Translated by Sohana Manzoor
That winter Vishnu returned to the country after many years.
It was the beginning of Poush. Right outside the railway station he noticed the lentil fields laden with ripe beans. Some fields were barren as the farmers had already reaped the harvest. Small bushes abound with white sweet-smelling flowers. He could also smell the sweet aroma of date juice.
The village of Dhutrobere was more than twelve miles away from the station. He could not possibly reach his destination today as it was already late afternoon. He would have to find shelter somewhere in Aramdangta or Shonakhali. Vishnu had visited this place last about two years ago and stayed with a cousin for a few days. Before that he probably came about thirteen or fourteen years earlier. He lived far away in the district of Sambalpur, in a village named Titlagar. He was the private tutor of the son of a local Zamindar. Only if he could have a better job! He was in his forties and all these years he had been roaming around from one place to another. His fortunes had not improved and it was highly unlikely that they ever would.
He met Shatish Kolu on the way, Shatish was driving an ox cart and sat on top of sacks of rice. Many years ago, they were both students together in the same class. Even though they had not met in years, Vishnu recognized him,
“Hey, Shatish!” he called out. “Don’t you recognize me?”
Shatish had graying hair, and he had also gained weight. He looked and Vishnu and said, “Isn’t that our Vishnu? What do you do these days?”
“I live in a far-off country—Sambalpur district of Odissa.”
“Where is that place? How do you go there?”
“You have to take the train from Haora.”
“You have a job? How much salary do you get?”
“I teach. Get fifty taka per month.”
Shatish made a face and replied disdainfully, “Only! What a pity! We’re better off in the country, it seems. Wouldn’t mind telling ye—I earned about four thousand this year from the paddy harvest…”
Shatish drove away slowly with his rice laden cart. Yes, he and Shatish Kolu studied together years ago. As a good student, he had the privilege of twisting Shatish’s ear at the instruction of his class-teacher. So many years later, Shatish took his revenge today. Even then Vishnu had not given the correct figures. What would Shatish say if he had learnt that Vishnu got thirty taka per month and made his living as a house tutor?
Even though he had not visited this place in years, Vishnu recognized the far-off banyan tree as the one of Shonakhali kuthibari. It was late afternoon already and hence he would have to find someone at Shonakhali with whom he could stay for the night. There were not many gentlefolk in that village. But whatever happens, he would have to find somebody.
As soon as he entered the village, he noticed a small hut. There was a notice board with a sign “Union Board Charity Dispensary.” That was something new indeed. Vishnu could not recall any doctor during his time here. He asked a fellow and learnt that the straw cottage by the pond was the doctor’s house and he was a Brahmin. Vishnu decided that perhaps it was better to seek out the doctor and be his guest for the night. He had no trouble finding the said gentleman who was sitting right outside his cottage in a sleeveless shirt and dhoti. Well, he was just a country doctor; what could anyone expect? He asked Vishnu, “Where are you from?”
“Kolkata,” he replied. “Would it be possible to stay here for the night?”
“Sure. The room outside the house remains unoccupied anyway. Where are you off to?”
“Another ten miles from here. Are you from around this area? Perhaps, you don’t know the names of all the villages here, do you?”
“You’re right. I don’t. I’ve married here in Dhutrobere…”
Vishnu became curious. “Really? What’s the name of your father-in-law?”
The doctor asked, “Are you familiar with Dhutrobere? Kalidash Chatujje from Dhutrobere is my father-in-law.”
Vishnu suddenly felt dizzy. His head began to spin. But he controlled himself and said, “No, I was just asking. I’m also a newcomer in this country.”
The doctor went on chattering but Vishnu heard very little of what he said. He did participate a little in the conversation, but he was not sure what he said. Fortunately, the doctor got up and went inside the house to see to the dinner for his guest. Otherwise, Vishnu would have been in trouble.
So, he married Nandi.
What did he ever do to appear at the house of Nandi’s husband?
Even more problematic would be if Nandi learnt of his arrival. Did he want Nandi to know that he was here? No, it was not wise. Would the doctor take him inside the house for dinner? Those dreamlike days in Dhutrobere seemed from another life. So many years had gone by since then. Very strange they would seem now— those days entwined with such winter dusks and the white flowers in the meadows. And the memories of a beautiful face that had kept him alive through the years! He could not possibly let go of her now. It would be a grave error to bring out her memory and turn it into a reality. What if that Nandi was no more? The Nandi that he knew sixteen years ago could very well be gone.
He had not seen her in the past sixteen years, but he had spent many a sleepless nights thinking of her. Finally, he had buried her in layers of oblivion. Who would have thought that Nandi would suddenly appear at such close quarters?
The doctor returned at this time with tea and some puffed rice. “Have tea with us. And here’s something to go with the tea. Would you like some gur, perhaps? My wife asked if you’d like some.”
Vishnu laughed. “Who do you take me for? Some gentleman from town? I would love to have fresh gur— food for the gods indeed.”
So, Nandi wanted him to have gur? Did she realize who had come as a guest at her door? Vishnu recalled a half- blooming floral stick of tube-rose kissed by the morning sun and dewdrops. On another moonlit night very like this one, a night at Dhutrobere, a young teenage girl stood under a wood-apple tree near her house. He had almost forgotten the dreamy look in those dark eyes. But today he could remember them clearly, maybe because he was here.
He felt like asking the doctor, “So you married Nandini, Kalidash Barujje’s daughter?”
Wouldn’t the doctor be surprised then and ask, “How did you know?”
“I am from the same village. I used to live there…”
“Really? So, what’s your name?”
“Tell her that Vishnu Ghoshal of Dhutrobere is here.”
Wouldn’t Nandi rush out of the house to meet him? “Vishnuda, where have you come from after all these years? How are you? Why didn’t you ever visit the village?”
“That I’ll tell you later. Let’s sit and chat awhile. We’re meeting after sixteen long years, aren’t we?”
“Yes, we’ve so much to talk about. Have dinner first and then we’ll chat through the night, all right?”
But would things happen the way he imagined? How could he expect that Nandi would remain the same spirited, young woman? She might as well have become heavy with five or six children. What if he could not find that budding tube-rose in this Nandi? Suddenly, Vishnu felt tired and he closed his eyes.
The doctor said quickly, “Oh, are you tired? Should I bring you pillows?”
“Of course, not. It’s just evening.”
“No, no, you’ve been walking a long way…Do you smoke?”
“Don’t worry about it. Tell me, do you like living in this small village?”
The doctor laughed. “Can’t afford to think like that, you know. This is my job and I’m stuck here. We have to like the place.”
“I didn’t like it initially. But I do earn quite well. All the village-folks of the locality call me when somebody is ill, you know. I ask a fee of two taka for house-visit. Also, payment for the ox-cart. I go on bi-cycle in winter. The farmers and peasants pay me quite well as you’ll see when we go in for dinner. That makes me feel well.”
The small eyes in the doctor’s face were lost in the creases of materialistic happiness. Vishnu never liked these things. He tried to chat on other subjects.
“How is the situation with malaria here?”
“Oh, yes, it’s quite bad. It’s because of malaria that I earn well. I have a daughter of marriageable age, you know. Perhaps next year…”
Vishnu was surprised to learn that Nandi’s daughter was of marriageable age. How old was she? Sixteen? Seventeen? That cannot be. Besides, in such rural areas, girls were married off even earlier. She should be about fourteen. But what was that to him? Yet he could not help wondering how Nandi looked like now and how many children she had.
At this point, someone called out, “Doctor, are you in?”
The doctor went outside to see what the matter was. He came back a few minutes later and said, “I will have to go to Chapabere—a village nearby. It’s a difficult case. I have to take the ox cart. It’s six to eight miles away. I will be late in returning. But I am leaving instructions at home—you should have no problem here.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll be fine.”
“I feel bad. We were having such a nice chat…But it’s a difficult case and I have to go.”
“That’s all right. Don’t you worry about me! I’ll be fine.”
“I’ll just have whatever has been cooked. But they’ll get your dinner a litter later. I am instructing the people at home.”
The doctor left a little later and Vishnu started feeling agitated after he left. He could barely control his restless spirit. Nandi, his very own Nandi lived in this house. If only she knew that he was here, surely she would rush out. Nandi and he were from the same village, they had grown up together. They had lived their lives like two florets from the same stem. He knew that he could never marry Nandi. He was from Ghoshal family, and Nandi’s father was pure Brahmin. Even then he had made an attempt.
He was returning with earthen pots in his hand from the potters’ village when he saw Nandi in front of their house. Somehow Vishnu knew she was waiting for him. When he got nearer, Nandi looked this way and that and spoke in a low voice, “Vishnu da, I have to talk to you.”
“Why did you say that to aunty? Don’t you know my father?”
Vishnu remained quiet.
“Do you know what will happen now? I’ll be in trouble.”
Vishnu was a bit hurt. Couldn’t he have expected some feelings from Nandi? He did not expect this reaction at all.
He could only say, “Oh!”
Nandi snapped, “What do you mean, ‘Oh!’ Don’t you know what will happen now? A lot has happened already because of this. And I can’t tolerate the kind of things they’re saying of you.”
Vishnu stared at Nandi in surprise. Nandi had tears in her eyes and she could barely speak. Before he could say anything, Nandi said, “Now, go before anyone comes this way. My father is not at home and Ma has gone to the river bank—thought it would be a good time to talk to you.”
“How did you know that I’d come this way?”
“I saw you from the rooftop coming with pots in hand. Okay, bye now—and don’t say a word.” Nandi ran off before finishing the sentence.
But as Vishnu was going away, she called again.
“Vishnu da, listen. Listen, Vishnu da…”
“What do you say, Nandi?”
“Come this way, closer…”
“Do you have enough courage?”
“Can you run off with me?”
Vishnu could not understand. “Run off? With you?... What…?”
Nandi swayed her neck and replied, “What kind of a man are you? We have no time; tell me, are you ready to run away from home? Say, yes or no. Do you dare?”
“How can we do that, Nandi?”
“You’re crazy. We can’t do that.”
“Why can’t we do that?”
“It’s not child’s play, Nandi. We have so much to consider. Where’s money? And where will we go? What will our parents say?”
“As if I don’t worry about these things! Don’t I have parents too? You’re such a coward! Never mind…” Nandi ran off and disappeared inside the house without allowing a stunned Vishnu to say anything further.
He never met Nandi again except for a brief while on the night of her marriage ceremony. Right after the ritual of the giving away of the bride to the groom he left Nandi’s father’s house. He did not even go back for marriage feast. The next day, he came across Malati, Nandi’s younger sister. “Where did you disappear last night, Vishnu da?” she enquired. “Didi asked for you twice at least. But I did not see you anywhere. You did not eat at our place. Why didn’t you return?”
“So what? Do I have to give excuse for not eating?” Vishnu snapped.
Malati’s head bobbed up and down as she said, “Why are you speaking like this? I meant well, you know…”
“You don’t have to mean well. Go away…”
“Did you get to see the groom?”
“I may have seen… Notobor and I were busy preparing things in the cowshed. Has your sister left already?”
“She just did. Even before she left she asked for you. I was looking for you, but you were nowhere to be found. She cried so much, you know. And still you didn’t come…”
“All right, all right, now go…”
That was such a long time ago. Sixteen years had passed since then. And then he had to leave Dhutrobere soon after Nandi’s marriage. His father died and his maternal uncle took them with him. It did not take long for the village huts to disappear within a short time.
Suddenly, Vishnu was brought back to the present by the appearance of a teenage girl. A fourteen or fifteen year-old Nandi was standing by the door and asking him in a mellow and sweet voice, “Ma asked if you’d like to have dinner now.”
“Er… I guess…” Vishnu mumbled.
The girl smiled a little at his astonishment. She asked again. “Now?”
“Are you the doctor’s daughter?” asked Vishnu.
“What’s your name, sweetie?”
“Come, sit here and chat with me a little. Can surely have dinner a little later. Tell me, why are you called, ‘Tulsi’? That’s a very old kind of name. You should have a name like ‘Reba,’ ‘Rekha,’ ‘Shipra,’ ‘Anita,’ or at least ‘Shukumari,’ ‘Sulochana,’ or ‘Nalini.’ Instead you have a name ‘Tulsi.’ That’s not right.”
Tulsi laughed at his expression. She lowered her eyes and explained quietly, “My granny gave me that name. She was alive then.”
“Where’s your home-district?”
“The district of Noday, near Madanpur. We don’t visit there often. We live wherever Baba’s posted, you know.”
“You’re the eldest? Do you have younger brother or sister?”
“I’ve two younger sisters and a brother who’s only two years old.”
After some more talking the girl said, “Will you have dinner now?”
Vishnu said, “That’s not a bad idea. Why don’t you arrange it here?”
“Why? You can come inside and sit in front of the kitchen.”
“No, no, sweetie, make it here. I’d rather not go inside.”
The girl went inside and returned quite a while after. “Ma said, it will be more hassle here. Why don’t you come inside?”
Vishnu shook his head and said, “No, no. It’s much better here. I’ll feel uncomfortable going inside the house.”
The girl went inside again.
An intense restlessness and eagerness got hold of Vishnu’s spirit. He was able to see his Nandi after so many years through this girl. She had the same eyes, the very same smile. He had only dreamt about her all these years.
Arrangements for dinner were made in the outer house. Tulsi served the food. But Vishnu could hear whispers at the door and it was obvious that her mother was helping in bringing the food there. Vishnu was careful to sit with his back at the door so that Nandi would not see him. Nandi must not know that he was a guest at her house.
Dinner was over. It was not too late at night. In such rural areas, people had early dinner. But Vishnu was beginning to realize that if he stayed on, he would have to reveal himself to Nandi. No matter how much he tried to control, the urge to see Nandi once more kept on returning to him. Every drop of blood in his body hungered after her. His heart whispered, “Call Nandi. This is the time. Why wouldn’t you call her? Do you think you’ll get another chance to see her?”
It was impossible to sleep. No, he would have to see Nandi. Should he call Tulsi? What should he tell her? “Tulsi, did your Ma live in Dhutrobere as a girl? I’m from Dhutrobere too. Tell your Ma that Vishnu, the son of Shibnath Ghoshal is here.” No, that’s not the correct approach. Maybe, he should casually mention that Dhutrobere is his native village. And then surely, Tulsi would say that it was her nanabari. Surely, Tulsi did not know about the conversation he had with her father. And then Tulsi would surely report to her mother that their guest was from Dhutrobere. Nandi would then ask who it was from Dhutrobere and all would come out.
Vishnu got up from bed and walked to-and-fro excitedly outside his room. Then he called, “Tulsi, Tulsi.”
Tulsi came out and he asked lowering his voice, “When would your father return home, Tulsi?”
“I’m not sure. Should I ask mother?”
“Nah—let it pass. But listen, I have to leave. I just remembered that I forgot about some important task. So, I have to catch the next train. So, you better close the main door after I leave.
Tulsi looked at him in surprise. “But this is late night and winter too. Where will you go now? Why don’t you leave in the morning?”
“No, no, I have to leave now. I will take the mid-night train to Khulna.”
Tulsi ran into the house and returned to say, “Ma forbids you to go. Baba will be back by 3:00. You can take his cart. Don’t walk alone to the station.”
Nandi forbade him to leave. She didn’t even know who he was. He suddenly became desperate and said rather rudely, “No, I have to go. I’ve important work to do.”
Vishnu ran out of the house while the unsuspecting, simple village girl stood with a look of bewilderment on her face. The night air was fragrant with scent of mustard flowers. Dreams from his long lost youth overpowered his senses. The night-sky was ablaze with stars and Vishnu ran though the fields in the wintry chill of Poush.
(An English translation of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s “Birambana”)
Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities, ULAB.