In the evening Bhabani and Khoka went to visit Ramkanai Kabiraj.
Khoka would not leave his father alone. He had to go wherever he went. Tall acacia and shimul (*) trees stood in a line with tangled dark shyamlata (*) creepers below; bats, and civet cats rustled in the darkness of the jungle. Fireflies blinked around a termite hill. It looked just like a man sitting in the bamboo grove. Khoka was startled, and asked, “What is that, Baba?”
Ramkanai’s mud hut was at the south end of the Charpara ground. There was a light in the double-tiered clay lamp stand. Ramkanai was happy to see them. Khoka too loved this earthen hut of the old man. There was some enchantment mixed in the air here. The room looked charming in the soft lamplight. The earthen floor was smooth and clean. The Bagdis lived nearby. One penniless girl from that community came to clean Ramkanai’s house free of cost as she was once cured of a difficult disease by his treatment.
There was a portrait of some God in a niche on the wall. It was decorated with flowers. There was no bedstead in the room. A mat was spread on the floor, a few books and papers were scattered around and three or four cane baskets that contained not Ramkanai’s clothes or other necessities but only seeds and roots for his Ayurvedic medicines.
Bhabani too loved to spend his evenings in this simple hut of this unambitious, poor Brahmin. There was none like him in these villages. Ramkanai read Chaitanya Charitamrita and Bhabani listened attentively. In his mind he went back to his wandering days in a sadhu’s ashram on a small hill near the banks of Narmada. The sadhu’s name was Swami Kaibalyananda—he was an ascetic from the Puri community. He was a disciple of Shri Shri 108 Madhabananda Puri. He lived alone in the hut above and down on the ground two or three of his disciples lived in a long thatched room and did chores for him. They also had a milking cow. The students took care of it, fed it grass and made cow dung patties for fuel.
The fence around the hut was made of stalks of hemp. The roofs were shaded by the grass from the hills. Flowers of some wild vine blooming on the fence perfumed the air around the hut. Wild parakeets called from the high branches of the red cedar trees. One could hear the mountain stream on the opposite bank at the foothills of Mahadeo range. Guru Kaibalyananada’s disciple Anup Brahmachari would sing devotional songs in the hut below. Often at night Bhabani would wake up listening to the doleful tune of Tilok Kamod raga coming up from below—‘I watch the time passing by/ but cannot wait for tomorrow.’
In the morning he would sit in the courtyard and watch a tall lac tree below and a tamarind tree right next to it. In the cracks and crevices of the huge boulders grew a profusion of wild flowers that looked like doshbaichandi (*) flowers of Bengal. They didn’t have any smell but a yellow flower growing on a wild vine perfumed the air. What a peaceful place it was, the cool shade, the calls of the wild birds from the forests along the river. Nobody came there to break the silence. It was an ideal spot for thinking about God and meditating. Afterwards he would go down to Narmada to bathe and climb up to the cottage stepping on the rocks and boulders.
Sitting in Ramkanai’s cottage reminded Bhabani about those peaceful days. But Phoni Chakravarti’s Chandi mandap! It was always busy with materialstic talks, about money, property and scandal mongering. Phoni was not the only one. Every single person in the village talked only about insignificant local gossips. Bhabani was tired of it.
Bhabani also sensed that a temple for God should be in a small simple cottage like this one, in a serene, secluded forest. Huge temples with marble floors and stone-built couryards only showed off the wealth. God was not there. He had seen plenty of greedy materialism among the priests and worshippers in those temples. God didn’t live in marbled houses.
Ramkanai asked, “Banerjee moshai, ever been to Brindaban?”
“How come? You’ve been to so many places—”
“I don’t care about the whimsy of Brindaban Lila. “
“I don’t have the wisdom to convince you otherwise. But a faithful disciple often can’t get to fully enjoy God’s love because of all the noise and chaos of everyday life. That’s why this spiritual land was created where the eternal play between God and His faithful can go on. That is what we call Brindaban Lila.”
“That is fine. But what you call ‘Lila’ is going on all the time in nature, all around us. If you have the eyes and ears you can see and hear bird calls, blooming flowers, children’s play and laughter—”
“But does everyone have that eye?”
“So he gropes all around him. Our ancient scriptures are the Vedas. In my opinion, the true scriptures are the Vedas that are found in nature—in the sky, rivers, flowers, stars and children. Through them you can glimpse all the wealth of His Lilas in the world. It is not the marbled temple where He resides. Wherever He lives, that is the temple. While coming here today I saw lotus flowers blooming in the marsh of Charpara. There is His temple. One must love the nature and move with its rhythm. Only nature can help us reach its inner core, the Great Power.”
“That is what the Vaishnav scriptures tell us, ‘Krishna appears wherever the eyes look’.”
“Exactly. Is He confined in a temple or a pilgrim place? Are you crazy? Never. 'Banaspatou bhubhriti nirjhare ba kuley samdrusya sarit-tate ba.’ He is all around--in the ‘trees, earth, streams, seashore or lakeside’--everywhere. He would be standing right in front, but if I don’t open my eyes to see, He can’t help me. He would come in a child’s form running to me and hug me. But I shriek and run away, calling it ‘Maya’ (ties that bind)—how can I ever find him with that attitude, that mentality? In His embrace is our ultimate release—Moksha. Will crying about moksha and running around make us find it? What a wonderful liberation!”
“Well, does God want our love? What do you say, Banerjee-moshai?”
“I think I can understand a little nowadays. I think God too wants love. I didn’t get it before. I stressed more on the ‘jnan’, Knowledge. Now I see Him as my father. We are all born in His family. His blood runs in our veins. He will never push us towards evil, He just can’t. Like a wise father He will hold our hands and lead us. He is the wise, the ancient, the experienced, the knowledgeable, and the all-powerful father. We are mere children--ignorant, coward, helpless and mired with superstitions. How can He knowingly push us to the path of unholy? That is just not possible.”
Ramkanai enthusiastically approved, “Bravo, bravo! Well said.”
Bhabani Banerjee stayed silent for a while, as if hesitating to say the next sentence. Then he just spoke out, “This is my own understanding, Kabiraj moshai. I didn’t get it before. The truth is that it is far more precious to realize even a minute glimmer of truth in one’s own heart than hearing a thousand words of advice and wisdom from others. I understood God as father only after I became a father myself. How could I imagine it before, you tell me?”
Ramkanai smiled, “Hmm… so it boils down to this—Khoka is one of your gurus?”
“You can say that again. After all, who is not a guru? Anytime I learn something from a person, he becomes my guru. He is everyone’s guru. As the song goes—
‘As a father I sire the child
As a mother I breastfeed
As a child I again feed at the breast
All these are varied forms of Me---'
“Whose song is that? Very nice.” Ramkanai said.
“Some new poet. Can’t remember the name. The beginning is—
‘I am in Myself, in everything am I
I am everything, everything is mine.’
Ramkanai was a wonderful listener. So was Khoka. Khoka sat quietly in one corner looking at his father in surprise mixed with awe. Ramkanai spoke with enthusiasm, “Nice song but too deep. One God Vedanta. That means the song embodies the difficult philosophy of Adwaita Vedanta. It is not meant for all.”
“Agree. But Truth has no deep or shallow about it. My guru taught me all this. He used to say—Believing in non-dualism is not that easy. A true monotheist would consider the joys of all living beings as his own. Their sorrow would be his sorrow. He would spend his life in service of them. Their bodies will be his body, their souls his soul. There will be no ‘me vs. others’ distinction. He would happily sacrifice himself to alleviate the slightest hardship of others. In his state of awareness he would feel like he was everything and every being in the world and everything was his. And when he was in samadhi, in deep meditation, he would feel he was nothing, nothing was his. The entire world was nothing, non-existent. Only I exist. The rest of the world disappears. Understood Kabiraj moshai?”
“Very deep. Very good but very deep. Difficult to digest for me. I just crush the pills and cure the ailments, what do I know of Vedantas? Don’t even have that brain. But I really enjoy listening to it. You come to my poor hut and give me so much joy. Wait; let me give some food to Khoka. I really enjoyed the talk today.”
“Then let’s keep going. Why get up for food?”
“Let me give him something. One patient brought some cottage cheese today. Here you go, Khoka--”
Khoka said, “Baba has to eat too. I won’t eat if he doesn’t.”
Ramkanai applauded, “Wow! Like father, like son. Who is that outside?”
Just then Gaya mem came in with a bunch of bananas. She offered it to Ramkanai after bowing deeply, saying, “For you.”
Bhabani was slightly surprised to see her. He asked, “Do you come here often?”
“Once in a while.” Gaya said politely, “But I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“How do you come from that far?”
“No Sir, the days when I come here, I spend the night in Charpara at my sister’s place, distant relation.”
Suddenly she noticed Khoka sitting quietly. She came closer, “Whose boy is he? Yours? What a beautiful child. He has grown so much. Bless you with a long life, be a pride to Dewanji’s family—”
“What do you do nowadays?” Bhabani asked.
“What else is there? I do whatever little job I can find. It has been hard after my mother’s death. That’s why I keep coming here. Just to listen to Chaitanya Charitamrita.”
“Wow! You are saying things that I don’t hear even from Brahmin women.”
“This is all due to your blessing, Baba. Life seemed so empty after my mother’s death”— Then very hesitantly, like admitting a sin, she said in a low voice, “There is no repair for what I did in my young days. I can’t undo it. Now I am older, I can understand it some. With the blessings of people like you—”
“Who are we to bless? He is the one. He will never cast you away. You are His child too.”
Looking at Ramkanai, Bhabani said, “Hey Kabiraj moshai, seems like you’ve become the healer of the ‘spiritual illnesses’ too! I am very pleased to see that.”
“What on earth is that?”
"Like they say, in the song—
‘I’m the healer of the Spiritual Illness
I don’t come here uninvited—'"
“OK. But what is it?”
“I think Divine or Spiritual Illness is ignorance. Chasing after money. Some need only a handful of grain and a few stems of green, nothing more, like you. Others want more and more. Like in the story of two brothers; same mother but one brother becomes rich, the other stays poor.”
“Leave me alone. I don’t know how to earn money. That’s why. If I did I would be rich too.”
“No you wouldn’t. Your mentality is different. You have not seen the dirty materialism. You keep knowledge at the foremost, as the most important thing. That is deep stuff.”
“Forget all that. We all do what we can. I like this hut so I stay here. If someone didn’t like it he would try doing something else.”
“But would he derive more joy than you? Would he be happier? Never. Joy is food for soul, Atman. Closer you go to your Atman, more joy you feel. Further away, towards materialism, more sorrow. Joy is not outside somewhere. It is right inside, in your soul. People don’t know it. They keep chasing for it like the deer after the source of his own musk. They never achieve happiness.”
“That’s their business. What do I know? All I can say is I am happy this way. I realize that joy is inside me. I get that.”
Khoka was still listening intently to all this with intelligent and curious eyes.
Gaya mem really liked him. She quietly asked him, “What’s your name, child?”
“Will you come with me?”
“To my house. I’ll give you papayas.”
“Only if my Baba says.”
“Will he say no if I ask?”
“OK, then take me with you. Do you live far away?”
“I will take you with me. Will you come? Sure?”
Khoka thought a little, and then asked, “You have papayas?”
“Of course. H-uge ones.”
Gaya spread her hands to show the size—which looked more like a gourd than a papaya.
Khoka called, “Baba, Baba, can I go to this auntie’s house? She will give me papayas—”
He never did anything without his father’s permission. He gazed at his father with questioning eyes.
Gaya mem slept that night in Charpara at her sister’s place. They were only distantly related. In the morning she would leave for Mollahati. Not exactly Mollahati, she lived in a village named Ganeshpur. Her host for the night was Neerada, known as Neeri Bagdini in the village. She was not well off. Gaya’s sudden arrival in the evening put Neeri in an awkward situation. What could she offer Gaya for meals? In old days Gayamem was well-known in this area, noted for treating people lavishly with food and gifts. How could Neeri offer just plain rice to such a person? She managed to make a curry with shrimp and ridged gourd and served that with red Aush rice. After dinner she spread a reed mat on the floor and gave Gaya a quilt to sleep in.
That night Gaya tossed and turned but just couldn’t fall asleep.
She kept remembering Khoka’s face. Alas, if only she had a little boy like that! Life wouldn’t feel so empty, so purposeless if she had another person. Who could she cling to?
Since Shipton sahib’s death, the indigo plantation had folded and Nalu Pal became the landlord. Gaya had lost everything and became a pauper. Baro-sahib had given her many jewelry items before his death. She had spent some of those during her mother’s illness. The rest was being sold or pawned in keeping her alive. Very little was left.
The old days seemed like a distant dream to her now. Yet it was not that long ago. The plantation closed and sahib died only a few years ago. Hardly any time, yet everything changed in just those few years.
Nobody looked after others in this hard life. She had gotten that message already. A few people close to her were all gone.
Neeri came and sat by her. She had chewed paan with strong tobacco. Her mouth smelled of it. Gaya couldn’t stand it. She felt nauseous.
“Hi Gaya didi—”
“Are you sleeping?”
“No. It is too hot.”
Neeri too spread another mat and laid down next to Gaya. She said,
“I couldn’t make proper dinner for you. You never came in the old days—”
This was Neeri’s way of taunting Gaya. Why shouldn’t see? Why would the folks let go a chance to kick one at an opportune time? Even a frog would kick an elephant stuck in a well! and Neeri was only a distant relative.
Gaya said, “I am in a bit of a trouble, Neeri. I have no cash money. Can you tell me how I can manage?”
Neeri said with sympathy, “That is a problem Didi. What can I say? You probably can’t husk paddy, can you? Otherwise you could at least feed yourself by your own hard labor.”
“I do husk my own grain, but I have never done it for others. How does it pay?”
“Meaning? I don’t get it.”
“Oh sure! You are such a mem sahib!”
Indeed Gaya mem had never heard about it. From age fourteen she had been supported by rich patrons. She didn’t know about such menial jobs. She asked, “What is it? Tell me Neeri. Please!”
Neeri laughed loudly. The taunting in her laugh rang clear in Gaya’s ears. She decided to leave this place as soon as she woke up next morning.
She said in a hurt voice, “Why do you laugh? I really don’t know. Why would I lie to you, Neeri?”
Then Neeri started explaining the whole process. It was hard work. From morning till noon one had to step on the thresher (paddy-horse). The paddy needed to be boiled. That needed fire. Firewoods needed to be collected for the fire. In the early summer month of Chaitra the dried leaves from the bamboo grove had to be collected, stuffed in large potters' baskets and brought over. That had to do as a whole year’s supply of fuel. Husking the pressed rice would make your arms sore. Neeri completed, “That you won’t be able to do. No way. Auntie had pampered you too much and spoiled your future. Now you are neither a memsahib nor a poor bagdi woman. You’ve fallen in between. How will you survive?”
Gaya didn’t reply anymore.
It was her own fate. No one else’s. Now Neeri and others had a chance to jeer at her. Of course they would. But she was not going to complain to anyone else. These people were not her own folks. They would just taunt her and enjoy seeing her struggle.
Neei said, “Want some tobacco?”
“Yours is a pampered body. Not like ours who need to stay up and work at nights. During the Puja we have to stay up whole nights and press the rice, grind the pigeon peas, husk the paddy, all to keep the clients happy. If you can’t stay up a little you would never last husking paddy like I told before.”
Gaya couldn’t quarrel like most other village women. Otherwise she and Neeri would have been at it by now. Once she thought of a cutting reply but her innate politeness made her stop. What was the point in fighting? Let her spew her venom. Words never hurt. She would just pretend to be asleep. How could Neeri fathom what is going on in Gaya’s mind?
It had been such a long time since she saw Prasanna uncle. Who knew where he went after being fired from the plantation. At least he was one person who asked about her well being. In the entire pitiless cruel world, he was the only person who truly cared for her. Gaya had only ignored and toyed with him all these days. He too was not around anymore. Today while smelling Neeri’s tobacco-laden breath Gaya missed him keenly. Today he was not with her either.
The only place with some peace and comfort was Kabiraj Thakur’s hut. People there talked about things she had never heard before. But it also brought new hope in her mind.
In the morning Tulsi served some puffed rice and coconut balls (*naru) to her children. The maid came to ask, “Ma, shall I clean the big cowshed now or later?”
“Leave it for now. We haven’t yet milked the cow. What’s the point in cleaning before? It will become just as messy.”
Moina was staying with them for two months. Her younger son was very ill. She had come here to consult Ramkanai Kabiraj. Nalu could not get Moina married in a wealthy family. He was not as well off in those days. That’s why he often brought Moina to his house so she could rest a little and enjoy the comfort of her brother’s house. This was also possible because Tulsi was a kind person. If Moina didn’t visit for a while she would remind her husband, “Say, are you again frozen in place? (She often used that phrase.) Moina hasn’t been here for ages. Granted she has no parents, but you are the elder brother, even her mother died not too long ago, you could go get her—”
When Moina’s and Nalu’s mother died Nalu had already gained a shop, a storehouse and grain storage facilities, but he hadn’t become as rich as he was now. Nalu had one regret that his mother couldn’t see his present wealth before dying. Tulsi pampered Moina whenever she came, making up for her absent mother-in-law. But Moina was not a nice person. She was very quarrelsome and a bit spoiled from childhood. At the slightest mishap she screamed and yelled at her sister-in-law.
But Tulsi never minded her. She had unusual capacity for tolerance. As it happened today. While eating puffed rice Tulsi’s daughter Habi suddenly slapped Moina’s son. Children’s fight would have resolved by itself in no time. Moina need not have interfered. But she did, and demanded to know, “Hey? Who hit my Keshta?”
Other children piped up, “Habi hit him. They were fighting over food.”
Moina slapped Habi a few times and yelled, “You have become too quick with your hands, haven’t you? You dare hit my sickly son? He could hardly take your beatings. You want him to die? I bet you all would be relieved if he did die. I’m sure your mother wants him dead too. Bet she has encouraged you to beat and slap him. Otherwise you wouldn’t dare—”
Tulsi heard all this and came over, “Sister, how could you blame me for inciting? Why should I ask my daughter to hit your son? Is he not my own too?”
Moina started quarelling like some low caste folks. At the end she slapped her own sickly son a few times, “Why can’t you just die and relieve me? You are the problem. These folks are angry because Dada is spending his money for your treatment. Just die—"
Tulsi was stunned at Moina’s outburst. She ran and picked up the boy in her lap, and said, “Have you gone nuts? Why are you hurting the poor sickly child like this? Oh, look at his back! It is totally red.”
Moina still kept yelling, “Let it be. You don’t have to show fake sympathy… one who fakes more love than a mother is a witch. Put him down—”
Tulsi said, “No, I won’t. You can’t beat this skinny kid in front of me.”
She carried the boy to her room and closed the door.
Later Nalu came home and saw Tulsi cooking lunch for all. The children were already served their food. Moina saw her brother and started wailing loudly again. She demanded to be sent back to her in-laws’. She had had enough of her brother’s family. Her welcome had run out the day her mother had died, etc. etc.
Nalu said, “You two are at it again? I come home after a hard day’s work. Can’t I have some peace and quiet?”
Tulsi didn’t reply to anyone. She brought her husband’s oil and gamchha for his bath. She got the maid to bring the wooden stool for bathing and two buckets of water, “Go take a bath and have some food first.”
“No. Tell me first what’s going on. Then I will eat.”
“Are you going to have a tantrum too? Who shall I depend on? Come, eat now, I’ll tell you later.”
After hearing the whole story Nalu said, “I can’t stand all this caterwauling. I’m going to separate the two of you—if you can’t get along—”
Tulsi was extraordinarily patient. She knew that mute hath no enemy, so she just kept quiet. Moina refused to eat. Tulsi had to do a lot of coaxing and cajoling to get her to eat something. At last, after feeding everyone, she had her own meals in the late afternoon.
In the evening, Jatin’s sister Nandarani from the next neighborhood came to visit, “Hello Boudi,” she called out, “came to ask you for something.”
Tulsi placed a low wooden seat for her. She also prepared paan for both of them. Nandarani said, “Can you loan me one rupee? I have no cash. Don’t know what to feed the boy tomorrow. You know our condition. Father didn’t have the means. Just got hold of the first person he could find and got me married off. Now he is dead and we are helpless—”
Tulsi never said ‘no’ to anyone asking for help. She too was brought up in a poor family. Her father late Ambik Pramanik had a tiny shop. He had brought them up in much hardship. Tulsi never forgot that. She told Nandarani, “Come and tell me whenever you need something, ok? Please don’t feel shy. I’m glad you had come to me today. Here, have another paan. Would you want some tobacco? No? How is Swarna didi?...”
Nandarani took her rupee and went home happy. Tulsi sent her maid as escort, “Go with her till Shashtitala—”
Tilu and Nilu were chopping tamarinds. It was an afternoon in Chaitra (*). Nilu was sitting on a mat of date palm leaves, chopping the tamarinds; Tilu was sorting the chopped tamarinds and collecting them on one side.
“Which tree are these from? Do you know?” Tilu asked her younger sister.
“No Didi. Gopal Muchi’s son Bangta brought them over.”
“Are these from the tree near the river?"
”That one is very sweet. Here, taste one and see.”
Tilu tossed one in her mouth, “Ah! So sweet. It must be from that big tree by the river.”
“Hurry up now, Didi. Khoka would soon arrive from school and start gulping these.”
“Say, do you remember about Bilu? How we three used to sit together and chop tamarinds, remember?”
“Oh yes. Too well.”
Both the sisters fell silent. So much to remember. Bilu had died only a few years ago, yet it felt like ages. On such Chaitra(*) afternoons, between the whispering of the leaves in the forest and the plaintive calls of the brain fever bird all the old memories come crowding. Their older brother was like their father. After their parents’ death, he and his wife had brought them up just like their own parents. They remembered those late elders too.
From next door Sharat Banerjee’s wife Hemlata came over chewing paan, “What are you up to? Chopping tamarinds?”
Tilu said, “These are just a few. Two more baskets are still waiting inside. Here, please sit down, grab that tal leaf mat.”
“No, I won’t sit now. Just came to ask if today is the thirteenth day of the moon. Is it ok to eat eggplants?”
“Absolutely. Twelfth day is almost complete. It will be over around midnight. Your Dada said so.”
“Is he in?”
“No. He is out somewhere.
How is my Dada?”
“So-so. What can you expect with old people? The cough and fever are better.
Where is Tulu?”
“Not yet back from school, Boudi.”
“Looks like you girls have chopped a lot of tamarinds. This year both our tamarind trees have gone to waste. Every pod is full of worms. You must give me some. I have to make a sour preparation in Sraban(*). Your Dada loves sour preparation of khoira(*) fish..”
The evening was near. A cuckoo called from the top of a bamboo stem. From somewhere the aroma of pickled dried jujube wafted in the air. Two ploughing cows of the Naley the barber grazed under a star fruit tree. Satey Chowdhury’s daughter-in-law Birajmohini from the next neighborhood just passed by carrying a gamchha to bathe in the river.
Nilu called, “Biraj? Hey Biraj—”
Birajmohini held her nose ring in her left hand and turned her face, “Yes?”
“Wait a second please.”
“Want to come Chhordi (*)?”
Biraj’s parents lived in Bagh-anchra village near Nadia Shantipur. Thus her accent was different from the local people of Jessore district. She always showed it off to the ignorant local village women. Both Tilu and Nilu bolted the front door and accompanied her.
In this village there were two ghats (*) on Ichhamoti. One was called Raipara ghat and the other was Sahib ghat. Further down, at the river’s bend was the third Bansimtala ghat. Because it was farthest from the village the women seldom came to this ghat. Yet out of all the ghats, this one was the prettiest. It was surrounded by denser, greener forest, the birds sang more sweetly; the sunrise here was more impressive and beautiful than anywhere else on the earth. Along the banks, all kinds of wildflowers bloomed in every season, in every bush and shrub. The cove under the chanra (*) tree was so cool and shady. Such fifty or sixty years old chanra trees were still standing near that ghat.
Tilu said, “Come, let’s go to Bansimtala ghat to bathe—”
Biraj said, “But it is late.”
“It’s not that far.”
“I would go but my mother-in-law is not home. She had kept two branches in the sun to dry. If the cows finish them, she will definitely finish me too.”
Nilu insisted, “No excuses. You have to come with us to Bansimtala. Come on—”
Biraj smiled and cast an oblique glance with her beautiful eyes, “Why? Is there a lover waiting for you there?”
Tilu replied, “We are too old for lovers, dear. They are now for the young ones like you. Why in one ghat? You can have many lovers in each ghat.”
“Yes? I bet you can still turn heads with that look of yours, Didi. Ok. Let’s go and turn some heads in Bansimtala ghat.”
But ultimately they had to go to Raipara ghat. On the way many other women joined them and forced them to change their minds. A bevy of young women created waves of laughter in the ghat enjoying the cool water at the end of a hot day. They playfully threw water on each other. Nobody wanted to get out of the water.
Sitanath Ray's daughter-in-law Himi called Tilu, “Say Bardi (*), haven’t seen you for sometime.”
Tilu replied, “Because we don’t come to this ghat any--”
“Why? Which ghat do you go to?” Himi asked before Tilu could finish her answer.
“Do you tell others about your secret lover?” Biraj joked, “Why should she tell you? I wouldn’t.”
“Bardi is my mother’s age.” Himi said, “Don’t talk like that about her. You are pretty and young. You can enjoy your lover. What is that you have there?”
“It is khar-khol(*), sister. Got dirt on the skin, needed to scour with this. Do you want some?”
“No. You are the beauty. You need all that stuff.”
Everyone laughed and giggled. The ghat rang with the voice and laughter of so many young women. Soon the seventh day moon would rise on top of the shirish(*) and puon(*) trees. The patpati(*) flowers dropped in the water. Suddenly Biraj was overcome with sheer joy. As if there was no grief, no hardship anywhere. Everyone would always praise her beauty; the largest wooden stool for married women would always be reserved for her. The plate with sugar wafers would always be offered first to her. On some dew-free morning among the bird songs she would go to the river blowing conch shells and carrying a tray for the rituals of her son’s ‘first rice’ ceremony or someone else’s wedding or ‘sacred thread’ ceremony. She would wear a Shantipuri sari, carry a flower basket and bowls of oil and turmeric. She would wear tinkling anklets in her feet, belts at her waist and necklace on her neck. She would lead the crowd of other married women… and so many other wishes and images crowded in her mind. Happily she dipped her head under the water. After one dip she saw her mother’s smiling face in the corner of the sky over the open field in front, another dip brought the image of her first wedding night, how her husband was shyly glancing at her while playing chhoba (*) …that shy, smiling face…
Life was only happiness, only joy. Only eating, sleeping, playing in the water, laughing, playing cards--- hehehe. What fun!
“Say Birajdidi, how come you are dipping in the water so late in the day?” Himi was surprised.
“Really.” Nilu said, “Look at her, Bardi. Hey you just wet your hair. Now that load of hair will never dry tonight. Have you no sense?”
Biraj didn’t care about their opinions. She was entranced with her own thoughts. She said, “Hey, want to hear a song?
"I would love to tell you my dearest wishes…”
“Shh. Quiet.” Himi said, “Someone is coming this way. Sounds like someone important!”
Nistarini appeared at the ghat scouring her teeth with tobacco powder. Everyone looked up at her but didn’t say anything. Many of the women in the village didn’t talk to her. There were all kinds of rumors about her. Nobody had seen her do or say anything improper still they gossiped about her walking around alone or talking to anybody (woman of course). That’s why they hesitated to talk with her, lest someone spread rumors about them too.
Tilu and Nilu could get away with anything in this village. And everyone knew that Tilu was not to be intimidated by silly rules. Interestingly there had never been any gossip about them. It was hard to say why. Tilu affectionately looked at Nistarini, and said, “Come dear. Why are you so late today?”
Casting a careless glance Nistarini replied, “I was so busy chopping tamarind, that I didn’t realize the time—”
“Oh my God! We too were chopping tamarinds! Nilu and I. Are you mad at us?”
“Why? Why do you say that?”
“You haven’t been to our house for many days.”
“When do I get any time sister? I have to boil the lye mix, wash the laundry, mince the pressed rice, thresh the paddy—everything I have to manage alone nowadays. My Mother-in-law does not help much anymore—"
Nistarini was an attractive woman, although older than many of the women there. The way she gesticulated with her hands and pressed her lips from laughing out loud made Himi and Biraj burst into laughter. Immediately the entire crowd started laughing like a dam breaking somewhere.
Himi said, “Nistardi is so funny! Come in the water, Nistardi.”
Biraj said, “Please sing that song—by Nidhubabu. Bidhudidi used to sing. You sing it so well.”
Everyone knew that Nistarini sang well. With her songs, stories and laughter, she was the life of all parties. Many envied her and said, ‘too much glee is not suitable for women. Everything is best in moderation, no?’
Nistarini started singing with many gestures,
‘Is love so simple, my friend?
Tying one’s heart with another’s,
If the tree dies, can the twining vine live on?
One life woven into another—’
Everyone was enchanted.
What a sweet voice she had, what lovely gestures she made. She looked so pretty singing and moving her hands. Someone added, “You sing that ‘Nilbarani’ song so well too—”
Nistarini was pleased too. She forgot that her father literally sold her at the age of seven for a mere seventy-five rupees to her Srotri in-laws. She never got along with her mother-in-law or her lame husband although he was a decent man. Her father-in-law Bhajagobinda Banerjee too was a decent man, never went against her wishes. Of late they had become poor, couldn’t provide for her, even the children went half fed, still Nistarini stayed happy most of the time. She knew that the women in the village didn’t like her but she didn’t care a fig about it. Like they were such pure goddesses themselves! Hypocrites all.
She got in the water. Biraj hugged her wet shapely body, and said, “Nistardidi, my golden didi. I love your face, and I love your song. Honestly, If I were a man I would fall head over heels in love with you. Let’s go for a picnic one day.”
Suddenly another image appeared in Nistarini’s mind. Why now? Mind was such a pervert! Who could predict its intentions? She remembered that day when she sat on the riverbank with her lover. Suddenly Nistarini did something daring. Something women in the village would never do. She asked, “Tilu didi, how is Thakur Jamai?”
It was a taboo for a woman to openly ask about another woman’s husband. But everyone knew Nistarini and tolerated such behavior from her.
Puja was around the corner. The village elders were busy in discussion at the Chandi Mandap of Phoni Chakravarti. The place was almost dark with tobacco smoke. A mat was put out for the Brahmins on one side and some small date palm leaf mats were scattered on the opposite side for all the other castes. In between was a path for walking in and out.
Nilmoni Samaddar lamented aloud, “How things are changing with time!”
Phoni said, “All those are the business for the ‘suddenly rich’ folks. What can you or I do? If you don’t like it, you don’t need to go. That’s all.”
Shyamlal Mukherjee said, “But the Brahmins of Sabaipur will be coming. If you don’t go how will you save your face?”
“Why? What have you heard?” Phoni asked.
“He is inviting all the Brahmins in the village at his place for Durga Puja.”
“He is getting too daring. The ‘suddenly rich’ upstart!”
Lalmohan Pal did not heed any criticism of the villagers and arranged to perform the Durga puja with all the pomps and circumstances. This year most of the Pujas were arranged in the surrounding villages. Like every year, the poor and needy ones of the villages got to enjoy coconut balls, pressed fine rice and murki to their hearts content. How many invitations could they keep? Every place offered fried moong dal, fish, mutton, shukto (*), taro greens, fig curry, curd and sweets. None of the Brahmins in this village had accepted Lalmohan’s invitation. So far Nalu Pal had fed the Brahmins in someone else’s house. But this time he invited all to his own house and the Brahmins did not like that. Nalu personally went to each house and humbly requested their presence. A serious discussion took place in the Chandi Mandap about this but ultimately Nalu’s appeal was dismissed.
On the day of Shashthi (*) Tulsi went to Tilu and Nilu. She wore a red-bordered sari, a gold amulet pendant at her throat and gold bracelets at her wrists. She deeply bowed to Tilu and stated her complaint, “Look how all the Brahmins are treating us so unjustly!”
“Yes. We heard about it too.”
“Nobody will even accept rice at our house. I’ve brought pure homemade ghee. I plan to fry loochis for them all. Can you please tell Thakur Jamai? They had no problem in your house. Can’t I wish to feed them once at my house? Why should they object to just loochi and sugar?”
Bhabani Banerjee was an experienced person. After hearing all from Tilu he said, “This is beyond my power. I can’t see it happening in this village of Kulin (*) Brahmins. But many other Brahmins will come from Angraly, Gadadharpur and Nasrapur. They are mostly Shrotriyos." He advised Nalu Pal too accordingly.
Nalu humbly folded his hand, and pleaded, “Will you not come? Please tell me.”
“Otherwise why would I come to you to advise?”
“That’s all I wanted to know. I don’t care about the other Brahmins. If you and my Didis are here that is more than enough for me.”
“That is fine Nalu, but you must go to the other villages, or send someone and ask those Brahmins about their opinions too.”
From Angrali came Ramhari Chakravarti and from Nasrapur came Satkori Ghoshal. They acted as the intermediaries for their communities. They came over to make some kind of compromise with Nalu Pal.
Ramhari was about fifty-five or fifty-six. He was short, dark and had a face full of beard and moustaches. An amulet was tied to the tuft of hair at the back of his head and another was on his arm. His learning was up to the multiplication tables in teacher Haru’s village school. They called him sardar (*) as he was an expert in leading the shouting out of the multiplication table.
Ramhari heard everything and said, “I have brother Satkori with me too. We know you are a wealthy man, Pal moshai. But feeding the Brahmins in your house… nobody has tried that before. But don’t worry. We shall figure out something. What do you say Satkori?”
Satkori was relatively younger and fairer. He was also taller and thinner than Ramhari. He had a very bland, harmless face, perhaps a bit needy too in terms of money.
Satkori nodded, “Yes, yes. That’s right.”
“What do you think?”
“Whatever you think is right, Dada.”
“Then shall I tell him?”
Ramhari turned to Nalu and spread all five fingers of his right hand, “Five rupees each for both of us.”
“One rupee honorarium for each Brahmin. ”
“Please cut that to eight annas.”
“And for each one, a pot full of loochi, sugar and coconut balls to take home."
“That’s fine too but that one rupee per head must be cut to eight annas.”
“Our five rupees must be given before the meals. Nothing less.”
“Will do. But you must arrange for at least one hundred Brahmins. Anything less will not do.”
Ramhari nodded swinging the amulet tied to his hair, “Sure we will do. In my own family itself there are many nephews, nephews-in-law, three cousin brothers, my own four sons, two little girls, -–they all would come. Satkori too--God bless him—has five children. They too will come. There, we’ve already counted half of your required one hundred. Haven’t we?”
Ramhari Chakravarti had powers. On the day of the feast the Brahmins started coming in droves. They all came holding their young children by hands. There was not enough space in the large courtyard under the tent. It was a huge event of gifts and feasts. Some Brahmins overate the loochis fried in homemade ghee. It was a sight worth seeing. Nobody ever had arranged for such a huge and quality feast in this village. Everyone stuffed their stomachs as much as they possibly could with hot loochis, malpoas in sugary syrup and coconut balls. Plus the best quality baked yogurt by Shona the milkmaid from Baikunthapur, an item famous in this area. The Brahmins were loud in praise as they ate. One old man told Nalu, “Dear Nalu, I had read in the Kulinkulsarbaswo play—
‘Hot loochis fried in ghee.
A few pieces of ginger
Together make a couple of kachoris—'
But I have never tasted them myself. Who will feed us such rich food in these villages? Now I am well satisfied here at your place today—”
Everyone supported in unison, “Exactly. Just what we thought too.”
After the Brahmins had left with their honoraria and extra food in clay pots, Ramhari came to Nalu, and said with a hint of pride, “Well Pal moshai, how was it? Didn’t I tell you, if you scatter enough grains there’d be no dearth of crows!”
Nalu Pal was too modest; folding his hands he said, “Please, don’t say that. It is my good fortune that you have deigned to step in my house. Please accept the token honoraria. You have all the power— ”
“Nothing to do with power, Pal moshai, I never shy away from the truth. My father didn’t sire me for that. In this area who has the ability to feed the Brahmins so lavishly with loochi and sugar meals, tell me that? That’s why they all came running. How about from this village? Nobody came? They are too full of themselves.”
“Only one person came. Bhabani Banerjee.”
Ramhari was surprised. “How come? Dewanji’s son-in-law?”
“Yes. That’s him.”
“Can you introduce me to him, please?”
After the feast of all the Brahmins, Bhabani and Khoka were having their meals in a quiet corner. Khoka tasted loochi for the first time in his life. He asked, “This is called loochi?”
“Yes. Do you want some more?”
“Yes.” The boy nodded.
Bhabani glanced at Tilu and she brought a couple more loochis for Khoka. Both Tilu and Nilu were serving the father and son. Nalu Pal came there with Ramhari and stood humbly with folded hands at a little distance in front of them.
“He wanted to meet you.” Nalu pointed to Ramhari.
Ramhari respectfully greeted Bhabani, “Now I know how my day will be today.”
“A disaster?” Bhabani smiled.
“Not at all. If I knew ahead of time that you and your family would be here I would have told Pal moshai not to worry about any other Brahmins. With a gem like you why waste all the money on others? Where is my Ma? Your son will not leave without seeing you once.”
Tilu modestly covered her head and came out. Ramhari bowed to her and said, “Just like Shiva and his wife. This was a good day for me. Please remember your son.”
Tilu whispered in Bhabani’s ear, “Will he come to our house on the full moon day? I will make rice pudding for Khoka’s birthday. for him too.”
That was the etiquette. The women could talk through a third person, but not directly to each other. Before Bhabani could explain, Ramhari spoke up, “Definitely, Mother. It is my good fortune to be able to taste your cooking. I have to tell about all this to my family.”
“Wouldn’t you bring her too?”
“No Ma. She is too old fashioned, not like you folks. She never appears in front of other men. I’ll come, share the pudding with my little brother Khoka and sing your praises.”
Nilmani Samaddar’s wife Annakali asked her daughter-in-law Subashi, “By the way dear, have you heard anything in the village? From the other side?”
The daughter-in-law knew what her mother-in-law was asking, if that juicy invitation for the feast from that wealthy family was still on or not. Now that their status had fallen and they had problem trying to make ends meet, they were appreciative of such invitations.
Subashi was a nice girl. She used to be shy in the beginning but after repeatedly asking for loans from the neighbors she had lost that shyness. She too gathered some news and rumors in the village and told what she had learned. None of the Brahmins in the village would attend the feast in Nalu Pal’s house.
Annakali said, “Better go to Swarna’s and ask her.”
“You want to go, Ma?”
“I have to make the lentil paste. I soaked them already; they would spoil if I don’t make the paste now. Listen, let me tell you—"
Annakali looked this way and that to make sure that nobody was around; then she lowered her voice, “Tell Swarna that even if others don’t go, we two families can go to the feast, but in secret, later in the evening. What do you say?”
“Are you crazy? What if Phoni uncle or his wife sees us? We will be dead—"
“We’ll go in the dark. Who’ll see us?”
“Even the plants and trees here have ears.”
“You go find out first.”
Subashi went to Jatin’s wife Swarna. They too were very poor in the village. She was dicing a pile of banana stems. Next to her were two large piles of overripe stems of some greens. Subashi asked, “What are you cooking Swarna didi?”
“Come in Subashi. No men at home today, so I thought may as well cook some simple women’s dishes, just black lentil and green stems veggie.”
“Have a seat Subashi.”
“No time Didi. Ma sent me to ask if you are going to Tulsi didi’s house for the feast?”
“My sister-in-law was asking also. But how can we go if no Brahmins are going? Are you people going?”
“We can, if you go.”
“Go, bring Nandarani here.”
Nanadarani was Jatin’s sister. Her husband had left her long ago and gone away somewhere. They somehow eked out a living. Jatin’s father late Ruplal Mukherji had tried his best to marry his daughter to a high class Kulin Brahmin but that groom also had many other wives. He used to visit his in-laws once in a while, gather up all the gifts and honoraria and disappear. This time he left Nandarani with the burden of two or three Kulin daughters and disappeared for four or five years. Apparently this was a norm amongst the Kulins.
Nandarani was sitting on a wooden stool drying her hair in the sun. She came over with Subashi. All three women started planning.
Nandarani said, “If you go fairly late in the evening nobody can see us.”
Swarna said, “Then let’s do that. No point angering Tulsi. After all, she is the only one who helps us when we are in trouble. All others are good only for making us outcastes.”
Later that evening they went to Tulsi’s house. Tulsi fed them with great care and as always gave them extra food in bundles. Jatin came home that very night. Swarna returned to see the door open, the lamps lit and her husband waiting. He asked his wife, “Where did you go? What is that in your hand? I got two kathas of fried moong lentil. Everyone can have it. What do you have in your hand there?”
“You don’t need to know. Will you have dinner?
“Yes, I’m so hungry. Is there rice?”
“Just have a seat. See what I get you.”
Swarna was very happy to be able to serve some good food to her husband after a long time. She was a poor housewife. When her father-in-law was alive she saw him eat only coarse fried rice grains for breakfast. Later when he lost his teeth she used to grind up the rice for him.
Jatin said, “Wow! Where did you get all this?”
“Don’t tell anyone. From Tulsi’s place. Tulsi didi herself came and invited us with folded hands. Such a nice woman she is. Rich but not at all a show off.”
“Who all went with you?”
“Nandarani and Subashi and the children. Tulsi didi was so happy. She herself served us the food. While leaving she forced us to take a bowl full of loochis and sugar home with us.
“You’ve done well. Nobody else gives us anything good to eat.”
“If the others in the village come to know?”
“So what? Will they hang us or impale us? You’ve done right. They invited you, so you went. You didn’t go without invitation.”
“Tilu didi and Niludidi were there. Their husband too.”
“Nobody will dare say anything to them. We are poor so all the blame fall on us. Anyway, did you eat well? The children too? Leave some for them, they can have as breakfast tomorrow. Just don’t go around talking about it with your friends, that’s all. Just tell me if you ate well too?”
“You think Tulsi didi will let me go otherwise? She stood there all the time saying--‘Didn’t you take some of this? Are you sure you are full’?”
Ramhari Chakravarti came to Bhabani’s house on Khoka’s birthday. He brought his two sons and also brought some molded sweets made with condensed milk and fine popped rice made by his wife. A mat was spread for the guests on the porch of the westernmost room in Bhabani’s house. There were only a few guests invited-- Ramkanai Kabiraj, Phoni Chakravarti, Shyam Mukherji, Nilmani Samaddar and Jatin. Out of the women were Nistarini, Jatin’s wife Swarna and Nilmani Samddar’s daughter-in-law Subashi.
Phoni Chakravarti greeted Ramhari, “Ramhari! What a surprise! How are you?”
“Fine Dada, greetings. How are you?”
“Don’t ask. I am old, ready to leave this world. Out of all the old ones only Nilmani dada and I are still around. Rest of them are all gone.”
“How old are you Dada?”
“Well, turned sixty-nine.”
“Really? You don’t look it. Even all your teeth are intact.”
“I can still finish half ser of rice, half katha of pressed rice and half a ripe jackfruit in one seating. I still drink two and half ser of milk every day and digest it too.”
“That’s why you still look so fit. Otherwise—"
"By the way, Ramhari, you really created a scene the other day. Don’t the Brahmins of Angrali and Gadadharpur have any sense in their heads? Just because they were invited they didn’t need to come running to a low caste Shudra's house? Shame, shame! They are Brahmins after all even if not Kulin. They too wear the sacred thread. They ought to have some self respect.”
Nilmani felt very uneasy. His wife and daughter-in-law too went secretly to Nalu Pal’s house at night and filled their stomachs. He was worried if someone came to know about that. Thank God just at that time Bhabani called all to dinner. The topic was forgotten.
Phoni Chakravarti and others would not sit in the same row as the slightly lower rank Srotriya Brahmin Ramhari. So Ramhari sat away from them. Not only that, he was also asked to feed Khoka the symbolic rice pudding so they both sat together to eat. Tilu sat with a veil covering her head and fanned them.
Ramhari asked, “What is your name, child?”
Khoka shyly replied, “Shree Rajyeshwar Banerjee.”
“What do you study?”
This time Khoka was more enthusiastic, “I study in Haru Gurumashai’s school. Shambhu dada—who lives in Calcutta—has agreed to teach me English.”
“Wonderful! Such a young boy is going to learn English! You must become a judge then. Very good dear, very good. You do have the looks of a judge.”
“Mother is asking, would you like to have something more?”
“Oh, no. I’ve had enough already. I had three servings of the rice pudding. What else would I need? Wish you long life my child.”
Nobody had ever treated Ramhari—an agent for the Brahmins’ feast—with so much respect in a Kulin’s house. Before leaving, Ramhari touched Tilu’s feet, saying, “Good bye Mother. I shall always remember the way you treated me. I now understand that you are not like most people in this area. One does not become human just by owning two arms and two legs. Nor does hanging a sacred thread around the neck makes one a high caste Kulin Brahmin.”
So many things had changed in the village. Train lines were laid from Chakda to Chuadanga. One summer Tilu and Nilu went with Bhabani to see the temple in Aranghata. They took a bullock cart to Chakdah, bathed in the Ganges and had a picnic there. Khoka was with them. He was very eager to see the train. At last the train arrived. They all boarded that wonderful creation and went to Aranghata. Upon returning home the wondrous tales of their travel lasted for a whole year.
Khoka in the mean time finished his village school. Bhabani and Tilu discussed whether to get him a scholarship to study law or let him study Sanskrit in a specialized school (tol). They needed to consult Satish the lawyer if they decided on law.
Tilu said, “Call Nilu, we need to get her opinion too.”
Nilu was not flighty like before. She was now an experienced housewife. There was nobody who could do household chores as well as she. She came over and said, “Why don’t you ask Tulu too? My! What brains!”
Tulu’s (aka Khoka or Khokan) proper name was Rajyeshwar. He was a serious boy. He was very smart and handsome as well. He loved his father. He came and smiled, “You say Baba. What do I know? And Chhoto-Ma (younger mother) knows nothing. Didn’t you see her the other day? As soon as she got on the train she started preparing paans. The train left Ranaghat station and presto! It right away reached Aranghata! And she was so sad, 'this train traveled six miles before I could finish two paans!’ Hehehe—"
Nilu said, “What do I know of train and rails. We are old folks. In old days we used to prepare paans while traveling to Chakda for bathing in the Ganges. You don’t need to laugh like that—"
“Did I say anything wrong? What do you know about education? Mother at least has studied some Sanskrit. You know nothing Chhoto-Ma, you are totally ignorant!”
“Yes. You be my teacher, Khoka.”
“I teach you? Learning A, B, C, D at this age? That is funny!”
“I will make you cheese pudding in the evening.”
“Then you are the best. Not at all ignorant.”
Bhabani said, “Quit it now Tulu. Answer the real question.”
“You say Baba.”
“What is your wish?”
Nilu again intervened, “Don’t let him go to Law. Make him study English. Send him to Calcutta. Look at Shambhu-- how he is living and working in Calcutta. Is our Tulu any less than him?”
Bhabani turned to his son, “What do you say Khoka?”
“Chhoto-Ma is right Baba. Let’s do that. Ma, what do you think? Isn’t Chhoto-Ma right?”
Nilu sulked, “Why? I’m ignorant. What do I know?”
Tulu said, “No Chhoto-Ma. I’m not laughing at you. I really like your suggestion. I too want to study English. Baba you plan for that. But who will be my teacher?”
Nilu said, “I don’t know about that. You all decide.”
Khoka was right. Who would teach him? Nobody knew English in this village except that self proclaimed Shambhu Ray. He had been working in Amuti House for a long time, spoke with the Sahibs there. For that veryone in the village respected him-–sometimes he spouted unnecessary English in front of the villagers to show off.
Tilu smiled, “Hey Khoka, how is your Shambhu dada’s English?”
“It saist mutt foot—it suntu foot fit—"
Bhabani was impressed, “Wow! When did you learn all this?”
“Just by hearing. I'm repeating exactly what he says.” Tulu replied.
Bhabani said, “Listen to him! Talking just like the English.”
Nilu said, “Really! Speaking exactly—”
All three were very impressed by Khoka’s intelligence. Khoka too was encouraged, “I know more Baba. Want to hear? Sit –a-hip-sit-foot-a pot-eye-my. Baba they say this very often— eye ar my—seriously Baba—”
Nilu marveled at the intelligence of their son.
After losing his job in the plantation, Prasanna Amin had really suffered hard for the first two years. It was difficult to get another similar job of a supervisor. But, he couldn’t just live by doing nothing. After a lot of searching he managed to get the current job but where could he find the glamour, the comfort of his old job in the plantation? A native landlord’s office could never match the wealth and the prestige of an indigo plantation. That was impossible. Yet, he had now spent almost four years in the office of the Pal estate of Bahadurpur. In the morning when Nayeb (*administrator) Ghanashyam Chakladar left in his palanquin to supervise the lands in Chitalmari, Prasanna blew out a sigh of relief. After all, that was his new boss; he had to behave appropriately in front of him. This was not Rajaram Dewan or the Baro-sahib Shipton. Nayeb’s servant Ratilal the barber entered his room and asked, “Aminbabu, how is it going?"
“Just hanging around. Why?”
“Did you see the Nayeb’s duck? Did it come this way?”
“No, I didn’t see any duck.”
“Care for a smoke?”
“Sure. Prepare one for me.
Ratilal prepared the smoking waterpipe. Unless he offered it himself Prasanna would not have had the guts to order the Nayeb's servant.
Ratilal said, “Aminbabu, Gire the fisherman didn’t bring any fish this morning?”
“Was he supposed to? I saw him selling fish in the market last evening. Aar (*) fish.”
“He brings fish every morning. Don’t know why he hasn’t come today. Nayeb moshai can’t eat his meals without fish. Let me wait a bit. If he doesn’t come, I’ll have to make a run to the fishing village.”
Prasanna did not like Ratilal’s yakking. He was not in the mood today. Besides he was not inclined to gossip with the servant folks. Only now he was in this situation. In the past he had a lot of power and prestige in the plantation in Mollahati. How could he forget that?
To get rid of Ratilal, Prasanna quickly said, “If you do want to buy good quality fish, you better leave right now otherwise all the top quality stuff will be gone to the market in Sonakhali.
“Then I should leave now?”
“Right now. Don’t procrastinate.”
Ratilal left. After a while Prasanna saw him leaving the office with a small creel in hand. Immediately Prasanna felt much relaxed. Now he could enjoy the oil massage in the sun and take his bath. He put his low wooden stool under the jackfruit tree, changed into a colorful gamchha and started massaging oil. He would start cooking after his bath.
The villagers used to bring him so many eggplants around this time. Eggplants, ridged gourds, new radishes of the season. Not only to him, all senior workers used to get such gifts. Narhari the file clerk used to give him his share of the vegetables, saying, “Prasannada, you are a Brahmin, cooking comes naturally to you. You take my share of vegetables and just cook them for me along with yours.”
There were so many conveniences and perks in that job. Cooking for two was not any more expensive than cooking for one. It cost the two of them three or four rupees every month. Narhari supplied all the rice and lentils. Fresh and pure milk too was given as gift. They hardly bought anything from the market. Alas, he also remembered Gaya.
Gaya! ... Gaya mem!
No. Why did the thoughts of her depressed Prasanna Amin so? Gaya did favor him a little. His entire life was spent in grief and hardships. Nobody ever talked to him sweetly or smiled at him. Gaya fulfilled that wish. Beautiful and shapely Gaya with gorgeous dark hair. Baro-sahib’s pet mistress Gaya had no reason to cast a favorable glance at Prasanna Amin, but she did. How could it be explained?
How sweetly she used to call him—“Uncle. O uncle—”
Prasanna was an old man compared to Gaya. Yet Gaya didn’t ignore him. Why? Why did she find excuses to tease him or encourage him? Why did she look at him with those lovely eyes and smile that lovely smile? Why did she enjoy exciting him like that? Prasanna wondered how she was doing. He hadn’t seen her for many years. Perhaps she was in hard times too. Who could tell? How many nights he had spent thinking of her and missing her. It had been so long—
“Amin babu, O Amin babu, I couldn't get any fish!”
Ratilal’s sudden return irritated Prasanna. Like he was his buddy, equal to his status. This menial servant who pulled water from the well and scoured the utensils had come to chat with him as an equal! Didn’t he know Prasanna Amin? But those days were over. Fangless snake that he was now, how could he reply to Ratilal? That plantation of Mollahati was no more, nor was Dewan Rajaram nor Baro-sahib Shipton.
There was discipline in the era of the indigo plantations. People were subdued at the sight of a white face. Now in the court of these native landlords, there was no rules or regulations. Nobody obeyed anybody. Anyway, to hell with it all.
With utmost irritation Prasanna replied, “I see.”
“Massaging oil?” Ratilal asked unnecessarily.
“Going for a bath?”
“What are you planning to cook today?”
“Nothing much. Lentil soup and a veggie with the bitter gourds. Already have some buttermilk.”
“If you don’t, I can give you some. Sanaka the milkmaid gave me half a pitcher of good buttermilk. Want some?”
“No. I have enough.” And without giving Ratilal any more opportunity for chatting Prasanna took his gamchha and quickly left for his bath in Ichhamoti. What a pain in the neck Ratilal was. As if Prasanna had nothing better to do but sit and chat with him. Height of disrespect!
While preparing his lunch Prasanna kept thinking. It had been so many years he had been cooking only for himself. Twenty? No, perhaps more. Wife Saraswati had departed for the heavens long ago. Since then the kitchen duty had fallen on his shoulder. And it had never let him off. Mostly he made his favorite food, black pea soup with a lot of green chilies and some fried bitter gourd. That’s all. Enough for one person. Who wanted to do anything more elaborate? Today of course he had some buttermilk too.
“You made daal (*) too?”
Prasanna almost choked on the water he was drinking holding the pitcher away from his mouth. That Ratilal was back again to pester him! He couldn’t even sit down to eat his lunch peacefully. Did he have to call out just when Prasanna was drinking water? Obnoxious good-for-nothing fellow! Prasanna grumbled, “Yes. Why?”
“Can you give me some? Shall I bring a bowl?”
“Nothing left. I made one bowl only. I ate all of it.”
“But I got buttermilk for you—"
“I already have it. Had bought it earlier.”
“This is very good quality. Sanaka milkmaid’s famous buttermilk. She is the widowed sister of Bishtu Ghosh. You know her? Nobody else knows how to make full cream buttermilk like this. Just have a taste.”
The name was cute. Anyway, the buttermilk was not bad at all. That woman lived in this village? How old was she?
Prasanna prepared a bowl of tobacco and lay on his unwashed bed. He had just dozed off when the footman called him, “Nayeb moshai is calling you—"
Prasanna hurriedly got up and went to the office. Lots of villagers had crowded there. Eight or ten men had come to receive the copies of the land measurement deeds. Nayeb Ghanashyam Chakladar was a very serious person. He had grey moustache, a dour face and wore a coarse cotton dhoti. He wrapped one end of the dhoti around himself and sat reclining on a slightly soiled pillow. Ratilal the barber brought him tobacco in a silver lined hookah.
He looked at Amin, “Did you prepare the documents for the demesne?”
“Almost. Just a few left.”
“Can you give them to these men? Go, go with Aminbabu. Just make sure about the documents. They have come from far and have to leave today.”
Prasanna had been doing this type of work for many years. He knew very well which side of his bread was buttered. These documents alone was hardly enough to solve all the land issues related to the demesne, was it? There were arguments about the exact lines of the properties and many more hassles. The deeds had to be signed by the Nayeb. How could all that be finished in such a late hour? But he could try.
In the days of the plantation, such chores earned him a few paisas as extra income. But those days were long gone. They now seemed like dreams.
From the group of the tenants, one man stepped forward, “Please get it done Aminbabu. We will take care of the tips.”
“Hmm... I guess one anna per head should be OK, no?”
Prasanna put down his account book. “Then it can’t be done at this late hour. You can go tell the Nayeb. The documents are ready but they haven’t yet been checked against the old records, they haven’t been signed. It may take ten or fifteen days minimum, perhaps even a month. Just the deed alone is not the end of the matter. There are many more hoops to jump through.”
The spokesman politely asked, “So how much are you asking for?” He too was an experienced man. He knew the ways around courts, offices, landlords and the Amins. He could tell why this Amin was being unhelpful.
Prasanna still looked unhappy, “No, no. That wouldn’t do. You better go back to the Nayeb. My work is not finished. It would take ten to fifteen days more.”
The man pleaded with folded hands, “Please don’t be angry at us. We will offer six paisas per head—”
“Not a cowrie less than two annas.”
“We poor folks will not survive—”
Ultimately, like a good little boy, the man handed over five quarters for ten of them. Yes. Come home little one! Thought Prasanna, Ghanashyam Chakladar didn’t have to teach Chakkotti how to do business! Nobody could outdo Prasanna Amin in the art of earning ‘extra money’. And these rotten landowners were going to teach him? He, who was once the Amin of the Nilkuthi? Huh! After all he had learnt it all under the best tutors. Had they ever heard of Shipton Sahib?
It was late afternoon. Ghanashyam Chakladar again summoned Prasanna. The Nayeb was a workaholic. He did not even take rest in the afternoon. He was lying on the pillow signing the pages as the clerk turned them over. The tobacco was smoldering in the hookah. He looked up at Prasanna Amin, and asked, “Have you given them the deeds?”
“Can you ride?”
"You need to go to Rahatunpur right away. There is a case going on between Bilatali Sardar and Osman Ghani. You are to be the prime witness. You need to look at everything yourself. Nakud Kapali is there. He is a witness for us. He will explain everything. Make sure to measure the distance between the main road and the silk cotton tree behind Osman Ghani’s house.”
“Shall I take the chain for measuring?”
“Yes. And take my horse, the one without ears. Don’t let him run lose, a kick by your left foot will make him run fast.”
Now Prasanna had to rush to Rahatanpur this late in the day. That was quite a distance. Who knew how long it would take to return. Might be late at night. Nakud Kapali was going to teach Prasanna Amin about land measurement! Hilarious! What did he know about land measurements? He used to run behind the Amin with the posts. The chief sahib used to call him the ‘pin man’. That Nakud would teach Prasanna—who spent twenty-five years in this job under the strict eyes of the sahibs. Pooh!
The horse ran quite fast along the main road of Jessore-Chuadanga. Recently railroad tracks had been laid along this area. Trains were already running a couple of miles away. He could see the smoke and hear the whistle. Someday he must ride the train. But it was a scary thought. What if some disaster happened in this old age? Manik Mukherji the clerk was asking him the other day, “Come on Amin moshai. Let’s go to Kaliganj by train and bathe in the Ganges." The fare is only six annas, for all the way to Ranaghat. But he could not gather up his courage.
Tall night jasmine trees shaded both sides of the road. The scent of dark creeper flowers was like the smell of someone’s hair from long gone past. It was hard to remember such things. He was getting old. He had no savings. Nobody could tell how long he would live. How would he survive? If he couldn’t work, who will feed him? He had no family. If some day he couldn’t ride the horse and measure the lands with chains, running around in hot sun or drenching rain, who would support him? It was all dark in front of him. Just like the impending darkness under those bamboo groves.
The horse reached Rahatanpur in three hours. Almost twenty-two miles. Everyone knew him there. He and the Karkun used to come here often from the plantation to mark for indigo planting. Once there was a riot, during Dewan Rajaram Ray's time. It was pretty bad. Upon the villagers’ requests the District Magistrate had to come to investigate.
The chief head of the village Abdul Latif had died. His son Samsul took Prasanna to his house. There was still some daylight left. He had run the horse in the hot hours of the afternoon.
Samsul said, “Salam Amin-moshai, how are you doing these days?”
“You all well? Abdul passed away? How long ago? I’m so sorry. He was such a nice man. I live in Bahadurpur now. It is too far from here. That’s why I haven’t been to see you as often.”
“Have a smoke. I will arrange it.”
“Do you know where is Nakud Kapali ? I need to see him.”
“He is in that thatched shed near the bend of the river. That’s where the Amins stay during the time of the measurements.”
However, Prasanna Amin was thinking about something else for a long time. He wanted to see the old plantation quarters once more.
The day was ending. The sunset was imminent. Mollahati’s plantation was six miles from here. Merely an hour on a fast horse. He could easily reach before dark. After some thinking he set off on the horse to Mollahati. He had not been there for years. Yellow flowers bloomed on the dhundul (*) bushes; the sticky sap was dripping from the tulip trees like the raw kadma (*) greens. The breeze across the open land carried the scent of lotus flowers from the river’s bend in Morighata. A mongoose rustled in the thorny sheyakul (*) bush.
His life felt empty, totally empty. Just like the empty wide grounds of Morighata. Nothing felt good anymore. He was working and eating but only like a robot. He did not like it but did because he had to. Something had gone wrong with his life.
It became dark on the way. A fifth-day moon rose towards the west, like a slice of a gourd. Those guys must be used to smoking very strong tobacco. It wasn’t even worth offering someone. He still felt like coughing.
The curved horizon blended with the blue of the forest far away. The horse had been running for a long while. His skin was sweaty. At last Prasanna could see the tall white mansion of the Nilkuthi through the gaps of the casuarina trees. Prasanna Amin’s heart swelled. This was the playground of his youth, the place of so many parties, fun and feasts, the place where so much money had changed hands. Now it was the meeting place for nocturnal animals. Lalmohan Pal was a mere businessman. He knew nothing about the prestige of the indigo plantation. How could he keep up the prestige of the indigo plantation?
Suddenly he was startled to find himself in the cemetery by mistake, away from the quarters. Dense trees were planted on both sides; Robson sahib had planted some large foreign plants, which had overgrown into shadowy groves. There was the tombstone of Robson’s daughter. Next to it was Daniel sahib’s burial site. Prasanna had not met them but heard the stories of Robson sahib building the large white mansion during the earlier days of the plantation.
How the weeds and vines had overgrown the cemetery! During the heydays of the plantation it used to be so neat and clean you could eat off the ground. Now who would look after it?
Suddenly, the horse stopped. Prasanna looked in front and a shiver ran through his body. He had not realized that it was Shipton sahib’s tomb there in front. But what was that white shadowy form moving around there, behind the white flowers of those tall reed grasses?
An abandoned cemetery of empty quarters, bathed in faint moonlight. However courageous Prasanna Amin was, thoughts of spirits and ghosts were bound to appear in his mind. He somehow croaked out in a shaky voice, “Who’s there? Who are you?”
From behind the waves of white reed flowers around Shipton Sahibs tomb, suddenly a female form stood up looking just like a marble stattue.
“Who? Who are you?”
“Who? Uncle? Uncle!”
There was endless surprise in her voice as she came closer, “It is me. Gaya.”
Prasanna was speechless for a few moments. Then he quickly got off the horse and exclaimed happily, “You Gaya? You here at this hour? Come, come, let us get out of this jungle. What are you doing here?”
Even in the faint moonlight Prasanna could see tears shining in her eyes. Perhaps she was crying sitting here all by herself. There were clear marks of wetness on her cheeks.
Prasanna said, “Come, Gaya, let’s get out from that side. Look at the jungle grown around here.”
Gaya didn’t pay attention to him. “Come uncle. Don’t you want to see the tomb of the Baro sahib? Now that you are here, go have a good look—”
She pulled him by his hand. On the tombstone were scattered fresh agati flower (*Sesbania grandiflora) and four o’clock flowers from the plantation gardens. Gaya picked some four o’ clock flowers from the bunch and placed them in Prasanna’s hands, and asked, “Today is his death anniversary. Don’t you remember? You owe him so much. Here, throw some flowers on his tomb. Put some reed flowers too.”
Prasanna saw fresh tears streaming down her face.
Later both of them got out of the jungle of the cemetery and sat under the juniper tree. Both remained silent for some time. It was obvious that both were overjoyed finding each other in such an unexpected way. As if some man and woman etched on the stones of a long forgotten civilization had come alive under the juniper tree planted by Robson in an abandoned indigo plantation in Mollahati. Gaya had become thin, her old beauty was gone. She had lost her front teeth and looked old. There were signs of hardship on her face, body, eyes and her sad smile.
Gaya stared silently at his face.
“How are you, Gaya?”
“I’m fine. How about you? Where are you now?”
“Far away. In Bahadurpur. I’m the Amin in the office of the landlord. But first tell me how you are doing. Why are you looking so ill?”
“Don’t talk about looks. I would have starved if sahib hadn’t given me that land and you hadn’t measured it out. As long as I was in favor people cared for me and got their jobs done through me. Who cares to even look at me now? In fact they abuse me and make me the outcaste. I told you before—”
“Still going on?”
“As long as I live. Think there is any solution to this? I have lost my status in the society. If I fall ill, nobody will come to take a look, there is no one to give me a glass of water even. What to tell of my sad life! I am a mere woman, living alone, they steal my paddy crop at night. Who can I complain to? Do I have that clout of the old days?”
Prasanna was silently listening to her tales of woe. There were tears in his eyes too. The moon shone through the branches of the trees. What a rough life he was living. His own life too was no less woeful.
Gaya looked at him and said, “Tell me about yourself. Haven’t seen you for a very long time. Your horse will run away uncle, better tie him first--”
Prasanna got up and tied the horse securely to the juniper tree. He sat back at her side again. Today he felt a boundless joy. Who would listen to his sad stories? One couldn’t talk about such things to any body. But she was so close to him. He felt he could tell her everything and be relieved of the burden at last.
And after a few moments, he did so and said with a sad smile, “I too have grown old Gaya. My hair is grey. I worry all the time about the future. Once I wanted to achieve so many things, now all I worry about is who will feed me or care for me if I lose this job. I have lost all my willpower. Just look around, there is no one to lend us a hand.”
“Don’t worry Uncle. You will stay with me. I still have the land that you had measured out for me. The crop will be enough for the two of us to live on. I don’t care about what people would say. They can’t hurt me any worse. But there is God above us all. He will not abandon us. I used to think that there was no one, but my Baba has told me about Him. Come uncle, as long as I am alive you will be cared for by this poor girl. Even if I am a low caste?”
Old Prasanna Chakravarti’s heart was overfilled with an exquisite bliss. Even in his happiest days he had never had such a feeling. After losing everything in life, sitting in this old cemetery, he suddenly came across everything he could have ever wanted. Suddenly he stood up, “OK, I better leave now. Good bye Gaya.”
Gaya was surprised, “Where are you going in the middle of the night, Uncle?”
“I’ve brought someone else’s horse. I have to return tonight. After all, I am duty bound to finish the job assigned to me. If we don’t meet again, do remember this old uncle. You too better leave. There may be snakes or scorpions in the dark—"
Without waiting anymore Prasanna untied the horse and climbed on. While turning the horse around he said, as if to himself, “Your spoken words are more than enough Gaya. In this world nobody does even this much for the other. Not unless they are one’s own family. You are so close to me--”
The sixth day moon was leaning behind the juniper tree towards the river’s bend at Morighata. Crickets were chirping somewhere around the forgotten ruined cemetery of the old indigo quarters in the darkness of the weeds and jungles….
So many new plants and vines grew up along the curves of Ichhamoti. The young saplings of the amaltas (*) trees over the bend of Balaram grew into dense forests. Many fallow lands grew hill glory bushes which were later taken over by kakjangha (*), ratti (*), karanja (*) and wild peppers forming thick jungles. Many shrubs grew new flowers, new generations of migratory birds sang on their branches. You could see geese flying in free wings, like skeins of thread across the sky along the ranks of clouds low over the fields of paddy. Every year, after the rains, you could see the beautiful purple colored flowers of wild beans blooming along the banks of the river.
After the rains the flowers of the kaash (*) reeds flew into the muddy banks exposed due to receding water and their seeds grew into more kaash reeds in years after years. In time the reeds moved away and paper barks and golden shower trees took their place. Then came kumure (*) vine, thorny bamboos, and dog teak. Vines of moonseeds swung in the bushes along with tendrils of wild peas, chhoto goale (*), baro goale (*). The hill glory flowers blooming on the lonely sandbars perfumed so many springs. In those spring months many merchant boats anchored under the shady trees and the boatmen had their picnics. They would go along the main river to gather wax and honey in Sunderban. Honeys from Benehar, Phulpati, honeys from the newly blooming flowers of gneo(*), sundari(*), garan (*) and pandanus. The fishermen set out their nets for prawns and itey (*) fish.
As soon as the indigo plantations shut down, the wild bonyeburo (*), pituli (*), beachwood and tittiraj (*) trees grew into dense jungles along both sides of the river in Panchpota village. Fishermen didn’t stop there anymore; there were no way to get up on the bank through the wild impenetrable vines, acacia trees and thorny sheyakul (*) bushes. Elsewhere pearl divers piled up the seashells next to the okra (*) bushes in the lost hope of growing a rare pearl when dew drops would fall on them from the stars of Swati (*) and Uttar-Bhadrapada (*). Only the yellow honeysuckle flowers dropped on those piles.
Ichhamoti washed the ashes of cremations of generations of men and women away towards the sea. They flowed with the tide, returned with the ebb and ultimately disappeared for ever in the deep blue of the ocean. Someone planted a banana grove on the north side with so much hope or split bamboo canes for fences with so much planning along the bend at Gholdubri. Today only the bleached fragments of his bones lay scattered along the shores of Ichhamoti. The footprints of so many beautiful young wives marked the ways to the river and the footprints of so many old women disappeared in time. The conch shells sounded in the villages to mark each auspicious moments of weddings, first rice and sacred thread ceremonies, Durga and Lakshmi pujas…all those wive’s alta stained footprints got washed away by time, the incense smoke disappeared in thin air…who could recognize death or anticipate its arrival? Like a mirage it leads us on through life. The mysterious veil is opened only to the old ones and sometimes to the young. That music of eternity plays on in the swinging of the ivy gourd flowers, in the sharp aroma of the medicinal herbs, perhaps in the first dew of the autumn or the last one in the fall. Some people could dream about the endlessness of the oceans in the full beauty of Ichhamoti during the monsoons. The paths and grounds are full of history of so many comings and goings. Those lonely ruins of the houses—so many mothers’ smiles are drawn on them in invisible lines. Perhaps only the first star in the sky keeps track of them.
Through all this the river Ichhamoti flows along, swiftly and timelessly, towards the saline waters, the delta, beyond Raymangal, beyond Gangasagar, ultimately to the great ocean.