[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.]
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.