Something occurred in the village that was not at all supposed to happen: Nalu Pal became even more affluent. He was already doing well; lately he had expanded his simple grocery store to a large warehouse and traded paddy, mustard, black lentils and such items in nearby markets.
Dinu Bhotchaj was the one to break the news one day to his buddies in Phoni Chakkotti’s Chandi Mandap. Built long ago by late Shibsatya Chakravarti, the Mandap had become dark with soot from the hand-cut tobacco smoked over the years by the Brahmins of the village. These Brahims were a lazy bunch; none of them had ever stepped outside their district. They didn’t need to, really. All of them had tax-free lands gifted to them, and almost every Brahmin household had paddy barns, a few cows. various fruit trees, bamboo groves and so on. As a result, these jobless Brahmins met from morning till evening in the Chandi mandaps of Phoni Chakkotti or Shyam Ganguly or Late Chander Chatterjee, smoked tobacco, played chess or dice, spread gossips and plotted against the weak ones. Occasionally they made one of them treat all to a feast as a fine for doing something wrong.
Thus when Dinu Bhotchaj said with wide eyes, 'Hey guys, have you all heard what our Nalu Pal has done this time?', everyone eagerly sat up and asked, “What happened? What has he done?”
“Satish Kolu and Nalu Pal made big profits from their tobacco business. Not mere ten or twenty rupees, but much, much more. Count’em now in thousands!”
Everyone exclaimed in surprise, “How? How did they do it?”
Dinu said, “They have been secretly trading in tobacco for quite some time. They borrow a load from Bhajanghat and sell it high in Calcutta. Satish Kolu’s brother-in-law is a big wholesaler in Bhajanghat. I bet he has been advising these two. Otherwise how could they get such skills for business? That’s all they needed for a big profit.”
“Yes, I’ve heard it too.” Phoni Chakkotti said, “But it’s not the brother-in-law of Satish Kolu. Nalu Pal’s father-in-law is a big businessman himself. He loaned them the starting money.”
The village barber Hari had come there to shave everyone. It was the weekly date for the communal shave. It was easy in the morning to get all the clients together in one place, so Hari had fixed the Chandi Mandap to ply his business. But he didn’t start his work right away. He first rested and smoked for a while. Now he put down the smoking pipe. “No uncle. Binod Pramanik is not that well off. I know. He is a small businessman, where would he get all that money?”
“They all have money stashed away. He loves his son-in-law, the husband of his only child. He somehow financed him. Otherwise how could they start the business?”
Even though they couldn’t determine the source of the financing, it became clear within the next six months to a year that Nalu Pal had indeed become seriously rich. It became clear when he started a large trading center for paddy rice in the Patpatitala ghat. He leased the ghat from a landowner. Ten to twenty large boats full of paddy and mustard arrived at his ghat every day during the harvest season. The goods were unloaded and sold to the buyers. Two helpers barely managed to weigh in all the loads. In one season Nalu made at least twenty five grand in profit from this one center in Patpatitala. He hired more helpers, clerks, bill-collectors, turned his grocery store into a large trading center and even opened a fabric store next to it.
The old Nalu Pal was a well off householder, the new Nalu Pal became a prosperous merchant.
But you wouldn’t guess any of this by just looking at him. He still wore only a short, nine-cubit length dhoti and went about with bare chest and bare feet. He always bowed to all the Brahmins with folded hands and touched their feet respectfully. He wore a sacred basil garland on his neck and carried a bag with God’s names written on it. Yet, what he achieved in one lifetime was beyond belief for most people.
If you met him and asked, “How are you Pal moshai?” He would humbly fold his hands, and reply, “Greetings, sir. Come in, please have a seat. Honestly, sir, business is so slow. If things don’t improve I’ll have to downsize a lot. It can’t go on like this.” Looking at his pitiful face an inexperienced person might feel sorry for his misfortune but that ascetic humble appearance had nothing to do with the reality. His trading center alone traded fourteen - fifteen thousand rupees business annually. The fabric store had a capital of thirty thousand easy.
Nalu had a partner—Satish Kolu. Both used to carry goods on their heads and walk miles to sell them in the village market. Nalu sold betel nuts and Satish sold mustard oil. From there Nalu saved enough money to start a small grocery store. With advice from Satish, Nalu started buying mustard, potato and tobacco from Teghara-Shekhhati and Bandhmura trading stations and sold them in his villages. An old-hand and a master of the weighing scales, Satish didn’t get any share of the profit at that time; he just searched for the trading places. He was an expert in buying and selling. The sellers could judge him in one glance, yes, here was a buyer meaning business. That was the key to his success. Nalu Pal was already known for his honesty. Both of them together made an ideal partnership for a solid business.
When Nalu got home his wife Tulsi asked, “Dear, it is the festive Kali Puja season, why are you sitting like a statue?"
“Too much work, dear. Five hundred maunds of stuff sitting in the trading station. Can’t even manage to get it over.”
“I don’t care. I want to invite all the Brahmins in the village and treat them to a feast of loochi and sugar. You must arrange for that. And I want a gold jasham (*).”
“Dear me! Looks like an expensive demand this time!”
“So be it. For the sake of the kids' welfare, you need to do this. And you also need to get a pair of bor (*), and a pata (*) and nimphal(*)--jewelry for the youngest one.”
“Wait, wait. Don’t rush on like that, slow down—”
“I don’t have time to slow down. Have to bring sister-in-law Moina from her in-laws' place—I better send Soy’s mother right away.”
“Of course. She always comes around Kali Puja. You can send for her anytime you want. And wait, we need to decide the place for feeding the Brahmins. Chandra Chatterjee is dead—”
“Listen to me. Do it in Bhabani Banerji’s place. It is one of my two wishes.”
“Please tell what is your second wish?”
“Sure. You must ask Ramkanai Kabiraj to be the priest for the pujas. There is no one like him in this entire area.”
“I know. But he is a tough nut to crack. He can’t be bought with money. Bhabani Thakur too is the same. But we are lucky to have Tilu Didi. You can start working on her. If it is held in their place, all the Brahmins will come.”
As a result of all this conjugal planning, all the Brahmins got invited to Bhabani’s house on the night of Kali Puja. Tilu’s Khoka kept asking every invitee, “How are you?” To some people he added, “Come in, come in, are you well?”
Tilu and Nilu were placing salt on everyone’s plate, Khoka too wanted to join in. So he went around putting salt in everyone’s plate. He would ask with big questioning eyes, “Want salt? Like some salt?”
He looked so cute, everyone adored him. They talked among themselves, “Of course, his mother is such a beauty and the father is good looking too.” People asked for extra salt just to have the child come to them, “A little bit here, Khoka—”
Khoka would busily reply, “Co-ming—”
While putting the salt, he would ask, “Are you well? Want salt?”
Ramkanai was the assistant priest for the puja. He too was sitting with the Brahmins. Tilu was serving him hot loochis again and again. He objected, “No more dear, I can’t eat so much!”
Ramkanai Kabiraj had aged. Although he was a good physician he was not so good in managing money. As a result, he had hardly any savings and remained as poor as he always was. Shipton sahib once offered him some money, as compensation for the unnecessary beatings earlier but Ramkanai did not want to touch the money from a non-believer. So, he refused.
Sri Lalmohan Pal (aka Nalu Pal) stood nearby watching the feasting Brahmins. This was a fortunate day for him that so many Brahmins accepted his offer of the feast of loochi and sugar. It took him half a maund of white flour, ten sers of pure ghee and ten sers of sugar. It was an elaborate feast, like an auspicious ceremony. Worth looking at.
“Hey Tulsi, Come and have a look. It is worth seeing—”
Tulsi was shyly standing under the jackfruit tree, hearing her husband’s call she pulled the veil over her head and face properly and came to stand near him. Both husband and wife stood looking at the feast as if spellbound at their own luck. Nalu could not quite express the joy he was feeling. How hard he had to work in his uncle’s place during those earlier days! How his aunt would insult him if he wanted a little more oil for his hair. He was young and wanted longer hair. Without oil his hair remained dry and rough. If he wanted a bit more rice she would grumble, ‘How can I feed an elephant like you day after day…?’
That Nalu Pal was feeding loochi and sugar to so many Brahmins today!
He wanted to yell out, “Tilu Didi, give them more food, as much as they want. Once I had to struggle so much to eat just a handful—”
When the Brahmin guests were leaving, Tulsi covered her head and went back to her previous post under the jackfruit tree. Sri Lalmohan Pal folded his hands and humbly asked everyone, “Did you have enough Thakur-moshai? Was everything OK?”
Everyone in the village liked Nalu. So they all praised his efforts. Shambhu Ray (a distant nephew of Rajaram Ray, he worked as a scribe in the Amuti Company House in Calcutta) said to him, “Come Nalu, I’ll take you to Calcutta next Monday. There is a festival there—it will be a lot of fun. These people here never go anywhere outside the village, just live like frogs in a well. They have opened train lines from Howrah to as far as Bardhaman, we can go see—”
“I know trains. My supply came the other day by train from some station, my clerk told me once.”
“No. How could I? Never visited Calcutta.”
“Come, you can see all that and more.”
“I’m a bit nervous. I hear of too many thieves and cheats there—”
“I’ll be there with you. You have enough money, what’s there to worry? I’ll find you rooms in a good reputable Bengali inn. You’ve never seen anything like that. The Government is celebrating victory in the Kabul war.”
Thus Nalu Pal and his wife Tulsi left for Calcutta to see the celebrations. The elders in his family objected to traveling with wife. White sahibs turned people Christian by feeding them beef. There were many such rumors. Shambhu Ray was the only person in the village who had some knowledge about Calcutta. He reassured everyone and took Nalu and Tulsi with him.
In Calcutta they rented a small tiled house in Kalighat. The rent was a bit high, one anna per day. Tulsi bathed in Adiganga (the original stream of Ganges) and worshipped with golden ‘bel’ leaf and a pair of goats as sacrifice.
They stayed in Calcutta for seven days. Tulsi bathed in the Ganges everyday and worshipped in the temple.
Then there was Calcutta. How could they even describe the houses and mansions, the horses and carriages? The rich folks visited the field ‘Garer Maath’ in huge carriages drawn by four horses. They had sprawling garden houses in the suburbs. Apparently every Saturday and Sunday they enjoyed singing and dancing parties there. And to see the huge food shops in Calcutta! Nalu and Tulsi had never even seen such displays and so many kinds of food. The roads were so crowded when they displayed the fireworks in Garer Maath (grounds of Fort Williams). The sahibs plied whips to clear the ways. People stepped back in fear. Tulsi too got one lash, she looked back and saw two sahibs and one mem lashing with whips in every direction, as they proudly marched ahead. She cried in fear and stepped back. Shambhu Ray quickly steered them away from there. Nalu noticed the prices of vegetable were much higher than in their village. This was the first time he saw vegetables sold by weight. One ser eggplant was two paise! How could people live in this city? Milk was one anna to six paise per ser. Even that was not pure milk; it was half diluted with water. But Shambhu said that the price hike was only temporary, due to the influx of people coming in the city for the celebrations, it was not the regular market price in Calcutta. Potatoes were plentiful and fairly inexpensive. That was one thing not available in the village. It was very tasty too. Sometimes sellers bought it in the city and sold in the villages but at a very high price. Nalu told his wife, “We must take some of these potatoes with us when we go back. But first, I need to figure out if it is reasonable to import from the city.”
Tulsi said, “Those are sahib food. Can’t always use them in our cooking.”
“Who said ‘sahib food’? They cultivate them in our country. I know about other trading places. In Kalna and Katoa these potatoes are plentiful and much less expensive. But who in our village will buy them? Otherwise I could easily get them from Kalna. I keep track of everything. These are popular in the city but not in the villages.”
Tulsi said, “Huh! You are like the paddy-horse that does not quit husking even after reaching the heavens. Always thinking about business, buying and selling, even in vacation!”
For many days Nalu Pal would describe his amazing travel experience to the folks in his village. But an even more surprising event occured one day. It was a day in midwinter when Dewan Harakali Sur and his bench clerk Narahari Peshkar appeared in Nalu’s warehouse. Nalu Pal and Satish Kolu immediately stood up to welcome them. Tobacco and paan were arranged for the guests right away. After all, Harkali Sur was an important person, the Dewan, of the indigo plantation, he didn’t just suddenly visit anyone. Satish Kolu immediately ran to the confectioner Nobu for some snacks…. After some time the Dewan divulged the reason for his visit. Baro-sahib wanted to borrow some money. Bengal Indigo Concern was quitting the Mollahati plantation. Indigo business was in a doldrum. Shipton-sahib wanted to keep the plantation as his personal property but he had to pay fifteen thousand rupees to Bengal Indigo Concern. Shipton would like to mortgage the buildings to Nalu Pal for the money.
Narahari said, “This is our only chance to keep the plantation. Otherwise from the month of Chaitra (*late spring), there will be no plantation and no job for all of us working there. Sahib too will leave.”
Dewan Harakali said, “Sahib really wants to try running the plantation himself. After spending so many years here he doesn’t want to uproot and go anywhere else. There is no one back in his country. His wife is dead. There is one daughter but she never visited this country.”
Nalu Pal humbly folded his hands, “I can’t decide right away, Dewan-babu. After all, the business is not mine alone, I also have a partner and I need to confer with him. I will let you know in three or four days.”
Dewan Harakali said while taking his leave, “Why three days, take fifteen days. We need the money in March. There is still plenty of time.”
Tulsi was surprised when she heard about it, “Wow! Are you sure?”
“I am wondering too! How far they have fallen!”
“You want to give them the loan?”
“I’m not against it. That huge mansion, a hundred and fifty bighas of prime land with clear titles, a mango orchard with large trees, the horses, the carriages, furniture, chandeliers, everything will stay mortgaged to us. Even in these days, there is plenty still left in that plantation. But Satish is not willing. He says, ‘We are warehouse merchants, why get into all these hassles? Perhaps later on we may end up in court about the possession’.”
Nalu couldn’t sleep that night. Baro-sahib Shipton…riding in his tandem… the foot soldiers, stick fighters…all the pomp and shows…lashing out with Shyamchand… ‘Burn those houses!’…He was going to sell paan and betel nuts in the market of Mollahati!
He really wanted to lend that money.
Besides the victory celebrations for the Afghan War, one more noteworthy event took place that year.
Baro-sahib Shipton died suddenly at the end of March. He had a fever for only a few days.
Nobody had imagined that he would die so suddenly.
During his illness Gaya mem had nursed him with all her heart. She was at his side from the very beginning. Shipton would sing or mumble in his delirium, Gaya could not understand his kich-mich English words.
He would call, “Gaya, listen…”
“What is it?”
“Give me some brandy. You must.”
Gaya had not slept several nights. Her eyes were red, clothes disheveled, hair loose. There were the sahib’s servants, employees, Dewan, clerks, waiters, Amin—they were still salaried under Bengal Indigo Company. They all were around and eager to help but Gaya was the only woman. She alone nursed him and stayed up nights with him. She didn’t let him drink. With a severe voice she replied, “No, you won’t get any. Doctor said no drink.”
Shipton looked at her, “Dearie, I adore you dear, you understand? I adore you.”
“Don’t talk nonsense.”
“Give me brandy. Just a little, won’t you? Please—"
“No. I’ll bring some sugared water instead.”
“Oh, to hell with your sugared water! When am I getting my peg? I need brandy—"
“Quiet now. Or your cough will get worse, you will get headaches.”
Shipton stayed quiet for some time. After two days his condition worsened. Dewan Harakali Sur tried his best to send him to Calcutta but Sahib didn’t want to go. Experienced physician Akshay was called from the district town. He too advised against moving the patient.
One day Gaya brought Ramkanai Kabiraj.
Ramkanai sat on a chair by the bedside with his bundle of herbs and potions. Sahib looked at him. “Ah! The old medicine man! When did I meet you last, my old medicine man? You must answer, I insist—“
Then after some silence, “You will not be looking at the moon, will you? Your name and profession?”
Gaya said, “See, he is talking like this since yesterday. All nonsense—"
Ramkanai was concentrating on checking the patient’s pulse. After finishing he said, “Kshine balabati nadi, sa nadi pranaghatika. The pulse is weak and strong, irregular. Such sign is usually dangerous to life. From time to time give him the water with some aniseed soaked in it. I’ll prescribe a medicine but you will need to get the supplement for it. That is more important than the medicine itself. I can arrange for some—I know about it—but you must provide me with a helper.”
Shipton tried to sit up on the bed. “You see, old medicine man, I have too many things to do this summer to have any time for your rigmarole—you just—"
Gaya and Sriram Muchi forced him back in the bed.
Gaya affectionately scolded, “Stop it, no more talking.”
Sahib was still staring at Ramkanai. After a while he spoke again, “Shall I get you a glass of vermouth, my good man? Like a glass of wine? It is a good wine. Oh, that reminds me, when am I going to have my dinner? Bring me my dinner—"
During the next two restless nights, the sahib annoyed Gaya with his many demands and shouts. From the afternoon of the third day he fell silent. Only once, late at night, he looked up at Gaya and asked, “Where am I?”
Gaya bent over him, and asked, “What are you saying, sahib? Can you recognize me?”
Sahib stayed looking at her for some time, then asked, “What wages do you get here?”
That was his last sentence. Later he developed extremely painful pangs of breath. That went on for a long time. Seeing him suffering Gaya started crying. Everyone stood helplessly around his bed, Sriram Muchi, Dewan Harakali, Prasanna Amin, Narahari the clerk and Nafar Muchi. Dewan Harakali said, “Can’t see him suffering like this. Wish there was something we could do—"
But Shipton-sahib did not suffer at all. Nobody knew that he had already gone far away to his motherland. He was in Aldery village in Westmoreland. Over the mountainous Wrynose Pass, under the shades of the oaks and the elms, he was with his ten-year-old brother, going hunting for rabbits or sail a boat in the mountain lake Elterwater. Their pet Great Dane was with them. They were busy reeling in huge pikes or carps…and all the time he could hear the bells from their tiny village church…with the snowy cold air from far away…through the bare branches of the beech trees shedding their leaves…
Tilu poured the entire fig curry on her husband’s plate. “You take it.”
Bhabani, wearing a wet gamchha, tried to stop her, “No, no, what are you doing?”
“Have some. You love fig.”
“Has Khoka had his lunch?”
“Yes, and gone somewhere to play. Nilu, please bring the fish. Would you like the fried khoira fish or the shrimp dish first?
“Who brought the khoiras?”
“Who else? Where do kings get their gold? Bheem and the fisherman Nimai brought some over. Two paise only. I hear cowrie shells are not accepted in the market any more. Everyone wants copper coins.”
“So many things are changing with time. So many more will change in the future. Have you heard something?"
Nilu brought the fried khoira fish and stood near. Bhabani told her to sit down and related the story to both of them. Rail tracks were being laid nearby. They already finished all the way to Chuadanga. Trains might start running this year or next. Tilu raised her bangled arms to her face and listened intently. Suddenly a crash was heard from the kitchen. Nilu too had put down the bowl of fish and was resting her chin on her closed fists listening to the story, now she picked up the serving bowl and ran to the kitchen. They could hear her exclaiming, “Get out. Get! Pain in the neck—"
Tilu craned her neck and called out, “Did he get it?”
“I had fried the large goby fish for Khoka’s dinner. He took it away!”
“The tom or the female one?”
“Don’t let him in the house today, beat him up with the broom.”
Bhabani commented, “He too is God’s creation. If not from us, where else would he get his food? Let him have some. Nilu, come back; hear the rest of the story. Not only just see the train but if we are still alive, very soon we may be able to ride in the train too and go by train to see the Ras festival in Shantipur.”
Nilu had come back empty-handed by then and sat down again to hear the story. Bhabani went on. Many porters had arrived carrying pick-axes and crowbars. They were cutting down the forest and laying the tracks. He had already seen them. The tracks were like steel bricks and very long. The workers joined them and made long tracks.
Tilu said, “We want to see too.”
“Sure, but laying the tracks is not much fun to see. The train will start from next year. Where do you want to go?”
Nilu said, “Jashti Jugal. Didi will come too.
“See Jugal (pair) in the month of Jashti (*)
Stay happy in heaven with husband.”
“Oho! Sudden adoration of husband?”
“Nothing to laugh at. Let us hang on to our iron bangle, anklet and hip belt (*signs of a married woman). Bilu didi was fortunate to leave wearing a red-bordered sari with her hair full of vermilion (*both signs of married woman)—that too was so long ago.”
Tilu scolded, “Couldn’t you find something else to talk about during his meals? You are getting brainless as you get old.”
Although it had been four or five years since Bilu’s death, Tilu was aware of Bhabani’s feelings about this topic. Lunchtime was not for such discussion.
Just then Nistarini, with her head covered, entered the courtyard and called eagerly, “Didi, has he finished eating already?”
“Why? What have you got there?”
“A sour preparation with amra(*) and a vegetable hash with taro greens. He once said that he liked them, so I thought of bringing them over. He is finished?”
“Don’t worry. He is still eating, Go, and give him.”
Nistarini was shy, “You take it to him Didi, I can’t—"
“Nonsense, you are like his daughter, why so shy? Go—"
With hesitant steps, Nistarini went to Bhabani and put down the bowls next to his plate. She didn’t say anything but her face was bright with eagerness and curiosity. Bhabani tasted the taro-green hash from a bowl and said, “Wow! It is very tasty. Who made it, Bouma?"
Nistarini was a strange wife in this village. She alone walked on the main street visiting her friends, talked to different people, and even performed some daring feats—like walking alone all the way to another neighborhood in the middle of the afternoon to bring a vegetable! No other wife in the village would dare do such a thing. Many people whispered behind her back and pointed their fingers at her but Nistarini was not timid or young. She was tough and was not intimidated even by her elder in-laws or anybody else. She was also quite pretty at one time but now her looks had faded a little.
Bhabani felt very affectionate towards her. A woman with so much vital energy was unfairly smeared by dirty gossips. The villages of Bengal were full of such impotent people. They could never appreciate a beautiful, smart, strong woman. All they worried were their social clans.
He had met two such strong women in this village. Nistarini and Gaya-mem. Gaya too was made strong by her life experiences.
He had heard about Gaya from Ramkanai Kabiraj. After Shipton’s death she used to come to Ramkanai’s hut regularly to listen to Lord Chaitanya’s saga. She always helped the needy ones with a coin, clothes or a handful of rice. Many had tried to tempt her and lead her astray but she did not sway. With her own strength she had overcome all temptations. After her client Shipton-sahib’s death, she was in dire straits. Everyone shunned her and made her an outcaste. Yet those very same people used to butter her up to gain her favor when she had the clout and the power to move the indigo markers on their lands or give them jobs to cut grass in the plantation. People were such cowards!
In the evening Bhabani went to Khepi’s (*female ascetic) ashram (*hut). Khepi was overjoyed to see him. After some time, Bhabani asked, “How are things?”
Here was another woman, this Khepi. She dressed like an ascetic, was about forty years old, and was not beautiful by any conventional sense, just a strong, capable woman. She lived alone in the middle of a dense forest. There were tigers, bad people, but she was not scared of anything. She had a trident and enough will power to stab and slay any threat.
Khepi sat down near him and said, “I want to hear some ‘good talks’ today.”
Bhabani smiled, “Have I ever said any ‘bad talks’?”
“Are your wives doing well?”
“Well too. Goes to school. Wanted to come here.”
“Bring him next time.”
“Well, tell me, do you believe the visible essence of God or is He formless?”
“Leave those deep discussions Khepi. I am a simple family man. If you want to know that stuff, ask my guru brother Chaitanyabharati.”
“Tell me some more about those western places. You told us some stories one day when it was raining outside. I really enjoyed that.”
Bhabani Banerjee often visited Khepi’s ashram. Dwarik Karmakar was a disciple there. He had recently built a thatched shed for all the followers to gather and smoke hashish. Another disciple Hafez Mandal worked alone and raised a small hut, Dwarik had paid for the ropes, thatches and bamboos. They all gathered every evening and the hashish smoke obscured the place under the peepal tree. When Bhabani arrived, they put off their smokes in deference to him.
Bhabani started, “A river flowed in the middle of a saal(*) forest. On the hills were dense forest of bels (*) and amlaki (*). Not just one or two trees but many, many more. My guru would subsist on bel, amlaki and custard apple. That was many years ago. I had been here, in your land, now almost twelve or fourteen years. I am now sixty or sixty-two. Khoka’s mother was thirty when I came, now she is forty-four. Time flows by like water. So much had happened after I came here. But I still feel my gurudeb is alive and in deep meditation from morning till evening under that amlaki tree.”
Khepi was listening attentively. She asked, “Is he still alive?”
“When my guru brother Chaitanyabharati came a few years ago, he was alive then, now I don’t know.”
“Did he give you any mantra for your initiation?”
“Sort of. He never gave mantra to anyone, just advised.”
“I would have loved to go visit him, but now I am too old to walk all that way.”
“I hear they are laying railroad tracks all over the country. Do you know?”
“Yes, but would they allow us to ride or is it only for the white sahibs?”
“I think it is for everyone. But you have to pay.”
“My God comes to me right here under this peepal tree, Thakur-moshai. We are poor folks. We can’t afford to visit Gaya, Kashi or Brindaban, but does that mean He would forsake us? Of course not. He is everywhere, with Form or without. He comes to our poor huts under this very tree and smokes hashish with us too.”
“Sorry, Thakur-moshai, I shouldn’t have said that. These are secrets not to be divulged. But I said it only to you, not to any other folks.”
Bhabani smiled and stayed quiet. He believed in letting people believe whatever they wanted. If they believed God smoked hashish with them, who was he to destroy that belief? These ignorant people didn’t try to understand the immensity of God; they only wanted to establish an intimate relationship with Him. But, even though not of the universe, at least they had some imagination. Those who couldn’t imagine Him at all would only try to pull down the Unending and confine Him into a limited boundary.
Khepi asked, “Are you annoyed? I know you, that’s why I worry.”
“Nothing to worry. Let everyone believe whatever he wants. There is nothing wrong in it. Just because I may not agree I am not going to fight about it. OK, I better get going now.”
“Have some fruits—"
“No, not now. Bye.”
Dwarik Karmakar arrived right then with a bottle gourd in his hand, “Going to have shukto (*) with this.”
Bhabani asked, “Why Dwarik? You want to have it yourself?”
Dwarik very humbly replied, “Never sir, I never eat anything cooked by her, why, not even cooked by my own daughter. When I visited her in-laws in Bhajanghat, they offered bottled gourd cooked in moong dal (*), I turned them down too. I said, “Please forgive me, I can’t do that.” I cooked it myself in their courtyard.”
Dwarik was an expert fisherman, Bhabani said, “You are such an expert with the rods, why don’t you tell a story about fishing?”
Dwarik again replied with humility, “Yes, I am. After all, I have been fishing in these rivers and swamps for forty some years. Anybody doing one thing for that long would become an expert in it, no?”
Khepi said, “If you spent that much time seeking God, you would’ve achieved something by now. You wasted your invaluable life in fishing only.”
Dwarik was very embarrassed. He never thought of it in this way. Now at sixty-five years of age he heard it for the first time. He put down the gourd without any enthusiasm next to an akanda (*) bush in the courtyard. Bhabani felt sorry for him, “Listen, Khepi, why blame Dwarik? I too gave up such a great guru and came back to marriage and family. Why? Who can explain? Let everyone do whatever he wants. But he must do it well, without cheating anyone and without hurting anyone. That’s all. If every stone wants to be the great idol for worship who would do the job of grinding spices?”
Khepi said, “I just can’t stand ignorance. Dwarik, please don’t mind. Where is your gourd? I’ll make the curry and offer it to Goddess Kali. Then you can have some, it will not be held against you.”
Everyone felt a bit uneasy in Bhabani’s presence, as they could not smoke hashish in front of him. Hafez Mandal came over and glanced at Bhabani, like ‘where did this pain in the neck come from? Can’t even smoke a little'.
Khepi said, “Look at these useless guys, only thing they are good at is smoking hashish--”
“You encourage them. Otherwise they wouldn’t dare.”
“I too smoke, a little. It helps to focus the mind in one direction.”
It started raining lightly. Bhabani wanted to leave but his hosts wouldn’t let him. All of them sat in the large thatched room. Everyone was entranced by Bhabani’s telling of the saga of Shankha and Likhita from Mahabharata. Shankha and Likhita were two brothers. Both were ascetics, but lived in different ashrams in different places. The younger brother Likhita once came over to Shankha’s place and found him away from home. He sat and waited for his brother to return when he noticed a ripe fruit hanging from the tree. Sage Likhita immediately picked it and ate it up. When Shankha returned, he told him about eating the fruit. Shankha was immediately concerned. How could Likhita do it? An ascetic stealing someone else's property! Even though it was his brother’s, it still was not Likhita’s fruit to eat. Taking something without the owner’s permission is nothing but stealing, however insignificant it may be. Stealing was a cardinal sin, particularly for the ascetics. How could Likhita commit such an act?
Likhit too was worried. “What shall I do, brother?”
Shankha advised him to go to the King, admit his sin and beg for appropriate punishment. Likhita humbly agreed. He went to the King and ignoring all greetings and calls from the attendants of the royal court, surprising all courtiers, he knelt before the King and asked to be punished. The King too was surprised. The eminent sage Likhita committed stealing? Likhita explained the whole story. The King just laughed and tried to dismiss it away. But Likhita was adamant. He said, “O King, you are not aware that my brother is a great sage with wisdom and foresight. He has ordered me to accept punishment. So, please be kind enough and punish me.” After much pleading, the King decided to give him the usual punishment for stealing—cutting off of both hands. Afterward when Likhita went back to Shankha’s ashram, Shankha was devastated at his condition. He hugged Likhita, saying, “Brother, you came to my place at a very inauspicious time and why did you have to eat that guava?”
Just at that time the sun set. Evening was approaching. Shankha said, "Come, brother, let us do our evening prayers.”
Likhita said helplessly, “But I have no hands, brother!”
Shankha said, “You are honest and you paid the price for a careless mistake. If the Sun god does not accept your offerings, will there be any Truth, or righteousness in this world? Come with me.”
As Likhita was trying to make offerings to the holy water of Narmada, his hands again became whole! Both the brothers embraced and returned home. Darkness deepened around them. Shankha smiled at his brother fondly, “Likhita, tomorrow we shall see how many guavas you can eat!”
Dwarik Karmakar exclaimed, "Wow! What a story!”
Hafez Mandal spoke up, “Ah! Wonderful.”
Khepi, sitting behind, sobbed out loud.
It was as if the incense-clouded ashrams of the ancient India became real in this tiny village. Bharatbarsha, the greatest ascetic, the unbreakable firmness for the truth, the ultimate sacrifice for ‘dharma’. They could almost see the sage with bloody stumps raised high, walking through the forest, towards his brother, calling him.
Dwarik remembered that he had cheated one anna from a customer that very day while repairing his sickle.
Hafez remembered that last Wednesday evening he cut out two bamboos, without permission, from the grove of Kuranram Nikiri for making his fishing rods. He did that often. But no more. He would never steal again. Oh! How righteous people were in those old days! It was a pleasure to hear such stories from Bhabani Thakur.
Khepi brought two bananas and a piece of cucumber and placed them in front of Bhabani and pleaded, “Please have something.” Bhabani continued while eating, “God’s discipline is like mother’s discipline. One may overlook other’s errors and mistakes but not of one’s own son. God too is the same. He wouldn’t tolerate anybody blaming one of His sons. The disciple is close to him like a son, so the punishment is strongest for him too. This punishment is only another aspect of His divine love. The disciple must be molded perfect. He must understand that behind that harsh punishing façade is only the loving, benevolent face ever present.
While returning home, Bhabani saw Nistarini walking back alone from the opposite direction. Seeing him she stepped behind a tree. It was quite dark. Where could she be coming from at that hour? Perhaps she went to visit Tilu. Usually she didn’t go anywhere else.
These were the women of the future. Their alta(*) decorated feet danced to the tune of the days yet to come. Only a few could hear it. These brave girls were not appreciated in these societies enveloped in dark clouds of superstition. Every village elder criticized and cursed them in the meetings at the chandimandaps. But they were the messengers of change, they welcomed the future.
He also remembered the faraway western places. He had met so many such daring women there, in Brajadham Bithur, and Balmiki Tapoban. There the evergreen leaves of the kadam trees blended with the beauty of the yellowish hue of the neem leaves. Peacocks danced under the atimuktalata (*) bushes where = deep blue thorns were covered by the bright red flowers. There the ghagra-clad shapely young Braja girls played in the water of Kalindi. When would the women of Bengal be emancipated like them? When would the girls rise in Bengal? When would brave daughters and wives like Nistarini be born here in every family?
Tilu said that night, “Listen dear, Nistarini is causing problems again.”
“She is again seeing someone—"
“No. Not like that. Someone comes to see her. From her parent’s place.”
“That’s OK. Don’t worry. Who told you all this?”
“She herself. She sat for a long time this evening chatting with Nilu and me. She talks about everything openly. Never tries to lie or hide anything. I like that in her. But it was fine when she was young, now she is older… I scolded her today.”
“No, don’t scold her too much. Let her do what she thinks is the best.”
“And you know what? She really respects you a lot.”
“You sound surprised? One can never trust men. You folks are so unpredictable. Listen, she really admires you. Says, ‘Didi, you are so fortunate to have him as your husband.’ If we joke about you being too old, she gets mad, says, ‘What old age? Show me another handsome man like him among the younger ones in this village’…hehehe…is she falling in love with you? I think she comes here just to see you.”
“Shame Tilu, don’t say things like that. She would be my daughter’s age.”
“We too are your daughter’s age, so what? She really has—a crush—”
“Forget it. Where is Khoka?”
"He had dinner a little while ago. Just went to bed. He was reading some book. He wanted to have dinner with you but I told him you would be very late. Shall I set the dinner?”
"Yes. But I want to do the evening prayers first. Just call Nilu—”