The streets and fields were still muddy and waterlogged from the flood of 1863. That afternoon, a drongo perched on a flowerladen branch of a thorn acacia tree and watched the road. Nalu Pal was heading for the market in Mollahati, carrying a load of paan and betel nuts. Banyan trees planted by the white sahibs of nearby indigo plantations shaded the road he walked down. Tired, Nalu sat under one such tree and fanned himself with his gamchha towel. Nalu was perhaps twenty or twenty-one. He was dark and thin. His hair was cut in bangs, and he carried a colorful gamchha on his shoulder – the fashion of those days. He was not married yet as he still lived with his maternal uncles and had no money of his own.
Over the past year, he had begun selling paan and betel nuts in the market. His mother’s sister had invested seventeen rupees in his venture; within one year, that seventeen had grown to fifty-seven. Even after living expenses, he was in the green. Nalu was proud of his success. The harsh treatment at his uncle’s house was rapidly becoming intolerable to him. No, a man of his age needed to earn his living independently. It was only the other day that his uncle’s wife had lectured him after he had asked for a bit more hair oil.
“And where do you expect us to get more oil?” his mamima had scolded him, “You just want to show off that fancy haircut of yours. Fashion? Bah! If you must be so fashionable, go earn it yourself!” Usually, Nalu would have taken a short nap under the tree – there was still plenty of time before the market opened. Just when his eyes would have closed, though, a man riding a horse stopped alongside him. Nalu Pal respectfully stood up and greeted the man. “Raymoshai, all well? Pranam.”
“Good afternoon, Nalu. Blessings be upon you. Off to market?”
“Yes, sir,” Nalu replied.
“Look sharp. Mr. Shipton is coming.”
“Sir, shall I hide in the field?” Nalu asked.
“I hear he hits people.”
“No, no. That’s just hearsay. You can stay right there.”
“Will he be on a horse too?”
“No. Perhaps a carriage. I’d better be off.”
All the villagers feared Shipton, the chief white sahib of Mollahati’s indigo plantation. He was tall and large, with a round face like a tiger’s. He always carried a whip, which the local folks had named Shyamchand. Nobody knew when Shyamchand would spring to its master’s hand and crack across someone’s back. Shipton’s violent volatility left everyone terrified.
A few minutes later, Satish Kolu, another shopkeeper from the market, passed by carrying a large pot of mustard oil in a wicker basket on his head. Seeing Nalu, he called out, “Aren’t you going to the market? Come on!”
“Soon, soon. Sit down and have a smoke.”
“Out of tobacco.”
“I have some. Wait here,” Nalu insisted. “Let Shipton-sahib pass.”
“Who said he is coming?”
“Ray-moshai, he was just here. Sit down.”
At that moment, something up ahead caught Satish Kolu’s eye. He instantly took off through the wild shanra and sheora bushes down to the paddy fields. “Come on! Sahib is here!” He shouted over his shoulder as he ran. Nalu dropped his bundle of paan under the tree and followed Satish Kolu. He could hear the bells on the carriage’s horse tinkling in the distance. With a great clamor, the carriage rolled to a stop right before them, beneath the very tree Nalu had been resting under. Seeing the bundle of paan lying unattended under the tree, the sahib roared, “Hey, who’s there? Whose bundle is this?” Behind the bushes, Nalu Pal and Satish Kolu were frozen stiff in fear. Neither answered.
The attendant Nafar Muchi, who sat behind the carriage, called loudly, “Whose bundle is lying under this tree?”
“Answer me,” Sahib demanded.
“Who is there?” Nalu Pal pulled himself to his feet. Hesitantly, he stepped back onto the road. “Sahib, it’s mine.” Shipton-sahib stared at him wordlessly.
Nafar Muchi asked, “Your bundle?”
“What were you doing down in the paddy field?”
“Sir, well –”
Sahib interrupted, “I know what he was doing. They all hide when they see me. Am I a snake or a tiger? Well?” He had directed the question to Nalu, who timidly answered, “No, Sahib.”
“That’s right. Now, what’s in the bundle?”
“For Mollahati market?”
“And your name is?”
“Shri Nal Mohan Pal, sir.”
“Pick it up. In the future, do not hide from me. I am not a tiger; I don’t eat men. Understood? Now, go.”
“Yes, sir.” Sahib’s carriage rolled away with another clatter and the tinkling of bells. Nalu’s heart still raced. Thank god! The danger had passed! He whistled and called out, “Hey, Satish-uncle!” Satish had edged even further from the road into the paddy field. Now, he turned around and replied, “Coming.”
“Good Heavens! How far did you go? You heard him calling me and shot off through the paddy, huh?”
“What else was I supposed to do? We’re poor folks. What if he’d lashed Shyamchand on my back? Ah… So, what did he say to you?”
“Really? So what did Ray-moshai tell you?” “He said, ‘Sahib is coming. Sit straight.’”
“Of course he did. Those Rays are the bloody agents of the sahibs. That’s how they make all their money. How do you think he built that huge, two-block building last year?”
Excerpted with permission from Ichhamoti, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, translated from the Bengali by Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra, illustrated by Atanu Deb, Parabaas.