The Man from Khurda District

Amit Chaudhuri

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.

‘Oh, you’ve brought a man,’ he said at last.

‘Yes, dadababu,’ said Bishu, happy that Mr Banerjee’s attention had focused upon him. He glanced behind him.

A man who had so far been in the background stepped forward – a thin man with a lined face, his hair combed backward; he was not more man forty years old. He bowed briefly to Mr Banerjee.

‘Namashkar, shaheb,’ he said.

Mr Banerjee, pipe in one hand, said to Bishu:

‘You know this man?’

‘Oh yes!’ said Bishu, smiling broadly again. ‘He is from Khurda district – our district, dadababu!’

‘What is your name?’ asked Mr Banerjee.

‘Jagan, dadababu,’ said the man, bending a little.

He was wearing a yellow cotton shirt and a dhoti.

‘You have some experience?’ said Mr Banerjee. He glanced at his wristwatch, because he had to go out.

‘I am working for two years at house in Ballygunge Circular Road as watchman,’said the man.

‘Then why did you leave?’ asked Mr Banerjee. Glancing at him, one could see he had been out of work for some time.

‘Dadababu, children went to America and babu sold house to company,’ said the man.

‘What is his name?’ said Mr Banerjee.

‘Bhattacharya,’ said Jagan.

‘Bhattacharya ... where is he now?’

‘He moved to flat in Landsdowne Road,’ said the man.

Mr Banerjee sighed and said:

‘I will put you to work as mali’s helper on 300 rupees. If you work, you will get a raise in salary. When can you start?’

‘I will start right now,’ said the man. ‘Only, babu, 300 rupees is too little, I have two daughters in the village ...’

Mr Banerjee waved him away.

‘Start now, and we will see.’

When they came out of the house, Bishu walked across the lawn and Jagan followed him. The lawn was green and bright. They came to the outhouse, and Bishu took him inside to a room on the right that was adjacent to the stairway to the first storey. It was a small bare room with sunlight coming through the barred window, and it had a narrow bed. ‘You’ll stay here,’ he said. Jagan put the silver-coloured trunk he was carrying on the ground.

‘Where can I have a bath?’ he asked Bishu.

‘There is a bathroom and toilet near the garage,’ said Bishu. ‘I’ll show you. Do you want to bathe now?’

The man nodded and smiled.

‘I’ve travelled a long way and I want to get the dust off my body.’

‘Then come with me,’ said Bishu.

He shoved the trunk carefully beneath the bed, and walked back with Bishu across the lawn toward the back of the white house. Sunlight was in the air.

‘Did Mejda send any message?’asked Bishu.

‘He was only asking me tell you that he is well,’ replied the man.

‘Where were you staying before this?’

‘Near Shyambazaar. Very far,’ said Jagan, smiling.

When they came to the bathroom near the garage Jagan shrugged off his shirt and went in.

‘New man is come today,’ said Bishu to his wife.

He was sitting on his haunches on the floor, with his back to the bed. Uma was stirring something on the stove, and its smell had filled the room.

‘Where is he staying?’ she asked.

‘He is downstairs,’ he said. He got up from the floor. ‘Let me see if he is there. He might want eating some daal.’ And swiftly he had gone down the stairs, and he came back slowly after a couple of minutes. ‘He’s not there.’

The child was sleeping on the bed with her thumb in her mouth. Bishu squatted on the floor again and said:

‘I thinks about bringing my brother Amal from the village. I was speaking to Mejda about it.’ He looked at her defensively, expecting an outburst. But she went on stirring the pan; in the cup of one palm she collected some onion peelings and threw them out of a window on the right.

‘Where will he stay?’

She had never seen any of Bishu’s family except Mejda. She and Bishu had married two years ago, in secret, after a brief courtship in this lane. She had been working in the big multi-storeyed building opposite on the seventh floor. She had left the job one day and got married without telling didimoni, although didimoni had always been kind to her. But now she was back on good terms with her and visited her from time to time. She had been married once before, but her husband had already had a wife, and so she left the village and came to Calcutta. At the time of her marriage to Bishu, she was already pregnant, and she had had Priti a few months later.

‘I asks dadababu,’ said Bishu guiltily. ‘Maybe he gives Amal some work.’

‘Wake the child,’ said Uma. ‘She has to eat.’

The next night, it began to rain again. It was late July, the middle of the monsoons, but it had been so hot over the last four or five days that everyone had almost forgotten the rains; it felt like April. But now, at night, it began to rain again with the intensity it had had before, as if to remind people that the monsoons had not gone away. There were flashes of lightning that illuminated the small room on the first storey, Uma’s figure on the bed, sleeping in her sari, with the child, a smaller and darker shadow by her side, seeming even more deeply asleep, unilluminated by the lightning. When there were those vast unexpected rumbles of thunder, the room seemed to shake, and the sky seemed to be falling on it.

‘Close that window,’ said Uma, still no more than an outline.

‘Always raining ... always raining,’ muttered Bishu.

He got up from the mattress on the floor and went to the window; a cool wind blew on to his face. He pulled the window; already the ledge was wet, and he saw that the rain had begun to blur the lamppost opposite. When he closed the window, the room became darker, but all night it continued to thunder and the sound of rain could be heard. Although Bishu feared the rains and the damage they could do, he was also glad, because it had become cooler and he slept more comfortably.

The next morning the sun was out, but there were puddles of water on parts of the lawn. The sour-faced old mali, in a dhoti and a shirt, was bent over the plants and muttering something. Leaves and branches had fallen on to the side of the driveway and had to be thrown away; the birds in the trees had returned to their normal life and business and could be heard all day. But, once more, that night, it rained, and it continued to rain, on and off, for the next ten days. It brought chaos to the lane, Southern Gardens, and morning would begin with drivers shouting at each other and car-horns being blown because water had collected at the entrance to the lane and made getting out difficult. ‘Now it’s really begun,’ thought Bishu. The days were monochromatic and dull, with light like a suggestion. Then, on the tenth day, when the rain had reduced to a drizzle, and there was sun and rain at the same time, mali shouted to Bishu as he was passing by the lawn, ‘Ei Bishu, where’s that man of yours?’ Bishu stopped. ‘Which man, dadu?’ he asked. “‘Which man, dadu?” – why, that Oriya you brought here – I haven’t seen him for the last three days! Has he come here to work or sleep?’ ‘I’ll see dadu,’ mumbled Bishu, and went off quickly, ashamed. After all, he was a man from his district; but, come to think of it, Bishu hadn’t seen much of Jagan during the last seven days either, but that could be because he had been busy with other things during the rains; anyway, he worked inside the house and returned to his room only in the evening. But he decided he would look into Jagan’s room later.

In the evening, before going upstairs, he stood outside Jagan’s door and called: ‘Jaganda, are you there?’ A voice came from inside: ‘I’m here.’ Bishu went in, saying, ‘It’s just that mali was asking me about you – he hasn’t seen you for a few days.’ Jagan was lying on the bed; he said, ‘I began to feel ill two days ago, and I haven’t been well – it’s these rains.’ His voice was hoarse, and Bishu went up to him and felt his forehead. ‘You have fever,’ he said. ‘Yes, it came a few days ago,’ said Jagan, ‘but it’s getting better.’ ‘Okay, then you rest tomorrow,’ said Bishu, turning around to leave. Then he saw a mat rolled up against the wall, and Jagan said, ‘My aunt’s son is staying with me for a few days. He needs a place to stay, and I told him to stay with me for a few days. I don’t know the ways of this place – is it all right?’ Bishu thought for a few seconds; he knew it wasn’t done, but he decided not to give it too much importance. ‘It’s all right, Jaganda,’ he said. ‘You don’t worry.’

One night the following week, when Bishu had returned to the outhouse after some work in the mansion, he noticed three bicycles on the landing, leaning on the wall by the staircase. They seemed quite new; the bicycle spokes glinted sharply in the light of the bulb. Bishu wondered what they were doing there – had the watchman put them there? No, it must be Jagan. He listened outside Jagan’s door, but there seemed to be no one inside the room.

He went up to his room, and a little later Uma brought him his dinner of rice and daal and vegetables. He ate without talking much, thinking of whether he should tell Mr Banerjee about the bicycles. ‘Something seems to be on your mind,’ said Uma. ‘No, it is nothing,’ he said, rising to wash his hands, ‘Nothing.’ He decided to dismiss the thought from his head.

Then a hot spell began again, punctuated by infrequent showers. It was during hot days like these that Bishu had first met Uma two and a half years ago. Uma used to emerge from the gates of the building opposite. Southern Gardens Flats, and walk down the lane towards the main road, perhaps going to the market; on her way she would stop at the gate of the strange, new, huge, Marwari house, which looked like something between a castle and an aeroplane, and talk to the watchman, whom she seemed to know. Bishu, who was never really friendly with the servants in the house he worked in, loitered about a lot, and he had seen her a few times. She was not particularly pretty: she was thin (though not as thin as she was now), with protruding teeth; but, in her sari, she looked slim and small and had a certain grace.

Often she would come down the path that went past the outhouse with a pitcher against her waist. One day Bishu said to her:

‘What’s the matter, don’t you getting water in your building?’

‘Of course we do – why shouldn’t we?’ said Uma. ‘It’s just that didimoni prefers tubewell water.’

Bishu noticed that there was vermilion in the parting of her hair: he realised she had a husband somewhere, either in her past or present; he was not unduly bothered. Thus their courtship began, fifteen or twenty minutes of conversation each day on the dusty path between the outhouse and the mansion that led to the tubewell, looked upon and ignored by the many windows and verandahs, the numerous eyes, of the multi-storeyed building. Sometimes she had a pony-tail, sometimes a plait. Their differences – he an Oriya of the sweeper caste, she a once-married Bengali – which should have kept them apart only brought them together. In a couple of months, the conversations had led to the first physical intimacy in the room in the outhouse, hurried embraces; though everything was so quickly and secretively done that no one had an inkling, least of all didimoni. It was only after Uma had begun to retch and throw up and realised she was pregnant that she ran away from her job to marry Bishu.

After a short burst of rain late in the morning, the sun came out and it became hot again. Priti, who either played with other children on the dusty path where her parents had once met, or wandered about at home, was now crawling about busily in the room, seeming to have found a playmate in the sun, which, though burning in the sky after the shower, appeared to be crawling about in the room as well. Her mother picked her up and put her on the bed, where she sat without protesting. A few minutes later, two shaliks came to the window.

‘Paati!’ said Priti, looking at them, for all birds were ‘pakhi’, or ‘bird’, to her. The birds took off immediately, and Priti seemed a little surprised that they were now here and now not. When her mother picked her up and took her to the window, she looked out at the lane contentedly, with its buildings and huge banyan and gulmohur trees casting shadows everywhere.

In the afternoon, Uma took the child in her arms and went to visit didimoni on the seventh floor of Southern Gardens Flats. She did this from time to time, because she was always welcome in didimoni’s flat and she liked to keep in touch with her.

‘Oh – it’s Uma,’ said Mrs Sengupta, whom Uma called ‘didimoni’. ‘Come into the room! How are you?’

‘I’m well, didimoni,’ said Uma shyly, stepping inside the bedroom. She sat on the floor beside the bed, Priti in her amrs.

‘The child has become very sweet – pretty ... ’ said didimoni.

Uma smiled with pleasure; that was another reason she liked coming here – the child was always fussed over. Priti looked back at didimoni and around her in silence, as if puzzled by the flat.

‘And is everything going well?’ asked Mrs Sengupta.

‘What should I say, didimoni,’ said Uma with a small smile, ‘sometimes I want to leave him and come back here with Priti to work – he bothers me at times!’

Didimoni laughed – but did not know what to say. For although she could have possibly given Uma a job, it would have been too much of a problem having a child in the house: she had tried it with another servant, and it hadn’t worked. Nor did she really take Uma’s complaint seriously. And yet her heart went out to her. She had become thinner than before, and darker, and her teeth seemed to protrude from her mouth more prominently.

‘Never mind,’ she said, thinking back to her own marriage. ‘There are always misunderstandings at first, and then they get smoothed out.’ Uma nodded and smiled a little, while Priti, in her arms, looked this way and that. Uma remembered how, in the first days she had met Bishu, she used to think he was a driver, because he sometimes had the car keys in his hand; only later had she discovered he was a cleaner.

After half an hour, she got up and said good-bye to didimoni, promising to come again, and walked to the front door and then the lift, glimpsed by the cook and the other servant who had once been her companions in this flat. On her way out, the child in her arms looked in a leisurely way at the furniture in the house – it was difficult to tell if she was registering anything – as if content to be adrift in this frail maternal carriage, an avid, if powerless, observer of life.

In the middle of September, towards the end of the rains, Mr Banerjee threw a couple of dinners in his flat. An unusual brightness emanated from that side of the mansion: parties were seldom thrown these days. Behind the white façade of the mansion, the lives of the occupants were in a sort of abeyance; none of the tenants paid rent to Mr Banerjee – and Mr Banerjee did not seem terribly concerned. Only against one tenant was a court case under way.

One morning, when Bishu was walking past the lawn towards the lane to buy a few things from the tea-stall, the Hindustani watchman at the gate called out to him. ‘E Biswajeet!’ They had never really liked each other, and the watchman always addressed him by his full, and not his shortened name. He was a bulky man in khaki, certainly larger than Bishu, who was only five feet four inches, and he had moustaches. ‘Have you heard?’ ‘Heard what, darwan?’ asked Bishu. ‘I haven’t heard anything.’ ‘Arrey, everyone has heard and you haven’t heard,’ said the watchman. ‘You’re a strange fellow! Your friend was taken away this morning by the police.’ ‘My friend?’ said Bishu – he felt suddenly ill; he could not hear the raucous cries of the crows overhead. ‘Which friend?’ ‘Arrey – which friend – that friend of yours, Jagan, the one you brought to work,’ said the watchman, leaning back on his stool. The watchman, his uniform, the lane, Southern Gardens, the sunlit lawn, all seemed to belong to a world of which Bishu was not really part. ‘Why?’ he asked softly. ‘What does he do?’ ‘The fellow is a thief, a known thief – he and his aunt’s son and some others were stealing bicycles and other things and selling them in these parts. They opened his trunk and found a gun in it – I saw it myself! Where did you bring him from, e Biswajeet?’

The first thing Bishu did was go back to Jagan’s room and open the door; the room was completely bare, except for sunlight and shadows coming through the window. Then he went upstairs, and Uma came out of the door and said, ‘Where were you? Mali was looking for you.’ ‘Why he looking for me?’ asked Bishu, stepping inside. Daal was boiling on the stove, and Priti was sitting on the floor and slapping it with her small hands. ‘How should I know? Is he an easy man to talk to? He just mumbled something and went off – I think dadababu wants to see you.’

Later, when Bishu met Mr Banerjee in the sitting room inside his flat, he found the latter had already taken a decision.

‘Bishu,’ he said, ‘I asked you to bring me a good man. Did you know Jagan was stealing bicycles?’

Bishu wondered if he would lie, but he swallowed, and nothing would come out except what had really happened.

‘One night, dadababu,’ he said, ‘I sees bicycles. But I don’t asks Jagan, because after rains he has fever, and I don’t disturb him.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me, Bishu?’ asked Mr Banerjee.

‘Dadababu, I don’t see the bicycles again, I – I forgets them,’ said Bishu. ‘I don’t realise ... ’

‘This morning,’ said Mr Banerjee, ‘the police asked me if any of the servants were involved with that man. I could have told them your name, but I didn’t. But, taking into consideration what has happened, I don’t think I can keep you in this house any longer.’

Bishu was standing barefoot, his hands behind his back, staring at the floor. Then he said:

‘Dadababu, I do not knows this man. When you tells me “Get me good man”, I tells Mejda, and he says: “I sends man from Khurda district, I knows him, he is from our village, he is good man.” I not knows the man, dadababu.’

‘Be that as it may, you should have been more careful,’ said Mr Banerjee. ‘I can keep you no longer.’

Bishu was silent. Then, looking at the floor, he said again:

‘Dadababu, I works for seven years in this house, this is my first mistake. Please forgive me ... I never gives you trouble before. Last year, you goes out of Calcutta for one month and didi alone in the house. If I thief, I could steal then from the house, but I does not steals anything. Please forgive me this time.’

‘I can’t change my mind, Bishu,’ said Mr Banerjee. ‘You will have your full month’s salary and your notice.’

When Bishu got back to his room, he sat on the floor and repeated every detail to Uma; Uma listened silently, while Priti still sat nearby, absorbed, playing. He slapped his forehead with his hand, and said, ‘That serpent was always in our house, and I does not know it? Hai, what happened!’ He could not even properly remember Jagan anymore, just the yellow check shirt and the dhoti he had worn on the day of arrival, and his ordinary, lined face, a face like so many others, of people struggling and arriving in this city and looking for work. ‘The man is a serpent! Quietly stealing bicycles, and I does not know! There was gun inside his trunk!’ he said, as if he himself had seen it, which he now thought he had, so clear and vivid and treacherous it seemed to him. ‘Now, when I thinks of it, I never sees him in his room when I comes back at night – he must be doing all his dirty business at night!’ Then he said, angry and hurt: ‘Dadababu blames me! I does nothing, but, for no reason, he tells me to go! No, I does not want this job!’ The injustice of it shocked him. Uma could hear the cries of shaliks and mynahs and crows increasing with the afternoon. She felt sorry for Bishu, who was, after all, younger than her, and on whom the burden of his small family had fallen unexpectedly.

Evening was full of activity. Bishu went to his friends in the building at the end of the lane, South Apartments, which was even bigger and more impressive than Southern Gardens Flats – it had come up two years ago. He told his friends to see if there were any jobs available. It turned out that a Mr Chatterjee in one of the flats needed a helper in the house, and one of Bishu’s friends took him to see the gentleman. Mr Chatterjee saw Bishu and did not dislike what he saw; it appeared there might be a chance for a job. Meanwhile, Uma, carrying Priti in her arms, went to didimoni to tell her of what had happened. Didimoni was aghast. ‘But what will you do now?’ she asked. ‘The worst that can happen is we will go to Manecktala where we used to pay rent for a room. That room is still there,’ said Uma. Mr Sengupta, didimoni’s husband, said: ‘Bishu doesn’t seem to be to blame. If it comes to that, I could have a word with Mr Banerjee and ask him to reconsider his decision.’ At the same time, he was not sure if interference in another’s affairs was wise unless absolutely necessary. Nevertheless, Uma went back reassured, and with a lightened heart.

The plans of the evening came, unsurprisingly, to nothing the next day. The police wanted to question the servants again, and Bishu and Uma took Priti and their few possessions and walked towards the main road, with its smoke and noise, to catch a bus to Manecktala. Priti looked curiously around her; she thought it was merely an outing. At the bus-stop, Bishu said, ‘After I leaves you at Manecktala, I goes to see Mejda’; Uma seemed not to have heard. Today, before leaving, no goodbyes had been said to the other servants; only the money was collected from Mr Banerjee and a signature written inside a notebook. ‘We’re going, dadababu,’ said Bishu, and Mr Banerjee said: ‘Keep well.’ It was a journey from the centre of the city, Ballygunge, with its tall buildings and shops, to what was much further away and older. The room in the outhouse had not been much, but it had been something in an area where even the rich cannot afford houses; it had given Bishu and Uma a place to stay in proximity to the lives of the well-off, to employment, and yet given them the independence for the life of their small and new family. Now that phase of their lives, which, after all, was so relatively brief that they had hardly become used to it, was ending, and another was about to begin.