Tinpahar
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The Stranger Spring

Shidhu had returned only very late last night after a crazy spell of work for a week and a half. Long drives were a strain, and Shidhu did not have the luxury of sleeping till late in the morning. The Dol festival was just a couple of days away. It was vital to get updated on the situation here and hence this meeting with Bishey; but Shidhu was unable to make sense of the chap’s blabber.

Bharat’s tea-stall was adjacent to the bank and had a steady stream of regular customers – bank officials, students, petty businessmen. At this hour, however, the stall was almost empty, quiet. There were make-shift wooden tables and benches beneath the shady kaanchan tree. Shidhu and Bishey sat face-to-face occupying one of those. One could usually feel the scorch of the sun by the beginning of March. This time, however, a lethargic winter seemed to linger; a thin blanket in early mornings felt cosy, as did a jacket or a light shawl in the evenings. The breeze was cool and pleasant even at nine o’ clock in the morning.

That, however, didn’t seem to uplift Shidhu’s mood.  “Look, what the hell are you going on about? Explain the problem clearly, will you!” snapped Shidhu, taking a sip at the special black tea served in a chipped glass tumbler. Bishey was rather tensed himself, although he didn’t show it. “That’s precisely what I’m talking about,” he said, biting into his butter toast, “we couldn’t even begin working. There’s no supply.”

Never in his life had Shidhu heard of such absurdity. What did he mean there was no supply; was this about the water supply or kerosene from ration-shops? This was what you called the cycle of nature, the cogs of which never got rusty – at least as far as Shidhu’s understanding of things went. “Not doping at work, are you?” frowned Shidhu, eying Bishey with suspicion and disbelief. Now, had anyone said this to him Bishey would have given him a sound thrashing. But Shidhu da was an exception. Hence he swallowed the insult and shrugged, “how on earth can the work get done without flowers in trees?” He dipped the spoon in his bowl of ghugni.

Shidhu narrowed his eyes to look at Bishey and let out a ring of cigarette smoke from his mouth – just like a movie-star. Opinion went that his face bore a resemblance with a famous Tollywood hero; he also had the hero’s physique and his fair complexion.  It made no sense to continue being Sidhheshwar Dolui with such looks, so he changed his name to become Siddhartha Roy after graduating. He did it legally, submitting all the necessary documents at the court. Then along with his name, everything changed, his personality, appearance, even his way of work. All the big shots of his small town, the government officers, the professors, the police chief, the renowned artists, even the swiftly fading aristocratic families, were more or less acquainted with Shidhu. They knew him because he was a problem solver. Siddhartha Roy’s special clients were tourists from Kolkata. Now, obviously not every one of them had fancy air-conditioned cars to load their booze into. But could that make them any less important? Siddhartha Roy always supplied the stuff they needed. It was a fully guaranteed service. But now the flowers were creating problems.

II

The Spring Festival in this town was famously different; it was aesthetic. Here no one squirted dirty-coloured water, everything was clean and dry. One could see heaps of abir— red, pink, purple and green powder, displayed outside stationary and cigarette shops days before the Dol. Lately, coloured powder made from flower petals had been introduced in the market. They were perfumed and eco-friendly.

But it was  palash flowers that made this festival special. Garlands of palash along with yellow saris were essential for the women who took part in the festival—those who performed on stage in the morning song and dance, as well as for those who  participated in the morning’s procession to the festive ground. Evidently, without the palash the spirit of spring— in the words of the world famous poet-lyricist, would never awaken at one’s doorstep. Other flowers were also lovely, but without the flame-petal palash, Dol would certainly seem dull.

The tourists who came crowding in for the festival had realised that this was its signature style. Consequently, they too had started demanding palash. For the past few years, palash garlands were being included with the sale of sticks and colours, like a burst of sun which transformed the very look of a shop. Shidhu was fascinated every time he saw his new product of business sway in the gentle breeze.

This area was monopolised by Shidhu’s, or, to be quite accurate, by Bishey’s team. Yes, Shidhu had outsourced this one to his disciple, for a good reason, of course. Bishey was an expert at locating a palash tree, even if it were in an odd-godforsaken place. He had handpicked a bunch of lean but strong-limbed kids for this job and had trained them himself. They could climb up the highest and thinnest branches with ease. After the picking, the team would string the piles of flowers into garlands. This job needed soft feminine fingers. Keeping the flowers fresh under moist cloth or by spraying water was also the women’s responsibility. Finally, they were supplied to the market.

For Shidhu, the important fact of the matter was that a lot of people’s livelihoods were linked to these garlands. The problem was with a few residents who refused to understand this simple bottom line of local economy. Shidhu was generally amused by them. Their ancestors, mostly famous and important people, had been invited here to stay and given the lease of private lands nearly six or seven decades ago.  Because of them, their descendants were also counted as special and often revered.

The person who topped this long list of privileged people was Atashi Haldar. She was a small, dark woman, clad in handloom sari; completely ordinary by all counts. But Atashi was an activist who protested against what she felt was injustice, irrespective of the issue at hand. Shidhu knew some of her history vaguely, and he heard the rest at her funeral. Atashi died of a cerebral attack having fought death for nearly over a month. Shidhu was among the people who kept vigil at the hospital at nights. He was always there during other people’s needs – even if, in some cases, the initial cordiality was lost. Atashi, in fact, was one such case.

III

They had been introduced by Iman Chowdhury, the youngest son of the middle house of the Chowdhurys, erstwhile zamindars who once owned large tracts in the district. Now Iman’s organization worked at the local indigenous villages. What Shidhu and Iman shared was perhaps not friendship but more like a subtle mutual attraction.

Iman held a meeting with the village women and the staff in his organization once a month. Sometimes he invited the privileged residents.  It was on one such occasion at Atashi’s house that Shidhu had met. He still remembered the day. Shidhu had never been among such surroundings. Chairs and mats were beneath the shades of trees, villagers sitting there in the crispy sunshine of the October afternoon. Atashi sat on a cane chair, chatting with them. “I’m so glad that you came,” she said, as Iman introduced Shidhu to her, handing him an earthen dishful of homemade coconut sweets with a deep, heartfelt smile. The tea had a flavour of lemongrass. Shidhu was  completely floored by such unique hospitality.

As their discussion began, he realised that Atashi was well aware of the goings on around her, despite living abroad for so many years. Apart from her frequent visits to the villages, she had to attend many meetings regarding numerous projects and schemes. One such project was to educate the railway urchins, little children who swept train compartments and collected plastic bottles. Everyone applauded the marvellous idea. Shidhu was just beginning to smirk at the thought of Atashi being harassed by those stubborn, wastrel kids in every attempt to teach them anything, when suddenly, she declared, “Siddhartha is best suited for this job.” Shidhu almost fell off his chair: teaching and Shidhu just didn’t gel. Atashi, however, did not heed his protests.

“This is a different kind of teaching,” she said, smiling sweetly, “you will enjoy it, just wait and see.” Hence, Shidhu unwillingly arrived at the training camp of an NGO in Kolkata that worked for railway children. Dibosh, Pushkor, Malini and Shidhu were a team of four, given the charge of Bishey and his group. Shidhu would never forget the experience. Neither would Bishey. He would have always stuck to his dendrite addiction had it not been for Shidhu – that sticky, stinging white layer of glue on bread slices. Shidhu had caught Bishey by the scruff and dragged him to a doctor, ignoring all his tantrums and abuses. Bishey was lucky, or else he would have ended up like the one-armed Nathu.

Shidhu not only helped Bishey but got him admitted to the NGO administered school. It seemed incredible but Bishey cleared his class ten examinations in one go. Atashi was overjoyed at this success story; Shidhu and Bishey received frequent invitations for lunch at her place. How a relationship such as this could turn sour was still a mystery to Shidhu. Well, mystery was perhaps an exaggeration, it was more like averting one’s eyes from the facts and the fact that disturbed Atashi was Shidhu’s joining the local gang of contractors and realtors.

Shidhu eventually began to notice that Bishey and he had stopped receiving lunch invitations, neither were they called to attend meetings. But the real tiff was triggered off by the palash issue. The complaint was that Bishey’s kids tore all the tender branches off the trees while picking flowers; this flower business would have to end, they said. It was Atashi who started the ‘Save Palash’ campaign. A couple of others swiftly joined her; some of them were teachers at the university. Consequently, a lot many students followed suit. All of them became self-proclaimed ‘environmental activists.’ One day Atashi called Shidhu and lectured him severely, trying to convince him of the ill- effects of the business he was running with Bishey, and the supplies he was delivering, her disciples chiming in. Shidhu didn’t argue.

For the past three years, the ‘Save Palash’ campaign had delivered many speeches and stuck numerous posters on walls. Shidhu and Bishey too had quietly gone on with their work. If there was demand at the market, supply was inevitable. Besides, Shidhu had noticed the enthusiasm of the committee dampen considerably after Atashi’s death last year. He had hoped that they would be able to work peacefully this year. But now an unexpected problem had showed up; not a single flower had blossomed.

Bishey was done eating and was staring at Shidhu  attentively. Swiftly Shidhu tried to recall if he had seen any flowers during his trips. He got up and paid their bills for tea. “Meet me in the evening,” he told Bishey.

IV

Shidhu went out with his bike at three- thirty in the afternoon. It seemed pointless to sit out these beautiful spring afternoons at home, and so Shidhu took off on his new vehicle. Beyond the rows of cluttered shops, inns, and office buildings lay the empty highway, large area in between was covered with forest. This was a real jungle not one of those Forest Department groves you saw in town.  Shidhu turned left as he crossed a wrecked house once belonging to Indigo merchants. A gravelly path of red earth went through the middle of the forest. He remembered seeing a lot manypalash trees here. Had they all been chopped off? Of course not; Shidhu recognised the short, gnarled and crooked trees, their leaves coated with thick red dust evidently, none of them had blossomed, and there was no sign of flower picking on them. Bishey was right, after all: Nature had played a prank on them.

All on a sudden, Shidhu was struck by an idea. Of course, so that was it, then! It was silly of him not to have fathomed this simple thing. The Spring Festival arrived every year at the same time, but flowers didn’t bloom according to human calendars, they had their own rules. Winter had lingered even in the month of March and that was  why the flowers were still shut in; they wouldn’t blossom until they felt the warmth of spring. And what was spring without blossoms? Shidhu felt greatly relieved as these poetic lines formed in his mind.

He saw Bishey on his way at the Kalidanga Crossing and tried explaining to him what had really happened. Bishey simply nodded, non plussed and Shidhu felt sorry for him. After all, he would lose all the money from the business this year. Of course, Shidhu could compensate for the loss, and perhaps he actually would do so. He decided to let it remain a surprise and ordered Bishey to hop on the bike.

Tourists had started streaming in. the Spring Festival was on Monday this year, hence the additional holiday with the weekend proved to be quite the icing on the cake. They were on leisurely walks heading towards the market place. Shidhu swerved into one of the lanes to avoid the crowd. Bishey was a little startled when Shidhu da turned right after he crossed the guest house. This was a quiet residential area; the houses had sprawling lawns, some with manicured gardens, mostly uninhabited. Shades of huge trees seemed to hasten the evening . The air was heavy with the mixed fragrance of unknown flowers.

Bishey  felt a little uneasy; what business could Shidhu da have here anyway?. Was he then headed for Atashi Haldar’s house? Yes, there it was; diagonally across the field. Bishey hadn’t come here since Atashi’s funeral and began to feel queasy. Shidhu stopped his motorbike in front of the house. The gate was fastened by a rusty chain and lock. The garden was covered with weeds. Trees had grown wild in the last year gave the house an even more deserted air. Bishey found the whole thing creepy. Whatever made Shidhu da come here of all places? He sure got crazy ideas sometimes. Shidhu strode right up to the gate with long steps and stopped, as if stunned. What was he looking at? Bishey went up to Shidhu’s side. He let out a suppressed gasp. Flame-petal palash flowers blossomed in all branches of a tree.

Shidhu stared at the tree as if a trance. He felt a hand clutch his sleeve; Bishey had gone pale. “Wasn’t it… wasn’t it under that tree where mashi’s…” his hoarse voice nearly choked. Yes, Shidhu remembered too.  It was Atashi’s last wish that her ashes be buried under that tree. Shidhu kept gazing at the old, worn-out tree. It seemed to have gained a new lease of life, a feminine youthfulness. The last rays of the twilight hour encircled the only blossoming palash tree like a halo, as darkness began to gather in the wilderness of the garden.

Translated from the Bengali ‘Phul Phutuk Tobei Basanta’ by Shambhobi Ghosh  with inputs and changes by the author.

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