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
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
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
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.”