The 11:40 local. I was returning on it.
Possibly this is the last train for returning to Kolkata from the suburbs. Wintry night. Biting chill. Only a few passengers in the dimly-lit compartment. The stations are even more deserted. The train could have just skipped these stations since there is hardly any boarding or alighting. I don’t think anyone will de-board our compartment ere the train reaches Kolkata. But, ah, presently from a tiny little unknown station, on hops a hawker. Brown trousers, blue pullover, monkey-cap—rolled-up as headgear.And a bundle of books with him. “Have you read these, anyone here?”—he begins to holler, and the compartment wakes up with a start. “Have you read Phoolbala Devi’s latest, yes, have you?”—as the train jumps over and clears a viaduct, the young man’s voice is deluged by tremendous noise. Yet a middle-aged man, lying onthe middle bunk, sits up—“Let me see. Here, come over.”
We all know this game, don’t we? He is a player from the same team, masquerading as a passenger. This joker will take the first stab at the incense-stick bundle, locks and keys, combs and wallets.So that the interest of the others in these items is aroused. But today the wind is blowing in a contrary direction. I end up buying the first book from the young man’s collection. Title: The Badass Ghost (ভুতের মস্তানী). Price: Rs. 2.50. Colourful cover. Hazy picture. Scores of printing errors inside.
But what incredible stories!
So, I buy a few more books without batting an eyelid. In the Clutches of the Ghost (ভুতের পাল্লায়ে), The Ghost’s Music-Room (ভুতের জলসাঘর), Mysterious Murder on the Ship (জাহাজে আজব খুন)Daughter-in-law does the Mother-in Law in (বউ এর হাতে শাশুড়ি খুন)—the last one in poetry form.
So, let me come to the main point. These are my best reads of 1988.
I consider all these books collectively as one book. There are lots of thematic crossings and currents within the books. Just like one encounters in bot-tola books, there is a running familiar pulse—whether it is to do with some cooking manual or with as esoteric a subject as learning Santhali in 30 quick steps. These are, of course, superficial similarities.
Within the literary entrails of Phoolbala Devi’s 2.50 rupee book, appear stories of class exploitation,of hunger and death, stories of spectres and apparitions—their foul smelling subtle bodies are enough to create havoc at the annaprashan (rice-eating ceremony) of the roy-bahadur’s grandson:
“And in a sudden flash, the beggar’s hands turned longer and longer. And they became skeletal. Holding up and shaking Roy Sahab’s and Dutta Sahab’s necks, those hands were striking one head against the other and with a strange nasal twang, he said “Nasty, yeah! Nasty? First clear the nastiness within your souls. You fellows find it below par to hand over a morsel of food to the poor beggar, eh! You could not stop, could you? So much food has now vanished into thin air! Where are the missuses? Not in sight! No one came with an iota of help, eh?”
[স্যাঁত করে ভিখারির হাত দুটো প্রকান্ড লম্বা ও হাড়ের কংকালে পরিনত হয়ে, দুহাতে রায়-সাহেব ও দত্ত-সাহেবের ঘাড় ধরে প্রবল ঝাঁকুনি দিচ্ছে; দুজনের কপালে- কপালে সজোরে ঠোকাঠুকি করছে, আর অদ্ভূত নাকি সুরে বলছে “ন্যাস্টি!না?ন্যাস্টি!আগে মনের ন্যাস্টি দূর কর|গরিব ভিখারীকে এক টুকরো খাদ্য দিতে আঁতে ঘা লাগে|রুখতে পারলিনে?অত গুলো খাবার উড়ে গেল উধাও হয়ে? মিসসেসরা সব কোথায়ে গেল?সাহায্য করলোনা একটুও!”(ভুতের পাল্লায়ে)]
This is literature’s undergrowth. The life blood of the jungle—weeds. Ghentu flower and Babla thorns. These books you would find on trains, footpaths, at fairs unknown. But not at book fairs or festivals. Those who buy and patronize such books with the money that they save from their meagre salaries or bonuses—many of them cannot even read yuktakshars (dipthongs) properly.
Still they buy these books because in these they find stories of human love and emotion, tales of doting parents, the heroism of the local ruffian, the undoing of scheming political netas.
There is love—but very little. More of sordidness and suffering. But within the cloud, the sun does shine.
And all these are the ghost’s accomplishment. This is the purana of the spectral world of infinitesimally mysterious humans who hover around us—but are not noticed so easily.
A bit like the beggars. From where they arrive, where they disappear to—who knows.
[Translation by HUG. Title Photograph: Aritra Chakraborti]