First published in Humanities Underground
Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh
Nirman Bhavan–the foundation for which had been laid by the late Lal Bahadur Shastri–is now an imposing structure. As the older Shastri Bhavan became too cramped for space, many such buildings –each associated with a ministry –added to Delhi’s splendour.
I had some work with the director of Nirman Bhavan. Though not a government employee, I have to to rub shoulders with senior government officers from time to time for the sake of my business.
The sight of Nirmala boudi at the reception on the first floor shocked me. With a vigorous gesticulation of her hands, she argued with the reception officer in chaste Hindi.
“Listen now. You can’t stop me from coming here, whether I make ten visits or twenty. This office is for the public after all. We’ll come whenever we need to.”
The reception officer tried to reason with her with a resigned look.
“I’m not stopping you from coming here, Madam. All I’m saying is if you call us before coming, it will save you unnecessary trouble.”
“Necessary or unnecessary, that’s for me to decide. Now, will you please issue me a pass?”
Even as she said those words, Nirmala boudi almost grabbed the huge register opened before the reception officer, Mr. Bhandari. Turning the register towards her, she entered details like name: Mrs. Nirmala Roy, purpose of visit: allotment of house etc.
Mr. Bhandari had no option but to prepare a gate pass and hand it to the woman standing in front of him.
I needed a gate pass, too, but my destination was different from Nirmala boudi’s. I had to meet the director of the state office, whereas Nirmala boudi wanted to meet the additional director.
I watched the scene quietly, standing right behind boudi. As she turned back with the gate pass, I blurted, “What brings you here –haven’t you got your quarter yet?”
Clutching a huge file close to her chest, Nirmala boudi said with a busy look reflecting off her glasses, “Come outside –I’ll tell you.”
I didn’t want to get late, but Nirmla boudi could be hard to ignore. At one time, we were both residents of the same village in Bangladesh’s Bakharganj district. Nirmala boudi was the eldest daughter-in-law of the Roy family, and I, the youngest son of Hemanta Gupta of the Gupta family. Our houses were adjacent to each other –a bamboo bridge over on a small canal served as a shortcut to go from our house to theirs. This is a unique feature of Bakharganj or Barisal district, filled as it is with canals and streams. Villages, all surrounded by water, appear like islands, complete in themselves.
At the time of her marriage, Nirmala boudi was fourteen and I, a ten-year-old, studying in class five in the village school. As per village customs, Atin da, Nirmala boudi’s husband, was my brother. Based on his grandmother’s wishes, Atin da was married off to Nirmala boudi as soon as he earned his graduation degree at twenty-two.
Being next-door neighbours, it didn’t take the two of us too long to get acquainted with each other. The Roy family had big gardens flanking both sides of their house. I would gather whatever fruits were in season –mangoes, Java plums, berries, guavas, elephant apples, custard apples, velvet apples, grapefruit, jujubes, cranberries –and run to the Roy household. They were a joint family and the house would always be full of people. Luckily, the family elders and servants lived on the ground floor. The upper floor was almost entirely reserved for the family’s young brigade –married or not.
With a whole stash of ripe and unripe fruits, I would stealthily climb up the staircase to the first floor and sneak into the southern room, allotted to Atin da after his marriage. The moment she saw me, Nirmala boudi’s eyes would gleam with delight through her veil.
As I was friends with the boys of the Roy family who were closer to my age, it was easy to get introduced to Nirmala boudi. She happened to be the youngest — the same age as us –bride in the entire neighbourhood. We always kept a share of whatever we collected for Nirmala boudi. All this had to be clandestine, though, given how conservative the Roys were. A daughter-in-law was almost like a prisoner in that house, denied any contact with outside air or light. Naturally, the young Nirmala boudi took to our group.
On summer afternoons, when the older folks enjoyed their siesta or were busy doing something else, we would drag Nirmala boudi to the terrace balcony and reveal our loot. Out came from our pockets treats like raw mangoes, berries, grapefruit, green chillies, a knife, salt and the like. Some of us would even bring freshly cut banana leaves to use as plates. Five or six of us sat circling Nirmala boudi. She would peel the fruits, make a delicious mix with the available ingredients and pile them on the leaf plates. Our feasting would ensue.
These sessions continued even as we grew older. The menu had changed by then, though. On sleepy afternoons, escaping the elders’ glances, we would have tea parties inside the closed doors of the Roys’ kitchen, located outside the boundaries of the house. Although some of the adults drank tea, the beverage was strictly prohibited for children. Nirmala boudi made us not only this forbidden drink; she made for us something that was even more strictly off-limits –omelettes made from hen’s eggs, which she served us on banana leaf plates. She wouldn’t have it herself, though.
Nirmala boudi had another talent –she was an accomplished card player. Some of the other boudis played cards, too, but their scope would be limited to the game of Twenty Nine. Nirmala boudi played Bridge with us. She came from a family where sports and arts and culture were highly valued.
It’s difficult to imagine that young bride of more than forty years ago by looking at this fifty-plus bespectacled, file-clutching, sari-draped woman.
A government servant, Atin da quickly descended to the lower middle class after losing all his land, property and wealth in East Pakistan. With his retirement, the family landed where it was expected to –in deep waters. But Nirmala boudi is a master in making the impossible possible. Back in the village, one hadn’t been able to read her that well. Once in Delhi, she zipped out of her old shell like a bullet. She sat beside her children and opened books and notebooks to study. From A, B, C, D, she went up to matriculation, then completed her B.A. Next, she rushed towards the job market. Atin da had retired by then. The feisty Nirmla boudi didn’t stop before finding herself a job at the Ministry of Rehabilitation. Her age posed a bit of an issue, but she got past that challenge by getting hold of Indira Gandhi or the president. With Atinda’s retirement, they had to vacate the government accommodation allotted to him and move to a rented accommodation. He had large payments to make –mostly to clear the debt he incurred for his daughter’s marriage a year ago.