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I first met Essar (it could be a name in any of the several Mundari dialects spoken in the general area, but I assumed it to be a distorted form of Īśvar—as it was more likely to be—obviously unrelated to the industrial group of that name) through one-armed Lulla. And how dignified he was, Essar, I mean!

Lulla Mahato was a useful errands man in the Gamharia factory of the company that I was then working for (I had to keep body and soul together, after all, since I retired from a series of grey jobs in the last ten years)—receiving and despatch clerk and office boy rolled in one. He had lost his left arm from the elbow in an infernally inequal battle with a cheap and temperamental machine with jagged teeth, rigged in a one-car garage in Sirhind, where used-and-discarded juggernauts—imported, of course—were taken apart to serve as models for desi behemoths. Lulla’s monster was being broken in like a bucking bronco by the powers that were. That was thirty odd years before my time, when he was a casual worker on daily wages (if and when he was picked up from the queued up many on a particular day by the shift in-charge), and not yet twenty years of age on paper then—actually less. He would also have lost his only livelihood then and there, but for S.N. Singh, the then (and much later, in my time again) union boss. Lulla, eventually, was confirmed with a dubious designation but many responsibilities.

Lulla (that, obviously, was not his given name, but an unkind sobriquet in view of his missing arm) commuted from his native village near Chandil by bus. We shall call it Panchpahari—the village of five hills. It was predominantly a Bengali-speaking bhumija village, an ambiguous label for an indefinite caste. The caste actually embraced a whole lot of original inhabitants of dubious origins, not under the Schedule for backward tribes. Some of their surnames indicated that in some earlier period their ancestors had held important sarkari posts, albeit in the era when local rulers subscribed to Buddhism. Maji (or Majhi) was clearly a corruption of Abahatta majjhim and Saṁskṛta madhyama: an intermediary (for tax collection?). Mahato might have once been mahattara: a Maji’s superior, perhaps, and with an ambit of greater responsibility! There were a few families of adivasi tribes—Mundas mostly—in one disadvantageous corner of the village, though they did not belong to what was once their own territory in another hilly region, and were considered the lowliest of low by many.

•••

By the time I had joined this company, the roads to anywhere in Seraikella-Kharsawan, the district that went by that name, beyond the old and tired bridge over river Kharkai (might have once been Kharakāyā, to indicate the sharp current when in monsoon spate) was a continuous mass of pot-holes, held together by a hint of tarmac and lots of good luck—a far cry from the well-maintained roads in the company town of Tatanagar-Jamshedpur. And the fledgeling state of Jharkhand was being managed by one bloc at the helm at a time, in wild yo-yo swings, with nary a sign of stability.

No one could predict when the bus services would be disrupted, and for what reason. Caving in of a culvert, accidental or subversive, was a regular feature. More often it was a tyre-burning rasta-roko by the youth wing of whatever party had reasons to protest. Monsoon floods were rare in the region but that too stopped the bus service sometimes. Lulla’s attendance record looked dismal as a result. The others could always pedal down all the way; he didn’t have the option.

That morning when I set out for work from my sanctum sanctorum in Sonari, it was drizzling. The city centre at Bishtupur was wet and well-washed for a change. The traffic nearer the bridge—the one over Suvarnarekha was yet to be built then—was slow, as usual. News came just after lunch that the narrow bridge was blocked. Apparently an eager-beaver six-wheeler misjudged the size of the eighteen wheeler that was coming from the other side, and got wedged between the raised walkway at one end of the bridge and the juggernaut. All the realm’s imaginary horses and all the realm’s men couldn’t pull Humpty and Dumpty apart to let the traffic flow, for both the vehicles were badly damaged in the misadventure. That meant that I was trapped till they cleared the stranded traffic on both sides and do some serious dissection to separate the errant trucks.

The only other way home was a detour through the highway via Chandil, well nigh forty kilometers more than I had bargained for. My driver, the temperamental Malkhan Singh, insisted that we leave early. In my wisdom I offered Lulla a lift back and rest of the day off.

It was still drizzling when we reached the spot where a half kilometre detour would lead Lulla to his home. Malkhan would have missed the dirt track but for Lulla, who offered to walk from that spot on, but how could I let him in such weather! “The car might get mired in the mud,” protested Lulla. “Wouldn’t you offer us shelter if it did?” I quipped.

We ploughed through what was left of the reddish track to his doorsteps, and Lulla offered us tea. It wasn’t quite three-o-clock yet but very dark. Masses upon masses of heavy rain cloud promised more rain; I wanted to leave early but couldn’t do so without offending Lulla’s feelings. Someone took out a few moulded PVC chairs to the front patio for us to sit. After a round of introductions with the members of Lulla’s extended family and a bit of tête-à-tête, two women brought us tea and biscuits. Before my first sip an ancient person emerged from one of the inner rooms. He was introduced to me as Essar-baba, and occupied the vacant chair by my side.

•••

[To continue]

[It took me so long (since January 10) to publish this second and concluding part of the post, not for laziness alone but because I was at a loss to decide which of the many Kālu anecdotes to scrap, lest old-timers, familiar with the area and the characters, add two and two together. That could embarrass several of the rôle players and, more than them, myself!]

PART TWO
(Continued from http://wp.me/p1dQVh-k1)

If I’ve somehow conveyed that Kālu was a voyeur by nature, or a nosey parker, I’ve given you the wrong message. His rectitude was beyond question and the innocence he wore on his face came from the core of his heart. It was more a case of events seeking him out rather than the other way round. And the occasional pretty penny that came his way as a result, was certainly not because he had ever blackmailed anybody. He spoke a mixed brogue, the usual dialect of Hooghly-Bānsbeḍe, with broad elements of other districts near and far, and a liberal sprinkling of Bihari profanities. He had picked up all those at the river ferry. His personal lexicon had more swear words — mostly fanciful names of different parts of the human anatomy and bodily functions thereof — than I thought was possible! Despite all that, he was a good speaker with much to tell, a way with words, and a shrewd instinct of what not to say where. And he took a fancy on me (for I was afflicted with a most embarrassing stutter those days, brought about by my ill-advised switch from left hand writing to right, and was a good listener, perforce).

That alone, the swear words he used in every other sentence, made people think that he belonged to the bad lot, and should not be made friends with. Certainly Mr. Banwett thought so when Kālu hallooed me from afar, apparently rudely to some onlookers, when I was pedalling hard on my way to the new staff quarters on some errand. It reached my parents’ ears via Lajjadi, Mr. Banwett’s daughter. Another day at another time Mr. Maitra of Maitra Watch Company thought the same. Mother raved and ranted about family honour but father, looking up from his crossword puzzle directly at my eyes, confused me by simply saying that I was old enough to pick my friends. Yes, I was almost fifteen at that time — that disastrously dangerous age!

The rude halloo did it! That was the day Kālu came out with his most graphic tale — the one he told in breathless whispers, for he too was deeply moved. It concerned Māyā, one of mill-man Śiśir Das’s daughters. The man she was married to had apparently rejected her for her dark skin!
“Never seen the hilhilé, miśmiśe girl,” Kālu asked me, “the one who walks ramrod straight and still swings her arms and hips ever so gracefully, like so?” No, I hadn’t, either before or ever after, for she had eloped about the same time.

Hilhilé, the Bengali adjective, connotes slimness in a serpentine way; miśmiśe refers to the degree of darkness. The context in which he uttered them conveyed to me the image of a kāl keuté (black cobra, or is it krait?). I saw in my mind’s eye the forebody of a pitch black snake rising high above the ground, hinged at the waist, and swaying its hood ever so slightly.

She, Kālu continued, was in love with Ramen Mandal, the one who had just completed his pass course bachelors’ degree from Naihati College and found a good job in Burdwan. The seriousness of their affair has to be judged in the context of a tiny Bengal town by the river Hooghly some fifty two years ago. They usually met on the sly on the strands of faraway Chandernagore. That was where Kālu spotted them first. The night before he narrated the story to me, he had seen them again, in the dead of night, in a bare single quarter vacated earlier in the day, making desperate love on the bare floor. It rained throughout the day. Kālu too had thought of spending that night in the same dubious shelter (for he didn’t have any permanent home for such weather).

… He was stunned, to say the least. It was, apparently, the first time he had seen human mating, albeit in the darkness that matched Māyā’s skin. A distant street light, weak and ineffective through the rain, and occasional lightning bolts, reflected suggestively from the droplets on the girl’s ebony skin added to his confusion.

Kālu slithered away as silently as he could, seeking another shelter elsewhere. His breathless narration stunned me too. I never imagined lovemaking could be violent, and the idea of the girl on top surprised me beyond measure. For a long time thereafter I thought of love as a hilhilé miśmiśe kāl keuté restlessly whiplashing against an unseen someone!

Kālu’s range of knowledge went far, far beyond such peccadillo.

The Boses’ flat in the estate faced ours. Nanki Mahato, their factotum, came running one afternoon and panted an incoherent story to our Mahadev. I was in the kitchen too. Patient questioning revealed that someone had stolen the unopened packet of Ramdas’s bonus money – a hefty sum – from his locked quarter in the single operators’ line the night before. Ram had called in the best gunin – the local term for an exorcist cum fortune teller – from Naihati across the river. The gunin used two separate techniques – nakhadarpaṇa (putting a drop of oil on the thumbnail of the victim to make it shine like a magic mirror and reveal the face of the culprit) and bāṭi chālā (rolling a metal bowl that’s supposed to magically seek out the culprit), and in no time established that Madho was the thief. They searched Madho’s quarter and found the incriminating packet, still in the envelope bearing Ramdas’s name, but with a hundred rupee note missing. Needless to say, the hapless man was badly mauled by the bystanders. The police was on the way to arrest him.

When I carried this bizarre news to Kālu, he sniggered insultingly in his characteristic way. “You too believe in such mumbo jumbo!” It transpired that Ramdas had planted the envelope in Madho’s room. Kālu was a secret witness to that. The gunin too was part of Ram’s conspiracy to put Madho in trouble, as per my friend, but he was taken in custody, for who’d believe a street urchin with nowhere to sleep when it rained!

… The last time we met was during the long recess between my school leaving examination and admission to a Calcutta college; that makes the year 1962. Kālu wanted to meet me far from our beaten route. Late that afternoon we sat on the culvert by the Bandel-Katwa railway line beyond the Grand Trunk Road level crossing. He looked grim. That was unusual for a boy who was naturally so effervescent. Using very few words he conveyed that he was going to speak about Bulaki Lal’s family, the same Bulaki, once a common workman in the company’s payroll, who belonged to the lowliest of low Kurmi caste, and made a lot of money during the war years as an order supplier to the company. Each of his two sons, Jumna Lal and Ganga Lal, ran his own grocery shop — one nearby and the other at Bandel bazaar. Jumna also kept a woman somewhere near T0la Phatak. That was common knowledge. It was also whispered that the major part of the family’s wealth came from crimes, known and unknown.

“Have you heard about the murder of Jasbir Singh?”

Jasbir was a senior watchman in the Watch and Ward department of the company. His mutilated body was found one morning from the bushes beyond the ruins of a domed mosque at one end of the old market. I had merely heard a sketchy tale, mostly speculative, about the heinous butchery, for I was spending my hard-earned recess mostly in Calcutta, several days at a stretch, and had just about returned to my home town. “What about it,” I asked.

Kālu whispered that he had witnessed the barbarous act and had recognized one of the three assailants: one of Ganga Lal’s hated gang of goons who should remain nameless. Of course, he had no intention of telling anyone, not even me, for this piece of information was in a different league than all the previous ones. But last night he found another Ganga goon watching him suspiciously and another, the head honcho, tailing him from a distance. “Keep it to yourself,” he said. I begged him to tell me the name of the murderer, but he didn’t want to put me in danger too.

… That was the last I saw him for, in a few days, I joined a college in Calcutta, found new friends, discovered the heady pleasures of city living and peer group admiration, and didn’t look him up when I visited my parents’ home over week-ends; not till it was too late. That was the last anyone had seen him, for he was a boy who knew too much for his own good!

I remember him still as a stranger exiled to our strange land on sufferance!

Concluded

Postscript: The Māyā episode had moved both of us beyond measure. About a decade after Kālu had vanished, I wrote a poem in Bengali that I never got around to sending for publication. I’ve no idea where it lies now — could be amongst the pile of discarded papers that my wife has preserved for no reason — but remember part of its refrain. In it Māyā becomes Mahāmāyā, the great goddess of universal illusion.

মহামায়া কেবল হাসে,
সকৌতুকে উপছে পড়ে বিশ্বযোনি৷
আমরা বাঁচি ভয়তরাসে…

Loosely translated, that’d read

Mahāmāyā is aquiver with laughter,
Her cosmic organ overflows in glee,
While we live in abject terror…

[For a little over a year I was privately taught the finer points of drawing by Abanimohan Ghosh, the then art teacher at Hooghly Branch School. That gave me the excuse to go and seek picturesque and grotesque parts of the neighbourhood to fill up my sketchbook with whatever and whoever caught my fancy. All the results of such lonely expeditions are inadvertently destroyed or are irretrievably lost. But, there was also an unseen sketchbook that I have treasured and preserved: that of my mind, and that has still retained many outré silhouettes — sepia with age — in greater detail than my pencil sketches had ever achieved. Aristides Aratoon of my two-part post The Last Armenian of Chinsurah was one such. Ashrafi in my Bengali blog সেই জোনাকিরা was another. This post is about another member of my menagerie. I have taken the trouble of changing as many names as I saw fit to honour their privacy — even though some of the characters in this sketch might be dead.]

PART ONE

Kālu told me once an unlikely tale that his mother often appeared in his dreams. It was a statement of wishful thinking, and reflected his yearning to belong to someone special. Rumour was that Ratan-babu, of the riverside teashop fame, had picked him up — a helpless infant — from a rubbish dump at Hajinagar on the other side of the river. And his wife, issueless and long past her child bearing age, nurtured the boy till he was about three. It was Kālu’s second, and not quite the final, turn of bad luck that she didn’t survive to bring him up.

No one knew how he came to be named so insultingly — not an affectionate Kāluyā, nor Kālipada or Kālidāsa or Kālinātha with religious overtones — for Kālu was a derogatory corruption of Kālo, literally black, though the boy was far on the fair side of average Bengalis, certainly several shades fairer than yours truly. One couldn’t entirely ignore the other possibility, offered by some busybodies who pretended to know, that the name was in memory of the dirt heap from which he was picked up, quite close to the wayward end of the shanty town of jute mill workers who were less than human.

He never went to school but could read discarded Bengali newspapers, sundry magazines — notably cinema pulps like Jalsa and Ultorath that often carried filmworthy love stories, soppy to the core — that usually landed up, before being recycled into paper bags, outside the cubbyhole of the only kabadi (scrap) dealer in the market. He also displayed an avid interest in cheap detective novels of the Dasyu Mohan series penned by Śaśadhar Biśwās, or the slim paperback equivalent churned out prolifically by an unseen entity called Swapan Kumar. I must confess at this point that none of us was averse to such enjoyable fare.

As a growing child he earned his keeps by working as a tea boy, for Ratan-babu was not as doting as his late lamented wife. It was a job that was low on wages, amply compensated by regular commuters (who came to work in the factory from the other side of Hooghly by country boats) in the form of generous tips in cash and kind, thanks to his innocent countenance that also embodied the implied lines of perpetual surprise. And his meals in Ratan-babu’s lonely home continued to be free, for his keeper was not totally devoid of kindness.

As and when his mentor died (1955 or 56), Kālu began freelancing as an itinerant odd-jobs boy in the two market places that catered mainly to the company-town residents. His rote took him as far afield as Chinsurah at one end and Triveni at the other — both accessible by Bus Number 4 (Local) that plied in between. He had a reputation of being tenacious and scrupulously honest in money matters and, therefore, was trusted by all and sundry, including Sudhir-babu, the shrewd sari-shop owner, often with several hundred rupees at a time.

That he also kept his eyes and ears wide open came to immense advantage a while later — a benefit that he didn’t envisage but had come to him unbesought.

“I saw Vinay-da and Minu-di in the Scouts’ Den one night. Vinay-da gave me a two Rupee note then and there, and Minu-di gave me five the next day at the bus stop.”

I, in my wisdom, failed to see why these people were suddenly so generous to a street urchin, even if he looked so innocent!

∙∙∙∙∙

For the period that I had seen him around,  between my my joining (1957) and leaving (1962) the government school at Chinsurah, he had hardly aged at all, seemingly a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old throughout the period. No, he had nothing to do with Chinsurah. I mentioned the government school merely to fix an approximate date when I ran across him first in the new market (not the famous New Market on Lindsay Street, Calcutta, but the company-built market place, that was newer than the one just outside the company premises, in its own one-horse town tucked between Bansberia and Bandel), eating stale samosas and sipping an earthen pot of milky tea doled out to him gratis by the Ghosh’s sweet shop that styled itself as Dhākā Miṣtānna Bhāṇdār.

He sniggered and chortled, hiding his face behind his shirt sleeve, when I surreptitiously asked for an anna’s worth of gujiyā for myself, after I had finished buying the specified sweets for home consumption. When I looked daggers at at him — still a stranger, though I might have seen him once or twice around — he continued to laugh insultingly, though he had the grace to meet my eyes as squarely as was his wont, exuding his own kind of charm that made it difficult for onlookers to be angry with him. His snigger reminded me of the giggly and winking cat in Sukumar Ray’s Ha-ja-ba-ra-la, that in turn owed its existence to Carroll’s Cheshire ditto!

“Don’t you know that these cheap confectioners recycle last evening’s unsold sandeś and rasagollās, with extra sugar to make gujiyās, that you think are the freshest of fresh? Sugar, you see, is miles cheaper than cottage cheese used for making most of their sweets!”

I had very poor knowledge of market rates and sharp practices, but what he said seemed to be logical enough, for Praśānta, the youngest Ghosh, reacted sharply and slapped the boy real hard. The boy ran out of harm’s way but continued to snigger, this time at Praśānta and his cohorts, much like the vanishing Cheshire cat whose grin didn’t fade.

Kālu volunteered to correct the deplorable holes in my knowledge of the worldly ways. He took me around to introduce me to his special friends in the market, showed me the different places where he slept, the secret cache of his coveted magazines wrapped in a piece of discarded oil-cloth (for polyethylene was yet to become endemic), and kept up a rapid commentary running all the while, during the days of that summer vacation, whenever I happened to visit the new market on errands.

∙∙∙∙∙

(To continue)

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Hooghly Collegiate School, Chinsurah (Instalment One)

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About

151

The Schools for Patriotism

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Bengal, Bangla, Banga

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The Many Uses of Words: Insults (How we drag in animals)

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The Last Armenian of Chinsurah (One)

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CHILDREN’S BOOKS WE GREW UP WITH

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The Fireflies (Five) সেই জোনাকিরা

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Xenophobia and Prejudice(s)

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Debjān: Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay

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The Fireflies (Two)

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An Index to my Readable Blogs by URL

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Indian Politics: A Few Thoughts (Instalment Three)

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About

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My Inept Attempt

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The Civil Society and the English Language

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The Albert Hall Coffee House, 1962-65, Part Two

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ঈদের চাঁদ আর কাস্তে ¬ স্ক্র্যাপবুক বৃত্তের বাইরে

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বাঙালির শখ: ঘুড়ি ঘুড়ি (এক)

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হেমন্ত

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সেই জোনাকিরা (১৩–১৫) ৷৷ অনিরুদ্ধ সেন

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About

13

My Inept Attempt

[My inept attempt to translate a well known song by Rabindranath Tagore]

“I’ve earned my leave, pray, let me go —
I bid adieu this fall;
I return the keys, I’m done with them —
Pray, bless me one and all!

Good neighbours we were, I borrowed more
Than I was able to give;
It’s nearly dawn, the lamp’s gone out —
My turn has come, must leave!”

[The original, as it appears in Gītavitāna, Pauṣa 1380 Vangābda edition, Kārtika 1412 V reprint]

পেয়েছি ছুটি, বিদায় দেহো ভাই—

সবারে আমি প্রণাম করে যাই৷৷

ফিরায়ে দিনু ঘরের চাবি, রাখি না আর ঘরের দাবি—

সবার আমি প্রসাদবাণী চাই৷৷

অনেক দিন ছিলাম প্রতিবেশী,

দিয়েছি যত নিয়েছি তার বেশি৷

প্রভাত হয়ে এসেছে রাতি, নিবিয়া গেল কোণের বাতি—

পড়েছে ডাক, চলেছি আমি তাই৷৷

“My mother died last year,” Ari told me one day in a matter of fact way, as if he was giving me the news of a disaster in some distant land, “I’m practically an orphan now.”

I remember dimly now that his father had died years earlier, that Ari was their only child, and that his aunt Sarah, his father’s first cousin, had married an Anglo-Indian and so had fallen from grace, and had declined to bring up the orphaned boy when his mother died. That was the reason he was brought to Chinsurah earlier that year by his uncle (he used the Bengali word, mama), his mother’s brother. He also told me his mama’s name and wrote down his Chinsurah address, when he printed his own name in the last page of my rough book.

Memories tend to play strange tricks: I can’t remember the name of his mother’s family or their address at all, though I remember having written to Ari twice during my summer vacation, and he had written to me once. I can’t recall where he went to school in Calcutta, or how he learned to speak such accent-free, colloquial Bengali.

Ari’s English was decidedly better than mine. I had picked up the spoken version from my English-speaking playmates mostly Anglo-Indians with all their grammatical gaffes and mannerisms. Even I could make out that Ari spoke with a purer diction, almost at par with Colleen Butterwick or Johnny Young, pure-bred goras both, who were my classmates in Mrs D’Cruz’s preparatory school. I still remember two quaint English words that I picked up from Ari parlous and billet. “He’s assigned a billet somewhere in the police lines,” he was talking about his aunt Sarah and her husband, and I am approximating the sentence he framed, “and lead a parlous life of a policeman; how could they possibly bring me up?” Nobody in my life till then had ever used those two words in my hearing. 

Today, after a lapse of well nigh six decades, when I close my eyes and think of the Chinsurah I knew, I get clear pictures unnaturally so of the terrain, the riverside dhapis (actually backless, solid, brick-and-cement benches) strewn around the several maidans and the esplanade, where locals, young and old, sat down for their evening adda, a string of names and faces not that I can connect the faces to their rightful names any more, and many random trains of events that had taken place when I was just a boy. With hindsight I know that the inadequate, moth-eaten images were photoshopped in my mind, heightened in colour and contrast, some ragged spots glossed over, the rest sharpened in detail all without my knowledge, without my conscious effort, and none too accurately at that. I know it, for I can’t recall many details, like how many maidans lay between the field adjoining Duff School and the last one (didn’t it house a boxing club too at one corner?) near the town square. I fail to recall the name of the tea shop, a smoking haven for the older boys from the college, on the lane beyond it that circled the police barracks.

I also remember another part of the town, the seedier one, where modern privies had not come till well past my teens. Every morning dilapidated tractors used to pull several closed, oval tanks in train, yellow muck overflowing from the closed hatches, and all along their arduous route the terrible stench of mixed night soil drowned all else, and spread all sorts of dreaded germs in its wake. Merely thinking of the people, the caste methars, who collected the muck in open buckets from each house at the crack of each dawn, made me shudder.

The riverside zone of the town where the school was was the posh locality, old and decadent, some houses already gone to seeds, but were reasonably clean still, and well laid out. There were quite a few dilapidated houses, though, quite close to my peepul, their walls of thin bricks of olden times exposed in obscene poverty, like the hanging udders and prominent ribs of the hag in tattered sari who swept and wiped the floors in my classmate Nirmal Sadhu’s large but ugly parental house nearby.

The one in the corner had an external toilet, built rather high above the ground but facing a lane, perforce, where householders must have squatted straddling a gaping hole, and hoped that their excreta didn’t miss the bucket below.

The entropy increased as you moved farther and farther away from the river.

It seems to me that Ari was my friend for a long, long time but, in reality, it must have been just about three or four months; less, with the month of summer vacation intervening. I met him not more than six or eight times during the entire period.

Ari, who was then living in his grandparents’ house (own? rented? it never occured to me to ask) somewhere near the Crooked Lane, as he had told me once, had to walk quite a distance to reach my peepul. And I couldn’t venture as far afield lest the bus left without me.

His mama couldn’t put him in to any school at short notice, and had promised to take him abroad with him, for they were preparing to migrate.

“We couldn’t possibly migrate to Armenia,” Ari told me, “for it’s under the communists now.”

It was he who had first explained to me that his mama, a tradesman, wouldn’t be allowed in Soviet Russia to do the only thing that he did well.

“Noah’s ark had finally come aground in my fatherland,” he boasted, though he didn’t speak a word of Armenian himself.

So they settled for England. I bid him adieu a week or so before they, his grandparents, mama and he himself, boarded the Bombay Mail. “I’ll write to you once I reach,” he promised solemnly, but never wrote.

The peepul was also my teacher. It taught me to be patient, be introspective to make use of the loneliness of waiting, to read subjects that ordinarily I would never have chosen to read, to observe passers by and try to read them as well, and much more. It also taught me to be stoical in the face of the grief of parting.

Ari was the only Armenian I had ever known personally, though I had seen the Armenian Church, dedicated to John the Baptist, in Chinsurah, in the years after Ari had left. I knew that a few Armenian families, connected to the church, perhaps, stayed back in the town. Pearson Surita (the cricket commentator) and Ivan Surita (an IAS, I think) were the other well known Armenians of Calcutta. And curiosity had driven me to see Armanitola in Dhaka once, though I certainly didn’t meet any Armenian there. 

To me Aristides Aratoon was, and shall remain, the last Armenian of Chinsurah.  


Read The Last Armenian of Chinsurah (One) at http://wp.me/p1dQVh-hf

[I hereby publicly acknowledge my indebtedness to a Hindi post by Mahendra Goyal titled सामान्य ज्ञान टर्पण २ that was shared by Anindita Chatterjee, a close acquaintance of mine from my Jamshedpur sojourn, on Facebook dated September 11, 2013. I have merely retold it in English with much more liberty than is usual, have suitably embellished it for the taste of the very limited readership that I enjoy, and have written in the contemporary continuity pieces.]

You, gentle reader, only know one half of the old woodcutter’s parable if you know it at all, narrated to you by well-meaning elders. It is an old story, as old as the woodman himself and his wife of many winters. To jog your memory, fading undoubtedly with advancing age, I iterate the tale in its entirety — the half you knew and the rest that you didn’t — to complete the moral education that was well begun but never finished.

The Well-worn Tale

The woodman, sweating from overwork one sweltering afternoon in the rain forest, took a dip in the river keeping his age-worn axe on the shore. As he scrambled ashore after the much needed bath, he accidentally dropped the axe in the river and, carried by the turbulence, the axe was gone in a trice, vanished in the muddy stream. The poor woodcutter began weeping for the terrible loss in all his abject Bengali-ness, for he could not afford another one and, in that event, he and his wife would starve in these terrible times.

God heard him weep and came to him without bidding to test him, as is god’s wont, whether spelt  with an upper case G (2G, 3G or 4G, as the case may be, and contemporary scam headlines dictated) or not.

Posing as a mere passerby, he dived in the river and brought out an axe, exactly the same as the one that got drowned but for the blade; it was solid platinum, slightly worn off, and no good for the poor man’s work.

“Here’s your axe,” he proffered it to the hapless woodman. “That’s not mine,” the poor man continued to sob. God dived again and brought up a gold bladed one. The woodman sobbed on without let, vehemently shaking his head.

In the third try, god retrieved the original axe. The woodman, still in tears, thanked him profusely.

At that point god got back to his own likeness (so much nothingness to some like vacant space, but different images to people of different faiths). To the woodman he came as Śiva, clad in illegal tiger skin tie-around and fly-ash talcum.

“I’m pleased with you, for you are poor but honest. You may keep all the three axes as a reward from me for your singular virtue. You may do with them as you please.”

Thus ends the tale you must have heard before.

The Untold Intermediate Tale

Before returning home the woodcutter trudged along to the distant City, the city once spelt with an upper case C and presently with a ditto K, where dwelt the right honourable chief minister of the realm and her assistants, the wealthy merchant class (mostly outlanders), the up-and-coming yuppies, and the owners of all the parcels of the land living far off from the ones they owned in this realm (and others).

An authorized dealer gave him a handsome price for the noble metal axe-heads and kept the hafts to chase stray dogs with, for they were a menace in the City. He inquired about property prices in the City (oops! Kity, by the new diktat), only to find that it was not enough to buy even a flat in a reasonable locality, let alone live off it unless judiciously invested in the right direction. Dejected by the paucity (or, is it pauKity? I’m utterly confused!) of capital, he scratched his pastoral head real bloody (for nail clippers were too expensive) but to no avail, and so sought the help of an investment consultant. Under his advice his own iron headed axe he sold in the kabadi market for just about a Rupee and, that too, only because smaller coins were out of circulation.

As advised (and ably assisted) once again, he bribed the powers that be with part of the gross proceeds, net of taxes, party donations, consultation fee, brokerage and extortion honorarium, to make a small parcel of land in the dense forest (where he dwelt) over to his own name, and got the needful permission to build a cottage, with one or two spare rooms to let out now and then, where his humble hut once stood.

And thus he began his humble business for naughty (but never immoral) purpose for pāpī city dwellers to wallow in. Unused to any kind of hospitality in their previous incarnation as hardworking woodsfolk, he and his humble wife eked out an existence from that. But the sins of the city sinners never visited them by the lord’s grace.

The Final Part of the Fable

One day, his lawfully wedded wife went to take a dip in the same river, at the same spot where her husband had once bathed, but this time in their previously owned Nano, the only vehicle they could afford, what with the rapidly rising fuel costs. Despite their newfound riches, they could not afford a chauffeur at the going (and growing) rates.

It is not clear as to why she had to go to the river when they had a well-appointed attached bathroom in the barsati of their mansion where they dwelt, leaving the lower floor for the naughty Kitizens (got it right this time!). They also owned the swimming pool meant for their pleasure-loving occasional guests. But go to the river she did. And, as luck would have it, she drowned at the very spot where the axe did several moons ago.

The housemaid alerted the woodman when she was inexcusably late for her midday pūjā. They traced the car, and also her flip-flops (made famous by the honourable chief minister herself), red Bengal towel (worn thin and almost transparent), and a change of fresh clothes. As the truth dawned on him, the erstwhile woodman, inconsolable as he was, began sobbing like a child…

… And eventually Śiva appeared as himself, heard the cause of the woodman’s woe and, without wasting any further words, dived to retrieve an unconscious woman — Aishvarya.

“Is this your wife of fifty years?” he asked.

“Yes lord, she’s mine!”

Śiva assumed his angry aspect — the four-handed rudra murti in the tāṇḍava pose — and berated the woodsman in his most truculent manner.

“How dare you lie to me, me, the destroyer of all sinners high and low? And how could I have granted you a boon not so long ago, you avaricious and lustful old fool!”

“But, my lord, you can’t curse me before hearing me out,” before the lord could utter puarmūikobhava(पुणर्मुषिकोभवः), the woodman interjected, “Or else I may have to go to the Human Rights Commission!” Livid that the lord was, he too balked at the mention of the dreaded authority of HRC.

“Had I shaken my head in denial, my lord, you’d leave the unconscious Ash on the shore, and dive again,” continued the woodman to get in his point edgewise, “And bring up Katrina, perhaps.

“At my repeat denial you’d dive a third time to bring up my age-worn wife the same way you had once retrieved my equally age-worn axe. I’d nod affirmative at her sight, for that’s how I’m built, for honesty is my genetic policy. And then you’d ask me to take all the three women as my own.”

“Hmmm… I might have done just that,” said Śiva.

“That’s why I lied to you, lord, for I’d surely have been charged with immoral trafficking if I took them to the Kity (spot on again!) for due disposal. What good would that be? If not, I’d be stuck with these extra dames, assuage their needs — hunger for Bollywood ishtyle food that tastes good but wouldn’t fatten them to scapegoat dimensions and would cost a packet; hunger for ever-new raiment, footwear and ornaments to match, hairstyles to resonate with their kaleidoscopic moods, and other esoteric beauty treatments; and several other physical and spiritual demands. I’m ill equipped to do any of those, my lord,” he said with a pained expression writ large on his countenance, “and I don’t even speak Hindi!”

“And then my lawfully wedded wife would be jealous, even without my being physically able any longer, for she avidly watches all the lewd commercials on our television every evening (being a snake charmer in another aspect, you’d surely know all about it) — now that she no longer has to cook for ourselves, nor sweep and wipe the floor, nor wash our meager clothes in the stream yonder.

“And I request you to put yourself in my humble pair of Shreeleathers, think my thoughts, feel my wife’s irate strokes with her besom made of coconut frond spines, sharper than porcupine quills, on your own bare back! Why would you want to put me to so much trouble, lord? Why do you grudge me the white lie that I had to utter in self-defence? Eminent people seek and are granted anticipatory bail every day of the week; call this my anticipatory lie.

“Now that I’ve had my say, pray do revive my old woman and take the other two off with you to your harem.”

What Śiva did and said thereafter is not known to yours truly, the mere narrator of a tale that I repeat as I had heard it said, just as Vālmikī had retold the oft-repeated Rāmāyaṇa.

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