TRANSLATED FROM THE BENGALI BY CHAITI MITRA
Bustling eight o’clock morning bazaar. Three local trains have already passed by. Settled on the floor cushions in his pawn shop, Nadu Shee was scanning the Property section of the morning newspaper. Next to Nadu’s shop were the rice wholesalers’ stalls. Behind it was Amiya Decorating—pots, pans, earthenware stacked all the way up to the fisherwomen’s muck. Piles of small fish—lote, guley, shankar, shrimps. At the end were the turtles, chunks of flesh scraped out of their shells; freshly scraped chunks quiver slightly in the wind. This is where the three mangy Indie dogs of Railbazaar waited for the bazaar to get over. But that doesn’t happen until the 12:15 Kolkata-bound local train passes through the Chandaneshwar junction. By then the dogs’ tongues would hang out, their eyes protruded. And then!
Then the turtle trader will call out, “Chuni! Here, have you fallen asleep? Come on!”
Chuni will get up, stretching on all fours. The other two will follow. They’ll look at the meat seller’s face, trying to gauge his mood. The vegetable sellers will have put away their baskets and sit down for a round or two of cards by then.
If the meat seller seemed to be in a good mood, Chuni would wag her tail; so would the other two, following her.
At this point of time, Nadu Shee would slip on his pump shoes and get on the three-wheeler. There are ponds and cowsheds on both sides of the paved road through Chandaneshwar. Nadu’s rickshaw would slow down if a bus approached; otherwise, Nadu Shee would enjoy the gentle breeze passing through the loosened golden buttons of his shirt.
The right flank of Railbazaar is lined with doctors’ chambers. Dr. Bose. Dugga Pharmacy. Vet Upen. Homoeopath Haralal. Oil mill. Police station. On the left is a wholesale stationery shop. Bidi leaves. Mustard oil cakes. Sri Krishna Stores. Hardware.
It gets very congested with rickshaws and cycles when a bus halts here. Hand carts loaded with coal. Flies buzzing around the sweetmeat trays. The bank over the readymade garment store displaying the latest fashion trends. The post office is slightly off route. One has to travel five miles by bus to pay one’s electricity bill. Same goes for the police station. The verandah of the health center, on the other side of the railway tracks, becomes a shelter for cows during monsoon. There’s no electricity there yet. The three tin chimneys of the brick kiln in front are the tallest structures. As tall as some of the coconut trees. Nadu Shee’s trucks carry goods from Chandaneshwar to Kolkata every Tuesday. He makes a profit of four rupees per mann, about 40 kgs. These shops keep the Railbazaar busy and bustling. Today is 21st Sravan. No signs of rain yet. The rice saplings are drying up, when are they going to be planted? And then it’ll end up pouring in Ashwin.
As he read his morning paper, Nadu Shee could see people from Chandaneshwar and the flanking villages queuing up before his pawn shop, carrying large brass plates, fishing nets with iron beads, scythes, for mortgaging. When the late Bhadra monsoon will flood the villages, they will mortgage their submerged land for money, thought Nadu.
Nadu knows the local people and businesses inside out. He has investments in all of them—Dugga Pharmacy, oil mill, bidi leaves—he has his shares everywhere. He has been lending money with high interests for the past thirty years. Now he has a ten percent stake in the Railbazaar as well.
Shashi Pakrashi is Nadu’s employee. Works for food in lieu of salary. Stays in his house. In his early thirties. Attends jatra rehearsals throughout the month of Phalgun but has never acted on stage. It is his passion. Melts the pawned gold and silver for Nadu the year round. Takes sacksful of pawned utensils by the late afternoon train to the Baithakkhana Bazaar in Kolkata. Gets them polished at a fixed shop—Nadu sells these off as new to gullible buyers.
At present Nadu is plopped on his cushioned seat, newspaper in hand. Shashi is busy testing the purity of a large dragon-faced gold ring by rubbing it against the touchstone.
The floor is earthen. There is a bench for customers.
Two men come and sit on that bench. One is bare bodied, dhoti lifted and tied above knees, feet caked in dried mud. Messy, tangled hair. Light eyed. Around thirty.
The other one is very fair. White stubble on chin; head, brows—all white. Moustache—white and droopy. Both his white dhoti and half sleeved shirt are dirty. Even the rubber shoes on his feet are white. He could be anywhere between seventy and ninety. Or fifty-six, if enquired.
Nadu looked at him and said, “Barujjye Moshai, please don’t start again, the same old story!” He turned towards the other man, and softened his expression: “Yes Bajreshwar, what can I do for you? Tell me. But make yourself comfortable first. Relax.”
“I’ll need some time, uncle. Why don’t you finish dealing with Barujjye Moshai first?”
“What’s there to deal? Same old money! The government puts up these notes in the market every now and then . . . can’t even tell you Bajreshwar, how many varieties I’ve come across in the thirty-forty years that I’ve been around.”
“My name is Bajra.”
“Same thing—Bajra and Bajreshwar.”
“No uncle, finish your business with Barujjye Moshai first. I’ve to go to Alipore.”
“So, how many cases now, Bajra?”
“Twelve, grandpa,” replied Bajreshwar to Ananta Barujjye’s query, pride evident in his voice.
“All of them robberies?”
“Our Bajreshwar won’t settle for less, he’s not one to soil his hands with petty crimes.
Ananta Barujjye found Nadu’s smile reassuring and tried to inch closer. “Bajra is the son of our Fair Khagen, right Nadu?”
“Yes. But why have you started talking again? I’ve something important to discuss with Bajra.”
“But I desperately need thirty rupees today, Nadu, or I’ll be doomed.”
Nadu got furious. He had a tight physique even at fifty-five. People say Shee Moshai seems to be enjoying life—quite an epicurean. The older he gets, the more glamorous he becomes. “A Brahmin, and a liar? That, too, early in the morning?”
“The poor no longer remain Brahmins, Nadu.”
“You belong to such an illustrious family! Your grandfather built this station!”
“I know Nadu. Initially there were no passengers. He would buy three hundred tickets every day. Did this for three months in a row, got the station running. Heard these stories from my mother. This bazaar, too, was started by us. Seeing the sales were not picking up, he brought in three women and got them settled here. The sales picked up soon after.”
“You are the grandson of such a famous zamindar!”
“I agree. Dish out the thirty rupees first, I’ll listen to everything you have to say.”
“You’ll bet on horses, right?”
“What if I did? I don’t womanize, don’t drink. Never touched tobacco in my life. Aren’t I allowed just one vice, being the grandson of such a great zamindar?”
“Fine. I’ll keep it with Shashi. Come in the afternoon. Make sure you sign the demi paper.”
“Hurrah! Take as many signatures as you want. Though there’s nothing left to mortgage—land, house—everything belongs to you, Nadu.”
“Why bring in those now, Barujjye Moshai? Am I evicting you?”
“No, of course not, Nadu. I’m your sharecropper now.”
Another train came in from Kolkata. The bank babus, school babus, hospital babus come by the next train. Rickshaws and cycles fall short then.
“Can’t even pay your share each time, can you?”
“True, Nadu. I can’t.”
“Then why should I lend you money?”
“Just this once, please. After all, you’re making money from the bazaar we set up once! I’ll never ask again. I promise. Zamindari’s gone, money’s gone. You even lose your lineage once you’re poor. Let me at least enjoy my last days, Nadu. Won’t bother you anymore.”
“You still have to run after horses? Must you brave the crowded two o’clock local for the racecourse?”
“There’s a great horse running today. Could return a king in the evening, you never know.”
“Why don’t you j4ust give him the money, uncle?”
“The day hasn’t started yet.”
A transformation happened within Bajreshwar Naskar. Standing before him, in this bright sunlit Shravan day, was the illustrious elder brother of Bhim, dice in hand, checkered dice board with embroidered borders under his arm. Barujjye Moshai all set to gamble away all his money once again.
Right below Nadu’s pawn shop there used to sit a group of musicians. In the old days, Barujjye Moshai would sing a song or two in the post-harvest musical soirees. Little Bajra would listen to him, snuggled on his mother’s lap. He also remembers having seen grandpa’s wife—ruby cheeked, like a ripe mango.
“Such a little amount, why don’t just give it to him?”
Nadu gave him a mysterious smile. “Young man, what do you know about money? Earlier all money would be white, smiling back at you. And then it all turned black. You’ve never seen the Queen’s money, right?”
“You and your blabbering! Poor old man, just give him thirty rupees. Feel pity for him—”
“The day’s business is yet to start—”
“You mean ruining people’s lives—that’s your business! Why bother about its start? Give it to grandpa—”
Three crisp ten rupee notes without signing on anything! Folding the notes in his shirt pocket, Ananta Barujjye galloped and melted into the Railbazaar crowd.
Immediately Nadu Shee and Bajreshwar Naskar lowered their voices. Shashi paused the small bellow in his left hand and cocked his ear. Nadu noticed it and growled, “Pay attention to what you’re doing, Pakrashi.
Back went the bellow into action. Blue flame flickered over burning embers. A dragon-faced ring. A bus carrying people from Kheyada halted at the rail-gate. The gate is closed. The nine fifteen train will pass. They can cross only after the Kolkata train arrives. It will touch Chandaneshwar junction, and stop before a river, after traveling for about an hour or so. Then the ferry ghat. Dolphins. Boats loaded with oysters from the sea sailing toward Tamluk, sails billowing in the wind. Supplies for lime factories.
The moist breeze from the mouth of the river, its coppery smell, blown as far as the Chandaneshwar junction.
Bajra said something, to which Nadu enquired, “Sure you can manage everything?”
Bajra replied. The honking of three wheelers drowned Bajra’s words. Nadu said, “Say it again. Couldn’t hear you.”
“These words can’t be repeated, uncle. You’ll have to guess.”
“Please try, son. My heart’s jumping with joy.”
“Have to go to Alipore. No time.”
Nadu wanted Bajreshwar to stay a little longer. But he wouldn’t. The streets of Railbazaar were swamped with people. About thirty odd fishing nets were hanging from the beams in the corner of his pawnshop. Belonged to the people of Junction Chandaneshwar. Nadu stocks his stuff here. Clears off most of it, barring some light, inexpensive ones. Where, or how—nobody knows. Nadu Shee manages most of these jobs by himself.
He has planted as much as he could in the lowlands. The sky turns coppery by ten o’clock. The sun beats down mercilessly. The ants that had climbed up the leaves of the short date palm tree find it difficult to go down now. The edges of the leaves crumble in the heat, the winds sweep off the ants.
Bajreshwar Naskar crossed the rail gates and entered Badyinath’s rice storage. Rice is bought and sold here all the year round. Badyinath has been gone three years. His eldest son acts as the owner now. Aligns the scales in front of his customers, just like his father. He called out, “Who’s there?”
“Mind your own business,” retorted Bajra as he walked inside. There is a private handpump inside, pumping out saline water. He’ll quickly dab some water on his head before catching the train. He’ll have his lunch behind the Alipore Post Office.
Badyinath’s elder son asks in all politeness, “Shall I get you a gamchha, Bajrada?”
“No need. Do you have some change on you?”
“Say, a hundred?”
“Here, take it.” Badyinath’s son took out a couple of soiled notes from his pocket as he spoke, money from his sale of rice grains, “It’s all your money.”
Not waiting for the counting to be over, Bajra snatched the notes and sprinted towards the platform.
“It’s not incorrect, what he said. It is indeed my money,” Bajra mused. Bajra of Chandaneshwar Railbazaar. Known as Bajreshwar Naskar in the District Court. Son of Late Khagen Naskar. He had robbed three businessmen at one go, on a single night, last monsoon in Kushbere. Had his whole gang with him. Had a tempo waiting at the main road. Bajra had cleared up entire storages that night. Thirty-seven sacks of rice. One goose. Five silver jugs, cash, silver belts, anklets—amounting to almost seventeen thousand rupees. Deposited the jewelry at Nadu’s. That same night. Before daybreak. Even the jugs. Downloaded the rice, while it was still dark, at Baidyanath’s storage.
The train is passing by the Auliapur swamps. It was filled with water even during the last monsoon. Little Bajra would come here to farm with his father. While tilling the soil, Khagen Naskar would sit on the plough to add weight to it, and little Bajra would hold the yoke and take the ox round and round. The dry lumps of soil would crumble to fine flour-like dust. And rice used to be so cheap then! Two rupees and fifty paise per two fifty grams. Bajra remembers. His eyes well up. “All for two rupees and fifty paisa worth of rice? Oh, father! Father! How you’d plough under the scorching sun! My father! Never knew what happiness was!” And now his lawyer’s fees alone are sixteen rupees a day! Add to that miscellaneous expenses towards peons, clerks, typists. Train and bus fares, snacks—these costs are separate.
Had Khagen Naskar been alive, Bajra would never let him slog in the fields, driving his plough and oxen. The electric train picks up speed, wheels sliding on the rails. One businessman’s wife had resisted. Bajra had tugged at her ear. It had refused to come off. And her screams! Bajra had braced himself and pulled hard. The earring was in his hand, earlobe torn apart. It was meant to be there in the first place. Wonder why women resist so much!
As night thickens, he can hear his mind speak. The world crouches in the dark. Light clubs made of dry babul wood. Others with scythes and sickles. A sack with a pipe gun inside, tied around Bajra’s waist. A sack that earlier had fertilizers in it. Bare chest. Face smeared with soot mixed with mustard oil. One blank shot from the pipe gun’s enough; Bajra put it back into the sack.
He has set fire to a house only once. The people in it were rather rude! Were shooting from the window. The younger son of the family. The usual vegetable garden and pond—he had crawled on his belly and simply set the straw roof on fire. The heat had forced out the ducks from their shelter. This was the Tardah robbery. Year before last, the last night of Durga Puja. Was a little chilly. The tail feathers of a duck had caught fire. It dived into the pond. The flames were etched in the pitch dark canvas of the night.
The entire Tardah village was up and awake by then. Bajreshwar Naskar and his men had to return through the dried up nullah of the Bidyedhadri river. Today’s trip to Alipore is related to the Tardah case.
The city court in Kolkata is right behind the Alipore Post Office. The Alipore Civil Court, that is. Adjoining eateries. His lawyer thrust the drafts on his hands. “Get these typed as you eat, Bajreshwar. You’ll have to appear before the judge today—”
“What shall I say?”
“I’ll coach you. Get something to eat first. You’ll admit to your crime in the end today, after rounds of interrogation. Go, have your lunch.”
There’s a fairly large eatery behind the court. A regular meal costs four and a half rupees. It’s aptly named Ashamibhog or Criminalmeal. Two pieces of fish. Free lentil soup. Extra rice at thirty paisa per plate. A vegetable mash on the side.
Post lunch, Bajreshwar Naskar stands before the type machine, chewing paan. Sheaves of paper glide smoothly within the black machine. Black words fall on the paper like raindrops. Bajreshwar feels amazed. “There’s Tardah, and Kushbere, where I carried out the robberies. And here, in Alipore, they take the shape of words that bounce off the type machine like droplets of rain.” The person typing has powder on his neck, rings on his fingers, etc. A new cycle leaning against the court wall. Snatching all these—cycle, wristwatch, rings would easily pay for his typing fees for the past few months.
As soon as he stood in the witness box, a new lawyer in a black coat started interrogating Bajra. A man in a coat sat on a chair before a table draped in red canvas. A large wall clock behind his head. Bajra found nothing unusual.
The new lawyer started a long lecture in the middle of his interrogation. Bajreshwar looked at him in amazement! Amazing—how did this lawyer know what his name was? Or that Bajra had stolen electric wire? Or the date on which a complaint was lodged in the police station against him? And that Bajra is evil? He seems to know everything about him. But how? Bajra’s blood started to boil.
Bajreshwar Naskar looked up at his lawyer. The courtroom has heated up. Numerous black heads outside. Beyond, he could see the crowded area under the banyan tree. Lawyers, clerks, babus, agents, and criminals thronged the space. He looked at his own lawyer— a pair of motionless eyes were all he could see. He was at a loss. Guessed he should keep quiet.
The other lawyer was spewing venom against Bajra.
“My Lord, the convict Bajreshwar Naskar is a highly suspicious character. He had already been arrested twice before for drunken brawls in red light areas. And the list of petty crimes registered against his name is quite long.”
Bajra’s lawyer objected, “My Lord, all these allegations do not fall under the purview of the case in hearing. They are totally irrelevant. I protest.”
The term “irrelevant” hit Bajra hard. Like pieces of pellets fired from an air gun.
“One can’t poison others’ minds against my client in this manner, My Lord—”
The other lawyer was saying, “Not only that, but the convict Bajreshwar was nabbed by the Rail Police thrice. Serious allegations. Cutting off electric train cables. But every time, the convict managed to slip through the net of the legal system. But this Tardah incident, My Lord, if you go through the papers, will prove that the convict is a cold-blooded criminal. The allegations of the State—arson, attack, snatching of jewelry, and procurement and use of illegal weapons. This time the convict has to accept the verdict of the law, My Lord.”
None of these is false. But how did he get so much of information, wondered Bajra. Surely someone from Chandaneshwar has spilled the beans. Against him. Otherwise—the lawyer wouldn’t know so much about him if somebody hadn’t betrayed him.
“Your Honor, the accused had visited the prostitute quarters of Kachharibazaar—”
Bajra was seething. He almost growled like a tiger, “If I’ve been there, it’s with my own money, why should it bother others?”
The man addressed as “Your Honor” banged on the red canvas covered table, “Order, order!”
“Your Honor” seemed to be pretty young. How old would he be? Possibly younger than him. Surely “Your Honor” never had to go ploughing the fields with his father. Bajra had heard—their homes look like paintings. They get a salary at the end of each month. A lot of money. Crisp notes. He had snatched money from a young honorable man once. Including wristwatch and fountain pen.
Bajra’s lawyer rose. “I protest.”
These last words were strong too. Seemed to hurt his ears. Bajra has no faith in the court and its proceedings. This young chap sitting across the red canvas—how can he keep the world under his control? What power does he have? Bajreshwar Naskar can commit a robbery in the evening, walk thirty miles, and sleep peacefully in his bed at night. How can this courtroom contain someone like him? Bajra was at a loss.
The lawyer kept on blabbering. None of this reached Bajra anymore. He watched the man’s lips move. He felt no connection with all this at this moment. As a child he would dive under water in the large pond and pluck the bulbous ovule of the bhat flower, tear it apart, and eat the slimy seeds inside. That is how he filled his belly. He can, therefore, never bring himself into trusting these shoe-clad gentlemen. He knows—they live on the other side of the world. A small, fenced up world, where they run their offices, courts, trains. The rest of the world belongs to Bajra. To run around, plough, or set fire to.
The word fire slowly entered his head and set it abuzz. Then gradually set it on fire.
The family from Tardah was also present in the court. They silently stared at Bajra throughout the court proceeding. They planned to appeal for Bajra’s bail, and subsequent imprisonment.
But even before they could appeal, Bajra had already been released on bail. Amazing lawyer! Amazing, thinks Bajra. His eyes are light. But he is bristling inside, and narrows his lips.
The month of Sravan arrives. But there is no sign of rain yet. The days are sultry. The nights’ coolness dissappear as one wakes up from sleep. Bajra is getting busier by the night. There are quite a few railway tracks in Chandaneshwar station for goods trains to halt. Some of these are no longer in use. They are covered in grass. The grass has to be dug up with a spade and cleared first. Then dig up the wooden sleepers one by one and take them to the sawmill. Instant payment. Cash.
Moreover, it’s difficult for the RPF to reach the part of the Banshra forest where the railway tracks bend. It is the safest spot for cutting the electric wires. If one has to cut wires just once a year, it is the place. The electric train wires are no less than gold. Bajra can clearly see the tracks in his mind even as he stands in the court. The tracks are on the bridge over what used to be a river once. The river is no more, bamboo groves have taken over, hence the name Banshra. Some call it the Banshra forests. The RPF jawans, with their boots on, are sure to slip while chasing. The jeeps will not be able to go under the bridge. The river used to be really rough there. The railway company once had to throw in large boulders to break the river’s spine. The boulders remain though there’s no water left anymore. No jeep can cross those boulders.
Bajreshwar Naskar has a name for each of the boulders. He has known them since childhood. He can climb up to the bridge by stepping on them. And come down grabbing the sleepers with both hands in case a train comes by. Who’ll catch him if he cuts the wires there?
The state witness for the Tradah case looked up straight at Bajra. Palan Mistry, a deep gash below his left eye. Two sepoys on both sides. Turned witness possibly, after a roughing up in custody. Palan looked Bajra in the eye. Bajra didn’t say anything. His lawyer had said, “If your case goes to the higher court, and Palan says ‘My Lord, I had said what I had said because I was beaten up to say so,’ your case will not stand anymore. Can you make his say that?”
“But how? You’ll not get to meet him.”
“So what? I’ll go straight to his house tonight. Beat up his mother and wife—they’ll come and force Palan to talk to you.”
“Fine, but make sure our plan doesn’t go awry at the last moment.”
The Sravan sky gets heavier in the evening. But still no sign of rain. Standing on the new bridge over Adiganga, Bajreshwar Naskar looked at the prison walls and smiled. Then turned towards the Nabagraha temple and folded his hands to offer his respects to the resident god-with-the-raised-hand there. He has never been able to remember the god’s name. A problem indeed!
Bajra walked across the bridge and sat down at the foot of a shoe store. A caged munia fluttered its wings. An astrologer, with the signature tiny ponytail at the back of his head, sat with his scripts and notes. Bajra didn’t believe in all this. These astrologers have set scripts for people walking towards the court, and different ones for those walking away from it. Bajra started, “Going through hard times . . .”
“What’s your case?”
“Robbery? Oh, God! Who? Somebody you know?”
“How do you know him? Bring him to me. I’ll read his palm and predict.”
“That won’t be necessary. I’m the one. I’ve committed a dozen robberies.”
The astrologer shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He could see trams and buses plying on the road before him. Traffic policemen standing right in front. Garnering a lot of courage, he asked, “How come you’re roaming scot-free?”
“Out on bail, brother. Don’t know how long I can afford to continue fighting the cases. Have amassed huge debts just paying bribes.”
“What is your zodiac sign?”
“Day of birth?”
“That neither. Families like ours don’t have the habit of jotting these down.”
“Never heard your mother mention it?”
“Our mothers are simple women. Can’t remember such things, brother.”
The conversation would have continued. Right next to the Nabagraha temple is a bleak house with moss-covered walls. None of its windows have shutters. A fritter seller lit a petromax lamp in broad daylight and hung it on a hook. The smell of asafetida in the air. Bajra had extended his palm towards the astrologer. He knew the smell. He also knew why a fritter stall has a lamp lit during the day. This is a familiar scene from Kachharibazaar .
Bajreshwar Naskar moved his eyes. A path by the temple has sloped down to the Adiganga. There’s a high bridge next to the path. Hence, the river is not visible from the road. About five or six women. Standing at the door of the bleak house by the slope.
“I’ll be right back, brother. Right back.”
“You seem to be under the ‘sick spell’—”
“I’ll come back and deal with it,” Bajreshwar Naskar replied as he stood in front of that door.
The astrologer turned his face away. The wood storage, the buffalo shed over the river are all visible from his post on the footpath.
Some lawyers, black coats on, files in hand, were returning from the court at this time. Bajra could see his lawyer from the tiny window upstairs. He was carrying some lyangra mangoes in a net bag.
“Hey, what’s your name?”
Bajra removed the hand from his shoulder. “What will you do with my name?”
“I’m Papiya. I’ve some great home-brewed stuff. Like to have some?”
“Kalighat-brewed stuff, right? Too sweet. Nauseating.”