TRANSLATED FROM THE BENGALI BY RITUPARNA MAJUMDER
The upper floor had the preserver’s quarter, some arrangements for the subordinates as well, the office and a small branch of the bank adjacent to them. An enclosure for such a spacious arrangement of unloading and reloading of goods. Many tractors, power tillers, water pumps scattered here and there, sprayers, dusters, fertilizer shops and repair workshops lay just beside them in the courtyard of the Agro Service Centre.
There was a sizable cold store underground to the right of the preserver’s quarter. Could this be called a complex? What could be the Bengali term! The Bangladeshis might know. That country had coined Bengali equivalents well and the rigidity to use those terms was also gradually diminishing. Nishith wanted to ask the lady in front, who was sipping cold drinks with a straw, if she was familiar with the Bengali equivalent of ‘complex’.
The woman was very attractive. She was draped in the timeless exclusivity of a stunning Sambalpuri. But what melancholy overshadowed her face! It seemed to be of a bygone age. Perhaps it was nothing but the craft of elegance itself. It could be the very reason for Nishith’s curiosity. Nishith thought that the question would be a bit overindulgent and inappropriate, so, in the end, he asked, ‘You must be very bored, aren’t you, Madam?’ Her smile measured up to be quite diplomatic, something that could be discerned from her words too. Madam had a sophisticated and poignant voice. She said, ‘Not at all, we are enjoying everything about this place of yours.’ At a distance, her husband, Colonel Asraf Ahmed, was excessively reserved at just the age of forty-five or six, a nervous East Bengali under the mask of that solemnity. He was studying all the important documents like the plan, layout and accounts of the project. The preservation projects of this country had been modernized quite a few years back. Of course, all this was in accord with the standards of the third world. But Bangladesh could be considered to have expertise or competence purely in that.
The Colonel was facing his Indian reflection, Srijanardan Mahapatra, an IAS. The gentleman had already lost the tautness of his build at just after forty. Now one could notice the fleshy bulge of his cheeks just from behind. Nishith was a middle-ranking officer under this very man. Mahapatra was a gastronome and ate indiscriminately too. Awkward in his beige safari suit, Mahapatra, however, was no idiot. Yet he failed at times to withhold the great racist vanity in front of his Bangladeshi counterpart. Neither the Colonel nor anybody else was perhaps noticing the matter, but Nishith was withdrawing within himself. Why was that so? Madam half finished her drink and snapped the straw.
Nishith asked, ‘Isn’t it cold enough?’
Madam replied, ‘No, no, it’s fine, I don’t feel like it.’
Mahapatra’s unsolicited remark crossed over the tables, ‘They have cokes back there. How they would like our desi, local, drinks! Isn’t it, Madam?’
Madam frowned and, with a smile of indulgence, said, ‘Come on, Mr. Mahapatra!’
Still, Nishith felt somewhat apologetic.
The assistants of both parties were actually occupied with the complex strategies and other associated matters. Some food arrived in the middle of all the technical wrangling on the preservation methods, measurements of the freezing points of various grains, fruits and vegetables, glycol brine, vapor compressor and so on. Nishith had to arrange all this himself.
Mahapatra still acted like a child if he got a glimpse of food. Once he invited others with a courteous ‘come’, he took a shingara, a stuffed savory pastry, from the serving plate in front and wasted no time. The Colonel followed him. He chewed a mouthful of shingara and, without even masking his East Bengali accent, informed Nishith, ‘There are cauliflowers from Ranchi- Hazaribagh that are available in my wife’s kitchen even in the months of Bhadra and Aashwin, once I had some cold storages installed, do you get it, Mr Ray? How wonderful to have cauliflower stuffed shingara in the off-season!’
Madam again smiled in the same way. She said, ‘You can!’
Mahapatra was busy entertaining a feast.
Nishith chimed in, ‘Oh sure.’
And immediately he wondered whether the Colonel consciously equated the cauliflowers from Ranchi-Hazaribagh and the American cokes.
Was it impossible? Who would know if the nervousness of the East Bengalis was not really a variation of something else altogether?
Finally, Madam got up and came out with a cup of coffee in her hand. The specialists also left with her. It was a verdant sea of Aashwin outside in the famous ground of Hooghly.
Madam muttered, ‘How wonderful!’
Nishith lowered his voice and said, ‘Really amazing. When I came here once at the onset of monsoon, it was unimaginable that this place would take on such an appearance. But I’ve heard that paddy is also cultivated on a large scale there in your country.’
Madam replied, ‘Yes, I’ve also heard. But, much like you, I too don’t get to gaze at paddy fields that much. I have always been brought up in the city. You?’
‘My native place is Faridpur. But-‘
Nishith paused. Didn’t the entire matter turn a little incoherent? An Indian proclaiming to a Bangladeshi, ‘My native place is Faridpur!’
Mahapatra lowered the cup and said, ‘Let’s go downstairs.’
There was a cold store down there.
Everybody walked towards the stairs with slow and steady steps. First, the officer of this warehouse, then Mahapatra and the Colonel, followed by the specialists of both parties, Madam and Nishith at the end.
The staircase spiraled down. Someone was clicking on the lights, the pit was getting illuminated gradually.
The stairs ended at the door to the cold store. When the door was opened, it emitted a musty concoction of the odor of vegetables, medicines and fruits, however, it wasn’t too pungent. But the temperature differed so rapidly that it caused discomfort.
Those who were speaking so far fell silent all at once. Nishith retreated to keep pace with Madam.
The light source was airy and invisible. Everything in this cold store felt somewhat ancient and nostalgic.
In a mild and intimate tone, Madam said, ‘Mr. Ray, you said your native land is in Faridpur, do you know where’s mine?’
They were speaking in private and whispering to each other. The smell and the shadow of an old world lay all around. As if their bodies too smelled of formaldehyde.
‘My homeland is Kolkata.’
One couldn’t discern if she had smiled.
‘Really! Which locality of Kolkata?’
‘In Park Circus.’
‘I don’t remember, I don’t remember, but I can certainly recognize it if I see it. Mr. Ray, will you please take me to Park Circus once?’
Madam’s voice was very emotional and eager.
‘Is this even a problem? We’ll visit today itself.’
‘But the Colonel can’t know of this., Mr Ray.’
‘Why! What do you mean…’
Begum Ahmed fell silent and started inspecting a tomato that she picked up from a heap in a rack. A good many things couldn’t be shared. Again, so many things had to be filled up with silence. The same language, same form, and nature too. Identical geographical location. Yet one must carry so much burden all by oneself! How much could be known about anybody? Would Nishith ever fathom how complicated the account of the last fifteen or sixteen years of a Bangladeshi Colonel was? This survival was nothing but a drama as uncertain as the existence of God. The Colonel didn’t want to call forth any emotion anymore. Emotion was too destructive. Begum whispered, ‘Nishit babu, you’ll have to devise an idea and manage the matter, sightseeing, Victoria, whatever it is. Ish what a nostalgic memory-’
Grief exuded from Madam’s voice. She had consciously entered the cold store then.
Nishith looked at the Colonel. The technicians opened the door to a chamber that looked like a deep freezer and were explaining something to him at a distance. His impassive face was swollen with glumness. Perhaps he always kept his guard up.
How would Nishith raise the topic concerning Madam before this man?
Madam insisted, ‘Nishith babu, please-‘
The car reached Park Circus Maidan straight via Park Street. When they turned right and were at Amir Ali Avenue, the duskiness of the evening was tainted with layers of pollution from petrol-diesel. The light failed to travel far through that blanket of smog. It felt quite eerie.
‘Yet the number of people has increased manifold!’
‘Yes, people, houses and cars.’
‘How scenic this avenue used to be in our childhood! Our convent was here somewhere- perhaps it was here itself.’
‘I am not very familiar with this locality, Madam. It’s not like I don’t come here from time to time.’
‘Okay- Okay- Beckbagan is on the right, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, Beckbagan is right here.’
‘Keep going a little more!’
The car came forward a little more.
‘Stop for a moment, please.’
Pavements still existed here. There were trees as well. The car pulled over by the pavement on the left.
‘There was a playground here.’
Begum Ahmed proclaimed pointing towards the huge petrol pump rightward that had a truck and other vehicles parked in it. Her wounded look expressed much disappointment.
‘Yes, twenty or thirty years ago. Playground or an abandoned lot- we used to play.’
Begum Ahmed continued to search for her missing childhood through the car window. The heavy and unconcerned melancholy of the grey gloom permeated throughout. As if disinterest and failure had enveloped Nishith too. It was distressing enough to withdraw to a side and observe this city that was noisy, bustling, yet mobile like an uncertain destiny. The corpse of the past, the past and the longing, seemed to be lying there on some adjacent road.
‘Which way now, Madam?’
‘There’s a road on the right just a little behind.’ She seemed to be saying with her eyes closed.
‘Yes, there is.’
‘Nishith babu, kindly take that route.’
They didn’t have to feed any information to the driver.
They didn’t have to convey much to the Colonel either. He needed a lot of alcohol in the evening. He was accompanied by Mahapatra too.
As the car entered the road to the right, the Driver said, ‘Madam, this road is called Tarak Dutta Road.’
‘There was a girls’ school here, my elder sisters used to study there.’
‘It’s still here, Madam, right there.’
‘Nothing seems to match, Nishith babu. So many people, so many houses! All of these houses have perhaps gone up. Where are those empty lots?’
Begum Ahmed went on with this almost meaningless monologue. Two young girls stood chatting on the left pavement. Two tunic-clad girls. Begum leaned out of the car window and kept on looking at them. The car was rolling at snail’s pace.
Two roads ran side by side on the right. The car pulled over to a space between them. Begum Asraf Ahmed propped her chin on the car window and kept foraging the city for her lost childhood at nightfall. Then at one point, as if awakened from a dream, she said, ‘I’ll get down for a bit, Nishith babu.’
Nishith held the door open and said, ‘Certainly.’
Begum Ahmed alighted and stood there quietly for some time. She then kept strolling in uncertain steps. She continued to speak as if in a trance while walking. Now she emerged breaking open the cocoon of ‘Come on, you can’.
‘Do you know my name, Nishith babu? My name was…’
She smiled a little. She was ambling with her glance fixed on the ground and, suddenly, she turned back as if she was called by her name; such delusion.
‘We had left this place in the Bengali year thirteen fifty-five or -six…’
She halted in front of a high building that had a somewhat dome-shaped roof.
‘Mili aapa and her family used to live here, and Aunt Tilu on the first floor.’
Nishith proposed, ‘Would you like to check whether they still reside here or not, should I call?’
She reflected on something. Then she said, ‘No, let it be, what if no one remembers anything.’
Begum proceeded just ahead. She drew to a stop while walking on. Then she continued again. The houses were flooded with the light and the sound of television brimmed over the windows of every household. Some windows also carried the voices of students studying. The natives of the local households inside were all around in the shade. It was as if Begum Ahmed was trying to touch on quite a few things.
‘Here, you know, Nishith babu, our house was somewhere here. The house still keeps surfacing right before my eyes. There was a long veranda attached to the pavement. The veranda was framed with waist-high iron rods. An aged woman lived there in that house, we used to call her by some name followed by an aunt, you know. Not grandmother, but some aunt. She would sit by the window and read storybooks a lot. Not the books for adults, but the ones for young adults like detective or mystery-adventure. She would also exchange books with us. There was a two-storied house next to that aunt’s residence. My friend Sushobhan used to live there. Just after Sushobhan’s place was a dirt lane and my house should have been here somewhere, Nishith babu.’
Begum Ahmed paused for a moment and looked around. The dejection and emptiness in her look couldn’t be veiled even in the late evening atmosphere. She picked up her monologue once again from where she had left it.
‘Someone wrote abusive words for one of my elder sisters on the wall of this alley. Our house was at the end of that small passageway. Where’s that lane!’
She seemed to groan at the last word.
They moved along some distance step by step. The driver parked the car where the school stood far back on the left of the street. Begum Ahmed silently stood rooted there for quite some time.
‘It was here somewhere, somewhere Nishith babu!’
‘It was surely somewhere, Madam.’
‘But where did all this, these many houses come from? They were not here after all!’
‘This is how the city expands, Madam.’
‘Shall we take the road on the left a little bit, Nishith babu? You’re not getting disturbed, are you?’
‘Oh, no, not at all, Madam, you keep looking.’
‘No, maybe I’m being too selfish. You’re stuck with us all day, and after evening also.’
‘Oh, no, that’s not an issue, after all, I’m really enjoying it.’
‘We used to take this lane also, you know. This straight lane again leads to the big road, and if you go a little farther ahead, isn’t there Gurusaday Road?’
‘That road used to be very desolate in our childhood.’
‘It’s too crowded now, you won’t be able to recognize it at all.’
‘Gurusaday is on the right and a little before that there’s a small street on the left. That lane was even more secluded. And all the houses had spacious flower gardens. The baganbari, villas of the wealthy, were lonesome. We, the children, would team up and go over there to collect flowers secretly when it was still dawn. Well, Nishith babu, have you ever plucked a big sunflower blossom from its stem?’
‘Not really! Why did you ask?’
‘It’s hard to pluck sunflower blossoms. It won’t tear from the stem at all. For me, Shushobhan once- no, let it be, childhood memories-
Nishith said, ‘It’s quarter to eight, Madam, the Colonel won’t worry, will he?’
Madam was interrupted and returned to the present. She said, ‘Yes, he’ll be disturbed, and will, of course, worry. But Nishith babu, I couldn’t find that house anywhere though! My Abba is still alive. Even now he considers nowhere but Kolkata to be his native place. I used to tell him upon my visits. Just imagine, what a terrible traitor!’
Nishith said, ‘It’s the same with my Baba, Madam. My roots are also buried in some remote village of Faridpur.’
Begum Ahmed looked around at the small and big houses for the very last time and said, ‘Let’s go back. What does all this matter anyway?’
Just then the car approached and stopped behind them. The driver was observing their airs as well. Nishith held the door open and said, ‘Come, Madam.’ She got into the car.
The car took a right turn, picked up a low hum and went on. As they turned right again, a bazaar with the name ‘Park Circus Market’ could be seen. She leaned over and broke into sobs.
Also, read Preparatory & Other Poems by Robert Serban, translated from the Romanian by Lidia Vianu and Anne Stewart, and published in The Antonym: