Shivaji K. Moitra

© Copyright 2003 by Shivaji K. Moitra 


Photo of a smoke tree.  Copyright (c) 2003 by Richard Loller.

When you are young and alone and you come to an unfamiliar corner of the country to earn your living and face the queer world all by yourself, you’re frightened of loneliness which creeps into your heart as soon as you have finished your work for the day. The dusk and the leisure that comes with it are a perennial source of concern when you are new to a place where you do not know even a handful of people of your taste and predilections and where the avenues of entertainment are rare and rudimentary. So you have but one thing to do between dusk and dinner---maunder along the river or just hang around some public place such as the marketplace, the jetty or perhaps the temple to look at the people go about their business, talking and laughing and may be the pretty girls in colourful dresses, giggling and discussing animatedly their latest affairs with some spectacular flourish of their mehendi-decorated palms while their beautiful faces lightened up with bizarre expressions of mock anger, joy or embarrassment. It certainly lifted your spirits and kept the suffocating grip of loneliness at bay for the time being.

 There was a fairly wide river flowing by the eastern margin of the town where I had been sent to work. I had been a poor young man not presently in the best of spirits and alone. I was disappointed at my failure to find a decent job which besides coming up to my expectations would allow me to take care of my aging parents. So each evening I emerged from my office after work gingerly as a rat that was still afraid of the last rays of the setting sun and trudged up to my one room apartment to wash up and change into my evening dress. Then I often headed straight for the quaint Radha-Govinda temple standing on a knoll at the bend of the river.

 It was a picturesque location from where you could get a beautiful view of the town below and its jetty a little down the river where boats of different colours jostled for space and passengers from dawn to dusk. The temple was always crowded with devotees who either sat in rows on the long portico facing the alter meditating quietly or listening passionately to the devotional songs being sung from time to time or just milled around the veranda to relax in the heavenly peace and tranquillity that surrounded the place. Mostly I sat facing the river on one of the long marble stairs leading to the temple to spend the evening perfunctorily watching the devotees rather than the deities while listening to the canorous chimes of the temple-bells and kirtans (choir in accompaniment of cymbals). The fragrance of flowers and the perfume of incense sticks offered to the Gods mixed to produce that uniquely mystic aroma which wafts around any place of worship and it rendered me philosophical for the rest of the day. So at times I sat brooding over my future, my chin resting on my palms turned skywards and my elbows supported on my knees.

 It was on such a time and place that I made the acquaintance of Dasanan Pal. Rather it was he who made the acquaintance of me when he said, “Young man, that’s what I call an ugly posture! In the prime of youth do not sit thus like an old man who has difficulty in carrying his head over his feeble neck.” I was ashamed and I turned towards him shyly. Sitting two stairs below me was an elderly man perhaps in his late 50s, tall and erect and wearing a disarming smile above his white trimmed beard. He had small round eyes set on a big, plump face and his large forehead receded to blend smoothly with his bald head. His fair pate glistened from the reflection of the temple-lights and produced the impression of a kind, wise man. The vestiges of his once robust body was discernable. I returned his smile sheepishly. “I have been watching you for some time, my son, “ he continued lightly, “and I hope you didn’t take umbrage at the piece of unsolicited advice from this stranger.” “Oh no, never,” I stammered, running my gaze swiftly over him. “My name is Dasanan Pal and I have been at this place for a considerably long time. I am an ex-serviceman and I am a bachelor,” he went on, “and I come here to watch the Arti (paying homage to the Gods with burning lamps and frankincense) twice a week. Without having the least inclination to snoop into your personal troubles I just want to say that I hate to see morose looking young men and women who appear to have lost all zest for life even before they have reached their thirtieth birthday. They stoop as if with the burden of all the worries of this world. Do not let the small adversities of life snatch the smile out of your lips.” He paused ostensibly to make out if I was squirming to escape his speech. But when he guessed I wasn’t an unwilling listener, he asked with a twinkle in his eyes, “Shall I tell you a real-life story to drive home my point?” I nodded to convey that I wasn’t averse to hearing one. “Well then, my young friend,” he continued, “let me tell you that in this world full of surprises and contradictions there are people, a good many of them whose cheerful faces and ungrudging attitude would confound you the moment you happen to get a ring-side view of their immensely tragic and aimless lives. All your pains and troubles then suddenly pale into insignificance before their sufferings and sorrows and you realise how lucky you are. Thirty years ago I chanced to meet such a person precisely here. Her name was Anamika. She used to stand here under this old Banyan tree which has been standing since time immemorial with all its myriad arms flung around. Everyday she arrived with her two young sons at around nine in the morning when the fierce Indian sun was still hours away from attaining its threatening posture and the air was cool and the temple had been brimming with activity. Then emptying her baskets of clay idols of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, dolls and the figures of various animals she laid them on a patch of cleared ground beneath the Banyan tree on display before her customers---the devotees and their children. Those days I was a young man and I used to work here in the Postal Department. Since the day I first saw her, two curious things about her struck me. The first shocking thing was the very incongruity of her presence here in such a fashion and the other surprising thing was her ability to keep a smile alive on her lips in spite of her many cares and needs. She was too fair and pretty to escape your eyes and I guessed she hadn’t yet crossed her 30s.

 It had become a pastime for me to observe her twice a week seated on one of these stairs and every time I couldn’t help appreciating her beauty and surmising what great misfortune had befallen her which had brought her to such a state. I pondered how charming she was under the veil of her poverty, her faded raiment and of the dust that collected on her at the end of the day. She never seemed to grudge her destiny which she dismissed with a sweet yet restrained smile which always clung to her lips. No wonder, the young and old both liked her and most of them bought an idol or two or a clay animal after a visit to the temple. She earned enough everyday to keep her body and soul together, I presumed.

 Being a young man those days and moody, perhaps like you I used to be very much moved and amazed by the kaleidoscopic nature of life, its ups and downs and the unpredictable course life takes when you least expect it to do. I used to read a lot of Somerset Maugham and Maupassant and the lives of people, their aspirations and frustrations, their pains and sufferings, their cowardice and fortitude in the face of tragedy and their love and despair, everything greatly interested me. So one evening while somewhat pensively looking at the colourful reflections of the setting sun in the river I decided to take a peek into Anamika’s past which I strongly believed could be replete with queer twists of fate and many a surprising event. So in the course of my weekly sojourns to the temple when I had made quite a good acquaintance with her I allowed myself to indulge in short conversations with her, to which she never seemed to object or mind. However, I never pressed her to reveal more than she wished to about her life, her present and her past. The fact that I seemed to care about her worries and her past gradually made her believe I was a sort of kind, eccentric person. Flocks of wild birds regularly descended upon the Banyan tree to eat the juicy figs and they made a mess of the ground below by dropping a rain of ripe and decaying fruits. Then it was the job of Anamika’s two little sons to hold the broom and clean the spot at regular intervals where she displayed her clay items for sale. But it had been a gang of black-faced Indian langurs that really bothered her from time to time. They stormed the temple premises for tasty handouts from the devotees and scampered across the small garden on the frontage and over Anamika’s fragile wares to finally raid the Banyan tree. Sometimes I happened to be there at the right moment and I scared away the animals to save her wares from being trampled and destroyed. No doubt, she thanked me for the endeavour each time.

 She used to live at the edge of the town in one of the shanties cluttering the river bank which was called Mechopara, ‘The Village of Fishermen’ which has long been devoured by the expanding town. It was a couple of miles from the temple and could be reached only by a narrow dirt-track which during the long rainy season simply vanished under slush and wild grass and weeds. Those days a mile of bush-land separated the temple from the borders of the town. Of her two sons the younger one was only three and the older was a boy of nine. The younger had light skin and was a handsome kid while his brother was dark with tribal features. The marked contrast among her children was hard to overlook and one day when she no more felt shy of exchanging a few words with me I casually observed, “Your big one is damn smart and healthy but so much darker than his brother.” Anamika smiled. Then she said almost in a whisper, “Yes I adopted him. He is an orphan and he used to live by polishing shoes at the station and sleep on the platform of Bilaspur Rail Station.” “Bilaspur?” I exclaimed, “You mean in Madhya Pradesh, 750 Kms. away?” “Yes, he’s a very good boy. I took pity on him when I chanced to see him one night while waiting for the train as he prayed to the Gods before eating his dinner of just bread with a piece of cucumber. Then he shared his morsel with two mongrels with whom he slept during the winter. I asked him to come and live with me and ever since he calls me mother.”

 It’s only the poor perhaps who have the courage to help others of their tribe and who in spite of their meagre resources never seem to be short of kindness and generosity, I mused.” Dasanan fell silent for a few seconds, looking vaguely at a group of strangely-clad ascetics who were smoking ganja sitting a few steps down before us and shuffling the pipe between themselves. Then having collected the pieces from his rusty memory and sewing them up in order, he began from where he had left. “On some Sunday afternoons in the winter months of November, December and January when basking in the warm sun is a luxury you can enjoy for free, I took Anamika’s seat in jest and hawked her wares before the devotees and visitors who reacted with jokes and laughter but ended up buying something each. One day in course of such light-hearted activity I asked Anamika when and from whom had she learnt the art of clay modelling. I knew it was certainly not her husband, who I had come to know was a habitual drunkard and a vagrant sort of person of questionable reputation. “I learnt to run my fingers on clay from my former husband; he’s a very good sculptor and a famous artist,” she said without hesitating. Then looking askance at the furrows of surprise on my brow as if secretly relishing my suspense she embraced silence. But she had already left the door of her past ajar and the smell of some sad event, some nasty betrayal came to my nose. It was not my habit to embarrass a hapless woman by making an unwanted intrusion into her personal life and I knew it ill behoved me to be overtly curious. So I dropped the subject that day.

 The call of duty took me to another town more than a hundred miles away and I had almost begun to forget Anamika when the event of a promotion brought me back unexpectedly after a gap of three years. The Monsoon rains arrived along with me and it was not possible to visit the temple for a few days. But upon my first visit to the temple since returning, to seek the blessing of the Gods, the giant Banyan tree quite naturally drew my attention. Immediately I saw Anamika at the same spot where I had been used to seeing her. She had not changed at all in the years of my absence, neither did her warm, interminable smile. But her children had grown bigger and healthier. She greeted me with a ‘namaste’ and a lot of smiles and pleasantries and told me that nothing worth mentioning had occurred in the last three years.

 Then a month later it happened. It had been raining cats and dogs for the last two days, the type of vicious monsoon rain that has scant respect for time, that disdainfully ignores umbrellas and man-made barriers, that envelops the sky, the earth and the mind in a suffocating haze and hides the sun for days reducing your visibility to within a metre or two. Then after pouring what seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of water for nearly sixty hours at a stretch the clouds cleared at last around noon on Sunday and the sun shone again. The people exasperated by long hours of confinement within the four walls of their homes and maddened by the continuous ruffle of the downpour immediately emerged to breathe the fresh air and take benefit of the few remaining hours of daylight to complete their daily chores. I had slept late into the morning like all lazy people do when the rains come as a Godsend excuse for doing nothing and I did not wish to get groggy in the evening by spending the afternoon in slumber as well. So after lunch I clutched a book of Tolstoy’s short stories and set out for the temple intending to read it sitting in a serene corner of the temple-lobby. As soon as I entered the arched gateway of the temple I found a small crowd under the Banyan tree, a quiet crowd of locals and keepers of the place, what apparently was concentrating on something. Casting an indifferent glance at it I was approaching the marble-paved lobby when Anamika’s elder son stopped me. “Uncle, uncle,” he cried, “my mother has been bitten by a cobra; what shall I do now?” His voice trembled in fear. I saw her sitting calmly on the grass with her left leg folded up and blood was oozing from a spot just above her ankle. Somebody had rightly and wisely tied up her leg at two places above the wound with a piece of cloth and a string but I understood that the first right step was being diluted when someone told me that they had sent for the Ojha---a person belonging usually to the tribe of snake-charmers who is believed by the villagers to wield supernatural powers capable of rendering the venom ineffective and thus saving the victims of snake-bite. Without wasting time I took her to the hospital. It eventually saved her life.

 After Anamika returned home her husband appeared one morning at my door. With trepidation he asked me if I could accept his invitation for a cup of tea at his hut. It was against my nature to disappoint anybody and I assured him that I would come some day. It was the first time I looked closely at his face. He was a short, stout and swarthy man in his mid 40s. His large rosy eyes were set upon a muscular face with high cheeks and a high nose and his hair was black, long and wavy which he combed backwards.

 A brief lull in the spate of rains offered a few days of dry weather and sunshine and the soggy grounds and streets became dry and walkable again. On such a nice day Anamika’s man arrived to escort me to his humble house. He and Anamika expressed their deep gratitude to me for the little duty I had done to save her life and then we talked of all those things that concern only the poorest of the poor and which rarely merit more than a moment of thought from people like us. Thereafter, I thanked them for the cup of tea and emerged from their quaint hut whereupon the melodious slosh of tidal waves came to my ears. Dusk was closing in and Anamika’s husband wanted to escort me back home. On the way I asked him, “Look, you’re lucky to get such a good wife; why don’t you work hard and become a worthy husband?” “Yes sir,” he replied, “she is a virtuous woman and she comes from the family of a rich Sarpanch (village headman). But while in her teens she did the mistake of eloping with a farmhand of his father. The youth was good-looking and was reportedly a good sculptor and painter and somehow she fell in love with him. Then after two or three years of hopping around miserably he went to Bombay leaving her behind. There, Anamika had come to understand through his letters that lady luck had smiled on him and miraculously he grew famous and rich by displaying his talent. But quickly she lost track of him and he never returned to his wife again. Now, you know sir, what happens to a little-educated, forsaken woman, beautiful and alone. I bought her back and rescued her from a brothel I used to frequent when I came to know her plight. I set her free but she said she had nowhere to go. Her parents and her village had disowned her and she thus agreed to be my wife for a honourable life. Ever since, she has stubbornly refused to live upon my earnings until I revealed the source of my income. And I have not done that yet.” He spoke not a word more and asked my leave at the gate of my house. “A strange family indeed!” I mused.

 Later however, in the course of my journey through life I realized to my amazement that among the most disadvantaged and ignored peoples of our society such makeshift families of convenience, held together not by the force of money but by the glue of real benevolence and magnanimity are by no means a rare phenomenon.

 Next weekend when I met Anamika again I gazed at her smiling face with awe and disbelief as never before. There was on her mien not even a hint of the storm that ravaged her youth, not even a furrow of disgust or discontent on her brow for the travails of her present. She appeared perfectly in harmony and peace with her destiny. In my eyes she was still pure and innocent as a bud and her life was sublime. Life continued without much of an ado for me and for Anamika. But I was getting restless and disillusioned with my uninspiring sedentary job. Then six months later the prospect of an exciting career in the Indian Navy made me resign from the P&T job. Then about a fortnight before I was to embark on a different voyage of my life a startling news hit the townsfolk in the morning. I heard that a special team of CID officers had arrived from the district at night and had taken away Anamika’s husband in a prison van just after dawn. Some of those policemen had told Anamika’s neighbours that he was a gaolbird who had escaped from prison and was a notorious highway robber. It seemed so incredible, impossible. I was the last man to believe such crap until the next morning’s newspapers unfortunately proved me wrong. A drunkard and a habitual gambler was the worst I could think of him. But it took quite a while for me to imagine the apparently peace-loving man in the garb of a dangerous criminal, a fugitive from law. Naturally, you know from shame Anamika stopped coming to the temple. So on the last day of my stay I went to meet her in her house for one last time. Looking at her face now stripped of that inseparable and familiar smile was very very painful. Discreetly, I asked her about her future plans. “You know sir,” she said gravely, “after all this shameful incident I cannot think of staying in this town any longer; everybody knows me. Moreover, for a young woman living alone without her man is disgraceful and such women are considered immoral in this society and are often looked down with suspicion.” She looked thoughtful. “So where do you intend to go?” I enquired. “I have an old uncle of my father who used to live at Kharagpur. I will try to find him out,” she replied sombrely. There wasn’t much I could do. I gave her five hundred rupees to facilitate her journey which she accepted reluctantly.

 I landed on the deck to begin a new life that took me across three oceans and many seas, I visited many a distant shore, ran into many queer people and caught wonderful glimpses of their strange lives, I fought a war, fell in love and emerged out of it a couple of times disoriented and puzzled like a man who has just regained his memory after a bout of amnesia and all along newer reminiscences kept accumulating on the older ones pushing those wilting memories towards oblivion. It was only at times when a similar sounding name came to my ears did Anamika and the temple rise from the floor of my remembrance to float before my eyes. Occasionally, standing on the bridge of my ship INS Vikrant and while looking at the limitless expanse of the blue waters before my eyes I wondered what had happened to Anamika. Was she still alive?

 Nearly two decades later, by one of those unbelievable accidents that happen in life I met Anamika again at the most unlikely of places on earth. A comrade of mine had died of kidney ailments. Being his buddy I was chosen in keeping with the custom in the Forces to accompany his body to his home at a coastal town called Baleshwar. And in the evening along with his bereaved family members I went to the cremation-ground on the bank of a river. A pyre was burning in the gathering darkness and the dom (people who help cremate bodies as a hereditary profession) attending to it came up to arrange another pile of wood in its trembling light for my dead friend. Half-an-hour later my friend was stripped naked (because Hindus believe that a human being comes into the world naked and therefore must leave it in the same form) and laid on the pyre and dedicated to the Fire-God. As the tongues of fire leapt to consume the mortal remains of my buddy, a woman emerged from the surrounding darkness and ambled up to the dom. Her back was towards me but I could clearly hear her speak. “Go, your tea and tiffin is ready; I will look after the pyres,” she said to the man, who I presumed to be her husband. The man went away and the woman took a long bamboo pole and poked the fire to make it burn properly. Then she turned and immediately we saw each other in the bright orange glow of the pyre. For a moment a thunderbolt of surprise left both of us paralysed as we recognised each other. Then she said, “Sir, I never thought I will see you again. But when God wishes to play a sweet trick such impossible things can happen and I am so happy.” The spontaneous disarming smile so familiar to my eyes still hung to her lips and even in the afternoon of her life the vestiges of a pretty face was clearly discernible. But by no length of imagination could I understand what mysterious event had flung her to such a bleak corner of the world. Sitting on a brick platform built under a large Neem tree for the waiting relatives of the dead she told me that she had searched out her uncle who being a man without a family happily gave them shelter. But he retired from service soon and returned to his ancestral place at Baleshwar where they lived together on his pension until he died suddenly just five years later. “God snatched away my shelter a third time,” she perorated broodily, “and I had nowhere to go again. With the help of a neighbour and my young sons I somehow cremated his body. But struck by the speed of the misfortune I had perhaps lingered a little too long at the gate of the cremation-ground that rainy evening which prompted Vikram, the person who has been making the pyres here to ask me if I really had nowhere to go. He had heard my sobs and wails and when he knew the truth he sent his old mother to persuade me to share his modest hut along with his mother and a deaf-and-dumb sister for as long as I wished. The rest is history and the story of his kindness. He was a very young man then, perhaps younger to me by several years but since then I have found peace and happiness here.” In the prevailing darkness which was thrust back only by the glow of the pyres I could see the reflection of the leaping tongues of fire in her moist eyes. “Your sons?” I whispered. “Yes, they are big now and happy. I had a son with Vikram and the three brothers run a kiosk and a shop on the highway,” she replied in a happy note. What a place to find happiness! I mused with a shudder.”

 The clang of the closing temple-doors made Dasanan spring to his feet. He looked at his watch and exclaimed, “My God! It’s dinner-time. Forgive me brother, for holding you back till this unearthly hour.” And he rushed down the flight of stairs dragging me along.

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