Categories
Ghumi Stories

The Other Side of the Curtain

By Nabanita Sengupta

Raya had always seen Sunny with one leg bent at such an angle that made walking a difficult process. But she was so used to seeing him as such that it had never struck her as anything unusual. The boy had a happy face that never failed to cheer her up whenever they met. So that day when she was feeling particularly miffed with the world, a chat with Sunny was all she wanted. The reason for her sudden dip in mood was the forthcoming annual function of her school. When was the last time that she did not participate in the school annual programme? But this year Madam Rawat did not select her for any of the performances. The play that her class was doing had only one female character and that role went to Pankhuri Sharma. Wasn’t it a conspiracy against her!

— But she can’t even speak a single line properly!

Raya complained to Sunny. Sunny smiled at her, his eyes displaying wisdom much beyond his eleven years. He was Raya’s classmate, her best friend, her companion in their short walk to school, yet somewhere he was way ahead of her in understanding and patience. Perhaps in denying him the use of one limb God had given him these qualities in ample amount to survive in this complex and selfish world of negotiations. The time that children of his age spent in running about, Sunny contemplated – thoughts from all parts of the world congregated in his mind, and he coloured them with his imagination and experience. Raya of course didn’t understand all this. To her Sunny was the comfort zone where she could release all the pent up emotions of her life. His words had magic and she always found the world better after a little chat with him.

She continued with her rantings against Pankhuri and Rawat ma’am on their way to school along the fiery orange corridor of the palash and krishnachura. Sunny listened, without interrupting her tirade. Few minutes later she was already feeling better, after pouring out her brooding heart to a sympathetic listener.

“What would Elizabeth Jane do in this situation?”

He remarked casually after she had calmed down a bit. But she didn’t fail to notice the mischievous twinkling in his eyes. They were currently engrossed in the Naughtiest Girl series by Enid Blyton and often imagined adapting some of her pranks in their own school. He knew Raya loved role playing from her favourite book and that never failed to cheer her up.

“Of course she would cook up an awesome plan to avenge herself!” Raya piped.

“But whom would she avenge herself on?”

“On Pankhuri! She stole the role!”

“Poor Pankhuri, she was just following the teacher’s orders.”

“Alright, then on Rawat ma’am.”

“And what would be the charges against her?”

“Not taking an audition of course! Do you think with an audition Pankhuri could have surpassed me?”

“Well, you have a point there! But tell me when was the last time you went for an audition in all these past years!”

Suddenly, Raya realised, like always, Sunny had shown her the one-sidedness of her thoughts. There was no answer to his last question. She didn’t feel that anger bubbling in her anymore though a whiff of disappointment surrounded her like the glow on the western sky even after the sun had set.

Slowly it was the day of the programme and she felt excited like all other students. Those who were not participating would get to watch it along with their parents and other distinguished guests. This was the first year that Raya was going to watch it from the audience’s perspective. Every year she had  spent this time along with other participants in the green room, coming onstage only for her part. This year, she thought she would watch the entire programme with Sunny and other friends.

As the curtains were drawn, Sunny intoned in a deliberate monotony: “ Now the Principal will come on stage and deliver a speech lasting half-an-hour, followed by another short speech by the headmistress. Then the first programme will be that of the outgoing classes of tenth and twelfth. These students will then be allowed to go home while rest of the programmes will follow.” He also told her that this was the schedule followed every year. While the principal was delivering his lecture, Sunny entertained Raya by anticipating most of his words.

Raya somehow managed to stifle her laughter and said, “have you fitted telescopic eyes into his notes! How do you manage to anticipate so much! I don’t know any of these, how come you know all about the order of performances!”

Sunny replied, “Just as I don’t know anything that happens on the other side of the wings Raya… You are lucky enough to get a glimpse of both sides of the curtain. I don’t think I will ever get to see the other side.” His tone was quite even but Raya was once again left speechless. She suddenly realised how privileged she had been in her life, just to be born in a way which most people considered normal! She flinched at her own insensitivity towards her best friend, the umpteen times in which she had cried for some trivial injustice, without even realising how unfair life had been to her friend. She held his hand and silently promised to herself that in one of the Annual Days of her school, she and Sunny would perform together on stage. Sunny would see the other side of the curtain too.

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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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Index

Borderless, May 2021

Editorial

And this too shall pass… Click here to read

Translations

Songs of Seasons: Translated by Fakrul Alam

Bangla Academy literary award winning translator, Dr Fakrul Alam, translates six seasonal songs of Tagore. Click here to read.

Temples and Mosques

Kazi Nazrul Islam’s fiery essay translated by Sohana Manzoor. Click here to read.

Purify My Life

Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poem, Purify my Life, translated by Shahriyer Hossain Shetu. Click here to read.

Waiting for Godot by Akbar Barakzai

Akbar Barakzai’s poem translated by Fazal Baloch. Click here to read.

Solus

Aditya Shankar translates a poem by Sujith Kumar. Click here to read.

The Last Boat

Tagore’s Diner Sheshe Ghoomer Deshe translated by Mitali Chakravarty with an interpretation in pastels by Sohana Manzoor. Click here to read.

Poetry

Anasuya Bhar, Scott Thomas Outlar, Saranyan BV, Matthew James Friday, Nitya Mariam John, RJ Kaimal, Jay Nicholls, Tasneem Hossain, Rhys Hughes, Vatsala Radhakeesoon, Ihlwha Choi, Himadri Lahiri, Sunil Sharma, Mike Smith, Jared Carter

Nature’s Musings

Photo-Poetry by Penny & Michael Wilkes. Click here to read.

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Lear and Far

As a tribute to the 209th anniversary of Edward Lear, Rhys Hughes writes of his famous poem, ‘Owl and the Pussycat’, and writes a funny ending for it rooted in the modern day. Click here to read.

Stories

If at all

Shobha Nandavar, a physician in Bangalore, depicts the trauma of Covid 19 in India with compassion. Click here to read.

First Lady

Rituparna Khan gives us a brief vignette from the life of one of the first women doctors in India, Dr Kadambari Ganguly. Click here to read.

Mr Dutta’s Dream

Atreyo Chowdhury takes us into the world of unquenchable wanderlust. Click here to read.

Neemboo Ka Achaar or Maa’s Lemon Pickle

A compelling flash fiction by Suyasha Singh hovering around food and a mother’s love. Click here to read.

The Literary Fictionist

In A Lunch Hour Crisis, Sunil Sharma raises humanitarian concerns that though raised in a pandemic-free world, have become more relevant and concerning given our current predicament. Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life

Serve the People

Danielle Legault Kurihara, a Quebecker in Japan, writes of differences in rituals. Click here to read.

Why I write?
Basudhara Roy tells us how writing lingers longer than oral communications. Click here to read more.

The Quiet Governance of Instinct

Candice Louisa Daquin, a psychotherapist, talks of the importance of trusting our instincts. Click here to read more.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Nations without NobelDevraj Singh Kalsi takes a fresh look at national pride with a soupçon of sarcasm and humour. Click here to read.

Adventures of the Backpacking Granny

In Visit to Rural BaoyingSybil Pretious travels to spend a night with a local family in rural China in a ‘hundred-year-old home’.Click here to read.

Essays

Four Seasons and an Indian Summer

Keith Lyons talks of his experiences of seasons in different places, including Antarctica. Click here to read.

Rabindranath and the Etchings of His Mind

Anasuya Bhar explores the various lives given to a publication through the different edited versions, translations and films, using Tagore as a case study and the work done to provide these online. Click here to read.

My Experiments with Identity

Tejas Yadav explores identity from the context Heraclitus, Rumi down to his own. Click here to read.

Can Songs be the Musical Conscience of a Film?

Prithvijeet Sinha uses Gaman (Departure), a Hindi movie around the pain of migrant workers, as a case study to highlight his contention that lyrics and songs convey much in Indian films. Click here to read.

Bhaskar’s Corner

In Manoj Das – The Master Storyteller, Bhaskar Parichha pays a tribute to one of the greatest storytellers from the state of Odisha, India, Manoj Das( 1934-2021). Click here to read.

Book Excerpt

Excerpted from A Bengali Lady in England (1885): Annotated Translation with Critical Introduction to Krishnabhabini Das’ Englandey Bangamahila by Nabanita Sengupta. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

A review of Feisal Alkazi‘s memoir, Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi Padamsee Family Memoir by Rakhi Dalal. Click here to read.

A review of Shakti Ghosal‘s The Chronicler of the Hooghly and Other Stories by Gracy Samjetsabam. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Raising a Humanist by Manisha Pathak-Shelat‘s and Kiran Vinod Bhatia. Click here to read.

Interviews

Communication scholars and authors, Manisha Pathak-Shelat and Kiran Vinod Bhatia, discuss how to bring up children in these troubled times, based on their book, Raising a Humanist, which has just been released. Click here to read.

Sonya J Nair of Samyukta Poetry talks about the Samyukta Research Foundation and its affiliates and its festival, Anantha. Click here to read.

Sara’s Selections, May 2021

A selection of young person’s writings from Bookosmia. Click here to read.

Categories
Index

Borderless, April, 2021

Greetings from Borderless Journal for all Asian New Years! Click here to read our message along with the video and a translation of a Tagore song written to greet the new year, with lyrics that not only inspire but ask the fledgling to heal mankind from deadly diseases.

Editorial

New Beginnings

A walk through our content and our plans for the future. Click here to read.

Interviews

In Conversation with Arundhathi Subramaniam: An online interview with this year’s Sahitya Akademi winner, Arundhathi Subramaniam. Click here to read.

Sumana Roy & Trees: An online interview with Sumana Roy, a writer and academic. Click here to read.

Poetry

(Click on the names to read)

Arundhathi Subramaniam, Jared Carter, Matthew James Friday, Michael R Burch, Aparna Ajith, Jenny Middleton, Rhys Hughes, Jay Nicholls, Achingliu Kamei, Vatsala Radhakeesoon, Ihlwha Choi, Smitha Vishwanath, Sekhar Banerjee, Sumana Roy

Photo-poetry by Penny Wilkes

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

With an introduction to Blood and Water by Rebecca Lowe, Rhys Hughes debuts with his column on poets and poetry. Click here to read.

Translations

The Word by Akbar Barakzai

Fazal Baloch translates the eminent Balochi poet, Akbar Barakzai. Click here to read.

Malayalam poetry in Translation

Aditya Shankar translates a poem by Shylan from Malayalam to English. Click here to read.

Tagore Songs in Translation

To commemorate Tagore’s birth anniversary, we translated five of his songs from Bengali to English. Click here to read, listen and savour.

Tagore Translations: One Small Ancient Tale

Rabindranath Tagore’s Ekti Khudro Puraton Golpo (One Small Ancient Tale) from his collection Golpo Guchcho ( literally, a bunch of stories) has been translated by Nishat Atiya. Click here to read.

Musings/Slice of Life

Pohela Boisakh: A Cultural Fiesta

Sohana Manzoor shares the Bengali New Year celebrations in Bangladesh with colourful photographs and interesting history and traditions that mingle beyond the borders. Click here to read.

Gliding along the Silk Route

Ratnottama Sengupta, a well-known senior journalist and film critic lives through her past to make an interesting discovery at the end of recapping about the silk route. Click here to read and find out more.

The Source

Mike Smith drifts into nostalgia about mid-twentieth century while exploring a box of old postcards. What are the stories they tell? Click here to read.

Lost in the Forest

John Drew, a retired professor, cogitates over a tapestry of the Ras lila. Click here to read.

Tied to Technology

Naomi Nair reflects on life infiltrated by technology, by Siri and Alexa with a tinge of humour. Click here to read.

Adventures of a Backpacking Granny

In Inspiriting SiberiaSybil Pretious takes us with her to Lake Baikal and further. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Tributes & AttributesDevraj Singh Kalsi pays tribute to his late mother. Click here to read.

Essays

Reflecting the Madness and Chaos Within

Over 150 Authors and Artists from five continents have written on mental illness in an anthology called Through the Looking Glass. Candice Louisa Daquin, a psychotherapist and writer and editor, tells us why this is important for healing. Click here to read.

At Home in the World: Tagore, Gandhi and the Quest for Alternative Masculinities

Meenakshi Malhotra explores the role of masculinity in Nationalism prescribed by Tagore, his niece Sarala Debi, Gandhi and Colonials. Click here to read.

A Tale of Devotion and Sacrifice as Opposed to Jealousy and Tyranny

Sohana Manzoor explores the social relevance of a dance drama by Tagore, Natir puja. We carry this to commemorate Tagore’s birth anniversary. Click here to read

Photo Essay: In the Midst of Colours

Nishi Pulugurtha explores the campus of a famed university with her camera and words and shares with us her experiences. Click here to read.

Bhaskar’s Corner

Oh, That lovely Title: Politics

A short piece by Bhaskar Parichha that makes for a witty comment on the forthcoming Indian elections. Click here to read.

Stories

Pothos

Rakhi Pande gives us a story about a woman and her inner journey embroiled in the vines of money plant. Click here to read.

Elusive

A sensitive short story by Sohana Manzoor that makes one wonder if neglect and lack of love can be termed as an abuse? Click here to read

Ghumi Stories: Grandfather & the Rickshaw

Nabanita Sengupta takes us on an adventure on the rickshaw with Raya’s grandfather. Click here to read

Flash Fiction: The Husband on the Roof

Carl Scharwath gives us a story with a strange twist. Click here to read

Flash Fiction: Flight of the Falcon

Livneet Shergill gives us a story in empathy with man and nature. Click here to read

The Literary Fictionist

A playlet by Sunil Sharma set in Badaun, The Dryad and I: A Confession and a Forecast, is a short fiction about trees and humans. Click here to read.

Book reviews

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Reconciling Differences by Rudolf C Heredia, a book that explores hate and violence. Click here to read.

Nivedita Sen reviews Nomad’s Land by Paro Anand, a fiction set among migrant children of a culture borne of displaced Rohingyas, Syrian refugees, Tibetans and more. Click here to read

Candice Louisa Daquin reviews The First Cell and the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the last by Azra Raza. Click here to read.

Book Excerpt

Excerpted from Raising a Humanist: Conscious Parenting in an Increasingly Fragmented World by Manisha Pathak-Shelat and Kiran Vinod Bhatia, the focus is on media and its impact. Click here to read.

Sara’s Selection, April 2021

A selection of young person’s writings from Bookosmia. Click here to read.

Categories
Ghumi Stories

Grandpa & the Rickshaw

By Nabanita Sengupta

Rickshaw

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.

Kaali’s story

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. 

Glossary

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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Ghumi Stories

The Threat Note

Nabanita Sengupta finds criminals lurking in the darkness of Ghumi woods

The note was placed on the boundary wall. Mr Roy’s eyes fell upon the unevenly torn piece of paper while he was leisurely slurping his customary morning tea. Even without looking at it closely, he knew what it was — a reminder of their previous demand. They wanted him to give them that preposterous sum of Rs 50 lakhs*! The note also carried a threat of dire consequences if the demand was not met within a stipulated time. The threat was reiterated by various blank calls and anonymous threats over the telephone. The second such note meant he could not ignore it for much longer. It would soon require some action on his part. 

Ghumi was not always like this. In fact, it had been a sleepy township bound by  rivulets and  hills on both sides. Routine life that revolved around a single factory ensured a monotonous existence, safe and secure, though a tad boring. Mr. Roy was happy with the sedentary life he led. It was not excitement that he sought at this stage of life, but a bit of comfort. The discipline of a fixed routine offered that comfort. Yet when this sudden and undesirable matter presented itself, Mr. Roy knew he had the capability to deal with it. 

Now that he thought, there had been signs. There always are. Nothing happens out of the blue. There is always a gestation period before the hatching. A more vigilant eye can discern the growing embryo of trouble. He too had felt the change; he could sniff it in the air but could not exactly pin it. Perhaps he could have done it once. Once when his senses were more alert and his body was more toned. That was the time when his reflexes were quicker than lightning. Agility had been his second nature. But that was almost a decade ago.

Ten years of civilian life had given him an increased girth and reduced agility, though that did not mean that he had lost all his capabilities. He still loved solving difficult sudoku puzzles and juggling his brain with tricky problems to retain his alacrity. He still exercised for at least about an hour, sweating himself out in a Spartan space in his backyard that doubled up as his gym as well as their occasional party room. He had to maintain certain basics, given the nature of his job.

During parties that he and his wife organised frequently, the room went through a complete transformation reflecting the theme of the gathering. At other times, pieces of furniture, crockeries, and many other items lay heaped in one part of their unused car shed. An  old vespa scooter occupied the other part. That scooter was Roy’s favourite, his only mode of commuting within the township. In fact it had become his signature look — pleated trousers, formal shirt, blue helmet and the navy blue Vespa.

Incidentally, it was during one of his dinner gatherings that Mr. Roy had first sensed the storm brewing. He did not ignore it, but did not even attach too much importance to it at that time. 

That was a party that he had thrown for the factory bosses. He and his wife often  threw dinner parties. But they never mixed ranks of the invitees. They understood the way social classes operated in that world. Factory and its adjacent office ranks decided the social standings in the world of Ghumi. The Roys did not overstep that. Their dinner parties therefore always included a set of people with homogeneous social standings. That way hospitality became easier and the guests also felt more comfortable. Conversations could flow in a more uninhibited manner, that allowed him to pick up titbits that might be useful later. His military years had well taught him the meaning and importance of ranks, the fragile vanities associated with it. 

That particular day, he was drawn by the unusually preoccupied demeanour of Mr. Iyer, the chief of the mechanical department of the factory. As he stood alone, lost in himself, in one of the quieter corners of the room, Roy casually moved towards him and struck a conversation. 

“Hello Mr. Iyer! I am happy that you could manage to come.”

“Hello Roy! Yes, somehow.”

Iyer was again lost in his thoughts.

Roy prodded a bit more

“All is well I suppose? You don’t seem to be yourself today.”

“Ah! Yes, all seems okay, I don’t know, am not sure. Certain things are bothering me though I can’t exactly figure out why.”

“Your long association with this factory must have made you intuitive. It is better not to overlook your intuitions.”

Roy was not exactly sure why he said these, but somehow they seemed to be the right words to say. He did believe a lot in intuitions and his own intuitions had often served him well. But this was not something he publicly acknowledged. He preferred to maintain his public image as an extremely pragmatic individual, though actually he was an avid reader of signs. The signs always warned him if there was anything afoot. 

After spending some more time with Mr Iyer, he moved towards other guests. But Iyer had given him food for thought. He now knew that those people had made inroads here too. This factory, which was the mainstay of a large thriving community was about to be caught in the throes of something far bigger and sinister. But that was a passing thought that had come to his mind then. 

The threat note probably meant that those people were involved. But how could that be? He knew that one of their modes of operation was to demand ransoms and attempt blackmail. Yet, he found it a bit odd. Those people usually did not pick on small businessmen. The reason Roy had set up his own enterprise here on a very modest scale swas to avoid drawing attention and being the target. He wanted to wait and watch, unobserved. His becoming the target therefore could also mean his exposure. It was time for a bit of snooping around.

Prabhu, the labour union leader, knew how to read signs too. He too had felt the changes, silently but surreptitiously creeping along the factory walls. This factory was his closest kin. He had grown up with it, around it. So he could understand it much better. When the unknown faces started making regular appearances, he could sniff the perturbation in the air. It was like the fly ash, directly choking the air pipe and blocking the fresh air. Prabhu knew that the factory was doomed if something quick was not done. 

Prabhu had observed Roy for the past twenty years. He had worked as his eyes and ears but somehow never stopped watching him. He knew about the threatening notes too and had instinctively felt it was the time to act. 

The jungle had started thinning rapidly. The General Manager was losing sleep over it. There were timber thieves surely, but how could no one catch them! This factory, which surrounded a large part of the Hazaribagh range, had always nurtured the forest and its belongings — the rich flora and fauna. After taking over the reins of this establishment, Mr. Iyer had personally taken care of the natural bounty of this place. It was a case of love at first sight for him. The dense and vibrant green that housed so many creatures like hedgehogs, peacocks, boars, and various kinds of fowls and birds had appealed to the environmentalist in Iyer. Also, he knew that the only way to keep the community safe from the poisonous gas erupting from this factory was to cocoon them in thick foliage. But suddenly now, towards the end of his career, things were changing — changing probably for the worse.

He suddenly remembered Roy’s words, “better not to overlook your intuitions”. Was he right? Iyer had always seen this man a bit differently from the rest. He had always felt that Roy was not what he seemed to be. Yet, in spite of his doubts, or perhaps because of them, he felt more drawn towards that man. He promised to himself to cultivate a closer association with him. 

But Mr. Iyer was not at all prepared when Roy burst into his office on a particularly frosty morning, dressed in nothing more than a light woollen sweater. Mr. Iyer had just entered his office clad in a heavy suede jacket and a monkey cap.  His feet were covered in a pair of woollen socks inside the fire safety shoes that all employees of the factory had to wear, irrespective of their rank. Shoes in that sense was actually a great leveller in the  otherwise layered society of Ghumi. 

Soon after receiving the second note, Roy had reinstated his old network of informants. They were all his old associates, who could seem dormant or engaged in some mundane activities but were on alert, waiting for a signal. After their last mission, they knew that there would be a strike back or a resurfacing of the timber thieves  somewhere, the only question was when.

All those who were bordering retirement from active combat, scattered themselves across the small but significant towns and townships of Jharkhand and took up their residence as entrepreneurial civilians of moderate calibre. Roy had not only  settled in Ghumi, but had also fallen in love with the place. There was something charmingly timeless about that small township, a presence untouched by the disturbances or degradation of the outside world. Over the years he had developed a protective instinct about the place, a desire to retain its innocence. And, so now when he confronted or rather,  sensed the enemy, he felt oddly responsible towards this home of his midlife. 

He had found his life here. Ladli,  the orphan girl he had found abandoned in the nearby forest had become the mainstay of their childless conjugality. He had  later learnt that abandoning newborns and orphans in the nearby forest was one of the frequent happenings around that place. Poverty, dowry, lack of employment and awareness — all the usual evils that elbowed each other for a space in that area just beyond the factory estate, had nipped many innocent lives.

The estate with settlers from various parts of the country, all bound together by a single employer, the factory, was an insulated, isolated ivory tower, untouched by the real tide of lives just beyond it. Roy, as much as he loved that community, was also in quest of something more, something beyond his immediate mission. Ladli had stirred something within him, a softer aspect of his existence that he had forgotten all about. A fond childhood memory came back to him — his mother keeping aside a portion of fish everyday for the sweeper’s wife who was advised some protein in her diet but was too poor to afford it. His mother would also set aside some fruits for their maid everyday each time she was pregnant. That watchful caring attitude had percolated down to him, making him more sensitive towards the people around him. 

When he dashed into Mr. Iyer’s office that morning, he was more than pleased with himself. After the inputs from his network of informants, Roy knew that almost a quarter of the forest reserve had already been devoured by the insatiable greed of these timber thieves. But since these were in the extreme interior of the forest, none came to know about the loss. Roy was also informed of the date of their next illegal foray into the jungle. Wanting to catch the smugglers red-handed, he quickly accumulated a small but very capable band of people with Prabhu’s help. Roy was cheered by the eager efficacy of Prabhu’s support, born from a commitment that only a deep love for one’s hometown could command. And he intuitively knew that his effort would not fail. So many locals had lost their livelihood to these organised thieves; who knows, perhaps Ladli’s parents too were a victim of that. He did not want any more Ladlis. 

As his small band of men crept slowly into the forest, they could hear a rhythmic thud, one that could only be made by an axe’s crashing down upon a tree trunk. Within moments Roy’s men organised themselves into a circle and in no time those men were overpowered.

The entire episode was hushed by the management to maintain peace among people yet somehow small slices of information sneaked out. People of Ghumi started treating Roy as a hero. But most importantly, a rigorous interrogation revealed the resurgent timber thieves’ head was Guddu, Roy and his cronies’ old rival. Their last operation had been partly successful as they managed to dent the network but could not behead it. The serpent had needed years to rear its head. The decade long wait had paid Roy and company handsomely. Guddu was caught at last. Stripped of his maze like network, he was a part of this group of timber thieves, though being involved in direct action had not been his style of operation. However, a truncated gang of dedicated followers and increased risk of operation had forced him to join his recent forays hands on. 

With Guddu’s sentence, Roy heaved a relief. He could now retire from the forces to be the entrepreneur he had posed to be all this while.


* 1 Lakh – 1,00,000

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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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Ghumi Stories

Madam D’Souza

Nabanita Sengupta explores taboos around teenage values in a compelling read

Mrs. D’Souza taught at the school. A thorough city bred woman, she had come to this place with her husband, who was in charge of the fire safety and security department of the factory at Ghumi.

The tiny township fascinated her. The greenery all around, the British style bungalow with sloping roof and high ceiling, the small garden patch in front and a bigger courtyard — all these mellowed her heart. She was drawn to the quietness of the place that stirred itself to make some noise only during certain times of the day — such as at the beginning and the end of school time, the afternoons when children came out to play and at the start of the various shifts of the factory, the main lifeline of the little town, when people filed on the single straight road connecting their estate to their workplace.

Contrarily, all her life she had lived among various noises born out of movement. The windows of their apartment in Kolkata opened into one of the busiest streets of the city — the street that did not sleep at any point of the day. Honks, whistles, shouts, sounds of passing vehicles — her ears had forgotten the music of quietude. Now, surrounded by silence, she felt rejuvenated; and was seized by a sudden desire for action. Perhaps, the energy that an urban existence had sucked out of her, now remained untouched within her body, and that in turn, stirred in her a desire to do something; to find an outlet for the unused life force that had accumulated within her.

She loved to teach, a passion from her younger days, which till then had only found sporadic manifestations in her career as a wife of an engineer with a risk management specialisation. It was inevitable that within this small township, she and the school would find a symbiotic requirement for each other. Her husband was either in office or buried nose deep in files at home for most part of the day, The children were grown up and out of the nest. Mrs. D’Souza had time on her hands.

School kids, especially those at the threshold of teens fascinated her. She was intrigued by the hormone induced unruliness and iconoclasm that characterised this difficult to handle age-group. Adolescence, for her was both intriguing and challenging. And now, well settled into the post-middle-aged complacency of a woman who has led a more or less satisfying life, she thought she could explore this particularly interesting period of growth towards adulthood.

She often remembered her own children at this stage — the daughter and the son — both suddenly turned into you-don’t-tell-me-what-to-do types! The memories of their tantrums and obstinacy at any sign of authority still made her smile. Now, both of them were in their late twenties. Separated by a couple of years, the siblings had regained their composure. It was as if with the shedding of the teens another new personalities emerged from their being — personalities that made them more understanding, patient and caring and with the swoosh of a magic wand that impetuous, querulous nature had vanished!

But she had enjoyed their teens — their energetic righteousness, the desire to change the world, the longing for some kind of positive action — all these would fill her with a sense of happiness and pride. She understood those as the blooming of that courage and integrity which would remain lifelong with her children, safeguarding them from turning towards evil. Their itchiness and impatience that often bordered on rudeness, were the birth pangs of something positive within their soul — the birth pangs of the consciousness that made them recognise that this world was not the rose tinted one they had experienced in their childhood. It was a recognition of the world’s true colours, the colours of love mixed with that of hatred, peace with war, kindness with cruelty and all the greys between the binaries.  She was eager to enjoy those doldrums of that age once again

Students of ninth grade knew that they were going to be assigned a new English teacher. Anticipation ran high in the class. And speculations too. When Mrs D’Souza stepped into the class, she could feel the eager eyes taking in every bit of her handloom cotton sari clad, no-makeup, no-accessories getup. She felt as though the class had been wound up by some invisible key on a high alert position which would require a gradual attempt to move towards a more relaxed and open mindset.

Raya still remembered the day when Madam D’Souza entered their class for the first time. Initially, she did not seem impressive. In fact, the commonplaceness had put her and her friends off quite a bit. When anticipating something new, we often colour our expectations with the exceptional, forgetting that the new person or object might, in all probabilities, resemble the old or the common. But before the class ended, almost all of her classmates, including herself, had fallen for the unassuming charm and openness of Mrs. D’Souza.

Very easily the class was all admiration for their new teacher. They enjoyed her classes which were different from just textbook explorations. Drama, music, recitation, storytelling — her tools made the class animated and eager to learn. The students accepted her with an openness not very common among this age group. So, it was quite obvious that Raya would turn to her when adolescent issues of a co-educational institution started making their presence felt.

Returning from a lunch break, one day Raya reached her seat to find a small piece of paper surreptitiously kept under her pencil box on her desk. Three innocuous words — ‘I love you’ written on it.

Raya’s adolescent sense of propriety was considerably outraged, more so because the discovery was made in presence of two of her friends. All determined to act the ‘good’ girl, Raya decided that the correct course of action would be to complain to the teacher, who could then establish the identity of the offender by examining the handwriting and punishing him. Of course, it must be one of the boys in her class, who else would have such impunity! She was reminded of a similar incident that had taken place in another class quite some time back. There too was a similar declaration of the unruly teenage heart and it was punished with a call to the parents. It was the age when disgrace hurt more than physical pain. Raya wished for a similar retribution here too.

She rushed out of her class and ran towards the teacher’s room. The next class was with Mrs. D’Souza and Raya wanted to meet her before she entered their class so that she could complain to her in detail. Mrs. D’Souza listened to her with full attention but did not say anything. Raya had thought that her sense of outraged modesty would sufficiently work up Mrs D’Souza and was a bit disheartened by her composure. They entered the class together and Mrs D’Souza took the class attendance with a completely unperturbed attitude and then proceeded with their studies.

Raya, that day, could hardly keep her mind on the lesson. Conflicting emotions ran high. On one hand, she was excited about the pending talk, which she was sure would take place after the class, on the other hand she was starting to harbour misgivings about Madam D’Souza’s attitude towards the issue.

For Mrs. D’Souza too, it was a crucial battle. She knew that co-ed set up had its own challenges, yet she felt it to be the best microcosmic representation of the outside world. Still new to the school, she knew it was her one wild card chance to reach out to them. And matters of hearts were always the trickiest. She did not want to attach undue significance to the episode, yet she needed to treat it with consideration, she knew how prickly these new teens were in such matters.

The best course, she thought, would be to speak to them in their own language. One of her personal and lifelong crusades was, in her own words “against the inadvertent insensitive behaviour of anxious parents to their teenage children for the cause of moral and social uprightness”. She had seen two generations of teens — her own and her children’s; and, blessed with a keen perception, she remembered how the mildest of reprimands often resulted in the most volatile reactions.

It was towards the end of the period that Mrs D’Souza put down the book from which she was teaching, looked at the entire class, smiled slightly and said: “I want you all to concentrate on my words. As you are growing up, you will develop feelings that you will find are quite unprecedented and overwhelming. But those are natural, nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. It requires a lot of courage to let a person know that he or she is appreciated. If you like someone, please do not send nameless chits, rather have the courage to strike up a positive friendship with the person. If friendship succeeds, there will be time for more, else the liking is not worth anything.”

She paused, allowing her words to sink in.

Then, in a very casual, nonchalant way, looking directly at Raya, she added, “By the way, I personally, would not have minded having a secret admirer. After all we all want to be appreciated, isn’t it?”

Raya saw her teacher’s twinkling, mischievous eyes look in her direction.

The whole class gasped before they could grasp her meaning. No one had told them before that matters pertaining to the teenage heart could have some kind of legitimacy or acceptability. They had been taught just the contrary — that such things are unspoken, hushed matters, and to declare it was sinful. For the first time in their lives, they found an adult acknowledge their heart burns and even take it seriously. These words showed them that feelings need not always be tabooed and repressed, that one need not be outraged by every trivial issue. The most important lesson was that friendship should be the stepping stone towards other relationships.

With these few words, Mrs D’Souza had won all their hearts.

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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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Ghumi Stories

The New Year’s Gift

By Nabanita Sengupta

Ghumi was in an uproar! The small township was suddenly awake with whisperings in every nook and corner and accompanying giggle or exclamations. The rumour mills had started running overtime, churning out spicy tidbits at small intervals. In the freezing winters of this green plateau, people relished those piping hot juicy nuggets of gossip with their steaming cups of evening tea or under the weekend sun. The quiet and sleepy region had suddenly turned chirpy and each gatherings of its inhabitants were spiced up with perky speculations and tangy bits of news. It was not everyday that some scandal of this magnitude shook Ghumi.

For the routine bound life of the Ghumians, unshaken by any happenings more interesting than the Sunday bazaar or a community movie night, elopement was a scandal that had the capacity to take the town by storm. And that’s what it did. It took the area by storm — a storm that literally brewed in teacups and coffee mugs.

Even the winds of the place whispered — Mrs Aggarwal had eloped with Mr. Ghosh!

The club corners, pool sides, badminton court, card tables were humming loud. Even dinner tables with couples who otherwise had got used to the everyday silence struck up conversation. Well, that was a positive side of rumour. It often rejuvenated the dead river of communication between people who had nothing new to say to each other.

Mr Agarwal was a senior manager in the company. Quite innocuous in his commonness, he had an amazing capability to blend in any kind of gathering. So plain he was that no one ever noticed his presence or felt his absence. His usefulness was felt at gatherings whenever there was a member less than the required number. So, he could easily pass on as the fourth hand at card game or as a partner for a round of badminton or to fill the gap at the pool table. But no one had ever associated anything drastic with this non-confrontational, calm and quiet person. He was indispensable to Ghumi in his own ways. No one could challenge his efficiency at his workplace, and none could barbecue chicken as succulently as him. So naturally none of their club parties could be complete without him. There was not another hassle-free soul like him in the whole of Ghumi. His wife, on the other hand, was a different story altogether. The young, chirpy, stylish woman of fifty could easily be the centre of any gathering. At the same time her quick tongue could easily lash out at any moment, making her quite a bundle of opposites.

That fateful day, Mr. Agarwal had gone to his neighbour’s house in the evening, looking for Vineeta, his wife. They had had a spat in the morning before he left for office, a continuation of a difference of opinion that had cropped up a few days back. Now, on his return, he had to enter the house using his set of duplicate keys as no one answered the doorbell. He had thought initially that Vineeta must have gone to some friend’s place but when even the mobile phone responded switched off, he was a bit worried. In Ghumi, words travelled faster than wind and by late evening all of the township, knew the tale of the missing wife. This was the second time that such an event had occurred. Though the first time the gossip mongers had been proved woefully wrong, it did not dampen their spirit. This time once again they kept adding fuel to fire.

Only Raya and her family did not join the bandwagon. They maintained an uneasy silence, distancing themselves from the whole brouhaha. Being on the receiver’s end once, they could feel for the person concerned. Such gossips were always associated with public disgrace. But that’s a story for some other time.

There was a crisis brewing at Ghumi club house. Every year Mr Agarwal would oversee the arrangement for the New Year party. No one was as perfect as him when it came to estimation for the feast. Hence, he was the one who decided upon the quantities of mutton or rice or other ingredients required for the New Year’s party. But this year, with the racy gossip doing the rounds, none knew how to ask him about it. There was of course still a couple of days left before the New Year. The shopping for the party was generally done on the morning of that day itself. Still the panic button had been pressed and no one knew how the crisis would unfold. Added to rumours about the elopement, were the speculations of a spoilt feast. Both these stories kept the Ghumians quite busy.

*

The moment she stepped out of her house, Vineeta felt lighter. An oppressive thought was weighing on her mind since the day she had seen Phuli. She had seen the girl being beaten black and blue by her mother for not cleaning the utensils properly. There were a few jhuggis* huddled together in one corner of the estate where the Agarwals and other families of the management executives lived. The jhuggi dwellers catered domestic help required by the residents of the estate. Vineeta had to cross the jhuggies quite often on her way to meet friends or to go to the temple or club. Whenever she walked along that area alone, she stopped to talk to the little boys and girls who played bare feet and were raggedly clad. She loved the innocent bantering with them, at times even gave them some toffees or biscuits that she would be carrying from home. Over the years, she had grown to know each of them by name and any addition to the brood did not pass unnoticed.

She had also seen children, especially girls being ill-treated by the mothers. Though she had tried to intervene at times, it didn’t yield much result. Slowly she learnt to accept it as a part of their lifestyle. Just as she had accepted the club, the kitty parties, as a part of hers. At times, remembrances of scenes from the past did upset her. But she had learnt to cope with it. Overall, she was a happy woman. Her nature did not allow her the leisure to crib over her past. She knew she was quite admired, and she did enjoy the harmless attention that was bestowed upon her. Yet somewhere lurked a thorn of dissatisfaction, a yearning for a space that was her own, a self-created identity. Despite that nagging she had moulded herself to this life of sedentary existence, soaking herself in the natural beauty of Ghumi.

And she would have continued to live so had she not seen Phuli that day, shivering and still being beaten by her mother. That sight snapped something within Vineeta, pulled her out of a dormant existence she was slipping into. She rescued the girl from her mother’s mad wrath and took her home. Once stopped, the mother also realised the extreme to which she had gone. Vineeta knew these girls had to bear the brunt of their mothers’ frustrations. Women in these shanties lived a life much harder than she could ever envisage. Defeated by life, their menfolk took out their disappointments by keeping their women terrified and these women in turn let out their steam on the children, particularly girls. The boys here were still slightly better off by virtue of their gender. Bringing Phuli home had led to the most bitter spat of words.

It was only at certain times that the otherwise calm and benevolent Mr. Agarwal erupted in anger and one of those times was when he felt that his authority was being challenged at home. The master of the house had always let Vineeta do things her own way, till it came in his. Phuli stood for all that he hated or perhaps feared. The deprivation, the squalor, and above all, the disruption of a system that he had closed himself in. it was the first time too that Vineeta felt the need to stand her own ground. Phuli was fed and soothed and sent home as soon as Vineeta felt the storm brewing. And she prepared herself for the impending outburst. It was still a mystery to her how a publicly affable person like Agarwal could be so venomous during his occasional outbursts at home! Anyway, being experienced in the ways of her husband, she was already prepared with her answers and this time she too did not mince words. She had decided on her course of action and needed a few days to organise everything. That new year she wanted to begin with a new chapter, the old had to give way to new.

Vineeta kept thinking all these as she sat in the car with Sushrut Ghosh taking the wheels. Monty, the neighbour’s son, had seen her carry the bag and get into the car. She immediately knew that Ghumi will have a story for their evening tea. She smiled to herself, with a fondness of the matured for the inane. She loved the place but was aware of its faults too. She was also confident of the inherent goodness of the inhabitants. It had been a difficult task convincing Mr. Ghosh to her plan. She had to use all her arguments and persuasive skills to embark on this journey. She had not said anything to her husband; serve the old man right she thought to herself. And as the car moved ahead, she felt strangely liberated.

Their first step was going to be the most difficult one. They drove to the block development office to seek the required permission. The officer was a middle-aged person and quite positive in his approach. He was more than willing to cooperate with Vineeta and Sushrut. He also gave them relevant papers and explained the process, which though a bit tedious, as all government affairs were, was not impossible. Once out of the office, the magnitude of the project they were about to undertake stuck them. And both remained in silence for a long while, sitting quietly inside the car, each one deep in contemplation of the future, before they had the courage to utter a single word. Neither of them wanted to return home immediately for reasons of their own. Vineeta wanted to give herself some space before confronting her husband and Sushrut did not want to return to the loneliness of his apartment.

It was only then that Vineeta suggested that they drive down to her parents’ place, some 3-4 hours’ drive from there. Sushrut could spend the evening and drive back by night. His work as a security officer in the explosives’ factory at Ghumi had familiarised him with the area and driving back at night would not be a problem at all. The next day being a weekend, he would laze in the house. This would help them maintain the secrecy they wanted to till the New Year just in two days’ time.

Meanwhile in Ghumi the rumour mills worked even on the following day. Mr. Agarwal was aware of his wife being at her parents’ place and whatever emotions that might have evoked in him, he would not get a chance to talk about it anytime soon, not at least till she returned. So, he decided that he must go on with life and strolled into the club house, to look into the New Year feast preparation that had been his passion for a long time. He loved the meticulousness that was required in planning a feast. It allowed him to work in peace, alone. Not that he did not like gatherings, but he was happiest being with himself. So, completely oblivious to the gossips around him, he went to the club that morning and busied himself in the preparations for the feast to be held the next day. People were looking at him with sympathy which he did not realise as he did not even know that Vineeta’s going away from the Ghumi had become the talk of the town; that Monty had already reported yesterday’s sight to everyone at Ghumi, which, added to his own enquiries about her whereabouts had formed quite an interesting story! In fact he was blissfully unaware of the entire thing, comforted in the knowledge that Vineeta had left for her parents’ place after that day’s quarrel, something he considered typically feminine and did not consider to be worth his notice..

On the New Year day as people started gathering in the club for the feast, there was suddenly a hush. The missing lady had arrived, right from her hideout, and she was accompanied by the Block Development officer or BDO sahab as he was popularly known as. He asked everyone to pay attention for a while. Vineeta took the centrestage.

Dear friends,

I apologise for my absence from Ghumi for a couple of days. It was high time that something was done for the children of the jhuggis, those kids whose parents work to make our lives comfortable. Using my previous experience as one of the co-founders of an NGO before we had to move to Ghumi, I have drawn a plan for the education of these children. I propose the formation of a similar organisation here, run by the ladies who would volunteer. 

Mr. Ghosh has been of immense help in this regard, as he was the one from whom I sought help first. Being in the security department he had an intimate knowledge of this place and I had often seen him play with the shanty kids in the evenings. BDO sahab has given his consent and we have also completed the initial level of formalities required for setting up such a voluntary organisation.

This is my new year gift to Ghumi. Now let us all enjoy the feast and discuss this idea further over food.

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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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Ghumi Stories

The Tower of Babel

By Nabanita Sengupta

Jharkhand: Photo Courtesy; Wiki

Raya was little more than three-and-a-half years old when her world suddenly became full of strange babbles. She could not understand the changes in her surroundings, in the people around her and the way they spoke to her. And in turn she went silent. Well, almost.

All that her little mind could remember was a long journey. She remembered her old room and the people there. She also remembered how her mother used to show her a picture of a long thing on wheels called a train. Her mother had told her that they would be travelling by train. She also remembered the journey and how, just as in her mother’s stories, huge trees, houses, farms, vehicles and even people flew past her window. But after a while everything grew dark and she had to sleep on a hard, narrow bed. Of course she took a long time to fall asleep and her mother had to keep on trying various means to make her comfortable. But just after that Raya found her world completely changed. She missed her old world, its people sorely; and would often cry for it. The solace that only familiarity brings to children was suddenly missing. 

Meethu, her mother, was having a difficult time managing Raya’s mood swings and trying to control her tantrums. The active and cheerful child had suddenly turned into a sullen cry baby with perpetually puckered lips. The reason, she rightly thought, was perhaps the change of location – the shift from the familiar to the strange. But they had relocated from Calcutta to this obscure township in Jharkhand recently because of her husband’s job and returning to Calcutta was not even a possibility in the near future.

On her part, Meethu was quite in love with the new place – calm and quiet, free from the tensions of an urban life. But what she loved the most was the greenness of her surroundings that wrapped Ghumi like a cosy blanket. She loved their small two roomed apartment which stood at the end of a series of such houses. These were all factory owned houses. The tar road ended with the boundary wall of her home and from there began a kutcha* road. Theirs was the last of the houses in the factory colony beyond which began the panchayat* area. 

Each afternoon she and her daughter used to take the kutcha road which led them to the river side. She let Raya run around the place, not letting her go too close to the river. For that brief period of time the chirpy little girl in Raya returned each day. Meethu did not want to miss these trips at any cost as she realised whatever it was troubling her little girl, the river side could heal it, even if temporarily. These trips reassured the mother in her that the little girl was not completely lost in the throes of sullenness; that there was still a chance of reclaiming her natural cheerfulness. But, each day, as soon as they reached the vicinity of their home, Raya turned petulant and sullen. 

Apart from Raya’s tantrums, Meethu was struggling on another front too. Ghumi was a place where people had gathered from different parts of the country, tied by a common source of livelihood, the factory. So the commonly spoken language was Hindi there. There were pockets of other vernacular communities too — like a group of Malayali speaking families often held get-togethers and would interact in their mother tongue, similarly a group of Bengalis did the same. But the majority of the people spoke Hindi. That Ghumi was located in the Hindi speaking belt was also a reason for that. Meethu had yet not picked up that language and was trying hard. The only person with whom she could practice speaking it unreservedly was her husband. Otherwise, in the gatherings she felt tongue tied out of diffidence. So whenever her husband, Asim, was free, she struck up a conversation in her heavily accented, broken Hindi. 

It was a chance discovery or perhaps a result of Meethu’s constant monitoring that she realised Raya’s crankiness increased in geometric progression whenever they spoke in Hindi. The little one would glare at them and throw a volley of unfamiliar sounds, gesticulating in anger. Meethu, to confirm her finding, tried switching back to Bangla and she saw that it calmed her daughter immediately. The difference was glaring. It was then that the worried parents realised the root of the problem. But they did not know how to help the little one! Even if they stopped conversing in Hindi in front of her, how would they keep her isolated from the society! They themselves were quite an extrovert couple and had already made friends in the neighborhood. At loss for a proper solution, they decided to give her some time and also to minimise their social interactions for a while. 

But Ghumi had other plans for them. Their neighbour, whom all the kids of the locality addressed as Dadima*, came as their saviour. The silver haired woman had taken a liking to this young Bengali family. She had got used to Meethu’s broken Hindi and enjoyed talking to her for some time at least each day. But she too, out of her own experience, had realised Raya’s discomfort. An extremely observant woman, she had seen the child tug disgruntledly at her mother’s anchal* each time they spoke. She had also heard Meethu expressing her anguish over the child’s behavioral changes. So when Meethu did not come for her daily chitchats for a couple of days, the elderly woman realised something was amiss. She could see them going to the river in the afternoons, so health was not an issue she was sure. 

After a serious contemplation, she visited little Raya’s home with a katori* full of laddoos*. As she called out the little girl’s name from the door, Meethu was a trifle hesitant. She saw the elderly woman and her katori and she cast a glance at Raya playing by herself on the floor. Immediately there was a change in the girl’s demeanour. Dadima called out Raya again, this time in a soft coaxing voice and showed her the laddoos. The little girl’s face mellowed a bit, though she did not take a step forward. Dadima entered the house, kept the katori on the table and whispered to the little girl in a heavily accented tone – ami tomar bandhu (I am your friend). 

Besan Ladoo: Photo Courtesy: Wiki

The little girl’s face broke into a dazzling smile at the sound of the familiar words and she stretched her hand to point at the laddoos. Dadima put a laddoo in her hand and repeated in a heavily accented Bangla – ami tomar bondhu, Dadima (I am your friend, Dadima). Raya took the laddoo and repeated, ami Raya (I am Raya) and pulled the elderly woman towards her toys. Meethu watched in happy amazement as the childhood innocence found the end of her miseries in the comfort of age old experience. 

Dadima broke the ice that day that had been gathering around the little heart. But she did not stop there! She instructed the people of the neighbourhood to stretch their linguistic skills and speak in whatever broken Bangla they could, to put the little member of their community at ease. Slowly, the incorrect, broken language became the balm that healed the little girl’s scared heart. And Raya took wobbling steps between familiar and the unfamiliar vocabulary to find her own space in that harmonious community. 

*kutcha: Unpaved

*panchayat: Village council

*anchal: Loose end of a saree

*Dadima: Grandmother

*Katori: small metal bowl

*laddoo: Indian sweet

Dr. Nabanita Sengupta is an Assistant Professor in English at Sarsuna College Kolkata. She is a creative writer, a research scholar and a translator. Her areas of interest are Translation Studies, Women Studies, Nineteenth century Women’s writings, etc. She has been involved with translation projects of Sahitya Akademi and Viswa Bharati. Her creative writings, reviews and features have been variously published art Prachya Review, SETU, Muse India, Coldnoon, Café Dissensus, NewsMinute.in, News18.com and Different Truths. She has presented many research papers in India and abroad.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Ghumi Stories

At Par in the Pandemic

Nabanita Sengupta explores the impact of COVID19 in the small town of Ghumi that she has created

Ghumi, the small town, had always thrived on close social interactions. When the world was hanging out in shopping malls and cineplexes, Ghumians continued to entertain themselves by visiting each other’s houses or gathering at their only club for a game of cards or for reading or to simply chitchat. A lifestyle that was old yet treasured had continued and a colonial aura with its associated languor still hung in the air. It was a world in itself — contained and calm to the point of  collective lethargy. 

Raya wondered, sitting at her thirteenth floor balcony in a South Kolkata locality, of how Ghumi was coping with the current wave of pandemic and isolation. She thought back to the numerous Sunday afternoons she had spent in the company of family friends, in her house or in theirs; the games they had played as children and loud laughter reverberating throughout the house from the elders’ adda* sessions. School breaks meant sleepovers or lunches with close friends. And evenings meant playground – kabaddi*, lock and key, hide and seek and so much more. 

Even the last visit that she had undertaken a few months back, a trip taken almost after twenty years, had shown her that nothing much had changed in their way of life. As soon as she had stepped out of the train, she felt she had entered a time bubble where everything was at a standstill for the past twenty years. Yet oddly, it did not lag behind the fast moving society outside. In its own pace, it negotiated with the rest of the world. In spite of spending a part of her life here, the leisure paced lifestyle came as a shock to Raya, now used to the hectic city life. 

Raya often thought of her time in Ghumi as a utopia, something that no other place in the world could give her. But it was also a place where one could not return. Going back would mean turning time backwards and that would of course be unsettling in this world of linear progression. Now in the pandemic, as she found herself overflowing with leftover time, she suddenly felt her life had reverted to her days at Ghumi. 

Employed as a saleswoman in a private organisation, most of her time was spent running across the city. Her two-wheeler had become an extension of herself and home meant just a resting place at night. But now, confined to her apartment, she felt strangely liberated, perhaps from the grinding schedule that was slowly eating away her soul. In fact, life had become an oxymoron for her. On the one hand, this sudden lull in time was exhilarating, while on the other, she often had panic attacks — fearing a job termination, a health crisis or a similar personal catastrophe. Like million others, she did not know what the future had in store and hence, for the moment considered it best to live in the present.

Overflowing time, a luxury she had missed since Ghumi days and was now available to her once again, had made her nostalgic about her childhood and teens. Suddenly she found herself transported to that world.

Food during lockdown was one of the first things that made her feel nostalgic. With the fear of infection spreading like wildfire and a self-imposed ban on food bought from outside, her life sought solace in her childhood memories. Ghumi in her childhood had no restaurants or fancy eating places. There were a few sweet and samosa* shops and a few roadside eateries on cart, but they were out of bounds for her. Baba would never allow her to have those ‘unhygienic stuff’ as he called them. So only home cooked food was allowed. But ma was the saviour. She learnt new recipes from her friends there and thus cuisines from various parts of India found a place in their meals. There was never a dull moment for the taste buds. From the tangy rasam* to the continental pudding, all had made their way out of her mother’s kitchen. Also, a visit to any of the friends’ homes always meant a treat of home-cooked delicacies. Hospitality floated in the air of Ghumi. Yet Raya till date had regrets about not having ever tasted those street foods. Imagine, spending years in a place and never ever eating on a roadside eatery there!   

Today as she was rolling out the dough into small circles ready to be fried into fuchkas or panipuris* as they are also called, she couldn’t help thinking back to those wonderful evenings of friends and her mother serving them all fuchkas one by one in their small bowls. That was many years back, yet the memory was bright and clear. She made a mental list of all the delicacies that she was going to include in her lockdown kitchen — dosa, idli, samosa, pudding, pastries, payesh, luchi all found a place there. She was going to hone her culinary skills during this period. 

An alarm jolted her out of her musings. Her phone calendar reminded her of the online reunion that she had this evening with her school mates. On a whim she had also sent an invitation link to one of their ex-classmates still living in Ghumi. They had left him out of their earlier meets due to their pre-conceived notion of poor network connectivity of that place. A quick dash of lipstick, some kohl around her eyes and her favourite danglers in the ears and she was set for the meeting. She often marvelled these days at how minimalistic life has become in the pandemic times. No elaborate dressing up any more, no fancy sandals. She cast a pitiful look towards her closet as she keyed her laptop out of snooze mode. When was the last time since March that she had completely shut it down? 

One by one most of her classmates came online. But the name that surprised her most was Jishan. He had logged in from Ghumi, the only one who had stayed back there, continuing with his father’s business. All her other friends had moved out. She had missed meeting Jishan in her last trip to Ghumi as he was out of town then. Suddenly, everybody was curious to know about Ghumi’s latest state of affairs. Conversation, dripping in past memories, freely flowed. After satisfying all their queries, Jishan added with a smile, “Now finally Ghumi is at par with the world even in terms of socialising. Chased out of malls and cineplexes, you people are also taking resort to chatting with friends as a way of unwinding. We, at Ghumi, have been doing that for ages! Now, when you start taking baby steps towards reclaiming your socialising, I know the first thing that you will start with is calling over a very small group of close friends to your homes, going back to our childhood days of weekend gatherings. And perhaps, you all will cook too, not order from outside, displaying your culinary skills as our parents used to!” And he laughed aloud…

Raya and her friends were all left stunned. This was not how they had thought of the matter, but realised how true it was! Lockdown had forced them to put a brake on their fast moving lives and had taken them back to days when meaningful interactions with close friends in a homely atmosphere was preferred over large gatherings with strangers over fast foods and drinks. A bit of Ghumi was woken up in each of them as they perhaps also realised the mindless pace of life in pre-lockdown days. 

*adda — gossip

*Kabbadi — a game

*Samosa — a savoury

*rasam — a spicy soup

*fuchka or panipuri — a savoury snack

*dosa, idliluchi — savoury snacks

*payesh — rice pudding

Dr. Nabanita Sengupta is an Assistant Professor in English at Sarsuna College Kolkata. She is a creative writer, a research scholar and a translator. Her areas of interest are Translation Studies, Women Studies, Nineteenth century Women’s writings, etc. She has been involved with translation projects of Sahitya Akademi and Viswa Bharati. Her creative writings, reviews and features have been variously published art Prachya Review, SETU, Muse India, Coldnoon, Café Dissensus, NewsMinute.in, News18.com and Different Truths. She has presented many research papers in India and abroad.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Ghumi Stories

Table Tale

Nabanita Sengupta gives us a glimpse of life in a sleepy little town, long before social-distancing set in

Those were the days of large-hearted people, living in homes with large windows and even larger balconies and sleeping in large beds. Life was different, quite unlike the matchbox sized measured lifestyle of modern society. Raya, growing up in those times, was used to that free flowing largeness of existence, not necessarily reflected always in their material possessions. Their house, as she always remembered it later, had huge windows in each of the two rooms, that were themselves not too big. A large part of both the rooms was taken up by a bed each, larger than what you find in the furnished apartments of today. Sitting far from Ghumi now, Raya often wonders at the disproportionate decor of their homes in those days.

Raya’s father was particularly large hearted when it came to hospitality. Raya doesn’t remember a single month when they did not have relatives visiting them. It was something they looked forward too as well. Though it meant cramped living spaces and queuing up for the solitary toilet, the fun compensated for all the inconveniences.  And since her mom was an excellent cook, guests also meant lip smacking delicacies. If it were not the relatives visiting from other cities, there were local friends gathering for an evening adda*.

Luchi

Since both her parents loved large gatherings, most of the weekends saw their friends and families coming over for evening tea. And those teas were almost as elaborate as dinners. Occasions were numerous too – a visit from someone’s kin, end of children’s examinations, someone’s return from a travel or simply because they felt like meeting up. Raya loved to see the women, her mother’s friends huddling in the kitchen, rolling out luchi* or spreading dosa* batter, laying out plates and also serving the juiciest pieces of gossip with equal élan. Or at times, they would be just pouring out their woes in the warmth of a bonhomie and empathy of like-minded friends.

Dosa

Occasionally, men too helped out with food but mostly, kitchen was a space that these women kept for themselves. And children let go their boisterous spirits and ran around the house, laughing at the silliest of pretexts. At the end of such gatherings, Raya found her parents dead tired yet thoroughly contented with the day.

But there was a small glitch that at times interrupted the pleasant flow of these gatherings. And like every small issue that festers into something foul if left untreated, this onetoo took an unpleasant turn. Raya’s mother refused to entertain any guest till they had a new dining table, large enough to accommodate at least eight people. The one that they had now was a table for four, ancient and somehow supporting itself on wobbly legs. It posed a threat to the food that was heaped on it during such gatherings. Raya’s parents, especially her mother, were one of those kind spirits of the yester world who believed in smothering their guests with delicacies. And all painstakingly cooked by her! Her culinary skill was much appreciated. But the process of sitting around the table to eat had to be executed with utmost care, taking into consideration its rundown condition.

Those were the days before the instant gratification provided by plastic money and a ready credit offered by banks. Each purchase required careful planning because anything bought was considered to be an investment for a lifetime. The quality of the product was the most important criteria because durability was a must. Disposability had not yet become the norm. So, after almost a month of deliberations and discussions, Raya’s father went to the carpenter to place his order. Unlike big cities, small town Ghumi did not have any readymade furniture stores. In a place with a three thousand odd population, it would not have been commercially viable.

Raya knew that placing the order for the table would mean a visit from Mr. Sankar of Universal Furnishings to take the required measurements over umpteen cups of tea and discussions ranging from the cold war to children’s education. Just one-eighth of the entire conversation time would be dedicated to the discussion about the furniture to be made, its design and details. Raya enjoyed these conversations which seemed to move along serpentine tracks, changing courses or moving in circles, but always animated.The precocious mind of the little girl remoulded the adult discussions that she heard with utmost focusto give them a place in her own world of fantasies. So Shanker uncle’s visit was always one that Raya looked forward to.

And this had always been the ritual with every piece of furniture they procured. This table was not going to be an exception either. After the ritual of ‘ordering’ the table came the proverbial waiting period. Everyone in Ghumi knew what this wait meant. Normal deadlines never worked for Mr. Shanker and there was no account of the time that he would take to finish a product. If it was not a labour crisis, it would be some illness at home or some major existential crisis that would always upset the so-called deadlines of Mr. Shanker.No queries, no amount of harsh words or coaxing could affect the middle-aged proprietor of Universal Furnishing;he bore them all with equal fortitude and a smiling demeanour. But his products were of an excellent quality and that was what had helped him survive in his trade. The Ghumians had long resigned themselves to the fate of waiting.

Anyway, once the order was given and the advance paid, the gloomy cloud slowly faded away from Raya’s home and once again her mother agreed to have their regular guests for weekend evenings. As she served them food on the rickety table, she maintained her calm in the hope of a new one in the near future. The guests too continued with their cautious handling of both the food and the table.

After a long wait, that day also arrived when the ‘table’ entered Raya’s life. Five employees of Mr. Sankar came with a huge cardboard wrapping and four table legs tied together. They worked for almost an hour to fit the ‘table’ and once done, Raya and her parents were left speechless! A six feet by five feet dining table was not what one got to see every day and that too in an apartment measuring only 800 square feet. The ‘table’ took up almost whole of the room leaving little space for anything else.The ratio of the room size to that of the ‘table’ accentuated the latter’s hugeness. Raya cast a furtive glance at her mother and could immediately detect a sign that spelt danger. She just waited for the catastrophe to happen. But Shankar was perhaps a magician, to her complete disbelief, no tsunami shook their house that day! To her mother’s complete disbelief and boiling anger, Mr. Sankar had just one thing to say – “Bhabhi*, I thought you wanted it large! It is large enough to accommodate a dozen diners comfortably and more so if need be. You can also put it to other kind of uses.” The last sentence left her completely flabbergasted and was one of the rarest occasions where Raya saw her mother totally tongue tied. The ‘table’ came to stay though they did not even know what Mr. Sankar had meant by ‘other uses’.

But they did not have to wait long for the answer. Later that week when six of Raya’s cousins from Kolkata sprang a surprise visit on them, the ‘table’ happily got converted into a makeshift bed too. Since there were only two beds in the house, one for themselves and another for guests, one of her cousins, in awe of that huge ‘table’, suggested that two of them could sleep on it. Raya’s mother who had already given up any rational expectation from this giant of a wooden construct did not even bother to argue. And the ‘table’ happily went on to serve its ‘other’ purposes.

*Adda: An informal conversation

*Luchi: Deep-fried bread of fine flour popular in Bengal

*Dosa: Pancake originally from Southern states of India, made of ground rice and pulses

*Bhabhi: sister-in-law, a common form of addressing a woman acquaintance in Hindi speaking areas.

Dr. Nabanita Sengupta is an Assistant Professor in English at Sarsuna College Kolkata. She is a creative writer, a research scholar and a translator. Her areas of interest are Translation Studies, Women Studies, Nineteenth century Women’s writings, etc. She has been involved with translation projects of Sahitya Akademi and Viswa Bharati. Her creative writings, reviews and features have been variously published art Prachya Review, SETU, Muse India, Coldnoon, Café Dissensus, NewsMinute.in, News18.com and Different Truths. She has presented many research papers in India and abroad.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.