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Somen Chanda

Have you heard of Caudwell and Conford?

Of Ralf Fox?

Do you know of Federico Garcia Lorca?

These martyrs had reddened Spain

The green olive forests are red

Mothers lost children, lose children,

Yet I say, good days approach

Come, let’s go touch their blood

And write, with that blood,

a song for the good days.

 

The original Bangla to the above poem was penned by Somen Chanda (1920-1942). He was a writer and a trade unionist. He joined the Communist Party at a very young age. He was one of the pioneers of the Dhaka Progoti Shawngho, a cultural and literary base of the nascent Communist Party in Dhaka. He was also one of the initiators of the Progressive Writers’ Union (PWA) in the eastern parts of the subcontinent. Most of his writings were read at the weekly and fortnightly meetings of the Progressive Writers’ Association. Other than his work with the cultural front – for which he wrote a few short stories and poems – he was also an active unionist and had done path-breaking unionizing work with the workers of the East Bengal Railways. After the Atlantic Charter was signed, a group called Soviet Shuhrid Shawmiti (Friends of the Soviet) was formed with the avowed purpose of fighting Fascism. He was one of the zealous and most active spirits of the group. The group was to have its first meeting in Dhaka on the 8th of March 1942. Being a part of the then underground Communist Party, this group was an avowedly Stalinist one. Many members of the Anushilan Samiti from the Swadeshi era of early days of the 20th century, had, by then, taken an avowedly anti-Stalinist Trotskyite line. They were unhappy with the activities of the Soviet Shuhrid Shawmiti. This group had also formed a Leftist political faction named Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) which, like its Stalinist counterpart that Somen was a member of, survives till this date. As Somen was rallying with his Comrades from the East Bengal Railways Workers’ Union, members from the rival Trotskite faction pounced on the rally. Somen Chanda was the target of this attack. He was knifed to death. Thus fell to reckless partisan warfare (which, sadly, had been glorified as ‘an inevitable form of class struggle’ by Lenin in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back) a bright human-firefly, at the age of 22. A group named Fasci-birodhi Lekhawk Shilpi Shawngho (Collective of anti-Fascist Writers and Artists) was formed under the initial leadership of Jyoti Basu after Somen’s death.

He had left behind many writings – including a full-length novel named Bonya and sever short stories such as INdur, Shawpno, Shawngket, Riot etc. A collection of his works, edited by Ranesh Dasgupta, was published from Calcutta in 1973. It is not in print anymore. The Bangla Akademi of Calcutta used to give a Somen Chanda award. It has since, possibly, been discontinued with.  Today, he stands forgotten.

 

Rats

There are too many rats in our house now. So many that it has become difficult to survive. Their courage is astounding. They move the way cunning soldiers move in battlefields. They scamper along the edges of the floor and the roof. When some hurdle, such as a box or something heavy, comes on their way, they negotiate through it with ease. But things get really terrible at night. They go on about their nocturnal actions right in front of our hapless, human eyes. Sounds of their activities start ringing in from the tin and wooden boxes of kerosene, the few broken stools and from the handful earthen accessories that lie strewn on the floor. And then it can easily be surmised that a swarm of measly, hunchbacked creatures have commenced with their nightly gathering on the kerosene-drums. Point being, it has become pure hell. I keep on thinking why no weapon is being used to put an end to this relentless persecution for good. Don’t we have some money to buy a mouse-trap? I won’t be surprised if we don’t.

My mother fears rats a lot. I’ve noticed that even a baby mouse is akin to a big scary bear for her. When a mouse scampers by her feet, she springs at least four feet away. Sounds and smells of their existence strike terror and revolt in her.  Many people are like this. I know someone who is frightened by earthworms and then there’s this other person who is mortally scared of spiders. Myself, I fear leeches. In childhood, when I was stubborn and silent like a cow, we would go to my uncles’ place a lot. We would go during the rains. The countryside would be green all around. There was a lake that stretched wide. It seemed to me as big as the sea must have been. There would be marshes and swamps all around and I would be walking through the mud or rowing along the lake. The fresh smell of rainwater would fill my nostrils and lungs to the brim. I would sit inside the wicker awning of the boat, staring, bewildered, at the endless expanse of waters that stretched beyond the hull and spread to the rain-hazed horizons far away. I would tear the lilies that would be blooming everywhere with rampant, happy cruelty. I would dip my hands on the water but then there would be those leeches. I would take my hands out fearing their bite.

The people I would meet there would not be belonging to my socio-political class and thus no one had the nasty habit of bossing around and telling me what to do and to refrain from doing. In any case such thoughts and questions about forbiddance had not cropped up in my mind yet.

 

Those childhood friends – they were cowherds. Each day, they would take the cows out grazing. They would sit in the shades from dawn to dusk, keeping an eye out for any unsavoury bovine-action. Their hairs, a dark tinge of red, were long and flowing like water-grass. Their skins were brown and so were their eyes. Their legs were very thin and were bent from the middle like a pair of bows, they would be wearing a gamchha-towel and would carry a stick made of bamboo; their fingers had become very hard and scaly because they would be holding sticks all day. Their words and gestures were so ribald that very often my repressed lust would raise its head in thumping excitement. Customs of people from my class had stood against me expressing such desires aloud. They would make fun of me. My face would take a bashful flush of red. One of them was Bheem. One day Bheem plucked up a big sticky leech from the water that had gathered on the open fields, dangled it at me and laughed

— ‘Suku! Will I throw this on your body?’

His courage struck me speechless in awe. Fear made shivers run along my spine and body. Having summoned up a certain degree of prudence, I walked away slowly, and said:

 

— ‘look, Bheem, don’t mess around now!’

He kept on laughing like a fool and kept on saying

— ‘here! take it! take it!’

When I think of that day, of Bheem’s bravery, I feel spellbound. Many people have this habit of fearing odd creatures. Some people, for example, are scared of earthworms. I don’t fear earthworms but I get the shivers when I see leeches. I don’t know if there is any contribution of the discreet customs of the bourgeois at the root of these small fears.

I have said this before that my mother feels scared whenever she sees rats. It becomes difficult to keep up to her whims when she sees one. It becomes difficult to keep an eye or both out for the clothes so as to keep them from being eaten by the rats; whenever that happens I have to take care of her. One day a rodent got trapped below the folds of her saree. It was trying its best to flee. I couldn’t see much of its efforts from the other side curtain. Mother jumped up and moved more than five feet away and she screamed out hoarse:

 

–‘Suku! Suku! look! look!’

I have this habit of not replying to the first call. So I pretended that I had replied and stayed silent.

 

— ‘Suku! Suku!’

her screams were getting shriller. I replied at long last:

— ‘What is it?’

 

Mother – her eyes had turned big and round in fright. With thin hands and frail fingers – which daylong grinding of turmeric had turned yellow – she pointed at the outspread hem of her saree and said –

— ‘Look at that!’

I got pissed. Rats have made life a living nightmare. Why the hell do so many of them exist? They sure are my mortal enemy. I tried to lift her saree up and suddenly she shrieked out –

— ‘No! Don’t!’

— ‘But mom, won’t it eat you?’

— ‘Aha, you have to show your courage, don’t you?’

— ‘Come on Mom, you are so cowardly’

The rat was going about its restless struggle for freedom. I told her:

— ‘Mom, can’t you ask Dad to buy a rat-trap? One day they might start eating us.’

— ‘Aha, why kill? Poor, stupid lives. They can’t even speak. Besides, how will he get money to buy one?’ Her voice didn’t waver or anything. I have never heard her voice waver with any sort of emotion. She walked away just like that.

It hadn’t occurred to me before that it would take money to buy a rat-trap. Or else I wouldn’t have asked. Words like these make a picture take shape inside the mind. The picture reflects the state of mind in itself: an endless desert. Real deserts often have water. I don’t even hope for water in this one. The history of this desert is not unknown to me. The sand below my feet, and all the particles of sand lying all around – they whisper these histories out to me. Attentive, I listen.

Ever since understanding me as myself in the mirror I have been thinking random thoughts like these. Chaotic thoughts sell not in the brain-bazaar. I know this. I had abundant suspicion towards the concept of god and yet I had faith in god. I had named god Krishna. I had called out in silence: ‘Oh Krishna, bless me so that I can make every human being on earth rich forever’. I had read Tagore’s poem ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ and craved for such a stone. I had actually asked many people:

— ‘Do people still find Philosopher’s Stone these days? Can you tell me where it’s found?’

 

Poverty was yet to cast its long, looming shadows on the members of our big family when I was a kid. The expansive breaking of the bourgeoisie-kingdom had not begun yet. Worry for the children’s future had not begun clouding up the wide skies of the fathers’ minds yet. Much hope had nested in me. Where are their branches and roots now? They haven’t spread far. They have found their rest in the deep womb of earth. I shall not hesitate to accept this truth. One advantage of the situation has been that I have found my way out of the octopus-clasps of imperious familial ways. I can be in a bit of seclusion.

But you can’t stay alone just because you want to. The rats are bound to make me crazy. I see them everyday – ferreting their way into wooden kerosene boxes and broken tin cans. Sounds of their activities tinkle eardrums ceaseless. Those sounds may be faint but their restless, nagging constancy starts itching into the brain before long. Have you heard a dog whining on and on all night? It’s like that. It happens. When ugly sounds morph into ugly cacophony, it’s pure hell. That’s the case here. The rodents – their very existence – have become a source of my everyday misery.

And again on another day Mom screamed out loud

— ‘Suku! Suku!’

Like I said, I do not possess that resolute urgency that makes people answer back right away.

She wailed out yet again:

— ‘Suku!’

I didn’t wait for the third call. I went up to her. My gaze followed her fingers to the gaping bowl of rarely procured milk and to the huge rat that was darting away from it, leaving a white trail behind. This scene was supposed to surprise me, I guess. But I must say this that I hardly feel surprised or express my excitement. Life has proved this time and again that lurid happenstances and sensational news do not stir my soul up. That’s against my nature.  I saw my mother’s frail, soft face turning pale in profound sadness, her eyes were sad and beautiful – like eyes of cows – they seemed like lotus-leaves and a few drops of water seemed to be gleaning on them; she was about to weep.

In this context, milk is a special food. It has become rare due to financial constraints. Now if it becomes undrinkable due to certain happenstances, this sudden burst of tears is not a particularly remarkable phenomenon. Mother was crying. I stood silent. I had nothing else to do. I saw her as she went on sobbing and whimpering like a baby. The roads of my vision stretched afar, turned deeper. I could see the midnoon sun as it rained fire from the sky. Down below, the dusts of earth were raining more fire. The fields of my heart were burning. They burned on and on, till they were all razed to char.  There was not a single blue valley in sight. There was not a single sign of water anywhere far or near. The waterspouts have cheated. So have the mirages. I thought

–“Where can I get the books of Vivekananda? Words of Sri Ramakrishna are priceless.” (Back then I didn’t know that the Second Imperial War would begin some day.)”

Thoughts contorted my facial expressions. I pulled my knees against my belly and lied down like a dog. I began thinking – I had shut all the doors and windows of the room because I must think well – I began thinking –

— “Is there any way out of this decay?”

Evening fell. Dad returned. He heard the news. It didn’t seem from his expressions that he was shocked or sad. It isn’t in his habit to speak fast. But these words rambled out of him in breakneck velocity –

— “Ah well. I knew that something like this is going to happen. Well, lives of humans have become so tough, what’s the point in drinking milk anymore?’

I could see his face. His face was dry, but looked oily with much sweat. His shirt was also heavy with sweat. The smell of his sweat had spread all across the room. His stoic expressions in the face of such devastation calmed my mind down. I thought:

— “Whatever harm has happened, has happened. Discussing that won’t change the situation. In fact a bigger problem is bound to crop up from such discussions. But now that we could avert that, my mind won’t rot very soon”

This thought soothed me.

But the tone of his voice changed shortly.

— ‘What joke is this? Fun all day, eh? Do have a look at me, will you? Here –  is my body made of rocks? Am I not human enough? I toil all day and you people have fun. Look at the family once, will you? It’s hard to live like this, you know?’

For me, such worlds rang terrible. I could sense the massive anger and intolerance that must have had gathered behind these words.

The heat of his voice rose with every step of time. I got scared.  Things around became all hard and heavy. Strange but ugly nakedness is bound to unveil through this, I knew. My shame will then have no limits then. I have encountered such situations more than once. But my skin hasn’t grown any thicker. Reasons for fear have increased in leaps and bounds instead. This scene of nakedness, right in the middle of the failed world that I have known, is nothing but yet another cause of monstrously sad pain. Father said:

— ‘Don’t you quarrel now! Get the hell out of my sight right away!’

His voice became like a bomb and blasted the silence of the night to bits. I could hear.

‘- Now get lost, will you! Tell me, will? Get out of my sight you evil bitch!’

He went about gushing more and more of hot venom out. I pressed my fingers against my ears. I lied down still like a corpse. Water burst out my eyes. The child of my mind has grown up along its journey through this road of devastation. These words were never a part of the lessons that the child had learnt since it was born. It was as if these moments of disaster of this night have turned into staunch guards. The guards are knocking at my door. I haven’t seen or heard things like these before. I ask myself

– ‘Where did this learning come from?’

Now I know. This learning was borne by stark silence. It has sneaked the juices of life in from the good earth below and the breaths of life in from the good sky above – all from within the folds of this very silence. There were no sounds. I could never know. Sweet scents from flowers spread their wings in silence. Likewise, the wings in the eyes of this child, those two batting lashes – they haven’t left any stones unturned while preparing to partake in this strange ceremony. They have made all their arrangements in sheer silence. I have learnt this that the history of the child of my mind can be compared to flowers. But where is that learning these days? Now it’s all just another name for my joblessness. Both the hands of my raw young body had been slashed off. My eyes were filled with mist and vapour, agog. I was blind for a while.

— ‘What will I do? Do I have anything to do?’

 

–‘get out, saali ranDi!’

These strange words floated in once again. I don’t want to hear all these. But I have to. They will make friends with air and float in, will force their way inside my ears, inside my head. They will take advantage of my frailty. They will kick against the soil of my mind in brute force.

–‘Get out I say!’

Tremors increased by a few more notches.

Things were ghastly silent for a while.

And then, after some time, mother called. Her voice was clouded in a strange sort of steam.

— ‘Suku. Suku.’

 

I was ashamed to answer back right then. I was scared. Yet I said, softly:

— ‘Yes?’

I opened the doors. I was really afraid. I thought that I will have to stand before many trials and many tribulations – bearing grave, demonic words – those that I was too frightened to hear. And yet, I will have to stand somber, I will have to be the stoic judge. I will have to immerse all excitement in the Shunya – the sheer emptiness that stretched wide, beyond everything that the child of my mind had ever learned and unlearned of. And I will have to listen to these fears and damnations as they speak their sides out. And I will have to spell the judgment out – saying things that I was too scared to say, hovering over situations that my child was too weak to withstand.

Things didn’t happen the way I thought they would. Mother entered my room. She spread the fringes of her saree out on the floor and lied down. Her frail, clean body curled and coiled like a sickle. She looked helpless. I had known of her to be as big as my childhood-sky. Now I see her weak and helpless. I had thought of her as the biggest, the strongest. Now I see her – she’s a baby now.  And I am big. Blood gushes restless through my arteries and veins. My flesh and muscles are strong and hard. My steps are loyal. I felt bright and glorious. I had drunk blood from the tiny body that curls, sad, on the floor – scared, like a doe, to accept life. And yet, I am so strong now!

Do people know me? Things could have been different. The scene could have been from the corridor some famous historical university in the city of London. A twenty year old bright lad would have been pacing up and down, lost in thoughts. Or he could have been good at the sports and thus popular among the girls. Or maybe a thirty year old dame, all demure and blue-eyed, would be approaching him softly with love. One day she would sit in the shadow of his body and ask for his love…. And the mother of that bright golden lad is lying on this cold floor, on a rug spread out of the same piece of cloth that wraps her body. Pride, devoid of any meaning, rhyme or reason, swelled my broad chest up. I looked at my mother.

 

  • ‘Mother?’

I called. No reply.

Her soft, hoarse voice wouldn’t break through the heavy silence. There would be more silence in her voice. That would always be good news for my younger brothers and sisters. They would roam around, naked. My sister who has no school would sit with a big fat novel, blooming countless flowers of love within her mind.

Deep at night, thick smoke filled every inch of the house. Water came out of everyone’s noses, mouths and eyes. I saw my brothers and sisters sleeping on the bare floor. I went up to the kitchen and asked:

‘Mother, aren’t you done with cooking?’

Again, no reply.

‘Why are you so late?’

Mother stayed silent.

I could understand. That same old story. This can’t be avoided no matter how much you try. Each time you think you have solved it for good, it comes back to haunt your vision. Each time you try to swerve by, it grasps you by your hand. Each time you run, it chases you down. It calls you by your name.

One lifetime is not enough to script out the history of this calling. Thousands of pictures, all huddled up, will arrive. Dainty readers will all get pissed and go away.

My father, he can paint our pictures of severe poverty with moorings of philosophy. He turns his head to one side, and laughs, and keeps on laughing, as he goes on about it. Then there’s Mr. Rakshit from the block. His wife is thin just the way my mother is. He has a bunch of kids too. They’re all starving day in and day out. It doesn’t bother him much though. He walks around the block and boasts of all the great grand and glorious things that he has done, is doing and will do. And then there’s Madan who works in the printing-press. For him, the Day of Zero is also the day to starve. Lunar calculations tell him so. He sits in the lotus-asana, closes his eyes and keeps on thumping his chest with his long muscular arms. He calls god inside his body. What other way is there in any case?

The road to heaven gets blocked. I stand in the middle. Life holds us in clasp, but we neglect it in too many ways. When nature knocks on our doors, we either badmouth the doctors or else we just raise our hands, turn ascetic and start worshipping god and the gods. I have witnessed all these. I had come to the conclusion that if anyone can stay neck-deep in the ocean of sadness – it must be middleclass. There are some people whose tongues begin watering when they speak of the middleclass. This conclusion made me one with these people. I had written a letter to a friend in words that I had shrouded with mystery: ‘Do you know who they are? They are the best children of earth. They are the flowers that are born to blush unseen, and wilt away unloved. They shrivel up and fall on the earth. They make the garden, but they cannot behold the beauty of the flowers. Hunger pricks countless needles inside stomachs, but there’s not even a bowl to beg for alms with. The irony! The irony!…’

Unaware of historical definitions, I had built monuments of imagination up in my mind. I was satisfied to the hilt. Widows starve. They move along the journey of life – along the path of womanhood established by bodied beings. I felt sympathy for them. I began to worship them with more reverence in my mind.

But all of that were momentary. Like autumn-clouds they arrived and faded away. They had hustled a bit of space for themselves up inside the mind; they couldn’t stay there for long. Today I think – they have given me freedom. Or else I would have known of nothing but a narrow, incomplete world. Those thoughts would have pleased my mind, but I would have been swimming upstream, afflicted by poisons of terrible reactions.

 

On one such day I fell in mind-numbing love with a lazy afternoon. Words will never suffice to tell of the way I felt that afternoon. I could see the sky. The blue of the sky was so deep that it washed my eyes with calm water. I walked along the kingdom of thoughts and reached the boundary of judgment and solution. I placed my firm resolution at that place. My eyes were watered by the blue of the sky. I could see rows and rows of tall strong mansions standing by the wide road. Tough, healthy people were staying there. Sounds of their sturdy footsteps arrived from the rooms and from the stairwells. The shoes were of different types. Concerted screams of women and men knocked on strong doors that stood by the roads of the world. Strong humans gave birth. I could see forests of wires carrying electricity and telegraphs. I could see tractors moving across endless fields. They would tame the wild earth.  They would beat and grind the hard soil to make crops of gold sing in joy. Strange beautiful music came out of machines that roared and growled and out of humans who laughed out loud and happy. The winds had once broken into peels of wild laughter – in ridicule, derision and mockery towards humans of the soil. The hands of those same winds clap along all the leaves of all the trees of the world today. Can anyone hear that? I salute those who can.

That’s why, the lazy afternoon felt sweeter. A naked boy was crouching in the middle of the street, drawing stuff on asphalt with a broken piece of brick, and with severe attention. They were cooking rotten fish in one of the houses of the block. The smell had filled the air. I liked it. Someone thirsty for music was singing in a voice shorn of tune and rhythm – and was playing a harmonium too! Hot, untimely sunlight blazed loud; burly breezes kept on blowing. A wife from a house in the block was done with her bathing at the tube-well and was returning home. Her breasts were perky and were amply visible to the world. She bent her body as she went inside her house. Two labourers, having gulped their meager lunch down in much haste, were running towards their work-site. Their clothes were all grimed out by coal and soot. This sight felt sweet – but not because it’s an eternal masterpiece painted by some bourgeoisie painter. This one felt different. It gave pain and comfort at the same time. On that day, I could take a stroll along the roads of the kingdom of scientific intellect. That’s why I liked it.

Splendid! Spiffy!

Deep at night, the rats woke up and started jumping along the boxes of tin and wood and scurrying across the floor, tails flicking in mockery aimed at our haplessness. Cooking being done with, mom started calling out for us –

— ‘MonTu, Chhobi, NaRu, wake up, wake up dears’

MonTu awoke and began screaming full volume. Chhobi who was lying on her belly and reading a novel thus far, closed the book and her eyes as she turned over to her back.

— ‘Come on Chhobi, come to eat’

She was being called again and again but she wasn’t in any mood to reply. Mother said in her hoarse voice, one that has by then been broken by sadness and poverty –

— ‘How is it my fault? Why are you angry on me? We are poor…’

Her voice began to choke and falter. I got angry

– ‘Aha, if she doesn’t want to eat, let her not; why don’t you give the others?’

The history of that midnight was stranger.

I woke up hearing a low voice. I could hear father calling for mother in a very hushed tone

– ‘Kanak, O Kanak, do you sleep?’

Father was calling my mother by name! That felt amazing. In my mind, I blessed him with my age. I sent to him all the love that I could love and all the desires that I could desire. One day, young happy men of earth will call out to their wives like this, will call out sweet deep and loud, the music of their voice will echo in every room like this.

‘Kanak? O Kanak?’

Middle-aged Kanaklata did not make any reply for a long time. Instead, I could hear her squealing in breathy ecstasy. I could hear her moaning her oohs and aahs in bashful, hushed delight. I held my breath and set out on my downward spiral. I thumped my head deep down the soft folds of the pillow and began craving for myself to be lost in the bilging swells of yearning. Shame made my face and ears blush hot. Floods of sweat ran through body.

Midnight moon had risen in the sky. Someone had wrapped the earth’s body up with a white satin chuddar and had brought breeze along like streams of cold water flowing in peak summer. The thin, hungry mongrels that lived in the streets outside were filled with sleep for a while. Thus, there was soothing silence all around. There was much peace. A troop of monkeys had gathered on our neighbour’s rooftop. I could hear them as they growled and whimpered in faint voices. When will the guard of midnight lull me to sleep?

Middle-aged Kanaklata – she broke her silence at long last. Her aura brightened. She pulled a soft veil over her head and she covered her scant body with her cloth – all flowing and plentiful. Then she started moving forward in faint steps – like an illiterate, newly-wed bride.  Music rang out of every movement of her body. The music made a mirror. In that mirror, everything seemed bright and clear. I saw how stepping sounds from a pair of frightened and yet lucid feet can fade into the breezes – all slow and soft.

Deeper into the night father began humming a tune. His voice was soft and sonorous. It sounded like a violin. The music played out into the darkness. Bits of moonlight that had trickled in began dancing to the tune. Those white bits got whiter. The music drew lines all around – curves and shapes of all sorts. They danced all along a huge, kingly mansion. The breezes of the last dark hours became slow and soft in comely love. The first crow began cawing like it does every morning when the skies are still dark. I have heard father sing before. But never before had his voice sounded so dulcet and so deep. His song was mellow, but it was very deep and grave with all the profoundness that music can conjure. It seemed like it is coming from the foundation of the earth. The entire of this nocturnal world seemed to have bowed before me because of my father’s music. I saw it bow thus. I fell asleep.

Merry bursts of laughter woke me up. The sun was shining in the wealth of laughter and happiness so vivid that every brick of the house seemed to sway. Father was calling out:

— ‘Pundit-moshai! Hey Pundit-moshai! Wake up! Can you be big and rich unless you wake up early? Come on, wake up!’

I opened my eyes with much effort. The day had barely dawned. I hardly laugh at father’s words of affection. I feel something holding me back. I have grown older. I am all of one score years old now.

He was unhooking the strings of the mosquito-net. He said:

  • ‘You see, all these great men on earth, all of them were early risers. My father, as in, your grandfather, he, too, had the habit of waking up early. Each morning, no matter how early we rose, we would hear him puffing on to his hookah in the portico. He was that much industrious. That’s why he could get so much land and money in one lifetime. He had left much wealth. I couldn’t keep them. But you, Pundit-moshai, you must wake up now! Those who rise late can never make much progress in life.’

I can’t bear with so much of busybodiness. He had risen early for the first time in life and is now all out on a mission to preach the benefits of rising early.

Music of happiness plays all over the house.

ManTu is running all over the place, seeking money for a haircut in the saloon. If he doesn’t get it in an hour or so, he’ll start wailing and wriggling on the floor. NaRu is trying to entertain everyone by babbling on and on and on. Chhobi, in her novel, is gaping at her hero as he makes his voyage into the heroine’s bed-chamber. She is now secretly very excited.

Father became very busy. He began strolling across all the rooms.

After some time he came to me and said:

— ‘Your theatrics are good, but they won’t be very useful. Such goody two-shoes-ness doesn’t work these days. This is an era of the rod. Like Hitler’s rod! Do you get me, Pundit-moshai?

I resisted myself from giving in to the urge of breaking into peals of laughter. There is a particular way in which father says whatever he says – a specific tone and tenor of voice, a few trademarked body-gestures – it feels really funny! He has got this idea from somewhere that we are all a bunch of do-gooders, that we are all out there to chase wild geese, that we stay thirsty and try to disburse cold water among people – that we have been kicked out of paradise and yet, drunk in dreams, we keep on searching for the path to that place.

He went on saying

— ‘Your Russia, it has given birth only to Saints. Such Saintliness can only lead to getting beaten to pulp and dying. Look at Lenin, at Tolstoy – such big Saints. But will they be able to put up before sticks and rods? Surely not!’

I wanted to say –

‘Bravo! What a unique take! Such novelty of speech!’

I can stress on this that only my father can speak like this, can have such takes on the affairs of the world. I have never seen or heard of anyone anywhere who can make him budge an inch from his stand once he has laid his prescription down. He face brightened in a Hitleresque sort of pride.

Thankfully, he isn’t a wee bit serious about all these. He hardly repeats what he had said once. Or else he would have turned my life into a living nightmare. He would surely have asserted his paternal right over my life day in day out.

I can see my mother too. She seems immersed in her housework with deep attention. It seems like she hardly has the time to pause and look around. Her hair has loomed down on her shoulders like a few dry strands of hay. She is pulling her veil up against these strands again and again. She wears a sullen sari – all chewed up by poverty and rats; her fair white legs, subjected ceaseless water-torture of daily homemaking, have become thin, crinkled and all scaly. Naru is moving around behind her.

Father gave up on international politics and focused on homely issues. He called Naru and asked –

— ‘Naru, my father, will you tell me what you want?’

Naru, who was getting rid of his milk teeth, smiled his toothless smile and said, without having to ponder over for much long –

— ‘A motorbike. The sort the sergeants use to roam around. What amazing sounds they make, don’t they?’

MonTu is a bit older. Thus, he is a bit wiser. He turned his head backwards and made a cannon-face and said

— ‘Baba, look!’

His pants had torn to pieces from behind. Father broke into peals of laughter and said

— ‘Good for you, Mister MonTu! Look how hot the weather is! Now you have windows! At least your pants have! Breezes will blow in full blast now!’

MonTu forgot his sadness for his pants and started laughing like a clever boy. NaRu brandished his half-fallen teeth and tiny pink gums and joined in the laughter. Even father joined in – loud and wild. Our tiny nest was thus filled with incredible laughter to the brim and sounds of happiness roared and rumbled on and on.

I didn’t laugh. But I was savouring the moments in silence. I thought, had these pristine moments of untrammeled joy lasted for long, maybe forever, then it would surely have been amazing, for happiness would then have been endless and unbound; humans would have been humans in the truest sense.

Father’s next adventure was into the kitchen. He pulled out a seat and sat leaning against the wall. Then he smiled and asked:

— ‘So, what will you cook today?’

Mother turned her head towards him as her lips stretched out in sunshine smile and her face filled with profuse happiness

— ‘Whatever you want me to!’

Father was so happy that he became like a kid.

— ‘Really? Whatever I want? Okay then! I want meat, pulao, curd and sweets. And I want chutney, I want vegetables, I want the head of the rohu fish. Will you cook all these? I want to eat all these! I want you to cook all of these! Will you? Will you?’

— ‘Uh oh! Shshhhh! Speak no more, speak no more!’ – mother replied as it was her turn to break into sharp bursts of laughter, swaying her head and hands on all possible sides

NaRu got all curious and ran to the kitchen. He saw the scene of mirth and smiled as he asked

— ‘O Mom! What has happened to you? Why are you laughing like that? Did dad tickle you?’

— ‘Now don’t you meddle with affairs of elders. Go, play’

Mother pointed her finger and gestured him out of the kitchen

Meanwhile, dad checked his flow of laughter a bit and asked –

— ‘You remember the day I went to see you for the first time?’

Mom didn’t think or try to recall at all and said

— ‘No no, I don’t remember all that’

— ‘Aha, you were herding cows by the lake, remember?’

Mom pushed her eyebrows wide up her forehead as she spoke

— ‘Oma, I am from a good family! Why will I go herding cows in the field? Do daughters from decent families do all that?’

— ‘Oh come on, it’s not a crime to herd cows. Come hug me. You remember it all. You’re just messing with my head’

— ‘Yes yes, you are right. I remember it all. Everything’

Dad smiled softly and went on

— ‘I could see from the boat – this beautiful girl standing by the lake. The night was very dark. And there was this girl, standing – a lonely flame of a lamp against all the darkness. And when I got down the boat, I could see that she wasn’t budging an inch from her place, she wasn’t flying homebound like a bird; she was staring straight at us, she was neither coy nor demure towards us strangers. I went close to her. She looked like a goddess. She looked beautiful in the open fields, by the wide waters. I knew she would look more beautiful in the rain, when the rain gets deeper. Then I saw this girl again. I was sitting on a broken chair. She was fanning me with a broken fan. I could see her. She was the same girl. But she was silent and she was all shy and blushing as she stood and stared, like a bashful vine of touch-me-not.’

Father began laughing. It seemed like the laughter, free and unbound, was gusting out of his open life, mind and heart. This went on for a while and then he added

— ‘You didn’t say what you want?’

— ‘Get me a saree which I can wear while cooking?’

— ‘A red one?’

— ‘Yes!’

I don’t know what he got for whom after that. However, I could clearly see that he had got a pair of slippers for himself worth all of six annas. He sure did boast a lot about the low price. However, he was also worried about the prospect of dogs chewing them all up. The leather was raw.

I don’t know about dogs, but one of the pairs did vanish within a few days. No one knew what had happened to it. Strange!

Next afternoon, I was walking along the railway yard when I heard someone calling out for me. I looked around and saw driver Shawshodhawr calling and waving his hands. He was the first Comrade I made friends with when I began working for the Union here. Comrade Bishwanath was around on that day when Shawshodhawr and I became friends. Shawshodhawr was glum on that day. He told Comrade Bishwanath:

— ‘Listen, Bishwa-babu, shayeb had called me to his room a few days back’

— ‘Why?’

‘Saala, he tells me: “Leave the Drivers’ Union, I tell you, leave it, or else you might face some problems which I won’t be responsible for!”… Mighty pissed I got, I said: “Shayeb, I won’t leave the Union, because I don’t wish to. Do whatever you can.” So, I said this and I came out of the room like this:’

Shawshodhawr the driver had then imitated the way had walked out of the shayeb’s room. And he kept on walking till he went really far away, and then he came back to where he was before, this time without imitating the motions of his previous foray out of the nasty shayeb’s room.

That was my first day with the Union. The scene felt spellbinding. The foundation of this midnoon tractor-dream of mine had begun to season from that very day. I took the side of history, the way history takes our sides at times. I stretched my arms out at the people. Their warm welcome made me feel blessed. I am also thankful to those who had thus freed me from that hapless confinement of mine. It’s not a mission to serve the masses and neither is it humanism – it has, for me, been a tireless scientific quest – one that is selfish and yet represents the widest expanse, the most liberated form of existence.

I walked up to Shawshodhawr. He said:

— ‘hop on!’

I climbed on the wagon engine that he was driving. He handed me a biRi

— ‘Smoke, Shukumar-babu’

Evening approached. A meeting with a gang had been arranged. We went to meet them. Some of them looked at me, some of them didn’t. A fizzing sort of sound from the steam-engines all around had filled the air. Linesmen and wagonmen shouted and whistled about their duties.

I could see that Yasin had returned from vacation after a long time. He looked at me and paused on his work for a while. I smiled and asked:

— ‘What?’

— ‘Why didn’t you become a barrister?’

Everyone roared out in laughter. I joined in.

Surinder, wagon-mate, was glum. Solemnly, he spoke:

— ‘We have a request to make, Yasin Miyan. We want to raise funds and teach in your school!’

Once again, peals of loud laughter broke out. This time, everyone began laughing so hard that they had to stop working and sit down to get a hold of themselves.

Yasin got slightly miffed.

— ‘Waa-wah! It’s all a joke, na? Do you think raising some funds and making some donations will get everything up and running? Do you think the Revolution will come out of donations and receipts? Do you think the Revolution will drop from the sky if we give some money?’

He calmed down a bit after this short diatribe. Then he told a story.

The story goes like this: One day he had gone home and had participated in a meeting of the village farmers. The leader of the farmers’ union was giving a speech. Suddenly, the leader stopped, looked at Yasin and asked:

— ‘Bhai Yasin, don’t you have a union where you work?’

Yasin thumped his chest and said:

— ‘Of course we do!’

He took a receipt out of his chest-pocket and showed it without any delay. The leader became very happy. He said

— ‘Bhai Yasin! You are our Comrade!’

Yasin had smiled with masterly prudence.

Presently, after having narrated this tale, he goes on speaking:

— ‘Everyone is uniting all over the world. Why will we stay silent? Will giving a handful of money lead to anything?’

His sweaty face became brighter as he said all these. Having spoken thus, he fell silent and resumed working with profound attention. Heavy sounds from machines and engines filled the air yet again.

I returned. The pride of Communism had filled my heart. The hope that it held felt like iron. I held its golden crops within my swelling chest, and I returned. Dusk had fallen. Soft breezes were blowing. Smell of oil and raw coal-smoke had filled the air around the wagon-shade. I left the shade behind and went on walking along the road. Up ahead, rows and rows of engines were standing, silent, on the tracks. It seemed like they had all sunken into deep zen. I thought of them as humans – filled with life to the brim. Having worked all day, they are resting now. They have so many bones of so many types all over their hard bodies – all those machines, devices, hinges, nuts, bolts, faucets! And up on their heads they have just one eye – but that eye is so bright!

Us humans, we are their creators. They don’t laugh and neither do they cry. All they have is anger – that boiling, simmering rage of the workers, like the workers. They are the workers – big working people of iron and steel. As I was walking through them – through all those engines, tools and tackles – waves of thrill – the sort like which I had never felt before – played all along my body. Spellbound and speechless, I stared at their iron-bodies – strong, sturdy bodies devoid of flesh. That was the truth of that evening.

Darkness descended. I returned home.

A few days passed by. Another deep morning. Father stood in the middle of the street. He was holding a mousetrap. He began to laugh like a clown. NaRu and MonTu were by his side. They were holding on to his two forefingers and were dancing in fervent glee. They kept on jumping like a pair of monkeys. Within a few minutes, other kids from the block gathered around. A dog ran up to the scene, wagging its tail. The brave ones among the boys had come out with sticks and big chunks of brick. They are now sitting on the sidewalks of history.

Just that, some rats could be captured at long last.

Atindriyo Chakrabarty translated this story.
http://atindriyo.blogspot.in/

NB: Original Bangla text at: http://www.galpopath.com/2014/07/blog-post_8151.html)

 

 

 

 

5 Comments

  1. Farooque Chowdhury says:

    Thanks to Mr. Chakrabarty for the nice work.

    • thank you for your kind words. somen chanda was a bright lamp that got snuffed out too soon. it is our duty to re-trace these faded lines of true, glorious legacy…

  2. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Absorbing and interesting piece

    • thank you… coming from a great writer like you, these words resonate in heart as a splendid honour! much of the credit belongs to somen chanda – a forgotten firefly…