Bhabani Banerjee took Khoka to search for fish in the village. Khoka had grown to be a very cute boy. He spoke a lot of words. A very lively boy.
Bhabani asked Khoka, “Want to eat fish?”
Khoka nodded, “Fish.”
A little further ahead they saw fishmonger Jadu bringing in fish. Jadu saw him and greeted, “Want some fish?”
“What fish is it?”
“I have a bhetki (*)—one and a half ser.”
“How much do you want?”
“That’s too high.”
Jadu brought down the load from his shoulders, “Babu, seen the market nowadays? Aush paddy was two paisas a pali when we were young. Then it went up to one anna, now it is six paisas! There are six mouths to feed in my house, Can’t do with less than one katha rice for a meal. If I pay three annas as just the price of rice for two meals a day, I’d have nothing left for salt, oil, vegetable, clothes, medicines, caring for guests and all. Just can’t run a household anymore, we poor folks just can’t make it—”
Bhabani Banerjee paid up without anymore bartering. Reaching home, Bilu and Nilu came running. Bilu snatched the fish from Bhabani’s hand, “What fish? Bhetki or Chital (*)? Wow!”
Nilu said, “Beautiful fish. Khoka, want some fish? Come, come to me—”
Khoka stayed firmly attached to his dad’s lap, “Baba (*), baba—”
He loved his father very much. Because he couldn’t always go to his dad’s lap, it held a mysterious attraction for him. Bilu frowned, “You won’t come to me?”
“Fine. Let your Baba cook the fish and feed you.”
“You don’t want fish?”
“If yes, then come to me—”
Khoka pleadingly looked at his father, “Just see!”
It meant ‘see, they are forcibly taking me away from you’. Bhabani knew that Khoka had recently learned these words and he used them indiscriminately. He said, “Let him be. I’ll take him for a walk to Mahadeb Mukerjee’s Chandi pavilion.”
“What do you want us to do with the fish?”
“Whatever you want. Where is Tilu?”
“Drying boris (*) on the roof of Dada’s house. Your house has no flat roof. Where to dry boris? When will you build a brick-house with flat roof?”
“Why don’t you go tell your brother to give us some money from his steel safe and I will build a double storey with a roof. Tell him I married his three Kulin sisters or you all would have remained unmarried forever.”
“It would’ve been better if our brother had tied water vessels around our necks and drowned us in Ichhamoti. What a marriage! An old senile husband—”
“Why didn’t your brother find you a younger man? Why were you growing old unmarried? Did I plead you to marry me?”
“I will have to twist your ears now—” Nilu almost reached his ears when Bilu stopped her, “Hey! Quit it now, enough.”
Nilu grinned and ran away with the fish. Bhabani and Khoka stepped out for a stroll, “Where are we going Khoka?”
Khoka nodded, “Going.”
On the way to Mahadeb Mukherhji’s Chandi pavilion there was a large acacia bush with vines over it making a cozy, shady corner. Some birds had made a nest on the acacia tree. Bhabani put down Khoka under the shade, “Look, bird.”
Khoka said, “Bird.”
“Want a bird?”
“Nice bird. I’ll bring you one.”
Khoka looked at his dad and smiled sweetly. Bhabani really enjoyed the company of this innocent child. He saw something profound in his cute baby smile.
Bhabani loved the way Khoka nodded saying ‘yes’. This was the first time he had heard it. It sounded profound and beautiful like the very first utterance of the Vedic hymn.
“How many do you want?”
“Good. I’ll give you one. OK?”
“Yes.” Khoka nodded his head. Next moment he said,
“What do you mean?”
“But we just came from home. Ma is not there.”
Khoka had recently learned a new word ‘there’. He used it everywhere. Now he pointed his little arm, “There.”
“No, not there. Nowhere.”
“No. Let’s go for a walk. Want to get down and walk?”
Khoka toddled happily in front of Bhabani. After a while he stopped. In a scared voice he pointed forward, “Jacka!”
It wasn’t a jackal. A large snail was crossing the path. Bhabani held Khoka’s hand and walked on. But Khoka woundn’t budge. He raised both arms to get up on his lap. Bhabani said, “That’s nothing, nothing to be scared of. Come on.”
Khoka’s attitude was like a disciple giving himself up without a word of objection. He held his father’s hand and crossed over the trail of the snail and walked on, albeit timidly but with complete faith in his dad. Bhabani thought, ‘If only we too could give ourselves up to God like this child’. Khoka had taught him so much. He hated wasting time sitting around with the village elders and listening to their materialistic talks.
This child was the creation of a great artist. He had been mesmerized so often looking at the stars in the sky. Looking at Khoka too was a silent but pure meditation. In the west when he stayed with Chaitanyabharati, his Guru would show him the sky, “Behold the eternal man—
Agnirmurdha chakshushi chandrasuryou
Dishah shrotre bagbrittashcha vedah.
Vayuh, prano hridayang vishwamashya padbhyang
Prithibi hyesha sarbabhutantaratma—
Agni (Fire) is his head, Chandra (Moon) and Surya (Sun) are his eyes, all the directions are his ears, Vedas his speech, air is his life, heart is the universe and the earth is his feet—that being is the universal soul of all creations.”
He had taught Bhabani to see the sky. He had opened his eyes. He showed as numerous sparks start from a fire similarly numerous beings arise from the eternal soul and disappear in it too.
That was the message of Upanishad.
This child was one of the sparks. Therefore wasn’t he the fire too? Wasn’t Bhabani too one of them? This shrub, the bush, the birds, weren’t they too part of the same flame?
This innocent child’s laughter and his meaningless prattle brought him hints of another world. As he was pleased when this child loved him, didn’t it similarly please God when he loved Him? He too was a child of God.
It had been a long time since he parted company with his devout friends. There he had found nothing but the ever fulfilling theological discussions all day. Looking at the night sky filled with innumerable stars, the sleepless guru and his disciples would dedicate their minds to the Supreme Being. That dedication was written on each leaf of the trees in the Himalayan forests, on each snowy field on the mountaintops. That quiet devotion was offered with utmost dedication to the Most Beautiful One in the privacy of their own minds.
He had not personally met with the more qualified ascetics. But their fame had come down along the snowy slopes from the highest mountain peaks where serious dedications and severely controlled desires destroyed all ignorance with the power of knowledge and love.
Bhabani Banerjee believed in their existence. He had learned it from other wise men.
Because they existed, there was still some residue of morality in this world filled with lies, deceptions and greed. The God’s names still existed, the moon and the stars still lit up the night sky, and the darkness was still scented by the wildflowers.
In these villages he had seen people occupied only with matters about their lands, money, taxes, torturing the tenants and gossiping about their neighbors. Nobody ever asked him any theological questions or started any discussions. They were completely oblivious of God. They only worshipped a silly, unbelievable idol on a throne and trembled in fear in front of it, or extended their arms in constant demands—give me this, give me that—never bothering to learn about that Immortal Soul or His limitless mercy. Their favorite topics of discussions were about whose wife walked in public without covering her head or which teen aged girl talked to which boy alone. Except for the Kabiraj and the ascetic woman by the banyan tree, there was not a soul Bhabani could enjoy talking with. Only those two persons enjoyed talking about God and Bhabani enjoyed talking with them. Nobody else. Others had not even seen the world outside this village. They only portrayed the philosophy and the perspectives of little frogs confined in a tiny well.
The company of this child was far purer. He didn’t know how to lie, didn’t care about materialistic possessions. He didn’t engage in malicious gossip about others. A pure, clean soul from somewhere in the universe had just entered his little body. The dirt and grime of this planet had not yet touched him. Did anyone realize how rare was the company of such a pure soul?
There were dense shrubs and bushes on both sides of the path. The child toddled along on his little feet. Once he looked up at the sky and said something to himself.
Bhabani asked, “What are you saying Khoka?”
“Who didn’t come?”
“This is not yet the time for the moon, dear. Moon will come much later at night. Let’s move on.”
Khoka sounded scared again, “Jacka!”
“No, no jackal. Don’t be scared.”
“Yes, we will go to her. She is not at home now. Let her come, OK? Tell me, what will you eat in the place where we are going?”
“Good, what was that?”
There were a number of people gathered at the Chandi pavilion of Mahadeb Mukherjee. Phoni Chakrabarti greeted Bhabani, “Hey, come in, come in. So early in the morning? Taking Khokan for a stroll? Come, let’s play a round of dice.”
Bhabani smiled, “Can’t stay for long, Uncle. OK, just one round. But Khoka may not let me play—”
Mahadeb said, “I can send Khoka inside the house. Mungli, hey Mungli—”
“No. Let him be, uncle. He won’t like going anywhere without me. Will start crying—”
The Chandi pavilion was a kind of institution in the village. From morning till night all the idle, ignorant, Brahmins—living on lands gifted to them simply because they were Brahmins—gathered to smoke tobacco and play dice (cards were not popular in the villages, it was thought to be a ‘Western’ game). Every well to do house had a pavilion like this where folks gathered to shoot the breeze. Wealthier households gathered more people as not everyone could afford to burn half a ser of tobacco every day. In this village, Chandra Chatterjee, Phoni Chakravarti and Mahadeb Mukherjee’s gatherings were considered first class. Rajaram Ray too was quite well off but his house didn’t have such gatherings as he was away from home most of the time.
These people sat here whole day, gossiped and played dice or chess. They didn’t have to work for their living. They were given some lands just for being Brahmin where they reaped enough paddy for the family. Some of these lands are cultivated by tenants and they pay some money. The Brahmins also had orchards of mangoes and jackfruits, trellises for cucumbers and gourds, they could buy fish and other stuff on credit and pay two months later. That was the norm. So, they had nothing to worry about. The village oil presser brought oil to them and made a mark on a piece of wood for payment due. At the end of the month those marks were counted and payment was made. When life was so easy, people naturally would choose to be lazy. From this laziness and aimlessness came failure and sin. This stagnant life style of the rural Bengal was choked with algae and waterweeds, not the clean, flowing, gurgling streams reflecting the generous wide expanse of the blue sky.
Bhabani had noted all this for a long time, soon after he was married. Before that he wasn’t familiar with the village life, didn’t know the ways of the villagers of Bengal. He had spent all his life with the hill people, with the flowing currents of the river Jahnavi. He was intimately familiar with the mountains and fast moving streams where he spent his days in joy. Now he was caught in this slow, stagnant life of the frogs of a small well.
These folks had no aim or ambition in their lives. Their entire existence was behind a curtain of ignorance. They had no desire to find what was on the other side of the curtain.
Mahadeb Mukherjee asked, “Khokan, what is your name?”
Khoka stared at him with fear and surprise. He didn’t say anything.
“What name Khokan?”
“Just Khokan? Good. Nice name. Hey, it is my turn. What was your score?”
After some time in the play puffed rice and grated coconut were sent to the guests from the kitchen. After eating everyone got more energized in the games. They played like it was the only purpose of their lives.
Srinath—Satyambar Chatterji’s son-in-law—came to join them. He worked in Calcutta, therefore was a respected member in the village. None of these Brahmins had ever visited Calcutta, not even Dewan Rajaram. There was no need for them to go there. Why would they go to an unknown city with many inconveniences and much imagined danger? They didn’t have to worry about their sons’ education or their own livelihood.
Phoni greeted Srinath, “Come in son, what news from Calcutta?”
Srinath often brought incredible and strange news from the city. It gave them a breath of fresh air from the outside. Now he brought them another fantastic news. “A very big news! Someone has murdered our Governor General!”
Everyone spoke at once, “What? Murder? Who murdered?”
“Some Wahabi type Pathan.”
Mahadeb asked, “What was our Governor’s name again?”
People lost interest in dice. It didn’t matter to them if Lord Mayo lived or died. Most of them heard his name for the first time. But it was something new in their ho-hum monotonous lives. That was the gain.
Srinath told the story in much detail—how all the offices and courts were closed as soon as the news reached.
It was past noon. As soon as Bhabani reached home with Khoka, he got an earful from Tilu.
“How could you be so thoughtless? Where were you with this little kid till so late? He must be half dead in hunger, poor thing. Where on earth were you?”
Khoka put out his arms, “Ma, ma.”
Bhabani said, “Forget about all that. Lud Mayo is murdered!”
“Who on earth is he?”
“The Governor General of whole India! The big boss.”
“Who killed him?”
“Poor thing! Why did he have to kill him? It is very sad.”
A few days after Lord Mayo’s death the indigo planters faced a serious crisis. The sahibs started to hold many meetings; the Magistrate sent frequent orders through his bearer.
Rajaram was riding to his work. Ramkanai Kabiraj was waiting for him under a tree, “Please wait a minute Dewan-babu.”
“What’s the matter?” Rajaram frowned.
“Just wait a little, hear me out. Please don’t go that way. The Bagdis of Kanshona are all waiting for you in Shashthitala’s field. They are armed with lathis. They plan to kill you. I know so I’m telling you this. I have been waiting for you for a long time.”
“Who all are in their group?”
“That I don’t know Babu. We are poor folks. I just heard it so I’m telling you, couldn’t commit a sin, have to explain to the Man upstairs. You are Brahmin, God decided to make me warn you—”
Still Rajaram started to ride away. Ramkanai folded his hands and pleaded with him. “Dewan-babu, please listen to me. You are in grave danger. Don’t go a step further, listen—”
Rajaram had already gone a good distance ahead. He wondered if Ramkanai was bit crazy. He had undergone so much insult and punishment in the plantation, because of Rajaram himself, why was he so keen to warn him now? Must be lying!.
As soon as his horse entered Shshthitala’s field, danger loomed. A large group armed with lathis and spears surrounded him. Rajaram recognized the slain Ramu Bagdi’s eldest son Haru and his brother-in-law Naran the chief leader.
Immediately things turned ominous. Someone yelled, “Hey son of a bitch, get off the horse. You aren’t going back home today.”
Naran said, “He is the pet dog of the sahibs. Watch me play ball with your head today.”
Many yelled, “No need of talks, just pull him down, kneel on his chest and behead him with one swing of your bill-hook.”
Haru said, “You guys move aside. I’ll deal with him. He killed my father through his goons—”
Another man said, “Where is your Rasik friend now? Call him. Let’s see how he saves you this time. You have to leave for the next world right away my dear!”
A spear just grazed Rajaram’s left chest. He would have been mortally hurt had his horse not shied off at the last moment. His head was swimming, he couldn’t find a break to think things out, and his eyes couldn’t focus properly. What was going on around him? Was that a storm in the coconut grove? Where did Ramkanai Kabiraj go? Ramkanai?
A heavy stick fell on his head. He felt stunned.
Again he felt a very sharp, cold feeling on the left side of his chest. What was happening to him? Where did all this water come from? Someone taunted, “Remember Ramu?”
Rajaram raised his arm to stop one stick but how could he stop so many? Where was all the fluid coming from? He briefly glanced at his clothes and immediately felt nauseous. Dizziness came upon him like he was in high fever. The world was spinning around …
Tilu’s beautiful boy was sitting on the other side of the field and smiling to himself. How sweetly he smiled! Rajaram knew no more. His eyes fell shut.
The world around him went dark like a moonless night.
When Ramkanai called the villagers for help and everyone ran out with sticks and spears to Shashthitala, it was already too late. Rajaram’s blood soaked body lay in the dust. Lifeless.
After a year or so.
The unrest following Rajaram’s death had settled down. Jagadamba was insistent upon immolating herself upon her husband’s pyre. Tilu, Bilu and Nilu somehow managed to hold her back but Jagadamba didn’t live long. She had lost her senses in the trauma. The three sisters took great care of her but after the last Durga Puja, she contracted high fever and died within three days. Her pyre too was placed in Kadamtala cremation ground next to where her husband’s was. All the property of heirless Rajaram now passed on to Tilu’s son. Everybody in the village asked them to move to Rajaram’s house and live there but for some reason, Bhabani Banerjee didn’t agree to that.
As a result, they still resided in the small thatched house on the land gifted to him by Rajaram. At last Tilu too asked Bhabani.
“Tilu, you’re also asking me to move?”
“Why not? Please explain. Why can’t you live in your own in-law’s house?”
“No. My son will not touch that property.”
“Not even his own inheritance?”
“No, Tilu please don’t be upset. That property was built with the money from extortions of many men. I don’t want my son to use it. Listen. I’ve met many wise men. This I learned that wherever there is excess and wealth, there is also filth, and sin. Human soul is polluted. No wonder Chaitanyadeb advised Raghunath Das, ‘Do not eat too well, do not dress too well’.”
“Fine. Whatever you think is the best.”
“I’ve told you often, I travel a different path. Don’t take it personally, but I never condoned your brother’s actions. He got Ramu Bagdi killed. He tortured Ramkanai Kabiraj. Yet his last warning came from Kabiraj himself. But he didn’t listen; anyway, let’s not dwell on that. If our Khoka lives, he would live differently, greedlessly, with simplicity, truth and honesty. If he wants to know God, he will have to do it through humility and simplicity. One cannot seek God with impurity and greed in his heart. That is how I want to bring him up.”
“Do you want him to become an ascetic like you?”
“You know, I never became totally ascetic. My Guru Maharaj (Bhabani folded his hands paying respect) used to say, ‘Son, you still have attachment to pleasure in your heart’. He didn’t ordain me into full asceticism. He could see my future clearly. But he blessed me so I didn’t forget God while living the material life, didn’t stray into the path of falsehoods, greed and sin. What the Gita says, “Bittashathya no.” Meaning, never engage in deceptions for materialistic gains. How can I push my son in that direction? Enjoying your brother’s property will amount to just that.”
“Then what will happen to his property?”
“How about you?”
“Me? My son won’t take it and you expect me to enjoy it? How could you even think?”
“Why do you want to burden them?”
“What if they want to?”
“Even then, you are their husband, they are ignorant women, why wouldn’t you advise them?”
“I can’t do that Tilu. They are adults. If they want to enjoy the money why should I stop them?”
“No need to force them, just explain it. Let me talk to them, then I will tell you.”
“Well, if nobody accepts the inheritance, we can donate it to the welfare of the poor and the needy ones in your brother and sister-in-law’s names. That would elevate the status of their souls and they would find peace.”
That evening, all of a sudden, Hala Pekey arrived at their house, “Didi, where is Khoka?
Tilu called Khoka and asked, “Can you tell who he is?”
Khoka said “Dada (*).”
“Not Dada silly, Uncle.”
Hala Pekey tried to put two gold bangles on Khoka’s arms. Tilu stopped him, “No, Dada, I can’t allow it.”
“Not without his (Bhabani’s) permission.”
“That time earlier too you didn’t accept my gift. This time if you say ‘no’ I will be very hurt.”
“What can I do? Why do you bring such gifts?”
“Because I want to give him something. Khokon, do you love your uncle?”
Khoka stared at him in surprise, “Yes.”
“You love me one whole? Wonderful.”
Khoka grabbed the bangles from Pekey’s hands. Pekey clapped in glee, “See, he likes them. He is going to wear them. You don’t have to give. Right?”
Right at that time Bhabani arrived and saw Pekey, “Hello! Where are you coming from?”
Pekey got up and prostrated himself at Bhabani’s feet. Bhabani smiled, “What’s with such devotion? How is the business going? Hey, what is that in Khoka’s hands? Bangles?”
Tilu said, “Dada brought for Khoka.”
Pekey looked very nervous. Tilu smiled at Khoka, “Listen to what he says. Khoka how much do you love this uncle?”
“One whole.” Khoka said.
“You want to keep the bangles?”
Bhabani Banerjee objected, “No, no. You take it back. We can’t accept it.”
Pekey didn’t dare argue in front of Bhabani but his face fell. Tilu said, “Dada was so keen on it. Last time also you turned him down, on Khoka’s rice ceremony day.”
Bhabani said, “Why do you put us in this position again?”
Hala Pekey kept quiet. Nobody could blame a mute.
“Fine. Keep it this time but never again—”
Pekey’s face brightened with happiness. He touched Bhabani’s feet, “I wouldn’t bring anything in future. I’ve learnt my lesson. But this is not what you are thinking. This is my personal jewelry.”
Bhabani lectured him, “You will never learn! You are getting old; change your ways for the better. Don’t you worry about the next life?”
Tilu said, “Don’t scold him now. He must be hungry. Dada, you come to the kitchen with me.”
Hala Pekey was relieved to follow her.
How Tilu and her son had managed to tame this ferocious dacoit was a mystery. But Pekey shyly and happily followed them around like a pet dog.
The porch in front of the kitchen was kept neat and clean. Bitter gourd flowers dangled from the thatched roof. Behind them, Shyam Chakravarti’s bamboo grove cast a dense shadow. Babblers and mynas were chirping. One coppersmith barbet flew in and sat swinging on a bamboo branch. The aroma of earth emanated from the dry bamboo leaves. A climbing nettle winded along the kitchen window. Tilu set out a handful of fried rice, green chilies and one half shell of ripe coconut. She also placed a slab of date palm jaggery in a stoneware bowl.
Pekey must have been very hungry. He immediately finished the rice, “If you have some more—”
“Wait, I’m getting it. Dada, tell us a story of your looting, will you?”
With more fried rice, Hala Pekey started his stories. One time he and Aghor Muchi wore stilts and went to loot Nilmoni Mukherjee’s house in Bhanderkhola village. There they found four or five men and about eight or ten women living in the house. There were two servants, one of whom lived right next to the cowshed with his wife and children. Pekey’s group tried to decide whether to go in or not. Ultimately they decided to go for it. They broke in the main door with a grain husker and found the men ready for them with lathis and spears. The women were crying loudly.
Tilu said, “Oh, poor folks!”
“Hardly ‘poor’ Didi, listen first. We almost lost our lives that night. We didn’t know, one widowed woman named Dakshayani started plying a spear with such skill that she could have easily beaten Nibaran the Wild. She was something else! The men didn’t even have to come out of the house.”
“Really? Then what happened?”
“The men dropped the hidden stairs from the upper floor. Then from the rooftop they started throwing bricks on the looters below and started fighting with spears. One of our men was injured—”
“Not then, he died later in our hands. When Dakshayani was fighting so fiercely, we realized that if we stood in the open, we would all get killed. I decided to make the sound—”
“A sound loud enough to drop the baby from a pregnant woman. Want to hear? Better not, Khoka would get scared. We arranged so that the menfolk couldn’t get off the roof. The spears advanced like snakes’ tongues, with each thrust someone’s abdomen was cut open. Three or four of them were injured. But the villagers had surrounded us by then, we had no way to escape.. On the other side Dakshayani was holding fort, Aghor signed us to run but we didn’t know which way. Then I used my last resort. With two arms holding the lathi in ‘hattaa’ style I started spinning like a potter’s wheel and advanced through the crowd clearing a path for my friends. One man from our group was hurt; I cut his head off and escaped with it. Poor man, Banshidhar Sardar, very good spear fighter he was too.”
“But why? Why did you kill your own?”
“Otherwise they would have identified his body, or if he was caught alive he could have told them about us.”
“We narrowly escaped disaster. But we managed to loot thirty bhoris (*) of gold jewelry.”
“How? From where? Didn’t they take the women upstairs and drop the hidden stairs?”
“Before that. You can’t dilly-dally while looting. As soon we saw the women we snatched their jewelries. Let them keep crying afterwards. There was whole night left for that.”
“Don’t do this stuff anymore Dada. Very sinful. How can you eat your food after that? Imagine how much tear is mixed with that food. Just to fill your stomach? Shame, shame!”
Hala Pekey was silent for a bit, “Don’t tell us about sins anymore. Those days and times are gone. You know the rhyme we used to sing when we were kids?
“Hail to Sitaram Ruler of Bengal
Who banished all looters and thieves
And made tigers and men live together
Ram and Shyam now packing up for pilgrimage ...
Tilu smiled, “We know that one too. Dinu the old lady used to recite…”
“Of course you would know. Sitaram was the king of Naldi district. His fort was in Masudpur. My mother’s folks lived near Masudpur, in Hariharnagar. I’ve seen Sitaram’s fort, played with the broken bricks and stones, and seen a big pond named Sukhsagar, now it is all taken over by the jungle. Heard tigers and huge snakes roam there now. There used to be a very old crown flower tree. We used to eat the fruits, very sweet—”
“Swee. I love.” Khoka piped in.
“Sure. I will bring you, ripe mangoes, very sweet.”
“Yes, you do.”
Bhabani bathed and started his daily prayers. Tilu kept a few pieces of cucumbers, half of one coconut grated and some date palm jaggery for him in the other room. Hala Pekey ate a whole katha of rice after Bhabani’s lunch. Man, he could eat! He also ate a bucket of daal (*). After that he rested for a bit.
Suddenly noises of crying could be heard from the direction of Mukherji’s house. Tilu called Pekey, “Can you go see who is crying—”
Bhabani too rushed there. After a while he came back with the news,
“Phoni uncle’s oldest uncle has died in a shipwreck. Ganesh just brought the news.”
Tilu said, “What? Shipwreck!”
“Yes. A ship named Sir John Lawrence.”
“Ships have names too?”
“Of course. Listen, that ship sank on its way to Puri. Apparently lots of folks have died.”
“Oh no! There must be seven or eight from our village alone. Potter Tagar’s mother, milkman Pecho’s mother-in-law and widowed oldest daughter Khenti, Raju Sardar’s mother, uncle Nilmoni’s eldest sister-in-law. Poor Khenti’s young son too had gone with his mother. Barely seven years old!”
There was mourning and wailing all through the village. Near the river ghats, in the Chandi pavilions, farmlands and marketplaces, Nalu Pal’s large store and shop; everywhere people were talking about the shipwreck only.
Many pilgrims from various districts of Bengal had perished in that ship. Shipwreck of Sir John Lawrence was a significant event in the social history of Bengal.
Gaya-mem just came out of the quarters of Baro-sahib when Prasanna Amin called her, “Gaya, listen, O Gaya—”
Gaya looked back and turned away, “I don’t have time to play coy with you now.”
“Listen, I just want to tell you something—”
“Will you be home this evening?”
“May be, maybe not. What is it to you?”
“Nothing. Just asking.”
“No time for talking now. If you have something to say, come to our place in the evening and say it in front of my mother—”
Prasanna came forward with a big smile, “No, no. I wasn’t going to say anything here. Just asking how you are. Looking a bit pale, that’s why—”
“Stop it. Don’t start a scene in public.”
No. Prasanna would never understand this woman. Every time he felt she was a bit pleased with him, she did or said something totally contrary. He just stood there staring.
Hearing the clip-clop of a horse he looked back and saw Shipton-sahib going out somewhere. Prasanna was worried. Did the sahib see him or hear him talking to Gaya? Oh, dear—
It took a long time for the evening to arrive. The big chatka (*) tree near the river’s bend shone in the setting sunlight. In the vegetable patches the ridge gourd flowers opened up, a group of Shamkoot(*) birds flew over Ichhamoti towards the marshes in Akaipur, still the evening wouldn’t come. After a long time, the conch shells sounded in the Bagdis’ and oil pressers’ houses, the bells and gongs sounded in the temple of the ascetic woman under the banyan tree.
Prasanna nervously went to Gaya’s door and called, “Barada Didi?”
He didn’t dare call Gaya’s name right away.
Unexpected surprise! Gaya herself opened the door, “Yes, uncle?”
“Barada Didi not home?”
“Nothing. Just asking.”
Gaya-mem smiled, “You need to talk to her? I can call her. She has just gone to Jugis’ house—”
“No need. Let’s just sit. I needed to talk to you—”
“Tell me something… How do you like me?”
“An old man. How am I supposed to like?”
“Am I that old? Be fair Gaya. Baro-sahib too is fairly old. Isn’t he?”
“Forget about those guys. Just say what you wanted to say.”
“Why can’t I rest without seeing you? Can you tell me that?”
“Lusting at your age? Aren’t you ashamed to tell me this?”
“Of course. That’s why I couldn’t say it for so long—”
“Great! Now there is no inhibition?”
“Honestly Gaya, I’ve seen many women, but none like you, your hair, your beauty—”
“Forget about all that. Let me give you an advice, pay attention.”
“Promise you won’t tell it to anyone?”
Prasanna’s face brightened up. Gaya had never spoken so intimately to him. How perfectly curved were her eyebrows, how her smile lit up the room! This was heaven on earth, on this autumn evening.
What would Gaya say? What it could be?
Prasanna’s heart beat faster. With eager impatience he asked, “Tell me Gaya, what is it? Who can I tell about things between the two of us?”
Prasanna tried to stress the last few words, but Gaya ignored them and spoke normally, “Listen, I’m saying this for your own good. There is rift between the sahibs. They are moving away from here. Baro-sahib’s mem will be leaving soon. She is a good person. You can ask her for something before she leaves. She is kind, she would listen.”
Prasanna Amin was not a dumb person. He had already guessed something like this. He knew the sahibs would be gone soon. But why was Gaya telling him about this now? Why was she interested in his happiness or wellbeing? Prasanna’s entire body tingled with joy. That evening, in the mixed darkness and light of the impending dusk, nearing the end of his own youth, he discovered something new and wonderful.
“Why are they leaving?”
“Their time’s over.” Gaya smiled, “Don’t you know?”
“I did hear something like that.”
“Everyone in the district is angry at them. The Magistor is writing to them every day, telling them to be careful. After all they too are white skins. They are moving the women away first. I’m telling you to be careful too. Don’t be harsh on the tenants like you were before. That will not do anymore—”
“Why? How does it matter to you if I live or die?” Prasanna’s voice became suddenly intimate.
Gaya giggled out loud, “You are hopeless! I tried to give you some good advice and you started getting all mushy—”
“What did I say wrong Gaya?” Prasanna sounded even more intimate.
“Again you are doing it? Did you even hear what I tried to tell you? Wait, wait—”
Gaya suddenly surprised and stunned Prasanna and went right close to him and slapped him on the back, “Look, a mosquito!”
Prasann’s whole body trembled. Was the world turning too fast? Gaya said, “Do as I said. Are you hearing me?”
“Yes. But Gaya, if I don’t listen? What is it to you?”
Gaya sounded angry, “It is nothing to me. If you don’t listen you will die, like Dewanji.”
“Don’t be mad Gaya, but am I not better off dead? Who’d miss me?” Prasanna Amin gave a loud sigh.
“Oho! Look at him acting coy. Most irritating. Told you something important and useful and you started with ‘who will miss me after I die’ act. Can’t you understand a straightforward advice?”
“I irritate you, don’t I?”
“I don’t know. I can’t sit and answer your silly questions. Like I have nothing better to do. Leave now. Ma will be here any minute.”
“OK Gaya, I’ll leave.”
Prasanna was turning away in disappointment when Gaya called him back, “Uncle—”
“What?” Prasanna looked back.
“Tell me, what?”
“Don’t mind me please.”
“You are quite crazy.”
“Whatever you say Gaya, Listen, come closer—”
“No. Tell me from there.”
“Do you want to hear a tappa (*) by Nidhubabu?”
“No. Go now. Mother is coming.”
Again she called back when Prasanna had gone a few steps, “Come again. Did you hear?”
“Of course I’ll come. Definitely.”
Prasanna Amin started on the long walk home. He was quite far from Gaya’s house. He could hope that Barada hadn’t seen him. How sweet was Gaya with him today. How sweetly she moved him away lest her mother saw him.
But more than all that, the most wonderful thing was, oh, even now it brought tingles all over his body—it was Gaya’s slapping at the mosquito.
She stood so close to him, moved so beautifully.
Was there really a mosquito on his back? Or she just wanted to come close pretending to kill the mosquito?
She did show him something on her palm but Prasanna was in no condition to see anything at that moment. It was growing darker. The blue sky of Bhadra (*) leaned on the fields far away. The new shoots of the bamboos were shining golden like spears in a row, in the setting sunlight on the groves of Jugipara. That was where Gaya’s mother had gone. Thank God she wasn’t home. Otherwise he couldn’t have all this conversation with Gaya. This beautiful autumn day, this special Bhadra evening would have gone waste…
This was the one day in his entire life. Something he had wanted all his life, perhaps at last he got it today. Wasn’t he hungering for the love of a woman all his life?
Prasanna returned home very late that day. It was a small room in the Indigo House with an attached kitchen with thatched roof. The Amin Nakul Dhara was absent otherwise he would’ve yakked on endlessly. Prasanna was not in a mood for yakking. He just wanted to sit alone and think about Gaya killing the mosquito…Gaya standing so close to him! Yes, yes, it was possible. Heavenly Apsaras (*) like Urvashi, Menaka and Rambha too sometimes came down close to their lovers on the earth. He wanted it so…
It started to rain suddenly. The Bhadra evening grew dark very fast. Water dripped on his clay oven from a hole in his thatched roof. He started cooking dinner, just rice with a bitter gourd and a plantain thrown in. He didn’t need anything else. Didn’t even want to eat. All he wanted to do was think about Gaya—her pose, her expressions, and the smile on her face, how close she stood while slapping at the mosquito…
Was there really a mosquito?
What if it was like…
He would be cooking and Gaya would peek in smiling, “Uncle, what are you doing?”
“What are you cooking?”
“Just rice with a veggie or two.”
“What can I do? I have no one to cook and care for me.”
“I’ve brought fish for you. Good khaira fish (*).”
“Why do you care so much for me Gaya?”
“I worry about you. Living here all alone—”
The rice was done. It smelled done. Prasanna added some mustard oil and started eating. The flame of the clay lamp on the double shelved, oil and water lampstand flickered in the moist breeze. Almost at the end of his dinner he realized that he had forgotten to add salt. He was eating plain rice with bitter gourd and plantain without any seasonings!
Was there really a mosquito on his back?