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That House That Age – Chapter 7
Just after joining service, on a cloudy morning Rano was on the roof where his father and two younger cousin brothers were talking sitting in three chairs. After having one hand made roti rolled with gud as morning breakfast he felt hungry, especially when there was no chance of having a meal closer to breakfast as they would serve to office goers but he wasn’t going because of the sudden holiday declared on the death of some dignitary. He came on the roof with some hot fried beguni and phuluri for himself but distributed them among the three keeping two for himself. They came closer and ate the hot fried savories in no time. After a while they found a Chinese man coming to the roof. He greeted his father, “Namaste Bodo Babu”. None other than Bodo Babu seemed to know him. “How are you Yo Lin? After a long time!” Balaram enquired.
“I wasn’t here for a year again. I can’t go to China, my native country, I went to Hong Kong for business purpose. My residence is permanently recorded at Chinatown, Kolkata.”
“Are you still working in the tannery?” Balaram asked. “No, Bodo Babu. I have my own business house now,
Before they continued further Rano asked, “Who’s he, Baba?”
One of the cousins of Rano already went down to bring tea for all, he came back with his sister bringing five/six cups of tea and some biscuits in a tray. They invited the newcomer also to take tea with them.
Balaram introduced him saying that he was one of the Red Guards in China and took part in Long March led by Mao Tse Tung. At this there was an air of awe and wonder as if they were wonder struck being able to see some rare human being who lived in some wonderland having done some cruel and wonderful work. But there was good gap in their knowledge base about a land which was separated by dark curtain. Rano asked, “How could you come out, escape from their clutch?”
“That happened long time ago when the situation was entirely different; it was troublesome but not very difficult to escape.”
“Why don’t you tell your story, at least of the period you were involved in their affairs as one of them? You were interested to tell me long time back. I remember the difficult ways you had to pass through and dangers you had to overcome to escape to India but the other things about your life as a cadre and why you disliked it, what was the situation at that time, ” Balaram was going to say more but the new comer said that he liked it and was inspired to join the Red Army as part of the country’s important group to serve it but the circumstances became unexpectedly otherwise for him to continue to remain with them for all practical purposes.
He said that many of his countrymen after the initial shock returned to China when it achieved its political status as a People’s Republic, especially because their stay in India was not granted with a permanent status. But he managed. His country knows that he fled and he is considered a defector. He does not discuss such things usually which are not yet publicly known or given a permanent sanction. All about that country is not yet known; it is better to avoid such references.
“I can talk about our future plan here with the expectation that you would introduce us to the possible clients and help us to keep registered as your friend,” the new comer said and guessing that his new audience was getting disheartened, with some hesitation he said, “There may be problems in my frank talks about that country as some have already faced.”
To this all kept silent. When he said, “May I expect that my audiences are quite reliable?”
Balaram, giving him assurances looked at the other hearers and said that it is for their interest that they should not discuss unnecessary things or would not discuss about today’s program with you.”
“O.K. Bodo Babu, please hear some of my experiences and give me hope of your help in my business.”
“I promise,” Balaram said. All laughed and looked at the Chinese friend to hear his unique experiences. And he began,
“At Yudu pontoon bridges were set up across the Gong River. Barn lanterns were hung at the prow and stem of each boat; lanterns galore and torches more were shining. They
were reflected in the river water on its both banks. Families of soldiers and organised peasants gathered at the banks of the river to bid goodbye to the Red Army including Mao Tse Tung which marched across the rickety bridges towards the historic ‘Long March’ on 18 March 1934; it was a myth of modern China stunning the world. It buried the murderous past of Mao, now known as Mao Ze Dong, including the treacherous, brutal past of the Chinese Communist Party for a new beginning though we knew very well that they would repeat such activities in the days to come.”
None tried to interfere or question when Yo Lin paused in search of memories. May be, he skipped something and began again, “Spilling blood and cracking bones could not hide the beauty of wild China. We lost sights of the natural beauty of the river then but long after I realised how majestic and honorable the look of the river was. It recorded the inauguration of the historic march. But I was referring to the beauty of wild nature in China. Wherever and whatever I viewed in my lifetime there were majestic, robust, awesome sites and sometimes lyrical too. But none had the eyes to realise them at that time. They were practical men and women in the business of life; even Mao’s poetry was matter of business type.
“Mao had to leave his two year old son, Little Mao, behind but without the least remorse, without bidding goodbye to him he left while he called his wife (Not the first) Guiyuan to accompany him. His first child, a daughter by her died as left with a wet nurse and her third child, a son, too died. Guiyuan ever searched for Little Mao who was identified by her around the year 1952 but claimed by another woman who too had to leave her child on her way to
march further. Guiyuan was no longer Mao’s wife when she discovered her lost son; Mao married more women. When requested to interfere in the disputed matter, Mao denied. He had no concern for wives and children or brothers or others in his long march towards achieving his supreme leadership. His only concern was for himself. March and march; leave aside everyone, everything near and dear. Please forget, oh!
“Actually those were the formative years for the Red Army. The Chinese Communist movement was guided and directly helped by Soviet Russia. There was no single Government in China. Whereas Chiang Kai Shek, the Nationalist leader, was trying to consolidate and unite China, Japan occupied some parts of the country while many parts were under the control of independent Warlords and Chieftains. A long struggle had been continuing among the warring parties. Chiang and the Communist party, both were seeking Russian help. Treachery, betrayal and overpowering were regular features of life during the time. All such parties were more than terrorists.
“Horrible things happened in the communist camps. When screening of the undesirables were done under Chou En Lai, thousands, many of whom were teachers in the army school, were hacked to death by knives and kicked into the self-dug pits or simply kicked into such pits and live-covered by earth. It was a Death-Yagna, festival of death; killing and obliterating the bodies were the regular happenings. Mao was one of the great perpetrators of the crime. Bandits joined them, robbers thronged the groups. Killing and torture were the easy ways for them to capture power, criminals as they were at heart and in activity. Please excuse me, I too was
caught in its fever even at my teens or even earlier. It was really an infectious fever.
“In October 1934 80000 people began the long march. They were burdened by heavy loads of arsenal machinery, printing machinery and Mao’s treasures on shoulder poles of porters. The heaviest burdens were carried by the weakest persons, newly released from the hard labor camps, under strict security watch. Soldiers suffered from sleeplessness in want of proper time and shelters. Autumn rains created continuous havoc; the path became all along muddy. Their speed became slower to slowest. Mao himself was carried in bed tied to poles on the shoulder of walking soldiers. For some the burdens became unbearable resulting in pains in the feet so they were tied by rotten cloths. Some dropped sick, died on the way. Some begged to be left alone and some just dropped their burdens and fled.
“Long after the incidents Mao himself related his journey to his staff; that he was lying in a litter and he had nothing to do so he read and read a lot. When climbing mountains, the litter bearers could only move forward on their knees and the skin and flesh on their knees were rubbed raw before they got to the top. Each such climb left a trail of sweat and blood. Telling this Mao must have once again relished the climb; it may be asserted by any who knew his nature. It is obvious that it did not happen then. I received news and many anecdotes later to make up a round story.
"Coming to vast Xiang River in Hunan, somewhere flowing up to 30 kilometers without a bridge, they had to wade and trudge across and finally they crossed the four formidable obstruction points under the eyes of Chiang forces but helped by some warlords with understanding. Finally
40000 strong Red Army reached their safe point on 1 December.
“Though I was one of them I could not continue any more under severe labor and torturous treatment. Just before final crossing on 30 November I was very young and equally desperate. I fled with consent from my immediate boss with two more comrades. We hid for a few days and then looked for ship at Guangzhou Port. That was quite risky and hazardous but we succeeded.”
All of them shook their hands with the Chinese friend, Yo Lin, who quickly took leave and disappeared, as if to avoid any further questions and further explanations. It seemed that though he might have joined the Maos at some point, what he said about the incidents before and after, were part of Chinese history made up from memory and heresy. They looked at the man as he quickly disappeared through the gate below.
“Were all these real!” Rano paused to hear his father but he was not heard. Someone said that a story was a story; whether there were bricks or myths inside, who knew? Belief and unbelief hovered in their eyes. All the hearers were young. Myths and truths were mixed in their surroundings about the leaders and happenings at their times. Anything might have happened there as in here; their eyes looked at each other to say this.
It was about 12 noon. Sun came out replacing the clouds and gradually its rays spread covering the sky thereby heating the earth. As the Chinese visitor left everyone felt the heat in his, her body.
As they were hurrying down someone climbed the stairs leisurely. A lean and thin sun-burnt smiling face with bloodless fair complexion emerged. He stood with two hands on two sides of his heap before them without any concern for the sun. Sipra apparently disliked the newcomer and said, “Please stand aside, I have to go.”
Giving her passage he moved a little and asked, “How are you Bodo Mama?”
“Let’s go down, sun is quite bounteous here,” Bodo Babu said and asked him to come down. While all of them were coming down, the newcomer said, “This is noon, sun hasn’t done any wrong!”
“No wrong”, Rano said and Samar repeated, “No wrong indeed!” When all of them came down to the covered space before going further down stairs, Balaram asked him, “What are you doing now?”
It seemed as if he was waiting for this question only. He stood in the same posture; shirt already tucked inside the trousers, body erect, both hands holding both sides of the heap, face grave and determined: “Setting up a road side stall I shall begin selling betel leaves with betel nuts, lime and catechu; bidi and other similar small items of common and popular consumption. I shall dispel the wants and sorrows of my parents, sorrows of the poor people and help the country to progress.”
Balaram asked, “Do you feel that you’ll be able to fulfil so many of your ambitions with earning from such a small shop?”
He seemed untouched by such blunt question for he repeated, “Setting up a road side stall and selling betel leaves with betel nuts, lime and catechu, bidi and other similar small items of popular interest for consumption I shall dispel the wants and sorrows of my parents, sorrows of the poor people and help the country to progress.”
As he finished his speech he was asked, “How are your parents and brothers?” to which his reply wasn’t that satisfactory other than, “O.K.” and finally he implored Bado Babu, “Bado Babu aaj chichu!” meaning, “Sir, please give something for today.”
In reply to this request he was given a bidi by Bado Babu and happily he dispersed. Someone asked, “Who’s he to you? We have seen him sometimes but we never had a chance to know him.”
To this Bodo Babu paid little attention but said, “He says that he\s my nephew but I can’t actually recognize him.”
Everyone laughed loudly at this and dispersed. While going someone turned back and asked Bodo Babu,
“You have some such fantastic guests; some of them are satisfied with a bidi only! I include the one among them who daily passes under your window in the early morning chanting ‘Om!’ for some time and when he comes just below the window, you ask, ‘Sob thik achhe?’ meaning ‘Is everything all right with you?’ to which his reply is ‘Bodo Babu, it’s quite some time now that you gave a bidi to me!’ to which your reply is, ‘Catch it’ and you throw a bidi which he rightly catches and proceeds without entertaining further dialogues.”
Hearing of this exact happening as in most of the early mornings, Balaram looked at him with wonderment. “How do you know this? All of you seem to be in deep slumber at that time!”
He was one of Rano’s cousin brothers, Shankar. No one noticed when he came and sat with them. He kept silent for some time and then with smiling face told him, “The ‘Om’ chanting man is none else than me!”
“What do you mean, you go out at that time daily when everyone sleeps and no one knows about it? And you ask bidi from me?” Bodo Babu shouted with anger.
“Have you ever seen his face?” was the next question to which Balaram could not reply.
“As you haven’t seen when I came you don’t know him exactly though you talk to him daily, is it so?” Shankar said and left quickly going down the stairs. In fact, he seemed to vanish from the scene very fast. They stood for some time more, thinking that really, Shankar isn’t often seen now-a- days. And just at that moment Ashok came up to meet one of them. Apparently he crossed the one who just left. He asked in astonishment, “How is it that the rogue came here? Who called him?” None in the group understood and looked askance at him.
He said, “I know the rogue, he daily drinks and abuses others in the evening posing as mad. None opposes as he is in the group of some miscreants known for their notoriety in the area.”
“Who do you mean?” Balaram asked. “Why, the man just left as he was with you.”
At this they looked at each other and someone asked, “You mean Shankar?”
Ashok thought for some moment and said, “Yes he resembles our Shankar to some extent but he is not at all Shankar, he is the rogue I know well.”
This set everyone thoughtful with some wonder in their mind and Balaram or Bodo Babu became more thoughtful.
When Rano came to the ground floor for some work he found that children were sitting around Rikta-di, waiting for their turn to receive the rice ball with vegetables or fish or with only dal. He was no longer asked to come nor someone brought him down from wherever he was hiding. That time was over, Rano silently realised.
He had an invitation so he left. When he came back at about 4 in the afternoon he found all the housewives were sitting in a row and were just attempting to begin eating their meal for the day or perhaps thinking to begin when two of his elder cousin brothers from nearby town, Srirampur, came and while passing by the long corridor where they sat for eating, one of them said without addressing anyone in particular, “We have moved to many places and are quite hungry. We shall come down anon after a quick bath. Please ensure that we are served our meal,” with smile in his face.
As they went up his mother, Sarbani, got up and ordred the cook who was serving to take her dish to the kitchen and asked others to carry on. They were hesitant but she said clearly to the cook,” You immediately arrange for boiling rice for two persons as there is nothing left today. But fish and curries are there. You serve them from my meal and, if
possible, from yours. We shall eat after they complete, to which Gangadhar, the cook, readily agreed by nodding his head.
Gangadhar’s eyes fell on Rano who was in friendly terms with him since the time he was a child. Rano became very sorry to observe that his mother while going to begin her lunch at this late hour had to get up for the twosome who suddenly entered and ordered for ready meal. He asked Gangadhar Padhi in quite low tone if the two who came had already informed of their coming and of their intention to partake meals. Gangadhar said, “Not at all! Such guests often come without notice and boudi (Rano’s mother), the eldest wife of the house, has all her time to welcome and feed them first. She gladly accepts the position.”
Rano could not ask this from anyone else, could not ask for more details. He only sighed. Other aunties who were eating noticed Rano and understood the conversation. They became shier. Slower became their ingestion of food until Rano left the scene.
It flashed in Rano’s mind that Gangadhar used to come sometimes to his school with a request to the teacher on some false plea, to allow him to take Rano and his cousin along, the two of them who were studying together, home for some urgent work, unavoidable. School teacher sometimes allowed sometimes asked for guardian’s letter to which Gangadhar would not agree and come out without them. But when they came, if permitted, and asked him, "Why?" He replied smilingly, “There is a great film show at Bina, (the nearby Cinema Hall). Come quick.”
They were thrilled at this trick played by Gangadhar and were pleased to view the cinema with another servant of the house, Sharat, who too was their friend and joined them silently as permitted earlier by Gangadhar.
In the evening on weekdays everyone’s mood changed. Adult males would not return so early. Only ladies enjoyed gossiping while tea was served by the maids who combed their hairs, rubbed their feet and coiled highly scented flowers like belli or jasmine round their coiffures. Someone bordered their feet with lac-dye. Rano again passed by them as he went out for something or the other. The day was closing to end.
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