That night a huge dance party was arranged in the hall of the Indigo House. All the white sahibs had drunk a lot. All were holding their women’s waists and dancing and singing English songs. The groom Bhaja Muchi wore a uniform and served alcohol. There were no non-Bengali workers in the indigo plantation. Most of the bearers and servants were the local low caste people like the Muchis, Bagdis and Doms. As a result all the white men and women spoke Bengali. There was no need to speak or know Hindi.
The Amin Prasanna Chakravarti was sitting in his office near the main gate, smoking a hookah. In front of him sat Barada Bagdini. Barada was older than Amin; her hair was grey like strands of hemp. Occasionally Prasanna Chakravarti called Barada to get something done.
Prasanna said, “Is Gaya doing well?”
“So so. Your blessings.”
“Very nice girl. I’ve not seen any like her in this area. One thing Barada Didi—”
“Ask Gaya to get me a good bottle of imported alcohol. Today lots of good food and liquor have been brought. Party for the whites, you know how it is. Haven’t tasted something like that for a long time—”
“That I can’t promise. Gaya is not there. She stays away during the dinner.”
“Please Didi, you have to do this for me. Go there, get Gaya and tell her, just one bottle—”
Barada Bagdini left. She had great influence in this area, because she was the mother of the famous Gaya-mem (*). All the villagers under Mollahati indigo plantation knew Gaya-mem by name. Although Gaya was a low caste bagdi, she was particularly close to the Baro-sahib, therefore her name ‘mem’.
Gaya was not a bad woman. When requested sincerely she had talked with the sahibs and rescued many folks from difficult situations. Because she was a woman, her heart was still in the right place even though she lived a life of sin. Gaya was not old. Around twenty-five perhaps. She had fair skin, large eyes and long black hair that fell till her waist. Her face was a bit large but quite sweet. Her shapely body would beat many wealthy women. One had to stare at her when she walked by.
Nobody had actually seen Gaya-mem with the Baro-sahib. Yet everyone knew about their relationship. Officially she was the sahib’s maid, she lived in the yellow building, which was also the private quarter of the Baro-sahib. She always wore a white sari with black border, armlets and bracelets in her arms, large earrings and in the cleft deep between her breasts, like a narrow mountain trail in a dense forest, she wore an amulet pendant on a gold chain.
The low caste Dom and Bagdi women commented, ‘Gaya Didi played it well.’
More refined women among them sneered, ‘To hell with such armbands and bracelets.’
Many of them certainly envied Gaya. There was proof of that too. Many had tried to compete with her and had lost. They had good reason to be jealous about her.
It was quite unexpected to see a girl like Gaya enter Prasanna Chakravarti’s office. He was startled and quickly stood up, “Hello Gaya. Come in my mother, where to let you sit—”
Gaya smiled, “It is alright uncle. I’ll just sit here on the doorstep. What did you ask me to do?”
“Can you get me a bottle please?”
“Just see. Mother went and told me that I must get you a good one. See what I’ve got for you.”
Gaya brought out a white wide bellied bottle from under her sari and placed it on the table. Prasanna Chakravarti’s beady eyes brightened in greed and glee. He quickly grabbed the bottle, “Oh, thank you my mother! Let me see—can you read the English writings on the bottle?”
“No Uncle, I never learned those English vinglish.”
Prasanna Charavarti ogled at Gaya appreciatively. With some lust too. Gaya-mem’s perfect youth was an object of desire for many men. But she was a ripe fruit on a very high branch. Not everyone was lucky enough to reach her.
“Say Gaya, did you see what goes on in the dance hall when the sahibs and their mems are dancing?”
“No Uncle. They don’t let me go in there.”
“I’ve heard Shipton-sahib’s wife dances with Chhoto-sahib?”
“That is their strange habit. Everyone dances holding everyone’s waist. To hell with them, I’d die of shame!”
“Really Uncle. I am not making this up. You can go take a peek. Sahib’s servant Nafar Muchi is standing at the verandah.”
“Where is Bhaja Muchi? He listens to me sometimes.”
“He is there too.”
“Of course. Where would he go?”
“Say, what kind of man is he? In private?”
Gaya shyly looked down, “Just usual. He is not as harsh as he seems outside. Everything is fine except…”
“That body odor is there of course, but it’s not that. It is his prickly heat. It is just too much. Every night the blisters get ready to burst. Every night he takes my hairpin and bursts them.” Suddenly Gaya realized she shouldn’t be talking so intimately with a man old enough to be called her uncle. She felt very embarrassed. To hide it she quickly stood up, “I’ve got to go Uncle. It’s getting late. Would you like some biscuits? I can get you some. Another thing they eat is cheese. Very smelly. I tried it once, made me throw up. But it makes you strong.”
After Gaya left Prasanna Amin opened the bottle and sipped with relish. He did get some extra money, thanks to Dewanji, but that alone was not enough to procure such luxuries. One had to have connections. Dewanji did not care for such things. Very dry and hard man. He was good for starting riots. Look how he burnt down the entire village of Rahatunpur in one night. Of course Prasanna Amin knew all about it. They sat in the very room planning it all. Magistrate or not, once inside the plantation, everyone conforms to the rules here.
Besides, those white rulers would of course take the side of other Whites. Not the poor dark natives.
Eat, drink and dance holding your woman. That’s it.
Bhabani Banerjee was living happily.
For two years now he had been living in his house at one end of the bamboo grove some distance away from Rajaram’s house. It had two straw covered rooms. Tilu had a son. Bhabani did not do any work. Whatever paddy he got from three or four bigha land gifted at his wedding, was enough to feed his family. The sahib who sketched his and Tilu’s pictures sent him a letter and a copy of his book with the pictures in it. Rajaram brought the book and the letter from the Indigo House, “Say Bhabani, how did Tilu’s picture come in this book? Did that sahib sketch her too? He did a great job though, with a lot of care. Look at the beautiful lines. But how did he get to draw her? Well, never mind. Don’t show this to anybody else in the village. Who knows how they will react. After all it is an English book, who knows what is written in it. But he did draw a lot of pictures of the village and many places in the Jessore area. He was a nice sahib.”
Tilu smiled, “See, what a nice picture of me.”
“Mine too,” said Bhabani.
“Show it to Bilu and Nilu. They will like it. Wait, let me call them—”
Nilu came and started her mischief, “Why is Didi first in everything? Why wasn’t my picture drawn too? Lover boy just can’t forget Didi’s love, that’s it!”
But their silliness had decreased a lot with time. Their conversations too were not as childish as before. Bilu too has changed a lot. She would be having a baby in a couple of months.
Tilu was a surprise. Coming from an affluent, loving family into this tiny thatch-roofed house, she had adjusted herself beautifully. She decorated the rooms, made small shelves and niches in the walls, made an oven by herself with the earth from the pond, cleaned the floors with cow dung. In the evenings she made sacred threads from cotton balls. She was always doing something, never sat still.
Bilu too helped her a lot. Didi cooked while she chopped the vegetables. Both Bilu and Nilu were very fond of their elder sister and always obeyed whatever Tilu said. Of course they loved their husband too. They specially liked to sit and chat with him.
Boudidi Jagadamba asked, “Nilu, haven’t seen you in our house for some time?”
Nilu shyly replied, “There is so much work to be done here. Didi can’t manage alone—”
“Of course. We never had any household chores. Only you girls.”
“As you say—”
“I was telling Tilu earlier—”
“Oh no! Didi won’t even go to heaven leaving her husband and son.”
“That I know.”
“Didi can’t manage alone, so we have to babysit Khokon.”
“My Tilu is such a nice girl. Send her in the evening. When your brother used to return from work, Tilu always prepared his tobacco for smoking. He says without Tilu the whole house looks dim.”
“I’ll tell Didi.”
“She mustn’t bring the baby with her in the dark.”
“She won’t leave until your son-in-law returns home. And his majesty often returns late.”
“That I have no idea.”
“You must find out. Men can get into bad habits outside.”
“Your son-in-law doesn’t have those kind of habits. He is a different type of man. Like a hermit. You know he was a hermit for a few years. He is still like that. Not interested in household matters. Whatever Didi says, he goes along with her.”
“He is a sweet man. I really miss him too. Do ask both of them to come in the evening. He can do his evening prayers and have some snacks at our place.”
That evening, after Bhabani returned home from the river side, Nilu said, “Listen, you two must visit Dada and Boudidi. Boudidi’s order.”
“And you and Bilu?”
“Who cares about us? The hero and heroine are more important.”
“Again you started talking like that?”
“OK, OK, I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
Tilu came and smiled at them, “You guys are chatting here? It is almost time for evening prayers.”
Bhabani said, “Nilu says we have to go to your brother’s place. Boudidi had asked.”
“Sure, Lets go. Khokon can stay home with them.”
There was a nice moon that evening. It was still slightly chilly. Clusters of flowers were growing on the mango trees but hadn’t started spreading their scents yet. Occasionally a koel cried out from inside the dense branches of the large bakul (*medlar) tree.
Bhabani asked, “Want to sit by the river for a bit?”
Lately Tilu had no opinion of her own. “Sure. Hope nobody will see us.”
“So what if they do?”
“Whatever you wish.”
“Let’s go behind Ray’s haunted house. People are scared to go near that place.”
They both reached the bank of the river. Under the bamboo groves the dry bamboo leaves crunched under their feet.
Tilu said, “Wait, I’ll spread the end of my sari for you—”
“Don’t. You’ll feel cold.”
“I don’t feel cold. You sit properly.”
“It’s beautiful here, no?”
Tilu smiled, “It really is. It is so difficult to get out of the house. So much work. Bilu and Nilu don’t know much, they are still so naïve. They only do what I tell them to. So many responsibilities.”
Bhabani loved the lilt of rural Jessore in Tilu’s voice. He was from Nadia. There the speech and pronunciation were well polished. He heard accent like this for the first time in this part of the country.
He smiled, “You know how you guys talk here?” and he mimicked some words in Tilu’s accent.
“What? What did you say?”
Bhabani started explaining in exaggerated accents.
“Enough. You don’t need to explain. Where did you learn all this?”
“Here you go, talking in your rural accent. Why do you suppress it sometimes?”
“I am embarrassed to talk like that in front of you.”
Bhabani drew her close. The oblique rays of moonlight lit up her body. Even though she was thirty, she seemed like a young woman just blooming at her husband’s touch. All her unmet wishes, prayers from her girlhood, the most desired object of all unmarried Kulin girls, a husband, was hers at last. A good, gentle man. Tilu still couldn’t believe her good fortune, even after two years.
She said, “You know what? I think we didn’t get married because we were waiting just for you. After all, Kulin (*high caste Brahmin) girls’ weddings—”
“I don’t understand one thing. Your last name is Ray. How come you are Kulin? Rays should be Shrotriyos (*)...”
“You have to ask Dada about that. I am just a woman. What do I know? But we are really Kulin. After my younger aunt’s death, her older sister got married in the far away Bangal (*Bangladesh) country—to a good Kulin boy.”
“Don’t call it ‘Bangal country’. You too are a Bangal, Jessore district.” And he started mimicking her again.
“Go away! Stop teasing me. And how about the way you guys speak?” Here Tilu started giggling and mimicking her husband’s speech.
“OK, I’ll quit, then what happened?”
“My older aunt was around forty at that time. After going to her in-law’s place she found there were twenty or thirty years old children by her husband’s previous wife who had died. Those children abused her mercilessly. But aunt tolerated it all. After all, she got her own household after such a long time. One widowed older daughter used to beat my aunt with sticks, saying, ‘Who the hell are you? My father lost his mind in his old age to get a second wife.’ My aunt put up quietly with everything. At last her old senile husband too kicked the bucket.”
“After that those older stepsons and daughters made her life hell. Then one day they threw her out of the house. Aunt sobbed and pleaded to be allowed to stay in her husband’s land but they didn’t let her. She was out alone by herself, being old fashioned and shy she didn’t know where to go, what to do. Someone took pity and sheltered her in their house. Later they brought her back home to us. Oh, how she cried and wailed. Even then she was single minded in her devotion to her husband. Considered him God. Fortunately she didn’t have to do the widow’s penance for long. Merciful God took her away soon.”
“How long ago was this?”
“Many years. I was just a baby. I don’t remember her. Later I heard all these stories from mother and Boudidi. Boudidi had just joined our family as a young bride.”
Tilu stopped talking. Bhabani too stayed silent. He thought it was pointless becoming a hermit and leaving the family. He would rather be born again and again and help these helpless women. Eternal release was insignificant compared to such work.
Ichhamoti river flowed by in front of them, carrying the memory of all those abused and mistreated Kulin girls. Perhaps Aunt’s tears of unrealized marital hopes and wishes mixed in this river too. That night, in that pankalas(*) flower scented moonlight, it was as if she descended from heaven and blessed him—‘Dear, my wishes were never fulfilled, but you do try to meet the wishes of this girl sitting by you. I wish a good husband for all the girls in this country—this wish for myself was never fulfilled. This is my blessing.’
Bhabani Banerjee lovingly drew Tilu closer in his arms.
When they reached Rajaram’s house, it was long past evening. Jagadamba exclaimed, “Oh my God! Where have you been all this while? Nilu came a while ago. Said you guys left quite some time back. I’ve arranged for the evening prayers, also some snacks and been waiting for you. Goodness!”
Tilu said, “Please don’t tell others, but he took me to the river. Please give him something to eat. I am missing Khokon. Haven’t seen him for such a long time. What did Nilu say? Was he crying?”
“Oh, no! Khokon was sleeping when she came. You better eat something—”
“Let him finish his prayers. Is Dada back from work?”
“They took the horse to bring him back.”
Jagadamba arranged the snacks in front of the son-in-law. Even though she was his brother-in-law’s wife, Bhabani respected her like his mother-in-law. Jagadamba always covered her head in front of him. She had made soaked moong daal (*), date palm jaggery, date palm syrup, coconut balls, chandrapuli(*), kheer (*) moulds and molasses wafers. Tilu asked while eating, “Did you give some to Bilu and Nilu?”
“Nilu ate here and took some for Bilu.”
“We better go now Boudi. Khokon would wake up and cry.”
“Come again and bring your husband too. I’ll fry some adosa(*) for him. I’ll also make rice pudding with date palm jaggery. I could have made it today but that brother of Bhaja Muchi only brought one pot of syrup.”
“Listen, Boudi, your son-in-law says we speak in Bangal accent. And he mimicks us with rhymes.” She giggled.
“Oho! And he is such an urban man! I will give him an earful. At least he doesn’t have that messy tangled beard any more. When we first saw him he had such a long beard, just like the sage Narad.”
“He is your son-in-law. You deal with him. I better go. I’m sure Khokon is up. I’ll come again, the day after.”
Out on the road, Bhabani walked in front and Tilu followed her with her head covered. The road went right through the village. No conversation or walking together was allowed.
In front was Chandra Chatterjee’s pavillion for Chandi worship. It was a popular place for chess games at night. Chandra Chatterjee was distantly related to Tilu as her uncle-in-law. Tilu was nervous. In case her uncle-in-law saw her walking with her husband so late at night.
When they were close to the pavillion someone from the crowd called out, “Who goes there?”
Bhabani cleared his throat, “Me.”
The voice stopped. After passing them, Tilu whispered, “Who was that?”
“What a pain! Did he see me?”
“What if he did? You are with me. Why are you so nervous?”
“You don’t know the ways in this village. Tomorrow the rumors would start—so-and-so’s wife was openly walking the street at night.”
“Let them. All this will change Tilu. Perhaps not in your and my time, but our Khokon, if alive, would walk proudly with his wife by his side on this road. Nobody would mind.”
Nalu Pal had opened a shop. It was right near the bend of Ichhamoti. The bend used to be in the river’s path at one time, but now no water flowed anymore. It was choked with water lettuce. Nalu set his grocery store there. While carrying loads on his head to Mollahati’s market he had noted that a store in that location would run well.
A few customers stopped by his store. They were tribal. Their forefathers had come from the Santhal districts to work in the indigo farm. Now they spoke fluent Bengali, worshipped Goddess Kali and Manasa, and wore sari just like Bengali girls.
One girl said, “Give me some oil and salt for two paisas. It’s getting cloudy. Rain is coming.”
Another girl got four paisas from the knot at the end of her sari. She had come to get cowries. Twenty cowries for one paisa. Today was market day in Sabaipur. They would buy vegetables with the cowries.
Nalu Pal was very busy today. It was the market day. Sabaipur market was half a mile from his store. Everyone returning from the market would buy things from his store. He had one cashbox for paisas and another for cowries. He was selling items and putting the money in the boxes.
While sitting in his shop and he also bought various personal items cheaply. One girl was carrying gourd leaves to the market, Nalu asked, “How much for the greens?”
“Get out! I just bought them for six cowries yesterday. Eight cowries! Never heard of such a thing.”
“These are very fresh. I just plucked them.”
“OK, bring it over. Of course they are fresh. Who sells rotting greens?”
One man was carrying two bottle gourds in a basket on his head. Nalu’s attention moved from greens to gourds, “Hey brother Dabiruddi, come hear, come hear—”
“What? You can’t buy this gourd. I can’t give you cheaper.”
“One for two paisa.”
Everyone at the store was surprised at the price. They all looked at each other. One person said, “Are you joking?”
Dabiruddi set down his basket and accepted the smoking pipe from another man, “Why would I joke? Are we worthy of joking?”
Nalu smiled, “You said it wrong. You meant if we were worthy of your jokes. Now tell us the final price.”
“One paisa, ten cowries.”
“No, take one paisa, five cowries. Don’t harass us anymore. Be happy with that price and put both the gourds over there.”
Old barber Hari was sitting nearby collecting the ash of burnt tobacco on a leaf. Bhudhar Ghosh asked him, “What is that for?”
“For brushing teeth in the morning. Wanted to buy a gourd but the price is too high. In the times of Johnson-sahib, that size gourd would sell for six cowries in Mollahati market. You could get two for ten cowries. I was just married then. For his oldest son’s wedding Parshwanath Ghosh bought a cartful of veggies, all for just one rupee. There was at least ten or twenty gourds among them, also banana flowers, banana stems, ridge gourds, spinach, cucumbers, brinjals, pointed gourds (*patals), pumpkins, and countless others. Today such a cartful of veggie will at least be two rupees.”
Akrur the fisherman sighed, “All edible stuff are becoming more expensive and harder to find. What will folks eat? Here in Sabaipur milk used to be twenty two to twenty four sers in one rupee, now you can’t get more than eighteen sers anywhere.”
Nalu Pal said, “What eighteen sers Uncle? In our village you won’t get more than sixteen. Went to buy some cottage cheese from Aghor Ghosh, wanted to make a few sandesh, he asked two annas for one ‘khuli’! At the most five poas in one khuli—”
Akrur sounded disappointed, “No, poor folks like us will just have to die of starvation. Everything is breaking down.”
“That’s what it looks like.”
Daribuddi considered himself roundly criticized and with one paisa for each gourd he walked off towards the market. Nalu Pal gave him one more paisa, “Do me a favor, buy some shrimp for one paisa for me? Gourd with shrimp is so yummy. Get nice size ones.”
Hari the barber said, “I went to the builder to get some thatch for my roof. It used to be four annas to cover one roof, now he says he can’t do it in less than five annas. So five annas per builder and two annas for the helper, now add up the total for a five roof house, my friends? Not less than five or six rupees!”
Poor Akrur got so nervous hearing about such prices that he put down the pipe without even smoking and walked away.
But he had to return soon. He lived next door in Pustighata. His oldest son was hired to fish in the Sabaipur bend. He saw him under the fig tree, coming this way, carrying a large fish in the basket on his head. Akrur stood and waited. Did his son catch that big fish? He could hardly believe. He didn’t even have money to buy the daily groceries. As his son neared, his face glowed brighter with joy. Oh! It was a huge fish!
His son called, “Where are you going father?”
“Home. Whose fish?”
“From the bend, just caught it.”
“Eight ser, ten chhatak(*). You take it to the market.”
“How about you?”
“I left the boat at the bend. It will be lost if a storm comes. You take the fish.”
Customers would start crowding at Nalu’s store in the evening. This time he spent chatting with his friends. Everyone crowded around Akrur. What a lovely fish! Got it at such an odd time!
Nalu said, “Sell us the fish Akrur-dada.”
“Take it. I won’t have to go to the market so late.”
“Give me four rupees.”
“Think again Akrur-dada. Of course you haven’t sold any big fish for a long time, you don’t know the prices. Hari Uncle, you tell us, how much would this fish cost?
Hari examined the fish thoroughly, “In our young days, it would fetch one and half rupees. Well, you can pay three now.”
“Forgive me. That will be too low.”
“OK, three and half. Don’t say no more. Take two rupees today and the rest tomorrow.”
Nobody was too pleased at the price. It was difficult to cheat fisherman Akrur. They got at the most eight annas less than the market price.
Nalu Pal called, “Who all want the pieces? Get ready. Pay the money, enjoy the loot. I know you all.”
Five or six men agreed to buy with cash. They cut up the fish behind the shop under the shade of a bamboo grove. Each wrapped his portion in a large taro leaf and took it home.
Nalu took half of one portion.
Akrur said, “Why only half, Pal-moshai? Take the whole?”
“No, the shop is not doing well, Can’t afford so much fish.”
“Your household is only you and your mother, perhaps a sister. How expensive is that?”
“I don’t want to spend on anything before establishing this store properly.”
“Bring a bride in coming Aghran (*). We can look for you.”
“First the store, then everything else.”
Nalu Pal didn’t get time to chat any longer. Customers were already crowding. Most spent cowries only. Very few spent paisas. Nobody spent rupees. Yet the crowd remained till eight in the evening. It was quite late before everyone left.
It was a little before midnight.
Nalu Pal started counting the money he made today. He counted all the cowries on one side and the paisas on the other side. All total two rupees, seven annas and five cowries.
This was unexpected. Almost two and half rupees made in half a day! Hard to believe. This store of his was made of gold! Now thanks to Goddess Siddheshwari, let it go on like this.
Two and a half rupees in half a day. Nalu had never expected it. He used to sell pitiful bundles of paan and spices in the markets. So many days he had to slog through burning sun, mud and pouring rain. The owners of the big shops in Gopalnagar didn’t even glance at him. One who carried his ware on his head was not even a man.
Those days were over. Now he had his own store, with earthen walls and thatched roof. He sat on a cot in his shop and bought and sold things. He didn’t have to slog anywhere in sun and rain. He was his own boss. His friends came by everyday, sat on the bamboo platform outside and chatted with him. Everybody respected him as a shopkeeper.
Two and half rupees! But, however surprising it might be he had to make more than that. If he could make five rupees daily he would consider himself the worthy son of Gobardhan Pal. Pray for Ma Siddheshwari’s blessing.
Nalu Pal had been in the lookout for a paddy farmland for sometime. That night upon reaching home, he decided to visit Kanai Mandal first thing next morning. Nalu had learned of some good farming properties near a swamp in Satbere.
Hari the barber was not wrong. There was no household without a wife.
He had even found a suitable girl for himself, Ambik Pramanik of Binodpur, his third daughter Tulsi.
One time Tulsi glanced at him while giving water standing under the wood apple tree. She had glanced twice. Nalu had noted. She must be at least eleven, with dark skin, large eyes and her arms and legs were so shapely it was hard to imagine without seeing with one’s own eyes. He occasionally visited her aunt in Binodpur. He was sure his aunt wasn’t aware that Tulsi was the reason. But that wasn’t the point.
He knew her father would be overjoyed if he knew of Nalu’s desire to marry his daughter. But Nalu needed a strong father-in-law as his mentor and supporter. He didn’t have a father. There was nobody to help or advise him in times of peril. He had been the sole bread earner since his father’s death. Ambik Pramanik was a minor wholesale dealer in the village. He bought and sold mustard, moong and black lentils, had a couple of houses with thatched roofs. He was not all that affluent. If suddenly needed he couldn’t get fifty or hundred rupees together. That was what Nalu needed right now. Capital for his business. He could buy things in cheap right now, but if he could pay advance he could enlarge his business. He understood all this but who would provide the capital?
Nalu’s mother was waiting with his meal sitting in front of her kitchen. As he entered she called out, “Dear Nalu, home at last. I’ve been dozing off waiting for you.”
“Set the food, I’m hungry.”
“Go wash up. Moina has kept some water in the bathroom.”
“Where is she?”
“What else? Young girl, and it is so late.”
“She will soon have to leave for someone else’s house. At the most one more year. They will make her work for food. Feeling sleepy will not work as an excuse there.”
Nalu started eating. Bitter gourd curry and black lentil soup with rice. That was all. But it was worth seeing the satisfied expression on his face as he ate the reddish aush rice and black lentil.
Moina came and asked, “Dada, shall I get some tobacco?”
“Ma says you were scolding me for falling asleep?”
“Sure. Big girl. Hardly do any work, why do you need so much sleep?”
“What? Are you being sassy?”
“Don’t yell Dada. You don’t pay for my living.”
“Really? Who do you think supports you?”
“Sure. Ma is earning money for you. Idiot girl! Just wait, I will get you an old, twice married husband with a basket on his head—”
“Go ahead, try. I’ll cut off his nose with the kitchen knife. But tell me, when are you getting a bride for our family?”
“First let me get rid of you witch, then I’ll think about that. With such a acid tongued sister-in-law in the house—”
“Oh yea? Look how he talks! This acid-tongued sister-in-law would do so many chores for her Boudi. Where is my palanquin?”
“I couldn’t get it. They don’t keep them fired. I told Suro potter. He will color one at the time of Rath festival.”
“I want to marry my dolls in Asharh month (*rainy season). I need the palanquin before that. If you don’t…”
“Quit talking nonsense and go get my tobacco.”
Moina got the tobacco in the hookah. Nalu gave a few puffs and lay down on a mat by the door.
It was summer. Sweet fragrance wafted from the custard apple flowers. A thin slice of moon rose in the sky.
A jackal howled from Nandi’s garden. It was late at night. Whole neighborhood was quiet.
Moina came out again, “Shall I massage your feet?”
“No, no. Go. Some massage—”
“It’s late. Go sleep. Wake me up early in the morning. Need to go to Satbere to see some farmlands.”
“I will wake you. Sure you don’t need a massage?”
“No. You go.”
Every night while returning home Nalu offered a half-paisa coin to the ashram of an ascetic lady. He was very mindful to all Gods and people of Gods. After all, if he did well in his shop, it would be by their blessings. The cottage was near the river’s bend, on the roadside, under an ancient banyan tree, hidden behind the dense shrubs and acacia bushes so it couldn’t be seen from the road. The lady used to live in Dhopakhola. There apparently she once dreamed that a three hundred fifty year old holy site of Goddess Kali of the cremation ground was hidden under that banyan tree. So she came, cleaned the jungle and set up her ashram, about seven years ago. Now she had many disciples and many folks came from far away villages to worship and pray.
A few came after dark. They gathered in a low thatched hut near the boinchi (*) bushes where the branch of the banyan tree leaned over the roof. Countless weaverbirds made nests there and clusters of fruit bats hung from the branches. They sat in front of the door in dark and smoked hashish.
Chhihari fisherman called out in the dark, “Who’s there? Nalu?”
“What‘re you doing here?”
“Making an offering to the Goddess. I come every evening.”
“Ten cowries, half paisa.”
“Sit. Want a smoke?”
“No, I’m not used to that stuff. You guys carry on. Who else is there?”
“Nobody now. Hari Boshtam comes, Manu Jugi, Dwarik Karmakar, Hafez comes, Mansur Nikiri too.”
Nalu was going to say something but stopped in surprise. He almost couldn’t believe his eyes. Dewanji’s son-in-law Bhabani Banerjee was coming there from the direction of the peepul tree. Did he too smoke hasish with these people?
Nalu quietly stood under the eaves, away from the verandah.
Bhabani Banerjee came and sat under the banyan tree. There was no idol. Just an elevated platform under the tree. A trident was planted and some vermillion was smeared in an area. Bhabani Banerjee sat quietly there for a while. Soon the ascetic lady came out of the cottage and sat next to him. She was dark skinned, thirty-five or six years of age, the face was ugly enough to embarrass even the demoness Tadaka, and two long matted strands of hair fell onto her lap.
Bhabani asked, “What’s new Khepi?”
“Thakur, you tell me.”
“Doing any meditation?
“Your blessings. We are the untouchable Doms. What can we do? Still haven’t mastered the Asana(*) state.”
“I will come next new moon night. Will show you how to.”
“That will not do Thakur. No more excuses. Teach me.”
“No Khepi, What do I know? It is all Her blessing. I don’t do any worships or prayers, nor do I believe in them. Just see the others do, that’s all.”
“No. You can’t escape me Thakur. You must come here every evening. So many ignorant folks come here crowding, asking for medicines, winning cases in courts, help with conceiving sons—”
“That is all your fault. Why did you allow all this to start with—”
“You forget. This is not white sahib’s cottage. Why do you think all these people come here? Not for religion. They come to improve their situations, to win the case in court.”
“You can come in daytime and see for yourself. Right now there is nobody at this late hour. It is such a hassle for me. No time for my own meditations. Now I have to act like a doctor. Cure this, heal that—”
Nalu Pal heard all but only understood parts of it. He had seen Bhabani Banerjee many times. Diwan’s son-in-law, good-looking man, worthy of respect. At home Nalu told his mother, “Saw a marvelous thing today. Our Diwanji’s son-in-law is the guru of the ascetic lady. Our three sisters’ husband. I couldn’t understand everything he said, but the lady, who is such a big shot, was totally at his feet!”