Translated from the original Bangla novel
Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra
One afternoon in early fall, Shipton had summoned Harakali Sur and said, "Dewan, there is trouble--"
“What trouble, Sir?”
“Now we’ll have to close the indigo business.”
“Why Sir? Another riot somewhere?”
“No, no. It’s not that. This is something different. There is a country called Germany. Do you know? The blue color is sent from there to India, and to sell in all the other countries.”
“Are they planting indigo too, Hujur?”
“Why? You didn’t get it. This is chemical indigo. Not real, it is fake blue— not from plants, it is made by other means—synthetic process—you won’t understand it.”
“Is it good quality?”
“Excellent!” Sahib tried his broken Bengali, “That’s why I called you. Here, see—”
Shipton placed a blue tablet in front of Harakali Sur. Experienced Harakali looked at it closely, cheking the color and was surprised. He stayed quiet for a while.
“Well, did you see it?”
“If this is sold in the market why would anyone buy our blue color?”
“How much does it cost?”
Shipton smiled, “Why didn’t you ask it before?” I was wondering if our Dewan’s brain was still working. How much do you think?”
“Four rupees a pound?”
“One rupee a pound, at the most one and half rupees. Wholesale ninety rupees for a hundredweight. Our business bites the dust—gone waste. Completely decimated.”
Harakali Sur was experienced in these things. He knew indigo business well. He got the message and remained quiet. What could he say? The future was clear in front of his eyes.
Farmed indigo was obsolete. It was not worth the expense of producing it. He realized that this was the end of the sahib in this country.
In that fall afternoon Baro Sahib Jenkins Shipton made an accurate forecast. What Ramgopal Ghosh’s lectures, Harish Mukherji’s Hindu Patriot paper, Reverend Long’s rebellion (Dinbandhu Mitra’s ‘Nildarpan’ [‘Indigo-Mirror’] came later), the tenants’ mutiny in Nadia and Jessore, and Sir William Grey’s secret report could not accomplish was successfully achieved in only a few days by a synthetic blue tablet from Germany. Within a few years the indigo farming in Bengal completely disappeared.
Shipton’s wife had died in England, their only daughter lived with her grandfather. Shipton didn’t want to go anywhere leaving India.
One day, while lying in the small room next to the verandah of his quarter, smelling the scented white flowers of the Indian cork tree, he started thinking about the old days. Those days were different---
Far away was a tiny village of Westmoreland. Nobody was there now. His aged mother used to live there but she died a few years ago, one brother lived in Australia with his family.
There was a tiny hotel in the village. Previously it was an inn, William Ritson was the landlord—how crowded it used to be. In front were Langdale Pikes and Great Gable…fifteen-hundred feet high hills. How people used to crowd at the inn to go climbing those two hills…
Near the water were willows and mountain sages – the path went beyond Burroughdale village through the wide valley. When he was a kid he used to often walk that huge dog all by himself along that road. Even went to fish in that huge lake so often—Elter Water—the name sounded so old. It had huge pikes and salmons. What fun he had! Rhino’s pass was all in darkness, he was walking along carrying the fish—the pedigreed great Dane following him, he remembered –‘The eagle is screamin’ around us, the river’s a-moaning’ below—’
Rural rhymes. Andy used to sing it when they were young. He too sang it so often while fishing the waters of Elter Water.
Dreams of old days--
Gaya came in, “Yes, Sahib?”
“Sit by me, Dearie. What have you been up to all day? Where were you? What were you doing?”
“Just sitting around. What else?”
“If I die here…” Shipton tried in Bengali, “ --what will you do?”
“What a question! You mustn’t talk like that! Chhi!”
“I want to give you some money, but where will you keep it? It will get stolen.”
Shipton laughed out, “Listen to a song, Gaya—listen carefully to the words. Modern, you know?”
“Oho! Sing whatever you want. I don’t like that ‘cat-mat’ English talking.”
Yes, yes, the arm-y
How we love the arm-y
When the swallows come again
See them fly---the arm-y
Gaya plugged her ears with her fingers, “Oh God! You are killing my ears. Don’t scream so. You call this a melody?”
“You don’t like it? OK, then you sing one—that one ‘’If I can’t fall for your face like the full moon—”
“No, sahib. No songs now.”
“What will you do when I die?”
“Don’t talk like that. Chhi!--”
“No. I’m no milksop, I tell you—I know my business. Indigo plantation is finished. Shall I leave or stay here?”
“Where will you go, Sahib? Better stay here.”
“Will you stay with me?”
“You won’t leave me?”
“Sure? May I take it as a pledge? Are you speaking from your heart?
“Yes, Sahib. I’m sure. I’ve been with you all this while, you fed me, took care of me. How can I leave you in your hard times? Won’t it be a sin?
Shipton held her close to him, “Oh, my dear, dearie, you are not afraid of the Big Bad Wolf—I call it a brave girl!”
Nistarini was bathing in Ichhamoti. It was the month of Bhadra*. The river was running full. Large yellow tithpalla* flowers lit up the tops of the bushes. On the opposite bank the white kaash* flowers were swaying in the golden breeze, blue morning glory blooms covered up the acacia and kneyejhnaka * bushes. Near the banks the wild arum flower buds and the purple flowers of aquatic chanda grass * were in bloom, vines of wild pea were swinging on the water, small waves were crashing onto the half submerged, wild cotton branches.
As there was no one around, Nistarini felt tempted to take a swim holding on to her water pitcher. The river in Bhadra * was fast enough to break a twig in two. Also there were crocodiles and sharks at this time. So few people dared to swim in the river. But Nistarini didn’t care. Swimming with a pitcher was so easy and relaxing, how could she even explain it to those who never experienced it? You lean in to the current towards the mouth of the river, next to you floated clusters of water lettuce, flowers of water hyacinths, ripe red fruits of ivy gourd peeking under the green leaves, gangs of bank mynas chirping amongst the clusters of algae—what joy! What freedom! Crocodiles and sharks? So what? Let them take her. That too was part of this vast joy of freedom.
Before she realized, she had swam a long distance beyond all the ghats of her village. In front of her was the ghat near the milkmen’s community of Bhasanpota village, beyond Panchpota. On her right the riverbank was forest covered, on her left were the farming plots of pointed and ridged gourds, belonging to the farmers of Aramdanga. She had made a mistake. She shouldn’t have swum alone such a long distance. People would talk. Now, it was not possible to swim back against such a strong current, nor should she swim forward anymore. Should she get up on the forested tracks on the right banks and walk back home? She didn’t even know the way.
She swam up to the bank; rows of bonyeburo * trees bent their branches low on the water, tangled up in vines and bushes. Wild birds were chirping and feeding on the ripe ivy gourds. She heard a rustling of dry leaves on the shore. Perhaps a fox ran away.
Before getting up on the shore she tightened her wet sari, her bangles and and with her hands, she brushed her mass of wet, dark hair from her face. Just as she placed her right foot on the sand, she stepped on an oyster shell. She picked it up and tied it securely in her sari and carefully walked along the narrow path suffering scratches from wild nettles and tears in her sari in the thorny wild jujube bushes, till she reached the edge of Kaorapara, a community of low caste people. The kaora women of the village gaped at her in surprise and curiosity. What was she—a Brahmin wife—doing alone in wet sari and wet hair, so far away from home?
Upon reaching home, she met a noisy crowd of family and neighbors. Her mother-in-law and aunt-in-law were wailing loudly, thinking she was drowned in the river or taken by a crocodile . Seeing her late to return from the river her neighbors had run to the ghat and could not find any sign of her anywhere. Everyone was overjoyed seeing her. Her mother-in-law hugged and blessed her, neighbors all complained but affectionately.
After the meals, Nistarini took her sister-in-law Sudhamukhi under the jujube * tree behind their kitchen and opened the oyster shell. Both of them felt through the soft body inside. All the villagers did this whenever they found an oyster. Nistarini felt something hard like a plum seed.
“What is it Sister, have a look.”
“Hey! It’s a pearl for sure!”
“I am sure Boudi-di, it is a pearl. I swear!”
“How do you know that?”
“Let’s go show it to mother.”
“No sister, don’t show to anyone.”
“Come on, why are you so hesitant?”
The entire village soon came to know that Nishtarini had found an expensive pearl in Ichhamoti. In the Chandi pavilions, amongst the elder men, it remained the only topic of conversation for a few days. Goldsmith Bidhu checked the pearl and offered a price of sixty rupees! Nistarini’s husband had never even seen that much money together. Before Bidhu left with the pearl Nistarini suddenly spoke up, “I don’t want to sell this pearl--”
The same day a Muslim man came to their house to see the pearl and after examining it he offered one hundred rupees but Nistarini was not swayed.
There was a clamor in the village. So-and-so’s wife had found one hundred rupees pearl in the river. Who had seen one hundred rupees in the middle of this Panchpota village? They must be extremely lucky. The wives in the village came to greet her with sindoor (vermillion); her-mother in-law gave promised offerings to Gods in the temple of Shyam Ray in Naraharipur. Some sent ripe bananas, others brought in papayas.
Nistarini came to visit Tilu one day. She brought the pearl with her. Khoka held it in his hand and asked his mother, “What is it?”
“What is pearl, ma?”
“It is something from inside an oyster shell”.
Nistarini picked up Khoka in her lap, “I am prepared to give it to him Didi.”
“No dear. What will he do with it ?”
“Honestly, shall I? I forget everything when I look at his face--”
Tilu stopped Nistarini with great difficulty. Nistarini was not beautiful in a traditional way but she was attractive. One couldn’t look away from her. She did not have the shyness or timidity of a rural woman. She was a tomboy in her childhood and was an expert in swimming and tree climbing. One of her shortcomings was her lack of fear of the elders. She did not fear her husband, not even her mother-in-law.
Tilu loved her. All the superstition, ignorance, timidity, and monotonous life of the village had not overpowered young Nistarini. It was as if she belonged to another era in future, by mistake was born half a century earlier.
“Want to have something?” Tilu asked her.
“Popped rice and cucumber?”
“Sure! Love them.”
Surprisingly, one day Tilu discovered this same Nistarini behind the bushes by the river deeply absorbed in whispering with Gobinda—son of Krishnakishore Ray of Raypara.
Tilu had gone with Khoka to wash herself in the river. It was an evening of early autumn, the water level in the river had fallen slightly. The smell of dried dark grass filled the air. The seeds of the kaash* flowers were flying over the river banks and getting stuck in the mud , bunches of flowers were hanging from the devil tree by the river. The pleasantly cool autumn air was scented with the flowers of the chhatim* tree.
Bhabani often went to the river at that time with Tilu and Khoka. The quiet, serene atmosphere by the river was ideal for theological discussions. He too had come that day. His plan was to tell Khoka about God, gradually open his eyes and mind under the vast, open blue sky, amongst the peaceful endless blue-green of the forests. Tilu asked, “Explain that shloka (couplet) please--”
“The one from Prashnopanishad? Sa enang yajamanamaharaharbrahma gamayati?
“He lets the disciple experience Brahma everyday.”
“Who is he?”
“Who is the disciple?”
“Whoever worships Him with faith.”
“Isn’t there a line here about the mind being a disciple ?”
“Of course,-- say, who is talking there? Behind the bushes? Wait—let me take a look—”
“Don’t rush in. First see who it is—Shall I come with you?”
They peeked in the bushes and saw Gobinda and Nistarini sitting with their backs towards them busily chatting. They didn’t look like discussing Upanishad or Vedanta. Gobinda held Nistarini’s long black hair in his right hand and was gesturing with the left saying something. Nistarini tilted her head and looked up at him smiling.
Hearing their footsteps Nistarini turned back and was stunned with terror. Gobinda quickly disappeared somewhere in the jungle. Bhabani Banerjee stepped back from the scene. Nistarini alone sat in front of Tilu looking down like a guilty person. Tilu pointed towards the bush, “Who was that? What are you doing here?”
Nistarini paled. Beads of sweat appeared on her brows. She stayed mute.
“Who was that? Tell me!”
“What was he doing with you?”
Nistarini was mum.
“And you are out of your house, deep in the jungle, alone—wow! Great act!”
“I like it.” Nistarini replied very softly.
Tilu was incensed, “I’ll break all your bones, you naughty girl. You like it! You ‘like’ getting away from home, a mile deep in the jungle, alone with another man? There could have been snakes or tigers even! You, a grown woman, aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Go, go home—”
Bhabani heard Tilu’s angry voice from a distance and called her, “Come on dear, you come away from there.”
Tilu ordered him, “You be quiet!”
Then she turned on Nistarini again, “Don’t you have any sense in your head? The entire village will shun you. How will you show your face even?”
Nistarini started crying silently.
“Come with me, you shameless hussy. Trying to show off. Do you still have that pearl or you’ve given it to your Gobinda?”
“No. It is with my mother-in-law.”
“Come with me. Sitting in the jungle among the nettles! Never seen a more stupid woman in my entire life. If Kunti Thakrun ever comes to know do you think she’ll let you live in this village?”
“So what? There is plenty of water in Ichhamoti.”
--Oh! Being sassy now? You need a hard beating till all your bones are crushed. Talking back! Come on, go take a dip in the river. I’ll give you a clean sari.”
Tilu brought her home, made her take off the wet sari and wear a fresh one, gave her something to eat. After Nistarini felt a bit steady Tilu asked, “How long have you been seeing each other?”
“Five or six months.”
“We come secretly in the jungle.”
“Fan-tastic! Aren’t you even ashamed to utter it? Promise me you won’t see him again!”
“He can’t stay without seeing me.”
“Again? You are not going. Understood?”
“What hmm? Will you or not? Yes or no?”
Nistarini turned her head and said, “Gobinda has given me something—”
“Shall I show you? Something for the ears, they are called ‘makri’—”
“Where is it?”
Nistarini timidly said, “It is with me. Tied in my wet sari. He gave me today—new jewelry. Nobody in the village has anything like it. It is a new style. Just started in Calcutta. His cousin—works somewhere in Calcutta—”
Nistarini opened the knot in her wet sari and showed Tilu the earrings. Tilu turned them around in her hand, “New style. Good jewelry. But you can’t accept them. You must return these to him and tell him that you will never see him again. This time I’ll keep it quiet. Nobody else has seen you except us. We won’t tell anybody. But we won’t let you commit such a sin. Don’t you care for your own husband? How can you lie to him like this—”
Nistarini looked down, “He doesn’t love me—”
“I’ll beat you to a pulp. How will he love you if you carry on like this?”
“Not now. This has been from the very beginning. He doesn’t know anything of this—”
“Don’t you feel bad to keep on cheating on him like this?”
“Didi you are lucky to have a husband like God Shiva. We too could have stayed home pure and true with a husband like him. But mine is so virtuous! I asked for one sari, and got such a yelling, along with my ma-in-law. I had a pair of bangles from my parents, he pawned them to Nalu Pal for cash. That was long ago. I’ve asked him so many times. He’s never bothered to bring them back. How will he? Hardly any income. Paddy crop was poor this year. Whatever we got lasted three months only. My hips ache stepping on the paddy thresher. In spite of all this I can’t please anybody. Why would I stay with such a family? You tell me, Didi!”
Her beautiful rebellious face was flushed with a strange pride and glow of youth. Her long dark hair spread all over her back. Tilu felt a keen affection for this daredevil wife. This girl was hardly aware of the commotion that would arise if her news became public.
After much consolation and many more lectures, Tilu herself took her home just before dark. She told her folks that they went to bathe in the river and returned to Tilu’s house to chat. Mother-in-law sounded suspicious, “Really? We went to the river twice, looking for her—we asked in all the houses here… some wife, I say! Left home in the afternoon and coming back at this hour of dusk! What can I say. I’m at my wit’s end with this girl. And the sharp tongue—”
Nistarini answered back, softly but making sure her mother-in-law could hear, “Sure, and you guys are all paragon of virtues! You have no fault, never—”
“Did you hear that? Did you? As soon as something is said, she would sass back—”
“Fine.” Nistarini said.
Tilu chided her, “Hey! Is that any way you talk to your mother in-law? Chhi!*”
It was almost evening. Tilu returned home. It was already dark under the bamboo groves. Fireflies were blinking in between the kalkasunde * bushes.
At home she told Bhabani, “Times are changing, See? I realize it now after watching Nistarini. We’d never heard of decent wives visiting with another man alone like that. When we just got married, we couldn’t even talk to you in the daytime. That rule is is still on in this village. Young new wives still go to their husbands’ rooms only after everyone is asleep.”
Bhabani said, “Didn’t I tell you that Khoka will go for walks in daytime holding hands with his wife?”
“Really? What are you saying?”
“I’m telling you. That day is coming. You saw your friend. Times are changing.”
Prasanna Chakravarty had not seen Gaya-mem recently. After Shipton’s wife left, Gaya had been almost permanently installed in the Sahib’s quarters. Occasionally when he did see her outside or on the streets, she did not look the same. But sometimes she did. One could not predict anything about the unpredictable Gaya. If she felt like it she would stop and chat with Prasanna to her heart’s content. If she was not in the mood, she wouldn’t more than a cursory word.
The business of the indigo plantation had gone way down. The indigo was still planted as before, the people still obeyed the sahib and his dewan, but the price of indigo had crashed. The harvested indigo did not sell in the market. The price was so low that it could not recover the production costs. Lots of indigo from last year was still stored in the godowns due to lack of buyers. The employees of the plantation worked without much enthusiasm. Where would they find any new job? The baro-sahib had not fired any employee yet and he was paying them as before but there were no extra income and their clouts had disappeared. The prestige of the jobs in plantation was almost gone.
Sriram Muchi asked Prasanna Amin one day, “Please ask the sahib to dole out my land.”..
“I will. Is he giving land to all the servants?”
“Baro-sahib said that he would give me, Bhaja and Nafar. You measure out by bighas from the main land of the plantation and give it to us.
“As soon as he orders me. Won’t we get our shares?”
“You can ask the sahib. Now he is giving only the servants’ lands. Not yours. Gaya mem is getting fifteen bighas.
“What? Are you sure?”
“Of course she is. Did you think you will get it? She is his favorite.”
After exactly two days, Dewan Harakali Sur got the order from the Baro-sahib for Amin to measure out Gaya’s land. He summoned Prasanna and told him. Gaya would go herself and check it out.
“From which lot is her land to be allotted? ”
“Number eighteen from Beledanga Lot. Check your map. First decide how much is arable for paddy.”
“There is only five bighas of paddy fields there, Dewanji. I suggest the tract from Chhutorghata to the wooden bridge of Notipur, from the land seized from Shashi Muchi. It is excellent for paddy. If she would take that—”
Harakali winked at him, “Ah, be quiet!”
“That land is like gold. What will Sahib do without that land? Indigo business is over. That land yields sixteen to eighteen maunds of wild paddy. Is the Sahib going to plough like the farmers? We don’t have to give it to Gaya. Later on you and I may split that land for ourselves.”
Poor business minded Harakali Sur. How would he understand the mysteries of love?
The very next day, after waiting under the neem tree for hours, Prasanna Chakkotti caught sight of Gaya mem. Gaya never took her meals in the quarters. She always returned home to her mother at mealtimes. Also, she never spent the night in the Sahibs’ quarters. Barada herself always carried a lantern and escorted her home.
Gaya asked, “Hello Uncle, what’s new?”
“I don’t even see you nowadays. You have become invisible like the flower of a fig.”
Gaya smiled sweetly and came very close to Prasanna, “Why do you wait for me like this? In this hot sun?”
“Only for you.”
“Go on! Uncle, kidding again?”
“Haven’t seen you for five days.”
“What’s the point in seeing this unlucky face?”
“What do you mean?”
“I am of no use to you folks anymore.”
“Yes?” Gaya giggled covering her mouth with the end of her sari and started to leave. Prasanna busily tried to stop her.
“Are you leaving? Listen, please. I’ve something to tell you.”
Gaya stopped and looked back at him, “You always speak nonsense stuff—‘I love to see you’ and ‘only waiting for you’ or ‘always thinking about you’—all these silly talks. Didn’t I ask you not to talk like this? I call you uncle with respect, is it right for you talk to me like that? Please don’t any more. Your self control is worsening day by day—”
Prasanna smiled, “Why? What did I say wrong?”
“I only like to see you, how long haven’t I seen you, I can’t live without seeing you—”
“Go. Go home. Don’t stand in the sun anymore. I will feel really bad—”
“Truly Gaya? Would you feel bad? Really?”
“Yes, yes, yes! Go now. Don’t act silly standing on the road.”
“One more word—”
“Again? One more word; Gaya, wait a bit longer, Gaya, let us sit down and talk—”
“No, no. Not like that—”
“What then? What’s so important?”
“Nothing like that Gaya, I swear, this is a very serious matter, but you must keep it secret.”
A few days after their meeting, Prasanna Amin measured out fifteen bighas of the best paddy producing land from the confiscated property of Shashi Muchi and handed it over to Gaya. He made Sriram Muchi put marker stakes and even planted acacia trees to permanently mark the boundaries of her land. Gaya was present there. Seeing a fig tree she asked Prasanna, “Uncle, can you include this fig tree in my property too? I Love figs.”
“If I do, will you remember me, Gaya---”
“ Hehehe. There he goes again!”
“What’s wrong in speaking the simple truth? Why can’t you answer? Gaya—”
“Fine. Forget it! I’m not saying anything more. Here, I am turning this measuring chain around The fig tree is now yours.”
“Shall I touch your feet or not? You are a Brahmin, and my uncle. It’ll be so sinful.”
Gaya knelt from a distance in front of Prasanna and touched the ground with her head. A pleased smile played on her face. How sweet! That young fig tree will live for many years as the witness to Prasanna Chakravarty’s happiness today. Prasanna would be long dead and gone but this afternoon a happy message was written in the shade of those young leaves. Those messages, the tears that shone in the moonlight, the sighs that wafted in the hot Phalgun afternoons, those tales of laughter and tears —would anyone remember them fifty years from now?
A few months later.
Bhabani was sitting with his son at the bank of Ichhamoti near the ghat of Banshimtala. It was just past noon . Ducks and cormorants called out from the deep green shores shaded by the dense forests. The fishermen used to dive there for oysters and snails in the winter, the discarded shells were piled up here and there. Wild vines were swaying on the water from the acacia and the wild cluster fig trees. Bunches of bright red Kakjangha * fruits were peeking from under the green leaves.
Bhabani said, “Khoka, If I die, would you look after your mothers?”
“No Baba, then I will cry.”
“Why? I’m old. How long can I live?”
“Just because you say so? Silly boy—”
Khoka laughed out loud and hugged his father in his little arms, “My Baba—”
“Listen to me. Will you look after your moms if I die?”
“No. I will just cry—”
“Can you tell me who is God?”
“Where does He live?”
“Up there.” Khoka pointed to the sky.
“Where? Up on that tree?”
“Do you love Him?”
“I love you.”
“Why not God?”
“I don’t know him.”
“You are absolutely right Khoka. How can we love someone without knowing or understanding? The real love only happens after recognition and understanding. That’s why ordinary people can’t love God. They fear Him but don’t love Him, let alone knowing or understanding Him. But I will try to make you understand, OK?”
Khoka didn’t understand anything but answered his father’s last question, “Okay.”
“Khokon, what do you think of that bird?”
“You know who made that bird? God.”
“Yes.” Khoka nodded.
“You don’t understand, all this that you see around us is created by God.”
“I do understand. Ma says God created the stars.”
“And the moon.”
“And the sun.”
“Hmm. How did you learn so much? Mom told you? Do you love the moon?”
“Then see, God created such a lovely thing. We too can love Him. No?”
“I will love him.”
“Sure. At least a little.”
“Will you love him?”
“Will Ma love him?”
“I will love him.”
“Will Nilu Ma love him?”
“Then I will love him too.”
“Sure. I will show you the moon properly today.”
“Who sits inside the moon?”
“There is nothing in the moon. Those are just marks.”
“Marks? What is that Baba?”
--“Stains. Like on brass, the black marks? Like that.”
The child looked up at his father with all his innocence. What a clear, unstained, innocent face! There were stains on the moon but not a trace of any on the child’s face.
Bhabani stared at his son in wonder. Where was this child all these days?
Some memory from far away, long gone past, touched his heart. This familiar, well-known world—where Phoni Chakaravarty calculated interests, Chandra Chatterjee’s son Kailash engaged in party politics to gain power and authority, a world mired in countless ills, meanness and greed—was not quite the same. This world looked familiar but was unknown and deeply mysterious. It was like an enchanting tune, a part of some vast unknown orchestra.
The air on his back was redolent with the scent of the crown flowers. Silent blue sky was deep in meditation of the Infinity
This music, the holy, eternal sound from all the living beings today would get lost and forgotten in five hundred or a thousand years. A new history would be written in the waters of Ichhamoti. Nobody would know about the boundless love and affection between a tiny boy and his father sitting by the river this afternoon.
Only He would remain constant. Unchanged amongst all the changes, still among all the movements. God, Brahma--the Light incarnate-–all man’s imagination. He existed in everything, in the flowers and fruits on this beautiful afternoon, in the springs and winters, in the births and deaths of millions of men and women, in their hopes, loves and kindnesses He is glimpsed a little. No scripture in the world could describe Him. If any sage, holy man or sadhu even sensed Him, they could not verbally describe. Who could tell about Him?
Yet, however great He seems to be, He is our kin. He seemed close to us, close to our hearts. This tiny child seemed somehow connected to my soul and to that great self. He not only created me but was also very close to me like a very dear family member. I had a right to look openly and lovingly at that face aglow by the billions of shining stars, because He was my Baba. I was not just a doll molded by Him, I was truly His child (exactly as in the book). This Khoka too was another of His manifestation The child’s meaningless laugh and play were nothing but an expression of His playfully joyous message.
When this child grew up and got married and had children of his own, Bhabani would not be alive. His memory too would fade away like some forgotten story ten years old. That cane grove and even the old flower-laden milkwood tree may still be there but he would not.
The mystery of the universe overwhelmed Bhabani. This crimson light of the setting sun, Nistarini’s intelligent, playful glance, Tilu’s loving looks, this little child’s innocent eyes—all were parts of this mystery. Whose mystery lies behind the Great Mysterious One’s deep mysterious art?
Tilu came in from behind and said something to interrupt his contemplation. Tilu had a gamchha on her shoulder and a pitcher on her hip. She had come to wash up in the river.
“I knew it. He would be sitting here with Khoka.” Tilu smiled.
“Coming to bathe?” Bhabani smiled back.
“And to see you two.”
“Where is Nilu?”
“Starting the meals.”
“Have a seat.”
“What if someone comes?.”
“Who would come in the evening?!”
Tilu sat close to Bhabani. She put down the pitcher close by and almost hugged her husband.
Bhabani said, “Khoka is surprised. Don’t act like that. He is growing up.
Tilu asked, “Khoka, what did you learn about God?”
Khoka moved close to his mother and looked at her face, “I will bathe in the river too.”
“First answer me--”
“I want to bathe.”
Tilu looked around and smiled, “Let’s all get in the river. I will wash Khoka too. Come, let’s swim.”
Bhabani said, “Wait a bit Tilu. I was having a strange feeling today. I was telling Khoka about God. I felt Him in everything—the sky, the breeze, the river, forest, even in Khoka too. Pleasing Khoka felt just like pleasing Him.”
Tilu listened to him seriously. She never ignored anything Bhabani said. She nodded, “You sensed the Divine Brahma?.
“Then what was it? Explain.”
“Occasionally His shadow is cast on my mind. I feel Him very close. Like today—I felt He is my close relation. However great and powerful He may be, He is still our own, our father. ‘Dibyohyamurtah purushah.’ Remember?”
“That is sensing the divine, Brahma. I am sure that is what happened to you. If you felt Him so close, it has to be a divine vision. What else?”
“I would like to sit by the river and talk about God everyday with Khoka. We need to make him think about these things from this young age. Otherwise he will grow up amoral.”
“Whatever you think is best. Come let’s bathe and swim for a bit. Khoka, you stay here—”
Khoka was very obedient. He nodded, “OK.”
“Don’t get in the water.”
Husband and wife happily swam in the river and later washed Khoka. When they returned home it was evening. The moon had risen. The fireflies blinked in the bushes.
It was almost the end of Chaitra *.
Forests and fields were filled with flowers. On the higher grounds, the hill glory flowers were swaying in the mild southern breeze. Quiet, blue sky was deep in meditation. In this beautiful, quiet evening, Bhabani sensed a message reaching him from an unknown life from an unseen land beyond the lost horizons. (how is this?) It was true that he left his Guru’s ashram, he had tried to become an ascetic and then left it to become a family man. It was also true that he felt entangled after marrying three sisters together, but so what of it? The fields, river and forests, the cycles of seasons, the birds, the evenings, the moonlit nights, all these joyful experiences had written a new Upanishad in his mind… That was where he had achieved the true meaning of his life. He could envision Him in his little son.
The village women just now carried the water from the river. Their wet footprints on the ground had just disappeared. Along the river the mynas and magpie robins had just finished their singings in the bushes and shrubs. Some beautiful village wife must had bent the flowering branch of the nagkeshar* tree to pick the flowers, the torn golden yellow pistils were still strewn under the tree, deep emerald green leaves covered the ground---
Sudden memory of Bilu distracted him. Perhaps he did ignore her, but never knowingly. Can anybody understand women all the time? One could not gain happiness without a share of grief. Real happiness came only after a deep sorrow. Happiness without sorrow is shallow, insubstantial. Happiness after grief bathed one’s soul in its pure stream. That was when one could get the real taste of life. Those who called life only full of sorrow knew nothing about it. It was a type of atheism to see only sorrow in life. The universe bears the spirit-mark of the Joyous One. But one needed the eyes and the minds to realize that. Lately Bhabani was getting some sense of it.
Khoka raised his arms, “Baba I’m scared.”
“Jackal. Pick me up--”
“No. You must walk.”
“Then I’ll cry.”
Tilu said, “Dear, both of us are in wet clothes. You will get wet too in this late hour. Please walk on.”
Nilu was waiting. She had done the evening rituals and made arrangements for Bhabani’s prayers. The porch was made of clay and was very neat and clean. After the puja, Nilu asked, “Some snacks now?” She brought some murki* and pieces of coconut in a bell-metal bowl. "Now you must talk with me,” she said.
“Sit Nilu. What are you cooking?”
“No. Not that kind of talking. You are trying to trick me, aren’t you? Talk with me like you do with Didi.”
“You are so envious of your Didi. What sort of talk, tell me?
“Sanskit-vanskit. Talks about the Gods. Something called Brahma—”
Bhabani laughed out loud looking at her with affection, “You never asked so I never talked with you about them. Fine, we shall start now. Do you know whom you imitated just now? In old days, there was a sage, he had two wives—Gargi and Maitreyi. You are like Gargi. Whenever the wicked step-wife asked for any knowledge about the Supreme Being, you too must have that whether you understood it or not. That’s what Gargi always wanted. You too are like her.”
Just then Khoka came over to them, “Baba what are you eating? I want some too.”
Bhabani fed him some murki. Khoka looked at the bowl and enquired, “Coconut?”
“No. You’ll get tummy ache.”
--“ O Baba, tummy ache?”
--“Yes, yes, dear”.
Nilu scolded him, ”Enough! Once he starts at something he can’t let go—”
Khoka looked at Nilu, and then looked at father with surprise, “Who is she talking to, Baba?”
Nilu said, “Talking to Niley Bagdi, next door! Now explain to him who was being talked to.” And she quickly picked Khoka up. But the boy didn’t like it. He kept struggling and calling, “Leave me, let me go—I want to be with Baba—”
“No, not with Baba.”
“Nooo, let me go—”
Bhabani said, “Put him down. Here, take this piece of coconut—”
Khoka was extremely fond of his father. He wanted nothing but to be with his dad. He took the coconut piece from his dad’s hand, laid down on his lap and looked up at him, “Baba, O Baba—”
Khoka caressed him, “My Baba, my Baba—”
“Yes, I’m here.”
Right then the village elder Shyamachand Ganguly dropped in, “Babaji, are you home?”
Bhabani got up hastily, “Come in uncle, please come in.”
“No, not today, I have a lantern. You come with me to Chandra-Dada’s Chandi platform. There will be the trial of that widowed girl of milkmaid Bhani. It is a difficult matter.”
“I don’t want to join in uncle—”
“No way! Everybody is waiting for you. You are one of the heads in this village. You must come. It is a matter of the society and you are a member of that society. Don’t mind me telling you but you are forgetting your duties these days Babaji—”
Nilu had already picked up Khoka and took him to the kitchen. It was hard to say ‘no’ to Shyamchand Ganguly. He was a bad tempered person like the sage Durbasa. One never knew what he would do or say in a fit of temper.
Bhabani went in the kitchen to inform Tilu and Nilu. It was a complicated rural affair. Might go on till late at night. Khoka came and happily grabbed his hand, “Come Baba, let’s eat.”
“What are we eating?”
“Come, sit. It’ll be fun.”
“No dear. I have to go. Important work. You sit and eat.”
“I’ll cry then. No, you can’t go, no. Sit right here. It’ll be great!”
He looked so pleased and gleeful. He pulled his father by his hand and made him sit on the wooden seat—only it wasn’t a real seat, it was the wooden plaque for rolling out breads.
“You sit here. Want to eat?”
“You eat too?”
But the ill-tempered Shyamchand called again from outside, “Say, are you going to be late?”
It was impossible to delay any longer. He couldn’t keep this Sage Durbasa waiting outside either. Bhabani had to go. Khoka came running and held on to his dhoti, “Don’t go. O Baba, don’t go. Sit down. Or I’ll cry.”
Bhabani had to quickly get away from Khoka’s eager clutches. All the way Shyam Ganguly ranted on about the case, the trial --in Late Chandra Chatterjee’s Chandi pavilion -- of the secret affair of an adult woman—none of which entered Bhabani’s ears, he only kept thinking about the loving looks of his son and his tiny weak hands clutching at his shirt. He remembered Khoka’s younger days… he had gone away somewhere and hadn’t seen his son for some time. He had thought that in the evening when he would return home, Khoka would be asleep. Whole night he would not wake nor talk to him…
When he returned home he found Khoka still awake, waiting for him. As soon as he entered Khoka called out joyfully, “O Baba, come, come, see this picture—”
“You lay down, I’m coming soon from the other room.”
“Come now Baba, or I’ll cry—”
Bhabani was really in love with this child. He had not yet finished two but he already spoke so many words so sweetly and in such adorable ways.
Bhabani felt overwhelmed with deep love for his son. He lay down next to him. The child hugged his neck, “Bar-da, my Bar-da.’
“What is that?”
“Am I your older brother? Great!”
Because he lived in his in-laws’ village, many folks treated him like brother-in-law and called him Bar-da (eldest brother) or Mej-da (second oldest). The child perhaps heard that and imitated it. One couldn’t really fault him.
Bhabani hugged him back, “Khokon, my Khokon.”
Just then Bhabani imagined a uniquely beautiful love in the heart of this tiny human. Nobody came so close to him so quickly, without any doubt or hesitation. That was the difference between one’s own and the others.
He started, “Let me tell you a story, Khokon—On a tall palm tree lived an old, ugly, scary crone, her ears were huge like the winnowing trays and a long carrot like—”
Hearing only that far Khoka quickly hugged him tight in his two arms, “I’ll be scared, scared, I’ll cry—”
“OK. Then I’ll say no more.”
After a while Khokon was having some fun. He shook his little head, spread his arms wide, made two tiny fists and started with a scary voice, “Theal was an ole cone—yah big ears——”
“Hehehe! Ole cone—”
“I’m scared Khoka! Don’t say any more. I’m very scared!”
“Vely ole clone—”
“No. Stop, stop. Don’t say anymore—”
Khoka giggled and giggled in pure innocent glee. Bhabani was very amused too. He pretended to be scared and hid his face in the pillow. Seeing him scared Khoka hugged him, calling him sweetly, “Bar-da, my Bar-da.”
“Yes, love me more, I’m so scared—”
“Come, you sleep next to me—”
“Tell me about the Jonti tree—”
Bhabani started reciting—
“Jonti tree on the other side has Jonti by the scad
Eating those jonti fruits makes me feel bad
Can’t breathe, throat is dry, can’t make sound
When ever shall I reach Hara-Gouri’s ground—”
Suddenly Khoka opened his eyes big and spread his arms—”One bad ole cone—”
“Yea big ears—ole clone—”
“No more Khokon, stop!”
“I’m so scared Khokon don’t scare me —”
“My Bar-da, my Bar-da—”
Trying to please Shyam Ganguly, Bhabani had badly neglected Khokon today.
The original novel "ichhamoti" (ইছামতী) by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was his last novel. It was serialized in 'Abhyudoy' (অভ্যুদয়) first and then published in book form by 'Mitraloy' (মিত্রালয়, পৌষ ১৩৫০) on January 15, 1950 when the author was still alive.
Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra. Chhanda (Chatterjee) Bewtra was born in Purulia, West Bengal but...
Illustrated by Atanu Deb. Atanu is currently teaching in a University in Orissa, India.
Illustrated by Atanu Deb. Atanu is currently teaching in a University in Orissa, India.