Monday, November 15, 2010

Final Story: Padmabati Printers Ltd


On the auspicious morning of Kali Pujo, Biswambhar babu decided to die.

The news spread like wildfire through the back alleys of Bat-tala, crisp as the clattering of type in the print shops, spicy as the perfume of a Chitpur whore, sizzling and scandalous as The Amours of Elokeshi still warm from the press, fifty copies of which Biswambhar babu’s assistant, Haripada, had finished binding only the day before. Presses clanked to a halt as phalanxes of printers rushed down the street, shedding stray pages of the Panchatantra, Battrish Singhashan, Gol-e-hormuj Ketab, Lokhhi’r Panchali, The Paramour of Parameswari, Lustful Dreams of Lonely Wives, Shib-Parbati Parba, Kama-Rahasya, Hemlata-Ratikanta and Shepherd’s Atlas. Their assistants raced after them, dripping ink, glue and perspiration – artists and binders, harlots and pimps, vendors, beggars, urchins and stray dogs clustered at street-corners clamouring for details. Rampant in her little shrine, Ma Kali winced as handfuls of hibiscus were hurled at her like cricket-balls; stared open-mouthed as her devotees abandoned her altar, scuttling off to join their friends at Biswambhar babu’s deathbed.

By noon, a steady procession of would-be mourners could be seen marching along to the little house at the end of the lane. The dying man lay in state in the front room, on the enormous brass bedstead that had been part of Padmabati’s dowry. Plump and comely Padmabati, Biswambhar babu’s widow-to-be, stood weeping copiously at his head; from time to time, she dried her tears and plumped up the six enormous pillows that supported her husband’s languishing form. One by one, Biswambhar babu’s neighbours, his fellow-printers and friends tiptoed up to the bed and tried to persuade him not to die. Was he feeling ill? they asked anxiously. Had he, perhaps, quarreled with his wife or mortgaged his press or been diddled out of a deal? Had that idiot Haripada mixed up the pages while binding those fifty freshly-printed copies of the Amours of Elokeshi? No, said Biswambhar babu shortly and turned his face to the wall.

It was suggested that his favourite food might win him back to life. His middle son was immediately dispatched to the market to buy lobsters, ilish, the best gobindabhog rice and two seers of ghee. Padmabati sat on the kitchen floor shedding tears and grinding shorshe. Biswambhar babu’s brass plate was piled high with delicacies and offered to him by loving hands, the oily fragrance of sweets cooked in ghee was wafted under his nose, plump pods of cardamom were held to his unyielding lips: Biswambhar babu only opened them long enough to utter in ringing tones, 'No!'

The stomach having proved recalcitrant, the next appeal was to the sentiments. Biswambhar babu’s two year- old grandson trailed sticky fingers over his grandsire’s chest, his sons and daughters wept, Padmabati (suffering the combined effects of emotion and mustard-paste) wept even more bitterly. Krishnadas babu, Biswambhar babu’s oldest friend, bent over his bed with a fan of cards in his hand and begged him in broken tones for one last game. Haripada, who had been hovering helplessly in the background, had the brilliant idea of waving The Amours of Elokeshi before his master’s face, but Biswambhar babu proved dead even to the scent of new paper and fresh ink. Motilal, his eldest son, boxed poor Haripada’s ears for bringing dirty pictures to his father’s deathbed.

By evening, the crowd outside had swelled to alarming proportions. Biswambhar babu seemed to feel the excitement: he turned away from the wall, motioned to Padmabati to bring him a paan and muttered indistinctly through it, to his three sons, ‘I have no money’, ‘You’ll get nothing from me,’ and ‘Look after the shop.’

Late at night, Kali Pujo commenced in the mandir. Little by little, all through the afternoon, the dhakis had edged closer to the house. Their manic drumming pounded in Biswambhar babu’s head as fireworks hissed and blazed outside. Chorkis whirled, tubris flowered, kalipatkas exploded deafeningly in a brilliant show of pyrotechnic persuasion. But Biswambhar babu turned his face to the wall again, said (in grave and gravelly tones this time), ‘No.’

Clustered on the balconies of Roshanara Bai’s celebrated brothel, the women looked down at the squat little house. From a particular angle, it was possible to see right through Biswambhar babu’s bedroom window; buxom young Mohsina Bai thought she could make out the dim form of Biswambhar babu himself, lying in bed. She sighed, as did many of Roshanara Bai’s plumper ladies: Biswambhar babu had been particularly partial to their company. Not one of your tight-fisted customers, either, she reflected, rolling a handsome string of pearls between her thumb and forefinger, and so well-versed in all thirty-six poses described (with illustrations) in Rasikpriya’r Rasabhandar! A true rasik, and a true gentleman. Not like the goose-pimpled, pigeon-chested, English-speaking, whore-fearing urchins of today. ‘Why do you want to die?’ she demanded of the gunpowdery, burnt-smelling air.

At three o’clock in the morning, the audience outside Biswambhar babu’s window finally dispersed and Padmabati found herself alone with her husband. Impossible to go to sleep beside that inert form. Besides, he and his six massive pillows had left no room for her on the bed. Padmabati stared at Biswambhar babu’s plump, cosseted body, his face which, even in sleep, wore the expression of a peevish child. He had married her when she was ten, sown the seeds of five lusty children in her belly, and done absolutely nothing else for her in the last thirty years. She could not think of a single important reason why she should mourn his passing, yet it seemed immeasurably important that he should not die. Padmabati found herself hurrying out of the house, down the now deserted road, past the shrouded row of printing-presses to the temple at the end of the street. She threw herself at the feet of the goddess. ‘Save him Ma, save him. He is my parameswar, my supreme lord. My life and his are one, his death is my death.’

The goddess snorted. Her divine snort descended upon Padmabati’s ears like a mighty clap of thunder. She sat bolt upright and looked around the empty temple. Ma Kali seemed to be grinning down at her rather sardonically. Padmabati’s eyes were on a level with the goddess’s alta-painted feet, and with Shib-thakur, who was lying beneath them, a supremely fatuous expression on his face.

'That lord of yours is best kept under your feet, child,' a matter-of-fact voice informed Padmabati. ‘Though from what I’ve seen of him, you’ll have trouble balancing on his belly. Then again, you’re no fairy yourself' – the goddess seemed to be gazing approvingly at Padmabati’s plump and shapely arms, ' – you should be able to keep him down.'

'But Ma –' protested Padmabati weakly.

'Much better for him,' said Ma Kali, a little defensively. 'And if he doesn’t like it, he’ll have to lump it, won’t he? Look at my lord, he’s perfectly happy down there and as good as gold. Of course, yours is a different matter. Rasikpriya’r Rasabhandar indeed! Amours of Elokeshi! Pinch his nose, and it’ll run printing ink. He even takes his rasabhandar – his thirty-six poses with their matching diagrams – to Mohsina Bai’s bed! Let him die if he likes, Padmabati – he’ll have to answer to me here.'

'Mohsina bai’s bed?' demanded Padmabati, heaving herself to her feet.

'Yes, and a good little whoreling she is too. I won’t have you quarrelling with her, Padmabati, you just leave her alone. Deal with that lord of yours. Sit in his printing-shop, it’s that rascal Ganesha’s new engine. Take a trip on it. See the world!' For a second, Ma Kali’s face was transfigured with pure mischief as she stuck her tongue out at Padmabati and waved two of her four arms as though clanking up the press.

'Thank you Ma.' Touching her head briefly to the altar, Padmabati hurried home.

Over the next few days, Biswambhar babu remained fixed in his resolve. He lay on the huge brass bed, his face a picture of weary resignation, refusing to talk or eat. Every evening he chewed morosely on a single paan that Padmabati prepared for him. The Bat-tala presses began to clank again, but Biswambhar babu’s little print-shop stood silent and forlorn. The very press seemed less black and shiny than before; Haripada moped around the shop with nothing to do, having finished sewing the quires together for a hundred and twenty copies of Kula Kalankini ba Kalikatar Guptakatha.

Biswambhar babu’s neighbours continued to gather in anxious knots around his bed: Padmabati fried them cauliflower singaras and brewed endless cups of sweet, cardamom-scented tea. Biswambhar babu was offered his share of the treats, but he turned his face to the wall and said, in low, resonant tones, ‘No.’ Padmabati did not shed tears as before; she popped a singara into her own mouth and bustled away to discuss the arrangements for Biswambhar babu’s funeral. Regiments of stiff white rajanigandha stood at attention, sandalwood and camphor for the pyre piled up in the courtyard. Padmabati and her daughters-in-law were forever running down to the shops; on haat days they returned with loaded with the finest jasmine-scented incense, yards of white cotton for winding around the corpse, gold rings for the dom to steal, pewter-handled razors for his sons to shave their heads with, gamchhas, dhotis, shawls and umbrellas for the priest, white saris for the widow, red-bordered ones for the other women, ghee and spices, sweets and savouries, enough to feed fifty Brahmins. Biswambhar babu lay with his face turned to the wall; with a piece of chalk pinched from the pocket of his youngest son, he engaged in complex calculations to determine exactly how much they were spending. Even by the most modest estimates, the figures were so staggering that for a second he wondered if they were really the disordered imaginings of his dying brain. Padmabati appeared, flushed and triumphant: she drew fifty crisp new rupees from the lokhhi’r jhaanpi by Biswambhar babu’s head. It was all true.

That evening, Biswambhar babu did not ask for his usual paan. Padmabati came in and sat by his bed. The little window framed a square of flaming sunset sky, huge wings of shadow flitted over the walls, the brass bedposts, the teakwood chest, the tarnished silver of Padmabati’s immense sindoor-box were no more than faint gleams in the room’s dimness. The presses were closing for the day, their last mournful clanks lingered on Biswambhar babu’s ears like the lowing of cows returning at twilight to the fold. The peace of the mellow hour stole into his heart, he forgot his funeral bill of nearly five thousand rupees and felt almost tender towards Padmabati. Poor, ignorant woman – what would she do without him? Was it right to die, on a whim almost, because his tea had not been hot enough one morning, his neemtwig toothbrush had prodded agonizingly at the sore spot on his gum, because the smell of wet ink drifting in from the street had brought on a sudden nausea, as if it were wafting to his nostrils the acrid draught of the world’s indifference, the bitterness of domestic monotony? Perhaps, after all, life was worth living; after all, he was supremely important to this wretched woman by his side. Across the street, lamps glowed in Roshanara Bai’s whorehouse; Padmabati turned to her husband and asked accusingly, 'Aren’t you going to die soon?'

Biswambhar babu shrank into his pillows and said in weak, languishing accents, 'No'.

'Then you won’t mind if I buy myself a new pair of earrings? So many people come to the house these days, this old pair really isn’t fit to be seen. And I might as well go down to the shop one of these days, see how Haripada’s looking after things. No sense in ushering Lokhhi in by the door, then letting her fly out of the window!'

'No,’ said Biswambhar babu in broken tones.

Two days later, Haripada, waggling his feet to the rhythm of his neighbour’s press and thumbing through an unsold copy of Swachitra Ratishastra looked up and froze in horror as he saw Padmabati bearing down upon him like a Benarasi-draped battleship. Cuffing his head with one shapely hand, she snatched the book from him with the other and bellowed, 'Reading, are you, my young lug-headed loon? D’you want to ruin us? Why, you gormless gibbon, your master’s press will crumble into rusty dust before those dirty books can put hair on your skinny chest! Now fetch me the accounts and go to your work. And don’t let me see you sneaking off to chat up that young whore at Roshanara Bai’s, leave her for your master and I’ll buy you a better one.'

The rubies in Padmabati’s ears flashed an angry scarlet, the light streaming through a gap in the wall seemed to strike off her face in a shower of sparks. A dazzled Haripada gasped and scuttled off to start up the press, while Padmabati, clicking her tongue, flicked through the red-bound notebook that was their catalogue of publications. 'Gopon Gopi-katha!' she bellowed. 'Brinda Sangbaad! Rati-rahasya! Sankhhipta Kama-sutra! Kalankini Kankabati with illustrations! Forty lithographs of fornication in full colour! Haripada, ekhane aye…'

Calling upon his ancestors to save him, an ink-stained Haripada scuttled out from behind the press. Padmabati dumped bundles of Biswambhar babu’s more colourful publications in his arms. 'Take these away,' she said sternly. 'You can sell them cut-price in front of Roshanara Bai’s in the evenings. Now start setting the type for a nice illustrated set of Lokhhi’r Panchalis. I want fifty copies bound in scarlet by the day after tomorrow.'

Biswambhar babu’s press shuddered into life again. Padmabati tucked her alta-painted feet under her and flipped fascinatedly through the pages of Pass-Kora Magi: Samajik Prahasan (Bluestocking Bitch: Satirical Sketches of Contemporary Society). In the days that followed, as Haripada clanked out copies of Lokhhi’r Panchali, Annadamangal, Manasamangal, Chandimangal, Sri Krishnakirtankabya and Satibrati Sita-pati, she made her way through Ratibilas, Kama-kahini, Swachitra Ratishastra and (snorting) Rasikpriya’r Rasabhandar. Her education considerably advanced, she then refreshed herself with Yousuf-Zuleikha, The Tales of Amir Hamza, One Thousand and One Nights and Hutom Pyancha’r Naksha. As Biswambhar babu stared through the bars of his window at the lights on Roshanara Bai’s balcony, Padmabati, the jewels in her ears flashing bewitchingly, flirted by the hour with the neighbourhood printers, Kalicharan Ghosh, Bihari Das and Ramkari Mitra, whose consequent neglect of their own print-shops greatly increased the prosperity of hers. She acquired a new layer of sleek golden flesh and a larger set of crocodile-headed bangles to fit her dimpled wrists.

All the talk of that garrulous street now revolved around Padmabati’s astonishing emancipation. No one asked about Biswambhar babu any more, though they remained vaguely conscious of him dying slowly, stubbornly and silently in the background.

And then, one morning, almost in protest, as if he were saying a final, futile, despairing ‘No’ to his complete obliteration from public memory, Biswambhar babu did die. Padmabati, dressed in a new and dashing sari of fine organza cotton and about to float off to the press with billowing turquoise sails, noticed him lying with his face turned up to the ceiling and not towards the wall. She laid her glossy black head on his chest and listened to the silence where there had once been the beat of his heart. Her eyes brimmed over with tears, she thought of the length of white cotton laid away in her teakwood chest, of the sandalwood and camphor waiting silently in the yard. He was gone, just when she had begun to believe he would be lying there forever. Sunlight streamed through the little window, the smell of jasmine drifted across the street from Roshanara’s Bai’s, the little back lane seemed poised in a moment of uncertain silence as Padmabati wondered what she would do now. Then suddenly, an indefinable change came over her features, a slow, subtle, wonderful smile spread over her face, she got to her feet calling briskly for Rakhal-er ma and told her to lay out the body. Then she hurried out of that death-hushed house into the sunshine of the waiting street. It was calling her. She could hear it as she walked quickly along the row of print-shops, the clank of Biswambhar babu’s – no, her – little black printing press.

1 comment:

Gypsy said...