“After we had been without food the whole day, my younger brother Piloo came back with news of a network of cucumber vines on a trellis beside a house. He took me to the place in the afternoon and showed me. There were eight to ten young green cucumbers. Our eyes looked so hungry all the time those days that people used to chase us away as soon as they saw us. Our mother did not care. She would wait at the station day after day in hope of my father’s return. Piloo used to behave very badly when he went hungry for the day. He would call our mother all sorts of names.
That evening I noticed a commotion in the distance. Piloo was nowhere nearby. A group of boys had caught him and were taking him away to give him a thrashing. I heard his helpless screams for me. That was the first time I felt a wild buffalo stir inside my head. I ran after them. I jumped into the melee and said to them, ‘Let my brother go! He has not stolen the cucumbers. We are very poor. Our father has been gone for the last three or four days.’
I do not know what those thuggish boys thought when they heard me but they let Piloo go. They said, ‘Bastard, next time we will thrash both of you if we see you skulking about!’
I said politely, We will never come back here.’ I then looked at Piloo and said in a very grown up voice, ‘Did you steal anything? Tell me truthfully!’
‘No brother! They are saying they will beat me up for no reason at all.’
After the group had left, he said very quietly, ‘Do you want to go and look for Father again?’
‘Come with me and I will show you,’ he then took me to a large brickyard. It was full of trees and shrubs. There were some tall shireesh trees in front of us. There were large ant hills and behind these were two minarets. Perhaps there was a darga in the neighbourhood. There might even be an annual fair. Piloo continued to go deeper into the jungle. I could not understand what would draw my father to a spot like this. Piloo suddenly said in a childlike voice, ‘Here they are!’ He pushed away grass and leaves with both hands. There were the missing cucumbers. Piloo really had stolen them then! My father would be very saddened to hear that he had stolen something. Piloo said, ‘Do not tell our father. Do you hear me, not a word!’
I had never seen Piloo so sad in my life. I said, ‘No.’
I could not stay angry with him for very long. Hunger is such a thing – anything can be justified at the time. I no longer remembered that just a short while ago, a bunch of boys were threatening to thrash Piloo for stealing and they had been right; that he had denied everything, that Piloo was my brother and the son of a man as honest as my father and that I had been hurt by their words.
I looked around and said, ‘What if someone sees us again?’
‘This is such a big forest. No one comes here.’
It was a big forest. There were train lines and a station with red brick houses at a distance. The only sounds were those of villagers walking by. We needed to hide the cucumbers under the clothes we were wearing. What if someone did see us? It was as if we could not even trust these trees or the birds. We lived and slept on the platforms and those cucumbers were very precious indeed. I would eat, Piloo would eat, Ma would eat and Maya, why she would want to eat them all on her own. But what if Ma did not eat it? It was possible that she might not want to eat stolen food. Besides she has not been feeling like herself. She has been cursing her fate as she thinks about our father’s lack of sense. We become very excited as soon as we reach the station and look at each train, hoping our father will descend from one of the trains. So many people get off the trains but not one of them looks like our father. I then begin to appreciate Piloo’s misbehavior. I feel an intense love for him.
Piloo says, ‘Brother, you eat one, I will eat one.’ He gives me one and takes one for himself. He shows me another one and says, ‘This is for Maya, Ma will eat this one. There will be two left over and we will eat that in the morning. Somehow we have to stay alive till father gets back.’
Our father does not have money. He does not need a ticket on the trains. This is typical of people who do not have money. He is a very sociable person and he becomes accepted wherever he goes as a Brahmin elder very quickly. As a result, it does not matter whether he has money or not. He travels quite far on these trains. I wonder what he eats and how he manages on these trips. He keeps wandering from place to place comparing the prices of fish and rice and trying to see if he can find a family willing to become his disciples. He was all at sea since we had left our home and it was hard to look him in the eye in his present state.
The water seller at the station asked, ‘Boys, where did you go? Did you find your father?’
Piloo asked, ‘Has our father gone missing?’
‘I have heard he has left you and gone away.’
This made me very angry. I wanted to say, ‘My father is not like that at all! We worry about him because he is loved!’ But I said nothing. After all we could ill afford to anger these people. Where would we go if they cast us out like so much rubbish?
I cannot even remember that we once had a home of our own. There was a Shiuli shrub there. We joined everyone in picking flowers in autumn. We picked Sthal padmas from our own bush. Our father bought fresh fish at the markets. Our mother celebrated Lakshmi Puja. We ate our fill of mangoes during mango season and litchis when they ripened. Once upon a time.”
Manusher Ghor Bari, Atin Bandopadhyay
An account of Bengali refugees who came to India after 1947.
Shiuli:Nyctanthes arbor-tristis – a flowering shrub
Shireesh:Albizia lebbeck – a large tree
Sthal Padma: The Rose of Sharon – a flowering shrub
Lakshmi Puja: A celebration of the goddess of plenty