By Nabanita Sengupta
For Raya, the bustling bazaar of Ghumi, just outside the factory gate, held a special significance. It was commonly known as the gate bazaar or the 5pm bazaar and had simply come into existence out of a mutual necessity of two sections of people. The largest number of factory goers completed their daily grind in the factory at 5pm. It was convenient for them to fill their bags with fresh vegetables and other daily requirements on their way home. For the local vendors too, 5pm meant business. It assured them of a daily income however meagre that might be. This symbiotic dependence made this bazaar a thriving commercial area. But it was not all just commerce.
The bazaar was a complex mesh of stories. It was a catalyst which could convert a single innocuous sentence coming in contact with several human ears, into one long juicy tale. It was also the place where people exchanged news about each other, asked after friends and fellow beings. For Raya, the bazaar seemed to be full of chatter. She loved the medley of words that wrapped the place in a separate identity of its own. And the variety of languages was enormous. It became a game for her to count the number of languages she could discern during each of her visits with her father. She loved the different cadences of the medley, making a mental note of their pitch, speed and rhythm. No, she did not do all these consciously. A school going child then, she did not even understand much. It was a sort of habit with her, an inheritance of multilingual Ghumi. Much later, when she developed a conscious interest in the variety of bhashas in India, she understood the import of her childhood activities.
Even in bazaar it was Kaali the fishmonger who drew her interest the most. Each time she accompanied her father to the market, she did not miss a chance to listen to Kaali’s stories. Kaali had a trunkful of tales and was more than eager to narrate them. While most of her customers did not have much time to spare, Raya loved listening to those. Her father too found it convenient to finish his shopping from other nearby sellers while Raya stood in rapt attention, listening to Kaali. He knew that his daughter would be safe, with the fishmonger keeping an eye on her while entertaining her with anecdotes. Kaali was an ace in multi-tasking, much before the term was in vogue. Whenever Raya was there, Kaali would keep talking to her, keep an eye on her as well as measure, descale, cut and sell fish to her buyers. Her deft hands never stopped for a moment. Her stout appearance and sharp tongue made her a formidable figure. One of the legends about her was that once she had made a local goonda do sit ups in the crowded market for habitually bullying the vendors. Chances are that the story is apocryphal, nevertheless such anecdotes added an aura of strength to her personality. Today too, Raya stood in anticipation while her father continued shopping. In fact there was more than usual to shop, the festival of Holi being just a couple of days later. The market was more vibrant than on other days, with mounds of colours of various sizes and attractive water guns dominating the scene.
Raya’s favourite stories were about her grandfather, her dadu. Though she was barely four years when her dadu left them forever, she had vague remembrances of the old man. Kaali’s stories added to her mental picture of him. Kaali always narrated the same story in the same way each time Raya requested her to do so and always referred to the departed old man as grandfather or grandpa. Kaali had known her grandfather as a young man and had fond memories. She knew him to be a practical man with a no-nonsense attitude. Today Kaali promised to tell Raya one such story that also revolved around the time of Holi but was of a different kind.
As you know, I had met your grandfather here in the bazaar only. An avid fish lover, he used to be one of my regular customers. I was the first fish seller to set up shop here so all the Bangali baboos of Ghumi used to know me. Since your grandfather worked on a contract with this factory specialising in construction jobs, he had to go to the neighbouring big town to procure raw materials for his job. Those were the days when telephones were still restricted to offices or the homes of the affluent. Ghumi did not have access to telephones at that time. So, your grandfather had to go into town to place the order, make the payment and then return. The goods would be delivered later by a truck.
While returning from one such trip, he missed the bus that he was supposed to catch. It was almost dusk. The nearest bus stop, from which he could get another bus was a few kilometres away. He had only half an hour to reach there to be in time for the last bus. The place did not have any decent hotels too, so spending the night there was not an option. Also, he had made plans with his friends for Holi the next day and he didn’t want to miss that under any event.
He was in one of those areas which generally wore a deserted look by the evening and the commerce of daylight gave way to illegal activities by sunset. The sooner your grandfather left that place the better it would be. He was tired too. Also, since it was the evening before Holi, celebrations had started. As a result, there were no rickshaws in sight to take him to the next bus stop. Your grandpa was getting agitated. He was also carrying some important documents which he had to deliver to one of the officers in the factory. The documents were crucial for his business. He was acting as a go between for the factory and his suppliers to seal an agreement that would be beneficial to him too. But more important than the commercial benefit was the trust that both these organisations had vested upon him and the onus of living up to that trust worried him more.
Suddenly, he spotted a rickshaw coming his way. He was relieved and immediately stopped it. While negotiating the fare your grandfather realised that the person was not too well. But desperate about to catch the last bus, he did not want to miss the opportunity. So he hopped on to the rickshaw and asked the rickshaw puller to move as fast as he could. He did not have much time to lose. However, the rickshaw puller was in not a state to do his bidding. His emaciated body heaved with exhaustion and he even kept on missing the paddle. After watching him for a few minutes grandfather felt guilty. Yet his desperation to reach home safely did not allow him to let go of his only mode of transport. Never had he been a man with the need to maintain appearances and habituated to taking quick decisions, he did not hesitate in coming to a resolution.
Without thinking any further he asked the rickshaw puller to exchange places with him. The man was flabbergasted at such a request. Then grandfather explained patiently, “You are unwell. It is not good to exert yourself anymore. I can make that out by looking at you. At any other time I would have given you money and let you go but I cannot do so now as I must reach the bus stand immediately and there is no other means to do so. There are certain pressing matters that cannot be delayed.”
After much cajoling and sermonising and ensuring he would get a full fare on reaching destination, the rickshaw puller agreed. He had never met with such an unusual request and hence it was difficult for him to comply immediately. They exchanged places and grandpa focussed his complete attention on the road. He too was very tired after an extremely hectic day and could pull the vehicle only due to his sheer strength of mind. To a person unused to this task, it was not a very easy matter, especially because this part of the Chhotanagpur plateau had quite a number of ups and downs along the way. He could feel the strain in his thigh muscles and even had difficulty in breathing. After paddling for about fifteen minutes they reached the stop just in time for the bus.
That’s when I saw him. I had gone to the town to buy some new baskets for my fishes and was enjoying a glass of tea before the bus started moving. I had already found a seat for myself in the bus and had reserved it by keeping my baskets on it. Suddenly my attention was drawn to the lone rickshaw coming towards the stand and the very familiar figure of its puller. I could not believe my eyes and hence, kept looking closely.
As soon as they reached the stand and I was sure of the rickshaw puller’s identity, I rushed towards him. I was bursting with curiosity but looking at the condition of both the men I reserved my questions for some other time. Your grandfather handed me his precious briefcase which he had tied to his back with the rickshaw puller’s gamcha to ensure its safety. He was barely in a state to talk so I took the bag from him, waited till he paid the original rickshaw puller his fare and helped him board the bus. Tired from the exertion, he slumped on the seat and went into a deep sleep. I guarded his belongings, bought his ticket when the conductor came and woke him up only after reaching Ghumi. The briefcase that he had been guarding with such zeal was left to my care. Of course, it was only the next day when he came to return the bus fare to me that I got to know the whole story. The next day being Holi, he also brought me some sweets and a packet of colours. From that day he bought fish from no other fishmonger, even if they brought his favourite hilsa. He said that I have helped him in his most difficult time so he could never repay my debt. I have never met a person of greater integrity.
Raya could visualise the entire episode and another new aspect of her dadu was revealed to her. Suddenly the red, the yellow and the green colours that the vendors were selling, became colours of courage, honesty and integrity and she felt proud of her dadu and Kaali both.
Bhashas – Language
Gamcha – A cotton towel
Nabanita Sengupta is an Assistant Professor of English by profession and creative writer by passion. Translation remains one of her chief areas of work and interest. Her works can be read in various journals, anthologies and e-zines.
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