Ramkanai Kabiraj went to bathe in Ichhamoti early in the morning. While coming back home he noticed gorgeous nak-joale (*) flowers blooming on top of a bush by the river. It would make nice offering for his puja. Ramkanai was sorely tempted. Going through the thorny bushes to get to the flowers caused him some delay in returning to his tiny straw hut.
Every morning after his bath, Ramkanai worshipped a small idol of Radha-Krishna made by some village artisan. He liked it and bought it in the Charak fair in Bhasan-pota. He really loved decorating the feet of the idol with sandalwood paste and nak-joale flowers and place an incense stick by it. For edible offerings, he used pieces of guavas or ripe papayas or perhaps a piece of hard sugar cane jaggery.
If not disturbed by any visitors his worships and prayers could go on for a long time. Sometime he even shed a few tears that he shyly wiped away.
Someone called from outside, “Kabiraj-moshai, are you home?”
“Who is that? I’m coming.”
“You must come to Sabaipur. Ambika Mandal’s son has high fever.
“OK. I’m coming. Just wait.”
Ramkanai finished his puja and gave some offering to the man, “What is the problem?”
“ Sir, fever, for three days.”
“You may go back. Tell them I’m coming after seeing a couple of patients here.”
Ramkanai ate a few pieces of cucumbers and set out to visit his patients. After going to various places, he reached Sabaipur village around noon. Ambika Mandal farmed brinjals. He was very poor. The child had fever for a few days and there was no medicines or food for the sickness. Ramkanai examined him very carefully, “The condition of his pulse is not good. There might be a downturn—“
Everyone in the family asked Ramkanai to stay the night there. Nobody realized that he hadn’t had his lunch that day. Ramkanai too didn’t say anything but sat by the boy till evening. Then he returned home, did his evening prayers, cooked and ate his dinner and after midnight went back to the boy’s house.
Ramkanai’s pulse reading ability was infallible. That night the boy was almost at death’s door. Ramkanai had to use strong ‘suchikabharan (*)’ treatment to stay the course. There was no place for him to spend the night so they spread a mat for him on the floor next to the patient and he slept. Early in the morning he examined the boy’s pulse again and gravely told the parents, “This boy will not live. He has the symptoms of late stages of typhoid fever. He is getting into delirium. I’m leaving. You don’t have to give me anything.”
The fact that he got absolutely nothing for all his hard work did not bother Ramkanai. What did bother him was the fact that he could not save the boy.
Of late, Ramkanai had obtained a student disciple. Nimai was the son of Akrur Chakravarty from Bhajan-ghat. He was about twenty-two or three. He was sitting on the grass outside Ramkanai’s hut reading the book of Madhaba Diagnostics. Seeing Ramkanai he stood up and touched his feet.
Ramkanai was happy to see him, “My son, Nimai, please sit. Tell me about the beats of pulse.”
“Sir, beats of pulse? I don’t get it…”
“How many beats for a perilous pulse?”
“Three beats, then a gap, four beats, a gap.”
“That’s all? Can the gap be after seven or eight beats?”
“Yes Sir, that too.”
“Then say that. I just saw a patient with seven beats and a gap. Just coming from there.”
“Did he live?”
“Even Dhanwantari (*) can’t save him now. Sushruta himself said—‘kriti sadhya bhabet sadhya’. Son, let me tell you something. You have come here to study medicine. Don’t keep any impurities within yourself. Don’t tell lies, don’t be greedy, and be satisfied with less. Treat poor needy folks for free, have faith in God, don’t abuse addictive stuff. Only then will you be a good physician. My Gurudeb (Ramkanai folded his hands in respect) Gangadhar Sen Kabiraj of Mangalganj always said this. As I was his most favorite student. But I am nowhere like him, just am not worthy enough. He used to examine pulse and could predict exactly what would happen to the patient. And he was never wrong. Used to say that you must keep a pure heart. Without that you can never learn about reading the pulse. Want to eat something?”
The student shyly said, “No, Gurudeb.”
“You look like you haven’t had anything. What can I offer you! Don’t have much at home--. Got one coconut. Go cut it.”
“Do you have a heavy cleaver?”
“Go get one from Batokrishto Samanta’s house, there, the house by the river, near the bamboo grove. Will you recognize or shall I come with you?”
“No, I’ll find it—”
Teacher and student had some coconut and a handful of fried black pea lentil and started their lessons. They went on past noon. Even if the student remembered the time, the teacher was totally oblivious of it. From Madhab Diagnostics they went on to Charaka, from there to Kalaap Grammar, and ultimately to Bhagavad Gita. Ramkanai Kabiraj knew Sanskrit well. He had studied upto the ‘Upadhi’ level of Grammar.
He told the student—
“akamah: sarbakamo ba mokshakama udaar dhii
tiibrena bhaktiyogena yajetah: purushang parang.”
Meaning—with faith but without any greed or lust—akamah:-- should you seek God. Understand my child? He has endless mercy. All one has to do is dedicate oneself to Him. Kabiraj Goswami said in Chaitanya Charitamrita—
“Merciful God, knowing that the greedy devotee is ignorant, extends His grace to fulfill his wishes….
He is all merciful. He sees our ignorance and takes pity on us. If He didn’t care who will?”
The disciple gathered some wood from the bamboo forest. Teacher said, “Why didn’t you bring a giant arum too? Was there any?”
“Go, get one. Take a crowbar from the Batokrishto’s and return their cleaver, would you? Get a nice big arum. We don’t have anything else to eat, just rice with boiled arum and mustard—and oh, yes, bring a couple of green chilies from Batokrishto’s yard too.”
“Won’t the arum irritate our mouths?”
“No, no. Mustard paste will take care of it.”
“Giant arum shouldn’t be eaten fresh. Needs to be sundried for a day or two—”
“I know, I know. But we have to eat the rice with something today, don’t we?. Go get one. You are eating here today too—”
After eating ol-bhaate, the two started on their lesson again. The day ended, a drongo trilled in the bamboo grove, they could barely read the books in the dark, at last the teacher allowed the student Nimai Chakravarty to tie up the books. He knelt on the ground and touched the teacher’s feet, “May I leave now?”
“But, oh dear! How will you go? Heavy clouds are gathering over the bamboo grove. It is going to rain cats and dogs. You haven’t even brought an umbrella today—”
“The stem was broken. I’m making another one. I’ve gathered good young toddy-palm leaves and buried them in mud. They will be ready in seven or eight days. It will make a great umbrella.”
“Why not screwpine leaves? It makes good umbrellas too.”
“Not as long lasting. Nothing lasts like palm leaves—”
“Huh! Who says so. Not everyone knows how to tie one properly. I’ll make you one. You’ll see—”
The student took his leave. Soon after Gaya-mem arrived, carrying a bunch of ripe bananas. She made obeisance from a distance and kept standing near the door.
“Come in Ma, sit down, sit down. Why are you standing there? What is that in your hand?”
“A bunch of bananas, from my yard.” Gaya was encouraged to speak up, “Want to offer you. Please accept.”
“No, I’m afraid I can’t. I don’t accept donation from anyone.”
“Pay me one cowrie then—”
“I do that from the patients, that is allowed. Batokeshto Samanta is my patient. He suffers from asthma. I do take an occasional item from him but you see, you are not my patient—and of course I bless you will never become one—”
“But I have come to you because of an ailment, uncle—”
“It’s like a cold,” Gaya hesitated, “Can’t sleep at night.”
“Are you sure?”
“Sure Baba. You are like God to me. If I lie to you wouldn’t I rot in hell for ever?
Ramakanai replied in a sad voice, “No Ma, don’t say such things. I’m but an insignificant person. OK, I’ll give you some medicines, take it with honey and ginger.”
“Why isn’t everyone like you? Why are people so evil and corrupt?”
“I too fall in their group dear. How could I be any different? There is one good person in this village, Dewanji’s son-in-law, Bhabani Banerjee. Never tells a lie, helps the poor, his household is blessed by Goddess Lakshmi, spends most of his time thinking about God--”
“I’ve seen him from a distance. Don’t dare to go closer--to tell you the truth. Our lives are wasted, but you know all about it, uncle—”
“Pray to Him dear. Everything is possible with His mercy. Much bigger sinners have gotten His blessings, you are but a small fry.”
“You know uncle, sometimes I feel such keen regret. I feel like leaving everything and just walking away. But can’t do that because of my mother. She is the one who pushed me into this. If she was dead, nothing could have kept me here. Believe me, uncle, that’s how I feel at times—”
Ramkanai kept quiet. He felt that speaking was not warranted at this time.
Gaya asked, “Would you please accept the bananas?
“Fine. Wait; take the medicine before you leave. Do you have honey? Otherwise I can give you some too—”
Gaya bowed at his feet and left with the medicines. On the way she ran into Prasanna Chakravarty. He was waiting for her under a tree.
“Hey, Gaya, where were you? What is that in your hand?”
“Medicine, uncle. Why are you standing here?”
“Hoping you will come this way.”
“Please don’t act like that again. Now move away—”
“Why are you mad at me? What happened?”
“It’s not a question of being mad. Please, just let me go.”
Gaya quickly walked away. Prasanna didn’t dare call her back. Gaya too never looked back.
No! Was there ever any logic about a woman’s mind?
The indigo rebellion started all over Jessore and Nadia districts. The new Dewan Harakali Sur brought the news to the court.
Shipton-sahib was sitting in the western verandah cleaning his gun. Harakali saluted, “Thirteen villages are all up in arms, Sahib. The Lieutenant Governor is coming to inspect. The villagers are going to tell him all—”
Shipton shook his head, “Hear me Dewan, I know how to rule these people. I have burned the houses of those who killed my previous Dewan. These people want a revolt? Do they? All the sahibs in the plantations had a meeting, do you know—”
“I do Sir. Then I was in Ranavijaypur plantation.”
“Oh, that Ranavijaypur, where Jeffries-sahib was murdered?”
“Not murdered, Sir. He drank too much and fell from his horse. Had head injuries and lost consciousness.”
“It was all planned by the native office-clerks. It was a plot against his life—I know all about it. Who was the manager? Robinson?”
“Now listen carefully, I want a very intrepid Dewan—like Rajaram. But—”
He pointed to his head, “He was not a brainy chap—something wrong with his think-box. Not street smart. He didn’t know how to be careful. That’s why he died. See these guns?”
“Have seven new guns. My name is Shipton and I know how to rule. I will shoot them like pigs.
“We decided in our meeting that we would not retreat. We will not listen to the government. If necessary, we will kill. It is not wise to keep the mem-sahibs here. I am sending my wife away.”
“Monday next, by boat from here to Mangalganj. Arrange for a boat for Monday.”
“Yes, Sir. Everything will be ready. Who else will go with her?”
“What’s the need? I don’t think it is necessary—”
Dewan Harakali was a shrewd man. He knew a lot of inside news but was not sure how much to spill. He scratched his head, “Sir, it will be better if you too went with her--”
Shipton frowned, “She can take care of herself. She knows how to. I don’t need to go. You make all the arrangement.”
“Sir, perhaps Karim-lathial may go with her?”
“What? Is it as bad as that? No need. You go now. You can’t work here if you are so scared. Everything will be all right.”
“As you wish, Sir.”
“One more thing. Are you sure there’s as much as that? What news did you hear?”
“If you allow me to tell you Sir-–I would ask Karim and another guard to go with her. The plots are serious.”
Shipton whistled, “Oh! This I never imagined possible! It will make me feel different—I find it hard to believe. OK, you may go. Leave everything to me”. Then he added in broken Bengali, “I will do all care everything, understand?”
Harakali was used to making real meaning out of mixed up Bengali spoken by the sahibs. He said, “May I suggest one thing? You take care of your job; I will take care of mine. Salaam Sir.”
After three days, Baro-sahib Shipton’s wife took leave of her husband and boarded a stately boat from Kultala pier. With her went ten guards and Karim lathial. Harakali himself followed in a separate boat.
Out of the old workers, Prasanna Amin bid her goodbye with folded hands, “Ma, Jagaddhatri Goddess! This place will plunge in darkness without you.”
Prasanna Chakaravarty burst into loud sobs.
Mem-sahib said, “Don’t cry, my good man--Amin-babu, why crying?”
“Ma, you leave me all alone. What will happen to me? Who will look after me, my divine Jagaddhatri Ma?”
Sly Harakali Sur turned away to hide his smile.
Mem-sahib, without saying anymore, took off her gold necklace and threw it to Prasanna Amin. He quickly grabbed it in both hands.
Everyone was surprised. Harakali stood there stunned. Karim the lathi fighter just gaped.
The boat left the pier.
Prasanna Amin remained standing there looking at the boat for a long time. Then wiping his eyes in the corner of his shawl he slowly climbed out of the pier and left.
With her departure, Goddess Lakshmi too departed the plantation.
Gaya-mem was laughing, “Well, uncle? You have to give me one half now.”
It was afternoon. Under the blue sky the cooing of many doves in the trees was deepening the silence. Shyamlata (*) blooms in a nearby bush were perfuming the air. The two met under a banyan tree by the roadside. It was not an accidental encounter. Prasanna Amin was waiting there for her for a long time. He too smiled, “Sure. You made it happen.”
“I did say it, didn’t I?”
“You take it. I want to give it to you.”
“Are you crazy? Think I’m that stupid? What will people say if I use jewelries belonging to the white people? I will never touch it.”
“I really love you Gaya.”
“It is such a joy to see you—”
“Were you standing here to tell me all this?”
“I’m leaving. And listen, I will tell you one more thing. You better start looking for a job somewhere else.”
“I know. I can see the waning of their influence. I’m not that stupid. But I can’t go anywhere without you.”
“Again that stupid talk?
“Why don’t you come with me?”
“Wherever it takes us.”
Gaya giggled, “Yes, that’ll be the day! You and me going wherever it takes us!”
Prasanna couldn’t gauge her mood, so he kept quiet.
Gaya smiled, “What happened? You suddenly went all quiet?”
“What to say? I dare not say anything to you.”
“You are already most daring. No need of any more. Listen, let me tell you something… how can I go anywhere leaving my mother alone here? And the folks who looked after me for so long? Fed me, loved me, cared for me, if I now leave them behind woudn’t it be a sin? You go now. How are you feeding yourself nowadays? Who’s cooking for you?”
Prasanna could not answer her. He just stared at her in amazement. What kind of question was this? Had anybody ever talked to her like this? His whole body was tingling again. What an amazing feeling! It almost made him tearful. Absentmindedly he said, “Cooking?... no… I do all the cooking, myself—”
“I would love to see once how you do it.”
“Want to eat something?”
“That is your blessing. What would you prepare?”
“Brinjal, moong lentils, fried khaira fish (*), if I get any at the Khola swamp—”
“You really haven’t had your meals yet? It is so late.”
“No. I was waiting here all this time for you, when you would come out.
Gaya sounded upset, “What? I’ve never heard of such a silly thing. You want me to feel guilty? Go back home. Right now. No, I’ll not listen to another word.”
“I’m going, but—”
“No more talking, leave now.”
When Gaya was turning to go, Prasanna sidled close to her (could he dare go any closer?), “Are you mad at me, Gaya? Tell me—”
“No, I’m not mad, I’m most happy with you! Why do you act like an idiot? Go now, please--”
“Please don’t be angry with me. I can’t live –”
There was pleading in his voice.
Bhabani Banerjee wanted to go for his evening walk but Khoka started crying, “Baba, me go…”
Tilu scolded him, “No. You stay with me.”
Khoka extended his little arms, “Baba, me, go…”
He showed Bhabani the umbrella, “Who umbrella?”
Meaning ‘whose umbrella’.
Bhabani said, “My umbrella. Come, it may rain again.”
Khoka said, “Rain again.”
Bhabani said, “Yes. Of course it will rain.”
Looking at smiling Khoka in his arms, ready to go, Bhabani felt he was in good company. Khoka too never wanted to leave him alone. Bhabani was getting a glimpse of the depth of father-son relationship.
While going out on his father’s lap, Khoka would laugh and say, “Fun, what fun!”
Only Khoka knew what it meant. Perhaps he wanted to tell about some funny events. Bhabani knew Khoka sometimes would spread his arms and say, ‘What fun!’ Bhabani didn’t know what he meant but he understood his gleeful expression. He too smiled, “What is fun Khoka?”
“Where are you going Khoka?”
“To get mooki.”
“You want to have murki dear?”
“Come, I’ll buy you some.”
Ichhamoti was running full with rainwater. Bhabani took Khoka on a boat. Both the banks were covered with dense greenery. Vines were swinging on the water, golden acacia flowers bloomed on the bowed branches. Grey blue clouds gathered on the opposite bank, a yellow coppersmith barbet skipped from branch to branch among the green plants…
Bhabani looked on enchanted, wondering about the Great Artist who had made all this. He had created this little boy too. In this vast afternoon filled with birdsongs and serenity of the river, He was present everywhere--in water, earth and air, up and down, in the north, south, east and west. He was there in this beautiful child’s innocent laughter, in the flashing yellow of the coppersmith barbet, in the blooming bon-kolmi (*) flowers tucked in the dense brushes along the river. Was there anything without Him? Hail to Him!
Khoka spread his arms, “Water! So much water!”
He had learned these words from somewhere and used them indiscriminately.
Bhabani asked, “Khoka, river is good?”
Khoka nodded, “Yes, good.”
“Want to go home?”
“But you said you liked the river.”
“Go to Mommy.”
Coming back in the darkness through the bamboo grove made Khoka very fearful. At only two years of age, he did not understand many things. Looking at the dark forms of the bamboos, he suddenly panicked and clutched his father close, “I’m scared, Baba. What is that?”
“Where? It’s nothing.”
Khoka gripped his dad for dear life. Bhabani tried to distract him, “What is that moving in the forest?”
Khoka had closed his eyes, now he looked up,
“What did you say? Look carefully.”
“Would you tell your mom?”
“Why? Not Nilu?
“What is the name of your other mom?”
“We counted Tilu, and?”
“Name another mother--”
“No. You aren’t getting it. There is Tilu Ma, then Nilu Ma, and then, who else?”
There was still an unending sea of bamboo forest in front of them. It was very dark. The fireflies looked like flowers of lights in the darkness flickering here and there, in this bush and that one.. A night bird called harshly in the jiuli (*) tree. Something crashed inside the forest. Perhaps a ripe toddy palm fell on the ground. Crickets were buzzing in the nata-kanta (*) bushes.
Khoka was again quiet in fear.
Somewhere far away someone blew on conch shell. With his eyes still closed Khoka mumbled God’s name, “Durga, Durga… namo…namo.”
This he had learned from his mothers. He looked around in the gathering darkness and timidly called, “O Bhabani?”
“Want to go mommy. Scared.”
“We are going there.”
“No scared. Nothing to be scared of.”
Again another conch shell sounded. Again Khoka habitually joined his hands and touched his forehead saying, “Durga, Durga.”
Bhabani smiled, “See if Goddess Durga removes your fear.”
And it did happen. They came out of the forest into the populated village. There were lamps lit in every house, insect repellant smokes were lit in all the cowsheds. The smoke was rising through the leaves and vines of the ash gourds on the roofs; ridge gourd flowers were blooming on the fences.
Bhabani pointed, “Look, there is our house—”
Right then the clouds burst, the rain started, and a cold wind came in. Nilu came running and took Khoka in her arms—
“O my sweetheart, my love, where did you go? All wet in the rain—You are a limit too! Taking a tiny child at this time of the evening, in this dark jungle, in the rain? And on a Saturday!”
Khoka was overjoyed in his mother’s lap. He spread both his arms wide and exclaimed, “Fun. What fun!”
Tonight was Bilu’s turn. It was late. Tilu in a red bordered sari brought paan for Bhabani, “Shall I close the window near the bed? It is windy and cold.”
“You are not coming tonight?”
“No, it is Bilu’s turn today.”
“He will sleep with me.”
Bhabani felt depressed. Khoka slept with him only on Tilu’s nights. He wouldn’t see him tonight. In his sleep Khoka flung his arms or both legs on Bhabani’s body and slept with his lips slightly apart. He looked so adorable!
Bhabani again thought, ‘What a wonderful creation! God’s work!’
Bilu came in with a box of paan. Her lips were red from chewing the paan leaf.
Bhabani greeted her, “Come, Bilu dear, come, sit.”
Bilu looked slightly sad, “But you don’t want me.”
“I know you don’t. You were just now thinking about Didi.”
“Wrong. I was thinking about Khokon.”
“Shall I bring him?”
“No, will he stay all night with you?”
“Of course he will. Wait. I’ll bring him.”
After a while she came back carrying the sleeping child, “Didi had fallen asleep,” She smiled, “I stole Khoka.”
“Come see, She is fast asleep.”
“Didn’t she close the door?”
“Just kept it ajar, for Nilu to come. Nilu is finishing up in the kitchen. She will sleep with Didi tonight. Didi was exhausted after grinding the lentils for bori (*). She does work a lot.”
“Why do you let her? She is Khoka’s mother. You should work more and give her a break.”
“Why do we let her? As if you don’t know. You are so worried about her. How about us? Have we come floating in the flood-water? Here, have a paan.”
“Tuck the quilt well around Khokon. It is very cold today. Who made the paans?”
“Nilu. You know, she really wanted to sleep with you tonight.”
“Why didn’t you switch?”
“See, I told you. You always find the fault with me. Everything is always right with Didi and Nilu. Wish I was dead—”
Bhabani was getting used to Bilu’s sulkings lately.
Why was she unhappy? Perhaps she was frustrated in her mind. She was otherwise quiet and introvert but occasionally the feelings came out in her speech. Indeed, why was it so? He had never consciously neglected Bilu. Still, women’s keen sense could perceive even the smallest slight. Perhaps she understood from something he did or said that he always preferred Tilu’s company above all. Even though he never spoke out loud, she had sensed it.
Bhabani felt sorry. Did he make a mistake by marrying three sisters together? He didn’t think about it at that time. How could an ascetic person like him have any such experience? That time he was inspired to rescue all three women by marrying them, he never thought whether he would be able to make them all happy.
Thinking back he realized that he in fact did neglect Bilu. Not consciously, but Bilu had sensed it. He felt truly sorry for her.
He saw Bilu crying silently with her face turned towards the wall.
He held her and turned her face towards him, “Come on, Bilu, why are you crying like this?”
Bilu sobbed, ”I’m serious. I’m better off dead. You are such an ideal Guru. Some times I wish I could remove myself from your path, you will be happy with Didi and Nilu.”
“You mustn’t think like that, Bilu. Tell me, have I ever neglected you?”
“That’s not the point. I’m not blaming you. It is all my fate. Nobody’s fault. Move a bit. Let me straighten Khoka’s neck—”
Bhabani held her hand, “Perhaps I made a mistake. At that time I didn’t realize—“
Bilu was indeed somewhat mollified by Bhabani’s show of affection, “No, please don’t say like that—“
“I mean it.”
“Here, have a paan. Don’t take me seriously. I’m a bit crazy—”
She was satisfied with such a little bit of attention. Bhabani felt sad for her tonight. She was so playful and laughing at the time of their weddings, how all her dreams shone like stars in her eyes. Why did he have to spoil her life?
Not deliberately. Who knew why it all happened?
That night, for a long time, he spoke to her lovingly, painting a happy picture of their future together. What he could not do, Khokon would do when he grew up. Khoka would treat all three of his mothers equally. Bilu should have nothing to feel sorry about herself.
The moonlight, in between the clouds, flooded their bed. It was very late. Some nocturnal bird called from the fig tree.
Suddenly Bilu asked, “What if I die? Will you cry for me, loverboy?”
“What kind of a question is that?”
Bilu smiled and moved closer to Khoka, “Look, how he is smiling! Must be dreaming—”
That year after Durga Puja and the rains, both the banks of Ichhamoti were covered with snowy flowers of wild kaash (*). The water level had risen and almost touched the farmlands. The morning sun lit up the nata-kanta (*) bushes.
The children were searching for fourteen types of edible greens for the day before Kali puja. One small girl asked Tulu, Bhabani’s son, “You are not finding anything. Here, give me your basket—”
Tulu said, “Why? I want to pick the greens too. Where, show me—”
“Look, all kinds of greens here—green amaranth, white amaranth, cow amaranth, tiny noni, gandamoni (*), bau-tuntuni, shanti greens, pea greens, kanchra daam (*), water spinach and spreading hogweed—now we have to find sweet potato green, chick pea green and spinach—make fourteen. You are a baby. What do you know about greens?”
“But you can teach me, please—”
An older girl drew Tulu near her, “Why are you teasing him Bina? He is a little kid, how will he recognize the greens? Come, Tulu, you come with me—”
Phoni Chakravarti’s grandson Annada asked, “Why is there a crowd gathering on the other bank? So early in the morning?”
Indeed, they looked up and saw a crowd of people collected on the opposite bank. Many carried flags. Soon people started gathering on this side too. Annada was older than most of the kids. He asked, “Kapali uncle, what is it today?”
Most of the people gathered were farmers from different villages. They knew a few of them and had met them a few times. The rest were new to them. One of them said, “Today the Lieutenant Governor will go by here in his motor boat. He is going to the indigo plantation to check about the complaints of tyranny. All the tenants are angry. In Jessore and Nadia districts nobody is going to plant a single indigo plant. That’s why we’ve gathered here—to tell the Governor that we won’t plant indigo—”
Tulu stared at the river, confused, after some thinking he asked Annada, “What is indigo, Dada?”
“Indigo is a type of plant. Didn’t you see the Sahib from indigo mansion riding on his tandem?”
“I want to see the motor boat!” Tulu nodded.
“Aren’t you collecting fourteen greens? You naughty boy—”
Annada affectionately lifted the little boy in his lap.
But not only Tulu, all the other kids too forgot about fourteen greens in the general excitement. People flooded both the banks of the river. Governor-sahib was coming before noon. In a machine-boat. The farmers shouted their demands. Many gentlemen villagers like Nilmoni Samaddar, Phoni Chakravarty, Shyam Ganguly and others too gathered on the bank under the kadam tree.
Bhabani Banerji came and called for his son, “Hey, Khoka—”
Tulu ran to him with a big smile, “Here I am, Baba—”
“Did you get the fourteen greens? Your mother was wondering—”
“No Baba. Who is coming here?”
“Lieutenant Governor Sir William Grey.”
“What name? Sir William Grey?”
“Good. You got the name just right!”
“I don’t want to go home now. I want to see the sahib.”
“Later. Let me take you home and feed you some muri.”
“No Baba, I want to see now.”
The sun rose higher. It grew hot. Tulu was hungry but he forgot it in the crowd of onlookers.
“What is a machine-boat?”
“They call it steamer. You will see. It gives out smokes.”
“Lots of smoke?”
“Because they light a fire inside, that’s why.”
Suddenly, from far away. a noise rose in the crowd. Tulu said, “Pick me up Baba—”
Bhabani raised him up and set him on his shoulders, “Can you see better now?”
Khoka turned his head all around and without looking away said, “Yeees!”
“What are you seeing?”
“Can you see the machine-boat?”
“No Baba, just smokes. Wow! So much smoke!”
Soon Tulu was stunned to see a huge steamer arrive in front of them belching clouds of smoke. People cried, “No more indigo”. “Swear by the mother, our Queen.” On the boat a bunch of sahibs were sitting on wooden chairs. They looked like the plantation sahibs who had come once for bird hunting. Amongst them, one sahib was doing something strange.
Tulu started, “Baba?”
“What is that sahib doing?”
“He is greeting everyone.”
“Who is he Baba?”
“That Lieutenant Governor sahib. I told you the name?”
“Don’t remember Baba.”
“Why can’t you remember? This is not nice. Sir—“
Tulu thought for a while, “Wolium Grey—”
“William Grey. Come, let’s go home now.”
“Let’s see some more, Baba?—“
“What else is there to see? They are all gone—”
“Where did they go?”
“Along Ichhamoti to Churni River, then to the Ganges, from there they will return to Calcutta.”
Tulu got off dad’s shoulder and toddled home. People from the villages crowded all around them. All were talking as they walked. Tulu had never seen anything like this in all his four years of life. He was totally amazed. What a huge machine-boat it was! How the waves crashed on the shore! And the smokes that came out when the boat left! Those sahibs were so strange and white!
At home Tilu asked, “What did you see Khoka?”
Khoka started telling his mother. With much gesturing he tried to explain it all.
Nilu came, “Enough. Come and first eat—”
Bilu was no more. Last Asharh (*), during a rainy night she placed her head in her husband’s lap, held on to his hands and died after three days of fever and delirium.
She regained consciousness briefly before dying that night. Looking up at her husband she asked, ”Who are you, dear?”
Bhabani fanned her head, “It is me, don’t try to speak. Just relax, please—”
“Can I say one thing?”
“You’re not mad at me? Listen, I tell you so many things, my love—”
“Are you crying? Please don’t—”
“Please bring Khokon here, just lay him next to me.”
“Sure, I’ll get him. Tilu was here all this while, just left to eat something. You rest, don’t speak.”
After some time of quiet rest Bhabani felt Bilu's brows sweating excessively. Was the fever breaking then? He planned to go to Ramkanai Kabiraj when Tilu came back from her meals. After a while Bilu suddenly turned to him, “Please, come closer, I’m not calling you with respect, is that a sin? Let it be, let me call you more familiarly. Perhaps for the last time. In our next life, you will be mine again. Yes, yes. Didn’t Didi give milk to Khoka,? Call her—”
“Why are saying all these things now? Didn’t I ask you to rest quietly?”
“Where is Khokon? Khokon?”
That was her last word. After that she turned away towards the wall. When Tilu and Nilu brought sleeping Khokon to her, she didn’t turn back. Bhabani went to call Ramkanai. He came, checked the pulse and said, “It has been a long time. You can pick up Khoka now—”
The Indigo Mutiny raged on in the three districts. Sir William Grey sent a report after his thorough inspection. It became a famous document. Within two years, most plantations in the three districts were closed. Most Sahibs either sold or leased their properties to local landlords and went back across the oceans. One or two plantations still worked but they did not have even one tenth of their previous clout.
One of these remaining was Shipton-sahib. David had left with his wife and children but Shipton was tenacious. He ran the plantation as before with the help of the new Dewan Harakali Sur. Most of the previous workers too remained like before.
Nowadays, the indigo planting sahibs had lost their fangs. Most had left India. The reamining ones planted little indigo, and lived on the income from whatever little land they had.
But in the backcountry village, behind everyone’s eyes, Shipton ran his kingdom as before. People still feared him. After the excitement of Indigo Mutiny, people had returned to their previous fear and respect for the sahibs. Harakali Dewan too proudly stomped around twirling his moustache. People still stared agape at the tandem-riding sahibs.
One day Shipton asked Harakali, “When is Durga Puja this year?”
“In the month of Ashwin (*), Sir.”
“This year arrange for the Puja in our building.”
“That will be excellent, Sir. If you allow me, I can arrange everything---“
“I will pay all the expenses. Must have a poets-tournament too.”
“Sir, Gobinda Adhikari runs a reputable Jatra troupe. If you wish I can reserve them right now.”
“What is Jatra?”
“It’s a type of opera, Sir. They dress up, put on make-ups, act and sing in the roles like Rama, Sita, Ravana—”
“Oh, I understand, like a theater. Good, you arrange it. I’ll pay the expenses.”
“Where shall we hold it, Sir?”
“In our social hall?”
“No Sir. We have to hold it in a large meeting ground, under a tent. Gobinda Adhikari’s troupe, they will attract lots of people.”
“You will get him.”
That year the Durga Puja was a memorable event in the village. A huge idol of Goddess Durga was constructed right in the mansion. Bishwambhar the drummer came from Manasapota and played his drums for all three days. People from seventeen villages crowded to watch Gobinda Adhikari’s ‘Jatra’.
Tilu asked Bhabani, “Listen, Nilu had been wanting to go see the jatra.
“Will it be seemly? Are there separate places for women—besides, anyone else going from our village?”
“Nistarini is going. Nalu Pal’s wife Tulsi is going with her kids—”
“They are rich folks. Forget about them. Nalu Pal is the richest man nowadays. How are they going?”
“Most likely in their palanquin. It is large one. Nilu can easily go with them.”
“I can arrange an oxcart. You too can go.”
“No, I am not going—”
“Why not? If everyone is going you too can—”
Khoka was thrilled to see such a large idol and the grand jatra. The head of the village Kailash Chatterjee (son of late Chandra Chatterjee) didn’t allow any woman to go from their village.