[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!]
(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!
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…