We lived in a single room in Hari-babu’s bamboo-and-tile house. Several families lived in the same building. One room was occupied by a bangle-seller and his wife. His name was Keshab. I addressed him as Keshab-kaka.
As soon as water flowed in the pipes every morning, everyone would line up with their pitchers and bowls and cans and buckets near the tap, and quarrels broke out between the tenants.
My father would tell my mother, “We can’t possibly live here. These people behave like barbarians. We must move soon.”
I cannot say why we never moved. I think it must have been because we were poor, because my father had no money.
Across the road from our house was a rice warehouse, and next to it was a godown for gur, opposite which stood a municipality tap. A screaming and jostling crowd would collect water from this tap every day. I had even seen women fighting with one another.
Thus we spent a year in that house, from one June to another.
It was in June that we had left our village home. Back in the village, Kali and I had built a hut at the edge of the bamboo grove, next to a thorn apple bush. Kali, who was stronger than me, had carried several bundles of berry leaves and branches. What a perfect hut we had made, the two of us, just like a real house. That’s what Kali would say. He had fixed an abandoned bird’s nest to the thick branch of a tree. He had said that nocturnal woodpeckers or lapwings would lay eggs in that nest in the middle of August or on the moonlit nights of September.
It hadn’t been possible for me to check on all this, for we had moved from the village in June to this house of bamboo and tiles.
I kept recalling the hut on the edge of the bamboo grove in the village, which Kali and I had built with so much care, and of the bird’s nest fixed to the branch of the tree—had the woodpecker laid eggs in it on a moonlit September night?
This house in Calcutta was far too constricted, far too congested. I sat in the tin-roofed veranda in front all morning, watching the neighbors line up for water, the gur being unloaded from a bullock-cart to the warehouse, a young wife gazing at the road, just like me, from the window of the two-story house on the corner. Sometimes I bought chhatu at the Bihari man’s shop on the main road at the head of our lane. The main road was full of vehicles. I had never seen a single horse-drawn carriage in our village. I could never have enough of seeing them go by, but my mother wouldn’t allow me on the main road for fear that I would be run over.
A row of houses of bamboo and tiles, just like ours, stood a little further away, at the other end of the lane. I visited these houses sometimes. They were kept neat and clean and were well-appointed, with mirrors, dolls, glass showcases, and pictures on the walls. Each of the rooms was occupied by a woman. I visited all of them—usually in the early evening, sometimes in the morning too.
One of the women in those houses was named Kusum. She loved me very much, and I loved her too. I spent much of my time in Kusum’s room. She chatted with me and asked about our village. She belonged to a place called Bardhaman. But now she lived in this room.
Kusum said, “I love you so much. You’ll come every day, won’t you?”
“I love you too. I do come every day.”
“Where is your village?”
“Ashshingri, in Jessore.”
“First time in Calcutta?”
Kusum would dress up elaborately every evening, putting a teep on her forehead and some sort of flourlike powder on her face. She would do up her hair too—how well it suited her! But she wouldn’t let me stay in her room at this time. She would say, “Go home now, my babu will come.”
The first time I heard this I asked, “Who’s babu?”
“No one you know. You won’t understand. Go home now.”
I would be upset. I would say, “Let the babu come, I’ll stay. What can the babu to do to me?”
“No, go away. You mustn’t stay. Be a darling.”
“Who is this babu? Is he your brother?”
“You won’t understand. Go home now.”
I was very curious to see who Kusum’s babu was. Why did she tell me to go home?
I did see him one day. A portly man with long hair—he was holding a packet of food of some kind. At the shops they gave you food in packets like these, made with dried leaves. We didn’t have leaves like these in our village—if you bought murki or jilipi at Hari’s shop, he wrapped them in lotus leaves.
Unwrapping the packet, Kusum handed me a large kochuri, saying, “Here you are, eat this on your way home.”
I bit into it, it was delicious. I had never eaten a kochuri like this in the village. The kochuris that Hari made were fried in oil and nowhere near as delectable.
Delighted, I said, “Lovely! And what’s this flavor?”
Kusum told me, “It’s heeng. This is a heeng-kochuri. Go home now.”
Kusum’s babu said, “Who is it?”
“The son of the tenants opposite the tap. Brahmins.”
Turning to me, Kusum’s babu said, “Go home, khoka, go home now.”
I thought of asking, “Why can’t I stay, what’s wrong with my staying?” But when I looked at Kusum’s babu, I didn’t dare. He seemed a bad-tempered sort who might hit me. But since then, I waited as a rule till Kusum’s babu arrived, greedy for my heeng-kochuri. But would Kusum hand me two kochuris before anything else every every time?
Kusum’s babu would say, “Oh, I forgot. I’d meant to get a couple of khasta goja for him. I’ll bring them tomorrow, I promise.”
I wasn’t afraid any more. I said, “Don’t forget, all right?”
Chortling, Kusum’s babu said, “I won’t, I won’t.”
Kusum said, “Go home now, khoka.”
“I won’t go now. Why can’t I stay?”
Kusum’s babu said something in response, I couldn’t quite understand what. Kusum told him angrily, “What a thing to say to a child!”
When I went home I asked my mother, “Have you ever eaten a heeng-kochuri, Ma?”
“I have. So large, and it smells of heeng.”
“Where did you get it?”
“Kusum’s babu brought some, he gave me one.”
“Naughty boy, haven’t I told you not to go there? You mustn’t.”
“Because. You shouldn’t be going there. They aren’t good people.”
“No, Ma, Kusum is very nice. She loves me so much. Gives me heeng-kochuri every day.”
“Don’t you show me your heeng-kochuri! Don’t you get enough to eat at home? I’m warning you not to go there.”
I didn’t go to Kusum’s room at all for the next two or three days. But I couldn’t stay away either. I went back, without telling my mother. Kusum asked, “Why didn’t you come?”
“My mother has warned me not to.”
“Then you’d better not come. She’ll scold you.”
“That’s why I didn’t for two days.”
“But now you’re here again.”
“Because I love you.”
“Oh, my darling. I hate it too when you don’t come. I miss you so much.”
“So do I.”
“It’s all my fate. I’m worried about your mother scolding you.”
“I shan’t tell her. I miss you if I don’t come. I’d better go now.”
“Come in the evening.”
* * *
Fulfilling our pact, I went to Kusum in the evening. When Kusum’s babu arrived, he said, “So here you are, chhokra. Why did you go missing these past couple of days? I’d brought khasta goja for you, but obviously fate didn’t mean for you to have any. Give him a couple of kochuris, will you?”
“Bring the goja tomorrow.”
“I shall, master Brahmin, glutton Brahmin. I’ll bring some amriti and jilipi as well tomorrow. Ever tried an amriti?”
“I’ll bring some tomorrow, you must come.”
“But don’t tell anyone. If my mother finds out she won’t let me come.”
“Does your mother scold you for coming?”
Kusum intervened quickly, “Never mind what he says. He’s a little boy, don’t take him seriously. Go home now, khoka. Here’s your kochuri. Eat it on your way home.”
“No, I’ll finish it here and have a glass of water, or else my mother will find out.”
“I shan’t give you water here. Drink at the tap by the road.”
“Kusum’s babu said, Why won’t you give him a glass of water here? What harm will it do?”
Kusum told him harshly, “Be quiet. I cannot serve a glass of water to a Brahmin’s son. That’s my punishment in this lifetime. It’s bad enough that I give him food with my own hands.”
I was very upset with Kusum. Was I not good enough for her to give me a glass of water? As I was leaving, Kusum said again and again, “Come tomorrow morning, all right?”
I didn’t reply.
The next morning I found Kusum slicing vegetables. She said, “Come, khoka.”
“I’m not talking to you.”
“What! Why? What have I done?”
“You said you couldn’t give me a glass of water. You didn’t, yesterday.”
“Is that all? Sit down, khoka. You won’t understand. You belong to a Brahmin family—we can’t serve you water. Understood? I’m making achaar, want some? It’s not done yet. I’ve only just added the gur to the kul . . .”
And so Kusum and I were friends again. I forgot all my anger and hurt as soon as I was handed the kul-achaar. We sat and chatted for a long time. Then I went into Makhan’s room, next to Kusum’s. Hundreds of dolls adorned her room. On a wooden shelf lay apples and mangoes and litchis and many other amazing things all made of clay. A perfect apple! A perfect mango!
Makhan said, “Come, khoka. Don’t touch all those clay toys, sit down here. They’ll break.”
“Why do you smoke?”
Makhan said with a smile, “Listen to the boy! People smoke, don’t they?”
“Do women smoke? My mother doesn’t. My father does.”
“Listen to him. Those who smoke, do.”
“Kusum’s babu will give me khasta goja.”
“Really? How nice.”
“Where’s your babu?”
Makhan giggled, covering her mouth with the end of her sari.
“Hee hee, just listen to the boy, the things he says! Hee hee . . . Kusmi, come listen to what your boy’s saying . . .”
Makhan seemed older than Kusum. Kusum was the most beautiful of them all. She addressed Makhan as didi.
Kusum came in and led me away to her room. She had told me not to go into anyone else’s room. In truth I only went in the hope of getting something nice to eat. But I had no idea when the other women’s babus could come. So disappointment awaited me in this respect. Taking me into her room, Kusum scolded me. She said, “What do you have to talk about with them? You’re a little boy, you’re not allowed into the other room, stay here.”
“I want to go to Prabha . . .”
“Why? What for? Who knows what you’ll say there. Silly boy. So greedy for food. Didn’t I just give you kulchur?”
I said in a tone of pretended astonishment, “I didn’t ask for anything. Ask Prabha.”
“All right, no need to go to Prabha.”
“Can’t I go just once? I’ll be back in a moment.”
To tell the truth, the real attraction in Prabha’s room was not so much food as it was a parrot.
The parrot would say, “Ram ram, who is it? Go away, kakima, kakima.”
Whenever I entered it would say, “Who’s there? Who’s there?”
“My name is Basudeb.”
“Who’s there? Who’s there?”
I laughed. It was such fun listening to the parrot prattle. He sounded exactly like a human. “Who’s there? Who’s there?”
Outside the room, Prabha asked, “Who’s that in my room?”
She was cooking. She came running with a ladle dripping dal. I asked with a smile, “Are you going to beat me up?”
“Oh, it’s the mad little Brahmin. I was wondering who it could be at this hour of the afternoon.”
“Don’t you have any kulchur? Kusum gave me some. Delicious.”
“Kusum has a rich babu. I don’t, do I? How do you expect me to make aamchur and kulchur?”
“Kusum’s babu will give me a goja to eat.”
“And why not? He’s dedicated that huge shop of his at the crossroads to Kusum. Never mind them. As they say, you’re so vain, I could die . . .”
I told her apprehensively, “Don’t be angry with me, Prabha.”
“No, why should I be angry? Just sad, that’s all. I’m a one-man whore too. We didn’t just sail in here, you know. I left home at fifteen when my luck ran out.”
“Why did you leave home?”
“Why tell you all those sad tales? What will you make of them? Wait, my dal’s burning. Words won’t fill my stomach.”
“Should I go?”
“Come into the kitchen.”
Prabha was dark, quite plump, with a mole like a black hornet on her nose. She gave me hot jilipi and muri to eat one day. She didn’t have too many things in her room besides the pet parrot in the cage.
Prabha was cooking a broth with the chalta fruit. The chalta slices were being moistened in a marble cup. I hadn’t tasted chalta in ages, not since we’d left our village. The trees lining the pond in the field would be bursting with ripe chalta at this time of the year.
I asked, “Where did you get chalta, Prabha?”
“At the market. Where do you suppose?”
“They look delicious.”
Prabaha didn’t reply. She went on cooking.
I said, “Where are your parents?”
“This sinful mouth cannot answer.”
“Won’t you go home?”
“Your home in the village?”
“I’ll go home to hell.”
“Do you get kul in your village? We have so many kul trees.”
Prabha did not respond. She carried on cooking. A little later she covered the clay oven she used for cooking with an upturned bowl, made tea for herself, and sipped it from a glass around which she had wrapped the end of her sari. She didn’t ask me whether I’d like some. Not that I drank tea—I was only allowed the cream off the top.
Prabha began to tell me about the cows in her village home, how much milk they gave, and how the pond next to their house was full of fish. She would never see all this again.
Then Prabha did something extraordinary. She asked, “Want to have a little rice and chalta?”
I said apprehensively, “I do. But Kusum mustn’t find out.”
Prabha asked, laughing, “Why are you so afraid of Kusum? What if she finds out? Eat now.”
I had barely mixed the chalta broth into the rice when I heard Kusum’s voice, “Is the little Brahmin with you, Prabha-di? I’d better send him home, he’s been here a long time, he doesn’t live here.”
I ran to a corner of the kitchen to hide, my hand still smeared with rice. Kusum entered before Prabha could respond and saw me. She said, “What’s this? Why are you in a corner? Are you hiding? Who’s this rice for?”
Turning to Prabha in surprise, she said, “He’s a child, Prabha-di, he doesn’t have his wits about him. But have you lost yours too? How could you serve him food?”
Prabha said, subdued, “He kept talking about the chalta, so I thought, a little rice with the . . .”
“No, shame! Come with me, khoka. We already have a lifetime of punishment to deal with, I’m not going to increase my burden of sin by feeding a Brahmin boy. Come . . . do you have food on your fingers? Have you been eating already?”
I answered shyly, “No.”
“Come with me, let me rinse your hands . . .”
As Kusum was about to lead me out, Prabha said, “Poor thing, you didn’t even let him eat. He’d barely begun . . .”
“No, no need to eat. Come.”
Kusum proved stricter with me than even my mother. I had to abandon my meal and come away. Taking me to a corner of the yard and pouring water on my hands, she said, “Why are you such a glutton, khoka? Don’t you remember you’re not allowed to eat there? Shame on you! I’ll give you kochuri in the evening. Don’t ever go in there to eat. You at least are a child, but she’s not, how could she serve a Brahmin’s son . . . really, the things people do . . .”
Naturally Prabha couldn’t hear any of this. She wasn’t even nearby.
I said, “Don’t tell my mother, all right?”
“Can you imagine me telling your mother? I have better things to do.”
“She’ll beat me up if you tell her.”
“You deserve it. That might stop you from being so greedy.”
When I returned home my mother asked, “Where were you?”
“There on the road.”
“You didn’t go anywhere else, did you?”
But one day I was caught. It was Kusum’s fault. She told me, “Come khoka, let’s go for a walk. Will you come with me?”
It was late afternoon. Not very sunny. When I saw we were crossing the tram lines I said fearfully, “My mother doesn’t allow me to cross the main road. She’s told me not to.”
“I’m with you, don’t worry.”
Crossing the main road, we went a little further on and entered a slum. The houses stood on either side of a narrow lane. The building we entered was also full of women, there wasn’t a single man among them. One of the women said, “Come Kusmi, it’s been so long. God, it’s not like we don’t have man-friends but does that mean you must forget us?”
With a glance at me she said, “Who’s this boy? He’s very sweet.”
“He’s from a Brahmin family. Lives in our lane. Follows me around.”
“How nice. Sit down, khoka.”
“The boy’s a glutton. Give him food and he’ll be happy.”
“Ah but what do I offer you? I have kul-achaar, want some?”
Without a thought I blurted out, “I love kul-achaar.”
Kusum snarled at me, “Is there anything you don’t love? So long as it’s food. No, he has a cold, he mustn’t have achaar. Never mind.”
I was heartbroken. Kusum didn’t let me have the kulchur. Where was this cold of mine? I love kulchur so much.
After spending some time in this house, we went to another one. They too asked several questions about me. I was given homemade haalua in a bowl. Kusum didn’t let me eat this either. Apparently I was suffering from indigestion.
Kusum escorted me back across the tramlines shortly before evening fell. A tram was approaching. I said, “Wait, Kusum, I want to see the tram.”
“It’s getting dark. Your mother will scold you.”
“Oh, the boy’s so bold.”
“Why did you say that, Kusum? Why didn’t you let me have the kulchur?” They wanted me to.
“You’re a child, what do you know? People have dangerous diseases in those neighborhoods. You think I’ll let anyone serve you food? You think you can eat anywhere you want to? You have no idea. Do you know what disease some of them might have?”
“What does ‘man-friend’ mean, Kusum?”
“Nothing. Where did you hear it?”
“Weren’t they telling you?”
“Let them. What’s it to do with you? Such a naughty boy.”
Before sending me on my way, Kusum said, “Come, he must have got the kochuri by now. I’ll give you some.”
“Yes. I’m hungry.”
“Is there ever a time when you’re not hungry? If I ever ran into your mother I’d ask her why her son is so greedy.”
“So what if I am? You’ll give me the kochuri, won’t you?”
“Has he brought goja?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will you give me goja tomorrow?”
“How dirty this lane is, my god!”
“Will you give me goja?”
“Yes yes I will. Now just take the kochuri and leave me alone.”
That evening Kusum walked me to the municipality tap and left. I told my mother the truth. I’d been to Kusum’s house, and she’d given me kochuri. My mother scolded me soundly and threatened to tie me up. She did tell my father at night, but he didn’t seem to be listening.
* * *
I got a fever the next morning. I had to stay in bed for four or five days. An ancient doctor examined me and prescribed medicines.
My bed was laid next to the window. One afternoon I discovered Kusum on the road, peering at the house opposite ours. Makhan was with her. She was standing two houses away.
I called out, “Kusum . . .”
Turning round, Kusum saw me. Calling to Makhan, she said, “This house, didi, here . . .”
My mother was at the municipality tap. Kusum and Makhan came up to the window.
Kusum asked, “What’s the matter with you? Why haven’t you come?”
Makhan said, “Kusmi’s dying of anxiety. What’s happened to the boy, she keeps saying. So I said, let’s go find out.”
I said, “I’ve had a fever for five days now.”
Kusum asked, “Where’s your mother?”
“Go away, Kusum. If my mother sees you she won’t let me visit you anymore. I’ll come as soon as I’m better. Go now.”
They left. But Kusum was back on the road the very next day. Very softly she said, “Can I come?”
My mother wasn’t home. I knew she was at Baidyanath’s shop to measure out the dal. She had left a short while ago, telling me before she went, “Make sure the cat doesn’t get chhoto-khoka’s milk; I’m going to get some dal from Baidyanath’s shop.”
Beckoning to her, I said, “Come.”
Standing outside my window, she said, “How are you?”
“Much better. I can have rice tomorrow.”
“I brought a couple of oranges. Want them?”
“Don’t forget to eat them.”
“Come over when you’re better.”
“My father said I can.”
“I’ll come again tomorrow. All right?”
“Come. But don’t come up to the window till I say so.”
“All right. I’ll wait quietly on the road. Do you know how to whistle?”
“No. Come when I wave.”
Kusum came on schedule the next two afternoons. One day she brought Prabha along too because she wanted to see me. I shan’t lie, Prabha gave me a couple of oranges too. I hid them beneath the pillow, and ate them when my mother wasn’t in the room, tossing the pulp out through the window.
I went to Kusum’s house twice after getting better.
Then something happened, which led us to leave our house in Calcutta and go back to the village. One day, while my mother was opening a bottle of soda water, a shard of glass went into her hand. There was blood everywhere, spurting out of her wrist. Everyone came running. Bipin-babu from the corner room put some sort of medicine on her arm and bandaged it. But her arm did not heal, getting worse by the day. She couldn’t cook anymore, and would cry in pain every night. The doctor visited regularly. My maternal uncles were well-off. When they found out through a letter, one of them arrived and took all of us away to their house.
It was the middle of July. The taal had begun to ripen on the trees. There were many of these trees by a huge lake next to a field in the village where my maternal uncles lived. I remember picking up a ripe fruit from the ground the very first day.
My mother’s arm healed here. In the middle of September, we went to our own village. We couldn’t go to Calcutta anymore. My father also wound up the establishment there and came home.
* * *
A long thirty years later.
I lived in a boarding house in Calcutta, working as a clerk. My wife and children lived in the village house. On a holiday, as I was chatting with my college friend Sripati, he said, “Last evening, you know, while walking down Premchand Boral Street, painted faces on both sides—horrible!”
“I’ve seen them too. I have to take the same route. But I see them differently. I know them very well. I used to visit their homes quite often once upon a time.”
My friend exclaimed in surprise, “You!”
“Yes, I! I swear!”
“Rubbish, I don’t believe it.”
“Very well, come with me. I’ll prove it to you.”
About fifteen years ago I had found my way to Nandaram Sen Lane and visited Makhan at home. Neither Kusum nor Prabha was there. Makhan was the only one in the group still to be living in those houses.
I took Sripati to Nandaram Sen Lane. Makhan was still there. Her hair was quite gray, and she looked like a witch, with toothless gums.
When she saw me Makhan said, “Come in. How are you?”
“Do you recognize me?”
“Oh my god, how could I not. You grew up right in front of our eyes. By the way, I’ve tracked Kusum down.”
“Where? Where is she?”
“She works as a maid at a boarding house on Shobhabazar Street. The first building on the left. A dilapidated two-story house next to the temple. They’d taken me to the temple the other day, that’s how I found out.”
With Sripati in tow I found the boarding house. It wasn’t evening yet. I asked the cook in the kitchen downstairs, “Where’s your maid?”
“She’s gone to the market, sir, she’ll be back soon. Why?”
“I have to talk to her. Her name is Kusum, isn’t it?”
A little later a tall thin woman—a typical maid—entered through the front door and appeared in the kitchen. The cook said, “These gentlemen are looking for you, Kusum.”
I stared at the maid in astonishment. Was this what the beautiful Kusum of my childhood had turned into? She may not have been as old as Makhan, but still, Kusum was an old woman now. She couldn’t be described as anything else. I remembered her face, but this aged woman had nothing in common with it. If the cook hadn’t told us, I’d never have known it was the same Kusum.
Kusum looked at us in surprise too, asking, “You’re looking for me? Who sent you?”
“Makhan, the landlady from Nandaram Lane.”
“I see. But why are you looking for me?”
“Come over there. There’s something I have to tell you.”
“Let’s go into the dining room.”
In the dining room I asked, “Don’t your recognize me, Kusum?”
“We used to live on Nandaram Sen Lane. I was eight. My parents were tenants at the barber’s house. Remember?”
Smiling, Kusum said, “I remember. So you’re the mad little Brahmin? How you’ve grown. Are your parents alive?”
“No one’s alive.”
“How many children do you have?”
“Sit down, my dear, sit down.”
After we had chatted for a while, Kusum asked us to wait and disappeared somewhere. A little later she came in with two packets of food and handed them to us.
I hadn’t remembered. But as I was about to eat, I did. Four large pieces of heeng-kochuri. At once I remembered Kusum’s babu and the heeng-kochuri. I was reminded of the boy thirty years ago and his greed for kochuri. Kusum must have remembered. Or not—I didn’t know. As I ate the kochuri, my mind took me across the dusty gap of thirty long years directly to the spot on Nandaram Lane next to the roadside municipality tap, in front of the gur warehouse, where Kusum was still a young woman of twenty-five, and her babu still came regularly with a packet of heeng-kochuri.
Translation © 2017 Arunava Sinha. All rights reserved.