Manik Bondopaddhaya –Translation: Haroonuzzaman
Born on May 5, 1908 in Bikrampur, Dacca, Manik Bondopaddhaya spent his childhood in different areas of Bengal and Bihar with his father who had a transferable government job. With the publication of his short story ‘Otoshi Mami’ in Bichitra, a literary magazine, in 1928, he created a wave in the literary world. He was then a student of Presidency College, Calcutta. He wrote ‘Dibaratrir Kabyya’, a novel, at the age of 21. Even in a poverty-stricken life, writing was his living. His first novel ‘Jononi’ was published in 1935. Among his works, ‘Padma Nodir Majhi’, and ‘Putul Nacher Itikotha’ are outstanding. He died in 1956.
The following short story is a translation of Bondopaddhaya’s ‘Oshohojogi’.
Harshanath, the father of Romen, is a rich wholesale merchant of Dhaneshganj.
With the hope of getting his son transformed into a gentle and mild-tempered boy, a year ago Harshanath had sent Romen to Surjopodo, Harshanath’s cousin’s husband. Barely could Harshanath cope with Romen as he became so very dangerously naughty. Even he had had to go to court, twice or thrice, for his son. Finally, when one day Romen beat up the son of Mr. Basu, a magistrate, causing mutual bloodshed, Harshanath could understand that it was beyond his capacity to control this boy and that he would spell disaster for him. In times of war, he was minting money in so many ways. If the magistrate Sahib¸an appellation affixed to the names of gentlemen, became angry, would there be any way out for him?
With pricey gifts, he went straight to the house of the magistrate: there were gifts worth about two hundred rupees only for the boy who had been beaten up. Falling at the feet of Mrs. Basu, he prayed for Romen’s deliverance. Already he had thought about the measures he would take against his son. Therefore, without an iota of doubt, he informed her that being scared Romen had fled. Also, said he, that on Romen’s return, he would give him some serious lashing, tying him to a bamboo pole.
That very day he left for Calcutta with Romen to put him in Surjopodo’s care.
Romen’s mother, however, registered a feeble protest. “I heard he is involved in Swadeshi (nationalist) movement. Hope he does not change the mind of my son.”
Harshanath bristled with ridicule: “Swadeshi ! Pooh! Wouldn’t he land in jail if he did Swadeshi? Those are tactics for earning money. Perhaps he belongs to some party or association for collecting tolls. Can teaching be a living for anyone?”
Surjopodo’s house was in the city suburbs. Harshanath could not stay more than one night at Surjopodo’d house. He had a lot of work at Dhaneshganj. How could he stay away from it for a long time?
Informing Surjopodo about everything, he requested him: “Brother, you must make him a man. You must correct him.”
Laughing, Surjopodo said: “Of course, I will. I’ll make your son a man.”
Surjopodo, however, made it a condition that under no circumstances would Rome be taken back to Dhaneshganj within a year and that money should not be sent to Romen directly.
Agreeing to the condition, Harshanath returned to Dhaneshganj. When he wanted to give fifty rupees as sustenance allowance for Romen, Surjopodo took twenty-five rupees only and said: “I am a poor teacher, and I can’t afford your son’s expenses. But he won’t need more than twenty-five rupees for his expenses.”
Harshanath sent fifty rupees again the next month. When twenty five rupees came back, happily he told Romen’s mother: “Oh no! This man is really good. I think he will be able to correct him.”
After a year, Romen came back home during the Puja vacation. Observing a marked change in Romen’s personality, for the first few days Harshanath felt extremely glad. In looks, in manners and even in conversation, he seemed to have become gentler, calmer and more composed. He had his unkempt long hair trimmed and combed; his clothing was cheap but neat and clean. His face had a smiling look, his words were sweet and his manners sophisticated.
Earlier, with the appearance of a ruffian, he would wander round the area the whole day; he would either remain engaged in pugilistic encounters or in games. He had been such a restless boy a year back! He would continue doing his mischief, one after another, without respite. He would never heed anyone. But now? His naughtiness, wantonness and effrontery had vanished.
He still wandered around the whole day; this was his only reproachable act. But Harshanath felt relieved when he did not get any information about Romen’s misdeeds and found no sign of mischief on Romen’s body or clothes after he had returned home. Harshanath thought that perhaps Romen kept himself thoroughly engaged in idle gossip with his old friends since his return here after a long time. What else it could be? When seven days had gone by, though, he became a little suspicious. Returning from the godown to have his meal at home, Harshanath saw that around three hundred emaciated and famine-stricken men and women, young and old, seated in the nearby open space under the banyan tree, were eating rice. Romen and thirty boys of his age were serving them food.
Harshanath gaped, unbelieving. Going inside the house, he sent someone to call his son.
Romen was bubbling with enthusiasm. “We are giving them a treat, baba. Do you know how much we had to think before giving them a treat? They have been without food for so many days, and now if they eat aplenty, they will die. Do they understand that? Everyone is shouting, ‘Give them more and more.’ It’s difficult to manage.”
“Where did you get the rice and lentils from?
“Mother has given them.”
In fear, Romen’s mother said: “He has been asking for it. Let them do it. They are all praying for us. It will do us good.”
“Let me see what good it does for us.”
The store of the house was almost like a godown. First, Harshanath collected the key of the store, and after they were through with their meal, he chased them away.
Romen’s face became gloomy. He said: “Baba, I have told them to eat here daily for seven days. Then they will return to their villages.”
“Shut up, you rascal. Free meals for seven days! This is a plot to pauperize me!”
Days went by. Everyday, the cries of the helpless and the hungry people from across the village kept getting louder and louder. Romen did not laugh any more. He sat to eat, but he got up without eating: milk remained in the milk pot where it used to be; ants ate the delicious sweetmeats.
Angrily, Harshanath said: “What a problem! Why? What happened?”
“All will starve to death. Won’t you do anything for them, baba?”
“Didn’t I contribute twenty maunds of rice to relief?”
“Only twenty maunds! You have thousands of maunds of rice in your godown. Everyone is condemning me, baba. Everybody hates me because I am your son.”
“Shut up, you scoundrel!”
Romen’s whereabouts remained a mystery for the next two days. His mother kept worrying and wailing. Even though he was frightened, Harshanath was very glum. He seemed to be losing his temper in anger, fear and worry. He thought he would flog Romen to death after his return, but when Romen did return, Harshanath did not dare to scold him, observing the boy’s glance.
“Where did you go without letting us know?”
“To seven villages with Onathbabu.”
With Onathbabu! With Harshanath’s greatest enemy! With that man for whom Harshanath had to sell around a thousand maunds of rice at a fixed price instead of hoarding it in his godown! That man!
In a soft and an appealing tone, Romen said: “Baba, you just can’t imagine the situation. Do one thing, baba. Sell the rice, keeping one rupee profit over your purchase price. You won’t lose, but think how many people will survive!”
“There won’t be any loss, you say that! If I sell at rupee fourteen instead of forty, don’t you think I’ll lose? What sort of calculations have you learnt?” Harshanath tried to trash Romen’s words.
In reply, Romen said: “Then I am going to give all your rice away, baba. I am telling you beforehand. I won’t let you murder people.”
“I’ll give you a slap. Don’t talk big.”
“I mean it. You will see.”
Who cares about the light words of a young boy? Harshanath has so many people in the wholesale market! Also, the godown is locked. Even if Romen wants, how will he be able to distribute the rice? This is not going to happen even if he comes with his fifty friends and Onathbabau.
Harshanath did not worry about it at all. But he was shocked at Romen’s eccentricity.
What a great mistake it was for him to send Romen to Surjopodo! It would have been better had he become a devil or a hooligan. He would have become all right automatically with the passage of time.
After some days Harshanath left the village in connection with some business. While leaving, he told the people at the wholesale market that they should control Romen if he wanted to create any disturbances there and inform the police straightaway so that they could catch Onath red-handed if he tried to create any uproar. Before his departure, he visited the police station to inform its officials how Onath had been trying to change his son’s mind.
The next day pandemonium was let loose around the wholesale market. Nitaichoron, the head employee of Harshanath’s wholesale market, sent his subordinate to open the shop. Taking advantage of Harshanath’s absence, a relaxed Nitaichoron came late to the market and, on arrival, he found about five hundred people crowding around the wholesale shop.
He found himself rooted to the spot upon entering the market. All of them were sitting on the oily and dusty floor where a thousand cans of oil had remained stacked till the other day. A little farther stood Romen with his father’s two-barrel gun in his hand. The wholesale market was filled with boys of Romen’s age.
“Nitai uncle, come on in. Could you give me the key of the godown?
“Key? Where can I get the key from? The key is with your father.”
“Then sit out there. The door has to be broken.”
One of Romen’s friends held Nitai by the hand and seated him, with a thud, on the heap of oil.
Romen said: “I made someone lame with this gun. Do you remember? Nobody should even try to outsmart and hoodwink me. Then I will shoot. “From dawn to dusk, Romen stood there keeping vigil. About one hundred and fifty boys brought out rice from inside the godown to distribute among the thousands of famished people who had thronged the venue from far and wide. Earlier, to get his message across, Romen had drums beaten in the villages. Although some policemen arrived at the venue, they did not try to enter the spot of occurrence. Rather they extended some help in controlling the crowd and the disturbance. In the morning Romen went to the police station to inform the policemen that his father would distribute rice among the starving people that day. He also posted some big notices outside the wholesale market to this effect.
The rice stock got exhausted around the evening.
Getting the news, Harshanath returned the next day. Glum, he sat before his son. He felt like crying.
Haroonuzzaman, a novelist and translator, teaches English at Independent University Bangladesh.