Sudha madhuri dash is a published author of many novels. Along with photography she loves horse riding and practices odissi dance.
BHOLA BHETKI OUR FIRST MEETING
One day at the farm I heard my grandmother giving a loud growl, and then I heard her rifle going off in the air. I shook my head while Barnacles who was just a baby then hid behind a hay stack. I scooted up a tree to get a better view. I saw a fellow running at top speed towards the river. Two more shots and the fellow dived in, I counted ten and waited a loud howl and a ‘god help me’ scream brought a smile on my lips. The lone gharial must have nipped him. The fellow scrambled up the banks and off at high speed into the scrub jungle.
“Why were you scaring him?” I asked my grandmother who stood waiting near the river bank.
“The fellow was using my field of standing grain as a toilet,” she looked angry.
That was the first time I saw him. Defecating on my grandmothers standing field of rice was the worst crime and my grandmother’s judgment was harsh. If the hyenas or the wild dogs did get him they would be kinder upon him. My story is about this man. My grandmother would often speak of him as Bhola Bhetki (foolish carp is the exact translation of those words). Personal I liked the man. He was always respectful towards me. During the mango season one would always find me perched up in one of the trees. As he would pass by I would throw him a few mangoes which he would take and bow down gratefully like a JINI of a lamp.
Respectful and polite he must have got disgusted with the whole village for he moved away. Last I heard of him he had married a nice Bengali girl and had got himself a job. The jokes about his marriage and his life in Calcutta did draw my attention but soon it was rutting season and I got busy in the chicken coop. I was all of six and I had a lot of things going on in my mind. After quite a number of years I heard of Bhola Bhetki, now he had a proper job in a bank and was living in Calcutta.
He was still extremely respectful and enquired about my grandmother. He know had a busy life and it was wonderful to know that the employees at his work place had changed his name quite a few times until they had settled for one that suited him better. I felt sorry for him. For now he was known as Beral babu (or cat man). This is his story and how Bhola Bhetki faced the world on his own terms.
It was a hot, sultry afternoon. Flies, foul body odour, and dry cough was all playing loudly on Beral Chandra Ghanadas’ audio and olfactory senses. the buses of Calcutta, plying in heavy traffic are enough to give jittery nerves to the well-healed travelers among us. Beral Babu often felt engulfed by these red beasts. There was a deep overwhelming sense of no escape from the routine of 8 to 5 job in the Swadhin Bank, and thrown in as a bonus, of course, was the jostling ride from home to the bank and back. He had a scooter—his father-in-law’s benevolence—that still had brand new tyres. Beral Babu suffered from road fear; even driving to the grocery shop of the Agarwal bania just round the corner required gladiator’s preparation on his part. One could not call him a brave heart; yet, his daily travails in the red beast entitled him to the rank of a dare heart. Beral Babu had never ever broken this routine other than Sundays. On this day, wherever he had to go and whatever he had to do on man’s two best friends—his feet, I would say, he was a foot soldier at heart. At the office, Beral Babu’s name was often mispronounced as ‘Biral’ (cat) by some of his colleagues who thought being comical in a government institution brought more lightness into the dank morbid atmosphere of a dusty government building. Harish Ghosh, the Bada Babu of the clerical section, would say with a lot of humour, “Now that Biral has turned up, we can all meow to our work.”Beral Babu, on such occasions, would say nothing but move to his desk and turn deaf ears. He did feel bad about the fun being made at his expense but confrontation was not a part of his sweet nature. work I would say happened at a slow pace, slow-footed I would rather say, with a number of intermittent tea breaks, and those who did not drink this savvy beverage, would make trips to the toilets or take pan breaks in the long corridor of the office building that was lined with low wooden benches (had vital parts missing and had seen better days during the British Raj). Lunch break was at one; it seemed as if the whole world of the babus had come to a standstill; the old government building of the bank ceased to show any notable life forms. Every vacant chair reminded one of this advanced breed among mankind who had dedicated their lives to the improvement of the whole human race. A closer look revealed hardworking babus in the lunchroom cooling their belly tyres. Tiffin opened, spoons raised and naked fingers readied like gladiators, their hands moving with more alacrity and swiftness of a samurai’s sword held ready for a battle . the rhythmic clickity-clack of spoons often reminded one of Mozart’s orchestra. Beral Babu’s tiffin was the most awaited; it was not only big in size but also ample and filling in contents. Hot and steaming flavoured rice, juicy fiery fish curry, and small round meatballs in creamy cashew sauce. Often, the small side tiffin contained added treats of malpuas, sandesh, and soft white rasogullas. Most of his colleagues would take the excuse of telling something important at that eventful moment, and would often depart with a prized piece held tenderly between their fingers to be devoured leisurely at their own lunch tables. Portly, pink-faced and sweet-natured Beral Babu never felt offended; in fact, he felt happy sharing God’s bounty with these lesser mortals. Ruti, tarkari, and dal had never been his scene. He was more of a happy-eating and go-lucky person. the words diet or soups never featured in his menu. Lunch over, the babu’s groaned back to their creaking wooden chairs and grunting wooden desks complaining loudly how unfair the government was, and their heavy workload literally was killing them. Back pain, gas, burps, and hiccups followed the small and big hands of the clock till just about five minutes to four; then the frenzy of activity seen was like piranhas feeding on live bait. Just as the big old dame showed five past four, the stillness that descended within the office was resounding, hitting one like a full blast of cold air on a mountaintop. The peon at the gate, old Salaam khan, who has been at his post for the last fifteen years, waited for the office grounds to clear, and then started locking up the old rickety wooden doors with Sriram Ghosh, a young sturdy fellow of just twenty, newly married; he always seemed in a hurry to go home. Every now and then, between closing doors and sifting chairs, Sriram Ghosh would disappear like wispy ghost, but of course, a loud hollering from Khan and he would trot back like wayward donkey of the washer man. Halfhearted sweeping of the floors was done by the one-eyed maid who lived behind the office building. Khan knew from the time she was a young bride, when she had two good eyes about two score years back. Unfortunately, her drunk husband decided otherwise…he threw an empty bottle at her and sealed the fate of one of her eyes. Fate decides all…was the last thought on Khan’s mind as he locked the main gate. Beral Babu often travelled back in the same bus as Badai da, a resident of Jalpaiguri who had been living out his years in Kolkata as a NRK (Non-Residential calcuttian); some in the offce said he had a tyrant of a wife who did not let him come home. Beral Babu was a wee bit apprehensive about travelling alone; hence, he had in fact requested Badai da to travel with him in the same bus. Badai da always had sarcasm dripping of his tongue like honey, yet, he was sometimes very entertaining and informative.
he engaged Beral babu with tall stories about his wife and her knowledge about running an efficient household, and how cleverly she was bringing up the children even though she herself had never seen the gates of a school. Getting down at the corner near his house, Beral Babu would trudge back picking up a few fresh vegetables or grocery as per requests from his better half. Beral Babu’s better half—Binodini, after so many years she had settled into a sweet-natured plump roundness that was often seen during those days among most ginnis (Bengali housewives).She was still very pretty and the city life hardly had any effect on her inherent nice and kind nature. “Age is catching up on you, Beral Babu,” said badai da. “I can see you huffing and puffing just these few steps to the home stead,” he said with sarcasm dripping from his lips like warm nectar. Beral Babu did not like what he heard but like many times before, he behaved as if he had not heard what was being said and shifted to pleasanter topics. Beral Babu loved food, and his portly comfortableness was an evidence of this fact. Hilsa fish, a Bengali delicacy, and of course very many ways to cook, it was one of his favorite topics and mood lifters. “Are you going to buy some today?” asked Badai da.
No, no, no….no,” not being very sure, “I will pick up some on Sunday…have to ask Binodini first,” he said.
Badai da smirked sarcastically and said, “Always in line with the missus, are we not… huh!”
Beral Babu wanted to reply; he felt hurt too at the unwarranted sarcasm but his years of taking such mental pain from others had trained him to develop an impervious epidermis, and such kind of unworthy words were like water being poured on a drake.
Magically, a net bag would appear from the office satchel to carry the few vegetables and other items on his way home. Badai da had no such compulsions, as there was no cooking to be done; all he ever ate was bread with mango pickle followed by a glass of tea served by the tea boy. At night, sometimes, he would pour water on some puffed rice and after squeezing the whole lot dry, he would add a pinch of sugar and a squeeze of a sweet lime and lo! his dinner was ready. At the office, he fell back on the kind mercies of the canteen that served thick brown under cooked rice and watery dal; sometimes on lucky days, there would be a piece of solitary vegetable floating in the watery soup. Beral Babu, speaking to him and shaking his arm to get his attention, brought him back to the present.
“Come over for a cup of tea; Binodini will make some nice mean pakoras.” Invitation tendered, Beral Babu waited, already knowing the usual answer.
Badai da’s pan-stained lips moved in an irregular manner refusing politely as usual. Both friends parted at the roundel, Beral Babu headed home and Badai da to his one-roomed barsati, which he shared with one of his cousins. Badai da liked Beral Babu but with plenty of reservations in mind. He often felt jealous of the loving couple; in his envy, he was often rude and sarcastic with the gentle soul, regretting later over his behaviour. Life was lonely and he missed his sons but his wife’s behaviour left little room for peace in the house. By choice, he had chosen to live as he did. Although Swadhin Bank did have a branch close to his home, Badai da had never asked for a transfer. He was as a porcupine… always with his hackles raised to fend o imaginary attacks. As Beral Babu walked home, he met friends who too were returning home after having accomplished similar missions like him.
the very thought of his Binodini and her soft hands serving tea to him cheered him up, and made him forget the earlier feeling of hurt and unkindness. Beral Babu could never understand why Badai da was so nasty sometimes; innate politeness prevented him from even asking. Badai da walked into his single room that served as both a bedroom and a sitting room, a sense of disgust and anger arose in him. the whole room was in disarray, dirty clothes, cigarette stubs, and torn pieces of newspaper littered the floor. A while back, Badai da had divided the room into two halves so that at least his would remain suitable for human habitation; it had never worked. Today, the whole room was worse than a pigsty, and he waited for his cousin to return.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 sudha madhuri dash