The End of Fascination
By Sarojini Sahoo

Suparna’s mother was busy buying a winnowing fan. The weaver-woman ticked off each bamboo vane of the fan, uttering – “Wealth, children, death…” one by one; claiming that the last vane ended in favour of the mistress’s wealth. And mother alleged: “Count again, let’s see! As if the last vane you count ends with ‘wealth’ each time you count!”

“Promise, Mistress! check for yourself. Here, wealth, children, death, wealth, children, death, wealth…” After the counting was over the bargaining for the fan began.

Does man really need wealth first and foremost, or do children follow wealth? Later, when the home is complete with children, the longing for fame begins to grow. And afterwards, how much money would a man have to amass, for people to call him rich? Would a man qualify for fame if he had enough wealth? Does he then wish for fame or do others throng around him for the greatness of his wealth, to place a crown on his head?

Suparna had neither her years nor the energy to understand all these things at that time. Nevertheless, the youths of the community never failed to consult her father for any problem that came their way. If five people were to sit in judgement somewhere over a certain matter, he was bound to be there. He headed their Bazaar’s Puja Committee. There were some young men who kept on addressing him as “Dada, Dada” while they crowded round him. At times he would have to rush off somewhere even though he was halfway through a meal. He possessed an engaging personality. His heavy, tan body stood up like an erect pipal tree with raised head. In time, his face appeared to show a greater seriousness with the assumption of social responsibilities. He could push his way right into the Minister’s or the Collector’s office. His knowledge of English was fluent and flawless. All these qualities slowly took him away from his real occupation into another world…the world of fame.

Suparna still does not recollect when father first stood for the elections to the Municipal Council. But she remembers to have seen her mother and aunt go about from house to house to canvass women to cast their votes in his favour. She has carried a ballot box along with them when they were visiting these women. The ballot box was a model, which was used to demonstrate when and how they would have to cast their votes. Anyway, father was elected a Councillor then. And the next time too.

Before Suparna’s father became a Councillor, a number of magazines such as Jhankara and Asantakali used to be there in the house. But two new periodicals appeared in the house, once he became a Councillor. Glossy, colourful, pictorial magazines. One called Soviet Land displayed many photographs of that country’s people...on top, bottom and in the middle of its pages. So many people, and yet, it was difficult to find a tear in anyone’s eyes. Each face appeared to be free from worry. Each one seemed to be smiling. Watching them, Suparna wondered if she could visit that land of smiles at least once. In contrast, her people, her town and her country, were so poor and dirty. Filth skins, the colour of peanuts. Bare feet, and dirty attire. Two rows of blackened, reddish teeth under the cheekbones. Her land was the land of dust-covered, naked children. Of prominent rib-cages and swollen belies, with snot dribbling down from the nostrils to the lips. Her country was a huge pile of bangles, totally meaningless; an enforced scarlet mark of vermilion on the brow, and the bizarre creature of woman that was simply an exposed face emerging from swaddled clothes. And on her land a sweetmeat shop that gave off an awful stench. Her land was the land of sunken bellies of thousands of rickshaw-pullers. And the most significant thing of all was that when the people of her own land smiled, they never resembled those she saw in that faraway land of smiles.

There was another magazine she had read too; it was titled This is America. This had no coloured pictures on its pages. Still the print was clear. The bodies and faces here were larger than usual, and were clad in will-cut suits and jackets. Beneath a hundred and twenty-storey building, was written: ‘America’s tallest skyscraper.’ Elsewhere, like swarms of ants, were innumerable automobiles; and the caption said: “Lines of automobiles of workers at an American factory.”

Maybe these two magazines were enough to let any one dream. And Suparna used to ask herself whether one would visit this land of smiles or the land of wealth and luxury.

An incident of those very days. A gentleman had come over to the school. There was a meeting just after the school was over. The man had spoken much about the benefits of saving. He added that a booklet dealing with savings certificates would be issued by the school. One could buy savings stamps from the day’s tiffin money and slowly fill up this booklet. A mere five rupees would complete the book; then, one could open up savings bank account at the post office. It appeared easy and simple. Suparna thought she would fix all five rupees worth of savings stamps at one time and open up her post office banking account. She had already understood that whether it was smiles or wealth, it was always money which led to it.

They were in fear of father. To go near him and ask for something was out of the question; they were even afraid to look straight at him and talk. So Suparna had asked her mother, “Ma, I need five rupees, I’d like to buy saving certificates.” Father was in the habit of reading before he went to sleep. Mother had cautiously put in then, “Can you give her five rupees. She says she’ll buy savings certificates.”

Father hadn’t said anything. He never used to answer right away anything one asked him. That was exactly why we were always scared of him. If he answered with a “No”, or even chided us, we would have understood. But his silence was dire punishment. The next day when Suparna started for school, her mother hadn’t given her the money. She had said instead, “Don’t do those things…Father will be angry. Don’t we have enough that you like to save? Father doesn’t approve of such things.”

It seemed surprising that father loved to eat simple curries made with potatoes, pumpkins and brinjals. He relished the bitter gourd, tiny fish from the river, and stir-fired leaves of the drumstick tree. He liked the sweet-swelling mahula pancakes, moong dal and goat’s heads. But they disliked all of those.

Every day, without fail, father used to telephone home and order the courses for the day’s meals. Only those very dishes were cooked, nothing else. Mother never considered for a moment whether Suparna or Meena liked the things that were made. Maybe, she hadn’t ever given a thought to what she liked to eat herself.

She never could wear her mother’s jewellery. Her mother had lots of gold ornaments, and father himself had bought the most recent designs. Ball chains, Manipuri necklaces, and stone-set, exquisitely painted ones. Yet, whenever mother went out, not to weddings and festivals, but even went visiting her friends and relatives – if she had her earrings on, father would make her return from the front door. “Where do you think you are going with those on? Do you think only you have jewellery, no one else?” Whatever was evident in his eyes and his gestures, made mother submit to him and take off all the jewellery she had worn.

Even though they were quite well off, they didn’t flaunt a wealthy life style because of this particular trait of father’s. So much so, that he bought a whole bale of cloth and used it for stitching clothes for the family throughout the year. The year’s many festivals appeared to be lusterless. Unconsciously, one shrunk back in embarrassment whenever it was time for a festival. Because friends would invariably ask: “Haven’t you had any new clothes this time?”

It was a time when one flitted about like a butterfly. Perhaps because man was somehow always a child, one could easily know what was good or bad, differentiate between justice and sin from a tender age. The Puja festivities were on then – the sounds of conches and bells, the melodies of the mahuri filled the air; and under the spread-out shamianas, it was time to watch the folk-opera and to buy balloons. Time to buy too, spicy paan for grandmother, cheap rings of brass, watch the P.C. Sorkar-like magic shows; how those festive days were woven with wonder, was not hard to understand. And finally; came the day of immersion. That year was a time of much trouble and violence. When she awoke in the morning, she saw that the glittering image of her locality had already been carried outside. The pipes were playing, a band was in full swing, the horse-dancers were romping around, and two street-dancers in women’s attire had began dancing, shaking their false breasts provocatively to the beat of a film-song. Dark glasses on his eyes, a garland round his neck, sandalwood paste smeared on his brow, father stood, just beside the Pujapandal. Other elders of the area were also present, with garlands and dark glasses, seemingly busy with the activities.

More policemen and Home-guards appeared to be there than people. The situation seemed exactly similar to previous years. Meanwhile the image of the goddess had been placed onto the truck. A few inebriated persons had started dancing in front of it. The policemen in charge were waving their batons and shouting, “Enough, move on! Move on!” But none paid any heed and stuck to their places. Only some drummers in fear of the police batons moved ahead and went to playing with added gusto.

Like the policemen, people of Suparna’s area were somehow aware of impending trouble. Every year there was much disorder between their Bazaar and Gandhi Bazaar. This fact was not new to them. The main reason behind the row was; who would lead the procession to the river? The Gandhi Bazaar people asserted that they had been the first to begin the Puja in 1921, while the elders in Suparna’s Bazaar insisted they had started their pujas from 1912. For various reasons they hadn’t published their event, and had kept their celebrations down to a low pitch, for nine years. So they should be in front, leading; not Gandhi Bazaar. The unrest took on such serious proportions at the time of the Pujas that they grouped into two factions at school and fought among themselves. Some children pointed at Suparna’s father and called him names simply because he was the secretary of the Puja Committee. And were often subjected to punishment because of such fights at school.

That year too, another game was being enacted. The Gandhi Bazaar group began playing a film song repeatedly, to which the youths of their own Bazaar retorted by playing another song-exactly like two small children scowling and making faces at each other. Just as if it was a prelude to war.

The night before, a meeting had been held under the chairmanship of Suparna’s father. It was decided there that no chances would be taken. Unrest would not be tolerated. But Sibu Rout did not wish the festivities to pass off peacefully. He kept on repeating the proverb, “We should respond to bricks with rocks.” The Bazaar elders kept on telling him time and again to be quiet.

Suparna could never stand this man called Sibu Rout. He was a vulgar, Paan-shop owner. He had hung a framed picture of a woman bathing in a stream, with a wet white sari clinging to her naked body, at his shop. His stained teeth and snide grin turned the woman’s beauty virtually into ugliness. One felt as if the man went on stripping the beautiful woman every moment he was there.

At four, when it was time for the girls of the school to walk back home, the man would cough hesitantly to attract attention, whistle sometimes; and when one saw his obscene grinning teeth, one would recoil in disgust. Suparna was not a mature girl then; her father would send her at times to his shop to fetch paan. Once the man had asked; “Daughter, how old are you?” She didn’t know why she had felt terribly embarrassed that day. When he was drunk, he used the most vulgar of expletives; and Suparna could never bear the sight of the man. He behaved as if he was a leader during these Pua festivals. And Suparna wondered why Father did not put him in his place.

The very same Sibu Rout was strutting about the morning of the immersion as if he was all-in-all there. The decorated image from Gandhi Bazaar had just entered their Bazaar when, in a moment, everything seemed to go wrong, for no apparent reason. And then all hell broke loose. The crowds were suddenly running here and there, screams and shouts reverberated in the street. Bricks and stones were being pelted everywhere. The police were resorting to a lathi-charge. And tear gas. People, watching the scene from their balconies, rushed inside. After a while the situation quietened, Suparna stealthily crept out and found that the streets had an almost deserted look, with just a few policemen moving around. Just about eight meters separated the two trucks of the two Bazaars, which carried the images of the goddesses looking down with mournful eyes.

Later, Suparna came to know that a peanut-seller had been admitted to the local hospital with serious body injuries. Some others were inflicted with minor wounds. The street beyond lay deserted through out the day. Shops remained shut with their shutters pulled down. Police jeeps alone went past the orphaned images. A solemn thought lay smouldering in the town like embers under a pile of ashes. Father had not returned home that day. She heard that eighteen persons including Sibu Rout had been arrested by the police. And so a committee for peace had been formed consisting of distinguished citizens of the town. Father was participating in a meeting along with the Collector, the Chairman and the Superintendent of Police. A feeling of exhilaration swept through Suparna, when she heard that Sibu Rout had been arrested. As if a week of malarial fever had just been over. She felt cheerful. He was a rogue, an unsavory character, Suparna told herself.

But however much Suparna’s joy had been, the same amount of surprise and hurt were in wait for her on the following day.

In the afternoon, awaking lazily from her short nap, Suparna was entering the kitchen to ask her mother for a cup of tea when her attention was drawn to the sound of voices speaking in hushed tones from the drawing room. Curious to know who was there, she stepped back in sheer disbelief when she peered through the chinks in the curtains at the door. This man should have been in prison now, she thought. But here he was, firmly seated in their drawing room. Father sat beside him, explaining something. Still this crafty, jackal-like person didn’t appear to be listening to him at all. He merely looked around him. He noticed Suparna standing close to the curtains and showed his grimy teeth in an obscene grin. Relationship? Suparna seethed with anger. It seemed as though he was sneering at her, asking, “Daughter, how old are you?” Suparna was slowly backing away. Father noticed her suddenly and said, “Child, will you get a cup of tea for Sibu Babu.”

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