Translated from Bengali by Somdatta Mandal
His pet name was Lalu. He had a formal, official name but I don’t remember it. Perhaps you know that the word “lal” in Hindi means favourite. I don’t know who had given him such a name but such a consistency between a person and his name is hardly found. He was everyone’s favourite.
After leaving school we got admitted to college. Lalu said that he would do business. He borrowed ten rupees from his mother and started business as a contractor.
“Lalu, your capital resource is only ten rupees,” we told him.
He smiled and replied, “How much more do I need? This is enough.”
Everyone loved Lalu. So he always got the contracts easily. After that, on my way to college, I would often see Lalu standing with an umbrella over his head supervising a few labourers undertaking road repair. Making fun of us he would say, “Go, run –- or you will be marked absent in the attendance register.”
Much earlier, when we were younger and studied in a Bangla school, he was everyone’s mechanic. He always had several instruments in his schoolbag – the handle of a mortar and pestle, a nail cutter, a broken knife, a carpenter’s drill to make holes with, and a horseshoe. I do not know from where he had accumulated these things, but there was no work that he could not do with them. He would do many things for his schoolmates. This included repairing broken umbrellas, fixing the wooden frames of slates, stitching clothes torn while playing games, etc. Moreover, Lalu never declined any work. And he would do it efficiently. Once on the Chhawt festival day, he bought a few paise worth of coloured paper and Indian cork and made some toys with them. Then he went and sold them near the bank of the river for two and a half rupees and with that money fed us a lot of chickpeas.
As the years went by, we all grew up. There was no one in the gymnastics club to compete with Lalu. Both his physical strength and courage were endless. He would turn up whenever anyone called him or whenever anyone was in trouble perhaps because he did not know what fear meant. He had only one serious vice: he could not control himself whenever he found an opportunity to frighten or terrify people. This he did to all men irrespective of their age. How he could invent such plans for frightening people within seconds was beyond our imagination. Let me narrate one or two such incidents.
Kalipuja was being celebrated in our locality at Manohar Chatterjee’s house. At midnight, the auspicious time for animal sacrifice was waning away but the man to do it was still absent. People who went to fetch him found him unconscious with stomach ache. When they came back and broke the news, everyone was upset and worried. How could they arrange for another person to do the sacrifice in the middle of the night? The puja for the goddess would be ruined. Someone said, “Lalu can slaughter lambs. He has done this job many times before.”
People ran for Lalu. He woke up from his sleep and just said “No.”
“How can you say no? It would be dangerous if there were impediments in the puja.”
“Let it be interrupted,” replied Lalu. “I did all that in childhood but I will not do it now.”
Those who had come to call him started scratching their heads. There was hardly ten to fifteen minutes left for the auspicious moment to be over and after that no one would escape from the wrath of the goddess. Lalu’s father came and ordered him to go.
“Since they have come to you in desperation, it would not be good to refuse. You better go” he said.
Lalu had no power to disobey his father’s command.
Mr. Chatterjee was relieved after seeing Lalu. Time was running short. The sacrificial lamb was hurriedly decorated with sindoor and a red garland of hibiscus and led to the stocks. The loud shouts in unison of “Ma, Ma” by all the members present there subdued the last cries of the helpless animal. The large falchion in Lalu’s hand was raised and came down instantly. The spurt of blood from the beheaded beast painted the dark ground in red. For some time Lalu stood with his eyes closed. Gradually the loud noise of drums and cymbals subsided. Again sindoor was smeared on the second lamb’s forehead, a red garland hung on his neck, again the stocks and the shouting of “Ma, Ma” in unison. Lalu lifted the blood-smeared falchion once again and brought it down instantly. The severed body of the animal shook for some time before it became still and the animal’s blood stained the ground even further.
The drummer kept on beating the drum in full swing, the people stood crowded upon the front verandah, Manohar Chatterjee sat on a carpet seat praying with his eyes closed, when suddenly Lalu delivered a menacing shout. In an instant all the noise subsided and everyone was astonished at his behaviour. Opening his eyes as widely as possible, his eyeballs roving, Lalu shouted, “Where are more lambs?”
Someone from the house replied in a scared tone, “There are no more lambs. We just offer only two per year.”
Swinging the blood-stained falchion twice above his head, Lalu roared in a rough voice, “No more lambs? That will not do. I want to kill. Either give me lambs or I will get hold of anyone and slaughter him – Ma! Ma! Jai Kali!”
Uttering these words he gave a huge leap over the stocks with the falchion still spinning above his head.
What followed next defies description. Everyone started rushing towards the front door before Lalu could catch them. The rush to escape resulted in a stampede. Some rolled down, some crawled between the legs of other people, some people whose necks were caught under the arms of others were nearly suffocating to death, some even tried to climb above other people’s shoulders and fell flat upon the floor. All these lasted for a moment and soon it was empty everywhere.
“Where is Manohar Chatterjee? Where is the purohit?” roared Lalu.
The purohit was a lean man and right at the beginning he had hid himself behind the idol. The gurudev who was sitting on the floor and reciting from the holy scriptures quickly got up and hid behind a huge pillar near the puja pavilion. But it was very difficult for Manohar to run away with his huge body. Lalu came up, caught his arm with his left hand and said, “Come and rest your neck in the stocks.”
The firm grip of his arm and the sight the falchion scared Chatterjee to death. In a soft and entreating manner he begged, “Lalu! Dear! Look patiently – I am not a lamb, but a human being. I am your uncle, so to say, dear. Your father is like my younger brother.”
“I don’t know about that. I want to slaughter. So come and I will sacrifice you. It is the order of the goddess.”
“No, dear, it cannot be the dictates of the goddess.” Chatterjee sobbed loudly. “It cannot be so – she is the Mother of the world.”
“Mother of the world? Do you have that much knowledge? Will you sacrifice lambs again? Will you send for me again to do the slaughter? Answer me.”
Chatterjee replied in tears, “No, never again. I am promising before the goddess that from this day onwards there shall not be any more sacrifices in my house.”
“Yes, I promise. Not again. Now dear, let go of my hand. I want to go to the toilet.”
Releasing his hand Lalu said, “OK, go, I am letting you off for today. But where did the purohit escape? Where is the gurudev?”
With a menacing shout he rushed towards the goddess. Suddenly cries in two different voices came out from behind the pillar. The combined cries of a thin and a hoarse voice resulted in such a strange and funny situation that Lalu could not control himself anymore. He burst out laughing – Ha, ha, ha! And dropping the falchion upon the floor, scampered away from that house.
It was only then that everyone regained their senses and realized that Lalu was just playing tricks with them. The murderous frenzy was just a part of his deliberate plan to fool everyone. Everyone who had run away assembled back within five minutes. The puja was still incomplete and things had already been delayed for quite some time. Amidst all that hustle and bustle Mr. Chatterjee kept on promising to himself, “If I cannot make that boy’s father give him at least fifty blows with a sandal by tomorrow morning, I shall no longer be called Manohar Chatterjee.”
But Lalu did not have to undergo that ordeal. He escaped somewhere early in the morning so quietly that no one could find him for about seven or eight days. About a week later he quietly sneaked into Manohar Chatterjee’s house one evening and begged forgiveness by touching his feet. So for that instance at least, he was saved from his father’s wrath. But whatever it might be, because he had sworn before the goddess, the practice of sacrificing lambs during Kalipuja was forever stopped in the Chatterjee household.
Gurudev = spiritual leader
Purohit = priest
Published in Parabaas, May 10, 2006
The original story
[Lalu*] by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay
is included in Chhelebelar Galpa ('Childhood stories'), a collection of short stories for children first published by M. C. Sarkar &Sons., Kolkata in Baisakh, 1345 (BE). Actually several of the short stories bear the same title "Lalu", a character drawn after a Rajendranath Majumdar or Raju, a childhood friend of Saratchandra from Bhagalpur, Bihar, and immortalized also as "Indranath" in Saratchandra's famous novel Srikanta.
Somdatta Mandal is a professor of English Literature at Vishvabharati, Santiniketan. Apart from publication of several books and scholarly articles in reputed literary journals, her special area of interest is in ...
Illustrated by Rajarshi Debnath. Rajarshi has been regularly illustrating for Parabaas. He is currently based at Rochester, NY.
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