People might not believe me, but over the last four or five months I had lived on plain rice. In spite of being a village, things were fairly expensive here, as nothing was produced locally. The green vegetables were two annas a kilo, potato – six paise. Fish came at no less than four to six annas. Sometimes, I went to the river bank very early in the morning before anyone could see me and brought back leaves of the greens that grew along the river. Now it was the time for mangoes – I ate rice and mango boiled together. Many days I finished rice with just a pinch of salt.
I might not be a qualified doctor, but so what! Wasn’t it possible to learn medicine by reading the books at home? I had been in practice for the last seven or eight years. After all I was experienced! Besides, didn’t patients die with even a qualified doctor? Could Indu doctor of Dhopakhali have saved the daughter of the milkmaid, Bidhu?
Yet, it was indeed inexplicable why some mischief mongers would spread rumours that Moni doctor’s medicine could kill a man. No one stood up for me – except Mujib. Had he not fed me for free from his shop for the last three or four months, I would have surely starved. Nobody in this village had ever done for me even a fraction of what he had. I would never be able to repay his debts.
These were all poor villages – twenty or twenty four miles away from the nearest railway station. There was no sizeable marketplace or trading centre near by. People here were mostly illiterate. When they fell ill, they tried indigenous and
superstitious practices. Instead of calling a doctor, they would call for an exorcist!
Before coming to Palashpara I had stayed for a few days in Satrajitpur, since then I had never visited home. That was a year and a half back. ‘Home’ meant my in-laws’s home – I didn’t have a home or hearth of my own since long. To reach my in-law’s place, one had to walk sixteen miles to take a train from the Navarone rail station and reach Maslandpur. One then had to take a motorbus to Kholapota. A light train of the Martin Co. would take one from there to Hasnabad, from where a six or seven hour boat ride on the Ichhamati river brought one to my in-law’s place. It cost around three or four rupees one way.
Whenever I made some money I mailed it to Subasini – though in the last two years I have hardly earned three or four rupees. If I did not send money, Subasini would be tormented by the whining and complains by my
mother-in-law and my widowed sister-in-law.
That was why during my last visit when after lunch I was starting for the boat, Subasini called me into a corner room and said – “Listen, don’t keep me here for long this time – take me with you wherever you will stay.”
—“Will you be able to live in those villages?”
—“This place is no town either. Besides, my town is where you will live. Here, Didi’s sharp tongue would drive me to hanging or drowning.”
—“I understand, Subi; if I do get a reasonable deal anywhere, I will of course take you with me. Do you think I am at peace leaving you away like this? But, I am helpless –”
I had stepped outside the door and mother-in-law was waiting; she said – “My boy, don’t lose touch when you leave. You know my situation here, there are many dependents in the family, and it is difficult to manage. There are lots of debts, to the milkman and others. Her clothes are all torn, being a mother I could not bear the sight, so I got her some new clothes, the price of which is still unpaid – and you, whenever you leave you become totally untraceable – I don’t know what to do – I’ve never seen a man like you.” And on and on.
Since that last encounter, I had not visited my in-laws during the last year and half. Whatever money I had sent to Subasini during this time was negligible compared to the expenses. But, I had no choice – I could not take to theft and burglary, after all.
Truly, ever since marrying Subasini, I had not had much chance to stay with her for long. In the beginning I used to plan to take her with me as soon as I landed a job. But such an occasion never came up in the seven years of our marriage. It was not possible to stay with the in-laws for long. Their daughter was already there for so many days, on top of it if the son-in-law too stayed there for more than a couple of days, the household would feel disgusted. Hence, I tried to avoid it as much as possible. One needed to maintain one’s own prestige after all.
One day I heard about a job of a teacher in the primary school of Pankhola. I often visited Mujibur Rahman’s shop for a chat. He advised me to try for the job.
At home, I mulled over the proposal. Practising as a doctor for eight years I have found it difficult to earn a square meal a day – if I had a fixed job instead, at the end of the month, something would come at hand, however meager.
After some inquiries I came to know that the secretary of the primary school Srinath Das lived in Makarandapur. Next morning I started for Makarandapur.
Makarandapur was not less than fourteen to sixteen miles from here. I bathed in the morning, gulped down a pinch of rice with water and left. I did not know the direction to Makarandapur; leaving Palaspur when I reached the houses of the oil pressers of Ambikapur, they informed me that if I crossed the river at Jhitkipota and go through Nokful I would save around three miles.
I crossed the river before eight in the morning. A small boy accompanied me in the boat. Coming along with me down the field for some distance, he pointed out to a banyan tree and instructed me to take the left turn under the tree for Nokful.
It had become quite hot. I waded across a small canal and came upon a big mango orchard. In these areas, an orchard meant a dense forest. Just as I had managed to make my way with great difficulty I caught sight of a building. Several pucca houses appeared by the roadside; most of them were old, with shoots of banyan and pipul making their way up through crevices on their concrete walls. I crossed the village and rested awhile under the shade of a banyan tree in the field. I was thirsty too. I thought of asking
for water from someone but the meadow spread out in all direction, with no village in sight.
I again started walking. Villages inhabited by peasants began to show up. Being a Bramhin I could not afford to drink water at non-Brahmin household!
Sundarpur, Chatra, Noldi, Mamudpur...
Another meadow appeared. It was past midday. I felt the hunger pangs. Some water could be had at least. Hadn’t the District Board installed a tube well in these areas in any village – damn it? Wasn’t there a pond anywhere in this meadow?
It was evening when I reached the river bank. At the ferry stand, I found that the river was clogged with water-hyacinth; the small boat was tied, submerged, and not a soul was around.
What a trying situation! How could I cross over? A farmers’ village was nearby. I got to know from there that the ferry service had been closed for more than a month. The service now ran a couple of miles upstream in the bank at Khalispur.
It was indeed strenuous in my condition to walk for a couple of miles more to Khalispur! I asked again and found that half a mile ahead under a big shimul tree one could wade across the river.
Walking half a mile in the darkness I could find the shimul tree beside the river, but the water level did not seem to be too low. I got down into the water; the level gradually
crossed the knees and reached my hip. Then it reached my chest and then neck. My clothes were all soaking wet. The water level was still rising – when it reached my nose, I was walking on my toes, as if jumping from point to point. It was dark – the fear of a lurking crocodile caught up with me.
Somehow I crossed over to the other side. There was no habitation anywhere, not even a flicker of light was to be seen in the darkness. At one point the road divided and went to two different directions. Which way was Makarandapur – towards the left or the right? Who could tell? Not a trace of humanity was around. Walking down for more than a couple of miles I got to know from a village that I had walked in the wrong direction. I should have taken the path to the right; instead I had taken the path to the left.
Again I started back and came to the point where the road had divided. Now I took to the right. This path went through dense jungle of mango trees, bamboo and wild bush. I knew that the area was frequented by tigers. Tigers would carry away cattle and calf in broad daylight. Once I had treated a patient – a wild cat had clawed him on his shoulder.
It was pitch dark and very difficult to walk. Loads of ripe mangoes had dropped on the ground – mangoes grew profusely in these regions, they came almost free of cost. People generally did not pick the mangoes from the ground. In the dark I started slipping on the mangoes. So far as it was a mango, well and good; if I slipped on a snake instead, my life
as a doctor would immediately come to end – I was apprehensive.
With great difficulty I reached Makarandapur at about nine in the evening. I took shelter at the house of the secretary, Srinath Das. But the job was not there for me; I was left only with the trouble of the journey. Srinath Das told me next morning, “Not this month, I am thinking of recruiting from next month. The condition of the school is not good. It earns only ten rupees and twenty five paise a month with the help of the district board – that is its mainstay. Tuition fees paid by the students amount to a mere three rupees and twenty five paise a month. How can I keep two teachers? Please enquire next month.”
It put the matter at rest. But how could I survive till next month while waiting for the job of the Second Teacher in the U.P. school of Pankhola? Salary, I heard, was five rupees; the Head Pundit got nine rupees.
Walking throughout the day I reached back Palashpur in the evening. I was extremely tired; my feet were throbbing with pain. Mujibur asked, “Any development, Doctor?” I narrated everything to him; and then returned to my own dark straw thatched room and lighted the broken lantern. I washed myself at the river and then spread the mat and lay over it. I was very hungry, but I had no urge to get up and cook. I spent the night eating a few mangoes.
Laying in the darkness I came to think of many things. Living alone was the greatest hardship. There was nobody to talk to. I longed to bring my wife. I had not seen her for days, I wished for her help and company. I wanted her to sit beside me and talk when I returned home after work; that would have brought some happiness amidst all the misery. But how could I bring her? What would I do to feed her?
The marketplace was terribly dark. It had only two shops. The shopkeepers had shut and left. Fireflies were glowing in the darkness all around the big trees. Bats were fluttering their wings.
It was quite late into the night, but sleep eluded me. It was suffocatingly hot! Throughout the night the mangoes kept falling doob–dub in the surrounding jungle – I lay in bed and listened.
Oh! How monotonous life had become! Get up in the morning, go for a walk along the river, return to the market. I couldn’t venture out for long, lest I missed a patient. Throughout the day I had to sit patiently at my dispensary in the hope that someone would turn up.
I shut these eyes, sitting under the tree.
Fooling myself to think I can reach you,
Trembling at heart...
But where else could I go? It was a village of farmers. There was not a single bhadraloke with whom I could have a conversation. It was either my dispensary in the leaking straw thatched hut or Mujibur’s shop. Some evening I strolled along the lake in Pipilipara and watched how the fishermen were catching the Koi fish, using their contraption from a floating dinghy. When it grew dark, I sometimes plucked a few pieces of greens and
brought home for cooking. The same – mango boiled with rice had been ruling the kingdom since New Year– how long could one put up with it?
Fame was not for me. Yesterday, after evening, oil presser Bishnu’s elder son got bitten by a snake in the pressing room. On hearing the news I ran to attend – nobody had called me though – but I could not sit quiet after hearing the news.
Immediately upon reaching I applied some tight bandages, made an incision on the point where the snake had bitten and applied potassium permanganate. The neighbours then called for the exorcist. The exorcist ordered that the bandages be removed forthwith. No body paid any heed to my advice not to do so. The patient recovered after the bandages were removed while the exorcist was performing his tricks. The exorcist’s tricks were all rubbish – it was my bandages and the application of potassium permanganate that did the job – the exorcist however took all the credit. So be it, I was not sorry for that. A person was saved, that was reward enough for me.
I could tolerate the pangs of starvation. The monotonous life however was about to kill me. Still I tried to fend off the depression by indulging in daydreaming.
I imagined what I would do if I earned enough money.
I would bring Subasini and also my son. Mujib had agreed to give me some land on the banks of the river, I would put up two straw huts there for the time being. On all sides of the house I would make a small garden; in a summer evening I would pluck some half-bloomed buds of jasmine on a plate and keep some in the room and adorn Subasini’s hair with the rest. I would request the land owner for some land for growing rice; if a household had rice it was bound to be well off.
One Autumn day I was in my dispensary, I saw a girl scouring under the berry trees near the marketplace. On seeing me she kept on staring at me.
I asked, “What are you searching there, little girl?” The girl replied shyly, “Shoots of ghentkole—”
—“What would you do with shoots of ghentkole?”
—“It is used as food –”
I never knew this. If shoots of ghentkole could be eaten, I would be spared the trouble of buying vegetables. I saw ghentkole all around in the vegetation surrounding the marketplace. But I did not recognize the plant, though I’d heard of it.
I said, “show me what the plant looks like.”
The girl said, “Look here, it resembles the taro plant – but one leaf is folded up three times.”
—“How do you eat it?”
—“As you like it – lightly boiled and fried or made into a curry. Would you like to taste, shall I pluck some for you?”
I showed off a bit to the girl. Being a doctor how could I eat shoots of wild ghentkole, but if I had to have, it would be out of sheer mercy on this unknown wild plant – I tried to put up this attitude.
I said, “Who would cook shoots of such wild plants? How do you cook it?
The girl taught me to boil and fry shoots of ghentkole and also plucked for me a bunch.
While leaving she pointed towards the kitchen and asked, – “who stays here?”
—“I stay here.”
—“I meant, who stays with you? Who cooks for and
—“Nobody, I do it myself.”
The girl, from then on, seemingly took pity on me. Whenever she would come to the marketplace to pick shoots of ghentkole she would give me a bunch.
She would come in the morning and again in the evening. One afternoon, I was sitting all by myself; the girl came and emptied a handful of figs from her saree on the floor and said, “This afternoon I plucked some figs from the presser Hare's tree – here is some for you.”
I had never asked the girl about herself. She was good looking, with big eyes, aged eighteen or nineteen and was unusually fair for those regions. Of course, she was not from a higher caste – such as Bramhin or Kayastha – that was apparent from her looks. That day I picked up a conversation with her and came to know that she was the daughter of Bidhu, the milkmaid of the village. Her name was most probably Premlata or something like that; everybody called her ‘Promo’. She became a widow at atender age – as was common amongst the milkmen.
The girl stood for some time holding on to the bamboo frame supporting the roof. She said, “Aren’t you married?”
—“Then why don’t you bring your wife to stay with you?
You seem to be having a difficult time with cooking and
—“Of course. I am thinking of bringing her now.”
—“Are your parents alive?”
—“Where is your home?”
—“You won’t know it; it’s far from here.”
That’s how began the introduction. Thereafter Promo would visit in the morning and in the evening, some day she would bring sticks of ol, on some other day figs, and yet something else on another day – as if she would notbe able to rest before sharing with me whatever she would procure from the jungles and bushes. Sometimes she would lean on the bamboo frame over there and talk incessantly. This simple girl tried to help her poor mother tide over the scarcity of her household by picking wood from the jungle, plucking leaves and creepers for cooking. She would bring the ingredients for the meals for this poor doctor out of sheer compassion. I would enjoy it. She had tied me with an invisible thread of compassion and perhaps so did I. Perhaps in the lonely life at Palaspur’s market, the company of a kind girl was extremely enjoyable. Thus I was happy when she came.
Of late, she came frequently, on some pretext. When she came she would spend hours talking nonsense.
One day I noticed, Promo had become mindful of her dress. I realized this first when I noted her carefully braided hair. She had learnt to wear her clean saree well. In her smile I saw a touch of blush, which was new for her. I noticed the many ways she tried to make me comfortable – plucking leaves and creepers, shredding vegetables. Previously she just stood holding on to the bamboo frame of the roof, later she would sit in that corner of the verandah. Her face was seemingly becoming beautiful by the day.
There are so many inhabitants of Palaspur, so many people visit the marketplace, no one had displayed such compassion for the lonely life of this miserable doctor. That’s why I say – a man cannot have a better friend than a woman.
Last spring she did not turn up for some days at a stretch. I became worried. Such a thing had never happened. Two or three days later I heard that Bidhu milkmaid’s daughter had typhoid. Even though I was not called, I visited her. I examined and concluded that typhoid at this age was incurable. I treated her with all my might – but her mother lost confidence in me after seven days and called for Indu doctor. First time when Promo saw me beside her bed her face lit up with happiness. I heard that she had declined to take the medicine provided by Indu doctor. She had been unconscious for six or seven days before her death.
For the last few months I was alone as ever. Who would pluck the leaves and shoots of ghentkole for me? It was back to the same mango boiled with rice!
Monsoon had descended. The roads were slushy; the mosquito menace had picked up. Throughout the day clouds formed atop the big trees. It would be raining for some time, then the sky would lighten up a bit, again the clouds would fly in and again it would start raining. The water soaked tree trunks appeared as black as ebony.
I sat quietly, feeling incarcerated. When it became unbearable, I would go and sit in Mujibur’s shop. The shop was in a low thatched room. A strange odour, a mixture of castor oil, kerosene, spices, dust, strong tobacco and rancid mustard oil pervaded the room. The smell cast a spell on my mind. What was I doing in this desolate nondescript village! When would I be set free from the chains of duties and demands that surround me, if ever I was to be free at all? My life, as it were, simply went out of my control. Yet, even this agonizingly monotonous village life could have been bearable if Subasisni and my son were with me.
Once, when, I was returning from Calcutta through Bhabanipore, I saw groups of girls coming out of a big building, books in hand. Girls of all ages were in the groups.
I thought about exploring a bit and found that it was a girls’ college.
How beautiful were the girls – how well were they dressed – what trendy glasses were they sporting, what beauty!
Another time I was proceeding through Debendra Ghosh street. A girl was singing from the upper floor of a rich man’s house – I stood and listened. I had never heard a sweeter song. I still remember a few lines –
You didn't come this morning, even
The flowers weep with dewdrops.
Those songs were not for the meek and humble people like us.
After raining incessantly during the day, it had momentarily stopped in the evening. The darkness of the vegetation and the darkness of the sky mixed together made the market place darker and haunted. In a nearby pond, the frogs were croaking to their hearts’ content. The crickets had started their monotonous cacophony in the bushes where Promo used to pluck shoots of ghentkole. A handful of ripe berries fell off the tree in the gusty wind and splashed on the dark and moist bush below.
In the desolate evening I sat alone and pondered...
Published in Parabaas, February 2015
The original story
Moni Doctor (মণি ডাক্তার) by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was first in the magazine Bangashree (বঙ্গশ্রী) in the Ashwin, 1344 issue (CE Sep-Oct 1937 ), and later included in Kinnor Dol ('কিন্নর দল').
Saurav Bhattacharya. Born and brought up in Kolkata, Saurav Bhattacharya is now based in...
Illustrated by Ananya Das. Author of several books and an illustrator, Ananya Das is based in Pennsylvania.
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