Pratul’s dad’s antics, when in a hurry, always ruined everything. Nothing would have been affected if Pratul left a day later. All schools, colleges and offices were reopening the day after the vacation for the festive season, all the trains and buses were crowded. Pratul was not in this rush, so why did he have to travel back with this crowd?
Hili station was twenty three miles away. People were putting their things on the roof of the bus. Trunks, suitcases, beddings. Creating a huge ruckus. Most were college students, going to Kolkata on the North Bengal Express. Pratul would go by the Assam Mail or the North Bengal in the other direction.
The bus started. Two tobacco traders sitting on either side of Pratul were talking about business. In the seats in front of him sat a gentleman with his wife and children. They occupied an entire row. Three or four naughty, screaming children were giving Pratul a headache.
Pratul had somehow managed to create some space for himself, but the littlest boy kept trying to climb into his lap to look out the window. Even though this was rather painful and inconvenient, Pratul suppressed his annoyance for the sake of politeness.
The war had just begun. On the other side of the bus, three or four gentlemen were busy arguing and debating about the war. To Pratul they sounded as if they had every detail of the war at their fingertips, they understood the matter better than even Hitler or Chamberlain, and could explain to each other in detail the mistakes made by both sides.
Right behind the driver, in the front of the bus, were a few reserved seats. Two girls were sitting there, accompanied by an elderly gentleman, probably their guardian. One of the girls was about nineteen or twenty years old, the other was perhaps twenty two or twenty three. The younger girl was quite pretty, the other one was dark-skinned, her features couldn’t be called particularly attractive, but she was endowed with some sort of grace. Pratul stole a few quick glances at her.
A few miles later the bus stopped at Balurghat town. A girl got on here, and so did several men. The bus was crowded to start with, where would the extra passengers sit? Left with no choice, many of the new travellers remained standing, the girl however found a spot in the reserved seats.
In the middle of all this, a blind beggar started to beg. He got in at a village called Sadardihi, around eleven and a half miles from Balurghat. The bus stopped for about ten minutes at a royal court there.
The gentleman in front gave his son a paisa and said — “Go, put it in the beggar’s hand.”
The child walked ahead and said — “Here you go, beggarman”.
The gentleman scolded his son and said — “You shouldn’t say that, you should not call him a beggar. Chhi!”
The blind beggar took the coin and smiled, turned towards him and said —“It is a child’s words, do they know any better, Sir? Young man, what is your name?”
A huge cloud of dust had obscured everything behind the bus. Pratul was thinking that his bedding on top of the bus must be seven layers deep in dust by now.
The road was never ending. It stretched across vast fields, sometimes there were marshes and rice paddies and a few villages.
It was the end of October, thankfully it wasn’t too hot. Given how crowded the bus was, it would have been unbearable in the heat, even the movement of the bus would not have helped. Pratul stuck his head out once and checked if he could see a station.
In the jerking of the bus the girl from Balurghat dropped a book. It bounced off someone’s foot and sliding through the gaps between the seats, it came to a stop right at the legs of Pratul’s seat. Pratul bent over and picked the book up, it was a college textbook for English –‘Eight Victorian Poets’. He held the book up to attract the girl’s attention and said — ‘Here, your book has fallen down.’ The book was passed back to her.
Pratul hadn’t noticed so far. This girl was the prettiest of all the girls on the bus. She had very fair skin, she wasn’t older than twenty, and was unmarried. He’d already found out that she was a college student.
Which college was she in? What was her name? From which family in Balurghat could she be?
Big tin roofs and rain trees were visible — the Hili Bazaar. One could see the station’s signal.
“Here. Put your shoes on, we have reached Hili. Oh, where is the box of betel leaves? Look quickly, it has fallen under the seat. Sit quietly, let the bus reach the railway station, then you can see the trains. Please count our luggage. One, two, three, four — one two on top of the bus. The Assam Mail is arriving soon.”
In a rush, the passengers starting getting off the bus. The bus conductor was taking luggage from the the roof and piling them on the porters’ heads. The big crowd was adding to the general chaos.
“That red suitcase, with a towel wrapped around it, bring it down.”
“Careful, careful. Hold it properly, there are glass objects inside it.”
“Not that, not that. That tin one. It has RCD written on it. Yes, that one.”
The Assam Mail pulled in. The passengers were running for their lives with their luggage. Pratul had just one tin suitcase and a bedding roll, not particularly heavy, so he grabbed them himself and ran towards the ticket counter. If he gave them to a porter that would be four paisas spent right there.
The Assam Mail wasn’t that crowded but in the Shillong Mail which started at Parbatipur and arrived via Lucknow or Kanpur, there was barely any space to stand as passengers from North India were travelling to Assam to work at various tea gardens in the early winter.
The train reached Rongia junction in the early morning. The Bhatikhali tea gardens were sixteen miles from here. Pratul was a doctor. It had been about a year since he had joined this job. The tea gardens provided him living quarters for free, things were cheap here, he was managing alright for himself.
From Rongia, Pratul had to take a motor bus again. The bus dropped him off on Rongapara Road, two miles from the tea gardens. Pratul hired a porter for this short distance and reached his quarters at around half past nine.
It was a very quiet place. In the distance one could see low blue mountains which looked like clouds. On one side there was a big marsh, surrounded by a forest of reeds. In the autumn morning, it felt like there was a wet, unpleasant mist rising from the lake. The tea gardens were dens of malaria and kala-azar. Pratul himself had fallen prey to malaria a few times since moving there.
Pratul neither knew how nor liked to cook. So he employed Shibnath Bhattacharya, an Assamese, to double as a cook in exchange for his own meal on top of his regular job of compounding medicines for Pratul.
The servant of the dispensary came running out to greet Pratul and tell him that Shibnath had taken two days off and gone home, he would be back the day after tomorrow. Pratul had come today just because of his father rushing him, otherwise the day after had been the day he was intending to come back on.
He said to the servant — “Bhim, draw water for my bath and cooking. Hurry up, I guess we have to suffer for these two days. Were there any cases these past few days? No? Take the key and go sweep the floor of the office.”
Before his bath, when he tried to open his suitcase he noticed that the lock on his suitcase was different. He didn’t have the key to it. Oh what a bother, this must be his sister Kamala’s handiwork. She had packed his bags before he left yesterday, she must have got confused and put some other lock here.
With a lot of effort, he prised open the lock with a thin metal rod. He opened the suitcase to take out his dhoti and froze with surprise when he saw the contents of the suitcase. Whose things were these? Whose sarees?
At the top of the box were neatly stacked colorful sarees, beneath it were six or seven blouses, two petticoats; there were also a powder box, a jar of cream and more nice-looking, tall and round boxes, big and small, bottles, a soap dish, a writing pad, fountain pen ink, a wad of letters, a mirror, a comb and so many more things. What a disaster! Whose box was this?
At first he thought maybe his sister Kamala’s suitcase, by some mistake — but no, that was not the case. Kamala did not own such luxurious sarees and things. Plus this was a box packed for going someplace, Kamala always stayed home and had no reason to have a packed suitcase.
Confounded, Pratul picked up the things from the box and started looking at them. Inside a big velvet box was a necklace with a locket, a ring, two big earrings, a big golden safety pin, a few gold bangles; a few dozen fashionable glass bangles, with big pieces of glass set in them in various designs. In a money bag there were four ten rupee notes and some change. A very feminine suitcase. There was no sign or scent of a man in any item in the suitcase, not even in its vibe.
When Pratul realized what had happened he almost died of embarrassment. It was obvious that his suitcase was switched with someone else’s, but where did this happen? In the train, or in the bus from Balurghat? It must have been in the bus because there were no women in his compartment in the train. The compartment that he had boarded in the train from Parbatipur was loaded with Hindusthani and Marwari passengers, this suitcase could not belong to any of them, this was a Bengali girl’s suitcase.
So if it got switched in the bus, then which girl did it belong to? Of course this line of thought led him to no conclusion since it could have belonged to any of the girls as everybody’s luggage was loaded on the roof. Anyway, he could think about that later, he had enough time. The problem now was that apart from what he was wearing he did not have a spare dhoti, lungi, soap, razor, gamccha— he had nothing. And this tea garden was as secluded as the French Equatorial Africa — you could find nothing here. There was a Marowari clothes shop in a small market seven miles away but the clothes there were not suitable for a Bengali gentleman.
But right now what would he wear after his bath? Where is the gamchha to dry himself with after bath? What would he shave with? Though there was a barber, Pratul would never shave with his razor, even if his beard grew as long as a hermit’s like Narada.
He had never faced this sort of a conundrum in his life. What was he going to do now?
No, there was no other way. After a lot of thought he decided that no matter who this suitcase belonged to, he would have to use the single gamchha and one saree for now — he had no other choice!
Trying to pick out a saree was even more problematic. All the white sarees had gold thread borders and were handloom sarees from Shantipur or Farashdanga. The coarse, ordinary ones were all colorful. There were also a few very expensive sarees. He had to go to office soon, what would he wear? A golden bordered Shantipuri saree? With a white blouse?
No, he could not think up a solution. But he had to make up his mind one way or another. He would have to bathe using one of the colored sarees and later go meet the office manager wearing the dirty clothes he had been wearing in the train. He was going to tell the office manager everything and then ask for his advice.
He couldn’t shave. He took his bath with the colorful saree, put on the clothes from the train again and went to meet the manager.
The manager was English, his name was Simpson. He was overseeing the pruning of the tea plants. He took his pipe out of his mouth when he saw Pratul— “Hello Doctor, good morning. You are here already! Thought you won’t be here before tomorrow.”
“Indeed I am here, but I am in a bit of trouble.”
“Well, what’s amiss?”
The Saheb burst into laughter when he heard everything.
“Say Doctor, you are a dog after women, what, say it with the rose! If I were you —”
“No Sir, this isn’t funny, I’m in a problematic situation here; I don’t have clothes or a razor to shave with.”
The Saheb cheerfully said — “I’ll make arrangements for those. I’ll send one of my suits along. I have a spare shaving kit, take it with you. You are a young man, I am not so dull that I wouldn’t help you with your romances. At your age—”
“What romance, Sir, it’s a problem. Gold ornaments, money in a purse — should I inform the police? Ultimately —”
“Let it be. You’ve told me, that’s enough. Nobody will be able to apprehend you as a thief. You can make a list of the contents of the box in front of me in the evening. Come, let’s go to my bungalow now, I will give you the things. Oh what a fine romance you have created —”
“Thank you, Sir. I am sorry about the incon...”
“No need to mention it. Come.”
After returning to his quarters and eating his lunch, Pratul lit a cigarette, lay down and tried to take a nap, but sleep was elusive. His brain kept overthinking all the strange events. Pratul was around twenty-five years old. He had just graduated from medical school and got this job at the tea estate. He wasn’t married. He had never had a particularly close relationship with a girl. The thing called romance, he may have read of it in stories and novels, but in his own life — somehow, no, he had never come across it. While studying at medical school he had been introduced to a few nurses, but it amounted to nothing. The local nurses were not even worth looking at; let alone romance?
But an incident like this had never happened to him. With which girl’s was his suitcase switched? The girl who boarded at Balurghat, or one of the two girls who had already been sitting there?
The girl from Balurghat was quite pretty. Though she was a student — that could be inferred from that book of hers, ‘Eight Victorian Poets’. What was her name? What caste? Brahmin or Kayastha or Vaidya?
Suddenly he remembered that there was a bunch of letters tied with a blue ribbon in the suitcase. Surely the girl’s name could be found in there. He should have thought of this sooner.
He got up and opened the suitcase. The bundle of letters was on one side, beneath the sarees. He took it out and came and sat on the bed.
There were around fifteen letters. Same handwriting, on expensive blue linen paper envelopes was the address — Amiya Majumdar, c/o C.R.Pal, 22/6 Nilmoni Dutta’s Lane, Bagbajar, Kolikata.
What a relief, he’d found the address. No need to worry any more. He’d write a letter tomorrow. The girl must be in quite an uncomfortable situation too. She didn’t have a single saree or blouse, plus there was the added worry of losing her money and jewellery. She must have given up all hope by now.
On top of that, if she had taken his suitcase, then she might pass out when she opened it. He was bringing some jaggery and flattened rice with him from home to eat here, a taro root, and a pair of shoes — not particularly new. And of course there were his dhotis, shirts, kurtas etc.
None of these things would be useful for the girl.
Majumdar? Majumdar? What caste was a Majumdar? Kayastha or Vaidya or Brahmin? Or something else?
Pratul was tempted to read the letters, who had written them, a man or a woman? He managed to resist the temptation. There was no need to read someone else’s letters. It wasn’t right.
The whole day and night went by but Pratul could not stop thinking about the girl. The more he tried to think of other things the more he thought of the same thing — that girl from Balurghat, her suitcase.
The next day he wrote a letter to her. Addressing her as ‘Respected Madam’ he told her all about the suitcase exchange situation. He gave a list of the things in the suitcase, the jewellery, money, clothes. He did not fail to apologize for the inconvenience caused. He mentioned, at least thrice, in three different places, that he was extremely embarrassed and sorry. Was his suitcase with her?
After posting the letter Pratul waited for an answer with bated breath for two or three days. Who knew what the reply would be, would it be a very angry letter? Threatening to go to the police?
The reply arrived nine days later.
I am very grateful to have received your letter. While getting off the bus at Hili Station, my niece Amiya’s suitcase was mistakenly switched with yours. Your suitcase has arrived with my niece. There was nothing in that suitcase apart from the things that you have mentioned. You are a gentleman, my niece is extremely embarrassed to have caused you such discomfort, and on her behalf, I too, acknowledge the mistake. Please send the suitcase as an insured unpaid railway parcel. I will also send your suitcase in the same manner. Please oblige us by sending the receipt to the above mentioned address.
It had to be said, Pratul was a little disappointed with the letter. First, he couldn’t tell which girl it was from this letter. There was no proof that the girl from Balurghat was Amiya Majumdar. It was not entirely unreasonable to have thought that the girl would reply herself, now this uncle Sri Bhabataron Chakraborty had turned up in the middle. However, one thing was clear from the uncle and that was that she was a Brahmin. He was a Brahmin too. Although when Pratul thought about it he wasn’t sure how that was of any good for anything.
The next day he sent a man to send the suitcase by train and by the end of the week his suitcase arrived at his quarters, on a porter’s head, in pristine condition. The things inside had been shifted, but they were all there, even the palm jaggery and flattened rice.
That was the end of the matter.
What more could happen after this? Nothing.
But Pratul just couldn’t fully forget the girl. This was the first incident in his life involving a woman. Even if it wasn’t a romance, he couldn’t help but imagine a bit of romance. Especially in this lonely life in a tea estate. And also, which girl was the owner? That girl from Balurghat?
Pratul had hoped that the girl would send him a letter thanking him. She hadn’t.
Five months later, Pratul took leave and set out for home again. He hadn’t been home in a long time. He was dying to see his family. He was very fond of his sister Kamala. Talks were going on for her wedding, she would probably get married in the summer. He wanted to spend some time with her before that. That is why going home was very necessary.
He had to wait for some time at Hili Station. The bus was waiting for more passengers from another train.
While he was pacing the platform, the train from Kolkata arrived. There weren’t too many passengers on it. Just a few people got off the train.
Suddenly Pratul came to a halt — the young student girl from Balurghat was getting off the train, alone. However he was very disappointed when he looked at her hands. The suitcase that the porter took from her and put on his shoulders was not that suitcase he was so familiar with. That one was made of tin, this was a big leather one.
There was not much time left for the bus to leave. The girl got on the platform and looked around her, she seemed disappointed.
Pratul heard the girl ask the conductor while getting on the bus — “Has no one come from the Balurghat sub-deputy’s house?”
The conductor said — “Deputy-Sahib---? No Ma’am. Get on the bus, don’t worry, we’ll drop you off at Balurghat.”
The bus started to move. Pratul lost interest and was looking in another direction, thinking about something else. He was attracted to the girl from Balurghat only because of the suitcase exchange, not because she was beautiful, he had seen lots of beautiful girls before.
It was quite natural to be attracted to a girl with who he had been involved in such an incident. Not just Pratul, anyone would feel this way, especially since the girl was also beautiful.
However since this was not that girl, Pratul had inferred so from her suitcase, he wiped all traces of her from his mind. The girl about whom he had woven a web of dreams, in the solitary bungalow surrounded by trees in the Bhatikhali tea garden — this was not that girl.
The bus wasn’t too crowded. There were no gentle folks apart from him and the girl. The girl was sitting in the reserved section right behind the driver, separated from the other seats by a railing. Pratul was sitting right behind her, leaning against the brass rails.
The bus stopped at a small bazaar. A couple of passengers got on and off. Pratul noticed that the girl was glancing at him, like she wanted to say something, but was hesitating. What could she have to say? Should he go ahead and talk to her?
A little before the bus started again, the girl looked at him and asked— “Are you going to Balurghat?”
Pratul gave a start— “Balurghat? Well, no — Balurghat. Why?”
Seeing the state he was in and the way he answered, a faint outline of a smile appeared on the girl’s pretty face and faded away immediately— “Actually, I am in a bit of trouble. It is night time, my uncle is a government officer at Balurghat. Somebody was supposed to come to the station to meet the North Bengal Express, but I took the train before it. Now how will I get home? And if you get off early, there won’t be any other gentlemen in the bus, it’s dark— and I know this path is unsafe.”
The girl looked at his face with something like helplessness.
Pratul almost jumped up— “Have no fear, I will drop you home, I have to go near there too.”
Having received this reassurance, the girl appeared to get her courage back. But she said — “No, no. That will be too much trouble for you. Just get down at Balurghat and find me a taxi —”
“Not at all. Please don’t worry about it. Whose house in Balurghat are you going to?”
“My uncle is the sub-deputy there — Sudhangshu Kumar Majumdar.”
Pratul felt a wave of excitement wash over him. The thing that had receded to the back of his mind came right back to the front.
“May I say something? If you don’t mind, may I know your name?”
“My name is Amiya Majumdar.”
Pratul’s head reeled. The bus, people, trees, the earth, the sky, the wind everything swayed for a moment. Like a huge earthquake. Amiya Majumdar! Amiya Majumdar!
He managed to control himself somehow and said — “May I say something more if you don’t mind. It was with you that my suitcase got switched during the last trip. My name is Pratul Bhattacharya, it is I who live at Bhatikhali Tea Estate, I’m a doctor.”
The girl’s eyes widened with surprise and curiosity. She was quiet for a while, then looked at him and said — “Oh! You are Pratul-babu! I know you.”
“Me? How do you know me?”
“That time in the bus when my book fell, you picked it up for me, right?”
Pratul smiled and said — “Yes, that is so. I remember. But isn’t knowing me from the suitcase incident how you would remember me? Oh, what pain that must have caused you, I will never forget about it.”
The girl protested— “No, no. Mistakes like that happen, it isn’t a big deal. It was my fault.”
“How was it your fault? It was mine, no matter how big a hurry I was in, I should have checked my things before taking them. Which college are you in?”
“Will you take your B.A. exams this year?”
“This will be the end of my third year. I’ll take the exams next time.”
“Is your maternal uncle Bhabataron-babu? Do you live with his family?”
“No, not his family. He lives alone. He is an astrologer. There is nobody else, I cook, and my uncle and I live there.”
The bus reached Balurghat at eight thirty at night. Pratul asked the girl — “How far is your place? Shall I find us a cab?”
The girl said — “There is no need for a cab. Give the luggage to a porter. My house is three minutes away around that corner.”
The moment they reached the house a horde of very excited boys and girls greeted them. The girl’s paternal uncle Shudhangshu-babu was very hospitable to Pratul. Pratul wanted to leave immediately but he wouldn’t hear of it. He wouldn’t let him go anywhere that night. In the morning they would decide when he would go. Right now they would be very grateful if he would wash his hands and face, rest a little and have some tea with them.
In the meanwhile, everyone in the house found out from the girl that this was the man whose suitcase got switched with Amiya’s.
Till then Pratul was just a big-hearted fellow passenger who had seen their Amiya traveling alone and kindly taken the trouble to accompany her home.
But when they found out about this, Pratul became the center of curiosity and praise of everyone in the house again. The girl’s uncle found out from someone and came and said to him — “After the things I heard about you from Ami, I cannot think of you as an ordinary gentleman any more. You are a great man. It was beyond my imagination that I would be introduced to you just like this. I won’t say much about you here in front of you, but I’ll say this, everyone in this house considers you to be a family member almost. Ami too was telling her aunt how highly she thinks of you.”
Pratul’s face grew flushed with embarrassment and awkwardness, especially at his last statement .
After a while the girl came to the living room with tea and a tray of snacks, put them down on the table in front of Pratul and said — “Have you washed your hands? Have some tea.”
Shudhangshu-babu suddenly remembered something he had to do and said — “Ami, you sit here, and bring him another cup of tea, I’ll be back in half an hour.”
Shudhangshu-babu disappeared from the living room.
In the meanwhile, Pratul found out a lot of things about the girl. She didn’t have parents, they had passed away a long time ago. Her uncle had raised her. She had received a twenty rupee scholarship in her I.A. exam, and was the secretary of the fine arts society in college. She had come first in and won a medal at the singing contest in her college this year. A short story written by her had been published in the college magazine. She would definitely study for an M.A. after she finished her B.A. and so on and so forth.
The girl hadn’t told Pratul any of these things directly. In answer to his questions, and somewhat by herself, in a roundabout way she spoke such that these facts did not remain unknown to Pratul before even half an hour was up.
When Shudhangshu-babu returned Amiya stood up and left. The next day in the morning when Pratul mentioned leaving Shudhangshu-babu told him that the ladies of the house had decided that he must not leave in the morning. He should have lunch here and leave only after that.
Shudhangshu-babu also found out a lot of things about Pratul in course of their conversation. He had passed his M.B. last year, worked at a tea estate, and earned one hundred rupees salary. He was a Rarhi-type Brahmin, his parents were alive, they owned land in the countryside, and so on.
To a Bengali household, for a not so young parentless girl thrust upon her uncle’s mercy, Pratul as a groom looked pretty good. The auspicious month of Boisakh was coming up. Therefore, there was not much more to be said, there wasn’t any need.
In the quarters of the Bhatikhali tea estate, Pratul was teasing his young bride — “So, are you ever going to exchange suitcases again?” Amiya tilted her head in mock anger— “Don’t even mention that! I was in such a mess that day! I was going to go to college — I open my suitcase and see dhotis, underclothes, vests, shirts. My god, I was in tears. I could not think of what to wear. There were no other females in the house, there was nothing to wear after my bath. It was such a difficult situation that day. And my suitcase got exchanged with some villager, inside the suitcase there was flattened rice, jaggery, old shoes — oh my god!”
Pratul said — “Alas, a suitcase exchange is still OK, but did you ever think you’d end up exchanging garlands with that villager one day!”
Published in Parabaas, September 2017
The original story The Suitcase Switch (Baksho-badal, বাক্স-বদল) by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was first collected in the book titled Bidhu-master (বিধু মাষ্টার) published by Katyayani Book Stall, Kolkata, in June 1945. Based on this story, a popular Bengali movie with the same title was made in 1970 by Nityananada Datta. Famous director Satyajit Ray wrote the screenplay and composed the music for this movie which starred Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen.