The people in the locality were dozing off when the stentorian bellow woke them up. It took them a couple of seconds to gather their bearings before they deciphered the source of the bellow. Someone had incurred Das Babu’s wrath. In most cases, the victim was either Lokhi, his subdued, self effacing wife or Khokon, his middle aged servant.
The women rushed to their windows to see what the matter was. The little ones joined them enthusiastically. A quarrel in the para, it seems,was always infinitely more interesting than the complicated sums that their Master Moshai gave them to do.
“You scoundrel,” Das Babu was yelling at a half bent figure who was hidden from view by his huge structure. “What did you mix with my tea?”
“N..nothing .. nothing .. dada babu,” the pleading voice of Khokon could be heard. “Your cook handed it over to me from the kitchen and I brought it to you.”
The explanation however went in vain because Das Babu had disappeared halfway through. He was seen racing towards the house, with his dhoti half undone.
He returned a little later, sweating profusely. His face was a beetroot red and despite the scowl on his face, he looked exhausted. He collapsed onto the bench in front of his shop and groaned.
“I will never forgive you, you villain,” he groaned. “You just wait. I am going to whip you .. oh God!” He was gone again.
The ladies in the neighbourhood were puzzled. They were scared to speak though. Das Babu was not exactly one of the friendliest of souls. The children in the locality were the only ones who dared to go near him. Oh, how he hated them for the tricks they sprang on him!
Meanwhile, Khokon was on the ground, wailing loudly.
“I did nothing,” his piteous cry rang through the neighbourhood.
“Aha re,” one of the ladies murmured sympathetically. “Poor Khokon. I am sure he is innocent.”
The others nodded.
“Did he eat something out of the way?” Ghosh Babu asked.
“Puchkas?” Roy Babu asked curiously. “He has no control over himself when he sees puchkas.”
Shakti da, the local puchka wala, immediately slid away like a mouse. He had served some puchkas earlier in the day in a bid to bribe Das Babu into getting his son admitted to the new school in the locality.
“No, no,” Ghosh Babu said. He was perfectly alright after eating the puchkas. It was the tea he had a few minutes ago that has done the damage. You should have seen him after having the first sip. His face turned blue and his pupils fell out of his eyes. His tongue too was hanging out. It was like seeing Ma Kali before my eyes. I really thought he was possessed.”
“I did nothing,” wept Khoka. “How can I betray my master?”
“Arre baba, don’t cry,” Ghosh Babu placated him,”I am not saying you did something. I know you are innocent. You have been serving him since you were a young boy.”
Khokon was a wee bit mollified after hearing that and his loud wails subsided into a whimpering. Meanwhile, amidst all the commotion, Mitra Babu’s wife was seen gesticulating to her husband quite frantically.
“Ki re baba ?” he barked at her from below.
“Give him some salt and sugar water,” she mouthed the words. To be honest, at that point in time, no one could really decipher what she was saying except her husband of twenty odd years. One only managed to understand what had transpired between the two, after the life saving glass of liquid appeared.
Das Babu had returned by now and was lying on the bench in a distraught state. “I am dying,” he sobbed. “My stomach is going to explode. I am sure someone has done this to get hold of my property. How will I go to Kolkata now? My idiot brother will marry that girl and then she and her greedy father will take away all my money. Oh Maa go ! May everyone be doomed.”
“Shh, don’t say that,” Ghosh Babu tried to placate him. “These things happen. The summer heat must have caused this to happen.”
“Summer heat, my foot,” Das Babu roared. “I know who is behind all this.”
He shook his fist at Khokon who promptly burst into another bout of bawling.
Lokhi, in the meantime, was sitting on the ground, fanning her husband. She hadn’t said a word till now. That was not surprising in the least – her husband never let her speak.
Half an hour later, the doctor arrived and whisked him off to the nursing home. “Saline has to be given immediately,” he said, shaking his head. “Or else…”
The doctor’s statement triggered off a hysterical cry from Khokhon who beat his forehead in grief and followed his master to the haashpataal. Lokhi stood silently. She seemed to be crying. A few minutes later, she wiped her eyes with the end of her saree, raised her hands in prayer and went into the house.
There was a lull in the locality till Das Babu returned a day later.
“Serves him right,” I chortled to myself as I watched him wriggling in pain on the bench. No one saw me though. My face was covered. “He thought he could get away with his bullying. Now let me see how he manages to go to Kolkata to prevent his brother from marrying the girl he loves!”
As the local boys took him away on a stretcher, I managed to squeeze out a few tears, wiped my eyes with the end of my saree, said a prayer and went back to the house. I was finally going to have a good night’s sleep without his snoring. But before that, I had a lot of work to do. I had to make preparations to welcome the new bride and groom home. Now where was Khokon?
Para – Locality
Master Moshai – Teacher
Dada babu – Brother
Dhoti – A traditional unstitched piece of cloth worn by Indian men around their waist.
Puchkas – a spicy street snack consisting of fried, puffed up Indian bread, spicy mashed potatoes and tamarind water.
Puchka wala – A puchka vendor
Oh Maa go – Oh dear Mother
Ma Kali – Goddess Kali
Haashpataal – Hospital