The boys from the neighbourhood are sitting on rented chairs and chatting away. They are tired of playing carrom, the board game. Those who were playing bridge, even they have packed their cards and are now ranting to each other on Baba Sehgal’s music or the recent fixes between Mohunbagan and EastBengal, the soccer rivals. Satyavrata Ghosh is sitting all alone underneath the Puja mandap, and he is feeling nostalgic. He remembers so many of such Puja occasions from his life of sixty two years. The childhood days, with new clothes on each day of Akal-bodhan; and today no more on himself, but he watches his granddaughter Runa wearing new clothes each day- from the sixth to the tenth day. Oh, now, where did Runa disappear? She was sitting right here! Satyavrata moves his lazy neck and looks behind.
He sees Runa walking back this way holding the hands of an elderly person. The elderly face appears familiar, but he cannot quite recollect whose. The man is not from this neighbourhood – Gosh, what if it is someone from the family and he cannot remember who it is – No, this brain is getting lazier with age!
Runa and that man are close now. Satyavrata is staring at them , when Runa says – “there is my grandpa!”
Satyavrata folds his hands and he mumbles ‘Namaskar’. And with a bit of embarrassment, he says, “I cannot remember you.”
The old man laughs. “Oh, I am Charu…me…”
“Charu, …Charuda…!” Oh no! It is him! The same thin and sickly frame! Glasses on eyes! It looks like he is going to fall down any time; but Charuda had…!
“Yes! It is me alright! Just felt like visiting you after so many years!
Runa is looking at Grandpa Satyavrata’s pupils stretching with wonder. Satyavrata raises his arm and says, ‘Lal Salam, Charu da! But….’
“Com’n man! Chalo, go tell your daughter-in-law to make a fine dish of ghooghni for me. Your granddaughter has already told me that she makes it real good.”
Satyavrata brings Charuda home. Satyavrata’s wife opens the doors. Shantashree has a look at the thin elderly with glasses and says right away, – “Oh, Charuda! You…”
“Com’n Shantashree, no questions! Tell your daughter-in-law to bring me some ghooghni, I am starving.”
“Come, sit… come inside. Dhruva, O Dhruva….”, before she could tell her daughter-in-law to bring in a plate a serving of ghooghni that was prepared in the morning, suddenly with an anxiety she asks, “but ghooghni will be too spicy…! We made it in the morning, I better make some fresh, with no spices.”
“You silly girl, what damage can spices do to me now! Bring it, I am starving and later bring me some pudding too.
Dhruva brings a plateful of chickpea-mash. Charuda says affectionately, “Please get me a green chilly also.” He takes the glass of water in is hand and says, “it is getting cold. Not good to drink water from the fridge; Do this, mix some warm water into this. And listen, please do not make any tea. I do not drink tea or coffee any more.”
In the mean time, Runa is back with a little diary in her hands. And Satyavrata chides her, “Not now, you are after everybody.”
Runa is adamant, “No, Our next issue is coming out tomorrow, I want to interview him today.”
Charuda laughs and says, “O! Its for your mini-magazine, is it! What do you call it – Ravibar? Oh, yes, tomorrow is Raviar-Sunday!”
Satyavrata is lost in thoughts, only if we could feed him like this back then, it would be so pleasing. Those days he could only take boiled vegetables, thin bland gravy of Rohu, and that too with great difficulty.
Charuda is filling his mouth with the chick-peas, “Write then, Charu Mazumdar, I was born, … well, I do not remember when I was born, … death I remember, I died on 27 July 1972. “
Again Charuda is all laughter, “I loved climbing mango trees in my childhood. There were days when I would be sitting on the branches of a mango tree for hours reading a book. And then my folks would come out looking for me.”
Runa asks, “Were you the topper in your class when you went to school?”
“Topper? I should remember that… probably not, it is no big deal to be a topper in your class…!” Charuda seemed concerned. Runa asks again, “How did you like the dish?”
“Oh, the ghooghni… great! Please ask your mom to give me a little more.”
Dhruva comes smiling with a pan full of ghooghni and pours it out with a ladle. Charuda does not stop her. Satyvrata feels uneasy and says, “Let him eat that much, he can take more later.”
Charuda says, “No more, I will eat the rice-pudding after this. Do you remember, on my first visit Santashree had served me rice-pudding only, a whole lot. You were asking for cooking vegetables, but it was half past one past midnight, and there was leftover rice-pudding and I ate that.”
Satyavarata Cannot remember. Satyavarata remembers only two days from the year 1971, when Charuda came here and every window of the house had two of his colleagues on guard every moment . That tension in the house, Satyavrata feels that if that were to repeat again, his heart may just stop working. Those two days Charu da could only swallow boiled vegetables, soup, thin bland fish gravy, that was all. And he was writing continuously for two days without taking rest with intermittent discussions with his colleagues. Satyavrata was told not to leave home. A leave application was sent to the college. His colleague from the department in college came by to inquire after his health and Shantashree told him right at the doors, “He has left for Tollygunj,” and she did not even ask him to come in.
Charu da is staring on the wall. There is no one on guard on the window ahead. And outside, even if a cop goes by in full uniform, no one is going to care. And yet the thought brought shivers to Satyavrata. He tries to hide his embarrassment and points to the calendar on the wall, “This was designed by Dhruva, She works for a women’s organisation, it was meant for them.”
But Runa intervenes. She is still on her pursuit, “Will you draw a picture for our magazine.”
“Yes, of course,” and Charuda grabs the diary from her, “Right here, I will draw a sketch; you can later cut and paste it.”
Charuda has made a frog. A tree and a roundish face on the tree.
Runa asks, “Is this modern painting?”
“Oh yes, it is modern alright; wait, let me sign it.” Charuda signs his name. Satyavrata cannot hide his curiosity – he gets close to them and finds that Charuda has signed in style – C M.
Suddenly Shantashrre speaks, “Were you always like this?”
Charuda laughs, “Oh Gosh! Who knows what I was, do I know it! Sometimes I think I could have joined Chuni Goswami in a soccer team. I tell you! I was quite a player when in school. I used to be the center forward!…”
Satyavrata is watching with mouth agape. His front teeth are not in shape. They are blackened. He feels a pang with a desire to smoke.
But his son has forbidden him to smoke inside the house. He asks, ‘Charuda! ‘want a smoke?’
‘Na! All this I quit then only.”
Suddenly Shantashree says, “We were all waiting for you to visit us on Sunday, then on the 16th, we heard it on the radio…”, Satyavrata wonders how she could remember things from such a distant past.
Charuda is not listening to her…. The curtain on the door to the balcony flies in the air. Watching it, he speaks up, “There was a young chap coming up those days, Subhash Bhowmick. He played well… I really wanted to watch him play sometime.“
Suddenly Satyavarata asks, “Charuda, Don’t you ever feel that all that happened then was wrong – if we could go back…”
Charuda stops him and asks Runa, “Well then, is the frog drawn right? It is a modern frog.”
“And bouma, where is the Payes?”
Charuda eats payesh relishingly.
Satyavrata moves to the other room. There is a file on the desk – leaflets from several protests these days, all saved carefully. He has selected them out of his son’s papers and saved them in his own files. He wants to show them to Charuda. He picks up the file, but puts it back. Comes back on soft steps. Charuda is asking Runa – “So how many clothes did you get this time for the Puja days?”
“four…no, five,…four frocks and a salwar-kameez!”
“That is great! When are you going to wear the salwar?”
“On Navami…tomorrow I will wear the frock with flowers on it. Do you want to see it?”
Charuda is looking at Runa’s frock, and says, “Next time I come, I will bring new kind of clothes for you. What would you like?”
Runa jumps and says, “Jeans!”
“Ok,” Charuda looks at Satyavrata and asks, “How expensive are Jeans?”
Santashree replies, “No less than a hundred rupees for her size.”
Charuda is contemplating. What is he thinking – Satyavrata himself is an economics teachers, but since he retired two years back, he rarely thinks about the discipline. Charuda must be thinking of the inflation, this thought in Satyavrata’s mind is completely falsified as Charuda asks Shantashree, “Have you ever worn Jeans?”
Shantashree is laughing aloud. Dhruva too; Runa is also laughing. Satyavrata’s head is hanging low. Suddenly he feels like he may be weeping any moment. He moves his neck around with embarrassment.
Charuda gets up and pats Satyavrata on his shoulders. “Youngman, get up. I could not meet your son today. No problem, I am not going to get out of this ghooghni. I will keep visiting you all – Alright then, I better be going today?”
Satyavrata is still sitting with his head low. If only he was a young boy, or a little kid…, he feels like he should hide his face in Santashree’s chest and cry aloud. Or may be he should punch Charuda’s chest with fists, and howl.
Charuda is on his feet. “You guys sit, I am going.” Shantashree comes all the way to the doors. Then they all come to the balcony and they watch Charuda leaving. They keep looking at him until he has turned away from the house at the corner afar. And then Charuda disappeared.
Satyavrata is holding on to the curtain. Suddenly he says – “Bouma, please give me some ghooghney too.”
Santashree says,”You were complaining of an upset stomach in the morning!”
Satyavrata has a sad tear sparkling in his eyes.
**Translated by the author from original in Hindi published in ‘Samakaaleen Janmat’ – 1994.
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