Early in the morning I was working away at my desk when someone called, “Uncle?…” I was engrossed in writing and hence somewhat peeved. “Who is it?” I asked.
A girlish voice replied, “It’s me, Haju.”
“Haju? Who is Haju?”
I got up and went outside. A poorly clad young woman of sixteen or seventeen stood there carrying a little boy. I did not recognize her. I was visiting the country after a long while and did not know many of the people. “And who might you be?” I asked.
The girl replied shyly, “My father’s name was Ramacharan Boshtom.”
Then I realized who she was. As a boy I used to play kori with Ramacharan. I had heard that he had passed away about five or six years earlier. But I had no information regarding his family. It was at this moment I learnt that he had quite a grown-up daughter.
So I said, “Oh, so you are the daughter of Ramacharan? You’ve been married, I can see. Where do your in-laws live?”
“That’s good. So this is your son? How old is he?”
“Bless you, child. Go inside the house.”
“I’ve something to ask of you, uncle. Do you need any helping hand around the house?”
“Helping hand? No, there already is somebody who works here —the cowherd’s wife. Why?”
“I am looking for work. I don’t want any wages, uncle. If we could only eat twice a day, that’d be enough.”
“What about your in-laws?”
The girl did not reply. Now why did I need to get into trouble? I had my writing to do. “No, I don’t need any helping hand around here,” I told her.
The girl entered the house and later I heard that she had come to beg. She left with some rice.
I had almost forgotten about the girl, but then one day I saw her sitting on the porch of the Roys. She was gorging on a piece of watermelon. The way she was holding and eating the watermelon, the only word that I came to my mind at that moment, was “gorge.” She was very shabbily dressed. I also noticed a few pieces of papaya and a lump of molasses beside her. I suspected that she got those from the Roy household who were celebrating Akshay Tritiya. She also had a small bundle at her feet which I suspected was the rice she had acquired by begging.
That day I asked around about the girl. I learnt that she did not live with her in-laws as they were very poor and could not provide enough food. Her husband had left her at her parents’ and did not bother to take her back. The widow of Ramacharan Boshtom worked at other people’s houses and had two more children. The girl had been with her mother for over a year now. The mother had little to offer and sure enough the girl was forced to look after herself.
I once asked the cowherd’s wife and she said, “Did Haju want to work at your place?”
“Yes, she did ask once.”
“Be careful, master, don’t let her stay in your house; she’s a thief.”
“Thief? What do you mean?”
“She steals whatever she can lay her hands on. The Mukherjees did not keep her as she would eat everything she could get. She would lap up the milk, steal rice—she would gobble up everything—she only eats and eats. The Mukherjees were fed up with her; hence shooed her away. So now she wanders in the streets.”
“Doesn’t her mother look after her?”
“She doesn’t have enough to eat herself. She told her, ‘where would I get anything? You better look after yourself.’ That’s why she goes from door to door.”
I felt sorry for the poor girl. Whenever she came to my house, I made sure that she got some rice or a few coins. She even had lunch at my place a couple of times.
About a month later I heard the sound of loud wailing outside my house. I went out to investigate and saw Haju coming toward our house crying. What happened? What I heard made my blood boil. Madhu Chakraborti had beaten her up. She had a pot in her hand; he had taken even that just because she had been to his house asking for food.
As the secretary of the village welfare committee, I was by then quite an important person. I sent for Madhu Chakroborti right away. Madhu arrived with a colourful gamchha on his shoulder. “Madhu, did you harass her?” I asked.
“Yes, dada, I did slap her once. I just lost my temper. She is quite a thief, you know. Listen to this: she went to beg at our house, and stole at least a pound of peppers from the plants in our yard. She had done it even earlier on, came to beg and I caught her red-handed taking a papaya off the tree. I didn’t say anything the other day—but today I couldn’t control myself, dada. I slapped her. I won’t lie to you.”
“But you did very wrong. You don’t beat up a woman! It’s poor taste. Shame! Return to her what you have taken.”
I instructed Haju so that she did not go to Madhu Chakotti’s house again.
During this time the famine also broke out. Grains and rice became scarce in the market and people stopped giving rice to beggars. One day I saw Haju begging in Goalpara street. She looked at me fatuously and said, “Hello, uncle,” as if she had been searching for me to share some good news.
I replied with some irritation, “What is it?”
“Nothing! I will visit your house too.”
“Sure. You will have lunch there, okay?” I said magnanimously.
Haju was very happy. I knew that she was the happiest person when she had something to eat. That afternoon when she sat under the jackfruit tree, she had rice enough for two people on her plate. For some the greatest pleasure lay in eating. I instructed my wife to feed her well with fish and curry.
I had a chat with Haridas Bairagi. “I was wondering about that girl Haju, the one who lives in your area. Why doesn’t she live with her in laws?” I asked.
“Her husband does not take her.”
“And the reason?”
“There are different tales. Apparently, she is a glutton, eats up all food in the kitchen. So they have sent her away.”
“That’s all? Nothing else?”
“That’s all I know. I’ve heard of no other faults. But you can see they’re not decent folks either. What kind of people would send away their daughter-in-law because she eats a little too much?”
I did not see Haju around for a while. Then one day the boshtom-wife approached me. “Did you hear about Haju?” she asked. “She has written down her name at Bongaon.”
I was mortified. “Writing down one’s name” in the country meant she had signed up for prostitution. Considering the circumstances it was not so surprising, but my heart was heavy nevertheless. She was after all a girl from our village. But still I would have perhaps forgotten all about her. I did not stay at the village much and had a busy schedule. Also I did not get to hear all the news at all times.
The famine of the fifties was over. One could still see one or two skeletons lying by roadsides. The homeless and destitute from the Tripura district left their mark on the face of the earth. The famine did not break out in too terrifying a manner in our area, but men and women from the afflicted regions came to us and never went back home.
Then came the month of Poush and it was quite cold that year. I went to town to attend an annual program at the library. While returning I took a shortcut through a narrow alley leading to the market. That is when someone called, “Uncle…”
“Who is it?” I asked.
“It’s only me,” came the answer.
I tried to see clearly into the semi-darkened alley. A girl in a colourful saree was standing in front of a house. The hue of her clothes mingled with shadows, and I tried to recognize the face which was indistinct in the darkness.
I approached and asked again, “Who is it?”
“Don’t you recognize me? It’s me—Haju.”
I could not recall anything and asked back, “Who is Haju?”
She laughed and answered, “I’m from your village. Why, you’ve forgotten me! My father’s name was Ramacharan Bairagi. I am now a courtesan in this town.”
She uttered the last sentence as if it was a lifetime achievement and she was proud of it. For her it was no small feat, as though she had become a courtesan in a great city. Surely not too many people could do so. The people of her village should realize and appreciate what she had become.
Before I could respond, she said, “Will you not come to my house, please?”
“Not now. I don’t have time.”
“Why, where are you going?”
“I have to go home.”
Haju replied in a nagging voice, “But you must come in. You have to visit my house. Please, come…”
I am not sure why, but I chose to go inside her hut. The entrance was a low beamed ceiling covered with dry grass. The main room was of medium size with a narrow bed and clean coverlet. I could see one or two western advertisements of cigarettes on the wall. Such and such memshahib was smoking. A few brassware plates shone on a small stool under the lamp. There was an old rush-mat on the floor. She was a Baishnab girl, and hence a picture of Sree Krishna also hung on the wall. I noticed a pair of tabla in one corner, a hookah, and a few other articles.
Haju’s voice reflected pride, “So, this is where I live.”
“Nice place. How much do you pay for rent?”
“Seven and a half taka.”
Haju brought a pot full of water. “Please, wash your feet.”
“Why? I don’t see any need for that. I will be leaving in a while.”
“You must take some food with me, uncle.”
Was she mad? Who would want to eat at the house of a prostitute? I shuddered at the very thought. I said, “No, no, I can’t eat anything now. I don’t have time…”
Haju paid little attention to what I said and replied, “I won’t allow that. Take a seat, you must eat with me.” She got up and took a tea cup from the stool. She wiped it with the end of her saree and said, “See, I bought this—I will serve you tea in it. I know how to make tea now.”
It was not Dresden china, nothing extraordinary; it was just a tea cup. To make Haju happy I complimented, “Nice cup.”
The girl perked up and started showing me around. A mirror here, a small pot there, a pretty looking trinket on a shelf. What do you think of this one? How about that one? She had bought all these. Seeing her happiness and joy, I could not help praising even the most insignificant item in her collection. All this while, I had been thinking of scolding her for choosing this path and thereby performing the duty of an uncle. But after observing Haju’s naïve joy, I could not say anything.
To tell someone who has never enjoyed life to leave all the good things behind might be the advice of a great sadhu, but not the words of a wise man. Only yesterday she was a beggar; today, after becoming what she is, she does not lack food or clothing. Once she got beaten up because she went to beg, today she is treating a fellow villager with tea in a cup bought with her own money. She was someone whose forefathers never lived in towns, nor ever had tea from cups. This was indeed the greatest achievement in her life. Who was I to condemn the choices she made? I did not utter one word.
Nor could I retain my resolve of not taking food at her place. Haju brought in tea. On a well-scrubbed brass plate, she brought some quality local sweetmeats and slices of papaya, and placed them before me with great care.
I felt very awkward and uneasy. I had never taken food at a place like this. But as I looked at Haju’s eager, innocent face, I could not refuse. I ate everything. And I could tell from her expression that she was overjoyed.
She asked, “How do you like the tea, uncle?”
The tea was not good at all. Local tea, it had neither the scent nor taste. I asked, “Where do you get the tea from?”
“From the nearby market.”
“Do you take tea yourself?”
“Yes, uncle. Twice a day. I cannot start my morning without tea.”
I almost laughed. That Haju! I could still picture her: she was sitting at the front porch of the Roys and gorging on the watermelon without even peeling it. That same Haju today claimed that she couldn’t start her day without tea.
I finally said, “All right, Haju, I must be off; it’s almost evening. Besides, I have to go a long way.”
Haju clearly did not wish to let me go. She started asking questions about the village folks. Then she said, “I would like to send five taka to my mother. Can you take it from me? You must not tell anybody though. The people in the village must not know. Mother is going through hard times. I send her money whenever I can. I sent her a saree only last month.”
“Who did you send it with?” I asked.
“Binod Goala came. He took it home for my mother.”
“Didn’t you have a son?”
“He lives with my mother. I have been thinking of bringing him here. He cannot eat anything decent at the village. But there is no dearth of food here. I am eating from the shops all the time. Shingara, kachuri, nimnki—you can get everything. The non-Bengali shopkeeper over there makes such wonderful spicy potato curry! The potatoes are huge, and he uses fantastic spices. Will you sit awhile? Should I bring some curry for you, uncle?”
I smiled at her naiveté and could not be angry with her. So I said, “No, I should go now. And you should start sending money by money order. How can you trust people so much? How would you know if the money reached your mother?”
Haju had never even considered the possibility. She pondered audibly, “That’s true, uncle. How would I know? I always send money through this or that person. But I never get to learn if mother actually received anything.”
“How much money have you sent so far?”
“At least twenty or twenty-five taka. I can barely count, uncle. It’s just that my mother has a difficult life and I can’t stand it.”
“Who did you send the money with?”
Haju remained quiet with a shy smile. I gathered that she had visitors from our village.
So I said, “Okay, give me that five taka. I will be off.”
“Come again, uncle. I live away from the village now. Do come to see me again.”
I went to see Haju’s mother in the village and while handing her the five taka I asked, “Did anyone else give you any money?”
Haju’s mother was surprised. “No. What money are you talking about? Who will give me money?”
I could have named Binod Ghosh. But if I had, people would know about me too. And they would assume that at this advanced age I also had joined the band of Haju’s lovers. Why would I bother? I saw no need to get into further trouble.