Colesworthey Grant took the tandem out for a ride along the street near the river’s bend at Panchpota. Junior sahib David and Mrs. Shipton too went with him. The road was straight and pretty. On one side was the clear water of the bend and on the other side were empty pastures, indigo and summer paddy fields. Grant sahib was not only an artist but also a poet and a writer. The beauty of rural Bengal revealed a new world in his eyes. The wide expanse of the pasturelands full of golden shower blooms, singing of unknown birds in the flowering bushes—that stupid faced David or obstinate Shipton didn’t have the eyes to see and appreciate all this beauty. They had come from the lowly farming families in England, Bligh and Fairingford villages from the Western Midland. If they hadn’t come to India they would have been mere farmers under the landlord of Pantocks manor. Here as managers of the plantations they lorded over the poor black folks. What a pity! Grant had come not only to see the country but also to write a book on the lives of the Bengali villagers. He would write about these beautiful sceneries, the colorful folks, the rivers and the forests. He already had a plan in his mind. He would title it ‘Anglo-Indian Life in Rural Bengal’. He had already collected much of the material.
Right at that time Nalu Pal was returning with his bundle on his head from the market in Mollahati. Today he made twice the profit of the previous day. He was loudly singing—‘Mother, stand in your curved pose in the temple of my heart—’ when he bumped right into Grant sahib. Grant asked David to stop, “Let me take a look at this man. Stop for a moment. Well, well. What does he do?”
David sahib could speak Bengali like the local native folks. He had been living here for a long time. He looked at Mrs. Shipton, “He can have his old yew cut down, can’t he, Madam?” To Nalu Pal he said in Bengali, “Hey, mister, can you stop for awhile?”
Nalu had stepped right into trouble. Thank God, it was the Chhoto-sahib (*). He was slightly better than the Baro-sahib (*) Shipton. Chhoto-sahib didn’t whip people. But who was this woman? Perhaps she belonged to the Baro-sahib?
Nalu Pal stopped and respectfully bowed, “Salaam (*) Sahib. What can I do for you?”
“Stop right there.”
Grant sahib asked, “Would he stop here for a bit? I want to take a look at him.”
David said, “You, stand there. Sahib wants to draw your picture.”
Grant sahib asked, “What does he do? Great physique. Let’s go.”
“He came to sell stuff in our market. You don’t want him any more?”
“No. I want to thank him David, or shall I—”
As Grant touched his pocket, David quickly fished out an eight-anna coin and threw it at Nalu. “Here, Sahib gave you tips.”
Surprised Nalu picked up the coin, “Thank you Sir, may I go now?”
It was a beautiful evening at the river’s bend in Panchpota. The warm breeze was scented by wildflowers. At the far end of the widespread green summer paddy field the piles of crimson clouds were etched on the setting sky. Groups of bank mynas and magpie robins were chirruping. Colesworthey Grant stared at the sunset for a long time. A serene, profound feeling came over him. The feeling which took a man far, far away. The feeling that contained a sense of greatness of the space around us. Its call was sweet and plaintive, like a faraway flute.
Grant sahib thought, this was India. All this while he had wasted his time in Bombay and Puna, in Cantonment polo fields and Anglo-Indian clubs. These were strange people. And they turned strange only upon arriving here. The India that he had read about in ‘Shakuntala’ (in Monier Williams’ translation), the India that he learned about in the poems of Edwin Arnold, the India that he came this far to see—after all this time he found that beautiful, poetic, ancient India that evening at the bank of a river in a tiny village. At last his travels were successful!
Rajaram’s sisters were thirty, twenty-seven and twenty five years old. Tilu was the oldest but also the prettiest of all three. In fact, she could be easily categorized as a beauty. All three were fair complexioned. Rajaram too was quite fair but Tilu had in her skin a reddish hue like a ripe Sabri (*) banana that made her look very pretty in the heat of the sun or at the kitchen oven. She was slim, well shaped and had thick hair, large eyes and a sweet smile. People couldn’t easily take their eyes off her. But Tilu was a quiet village girl. There was no sexy gleam in her eyes. If she were married; she would have been a mother and almost aged housewife by now. Being unmarried, all three were naïve girls at heart, as shown in their actions, attitudes and talking.
Jagadamba called Tilu, “Start grinding the rice Thakurjhi (*).”
“Already told the old woman Deen about that. She will bring it over in the evening. Tell Nilu to arrange the welcome-tray for the reception of the bridegroom. I will be busy with the cooking.
“Don’t leave the kitchen. Things may get stolen in the hubbub of the weddings.”
All three sisters were busy arranging their own weddings. Ladies from the neighborhood were busily going in and out of their house. The second wife of the Ganguli family called out, “Hey Thakurjhi, looking so busy? Don’t forget to decorate your own bridal bed. We are not going to do that, I’m telling you…Look Didi, Tilu is looking so pretty. And she is not even married yet. After marriage she will surely turn many more heads.”
Their widowed sister Saraswati said, “What kinda talk is that, girl? If she has to turn head, she has her own husband. Why should she go searching for others, tell me that?”
All the women roared with laughter.
Next day at dusk, at the auspicious “cow-dust” time, all three sisters got married to Bhabani Banerjee. Yes, the groom was quite handsome. Although around fifty, his hair was still dark. He was fair, well built and well proportioned. Had nice moustaches too. He looked strong like a wrestler.
In the bridal chamber, after the departure of all the laughing and teasing women, Bhabani asked, “Tilu, introduce me to your sisters.”
Tilu had gold armlets on her shapely fair arms, gold bracelets at her wrists, tinkling anklets at her feet, beaded necklace at her neck and she wore a bridal red silk sari. She waved her bangles and said, “Don’t you know them already?”
“Why don’t you tell me.”
“This is Swarabala and this is Nilnayana.”
“And your name?”
“I don’t have one!”
“No, tell me. What is your name?”
“Did God create you little by little?”
Tilu, Bilu and Nilu giggled together. Tilu said, “No Sir, Don’t you know the scriptures even?”
Bilu said, “God took from all the beauties in the world…”
Nilu said, “The best parts of their beauties…”
Tilu said, “And out of them, gradually…”
Bhabani smiled, “Got it. He created Tilottama.”
Tilu smiled too, “And you didn’t know that.”
Nilu and Bilu together said, “We will have to twist your ears—”
Tilu looked at them, “What? No! For shame—”
Bilu said, “Why ‘shame’? Satididi had already twisted his ears today. Didn’t she?”
Bhabani seriously said, “But she is a sister-in-law. You are not. You can’t twist your husband’s ears. Talk properly.”
Nilu said, “What are we then, tell us?”
Tilu scowled at them, “Again?”
Bhabani smiled, “You are all my wives.”
Bilu asked, “How old are you?”
Bhabani countered, “How old are you?”
“You are senile!”
Tilu scowled at her sisters, “Again?”
Bhabani Banerjee planned to live on the land presented by Rajaram. While his house was being built Bhabani stayed in Rajaram’s house. This was a new life for him. He left home as a hermit, and after roaming for many years in many holy places, at this age, he now got stuck in family life.
He did not dislike it. Tilu was really a caring housewife. It pleased Bhabani whenever he thought of her. She protected him in all directions like goddess Jagaddhatri with Her ten arms. There was not a chance for any lapse in her care.
Bhabani meditated for a while everyday. This was his habit from his hermit life. Tilu told him to return early lest he caught a cold. She was very upset when he returned late one day. Bilu and Nilu were just girls in Bhabani’s eyes. He didn’t worry about them, but he couldn’t evade Tilu’s eyes.
That day, he was just ready to leave the house when Nilu came and stood with a serious face, “Wait, Lover Boy! You can’t go now.”
“Why do you talk nonsense like that? Respect my age.”
“Lover Boys can’t get mad.” Nilu rolled her eyes and made a funny face.
“You know what is wrong with you girls? Your rich Dada has spoiled you. You haven’t learned the right from wrong. Think it is proper to insult me like this? You and Bilu are both the same. Unmannered and naughty. Yet, look at your sister Tilu?”
“Unmannered, naughty! Are these good names to call your wives?”
“I wasn’t going to say it, but you made me.”
“Good! I will do so again.”
“Go ahead. Who can stop you from saying anything?”
Right then Tilu came in carrying a load of laundry washed with some fuller’s earth from the pond. While passing by the guava tree, she heard the end of the conversation.
“What’s going on?”
Bhabani Banerjee at last got some support. He was so relieved to see Tilu. Tilu always had solutions to any and all of his problems.
“Listen to the obscene names your sister is calling me.”
Tilu didn’t understand, “What names?”
“Obscene stuff. You can’t speak about them.”
Nilu spoke up, “Didi, you tell me. I just called him ‘lover boy’. What’s wrong with it? Didn’t they say that the other day while singing devotional songs at Panchanantala? Can’t I say that to my own husband?”
Bhabani was disappointed, “Listen to her!”
Tilu looked at her sister, “When will you get some smarts in your brain, Nilu?”
Bhabani said, “Bilu too is like her. Both the sisters are same.”
Tilu said, “Please don’t be upset. I’ll have a talk with them. Where are you going now?”
“Just to take a walk, towards the field.”
“Don’t be long. You must be back in time for evening snacks. Boudidi (*) has made moong brittles for you today.”
“You are wrong. This is not the time for moong brittles. New moong daal (*) comes in the market around Magh (*)”
“Well you’ll see if it is or not. Now do come back soon. For my sake.”
Nilu spoke up, “Mine too.”
Tilu shooed her off, “Go, get away!”
Bhabani was relieved to get out of the house. It was autumn. The fields of summer aush paddies were empty after the harvest. Yellow tithpalla(*) flowers were blooming on the bushes. Bhabani loved the wide open expanse outside. At home the three wives crowded him. Also, it was his father-in-law’s house. In spite of all the pampering, he did not feel at home—now he had to return home in time. What a pain!
Glumly Bhabani sat under a banyan try near the river. It was a huge tree with aerial roots coming down here and there and turning into huge trunks. It was a quiet, shady haven under the tree. Birds flying from far away places stopped and rested in this tree. Migratory geese, shamkut(*), whistling ducks, some local birds like wood duck, kites, vultures and egrets had made nests on the tree. Smaller birds like myna jungle babbler magpie-robin, jacanas did not nest or visit here.
Bhabani had visited this tree before and observed all this. A few wild 4 o’clock flowers bloomed here and there under the tree. Bhabani looked around and went to a shady corner. He needed some seclusion. The farmers were inquisitive. They always peeked and pried and pestered him with nonstop questions. He wanted to meditate without any disturbance. This was an old habit from his hermit days.
Today also he sat in meditation. A 4 o’clock flower bloomed right near him. He sat for some time. Suddenly an unknown foreign voice startled his eyes open. A sahib was standing in front, holding on to a thick trunk and staring at him with surprise and respect.
The sahib was of course none other than Colesworthey Grant. He wanted to examine the banyan tree and came under the shade. Seeing meditating Bhabani, he stopped in surprise, “An Indian Yogi!”
Sahib’s tandem was waiting on the road. Sahib was alone. Bhaja Muchi the driver was sitting in the tandem holding on the horses.
Grant came close to Bhabani and apologized, “Oh, I am sorry to disturb you. Please go on with your meditations.” Bhabani Banerjee didn’t understand any of it and stared blankly at him. He had met this sahib a few times before, but never seen him so close.
“I offer you my salutations. I wish I could speak your tongue.”
Bhaja Muchi guessed something was happening under the banyan tree and after reining the horses came down to investigate. He too did not know Bhabani and bowed respectfully, “Salutations, Baba-thakur. This Sahib draws pictures, that’s why he roams around in the jungles whole day. See, he made me drive him from early in the morning. He likes seeing you. That’s what he is saying.”
Bhabani folded his hands in greetings and smiled at Sahib.
Grant too tried to copy his greetings, but couldn’t quite make it, “Let me not disturb you. I sincerely regret. I’ve trespassed in your sanctuary. May I have permission to draw your sketch? – You Man! Will you make him understand?” He tried to explain through gestures to Bhaja Muchi about his drawing.
Bhaja looked at Bhabani, “He wants to draw your picture. I know him. This sahib does things like that. You just sit quietly.”
What a pain! Bhabani just wanted to sit for a while in peace and quiet and now this hassle. Hope the sahib wouldn’t take too long. Well, let’s see the fun. Bhabani kept sitting.
Grant ordered Bhaja, “Don’t you stand agape, go and bring my sketching things from the cart—” He pointed his arm, “Jao. Go— ” After all these days, this was one word Grant had learned well.
Bhabani was late returning home that day. Entering his room, he saw Tilu at the door wiping something with a rag.
“What are you doing?”
“The lamp fell and broke, spilled the oil and water—” Tilu said without looking up.
Those days the villagers used double shelved sage lamps with water at the bottom to keep the castor oil burning longer in the lamp. Bhabani saw the broken lamp under the bed.
“All klutzes. Breaking the lamp.”
“Who then? Must be Nilu?”
“No, Sir! Please be quiet. I’m not talking to you.”
“Why? What have I done?”
“What have you done? Did you listen to me? Didn’t I tell you to come early for the snacks?”
“How could I? Listen to what happened today. I was in such a fix—”
“What happened? Did a snake chase you? Those paddy fields are full of cobras—”
“No, no. Not snake. It was a crazy sahib. The driver of the tandem said he was a new guy, friend of the Baro-sahib—came here to see the country. I was sitting quietly under the tree and he came and stood right in front, staring at me. Then he started speaking something hit mit tit, I couldn’t understand a word. Then the driver explained that he wanted to draw my picture!”
“Oh, that artist sahib! Yes, yes. I have heard about him from Dada. So he drew your picture too?”
“Sure. I had to sit still for an hour and a half.”
“Now tell me, was it my fault?”
Bhabani looked at Tilu. She was looking so pretty! It was not a flawless beauty, but she was stunning. Her smiling face, perfectly shaped arms, the creases in her neck, her complexion, that evening she looked like a goddess herself.
“He should have drawn your picture—to see the real beauty.”
“Rubbish! You are—”
Tilu smiled, “Wait, let me bring you the food. Shall I make ready for your evening prayers?”
“Nilu, come here. Bring the mat—”
Nilu brought the prayer mat, and the copper spoons for the holy water of the Ganga. Tilu cleaned the place lovingly with the end of her sari.
Bhabani was thinking—even during his prayers—that the sahib had asked him to come to the banyan tree tomorrow again. It was an order. He had to go. After all they were the rulers. How about taking Tilu along too? She was so beautiful. It will be so nice if the sahib could draw a portrait of her. But taking her along was a problem. If anyone came to know there would be much sanction from the village. They might even expel Rajaram from the community.
Tilu brought some snacks on a plate, coconut sandesh (*), fried pressed rice and moong brittles. She smiled, “See, you do get moong brittles at this time. Now what did you promise me—”
Nilu said, “I’ll pinch his ears so hard that—”
“Stop it. You don’t know what to say to whom. Shame.” Tilu said.
Bilu emerged from somewhere laughing.
“Here is another mischief maker.” Bhabani was irritated, “Always giggling and talking nonsense. Shame on both of you.”
Bilu said, “Quit shaming us.”
Nilu said, “I agree. Are we so bad that we have to be shamed all the time?”
Tilu said, “Please don’t mind them. They are young and pampered. Dada never disciplined them. All that pampering has spoiled them thoroughly.”
Nilu said, “Yes, girlfriend! You don’t have to explain us to him.”
Bilu said, “Didi is acting like the favorite wife to her lover, get it?”
Bhabani said, “Again those obscene words? Shame!”
Bilu grumbled, “Great! Everything we say is obscene. As soon as we open our mouths it becomes obscene. Fine. We will keep saying obscene things. What will you do?”
Tilu scolded them, “Go, scoot from here. Both of you. Get some paan…Do you want some more of the brittle? How did you like it? Boudi put some of them in syrup, especially for you. Will give you some more after dinner.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“First make sure there is nobody around.”
“There isn’t. Say it—”
“Can you come with me to that banyan tree tomorrow?”
“I’ll ask the sahib to make a picture of you. Wear your nice Dhakai sari. Will you?”
“Why? What is wrong?”
“How can I? Go out with you in broad daylight? Do you know what people are already saying because they saw me getting out in front of you in daytime? Here the rule is only to see each other at night. But I have to get out. Boudidi alone can’t manage everything.”
“Listen. We need to find a way. I’ll have to go in the afternoon, like today. You go to the river ghat(*) as if to bathe, take your pitcher and gamchha (*). I will pick you up from there. Nobody will know. Please Tilu, I really wish you to.”
“You have very weird wishes. You can’t do such things in the community. You had left home and went around as a hermit, so you don’t know how such things work in the society. I can’t always do what I wish to—”
Ultimately Tilu had to go. She couldn’t bear to disappoint her husband. Nobody saw her going for a bath wearing the fancy Dhakai sari and carrying pitcher, lighting up the forest with her beauty. Nobody except the wife of Baro Boshtam.
“Hey Didi, where are you going all dressed up showing off your beauty?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Just to bathe in the river and wash this sari, That’s all—”
Tilu’s heart was racing. She had to tell a lie, like the guilty folks. Thank God Bosham’s wife was in a hurry and thank God there was nobody else that evening at the ghat.
Grant saw Tilu from afar and quickly doffed his hat. Nearing her he said respectfully, “Oh, she is a queenly beauty! Oh! I’m grateful to you, Sir—”
Then with great care he started drawing a rough sketch of Tilu’s beautiful face and her unique shy pose.
Published in 1864, Colesworthey Grant’s ‘Anglo-Indian Life in Rural Bengal’ depicted two sketches of Tilu and Bhabani Banerjee on pages 54 and 57, titled ‘A Bengalee Woman’ and ‘An Indian Yogi in the Woods’ respectively.
Nobody in the village came to know about it. But it was a moonlit night. Tilu brought her husband home detouring through the fields. Bhabani was an outsider; he didn’t know these village routes very well. Bhabani had warned Bhaja Muchi not to talk about it. Tilu said, “Good Heavens! You and your strange wish. Now it is so late. Don’t go catching a cold now. That Sahib was quite good looking, no? I have never seen one from so close. You are really a rogue!”
“How can you call your husband such an obscene name? Shame!”
The Chhoto-sahib had summoned Rajaram Ray. Rajaram knew the reason. He had to go and mark some tenant’s land to forcibly occupy for indigo planting. Rajaram was an expert manager. He knew very well how to teach a lesson to the tenants. That was the reason he had stayed in his job for eighteen years and become Baro-sahib Shipton’s right hand man.
Panchu Shekh lived in Teghara Sekhhati. The tenants there had objected, ‘Dewanji, please plant indigo in your own land. This year we won’t allow indigo in our lands.’
Rajaram forcibly marked the lands of Panchu Shekh, his father-in-law Bipin Gazi and Nobu Gazi. All of them were influential, well to do families in the village. Bipin Gazi had eight or nine granaries full of paddy, two dozen yoked oxen for tilling and six pairs of ploughs. His brother Nobu had become quite rich doing money lending business. Both the brothers together harvested at least a hundred bighas (*) of aush paddy farmland. All the villagers respected them and they too helped others in times of need.
Nobu Gazi had complained to the Chhoto-sahib today. That was probably the reason for Rajaram’s summons. But Rajaram was not worried. Let Nobu Gazi do whatever he could.
The Chhoto-sahib had been here for many years and could speak Bengali like a native. He called Rajaram,
“You know what Nobu Gazi was saying... Rajaram?”
“You marked his tobacco planting field?”
“Otherwise we won’t be able to keep that village under control, Sir.”
“He is saying you took the land in front of the holy darga(*) of a saint?”
“That’s a lie, Sir. Call him.”
Nobu was a strong, well built man, and not too quiet or peaceful either. But he stood meekly in front of Rajaram and the sahib. No tenant dared talk back at them within the borders of the plantation.
Chhoto-sahib asked, “Well, Nobu, made any date palm gur(*) or patali (*) this time?”
Nobu said politely, “No Sir, haven’t started preparing the trees yet.”
“Would you give us some patali this season?”
“Of course, whom else would we give to?”
“Rajaram, did you mark their land near the tomb of the holy pir (*)?”
“No Sir. The land is called Dargatala, that’s all. That was written in the old records. But there has never been a tomb of a saint or mosque on or near that land. Ask him.” Then in a loud voice to Nobu, “Was there ever a darga?”
“There was one, long time ago, It is not anymore.”
“Then? Then why did you lie to sahib?”
“Sir, please be merciful. We do ‘hajat’ on that land. On the last day of Aghran (*), we cook and eat there in the name of the saint. You can come and take a look if it is true or not. Why should I lie to you? Please release that land. You all are the kings of our country.”
Chhoto-sahib looked at Rajaram and said in a placating way, “Well, let’s release that land. They do there something—”
Nobu said, “Hajat.”
“What on earth is that?”
“As I said, we cook rice and meat, and after distributing it to the fakirs (*) in the name of God, we all eat the rest.”
Chhoto-sahib happily said, “That sounds wonderful. You must show me one day.”
“Good. Rajaram, release that land. Jao—”
Nobu Gazi salaamed deeply and exited, but he was not stupid. He knew Dewan Rajaram very well. He waited outside behind a tree.
Rajaram said, “Sir, you spoiled everything.”
“That land was the best, number one. Three and half maunds (*) indigo powder per bigha. You should never let it go. And if you encourage those folks like that they would never obey me.”
Chhoto-sahib left whistling a tune. Rajaram was in deep sulk. He immediately went to the office of the amin(*) Prasanna Chakravarti and the two of them talked for some time. Prasanna Chakravarti was around forty, dark complexioned, medium built, with a pair of huge moustaches. His eyes were round and fiery. Everyone said there was no one as nasty and sly as him among all the workers in the plantation. He was an expert in turning lies into truth and truth into lies. The amins usually had other powers too. Simple, uneducated villagers did not understand the complicated processes of land surveying. An amin’s job was to dump Ram’s land on Shyam and Shyam’s land on Jadu, record false measurements and extract acreages for more indigo farming. The villagers were intimidated and had to pay bribes. Rajaram received a portion of those bribes too. Prasanna Chakravarti smoked a coconut shell hookah and opined, “This way nobody will listen to us anymore Dewanji.”
Rajaram understood that quite well, “What can we do now? You tell me.”
“Take it to the Baro-sahib.”
“Who would go in that tiger’s lair?”
“You. Who else?”
Baro-sahib Shipton was a very serious and intimidating person. Comparatively the Chhoto-sahib was much more generous. Perhaps because he drank a lot. At least that’s what the village folks said. Not many dared to go see Shipton sahib. But for the sake of his prestige, Rajaram had to. Shipton was smoking a pipe as long as his arm and looking up some papers. Next to the huge bed size heavy table was a chair made of jackfruit wood. Sahib had both of them made by Musabbar carpenter from Satbere and painted and polished them himself. On one side of the table was a pile of thick leather bound registers. On the wall were a bunch of pictures of white men and women. There was a fireplace in one corner of the room. Even in a mild winter thick logs burned in it till the end of the season.
Baro-sahib looked up at the Dewan and said, “Good morning.”
Rajaram had salaamed once before but did another deep salaam thinking sahib might not have noticed it. His mouth was dry. This man was not as friendly as the Chhoto-sahib. This sahib was notorious for his unpredictable bad temper. One could never count on these white men. That crazy artist sahib was not bad though. He drew Tilu and Bhabani’s pictures in secret and by mentioning that Rajaram even got twenty-five rupees as tips from him. Of course Bhabani knew nothing of it. The crazy sahib and Bhabani were alike. Both were happy-go-lucky people.
Rajaram replied, “I am well, thanks to your blessings.”
“Do you need something? Anything special? I am very busy now. Very little time.”
“Nothing much Sir. I had marked a villager’s land in Teghara. The Chhoto-sahib released it back to him.”
Shipton frowned, “Do whatever he had decided. What is your problem here?”
The Chief did not know Bengali well and often spoke mixed up words. Now Rajaram had to explain everything to him. What a pain. And he had to do so without openly correcting Sahib’s words. Otherwise the Sahib got mad.
Rajaram carefully said, “Of course there is no problem Sir, but it makes it difficult to discipline the ryots.”
“Difficult to what?”
“Punish the ryots Sir. Indigo farming will stop.”
“If indigo farming stops, then why do I keep you here?”
“You are right Sir, but how can I do my work if I am disrespected in front of them.”
“Disrespect? Oho! You are in disgrace, you old scoundrel! I understand. What do you want to do?”
“You decide Sir. The land I had marked belonged to a scoundrel named Nobu Gazi. Sahib ordered to release that land. We won’t be able to touch any land in that village. How can we farm indigo?”
“Show me tomorrow how much land you have marked this year. Have you prepared an impression register?”
“Go. If you can’t show me tomorrow, you will be fined. Go now.”
That was all. Rajaram’s work was done. But he went back to Prasanna Chakravarti with a glum face, “No. Couldn’t get anything done. Those guys all support each other’s back. Dirty pig-eating whiteys. They don’t care about you or me.”
Prasanna Chakravarti too was a smart cookie. He knew well ahead the result of the meeting. He smoked on his hookah, “‘Apamanang purashkritya manang kritwa cha prishtakey,’ we read that quotation by Chanakya in childhood. You can’t worry about your own prestige while dealing with those folks. Well, go, do your job—”
“In stead, he talked about fines.”
“What? Fines too?”
“Not for that, he wants to see if the record of the current year is ready. I have to show the list of all the marks tomorrow, if I can’t show, I will be fined.”
“Well, such is their judgment.”
“On top of that I was called names—”
Rajaram grumpily went out and saw Nobu Gazi and his friends standing near the main gate and laughing about something with the supervisor Ramhari Tarafdar. He still hadn’t figured out Rajaram. In fact even the Baro-sahib did not. Rajaram called Nobu in a solemn voice, “Hey Nobu Gazi, come here.”
Nobu Gazi immediately stopped laughing. He was not laughing about today’s event. He didn’t dare to do that. He was merely telling a story about some farmer who stole Nobu’s cow and then tried to sell it in Na’hata market. Nobu was laughing at his own cleverness and proudly telling his friends how he got his cow back. Rajaram’s grave voice almost stopped his heart. He immediately came over and respectfully stood in front, “Yes, Sir?”
“The land I had marked, the indigo will be planted there. Understood?”
Nobu was surprised, “How can that be? Chhoto-sahib released it to me—”
“Yes. That was Chhoto-sahib. But he too has a boss. I have the Baro-sahib’s order. I’m just coming from his office. You can’t go over my head and get away with it, understood? I shall stick you in the lime storage room and feed you dry paddy, or my name is not Rajaram Choudhury. I’m warning you. I know your type very well. Watch me if I don’t destroy all your house.”
Nobu Gazi was terrified. There was no ryot in the entire plantation who was not intimidated by Dewan Rajaram Ray. He could do anything he wished. Nobu folded his hands and pleaded, “Please forgive me Dewanji, you are our lord and master. You can keep us or kill us. We are only poor ignorant farmers; we are like your children. Please don’t be angry with us. We will die otherwise...”
“You haven’t seen anything yet. I’ll mark your own house. Lets see how your Chhoto-sahib rescues you.”
Nobu fell at Rajaram’s feet.
Rajaram was still angry, “No, don’t plead with me. Go to your sahib.”
Nobu still wouldn’t let go Rajaram’s feet, “If you don’t save us we will surely die. I am ignorant, I did something wrong by mistake. Please forgive me this time. You are our parents.”
“OK, let go. I can release your land but—”
“I know, I know how to honor you Sir. You don’t have to tell me.”
“Fine. The land is yours. Tomorrow Amin-babu will go and adjust everything. But you have to pay for the cost of erasing to the measuring folks. Go—”
Nobu made another deep salaam and walked away along the river’s bend. Dewan Rajaram Ray and Amin Prasanna Chakravarti smiled in satisfaction.
Rulings like this went on everywhere. The sahibs might show some kindness but these middlemen never let go. They grabbed the most arable lands off the farmers and the affluent villagers. Those acres had to have indigo plantings. If not, heavy prices were extracted.
The Baro-sahib was also the judge of the criminal court of this area. The court was in session in the plantation three days every week. Stealing paddies and cattle, fighting, rioting, all complaints were brought here and rulings were issued. People from many villages came to the white-washed hall of the main building of the plantation to state their cases. There was even a gallows recently erected at the crossroad near the field of Sanekpur. Rajaram told everyone that the government had allowed Shipton Sahib to rule even death sentences.
Baro-sahib Mr. Shipton, however, was a fair judge. He listened carefully to all sides and thought long and hard before giving sentences. Of course, there were always cases of heavy punishment for light crimes. Even the Dewan wouldn’t escape punishment for any lapse in duty in running the plantation. Still people liked the Baro-sahib more than the Chhoto-sahib. Shipton often threatened the Dewan, “I need to lock you up in the lime storage room to teach you a lesson.”
Rajaram would say, “Your wish Sir. You can do whatever you want.”
“You have a very oily tongue, I know, but that wouldn’t cut ice this time. I know how to subdue you.”
“Of course you do. You are our father and mother.”
“Father, mother, father, mother! It will serve you right if I locked you in the lime storage room.”
“It is your pleasure.”
“Go. You are fined ten rupees.”
“As you wish Sir.”
This was how Rajaram did his work.
The magistrate of the district was coming to visit the plantation. Dewan Rajaram was running around making all the arrangement since early morning. He had to arrange for lamb, fish, good quality mangoes and ghee. This happened frequently. Various sahib-guests visited two or three times every month.
Rajaram had called Tinkori from Muropara for a fattened pig. Tinkori was a low-caste kaora (*) but earned good money by selling pigs. Now he had a two-storeyed brick house, many employees, granaries and a pond. Even Brahmins and high caste Kayasthas respected him. He brought ten sers(*) of freshly pressed mustard oil as gift to Rajaram but Rajaram returned it. No food from low caste kaoras would enter his house.
Tinkori said, “One piglet is five months old, and another is two years. Choose any one of them. I shouldn’t say this but they are so tasty. If you eat it once you’ll never forget. You can just roast the five month old one with ghee—”
Rajaram smiled, “Get off. You mustn’t talk to a Brahmin like that. You guys have gotten rich and think you can say anything.”
“Oh! So sorry. I totally forgot that you don’t eat this stuff. Please forgive me.”
“It’s OK. I’m not angry with you. So, remember, you have to bring the pig.”
“No need to remember. I’ll send both of them over tomorrow. Just tell me where. Your house?”
“No, no! Not my house. Send it to the plantation. Pigs in a Brahmin’s house? Really, I just don’t know what to do with you—”
When Tinkori was leaving Rajaram said, “Wait. You can’t leave a Brahmin’s house without some prasad (*). Just because you have money now you think you can get away with anything?”
Tinkori apologized again, “Don’t say that. We live for your blessings only. We will accept even the food you spit out. But today you have really hurt my feelings.”
“I brought such good quality oil for you and you didn’t accept it.”
“That is because our family by tradition can’t accept gifts from the low caste Shudras. But please don’t feel bad about that. OK, if you really insist I’ll have to pay something for it. Just keep the oil over there.”
“Pay? How much?”
“That is about the price of five sers. Have I come to sell this oil to you? Won’t you be a bit more generous? Just because we are low caste—”
“No, Tinkori, please don’t mind. You must accept this one rupee. I can’t give any less than that. Hey, who is there? Sitanath? Come here and take this pot of oil—”
Right then the Chhoto-sahib arrived in a hurry. He was going to say something to Rajaram but seeing Tinkori he stopped.
Rajaram stood up, “Got a five month old pig, Sir.”
“Oh, suckling pigs are the best. Five months is a bit old. Don’t you have any suckling piglet?”
“No Sahib. Where can we find such small babies?”
“District Magistrate is coming. He will dine here. A suckling pig would be really tasty.”
“This time I’ll save one when born. I shall leave now. Salaam Sahib. Pranam Dewanji.”
Rajaram realized that Sahib must have brought some serious news. After Tinkori left he asked, ”What’s up Sahib?”
“Much hullaballoo. The Muslim farmers of Rasulpur and Rahatunpur are mad. They don’t want to plant indigo on their lands.”
“Who said so?”
“The Karkun (*) went there to mark the lands. They chased him away with sticks.”
“How dare they!”
“Call for a horse. Let’s both ride over there and see what is happening. Don’t tell the chief anything yet.”
“If it is true, I know how to control it. You just save me from the criminal court.”
“No, no. You are very rash. Don’t do anything crazy. That’s why I can’t trust you.”
After awhile, both of them left on horsebacks. Nobody knew when they came back but next day the news spread quickly that the entire village of Rahatunpur had burned to the ground last night. Houses of the affluent farmers, many had twenty to thirty granaries with paddy, six-roofed, eight-roofed houses, everything was decimated. Nobody knew how the fire had started but in the evening the Chhoto-sahib and the Dewan had gone to the house of the head villager, there they had asked for explanation from the villagers for refusing to plant indigo. The villagers didn’t agree. Sahib and Dewan returned around eleven at night. In the early morning hours the village burned down to ashes. Everyone suspected cause and effect between the two events.
Next day the District Magistrate Mr. Duncinson arrived at the plantation with all his troop. When he got off the phaeton provided by the Indigo House, Mr. Shipton and the Chhoto-sahib were present to greet him at the main entrance. Rajaram was apparently in the living room, ready to offer cigars to the guests. Duncinson didn’t come just for a visit. Shipton had invited him for a special reason.
Baro-sahib called Rajaram, “You must tell him what you saw. He is our District Magistrate…this man is our Dewan, Mr. Duncinson and a very shrewd old man too…go on, tell him what you saw in Rahatunpur.”
Rajaram bowed deeply, “Sir, they were very angry. They tried to beat me with a stick. They were dead set against planting indigo. I pleaded with them, almost fell at their feet, I said—”
Duncinson looked at Baro-sahib, “What does he say he did?”
“I understand. Ask him how many people were there—”
“How many?” Baro-sahib translated that into his broken Bengali.
“Almost two hundred, Sahib. All came armed with lathis.”
“Came with staffs and other weapons.” Baro-sahib translated back.
“Oh they did, did they? The scoundrels!”
“Then what did you do?”
“We came away Sir, I was very sad. I kept thinking all this land wasted, not used for indigo farming. Big loss for the plantation.”
After awhile, the field in front of the plantation filled up with people. They all had come with complaints to the Magistrate. Dewanji had burnt down their village Rahatunpur.
Magistrate called Dewan Rajaram, “Have you done this? Set fire?”
Rajaram was completely surprised, “Fire? What are you saying Sir? Fire?”
As if he had never heard the word ‘fire’ before.
The Magistrate was suspicious. He cross-examined Rajaram for a long time. But cunning Rajaram had seen such grilling before, he was not intimidated. Many farmers from Rahatunpur were also questioned but they were too timid to say much within the boundaries of the plantation. Magistrate-sahib would be gone tomorrow but the Baro-sahib and his folks would be here to mete out the justice. Specially the Dewan. The villagers were too scared to say anything against them. Magistrate-sahib went to visit Rahatunpur himself. Along went the Chief and the Chhoto-sahib. Two huge elephants were readied for their trip. All the other villages poured into Rahatunpur for the occasion.
Rahatunpur was not a very large village. There was a hay field on one side and the village was on the east of it. There were no brick houses. All were made of earth and hay on the roof, and were touching each other. All burned down totally. Only a few blackened bamboo posts stood in some houses. The earthen walls were all baked, like the potter’s pots. Two full grown cows used for ploughing were burned to death in the cowshed of Kabir Shekh. Every house had half burnt piles of paddy in the courtyards. Women were trying to pick out the unburnt paddy grains from the piles—to save some for their meals.
Many came sobbing. Many blamed the Dewan, but without any solid proof. Nobody had seen him or any of his men to set the fire. The Magistrate investigated thoroughly. Then he called Baro-sahib, “I feel really sorry for the poor beggars. We must do something for them.”
The Chief said, “I wonder who has committed this black deed—I suspect my oily-tongued Dewan.”
“Think it is a case of arson?”
“I can’t tell—years ago I saw a case like this, and that was a case of arson—my Dewan was responsible for that—the devil.”
Magistrate gave out one hundred rupees for help and relief; the Chief added two hundred more. Everyone hailed the sahibs.
Everyone said, “You don’t see a fairer judge than him. After all he is a whitey.”