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Li’l Scummy – Tilottoma Mojumdar

May 14, 2021 | Fiction | 2 comments

Translated from the Bengali by Chaiti Mitra

1

They stay hidden. Behind the strong iron pillar firmly planted on a solid concrete circular base. Or among the things heaped in the makeshift storage under the railway overbridge staircase. Or behind the water kiosk. People can’t see them till they wish to be seen. It’s fairly easy for the invisible to remain unseen.
Once the passengers settle down on the platform benches to be absorbed in their personal reveries, it’s time for the bugs to surface and bite them, and the tiny railway-bred cockroaches and clever little mice to scurry with the biscuit crumbs, roasted grams and peanuts scattered on the floor. It’s also time for them to surface; a little snitching now and then, occasional scavenging for food, but mostly trying to eke out an honest living. When the registered porters disappear, they appear from their hiding places. Shadowy forms at first, they gradually metamorphose into solid figures. Take shape, become real.

2

Early winter morning. Yawning loudly, a train entered the picturesque town nestled among hills and forests. One station more, and it’ll reach its destination. It wasn’t quite morning yet. The train kept on snoring loudly.
Many people were getting off the train. The girl waited with her big heavy suitcase. By the time she managed to haul it down to the platform, other passengers had manipulated the porters. There weren’t enough porters anyway. Before she realized, she found herself all alone. Loneliness, it’s always sudden. Even before we begin to grasp a situation, we find ourselves alone, lonely, with no one to depend on. She looked around. Someone was supposed to be at the station to receive her. She was carrying a number of books, a few notebooks, woolens, clothes, some basic necessities — soap, shampoo, cream, cosmetics.
He who was supposed to receive her at the station, had told her, “Everything’s available here. Which cream do you use? Which brand of body lotion? Shampoo? You’ll get them all here, in the big stores all over the town. Don’t bother to carry any of these things.”
She didn’t listen to him. These belong to her. Why should she leave them behind?
She clutched the suitcase handle as she thought of him. The platform was soon deserted. The red and yellow train, which until then was standing motionless behind her, like a backdrop, stirred, then chugged along, the solid iron wheels screeching against the sturdy, solid iron rails. The mist lingered. The girl remained standing. He had assured, “I’ll be there. Before you reach. The porters won’t be available so early in the morning. I’ll carry your suitcase. In case I’m a little late – it’s not easy to drive in the thick early morning fog – get off the train and wait right there.”
“Suitcase?”
“Someone or other will haul it down. There’s never a dearth of willing men to help damsels in distress.”
But that’s not what happened. No one offered to help her. Damsels are ignored now and then, betrayed too. Not that she had banked on her fellow passengers. The one she did depend on, hadn’t arrived.
The girl considered sitting down on one of the benches. She had been standing for about twenty minutes. The train had arrived at five past six, wobbled out at six twenty. The bitterly cold wind was hurting her, her ears were starting to ache, the tip of her nose was frozen, as were her palms. She pulled her woolen cap over her ears. Leaving her suitcase, she rubbed her hands together. Looked around for an empty bench, in vain. Human bodies, tightly wrapped in tattered blankets, lay on each one of them. Sleeping peacefully. Comfortably too. Sleep, if and when it comes, no matter where, always brings peace and comfort with it.
Forty minutes. She was still waiting. Fished out a phone from one of the pockets. As if out of a cozy, comfortable sleep.
Phone pressed to the ear. Silent. No response, perhaps. Perhaps listening to the busy tone.
Ten to seven. Sunrays reached the platform through the mist. The cold wind continued to blow. Fifteen more minutes, and she would be waiting for an hour. But the girl started walking slowly. Kept pressing the phone to her ear. Dragged the heavy suitcase using both her hands.
Where would she go? Couldn’t stand the cold draft anymore. The cold seeped into her bones through the layers of her thick jacket and jeans, making her shiver.
This is when the boy arrived. A dark, scrawny slip of a boy. Sniffling. Wearing a dirty sweater, torn in places, a size or two too small. Loose half-pants a size or two too big. Barefoot. He asked her, “Which way, Didi? Eh, Didi? Where are you going? That way? To the taxi stand?”
“No, just walking. Someone will pick me up.”
“Car? They’ll bring a car? Didi?”
“Yes.”
“Even then you’ll have to go to the other side. Cross the overbridge. The car park is behind the taxi stand.”
The girl stopped at the foot of the broad stairs to the overbridge. Too high. She won’t be able to haul her heavy suitcase up the stairs. Not a single porter in sight. She pressed the phone to her ear once again. Nothing.
“You have to go to the other side.”
“Understood.”
“You won’t find any porters now. The next train is at ten thirty. The strong ones will come then.”
“I’ll leave before that.”
“Of course, you will. But you must cross over to the other side first. You can see all the trains that enter the station from there. The sun’s coming up, you’ll feel warmer, Didi. It’s so windy here.”
“What do you want? Why are you bothering me?”
“I’m not begging. I don’t beg.”
“Then what do you want?”
“Not much. Two hundred. I’ll carry your luggage to the other side.”
“Two hundred?”
“One can tell, its heavy.”
“Still, two hundred? And you think you can carry this suitcase? You!”
“Not by myself, there’s someone else. We’ll do it together. Shall I call him?”
“But I’m not paying two hundred.”
“How much then?”
“Fifty.”
“Alright, one hundred and fifty. OK? One fifty?”
“Told you. Fifty.”
“OK, eighty. OK, Didi? Eighty.”
“Fifty.”
“Can’t do it for fifty. You’d have to pay at least one fifty to the porter. See, it’s my first deal of the day, that’s why I’m taking eighty. Let me call him then? Eh? But I’m the one you’ll hand the money to, Didi.”
Before the girl could say anything, the boy sprinted. Clutching his slipping pants with one hand. Returned with another boy a couple of years older than him.
“Let’s go. Raju, you hold from this side, I’ll hold the other.”
“Wait,” said the girl. “I never told you to do the job.”
“Then why did you bargain?”
“Listen, how old are you?”
“Me? Six, maybe seven.”
“I’m ten”, proudly announced Raju, the newcomer. The girl said, “You’re too young. Just kids. I can’t hire you. That’ll be child labor. And child labor is illegal. Got it?”
“But we’ll do it for fifty.”
“Told you, I can’t hire you.”
The girl pressed the phone to her ear once again. Silence. The two boys stood there for a while, then vanished.
“Let me carry your suitcase. You can pay me fifty. Or maybe add a ten for a tip. I am eighteen.”
Startled, the girl looked at the speaker, a boy who had appeared from nowhere. Thin, dark, lanky. A tattered short-sleeved sweater over a dirty shirt. Matted hair. Dirty trousers. Flip-flops. A hint of a mustache.
“You think you can?”
“Of course. I’ve carried heavier stuff before, Didi.”
“OK, here. Let’s go.”
The boy lifted the suitcase with much difficulty and started walking unsteadily. It was way too heavy for him. Suddenly the two boys reappeared and blocked their way.
“Why didn’t you give it to us? Why him?”
“He is older.”
“Older? How much older? Eighteen? He said eighteen? Kalu can’t be more than fifteen.”
“Told you, you’re children. I won’t let you work for me.”
They slithered away. The girl started to follow the boy named Kalu as he struggled with the heavy suitcase. Seemed for a moment he’d drop it. Or topple down the stairs himself. The straps of one of his flip-flops had a safety pin. She hoped it wouldn’t prick him.
Finally, the two of them managed to cross the overbridge and reach the taxi stand. The sun shone brightly. Kalu wiped off beads of sweat from his forehead. The girl paid him eighty rupees. He saluted her and left. She went back to her phone calls, and kept on calling.

3

It was about an hour and a half since the girl had arrived at the station. The one who was supposed to receive her had not arrived yet. Her faith intact, she continued to wait for him at the taxi stand. Many enquired about her destination, but she told them all she didn’t need a taxi. Someone would come for her.
But why isn’t he here? Why isn’t he picking up the phone? Is anything wrong? An accident? Tense and distraught, she started feeling hot, took off her cap, unzipped her jacket.
“Didi!”
She looked. That boy, Kalu.
“Didi, please tell them you asked me to carry your luggage. I didn’t trick you.”
“What do you mean?”
“They…they’re not listening to me.”
“They?”
She looked around. Those two boys. With a gang of a few more like them. He told her, “When I went to call Raju, he came and made a deal with you, right? He asked you then not to hire us, right?”
“Not at all. I explained to you why I won’t let you carry my luggage.”
“You also paid him sixty rupees. We were ready to work for fifty.”
“Listen, I did what I felt to be right. Can’t give you any more explanations.”
Kalu saluted her once again and left. Reassured, he slowly walked toward the railway premises. The gang chased him and pounced on him from behind. He tried to free himself, failed. His attackers were pint-sized, but ferocious. They threw him on the ground, raining kicks and punches on him. Beating him up, they took away his money. Kalu suffered a cut on his lips, a gash on his head, and a bruise under his eye. His hard-earned money was gone. He lay on the ground. The girl watched the entire incident disinterestedly while she tried to connect on the phone. Kalu saw her too. Passively. Wiping the blood with the palm of his hands, he got up.

4

Dimly lit shack just outside the station. Actually an eatery where one could get rice, dal, vegetables, fried eggs at a cheap rate. Kalu sat on a bench, waiting for his roti-sabzi. The open sky above and the cold wind made him shiver. The streets were almost deserted. It was thirty minutes past nine. There was a train at eleven. And after that, at one thirty at night. There would only be a few people at the station then.
A tiny shadow appeared from behind the shack, scurried back, only to reappear and peep again. A woman was rolling the rotis, while a man was frying them. The woman shouted at the boy, “Again? Didn’t I tell you; you won’t get a morsel without paying? Do you take this to be a charity? Or a church, distributing free food? Get lost!”
“Who is it, Kaki? Scummy?” Kalu asked.
“Who else? He already owes me twenty-nine rupees, and still hopes to eat without paying. I can’t help him anymore. Let him starve to death.”
“Scummy, come here,” Kalu called.
Hesitantly, dragging his feet, the tiny creature stood before him. Sniffling, he wiped something with his hand. Snot? Maybe. Or maybe a tear. Kalu asked, “What happened to your money?”
“No money.”
“What happened to the money you snatched from me in the morning?”
“Rajaram the Elephant has taken it from me.”
“Why?”
“I owed him. Borrowed from him to buy pills for my fever.”
“Sit. I’ve ordered rotis. You can have two, I’ll have two.”
Scummy nodded his head in agreement and sat down to eat. He had had nothing to eat since morning. He gobbled the first roti, took a few gulps of water, and asked, “Are you in pain, Kalu?”
“Forget it.”
His head was bandaged. The cut on his face had a cotton dressing stuck with a strip of leukoplast. He had a black eye. Having eaten, they paid the bill, and walked towards the station, shivering. They hoped to slip into some warm hole at the station. A taxi stopped near them. Scummy said, “Kalu, look.”
The girl opened the door and got off the taxi. Woolen cap on her head. A cotton dressing stuck with a strip of leukoplast on her face. Lips swollen. Black eye. Jacket.
The taxi driver hauled her suitcase from the trunk and placed it on the road. She looked around.
Scummy said, “Kalu, you better go. She won’t let me.”
“Will probably catch the eleven o’clock train. Let’s see if any elephant comes this way.”
They referred to the registered porters as elephants.
“Look at her face, she has a cut like you. Who would hit a woman?”
“She may have hurt herself.”
“Poor thing. Standing in the middle of the road! The elephants would be all drunk at this hour. Why don’t you go, Kalu?”
“You come along.”
“Let’s go.”
The two of them went to the girl.
“Need a porter, Didi? Which train?”
No response. She didn’t seem to recognize them. But asked unmindfully, “Which train? Is there a train to Kolkata?”
“One thirty at night.”
“I’ll take that one.”
“You have to cross the overbridge to the other platform, Didi.”
“Let’s go.”
Scummy promptly said, “Two hundred and fifty rupees. Will put your luggage inside the compartment. Ladies compartment.”
“That’s fine.” No bargaining. No questions either.
The two looked at each other. Kalu heaved the suitcase up on his shoulder and started walking unsteadily, Scummy by his side. The girl followed them. Slowly, unsteadily. Not even watching her suitcase. Her mind was elsewhere.
Scummy said, “I’ll take one fifty.”
“Why? I’m the one carrying the luggage. I’ll give you fifty.”
“But I’m the one who was clever enough to ask for two fifty. You were about to ask for the morning rate.”
“Give me one fifty, you keep a hundred. We’ll both buy a pair of slippers each tomorrow.”
“Alright. Won’t be able to sleep till one fifty, anyway. Will have to guard two pieces of luggage.”
“Empty station. Lonely woman. Will have to do this.”
“Kalu?”
“Yes?”
“The elephants beat us at the slightest pretext. We gang up to beat up whoever is alone. Who beats a woman?”
“Everyone.”
“But why?”
“Because they are women.”
“Kalu, do you have a mother?”
“Had once. She died. Nine of them beat her to death…your mother?”
“Yes.”
“Where?”
“Don’t know. Somewhere.”
The two boys climbed down the stairs cautiously. Tomorrow was another day. A new day. They would buy their slippers tomorrow. Scummy burst into a song…“Lungi dance, lungi dance, lungi dance, lungi dance…”


At The Antonymwe believe that writing is an important tool for women to voice their experiences of identity, sexuality, marriage, love, family, and life. Our magazine is taking a measured look at the Bengali women who have contributed to contemporary Bengali literature. They are all borne out of different life experiences and have created a distinct storytelling style that not only differentiates them from men writers but also from women. Their distinct approaches have made us believe that we could bring a new focus on Bengali women writers and explore and expand our scope in the form of translating their contributions to Bengali literature. To read about the different Bengali women writers that we have translated, please visit the following page of The Antonym magazine:

Feminine Pen: Translating Bengali Women Writers

Tilottoma Mojumdar is a Bengali novelist, short story writer, poet, lyricist, and essayist. She writes in the Bengali language. She was born in North Bengal, where she spent her childhood in tea plantations. She was educated at the Scottish Church College at the University of Calcutta. Her published books include Vasudhārā, Ektara: Strains of a Lonesome String, Rri among others.

Chaiti Mitra is 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.

2 Comments

  1. Pravat maiti

    The story is amazing and the translation is beautiful as well

    Reply
  2. Arpita Chakrawarti

    Engaging read. Harsh reality presented gracefully. Author and translator have both left a lasting impression.

    Reply

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