This is a translation from Abdul Jabbar’s Banglar Chalchitra, a collection of vignettes that capture the sights and sounds of south Bengal, its people and places, the dialects and daily rituals.
O if I were a bird
I’d take you to some other land.
My bones have turned black.
Late on a monsoon night, the sky pours in fierce torrents. Boatman Kalimuddi bursts into a raucous song as he lowers the hilsa net. A big tidal bore now rages upon the river like a herd of foamy-mouthed bulls. Kanai and Yaar Ali, his two mates, begin to dance with raised arms and swaying hips. They have just finished a six litre pot of toddy. Strong and frothy, it started to work as soon as it hit the belly. Now the stormy wind whiplash across their bare chests.
Earlier, the cold had made them numb. They had called Kashem Ali on a nearby boat for liquor.
By Allah, Kalimuddi uncle, not even a glass of it! Kashem had said. We’re smoking ganja to beat the cold. This fucking wind is too sharp.
Everybody knows Kashem has hooch stowed away in his boat’s hull. Molasses fermented with calcium carbide and distilled hastily, for fear of the police, gives a clear hard liquor that burns down the throat. Toddy is much better. It is white as milk and soothing to the eyes.
Kalimuddi checks the end of the net and feels the powerful tugs. Will they tear it off? He has weighed the net down with twenty-two bricks and has tied on top countless pieces of bamboo as floats. Altogether eighteen boats have dropped nets at Gadakhali. There are others at Raipur – quite a few ‘Rais’ or sluts do live there! – and also on Boatman Punte’s Whirl. The monsoon month has peaked and yet not much water in the skies. Schools of hilsa have suddenly arrived from the sea. Snow has melted in the mountains, discharging sweet red water. The fish are rushing into the river like crazy arrows madly labouring to release eggs.
Yesterday Kalimuddi and his mates could get ten hilsas. The rain tonight promises more. They had sold the catch at the wholesale price of eight rupees a kilo. The wholesellers, in turn, had asked ten rupees. At one-and-half kilos each, it works out to fifteen rupees per fish: quite steep for poor people.
Dariyar paanch peer badar badar!
Hail to thee, five saints of the river! Everyone repeats the cry with raised arms. The tidal bore is here. Waves high as mountains toss the boats about like petals of banana flowers. The boatmen hold the paddle firmly against the heaving water. The thick wire tied at the end of the dragnet sends out a grating noise.
Kalim uncle, we shouldn’t have dropped this fucking dragnet tonight – Kanai says. It seems a dolphin has got caught. D’you hear the noise?
May be it’s timber from a shipwreck, Kalimuddi says.
That’ll rip the net off. The mahajan will be furious, Kanai replies.
Lightning flashes every now and then. The nets will be pulled up when the low tide begins. That would be around two in the morning. A knot of men and women are waiting at the riverbank, their lanterns twinkling in the dark. They are the wholesellers. They sit huddled under umbrellas and waterproofing, near the bushes of cacti and prickly pears. A weak rain dribbles from clots of cloud that drift in from nowhere and waste away. Everywhere one hears the rumble and gurgle of waters. At Boatman Punte’s Whirl, hyacinths, bits of straw, wood, broken canisters and other rubbish eddy about and are sucked in. Punte’s boat had sunk in that whirl. A hazardous spot. But a group of fishermen’s daughters have gathered there, catching topse, bhola, prawn, pangas and other varieties with their crude cloth nets. A few anglers have also gathered there.
Red warning lamps flash on the floating buoys. A ship had once got stuck there on a sandbar. It had been a windfall for Kalimuddi and his mates. They had salvaged a lot of goods like timber, jars, drums, wheat, coal, liquor bottles and trunks. About fifty fishing boats lie in wait at the Bamboo-grove Ghat. They never ferry or catch fish. They sail towards the sea during low tide and collect contraband goods from ships. Occasionally, they do ferry night travelers across the river, but for fat sums. Some also carry kidnapped women. A ferryboat takes hours to cross the river from Anchipur to Uluberia. That is why, after the fishing season ends, Kalimuddi takes his two eight and ten-year-olds brats on the ferry line. He has to pay to the lessee of the service. For the government, leasing out the ferry ghats is a profitable business that involve investment.
There must be shoals of fish towards Gadakhali-Naldanri, it seems! Kashem shouts. That’s why they have cast nets there.
Bullshit! Kalimuddi replies. The river is deeper here, about fifteen fathoms. Do the fish dive across the sandbars, you bugger’s son?
Kanai joins in. Whatever you get, it’ll go into the mahajan’s belly, he says. Five to seven hundred rupees worth of loans is there in the record book he keeps in his grocery. The boat and the net are his. One portion for the net, one-and-half for the boat, one for the boatman and one for the oarsman. It works out to two-and-a-half portion. In real terms he’ll divide the catch into five portions and take three of them. That means twelve fish for him. Of the remaining eight, the boatman will get four and the oarsmen two each. The wholesale price being eight rupees, a one-and-a-half kilo fish brings only twelve rupees. Twenty-four rupees for two. The mahajan will work up a temper and say – But didn’t you promise to give me one and sell the other one? Now the buggers are selling one fish to buy provisions and taking the other to the woman at home.
Kashem says – Yesterday I told mahajan about my wife’s sister. By Allah, what a capital figure she has! His eyes began to shine in lust. But isn’t your wife a tigress? He told me. She would lean against the pole at my grocery, chew rice in large handfuls and flirt. But you are like her grandad, I told him. The bugger swore at me. My wife tells me he has an evil mind. She was returning from Padi aunty’s home after mending their nets. It was quite dark near the karamcha bush and she was carrying a wicklamp. The bastard suddenly blew out the lamp and hugged her. My wife raised an alarm and he fled. You should have seen her, she was choking with laughter. Mahajan now wants to marry my sister-in-law. He’d write off my debt, he has said. The girl has polished off her hubby. But what a capital figure she has, my god!
Mahajan’s evil eyes roam everywhere, Kalimuddi says. He has asked me – Give me your daughter’s hand, Kalim. I’ll keep her like a queen. But I’ve told him, You’ve a wife at home, your son has passed BA, your daughter has passed matriculation – a happy family. You’ve got twenty boats, two liquor dens, a grocery, a timber godown, you’ve got a gun, a pucca two-story house, radio – what else d’you need Hosen Mia? Why cast your eyes on my young daughter? The whoreson has now become a gentleman. During the 1950 famine, he took my boat as mortgage for twenty kilograms of rice. Whatever we had went straight into the stomachs of mahajans like Abul Mia and Tarini. A boat costs five thousand rupees. A cotton net about two hundred. If you want a nylon one you’ll have to shell out five hundred sixty rupees. A dragnet or a castnet will cost about five hundred. Hunger took away our boats, nets and lands. Even the house was mortgaged. The young men have left the family profession and are now working at the jute mills. We hear that the chief minister will give us loans.
The tide turned after two in the morning.
Dariyar paanch peer badar badar!
One by one they begin to pull the nets.
But the river waters are dark. In the distance, across the embankments, the lights from Birlapur jute mill glimmer. The cranes soar in the sky like elephants with raised trunks. A few of the fishermen have rowed towards the Three-gate Bridge. Others have come to Raipur, where the number 75 bus route ends. The wholesellers are waiting there. They’d carry the fish to Kolkata in the first bus that leaves at four in the morning.
Even before the boats have touched the riverbank, the wholesellers wade into waist-deep water with their bags and baskets. A riot breaks out.
Kalimuddi shouts – No catch! Come on, piss off! Not a single fish in the net!
Pariskari-the-fishwoman says kittenishly – Cut the cackle! Come one dear, give me all the fish you have in your boat.
Don’t touch my boat, you hussy! You’ve been lounging about at the ramp since midnight, with all those men around. And now you say, upon god! brother, I touch your chest, damn the lying slut, but my clothes are clean.
Oh, I’m sorry Mrs Clean, but I’ve caught only thirteen fishes. I’ll sell them at ten rupees a kilo, not a single paisa less.
The silvery hilsa glisten in the hull of the boat. There are also a few large catfishes. Also, about three kilos of topse, large and fattened with roe. They have caught them in the cylindrical bengti net. There was also a corpse, a brick tied to its feet. Kalimuddi had thrown it back to the river in no time, before anyone could have a look. A murder case surely, a ripe young woman.
Kalimuddi has beady bloodshot eyes and a body like carved basalt – as dark and impregnable as a monster. He stands up, uncorks a bottle that Kanai hands him and pours the liquid straight into his throat. It burns the nostrils.
The wholesellers, shooed away by Kalimuddi, flock around other boats. Kalim spots a lone gentleman, a babu. How many d’you want? He asks.
What is the price, sir?
Well well, this fellow calls a fisherman ‘sir’! Not less than ten rupees a kilo, mister. Take this one, I’ll give you at fifteen. It would not be less than a kilo and three quarters.
The gentleman takes the fish.
Miss Pariskari now grabs Kalimuddi’s feet. She hitches her sari up and climbs onto the boat. Kalimuddi covers his eyes and protests loudly.
Don’t be silly, boy, it’s still dark! Pariskari laughs. She clambers down into the hull of the boat and fills her basket with the catch. Don’t bother to weigh them, she says sweetly. Each about a kilo and a half – some big, some small. She jumps back again into the water.
Suddenly Kalimuddi grabs her sari end. He recites the old rhyme:
Fishwoman flashes gold on her ear
The boatman has his rags to wear!
Pariskari’s breasts get bared, but she is in no hurry to cover them. Kalimuddi catches the musty smell of her hair. He unties the knot in her sari end and finds a hundred rupee note. He puts it in his hip pouch. By then his two oarsmen have begun to stuff ganja in a clay pipe.
Pariskari does not say anything. Good, she thinks, this will seal her rights on the next day’s catch. Now do your sums, dear man – she says.
What sums? Kalimuddi says. Go take your fish. We’ll settle the accounts tomorrow.
As Pariskari puts the fish basket on her head and prepares to go, Kalimuddi again catches her sari end and yanks the basket back on the boat. Stop fooling, you pussy! he says. A dozen fish, one and a half kilo each – that means eighteen kilos. For ten rupees a kilo it works out to one hundred and eighty rupees. Open your fist a little more, dear! Did you I’m too drunk to count, eh?
But you’re my godbrother, Pariskari implores.
Kalimuddi curses again.
Believe me, I don’t have any money left today, Pariskari says.
Kanai, Yaar Ali, will you please clear out for a while? Kalimuddi threatens.
Do I look scared? Pariskari twinkles her eyes.
See what the pussy says! Kalimuddi cackles. Come on, give me the money.
I’ve nothing left, believe me. You can search me.
Kalimuddi searches her waist and hip pouch. He tickles her underbelly and laughs loudly, flashing his teeth, when he finds money. Another hundred rupee note is found. Kalimuddi snatches it and says, I’m taking twenty rupees as advance, dear sister. You’ll get your fish tomorrow, upon my bloody word. Today I’ve given you three-four kilos in excess. Now, clear off.
Pariskari pouts her lips and says jauntily – Wait, I’ll have a word with your Mahajan!
Kalimuddi guffaws. Then I’ll put my paddle in your boat’s hull! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
They now begin to row towards the Three-gates Bridge. The mahajan is waiting there at a tea stall armed with a five-cell torch and his silver-studded walking stick. Seeing them, he mocks – Hello Sirs! Did you go to Raipur after pulling the net?
By Allah, uncle, we hauled the nets in the late hours. There was a corpse in the bengti net. Only these catfish and topse. And only five hilsa fish.
Mahajan fumes. Hmm, the same old story. Return the boat and net.
Kalimuddi pleads, You just wait uncle. The sweet waters have just started coming. Let the monsoon tides come.
The mahajan snorts. With so many ships passing everyday and the sandbars, you’ll catch horses’ eggs.
He goes off taking three hilsa dangling from his fingers. He must have sold off his share of the catch from the other boats. He is taking these three for the family meal. Kanai and Yaar Ali take the remaining two and go home. This is outside the agreement. Kalimuddi keeps a big catfish and sells off the rest. The five hilsas were kept hidden in the folds of the net, before Pariskari had come. They had shown them to the mahajan. Everybody does that. The fishing season is brief.
The boat is anchored at the ghat. Kalimuddi will return at noontide after lunch. Before that, Kanai and Yaar Ali will come to his house for their share of the money. They’ll complain to the mahajan if not paid properly. That leads to fight, blood-letting, even death. The boatman is made blind drunk and thrown into the dark roaring tides. Before an ambitious oarsman does such a thing, the boatman must be able to sniff the plot. He must be kicked out. But Kalimuddi’s oarsmen are true as steel. The three of them work as one.
Kalimuddi’s daughter has grown ripe and marriageable. She colours her lips and wears her sari below the bellybutton. One day he has given her soundly with a wooden stick.
Yaar Ali comes to his house at lunchtime. A young bachelor, he and Kalimuddi’s daughter Marzina seem to have taken to each other. Kalim has decided to marry her off to him. And after she is gone to in-law’s place, he himself will take Kashim’s sister-in-law in wedlock. Kashim has agreed. The sister-in-law too has agreed. Kalim will just have to wait a few days. Let the monsoon tides come, let the nets, the boat’s hull get crammed with fish. He must repay the debt at the grocery, otherwise the mahajan will grow bilious and take away the boat.
Yaar Ali reports – Uncle, the monsoon tide has come. I’ve seen with my own eyes, the river has turned red. Let’s return to the nets.
Yes, I’m coming, Kalimuddi says.
Yaar-bhai, please have some rice with us – Marzina says.
Yes, son, have some. Don’t worry, I’ll marry her to you. – Kalimuddi says.
Marzina grimaces at her father bashfully and shows her tongue.
Kalimuddi comes out of the house smoking a hunko. As Yaar Ali prepares to follow him, Marzina grabs his hand from behind and pleads, Have your meal!
Come on son, never refuse food that has been offered, Kalimuddi says. I’ll wait for you at Kashim’s house.
Yaar Ali returns to the kitchen and begins to kiss Marzina. Kalim’s eight and ten year-old sons are away on the river in their small pansi boats, recovering shipwrecked goods.
Chhi! Marzina says. Let me go! It’s a sin to do these things before marriage. Hasn’t father told you? Wait some more time.
Your father is going to marry Kashim’s sister-in-law.
Yes, I know.
She’s a robust woman.
Indeed! My father has thunderbolts in his bones. Now go, fther is calling you.
Yaar Ali goes out running. On the way he runs into the mahajan’s BA-passed, bespectacled son. The latter seems to be heading towards Kalimuddi’s house. But why?
As he drops the net, the question pricks Yaar Ali. He stares vacantly at the reddish turbid water. It is eddying. Is Marzina a slut? Should I tell Kalimuddi? He thinks.
But Kalimuddi has begun to sing:
If I were a bird
I could take you to other lands.
My bones have turned black.
The river Hooghly seethes and spouts foam. Kashim’s voice is heard from a distance – Kalimuddi…Yaar Ali…Brother Kanai…today we’ll get lots of fish!
Dariyar paanch peer badar badar!
Hail to thee, five saints of the river! Kalimuddi begins to sieve the toddy. He offers the first glass to Yaar Ali, his future son-in-law.
Yaar Ali bites his tongue. You take first, uncle – he says. You’re the elder.
Pleased, Kalimuddi pats his back. Bismillah! he says, and pours the milky liquid into his throat. My stomach can’t take much, my son. Won’t even let me bare the bottom. It’ll just shoot out in a jet – srrrrrrrrrr!
Kanai and Yaar Ali go into splits. A sudden rain comes pouring and they cry out repeatedly, Dariyar paanch peer badar badar!
Parimal Bhattacharya is a Bengali writer whose books include Darjeeling: Smriti Samaj Itihas, Satyi Rupkatha, Dyanchinama and Shangri-Lar Khnoje.