(Sundarbans, Eastern India, 1835)
Shanti knew that whatever Raju said about the boss, his tedious Sukhdeo Dukhdeo jokes and his taking offs of the man notwithstanding, he did not dislike him half as much as she did. It was a visceral dislike verging on hatred, based on nothing but her instinct, for she almost never had anything to do with the man. She understood that Chacha Sukhdeo had been very much part of Raju’s childhood. He had been like a doting uncle to him at one time, bringing him sweetmeats, ruffling his hair up every time he saw him, playfully pinching his cheeks. His friend’s little boy was very much the son he never had. Whenever the child had a fever or was a tad pallid, he would fret like an old mother hen, suggest herbs, pujas, urging Parsad to ask his friend the hakeem for help, reprimanding him for not taking the boy’s condition seriously. The older man would always have a soft spot for the young man, but after Parsad’s death, he had reacted to what he considered was Raju’s lack of respect and consideration for the self-appointed father-substitute. He had a lingering loyalty to his dead friend, but as his horizons had changed, he had decided that sentimentality was a millstone round people’s neck, and told himself that the boy was nothing more to him any longer, that he was just someone who worked for him. He was a good worker, and it was in his interest to overlook what he took to be his lack of courtesy. Early on he had made it clear to the boy and his haughty aunt that they were not to expect preferential treatment. I am the landlord and the employer, and I have many tenants and many employees, and as a lover of justice I cannot treat one differently from another.
He was a big man with floppy arms, thick calves and a massive stomach which could be seen pulsating and forming waves on the surface of his translucent white cotton kurta whenever he was panting for breath, which was whenever he was not standing still. His fat round face was patchy, like an archipelago of small black islands in a brown sea. He had a strong bodily odour, and was always scratching his hind parts. He had a crop of black prickly hair, made shiny with generous applications of coconut oil which sometimes dripped down his face in the heat, and accounted for the unmistakeable smell of stale oil which Raju never failed to mention when telling stories about him. Everybody in the village talked of his legendary appetite. Aunt Lalita was thin like a drumstick, and one immediately picked an aura of sour, unripe fruit about her. She was always complaining about the climate, it was either too hot or too cold, there was too much rain or it was too dry. People were either hypocrites or ingrates, and those people who claimed to be poor had more money than they needed, they were just extravagant. She had a pinched nose as if her nostrils were perpetually invaded by bad odours, small piercing eyes, and Raju had told Shanti that as a child, he always had the feeling that he was naked in front of her.
Pitaji had told her once that that dung carrier Sukhdeo had been lucky to have found work the moment he arrived in the Sundarbans; but grudgingly he admitted that the man had shrewd business sense. Parsad, he had said, seemed like a good man, but was totally lacking in drive. When they arrived in this place, Pitaji was willing to help him, but the newcomer was too proud to ask. Aunt Umma later explained to her that because of the status of their family, Parsad could not go with a begging bowl to her father, tradition demanded that Pitaji be the one to make the offer. The old woman had been quite serious. Your father should have approached my brother to pay his respects, and welcome him to Roshankhali and suggest that as he was in need of people to work for him, would Parsad consider helping him? But people have lost their good manners now, she had sighed. Shanti had laughed, she will never understand this rigmarole.
Sukhdeo had sworn publicly that he would never let his friend’s son and sister go hungry. He would look after them like his own, he told everybody. In the beginning he did help once or twice, but gradually, as Aunt Umma began to experience more and more difficulty, the man who was accumulating land and cattle almost by the hour, became more and more tight-fisted and distant, until finally he cut off all but business contact with the near destitute woman and nephew.
The tenancy of a holding was on a strictly commercial basis. He charged his usual exorbitant rent in kind, demanded an excessive number of hours’ work on his fields, which was why the normally conscientious Raju did as little work as he thought he could get away with. Still this was how the family had survived. When they married he had offered them the tenancy of a rather bigger and more profitable concern. The arrangement was clearly beneficial to the shrewd landowner, in the knowledge that the new wife would provide an extra pair of hands towards his enrichment.
Dukhdeo was always ruing something. He should have asked for a better price for this or that commodity, should have made his tenants take better care of the land, the yield should have been so much higher. He was insanely jealous of his less prosperous competitors, and was always complaining about how they had undercut him, how he never had any money. She was very impressed by Raju’s summing up of the man: the rich always believe that they have less money than they were worth, and that the poor more than they deserved. Sadly, she had discovered that this had been true of her own Pitaji as well. When his onions or beans were growing nicely, Dukhdeo had trouble sleeping, so worried was he of thieves. It either rained too much, draining his rich soil away, or too little, causing his vegetables to wither. He had problems digesting food, and Raju said that the perfect remedy would be for him to eat less. The Muslim hakeem had indeed told him the very same thing, but the man was convinced that the jealous villagers, were secretly indulging in witchcraft and satanic pujas in order to harm him. His own guru, Pandit Biswas confirmed that belief, craftily advising the sacrifice of a plump black rooster in order to combat the imaginary malefic practices. Shanti, however, like everybody else, knew that it was Aunt Lalita who put all those malevolent notions into his head. Radha used to say that Sukhdeo on his own was not a bad fellow, and that it was his wife had turned him into a nasty old man.
She had been quietly rejoicing about tomorrow, when Raju would be staying at home, for it had rained a lot lately and there was no need to water the plants. She smiled to herself as she remembered how one rainy day he had suddenly said, Rani, bring me my umbrella. An umbrella? she has asked, but we don’t have an umbrella, what do you want an umbrella for, you’re not going out? Oh yes, I am, he had said seriously, just because it’s raining it doesn’t mean the plants need not be watered. Remind me to buy an umbrella when I go to Calcutta next time. How the babies had screamed with laughter. There was always weeding to be done, but when it was muddy you needed to wait for a day or two for the field to dry up. In the meantime, there were always chores that would keep him at home, mending fishnets or sharpening tools and greasing them, making new wooden handles for axes and spades and the like.
Raju had no idea how much she loved having him around, but even after six years of marriage, she was still shy and in any case had always found it difficult to open up to anybody. She only really felt that she was communicating perfectly with him when they made love in the dark, when the feeling of his warm pulsating body around hers gave her a sort of out-of-body experience. She was never good with words.
The tenants had their own work on their rented fields and were responsible for how they exploited it, but the zamindar kept a close watch over their comings and goings. He did not hesitate to evict tenants when he thought that they were not doing everything to maximise his profits. There were loose rules about what proportion of the yields Raju had to hand over to the proprietor, but the latter felt free to bend those rules on a whim. When there was little demand for a certain produce, he would take a benevolent air and declare that because he was not a heartless zamindar like some people thought, he had decided to let the tenant keep a larger proportion of his harvest, but when it was known that there was a shortage of something or other, he demanded more. His principle seemed to be to keep his workers just short of starving, making them forever beholden to him, thus strengthening his dominion over them. Her own father used to do the same thing. The immediate result of this regime was that it discouraged honesty. Everybody felt that as they were being hard done by, they were entitled to retaliate. Everybody naturally learnt how to conceal the real yield in order to lessen their contribution. When the opportunity arose, they would even grab the odd pot of milk or put away a sackful of wheat.
As part of his job, Raju was often required to accompany Sukhdeo to Calcutta or the Pargannas, a four or five-day ride by oxcart from Sonarkhali, to sell his ghee and groundnut oil, hental mats, tamarind, beans, moringa and ashilata seeds, onions, ginger, pumpkins and dudhi, haldi and those crops that did not go bad too quickly. Bayguns and bhindis, tomatoes, palak, karela and similar produce which quickly lost their freshness in the hot climate, were mainly cultivated for the locals. Some islands had such salty earth that practically nothing grew there, and they had to buy everything they ate. But Raju had learnt the ropes and often when Sukhdeo did not feel like a trip, he asked him to go by himself. Raju readily admitted to her that he was no more honest than the others, but he was more crafty, and had forged for himself a reputation of trustworthiness that he did not deserve. The others, he explained to her, stole unintelligently — not he. He remembered the story that Aunty Umma had told him many a time: when she was a child in Bihar, there was a village idiot whom everybody laughed at because when given a nice ripe mango and an unripe one and asked to choose, he would always pick the green one. So people who wanted a laugh would come to him with two such mangoes and laugh their heads off as he invariably spurned the nice red one. One day Umma told him off for being so stupid. Don’t you know the ripe one is better to eat? she asked him. Yes Didi, said the idiot boy, of course he knew, they all called him idiot but he was no fool. Why don’t you pick the nice red one then? If I pick the good one, the idiot boy answered, they would stop coming to me to make me choose.
‘Then I am keeping the green mango in straw for two days, when it is ripening. Don’t tell anyone, didi.’
You see, Rani, I am like that idiot boy, if I steal a great deal, Dukhdeo would find out and stop trusting me, so when I can steal five sackfuls of wheat, I only steal two, when the man from Calcutta gives me forty eight rupees for a cartload of onions, I don’t take eight rupees and give him forty, I take one rupee and eight annas and give the man forty-six rupees and eight annas. I trust Raju, he says, and we eat at least one good meal a day, the children and us. A fool, her husband was not.
Unexpectedly, as they were watching the river that morning, they saw a speck on the water in the distance, and she guessed that it was Jayant’s boat, and indeed the baleful figure of the pain-giver soon emerged. She knew instinctively that she had better forget her hope of Raju spending quality time with her and the babies. He undoubtedly had some chore or errand for her man. She cursed under her breath and told Raju of the impending arrival of the spoilsport. The children were looking gloomily at the approaching boat, and knew what it meant. Jayant had moored the craft and was scooping out seepage. The fat man was making for their hut, half running, and pausing for breath regularly. He was now just level with he crooked coconut palm tree which Raju called the kind-hearted tree, because its slant made climbing up it easier.
He had a bad back, Sukhdeo explained, and did not feel up to going with Harish, as he had planned, and did not trust that halfwit to go on his own, so Raju would have to go by himself. He would be taking a cartload of produce to the market town, deliver to clients, take some of the money, buy things which the zamindar had made a list of, rice and spice, tea and atta flour, nails and rope, Lucifer matches, paraffin and paint, tools and corrugated iron sheets, thread and needles. These he traded with his tenants for their crops, at an exorbitant rate of course. He normally allowed his reps ten to twelve days for the round trip. Although he paid extra for this service, Shanti knew that Raju hated being away from her but they took comfort in the financial benefits.
‘Namaskar, beti,’ he greeted Shanti breathlessly the moment he caught sight of her.
She said nothing, but mechanically joined the fingers of her hands together and raised the two joined members to her forehead, bowing slightly, in the customary show of respect that one owed one’s elders. She became aware of a strong smell of sweat in the air. Sukhdeo panted heavily in an attempt at regaining his breath and said nothing because he needed a whole minute before he could speak. Raju appeared and beamed at the zamindar. He is such a hypocrite, Shanti thought. Anyone would be convinced that Sukhdeo was the man her husband admired most in this world.
‘What an honour, Uncle, what an honour! Shanti make some tea for our esteemed guest.’ Fortunately before Shanti could react, Sukhdeo managed to say that all he wanted was a lota of water. With the acidity in his stomach tea would make him burp. Anyway, she had limited rations of luxurious commodities and did not like the idea of lavishing them on the undeserving, when her own babies had to go without. Raju invited the zamindar to sit down on a rickety chair he had made himself with some jele goran from the forest, which usually resided under the mango tree by the side of the stone spice crusher, except in the rainy season. He he squatted opposite the big man.
‘To what do we owe this honour, Chacha?’ he asked, draining his voice of the slightest trace of sarcasm. But now he knew. He too had been looking forward to spending quality time with her and his little princes, but he understood that this bloodsucker had other plans.
‘Calcutta,’ he said, suddenly starting to sneeze.
‘You must have caught a cold, Uncle,’ the younger man said with mock sympathy, ‘when it is hot, you sweat and in the breeze of the Sundarbans your body cools and you catch colds.’ Sukhdeo frowned, unsure as to whether a boy giving him information was disrespectful. But Shanti knew that the rich man still grudgingly had a soft spot for her wag of a husband. To the older man, Raju was not a shirker, although like everybody else, he could obviously put in more effort in his work, but he also believed that he was above board in money matters, convinced that he had inherited Parsad’s inherent honesty. He had often thought that his dead friend would never have done anything dishonest had it not been for his nefarious influence. No, the young man was thoughtless, his father died too young and never had the opportunity of sharing with him his enormous wisdom, but disrespectful he was not.
‘Yes, there was a good breeze. Your children they are well?’
‘Bhagwan and your prayers be thanked!’
‘Raju,’ Sukhdeo said in unnecessarily conspiratorial tones, looking right and left for indiscreet ears, ‘I was going to Calcutta with Harish, but I have this pain in my back, feel the lump…’ he bent forward a bit, and Raju went through the motion of seeking out the focus of the pain and tut tutted dutifully, as an expression of his deep sympathy, after which the older man briefed him.
‘And when does Chacha want me to go?’ he asked, adding what he knew was unrealistic optimism, in the knowledge of how quickly produce deteriorates, ‘tomorrow?’
‘Raju, my boy,’ Sukhdeo said, moving his head right and left several times, ‘you know my principle,’ and here his eyes twinkled as they always did when uttering this stale witticism, ‘never do today what you could have done the day before yesterday.’ A stupid adage, thought Shanti who had heard it many times before but Raju nodded as enthusiastically as if this was his first time, raising his hand up and shaking his head from left to right, closing his eyes instinctively, in a wait-a-second gesture, as if to beg the man to stop overwhelming him with such wisdom and witticism so early in the morning, laughing merrily.
‘Ha! Ha! Yes, never do today… eh… ha! ha!’ his voice trailing off in a sort of sound tunnel from which only the words “day before yesterday” emerged.
Yes, Sukhdeo thought to himself, Raju is a good intelligent boy, a bit lazy, but intelligent and honest. And respectful deep down!
‘It’s mainly onions this time, there are fifty sacks. Maybe Shri Bannerjee will give us sixty rupees, but ask for seventy two.’ Shanti recognised the look on her husband’s face, which seemed to be saying, He’ll be lucky if he gets forty, but then he frowned thoughtfully and nodded seriously, to indicate that the instruction had sunk in. I’ll leave you now, but I expect you to be at the house before the sun gets to there, and he pointed at a position in the sky a little to the left of the midday.
‘I cannot wait for you, as I have business in Sonarkhali and must rush,’ he said, adding, ‘you’ve got your own boat, so I won’t send Jayant to come back to pick you up.’
When the fat man left, Raju pursed his lips and looked at Shanti glumly.
‘That man thinks he owns us,’ she said, her throat aching with repressed anger.
‘Yes, that he does, my Rani, that he does, and he is probably right, but never mind, we’ll reap some benefit from this, you’ll see.’
She knew that she had to cook something, for the early part of his trip at any rate. He would exchange some of the stuff he was carrying for something to eat, and if that proved difficult, he could always spend some of his money in those roadside stalls that have recently sprouted, selling food to wayfarers. She also had vegetable and fish pickles, made in advance with his trips in mind. These kept for much longer, as they were preserved in salt, mustard oil and juice of lime and spices and chillies. She had to make sure that he had some clean clothes to change into once he reached Calcutta. She also knew that she would have to plan her tasks properly if the tight deadline that Sukhdeo had set, was to be met. She knew that if he started early enough, he would not have to be on the road at night, with dacoits and cut-throats, tigers and cheetahs on the prowl. He normally stopped in a hamlet outside a mandir before dark, and he said that it was safe as there were devotees there at all hours of the night. They knew very well that a dreaded encounter with a dacoit meant not only all Sukhdeo’s money gone, a life-threatening beating, and the certain loss of the tenancy. This was because the zamindar had made an example of one-eyed Basdeo, who was attacked by dacoits, robbed and left for dead. Sukhdeo had immediately dismissed him, justifying this by declaring to one and all that there was never any dacoit, that Basdeo and his cousin had planned everything, faked the beating and stolen the ghee destined for Calcutta. The disconsolate one-eyed man had lost his mind and went to hang himself on the tamarind tree on the other side of the river, now known to everybody as the hanging tree. People had seen and heard his ghost wailing there many a time, protesting his innocence.
It was not that her man was thoughtless, and unwilling to help, although he was a bit, but when she had a rush job to do, she preferred him out of the way.
‘As you will be gone for so many days, go play with the babies, but first can you get me some sojne from the drumstick tree near the stream as it gives a nice tang to the palak, doesn’t it?’
He playfully grabbed the little ones under the waist, one in each hand, and hopped outside merrily. Raju loved the sojne, but she suspected that it was because it had the reputation of making men more virile — not that he thought that he needed anything of the sort himself — and he was right. It was a week after they were married that he turned up one day with a cutting of the moringa not taller than himself, and with tender and loving care, he had chosen a nice spot for it, not too near the mango tree with its reputation for taking more than its fair share of the nutrients in the soil, and had planted it. She had not been too pleased about this, not because she had anything against drumsticks or their leaves, but everybody knew that ghosts liked no tree better to make a home in, with the possible exception of the tamarind. But she had said nothing, for she knew that he would pooh pooh the notion, because Mr Know-all maintained that ghosts only dared show themselves to the weak-minded.
In the beginning, every morning he would take care of it. If the winds had so much as caused it to lean to one side by a hair’s breath, he would tut tut, and push it to its former position, add more earth to the base and stamp on it to tighten it. She used to laugh at his ardour, but at the same time she had thought that if he was the sort of man who worried so much about a paltry sojne data, there was every reason to believe that he would make a wonderful father. Once she did refer to the tree as a paltry thing, and he was very sore about this. I don’t know why you despise the Sojne data, so much, he said solemnly, when you have so much in common with the plant.
‘You are both Ranis, my piari, the sojne, a Rani among plants and you a Rani among women.’
Encouraged by her wide-eyed wonderment, he had elaborated. Its trunk and branches may be scraggy, but you tell me what other tree, apart from the coconut palm, has so many uses. First its little green leaves makes the most excellent sag, its drumstick cooked in dal tastes so heavenly… she had not spelled out that he should bring some drumsticks as well, and knowing him, the thought would simply not occur to him… the seeds of the drumstick when roasted and slightly salted is such a treat, to say nothing of what extra powers it gives to a man, not that the pleasure I give you every night depends on it, I’ll have you know! We can eat the leaves, the drumstick, its seeds and the flowers. I’ll teach you how to fry the flowers like Umma Phoopi used to do, it’s so delicious that it doesn’t need any haldi or chillies. From the seeds you get cooking oil, that’s what ben oil is, did you know that? Once he got started, Raju could go on and on, like a cart without an ox when it begins to slip downhill. And not that you need anything to make you beautiful, piari, he went on, but some women in the big town use ben oil to make their skin beautiful and soft. And the hakeem was telling me that when you deliver the child — for she was pregnant with the girl at that time — nothing can ensure that you produce good quality milk, as the products of that tree you despise. She knew that he knew that she did not despise the sojne data, it was his way of teasing her for being lukewarm towards something that he felt so passionate about.
She would make rice, sag and dal and fry some dried fish. There was also some bhetki vindaloo acchar that she had pickled and stored in a large clay jar with a tight lid. If he came on time with the leaves and brought one or two drumsticks, she would put them in the dal, otherwise she had some dried powdered leaves of the plant which gave extra tang to the soup. She knew how much he appreciated her cooking and hated to disappoint him.
Instinctively she knew the order in which things had to be done, in order to complete the task in the least possible time, which today, was of the essence, but she had a sound head on her shoulders, and was in the habit of thinking things out. Raju often aired his admiration of her prowess, how, for instance, she used leftovers from yesterday to enhance today’s sauce, how in rare times of plenty, she could prepare a three or four course meal in under an hour.
She set herself to work straight away. First she lit the wood fire in a furnace under the peepul tree, consisting of two specially chosen boulders of roughly the same size, placed at some distance from the peepul to avoid singeing it, but not too far, in order to benefit from its shade, as she dedicated herself to her chores. She was quite an expert at doing this, and prided herself that even in the strongest of winds, she never used more than one Lucifer. She had only four sticks left in the box, which Raju was given as a present from his Gujarati friend Mahendranath. If she ran out of these magical sticks, she would have to use the flint and lock, which was always more difficult. She fanned it with a pankhah made of dried palm fronds, woven together for that purpose — a legacy of Phoopi, and by occasionally blowing on the recalcitrant flames with a bamboo pookhni.
She viewed a starting fire, much as a toddler who kept stumbling and falling over, it needed dried sticks and fanning and blowing before it got going, just like the toddler who stumbled, needed to be picked up, kissed on the knee to soothe the pain he got as he fell down, told how clever he was, before he finally learnt to walk. She knew exactly how to nurture her fire, when to add more sticks just as surely as she knew how to feed her two kids. It was also important not to smother the flames by putting too much wood on, in the same manner that one did not gorge one’s kids with too much food. When the fire was going nicely with healthy red flames shooting out of every piece of wood, it was like a heathy child growing safely into adolescence — best to leave them to fend for themselves. She quickly put water on the boil for the dal as that was the thing which needed the most time. She then put the dried salt-fish in a bowl, stole some warm water for soaking the fish, otherwise on frying they became as hard as wood, and was too salty. She now washed the rice from which she had already removed bits of stones and earth, and let it soak. She was not going to just sit and watch the fire, so she went to wash a shirt and a dhoti for her man. She did this at lightning speed, beating them furiously on a rock next to the basin, to expel the dirt which had become encrusted in them and put them out to dry on the rope stretching between a mango tree and the depleted drumstick tree. There was a good breeze and in the hot sun and they would dry up in no time. She then rushed to pick some palak or spinach growing behind the hut. In a matter of minutes, she had prepared her mixture of garlic, ginger, coriander, turmeric and chillies by crushing them over the special stone slab with line grooves chiselled out, resting on a tamarind stump hit by lightning and meticulously planed by Raju, with the funny cylindrical stone crusher which had gone as smooth as a baby’s bottom with use. This paste she would then put in everything she was cooking.
Whilst the dal was gurgling happily on the healthy fire, it was time for the latter to produce its own child. She placed some twigs in the second furnace by the side of the first one, deftly extracted a couple of burning embers from the fire by first spitting on the tips of her fingers, placed them over the twigs, fanned it and blew upon it until these were ignited, and she fed the baby fire with more of the same. She replaced the embers stolen from the first fire with some fresh sticks, smiling as she remembered how Raju fussed over her when she was carrying the babies, stealing good things in order to force-feed her. Then she chopped the onions, washed and cut the greens. The dal was once more chirruping happily on the revived fire, occasionally spitting tiny droplets around. Whilst waiting for the new fire to pick up, she checked that they the eddoes or cocoyam left over from yesterday were still good, peeled them and put them in a catora with some coriander and chilli chutney. By now the new fire was thriving and she put the rice on. She added more wood to the fires and alternated fanning with blowing. The second fire was now able to give birth to its own fire child, which the midwife Shanti delivered into the third stone furnace also by the side of the first one, which was hardly ever used but today was an emergency. A second birth is always easier than the first one, as the mother fire and the grandmother fire were both there to help nourish it. By now the dal is cooked, and all it needed was to have the fried onion mix which she would do later. As she had a free fire, she heated her massive pressing iron, a present from her mother, on it, and ironed his shirt and dhoti as they were not completely dry. She now fried the onions with some jeera in the frying pan which was without a handle, and at the same time Raju came back with the kids laughing their heads off at some joke. He had the sojne all right, but he had not remembered the drumsticks. She was on the point of carrying out the precarious task of adding the fried onions to the dal, and Raju seeing her struggling with that lethal invalid pan with the help of a safi , which was what she called the kitchen rag, rushed towards her, took the rag from her hand, and deftly poured the savoury mix into the dal.
‘I promise you that this time I will definitely… perhaps… get you a new frying pan,’ he said. He had been promising this to her ever since they married.
The rice was next, and that was a simple task. As a teenager at home, she had watched the naukars cook rice in the traditional manner, which was to get it to boil lustily, drain the water away and then dry the half-cooked rice on a very low fire, a process known as the dam. Phoopi had taught Shanti her method, which was to soak the rice first, bring it to the boil in only a small amount of water and then allow it to cook on a very low fire until all the water was absorbed. The hakeem had told Raju that this was a much better method of cooking rice, as one did not throw any of the rice’s natural goodness. By now, the dal was cooked, so that the first fire was available for the sag. While the rice was cooking, all four of them sat round in a circle and each one taking a branch of sojne in their hands, depleted it of its small leaves, collecting them in a large dried calabash. Thus it was, that juggling the three fires like a magician, she completed her cooking tasks in record time.
She then transferred pickles into smaller catoras for the trip. As a rule a pickle can last two weeks without spoiling, and was ideal for the sort of trip that Raju made regularly. There was vegetable acchar, nimbu acchar and bhetki vindaloo acchar.
She now had tears in her eyes, as she knew that the moment was drawing near when her man had to leave. May Bhagwan preserve him from the dangers of the road! She tried not to let him see her tears, but it was difficult to hide things like that from him as he had sharp eyes and was good at reading the signs. She did a p’rnaam, bending down in an attempt at kissing his feet — he always stopped her with fake disapproval — as he was about to cross the threshold into the open. He liked the p’rnaam but only because it showed how much she respected him. Not all wives did the p’rnaam to their husbands. He never stopped repeating that she was everything to him, his sun, his other self, his munn or soul mate, that he had the certainty that in the history of the world, no man had ever loved a woman as much as he loved her. Not even the Shah Jehan could have loved his Mumtaz half as much as it is claimed. If he had that emperor’s resources, he would build an even more splendid monument than the Taj Mahal for his Rani. She was not a demonstrative woman, she did not have the words, but she could not imagine a woman loving a man more either. If only he knew!
Whistling with fake bonhomie, he turned away and began walking towards the little pier where he moored the boat, on the way to Sukhdeo’s house in Sonarkhali, not turning round even once to have another glimpse of his wife and children, he did not believe in unending farewells. She stifled a tear taking care not to let the children see it, and felt a lump in her throat. There were so many dangers on the road. She was a worrier, but the dangers were real, you heard of so many mishaps and accidents, often fatal.
She was apprehensive when Raju took Pradeep and Sundari to what he called that piece of paradise which fell to earth — the estuary and the mangroves. It was indeed the prettiest place she had set eyes upon. You had two rivers meeting in a passionate and vociferous embrace, like long lost lovers reuniting after a long absence, generating the sort of passion which was theirs when he came back from Calcutta. That’s what Raju said anyway. She wiped off the remnants of her tears and smiled as she imagined the homecoming of her man and everything that was to follow. I have become so shameless, she chided herself.
Seated in his little craft which Baba Parsad had made all those years ago, although so many bits had been replaced since that he wondered if there remained a single plank from the original, he felt strangely elated. A Sundarbani had a lot in common with a gharial, he felt as much at home on water as on land. The vegetation on the small islands around was lush and luxuriant, there were blue lotus, moss and ferns, hibiscus, oleander and lantana intertwined like legs of lovers — yes he was a sex fiend, he had nothing else on the mind. There were banyan trees, peepuls, fruit trees, bramble, thorn bush, palmyra, bamboo.
The forest he was going to cross in the oxcart was host to all sorts of creatures, monkeys and mongooses, toads and snakes, cheetahs and tigers. Gharials lurked in the waters, sometimes they ventured on land. On the trees you had all the birds imaginable. He had surprised his wife of a week when he had told her that the kak or common crow was his favourite bird. She had been surprised when he claimed that he found its thick velvety black feathers prettier than those of the rainbow coloured humming birds.
As a child, he was staying with a family friend when Baba and Phoopi had gone to a funeral in Sonarkhali. Moti, the little boy who was the same age as himself, had hit a kak dead with a stone, and had left it under a coconut tree at some distance from their hut. Shortly after this, a flock of kaks had descended upon the place, surrounded their dead companion, hopping madly, wailing and cawing their accusations threateningly, and would not go away. They gradually moved nearer and nearer to the hut where he and Moti were, to all intents and purposes, besieging it, cawing with increased vehemence, until the two little boys were terrified out of their wits, unable to figure out why they were making such a racket, and convinced that if they ventured outside, the irate birds would tear their eyes out. Moti’s father had attempted to shoo away those impudent and fearless creatures without any success. If only humans cared for each other half as much, Moti’s father had said with a sigh. He understood their concern, sorrow and anger, and it was from that moment that his admiration for them had sprouted. They were still there in the morning and it was late on the next afternoon that the last one flew away. It takes a good man to find a kak beautiful, Shanti had told herself when he had related the episode to her. That was when she knew that she loved him.
His love for the kokil, the cuckoo, was more understandable. It had a beautiful melodious voice — the male actually, the female made a raucous and unpleasant sound. He loved them all, the ghugha, chais, shaliks, nilkhonthos. He knew about birds. How proud he was when he overheard Shanti telling the little ones the story of how, when their father was a kid, he used to trap nilkhontos for the rich villagers in order to make a few pise, because, for Durga Puja, it was considered propitious to release one as a messenger to Heaven. He would never, not for a whole anna, have trapped and caught any bird, if he thought people were going to keep it in a cage, for even if you see them hopping about in their beautiful cages, a trapped bird’s soul is already dead. This he believed with all the fibres in his body, birds are made for trees and the sky, not cages.
The mangrove was also host to the spectacular and most colourful parrots, green feathers with red beaks. They flock together for protection against snakes, monkeys, rodents, and above all Man…
Whatever he told Shanti, he was well aware that this corner of Paradise was also full of danger. Everybody said that nowhere in the land were the tigers more cruel. It was said that because the water they drank was salty, it made them mean and bad-tempered. There were so many stories of poor fishermen trying to eke out a living on the waters, being pounced upon, mauled and killed by Dakshin Rai, but he still believed that what happened to Baba notwithstanding, tigers are not wanton killers — not that he planned to take any risk. To pacify Shanti he told her those fantastic stories. No tiger can ever harm me or anybody who is with me, he had told her. Surprised, she had asked why. In a previous life, I was a tiger. She tut tutted, beginning to understand his jokes and fantasies, they were harmless and they amused her, but he tried to look serious. How do you know you were a tiger once? She had asked. He had pretended to be taken aback by the question, as if someone was questioning how he knew that the sun would rise on the next morning. I just know, you tell me why would I not have been a tiger? She was not used to his arguing style. But mean, he was not and hated putting her down. I’ll tell you how I know, he explained, sometimes I dream of my past lives, I often dream of a tiger, always the same. That doesn’t mean that you were a tiger, just because you dreamt of one, she had countered. No, Rani, in my dream I know the tiger is me, I can feel it.
Later, when talking about cobras and snakes, he would say that he was not afraid of snakes because in a previous life he used to be a cobra. Shanti laughed and shook her head. So you don’t believe me? No, she had said, I don’t, you said you used to be a tiger, now you say you used to be a cobra. Arrey, Rani, you don’t just have one previous life, in one I was a tiger, in another I was a cobra, why is that so surprising? I think in another previous life, you must have been an ulloo, she said with a laugh. He was taken aback, just a bit offended at being called owl, but pleased that she was beginning to show signs of learning how to defend herself. Yes, a pushover, his Rani was not.
He knew that all those things he told her did little to stop her fretting and worrying about him, imagining all sorts of disasters, for when he came back from his trip, it always shocked him to find her looking so haggard and careworn.
It was shortly after midday, and the sun was at its hottest when he had finally finished loading the onions on the cart, and started on the trip. Dukhdeo and Lalita had given him such a long list of dos and donts that his head was fairly spinning. Ask for a high price and when the client demurs you can bring it down, but a little at a time. How clever of them! I was planning to offer a low price and haggle upwards. But he beamed at the pair as if they had just revealed to him the secret of turning earth into gold. When you buy goods for us, shop around, make sure they don’t overcharge you, always tell them they are asking too much, pretend you’re walking away, they will call you back, people are so dishonest. Take your time, my first law of business… he was not listening. Your first law of business is to give little and ask for much, you leech! At the same time Lalita was saying the opposite, come back quickly, there is plenty of work to be done here, but take care of the Roshni. How can I take care of the ghai? I will make sure I feed her and give her plenty of water, but I can’t sing a lullaby to her and massage her tired legs like my Shanti does to me. He nodded his assent to everything being said, beaming heartily but feeling like a half-wit. She is an old and tired animal, they are saying, then why aren’t they giving him a younger one?
After all those sermons, he was finally seated in his ghari, and even the heat of the midday sun was a relief. In any case the mangrove was shaded and the trees will provide some welcome breeze, he thought. He had not started speaking to himself yet, there might be some villagers around, and they would everybody that he talked to himself like a pagla. Usually when he went on a long trip like this one, after a while, he felt free to voice his thoughts, gesticulate with his hands, shrug, smile or even laugh aloud, have imaginary conversations with Shanti. My Rani, I know you are too good for me… You should have married a rich man who would cover you in jewels — at least buy you a proper frying pan, and feed you sweetmeats dripping with honey and ghee… Such class, such poise… That woman is a real peri!
‘But it’s been my aim,’ he heard himself say aloud, in answer to a question which flashed across his brain in no time at all, ‘to buy her some nice silver bangles some day…’ He laughed, admitting to himself that he would never in a million years find the money for that, ‘You need your head examined my friend, you are a bit pagla.’ Must definitely buy her that frying pan with a nice handle, I’ll never forgive myself if she burns herself one day.
He paid little attention to the intense heat and the sun above, in the knowledge that in only a short while, he would be once more in the mangrove area, with its fresh vegetation and its shade. Also the sight of the birds and monkeys always filled him with joy. He loved all animals, but monkeys above all else. Here in this mangrove you only had langurs, but they happened to be his favourite among all apes. Isn’t it funny how I classify things, the kak my favourite bird, langur the monkey I like best, the jack my favourite fruit, fried onions the smell I like best after my Shanti’s slightly sweaty smoky smell.
The moment he was in the mangrove, he began to sing a song he made up as he went along. It was a song about how good it was to live, to love and be loved, how beautiful everything was, and as there was no one about. He felt free to sing loudly and lustily, to himself, to the cow, even jumping in and out of the cart every now and then, dancing and prancing around the trusty old cow, stroking her face, leaving her to negotiate the narrow rocky path with its protruding roots, on her own. He skipped and hopped merrily, hugging trees, winking at the langurs, making flying signs with his outstretched arms as he saw some crows. They will say I am childish if they saw me prancing about.
He breathed more freely, he always liked the smell of decaying vegetation that was a feature of mangroves. It was much fresher now, and there was a very welcome breeze, and for a good stretch now, he would be sheltered from the punishing sun. In any case the sun would be setting once he left the tip of the mangrove that was his chosen route. He sometimes came here with Rani and the kids. Yes, he was a very fortunate man to have such a family. Of course life was a struggle, you had to work until you could hardly remain on your legs — Phoopi had a grand expression, you work until you cannot tell which is your right hand, which your left. Was he not twice blessed to have had such a wonderful woman taking care of him? Had he been a prince nobody would have done more for him. Of course he was poor, had no possessions. He needed nothing himself, he had his wooden karpa in his feet, his dhoti, his turban and his kurta, and wished for nothing more, but he regretted not being able to buy pretty things for Rani and Pradeep and the lovely little princess. She was going to be as pretty as her mother some day. Will she find someone to love her like I do her mother? But the important thing was that they were never went hungry. There was always rice, dal, and atta in the house, and Shanti grew some vegetables. There was karela, although he didn’t like it too much because of its bitter taste, but cooked with ripe tomatoes, plenty of green chillies and an egg, it was tasty enough. Bhindi grew well even when there was little water, beans often wilted before producing anything, there was dudhi, pumpkin, baygun, palak, and of course sojne — what would the poor do without that prince of shrubs? How stupid of him to have forgotten the drumstick today.
The hens did not lay as much as he would have wished — the small ones needed meat and eggs in order to grow big and strong, but where was the money to buy goat meat? Always eggs, and they make you fart. The fish seemed to be boycotting the river these days — when he was a child they used to jump to the hook before it hit the water! But the hakeem said dal was good for growing children. Shanti said it made him produce bad smells. It’s funny, but it did not seem to have the same effect on her. He could not remember her ever farting, although he supposed she did. When he was lucky he caught one or two fish, but in the mangrove he always found crabs, sometimes shrimps. The little money that he made enabled him to buy coconut oil from Basdeo’s widow — that woman was so admirable, since her man’s death, she does everything herself, including climbing coconut palms and pressing for oil, the family seemed better off than when the poor man was alive. When you have tomatoes, dhanya and jeera, you could always produce a tasty dish. The thought of food began to make his mouth water, although he had eaten a big meal just before starting out. He rummaged though his jute bag and found a catora in which she had some boiled cocoyam for him, she had even peeled them, she was a pearl. The sauce was absolutely out of this world, crushed into the finest paste. What would people do without their crushing stone? He smelled the chutney, and detected, coriander, tomatoes, garlic, coconut and tamarind. That woman could have cooked for the Emperor Akbar himself.
Thinking about her, combined with the rocking of the cart, as he knew from experience that it would, produced its effect in his dhoti. Bhagwan knew he tried to live a righteous life and strove to keep impure thoughts at bay, but he could not help it. When all was said and done, he was a weak man, and there was nothing he could do, he did not invite these lusty images into his head, they just came in uninvited, like a burglar who finds a door open. At almost any time of the day, he felt a presence in his dhoti, like an uninvited but welcome guest, and he had to recite a special mantra his friend Ranjit, who dreamt of becoming a holy man, had taught him in order to get back on track, but sadly it didn’t always work. Sadly? he wondered.
Sometimes, he was ashamed to admit, the craving was such that the moment he arrived home after a day in the fields, if the kids were out of sight, playing somewhere, he would grab Shanti by the arms, she laughing and struggling, making a pretence at protesting, he would throw her on the floor and they would be at it. He knew that she liked it as much as he did;,and for all he knew, whilst cooking or washing, she too might well have been visited by these impure thoughts, but she was very shy and would never talk openly about things like that. The hakeem had explained to him once that women had the same needs and desires as men. He had been surprised, but after a few years with Shanti, and having studied her reactions, he convinced himself that the Musselman was right. Come to think of it, why were the thoughts impure? He felt a little discomfort in his chest as he realised that it would be another eight to ten days before he would see his beloved wife, hold her two mangoes in his hands, lie with her, put his hands between her legs, caress her roundness and enjoy her body. He would try to make it eight, but Roshni was no longer as young as she used to be. We’ll see, he said aloud.
Dukhdeo had said he should get fifty rupees for the onions, he always expected to get more for less and pay less for more, which was how he made his money. I am a fortunate man of course, Bhagwan, but a little more money is all I ask for, I don’t ask for hundreds of rupees, just one or two extra now and then. I must not forget that frying pan before my Shanti burns herself. No, I have no qualms about pocketing a small percentage of Dukhdeo’s takings, the man is a glutton, why does he need all that money? Surely Bhagwan cannot consider what I do sinful, it would be a sin if I did it for myself, but perhaps a greater one if I didn’t, for then I would be making my children suffer and go hungry. The poor mites were almost always hungry, dal and atta are not enough for growing children. The hut was too small, a real chicken coop, but it was all he wished for, although he knew Shanti who was used to living in a bigger house with a veranda and windows would have preferred a bigger one — not that she had ever said anything.
But I am a rich man, he thought. My loved ones are my treasures, we have so many good things, we are healthy, we are never ill, we sleep well, we play, we laugh a lot and have no enemies. Suppose some God came to me and said, Raju, you can trade places with Dukhdeo, have everything he possesses (but not his wife,) but for that you must lose an arm. Arrey Bhagwan, I’d say, to become Dukhdeo even with both my arms, is a calamity. No, no, Bhagwan would say, you get me wrong, you can have the man’s riches but you do not have to become the man, you can be yourself and keep your family, but you must lose an arm. Never! Who can judge the value of an arm? No earthly possession can make up for a good healthy arm. That’s a man’s real wealth, the things he already has. Take the eyes. Can the Nizam of Hyderabad, if one day he became blind, with all the diamonds in Golconda, order the learned men and sages at his court to make him a pair of eyes so he can see the beautiful things he owns, his palace, his jewellery, his fine silks and his fine women? If I was the Nizam, I’d give my whole fortune for a pair of eyes if I went blind! And I would need another fortune to make me hear the song of the koel, the rustle of wind through the leaves, the sound of thunder, the laughter of my children at play, or my Shanti greeting me in her peculiar manner as I come in with a So you’re finally home, eh, come sit here, I’ll make you tea. Or the sound of her groaning quietly with pleasure as we do it. How many diamonds are worth the ability to taste the good things my Shanti can cook? Would all the diamonds of the Nizam be able to buy me my taste buds if I were to lose them? The human body is so full of wonder. Look at the things a man can do with his fingers, can even those clever Angrezi invent a machine that can do all that? My nose, even if I curse it when I catch a cold… what riches would I trade my ungainly flattened nose for? The nose that permits me to smell my children, my Shanti’s cooking, raat ki rani after sunset. The list of the things man has inherited at birth is endless. How can any normal man can say he is poor?