A stubborn monk came to the village of Bahiruli. But how stubborn he was was not apparent till Sudama, the weaver, went one day to offer him a dish of fruits and milk. Sudama- otherwise a hard headed man- under his wife’s counsel took it upon himself to buy the fruits from the Wednesday’s market. It costed him the price of four cotton plaids (which was equal to the price of six kilograms of rice, or, twenty-five bundles of hay- depending on what a man lacked at the moment: food, clothes, or a shade). But the wife was adamant and Sudama preferred to abide by the woman than acting like a Yaksha to his ever-depleting coins.
As per the prescribed decorum (while in front of a pious man)- with folded hands and a trembling voice- Sudama begged, “Let me be at your feet Baba- let me water your feet- my life would then be complete. I would be content, then. Only. See! See. See, how blessed is the village where you have appeared. And blessed is your diminished son who is no one but me. And my wife too … I can tell now, Baba … who is not even here … my wife … she is blessed too … already … at home. My ancestors … who are not even living …” He paused for a moment to assess the impact of his outburst; and then, pressed on with the same vehemence: “Where do you come from, Baba? The Himalayas, I presume. Don’t try to fool me, baba. I am only your diminished son- but I too can see. That is how your skin is glowing like copper. How your eyes observe Gods everyday. But, how sweaty must you be feeling now, Baba, he-he, in this horrid weather of the plain. Here, here, let me fan you with my plaid.” at the same time assuming a certain adventure and strain to be a part and parcel of the monk’s life.
The monk- in response- hurried out from the behind of a snake gourd bush- where he was resting- presumably- noisily, trampling the fallen long red fruits and a part of the shrub on his wake- with red eyes- as if he got out of a deep sleep just then, unwittingly, wafting the smell of a burnt charcoal or something like that, and spat on the ground in front of Sudama in a wild fury. Sudama, who was well versed on the subject of eccentricities that were displayed by the superior men was nonetheless stunned. The behaviour- didn’t resemble either that of the Devas or the Danavas, or the ferocious Rishis or raging Munis or even the Asuras- not even the most vindictive ones- as they were portrayed at the nightly village plays or were recited at noon by the Pola Giri’s widow from the Shastras on the Ekadashi days.
Thereafter he didn’t have the heart to tell the monk that he had a few more favours from him to ask. Like, say: His wife, Pramoda, whom he loved dearly and irrefutably didn’t love him as much in return. Whatever money he had inherited from his father had been dwindling and he didn’t know how much more miserly he should be in his affairs. His eldest son failed in the school examination- which was not such a trouble as the boy would be promoted as per the school norm. But Sudama found in him the first thin streak of rebellion against paternity which was worrisome.
The strange event of the morning turned even stranger when Sudama reported the encounter back to his wife and she began to laugh. “He is a stubborn monk. A stubborn monk. An egoist and stubborn.” she said. “That’s why I made you visit him thinking, ‘How worse can he be with you? You are no less stubborn yourself.’ Oh, but, he triumphed. He triumphed. But, you forget him, now, you hear? Forget him. Let him be. Let him live alone and be dry as he is.” she said, without a sign of remorse or shyness which bothered Sudama.
Then in a strange act of intimacy Pramoda brought her mouth near to her husband’s left ear and whispered, “Hear. Let me tell you one secret. The Pola Giri’s widow wants to bear a child. See, nothing big. Only a child. So she went to that hokum-god and asked. She said, ‘Prabhu, I keep fasts. I go to pilgrimages. I read sacred books for days. But, still, where is my peace? Those books are not my relatives, those are not my friends. They keep me alone. They keep me awake at nights and still do nothing to help. Have pity on me, Baba. Give me a son, avatar. He would be my joy, my own, and my walking stick when I am old. I will leave this village and I will go to the town and I will not ever come back. But this life is unbearable for me.’ She said that to him. Hear? Willingly. She said that to him. Do you know what the Baba said?”
Sudama, astound, whispered, “What?”
“The Baba said, ‘I would rather live with the rats.’”
“What? Rats? Rats? What does he mean by rats?”
“Who knows.” Pramoda replied.
Without comprehending Sudama experienced an indecipherable wildness, within himself.
Exasperated he imagined how it would feel to lay with the Pola Giri’s widow in her hut, on an old soft straw mat, at night, and, how it would feel to father a child with her, and God willing, a daughter. He felt sad that an opportunity so grand like this would only be offered to someone who seemed to have a higher stature than himself though that person might be such a careless man.
Sudama itched to complain, “He is a monk, that’s why he could afford all these nonsense. If he were a weaver like me this foolish behaviour would have made him an utter failure and an incomplete man.”
Fearing repercussion he kept quiet.
“Ripped my foot, ripped jeans my foot,’ Madhumita pounced. In a second she was upon Krishna, tickling, giggling, scratching his blue jeans with her vinyl nails, the manner of a slithery cat etched on her body. Ajay stood watching, laughing, gurgling, not even two feet away; his cheerful eyes unknowingly measuring the emotions between the colliding two. Best friends. We are best friends. He thought as he began to feel jealous.
The mock fight ended in minutes, leaving Krishna flabbergasted and Madhumita thereafter chose to go to the bathroom. That was the only time alone between those two men.
“What is the meaning of this?” Krishna asked.
“She loves you.” Ajay said.
“Really?” Krishna asked.
“Um-hum” Ajay nodded his head, rued.
“I don’t love her.” Krishna declared.
“I know.” Ajay said.
Probably Krishna didn’t hear him or didn’t care to stop.
“I just need some fashion tips, that’s all.” he said.
“I know.” Ajay said that again.
“I will go for Garima, you know. Any day. That’s decided.”
“I know. I know.” Ajay kept nodding.
“You know everything, wise man!” Krishna left the room making an ugly face and without waiting for any of them.
The memory of two female hands was still feeling up his legs; wiggling around and warmly coaxing his newly bought jeans.
Forty years later, as an old man, lying alone, Krishna would imagine and reimagine the scene again and again. He wore a lungi now, but in his old soul fancy he would imagine a shy tigress on heat had crawled upon his legs, her face glowing and keen in expectation. Before, of course, he would put his forbidding palm on her forehead stopping her sly advance- commandingly- and forcing her on his crotch in an uninhibited spectacle of dominance.
Penis in his hand, not horny yet, not hopeless yet, this thought would suddenly hit Krishna like an unknown trepidation. The almost forgotten memory of Garima was the witness- she died young; married but without children- that he couldn’t love her. But she was never spurned while wanting sex per se.
But an unattractive woman, restricted further in the garb of a friend if ever wished sex and was refused summarily by a man where would she hide her face?
There was no hope he would come today- Krishna thought to himself before rising up in the bed- yawning and stretching and resigning to another dull lonely day- while wishing for a moment to think something more extravagant to lift himself. Lifting his lungi around his saggy, hopeless legs he chose to visit the bathroom again.
“What do you think about that ship?”, Gulu Rao asked. His eyes were so squeezed, in the coming darkness of dusk, I was afraid, his eye lenses would bend permanently and stretch forward to make a telescope. I forgave him. He had a penchant for asking inappropriate questions at a most inappropriate time. Like now. The Bay of Bengal was in front. The waves were savage and furious. The wet black crows on the beach were scavenging leftovers with such a sad concentration that it seemed that they were on a scholarly mission. Plastic wrappers. Coconut shells. Beer bottles. ‘Not eatable, this sir; not breakable, this sir; ugh what’s this? How the humans eat this?’
And the tired seagulls. Because it was at the end of the day and because they were presumably coming home; their wings were flapping in such a tired way, with such a slow wh-e-e-e, wh-e-e-e, wh-e-e-e sound that I was afraid that at any moment they would give up and flop on the ground and sleep on the sand, till they found strength to fly again. Then, there, everything around that great moving water and the surrounding blackness turned so sad and drawn out and mysterious that it seemed almost perfect to be there. Before, of course, Gulu Rao came up with that unnecessary ship question.
“O ma, O ma, hear what our Gulu says. Tell it to your class, Gulu, tell it again.” Tribeni Miss had been the epitome of encouragement. With a mischievous green brightening up her face.
I had already nodded my head to say that I had not wanted to.
“Gulu says,’ – Tribeni Miss couldn’t hold the suspense any longer and had taken the responsibility to announce it to the class herself, mischievous green turning into a full scale smile-pity in her beautiful face- ‘Ships are carried by tall demons on their heads. The demons who can breathe underwater and grow their legs as the depth of the water grows. Understand?”
A roar of laughter had erupted in the class. Everyone had laughed, even the boys who had not ever seen a ship. Who had not even seen a sea. Or a river or a steamer or a boat or anything. The boys whose approval yet I had dearly sought. The good looking boys. The boys from the well to do families. Nirjhar. Probal. Ananta. And Abhishek. Whose hand I had secretly wished to hold and whose cheeks I had secretly wished to kiss. Everyday. He laughed too.
“I think more of a naked man named Archimedes running down the street like a madman when I see ships floating in the water.”, Tribeni Miss had winked and giggled to the another benevolent roar of the nine year olds, who would somehow get a joke every time it had appeared before them.
“But, I will think of you, Abhi, I will think only of you’, I had muttered to myself, ‘Whenever I see a ship in the water.”
When I reached the beach, I was tense. Boddo Babu had told clearly, “Nilamadhab, paancha hazaar tanka. This night. Tumar target.” I was speechless. Collecting five thousand rupees as a fine from the beach at one evening was not a joke. The tourists were getting more and more well behaved, and the locals were not be touched, even if they were selling Tadi on the beach. Then whose father was going to come and hand me over five thousand rupees this night, tell me?
But that was not the main thing. I was tense because of my Devjani. You understand, I wanted to marry her. But her Nauna disagreed. He said, “You don’t earn enough.” Understood? He said, “You are not even a Habildar. You are not even permanent.” Understood? Horrible. So I told him that ‘I earn extra.’ But he cut me short and replied, “My Devjani is not any…” So I had to cut him even shorter and reply, “She is my Devjani too.” That made her Nauna so angry that he drove me out of his house.
Now, I didn’t see any other purpose in life other than roaming around the beach alone with a baton in my hand and my Devjani in my heart. And a rate card. In my head.
‘Caught with a beer bottle: one hundred rupees.
Caught kissing a girl: two hundred rupees.
Caught putting hand in a girl’s blouse: I would see how much I could extract; negotiable.’
But the only tourists I found on the beach were two men sitting near the water, one short and pockmarked and another tall and well dressed. No girls, no half filled beer bottles standing by. Were they so afraid to enjoy life that they had come to the beach only to stare at the water? Pelei Puo tourists! Did they anyway care about my target?
Then I saw the ship.
Glowing like a palace in the mid water. Bright light appearing from the windows after windows. Like a garland of pearls. The garland my Devjani could wear on our wedding night if only I would have some money. And assuming, I already had the money, I would have taken her on that ship and had our wedding then and there, and our flower bed, never to set foot on this wet and rotten beach again.
But then I was distracted by some strange movements ahead of me. The two men who sat in front staring at the sea had shuffled awkwardly. The tall one in one small motion had put his right fingers at the back of the neck of the short one and started caressing him. O-ho-ho-ho, Gandi Mara Sankara! They didn’t know what awaited them.
My phone rang. Devjani.
She poured even before I could speak, “Nauna has agreed Nilamadhab. He has told me, ‘If you love him so much, go ahead then. I will not stop you.’ Do you hear?”
I wanted to.
But the tall man now had cradled the short man with his right hand and picked up his cleft chin with his left hand to bring his mouth close to his lips. They were going to kiss! Like a husband and wife!
Devjani drove me on the phone. “Why don’t you say something? Aren’t you happy?”
Of course, I was happy. This behaviour was completely unacceptable, illegal in this country, a punishable offense. O-ho-ho-ho, my tonight’s target. In one quick swoop.
But the moment I walked towards them the ship went dark. It didn’t vanish. It just switched off its lights. I could hear the sound of the sea all around. And I could feel the movement of the water all around. The sudden splash of the salt water. Only the ship stood calm and far and nonchalant, moving slightly with the rhythm of the dark water. Like Panigrahi’s bhajan.
Devjani called, “Nilamadhab. Nilamadhab.”
Please understand, I was not a sentimental man. That I was not being impractical. I knew very well that my employment was still not permanent and I had to earn to live, to marry, to have children and to look after them. I had to do my duty. But I couldn’t help but foolishly remembered the blind Panigrahi singing bhajan at the courtyard of the temple that I had visited every evening as a little boy.
“ Jaga tar nath-a/
E prithibi tumoro/
Sobu prem tumoro/
Kete daya tumoro/
Mor bhakti tumoro he- ”
The Lord of the World, oh, the Lord of the World, this world is yours, the love is yours, so is all kindness and my devotion towards you.
I said, “O-ho-ho-ho, Devjani. I am happy. I am very happy. We are getting married. No?”
My world had turned. I turned around with it and began to run towards Devjani’s house, leaving behind the sea and the dark ship and two men with an improper behaviour on a unsupervised beach.
Tomorrow morning Boddo Babu would be surprised. He would ask how I could become so lazy, so incapable, so fruitless; not earning a single rupee at the evening’s round. Did I hate my Police friends? Did I not like my extra income? Had I planted a money tree at my veranda? I would keep quite and keep my head down for the whole time and let him scold me for… as long as he wished. Then when he would be silent and tired, I would fold my hands in front of him and say in my most polite voice, “It’s all God’s miracle, Das Babu. Because, whoever were there at the beach yesterday night, I couldn’t find fault in any of them.