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.

No comments: