The college was closed for the summer. I was sitting in the veranda. Suddenly I noticed Kamala Didi coming up the stairs, panting, and accompanied by a Muslim woman called Jaheda Bibi. Kamala Devi -- dedicated Congress worker whose mission was to propagate khadi and the spinning wheel. She pulled up a chair at once and siting down, she said, "I have won over a lot of territory Now let us go to Boligarto."
"And where can that be?" I asked.
"My maternal uncle's home is there. He is no more, so it's the bastion of my cousins," said Jaheda.
"O fine! Then it'll be easy to spread the message of the spinning wheel," I said.
"O no! It's not as easy as you think. The village is quite out of bounds. Moreover Jaheda is banned from entering it."
"Why? What has she done?"
"Because she goes about with me and has some education, wears khadi and takes vegetarian food."
"Then why go to Boligarto? Since it's the home of Jaheda's cousins, and she herself is banned entry?"
"How can that be? I am Kamala for whom all doors are open. Besides because entry is forbidden, all the more I must enter there. And you have to go with us."
"No dear, you go."
"Look here, it won't be any fun without you. If they are able to operate the spinning wheel then I shall give you the first khadi cloth that is made from the thread that the Khatkatés spin. Mr Jaherdar Farfaré, who is the Diwan of the zamindar of Boligarto Khan Bahadur Kashai-ud-din Khatkhate, is now in Kolkata. Come, let's go to him and make all arrangements. Bina, get up, please! Come, quick."
There was no way, and I had to go to Mr Farfaré's with them. Two of his brothers were also there and we were welcomed with extreme warmth and hospitality. I wondered why in spite of such loving care and attention Jaheda Bibi said that she was banned from entering the home of her cousin. O I forgot to point out that this Diwan Mr Jaherdar Farfaré was the zamindar's brother and the other two gentlemen were his step brothers. None of them got any share in the zamindar's estate. They only got a monthly allowance.
No sooner had Jaheda expressed the desire to go to Boligarto than Mr Farfaré said quite spontaneously, "O yes bubu, you must come. It's your own uncle's home, your mamarbari, why should you wait for a formal invitation? Whenever you want to go I myself will come and fetch you, and if I cannot come, then (pointing to his brothers) I will send one of them. Say, when will you go? Whenever you send the word, one of them will come and take you there."
Jaheda : ---"Brother, I shan't be alone; Kamala Didi and Binapani Devi will also go with me. Our needs on the way ."
Mr Farfaré : "Don't worry about that bubu! And don't feel hesitant or embarrassed. Come , all of you, it will be our pleasure. Bhaisaheb will be extremely happy to see you."
After this we all started making preparations for the journey. In the meantime Mr Farfaré had returned home. He lived in a town in the district of Guptapur. Boligarto was about forty or fifty miles from Guptapur. Mr Khatkhaté of Boligarto had not yet been informed about our visit. Jaheda was so far only corresponding with Mr Farfaré . When Jaheda fixed up a date and wrote to Mr Farfaré to send one of his brothers, he wrote back to say that both his brothers had already left for Boligarto and would not return before the festival of Bakr-Eid. Also at this time there was the fear of communal trouble. So the Khan Bahadur Khatkhaté will not let anyone leave home. If only Jaheda would go to Guptapur with someone else then he could easily send them on to Boligarto from there. Their visit would no doubt make Khatkhaté Bhaisaheb extremely happy .
Jaheda wrote back that they could go only if they were given some money for the journey. Where would a poor man like him get so much money? --- came the reply.
Of course the Khan Bahadur Khatkhaté could easily send five hundred rupees if he wanted to. In spite of all this Jaheda was sure that once they reached Boligarto there will be no lack of funds.
We set out on the appointed day. On the way to Guptapur , we halted for seven days in a friend's house at a place called Bishnuganj. It was about eight to ten miles from Bishnuganj to Guptapur. People usually did this distance twice or thrice a day. While in Bishnuganj we came to know that Mr Fargaré was feeling himself jeopardized and he was even hatching plans to frustrate our visit to Boligarto. This made Jaheda Bibi shrink in embarrassment. But Kamala said. "We will not give up. We will certainly go to Boligarto; first let us reach Guptapur. Mr Farfaré was so full of praise for his brother We must take a look at this righteous sage, and such a great man!
So we went to Guptapur. But Jaheda Bibi did not let us go to Mr Farfaré's house. She made us put up elsewhere. After about two or three days out of sheer politeness Mr Farfaré sent a special invitation to spend two days in his house. And there Mr Farfaré and his wife Dalimkara gave us the following account of Boligarto.
They said there was no proper road to Boligarto the way was full of ditches, ponds, slush. Since the water bodies were not deep enough, boats could not go. Since the way was neither dry nor flat, palanquins and motor cars could not go either. Some parts of the road were as high as hills! People have tried ascending the Mount Gourishankar but no one has as yet dared the descent to Boligarto. There was great hardship---after a lot of hazards small fishing boats or other such modes of transport could bring to the town the letters from Boligarto. We would not be able to withstand the extreme hardship and hassles of the journey. And even if we did manage to arrive where would we stay?
For the Khan Bahadur Khatkhaté's huge palace was the abode of goats, cows, sheep, hens and other such creatures. Snakes and scorpions slithered along the courtyard in broad daylight. Evening brought on hordes of some deadly flying insects and oof ! how they would make our bodies swell with their sting! we would ache and itch like mad. Things were so bad that the Khan Bahadur had to have his meals sitting inside the mosquito net. His living quarters were in the first floor where there were not enough rooms to put us up in. His three wives occupied three suites. They were all confined upstairs or nearly imprisoned one may say . Mr Khakhaté did not let his feet down on to the floor for fear of getting bitten by snakes. His servants carried him about in a chair. In a chair he was conveyed to the outer wings of his mansion. Mr Khatkhaté was definitely religious minded. He spent his time with the Koran, Hadees, Tafseer, and Tasbih. Although he did not shirk his duties as a landlord, he spent minimum time in worldly affairs, only as much as was unavoidable. In Islam, both giving and taking of interest were considered sins. So the poor peasants instead of taking loans from other people borrowed from him He charged exorbitantly high interests because the scriptures prohibited interest against loans. Since he was forfeiting his religion by helping the poor they had to pay a good price. Religion after all could not be so cheaply bartered away. Everyone in his household even the maids and servants were devoutly religious. They believed in even the most unintelligible legends of the Hadees and moulded their habits accordingly. Some kafer in times long past was said to have cleaned his tongue with a tongue-scrubber, so they never used that implement.
In order to obtain the rewards of jehad, the Khan would tyrannically beat his maids and his tenants. The reader would be surprised to know that even during this British rule in some places there were maids who were slaves; not bought in the open market though, but captured by might or wile from the homes of the poor tenants. Thus the mistresses of his household and the master himself got the opportunity to obtain the religious benefit of jehad by beating slaves and tenants. If once in a while it so happened that some slave girl somehow managed to escape through the gutter in the loo then the Khan Bahadur would be lucky to obtain the rewards of granting azad, or liberty.
The god fearing Khan Bahadur was staunchly opposed to the custom of confinement. Once he had to go to Guptapur with his family for medical treatment. His widowed young sister and a niece coaxed him into letting them go round by car to see the city of Guptapur. He readily agreed and ingeniously had the entire vehicle draped in a thick cloth through which the poor damsels saw only a vague shadowy impression of the place and a minor hint of the shining sun. Even so Mr Khatkhaté said to them, "Look here, by going out by car you beheld the faces of innumerable men and so you have to perform taoba (penitence) before me and promise never to indulge the desire to go our by any motor car."
Since Mr Jaherdar Farfaré was the brother of the Khan Bahadur Khatkhaté he too was extremely dedicated to religion. He observed the most trivial customs of the Shariat. He believed it was a great sin to take photographs of human beings. By becoming the secretary of an orphanage in Guptapur he was earning a lot of grace ( the lowly called it money) We came to learn that once he had invited the Governor of Bengal to come and visit his orphanage. After His Highness had left, one of Jaherdar's friends regretted not having got the opportunity of having a group photo taken with the dignitary. Upon this Mr Farfaré made the following remark, "Yes indeed dear brother, why didn't you remind me about it earlier? So much was arranged yet this most important detail was overlooked. I can't make you understand how I regret it." Hearing this, a witty person from among those assembled there stood up and said, addressing the entire assemblage, We had so far known that our friend Mr Farfaré was of the opinion that it was an unpardonable offence to take photographs of human beings. But now our same friend seems to think that there was no sin in photographing the Governor. On the contrary, in this action there appears to be the hope of obtaining the grace of God. (general laughter). Before he left the place the Governor even expressed his satisfaction by writing two complimentary sentences praising Mr Farfaré's work. Not only did this make the latter plump with pride but he even expanded upon the theme of these two lines and had an 8-10 pages monograph printed. In order to distribute these books among his acquaintances he even absented himself from office for a couple of days. He kept on telling everybody, "Magistrate? he is after all a petty officer! Commissioner? He is only an insignificant servant. I don't care about them. They on the other hand should honour me, for nowadays I am on letter-writing terms with the Lat Bahadur himself, " and so he would go on .
Mr Farfaré deemed it necessary for men to have four wives; all other customs of Hindustan he held in contempt. Yet when it came to considering the re-marriage of his thirteen years old widowed niece he dissented, saying, "Since we are living in a Hindu country we should respect their customs and regulations. No widow of an aristocratic family is re-married," and so he went on
The Khan Bahadur himself had taken up the duties of looking after three wives; the fourth place had been reserved for the extremely beautiful daughter of a certain zamindar. Unfortunately it so happened that one day he ran about on the streets of Guptapur, intoxicated and with the bottle in hand. Some malicious persons went and related the incident to the wife of the said zamindar with the result that his marriage plans fell through. So the post of his fourth wife lay vacant up till then. Since he was now ridden with ill health and not even able to move on his own, not a single bloke was willing to give him his daughter in marriage.
The Khan Bahadur Khatkhaté was a man of multiple virtues the principal among which was his capacity to manage things. Because commodities became scarce during the monsoons he would make advance procurements of huge quantities of rice, pulses, and other provisions. He would horde so much rice that ultimately paddy would grow out of the old rice and by and by his entire granary would become a paddy field. All the rooms along the corridor would become jam-packed with onion plants and coconut trees. The potato creepers would creep and climb up to the first floor of his house.
Our sister Dalimkara's (Mrs Farfara) description of the W.C.(toilet) of Boligarto was too offensive to refined taste and therefore not worth wasting ink and paper on.
Mr Khatkhaté was under the treatment of a certain hakim called Ajrail. The hakim saheb got paid a fee of rupees two hundred. Due to this it was said that the Khan Bahadur was fast moving upwards to the Mokam Mahmuda (the highest region of Heaven). After expressing our heartfelt wishes for his speedy recovery we took our leave of Mrs Farfara.
While getting into the car Kamala didi said, "Listen dada, wait a bit. If there is no way on earth to reach Boligarto, then we shall soon travel by air and land on the roof of Mr Kashai-ud-din Khatkhaté's palace.
Published (in Parabaas) July 20, 2002
Bhaisaheb : Respectful and affectionate address for brother (Urdu)
Boligarto : a compound of `boli'= ritual sacrifice, and 'garto'= hole; the name suggests a sacrificial pit.
Bubu : Colloquial urdu term for elder sister.
Dada, Dadababu : literally elder brother; often used as a reverential form of address to denote one of superior station.
Didi : elder sister.
Diwan : Land Revenue officer.
Hakim : a physician with deep knowledge and wisdom.
Mamarbari : maternal gradparent's home; literally, maternal uncle's home.
Harvest is an annual translation journal launched by Anustup, a well respected literary magazine and publishing house in Kolkata. Two short stories from Harvest Volume I (2001) have been excerpted in Parabaas. Anustup is edited by Anil Acharya; Harvest is guest edited by Tapati Gupta.
The original story [baligarta*] by Begum Rokeya has been taken from Bangladesher Nari Andolaner Galpa.