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San Cassimally

Scottish-Mauritian novelist and playwright.

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The moment the family was out of earshot, Sukhdeo was all smiles and backslaps. The best thing was for them to go to a place just round the corner where they could indulge in some toddy, he said, to bury past grievances. Raju did not feel like drinking, specially with Sundari in tow, and with the man who had done him so much harm. However, he reasoned, whatever may have happened between the two of them, he was an elder, had been a friend of Baba’s, and in any case after today, never again in this life would their paths cross, Bhagwan be praised. That, he told himself wryly, was something that needed to be celebrated. Besides, in the apprehensive state he was in, a little drink might calm his nerves. So he allowed the older man to grab hold of his hand and lead him to the stall away from the bustle of the riverside where a sinister looking one-eyed man in a red turban, with thick twirling moustaches was serving drinks. Raju was seized by panic and found himself covered in a film of cold sweat. Had Sukhdeo brought him here for some villainous purpose? Could he get out of this situation without causing any upset? But the toddy was ordered and he imitated Sukhdeo and swallowed it in one gulp.

‘I needed that,’ said Sukhdeo, smacking his lips, and he signalled the one-eyed man to bring some more.

‘What I wanted to tell you, beta — I always thought of you as my own son — was that I am so sorry things have come to this between us. If only you knew how many sleepless nights I have spent, gnawed by regrets! As you know your father and I were distant cousins, but that was nothing, we were friends, better than brothers, like this.’ He made crooks of his index fingers and pulled hard, showing that no force could wrench them apart. ‘And I honestly used to think of you as my own son,’ he said, ‘honest I did.’ Raju knew this was true, but hoped that the old man was not going to keep saying this. He knew that it was his refusal to endorse this sentiment was at the root of all their problems.

‘I am not saying it’s your fault… your Aunt Lalita interferes too much, and she is always having a go at me. So and so is a thief, such and such is a slacker, that one has shown us disrespect… you know what women are like.’

‘My Shanti is not like that,’ thought Raju but thought it best to say nothing, in an attempt to keep this unwelcome encounter short; instead he just nodded in a neutral manner.

‘I know your Shanti isn’t like that,’ said the older man, seemingly reading his mind and agreeing with him, ‘but trust me, all other women are.’ I must remember to tell her that, the proud husband told himself.

‘But my boy, who knows eh? Give her time and she too will learn…’ Raju smiled and acknowledged the old man’s little joke.

‘Arrey, no, I am not blaming nobody, all I am saying is that I never really believed that you stole those things. Why, beta, you have never stolen in the past… I was not doubting about the goondas, you never tell lies, although you are often exaggerating, don’t you?’ And as the effect of the toddy was beginning to make itself felt, he gave a raucous short laugh, and presented his open palm for the younger man to slap. Raju complied it with singular lack of enthusiasm, and for a little while neither spoke. Then Sukhdeo shook his head wistfully, and continued, ‘But… ach… I shouldn’t have accused you. And the cow, as you said was old, she didn’t have long to live…’

‘If you have come to say you are sorry, OK, thank you, now I must go.’ The next round of toddy arrived.

‘Drink up.’

‘I am glad you realised I am no thief, but I must go, I don’t want to miss my ship, Shanti will be worried.’

‘Arrey, there is plenty of time, they told me at the harbour. Drink and I am coming to the point.’ Raju drank. To his surprise, Sukhdeo was suddenly holding the golden jhumka that Shanti had been forced to part with in his hand, its tasselled chains glinting seductively at Raju. Surprisingly the other drinkers seemed not to notice.

‘Here, take this, I should never have taken it from your Shanti in the first place. Tell her how sorry I am, and promise you will both forgive me.’ Raju could not quite believe he was hearing this. He drank his toddy in one gulp again. He took possession of the earring and kept staring at it like one hypnotised.

‘Did you say there’s plenty of time?’ he asked the older man.

‘Arrey, the man said the ship was not leaving until tomorrow. Late tomorrow.’

‘In that case, maybe you should let me buy the next round.’ Sukhdeo shook his head. No, he insisted, a young man should not stand an elder a drink, it was disrespectful.

Raju liked his drink, but he never drank irresponsibly. He liked to believe that he knew when to stop. But the excitement and the stress of the situation were too great, and he needed something to relieve the tension. He promised that this was the very last, final and ultimate one, knowing that he had already stepped over the mark. Sukhdeo wished him a good trip, and hugging him, tears dripping down his cheeks.

‘Ya Bhagwan, Parsad, your father was…’ He could not finish the sentence, shook his head, clearly choking with emotion.

Photo Credit: Public domain, unknown

Putting the earring carefully under his turban, Raju grabbed the girl by the hand and fairly ran towards the riverside, but the crowd seriously impeded his progress. Regardless he pressed on and brushed past a tall well-built man with a handlebar mustache, a proper pahelwan. He didn’t even stop to say sorry. He heard an order being shouted, ‘Catch that Chootya,’ and a companion of the irate man tripped him over. He crashed to the ground, just avoiding smothering the little Devi. He hurt his forehead slightly and a trickle of blood was coming out. The ruffian bent down grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and pulled him up until his feet were hanging in the air. The girl began crying in panic, whereupon one the goondas gently pinched her cheek and said, Don’t worry we don’t harm little sweeties like you, but that did not stop the scared little girl.

‘Do you know who I am?’ the Pahelwan asked fiercely, whereupon, four or five men who were obviously associates of his began laughing. All I know is that I wouldn’t like to share a toddy with you, thought Raju wryly.

‘Boss, if the chootya knew who you are, he would have been more careful,’ one of them said, to renewed laughter.

‘What do you lot think,’ the Pahelwan, feeling his side whiskers, asked his sidekicks darkly.

‘The chootya needs to be taught a lesson, boss,’ chorused four men who all looked the same to Raju.

‘No please, Sarkar, be kind, Bhagwan will repay your kindness to me a thousandfold, please just let me go…’ He was on the point of delivering a long-winded entreaty, but the offended man turned to his associates and laughed obscenely.

‘Another madr chodd from Bihar! I knew there was something wrong with him from the moment I caught sight of him’ Raju grinned foolishly, in the hope of an early reprieve.

‘Ek Bihari sau Bimari!’ One Bihari, one hundred diseases!

‘Them’s worse than those fuckin’ intouchables,’ spat the smallest of the four.

‘What do you people hope to find in our sacred town? You’re polluting this city with your presence, why don’t you piss off back where you came from?’ Raju thought that he had finally found his way out.

‘Sarkar, actually I am on the point of leaving Calcutta… my wife and family, we are moving to—’ He could not finish his sentence, as a resounding slap on the face shocked him into silence. Also, he had momentarily forgotten the name of that place they were going to.

A small crowd was watching this scene passively, neither enjoying it, nor outraged by the sight of five men victimising a small undernourished man and his little girl.

‘You only speak when you’re told to.’ The girl was so shocked to witness this humiliation of his father that she stopped crying. Raju was heartened to note that she had formed her two hands into fists.

‘It’s all right, little girl, you can continue crying now,’ said one of the badmash kindly, but she did not take up the offer.

‘What’s your name, little sweetheart?’

‘My Baba calls me Sundari, but—’

‘Her real name is Devi—’ Raju was not allowed to finish, as another resounding slap followed by yet another reminder of when he was allowed to open his mouth crash-landed on his face.

‘Yes, he needs to be taught a lesson,’ the Pahelwan said, ‘bring him along… take the child.’ Wagging a finger menacingly to the man carrying Devi, he added unnecessarily, ‘See no harm is done to her. We never harm children. Don’t cry little one.’ Then angrily turning to his men, he said, ‘If she starts crying give her a sound slap to shut her up.’

And Raju was forcibly dragged away, the girl in the arms of the goonda. Bhagwan save me, he prayed inwardly, you are the only one who can now. What’s going to happen to my Shanti and my little boy now? He knew about thuggees who kidnapped strangers, robbed them and killed them as a sacrifice to the Goddess Kali.

Photo Credit: CC-BY Suvodeb Banerjee

‘Please sir, kill me but spare the girl, she is so young and innocent, she has never done harm to nobody…’ He saw the boss nod, and one of the men punched him and he collapsed on the ground, and lost consciousness.

When he regained consciousness, he found himself being dragged by two men, one on either side, his knees bleeding through rubbing against the rough ground. He had lost his champals. They seemed to be aiming for a little maidan next to a Jain temple. He started whimpering. Please sirs, let me go, I will miss my boat. No one seemed to hear or care. As the crowd thinned out, Raju’s fear for his and his little girl’s lives increased in inverse proportions. Ya Bhagwan, let them kill me, but don’t let them take my girl and sell her. Why did this madr chhod Dukhdeo appear in my life at a time like this, like a black cat heralding a big disaster? What business did he have, becoming repentant? That man has been like a burden the family has had to bear since the beginning of time.

Finally they were under a big banyan tree and a goonda pushed Raju roughly against it. There were half a dozen stragglers watching proceedings, and they too said nothing and watched passively.

‘Teach him that lesson now, boys,’ ordered the Pahelwan, and the men closed upon the poor Bihari, and began slapping him on the face, whereupon the boss cleared his throat and spat his contempt at such a poor show of force. ‘I said teach him a fuckin’ lesson, not caress him.’ The men redoubled their effort, joining kicks and punches to slaps, their faces contorted by the most vicious expressions they could muster. The fellow who was holding the girl looked on sadly and asked if they did not think that the man had had enough.

‘Yes, yes,’ agreed the poor victim, ‘I have been a bad bad man but I have learnt my lesson now—’ The Pahelwan took a couple of steps in his direction, looked at him in the eyes, then punched him twice in the stomach in quick succession.

‘So far you have learnt shit, madr chott you have learned your lesson when I say you have, not one second before, not two seconds after!’ He cleared his throat menacingly, and his face reflecting the venom he had built up for the man he had never seen in his life, he spat a large gob on Raju’s face. Then he turned to his minions, ‘If there is anybody I hate more than a Bihari piece of shit, it’s a grovelling Bihari piece of shit.’ The four men almost shrieked with laughter.

‘The boss is so funny,’ chorused the men.

‘Now go back to that revolting Gaya and stay there. If I catch sight of you in our sacred Calcutta, I will personally cut your balls off.’ And they let him go. The man who was holding Devi seemed reluctant to let go of the girl, and pinched her cheek again in what he thought was a token of avuncular affection, before allowing her to slide down. Raju was hurting all over, but relieved that no bones were broken. Best of all his turban with all his possessions was still miraculously on his head. Now he was lost, slightly concussed, not knowing how to retrace his steps to the Harbour area. His clothes were blood-soaked and he was still bleeding in places. If Shanti saw him like this, she would have a fit. And the people in the Harbour Office would never let him go through in the state he was in. So he stopped at a ghat, washed his clothes to remove all traces of blood, and cleaned his wound, then he bought himself wooden clogs. Devi was dry-eyed but looked scared, and he patted her gently on the head every now and then, calling her a brave little girl. He hoped that a black eye might just pass muster. He squeezed the clothes dry and put them on whilst some giggling kids watched behind a banyan.

When he finally arrived at the spot where he had left Shanti and the boy, he was surprised to find that they were not there. He, started to panic and began shouting, Shanti, Pradeep, Jayant. The people in the line did not fail to notice that he was in a bad way, and allowed him to join it, and he joined the fingers of his two hands together, and bent forward slightly towards them in a thank-you gesture. He had no idea if this was the right place to be queuing up, but thought that the best thing would be to join it, in the hope that it would lead him to the office where he might ask about Shanti. The girl behaved very well, and after a long wait they made it to the office, where Delahunty and Chatterjee looked at his black eye and shrugged.

Photo Credit: Public domain, unknown

‘Name?’ Chatterjee asked.

‘No, you see, Sahib—’

‘What’s the cove saying?’ asked Delahunty.

‘I am not quite too very sure, Sir, he is speaking Bhojpuri which I am not very understanding.’

‘My Shanti and Pradeep… giya, na ?’ Giya na?, in bhojpuri means “are they gone?”

‘I think he’s wanting to be going to British Guyana, Sir,’ Chatterjee said.

‘Aren’t they all? Check his name, we don’t have all day man.’

‘Your name?’

‘My Shanti and my boy, are they gone?’ Giya na?

‘Naam kya hai? Kon chi ba?’

‘Rajendra Sharma, Sahib.’

‘I can see a Rajendra Varma here, the idiots can’t spell…’ said Delahunty checking the passenger list, ‘Let him through. Jaldi, jaldi!’

‘My Shanti, she gone? Giya na—’

‘Yes, yes, Guyana, Demerara… Hesperus.’

It was thus that Raju and his little girl found themselves on the Hesperus, bound for British Guyana, whilst Shanti and Pradeep were on their way to Mauritius. Later, the two ships, the Startled Fawn and the Hesperus exchanged greetings as they crossed each other in the Bay of Bengal.

Raju pestered almost everybody on board asking about Shanti and Pradeep. Everybody’s temper was frayed by the heat, the anxiety and the waiting, and if there was one thing nobody wanted, it was to shoulder someone else’s problems. However once everybody was settled in the harsh routine on board, and had got used to the smells and discomforts of seasickness, people began to sympathise. You must go talk to the captain, they all said, but how? Every time he accosted an officer, he was sworn at and ordered to go back to his hold downstairs.

He had only survived the gruelling voyage by convincing himself that on landing he would be reunited with his family. Although he had lived on the sea, he now suffered from seasickness, with the attendant vomiting, bellyache and loss of appetite. He had no energy to cook his meagre rations of rice, dal, onion, but his fellow passengers, taking pity on his daughter more than him, had helped. Devi, on her part had quickly become a firm favourite of the other passengers, and had borne the voyage quite well, ending up by being possibly the only passenger to have gained some weight.

When they finally landed in Georgetown, he was as thin as a drumstick, could hardly stand on his two legs, having been battered by the storms which had flung him from one side of the hull to the other, nearly cracking his skull on more than one occasion. Besides, he had been ill almost all the time, with diarrhea, headaches, and even a bad cold.

He was taken to a plantation on the Demerara. He hoped that Shanti would be around somewhere, and badgered everybody about her. People started looking the other way when they saw him nearby. Then the rumour spread that he was feeble-minded. Not everybody treated him with compassion, not even for the sake of the little girl. He knew that he was not going mad, but when everybody became convinced that he was, he began to doubt his sanity too. That was a known trigger to madness.

Still, he started working on the fields, but obsessed by his lost wife, he would drop his pickaxe and stare at the sky, in the middle of some task, talking to himself, saying things like, “I know you are somewhere, my Rani, please don’t hide from me.” People who were not yet convinced that he had lost his mind required no further proof. Gradually the bosses began to say that he was unfit to work on the fields, and out of kindness, the manager gave him a night watchman’s job, so that at least he could feed himself and his lovely Devi who was now too grown-up to be called Sundari.

This is the end of Magnetite: A voyage across seven continents & over four centuries. Thank you for reading!

Photo Credit: CC0 dannymoore1973

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