Espresso Shots

nolen gur, balaclava, and bombs

“if you don’t want a child, just use nirodh!” said the ten year old.

“nirodh!” there was awe and bursting curiosity in the nine year old’s voice as she struggled to keep her voice down, “what do you do with it not to have the baby?!”

“shhhh! shh! mgpgmmph!” the other nine year old warned, index finger on his lips, he had just stuffed a whole nolen gurer kancha golla, that delightful sweet made of tender cottage cheese and new date jaggery, into his mouth.

there was a loud explosion somewhere outside.

“bombs again!” the elderly man in a balaclava grumbled, burying deeper into his thick tome on case law, his heavy jowls sagging, his multiple chins settling on his chest. the hair on his chin scratched his skin. it had been too cold to shave today.

it was the winter of 1969. a season of nolen gur, balaclava, and bombs. a new word had entered the city’s vocabulary. nokkshaal. it evoked fear, terror, helplessness, and confusion. how had a political movement based on some kind of communism – there was “m” for mao zedong and “l” for lenin along with the usual cpi or communist party of india in their chosen name, cpi (ml) – turned bright young men, and even some women, in calcutta’s best colleges and universities into murderers and gangsters? the elderly man turned a page, but he was barely reading now.

it had all started in a small place called naxalbari in north bengal. something about landless labourers and their rights. there had been news of bloodshed and struggle. but when did the rage reach calcutta? and why? suddenly, without any warning, college kids were becoming naxalites… naxals. or nokkshaal, if you were to say it in bangla. they were getting indoctrinated, leaving home, making bombs, killing without any qualms. why were lawyers and doctors and teachers being threatened and killed every other day? it seemed as if the middle and upper middle class calcuttan was the enemy. and they had to be taken care of, exterminated if need be. in the mean time, bombs here and there, and all the time. there was a pall of fear across the city. no one was safe.

the most perplexing thing: the nokkshaals were often the intelligent ones, the best students from well known colleges. they belonged to good homes. and they were attacking homes such as their own, it was like a failure of the body’s autoimmune system, the cells were turning against themselves. these were not the wastrels and good for nothings, they were the future scientists, historians, economists, teachers, professors, lawyers, doctors, the very future of the nation.

the man in the balaclava shook his head and sighed. a tiny stream of vapour came out of his mouth and fogged up the magnifying glass placed on the page he was reading.  

the other day, bose babu’s son bulu had disappeared. he was only nineteen, a second year student at presidency college, studying physics honours, he had stood eleventh in the higher secondary exams. a quiet boy, with a pleasant smile. bose babu’s wife had stopped coming to the temple for the evening prayers. that was the first sign that something was amiss. then someone had said that bulu hadn’t come back home last saturday.the elderly man shook his head slowly once more and reached out for another thick leather-bound book. in times of turbulence, he always found solace in the twists and turns of the bhawal case.

“oh, it’s very simple, when you are ready to do that thing… take the nirodh and…” the ten year old looked sagacious. his nine year old cousins were hanging onto every word of his.

nirodh was the other word that had captured the imagination those days, especially of the young. it was a word not to be uttered before the elders. no one had told them not to, but from the uncomfortable expressions on their mothers’ and aunts’ faces whenever the radio commercial for nirodh was on, they knew.

nirodh, though, was relentless. rapidly appearing across the city since sometime in 1968, it tantalised them from every corner, as ubiquitous as talk of nokkshaals. on hoardings, in papers and magazines, plastered on kiosks along tram lines, there were nirodh advertisements wherever you looked. and on the radio; also the cinema. the inverted red triangle was its symbol, it stood out boldly against a yellow background, and you couldn’t go a hundred steps without encountering it. every meeting set off a little bomb of curiosity in some minds. nirodh had a magical power, they said. it made sure you didn’t have more than two or three children, and for some reason this was a good thing. but how? how did this happen?

none of the three cousins had more than two siblings each, but they were born long before the advent of nirodh. one of the nine year olds, tinku, had only one sister, almost thirteen years older than him. the other one was biblu, she was the eldest of three siblings. shunu, the ten year old boy, had an elder sister and a younger brother. in this huddle on the old bed at the corner of the room, he however was the eldest, and in the matter of nirodh, the one who knew.

“take the nirodh and-?” biblu prompted urgently, eyes dilating, as shunu paused for a moment; the boy had a sense of drama.

tinku swallowed the kancha golla hurriedly and almost choked, coughing, sputtering, tears running down his eyes.

just then, rakhal came running in through the door at the side, shouting, “have you heard! have you heard! they’ve attacked st xavier’s college! assaulted the father with a knife… a bhojali!… he is in a bad condition!”

the nokkshaals didn’t like st xavier’s. it was considered elitist.

ramakanta mitter, the elderly gent in a charcoal grey balaclava poring over the bhawal case, shunu and biblu’s grandfather, who had avoided a shave since it was chilly this morning, looked stricken. he was sitting in the adjoining room, but the four tall doors between the rooms were all open, and he heard rakhal’s excited outburst.

the cousins exchanged furtive glances, a little annoyed at rakhal da’s interruption. rakhal lived in the flat above the boses’. he had failed his b.a. third year exam and was waiting to sit for it again. he would drop in at least once a day to chat with whoever was available for a chat and try out the teatime snacks that thakuma, shunu and biblu’s grandmother, invariably made every day.

he reached out and picked up a kancha golla from the little stainless steel plate clutched in tinku’s hand. tinku mumbled a protest and quickly jumped off the bed.

the other two followed him, and the three ran out through the side door, past the temple, towards the other wing of the house. they had to find a secluded spot.

which father had been struck, ramakanta mitter wondered. everyone called the priests, “father.” the stubble on his chin itched, he shifted his chin against the balaclava trying to relieve the spot of its discomfort.

***

the children scurried into damma’s room. it was the first one as you came down the stairs from the temple and reached the row of rooms with tiled roof which formed this part of the house. the rooms had low ceilings unlike the other side. the doors were barely six feet high and not made of carved mahogany, simple teakwood planks here.

inside sat damma, tinku’s grandmother, on her fine bed with its shining posts and ornate head rest. she was in plain white as usual. since becoming a widow many years ago, she’d never worn a saree with even a hint of colour. her silver grey hair was pulled up in a neat top knot at the centre of her head. she wore no jewellery, except for two thin gold bangles on each arm. the bangles gleamed against her papery thin, soft, fair skin.

damma was sitting cross legged, cutting betel nut with her large silver betel nut cracker. she rocked gently while listening to the song that floated up from under the bed.

under the bed, there sat ginni dimma.

this was “dobbol decker dida ghor” or the room of the double decker grandmothers, as the children called it.

more often than not, you’d find two old ladies here, one on the high bed and one below it, both in white, both comfortably rounded, not fat though. each a composition of three circular shapes, top knot, face, body. both sat cross legged, just a wee bit hunched, looking at the world going by outside the room. the bed stood against the far wall, on the other three walls there were doors. at the head and foot of the bed, there were windows.

ginni dimma was damma’s cousin. she liked to visit damma and preferred to stay under her bed, even though there was other space available. it was a large home, not well planned, but ample and roomy, where guests came to stay often.

on seeing the children at the front door, ginni dimma stopped singing and offered a tender toothless smile. biblu shivered, she found gummy smiles eerie.

the old lady fished out a little paper box from the folds of her bed linen, which was rolled out over a mattress on the floor. her head wobbled gently, there was a slight shake to her hand as she held out a gujia, a tiny curl of a sweet made of condensed milk and a tonne of sugar.

tinku skipped forward and opened his mouth; biblu and shunu entered the room, their hands out to get their share of gujia.

damma said, “little girl and little boys, why do they make so much noise?”

she bestowed her doting toothless smile on them. damma was fond of making rhymes.

it wasn’t a large room, the three cousins slid across to the corner behind a door and sat, their heads close together, all set to get to the bottom of the nirodh mystery.

“so you take the nirodh and…?” whispered biblu.

they didn’t notice damma look up and frown.

“what? nokkshaal?” she asked.

“no… ni…” tinku was about to say the word, when biblu pinched him hard.

“…aaaaa!!” yelped tinku.

damma went back to her betel nut cracker.

“tell me!” demanded biblu of shunu.

shunu gave a smug smile. he felt powerful. usually biblu was so full of herself.

“oh there’s nothing to it,” shunu said trying to sound matter of fact, “just take a nirodh and mix it in water and drink it before you do that thing. and you won’t have a baby!! it’s a tablet, you see!”

shunu by now had dropped all pretence and was sounding triumphant.

biblu gaped at him, her eyes glimmering with… well, he hoped, reverence.

tinku asked, “but shunu dada, what’s ‘that thing’ that they do?”

nobody paid him any attention.

ginni dimma was singing again.

nirodh was the first condom produced by the government, cheap – about five paise per condom – and widely publicised, in the government’s efforts to curb the population explosion. there were bombs of many kinds.

***

ramakanta mitter adjusted his balaclava and again wondered which father had been stabbed with a knife. his son arghakanta, biblu’s father, had passed out of st xavier’s. ramakanta hadn’t liked his son going to a college run by christian missionaries, but argha always had a mind of his own.

the year argha had typhoid, one of the fathers had been very good to the boy. what was his name? ramakanta’s brow furrowed as he tried to recall. the priest had been from england… or was it ireland? he got up slowly, and shuffled towards the anteroom, he’d have to shave after all. you couldn’t visit a father looking like this.

the evening prayers were about to begin. the conch shell was being blown, its sound reached out over the neighbourhood, mellow and elegantly arced. bose babu’s wife was coming up the path in a crisp white cotton with a plain red border.

rakhal raced past dobbol decker dida ghor, up the temple steps, and down the long corridor shouting, “bulu has come back! bulu has come back!!!”

***

four years have passed since that day. the nokkshaals don’t stalk the city any more. one fine day it was all over. no one knew exactly what happened. there were many rumours. of betrayals, rounding up of the young rebels and terror makers, talk of firing squads… disturbing, very disturbing. some said the wealthier parents had smuggled their errant children out of the country; they were now in london, america, away… safe. no one knew anything for sure. rakhal had failed his exams again and become a nokkshaal. one day he just disappeared.

there was a hindi film on on television. hare kaanch ki churiya, the bangles of green glass. the room was packed. damma, ginni dimma, thakuma, uncles, mothers, aunts, kids, servants, everyone was watching the sunday evening cinema. except for ramakanta mitter who sat in the next room, reading one of his law books. there was much crying and drama onscreen. the heroine had become pregnant before marriage. such a terrible plight.

biblu, who lay against damma, suddenly said, “but the hero and heroine could have used nirodh!”

in the ensuing silence, you could clearly hear a bomb go off.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

a story from an old house, a rush of memories in it. hope you had fun. “dada” or “da” is how you refer to an elder brother or a young man of your generation who’s older than you. “nolen gur,” literally new jaggery, is the fresh date palm jaggery that’s available only in the winter, the delicate fragrance and sweetness raise sweets and rice puddings and even the simple milk with jaggery to another level, one can devote a whole novel to this beautiful thing, you should try nolen gurer mishti and jhola gur, the syrup version, if you’re ever in kolkata during winter. people speak of balaram’s nolen gurer talshaansh, but really try the small unknown stores too, there are gems hidden everywhere. “bhojali” is a sharp, curved knife. i hope there aren’t any other confusing bengali words, unexplained, here. did you see or hear of the naxal period in kolkata? i was in school in kolkata for a couple of years then, stayed in the hostel. i’d visit my grandparents’ home most weekends, i still remember the uneasy feeling, and of course our nirodh talk.

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