Nilmani Samaddar was in a fix. The wheels of his household had ground to a halt. The price of rice had jumped three annas per katha. He had one helpful patron in Dewan Rajaram. After Rajaram’s murder Nilmani felt rather helpless. Granted, Rajaram was not a nice person. He was sly and a toady of the white sahibs. That’s what got him killed at the end. Everybody knew that he gave false promises to Shyam Bagdi’s daughter Kusum and tried to offer her to Shipton sahib secretly in the dark of the night. Kusum’s father had let her stay in Rajaram’s house hoping to rehabilitate her somehow. But Shipton did not accept her. He didn’t even let her get in his house! He told Rajaram that things were different now, the villagers were too excitable. Any excuse may turn them riotous and ultimately anger the government. The new magistrate did not like the indigo planters either. So Rajaram better take her away. Who told him to bring her here in the first place?
Rajaram came back. But Kusum told the whole story to her relatives. That made all the Bagdi and Duley communities extremely mad at Rajaram. That was the main reason for Rajaram’s death in the hands of the Bagdis.
Nothing stayed secret in a village. Everyone knew these stories or had heard about them. Nilmani had heard that the Bagdis of Kansona were the chief of their tribe. They got together and planned to murder Rajaram that night. They learned about Shipton returning Kusum and that made them respectful to the Baro sahib. Anyway, all this was old story. Now the question was, what could Nilmani do about the rice shortage. Wife Annakali was nagging him day and night, “There is no more rice. No meals from tomorrow. I’m telling you. Do something, I’m done with reminding.”
In the afternoon, Nilmani went to the same Kansona village. He visited the hut of Ramu Bagdi who had died long ago in the riot of the indigo plantation. Ramu’s son Haru was sitting under a jackfruit tree, twisting jute fibers into ropes. Haru’s situations has improved these days. Now he had two paddy barns and a pile of hays in his courtyard.
Haru got up to greet Nilmani. Nilmani acted so relieved to see him, “Haru dear, can I have a smoke please?”
Haru arranged the tobacco, offered him the smoking pipe wrapped in fresh banana leaf and asked “So, what brings you here?”
Nilmani by then had hatched a plan in his mind, “Coming to see you only, Haru.”
“I had a very bad dream last night about your son. Is Narayan home? Just call him—”
A little later, Narayan Sardar came out smoking a coconut shell hookah. This Narayan Sardar was the main organizer in the killing of Rajaram Ray.
Narayan looked unbeatably strong, hefty and muscular. He was the head of their village.
Nilmani said, “Come, come Narayan. Just had a bad dream, so I came over right away. After all you all are like my own folks, never thought of you differently. The dream was about Haru’s son Badal. I saw—”
Nilmani suddenly stopped in midsentence.
“What did you see?” Both Haru and narayan asked anxiously.
“You don’t need to hear the details. Today is Friday and a new moon day. Oh dear! They say ‘Tadardhang krishi karmani!’ Disaster! No, this wouldn’t do.”
Narayan was the leader and thought to be the smartest of the lot. He came forward and asked, “What is the solution then, Uncle?”
Nilmani shook his head and said, “Well, that’s why I am here. You are close to me. I’ve always counted you as my own relatives. Am I going to make an exception now? No way. That’s not how my father brought me up—”
Nilmani fell quiet again. Narayan could have easily asked how Nilmani’s birth history came into it but he didn’t understand all that. Instead, he said anxiously, “You must do something to counteract the bad luck. Forget about us. We didn’t see it nor hear it. You alone have to do it.”
Nilmani looked worried. “But this is a serious business. A full six-parts of Mother worship has to be performed. What day is today? Wait. Friday ... Saturday ... Sunday will be the second day of the moon. Second day of the moon in the Shukla period (*waxing phase of the moon). Good. Now let me think it through—”
Nilmani appeared immersed in deep thoughts about solving this complicated problem. Uncle and nephew both stayed quite to let him think without interruption.
After a while his face brightened, “Got it! Aha. Can’t escape me!”
“What is it, Uncle?”
“I won’t say anything now. Can you get me a few grains of black lentil? First touch them on the child’s forehead.”
Haru ran inside and after a while got him the grains as instructed. Nilmani held them in his hands and got ready to leave. Haru and Narayan were puzzled, and called him, “What? You are leaving, Uncle?”
“I better. Next Wednesday is the auspicious day. The six-part Mother worship has to be done with these black lentils. I don’t even have time to breathe now.”
“Uncle, wait. Won’t you take two kathas of yellow moong lentil, for your family?”
“Not now dear, don’t have any time. I’ll bring an amulet tomorrow morning, then we’ll think about other things.”
Nilmani strode away busily. The fish was hooked. This was how he managed his household. Today in one village, tomorrow in another. But every place was not as easy. Near his village he met Khetra Ghosh coming from his vegetable patch carrying a basket full of eggplants on his head. Seeing him Khetra put his load down and started fanning himself with his gamchha. “Too many pesky rabbits,” he said, “As soon as the eggplants get bigger, they disappear. In two bighas of land this is all that is left. How can I live like this? Can you tell me a solution? I was thinking about visiting you.”
Nilmani said, “Your problem will be solved. Come to my house early tonight and bring two haritakis (*medicinal nut) with you. Today is the new moon day, you are lucky.”
“Oh good. Would you like to have two eggplants?”
“Bring them when you come. I can’t carry eggplants now.”
Before entering his house he heard some voices from inside. Who could it be? ... No, nobody would go inside his house.
As soon as he got in, his daughter-in-law came running, “Baba—”
“What? Who is talking inside, dear?”
“Shh. Quiet! Sarojini auntie has come from Bhararkola with her daughter and son-in-law. With two small granddaughters too. Ma told me to tell you that we have no rice at all. You better do something fast.”
“OK. Tell her everything will be fine. Have you offered them some snacks?”
“What snacks? We have nothing in the house.”
“Hmm. OK. Let me see—”
Nilmani came out of the house and started pacing restlessly under a mango tree. What to do now? Sarojini (*his maternal cousin sister) couldn’t find a better time to arrive? Damn! And what’s the purpose of such visits anyway? Was she going to get a medal or something? What a pain in the neck! Never asked about us, never even sent someone to see how we are doing, and now suddenly she was overwhelmed with family love!
Soon Khetra Ghosh arrived carrying about twenty eggplants tied in a rope, a bunch of ripe bananas and a jar of date palm jaggery. He handed it all to Nilmani, “This jaggery is from my tree. My oldest son had boiled it. Please have it. And here are the two haritaki nuts, you said to bring, so I did.”
“That is all good, but now Khetra, I badly need a couple of kathas of rice. Some guests have arrived and my oldest son is not home. Tomorrow he is supposed to bring two maunds of rice. But I’m short now—”
“No problem. I’ll bring some right away.”
Rice problem was solved. Khetra was a well to do farmer. There was no shortage in his household. He immediately brought two kathas of rice and gave him the two haritakis too. Nilmani took everything inside. After half an hour or so he came out with the haritakis and handing them to Khetra he instructed, “Go, hang these two with a black thread on the east side of your eggplant patch. That’s it. I’ve anointed them. No rabbits will dare come close.”
Next morning Nilmani went back to Kansona. His daughter-in-law had found him an old amulet from somewhere. He filled it with the dust and the sticky sap of the jiuli (*) tree. He also asked the women at home and got some vermilion powder. On the way he plucked a leaf from a bel tree and smeared it nicely with the vermilion.
Haru and Narayan were anxiously waiting for him. Haru said he couldn’t sleep well that night.
Narayan Sardar said, “At least I told him not to tell the women folks. They would have started crying and panic everyone.”
Nilmani gave him the amulet and the vermilion-smeared leaf, “You are the child’s grandfather. You tie this amulet around his neck and grind the leaf and give him the juice to drink. I stayed up last night and did the six parts worship. I told myself, no, I would get time to sleep later. Isn’t Haru like my own son? I have to help him first. This was very difficult work. Now you take this. Death will not be able to touch him. My own worry is relieved too. Thank God—”
The rest is easy to guess. Haru’s farmer Gupe Bagdi delivered a huge basket of aush(*) rice and two kathas of yellow moong lentil to Nilmani’s house.
That’s how Nilmani ran his household.
One morning Gaya-mem was slapping cow dung patties in her courtyard when she saw Prasanna Amin coming from a distance. She put down the basket of cow dung and stood up, straightening her clothes. Prasanna came closer and scolded, “What is this? Didn’t I tell you not to do this these kinds of work? It bothers me. From a princess to a cow dung gatherer?”
Gaya smiled, “If I have to do it the rest of my life, I may as well get a start on it.”
“Alas, if your mother was alive today. She died so suddenly. She was hardly old enough—”
“It is all fate, Uncle. Otherwise—”
Gaya-mem stood despondently staring at the ground.
Prasanna Amin looked around the house. Two thatched rooms; one was a kitchen in the old times. During Gaya’s good times her careful mother Barada had enlarged the kitchen and put in doors and windows of jackfruit wood. Gaya perhaps slept there now as he could see part of her bed from the window. But the other room was in a sad shape. The thatching had blown away, mice had bored holes on the floor and dumped the soil on the side, no fresh cow dung layers were applied. Cracks had appeared on the wall.
Prasanna asked, “How did it get so bad?”
“Looks like it may collapse any minute.”
“Let it. I live alone. How many rooms do I need?”
Prasanna muttered, almost to himself, “These white sahibs—you know—after all, they are from foreign lands. How can they understand our needs? You too made a mistake. Why didn’t you ask them for favors at that time, when you had the opportunity? You sat by his bedside day and night. That was the time to grab something.”
Gaya-mem stayed silent. A tear or two shone in her eyes.
Prasanna sounded frustrated, “Really, a stupid girl like you—in these days?-- anyway, to hell with it—”
He was frustrated and disappointed because he still loved her deeply. Gaya too understood that. What else could she say?
Just then Bhagirath Bagdi’s mother arrived from somewhere, “Amin-babu? Come in, come in. I heard what you said just now and you are absolutely right. I tell Gaya all the time, that sahib made you a mem, everyone calls you Gaya-mem, but did he give you any property like a mem? Your mother is dead, there is nobody with you, you have no money, this plot is all you have. Last year you got some paddy, so you can still eat your meals, otherwise won’t you be starving today? To top it, you are an outcaste in the Bagdi community. Nobody will eat with you. Where will you go? I know you from childhood, I worry about you. Your mother is not here anymore. Who’ll tell you these things? That woman died with much worries. She used to tell me, Didi, my daughter has no common sense; otherwise she could have lived like a queen. But, no! She returned from the indigo plantation with empty hands.”
Being rebuked by both parties Gaya went on the defense, “Fine. If I starve, I will. What is it to you? I’ve done what I thought was the best—”
Bhagirath’s mother turned away to leave, “I said it because I feel sorry for you. That’s all. You have been obstinate all your life. Don’t I know that? If you had to become an outcaste by going to the sahib, you should have arranged for your own future too. No wonder your mother lamented all the time. Now nobody will even accept water from you. If you fall ill, is there anyone to look after you? You say Aminbabu, the indigo business is sold out, the sahib has kicked the bucket, now what about her affairs?”
Prasanna said, “At least I got her some land, thank God. Otherwise she would have no place to live. Even that is only five bighas for her share—”
Bhagirath’s mother said, “Even claiming her share of crop is a big hassle. How can she do that by herself? She is a mem, after all. If the others cheat her what can she do against them?”
Bhagirath’s mother left. Gaya-mem looked up at Prasanna.
“Uncle, have you come here only to scold me? Want to stay or leave?”
“No, not scolding. My heart aches without seeing you, so I thought—”
Gaya started laughing like in the old days, covering her mouth with her sari. Prasanna saw that her perfect beauty was no more. Lost by the daily hardship and sorrow. At least he could give her the land—measuring it out himself—this was a very important thing he did for her. Otherwise she would have died of starvation.
Prasanna sat down on a mat of date palm leaves.
“What will you have?” Gaya asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Why, Uncle? Just because I’m an outcaste can’t I offer you something to eat? I have bananas, also papayas. I won’t slice them, you do that. You’ve come to my house early in the morning, how can I let you go without offering something?”
Indeed Gaya brought two large bananas, one whole papaya and half a coconut for Prasanna. She smiled, “I can’t offer you water though.”
Then she turned to go inside, and said, “Wait, I have one more thing to show you.”
“What is it?”
“Bringing it. Just wait.”
Soon she returned with a small printed book in her hand, placed it in front of Prasanna-Amin and said, “Here, see. Wait, why aren’t you eating the fruits?… Oh, I see. I’ll bring a knife, l’ll wash it well. You cut the fruits.”
“Wait, wait. Where did you get this book? A book in your house? What book is it?”
“Take a look. As if I know how to read.”
“Is it from that old Kabiraj guy? Why did he give it to you if you don’t know how to read?”
“He gave me, so I took it. It has the hundred names of God Krishna.”
Prasanna Amin was very surprised. A printed book with Gaya-mem! That too about Krishna’s hundred names! Wow!
He cut the fruits and ate them leaving half a papaya for Gaya. He said with a smile, “I love seeing you Gaya. When I come here I forget all my problems.”
“Again you’ve started with your nonsense? If you want to come, please do. Have I ever stopped you?”
“Thank you. Now I feel at peace.”
“Good. That’s good.”
“What will you do with Hundred Names of Krishna?”
“I sleep with it near my pillow. Nobody else is here with me. At least mother gave me some company. With this book nearby I don’t worry about any evil spirits. After all I am all alone—”
“Here the whole community hates me. While the sahib was alive, everyone asked for favors, now nobody will come to help if I am in trouble. That’s why Kabiraj-baba gave me that book. He said if I keep it close by, it’d keep me safe. Very nice man, he is…. Today I have to go husk the paddy; otherwise, no rice for me. Even this husking is not allowed for me in this community. I have to go to another village, Kenaram Sardar’s house. They are good people. Low caste, but kinder.”
Prasanna returned home a bit late that day. He was really worried seeing Gaya’s condition. He rested a while under a madar (*crown flower) tree in the field of Ganeshpur. Ganeshpur was Gaya’s village. There were only a few Bagdis and fishermen in that village. The sun was hot but it was pleasant under the tree.
Prasanna was thinking—“Gaya seemed really in some trouble. Would I ever let her stay like this, if I had some money today? I would have left with her for somewhere, anywhere, just the two of us. But I dare not think about that anymore, I’m too old, and have hardly any money.”
Did the madar tree have any ripe fruit?...
Prasanna looked up. No, the fruits were not ripe yet.
Bhabani finished reading the Bhagavat that evening. He knew that it was a difficult book to read and understand. But the poetry was beautiful, as was the message. After reading a long time as he was tying up the book he noted Nistarini coming into the courtyard. Nowadays she was on speaking terms with Bhabani. But only in his house, not anywhere outside.
Nistarini greeted him, “Hello Thakur-jamai (*respected brother-in-law)?
“Come in Bouma (*daughter-in-law), everything well?”
“With your blessings. I’ve come to ask something.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“The elder Kabiraj moshai holds religious discussions and singings. May I go there? I really wish to.”
“No Bouma, he holds them outside the village, in open grounds. No woman goes there.”
“Well if Tilu didi also goes?”
“But she does not.”
“If I arrange her to?”
“What will you do there?”
“I like to listen. In this village nobody talks about holy things, about God. At least there is some discussion, singing, reading from the scriptures, I really enjoy that.”
“Have you asked your mother-in-law or your husband’s permission?”
“He would say yes, even if his mother says no. That hag is too nitpicky. But I don’t care, I will go.”
“Shame my child, you mustn’t talk like that.”
“But I really want to hear you talking about scriptures.”
Nistarini seemed to sulk. After a while she spoke softly, “But you don’t want me to. I know—”
“What do you know?”
“That you don’t want me to go there.”
“How do you know that?”
“I just do.”
“Well, if your Didi goes, you can go with her.”
“Is it bad to do something that one really wants?”
The question sounded odd to Bhabani. He said, “You are a grown woman, Bouma, not a child anymore, you must understand. It is not always possible to do everything that one wants. It could be a bad deed too.”
“Would that be a sin?”
“Well then I will not do it. It must be right if you say so.”
“You are intelligent. I don’t need to say anymore.”
“Whatever you say is law to me Thakur jamai. I was almost committing a sin but checked myself only because you and Tilu didi advised me to. I will follow whatever you say, whether it brings me grief or joy. You are my guru.”
“Nonsense. I’m nobody’s guru.”
“Would you like to have some fried pressed rice with grated coconut? I can bring some tomorrow. I just made some. It is fresh.”
Khoka returned home after playing with his friends and called his mother, “Aren’t we going to the river, Ma?”
His mother asked back, “Where were you all this while?”
“Playing kabaddi (*) in Habu’s place. Come, let’s go. That’s why I came home so early. After that I will study English. I can even read some now.”
Most evening Bhabani went to the river with his son and both wives. Everyone swam, bathed and then they all sat together and meditated. Khoka loved this ritual so much that he urged his parents everyday. Today too he gathered all and set out for the river. Nistarini also accompanied them. She was insistent, so they had to take her along.
Bhabani did not want to take any outsider. He felt uncomfortable. Meditation had to be done in solitude or with someone with similar mentality. Today Tilu specially requested him to let Nistarini come with them.
Everyone finished bathing. The setting sun colored the water reeds and the acacia bushes on the other side of the river. The aquatic birds too colored their wings in that last light of the dying sun and flew on to some unknown marsh or river’s bend—probably to the marsh at Samta near Nakashipara.
Bhabani instructed Nistarini, “Bouma, fold your hands like they are doing and repeat after me or just listen on—”
Om yo deva agnou yo apsu, yo vishwang bhubanang aabibeshah.
Yah oshadhishu yo banaspatishu, tasmai devaya namonamah.
One who lives in the fire, in the water,
On this beautiful earth beneath the firmament,
Who is in the grass and trees, fruits and flowers,
We bow to Him.
He who lives within us and out of us.
He who lives everywhere we look around,
We bow to Him.
Khoka too sang the hymns in his sweet voice along with his parents. Bhabani asked him, “Khoka, who created this world?”
Khoka replied like rote memory, “God.”
“Where does He live?”
“In the sky too?”
“Does He speak?”
“With you too?”
“Yes, Baba. If I wish, He too wishes. He is not without me.”
Of course Bhabani had taught Khoka all these.
He would not be able to leave any property or asset for his son. He was getting old. He might have to leave this world before his son became an adult. What could he give his son—something that this young child would later in his wisdom recognize as a priceless gift from him?
It was this love of God. A deep, abiding, love and faith in God.
He knew of no gift more precious than this.
It didn’t need much knowledge or intelligence. One could reach the Simplicity in easy ways and with simple means. Sitting by Ichhamoti day after day, Bhabani had learned this truth.
When in the evening the light dimmed on the water reeds and acacia bushes, when the first star appeared in the sky overhead, the doves called among the reeds, scents of wild bean flowers wafted along—at that time, on the bank of this river he realized with a joyful sensation that Truth enters into the deep recesses of his consciousness—the Truth which is ever new and ever old. He realized that God was not limited in his incarnations but in His joyous plays in everyday activities too. Both were complementary of each other. This river, this child--they were all included in His reality. They were not separate but part of the Great Unity.
Nistarini was utterly spellbound. She had that rare ability. But being a simple village housewife her talents were restricted to cooking, cleaning and housekeeping only. She had never heard such theological talks or seen such rituals before. She asked Tilu, “Didi, can I come with you again?”
“Sure, any time.”
“Would Thakur-jamai allow me to?”
“No, he will beat you up!”
“I really loved it today. Who else is around here who can talk like this? In my family--they only curse and kick me around. Every day I have to hear insults from my mother-in-law. I don’t even get enough food to eat every day. Yes, I have made some mistakes. I admit. I didn’t have enough good sense at that time. I ask God to punish me for whatever sin I had committed.”
“Forget about all that. You may come here with us whenever you feel like. Every day, if you want.”
“Thakur jamai is like God himself. There is no one like him in these villages. I am so fortunate to be your friend. I really feel like inviting Thakur-jamai one day and feed him well.”
“So do it. What is the problem?”
“My family is not like that. You know them. I bring some vegetable for him, only in secret. If they come to know they would surely create a big scene.”
"Invite Nilu or me along with him, then there will be no objections.”
When they came out of the water, they saw Ramkanai Kabiraj returning after visiting a patient in another village. His feet were bare and dusty up to his knees and he carried a sack with all his medications in it. Tilu touched his feet and Nistarini too copied her. Ramkanai tried to stop her, “What is all this, didi? No, no. Please don’t. I feel most embarrassed. Come, all of you, come to my hut. Now that I have met Banerji moshai, the evening will be well spent.”
Ramkanai Chakravarti lived in Charpara. It was just beyond a large open ground north of this village. Tilu told Nistarini, “You better go home from here. We will go to Charpara—”
“I’ll also come with you.”
“Won’t they mind in your house?”
“Let them. I don’t care. I’m going with you.”
“OK. But it will get pretty late. I’m telling you now.”
“If I’m with all of you, they wouldn’t say anything. And even if they do, I don’t care a fig.”
At last they had to take her along. At Ramkanai’s place everyone sat down on reed mats. Ramkanai lit a double-tiered lamp with redi (*castor-oil, Ricinus Communis) oil, then washed his hands and feet and did his evening prayers. He asked the guests, “What would you like to have? I don’t have much at home, just some fried rice. Would the ladies serve or shall I?”
After that simple snack Ramkanai read one chapter of Chaitanya Charitamrita (*Chaitanya’s biopraphy). Bhabani read a passage from Gita. A handwritten manuscript was kept carefully on a bookstand. Bhabani asked, “What is that book? Bhagavat?”
“No. It is Madhab Nidan. My teacher copied the original by hand. Whoever wants to learn Ayurveda, must study Madhab Nidan first. This book has all the annotations by Vijay Rakshit. Those are very rare now. I teach my student Nimai from this book. He has been absent lately because of fever.”
Ramkanai held the book open in front of Bhabani. The handwriting was perfect like strands of pearls, still shining from the fifty or sixty years old cottony paper. At the end of the book were some old fashioned songs for Goddess Kali. Perhaps written by late Gurudeb Mahananda Kabiraj himself. At Bhabani’s request, Ramkanai sang one of them badly off key—
“The naked daughter (Kali) is so pampered
The tangled haired guy (Shiva) piles it on.
That is why I keep singing on
Hail to Mother Kali!”
After that Bhabani too sang a well-known song by poet Dasharathi Ray—
“O the Eternal One,
Rise once, stand on your beautiful feet…”
Ramkanai was much pleased. He closed his eyes and smiled, “Bravo! What alliteration! Rise this world, rise this life/ This is the end of the sinful life! Beautiful!”
Encouraged, Bhabani asked Tilu to sing another song also by Dasharathi Ray – “I am rich only at the last moment…”
Tilu’s singing was not bad. Ramkanai was overwhelmed, “This Dasharathi Ray writes so good! Where does he live? Just listen to his ornamentation, the alliteration, I’ve never heard such wordings before! Bravo, bravo—
“O maidens of Braja, what games do you play
'Tis I who created the four faces of God.
I am Hari, the Healer,
To allay the pains of everyone
I roam all over the world.
“Would you please write down the lyrics for me? One can’t write such words without the Divine Gift. Aha—ha!”
Bhabani said, “I think he lives near Bardhaman somewhere. Came once to sing panchali (*devotional songs) in the landlord’s house in Ulo. I first heard this song at that place. Later I taught Khoka’s mother.
After a few more songs the party broke up and Nistarini, Bhabani and family started walking home in the moonlight towards Panchpota village. The empty field of Charpara was full of moonlight. The water in the canal was shining like a silvery stream. Bhabani pointed to the canal, “See there, Tilu, when your brother was the Dewan, a riot took place right over the fish-bund on this canal. The lathials of the plantation killed a few people there. There was much commotion about that.”
Suddenly Nistarini saw a man walking fast straight at them, carrying a stick. She cried out, “Didi, look. Who’s that?”
Bhabani said, “This place is very lonely. You all wait here.”
The man was armed with a stick and it was clear that he was coming right at them. Everyone was scared. When he came very near Nistarini said, “Didi, hold Khoka’s hand. Thakur-jamai, don’t go any closer!”
The man came close and after a brief glance at them spoke out loud in joy and surprise, “What is this? Didi? Thakur moshai, you? Hello Khoka?...”
Tilu too had recognized him by then. “Hala dada! Where are you coming from?”
Hala Peke immediately hid some expression and stammered, “Just… there only… Charpara. Here, wait a minute, let me touch your feet--”
Hala Peke did not have his previous good health. He had aged. His hair was gray. Tilu said, “Where have you been so long Hala-dada? Haven’t seen you for ages.”
Hala Peke replied, “In the government jail.”
“The Biswas’ house in Habibpur was looted. The local police arrested Aghor Muchi and me. Said, ‘you must have done it.’”
“Didn’t you do it? Didn’t you?”
Hala stayed silent. Tilu was insistent, “Did you or not?”
“Yes. We did.”
“Where is Aghor dada?”
“He died in the jail.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Why were you coming at us with the stick? If it weren’t us what would you have done? Tell me the truth.”
Hala was again silent.
Tilu said softly, “Hala dada—”
“Come with us, come to our house.”
Hala got busy all of a sudden and said, “No, no, not today. I’m not worthy of even the dust in your feet. Just tell me, would you please remember me as your dada when I die? Would you?”
He came near Khoka and said lovingly, “Here is my God. My beautiful God. How much you’ve grown! Live long and be happy always. Be a famous learned man, like your father.”
Hala Peke affectionately hugged Khoka to his bosom. Then without saying anything else he briskly walked away and disappeared in the far moonlight. Khoka was surprised, and asked, “Who was he, Baba? I’ve never seen him before. Why did he hug me?”
Nistarini’s heart was still racing. She understood what had happened. Everybody did.
Nistarini said, “Thank God! If it were not us, in this lonely field—”
They started walking again. A woodpecker called out in the mango and jamun orchards. Fireflies were winking in the banmarich (*) bushes. Bats were fluttering in that tall shimul (*) tree. A few stars were visible in the moonlit sky. Bhabani Banerji was thinking of something else. This Hala Peke was a bad man, he had looted and killed people. Yet He was in Hala too. But which Hala? If Hala was bad, Nistarini was bad, who would judge them? Who has that right? That great mysterious all-aware power which made this entire universe work without our awareness? But He didn’t hurt anyone to punish. The great power only led each of us in our natural path with immense love and patience like our mother. This Peke, this Nistarini, nobody would be neglected by Him. He needed every one of us.
He would hold the hands of the lowest and the meanest of all sinners and guide him with eternal patience and empathy along the endless cycle of all the births and rebirths. His love to for the entire creation was just like Bhabani’s love for his son. At that moment Bhabani sensed a wonderful feeling of relief. A big load was off his shoulder. There was nothing to be afraid of any more. ‘Ma bhaih! Stanandhayanang stananadugdhpaney, madhubratanang makarandapaney—Isn’t He everywhere? Where is He not present?
Dewan Harakali Sur was sitting on Lalmohan Pal’s office and presenting the accounts of the indigo plantation. It was past noon. Lalamohan Pal said, “Can’t we leave the accounts of the demesne till afternoon? It is late. Where will you have lunch?”
“In the plantation quarters.”
“Who is cooking?”
“Our clerk Narhari Peshkar. He cooks well.”
While chitchatting, Lalmohan Pal said, “By the way, my sister and wife wanted to see the plantation mansion. They have never been inside.”
“Sure. You can go tomorrow. I’ll make all the arrangements. How will you go?”
“In the oxcart.”
“Why? There is a palanquin in the quarters. I can send that for you.”
About two years ago the Bengal Indigo Company had sold the Mollahati plantation for eleven and half thousand rupees to Lalmohan Pal and Satish Sadhukhan. Mr. Innis of the Company had mediated the deal. He ran the plantation for two years after Mr. Shipton’s death and reported that it was not profitable to keep the plantation anymore. The plantation's huge demesne, about a hundred and fifty bighas, was being used for farming and about thirteen bighas around the quarters were used for orchards of mango, jackfruit, guavas and so on. In other words, agriculture became the main business of the plantation. Somehow they could maintain farming only, and that was all. Dewan Harakali Sur and clerk Narahari Peshkar were the only two left from the old employees. They looked after the paperwork. Prasanna Amin and others had been dismissed. The large rooms of the mansion with all the furniture were still kept as before. There was no other option. The Indigo Company had sold those too and took the money. Surely it was sold for a song but in this village who would buy the mansion and those fancy furniture? Sending them elsewhere was too expensive and too much hassle. So they were kept as they were. Only two almirahs were taken away to Calcutta by Mr. Innis when he had left.
Dewan Harakali Sur explained it to Lalmohan Pal, “Hundred and fifty bighas of prime demesne, actually one hundred forty two bighas, nine ‘katha’s and seven ‘chhatak’s. Almost one fifty bighas. Another seventy bighas of land on renewable lease. Additionally, long ago, McNeil-sahib had leased the Nawadar marsh-land from the kings of Natore. That brings in a hefty water tax too. You can buy the plantation with your eyes closed, Pal-moshai. Not as an indigo plantation but as a profitable real estate. I will look after the property, and do the book keeping. One or two more old workers have to be kept as helpers. We will take care of everything. You just take the profit from us.”
“The mansion with the furniture too, right?” Lalmohan Pal had asked.
“Deal. I’ll buy.”
Thus the plantation was sold. Mr. Innis made a bit of a fuss. He wouldn’t part with the two carriages and two pairs of horses. Lalmohan Pal objected to that. At the end he had to pay a little bit more for them. Afterwards they sold all the animals and carriages to the Goswamis in Raiganj for about a thousand rupees. Harakali knew that if well managed, the farmland and the marsh would bring in a robust profit. A small piece of land was also kept for indigo farming.
After buying the plantation, Tulsi asked one day, “Why don’t you ask the Dewan? I would love to ride in the sahib’s horse-drawn tandem one day.”
Lalmohan said, “No dear. The Baro-sahib used to ride in it and we used to hide in fear in the paddy fields. Do you know what would people say if they see you ride in that tandem? They will say that we are showing off and being boastful of too much money. Dewan told me once too to take the tandem and visit the plantation. I folded my hands, and politely turned him down. I said, “Please forgive me---the sahibs could show off like that but not us. We are simple businessmen. If we start all that our business will take a nosedive.”
At last one day a covered oxcart carried Lalmohan’s elder daughter Saraswati, her mother Tulsi and his sister Moina with her children to the plantation mansion. Dewan Harakali, Prasanna Amin, and Narhari Peshkar were at hand to take them around to show everything. Everyone was asking all kinds of questions—
“Dewan uncle, which room is this?”
“This was the dining room for the sahibs, dear.”
“Why such huge chandeliers?”
“They were lit during the dances.”
“What is this?”
“It is a cut glass pitcher. For drinking water. Here is what they called a decanter. They poured wine from it.”
Tulsi called her kids, “Don’t touch those stuff. Don’t go there or you’ll need a bath in the evening. Move away from there.”
Many servants were fired but a few footmen and guards still remained. The lathials had disappeared long ago. Weeds and jungle had invaded their quarters. Nobody approached even in daytime for fear of snakes. One cobra was recently killed in the dense jungle on the west side.
Among the old workers, the old cook Bangshibadan Mukhujje was still around. He did the cooking for the Dewan and other workers.
Moina’s daughter Shibi said, “Grandpa, O Grandpa, I heard that the sahibs had a bathroom. Is that true? I want to see--”
Dewan Harakali Sur himself took them all to the main bathroom. Everyone was amazed seeing the large bathtub. Shibi really wanted to get in the tub but was too shy to ask. They took a long time seeing every piece of furniture and all the items were touched, shaken and squeezed.
What did the sahibs do with so many things?
In the evening when they got in their cart the workers all respectfully escorted them to the door.
Lalmohan Pal came home at night after a long day’s work and laid down on his jackfruit-wood bed in the large four-roofed room on the west side of his house. Tulsi brought a box full of paan and put it down near the pillow. “We went to see the plantation today.” She said.
Lalmohan was distracted. Two hundred and fifty bundles of tobacco were expected in his storage in Bhajanghat but had not reached there yet. He was slightly worried about it. Not getting a reply Tulsi asked, “What are you thinking?”
“Must be about business.”
“You may say so.”
“We went to see the plantation quarters today.”
“How was it?”
“My God! So many things! Have you ever been there?”
“Me? I don’t even have the time to die and you are talking about visiting the plantation. Are you crazy? We are simple business folks; those fashions and luxuries are not for us. See, now I am thinking about the tobacco in Bhajanghat.”
“Will you fulfill this one wish for me? Please, dear?”
Tulsi pleaded like a nine-year old and smiling sweetly tried to move closer to her husband.
Lalmohan was irritated. “What now?”
“You are angry? Then I won’t tell you.” Tulsi sulked.
“O, just say it!”
“OK, please Didi, tell me—”
“What kind of talk is that? We are not young anymore. Is that the way to talk to your wife? Calling your wife your sister, Didi? You’ve only learned how to make money. You know nothing about the proper way to talk—”
Lalmohan was embarrassed. He was really distracted. He tried again, “Tell me what do you want me to do?”
“Pay a fine.”
“I have a wish. You have to fulfill it. Tell me that you will—”
“Winter is coming. I want to give a quilt to each poor and needy person in the village. And to each Brahmins, I want to give one piece of broadcloth on the last day of Kartik (*autumn month).”
“Quilts for the poor is fine but I don’t think the Brahmins will accept your gift. Don’t you know them? Anyway, let me make an ‘istimet’ (estimate) for the cost. We may have to get them from Calcutta.”
“One more thing—”
“The Dewan has fired one old Brahmin from the plantation. Prasanna Chakkotti. They told him that he was not needed anymore.”
“And he came to you for help? This is not fair, dear. What do we know of the jobs in the plantation? Perhaps he really had no work to do. They are not going to pay him to just sit idle!”
“Yes. They must. Where can he go at his age? Who will hire him?”
Nalu Pal was irritated, “You are being childish. Why do you put your nose in their business? Do you understand plantation works? The money doesn’t grow on trees, dear. Why do they come to you with such problems? Stupid good-for-nothing Brahmins.”
Tulsi quietly said, “Listen, let me tell you something. You mustn’t curse like that. Just because you have some money now you shouldn’t go bragging.”
Lalmohan Pal replied, “Who’s bragging? I just said I don’t understand their work and you should not go interfering in whatever decision the Dewan takes. You are just a woman. What do you know about such things? That is how it is in the real world.”
“Fine. You may hire him or not, but you mustn’t say bad words about them. People will say you are too boastful. Shame!”
Tulsi left the room in a huff.
All this had happened a couple of years ago. Prasanna Amin left his job and went away somewhere. There was no other way. Harakali Dewan was cutting jobs to decrease the expenses. Everybody was scattered all over. Bhaja Muchi the coachman and the bearer Sriram Muchi started farming. Last Sraban (*monsoon month), he died of a snakebite while returning in the dark from the market at Mollahati.
Now there was Lalmohan Pal’s granary yard in front of the bungalow of Baro-sahib Shipton. There the paddy grains from the hundred and fifty bighas were threshed and husked, the straw was baled and in the verandah where the sahibs used to have their breakfast, the farmers and day laborers smoked their hand-cut tobacco and chatted about how the bastard sahibs used to eat chicken there and spoke in ‘Injiri’ (English). Nobody from the village was allowed to enter in those days and now Rajab Ali was sitting there scratching himself for ringworms…