Dewan Rajaram was summoned at the office of the Baro-sahib of the Indigo plantation. He went in and stood with his hands folded respectfully.
Sahib smoked on his wooden pipe, “Your work is not satisfactory.”
“Indigo planting shows a low figure—how did it happen?”
“Sir, forgive me if I speak frankly, after that riot in Rahatanpur—”
Gen. Bills Shipton suddenly smashed his fist on the table and bellowed, “I don’t want to hear any excuses—I don’t wish you to spin that rigmarole over here again. I want work. Work. You must plant indigo in two hundred bighas. I’ll hear no excuses.”
“Mr. Duncinson is gone. New magistrate is here. He is on our side. We have to quickly collect the indigo advance money. I need figures. You must show me the collection register every day.”
Sriram Muchi entered carrying coffee for Sahib. Rajaram pointed at him, “Sir, ask him. The folks of Muchipara in his village in Charpara absolutely will not allow any indigo planting. Just ask him.”
Sahib asked Muchi, “Is it true?”
Muchi was Sahib’s favorite servant. He did not cower like others. He said, “It is true.”
“Galu and Hansa have formed groups. They wouldn’t allow marking the lands for indigo.”
Shipton was enraged. He ordered Dewan, “You are no milksop. Go mark all the plots in Muchipara. Today. Aaj-i!. I’ll go on horse and inspect. Have they forgotten Shyamchand? Ramu Muchi is their leader. We have to straighten him!”
Sriram Muchi now folded his hand and pleaded, “Sahib, I have three bigha plot for musoor lentils. Please don’t mark them. I have nothing to do with leader Ramu.”
“OK. Granted. Dewan, skip his land.”
Rajaram said, “As you order.”
“OK. Go. That devil of an Amin Prasanna should go with you. Not Harish Amin.”
“As you wish, Sir.”
Prasanna Chakravarti was cooking rice in his room. Seeing Dewan Rajaram he quickly stood up. Thank God, Nabu Gazi’s group had just left. They had come to plead to spare their lands from indigo planting this year.
And they did not come empty handed.
If they stayed a bit longer, Rajaram would have caught them. Nothing escaped his eyes.
Rajaram asked, “What’s cooking? Rice?”
“Yes, Sir. Please come in.”
“Come with me quickly. We must finish with the Muchis. Baro-sahib is mad as hell. He summoned me.”
“Can I tell you something? You won’t be upset?”
“Indigo marking is all done.”
Prasanna washed his hand and wiped in a gamchha. Taking out a tiny tin box from a corner he showed the books of maps and markings, “Here is seven pakhi(*) plot, here is two pakhi, and here is one and half—all total thirty bighas and seven kathas.”
Rajaram was impressed, “When did you do this?”
“Who else was with you?
“Karim lathial(*) and myself. Pinman was Sayaram Boshtom.”
“Why didn’t you report it? You should have told me before, I wouldn’t have to get an yelling from the Sahib.”
“Please don’t mind, after that affair in Rahatanpur, I wasn’t sure—”
“Don’t worry. That magistrate is gone. A new one is there now. Sahib told me himself.”
Rajaram didn’t tell anything to the Baro-sahib.
He was writing the report so he too could get some credit of the work that Prasanna Amin did all by himself. He was trying to completely dismiss Prasanna Chakravarti’s role.
But that very day the problem started in Charpara.
Dewan’s distantly related nephew—Ramkanta Ray, who worked as a copyist in Amuti Company and was showing off about strange mechanized cars and ships in Calcutta – had come to the plantation to see Rajaram. A footman came with the news that the farmers had pulled out the markers.
Rajaram immediately rushed there on his horse. There, under a banyan tree, he called each Muchi one by one, made them accept more markings than they had before and got their thumbprints on the papers. He didn’t listen to any arguments.
To leader Ramu he asked, “Did you set up the fish bund (*) at the river’s bend at Panchpota this year?”
“Yes Ray-moshai. I do it every year.”
Ramu was terrified. He knew Dewanji. He asked, “Have I done something wrong? Please don’t blame me if others have said something against me.”
Dewanji sped off on his horse.
In the evening when Ramu was smoking and chatting with a few farmers and Nikiri (*) fishermen at the nets in the bend, suddenly eight or ten men came up and started breaking the bund.
Ramu-sardar (*) stood up and roared, “Who are you? How dare you son of a gun touch my bund?”
Karim the lathial replied, “Your father!”
“Is that so?”
Ramu was the leader of the Bagdis. He was not weak by any means. He stepped up with a stick to block Karim.
Karim lathial roared “Save yourself” and hit him hard with his stick. But Ramu too returned in kind.
“Well done. Now deal with this.”
Ramu was looking for an opening. Victorious Karim was careless for a moment and had left his head uncovered. With lightning speed Ramu raised his stick. “You save yourself Karim, you slave!—”
Ramu’s stick spun over Karim’s angled stick. There was a sound like a ripe bel cracking. Karim collapsed like a broken papaya branch next to a post in the nettings. But Ramu too couldn’t keep his balance and fell over. Immediately Karim’s group started beating him with their sticks till he was finished. The grass at the bend remained red with their blood till next day. Large clots of blood lay in the grass, visible to all pedestrians. There was no sign of the fish bund. The lathial group broke all the bamboo stakes and took them away.
Kabiraj (*) Ramkanai Chakravarti lived alone near the bend, next to a date palm tree. He was a very poor Brahmin. Rice and fried flowers of golden shower tree was his meal in the summer—as long as those flowers bloomed near the bend. He had good knowledge of indigenous medicine, but nobody paid him in cash. In stead, they paid in paddy. That too—if the patient was cured in Shraban (*)-- he had to collect the paddy in Ashwin (*) going door to door after the harvest couple of months later.
That evening he was in his hut reading Dashu Ray’s panchali (*) when he heard the noise and stepped outside. He saw a few men from the plantation taking down the bamboos from the fish bund. Next he heard some people talking about someone being murdered. Ramkanai was going back inside when he saw Haru Nikiri and Mansur Nikiri running away.
Ramkanai called, “Hey Haru, Mansur, what’s going on?”
Hajrat Nikiri too was running in the dark behind them. He replied, “Who? Kabiraj-moshai? Don’t go that way. Plantation lathials have killed Ramu Bagdi and are looting his fush bund.”
Ramkanai hurriedly got inside and locked the door.
Later something very surprising happened in relation to this event that was even more significant than the riot or the murder.
Next day there was much commotion all around. Rumors were flying that the sahib’s guards had killed Ramu-sardar and destroyed his fish bund. People poured in to see for themselves. Many said that now the sahibs would start taxing the water too.
Many of them went to Rajaram’s house. Dewan Rajaram was most surprised, “Murder? Impossible! Nobody from our plantation could commit such an act. Must be someone from outside. Ramu was a nasty character. He had plenty of enemies outside. You guys are too gullible. Anything goes wrong and you people start blaming the plantation.”
Baro-sahib called Rajaram, “What is this I hear about a murder? Who is it?”
Rajaram said, “It is not our problem, Sir. Ramu Bagdi had plenty of enemies. How can we know who murdered him?”
“Did our people go with sticks?”
“We have to prove that to the police.”
To the Chhoto-sahib he said, “I think that man has overshot his mark this time. I don’t appreciate this murder business, you see? Too much of a trouble—when I am the enquiring magistrate.”
“I ordered only the fish bund to be swept away, Sir.”
“I know. Get ready for the trouble this time.”
Before the police started investigating, Ramkanai the Kabiraj was summoned to Rajaram’s house. Rajaram told him to say that he saw Bunopara’s folks killing Ramu Bagdi.
“How can I make such a completely false statement, Ray-moshai?”
“You must. Quit moaning about it. Do what you are told.”
“Sir, you are putting me in a bind.”
“We will provide you paan from the plantation.”
“By God! Please don’t say such a thing. I’ll not take money for this.”
The police called Ramkanai during the investigations. The police inspector owed a lot to the plantation. He tried hard to upset Ramkanai’s testimony, but he remained firm on what he saw. He saw the plantation fighters run away from the scene. He saw Ramu’s corpse. But he did not actually see who killed him.
Inspector said, “He had a fight with the folks of Bunopara, did you know?”
“Did you see anybody from Bunopara there?”
“Try to remember carefully—”
“No, Inspector Sir.”
Later on the Inspector told Rajaram, “Dewanji, this old Kabiraj is too obstinate. You must try to soften him up. Feed him a lot of green coconut water.”
A footman was sent to take Ramkanai to the plantation. Prasanna Amin said, “Kabiraj-moshai, Baro-sahib wants to reward you. He is very pleased with you. Just say what you want—”
“What can I say? I am just a poor Brahmin, Whatever he pleases—”
“Still, would you like cash? Or perhaps paddy?”
“Paddy will be better.”
“Fine. I will tell Dewanji about it.”
Next Ramkanai was taken to the Chhoto-sahib’s private chamber. Poor Ramkanai had never been so close to the sahibs. He was trembling in fear. Sahib had a pipe in his mouth. He ordered harshly, “Come here.”
“Yes Sir, salutations, Sir.”
“What do you do?”
“Sir medical treatments.”
“Good. Would you like to do that here in the plantation?”
“Sir, whose treatment?”
“All of us.”
“If you wish Sir. Whatever you order.”
“Okay. You will get ten rupees a month.”
Ramkanai couldn’t trust his ears. Ten rupees! Ten rupees a month was like Dewanji’s income. Why are these people being so nice to him today?
“Ten rupees Sir?”
“Yes, that’s what you’ll get.”
Sly Chhoto-sahib called Rajaram and said, “Get a written agreement from this man. He will be given ten rupees every month for being the resident physician in this plantation. And give him ten rupees in advance for this month.”
Next day Ramkanai was called to the plantation again. The day before he had gone home happy with ten rupees. Why were they calling him this morning again? He had to go to Dewan Rajaram’s office. Dewan said, “So, now you too are an employee here, like us.”
Ramkanai humbly said, “All your kindness.”
“No, no, it’s not that. You are an excellent physician. We all need you. Did you get the ten rupees?”
“Good. Now that you have partaken the Plantation’s salt, you have to sing their praises too.”
“Of course, Sir. I will always sing the praises of our most magnanimous Baro-sahib Chhoto-sahib and the Dewan. I am but a poor Brahmin. The kindness you all have shown me—”
“Forget all that. The murder trial. You have to testify on our side. That is the favor we ask of you.”
Ramkanai was stunned, “How’s that? That was over and done with. You already told the police all that had to be told. Why again?”
“No, this time in court. We will call you as our witness. You will say that you saw four men with sticks, from Bunopara, running away—Bhante Buno, Nangta Buno, Chhikisto Buno and Patiram Buno.
“But I didn’t see them.”
“So what you didn’t? Don’t act like an idiot. We’ve made you a highly paid permanent physician of this plantation. You will also get lots of tips if you treat the sahibs and the mems. You will get a proper office tomorrow. Baro-sahib has ordered. Now you are one of our own folks. You must speak for us now. Just one sentence. That’s it. You don’t have to say anything else, just that you saw those four Bunos running away.”
Ramkanai was very reluctant, “But, but—”
“No ‘but, but’. You must say it. What do you want? Baro-sahib is so pleased with you. You will rise rapidly. Well, you may go home now. I could lend you a horse but you can’t ride. Do you need a bullock cart?”
Ramkanai folded his hands and pleaded most earnestly, “Dewanji, I’m too poor. Please don’t put me in such a dilemma. I’ve heard that in the court one has to swear to tell the truth. Please Sir, I won’t be able to lie there. Forgive me. My father was most religious. He never even sipped water before saying his three daily prayers. Nobody ever heard him tell a lie. I am the black sheep in the family for taking money for treating patients. I know I should do it for free but I am too poor and that is my only source of income. I won’t be able to give false testimony in court.”
Dewan Rajaram was very angry, “What an obstinate fool you are! I’m going to lock you up in the chun (*) storage room. Perhaps that will give you some sense. Otherwise there is always Shyamchand.”
The footman Nafar Muchi was standing ready. He said, “Come Kabiraj-moshai.”
“In the chun storeroom. Didn’t you hear the Dewan? You are a Brahmin, so I won’t touch you, please keep going.”
“Come after me.”
After some distance Rajaram called him back, “So you decided to go to the chun storeroom after all? You are a man of respectable class, so I’m warning you. That place will make you sorry.”
“Then why are you sending me there? Please don’t.”
“I don’t want to but you are forcing me. You are taking our money and still won’t do us one small favor.”
“But I can’t swear and tell a lie. That is a sin.”
“Then go rot in the store room. Nafar, lock him up.”
It was about ten at night. Dewan Rajaram alone went to the chun storeroom and opened the door. An exhausted Ramkanai lay on the floor sleeping. The storeroom was not an ideal place to sleep. Of course the ‘chun storeroom’ didn’t have much to do with alkaline lime but more to do with the rebellious farmers and underlings. Anyone going against the opinions of the Baro-sahib was a candidate for this storeroom. It was a room with only two small skylights and no windows. The prisoner would remain there as long as the sahibs or Dewan wished. There used to be a large crown flower tree outside the storeroom. Once a brave prisoner from Rasmanipur escaped through the skylight grabbing the branch of the tree. Chief John Sahib at that time ordered the tree cut down. One prisoner apparently fainted in the storeroom after seeing a ghost.
Rajaram was particularly scared of ghosts. He was nervous coming here alone at night. Now another living person—Ramkanai’s presence gave him some courage. Even though he was sleeping, he was still a living person.
Rajaram called, “Kabiraj-moshai, wake up—”
Ramkanai struggled to wake up, “Who? Dewan-moshai! Please come in, have a seat.” He acted like he was welcoming a guest in his house in the middle of the night.
Rajaram said, ”It’s OK. I’m not here to sit down. Come with me.”
“OK. But please don’t put me in such a room again. The mosquitoes have eaten me up.”
“Your bad luck. Otherwise you are a respected doctor, why would you have to be here? Anyway, it is done and over, now come with me.”
“Wherever it is, I hope I can sleep for awhile.”
“Have you changed your mind?”
“No Dewan-moshai, I am pleading you, please don’t ask me again to do that. I’m a kabiraj, I’ll prepare herbal medicines and help the patients, you will not find any lapse in my work, but please don’t get me in trials and lawsuits. Please—”
Ramkanai was a simple man. He didn’t have any idea how the sahibs of the plantation worked. He also didn’t know that the sahib’s underlings were even more dangerous and that they could easily murder someone and bury them in the swamp of Gazipur just to please the sahibs. He could not have learned such things by reading medical texts like Charak or Sushruta.
Chhoto-sahib was sitting in the long verandah counting the bundles of indigo. Those bundles were reserved for the Amuti Company in Calcutta. In the next three days their manager Robert-sahib would come to check up on the merchandise. That was why Chhoto-sahib was checking the bundles. Also near him were Prasanna Amin who was an indigo expert and accounts clerk Kanai Ganguly. At the back waited the ostler Bhaja Muchi.
Seeing Rajaram Chhoto-sahib called, “Come in, Dewan, come in. Can you say if the number three sixty three bundle from Akaipur’s indigo will mix with those from Deule, Ghosha and Sarabpuri?”
In truth, they were mixing good quality indigo with poor stuff. Indigos from all sites were not equal. The experts could sort them in different grades. They advise not to mix the good stuff with the bad ones. Amuti Company’s agent could catch them.
Dewan said, “Sure they will mix. The agent Kalibar is not coming this year. Robert-sahib doesn’t understand anything. Ghogha and our Mollahati could easily be mixed with Panchpota’s crop. Nobody will know. Here he is Sir, our Kabiraj.”
Chhoto-sahib looked at Ramkanai, “How did you like our chun storeroom?”
Ramkanai folded his hands in salutation, “Greetings Saheb-moshai, well…”
Rajaram made a ‘tsk’ sound in his tongue and raised both arms, “Sir, what does he know about such rooms. He was fast asleep there.”
“What? Sleeping? You liked it so much? Want to remain there a few more days?”
“Sir, I don’t understand what Sahib is saying.”
“You understand very well. You are too smart. Acting dumb will not make John David release you. Tell me if you want to testify on our behalf or not. If you do, I’ll raise your salary ten more rupees. Agreed? Don’t say anything except that you saw those four men carrying sticks from Bunopara. OK?”
“Yes, Sahib Sir?”
“Sahibs and Sirs will not work. You have to testify. You will rise in status. Dewan, pay him twenty rupees from June.”
Rajaram immediately parroted, “Yes, Sir.”
“OK. Take him away. He has agreed. Amin, can you let him sleep in your place tonight?”
Prasanna immediately jumped up, ”Sure, Sir. My bed is ready. He can sleep there too.”
Ramkanai was very thirsty. But he wouldn’t drink or eat any food touched by the Muchis or the sahibs. He just saw Sriram Muchi bringing in alcohol for Sahib (he was wrong. Muchi brought coffee only). But Ramkanai was careful. If he had to work here, he would have to drink green coconut only.
Prasanna Amin said, “Come with me Kabiraj-moshai, it’s getting late.”
Dewan Rajaram was a smart cookie. He tried to make sure, “So, you are testifying then, Kabiraj-moshai?”
Amin looked at Ramkanai. Ramkanai said, “How can I do that? I told you before Dewan-moshai.”
Chhoto-sahib looked daggers, “You still won’t?”
“No Sahib-moshai. I can’t give false testimony. Please, I plead you—My father was a Brahmin pundit—”
“I see, you are not punished enough. Bhaja, call Nafar. Let him have ten lashes of Shyamchand.”
Nafar Muchi was tall, dark and powerfully built. He had murdered many by his own hands. Most villagers were scared of him. He was probably sleeping. He came rubbing his eyes.
Chhoto-sahib looked at Ramkanai, “Well? Want a taste of Shyamchand?”
“Sir, I’ll die. Please don’t whip me. I have chronic cough and rheumatism in rainy season, I’m too weak—”
“I don’t care if you die. Nafar, take him away.”
Nafar said, “Yes, Sir.” He held Ramkanai’s arm and dragged him along. Before leaving Nafar looked at Dewan, “Shall I take him to the stable?” and he stared at Dewan for a few seconds. Dewan said, “Yes, go.”
Ramkanai walked along like a sacrificial goat. He was not very quick. In spite of hearing it in his ears he still didn’t realize that soon Shyamchand would tear the skin off his back.
Nafar made him stand in the stable in the faint moonlight, “How many lashes?”
“Please don’t hurt me. I have rheumatism and asthma. I’ll die.”
“Fine. I’ll throw your corpse in the river. Don’t worry. Have done it many times before. Turn your back.”
After only two lashes Ramkanai fell on the ground and writhed in pain. Nafar brought a dusty burlap from somewhere and threw it on Ramkanai’s back. The dust filled Ramkanai’s eyes and mouth. On his back Nafar was lashing and counting loudly—“One, two, three, four...”
After finishing ten lashes Nafar said, “Go, you are a Brahmin, if I really gave you ten, as the Sahib said, you would have surely died. Now don’t move from here tonight. If the Sahib sees you that’ll be the end.”
The rest of the night Ramkanai lay there on the floor of the stable like dead.
That morning Bhabani Banerjee was standing under the bakul tree in front of his house. It was market day. He was planning to go buy some rice. Nilu had told him that they were totally out of rice. Tilu tried to hand one year old Khoka over to him. Bhabani said, “Not now Tilu. I need to go see my uncle. Take him away.”
But Khoka was already out of Tilu’s arms and raised his arms to get up on Bhabani’s. When Tilu tried to take him back he started crying and extending his tiny right arm calling his dad.
“OK. Give me, give me.” Bhabani picked up his son, “Wait. That crone Dinu is coming this way. Just have a look at the rice.”
Khoka gleefully pulled dad’s ears and pointed to the road, “Ee…gulln—”
Bhabani said, “No. It’s not time for your walk. We’ll go in the evening.”
Khoka didn’t understand all that. He kept pointing to the road saying, “Eeh. Eeh—”
Tilu said, “You are going to your uncle, just take him along.”
Khoka by then had grabbed Bhabani’s sacred thread and started pulling towards the road yelling, “Aah—noble, noble—ooh—”
Next came crying.
Tilu said, “Go, go. He so loves to go out with you.”
“Why? He has three mothers. Why me?”
“No dear. When in the kitchen, he keeps raising his finger and pointing outside, meaning wanting to go to you—”
Right then Dinu the old woman came to them carrying a basket of rice on her hips. They said, “Let’s see, what kind of rice?”
Dinu was over eighty, she looked like the old hag Annada described by Bharatchandra, including the small walking stick in her hand. She gave them a big smile and put down her basket, “Double fortune today! My sister and her husband!”
Tilu said, “Yes dear! What’s the rate?”
“No. It is one anna in the market.”
“No sister. We live with your help, I wouldn’t cheat on you. If not six, give me five paisas. Take a handful and taste how sweet it is. Just like sugar cane.”
“Come, let’s go inside. I can’t pay the whole—”
“That is fine. Give me in the evening.”
“Not today. Not before Tuesday.”
“That’s fine too.”
In the meantime Khoka took a quick handful of rice and stuffed it in his mouth, some of it dropped on the ground. Bhabani grabbed the rest from his hand, “Open your mouth, open wide—”
Khoka immediately opened his mouth as wide as he could. This was something Tilu had taught him, as the child was in the habit of picking up whatever from the ground and putting in his mouth, his mother would say, “Open your mouth, good boy. Say Ah, wider—”
And Khoka obediently opened his mouth as big as possible for him and stayed like that while his mother extracted whatever he placed in his mouth.
So nowadays he opened his little mouth ear to ear and said, “Ah—ah—ah—”
His mother said, “That’s enough my son, you can close your mouth now.”
Bhabani put his fingers in his son’s mouth and took out all the rice.
Just then they saw Phoni Chakravarti and Bhabani’s uncle Chandra Chatterjee coming their way. Bhabani said, “Tilu, take Khoka home. Take Dinu too.”
Tilu tried to take the boy but he hugged his father hard with his two small arms and protested loudly.
“He doesn’t want to go anywhere except to you! What can I do?” Tilu complained.
Bhabani smiled. Suddenly at that moment he could imagine Khoka as an adult. A pundit, teaching philosophy, poetry and devotional texts to his students. An honest, religious and a good man who knew God. Why not? After all he was his son. Everyone in the country would know his name.
At that moment he also saw Tilu—as she walked away with Dinu and entered their house through the tiny back door. He saw her in a new light too. Women were the true Goddesses. Givers of life, ushering in the new souls from the eternal universe into this finite, physical world, nurturing the new tiny bodies with so much care, spending so many sleepless nights worrying about her children, caring for them selflessly …those stories were only written in the tear stained unread pages of history.
Bhabani called back, “Tilu, wait—”
“Want to take Khoka?”
“He won’t come to me. You saw him—”
“Wait a bit. Let me look at you.”
“Oh my! So much love!”
She threw him a smile and sashayed off to the tiny door of her house. What a sight! The beauty of being a mother adorned her entire body in a unique grace.
Phoni Chakravarti said, “Sit down my son.”
They all sat down. Bhabani prepared the tobacco for the hookah and offered it to Chandra Chatterjee. Phoni said, “You have to do me a favor.”
“You have to come to my house. Your uncle and I are thinking of going to Gaya and Kashi for pilgrimage. You have been to those places and know the routes. You have to tell us where to go, what to do.”
“You are going by foot?”
“What else? Who would rent a palanquin for us? Of course we plan to walk.”
“You should go from here to—”
“Not like that. Ishwar Boshtom will also go with us. He knows a little bit but you are the expert. You must come to our house this evening, have some snacks and tell us everything. Many others will also come to hear you speak.”
Bhabani came home and told Tilu, “Listen, this is like an evil spirit taking the holy name of Ram.”
“Phoni Chakravarti and my uncle are going on a pilgrimage. Now your brother too may join up.”
Bilu and Nilu too came with Tilu. Nilu said, “Why not? My brother is a human being too.”
“For sure. Perhaps I better not criticize my elders early in the morning.”
Bilu said, “Oh my! Just hear him speak! Like he is such a big shot Guru of all. What do you say, Didi?”
Tilu didn’t reply. She never contradicted her husband. Everybody in the village talked about her devotion to her husband. Nobody had seen or heard another example like this. A few cynics said, “And why not?--
Searching a man for a Kulin girl
Roaming all over in the world.
Kulin girls got a husband in their old age, even got a son. Of course they would be thankful and devoted to him. They know how lucky they are. To get a husband when they are so old, beyond the age of marriage—”
The audience prodded the speaker wanting to hear more, “Still, he is a husband after all—”
“Of course he is. That is not in question. But—”
“He too is very old.”
“Come on! A Kulin man is never too old.”
But everyone had to agree that Bhabani Banerjee was a truly decent man and a suitable groom. Nobody had anything bad to say about him. In the rumor mills of the village, where even the Gods were not spared of criticism, it was indeed a supernatural feat to remain blameless to all.