by Bhaswati Chakravorty
There is a joy in clichés: every train ride (if you are not a ‘daily passenger’) is a journey through the heartland. It depends on where you locate that heart — outside the window, inside the crowded compartment, or both if you like.
I am a frequent passenger on an evening ride to Birbhum district that takes me two stations beyond Bolpur/Santiniketan in a train that goes up to Malda town. On it, I have discovered with unbelieving eyes how much, for example, a 21-strong contingent of determinedly cheerful Bengalis, of all ages and sizes, can eat in three hours. And have been forced to hear, with ears equally unbelieving, how incessantly and deafeningly they can talk about food. There the tastes are laudably eclectic: their favourite foods can be anything from luchi-mangsho and kachki maachh to pizzas and momos. The attitude, too, I must call catholic: food is the earthly attraction on a spiritual journey to Tarapith.
But that experience was simple. I saw nothing but food, and heard nothing but chomping mandibles, sucking noises and menus remembered or anticipated. I had a more complicated experience recently. I was gazing comfortably out at the darkening sky when I became aware of two young men who settled down next to me after the train left Bardhaman. I noticed them only because one of them was displaying a vocal interest in two American girls two rows away from us. The other asked why he was staring. “Why shouldn’t I look?” was the reply. “It’s a thing to see (dekhar jinish) so I’m looking.” Try as I might, I couldn’t tune out any more.
I gathered that they were from Rampurhat, and had a friend sitting somewhere behind us. He was somehow special. The boys referred to him with mocking respect as “Mashtar”, punching the senses of teacher and master together by pronunciation and tone. As the train slowed for Bolpur, the two girls, along with many others, got ready to alight. The first young man resettled himself to stare his eyes out while the other remarked, “I told you they’re going to Santiniketan.” Unbidden, the face of the old bearded man with the unforgettable eyes flashed across my mind — a homeless image, a face with nowhere to go. As I struggled to put him down gently somewhere in the swirling confusion of my thoughts, the second young man called out to their friend, “Come and sit here Mashtar, give us a little of your touch. Seven hundred thousand with a 50,000 hike every year — just to see you is lucky.”
He appeared, more expensively dressed than his companions. He sat down diagonally opposite me, leaned back, put up his well-shod feet each between the knees of each of his two friends, spread his knees out wide, and put his hand where I had been unforgivably trained not to look. Respectability is blinding, I decided. I did look, with great care, taking my time, so that I could make no mistake. And all the while I was thinking, in slow motion, what are they talking about? Not dowry, surely. Of course not. People take dowry, but they don’t yell about it in public spaces.
It was dowry though, as the teasing exchange made evident. It’s a joke, I comforted myself. I had gathered by then that the third man was from Rampurhat too, and had bagged a job as a schoolteacher in Bardhaman. I was aware that you have to pay heavily for a teacher’s post. I know a boy who couldn’t pay, so could not join the teacher’s post for which he had been selected in a village. I also gathered that this teacher was about to get married.
My station was getting closer. “Most of us ask for houses,” said one of his companions. “Why don’t you ask your father-in-law for a house in Bardhaman? That’ll be less than 8 hundred thousand anyway.” The bridegroom-to-be said little. “So, what have you decided, house or cash?” persisted his friend. “Cash,” said Mashtar at last, “the wife can stay in Rampurhat.” “That’s clever,” said his admiring friends, “you have the cash and she stays at home. No wonder you’re our guru!”
I got off. Was I some affected nincompoop? Didn’t I know how real dowry was? I asked the men in the village I was visiting what the rates were. A man with family land, no job, no education, is worth 5 hundred thousand , they said. So the new father-in-law was getting the schoolteacher cheap, perhaps? Why was I so rattled? That they talked about it publicly? Then I was the hypocrite. That this young man was going to teach children? Whatever it was, I can’t forget him, his sliding eyes, his feet on his friend’s bodies, his hand on his expensive crotch.
Travelling through the heartland, the landscape is calming.