Mar 30, 2023
Mar 30, 2023
That House That Age by Aju Mukhopadhyay
Earth Vision Publications, India, July 2021
Amazon ASIN: B099NF1DNS
That House That Age - Chapter 1
It had been drizzling from morning. Sumatha Nath Roy Chowdhury, the second son of the famous industrialist and businessman, Ram Nath Roy Chowdhury, became the victim of rains; his warm eagerness to meet someone was upset by it. The rain made him bored and morose, impatient for the time being. When it gave a short respite after ten he called Ajiz and asked if his father had already gone.
“Yes, he took the horse carriage with white pair of horses driven by Ramesh. I can take you if you order,” he offered.
“The chestnut Waler horses are yet better,” he suggestively said and waited to hear from his master whose mood he was guessing remembering his fearful rage at times. Sumatha was ready wearing his fanciful kurta and dhoti. His pair of big moustache was glistening and his fine perfume was wafting in the air oozing out of his kurta. He took out the watch from his watch pocket and saw the time. “How is the condition of the rains?” he asked.
“Almost stopped Sir, only clouds are moving round the sky,” Ajiz answered.
“Let’s go,” as he said, Ajiz ran with energy and eagerness for the garage which was at a little distance from the house. He knew Babu’s errand and expected good bakshis at its success.
The carriage pulled by two Waler horses sailed like a canoe from Simla to Bagbazar without any interruption as he rang the bell while passing through the road even when it wasn’t that crowded. Seeing the carriage of the Babu, with his name inscribed on the livery of Ajiz, the crowd dispersed with respect.
Suddenly Babu Sumatha shouted at Ajiz, asking him to stop. He immediately stopped. From the window Sumatha looked back and waited till Dr. Manmatha Nath Chatterjee (Dr. M. N. Chatterjee, the famous eye specialist of Kolkata) came near his carriage. They knew each other well. They were almost neighbours.
“What dada, your carriage is going empty and you are walking behind it!” Sumatha asked, astonished.
“Oh, that I do sometimes, while the carriage goes I do my walking, both are done at the same time.”
“How are you dada, we haven't met for quite some time? I would have come down but for the shortage of time, just now I am going for some urgent work, an appointment.” Sumatha said.
“Oh, please carry on. We shall meet again,” Manmatha Chatterjee replied and by a gesture of hand Ajiz was asked to move. The carriage moved faster.
In ten minutes the carriage reached its destination, at Chatterjee House. As he alighted, his familiar face known in the neighbourhood, there was chuckles in the air. Babu Sumatha looked askance but there was none to be found. He entered the house without any more glance. Seeing him from
the veranda of the upper floor Bindi, the maid servant, came down running and led him to the inner quarters of the house.
“Be seated a while, Babu”, Bindi said and ran back inside the house after Sumatha was comfortably seated in a couch. It took about 10 minutes for Shodashi to appear with powdered face dressed in a nice frock, holding the hand of Bindi.
Sumatha brought out some nice dolls made in England from his bulging bag. Some were laughing but their eyes were drooping when laid on bed and some of the dolls started walking. Shodashi loved them. She had quite some such dolls now as gifted by Babu. But she could not be reconciled to come closer to him to be cajoled and caressed. As much as he tried to coax her she went back shyly into the folds of Bindi in fear of getting closer to such big face with bigger moustache.
Sumatha gave a coin in Bindi’s hand and requested to bring her closer. When on Bindi’s tricks and requests she came closer, he caressed her from face to the legs, moving his hands aptly. Seeing such strong hands and big moustache she almost recoiled. After a while Bindi said, “Babu please leave her today, she is in tears!”
Sumatha smiled and said, “No, Shodashi, stop crying! I love you. How can I see you in tears? I shall come another day with bigger dolls.”
At this she agreed by nodding. And Babu observed to his satisfaction that she was wearing a faint smile. But instantly she almost vanished with Bindi to a corner. Just at that moment someone from inside called her and there were sounds of some footsteps coming down. At this Babu
Sumatha stood on his feet telling Bindi that he had some important jobs to perform which he forgot, so he could not wait any more. Nodding to Bindi and Shodashi he came out and boarded the carriage as Ajiz was waiting for him, ever ready.
While coming back Sumatha was regurgitating his memory of hobnobbing with his first wife who died after giving birth to a child who was named Dassi by his mother due to his turbulent nature. She didn’t look as good as Shodashi who has big eyes and fair complexion with soft skin radiating light; an apparent beauty personified. His wife was obedient but that wasn’t all, he thought. Something else she didn’t have that Shodashi has. A 23 year old Sumatha was heir to huge wealth of his hard labouring industrialist father, sharing some immovable properties only with his elder brother as per the Will his father had made. His father willed that Sumatha, as the more competent of the two brothers, would be in sole charge of all his business houses and his elder brother would enjoy some house properties only. Ancestral land and other properties were to be shared by both the brothers.
Sumatha’s father hoped that his hard earned money and business would be further increased and industries further developed by his intelligent second surviving son. With an air about him Sumatha lulled a temperament sometimes unbearable but that was the time when wealth mattered most. To be placed in higher position in society one requires wealth mixed with some other cultural qualities. Sumatha had quick intellectual power mixed with quick temper. He had cunning too but mixed with pride, he was sometimes blunt. The poor and unorganized people were at his feet, at his beak and call
unlike at the present time as democracy has given them enormous power and edge. Indulged by the political parties against promise of vote and support of the majority and sometimes their brutal physical force. They do crimes unfettered, supported by parties as they work in turn for them. All Babus presently have to be in agreement with the political parties to enjoy wealth. Otherwise they would be neither respected nor cared for. But that was Imperial age; Sumatha hadn’t even an iota of such knowledge as they embraced the poor with brutal force. Time and tide helped them. The poor were ever weak though great in numbers. Such ideas were remote then.
As a mosquito which drank human blood hovers round the man even at the risk of being slapped to death, Sumatha was passionately drawn to Shodashi, his mind hovering round her, a child of nine years, but without fear of being slapped. Gradually he fell in love with her, his betrothed wife. So flesh and mind, heart and life force combined to give a proper shape to their future married life. He decided what to do knowing that he was too affectionate to his father who was indulgent even knowing his nature. The elder one was silent and lazy. Sumatha directed Ajiz to proceed to his office without halting at home for his usual launch.
His father was not available there. He talked briefly to Mr. Newton and others present in the office to learn that his father had gone to meet with an official responsible for booking ships for movement of cargos. Two of their ships were going to remain useless by the next month unless booked by the Government. “This was urgent indeed. Babu Ram Nath knows perfectly the intricacies of this business”, said Newton.
Sumatha came out in time and reached home in another half hour from Clive Row as by that time the thoroughfares were quite busy and were going to be busier soon.
Though Sumatha died at an early age he lived a life free and robust, without caring for anybody. Whatever he wished he did, at his will. “What a strong mind, what a rage, what manliness!” thought Balaram.
Once when he was proceeding towards a big shop of Wachel Mollah alighting from his horse carriage, a policeman stopped him with a baton on his tummy but not hitting. At this he slapped twice that red faced policeman so rapidly and forcibly that he fell down with a spontaneous call, “Oh God!” and there came running almost instantly a mounted police sergeant on duty. Babu Sumatha without a word took out a hundred rupee note from his pocket and gave to the sergeant’s hand very swiftly telling him, “Never mind! You go your way on duty.”
“The sergeant looked at the Babu and the money he received and left the spot without a fuss. The man slapped got engaged in his business the moment he observed the deal between the two.”
Sometimes his ruminations would go on mentally but when some ones were nearby he would narrate his story audibly. But he didn’t know that he was vocal presently as the stream of his thoughts flowed uninterruptedly without his noticing them.
“Bodo-dadu, you have been repeating the same gossip for ages! How many times have we heard it in our short life time!
Why do you repeat? Even if such things happened how do they add glory to our family?”
Balaram looked at the juvenile face twisted with sardonic smile and grinning with joviality; the face of one of his great grandchildren. He simply said,
“Your life and mine aren’t the same! What did I see, what did I expect? Even when I didn’t get little of what I expected I’m not frustrated like today’s boys like you! I live relishing the memories; living in the shadow of my father. Go to the club, they beckon you.”
He stopped his ongoing ruminations for regaining silence. The fact was that when someone talked even in moderate voice at a distance he wouldn’t be able to hear him though there wasn’t any noise except in his mind. When he found that his smiling and joking great grandchild wasn’t there, none was there in the vicinity in the falling light of evening, he carried on his ruminations mentally without alert. The stream of his thought and memory continued even without his being aware of them.
This happened not once but quite some times. He paid violence on police, even British police and came back scot- free by giving some chips using tricks. He wasn’t Swadeshi though his father had some soft corner for them. All the same, he too donated some funds to them. I am a follower of my father. I enjoy life without being able to live it that way though I know that Rano, my son is of a different character. Although that colonial age has bidden good bye long back, he is still a freedom fighter, an idealist, a lover of the country. My father lived his life and did not care whether the country was at the colonial stage or whether we should fight for
gaining freedom though he gave money to some freedom fighters without involving himself.
He had freedom. Freedom is with us. It was with us as we were almost at the helm of the society. It depends how we understand it, how we try to realize it. He slapped the menials and many others for disobedience or foolishness, joined parties, allowed free drinks to his invitees and did not mind hiring women for the enjoyment of his invitees including himself in another quarter of the big house. Sometimes he came back home at the dead of night without an iota of information beforehand. My mother throughout her life tolerated this. And what could a woman of that age do when wealthy men were automatically licensed to stay for night anywhere without drawing flakes of any sort! The older ladies rather took that as a norm, indulged and accepted it as the right of the men folk. The society was permissive for them. Now I find things going the other way round, men and sometimes women too enjoy night out. It was an age of men folk. They could do anything if they had money enough to do as they liked. Women were most passive and I think that actually they are there to help men live and enjoy life. They are aids. They should remain inside purdah; allowing men to enjoy their company as much possible in their capacity in the privacy of their rooms. Women were utilised by the Japanese soldiers as “Comfort Women” during the Second World War; it might have helped them to fight better.
A scene often recurs in my mind; that jubilant action of calling back a running, ongoing train, gone away from the platform. He didn’t do it deliberately but it happened by circumstances. All of us were returning from Mujaffarpur after staying a few days with the in-laws of the newly married
second eldest of my sisters. When we reached the railway station we heard the shrill sound of the engine emitting smokes victoriously. As we entered the platform almost running alighting from three horse driven over crowded coaches, the train had already been on its way out of the platform. Remembering that he had reserved an entire first class compartment of the train, my father ran fast and started shouting at the full volume of his throat, “Aei Guard! Aei Guard! Stop, stop, come back!”
The Gurad, occupying the rear compartment of the train heard the emergent call meant for him, looked back and saw the big and very impressive, almost gigantic figure of my father, running speedily and shouting, “Aei Guard, stop the train, stop.”
The train was passing slowly over the curved rails. With the gesture of his hand and flag the Guard got the train stopped. He got down and came to the platform walking while the train halted completely. He came and talked to my father who explained adequately why we were little late in joining them. The English Guard accepted it in acquiescence after a glance at the papers for reservation. Satisfied with the tips, he went towards the engine and made the driver convinced about the need to roll back. After a few minutes when we became the cynosure of many passengers who looked with wonder and awe at our father’s huge body and great moustaches; the train came back slowly to the platform. We searched out our reserved compartment and promptly got into it with bag and baggage. After we settled comfortably the train restarted slowly.
Sarbani, his daughter-in-law, appeared at the door causing a pause in the free movement of his memories. While
entering she heard the shout, “Aei Guard, Aei Guard, stop the train, stop.” She halted at the door to hear something more of the story. When nothing more was heard though she was sure that her father-in-law was continuing in his mental exercise of repeating the incident, she asked, “Baba, the Guard has stopped, can I serve your meal now?”
Balaram looked at her and said in low tone, silently grudging her intervention, “Yes, give it.”
Now he continued to tell his father’s story to Sarbani, “I know that my father was impatient to enjoy life voraciously rather than waiting for the others or the country. I heard something from my mother and more from my aunt who was close to her.
"My father was visiting my mother more often before marriage as her family weren’t opening their mouth or heart, telling nothing though allowed him to visit and meet their daughter. My grandfather and grandmother too weren’t, it seemed, much interested to talk about their marriage. The bride lived in her maternal uncle’s house. Her father, native of a village in Hooghly district, was almost a recluse then, often living in his in-law’s house. My father’s efforts to be very close to my mother weren’t that successful as she often refused to sit by his side or even when seated objected to his touching her. When once he proposed to play dolls with her she was ready and said, 'Oh, that’ll be fine but please come up to my room in the upstairs. There are many dolls of my own and those given by you.' But to this my father could not agree. After all, he was far from a man playing dolls. And going to their room uninvited! He bought and gave her dolls to attract her, make friendship and to caress her.”
After a short speech he began soliloquizing.
“You have said this and we heard but I am always wondering how so many details of your father’s pre-marriage romance came to your knowledge. My grandma-in-law seemed quite reserved.” The daughter-in-law said.
“That was with you. With me she was quite frank in all matters and she had great affection for me. She confided to me many things that I cannot divulge to you,” Balaram said.
“That I don’t ask for. There perhaps isn’t anything yet to be divulged by now, I suppose,” said Sarbani who would sit on the floor before her almost centurion father-in-law as a matter of duty at the time when he partook his meal. “And then that final stroke, when they were compelled to contact my grandparents . . .”
“But this too seems something unbelievable,” she retorted as before.
To this Balaram said, “Not at all, this is quite plausible that when my father had said one day before Bindi that he would not come if Shodashi did not play with him there or if her parents didn’t allow her to play with him, that he could easily play with her in his own house and that he was regularly going to them but Shodashi hadn’t taken much interest in him, she and Bindi were upset. As this was said quite seriously by my father with a grave face, she became nervous and suddenly said,
“Take me then to your house.”
“Come then,” said Sumatha standing up, holding her hand.
“But wait Babu, let me tell her mother,” Bindi said.
“At this Babu Sumatha came out without a word and drove back home in their new motor car.
“Babu Nayan Banerjee, the father of Shodashi, was a very simple man from village. He lived in his in-law’s house. Not only to his parents-in-law but to the great saint Sri Ramakrishna he was very affectionate. The saint had once come to their house to see him as he fell ill. He might come more often if Nayan hadn’t visited him immediately after his visit. Riches with pomp and splendour did not attract Nayan but the marriage of his beloved daughter was a cause very dear to his heart for which he was ready to take any trouble, particularly when she was almost chosen by the son of a wealthy man in the city. Making all arrangements he went to their house and proposed his daughter’s marriage with Babu Sumatha Roy Chowdhury. Ram Nath guessed that the time for such an event would come any time as he knew his son and knew that Chatterjee house was in tacit agreement to this proposal. In fact it was they who invited them to see their daughter. After seeing Shodashi they liked her and Sumatha began visiting her more often. Eventually the two were married when Sumatha was 24 and Shodashi was only 12 years old. My father died at an early age.”
“And what great was the result of their marriage is really unheard of!” The daughter-in-law quipped.
“At that time it was common, particularly because there wasn’t any system of family planning.” Balaram gave a verdict. Children were and are still in some houses considered blessings of the god.
“Woes to the woman who had to bear a child every year without respite for long 17 years! And it was great indeed that she lived well after that though not up to a great age. The body could not endure such a drain of resources and energy from it. It could not endure beyond 57!”
Balaram moved his finger in disapproval. “Nature does not say so, it is your ideas, though it is fact that she gave birth to 17 children consecutively and my father had given birth to another child through our Bodo-Ma, who died early after marriage,” he said.
“Not only I, the whole world reject such tortures on woman. The women have been granted opportunity to decide everything about their own life, mind that!”
To this Balaram kept silent with a suppressed feeling of disapproval.
But Sarbani couldn’t suppress her feelings for women of the house. “And what about our Didi? Such a good looking and intelligent woman has ever remained dependent on her husband’s family. It was a joint family up to a long time after her marriage and after her husband gone she has become dependent on her son as she remained so in her father’s home! Her grandmother got some education from Sister Nivedita herself! How she, born after two generations, didn’t get the chance of adequate education? Why! Bethun Saheb’s school for girls is very near our home!”
Balaram kept silent for some time, then slowly replied, “My mother getting Sister Nivedita’s attention and care was a rare occasion as her house was near my mother;s house and she was seeking girl students. She herself visited her home to
get her registered as a student. That was the early time for girl’s education. Before that none dreamt of it.”
“But . . .
Silencing her Balaram replied as if with assertion, “And why going to Bethune School for Rani when Pyari Charan Sircar Girl’s School was so near our home?”
“Then why didn’t she get a chance?” Sarbani asked with grief and remorse.
“Who said that she didn’t get a chance! After she came of age we stopped her going to school, instead, we engaged a private tutor for her. In our house tradition girls beyond that age never got out of house without any guardian or male members like brothers with them,”
Balaram said as if to rectify the position and satisfy Sarbani’s long cherished grievances.
After a meaningful silence when Balaam was expecting her acquiescence it seemed as if Sarbani was hiding some suppressed laugh. Balaram looked at her. She was grinning.
“What’s happened!” Balaram asked as if with his forgotten force of voice as all the males of that house have. After a pause, with a smiling face she answered slowly but distinctly,
“I am wondering if our home is a Taliban home or at least their supporter.”
Balaram sat in his chair, half-understanding her or not understanding at all.
“So far I heard, she could not prosecute her studies for long. That apart, I still wonder why Gowri Pisi was sent to
Vrindavan to fend for herself after she had come back home as a widow? She never reported. And all kept silent as if they got rid of a complex problem!”
Balaram did not answer to these strange accusations. With a fading memory of one of their cousin sisters, many years older to him, he was wondering how she could know of all such pretty old things and attack him couched in her own strange ideas and languages. He thought of Rano; he has never been able to measure his mind properly. It might be that Rano was behind such questions. He slowly moved to his bed.
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