Bibhutibhushon Bandyopadhyay's "Peyala" in translation
(Translated by Sohana Manzoor)
It was nothing special—an enameled tea-cup that cost about three anas.
I still remember that winter evening when I was trying to take refuge in a warm bed after an early dinner. That is when I heard my uncle’s voice and went to the front door of the house. Uncle had been to the Kulber Fair. He had returned early and that could only be if he had sold everything!
There were two ox-carts in the yard. The peasant Horu Maiti was busy taking down a bundle of bedding. I could see a load of kitchen utensils in a large and new pot. There were a few mats, several small wooden stools, some spinach, two pots of molasses and some other things.
Uncle called out to me, “Nibu, bring a lantern—this one has no oil in it.”
I ran off to the kitchen and got the lantern from there. My pishima (paternal aunt) started to yell, but I had no time for her.
I asked my uncle, “So, did you see many people at the fair?”
Uncle said, “Initially, it was quite good, but all of a sudden cholera broke out causing a huge uproar. People started to run off, and every day they were throwing five or six corpses in the waters of the lake. Then the police came and closed down everything, especially the food shops. Basically, I ran with my life. Who cares about profit? If I can just make even, I’ll be more than happy.”
At dinner, Uncle started his story of cholera in detail.
“A fellow had arrived from Samta-maanpur; let me see—what was his name, yes, Jadu Chakotti—he came with his family in a covered ox-cart. He had brought his wife and children —the whole cart was full. They had parked the cart right beside the water, and they were cooking and sleeping there too. They had planned to return home after two days. Believe it or not, a nine-year old girl of that family was the first one to have cholera. No doctor, no medicine, and her mother got infected in the morning. The mother died at eight that night, and then the eldest son’s wife got it. By that time many others were also infected. People were dying one after another and were thrown into the water as they do with people dying in an epidemic. Half of that cart was dead in no time. It all happened right before us.”
My uncle was in grain business. He had taken about 40 maunds of golden lentils. I believe he was able to sell about twelve or thirteen. The rest was returning in the ox-cart. Our manager, Harabilash Manna was with the cart. They would arrive the next morning.
Uncle took off after dinner. His youngest daughter Monu appeared in the kitchen with an enameled cup to show my mother. “Look, auntie, Baba brought it from the fair. I will have my tea in it. Isn’t it pretty?”
That was the first time I saw the cup.
Two years passed and I became involved in tube-well business. I worked with the local government and was busy running around. I could spare little time for my family. One evening I was getting ready to go to Kolkata. I went to the kitchen asking for tea and heard my eldest niece saying, “Don’t use that cup, Pishima. Mom hates that cup since Baba died.”
I was curious. “What cup? What are you talking about?”
The girl brought out a cup and I recognized it as the one Monu had showed me. She said, “When my sister-in-law had taken ill, she used to drink milk from it. Then in his last days Baba was served sago in that cup. Mom says that she really detests that cup.”
This cousin of mine had brought his wife home to visit his parents and she died of an illness. Soon after that, my uncle, her father-in-law, also died of a dorsal carbuncle. But I could not comprehend what a cup had to do with their untimely demise. Superstitious women!
Next year, I became busier as my business flourished. I got many contracts and traveled across remote areas of the countryside. The rest of my time was spent in trying to get the payment from government officials.
There arose a lot of problems in our household too. As long as my youngest uncle was alive, nobody dared to say anything against him. He virtually ran our extended family. But after he died everybody wanted to be the head of the house.
This was also the time when my little boy got ill. But I just had too much to do. There was all the paperwork to be done; otherwise, I would not get paid. I was running around from one place to another, from this office to that. When finally my work was done, my boy was gone too. He had received all kinds of medical treatment, but to no avail.
From my experience in the tube-well business, I had learned a lesson that the village people in our country are the laziest in the world. I could never understand how people could be so satisfied with so little. They would welcome death, suffer extreme poverty and do nothing to reverse their fortune if it required stepping a little beyond their known boundaries. Their only good quality was that they never complained, neither against the government, nor against the gods.
Those who do not know these people well might think that they live like the dead. But if you look at them closely, you will see that they are not dead at all. Far from it, actually. Their spirit is so strong that they battle against death relentlessly. They lose the battle everyday and yet they don’t give up. They accept the difficulties like they accept everything else in life.
These people would endure cholera after drinking putrid water from village ponds and yet would not submit an application at the district office for a tube well. Nobody wanted to go through all that hassle. At some places, all it required was to write an application and take it to the district office. They would not have to pay any money. But it made no difference to them.
One afternoon, I came home and noticed that my youngest daughter was taking her tea from that enameled cup. Even though I claim not to believe in what my niece had said, I felt very uneasy. After she had finished I stole the cup and threw it in the bushes behind the boundary wall of our house.
My uncle’s eldest daughter was already married. I brought Monu, the younger girl to live with my family. She was a bright student and I enrolled her in school. Another five or six months elapsed and it was Baishakh, the first month of the Bengali year.
It was also that time of the year when my workload increased. I had to be away from home for about eight to ten days at a stretch. Even when I returned, it was for a short while. Yes, I earned well, but had little time to spend with my family. I missed my wife and children. I roamed around like a gipsy from one area to another, doing estimates, finding workers to install tube wells. Everyone wants to have some leisure, to enjoy life with loved ones, or to spend some time alone. I felt everyday that life was not just about earning money.
It was around this time I heard the news that my niece had taken ill. I returned home immediately. I reached home by midday and entered the patient’s room a little later. I stood at the door in surprise. My pishima was feeding Monu sago or barley from that very enameled cup I had thrown away.
I called my daughter aside and asked, “Where did that cup come from, eh?”
My little one replied, “Some dog or someone carried it away in the woods. Monu di found it and brought it home. It happened quite some back. She found it in the wilderness beyond our wall.”
I gasped in wonder, “You’re sure that Monu brought it back?”
My daughter looked at me in surprise. “I’m sure. You can ask ma. We had that boy servant Ramlagan who was bitten by a dog, remember? Monu di brought it back that very morning. Ramlagan was fed some medicine from that cup.”
I went pale, “Who was fed medicine? Ramlagan?”
“Yes. He returned to his village right after.”
My entire world started to spin. True, Ramlagan had left for home after being bitten by the dog. But what I had not told any of my family members was that Ramlagan had died. My wife loved him very much and I did not want to cause chaos in the house. He was a nephew of my tube-well worker Sheu sharan. He is the one who brought the news about the boy’s untimely death a month and a half ago.
Monu did not seem too badly off. But I had this uncomfortable feeling that she would not last. Nobody in my household was aware of the cup’s history that if anyone had anything from that cup during illness, he was done for. Only the eldest daughter of my uncle knew it, and she was at her in-laws.
I got hold of the cup again and threw it out. I had such a weird sensation when I took the cup in hand! It almost felt alive, as if I had taken a viper in hand, as if touching it meant death.
Monu’s fever turned worse the next afternoon. She died after nine days as I knew she would.
After Monu’s death I picked up the cup from the bushes, and put it in my bag. I carried it to a marshy area about fifteen miles away from home and threw it in the swamp.
I waited till the period of mourning was over. Then one day I mentioned the cup to my wife. She stared at me in wonder. She went absolutely quiet and I said, “I don’t think you noticed anything. You keep busy through the day… ”
Her face took a deathly hue as she whispered, “Can I tell you something? I just remembered now... ”
She paused and then began again, “When our little boy died last year during the rainy season, I used to feed him coconut water from that same enameled cup. I fed him with my own hands. You were busy working outside. You probably didn’t even notice.”
Since I did not answer she asked again, “You didn’t know about this, did you?”
“No, I didn’t.”
But I couldn’t help wondering why I hadn’t destroyed that cup. Had it really left us? How could I be sure that it wouldn’t find some way to return to my household again?
Sohana Manzoor is Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Humanities at ULAB. She has lately taken up translating Bibhutibhusan Bandyopaddhyay’s short stories.