(Rendered from Assamese by Anandeswar Sarma)
After Pabitra and Amiya had their breakfast, a little of the tea, served to them, was left over in their cups. This, mixed with some hot water, was given to Tarbari to drink. There was no fresh addition of sugar.
Tarbari poured the tea into her own cup. Mahimamoyee scraped off with a spoon the suji that was still sticking to the bottom of the pan, made a lump of it and gave it to Tarbari. It hardly made a mouthful. After finishing the tea in small sips, Tarbari cast a nervous glance at her mistress and said, “Haven’t you got last night’s stale rice? Give me some of it, mistress.”
Mahimamoyee was not ignorant of the fact that in the kitchen there was still some rice kept overnight, and Tarbari had no need to remind her about it. Had there been only a handful or two of it she would not have bothered about parting with it. But the quantity was enough to make her mid-day meal. How could she allow her to eat up the whole lot in the morning? Mahimamoyee gave her a sharp rebuke and said, “Ah, what a glutton this woman is! Hadn’t you enough suji only a while ago? What have you got–a belly or a shelf? Go now and get the utensils washed.”
Servants did not last long with Mahimamoyee. They survived not more than a month or two, or three months at most, after which they moved elsewhere. Of hard words they got enough and to spare, but even the hard, half-boiled rice that fell to their lot never relieved their hunger. Only a few days ago Gopal, the boy-cook of the household, went out in the morning never to return. The previous night Mahimamoyee’s brother and sister-in-law had come to visit her. After meals were served to them and other members of the family, Gopal found that there was nothing left for him. When the mistress of the house was told about it she said callously, “You needn’t burn fuel now to cook your meal. If you miss a night’s meal, you won’t die!” Gopal managed to pass the night and showed a clean pair of heels in the morning. From then onwards Mahimamoyee herself did the cooking. For Tarbari, however, escape was impossible. She was in the employ of Mahimamoyee as pawn for the advance of sixty rupees which her father had taken from Mahimamoyee. At the rate of six rupees a month, she would have to drudge for ten months to clear off the debt. She had completed only three, and there was yet another seven months to go.
Ananda was head-clerk at the Bakulban tea estate somewhere near Tezpur. His wife, with their two children, stayed at Gauhati. Pabitra was in Class VII of the English High School, and his sister, Amiya, in Class V.
A year or so before, Ananda had bought a plot of land at Gauhati and got a house of his own built there. Occasionally, when it suited him, he paid week-end visits to Gauhati but did not stay more than a day. And some month or other he would not come at all. But he kept himself posted with news from his family through a regular exchange of letters. That the children should be spared the slightest discomfort was a point which he never failed to impress upon her in most emphatic terms whenever he wrote to her.
Ananda paid Mahimamoyee liberally enough towards the up-keep of the household. His extra takings brought him more money than his salary. A generous and ready spender, he took delight in spending. Epicurean in his tastes, he lived in excellent comfort in the garden, ate heartily and well, and at the same time kept open house for friends and visitors. And, a fashionable man too, he owns as many as seven pairs of shoes, all shining with polish. Two private tutors were engaged by him to look after his children’s studies, one for Amiya in the morning, and the other for Pabitra in the evening. He had also purchased a pair of cows so that his children might be spared the necessity of drinking the milk, adulterated with water, which was sold by milkmen at Gauhati. His standing instruction was that there should not be the slightest deterioration in the quality of food which Pabitra and Amiya were accustomed to while in the garden.
Mahimamoyee, on the other hand, thought that it was nothing but sheer waste to invest so much in eating alone. In the garden everything was managed by Ananda, and she had no alternative but to carry out his instructions meekly. But her husband was not at Gauhati to boss over her, and there was nobody to prevent her from tightening the purse-strings firmly. Frugality always pays good dividends in the form of a surplus budget, and very soon Mahimamoyee could afford to open an account in the post-office to put by her monthly savings. And as the deposits piled up, she became all the more keen to add to them.
The business of paying the tutors never failed to give Mahimamoyee a nasty wrench. Each of the two tutors got twenty rupees a month, and thus, between them, they made a clean sweep of forty rupees. If she could only deposit this amount in her account every month, she would have gained at the end of the year a tidy sum of four hundred and eighty rupees, falling short by only twenty rupees of the respectable figure of five hundred. And in four years she would have been richer by nearly two thousand. It was along such lines that Mahimamoyee made her calculations. And sometimes she would debate within herself. “Do all boys have a private tutor? Why shouldn’t our children manage without theirs?” That such arguments would not cut ice with Ananda Mahimamoyee knew only too well, and, therefore, she had to bear her wrath in silence.
Pabitra’s tutor was once taken ill and he was forced to suspend work for three days. And a sum, proportionate to the period, was clipped off from his monthly salary. On two other occasions again the tutor could not do his duties because Pabitra was ill. That also cost him two days’ wages. He had protested against the injustice but no heed was taken of his complaint. There was a break of two days in Amiya’s studies but her tutor proposed to make good the loss by giving tuition on Sundays, so that Mahimamoyee might condescend not to make any deduction from his salary. But Mahimamoyee’s reply was, “You needn’t teach her on Sundays.”
During the summer holidays Nabin, son of Ananda’s elder sister, came to visit them at Gauhati. He was in the second year class of the Jorhat College, and after his father’s death it was Ananda who was paying for his studies.
Great was the joy his arrival was greeted with by Pabitra and Amiya. No less was Nabin’s delight at this reunion with his little cousins after long separation, and even his most affectionate caresses could hardly express it. His impression of the new house at Gauhati was derived solely from occasional letters received from his maternal uncle, and the visit gave him an opportunity to see it for himself. It was a brick house of large, spacious rooms with a bath attached to it. Even the kitchen was built of brick. Pabitra and Amiya kept up a ceaseless conversation, teasing him with a thousand little questions and never let him alone.
Mahimamoyee was however not the least happy over Nabin’s arrival. The household budget for the month had already been upset. There were yet ten more days for the month to be out, but the expenses had already outstripped the previous month’s. A tea-party which her husband gave to his friends on the last Sunday had put her to some additional expense. Again, only the other day a cup was broken and she would have to find money for a new pair. To cap it all, there was now Nabin holidaying at Gauhati.
But Mahimamoyee never gave Nabin any inkling of her mind. She received him kindly, with all the sweet and suave words at her command. She even made a show of grievance over Nabin’s belated visit to Gauhati and his omission to bring his mother with him. And piece by piece she extracted from him all information about his family; of course she did not neglect to make the vital inquiry about the exact amount of monthly remittance made to him by his maternal uncle. She tried to trip him into inadvertently revealing, in the course of the conversation, the time-table of his current sojourn, but here she did not succeed for lack of a favourable opportunity.
Mahimamoyee cut in with a new subject as they were talking. “Here you are after an age, Nabin, but I don’t have a servant to get a bit of fish from the market. Really, this problem of servants has given me a hell of trouble, my boy. See if you can get hold of one for me at Jorhat. But now how can I get some fish from the market?”
Nabin’s reply was as immediate as it was forthright: “What’s there to fuss about it? Give me the money, and I will myself get the fish from the bazaar. And I am used to it. While at home it is always my job to do the daily buying in the bazaar. Yes, give me the money and I will bring the fish.”
Mahimamoyee thought that her being without any servant would be a good enough excuse for not buying fish. Hardly did she expect that Nabin would so readily offer his services. Now that he was ready, how could she dissuade him from going? All the same she warned Nabin that as good fish was not available at Uzanbazaar, he would have to trudge all the distance to Fancy Bazaar. Wouldn’t that mean a lot of trouble?
Nabin answered calmly, “Don’t worry about my trouble. It’s really nothing. Go and get the money, please.”
Mahimamoyee had therefore to unlock her chest. But there were no one-rupee notes in it, and the change also was too little. She therefore gave a five-rupee note to Nabin and said, “Go and get the fish. Be careful to buy only fresh fish–no matter what’s the cost, be it ten annas or twelve, or a rupee even. But get back soon.”
Fish was selling very dear that day in the bazaar. But there was no dearth of patrons. Although customers were made to pay through the nose, they were coming in a ceaseless stream. And prices too, consequently, were in no hurry to come down.
A middle-aged woman, with a flush on her face caused by chewing of betel-nuts, was seen to place a Rui cut into slices on a stone-slab in front of her. In an instant she was surrounded by a crowd. Pushing his way into the crowd, Nabin thrust his head forward, and pointing out a slice of fish, said, “How much would you ask for this slice?”
“Three rupees,” he replied.
“Two rupees. Will it do?”
“All right, give four annas less and take it.”
Making it cheaper by another four annas, Nabin bought the fish at two-eight and got back home on a rickshaw.
Mahimamoyee gave the fish a soft squeeze of the hand to see if it was fresh and then said, “What’s the price, Nabin?”
The moment she was told that it was two rupee eight annas, she blurted out, “Oh, what a price!” And she was going to add bitterly, “What makes people pay so much for fish?” but she held her tongue and did not complete her words. Paying so much money for fish was as good as making a meal of one’s cash–that was how she looked at it.
Mahimamoyee then asked Nabin for the remaining money. He gave her a two-rupee note and said, “Two rupee eight annas for fish, and eight annas for the rickshaw. That means a saving of two rupees.”
Fortunately, the grunts she uttered, as she was entering the kitchen with the fish, sailed wide of Nabin’s ears.
Pabitra and Amiya now began vigorously wooing Nabin to take them to the cinema. For Pabitra, of course, stray chances were never lacking to see a picture occasionally, but he never took Amiya with him, and her mother too did not allow her to accompany him. She was naturally eagerly looking forward to a visit to the pictures. Now that he was at Gauhati, abstinence from the pleasure of seeing a picture occasionally was simply unthinkable for Nabin. He had already gathered information about the day’s programme of the different cinemas of the town. If he could get his aunt to stand the treat, all the better, for that would save his own money for a future occasion.”
Pabitra then started tapping his mother for the money. His entreaties were reinforced by Amiya’s, and the little girl, folding her hands round her mother’s neck, crooned in a soft, coaxing voice, “Let me too go with him, mother. I haven’t seen a picture for a long, long time!”
Mahimamoyee who was busy at the loom, weaving patterns into a towel, kept mum, and quietly went on with her work. Suddenly Nabin’s voice rang out from outside, “Hurry-up, Pabitra, if you are at all keen on going. If we don’t start right now, certainly we lose the good seats. Already, it’s too late.”
Seizing the opening offered by Nabin’s final words, Mahimamoyee said, “If you are late, stop going today and put it off to some other occasion.” Her plan was well thought out. If she could only prevent their going that day, luck might aid her with fresh excuses on a future occasion as well.
Meanwhile Nabin moved in, and leaning against the wood work or the loom, said, “No, it’s not yet too late to go. If we start now, we shall be there in right time.”
On second thoughts Mahimamoyee, however, decided against obstructing their plan. For the postponement of the programme would simply be a plain invitation to Nabin to prolong his stay at Gauhati indefinitely. The sooner he packed up and moved the happier would she be. What sense was there in providing him with an excellent excuse to stay on?
For three tickets, twelve annas apiece, Mahimamoyee brought out from her chest two rupees and four annas, counting every coin carefully, and handed it over to Nabin, again adding up the coins to make sure that there was no mistake. Then pressing a four-anna bit into Amiya’s hand, she said, “Take this and get some pea-nuts to eat. But, mind you, don’t forget Pabitra.” Nabin was left out of the reckoning; was he a little boy to nibble at pea-nuts?
Arriving at the cinema hall, Nabin learnt that all twelve-anna tickets had already been sold out. But would he go back without having seen the film? No, he would never do that. To the money given by his aunt he added something from his own pocket and bought three one-rupee-four-anna tickets. His own contribution he would try to squeeze out of his aunt. Should she fail to oblige him, there was his uncle who would pay up gladly.
All three of them got in and sat in neighbouring seats. And they saw on the screen a story of the inevitable eternal triangle variety, involving two young men and a maiden. Nabin alone could enjoy it with zest. What appealed to Amiya were the pranks of the clown.
On their way back, Amiya said to Nabin, “Why don’t you read here staying at our house?”
“Suppose I do, what good would come out of it?” answered Nabin.
“We would have more feeds,” said Amiya coyly, “and more pictures to see.”
For Mahimamoyee Nabin would indeed be a good riddance. But he had not so far uttered a syllable about his departure. And how on earth could she pack him off?
Covering herself with a heap of sheets, Mahimamoyee put herself to bed. She was down with fever, her limbs aching and her head racking with pain,–so went the report. Amiya sat by her rubbing her forehead, but she was groaning in agony all the time. Nabin spread a quilt over her body and told her comfortingly, “Take this quilt also. Once you sweat, you will feel better. And now stop that groaning.”
Pausing a while between her moans, Mahimamoyee drawled out in a tired voice, “I am not having fun out of this groaning. I feel as if my limbs were cracking and breaking to pieces. Give my forehead a good rubbing, Amiya, here a little as I show you. O my mother, I am dead. Oh, what has come over me?”
“Mere looking-on won’t do, I must go and bring a doctor. Yes, let me call Dr. Barua,” Nabin muttered to himself, and then looking at Amiya and Pabitra added, “Both of you stay near your mother. Mind, don’t go away.”
The mention of the doctor was enough to send Mahimamoyee into a sweating fit. Very bad luck indeed! She could never foresee that the matter would take this turn. “No, you needn’t call a doctor,” she spoke a drawl as before, “what will he do except giving some bitter medicine to swallow. I can’t take that stuff, my boy. If necessary call a doctor tomorrow but not today, my sweet. Really, a nice mess you have slipped into, coming here. Who would cook the rice for you to-night? What a fever has come upon me? Oh, I am gone. Can’t you batter my head with a hammer, Amiya?”
Mahimamoyee’s move was part of a clever plan. Nabin must go hungry for the night, her got-up illness preventing her from preparing any food. And as Nabin was a gourmand keenly interested in good eating, his sojourn at Gauhati would lose all its charm. If necessary Mahimamoyee would keep on malingering for a few more nights in order to starve him into quitting. Mahimamoyee believed that there could be no better device to drive the fellow away.
But her plan seemed to go awry from the very beginning, for Nabin replied, “No, auntie, you needn’t worry for my food. A night’s fasting can do me no harm. But I must call the doctor without losing any time. If I don’t do it, uncle will surely blame me and call me to account. Won’t he say that I couldn’t be relied upon even to do this little job? I am going to the doctor just now.”
Dr. Barua was away in the villages on some work of the Congress. So Nabin had to call Dr. Harihar. But his thermometer did not indicate any fever. Mahimamoyee, however, came out with a ready explanation, “The temperature must have dropped to normal after sweating. But I can’t bear this terrible headache.”
Dr. Harihar pricked one of her fingers with a needle and took a few drops of her blood on a slide. And pocketing four rupees for his fee, he coolly walked out. But he left a prescription with the instruction that the medicine should be brought and a dose of it administered to the patient without delay.
“Mahimamoyee found herself in a queer fix. There could be no knowing as to how much the doctor would charge for the blood test; already he had fleeced her of four precious rupees for merely putting the thermometer in her mouth. Nabin pleaded in vain. Not only did she refuse to give any money for buying the medicine. She had not even allowed Nabin to get hold of the prescription. Groaning and wailing, she kept to her bed.
Nabin himself now took charge of the kitchen. Should he allow himself to starve in his uncle’s household? And what about Pabitra and Amiya? Merely because their mother was ill, should they also go without food?
“What are you at, brother Nabin,” Amiya asked inquisitively, “Are you cooking rice? A good thing indeed! But do you know how to cook? Let me see how you get along.”
Nabin said, “You have come to prattle then? All right, since you have come, do help me a bit. Get the things together. But where is Pabitra? He is perhaps with his teacher. No need to disturb his studies. But you stay near me. Call Tarbari to wash this dish.”
But no rice was cooked by Nabin. He got some atta kneaded by Tarbari, and instead of making dry rottis, he fried some kuchis in ghee, almost emptying the tin of ghee in the process. As he was rummaging the kitchen for this and that, he found four eggs in a basket. Mahimamoyee always gave a half-boiled egg to each of the children with their morning tea. But nowadays she was doing it stealthily in order to avoid Nabin’s eyes. These four eggs were meant for them. Nabin brought out the eggs and prepared a curry, boiling them with potatoes.
Mahimamoyee was however keeping herself in touch with the goings-on in the kitchen by summoning Amiya and Tarbari to her bedside. She was sorely disappointed to find that her plan did not work. What added to her anxiety was the fear that, if Nabin stayed longer in the household, the children would learn to imitate his wasteful habits. Her head began to whirl with wild misgivings and she became restless. The little Amiya, thinking that her mother’s headache was worse, carpe near her and began gently rubbing her forehead. But Mahimamoyee sent her off with a sharp rebuke, “So you have come to cure my headache by rubbing. Be off from my presence.”
That night there was an egg for Tarbari also. It was indeed an event fit to be inscribed in letters of gold in the history of Mahimamoyee’s household. Tarbari’s food generally consisted of stale rice or scraps left by others. If on some rare day she was lucky enough to be served with fresh rice, it was like a festival. She must have seen some blessed face, first thing that morning! Very often she had to eat her meal without any curry. Pabitra and Amiya generally ate up the whole lot without sparing a drop. But on that memorable day, her fare was not the usual leavings but well-fried luchis and egg-and-potato curry, just the same things served to Pabitra and Amiya.
Sitting on a bamboo stool in the verandah, Nabin was clipping his nails with a blade. Presently Mahimamoyee came there and said to him, “Without you, elder sister must have been put to a lot of trouble.” Mahimamoyee used to address Nabin’s mother as elder sister.
Nabin replied, “But who is free from trouble? Look at yourself, how you are suffering. Only the other day you were down with a serious fever. Really, it gave me such a fright! When now you ought to take complete rest, you have to do the cooking. It’s a pity you won’t take food cooked by me. That’s why I have written to my mother to come here. She should be here tomorrow.
Concealing her thoughts Mahimamoyee said pretty calmly, “When did you write to elder sister?”
“Didn’t you inquire why I failed to bring my mother with me? So, I have asked her to come. And how can I stand this sight, you, yet to find your legs, but up and busy cooking food for the household. So I sent her a wire yesterday telling her to come. I have asked for a servant too, if possible.”
Nabin’s mother brought with her a servant. Mahimamoyee, of course, needed a servant to do the chores and had no objection to keep one. But Phatik was not the kind of servant she had in mind.
Mahimamoyee brought on the question of salary and tried to ascertain from Phatik the amount he expected. She was under no obligation to employ him, simply because he happened to have been brought by Nabin’s mother. She was quite prepared to go up to ten rupees for a male servant, and a bit higher too for a really deserving one. They were only three, and there was very little work to do in her household.
Phatik did not give any direct answer but said, “Who will do the marketing?”
The novelty of the question took Mahimamoyee by surprise. No servant had ever asked her anything of the kind. But there are servants and servants, and Phatik was a class by himself. He had the unusual distinction of passing through something like six or seven households in the course of the past three years. He was already once at Gauhati.
She replied, “Who else? Surely you.”
“If you allow me to do the marketing, I shall take fifteen rupees a month. Otherwise, twenty.”
A bright idea occurred to Mahimamoyee. She had engaged a Nepali to tend and feed the cows, to see them home in the evening and tie them up in their fold. If Phatik could be induced to take over the Nepali’s work, it would mean for her a saving of twenty-five rupees.
She said to Phatik, “Listen, all right, you won’t have to do any cooking. You will go to the bazaar and the shops, draw water from the well, wash clothes and tend the two cows. These will be your main duties. But since you will be here, you will be expected to do a stray job or two occasionally. And I shall give you a salary of fifteen rupees.”
The mention of the cows made Phatik hesitant for a moment. “No, fifteen rupees won’t do,” he replied, “if you want me to look after the cows. Take thought yourself. I don’t ask for anything very high, but give me twenty rupees.”
Even if she had agreed to that sum, Mahimamoyee would not have lost anything, for she could dispense with the Nepali cowherd. She repeated the offer of fifteen rupees and raised it to eighteen. But neither move producing any result, she had ultimately to accept Phatik’s terms and engage him at twenty.
Having finished their midday meal, Mahimamoyee and Nabin’s mother were lounging on their beds. Tarbari too, after her usual hotchpotch of salt and chillies, was busy doing the kitchen utensils. Phatik however was still faking his meal in a corner by the door, being late for it because of a hair-cut followed by the usual bath.
His share of rice was not quite small, but there was not enough of dal or curry to go with it. When already two-thirds of the rice was finished, and only about a third of it left, he said to Tarbari, “Give me some milk from the pan, Tarbari. There’s no dal or curry to mix with the rice.”
Mahimamoyee was not so careless as to leave the milk-pan in the kitchen. When coming out of the kitchen she or Tarbari would invariably carry it out and lock it up in the cupboard. But, for some days running, everything seemed to have gone wrong, and it was all a mess. Sometimes she would be her usual careful self, and the tins holding atta, ghee or sugar would be locked up inside the cupboard beyond anybody’s reach. But sometimes she would leave them in the open, or forget to lock the cupboard after putting them inside.
Tarbari replied, “Oh, how impudent of you to ask for milk! Even without milk there should be room enough in your stomach for that rice. If you want I may give you a chilly. But if I give you milk, the mistress won’t spare me.”
Phatik said, “Ah, don’t bother. She won’t do anything. You keep mum, and so shall I. And how will the mistress know about it? Here I don’t have a drop of milk to sip, but at home we have as many as three cows to fill our pails.”
“Then what made you leave home and come here?”
“If I hadn’t come here, how could I see you!”
Tarbari gave him some milk with some molasses. With great relish he finished the remaining rice, mixing it with milk and molasses.
“Where did you work previously?” Tarbari then asked him.
“At Dibrugarh,” Phatik replied.
“And what was your job?”
“I was a chaprasi,” was the proud reply.
Tarbari did not know for certain what a chaprasi was. But this much she understood, that a chaprasi and a domestic servant were not of the same class. A chaprasi seemed a grade higher rank, put on a different kind of dress, and his position carried more name and respect. Perhaps, it was because he was once a chaprasi he never went bare-footed to the bazaar, never wore soiled clothes without washing them thoroughly with soap, and even dared to sit on the chair behind the mistress’s back.”
Tarbari asked in a tone full of curiosity, “What is the work of a chaprasi? How did you carry on your work?”
“How did I carry on my work? Then, hear. Before the Sahib came to the office, I would rub and polish the chairs and tables with a rag. On his arrival I would take off his coat and hang it on a hook. Then I would just sit on a stool near the door. If the Sahib pressed the calling-bell, I had of course to run up to him immediately. Otherwise I would merely sit on. None could meet the Sahib without first approaching me. No interview was possible if I said that the Sahib had no time to spare. Have you understood now?”
Tarbari cast a glance at Phatik. What did it indicate? Esteem, awe, or love? Or a mixture of all the three?
Nabir and his mother got ready to return to Jorhat. At first they thought of travelling by the bus, but later they decided to go by rail. After packing up the luggage, Phatik called a hackney carriage to take them to the station.
Mahimamoyee’s face lit up with joy as she saw them putting the final touches to their bundles. So, at last, they were really going–Nabin and his mother! The drain on her purse in the last few days was beyond her wildest fears. She was only waiting for them to go, and then she must set about a thorough stock-taking of her finances in order to make out her losses. And Phatik and Tarbari would also need some chastising. Their movements were being closely watched by her. Phatik could be easily dispensed with, but for the cows. The fellow seemed to possess an extraordinary stomach for rice!
After the luggage was put on the carriage. Nabin approached Mahimamoyee and said, “Auntie, give us the money now. We are going.”
Mahimamoyee replied, “Money? What for?”
I mean our fare. I haven’t a bean. Everything I brought with me is already spent.”
Mahimamoyee was in two minds. Should she flatly say no? But that might only induce them to cancel their departure. The college would not reopen for quite a number of days. Yes or no, she must put up with more expenses. The wiser course would be to get rid of them quickly by giving them the fare.
“What’s the fare?” she asked.
“Thirty rupees in all. But I would need a few chips extra.”
Mahimamoyee went in, and came back with a five-rupee note and a couple of ten-rupee notes. Handing them over to Nabin, she said, “Take this. I could give only twenty-five.”
Nabin took the money and said, “Oh! I had almost forgotten to tell you. The other day I took from the hawker a bottle of hair-oil, a cake of soap, and a comb. He is to get three rupees eight annas. Do pay it up, auntie.”