’t wear that short and dirty sari anymore Taranga. It looks terrible. You’d better wear the sari that boudi gave you instead. It suits you.’

‘All right,’ said Taranga, therefore.

Mamata was a little surprised at Taranga’s reddish-brown sari the next day. ‘Well? Bought a new sari, Taranga?’

Shaking her head, Taranga said, ‘Impossible, boudi, do you suppose we can afford such saris? Boudidi from the other house gave it to me. I didn’t want to take it. You tell me, how can I accept a whole sari even before I’ve completed two months at work? Aapnee kawyen? But boudidi wouldn’t take no for an answer. Do you know what she said? I’ll be upset if you don’t take it. Look at her. What can I say, bouthauren, their hearts as generous as the gods’. You don’t see such people normally.’

‘Hmm,’ said Mamata grimly. Examining Taranga’s sari with her fingertips, she said, ‘Be careful with it, Taranga. It’s an old sari, you see, I don’t think it’ll survive more than two or three washes. Never mind, I’ll buy you a new sari next month. Not too colourful, but one where the fabric is strong, you’ll find it easier to work in it.’

‘No bouthauren, I don’t need any more saris,’ said Taranga, trying to forestall her. ‘Didimoni has promised me one too. What am I going to do with so many saris?’

‘Hmm,’ said Mamata, even more grimly.

Four or five days later, Mamata suddenly made a proposal to her. ‘Can you come around two in the afternoon tomorrow, Taranga? A quarter past two will be fine too.’

‘Why, bouthairen?’ asked Taranga.

‘I need you for something,’ Mamata told her. ‘I want to go to the cinema, you will come too and look after Dolon. Have you ever watched a film? Talking pictures.’

‘No bouthauren, I haven’t,’ answered Taranga. ‘But how can I go? I have to do all the work at boudidi’s house, and then I have to fetch the water and do the dishes for you too in the afternoon.’

‘I’ll manage somehow that one day,’ said Mamata.

‘But how will boudidi over in the other house cope?’ asked Taranga.

Curling her lips, Mamata said, ‘It’s not much to cope with. Can’t the two of them fetch a couple of buckets of water themselves for once? Is that how uppity they have become these days?’

Changing her tune suddenly, Mamata said with a pleasant smile, ‘Don’t worry, they love you very much, after all. If you explain to them, I’m sure they’ll let you go for an afternoon. There are things you’d like for yourself, after all, aren’t there? You just have to explain to them. If you ask for me, they won’t say no.’

Still Taranga mumbled, ‘No bouthauren, it’s too embarrassing. I’m not ill or anything, why should I not go to work…’

Displeased, Mamata told her, ‘What difference can a single day make? I asked you because I could do with the help. And you’d have seen something new too.’

‘All right bouthauren,’ conceded Taranga, ‘let me ask boudidi.’

The proposition was a little strange, but having thought it over, Ashima agreed eventually. She would have appeared mean-minded to Mamata if she didn’t. Besides, Taranga had worked two months without missing a single day on the pretext of bad weather or illness. Ashima’s own standing would suffer too if she couldn’t be generous enough to grant Taranga an afternoon off. Ashima concluded that despite Mamata’s attempt to flaunt her wealth by taking the maid to the cinema, she had still been forced to eat humble pie by having to beg Ashima through Taranga. Only because Ashima had been magnanimous enough to grant Taranga leave had Mamata been able to dress up and go to the cinema, complete with her son in the maid’s arms and the feeding bottle. This wasn’t just a case of seeing a film, but also showing off.

Taranga didn’t skip work, however, arriving at Ashima’s house in the evening instead, her face glowing with happiness.

Ashima had begun breaking the charcoal into smaller pieces. Pushing her away, Taranga said, ‘What’s this boudidi, why are you doing this? Let me.’

Ashima had not expected Taranga today. Pleasantly surprised, she said, ‘Did you go for the film?’

Elated, Taranga said, ‘What an amazing thing I saw, boudi. Talking, singing pictures. And what songs! And then with a lovely unmarried girl like didimoni here…’ Taranga giggled. ‘And the man was just like our dadababu from the other house. Then the two of them held hands and…’

‘Enough, Taranga!’ Ila pretended to scold her.

But Taranga didn’t stop till she had provided a complete description of her experience at the cinema. There was no one as wonderful in the Mukherjee family as bouthakrun – she was as large-hearted as the gods. And as beautiful as Lakshmi. Mamata had dressed up for an hour in front of the mirror. Not just herself, she had dressed up Taranga too – teaching her how to put on a sari in the modern style, and redoing her hair. She had even given an old pair of sandals of hers to Taranga, who had died of embarrassment. She had never used slippers in her life – and kept tripping over her own feet. But she hadn’t stumbled although she had been afraid she would – in fact, she had quite enjoyed walking with her feet encased in boudidi’s sandals. Then she had watched the film from a cushioned seat right next to boudidi. Who had ever offered her a seat this way? Who had ever taken such care of a maid? Mamata had bought a couple of soft drinks for herself – and forced them on an unwilling Taranga too. Not cheap drinks, but expensive ones. She could still taste them. The drinks were followed by paan, with delicious flavours. Extraordinary paan. Mamata hadn’t asked for the sandals back, giving them to Taranga and asking her to wear them when she had go somewhere. There was no one like bouthakrun.

Ashima listened, without commenting on her friend’s generosity. She neither concurred not demurred.

On her way back to the camp after work, Taranga ran into Manada and Khentomoni. They worked as maids too. It was Manada who had got Taranga her job with Ashima.

‘Ki lo, why so late?’ asked Manada. ‘Are they making you work very hard?’

‘No one can,’ Taranga replied. ‘I work hard of my own free will. Just today one of my employers took me to see a film, and another one gave me a sari. Do you think I work like a maid anywhere? As long as I’m at their houses I’m like one of them, they treat me like their sister.’

Khentomoni smiled, displaying blackened teeth. ‘Aa mawron. Oh my, just listen to our Tarangi. All these are tricks to make us work like dogs. There’s still time to learn how to look after your interests, how to shirk. Else you’ll just slave away till you drop dead.’

Khento and the rest of them had told Taranga the same thing earlier as well. But she had never paid attention, no matter what they said. Taranga was not a professional maid like them. She was a housewife, forced by poverty to take up work. None of them considered her a maid either, taking care of her like a member of the family. Taranga was treated well by both families. No maid was offered such affection and respect anywhere.

Taranga told stories about her two mistresses not just to her fellow-maids, but also to her sick husband and aged mother-in-law when she got back home. Bouthakrun and boudidi were incarnations of Lakshmi and Saraswati, respectively.

As Kunja peeled oranges in bed, a smile appeared on his illness-afflicted face. ‘And you are their mounts – owl to one and swan to the other.’

But despite mocking her, Kunja was captivated by his wife’s qualities. You couldn’t ask for a better wife. Taranga worked at two jobs, kept two mistresses happy, and brought him bread and butter and fruits to eat. And she also earned the praise of the families she worked for. Many of the other women at the camp worked as maids at people’s houses – but there were so many complaints against them, so much grumbling. Some were lazy, some pilfered, some were scolded for trying a bit of hanky-panky with the young men – all sorts of scandals. Although he spent his day in bed, Kunja Das could hear everything. But no one had ever complained about his wife Tarangabala. No head of a family or young babu had ever turned up to accuse her of skipping work, or to make enquiries about her on some pretext or the other. Everyone in the camp praised Taranga’s luck with her mistresses, and Kunja Das’s, with his wife.

On the day after the film show, Taranga woke up even earlier than usual and went to Ashima’s house in Haramohan Ghosh Lane. She fetched the water, did the dishes, swept the floor and lit the stove. Then she said, ‘I’m off now, boudi.’ Ashima said, ‘Oh but it isn’t even seven o’ clock yet Taranga. Please slice the fish for me before you go.’ Taranga said, ‘There are so many tenants at the other house, you see, and just one tap and tank between them. Bouthauren can’t cope unless I fetch the water for her early.’

Without abandoning her smile, Ashima said, ‘You have to take care of everyone’s interests, Taranga. Besides, I don’t make these demands every day, but two of your dadababu’s friends are coming to dinner tonight, so there’s extra work to be done. I got blisters on my hands trying to break the charcoal yesterday, or else I’d have sliced the fish myself. And besides, you come from the land of fish – you like slicing big fish, and you know it how to do it too. So I thought…’

Sudhanshu had lathered his face and was shaving in front of the mirror. He said, ‘Yes you’d better slice the fish, Taranga, it’s too big for your boudi to handle. She might spoil it.’ Smiling at his wife and sister, he said, ‘Our Taranga does a better job with the fish than either of you. I knew as much the moment I saw her slice the chital the other day. A poorly sliced fish kills half the taste. Education isn’t everything, slicing a fish is a special art. I don’t trust anyone but Taranga with such expensive fish.’

‘There you are, did you hear that?’ said Ashima.

Pleased with the praise, Taranga proceeded to slice the fish. It took about an hour to slice and wash the pieces. On Sudhanshu’s request, she also had to marinade the fish with salt and spices. That took a lot of time too.

Taranga arrived at Mamata’s house in Peary Mohan Lane at seven-thirty. The family usually needed their water fetched well before this hour. The wives of the other tenants had occupied the bathroom already.

‘So late today, Taranga?’ said Mamata. ‘You know how difficult it is to fetch the water if you’re not here early. So many tenants…’

‘Two of dadababu’s friends are invited to dinner at the other house, you see. So I had to slice and wash the fish for them.’

‘Hmm,’ said Mamata. ‘While you were slicing their fish, my arms began to ache from fetching the water. You have to take everyone’s needs into consideration, not just one person’s.’

Taranga had never been reprimanded before. After a short silence, she said, ‘All right bouthauren, I’ll fetch water for you from the tap in the street.’

Tarange returned home after pacifying Mamata with two buckets of water drawn from the municipality tap.

In the afternoon Taranga usually went to work at Mamata’s house first. Today, too, she was there by three o’ clock. But she couldn’t leave at four-thirty as usual. Although she was done with her tasks – fetching the water, getting the charcoal ready and doing the dishes, Mamata suddenly said with a dazzling smile, ‘Are you leaving, Taranga? Just a minute.’

‘Yes, bouthauren?’

‘Wait a bit,’ said Mamata. ‘Your dadababu’s bolster has split, see? There was cotton wool all over the bed last night. Can you just darn it before you leave…’

It was Sunday. Lying back in bed with his head resting on his palm, Nirad was reading a novel. ‘I couldn’t sleep all night, Taranga,’ he told her with a smile. ‘Cotton wool all over me, in my nose. Stuffed like a pillow, you might say. If you don’t fix the bolster it’ll be the same story tonight. If I leave it to your boudi it won’t be repaired till I die. You have to do something about it.’

Taranga had taken on these small additional tasks willingly. Dadababu and boudi didn’t just pay her a salary, after all, they also gave her saris and petticoats and blouses and took her to the cinema. When they got delicacies at home, they always sent a portion for Taranga’s sick husband. She felt inadequate if she couldn’t do these extra things in return. It was embarrassing. So Taranga had added on tasks like dusting the bed or putting the pillows in the sun to her list of duties.

With dadababu requesting her in this fashion, Taranga had no choice but to darn the bolster. Since there was no cotton-wool left in it, she had to split open another pillow to transfer some of the filling. Darning both the pillows took quite some time.

When Taranga arrived at Ashima’s house around five-thirty, Ashima said sullenly, ‘What was it, the cinema again, Taranga?’

‘No boudidi, I had to repair dadababu’s bolster in the other house. What a state the pillow was in!’

‘Hmm, of course you’re going to do all that while we run out of water here and the stove isn’t lit. If this is what you’re going to do every day Taranga…’

A mortified Taranga said, ‘No boudidi, it won’t happen again. Just this one day that I got late…’

Taranga had to put in another hour’s work even after darkness fell. She was made to prepare some extra charcoal and fetch more water. Still Ashima looked unhappy.

It wasn’t just a matter of a single day, however. The same thing began to happen every day. Ashima had extra work for Taranga every morning. And Taranga was late arriving at Parry Mohan Lane every day. The same trouble and reprimands followed. Mamata said angrily, ‘We do pay you a salary, Taranga. It’s not as though you work without pay, or that the money we give you is useless.’

And afternoon always turned into evening before Taranga could get to Haramohan Ghosh Lane. Mamata had several chores for her, which didn’t allow Taranga to leave quickly. Mamata’s son Dolon wouldn’t drink his milk quietly unless it was Taranga who gave it to him. Mamata’s husband loved it when Taranga did his wife’s hair. When Taranga seemed anxious to leave, Mamata said, ‘How can we manage if you want to leave as soon as you turn up, Taranga? I’ve noticed exactly how much time you spend working here.’

Ashima echoed the same sentiment. ‘Just look at the time, Taranga. We pay you too. While they don’t pay you before the seventh or the eighth of the month, we always pay your dues by the second. How can you be so unfair? I’ve employed you, and so has Mamata. You’re the maidservant for both of us. It’s not as though you’re a permanent maidservant for Mamata alone. How can I cope?’

Maidservant! Taranga had never heard Ashima use the word before. Her face reddened, and her ears began to buzz.

After a while she said, ‘Bouthauren doesn’t consider me a maidservant, boudidi.

Her face contorted, Ashima said, ‘Of course not, she considers you her mother-in-law. Very well, if they’re such good people, go and play mother-in-law there, who’s stopping you? There are plenty of other fish ready to take the bait.’

Mamata didn’t hold her in the same regard as before either. Her pleasant behaviour and sweet way of putting things to Taranga had changed drastically.

As Taranga was leaving after her work that evening, Mamata said, ‘How can you be leaving already, Taranga? Didn’t I tell you had to prepare the charcoal?’

‘You have enough for today, bouthauren,’ answered Taranga, ‘I’ll do more tomorrow. I’ll get late for them…’

‘All you talk about is them,’ snarled Mamata. ‘Isn’t your heart in this house anymore, Mamata? Don’t you take the work here seriously nowadays? Very well, if you’re so drawn to Ashima’s house, why not spend all your time there? No one’s tied you down here. You can always give up this job if it isn’t suitable. I cannot tolerate paying out twelve rupees every month while you leave your work undone day after day.’

After a pause Mamata continued, ‘Money is no easy thing, Taranga. You have to work very hard to earn it. You could dig deep into the earth and not come up with a single coin, you know.’

After a silence Taranga said, ‘It’s all very well for you to say all this, but boudidi over in the other house…’

Mamata flared up even more in her rage. ‘I know, boudidi rinses your mouth out with milk. She is the last word in kindness.’

Taranga had noticed for some time now that bouthakrun here was no longer as receptive to kind words about boudidi there. But then it wasn’t as though boudidi there was particularly pleased to hear good things about this bouthakrun.

Taranga paused before continuing, ‘That’s not what I was saying, bouthauren. I was saying that when I got a little late getting to her house after doing your work, she hurled abuses at me. Apparently I do extra work at your house and shirk my tasks at hers…’

‘Is that so?’ said Mamata. ‘Is that what Ashima said? Naturally. She was always a cantankerous type, never a kind word for anyone. She couldn’t utter a sweet phrase if her life depended on it.’

Taranga observed that Mamata was once again displaying signs of compassion and intimacy.

Encouraged, she said, ‘Leave alone sweet phrases, she said such nasty things – I tell you, bouthauren, never mind decent people, even servants like us cannot possibly use such language.’

‘Decency or the lack of it is not defined by class, Taranga, it is evident in people’s behaviour,’ Mamata told her. ‘I know very well what Ashima’s tongue is capable of.’

Taranga felt a pinprick in her heart on the way back. What she had done was not right. She had loosened her tongue too much today, overstepped her limits. But she also remembered that Mamata had bared her heart to Taranga after a long time. And she hadn’t even objected when Taranga had left without preparing the charcoal.

When Ashima scolded her again today for being a little late, taunting her about shirking her work, Taranga applied her new weapon for winning her employer over. ‘What can I do, boudidi? Even after my work is done bouthauren there holds me back on some pretext or the other. She gets me late deliberately.’

‘Naturally,’ responded Ashima. ‘I found a maid for her with my personal effort – she must take revenge for that, mustn’t she? Never help people, Taranga. I’ve met many women, but I’ve never seen a woman as jealous of other people as she is. Her mind’s as twisted as a screw.’

‘And her language, boudidi, I can’t tell you,’ said Taranga. ‘I work for you too, you scold me too if I don’t do things right. But her foul tongue! Even we cannot bring ourselves to use such language, boudidi.’

‘Mamata was always foul-tongued,’ declared Ashima.

Emboldened, Taranga said, ‘And do you suppose she uses it only on me? The things she says about you, boudidi, the things she says… But never mind, it’s none of my business.’

‘No, now that you’ve brought it up, I might as well hear it all. It’s good to know people for what they really are. Tell me everything, Taranga, whatever she’s said about me. Don’t worry, you needn’t be frightened. Not a word of this will get out. Never mind the turmeric paste, I’ll take care of it.’

Ashima brought her tin of paan out from beneath the bed. ‘Come, have a paan.’

She hadn’t been so warm with Taranga in a long time. How could Taranga keep herself from responding?

Taranga progressed in leaps and bounds after this. It was a marvellous method. With every passing day she discovered to her joy that it was possible to worship one person by vilifying another, that it was possible to earn their empathy and compassion, that it was possible to reach their heart. The gifts had dried up of late, but now they were resumed. Ashima offered her paan, and Mamata held out the tin of zarda. One day Ashima handed Taranga half of one of the three mangoes – recent arrivals in the market – that she had bought for her husband. And Mamata gave her an entire pineapple out of the four that her parents had sent her from Jalpaiguri. Kunja Das was delighted when he tasted the pineapple. He forced a slice or two on his wife as well. Such sweet pineapples – you just didn’t get them in Calcutta. So Taranga’s fingers began to itch to offer Mamata spicier, tastier tidbits.

‘Do you know what happened yesterday, bouthauren?’

‘How will I know unless you tell me?’ said Mamata.

‘Important people do things their own way. But even common people like us don’t have such scandals. But never mind, why get into all that?’

Mamata was bursting with curiosity. ‘Oh, just tell me. That’s the problem with you.’

Tell her? Did it even bear telling? Ashima was visiting her parents in Baranagar. She wasn’t supposed to be back that night. But, returning unexpectedly, she discovered that dadababu had taken Ila didimoni to the cinema. They came back in a car at midnight. Taranga had heard about it the next morning, while doing her work. How bitterly the husband and wife had fought. And Ila didimoni stood by, ashen-faced. It was obvious her mind had been corrupted. The girl was no longer innocent.

‘Shame!’ said Mamata. ‘They are cousins, after all. How fortunate we didn’t consider a match with my brother-in-law.’

Nirmal was writing poetry for a monthly magazine in the next room. Scratching it all out, he began to chew his pen, his ears pricked to catch the rest of the story.

Sudhanshu dadababu had stammered unconvincingly at first. But then he let the cat out of the bag. Ashima was no incarnation of virtue either. Did she think Sudhanshu had forgotten her exploits? Didn’t he have to throw his friend Binoy out once? But it hadn’t been Binoy’s fault alone – you can’t clap with one hand.

‘What!’ said Mamata in astonishment. ‘She’s been married four or five years – but she still hasn’t given up on her ways. What a shame, Taranga, she makes you want to cover your ears. What kind of nature is this, what sort of impulse?’

Taranga chuckled. ‘Binoy-babu still comes over whenever he gets the chance, bouthauren. And then they start whispering inside the room…’

‘So Ashima still hasn’t given up on her vices. Shameful!’

Taranga smiled with great pity. ‘It’s not something you can give up, bouthauren. Once a woman’s got it, it doesn’t leave her till she’s on her pyre.’

Taranga was not ungrateful. She displayed no partiality. Ashima’s mango had been delicious too. So she didn’t deprive her either. Before leaving once her work was done in the evening, she drew Ashima aside to tell her, ‘I didn’t know decent folks could do such scandalous things, boudi.’

‘What is it, Taranga?’ asked Ashima in excitement. ‘Why are you keeping things from me?’

‘No boudidi, I’d better go,’ said Taranga. ‘People like us shouldn’t be involved in important people’s affairs. I’m off ,boudidi.’

Ashima held on to her arm. ‘Oh for heaven’s sake, tell me everything, Taranga. Don’t be afraid.’

‘What to tell you, boudidi,’ began Taranga. ‘Does it even bear telling? She’s not young, she has a child, but still such behaviour… for shame.’

It’s not worth telling, I shouldn’t be telling anyone – Taranga abandoned her stance on Ashima’s request to reveal everything. When she went to work this afternoon, she found the couple quarrelling bitterly. It was terrible to hear. The brothers had fallen out with each other. And why not? How can a man stand for all this? Hanky-panky with your young brother-in-law day in and day out. And not just smiles and jokes – positively falling on each other. Taranga herself had often seen them. She had had to tear her eyes away.

Startled, Ashima said, ‘What are you saying, Taranga. Imagine doing such things even after you’ve had a child! And Nirmal – I always thought him decent.’

Taranga’s laughter lit up her deep experience of human nature. ‘Everyone is decent, boudi! I knew at first glance that if you have evil ideas it’s bound to show on your face. But unless a man got encouragement from a woman, would he dare…’

‘It was a near thing, Taranga,’ said Ashima. ‘Thank goodness I didn’t write to Ila’s mother about a match with Nirmal. It would have been disastrous.’

Just back from college, Ila was arranging her books on her desk, with her ears pricked to listen to what Taranga was saying. Suddenly she pushed several books off the table in her eagerness, saying loudly, ‘Why are your hairpins and cosmetics on my desk, boudi? Don’t you have anywhere else to put them?’

‘You’ve had a narrow escape, Ila,’ Ashima said, looking at her.

As Taranga was leaving, Ashima handed her a slice of jackfruit. ‘Take this home, cook it for yourselves. You’ve saved us, Taranga.’

A couple of days later Ashima said, ‘Come early tomorrow, Taranga. My parents are coming for dinner. Lots of work.’

As soon as Taranga told Mamata, she said, ‘Don’t you dare be late here. I’ve been thinking of inviting maama and maami – I’ll send word today. It’s Sunday tomorrow – an ideal day. You’d better come to my house first.’

‘All right, bouthauren,’ Taranga said, nodding.

When she left the camp early the next morning, Taranga paused beneath the bakul tree, wondering whose house to go to first. She’d be stuck wherever she went. The devil and the deep blue sea.

Manada and Khentomoni were on their way to work too. When they saw Taranga, they stopped.

‘Well Taranga, what are you standing there for?’ said Manada. ‘Planning to skip work by any chance?’

Khento said, ‘Oh no, whom do you think you’re talking to, Maanu? Does she even know how to do all this? Our Taranga belongs to the family of the upright Yudhisthira.’

They were about to leave, but Taranga called them back suddenly. ‘Just a minute, Khento-didi.’

‘What is it, Taranga?’ said Khento.

‘Can you do me a favour?’ asked Taranga after some hesitation.

‘What favour?’

‘Both of you know the houses where I work, don’t you?’ said Taranga. ‘One of you go to Haramohan Ghosh Lane, and the other to Parry Mohan Sur Lane. Tell them Taranga can’t go to work today. She’s practically dying of cholera. Do this for me, please. I will give you paan and zarda.’

But even before she could make good on her promise, Manada and Khento said in elation, ‘Really, Tarungi? So good sense has dawned on you at last. If only it had occurred to you earlier, you wouldn’t have worked yourself to the bone.’

Before leaving, Khento planted a small kiss on Taranga’s cheek, saying, ‘I was so worried about you. You’ll survive now.’

Taranga stood a little longer beneath the bakul tree after they had left. Khento had bad breath. Trying to rub her cheek with her palm, she left a black smear on her cheek. And suddenly her eyes filled with tears. This was not how she had wanted to be. Why, then?

Ras: Narendranath Mitra

Motalef began to tap the palm trees in the Chowdhurys’ orchard around the middle of Kartik. And before a fortnight had passed, he married his neighbour Razek Mridha’s widow Majukhatun and brought her home. Not that this was the first time for Motalef. His previous wife had died a year or so ago. But Motalef was twenty-five or twenty-six, in the prime of life. As for Majukhatun, she was nearly, if not actually, thirty. She didn’t have children to worry about, though. She had married off her only daughter to the Shaikh family at Kathikhali. But while she had no worries, she didn’t have much of her own either by way of property or riches. It wasn’t as though Razek mian had left behind chests full of gold and fields full of crops for her to get a share of. All she had got was 700 square feet or so of the family land, and a dilapidated hut. So much for her riches. And then she wasn’t exactly a nymph when it came to looks. Majukhatun had nothing but the firm body of a fiery woman with which to attract men and win their hearts.

The wives of the Sikdars and Qazis nudged and winked at one another. “The bitch knows black-magic, she’s cast a spell over his eyes.”

“Good for her,” declared Sakina, the youngest of the Munshi wives. “Why shouldn’t she? It’s best to cast a spell over the eyes of man like that. The lord hasn’t taught him how to look away. Have you seen that crooked stare of his? Good for her if she’s managed to divert his attention.”

She was right. Motalef did have a crooked stare. He picked beautiful women in particular; his eyes were always roving for a pretty face. He had been trying all this time to find a young, beautiful woman to marry. But he couldn’t meet the asking rate. Anyone who had a fully-grown, pretty daughter had set a high price. Motalef had been bowled over most of all by Phulbanu. The daughter of Elem Shaikh from Charkhanda, she was eighteen or thereabouts. Her body oozed promise, her heart was eager. Phulbanu was second-hand material, however. She had obtained a talaq from Gafoor Sikdar of Kaidoobi on the pretext that he did not take care of her and beat her up. Actually Phulbanu had been put off by Gafoor because he was much older than her and not handsome either. That was why she had deliberately picked fights with him. But being second-hand had not harmed Phulbanu’s looks in any way, if anything her body was more alluring and attractive, while a torrent of sensuality coursed through her heart. Motalef had seen her on the banks of the river at Charkhanda. He knew at a glance that he had caught her eye too. Motalef was no laggard when it came to appearance. Slim and fair, he cut a fine figure in his blue lungi; and besides, how many others hereabouts could boast of such stylish, flowing hair? Motalef was in no doubt about Phulbanu’s approval. He had found his way to Elem Sheikh’s house. But Elem paid no attention to him, saying he had learnt his lesson the last time around. He wouldn’t hand his daughter over to anyone without making enquiries and weighing his options. In truth, all he wanted was money. He wanted to recoup his expenses on securing a talaq for his daughter, with interest added on. He wanted his losses compensated. Motalef had estimated that the compensation would come to, not twenty or forty, but a full hundred rupees. Elem would never agree to anything less. But how was he to get so much money?

Motalef had to come away with a gloomy face. He ran into Phulbanu again amidst the wild bushes near the river. She was on her way with a pitcher for water. Motalef realised that her need for water was well-timed.

Looking around furtively, Phulbanu chuckled. “Well mian, angry?”

“Why shouldn’t I be? Didn’t you hear the price your father quoted?”

“I heard,” said Phulbanu. “And what’s wrong with that? You want to get what you like without paying my father for it?”

“It’s not the father but the daughter who’s set the price,” said Motalef. “Put yourself into a basket and go on sale at the market.”

Phulbanu laughed at Motalef’s rage. “Not just a basket, I’ll go in a carriage. With fistfuls of gold and jewellery. Show me what kind of man you are, what kind of fists you have.” Motalef was about to stomp off. Phulbanu called him back. “Don’t be angry, handsome. Listen to me.”

“Listen to what?” asked Motalef, turning back.

Looking around again, Phulbanu went a little closer. “Listen to my heart, that’s what. Listen, my father’s daughter doesn’t want either money or jewellery, all she wants is that her man doesn’t sacrifice his honour. She wants to see his spirit. Understand?”

Motalef nodded to say he had understood.

“But don’t do anything stupid, mian,” warned Phulbanu. ‘Don’t go selling your land or anything.”

Not that Motalef had enough land to sell—but his pride would not allow him to reveal this to Phulbanu. “All right, just let winter go by,” he said, “I’ll show you my honour and my spirit. But will bibijaan have the patience to wait?”

“Of course she will,” smiled Phulbanu. “Don’t mistake me for an impatient woman.”

Back in his village, Motalef attempted once more to borrow some money. He tried with the Mullicks, the Mukherjees, the Sikdars, and the Munshis, but without any luck. Once he borrowed money, Motalef was not in the habit of paying it back quickly. Getting him to return a loan was a tall order. No one was going to take it on willingly.

But although he didn’t get cash on loan, Motalef did get a commission for nearly a hundred palm trees at the beginning of winter. The number of trees in the Chowdhurys’ garden had been growing since last year; there were more than one hundred and fifty now. The trees would have to be tapped and the palm juice collected in pots. Half the juice would go to the owner, and half to him for all his efforts. It was no small enterprise. The dead branches would first have to be trimmed from each of the tees. The blade would have to be honed, and then the bark scraped off the trunks to insert thin pipes made from reeds. Earthen pots would have to be attached properly at the ends of these pipes. Only then would the juice dripping all night be collected in the pot. It involved a lot of work, a great deal of attention. It needed sweat to extract the juice from the dry, unyielding palm trees. It wasn’t like your mother’s milk, or a cow’s, that you could just suck off the nipple.

Of course, it wasn’t enough to work hard. You also had to know how to climb up and down trees; you needed skilful hands too. It was this skill that made the sharp blade—the slightest touch of which on the skin could make blood flow—get the palm trees to ooze their sweet syrup. This wasn’t like harvesting paddy or jute, where you could simply cut the entire plant along with the root at one stroke. This was tapping a palm tree, which meant both slicing and stroking. The tree must not be hurt or damaged. The slightest slip of the fingers and the tree would die before the year was out, with only its stump left. The wood from the trunk might be used to make flights of stairs for the river ghat or your home, but the tree would no longer ooze its juice one drop at a time all night.

Razek Mridha had trained Motalef how to tap palm trees. All these principles and dos-and-don’ts were also his. There wasn’t a tapper as famous as Razek. His fingers could even coax the syrup out of trees three-fourths dead. A tree that yielded half a pot of juice to others filled Razek’s pot to the brim. Householders would be confident when they gave him the commission for their trees. The trees would not be harmed, and the pots would be full. Motalef had spent several years as Razek’s pupil, following him everywhere and helping him. Razek had a couple of other pupils too—Maqbool from the Sikdar family, and Ismail from the Qazis. But none of them became the expert that Motalef did. Only Motalef could have replaced Razek.

But it wasn’t enough to tap the trees by the score, nor to bring the juice home in pots balanced at either end of a long stick placed on the shoulder—you needed someone to make gur—jaggery—out of the juice. A man could only tap the trees and fetch the juice, but it was up to a woman to make the oven, get hold of kindling, and bring the liquid syrup to a boil over and over till it was converted into a thick paatali gur. Only when the raw juice had ripened into gur would there be fulfilment, only then would all the toil and effort yield results. But for a couple of years now, there had been no such person in Motalef’s home. His mother had died when he was a child. When his wife died two years ago, there was absolutely no one left for the task.

When evening had fallen, Motalef arrived at Majukhatun’s hut, where the door was barred. “Are you awake, Maju-bibi?”

“Who is it?” Majukhatun responded from her house.

“It’s me, Motalef. Have you gone to bed? If you’d go to the trouble of opening the door… I want to talk to you.”

Opening the door, Majukhatun said, “I know what you have to say. Since it’s the season for gur it’s time to come to Majukhatun. The syrup has to be boiled and thickened. But you have to pay four annas a seer, mian. I can’t do it cheaper. I don’t feel strong in the body this year.”

“Why blame your body, bibi?” Motalef said sweetly. “The body follows the heart. If the heart is happy, so’s the body.”

“Whatever you may say, mian. I can’t do it for less than four annas,” said Majukhatun.

Motalef smiled winningly. “Never mind four annas, will you agree to take the full rupee if I offer it, bibi?”

Majukhatun’s heart fluttered a little at his smile, but her response was brisk. “Never mind the sweet talk, mian. If you want to talk business, I’ll listen, or else I’m going to bed.”

“Of course you’ll go to bed,” answered Motalef. “That’s what the night is for. But going to bed doesn’t mean sleep, does it, Maju-bibi? How do you spend the long winter nights awake?”

Abandoning his hints and innuendoes, Motalef now made himself clear. He did not wish to take unfair advantage of her. He wanted to summon a priest to read the scripture so that he could marry her and take her home. He wanted to give her complete responsibility for his home and household.

Majukhatun was astonished at the proposal. “Can’t you find someone else to joke with?” she chided him. “Is there a dearth of young girls? Why are you knocking at my door?”

“Why should there be a dearth, Maju-bibi?” said Motalef. “There are plenty of young women. But despite everything they are nothing but pots of raw juice.”

“Really?” Majukhatun was amused. “And me?”

“You’re different. You’re toddy for a drink and gur for a meal. How can I compare you to them?”

Although Majukhatun sent Motalef on his way for the moment, she couldn’t quite forget what he told her. His words played havoc in her mind as she lay in her lonely bed in the dark. She had known him a long time. Motalef used to visit this house from the time he worked with Razek, when Razek was still alive. They had known each other since then. But there was no intimacy in that acquaintance. They would laugh and joke with each other sometimes, but that was as far as it had gone. Motalef was married, and Majukhatun had her husband. Razek’s was a stern, unromantic personality. He spoke harshly and sharply. In winter he would fetch scores of pots brimming with syrup, which Majukhatun would boil repeatedly to make gur with. Her touch was magic. The gur she made sold at a higher price than anyone else’s in the market. After Razek’s death, most of the palm trees nearby were handed over to Motalef to tap. He offered her a couple of pots of juice out of courtesy now and then, but her yard was no longer filled with pots. Last year, Motalef had engaged her for a month or so to make gur from his syrup. He was supposed to pay her two annas a seer, but about a month later Motalef began to suspect her of stealing gur and getting someone else to sell it in secret. In other words, Motalef wasn’t getting the full share. The dispute made their arrangement fall though. But this time Motalef had not proposed giving her the juice to make gur from; he had proposed taking Majukhatun home as his wife. One or two of the middle-aged men in the neighbourhood had made similar propositions earlier, but Majukhatun had paid no attention to them. She had threatened to cut off the ears of the younger men who had approached her with less honourable intentions. But Motalef’s proposal was entirely different in nature. She couldn’t dismiss him the same way. Even if she could, what he had said kept coming back to her. No one hereabouts had such a honeyed tongue; no one was as handsome either.

Motalef had to visit her one or two more evenings before Majukhatun followed him to his house, dressed in a glittering blue sari and multicoloured glass bangles.

Motalef’s household was completely devoid of grace; things were strewn all over the place and there was dirt and grime everywhere. Wrapping the end of her sari round her waist, Majukhatun got down to domestic chores. She swept the yard clean, and scrubbed and swabbed the floor of the house till it shone.

But Motalef had no time for his home and his wife; his time was spent on trees. He had taken commissions for the trees owned by several others in the neighbourhood—the Boses and the Banerjees. He was busy tapping the trees, lowering the brimming pots and dividing up the syrup. He had made a canopy and makeshift walls with jute-stalks for Majukhatun in the western half of the yard. In this covered space Majukhatun built a row of ovens, on which she placed large earthen vessels and brought the syrup to a boil from morning till afternoon. Motalef brought sheaves of straw from the fields as kindling, dried palm tree branches too. But that was never enough. Majukhatun swept up dry leaves from people’s gardens and the jungle, bringing them home in baskets. In the late afternoon she chopped the branches with an axe to make kindling. Without rest and without a break, with no feeling of fatigue. Majukhatun had once again discovered work after her heart, as well as a man after her heart.

Motalef took the gur to nearby markets in baskets, selling it at high prices. He had the best gur in the marketplace. At dusk he went back to the trees to fix fresh pots. Funnels of bamboo hung from the trees for the juice to drip through. When he unfastened the pots in the morning, he left the funnels tied to the trees. Dirty juice accumulated in the funnels. At dusk he changed the funnels, made fresh cuts in the bark and left empty pots to collect the juice. The dirty juice gathered in the funnel did not go waste. It was boiled to make a different kind of gur, which was mixed with tobacco for hookahs. Even this sold in the market at five or six annas a seer. All this climbing up and down trees twice a day made Motalef pant heavily; even in the cold of December and January he perspired all over. Beads of sweat glistened on his hairy chest in the morning. The dew accumulated at night glistened on the blades of grass beneath his feet. Motalef’s neighbours were astonished when they saw him. He had always been hardworking, but no one had ever seen him toil morning to night with such enthusiasm, almost like a machine. What was going on? Tapping trees was indeed work that Motalef loved, but had he finally found a match for his heart too?

Motalef arrived at Elem Shaikh’s house in Charkhanda with two pots of the sweetest syrup from the best trees and about three seers of paatali gur. Greeting him, Motalef placed the offerings at Elem’s feet, and then pulled five ten-rupee notes from a knot in his lungi, saying, “Half in advance, mian sahib.”

“Advance for what?” asked Elem.

“For your daughter’s…” answered Motalef.

He had picked crisp notes for his offering. They weren’t even slightly frayed at the edges, and didn’t have a speck of dirt from his fingers on them. Fifty rupees in cash. Running his fingers over the notes, Elem said, “But what will I do with this advance now, mian? I believe you have already married Razek Mridha’s widow. Why should my daughter share a husband with someone else? Do you want them to quarrel and fight, and then kill each other one night?”

Motalef chuckled. “Don’t worry about that, mian sahib. Majukhatun will be in my home only as long as the sap lasts in the trees and winter lasts in our land. Everything will be cleared out as soon as the spring breeze starts blowing.”

Elem Shaikh offered Motalef a stool to sit on, and handed him his own hookah. “You are clear-headed, mian,” he said approvingly. “It’s a pleasure to work with you.”

Motalef received permission to meet Phulbanu. Not that Phulbanu hadn’t already eavesdropped on the entire conversation. But still she pouted when she saw Motalef. “Now who was being impatient, mian? Here I was waiting for you and you took someone else home.”

“What else could I have done?” Motalef said.

He had been forced to resort to this trick to maintain his honour, even to survive. How was he to live without someone at home to look after him? How was the gur to be made from the syrup without someone at home to do it? And how was his honour to be preserved if he couldn’t sell this gur and make some money?

“That’s all very well,” said Phulbanu. “Your honour is intact and you have survived. But how will you get rid of the scent of the other woman from your body?”

Although the thought occurred to Motalef, he did not actually say that the scent of a man or a woman did not remain on another’s body after they were gone; for if that were the case, Phulbanu would have had such a scent on her body too. But suppressing this retort, Motalef answered evasively, “Don’t worry about the scent Phul-bibi. I’ll get soap from the market and wait at the ghat for you. You can rub the scent off my body.”

“Oh really?” said Phulbanu, covering her mouth with the end of her sari.

“Do you think I’m lying?” said Motalef. “Smell me after that, you will only find the scent of my new woman. Just wait a couple of months more.”

“Don’t think I’m impatient,” Phulbanu assured him again.

Motalef was as good as his word. Phulbanu did not have to wait more than two months. As soon as Motalef had made another fifty rupees from selling gur, he gave a talaq to Majukhatun. He even informed his neighbours of the reason openly. Maju-bibi was not faithful to him. Her behaviour with Razek’s brother Waheed Mridha was objectionable.

“Shame,” said Majukhatun, biting her lips. “You are only handsome, Moti mian, but you aren’t good. So this is what you were plotting? You stuck to me like an ant for the gur, but now that the season is over, you’re kicking me out.”

But Motalef had neither the time nor the patience for all this.

The mango trees filled with buds, and the gaub trees, with tender copper-coloured leaves. Winter was followed by spring, and Majukhatun, by Phulbanu. She lived up to her name. Her face was like a flower; her breath carried the fragrance of flowers. “This time they are made for each other,” said the neighbours. “Now there truly is spring in his house.”

Motalef couldn’t be happier. He worked as a hired hand on the farms all day. And then, even before the sun had set, he had the end of Phulbanu’s sari in his hand. “Throw away all those pots and pans. Come sit by my side.”

“Patience,” giggled Phulbanu. “How did you get through all those months, mian?”

“With the trees,” answered Motalef.

Phulbanu almost choked in his strong arms. Catching her breath, she laughed. “Go back to the trees then. Only the trees can make love to you.”

“But the trees run out of juice in three months or four, Phul-jaan,” answered Motalef. “Only you keep oozing your juice year after year.”

Majukhatun took shelter again in Razek’s dilapidated hut. She had planned to go back to her old routine. But even if she managed to pass the day, the nights simply would not pass. Motalef had ruined her life. Neighbours described Motalef and Phulbanu’s home in great detail, adding their embellishments, and taking Motalef to task with what seemed to be amused indulgence, “The man is mad about his wife. He cannot talk of anyone else.”

Majukhatun’s felt her heart twist. She thought she would go mad with jealousy. That she would die of heartbreak.

A few days later, Razek’s elder brother Waheed carried a proposal to her. He had taken pity on her condition. Waheed was friends with Nadir Shaikh from Talkanda, across the river. Nadir was a boatman. His wife had died of cholera a month or so ago, leaving behind numerous children. The poor fellow was in trouble with them. He didn’t want a young wife. Someone like that might be a beautiful bride, but she wouldn’t be able to look after the children. He preferred a mature, serious woman, like Majukhatun. He would be able to depend on her.

“How old is he?” asked Majukhatun.

“About my age,” answered Waheed. “Fifty, maybe fifty-one.”

Majukhatun nodded happily—yes, this was what she wanted. She didn’t trust young men. She had no faith in youth.

“He isn’t a tree-tapper, is he?” Majukhatun asked. “He doesn’t go off to collect palm juice in winter, does he?”

“Why should he tap trees?” asked Waheed in surprise. “He doesn’t know how to do all that. He rows a boat in the monsoon, works as a farmhand in winter, thatches roofs too. Why, don’t you want to marry anyone besides a tree-tapper?”

Just the opposite, said Majukhatun. If she were to get married, it would only be to someone who had nothing to do with palm juice, someone who didn’t go anywhere near date palms in winter. She despised the whole business of palm syrup.

“Then shall I talk to Nadir?” asked Waheed. “He doesn’t want to wait.”

“No need to wait,” said Majukhatun.

It didn’t take very long. Everything was finalised within a week. Majukhatun climbed into a ferryboat with Nadir and crossed the river.

“Good riddance,” Motalef told his wife. “Her breathing sounded like a witch’s, she would heap curses on me all the time. We’re free of her now, aren’t we Phul-jaan?”

“Are you afraid of witches, mian?” Phulbanu laughed.

“Not anymore,” answered Motalef. “The witch is gone. Now all I see is a fairy. It’s the fairy I fear now.”

“Why, what are you afraid of the fairy for?”

“Shouldn’t I be afraid? What if the fairy spreads her wings and flies away?”

“No, mian, the fairy has no wish to fly anymore,” answered Phulbanu. “She’s got what she wants. So long as the man of the house doesn’t change his taste or the way he looks at her.”

“So long as he has eyes, the way he looks at her won’t change,” said Motalef.

Motalef treated his wife with great love and care. Before he went to the market he checked what kind of fish she wanted; if he couldn’t afford it, he borrowed to buy the fish. Eggs, vegetables, spices—he bought whatever he could for her. Also paan and everything else that went into it.

“Why do you bring so much paan?” Phulbanu asked. “You don’t care for it much, do you? All you do is smoke all the time.”

“The paan’s for you,” Motalef answered. “Have all the paan you can, I want your lips red.”

“Why, aren’t my lips red enough?” pouted Phulbanu. “You think I have to have paan to redden them? I’m going to make some for you, you’d better start. Your lips have turned black from smoking, you can redden them too.”

“Men’s lips don’t turn red from paan, Phuljaan,” smiled Motalef, “but from someone else’s reddened lips.”

Motalef did not own any land of his own. He sharecropped on some of the land owned by the Mullicks and Mukherjees. But he had no reputation as a skilful tiller, for his plots did not yield as much of a harvest as the others. He worked as a hired hand on the land owned by the Sikdars and Munshis, cutting, washing and spreading the jute out to dry. Hard labour. Motalef’s fair skin turned brown under the sun. Not much of the jute from sharecropping came home. The Sikdars and Munshis paid cash. Motalef only brought home some of the jute from the small plots owned by the Mullicks and Mukherjees which he sharecropped, piling a boat with it and arriving at the ghat on the canal. Phulbanu was very keen on sorting the jute. But Motalef didn’t let her touch it at first. “It’s hard work,” he said, “the smell will rub off on you.”

“What if it does?” Phulbanu said. “Here you are burning under the sun, and you think I cannot sort the jute because it will be hard on me. The things you say, mian.”

It wasn’t a large amount of jute that they could call their own—it didn’t yield many stalks to be used as fuel. Phulbanu wanted to sort the jute that other families got as their share of the crops, so that she could claim the stalks. But Motalef refused, for he wasn’t going to have his wife work so hard.

The paddy ripened around the middle of October. Motalef took a ride on someone else’s boat to work as a farmhand during the harvest. Standing in water up to his waist, he cut the paddy, loading the boat with bales of it. But his blade didn’t run as quickly as those of Momin or Karim or Hamid or Aziz. Motalef’s fingers were too slow, he was troubled by the water. One day he was attacked by a leech in his armpit. “Can’t you even get rid of the leech yourself, mian,” said Phulbanu as she prised it away. “You have hands, haven’t you?”

“The hands to cut the paddy with were with me,” answered Motalef, “but I forgot the one to get rid of the leech with.”

With great care, Phulbanu dabbed lime on the spots that the leech had sucked. Motalef worked on the paddy with four other farmhands, and got a fifth of the labourers’ share. He brought it home in a basket. Phulbanu cleaned it and put it out to dry. “Hard work, isn’t it, bou?” said Motalef.

“Yes, the hard work is killing me,” said Phulbanu. “Whom do you think you’re talking to, mian? Was I not born in an ordinary family? Or do you think I dropped from the sky?”

Spring passed, so did monsoon and autumn, and winter returned. The season of gur was the time for Motalef’s real business. But this time winter seemed to have arrived a little late. Never mind, Motalef would take on additional trees to compensate. The number of palm trees increased every year. Motalef was renowned in this line of work; he was the best in the village. This time, too, the Banerjees had thirty or so new trees.

Tree-tapping was on in full swing. Motalef had no time for a break or for rest; he didn’t even have the time for his love-games with Phulbanu. The loans had to be returned, and he had to put away enough money for the year from the sale of syrup and gur. Motalef slaved like a demon all day, falling asleep the moment he hit the bed. Phulbanu nudged and poked him, wrapped her arms around him, but it was like embracing a tree rather than a man. Motalef slept like the dead. Only his nose emitted a sound, but no other part of him responded. Phulbanu shivered even under a thick quilt. How could a quilt keep the cold out without a man’s warmth?

It wasn’t enough to get the juice home, kindling was also needed to bring it to boil for the gur. Motalef brought dry leaves and twigs home from wherever he could find them. “Boil the juice over and over,” he told Phulbanu. “The gur must be as sweet as you are, I want the best and tastiest to sell in the market.”

But Phulbanu turned pale when she saw the sheer quantity of syrup. She had made gur from a pot or two of juice at her father’s house, but she had never seen so much of it in one place, leave alone boil it to make gur.

Laughing at her apprehension, Motalef said, “Don’t worry, I’m here too—ask me if in doubt, I’ll tell you. The pot must bubble the way your heart does.”

But all the juice in Phulbanu’s heart evaporated as she sat by the ovens from morning till afternoon. The flames ran low, her beautiful face was scorched, but still the gur did not meet up to standards. The paatali remained soft; sometimes it was burnt and turned bitter.

“What kind of woman are you,” Motalef said roughly. “I explain everything to you, but you just don’t understand. Do you expect customers to spend their money on gur such as this?”

“Why won’t they?” Phulbanu tried to smile. “They’ll buy if you know how to sell.”

The smile didn’t please Motalef. “Then go sell it yourself in the market. They might buy it if they see a pretty face, because they certainly won’t buy the gur when they see it.”

Phulbanu was not an idiot, nor was she absolutely incompetent. With all the instructions and guidance, she learnt how to make passable gur in a few days. The gur was no longer unfit for selling. But the price couldn’t match last year’s, and buyers weren’t happy.

The regular customers stared at the gur and at Motalef alternately. “What kind of gur is this, mian? I bought some last market-day but it wasn’t as tasty as last year. I remember your gur then, the taste is still on my lips. But not this time. Chandan Shaikh and Madan Sikdar have better gur than yours this year.”

Motalef’s heart burned; he seethed with anger. His gur was not as tasty this year. Why? He wasn’t working any less hard. Why was his gur still not tasty, why couldn’t he charge a higher price for it, why weren’t people happy at its sight and after they had tried it, why was his gur not being praised? Why was he being made to listen to such criticism, for what?

In bed that night Motalef repeatedly explained the technique for bringing the syrup to a boil to Phulbanu. “You have to check the ladle continuously to see if it’s time to take it off the fire, if it’s time to pour it out of the vessel to set.”

“Yes, I know,” said Phulbanu glumly. “Stop chattering now, let me sleep.”

Motalef was suddenly reminded of Majukhatun. He had discussed the whole thing with her many times in bed. She had never snapped back, never complained about her sleep being disturbed. She had listened to him eagerly, joined the discussion happily.

The next day, Motalef appeared in the afternoon with a huge load of kindling. Putting it down near the makeshift room for the ovens, he asked, ‘What’s the gur like today, Phul-jaan?”

But there was no answer from Phulbanu. Calling her again and still getting no response, Motalef poked his head in through the door. But Phulbanu was nowhere to be seen. There was a strange smell—had the gur been burnt? The syrup was boiling and bubbling in five large pots all in a row. Motalef looked closely. Just as he had thought. The furthest pot had boiled over, and the gur had burnt a little, giving out the smell he had got. Motalef felt a red hot flash of rage in his chest. A scream tore out of his throat—“Where are you, bitch?”

Phulbanu emerged from the house hurriedly. She hadn’t been able to bathe for two days because she was working late into the afternoon. Her skin felt dry and bristly without bathing in winter. So she had used some soda and soap today and taken an early dip in the river. She had dressed in a blue sari after her bath. Drying her hair on the towel, Phulbanu was running a comb through it before she ran out at Motalef’s cry, still holding the comb. Her wet hair clung to her back. Motalef stared at her for a moment with his eyes blazing, and then grabbed a fistful of wet hair. “Bitch, the gur is burning and you have no idea, you’re busy dressing up, you think you’re a goddess stepped out of a painting, this is why my gur is bad, this is why I’m humiliated. I’ve earned a bad name everywhere because of you.”

“Don’t you dare touch my hair because of that,” Phulbanu kept saying. “Don’t you lay a hand on me.”

“I see, you’re too good to be beaten up by hand, are you?” Picking up a thin strip of bamboo lying on the floor, Motalef began to whip her all over. “Being beaten with a cane won’t rob the shaikh’s daughter of her honour, will it? It’s wrong to slap you, but not to whip you.”

Motalef had a foul temper. His anger was as terrible as his love was impatient and unreasonable.

Elem Shaikh arrived from Charkhanda when he heard. He threatened, scolded and shouted at his son-in-law, but didn’t spare his daughter either.

“Take me home with you, Abbajan,” Phulbanu told him. “I’m not going to live with a hot-tempered man like him.”

But Elem Shaikh persuaded his daughter to stay. If he gave in to her, Phulbanu would smell blood and demand a talaq again. But how could a girl from a family like theirs keep switching husbands and homes? How would that preserve her honour? If she could be a little patient, Motalef would soften on his own. They would make up soon. Domestic quarrels. Started by day, ended by night. Nothing to worry about.

It did end. Motalef made the first move to make up. He pleaded with Phulbanu to relent. She began making the gur again the next day. In the afternoon, Motalef took the gur to the market in his basket. Before leaving, he said, “Your troubles will be over once these two months have passed somehow, Phul-jaan.”

“What trouble?” said Phulbanu.

But this wasn’t sincere, just politeness. Neither of them seemed able to speak their hearts anymore. Their exchanges were different now, in form and in sound; and neither had any problem recognising this. The speaker knew it, and so did the listener.

The market days came and went, the season nearing its end; the fame of Motalef’s gur did not spread, and its price did not rise. Motalef no longer took Phulbanu to task over this when he came home; he only smoked in silence. The sap oozed out of the tree through the pipes into the pots. Motalef awoke at dawn to unfasten the pots brimming with syrup and bring them home, but he was neither as happy, nor as eager, as last year. His body was still soaked in perspiration, but his heart was as dry as jute stalks, as desolate as the roads in the afternoon sun. Pots of syrup lined the yard, a woman brimming over moved about the home, but still Motalef felt no fulfilment, still the world seemed empty.

One day he ran into Nadir Shaikh at the market.

“Salaam mian sahib.”

“Walaikum salaam.”

“All well, I hope?” said Motalef. “The children…”

About to ask after Majukhatun too, Motalef held back. “Yes mian, they’re all well,” Nadir smiled. “We’re surviving by god’s grace.”

After a little hesitation, Motalef said, “Why don’t you take a little gur for the children, mian? It’s good gur.”

“Of course it is,” Nadir smiled again. “Your gur has never been bad.”

“No mian, it’s not the same anymore,” Motalef blurted out suddenly.

Nadir looked at Motalef in surprise. What kind of a trader was he? Imagine criticising the very gur you’re trying to sell!

“How much?” asked Nadir.

“Never mind the price. I’m giving you two seers for the children. Tell them their uncle sent it for them.”

“No mian,” said Nadir anxiously. “You’re selling your gur, how can I take it without paying for it?”

“Why don’t you just take it and try it… you can always pay me next time,” Motalef told him.

The words seemed to stick in Motalef’s throat. He had to say such things to ensure sales, he had to sing praises to his own gur; but in his heart he knew he was lying. Customers would not buy his gur in any circumstances next season; they would not crowd around his baskets anymore.

After much coaxing, Nadir agreed to take one seer of gur free, but insisted on paying for the other two seers.

Majukhatun was furious when she heard. “Give the gur to your children if you wish, but if I am my father’s daughter I won’t touch it with my hands.”

Another market-day came, but Nadir did not go anywhere near Motalef. Majukhatun had forbidden him. “If you dare be nice to that man, I will leave your house. You won’t see me again in the morning.”

Nadir was terrified of Majukhatun. Her housework was very good and her conversation was pleasant, but when his wife lost her temper she took leave of her senses.

A few days later, Motalef climbed into a ferryboat with two pots of the best syrup from his two finest trees. He took the road past the shaggy jujube tree to enter Nadir’s front yard. “Are you home, mian?”

Nadir emerged from his room, holding his hookah. “Who is it? Oh, it’s you, mian. Please come in. Why did you bring all this, mian sahib?”

Nadir may have welcomed Motalef formally, but he grew apprehensive because of Majukhatun. The man his wife couldn’t stand was here in person. Who knew what awful things would happen now?

Just as Nadir had feared. When she spotted Motalef through the fence, Majukhatun summoned her husband inside. Then she said, making sure that Motalef heard, “Tell him to leave this house, tell him to leave at once. Does he have no shame? How dare he show up here?”

“Softly, bibi, speak softly,” Nadir whispered. “He’ll hear you. You can’t say such things about a visitor. We don’t even drive a dog out this way.”

“You don’t understand, mian, some people are worse than dogs, more dangerous than the devil,” said Majukhatun. “Ask him, does he have no fear, no shame, bringing syrup for me?”

Majukhatun didn’t say any of this softly—Motalef heard every word. But strangely, even such harsh and rude statements could not wound him. On the contrary, there was something loving in all the condemnation and abuses being heaped on him. Behind Majukhatun’s sharp, distorted tone was the voice of a hurt and deprived—and consequently unhappy—woman. Syrup was oozing out, drop by drop, at the touch of a sharp tool on the bark of the tree.

Climbing on the stoop outside the front door, Motalef put the pots down on the floor and called out to Nadir, “Just a minute, mian.”

Nadir emerged, looking embarrassed. “Sit down, mian. Here, have a smoke.”

Motalef accepted the hookah from Nadir, but didn’t draw on it immediately. Still holding it, he told Nadir, “Will you tell your wife something on my behalf?”

“Why not tell her yourself?” said Nadir. “Nothing wrong with that.”

“No, you tell her,” said Motalef. “I dare not. Tell her that Motalef mian knows better than to bring syrup for her.”

“Then what has he brought it for?” Majukhatun exclaimed inside the house before Nadir could reply.

Still looking at Nadir, Motalef answered, “Tell her that he has brought it for her to make a couple of seers of gur. Motalef mian will take the gur to the market. He will sell it to new customers. He has not been able to sell any good gur this year. He has tapped all the trees in vain.” Motalef’s voice sounded hoarse. Controlling himself, he was about to continue, when he suddenly spotted a pair of large black eyes on the other side of the fence, brimming with tears. He looked on in silence, unable to say anything more.

Nadir Shaikh seemed to wake up suddenly. “What’s wrong, mian, you’re just holding your hookah. Don’t you want to smoke? Has it gone out?”

Bringing the hookah up to his mouth, Motalef said, “No, mian-bhai, it hasn’t gone out.”

(First published in the November, 2012, issue of The Caravan)

The Actress: Narendranath Mitra

Film-director Animesh Chowdhury was in Chitpore to sign a contract with Malati Mullick. After years as an assistant director, he had finally been given the responsibility to direct a film on his own. But no one in this world was less keen on spending money than his producer Mani Poddar. He had appointed Animesh on the condition that he would make a good film without spending more than eighty or eighty-five thousand rupees. Animesh knew, of course, that the figure would eventually touch a hundred thousand. But still, he was careful from the start. This meant a great deal of running about and hard work; even though he could have got others to do some of it, Animesh insisted on doing everything himself.

Not that Malati was not particularly well-known for her acting skills. She got by somehow. But the role selected for her was a minor one.  A brief appearance as the wife of an unemployed man and mother of a sick child – the youngest daughter-in-law of the family. Two or three days of shooting in all. Even second-rung actresses would demand a large fee for such a role. He would get Malati quite cheaply in comparison. That’s what his friends had said. But when he went to Malati’s house in the evening she wasn’t there. ‘Didimoni has gone out with babu in the car,’ her maid said with a smile. ‘I have no idea when she’ll be back.’

Scribbling the name of the studio and the hour at which Malati could meet him, an irritated Animesh left. My evening’s ruined, he thought to himself.

An old friend of his named Binoy Chakraborty lived nearby, on Jai Mitra Street. His wife Lavanya always welcomed Animesh warmly when he visited, offering him tea and lavishing attention on him. In return, Animesh gave them passes to the movies. Since it had been a while since he had last visited them, he decided to drop in.

A lane that grew increasingly narrower. The ground floor of an old house. Binoy lived in virtual penury. He didn’t have a decent job. But still Animesh enjoyed spending an hour or two at this destitute friend’s home. What he got here was the taste of unaffected sincerity. Lavanya could never offer him anything more than a cup of tea and a chapati or two with vegetables, or perhaps some halwa if it happened to be early in the month. But she took such care of him – and was so happy to see him – that it was as though a celebrity had appeared unexpectedly at their home.

There was an argument of some sort going on inside, subsiding when he knocked on the door a couple of times. ‘Who is it?’ said Binoy, opening the door.

‘Come in,’ he said when he saw Animesh. But there was no warmth in the invitation – Binoy sounded miserable, his expression morose.

Lavanya looked glum as well. Things were strewn around the room. Binoy’s shirt was rolling in the dust. Each half of his pair of shoes was in a different corner. Binoy’s dark-skinned son of three, his head shaven, had picked up one of the shoes. A couple of small paper packets lay on the floor. One of them had burst, spilling some dal.

Animesh had no trouble concluding that there had been something of a fracas a few minutes ago.

After a single look at Animesh, Lavanya swiftly began to clean up the room in silence.

‘Did I spoil all the fun?’ asked Animesh. ‘Domestic strife seemed to have been at its peak when I turned up. Has quarrelling become second nature to you, Binoy?’

Making room for his friend on the bed, Binoy felt in his pocket for a cigarette and tried to hand it to Animesh.

‘Have one of mine,’ said Animesh, offering his packet of Gold Flakes.

Lighting up and taking a couple of drags, Binoy said, ‘Do you think I enjoy these arguments and scenes every day? But if one’s wife is going to be so adamant, how is one supposed to cope? Are we the only ones to have a child? Or is a child not allowed to fall ill? But does anyone’s wife bicker over medicine and food? One can only do as much as is humanly possible. If you pressure someone…’

‘Who’s pressuring whom, Animesh-da?’ Lavanya flared up. ‘We nearly lost our son to typhoid this time. Anyone who set eyes on him looked away, no one had imagined we’d be able to save him.

Lavanya suddenly pulled her son up from the floor with a jerk, forcing him to stand in front of Animesh. ‘Just look at the state he’s in. Does he even look like a human being anymore? He’s still limping. I took him to the doctor yesterday. He said he won’t get better unless we can give him nutritous food. If his general health improves, so will his limp. So I asked for a tin of Ovaltine. That a man can be so angry because of this, use such bad language…’

Lavanya stopped. The sudden jerk on his arm had probably hurt the child. Just as he was about to start crying, Lavanya took him in her arms, saying lovingly, ‘No, you can’t cry with your uncle in the room. What will he say? He’ll say bad things about your everywhere. Do you know what lovely pictures he takes? You must take a nice picture of our Bintu.’

Lavanya smiled faintly.

This unexpected smile appeared beautiful to Animesh. Binoy’s wife was almost lovely in comparison to their son. She was fair, with sharp features. Her face was more than just a little attractive. She was about twenty-five or twenty-six. Tall and slim, she showed none of the ill effects of poverty. Such a frail son in Lavanya’s arms seemed incongruous. But motherhood made her appear even more graceful.

When Lavanya saw Animesh staring at her, she lowered her eyes in embarrassment. ‘You don’t visit us anymore these days, I believe you’re a director now…’

‘I am,’ answered Animesh with a smile.

Then he looked at his friend. ‘Really, this is no way to behave, Binoy – you need to take care of your son now. He’s barely recovered from a serious illness. Why didn’t you get the Ovaltine that Boudi had asked for?’

‘Why didn’t you get it,’ echoed a harrassed Binoy. ‘Do you suppose the order was just for a tin of Ovaltine? Biscuits for the boy, half a kilo of dal, tea – and all this at the end of the month. Tell me which of them I should have got. There would be hell to pay for whatever I couldn’t get, and if you’re going to talk of looking after the child, he’s not exactly being neglected, considering his father is only a clerk who earns seventy rupees a month.’

Tapping his cigarette ash on the floor, Binoy smiled peculiarly. ‘If she wanted to lavish more attention on her child, instead of having a clerk’s child she could have married a rich man and given birth to children in his home.’

‘Just listen to him talk,’ exclaimed Lavanya.

‘What is this, Binoy!’ Animesh chided his friend. ‘When did you learn to be so vulgar? Shame on you!’

Embarassed, Binoy was silent.

Animesh threw his friend a look of genuine compassion. It wasn’t just the things he was saying that were so coarse, even his appearance had changed for the worse. He couldn’t have been older than thirty-one or thirty-two, but his sunken cheeks and jutting jaw made him look as though he had long crossed over into the forties.

‘Have you managed some kind of part-time job, Binoy?’ asked Animesh.

‘No,’ Binoy shook his head. ‘I asked you many times…’

‘I tried,’ said Animesh, ‘but in our line…’

Taking some tea, sugar and two cups from the shelf, Lavanya went out through the back door. Her son limped behind her.

‘Must you tag along?’

Looking over her shoulder, Lavanya smiled at Animesh again. ‘It’s so difficult, he just won’t let me out of his sight for even a moment.’

Animesh noticed that she picked the boy up in her arms as soon as they went out.

‘You’re a director now, Animesh,’ said Binoy. ‘Give me a role or two. I could do with ten or twenty rupees.’

Animesh laughed. ‘Give you a role? You can barely talk to anyone properly, and you expect to act! The only role I can give you is a dead soldier’s, Binoy.’

Upon being mocked, Binoy looked at his friend steadily, and then smiled. ‘There’s nothing new about a dead soldier’s role, I play the part already. All you’ve done is to shoot a dead man. That’s all.’

Entering the room with two cups of tea, Lavanya smiled. ‘Now he’s quarrelling with you, isn’t he? So bad-tempered. He can’t pass a minute without quarrelling.’

Taking a sip, Animesh said to the smiling Lavanya, ‘Binoy wasn’t quarrelling, he was asking me for a role. What I say is, Binoy is no good, but you might just be able to do it, Boudi. Yes, you will be able to do it. Want to try?’

Lavanya smiled too. ‘Really? All right, give me a role, Animesh-da. When you’re the director, how can I not act?’

‘I’m not joking,’ said Animesh, ‘I mean it.’ Looking at Binoy, he said, ‘I’m serious, Binoy. If you agree we can give Boudi a small role.’

‘Really?’ smiled Binoy.

Animesh explained his plan. Why was Binoy laughing? What was wrong with the idea? Women from decent families were getting into acting these days. A very small role, no hanky-panky. Animesh would ensure that it was suitable for Lavanya. He would have her act as the mother of a sick child. Not more than three or four shots in all. And very little dialogue. Just one encounter with her husband. The other scenes would be with her son and an elderly doctor. Binoy and Animesh would both be present at the studio. Animesh would include Binoy’s son Bintu too. Lavanya would not have to do anything more than taking care of her child in front of the camera, just as she did in real life. She would have to be at the studio no more than three days in all. Animesh would persuade the producer to make a payment of three hundred rupees.

Three hundred rupees! Lavanya couldn’t breathe. So much! All the money they had borrowed for Bintu’s treatment could be returned. They would still have enough left over for some nutritious food for him, and new clothes. Lavanya would open a savings account for him too with twenty-five rupees. She had heard that rich people’s children had money in the bank. She wouldn’t let Binoy touch the money. But if all three hundred were paid at once she would have to buy Binoy something too, for he would be jealous otherwise. He didn’t have clothes he could wear to someone’s house, she would get some for him. Binoy was very keen on a cigarette-case, Lavanya would buy him one. She didn’t have a single decent sari in the suitcase. Not that she was going to ask for one – if Binoy chose to get her some, that was different. Lavanya did know that the first thing he would try to buy on getting some money would be saris for her.

‘You’re joking,’ said Lavanya inaudibly.

‘No Boudi, not at all,’ replied Animesh. ‘If you agree, I’ll make the arrangements.’

‘But what will people say?’ said Lavanya.

‘Why should they say anything?’ answered Animesh. ‘What’s wrong with this? Besides, you needn’t use your own name if you don’t want to. We can use a different name, not Lavanya.’

Before he left, Animesh entreated his friend once more. Let them think it over at night. But they would have to give their word to him by ten the next morning. If Binoy wasn’t willing, Animesh would sign a contract with someone else. He couldn’t delay this. Half the shooting was done. He had to finish the other half within a month.

Lavanya and Binoy both walked Animesh to the front door.

‘But do you think I can do it?’ asked Lavanya. ‘You’ll show me what to do, won’t you?’

‘Of course,’ Animesh told her. ‘What can I possibly teach you about how a mother takes care of her child, or how she feels when her son is severely ill?’

The next morning Binoy informed Animesh that Lavanya had agreed. ‘But it would be best to change her name,’ he added.

‘Is that what you want, or what she wants?’ asked Nimesh with a smile. ‘When Boudi becomes famous, she may regret having changed her name. Anyway, all that will come much later. We’ll see then.’

Malati arrived at the studio the next afternoon. She was over thirty. The signs of intemperance were evident on her face, although she had desperately tried to conceal them under a thick layer of powder. With lipstick, a loud sari, and her jewellery and hairdo, she was clearly trying to establish herself as eighteen.

Frowning, Animesh said, ‘You’re too late, Miss Mullick. I’ve taken someone else.’

‘What!’ said Malati. ‘You’d said to meet you at noon at the studio today. It’s five to twelve.’

She held her watch up to Animesh.

‘I had to sign the contract this morning,’ said Animesh. ‘I was in a big hurry. We’re resuming the shooting tomorrow, you see. Besides, when I thought it over I realised a mother’s role wouldn’t have suited you. If there’s a suitable role for you we’ll certainly…’

Malati said, her face contorted with rage, ‘I’ve seen hundreds of small-time directors like you, Animesh-babu. You’ve gone from photographer to director. A dwarf reaching for the moon. You think no end of yourself now. Wouldn’t have suited me! And why not, exactly? Never mind a mother – an aunt, a grandmother, a sister, you name it, I can play it. If I want to. But no one has managed to make me play such roles yet. I wanted to act in your film out of my own choice. By all means don’t sign me on, but as the saying goes, one swallow doesn’t make a summer.

Malati raved for some more time before storming out.

Binoy had brought Lavanya and their son to the studio for Animesh to show them around. Lavanya was amazed at the sight of the make-up and euipment. Even the lethargic and feeble Bintu was excited, babbling away unintelligibly in his mother’s arms, waving his hands.

There was just a day to go. No time to rehearse. This was how it was in films. Animesh was used to setting things up quickly, but still he found the time to visit Lavanya at home and make her rehearse the scene. The son had a couple of lines of dialogue, but because Bintu had not yet learnt to speak any words besides Baba and Ma, Animesh cut them out of the script. His crippled, repulsive appearance was a big asset for the film. He wouldn’t need to speak.

Animesh escorted Binoy and Lavanya to the studio himself in a car the next day. They ran into Malati at the entrance.

‘Ah, you here, Miss Mullick?’ asked Animesh, courteously sympathetic. ‘Got an assignment today?’

‘I came for a look at your new star,’ replied Malati. ‘That’s an assignment too.’ She peeped into the car with envious eyes. Lavanya looked away.

When she had left, Lavanya said, ‘Who was she? How she was staring! And so much make-up. Shame! Who was she?’

‘Not an easy customer, Boudi,’ said Animesh with a smile. ‘She was about to get your role. You didn’t notice, but Binoy was staring at her too.’

‘What rubbish,’ said an embarrassed Binoy.

Animesh had informed the producer in advance. Lavanya would not be as expensive as Malati. And besides, it would help the publicity for the film. What could be better advertisement than the fact that a beautiful housewife from a decent family had acted in it with her own son!

Animesh introduced Lavanya to Mani-babu. A pleasant face. Mani Poddar was happy. ‘Very nice,’ he said. ‘Lakshmi herself has deigned to step into my hut, Animesh-babu. How pale she looks, poor thing. Please take her to the refreshment room at once.’

The sets were put up. Nothing very lavish. The home of a poor lower-middle class family. Animesh practically recreated the kind of room Lavanya was used to seeing every day. The sick child lay on a tattered mattress and sheet on the floor. Her irresponsible, jobless coward of a husband was on the run. The doctor had refused to pay a visit unless he was paid his fees. There was neither anyone to send to the doctor, nor any money to pay him. All that the mother could do was look helplessly at her child. Her only jewellry were the traditional iron and shell bangles of the married woman. There was still a thin chain around the child’s neck. She had put it on him because he had been crying for it. How could she take the gold away from her golden child? But she had no choice. Stealing her son’s chain of gold, she went out into the storm to fetch the doctor.

This was the action to be shot on the first day. Animesh explained the entire scene to Lavanya over and over again. But she simply couldn’t get it right. Her face seemed unperturbed, without any misery, despair or rage showing. She appeared virtually expressionless. Her embarrassment and diffidence at being started at by several men was obvious. Lavanya kept trying to cover her head with the end of her sari. Eventually an irritated Animesh admonished her, ‘You don’t have the time to be embarrassed. Your son has malignant malaria. Worse even than typhoid. He might die within twenty-four hours. Go sit next to him, show your anxiety.’

But on the sets Lavanya’s hands and feet shook, and her lips trembled uncontrollably. She was gripped by a strange fear. It was not the fear of her son’s dying. Even if she somehow managed to sit by his side, her stiffness simply would not leave her. Sitting beside her son, Lavanya picked up a fan only to put it down immediately. ‘Is that how you fan someone?’ Animesh barked at her. ‘Your son is dying…’

‘No,’ said Lavanya, shaking her head.

After trying for an hour, Animesh gave up. ‘Can’t do it,’ he said helplessly.

Lavanya lowered her eyes in repentance.

Malati Mullick was sitting next to Mani Poddar. She had stuffed her handkerchief into her mouth at Animesh and Lavanya’s exploits. But her laughter wasn’t quite stifled.

‘See us through this time, Miss Mullick,’ said Mani-babu. ‘I don’t want the shooting to be delayed.’

Malati said, ‘I can, but not a penny less than a thousand.’

‘That’s all right,’ said Mani, ‘don’t worry on that score. If it gets late, I’ll drop you home in my own car.’

With a look at the old man with grey hair, Malati smiled knowingly. ‘Very well, but for now please hold on to my vanity bag, and get me the contract to sign.’

Malati returned from the make-up room in ten minutes, dressed in a cheap, dirty sari. A poverty-afflicted housewife with no adornment except the signs of her marriage. ‘Where’s the child then, Mr Director?’ she asked Animesh.

They would have to make do with Binoy’s son for the day, for there was no other child in the studio. Binoy agreed out of courtesy.

Malati wrinkled her nose when she saw the boy. ‘Is this your idea of a child, Mr Director? Is the best you could do after all this effort? What else can one expect from an amateur director? But how will I play his mother – even the thought of touching him makes my stomach turn.’

But on the sets Malati’s behaviour changed completely. When Bintu started crying, Malati distracted him with money and toys. Then began the process of caring for her sick child. Onlookers were entranced at the mother’s terrified, overwhelmed expression of anxiety and apprehension. Everyone felt that Malati’s suggestions were far superior to Animesh’s direction.

In between, Malati said with a smile, ‘Please don’t mind, Mr Director, but you are at best his adopted father, while I am his actual mother. How will you know better than me what I need to do?’

Malati acted brilliantly in the scene where she took the chain from her son. Exclaiming, ‘How can I bring myself to steal a chain from my darling’s throat?’ she stifled her tears so realistically that even Mani Poddar’s eyes misted over.

The cameraman shot the scene happily. Everyone agreed that the scene would be one of the strongest points of the film.

Getting off the sets with tears in his eyes, Malati stretched her hand out to Mani Poddar. ‘My cheque?’

‘I’m very pleased,’ said Animesh in satisfaction. ‘How did you manage to play a mother’s role so well?’

‘Out of jealousy, Mr Director, jealousy,’ smiled Malati. ‘You cannot act without the help of alcohol and malevolence. Have you finally realised who Bintu’s real mother is, and who the stepmother?’ With a sidelong glance at Lavanya, who sat with her head bowed, Malati told Mani, ‘Arrange for the car, Mani-babu. I’ll be back in a minute from the make-up room.’

Animesh offered to drop Lavanya and Binoy home too, but both of them refused. They didn’t need a car, the tram would be just fine. Animesh tried to wedge a ten-rupee note into Bintu’s hand, but Lavanya didn’t accept that either. ‘Give the money back and touch your uncle’s feet, Bintu, there’s no need to take it. When he brings you toffees later, you can take those.’

‘I apologise, Boudi,’ said Animesh.

‘There’s no need,’ answered Lavanya.

The film ran quite successfully for four weeks. Animesh’s first film had passed muster. Friends asked for passes and praised it afterwards. Only Binoy did not watch the film. Concluding that Binoy and Lavanya were embarrassed, Animesh went to his friend’s house one evening with a couple of passes.

Binoy looked even more gaunt. His clothes were the worse for wear. The room seemed emptier than earlier. Some of the furniture was missing, but still Binoy said, pretending to be happy at his friend’s visit, ‘Come on in. I thought you had abandoned us.’

‘Your film’s made quite a name for itself, I believe,’ said Lavanya.

‘Why believe in rumours,’ said Animesh. ‘Watch it for yourself. After which you can praise it or damn it, as you wish. Come my little king, come to me. Here are passes for all of you. Check for yourself how well you acted. You didn’t let me have him, Boudi, I had to go to a lot of trouble to find another child.’

Animesh looked at the sick, unclothed child. His leg seemed even more emaciated.

‘Isn’t he well yet, Boudi?’ he asked. “Did he fall ill again…’

Before he could finish, there was a knock on the door, accompanied by a deep voice asking, ‘Is Binoy-babu home? Binoy-babu?’

Binoy looked at this wife and whispered, ‘Damn. Animesh is the root cause of all the trouble, else I could have slipped away by now – he wouldn’t have found me home.’

‘Who is it?’ asked Animesh.

Binoy continued whispering. ‘Gobindo Pramanik, the landlord. He’s here for the rent. He’s making my life miserable, but what can I do – I haven’t a penny. Didn’t even get my full salary this month, since I’d taken advance payment.’ To his wife he said, ‘Tell him I’m not home.’

Lavanya glanced at Animesh.

‘No need to be embarrassed by Animesh,’ said Binoy. ‘We’re childhood friends. Tell him I’m not home. No one can beat Lavanya when it comes to getting rid of creditors, Animesh.’

Levelling a long look at him, she said, ‘Why will he believe me? He’s heard your voice already.’

Binoy lay down flat, drawing the sheet over himself. ‘Then tell him I’m very ill.’

Lavanya had a conversation in a low voice with the stranger at the front door. Then she returned with a middle-aged man in tow. ‘Come in, Kakababu. He’s too ill to get out of bed.’

Gobindo Pramanik the landlord came up to the middle of the room.

He was about fifty. Tall, well-built, and greying. Two of the shirt buttons near his belly were undone.

Binoy had turned on his side by now, still wrapped in the sheet. ‘What’s the matter, Binoy-babu?’ asked Gobindo-babu, looking at Lavanya. ‘Have you got a fever?’

Taking a step forward, he was about to touch Binoy’s forehead with his hand.

‘No Kakababu, it isn’t fever,’ answered Lavanya. ‘He doesn’t bother about fever. He’s been to the toilet at least twenty-five times since last night.’

Gobindo-babu retreated. ‘Really?’

‘Yes, at least twenty-five times,’ confirmed Lavanya. ‘Maybe more. He could barely get out of bed towards the end. I’m very worried, Kakababu. These are bad times.’

Animesh observed genuine terror and anxiety on Lavanya’s face for her husband. She didn’t seem to have got over yesterday’s fear.

‘There’s reason to be worried. People are falling seriously ill all over. Just diorrhoea, or vomiting too?’

‘Yes, voming too eventually,’ responded Lavanya. ‘Not a soul to turn to for help, no money – I just didn’t know what to do. Finally I sent word to my uncle. You know of Doctor Madhu of Shyambazar, don’t you? He’s my uncle. He panicked at first. Then by the grace of god… Have you seen the state he’s in Kakababu? Just two days.’

Lavanya moved the sheet off Binoy.

‘Did he eat something that didn’t agree with him?’ asked Gobondo-babu. ‘Even if he didn’t, you can never tell where the human body is concerned. Something can always go wrong.’

Lavanya placed her hand lovingly on her husband’s brow. ‘Are you asleep? Kakababu’s here to see you.’

Stopping her, Gobindo-babu said, ‘Never mind, no need to wake him up. I was going to talk about the rent. But no need to bring it up today. Although it’s been two months. Binod came a couple of days, but Binoy-babu wasn’t home.’

‘He will go to your house himself and pay the rent as soon as he’s a little better, Kakababu,’ said Lavanya. ‘No need to send Vinod. He’s a schooboy, he shouldn’t be missing his studies.’

Turning to Animesh, Lavanya said, ‘He’s a wonderful boy. I’ve seen many boys and girls, but no one as well-behaved as Binod. Kakababu’s one regret is that he’s not doing well in school. Failed not once but twice in Class Ten. But so what? Is education everything in a man’s life? And I can see very well what use a good education is. What matters is a person’s nature, don’t you agree? If you’re honest and tell the truth…’

‘Of course,’ said Animesh, gulping.

Lavanya introduced Gobindo-babu to Animesh. ‘He’s a very famous director,’ she said. ‘I know you don’t watch films, but the cinema people all know his name. They’re childhood friends. He heard of his illness and came to find out how he is.’

A little later Gobindo-babu said, ‘I have to go. Please don’t forget…’

‘Of course not,’ said Lavanya. ‘He will meet you as soon as he recovers. But you can’t leave just yet, Kakababu. Let me get you a cup of tea. You like tea, don’t you.’

Gobindo-babu said a trifle apprehensively, ‘Not today, never mind the tea, I don’t drink much tea nowadays.’

‘Very well,’ said Lavanya. ‘I won’t insist today Kakababu. The way things are, it’s best to take precautions and avoid contamination. But you must have a cup of tea another day. Promise before you go, Kakababu.’

Lavanya was smiling, her tone childishly demanding.

‘All right. Another day.’ Gobindo-babu left through the front door.

Kicking his sheet away, Binoy sat up. ‘Did you see that?’ he asked his friend. ‘I’m as good a director as you are.’

Animesh had been silent with astonishment all this time.

Animesh was hestitant to say anything at first, but, relieved by Binoy’s casual air, he tried to behave normally too. ‘That’s true,’ he said. ‘But the real credit goes to Boudi. Such an expert actress doesn’t need a director.’

He turned to Lavanya. ‘You’re as good as Malati Mullick in every way. But why did you panic the other day?’

Giving Animesh a long look, Lavanya offered an odd smile. ‘Malati would also have panicked had she been here. Even she wouldn’t have been capable of this.’

Startled by her choked voice, both the friends turned to look at her. The smile was intact at the corner of Lavanya’s lips. But why were her eyes moist?

The Girlfriend: by Narendranath Mitra

After office, Bibhupada paused at the magazine stand at Esplanade. Several other people had gathered there too. All kinds of magazines in different languages – English, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu – were available. Different readers with different tastes, they were all to be found here. Most of the customers were leafing through the magazines, they did not seem to have any intention of buying them. Some had opened the film magazines to gape at the actresses’ photographs inside. They wouldn’t relinquish the magazines until the shopkeeper snarled at them. There were all kinds of people in the world. Some people were utterly shameless. But those who only looked discreetly did feel embarrassed. You could spot all sorts of characters if you stopped by such shops sometimes. Watching people’s behaviour dispassionately could be quite interesting. Time flew by quickly and besides, you could add to your experiences without much effort. But Bibhupada was not particularly interested in augmenting his experiences at this moment. He kept scanning the roads. How could you relax when someone who was supposed to have arrived at ten, or at most a quarter, past five was still not here at five-thirty? Bibhupada could not relax either. What was taking Sheela so long? She was never so late. In fact, sometimes she arrived five or six minutes early and waited for him. It was Bibhupada who was late at times. But it was just the opposite today, he had arrived first, counting the minutes and seconds as he waited, but the leader had become the laggard. Bibhupada glanced at his watch once more. Five-forty. No, Sheela probably wouldn’t come today.
And yet Sheela herself had made this appointment two days earlier. She would meet him here at Esplanade at a quarter past five. They would cross the road and enter one of the restaurants on the eastern side, sit in one of the curtained-off cabins and eat something. A ‘chop’ or a cutlet with tea – whichever Sheela preferred. There were days when her face suggested she was famished after a hard day’s work at the office. On such days he ordered curry and rotis for her instead of a cutlet. He himself was a small eater. He didn’t eat meat very often, neither enjoying it, nor able to digest it well. But Bibhupada loved to play host to those who ate well, those who loved eating. After the meal, they would take a walk by the river. Or stop at Eden Gardens to chat. Bibhupada preferred good old Eden Gardens to the modern Dhakuria Lakes. The memory of his youth was entwined around this garden. In his college days he had been here often with his classmates, they would discuss and argue over things for hours on end. All those friends had become invisible now. Some of them were physically present in the city, of course, but Bibhupada was no longer in touch with them. This was probably the law of ageing. Bibhupada had not yet crossed fifty, but the world had already created a forest for him to retire into. People don’t have to go the Dooars or to the jungles of Madhya Pradesh in search of forests, their friends and family themselves turn into trees and mountains and cliffs. Those who can find glades or hermitages amidst those forests can survive, the rest have to spend the rest of their lives battling with the beasts in the jungle. Bibhupada had those battles too. He had cliques to fight at the office. Even if you did not want to attack others you had to defend yourself from them. He could not afford everything his family needed, he had to wage a superhuman struggle every day to keep the expenses of feeding, clothing, supporting and educating his wife and children under control. It wasn’t as though the engine of the household didn’t threaten to break down now and then. But even amidst all this Bibhupada had still managed to create a small glade, an arbour for himself. The name of that flower-bedecked garden of eternal spring was Sheela Dattagupta.
Actually, this flower-bedecked dell was also a creation of Bibhupada’s own fancies, desires and dreams. For Sheela was neither beautiful, nor in possession of the unbridled physical exuberance of youth. Her oval face was sweet, however. Looking into her large black eyes made Bibhupada think of a sea of dreams. But there was none of the infinite lustre of the young woman in Sheela’s underdeveloped, tall, slender frame. Just as she came from a poor family, so too did she lack in physical beauty. Sheela could at least have been a little prettier, Bibhupada would have enjoyed the vision of her a little more had she been a little more comely in appearance. But since she was not, there was no use ruing it! There was no choice but to accept that, man or woman, no one had any control over their own beauty, everything here was subservient to nature, dependent on it. Nature bestowed attractiveness in abundance on some people, to others she gave but a few drops of it, to yet others not even that. Of course, no one considered it nature’s whimsy any more. Biology must have a logical explanation for why a particular young woman is not beautiful. But how would Bibhupada benefit from memorising this explanation. After all, he could not use it to transform a homely woman into a beautiful one. He could, however, sit by her side in silence on a bench in the Eden Gardens in the dim, dark evening, or take her hand in his while sitting on the paved ground by the river and gazing at the stars in the sky, the current in the river and the endless necklace of light in the distance, crossing the frontier of death to be transcended into an infinite realm of beauty beyond it. 
Bibhupada had similar expectations of this evening. After a cup of tea with Sheela he would take her out. If a taxi was to be found a taxi it would be, else a phaeton or even a rickshaw would do. Sheela was afraid of riding in a phaeton. Who knew what tales she had heard, but a deep terror about phaetons had been entrenched in her. Apparently, to ride in those carriages was to court extreme danger. The coachman would spirit them away somewhere, extort money from them, who knew, he could rob and plunder them too.  Still, Bibhupada had managed to get Sheela into a phaeton on a few occasions. He had no objections to the phaeton. He was content with any manner of transportation except the bullock-cart. As long as he had company, he never bothered about where and how he was travelling. He lost himself completely in his female companion. And it was to lose himself for some time that he sought a companion. The woman was just the pretext. Whether she was beautiful or not was irrelevant, a feminine name was sufficient.
Bibhupada had decided not to insist on anything too strongly today. There was no hope of securing a taxi after five in the evening. If Sheela did not want to get into a phaeton, let her not. If she was embarrassed to take a rickshaw, if she was afraid of being seen by someone she knew, he wouldn’t summon a rickshaw. He would walk down to the river with her. They would sit side by side on the steps leading down to the water, gaze at the sky, the water. The sight of ships floating on the water would make them dream of travelling to a distant land. They wouldn’t even realize how an hour or two would pass in a flash. Then, on the way back, if they were fortunate enough to find a taxi they would take it; if not, a rickshaw; if that wasn’t available either, there was always the footbus. At Esplanade he would see Sheela off into a bus for Shyambazar and himself take a tram to Kalighat.
Not every day – Bibhupada’s routine of the restaurant followed by a promenade with his young girlfriend took place two or three, or at most four, times a month. It did mean some expenses, of course. He compensated for it by being a spendthrift in other ways. Bibhupada never tired of the taste of mixed fear, apprehension, affection and love secreted in these assignations. In fact, the warmth he gathered from his intimate proximity to a young woman supplied him with energy for the entire week.
Colleagues of his age had an inkling of what was going on. There was much joking and laughter over this weakness of his.
‘Well, Majumdar, how is the evening promenade going?’ some would ask. ‘How do you manage? Doesn’t Mrs Majumdar suspect anything? Doesn’t she create a scene?’
Bibhupada wouldn’t answer clearly. ‘What rubbish you people talk,’ he would smile.
‘This is the real elixir of life,’ Sehanobish from accounts would observe. ‘Haven’t you seen how Majumdar doesn’t have a single grey hair even though he’s over fifty? How well he has maintained his body – strong, robust, proud. All thanks to those evening promenades.  The blessing of the female company he keeps.’
Bibhupada neither admitted nor denied any of this. ‘What rubbish,’ he protested mildly, embarrassed.
Bibhupada knew that Sheela’s company brought him warmth and joy. She had a lovely, melodious voice. He would express his regret that she had not trained to become a singer despite such a beautiful voice.
Making do with sugar in the absence of honey, Bibhupada would cajole her to recite poetry if she wouldn’t sing. Sheela seldom complied with his request. ‘I simply cannot memorise poetry,’ she would say, ‘I’m just not up to that kind of thing.’
Still, it was a sweet melody that floated into Bibhupada’s ears. Even a discussion on the price of eggs in that voice sounded like poetry. The young woman was bereft of most qualities, the only fortune she possessed was an exquisite voice.
Bibhupada moved away from the magazine-stand and continued to wait. When it turned ten past six, there was no more hope. Sheela wasn’t coming this evening. But if she wasn’t going to come she could easily have telephoned. The phone was within easy reach. Didn’t she remember he was waiting for her? Surely Sheela had no idea how difficult it was to just wait for someone for an hour or more.
Bibhupada walked up to Curzon Park and sat down on a bench. It had another shareholder, who stood up immediately, relinquishing his rights. Bibhupada was pleased at being able to occupy an entire bench all by himself. He would sit here for a while. Not for any other reason, but simply to wait for the trams and buses to become a little less packed. Once the crowd thinned down, Bibhupada would be able to take a tram easily, even find a seat. That would be his only gain today.
The rest of the time had proved a complete loss. Was Bibhupada still young enough to waste his time in expectation of the arrival of a woman? He could have used the time in other ways. If he had behaved like the perfect head of the family instead and bought a whole fish from the market on his way back home, his wife and children would have been pleased. The evening would have passed pleasantly enough over a cup of tea in the company of his near and dear ones. Bibhupada would have been spared this feeling of hopelessness, depression and humiliation.
Really, Bibhupada himself didn’t know what attraction had kept him chained, why he had made a rather ordinary young woman an intrinsic part of his life. He had known Sheela for about three years – but had their relationship progressed in this long period anywhere beyond spending some time together, having a cup of tea, chatting, or, rarely, watching a film? Sheela hadn’t allowed it to. And Bibhupada had not had the courage to proceed against her will. It wasn’t just a lack of courage either. His sensibilities had prevented him. What was the point of forcing himself on her, he had concluded. If it had just been a case of physical desire, there were other ways to attend to it. But Bibhupada did not seek naked fulfilment of his libido. He preferred to keep his desire hidden under beautiful multicoloured wrapping. He could not possibly throw away his dignity before a woman half his age. It was better to bear the agony of remaining unfulfilled than to lose his prestige before a modern young woman.
‘Really, I have never had a friend like you,’ Sheela had often told him. ‘I don’t have even one other well-wisher like you.’
Bibhupada had had to remain content with such faint praise.
‘Believe me,’ Sheela had said, ‘I cannot go to anyone as freely as I can to you. I don’t wander around the city with anyone else, I don’t spend hours altogether chatting with anyone else either.’
In other words, Sheela wanted to say that she had given Bibhupada what she had given no other man. But her gifts were rather paltry. Could any man feel glory in receiving so little, could his desire for conquest possibly be satiated this way.
‘Don’t you have any other men friends!’ Bibhupada had asked her occasionally. ‘Someone whom you have truly loved. Someone whom you have given not just your friendship but something more? You can tell me freely, I will not be jealous.’
But Sheela had refused to accept that another man had ever come into her life. Nor was she particularly keen on it. She had little interest in young men. They were garrulous, flighty. She got no pleasure in conversing with those who had no experience whatsoever of life. It was impossible for her to even imagine any of them as her husband. ‘But that isn’t normal either,’ Bibhupada had remarked.
‘Then you’d better assume I’m abnormal,’ Sheela had responded.
Bibhupada had tried to delve into the reasons behind this young woman’s indifference. Hers was a lower middle-class family. She had lost her father at sixteen or seventeen. The responsibility of supporting a widowed mother and three minor brothers and sisters had fallen on her. She was a clerk at a post-office. Her salary was not sufficient for all the expenses of the family. She had to give private lessons to make up the deficit. Sheela had told Bibhupada everything. Was it this poverty, this unbearable burden of responsibility and fear that had gradually emptied Sheela’s heart of all emotions, turning her into an ascetic in the prime of her life? Sympathy welled up in Bibhupada’s heart.
But sometimes Sheela acted rather irrationally, like she had today. Was it right of her to have broken her promise this way? If she wasn’t planning to come couldn’t she have telephoned to say so? Considering how she prattled on the phone, couldn’t she have at least given him this information? Would he have turned up here had he known beforehand? And wasted so much time? Sheela really did behave stubbornly and unreasonably at times. As though she completely lacked the ability to appreciate other people’s difficulties.
* * *
The first thing Bibhupada did after signing the attendance register at his office the next morning was to telephone Sheela. There was pique, there were protests. There was a mild scolding too.
Sheela said she hadn’t even been to office the day before. She had been cooped up at home all day. Bibhupada would learn the reason later. She was in a bind. She would tell him everything when they met. He should come to Esplanade after work and wait for him in front of the restaurant.
Bibhupada did not have to wait very long today. Sheela arrived in about five minutes.
He took her into a curtained-off cabin as usual. ‘What’ll you have?’ he asked her lovingly.
‘Just a cup of tea,’ answered Sheela. ‘I don’t feel like anything else. I’m not hungry at all, believe me.’
‘You have conquered all kinds of hunger and thirst,’ Bibhupada smiled. ‘I’m famished, however.’
‘Why don’t you eat something then,’ Sheela said.
Bibhupada ordered fowl cutlets for both of them. ‘What happened yesterday,’ he asked. ‘I waited for a long time. You didn’t come. You could at least have informed me.’
‘Didn’t I tell you I couldn’t even go to the office yesterday,’ said Sheela.’ There’s no phone nearby in the neighbourhood that I could have used. Besides, my mother was keeping strict watch on me all day. I had no way to go out.’
‘You weren’t one to follow rules and regulations all this time,’ said Bibhupada. ‘What made you a dutiful daughter all of a sudden?’
Sheela was silent for a while. She seemed to be suppressing her laughter. Did anger not suit Bibhupada? Was his rage nothing but a source of mirth for a young woman?
Sheela looked at him after some time. ‘If you’d heard the story you’d have known how impossible it really was for me to have come out yesterday.’
‘Why, what happened yesterday?’ asked Bibhupada.
‘The same old annoyance again,’ responded Sheela. ‘Bride-spotting. And not just a casual visit, but for the final approval this time. I quarrelled with my mother and younger brother almost all day over this. When I’ve already said I don’t intend to marry, why this nuisance? But who’s listening. Ma shouted loud enough for the entire neighbourhood to come running. What a scene. Finally I said, do as you please.’
Bibhupada sank into an abrupt silence. He had not imagined that something like this could have been the reason behind Sheela’s absence. Yet how natural it was. This was the law of the world, Bibhupada mused – to meet one, you must part from another. After a bit he said, ‘The semi-final must have taken place before the final. You never told me.’
‘I certainly would have if it had been worth telling,’ said Sheela. ‘I had expected to avoid this one too, like before. But eventually I couldn’t.’
‘Just as well,’ Bibhupada told her. ‘What’s the young man like? Is he handsome?’
‘What do you think?’ Sheela retorted. ‘You could say we’re made for each other. He passed his BA exam just the way I did, scraping through on the second or third try. The juniormost clerk in his company. His salary is five or ten rupees less, not more, than mine. But he has fewer encumbrances. Just the one sister. She’s a college-student, I used to be her tutor. This is her tribute to her teacher. Reba is actually the matchmaker.’
‘That explains it,’ said Bibhupada. ‘So you knew each other already.’
‘It’s not what you think,’ answered Sheela. ‘A familiar face, that was about all.’
‘Is that the truth?’ Bibhupada smiled.
‘I’ve told you over and over again romance just isn’t in my nature.’ Sheela said. ‘I’m just a block of wood.’
‘But still a wood primrose has bloomed,’ said Bibhupada.
‘People like you make it bloom,’ answered Sheela after a pause.
Her voice was soft and sweet already. Gratitude seemed to make it even more tender today.
‘Do you recall what a trivial incident brought us together?’ Sheela continued. ‘I used to sell stamps at the post-office, I simply couldn’t balance the accounts, I had to pay out of my own pocket to make up the deficit. You gave me an extra rupee by mistake one day. When you came again the next day, I called out to you to return it. That was how we met. It was you who took it all the way into a friendship. Would I ever have dared to?’
Bibhupada was silent. Sheela had never spoken to him this way before. All this time it had only been her voice that was sweet, what she said never held any particular sweetness. Every complaint she had against the universe assumed severe proportions as soon as she met Bibhupada. But still he was reminded of a few memories from monsoon and spring over these past three years – a few golden afternoons and silvery evenings.
But instead of referring to any of these, he suddenly brought up a prosaic subject, asking, ‘But how will your mother’s household run? I’m told your brother’s still studying, your sisters are in school too.’
‘That was exactly why I had objected,’ Sheela told him. ‘Let’s wait another two or three years, I’d said. But my family is well-matched by the other side. All of them were adamant. But I have forced an agreement too. Until my brother is able to earn for himself, my entire salary will go to my family.’
‘This I admit is a good arrangement,’ said Bibhupada. ‘But will it last?’
‘Of course it will,’ averred Sheela. ‘Do you think the other agreement will remain if this one’s broken?’
The waiter parted the curtains to serve the food. Sheela drew the plate to herself eagerly. Bibhupada smiled to himself. No matter what she might say, she must be starving.
Bibhupada cut a piece of his cutlet with great reluctance and speared it with his fork. Before raising it to his mouth, he said, ‘This is the last time then. We won’t meet again.’
‘What! Why won’t we meet again?’ asked Sheela.
‘You’re getting married now,’ Bibhupada told her. ‘You’ll have a new family.’
Sheela looked at Bibhupada, then said with a smile before raising a piece of her cutlet to her mouth, ‘So what. If your having a family doesn’t prevent anything, why should mine?’
Bibhupada raised his eyes. No, it wasn’t sarcasm – the innocent, gentle amusement on her face was indeed making Sheela look lovely today.