[This short story by the master storyteller and novelist of Bengal, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (12 September 1894 – 1 November 1950), who was widely acclaimed for his trilogy novels Pather Panchali (Song of the Road), Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apur Sansar (The Household of Apu), was first published in 28th September, 1935 in the 2nd year, issue 45 of Desh. Later it was compiled in an anthology of the publication, titled Desh Subarna Jayanti Golpo Sankalan (first edition: November 1983).]
Human life is a medley of fascinating, awe-inspiring incidents. While we often enjoy those experiences, we also ponder about the way they change our observations about life. Very recently, I have experienced such a life-changing incident, or rather, a chain of two consecutive happenings of which I have been a small part.
It so happened that I had to urgently search for a house in Madhupur, Bihar for rent. As I looked around for prospective landlords, I got to know of a man who owned a house in Madhupur and was looking to rent it. It was ten in the morning, and I went to meet him for the first time in his huge, spacious house in Bhowanipur, Kolkata. I entered the house and saw a tastefully decorated living room, but the owner of the house, a septuagenarian was seated in a bedstead in a small room just beside the living room, enjoying his regular dose of tobacco from a hookah.
I tried to gauge his exact age with my intuition and imagination, but the old man, while inviting me inside with his characteristic warmth, interrupted me. “Welcome, welcome, come inside and make yourself comfortable! You know, there is an auspicious occasion here at home, and you have reached right in time! Today is my birthday, so there is a festive spirit inside the house. And since you are here on this very special day, you have to join in the festivities!” He was bubbling with vigour and enthusiasm.
Following such a pleasant introduction, I, on my part, had to greet him for the occasion as cordially as I could. But how could I possibly broach the subject on such a mirthful day, the subject that had brought me into his house in the first place? For how long could I continue the sweet exchanges and birthday greetings before the more formal talks of the house and the monthly rent issues cropped up? I pondered, while also pausing to think if it would at all look good to speak about such gross, worldly topics in a situation like this. Just then, I noticed a beautiful young woman enter the room with a gracious smile and a voluminous bouquet of flowers. A young man entered the room too, following her.
The old man’s face lit up in unbridled joy. “There you are, Aruna, my dear! And who else do I see? Have you brought along Nirmal too? Ah, how it pains to leave him alone, isn’t it? Well, well, it’s your turn to enjoy your life, we are too old for that now.”
The young woman, Aruna stooped at the old man’s feet in a gesture of pranaam. She handed over the bouquet to him and stroked his wrinkled cheeks in an easy banter, and stepped away from the room, while the young man followed her again.
“She is my dear granddaughter”, he introduced the young woman to me. “She passed the I.A.S., you know, and married a year back. The husband is an engineer, just returned from London. He landed a coveted job in the corporation some time back.”
He was just about to give me more information about the lovely young couple, when I noticed two more young women enter the room, their hairs tied up in loose buns, bouncing on their shoulders. They fluttered around the room, joyous and resplendent in their blue silk sarees with exquisite embroidery work. The gold chains worn around their necks, the expensive nagra shoes adorning their feet dazzled, while they presented yet another bouquet of flowers to the old fellow. Both the women were unmarried, one fair, and the other dusky, but attractive. “This is for you, Father sent it all the way from Kunnur. Mother wanted to come, but she couldn’t; she has to go to the theater at night, you see.” The fair one said, as she presented him an exquisite snuff-box made with oysters.
“Oh, well enough! So did you girls bunk your college for the day, then? Go and tell the servant Haridas to get you a car to drive you back home. I might forget about it after a while!” He told them, relishing their attention and indulgence.
“These are my other granddaughters, you know, their mother is my second daughter, and they are from Bagbazar. Have you heard about Gorachand Mallick, the rich aristocrat? He was her father-in-law….”
“Ah, who do I see, Bhudhar? Come and sit here, make yourself comfortable.” He went on to greet another fellow who came up in the midst of our conversations. The situation was turning out to be more serious than I had thought.
The man, Bhudhar who just entered the room with a woman, was aged anywhere between fifty and fifty-five. He was quite bulky, but lean, compared to the woman who accompanied her. I assumed they were a couple, serenaded by six or seven children of various age groups, ranging from ten to nineteen, while another young woman in her early twenties stood behind this group, in her arms, a beautiful, healthy infant. This young woman with the child was undoubtedly the most beautiful among all the women I came across all this while, in the room.
The old man looked at her affectionately, and asked: “Oh my, Mrinal, why are you standing so far? Come near me, dear… What a lovely child! Place him in my lap for once, and let me see him more closely. And where is Nishith? Couldn’t he make it today?”
At this point, I found myself in a more pathetic situation. The obese couple and the herds of children who stood behind them in the room left almost no space in the room, either for me or for the young woman with the infant. With all my might, I attempted to shove the chair where I was seated to the wall, till it couldn’t move any further. It was also nearly impossible for me to get out of this smothering crowd to make more space for the guests in the room, and the embarrassment was nearly killing me. However, soon, another group of guests came to the rescue. They were waiting for their turn to greet the old man, but couldn’t enter the room until the existing group of guests was there in the room. The second group entered now, with the lingering fragrance of flower bouquets. Two young girls from the group came up to the old man and presented him with beautifully decorated garlands. While they made him wear them, he shared a joke or two with the girls, though I was not in a condition to listen to them or understand what they meant. As soon as they were out of the room, the old man started to introduce someone to me: “My elder son, Tarak, practices in Alipore, and stays in his own house in Ballygunje…”
Now, another group of guests started invading the room. There were young boys in this group, mostly teenagers, and they were the first ones without any present. One of them came out with a notebook of autographs and requested their old uncle to write something memorable for them for the special occasion. This was followed by the request of two more young boys, accompanied by a lively young girl of twelve or thirteen.
And then, innumerable guests stepped in and out of the room, guests in all ages and genders who left flowers on the bedstead in abundance, so much that there was no space left to sit on it. These were all his own kith and kin, his sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, sons-in-law, sisters-in-law, nephews, nieces et al. Lucky man, I thought, and thanked God such people were there to facilitate the act of creation! After a while, the crowd got out of control, suffocating me, and the owner of the house forgot about my existence in all the chaos. I heaved a sigh of relief as I managed to step out of the house. At this moment, I noticed an array of cars outside the house, lined up against each other all the way to the main street. I doubted if these many cars assemble outside marriage venues where such gigantic crowds are expected. I crossed the alley and as I stepped at the main street, I stumbled upon a friend named Nibaran Mitra. Decked up in a silk suit and gorgeous nagra shoes, he scurried past me in a haste to enter the alley, leading to the house I was in for all this while.
I could not help asking him: “Are you too going to Biswanath Babu’s house?”
“Oh yes, I am. But what makes you ask? How do you know him?”
I was amused at this sudden co-incidence. “Well, I was there in his house for all this while, my friend, watching the grandeur of the festivities of his birthday. It seems one-third of the city’s population is related to him in some way, and all of them gathered today in his house with flower bouquets to wish him on his seventy-seventh birthday. Where is your bouquet, by the way?”
He gave a hearty laughter, and replied: “I can see you have been amazed, but you know, Biswanath Babu is blessed with seven sons, four daughters, who, in turn, are blessed with their own set of sons, daughters and even grandchildren. Moreover, he has three more brothers, each of whom has his own extended family. If you calculate all of them, you can see how many they are! But more confidentially, do you know the old man has a fat bank balance of fifty-sixty thousand rupees? I am not saying his family has an eye on his wealth, but the thought definitely crosses my mind. Am I wrong, tell me?” He paused, and then, in a hurry, said his parting words to me: “I’ll make a move now, I am getting late, you see.”
Just after two weeks of the incident of Biswanath Babu’s birthday, I went to pay a visit to my ancestral village. Let me tell you all here that I am not a frequent visitor there; rather it happens once in a blue moon. This time when I went, I got to hear the news of the demise of an elderly lady, whom we all called Shashi Thakrun. We all knew she was ancient, but it was hard to gauge her exact age. While some of us guessed she was ninety, some others guessed she was close to hundred years. In other words, we have seen her as the wrinkled old woman since our childhood days. Probably, while we were enjoying our idyllic childhood, the woman had already crossed the boundaries of human age which made the changes in her contours and her appearance unidentifiable.
Shashi Thakrun was the mother of four sons and three daughters, and all of them had been settled in far-away cities, except for her eldest son. Since the poor fellow was less educated than his intelligent siblings, he stayed back in the village. He was a father of a large number of children, and due to his meagre earnings, their days were spent in abject poverty and misery. None of his brothers felt the need to pay him or their old mother a visit, let alone helping them financially.
Thus, Shashi Thakrun was left alone, a wretched, old soul in her damp, dilapidated room. Though her eldest son was the only one who looked after her, he was not much of a devoted son who doted on his old mother. He did whatever he could, but at the back of his mind, he was always tortured by the feeling of being the only one left out to tend to his mother. Why would he be the only one to care, while his siblings were least bothered? He had thought.
His wealthy, well-settled siblings never came out of the comfort zones of their own domestic lives in the cities to see how their mother was living, or if she was living at all. When their elder brother wrote to them for some help, they would reply to him quite rudely, explaining how tough it was to maintain life in a big city. It was impossible for them to send money back to their village under such circumstances, they wrote, and advised the brother to use the resources of their village property, brushing off their responsibilities. However, he knew that the village property was not at all enough to look after the daily needs of a jobless man and his large family, including his old, ailing mother.
Thus, the old woman spent most of her days with an empty stomach. Of late, she had developed an obsession for food, especially for desserts, like young children. The last time I visited my village, I had seen her recline behind an old tree with her walking stick, as she asked me: “Is that Kunja I see?”
“Yes, Grandma, it is me, why are you sitting here, of all places?”
“I just saw a sweet seller passing by this way, so thought of waiting for him. I have to buy some sweets from him for me.”
“Well, well. How are you, by the way?”
“How can people like us stay well in their daily lives, tell me? We are surviving somehow, unfed, uncared for. I had asked for some money from the sweet-seller, he gave me once, but now he refuses to loan me anymore. I feel so bad for poor Sidhu, my son. He has so many mouths to feed, with so little money; I don’t ask him…can you lend me some money, dear? Four ana paisas will do for now.”
Seeing the old woman’s plight, my heart melted. I fished for a one-rupee note from my pocket and handed it to her. “Keep it, Grandma, this might serve you for now, I will give you more if you need, till I am here.” I assured her.
She stood there, transfixed in amazement and joy, and stared at the one-rupee note in awe, as if it were an unreal thing, a trophy of her dream.
The next year, when I revisited my village just before the Durga Puja, I saw the old woman again, passing by our house; in her hands, she held a white brass bowl.
“When did you come, dear?” She asked me as she saw me.
“Yesterday, Grandma. So, where did you go with that bowl?”
“Oh, don’t ask me. I just went to ask at the barber’s house if they would want to buy it. I do not have any money left, and Sidhu, my son went to Khulna some days back. The children are so hungry and distressed, and there is no food left in the house.”
“But how much would you get with that utensil, after all?” I asked.
“Whatever I get for now would do. But you know, they did not take it, they said they do not have any cash to give me, how I can lend them the utensil without cash, tell me? I just wanted some molasses from the market today if I could sell it off, with some other daily groceries. How many days would the children live on fried bottle-gourd and rice, tell me?” She paused a little, and asked, eagerly: “Would you take the bowl, dear? See, it is so beautiful, printed with flowers. It is my own, a gift from my father on my wedding.”
It was a scene of poverty which overwhelmed me, shattered my urban consciousness. Such daily ignominy was unimaginable for people like me who earn quick cash in the city whenever needed.
The old woman, however, noticed me lost, confused and thought I had no interest in the utensil. She pleaded to me once more: “Well, if you do not buy it, can you pawn it and give me eight aanas for now?”
I had seen her in such deplorable condition quite a few times after this incident.
When Shashi Thakrun was dying, none of his other sons came to see her, but her eldest son, Sidhu treated her with as much care and affection as he was capable of. The old woman had a blanket wrapped around her, which she requested her daughter-in-law to take away from her body, two hours before her demise. “The blanket is worth four-five rupees, Bouma (daughter-in-law); after I die with it, you would have to throw it away. How will Sidhu get another one, then? The children will shiver in cold the whole winter without it.”
After a while, she summoned her son to convey him her parting words. “Listen, Sidhu, I tell you. Do not spend much on my funeral and last rites. I know your brothers, Bidhu, Moni, Sharat, none will give you a penny; how will you manage on your own? As my last wish, just feed five Brahmins whatever little you can afford. Even if your brothers send you some money, do not spend everything, keep some for your own use, it will serve your children after the ceremony is over.”
After Shashi Thakrun passed away, all her sons came home and her last rites following her funeral were performed with much grandeur. The day I visited their house, I saw branches of a coconut tree planted in the front yard of the house. They had made quite a grand pandal with an elaborate canopy, which was the venue of the Hindu shraaddha rituals for the deceased. The village folk flocked in the premises to join in the festivities. As I entered the scene, I saw one of Shashi Thakrun’s able sons, Gopeshwar in his customary attire of mourning, talking to an elderly man of the village, Chaudhury Babu about the challenges of his workplace in the city.
“You know I have done this quite a number of times, Uncle, but now that Simson Sahib is no more with us, I do not have any say in these matters. All vacant positions are filled up secretly these days; gone are the golden old times of the company.”
Gopeshwar, in his mid-forties, holds a big position in the audit office of the railways. I assumed Chaudhury Babu had requested him to recommend someone for a job in his office, and the conversations ensued from that. I learnt that he would also get a lump-sum amount as his provident fund after his retirement, and build a house in the Howrah or Baranagar area with that sum. He came to the village after long gap of ten-twelve years, followed by his mother’s demise, otherwise, who knows when he would have the time to visit his ancestral home!
After this, when I went inside their house, I was stunned to see the influx of people, all of whom came to celebrate the festivities of the old woman’s death. Who would believe there were so many young men, women, children, even servants in the house? All the daughters-in-law of Shashi Thakrun were there, accompanied by their herds of children, and also grandchildren. I discovered a number of young women with their children and remembered of playing with them when I was a child once, some of them were escorted by their husbands. Only the eldest daughter who stayed far away could not come, but the two younger daughters had come, along with their children. From a quiet corner, I noticed the flurry of activities and the cacophony-- the cutting of vegetables, the busy act of estimating for the ceremony, the shouts, the peals of laughter, the running around of youthful boys and girls. While the women of the house were busy summoning one another, scolding their children, the maids were busy washing the utensils in the open courtyards. Nobody in the house had a second to spare from their hectic schedules.
The maid was summoned. “How many times did I tell you to undress Renu and wash her clothes? Do it fast, lest I forget it soon!”
“Kamala, why are you whiling away your time? Didn’t I tell you and Bina to wash the betel leaves for a long time now? Would you get any time to do it later? ….Oh no, there, she is calling me again, see, I don’t even have the time to sit and rest for a while, just came from the kitchen…” Another woman complained.
A young girl of seventeen or eighteen, demure and beautiful, came by the door leading to the corridor and sat there, trying to light up the stove. I passed her and entered the corridor, only to discover a scuffle between Bireshwar and his wife. The second son of the deceased old lady, a middle-aged man of above fifty years, was a manager of a landlord’s estate. The wife was a thin, frail woman the last time I had seen her, but in all these eight-nine years, she became so plump that it was difficult to recognize her. The heavy gold bangles in her hands, the precious gold necklace she wore dazzled as she shouted at her husband.
“I cannot stay a moment in that room, I tell you. Just look at the crowd in the house, and there is no bolt in the door. My daughter wears so many ornaments, can you imagine the risk? Can you trust anyone in such a chaotic household, and in such an interior village? God, let the ceremony be over and I will leave, I will heave a sigh of relief once I am gone from here. I was bitten by mosquitoes the entire night yesterday.”
Bireshwar was aghast at his wife’s constant complaints. “Then why don’t you sleep with her in the room to the left? Now, now, don’t be so hot-headed, dear; it really pains me when you become annoyed with me!” He was trying to pacify her.
I entered the room and conveyed my pranaam to the woman by touching her feet. “Do you recognize me, Kakima (Aunt)?”
Before she could reply, a young girl of eleven or twelve sprung into the room and reported: “Mother, Nathni, the maid didn’t feed milk to Pintu yet, she is sitting in the front yard with him since this morning…she doesn’t even listen to me.”
“What? Then go and tell her that I am calling her.” Bireshwar replied. He requested me to have a seat and asked his wife: “This is Kunja, our neighbour’s son, can’t you recognize him?”
His wife smiled faintly. “Well, I may have seen him in his childhood, can’t remember clearly, and am I to blame? We didn’t see each other for years now. And could we have come here in this village if your mother had not expired? When we got the news, I told your uncle, we need to go there immediately. If we had not performed her last rites well, what would people think of us? Would they honour us, then, tell me?”
Her ramblings continued, as I listened, silently. “Everyone here knows about the financial condition of my elder brother-in-law, while everyone who knows us reveres us for our position. If we wouldn’t have attended this occasion, they would have accused us for neglecting our duties. Would it sound nice, tell me? That is why we are here, otherwise who would have ended up in such a foul place? Do you know the mosquitoes didn’t even let me have a bit of sleep last night! Such nuisance!”
I stayed for some more time and stepped out of the room. As I walked towards the verandah, I saw Bikash, the son of Bireshwar’s younger brother and his cousin Binu, chatting animatedly. Their conversations were centered on a football match in his school, and how his victory was a phenomenal one. Their eldest cousin Bhola, Sidhu’s son listened to their conversation in awe and rapt attention. Though older than both of them, the unfortunate boy had never seen life beyond the upper primary school of his village. Even Bhola’s mother sat with him in a corner, embarrassed by their own inferiority in the midst of her affluent sisters-in-law and their opulent world that they unfolded before her, with their clothes, jewellery, servants and everything else that they had brought along.
Suddenly, one of Bikash’s elder sisters, Arati arrived on the scene like a whiff of tempest, and said: “Why, you are chatting here, Bikash! Do you know how all of us are searching for you in the house? Come with me, have some tea and show some pity on us poor souls…”
As I witnessed the scene, the crowd and the cacophony around, another picture cropped up in my mind. I saw the wretched, ailing old woman, Shashi Thakrun returning from the barber’s house, weary, dejected, with her white brass bowl which the barber refused to buy. I saw the bubbly, spirited young boys and girls, the beautiful young women and the beauty, joy and youthful vigour emanated from their faces; all of them the progeny of the poor, wrinkled old woman, her own grandchildren. While she was no more, the house gleamed with the moonlight of all these happy faces, but where were they all those days when she starved and begged for money? Where were they when tears drenched her parched bosom, as she sunk into the inevitable land of death?
Just then, another image hovered in my mind, the image of Biswanath Babu, the rich landlord of Bhowanipore, and the lavish festival in his house. I had witnessed the same smiling, vibrant faces of endless sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters there. Everything there was identical to this place; only the ceremony was that of a birthday, the birthday of a man who was almost the same age as the deceased Shashi Thakrun.