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The Fairy— Shyamal Gangopadhyay

Dec 18, 2022 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Bengali by Chaiti Mitra 

 

Om

Prize money of 4001

Within Bengal, or any other place, playing the violin with basic notes (swargram) and extensions (lahari) in the following ragas[1]: 1) Behag, 2) Kaharba, 3) Ashavari, 4) Darbari, Kalangra, 5) Kaharba, 6) Poorvi, 7) Jayanti, 8) Bhaan Kirtan, 9) Bhairavi, and 10) Bhairav.

No. 1 Play standing 

No. 2 Play sitting

No.3 Play lying down

No. 4 Play blindfolded

No. 5 Lahari 10 minutes

No. 6 Anybody who can do justice to these ragas will be awarded a cash prize of 4001 rupees. Failing, the same amount will have to be paid to me.  

Village & P. O. Dadarat

Dt. 24 Pargs. W. B.

2/4/67

Address—

Sri Bipinbihari Biswas (Rai Bahadur[2])
MA Honours in English

Calcutta University.

I was sitting in the waiting room of Baruipur station on the date mentioned above. Waiting for the train to Lakshmikantapur . In walked an old man in a brown kurta. Violin case tucked under his arm, wearing a pair of pumps with multiple patches and a short dhoti. White beard, white eyebrows. The man started playing his violin as soon he sat down. 

Two farmers were standing outside on the empty afternoon platform, discussing a destructive drought. Drawn by the music, they came inside. The tune probably was from some popular orchestra. I found it rather pleasant.

Music over, he shut the box and asked for a rupee. I complied. Pleased, he fished out a piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to me. As I unfolded the paper, the above-quoted words revealed themselves. On the other side was written—

“To the Hon’ble First Munseef of Baruipur, Sir, I wish to interview 2 minutes only, kindly allow me, your valuable time west me. Excuse me for your trouble. 

Your most obedient Servant truly, polite, believe sympathy. Sree Bepin Behary Biswas. (Rai Bahadur) M.A. Honours in English, Calcutta University. Vill P.O Dadarat, Biswaspara, D/24 Pargs. West Bengal.”

A few things came to my mind as I finished reading—

The man has the utmost veneration for an Honours degree in English. Moreover, he nurtured a secret wish for the title of Rai Bahadur . And finally, he loves challenges. He’s probably from a nearby area where this Bipinbabu’s ancestors were well known once upon a time. And Calcutta University reigns over his dreams.

But he’s probably retired now, and a family-reject.

I invited him to my home for lunch next Sunday. Also mentioned that I thought he played really well.

Absolutely delighted!

I live right next to a canal. Recently, many people, tempted by the promise of plenty in a short time, had sown IR8 paddy by the canal. The canal has dried up since. The Sunday was reeling under the scorching afternoon sun. Bipinbabu came walking by the canal. Violin case in hand.

As I have this habit of inviting unknown guests to our home, my wife was initially reluctant to serve him lunch. But then I noticed her push a dish or two toward him as we ate. Lunch over, Bipinbabu took a long nap in our drawing room. Asked for tea on waking up. Then opened his case, took the bow in one hand, and comfortably rested the violin on his shoulder.

It was a full moon night. I hadn’t known.

And there was a breeze. A strong one. Lamps are lit in our house as soon as evening sets in. The moon rose. By the pond, the black calf kept on butting its mother.

The violin was positioned. The bow started working its way over the strings, carrying with it the traveling notes, now high, now low, and resting there for a few seconds. Our children were all ears, evening studies abandoned.

The recital was taking place on our verandah. The somber violin notes resonated with the agony of some trampled heart, dented and broken into pieces. A slice of moonlight fell on Bipinbabu’s face, making his white beard and white eyebrows shine. The prickly Babla trees looked innocent and harmless. The wild yellow flowers on the bushes by the canal seemed to melt in the moonlight.

Stopping abruptly, Bipinbabu said, “A nightlong recital of this ragini, by a lake on a full moon night in the winter month of Magh, can conjure up fairies on earth. I did it once near the Mitras’ Kachharibari pond. They had gifted me a blanket.”

The mother of my children, suspicious at the beginning, had slowly been engrossed in the music. She grimaced at the mention of the fairy. Got up and left, indicating it was time to get rid of him.

“Why a blanket?” I asked.

“It was a cold winter night in Magh, remember? Though I was a young man then. Didn’t quite feel the cold. But… well… a woman, and a fairy at that! Bound to feel the chill. They don’t quite cover themselves, you know!”

Sugar palm and coconut water waited for me inside. I fetched these for Bipinbabu. A lot of brainwork, after all!

“Descended from the north sky. Around two o’clock. Sat on the steps, wings folded, absorbed in my music. A true goddess! The eldest daughter-in-law of Mittir family was as spirited as she was jovial. And kindhearted too. She threw the lamb wool blanket, brought from Hrishikesh, towards the steps in the wee hours of the morning.”

“Didn’t the fairy take wing?”

“She was such a nice girl! She was cold. Lost no time in wrapping the blanket that dropped from heaven like a divine revelation. Then looked at me. For those few seconds, my insides… don’t know how to say, Ganguly-moshai, something exploded within me. She spoke in clear Bengali— “Play another one,” she said.

“In Bengali?”

Bipinbabu paused for a moment, then placed the violin on his shoulder, stroked the bow on the strings for a while, then immersed everything—head, hand, bow—into a very heavy raga, “This is the one I played.”

Each sweep of the bow swept in the water raised by the wind and made it recede the next moment. A few Calcutta-bound vehicles passed on the other side of the canal, filled with people and lit up—quite a few returned as well.

The children were having dinner. Their mother was helping them by mashing their rice. Moved the lamp towards the wall, to shield it from the wind.

I asked after a while, “I hope this’ll not bring fairies down?”

Without stopping, Bipinbabu said, “Possible.”

I found this so incredible, I almost burst out laughing. The perfect time to conjure fairies, indeed! There has been practically no supply of food grains in our locality for the past few weeks under the modified ration scheme. The dealer had sent some rations in a bullock cart. There were three carts loaded with wheat, coming along the paved road through the marshes. All gone. Looted.

Wedding guests, station masters, post masters, headmasters—everyone is worried about rice. Trains keep getting held up by smugglers. The heads of families sit outside in the dark, sighing, worried.

The alaap—opening passages of the raga—was reaching its climax, when the elder son came and stood by the door, weeping, food sticking to his hand. Motioning him to stop, I went to him.

Nothing serious. He was used to rather large portions of rice during lunch and dinner. Wanted to have some more tonight, but his mother had refused and forced him to get up. “All of us have to eat,” she had explained.

Bipinbabu’s violin kept on exploring the alaap.

Every year after harvest, rice is bought and stocked for the whole year. Not this year. More the number of policemen on trains, in bazaars; longer the decrees by the Front government—steeper the price of rice. Robberies take place almost every other night. The police station is five miles away. No use informing them.

To conjure fairies, Bipinbabu pressed the violin really hard on his shoulder. The bel flowers from our garden were spreading their strong fragrance. The moon held a lighted torch over our entire neighborhood. The sound of radios from nearby houses gradually faded out. Only one shop near the station—theirs is a year-round celebration! Blaring music, and cheap sweets for all. Their way of forcing the defaulters to pay their dues. Sound wafted from there— “O will o’the wisp! O, dear! Have seen many women in my life…”

In case he failed to conjure a fairy, will Bipin pay me 4001 as a reward? The boy had fallen asleep on the cot on the verandah while listening to music. 

Perhaps a fairy will come down, after all have fallen asleep, and fold her wings and stand among the rows of bel in our garden. And then say,

“Hon’ble Mr Biswas, Sir. I wish to interview 2 minutes only, kindly allow me, your valuable time west me.”

The pamphlet from our first encounter stares at me every time I open my table drawer.

But nothing of that sort happened.

Bipinbabu was almost lying on the ground, playing his violin. The coconut leaves, gently blowing in the wind, part the moonlight. There were no longer any worries left in this world. Though I was aware of the posters demanding strong action—fair or otherwise—against injustice and discrimination, that the boys put up at night on our walls, in this half-town, half-village. Everything is changing. Only the earth, trees, skies, and the canal have remained unchanged. And here we were, conjuring fairies amidst all this! Me—forty years old. Bipinbabu would be at least seventy. He could be a cheat and could be slightly cracked up there. Who knows what kind of a person he is? Genuine or not? Bipinbabu, with his dry, cracked hands, was playing the violin with great gusto after his afternoon siesta. It’s been ages since I heard such music. I have no knowledge of grammar, rhythm, or beat. Still, I enjoyed. Somebody trying heart and soul to please me! Me, not a king surrounded by courtiers and soldiers. Me, the humble Shyamol Ganguly.

The elder son had fallen asleep on the verandah. Nine going on ten. Loved his rice. Who would have thought the cheapest of things would be the most expensive?

The children’s mother was free from her chores at last. The daughter, too, was fast asleep. Bipin Biswas and I were sitting on the dark verandah. My wife was inside the room, silhouetted in front of the lamp. Her features were not visible. There was a halo around her head covered with one end of her saree. Felt like she was calling me. I was about to get up when Bipinbabu poked me with his bow. I looked at him. He gestured with his eyes to look at the sky. Fairies could descend any moment now. Was it time? I couldn’t move.

My wife tried saying something from the center of the luminous outline. I couldn’t even wave at her to stop. This was the time for fairies to descend on earth.

Bipin’s music stopped abruptly. I couldn’t look up at the sky anymore. If the fairies did come down, I’d faint. Walking down towards the garden, Bipin said, “Going to take a leak. Been sitting still for a long time.” Oh, that! The way he walked into the garden—I thought the fairies have descended; he will escort them to the verandah!

The mother of my children stormed in and snatched up the sleeping boy, then turned towards me, “Have you got no sense at all? How much rice is there at home? Bringing home strangers all the time—“

She went inside to put the child to bed. Her foot accidentally hit the violin case, and it fell open.

Needed to put everything in place before Bipin returned. But it wouldn’t shut properly, something was stuck inside. Moving the box to the light, found it filled with lots of stuff. Three neem-twig toothbrushes. One over-used threadbare towel. The entire Bipin household. A faded blue lungi folded in the newspaper. Quickly packed everything as before.

Bipin barely took a second to return to where he had left off, “It was a similar moonlit night—”

No more words. My familiar, everyday wife was still young. It was only recently that I had noticed the lines on the sides of her nose when she frowns. Can’t blame her, times are tough. I have time to notice such things—even time to ponder—because I have a secure job at a bank. Just have to stay alive to continue to enjoy my salary. Just have to scratch and doodle for a few hours in the office every day. Hate it. Not doing anything worthwhile. People deposit money, withdraw, borrow, and return. My job is to calculate interests and keep accounts. Nowadays, fresh young men are thoroughly grilled before being appointed for such jobs.

Bipin, eyes shut, was absorbed in his own music. Someone was cooking masoor dal close by. The smell was distracting me from the music. Wasted more than half my life. Will barely live for twenty-twenty-five years more.

Someone was coming towards the verandah from the garden, treading on the dried leaves. Bipin was still absorbed in the music.

My wife. Stepping very softly. Stopped by the guava tree. Exactly where slivers of moonbeam fell, filtered through the leaves.

Our eyes met. She signaled, waving her hand, asking, “How much longer now? Ask him to end.” She signaled thrice. Two and a half seers of rice cost nine rupees and fourteen annas. Even more in Kolkata. A khirish sapling planted ten years ago has grown tall and wide, turning the crossing into a busy central spot. Many voices waft from there. Indistinguishable. 

I signaled too. Very carefully. Bipin shouldn’t open his eyes. Finally begged with folded hands, scrunching my face into an appeal, as far as the darkness would permit, motioning with my head—“Please come inside, come by the cowshed.”

In my mind, I was saying, “There can be snakes and other insects. Come in.”

She was looking so beautiful! Wish I could offer a ceremonial welcome to my wife of a dozen years into my home. Hasn’t lacquered her feet in ages.

Wife still didn’t move. Seemed to be enjoying my discomfort.

She nodded her head from there. Meaning she would not budge.

Bipin doesn’t eat that much. Except the rice.

She was wearing the golden zari-bordered black saree I bought her long, long ago. Woven in the classical Nilambari pattern. Who goes and stands in the middle of the garden, dressed like this, just to irk someone? Her cheeks were caressed by moonlight—wonder if she had powdered them?

Was about to stand up and shoo her away. Like one shoos away cows. Like one drives away the black cow which has suddenly strayed into one’s garden. But I couldn’t.

Bipin did not let me move. Who knew one could store such mountains in one’s heart? The boulders and rocks crushed with each movement of the bow turned to dust. The sound of rickshaw horns could be heard in the distance, but they didn’t interfere.

My children’s mother moved away suddenly.

“There! Don’t move. There she is—” Bipin continues to play.

 “Where?” I asked.

“In the garden—”

Old man. Probably starves half the days. Earns his food by playing his violin, and by tricking people. Never imagined in his wildest dreams that a real fairy would appear in the garden to substantiate his fantastical claim.

Possibly that’s why the bow slipped from his hand and flew right into the middle of the garden.

All the music that filled the verandah till then, stopped instantly.

“Did you see?”

“Clearly.”

Both of us sat silently for a while. Who would dare venture into the garden to retrieve the bow? It was, after all, supernatural. Old Bipin was already scared. I felt I should be scared too. Pretending to be really shaken, I said, “Let it be. We can get it tomorrow morning, right?”

“That’s better.”

We are as before.

The mother of my children has poured water in glasses, laid out dishes, and has come to call us. The world is as it was before. The shadow of clouds or trees hasn’t tarnished the moonlight.


Notes: 

[1] Raga and ragini: A raga is the most important concept in Indian classical music. It is a melodic framework, based on a scale with a given set of notes, which the performer uses for improvisation and composition. In northern India, ragas are classified according to mood, season, and time.

[2] Rai Bahadur: A title of honor bestowed during British rule in India to individuals for faithful service or acts of public welfare to the Empire. 


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Shyamal Gangopadhyay (25 March 1933-24 September 2001) was a renowned Bengali novelist and editor. He received Sahitya Academy Award in 1993 for the novel Shahjada Darasukohbased on the life of Mughal Emperor Dara Shukoh. His novels were translated and published in various languages. He won Bibhutibhushan memorial award in recognition of his contribution to Bengali literature and the Gajendra Kumar Mitra memorial prize, Sarat Purashkar in 2000.

Chaiti Mitra is an Associate Professor in the Department of English, Ramakrishna Sarada Mission Vivekananda Vidyabhavan, Kolkata, and Guest Faculty at the Post Graduate Department of English, West Bengal State University. She has published several articles on narratives of trauma and resistance and has recently published her first book, Boudoir to Bibighar: The Memsahibs and the 1857 Mutiny Narratives. She is a regular contributor to Bengali newspapers and journals on gender issues. In her spare time, she is an amateur translator, avid traveler, and theatre enthusiast.

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