or years, I have quietly dreamt of it, wished for it. That I’d go see the splendours of Ajanta, the magic of Ellora. I have been a tourist to many a historical marvel that India has to offer, but there are sites that have eluded me. Not only because the opportunity didn’t come up; even when it did, there were restrictions.
My long stays in Europe and experiencing its security manacles have tutored me somewhat in the methods and protocols of what to expect and how to manage my security. Here in India, I get armed bodyguards. Figuring out the rest – the where, the when, the for-how-long of the matter – is entirely my prerogative. These are my decisions, which I take depending on the situation at hand.
Since 2007, this has been my story. Before that, if I were to attend an event, be present at a function, there would be news. The possibility of my presence would be advertised. I would go without fear of being attacked. But once the attacks on my life started, they kept recurring. From one state to another, they stalked me like a ghost. It’s an epidemic really, like cholera or malaria of bygone days, or the more current dengue and chikungunya. They are never restricted to a particular time and place. They just spread like a rash on a vulnerable body.
Like in any other country, when I get an invitation for an event in India, my security is arranged. But, what if I want to just travel for pleasure? What if I want to simply holiday somewhere? There’s no organisation that would make the arrangements for me then, ensure my security detail. I need to work that out myself. Book the travel tickets, the hotel. Apprise the security guards of everything – when I’d reach, where I’d stay, where all I’d go, when I’d leave – everything must be made available to them till the last detail.
No one had any idea that I was travelling to Ajanta-Ellora. I had done all that was needed to be done. I had booked the hotel in my travel mate’s name and even the air tickets. But I needed to offer my own name as a “companion”. One cannot travel anonymously anywhere anymore.
A week before I was set to leave for Aurangabad, I had duly submitted the documents of my flight details and hotel booking to my Delhi security guards. They had forwarded my application to their office “function branch”, and the latter had assured me that the word had reached from Delhi to Maharashtra, that I’d be safe in the western state, I’d get security guards once I land in Aurangabad.
No one likes to travel with armed bodyguards at all times. But I don’t really have any other option. I’m really helpless there. I try to not remember just how helpless I am. But the reality is too harsh: it doesn’t let anyone quite forget.
I left Delhi for Aurangabad on July 29. As soon as I got off from the plane, I could see the dense police presence all around. My travel mate was a young woman who’s like a daughter to me. I had told her how I hated having cops all around; it would suffice to have two bodyguards only. After all, who’d bother us in Ajanta-Ellora?
I hadn’t realised the cops at Aurangabad airport weren’t taking me to the baggage claim area, but instead to a senior officer. Once I got my suitcase back, as I was about to exit the airport, the officer held me back. He said: “Situation’s bad in the city. Protests are going on against you. There are 500 people gathered outside your hotel.”
I was stunned. This was beyond belief. My travel plans were passed on by Delhi Police to the Maharashtra Police in utmost secrecy, so how did the hardliners chance upon the information? I asked the officer accosting me: “How did they know? No one else was supposed to, but for the cops!” He said he didn’t know how the information leaked. By then, I had crumpled into a bundle of helplessness, choking with pain within. I looked around, and then asked him: “What am I supposed to do now?” The officer replied: “You must go back.”
I asked, “When must I leave? And how?”
The officer said: “There’s an Air India flight to Delhi. It’s tomorrow morning.”
I was aghast. “What shall I do until morning? Where shall I stay?”
He said: “At the airport.”
The officer thought for a while. He had the Air India crew put me back on the very plane by which I had come from Delhi a little while back; only, the flight was now on its way to Mumbai. I must board the plane, I was told. I was taken to the Air India ticket counter.
I had to buy two tickets to Mumbai. My travel mate then looked out from the ticket counter and said, “It seems the protesters have entered the airport already.” I asked the cop standing next to me, “What’s happening? Why are you letting them in?” She smiled and assured: “Don’t worry. We are here. Nothing will happen to you.”
The cops seemed relaxed. I was the one getting worked up. They took me to the security clearance next. Behind me, I could hear the ear-splitting shrieks of almost 200 people screaming “Taslima, go back! Taslima, murdabad. Nara-e-takbeer, Allahu Akbar!”
The cops left once they put me on the plane. Even in Mumbai, there was police everywhere. Once I got off, they started questioning me at the airport lounge. Where would I go? I was told immediately that I couldn’t step out, couldn’t visit any place in the city. I looked up online if there was any riotous situation anywhere. No, there wasn’t. I was relieved.
Sometime back I was wondering if I should go away to a European city to live in peace for a while. But then I told myself, why bother if it’s quiet in the country?
The next day, the Times of India published the news of what happened with me at the Aurangabad airport. PTI soon followed it up, and then it spread like wildfire. I didn’t want this to happen. I wish it hadn’t. There’s no dearth of bad experiences in my life. I just didn’t want it replayed over and over again, reminding me of my misery every second of the day.
In 2007, I was attacked in Hyderabad. When I made my way back to Kolkata, I expected the CPI(M) government in West Bengal to stand by me. But no, I was put under house arrest. I had hoped for sympathy and compassion from fellow Bengalis, but instead, all I got was hardliners rallying against me, fundamentalists wanting me out of Bengal. I was thrown out soon after. I had to leave behind Kolkata, a city I had come to see as my home away from home.
In Rajasthan, I was forced to leave before the crack of dawn. They brought me over to Delhi, and even as I kept hoping that I’d finally be able to return to Kolkata, alive, I was put under house arrest in the cantonment area.
After a few months of house arrest in Delhi cantonment area, I was forced to leave the country. I was the victim of the attacks on me, but I was the one who got punished. Someone who has gone through what I have been, wouldn’t want history to repeat itself, to be attacked again, the news of the attack to spread.
Many journalists got in touch with me seeking an interview since the Aurangabad airport incident became national headline. I didn’t really want to talk to anyone about it.
But I could see what the newspapers and TV channels were reporting. Maharashtra Police was mincing words when asked by reporters what they knew about the episode. Conflicting versions were coming out. Once they said they didn’t have a clue that I’d be travelling to Aurangabad. Another time, they said they were informed at 4.30pm of July 29. Then they contradicted themselves again. No, it wasn’t at 4.30pm, but at 6pm that they got to know that I was coming.
I have no idea what was the precise moment when the “function branch” in Delhi sent out the message to their counterpart in Maharashtra. Often, in order to prevent the information from leaking out, alerts are sent out at the last moment. Yet, what baffles me is this: does it really matter if the information was sent at 4.30pm or 6.30pm? How did it fall into the hands of the fundamentalists in the first place?
How was it that the protesters had on them every little bit of my secret travel plan? The fundamentalists were aware of everything – from the hotel I had booked, to the name under which it was booked, till when was I staying, where all had I planned to visit – everything was meticulously cloned from my clandestine, security-cleared and security-privy itinerary.
I checked on the internet: before a mob of ideologically inebriated rioters, Muslim fundamentalist leaders were delivering a passionate speech, in which they were spilling the beans of my Aurangabad travel. Every secret little nugget of information was out there, being tossed around by the hardliners. They would teach me what the Ajanta-Ellora caves were really like. The leaders were telling their minions that they had ensured that cops prevented me from stepping out of the airport and entering Aurangabad.
I wonder, don’t the Muslims know who their real enemies are? I look at the gau rakshaks running amok all over the country, killing Muslims with glee, why don’t I see Muslims protesting against those acts of murder? Why is it that it’s me who faced the brunt of the Hindutva brigade’s wrath when I criticised cow vigilantism on Twitter? Am I attacked, assaulted, abused again and again because I’m a soft target? That I’m an exile in this country? That I don’t have anyone to call my own, no country, no land to call mine?
Congress, CPI(M), Trinamool have all punished me for no fault of mine. I guess it’s perhaps the BJP’s turn now. And why wouldn’t BJP as well? If they don’t appease the real hardliners among the Muslims, how will the vote-bank politics play out after all? Politicians don’t think of anything beyond elections and what would fetch them some votes, and this is true irrespective of party lines.
I sit back and wonder when was it that the Muslims turned me into their enemy. Is it a crime to want that the Muslims modernise themselves, seek equality between men and women? Why am I the adversary then, when all I ever wanted to be was a friend?
Who is the real enemy of Muslims, I ask? Those who want Muslims to stay blinded by religion held back by the lack of education, superstition, sectarianism, intolerance. Those who want the Muslims to be forever limited by the darkness of fundamentalism, fettered by its toxic chains. They are the real enemies. Not them who want Muslims to pursue education, find enlightenment, develop a scientific temper, be sensitive to and indeed fight for human and gender rights, believe in equality.
Who am I? I don’t have a political party, or an organisation, or the support of the intelligentsia. Public intellectuals are now opportunistic spokespersons of one or another political party. My existence in India is a tale of utter and absolute solitude. I don’t have anything or anyone to fall back on but my ideals and my beliefs.
I don’t have ground beneath my feet. But still, I am here. I continue to be. Because I love. I love this country. I love this country because this country looks like my country and feels like home.
Day before yesterday, I came to New York from Delhi. Surprisingly, I feel more at home in New York than in Delhi although it is very far from my country. What can be the reason for feeling so much at home? Is it because some of my relatives are here, or that I have been coming to New York for many years, lived here for many years, or is it because my permanent resident permit of New York is of longer duration than that of Delhi? Or is it because people remind me that I am a foreigner more often in Delhi than in New York? I don’t really know. I started feeling happy from the New York airport itself. I asked a man in the moving crowd, “Can you please tell me where the payphone is?” The man said, “You need a phone? Here, take mine. You can call from my phone while I go to the restroom.” The middle-aged African-American man put an expensive smartphone in my hand and left. After waiting there for fifteen minutes I saw the man coming back. Does anyone believe in others like this nowadays? I haven’t seen anything like this for a long time. Everywhere I look, I see the sting of suspicion, the arrow of distrust. There are still some good people on this earth who make life worth living.
In the part of New York I am now, most of the residents are from Asia. From India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Korea. At one time this area belonged to the Jews. When they became wealthy, they moved to better areas, and Asians who were less well-off moved in to make their homes. I used to see shops of Indians here before, but now all those have been taken over by the Chinese. It seems that the Chinatown of Manhattan will slowly become the town of Caucasian Americans and Flushing, Queens will become the future Chinatown. In all the big cities of the world there is inevitably a small Chinatown. When I was living in Manhattan a few years ago, I would often go to Chinatown to buy live fish, and sometimes eat in the Chinese restaurants. I love Chinese food. But it’s somewhat difficult for me in those Manhattan and Flushing restaurants because most of the waiters and the owners do not know English, nor is the menu in English. I have to order what I want by showing them the pictures on the menu. The Chinese are happily living in the USA for generations, doing business or working at jobs, without knowing a word of English.
I quite like Flushing. Whenever I come here, I feel that I am in a city inside China. I’m not sure how long the Chinese will stay on here.
When they come into some money they will either buy a house in Long Island or an apartment in Manhattan. The poor follows the middle-class, the middle-class follows the rich, and the rich follows the super-rich. My life does not follow this trajectory though. I had an apartment on the twenty-third floor in Manhattan where the East River meets the Hudson; I left that apartment to go and live in congested Delhi which has the world’s highest air pollution. I left as I couldn’t afford to maintain the standard of living here, and also to live right next to my country. Although what is the use of being next door when my country is not opening its doors!
I will go to Virginia from New York where our conference ‘Women in Secularism’ is taking place. Famous atheistic American feminists like Barbara Ehrenreich, Susan Jacoby, Rebecca Goldstein and Ophelia Benson are going to speak in this conference. The subject of my lecture is ‘Why is Secularism necessary for Women’. I am going to talk about the importance of separating religion from the state, society, law and education system to truly and effectively bring about equal rights for women. I will say that religion is personal to an individual and that externalizing it beyond the boundaries of one’s personal matter is not at all safe. I am not the first to say this; free-thinkers have been saying them for a long, long time. The Western countries have changed slowly after going through hundreds of years of women’s movements. But someone from the Muslim countries has to speak on this. The problem is one has to go to jail, die or be exiled like I am to talk about it. Despite all that some protest by risking their lives. After all, it is only a few who try to change society. And in the end, society does change, due to those few people.
I was preparing my lecture and thinking deeply on religion, secularism, etc. when I got a bunch of films on Jesus suddenly. A new documentary called ‘The Bible’. An old film by Martin Scorsese: ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, the BBC documentary ‘Did Jesus Die on the Cross?’, Richard Carrier’s research lecture ‘Did Jesus Even Exist?’. Watching them, I got completely immersed in Jesus. I acquired some amusing information such as – Jesus fled from the Roman tortures and took refuge in Kashmir, he died there, the Roza Bal shrine is Jesus’ tomb.
This tomb was even shown on BBC. If Jesus does not rise up from the dead after three days and flies off in the sky, then there does not remain anything called Christianity. It seems that Jesus came to Kashmir to join a Buddhist conference. Others say that there is no account of Jesus’ from 14 years to 29 years of his age, no one knows where he was or what he did during that time, that he must have come to India then and become initiated into Buddhism. What was absent in Judaism and entered into Christianity – that tolerance and humanism – came from Buddhism. That is the reason why Jesus has to be brought into Indian by hook or by crook. In his film, Martin Scorsese has revealed unpleasant truths about Christ. The Christian doctrinaires were not able to tolerate such unpalatable facts, so the film is still banned in many countries. The film shows that at one time Jesus spoke about love, and that he picked up the sword and the axe to kill his enemies. Not only that, after his lover Mary Magdalene’s death, he indulged in the company of several women. He ran a great deal after worldly pleasures. Since these events embarrass the Christians, they are not mentioned in the documentary called ‘The Bible’. There we only see plenty of miracles – Jesus walking on water, changing water into wine, transforming three fishes into three thousand with a snap of his fingers, healing the leper by just a touch. I am not of the opinion that, just because a lot of people will not accept the subject-matter of ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, that film should be banned. However, it has been banned in those countries where the right to freedom of expression is not highly valued.
People of the Islamic states do not have much freedom of speech. One of the Saudi princesses who are under house arrest in the city of Jeddah – Sahar Al Saud – has called on the Saudi people to revolt against the Saudi government. She must be talking about democratic rights and human rights for everyone; she must be wanting freedom of thought, freedom of speech, Independence of women. Even in the misogynistic societies like that of Saudi Arabia, some women are conscious of their own rights. The Saudi princesses are not exempting their father either from criticism. These brave women are interned, banished. Women suffer the most from fundamentalism; therefore it is women who have to revolt the most against fundamentalism. I feel extremely helpless when I hear that women themselves are becoming fundamentalists. I heard that thirty to forty thousand women from the Jamaat-e-Islami squad are helping the anti-woman Jamaat-e-Islami.
No one else does a better job than women of digging one’s own grave. I feel really sad at the thought of how fast Bangladesh has changed! When I was studying at the medical college in the ’80s, none of my Muslim friends spoke excessively about Islam, none of them did roza1 or namaz2, kept beards or wore the hijab3. After thirty years, most of these renowned doctors who were at one time my classmates have become ultra-conservative fundamentalists. The whole country changed so drastically in such a short time. Society becomes good progressively. But our society is increasingly becoming bad, bigoted, intolerant, misogynistic, illiterate. It amazes me to think that the people of a country who had one day risen up in revolt to preserve their Bengali language and culture, mounted agitations to bring in democracy through language movements, fought in the War of Liberation, today, in that same country, there is no place for an authoress who writes in support of that War; that the person who talks in favor human rights and equal rights of women is banned.
The other day, a group of Hindus, Buddhists and Christians from Bangladesh, after meeting with the President of India, came to meet me in the evening. I told them, “A secular party is now in power, you shouldn’t be having any problems.”
The leader of the group asked me, “Who’s secular?”
I said, “Hasina”.
The group leader, with a roar of laughter, said, “What are you saying? Hasina is secular? If she was secular then she would have accepted you back into the country!”
While alighting from the plane,Kalyani,followed by Dipan,glances all around to study the sights and scenes.Dipan reminds,’Ma,you had said,you’d drink water at first,won’t you?’Dipan’s right.Kalyani has been contemplating over the long thirty years,to quench her thirst with the water of her native soil.The immaculate taste of the water of her mother country finds no parallel anywhere on earth,even not in Calcutta,where she lives now.
Kalyani gets caught in the cobweb of memory.She was then eighteen,studying in Anandamohan College to which she can boast of a deep attachment.The College is the alma mater of her elder brother and even of her father.The institution had carved a niche in the academic map of the district.Boys from Kishoregunj,Netrokona,Jamalpur,Gouripur used to pour in this town to study at this College.The innocent chaps,fresh from villages carrying tin suitcases with floral patterns carved on them, would be found walking on the streets.Unaccoustomed to city streets,the poor guys,riding on their bicycles,often failed to negotiate with the rikshaws coming from the opposite direction and ended up in crashing on the rikshaws.Observing their woeful lot,Kalyani’s big brother had nicknamed them,’ass’.In the beginning,they used to come to the campus,anointing their hairs sufficiently with mustard oil.Inside the shirt pockets,they’d keep handkerchiefs,neatly folded,with the words,’Forget-me-not’ embroidered on them.At the slightest pretext,they’d wipe their shoulders anointed in talcum powder.Sitting on the back benches,they’d stare wide-eyed at the black-board.Their gape indicated that half of the lectures delivered by their proffessors were received by their grey matter while the rest remained unintelligible to them.They’d try their hand in speaking with a quivering voice to the girls.When the city-bred,sophisticated counterparts of those rustics enjoyed chit-chatting during the off-periods,they’d gawk at them wistfully.Curiously enough,these boys,forged ahead of their urban counterparts in academics.Soon,they’d pick up the art of parting their hairs fashionably,keeping up with the times.Even,they’d dare leave the upper part of the shirts near the chests,unbuttoned,ostensibly to sport their masculinity.In due course,they had mustered the sufficient courage to exchange the ‘I love you’ slips with their female counterparts;leaning against the pillar,they picked up the dexterity to communicate with the girls.Even Jyotiprakash,who pooh-poohed them at every step had to surrender himself to their pedantry.
Jyotiprakash,who was believed to be invincible in chess, once had to suffer a humiliating defeat in the game at the hands of a simpleton called Nitish,hailing from Tarakanda.This had angered Jyotiprakash so much that he sought to organize the locals to unite against them.What was their fault?Jyotiprakash had a long list:’The nincompoops create nuisance on the College ground,chew betel leaves and spit on the college walls,they make the pond water dirty and so on……….’But gradually,the very close associates of Jyotiprakash were found rubbing shoulders with Nitish and his gang.In the beginning when Kalyani joined the college,Jyotiprakash had said to her,’Make it a point that these upstarts don’t get a chance to rank in the class tests.So,I suggest you to work hard right from the beginning.I can’t simply accept the fact that these rustics who must have learnt their multiplication tables squatting on the paddy fields by the flickering light of a kerosene lamp,get the better of us in the tests.’Parimal,who was then a pupil of the Zilla School had jokingly whispered into Kalyani’s ears,’Didi I suggest you to court a rustic guy of your choice.I’d like to see Dada’s reactions.’Kalyani had laughed at this,saying,’Are you crazy?’
That same Kalyani,as irony would have it,had a crush on Badal,as black as ebony though there wasn’t any dearth of handsome boys in the campus.Badal,hailing from Nalitabadi,was a typical product of the countryside-the smell of boiled paddy still wafted from his body;his fountain-pen peeped out of his shirt’s pocket;the old-fashioned round-framed spectacles hung on his nose and the excess oil from his hairs trickled down his shoulders.He had borrowed Kalyani’s physics text book and returned it three days later,fattening it with a billet-doux stuffed inside the pages.The letter said ,’Dearest Kalyani,I know you’re the moon in the sky,but I’m not a dwarf.-your Badal.’After this,night after night,Kalyani couldn’t have a wink of sleep.From the balcony upstairs,she’d behold the night sky,lolling in the easy-chair and fisting her eyes on the shining splendor of the full-moon sky.Did Jyotiprakash ever guess,who was behind Kalyani’s insomnia?It so happened that immediately after her arrival at the campus,she silently looked for Badal.A day passed without meeting Badal,would make her insatiably love-sick.That very innocent looking,quietly disposed Badal,one day bunked off his chemistry class to propose to Kalyani.He had asked her to meet at the foot of the simul tree for an ‘important discussion’.Kalyani reached there to find him lying on the grass with his head rested upon the pile of books.Seeing Kalyani,he got up at once and then leaned his back against the tree to speak to her.That day he appeared more handsome and smart with his pointed nose,large eyes and deep and dark hairs.Kalyani was impressed.But she was apprehensive of being observed.She falteringly expressed her apprehensions to Badal, who,forthwith twisted his lips to say,’Pooh!Who cares?’
‘What’s your important discussion?’
Without beating about the bush,he had announced,’I love you.’The cupid’s arrow struck straight into her heart.In exuberance,she sat biting her nails,scrawling and scribbling unmindfully on the pages of her notebook and stripping blades of grass from the ground.Does the word ‘love’,Kalyani pauses to wonder,turn everyone’s life upside down in the similar way? From that day she couldn’t concentrate on her studies;she would pace vacantly on the terrace only to pause to write secret letters.Even Jyotiprakash,who was conspicuous for his indifference for wordly matters,one day could not but go to the extent of asking,’What’s the matter?I wonder if you have really fallen in love these days.’They had been playing truant from college to meet at the ladies park,enjoying boat-journeys;nestling against each others’ shoulders,they could feel ach other’s breath and Badal ,placing his hand on Kalyani’s would say,’I won’t live without you.’
Then one fine morning,Kalyani’s father,Harinarayan Roy,the authoritative magistrate,announced,’I ask all of you children to pack your luggage,for you’ve to leave soon for India.’
‘India!What India!’Kalyani had revolted,’For God’s sake,I’ll not go to India.’
Even to this day,if she cups her palm around her ear,she can perhaps hear the hooting of that siren,emanating from the steamer at the Sadar Ghat on the eve of its setting off and the pathetic wails of the relatives who felt being crushed by the pangs of imminent separation.For the first time in life,at the age of six,she had been with her father to the Sadar Ghat to bid farewell to her Pishi(father’s sister) and her family members.There were lots of them,known to her pishi and father,leaving the country for good.Their pathetic wail of anguish, drowning the deafening noise of the steamer,rent the sky.Her pishi,pishemoshai(pishi’s husband),two cousin brothers were standing on the deck,holding the railings.As soon as the prow stirred,Kalyani noticed in bewilderment how they were all bewailing.Some of them even rolled about on the floor.’Why are they crying Baba?’she had asked.
Harinarayan,wiping his eyes on his sleeves had replied,’You’re too young to understand.’
Yes,Kalyani was then too young to understand why they were crying.Though Calcutta had everything to attract everyone,its prestigious schools and colleges,the Victoria Memorial,the sprawling maidan,the Eden Gardens,palaces built by the Sahebs,Howrah Bridge………..,yet she failed to reason out why people wept at the time of leaving for Calcutta.She had asked Jyotiprakash as well,who replied,’You’ll get the answer to your question later, when you’ll be a passenger.Unless you yourself go,you will not know why they cry.’
Yes,that day came in her life also.
On that fateful morning,she had absconded from home and taken shelter in the attick of Sherifa’s house,awaiting the evening to descend and foil the conspiracy to send her off to India.But she was nabbed from her hideout by Harinarayan who dragged her ruthlessly down the staircase.Like a drowning man who catches at a straw,she was then trying to stay back by clutching at whatever came on her way-the door,the pillar on the veranda,Saralabala’s arm,the tulsi bedi-and was crying inconsolably.Only that day,she was able to bone up why such a pathetic yell wailed up from the steamer leaving the jetty at Sadar Ghat.With Jyotiprakash,Parimal,Nilotpol Uncle and his daughter Bani,Kalyani had boarded the train at Myamansingh Junction.Did Harinarayan,who was waving his hands from there to his children and cousins ever imagine that it was his last meeting with them?Even Kalyani-who had promised to Badal that she’d someway come back to him-never thought in her dream that she wouldn’t be able to keep her promise.The same promise she had made to Sherifa,Sahana,Munni-‘You’ll see, I’ll flee from them.’Hadn’t she really got the opportunity to flee?Or did she bluff them?Kalyani,sometimes feels in self-introspection that she has befooled herself more than anyone else.
On their arrival at Calcutta,they were packed like sardines in a couple of rooms of a house at Tiljala.In the beginning,she felt claustrophoebic.It distressed her to see the leaves stop stirring and the air cease blowing.The deafening noise of motor-engines and the raucous people who spoke in a language,almost unintelligible to her and who had a peculiar body language-made her nauseac.
The daughters of her elder uncle,in whose house they were putting up,were too vainglorius to give Kalyani their company.Their mother,Kalyani’s aunt,a school-teacher,before leaving for her workplace would give the last minute instructions to Kalyani,’Look,girl,since you’re free now,I want you to take care that the things are in proper order in the house.See,how dirty the floor has become!I wish you clean it………and one last thing,there’s a saree in the bathroom which I couldn’t wash as I am late today.Do wash it before you take your bath.’
At Kalibari,when Kalyani was in her pre-teens,Saralabala would sometime call Kalyani to the kitchen,saying,’Don’t lose sight of the fact that you are a girl;one day you’ll grow up into a woman.So I advise you to pick up a little skill of home-making right from the early stage.’She’d normally assign her to sort out and slice the vegetables.One day,Harinarayan,at the sight of Kalyani,helping her mother in the kitchen,had only to say,’Dear,she must not set herself the goal of becoming a slave-woman;how I wish my daughter to become a scholar!’
Scholar!That very Kalyani,who had never to do her own laundry,was subjected to the humiliation of washing dirty linens,not only of her aunt,but her cousin brother and sisters at Tiljala.She had to spend long hours cooped up in the kitchen to prepare meals for the whole family.In the beginning,when she couldn’t anticipate the right proportions of salt and spice in the curry,she invited her aunt’s caustic criticism:’In spite of being a girl from East Bengal,you’ve not learnt the art of cooking.It’s something ridiculous.’The food cooked by her sometimes made her cousin sisters retch at the table.Then her aunt,patting her on the back,remarked sarcastically,’Come on girl,don’t worry.Continuous practice will make you perfect one day.’Then Kalyani, one day wrote to her father:’Baba,take me home;I’m so miserable here.’In reply,Harinarayan wrote,’The deed of agreement is ready and the property will be sold in no time.By the way,tell your uncle that I prefer Lady Brabourne to Basanti Devi College.So he should get you admitted in Lady Brabourne.I’ve sent him money through Jyoti.Tell him not to worry for your expenses.Take care of your health.We hope to come soon.Affectionately-Baba’
Once Jyotiprakash had applied for a job.Nanigopal,whose backing was essential for the materialization of Jyoti’s dreams,kept on dilly-dallying and one fine day he said to Jyotiprakash in a tone of sarcasm,’Look Mr.Jyotiprakash,I think your father lives in an ivory tower and has started believing that Calcutta is still as fantastic as it had been in the yesteryears-rice selling Rs.2 a mon and Ghee at 2 annas a sher.Young man!Time has changed so much over the years.You must be aware of the cut throat competition everywhere.The society is rife with bribery and corruption.Meanwhile,I’ve not heard from Harida for long.Now I advise you to think of some alternatives.By this time,your paternal uncle,as I’ve come to know,has established himself well in business;why don’t you seek his help?Also I’m afraid,Kalyani has attained the marriageable age.’
At once hurt and exasperated at this long harangue of his uncle,Jyotiprakash had made up his mind neither to go to his paternal uncle nor stay at Tiljala.Occasionally,he’d visit Kalyani to ask for some pocket expenses which Kalyani was unable to give.She’d feel so bad to look at the sad face of Jyotiprakash,who was otherwise a jolly and delightful person.Meanwhile,Parimal,who had started rubbing shoulders with Shanti and Suniti,stopped doting and clinging to his own sister,Kalyani,like before.
So she felt lonely both at home and college,just like the drippy guys hailing from the remote villages to Anandamohan College.Occupying a seat on one of the back-benches,Kalyani sat glaring at the city-bred smart girls.Like Jyotiprakash,who used to call the poor guys from Tarakanda,Muktagacha,by the nickname ‘ass’,the girls at Brabourne called Kalyani,Bangal,a term commonly used to ridicule the migrants from East Bengal.
At home,she felt isolated,rather ostracized.While Santi and Suniti enjoyed the evenings in no-holds-barred singing sessions,Kalyani, in solitude,attended to the oven to see if the alurdam was boiling properly or take care of the proportion of asafetida in dal.The rest of the family went to the movie,while Kalyani was left to look after the house.Her life of solitude was nobody’s concern.On Sundays,she was thrust with the additional work loads of dusting the walls off soots,sunning the quilt,mattress,pillows,laundering mosquito curtains,bed-sheets,giving a face lift to the room meant for the family deity and preparing special menue for lunch-the list was long-so long that she couldn’t know that when and how the day passed by.
While returning from the college,in the afternoons,as she would wait on the sidewalk for the tram,she’d feel so thirsty that the thought of Myamansingh’s water would come to her mind.To her,no water on earth could ever supplant the taste of that water.
Kalyani is impressed by the splendid look of the new airport.It’s so big in size and kept spick and span.Can the Dumdum Airport stand beside it?Once in her childhood,she had boarded a plane from Tezgaon Airport in Dhaka to go to Chittagong.The trip was arranged to attend the marriage ceremony of her maternal cousin.To the child’s vision,that very airport had once appeared too big.
On completion of immigration and customs formalities,when Kalyani comes out of the airport,she can’t simply believe that the dreams,harboured in the secret corner of her heart,for long thirty years have at last come true.She heaves a sigh of relief as though she has been released from a dark and damp prison cell,where she was confined for thirty years.She says to Dipan,’Dear,take deep breathings,for you’ll never get such fresh air in Calcutta.
At Tiljala,there was no patch of vegetation in and around their house.For a touch of green,Kalyani occasionally visited the lake at Gobra.Like the residence of Shasikanta Maharaj,the area near Gobra lake,boasted abundance of trees.There,she sometimes,bumped into funeral processions of men wearing caps and Panjabi,wafting the aroma of benzoin and carrying a bier on which a dead body is brought to the nearby burial ground.The sight would take her memory back to the day Sherifa’s father had passed away.The bier was laid on the ground to carry his body to the burial ground.An elderly man,leaning over the dead body,was chanting the words like a parrot:Laillah Illallahoo Muhammadur Rasulillah………’Like the buzzing of the bees,the incantation of laillah……..at Gobra conjured up the image of the funeral procession of Sherifa’s father.Sherifa had stood looking blank,while Anish,Bulbul,Kabir carried the bier and walked towards the Bulkibari burial ground.At Gobra,Kalyani often felt like standing at the foot of the jamun tree at Kalibari and with a glum face,watching the funeral procession yet to set off.Tormented by the curse of loneliness,time and again she’d escape from the crowded ghetto at Tiljala into the vicinity of Gobra lake to feast her eyes on the gorgeous view of the lush green plains and refresh her mind with the free and cool air blowing from the lake.During those relaxed moments there,she’d be oblivious of the fact that she had to return again to the same lock up of the dimly lit,damp rooms of her maternal uncle’s Tiljala residence.
Kalyani hadn’t met Nanigopal before coming to Tiljala,though she had herad of him from Saralabala,who said that her younger brother Nanigopal had immigrated to Calcutta well before the partition;that he had taken up the job of civil supplies to eke out a living;that having tried his luck for a while at Chandernagore,Mankundu etc.he tied himself in nuptial knot and settled at Tiljala,where he had acquired a small plot of land and built his own house.In those days,when Kalyani would hear of her uncle,she’d feel like being in close proximity to him and his family-as though Tiljala was at an arm’s stretch;as though her maternal uncle would pampere her-like all nephews and nieces of Bengali households who suppose it to be their birthright to be shown some kind of over indulgence in their mama bari (uncle’s house),she’d also climb her uncle’s shoulder and he would hold Kalyani upon his flank and beackon her to the hills.
On the evenings,standing on the terrace of the Kalibari residence,she’d stare at the horizon,silhouetted against the backdrop of the opposite river bank.Jyotiprakash would say,’Look,that’s the silhouette of the Garo Hills.’She was determined to cross the river and reach the hills one day.She had once expressed this desire to Jyotiprakash,who had laughed and said,’You’re a fool to say so;the hills are far away from us.You’ve to go beyond Sambhugunj,Tarakanda,Fulpur;having crossed the river Kangsha,you’ll have to go past Haluaghat,Joyramkura and finally reach the hills.Beyond the hills,stand the Meghalaya.’It was beyond her comprehension as how such distant hills tantalized her to be so near.
The apartment at Tiljala had consisted of a couple of rooms under pantile sheds with a small courtyard in front of it.After a shower,the yard would invariably be covered all over with sticky mud,forcing them to lay bricks one against another for walking.Mud is translated into formal Bengali as Kada but Kalyani would say it in her typical Myamansingh dialect as Pack,which in English translates as quack of the duck.Her cousin sisters,even her aunt,teased her by punning the word Pack.There was a host of other words for which Kalyani was humiliated by them.She had realized to the bones that she must acquire the skills of sophistication,if she intended to live with dignity.Kalyani and Parimal slept on the floor though there was a khatiya(an improvised cot of coir rope),on which sometimes slept her cousin brother Soumitra and sometimes their grandmother.Soumitra,who during daytime ran their lake market shop,attended the night college for pursuing his career in law.Unlike Santi and Suniti,he didn’t make fun of Kalyani.Basically reserved,one day he had asked Kalyani,’As fas as I know,they speak Urdu in your country,do they?’
‘The people of west Pakistan speak Urdu.’had replied Kalyani.
‘And the non-Bengalees of East Pakistan?’
‘Non Bengalees!I fail to understand what you mean by the non-Bengalees of East Bengal.’
‘I mean,the Muslims.’had said Soumitra.
‘Why do you think they’ll have to speak Urdu?They’re pure Bengalees.’
‘Bengalees!’Soumitra stood gaping at Kalyani,as though he had heard an incredible piece of news.
Apparently well-behaved,this very Soumitra had once attempted to seduce Kalyani.One night to her horror,Kalyani woke up when she felt being rummaged with somebody’s hands on her skin.In repulsion,as she had tried to fly off,he firmly held her by his arms and was trying to unstrap her petticoat.In panic,Kalyani’s throat was getting chocked.She had gathered all her might,extricated her from Soumitra’s bestial grip and rolled towards Parimal.She was desperately panting and gasping.The night-pervaded by the droning of crickets and disgraced by the experience of being abused by her own cousin brother-ended in to another usual sunrise,dawn,cawing of the crows and another humdrum life in full swing.That morning,ironically,the post-man had delivered Saralabala’s letter to her.She had written,’Dearest Kalyani,I hope you’re hale and hearty.You should feel free at your uncle’s house for it’s as good as your mother’s house.Don’t feel shy to eat whatever you like.Your father’s very particular about sending money to Nanigopal.He takes utmost care that you don’t have to suffer in future.For the safety and security,particularly of yours,we’ve sent you off to Calcutta.The worries and anxieties of a grown-up daughter’s mother are unlimited;you can agree with me when you’ll be a mother only.
‘Be attentive to your studies.The mere thought that you’re in the safe and secured custody of your uncle and aunt,always pacifies our anxious mind.Take care of Parimal.I should remind you that it has been long since I’ve heard from you.If you get to know the whereabouts of Jyoti,don’t delay in intimating us.We’d like to hear from Nani as well.
‘If it so happens that your heart is ever darkened by the clouds of loneliness and boredom,feel free to accompany Santi and Suniti for a pleasure trip,outside.Your father’s suffering from high blood pressure.Besides,the tests have revealed that he’s a diabetic.For the time being weren’t thinking for the sale of our house.Soon after,the progress of your father’s health,we’ll leave for Calcutta.You needn’t worry about us.-yours affectionately,Ma.’
Having read it only for once,she had torn it into pieces.She now feels being teased by the term security.Leaving her own native soil,the home of her forefathers who had lived there for generation after generation,she was forced by the circumstances to seek refuge in an unknown,quaint land.She feels like asking the district magistrate,Harinarayan Roy and his wife Saralabala,’What kind of security have I got in exile?’What would be their reaction to the tale of the transformation of Kalyani,each day,little by little into a deaf and dumb creature?How would they react if they ever came to know their daughter-who would once turn up her nose disdaintfully at the sight of the meals,served without a dish of Rui,Katla or Ilish-had to stoically relent with a meagre meal of rice with a spoonful of Kunchu chingry curry at Tiljala?To save Kalyani from being raped by the heretics of her own town,her parents had sent her to the so-called secured shelter of her maternal uncle’s home, on a dark and blind lane of an alien town.What security did she get there when she was raped by her close relatives who had harboured her in the name of security?
Letters from home were screened before they were given to her.As a result,most of the letters didn’t reach her hands.This made Harinarayan write in one letter that had luckily reached Kalyani.’I’ve not got a single reply to my previous five letters.’Kalyani might have got to read one out of those five!One day,while washing Soumitro’s shirt,she found Badal’s letter,in the shirt’s pocket.A letter she had been waiting for ages.Badal hadn’t forgotten her.Badal wrote how sitting alone on the bank of the Brahmaputra,he watches the tiny boats floating unsteadily on its water and how tearfully he dwells on his sweet memories of Kalyani.In the bathroom,as she was reading the letter,the sob wailed up to her throat and to suppress the sound of her weeping that would have raised many eye brows at home,she had turned the tap on.She began to compare herself with a merciless butcher,who had slaughtered her dreams of escaping from Tiljala to Badal.She was cursing herself for tacitly accepting her fate.She doesn’t know till today,why she didn’t come back.Was it her sheer helplessness,lack of courage?Or was it that she willingly sacrificed her personal longings-her laughter,joy,dreams,happiness for the sake of assuring her parents that she was perfectly secure?
The sense of betrayal from her home and the loved ones engulfed her so intensely that in later years,she didn’t feel inspired at all to respond to the letters coming from home-from Harinarayan,Saralabala,Sherifa,Munni,Anil Kaka and even Badal.Rarely did she write back,and that too a few perfunctory lines such as ‘How’re you?I’m so so.’-just as much necessary as to save the relations.Yes,she saved the relations in gratitude to her parents and well-wishers whose hands didn’t tremble before ousting her from her most favourite town and dearest river.It was after all for her ‘security’.Night after night,she felt like being chased by a fierce wolf.The slightest fall of a straw on her feet would startle her.Shrivelled in shame,disgrace,pain,fears,she was perpetually cocooned against the cruel world around her.She ascribed her mutilated life to the sin that she might have commited in her previous birth.The girl,who used to playfully,run after the glow-worms,through the bushes in the dark hours of night,had to hide herself later years in the most obscure places to protect her from being hounded.She was so much terrorized that she even shuddered at the point of maintaining eye contact with anybody.At this juncture of life,from the dungeon of narrow,confined,solitary existence,she was somewhat rescued by Anirban,whom she had met at one of her distant aunt’s home at Ultadanga.He’s her cousin brother,Nemai’s friend.Swarthy,tall-six footer,high powered spectacles on his nose and achain smoker,he was staring at Kalyani with his pupils wide open.After the ritual introductory courtesies,Anirban at once remarked,’Correct me,if I’m wrong-either you’re very shy or reserved.’
‘Why do you say so?’Kalyani had asked.
Anirban had smiled saying,’Look,you’ve not yet asked me anything about me,for even courtesy’s sake.’
Minutes later,Anirban volunteered to introduce himself,saying that he was Anirban Das,that he was an employee of a bank at Gariahat.Exactly seven days after this maiden bonhomie,she had bumped into a sun burnt Anirban at the bus-stop.Seeing Kalyani,his eyes glittered as though floodgats of hilarity were opened.After,the hurried exchange of certain formal queries,like whether she visits the aunt’s at Ultadanga,how Nemai is etc.,Anirban,sparked Kalyani’s emotions by saying,’That day back home,after meeting you,your thoughts perpetually pre-occupied me.’
‘But I didn’t say anything worth being remembered!’
‘Your untold speeches……….’had replied Anirban with a smile.
Thereafter both had frequent chance meetings(!)in the bus,tram,on the streets.Meanwhile,Kalyani had become quite at home with the standard pronunciations of the Calcuttans.Spontaneously,she kept conversing with Anirban who very often forgot that she wasn’t actually hailing from West Bengal.
One day he had proposed,’Come let’s lounge somewhere.’He took her to the Victoria Memorial.Then at a secluded corner of it,his very first observation was,’Life’s too small isn’t it?’
Kalyani had sighed.’It’s too long a journey for me’,she had said,’It seems to have no terminal point,you know.The pall of days don’t seem to lift from my vision.I’d have been happier had this life come to an end somehow.’
‘What!I’m sure you’re suffering from depression.’
Kalyani had smiled,wearily.
‘Come let’s see a movie.’
Kalyani hadn’t yet visited any movie theatre in Calcutta.She had heard Santi,Suniti and others making postmortem of movies they had watched.Most of their reviewings sounded unintelligible to Kalyani.That day,nestling on each others shoulders,they watched a movie at Prachi.In the semi-dark auditorium,as Anirban was clasping Kalyani’s slim fingers,it occurred to Kalyani that dreams if ever kept at bay,end up being indistinct and hazy.So she found no harm in embracing the unexpected happiness coming within her reach.
On a Sunday evening,getting down from a bus at the crossing of Moulali,they walked into a restaurant.Anirban placed the order of breast cutlet.Kalyani had never heard of a menu like this before.Sensing her hesitation,Anirban had smiled to say,’On frying it becomes brown;its actually braised cutlet.’Then from his plate,he cut off a slice and pushing it into Kalyani’s mouth said,’Don’t you think I got my love from the street?’
‘Why street?I think it’s from Nemai’s home.’
‘All the same.’
‘Then why don’t you throw it away?’
‘It’s out of the question.I’m really happy with what I’ve chanced to get.’
Kalyani was infatiuated by an apparently indifferent,careless Anirban,though beneath the surface,she had discovered an well-arrayed personalty.
It gradually became difficult for her to ignore Anirban.One day he broke a proposal,saying,’Today’s bank holiday;come let’s go to Garia.’From Garia,they had boarded a bus bound for Joynagar and Majlipur.Anirban was telling her how his love made him restless,inattentive in his work,err in keeping count of the cash at the counter so on and so forth.While roaming around the opera house at Joynagar,Kalyani’s mind nostalgically travelled back to the play house of Jibankrishna Acharya,the Zamindar of Muktagacha.Beackoning her to the round-shaped stage,once Jyotiprakash had said,’Look,in the bygone times,the pleasure hunting zamindars,sitting here,cross-legged,used to watch the dance and theatrical performances.
Then one fine day,Kalyani knew not why-perhaps because of her fair complexion,charming figure,her straightforwardness,her naivete or anything else,best known to Anirban,the latter declared,’Come,let’s go to the court and get married.’Having heard the word ‘marriage’,she felt like being ransacked by a dust storm.By this storm,Badal who had firmly engraved himself in Kalyani’s heart,and who had been staying there for years, like a heavy,immovable,solitary stone,seemed to have been steered for a while.
Anirban was reluctant to wait any longer.He goaded Kalyani,by saying,’Negotiations with the girl at Nabadwip is almost being finalized.I had told them about you.My boudi(elder brother’s wife)has turned down the proposal,saying,”No refugee please!”I don’t see a chance of a social marriage with you.We’ve to go in for a registry marriage;if we dilly-dally, I run the risk of losing you and marrying that Nabadwip bride.’
Apart from the apprehensions made by Anirban,Kalyani had some other reasons,purely personal,to marry Anirban without further delay.Actually,she was hell-bent to come out of the dark,damp claustrophoebic cells of Tiljala.Night after night,she, with thumping heartbeats,slept hurdling together with several others in a small room.The sound of someone changing side or the squirming of a cat over the feet made her hurry-scarry and keep sitting on the bed,nervously.She didn’t know how long she had to continue her battle of nerves in this way.
So,Kalyani had agreed.She gave private-tuitions at the pupil’s residence at Park Circus.From the earnings of that source she had some cash in hand that helped her to buy a pair of sarees from Gariahat.Wearing one of them,she left Tiljala home.’I suggest you to go to Jyotida.’,she had said to Parimal before walking out.She had heard from her paternal aunt that Jyotiprakash was trying his luck in garment business at Burdwan.
Kalyani learnt from her own experience of solitude,that the individuals living in Calcutta are mentally poles assunder from one another,though physically they lived in close proximity,even to the point of morbidity.At Myamansingh,Kalyani and her siblings spent their days in boisterous camaraderie-laughing sometimes over a magic of cards,sometimes sharing jokes.Often absorbed in their hilarious gossips,they wouldn’t even mind to skip their lunch.In the afternoons,Kalyani,Parimal and Jyotiprakash,would sit hours together on the pondside with their three pairs of eyes,glued on the bait.Now,it has become very difficult for her to believe that once they grew up that way.Rather,now it seems to her,that since their birth,perhaps they grew up,being miles away from one another.
The thought that marriage is something precious to one’s life,no longer occurs to her.When she went out to marry Anirban,she was recalling Harinarayan who had once said,’Kalyani’s my only daughter;I want to see her as a barrister in future.Then I’ll spend lavishly in her marriage to make the people of the town gape in awe-struck wonder at the gaudy ceremony.I’ll also make the groom live ever after with us in our home.’That Kalyani,the darling of her rich parents,brought up with so much love,care and indulgence,in later years had to compromise with a whole lot of unkind people in every walk of life.The life she got was far from being as easy-going and smooth as on the bank of the Brahmaputra.In Calcutta,she realized that an abraded coin is more precious than the life of a human.The day,the telegram from home,brought the death news of Harinarayan,Kalyani had realized it was time for her to wind up and depart this ‘home’for good.Luckily,by that time she had graduated from the Lady Brabourne’s,but the dream of becoming a barrister had already eluded her.Harinarayan,being no more,Kalyani buried the dream of her austentatious marriage ceremony and accepted Anirban as her husband by signing the marriage register,in the presence of some unknown faces.
After marriage,the life went rolling, more or less as expected.Taking a convenient break from her busy schedule,she had visited her maternal uncle and aunt,Nilotpol kaka,pishemoshai,pishima,to touch their feet and take dust.Badomami,didn’t miss the opportunity to give vent to her grudge.’You just caught us unawares.Cleverly,you deceived your elder sisters who are yet to get married.You were too selfish to think of them.’Kalyani had smiled silently at this remark of her badomami.She is yet to ascertain who she deceived actually.Did she bluff Santi and Suniti or herself?Didn’t she indirectly put her own dreams in the grave-the dream she had nourished in her psyche for years?What did she ultimately get out of this marriage?During the days of her secret courtship with Badal,while wandering around,sitting side by side with him in a rikshaw,while going on a boat or sitting on the grass,she’d blush in embarrassment.She felt her heart hum in orchestra.This she never experienced with Anirban,even when she nestled close to him.While dating Anirban,she had no fear of being sighted by any relative.She had the freedom of wandering with him to places at her sweet will.Her badomami had never objected to her going out,provided she had completed her domestic chores.Moreover,she’d have to go out for giving tuitions-badomami knew this.Another reason of her mami’s generosity was that,she contributed handsomely to the family from the income of the tuitions.So,she had spent hours freely with Anirban outside without the apprehension of being observed.The situation was altogether different in the days of dating Badal.At home,she had to resort to lies-sometimes it was a practical class at college or sometime’s a friend’s birthday party.The route and the destination of their journey would be pre-planned a week earlier.The date of journey approaching,her heart-beats went faster.There’s a unique pleasure in secret courtship.
And then all on a sudden,the winsome maiden was made to be swept by a storm from her world,sheltered by river,trees,relatives to an unknown destination.What was left from her life, except the dust and withered leaves?Now,she’s far away from Sherifa,whom she had once promised by touching her,that she’d be back soon.Where’s Badal,with whom she once shared the dreams of settling down to a married life?Where’s gone that song,that Badal used to sing,’O dear maiden,I know not where I shall get the pitcher and rope from/Thou art a river whose bottomless depth shall drown me in……’?The song also seems to have been swept away by the dust-storm in Calcutta.
After marriage,Kalyani had to run from pillar to post to get the job of a primary school teacher at Tollygunje.Once on her errand,she was sent by the school authorities to the bordertown of Bongaon.She was casually walking and had come near the border.She kept gazing pensively at the horizon.An aching sensation pierced through her heart.The same sky,canopied over both the countries, was separated by the border.But the sky across the border,was tantalizing her as though it were at an arm’s stretch.She felt like asking the sky on the other side,’How are my dreams?How is Badal?Munni,Anilkaka,Ruksana?How’s my fairyland,where I was born?How is my home?The Brahmaputra?Does,any girl still run throughout the field while playing hide and seek,as she used to do in her youth?Is the world still so ruthless as to blindfold that innocent girl and banish her from her native soil and compel her to live in exile?’
On receiving the death news of Harinarayan,Jyotiprakash had made a dash for the country to light the funeral pyre of his father.But he couldn’t reach on time and the neighbours voluntarily had performed the last rites.Soumen,Anil Mukherjee’s son,had lit the pyre.Kalyani is grateful to all of them-they had taken her father to the Hospital,spent sleepless nights beside his bed,kept in constant touch with the doctors attending Harinarayan,given him medicines……..So,it’s quite natural that they wouldn’t let the lifeless mortal frame of Harinarayan rot in the mortuary.Had they any less attachment to Harinarayan than Jyotiprakash and Kalyani?
While coming back,Jyotiprakash had tried his utmost to persuade his mother to accompany him to Calcutta.But Saralabala had turned down the proposal,saying,’Don’t make me on the move for the rest of my life.My days are also numbered and I wish to die in the very ancestral home of my very beloved husband.’She was weeping inconsolably.Jyotiprakash had returned alone.Later,when the news of Saralabala’s passing away arrived,Jyotiprakash refused to go,saying,’Don’t request me to be a pall-bearer.Being the eldest son of my parents,I pity myself-I couldn’t offer them a drop of water to drink when they were alive,yet you ask me to attend the last rights to light the funeral pyre.’Kalyani was very eager to attend Saralabala’s last rites,but Anirban refrained her from going.He had argued,’How come you think of going?You are forgetting that you are at your advanced stage.’
Anil Mukherjee had written from the country,’I’d advise you to come over here at the earliest to dispose of your ancestral property.I’ve left the home under lock and key.I’m getting old;my eyesight is becoming feeble day by day.So,it’s beyond my capacity to take the strains of maintaining the property.It’s not safe to leave the house unguarded.Unless,the house is disposed off at once,there’s every possibility of your being dispossessed of your home.May God bless you!’
As Kalyani told Jyotiprakash about the sale of the house,he wrote from Burdwan,’I can’t sell the house with my own hands.I’m not a butcher.I’m the last person to sell my precious memories in exchange of some money.Let it be there,as it has been for years………;at least it gives the impression that something’s still there,no matter how small it is.’As the last resort,Kalyani had approached Parimal,who said,’So far as I’ve heard they have passed the law of enemy property.The Government is seizing the property of immigrants.Nobody’s going to buy the enemy property.’
‘Parimal,are you sure,our home is a part of enemy property?Does it mean that we’re the enemy of the state?’
Parimal didn’t want to drag the conversation further.He got up,for he was also preoccupied with his own business.He was then working as a copy writer in an ad agency.A resident of Naktala,he infrequently dropped in Kalyani’s home.He had once approached Jyotiprakash to let him live in his apartment.Jyotiprakash lived in a ten feet by ten feet room,which he had turned into a den of local gamblers with whom Jyotiprakash revelled till midnight.Jyotiprakash,without beating about the bush had made it clear like a truly responsible elder brother,’Look Parimal,you’ll be spoilt if you live in here.Besides,I live in penury.So I’d suggest you to go to Kalyani.’
Kalyani was telling Anirban,’You can’t imagine how closely,we,the siblings were.On a full moon night,we’d spend the hours singing on the terrace of our house.Do you know what our neighbours would comment?”You’re like two leaves and a bud.”
‘Now we hardly meet,even once a year.Parimal leads a vagrant life;he looks as spectre-thin as a rope.He could have lived with us here,couldn’t he?’saying this,she was staring at Anirban on his face with great expectations.Anirban was too sensible to say a direct ‘no’.He reacted in a subtle way.’You’ve seen at Tiljala,how tough life is.Everyone struggles for existence.Have you any idea how many people commute everyday,to and from Calcutta?’Kalyani had no difficulty in getting at the implications of Anirban’s speech.
Meanwhile,Kalyani had spent years in looking after home and hearth as well as attending to a ten to five white collar job.The nitty-gritty of her joys and sorrows,revolved round her role as a dutiful wife and caring mother.Sadly,she had three miscarriages befor Jayeesha’s birth.Anirban’s countenance in those days seemed to indicate that the fault lay with Kalyani who was unable to give birth to a baby.As though,she had committed a sin in her previous birth for which she was paying the price.By previous birth,Anirban,perhaps meant her Myamansingh days.Then Jayeesha was born.Yet Anirban had not been so pleased as he was after Dipan’s birth.Dipan was born twelve years after Jayeesha’s birth.All through those twelve years,Anirban had his own temper tantrams targeted to Kalyani,obviously for her inability to deliver a male child.But what was her fault if the baby wasn’t conceived in her womb?On examining her,the doctor had said,’There’s no reason,why you shouldn’t conceive.Wait with patience;I’m hopeful.’Yet Anirban wouldn’t wait longer.After each month’s interval,Anirban would enquire of the outcome,disregarding all sense of decency.Humiliated at the comments and blamed for not bearing a male child at the behest of her husband and others in the family,she realized a married woman’s worth actually lies in bearing sons only.Jayeesha was growing up steadily.Though Kalyani was busy with Jayeesha’s nurturing,her own job,yet she was pervaded by a sense of guilt at the deep sighs of Anirban that made her toss on the bed,night after night.Even Jayeesha was not unable to anticipate the cause of her father’s dissatisfactions.
Morbidly obsessed with the desire of a son,Anirban,who boasted of his modern attitude to life,had even run to Tarapith to seek blessings of Lord Shiva.Anirban’s relatives would shed crocodile tears,saying,’Are you sure she doesn’t suffer from a serious ailment that stands in the way of her conceiving?’Kalyani ignored their self-styled hypothesis and prophesies but Anirban couldn’t.Like the relatives,he was also worried who’ll be the torch bearer of the family in the absence of a son?Jayeesha,after all was to be married off and then she’d cease to remain their family member.When he’d quote all those silly worries and anxieties before Kalyani till midnight,she’d often react sharply,saying,’Do you want me to manufacture a son?’
‘No,this is not the point.’Anirban would try to rationalize,’What I mean is that my mother’s getting old.At least she should have the glimpse of her grandson’s face,before she breathes her last.’
‘Your mom has already seen Jayeesha’s face.Don’t you think it’s enough?’
‘She’s her granddaughter,after all.Grannies are curious to see the face of their grandsons.You should admit that.’
This would remind Kalyani that Saralabala was too unlucky to see her daughter’s marriage,let alone the question of seeing her grandchildren.In 1962,she had sent her daughter off to India and four years later,she passed away.Didn’t she desire to see her grandson?Like Harinarayan,she had also nourished the desires to see her daughter shine in academics,be a barrister and go to the court wearing the proverbial black coat.Amidst those dreams,who knows how strong might have been her desire to see the face of her grandson?After Dipan’s birth,Anirban’s relatives from Jhargram had poured into their Calcutta residence as though they had come to see a barren woman delivering a baby.They minutely examined the baby to get confirmed whether its arms or limbs were intact,whether the joints were strong enough,whether it had any breathing troubles etc.etc.During her pretty long conjugal life,she doesn’t remember to have a major quarrel with Anirban.The credit obviously goes to her compromising attitude to life,in general,which like the language of Calcutta,she has brilliantly picked up.She had tried to convince herself that with Anirban, she was leading a healthy life at least,healthier than that of Tiljala.She had tried her best to remain absorbed in wordly affairs-but lo,her mind over time and again wandered far and wide.After,the birth of a son,her status in the family was slightly enhanced,with relatives showering greetings as well as affectionate gifts like bangles and necklaces.They’d even go to the extent of saying,’Now you’ve justified your birth as a woman.’She’d listen to their panegyrics but never took them seriously.She had not fallen from the sky;so there was no cause of her being hilarious at the inflated comments of the relatives.
From the status of a refugee,she got home,husband and children and even a permanent job.Yet she felt like something missing from her life.She sometimes felt like hearing someone calling her from behind.Was it an auditory hallucination?She desperately tried to trace the source of this call that sought to dismantle her life which after a great deal of effort and hard struggle she had been able to give a shape.At the fag end of her life,she had the precious realization that like a transplanted tree,which cannot sprawl and blossom any longer like its previous existence, a man also cannot live a life of true worth in an alien situation.There’s a yawning gap between the two lives.
Having stayed at several places,namely Gariahat,Kankurgachi,Tollygunje, she has ultimately settled at Saltlake.Anirban had bought two and a half cottha of land at Saltlake.The proceeds from the sale of paddy fields at Jhargram had contributed to the lion share of the land price at Saltlake.The day,the construction work started on this plot,Kalyani said to Anirban,’I want to plant Madhabilata creepers on both sides of the gate.Madhabilata isn’t something rare unlike cactus.So Anirban had said,’Okay,I’ll try.’
Two days later,one midnight when Anirban had woken up from bed to drink water,he saw to his astonishment,Kalyani still lying awake.’What’s the matter,you’re lying awake?’
‘Oh,Anirban,you can’t understand my feelings.I can’t simply stop anticipating the marvellous beauty of red Madhabilata nestled among green leaves,growing on the black gate of our new house.’
‘But at this hour of the night,you’re dreaming of your Madhabilata!Like a pampered and nagging wife,demanding sarees and ornaments from her husband,Kalyani said to Anirban,’Dear,be sure to plant rows of coconut and betel-nut trees along the boundary wall.’Then she thought to herself,’and a kamini plant beside the window.If there’s a little bit of space still left,a small pool might have been excavated.There also should be a wood rose tree on the bank of the pool and clusters of white kamini flowers will be floating on the water.Every now and then one or two fishes will spring up and down.’
Anirban,changing side had replied,in disgust,’The coconut roots spread too far causing harm to the foundation of the boundary wall.’
Leaning towards Anirban,she had protested,’What you say makes no sense.We had rows of mango,jamun,coconut,betel-nut,lichi trees inside our compound.But never did the walls crack for an inch.’The dreams nourished in her subconscious had come out breaking all barriers.She had forgotten the ground realities of life that it’s a luxury to entertain the thought of a sprawling garden house for her who was once a refugee swept away by the dust storm of metropolitan life of Calcutta and for whom a mere shelter was once a distant dream.She didn’t know where she’d get the required land and time to nurture the trees.In polluted Calcutta,she looked for pure oxygen and wherever she came across a patch of green,she’d pause for a while.In their rented house,when Jayeesha was too young,she had covered the small veranda with tubs of flowering plants and creepers.This had made once Anirban say,’Your garden has made our pigeon-hole further small causing inconvenience to free movement.’
‘Our child’s unable to breath to its heart’s content.The smoke is turning its tender lungs black.’-Kalyani was trying to defend herself.
‘But we all grew up in this same environment,didn’t we?’he rebuffed.
‘May be.But I’ve not grown in a polluted environment like this.We were nestled by a greener surrounding.I had inhaled plenty of pure air,blowing straight from the river.This is why folks there have a relatively higher longevity.My grandfather lived hundred five years.Even at that age,he could twist the wrist of a twety-five year.old youth.’
Anirban,puffing out smoke from his cigarette, had countered,’Why was that poor fellow defeated?He was also from the same stock.Didn’t he bask in the same air?’
Put out by this argument,Kalyani had feebly replied,’I think they did.But things are different when it comes to a comparison with a member of my family.’
‘I see.’Anirban had replied with an impish grine.
Dipan takes in deep breathes.Kalyani also inhales large quantities of oxygen as she used to do in her youth while playing bouchi,with her mates.Along with this air she gets caught in the cobweb of sweet memories,dank in long lost fragrance.
Anirban, a native of Medinipur, is basically calculative,rather frugal at every step.Kalyani, much to his displeasure enjoys being spendthrift. If she ventures to buy a new set of garments or a pair of shoes even for Dipan, she has to swallow Anirban’s ire for her profligacy. ‘Its a luxury-sheer squandering of money’- he says.
‘So what if a little amount of money is spent on these things?’ Kalyani tries to counter. ‘Really I’m exasperated with the way of the GHOTIS- they are too parsimonious.’
‘And the BANGALS you want to mean are generous enough?’
‘Of course,they are. If a special dish was prepared in our homes, we always shared it with our neighbours. I never remember giving a bite to a fruit grown in our orchard without offering it to the neighbouring folks. So for the fish of our ponds.What a large variety of a catch we used to have! SHOL,TANGRA,SINGHI,PUNTI- what a size! Oh! how I pine for the mouth watering SHUTKI VARTA even to these days.
‘Sherifa, you know,would always embroider two frocks, one for me and the other for herself. You typical people of Jhargram can never appreciate these sentiments of ours. You just know how to cunningly deprive others of their share and fill your own pocket.
‘I still remember how on his marriage day,Sherifa’s elder brother had gone to the bride’s home riding on an elephant. The glitter of the procession is still vivid in my mind……at least 2000 guests were invited to the reception. Two days we had spent just in decorating the marriage-hall.And the budget of your marriage! Hardly 60 rupees or a little more.’
Anirban asks with a grine,’And what else did you do,pray?’
‘During a hailstorm in the evenings we used to delight in gathering hailstones. As an aftermath of this fun and frolicking somebody would invariably invite fever. Then the anxious neighbours would pour in, call in a doctor,bring fruits and sitting close to the head of the patient, they would caress her. Have you got a neighbour like this?’
While saying this Kalyani’s eyes sparkled in joy.
‘Have not you ever been in an affair with anyone of them?’
‘Why,what makes you ask this?’
‘Because I’d like to know whether all these hangovers are just for the land of the Brahmaputra or for a son of the soil’.
‘Are you mocking at me?’
‘No, not so.’
‘In fact, Anirban,its very difficult to convince you now. I’ve seen a lot of people on this side of Bengal but I’ve never met someone as simple,naive as our folks in Eastbengal.’
‘If they are so good why did you desert them?’
‘We have come here not by choice, it’s out of compulsion.’
Anirban relishes in pinching her by asking awkward questions like this-‘Your neighbours stole fruits from your garden,didn’t they?’
‘That was occasionally,on the nights of Lakshmi puja only.’
‘I’ve heard Parimal saying that some people used to pelt stones at your house.’
‘Rubbish. Why should they?’ protests Kalyani raising her eyebrows.
‘Parimal tells blatant lies. Our neighbours will throw stones! If required, they can lay down their lives for us.’
‘Were you not affected by the communal riot of ’64?’
‘That was Bengalees Vs. Biharis;the Bengalees would not harm the Bengalees. Whatever might have happened it was in the moffusils. There was no effect on us.’
‘Were you not then staying in Kolkata?’
‘So what? My parents were over there.We got the up-to-date informations time to time from them.’
For a period spanning over three decades,Kalyani treasured in her heart the memory of a double-storeyed building enclosed by a thickly wooded bower. From the house,the rushing streams of Brahmaputra were blissfully viewed and the opposite bank of the mighty river always appeared to be eluding from one’s vision.On this side of the bank of the river how often she spent many a happy hour with the companions building castles of sand.Often plunging into the river they used to enjoy dauntless water sports for hours together; they used to race along the bank of the river towards the horizon and end up huffing and puffing.With the approach of the evening she would return home with ruffled hairs and a cloud of dust covering her leg upto the knee.There were many more on the list of her juvenile adventures.Those dawns when she used to carry as many SHEULI flowers as she could in the fold of her apron, the sweet flavour of hot steaming VAPA PITHA, the walks in groups towards Radhasundari school building,the ravenous taste of milky ice-cream that cost just two paise,the taste of toothsome CHANACHUR bought on credit by cajoling the CHANACHURWALLA, walking past with a string of bells worn at his ankle,the peep through the hole of the wooden box used as a makeshift cinema screen and the winter nights when they used to watch the silent documentary films sitting on the bricks laid close together on the ground -all these seemed to have happened very recently and she still to this day feels hilarious at the thought of those youthful pranks.
Winter vacation was going on at Dipan’s school.So he insisted on going to his mother’s country. Kalyani was heartily expecting Anirban but he did’nt show any interest in going there. Anirban had heard a lot of things about Kalyani’s country. So whenever she looked a bit unmindful,morose,he would say,’Are you feeling homesick,dear? Upon God,I feel so crazy, you know, to have a glimpse of that garden-house as big as a castle……….’ Anirban was inflating -Kalyani was matured enough to understand this. Nevertheless,she was glad to hear these words from Anirban.But could not he really come with her? The much expected stay at Sherifa’s house, meeting with Anil Kaka,Munni,Selim,Rukshana,Kalyani’s native house,childhood days,the play fields,rivers that were inseparably associated with her own-should not have Anirban seen at least for once in his own eyes?Could he not have compromised a little with his annual Puri visits?Just a slight change in the itenerary? Half an hour’s journey by air. Even it takes more time to reach Howrah by train.
Kalyani’s pangs of visiting her homeland took a concrete shape soon after she had started earning,when she began to realize that she had some share in her own earning.From then she gathered up the courage to plead,’ Come on Anirban,let’s go one day.’ That was long back,even Jayeesha,now eighteen years old,was not born then.Anirban always had this or that kind of an excuse to put out Kalyani’s enthusiasm.At first it was,’Who will take care of our home in our absence?’Then he would say,’Let our baby grow up a little,then we can go.’Jayeesha grew up into a kid.Anirban then had a new set of excuses ready-‘You don’t know the hassels of getting a passport.’,he went on,’And why should you spend money on visiting a land that has nothing to offer you now?Who do you think is awaiting you there?Now you’re a stranger for them. So shrug off the thought of going there.’
Kalyani knew that Anirban who had always looked upon her homeland with a somewhat prejudiced notion would never know what exactly beckoned her to that sweet land.Rather when he would try to divert her attention from that land by placing proposals to go to other places like Darjeeling,Puri,for a change, it sounded ridiculous to her. In the end when Anirban used to say,’You should not go there for the political situation is very bad…..’,Kalyani came to the conclusion that he would never willingly tell her to go.At last,when
Kalyani had made up her mind to go,Anirban remained silent first and then defended himself saying,’I’d have gone with you,if I had got leave from office;work pressure these days is extremely high.Take Dipan with you.Jayeesha’s M.A finals are round the corner;one of us should be with her now.’
Those were lame excuses.He could have joined Kalyani.In fact,he had always been instinctively apathetic to Myamansingh.But very often he had taken Kalyani to Jhargram and visited the house where he had spent his childhood days. Kalyani gladly accompanied him to a trip down Anirban’s memory lane and shared his nostalgia.Anirban was enthusiastically telling her,’This was my bed-room;that was the playground we used to play on;look at that brick-house…………it was our school building;this is the mango grove where we used to while away the happy hours in singing.’Overwhelmed,Kalyani admired all these to capture a glimpse of her husband’s youthful days.
Kalyani had left Tollygunj school and joined another at Bidhan sarani.They were then residing at Saltlake.The salary at the new school was comparatively better.It enabled her to save some money from her household expenses.In six months her savings fetched her two passports,two airtickets and one hundred dollar-of course, without Anirban’s patronage,though she knew he would not have refused to part with some money,had she approached him.But her feminine sentiments were eager for a spontaneous offer from him. So when she found her expectations belied,she reconciled herself to the inevitable fate,though she knew that at least two thousand rupees from Anirban would have enabled her to take Jayeesha as well with her.
She had taken a fortnight’s leave from school.Seemingly flabbergasted,Anirban charged at her saying,’Have you really gone out of your head that you have decided to stay abroad so long?’
‘Dont call it abroad.’ said Kalyani,’I’m going to my own country,my homeland.’
‘Are you really going alone?’
‘Dipan will go.’
‘But you were saying his exams are going to commence soon.’
‘Yes he has his exams to commence but not in the offing…………two and half months later.’
‘You’re going to Bangladesh where no sensible person goes these days.I dont understand for whom you feel so crazy.’
‘You’ll not understand, Anirban.’
‘I know that,for your thoughts are always beyond me.Now you can feel free,I wash my hands off it.’
‘Wash your hands off? Strange!You always intervened in my affairs,but today when the question of my visiting home arises,you’re withdrawing yourself conveniently.’
‘Your home?Tell me who is it that waits there to welcome you?’
‘I tell you again Anirban,’ had said Kalyani with certain seriousness,’you lack that kind of sensitivity which might have enabled you to honour my feelings.Don’t make the mistake of comparing my country with your Jhargram;you left the place and lo!All your ties with the place and its people were snapped.’
‘All right,have a go and come back with all your desires fulfilled.’
‘Certainly.Do you think I’ve no desires of my own?It seems you can’t admit that I also have a home,parents and relations like you.I’ve never shown any reservations about your visiting Jhargram,seeing your mother every month.Have I?Then why can’t you accept the patent fact that I too might be craving and yearning for visiting my place of birth,meeting my near and dear ones?’
‘Your mother is no more………..had she been alive……….’
‘I know that.But the things closely associated with her must be there.I believe Sherifa and her family take care of them.Plus,Anil kaka is there to look after the house.’
Kalyani could not find out the reason why Anirban held her home in so much contempt.Was it jealousy?Perhaps,it was.For those long thirty years Kalyani treasured her dreams in the niche of her heart.Their daughter was now doing her master’s at the Scottish Church College.By this time she had been able to give some definite shape to the household.Still she never got the opportunity to go out of the confines of her home.Frankly speaking,it was Anirban’s obstinacy that stood in the way of her crossing the threshold of her home as well as the frontiers.
Before the mirror,while combing the hairs,Kalyani these days noticed to her horror,a couple of grey tresses.Does it mean she was bit by bit progressing towards crematorium?With the very word crematorium,a shiver ran down her spine.To which crematorium would she be taken?Keoratala?Nimtala?Or that one under the bridge at Shambhugunj on the bank of the Brahmaputra,where once was lit the pyre of her grandparents,parents and uncles?
Sometimes she cannot resist the temptation of telling Anirban,’When I’ll die,make it sure to leave me there.’
‘There means where?’
‘There where I was born.Birth and burial should be on the same soil.’
‘My dear,you’ll cease to be a being after death,won’t you?So you’ll be an unwanted burden then.How can that burden be carried over as far as to a foreign land?’
‘Look Anirban,dont keep on saying ‘foreign land’ ‘foreign land’.It sounds awful.’
‘Then do you mean I should call it the same country?’
‘Well,only that day you came on foot from Agartala to Comilla’-went on Kalyani,’Did you then notice any difference in the colour of the soil?of the grass?Could you differentiate the language,dress?You yourself said that you had seen flowers from the plants rooted on this side of the border were falling in drops on that side……..flights of birds were streaming down from that side to this……..cattle were freely grazing across the borders.You yourself saw how all sorts of restrictions were imposed on man only. Nevertheless,you enjoy using the term ‘foreign land’.’
‘Do you pretend to repudiate historical facts?’ had asked Anirban removing the spectacles from his eyes.These days,Kalyani noticed that whenever Anirban would get agitated,he habitually put off the glasses from the eyes.
Kalyani has converted her hundred dollars into TAKA.She now stands flanked by the auto and the taxi drivers.On enquiry how to get at Myamansingh,she receives a chorus reply from them.’Take a bus from Mahakali Bus Stand and it will straight take you over to Myamansingh;there is no break-journey.’
Myamansingh!The very incantation of the word gives her an immense relief.She hires a scooter to carry them over to bus-stand.
Kalyani has not sent a prior information to anyone about her visit.Had they got the slightest clue about her arrival,they would have certainly come to receive her at the airport.But she prefers this mode of homecoming-a pleasant surprise for all of them.
Her return after such a long gap will definitely create a lot of flurry in the neighbourhood-she thinks wistfully. She is coming for a few days only-so they cannot but vie with one another to spend the precious moments in close proximity with her.
Once she had been to Chittagong to her maternal aunt’s house.She had planned to spend a month over there but lo and behold!She had to return on the thirteenth day-just on the thirteenth day only because the message came from Myaminsingh that her dearest friend Sherifa had stopped eating in languishment.After coming back,it had taken at least two months for her to dispel the pall of gloom from Sherifa’s heart that had thickened by a brief seperation of thirteen days.Kalyani had to narrate in details-what she had seen at Chittagong-the Patenga Beach,Faiz lake,the port,the hills;leaning against the JAMUN tree and half lying on the grassy field with eyes on the clouds,they carried on chatting as if their conversation would never end.
Today as she is visiting the land after long long thirty years,she wonders how long it will take for her to exhaust the stock of her untold tales for Sherifa.
Kalyani’s reminiscences are glowing with the splendour of youthful association with Sherifa.That day when she was taking leave from her ,she was weeping inconsolably,and Kalyani touching her with her fingers had promised that she would be back one day.
Today after so many years of separation,when she will meet Sherifa,she must get thunderstruck at the very first instance.She’ll become speechless.In the afternoon of her life,Kalyani knows not what kind of a comeback it is for her.
Kalyani’s vision is getting blurred by tears of joy.In the scooter,she presses Dipan close to her bosom and says,’Dipan,my child,look, its my own country.’Dipan shakes his head as if he agrees fully with his mother.Kalyani is trembling in excitement;her throat is parched.She longs for a glass of water……….the water of her own land.Dipan’s face is shining,eyes glittering in joy.’Look Ma,the number plates on the vehicles are in Bengali;even so are the sign boards.’
‘Naturally!’ says Kalyani.’Everybody speaks in Bengali here.They are all Bengalees.’
‘All Bengalees?But it is’nt so in our state’ says Dipan in amazement.
‘Have not I told you about BHASA movement by the people of this country in 1952? Have not you heard of the war of 1971?They fought for the freedom and honour of Bengali language.’While saying this her head bows down in reverence for the people of Bangladesh.
‘Then why dont we fight for the same noble cause?’asks Dipan.
‘How can we,for ours is a very large country with a teeming population speaking diverse languages in different parts of the country.’
Dipan looks around,overwhelmed and says,’It dosen’t appear that we’ve come to a new place,does it Ma?’
Seeing Dipan’s excitement and joy,Kalyani enfolds him more firmly.She feels as if she is enfolding her long lost innocent childhood,the daredevil adolescence,her heart’s darling Sherifa and last but not least,Badal.It is as though a little bud that had been waiting for years in a secret corner of her heart to blossom,died in the absence of water and air.But today that dead bud by the touch of a magic wand,God knows whose,suddenly blooms into a hundred petals.Kalyani’s heart is leaping like a surging cascade.
What a lovely, wide, neat and clean avenues with rows of Deodar and Krishnachura trees standing on either side! No,this land cannot be alien to her.Harinarayan used to say that in his youthful days,if pocket ever permitted,he used to go to Calcutta to buy ruffle Kurtas and very fine Dhotis.Even many of his contemporaries used to frequent Calcutta for buying monthly provisions.Again,the delicious sweetmeat called KACHAGOLLA of Natore was one of the many attractions for the people of Maldah.Then it was, after all,one nation and Kalyani was born in this single,undivided country.The division,the strict vigilance on the border,security checks etc. were much later developments-when Kalyani was a small child.When she grew up to understand the talks of the elderly people,she heard Harinarayan saying to Saralabala,’We’re utterly ruined,Sarala,utterly ruined!’smoking from his hubble-bubble and heaving a sigh he used to say,’The country drove the British out but that at the cost of cutting her into pieces!’
Every inch of the tragic partition of the country had its vicious effect on Kalyani.Consequently,it was not difficult for her to understand why Harinarayan resented the partition.The Urdu speaking Muslims were displaced from this country;then why did the Hindus have to quit the same country?It ceased to be the homeland of the Muslims and ultimately became the land of the Bengalees.The country was built by the blood of thirty lakhs of Bengalees.
Kalyani took pride in the thought that those who had masterminded the partiton of India,those who had manipulated to make Bangladesh the homeland of the Muslims,those whose shrewd vested political indulgence had compelled millions to leave Bangladesh,had got a fitting rebuff by the war of ’71 which not only drove the Pakistanis out of the land but also substantiated the fact that Bangladesh belongs to the Bengalees,not the Muslims and language here is superior to religion.
Dipan,clapping his hands ,exclaims,’How lovely the country of yours is Ma! Why don’t we all live here?’
The same thought had been haunting Kalyani too with a constant sense of pain.Why had she been forced to leave this wonderful land?Was not she worthy of living here?What was her fault that caused her flee from her native soil?As if she was convicted of murder or any similar kind of offence for which she was meted out such a serious punishment!But Sherifa did not have to flee anywhere;rather she had the privilage of living amidst her own memories and dreams.She never had to shed tears day in and day out unlike Kalyani thirsting for the touch of the waters of Brahmaputra,did she?She never suffered the pangs of separation from her playfields,playmates or playthings.She was not separated from that large tank whose glistening water reflects the afternoon of their childhood and adolescence spent in hopping and skipping in its water.That flowering shrub,the mango grove,jackfruit,guava,jamun,coconut trees did not perish from Sherifa’s life.Unlike Kalyani, she didn’t have to bid farewell to the train whistling past their countryside;she didn’t have to pine for the days of stealing pickles and adjourning to their attic.Kalyani also had an equal share in that attic,that train,that meadow,that pond,those trees,the Brahmaputra…………
Kalyani longs to get down from the scooter and tread on the soil;to pick up some clay and smear all over her body with it.She loves the soil so dearly that no other soil did ever occupy in the niche of her psyche.You can’t lend your mind to more than one after all;your attention is always one and undivided.The breeze gently washes Kalyani’s face.’Ah!’ she moans in weird sensation.Dipan,infected by his mother’s contentment,nestles close to her and says,’Come let us give a big surprise to Dad;we’ll tell him that we’ve decided to live here forever.’
Kalyani smiles.’It’s not a surprise for him;the real surprise for him will be,if we go back.’
Dipan also smiles.Even at this tender age,he has begun to understand that they are not travelling in an alien land.But Anirban could not accept this simple truth.Kalyani pities Anirban.Is he made of stone?
Perhaps,he is.In fact, like Anirban,Calcuttans are made out of stones-without a heart and tender feelings.The nitty-gritty of their life’s philosophy is the fulfillment of selfish aims.Tired of them,Kalyani abbhors to come back to the selfish milieu.She desperately wishes to stay far away from the over-crowded,congested roads and alleys of Calcutta.
An incident, however,trivial it might be flashes in her mind.Sometime ago,one of her next door neighbours whom she fondly calls Boudi and who is basically a meddlesome woman had once again proved how city bred,sophisticated men and women lacked feelings.Kalyani was paying the taxi-fare………… she badly needed a five-rupee note for change.When Kalyani had sought her help,the woman far from helping her pretended as if Kalyani was a stranger,rather a beggar.
A mini-bus, at the bus-stand,displaying Dhaka to Myamansingh board is waiting.Kalyani and Dipan get into it.Around fifteen to sixteen passengers who have boarded the bus are talking in the Myamansingh dialect.Kalyani is so much fond of this dialect that wherever she happens to hear someone speaking it,she cannot help feeling some sympathy for the speaker.This is the reason why she has a soft corner for the head clerk of her school at Calcutta.She, during leisure hours used to go to his desk saying,’Its a pleasure to talk to you in our native dialect.’That man had once been embroiled in a controversy relating to the embezzlement of school funds.An enquiry committee was set up in this regard.Kalyani strongly defended the head clerk.Later Anirban said,’You’ve for nothing involved yourself in this matter;out of sheer emotions you’ve ended up supporting a dishonest man;I’m sure the bloke has made a mess of the funds.’
Kalyani protested,’A man hailing from Myamansingh can’t be dishonest…………..I can at least assure you this.’
Hearing the passengers speak in their native dialect Kalyani is thrilled.The sweetly accented words and phrases like ‘Aibam'(I’ll come),’Jaibam'(I’ll go),’Khaibam'(I’ll eat) keep ringing in her ears.She is being taken to a trip down the memory lane that conjures up images of the alleys through MECHUA BAZZAR,the field of Vidyamoyee school,the pond side at Purohit Para.Her heart is roaming about the places from Kachijhuli to Keotakhali,to station road,to police line,to the triangular pond at Akua and to Swadeshi Bazzar.She can visualise before her eyes a teenager wearing a frock,running pell-mell through those lanes while the hairs tied in plaits with ribbons swinging in air.
The passengers in the bus are her native folks.They are hailing from her native town.How can she turn her face away from them?She asks one of them,’Do you know Harinarayan Roy of Kalibari?That big double-storeyed buliding with iron stair case beside a big field and surrounded by big trees?Who lives in that house now?’
They shake their heads………they don’t know.
Kalyani has bought some biscuits and banana for Dipan who is trying to catch the drift of the conversation going on among the passengers.He whispers into Kalyani’s ears,’Why are they talking in this tone?’
‘This is the language of Myamansingh,our original tongue.’
‘I see,this is called Bangal language.’
‘Who told you this?’
‘Tirtha,my friend said this.His grandma speaks in this language.Tirtha and his elder sister Namrata say they do not understand a single word of their Thakuma speaking Bangal.’
‘Actually,there’s no language called Bangal’,said Kalyani.’This is Bengali in certain local intonation.This happens in case of all languages which has slightly modified according to local characteristics.You’ll find the people of 24Pgs. talking in a slightly different accent than those of Murshidabad.Take the example of English language.Do all Englishmen speak alike?The British English differs from the American English.Then will you say ‘Anglash’ instead of English?’
Dipan likes the coinage ‘Anglash’;he greets it with laughter.
‘I think one should not have much difficulty in making out this Myamansingh dialect.I sometimes speak in it,don’t I?Do you really find it tricky?’asks Kalyani in a tender voice.
‘Partly,not all ,Ma’replies Dipan.
Kalyani feels hurt.If a son fails to be at home with his mother’s language,whose ill-luck is it?
Kalyani is wearing the traditional mark of vermillion on her forehead,bangles made of conch shell around the wrist,and a blue cotton saree.Many of the passengers are eyeing her on the sly.A middle-aged man, on the rear seat,turns back and asks,’Where are you bound for?’
‘Myamansingh.’,replies a smiling Kalyani.
‘Are you a resident of Myamansingh?’
‘No,I live in Calcutta,but my native place is Myamansingh,at Kalibari.Do you know Harinarayan Roy’s house?It’s just on the bank of the Brahmaputra.’
The man shakes his head.He don’t know.
There was a time when Harinarayan Roy was a name to reckon with in the town.But today none of these passengers have heard of his name.Kalyani cannot believe this.She feels hurt as well,but tries to console herself by reasoning that these people are perhaps,not from Myamansingh proper;they must be hailing from the outskirts.
Kalyani leaning over the rear seat,asks the man,’May I know your name,Dada?’
‘Abdul Jabbar’the man replies perfumctorily.Kalyani desires to continue the conversation with the man.But finding the man’s disinterest,she keeps mum.
Then another man,relatively younger,sitting behind Kalyani says,’Which Harinarayan?The cloth merchant?’
‘No no,not at all.My father was a district magistrate.’-replies Kalyani turning behind.
‘I see.The name of the proprietor of Gourhari Bastralay on station road is also Harinarayan.’
‘What is his surname?’ asks Kalyani.
‘That I don’t know.’
‘But you know,my father’s a noted person in town.’
‘Is he now in the Judge’s Court?’
‘No,he’s no more’ and then counting the rings on her fingers she said,’He died 27 years ago from now.’
’27 years!My goodness!’
‘Yes,27 years’replies Kalyani,heaving a deep sigh.’The long,long 27 years seems to have passed off imperceptibly.’As if only that day she was rolling a chocolate with her tongue sitting on the lap of her father.Saralabala used to alert him saying,’Don’t give her so much indulgence,husband.’
Harinarayan would laugh at this and remark,’No dear,I wish I kept her always on my head.’
The words ‘on the head’ seemed to be ridiculing Kalyani.Her parents left her at Tiljala.She was a good swimmer in the tanks,ponds but not in the insurmountable muck water of life. Her state was pitiable as that of a helpless creature whose arms and legs were tied together before abandoning it in the treacherous quick sand.
The bus set off.Kalyani,sitting by the window is looking out with eyes wide open.The bus after passing by Tangi,Joydevpur,Rajendrapur enters into the semi-dark woods of densely packed sal trees.
Dipan says,’Ma,we miss Didi so much,don’t we?’Kalyani nods her head.Had her daughter also come,she would have been acquainted with her mother’s country;what more could have been pleasanter than this?
Looking out through the window and being captivated by the beauties of the green pastures,Kalyani loves to fancy her identity neither as Dipan and Jayeesha’s mother,nor as Anirban’s wife but simply as Kalyani Roy,the individual,the daughter of Harinarayan Roy. Her identity as Kalyani Das spanning over more than two decades,seemed to have been drowned in the gentle,fragrant, breeze sweeping over her face and blowing from the direction of her old familiar places like,Sripur,Valooka,Kazir Simla,Bhoradoba that were,one by one receding past along the bus-route.In her early days,she used to accompany her father on their occasional visits to Dhaka.The train leaving Myamansingh town would pass by the stations namely Sutiakhali,Gaffergaon,Kaoride,
Bhawal,Joydevpur,Dhirashram,and finally Fulberia.They used to hang their hat at Dulendra’s house at Gopibagh.Dulendra was Harinarayan’s nephew,a distant though.The kids at Dulendra’s home would play a curious game.In Kalyani’s presence,to be sure.They would talk in a funny language unintelligible to her.Seeing Kalyani gawk at them in desparation to get at the meaning,they would simply relish at the situation through giggles and laughter.Kalyani would get hurt and angry to find her the target of their fun.So she,desparatly strove to pick up the language but they would not let her know.One day she,determined to unrable the mystery of the code,put down the funny letters on a piece of paper as soon as she had heard them utter the abara ka dabara.With the utterance of the puzzle words,she found one of the kids running off with her pair of shoes.The two events coinciding,Kalyani deciphered the word ‘shoe’ in their code.Thus the mystery of the puzzle word was solved.From that day on,she stopped paying much attention to them.
Abdul Jabbar doesn’t turn his back on Kalyani anymore.But she can not help being curious about the man,simply because he is a native of her home district,Myamansingh.She is returning home after as many as three decades.Why does she have to take long thirty years?Why will she have to wait for Anirban’s permission?How is it that she was able to ignore the call of her native soil,the rivers,meadows,ripening paddy fields,the green trees,those neglected flowering creepers among the bushes,behind her house?She must have been heartless,selfish;or else how could she afford to waste so many years,oblivious of her blazing summer afternoons,the afternoons of mellowing jackfruits,the frolicsome moments of removing the prickly thistles from her pajamas,sitting on the veranda in the neighbourhood.Were she a magician whose single blow and uttering of some Mantras could have restored to her in a moment,the long lost arcadia of childhood and youth!Oh,for those days when she used to hear the piper tuning the Bhatiali and Baul songs while she was roaming by the curves of crumbling river banks or amidst the grove of tall betel nut trees!
Having come out of the forest of sal and teaks,the fort of Bhawal and its red arable fields stretching over miles after miles they are passing by the vast expanses of jackfruits and mango groves.Each and every jackfruit tree is overladen with at least 10-12 fruits.The branches of the mango trees full of harvests are bending over the road.Suddenly she pictures in her eyes the streets of Calcutta.She fails to reconcile to the difference between two countries.Saralabala used to cook palatable DALNA with green jackfruits.Even today the remembrance of it watered her mouth.Every inch of the land now seems to be wrapped in a lush green carpet.
The bus has halted at Trishal Bazzar,a very big HAAT or periodical village market.Dipan,thrusting his head out of the window is curiously watching the traders dealing in various items,such as-paddy,rice,vegetables and a varied range of fish.Kalyani says,’Look,these people may be poor but they are very generous enough to take you to their homes and you’ll be overwhelmed by their hospitality there.
‘Really!’says Dipan with his eyes sparkling in wonder.
‘But why will they take the the trouble of showing us hospitality?’
‘Because,they’re very simple folks.’
‘And also foolish?’asks Dipan.
‘Do you call an honest person foolish?’
‘Oh no dear’,says Dipan with a smile and hugs his mother.
The bus comes at Dharampur.Kalyani says,’Look Dipan,Kazi Nazrul Islam had once been here. He even read in a school here.’saying this she recites a few lines from a poem composed by this great poet.
Kalyani wakes up from her reverie as she hears the bus conductor thumping on the door and shouting ‘Charpara!Charpara!’Once jackles used to howl from the dense jungle of Charpara.Now in its place stand crowded streets with buses and rikshaws plying continually,tall buildings,big stores,sprawling campus of medical and polytechnique colleges among others.Those days there was only one health centre-Suryakanta Hospital.At Brahamapalli was Litton Medical School.One of her cousin brothers was studying in that school.With him on more than one occasion,she had visited the yellow building that housed the hospital.Her brother’s friends would treat her with ice-cream and ask impishly,’Do you like to see a skeleton?vivisection of a corpse?’Kalyani would shake her head in ardent refusal;instead of it she would prefer to sit on the river bank and watch her elder brother and friends,swimming in the river.
At Charpara crossing,the bulk of the passengers get down.Abdul Jabbar is also among them,but curiously enough he doesn’t bother to turn back for a last glance at Kalyani.Two women passengers are still left in the bus.One of them is veiled under a black yashmak.The other wearing a red silken saree.Kalyani smiles at them and asks,’Do you live nearby?The woman in red saree nods her head and moves the other way.
Kalyani tells the conductor,’I’ll get down at Kalibari.’
‘The bus does’nt go there.’replies the man in a rather unkind voice.
‘Then what do you suggest me to do?’
‘Get down at Press Club,’he suggests non-chalantly counting the cash.
The town appears somewhat strange to Kalyani.Two cinema halls,Ajanta and Chayabani stand on the way to Press-Club.Has Amarabati Natyamandir changed into Chayabani?Kalyani thinks silently.In those days they used to watch movies in Alaka,the only cinema-hall in the town.Films in Urdu,Bengali and English were shown in that hall.
Then gradually films from Calcutta and Bombay stopped coming.Disheartened elders in their adda sessions brooded with sullen resentment on the golden days of the legendary matinee idols like Dilip Kumar and Madhubala.Kalyani still recalls the days of long queues at the ticket counters for the films like Sapmochan,Sabar opore,Agni pariksha etc. etc.Sherifa’s maternal aunt once showed her Sabar Opore twice.On both the occasions,the sentimental picture had drawn tears from her eyes.The dialogue ‘Get me back those 12 years.’
had provoked her eyes burst into tears.Today a supressed sob is welling up from the deepest corner of her heart,not for Chabi Biswas,the protagonist of the film,but for her ownself,with the silent words,’Get me back those long 30 years…..’Then she flings off her arms in air perhaps with the expectation of reaching the lost days but her thirsty fingers rebound from touching the void.
The conductor is shouting,’Press Club,Press Club.’The two women get up,with them Kalyani too.Kalyani wants to know from the conductor,’Where’s Kalibari?’The man, perfunctorily,points his finger to a certain side.Kalyani gets off the bus with Dipan.Pat her eyes fall on that red brick water tank.That same,old water tank.She remembers how in her childhood she would pampere with Jyotiprakash to get her on top of it,so that she could have a bird’s eye-view of the town.Today,that very unfulfilled desire of the subconscious gets stirred up.The much frequented Alka hall was located beside this tank;near it stood Vidyamoyee School.Kalyani discovers,the town has abruptly changed over the years.The crowd,the hustle and bustle,the traffic replaced the old image of a green and serene countryside.Kalyani calls a rikshaw.She’s awfully hungry-it is 2’o clock by her watch-it means 2:30 by Bangladesh standard time.Dipan,who stares all around in amazement seems to have forgot his hunger.
The rikshaw is headed for the Kalibari.The puller, wearing a lungi and vest and with a half smoked Bidee,placed between his lips wants to know at what place will they get down.There was a time when Harinarayan Roy’s house was itself a landmark at Kalibari area.Now,Kalyani says Bipin Park as the rikshaw dribbles past the crowd.Dipan is very studiously reading the hoardings and signboards on either side.At once he’s tempted to know,’Ma,how far is your Brahmaputra from here?’
‘Not far,dear.’she assures.
‘You will swim in your Brahmaputra well after a long time,won’t you Ma?Do steamers ferry across this river?
Can’t I see the opposite bank from this side?I’ve not brought my binoculars,so how can I behold that sight?You were telling about the crowds of Kash flowers blooming on that bank.Was it the same Kash forest through which Apu and Durga were running to catch a glimpse of the train,whistling by the village?’
‘Oh yes,my little boy.’
‘Can you swim yet to this day?’
‘Why not?This is a skill if once picked up in childhood is never forgotten.’
‘If that’s true then why once I’ve heard Didi saying that you could not help her in her translations?’
‘That was because those were very tough lessons of Calcutta Schools………but this is swimming……..I used to spend hours on end in swimming;have I not told you before?’
‘Hours on end!I’ll also swim in your pond.’
‘I don’t know how to swim.’
‘I’ll help you………just as Jyotida used to do……..I used to clutch a banana tree and stay afloat.
‘Ma,why are you shivering?’
‘Me?No,I don’t think so.’
‘I feel your hands trembling.’
‘Actually,my child,I’m thrilled at the sights.I used to go to school along this route.’
Dipan,having read one of the sign boards,says,’This place is Durgabari.I think Durgapuja’s held here,is’nt it?’
Kalyani is longing to meet her Brahmaputra.Why does the river fascinate man?She asks herself.She trembles in excitement,her eyes filmed by tears with the joy of the approaching foot-steps of a reunion with her dearest river,after a gap of three decades.On the day of Mahasaptami,for the sake of a ritual bath in the morning,she was desperate enough to swim across upto the mid river and return from there.Like the swollen Brahmaputra that floods both the banks in the rainy season,her heart now overflows with joy at the very thought of the reunion with the river.All these associations make her fond of sharing the reminiscences with others in Calcutta.How often,she loved to tell Jayeesha and Dipan,’Do you know,children,there’s a river much bigger than the Ganga?It’s the Brahmaputra.’
Overhearing this conversation,Anirban would say,’I better suggest you to help them to write an essay on a topic,say,”The River”;that will be useful in their life.’
For these thirty years,she has known that there’s only one river that has influenced her life so much that no other river in this earth has ever done.This is the Brahmaputra.And water means to her the water of Myamansingh only.How she abhors to bathe in the water of Calcutta!Her hairs get clotted.And then,she recalls nostalgically,those early days soon after her marriage when Anirban would accompany her for a stroll along the bank of the Ganges,she could not help saying,’Look,dear,our Brahmaputra always thrives with life……….it’s always animated………’
Anirban,raising his eye-brows would counter,’Do you think our Ganga is bereft of life?’
Kalyani would look blank for a while and then pressing the free end of her saree on her nose suggests,’Come,let us get away from here………I can’t stand that spurious smell of Ganja(hemp).’
A bit puzzled,Anirban had said,’You had said you’d like to spend a pretty jolly time on the strands!’
‘Yes,but on this stand,dear.’
In fact,her attachment to the Brahmaputra is so deep that, day and night, even in her dreams she ruminates.While towing the boat on the swollen river the boatmen’s song in the Bhatiali tune-
‘Oh boatman,hoisting the sail,
Which far away land are you bound for………’-yet rings in her ears.
The mechanical life surrounding the Ganga,its soiled water never made her happy,even for once.She has failed to convince others that the transparent,pure waters of the Brahmaputra have infatuated her heart in such a way that nothing can replace it.Even Anirban says,’You’re morbidly nostalgic,Kalyani.’Kalyani heaves a deep sigh .
‘Dipan, honey,are you not hungry?’Dipan nods;he’s hungry.Kalyani says,’Tarry a bit,we’re almost at the end of our journey.Then you’ll see how affectionate and caring they are.They’ll give you lots of things to eat;they’ll keep you on their lap;they’ll buy gifts and toys for you.’Kalyani says these because she believes whole-heartedly they’ll do all these things for Diapn because,he’s Kalyani’s son.
Meanwhile,they’re passing one by one,Swadeshi Bazzar,Choto Bazzar,Bada Bazzar and so on.There was a temple at Bada Bazzar but now she can’t see that.In it’s place,she sees a Minar.’There was a temple at Bada Bazzar;where is it now,brother?’she asks naively.
The rikshaw puller thunders,’What temple!This isthe Bada Masjid.’
‘But I knew there was a temple here.’
‘Temple!’The man seems to have been shocked.He tries to look the other way.Though Kalyani is not really worried for the disappearance of a Temple yet some sort of curiosity about it persists in her mind.During those days the temple had stood there like a land-mark.Now the thoughts of the temple lead her into an associating memory of a person called ‘Dhengada’.In colloquial Bengali Dhenga means lanky.Dhengada,a typical teenage lanky fellow was an object of fun and laughter to the other teenagers.A six-footer already by 16 years of age,the fellow,a distant relation of Kalyani had come from Netrokona to stay with them.His good name was Jayanta but he was called Dhenga.He was basically a simpleton;he never objected to his being called by that nickname.A perpetual victim of indisposition,hi spent most of the hours of the day lying own in the Kachari room.Covering himself with a cotton wrapper,he would come out of the house on the afternoons and sit under the Jamun tree.He shivered so terribly that his teeth clenched.While Kalyani and her friends were busy in games,that poor creature,sitting there, kept on coughing.Kalyani often drew near him to ask,’Dhengada,which class are you in?’
‘Class II.’he replied in a very grave voice.
‘Such a big fellow,yet in class II!’Kalyani almost fainted in laughter.She would innocently ask,’It means you did’nt get your promotions regularly,is’nt it?’
‘No’he would reply,smartly,’I get 100 out of 100 in maths.’
Everyone in Kalyani’s house called him Dhenga.And he too glibly,responded to their call.Kalyani also called him Dhenga.When Saralabala came to know this,she once scolded her saying,’Dont call him by that name,he also has a real name,do’nt you know that?You should respect him like your elder brother.’
From that day onward, Kalyani started calling him Dhengada,adding the suffix ‘da’ as a sign of elder brotherly honour.One day she asked Saralabala,’Ma,does Dhengada really get full marks in maths?’
‘Then can he work out that sum………..if one third of a stick is in water,what part of it is out?’
‘He may .’
‘But I’m sure he can’t do that ‘tortoise’ sum……’
‘I don’t know.’
‘He’s too big to read in class two only.’
‘Look,Dhenga has been suffering from an incurable diesease.Soon he will be admitted to a hospital.That he has not dropped out yet,is something commendable.’
Some days later,Kalyani had heard from Jyotida how Dhengada used to expectorate throughout the night.With his phlegm,he ejected blood from his throat.One day they got Dhengada admitted to the hospital from where he never came back……….
Dhengada was so tall that when he was in a standing posture,Kalyani had to look up as high as to the sky to look into his face.Kalyani had to look into the lofty temple building with a similar look.Today as she nears that place,sitting in the rikshaw,she looks for something as quaint as Dhengada.She feels very sad for that ill-fated boy after so many years.
Having gone past the Bada Bazzar,when they got onto the Kalibari Road,she at last locates the temple,now grown mossy,looks dilapidated the walls,cracked by banyan shoots.The rikshaw all on a sudden,applies the brake to announce,’This is your Bipin Park.’
Getting down from the rikshaw,she begins walking in the park.Many a happy dusk she spent in her youth,here.While playing hide and seek with her peers,she would come out of the house and hide under the carpet of soft green grass of the park.Often,she knew not when and how she was lulled into sleep by the delicate sound of the splashing waves of the Brahmaputra.But now there’s no trace of the endless stretch of the quiet green.In its place,a hoard of cattle are enjoying their siesta.Tenements of displaced persons have sprung up here and there;some naked or half-clad,rickety, cringing children,emaciated mass of poverty and starvation stand gaping at them.The sight resembles the hideous pavements of Calcutta.Kalyani gets shocked.It means the malady has spread far beyond infecting the country of her heart,the darling of her soul!
No,she decides to compensate for the wounded pride by throwing herself at once into the arms of Brahmaputra.But where’s the Brahmaputra of her dreams?Is it that rickety strip of water bed hemmed by vast silted expanses on either side?People are crossing it on foot.Is there any mistake on part of Kalyani?Is it a hallucination?But there’s no chance of it.She has rightly located the river that flows just in front of the Bipin Park.She’s the same Kalyani who was once the water-Nymph of this Brahmaputra.For thirty years it was out of her sight but not for a single moment did she make it out of her mind.How can she now reconcile herself to this turbid,stagnant,uninspiring water-bed?She stands petrified;Dipan shakes her with his hands,saying,’I see water flowing through that canal.Is it a nullah?’
In disgrace,pain,her throat,gets chocked as if with supressed sobs.She says,’Perhaps,it is.’Then holding Dipan’s hands she takes a U-turn and walks along.She glances on the two sides.She comes across Gudar Ghat,Dakbungalow,S.K Hospital,all intact on their right places;even that old Kotowalli Police Station is standing glumly at its original place as it had been over there decades back.One of her paternal uncles was officer-in-charge of this police-station.When Kalyani was around five years old,he used to take her to the station to show her the lock-up.Then pointing at some sombre faces of haggard creatures standing behind the bars,he would say,’Look,child,they’re the thieves.’
Astonished,Kalyani had said,’Thieves!But I can see there some human beings like us.’He burst into peels of laughter.
Kalyani stands before the police station for a while as though she can hear the echoe of that laughter even today.
Some new buildings have come up on the vacant places.The single-storeyed house of Kumar Upendrakishore was still there.She can also see the Sambhugunj Bridge at a little distance.She feels sad for that lonely,quiet,sun-burnt rail bridge.
In her eyes,no other town has ever been as picturesque as this town of hers-small but calm, loving humane.If the existence of Utopia were a reality,it’s here,in her old town of Myamansingh.
Kalyani has been contemplating for long to give a pleasant surprise to everyone by her impromptu visit.She gropes desparetly her way to reach her memories,her dreams.But alas!She seems to have been overcome by a deep sense of loss,betrayal,as despite her rummaging the surroundings,she fails to trace their house.The proud possession of Harinarayan Roy,like the Brahmaputra has also vanished.There’s no sign of the splendid black iron-gate,enclosed by the evergreen myrtle creepers or the row of large trees along the boundary wall.
She at once recognises Sherifa’s house.Though the plaster on many parts of the outside wall is crumbling,yet that porch,that entrance,postern gate-everything’s there.Holding Dipan’s hand,she stands for a while on the veranda and then knocks at the door as she used to do long ago at the same door,umpteen times day in and day out to say,’Sherifa,come let’s play;Sherifa,come,let’s gather the jamuns,fallen on the ground;Sherifa,come soon,the snake-charmer has come;Sherifa,hurry up for the monkey dance,………’And Sherifa,like a bird would fly upto her,heedless of her mother’s shouting from inside the house,’Sherifa,slice the cucumber;Sherifa,sweep the floor;Oh,Sherifa,arrange the bed………….’,but where was Sherifa?Before her mother’s words had entered into her ears,she accompanied Kalyani to take part in their youthful pranks that included among others:Running from one street to another,plucking sour fruits from one’s orchard and relishing them sitting on another’s courtyard.Today she stands in front of the door with the same expection that Sherifa would fly to her like a bird and Kalyani,at the very sight of her would say,’Come on Sherifa,let’s fly kites.’
The thought of flying kites make her look up at the sky.’What’s the ideal season for kite flying….?Autumn or spring?’she asks herself.
Dipan whispers,’Ma,is this your house?’
‘Oh no,honey!It’s not our house;our house is beside this one.That’s a large,spacious building-situated on two bighas of land-the largest in this neighbourhood;even in Calcutta there’s no like of it.’
‘As big as Asheshda’s house?’
‘Ten times bigger than your Asheshda’s.’,says a proud Kalyani.Then she looks askance at that direction where her house was situated.She dare not look straight lest she should discover that it is not really there.Her vision gets blurred;she fails to reconcile herself to the changes………the dead river,the rickety buildings,withered plants and trees,the unquenched thirst of a drop of water-all make her eyes wet in tears.She looks around but can’t keep on looking.
A thinly built boy,wearing pajama,seventeen or a little more, opens the door.Before he says anything,it’s Kalyani who speaks,’Where’s Sherifa?’
‘Is it not Sherifa’s home?’
The boy shook his head.
‘Long back,Sherifa,Munni lived in this house.’,says Kalyani.
‘Yes, they did.’
‘Thank God!’said Kalyani as though she relaxed at the reply,’You had me going a while ago.Though,I’ve come years later,yet I’ve no difficulty in recognising every inch of the house-that same old window,door….no question of erring.’
The boy still stands blocking the entrance through the door.Before he can make out anything,Kalyani enquires,’Then where’s Sherifa now?’
‘At Noumahal.’ he replies non-chalantly.
‘Who else lives in this house?’
‘We do.Sherifa’s my paternal aunt.’
‘Your paternal aunt!It means you’re Aneesh Bhaiya’s son?’
Kalyani,hugging the boy says,’What’s your name,my boy?’
‘Tell your father that Kalyani,from Calcutta has come.’
‘Abba has gone to Chittagong.’
‘I see!Can’t we send a message to Sherifa?’
Yaser remains silent.
‘All right’,says Kalyani,’Can you take me to her house?’
Yet Yaser doesn’t say anything.Perhaps he wonders who these intruders are to come and dig in firmly in their house.
She, in an affectionate tone says,’Son,I’d like you to call your mother.Tell her,Kalyani,daughter of late Harinarayan Roy,who was once upon a time your neighbour,has come from Calcutta.’
Yaser this time feebly opens his mouth to say,’Come in.’
Kalyani,with Dipan steps into the room.Now she feels she should have a wash after the tedious,dusty bus-journey.She’s also awfully hungry since the lunch-time had long been over.Dipan has not eaten anything more than a couple of biscuits and bananas.Yet the poor boy is bearing hunger without a protest.Had he been at his home at Saltlake,he would have revolted.Kalyani,however,doesn’t mind being hungry,for she knows her eyes and soul are more hungry than her stomach.
‘Where do Munni,Sahana live?’asks Kalyani.
Yaser,biting his nails,replies,’My younger aunt lives in Saudi Arabia.’
‘At which part of Dhaka?’
‘Oh,Dhanmundi!I used to go to Dhanmundi when I was a small child.I remember running across the large fields over there………One day father took us the race-course to make us watch horse-race.He had made me rise on a horse also and I was screaming in joy………’
Yaser is still biting his nails while Dipan,nestling close to his mother,says,’Ma,I’ll also visit the race-course.’
‘Won’t you get scared of riding on the horse?’
‘Why?I’m not as timid as didi.That day you saw how she was lagging behind me in cycling.What a cowardly fellow!I rode on the elephant as many as on two occasions in the zoo,don’t you remember Ma?So why can’t I ride on a horse?’
‘Okay,okay.Let’s first get at Sherifa’s home and then we’ll set our tour-programme.’
Yaser is still looking aury at Kalyani.She drawing him close to her lap,asks,’Yaser,dear,have’nt you heard of my name before?Haven’t your father or aunts said anything about me?’
Yaser replies in the negative.Kalyani smiles at him saying,’They must have but you might not have showed any interests in the talks of the elders.It’s quite natural for a boy of your age.Had you ever paid any attention to their reminiscing,you could have surely come to know how terribly dare-devil creatures I and Sherifa had been!How old are you,Yaser?I mean in which year were you born.You should know we enjoyed a lot in your father’s marriage-ceremony.The groom,your father,you’ll be amazed to know had gone riding on an elephant to the bride’s home.We,the pampering little ones were running after that elephant.Along with us was the band of musicians, playing an exhilarating strain on the bugle.The marriage-ceremony had taken place at Golpukur Parh.We stood at this door,eagerly waiting to receive the new bride.And she arrived,wearing a red banarasi saree……….I feel like all these happening just the other day.Sherifa and I spend the whole night chatting on the terrace.How zealous we were to sing some choicest numbers from our collection in honour of the new bride!The bride had a freckle on her nose……..Yaser,doesn’t your mother have a freckle on her nose?Yaser,how is Anil Kaka,Soumen,Rukhsana,Selim……..?’
‘I don’t know.’
Yaser doesn’t feel inspired to reply.Kalyani sits a bit morose.Had she been able to talk to Annesh’s wife!At least,she could have come to know about Sherifa and all others.Again Kalyani grows nostalgic about how she used to stain the forehead of Aneesh with sandalwood paste as she used to do with her own brothers,Jyotiprakash and Parimal on the occassion of Bhaiphota.Saralabala used to say,’A brother in the true sense is not necessarily born of the same womb.I’ve seen in my life many strangers becoming one another’s well-wishers while many near and dear ones getting inimical.Strange are the ways of man!’
The next door house once belonged to Harinarayan Roy,famous as ‘Roybabu’.He lived the life of a typical,prosperous house-owner;every morning at least a ‘sher’ of ‘penda’, was bought from that sweetmeat shop at Kalibari;Jagat Ghosal,a ghee dealer used to sell one and half ‘sher’ of the stuff from Islampur.A fine brand of rice,called ‘Kalijira’was fetched from Mohungunj.The sweet water fish of their pond was a regular item in their meals.Harinarayan,himself couldn’t leave the country though he had sent his children off to India.Kalyani had no difficulty to understand why her father had stayed back.Falling health was just a lame excuse.In fact,Harinarayan was so sentimentally attached to the soil that he couldn’t think of leaving it.The thoughts of near and dear ones were made subservient to the love for the country,its soil to which he had been firmly rooted.
Kalyani nourishes a deep regret all through her life for not being able to remain present at the death-bed of her parents.Who is more unfortunate than a child like her?She secretely heaves a deep sigh in remorse.
Yaser has gone inside,perhaps to call his mother.Minutes pass,Kalyani can’t hear the sound of any foot-steps.Perhaps,she’s also apathetic to a stranger who’s claiming to be a neighbour of her in-laws in the bygone era.Kalyani,growing impatient paces up and down the veranda.She feels like a kite that makes a sudden and headlong fall on the ground after the bobbin has been wound up.Like that kite in an awkward position,she stumbles over the threshold,on the stairs,the moment her eyes fall on those buildings that stand on the ground in the vicinity of the house she’s now visiting.These new buildings are like intruders in her sweet memories.She walks on the grasses by the edge of the boundary walls of these buildings.She seems to be inhaling in the air the sweet flavour of the tendor lemon leaves and the pomelo,they had in their kitchen garden when she was a child.Saralabala used to mix lemon leaves in fish curry.Jyotiprakash used to banter,’Ma,I think the fish’s not fresh……’Saralabala wouldn’t give a bad name to the fish of her own sweet-water pond.She would say,’No dear,the fish was still alive when I was cutting them into pieces;I’m afraid I made a mess of the stuff as I didn’t add the turmeric paste in right proportion.’ On the winter mornings,all the family-members would assemble on the sprawling courtyard to bask in the sun.Covering the children with wrappers and tightening them with secure knots on their back,Saralabala would treat them with a breakfast of steaming hot tea and rice krispies.Jyotiprakash was a good story-teller.His stories that ranged from Einstein to Newton to ghosts-would add flavour to the breakfast.Now,Kalyani standing on the courtyard, neither traces the kitchen nor the sunbaked stairway from the ground to the veranda.Kalyani recalls when the first three steps on that stairway would be sunned,she’d get up and prepare for school.
The altar of holy Tulsi had stood on the courtyard.Saralabala,clad in a white saree used to bow down,light the evening lamp and ulutate.Kalyani doesn’t find the altar.Had she been able to dig the earth near it and get at least the remnant of a pebble to treasure for the rest of her life!
Akhilchandra Sarkar,one of the cousin brothers of Harinarayan and who was a homoeopath,practising at Brahmapur had once planted on an afternoon in the month of Kartick,a palm sapling on the western bank of the pond.Afterwards,Kalyani,with her friends used to play hide and seek,touch-me,catch-the-thief centering round that tree.Sometimes,in the intense heat of the summer afternoons,sitting under that tree they’d relish the mouth-watering taste of the tamarind combined with chilly and salt.If Saralabala ever caught sight of them having the stuff,she’d shout,’Throw away the vile stuff;the tamarind,don’t you is notorious for converting the blood into water?’At the thud of a palmira fruit,falling on the ground,they’d madly rush to the spot to collect it for Saralabala who’d make the delicious Bada,prepared from the juice.The taste of that sweetmeat is still lingering on her palate.She can’t recall despite laborious thinking,when she had eaten last that Bada in Calcutta.The row of betel-nut trees that they had along the boundary wall are also vanishing.They would play a funny sport with the bark of the trees-Kalyani used to sit on a large bark and Parimal would drag it all over the field.When it was Parimal’s turn to enjoy the ride,Kalyani would carry it far as much as she could.The game would continue until the bark would be torn into threads.She looks on the ground as if with the hope of discovering some imprints of the barks,dragged along on this soil.She deeps her fingers among the green grasses with the faintest hope of feeling the scratches.She takes the smell and then seizes a handful of that clay as she used to often do for making hearth for their toy kitchen.With the same clay she used to make clay models as instructed by their drawing teacher at school.Soon after,coming from school in the afternoons,she would run to the pond side to collect the clayey soil for making toys,that looked as lovely as those sold in the fairs.She presses the lump of clay on her palm and makes it look like an orange.It occurs to her how her geography teacher,at school,Pradip Kumar Biswas,used to teach…….’The earth is a sphere like an orange.’Staring at the round shaped clay model,she fondly remembers the face of her geography teacher.Is he alive today?She asks herself.Were she able to touch his feet to pay her reverence to her Sir!
Standing on the field, her mind bubbles up in fond remembrance of those days-fountains of joy when they played the games of Gollachut,Dariabandha,Golappadma-where two members would stand facing each other with their raised arms in the shape of an arch and the rest would pass through the arch;while the duo would sing nonsense rhymes.
She’s as though standing in the sunshine of nostalgia hoping to spot one or two scars of those playthings on the ground and trying to inhale the palpable smell of her play-mates.Kalyani can’t trace the pond nor that wild rose plant that used to be studded with white flowers like stars.The bamboo clump behind her house,the four mango trees of Gopalbhog and Fazli variety,guava,custard apple,Kamranga-all are conspicuous by their absence.Close by, they had a date palm tree;in winter a small surface near the top of the tree was pared off and a pitcher left hanging throughout the night for collecting the oozings.At foggy dawns,they, shivering in the biting cold would assemble under the tree to watch the pitcher filled in honeyed sap, being brought down.What a fun it had been in the winter mornings to open their mouth and give off the fume!Also there was a Sheuli plant.With her peers,Kalyani used to gather the flowers to string them into wreaths. Drying the yellow stalks of the flowers,Saralabala used to prepare an edible colour and aroma as a substitute for saffron to use in ‘Pulao’.Missing is also that Kamini flower plant which at night used to spread loud scent throughout the vicinity of their house.Saralabala,at the dead of night would knock at her bed-room door to warn,’Kalyani,do close the window panes,for the aroma of flowers attract snakes.
No,nothing exists to signify the period,her family lived here.There’s no trace of the house and the trees,except that Jamun tree on the ground in front of the place where the house once stood.The Jamun tree now stands alone;like it, she too feels very lonely,distressingly lonely,standing on the abode of her forefathers.
Yaser escorts Kalyani and Dipan in a rikshaw to Sherifa’s house.Kalyani fails to contain her emotions at the thought of being,ultimately at the doorstep of her Sherifa,a girl with a bit long face,large eyes,thick and curly hair…….Kalyani remembers how Sherifa used to write to Kalyani,’……..I’m so distressed,without a friend here.You come back soon.If I could only
know how to reach your place!You must have got new friends over there,but I’m so lonely.Without you,our games have lost their charms.Amma says,”Now you’re too grown up to go outside to play with your mates.Now you should stay indoors and give your time in cooking,sewing and other household chores.It’s time you should give up your childish pranks.”
‘In fact,your absence has changed my life abruptly.Even I’ve stopped singing.Do you remember dear,how in your home we used to dance and sing,”Chande Chande Duli Anande,Ami Bonophool Go?”
If I now ever chance upon that song anywhere,I fail to hold back my tears……Kalyani,tell me presently,when you’re coming?If you’ve no one to escort you,please come alone.Don’t you remember how you once of your own had crossed the river and gone away to the other bank?Then what are you scared of now?Once you had shown the stamina of roaming into the crematorium at night.Had not you?
‘I’d suggest both you and Parimal to keep yourselves aloof as much as possible from Shanti and Suniti.They’re so self-conceited…..I abhor all forms of vanity and pride.’
Kalyani,also in her letters used to lay bare her soul before Sherifa.Each letter, running for at least six to seven pages contained the descriptions of her visits to the swampy land at Gobra,the tramlines,the bus-journeys,her lonely days at Brabourne College,her melancholia,her reservations about her father for sending them off to Calcutta,the sudden disapperance of Jyotiprakash,her endless queries of the Brahmaputra,about that Kamini flower plant by the side of her bed-room window……..
Kalyani’s heartbeats are far above normal in excitement.She can hardly wait a second before meeting Sherifa.She feels like getting back, as though by some magic spell,her long lost age, seventeen years;as though that age was mortgaged to someone here and now she has returned to get it back.Sherifa had accorded a heart rending farewell to Kalyani,the day she was leaving the country and Kalyani had promised to come back soon.Today she has come back,but too late.
The drawing room is furnished with heavy wooden sofa and a wooden shelf arrayed with glass utensils.Two small girls,around six or seven years casting a curious glance at the guests,quickly run indoors.Kalyani looks around;her eyes fall on the velvet wall hanging,a portrait of Kawa Sharif in the frame.Meanwhile,Yaser has gone inside to break the news of their arrival.Kalyani grows impatient at the formal waiting at the drawing room.Seconds seem colossal hours.She suffers from the horns of a dilemma-should she continue to wait for Sherifa or run into the interior and hold Sherifa tightly to her bosom?God knows how long it will take for them to heal the wounds of seperation for a length of three decades!Just as she’s about to go inside a woman,extremely flabby with a ‘who do you want to?’sort of look approaches towards her.Kalyani has to boggle her mind to ascertain whether it’s really Sherifa or someone else.Where’s that fluffy teenager…….with a fair complexion,long face,curly hairs tied into plaits singing and dancing,”Chande Chande Duli Anande.”She however,recognises her by her eyes-large and strangely beautiful-and the black mole near the chin.Instinctively,she stretches out her arms to enfold her Sherifa.But she does not reciprocate;rather she asks with that same frosty look lingering,’You’re from……?’
‘I’m Kalyani.You forgot me!I’m your Kalyani,Ka-lya-ni!’
Sherifa’s holding a baby in her lap.Her fair skin has tanned a lot.’Which kalyani?’she asks with frowns.
‘Of Kalibari!I’m Harinarayan Roy’s daughter,your neighbour cum bosom friend.’
Sherifa seems to have relaxed a little.She smiles,albeit a dry smile and asks,’How’re you?Please be seated.’
‘Sherifa!I’m really stunned at your formalities with me!’
She smiles at Kalyani.At once the baby in her arms begins to cry out.She turns her attention to the baby giving the impression that she’s more concerned with the baby than Kalyani.Whieedling it,she adjourns to a place at a little distance from them.
Dipan is eagerly watching all this.He had heard before so much in details of his Sherifa Aunty.When he would hear from Kalyani how Sherifa in her youthful days was so headstrong that she would not bear defeats and react by weeping,Dipan would say like a wise person,’Ma,does Sherifa aunty not know that failures are the pillar of success?’Sometimes when Dipan would happen to see Kalyani morose,he’d ask,’Who are sad for Ma?Dadu?Didima?or is it Sherifa Aunty?’
Sherifa comes back after leaving the baby in the custody of somebody else.She smiles again,awkwardly;her teeth expose the stains of betel leaves and tobacco chewing.
‘When did you come?’she asks.
‘This afternoon only starting this morning from Calcutta.’
‘Is he your son?What is his name?’
‘Yes,he’s my son,Dipan.Was that your child?How many children do you have Sherifa?’
‘By the grace of Allah I’ve five daughters and two sons.’
‘Wow!You’re a mother of seven children?’
Embarrassed,Sherifa tries to hide her mouth with the free end of her cloth and says,’Two of my daughters have already been married off.’
‘Really?When were they married off?Incredible!Isn’t it?Perhaps my daughter is also nearing her marriageable age.We’re really grown up enough,aren’t we,Sherifa?It seems only that day we’re playing our games.I sometimes find me in dreams playing our games we used to play years back,Do you also have the same experience?’
‘Doesn’t he have any sibling?’asks Sherifa pointing to Dipan.It appears she feels no urge to reply to what Kalyani said.
‘Yes he has.My elder daughter’s name’s Jayeesha.’
Kalyani is eagerly beholding Sherifa’s face;but the latter sits still eyeing the floor.Kalyani looks at Sherifa’s hands,the hands she used to hold clasping while going out for a stroll along the river bank.Now she’s wearing gold bangles on the wrists.The sight of these bangles stimulate Kalyani with an associative memory.Saralabala used to engage workman to seperate sticks from coconut leaves to stitch them into a broom.Kalyani and Sherifa used to collect those ribbon like leaves and shape them into wrist watches and horn pipes.Sporting the makeshift wrist watches and whistling those horns they would run from one end to the other.That was when they had hardly acquired time sense,let alone the question of reading the clock.If Parimal or Aneesh asked,’What’s the time by your watch?’,they would smartly give absurd replies to be greeted with peels of laughters by the elders.
At once Sherifa gets up and goes inside.Minutes later,she comes back,followed by a boy carrying a tray of tea and snacks.Kalyani and Dipan have not had their lunch yet.Poor Sherifa!How can she know that Kalyani and Dipan are hungry?Dipan helps himself with the snacks.Kalyani sips the tea and says without beating about the bush,’Sherifa,we’ve not yet eaten anything at lunch.’To speak the truth,the only thing that Kalyani and Dipan badly need is a a bowl of rice.And Kalyani’s very upfront about it to tell Sherifa that they want to have rice now.She doesn’t feel any inhibition to ask for a bowl of rice to Sherifa.There was a time when she was ubiquitously present at breakfast,lunch and dinner in Sherifa’s home.Embarrassed,Sherifa gets up saying,apologetically,’Let me see if I can do anything.’
Why does Sherifa look so reserved today?Has she forgotten those happy days of chasing the kites?Does it mean that it’s Kalyani who alone has nourished so passionately those memories?And to others it’s absolutely blurred!Then what kind of comeback is it for her?It wrings her heart to see Sherifa apparently shrink away from her passionate,outstretched arms.Can’t Sherifa feel the heartthrobs of Kalyani?
Anirban at the airport had jocked,’Are you sure that you’ll return?’
‘Its my homegoing’,had replied Kalyani with a smile,’but I must come back to my family at Calcutta.How can I ignore my family obligations?’
‘Oh!You’ll return for family obligations only?’Kalyani had just smiled at this and Anirban had his own way of interpreting the implications of Kalyani’s smile.
Kalyani could’nt forget Badal.His thoughts constantly recur in her subconscious.Where does Badal live?Is he also metamorphosed like others?Will he also fail to recognise her at the first sight?Will she have to remind him of those days of bunking the classes and cruising on the Brahmaputra?Must she have to say,’Do you remember,Badal how like a weaver bird we used to dream of building a home,a sweet home of love…………I’m me,that unfortunate girl,your Kalyani?’
That same boy who served tea and snacks turn up again,this time with trays of rice and fried eggs.’Where’s Sherifa?’,she asks anxiously.
‘She’s reading the Namaaz.’the boy replies.
‘Sherifa reads the Namaaz!’Kalyani can’t simply believe her ears.Kalyani has never seen Sherifa reading the Namaaz before.Rather on the occasions of Durgapuja and Kalipuja,she used to hop from pandal to pandal with Kalyani.During the customary ‘aarti’,on the evenings,when Jyotiprakash,Soumen,Makhan and other boys would be rythmically waving the lamps and the incensers to the tune of drum beats and ‘kashar’ to greet the presiding deity,Sherifa used to clap her hands in unbounded joy.On the day of emersion,she’d join the procession behind the Goddess Kali with the portruding tongue,heading towards the river.
Dipan is’nt fond of eggs.Kalyani tries to pursuade him,saying,’Have your egg,Dipan;it’s so wholesome a food, full of protein.’
But neither Dipan nor Kalyani eats anything as such.After the Namaaz,Sherifa comes back but gets herself seated yards away from Kalyani.Kalyani,entreatingly says,’Come,Sherifa,let’s go towards Kalibari,to our home.’
Sherifa replies indifferently,’Nothing’s left there.’
‘No matter,what it is,I still,simply love to go there.TheJamun tree is still there.I’ve seen it.’
Sherifa seems to be puzzled to hear this.She says,’Jamun tree! What’s there to be seen in it?’
Kalyani is also gazing at her,dumbstruck.She doesn’t know what she should say now.How can she now convince Sherifa that this particular Jamun tree is also so precious to her?
Sensing that Dipan is getting fidgety,Kalyani suggests,’Why don’t you go to the veranda to join them in their games?’Dipan at once wanders out.
Kalyani’s suitcase is lying at her feet.She feels the need of an immediate wash after the bus-journey covering her in thick layers of dust.
Sherifa calls out,’Latifa,Nishmi,Nadira-wash your hands and legs and go to read the Namaaz.’Three girls in their teens obedient to their mother’s call enter the room.Wearing salwar-kameez and covering their head with veils they stand gaping at Kalyani.
‘Your daughters?’asks Kalyani.Bashfully, they slip into the other room.Kalyani tries to be familiar with them,calling them to come near her.But the poor creatures are too timid to overcome their inhibitions.Hiding their faces with the veils they quit the place hurriedly.
‘They are very shy,just your opposite,aren’t they?’
Perhaps,Sherifa isn’t happy with the term opposite;she remains silent.
‘Sherifa,how far did you study?’
‘I had been preparing for the intermediate exams,but got married before that;so I dropped out for good.’
‘Do you visit Kalibari?’
‘On very rare occasions.’
‘Who took possession of our house?Who lives there now?Who pulled down the building?Who felled all those lovely trees?Do you have any idea Sherifa?’
Sherifa,pouting her lips in sheer indifference for Kalyani’s volley of questions says,’I don’t know.’
‘Look Sherifa’,Kalyani says suddenly in bouts of glee,’I’ve brought a clod of soil from our homestead.’Then she brings it out from her bag and places it before Sherifa.Sherifa does’nt feel the urge to touch it.She just says,perfunctorily,’I see.The stuff looks like Taimum.’
‘Taimum!What is it exactly?’
‘Taimum is a substitute for water essential for reading the Namaaz.When I fall sick,I touch Taimum instead of water before reading the Namaaz.So I always have a store of the clay in my home.’
‘Yes.This must be Taimum’thinks Kalyani to herself,this lump of clay collected from her ancestral land carries the smell of their youthful memories.If this is not as pure as Taimum then what else is?
Sherifa is sitting with a glum face.Her remoteness,inaccesibility wrings Kalyani’s heart.She draws nearer to Sherifa and asks passionately,’How is Ruksana?Selim?Makhan?Soumen?Where are they?Do you know anything about Anil Kaka?
I’m too preoccupied with my household affairs to keep in touch with anyone else.’
‘The little Munni………how’s she?I’ve heard she’s in Dhaka.She’s so young,yet managing a family.I can’t simply imagine that.Do you remember,Sherifa,once she had a nasty fall on the slippery ground near the tube-well.She was wearing a yellow half pant……..’
Sherifa looks at her in amazement.She can’t believe how Kalyani cherishes so trivial memories like when a childhood friend decades back had tumbled down on slippery ground and even the colour of her pant.
‘Sahana had flung the flower vase at her cutting her forehead.Had the scar vanished at all?’asks Kalyani.
‘No,I don’t remember anything.’Sherifa replies curtly.
‘Do you remember,Sherifa’,goes on Kalyani,’one evening on the terrace of your house we had been chatting for hours on end till we fell asleep……….then father had to lodge a missing diary at the police-station………..!In the morning,we came down rubbing our sleepy eyes.’Having spoken upto this,Kalyani suddenly discovers that she’s not talking to Sherifa in pure Myamansingh dialect.Sometimes,she speaks to Dipan and Jayeesha in Mymansingh dialect.Anirban who takes a strong exception to this habit,chides her,saying,’Stop teaching these gibberish to the children.Won’t you let them turn out into decent human beings?’Then Kalyani would hide her smiles.Have not they grown into humans?Anirban appears to be grossly stupid.In those moments she could not supress her smile at Anirban’s stupidity.With that very smile lingering on her lips she addresses to Sherifa in pure Myamansingh dialect.’Toilet ta dekhiaya de to Sheifa,chan koira falai.'(Please show me the toilet;I’ll have a bath.)Thus,she wants to leave no stone unturned to come nearer to Sherifa.
Kalyani turns the soap and towel out of her kit and walks towards the toilet followed by Sherifa.Kalyani’s eyes fall on a small open space near the bathroom.’Don’t you have a tube-well in your house?’she asks innocently.
Sherifa shakes her head in disapproval pretending as though a tube-well were a sign of incivility in a gentleman’s house.Poor Kalyani!She had been contemplating through all these years to come back and quench her thirst by drinking the tube-well water.Standing in the bath-room she keeps on thinking of Sherifa-is she mentally upset owing to some reasons best known to her?Till now,she has not bothered to guide them into any room where she and Dipan may put up at.In fact,she has not shown any sign of hospitality,let alone asking them to dine and to stay a couple of days in her house.It’s Kalyani who has volunteered herself to the toilet.What makes her so much detached,cheerless?Had she been by this time fallen prey to any dreadful ailment that left its scar by causing some kind of amnesia?Otherwise,why should have all those golden days of childhood and adolescence passed into oblivion?The lapse of time is not more than a couple of decades only.For Kalyani it’s hard,very hard to forget the fond memories of playing together,eating together and even dreaming together.Once they shared the lofty dreams of becoming scientists and travelling into the space like winged fairies.They had agreed to transcend the barriers of narrow, mundane life and move from one planet to another-mars,mercury,jupiter,neptune,being prominent destinations in their itenerary.Man ultimately landed on the moon.But before man’s actual visit to the moon,Kalyani and Sherifa through the wings of their imagination had landed there.Now it’s incredible for Kalyani to find Sherifa so reluctant a host to her.
Kalyani takes a shower to her heart’s content.For years,she was deprived of drenching her in this water.This water may not be of a tube-well or pond yet it’s the water of her own land,the water redolent with the scent of her own soil.She’s yet to drink the water after her arrival here.She knows her heart is thirsty,not the throat.She holds some water in her cupped palm and keeps staring at it with adoration.
After the bath,Kalyani suggests,’Hey Sherifa,come let’s wander through the town.’
Sitting on the bed she replies,’I can’t go without my husband’s permission.’
‘What on earth will he do,let me know, if you don’t take his permission?’
Sherifa smiles,feebly.Kalyani is in a fix.She can’t decide what she should do now.Should she hold Sherifa with her arms and give her a big shaking to ask,’Hey,are you dead?’
Dipan is lying awake with his eyes closed.Kalyani says,’Dipan,did you not play with them?’
‘No,’ replies Dipan in a broken voice,’they’re playing the ants’ game.’
‘Ants’ game! What’s that?I’ve never heard of it.’
‘They’re culling the red ants from the colony of ants making their way along the boundary wall and sparing the black ants.When I asked them why they were sparing the black ones,they replied,”The blacks were Muslims.”
“And the red ants?”I had asked.”They’re Hindus.” they replied.’
A shiver runs down Kalyani’s whole body.She can’t believe in what she has heard.Sherifa’s children cull the red ants just because the tiny creatures are identified with the Hindus!
Dipan changing the side falls asleep.But Kalyani can’t have a wink of sleep that night.There’s no ventilator in this room;she gets soaked in sweat.Scampering mice, attracted by the smell of onions make her jerk into wakefulness,everytime she tries to fall asleep.She lies quietly pressing her head against the pillow.
At dawn as she opens the door and comes out of the veranda,she gets surprised to see the children learning Arabic.A man wearing a Panjabi and a cap on his head,is chanting in a rythmic tone,’Allahamdullilah Hi Rubbil Al Amin A Rahamanir Rahim.’The children repeat.Kalyani stands holding the grill.She loves the touch of the morning air.Soon their reading stops.Kalyani overhears the Huzur saying,’Hindu,is she?’
One of the kids replies in a hushed tone,’Yes.She has come from India.’
The whispers are gradually soaring much to Kalyani’s discomfort.She,who is looking out at the road realises that unless she quits the place,the lessons will not resume.While moving away from them,she notices how all the eyes are busily scrutinising her from top to bottom.
About her,the same whispers between Sherifa and her husband,she overheard the previous night.The husband was saying,’You have never told me before that you had a childhood friend who was a Hindu!’
‘It never occured to my mind.’-she replied.
‘How long do you think she’ll stay here?’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Nothing waits for her here;neither the homestead nor the relations………yet what makes her come over here?’
This is the question Kalyani knows, that has perplexed most of them.In fact,Kalyani is unable to convince them of the purpose of her visit and the balance sheet showing them the profit and loss from this visit!
At dinner,Kalyani says,’Sherifa,I wish I ate Birui Rice with chapa shutki varta !I’d like you to cook soup of Koi fish.Now it’s the end of the month of Jyestha,the season for Hilsa fish.I’m tired of eating day after day the hackneyed dishes prepared by the Calcuttans-Shukto,Chakka,mixed curry,dhoka-simply a torture to my palate!-do you remember how we used to catch fish from the ponds?Khalsamma(maternal aunt,here Sherifa’s mother)would prepare delicious dishes like Lati fish varta and salty hilsa with pumpkin leaves.My mouth waters at the very thought of it.
Atahar is glaring with his vicious eyes at Kalyani from her top to bottom.Gracefully slim,Kalyani looks much younger than Sherifa.Atahar’s eyes linger on some vital parts-her breasts,,belly,abdomen,waist and buttocks.Kalyani gets startled at this man’s wild looks that stir her traumatic memories of Soumitra at Tiljala.
Quite early in the morning,Kalyani is ready to make a quick foray into the town.She hurriedly prepares Dipan as well to accompany her.’We’re going towards the Kalibari,’she says to Sherifa before stepping out.Sherifa is as indifferent as she had been all along since Kalyani’s arrival.
Kalyani longs for a cup of tea.With that intense thirst she walks on and on.Her eyes fall on the Kadam flowers blooming by the side of the street.The blooms coincide with the season in the month of Ashara. Had it now rained in a downpour so that she could have willfully drenched herself in the shower as she used to do in her childhood!In the wake of a rain,she would run in joy all over the courtyard and often sit on the pondside to hear the sound of raindrops pitter-pattering on the pond water.At that situation,Saralabala would shout at her,saying,’Come up soon from there or else you’ll catch cold and fever.’
Once Kalyani had an attack of fever that confined her at a stretch seven days in bed.Ouf!She was tossing about in utter desperation and restlessness.In the delirious state,she was repeatedly talking of Badal.Many of the relatives and well-wishers kept pouring in her bed-room.They were putting water-packs or carressingly touching the fevered forehead with the reverse of their palms to feel the temperature.But how intensely she was craving for Badal to come and give a comforting touch on her fevered head!She knew it was impossible.To stimulate her taste-buds,Saralabala would give her salted slices of ginger.Licking the stuff,she’d look at the apparently leafy sky,visible through the sprawling Jamun tree behind her window.She wished Badal come flying through the sky and alight at her window to discover Kalyani lying on bed with a gloomy face.She didn’t like to eat the oranges and grapes, piled up near her bed.Instead of lying and eating those fruits day after day,she longed excruciatingly to be tucked away in a far off village…….under a bush on a night glared by the glow-worms.She would picture herself there singing aloud those famous lines from Tagore,’Ami tomar preme hobo sobar kolonkobhagi.'(Let me bathe in the scandal of your love).And how she fantacised, Badal sitting close to her and beholding her face, would listen to the song, spellbound!Had they possesed the wings of a bird and she and Badal flown over the seas and oceans to reach the most exotic places on earth!
Kalyani beholds the sky,her very own sky that she has been acquainted with since childhood.With this sky,once she had close heart to heart communion.Today,again the sky has come within her access.The town of her dreams is again in her grip.And there’s none to control her movements.Neither Saralabala nor Harinarayan Roy is there to forcefully drag her into the crowded compartment of a train bound for Calcutta.From Myamansingh junction to Fulberia station,from Fulberia to Narayangunj,From Sitalaksha Ferry Ghat to Khulna in a steamer,from Khulna to Benapol along the broadgauge rails then crossing the dreadfully gloomy border on foot to reach Bongaon and the final journey by train from Bongaon to Sealdah.The very thought of it sends a chill down her spine,even today.
The roads are teeming with endless procession of pedestrians but why can’t she bump into Badal here?It’s not impossible a proposition to come across Badal from those morning walkers or from those, returning home from Market.
Badal must be a married man now with some children, brightening his household.Badal!Poor Badal,who once had said to her,’Kalyani,I can’t live without you.’Is he not really alive without Kalyani.Everyone says like Badal when a sense of insecurity resulting from possessiveness walks at certain moments of one’s life.But time proves it,beyond doubt that man ultimately survives, even after being separated from his dearest ones.It’s somewhat an instinct,perhaps inevitable.Infact,life’s so small a journey that it comes to an end long before one has become sure of who he really wants to and who he does’nt.He,who’s my heart’s darling today may become a loathsome stranger tomorrow.
The sun is blazing hot.Kalyani hires a rikshaw.She has no destination.She asks the puller to take them for a ride to places of ‘his’ choice.She recalls the days when,accompanied by Sherifa she would similarly hire a rikshaw and tell the man,’Go wherever you like.’These desire for wandering off somewhere without any fixed direction has taken over Kalyani since her early youth.In spite of this desire for going afar,she always had the compulsion to come back home.Her joys of setting off were always inseparable from her urge of a return.
Once she had a rikshaw ride together with Badal.They had unknowingly gone far and Kalyani’s heart was palpitating in sheer fright of being spied.The town was teeming with Harinarayan’s acquaintances.At Khagarhar,on the outskirts of the town,Kalyani had dared to remove her hand from her face.Badal was saying,repeatedly,’You’re an infinite coward;you’re good for nothing………..let them see us together and tell your father;what hell will they do if they catch sight of us?I don’t care for these people.’
Yes, Kalyani admits,she’s good for nothing.She fails to reciprocate Badal’s impetuous love;she could’nt return to him,the black and handsome Badal.She blames herself for letting the dreams elude her………On one occasion they had paid a visit to the palace of the Zamindar of Muktagacha.
At the temple within the estate, they were overwrought by the majestic beauty and stateliness of Shivalinga made of granite. Then they were standing on the steps leading to the pond. Badal was saying,’ When His majesty Suryankanta would carry on his water sports in this pool, several of his concubines stood encircling the pond, with candlesticks burning. The dames would wait holding their breath, lest it should put out the candles. The custom had it that, she, whose candle would remain burning, would have the privilege of spending the night with His Majesty. Hearing this Kalyani had joked,’If I were there,I would have wantonly blown out the candles.’ After that, they had eaten monda, a kind of sweetmeat at Gopal’s shop. The taste of the monda, Kalyani believes, surpasses all kinds of sweet delicacies in the earth; even the well acclaimed rasogolla of Calcutta would have been relegated to the background, had the calcuttans ever got an opportunity to taste the monda of Muktagacha. Kalyani simply can’t tolerate the fuss, simulations or rather pretentiousness of Calcuttans regarding their rasogollas & sandesh. In this connection she recalls how once Sunity & Shanti were bragging about the sandesh of Calcutta. Kalyani had countered their claims saying ,’ Ouf, the fun of our monda is unforgettable!’hearing this from Kalyani they had burst in to laughter as if Kalyani had cracked a silly joke. ‘Fun!’ they were repeating the epithet saying , ‘Fun may be associated with a book or at best a person but how come an edible thing can rouse fun?’ Kalyani was embarrassed.
While returning from Muktagacha, as they neared Ghanashyampur, Badal touching her hand had said, ‘Dear I wish we will live hear in a straw hut.’ ‘Here, out in the midst of this paddy fields?’ had said Kalyani in an alarming voice. Unlike Badal she had no obsession for straw hut, but she was sure that Badal had wrapped her with his dreams so intensely that she often loved to picture herself as Badal’s wife, who clad in a deep red saree was moving across those green paddy fields almost canopied by the horizon.
By this time the rickshaw carrying Kalyani & Dipan have gone past Natun Bazar, Panditbari Town Hall, Circuit House and entered college road. Soon Kalyani is caught in the cobweb of nostalgia. This is the road along which she commuted to and from the Anandamohan College. Approaching near the red brick building on the left side of the road, she gets down from the rickshaw. The Karoi tree is steel standing like a sentinel on the college ground. Some students are found sitting on the ground while some of them loitering. She feels like being encompassed by a sense of triumphant joy of an explorer.
She feels as if she has discovered a gold mine. Desultorily, she starts walking. First she comes to the corridor, then on the side of the tank ; she looks for the Simul tree but finds no
trace of it, anywhere. Her heart is ransacking the boys to discover the Badal among them.
One or two faces take after Badal. On this corridor Kalyani recalls how Badal had once
kissed on the reverse of her palm. What a thrilling sensation she had! She didn’t touch water for two days in her maddening pursuit to perpetuate the imprints of love.
Kalyani is followed by a gang of students. Some one of them whistles with his lips and another sings aloud, ‘Dekha hai Peheli bar Sajan ki Aankhon me Pyar’
(I have seen love for the first time in the eyes of my beloved). Kalyani turns round to ask one of the guys, ‘Which year are you in?’
‘Intermediate second year.’
‘Young friends,’ goes on Kalyani with an air of pride,’I read in this college.That was long ago,even before your birth.In those days the Bengali classes were held on the ground-floor.Where is it held now?’The poor fellows,hardly 18 or a little more, stare at one another’s face in amazement as though they’ve heard a pretty good joke.
One of them asks the other,’Hey,do you know where Bangla class is held?’
‘In the bungalow of our sir.’-the latter bantered.
‘Be serious.’,the former alerts him.
‘I’m serious.’, he demands.
Another from behind replies,’On the first-floor.’
‘You’ve bunked your classes,have you?’ asks Kalyani with a smile.
Hearing this from Kalyani,they all start laughing in unision.Kalyani heaves a deep sigh from the bottom of her heart.
‘Come,let’s get lost from here’,suggests one and the rest joins in laughter.Kalyani fails to trace out who’s the target of their fun.A belle of damzels go past them;are they the actual target of their teasing?Kalyani’s in a fix.She wants a lot more to ask them……whether the chemistry laboratory is in the same place,whose physics text book do they follow;what has happened to the simul tree that was once there on that side of the pond;did the simul flowers stop blooming?She wishes to tell them how the girls in their time would enter the classrooms along with their teachers and after the classes were over they had to wait in the common-room till the next class would resume and if they ever wanted to come out they had to do so on the sly ,unnoticed by their teachers.She’s now glad to know that the situation has changed for the better in recent times;that the restrictions having been lifted,the girls feel free to move about rubbing shoulders with their male counterparts.What about the swimming competitions they used to hold at regular intervals?They were active members of students’ union.They sang in chorus,’We shall overcome……..’Don’t these boys and girls sing likewise that clarion call of rebellion,’Karar oi louhakapat/bhenge phel karre lopat.'(Demolish those iron bars of the prison and cast them away for good)?
No,Kalyani can’t ask all these.At first she almost feels like asking,but then she restrains her tongue and keeps reticent.Somewhat morose and depressed,she walks out towards the college gate.A sense of inanity pervades the atmosphere and a sense of void engulfes her.The feelings seem to resemble those of a visit to Jorashanko Thakurbari,Tagore’s birthplace.It’s as though everything’s there,yet something, inexplicable, is missing.
In those days,Kalyani recalls nostalgically, how the peddlers selling glass bangles,colourful ribbons,hair clips would pass making their trade cry along the roads.She couldn’t help coming out of the interior of the house by the trade cry of the peddler selling Hawai Mithai,a kind of spongy sweetmeat which, in seconds, melts and vanishes in the mouth soon after coming in contact with the saliva.Today she hasn’t come across a single of those hucksters,hawking about an item of that sort.The roads are, now on the contrary,lined up by swanky shopping centres and large and ritzy stores, displaying fashionable apparels,cosmetics,confectionary-indicating that the town adjacent to the river,once conspicuous for its serenity,has undergone a sea-change over the years.
Kalyani passes by Panditbari,Court,Saheb Quarter and finally comes near the Judge’s bungalow,a place which was time and again frequented by her in childhood.Standing in front of this bungalow,years back,one day Anil Mukherjee had said to her,’This was once the residence of an honourable judge,who lounging on the upper floor of this bungalow,used to refresh his mind with viewing from top the picturesque river, overlooking the bungalow.Can you name the river?’
Kalyani had babbled in her childish way while Anil Mukherjee said ‘Brahmaputra.’ ‘One day when the one and half year old daughter of the judge had broken the bottle of a hair-oil under the brand name Jabakusum,he wrote a poem-“Teler sisi bhanglo bole/khukur opor raag koro/tomra je shob buro khoka/Bharat bhenge bhag koro/Tar bela?”(You’re angry with Khuku for breaking a small bottle of oil but what about you,the old boys who have broken the country into fragments?)
‘Can you name the legendary Judge?’ had asked Anil Mukherjee and Kalyani could’nt say anything more than the same babblings.Anil Mukherjee had said,’He was Annadashankar Roy,a wonderful man also.I had the privilege of attending long adda sessions on many occasions with that living legend,sitting on this upper floor room of the bungalow.’
Today,just like Anil Mukherjee,she,pointing to the bungalow,says to Dipan,’Once a great writer,sitting there,had composed a lovely poem which I had helped you to learn to recite on the prize giving ceremony of your school;can you recite the poem?’Dipan,pat with his eyes closed, keeps on reciting the lines.Then he starts laughing;Kalyani thinks,that Dipan’s laughing perhaps,because the partition of Bharat makes no difference in his life,unlike Kalyani and the people of her generation.The very thought of the partition of Bharat,rends her heart.Who should she blame for making her a stranger to this town,which was once very much her own?Whose fault is it anyway that has made her today wander in search of something like a touchstone that she expects,may,restore her the lost world?Has she come here in search of the umbilical cord that was thrown off after her birth in this soil?Or has she come to sniff the body odour of her own mother?Or perhaps,she’s trying to inhale the sweet fragrance of the Kamini flowers that once bloomed by the window of her bedroom.But in anycase,she’s not sure of what,she’s exactly looking for.
Having gone past the places like Kachhari Road,Amlapara,Aampatti,Maharaja Road,Palgudam,the rikshaw puller looks at once tired and baffled by his passenger’s strange desires.’Where on earth,do you exactly want to go to?Tell me presently;I can’t carry on this spinning for hours on end,’said the man in a hoarse voice.
The town now appears to be as small as a match-box – but in those days,Kalyani reminisces,they couldn’t cover the town,despite walking hours together and aching their knees.
Reaching the crematorium,kalyani got rid of the rickshaw.Pointing to the Sambhuganj rail bridge, she says to Dipan, ‘Look at the bridge atop; when trains would ramble past it, my mother used to say , ‘The Governor is travelling in this train on his way to Gouripur to inspect the jamindar’s estate’ Parimal, you know, who was then too young to pronounce words properly, would try to imitate what mother just said about the governor.
Dipan opens his lips to give a dry smile only.
They are now standing at the burning ghat where her parents were mounted on the funeral pyre,years back. The ill-fated daughter, after a prolonged thirty years, since their death visits the pyre and flame, perhaps, hoping to catch the vision of her parents. Everything is uncomfortably quiet here , with no one else around except Kalyani and Dipan.A couple of stray dogs lying down in a coil are enjoying an undisturbed nap. A strong wind blows from the direction of the Bramhaputra.
Pulling Dipan closer to her and pointing to the uneven dusty soil with a blade of grass on it,
Kalyani says, ‘Look Dipan , the funeral rites of your Dadu and Didima were performed on this ground.For Dipan , his grandparents have always been like the characters from a fairy tale.With signs of regret being visible on his eyes , he shudders saying ,
‘It’s a crematorium, really Ma?’
There was a time when Kalyani was terribly scared of going to a crematorium.Once Parimal had challenged her, ‘Didi, can you go to the burning ghat alone? I bet you can’t.’
‘Can you go?’ Kalyani had counter challenged her younger brother.
Parimal who was then just thirteen said, ‘Of course, I can.’
At nine in the night, Kalyani said to him, ‘Now, start for it. Come back, if you can, with some specimens of bones and skulls.Collecting his breath, Parimal raced down the street.With the clock ticking up, Kalyani began to feel extremely worried for her brother.
Some moments later in that very dark hour, without telling anything to any one, she had got out of home and dashed for the crematorium to bring Parimal back home.In that stark, deserted place,immersed in deep darkness, Kalyani reached and called aloud by his name. When Parimal had not responded, she began to fear for the worst – that the ghosts must have carried him away and immersed him in to the water. With tears raining down her cheeks, she returned home, only to discover Parimal sitting in the lap of their mother, and eating gursandesh. He had not even ventured out of home, not to speak of the visit to the burning ghat.
Like that night, Kalyani now makes a similar dash for the Kalibari, towards her erstwhile home. She feels as though Saralabala is waiting there with Parimal seated in her lap; as though Jyotiprakash is standing on the terrace and counting the stars, as if she can discover Harinarayan in the sitting room on the ground floor with his eyes glued on the open pages of a book Kalyani walks with strident footsteps. She is the girl who in the childhood usually shunned going out after dark even near the bamboo clump behing their house.Nevertheless, she had once ventured out of home in the darkness, braving the howling of jackals and many an uncanny fear, in order to bring one of her siblings back from the clutch of the possible perils that she had anticipated to be waiting for him.
But who is she running for today? Will this running enable her to get back the much desired objects- say that clustering Kamini flower tree, the Kagzi lemon tree behind their kitchen and the warnrh of her mother’s breast?
Walking down the road her eyes lingered on a pair of lion statues on the gate of the house. She remembers, the same gate in front of the house of Anil Mukherjee, a neighbour to them to the north of their house. Yes, she recognises it, the same house , remaining intact over the years .The two sides ending each with a round shaped room which, Anil Mukherjee had once said , were used by his grandfather, for enjoying the dancing of the professional dancing girls and songstresses from Calcutta.
The front door being left wide open , Kalyani without hesitation enters inside the house, as though she is going to meet her favourite Anil kaka who must be clad in a dhuti and his
ubiquitous loose cotton waist coat and deeply absorbed in the world of books. This simple and unassuming man was a voracious reader ; books lay scattered everywhere-on his bed , table , chairs , floor , on the strawmats…… .’You read so much ? Aren’t you bored of them? Kalyani had once asked him.
‘I’m bored if I don’t get to read .’Anil kaku had replied.
Time and again,on afternoons,he used to take Kalyani for a stroll towards the Saheb Quarters.Sitting under the krishnachura tree,near the house of Nalini Sarkar,to the south of the judge’s bungalow,Anil Kaka would tell her stories from Thakurmar Jhuli,a household children’s story book in Bengal,written by Dakshinaranjan Roy.Later,Kalyani retold the stories to Jayeesha and Dipan,but thanks to Anil kaka,she did never feel it imperative to read the story book herself,so great a storyteller,Anil kaka was.
Kalyani is standing on the floor.The room is well-furnished with large sofas,divan,a rack for clothes,T.V and V.C.R,vases adorned with plastic flowers.Kalyani looks for books,just then before her surprised eyes,stands a girl, in her early twenties.Seeing her,Kalyani asks,’I hope this is Anil Mukherjee’s house.’
‘I’m sorry,this is not.’,says the girl.
‘Can you tell me where they’re now?’asks Kalyani.
‘So far as I’ve heard,the sons of the owner of this house,disposed of this house and went off to Calcutta,after his death.May I know who I’m talking to?’
‘I’m from Calcutta.That house you can see in front of yours,built on two bighas of land,once belonged to us.
‘So you are here,to visit your homestead,are you?’the girl asks in curiosity.
‘Yes.’Kalyani replies heaving a deep sigh.
‘Please be seated.’says the girl,offering a chair to Kalyani.Then she rubs Dipan’s chin affectionately,saying,’I suppose he’s your son.What’s your name,little dear?’
‘What a lovely name!Which grade are you in?’
‘He’s in sixth grade.’
‘Where are you putting up?’the girl asks again.
‘At one of my childhood friend’s house.It’s adjacent to our former house.’
‘Then it’s very near from here,isn’t it?’
‘Actually,she now lives at Nowmahal.’
‘While moving about the town,do you feel quite at home,I mean with none to guide you?’asks the girl.
‘Why shouldn’t I?Actually,once I was abreast of every nook and corner of the town.’
‘That’s true.But Myamansingh has not developed much;you’ll like the places if you visit Dhaka nad Chittagong.’
‘To be very precise,I’ve not come at all to see the developments.Rather,I’ve an obsession to see the old places………..’
‘Would you like to have a cup of tea?Your son looks so tired and hungry.’
‘We’ve had a breakfast of Luchi and Halwa from Sudhir Ghosh Mistanna Bhandar at Aampatti.The taste of Doi and Malaikari is still reminiscent of the bygone days.’
‘I’m really astonished at your memory-you can remember what the taste was years back!’says the girl in candid curiosity.
The girl fetches Payesh in two small bowls and two glasses of coconut water for them.Giving them the Payesh, she introduces herself,’I’m Nipa,doing graduation at Munimunnisha.My exams are round the corner.By the way,I hope you’ve seen the important places of interest in our town.Have you seen the agricultural university?The women’s cadet college?There is of course,very little, that Myamansingh offers worth visiting.A bridge has been built recently;you can see that too.’
The coconut water tastes delicious to Kalyani.She goes back,nostalgically to those days when coconut trees in their compound were felled.Then the veranda would become a storehouse of green coconuts.Kalyani liked the kernel inside it more than the water.So secretly draining the water out,she used to spoon the stuff into her mouth.They loved to share the harvest with their neighbours.Even,after distributing them among all their acquaintances,lots of the fruits would be still left for them to eat for days to come.On the special occasions,Saralabala prepared their favourite,Nadu,a kind of sweetmeat made of ripened coconut powder,milk and sugar.
‘I hope you’re going to stay some days in our town.’,asks Nipa.
Kalyani doesn’t know the answer.Through the door left ajar ,she’s looking out on the small patch of green and that part of the path as far as it’s visible from here.Her voice trembles in hope as well as fear.’Nothing is left,except that jamun tree.If they fell that tree………can you not stop them from cutting it down?You can persuade them to spare it,saying that it’s very old,let it be there………..,it has been a fruit-bearing tree for years.Lots and lots of people once had the share of its fruit.The neighbouring children used to gather the fruits lying scattered on the ground.We used to mix the jamun with salt and chilly and shake the mixture in a bowl, with its lid closed to prepare a ready-made jamun pickle.’
‘The tree after all, no longer belongs to you.So what if they cut it down?’asks a puzzled Nipa,with a smile.
‘Still I can’t forget that it was once ours.This very possessiveness makes me sad that it may be destroyed.’
‘For how long have you been at Calcutta?’
‘For as long as thirty years.’
‘And you remember the tree after long,long thirty years!’Nipa burst into giggles.
Kalyani smiles and then gets up.She starts feeling her fingers on the wall and says,’We’re a regular visitor to this house of Anil kaka.I remember him so much……….He was a wonderful man.’Her eyes seemed to have been coated with a film of tears.
She walks towards their house.There’s no trace of the black iron gate that was once adorned with the madhabilata creepers.Whose ruthless fingers tore them out?She wonders.Were she able to find a tiny particle of the remnants of their house!She rummages through the grass,perhaps,with the faintest hope of touching any remain of the gorgeous teak and mahogany wood furniture,iron chest,chandelier……….
Kalyani’s bed-room was on the upper floor over-looking the Brahmaputra.Day and night the perennial wind,sweeping over the river,entered through her window.Standing on the balcony,she’d keep on gazing at the river,the opposite bank seeming almost invisible and listening to the murmuring stream.The milk-maid,whom they called Bhgirathi’s Ma for the name of her daughter was Bhagirathi,used to come to their house from the other side of the river,in a boat to deliver the milk in a container,using a plaintain leaf as its lid.On the evenings,Saralabala,mixing the milk with rice and making small balls to be eaten by Kalyani would make her dinner-time a pleasant session by reciting nonsense rhymes that recount the mischievous deeds of a hobgoblin called Fatingting,who’s believed to have three human heads on his shoulder and talk through the feet instead of the mouth.Kalyani used to wake up at the dead of the night in fear of Fatingting. One day Kalyani was pampering her Anil kaka to give her an idea of the shape of the Fatingting. Complying her request,Anil kaka rested his arms on the ground, lifted the legs upward and sank the head on his chest to make such a fantastic posture that Kalyani was really frightened.Even today the thought of that shape causes goosebumps on her skin.
Across the narrow strip of field, though there’s no remnant of their house, Kalyani removes
her shoes and walks barefoot.She feels like a girl,in her early teens, running allover the field, swinging her plaits. Kalyani tries relentlessly to get hold of that girl………. but fails,as though she is elusive to herself.
The air blowing over the Bramhaputra had always been cold, as cold as it would make them shiver.But now her favourite river has become too poor,too feeble to offer any air to soothe Kalyani. She can’t believe in her eyes that her Bramhaputra now resembles a nullah, just a narrow strip of waterbed ; men are crossing it on foot and paddy and vegetations are grown on the vast stretches of the riverbed. Is it a river or an illusion?
On the backside of their house there was a thatched tin house with four roofs. The rain drops on the roofs would make a sonorous clattering, the like of which Kalyani never heard on the roofs made of concrete and slates in Calcutta. There was a narrow footpath by the side of the pond to reach her friend Ruksana’s house. One afternoon, a tempestuous norwester approaching, the sky overcast with dark clouds, accompanied by thunder and lightning.Ruksana came tiptoeing near the window of Kalyani’s bed-room and whispered, ‘Come on Kalyani, let’s gather the mangoes blown down by the storm.’ There were a half a dozen of mango trees that bore sweet-bitter fruits on their compound. Seeing them run under the branches of one of the storm raged trees, Saralabala had shouted, ‘You girls,don’t go out of the house now, the trees might crash down on your heads.’ The storm-stricken trees were tremblimg so fiercely that everyone in household remained shut up indoor with door and windows closed and shivered in chill. But Kalyani and Ruksana ran out to the latter’s courtyard to watch it being whitened with a thick sheet of hail stones. In the flash of the lightning thay had gathered tender, green mangoes to their heart’s content. Do the youngsters of today also gather mangoes like them? Kalyani asks herself. Sitting on a branch of the guava tree at Ruksana’s garden and dangling their feet,they ate the large and fleshy guavas and kept on chatting. Ruksana’s two younger brothers would stand at the foot of the tree and look up to their big sisters to throw some into their hands. Ruksanas’s mother had been bedridden with paralysis. The gullible folks believed her to be cursed with evil spirits.Lying in the bed she would shriek at them, ‘You get down from the tree, for women shouldn’t climb a tree…………. it’s ominous for the tree.’
Ruksana twisting her lips had said, ‘I don’t care.’
That Ruksana, that very daredevil teenager was married off when she was just in eighth grade at Vidyamoyee school. Several days before the marriage ,she was compelled to drop out and then one fine morning she was forced to tie her nuptial knot with a stranger, far older than her.On the day of marriage she hadn’t shed a single drop of tear ; she had just whispered into Kalyani’s ears, ‘Be sure of me running away from the devils there tomorrow! Kalyani had been waiting for her, but she didn’t flee from her husband, in-laws. Two years later, when Ruksana,clad in a saree,with her head under a veil and with a baby in her arm appeared before them, it was hard , very hard to believe that it was really Ruksana, they were looking into.
She is more or less like that Ruksana, like whom she had promised to come back from Calcutta, but she didn’t .Like Ruksana she came back but after years only with maturing in age and like Ruksana she was perhaps being not recognized at the first instance.
Suddenly,Kalyani,she knows not how,perhaps impelled with the strong spirit of a child or an adolescent,stoops on the ground,the ground which is her very own and which is marked with the imprints of her own footsteps.On the ground, less than a yard away from the jamun tree,in her desperate bid to inhale the smell of her lost childhood,she squats and clutches at the earth where black ripened,almost squashed jamuns, are lying scattered in the grass.
A few passers-by,sauntering by the place,stop near Kalyani,squatting on the ground with her head bowed down.They look on her with suspiscion as well as curiosity.One or two of them fail to suppress their laughter while others ask one another to know what exactly is going on there.Is Kalyani,really the butt of their ridicule?She’s the daughter of Harinarayan Roy,who was during his lifetime,viewed upon as an icon of justice and nobility.Sadly enough,there’s none among the posteriority to remember Harinarayan today.
‘Who’s there?I say who’s there.’,shouts someone in a gruff voice through the window,upstairs of a house.Then the man,wearing just a lungi ,comes down hurriedly and asks,’Hey,what on earth do you want here?’Kalyani, clasping the jamun tree,once planted by her grandfather sobs aloud.The crowd swells around her and so does her cry.She’s also not sure of what makes her cry.She constantly feels like being the original offspring of the soil;she’s not just Saralabala’s daughter but also the real child of this soil that gave birth to her,forty eight years back.It’s her absence from this place that has made the trees wither and the Brahmaputra, devoid of water.The on-lookers keep on asking one another,’Who’s that woman?What makes her weep?’
‘She was seen coming here the other day also.’says someone from the crowd.Another asks,’She’s a Hindu;what brings her to weep?’
‘She has come from India;she says they had their property right in this place.’,mumbles someone.
‘Here?When?During the British period?’
‘I’m afraid,she’s a kind of maniac.’
‘Did this place once belong to the Hindus?’
‘She claims but I’m not sure.’
‘She may be right,but so what?Several of them had their property in this country.But should they weep over it now?Thousnds of Muslims left for good their property in India and settled in Bangladesh.Do they think of going to India to claim their share?’
‘Right you are there.Do you remember the Qaders?They were Zamindars but they relinquished their estate and settled here.Now they own the The Calcutta Muslim Jewellers on the riverside.
‘I think she’s weeping because of her obsession for this soil;she perhaps remembers her parents who once lived here.She’s after all,getting old and must be going senile these days.’says one young man,clad in a chequered lungi,leaning against the tree.
‘She’s a sheer nonsense,’thunders someone,subjugating all other voices,’these people are basically opportunists,they have volunteered to live in India but reluctant to give up their share in this country.
At this point an elderly person comes near Kalyani and asks in an affectionate tone,’What is your name,my child?What’s your father’s name?You must have travelled far;I suggest you to accept someone’s hospitality and have your lunch and repose.’Then addressing to the crowd,the old man,in a voice of protest,states,’Hey,you people,what are you doing?You’ve become so inhuman!You seem to have become beasts.Then turning to Kalyani,he says again,’Look, my daughter,you may not have your home and any of your relatives,here,now,but you may expect at least,some good souls to comfort you and so their hospitality.Otherwise,the society would have ceased to exist.Now get up,dear,don’t cry.What’s there to cry?I suppose you shouldn’t feel hurt at what they’re saying,for they’re cursed with a loose tongue.Please don’t mind for what they’re saying.’
Dipan,penetrating through the crowd,stands before a weeping Kalyani.His eyes speak of his bewilderment;it’s beyond him to realize why his mother’s weeping,holding a tree with her two arms,while a crowd of people watch her.He pulls his mother,with his little hand,saying,’Come on Ma,let’s go off.’
Genealogically,Indranath’s son was Satinath,his son was Satyendranath and his son was Harinarayan,Kalyani’s father.Kalyani,who was once,by the cruel blows of circumstances,detached from the roots,has come back to reiterate her commitment,to her ancesters,to reaffirm her love and loyalty to the soil of her birth.She feels like not being born of the womb of a woman,instead like that jamun tree,she’s born on this soil and standing alone,unaccompanied.The tree is not as cruel and as selfish as humans.It must have recognized Kalyani.Still weeping,she walks out from there,holding Dipan’s hand,while a curious crowd keeps on watching her moving out in tearful eyes.As she walks,in a hurried pace,she suddenly halts to turn round,when she hears a call,’Didi,Didi.’Is she really being called?No,who will call her,didi here?So she resumes her walk.Again that call,that sounds like a call from Parimal.But it’s absurd to hope to be called by Parimal out here,for he’s now at Naktala,in Calcutta.Kalyani had insisted him to accompany her,but he declined,saying that he had to go to Bombay for an urgent piece of business.Then who calls her here?Is it an auditory hallucination?However,she sees a boy,running towards her.He’s neither Parimal,nor any of her acquaintances.Then who’s he?One of those onlookers?She feels slightly frightened.She quickens her footsteps and drags Dipan to keep pace with her.Instead of obliging,Dipan stands there,saying,’Someone’s calling you.’
‘Oh no,none calls me here.’
‘Please stop Ma.I’m sure you’re being called.’
Meanwhile,the fellow gets at them.Kalyani beholds the boy’s face from a close quarter but fails to recognize him.The fellow,panting and gasping,asks her,’Are you Kalyanidi?’
Kalyani looks astonished.She can’t imagine that in this exile,who is it that knows her.At first,overcome by unknown fears,she contemplates to hide her identity.Then looking into the boy’s eyes,she happens to discover the tenderness,charms and simplicity quite reminiscent of the kamini flower days of her youth.She instinctively says yes.
‘I’m Ruksana’s brother.We live behind the house that once belonged to you.I hope you haven’t forgotten me.’
‘Of course,now I remember you.’,says Kalyani.
‘Having seen the crowd,I enquired what had happened.One of them told me that a lady from India had come to see the places where once they had their homestead.I saw you walking away from there.I knew whose it had been.So,I called you from behind.
‘Do you live in the same house?’asks Kalyani.
‘Yes,in the same house.Please come to our house.’
‘Where’s your big brother Selim?’
‘Ah!You remember his name also?’Swapan laughs like a child.
Kalyani smiles.Poor Swapan!She didn’t remember him before.He was the little one who used to stand at the foot of the guava tree for his big sisters to drop the fruits from the top onto the ground.Now he’s grown-up enough to surpass Kalyani in height.Walking side by side with Swapan she feels glad to imagine that she’s truly back to her own country,that the land really once belonged to her forefathers,that her neighbour hasn’t forgotten to call her by Didi,even after three decades of being out of sight.What else is there to be asked more by her,then? Unlike the past when she could go to their house by a shortcut way by the side of the pond, today they reach their house along a narrow, serpentine lane almost touching the walls of a row of houses on either side. She fails to remember anything of the house.There is no trace of the guava and mango trees on the courtyard. Even the tin house has disappeared and in itsplace stands a three storeyed building.
‘Come upstairs’, says Swapan, ‘we live on the upstairs ,the ground floor being rented out.’
Stepping into the appartment, Swapan raises a hue and cry. ‘Lipi, where are you? Come and see who has dropped in.’
At once Lipi and a six year old kid come running to see Kalyani.
‘Didi, please be seated; they’ve all heard of you.’ says Swapan.
‘Heard of me!’
‘Yes all about your adventures. I remember when the amloki fruits would drop with a thud on the tin shed of your house, you would say that it was the machination of your pet ghost who was warning the kids to go to sleep, or else he would simply pack them in his satchel and parcel us to the land of the ogres.The little ones would fall asleep soon but I’d stay awake with my eyes closed only to hear you and Ruksana didi laughing.Now the world has changed a lot ; the children these days are no longer scared of ghosts and goblins.’
‘Where does Ruksana live now’
‘Correct me if I’m wrong. She was living, after her marriage, at Jamalpur…… .’
‘Yes near Jamalpur, it’s Sherpur. But that marriage didn’t last long. Her husband divorced her. Now she lives at Narasindi after her second marriage.But her second husband is also a bully, abusing her.’
‘What! The man abuses Ruksana but she doesn’t get away from him?’
‘Where will she go with her children? Our parents are no more ; if she comes back she will have to live with her brothers and though I ‘m not unwilling to take her responsibility, I ‘m not sure of the motif of my brothers.But I think she herself perhaps doesn’t want to live like a parasite upon her brother’s family.’
Kalyani doesn’t believe that a fun-loving , frolicsome,jolly girl like Ruksana is subjected to torture and humiliation in the hands of her husband and in-laws. She’s not even allowed to come out of the fourwalls of her home. But in her teens she was particularly fond of racing, climbing up trees. She hated playing with dolls and loved the large meadows, big playgrounds where she could stretch out her limbs and jump, hop, skip and play.
Immersed in water like a submarine, she could reach the other side of the pond stopping her breath while Kalyani and the friends standing on the bank would greet her with applause. That girl today bears up the tortures inflicted on her without protest.Kalyani fails to reconcile her to Ruksana’s docility , her compromise with injustices. Admittedly,the poor girl is without a decent education ; there is little chance of her getting a job to look after herself independently.They say morning shows the day,but the real life experience as of Ruksana gives a different lesson. Kalyani considers herself lucky for being able to complete her graduation. Had Nanigopal got the clue that Harinarayan wouldn’t ultimately come to live in Calcutta, he would have certainly cashed in on Kalyani’s helplessness, and withdrawn her from college forever. Then Kalyani’s position in life wouldn’t have been much better than Ruksana’s .
Lipi is smartly handsome .She comes to ask Kalyani, ‘Didi what would like to have in lunch?’
‘No thanks, I have no appetite.’
‘Why? It’s time for lunch.
‘No, it’s not for the time’ says Kalyani, ‘I am not hungry at all . I have the habit of eating late in the afternoons….. .’
This is a lame excuse , didi . We won’t let our guests leave our house without eating. Let your regular habits be at Calcutta . Here you have to abide by our customs , the customs of Mymansingha.’
‘You say you hail from Mymansingha, but do you think I don’t?’
‘Oh sure, I was forgetting that,’ Lipi laughs aloud .
Kalyani admires the interior of their home. Standing on the balcony, she looks out. Her eyes roving for a while, ultimately lingers hungrily on the plot of land below where their ancestral house rested years ago. On it now stand concrete buildings.Their yellow walls wither her heart in intense thirst.
She didn’t dream of visiting the small but beautiful home of Swapan and Lipi. Swapan has picked her up from the street. He, who is never expected to remember Kalyani, has remembered her and told of her to his wife and children. Often Kalyani can’t help dwelling on these unexpected rewards of life. Again that comparison with Calcutta automatically surfaces on her subconscious. Will anyone like Swapan do the same thing in Calcutta? No it can never happen there. It’s a prerogative of Mymansingha culture.
‘Didi look , he is my son reading in Pre-cadet.’
‘Where is Pre-cadet ? I haven’t heard of it before.’asks Kalyani.
‘It has come up a couple of years ago. It’s near Kalibari.’
‘In our time,Kumar Upendrakishore Vidyapith was the only institution in our neighbourhood.’
‘That yellow building?It’s still there.’,says Swapan.
‘I long for visiting Radhasundari School.Also the Mrityunjay School.Two schools,each standing on either side.Once on a tree plantation programme at our school,I had planted a sapling of Jaba.Swapan,is the plant still there?’
‘The jaba plant doesn’t live so long,didi.’says Swapan,’had it been Sal or Teak,it’d have been still there.’
‘The plant was to the south of the play-ground.I saw it blossom when I was there.’
Swapan smiles.Kalyani fails to understand the meaning of his smile.Is he smiling at the joy of Kalyani’s planting of a sapling or at the news of its breaking out into blossoms?Or is it simply a formal smile,designed to contribute to the joy of bonhomie?
‘Ruksana’s children must have grown up.’says Kalyani changing the topic.
‘Grown up?Didi has already become a nani’
‘Really!I can’t believe that little Ruksana has become a nani!’
‘What’s nani,Ma?’asks Dipan who was listening to their conversation,reclining on the sofa.
‘Oh my God!You don’t know,what’s meant by nani?It means didima or grandma.Sadly,you’ve never seen your grandma.’
‘Oh,now I understand.If didi gives birth to a child,it will call you didima.Am I right,Ma?’
‘Yes,darling.’Kalyani rubs his chin.Then pulling Swapan’s son close to her,she enfolds him and asks,’What’s your name,dear?’
‘I suppose,you’re very dainty.’
‘Yes I’m as dainty as my Abbu.’
‘You know my name?’
‘Yes,’,he nods and goes on,’You’re Kalyani Roy.Your father’s name’s Harinarayan Roy.Your big brother is Jyotiprakash.’
She presses him more closely to her bosom.’I’m really impressed by your memory dear.’Then turning to Swapan,Kalyani says,’I’m sure your son’s extremely brilliant.’
‘I know that,didi.But the local environment has become so inimical to the proper growth of a child.I dare not let him go out of home to play with his mates.Though,I know this habit of keeping indoors hampers the physical and mental development of child.They become self-centered.’
Kalyani feels hurt.’Why do you blame the environment?Was ever our environment so bad?’asks Kalyani.
‘No didi,sadly enough the number of good and honest people is dwingling day by day.There’s a handful with whom I can hobnob.’
‘May be,but I’m not sure.’says Kalyani,’Well,Swapan do you and your friends ever bother to think why we are different from one another?’
‘Different in what way?’
‘I mean to say we speak the same language,still we belong to two separate nations.’
‘Do you think,we common people are responsible for breaking it into two separate nations?’asks Swapan.
‘Whoever have done it,they’ve done it to suit their purposes,to fulfill their selfish aims.But what was our interests in it?We’ve been made to bear the pangs of separation from our near and dear ones.’
‘I agree very much with you,didi.’
‘Then take the example from my own life.How I craved and yearned for meeting you and Ruksana and Selim!But I can’t do that on my sweet will.I often desire to spend my leisure by sitting on the bank of the Brahmaputra.But,I can’t do that.Swapan,perhaps,I can’t make you feel how I wish to do all these.’
Kalyani rises to her feet in agitation and then paces up to the window.She stands there a while and glances at the yellow-black walls of the buildings.
‘Do you believe,Swapan,that one day,we’ll be reunited?’
‘I’m afraid I couldn’t follow what you meant by that.’
‘I mean a situation when we,the people of the two countries,will not have to bother about the passports,visas,barbed wires…………’
‘I see,you want to mean the unification of the two countries.I think it’s not possible now.’
‘Why not?The Germans have made it possible.’
‘Germany and Bangladesh are quite different from each other.Religion is a stumbling block in Bangladesh.’
‘There should be a limit to our obsession with religion,Swapan.I hope the very concept of single language,single culture will one day remove the barriers of religion.Do you agree with me,Swapan?’
Swapan smiles.Kalyani doesn’t know what he means by this smile.Is it a smile of disapproval?Does his smile imply that Kalyani’s absurdly hopeful?Or it may be that Swapan’s also as optimistic as Kalyani.Again Kalyani begins to think,Swapan is after all a product of post-partition era.Perhaps,he doesn’t feel what he has had to lose because of the partition.Perhaps,he knows this much that the life of a man who has been cut into two pieces may be saved,but he doesn’t know that it’s not a life worth living.And how can he know,for he didn’t have to lose anything,did he?He lives among his near and dear ones.Unlike Kalyani,he wasn’t plucked out from his parents,relatives,friends.For Kalyani,she’s like a house of cards.Nevertheless,like a stream of water,swelled up by high tide,Kalyani’s dreams, nourished inside her heart for years,get flared up once again by the warmth of Swapan’s hospitality.Getting nostalgic,she vividly recalls the picture of her house-the courtyard,mopped by the cow-dung solution,the thatched house with four tin roofs,the wild roses beside the pond.On one occasion,Parimal was rescued from being drowned in that pond.He did’nt know swimming,yet got into the pond,out of sheer fun and ended up drinking an excess of water that could be fatal.Saralabala was yelling in apprehension of the worst.Today,as Kalyani stands by the window,seems to hear Saralabala crying.She’s having the auditory hallunication.She feels like asking,’Who’s crying?Has anyone’s son got drowned………?’
Swapan brings her back from the window.’What’s it that makes you to look out there,constantly?The Government has taken over everything;nothing’s left.But my mind often goes back,to your house.It was a double-storeyed building,surrounded by rows of trees.We knew that it’s a rich man’s house.Even when we were grown-up,we played cricket on the courtyard.’
‘Was my father still alive?’
‘No.Then the house lay vacant.The grasses around it had grown tall.The Bihari milkmen,from the opposite bank of the river would come and mow the grasses.
‘In our time,Bhagirathi’s mother,delivered milk.Her sister’s name was Parvati…….Do you know anything about their whereabouts?’
Holding Dipan’s hand,Soukhin leads in to his study.Watching them together,Kalyani’s heart leaps in joy.Swapan,out and out jolly and amiable,goes on in detail that he studied in Anandamohan College,that he settled in business after his graduation,that in business,he’s happy with the proceeds and that he has to make frequent business trips to India.
Kalyani is thrilled at the mention of Anandamohan. ‘Are you sure you read in Anandamohan?’ she asks, her eyes sparkling in pure delight. ‘ I had a class-mate by the name of Badal in Anandamohan. I don’t know whether he completed his graduation from there or not . Do you know him?’
‘I knew one by this name, who had studied at Anandamohan. He had joined the Liberation Army ….. During the operations at Kamalpur he had lost his left leg in a grenade explosion.’
Shocked and horrified, Kalyani’s blood seems to have frozen. She dare not ask how Badal looked like. But swapan goes on giving a description of Badal voluntarily. ‘He has a dark complexion and very good physique.’
‘Do you happen to meet him quite often?’
‘Time an again he visits the muktijoddha sansand where I met him first. During my last meeting with him I found him sitting on the Veranda. He was looking extremely morose and upset . He was saying he had come for some money. He was saying that he was living in extreme poverty.’
‘Did he get it?’
‘That I can’t say.’
‘Why do the soldiers of liberation army live in poverty in Bangladesh?.’Asks Kalyani in a tone in which Swapan discerns both horror and compassion.
Swapan’s jaw muscles tighten as he goes to say, ‘The Rajakaras’ are the happiest lot here. The Liberation soldiers starve to death. A handful of them who live in collusion with the Rajakaras are slightly well off. The fundamentalists who had gone into hibernation soon after the liberation of the country, have now raised their ugly heads with renewed energy. Getting patronage from the Rajakaras they are not only coming out in the open from their hidey-holes, but even getting entry to the parliament. The Bangladesh national party has won the elections by striking up an unholy nexus with these out laws. Sheikh Mujibar had pardoned the Rajakaras and Zia enabled them to be ministers and grab power. I think didi,basically there is no difference between the present government and Jamatti.’
Kalyani was listening to Swapan but she still dwells on the thoughts of Badal. Had her Badal really joined the Liberation Army and lost his limb? Infatuated by Anirban’s love, all through those years she had no knowledge of it! ‘Fie on me!’ She curses herself in contempt. At once a few lines from a poem strikes her mind. The poet’s name is slipping from her memory but the lines begin to haunt her. The message brought forth by the poem is like this: When the whole of East Bengal or Bangladesh bleeds, when thousands of Karims and Maqbuls lay down their lives for a noble mission, when the villages, towns ,cities there burn like funeral pyre,the other Bengal, that is the West Bengal remains unperturbed,untouched from that incandescent flame of fire.’
What can be more relevant than the thrust of this poem for Kalyani at this moment? When Badal was fighting like a lion before the cannons for a noble mission,she was passing her days preoccupied with her sheltered life in Calcutta.
The lunch being ready, Lipi invites them to the dining table.Dipan and Soukhin who have by this time struck up a fine sense of camaraderie, have sat at the table. Biriani has been brought from the restaurant.Kalyani is indifferent to the food,her mind being preoccupied with the thoughts of Badal.
‘Where does Badal lives now?’she asks pouring water in a glass.
‘I’m afraid,I’m not sure of his whereabouts.So far,I’ve heard,it’s a village,perhaps Tarakanda or Dhobauda,some obscure place.’
‘But he was hailing from Nalitabari.’
‘Nalitabari?May be,I don’t know for sure.’
‘Can’t we visit the place?’asks Kalyani.
‘There,where Badal lives…….’
‘It’s not feasible for you didi. It’ll be arduous for you, coming on a brisk tour. How can you reach those backward areas? The roads are impassable.’
‘Impassable! Are you sure? Then how does Badal travel on them?
He travels in rickety buses. You can’t go like him. After the bus journey you have to walk a pretty long distance to reach his house.’
‘If Badal can bear the hassles, why can’t we?’ asks Kalyani.
Swapan laughs at her enthusiasm, ‘the logic sounds fantastic, didi,’.
Remaining silent for quite sometime, Kalyani asks, ‘Is he married?’
‘I don’t know. But I see little chances of his getting married. Who is going to live with a cripple?’
‘It’s very hard for me to believe that Badal is a cripple.’
‘Thousands of them were crippled in the world’, says Swapan
‘Swapan do you remember him having deep curly hairs on his head?’, like a wounded pigeon fluttering its wings, Kalyani asks this.
‘It’s very difficult for me to remember all this.’
‘Doesn’t he have large eyes and a pointed nose?’
‘Did you notice that he had a freckle on his shoulder?’
‘Freckle on the shoulder…..well, I don’t remember having ever noticed it.’
Yes, Kalyani remembers that Badal had freckle on his shoulder. As she would touch it with her fingers,Badal would say that the freckle is an ominous sign that portends that he will be shot dead at the hands of enemy. Crestfallen she would say, ‘ No dear, it can’t be. I’ll never let my love die.’
Kalyani used to talk so emphatically in those days that in her voice there was a kind of force, optimism, which, she doesn’t know when and how, has died down. She doesn’t remember when all the stars on the sky of her dreams have ceased to glitter.
Lipi insists on her to take second helpings. ‘You aren’t eating properly, didi’, she says , ‘let me give you another piece of meat. If I only knew earlier about your visit, I would have prepared elaborate dishes of fish and other items.You have after all come home decades later.’
Kalyani’s eyes get moistened. Swapan catching sight of it , becomes anxious to know if her eyes are being troubled by the drop of any foreign object. Kalyani tries to hide the truth by saying that she has unmindfully bitten a pungent red pepper.
Swapan was not called to the Front during the war of ’71, because of his tender age. Yet right from his teenage, he has been intimately associated with the champions of the liberation movement. Unmitigated pains derived from a sense of loss and injustice looms large over his face. He goes on ,’ I’m really disappointed at the situation all around. The economy of the country depends on foreign subsidies. Each year Bangladesh is inevitably visited by natural calamities like flood and cyclone, and the government with a begging bowl goes ritually from door to door for assistance. The smugglers are accumulating wealth on one hand while the number of the poor is increasing day by day. A section of the masses, out and out illiterate and uncultured has acquired unlimited wealth. These people, you’ll be shocked to know, are willing to build up Islamic culture. The specter of starvation is writ large on the faces of the masses. Illiteracy and lack of educational opportunities are all pervasive; nevertheless you can find an imposing mosque of marble at every nook and corner. Regretfully, the country has become a mini Pakistan.’
Kalyani is quite at a loss. She doesn’t know what to say at this juncture. She herself is a mute witness to a series of ups and downs in her own life. She has relented when her dreams have been nipped in the bud. Never did she feel that her life at any point wobbled with disappointments. On the contrary, as she looks back in retrospection, everything seems to be there- neat, tidy, regular- a copybook performance of life indeed!
Can she get Badal’s whereabouts? Perhaps she can if she is determined to get it. She desires to see in her own eyes how Badal leads his pathetic life of incognito, in neglect and in a state of decrepitude and with wounded sentiments. But how can she show her face to Badal? She has got everything a woman desires in life-husband, hearth and home, children, wealth and even perhaps happiness. Side by side she doesn’t rule out the possibility of a mistaken identity. It may happen that the Badal, about whom Swapan is speaking is not Kalyani’s Badal. Anandamohan can be the alma mater of more than one Badal.
It’s time for taking farewell from Swapan. He comes downstairs to see them off. Lipi and Soukhin wave hands from the upstairs. Kalyani keeps looking wistfully at their waving hands. How lucky she is to get a real neighbour like them! She thinks to herself.
‘You’re at my native soil,please guard it zealously.’ Soon it strikes her ‘what is there to be guarded? The piece of land? There lies two bighas of land neglected and a lonely, desolate tree. Occasionaly do give your company to that tree. There’s no one else to take care of them.’
Kalyani waves her hand, with her fingers trembling in grief and anguish. She may feel a strong urge within herself to visit again and again the happy home of Swapan and Lipi, to talk to them. Won’t this the possible again? Why not?
From Swapan’s home, they walk up to the main road to catch a richshaw. Kalyani asks, ‘Swapan, as far as I remember-there was sweetmeat shop nearby, once famous for perha.
‘Didi those were in bygone days. Perha made of pure milk is a dream now.’
A group of urchins, shabbily dressed, playing on the road, stop their game and keep on staring at kalyani. That these creatures are victims of malnutrition, are evident from their pitiable faces, eyes in the hole, crack jaws, rickety growth. Kalyani can’t help pitying them. As they neared them, all of the poor creatures burst into peals of laughter and shouted in chorus, ‘ Hindu, Hindu Tulsipata, Hindura khaye Gorurmatha’(The Hindus who look upon the Tulsi and the cow as holy,also eat the flesh of the cow).
A shiver runs down kalyani’s spine. She looks askance at Swapan; she’s not as much shocked at this as she shrinks in the thought of Swapan’s embarrassment. Swapan must be shrivelling in shame. They walk steadily silently at a stretch for sometime, yet they can still discern the words Hindus, cow’s flesh from the tutored uproar of the innocent children. Kalyani pretends as if she hasn’t heard anything of the hullabaloo. Seeing a rickshaw approaching towards them, Kalyani clasps Swapan’s hands to say,’ Swpan, my brother, I don’t know whether I can meet you again in my life or not, but it gives me immense relief to think that you are here, right at my native soil.’
Sitting in the rickshaw, Kalyani calls,’Swapan!’
He looks innocently up, as he used to do in his childhood standing under the tree with the hope of gripping a guava.
‘If you ever come across Badal, the freedom fighter, please try to do something for him at least on behalf of this grieved didi of yours. If I send some money to you can you take the trouble of handing it to him?’
Swapan looked puzzled.’Didi, what if the person I’m talking about is not your Badal?’
‘Still!’, says Kalyani, her voice chocking to silence.
As the rickshaw starts moving, Swapan with whom Kalyani has had a chance meeting only, recedes into the distance, followed by a batch of newly acquainted neighbouring kids.
For dinner at Sherifa’s house, pulao & meat were cooked. Atahar, who was lounging on the sofa, says aloud, ‘Well, why don’t you serve dinner at once? The poor creatures must have been tired of trotting. I think they should retire to bed after an early dinner.’
Kalyani has no desire for pulao and meat. Her palate waters for the taste of rice, Hilsa in mustard paste, Chaapa Sutki Varta and fried Koi. Still, she cannot ignore the fact that Sherifa has cooked specially for her; so she, while feeding Dipan,screams, ‘Wow!how tasty.’ Sherifa who was helping her children, says, ‘Her father was in favour of Chinese dishes. Now we have three chinese food restaurants in Mymansingha town.’
‘No,why should you take the trouble of buying food from the restaurant?I love home-made food more than anything else.Moreover,I’m not at all fond of Chinese cuisine.’
Still,lolling on the sofa and watching T.V,Atahar glances at Kalyani and asks,’Have you been to Asad Market?It’s a wonderful shopping centre.You could also get a very good collection of dress materials at a reasonable price from there.Had you asked a rikshaw-puller,he’d have gladly guided you to that place.’
‘Actually,I wasn’t at all interested in visiting markets and shopping centres.’
‘Quite naturally.’,says Atahar in a jeering tone,’For you hail from a city famous for its big markets and shopping centres…….’
‘No,this is not exactly what it is.To be frank,I’m not on a shopping spree.’
‘Well,now I understand what you mean.By the way,where did you go today?’
Kalyani was still feeding Dipan.Though the boy’s grown up enough to eat on his own,he doesn’t feel like eating without his mother’s help at the table.She replies,’To Kalibari,College Road,The Crematorium……..’
‘What did you find in the Kalibari?I’ve heard that there’s no remnant of your house.Am I right?’
‘You may be right.But the soil is there and a jamun tree still stands on it.’
‘Jamun tree!’Atahar seems to have fallen from the sky.’What will you do with the jamun tree?On your homestead,now,I’ve heard,the family planning office or something like that has come up.By the way,do you see any chance of retrieving some of your property?’
‘I’ve not come for that.I’ve only come to see my birth place.’
After a pause,Atahar asks,’And what was there on College Road?Any relatives?’
‘No.I’ve no relative here.I had two distant relatives,whom I call kaka(uncle)but now I don’t know their whereabouts.At Chittagong,I had my maternal uncle’s house.Both mashi and mesho(maternal aunt and uncle) are no more today.At Gopibagh,I had a kin but I have heard,they also left for Calcutta last year.’
‘The problem is,the Hindus living in Bangladesh manage to sneak into India on any pretext.They don’t keep their money in Bangladesh.What they earn here,they send it to India.They neither want to buy lands nor build a house here,always looking for an opportunity to slip across the border to India.’Saying this,Atahar,keeps gazing at her.
Kalyani with her head down,keeps stirring the pulao,with her fingers.
‘Why didn’t your husband come with you?’
‘He’s very busy in his office now.’
‘What is he?’
‘He works in a bank,now a branch manager.’
‘Where does he originally come of?’
‘Medinipur, in West Bengal.’
‘Are you sure he gave you the permission to travel all along?’
‘Pardon,what do you mean by “he”?’
‘I mean your husband.’
‘That’s true.You’re after all from Calcutta;you ladies there are desperate enough to damn care everything………aren’t you?’Atahar giggles.
Sherifa,looking at her husband’s eyes on the sly,says,’You say you don’t like desperate women,but now I see you’re secretly fond of them.’
Paying no heed to Sherifa,he goes on,’And what did you do there,in the crematorium?’
‘Nothing.Just stood there for a while.’
‘Stood there!I find it strange that people even love to stand on the cremation ground,for no rhyme or reason-ha!ha!ha!’
An astonished Kalyani looks at his face,while his laughter keeps lingering on his mouth.’
‘We’re planning for a trip to Ajmer Sharif next year,though I’m not sure of whether it’ll materialize or not.’,he says while playing his fingers on his body hairs.
‘I’m sure,Sherifa will also go with you’,says Kalyani,looking at Sherifa.Beads of perspiration glistened on Sherifa’s brow and chin.
‘I’m afraid,she can’t go.Who’ll look after the children then?’
‘I’ve heard you live at Salt lake.To which side of Calcutta is Salt lake?’
‘I’ll give my address before I leave.I invite you in advance to be my guest,when you’ll visit Calcutta.’
Sherifa is sitting in the chair beside Kalyani.She’s waiting on her children,the guests and husband.After they finish eating,she’ll dine.Kalyani insists on her to eat together.Sherifa,shaking her head,says that she isn’t accustomed to eat before her husband and children finish eating.
‘At least,for today dine with me.Can’t you change the habit for a day?’
Sherifa with her eyes drooping,says,’I had to change several of my old habits through these years…………Now if I revert to any one of these,then……..’
‘Then what?Tell me presently Sherifa,then what will happen?’
‘Indeed it’s something.You’re trying to hide something from me.Do you think I’m not worth being taken into your confidence?’
Kalyani holds Sherifa’s left arm tightly.Casually,Sherifa frees herself from Kalyani’s grip and says,’In fact,I’m yet to be hungry for my dinner.’
‘Aren’t you well,Sherifa?’
‘Are you upset?’
‘Upset!’Sherifa smiles dimly.
Atahar,puffed with self-conceit,asks sarcastically,’Do you like to watch our T.V?You can view good serials.
Also,I wish to hear from you some news of Babri Masjid.In India,you’re chopping us mindlessly like butchers.’
‘What do you mean by “us”?’asks a startled Kalyani.
‘”Us” means the Muslims.’
Her fingers stops stirring over pulao and meat.She gulps down large quantities of water.Yet her thirst isn’t quenched.Dipan,after his dinner,goes to bed.Suddenly,Kalyani says to Sherifa,’I’m sorry,I feel so tired;I think,
I should go to bed.I’d be happy if you take your dinner,without further delay.’
Sherifa nods her head in agreement.Perhaps she’s sensible enough to gauge the drift of the conversation,initiated by her beloved husband.So,she perhaps knows that sooner Kalyani breaks off and retires to her bed-room,the better it is for all.
Next day also,Kalyani rises from bed at dawn and wakes up Dipan.Then she starts goading Dipan to get ready as quickly as possible.Dipan wrongly thinks,perhaps his mother is contemplating to go out on the city streets in the sun like the previous day.Kalyani washing her face and mouth,wears a saree and as she is about to stain her part with sindur or vermilion,suddenly her finger quivers.She refrains from staining sindur on any part of her body..She erases the red from her finger by rubbing it against other fingers.Suddenly,she remembers that she brought some sarees for Sherifa from ‘Treasure Island’.She calls Sherifa and hands over the packet saying,’This is for you.I’m sorry I couldn’t bring anything for your children.The fact is that it never occurred to me,I don’t know why,that you also grew up enough, as much as to be a mother,even the mother of a married daughter.I was always under the impression that-though I understand now that it was a dillusion-that you’re still that teenager,that same teenager!’
Then tidying the dishhevelled bed-sheet away,Kalyani says,’Here’s my address.If you ever visit Calcutta,I’ll be happy if you be my guest.I put you into lots of inconvenience,didn’t I?’
‘Not at all,not at all.’,says Sherifa,yawning,’But it would have been fine for you to leave after the breakfast………’
‘To be frank,’,says Kalyani,’I don’t feel like eating now.’
Then suddenly,before Kalyani realizes anything,Sherifa lays her fingers on Kalyani’s hand.The latter stands flabbergasted.She tries to feel the warmth,that she used to get from the constant touch of it in her youth.She intensely likes the touch to linger on her hand.And more than that,she eagerly waits for Sherifa to intimately enfold her as she used to do thirty years back from now.Kalyani lays her palm on Sherifa’s.Kalyani’s hand quivers,eyes moisten.She tries to wear smile on her face to hide the tearful eyes.
‘Sherifa,wouldn’t the river be full to the brim once again as before?’
Sherifa,removing her own hand from Kalyani’s,put up her dishevelled hair in a bun and says,’How can I know the character of a river?’
‘Same is the character of an individual.’-Kalyani thinks to herself.Like the cloudy Brahmaputra,the denizens of the town also do appear shabby,lean and distressed.Kalyani steps on the street,taking leave from Sherifa,who stands on the balcony with her fingers gripping the grill.The recitation breaks off ,’Allaham Dullilah Hirabbil Al Amin.’Several pairs of eyes keep glaring at Kalyani.
A bus is waiting on the stand.This time also Kalyani occupies two seats by the window.As the bus starts moving,Dipan enquires,’Where are we going Ma?’
‘Will this bus go upto Calcutta?’
‘No,we’ll go to Dhaka first,and then to Calcutta,by flight.Before that,I’ve to reconfirm my airtickets’-she replies looking blank through the window.
Dipan getting awfully upset at this,demands,’Why Ma?Won’t we see your house?Will you not let me swim in your pond?Climb the mango tree,pluck fruits by my own hand.Will you not show me your bed-room,your play-ground…….?’
‘Look Dipan,I’m sorry to say,there had been a severe earthquake in the town,ravaging everything of the past.’
‘As devastating an earthquake as the last days of Pompey?’
‘Yes, yes,exactly like that.’
‘What happened to the trees then?’
‘They were uprooted by a tornado.’
‘But you had promised me to show me the royal Palace of Sashikanto Maharaja.’
‘You’ve already seen that,my honey-that yellow building with a white marble statue in front of it and the gate under the large Shirish tree……..it’s now called Sashi Lodge.The janitor,refuged our entry without proper permission..’
‘And the monda of Muktagacha?While leaving Calcutta,you had promised several of your friends to treat them with it.’
‘Oh!I simply forgot all about that.’
‘What about the race-course?Shall I not ride on a horse?’
‘The race course is in Dhaka,dear.Since I’m a stranger to that city,I don’t know the streets and locations very well.’
Dipan is still quite at a loss.The strong breeze ruffles his hair.’Ma,won’t you take me down to the Brahmaputra,your most favourite river?Shan’t we go boating?’saying this Dipan almost jumps off his seat, as if he wants to impress the fact upon his mother that for the sake of the Brahmaputra,they should get down from bus at once.
‘The Brahmaputra!She’s no longer there,Dipan.She has changed her usual course and shifted from the original place……’
‘She isn’t there!’Dipan looks confused.Each time the wind dishevels his hair,Kalyani combs it with her fingers.
‘But you said you’d stay for two weeks,didn’t you Ma?
‘Dear,I’ve a very urgent work to do back in Calcutta;I had almost forgotten about it before.I must get it done immediately.That’s why,I had to cut short my stay here.’
‘At school?’asks the inquisitive kid.
Dipan remains silent for quite sometime;then he gives a shaking to his mother,saying,’Ma,why were you crying that day?Under that tree?Were they scolding you?’
Kalyani,hugging Dipan tightly to her chest says,’My goodness!Why should they scold me?Actually the thought of my mother brought tears to my eyes.Don’t you remember the gentleman who came upon me to say,”Get up my child and be someone’s guest this afternoon to take your lunch and rest there.”?The gentleman resembles my grandfather.’
‘You too had your grandpa?’
‘Why not?Do you think poor fellow,I fell from the sky?Next,think of Swapan who treated us with so much love and respest.I’m really impressed by their hospitality.He was speaking so freely with me!Don’t you agree with me,Dipan?Back home,tell Baba and Didi about them.’
Dipan nods his head to say yes.
‘Also what’s the name of Swapan’s son?’
‘You played with him,did you not?’
‘Didn’t you like him?’
Dipan smiles.’Yes I did.’
The bus is hurtling down the highway.Trishal receding behind,they’re approaching towards Bhalooka,when the blast of hot wind strikes against her face.Secretly,heaving a deep sigh,Kalyani calls in a quiet tone,’Dipan.’
Turning his eyes from the empty fields,Dipan responds,’I’m listening to you Ma.’
‘You’ll be glad to know that your aunt Sherifa is impressed by you.She said,”Dipan’s a well-behaved boy.”That’s why she cooked a special meal of pulao and korma,for you.She also gave me money to buy a bicycle for you.Tell your Baba that Sherifa aunty was very nice to us.Okay?’
Dipan watches Kalyani with his eyes wide open in astonishment.His eyes stay glued on his mother’s face,while she combs his hair with her fingers.He moves his head down,in obedience,saying,yes.
Did Sherifa really want to confide something in her?Kalyani keeps on brooding on those moments when Sherifa touched her and put up her hair in a bun.Kalyani is sure to have seen her wiping the face with the end of her veil.
Did she wipe tears from her eyes also?Sherifa firmly believes in the affirmative.At the age of eighteen,when Harinarayan compelled her to leave the country,Sherifa had wept like a child.This time she’s leaving the country again,on her own;so it’s quite natural that Sherifa will drop tears,though it doesn’t befit her now to weep hysterically as she did thirty years back.But her heart?It must have remained unchanged.It’s undeniable,Sherifa has to adjust with her husband,her family.But does it mean that she will forget her childhood days of intrepidity and dare-devilry?Their English teacher would ask them to kneel-down as a punishment for their talkativeness.He would say,’You fellows come to the class-room only after ending all your talks outside.Don’t keep on whispering into each other’s ears,while the class is on progress.’Ending all talks outside?It’s easier said than done.For,they had an endless talk of tit-bits to share relating to that very English teacher-while talking how betel leaf juice trickled down his cheeks,how he dozed in between his lessons on the Daffodils by Wordsworth,how he’d scare away with a duster in hand to those who laughed at him-all these evoked an instantaneous laughter that could never be deferred for another covenient hour of the day.Inside,the class-room,their continous titters would be accompanied by their experiments with rhyming cuplets.Malabika was a born poet.Shaking her plaits,she’d recite her self-composed rhymes:’Abdul Kader Mollah/He’s fond of Rasogolla/He dozes in the class/It’s all known to us/We’re going to score a big golla.’But Malabika was the highest scorer in English that term.Kader Mollah,sporting a Jinnah cap on his head and the small beard round his chin,that resembled the muzzle of a goat,came into the class to announce proudly,’Malabika has got 77,the highest in the class.Let’s celebrate her performance with Rasogolla.I ask all of you to greet her with applause.’
Like Kalyani,Sherifa also certainly remembers Malabika.Why not?Can a person forget another so easily?Kalyani is roused from her contemplation when the conductor approaches her for the fare.With her hands,somewhat subdued by fatigue,she gropes for the cash inside her hand-bag.She gets everything out of it,one by one-telephone index,account slip,addresses written on small pieces of papers,the keys to the suitcase,old electricity bills,a small comb,a pair of hairclips,handkerchief,a strip containing four paracetamol tablets,the passport,air tickets-all intact except the cash.She remembers to have laid aside around three thousand rupees in the inside pocket,after separating the changes for present use on the very first day of her arrival.She rummages the bag,then turns it upside down but there’s no trace of the money.She’s convinced now that it must have slipped from the bag in some moments of her own carelessness,on the road,on the field,in the rikshaw,in the bus.
So what?Nothing is insurmountable before man’s indomitable will.Even if entangled in a net,he frees himself using his brains.To find a way out to solve the petty problem that has cropped up at this situation,Kalyani places her hand on the gold chain she’s wearing around her neck.
FBI came to my New York home. They said I got threat from terrorists and gave me the link of this youtube video. They asked me to be careful. Should I be scared?
The terrorists said Muhammad the prophet killed his critics. So as the followers of Muhammad should also kill the critics of Muhammad and the religion he created.
I am not in favor of capital punishment. I think that every human being has a right to live. Every war criminal should get a fair trial. That instead of hanging they are given any other punishment. Life term, maybe? Why not? Nowadays though, I object even to life term. I do not like the idea of jails. Jails can be correctional centres. Criminals can stay in those centres until their brains get debugged and freed from malice. A person once suggested, “The jail rooms can be classrooms, and the each jail a university.” Sometime ago, some jails in Sweden were shut down because they had no inmates. The number of crimes is less, so the number of criminals is few. The more society is rid of inequality, the more uniformity there is amongst people, the more there is reduction in crime. Well, that is Sweden. Bangladesh is still not civilized, so we cannot dream about doing away with our jails yet. I’ll talk about something else.
The human rights organizations of the world are animadverting about the death penalty in Bangladesh. Let them. They always say, “Revoke the capital punishment law,” to all the countries of the world which has this law. But my question is, those countries which continue to maintain this law, and frequently mete out death sentence themselves, why are they shedding tears about this law in Bangladesh? Do they pounce on other countries in this manner, or beat their chests crying, when those countries happen to give death sentences? Do they go and sit in obstinate protest at the doors of China or Saudi Arabia or Iran or the US or South Korea? You don’t see them at all when others in Bangladesh are hanged. Then am I to understand that they wailing because this is related to Quader Molla’s or Mir Quasem’s hanging? Is it because Quader Molla or Mir Quasem are radicals? You can kill whoever you like, but you can’t touch Islamic fundamentalists! Why don’t they say Molla or Quasem are war criminals? The grief that various countries express when murderers of the 1971 Liberation War are put on trial really astounds me. The pernicious forces of Islamic fundamentalism have many allies in today’s world.
The Western countries which we thought were enemies of Islam; they also display extraordinary sympathy towards these radicals. I really don’t want to think what the political reasons are behind supporting fundamentalism. The group of Western countries which do so, do not want to accept the ’71 Liberation War as a war at all. As if war in a poor country is no war at all, the death of 30 lakh people is no death at all, the rape of two lakh women is no rape at all. As if our famines, our hunger, our poverty and illiteracy are the only things real. Our language, our songs, our love, our personalities, our struggles, our valor, our desires and expectations, dreams, are not real, not valuable.
I’ll say why I do not believe in the death sentence. No creature or human being is born a criminal or a terrorist. If a child is not given a healthy, beautiful, educated environment, if a lot of garbage is incessantly poured into his brain while he is growing up, then such a child will involve himself in criminality and terrorism as an adult. Is it his fault? Or is it the fault of those who pour that garbage, keep alive that custom of pouring garbage in society! Living in the same society I am against fundamentalism, Quader Molla and Mir Quasem and Delwar Hossain Sayeedi are fundamentalists, some are murderers, rapists, thieves; others are honest, virtuous. Although we live in the same society, this happens because of difference in education. One section of the population is acquiring education in science, obtaining knowledge about human rights, getting enlightened. Another section is being created as religious fanatics, illiterates, bigots and barbarians who are left plunged in extreme darkness. If the education system was equal for everyone, if the education was a healthy one, if it was an equal rights education, then instead of being bad, people would have been good. Despite small instances of incivility, discourtesy and minor crimes, the society would not have gone into the hands of rotten elements, and lakhs and lakhs of people would not have been dancing in the streets mad with murderous intent. I start with fright when a few people from foreign countries cry for Quader Molla and Mir Quasem but what about the people of my country who have gone absolutely crazy with love for Quader and Quasem? Every one of them is a Quader Molla or Mir Quasem. One Quader or one Quasem has been hanged for war crimes, but then thousands and thousands of other Quaders or Quasems are beheading scientific-minded anti-radical people —what are we going to do about them? These lakhs and lakhs of Islamic fundamentalists are undoubtedly much more dangerous than a handful of decrepit, old war criminals already at their death’s door. Each of these fundamentalists is a soldier who wants to turn war criminal Molla’s dream into reality.
A country where food, clothing, shelter, education is not available for everyone, there is bound to be anarchy. Like every other system, the judicial system is also is defective. That is why, whenever there is a crime, the reason for the crime is not investigated; and without giving any thought to why those mistakes were committed, without making any effort to rectify those mistakes, people are thrown into prison and killed. The government wants prompt solution to many problems by quick hanging.
But this does not provide genuine solution to problems. I think of the future, we need an end to the malignant forces of fundamentalism. It cannot be terminated by hangings; it has to be terminated by good education.
To free society from religious fanaticism, superstition and misogyny, we have to educate people from childhood on science, humanism, equal rights. If children get this kind of education, then there is no fear of them turning into bigots, rapists and murderers.
I am not surprised to see the hideous barbarism that the members of Jamaat-e-Islami are perpetrating in Bangladesh. I know for a long time that although Jamaat-e-Islami is recognized as a political party, it is nothing more than a terrorist outfit. They practice the politics of hatred, discrimination, blindness, misery, crippling and killing. If this kind of politics is allowed to enter into society, it will destroy the people, the nation, and future of the nation. Jamaat-e-Islami should be banned for the right reasons. Terrorist outfits are outlawed in all countries. But a lot of people will generally rush in lamenting and try to stop it if you try to do such a thing in Bangladesh. The party which does not believe in democracy, we will keep that party alive in the name of democracy, and they will gleefully cut your nose and slit my throat — we all know that. Despite knowing it, others pretend not to be aware of it, but I do not do that. Within the country and abroad, there is enough desire among people to render Bangladesh into an undeveloped, illiterate, radicalized nation crammed with religious fundamentalists. And although I believe totally in the freedom of expression, I want to ban a political party, because Jamaat-e-Islami does not deserve to be recognized as one.
Almost all the war criminals are Muslim fundamentalists. I am a great enemy of radical war criminals and radical Islamists. For twenty years they have been keeping on sharpening their knives for me. They will kill me the moment they find me anywhere near them. In spite of this knowledge, I do not want them to be hanged. I want them to be good individuals. I want their children to be on the side of progress. I want the children of their children to not know what narrow religious fundamentalism is. I want everyone to live in a classless, equal, unsuperstitious, beautiful environment. I wish all the people and all the children of my country to have that. My struggle is for that dream. I will not be able to see that society where equality reigns within my lifespan. But I want to leave a small role for myself in the construction of a healthy society. That is why I am risking my life to write and inspire people to take up that fight. The country which does not feel like my country anymore, the country which I am ashamed of today — I want future generations to be proud of that country. Not proud of having blood on the streets, but proud of having a safe and secure nation.
The practice of marriage was started to establish the certainty of fatherhood. This is what was required — a virgin body untouched by man, a body which can only sleep with the husband and no one else, a body which only the husband will touch and no one else, a female body which only the husband can impregnate to carry his child and give birth to his child — his male child. His male child will continue his line of descent, will inherit his wealth. It is women who help men to keep alive their androcratic system by marrying them. If they did not help in this way, androcracy and patriarchy would have been buried long ago.
To make sure that women’s bodies do not come in close contact with other men, a process was followed to imprison them and use them as personal possessions. The name of this was marriage. Marriage was the license from the family and society to establish a sexual relationship.
I have seen in Bengali society that after marriage it is the women’s wings which are clipped, not the men’s. Most women have to go live in their in-law’s home. Attach the husband’s surname to her name. They have to leave their own homes, families, relatives, friends, environs, neighbors, cities, towns, villages — everything. Even if the woman is an adult, even if she is educated, where she will go and what she will do, who she will mix with or won’t, whether she will work or not, those decisions are taken by the husband and his family. It was common practice before, and still is now that women cannot work in an office after marriage. It is better to stay at home and be faithful to your husband. Do domestic labor, serve the in-laws, bring up children.
Times have changed. Women are not literally imprisoned at home. But they have an invisible chain around their ankles. They are allowed to go out to work. But their earnings are taken away to finance the family. Polishing your shoes, serving you food, washing your clothes — any old illiterate girl can do such work. But if your beautiful, educated, sexual partner does that, then you feel mighty pleased.
The salaried domestic help will spout venom and leave if everything doesn’t go to her liking. But the unsalaried domestic help, your wife — you can do whatever you want, but she won’t leave her job. The job of being a wife. Back-breaking labor. No salary. No holidays. No pension. She will give you dowry money, and she will also become your slave. People buy things with money. Women give money to sell themselves.
Let me talk about the dowry system today. This is no recent phenomenon; it is a few thousand years old. This practice was there in many countries, it still exists in many parts of the world today, albeit illegally. This practice is rampant in the entire Sub-Continent. It cannot be stopped despite formulating anti-dowry laws, despite meting out punishment. Thousands of wives are being killed, thousand others are committing suicide for being dishonored and insulted for it. As far as I know, this custom has been in practice from ancient times in this region. But some ancient travelers have written in their books that they have not seen anyone giving dowry for marriage in India. Maybe the system of dowry was not as terrible then as it is today, or maybe they never saw such an exchange actually taking place. The king of ancient Greece Alexander the Great never saw dowry in Indian marriages. The Persian intellectual Al-Beruni came to India in 1017 and lived here for sixteen years. In his autobiography he has described Indian marriages, but there is no sign of dowry there either.
The system of dowry in ancient times was not a one-sided affair. It was given from the bride’s side to the groom, and from the groom’s side to the bride. Dowry from the groom’s side was given to the bride’s family as compensation for reduction of a working member in her family, while what was given from the bride’s side to the groom’s family was the inheritance she was entitled to. Women were deprived by law from direct inheritance in those days.
The inheritance laws of the modern age do not deprive women. Daughters get a share of their parents’ property. In all the countries within the Sub-Continent, dowry is prohibited. But these prohibitory laws cannot stop the practice of dowry. The more women descend, the more dowries ascend. To put it exactly, the more women’s position is lowered in society, the more the dowry amount gets higher. This increase and decrease remains in the hands of patriarchs.
Bride-torturing and bride-burning have assumed dreadful proportions in India. It is the same in Bangladesh. Most bride-killings are passed off as suicide. Most bride-tortures are reported as quarrels between husband and wife attributable to the latter’s extra-marital affairs.
In Bengali Muslim marriages, there is a custom of giving den mohor¹ from the groom to the bride, but I have grave doubts whether it is at all given. But from the bride’s side the groom and his family has to be given dowry money, houses, cars, furniture etc. etc. If these are not given, or if there is delay in giving them, then the bride has to endure unspeakable torture. The relationship between a husband and wife has to be one of love and trust. But dowry has destroyed this relationship. For men this relationship is now of money and selfishness, for women it is of sacrifice and working without wages. In India the brides are burnt alive, in Bangladesh that practice is not there — brides are either axed or poisoned to death.
Women have to stop marrying those vile, selfish, small men who are greedy for dowry. It is better to live alone than stay in the households of such men. Some women think that if they give more dowries the husband’s torture will be less. This has been proved to be wrong. More dowries you give, more the greed gets inflamed, resulting in more torture. Men of all sections are dowry-greedy. From the penniless to the croprepatis². The men are not yet thinking of women as fellow-passengers and colleagues with equal rights. They are still thinking that women are not completely human, and even if they are, they are ‘less human’. Until this wicked thought is abolished, women will have to suffer on earth. There is no such discrimination between the male and female genders of any species other than that of the human being. When will the time ever come that the human race will feel ashamed?
Last Friday, I got a death threat again. It came from Ansar Khilafah, an ISIS-oriented militant group, in Kerala. If a group has the name of ISIS attached to it, or has an ISIS touch to it, I fear, they must be experts in hacking.
I often gently touch my neck, also put my hand behind my head, trying to understand what would be the feeling when they stab me from behind, or hack me. Maybe it would be better if they shot me in my head. I have suffered a lot in life, don’t want to suffer in death. Death should be quick. But will they listen to me? I can’t imagine requesting them, begging for life. Instead, I should think I would close my eyes and sing some of my favorite Rabindra sangeets to lessen the pain while being hacked. I don’t know if you can lessen any pain like that, but I don’t have any other option.
I was trying to understand what those 19-20-year-olds were doing when they were being hacked. Were they trying to save their lives, screaming? Did they try to snatch the weapons? There were so many people inside the cafe, I don’t know why all of them together could not attack, defeat the militants? Maybe they thought a rescue team would come to save them, police would come, Army would come. Maybe they were waiting. If I were to wait for someone who would save me from the killers, how would be those minutes, hours — the six hours, the 12 hours? The pistol-gun-dagger-knife-toting killers are parading in front of me and I am waiting. They can behead, shoot me any time, and I am waiting. I shiver to think, my throat goes dry. At the Dhaka cafe, nobody came to their rescue even after 12 hours. Those who were supposed to were waiting outside. Why were they just waiting outside? I don’t know. After three hours had passed, Tarishi Jain’s father was speaking on a local television channel. He was anxious, was saying his daughter was inside the cafe. He was wondering why rescue operation hadn’t started. If those who were supposed to rescue the people really knew how and when to carry out the job, many lives could have been saved.
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I was thinking about Faraaz Hossain. He had been allowed to go, but he didn’t want to leave without his friends. He wanted his friends to be freed too. And since his friends weren’t freed, he didn’t accept the freedom for himself. I am such a sensitive person, I think about people’s welfare all the time, can say I have dedicated my life for this cause, but even I believe if a herd of murderers gave me a safe passage I would escape from the mayhem, without looking back; I would run without waiting for anybody. Everybody would run (in such a situation). Only Faraaz didn’t. Faraazs are perhaps born only once in a century.
The militants got what they wanted. They wanted to shake the world, they did. They wanted to earn Punya (virtuousness) by killing non-Muslims, maybe they succeeded in that too. How were they able to hack so many people, so many young boys and girls? They hadn’t hacked anyone before, how could they hack not one or two but 20 people? In reality, a belief can make people do many impossible things. I don’t know who brainwashed the militants, but whatever was fed into their brains, they believed without asking any question. A lot like the two Boston bomber brothers from Chechenia. They looked smart but didn’t have the ability to intellectually and rationally (logically) consider anything. Religion is truth, the religious book is truth. The religious book was written by the creator himself, so whatever is written there needs to be blindly followed. No questions, just acceptance. As a result, they have literally accepted everything written in the religious text from the beginning to end (without paying heed to any sensory perception). They didn’t try to interpret the ancient text in contemporary context. If it said non-believers should be killed, they just understood non-believers should be killed, they didn’t try to interpret the meaning in any other way.
In a society blinded by religion, brainwashing starts right after birth. These people have been hearing the praise of their religion since birth, at home, in schools, colleges, at playgrounds, in trains, buses, on television, radio and in movies and plays. They have been told following religion takes you to heaven, and if you don’t follow religion you face the extreme punishment of hell. (They have been told) your religious book has the solution to all problems of the world, religion is knowledge, religion is science and religion is peace. If you hear something all the time, it becomes part of your subconscious. The base (foundation) remains prepared, you can easily build a palace of belief on it.
Man has always preferred the easy solutions found in religion to science’s continuous research and complicated equations (mathematics). Religion, hence, attracts every one — from illiterate daily-wagers to university scholars. Because understanding science is not as easier as understanding religion.
Terrorists have been for a long time now hacking to death atheists, seculars, rational writer-bloggers, homosexuals, progressive students and teachers, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has never expressed grief for any such deaths. She has let the killers safely exit the country. She did not bring to justice any of the murderers. She never arrested any of the killers. She did not punish anyone. On the contrary, (she) punished atheist bloggers, sending them behind the bars. She has spoken against freethinking. She has made rules against the right to freedom of expression. For the murder of freethinkers, she has blamed the freethinkers alone. Why did she feel like expressing grief for those who died at the Dhaka cafe? There must be a big politics behind this. Those who were hacked to death at the Dhaka cafe were children of the rich and influential. Was that the reason? Or was it because the world was watching what Hasina would do after a terrorist attack in the city?
Actually, politicians are hypocrites. Will accept what is convenient in the religion, not the rest — it is the Muslims with this mentality who are hypocrites. In fact, those militants were not hypocrites. Whatever they were brainwashed to say, they uttered like mechanised puppets. They didn’t think about their life, they had come that night knowing they would die, believed they were going to heaven. Somebody told them, taught them they would get the reward of jihad, a place in the highest heaven if they killed non-Muslims. After hacking to death the foreigners, displaying the height of atrocity, they told their Muslim countrymen in the morning, ‘we are here only to kill the non-Muslims. We won’t kill you. You all (the Muslims) can leave. We are going to heaven anyways’.
You cannot uproot terrorism by killing terrorists. You need to uproot terrorism at source to end terrorism.