आज़ादी विशेषांक / Freedom Special

दिसंबर २०१२ / December 2012

The Homecoming: Mitra Phukan

When Somnath Babu woke up that Thursday morning, it was with no sense of expectation or anticipation. He more or less knew, even as he hobbled painfully out of bed, what the routine of the day would bring. Ever since Nandini, his wife, had died more than two years ago, day-to-day life moved within its narrow, predictable grooves. There were hardly any surprises left, nor was there much left in life to look forward to. Somnath Babu had reconciled himself some time ago to the fact that now, in his old age, life had lost much of its color. As long as he was able to get through the day without his arthritic knees hurting too much, without the fingers of his hands getting locked into an unopenable fist, without his heart getting into painful episodes, as long as he was able to take a little bit of a walk in the neighborhood park, he was happy. Well, not happy, no, that was too vivid, too bright, intense a word. But if he could get through his day without pain, without any major mishaps or disasters, he was not unhappy.

Though that, reflected Somnath Babu as he shuffled stiffly across the front room to retrieve the paper from the porch, was perhaps too much to ask for. Mishaps occurred with unfailing regularity around him. His fingers, gnarled and stiff now, often lost their grip on things, fragile things that fell with a crash and broke into a hundred irreparable pieces.

Not that he hadn’t had arthritis or a heart problem when Nandini had been alive. He had. But he had been able to do so much more then, even with his knotty hands. He had not yet closed down his shop while Nandini had been alive. Every morning, while Somnath Babu read the Ananda Bazar Patrika and enjoyed the perfect luchis that were placed before him for breakfast, Nandini would busy herself with preparing the concoction. He had never found out exactly what it was that she put into the potions that she simmered gently each morning over the kitchen stove, what oils and unguents she put in there, but the effect, each morning, would be quite magical. She would bring the small ceramic bowl of the brew she had prepared and place it, sputtering and steaming, on a stand on top of the Formica tabletop. She would take his palms, one by one, between her own, and rub the unguent on the curled up fingers till, one by one, they opened beneath her gentle touch like a rose budding into flower. She would do the same to his knees, all the while chattering away about the events of the previous day, till it was time for Somnath Babu to have his bath. He would leave the table with a much jauntier step than when he had come for his morning repast.

Now, of course, there was nobody to minister to his needs. He could, perhaps, do it himself, if he set his mind to it. After all, his days were long, and empty, and it wasn’t as if he had lots of work to fill his time. But he had no idea what Nandini had put into the oil, or where she had got the oil itself. In any case, he had long ago been convinced that it had been her touch, rather than her potions, that had kept the rheumatism from getting this bad while she had been alive. She had kept it away from him, like a zealous bodyguard defending her charge with a flaming sword.

She had left him so suddenly. True, she was plump, and inclined to shortness of breath, but she was never unwell, never sick in bed. And she had always been so active, so full of life. Yet it had been Nandini who had gone first. A short gasp of pain, a hand clutching her chest, and her eyes had glazed over as she had slumped to the floor. Dead.

Within a few months, Somnath Babu had had to close down the shop at last. Over the past couple of years, he had, in any case, been spending less time in his shop in the lane behind his house, with the paint on its once-green, now nondescript signboard saying in letters of peeling paint, “Ghosh and Brother: Instrument Maker” in both Bangla and English. It had been habit, and the burden of responsibility towards his father, and uncles, and grandfather, right back to his great-grandfather, the original “Brother” of the signboard, that had kept him going. That and the need to stick to some kind of routine which Nandini had seemed to require at least as much as he did.

Customers had long since dwindled to a trickle, even before Nandini’s death. Where were the people who would play, much less buy, the instruments that had once been crafted in his shop? “Ghosh and Brother” had once been part of the throbbing heart of the music scene of Calcutta. When Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, bowing to British might, had finally reached Calcutta after leaving Awadh, many of his entourage of musicians had followed him. They had brought with them their treasure-trove of instruments, their sarangis, their dilrubas, their veenas, their pakhawaj and tablas. Their presence in the city had added to the rich cultural life of the place. By the time Somnath Babu’s ancestor had opened his shop, the need and demand for musical instruments, and for people who would create, or craft, and actually repair those instruments, had been high, indeed.

Those had been glory days, certainly. Even after the influence of Awadh had waned, there had been the zamindars who had vied with each other to patronize the arts. But then had come the country’s Independence, and with it, the decline had set in. No longer did people want to listen to the old instruments, the old music. Surbahar, Sursingar – the very names had rolled off one’s tongue musically. Now, of course, very few people even knew what they had looked like, or were even acquainted with the magic and amazing beauty of the sounds that they produced.

Instrument makers, mused Somnath Babu after he finished reading about India’s latest cricket debacle in the West Indies, lived in a world full of shadows. They were anonymous, yet indispensable. Their work brought them no public accolades; no auditoriums full of connoisseurs put their hands together in rousing appreciation of their work. A sixer lofted into the air by a cricketer, for instance, would be frozen in numerous cameras, made immortal for future generations to laud. The entire stadium would rise to its feet in appreciation of the perfect arc that fell into the stands. Whereas the musical instruments that were played in the concert halls across the country were seen to be just mediums for the music that were produced on them. Yet each instrument that the maker created was as much a work of art as the music that the maestro played on it.

Sighing, Somnath Babu folded his paper with difficulty, and kept it on the table. There was nobody he could even discuss his thoughts with these days. He had lived his life through his profession, leaving the socializing to Nandini. And now that she had gone, he could hardly begin, at his age, even to chat up neighbors and visit them. Even if he had had the inclination to do so, which of course he did not.

It was cold today. The late-December nip in the early morning air was becoming sharper each year. Somnath looked at the clock on the wall, with its large numerals. He would have to kill more than an hour of time before Shanti put in her appearance. She lived halfway across the city, and though she tried, poor dear, to hurry to work in order to give him his breakfast earlier, it was not always possible. When Nandini had been alive, it hadn’t mattered. Food had appeared on the table at the appointed time, the house had been a home. And of course Nandini had spoilt Somnath. He had had to learn how to make himself a cup of tea after she had died. But his culinary skills had not progressed beyond that.

Below the clock, on a shelf that was often dusty nowadays, was a row of photographs, colored as well as the old black and white. Nandini’s was the newest on the shelf, and it showed its recent origin in the rawness of its color, and the shininess of its aluminum frame. He had not put the mandatory garland of flowers around it. That would make her, for him, irrevocably dead. Of course she was no longer in this world, that was true; indeed, he would have to be out of his mind to deny it. But putting a garland there was an act he could never bring himself to perform. It was as though by doing so, he would be putting her away in some camphor-scented box, away from the bustle of life, her home, and what had been her domain. There were several other pictures as well. Each one showing Somnath Babu with some very well known musician, who held in his hands one of the creations of “Ghosh and Brother”, either a sarod, a sitar or, in one instance, a Rudra veena.

Beside Nandini’s picture was one of Shobha. Proximity to her dead mother, at least on the dusty shelf in Somnath Babu’s house, made her seem, somehow, dead as well. It was just the one picture of Shobha as a young girl, with huge Bangla eyes that looked out seriously from under her heavy head of black hair. This had been taken when Shobha had just about entered college. And then, of course, she had done what she had… There were no more pictures of her after that. No pictures of Anup, her husband, with the remembered heavily-mustachioed face. No picture of the wedding. No picture, even, of Babloo, Shobha’s baby son – now possibly a kindergarten-school-going child – whom neither Somnath Babu nor Nandini had ever seen.

Shanti had told Nandini several times while she had been alive that Babloo looked like him, Somnath Babu and not like his father. Thank God for that. It was bad enough having a man who looked like a goon for a son-in-law, without having a grandchild with the same looks. True, Anup not only looked, but was a goon – the neighborhood goonda, who had terrorized the para with his gang. God only knew what Shobha, artistic and quiet always, had seen in him. Glamour, of course. He was rich, too, but Somnath Babu did not believe that money had had anything to do with Shobha’s decision to run away from home to marry Anup, rather than face their – no, not wrath, wrath was something that gentle Somnath Babu and Nandini were quite incapable of expressing – but dismay, and sadness. True, they had forbidden Shobha to marry that good-for-nothing Anup, but then that had been only out of concern for her. The para people whispered about Anup’s lawless and violent ways, of his propensity to get into fights and fisticuffs at the slightest provocation. They had not even come afterwards to seek their blessings, as eloping couples usually did in due course of time, hoping that by doing so, they would mollify the parents somehow. Even after Babloo had been born, there had been no sign of them: the news that he was a grandfather had been brought to Somnath Babu by Nandini one evening after her return from a visit to some neighbor. He had wanted to weep then, and fold Shobha in his arms, but how could he do that? It was not possible to present himself at that goonda’s door, in his white dhoti and with his furled umbrella in his hand, and announce, “I am your father-in-law, how about letting me in, I want to see my daughter and grandson…” And of course Shobha had not come herself. Not when her son had had his first rice ceremony, not even when her mother had died, though living as she did not too far away, it was impossible that she would not know about it. No doubt Anup would not permit his wife and child to go to a house where he himself was not welcome… Besides, in spite of her quietness, Shobha had always been stubborn, and full of pride.

Puzzled and perturbed by the turn of events, Somnath Babu and Nandini had not known what to do. Conflicting bits of advice had been doled out to them by well-meaning neighbors. Do this, don’t do this. In the end, matters had drifted along for such a long time that they became accepted, petrified into actuality. Perhaps if Nandini had been alive, something would have come of it – but now…

Somnath Babu, alone with the Amrita Bazar Patrika, found his mind drifting frequently to Shobha these days. He had not let his grief show when Nandini had been alive, for her sake. Just as Nandini had remained, after the first stunned days, cheerful always, at least before him. But Shobha… He had always looked forward to the day when he would give her away, in front of the sacred fire, to a suitable boy, chosen perhaps by Nandini and himself. They said one of the most blessed acts that a man could perform was that of giving away a daughter in marriage. It brought a man, a householder, the greatest merit.

*

There was a knock at the door. Ah, Shanti. His stomach already rumbling with hunger, Somnath Babu let her in.

Tall and bony, Shanti had been “doing” for them ever since Shobha was a baby. She did not need the money that cooking and cleaning for Somnath Babu fetched her these days. Her family, consisting of five sons and two daughters had prospered. All the boys were working at regular jobs, and looked after their widowed mother well. And though, gradually, Shanti had left off working in all the other houses that had been part of her regular routine, she had not been able to stop coming every morning to Somnath Babu’s place. Especially now that Nandini Didi was no longer around to look after her husband. She had spoiled him, she had, waiting on him hand and foot as she always did. He was hopeless in the kitchen, couldn’t cook to save his life. And if she, Shanti, stopped coming, he wouldn’t even be able to find himself an alternative cook-cum-housekeeper, though he had lived in this neighborhood, near that shop of his forefathers, all his life.

Shanti began preparations for breakfast as soon as she entered the kitchen. The man was of course famished, though he was too gentle to say so. She began to knead and pound the dough for his chapattis energetically. As usual when she saw the helplessness of Somnath Babu’s expression, her thoughts went acerbically to Shobha.

Shanti had glimpsed Shobha just last evening, with the child, what was his name, Babloo at her anchal. Indeed, she bumped into Shobha quite often, which was quite natural, considering she lived in the same neighborhood as her father, after all. She had seen Shobha grow up in front of her eyes, indeed, she had given the child her babyhood oil massages every day, and had watched her start and finish school, and enter college. Such a well-behaved, modest girl. Of course she had known, long before these people, her parents, actually had, that she was going around with that highly unsuitable boy. She had spoken to Shobha about it, drawing her away to a corner of the kitchen. But had the girl listened?

Finally, when the whole para was agog with speculation and scandal, it had been Shanti herself who had decided to take matters to her own hands. Wiping them on the anchal of her sari one day, she had said to Nandini,

“Shobha comes home late from college these days, doesn’t she?”

“Yes,” Nandini had agreed, placidly. “She is taking part in that drama that they are staging there, she told me.”

It had taken an effort of will for Shanti to stop herself from snorting. But she had said, calmly enough, “Drama. Sure, there is a drama taking place. But not in the college, no, everybody knows that.”

Surprised, Nandini had looked up from the paper she had been reading. “What do you mean?”

“What I mean is this. I mean I look on you as my older sister, my Didi…” Shanti had fumbled in an uncharacteristic manner before the limpid simplicity of her employer’s eyes. “Well, please don’t mind, but Shobha, whom I love and care for very much, as indeed I should, for haven’t I seen her growing up in front of my eyes…”

Nandini had waited patiently for the kernel of Shanti’s speech. Finally it had come…

“… So even though I didn’t believe what they were all saying at first, these last few days I have seen her myself, with that fellow, that goonda, Anup. Practically arm-in-arm. Can you imagine our Shobha doing such a thing unless that man cast a spell on her? Yes, a spell, one of those tantra-mantras that can easily be purchased from a shaman. Otherwise our Shobha is not like that, not like that at all. What I’m saying is, talk to her, tell her you are fixing a good match from a bhadrolok family for her, there is still time, true, people are talking, but they will stop when Shobha ends this, after all she has grown up here, and everybody loves her…”

And, she knew, Nandini had tried to talk to Shobha. So, indeed, had her father. But who knew what had gone into Shobha’s head? Instead of listening to her parents, she had shamed them by running off with that fellow. And then, rubbing salt and green chilies in the gaping wound it left in the old people’s lives, she had even settled down here, in the same neighborhood. After all, her husband was the para goonda, the neighborhood muscleman, and he had to live near his place of work, she supposed. Though people said he was much more than a para goonda these days, he had progressed from petty criminality to much bigger things, and had his finger in all sorts of unlawful activities.

Shanti glanced at Somnath Babu as she set his breakfast before him. It would break his heart if he knew. She would have to talk to him, of course, but how? Poor man, poor man… But she said in her usual brisk voice, “There, now, eat. I’ll be in the other room, cleaning up, if you need me.”

*

Somnath Babu looked at the dish of pressed rice cooked with vegetables as well as the curry and chapattis that Shanti had set before him. It was an effort to unloose the knots in his hands in order to start eating, even…

Even when he had been going regularly to “Ghosh and Brother”, of course, his hands had often felt like this. But Nandini’s unguents had kept the worst of the pain and stiffness at bay. And there had been his instruments, of course. The tanpuras, the sarods, the sitars, the Saraswati Veenas, that he manufactured, with so much care and love seemed, in return, to give him something that kept the pain and stiffness away while he worked at them…

Nandini had sometimes expressed regret that they had only a daughter. No son to look after them in their old age… And if God had decided to bless them with only girls, why not give them more, at least three or four of them, instead of just one, so that at least a couple of them would be likely to be around at any point of time. But Shobha had remained an only child.

Somnath Babu, however, had never felt the need for more children. It was enough that they had one, God had been kind enough to them. And didn’t he have those instruments at the shop, whom he could mould and shape just like his own children?

Trying to push the food, clumsily, into his mouth, his mind went to the remembered feel of the wood under his hands as he had shaped the instruments. The best, of course, had been the Rudra Veena. Starting work on one had always been a major event in the life of the shop. Just as an auspicious day was chosen for the first rice ceremony of a child, so, too, a day deemed propitious was chosen to start work on instrument. Amid the lighting of incense sticks, with the sound of the conch shell resounding on all sides, Somnath Babu would pick up a previously-sanctified chisel, and make the first auspicious cut.

Yes, they were his children, his daughters, in more ways than even Nandini had ever known. They would have remained imprisoned within their respective blocks of wood, unborn, if he had not set them free, and given them life. The Rudra Veena would take almost a year to make. True, they were few and far between, for how many actually played that difficult instrument? But daughters were rare too, daughters were a gift. Somnath Babu would make the whole instrument all by himself, not delegating any of the work to his employees. He would spend long hours in the shop, bent over the wood that would slowly take shape under his hands, through the long nights when, after the shop had closed, he would sit alone with the veena, working lovingly on the instrument. First, create the shape. But even before that, when the instrument was a mere idea, just conceived in his mind, he would give her a name. Tarangini, Ragini, Sruti, Antara, Gandhari, Shivranjani, Bhairavi – they were all his creations, the daughters of his skill and love.

He would put the resonators, the huge seasoned gourds, on the main body. The crocodile or snake or bird-shaped decorations at either end would be carved separately by him, and then put gently into their designated sockets. The putting of the frets, the ivory or bone decorations, the painstaking carvings into the seasoned wood, the final varnishing, – yes, he was indeed, in those midnight hours, a loving father, molding the daughters of his heart with his own hands. And when the first copper and steel wires were stretched taut over the frets, and the first auspicious note was plucked, and the veena resonated in its own individual, bell-like voice – yes, he was as ecstatic as any father with his child’s first words, as rapturous, in fact, as he himself had been when Shobha had first lisped, “Baba!”

But his work with his veenas wouldn’t end there. There would be tonal adjustments to be made, strings to be matched, seasoning to be done. In the meantime, the musician for whom the veena was being made would come and strum a few notes on her, getting the feel of the instrument. Somnath Babu would already have the body measurements of the musician, for each veena would have to be tailor-made for the person playing it. And when, finally, the time would come when the Rudra veena player – always a man, for which woman had the stamina to play such a complex and heavy instrument? – would take away the instrument, Somnath Babu would stand at the door, tears streaming down his eyes, like a bereft father on the day his son-in-law took his daughter away.

Of course the musicians would come to him, like sons-in-law, bringing their instruments for repair and adjustments. In fact, they still did, even now, for even though “Ghosh and Brother” did not exist any more, he, Somnath Babu, was one of the few people alive today who could repair a Rudra veena, in spite of his arthritic hands. And when they did, he would feel that his home was full, once more. Like daughters who came from their marital home to their father’s house, like Ma Durga herself who came to her father’s house to rest for a few days away from Shiva, his veenas, too, would come, wounded, perhaps, with scratches on their resonators caused by too much travelling through the concert halls of the world, or a gouge on their stems, which would alter the very tone of their voices. They would need to be coddled, and made much of, just like married daughters always were when they came to their father’s house on their annual visits. And when finally, the musician came to take the instrument away, Somnath Babu would once more feel a father’s grief as he watched the man pack his Tarangini, or Bhairavi, or Shivaranjani into its modern fiberglass case and take her away once more. “Don’t tire her out with too much work, look after her, her voice needs constant care, she doesn’t like the air-conditioned halls to which you take her all the time…!” he would want to say.

But of course he never did.

*

There was something that Shanti needed to tell Somnath Babu today. Even as she bustled busily about her duties, she wondered how she would frame it. If Nandini Didi had been alive now, it would have been different – no problem at all – in fact things wouldn’t have come to this at all. A pretty pass, indeed. Shanti pursed up her lips and attacked the clothes that she was washing with a great deal of force, as though they, poor Somnath Babu’s blameless clothes, were that asura Anup himself, in person.

Shanti heard all the neighborhood gossip, but discounted a large part of what she heard, even as she relished repeating most of it, again, herself, to others. But what she had been hearing, of late, about Shobha, was not something that could be enjoyed and ignored. Slapping Somnath Babu’s dhoti against the floor with great violence, she thought angrily about what she had seen. Now, of course, there was no way in which she could ignore the gossip – she had seen with her own eyes the proof…

She was setting Somnath Babu’s lunch in front of him when the words came blurting out from her mouth.

“I saw Shobha yesterday, as I was leaving, you know.” She didn’t look at him as she said it. “In fact I sometimes do…”

Somnath Babu looked up, surprised. When Shanti spoke to him, it was usually about mundane domestic matters. She was looking at the table with a strange, set expression on his face, as though she had seen something unpleasant, a cockroach perhaps, there. His heart began to thump, and the familiar constriction began to clamp down on his chest. Luckily, she didn’t seem to require him to give her a reply or something…

“She didn’t know I had seen her. She was walking down the road, on the other side, with her child, Babloo, near her. What I want to say is… I mean I have heard this many times from others but…”

Somnath Babu waited silently.

“That no good Anup, he’s been using his fists on her.” There, it was out. “People say he beats her every time he comes home drunk, which is often, as you can imagine. But I didn’t believe them… Till today. I saw her, you know. Her face was swollen, her eyes were blackened.” Shanti permitted herself to glance fearfully at her employer, but what she saw in his face made her look quickly away again. “I mean, I have lived in a slum all my life, I know what a battered woman, a woman beaten by a man, looks like.”

Her voice uncertain now, Shanti continued, “What I am saying is this. Shobha won’t come to you, especially not now, when she needs help. She was always a proud one. But there’s nothing to prevent you from going, is there? Talk to her, ask her to come here, stay with you for a while with Babloo, it will be good for her, and for you…”

Without waiting for a reply, she went back into the kitchen. From behind the shelter of its door, she added, “If you like, I can go to her house today, or tomorrow, and tell her you want to go over… Prepare her a bit, like…”

Somnath Babu said nothing. Mechanically, he pulled the dishes towards him, and began to eat. His heart was pounding now, and he could feel himself perspiring. His mind seemed to have gone fuzzy, too, in a way it sometimes did these days… What was she saying, Shobha…?

He was washing his hands after having finished his lunch when there was a knock at the door. Shanti opened it to let in a tall, well-built middle aged man.

“Namaste Somnath Babu, I hope this is not an inconvenient time, but my veena urgently needs your attention.”

It was Akhtar Hussain, the famed beenkar.

“No, not at all.” Force of habit made the words come out courteously, though his heart seemed ready to burst. “Come in, I’ll see what I can do…”

“No, I think I’ll leave the veena here, in your music room, if I may. Some people are waiting for me. In fact, I’m already late. I’ll come back later, in a day or two, perhaps…”

Shanti closed the door behind him as he left, after depositing the fiberglass case in the adjoining room.

*

An hour or so later, Shanti went in again to the music room, to tell Somnath Babu that she had finished her work, and would be leaving soon.

A sound of someone speaking came to her. Had that musician returned, then? Perhaps she should give him a cup of tea before leaving…

She went closer to the door.

Somnath Babu was all alone in the room. In front of him was a veena, probably the one that the afternoon’s visitor had brought.

Unaware that Shanti was watching, Somnath Babu continued speaking. Indeed, he would probably not have noticed her even if she had been standing before him as he crooned to the veena before him. In his voice was all the anguish of a helpless father. His hands, gnarled and knotted, moved over the varnished wood of the stem of the veena as though he was stroking away its pain with unseen unguents.

“My poor child, my Gandhari, what has he done to you? Your eyes, your arms… Ah, that must hurt. But don’t worry, you’ve come home now. Home to Baba, don’t worry, I’ll take care of you, these bruises around your eyes, just let me put the medicine on them, you’ll see, they’ll heal in no time at all. There won’t even be any marks after I finish. I won’t let that man take you away again, Gandhari, you will stay here with me just as long as you want to, with Babloo, he can go to school from here, it’s no problem… You can stay with me just as you used to, before…” His voice broke.

Shanti backed out of the door, a stunned look in her eyes.

2 comments
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  1. I live in England, am very interested in Indian writers writing in English, and stumbled across Mitra Phukan by accident. I have just read “The Homecoming” and found it one of the most moving short stories I have ever read. The style of writing is totally in keeping with the subject matter, and generates the right amount of interest to draw the reader into the story; the characters are very well drawn, even those that we don’t actually “meet”. It is a slice of the life of a sick and lonely, aging man, and the troubles that visit him. Inspiring, enjoyable and intensely moving writing! Congratulations to Ms Phukan – I shall receommend her to my friends and cannot wait to read her novel!

  2. I have been reading Temsula Ao, Mamang Dai and other women writers living in one of the loveliest regions of the world, and every reading experience has made me a better human being – more alive to the resonances of the subtle feelings of the heart, more aware of the woman in me, more resilient to the onslaughts of life. This story – I will remember for the rest of my life. It has touched me in a way very few have. Thank you, Mitra didi. Please accept my pranam,

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