“I used to feed fish to my widowed grandmother” by Buddhadeb Dasgupta: Soumashree Sarkar

This is an English translation by SOUMASHREE SARKAR of a column by Buddhadeb Dasgupta which appeared in the Sunday special supplement, Rabibashoriyo, of the Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika on March 20, 2016 and can be found in the original Bengali here.

It was probably the month of November. Winter had set in firmly in a city that neighboured Kolkata. The quilts had come out even before that. Morning had not even broken and there was still a lot of sleep left to be slept when Ma yanked the quilt away from me and woke me up, “Don’t you remember who’s coming today? Get up and hurry, I’ve been calling you for the longest time, Khrushchev and Bulganin are coming, they might have reached already. My cooking’s almost done.” The words were pouring out of my mother’s mouth with frightening speed and excitement, all in the Dhaka’s native Bengali tongue.

Bathed in cold water, shivering through chattering teeth, and sufficiently clothes, we siblings went and stood in front of our mother. With a comb in hand, Ma sat on a chair, and neatly parted all our heads of hair.

I asked, “What does Khrushchev look like? What does Bulganin look like? The same rice-dal-fish curry that we eat – do they also eat that?”

– “Why won’t they eat that? You are a human being, they are human beings. Humans eat everything.”

  1. I study in standard four and India has been independent for only a few years. Poor nation, didn’t have too many friends, so at the very sight of Russia, she ran wildly to embrace her, shouting ‘Hindi-Russi bhai bhai’.”

I picked up my little sister and began running. Ahead of me and behind me were my other siblings. The wide road in front of our house was the Grand Trunk Road. The road had almost been eaten by the jaws of a huge banyan tree. Some say that the tree is ten years old, some say thirty thousand, some others say at least three hundred. Some say that it is in the shade of this very tree that Ram had set eyes on Sita for the first time. Whatever they said, the tree had trees within itself, and even more trees as you went on, and on and on – it was a huge tree. Keshto, Bishtu – or whoever would come from abroad – used to be taken for sight seeing to this banyan tree. This is how we have seen many an important person since childhood, and each time they have come, my mother in a fit of excitement would wake us all up before dawn, as if everyone from Nehru to his cabinet would eat Ma’s fish curry, take their afternoon nap at our house and then go on their way.

When the bald Nikita Khrushchev went waving his arms at the waves of people who he was walked through, my grandmother had stood in a corner of the verandah and, underneath her ghomta, had blown with all her strength into the conch shell. Men were so foolish then. But they were good.

Our grandmother used to live with us. She was widowed at eighteen. Her strange life of strict widowhood appeared ridiculous to me even then. Our house had two kitchens. One was ours, the other was for our grandmother. In one used to be cooked jabberwocky, and in the other, just wocky – meaning non-vegetarian and vegetarian. Lulled by the fragrance of the food my mother was cooking in the other kitchen, my grandmother used to often fall asleep. In her sleep she went into the first flush of youth at sixteen years. After her cooking was done, Ma used to shut the doors to her room and sit down to play the organ. I would lift the lid to the wok containing the curry, pick up a piece of fish, take it to my grandmother and hold it to her mouth. She would open her eyes and look at me strangely. From beyond the closed doors the tunes of Haye go, byatha kotha jaye dubey jaye, jaye go[1] would waft in; from the communal tap far away, the curious sounds of the water spilling out from the well would come in. Spell-bound, my grandmother would eat the fish out of my hands. I would run away to get another fish, then once again to get yet another fish… life went on this way for a while. The notes of the organ, the sounds of my grandmother chewing on the fish, and with that the sight of the tears rolling down from her beautiful eyes would drive me mad. Then I was caught. Ma tied my hands together, shoved me inside the pantry and bolted the door from outside. I still remember that I had counted one hundred and twelve lizards as I sat awake through the night. The fattest lizard had said, “Feeding fish to a widow? Rascal! Now get down on all fours and walk with us.”

Every month my father would hand five rupees to my grandmother as an allowance. My grandmother did not even eat paan or dokta. So I bought her postcards from time to time and she wrote to her friend. She said, “You’ll see, one day she’ll arrive. Her heart weeps for me. She’ll come, and she’ll stay with all of you.” My grandmother’s friend never arrived on our doorstep and I never met her. A shop in front of our house sold biscuits in shapes – some were elephants, some horses, some birds. I would take a few coins from my grandmother and buy those biscuits. When the whole house would have eaten lunch and fallen asleep, my grandmother and I would sit silently beside each other and pick at the biscuits and eat them. One day, as I ran to the shop, I opened my palm and saw that the coin was no longer the same. It was a strange coin – I had not seen it before and it had no resemblance to the earlier coins we used. The year was 1957. I hadn’t known that a few days ago, the 1 anna, 2 anna and 4 anna coins had been replaced by newer ones.

Shortly after this discovery, we noticed that the rice had disappeared from the plate. Ma was cooking a mash of winnowed wheat with lentils. In a corner of the plate, at a great distance away, was a small piece of fish. It went on this way for a few days. Then one day, the piece of fish disappeared. Rice was not available, all other staples were exhausted, everything cost too much. Even my government-employed doctor father had no means of feeding rice to his family. In the backyard of the tiny quarters in front of our house, the Compounder Uncle’s wife used to roam about with a comb between her teeth and a huge protruding belly. Then all of a sudden, one day, she had two children together. Compounder Uncle was so happy, people couldn’t even have one, but here he was with two sons! One was named Khrushchev Hansda and the other was named Bulganin Hansda. Drowning out the screeches of the children, the voice of Jawaharlal Nehru would swim forth through the radio. Nehru would be repeating his old words…cough cough… “All the black marketeers of the nation will be beaten up and hung from the lampposts.” Hehe… one day the newspapers ran a picture of Nehru’s recently adult daughter alongside him. What beautiful smiles they both had, what flurry of waving hands, what beautiful teeth Indira had!

A few days later I woke up to the whispers of my older brother in my ear, I in turn whispered into my younger brother’s ear, and he into my sister’s. Without a word to anyone, the four of us began running. A large number of people had surrounded a large tree. Some were rubbing their teeth with a twig of neem, some were brushing teeth with salt and oil, some others had begun eating guavas in the early morning, and from the tree hung three bodies. On the way home, my older brother said, “They are actually black marketeers.” Nehru had punished them. Later, I had come to know that the man was called Madhav and he had nothing to eat, so he hanged himself and his wife and daughter. This was the first suicide of the naked and starving that I witnessed in independent India. At a distance, our home was visible. Ma had already woken up, bathed and sat with her organ. The tune rang out, India would take the best seat in the world’s seminar. This would be the beginning of my nation-loving and nation-unloving.

Buddhadeb Dasgupta is a writer and National Award-winning contemporary Bengali filmmaker, most known for films like Bagh Bahadur, Tahader Katha, Charachar and Uttara. This column appeared in the Sunday special, Rabibashoriyo, of the Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika on March 20, 2016.

Soumashree Sarkar is a post-graduate in English literature from Kolkata’s Jadavpur University and has worked for the Deccan Chronicle and Asian Age newspapers in Bengaluru.

[1] ‘O where does this pain drown, o where’

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