|Primal passions 2|
In a few days, he had taught himself the tricks of this trade, one of the oldest professions in the world. He mastered the posture and the language in no time. He no longer cleaned himself. His hair was now a tangled, matted mess infested with lice. Sometimes, he scratched at it like crazy but refused to cut it off. He got himself a torn coat that he wore even in the muggy heat to conceal his injury. But his withered arm, a most powerful selling proposition in his profession, had to be displayed. So he ripped off the right sleeve just below the armpit. He also got himself a tin cup and a stick.
From morning till evening, Bhikhu sat under a tamarind tree near the market. His breakfast was a paisa’s worth of muri. In the afternoon, he slipped into an abandoned garden near the market. He set up his earthenware pots on a small open hearth of bricks under a banyan tree. There he cooked rice, some days with small fish, some days with vegetables. After having his fill, he would lean back against the tree to enjoy a post-prandial bidi before returning to the shade of the tamarind tree.
There, he gasped and groaned all day: "Hey baba, one paisa. Give me and God will give you; hey baba, one paisa…"
Like many ancient proverbs, the sloka ‘bhikshayang naiba naiba cha’ — never ever resort to begging — is totally inapt. About a thousand to fifteen hundred people passed by Bhikhu every day and, on an average, he got one paisa or a half-paisa from every fiftieth person. Though there were more half-paisas than whole paisas, Bhikhu’s daily takings were between five and six annas, and sometimes almost eight annas. Besides, there were market days twice a week. On those two days, Bhikhu’s earnings never fell below a whole rupee.
The rains passed. The riverbanks turned white with kaash plumes. At eight annas a month, Bhikhu moved into the ramshackle shanty beside Binnu the boatman’s hut near the river. He slept there at night. He managed to acquire a shabby but thick blanket that had once belonged to a malaria victim. He stole straw from the stacks in the fields. He spread the blanket over the straw and slept in great comfort. His door-to-door rounds in town yielded some torn cloth and sheets. He bundled it all up and used it for a pillow. When the damp breeze from the river brought in the cold, Bhikhu took out a sheet from the bundle and wrapped it around himself.
A contented life and wholesome food soon revived Bhikhu. He regained his robust health. The muscles stood out on his chest, rippling under his skin when he moved. His repressed virility made him short-tempered and impatient. He still used his old begging techniques but when he was refused, he got uncontrollably angry. If passers-by ignored him, he abused them if the street was relatively empty. If shopkeepers refused a little something extra, he tried to manhandle them. He pretended to beg at the riverside ghats precisely when the women came to bathe. He found it amusing when they got scared and didn’t budge even when they yelled at him to leave. Instead, he grinned insolently.
At night, he tossed and turned in bed.
His dreary existence without a woman was becoming intolerable. His heart cried out for the reckless life of action he had once lived.
That was when he used to get drunk at the toddy shops and raise one hell of a ruckus, then go to Bashi’s room to spend frenzied nights. And sometimes he joined his gang as they looted homes, butchered the residents and vanished into the night with money and jewellery. The indescribable expression on a wife’s face when her husband was tied up and slaughtered, the heart-rending cries of a mother as blood spurted from her son’s body — was there anything more exhilarating than listening to the screams or watching it all in the flickering light of a flaming torch? He had probably been happier then, even when he was on the run, moving from village to village and hiding in the forests. Several members of his gang were arrested and jailed, but the cops collared him only once. That was after Rakhu Bagdi and he had kidnapped Shripati Biswas’s sister from Pahana. He had been sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment but they managed to keep him locked away for only two. One rainy evening, he scaled the prison walls and escaped. He started breaking into homes all by himself. He crept up unawares on housewives at the village ponds in the afternoon, gagged them and robbed them of their ornaments. He ran away with Rakhu’s wife from Noakhali right across the sea to Hatia. After six months, he dumped her and operated with three gangs in quick succession. They hit so many villages that he no longer remembered their names. And most recently, there was this incident involving Baikuntha Saha’s second brother, whose throat he had slashed open with a single sweep of his chopper.
What a time that was, and it had all come to this…
The man who got his kicks from killing now had to satisfy his rage by swearing at people who refused him small change. His strength was undiminished. But there was no way he could use it. There were shops where the owners checked accounts late at night with bundles of cash stacked before them. There were homes where the husbands were away on work and the wives lived alone. But instead of accosting them with a sharp weapon and getting rich overnight, he slept quietly in Binnu the boatman’s tumbledown shack.
Sometimes, when he felt his right arm in the dark, Bhikhu’s disappointment knew no bounds. There he was, with his infinite courage and strength, in a world full of timid, cowardly people, practically a non-existent entity only because of a crippled arm. Should such a fate befall any man?
Yet he was willing to accept all this as bad karma. Lamenting lightens the burden. But to live alone is unbearable.
There was another beggar — a woman — with her own spot just outside the market gates. She was reasonably young, with an attractive body. But she had an offensive, running sore that lay open from below her knee right down to her foot.
She made more than Bhikhu because of this sore. And she took particular care to prevent it from healing.
Sometimes Bhikhu would go and sit beside her. "Won’t heal, right?" he would ask.
"Of course it will," the woman replied. "With proper medication, it’ll heal in no time."
An eager Bhikhu quickly said, "So get the medicine, cure it quickly. Once it’s healed, you won’t have to beg any more, you know. I’ll keep you with me."
"As if I’d stay!"
"Why? Why won’t you stay with me? I’ll get you food and clothes, keep you in comfort. You’ll be able to sit back and relax all day. Why are you turning me down?"
The beggar-woman was not taken in. She stuffed a chew of tobacco into her cheek and said, "And when you throw me out after a while, how will I get my sore back?"
Bhikhu swore to be faithful and devoted. He promised her every earthly comfort and more. But the beggar-woman didn’t consent. Bhikhu returned frustrated.
Meanwhile, the moon continued to rise in the sky, the tides moved the river and a slight chill left a heady feeling in the air. The bananas in the plantation beside Bhikhu’s shack disappeared. Binnu the boatman sold the bananas and bought a silver waistband for his wife. The palm juice gradually fermented into a complex and potent brew. Bhiku’s passion got the better of his revulsion. He lost all control.
One morning, he got up and went straight to the beggar-woman. "All right, fine," he said, "Come, with your sore."
"Couldn’t come sooner?" The beggar-woman scoffed, "Now piss off… go eat the skin off a sugarcane root."
"Why? What’s all this about eating skin?"
"You thought I was waiting up for you with bated breath? I’m with him now."
Bhikhu followed her gesture and saw a lame, bearded beggar. He was about Bhikhu’s build and age. Like Bhikhu’s right arm, this man’s leg was shrivelled up. It was carefully displayed as he sought alms in the name of Allah. Beside him lay a short, wooden leg.
"Why are you sitting down?" The beggar-woman asked. "Better run, he’ll kill you if he sees you here."
"Yeah, yeah, every Dick is killing everybody else around here," snorted Bhikhu, "I can take down ten guys like him, y’know? I’ll take you home."
"So go challenge him," said the woman. "Why hang around me?"
"Dump him. Come with me."
"Oh, my darling! Want some tobacco? You took off after you saw my sore. Why would I want to entertain you, you son of a bitch? Why should I let him go? Do you earn like him? Do you have a home? Get moving before you catch the edge of my tongue."
Bhikhu left, but he didn’t let go. When he found her alone, he sidled up to her. He tried to make conversation, "What did you say your name was?"
They were two human beings so devoid of identity that in all these months, they hadn’t even bothered about names.
The woman grinned, revealing tobacco-stained teeth.
"Here again? Go to that old woman begging there." Bhikhu sat on his haunches beside her. He carried a small sack on his shoulder these days because a lot of people gave him grain instead of money. He took out a banana from the sack and gave it to the woman: "Here, stole it for you."
The beggar-woman immediately peeled and devoured her paramour’s gift. Happily, she said, "Want my name? Paanchi is what they call me — Paanchi. You gave me a banana, I’ve given you my name. Now beat it."
Bhikhu didn’t get up. After giving her a large banana, he had no intention of going back with just her name. He sat for as long as he could in the dust beside Paanchi and kept on chatting. Of course, only in their world could it have been accepted as a conversation. To an observer, it would have sounded like two people abusing each other.
Paanchi’s companion was called Basheer. One day, Bhikhu tried to strike up a conversation with him, too.
"What brings you here?" asked Basheer. "Don’t you salaam miyan me. I’ll smash your skull with a cudgel."
They abused each other. Bhikhu had a stick and Basheer had a large stone, so the encounter did not turn physical.
Before returning to his tamarind tree, Bhikhu said, "Just you wait, I’ll finish you off soon enough."
"If I see you near her again, by Allah, I swear I’ll kill you," retorted Basheer.
Almost half a century after his death, Manik Bandopadhyay (1908-1956) remains
one of the masters of modern Bengali literature