This was my first visit to Labtulia. the cutcherry was a tiny hut, with a roof made of straw and walls made of dry catkins and the twigs and branches of wild tamarisks. By the time I reached, dusk had begun to fall. I had no idea that it could get so cold around here and I was hopelessly unprepared for what was to come as the night grew darker. had the sepoys not gathered dry branches and made a fire outside the hut, I’d have surely frozen to death that night. I sat down on a camp-chair beside the fire, the rest of the staff sat down on the ground around me.
Since I was coming, the deputy collector had arranged for a huge rohu fish from somewhere, and it was now presented before me. But the question was – who would cook it? I had come alone, the thought of bringing my cook along had never occurred to me. Nor did I myself know how to cook. there were seven or eight people gathered there, waiting to meet me, and one of them – a Maithili Brahmin named Kontu Mishra – was appointed by the collector to cook the fish.
I asked the collector, “So, these are the lessees?”
He said, “No, huzoor, they’ve all come for the food. they’ve been waiting here for two days now. there are more on the way.”
I had never heard of something so strange. I said, “But...I never invited them! Did you?”
“No, huzoor, no one invited them. these people are very poor, you see? Rice is a luxury to them. husk and grist of pulses is what they usually get to eat. When they heard that you’re coming, they knew there would be rice, and to them having rice is almost like a feast. So, they have all flocked here. tomorrow, you’ll see more of them.”
For some strange reason, such a simplistic gesture of these men seemed perfectly logical to me – as if they were right, and all the people in the city, who would never dream of doing something so outlandish, had been wrong all along. I immediately became fond of all of them, and seeing that they had sat at a respectful distance from me outside the warmth of the fire, I asked them to come and sit closer to the flames.
The men seemed warm and happy, and I listened to them as they chatted amongst themselves. Kontu Mishra was sitting near me and cooking the fish over a slow fire, sending a mouth-watering aroma wafting through the air. I had stepped away for a short while, and I realised that the ground had frozen stiff.
By the time we finished our dinner, it was quite late. everyone present at the cutcherry had a hearty meal. then I sat near the fire once again, because as soon as I stepped away from its periphery, it seemed even the blood in my veins would freeze. I reckoned it was the open spaces that made the cold so severe. Or perhaps, the proximity to the Himalayas.
Seven or eight people were gathered around the fire, two tiny huts stood in front of us. I was to spend the night in one, and the rest of the people, in the other. Spread all around us were dense forests and hanging over our heads was the dark sky bejewelled with glittering stars. a strange feeling suddenly seemed to come over me. It seemed to me that I had left my old life behind and had landed in some faraway planet of the galaxy, and was now beginning to enjoy the mysterious ways of its inhabitants’ lives.
A man in his early thirties, sitting amidst these group, had particularly caught my attention. his name was Ganori tewari, his skin was dark, his build massive and strong, his hair long, two long smears of vermilion adorned his forehead, and even in this unearthly cold, he had nothing but a flimsy sheet of cloth wrapped around his body – not even the customary local waistcoat that the natives usually wore.
I had been noticing him for quite some time; he was staring at everyone’s faces with a certain sense of hesitation, never protesting anything being said and always nodding in affirmation. every time I spoke, he would nod his head softly and utter a single word – “huzoor”.
When the people of this region spoke to someone and agreed to what they had to say or agreed to their command, they would simply nod their head softly and say with great respect – “huzoor”.
I asked Ganori, “Where do you live, Tewari-ji?”
Startled by my sudden question, and vividly overwhelmed with the undeserving honour I had so generously and so unexpectedly bestowed upon him by addressing him directly, he stared at me with an expression of gratitude and said, “Bheemdas tola, huzoor.”
And then Ganori Tewari told me all about himself and his life, not of his own accord, but in response to the several questions I asked him –
When he was twelve, Ganori lost his father. an old aunt raised him, and when she too died within five years of his father’s demise, young Ganori set out to try his luck in the world. But his world was limited to the town of Purnia in the east, the borders of Bhagalpur district in the west, the Fulkiya Baihar in the south and the Kushi river in the north – he knew nothing outside this.
He roamed from one village to another, from one house to another, sometimes working as a priest in small household ceremonies, sometimes teaching students in village schools and sometimes toiling day and night to arrange for a fistful of pea-grist or a flake of bread made from the seeds of China grass to fill his stomach.
For the last two months, however, he was unemployed, because the local school in the village of parbata had been shut down due to poor attendance. population was scarce near the plateau and there were no households or families where he could earn his bread; so, he was left with no other option but to go from one pasture to another and beg for food from the wandering milkmen and cowherds of the region. he had heard that Manager Babu was coming to the cutcherry, and like many others, he had come with the hope of getting to eat some rice.
I asked him, “Don’t these people get to eat rice?”
“No, huzoor. the Marwaris in Naugachhia eat rice. I myself had rice after several months tonight. Rashbehari Singh Rajput is a very rich man, he had thrown a feast last monsoon. It was at his feast where I had rice last.”
Not one of the people who had come had any warm clothes on. As the night began to grow colder, they began to huddle around closer and closer to the fire.
Excerpted with permission from Aranyak: Of the Forest, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, translated from the Bengali by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay, Penguin Books.