[Club for Tender Spirits]
Parashuram (or Rajsekhar Basu)
Translated from Bengali by Gopa Majumdar
According to reports received from Alipore, the low pressure detected earlier over the Sagar Islands had lifted, so most definitely there would be no more rain. Three green flies -- possibly sent as emissaries -- had been arrested in Chowringhee. The dull and grey sky was frequently being torn to reveal blue patches. The sun was getting increasingly brighter, its light was now the colour of bronze. My wife had started airing quilts and blankets, leaving them out in the sun quite fearlessly. In the early hours of the morning, it was now cool enough to warrant closer snuggling in bed. Young cauliflowers -- small and slim in appearance -- were on display at the greengrocer's, priced at four for a rupee. The price of potatoes was going down, that of potol was going up. Sharat, the season that marks the end of the monsoon, was announcing its arrival -- on the land, in the water, sky, air, body and mind. In the olden days, rajas used to go out at this time of year to conquer new lands.
The courts were closed, my house empty of clients. A train whistled from the railway tracks nearby. I saw, to my surprise, that my older son had flung aside his geometry book and was studying the railway timetable. My younger son had turned himself into an engine. He was swinging his arms, whistling and muttering, "Coo-o-o-! Huff-and-puff, huff-and-puff!" I began feeling restless.
Where could I go on holiday this year? Some of my idealistic friends had advised me to go back to my house in the country, with a view to making improvements in the village. However -- embarrassing though it is -- I have to admit that, like many other lofty ideals, I could not live up to this one. I knew, of course, where my duty lay. But I had no wish to fulfil it. My mind was besotted with one idea only -- where could I travel? How should I travel?
One could go on foot, or by bullock cart, motor car, boat or even a ship. None of these was a bad idea, if one wanted to try something new. But the undisputed monarch among modes of transport was a train, and the king among railway companies was the EIR.
My friends said, "Why are you so passionate about something made by the British? It is most unseemly." I said to them, "Well, the railway may have been started by the British, but who is paying for it? Today, we might be applauding the British (with a mixture of admiration and envy), but there was a time when they used to watch our feats with amazement. One day, the tables will turn, just give it another two hundred years. We will then run trains from one planet to another, the British will simply gape. We will not take them with us, not even if they offer to pay."
The rivers in Bengal -- big and small -- trees and bushes, the sweetly-fragrant smoke from cow-dung cakes hanging heavy over the village homes, the fragrance of jui flowers from pools clogged with water-hyacinths ... these are all gentle, soothing images. However, in these golden days of Sharat, my heart yearned to roar and speed through great distances. The Punjab Mail ... shooting like a star ... large, empty fields, rows of palms, hills and hillocks, changing landscapes, shifting sceneries. Brief halts at times: paan-bidi-cigarettes, chai-garam, puri-kachauri, roti-kabab, "dinner sir at Shikohabad?" Then off I'd go again! Telegraph poles would rush by, sugarcane fields would flow past the tracks mile after mile, little rivers would coil themselves and disappear in the haze far away, the distant horizon would slowly come into view, encircling a green forest. The smell of smoke from the coal engine, the smell of cheroots, sudden bitter-sweet scent of chhatim flowers through the open window.
Dusk would follow -- look, that big star in the western sky is running alongside the train, trying to keep pace. The pot-bellied lalaji on the bench opposite is already snoring. The Anglo-Indian on the bunk over my head is drinking something from a bottle. On my bench, I am stretched between two layers of blankets, my stomach loaded with various delicious items of food -- and there is more packed in a wicker basket. The train continues to chug on its way, its wheels, rods, chains and every other piece of metal jingling, jangling, clanging, clashing with one another. Lying flat on my back, I am swaying with the motion, dancing a peculiar tandava. Where is paradise? Oh, it is here, right here!
Heaven knew what devilish plans were afoot. Which fiend was hiding in my psyche, like a mischievous serpent, to create these pictures and form such an irrational attraction for the railway? I might have asked Girin Bose<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>, but did not dare. It was not difficult to make a quick decision -- I would go to Dalhousie, alone. A Punjabi friend had already invited me. My wife would have to be given a hefty bribe, and the freedom to go to the theatre as many times as she pleased until I returned. But ... man proposes, woman disposes.
| I was dusting the large suitcase..
|| "What, what, what?" |
I was dusting the large suitcase, when my wife crashed into the room like a thunderbolt and asked, "What, what, what?"
Perhaps I should explain something here. Her knowledge of English is confined to the First Book of English Grammar. However, thanks to her impudent and irreverent brothers, she has picked up a handful of useful words, which she employs whenever she can.
"Er ..." I began, "I thought I'd spend a few days in the hills. I mean ... you see ... I've been feeling a bit ... sort of ... under the weather."
"Sort of? What do you mean, sort of? Oh I see. You wish to go alone, is that it? Have I become a burden for you? What will you do in the hills? Meditate?"
With alarm and dismay, I noticed clouds gather on her face. A volcano had started fuming, it might burst forth any minute. I changed my tune instantly. "No, no. What are you talking about? Meditate I might, but what good will that do if you are not with me?"
The erupting smoke cleared magically. A smile appeared on my wife's face.
"Which hill?" she asked.
"Dalhousie. It's quite far from here."
"Hang Dalhousie. Let's go to Darjeeling. I simply must buy another thirty stone necklaces, and four dozen brooms. And remember that expensive necklace you bought me, shaped like a caterpillar -- no, it's a boa, isn't it? -- well, I never got the chance to wear it anywhere decent -- and oh, that diamond brooch, too. The one that looks like a spinning wheel. Who in your stupid Dalhousie is going to watch me wear those? We'll meet lots of friends in Darjeeling. Tuni-didi has gone there with her sister-in-law; and Sarojini, Suku-mashi and their families. And I believe Monkey Mittir's wife is there, too, with her entire brood of thirteen children."
The logic in these arguments was irrefutable. So we decided to go to Darjeeling.
Darjeeling turned out to be engulfed in clouds and rain. I did not feel like going out. However, staying indoors all the time was even worse. So, straight after breakfast one day, I thrust my feet into a pair of heavy boots, draped my body in a mackintosh and set off for a walk. Strolling up and down the empty Calcutta Road, I was thinking how awful it was to be alone and idle in this land of clouds, when I suddenly ... !
Up to this point, my situation was amazingly like that of the protagonist in Tagore's short story<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. He, too, had been strolling down the same road in Darjeeling, alone and idle. Then he ran into the daughter of Golam Kader Khan, the Nawab of Badraun. However, fate had different plans for me. Instead of a Nawab’s daughter, I suddenly
spotted Nokur Mama, who works as an attorney in Dumraon. Everyone calls him 'mama'.
| Nakur Mama
He was seated on a bench by the side of the road, not far from a gorge. In his hand was an open umbrella, his neck was wrapped in a woollen scarf, his body hidden by an overcoat; his brows were furrowed, his faced registered displeasure. When his eyes fell on me, he said, "Is that you, Brojen?"
"Yes, sir. What brings you to Darjeeling? All well at home, I hope? What's Keshto doing these days? Is he still in Benaras?" Keshto -- a man in his mid-twenties -- was Nokur Mama's nephew. His late father had been a well known doctor in Benaras. Keshto had lost both his parents, and was somewhat eccentric in his behaviour. He did not often treat Nokur Mama with a great deal of respect, but seemed to have a certain amount of regard for me.
Nokur Mama said, "Wait, I'll explain everything. But before I do, just tell me this -- why the hell do people come to Darjeeling? Ha! You want cold? Back in Calcutta, you can get several kilos of ice for only a rupee. So why don't you get a few slabs of ice, spread an oilcloth over those, and lie down? You'll feel cool, and it will be cheap. No, one must be at a high altitude, or our modern young men cannot enjoy their holiday. Why don't they just climb tall palms and sit on a high branch? Of all the stupid ..." he broke off.
When the earth was much younger, Vishwakarma had kneaded it thoroughly, as if it were a ball of dough. His fingers left their mark here and there, in the form of mountains and valleys, rivers and oceans. The Himalayas rose as a result of a severe pinch dealt by those fingers. In the course of time, encouraged by his indulgent Creator, man climbed that mountain and built Darjeeling. Nokur Mama clearly disapproved. Himself a man from the plains, he did not like messing with mountains.
I said, "You see, Mama, it's like this. There is joy, even in suffering. So some people like spending their money on buying that joy. Remember what the poet, Amritlal Bose wrote?
Thank heaven rivers on our earth we have got.
We can pay and get across, how lucky is our lot!
The same thing applies to Darjeeling. I mean, Darjeeling is simply there, so people get the evil idea of climbing mountains. But the good thing is, sometimes, the mountain slips. I mean, there are landslides."
At this, Mama jumped nimbly from the edge of the road and parked himself at a relatively safer spot. "They'll rot in hell -- everyone who comes here!" he declared. "How could a gentleman ever live in a place like this? It can rain any time; and the minute you step out of the house, you must climb up a slope. Take two steps, then stop to catch your breath. And there are no stairs anywhere -- if you stumble, you might break every bone. If you walk, you pant. If you stop, your teeth chatter. Why come to such a place?"
Nokur Mama cast a furious glance at his surroundings. Had these been mythical times, and he a holy man with the power in his vision to burn an object if he glared at it, the entire city of Darjeeling would have turned into either a desert like the Sahara, or a great mound of ash.
"So why did you come here?" I asked.
"Not because I wanted to, I can tell you that. You know what Keshto is like, don't you? He's finished his education, so he should now get married, settle down, take care of his property. God knows he doesn't have to worry about a job or earning a living. But would he do that? Oh no. He spent some time drawing and painting. Then he started a factory and said he'd make aamshotto. That didn't work, he just wasted his money. Then he went to Calcutta, collected a few young men like himself and formed a club. Then he went to Bombay, and sent me an urgent telegram. What did it say? Go to Darjeeling at once, stay in Moonshine Villa, he's going to join me here, and he wants to get married. What could I do? He's my nephew and he's rich. So I came here. Moonshine Villa was already full. The bridegroom's party was there -- that entire club called Kochi Sansad. Keshto is its President."
"Has he found a bride?"
"No, of course not. May be he'll marry one of the local women. Either a Bhutani, or a girl from the Lepcha tribe!"
"Don't the other members of his club know anything?"
"No. In any case, even if they knew what was going on and tried to tell me, I wouldn't understand a word. Every word they utter sounds like a riddle to me. The only good thing about them is that they like eating good food. I meet them over meals, that's all. Well, Keshto is arriving this evening. Why don't you drop in later? You can see things for yourself, and meet the whole club."
I had heard of Kochi Sansad before. It was a club for Tender Spirits. Its Secretary, Pelob Roy, lived in my neighbourhood. His family had named him Pelaram. When he finished his BA, he suddenly decided to turn all young and sweet and tender. So he shaved off his moustache, grew his hair long and, following the style favoured by lady typists, puffed it out from both sides of his head. Then he donned a long silk kurta and a silk scarf, put green naagras on his feet, clipped a red fountain pen on his breast pocket and went to Madhupur to meet his Vice Chancellor, Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, with a single plea: his name, in the university records, should be changed from Pelaram Roy to Pelob Roy. Sir Ashutosh grabbed a volume of an encyclopaedia and chased him out. Pelaram fled, locked away his BA and became Pelob Roy, without a degree.
| Pelob Roy
It was at his behest that Kochi Sansad was established, though I believe all its expenses were now borne by Keshto. I was not very clear about the real purpose of the club. But I had heard that they were most particular about who they selected to become a member, and the process of initiation was an arduous, even horrific affair. On a full moon night, the new member had to join hands with all the others and take as many as sixteen grim and difficult vows. At least sixteen tins of cigarettes were consumed during the process, together with endless cups of tea.
It was quite late now, and the clouds had dispersed. I promised to visit Nokur Mama at Moonshine Villa in the evening, and bade him farewell.
My wife twisted round her neck three necklaces made of rubies and emeralds (each of which had cost her one rupee and twenty-five paisa), and asked, "How do I look?"
I said, "Beautiful. Exactly as if you were someone else's wife."
"You," my wife informed me, "are a cad. Is it always other men's wives that you fancy?"
"Don't get cross. Look, extra-marital love is a most complex and high-class business. It is not for all and sundry. But if a man can see his own wife in a similar light -- I mean, find something new in her each time he sees her, something that remains beyond his grasp -- then that man has certainly made good progress in this line. Radha and Krishna are ideal lovers. Freud has said ..."
"Damn Freud. And leave Radha and Krishna alone. For an ordinary woman like me, Ram and Sita are good enough."
"But Ram wanted to burn Sita, didn't he? Not once, but twice!"
"Oh, that's only because his subjects demanded it. People those days were awful, every man a rascal!"
"Really? Well then, why didn't Ram hand over his kingdom to Bharat and go back to the forest with Sita?"
"Because the same stupid subjects wouldn't let him go, that's why!"
"I see. You appear to be a far better lawyer than me. I must thank you on Ramchandra's behalf. However, it must be said that he was lucky to have a wife like Sita. Had he been married to you, the entire population of Ayodhya would have had to be hanged."
"Why, am I a rakshasi? Like Surpanakha or Tadaka?"
"Sita was a most simple and docile woman. Not demanding like you."
"Is that so? Who demanded the golden deer, tell me? Have you any idea how much it must have weighed? Even if it was hollow, it couldn't have been less than five kilos!"
"All right, all right, you win. ... I say, have you heard the latest news? Keshto is going to be here soon. Yes, our Keshto from Benaras. He's coming here to get married."
"Hooray! Thank goodness I brought some of my real jewellery. But ... how will he find an auspicious time in Ashvin? Normally, weddings cannot be held in Ashvin, the priests don't allow it."
"That makes no difference. If love is strong, if love is true, every moment is auspicious. The only problem is, no one knows who the bride is. Perhaps he hasn't yet found anyone. But all his friends are here."
"Gad! I believe Keshto's father had wanted him to marry Tuni-didi's sister-in-law. She is right here in Darjeeling, and she's grown into a pretty young thing. Her parents are no more, so her guardian is her brother, Bhuvan babu. Tuni-didi's husband, that is."
"Well, I don't know if that's the girl Keshto has in mind. No one -- not even the Almighty Shiv can tell what Keshto is cooking up. But I'll go to his house this evening and try to find out."
It was an enchanting evening. I was walking along a quiet, deserted road. Everywhere in the city -- over me, and further up; below me, and further down -- were rows of lights, set out layer after layer. In the bushes and plants that lined the road, crickets were holding a concert, their efforts slowly going up in a rising crescendo. The sky had a bright moon in it, there was no sign of a mist.
There, coming within view, was Moonshine Villa.
What was that noise? Darjeeling did not have foxes. Perhaps the Maharaja of Burdwan had brought a few with him. But if he had, was each of those animals now housed in Moonshine Villa?
No. Foxes were not responsible for the noise. It was the members of Kochi Sansad. They were singing. The words were not very clear, but I could guess their meaning. All the Tender Spirits were expressing their feelings -- the pain in their hearts -- that rose for some unseen, unknown and unheard of young woman. Oh God, Nokur Mama, is this what fate had in store for you?
My arrival brought the singing to a stop. Mama and Keshto were nowhere to be seen. Keshto had reached Darjeeling, I was informed, but no one knew where he was staying. However, he was expected at Moonshine Villa, any minute.
Pelob Roy greeted me warmly, offered me a seat and introduced me to the other members. Their names were as follows:
Were these names given to them by fond parents, or were they chosen by the men themselves, consciously and voluntarily? I wanted to ask, but my sense of etiquette stopped me. Lalima Pal was not a woman. Since his name was liable to cause confusion, he had started adding (m) for 'male' after it, just to be on the safe side.
Lalima Pal (M)
| Could it possibly be Keshto?
|| The entire club gaped. |
Suddenly, the door opened. Nokur Mama stepped into the room, followed by ... who was that? Could it possibly be Keshto? I wasn't the only one who was startled. The entire club gaped. Hutash was the youngest, he had only recently learnt to smoke. He nearly fell off his chair.
From head to toe, Keshto's appearance seemed to be a loud and pronounced rebellion against all the accepted norms of dressing that a modern Bengali gentleman would adopt. Keshto's hair was cut so short that it was barely noticeable. He had no moustache, but sported a goatee. His torso was covered by a short green shirt, printed with large white polka dots. Round his waist was a belt, keeping in place a purple dhoti, tucked in at the waist. On his feet were boots, and he wore knee-length socks. He was holding a stout wooden stick in his hand, and carrying a knapsack, securely strapped to his back.
I was the first to speak. "Keshto," I said, "what is this horror?"
"Horror? Yes, at first glance it might seem horrific," Keshto replied, "but once I've explained everything, you'll agree that what I've done is right. Brojen-da, life isn't a joke, it is both art and efficiency."
"All right, but why do you look like this?"
"Listen. A lot of hair is wholly unnecessary. So I've retained only as much as is needed to protect the head from extreme cold and heat. The purpose of this beard -- the style's called 'imperial', by the way -- is to balance the nose. Usually, men wear dark shirts over white dhotis. It looks awful, makes one's entire appearance top-heavy. Look at my clothes. Plum violet and sage green with white spots -- colour contrast and harmony. I have now ordered some special shorts. They'll have a printed border going round the hips. That will improve the waistline even further. See this stick? It acts as powerful weapon. You could kill a tiger with it. And this knapsack? There isn't a single useful item that you won't find in it. I am independent, self-reliant and without a care in the world."
Keshto paused and took out two cigarettes from two different pockets. Then he lit both and began smoking them together. "Can you do this? One is Virginia, the other's Turkish. They're blending inside my mouth."
Nokur Mama closed his eyes and sat down without a word. I could see flames of anger and amazement burning in his heart, slowly and painfully, like the wood from a ‘shami’ tree, used to light holy fires in ancient times.
Pelob Roy took over. "Keshto babu, you are our President, the leader of the Tender Spirits. Why did you have to do this to us?"
"Tender I once was, but now it's time to mature."
"Of course," I agreed, "or you'll just shrivel up. But anyway, Keshto, is it true that you wish to be married?"
"Yes, that's why I am here, to seek advice. I am very glad to find you here. But first, I wish to say a few words on love."
"Nokur Mama," I said, "I suggest you go upstairs to your room and go straight to bed. There is no need for you to stay up on this cold night. I will let you know whatever we decide. ... Well then, Keshto, what is love? -- I say, a cup of tea wouldn't be a bad idea."
Pelob Roy called, "Boda! Boda!"
"Joo!" Boda responded. He was Keshto's Nepali servant, a member of the warrior class, said to be descendants of Chandra, the moon god. This I could easily believe. His face was round and moon-like, each feature small and indistinct. Pelob asked him to bring ten cups of tea.
Keshto began, "A lot of people have said a lot of things about love. Chandidas says, love is bitter-sweet. The Russian poet, Vodkaowski, says that love is an inferior intoxicant. Metsnikoff says, love may add a few years to your life, but what works better is buttermilk. Madam De Siyan says, love is the only weapon a woman can use to rob a man of everything he has. Omar Khayyam has written -- love is like a drink made out of moonlight, but it must be mixed with alcohol. Henry VIII had said, love is immortal, kill one woman you love, and five more will appear in quick succession. Freud says, love is the veneer of civility on man's animal passions. Havelock Ellis says --"
"Stop! That's enough. What do you have to say?"
"I say love is an act of great deception, which is used by men and women to cheat each other."
A collective gasp went up from the members of Kochi Sansad. Hutash placed a hand on his chest and said, "Pain! Pain!"
"What's the matter, Huto?" asked Keshto, "Why are you making funny noises? Have you smoked too many cigarettes? Don't smoke any more."
A strange gurgle came from Lalima Pal's throat -- a sound similar to that which some Japanese clocks tend to make before striking the hour. His voice was always ridden with catarrh. Back in Calcutta, he was wont to take a special herbal medicine mashed in with cuckoos' eggs. Here his treatment was suspended in the absence of the right ingredients.
"Lelo, if you have anything to say about love, say it!" Keshto encouraged him.
"I think," said Lalima, "love is a ... a ... it's like a ...".
"... an earthquake?" I suggested.
"Exactly!" Keshto nodded. "Love is an earthquake, a thunderstorm, treacherous as the Niagara Falls, full of hidden pitfalls -- it destroys one's reason."
Lalima began whirring again, but soon gave up, knowing that protesting would be futile.
I said, "Well then, why do you want to get married? Is it for money? How much do you expect to get?"
"Not a paisa. I will not take any money from my bride. I want to get married simply set an example. Let the world see an ideal marriage. Normally, there are two types of marriages. One -- marriage followed by love, which is what an old-fashioned Hindu might experience; two -- love followed by marriage, i.e. marriage after courtship. I think both are wrong. If two people are married and then they discover they do not like each other, how are they going to find love? But if they go through a period of courtship before tying the knot, that is just as bad because while a man is courting a woman, both tend to hide their faults. Once they are married, these faults come to the surface, but by then it's too late."
"There's nothing new in what you're saying, Keshto. What would you do to change things?"
"My system would be completely different. There would be courtship, but totally without love, as even a hint of love would make the two parties keep secrets from each other. What we need is a man and a woman, both educated, rational and detached. And a sensible and experienced person to act as an arbiter. This person would compare the views, likes and dislikes of the two parties. I have prepared a list. It includes clothes, eating habits, sleeping habits, reading, art and culture, selection of friends, leisure activities ... there are 93 items, covering every subject on which husbands and wives frequently disagree. If all these are sorted out in the very beginning and a compromise reached, then there can be no problems afterwards. But you must remember, love must not get mixed up with anything, or all will be lost. I don't mind if things end in love, but they must not start with it. So far, people have heard only of courtship. In my system, there will be high-courtship."
"Court-martial would be a better word for it," I remarked. "All right, you've explained your system. Is there a woman anywhere who'd agree to take part in your experiment? But let me tell you something, my son. You are worrying about love quite unnecessarily. One look at you, and love will run a mile!"
"I chose my prospective bride today."
"Who is that unfortunate woman?"
"Bhuvan Bose's sister, Padma-madhu Bose."
"Really? Our Tuni-didi's sister-in-law? I see. So my wife was right. But I've heard that the question of a marriage between you and Padma has already been discussed. Would that not prejudice your case?"
"No, of course not. We are both uninvolved, impartial and objective. Brojen-da, you must act as our arbiter. You have knowledge of both matrimony and law. You'll be able to ask the right questions."
"I don't mind, but the girl may get cross with me."
"No, she won't. Padma is a most sensible fellow."
"Fellow? All right, the fellow may be sensible. What is the woman like?"
"Well, she appears both strong and durable. She can walk for miles, play tennis for a couple of hours, has a high muscular index, and low fatigue coefficient. She can sew, cook, has studied logic and economics, does not argue unnecessarily, or sing loudly. You must go to Bhuvan Bose's house tomorrow evening -- Lovelock Road, Magdalen Cottage."
I promised to be there and took my leave. Just as I got to the front gate of Moonshine Villa, a cacophony reached my ears. I could guess what it was. All the pain and anguish, contained in every Tender Heart, had finally been unleashed. Keshto was being rebuked by every member of his club. I waited no longer.
My wife heard my report and gave her verdict. "Ripping!" she said, "This is even better than a Parsi play. But I want to go with you. If that means I must spend good money to buy a ticket for the show, I am prepared to do that."
"But you won't be allowed in. High-courtship has to be conducted secretly -- that's the only thing it has in common with ordinary courtship. Only Keshto, Padma and I will be in the room."
"No, that will not be necessary. You'll get to hear all the details later. My ears will act as yours."
"No, I still want to go with you."
"Why? You should not show such vulgar curiosity about other people's affairs. Do you know how Freud would explain this?"
"Stop! Don't mention that idiot's name."
The matter was settled. Both of us left that evening for Tuni-didi's house.
Bhuvan Bose and Tuni-didi were the exact opposite of each other. The husband was extremely lazy and lethargic. All he did was lounge in an easy-chair all day, dressed in a dressing gown, and smoke cigars. His wife, on the other hand, was quick, efficient, frighteningly energetic, used to handling every chore herself, ranging from cutting up a large fish to making railway reservations. She had very little time to spare for chatting with visitors. When we arrived, she greeted us briefly and promptly disappeared into the kitchen to make elaborate arrangements to feed her guests. Padma came and touched my feet.
She was a lovely young woman. To think that Keshto found her 'strong and durable'! What did he mean? Was he referring to a hammer, or a spade? If there was anyone totally immature and without any sense in Kochi Sansad, it was Keshto himself, no matter what lectures he had prepared on love. But why had this pretty, smart and intelligent woman agreed to take part in a scheme devised by an ass like Keshto? Women like to see men make fools of themselves. Was that Padma's only intention? It was so difficult to understand feminine psychology. I must read up more on the subject, I told myself.
The high-courtship began. Tuni-didi and my wife were both in the kitchen, quite far from the room we were in. Nevertheless, the sound of their loud laughter, accompanied by the aroma of fried cutlets, pierced the curtain and came wafting in. I mustered all my will power, kept a straight face and began the proceedings.
"In this case, we are not decided on who is the petitioner, who is the defendant, who the accuser, and who stands accused. But that will not affect the case or the judgement, for we do have two principal witnesses -- Mr Keshto and Miss Padma --"
"Brojen-da!" Keshto interrupted me, "Please do not turn this serious matter into a joke. Get to the point."
"Wait. You must take the oath, or we can't start at all. Mister Keshto, are you prepared to swear that you have never harboured any tender feelings towards this woman? If you have, this case will be dismissed at once."
"I swear I do not possess any feelings of love or tenderness towards Padma. I see her now in exactly the same way that I used to see her when she was five, and I was ten. The only difference is that I used to smack her in those days; now I don't."
"Miss Padma, I will not insult you, or your intelligence, by asking about your feelings towards Keshto. His appearance acts as an antidote for love. All right, Keshto, let's have that list. ... Oh my God! 93 items? Clothes-food-sleep-reading ... this will take at least a fortnight to finish. Look, let me ask you a handful of important questions today. If things look encouraging, from tomorrow we can start a systematic test. All right? OK, here goes. Food ... that's the most important issue, never mind what Freud says. Let me start with food. Keshto, do you like hot chillies?"
"No, I cannot eat hot foot at all."
"Padma, what say you?"
"I can't have a single meal without hot green chillies."
"Bad," I observed, "You start with a cross. A married couple cannot have two different kitchens. What we'll have to do is boil chopped chillies in water, try it on both and see how much heat is mutually acceptable. All right, next question: how much sugar do you take in your tea?"
"One spoonful," said Keshto.
"Seven," said Padma.
"Very bad. You get another cross."
"I could rise from one to three, no more," Keshto said firmly, "Padma, why don't you climb down a little from seven?"
"Hey, watch it!" I warned him, "You're not allowed to influence the witness. Only I can ask questions. Here's the third one: what kind of bed do you like? Hard or soft?"
"I like sleeping on a slightly hard mattress, say two inches thick. I'd find a softer mattress quite uncomfortable," Keshto replied.
"And I like my bed to be as soft as soft can be," Padma declared.
"Very, very bad. Look, here's another cross. OK, tell me this: Keshto, what do you think of Padma's looks?"
"They aren't bad."
Now I raised my voice, shouting loudly enough to frighten the witness. "That won't do, my boy. Why are you giving me such a vague reply? Look at her carefully, Keshto. Then tell me how you find her."
Padma blushed. Keshto stared at her closely for several minutes. Then his face broke into a rather foolish grin. "She ... she ... why, she's quite pretty! I mean, she's changed so much. It's not the same girl any more ... no, not at all. It's like --"
"Enough! That'll do. No need to blabber. Padma, now you look at Keshto and give me your views."
Padma darted a quick glance at Keshto and said, "He's like a clown."
| "Now look again, ..."
"A clown?" Keshto exclaimed. "All right ... look, I can grow my hair longer ... by say another inch? ... and shave my beard off. Here, let me cover it with my hand. Now look again, Padma, and see how you find me."
Padma dissolved into giggles.
"Hopeless!" I told them, "One can deal with legitimate objections, but there's no remedy for sarcasm, is there?"
Keshto looked a little put out. "It's your fault!" he complained, "You are making such weird remarks and confusing everyone."
"All right, I'll shut up. You can question the witness yourself."
Keshto took charge, and rolled up his sleeves. "Look, Padma, look at my arm. These are called biceps. And these are triceps. Do you like a strong, muscular figure like mine? Or would you prefer a plump, namby-pamby type of man like Brojen-da here? If I knew which you'd prefer, I might re-consider my ideas about my appearance."
"Your appearance," said Padma, "is your own business. What have I to do with it? After all, I am not going to employ you as my chowkidar, am I?"
"All right. Let me hold your hand, let's see how strong --" Keshto grabbed Padma's hand.
"Keshto, what do you think you're doing?" I objected strongly, "Attacking the witness! I won't allow that. If I am to act as arbiter, I will say and do whatever's necessary. Go now, go and sit over there."
Keshto looked a bit sheepish. "Very well, you can ask more questions," he said.
"No, there is no need for more questions. I can see that you are not compatible. Neither can you see things the same way, nor arrive at a compromise. Here's my verdict in writing -- napoo, nothing doing. The case is adjourned for a year. Use that time to revise your views, both of you. Then come back to this same court."
Now Keshto looked decidedly cross. "You didn't understand my system at all, did you?" he fumed, "What you just did was not a systematic test, it was a farce. I should not have asked you to be the arbiter."
I, too, became brusque in my manner. "Look, Keshto," I said, "don't try to act smart with me. I am a lawyer, I've been practising for twelve years, I've been married for fifteen, and spent a whole month studying human psychology. I know a great deal about compatibility between two people. Besides, you're supposed to be totally uninvolved and detached and objective. So why are you getting so cross? Look at Padma. She's sitting quietly like a good girl, isn't she?"
Keshto continued to mutter under his breath. At this moment, the curtain was lifted. Little Khuki, Tuni-didi's youngest daughter, entered the room.
"What is thy demand, woman?" I asked her solemnly.
Khuki placed her demand before us. Not only was it thoroughly sound in nature, but also exemplary for the whole of womankind. "Come and eat," said Khuki, "The puris are getting cold."
Keshto spoke to no one while we ate; in fact, he did not even eat properly. After dinner, I returned home on my own. My wife decided to spend the night in Tuni-didi's house.
At around ten o'clock the next morning, she came back and went straight to bed, wrapping herself tightly with a blanket from head to toe. I saw, to my horror, that her whole body was shaking from time to time, and she was moaning faintly.
"Is it your colic? Has it suddenly become worse? Should I call Dr Das?" I asked.
My wife spoke with some difficulty. "N-no, don't call the d-doctor. I'll b-be all right. Hooh-hooh-hee!"
Could it be hysteria? There had never been such symptoms before. May be she was severely disappointed that Keshto's marriage had fallen through. She didn't, of course, know my plan. Women like to see weddings arranged overnight. But it would never do to act in haste. Keshto had only just swallowed the bait. It would take a little time to reel him in.
In the evening, I went to Moonshine Villa to talk to Keshto and try to calm him down. But there was no sign of either Keshto or Nokur Mama. The members of Kochi Sansad were all lying in their beds, staring vacantly into space. None of them responded to my queries. They were still in a state of shock.
So I asked Keshto's servant, Boda: "Babu kahan?" (where is your master?)
| "Babu baga.."
Each of the tiny orifices placed on Boda's face for the purposes of seeing, breathing and speaking, enlarged and expanded. Boda spoke: "Babu baga."
"What! Keshto has run away? Where to? May be he has just gone over to Bhuvan babu's house?"
"Bhuvan babu bag giya," Boda told me, "Unki bibi bag giya. Unki koki bag giya. Koki ka goda bag giya. Gori-si jo missi-baba thi, so bi bag giya."
Keshto had run away. So had Bhuvan Bose. His wife, his little daughter, her horse, and the young woman with a fair skin -- i.e. Padma -- had all run away.
Nokur Mama had probably gone to look for them. Kochi Sansad did not have a clue about what had happened. There was no point in asking them.
Suddenly, I remembered my wife's behaviour that morning. It was neither colic nor hysteria. She was simply trying to suppress laughter. I returned home at once.
"You are the root of all evil," I told her severely.
"Really? You messed things up, and now you are blaming me?"
"What on earth happened?"
My wife spent the next few minutes rolling on the sofa, laughing quite uncontrollably. Finally, when she could speak, she said, "Well, you left last night at half past ten. Tuni-didi and I kept chatting, sharing our joys and sorrows. At around midnight, suddenly Keshto stole into our room, looking not just unhappy, but totally distracted. Tuni-didi said, 'what's the matter, Keshto?' Keshto said he couldn't wait any longer. If he couldn't marry Padma, he would kill himself. It had to be either Padma for him, or some acid of some kind. So I said, 'don't worry, son. You can get that acid any time at the chemist's; and Padma is right here with us. Neither will go anywhere. Wait until tomorrow morning, then we'll think of what to do.' Keshto said he was prepared to stop looking like a clown and start looking like a gentleman, but after all those lectures about his ideals, how could he face anyone again? Tuni-didi said, 'don't worry about a thing. Let's run away to Calcutta by the first train tomorrow. I'll arrange your marriage as soon as we get there.' At this, Padma began making a fuss, but Tuni-didi said, 'don't be such a ninny!' Well, you know what Tuni-didi is like, don't you? There isn't anything that she can't do. She had all their luggage packed that same night. Yes, sir. There were 163 pieces. This morning, I saw them off at the station, and came home."
Yesterday, six weeks after his wedding, Keshto came to see me and apologise for his behaviour. It took him that long to overcome his embarrassment. I forgave him from the bottom of my heart, and assured him that there was no need to feel embarrassed. My study of psychology had shown me that it was Keshto's sub-conscious mind that had got a bit out of hand and made him act like a lunatic. His conscious mind was not at fault at all. I was able to quote various instances from my books of similar happenings.
Kochi Sansad has been disbanded. But Keshto has formed another club. This time, he has recruited only two members -- my wife and I. In the forthcoming Christmas holidays, all the members of this club intend to travel from Calcutta to Peshawar -- with the sole purpose of enjoying themselves.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Girindrasekhar Bose (1887-1953) is Parashuram's younger brother, and better known for his contributions in the field of psychology - both Experimental and Abnormal, and as the founder of psychological clinics and asylums. His book, Lal-Kalo has been reviewed in Parabaas by Susan Chacko.
Tandava, a dance form, associated with Shiva the Destroyer|
Mama, maternal uncle
Shami, a tree used to light holy fires in ancient India
Amshotto, a thin cake made of the sweet juice of ripe mangoes by drying it in the sun (used as food)
Ashvin, name of a month in the Bengali calendar, roughly mid-September to mid-October
Published in Parabaas, October 30, 2003
The original story
[kachi sa.nsad*] by `Parashuram' (or Rajsekhar Basu)
was first published in a collection of short stories titled Kajjali in the 1920's.
Gopa Majumdar [gopaa majumadaar
Gopa Majumdar is a well known translator of Bengali literature into English. She received the Sahitya Akademi Award for her translation of...
Jatindrakumar Sen [yatIndrakumaar sen
These are the original illustrations. Jatindrakumar Sen also used the pen-name Narad. His illustrations
have been extremely well received by the readers right from the beginning. The humor in Parashuram's writing and Narad's illustrations
beautifully complemented each other and their partnership increased the appeal of these classics.
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