Well before sundown Bhabani Banerji went to Phoni Chakravarti’s Chandi pavilion. It was the month of Kartik (*). The sun was going down and the shadows were darkening along the castor bean hedges and sheora (*) and milkweed bushes in Charabagan. The cool evening breeze carried the scent of banmarich (*) flowers. Right next to Phoni Chakravarti’s fence, the ridge gourd flowers were blooming in his vegetable garden. A bunch of mynas were chirping on the straws of Kartikshal paddy piled in the courtyard in front.
Phoni Chakravarti’s Chandi pavilion was an old fashioned one. On one fancy wooden post it was inscribed, “Be it known, under Shri Shibasatya Chakravarti, builders Madhab and Akrur erected this pavilion on the year of 1172 (1765.A.D.). Treat it as the House of God.” This meant that the pavilion was almost one hundred years old. People from far away came to see the handiwork of this pavilion. They praised the intricate patterns of the thatch reeds on the ceiling, the artwork on the bamboo stakes and the drawing of two fighting pigeons at the apex of the thatched ceiling. This type of artistry had almost disappeared in this era.
Dinu Bhattacharya said, “Everything nowadays is sham. The sahibs build the indigo bungalows and everyone wants to copy them. Such beautiful thatched rooms are disappearing fast. You can’t even find expert builders anymore.”
Rupchand Mukherjee said, “That day Rajaram’s nephew from Calcutta was talking about motor cars, it runs on motors. He saw its picture printed in the papers.”
Dinu asked, “Runs on motors?”
“That’s what I heard. All kinds of things will be happening in this new era. Have you heard of a new type of oil, called ‘mete’ oil for lighting lamps? He saw that in Calcutta too.”
“Quit your Calcutta this and Calcutta that! We are just fine with our mustard oil and castor oil. We don’t need ‘mete’ oil or wood oil. Yes, Bhabani, tell us about the routes of our trip. You have been to so many places. Say, how do those mountains look like?”
Rupchand took the hookah from Dinu and opined, “Leave the mountains alone. What’s so great about mountains? They are like a pile of dirt. Haven’t you seen those piles in Debnagar fort? Just like those, perhaps a bit bigger, that’s all.”
Bhabani asked, “Dada-moshai, where have you seen a mountain?”
“Not actually seen, but I’ve heard about them.”
Bhabani wouldn’t smoke in front of so many elders so he took the hookah and went outside. Upon returning, he asked, “Where all do you want to go?”
Phoni said, “We don’t know anything brother. Ishwar Boshtom does some guide work. He said he would take us. He is coming here too. Just wait. Someone has gone to get him.”
Phoni’s elder daughter Binod brought bowls of fried rice and chickpeas nicely mixed with oil and salt for everyone. She also brought a jug of drinking water for each. This was the routine for the evening meetings in Phoni’s house. In addition, he supplied unlimited hand cut tobacco for smoking. Daily one and half ser tobacco was burned. Phoni Chakravarti’s evening parties and his hospitality were famous in the community.
Ishwar Boshtom arrived. Bhabani asked him, “Which route are you planning to take to reach Gaya and Kashi?”
Ishwar knelt on the ground to greet them all, “Well, if you ask, I say we will go easily till Bardhaman. From there Sir, take the road straight to Gaya.”
“Good. Which road?”
“Sir, the big one that is called by the English name—some Gang Tang Road? We call it Ahalya Bai’s road.”
“How long have you been doing this work of guiding?”
“That will be almost twenty years Sir. I don’t do it alone. We have groups, from Bardhaman, from Chakda, from Ulo. There is Dhirchand Bairagi from Hooghly, Kumudini Jeley from Hajrapara, also Hooghly district.”
Rupchand asked, “Kumudini? Woman guide?”
“Yes Sir. She may be a woman but she can subdue any man. Also a great beauty, just like Goddess Jagaddhatri.”
Bhabani said, “He is right. From Bardhaman, the big road of Sher Shah goes straight. That Ahalya Bai stuff is nonsense. It is Nawab Sher Shah’s road.”
“Nawab of where?”
“Nawab of Murshidabad. Siraj-ud-Daula’s father.”
Dinu wanted to know, “Does the sahibs’ Company still pay tax to the Nawab?”
Bhabani said, “Could be. I don’t know all those details. Today I’ll tell you about the two hermits. You will like them.”
Rupchand said, “That will be wonderful. We don’t need to know about those Nawabs. We are like frogs in a well. We can’t afford to travel; we don’t know anything so we are scared to even step out. Once I went till Chakda for the occasion of bathing in the Ganges. And once to Nadia-Shantipur. We went along Ichhamoti by boat to sell coconuts in the Ras festival. Got a few paisas too.”
All gathered around Bhabani. Dinu sat right in front.
Bhabani said, “You know a hermit brother of mine came to visit me a few days ago. His ashram is in Mirzapur.”
Dinu asked, “Where is that, dear?”
“In the west. Far away. You wouldn’t know about it. It is a beautiful mountainous area. A Bengali hermit lives there, named Hrishikesh Paramhansa. He lives in a tiny cottage. The forest is full of flowering rain trees and orchid trees, wild peacocks roam near the mountain springs, and gooseberries ripen in the trees—”
Rupchand became emotional, “Wow! We have never seen such a place—”
Dinu said, “We haven’t even seen a mountain, let alone a mountain spring.”
Chandra Chatterjee said, “We are stuck in this muck, how can we see anything? I am almost sixty-five years old now. Have you been there Bhabani?”
“I stayed with Paramhansa Maharaj for six months. He was my Guru, though I didn’t get any mantra-diksha from him. He doesn’t offer religious initiations.
“Maharaja from where?”
“Not that Maharaja. It is just a title.”
“I see. What did you eat there in the jungle?”
“Gooseberries, wood apples, wild mangoes. And lots of wild custard apples. There are jungles full of it. Up to ten basketsful. Jackals used come and eat them. And they are so sweet, you can’t imagine.”
“Better tell Ishwar Boshtom about it. We can go there and eat custard apples too.”
Chandra Chatterjee said, “Forget custard apples. Just visiting such a hermit would fulfill my life’s desires. Besides, we are too old for custard apples. Carry on Bhabani—”
“I stayed there for six months. From there I went to Bithur, Valmiki’s ashram”
Rupchand asked, “Valmiki the sage? Who wrote Mahabharata?”
Dinu corrected, “Like you know everything! Valmiki wrote Ramayana. Not Mahabharata.”
“Correct. I stayed there too for some time with another hermit.”
“Tell us their address also.”
“That is not for family men. And Ishwar Boshtom won’t be able to take you there. You better go to Bardhaman, then along the main road to Gaya, from Gaya to Kashi and from there to Prayag.
Sage Bharadwaj lived in Prayag,
Whose devotion to Rama did all know.
Prayag used to be the ashram of sage Bharadwaj in old days. Many sages and hermits gather there every year during the Kumbha festival. I was there during the last event. But going there is very arduous. You have to walk a long distance. Nawab Sher Shah’s road has inns along the road, the pilgrims can stay there, cook and eat—”
Rupchand asked, “And groceries?”
“You can get everything at the inns. There are shops. But it is better to go in groups. There are dangers along the road.”
“What kind of danger?”
“All kinds. Thieves and robbers. Beyond Bardhaman till Gaya dense forests surround the road. There are even huge tigers and bears.”
“Oh my God!”
Ishwar Boshtom said, “He is right. Once a pilgrim from Khabrapota was traveling in our group to Gaya. In one place, in the evening, he wanted to wash up. Didn’t listen to me. We were a group of twenty-four, waited for him under a tree. He took a pot of water and went behind a palash (*) tree and never returned! A tiger took him.”
Everyone together exclaimed, “What?”
“Yes. What a night that was. People were crying. In the morning we found his bloody torn clothes in the bush. We could also see the marks of him being dragged along.”
Rupchand said, “What a disaster!”
Just then Nalu Pal arrived at their meeting. He was given a date palm leaf mat to sit on. He had a large store now, earned good money, even got married recently. Many of these people often bought daily groceries from his store on loan, so he had to be respected now.
Dinu said, “Have a seat Nalu. How are things?”
Nalu knelt on the ground and paid respect to all, “I have a request for all of you. I hear that you are going on a pilgrimage? I want to arrange a feast for all the Brahmin pilgrims before you leave. This is my heartfelt wish. If you accept I’ll send all the necessary items to Phoni-moshai’s house. You just tell me what all is needed.”
Chandra Chatterjee and Phoni Chakravarti were the heads of the village. Nobody dared go against their opinions —except Rajaram. But even as the Diwan of the Indigo House he didn’t have the social authority like these two men. Of course he didn’t much care for their opinions and did whatever he pleased. The heads too kept quiet in fear of him.
Chandra asked, “What falar (*) are you planning?”
Nalu folded his hand, “Whatever you order Sir.”
“Half a maund fine pressed rice, curds, jaggery, sugar wafers, banana, sugarcane, ‘mauth’(*) and—”
Phoni added, “Murki (*).”
“How much murki?”
“How much mauth?”
“Keep two and half sers. Keshto-moira the sweet maker makes good mauth. If you tell him in our names, he will do a very good job. Hard mauth will go very well with falar.”
Chandra asked, “How much dakshina (*)?”
“Whatever you decide.”
“You say Phoni. I decided everything, now you decide this.”
Phoni said, “Just give a quarter per person.”
Nalu said, “That is too much. It will kill us. To give twenty quarters for twenty Brahmins—”
“It won’t kill you. Our blessings will do good for you. You have a son too, right?”
“Yes Sir, he is all yours, not mine.”
Chandra hid a smile. At last Nalu agreed to two annas per person and moved away, perhaps to smoke.
Now Chandra asked, “So brother, what did Nalu say?”
“Thought your roving eyes were cured in your old age. How long you’ve been going with Nalu’s wife?”
Everyone roared with laughter. Phoni was angry and smoked hard on his hookah,
“This is your problem Chandra-dada, you don’t ever stop suspecting people—”
Later, Chandra asked Bhabani to find an auspicious day for Nalu’s feast.
Bhabani said, “Nalu’s feast reminded me of a story uncle. Near Jhansi, there is a place called Bharsut. In Kartik month they hold a big festival at the Ambika temple there. I lived there, begging for food. A prince lived nearby. He was very devoted to sages and hermits. He asked me how I eked out a living. I said, I just begged. He started sending me daily rations of rice, bread, vegetables, curd, pudding, and sweets. When we became close friends he told me the story of his life.
Near Jaipur, there was a kingdom called Uriyana. He was the oldest son of the king there. His father had other wives and children too but by law the oldest son would inherit the kingdom. So the king’s youngest wife put poison in the prince’s food to kill him.”
Dinu spoke up, “This is like the Ramayan, dear!”
“Almost. Money and power are very dangerous matters uncle. That’s why I had quit those. But listen to the story, then there started all kinds of conspiracy within the palace. It became so difficult and dangerous to live there that the prince and his wife and children had to move away to Bharsut village and stay in a small house. He never told his family details to anyone else. He told me that he never wanted to be the king. All this palace intrigue had totally turned his mind off.”
Phoni asked, “Why wasn’t he the king already?”
“The old king was still alive. He was about eighty. The prince was about my age. I am remembering him after a long time. We used to sit and chat in the moonlit nights on the stone platform on the east side of the Ambika Devi’s temple. Ah! Those were the days. There was a huge pond in front and on the opposite side was Rama’s temple. It was a beautiful place. His younger stepmother tried to kill him by poisoning his food. A trusted servant came to know and warned him ahead of time. He pretended to eat and then lay on his bed complaining of feeling dizzy and sick. The stepmother apparently just smiled when she heard. This too he learned from his servant. That very night he left the palace and ran away from the dangerous intrigues. The queen was hell bent on killing him. And the old king was but a puppet in her hand.”
Dinu said, “If he didn’t run, how many strikes could he avoid! Those stepmothers can do anything. Just hearing it gives me the shivers.”
Rupchand asked, “What happened then?”
“Nothing much. I was there for two months. Every day, twice a day he sent food for me to the guesthouse in the temple. We used to talk about the scriptures and Vedantas, he used to wish he was born a simple villager and had a peaceful life. I met his wife too. Rajput lady, tall and swarthy, with a large nose ring. Once I even saw her smoking a hookah—”
Rupchand was surprised, “Smoking? A woman?”
“It is common in their country. She was very attractive. Like the powerful Durga. Could easily slay a demon. I used to wonder how she was cowered by an evil mother-in-law. After a few months, when I came to Bithur near Kanpur, I saw Queen Laxmibai worshipping at the Ambika temple. Later I heard her being killed by the English in the battlefield. She too was a beauty. But girls there are tall and strong—”
“You are telling some strange tales! A woman fighting against the British Company? In our country? We never heard of it. When did it happen?”
“How could you know uncle? You haven’t ever left this village. This time when you go—”
Nalu Pal came back again. He was going home. It was market day. He had a lot of work to do. He wanted the feast date set before he left.
Bhabani said, “How about the coming full moon day? What do you say uncle? Anybody has any problem?”
Rupchand said, “I have rheumatism. I don’t take regular meal on that day but I can have fruits, milk and the mauth.” The date was finalized.
Ishwar Boshtom was quietly listening to Bhabani’s stories, now he spoke up, “Hearing the story of your fighting Rani reminded me of our fisher-woman Kumudini.”
Dinu said, “Hold on. How can you compare a queen with your Kumudini? Who is she?”
Ishwar stood up excitedly, “You haven’t seen her, Uncle-moshai, that’s why you can talk like that. If you saw her once, you will agree, yes, she is some woman. Huge size, like the ten-armed goddess. And daring and intelligence to go with it. Once two of our pilgrims had cholera, I saw her nurse them day and night. Just like a mother. Once she quarreled with the priests in Gaya as they were charging too much money from the pilgrims. What a fighting spirit! Said, ‘I am Kumudini. I come here every year with two hundred pilgrims, if you cause problems, I’ll take them all some other priest.’ The poor priest was too scared. If they don’t get along with the guides, they lose their business with the pilgrims. Understood? I’ve not seen another woman like her. Nobody dares mess with her. She knows how to maintain her own esteem.”
Bhabani said, “Why don’t you bring her here, we can all meet her.”
Everyone agreed, “Yes, bring her one day.”
Ishwar was quiet. Dinu asked, “What? Can’t do it?”
“Sir, she is too proud. She is the head of the guides. She won’t listen to me. She also lives very far, in Hooghly district. I don’t even know the village. We all gather every Kartik in Kebol Chakraborty’s inn in Bardhaman. When you go for your pilgrimage, you’ll meet her. OK, I better leave now.”
Bhabani said, “There is a lady hermit in the jungle nearby. Called Khepi. Have any of you been there? You will like her.”
Phoni said, “Brahmins better not go there. I’ve heard she belongs to a tribal caste. You too should not go there my son.”
“Forgive me uncle, I can’t keep that request. Once near God, what is the difference between Brahmins and tribals?”
Phoni stared in surprise, “Tribals and Brahmins are equal?”
Everybody stared at Bhabani.
Chandra sighed, “This is why I remained a beggar in stead of a king.”
Everyone laughed out at that.
Phoni said, “Dada just loves to joke with us. Now the main topic—who all are going? When are we going? When is Nalu Pal’s feast?
Rupchand said, “You and brother Chandra are definite.”
“Who else Ishwar?”
Ishwar said, “From the fishermen community, Bhagirath Jeley’s elder wife, mother of mad Jeley, from my village, Narahari’s wife, from the Brahmin community you two, seven people from Hamidpur—all our customers. We will all start on the day after the full moon. I’ll join Birchand Bairagi and Kumudini Jeley in Bardhaman on the day of Kartik worship. We will rest for a couple of days in an inn at Raniganj. Two or three more groups will join us there. Everything is decided.”
Rupchand said, “Let me ask my older son, what he says. I’m not that strong friends, but hearing Bhabani’s story about the ashram of the hermits, blooming flowers, gooseberries in trees, peacocks roaming— I really want to see them once. Haven’t done anything in life so far—”
Ishwar said, “Sure Mukherji-moshai. I know all the people, we can even cut the cost of priests.”
Chandra said, “Then come along brother. We are five of us. We will manage somehow.”
Pious Nalu Pal’s feast for the pilgrims took place in Chandra Chatterji’s house. Many non-travelers were there too, like Bhabani Banerji, Diwan Rajaram and Nilmoni Samaddar. The last person was not even a Brahmin. Tilu came with Khoka to help with the chores. Bhabani cut the banana leaves to size, washed them and placed them in a row in the inner courtyard. Tilu placed seven or eight kathas of good quality pressed rice made from Benamuri paddy in a large tub and started sorting the murki. The mauths and sugar wafers were placed in huge piles in separate large wooden trays. Five or six pots of curd were placed next to them. Rupchand smiled broadly, “That boy Nalu has made good arrangement. He does have a good heart—”
Tilu was one of the girls of the village. She started serving the Brahmins murki, mauths, pressed rice, whatever was needed.
Chandra Chatterjee was the host, so he would eat last. Bhabani too was not eating yet. Tilu and Bhabani together served everyone beautifully so each got equal amounts of all food. Otherwise in such occasions at least half of the good stuff often ended up in the pots and pans of the host family without anybody else being the wiser.
Phoni Chakravarti praised the arrangement, “Great mauths. Keshto Moira does a good job. Hey Bhabani, give me two more mauths here—”
Rupchand said, “One for me too—”
Tilu smiled, “Don’t feel shy uncle, how many do you want? Two or three?”
“No, mother. Just two. They are so tasty. Much better than pure jaggery.”
“No, no. Oh, OK, give me another, now that you insist--”
Rupchand appreciated the rounded, fair, smooth, bracelet-adorned hands of Tilu as she placed two more golden colored mauths on his plate. Poor Rupchand had not had such nice falar for a long time, that too with mauths.
Rupchand remembered the mauths as they traveled on the Gang Tang road to Gaya. Near a place called Barkatta in a mountainous forest, their group took shelter under a tree at night—when the robbers surrounded them and took away all their possessions. Fortunately, their main group had gone ahead and lodged in an inn and carried most of their money so they did not lose too much to the robbers. Who knew why staring at that dark night, at the terrible beauty of the lonely hills and forest, suddenly Rupchand remembered Tilu’s adorned hands serving the mauths.
Still, that night Rupchand found a new taste in life. After so many years, coming so far out of his tiny village, in all of fifty years of his age, Rupchand, for the first time, saw his life in a new light.
He was alone. His wife had died twenty some years ago. She too seemed like a dream. From thus far, everything seemed dreamy and far away to Rupchand. By now in his tiny little village by Ichhamoti, his goat might have gotten into the brinjal patch of Nibaran the milkman. They were perhaps trying to get him out with a stick. Perhaps his oldest son Jatin had come home today. His daughter-in-law was probably resting in the east room with her two girls. Poor Jatin. He got a salary of measly five rupees from the Na’babu’s office in Satkheera. He could only come home once in two or three months. Perhaps he missed his kids too. Such was the fate of the poor.
His son was a good man.
When the plans for the pilgrimage were being finalized, his son came and asked him,
“Father, do you have enough money for the trip?”
“I have some.”
“About thirty rupees. I had kept them buried for emergencies. That should do—”
“No, listen. That may not be enough. Let me—”
“It’ll be just fine. You don’t have to give me any more.”
But his son forced fifteen rupees on him, tied it in the corner of his shawl. He got tearful thinking about it. This beautiful sky full of stars, vast open fields, rows of ghost like dark trees… tears flowed thinking about his son…
He missed his poor son. He could never buy him anything decent, not even a dhoti from Farashdanga. How could he? His accountant’s salary was too small. This night he felt weightless, free, floating away in this dark universe, leaving behind his son, his two granddaughters…
In the month of Jaistha (*) Nalu Pal was again feeding the Brahmins at Chandra Chatterjee’s Chandi pavilion. This time he was celebrating the accomplishments of the fortunate pilgrims who returned home.
It was a hot afternoon in Jaistha.
Nalu was standing with his hands folded, a scarf around his neck, greeting the guests and supervising all the work. Huge amounts of mangoes and jackfruits had been collected for the falar.
Everyone was present—Phoni Chakravarti, Chandra Chatterji, Ishwar Boshtom, Nilmoni Samaddar. Only Rupchand Mukherji was not there. He had passed away en route to Kashi. The group had sent a letter with the news but Jatin didn’t receive it.
Chandra was telling the story to Nilmoni how the robbers on the ‘Gang Tang’ road attacked them and how the priest from Gaya found out his grandfather Bishnuram Chatterji’s name from their written records.
Nilmoni said, “I feel sad about Rupchand uncle. Pious man, to die like that in a holy place. What happened exactly?”
Chandra said, “We had no idea, brother. In his delirium he would keep calling his son—‘where is my son? My son, I want a smoke’— Jatin was sobbing loudly when he heard that.”
Nilmoni said, “He was very fond of his father.”
“They both loved each other, that’s what made it special. Rupchand uncle too was very fond of his son. Was that way all his life.”
Nalu Pal had arranged a lot of food, fine pressed rice, good quality mangoes and jackfruits.
Phoni was mixing the mangoes and jackfruit pulps with murki in the thick milk, “Chandra-da, consider this feast and the one before our trip. I never imagined I would come back in one piece. Kumudini Jeley’s guide Satkori said the robbers would attack as soon as we cross Bardhaman. He was absolutely right.”
“I keep thinking of that foothill, the mountain stream flowing by, where we burned Rupchand’s body under those large shady trees. The old man loved places like that. Used to call it Sage Valmiki’s ashram.”
Nalu humbly said, “I am so fortunate to be able to serve you all. Please bless my son that he grows up and carries on the family line.”
When Bhabani came home Bilu accosted him, “Where is your beloved wife? Not back yet? Khoka just cried and cried himself to sleep.”
“She hasn’t had her meal yet. They just finished serving all the Brahmins—”
Nilu was resting in the afternoon. Hearing her husband, she came running outside, “Come in, come in Lover Boy! Haven’t seen you for such a long time. So what did you have for falar?”
Bhabani said with a glum face, “As you are growing old, you are becoming more obscene. Why, your Didi never—”
Bilu said, “Of course not! Our Didi is the perfection. She can never do wrong. She is the angel from heaven. Anyway, we don’t care. Where is our food? Our share of murki and mauth? We are like the low castes. We will eat pressed rice and murki and sing your praises. Isn’t that so?”
Nilu was smiling. Now she came forward, “Let him be. He is looking so tortured; I’m feeling sorry for him. He just can’t tolerate our ‘dirty’ words. What does he call them? A difficult Sanskrit word? I can’t even say it—”
Bhabani’s house had only one four-thatch room and on the north another smaller two-thatched room. In the smaller room Bhabani stayed with his books. Tilu too mostly stayed there with him. Bilu and Nilu stayed in the bigger room. Khoka stayed with his mother of course. Nilu suddenly dragged Bhabani to their large room. Bhabani saw Khoka sleeping flat on his back, his large eyes were closed like the sleeping God Narayana. Bhabani was going to wake him but Nilu stopped him, “Don’t you wake him. Who’s going to manage him when he starts crying?”
Bhabani raised him up while the boy still slept on. He didn’t move at all—he looked so adorable. That innocent face. As if all the mysteries of the entire universe was waiting patiently behind him. From the heaven to the lowest land, all were eager for his playful footsteps. The stars in the sky wrote all his stories of hopes and losses.
Nilu warned, “You’ll break his neck, it is still soft, have a care!”
Bilu quickly lay him down in the bed again. Khoka kept sleeping as he did while sitting up.
Bilu and Nilu sat on either side of their husband. Bilu said, “It is muggy hot today. Not a leaf is stirring in the trees. You know both the jackfruits in our tree are ripening.”
The aroma of ripe jackfruit filled the warm air in the room. Bhabani felt affectionate at her pleasure. “Are both ripening? Sweet or tart?”
“Jackfruits of Beltali and Kadma. One is sweet and one tart. Have one with dinner?”
“Am I the demon Bakasur? I just came back after eating so much and you want to feed me more?”
Bilu said, “If you don’t eat, we can’t eat either. Such a great fruit will go waste. At least have one pod?.”
“OK. Give me at night.”
“No, you have to eat it now. Nilu wants to eat now too. She is young and a bit greedy.”
“What ‘young’? She is over thirty—”
“Stop. You don’t have to point out our flaws. We know, Didi is all good and—”
Bhabani smiled, “OK. Give me one pod. If eating that opens the door for your feast, then so be it.”
Later Tilu came to the smaller room. Bilu handed over Khoka to his mother. Bhabani asked, “How was the meal?”
“Excellent. But your sisters are unhappy because we ate all the good stuff and didn’t bring anything for them. It is natural—”
“I took care of all that. You needn’t worry. Didn’t I bring some fine pressed rice for them from auntie? By the way today perhaps it would be better if you sleep in their room.”
“Please. Otherwise they will feel hurt. First we made them babysit while we had a feast, now if you sleep here, they will feel really bad.”
“You won’t be able to do your study. I thought of finishing Ishopanishad today.
“I wanted to clarify the fifteenth shloka—‘Hilranmayena patrena satyasapihitang mukhang, tat, twang, twang pushannapabrinu satyadharmaya drishtaye—’
“O Pushan—that is Sun God—uncover your face so we can see the truth. A sheet of gold covers truth—they are saying. The Veda describes the Sun as the halo around the poet. He is the incarnation of the celestial aura.”
“I will study this shloka today. You wanted to start the devotional chapter of Narad. Do it tomorrow. Wait, stay for a while. Haven’t seen you for such a long time.”
“OK. I’ll wait.”
“If I die tonight, will you take care of Khoka?”
“Just ‘yes’? Won’t you be a bit sorry about me?”
“You and I will establish a family line in this village. I see it clearly—five generations of our children will live in this house in this bamboo grove, they will have granaries for paddy, tillers for ploughing, cow sheds for the cows.”
Tilu put her head in Bhabani’s lap and lay down. Looking up at her husband’s face she said, “But I don’t want to leave you and go. I’ll really miss you. Would you miss me? Abajananti mang mudha, manushi tanumashritang, you think I am a simple woman? You are foolish, that is why you think so. Do you know who am I?”
Bhabani kissed her expressive beautiful eyes and grabbed a handful of her hair, “You are the Goddess. I recognize you very well. Whether you cook banana flower or taro greens, it is too spicy to put in mouth. Aromatic and colorful, akarosadrisho prajna:—”
Tilu got off her husband’s lap with a show of temper, “Biswasaghatakang stwang—my taro green tastes bad? Has anybody till today—”
“But you spoke wrong Sanskrit. Hold your ears. Not studying the grammar, are you? Tell me the correct word. Which case-ending should be used?”
“I can’t answer now. I’m sleepy. It has been a long day. I alone cleaned, sorted and soaked all that pressed rice, cleaned the skin and pits of the mangoes and the jackfruits.”
“You sleep. I will go to the other room.”
Bilu and Nilu were surprised. Nilu said, “Lover Boy, got lost on the way or are we so lucky? Bilu said, “We won’t let you sleep today. We will chat whole night long. Right Nilu?”
“Of course. As they say--
Dark eyes like hot coals
Tell me why, my heart?
Would you like some jackfruits? Both the crunchy-types have ripened. Will send some to Didi too. What do you want now?”
Nilu said, “You teach Didi every night, why not us too?”
“Like you are so keen on studying! Do you know a sahib named Bethun has started a school in Calcutta for girls only? So many girls have joined.”
“Of course. I get a newspaper ‘Sarba Shubhakari’. A famous scholar named Madanmohan Tarkalankar has written about it. Women must be educated. Just sitting around eating jackfruit would be a waste of life. You haven’t seen anything or learned anything…”
Bilu said, “Don’t you jinx our jackfruits. Is it bad to like jackfruit?”
Nilu said, “Tonight you have to eat ten pods. You’ve never tasted jackfruit from Kadma. Just taste one and you will see what I am saying.”
“If I eat, would you learn to read and write? Your Didi has learned Sanskrit, reads Bengali so nicely, learned Bharatchandra Ray’s poems by heart, and you two—”
Nilu pretended to be angry, “Stop! No more cursing the jackfruits—”
“Do you know about Swadhyaya? Everyday read a little bit of Shastras. Don’t you wish to know about God? What is the point of spending your whole life like this? Jack--”
“OK, fine. But don’t you want to know about God?”
“We already know.”
“What do you know? Nothing.”
“Didi knows more than us?”
“She studies Upanishads with me. You don’t know what that is. You may in time, if you study.”
“Where did you learn all this?”
“Not in Bengal. Here all they learn are Mangalchandi’s songs, folk-songs related to Manasa’s tales, Shiva’s wedding and stuff like that. At the most Ramayan and Mahabharat. I learned all this in the west, in the ashram of Hrishikesh Paramhansaji. He and another of his disciple—the one who came to visit us—had opened my eyes. I didn’t know about the rich and famous scholar Rammohan Roy in Calcutta who had written about the Upanishads. There are even books written by him. It says so in the Sarba Shubhakari paper too.”
“Those are all Christian way of thinking. Whatever our forefathers followed—”
“Nilu, what do you know of what your forefathers did? Upanishads are written by our sages, do you know? Anyway, enough for tonight. It is getting late.”
“No, please say more—we love to hear—”
“You are intelligent. Perhaps more than your Didi, but you love to spend the day in play.”
Bilu said, “Forget about that. Have some jackfruit now. We will start studying from tomorrow. But you have to teach us with Didi, not separately.”
Nilu brought some pieces of jackfruit in a stone platter.
“Want me to eat all this?”
Nilu picked up only two pods and said, “The rest is yours. Jackfruit from Kadma. See how sweet. How can we be happy if our Lover Boy doesn’t eat? Please, won’t you have this sweetest jackfruit? Please eat, for our sake.”
Bilu said, “After finishing, just eat one seed with some salt. That’s it. No more indigestion. Uh-oh! Khoka is crying. Didi must have fallen asleep. Nilu, go quickly—”
Nilu ran out of the room. Outside the moonlight shone like the white petals of hill glory flowers.
Ramkanai Kabiraj had been homeless for a year. After staying imprisoned in the lime paste store room for three days, Diwan Rajaram tried hard to change his mind, tried all kinds of temptations but nothing could make Ramkanai give false evidence in the court. Shyamchand made him lose consciousness. On top of that he didn’t eat or drink anything for many days, as everything in the sahibs’ place was untouchable to him. He was almost at death’s door when his guards got nervous and let him go. He came back to his little hut to find everything ransacked, utensils broken, his precious collection of rare medicinal herbs completely destroyed. The powdered dust of Amaltas flower, spreading hogweed roots, halhali (*) leaves, kshetpapra (*), nalimul (*) vines were dried carefully and stored, all were gone. He had ten annas in a small sack; that too had disappeared. It was like a crazed elephant had gone through his hut.
There was not even a grain of rice or lentil in his hut. Not even a pot to drink water from.
Ramu Sardar’s murder case went on for five or six months. Ultimately the District Magistrate Sahib came and made some settlements.
Whatever one or two patients Ramkanai used to treat before also stopped coming to him for fear of Diwan Rajaram. Ramkanai had to starve for three or four months. At the end of Paush (*) he fell ill. Fever, chest pain. He lay alone in that broken hut. Nobody dared come to take care of him.
One day a fair woman-- wearing sleeveless blouse like the mems—entered his hut and surprised Ramkanai.
“Come in, Mother, have a seat. But I don’t recognize you.”
The woman knelt on the ground from a distance and paid her respects, “You may not know me. I am Gaya.”
Ramkanai did hear the name before. He was startled--“Gaya-mem?”
“Yes, Baba-thakur, people do call me by that name.”
“My good fortune. But what brings you here?”
“Chhoto-sahib and Diwanji are very angry with you and have tortured you, but the Baro-sahib knows nothing about all this. How are you?”
“Not well. Fever, chest pain, very weak.”
“I brought some milk for you.”
“You may take it back. I can’t heat it up. I can’t even get up.”
“No Baba-thakur, I brought it for you, I can’t take it back. If you don’t drink I’ll just pour it under that wood apple tree. Would I be so fortunate that a Brahmin like you would accept help from me!”
Ramkanai was not a liar. He spoke truly, “But I can’t accept gift from the low caste Shudra.”
Gaya was clever. She smiled, “Not even from your daughter? If you do feel uneasy, you may pay me for it after you get well. That is allowed.”
“Yes, that is allowed.”
“Well, then it is settled. You can have this milk.”
“But how to boil it? I can’t get up.”
Gaya said timidly, “May I do it?”
“That you may. I have no objection to that. So long as you accept payment for the milk. Please don’t feel hurt; my forefathers never took gifts or donations from lower castes. I don’t want to break the rules in my old age. But you know what? I have to accept it now. I am too weak. Who else will help me?”
“I will help you Baba-thakur, Don’t worry. As long as your daughter is alive, you have nothing to worry about.”
Baro-sahib Shipton called the Chhoto-sahib that evening. Chhoto-sahib came and greeted, “Good afternoon Mr. Shipton.”
“I say, good afternoon, David. Now what is it about our Kabiraj? I hear there is something wrong with him?”
“Good Heavens! I know very little about him.”
“It is very good of you to know a little about the poor old man! My ayah Gaya says that he is down with fever. Of course she did her best. She was very nice to him. But how is it that you are alone? Where is your precious Diwan?”
“There. Speeding up the marking of the ledger. Shall I send for him?”
“No. And after the rather unsatisfactory experience you had of his ways and things, see to it that he does not get a free hand in chastising and chastening people. You understand?”
“Yes, Mr. Shipton.”
“Well, what have you been up to all day?”
“I was checking up audit accounts and—”
“That’s so. Now listen to my words. Our guns were intact but they had stopped firing while you were standing idly by your wily Diwan waiting for orders. No, David, I really think the way you did was rather odd and tactless. Mend your ways with that Kabiraj. I mean it. You know, there aren’t any secrets. You see?”
“Yes, Mr. Shipton.”
“Now you can retire. I’m dreadfully tired. Things are coming to a head. If you don’t mind, I would rather dine in my room with the Mrs.”
“Please yourself, Mr. Shipton. Good night.”
When the chhoto-sahib was about to leave Shipton called him back, “Look here David, there’s a funny affair in this week’s paper. Ram Gopal Ghosh, that native orator who speaks like Burke, has spoken in the Calcutta Town Hall last week in support of Indians entering the Civil Service! What the devil is the government up to I don’t know, David. Why do they allow these things to go on is beyond me. Things are not looking quite as they ought to. Here’s another—you know Harish Mukherjee, that downy old bird, of the Hindu Patriot?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“He led a deputation the other day to our old Guv’nor against us. You see?”
“Deputation? I would have scattered his deputation with the toe of my boot.”
“But the old man talked to them like a benevolent bloomin’ father. That is why I say David, things are coming to a head. Tell your precious Diwan to curb his poop. Shall I order a tot of rum?”
“No, thank you Mr. Shipton. Really, I’ve got to go now.”