Translated from the original Bangla novel
Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra
Dewan Rajaram returned home late at night from the Indigo House. He got off his horse and called, “Gurey!”
The ostler Gurudas Muchi came and caught the reins. Before entering his house Rajaram called his wife, “Bring me some Ganges-water dear.” Upon entering, he saw his wife Jagadamba doing some worship in the prayer room. Rajaram remembered that it was Saturday and his wife worshipped the God Shani. As he washed up, Jagadamba called, “Who will read the books today?”
“I’m coming. Just wait, let me change.”
Dewan Rajaram was a pious Brahmin. He wore gorod silk, sat on the grass mat and with much devotion read the collection of songs devoted to Shani. The aim was to protect his family from Shani’s curse and grow in ranks and prosperity. After reading the books, he did his evening prayers faithfully as he did every day. This was important to him. Because of working close to the sahibs all day, he didn’t enter his house without placing holy water of the Ganges on his head.
Jagadamba brought him some sinni (*) from the Shani puja and a bowl of murki. After eating he drank a bowl of water and put a paan in his mouth, then said, “Know what happened in the Indigo House today?”
Jagadamba said, “Want some sherbet of Bel?”
“Forget about sherbet. Listen to what happened—”
“What is it? What happened?”
“Baro-sahib really scolded the Chhoto-sahib.”
“We tried to teach Ramkanai Kabiraj a lesson. I know how to soften him. He has made us lose face in Ramu Sardar’s murder case. The District Magistrate Duncinson was in favor of our Baro-sahib, so I got off easy this time. Otherwise it would surely have been jail time for me. I gave that son of a bitch a lesson that he wouldn’t be able to earn a living. But now the Baro-sahib is saying not to do such things. The Government has come to know about the tortures and stuff done by the plantation owners. Some Harish Mukherjee in Calcutta is writing about it in the paper. It all has created much uproar. Such actions may now hurt the plantation sahibs. Chhoto-sahib David told me that it was that Gaya-mem who complained to Baro-sahib. She is a real devil.”
“But I thought Gaya-mem respected you!”
“Forget it. One who has no character has nothing truthful about her. How can she respect anyone? But I can’t tell her anything, otherwise I know exactly how to deal with such females.”
“Did Chhoto-sahib scold you too?”
“No way! Without me there will be no indigo planting here. The quarters will be all empty. Without Prasanna Amin and myself not even a katha of land could be marked for indigo. Who softened up Nabu Gazi? Who taught the folks of Rahatunpuri a lesson? I’m telling you, this kind of work can’t be done by either of the Sahibs. If this Rajaram died today—”
Jagadamba was not pleased, “What kind of inauspicious talk is that? In the evening? On a Saturday? Durga, Durga; Ram, Ram. Don’t ever talk like that!”
“Did Tilu or others come by?”
“Nilu came and brought Khoka along. Khoka caressed my cheeks so sweetly. May God bless him with long life. He is the favorite of all in the family. I gave him some cottage cheese and he ate it all up.”
“Don’t give cottage cheese. Causes stomach cramps.”
Before he could say more, Tilu arrived with Khoka. Khoka had grown up and became a smart boy like his dad. He shook two hands to greet Rajaram, “Barda”.
“I’m not your brother, I’m your uncle.” Rajaram picked him up on his lap.
“Barda!” Khoka said again.
Tilu said, “It’s because I call you Barda. He hears and copies me.”
Rajaram kissed Khoka, “So I’m your brother and your mother’s brother? What is Bhabani up to?”
“He is chatting with Chandra uncle. I served them a jackfruit. I came to get a dry coconut from you. They want to have puffed rice with coconut.”
“Go get from your sister-in-law. Why one? Take two.”
Just then Jagadamba looked through the window, “Dear, someone is calling you outside.”
“I don’t know. Says Gopal Minder.”
Rajaram was surprised to see the servant of the Baro-sahib Sriram Muchi. What was so urgent to send for him at night?
“What’s up, Remo?”
“Dewan-moshai, both the Sahibs are sitting together at the main bungalow and drinking. Some important news. Told me to get you quickly, on horseback.”
“Do you know why?”
“That I don’t know. Must be something serious, otherwise why call at night? You come with me. I have a spear. You should not walk out alone at night. We have lots of enemies.”
Rajaram smiled. Sriram Muchi was teaching him caution! Even now if he sat on a horse and roared, at least two villages would tremble in fear. Amongst ten or twenty blocks of villages all knew him by name.
In half an hour, Rajaram reached the sahibs’ quarters and presented himself with a salaam. The sahibs had a whisky bottle and glasses on a small table in front of them. Baro-sahib was smoking on a silver hookah. The sweet sharp smell of tobacco filled the room. Chhoto-sahib didn’t smoke but occasionally had paan, behind the backs of his superior and his Mem. Both the sahibs said something in English, then Chhoto-sahib said to Rajaram, “We are in trouble.” (Rajaram had already expected that.)
“What is it Sahib?”
“We got news from Calcutta that the farmers are refusing to allow indigo planting on their lands. Government is helping them. Prominent citizens in Calcutta are protesting in the newspapers. Now what are we to do? Can you tell us how much land is marked in Shulko, Shubhrantapur, Ulusi, Satbere and Na’hata?
Rajaram made an estimate, “About seven hundred to seven fifty bighas.”
Baro-sahib asked. “How much land is already marked?”
Rajaram respectfully said, “As I said Sahib (it was not customary to say Huzoor), about seven hundred bighas.”
Just then Mrs. Shipton arrived in the tandem. Bhaja Muchi came over to hold the horses and help her alight. It was a pitch-dark night. Where could she have gone alone in the dark? Rajaram wondered but didn’t dare ask.
Mrs. Shipton smiled at them and said something in English. Goodness! What was that? Bhaja Muchi took down a dead rabbit from the step of the carriage. At the lady’s gesture he laid the animal respectfully in front of the Sahibs. She herself was carrying a gun. This meant that she had gone rabbit hunting by the river, alone at night!
As she climbed on the porch the two men stood up. (Weird customs!) They conversed and laughed between themselves. The Mem looked at Rajaram and asked, “How do you like my hunting?”
Rajaram most humbly said, “Vey nice. Where did you get it?”
“Near the bend of the river, where there are hays.”
Bhaja Muchi explained, “The hay field of the Biswas of Sabaipur.”
“Oh! You went that far in the dark?”
“I have a gun. What is there to fear? No ghost will attack me.”
“Of course not. What ghosts?”
“No. Bhaja said there are ghosts in the fields; There are lights that come and go. What’s the name Bhaja, light-ghost?”
Before Bhaja replied, Rajaram said, “I know. Light ghosts. I’ve seen them many times myself. They are harmless.”
Baro-sahib laughed, “Nonsense. Ghosts! It is nothing but gas. The gas lights up and you see ghosts. …(Next he said something in English to the Mem that Rajaram didn’t understand)… How’s the rabbit?”
“Very good, Sir.”
“Do you eat?”
“No Sir. Many of us do, but I don’t.”
At this time Amin Prasanna Chakravarti and clerk Girish Sarkar arrived with lots of notebooks and ledgers. Rajaram was smart. He understood that tonight would be spent working. Why else did the Amin bring the ledger of the markings? Why did they need it at this time of the night?
Chhoto-sahib said something in English. Baro-sahib made a lengthy reply with much gestures and pointing at the ledgers. Chhoto-sahib nodded his head in agreement.
Then the work started and went through the night. Chhoto-sahib, Prasanna Amin, Girish clerk, Gadadhar Chakravarti clerk and Rajaram himself got together to change all the land markings, showing less lands marked than in reality in different villages. David Sahib directed to record the false numbers in a fake ledger.
Rajaram said, “One important thing is left out.”
“The thumbprint of all the ryots (*). For our convenience, we took thumbprints for the real ledger. They wouldn’t give thumbprints again, those scoundrels. Rahatunpur is against us because of the case about Nabu Ghazi. Ramu Sardar’s case has turned all the ryots of Bandhal against us. Tell us what to do.”
“Make fake thumbprints.”
“That is difficult. We need to think before doing something like that.”
“You can’t be nervous now. Remember Duncinson? One meal and two pegs whisky.”
“Not one meal Sahib, many meals. Just think. Remember the case of the hanging? We hanged Giridhari Jeley. But those days were very different from the present time. Sriram now has to carry a spear to go out at night. He was telling me today.”
They worked under candlelight till early next morning. All were tired. David too didn’t rest or skipped work. Baro-sahib came before sunrise. Both sahibs talked about something. Baro-sahib asked Rajaram, “Changed all the markings?”
“Everything is OK?”
“There is still three days’ work left. What to do about the thumbprints Sahib? How can we fake so many thumbprints?”
“I can’t figure out how. How can we fake them? Don’t we have to go to prison for that?”
“If everything is made fake why not that too? We must think out a plan. Everything is possible with enough money. You do good work. I’m increasing your and Amin’s pays by two rupees from this month.”
Rajaram bowed his head in appreciation, “It is all your blessings. Only you can protect us or destroy us.”
Baro-sahib said something in English and left the room.
It was afternoon.
Prasanna Amin had done a fair amount of work. Girish Muhuri the clerk asked Gadadhar in a low voice, “How about some food?”
Gadadhar took the string off his glasses and looked around, “Why don’t you ask Rajaram-thakur?”
“Not me. I feel embarrassed.”
“What is there to be embarrassed about? Aren’t you hungry?”
“That I am.”
“Then ask him. I’m not going to.”
Just then the bench-clerk Narahari Peshkar came out and called them, “Dewanji, Aminbabu, have you had your bath? Food is ready. Go have your bath.”
Rajaram said, “This will take me longer. You guys go have lunch.”
Later they all sat together—except Dewanji, he didn’t eat in the Indigo House, and not before his daily prayers. He couldn’t do all that there.
Narahari was a good Brahmin. He did all the cooking. Golap Pandey helped him. He cooked well. Sahibs might make you work but also fed you well. There was curry of a huge rui (*) fish. Five or six pieces of fried fish, a sour preparation with unripe mango, a curry with fish-heads and curd.
Gadadhar Muhuri was fond of eating. He spoke up, “Well, Peshkar-moshai, no desserts?”
It was not customary to have rasagollas as desserts in those days. People had sugar mauths, wafers or sugar balls. Narahari said, “I didn’t remember, otherwise Chhoto-sahib would have paid for it.”
Gadadhar swallowed a ball of rice, “Got to admit, the sahibs know how to feed. Right Prasanna-dada?”
Prasanna Amin had been absent minded lately. He was not in a good mood. He had been thinking about something. He didn’t feel like answering Gadadhar. At any other time he would have enjoyed the rush of work and this feast with the others, but his mind was not in it. He had been eating because he had to and working because he had to—like a wound up doll, without enjoying anything. In his mind was only one thought, one reality, one idea.
What was that thought?
Prasanna Amin had fallen in love with Gaya-mem.
It was a very strong attraction but he couldn’t tell anyone about it. How could he? Gaya was a fruit on a very high branch. How could a simple man like Prasanna Amin dare reach for her? Just the fact that Gaya treated him kindly was more than enough for him. That meant she knew about his feelings and did not discourage them, in fact she occasionally encouraged him.
While sitting with others for lunch Prasanna kept thinking of Gaya’s supple figure, the beguiling looks in her wide eyes and her beautiful face. He felt choked up with emotions and could hardly swallow down the rice. He had ignored even the arrogance of Chhoto-sahib for her sake only. At long last, he had a glimpse of happiness. No woman had ever looked at him with kindness. This had created a huge emptiness in his life. His first wife used to talk with a whimper although her name was Saraswati. In spite of that, she did care for him a great deal. He was barely nineteen or twenty at that time. His father Ratan Chakravarti was a stern disciplinarian. He had arranged the marriage, Prasanna dared not say anything about it.
Saraswati used to serve him paanta-bhaat (*) for dinner with sliced lemon, tamarind syrup, chili peppers and some oil to mix it all up. She used to get just one sari for the Charak festival and was so happy for that. She would invite him to take her to her parents’ house, “I’ll make you bitter gourd with jackfruit seeds. We have so many jackfruits. They are this big and each with huge pods.” She would widen her arms to show.
Some times she would sing songs to herself in her nasal voice. He never felt like laughing at her songs. In fact he pitied her. She wasn’t pretty,a had dark skin and prominent teeth. Still, even pet animals deserve some sympathy.
Saraswati kicked the bucket trying to deliver her first child. Prasanna got married the second time with Annapurna, the youngest daughter of Sanatan Chowdhury from Rajnagar. Annapurna was reasonably good looking, and being of fair complexion, was quite proud of her looks. She was still alive, but in her parents’ house. She didn’t have any kids. She never cared for her husband seriously, perhaps because of the affluence of her parents. No one had such fine pressed rice from ‘kele’ paddy or such thick dry curd. They had seven granaries at their house!
Annapurna hurt Prasanna’s feelings. She could be so proud of her wealth, her granaries? How many granaries did Sanatan Chowdhury have? If Prasanna was the apt son of Ratan Chakravarti, he would some day show Annapurna what paddy granaries are made of.
He well remembered one day in Chaitra (*), a muggy hot day, hill glory flowers were blooming under the ‘banshni’ bamboos in the grove, she asked, “Can you get the goldsmith to melt my coconut flower style bangles and make a bracelet?”
Prasanna’s finances were not going well at that time. His father had just passed away, he used to earn a small salary in the zaminder’s office of Haripaprasanna Mukherjees in Garapota. He said, “Why? These flowers look good on your hands.”
“Nonsense. They are wedding gifts, too thin and fragile. I want a bracelet.”
“Wait for a couple of years.”
“In two years I’ll be dead.”
“Don’t say inauspicious things like that. Chhi--”
“You don’t have the ability. Say that. My father gave me up to a useless man like you. Marriage to a widower! Some marriage! Even that would be better if he had the money to keep a wife. I curse my own bad luck—”
With that the seventeen year old female sat on the floor and started bawling. Wouldn’t a husband feel slighted at this? She left for her parents’ house next Ashwin (*) and never returned. That had been seven or eight years ago.
He did go to Rajnagar two or three times, to get his wife back. But Annapurna’s mother insulted him and sent him away without her daughter, “My daughter will not go to your house to boil paddy grains and sift rice. When you get the money to keep her in proper style, come and take her away in a palanquin.”
Prasanna Chakravarti never went back there.
Prasanna Amin was sitting near the swamp. This was the time Gaya-mem and her mother Barada Bagdini came for water. Just one look at her. Prasanna didn’t want anything else.
Today when he saw her coming he felt delighted but his heart raced too. Gaya was alone, no mother with her. Gaya came closer and saw Prasanna, “Uncle, you are sitting here alone?”
“Hoping you would come by.”
“What is there for you?”
“Nothing. Where is your mother?”
“She is husking paddy. She had boiled and dried the paddy for other folks. Now she has to deliver the husked grain before the rain comes. Those people won’t listen to any excuse. You stay, I’ve got to go.”
“Wait a bit, won’t you?”
“What for? I’ll get wet in the rain.”
Prasanna stared at her face spellbound.
Gaya said, “What are you staring at?”
Prasanna shyly said, “Nothing else. When you stand in front of me, how can I look at anything else?”
“Why? What happens?”
“Just thinking, it is a nice day today—”
Gaya sounded grumpy, “I don’t have time to listen to this nonsense. I’m going.”
“Just wait a minute. The world wouldn’t come to an end.”
“No. I can’t stand here like a clown. See, how the clouds are darkening.”
Across the bend of the swamp, the dark rainclouds of Shraban (*) were gathering over the deep green aush paddy and the indigo plants. White egrets flew against the far horizon just below the cloud line. Sudden gust of cool wind rose across the fields of green. The rushing of the wind could be heard from far away. The opposite shore of the swamp faded out in the rain. The raindrops made concentric circles on the clear water of the swamp.
Prasanna stood up busily, “Gaya, you’ll get wet. Come to my house.”
“No. I’m going to the Indigo House.”
“Gaya, listen. You’ll be soaked.”
“I am only trying to help. There is nobody in my house, Come on.”
“No, I won’t. I think of you as my uncle. Don’t I?”
“So what? I’m not saying anything indecent. You’ll get wet; my house is nearby, just asking you to take shelter. What is wrong in that?”
“I don’t have time for useless arguments. You better run too. Look at those clouds—”
“Hope you are not angry at me. Gaya, please, listen—”
Gaya, while running, shouted back, “No, no. Are you crazy? Can you imagine a person like this?”
Prasanna pleaded, “Please don’t tell anyone, Gaya, I swear—”
From a distance Gaya’s voice could be heard, “Don’t get soaked in the rain. Uncle, go home. Go home, Uncle.”
How much more could a lowly snail hope to receive from the moon?
Wasn’t this enough?
Ramkanai Kabiraj was very surprised that the people of the indigo plantations did not bother him anymore.
Gaya-mem came again today and brought him milk. She often brought many other items too. Ramkanai initially refused her for not being able to pay for them, but Gaya made it easy by establishing a father-daughter relationship. People had again started asking him for medical consultations, with minimal fees like a ridge gourd, a pumpkin or an occasional coin of two annas or a quarter. These were his visiting fees.
Nalu Pal’s wife Tulsi was pregnant. She had pain in her abdomen and some other symptoms. Harish Doctor treated for a few days but she didn’t feel better. People told Nalu, “You have the money, take her to a better kabiraj.”
Ramkanai could not be classified among those ‘better kabirajes’ because he was poor. People only respected money, not honesty or ability. If Ramkanai visited his patients on a palanquin like Harish did, he too could have easily charged a fee of eight annas.
Nalu Pal for some unknown reason decided to call Ramkanai Kabiraj. Ramkanai examined the patient and said, “I will write a prescription, but you have to gather the proper accompaniments—juice of kalmi (*) greens. must be boiled with sea-salt and stored in a pot for seven days.”
Nalu Pal was not the Nalu Pal of olden days. He had remarkably improved his status. Last year he built himself an eight-roofed house. Such a large house was a sign of significant wealth in these villages. Of course the highest sign of wealth was hosting the Durga Puja festival. Nalu did that too last year and fed many villagers. Now he is known as a bona fide wealthy man. In his house were new almirahs framed by cowrie-shells, decorated stacks of pots hanging on colorful rope hangers, cool reed mats on the floor, fancy gun-metal boxes for paans, brightly shining brass stands for oil lamps—all the essentials of a well to do household. Nalu noticed Ramkanai’s admiring glances and said, “This time I’ve decided to buy some clay fruits made by the potters with potters' wheels. That new clothes hanger made of cowrie shells over there? I got it for two and half rupees from a Brahmin woman in Binodpur. She made it herself.
“Will she get well Kabiraj-moshai?”
“If she doesn’t, the Madhab Nidan book will be wrong. But you know what? Just the prescription is not enough. Proper accompaniments and diet are very important too. That juice of kalmi greens must be taken as directed . That is the accompaniment. Understood?”
He was given snacks of sliced cucumbers, large sugar wafers, grated coconut and sweetened coconut balls. Ramkanai wouldn’t partake any grains in the house of the low caste Shudras. But he did accept one katha rice, lentil balls of chickpeas and an eight-anna coin as the visiting fee.
On his way back, Bhabani Banerji met him, “Greetings, Kabiraj-moshai.”
“Are you well Jamai-babu (*)?”
“By your blessings. You must pay a visit to my house. My son has a fever and cough for last two-three days. Please take a look.”
“Sure, sure, let’s go.”
Khoka was sleeping under an embroidered quilt made by his aunt Jagadamba. Ramkanai checked his pulse, “New fever. Also has excess fluid in his system. I will give you some pills. Give those mixed with honey and juice of night jasmine leaves.”
His mother Tilu and two ‘younger mothers’ were anxiously standing around the bed. They were not wedded brides but girls grown up in this village, so according to the village etiquette they could come and go in front of male villagers. If the girls were from other villages, they wouldn’t even be allowed to talk to their husbands in public or in daytime, let alone other men. According to the rules of the villages that would be taken as a sign of extreme shamelessness.
Tilu said tearfully, “What do you think of Khoka’s fever Kabiraj-moshai?”
“It’s nothing, dear mother. New fever. It is happening all around in this monsoon season. Nothing to worry about.”
“Will he get well?”
“Of course, otherwise why are we here?”
Nilu said, “I kneel at your feet, Kabiraj-moshai, please check Khoka well.”
“Mother, I’m telling you. Give him the pills for three days and he will get all better. Don’t worry.”
“Why is there a noise when he breathes?”
“It is the phlegm. And excess of fluid. It is usual. Don’t worry. Grind up one pill right now. Do you have a mortar and pestle?”
“I’ll go get one from Sidhu-uncle’s house.”
Tilu said, “It is almost lunch time. Please have something before you leave. It is inauspicious to let someone leave on empty stomach at mealtime. You must have something.”
Bhabani too folded his hands, “Just some greens and rice. Poor man’s fare.”
Ramkanai was at once enchanted and overcome by their humility and good manners. Nobody had ever welcomed him like this or showed him so much respect, even though Bhabani was none other than the Dewanji’s brother-in-law, and so a jamai of their family.
Tilu arranged two low wooden seats and offered them various dishes. Ramkanai could not remember if anybody ever asked him to eat each item in this way. There was moong dal, fried pointed gourds, spicy fish curry, amra (*) sour and home made curd, jackfruit and good quality bananas. Ramkanai was amazed. Today must be his lucky day.
After the meal, he asked a serious question to Bhabani.
“Say Jamaibabu, you are a wise, learned man. Everyone praises your knowledge. I haven’t learned much. Just a little Sanskrit to study the Ayurveda (*) from late (Ramkanai folded his hands in remembrance) Patitpaban Kabiraj of Teghara Senhati. What do we know. Can you explain what exactly is the Original Event?”
“What is that? What event?”
“The Original Event.”
“Sir, I am not clear what—”
“Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar, these three got together to create this universe… Now what exactly happened at that time? Can you tell me in detail? I often lie awake and think about these things. How did it start and from what?”
Bhabani Banerji was in a fix. Brahma and Vishnu didn’t consult him while creating the universe. How would he know the inside details? Besides, what was there to tell? He remembered Patanjali, Sankhya, and Vedanta too—but to explain all that to a village doctor? No. That wouldn’t do. He was amused by the name too. The Original Event!
Suddenly Ramkanai spoke up, “But I have a feeling…been thinking about this for many days…whether it is Brahma, Vishnu or Maheshwar, they are all one and the same. Right? I think all three are One and the One is all three. What do you say?”
Bhabani couldn’t have been more surprised if at that moment Ramkanai sprouted four arms like Vishnu and blessed him—‘Vatsya, Barang brinu—iha gatohasmi!’ This simple village doctor easily spoke out the core truth of Advaita Brahmavaad, the Unified Knowledge of Brahma, in straightforward clear language, in this corner of an uneducated, superstition-ridden, greed-blinded, envy and hatred infested, dark, backward, dank thatched village room!
Bhabani remained stunned for a few moments. He had seen many men in many places. He could recognize a talent when he saw one. He looked up, “Kabiraj-moshai, you are absolutely right. What more can I tell you? You are indeed the learned one.”
“Yes, now you got it, Jamai-babu. You got a learned man—”
Tilu too was very surprised. She had studied a fair amount from her husband and knew the main summary of Vedanta. She too couldn’t imagine Ramkanai could capture the essence so simply. She said, “I’ve heard a lot about you. You had to undergo a lot of torture by the sahibs and my brother. You still didn’t agree to give false statements in court for the murder of Ramu Sardar. I know it all. I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time. I couldn’t imagine you’d come to our house and have a meal with us. We are so blessed. I’m sure because you always cling to the truth, the Truth comes easily to you.”
Bhabani didn’t know that Tilu could speak so eloquently. He just looked at her and said, “Very good.”
Tilu smiled, “What’s very good?”
“The way you said it. By the way, Kabiraj-moshai, how old are you?”
“Year 1234, month Magh (*). So calculate. 17th Magh.”
“Then you are older than me. I shall call you Dada.”
Tilu said, “Me too. Dada, you must come and have meals with us more often. Will you?”
Ramkanai thought it must be a very auspicious day for him. Otherwise how could he be so greeted and welcome by people like them?
“Sure I will. Most definitely. If I don’t dine in my sister’s house, where else could I go? OK, Didi, I’ll leave for today. Have to see one more patient in Sabaipur. The medicine I gave your son should make the fever go away by evening. I’ll come by again to see him tomorrow.”
Nilu added the spices to shukto and took it off the stove. Khokon’s mother had left him with Nilu and gone to their brother’s house. Apparently their brother Rajaram was in a fix, the sahibs wanted to take him with them somewhere.
Khokon kept saying, “Chho—ma—chho—ma—”
“What more? No, no more jaggery for you.”
Khokon was a good boy. While playing by himself he upturned a bowl of oil, then started toddling towards the stove.
“No! Now you will be roasted like a brinjal. I don’t know how I can cook and babysit this child. That queen mother couldn’t take him with her! Hey Bilu Didi—is there anyone nearby when needed? You sit, right here. And don’t reach for the bowl again, or else—”
Khokon said, “Bowwl.”
“Keep the bowl over there.”
“Yes, Ma is coming, soon.”
Khokon looked outside, “No.” Then he turned his hands up and down, “No, no.”
“OK, fine, no. Please stay put there, good boy—”
“Coming. Gone to take his bath in the river.”
“O good Lord! I can’t keep on yakking with you. Sit—Hey! It’s hot, hot! It’ll burn your feet. Look at him, keeling over the hot shukto. O Didi—”
Now Khokon started crying. Nilu’s voice had a hint of scolding. Khokon started, “Maaaaa—”
Nilu quickly picked him up in her arms, “O, good boy, don’t cry, sweetheart, quiet, quiet, who is making my sweetheart cry? Why? Your mommy? Because she left you? Go away, all of you—”
Khokon kept sobbing, “Ma, ma—”
“Don’t cry, I wasn’t scolding you. If I did, your dad will scold me back. What do you want? O, look! There is a birdie!”
Tilu entered in a hurry, “What happened to my little darling, why is he crying?”
“Your spoiled son turns on the waterworks if anybody raises his voice even a little. Where is Dada gone? What did they say?”
“Dada has gone to the plantation. Someone named Titu Mir is fighting against the Queen’s soldiers. The plantation sahibs, with all the workers, have joined the battle and want to take Dada with them too.”
“That’s what I heard. Boudi (*) is crying her heart out. After all it is a battle, question of life and death—”
Nilu too suddenly started crying loudly. More Tilu tried to console her, louder Nilu cried. Khokon looked in surprise at her younger mother crying and started to cry too. Bilu came running fearing some disaster, “What happened Didi? Why is everyone crying?”
Tilu said, “Dada has gone to a battle against Titu Mir. Nilu heard that and is crying. Can you make her understand? She is still such a kid. Dada loves her so much and she too is so fond of him.”
Bilu sat by Nilu and started to console her, “Quit crying like a child. It is inauspicious too. Whole plantation has gone with him. Dada is totally safe. If you keep crying, Khoka woudn’t stop either—”
Tilu said, “Like he is not our Dada too! Are we crying like you? It is inauspicious to cry like this. I’m sure Dada will be back by tomorrow. Now stop—”
Right then Bhabani arrived, “Dada is just back from the battle. I just met him. Why? Why is she crying?”
“She is crying for Dada. Oh. Thank God he is well. When did he come?”
“Just now. Saw him getting off his horse.”
Nilu forgot crying and was listening to them. Now she said, “Come Didi, let’s go see him.”
Bhabani said, “Not now.”
“No? But I really want to see him.”
“If you both go, your sister too would want to go, who will take care of Khoka?”
Tilu agreed, “Yes, don’t go now. Let him go first and get all the news.”
The three sisters always obeyed Bhabani. But Nilu said, “Your mind is very convoluted. You have no idea how much I’m missing my brother. But go, you go have a look first—”
Within half an hour many had gathered in Dewan Rajaram’s Chandi pavilion. Bhabani was among them too.
Phoni Chakrabarti asked, “So, brother, hope you were not hurt.”
Rajaram assured, “No, Dada. There was hardly a battle. But apparently they did kill many people before, mostly innocent villagers.”
“Who is this Titu Mir?”
“Some Muslim leader type—as I understood. That day I was with Baro-sahib when he got a letter. Apparently this fakir Titu Mir had started a battle with the Queen’s soldiers. They were all very angry at the indigo planting sahibs. Looting, robbing, even killing them.”
“Who sent the letter?”
“The new magistrate who replaced Duncinson-sahib. He asked all the sahibs to bring all their guards and other folks. We saw rows of tents in the mango orchards along the banks of Jamuna. People, horses, guns and arms, plus tents for the Queen’s soldiers. It was a huge affair. I was having fun. Prasanna Amin was with me. He is an experienced fellow. He said, ‘I’ll go see who this Titu Mir is, what he is up to.’ We weren’t really scared. There was no fighting. They even made a bamboo fort near the river—”
“Were there many sahibs?”
“Many. From Boalmari, Panchite, Raghunathganj, Palpara, Dighre-Bishnupur—all the indigo planters had come with their troops and ammos-- guns, cartridges and gunpowders. Villagers were providing their chicken, ducks and goats. Titu Mir’s men beat up a woman so bad that she was bleeding from her nose and mouth. Titu Mir’s fort was three and a half miles away. We stayed in a mango orchard.
“How was the battle?”
“Titu Mir told his folks that the sahibs’ firepower would not even touch him. First the Queen’s soldiers fired empty shots. Titu Mir told his folks that he ate up all the ammunitions. Next round was with the live ammo. Twenty-two people died. The rest turned back and ran for their lives. Titu Mir was arrested and sent off to Calcutta. That was it. Battle over. After that we all came back home.”
Nilmoni Samaddar commented while drawing on the hookah, “We were so worried. Perhaps you landed in some huge battle. And you are the head of the village. What can we do without you? Sham Bagdi’s oldest daughter Kusum ran away with her brother-in-law. Her father had to get her back from Mamudpur. Day before was supposed to be her judgment. It was postponed because of your absence. They are holding it today I hear. ”
That evening Sham Bagdi and his daughter Kusum came to Rajaram’s house.
Rajaram said, “What’s up Sham?”
“Brought the girl to you. Now do what you have to do.”
Rajaram was an experienced person. Without saying anything right away he asked, “Where is your daughter?”
“There. Standing behind the post. Hey, Kusi—”
Kusum came out and stood in front. She was about eighteen to twenty, had a fully developed perfect body and a load of long, black hair. She looked like a statue carved out of black marble. Her eyes were surprisingly beautiful. Her face was perfect too. Rajaram had only seen Gaya-mem as beautiful as this girl. The girl had a simple, calm look in her eyes.
Rajaram thought, ‘Nice body. Like a perfect grain of rice amidst the chaff. Baro-sahib will grab her right away.’
“What’s your name?”
“Why did you leave home?”
Kusum was silent.
“Don’t you like living with your parents?”
Kusum timidly looked at Rajaram, “My stepmother doesn’t give me enough to eat, she scolds and beats me. My brother-in-law said he would give me a house and enough to eat—”
“When could he? My father got me back right away.”
“Well, you can eat enough if you stay here in my house. Will you?”
“I will miss—”
“Miss whom? You left your father; your stepmother doesn’t like you. Who will you miss?”
Kusum was silent again.
Sham Bagdi had stayed quiet out of respect for Rajaram. Now he said, “Let me explain. My youngest son by this wife is very fond of her. She will miss him.”
“In that case how could she leave him and run away? You guys are all confused. Talking nonsense. You’ll stay in our house, get enough to eat, wouldn’t make you work too hard, just clean the cowsheds every morning.”
Sham Bagdi agreed, “Yes, stay here. That’ll be the best for you.”
Rajaram called his wife, “Listen dear, this girl will stay here from now. She likes to eat. Have any murki at home?”
Jagadamba was staring at them in surprise, “Isn’t she Kusi from the Bagdis? She used to come here so often, with her grandmother. Don’t you remember girl?”
Kusum shook her head, “No. I was too small.”
“Want to stay with us?”
“Good. You can have murki and pressed rice. Come, let’s go to the kitchen.”
Rajaram said, “You will stay here like part of our family. Clean the cowsheds everyday. If you want to eat something ask your mother. If you want coconut, there is plenty. Just grate one. We have murki too, eat all you want. Nobody has to leave home for want of food. We have so much food going to waste and a girl in my village can’t get enough to eat? You too must talk to your second wife Sham. This is not nice. This girl doesn’t have her own mother, who would care for her?”
Sham showed some irritation, “Don’t tell me about my wife. She drives me nuts. I come from work in the field; she doesn’t offer me even a handful of fried rice. Everyday she gives us the same paanta-bhaat(*). I ask her for some warm rice, but the sun will make a whole round before she would get me some with a couple of ridge gourds. She doesn’t even die so I could marry someone else!”
Kusum was smiling. She seemed very amused at her father’s speech.
Ramkanai Kabiraj set down a date palm leaf mat for Bhabani Banerji to sit, “Please have a seat Jamai-babu.”
“What are you doing?”
“Preparing to boil some roots of eesh (*). But it is hard to find it in all this rain.”
It was almost dusk. It was raining non-stop for three days in the mid Shraban (*). The rain-soaked tithpalla (*) bushes were looking strangely shaped. The streams of water were flowing by like little rivers. The sound of the rain was deafening. In the Bagdi community, Noley Bagdi, Adhar Sardar, his three adult sons, Bhepu Mali—all were carrying nets and poles and trying to catch fish in the knee-deep water of the fish-bund. The raindrops made everything appear hazy and indistinct. One golden shower shrub behind Ramkanai’s hut still had a few flowers swinging on the branches. The open field filled with water was looking like a pond. There was nobody outside. One ivy gourd vine had found its way inside the hut. Soft new green leaves were opening up on its tip.
“Let me make you some tobacco. You are all wet. Wipe yourself with this gamchha.”
“Have been house bound for last three days due to this rain. There is nobody in the village to talk theology with. All are totally materialistic. That’s why I came over.”
“It is my good fortune. Would you like some pressed rice? I do have some jaggery.”
“Only if you too have some with me.”
“We will both have. Don’t worry. You are my guest. Sadly, I don’t have much to offer. I have some gaoa-ghee (*), would you like to mix in some?
“Let me see. Did you buy this or make it yourself?”
Ramkanai brought down a tiny glass bottle from the low wooden stool and showed Bhabani, “I make it myself. Gaya-mem brings a little bit of milk, calls me ‘father’. She is a good girl. She brought this bottle too, from the sahibs. I collect the skin over the cooling milk and make ghee from that. We need pure ghee for our medicines. Many add buffalo-milk ghee brought from the market instead of gaoa-ghee made from cow milk, but that is cheating. And you can’t cheat when it is a matter of life and death, can you? How would you answer to God in the afterlife?”
“Say no more Kabiraj-moshai. The whole world is running on falsehood and cheating. Just look at our own village. Every one is concerned with his own material gain. Cheating others out of their lands, harassing the poor, spreading rumors against others, getting entangled in legal actions –these are all what concern them. They are all like frogs in a well, unaware of the world outside.”
Ramkanai, in the meantime, had mixed the gaoa-ghee with the pressed rice, got some jaggery from the clay pot on the hanging shelf. In a stone bowl he put some jaggery and the ghee rice mixture and offered to Bhabani, “Would you like a green chili?”
“Would you tell me something about the Original Event? Who is God? Is He visible? Let me tell you, I sit in the dark, alone in this hut and wonder about these. But where to find the answers? Can you explain? Please say something.”
Bhabani Banerji felt unprepared. Ramkanai Kabiraj was an honest man, a seeker of the truth. He respected him. How could he answer such profound, epic questions? Did he have the ability to appease this old man’s thirst for knowledge? Especially answering his questions about the Creator of this universe? He always disliked speaking out without thinking and in front of uninterested audience. He respected Ramkanai too much to be flippant in his answer. He remembered the Upanishad—
Abidyayang bahudha bartamana
Bayang kritartha ityabhimanyanti balah.
An ignorant person immerses himself in the stupidity and ignorance and thinks, 'I am doing fine, I have achieved my goals'.
Was he not also one of them?
Was not this old man wiser than him? Was he not one of those men who—
Tapahshraddhe ye hypabasyaranye
Shanta Vidyangsho vykshacharyang charanta
Suryadwarena te birajah prayanti
Yatramritah se purusho hyabyayatma.
Those serene wise men who live in the forests, sustain themselves by begging and meditate with great devotion, those greedless men, free of attachment, go by the Sun’s path to that place where the eternal, formless, all encompassing Being resides.
Had Bhabani Bannerji come to sell needles to a blacksmith?
He said with much humility, “What can I tell a person like you? He is the Great One, who has created this entire universe. He is the everlasting Brahma, He is life, He is the word, and He is the mind.
Tadetadaksharang brahma sa pranastadubyang manah
Tadetat satya tadamritang tadbeddhwabyang somyabiddhi--”
Ramkanai was not totally ignorant in Sanskrit. He closed his eyes and listened. Overcome with emotions he kept saying, “Bravo, bravo.”
He held Bhabani’s hands, “What beautiful words you spoke. Nobody speaks of these here. My heart is filled. I so love to listen to these shlokas. Say some more, please.”
Bhabani respectfully recited—
“He who is smaller than the smallest, greater than the greatest, He lives in the hearts of all living beings. ‘Asino durang brajati’—even when seated, he is away at a distance, ‘Shayano yati sarbatrah’—even when lying down, he can go everywhere.
“Yadarchim yadanubhyohanu cha
Yasmin loka nihita lokinashcha.
“Who is brilliant, who is finer than an atom. Within whom, all worlds reside, everything is contained—”
Ramkanai had moved aside his bowl of pressed rice. He was still holding the half eaten green chili in his right hand, his face was open in wonder like an idiot, tears were flowing down his cheeks. He looked like a painting. Bhabani was amazed looking at his tearful eyes.
Over the ditch the seventh day moon was rising in a clear sky over the thorn acacia tree. A barn owl called from behind the reeds.
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.