[Kritika Chettri did her masters in English literature from the University of Delhi. She has been a close spectator, follower and active supporter of the Gorkhaland movement]
Manpari Busty had sprung up overnight like lilies on the hillside after a rainfall. Just as fragile, these two roomed mud and bamboo structures seemed capable of being swept away from the hillside with the next downpour. The new party which had swept the hills of Darjeeling, also overnight, had been responsible for this sprawl.
The strongmen of the area, in their moment of generosity had allotted the land on this side of the hill to the daily wage labourers and other such lost out folk. Of course nothing was done without paying the customary tax, which in this case was not much. These were mostly unemployed young men in rising numbers in each neighbourhood. So they had acquired the rights to become tough by partaking in a couple of odd brawls here and there. Sometimes they sought the affiliation of those who were already the known musclemen in these areas. You only had to take one look at the latter to see the claims to their power and pungency. God-gifted gym-toned physique and an attitude spelling conquest over half the world. Donning sleeveless uppers in defiance, be it summer or winter. Some tried to work the shock and awe effect through Mohawk dyed hairstyles, a robust mix of orange and purple too.
Manpari meant the freedom to do whatever you want, but in this case it was understood that the freedom was just to build houses on unpaid for land. The inhabitants took the original meaning a little too seriously though and soon started doing Manpari. It grew into a hotbed of the three original distractions, gambling, drinking, fighting, and in that order too. During dasain (dusherra), all three increased tenfold and some of the wiser inhabitants had the farsight to hide the belcha, faruwa, jhampal , now weapons of ruin, which in other times had helped them to earn a livelihood. The hills were seething. From within too.
Mexico was the name given by some ingenious person to a couple of such houses clustered together that engaged in these activities. Daily acts. Hourly deeds. May be someone who would watch those cowboy movies a couple of decades earlier, during the heyday of the Novelty Cinema Hall came up with such a name. Anyway, the name had stuck and the respectable inhabitants of the upper part of the hill towering over Manpari Busty, reincarnated it as Mexico village. Though they could not screen the noise that emanated from the hurly burly, the busty itself was carefully shaded from sight by the huge expanse of bans ghari—thick bamboo growth. Bans ghari had great covering powers. It was them masking and engulfing the hills of North Bengal from the rest of the state.
Jeevan Mistery lived in the busty. From a helper he had graduated to a mistery but the money from his days had all been drained in the Raini’s raksi dokan–liquor joint. The young Bengali mistery, Tapan, was taking over all his contracts and now he was demoted to a be helper in Tapan’s camp. What a fall! If this wasn’t enough, his wretched, young son was becoming an alcoholic at the father’s expense. Everyone had envied his good fortune in having just one child. And that too, a son. Not too many mouths to feed, they had said with envy.
This good for nothing Sooraj had dropped out of school at the eighth standard and what a reason he had cited! He couldn’t bear the gauri beth–cane stick– beatings anymore, he explained. (The rumour was that the government school received a truckload of gauri beth from Siliguri every year for the maintenance of discipline and other necessities of life.) Jeevan Mistery had been inwardly happy. It meant a helping hand in his trade, and who better than one’s one son. He wouldn’t have to pay the helper’s salary.
But a fellow who had left school because he couldn’t bear the gauri beth wasn’t going to stick around in this trade where he was being worked like an ox. And Raini’s Aangan beckoned him, all the time. Sweetly. Piercingly. Raini was the army widow who was kicked out from the in-laws once the husband was killed in one of those India Pakistan wars, and she now lived here making, selling, living liquor. There was no compound, no enclosure. Any space outside the closely built houses belonged to the inhabitants. The liberating commons. Raini’s Aangan—in this piece of land, the gambling groups would assemble here after lunch. The women cursed more. The men got more physical. That has not changed here for centuries. Transformation, that the community fought and hoped for, always had to happen, from within such thick patina of damning habit. So, they had to be discrete—the male and female gambling groups, for the tenor of the fights took singular contours in each group. But sometimes when the liquor tasted exceptionally good, all such rules were broken, and everyone fought with everyone else.
Sooraj was a gambler on the rise. It didn’t take him even a week to master the intriguing rules of rummy. As was customary, the winnings were deposited in the liquor shop. Thus the little economic cycle ran. Things were going well and smooth. But then the strike was called, indefinitely.
The hills were seething from without.
With the junta curfew, people from more respectable neighbourhoods, who used to frequent the liquor shop, first trickled and then stopped coming altogether. Raini had her local customers but they weren’t enough to sustain a living. So she raised the price. Sooraj’s gambling money soon dried up.
Early morning was Jeevan Mistery’s time to appease the kul deutas. No matter what, the kul, kept in small mud kitchen outside the house, should never be incensed. Who knows what fury might unleash otherwise! Presently, the son showed up. The old man sulked. Before the boy could say a word, Jeevan Mistery unlocked his long pent up thoughts and it all came out in paroxysms–
“I must be repaying my past sins, that is why god gave me this son. Tell me saab, is the ration not making you fat enough? Or do you need to drain my blood too now?”
The filial conversations usually took place in such a vein once the senior man had realized the boy’s uselessness. It was becoming a pattern. But nowadays the frequency had doubled. Jeevan hadn’t met his helper Kalpana too , who also worked with Tapan Mistery, for days. She had been flirting with him and he had hoped to end the word games, with a whole chicken which he planned to buy for her with last week’s wage. The safest place where the money could be hidden carefully was in the pocket of his only pair of pants, along with the khaine, that he hid from his wife who had polished off many such khaine boxes in the past when she took his pants for washing. Now he had stopped washing it altogether and so the treasures were safe from the wife.
But he had misjudged the alcoholic’s drive. A couple of days later when the curfew was lifted, Jeevan Mistery awoke to his loss. Now there was no chance with helper Kalpana. Tapan Mistery was himself wooing her; he could sense that in his veins. That Bangali bastard! But Sooraj too misjudged the intensity of a middle aged man’s burning passion. The passion for the woman was now signed over to avenging himself against the parasite son. This wasn’t dasain time. The weapons were just lying about the house.
Sooraj had just downed an entire jug. It was in the middle of his game when he saw the father emerging with the bumphuk in his hand. They say alcohol has the potential to uncork a million rainbow emotions. In Manipari busty it only unleashed rage. Manpari rage. Sooraj was into the game. Intently. And he did not see the bloodshot eyes of a man possessed. He started hurling abuses. Relentlessly. The father did not retaliate with curses. Not today. And dug the bumphok straight into the boy.
Propitiated, the kul deutas smiled.
The hills are seething. From within too.