Not only Kesab, many others are in such straits. There’s no food in the house, but there is a means of getting it – through his daughter. A couple of sacks of rice, two or three times her weight. Also some cash, with which they can buy a few clothes.
A year or so ago, Kesab had searched for a decent groom, so that he could give Soilo away along with a few jewels, saris and utensils. He’d been willing to spend all he had to get her married according to the scriptures and norms. But because everything he had was not much, he couldn’t find an adequate recipient. Her looks are ordinary, yet she is maturing fast.
Kesab hasn’t even had time to contemplate just how, in the course of this search, he’s become a pauper – all from trying to provide a bit of rice for himself, his wife, the other kids and Soilo. His eldest son was married, worked as a schoolteacher at a salary of forty-three rupees. He’d died of an astonishing variety of malaria. That the fever could reach a hundred and six degrees and kill a strong young man in five days after medicines as precious as gold ran out – Kesab had only heard tales of such a miraculous malaria.
A daughter had died as well, of ordinary malaria. This kind was Kesab’s intimate, resident enemy. The weapon against it, quinine, he also knew well. When she hadn’t the strength to swallow a tablet, he’d mixed it in water to make a paste like glue.
Sadai-doctor had remonstrated, “You foolish man, that’s very good quinine, a new variety. Very effective. Else, would I charge you extra?”
When she died the doctor got angry. In a stentorian tone, like a judge stating his verdict, he declaimed, “You killed her. Can quinine alone save her? Doesn’t she need food? You killed her without giving her food, just food!”
The girl had been younger than Soilo by a year and a half, and she’d had a much prettier face. Now he could’ve gotten food in exchange of her, several sacks, and cash.
But Kesab has no regrets about that. Rather, he thinks, she’s better off dead.
Kalachand buys Soilo.
Kalachand’s speech is pleasing and refined, his face pale and bloodless, his eyes small and dull. He looks upon women with the same dispassionate air with which the dutiful Bibhisan regarded his brother’s nubile wife Mandodori – so long as the demon king Ravana had rights to her. Beyond this, though, one can’t compare Kalachand with Bibhisan. Five years ago Kalachand’s elder brother had somehow died, and instead of courting his unclaimed second wife, Kalachand had forcibly turned her into the mistress of a household. It wasn’t the household in which his family lived, but a rented building quite far off. Ten or twelve women lived there.
Recently Kalachand has also rented the building next to it. Seventeen or eighteen women now inhabit the two houses. Kalachand’s Mandodori presides over both. In just a few years, she’s become somewhat obese.When she wears a glowing white sari over her half-sleeved white blouse, she looks like a lady from an aristocratic family.
The famine having swelled the city’s demand for girls, who are cheap and plentiful in the suburbs, Kalachand is often on the move these days. Spotting Soilo in his own village, he’s taken a fancy to her. Admittedly she looks like a skeleton – but then one can’t buy girls from such families until they’ve reached a certain level of desperation. And she’ll fill out nicely when fed. He’d seen her before; her looks are ordinary, but that doesn’t much matter. Every evening she can be made beautiful. After someone has dressed her up for a few days, Soilo herself will learn the art of turning heads with flowers and paint.
In the dulcet, soothing tones of a religious singer, Kalachand sympathises, “Aha, Chakkothi sir, who knew your fate held such suffering?”
Kesab stares lifelessly. Kalachand doesn’t expect his compassion to elicit tears, but the man’s eyes don’t even glisten! It’s disappointing. Yet this isn’t a new experience for him. Something’s wrong with everybody – his floods of fellow-feeling don’t elicit the feeblest response. In the old days, this Kesab Chakraborty would burst into tears at the slightest show of sympathy, blow his nose and wipe his eyes while providing a long account of his travails, try his hardest to puff up that compassion. Now that’s all gone.
From his base in the city, Kalachand has been travelling through the countryside. He’s seen many deserted villages. But he hasn’t sat in a village day after day watching it empty out, hasn’t suffered himself. How can he comprehend Kesab’s state of mind?
Kalachand has brought some rice, lentils, fish and vegetables, enough for one meal. These people, of course, will make it last for two or three. He just wants to give them a taste, soothe their stomachs, whet their appetites, make them wild for more. He’s also brought a sari for Soilo; her mother has instead emerged wrapped in it. Soilo’s blouse is torn only a little, and so her ragged sari can still hide her body.
Kalachand talks of many things, and then gets to the point. “Will you let me take her? Get her treated?”
“It hurts to see her like this.”
Kesab has heard vague rumors about Kalachand’s houses. In a strained voice he asks, “You’ll keep her with you? In your home?”
“If not in my house, where else shall I keep her, Chakkothi sir?”
“Let me think a bit,” Kesab says, nodding. “God will bless you my son, just let me think a bit.”
Pleased, Kalachand replies, “I’ll come on Wednesday, late night. I’ll bring everything in the car. Who knows what people will say, Chakkothi sir, just tell them she went to her uncle’s house.”
Kesab shuts his eyes and says, “No one will want to know, my boy. No one is curious. If they learn she isn’t here, they’ll assume she died.”
Soilo can be seen, so thin that she’s hunched over a little. In some dark recess of his mind, Kesab fingers a childhood fear and shivers. Death has become so cheap and easy in the whole land.
He has no option, yet he should think. He has no strength to think, yet he must. The dull pain in his stomach has cast a pall over his mind, everything is misty. Who knows what he should do? If Kesab tries to think, even his body starts to shiver. In this village, Rakhal’s sister and Dinesh’s daughter were sold, just like this. Not to Kalachand, to two other men. Even so, Rakhal hadn’t survived. He’d died in his home, rotted and fouled the air all around with his odor. Dinesh had taken the remnants of his family and wandered off, who knows where
But they weren’t Brahmins, nor were they civilised like Kesab. Ordinary lower-caste people. Should Kesab be able to do what they could do? His heart palpitates, something stirs and turns in his numb body. In his deafened ears he hears the ringing of bells, the call of a conch shell and the hum of Sanskrit mantras; on his scratchy skin he feels the freshness of a bath and silk, to his nose, violated by the stench of death and rot, floats the scent of flowers and sandalwood. Before his closed eyes shimmer confused visions – an outstretched cloth under which a bride is viewed, the sacred fire, an array of gifts, Soilo dressed in wedding finery, rows of people feasting off rows of banana leaves. Kesab remembers that he is Soilo’s father!
While eating his lunch of rice and kochu leaves, the intoxicating fragrance of delectables cooking in giant pots for the rows of waiting guests vanishes, taking away with it thoughts of who is whose father.
Soilo’s mother doesn’t cry, just whimpers under her breath. She sits around dozing and muttering in a singsong tone. If you heard her, you’d think it was the buzzing of a bee. Soilo has good hearing, and can sometimes make out the words: You don’t die! You kill everyone but you don’t die! You ate your brother, your sister, can’t you eat yourself, you wretch! Die, now die! Die before you go to Kolkata!
Soilo’s emotions have dried up. No feelings rise in her, not sadness or pain, not anger or resentment. Even hunger seems to escape her! Only the thought of going with Kalachand and getting two meals a day makes her shiver with excitement. All awareness seems to have evaporated from her body. She scratches her sores without getting relief, or feeling pain when they bleed. But watching her swollen-bellied little brother chew on an unripe guava gives her a thrill.
Wednesday morning dawns with a clear sky, and some midday clouds float away by evening. In the afternoon Kesab Chakraborty and his family are invited to a ceremony at Sadai-doctor’s home, where his infant grandson receives his first taste of rice. Kunjo, the bagpipe player, along with his partner and son, always performed at celebrations in these villages. Since he’s vanished, the doctor has had to get a bagpipe player from the town. Having eaten their fill, Kesab and his family stagger home and collapse on reed mats. For the first time they understand how someone can suffocate from overeating. They lie around until twilight, like drunks sleeping it off. Only Soilo, having vomited twice, feels somewhat normal. Kesab’s stomach is hurting, and she sits by him, massaging it. There’s no oil to spare for rubbing.
By the time his pain recedes it is dark, and Kesab is suffering from cramps of a more metaphysical kind. Kalachand arrives much later, in the depth of night. Having parked his car far from habitation, he and a helper have walked the rest of the way. The entire village is asleep. But Kesab thinks he can hear the faint wail of bagpipes still playing far away, at the doctor’s house.
Kesab sobs out, “Oh my boy Kalachand.”
“How can I let my daughter go like this, at this marriageable age?”
“This is the trouble with you people. Don’t you trust me? Tell me what I should do then. Three sacks of rice…”
Kesab is quiet. Using the beam of his flashlight, Kalachand scans his face. In the brilliant light Kesab’s tearful, unblinking eyes glitter like those of a wild animal.
After waiting awhile Kalachand says, “It’s best to get it over with. I’ve brought these clothes, tell Soilo to put them on. Shall I send for the goods, Chakkoti sir?”
Kesab says something, but whether it’s a yes or a no Kalachand cannot tell. Soilo’s mother whimpers a little louder.
Kalachand orders his companion, “Go get the stuff with the other guys. Tell the driver to wait in the car.”
Kalachand’s flashlight is pointed at the floor. The darkness here gives him the creeps. The fragmented light, reflected at odd angles around the hut, lends it the silent tension of a stage set. Kesab is squatting on the floor; the colorful sari, blouse and petticoat that Kalachand has brought lie in his arms. Soilo stands right behind him.
“Grant me a request, my boy.” Kesab sounds much calmer.
“Marry Soilo before you take her with you.”
“Marry her? Are you mad?”
Giving the clothes to Soilo, Kesab grabs Kalachand’s hand. Pleadingly, he explains that it won’t be a real marriage. Not the kind where a priest marries a couple in public, in front of witnesses, where the groom has obligations by law – not that kind of marriage. It’s just for Kesab’s peace of mind.
“With just God as witness, I will surrender Soilo to you. Then do what you will with her, as your conscience allows. Just let me do my duty. Let me do this much.”
Soilo’s worth has arrived on the shoulders of two strong men. The village might be deserted, but Kalachand isn’t dumb enough to come in the dead of night to pick up a girl without some muscle backing him up. If he were alone, how long would it take for someone to cut him up and bury him?
Annoyed at Kesab’s sentimentality, he curtly replies, “Get it over with, whatever it is.”
Borrowing matches from Kalachand himself, Kesab lights a lamp by the god, represented by a rock, in a corner of the hut. Outside, by moonlight, Soilo changes into her new clothes and returns. The lamp has only a little oil. As Kesab prepares to perform the ceremony, Soilo can only think that if the oil had instead been massaged into his stomach perhaps his pain might have eased.
By the flickering lamplight, Kesab puts Soilo’s hand in Kalachand’s and mumbles mantras. Profoundly uneasy, Kalachand prompts, “Hurry up!” He didn’t know they had a deity in the hut, he doesn’t like fooling around with gods. He becomes nervous, his resolve threatening to escape. The god enthroned on dried-out leaves and flowers in the pure, peaceful interior of a villager’s home, the chanting of an honest Brahmin, the mystery of late night shrouding the silent fields and forests – all these fill him with a supernatural dread. Cursing himself, he thinks, I should never have submitted to this old man’s mad fancy.
The moment the lamp burns out, Kalachand pulls his hand away. Soilo’s hand, having been held in his, is drenched in sweat.
Kalachand’s body is also sweaty. Wiping his face with a handkerchief, he pulls Soilo outside. He doesn’t bid farewell, nor does he allow her to. It’s unusual for both the purchaser and the purchased to fail to say goodbye to the seller, but Kalachand is upset. Soilo is stunned.
Walking along the dirt path from her home, between the hibiscus and jasmine bushes, Soilo’s head clears. She pulls her hand away and says for the first time, “I won’t go.”
After she’s repeated this and pulled away a few times, and seems about to cry out loud, Kalachand stuffs the corner of her sari into her mouth and picks her up. For a few seconds an uncommon strength comes to her feeble frame. Spasms rack her body, leaving it as stiff and bent as a bow. The sari-corner falls out of her mouth, but she just groans through clenched teeth. Then all of a sudden she collapses, inert.
Hearing the whole story, Kalachand’s Mandodari is annoyed. “Why go to all that trouble? Aren’t there other females in the world?”
“I kind of fell into a trance.”
“A trance? Really? Seeing this flat-nosed, dark-skinned, bony girl you fell into a trance?”
“Come on, not that kind of trance!”
But Mandodari’s suspicion won’t go away. She’s long been astounded by the preferences of men, bizarre as they are. Observing Kalachand’s concern about Soilo, the excesses of his attention and care, her suspicion daily grows stronger. She may resemble a refined lady in her white sari and blouse, but in her eyes grows an ugly glint.
A doctor comes to see Soilo. Light, healthy, expensive food arrives for her palate. Other girls aren’t even allowed to come near her! Kalachand spends a lot of time with her.
One day the matter becomes a lot clearer. Soilo’s looking much better these days.
“I’m thinking I’ll take her home.”
“It’s bothering me. After all, she’s my wedded wife. Her father chanted mantras in front of the deity and married us. I think I’ll take her home, she can lie around in a corner like a servant.”
The two have a furious quarrel. A hideous, ugly fight. An enraged Kalachand, bottle of alcohol in one hand, goes to Soilo’s room and locks the door.
The next afternoon he goes home. Having used the rest of the day to explain matters to his wife, he returns that evening in a car to fetch Soilo.
When he enters the brothel, Mandodori pulls him into her room.
“There’s a man with Soilo.”
Kalachand feels as if his head has caught fire. He could kill Mandodori. “A man! In the room of my wedded wife!”
Silently Mandodori pulls out a fat wad of banknotes and holds it out. After hesitating awhile, Kalachand takes the notes and starts to count. When he finishes he is calm, as though spellbound.
“Who’s the man?”
“That Gajen. Loaded from selling rice.”
Kalachand is still fingering the notes. Reading the unspoken question on his astonished face, she explains, “For someone with a fetish, is that too much money? He was looking for a village virgin.”
~ This article is one of the articles from web-exclusive package for ‘Farms, Feasts, Famines’.
~ Manik Bandopadhyay (1908-1956) is considered to have been among the leading writers of modern Bengali fiction. Over his difficult lifetime, he produced 177 short stories and 36 novels, notably Padma Nadir Majhi (The Boatman on the River Padma, 1936), Putul Nacher Itikatha (The Puppet’s Tale, 1936), Shahartali (Suburbia, 1941) and Chatushkone (The Quadrilateral, 1948).