The Tiny Magnifying Glass

It was midnight, the midnight of the beginning of the last week of February, a month of less than usual days and the clock tower of the Kutchery of Indrapur estate boomed twelve times. The pigeons hiding in the Sheeshmahal were in a state of flutter, they flew only to alight on the closed multi-colored crescent-shaped windows, unable to leave their permanent home, though like the most of the people of Indrapur they also came from far off lands in search of grains. Far beyond the desolate fort of the younger prince jackals howled in chorus with the woo-hoo of owls of the dilapidated pond-palace of the old queen and the shrill of crickets of the Parvati pond mingled with the sound of a brass dish continuously banged with a wooden roller-pin. Certainly, there was a birth of a male child somewhere nearby, the dark consciousness waited lazily for the bright light of the morning to appear and clear the mist and mystery.

Small places have given birth to small and big people, people who migrated to other places, bigger places; some of them keep visiting their homeland, for some of them it is a place of emotional attachment. The story of Indrapura is a chronicle of such people whose ancestors came from different parts of the Indian subcontinent and settled down there and many of them migrated to different parts of the world. Like the neutral texture of the earth their stories mingled with the neutral face of the past.

That was Indrapur, a place with a pace of life and the mysteries of life. The diffidence, the reticence, the desire, the dreams and the premonitions were lurking in its face. In the seventies it was in its adolescence. Its makers were in their fifties and sixties. Buckingham High School, the name was obsolete in the present context; besides, it was enough to bring the unpleasant memories of the feudal and the colonial past so it was decided to change the name after the first president of the free India who once, for a brief period, was its student. But the newly emerged democracy in India was diffident in taking any decisions; the bureaucratic machinery was in a state of decadence and the leaders were too busy to secure their positions in the annals of history. It took some twenty years more to change its name. And the fame like a bee took on its wings but never forgot to sting; the older generation was enjoying the lingering syrupiness of its honeyed past still sticking on its subliminal core and the present generation was sucking on the empty honeycomb.

Among the crowd of outsiders most of whom were no longer outsiders in Indrapur, there was a person braving life on his own terms, the science teacher of Buckingham High School, Mr. Shantanunandan Sengupta alias Mama Babu. He was brought to Indrapur by his brother-in-law Mr. J.J. Sengupta and for that reason he was affectionately called by the people, Mama Babu. A tall, well-built, curly-haired and impeccably dressed Mama Babu was a cynosure in the eyes of the people of Indrapur. He was particularly liked by Babu Dwarika Prasad in his selection of Bracelet brand Dhoti and white cotton kurta. Dwarika first as a student and later as a colleague looked at Mama Babu’s sartorial choice with a desire to emulate him. Shantanunandan Sengupta was a bachelor and remained a bachelor and died a bachelor in Indrapur.

Now Dwarika’s sons Kanishk and Mohan were his pupils. He was a good teacher and due to that he was a natural choice among the guardians to send their sons to him for tuition. Kanishk, Mohan, Khokan and some more students went to him in the morning for that. Mama Babu was a heavy smoker. He would hold a cigarette between his index finger and the middle finger and sometimes keep it dangling in the left corner of his mouth and would start explaining a numerical of physics or balance a chemical equation. Before Independence he was smoking Scissors brand which was packed in a tin-box. After Independence he shifted to a stronger and more conveniently available brand of Charminar. Kanishk was always chosen by him to bring five packs of cigarettes and a box of matches every day from the eastern end of the Indrapur bazaar. Mama Babu had a habit of storing all the empty cigarette packets. But he readily gave them to Kanishka for a game that Kanishk liked. He would take an empty cigarette packet and with his two fingers make it round and put on the cemented floor and with a force of his foot hit on it. There was a boom resounding in the empty bachelor quarter and both the teacher and the pupil would enjoy the game; Mama Babu ensconced in his easy chair made of thick striped clothe and Kanishk standing in the veranda.

It was Shantanunandan Sengupta, the science teacher of the Buckingham High School who taught Kanishk in his courtyard how to converge the sunrays on a tiny magnifying glass. Kanishk saw the white paper burn to black soot and the flame becoming invisible against the brightness of the sun. At the school lab it was he who created a sense of wonder among the students when he demonstrated the litmus test to indicate the change of colour from acidic to basic solutions; that turns red in acid solutions and blue in alkaline solutions. And he kept the students stand transfixed when the Ammonia turned the moist litmus paper from red to blue and created a haze of white smoke in the presence of hydrogen chloride gas.

Shantanunandan Sengupta, as people gathered from his talk, had some of his kith and kin been living in Patna since centuries. He never went to see them. No one of his siblings or relatives was seen ever visiting him in Indrapur. He often talked about his mother. It was a mystery why he did not get married or why did he live a life away from his own people. He lived a life different from the people of Indrapur. In the morning he would be seen walking beside the wall of the Qaiser Bagh, wearing a velvet-dressing gown always with a cigarette between his fingers, the fingers which turned as the color of the dried turmeric due to the heat of the cigarette butts. His lips of the left side of his mouth were slightly protruding even without holding a cigarette as they had taken a permanent shape with the habit of holding a cigarette between them. No one knew that he was in the habit of drinking his glass alone. His rickety peon in the science lab would be seen coming with two heavy jute bags on his rickety bicycle. Kanishk played hockey with other children in the lawns near the Qaisar Bagh where tall mahogany trees were standing in a line as witness to the colonial past of Indrapur, He did not notice anything unusual but Mohan and Khokhan had seen the peon near the playground of the college heading towards the brothel and the country liquor shop.

Only Dwarika and some of his close friends knew about the way Mr Shantanunandan Sengupta dissolved his loneliness in drinks and smoke. He was apolitical in his ideological predilections even he was away from the two rivals groups which were vying for the headmastership at the school. He was an amiable well-revered teacher keeping himself to himself. In the afternoons when the boys and girls came out to play on the lawns between the teacher's quarters and the litchi-laden walls of the Qaisar Bagh sometimes Mama Babu emerged from his home; cherubic-faced, with a wooden chocolate-box with a smile on his plump face and the long lost child in him merged with all its naughty pranks and innocence in the unending clamour of the young boys and the girls. He would distribute chocolates among them and while they would turn again to play he would play pranks with them. After this significant gain in his daily routine of life he would again vanish into his world; an acceptable transparent world within the complex world of Indrapur. The people who came to Indrapur from outside had carved out their own worlds. Mama Babu had been treading on his own paths of love; the paths of love do not require any guidance from Vatsayayan, they intersect different planets at different times and regions and religions and age-groups and different tongues and tastes cohere in an inexplicable and mysterious moments of eternity, productive of even the infinite varieties which are not always pleasing. But Mama Babu's presence in the orbits of the two neighboring planets was accepted by the other inhabitants of the planets and the people of Indrapur. Occasionally, he revolves around those two planets, leaving trails of his movement on the social map of Indrapur. No one took offence. No one criticized him. No one ostracized him. He was a maverick of the unpredictable demands of the heart and the darker desires of the body.

One morning his peon did not turn up with the two mysterious bags of bottles. It was a Sunday morning of winter. He felt restless. The students were already there for tuition. But he was not able to concentrate on them. He told Kanishk to sit in his easy chair and keep an eye on the little patch of earth that was there in the courtyard for growing pumpkins, to guard against squirrels, crows and monkeys. He liked the leaves and flowers of pumpkin as a dish, for him they were delicacies. He gave instructions to Mohan, Khokhan and others to study until he came back after visiting his ailing peon. He left with his walking-stick in his hand and immediately after the tick-tock of the stick petered out Mohan and Khokhan slipped out from the front room and went into the courtyard and they found Kanishk busy with his fountain pen which had leaked ink and he was cleaning the nib. They stealthily went into the room where the science teacher kept the specimen copies of the books he had received from publishers. He had kept them in the cupboards made in the wall. Their names were readable through the transparent glass panels of the doors. Khokhan opened the door of the cupboard, Mohan removed some books and they found the honey-colored bottles kept behind the books. Mohan took out a bottle and in his scooped up palm poured the colorless strong-smelling liquid and brought his palm close to his nose. He smelt it and said to Khokhan in a hushed tone, "Yes, it is what I doubted." Khokhan looked at him; his back was towards the door. When Mohan lifted up his head he saw Mama Babu standing at the door looking at him with the furious look in his eyes. Kanishk was standing behind him shuddering like a leaf waiting for the blow up. He shouted at the top of his voice, "Get out! Get out of here! Get out all of you! Get out you devils!"

As the time passed, Mama Babu grew weaker as he grew up in age. The perpendicular tall torso got bent and the cheeks sagged. He got retired and depended on his pension money and the kindness of the twin planets he was revolving around. Their interest of the glitter of his money decreased as it faded with time. Like every self-proclaimed bachelor his life of intense loneliness started at the time when a human being in that state needed company. People of Indrapur turned a mute spectator of Mama Babu’s physical deterioration and financial destitution. His immaculate white dhoti kurta was replaced slowly by a spotted crumpled set of kurta and pyjama. His domestic help left him and opened a tailoring shop. Mama Babu was seen walking towards the bazaar with a tiffin-box. He would go to an ordinary restaurant eat his mid-day meal and carry his dinner home. But his smile did not change. During Navaratri Mama Babu would come walking slowly to Dwarika’s house and would bless them all Mohan, Kanishk, Anu and their mother keeping his hand on their heads, one by one, mumbling the lines of Durgasaptshati. Gargi would ask him to eat something but he would never agree to it even for a cup of tea.

One morning when his peon came to visit him he found his front doors asunder and there was a pin-drop silence which for him was intriguing. He found Mama Babu dead; happily sleeping in his bed with a half-burnt cigarette stuck up between his fingers. First the neighbors came then the passersby then the entire Indrapur Bazaar. He was cremated at the barren place west of the village of Indrapur. Nobody from his kith and kin turned up.

Even the people of Indrapur have forgotten him now. In the seventies the litmus tests for good breeding were the good use of language and the graceful behavior and not the veneer of vanity that converged on the opaque surfaces of a new consumer culture that demanded the shallow knowledge of brand names as an indicator of social status. Mama Babu was a gentleman; a mysterious maverick who was amiable and acceptable in the society of Indrapur like several families whose identity depended on their profession. People of Indrapur knew about their history but it was of no avail. Life was going on as placidly as it could. No one knew what was going on in the mind of Mama Babu. Did he ever think of marrying? Did he ever think of going back to his roots? Indrapur estate was thriving well. For him there was no need to go anywhere. He had enough reasons for the passions of his heart to persuade him to stay at Indrapur and live a life devoted only to loneliness and Love!

The empty quarters of Indrapur estate were occupied by the next generation. The stories of displacement, loneliness and love were perhaps supplanted by the other myriad such tales as the lore of love has been deplored today for its totally new angles of relationships. The decaying Indrapur estate quarters, the forsaken Parvati pond, the temple, the Kutchery and the new generation pigeons nestled in the Sheeshmahal are the dumb witness to the latest tales of human encounters every day.

A tale is a sacred epic wrapped in a red piece of cloth and kept up in the niche of time. Posterity might notice it one day and probably put it in the Apple Book Store to be downloaded on an IPad or for a sale. You never know about the flux of time and technology. They never stand still like the stagnant water and the deserted bathing platforms of the Parvati pond. Neither are they crumbling in their old glory day by day like the desolate Old Fort of Indrapur. They are like the verdant spread of hyacinth in the moat around the Fort floating and flourishing. Time and tide wait for none and technology is terrific in its revolution, thought Kanishk sitting in his cabin, far from home, downloading the free pdf-version of Anna Karenina which opened the story with an epitaph: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”


More by :  Prof. Dr. Anil K. Prasad

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Views: 3406      Comments: 2

Comment The story has a brilliant beginning, a more compact middle and an anticipated end. Once I read somewhere that a short story must seek the clarification of a moment and this story by Dr. Prasad does exactly the same. Mama Babu strikes with his features, as a character, grows as a breathing human being and dies a death that was the only logical end of a man who could not have lived a better life than the one he did.The writer succeeds in engaging the readers with his gripping narrative which is the end of all short story writers. Well written.

Afroz Ashrafi
08-Jun-2013 18:23 PM

Comment 'A Tiny Magnifying Glass' ....Mama Babu shows one 'life' in its real terms! A touching and telling story.

05-Jun-2013 10:15 AM

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