The conservationist’s own living quarters were upstairs, along with a few rooms for the underlings, an office room and, adjacent to this, a small branch of the bank. Right next to it was the Agro Service Center. The front yard was full of tractors, power tillers, scattered water pumping machines, sprayers, dusters, seed lots shop and a repair shop for the appliances.
On the right side of the conservationist’s quarters, there was a large underground cold room. Perhaps this was called a complex? What could be the Bengali word for it? The Bangladeshi people might know. They are more fluent in translating such technical terms in Bengali. Nishith wondered about asking the lady in front, sipping a cold drink with a straw.
The lady was dangerously beautiful. An incomparably expensive Sambalpuri sari covered her with timeless beauty. But there was a shadow of sadness on her face. It seemed odd. Perhaps it was nothing. Perhaps just part of her beauty. But it made Nishith curious to ask her something. Yet he hesitated, the question may sound a little forward. So ultimately he spoke out, “Madam must be getting bored here?” Her smile was measured, as was her speech. Her voice too was sharp but controlled, “Not at all,” she said. “I am loving every thing about this place.”
Not far away her husband was standing, Colonel Asraf Ahmed, perhaps forty-five or forty-six years of age but already unusually stern. A nervous Bangladeshi under a veneer of sternness. He was examining some important papers about the technical plans, diagrams and calculations of the project. In India, the conservation projects had been modernized for quite some time. Of course it was all from the perspective of a third world country. But it was enough to advise and offer expertise to Bangladesh.
In front of the colonel was his Indian counterpart, Shri Janardan Mohapatra, I.A.S. He was just past forty but already had destroyed his health badly. The expansion of his cheeks could be seen even from behind. Underneath of course lived a medium sized, harmless officer. He loved to eat and he ate everything. The butter colored safari suit looked shapeless on him, but Mohapatra was not stupid. Yet he could not contain the pride of being from a larger country. The Colonel was perhaps not noticing it, but Nishith was feeling embarrassed. Why do people act like that! The lady finished half the bottle and bent the straw.
—Not cold enough? Nishith asked.
—Oh no. It’s all right. I just didn’t feel like drinking anymore, she said.
Mohapatra’s unsolicited opinion came over the table, “She is more used to drinking Cokes. Of course she won’t care for these local drinks. Right, Madam?”
Madam frowned but smiled encouragingly, “Come on, Mr. Mohapatra.”
But Nishith still had a vague feeling of guilt.
Actually, both the parties were busy with complicated details of the project. The various rules and regulations, different types of crop seeds, fruit, vegetables, different ranges of storage temperatures, glycon brine, vapour compressor and other things kept them busy. Amidst all this, plates of food arrived for the guests. This too was one of Nishith’s many responsibilities.
Mohapatra still acted like a kid in front of savory food. He just said, “Come on” and without wasting any more time, picked up a samosa from the tray. The Colonel followed him, and with strong Bangladeshi accent and mouthful of samosa he started talking to Nishith. “You’ll see, Mr. Roy, after putting these cold storages, we will get fresh cauliflowers from Ranchi-Hazaribaag, even in late summer. Won’t that be awesome! Cauliflower samosa out of season!”
Madam smiled as before. “Yes, you can.”
Mohapatra was too busy eating to make a reply.
Nishith said, “Oh, sure!” And immediately wondered if the colonel knowingly equalized cauliflowers imported from Ranchi-Hazaribaag and Cokes imported from America.
Not impossible. The nervousness of Bangladeshis could be hiding many other habits.
At last, Madam stood up with her coffee and walked outside. Others too rose up with her. Outside was a green ocean of rice paddies, shining in the late summer sun.
Madam murmured, “How beautiful!”
Nishith said softly, “Indeed it is. I came here before the monsoon. That time I couldn’t have imagined it would become so pretty. But I’ve heard you too grow a lot of rice on your side, no?”
—Yes. I’ve heard that too. But like you, I too can’t manage time to see paddy fields. I am urban from birth. You?
—My birth place is Faridpur. But—
Nishith stopped. Somehow the whole thing seemed strange to him. An Indian declaring to a Bangladeshi that his birthplace is Faridpur!
Mohapatra finished his cup and said, “Come on, let us go down.”
Down meant the cold room.
Everyone stepped towards the stairs. Leading in front was the warehouse officer; after him were Mohapatra and the colonel— next the experts from both sides, and at the end Nishith and Madam.
The staircase spiraled deep down underground. Someone turned on the lights as they descended. Gradually the dark cave was lit up.
At the end of the stairs there was a door to the cold room. Upon opening it, one got a faint smell of drying fruit, drugs and so on. More shocking was the sudden blast of cold. All talking stopped. There was a light invisible glow. In the glowing light the cold room appeared old, almost prehistoric.
Softly, Madam said, “Mr. Roy, you said you were born in Faridpur. You know where I was born?”
—I was born in Kolkata.
Did she smile? It was hidden in the shadowy darkness around them. They were speaking softly in whispers. The smell of the old world was around them, perhaps a whiff of formaldehyde too.
—Really? Where in Kolkata?
—Can’t remember, can’t remember. But I am sure I would if I saw it once. Mr. Roy, could you please take me to Park Circus?
There were such keen interest and emotion in her voice.
—That's no problem. We can go today.
—But you mustn’t say anything to the Colonel.
—But why? I mean—
Begum Ahmed silently picked up a tomato from the shelf and started examining it. There were so many unsaid things. They had to be filled with silent understandings. We had the same language, same appearance, same nature, same geography—yet a man had to carry his load alone. How little we knew of each other. Would Nishith ever understand the complications in the last fifteen to sixteen years in the life of a colonel of Bangladesh? Yet we all lived with this uncertainty—an uncertainty as ironic as the existence of God Himself. The Colonel did not want any emotions in his life. Emotions were dangerous things. Begum whispered, “You have to manage it alone, somehow, Mr. Roy. Sight seeing, Victoria, whatever excuse. Ah! It’s been so long—”
Madam’s voice was pleading. She deliberately entered the cold room.
Nishith looked at the Colonel. Some technologist was trying to explain something to him. His face was emotionless, cold. This man always maintained a wall around him.
How would Nishith bring up the topic?
Madam pleaded again, “Please, Mr. Roy?”
The car went through Park Street straight to the Park Circus grounds. By the time they turned left into Amir Ali Avenue, layers of petrol and diesel smog had darkened the evening. The light didn’t penetrate far through those layers. Everything looked hazy and mysterious.
—It has become so crowded!
—Yes, buildings, cars—
—This avenue used to be so pretty in our childhood. Somewhere here was our convent school. Perhaps right here.
—I don’t know this neighborhood very well, Madam. I do come here occasionally—
—Okay, oh, isn’t that Bekbagan on the right?
—Yes, this is Bekbagan.
—Let us go forward a little.
The car crept forward.
—Please stop for a second.
There was some remnant of a sidewalk there . A few trees too. The car stopped along the curb on the left side.
“There was a playground here,” Begum Ahmed announced, pointing towards a gas station crowded with trucks and cars. Her eyes filled with hurt and disappointment.
—Yes, about twenty-five to thirty years ago. A playground or perhaps just an empty lot. We used to play there.
Begum silently searched through the car window for her lost childhood. The grey dusk was heavy with an indifferent loneliness, which was threatening to overcome the rest of the night. It was painful to witness this while ignoring the rest of the loud, busy chaotic city. It was as if the corpse of the past and memories was lying somewhere in a dark corner over there while the rest of the city went by uncaring.
—Where shall we go now Madam?
"Go back a little. There is a lane on the right?" She said with her eyes half closed.
—Yes, so there is.
—Kindly turn there Mr. Roy.
The driver needed no directions.
The Colonel needed no instructions either. In the evening he only needed enough alcohol. Mr. Mohapatra was with him too.
—There was a girls’ school here. My elder sisters studied there.
—It is still here. Right there! Nothing looks the same, Mr. Roy! Such crowds, so many buildings. All look so tall. What happened to those empty spaces?
Begum went on muttering to herself. Two young girls were standing on the left, chatting together. They wore frocks.
Begum leant through the window and stared at them. The car crept on at a snail’s pace.
On the right side, two streets had branched off. The car stopped in between them. Begum Asraf Ahmed peered through the window desperately searching for her memories in that darkening evening. After a while, she suddenly spoke up,
—I am getting off, just for a little while.
Nishith held the door open.
Begum Ahmed stepped out and stood for a while. Then aimlessly, like a sleepwalker, she started walking and talking, as if to herself.
“Do you know my name? My name was—” She smiled and suddenly turned around.
—We left here in ’55 or ’56—
Suddenly she stopped in front of a tall, pillared building.
—Mili auntie stayed here. And upstairs lived Tilu auntie.
“Do you want to see if anyone is still around?” Nishith asked.
“Shall we?” She sounded hesitant— then said, “No. What if they don’t remember anything? Better let them be.” She walked ahead a few more steps, then stopped, again walked some more. There were lights and sounds from televisions spilling out from every window in every house. At some windows, kids could be seen bending over their homework.
Everywhere ordinary people moved between light and shadow, doing their ordinary chores. Begum wanted to touch them, hoping to find something amongst them.
“Right here, you see, right here, somewhere, was our house. I can still see it in my eyes. There was a long porch here, almost attached to the sidewalk. There were waist high tall iron railings around the porch. There lived an old woman in that house. But we didn’t call her grandma, we called her auntie something. She loved reading books sitting by the window. Not books for grown-ups, but kids’ books, detective stories or romantic mysteries. We often exchanged books with her. Next was a double-storied house. My friend Sushobhan lived there. Right after that house was a narrow lane. That should be right here, Mr. Roy.”
Begum stopped and looked around her. The disappointment and emptiness in her eyes could not be concealed even by the smoggy darkness around them. After awhile she restarted her story.
“On the walls of that lane, someone wrote a dirty word with my sister’s name . At the far end of that lane was our house. Where is that lane?” she cried out.
They had walked a fair distance by then. Behind them the driver had parked the car near the school and waited for them. Begum Ahmed stood silently for some time.
—It must be right here, Mr. Roy.
—But all these buildings? Where did they all come from? They weren’t here before.
—That’s how cities grow, Madam.
—Shall we go down that left lane and see? Hope I am not bothering you.
—Oh, no Madam. Please, take your time.
—No. I have been acting very selfishly. You have had a long day, and I am keeping you for my own purpose in the evening too.
—No, honestly. I really don’t mind.
—We used to walk along this lane. Now if you take this road up to the main street, that will join Gurusaday Road. Right?
—In our childhood, these roads were so quiet and peaceful.
—Now they are so crowded, you won’t even recognize them.
—Gurusaday was on right. Just before it there was a small street on the left. It was even less crowded. There were tall, flowering shrubs in all the houses. We kids used to go there early in the morning and steal flowers. Mr. Roy, have you ever tried to break the stem of a sunflower?
—It is very difficult to tear the stem of sunflowers. Once, Sushobhan tried for me—. No. Let’s not get into that.
“Madam, it is quarter to eight. Hope the Colonel won’t get worried,” Nishith said.
“Oh?” Madam was suddenly thrust back into the present. “Yes. He would be worried… and irritated, for sure. But, Mr. Roy, I couldn’t find my house anywhere. My father is still alive. He still considers this city as his motherland. What a traitor he is! I was hoping to tell him about his house.”
“My dad is the same way too. Some tiny village in Faridpur is still his motherland,” Nishith said.
Begum looked over the jumble of houses for one last time, then sighed,
—Let us go. It is a meaningless quest.
Right then the car came and stopped behind them. The driver was watching them and had guessed that they were ready to leave. Nishith held the door open. “Come, Madam.” She got in.
The car turned right and went back to the Park Circus market. Begum bowed forward and shed silent tears.
Published in Parabaas, March, 2013