by Pathik Mitra
“Date palm trees are like female bodies. It’s very sensitive to touch. The apt touch of the sickle in the correct spot will make an old dry tree flood sweet juice” The old man giggled after cracking his nasty joke. His name is Madhav and he is not the first cause of my frustration today in the village of Khemchur near Bagmundi in Puruliya. Neither was he the last.
When two years of dedicated studying for a government job gave me nothing I decided to try business some 6 years ago. Obviously, when a Bengali boy tells his family that he will start a start-up, it’s not the most thrilling experience for the family members. As a standard protocol, my mother asked me to get married & settle in a private job. Though I got married to my girlfriend 5 years back, still I could not give up my first love for a start-up. Finally, my retired father obliged with his blessings and funded my project. But his generosity was accompanied by his not-so-friendly jibs and taunts. But it also made me more determined. So basically I am a husband, and a father myself before becoming an entrepreneur.
My idea was not bad but not very unique either. Thanks to the IT revolution & poor state of jobs in Bengal, now we have fellow Bengalis all over India and also abroad. As they earn decent they can fund their Bengali nostalgia without caring much about the price. So the demand for items such as Himsagar mangoes, Darjeeling Tea, Talmichiri (Palm candies), Dal bori, Sunrise Garam Masala, Panch foron(mixture of 5 spices), etc. have been very high in Bangalore, Pune, Chennai, Hyderabad. The tricky part of the business is the logistics part but if you can align it the profit is decent. The second way to increase the profit & the most challenging one is eliminating the middlemen in getting the products delivered. You simply can’t do it for the packaged item but for items that are directly prepared by rural people, it can be a viable option.
Nolen Gur or fresh date jaggery is one of the most nostalgic bong fetishes in winter. Nolen Gur means new jaggery. But getting good quality jaggery in Kolkata is extremely challenging as most of the local manufacturers mix a lot of edible sugar in the jaggery compromising on its taste and aroma. So jaggery that is pure with its exotic aroma can fetch significant profits in the national market. My partner Saikat did some research and informed me of this village of Khemchur. Basically, this village in interior Puruliya survives on agriculture. They mostly grew potatoes & paddy. But in winter mostly all of them concentrate on making gur. The men climbed the trees and affixed the mud vessels with the toddy palm trees to collect the dripping juice. The women folk would heat the juice tenderly over eight to nine hours to prepare jaggery. This process is a very critical factor in producing A-1 jaggery. This name is also devised by my partner Saikat. Less heat might make it pungent and non-aromatic & excess heating can burn it. It requires appropriate heating and it’s a real mystery how the rural women controlled it in their mud ovens. During winter in most of the houses, you will find three to four mud ovens dug in front of their huts where palm syrup is getting heated all day long.
My idea was simple. Go to Khemchur, identify a potential supplier, eliminate all middlemen, ask him to deliver the jaggery by train initially and if we manage sufficient orders then transport it by truck. As the village was not much known to big traders still now there was a window of opportunity. Khemchur had a railway station that had two trains a day. One at eight in the morning & a returning train at 4 in the evening. So when Saikat had to miss the trip due to health issues I decided to reach by 8 on the first train and return by 4 on the last train. But as they say, man proposes & god disposes!
The day started on a very positive note for me. As the train stopped I found the station was a lot more crowded than I could have imagined. But I soon realised that it was not for the train. The villagers used the platform as a potential market place it was well cemented. From fresh vegetables to duck eggs you could find a range of products getting sold in the station market. The villagers were visibly poor and simple people. They leisurely bargained and joked before purchasing their daily needs. By an hour the crowd reduced and I got to know that by 10:30, the market shuts down and villagers go to their fields mostly. I located a shop selling pooris with a potato sabzi. I had pooris & tea. It was in the tea stall Madhav came and spoke to me.
Though the old man spoke a lot of gibberish he was a very important contact for me in this desolate village. In exchange for just 50 rupees and a packet of bidis, he told me all about Khemchur & A-One Jaggery. Though the village had electricity still there were frequent power cuts more than 7-8 hours a day. Most of the toddy palm trees were owned by proprietors of the nearby town. They rented the trees to the poor farmers who made the jaggery and sold it back to the rich proprietors again. Obviously, they hardly made money in this vicious loop.
“See sir, Madhav knows everything in Khemchur from whose daughter is planning to elope with whose son to who makes the best jaggery” the old man grinned.
“Look Madhav I want an owner, not the proprietor. Involving the proprietor might get me in trouble” I made my stance clear.
“I understand it, Sir, these proprietors are evil leeches they suck blood from our veins. But there are hardly 10-15 owners left in Khemchur plus they mostly have3-4 trees. Only Lakai, Joga, and Hariya have around 10 trees to suffice on the quantity. But wait I will take you to Dwajo Hari” grinned Madhav.
This man had already irritated me enough with his off-color pervert jokes but now I expressed my irritation. In Bengali, Dwajo” means an impotent man. Seeing my facial expression Madhav probably guessed my feeling and apologized in a low voice, “Sorry Sir! Not my fault! Everyone in the village calls Bhajo Hari by the name Dwajo Hari. See he has a young, beautiful wife who is nothing short of an incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi. Yet after five years of marriage, he still has no kids. He must be a Dwajo you see”
“I am not at all interested to know about his wife and kids. Tell me about the A-One Jaggery” I refuted angrily.
“Sir it’s about his wife only. She is the deciding factor. Dwajo is an artist with a sickle. He makes the driest of the toddy palm trees bleed with his sickle. Similarly, his wife is an expert in making jaggery. It’s an art. Her jaggery melts in your mouth and makes your taste buds long for more. The incredible aroma will force you to close your eyes and admire her craft. That’s why we say she is an incarnation of Maa Lakshmi, she has magic in her hands.” Madhav continued.
Somehow I had bought Madhab’s story & requested him to take me to Bhajo Hari’s house. The old man agreed and we walked across the muddy, dusty roads crossing the paddy fields towards his house. Rural Bengal had never failed to surprise a city dweller like me. The widespread greenery and vast stretch of agricultural lands can often make a man poetic. The small straw-thatched huts along with the traditional granaries in the middle of the paddy fields reminded me of the paintings my drawing teacher drew. As we crossed the fields, the lone scarecrow kept staring at us with its stressed straw arms and a red t-shirt that surprisingly read “Apna Time Ayega”. The clear blue skies served as a perfect contrast to the yellow-green fields. There were lanes of toddy palm trees where you could see men displaying uncanny acrobatic skills in climbing the tall trees by tying themselves with a rope. They had the earthen jugs and their sickle tied to their waist as they climbed up. A “gamcha” or traditional rural towel was loosely knotted to their legs. Another rope was tied to the tree and their waist acted as the safety harness as they leapt like a frog and climbed the tree. With the gentle strokes of the sickle, they removed the external skin of the bark of the tree and carefully placed a stick injecting it into the bark. The juice is used to drip into the earthen jug fixed to the stick overnight. Every morning they would again climb the tree and retrieve the jugs. Then they would carry the jars tied to both ends of a bamboo pole, placing them on their shoulders looking like a common balance. The constant chirping of many unknown birds along with the gentle warmth of the winter sun made our journey comfortable and mystic. Though Madhav continued blabbering I conveniently ignored him.
The meeting with Bhajo was brief. He seemed to be a wise man who had subtle business acumen. The idea of selling his jaggery in Kolkata intrigued him. He made me taste both the liquid jaggery or “jhola gur” and the jaggery cakes or “Patali gur”. I must say Madhav had not exaggerated a bit on the quality of this item. It was nothing like I had ever tasted. The aroma would instantly take over your senses as the jaggery would melt in your mouth. So much so that you will be forced to close your eyes in admiration. It was soft and smooth without any lumps or textures. It did not take me long to crack the deal with him. By then it was already noon.
I got to see a glimpse of his wife or Maa Lakshmi’s incarnation twice during this time. Once when she came with tea and once when she served us the A-one Jaggery. She looked like a normal rural woman mostly around 25-26 years of age. She had a petite stature but her face was covered with a long veil. Hence I was deprived of seeing her face. Since we had a deal I paid an advance of 2000 rupees to Bhajo Hari which he gleefully accepted. These villagers are generally honest and I had been cheated by enough men to make out a fraud. After we had finished Bhajo Hari insisted I have lunch. Though I was reluctant in the beginning finally I agreed. His wife Malati was too blushful to even come in front of us. She avoided every possible gaze with me too. She had served the lunch and Bhajo Hari sat beside me with a hand fan. The lunch consisted of traditional lentil soup with fried onions, a delicacy in rural Bengal, cabbage fry, a lady’s finger curry, and duck egg curry. There was something unique in the taste that for some reason reminded me of my grandmother. The spices used were the most common ones but maybe because it was cooked in a mud oven it had a delightful rural flavour. In the dessert section, I was served a few homemade sweets made of the A-One Jaggery. I must confess I had a real heavy lunch.
Post lunch I went behind their hut to use the hand pump to wash my hands. Malati was busy steaming the palm syrup. I saw her from behind and without disturbing her washed my hands. But the sudden noise startled her & she turned towards me. For the first time, I saw her. She looked decent, fair complexion, long hair forming a traditional ponytail resting over her chest. But she had dark, vibrant, and expressive eyes. Just as our eyes met she kept staring at me with wide-open eyes. Though it was just for a few seconds it was awkward for me. Her eyes expressed that she knew me. In fact, she said something before running back into the hut which I could not make out. I am born and brought up in Kolkata. I have hardly visited rural Bengal forget this part. I was pretty sure that I had never met her. Then I thought maybe she had mistaken me for someone.
After lunch Bhajohari gave a lift in his cycle to the railway. The winter sun was no longer hot now and I could already sense the atmosphere chilling. As we crossed the paddy fields I saw farmers leisurely working in the fields. A man was selling flutes and was playing one in a very melancholy tone. Some kids have just finished school and were busy chasing each other. The station now was not at all crowded. Hardly 10 people were there and almost all of them were just relaxing or sunbathing. I was probably the only passenger. Bhajo Hari thanked and promised to visit Kolkata within the next 15 days. Though I had his cell number I could hardly get a mobile tower. It was already 3:30 and Bhajo Hari before going gave a jug of fresh palm juice. I finished it and waited.
I soon found out the train usually came half an hour late. So I decided to lay down on the bench on the platform. Now, this was my grave mistake. A heavy lunch followed by a jug of palm juice in chilled weather is the perfect catalyst for a lazy afternoon sleep. Before I could realize I was deep asleep.
When I opened my eyes it was dark & cold. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. The clock indicated it was 5:30. It becomes a lot darker here compared to Kolkata at 5:30. The platform was totally empty and there was just a small lamp hardly lighting the platform. In fact, rather than lighting it created a mystique aura around the station. To add to it the fog had already set in making it a spooky ambiance. I was eternally frustrated with myself, but more than frustration I was worried. For sure, I cant spend the night here in this deserted station. As I put on my woolen sweater and my muffler around my ears, I felt a bit comfortable.
At this moment I could hear the metallic sound of a bicycle bell in the distance. It was so quiet that I could easily make out the direction it came from where the sound had originated. To my surprise, I saw Bhajo Hari come cycling. He stopped in front of the station and can run towards me. To be honest I was extremely relieved to see him.
“I am so sorry Sir, I should have warned you. Fresh palm juice is very sleep-inducing. I thought someone must have woken you up when the train came. But villagers here were afraid and the train whistled and left the station as you kept snoring.” Bhajo Hari said in a repenting tone.
“Not your fault Bhajo. I should have been careful. But how did you know that I missed the train?” I asked.
Bhajo Hari looked up at me and grinned sheepishly. “This is Khemchur Sir, any news regarding an outsider spreads like wildfire. But as soon as I heard I came running to pick you up. You have to spend one night in the poor man’s hut sir. It’s already cold so it won’t be that uncomfortable for you.” Saying this Bhajo Hari took my bag and walked out of the mystique railway station.
The cycle ride back to his home was fascinating. We city-dwellers often tend to forget the beauty of silence amidst the cacophony of our busy city lives. It was a full moon night with clear skies and it reminded me of the poem Silver by Water De la Mare. On a rural night, you can hear the sound of silence. The constant chirping of crickets and frogs seemed to be well-orchestrated with an odd howl from a stray dog. The toddy palm trees stood in the dark & their silhouettes indicated the earthen jugs tied to them for extracting the juice. The silver moonlight glittering in the waters of the pond would dance to the light breeze and wave back to the palm trees.
On our way back Bhajo told me a lot about Khemchur and himself. How the proprietors cheated the simpleton villagers, how his father himself lost half of his property, how he was forced to give up the school by 4th standard, how power cuts are a regular feature at night here, how the political leaders come to bribe them only before the elections everything featured in his narrative.
Then he lowered his voice and said, “Sir I want to tell you something about my wife before you go.”
I was kind of surprised and asked him what he wanted to say.
Bhajo Hari was clearly hesitant. He finally cleared his throat and said, “It’s my bad luck sir else Malati is a very good girl you see. She is so good at household chores. Even she is famous in Khemchur for making the best jaggery. But she has an illness”
“Illness? What kind of illness” I inquired inquisitively.
“Illness in the head sir!! She was an orphan brought by ill-treating maternal ’s uncle’s family. Nobody loved her ever. You won’t believe how her relatives used to cane her. Then ….” I could sense Bhajo had choked to swallow his tears.
I silently consoled him by pressing my hand on his shoulder as Bhajo continued.
“She tried to elope with a boy and got caught. They were almost killing her as the boy was from a different caste. Then they got her married to me hurriedly. I trusted them and married her without knowing about these scandals. But post-marriage she told me all this. She asked me if I wanted to leave her she would not complain. But sir by then I had developed an emotion for her. I knew she would kill herself if I left her. So I did not leave her. She did all her duties as a good wife sir. But at times she identifies strangers as her relatives. Like seeing you she started saying you are her Ranga da her cousin. She won’t disturb you, sir. But please respond to her calls when she calls you by that name.” Bhajo had gotten down from the bicycle and stood teary-eyed with folded hands.
“Why don’t you consult a doctor?” I asked.
“I can’t afford it, Sir. If I go to the hospital the news will spread. If I go to the village hakim he will spread the news she is possessed or mad. Both will invite uncalled-for trouble for us. They might think she is possessed. The stupid villagers will freak out and my business will take a hit. It’s better they call me impotent and keep praising her jaggery. I don’t want anything to hurt Malati” Bhajo concluded as we walked into the open yard of his house.
For a change, Malati was quite frank now. Her blushful nature had vanished in a few hours as she called me by the Rangada. It was kind of odd for me but as I had promised Bhajo I continued responding. Though she did not communicate much with me she made frequent eye contact. I thought she had a mischievous smile in her eyes. I was pretty sure that she was totally convinced that I was her cousin and that resulted in the elaborate hospitality from their side. The moonlit dinner in the open yard was truly extravagant by any standards. Fresh Fish curry, Country Chicken Curry, and rice. It was followed by a round of homemade sweets. The brilliant taste of A-one Jaggery never failed to intrigue me even once.
After dinner Bhajo served me another jug of palm juice. He came near me and whispered in a husky voice, “Sir this is not fresh, but this tastes even better!! This is Tari. You will get an awesome night’s sleep”. I looked at the jug and I could the foam on top in the moonlight. Considering my situation I accepted the offer. After all, I had nothing to do during this long night. I had managed to call my wife and updated her about my situation. So now it’s best to sleep.
As the Tari went down my throat it seemed to pull down my eyelids on its way down to my stomach. The chilled night breeze further aided inducing my sleep. There were two rooms in the hut and Malati made my bed in the bigger room. I instantly went to bed. After escorting me to bed and Bhajo said in a low voice, “Sleep comfortably sir, I will see you in the morning. I will have to go to guard my trees. The season is in full bloom and some idiots have set eyes on my trees.” As I was dragged into the world of sleep, I could hear the sound of bicycle bells disappearing in the distance.
It was a husky voice that kept calling me and gently pushing me. As I opened my eyes I could see the moonlight forming art of shadows on the floor. But I could not see anyone. I must be dreaming. So I just turned on the other side of the bed as my hands met with something. Someone!! Someone was sitting on the bed. I rubbed my eyes and sat up. To my surprise, I could recognize Malati amidst the shadows. Her pale face had a mysterious smile pasted as her fingers fondled around my chest. I was flabbergasted and uncomfortable.
“What are doing here now?” I asked sleepy-eyed.
Malati giggled vibrantly. In the moonlight and the shadows, I could see her silhouette moving. She got her face close to mine and clenched my cheeks with her fingers and gently shook it.
“Do you think I lost my mind? Do you really believe that I thought you were some random Rangada. Do you believe I could forget you Imran? Ever?” saying this to my utter surprise she hugged me tight and started kissing my lips. The loosely knotted saree placed on her chest slipped in the process and I could feel her warm soft body against mine. The intoxication of the Tari in the chilled night bathing guided by the forbidden silvery moonlight had seduced me enough, that for the moment I lost control over my sense held her body tightly against mine. The brief moment was hardly 10-15 seconds but it seemed like an eternity. She gently caressed my shoulder and started kissing me. I went on with flow before the gravity of the moment finally overweighed my intoxication. What am I doing? To some extent, our very middle-class value systems are too rigid to bypass. In my growing days, I had often joked with my friends about such scenarios and how a man should consider himself lucky in that case. But the reality had made me sweat in the chilly night. It was not ecstasy but a bite of my middle-class conscience. I held her arms tightly and pushed her back.
“I am married!!” I don’t know why these cliché words came out of my mouth.
“I am married too. They forced me to get married, or else they would have killed me. But I swear on Maa Kali I never gave him my body. I know it’s very unfair on him. He is a Goodman. Else, Tell me which man would accept such a bad name for a woman. But life was never fair to me. I pretend to hallucinate and so he sleeps in the other room. I kept identifying men as my relatives so that when you come, it would help our plan to elope. For five long years, I waited just for you Imran. You promised that night before fleeing that you will come back for me. I kept my words. Only you were late.” Even the shadows of the moon could night hide teardrops rolling down her chubby cheeks down her bare chest. A forbidden sense of desire kept luring me into the shadows but an equally strong sense of morality withheld me. The intoxication of the Tari had now left me for good and started feeling bad for Malati. A love story that failed due to this rotten society and its stinking taboos. A Hindu girl can’t fall in love with a Muslim boy. And where is Imran my look alike? Dead? Alive and compromised to a life that this very society thrust on him stampeding their dreams. No wonder why most famous love stories in the world are tragedies. The mystique moonlit night was spreading a cold blanket of sadness that fast encroached on us. For a brief moment, I wished I was Imran & hug Malati. I swear it was by no means lust. But then only a few words came out of my mouth.
“I have a wife & a five-year-old son”.
Malati looked at me in utter disbelief. It seemed her trance was broken awkwardly. All of a sudden the softness in her lips tightened and she clenched her teeth in rage. The tears were swiftly brushed aside in disdain by her palms. In a moment she covered herself tightly with the sari and gave me a fiery look. Her eyes had a cocktail of emotions. Rage, betrayal, grief-stricken, heartbroken. Then just before speeding her way from the room she coldly said her last words.
“You men are…Get lost & never ever come back to my life.” Then in the dark, I could hear her swallowing the lump in her throat. “I waited for you”.
As the mystique moon witnessed her leave the room, I said a silent sorry to Imran my look-alike whom I had just killed for Malati.
The night’s encounter had deprived me of morning breakfast. As Bhajo dropped me at the station he kept on apologizing for his wife’s behavior. Though I had a bad feeling for Imran but then seeing Malati’s behavior I started feeling good for Bhajo. Life is strange you know. At times amputation of a decaying organ gives life spring of hope. Amidst these thoughts, the train sped through the yellow paddy field bidding farewell to the lone scarecrow and the toddy palm trees. The Scarecrow kept grinning at me with its T-Shirt that read “Apna time Ayega”
A1-Jaggery had the blessings of Maa Lakhsmi after all. Our venture succeeded and the swelling profits were enough to make us as well as Bhajo more than happy. I never visited Khemchur again. Saikat and Bhajo ably managed the logistics part.
After almost a year Bhajo came to our office with five boxes of a variety of sweets made out of A-1 Jaggery and ab ecstatic smile plastered on his face. We were surprised at this sudden hospitality. Bhajo Hari blushingly announced that he had become a father as his wife had given birth to a baby girl last week.
I wondered how life with its strange and unique twists and turns creates and resolves conflicts on regular basis. Out of these unending conflicts many stories are born. And in a paddy field, in some far-off village, a scarecrow waits patiently grinning at the worldly circus.
About the Author:
Pathik Mitra is a young passionate storyteller who wants to impact people and their lives by his art. Born & brought up in the state of West Bengal in India, Pathik is an Engineer by profession and works in an MNC in Pune as a Project Manager. He is also an active member of the Pune Writers Group (PWG). Besides writing stories, blogs, the poetry he is a theatre activist and budding filmmaker, and an ardent reader. His works have got published in many magazines in India. Currently, he is preparing to publish his first novel where he takes a dig at the patriarchal society and related taboos in India.