Ichhamoti was a small river. At least the part of it running through Jessore district was quite tiny. In the south, the river enlarged into a huge salty marsh, infested with crocodiles and sharks. Where did it join the Bay of Bengal, hidden behind the mangrove forests of Sunderban, the villagers of Jessore district had no idea.
Those who had seen the part of the river within Nadia and Jessore districts knew about its beauty. But those who lived there for many years knew it the best. God had created its two shores dressed in beautiful green forests, alive with myriads of birdsongs.
You could take a boat from the quays in Morighata or Bajitpur and go straight to Chanduria ghat—you would see, on both sides, red flowers of the crown flower plants, wild water-weeds, clusters of water lettuce or the bright yellow flowers of wild tithpalla (*). Some high banks would be taken over by antique banyan and peepul trees, with shadowy clusters of uluti,(*) bachra (*), berries, groves of bamboo, holes for nesting bank mynas and dainty little vines and climbers crowding under them. There were very few houses on the riverbanks, mostly grazing lands of soft green grass, or empty sandy banks, or shrubs bright with wild flowers or forests filled with chirping birds. Near a village, a few boats would be tied at the piers. On the dead branch of an occasional tall simul(*) tree, a lonely vulture would sit still, like in a Chinese painting.
Women would be bathing at some landings, or stand on the steps with a full pitcher of water on their hips and chat with their friends still in the water. In some places on the high banks there would be a primary school of some village, a long hall with thatched roof and a split bamboo fencing all around. As for the furniture inside, there would only be one rickety chair tied to a bamboo post and a few benches.
When the moonlight bathed the green grasses of the grazing fields, when in summer, clusters of white milkweed flowers bloomed, when the soft breeze from the river swayed the flowers in the golden shower tree, the passengers in the river boats would see the discarded stakes in a slightly raised foundation of an old cottage, perhaps mostly covered up by the milkweed bush or eaten up by a few termite hills. Those remnants of houses might make you dream of the days gone by, wonder about the mothers and their sons, brothers and sisters whose lives were woven in those houses. How many unknown histories of joys and sorrows were written over the centuries like water marks in the rainy seasons. The sun warmed them, the skies of late autumn dripped dews on them, and at night the waxing moon bathed them in its light.
All those messages and old stories are the true history of our nation. History of the silent people. Not the triumphant tales of the emperors and kings.
The flood of 1863 had just receded.
The streets and fields were still muddy and waterlogged. In the evening a drongo sat on a flower-laden branch of a thorn acacia tree.
Nalu Pal was preparing to leave for the market in Mollahati. He was carrying a load of paan (*) and betle nuts on his head. Banyan trees planted by the white sahibs of the indigo plantations shaded the road to Mollahati. Tired Nalu sat under one such tree and fanned himself with his gamchha.
Nalu was perhaps twenty or twenty-one. He was dark and thin. His hair was cut in bangs and he carried a colorful gamchha(*) on his shoulder—the fashion of those days. He was not married yet as he had been living with his maternal uncles and had no money of his own. Only for last year or so he had been selling paan and betel nuts in the market. His mother's sister had started him with a capital of seventeen rupees. In one year it had grown to fifty-seven. Even after all the expenses of food, it was his net gain.
Nalu was happy and proud about it. Lately he couldn’t tolerate the abusive treatment at his uncle’s house. A man of his age needed to earn his own living. Only the other day his uncle's wife lectured him when he asked for a bit more oil for his hair.
“Where can we get more oil?” his Mamima had scolded him, “And you have to show off your fancy haircut. Fashion! You better earn your own if you have to be so fashionable.”
Nalu would have taken a short nap under the tree—there was still plenty of time before the market opened—but right at that time a man, riding on a horse, stopped by.
Nalu Pal respectfully stood up, “Ray-moshai (*), greetings. Hope all is well?”
“Wish you well too Nalu. Going to the market?”
“Look sharp. Mr. Shipton is coming this way.”
“Sir, shall I get down in the field? I hear he beats people.”
“No, no. That is all nonsense. You can stay right there.”
“Is he on a horse?”
“No. Perhaps a tandem. I better be off.”
Everyone was deathly afraid of Shipton, the chief white Sahib of the indigo plantation of Mollahati. He was tall and large, with a round face like a tiger and always carried a whip. The local folks had named the whip ‘Shyamchand’. Nobody knew when Shyamchand would land on someone’s back. As a result everyone was scared of him.
Just then a shopkeeper of the market, Satish Kolu arrived there carrying on his head a large pot of mustard oil in a wicker basket. Seeing Nalu he asked, “Come on. Aren’t you going to the market?”
“Wait, have a smoke.”
“Don’t have tobacco.”
“I do. Wait. Let Shipton Sahib go off first.”
“Who said he is coming?”
“Ray-moshai, he left a while ago. Sit down.”
Suddenly Satish Kolu glanced ahead in fear and ran through the wild shnara(*) and sheora(*) bushes down to the paddy fields, “Come on. Sahib is out.”
Nalu too left his bundle of paans under the tree and followed Satish Kolu. Ahead, the ringing of the bells tied to the horses could be heard. Soon the tandem arrived with great noise and stopped at–-of all the places—right under their tree, right in front of them.
Seeing bundles of paans lying unattended under the tree Sahib yelled, “Hey, Who is there? Whom does this bundle belong to?”
Both Nalu Pal and Satish Kolu were terrified hiding behind the bushes. Neither of them answered.
Servant Nafar Muchi, sitting behind in the tandem called loudly, “Whose bundle is lying under the tree?”
Sahib called, “Answer me. Who is there?”
Nalu Pal at last got up and hesitantly came out on the road, “Sahib, it is mine.”
Sahib just stared at him. Didn’t say a word.
Nafar Muchi asked, “Your bundle?”
“What were you doing in the paddy field?”
Sahib spoke out, “I know. They all hide when they see me. Am I a snake or a tiger? Well?”
He asked the question looking at Nalu, so he timidly answered, “No, Sahib.”
“Right. What is in the bundle?”
“For Mollahati market?”
“What is your name?”
“Sir, Shree Nal Mohan Pal.”
“Pick it up. In future do not hide in front of me. I am not a tiger. I don’t eat men. Got it? Go.”
Sahib’s tandem left. Nalu’s heart was still racing. Thank God! He managed to save himself from a great danger today. He whistled, “Hey Satish uncle!”
Inside the paddy field, Satish had walked a distance away from the road, now he called while coming back, “Coming.”
“Good Heavens! How far did you go? You saw him calling me and you ran away, eh?”
“What to do? We are poor folks. What if he lashed Shyamchand on my back? So, what was he telling you?”
“What did Ray-moshai tell you?”
“He said ‘Sahib is coming, sit straight’.”
“Of course. They are the bloody agents of the Sahibs. That’s how they make all their money. How do you think he made that huge, two storied building last year?”
Ray-moshai’s full name is Rajaram Ray. He was the dewan(*) of the indigo plantation of Mollahati. He lived in Panchpota village nearby. People feared as well as hated him for being the Sahib’s assistant and torturing the ordinary folks. But nobody dared say anything openly.
In the evening, when the sun was dipping behind the dark greeneries, Rajaram reached home and got off his horse. Servant Nafar Muchi’s cousin Bhaja Muchi took the horse away. Rajaram glanced at the crowd of people gathered near the raised platform of Goddess Chandi. It was routine all year at the house of the dewan of the plantation. The villagers came with all kinds of personal business, pleas, complaints and demands. Some had been forced to plant indigo instead of regular crop; some had been forced to give up better land instead of the previously agreed lots—all kinds of complaints and requests.
All those complaints usually got solved. Otherwise people wouldn’t keep crowding there every day. There was no need for bribes either. Rajaram never accepted bribes but he never returned an occasional gift of a carp, a giant taro or couple of pots of date palm syrup.
Rajaram’s wife Jagadamba was once quite beautiful. In a red-bordered handloom sari, gold, steel and conch shell bangles in her hands and a wide vermillion mark in her hair, she looked a typical mistress of the house.
Jagadamba came out, “Don’t go anywhere else now. First finish your evening prayers and rituals.”
Rajaram smiled and handed her a small sack, “Keep this. Why, are you making some special snacks today?”
“Of course. Fried puffed rice and chick peas.”
“Well, well! Let me wash up. Where are Tilu, Bilu and Nilu?”
“I’m coming. Ask Tilu to get me some water.”
After the sunset, Rajaram sat at one end of the verandah for his evening prayers. Tilu had already arranged the kusha-grass (*) mat for the rituals. Rajaram prayed for a long time -- almost an hour -- chanting lots of hymns and prayers.
The reason for such lengthy ritual was that after finishing his main evening puja, Rajaram recited prayers to each individual God and Goddess every day, trying to keep them all satisfied. Lakshmi, Saraswati, Raksha Kali, Siddheshwari, and Mother Manasa. He couldn’t afford to neglect any of them. It would gnaw at him. His current good fortune was solely due to the blessings of these Goddesses. He took time to pronounce each hymn clearly in case any of them failed to hear him.
Tilu came and asked, “Want some green coconut water, Dada (*)?”
“No. Have any sugar-candy syrup?”
“No sugar-candy at home, Dada.”
“Leave the coconut then. Just bring me the snacks.”
Tilu mixed some puffed rice and fried chickpeas with plenty of mustard oil and brought it in a large bell-metal bowl. That bowl could hold at least half katha (*) of rice. Bilu brought a bell-metal plate full of partly ripe jackfruit pods. Nilu brought a bowl of water and a stoneware bowl with a half poa (*) date palm jaggery.
Rajaram affectionately asked Nilu, “Come, sit here. Want some jackfruit?”
“No, Dada, you eat, I’ve had already.”
“You have it Dada.”
Jagadamba finished her prayers and sat by him, “You’ve come all tired after a whole day’s work, eat it all now. How would you stay alive otherwise? It is an endless chore for you at that good-for-nothing sahib’s place.”
Rajaram asked, “Got any green chillis? Ask them to get me some.”
“Want me to fan you? Tilu, go get some green chillis from your youngest sister-in-law—why do I smell the daal (*) burning? Netya auntie? Take a look, O young wife—”
Jagadamba sat near, fanning her husband, “Listen, don’t leave again after eating. Got something to discuss—”
“Later. Let your sisters leave first.”
“They are gone. What is it?”
“A suitable boy has arrived in the village. Go try for your sisters’ marriage.”
“Who is it?”
“A distantly related nephew of Chandra Chatterjee. Became a hermit. Quite good looking. I hear he is leaving tomorrow. You must go there—”
“Who told you?”
“Didi (*). She came here twice.”
“No, no ‘let’s see’. Tilu is thirty, Bilu is twenty seven. You won’t find any groom after this. No harm will happen if you skip plantation work for a day.”
“OK. Will do as you say. Bring me a shawl. Let me have a smoke before leaving.”
He decided not to leave in front of the Chandi pavillion. It was the day of dividing Maharali Mandal’s property. He had decided the day himself. Those people were waiting for him—Ramjan, Sukur, Prahlad Mandal, Banamali Mandal and other head honchos of the Muslim community. They would never let him leave.
Chandra Chatterjee was another big shot in the village. He had seventy some bighas(*) of arable land gifted to him. The income from the land was plenty for his family. None of the Brahmins of Panchpota village worked. Everyone had some land for his daily needs. It was their habit to spend time chatting or playing chess or dice in their own Chandi pavillions till ten or eleven at night.
Chandra Chatterjee stood up and greeted Rajaram, “Welcome, this is an unexpected pleasure. Please sit down. Let’s have a round.”
Nilmoni Samaddar called out, “Dewanji, please protect your Queen, here—”
Phoni Chakravarti spoke up, “Come, and sit near me. Care for a smoke?”
Rajaram greeted all with a smile, “Sit down, please. Chander-uncle, looks like you have a big party going—”
Chandra complained, “You don’t come this way any more. We are left behind in a corner—”
Everyone eagerly moved to make space for Rajaram on the mat. Nilmoni was the least well off amongst them all. He had to appease everyone. He said, “How could Dewanji come? Every evening he has to sit in his court. With all those prosecutors and defendants around him how can he find time to join our chess games?”
Phoni Chakravarty said, “We all know that. Nothing new there.”
Nilmoni said, “You are an ace player. Want a match?”
Rajaram took the hookah(*) from Phoni, but not wanting to smoke in front of elder Chandra Chatterejee, he went inside the room next to the platform. After awhile he came out, returned the pipe to Nilmoni and sat back in his place.
The chess match ended. It was later than ten at night. One by one people left for their homes.
Rajaram told Chandra Chatterjee the reason for his visit. Chandra’s face brightened up. He held Rajaram’s hand, “This is why you came today? This is not a problem. But one thing I need to tell you. Bhabani became a hermit once.”
“I’ll tell the ladies in the house, tell Tilu also. They will decide—”
“Fine by me.”
Then, in a low voice, “I plan to settle Bhabani here. Why don’t you marry all three sisters to him and be done with the hassle? Give me about five bighas of your gifted land as dowry. I’ll arrange everything right now.”
Rajaram thoughtfully said, “Can’t give you my word without first talking with the family. I’ll let you know tomorrow.”
“You can rest assured with the marriage. I’m not praising him because he is my nephew. He is a Banruri Brahmin from Katadaw Bandihati, lapsed in one generation; I can get his horoscope from the matchmaker tomorrow and show you. Very high Kulin (*) Brahmin. Everyone knows.”
“How old is he?”
“Almost fifty. Then your sisters are not so young either. If he didn’t become a hermit, he would have had a large family by now. Go see him. Every morning he does his daily prayers by the river’s bank, then goes for a walk. Such physique! Such muscles!”
“Would he agree to marry all three sisters?”
“I will take care of that. Don’t worry about it.”
It was dark near the bamboo groves, fireflies twinkled in the dense kunch (*) and acacia bushes. From the forest the scent of chhatim (*) flowers wafted along.
Tilottama heard about it much late at night. A late moon was rising behind the bamboo groves near the river. She called her younger sister Bilu, “Hey, did Boudi tell you something?
“Of course. You mean about the marriage, right?”
“Get out! Shameless hussy, talking about your own marriage!”
“What is shameful about it? As if staying unmarried is so respectful!”
“All three of us will be chopped by the same axe!”
“You are okay with it?”
“To tell you the truth, I feel let whatever is fated happen.”
“I agree. We need to ask Nilu tomorrow.”
“What can she say? She is the youngest. She will do whatever we do.”
Tilu sat on the roof terrace and thought for a long time. She was thirty. To her, husband and marriage were an unachievable dream. Even now she could hardly believe it. Was she really getting married? Going to her husband’s house? Along with her sisters? Well, so what? It happened often in many ‘kulin’ families. Chandra-uncle’s father had seventeen wives. It was common with the high caste Brahmins. Had Dada already decided the date? The groom was fifty. But so what, she too was no spring chicken.
She was too excited to sleep that night. The jungle was so alive with mosquitoes buzzing!
When Tilu was thinking all this sitting on the roof deep in the night, Nalu Pal had already returned from Mollahati market, settled his accounts, cooked and had his dinner and just went to bed.
Nalu had an idea.
He had just realized that he understood business quite well! He sold paan and betel nut today for seven rupees and nine annas. His net gain was one rupee and three annas(*). His only spending was buying two and half ser (*) rice for two annas and one poa of fresh river khaira (*) for two paisas(*). He wanted half ser of fish but didn’t have enough oil to cook that much fish. There was a shortage of mustard oil in the market. It used to be three annas per ser but now went up to fourteen paisas. How could he buy more oil?
He had to grow his capital. Selling paan was not enough. He needed to sell fabrics. His friend Mukunda Dey had explained to him about it. Once he got thirty rupees in hand, he would switch over to selling fabrics.
Nalu couldn’t sleep. At least he was not dependent on his uncle anymore. Nor was he a kid who had to eat his daily rice with auntie’s scolding. He felt energetic and ambitious. On that moonlit sleepy night, alive with crickets chirping all around, he could almost see ahead the long road of his life.
Next morning Rajaram rode his horse to the plantation. The road was well shaded with trees and greenery on both sides. Birds were chirping on the joggidumur(*) tree. At the end of Jaistha (*), masses of flowers still bloomed in the golden shower trees along the pastures.
The plantation houses were on the bank of Ichhamoti River. The large house with the pillars belonged to Shipton Sahib himself. Rajaram got off quite a distance away from the main house and tied his horse to a casuarina tree. Next he approached the house, peering in all corners. Then he took off his shoes and entered the main living room.
There was another sahib sitting there with Shipton and his wife. Shipton called him over, “Look here Grant, this is our Dewan Ray—”
The other man was a newly arrived sahib; tall, medium build, around thirty to thirty five years old, wearing a high collar like the Christian priests. His name was Colesworthy Grant. He was traveling in India. He was an artist and a writer. Currently he was writing a book on Bengali villages. He smiled up at Rajaram, “Yes, he will be a fine subject for my sketch of a Bengalee gentleman, with his turban—”
Shipton corrected him, “That is a shamla, not a turban.”
“Oh! I would never manage it!”
“You would. With his turban and a good bit of roguery that he has—”
“In human nature I believe only as far as I could see in him. No more.”
“All right, all right. Please yourself.”
Mrs. Shipton said, “I am going to see you fall out with each other—wicked men that you are!”
Grant smiled, “I beg your pardon Madam!”
Bhaja Muchi’s older brother Sriram Muchi, the bearer, brought in coffee for all. Most of the servants and bearers of the white folks were local muchis (*), bagdis (*) and other low class Hindu people. There were very few Muslims amongst them; the ostler Mather Mandal was one such.
Rajaram was still standing and sweating. Shipton switched to his broken Bengali, “You may go now. He wants to make a painting of you. You must let him.”
“Very well, Sir.”
“Take a look at the loan figures in the book also.”
But soon after Rajaram started his work, Sriram Muchi came to call him, “Ray-moshai, they are calling you. That new Sahib is going to draw you now. Right there, see what all stuff he has hung up near the river under that ‘biliti’ tree in the afternoon sun. Go see the fun. Ray-moshai, please tell the chief sahib to give me one rupee more. Paddy price has gone up. Can’t get more than eight kathas in a rupee. Can’t live on that.”
“OK. I’ll see about that. Will have to talk to David sahib, not the chief.”
An embarrassed Rajaram stood under the ‘biliti’ tree. It was an Indian cork tree. About twenty-five years ago, the predecessor of Shipton—who was the first manager of the indigo plantation of Narangar, in Patna district—had lovingly planted this tree. Now it was quite large with its branches bending over the river. This tree was rare in this area, so the locals called it biliti (foreign) tree.
Rajaram stood under the biliti tree. What a farce! What all have they done? What was that hanging over there? Rajaram would have laughed out but looking at Mrs. Shipton he checked himself. Why was that woman here? What a pain!
Colesworthy Grant took a piece of a color pencil and went around the hanging canvas looking for something. Then he asked Memsahib (*), “Will you ask him to stand straight and still for ten minutes?”
Memsahib ordered, “Stand straight Dewan.”
Rajaram apologetically tried to stand straight with his chest out. Grant sahib objected in his own language, “No, no, your Dewan wears a theatrical mask, Madam. Can he not stand at ease?”
Memsahib pointed at Dewan, “Not as tall, adjust your chest.”
Rajaram could not understand her strange Bengali. He stuck his chest even more out, almost bending himself like a bow.
Grant Sahib laughed, “Oh, no, my good man. This is how—” and he went to Rajaram and pushed his chest back to a more normal posture.
“I hope to goodness, he will stick to this! God’s death!”
Immediately he looked at Memsahib and apologized, “I ask your pardon Madam, for my words a moment ago.”
Memsahib smiled, “Oh, you wicked man!”
Rajaram stood correctly this time. The ‘drawing sahib’ was really trying hard in front of the woman. And he touched Rajaram! Now he had to take a bath. Those white folks were so unclean, and they ate all kinds of rubbish. Without bathing Rajaram won’t be able to enter his house.
He was released after about an hour or so. Wow! The sahib did a wonderful job. It was exactly as if he was standing in the picture. But his face and eyes were not defined yet. He was asked to come again in the evening. Hope he wouldn’t be touched again. He didn’t want to take another bath in the evening