Sunday, February 14, 2016


Memories are tricky. Some titillate you, some waft in like the smell of fresh bread from the oven, and some draw you back in time, just to remember a forgotten name.
My memories of Borkhola are tinged in various shades of green. Of fresh tea leaves, mostly. And the smell of sweat when I played with the Santhal boys, just behind our tea estate, where the laborers lived. The Santhals were brought to the British tea estates in the late 1800s, but they remained indigenous. Living on the fringes of a small village, bordering the jungles, they were the first to face the wrath of the elephants and lose their children to the leopard cats. They danced around the fire at night, and the jungle beat of their drums could be heard reverberating in the hills. The memory of that rhythm is fading.
The winter memories beckon, of the empty paddy fields, the tea gardens in the hills, and of Nara Tilla, the single barren hillock that I could see from my terrace. It can't be far, I thought to myself, and I must roll down Nara Tilla one day. That seemed like a singular purpose for the longest time in my boyhood. I can't remember having any such concrete goals in my adult life now.
A laborer's boy and I had gone in search of that lonely hillock one day, just to roll downhill. The journey to the hillock was arduous, although it didn't seem so far. And on the way down we went over the touch-me-not bushes at breakneck speed. The fever that followed lasted 18 days. There are memories of Ma removing the tiny thorns from my body. That pain is still palpable. I can almost feel the harsh edges of the thorns under the skin of my palms, close enough to pull out but deep enough to hurt. Just like it hurt when she walked out the door, taking a part of my soul with her.
I can't remember the name of the boy, though. He tied a red thread around my wrist when I was leaving Borkhola. Protects you from the baghdasha, he said.
Thirty years later, I had never seen a leopard cat in my life.
***************************** After Ma passed, I had not gone back to Silchar, but the winter offer on the return flight was irresistible. Everything seemed to have changed in Borkhola. There were so many more shops. "There's a big mall coming up near the bazaar," I was informed, but I went walking to the Santhal village. There was Nara Tilla in the distance, and I could see a trail of smoke coming up from the village. As I approached the gathering of men and women around the fire, an acrid smell of burning flesh hit me. There was a dead animal hung above the fire, and everybody was cheering. The fur was burnt black, and the body had gone stiff. One man was turning the body with a long stick, to ensure it gets cooked evenly.
"Sujan, isn't that you?" I heard a man calling out my name. He was a bearded man, squatting a few feet away from the crowd. "Am Ramdass, do you remember me?" There was Ramdass, my childhood friend and ace archer. He taught me how to make a bow and build two kinds of arrows. The thotti is to stun, and the gajal is to kill with piercing. I didn't have to tell him about my failing memory, so I just smiled and sat next to him.
"Nara Tilla, Ramdass, how can I forget? What are you people up to? Aren't the forests officials going to trouble you later?
"Oh, it was a baghdasha that we trapped after almost a month. It had taken away three babies last month from us," he muttered, "Dushman, dushman. The forest babus will turn a blind eye."
"I heard you've become a sadhu, Ramdass? That you are a clairvoyant of sorts?"

He smiled, exposing his burnt sienna teeth. "You've grown shorter than you were, Sujan. And don't worry, she will come back one day, only you have to unburden yourself of her memories first. But when she comes back, you won't want her anymore."
***************************** I don't know how one can "grow" shorter, but something tells me it means I lack the vision of a taller man, who can see clearly till the horizon, where the sun sets behind Nara Tilla.

(a story by Sujan Bhattacharjee)

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Muluk (Ashtami)


Muluk couldn't hear what Daaribaba said from under the tree.

Daaribaba sleeps on the platform at night and sits under the clutch of sal trees during the day. Muluk has seen him everyday the last 13 years he's been in this village. Ramu, Pocha, Muluk, his parents had run out of names and named their third kid after the village. He doesn't resent it. This is a little hamlet of about fifty families, and most of them are into tilling land. But they have a well-kept secret. The village of Muluk has created the best thieves, burglars and pickpockets in this part of Birbhum. Some have moved to Calcutta for better career opportunities, and Kartik'da is famed to have picked the pocket of the legendary Dharmendar in Bombay. Muluk loved Amitabh Bachhan better.

He dropped out of the village school after the master moved to another village. Apparently he didn't get his salary on time, but Muluk can't tell. Most of the breadwinners of the village used nearby Santiniketan for their daily haul. From bathroom mugs to slippers to dog chains, there's absolutely nothing that they didn't covet. "Don't be too discerning. Pick up what you get, and till the land during the day." There were little snippets of wisdom like proverbs in this community to whom stealing was a way of life in the absence of a religion. And the haul was traded every weekend near the railway station. It's the month of Aswin and time for Durga Puja, but there's no puja in his village. But the hope of new shirts and clothing from the clotheslines remains. The women prefer new sarees.

"Get me a towel. That Madrasi Mariamma of cobblers' street got a towel and says gamchhas aren't as good as towels. Can you find a towel for me today?" his mother demanded.

And Muluk walked along the rail tracks that led straight to Santiniketan, off to try his luck for the day. To find, among other things, a towel for Ma. Daaribaba was waving at him and saying something urgent. There was always an urgency in his voice as he nodded his head, shook his white beard, and lifted his emaciated hand to wave at someone. He had stories to tell, and nobody had the time. It somehow didn't matter,

It will take him a good one hour to reach Purva Palli, the area where all the rich folks stay, and he aimed to reach by twilight. "Make your hit either at twilight or before the birds are up." Muluk could never do 3.00 in the morning. He always chose twilight to do his thing.


It was the evening of Ashtami, and Anindita didn't like it one bit. She had a date with Shubho that night at the Central Pujo, and when they suddenly came off to Santiniketan this morning, she had no way of letting him know. She didn't have their number.
It made her very upset, but there was no protesting in the face of what had happened. Her dad's house in Santiniketan had been burgled the previous night and their neighbor had called to inform. The fun of Durga Puja for her was in Durgapur. And here she was, looking at the broken backdoor, the broken wardrobe from which the latest question papers were missing, and the dust around the rectangular spot on the mantelpiece where the radio used to be. They couldn't take much money because he had come to spend Durga Puja with them, but it was a burglary nevertheless.

"Let's check out the nearby pandal, why don't you take a bath and get ready, Ani?" her dad insisted. Prof Shankar Raman taught Physics at the university and although he was a Tamilian, he enjoyed celebrating Durga Puja with his Bengali wife and daughter. "Let's not waste the evening."

"How do you plan to lock the door, baba?"
"Oh, we'll leave it open anyway. They've taken what they had to take. I will make a new set of question papers for this semester. Come, come, hurry up. And Nobeen is coming to fix the door tomorrow."

Anindita went into the bathroom and switched on the light. The wooden shutters had been neatly lifted off their hinges leaving a gaping hole into the night. The neighboring land was vacant, home to wild shrubs and Giant Milkweed. If some house was vacant for a night, they didn't spare even the windows and doors.
Ani took off her chiffon kameez. Ma had bought her some pairs of Belle bras, but Ani didn't like them. Her breasts were pubescent, just showing up, and she didn't want to modify their appearance. The open window didn't bother her anymore as she gradually removed all her clothes.

The song from the nearby pandal had stopped playing, and the metallic sound of water filling the steel bucket shattered the silence. The Giant Milkweed has a thick white flower. The milk makes you blind, they say. She could see the white flowers in the dark outside, and the darker shape of a boy standing there, the light from the bathroom falling on him.

The boy was standing there, staring at her. He didn't have a shirt on. He was probably not even a teenager and Ani realized that he couldn't take his eyes off her. Ani stared back at him for a good long minute, without trying to cover herself up. The boy didn't try to run away.

Ani wrapped herself in the towel and switched off the light of the bathroom.

She didn't know if to cover her breasts or to cover the scar that ran from between her breasts down to the navel and beyond. She wasn't thinking. This moment hadn't happened.


Muluk couldn't register what had happened either. He had seen the womenfolk of his village bathing at the pond, but he hadn't seen anybody like this before. She was beautiful, like the earthen idol of a young goddess. And with her inexplicable act of generosity that night, she was nothing less than god. There simply couldn't be a bigger act of kindness, there couldn't. It was the day of his richest haul, Ashtami. Muluk could hear a buzz in his head, the drum-roll of a possessed dhaaki, weaving magic with his sticks. How could she be so beautiful? Even the railway track seemed to shudder mildly with the drums. It was loud enough to drown the sound of the approaching train.

"Don't walk on the tracks on your way back, tonight. There's a new express to Sainthia." Daaribaba still waves at people and warns them. Nobody listens to him anyway. It doesn't matter.