Work became a burden if the person working disliked it. He wouldn’t be able to do it for very long. When someone did something out of compulsion, it never turned out well. But Jibon liked his work very much. Each joyful and festive event in the households where he went to work felt like his own. There was laughter and singing. He gradually learnt to cook from Naresh Thakur. He could make curries and kaliyas, koftas and kormas. He became adept at chorbo-chosyo-lehyo-peyo, that is, delicacies to chew, suck, lick, and drink. Jibon soon became a culinary craftsman who was capable of making everything. And yet, Jibon thought he was merely picking pebbles at the shore of the vast ocean of knowledge.

The art of cooking was the last of the 64 arts, but it was an art which knew no limit, something that could never be complete. Jibon learnt that someone had devised a hundred ways of making an omelette, each one tasting different – something he had thought was ready as soon as one cracked an egg on a hot griddle! And then there was someone who knew how to make 22 kinds of biryani. He was apparently paid a fee of 5,000 rupees, besides the plane fare, to go to some big hotel to prepare a special kind of biryani. Perhaps it was with such delectable food in mind that a disciple of Sri Ramkrishna had said: “Poetry is most excellent, but even more excellent is music. More excellent than even music are women. And more excellent than that is food.”

Jibon was very keen to learn as much as he could. If he could find out about some big guru of the profession, he would happily sit at his feet to learn. Jibon had grown up a bit now. He joined Naresh Thakur whenever there was work, and on the rest of the days, he went with Dukhe to dig earth, assist masons and do whatever else was available.

His father, Garib Das could no longer work, he lay at home most days. Now that Jibon had started working, food was cooked once a day at home. But he was terribly afraid. What would happen if his father died? Jibon’s earnings were so meagre that he wouldn’t even be able to get him cremated. What would he do in that event? Jibon had recently seen the wife and son of a railway porter who had died, lay his body on the road and beg people for alms so that they could cremate him. Jibon had been shaken to the core seeing the dead body. He would never be able to beg like that for anything. And he would not want anyone to have pity on him. What was the use of that? How could anyone give what they did not possess? The very belief that there was ever something called pity or kindness in the world had died in him. When people who were devoid of kindness and empathy flung ten paise towards a pauper, it was as if that money was tainted with disregard, ridicule, contempt, and despise. Jibon no longer believed in the thing called kindness.

Take what happened just a few days ago. Jibon and his fellow-workers were all very poor. And so, a kind man had seemingly taken pity on them. But observing his pity, Jibon’s whole being had blazed in rage. He had badly wanted to land a tight slap on the face of the babu pretending to be a “good man.” By now Jibon was able to handle the work of cooking for a hundred people with one or two assistants.

And so, when the pressure of work grew during the wedding season, Naresh Thakur assigned him the responsibility, and sent him somewhere or the other. Jibon had also made a bit of a name for himself as the “baby cook!”

On the day in question, Jibon and Dukhe had gone to work in a house. After the wedding feast was over, it was time for them to return home with their food bundles. As usual, the two of them had decided to pack the food and take it home. They spread out their gamchhas and laid banana leaves on them. The babus knew they would take it home. They were prepared for that. They put rice and a bit of all the items on the banana leaves. Considering that to be too little, Dukhe could not help saying, “Please give us a bit more, babu, it’s too little.” The kind man responded by saying, “Just try to eat all of what I’ve given you and show me! We’re supposed to provide food to you, not to let you stuff your bundles!”

Although the babu had given rather small quantities of the food items, the pot of rossogollas was full. It was a large earthen pot, of the size that could hold about three kilos of mishti-doi. The kind man said in a most generous tone, “Take the whole pot.” Usually, the colour of rossogollas was white. In fact, if it was not white in colour, one couldn’t even call it a rossogolla. But the rossogollas in question were more yellow than white. There was a reason for that. When the last batch of guests were eating, sweets had rained on their plates. The friends of the groom had used rossogollas as missiles to assault one another with.

“Hey, serve some on this plate!”

“No, no, no more, please!”

“I can’t hear you. You have to eat one more.”

“My tummy will burst.”

“It won’t.”

Whatever was eaten, found a place in their stomachs. Whatever wasn’t, remained on their plates. Rather than throwing them away, the rossogollas had been picked up and kept in an empty mishti-doi pot. With which the cooks were being remunerated now.

Observing that, blood rushed to Jibon’s head in a surge of rage. “What have you given us? We haven’t come to your door to beg. We have been sweating from seven in the morning until twelve at night. We’re merely asking for the remuneration for our labour.”

“Why are you getting angry? What happened?”

“What happened, you ask! Please have one of those and show us.” The kind babu was flabbergasted. Ashamed at his sleight being caught, he rushed inside the house to hide his face. Another person then handed out two rossogollas to each of them and slipped away. So now they were reluctant to give them any more than two pieces! That’s why Jibon viewed people’s kindness with acute disbelief. After all, he had learnt the hard way. He had also been in another house once, and seen just the opposite of such kindness. On that day too, Dukhe was with him.

Excerpted with permission from The Nemesis, Manoranjan Byapari, translated from the Bengali by V Ramaswamy, Eka/Westland.