Hunting of the Snark
THEY SAY THAT Hāfez, the mystic poet, had left his homeland in search of his unrequited love, a strange lady whom he had seen for a fleeting moment from a distance. He was prepared to give away Samarkand and Bukhara for another glimpse of her face. I was less expansive, as I had neither Samarkand nor Bukhara to give away, for another look at the wonderful column of the July fireflies, but a slow fire burned within, unseen to others. The thirst for that chimeral sight stayed with me for many decades till the aftertaste became unsavoury but, at that time, it was very bright, haunting my idle moments, driving me insane with frustration. I did see many clusters of fireflies in the many years thereafter, large and small, but none ever as large or as grand. On the way to the company club from my mother’s house, near the sixteenth century Bandel Church, built three years after my father’s death, I often preferred the Sarat Sarani, a narrow, serpentine, pre-war loop of the Grand Trunk Road, abandoned to lesser use in favour of a wider and straighter version built by the wartime US army. The castaway loop was renamed after the famous novelist who was born and lived in a village not too far. That Bibutibhushan Bandyopadhyay lived in a house much nearer was conveniently forgotten by the naming authorities. In the awkward silence broken only by cicada song and frog chorus—ardent mating calls both—there loomed a dense clump of আশশেওড়া trees at one bend. The last tree in this clump cast a silhouette against the night sky that resembled the head of a serene, cud-chomping camel looking skywards as they often do in real life. It never failed to remind me of Jibanananda’s “…silence, awkward like a camel’s neck” (উটের গ্রীবার মতো নিস্তব্ধতা). The illusion was lost between dawn and dusk when the tree was just another. The darkness beneath the clump was often chosen by the less glamorous, local fireflies for gala dance parties. Shortly after my wedding, I pointed out the camel-faced tree to my wife, “That’s the camel tree I often spoke of”. We got down from the car to get a closer glimpse. “Look at those fireflies”, she exclaimed unprompted, for I hadn’t told her about mine and, following her gaze, I saw an ordinary, faintly luminous cluster, large indeed, but lifeless, remaining glued to its spot without any pretence of sentience.
Thanks to the mixed background of my childhood — semi-urban mostly, broken with occasional wicked (Happy Boy and Magnolia ice-creams, pastries at the Trinkas with my parents, and an extra cup with the pot, courtesy the tea-shop management) urban weekends and tame rural summer vacations (আলিপথ ধরে হাঁটা)—had given me certain advantages in life. No one had to take the pains of breaking the secret of birds and bees to me; stray pets and captive cattle made it that easy. And I picked up quite a few agricultural tips from green-fingered কেষ্ট মালি, and practiced them under his indulgent supervision. In Santiniketan, হরিপদ-দা had explained the mystery of the heady fragrance, akin to that of rice pudding (পায়েস) on the boil, that wafted from the paddy field to the cowshed: “ধানের বুকে দুধ এয়েচে যে!” I had seen a majestic white owl, a লক্ষ্মী পেঁচা, catch a frog one rainy evening. I had heard distant wails, বলো হরি হরিবোল, of gleeful mourners drunk on country liquour, in the middle of some nights, when they brought the hapless corpses to the local ghat. Such mundane knowledge had prepared me for Jibanananda’s brand of poems, and Blake’s, and, later still, my own. But none of the poets, or কেষ্ট মালি, or হরিপদ-দা, had ever known what I had seen one July, passing from the lesser copses of the IOQ to the disciplined arrays of the iron soldiers.
THE TENDER AGE, the years before you start reasoning, is also the most vulnerable. Every grief of parting—losing a toy, or transfer elsewhere of the parents of a close friend, or losing near ones, or ones familiar environs—is keenly felt at that age that cannot be relieved by sharing with others. And adults often talk in such ambiguous terms! Sometimes they backtrack on their own points, contradict themselves and other adults, leaving no alternative to the child but to be a keen observer of the errant grown-ups and suffer their ambiguities and contradictions in silence. My paternal grandfather, already in his death bed but still lucid, had advised me to be watchful of every moment, notice all oddities, weigh the idiosyncrasies, and dissect common-or-garden events regardless of how minor they seemed; মনে রাখবা, নিজের চোখে দেখা আর নিজের কানে শুনার উপর কুনও সইত্য নাই. He got his diploma from the Medical College, where BC Roy (who, the then chief minister, had confirmed his self-diagnosis and monitored his terminal treatment), CL Ganguli (who attended him several times) and KM Sen Shastri (a Medical College drop-out but a qualified Ayurvedic physician, besides being a Sanskrit scholar; years later my mother-to-be was shown the light of day by his eldest daughter) were his classmates. দাদু was a silent polymath in his own right—a rare breed, I suppose, even in those days—able to tutor his daughter all through till her English honours degree, for she wasn’t allowed to attend school or college till she enrolled in the university. I had often seen him, reading glasses in place, leafing through The Pilgrim’s Progress or a bound volume of the Strand Magazine, both well-thumbed, in silent afternoons. Who was I to ignore his sage advice?
Long before that I had begun noticing the kaleidoscopic world around me on my own. And that was also my undoing, for many adults around me resented being watched. And observant I was. A clear patch between two copses in the lesser field, diagonally opposite our front door in the IOQ, was sown one year with a crop of corn. In a bigger plot next to it, my father had carefully nurtured some glorious sunflowers, larger than usual. It must have been later the same year as the fireflies that a large flock of emerald parrots descended on these two adjacent patches. I watched them day after day, simultaneously in childlike wonder and grown-up curiosity, noting how they took turns to allow all members to partake of the feast till there was nothing left. Pedalling along on my tricycle (bought second hand from a home-bound gora officer), I followed Khoka-da’s factotum once all the way to the market one afternoon. Meanwhile my mother was restive and a search party was being formed when they saw me return tagging Chitta-da along. Till then it was my biggest solo (if you could call it that) adventure — at the price of Chitta-da’s job, though I wasn’t told about it then. It took me a while to realise how unfair and cruel the adults were!
MY SCHOOL-LIFE BEGAN that January (1951). IOQ gardens were resplendent in season flowers and quite a variety of roses. There, barely two months after my fourth birthday, I met many of my class mates for the first time. The rickshaw ride to school retraced part of my tricycle-adventure route and then quite a bit, about a quarter of an hour each way, circumscribing the factory boundary. My father wouldn’t get me a gate pass for the shorter passage through the factory: “Let him not take undue advantages”, he told my mother once. There are dark patches in the tapestry of my memory, like random macular degeneration; I often err in the chronology of events at others. I think Heather Castellari and Carol Wallington were my first rickshaw mates, later replaced by Ranjan (নন্তু) Bose. When so many portals of the wonderful world were opening for me in the IOQ and its sylvan surrounds, despite the fact that for some months I was tied down to my mother’s bedroom (the room that carried the fragrance of her daily Ushashi talc, Hazel snow, Oaten (?) cold cream and Aguru scent, or, on formal occasions, Max Factor Compact and a treasured Channel V) by hepatitis, they were actually planning to shift to The Estate, on the other side of the factory, where the interspersed paddy fields and the wetlands (বাদা) were. A number of my IOQ friends had already left for this green pasture. One day I was made to leave my emerald parrots, the colourful beds of flowers and friendly copses behind from which had once emerged my fireflies. There were many blocks of flats on one side of the Link Road, the spanking new road that linked the factory to the Grand Trunk Road beyond, two stories to each block, two flats per floor of those superbly detailed red brick buildings, their exterior brickwork bare and pointed, doors, metal window-frames and railings painted green. Flat number 116, in one of five blocks that also had sun-verandas, was to be ours till 1965. It was larger, no doubt, and had a rear balcony that covered the entire width of each block overlooking a fair-sized garden plot.
(To be continued to the next episode)