A cycle was approaching on this late autumn afternoon. – Jugalchandra was sitting on the top tube with his legs dangling, the thin wind touching his eyebrows, hairs protruding from the earlobes and nostrils. A paddling, Somenath too breathed the same air. He could feel a saline sensation in his nose and throat. It’s time to stop
-Now turn left – turn left – Jugalchandra was forcefully turning the handle.
-What are doing! Let me alone handle. Leave it. Stop it now. Somnath alighted from the cycle.
The cobbled path slopped downwards. There is another brick path in the front, a narrow gat on the left with a slanting shop on its side.
Pramanik Poultry Feed Centre (Gold Star)
Proprietor – Sattwik Pramanik
Bashpalla, South 24-Parganas
N.B. All kinds of balanced animal feed available here. Chicks also available.
There is another shop on the right with a Khirish Tree over it. A heap of bricks lay on its side. A few bicycles kept in the front. A kid if fixing tire leaks. There is another signboard –
Pakija Hardware Concern
Use reliable cement for strong construction
“There is nothing better than this”
Proprietor: Sheikh Munnaf Ali
Village Bashpalla, Post Office Iswaripur
District 24-Parganas (South)
Cycles sold and repaired here.
Oh! This must be the main gate of Bashpalla. Somenath snapped his fingers. He felt like snapping the entire body. They have left the main road long back. The sound of the cars which blazed past them on the asphalted don’t reach this far. But it shouldn’t take more than half an hour to reach any destination near Kolkata by those cars. At most forty-five minutes. And they had only reached another unmade road after that long bumpy ride.
Someone stepped out of Pakija Concern.
– Assalam Alekum. How are you? What about your lands?
A few of Jugalchandra’s tooth peeped out of his lips.
-Walakum Assalam. I am fine Ali. We are actually going to see our lands. What about you?
-What news can a poor businessman have? Your shirt is nice. It seems as if you have wrapped yourself in jungles!
-This is my nephew Ranjan’s. Sister-in-law have washed all my shirts. Nephew is supposed to play Tabla in concerts wearing this.
-Wow! When will you start constructing your house! We are now bringing Mayurakshi sands from Nalhati. Course or fine – whatever you desire. What’s your brothers saying?
Somenath was fixing his hairs with his hands. His eyebrows narrowed hearing the conversation. Start constructing your house! That means Sona Uncle don’t have a house! But Ranjan said otherwise –
-My brothers don’t say anything. They don’t even turn their back. They will…after they realize…
-Didn’t buy anything?
Jugalchandra nodded and then entered Pramanik’s shop. What’s he going to buy? Thought Somenath. Animal feed? Or, one day old chicks? What does this man have as pets? Somenath stood outside leaving the cycle on its stands. Every word spoken could be heard from outside.
-I gave old rice Jugal. Will take time to boil but the rice will be sweet. Have given pulses too.
A perplexed Somenath stared at the signboards. Human food too is available in an animal feed shop! Hardware Store repairs cycles. What a place! But why is Sona Uncle buying these things? He went ahead.
-Are you going to cook?
-Do you plan to stay hungry?
-I never knew you had planned a picnic here.
Yugalchandra sniggered. Why? You don’t want to eat?
-No why should I eat. I will return. You may stay there if you want. But if Ranjan says something, I won’t be responsible.
-Do you need anything else? Eggs? Pramanik retorted from inside the shop. It seems you have a guest! We will be closing now.
-No! What more do a man need? Sattwik? Hot Rice and Dal. Just squeeze a lemon on it. A bite of green chili! That’s all. Lemon and Chilies are available on our side.
Now Somenath felt a rumble in his tummy. He could clearly imagine a plate of hot rice. A ravished hunger ding-donged deep inside the stomach. All he had in morning is a bowl of Chowmein, the same food his brother took to school for lunch. But two hundred grams of Chowmein can never equal one hour of cycling. Not even in China. He felt a remorse for already mentioning his averseness to food. He became irritated – Sona Uncle, now you have to walk. Can’t cycle in these roads! How far is your house?
Who’s going to answer? The one who should have is already marching ahead. Somenath chuckled. This man is crazy. Who else could have donned Ranjan’s harlequin shirt over dhoti. Somenath felt like cursing Ranjan. He loudly uttered some dirty slang on this bare land.
After a pause, he uttered the same curse words thinking about his own idiocy. What a fucking idea of helping a friend. Who would have carried a sixty-four year old Uncle of a friend to this far? Why? Because Sona Uncle is on an expedition to his estate! He had cycled for more than hour from Ranjan’s house. A distance for at least three to four fags! And how many he has been able to smoke? Not a single one. He could never the fathom the relation between not smoking in front of elders and showing respect towards them. Is respect a ring of smoke?
Somenath was pushing his cycle. The canal is still on the left. Weeds huddled together on the moss green water. Also floating along with it are few fish scales and fish debris. A wooden bridge lay ahead at the distance. A girl was fetching water from a public tubewell in an iron bucket. Somenath stared at her. No! Not that interesting. A pond on the right followed by barren land, another pond. The hut of a carpenter nearby – aroma of fresh timbre filled him. Telakucha herbs intricately fringed an old wall. The trees had softened the sun, they could walk comfortably. Sona Uncle didn’t utter a single word. He strolled at some distance. How strange!
What will he do if Somenath decides to turn back from here? He won’t even notice. He had exchanged a few words with Somenath on the way. It was like a travelling interview.
-You stay with your family? Who else stays with you?
Yugalchandra asked the question staring straight ahead. As if Somenath wasn’t the one cycling, as if he was running in front of the cycle.
-Dad, Mom, Brother –
-How old is your brother?
-Atleast ten to eleven years younger than me. Studies in middle school.
-Do you work?
-What do you mean? Had he been employed, he would have been in office, and not travelling with this crazy man. Somenath sighed. Finished Graduation. Now enrolled for a computer course. Appearing in different competitive examinations. That’s all.
-Isn’t tonight a full moon one?
Somenath paddled forcefully. This man is digressing like anything. Might be – he said –why?
Yugalchandra never uttered anything else. Somenath checked his desperate urge to say – is it a rule to keep mum on the day because the night is full moon?
Now that urge returned. He wanted to ring his bell and break the deep slumber of Yugalchandra. Ting Ting Ting.
The day is ruined. The computer class was off. He had visited Ranjan’s place. Someone had told that Ranjan had left his job. He wanted to know. And now he is converted to a petty serf. The road is endless. Perhaps they are discovering South 24 Parganas. The Sundarbans might be straight ahead. Even Bangladesh. Then –
Ya! I left the job. Ranjan had replied. You can either work or play the Tabla or work. Its not possible to manage both. Now he is invited in concerts. There is a job offer for playing Tabla in a singing school. I sometimes get calls from the Television channels or the radio stations. I have a recording for Television today. Ranjan suddenly stopped and played with his beards for a while. Then he kept both his hands on Somenath’s shoulder. As if Somenath is Tabla. Can you help me?
Somenath was reluctant. Can’t lend my cycle!
-I don’t want to borrow your cycle. But, can you carry someone in your cycle.
-What do you mean? Who is that someone?
-My uncle. Won’t take much time. You know Sonauncle? You might know him. He stays in Raurkella. These days he frequently visits us. He is now retired. Now he stays here often.
-Why should I be bothered? Where will he go?
-To his lands. He has a house there. You have brought your cycle –
-He can take a bus.
-The bus service is very poor on those parts. And it’s some distance from the bus route.
-Where are you sending me?
-It’s a request. He is nagging from the morning. Can’t let him go on his own. But he would go in every full moon night. Who knows he might pray or practice mambo jumbo. A strange habit for the last five six years. Once he returned with pneumonia. He has hyper tension. If something happens to him –
-Wow! You want to force upon a patient on me. If something happens to him on the way, I will be the one responsible.
-Nothing will happen. But don’t talk much. He talks nonsense. He has a huge property. Now he wants to make a house there. He wants all four of his brothers to settle there. He wants to make a farm there. Farm, garden, ponds. You know about my father, after retirement he is obsessed with religion. And then, who would leave this place. One of my uncles have bought an apartment in the vicinity. There is nothing in those lands – no hospitals, not even a phone booth. No markets nearby. This might be a rented accommodation but think about the facilities of the city. All of us have refused. But Sonauncle is stubborn. Just assume he is all nuts.
-What’s there to assume? Everything is crystal clear. No, I can’t escort him. I have some work to do.
-But you only said that you are free. Will have lunch.
-No, this is impossible.
Yugalchandra was fighting with Ranjan’s father on the verandah.
-You can go if you want. You are crazy. Humans can’t survive on that jungle. Only you can stay with those snakes and insects.
-We could have stayed all together. Our forefather’s land was in the jungles.
-We were kids then. Every refuge who came from East Pakistan claimed to have Zamindari there. We never said so. We never had anything.
-But we could have stayed together. Could have a banana plantation. Could have cultured lobsters in the ponds. We can even call our relatives from elsewhere.
-Who wants to come? Everyone avoids you. You were a daydreamer in your childhood. And you remained the same even in your old age – what can we do!
Yugalchandra was far ahead. Somenath brought out his matchbox. He thought about hiding his cigarette if Sonauncle stares back.
Yugalchandra turned his gaze at that time. Somenath concealed his cigarette as swiftly as a magician.
Yugalchandra was wearing canvas shoes. He came near Somenath. – You smoke?
Yugal stared at him. Somenath’s hairs touched his forehead. He had a sharp nose, narrow lips, not yet tobacco brown. Two eyes in the brownish face – like two ponds in these fields. Why is he so gloomy?
-If you want to smoke you can. Don’t be shy. I use to smoke in my twenties. But don’t smoke too much. Come on lit up.
-You want to see. Ok. Ok. Somenath lit up his cigarette. Yugal looked at him intently. Will he ask for a puff or two? No, he didn’t. They walked side by side.
-What do you learn about computers?
Alas! If memories could be loaded into floppies, Somenath would have definitely saved this day in his memory.
-Will you understand if I explain? I study Computer Engineering. There are many a things to learn. Windows 95, C ++, Foxpro, DOS, Internet – Have you ever heard these names?
-I don’t know anything. Will you get a job after learning computers?
-Might be. Many people got jobs. Some are into business, research. Computers are everywhere. You can do almost everything with it. It’s fast. Why do you want to know? Do you need a computer?
-If you say I need one, I might need one. I am old Somenath. My words have no value. See, that’ bush? That’s Bonshillar.
Yugalchandra went ahead. He has kept one foot on the lowland. Have you seen that? These are medicines for injury. I have made my fences with these. Am I crazy Somenath? Haven’t Ranjan told you?
-Ranjan! No, not at all.
Somenath had a tingling sensation on his palms and neck. Nutcases, sometimes mention their illness simply. You can’t understand whether they are right or wrong.
-You know Somenath, it will be full moon tonight. Said Yugalchandra.
Somenath remained silent. What’s there to learn about the moon, new or full?
-Mother said that after every three hundred years – on a full moon night.
Somenath couldn’t hear what else he said. His cycle whacked on a dent in the road. The road travelled upwards to plummet below. The bricks have also disappeared to reveal a white dusty soil. On both sides Swamps could be seen in a distance. A marshland revealed itself touching the horizon. Ripened paddy fields on the brink of the road. One would normally encounter such views on a train journey. The sky is unhindered, yet to stumble on an apartment complex.
-See that wooden bridge at the distance? – Yugalchandra raised his hands – our destination is on the other side of it.
It must be Africa on the other side. Can be even Mesopotamia. Somenath told his cycle. Yugalchandra is now standing on the courtyard of a thatched hut.
He shouted – Nimai’s mother, I am passing through your courtyard again. Give me some lemons and chili, we are in a hurry.
The courtyard dumped with hay, a TV set buzzing inside the hut with illegal electricity. The one eating rice on the raised floor beside the courtyard – Nimai may be – never cared to look at them. The villain was intimidating the tied up hero on Saturday afternoon television. Nimai’s mother swiftly came down and handed Yugalchandra some lemon and chilies. No one uttered a word.
A meandering road crisscrossed through the bamboo grove on the other side of the courtyard. It took some time on the dirt road to reach the bamboo bridge. A tubewell on one side of the bridge The cycle is now on Somnath’ s back. He has to balance on two bamboo shoots holding a makeshift bamboo railing on one hand. Somnath could hear someone playing a small percussion on his back. As if he was performing in a roadside circus. It’s only because of that bugger Ranjan.
On reaching land again, Somenath raised his back once again. The cycle has now back to the earth. He refused to go any further.
-Can you see my property now? That’s the house – Can you see?
All Somenath saw – this land have entered into the mud and water along a rose apple tree. On the other side, some wood apple trees guarded a small hut on the piece of green. Some coconut trees were there too. The torsos of the mat walls was covered with tar. The marsh and long grasses surrounded the land. A bird was chirping somewhere. Ku b ku b ku b ku b… This is supposedly Sonauncle’s house.
-Now we have to enter the mud – isn’t it Sonauncle?
By then, Yugalchandra dhoti was above his knee. He has entered into the marsh. The canvass shoes on his hands. There is no other road Somenath.
-It must be – Somenath said as he entered the marsh. A bloated shoe was floating nearbly. Has someone fallen into the marsh?
Yugalchandra has now reached the other side. He shouted – take the shoes in your hand. Ranjan lost his shoes in the mud.
To tell the truth, Somenath, to be frank, forced the floating shoe under the mud with a vengeance. He felt a deep content. He would be happier if it was Ranjan instead of the shoe.
The day was thinning fast. Smoke coming from an earthen oven jutted out of the open wooden door. Now it too thinned. Somenath was loitering outside. He couldn’t find the courage to sit within the hut. The floor had huge holes. Sonauncle was trying to convince him that those were rat-holes. But how on earth can one be sure that there isn’t any snake. The clothes hanging from the bamboo rods have turned blackish. Some were covered in fungus. A grubber, screwdriver, small shovel – all were plugged in to the mat walls. Rice, biscuits, tea leaves, puffed rice in small boxes were all spoilt.
It can’t be a hut. It’s a cave. Even the smell resembled that of a cave. A makeshift latrine made out of four bamboo poles and sackcloth, leaned on one side. This can’t be any land. This is an island. And the man who lives here is not Sonauncle. He is Robinson Crusoe.
Somenath wanted to smoke. Yugalchandra appeared from the back of the house with some banana leaves in his hands. He said – Somenath, you sit inside. Have to bring some water from the tubewell. It’s a bit far-
You said about 5000 square yards. This is not more than 1500 square feet.
Yugalchandra pointed his fingers towards the marsh. It is 5000 square yards. Beneath the water. The monsoon just passed. You see that Gab tree on the west? Will plant vegetables there. A cemented courtyard on the south. Everyone will sit there in the evening. And on the east –
-I think you should go fetch the water. Somenath stopped Yugalchandra. You already have the plan ready, isn’t it Sonauncle?
One can see thickets of herb on three sides. Normally, people apply these leaves on cuts and bruises. Somenath plucked one and entered into the hut. He saw some rats rushing into their holes. What he could not see – a few rats staring at him from the corners. The cockroaches pointing their antennae towards him. A chubby mongoose came on the verandah to see him. Somenath discerned nothing.
Somenath mashed the rice in the dal. He was trying to forget his travelogue. He will leave soon. After he had a couple of mouthful, he noticed Sonauncle staring at him.
-Can your computers cook Moosur Dal Somenath? Or Sukto? Rice porridge?
Somenath noticed, now after such a long encounter, Yugalchandra’s eyes are soft. Soft and sad. Like a cotton ball, after having lost its seed, moving aimlessly in the air. Why on earth did he think that? He drank some water and said, I will leave after finishing the lunch, Sonauncle.
-No one wants to stay. Even people from this locality is frightened of this place.
-Leave the ghosts. But have you ever killed a snake?
-I myself am the ghost. And I don’t kill snakes. Why should I? Its humans who are afraid of my house. I talk to the rats, the cockroaches. Even the owls. They are my neighbours.
-You can stay here permanently. You are fit for this place Robinson.
Yugalchandra didn’t notice. He went on. Once I had cultivated paddy. The monsoon rains submerges all. But I want to make a farm here. A pond. I will use the mud of that pond to raise the land. Need to build houses. We had a Natmandir in the middle of our village in Kumilla. Wish I can build one here-
-Will you be able to build everything alone?
I purchased this land eighteen years ago. Four thousand rupees per 1600 square yard. I had no more money. My hands were empty. I felt as if this land was calling me and I came repeatedly. Was an accounts clerk in the Steel Plant. Have no one. Your aunt died long ago. I can’t do everything alone. I want to make a cooperative with my brothers – may be some more people can join.
-Do you think everyone is your brother? A cooperative of brotherhood!
-Then, who makes cooperatives, Somenath? No man is an island.
-Not just your brothers – no one will come to stay here. Nobody believes in the concept of joint families. They can’t live in one. They don’t want to live in one. Somenath folded the bamboo leaf along with his words.
-Is it? Yugalchandra spoke in an innocent tone. We are sitting on the same earth, we eat sitting on this same earth. Then you and I are not members of a joint family? Everyone else?
-Why do you talk about the earth? Beneath this same earth, about which you are boasting- they test atom bombs. And if they blast it above the earth, then your family of humans will be lost forever. An entire country can vanish. There won’t be even a family of birds left. Moreover, think about the process of hand thrown bombs. Why wants to stay with another Sonauncle. Everyone wants to separate oneself from the other before their death.
-Even if everyone dies, there will be a group left, Somenath. Even nuclear bombs can’t destroy them.
-Who are they?
-They can’t be killed.
-You know that! Even I know. They have not evolved over the ages. Even atom bombs can’t destroy them. But we are not cockroaches.
-What if we turn into one gradually?
Somenath laughed. We have to live with the reality. You too.
-What if we don’t stay here? If we leave with everything?
-Where will you go?
-To the south. More south.
I should write about you in the internet. Somenath stood up. He wants to sit for civil services. Special paper will be anthropology. He knows, that Bengalis were once Australians. But Australia went adrift. So Bengalis remained as pro-Australoid. This man wants to go adrift. But who will gain from this nonsense? A blow of reality can reduce this utopia to rubbles. He washed his face and stood outside. Last month, our house was divided into three parts. We used to live with our uncles. I was raised by my Aunt, Sonauncle. That aged Aunt now cooks alone in the first floor. We stopped eating Rotis and vegetables in breakfast. Now we have graduated to Chow Mein. My father, after returning from office, checks the daily accounts. I can understand every bit. Separation makes everyone happy.
Fall-dusk has left the washed up fields. Somenath couldn’t leave. How can he leave Sonauncle alone here – he now feels. Why he can’t understand. Yugalchandra means a pair of moons. A cooperative of moons perhaps. On this piece of land, staring at the moon, no one can think of the world falling apart. Does this Yugalchandra know about politics? Economics? He want to build a farm. There is no adhesive in this moonlight which can hold two countries together to build a collective.
Yugalchandra has lit up a lamp. What’s he doing now? Somenath must return at the earliest. His family will get tensed. He saw Yugalchandra standing near the door. He gestured towards Somenath. Somenath went near him.
-Have you seen the moon Somenath? Today is a fullmoon.
-Just saw it.
-Today might be the 300th anniversary. Who can say? Whispered Yugalchandra.
-300th anniversary of what?
-After every 300 years comes a full moon, when one can see the moon through a coconut trees. If a branch falls of from a tree at that instant, if you can keep it on the roof – then whatever you wish standing on that room, gets fulfilled. If everything is perfect –
-Which full moon, how will one know?
-No, I don’t know.
-In which month?
-It must be Fall.
Somenath pondered for some time. Fall? Have Kolkata ever seen a fall? The winter comes after autumn. But isn’t this the time for fall? So an entire season gets lost. Surprising! Somenath was flabbergasted. But he forcefully told Yugalchandra, then you can stay for that full moon. I must leave.
-You don’t want to meet them?
-My neighbours. They have come. They know that I come here every full moon. Come inside.
Somenath was frightened to see the inside. He could see them in the lamp light – huge rodents loitering on the floor. Some cockroaches flew from one side to the other. A huge lizard squeaked from the bamboo pole. Thousands of red ants have made huge mounds on the floor. Somenath retreated. What are you doing? Where did they come from?
Somenath was more shocked to see a huge rat speaking. Where did you come from Somenath? We are staying here for atleast a century.
Somenath caught hold of his temple. He could see his enormous shadow on the lamp-lit wall. He could see Sonauncle. Then? The rat had a golden and white fur. His words were travelling from the floor to Somenaths ears like a thin thread.
-We know everything Somenath. Floods, cyclones, famines, cholera – we have seen it since 1891. Now calculate. So many people left their homestead to find new plantations. But we stayed. At that time people travelled in small canoes. Small boats. There were so many canals, ditches, puddles. Even forests. So many boats were entrenched under the soil. You know history. When Kolkata saw a riot in ’46, so many people fled to these parts. Some even left their jobs. The new jobs created by the war. They made houses. Cultivated paddy. Dug canals. Then they became interested in religion.
The rat laughed. Yugalchandra knows everything.
-Who told you all these? Somenath uttered in a respectful tone. After all the rat is over hundred years old.
-We all wander. We have seen it all, known the facts. But nowadays we don’t venture out. We live with Yugalchandra. The fight outside is growing day by day. If we can stay together, why can’t you? The rat looked towards the Somenath through the century. His eyes reflecting the light.
All the rodent started to laugh. The cockroaches started dancing.
Somenath now faced Yugalchandra – they are your pets. You must have taught them to speak. Otherwise why are they here?
The rat came towards him. We are waiting Somenath. For the full moon night of 300 years. We want water. There will only be water all around. We will make a canoe out of this land and sail somewhere.
-Where will you go?
-To the South. Far South. To new plantations.
-Then the geography will change.
-So what? Your geography is changing every day. Let us make a new geography.
Somenath’s shadow lifted its hands. These are unscientific words.
The cockroaches started to speak in unison. We are outside the purview of science. Yugalchandra wants to build a farm. We want to live with him. Don’t you want to live with us?
-I don’t – Somenath hastily turned around to open the door. An owl hurriedly flew away. He was listening to the conversation.
Somenath could see his cycle. The yellow moon has landed on the ground. Its light illuminating the tree shades, the ponds, even the sky. Somenath took his cycle on his shoulders and hastily descended on the marsh lands. Somehow he managed to reach the other side.
For the last time, he stared at the back. He couldn’t move anymore. Humans have strolled on the moon. Yet, people still make fairytales out of it. A cricket stopped its sound. Nothing could be heard anymore. It was only Somenath and the moon. And in between them, the laid the earth with its trees and land, with darkness on its lap. Somenath could hear the sound of water. He could feel the wet winds coming from moon.
And at that time, the moon left the lands and slowly started to move up. He could see the coconut leaves stroking themselves on the moon. And at that time, something fell on the ground. He could see no more. The bushes covered everthing.
Somenath left his cycle on the ground. He could hear land falling into the water. Grass meadows slowly separating themselves along with the lands.
Somenath ran. But he couldn’t go far. Everything was under water. And huge grasses coming out of it. Where is Sonauncle’s land? It has turned into a floating island. How far can it go? Where will it reach? Isn’t that a lamp lite slowly moving away? There he could see Sonauncle’s house. The coconut tree is its mast.
Somenath shouted – Shonauncle-
He is now in waist deep water. The moon rays shined on it. He could feel the mud below. The grass on his chest. Somenath pushed everything to move ahead.
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