“it is really the will!”
barun said the words emphatically, slapping the table in front. the tea cup rattled on the saucer. krishna threw an exasperated glance at him.
“sometimes you don’t have a choice…” chacko murmured, a meditative calm in his tone. it seemed to get barun.
“nonsense! you always do. free will… we all have it, i tell you!” he exclaimed, thrusting back into the lumpy brown cushion and settling in a bit more, getting comfortable.
“shotu da, tui chup kor, all that free will talk. what choice did mashima have? or ghona… or for that matter, shurobhi…!!” krishna finally had to say something.
(shotu da, you keep quiet…)
the adda was heating up. bongshi knew soon dadababu would call for another round of tea and also remind him not to forget to get some “ta”… something to go with the tea. dadababu liked hot, fried things. he rushed to the kitchen to inform arati, the cook. hopefully, she hadn’t run off to watch that bengali serial everyone was so mad about these days. he wished television had never come into their lives. radio, bioscope… wasn’t that good enough?
in the last forty years that he had worked in this house, so many things had happened, so many people had come and gone; births, deaths, marriages. but really, nothing had turned things upside down as much as that television. he didn’t even like to watch ramayan on it. since when did ram ji have that fixed, bland smile on his face and sita ji wear all that jewellery! he read his ram charit manas early in the morning straight after his bath, as he had been taught to by his mother when he was a little boy in natesar. his mother said, reading something holy every morning brought peace to the heart. peace leads us to a better life… rain or no rain.
rain was always on the minds of folks in his village. natesar was too far from ganga ji, there was no water for the crops there. his family had some land, but it was almost impossible to grow anything on it. only a little bajra, that too not every season. so when he was seventeen he had gone to calcutta looking for a job. kalkatta was a gentler city they said, better than dilli, so even though dilli was closer to natesar, he had chosen to go to calcutta.
it was the year there was a great famine. he remembered it so clearly even now.
he had worked in a big babu’s house in shyambazar, they used to feed poor people, hungry people; two times every week. bongshi could never forget how thin their arms and legs were, those who came for the free meals. the bones on the chest, you could count them. there was the old lady one day… he had put a ladle of rice on the banana leaf in front of her, didi, the eldest daughter of his babu was just behind him, serving dal to the row of who knows how many people sitting along the lane. and that old lady had looked up at him for a moment, then toppled over, onto the banana leaf… the rice. didi had shouted. the old lady had died just like that. of hunger, they said.
he and the others had picked her up. she was so light. the people along the lane had continued to eat.
three years later, he had been thrown out of his job because someone had stolen ma’s gold necklace. no, he hadn’t done it, he couldn’t even think of such a thing, but the police had come, there had been a lot of noise; finally, they decided all those who worked inside the house had to go. new servants would be found.
“bongshi,” ma, babu’s wife, had beckoned him and said, “i know you haven’t stolen anything… you are a good boy… i have spoken to my friend and they will give you a job.”
he had come to work here then, in this big bari in ballygunge, even before independence, the partition and all that. so much had happened since then. he shook his head as he looked around for arati. yes, the girl had disappeared.
his name was bansidhar sharma, everyone called him bansi in natesar, but in kalkatta, he was bongshi. not only the bengalis, even the biharis and oriyas called him that. the sardar ji taxi driver, who had moved in next to the bannerjee’s garage about twenty years ago, also called him bongshi.
“could mashima have refused to marry meshomoshai when she was only twelve?” krishna asked sounding angry.
barun ghosh was her cousin, her second cousin actually. their fathers were first cousins; their paternal grandfathers were brothers. krishna and barun had grown up together living in this sprawling home of the joint family built by their great great grandfather. the intricacies of relationship were rarely remembered, the cousins were more like siblings.
no one called him barun though, “bhalo naam” or the formal name was for others, family called you by your pet name, your “daak naam”; and why exactly no one knew but barun had always been called shotu. the “t” soft, the sound gentle, however those traits were never a part of barun’s makeup.
“but why should she refuse, tuki?!” barun snapped. he addressed krishna by her pet name.
“why should she… really, shotu da, you’re impossible!” krishna looked at chacko and shook her head. chacko was julie pishi, her father’s youngest sister’s son. julie pishi’s husband was syrian christian, from kerala. it had been quite a scandal when uncle joseph and julie pishi had wanted to get married back in 1950, thirty-five years ago. chacko spoke bengali, malyalam, and english. since he had grown up in delhi, his hindi was good too.
“maybe! maybe she couldn’t have refused, but she could have run away…” barun was not backing off.
chacko shrugged and said with a frown, “in bihar? in 1929?”
they were talking about a lady they had known all their lives, they called her mashima… aunt, but in reality she was barun’s mother’s aunt. his maternal grandmother’s eldest sister. their father was in the judicial service, they had lived in several district towns in bihar. dida’s family had a large establishment in bhagalpur. mashima got married at the age of twelve to a thirty year old gentleman, who had reportedly treated her pretty badly. she was eighty-eight now and had lived in calcutta the past seventy-six years but she always said, she was really a foreigner here.
“but what does it matter whether one has free will or not, one would eventually cease to matter. die!” the man in khadi pajamas and yellow kurta with fairly long hair who’d been sitting in the corner, curled up on the divan and absorbed in his newspaper, lifted his head, said what he had to and went back to his reading.
it was anil, barun’s friend. barun’s wife lily was sitting next to him. she blew a ring of smoke toward the ceiling from her cigarette. “hmm… die… go die, ring…” she said and winked at krishna.
“lily, stop smoking will you! why must you do this… do you known the statistics on emphysema and smoking? and really, you’re a teacher… what are the kids going to learn!” barun glared at lily.
lily and krishna exchanged a little smile.
“hmm…” lily took a long drag, inhaling the smoke slowly. barun stared at her, chacko was smiling too.
“i’ve been struggling with quitting for a while… not succeeding…” chacko said and shook his head sadly.
barun turned his irate gaze on him.
“you do know why i am a teacher, don’t you, barun! because advertising would just not be acceptable to your family? even mine! so! it’s teaching!” lily said the words pleasantly, as if it didn’t bother her any more, as if she had said it a million times before and each time she had gleaned something new from the utterance. her long kohl lined eyes held a tinge of something indescribable in them. krishna pursed her lips.
“bongshi! ar ektu cha niye aaye… aar ta, bujhli!” barun yelled looking away from lily.
(bongshi! get some more tea… and something to munch, understand!)
bongshi had seen barun from the day he was born. he was twenty-three then, that was the year bongshi had got married. revati, his wife, was only ten years old at the time, a little girl; she had stayed on at her parents’ home as was the custom. when she was thirteen, they’d sent her to natesar.
“bonghsi da, amar jonne coffee!” chacko said.
(bongshi da, coffee for me!)
the rest of the children called him bogshi da, giving respect to his age. bodo ma had taught them. but dadababu always called him by his name, nothing else. he didn’t mind. he had practically brought up dadababu. he had certainly seen more of him than he had of his own three children. now dhananjay, his eldest, was a cook in dubai. meera, his daughter, was married and had two children. ashok, who was born much later, was working as a peon in dilli but he was doing some course he said, something to do with the new machine… computer. both dadababu and didimoni were very happy when they heard of it. they were sending money to ashok now. sardar ji said this computer machine was going to be very very big.
he had, like the other servants, always addressed the children of the house as dada and didi, elder brother and elder sister, and never called them by their name. instead they added different endings and beginnings to that dada and didi to designate each one. so barun was dadababu always, krishna was didimoni, chacko was chhordada, barun’s wife lily became didibhai when she came. and so on with the rest of the children, all thirteen of them.
“aanchhi, dadababu! chhorda!” bongshi said walking in swiftly and departing just as fast.
(bringing it, dadababu! chhorda!)
“amar thums up!” lily called out.
(my thums up!)
“hyaan, didibhai…” bongshi wished that silly arati had fried some onion and potato fritters by now.
“have you ever seen bongshi da in anything but white dhoti and white high collar kurta… hmm?” anil muttered, still reading his paper.
“huh? how does it matter?” barun said settling back in his cushion, “his choice!”
“choice?… or is it his destiny? how much money does a servant earn… can he really afford to wear clothes of his choice…” krishna began to argue.
“tuki di, he can afford a kurta in some colour i guess, if he wants to…” chacko interrupted her.
“chacko eapen! whose side are you on? decide!” krishna yelled.
“question is, does bongshi have free will… or not!” chacko replied, growing thoughtful.
bongshi came in at that precise moment with the orders of different beverages and a plate heaped with potato and onion fritters.
“ufff, peyanji! now we can get down to some serious adda,” anil shot out of the divan, grabbed the plate with fritters and put it on the table, at the corner nearest to him.
“bongshi, tell me something!” barun said to the older man.
“yes, dadababu!” bongshi replied politely, shuffling by the doorway.
“do you believe you have free will?” barun gave him a keen look.
krishna sniggered. chacko shook his head.
“aaayn, dadababu? i mean…” bongshi was flabbergasted.
“okay, let me explain, have you ever done anything that you decided you would do? something that the… circumstances, god, fate, destiny… nothing… decided for you?” krishna said just as barun was about to yell at bongshi.
bongshi scratched his head.
everyone waited. lily’s eyes were shining.
something he had decided he would do? bongshi was confused. decided? hadn’t destiny done it all? he opened his mouth to say, no, and remembered gullo rani.
she had been so pretty in her red silk saree and the gold chain around her waist. sardar ji had taken him there. the drivers and cooks of their neighbourhood frequented the brothels behind kalighat temple, sardar ji had said. bongshi had been entranced. he had never been to a place like this and gullo rani was lovely… how she chewed her paan… and there were flowers in her hair.
ever since he’d got married, he had seen his wife revati only twice a year, two weeks in summer and two weeks after the pujas. a month in all. when he’d lost his mother, he’d got an extra twenty days in natesar… but he was mourning at the time.
as he had sat there a bit lost, gullo rani smiled at him and gave a naughty wink. bongshi had felt things stir in him.
he had got up slowly and walked out of the place. he could only think of revati’s quiet dark gaze and how she fought with him every time he left.
“hyaan, dadababu! i think that thing you said… yes, i think it is there,” bongshi said, his face wrinkling as he smiled, his eyes disappearing almost.
“goal!!! goal!!! goal!” a young boy dashed into the room, leapt around a bit, then held his hand out to lily and shouted, “boudi! goal!”
lily got up, caught his hand, and did a jig; arms raised, head shaking, hips swaying, the pallu of her billowing tangail saree swishing around.
no one noticed bongshi’s face grow sad. they had said to him later, that famine, it was also not destiny.
i don’t know if you’ve heard of adda. it’s really a getting together of friends, or people who enjoy chatting with each other, and exchanging views on anything and everything. usually over tea and something to munch, or even alcohol. more often than not, it’s tea and “cold drinks” and snacks though, even just biscuits and/or chips. there are claims to these conversations being of an intellectual nature… not always the case. but yes, there’s this openness that allows you to actually go and start talking about free will if you so desire. chances are someone will find a fairly witty way to shut you up, but it’s all in good humour. adda, if many of us don’t watch out, can become a full time occupation. the concept, apparently satyajit ray has traced in his film agantuk (which i haven’t seen), began in ancient greece. maybe. maybe not. it’s continuing all over wherever there are bengalis. adda found a place in oed in 2004… seems the word originates from the hindi word “adda” pronounced a little differently and meaning “a perch for tame birds.” adda is also a den… of vice, dacoits, etc. “bari” is literally a house, we are supposed to be a bit taken with our bari, it also means family… “in our bari, this or that happens, or doesn’t happen, etc.” “peyanji” is onion fritters, the “n” is a soft nasal sound. peyanji can also mean wisecrack. “babu” is how a gentleman is addressed or referred to. domestic help would refer to the employer as babu, or the lady of the house as “ma”, mother often. nowadays not so much. hope the bengali words didn’t get in the way of reading and enjoying the story. thanks for being here, this is part of a set of stories that lie somewhere inside an old home which was part of my life. now the place is gone, but it lingers. look forward to your thoughts/comments.