The Man from Khurda District
Bishu had lived in Calcutta for eight years, but still couldn’t speak proper Bengali. ‘I does my work,’ or ‘I am tell him not to do that,’ he would say. Even so, he courted his wife in precisely this language and then married her. With his child he either spoke in Oriya or his version of Bengali, and the child, now a year and a half old, did not seem to mind.
He was 27 years old. His elder brother, Mejda – ‘Middle Elder Brother’ – a cook’s helper in the Bengal Club, had arranged this job for him as a sweeper and cleaner in a house in Ballygunge. Mr Banerjee, owner of the large twostoreyed house, had divided it equally into four flats, in one of which he lived with his wife, giving the other three out for rent. Thus, this house, a long white rectangular structure with a huge lawn recumbent before it, had still not been sold or torn down, as so many mansions of the once-privileged classes in this area had, giving way to multi-storeyed buildings, ITC-owned flats, Marwari-built houses which were a grotesque mish-mash of ancient European and futuristic architectural styles. Instead, it had recently been repainted. The house just next to it, a lovely yellow mansion with a drooping banyan tree in the courtyard, was supposed to have belonged to a descendent of the Tagore family, and had lately been turned into a Unesco office – but, thankfully, not destroyed. Bishu and his family lived in a room on the first floor of the servants’ outhouse near the white mansion.
One day Mr Banerjee called for Bishu, and said to him:
‘Bishu, I’m looking for a man to look after the compound and to help the mali – a good man. Can you look out for one?’
Bishu listened carefully, shyly, and said:
‘I tries, dadababu. I sees if I finds someone.’
Then he went back to his work and, thinking about it, realised that what dadababu wanted was a replacement for Ratan, the errand-boy who had left suddenly three months ago.
That Sunday, he left Uma, his wife, and his child at home in the outhouse and went to Esplanade to meet his elder brother.
‘Why can’t Mejda come here?’ asked Uma irritatedly. She was holding the child in her arms. It was quite large for its age, and was quiet and dark-skinned and pretty, and had immense eyes that were now looking out at something through the window over Uma’s shoulder.
‘In club Mejda has work every day – how will he come?’ Bishu said. He had to be a little extra assertive, or else he knew that Uma, who was older than him, wouldn’t let him go.
‘Then you come back by four, or I’ll be gone to Meeradi’s house,’ she challenged. She seemed certain of her decision.
‘You go,’ he said, and left.
The tram to Esplanade was fairly empty, and, as it rattled along slowly, Bishu sat on a scat on the left and looked out of the window. People kept coming in and getting out. When the tram came to Esplanade, he got off and saw his Mejda standing in front of a shop with its shutters down.
‘Ei, Mejda!’ he called, and went up to him.
‘Ei, Bishu!’ said Mejda, and put an arm around him. ‘Tell me – what work brings you here?’
Bishu loved talking to Mejda because it was Mejda who had taken the first step out of the village in Orissa – they belonged to the sweeper-caste – and had come to Calcutta. He now had a ‘permanent’ job in the Bengal Club, and was a kind of guardian to Bishu. They walked together away from the Esplanade area and K.C. Das, going down the road that led to the All India Radio building and the Governor’s house.
‘What about the Money Order?’ asked Mejda. ‘Borda wrote to me and said he had got no M O from you last month.’
‘That’s right,’ said Bishu. ‘Priti was sick, and there was a lot of expenditure. I had to take her to a doctor. But this month I’ ve sent a hundred.’ The usual amount he sent his eldest brother and brother and mother was 75 rupees.
‘Crops weren’t good this year,’ said Mejda, as if explaining why Borda had sent him the letter.
‘Everywhere there are problems,’ said Bishu. ‘In the village there are problems, in the city there are problems.’
As they walked on side by side, Mejda a little taller, his pace more leisurely, Bishu quick-stepped, they discussed their youngest brother Amal, a reckless boy who was in serious trouble in the village. Some people were saying that he and another boy had made a girl pregnant, though he was apparently less directly involved than the friend; nevertheless, he had fled to another village.
‘That boy is always causing trouble,’ said Mejda, somewhat tolerantly.
‘Best thing to get him out of Khurda and bring him to Calcutta,’ said Bishu.
They concurred. Then Mejda asked: ‘Bishu, are you hungry?” ‘Why, haven’t you eaten, Mejda?’ ‘Work finished at three – I had no time to eat.’ ‘Yes I’m hungry,’ said Bishu, as if merely deciding he was would make him so.
They had come to Dekker’s lane, and they pushed past people coming from the opposite direction, and past fruit-sellers sitting on the side. In kodai after kodai, aubergines in batter were being fried, men were fanning the smoke, in some stalls mutton and chicken rolls were being made on a tavaa. Mejda wanted to eat at the Chinese stall, where they served chilli chicken and noodles – although, in spite of the fact that he worked in the Bengal Club, he had only a vague idea this food was Chinese. A man in a dhoti and vest served them the food and they sat and ate on the benches on one side.
Afterwards, full, and with bidis in their hands, they re-emerged from Dekker ’s Lane and walked towards Red Road. They sat down beneath the statue of the Unknown Soldier, a British Tommy. People passed by, families, children making strange noises that now denoted pleasure, now curiosity, now anger. At one point, Bishu said: ‘Mejda – babu was saying, Is there a man to do some work in the garden and help the mali, and, you know, do odd-jobs?’ Mejda looked thoughtful and then said: ‘I’ll see, Bishu. There is a man from our district, Jagan, he seems trustworthy. I used to know him in the village, and he’s related to my wife’s maternal uncle. I know he’s here in Calcutta and out of a job. I’ll see if I can send him to you.’ A balloon seller went past, and Bishu called out, ‘Ei’ to him, and the balloon seller came back to him rubbing a balloon, and said, ‘Yes dada?’ ‘I’ll buy one for Priti,’ said Bishu to Mejda, a little ashamed. ‘Priti – my little Priti?’ Mejda sounded offended. ‘I will buy it,’ he said. He chose one that was a composite of two balloons, shaped like a bird, with a beak and paper eyes stuck to its head. ‘Yes – how much is this?’ he asked. The balloon seller rubbed the bird and said, ‘Eight annas.’ ‘Eight annas – son of a bitch – for that thing?’ said Mejda, taking out a coin from his pocket. He spat on the ground. The balloon seller smiled with betel-stained teeth as he untied the balloon. Bishu took it home.
‘Dadababu,’ whispered Bishu.
Mr Banerjee was sitting on a sofa with a magazine in his hand. He was smoking a pipe. When Bishu repeated the call he looked up.
‘Dadababu,’ said Bishu, and grinned shyly, as if he had won a prize, ‘I brings a man – you tells me – to help mali.’
Mr Banerjee looked absently at him for a few seconds. He had been reading of a takeover bid in Bombay and of obstructions to future investment in Calcutta. His father had been a well-known businessman in the days of successful Bengali business, but he himself had done a modest though not unimportant job in a company.