Masquerading as an officer above one’s rank, it seems, is one of the gravest offences one can commit in military service. A court martial is the inevitable consequence of being caught in the act and the most lenient penalty one can hope for is a retrenchment order accompanied by a certificate of condemnation. The strict censure contained in the latter guarantees that no respectable organization, after checking into past records, would ever employ the accused person.
Bishtu-da, as we called him, was found guilty of this very crime. His official name was Bishnuprasad Banerjee if memory serves me right and he was an officer, not in the Indian Army, but in the forces maintained by one of the princely states around the time India was achieving freedom from the British. He was pompous no doubt, but he was no crook. It was youthful exuberance, I think, that had tempted him to behave irresponsibly. As ill luck would have it, military intelligence spotted him in full regalia. What followed was inevitable. He invited a retribution possibly far out of proportion to the offense he had committed.
Following his misfortune, he could have started a small business of his own, a stationery shop perhaps, without much hindrance from the authorities. His impossible pride, however, stood in the way. He could not forsake his military ambitions at any cost whatsoever and went on dreaming that he was a mighty soldier engaged in the charge of the light brigade.
And charged he no doubt, but not at the forefront of his brigade. He charged backwards instead in full gallop, to his ancestral home in Kolkata. He began living there in a state of dubious distinction, dependant no doubt, on his family members for his upkeep. He was a young man at the time. His come back therefore could not have caused jubilation amongst family members. One heard stray whispers about his none too enviable status in the family. Yet, however paradoxical this may sound, the military personality in him sustained no dent in the process. Even if it did, the humiliations he suffered remained securely hidden in the mysterious corridors of his mind.
Notwithstanding the make belief world he inhabited, he must have been aware of a total absence of armed forces in his vicinity. But nature fortunately abhors vacuum and, in its infinite mercy as it were, filled up the void for Bishtu-da through a brilliant tour de force. A local scouting group was in existence and Bishtu-da found his way there as smoothly as water finds its own level.
I was a mere school boy and a member of this group and never understood exactly what role he played in our community. He was certainly no scout master, since I never saw him in scout uniform. But I retain vivid memories of his strict military demeanor, his immaculately washed, starched and ironed clothes and a stentorian voice that he employed to great advantage to yell out commands. And yes, of his strikingly handsome countenance.
He had been given charge of taking us through drill exercises and he carried out his responsibility with more than total devotion. The drills he imposed on us were far stricter than what run of the mill scouting groups would be familiar with, but I enjoyed what he taught us, despite the excessive physical strain they implied. Even at that young age, I could see the magnificent pattern, the superb neatness and awesome beauty of military discipline. Yet I lacked physical agility. So, my appreciation of Bishtu-da’s training was restricted to the intellectual plane. I am sure indeed that my movements never resembled those of marching soldiers, yet I am equally sure that Bishtu-da demanded no less from us.
He used to bubble with stories about military strategy, famous statements made by great generals in charge of the allied forces during the Second World War. He spoke his English, while relating these stories, with an almost British accent, which the scouts in the troop, coming as they did from Bengali middle class backgrounds, had great difficulty grasping. Nevertheless, it was fun listening to his speeches. It was a bit like watching a theatrical performance in a foreign language. He quoted from Ivanhoe out off the cuff. And he had opinions to proffer on all matters relating to government policy too. For example, when the discussion during a rest session touched upon the subject of inflation control, he hollered out, “A little inflation is like a little pregnancy. Once you have it, it grows and grows.” What the policy implication of this immortal quote was I have not understood to this day, but at the time I heard it, I found it most profound.
Over time, as I gained in maturity, I slowly began to understand that Bishtu-da, despite his ear splitting commands during the drills, was a man leading a pathetic existence. My first realization dawned when I figured out why he could not possibly dress up as a scout master. He simply did not have the means to buy the uniform! He had but a few trousers and shirts in his ‘wardrobe’ and, with use, they were slowly turning threadbare.
The lowly lifestyle he must have been leading in his carefully concealed room or whatever refuge he occupied in his ancestral home, showed up with crystal clarity when, one afternoon, after our scouting activities were over, he asked us in a rather off hand manner whether we knew anybody who might be interested in buying a squash racket. Squash was a game that was almost unheard of in the Kolkata’s middle class society at the time. Yet this racket was clearly one of his treasured possessions from military service days. They had taken away his uniform, his arms and everything else that could keep him alive without violating his dignity, but, comically enough, they spared him his precious racket. Of course, none of us knew a potential buyer and stared stupidly at one another, though I thought I heard a few of my mates sniggering at him. They had evidently viewed this as an attempt on his part to brag about his status.
Things continued in this manner till I had left junior school and joined college. My scouting expeditions slowly dissipated thereafter, for I found myself getting increasingly involved in other alluring activities, girl chasing being one of them. Indeed, though Bishtu-da lived close to my residence, I had no contact with him through my university life which, during those days, constituted a total of six years in all. Despite the damsels who bled me, I managed to complete my master’s degree, with no great distinction of course, and found a temporary research fellowship in a University Grants Commission sponsored research wing in Presidency College, Kolkata. I guess I wasn’t too involved in the work that was assigned to me and loitered around applying simultaneously to US universities for admission and financial aid to pursue a PhD degree. To cut a long story short, I succeeded in landing an offer in the process and resigned my position in Presidency College to prepare for my journey to the Promised Land!
And it was around this time that I had an encounter with Bishtu-da again. Actually, it was he who visited my home. I was more than surprised by the visit, pleasantly or unpleasantly I am not too sure. He was carrying under his arm a sheaf of what appeared to be newspapers and went directly to the point of his visit.
“Hey, Dipankar! Have you seen this magazine?” he began. He selected a sheet or two from the bunch he carried. They resembled no magazine I had seen, but the real surprise lay in the title the `magazine’ carried. It was called `Pratiraksha’, which, in Bengali, means `Defence’. It was a collection of articles on defence related matters, illustrated by neatly drawn pictures of different varieties of arms and ammunition. The one that caught my attention most was the drawing of a submarine showing the details of its battle gear. I suppressed a sigh as I stared at the stuff and leafed through the three or four pages of the magazine’s total length. Doubtlessly, it was he alone who had contributed to the magazine he was flaunting.
While I wondered, he asked in his ever confident tone, “Well, what do you think of it?” It took me all my self control to refrain from retorting back, “Bishtu-da dear! What is it? Before I can tell you what I think of it, tell me first, what it is.” But better sense prevailed. And, I simply smiled politely and replied in a monosyllable, “Nice.”
He was mighty pleased though to hear my reply. “Isn’t it? Now, isn’t it nice? You know, people are going crazy over this magazine. I managed to have it displayed in some of the magazine stores and they told me that the demand for it far outstretched supply. They are pressing me for a larger number of copies. I can hardly cope with this.” His lips half-twisted into the military smile that I had been exposed to a million times in the past.
“How wonderful indeed!” said I. And then, to keep the conversation going, I asked, “So, you are publishing a defence magazine now Bishtu-da! That’s great. How much does it cost?”
His smiling face turned serious and a crease appeared between his brows. “I had to price it low, because young people cannot afford to pay too much. Right? Yet they are so deeply involved with the subject. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I have priced it at 10 paisa a copy!”
I could not believe my ears. Ten paisa! Even during the days I am referring to, this was unbelievably cheap. Street beggars would have found the sum unacceptable, leave alone printed magazines! I stared at him open mouthed and found myself slowly sinking into a reverie. I could not help wondering how a man could delude himself all his life. At the same time though, I also thought whether Bishtu-da was an exception or the rule. Perhaps each one of us has pet illusions about his or her destination and never discovers the gaping holes in the carefully prepared facades for meeting the faces to be met in everyday life.
The reverie did not last too long and I came out of it when Bishtu-da proceeded to say, “I have saved a few copies for you and your friends and I came over to hand them over to you.” He relieved himself of his burden, comprising of fifty copies or so of this highly sought after magazine! I needed no further explanation and accepted the job without demurring.
The idea, frankly speaking, appeared so ridiculous to me, that I never even tried to bring it to the attention of my acquaintances and merely waited for Bishtu-da to show up again. And sure enough, he did knock on my door within a week’s time. I was prepared by then with my lie. “Oh, they all thought this was a masterpiece of a creation Bishtu-da. Your magazine sold, as they say, like hot cakes!” I cannot forget the smile on his face as he heard me out. No military pride, but sheer relief. He knew he had earned his lunch for the next day or two, after remaining hungry I know not for how long. I counted out the money to him and he happily went back home in the belief that he had not resorted to begging to keep subsisting in a world that had no need for him.
Matters continued this way, but soon afterwards I was gone and, sitting in US, I heard from my parents that Bishtu-da had been regularly visiting our residence with his fresh supplies. My parents too, following my request, kept up the harlequin act on my behalf. I learned though that, after a few months, his visits stopped. Perhaps the number of well-wishers he depended on gradually dispersed and he was left once again to fend for himself in a merciless world.
As the discerning reader will suspect no doubt, we are a stone’s throw away now from the denouement of this tale. Seven or perhaps eight years had gone by before I saw Bishtu-da again. I was back in India now, had a family of my own and was teaching in Kolkata. One morning I was at Gariahat junction, crossing over to the side of Rashbehari Avenue where the Cosmopolitan Coffee House, a haunt during our college days, was located. I was headed for a barber shop that I had patronized from my school days. And suddenly, out of nothing as it were, he propped up, staring straight at me with the same old twisted lip, one sided military smile. He sat pretty close to the pavement on the stairway that led to the coffee shop. And he had changed almost beyond recognition. He wore an unkempt beard, which was unthinkable during his days of military hallucinations. He had a white patch on the left pupil indicating a serious eye trouble. And to complete the picture, he wore a half-torn shirt and below it a white lungi, whose state of decay barely succeeded in protecting him from a state of stripped disgrace. Gone were his leather marching shoes too and he wore instead a pair of dust covered, black slip on shoes, made of jute.
He stared at me without recognition and it did not take me long to make out that he had lost much of his vision. I stared too and debated within myself whether to start up a conversation. And then decided against it. I could see that his needs were boundless now and my circumstances too were not particularly enviable. I was in no position to bring home succour to him and did not venture to put myself in a position where, however worded, assistance would be sought from me. It was a harsh decision, but I walked on without making the slightest attempt to draw his attention. Unlike him, I had learnt my lessons in life and did not wish to pose as a person I was not.
For all practical purposes, this was the last time I saw him, though I did locate him in the same outfit not long afterwards, walking uncertainly this time towards a goal I had no intention of probing into.
I learnt later on from people who knew him better that Bishtu-da had lost everything he had. The shelter above his head disappeared with their house being sold to a promoter for building a high rise apartment building. Truly or falsely, it was alleged that his siblings had managed to dispossess him of his share in the property. The grounds where our scouting activities were conducted had disappeared too under three mighty condominiums. Even if they had continued to exist, it is hardly likely that Bishtu-da would be in a position to give his drill commands clad in tatters.
I never tried to find out how the end arrived. There was little need to engage a Sherlock Holmes to discover the gory details.