Friday, November 13, 2009

Final Story. Shayeari Dutta

“ There was a time, many a thousand light years ago…there was a time when I used to have wings. Brick-red wings of recycled newspaper, put together with tedious concentration, unflinching dedication. And by the time this task had been completed, the entire stretch of Kumortuli would reek of Dendrite, soggy paper, and divine sweat!”
“What happened to the wings Baba?”
Rudra Pal looked down into the mesmerized eyes of little Krishna and winked.
“Oh! Nothing…the curious scribbling on my wings attracted too much of an attention…God knows what charm a few insipid black letters hold, but the entire world lunged for them. I am an old man. Too old to sustain a fight, don’t you think? So I let them go…the wings.”
Krishna shifted his gaze from his father’s watery eyes. From where he sat upon the squeaky upturned crater, the street went winding forth, its murky surface glazed by previous night’s shower; polythene packets, coconut shells, cigarette-boxes- all flattened out nicely by the merciless march of wheels. The tiny expanse of Krishna’s head served as the black tuning disk of a table; tip top tip top fell the water drops from the shed above. The shed of hay, soggy hay, like the unkempt, untrimmed hair falling over the brows of the hundreds of foreigners who visited Kumortuli at this time of the year. For as far as one could see, both sides of the narrow lane are flanked by these haphazardly positioned shacks. And, from every such shed peeked a dozen clay arms, arms glowing various shades of peacock blue and black, fingers bunched, wrists resolute…arms that would stretch themselves out any moment now and ravage the patchwork of wires above.
“ And the foreigners, fascinated, stupefied, clicking away at their cameras with the frenzy of a madman? Why do they come here Baba?”
Baba smiled, accentuating the mystery, and then he whispered-
“They come for the gold…and the silver!”

It was an oppressive afternoon…the afternoon of provocative clouds edging with baby-steps towards each other, and just when the hope of man had shuttled all the way to his throat, moon walking gracefully back…
It was one of those afternoons…
“Krishna-a-a-a? Krishna-a-a-a?”
“what is it Baba?”
“Listen, do you think you are old enough to travel?”
“Haan Baba…”
“No! Why this tone of doubt? Tell me confidently.”
“Haan Baba!”
“Good! Now listen. All my workers and delivery boys are busy with the preparations for Kali pujo, and this man…this spice trader from Burrobazar….ki jeno naam ta? Ananda….Anand Jain I think. Well, he wants a Ganesh idol delivered to this new store that he is opening. He wants it delivered by tomorrow. Do you think you would be able to do the job? It’s just a tiny idol…not too much of a weight to carry really…er…now listen, your mother detests those Marwaris, and Burrobazar is like their breeding-spot! So…er…”
In his helpless groping for words, the father failed to see the tiny firecrackers erupting silently in his son’s eyes. Eight year old Krishna would finally visit a world other than his own! Burrabazar! Marwaris! Words that were familiar, and yet, eluded the irritating shackles of definition…. It filled Krishna with the joy of a newborn.
“Ma-ke bolo na”, he assured his father.

“Er! Excuse me Mr.Roy, but would you kindly explain the relevance of this nice little account…and no doubt it is er…quite a delightful little story…but what’s the relevance of this to your research paper?”
“Sir, this is my research paper!”
“What? What do you mean by…”
“Sir! Sir! Please….if you would kindly allow me to continue…..”

Krishna was dizzy with the simultaneous rocketing between familiarity and unfamiliarity- the dinghy streets, crooked lanes, garbage-strewn corners, tinkling hand-pulled rickshaws….it was all uncannily similar to his area. But, the rush of people on the road, the road that donned the multiple cloaks of showroom, warehouse, parking lot, his anxious search for the calming grey of the concrete pavement…the concrete pavement that had been veiled completely by the millions of odd shoes and sandals…all these made him sweat profusely as his inexperienced eyes tried making out the meaning on the sign-boards hanging above the hundreds of shops.
“Oye! Lost kya?”
Krishna looked behind him to see a boy, not much older than him, hands akimbo, smugness imprinted in graceful italics on his square face.
“You must be delivering that idol for my father, Anand Jain, is it not?”
Krishna followed the boy up the stairs to the room above the garage. It had a low ceiling, no ceiling fans, but a single pedestal fan churning out dollops of hot air from within its rusty bowels. There was a plywood table with lots of files upon it, a plush rotating navy blue chair, rather out-of-place in that shabby place.
“I am Rupesh Jain. And these are my friends!”
It was then that Krishna noticed the two other boys hunched over a computer at another end of the room.
“Aye Rupesh! What luck boy! You just entered, and we won the bet!”
And then, their eyes fell on the Ganesh idol in Krishna’s hands. Terror struck at little Krishna’s heart as both the boys pounced upon him. It all seemed to happen in painful slow motion, as the two pair of limbs came descending upon him, clawing savagely at the hot air…but, they continued to fall….and finally, fell prostrate on the ground, at Krishna’s feet.
“Ganesh ji brought us luck! Jai Ganesh ji! Who is this angel Rupesh? We must make him play for us! He is our lucky mascot!”
Rupesh nudged Krishna forward.
“Would you like to play?”
Before Krishna could say a word, Rupesh replied- “Of course he will. That is why he has been sent here.”

“Now! Now! Now! Mr.Roy! are you trying to suggest that Mr.Holwell had any vulgar acquisitive intentions that might have instigated him to….you know….assuming of course that the man is not entirely without errors… are you trying to say that the largest empire in the world built itself on the foundations of ….of….as you call it….base gold and silver?”
“I am extremely sorry sir…but that wasn’t my intention at all. and I am sorry of I have unknowingly caused any untoward emotional turmoil in you…but if you would please allow me to continue sir…?”

“Oye Krishna? It is the rule of betting that we all put up something on offer, anything that we have….what do you have to offer?”
Santosh, one of the other boys, glanced doubtfully at Krishna’s slipshod appearance.
“Er, Rupesh yaar, don’t you think he is rather inappropriate to bet for himself. I mean, he comes from Kumortuli…not the kind of place where you would expect riches. You have never been there, so you wouldn’t know…and, er…look at him…he is just not the sort…”
He is just not the sort….
What sort am I, he wondered.
Buckets of bamboo strips, blackish clay, rice husks, garish shades of pink and red paint….what did he have to offer?
He comes from Kumortuli…not the kind of place where you would expect riches.
Baba, why do the foreigners come here?
They come for the gold…and the silver.

“gold and silver? Now that is too much Krishna. We are not joking here. this is serious business.”
The naked incredulity on Rupesh’s face pained Krishna.
“no Rupesh! Believe me. Im not lying. This is my father’s secret. Nobody knows! People from far and wide throng our place just for this. I am telling you!”
Rupesh thought hard…as hard as a twelve year old brain could think. Gold and silver were fine things…this was a fine magical place too. So why not? Maybe this boy is telling the truth. Maybe this would be Rupesh Jain’s opportunity to shine…

That night Krishna floated into the shabby lanes of Kumortuli, his feet twitching in the warm air. In the dim glow of a singular light bulb, his world seemed to glow a clandestine gold….like the whispered words of his Baba- “they come for the gold…and the siver!”
“Baba! Baba!”
Rudra Pal was mixing rice husks in a pail of water. The urgent screams of his son brought him to the entrance of the shed.
“What is it Krishna? Is something wrong?”
“Baba! There is no time to waste! Give me the gold and the silver…the ones that you said we have….the ones that those foreigners come seeking! Baba, quick! Tell me where they are?”
The old idol-maker broke into a loud laugh, his shoulders slumped further, his head threatened to touch the ground as he continued to laugh.
“Gold? Silver? Bas? Just that?”
Krishna nodded his head in confusion.
“Wait….wait here…”
The old man returned a few minutes later with a bulging red bundle.

“Here you go! Here is your gold and silver!”
A triumphant Krishna held out the bundle before an incredulous Rupesh’s nose.
The others in the room stared hard at the red bundle, each trying to somehow to read its mind.
“Rupesh! It better not be a joke. Dinesh bhai has been promised the money. He won’t forgive us this time. You are new in this place, but we have a mounting debt. We are counting on your words here…remember.”
The bundle was vibrating in anticipation now…the blood-red spilling down its sides…
“Go on…open it!”
Rupesh started untying the knot.
The bundle lay on the table…untied.

“There was no need to kill him Rupesh! What have you done? Now where will you dispose of the body? The police will get to know. There will be a hell lot of trouble. Why did you do this?”
The strips of gold foil and flashy filigree ornaments lay splattered in blood on their blood-red cloth bed. Krishna was splattered in blood. His own blood. An iron rod lay on the ground.
“Rupesh? Rupesh, do you hear us? What was the use of killing him? Now anyway Dinesh bhai will kill us! As if this pauper’s death would buy us our lives! Kya kia bhai?”
Rupesh was thinking hard again….as hard as a twelve year old brain can think.
“Santosh? Where exactly is this Kumortuli? Can you give me the address to that place?”
“Now what are you going to do? Don’t do anything more Rupesh! Rupesh?”

Gold breeds in darkness… darkness, where oil wicks are stamped underfoot….willingly.
Silver is the moon…where black clouds spread themselves out …readily.
“Krishna was not lying….he was fooling us. There is gold here…and silver….”
Rupesh staggered his way into the lane….Kumortuli stood bathed in obscurity. The lights had been muted, the day’s work done. The familiar bumping and brushing of shoulders didn’t challenge him here.
“Hell! Now where do I find this treasure? And what happened to the bloody moon? Why is it so dark out here?”
The moon must have heard his curses then….and so, out it came…in full bloom.
The moon revealing an army in menacing black and blue, disheveled black hair, fiery red eyes of intoxication, lolling tongues hanging out like fangs of venom, garlands of beheaded humans dangling victoriously at their necks….
And then, his scream….the scream of disrobed fear.
The blood-curdling piercing scream of a terrified little boy.

“Mr.Roy! Is this story true?”
“Of course it is! It has become a legend down there at that impoverished idol-maker’s haven. They cite it as a rallying point against the Marwaris…they cite it to light trembling lamps of hope in the hearts of their fellows whenever business is threatened by oblivion. They also cite it to infuse their deities with a kind of supernatural aura. I know, it’s hard to believe...but that is how things are!”
“and the spice trader….he had to close down the shop?”
“of course….it’s hard to have your only son lose his mind….and not just that, he lost his speech that night too. The last time they heard him, they say, was when his scream could be heard all the way to the other side of the Ganga!”
“But Mr.Roy, what about this photograph that you have clicked? This garment store with ‘Rupesh and Krishna’ sprawled across its walls? What does this mean?”
Mr.Roy gave a smile, tapped the butt of his cigarette gently on the edge of his ash-tray.
“You know Sir, there are so many arguments listed against Holwell’s account of the controversial Black Hole tragedy. Some say there is no independent confirmation apart from Holwell’s own account, some say Holwell exaggerated the exact number of people by about three times its actual amount, a Bengali landlord opined that a floor area of 267 square feet could not contain 146 European adults…so on and so forth….”
“So? What’s the connection Roy? Will Krishna’s story save you from the wrath of the external Board of Council next week? You did not go to Kolkata to scout for folklore and legends, did you?”
A smile peeked out of the corner of Roy’s mouth. He buried the remains of his cigarette deep into the ashes of the ash-tray……

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