Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh
Nirman Bhavan–the foundation for which had been laid by the late Lal Bahadur Shastri–is now an imposing structure. As the older Shastri Bhavan became too cramped for space, many such buildings –each associated with a ministry –added to Delhi’s splendour.
I had some work with the director of Nirman Bhavan. Though not a government employee, I have to to rub shoulders with senior government officers from time to time for the sake of my business.
The sight of Nirmala boudi at the reception on the first floor shocked me. With a vigorous gesticulation of her hands, she argued with the reception officer in chaste Hindi.
“Listen now. You can’t stop me from coming here, whether I make ten visits or twenty. This office is for the public after all. We’ll come whenever we need to.”
The reception officer tried to reason with her with a resigned look.
“I’m not stopping you from coming here, Madam. All I’m saying is if you call us before coming, it will save you unnecessary trouble.”
“Necessary or unnecessary, that’s for me to decide. Now, will you please issue me a pass?”
Even as she said those words, Nirmala boudi almost grabbed the huge register opened before the reception officer, Mr. Bhandari. Turning the register towards her, she entered details like name: Mrs. Nirmala Roy, purpose of visit: allotment of house etc.
Mr. Bhandari had no option but to prepare a gate pass and hand it to the woman standing in front of him.
I needed a gate pass, too, but my destination was different from Nirmala boudi’s. I had to meet the director of the state office, whereas Nirmala boudi wanted to meet the additional director.
I watched the scene quietly, standing right behind boudi. As she turned back with the gate pass, I blurted, “What brings you here –haven’t you got your quarter yet?”
Clutching a huge file close to her chest, Nirmala boudi said with a busy look reflecting off her glasses, “Come outside –I’ll tell you.”
I didn’t want to get late, but Nirmla boudi could be hard to ignore. At one time, we were both residents of the same village in Bangladesh’s Bakharganj district. Nirmala boudi was the eldest daughter-in-law of the Roy family, and I, the youngest son of Hemanta Gupta of the Gupta family. Our houses were adjacent to each other –a bamboo bridge over on a small canal served as a shortcut to go from our house to theirs. This is a unique feature of Bakharganj or Barisal district, filled as it is with canals and streams. Villages, all surrounded by water, appear like islands, complete in themselves.
At the time of her marriage, Nirmala boudi was fourteen and I, a ten-year-old, studying in class five in the village school. As per village customs, Atin da, Nirmala boudi’s husband, was my brother. Based on his grandmother’s wishes, Atin da was married off to Nirmala boudi as soon as he earned his graduation degree at twenty-two.
Being next-door neighbours, it didn’t take the two of us too long to get acquainted with each other. The Roy family had big gardens flanking both sides of their house. I would gather whatever fruits were in season –mangoes, Java plums, berries, guavas, elephant apples, custard apples, velvet apples, grapefruit, jujubes, cranberries –and run to the Roy household. They were a joint family and the house would always be full of people. Luckily, the family elders and servants lived on the ground floor. The upper floor was almost entirely reserved for the family’s young brigade –married or not.
With a whole stash of ripe and unripe fruits, I would stealthily climb up the staircase to the first floor and sneak into the southern room, allotted to Atin da after his marriage. The moment she saw me, Nirmala boudi’s eyes would gleam with delight through her veil.
As I was friends with the boys of the Roy family who were closer to my age, it was easy to get introduced to Nirmala boudi. She happened to be the youngest — the same age as us –bride in the entire neighbourhood. We always kept a share of whatever we collected for Nirmala boudi. All this had to be clandestine, though, given how conservative the Roys were. A daughter-in-law was almost like a prisoner in that house, denied any contact with outside air or light. Naturally, the young Nirmala boudi took to our group.
On summer afternoons, when the older folks enjoyed their siesta or were busy doing something else, we would drag Nirmala boudi to the terrace balcony and reveal our loot. Out came from our pockets treats like raw mangoes, berries, grapefruit, green chillies, a knife, salt and the like. Some of us would even bring freshly cut banana leaves to use as plates. Five or six of us sat circling Nirmala boudi. She would peel the fruits, make a delicious mix with the available ingredients and pile them on the leaf plates. Our feasting would ensue.
These sessions continued even as we grew older. The menu had changed by then, though. On sleepy afternoons, escaping the elders’ glances, we would have tea parties inside the closed doors of the Roys’ kitchen, located outside the boundaries of the house. Although some of the adults drank tea, the beverage was strictly prohibited for children. Nirmala boudi made us not only this forbidden drink; she made for us something that was even more strictly off-limits –omelettes made from hen’s eggs, which she served us on banana leaf plates. She wouldn’t have it herself, though.
Nirmala boudi had another talent –she was an accomplished card player. Some of the other boudis played cards, too, but their scope would be limited to the game of Twenty Nine. Nirmala boudi played Bridge with us. She came from a family where sports and arts and culture were highly valued.
It’s difficult to imagine that young bride of more than forty years ago by looking at this fifty-plus bespectacled, file-clutching, sari-draped woman.
A government servant, Atin da quickly descended to the lower middle class after losing all his land, property and wealth in East Pakistan. With his retirement, the family landed where it was expected to –in deep waters. But Nirmala boudi is a master in making the impossible possible. Back in the village, one hadn’t been able to read her that well. Once in Delhi, she zipped out of her old shell like a bullet. She sat beside her children and opened books and notebooks to study. From A, B, C, D, she went up to matriculation, then completed her B.A. Next, she rushed towards the job market. Atin da had retired by then. The feisty Nirmla boudi didn’t stop before finding herself a job at the Ministry of Rehabilitation. Her age posed a bit of an issue, but she got past that challenge by getting hold of Indira Gandhi or the president. With Atinda’s retirement, they had to vacate the government accommodation allotted to him and move to a rented accommodation. He had large payments to make –mostly to clear the debt he incurred for his daughter’s marriage a year ago.
Since that time, Nirmala boudi has been running from pillar to post to arrange for a government accommodation.
Delhi is a sophisticated city. Since independence, it has been ruled by princes. Present-day businessmen are the new princes of India. Wasn’t this the day, after all, for which they had donated so generously to Gandhiji’s non-violent movement? Now, they were living the golden dream. The extent to which they were living this dream would be impossible to tell if one hadn’t seen Delhi or felt its pulse. Despite the government’s endless concerns and measures for the common man, the strings were ultimately in the hands of these modern-day princes. And so, the poor got trampled upon everywhere.
The nearly-a-room, tin-shed accommodation that Nirmala boudi rented after Atinda’s retirement had an initial rent of two hundred and fifty rupees, which went up to four hundred rupees. That was what made Nirmala boudi desperate for a government accommodation.
“Do you understand, Bhanu, all this is the handiwork of that slimy Lachhman Singh. I applied five years ago, but he sat on my case, never sent my files up the food chain. That’s why I’m going to see the Additional Director now,” Nirmala boudi told me while moving towards the elevator.
“How many years until you retire?” I asked.
“Oh, that — eight years. Eight years!” Nirmala boudi said with a wink. “I reduced my age on the application. Who would offer me a job otherwise? And why wouldn’t I? Don’t you see the honest Yudhisthirs of independent India? People have forgotten how to walk on a straight path.”
“Got it. But how do you expect to be allotted a quarter with just eight years of service remaining? I hear people have been in the waiting list for ten to twenty years.”
“It all works out, Bhanu. Just you see, I will get a quarter –of that I’m sure.”
Around a year later, I met Nirmala boudi in Lajpat Nagar’s Central Market –the biggest and most popular market in South Delhi. I had gone there with my family to do some shopping. South Extension –where I lived –had no dearth of shops, but thanks to its popularity with foreigners, the prices there were sky high. Despite living in a posh neighbourhood, I wasn’t rich by any means and didn’t mind a good bargain.
Central Market was in the grip of Punjabi and Sindhi refugees. In fact, the entire Lajpat Nagar locality was a West Pakistan refugee resettlement colony. Thanks to government funding, it wasn’t just a prosperous neighbourhood, but almost a sub-city in itself. Despite being a stronghold of traders and businessmen, the area had also lent itself to ordinary people because of the many income opportunities it offered. That’s what kept the prices in check, too.
“What are you shopping for?” Nirmala boudi asked as she walked towards me.
“So…what happened to your house, Boudi?”
“Oh, the house? Haven’t yet got it, but it will happen. Tomorrow I’m going to the Work and Housing minister’s house. If I can somehow manage a letter from the minister…”
In Delhi, beginning with the Lieutenant Governor, every minister has a day reserved for meeting with members of the public. For an hour in the morning that day, folks can submit petitions and applications.
“You look tired,” my wife Anju said to Nirmala boudi.
“It must be the heat. So hot, isn’t it? On top of that there’s work, home, running after the house…”
I quietly observed boudi. The little bride who couldn’t go anywhere on her own had grown up so much. Circumstances had brought her right under the naked sky. In this burning heat, Nirmala boudi ran from NirmanBhavan to some other office to a minister’s house. Then, she rushed to take care of her responsibilities at home. Shopping, groceries, ration…
“You’re feeling hot despite coming in a car?” Nirmala boudi laughed out loud.
“No, not really…but why you’re running around by yourself, Boudi? What about Atin da?”
“Forget your Atin da, Bhanu. He’s from a zamindar family, you see. Despite losing everything, he hasn’t lost the pride of aristocracy. Like you Bengalis think of yourself the descendants of Rabindranath Tagore, Jagadish Bose and so on, even if your coffers are empty. Me –I come from a family of labourers. I am here to slog and will keep slogging until my last breath. Nothing makes me feel inferior. Anyway, I must get going now. Enjoy your shopping.” With that, Nirmala boudi vanished among the market crowd.
Nirmala boudi’s father was a well-known physician.
The nature of my work didn’t allow me to settle in any one place. Luckily, in Delhi I lasted for five years. The next time I came to Delhi, having crossed Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, nine years had already passed.
The first person I thought of after coming to Delhi was Nirmala boudi–had she got the coveted government quarter after all?
Having heard about her background from me, Anju had developed a sense of respect for Nirmala boudi. She even bought a nice sari while we were still in Bombay and brought it to Delhi as a gift for Boudi. At her insistence, we had to go out in search of Nirmala boudi one day.
The house where Atinda’s family lived as tenants in Krishna Nagar had new faces this time around. The elderly landlord informed us that Nirmala boudi’s family had moved to Sadiq Nagar to rent a room in a government quarter nearly five years ago. He even ferreted out the address from a notebook.
As our car sped towards Sadiq Nagar, Anju said with some concern, “Didn’t Didi have eight years of work left when you last met her? We’re returning after nine years…”
The thought worried me, too, but I still remained curious as to how it turned out for Boudi.
Morning had rolled into afternoon by the time we reached Sadiq Nagar. Smart as she is, Anju had brought along a tiffin carrier packed with food, tea in a thermos flask and a bottle of
water. I occasionally suffered from digestive issues, so Anju wouldn’t let me eat out at any cost. To obey her command, I had to stop at a spot and eat some lunch. Next, Anju took the slip of paper that had Nirmala boudi’s address and climbed up to the third floor of a building. I remained in the car. Anju returned after twenty minutes or so.
“Did you find them?”
“We’ll know if we meet them. Let’s go to Dakshin Puri.”
Anju gave me another slip of paper –with an address for the slum area of Dakshin Puri.
At the time of the Emergency when Delhi was being “cleansed” at a fervent pace, hundreds of thousands of poor, unskilled labourers were provided with twenty-two or twenty-five square yards of land, leading to the creation of countless slums along the capital’s edges. Dakshin Puri became one of the biggest of those slums. Later, the Delhi Development Authority did create one- and two-room flats for the economically poorer sections of people. I hadn’t had a chance to see the place for myself, so I was curious about it.
As we made our way to Dakshin Puri, it occurred to me Nirmala boudi must have bought a flat with the money she got on retiring, so we made our way towards the DDA flats. But when we didn’t find Boudi’s house even after an hour’s search, I suggested to Anju that we turn back. But Anju remained determined not to give up.
I turned the car back towards the local market. Maybe the shopkeepers could give us some clues. After going around three or four shops, we stopped at a jewelry store. A young store boy, who I thought looked like a Bengali, came up to us. Before the store owner could turn us away, he said,
“Do you have the house number?”
When I handed him the slip of paper, he said, “Not this way. This address is where the twenty-two square yard folks live. If you go along that tree-lined street and turn left, you’ll see a dirt road. Turn there –that’s where the twenty-two yard shanties are.”
Off we went as directed. I felt a bit annoyed with Anju’s stubbornness. But the scene I saw on entering the dirt road removed any grudge I had been holding. Houses with mud-plastered walls and roofs of tin or straw flanked both sides of the street. In between a few real, properly-constructed houses broke the rhythm. The street was a pristine dirt road, untouched yet by asphalt. Hand pumps stood on street sides at a fairly good distance from each other. A hint of woodlands peeked through from behind the colony. With trees surrounding them, the mud houses created images of an urban village. Urban because the electric poles on the streets of Dakshin Puri made it clear the colony was indeed connected to the capital city.
The forest behind the colony seemed to rise in altitude. A closer look revealed it to actually be a spread-out hillock.
Anju interrupted my nature watch saying, “How long will you keep gazing like that? Let’s look for the house now.”
Which was tricky, considering the fact that many of the houses didn’t have any numbers. After wasting some fifteen minutes looking, we came across a matronly woman who came out of one of the kuchcha houses. She asked Anju something in a pure Chittagong dialect. I didn’t grasp a word of what the lady said; Anju didn’t seem to, either. She showed the address slip to the woman and desperately described Nirmala boudi’s appearance and height. At last a boy walking by came to our rescue.
“If you go to Dr. B. M. Moitra, he’ll be able to help you.”
“So you also have doctors here?”
“Yes sir. A Bangali doctor. He knows everyone.”
We found the doctor’s signboard at a short distance. The clinic had a tin roof and mud-plastered walls. A slice of a verandah led to a small room. On the verandah were a couple of benches, probably meant for waiting patients. The room had a wooden cabinet, a couple of wooden chairs, a table and an earthen pot of water in a corner.
A dignified, elderly gentleman sat on one of the chairs and leaned towards the table to write something in a notebook. Before I could enter the room, Anju got in and sat down on the spare chair like an uninvited guest. She looked tired and strained. The doctor looked up in surprise. The clinic had likely not seen a woman from Anju’s socio-economic background before and the physician kept looking at her in wonder without saying a word. Anju took the lead and narrated to him the purpose of our visit. The doctor listened quietly, finally breaking his silence to say,
“You’re talking about Mrs. Roy. Husband, wife and two sons.”
“Yes, yes, the same people.”
“They don’t live here.”
“But this address…” Anju took out the piece of paper from her bag, but the doctor continued without even looking at it.
“For a short while, they lived in a jhuggi they bought here a couple of years ago. But when she cashed her provident fund and gratuity money, she sold off the jhuggiand moved away,” the doctor motioned to the woods behind him, “to settle in their pukka house, there, on that mound.”
The doctor chuckled. His expression seemed a bit odd, so I asked, “Do people actually live there?”
“Human habitation…well not really, but Mrs. Roy and family are pretty much well settled. Why don’t you go and find out for yourself?” The doctor smiled again.
What followed could be summarised in a few words, yet, in capable hands, the story could fill up the pages of a robust Oxford English dictionary.
We parked the car at the base of the hillock and climbed the zigzag stairs leading up to it. It was almost sundown. The sinking sun cast a tangerine glow over the vast tract of land and the trees laden with fruits and flowers it held. Right in the middle stood a pretty bungalow with the words Bhavani Temple written on it in cement. The room straight off the verandah seemed locked from inside. The two of us stepped up to the verandah and looked around us. Nobody was around. Wiping sweat off her forehead, Anju said, “This looks like a temple; there’s no other house around! Let’s go behind and take a look.”
The back of the house left us speechless. A gardener tended to a huge flower garden. Draped in an expensive red-bordered silk sari, Nirmala boudi supervised his work. As in the front, the back had a large-sized porch, at a corner of which Atin da sat in an easy chair, holding a book in his hands. Both of them seemed to have gone back in time by a decade.
“My, my, Bhanu is here…Anju, too. Shunchho? Come and see who’s here!” Nirmala boudi rushed over to clasp Anju’s hands and take her inside the house. Atin da followed them with a smile. Nirmala boudi got busy showing us around the house — three bedrooms, a drawing room, a reading room, a store, a kitchen and two toilets. Expensive mosaic on the floor. Stylish curtains and drapes on the doors and windows. Not to speak of the high-end furniture and other articles all over the house.
The scene left not just me, but Anju dumbstruck, too. It occurred to me that at the time of their daughter Nanda’s wedding, Nirmala boudi and Atin da had borrowed a thousand rupees from us. They hadn’t been able to pay the money back.
Anju tried to shove the sari in her hand on the sofa next to her. She probably felt embarrassed to gift a 75-rupee sari to this new Nirmala boudi. But Boudi seemed delirious with joy on having us. She took out several varieties of sweets from the fridge and served them to us on big plates at her large dining table. She also cooked some ready-to-fry fish croquettes and served them along with three kinds of soft drinks. Then, she sat herself down at the table and forced us to stuff ourselves.
As I ate, I kept looking at Nirmala boudi in wonder. But I didn’t have to ask anything to whet my curiosity. Once we were done eating, Nirmala boudi brought a plate filled with betel nuts and other mouth fresheners and began narrating her story.
“Do you get it, Bhanu–in free India, nothing can be accomplished in a straightforward manner. You saw how I struggled for a mere government accommodation. But after all that running around, the scoundrels didn’t give me a house. Our sons began college. How could we pay a rent of four-hundred rupees? Your Atinda’s pension hardly covered any expenses –it didn’t amount to even two hundred rupees. We had the debt from Nanda’s wedding.
“One day, our landlord came with his people to throw us out of the house. We begged him to let us stay for a bit longer, then rented a tiny room for two-hundred rupees in Sadiq Nagar. After retiring, I bought a jhuggi in Dakshinpuri for seven-hundred rupees. We were in dire straits by then.
“The suggestion came from the doctor, I mean, Moitra Babu. The poor have no place in Delhi. But a temple? That’s never an issue; no rules need be followed for building one. Back then, this spot had no temple. I mulled over it, then one day, climbed up this hillock with a spade in my hand. As I dug through, a small, broken idol of goddess Jagaddhatri came out…”
“How did you manage that?” Anju asked with a suppressed smile.
“Why, I hid the idol in the same container I had taken for bringing the earth,” Nirmala boudi said with an innocent smile. “As I showed the idol to the locals, the news became a sensation. You saw who all live here –ignorant fools –the real India. They came with whatever little they had and donated. I built the temple –with a red flag to complete the instituting. The police did come once, but on seeing me immersed in mediation, they thought me to be the goddess incarnate and went away after doing a namaste. The residents of Dakshin Puri were all behind me.
“This house wasn’t built in a day, though. It happened over time and was constructed almost entirely with money from the temple.”
“From the temple?” Manju couldn’t hide her surprise.
“Of course!” Nirmala boudi laughed loudly. “Don’t you know how devoted the capital’s residents are? Now we get visitors from afar. You probably didn’t notice, but I’ve even got a pathway made for cars to come to the top. A lot of affluent folks come, too. The goddess is believed to be rather powerful; apparently she fulfills everyone’s wishes.”
“I’m scared of your Boudi now, Bhanu. Who knows if she’s actually a goddess in a human form,” Atin da said with a wink.
“Nobody, not even the government listens to you, unless you take up a sword, Bhanu! And now! See, how I built a whole house for free. I dare anyone to uproot me from here.”
“But will your sons be able to carry this forward?”
“Why not? They will appoint priests with good salaries. Right now I manage everything — a few hours each morning and evening. I have no chores in the house –have appointed two full-time servants.”
“But I don’t see anyone…”
“They have both gone to the market –one to bring things for the home, the other for the temple. They’ll be back soon.”
“Your house is built on a temple and you consume meat and fish!”
“Sab chalta hai,” Nirmala boudi said. “That’s why the backyard is bigger than the front, didn’t you notice? The only problem is that every evening a crowd of people gather from the slums to scream in the name of singing devotional songs. That’s part of the temple’s identity. I have no option but to put up with it. Did I ever dream, Bhanu, that I will send my son to study engineering abroad?”
I reacted with surprise; Anju was even more astonished. The package containing the sari slipped off the sofa. Nirmala Boudi was close by. As she picked it up, she said, “Is it a sari?”
“Umm, yes,” Anju said awkwardly. “I had gone to Calcutta, so…”
“Wow, so beautiful! You must have brought it for me?”
Anju smiled. “But it isn’t silk, Didi.”
“Please spare me the silk –I’m tired of wearing that every morning and evening! This will be so relaxing,” Nirmala boudi said with childlike joy as she walked away clutching the sari.
When she returned some twenty minutes later, she had draped Anju’s gift and carried a bundle of notes.
“Bhanu, here’s the money you lent us.”
“This looks like more, Boudi.”
“If you had kept it in a bank, you would have earned interest on it, so I’m paying you two thousand rupees.”
“No, Boudi, that’s not done.”
As I put down five hundred-rupee notes on the table, Atin da said with a smile, “Take it, Bhanu. Your Boudi isn’t poor any longer. And this isn’t money earned fraudulently. Topu, our elder son has an excellent job as a chartered accountant. He lives in Bombay and sends a good amount to his mother every month. Apu, the younger one is studying abroad with the goddess’ grace, though.” Atin da laughed.
Boudi laughed with derision and said, “We lost our desh, land, wealth –everything India’s independence came by sacrificing us. And they wouldn’t give me a small flat, saying they couldn’t allot it out of turn? Should I have languished on the street? When the business of religion is flourishing so well in Delhi, why should I not be in that game?”
Before leaving, we touched Nirmala boudi’s feet to receive her blessings. The brave woman had not just taken on, but turned the Government of India’s bureaucracy on its head.
This story was first published as Nirmala Boudi o Bureaucracy in the Bangla magazine, Desh.