Translation of a Bengali story by Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay. The story was published in the Prabasi magazine around the year 1937 (Chaitra, 1343 according to the Bengali calendar). It is deeply rooted in Hindu rituals. Brahmins represent the highest ranking of the four varnas, or social classes, in Hinduism. The elevated position of the Brahmins goes back to the late Vedic period. The basis of the age-old veneration of Brahmins is the belief that they are inherently of greater ritual purity than members of other castes and that they alone are capable of performing vital religious tasks. The study and recitation of the sacred scriptures were traditionally reserved for this spiritual elite, and for centuries all Indian scholarship was in their hands. In modern India, the position of the Brahmins has diminished significantly and caste barriers too are slowly disappearing. However, a Brahmin priest still performs an important role in all Hindu rituals, such as weddings, funerals and so on. One such ritual is performed by the descendants of a person after he or she passes away. It involves the chanting of holy scriptures by Brahmin priests as the descendants offer the spirit of the dead gifts, including cooked food. Many of the gifts are accepted by the priests in charge of the ceremonies on behalf of the dead. Agraadani refers to a special group of Brahmins who also represent the dead person, but play no role in the performance of rituals, such as the reading of scriptures. The only role they play consists of eating the food offered to the dead, besides accepting other gifts. Normally, an Agradaani Brahmin occupies a low social status within the Brahmin community. In Bengal, the part of eastern India where this story is located, the Agradaani is normally not admitted inside the home where the dead had lived. He usually carries back the food to his home, or, as in this story, consumes it sitting outside the premises where the funeral ceremony is held. The food offered to the dead is called “pindo” in Bengali.
Nowadays Purno Chakraborty resembles a six foot pole, bent forcefully down around its middle. Thirty years ago, however, matters were different. He was then a young man of thirty two, rigid and straight. People spotting him from a distance would exclaim, “Look, look, there comes the ladder – the ladder.” But he enjoyed great popularity amongst the children.
He reacted grimly to the jeering adults. “Hmm, what’s wrong? What makes you smirk?”
“We are engaged in a sweet, syrupy conversation, that’s all buddy.”
“I see. You appear to be licking up your syrup all right.”
A traitor in the group might blurt out, “Oh no! They were actually making fun of you. ‘There comes the ladder’ they were saying.”
Chakraborty responded with a wide grin, “How correct. Just climb up on my shoulder and you will be transported to heaven. Fill me up with a good meal and I shall arrange for your journey.”
“But if one slips, then hell’s where one lands, right?”
Chakraborty searched for an apt repartee. But then suddenly he would catch sight of a group of boys signaling to him from a nearby alley. Holding his repartee in check, he managed to leave on some plea or the other.
In the company of the boys he landed in the Rays’ orchard sometimes, or the one belonging perhaps to the Miyans’, to lose himself in a frenzy of mango, berry or guava plucking. Despite the threat of being stung by hoards of bees and wasps drawn from every corner by the sweet aroma of the ripe and juicy fruits, he remained unperturbed. Throwing the fruits inside his mouth at random, he savoured their taste with closed eyes.
The boys clamoured in protest, “Hey — you aren’t leaving any for us !” He swiftly shook a branch to make a few more fruits drop down on the ground and then consumed some more himself uttering a satisfied “ Ahh…”
Perchance a protest might be heard. “Punno Uncle, how come you have broken your fast? Aren’t you supposed to offer your prayers first?”
Purno defended himself, “These are merely fruits. Not cooked food. Just fruits.”
Thirty years ago, the day this story begins, Brahmins had been invited to the residence of the zemindar Shyamadas-babu in connection with an important ceremony. Shyamadas-babu was childless, having consecutively fathered five stillborn babies. Prior to the present one, several religious services had been organized, but to no effect. This time Shyamadas-babu was all poised to remarry, but his wife Shibrani pleaded tearfully, “Give me a while more please and I won’t stand in the way again. I will myself find you a new bride.”
Shibrani was carrying. Shyamadas-babu complied with her request. Not only so, his arrangements left no scope at all for Shibrani to repeat her request in future. Services were initiated simultaneously in the holy towns of Kaashi, Baidyonath, Tarokeshwar and at his own home. No run of the mill religious services they were, resembling as they did a sacred oblation, offered to the Lord begging Him for the gift of a son.
An enormous feast had been arranged for the Brahmins too. With supreme humility, Shyamadas-babu visited each row of Brahmins seated on the floor, trying to find out what was missing, or what more someone or the other might possibly be looking forward to. Purno Chakraborty, along with three of his sons, sat in a corner. However, five leaf-plates occupied the space reserved for the four of them. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the extra leaf was literally piled up with rice, curried dishes and fish preparations. This was a take home package for him. He claimed it belonged to him by right. It was he who had acted as Shyamadas-babu ‘s messenger, going about his way inviting the Brahmins, quite apart from assembling them at the venue when the meal was ready. The services so rendered called for this remuneration. Not only at Shyamadas-babu ‘s home or for this particular occasion, the responsibility appeared to have been exclusively reserved for him. Irrespective of the household and however humble the arrangements might be, Purno Chakraborty would be present by self-appointment. Clad in his festive best of a dhoti whose length barely managed to cover his legs down to his knees and an ancient family inheritance of a Goddess Kali’s name imprinted silk shawl wrapped around his shoulders, he showed up and called out to the master of the household, “ Hello Sir! How about the list of invitees? Ah ha! The fishes appear to be deliciously fatty. Ho, ho … take care, that kite was about to fly off with the fish.”
Even though the kite was flying far out in the sky, Purno Chakraborty shooed it away to demonstrate his concern for the family’s welfare. Defying the biting cold, he travelled from village to village deep into the night inviting all and sundry; putting on his pair of worn out slippers, head covered with a piece of wet napkin, he carried out his job during many a scorching summer noon as well. It was the labour so performed that substantiated his remuneration. Well, enough of that.
Shyamadas-babu approached Purno, saying, “Why don’t they serve you a few more pieces of fish Chakraborty?”
By then Chakraborty had already consumed some twenty pieces or so; he replied, as he relished the juice from a fishbone, “No, thank you Sir, the dessert’s yet to arrive. I went and checked out. Giant sized fried cottage cheese balls were floating in the syrup filled cauldron from Harē ‘s sweet shop.”
Shyamadas-babu said, “Surely they are on their way; in the meantime, how about a section of fish brain?”
Purno, wiping his leaf clean with his bare hand, said, “A small one then.”
As he was finishing up the fish brain, the dessert arrived on the far side.
Chakraborty cautioned his children. “Make sure your leaves are wiped clean of all traces of the curries. Or else, the sweets will get messed up and taste salty. Hey, you’ve hardly eaten at all, even the fish lies unfinished!” With this he lifted the youngest son’s half-eaten fish on to his own leaf. Having eaten it, he straightened up his neck eying the sweets where they were being served. And every once in a while he kept calling out, “Here, this way, come this way.”
People sitting out of earshot nudged one another as they snickered at him. One observed, “Note his eyes, goodness, those eyes.
“As though he’ll gobble up all with his eyes.”
”I dread sitting next to him during a feast. Oh no, that look in his eyes!”
By then the sweets had reached Chakraborty’s leaf.
Chakraborty got into an argument with the man serving the sweets. “Don’t I get eight of those as my take home due?”
“But four’s all you are supposed to take back home.”
“Don’t be absurd! Four’s take home for every two eaten at the feast. But today you have served four to be here itself. Doesn’t that mean that my take home quota doubles to eight?”
Shyamadas-babu rushed forward and said, “Sixteen for his home. The gentleman offers free service helping me invite people over. Come, come, sixteen for him.”
Purno Chakraborty loosened a part of his dhoti near his waist and spread it out. “Here, serve them on this part of my dhoti.”
Shyamadas-babu went on further. “Chakraborty, won’t you drop in for a while tomorrow morning? How about having your breakfast here?”
“Oh sure enough Sir, I will definitely show up.”
Someone commented, “Go plead with Chakraborty-babu to recommend a court jester’s position for you – as in the old days, a court jester for a King.”
Chakraborty replied, as he was tying up his take home leaf in a napkin, “Bright idea. A Brahmin shouldn’t feel awkward. After all, a court jester’s position might ensure a treat or two …”
He ended up laughing.
While entering home, Chakraborty passed on the napkin tied leaf to his eldest son and told him, “Get along, take this inside.”
As soon as the son took hold of the bundle, the second daughter intervened, “Where are the sweets?”
“I will bring them in myself, get lost.”
“Oh no, you’re going to hide them. Sixteen pieces, I am keeping count, remember.”
“What on earth is she saying! Where did the sixteen arrive from? They agreed on eight only, that too after much altercation.”
“Mom, mom! Make no mistake, dad’s hiding the sweets.”
Without a doubt Chakraborty’s wife was strikingly attractive. Despite being prey to that hydra-headed monster called poverty, her beauty had remained untarnished. Emaciated her figure, unkempt her hair, her garments soiled and in tatters, yet Hoimoboti was truly gold personified. The hue radiated by her skin made her resemble the golden idol of a Goddess. Her eyes were large and beautiful, but they were cruel too and offered little mercy. A merciless heart behind a gorgeous exterior lent Hoimo the dazzling brilliance of desert sands, that turn blindingly harsh with the progress of the day.
As soon as Hoimoboti came out and confronted him, Chakraborty told his daughter in alarm, “Told you didn’t I, you won’t be able to manage to carry them in, yet this girl screams …”
Hoimoboti said in her stern voice, “Give them up.”
Chakraborty loosened the dhoti near his waist where the sweets lay hidden and offered the contents to Hoimoboti with undisguised relief.
Her son said, “Ma, don’t give anymore to dad. The amount he has consumed today, uhh! And the master has invited him again for sweets tomorrow morning.”
Hoimo replied stonily, “Get out of my sight you rogue. Look at his respect for his father. Why don’t the lot of you perish and let me survive?”
Purno found back his courage. “Look at the boy’s demeanor! Vulgar as a clodhopper!”
Hoimo responded, “The father’s no better than a low caste tanner. Consider yourself fortunate that a greedy tanner’s son has turned out to be a clodhopper at least. No means to educate, no medicines during illness, no proper clothing, still they don’t die. Family of monsters, endless longevity.”
Chakraborty kept silent. Hoimo went away leaving behind her a trail of fire. Chakraborty called out to his son, “See if you can find a chip of a cherry plum or beetle nut to chew on, will you? Careful though, don’t ask your mother.”
Evening time Chakraborty sat beside Hoimo, flattering her. Hoimo was putting her youngest baby to sleep. Chakraborty and his sons having partaken of a feast today, she didn’t need to trouble herself preparing dinner. The take home food that had arrived took care of Hoimo’s needs as well as the baby’s.
Hoimo wasn’t appeased, or so it appeared to Chakrabarty. His intimate wish was to consume a part of the sweets that night. He was not content. A lust as it were burnt like an ever rising flame inside him. By and by, Hoimoboti fell asleep. Her constitution was frail and weak. Besides she was expecting again. Early evening onwards, she had no strength left in her body. The sons were sleeping as well. Chakraborty observed Hoimo carefully. Yes, Hoimo was fast asleep. Chakraborty waited for a while more and then untied the bunch of keys tied to a corner of her saree and crept out stealthily.
Next morning, no sooner did they wake up than the boys began to clamour noisily, “We’ll eat the sweets.” The eldest repeatedly approached his mother, “Mom, I want a whole piece.”
Hoimo reacted with irritation, “I’m giving you all, all — all of them. Why ask for only one piece?”
She unlocked the door with the key and entered the room, only to be greeted by a rude surprise that left her speechless. She stood utterly motionless. Some being had slit off the loop from which the sweets were hung. The same being had consumed most of the sweets; only three or four of them were lying on the floor, and those too were juiceless and dry. They had been sucked completely dry. She picked up and examined the loop closely and found out that it had not been sliced off, the being had torn it apart by force. A hard, mirthless smile spread across her face.
The zemindar said, “Chakraborty, my wife sincerely desires that you wait outside her delivery room this time.”
Ritual demanded in these parts that a Brahmin should guard the door leading to the room occupied by the expecting mother. All of Chakraborty’s children were alive, his wife delivered them perfectly. Chakraborty himself slept outside her door during her time. That’s why Shibrani had expressed her desire. She was constantly preoccupied with nitty gritty concerning welfare measures. Nor did Shyamadas-babu keep her desires unfulfilled.
Chakraborty said, “Yes, well if …”
A sycophant promptly offered, “There is no ‘if’ in this Chakraborty. It should be fun to come here and be treated to a princely dinner at night, and then go to sleep on a generously laid out bed with a loaded stomach.” He acted the scene out by imitating a loud snore.
Chakraborty, delighted by the description of the dinner, ended up smiling. “Well, when the Master himself is asking me, can one possibly refuse?”
Shyamadas-babu said, “Please be seated. I will be back after I am done with breakfast. Your breakfast will be served too.” He entered an adjacent room.
A servant laid down a sitting mat on the floor for Chakraborty and placed a plate full of sweets before him.
Someone said, “Help yourself Chakraborty.”
“Yes. Some water please to clean my hands.”
Another courtier advised, “Call on holy Ganges and get started. Recite Lord Vishnu’s name, that’s sufficient to clean all.”
Chakraborty used the water in the glass to rinse his mouth once and sprinkled a few drops on his hand before sitting down in front of the plate, greed dripping from his eyes.
Shyamadas-babu came back from the next room after finishing his breakfast and asked, “Satisfied Chakraborty?”
Chakraborty was close to choking with a large sized sweet inside his mouth. Someone commented, “Sir, Chakraborty is too busy now to speak.”
After swallowing down the sweet, Chakraborty said, “Sir, my stomach is quite full. There isn’t any space left even to squeeze in a tiny sesame grain.”
He stood up.
Shyamadas-babu said, “If my hope is fulfilled by your blessings, I shall gift you ten bighas (A bigha equals approximately 7.2 acres) of land. Besides I will arrange for you to receive a daily treat out of the fare offered to our family deity Simhabahini. Well then, your consent is final, right?
Chakraborty was thrilled as he imagined the offerings made to Simhabahini. Simhabahini offerings – they are a kingly feast!
“Oh yes quite final, Your Honour’s …”
Leaving his sentence incomplete, he called out, “Show me, show me, hey you, let me see.” His eyes were glittering.
A servant was carrying away the remains of Shyamadas-babu ’s breakfast on a plate. There were two uneaten pieces of sweets left on the plate. Chakraborty’s gluttony suddenly leaped out like a snake from its hole, hood fully spread and spitting out venom. Quite oblivious of his surroundings, Chakrabarty ended up saying, “Let’s see, let’s see man, let’s see.”
Shyamadas-babu was endlessly embarrassed. “What on earth are you doing? It’s half-eaten stuff. Let them bring you fresh ones.”
By then Chakraborty had already snatched away the plate. Shoving one of the sweets inside his mouth, he said, “Sir, it’s after all a King’s leftover!”
He could not continue any further, having realized his mistake immediately. But the deed was done, it was not possible to let go of the remaining piece either. Hanging his head in shame, he consumed this one too and retreated in a hurry citing unfinished tasks as excuse.
At that very moment, his home was engulfed in a desert storm. Hoimo had fainted, the younger children were weeping. The eldest was absconding.
The second daughter sobbed, “Something’s eaten up the sweets. Big brother quarreled with mother and hit her. She fell down and …”
The rest of her words were drowned by her weeping. Tears filled up Chakraborty’s eyes. He sat down next to Hoimo with a vessel full of water and fanned her, his thirsty eyes fixed on her.
As soon as Hoimo regained consciousness and saw her husband, she charged him. “Shame on you, I am at a loss for words, how disgraceful.”
Chakraborty caught hold of her feet searching for words, but Hoimo screamed out, “Leave me alone, I will smash my head against the wall till I die.”
All through the day Hoimo lay listlessly. When she revived her strength towards the evening, Chakraborty revealed to her the incidents of the day, ending up with, “You say you too are expecting around that time. It’s best that I inform them tomorrow that I will not be available.”
Hoimo shrieked loudly in protest, “No, no, no … Let it die, let it be born dead. It will be a respite for me. The land property will at least help the others live.”
It was the very first week of the monsoon season. Shyamadas-babu ’s people arrived to summon Chakraborty. The mistress’ labour pain has begun.
Chakraborty was embarrassed, Hoimo’s condition too was not exactly stable on that day.
Hoimo said, “Go along.”
“For heaven’s sake, don’t bother me. Our eldest one is at home. Go on.”
Chakraborty let out a sigh as he left. By then the zemindar’s palace was quite crowded. Shyamadas-babu said, “Welcome in Chakraborty. I am hopelessly busy right now. You had better finish your meal in the kitchen.”
Chakraborty made a beeline for the kitchen.
“Hello Chef, what’s being cooked today? Ah, the aroma! What’s that, fish curry or meat?”
“Meat. The sacrificial goat for the Goddess.”
“Ah yes, and your preparations too are delicious. Besides it’s a rainy day. How far is it, how long will it take for your cooking to be over? May I taste a sample?”
He made a carton out of a torn saal leaf and sat down close to the cooking vessel. The cook expressed irritation, “What a glutton you are Chakraborty!”
“True, excessively so. You are indeed right. How right.”
He remained silent for a while and then said, “Will it take long for the meat to turn tender?”
The cook picked up a piece of half-cooked meat and served it in the carton. “Taste it for yourself,” the cook said, “since you won’t believe my word. Here, take it.”
Chakraborty slurped the boiling hot gravy and said, “Yummy. The gravy is truly tasty. Your cooking skills — one might say — are superb indeed.”
The cook kept to himself and did not reply. Chakraborty persisted, “Well, there is no one in these parts to equal you. The meat’s not fully cooked yet, but it’s edible all the same.”
The cook said, “Chakraborty, go away now. The servants will inform you when the food’s ready. Let me work in peace. Come on, get up.”
It is doubtful if Chakraborty would have left. Just then though his eldest son showed up and called out to him, “Dad!”
Chakraborty came to him and asked, “What’s the matter?”
“Come home. It’s a son.”
“Your mom, how’s your mom?”
“She doing fine. But the midwife’s not around, she’s come here to attend to the lady of the house. We need a person to cut the cord.”
Chakraborty left with his son in a hurry.
“Don’t worry, I am alright. Summon the midwife who attends to the low castes, let her come and sever the cord. Our regular midwife won’t be available today.”
That’s how things were arranged. The midwife cut off the cord and said, “How attractive the son, no wonder – the parents being so handsome. The mother – just look at her.”
Hoimo said, “Keep your tongue on leash. Get lost, your work’s over, now leave.”
Chakraborty said, “Hmm…, what’s to be done now! Let our eldest inform the master to fetch someone else.”
Hoimo said, “Don’t you irritate me. Leave, I say, leave.”
Chakraborty went back on his way under the cover of darkness to the zemindar’s residence.
Around mid-night the house resounded with blowing conch shells. Shibrani had given birth to a son.
A doctor was already in attendance. He himself clipped the umbilical cord employing as much caution as possible. The night was nearly over by the time he took leave after cleaning up the baby with warm water and laying it down on the midwife’s lap.
When Chakraborty came back home in the morning, Hoimo said, “The baby developed a fever towards early dawn you know.”
Startled, Chakraborty said, “Really … so …”
Finally he ended up accusing, “I did say I wouldn’t leave. But you turned furious. We hardly know the forces that cause these things, do we …?”
Hoimo said, “It’s nothing, things will cure of their own. For now, see if you can procure a paisa worth of barley or milk. I can’t produce a drop of milk even if I were to be dissected.”
He didn’t possess the money. With nothing further to attend to in the morning, Chakraborty went back towards the zemindar’s residence again, in search of milk. He was looking around for the lord of the house as he stood near an outhouse office room with a vessel in his hand. Shyamadas-babu was nowhere to be seen. People appeared to be preoccupied as they rushed about. No one even noticed Chakraborty.
An attendant emerged out of the house on his way somewhere. He addressed Chakraborty and said, “Go home Brahmin. Today there’ll be no Godly offerings for you.”
Pale faced, Chakraborty descended slowly from the verandah. Hidden from public view, a petty servant was enjoying a smoke. Chakraborty asked him, “Hello there, hasn’t the cow been milked for the newborn?
He replied, “Why, wish for an advance, do you? No, the cow has not been milked. The baby is sick. Forget it all.”
The baby’s ailment had probably signaled its arrival in the wee hours of the morning, but no one sensed it. After suffering night long pain, Shibrani looked limp where she lay. The midwife too had dozed off after a sleepless night.
As morning progressed, Shibrani sat up and laid the baby on her lap, only to be startled by anxiety. What’s this, the child’s behaving strangely! Just the same way as her earlier children … Shibrani was drowned in her tears. The child’s skin, as pristine as a flower, appeared to have turned pale.
Shibrani called out pathetically, “Jamuna, request the Master to come over!”
As soon as Shyamadas-babu arrived, she said, “Call a doctor, the child’s behaving abnormally. The same disease.”
Shyamadas-babu sighed and prayed to Goddess Durga.
But he sent for a doctor immediately. The local doctor arrived without delay and following his advice an errand was sent out to fetch an experienced doctor from the city. As the day dragged on, Shibrani’s worst fears proved to be correct; the child was indeed sick. Beginning from the skin, its appearance too was turning unnatural. It is this same disastrous illness that had disposed of Shibrani’s children one after another in the labour room itself.
Towards afternoon, a renowned doctor arrived from town and after examining the child he sighed as he said, “Let’s go, I am done.”
The midwife interjected, “Doctor, the child …”
Before she had finished her question, the doctor replied, “I am prescribing the medicine.”
He went out in the company of Shymadas-babu .
Shyamadas-babu’s aunt came and stood before the door leading to the labour room. She told the midwife, “Why don’t you bring out the child, let me have a look.”
After observing the baby’s condition, she sighed deeply, “Oh no, how ill fated alas!” She slapped her forehead. Inside the room, Shibrani was weeping inconsolably.
The aunt muttered to herself, “Had to show them out in the past too. How do I even mention this. Yet — how can it be — on the lap of the mother … ”
The doctor told Shyamadas-babu , “Please don’t misunderstand me Shyamadas-babu , but may I ask you a personal question?”
The doctor probed into the history of Shyamadas-babu’s youth and concluded, “That’s precisely what I suspected. Therein lies the cause of each one of your children’s untimely death.”
“Then this child too might …”
“No, I see little hope,” said the doctor and took his leave.
As soon as he was back inside the house, his aunt confronted him with the thoughts that assailed her mind, “Will the freshly delivered child die on his mother’s lap? That’d be a terrible sin! There are rites to be observed, aren’t there?”
Issues concerning rites leave no room for propriety; and for a Hindu family rites and rituals constitute the very foundation of society’s survival. Consequently, the baby was removed, deserting Shibrani’s lap, and laid down on the floor of the balcony adjacent to the delivery room, to await the arrival of death. The midwife attended to it, a Brahmin stood on guard and near its head lay heaps of flowers offered to God. The maid, Jamuna, stayed back in the room to nurse Shibrani and console her over the loss of her baby.
It was a dark and cloudy monsoon night. Chakraborty sat puffing away tobacco at quick intervals. A baby at his home was sick as well; but he will recover. Chakraborty was smiling at himself in mockery. Destiny, he thought. At least Chakraborty would have survived if the baby at home died and the one here lived. Ten bighas of land and a plateful of victuals offered to Simhabahini everyday. Where is a doctor who attends to fate!
Every once in a while the baby’s faint voice was wailing in unbearable pain.
Chakraborty told the midwife, “Hey! Why can’t you pour some water into its mouth?”
The midwife replied sleepily, “Brahmin, do you think its mouth will be able to hold the water? Well, since you say so, let me try.”
She got up and moistened the baby’s lips with a few drops of water. Then, while going back to sleep she said, “Sleep you Brahmin, has your sleep taken leave of you?”
Chakraborty was truly sleepless. He was staring at the darkness covering the vast sky and ruminating over his own fate. His fate too was equally dark. Ah, if by some spell of magic the child were to come alive! He took hold of his sacred thread and touched the baby’s forehead. Then, all of a sudden, he shuddered. All his limbs shivered violently.
No, no, that can never be. It will lead to utter ruin if found out. In a short while his body was drenched in sweat. He began to smoke once again,
The midwife was snoring. Shibrani’s indistinct sobs had fallen silent inside the room. Chakraborty turned restless yet again as he blew on the embers in the smoking bowl. The glow of the burning coal set his eyes on fire as it were.
Oh yes, his sorrows will be gone forever. This child had a deformed appearance from the morning, his own child was not unsightly however. Thanks to his mother, he was good looking, despite the poverty into which he was born. His son will be the owner of all this property. Oh yes.
Sin as though stood before him in an invisible personification and called out to him. In the depth of darkness, a brightly lit future was shimmering in front of Chakraborty’s eyes. Chakraborty stood up. He came near the child and was frightened for a second time. However, that was a fleeting hesitation. The very next moment, he covered up the dying child with a sheet of cloth and carefully left through the backdoor to the building.
Strange, he traveled like an invisible current of wind. Soundlessly, softly, swiftly. In the darkness, neither reptiles, nor insects nor even a moth stood in his way. Neither did he care to notice anything. A crumbled down home. Parts of the walls were missing on all four sides. Hoimo’s delivery room did not even have a door. Some sort of a temporary fence provided the only protection. Hoimo was deeply asleep.
Chakraborty returned back with the light swiftness of wind again.
The midwife was still snoring.
The baby was sick, but not fatally so. It wept more strongly as it drew attention to its complaints from time to time. But the midwife didn’t wake up. Chakraborty feigned to be sleeping like a log.
The child cried again.
Shibrani’s indistinct weeping voice appeared to emanate from the room this time.
The child wept once again.
Jamuna spoke now, keeping the door slightly ajar, “Woman, hey woman! What’s this, the midwife’s snoring! The Brahmin too’s sleeping like a corpse. Wake up midwife.”
The midwife sat up in a flutter. Jamuna said, “Is this the way you are taking care of the boy? The child is groaning, feed him water in gaps.”
Hurriedly the midwife gave water to the child. The thirsty child licked its lips and drank the water. He seemed to ask for more. The midwife gave him more.
Now she cried out eagerly, “Look, its drinking water, licking its lips.”
Shibrani got up in her weak state and said, “Bring him in, bring my son inside the room, I will listen to no one’s edicts.”
In the morning, messengers were rushed off to town. A different doctor was coming this time. The child had returned from the threshold of death. God’s charity, a Brahmin’s blessing. Chakraborty had gifted away his own child’s life to the King’s son it was learnt. The wretched man’s child was dead. In the half-lit delivery room, Shibrani sat with the feverish child on her lap. The Lord of her fate, her lost treasure.
Chakraborty was offered his ten bighas of land. He received a daily share of a plateful of Simhavhahini’s food. Hoimo had turned relatively quiet. But Chakraborty went about the way he always did.
People said, “Habits die hard.”
Chakraborty replied, “Yes, true enough. But have you observed the boys’ flock, each one as big as an elephant.”
Hoimo sent her sons to school. The eldest son no longer used vulgar language, but he had turned snooty. “Dad’s way of life is making it embarrassing for me to attend school. The boys jeer at me. Some address me as the big clown’s son, a miniature version of a joker. Others pretend to be slurping liquids whenever they see me. You had better keep him under control.”
As soon as Hoimo brought up the matter, Chakraborty rose up in flames. Even Hoimo was taken aback by his unaccustomed outburst.
Chakraborty said, “I will leave, I will leave and become a wandering hermit.”
The matter would have progressed further. But a voice hailed from outside,
“The Banerjees have sent us. It’s that Brahmin family’s daughter’s wedding, you have to accompany the people carrying gifts to her future home. No one in the family is free to go. You stand to gain. They’ll feed you well, besides you are sure to receive handsome tips.”
“Fine, let’s go.”
Chakraborty left. Upon reaching the Banerjees’ residence, he went and sat down firmly where the sweets were being prepared. He said, “A Brahmin’s way can lead to a Brahmin alone. What choice? I must go. Let me tend to the fire in the oven, what say you Sir Confectioner?”
He kept staring at the cauldron with thirsty eyes.
Ten years later. Shibrani died unexpectedly. People in the locality said, “Lucky woman! Avoided widowhood and went off beating her drum leaving behind a husband and a son.”
Shyamadas-babu began to make arrangements for a magnificent funeral service. It is there that Chakraborty set up his temporary abode. As soon as morning arrived, he hobbled over to the venue to oversee the arrangements, from time to time commenting on the feast for the Brahmins.
One such day he said, “Well, each one has been allotted a take home package. But what about the count of the fried flatbreads? How about the sweets?”
Someone replied, “Well you’ll get to see. A fried flatbread each, as large as a sieve. As for sweets, one lady-cayni, long and as soft as a pillow.”
People began to snigger. Shyamadas-babu observed with mild irritability, “Will you hold your tongues! Yes, what happened, couldn’t you find one?”
He was speaking to an employee. The man said, “Sir, their entire family is wiped out.”
“Then search elsewhere. A funeral service cannot be held without an Agradaani Brahmin.”
“Well let’s try then. But few Agradaanis can be found for miles around.”
One amongst those present suggested, “We have our own Chakraborty here. Chakraborty, why don’t you agree to do the job? It’s a mean job, but who’d stand to gain by socially ostracizing you?”
Shyamadas-babu too showed interest. “Not a bad idea Chakraborty! Not only the usual gifts, you’ll receive land property too; twenty-five bighas of land, and, if you agree, I will offer you Rupees Fifty a year out of the income from my property. Think about it.” He looked around and called out to a servant, “Hello, bring here some snacks for Chakraborty. How about those sweets from Calcutta, don’t we have any left?”
On the appointed day, people saw Shyamadas-babu’s descendant performing the rites for Shibrani and, in front of him, sat Purno Chakraborty, the entire length of his arm extended to receive the gifts on behalf of the dead person’s soul.
Following this, sitting outside in a cowshed, Chakraborty gorged himself with the pindo offered by that selfsame descendant.
The story ends here, but Chakraborty’s story doesn’t. Things will stay incomplete unless this remaining part were to be disclosed.
Greedy, gluttonous Chakraborty was not satisfied even after eating the pindo offered to the dead by his own child’s hand. He was going about his way just as he always did, greed streaming down his eyes and his taste buds ever insatiable. But fourteen years after this funeral ceremony, he came and fell flat on Shyamadas-babu’s feet. Shyamadas-babu stood like a dried up fig tree carrying his two year old grandson.
Chakraborty embraced his feet tightly and cried out, “Cannot do it Babu , I simply cannot.”
Shyamadas-babu sighed, “What’s the way out Chakraborty, if you disagree? Here I am arranging for his funeral rites father though I am, that child of a girl, his widow, will be able to perform the rituals. It won’t do for you to refuse. You’ll get ten bighas of land for this service too.”
Shyamadas-babu’s descendant himself had died, leaving behind a small child and his wife. It was his funeral rites that had to be performed.
Chakraborty left meekly, unable to defend himself.
On the day fixed for the ritual, the young widow sat in the cowshed and offered the bowl containing the pindo to Chakraborty.
The priest in attendance said, “Come, Chakraborty, eat your fill.”