মুখ্য The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told

The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told

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এই বইটি আপনার কতটা পছন্দ?
ফাইলের মান কিরকম?
মান নির্ণয়ের জন্য বইটি ডাউনলোড করুন
ডাউনলোড করা ফাইলগুলির মান কিরকম?
ক্যাটাগোরিগুলো:
সাল:
2016
প্রকাশক:
Aleph Book Co.
ভাষা:
english
ISBN 13:
9789384067700
ফাইল:
EPUB, 303 KB
ডাউনলোড (epub, 303 KB)

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আপনি একটি বুক রিভিউ লিখতে পারেন এবং আপনার অভিজ্ঞতা শেয়ার করতে পারেন. অন্যান্য পাঠকরা আপনার পড়া বইগুলির বিষয়ে আপনার মতামত সম্পর্কে সর্বদা আগ্রহী হবে. বইটি আপনার পছন্দ হোক বা না হোক, আপনি যদি নিজের সৎ ও বিস্তারিত চিন্তাভাবনা ব্যক্ত করেন তাহলে অন্যরা তাদের জন্য উপযুক্ত নতুন বইগুলি খুঁজে পাবে.
1

My Clingy Girlfriend

সাল:
2015
ভাষা:
english
ফাইল:
EPUB, 277 KB
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2

Moongphali

সাল:
2017
ভাষা:
english
ফাইল:
EPUB, 3.18 MB
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Also translated by Arunava Sinha

Khauna-Mihir’s Mound by Bani Basu

Seven Heavens by Samim Ahmed

A Mirrored Life by Rabisankar Bal

The Fifth Man by Bani Basu

The Love Letter & Other Stories by Buddhadeva Bose

Tagore for the 21st Century Reader

You are Neera by Sunil Gangopadhyay

The Magic Moonlight Flower and Other Enchanting Stories by Satyajit Ray

Black Rose by Buddhadeva Bose

Dozakhnama by Rabisankar Bal

Wonderworld and Other Stories by Sunil Gangopadhyay

The Rhythm of Riddles: Three Byomkesh Bakshi Mysteries by Saradindu

Bandyopadhyay

17 (short stories) by Anita Agnihotri

Fever (Mahakaler Rather Ghora) by Samaresh Basu

Harbart by Nabarun Bhattacharya

When the Time is Right (Tithidore) by Buddhadeva Bose

Three Women: Nashtaneer, Dui Bon, Malancha by Rabindranath Tagore

The Chieftain’s Daughter (Durgeshnandini) by Bankimchandra

Chattopadhyay

What Really Happened & Other Stories by Banaphool

Striker, Stopper by Moti Nandy

The Middleman (Jana Aranya) by Sankar

My Kind of Girl by Buddhadeva Bose

Chowringhee by Sankar

The Merry Tales of Harshabardhan and Gobardhan by Shibram Chakraborty

Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

The Master and I by Soumitra Chatterjee

Kalabati the Showstopper by Moti Nandy

Sabotage & Other Stories by Anita Agnihotri

Abandon (Ruho) by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

By the Tungabhadra by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay

There Was No One at the Bus-Stop by Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay

Illicit by Dibyendu Palit

The Director’s Mind by Ujjal Chakraborty





ALEPH BOOK COMPANY

An independent publishing firm

promoted by Rupa Publications India





First published in India in 2016 by

Aleph Book Company

7/16 Ansari Road, Daryaganj

New Delhi 110 002





Copyright © Arunava Sinha 2016



All rights reserved.





This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.





No part o; f this publication may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in a retrieval system, in any form or by any means, without permission in writing from Aleph Book Company.





eISBN: 978-93-84067-70-0





This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publishers prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published.





For

Sanghamitra and Srijon

(and Tingmo)





CONTENTS




My Love Affair with Bengali Stories ARUNAVA SINHA

1. The Kabuliwallah RABINDRANATH TAGORE

2. The Offering PRAMATHA CHAUDHURI

3. Mahesh SARAT CHANDRA CHATTOPADHYAY

4. Einstein and Indubala BIBHUTIBHUSHAN BANDYOPADHYAY

5. The Music Room TARASHANKAR BANDYOPADHYAY

6. The Homecoming BANAPHOOL

7. The Discovery of Telenapota PREMENDRA MITRA

8. And How Are You? BUDDHADEVA BOSE

9. Thunder and Lightning ASHAPURNA DEBI

10. Ras NARENDRANATH MITRA

11. Two Magicians SATYAJIT RAY

12. India RAMAPADA CHOWDHURY

13. Raja RITWIK GHATAK

14. Urvashi and Johnny MAHASWETA DEVI

15. News of a Murder MOTI NANDY

16. Ten Days of the Strike SANDIPAN CHATTOPADHYAY

17. Swapan is Dead, Long Live Swapan UDAYAN GHOSH

18. Post-mortem SUNIL GANGOPADHYAY

19. The Marble Table SANJIB CHATTOPADHYAY

20. Flapperoos NABARUN BHATTACHARYA

21. Air and Water AMAR MITRA

Notes on the Authors

Acknowledgements





MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH BENGALI STORIES




* * *





ARUNAVA SINHA


One winter evening in Calcutta, when I was ten, we ran out of food in our third floor flat. It was a freak concatenation of circumstances, not poverty, that led to our predicament, but the fact remained that we had nothing to eat and no money to buy food. And so, to stave off my hunger pangs by distracting me, my mother decided to perform a heroic task. She read me a short story, one of her favourites. My mother loved reading, but not aloud. She did not care for the drama that it involved. A short story, to her, was almost like a guilty secret, something she hugged to herself. She would consume these delicacies at a single sitting, unlike novels that stretched out interminably. Naturally, these were Bengali short stories. It was the 1970s, Bengali literature was in its heyday—as it had been for some forty years—and who needed fiction in another tongue?

She began reading out loud a story of an ox and its miserable owner. As she read, her voice broke, though to my young ears the pathos seemed entirely unnecessary, for I was much more interested in the fate of the animal than of its human owner. But as she continued with the tale something extraordinary began to take place—I wasn’t so much listening to the words as I was seeing and hearing all that was going on. I was right there in the very scene that was being described, not as an invisible observer, but as someone who was part of the story.

To this day, I cannot make a story my own unless it places me right in the middle of the action. And no novel can do this, for there is too much reflection, thought, shift of perspective, and other ‘distractions’. But a short story, ah, now that’s one breathless ride. And so it was that night, when I even forgot to be hungry. But when the fate of the beast was known, I felt the urge to repay my mother for her act of sacrifice. So I plundered the cache of coins I had saved up. All of them were foreign, except for two commemorative Indian coins, one for a rupee and the other for ten rupees. Those denominations were only available as paper currency at the time, which made the coins collectors’ items. But no matter, it was money well spent. I wanted my mother to get her favourite Chinese meal from the restaurant next door—chicken asparagus soup and prawn chowmein.

From that night onwards, the Bengali short story has been my companion in grief and in joy. Take, for example, that glorious English summer day when I sat by a stream running through leaf and fern, almost certainly about to make a sudden sally. On that day, on a university campus in Norwich, in weather as magnificent as a human being can expect, I was in great humour and it was in that mood that I read one of the stories that feature in this collection: a story about a man who was quaking in fear at the prospect of an encounter with his son-in-law.

Or, to mention another time that a Bengali short story loomed large in my life, one evening, I was crouched beneath a desk to shut myself off from the world, loaded down with a despair whose origin I simply could not trace. In my hand was a copy of a tattered ‘little magazine’ from Calcutta in which there was a story about a mother who refused to acknowledge that her Naxal son had died. My own sorrow was forgotten as I plunged into hers. Only at the end of the story did I recollect an episode from my teenage years when I had gone to inspect a row of bodies gunned down by the police to check whether a relative was among them. (He wasn’t.) So it is that I have my personal story to go with every story in this collection.



I am no scholar of Bengali literature, but I have had a passionate relationship with it for some forty years now. That passion has given me the courage, after all these years, to put together a selection of Bengali stories that are, in my opinion, among the greatest ever published. I must make clear though that this is not a selection based on literary eras, canons, trends, or any other form of critical sieving. Nor is it meant to be a representative cross section of the Bengali short story. These are, simply, stories I have loved and that have made a deep impression on me. Somewhat fortuitously—I wish I could claim that it is by design, but, frankly, it’s not—the stories here collectively show the rich variety to be found in Bengali literature—whether in terms of form, voice, setting or subject. In all of them, though, I find one particular quality that haunts the characters, and me. It is the sense of something missing, and the search for it. In every story I have come to cherish, there is inevitably a seeking of what is not, what probably cannot be. But then again, isn’t this what differentiates the meaninglessness of daily events from the world that comes from the imagination of an artist?



For all the stories in my mother tongue I’ve read ever since that day in my childhood when I was disabused of the notion that Buddhadeva Bose and the Buddha were the same person, I had only a fleeting notion of how the form came to be. It was not even emotionally wrenching when my uncle, something of an unsung poet, informed me that Rabindranath Tagore was not in fact the inventor of the short story.

He did, however, assure me that the Bengali short story did not evolve slowly from a primordial swamp, but sprang up, more or less fully formed, around the same time as its counterparts in other languages around the globe. The first short stories in the language—which were probably the first in India as well—were not gritty slice of life accounts, nor did they reflect the reality of Bengal or the world in any meaningful way.

It was, in fact, only with the arrival of Rabindranath Tagore—he wrote almost till his death in 1942—that the Bengali short story became a representation of real life. Redolent with the lyricism of his poetry, the Versatile One looked as much at the inner lives and psychology of his characters as at their circumstances, relationships, and positions within the complex matrix of class, caste, religion and gender.

With Tagore’s shadow always looming large over his contemporaries, it needed Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s rare combination of sharp societal observation and high emotional quotient to give the short story a new form. He brought his readers much closer to the people and situations he wrote about than Tagore did, even as he attacked orthodoxy and hypocrisy.

Two strands joined the Bengali short story after this. From the Bandhyopadhyays—Bibhutibhushan and Tarashankar—came studies of ordinary people, from both villages and cities, though each of them wrote in his own distinctive style. And other Bengali writers, living and writing as they did in an environment of relatively enlightened education and ideas, responded not just to their home but also to the world. The anxieties of the World Wars, the freedom movement, and oppression of the downtrodden turned Bengali short stories into bundles of discontent, disillusion, anger and irony.

Gradually, short story writers turned their lens inward. They focused a merciless gaze on the flaws, inconsistencies and desires of individuals. As urban lives shrank into smaller physical, mental and emotional spaces, the short story became a powerful means of capturing the innate opposition between a degradation of circumstances and the potential for human greatness. From Satyajit Ray to Nabarun Bhattacharya, from Sunil Gangopadhyay to Sandipan Chattopadhyay, they narrowed the width of the canvas and dived deeper into the darkness of the mind and heart. But even as this was taking place, other writers continued to create on a larger canvas, constructing narratives laced with heightened political, social and gender consciousness and ideology. They adopted techniques like unreliable perspectives, authorial intervention, breathless monologues, narrators-as-characters, and other evolving forms of storytelling. In the hands of powerful writers and craftspersons like Buddhadeva Bose, Premendra Mitra, Ramapada Chowdhury, Mahasweta Devi, Ritwik Ghatak (the film director), and, always, Ashapurna Debi, the Bengali short story became something of a panoramic marvel, spanning worlds without number.



I would like to wrap up this introduction by repeating an earlier assertion—this is not a potted history of the Bengali short story. It is a selection that has been made from my close and devoted reading of the Bengali story throughout my life. You will find here authors you know and those you haven’t heard about. Many of the writers you’d have expected to find here are included. It is because their reputations have not been lightly earned. I cannot claim I would have discovered these stories had they not been written by famous, even canonical, authors. But still, these stories spoke to me on the basis of what they are, not because of the aura of their writers. And, yes, all of these stories are from the Indian part of the Bengali-speaking world.

You will not find here some names whom you might have been expecting to feature because they are acknowledged as great short story writers—which they are. It is just that I have no romance to recall with their stories, though I have read, admired and marvelled at them. But somehow I haven’t found myself in them—I have been compelled to read them with my mind and not with a combination of head and heart, that elusive thing that we Bengalis refer to as ‘mon’.



And so, dear reader, welcome to an anthology of my personal love affairs. Like the one, for instance, from the day of my university convocation, when I was meant to be collecting my graduation degree. But I wasn’t present at the ceremony. Instead, I was knocking—my heart hammering louder than the sound of knuckles on wood—on the door of the master moviemaker who also wrote the most unusual short stories. I had translated one of them, and this was the day he was going to pronounce judgement on the translation. What graduation degree could have been worth the thirteen minutes he spent with me, making three suggestions, offering his illustrations, and then showing me out?

Or, I could go back much further, to the day when I was perched in the crook of the friendly branches of the guava tree in my grand-uncle’s yard, stealthily reading the short stories of the robed and bearded great-uncle of Bengali literature, not willing to give my officious elders the joy of knowing that I was enjoying them immensely. As I eavesdropped on a little girl and her peddler friend from Afghanistan, there was the crack of a gun being fired and the palpably hot whoosh of what turned out to be a bullet from an air rifle whizzing past my earlobe. My slightly shortsighted grand-uncle had mistaken me for a local urchin out to steal fruit, and let go with his weapon. This particular collection of short stories might not have come into being had his eyesight been better.



I was born and brought up in Bengal. My cultural, intellectual and emotional compasses were all set to their true north in Bengal. This collection is my personal statement of gratitude to the land which has given me a literature (of which the short story is the most important part) that has given me my life as a translator. Dhonnyobaad.

—Uroli, Uttarakhand,

December 2015





one


~





THE KABULIWALLAH




* * *





RABINDRANATH TAGORE


y five-year-old daughter talked all the time. It had taken her a year after her birth to master the language, and since then she has not wasted a second of her waking hours in silence. Although her mother often hushed her, this was beyond me. A silent Mini was so unnatural a being that I could not bear it for long. So I always encouraged her to prattle on.

I had barely started the seventeenth chapter of my novel that morning when Mini appeared by my side and began chattering at once, ‘Ramdayal, the doorman, calls the crow kauwa instead of kaak, Baba, he just doesn’t know anything, does he?’

Before I could talk about linguistic diversity, she had moved to another subject. ‘Baba, Bhola says it rains because elephants spray water with their trunks from the sky. He talks such rubbish, my god. He keeps talking, talks all the time.’

Without pausing for my opinion, Mini suddenly asked, ‘What relation is Ma to you, Baba?’

‘Shaali,’ I answered to myself. To Mini I said, ‘Go play with Bhola, Mini. I’m busy.’

Flopping down by my feet, next to the desk, she began to play a game involving her knees and hands, accompanied by a rhyme uttered at express velocity. In the seventeenth chapter of my novel, Pratap Singh was about to leap with Kanchanmala in his arms from the high window of the prison into the river flowing below.

My room looked out on the street. Mini abruptly stopped her game to rush to the window and began to shout, ‘Kabuliwallah, Kabuliwallah.’

A tall Kabuliwallah—one of those hawkers of dry fruits who came all the way from Afghanistan to make a living in Calcutta—was walking slowly up the road, a turban on his head, a bag slung over his shoulder, holding two or three boxes of grapes. It was difficult to say what emotions he aroused in my daughter, but she continued to call out to him breathlessly. I was afraid that if the wily peddler, with a bag of things to sell, came into my room, I could bid goodbye to any prospect of finishing chapter seventeen that day.

The Kabuliwallah turned and smiled at Mini’s shouts and began walking towards our house. Her courage gave way and she ran from the room at great speed, vanishing into the house. She was convinced that if the Kabuliwallah’s bag was opened and examined it would reveal three or four children, just like her.

Meanwhile, the man himself appeared, offering me a smiling salute. Although Pratap Singh and Kanchanmala were in dire straits, I reflected that it would be discourteous to invite him into the house and buy nothing.

I bought a few things and we began chatting. We exchanged notes on frontier policies involving Abdur Rahman, the Russians and the English.

When he was about to leave, the Kabuliwallah finally asked, ‘Where did your daughter go, Babu?’

I sent for Mini in order to dispel her fears. Pressing herself to me, Mini cast suspicious glances at the Kabuliwallah and his large bag. He offered her some raisins and dry fruit, but she simply wouldn’t accept them, holding my knee tightly. And there the first meeting between them ended.

A few days later, about to leave the house on an errand, I discovered my daughter seated on the bench next to the front door, chattering away to the Kabuliwallah who sat at her feet, listening smilingly, and occasionally saying something in broken Bengali. Mini had never encountered such an attentive listener in the five years of her life besides her father. I even found nuts and raisins bundled into the aanchal of her tiny sari. ‘Why have you given her all this?’ I asked the Kabuliwallah. ‘Don’t do it again.’ Taking an eight-anna coin out of my pocket, I handed it to him. He accepted it without demur, putting it in his bag.

I returned home to find the eight-anna coin at the heart of a hundred rupees worth of trouble.

Holding a circular, silvery object in her hand, Mini’s mother was asking her daughter disapprovingly, ‘Where did you get this?’

‘The Kabuliwallah gave it to me,’ Mini told her.

‘Why did you have to take it from him?’ Mini’s mother inquired.

‘I didn’t want to, he gave it on his own,’ Mini said, on the verge of tears.

I rescued Mini from imminent danger and took her outside.

There I learnt that it wasn’t as though this was only Mini’s second meeting with Rahmat, the Kabuliwallah. He had been coming to see her almost every day, bribing her with almonds and raisins to conquer her tiny, greedy five-year-old heart.

I observed that the two friends had established an easy familiarity between themselves, sharing private jokes and quips. For instance, on spotting Rahmat, my daughter would ask, laughing, ‘What’s in that bag of yours, Kabuliwallah?’

In an exaggeratedly nasal tone Rahmat would answer, also laughing, ‘An elephant.’

The joke could not be termed particularly subtle, but nevertheless it kept both in splits—and the artless laughter of a middle-aged man and a child on an autumn morning brought me some joy too.

They had another ritual exchange. Rahmat would tell Mini, ‘Khnokhi, tomi sasurbaari kakhanu jaabena. Little girl, you must never get married and go to your father-in-law’s house.’

Most girls from traditional Bengali families would be familiar with the word shoshurbaari almost from the time they were born, but because we were somewhat modern, we hadn’t taught our daughter the meaning of the term. So, she did not know what to make of Rahmat’s request, but because it was against her nature to be silent and unresponsive, she would fire a counter-question. ‘Will you go there?’

Rahmat would brandish his enormous fist against an imaginary father-in-law, and say, ‘I will kill the sasur first.’

Imagining the terrible fate awaiting this unknown creature, Mini would laugh her head off.



It was the clear season of autumn. In ancient times, this was when kings set off to conquer other lands. I had never been anywhere outside Calcutta, but precisely for that reason my mind wandered all over the world. In the quiet corner of my room, I was like an eternal traveller, pining for places around the globe. My heart began to race as soon as another country was mentioned, the sight of a foreigner conjured up a vision of a cottage amidst rivers and mountains and forests, and thoughts of a joyful, free way of life captured my imagination.

But I was so retiring by nature that the very notion of abandoning my corner and stepping out into the world made me have visions of the sky crashing down on my head. That was why my conversations with this man from Kabul, this Kabuliwallah, every morning by the desk in my tiny room served the purpose of travel for me. Rugged and inaccessible, the scorched, red-hued mountain ranges rose high on either side of the road, a laden caravan of camels winding along the narrow trail between them; turbanned traders and travellers, some of them on the backs of camels, some on foot, some with spears, others with old-fashioned flint guns…with a voice like the rumbling of clouds, the Kabuliwallah would recount tales from his homeland in broken Bengali, and these images would float past my eyes.

Mini’s mother was perpetually jumpy, her mind alive with imaginary fears. The slightest noise on the streets would lead her to believe that all the inebriated individuals in the world were rushing towards our house, bent on making mischief. Despite all the years (not too many actually) she had lived on earth, she had still not rid herself of the conviction that the universe was populated only by thieves and robbers and drunkards and snakes and tigers and malaria and earthworms and cockroaches and white men all intent on striking terror into her heart.

She was not entirely free of doubt about Rahmat, the Kabuliwallah, requesting me repeatedly to keep an eye on him. When I attempted to laugh away her suspicions, she would ask me probing questions. ‘Aren’t children ever kidnapped? Don’t they have slaves in Afghanistan? Is it entirely impossible for a gigantic Kabuliwallah to kidnap a small child?’

I had to acknowledge that it was not entirely impossible but unlikely. The capacity for trust was not the same in everyone, which was why my wife remained suspicious of the Kabuliwallah. But I could not stop Rahmat from visiting our house for no fault of his.

Rahmat usually went home around the end of January every year. He would be very busy collecting his dues at this time. He had to go from house to house, but still he made it a point to visit Mini once a day. There did seem to be a conspiracy between them. If he could not visit in the morning, he made his way to our house in the evening. It was true that I experienced a sudden surge of fear at the sight of the large man in his loose shalwar and kurta, standing in a dark corner of the room with his bags. But when a laughing Mini ran up to him, saying, ‘Kabuliwallah, Kabuliwallah,’ and the simple banter of old was resumed between the two friends of unequal age, my heart was filled with delight once more.



I was correcting proofs one day in my tiny room. The cold had grown sharper; as winter was about to bid farewell, there was a severe chill. The morning sunshine filtering through the window warmed my feet; it was a most pleasant sensation. It was about eight o’clock—most of those who had ventured out for their morning constitutionals, their heads and throats wrapped in mufflers, were already back home. Suddenly, there was an uproar in the street.

Looking out of the window I saw two policemen frogmarching our Rahmat, bound with ropes, up the road, followed by a group of curious urchins. Rahmat’s clothes were bloodstained, and one of the policemen held a dagger dripping with blood. Going out, I stopped the policemen to inquire what the matter was.

The story was related partly by a policeman and partly by Rahmat himself. One of our neighbours owed Rahmat some money for a shawl from Rampur. When he disclaimed the debt, an altercation broke out, in the course of which Rahmat had stabbed him with his dagger.

The Kabuliwallah was showering expletives on the liar when Mini emerged from the house, calling out, ‘Kabuliwallah, Kabuliwallah.’

Rahmat’s expression changed in an instant to a cheerful smile. Since there was no bag slung from his shoulder today, they could not have their usual discussion about its magical contents. Mini asked him directly, ‘Will you go to your father-in-law’s house?’

‘That’s exactly where I am going,’ Rahmat smiled back at her.

When he saw Mini wasn’t amused, he showed her his arms bound with rope. ‘I would have killed the sasur, but my hands are tied.’

Rahmat was in jail for several years for causing grievous bodily harm.

We forgot him, more or less. Going about our everyday routines it didn’t even occur to us how difficult it must be for a man used to roaming free in the mountains to cope with years of imprisonment.

Even Mini’s father had to accept that his fickle-hearted daughter’s behaviour was truly shameful. She effortlessly forgot her old friend, and struck up a new friendship with Nabi, who groomed horses. Then, as she grew older, male friends were replaced by girls her age. Now, we seldom saw each other anymore.

Many years passed. Another autumn arrived. My Mini’s wedding had been arranged. She would be married during the Durga Puja holidays. Along with the goddess from Kailash, the joy of my house would also depart for her husband’s home, robbing her father’s house of its light.

A beautiful morning had dawned. After the monsoon, the freshly-rinsed autumn sunlight had taken on the colour of pure, molten gold. Its glow washed over the crumbling houses of exposed brick in the neighbourhood, making them exquisitely beautiful.

The shehnai had begun playing in my house before the night had ended. Its notes were like the sound of my heart weeping. The plaintive melody of Bhairavi was spreading the imminent pain of parting all over the world. My Mini was to be married today.

There had been a great to-do since the morning, with crowds of people going in and out of the house. In the courtyard a marquee was being set up with bamboo posts; the clinking of chandeliers being hung up in the rooms and the veranda could be heard. It was very noisy.

I was going over the accounts in my room when Rahmat appeared and saluted me.

I did not recognize him at first. He had neither his bags nor his long hair—his body was not as strapping as it once used to be. It was his smile that eventually told me who he was.

‘Why, it’s Rahmat,’ I said. ‘When did you get back?’

‘I was released from jail yesterday evening,’ he answered.

His reply made me uncomfortable. Until now, I had never seen a murderer in the flesh, his presence here made me shrink back. On this auspicious day, I wished he would go away.

I told him, ‘There’s something important going on at home, I am busy. You’d better go today.’

At this he made ready to leave at once, but when he had reached the door, he said hesitantly, ‘Can’t I meet Khnokhi?’

He probably thought that Mini had not changed. Perhaps he expected her to come running up as before, chanting, ‘Kabuliwallah, Kabuliwallah,’ as she always had. To honour the old friendship he had even gone to the trouble of collecting a box of grapes and some nuts and raisins wrapped in paper from a fellow Afghan as he no longer had his own sack of goods to sell

‘There are some ceremonies at home today,’ I told him, ‘meeting Mini is impossible.’

He looked very disappointed. He looked at me wordlessly for a few moments, then said, ‘Salaam, Babu,’ and left.

No sooner had he left than I felt bad and was considering calling him back when I found him returning of his own accord.

Coming up to me, he said, ‘I have some grapes and nuts and raisins for Khnokhi, please give them to her.’

As I was about to pay for them, he caught hold of my hand firmly and said, ‘Please don’t pay me. You have always been so kind, I will never forget your kindness…

‘I have a daughter back home just like yours, Babu. It was thinking of her that I brought some fruit for Khnokhi, this isn’t business.’

Putting his hand inside his long, loose shalwar, he pulled out a dirty piece of paper. Unfolding it carefully, he spread it out on my desk for me. It had the print of a tiny pair of hands. Not a photograph, not an oil painting, just some lampblack smeared on the palms to make a print on paper. Rahmat travelled to Calcutta’s streets every year to sell his dry fruits, holding this remembrance of his daughter close to his breast—as though the touch of those tiny tender hands comforted the heart inside his broad chest, a heart wracked by the pain of separation.

Tears sprang to my eyes. I forgot that he was a seller of dry fruits from Kabul and I, a member of a Kulin Bengali family. I realized that he was a father, just as I was. The handprint of his little Parbati from his home in the mountains reminded me of Mini.

I sent for my daughter at once. They raised objections in the ladies’ chambers, but I paid no attention. Mini appeared shyly in my room, dressed as a bride in her red wedding garb.

The Kabuliwallah was taken aback when he saw her. Unable to revive their old banter, he said nothing for a while. Finally, he said with a smile, ‘Khnokhi, tomi sasurbaari jaabis?’

Mini knew now what the words meant, she could not respond as before. Blushing at Rahmat’s question, she stood with her face averted. I remembered the day Mini and the Kabuliwallah had met for the first time, and felt a twinge of sadness.

After Mini left, Rahmat slumped to the floor with a sigh. He had suddenly realized that his own daughter must have grown up and that he would have to get to know her all over again—she would no longer be the way he remembered her. Who knew what might have happened to her over these past eight years? The shehnai kept playing in the calming sunlight of the autumn morning, but inside a house in a Calcutta lane all that Rahmat could see were the mountains and cold deserts of Afghanistan.

I gave him some money. ‘Go back home to your daughter, Rahmat,’ I told him. ‘Let the happiness of your reunion with her be a blessing for my Mini.’

Giving Rahmat the money meant pruning one or two things from the celebrations. The electric lights display was not as lavish as I had wanted it to be, nor were the musical arrangements as elaborate as planned. The ladies as usual objected strongly but, for me, the festivities were brightened by the benediction of a father’s love.





two


~





THE OFFERING




* * *





PRAMATHA CHAUDHURI


uropean civilization had not yet thrust its horns into our village; in other words, the railway line had bypassed us. So, to visit home from Calcutta, we still had to use traditional means of transport part of the way: the boat in the monsoon and the palanquin during summer and winter for the most part.

The road and the river ran in opposite directions. I always took the boat home, so for a long time I did not explore the land route. Then, in the year that I cleared my BA examinations, I had to go home in May to take care of some unfinished business. Today, I shall tell you of the strange incident that took place on that journey.

Getting off the train at six in the morning, I found the palanquin-bearers waiting for me. I cannot claim that the appearance of the litter was encouraging. I estimated it to be some three feet wide and less than five feet long. Then, I was transfixed by the appearance of the bearers. Cadavers such as these could probably be seen only in hospitals in other countries. Almost all of them had protruding ribs and withered flesh on their limbs.

To be carried by these fellow humans for twenty miles had at first seemed rather a unpalatable proposition. Inflicting my weight upon these spindly, half-dead unfortunates seemed exceedingly cruel. Observing my hesitation, the servant who had accompanied them from my ancestral home smiled and said, ‘Get in, sir, you shall not find it uncomfortable. If you delay any more you will not arrive at your destination before four o’clock.’

Being told that travelling twenty miles would take ten hours did not boost my enthusiasm in the least. Still, I crawled into the palanquin after muttering a prayer, since there was no alternative.

At first, the glow and the breeze that filtered in from the east cheered me; the draught felt as wonderful to the skin as the radiance to the eye. My eyes as well as my heart were reborn along with the birth of the new day. I looked outside. There were fields stretching in every direction. No houses, no trees, only fields—endless fields—flat and identical, infinite and empty like the sky. Having escaped the concrete pigeonholes of Calcutta into this infinite expanse of nature, my soul experienced the bliss of deliverance. My mind shook off all worries and took on the clear, satisfied appearance of the sky with a faint red glow of joy.

But this happiness proved short-lived, for with the progress of the day the potency of the sun increased, as though nature was running a fever—the temperature rose to 105 degrees. By nine o’clock, one could no longer look out, for the sun was blinding. My eyes were thirsty for a shade of green—a search over the horizon only yielded an emaciated acacia or two. They barely quenched my thirst, for whatever other quality this tree might have possessed, it offered no green loveliness, no soothing shadow. Caught between this plain on which there was no green, no leaves, no shade, and the sunlight-stricken sky bereft of clouds, I felt a great fatigue growing. Unable to stand this dull appearance of nature any longer, I opened a book. I’d brought George Meredith’s The Egoist with me—I had the last chapter to finish. Having read three or four pages, I realized I had paid no attention—not a word made sense. I shut the book and requested the bearers to speed up a little, promising them extra money.

This worked. We reached the halfway point at ten-thirty—half an hour early. I cannot claim this village amidst the desert was a lovely and pleasing example of an oasis. A shallow tank in the middle, eleven or twelve thatched huts on its bank, which was as high as a single-storeyed building, and a fig tree on one side. Setting the palanquin down under a tree, the bearers ran to the tank, took a dip in it and sat down to their meal in their wet clothes. We set off again half an hour later.

The palanquin moved rather slowly now, for lunch had made the bearers slower than a pregnant woman. In the meantime, my body, mind and senses had become so weary that I shut my eyes and tried to sleep. The afternoon sun and the rocking of the palanquin brought on slumber, but that slumber was not sleep. Just as my body had adopted a posture midway between lying down and sitting up, my mind had also occupied a position somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. A couple of hours passed this way. I was suddenly awakened by a tremendous jolt, so powerful that it penetrated my body and struck at the very seat of the soul.

Looking out, I realized that the bearers had deposited their passenger with a thud beneath an enormous banyan tree and disappeared. When I asked why, the servant said, ‘They’ve gone for a smoke.’ I took the opportunity to escape painfully from the palanquin and stretch my limbs. A little further away I found the bearers huddled together, making a great noise. At first I was apprehensive, wondering whether they were conspiring to go on strike against me, for many excited speeches were being delivered. But almost at once I realized that there was a different reason for all the shouting. What they were smoking was not tobacco—it was ‘king tobacco’, as was evident from the smell. Their enthusiasm, their cheerfulness, their leaps and cries made it obvious why cannabis is universally referred to in Bengali as ‘quickjoy’.

At first it was amusing to watch them smoke, but gradually I became irritated. The cannabis disappeared rapidly, but none of them showed the slightest inclination to get up. When I asked how much longer they would be, the servant said, ‘They won’t get up, sir, unless you force them to—there’s danger ahead, so they’re trying to smoke up some courage.’

I said, ‘What danger?’

He answered, ‘It must not be mentioned, sir. You’ll see for yourself soon.’ I became so curious that I decided to rouse the bearers myself. Their eyes had turned red under the influence of the drug. I had to pull each one physically to his feet, which forced me to inhale some of the smoke. Entering by way of my nostrils, it went straight to my head. I was overcome by nausea at once, my head spun, my eyes felt heavy—I took shelter hastily in the palanquin. It started moving again. This time I didn’t feel in the least uncomfortable—for my body seemed to belong to someone else.

After some time—how long, I could not say—the bearers started shouting in unison, at the top of their voices. I had already found evidence that their vocal strength was more than their physical one, but for the first time I realized the extent of that strength. The one word that could be heard amidst the babble was ‘Ram naam’—now the leader also added his voice to the chorus, chanting, ‘Ram naam sat hai, Ram naam sat hai’ continuously. It made me think I had died, and that spirits were taking me to their realm in their palanquin.

Whether the cannabis had anything to do with this impression, I cannot say. I felt a great curiosity about where they were taking me. Looking out, I saw that the sky looked as though the village were on fire, but the accompanying signs of a blaze—loud screams renting the air—were not to be heard. It was so desolate, so silent, that the unbreakable peace of death seemed to have enveloped the world.

A little further on, what lay before us was a wilderness—not of sand, but of scorched earth; this earth was like a fragment of brown pottery, without a single blade of grass. There was no human habitation now on this scorched land, but numerous signs remained to show that there once had been one. This was a kingdom of bricks, as far as the eye could see there were bricks and more bricks, some stacked together, some scattered on the ground, there were bricks in the thousands; and the bricks were so red that they seemed to be bleeding. What pushed upwards from this collapsed world were trees. But none of them was leafy, they were all barren, all dry, all dead. These skeletal trees stood in clumps at some places, and singly at others. And the bricks and the timber, the earth and the sky, all seemed to have gone up in blood-red flames.

It was hardly surprising that simple people like my bearers should be frightened at this sight, for I felt a bit shaken myself. A little later, the faint sound of sobs penetrated the silence and came to my ears. The tone was so soft, so pathetic, so distressed that generations of human agony appear to have been collected and distilled in it. It filled me with compassion. In an instant, I sensed the pain of all humankind.

Suddenly, a storm came up, the wind raged from all directions. The fire in the sky swirled madly, tormented by the wind. A typhoon seemed to rise above the sea of blood, flaming waves spreading in all directions. And in that fiery deluge I saw thousands of people flailing and writhing. At this sight the elements clapped their hands in glee and shouted aloud. Gradually all these sounds coalesced into one universal laugh—its merciless, grotesque noise dispatched waves of turbulence to the horizon. Then it diminished gradually, being transformed into the same soft, pathetic, distressed sobs I had heard earlier. The conflict between the grotesque laughter and the tragic sobs brought out in me old memories of this abandoned town—whether the memories were from this life or a previous one, I cannot tell.

Someone within me seemed to say, here is the history of this village… This brick-and-wood wilderness was the ruin of Rudrapur. The Roys of Rudrapur had once been the principal zamindars of the area. The founder of the clan, Rudranarayan, had received his title by virtue of working for the nawab, and along with it he had earned ownership rights to three divisions of land. People said the family had in its possession a deed, signed by the Emperor of Delhi himself, which gave them the power to execute anyone.

Whether they were empowered by the deed or not, there was no doubt that they did carry out executions. Legend had it that there had never been such indomitable zamindars in the land before. The strong and the weak alike bowed before them. Those who earned their wrath lost both their property and their lives. The number of people whose homes and lands they had captured was beyond count. There wasn’t anyone within twenty miles who dared to disobey the Roys’ commands. Under their iron rule there was not the faintest trace of crime in the area, for all who could use sticks, spears or swords were enlisted in the army.

Just like their boundless ruthlessness, their benevolence was limitless too. Providing food and clothes to the poor and medicines to the sick was an everyday affair. Countless people lived gratefully under their patronage. All the priests in the area had become rich landowners on the strength of the rights that the Roys had granted to Brahmins. And they spent unstintingly on festivals and rituals—Holi, Durga Puja and the like. In Rudrapur, the sky would turn crimson with abir during Holi—and the earth with blood during Durga Puja.

In the guesthouses, there were arrangements to feed a hundred guests daily. No Brahmin saddled with a dead father or mother, or a marriageable daughter, ever went back empty-handed from the Roys. They would say that the Brahmin’s wealth is not for amassing but for spending on good causes. So, if money for such philanthropy ever ran short, the masters did not shrink from looting traders and moneylenders. In brief, they did good and evil according to their own fancies, for under the reign of the nawab, no one ruled over them. Consequently, common people respected them as much as they feared them, for they neither feared nor respected the people. As a result of such untrammelled tyranny, their estimation of their own excellence increased tremendously. Ingrained in them was the pride of race, of wealth, of power, of appearance. All the males in the Roy family were fair, tall and strong, and the fame of the beauty of their womenfolk had spread countrywide. Because of all this, it had become next to impossible for them to think of anyone else as a human being.

But, even before the advent of the English, the fortunes of the family had started falling apart, and later, in the era of the East India Company, they were ruined. Those factions which had become penniless, because of the division of property over successive generations, found their lines dying out, for in their eyes it was contemptible to earn a living by one’s own toil. On top of that were the disputes over the sharing of property. The Roy family worshipped the goddess Shakti—so much so that in Rudrapur young boys and old men alike were regular drinkers. Not even the women objected, for they believed that drinking was masculine. When the lords assembled after paying their respects to the family goddess and got down to drinking, the prominent sandalwood-and-blood marks on their foreheads and their bloodshot eyes gave them the appearance of Shiva with his inflamed third eye.

During this phase no task was too daunting for them. They would order their stick-wielding soldiers to plunder grains from one subject and to rape the wife of another. Bloodshed followed. This family rivalry took them forward along the road to extinction. Whatever property and assets remained were transferred by virtue of the ten-year settlement (under which the government granted the Roys ownership of the land for ten years provided they fulfilled certain conditions). It never occurred to them that unless the last instalment was paid by the due date they would become permanently bankrupt. Because they were not used to doing it, they never managed to pay the revenue owed to the Company on time. As a result most of their property had to be auctioned off.

With time the clan of the Roys was almost obliterated. Where they had once occupied almost a hundred houses, only six branches remained about a hundred years ago. The property and assets of those six branches gradually passed into Dhananjay Sarkar’s hands. This was because Dhananjay followed English law as carefully as he knew it. The various tricks of making money with the help of the law, while staying within it, were at his fingertips. He had earned a great deal of money from practising as an attorney at the district court. Channelled into moneylending, these funds had accumulated a massive amount of interest, swelling his fortune greatly.

Public opinion held that he had earned ten lakh rupees in about ten years. Even if it wasn’t quite as much, there was no doubt that he had earned three or four lakh rupees easily. After making all this money, he wanted to be a zamindar, and so he started buying the Roys’ property bit by bit—for he knew every acre of the estate like the back of his hand. His family had always worked for the Roys, and in his younger days, he too, had worked six or seven years for the head of the oldest branch, Triloknarayan. But, despite buying up the entire property and even the homes of every branch of the family, he had not dared to visit Rudrapur, for Ugranarayan, the son of his former master, was still alive. Ugranarayan had sworn by his sacred thread, placing his hand on the family idol, that if Dhananjay ever set foot within the borders of Rudrapur in Ugranarayan’s lifetime, he would not return in one piece.

Dhananjay had no doubt in his mind that Ugranarayan would fulfil his oath to the letter. For he knew that no one as fearsome and courageous as Ugranarayan had ever been born into the Roy family. Some weeks after Ugranarayan’s death, Dhananjay went to Rudrapur and occupied the Roys’ ancestral home. Not a single male from the Roy family was present in the village, so he could have taken possession of every house had he so wanted; yet he made no attempt to turn Ugranarayan’s only daughter Ratnamayee, who was a widow, out of her ancestral home.

For one thing, the subjects of Pathanpara, the village adjacent to Rudrapur, were determined to protect Ratnamayee’s rights and ownership. The village comprised generations of people adept at fighting with sticks; Dhananjay knew that if he tried to evict Ratnamayee, injury or death was inevitable. He wasn’t about to face such a fate, for there wasn’t another person in Bengal as timid as he.

Second, Dhananjay harboured a modicum of fear and respect, arising from superstition, for the family that had provided sustenance to his own. Because of all this, Dhananjay left Ugranarayan’s portion alone, occupying the rest of the Roys’ family home—though only nominally. For Dhananjay’s family consisted only of his daughter, Rangini, and her husband, Ratilal Dey.

After he had moved house, Dhananjay underwent a distinct change. While he had been making money, his desire for wealth had taken him over so completely that greed was all he harboured. In the grip of this desire, he had blindly gathered riches by any means whatsoever—it had never occurred to him to find out for whom or for what. But after he installed himself as the zamindar in Rudrapur, he woke up to the fact that he had made money simply for the sake of making money, not for anything else, not for anyone else.

He recalled that when his seven sons had died one after the other, he had not been perturbed even for a day, he had not neglected his business pursuits. The excessive love for money that he had harboured for a lifetime was now transformed into excessive possessiveness. He spent sleepless nights wondering how his amassed wealth could be preserved for posterity. Rudrapur itself was visible proof that even unlimited wealth could be lost over the ages. Gradually an idea took root in his mind—that man could accumulate riches by his own effort, but without the help of the gods those riches couldn’t be preserved.

Although he knew the laws of the English by heart, Dhananjay was essentially uneducated. He had never outgrown his rustic orgins, the education he had received had had no effect in this regard. His mind was ruled by every superstition and blind belief that a lower caste person could be expected to subscribe to. He had heard in his childhood that if a Brahmin child were locked up with riches in a room and died of starvation, the child would be transformed into a spirit and guard the wealth forever. He was so obsessed with preserving his amassed wealth in this manner that he became convinced that doing this was his most important duty. In matters where Dhananjay had no doubts, he was used to getting his way in the face of every opposition. But in this case a great obstacle did arise. Hearing that Dhananjay meant to sacrifice a Brahmin child, Rangini gave up food and sleep. Consequently, it became impossible for Dhananjay to fulfil his heart’s desire.

If Dhananjay loved anything in the world besides money, it was his daughter. Just as a tree might take root even amidst brick and mortar, this weakness for his daughter had taken root in a crevice somewhere in Dhananjay’s hard heart. Though Dhananjay did not take the initiative himself, a certain turn of events fulfilled the last wish of his life.

Ratnamayee had a three-year-old son. His name was Kiritchandra. She lived alone with her son, never meeting anyone. No one was allowed into her inner sanctum. The people of Rudrapur would actually have forgotten her existence had she not visited the family goddess’s temple every day, after her bath, precisely at noon—guarded by two of Pathanpara’s stick-wielding citizens. Ratnamayee was twenty or twenty-one at the time. Women as wondrously beautiful as she were extremely rare in the land. She resembled the family goddess. Her eyes slanted upwards like those of the idol’s—and, just like those eyes, hers too were still, immobile. People said her lashes never closed. What burnt brightly in them was her total contempt for the men and women around her. Ratnamayee had inherited the ancestral arrogance accumulated over three centuries by her family. Needless to say, she also nurtured a fierce pride in her own beauty. To her, this beauty was clear proof of her nobility. In Ratnamayee’s view, the purpose of beauty was not to attract people, but to slight them. When she went to the temple people on the road stepped aside, for her very posture told them, in the silent language of her complexion and figure, ‘Go away. Even stepping on your shadow would mean having to cleanse myself.’ She never glanced to the left or the right, with her eyes cast downwards she lit up the path on her way to and from the temple.

Behind closed shutters, Rangini watched Ratnamayee, and her mind and her body grew rigid with the poison of envy—for however much her possessions might be, beauty was not one of them. And this deficiency pained her a great deal, for her husband Ratilal was extremely handsome. Rangini loved her husband the way Dhananjay loved money—in other words, this love was nothing more than a terrible hunger, and this hunger, just like physical hunger, was blind and ruthless. What relationship it had with the heart was difficult to say, for the hearts of creatures like Dhananjay and Rangini are not external to the body, but included within it.

Like Dhananjay, Rangini treated the object of her love as her personal property. The very thought that someone might set hands on it made her ruthless, and there was no act in the world too cruel to preserve her property. A completely unfounded suspicion had risen in Rangini’s mind—that Ratilal had been entranced by Ratnamayee’s beauty; that suspicion was gradually transformed into certainty. Rangini suddenly discovered that Ratilal went to Ugranarayan’s house secretly, loitering there for hours. The real attraction was drinking bhang with the Brahmin who lived under Ratnamayee’s patronage. And then, the childless Ratilal had developed such a weakness for Ratnamayee’s son that he couldn’t pass a single day without setting eyes on Kiritchandra.

Needless to say, Ratnamayee and Ratilal had never even exchanged glances, for the inhabitants of Pathanpara guarded her inner sanctum. But Rangini became convinced that Ratnamayee had decided to steal her handsome husband from her. To take revenge for this, and to satisfy her innate enviousness, Rangini decided to use Ratnamayee’s son to fulfil her father’s wish. She let Dhananjay know that not only did she have no objection to his plan, but she would look for a suitable young boy.

This sort of thing had to be conducted with much stealth, however. So, after much discussion, father and daughter decided to use the room next to Rangini’s bedroom to carry out their plot. In three or four days all the doors and windows of this room were sealed with bricks. Then, very furtively, all the gold and silver coins Dhananjay had amassed were put into large copper pitchers and arranged in rows inside the room. When all Dhananjay’s wealth had been put in there, Rangini told Ratilal that Ratnamayee’s son was so lovely she desperately wanted to hold him in her arms—and that he would somehow have to bring Kiritchandra to her. Ratilal answered that it was impossible, if Ratnamayee’s bodyguards got to know they would smash his head. But Rangini became so insistent that Ratilal soon managed to wheedle Kiritchandra into accompanying him to meet Rangini.

As soon as Kiritchandra arrived, Rangini took him in her arms and smothered him with kisses. Then she dressed him in red, put a garland round his neck, a red sandalwood-and-vermilion mark on his forehead and two gold bangles on his wrists. Seeing him dressed up like this, Ratilal’s face lit up with pleasure. Then Rangini took Kiritchandra by the hand, pushed him into the sealed chamber and locked the door. Pushing against the door, Ratilal realized that Rangini had locked him in too, alone in his bedroom.

Although Ratilal tried to push, kick and hammer his way out of the bedroom and into the sealed chamber, he realized his efforts were futile. The door was so heavy and so solid that it would be difficult to break it down even with an axe. Shut inside that pitch-dark room, Kiritchandra started sobbing at first, and then called out to Ratilal, ‘Dada, Dada.’ Two or three hours later, his sobs could no longer be heard. Ratilal realized that he had cried himself to sleep.

Locked up in his room for three days and three nights, Ratilal could hear Kiritchandra—now banging his head against the bedroom door, now sobbing, now silent. At his wits’ end, Ratilal attacked the door a thousand times over those three days, but he couldn’t budge it even an inch. Every time he heard sobs he ran to the door to say, ‘Don’t weep so, Baba, don’t be afraid, I’m here.’ Hearing his voice the boy would cry out even more loudly, bang his head against the door of the sealed chamber even more often; Ratilal covered his ears with his hands and ran away to the other end of the room, screaming out to Rangini and Dhananjay at the top of his voice, calling them whatever names came to his mind.

He had become so unhinged by this fiendish business that it never occurred to him that there could be some other way of rescuing Kiritchandra—his entire attention was drawn by those sobs from the boy trapped inside that sealed chamber. After three days, the child’s sobs grew gradually weaker, fainter, and stopped altogether on the fifth day. Ratilal realized that Kiritchandra’s little heart had stopped beating. He parted the iron rods on the window with his hands, jumped out and ran directly to Ratnamayee’s house.

That day there were no guards at the door, for all the people of Pathanpara were out looking for the missing boy. Taking this opportunity Ratilal appeared before Ratnamayee and narrated everything to her. For three years no one had seen Ratnamayee smile. Hearing of the cruel murder of her son, her face and eyes lit up, she seemed to be smiling. Ratilal found this so peculiar that he fled from her presence and disappeared. Then, in the middle of the night, while everyone was asleep, Ratnamayee set fire to her room.

The houses adjoined one another. Within an hour the fire spread like the wrathful flames of the gods and attacked Dhananjay’s house. Dhananjay and Rangini tried to escape, but at the front gate they saw Ratnamayee, surrounded by almost a hundred of Pathanpara’s inhabitants armed with swords, spears and shields. At Ratnamayee’s command they plunged their spears into the father and the daughter until they were covered with blood from head to foot, and threw them into the flames. Ratnamayee burst into laughter, and her attendants realized she had gone mad.

Then the people of Pathanpara went berserk. Dhananjay’s servants, maids, employees, guards, doormen—whoever they found were skewered on their swords and spears, and the ancestral home of the Roy family was overrun by a river of fire above and of blood below. Then came a storm and an earthquake. When everything was burnt to smithereens, Ratnamayee jumped into the flames. Everything in Rudrapur stands in ruins today. Only Kiritchandra’s sobs and Ratnamayee’s insane laughter still rise up to the skies.





three


~





MAHESH




* * *





SARAT CHANDRA CHATTOPADHYAY




I

he village was named Kashipur. An insignificant village, with an even more insignificant zamindar, but such was his authority that his subjects went in awe of him.

It was the birthday of the zamindar’s youngest son. Having performed the holy rituals, Tarkaratna, the priest, was on his way home in the afternoon. The month of Boishakh was drawing to a close, but there was not even a trace of clouds anywhere, the searing sky seemingly pouring fire on everything below. The field stretching to the horizon before him was parched and cracked, with the blood in the veins of the earth escaping constantly through the crevices in the form of vapour. Gazing at it coiling upwards like flames made the head reel with drunkenness.

Gafoor Jolha lived on the edge of this field. The earthen wall surrounding his house had collapsed, merging his yard with the road. The privacy of the inner chambers had all but surrendered itself to the mercy of the passer-by.

Pausing in the shade of a white teak tree, Tarkaratna called out loudly, ‘Are you home, Gafra?’

Gafoor’s ten-year-old daughter came to the door. ‘What do you need Baba for? He’s got a fever.’

‘Fever! Call the swine! Monster! Godless creature!’

The screaming and shouting brought Gafoor Mian to the door, shivering with fever. An ancient acacia stood next to the broken wall, with a bull tethered to it. Pointing to it, Tarkaratna said, ‘What’s all this? Have you forgotten this is a Hindu village with a Brahmin zamindar?’ Red with rage and the heat, his words were fiery, but Gafoor unable to understand the reason for the outburst could only stare at him.

‘When I passed this way in the morning he was tethered there,’ said Tarkaratna, ‘and now on my way back he’s still tethered the same way. Karta will bury you alive if you kill a bull. He’s a devout Brahmin.’

‘What can I do, Baba Thakur, I have no choice. I’ve had this fever for several days now. I collapse every time I try to take him to graze.’

‘Then turn him loose, he’ll find food on his own.’

‘Where can I turn him loose, Baba Thakur? The winnowing isn’t done, the grain is still lying in the fields. The hay hasn’t been sorted, the earth is burning, there’s not a blade of grass anywhere. What if he eats someone’s grains or hay—how can I turn him loose, Baba Thakur?’

Softening, Tarkaratna said, ‘If you can’t let him loose at least give him some straw. Hasn’t your daughter made any rice? Give him a bowl of starch and water.’

Gafoor did not answer, only looked at Tarkaratna helplessly and sighed.

Tarkaratna said, ‘No rice either? What did you do with the hay? Did you sell your entire share without keeping anything for your beast? You butcher!’

Gafoor seemed to lose his power of speech at this cruel accusation. A little later he said haltingly, ‘I did get some hay this year, but Karta Moshai took it away to pay for taxes left over from last year. I fell at his feet, I said, “Babu Moshai, you’re the supreme authority, where will I go if I leave your kingdom, give me at least a little hay. There’s no straw for the roof, we have just the one room for father and daughter, we can still manage with palm leaves this monsoon, but my Mahesh will die of starvation.”’

With a mocking smile, Tarkaratna said, ‘Really! What a loving name, Mahesh. I’ll die laughing.’

Paying no attention to the taunt, Gafoor continued, ‘But the lord had no mercy on me. He allowed me some rice to feed us for two months, but all my hay was confiscated and the poor thing got nothing at all.’ His voice grew moist with tears. But this evoked no compassion in Tarkaratna, who said, ‘What a man you are. You’ve eaten up everything but don’t want to pay your dues. Do you expect the zamindar to feed you? You people live in a perfect kingdom, still you bad-mouth him, you’re such wretches.’

An embarrassed Gafoor said, ‘Why should we bad-mouth him, Baba Thakur, we don’t do that. But how do I pay my taxes? I sharecrop four bighas, but there’s been a famine two years in a row—the grains have all dried up. My daughter and I don’t even get two meals a day. Look at the house, when it rains we spend the night in a corner, there’s not even enough space to stretch our legs. Look at Mahesh, Thakur Moshai, you can count his ribs. Lend me a little hay, Thakur Moshai, let the creature feed to his heart’s content for a few days.’ Still speaking, he flung himself to the ground near the Brahmin’s feet. Leaping backwards hastily, Tarkaratna exclaimed, ‘My god, are you going to touch me?’

‘No, Baba Thakur, I’m not going to touch you or anything. But give me some hay. I saw your four huge haystacks the other day, you won’t even know if a little of it is gone. I don’t care if we starve to death, but this poor creature cannot talk, he only stares and weeps.’

Tarkaratna said, ‘And how do you propose to return the loan?’

A hopeful Gafoor said, ‘I’ll find a way to return it somehow, Baba Thakur, I won’t cheat you.’

Snorting, Tarkaratna mimicked Gafoor, ‘I won’t cheat you! I’ll find a way to return it somehow! What a comedian! Get out of my way. I should be getting home, it’s late.’ Chuckling, he took a step forward only to retreat several steps in fear. Angrily he said, ‘Oh god, he’s waving his horns, is he going to gore me now?’

Gafoor rose to his feet. Pointing to the bundle of fruit and moistened rice in the priest’s hand, he said, ‘He’s smelt food, he wants to eat….’

‘Wants to eat? Of course. Both master and bull are well-matched. Can’t get hay to eat, and now you want fruits. Get him out of my way. Those horns, someone will be killed by them.’ Tarkaratna hurried away.

Gafoor turned towards Mahesh, gazing at him in silence for a few moments. There was suffering and hunger in the bull’s deep black eyes. Gafoor said, ‘He wouldn’t give you any, would he? They have so much, but still they won’t. Never mind.’ He choked, and tears began to roll down from his eyes. Going up to the animal, he stroked his back and neck, whispering, ‘You are my son, Mahesh, you’ve grown old looking after us for eight years, I can’t even give you enough to eat, but you know how much I love you.’

Mahesh responded by stretching his neck and closing his eyes in pleasure. Wiping his tears off the bull’s back, Gafoor murmured, ‘The zamindar took away your food, leased out the grazing ground near the crematorium just for money. How will I save your life in this year of starvation? If I turn you loose you’ll eat other people’s hay, you’ll spoil their trees—what do I do with you! You have no strength left, people tell me to sell you off.’ No sooner had Gafoor said this in his head than his tears began to roll down again. Wiping them with his hand, he looked around surreptitiously before fetching some discoloured straw from behind his dilapidated house and placing them near Mahesh’s mouth, saying, ‘Eat up quickly, if not there’ll be…’

‘Baba?’

‘Yes, Ma?’

‘Come and eat,’ said Amina, appearing at the door. After a glance she said, ‘You’re giving Mahesh straw from the roof again, Baba?’

This was just what he was afraid of. Reddening, he said, ‘Old rotten straw, Ma, it was falling off anyway…’

‘I heard you pulling it out, Baba.’

‘No, Ma, not exactly pulling it out…’

‘But the wall will collapse, Baba…’

Gafoor was silent. The house was all they had left, and no one knew better than him that if he continued this way it wouldn’t survive the next monsoon. But how long could they go on?

His daughter said, ‘Wash your hands and come, Baba, I’ve served the food.’

Gafoor said, ‘Bring the starch out, Ma, let me feed Mahesh first.’

‘No starch left today, Baba, it dried in the pot.’

No starch? Gafoor stood in silence. His ten-year-old daughter knew that when the times were bad even this could not be wasted. He washed his hands and went in. His daughter served him rice and vegetables on a brass plate, taking some for herself on an earthen plate. Gafoor said softly, ‘I’m feeling cold again, Amina, is it safe to eat with a fever?’

Amina asked anxiously, ‘But didn’t you say you were hungry?’

‘Maybe I didn’t have a fever then, Ma.’

‘Then let me put it away, you can have it in the evening.’

Shaking his head, Gafoor said, ‘Eating cold food will make things worse.’

‘What should I do then?’ asked Amina.

Gafoor pretended to think before solving the problem. He said, ‘Why don’t you give it to Mahesh, Ma? You can make me some fresh rice at night, can’t you?’

Amina looked at him in silence for a few moments before lowering her eyes, nodding, and saying, ‘Yes, Baba, I can.’

Gafoor reddened. Besides the two actors, only someone up there observed this little charade between father and daughter.


II

Five or six days later, Gafoor was seated outside his front door with an anxious expression on his face. Mahesh had not been home since yesterday morning. He himself was too weak to move, so his daughter Amina had searched high and low for the bull. Returning home in the late afternoon, she said, ‘Have you heard, Baba, Manik Ghosh’s family has taken our Mahesh to the police station?’

‘What nonsense,’ said Gafoor.

‘It’s true, Baba. Their servant said, “Tell your father to look for him in the Dariapur pen.”’

‘What did he do?’

‘He got into their garden and destroyed their trees, Baba.’

Gafoor sat in silence. He had imagined all manner of mishaps that might have befallen Mahesh, but had not anticipated this. He was as harmless as he was poor, which was why he had no apprehensions of being punished so severely by any of his neighbours—Manik Ghosh, in particular, for his respect for cows was legendary.

His daughter said,‘It’s getting late, Baba, aren’t you going to bring Mahesh home?’

‘No,’ answered Gafoor.

‘But they said the police will sell him in the cattle market after three days.’

‘Let them sell him,’ said Gafoor.

Amina did not know what exactly a cattle market was, but she had noticed her father becoming agitated whenever it was mentioned with reference to Mahesh. She left without another word.

Under cover of the night Gafoor went to Bansi’s shop, and said, ‘Khuro, I need a rupee,’ and deposited his brass plate beneath the raised platform on which Bansi sat. Bansi was familiar with the exact weight and other details of this object. It had been pawned some five times in the past two years, for a rupee each time. So, he did not object this time either.

Mahesh was seen in his usual place the next day. Beneath the same tree, tethered to the same stake with the same rope, the same empty bowl with no food in front of him, the same questioning look in the moist, hungry, black eyes. An elderly Muslim man was examining him closely. Gafoor Mian sat nearby, his knees drawn up to his chin. When the examination was over, the man extracted a ten-rupee note from the knot in his dhoti and, smoothening it repeatedly, went up to Gafoor, saying, ‘I don’t need change, take the whole thing—here.’

Holding his hand out for the money, Gafoor remained sitting in silence. But just as the old Muslim’s companions were about to untie the bull, he suddenly jumped to his feet, saying belligerently, ‘Don’t you dare touch that rope, I’m warning you.’

They were startled. The old man said in surprise, ‘Why not?’

Still furious, Gafoor said, ‘What do you mean, why not? It’s mine to sell or not. And I’m not selling.’ He threw the ten-rupee note on the ground.

They said, ‘But you took an advance yesterday.’

‘Here’s your advance.’ Retrieving two rupees from the knot in his dhoti, he flung the coins at them, and they fell with a clatter. Realizing that a quarrel was imminent, the old man said gently with a smile, ‘You’re putting pressure on us for two rupees more, aren’t you? Go on, give his daughter two rupees more. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?’

‘No.’

‘Are you aware that no one will give you a better price?’

‘No,’ said Gafoor, shaking his head vehemently.

The old man said in annoyance,‘What do you think? Only the skin is worth selling. There’s nothing else in there.’

‘Tauba! Tauba!’ A terrible expletive suddenly escaped Gafoor’s lips, and the very next moment he ran into his house threatening to have them thrashed within an inch of their lives by the zamindar’s guards unless they left the village at once.

The possibility of trouble made them leave, but soon Gafoor received a summons from the zamindar’s court. He realized that word had reached the landowner.

There were people both refined and unrefined in court. Glaring at Gafoor, Shibu Babu said, ‘I don’t know how to punish you, Gafra. Do you know where you live?’

Bowing, Gafoor said, ‘I do. We’re starving, or else I would have paid whatever fine you think fit.’

Everyone present was astonished. They had always considered him an obstinate and bad-tempered man. And here he was on the verge of tears, saying, ‘I’ll never do it again, Karta.’ He proceeded to box his own ears, rubbed his nose into the ground from one end of the court to the other, and then stood up.

Shibu Babu said indulgently, ‘All right, enough. Don’t do all this again.’

Everyone was shocked when they heard the details. They were certain that only the grace of the zamindar and the fear of punishment had prevented the abject sinner from committing worse trangressions. Tarkaratna was present, and provided the scriptural analysis of the word ‘go’ for cow, enlightening everyone as to why it was forbidden to allow this godless race of heathens to live within village limits.

Gafoor did not respond to any of this, humbly accepting all the humiliation and vilification and returning home cheerfully. Borrowing the starch from the rice pots of neighbours, he gave it to Mahesh to eat, murmuring many endearments as he stroked the bull’s back and horns.


III

The month of Joishtho was drawing to a close. The sun was still harsh and severe in the sky. There was no trace of mercy anywhere. People were afraid to even hope for change, hope that the skies could again be moist and pleasurable with the weight of rain-bearing clouds. It seemed that there would be no cessation to the flames burning constantly across the entire fiery earth—that they would not die down till they had consumed everything.

Gafoor returned home on such an afternoon. He was not used to working as a labourer on someone else’s fields, and it had been only four or five days since the fever had subsided. He was as weak as he was exhausted. Still, he had gone out in search of work, but all he had got was the unforgiving heat and sun overhead. He could barely see for hunger and thirst. Standing at the door, he called out, ‘Amina, is the food ready?’

His daughter emerged slowly and stood grasping the post without an answer.

Gafoor shouted, ‘Not ready? Why not?’

‘No rice at home, Baba.’

‘No rice? Why didn’t you tell me in the morning?’

‘But I told you last night.’

Contorting his face and mocking her, Gafoor said, ‘Told you last night! How can anyone remember if you tell them at night?’ The harsh tone he was using stoked his anger. Contorting his face even further, he said, ‘How will there be any rice? Whether the sick father gets any or not, the grown-up daughter will eat five times a day. I’m going to lock up the rice from now on. Give me some water, I’m dying of thirst. Now tell me we have no water either.’

Amina remained standing with her eyes downcast. When Gafoor realized after waiting a few moments that there was not even any water to drink at home, he could control himself no longer. Striding up to his daughter, he slapped her resoundingly, saying, ‘Haramjaadi, what do you do all day? Why can’t you die?’

Without a word his daughter picked up the empty pitcher and went out in the heat, wiping her eyes. Gafoor felt heartbroken as soon as she was out of sight. He alone knew how he had brought up his daughter after her mother’s death. He remembered that it was not the dutiful and affectionate girl’s fault. Ever since they had run out of the paltry amount of rice he had received for his work in the fields, they had not had two meals a day. On some days, just one—or not even that. His accusation that Amina was eating five times a day was as impossible as it was untrue. Nor was he unaware of the reasons for the lack of water to drink. The two or three tanks in the village were all dry. The little water there was in the pond behind Shibcharan Babu’s house was not available to ordinary people. The water that could be collected by digging a hole or two in the middle of the tanks was fought over by a crowd of people.

Being a Muslim, the young girl was not even allowed near that water. She had to wait for hours, pleading for some water, and only if someone took pity on her, and poured her a little could she bring it home. He knew all this. Perhaps there had been no water that day, or no one had had the time to take pity on his daughter during the battle. Realizing that something like this must have taken place, Gafoor found his own eyes filling with tears. At that moment the zamindar’s footman appeared like a messenger of death, screaming, ‘Gafra, are you home?’

Gafoor answered bitterly, ‘I am. Why?’

‘Babu Moshai has sent for you. Come along.’

Gafoor said, ‘I haven’t eaten yet. I’ll come later.’

Unable to tolerate such audacity, the footman swore and said, ‘The Babu has ordered me to flog you and force you to come.’

Gafoor forgot himself a second time, uttering an unprintable word in retaliation and said, ‘No one is a slave in the kingdom of the empress. I pay my taxes, I won’t go.’

But for such a small man to give such a big reason was not just futile but also dangerous. Fortunately, such an insignificant voice would not reach the ears of the important man it was meant for—or else he would have lost both his home and his livelihood. There is no need for an elaborate account of what ensued, but when he returned from the zamindar’s court an hour later and lay down in silence, his face and eyes were swollen. The primary cause of such severe punishment was Mahesh. After Gafoor had gone out, Mahesh had broken free from the post, entered the zamindar’s yard, eaten his flowers, spoilt the paddy put out in the sun, and, when about to be caught, had made his escape after knocking the zamindar’s youngest daughter to the ground. This was not the first time it had happened, but Gafoor had been pardoned earlier on the grounds of being poor. He might have been pardoned this time too had he begged and pleaded as in the past, but what he had said—that he paid his taxes and was no one’s servant—was the kind of arrogance from a subject that Shibcharan Babu, being a zamindar, could never tolerate. Gafoor had not protested in the slightest against the thrashing and the humiliation, bearing it all in silence. Back home, too, he sat coiled up in silence. He had no awareness of hunger or thirst, but his heart was burning just like the noonday sky outside. However, when he heard his daughter’s stricken cry from the yard, he leapt to his feet and ran outside to find Amina lying on the ground and Mahesh lapping up the water trickling out of the shattered pitcher. Gafoor lost his mind. Picking up the plough-head he had brought home yesterday to repair, he smashed Mahesh’s head with it repeatedly.

Mahesh tried to lift his head just once, then his starving, skinny body slumped to the ground. A few tears rolled down his eyes, along with a few drops of blood from his ears. His entire body trembled once or twice, after which, stretching out his front and hind legs, Mahesh died.

Amina sobbed, ‘What have you done, Baba, our Mahesh is dead.’

Gafoor had turned to stone, neither moving nor speaking, only staring at a pair of unblinking, bottomless dark eyes.

Within an hour or two, a group of cobblers from one end of the village arrived, and slinging Mahesh up on a pole took him to the dumping ground. Gafoor trembled when he saw their shining knives, but closing his eyes, he didn’t say a word.

The neighbours said that the zamindar had sent someone to Tarkaratna to find out what should be done next, ‘You may have to sell your house as penance.’

Gafoor did not reply to any of this, burying his face in his knees and not moving.

Late that night he woke his daughter up, saying, ‘Amina, we must go.’

She had fallen asleep outside the front door. Rubbing her eyes and sitting up, she said, ‘Where will we go, Baba?’

Gafoor said, ‘To work at the jute mill in Phulbere.’

His daughter looked at him in astonishment. Despite all their troubles her father had never been willing to work at the jute mill. She had often heard him say that it was impossible to maintain one’s faith there, that women had neither honour nor protection.

Gafoor said, ‘Hurry up, Ma, we have to walk a long way.’

Amina was about to take the tumbler and the brass plate her father ate from, but Gafoor stopped her. ‘Leave them here, Ma, they will pay for my penance for Mahesh.’

He left in the dead of night, holding his daughter’s hand. He had no family in this village, no one to inform. Crossing the yard, he stopped abruptly beneath the familiar tree and suddenly burst into tears. Raising his eyes to the star-studded black sky, he said, ‘Allah! Punish me as you will, but my Mahesh died with a thirst. There was no land he could graze on. Do not forgive the sin of whoever it was who did not let him eat the grass you gave us, or quench his thirst with the water you gave us.’





four


~





EINSTEIN AND INDUBALA




* * *





BIBHUTIBHUSHAN BANDYOPADHYAY


can’t tell you why Einstein got off the train at Ranaghat on his way to Darjeeling, nor can I say why he wanted to deliver a lecture ‘On…etc. etc.’ at the municipal hall there. I was not present at that precise moment. Therefore, I am unable to provide you with an eyewitness account, but I can recount the story as I heard it from others.

The fact of the matter is that Einstein was possibly under some financial constraints following his exile from Nazi Germany. The objective behind his visit to India was to augment his income by delivering lectures. As everyone is aware, he had indeed embarked on a lecture tour in the country. I shall not repeat this.

Rai Bahadur Neelambar Chattopadhyay, professor of mathematics at Krishnagar College, was a worthy man. Einstein’s extraordinary talk titled ‘On the Unity and Universality of Forces’ at the Senate Hall had overwhelmed him, as it had all the other intellectuals present. He was extremely keen that Einstein deliver a lecture at his college, but the principal appeared opposed to the idea.

‘No, Rai Bahadur,’ he declared, ‘I have no other objection, but a German at the present juncture…’

Growing agitated (as he was wont to in the event of dissent from anyone present during the evening reading of the Bhagavad Gita at the lawyer Rammohan Babu’s drawing room), the Rai Bahadur said, ‘What do you mean, sir? German? What is German? Is Einstein German? Do supermen like him, sages and scientists like him, belong to particular countries? Are they to be limited by nationality? In my view—’

‘I am not claiming that such is the case,’ interjected the principal. ‘But considering the situation today…’ A bitter argument ensued between the two experienced teachers.

Proficient in philosophy, the principal cited the example of the most important preceptor of medieval scholastic philosophy, John Scotus. Despite being born in Ireland, he was so persecuted by the fundamentalists of the ninth century that he was compelled to seek sanctuary in France. He never returned to Ireland. No one cared about the real person, they only valued his viewpoint.

Eventually, as the principal refused to back down, the Rai Bahadur had no choice but to desist in his attempts. Meanwhile, he was informed that Einstein would travel to Darjeeling soon. Kept too busy by his lectures at different places in India to have set eyes on the Himalayas, Einstein was determined to visit Darjeeling, now that he was close to it.

‘Why not have Einstein break his journey at Ranaghat en route to Darjeeling and deliver a lecture?’ the Rai Bahadur asked himself.

He sought an audience with Einstein at the Grand Hotel in Calcutta.

‘Enlighten me about Indian philosophy,’ Einstein told him.

The Rai Bahadur was panic-stricken. A professor of mathematics, he knew nothing about philosophy, especially Indian philosophy. Fortunately, he had read the Gita occasionally, which enabled him to make one or two points. ‘Vasamsi jirnani, etc.’ Just as a person puts on new garments and so on.

Einstein said, ‘Reading Max Mueller on the philosophy of the Vedanta had at one time inspired me to learn Sanskrit. In philosophy I am an intellectual disciple of Spinoza. His philosophical arguments are presented in mathematical form. Spinoza’s mind is that of a mathematician’s, which attracted me to him. But reading Max Mueller’s essay on the Vedanta unveiled a new world to me. Spinoza’s is a purely materialistic intellect, like Euclid’s, where even sophistry follows predetermined paths. But at heart I am prone to imagination…’

The Rai Bahadur looked upon Einstein in wonder. ‘You and imagination!’ he exclaimed.

Smiling, Einstein said, ‘Do you not consider my unification of space and time as having been cast in the mould of the imagination?’

The Rai Bahadur was even more astonished. ‘You have brought us intelligence of a new dimension,’ he stammered. ‘After Newton, you are the discoverer of a new universe. To term you as someone prone to imagination…’

But when the Rai Bahadur glanced at the scientist’s long hair and exquisitely dreamy eyes, his words did not escape his lips. Perhaps it was impossible to be a great scientist without a powerful imagination. He was about to speak when Einstein took a box of cigars from the small table beside him and offered it to the Rai Bahadur. Taking a thick cigar from the box and snipping the tip off with a penknife, he handed it to the Rai Bahadur. The professor’s Bengali sensibilities made him shrink back. How could an insignificant mathematics teacher light up a cigar in the presence of such a great scientist? Besides, he had to consider the fact that Einstein was white-skinned. White-skinned people were of the race of meat-eating gods. Accepting the cigar, the Rai Bahadur said, ‘What about you?’

‘Thank you, I do not smoke.’

‘I see.’

‘I’ve been wondering…’

‘What?’

‘Do you think we will have an audience in Ranaghat? What kind of place is it?’

‘It is a splendid city. There will indeed be an audience.’

‘I need some money at once. I left behind whatever I had in Germany. They did not let me withdraw a single mark from my bank. I am more or less destitute.’

‘I am making special efforts in Ranaghat, sir.’

‘Will a commodious theatre be available?’

‘Not exactly. But there is a municipal hall which is not too bad, it will do.’

The Rai Bahadur sought to leave soon afterwards, feeling that he had no right to make undue demands on the great man’s time.

Einstein said, ‘Take some pamphlets and handbills for my talks. I will inform you of the subject of my lecture in due course. How much should the tickets be?’

‘Not very high—shall we say…’

‘Three marks, which is ten shillings?’

‘If you please, sir, no. That would be calamitous. We are a poor country. Ten shillings would amount to almost ten rupees. There is no one here who can afford tickets at that price, sir.’

‘Five shillings, then?’

‘Very well. One shilling for students.’

Einstein smiled. ‘University students need not buy tickets. I am a schoolmaster myself. They have a claim on me. It was the same at Bombay University and at Benares Hindu University. Students won’t have to pay. Here are the handbills and pamphlets…’

Trying to read the handbill he was holding, the Rai Bahadur said glumly, ‘But, sir, this is in French.’

‘But, of course, it is. I had them printed when giving my talks in Paris. Don’t people here have any French? I was told they teach French at the university here.’

‘No, sir, they don’t. One or two people might have some French. It is not taught widely. English is the preferred language here. No one will understand this, sir.’

‘That’s true. Will you please have it translated into English and printed at a press here?’

‘Er…um…all right…sir.’

The Rai Bahadur said to himself, ‘I’d better take Binod’s help. He knows French quite well. How many times am I going to say “I don’t know” to such a great man?’

Binod Chowdhury was his eldest brother-in-law. A learned man who had several languages. Translating the handbills into English and Bengali with great enthusiasm, he said, ‘Chatujjey Moshai, I’ll go to Ranaghat that day. Of course, my acquaintance with the theory of relativity is only through that popular book of Lynder Bolton’s. Still, I consider Einstein a sage of our times. A genuine visionary sage who has been indoctrinated by those who discover truth. I may not be able to understand or solve equations the length of a train, but when it comes to understanding the worth of a person…’

The Rai Bahadur realized that his sly brother-in-law was mocking him. Laughing, he said, ‘You must have determined my worth too, Binod Babu? Excellent.’

‘God forbid! How can I say such a thing, Chatujjey Moshai?’

‘You cannot?’

‘Trapped in the illusion of the space-time continuum, can one swear as to what one has said, Chatujjey Moshai? Aren’t you going to have lunch with us?’

‘I can’t. I have a great deal to do. I have to ensure that he can make some money. I shall try to prevail upon the chairman and vice-chairman of the municipality. Cunning foxes, all of them. If I can get the hall…’

‘What are you saying, Chatujjey Moshai! How can anyone not let the hall be used by Einstein? It’s tragic—imagine such a great scientist having to deliver lectures for money in his old age. The world does not know its greatest…’

‘You are still a child, Binod. Your last statement is right, however. It will need a lot of lobbying. I’d better take the 5.40.’

The Rai Bahadur was kept extremely busy during the next few days. Meeting the chairman and the vice-chairman of the Ranaghat municipality, the headmaster of the school, barristers and attorneys, government employees and businessmen, he told everyone the entire story. To his joy, he discovered that all of them appeared pleased at the prospect of Einstein lecturing in their town. As though a god himself had come down to earth.

Abhay Babu, an attorney of advanced years, said, ‘What did you say the Sahib’s name is, Moshai? Aai…what?… Eenstain? I see. Yes, a famous person. These are renowned personalities—of course I have heard of him.’

Shaking with rage, the Rai Bahadur said to himself, ‘My left foot, you have heard of him, you damned old idiot. Do you think this is cloth merchant Shamchand Pal? Famous indeed! Three new generations will have to be born before you will have heard of him. First, you ruin your chances of salvation by teaching people to give false witness, and now you think you can call Einstein famous! There must be limits to idiocy.’

On the appointed day, the Rai Bahadur, accompanied by several students from Krishnagar College, got off the morning train at Ranaghat. His brother-in-law, Binod Chowdhury, had written an anguished letter, stating that he had been detained by unforeseen circumstances, not everyone could have the good fortune of attending Einstein’s lecture but, etc. The Rai Bahadur did feel a pang of regret, for the young man was indeed knowledgeable, and it was most unfortunate that he could not be present. Such was fate.

Emerging from the station, the Rai Bahadur came to an abrupt halt on catching sight of the wall of a house across the street. What was all this! A giant notice, in one-two-three colours, was stuck on the wall. It said:

Bani Cinema Hall (blue)

Coming! Coming!! (black)

Coming!!! (black)

Who is coming? (black)

When is she coming? (black)

Renowned filmstar Indubala Debi (red)

Today, Sunday, the 27th of Kartik, 5 p.m. (blue)

She will greet the audience!! (black)

Entrance Rs 5, 3, 2, and 1 (black)

Ladies Rs 5 and 2 (black)

Do not waste this opportunity! (red)

Disaster! Even on that winter morning, towards the end of Kartik, the Rai Bahadur had to wipe the perspiration off his forehead. He checked the date carefully once more. No doubt about it. Today, Sunday, the 27th.

Proceeding on his way distractedly, he noticed another handbill. Wherever he went, there were notices advertising the movie star’s imminent arrival in three colours. He saw as many as thirty-six such advertisements at various places on the way to the house of the vice-chairman of the municipality.

Srigopal Babu, the vice-chairman, was seated on the little veranda that looked out on to his garden, dressed only in the dhoti he wore when he oiled his body. On seeing the Rai Bahadur, he adjusted his attire so he looked a bit more presentable. Smiling, he said, ‘And to what do I owe this good fortune? Good morning.’

‘Good morning. Were you about to go for a bath? So early, too, on a holiday.’

‘Well, yes, I always bathe early.’

‘At home?’

‘No, I go down to the river. If I don’t take a dip in the Churni… childhood habit, you see. But do sit down. Now that you are here, you must take your afternoon meal with…’

‘Please do not trouble yourself. No formalities. My cousin Niren will be furious if I do not visit him. I could not call on him the last time I visited.’

‘A cup of tea in that case?’

‘I don’t mind. All in good time. Now to get down to business—what is this new act I see? Indubala Debi at Bani Cinema today…’

‘Yes, I noticed too.’

‘Today of all days?’

‘Indeed. That’s what I was thinking too. There will be a clash.’

‘Now we cannot change our date. All the arrangements have been made. Our handbills and notices have been distributed too. Einstein is coming on the Darjeeling Mail.’

‘It occurred to me too. Yes, indeed… But you know what I think? Those who will go to the cinema for Indubala are not the ones who will come for the Sahib’s lecture. Those who have decided to attend the Sahib’s talk will certainly do so.’

The Rai Bahadur was enraged at Einstein’s being referred to as ‘Sahib’. And this was the place to which he was bringing the world’s greatest scientist! Was he a jute-mill manager or a railway inspector? Why refer to him as ‘sahib’ then? But he said none of this. All he said was, ‘That is true.’

Srigopal Babu was renowned in Ranaghat for being a generous host. The tea arrived, accompanied by a plate of snacks. When he had finished his cup of tea, the Rai Bahadur left with a view to strolling around the town. He had to meet a number of people and make several arrangements.

As he was leaving, he said, ‘The keys to the municipal hall…’

Srigopal Babu said, ‘At once. I’m sending Rajnidhi, the servant at the hall. My servant here will go with him. They will unlock the hall and set everything up. There’s a free reading room there, people will be coming to read the newspapers. It’s Sunday. I’ll take the help of the younger people to arrange the chairs and benches. Don’t worry.’

As soon as Srigopal Babu returned after his bath, his eldest daughter (Srigopal Babu had been a widower for three years now, and his elder daughter had moved from her husband’s house to run the household) said, ‘Get us five tickets, Baba.’

‘Tickets to what?’

‘Don’t you know, Indubala is coming to Bani Cinema this evening—she’ll dance and sing. Everyone here is going.’

‘Who’s going?’

‘Everyone. Ranu, Alaka, Tempi, Jatin Kaka’s daughter, Dhyanrosh… They’re getting a box—if you get a box for ladies it’s two and a half rupees per ticket. Get a box for us.’

Srigopal Babu sounded irked. ‘A box! Am I a rich man? I’ve been carrying this burden since 1903, I haven’t been able to lay it down. All you want is money…’

Opening his drawer with an unhappy expression, he took out a ten-rupee note and some coins and handed them to his daughter.

A little later his neighbour, Radhacharan Nag, peeped into his drawing room. ‘What’s going on, Srigopal Babu?’

‘Please come in, doctor. I hope you’re going this evening.’

‘Yes, that’s what I came to ask. Are you?’

‘Of course. Has Ranaghat ever been so fortunate? We must go.’

‘That’s what I was telling them at home. The expenditure… but no matter. An opportunity such as this…they were very keen at home, so I gave them ten rupees. I am nearly fifty-six, after all, who knows when I might die, at least once before that…’

‘Of course. How many people have such a rare opportunity? We the citizens of Ranaghat are extremely fortunate that such a personality…’

‘That’s what I was telling them at home. I’m getting older, it’s time to experience a few things, never mind if I have to spend some money.’

‘And, besides, someone so famous…’

‘Beyond a doubt. Everywhere you look, you see Indubala Debi. In advertisements, be it for soaps, perfumed oil or saris, it’s all Indubala. How fortunate to see her in person, that too in a village like Ranaghat…most definitely we are fortunate.’

Srigopal Babu gaped at Radhacharan Babu unable to say a word at first. A full two minutes later he said hesitantly, ‘But I wasn’t talking about her. I was talking of the Sahib’s lecture, at the municipal hall.’

‘Which sahib?’ asked Radhacharan Babu, frowning.

‘You don’t know? Einstein—Mr Einstein.’

‘Oh, that German or is he Italian?’ said Radhacharan Babu disinterestedly, as though he had only just remembered. ‘Yes, my son-in-law did mention it. What is it that he’s going to lecture on? But all this at our age… I haven’t looked at a textbook in years. Let all those schoolboys and college students go… Hah!’

Srigopal Babu was about to protest when Radhacharan Babu continued, ‘And what do you propose to do?’

‘The girls are going to the cinema. But, I simply must go to the lecture. Rai Bahadur Nilambar Babu was pleading with us…’

‘Who is this Rai Bahadur? Who might this Nilambar Babu be?’

‘A professor at Krishnagar College. He has taken the initiative. He specially asked me…’

Radhacharan Babu winked. ‘Let me tell you something, my dear fellow. Let us go, just this once. There’s a world of difference between Indubala on the screen and Indubala in the flesh. It will be the experience of a lifetime. We’ve seen enough of these sahibs. All you have to do is stand on the platform when the Darjeeling Mail passes twice a day. There’ll be no dearth of sahibs to set your eyes on. But an opportunity like this…don’t you see?’

Srigopal Babu said absently, ‘Um…er…but I’ve given my word to the Rai Bahadur, what will he think…’

Contorting his face, Radhacharan Babu almost snarled, ‘Hah! Given your word to the Rai Bahadur! Who is this Rai Bahadur! What obligation do you have, for heaven’s sake! You can tell him that the girls insisted. What could you have done? And it isn’t entirely untrue either.’

Srigopal Babu answered, still distracted, ‘Er…yes…that is true. I must admit…’

Radhacharan Babu told him, ‘That’s what you can tell the Rai Bahadur when he comes. Why not request him to come along to Bani Cinema too?’

‘Are you leaving?’

‘I am. I’ll be here on time in the evening.’

The Rai Bahadur was discussing the arrangements for the lecture at the house of the local zamindar, Niren Chatterjee.

Niren Babu was the Rai Bahadur’s cousin and a lawyer. He may not have been formidable professionally, but the majority of the residents of Ranaghat could not match up to his earnings as a landlord and his inherited wealth. He was well-educated, too.

The Rai Bahadur had just finished a sumptuous lunch. The afternoon meal was taken very seriously in his wealthy cousin’s household. He had all but succumbed to the attractions of sleep once or twice, but a sense of duty had kept him from giving in.

Niren Babu said, ‘What will the lecture be about, Dada?’

‘I’m not sure. On the unity of forces—that’s the subject. Imagine the rest.’

‘He has humiliated space, has he not?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘He says space is finite. Space is no longer endless and infinite as it once was.’

‘Did you study mathematics for your MSc? Have you read Geometry of Hyperspaces?

‘Complex mathematics. I am aware of what you are referring to.’

‘I am delighted to see that you are not just a zamindar, Niren, that you keep yourself informed of the important issues of the world. It may not be a great deal, but even the very little you know is unknown to many.’

‘Is he leaving today, Dada?’

‘Possibly. He said he was going to Darjeeling, and that he will get off on the way. We must pay special attention to ensure that he makes some money today.’

‘Can’t you bring him over to my house after the lecture, Dada? I can put him up for the night. There’s no train to Darjeeling in the evening. Let him stay the night here. I’ll ensure that he is comfortable.’

‘Very well, I shall tell him.’

‘Make sure that he stays. I’ll have a report published in the newspapers tomorrow. Free Press and Anandabazar both have reporters here.’

The Rai Bahadur realized where his cousin’s interest lay. But it was futile to talk of all this, for he had to ensure the success of the endeavour somehow. He would be relieved once the meeting ended.

Niren Babu’s daughter Mina came into the room to say, ‘Tell Baba to give us the money for the tickets, Jetha Moshai.’

‘Go now, don’t bother us,’ scolded Niren Babu. ‘We’re busy.’

‘Tickets for what, Minu?’ asked the Rai Bahadur.

Mina said, ‘Where has your mind wandered off to? Sabita next door studies in your college, she says you solve mathematics problems while walking on the road. Is that true, Jetha Moshai?’

Niren Babu rebuked her once more. ‘Such a brash girl. Go now. What a nuisance. Do you know what tickets she is talking about, Dada? Apparently, that Indubala is coming to our Bani Cinema tonight, there will be a performance, she will even deliver a lecture, the entire town is queuing up. The girls have been pestering me since morning.’

‘Let them go then. They’re not likely to attend Einstein’s lecture in any case. But they would have had an experience to remember all their lives. Well, Minu, which one would you rather go to?’

‘We’d better go to the cinema, Jetha Moshai. Ever since we saw Indubala in Milon we’ve been dying to see her in the flesh. Someone like her coming to Ranaghat…’

‘…is beyond our wildest dreams.’ The Rai Bahadur completed her sentence. ‘Isn’t that so, Minu? Give her the money for the ticket, Niren.’

Emboldened, Mina said, ‘Baba and you must take us. We won’t take no for an answer. Baba wants to, Jetha Moshai. It’s only because he’s afraid of you that…’

‘What a naughty girl!’ Niren Babu chided her.

Mina disappeared, laughing.

Before she left, she said, ‘You have to take us, Baba. You can’t get off so easily.’



It was time for the Darjeeling Mail to arrive. 5.30 p.m.

Along with several students, the Rai Bahadur, Niren Babu, and Srigopal Babu were at the station. But…what was all this? Why was there such a big crowd? All these young students, so many people, gathered on the platform. Had everyone here woken up to Einstein’s presence, then? Had they all come here to welcome him as he stepped off the train? It was certainly a reception worthy of the great scientist. The platform was bursting with people. What a gathering! The Rai Bahadur was elated. The train arrived with a roar.

A long-haired, almond-eyed Einstein disembarked from a second-class compartment with a small suitcase. At the same time a lovely young lady, dressed in an expensive voile sari, her feet shod in embroidered sandals from Kashmir, a vanity bag slung over her arm, got off from the first-class carriage next to it. Two other young women accompanying her, both dark in complexion, and two menservants, busied themselves unloading her luggage.

Someone said, ‘There she is. There’s Indubala Debi!’

The crowd broke in her direction. The Rai Bahadur escorted Einstein through the multitude towards the exit with great difficulty.

Einstein had not realized the real reason for the turnout. He assumed the crowds were there to catch a glimpse