High school started from grade eight but there was no high school in my village. Most would study until grade seven but one would have to walk four miles to another village for any further education. You had to cross the same creek twice and the same canal thrice or take a detour of another four miles. So no gals from my remote hamlet would ever go beyond grade seven. Nor many lads. After seven it was mostly farming. But that year I found myself among the few lucky ones who got admitted. If I visualize today how I used to look then in my class, it would be a picture of a ragbag. A corded pant and a namesake shirt. Didn't even think of any footwear. Books bound with farm strands and notepapers sewed with threads.
The first day I was amazed to see so many students in the class. We had only thirteen in my last class in my village but look here, a hundred and three! There was a girl as well sitting in the front. Students grouped themselves as per their villages. Kerwar's student in one, Itahar-Ajnauli in another and Barha's the third one. Tisi Balia was fourth and Simri-Rupauli-Nahas were fifth and sixth. But the group from Persauni and Muralia Chak had the maximum clout. Being local they had the largest numbers.
The first topic of introductory talks was who has topped in which villages and who will top this joint class. My village fellows were trying to intimidate me saying that the girl on the front bench was the topper of Persauni middle school and will undoubtedly break my run at the top. But I was lost somewhere else. The photo of Mrs. Chatterji in the seventh grade english book 'Free India Reader' had exactly the same look as this girl. Same beauty and the long hair. I named her Mrs. Chatterji in my mind. Howsoever those guys tried to provoke me, I didn't feel any jealousy or competition with her. Oh, only if she could befriend me.....! Then I thought of my own dereliction and how I would just look like dirt in front of her. Whatever.
When the B.Sc. Mastersaab Fekan Thakur was teaching in a chemistry class about the three states of matter – solid, liquid and gas, my mind got fixed on the liquid. And when he said, ' In liquid state, the matter takes the shape of its container. It doesn't have its own shape. Put it in a glass, and it becomes like glass, in a bottle, like a bottle and in a bucket, like a bucket.'.
Immediately the thought came in mind, ' yeah, like my mother, aunties et al – My mother like my father, the elder auntie like my uncle, the auntie from Uchhal like Lutti uncle, and my maami (maternal auntie) like my maama. No shape of their own. Shaped as whoever they are married to.'
If there is any shape of their own, its hidden. Lest 'He' would see. Lest 'He' would come to know that she did anything on her own. Or her chastising will be there for all to see. So I concluded that they are all liquids and my uncles their containers.
This thought followed me to the college. When I read about liquid's 'Bhiscosity' in college, again I was reminded of my aunties. If the husband was a muscleman, the wife's stature was of a hustler. A timid's wife was bullied by everyone. A rich one's wife was a celebrity and a poor one's place was in the corner. Means more viscid the husband, more acclaimed the wife. Viscosity. Whatever.
In the annual of eighth, that girl Champa gave me the drubbing. She was first and I came second. Just by two marks. But then first was first. Her roll no. in the ninth became one and mine, two. Now I was jealous. At the same time a little happy. I was closer to her. Oh, Mrs. Chatterjee. At least my name will be written just under yours!
A year gone had taken out all shyness and formalities. All groups disbanded and it was now one class. Village identities were gone.
I started sitting in front. Champa 's right behind. Even if I was late, folks would give me the seat. There was now great competition between the two of us. I didn't know about her, I was dying of jealousy and competition and the fact that a girl beat me.
In the semi-annual of Ninth, I turned the table and snatched the top position. And that remained my position since. Until the very board exam of eleventh.
Her face was so shining that I was like a faint shadow compared to her. My clothes were not even shreds compared to her dresses. Overall she pretty much fit in the frame of Mrs. Chatterjee in my mind.
Anyway, she had become friends with me after I topped the class in ninth. I wasn't that bitter either, I was already the topper.
We remained friends for two more years. Being local, she used be before time and I was always late. Champa would keep a seat for me right behind hers. However, our friendship remained only friendship till the very end. Being close to someone like her was good enough for me. I told her about Mrs. Chatterjee. She burst out in laughter. I wouldn't ever forget that laughter. Every once in a while I used to call her Mrs. Chatterjee. I thought she felt good.
Unlike today, the schoolkids those days weren't so savvy. We were no exceptions. After the matriculation she had been married. To who and where I don't know. Nor did I need to.
By the time I landed in the officialdom of Bihar Government, it was sixteen years since my matriculation. About five years in service, I got an opportunity to visit Calcutta in on the occasion of Durgapooja. The kids were excited about visiting Calcutta and my wife about Durgapooja. On reaching Calcultta to my brother's house, I found his in-laws also there. I advised my sister-in-law,'My orderly can help in cooking.'
'Why? Don't I have my own hands.' Said she.
'No, no, I just proposed. So many people are there. If all you do is cooking, when will you enjoy the festival?' I insisted.
'Get out of your chieftanship mind here. I don't have your orderly any other day around, do I?. If I have invited you over I have made arrangements as well. I am not siting here waiting for your help.' Said she again.
'Alright! Do as you wish. God!' I looked at my brother.
My brother explained,'There is Munni's mom, someone from our place only. She will assist. Which is why so much aplomb. Or else alone what can she...''
'Yeah, right. Its you who does everything around here.' she murmured again.
Anyway, everything was going as planned. Ritual sacrifice was performed on the eighth day of the pooja. Mahaprasad (preparation of the sacrificial goat) was being cooked in the backyard. That Munni's mom was swamped with work. My wife was instructing her.
I went in and asked my wife,'how longer for dinner?'
'Just a little. I will bring you guys some fried liver in the meantime.' she replied.
'What's this covered in this corner?' I asked turning the caisson over.
'Oh, leave it alone, would you? Why do you have to look at everything anyway. Men don't need to poke their noses in everyhting now, do they? Go and wash your hand. Its impure now.' wife boasted.
'What is in it anyway?' Dithering I asked again promptly putting the cover back on.
'There is no treasure trove. There is the skin and some Mahaprasad. For Munni's mom. She asked for the skin. So its put aside for her. She will take it after we are done here.'
While my wife was explaining, Munni's mom brought water for me to wash my hand. Seeing her veiled, I whispered to my wife,'she is veiling herself from me as if she is a newcomer bride in the house.'
Wife whispered back,'just go away. Don't...'
When dining, commented my brother,'Munni's mom's hands are some kind of machine, eh! What a great Mahaprasad!'
I nodded in agreement.
Munni's mom had left with the skin for her home. I asked my sister-in-law,'What would she do with the skin?'
'What else? She would carve a drum out of it and send it to you to play!' she got irritated.
'Why can't you answer anything straight?'
'You talk rubbish, that's why. The skin will be boiled. Hair peeled out and they will cook and eat it for a couple of a days. I can't believe what kind of officer you are if you don't understand such trivia.'
Tipped my brother,'why, is he a leather department officer.'
Everybody burst out laughing.
Changing the topic I asked my sis-in-law,'So have you engraved this bedsheet yourself or bought it somewhere. Its nice.'
'You can take it if you want it. I will get another one done. Very skillful is Munni's mom. She has done it all.'
'Wow! Look's like you got yourself a genie in her.'
'That's actually right. She is always ready to do whatever is told. No greed she has. So nice. Its just her devil husband...'
'Why, what does he do?'
'What can he do? I have fixed him as an bookkeeper with a contractor. He is alright now. Earlier he had wrecked it all in drugs. Luckily my driver got to know and told me everything and so I could act in time.' explained my brother.
'What had happened?'
'He started a shop in Shyam bazaar in partnership with his in-law. Invested a lot. Business was good too. But then came the bad company and drugs and he ruined it all. They fought among themselves, him and in-law. Brawls, litigation, everything. Lastly, the in-law took hold of the shop and threw him out. He came virtually on the street with his family. Didn't even have a day's meal. From there, he has finally improved a lot. Quit the drugs. Somehow he is managing. I give clothes for all in his family like my own in the time of festivals. This lady is very admirable. Like the beauty in the hands of beast. She maintained her dignity even in the face of great adversity. No greed for anything at all. Works her back out to earn.' Listening to my brother's story, I was feeling sympathy and admiration at the same time.
I wasn't feeling well on the day of Dashhara (the tenth and final day of the pooja). When everyone else left for the festival, I bolted the door and fell asleep. I woke up on the sound of the ring-bell. Looked at the watch- it was half past five. Lying on my bed, I said, 'who's there?' No response. The bell rang again. I got up murmuring and opened the door. Munni's mom was standing. For the first time I had seen her from the front. Very exhausted looking face. Hair looked thin. The lips looked blackened. She was wearing a bengali shred saari. Hastily she covered her face. But behind this battered face, I could see what a stunning beauty she could have been once.
Moving aside , I said,'No one is there. Everyone is out to the festival'
'Yes, I know, Sir. Sister had told me to make tea for you on time. Can I?' Munni's mom said.
Her voice gave me an electric shock. I felt like I would fall down. I didn't say anything just down on the chair right on the patio. I couldn't notice when she went inside, made tea and brought it over. I was absorbed in investigating that voice.
'Tea is getting cold.' She said from inside the house.
Now I came round. Instead of taking tea, I asked her,'Could you come here in front of me?'
She came and stood on the patio.
'Where are you from'? Asked I.
'And native place?'
She didn't respond.
My suspicion increased.
'Where is your native place?' I asked again.
'Why would you want to know, Sir?'
'Don't call me 'Sir', Champa! I recognized you!' I screamed.
She sat down right there. I thought she was crying. I remained quiet for a few moments. I was stunned. Her ruinous story I already knew. I just had one question,'Champa, didn't you recognize me?'
'I could recognize you the very first day.'
'So why didn't you come out to me'?
'I don't have the capability anymore to equal with you.'
My courage was failing. I had no energy left to say or ask anything. She rose and left for her home.
I remembered the two lessons of school – 'Free India reader's Mrs. Chatterjee and the shapeless state of liquid. Put it in whichever vessel and it will take its shape. Marry Mrs. Chatterjee off to whoever and her 'viscousity' becomes like him.
The very next day, I left Calcutta.