The residents of Jhautala noticed that an affluent looking gentleman around 60 years of age rented two separate flats in the ground floor of a house in their locality. He was occupying one of these flats while another man of his age lodged in the other along with his teenaged daughter. The father was a frail and fretful figure and his daughter was a fair, pretty young lady with doe eyes and thick black hair falling down to her hips.
Every morning the two men left for the market on a rickshaw and in the afternoon returned with a huge amount of shopping. Within a couple of weeks they filled their homes with various items and products from furniture, utensils, jewelry, saris, clothing et al. Their extravagance caught the attention of one and all.
The people in the surrounding neighborhood got curious by the day and sought ways to get acquainted with them. But, both the men maintained a distance and showed an acute unwillingness to encourage any sort of socializing.
Jorabattala was a popular hang-out for the youth. In the afternoon they assembled to chat, play cards or carom and left for home when darkness descended.
“Hey, Nehru I just saw a few laborers carrying in a brand new Amirah and a couch on a wheelbarrow at house No: 45,” said Tapan scurrying in excited for a juicy round of gossip.
“Those men are most probably relatives piling up gifts to be given as dowry for their daughter’s wedding,”Nehru said casually looking up at him from his cards.
“But don’t you find it strange that not even a single female member has accompanied them. Maybe, a distant aunt or a sister, if she is motherless and the only issue of her parents?” he replied back.
“Come on Tapan, what’s bothering you so much? Are you in love with the girl? Just say it and we will beg her hand in marriage with you,” teased Nehru laughing.
“Nonsense! Joke as you may,” said Tapan infuriated. “I can bet that there is something wrong with them.”
“Cool down brother. There is nothing to get worked up unnecessarily on such a minor issue. The best way is to ask the person involved,” said Salil putting his arm around Tapan’s shoulder.
“If it was so easily said than done,” sulked Tapan under his breath.
“Oh yes, you sure bet it is,” replied Salil confidently.
“And how may I know?” gesticulated Tapan.
“Well I have seen the girl visit the Kali Temple alone every Saturday morning at the break of dawn,” exclaimed Salil jubilantly as if he had made an important discovery. .
“And you think that she would take it lightly if strangers like us confronted her at that unholy hour?” ridiculed Nehru.
“No, of course not. Why should we meet her?” said Salil.
“Then?” asked Tapan expectantly.
“I will ask my sister Sheila and her friend Gita to go and offer prayers in the pretense of befriending her.”
“Excellent!” cried out Tapan.
Sheila, Salil’s younger sister was studying in Class X and Gita was her classmate and her best friend. As planned they ventured out very early on a Saturday morning to unravel the mystery that surrounded this family. When they reached the staircase of the temple they saw the girl who was of their age, clad in a white raw silk sari with a bold red border; carrying a basket full of flowers and a garland made out of china rose approaching the temple. She was a picture of resplendent beauty but her face was pale and her eyes bore a sad look. Gathering up courage, Sheila drew nearer to the girl in an attempt to greet and engage her in conversation.
“Hello, my name is Sheila,” she said with a warm smile .Her heart pounded as she earnestly hoped that the girl would respond.
“Hello,” the girl smiled back shyly.
Her hopes lifted Sheila continued with her pleasantries to make her feel comfortable.
“I stay a block away down the corner. This is my friend, Gita,” she said pointing towards her . “We study in Class X in Jhautala Girls’ School.”
“Oh,” she nodded in approval.
“You are new here, aren’t you?” she asked in order to push forward the conversation.
“Yes,” replied the girl softly while handing her basket full of flowers to the priest.
“Where have you come from, if you don’t mind telling us?” she prodded.
“Nischintapur village,” said the girl with a brooding look.
“Have you come with your parents?” she asked.
The girl with her eyes downcast replied, “I have come here with my father.”
“Are you your parent’s only child?” she enquired.
The girl looked up studying them both for a while and answered, “My mother is with my younger brother in our village. I have two elder sisters. Both of them are married.” She tried desperately to choke back her tears .A barricade of memories mixed with emotions seemed to have been let loose. She looked hither and thither trying to take a hold of herself and then she broke down sobbing thrusting the pallu of her sari inside her mouth. Both of them were disconcerted by her reaction.
“Although we have met only today, we are of your age and like your friends,” said Sheila. “You can confide in us if anything is troubling you,” she said reassuring her. She went and sat beneath a banyan tree on a cemented dais which was constructed around it.
After days in solitary confinement in her home the girl finding sympathizers narrated her sad tale.
“My father is a primary school teacher. He sold most of his land in order to get my sisters married off. My younger brother is seven years old and studying in Class II. I was also studying in school but my education was discontinued since my father couldn’t afford to bear the cost of teaching us both. My grandmother is bedridden and my father has to take care of her treatment. Gunadhar Ray, the old gentleman who has accompanied us is a very affluent landlord in our neighboring village. He is married and has a wife, two sons and a daughter. His younger son is working in Calcutta and the elder looking after his father’s landed property and business. His daughter is married and has a two year old son. His eldest son also got married last year. My father wanted to mortgage a small piece of farming land he had in order to make both ends meet. Gunadhar Babu came to have a look at it and dropped in at our house. A few days later he returned back with a proposal for my father. He told him that he needn’t mortgage his land to him and offered him five thousand rupees as donation and help. He also told him he would gift a small piece of his farming land to him so that he could cultivate crops and also promised him a monthly stipend. But for enjoying all these gifts and facilities my father in return needed to get me married to him. My father declined his proposal instantly.
“No, thank you, Gunadhar Babu.I can’t do that to my daughter. Please keep my land as mortgage or kindly leave.” he told him aggravated.
“But Gunadhar Babu kept persuading my father with the help of his hired touts. He increased his donations as further bait. My parents would often sit together at night in frenzied discussions. As days went by my father turned jittery and lean with worry. He was unable to mortgage his land to any other or even get a decent price for it. He had bills to be paid at the grocery shop, tuition fees to be met and on top of that medicines to be purchased for my sick grandmother. One night I overheard my mother crying bitterly when my father was dwelling on my proposal. I couldn’t no longer bear the plight of my parents. I stood up determined to end it all and told my parents firmly to fix my marriage with Gunadhar Babu. My mother wailed loudly trying to dissuade me in taking such a drastic step. But we were totally trapped under the circumstances. There was no other way out. I don’t want to marry him…” She left off crying uncontrollably. Sheila and Gita were both distressed and touched by her sorry tale.
“Don’t worry I promise you I will find a way to pull you out of this marriage” assured Sheila .
“By the way, when has your wedding dates been fixed?” asked Gita.
“Coming Friday,” she answered sobbing.
“Can’t we possibly do anything to help this poor girl?” exclaimed Salil in exasperation after relating whatever happened that morning to his friends who sat listening attentively.
“I want to beat the shit out of that old man,” snarled Tapan.
“Hmm,” grumbled Nehru in deep thought. “First of all we need to find a suitable boy who can marry this girl,” he added.
“We can’t forcibly put a gun on his head and make him agree,” gesticulated Tapan “And we have only five days in hand.”
“That’s more than enough if we sincerely want to help,” countered back Nehru.
“Eureka!” shouted Salil in excitement. “I think I have got my man.”
“Really, who is it?” asked all at once.
“Jibanda, the guy who owns the cycle shop at our Jhautala Market. Haven’t you seen him?” he said.
“Yes, but what makes you think that he would marry her?” asked Nehru.
“For all I know his father is searching for a bride for his son?” he said.
“Bravo, our All India Radio. Keep up your good work,” said Nehru patting Salil on his back in exaltation.
Jiban was a well-built man in his mid-twenties , hard-working and sincere. His father, Nrityananda was a businessman who owned the largest shop in the market selling utensils .He had a younger brother who was studying in college. They were reasonably well off.
Jiban closed his shutters every night at ten. As he was at his job the three musketeers closed on him like ghosts. He jumped up startled. “What are you doing here at this time of the night? Is something wrong?” he asked surprised.
“No, Jibanda, but we need your help to save someone,” said Salil.
“I don’t get it? Come out clear,” he said.
“You just need to give your consent to marry someone,” said Tapan dramatically.
“Are you all out of your minds? This is not a good hour to kid around boys,” he retorted locking his shutters.
“We are serious, dada. Are you aware that new tenants have come at house No: 45.?” continued Salil.
“Yes, so,” he replied back.
Then they all recounted their tale punctuated with frequent requests to help the girl out of her dire plight.
“The girl is very pretty. One of the prettiest girl I have ever set eyes upon. You won’t regret marrying her,” said Tapan exuberantly.
“Yes, she is homely and docile too and would be a suitable life partner for you,” added Nehru.
“Are you crazy guys? Her father has already fixed his marriage with this other gentleman and how do you expect him to accept me as his future son-in-law? And that gentleman who is hell bent on marrying her, you think would forsake his claim so easily? Don’t involve me in such things unnecessarily and get me into trouble,” he stated unrelentingly.
“But we have come with great hopes, Jibanda and I know that your father is searching for a suitable bride for you. You have got to help out,” said Salil persistently.
“Then go and ask for my father’s approval. Everything depends on him,” said Jiban evasively.
Nrityananda heard them out patiently. He told them he had meet these two men in question when they purchased utensils from his shop. Used to taking major decisions in life himself he said he had no objections unless he was involved in doing something illegal or immoral.
“Thank you so much, uncle .You are truly great. Rest assured that we will take care of all and arrange your secret meeting with the girl,” assured Salil.
“If I can help someone from spoiling her life it will provide me with untold satisfaction and pleasure,” he said.
Friday, the day fixed for the wedding arrived. Since early morning a handful of unknown faces trotted into house no.45. Orders for ‘rosogullas’ , ‘sandesh’ and ‘misti dahi’(sweet yogurd) were placed at Govindo Moira’s sweetmeat shop. Lights, clothing for the pandal and finery were being set up to decorate the entrance of the house.
Tapan with a gang of other boys volunteered to help in the proceedings by bringing in crates, trays and earthen pitchers full of sweetmeats, fruits , vegetables ,fish and meat that was ordered from the local market place. They barged in introducing themselves as revered localities who always attended any functions that took place in their neighborhood.
“Arrey Dadu ( Granddad) you are looking really handsome and very youthful today. I will dress you up as the groom today,” Tapan volunteered.
Gunadhar Ray was not only annoyed but embarrassed at being addressed as granddad in front of his guests but he couldn’t retaliate in foreign lands.
“Okay, okay as you please,” he said to stay out of trouble.
Tapan gathered up the frilled and pleated dhoti and helped Gunadhar wear it immaculately.
Gunadhar was pleased. Taking a bottle of ‘atar’ which lay on a dressing table he splashed large amount of the perfume on his body.
“Have a look at yourself in the mirror. And tell me whether you don’t like what you see,” said Tapan encouragingly.
Gunadhar looked intently at his reflection in the mirror adjusting his hair which he had dyed black, yesterday. A glint of a smile flickered through his face as he admired his profile in a fine dhoti made from gull nuts and a raw silk ‘kurta’. He slipped on her ‘nagri’ ‘chappals’ and asked for the finely embroidered Kashmiri shawl to be well pleated and placed on his shoulder. The fragrances of tuberoses and roses filled the room which were put in vases at various corners of the room. The newly purchased bed was decorated with strings of tuberoses hanging from posts from all four sides while red rose petals were strewn over the bed.
Involuntarily Tapan cursed under his breath, “Look at the senile old man’s fancies,” he reproached.
Gunadhar Ray sat on a chair in the next room with a tray containing two huge garlands made out of tuberoses and red roses and another tray with his coronet made out of white sponge cork was placed beside him in a side table. He sat anxiously for the priest to start the wedding rituals as soon as his young bride appeared decked up in her wedding finery.
The sound of conch shells with women making ‘ulu’ sounds with their tongues and cheek in festive rivalry greeted them within a few minutes. Gunadhar came out of his room in eager anticipation to be struck by a thunderbolt. A group of men and women with a newly wedded young couple stood near the porch. The young girl was dressed up in all her finery gifted by him and beside her stood her groom looking bashful, radiant and happy. The girl’s father with folded hands begged for forgiveness from him.
Gunadhar Ray bawled out, “What is happening here, Mastermasai?”
The girl’s father said submissively, “I was forced by these people to give my daughter away to this young man. Believe me, Bara Saheb I wasn’t involved in all this from the beginning.”
“Yes, Mr. Gunadhar Ray we got her rightfully married to this young boy at our Kali Temple and you are going to bless this couple,” said Nehru authoritatively.
“Do you think I will accept any silly prank you play on me? Do you think I am a fool? Mastermasi bring your daughter at once to the ‘mandap’, I say, to give her hand away to me,” he barked.
“Be very careful, Don’t forget, Mr Ray this our locality and you’re just a stranger here. Do as we say otherwise we will call the police and have you penalized severely,” announced Salil coldly.
“Just give me the signal and I will take care of him myself,” Tapan said defiantly rushing in before Gunadhar.
Gunadhar Ray terror-stricken started to sweat profusely .Shocked and chest fallen he dropped down on a chair nearby and wiped his face with a handkerchief.
“Now write on this paper that you have gifted away all the things you have purchased for the bride willingly and add your blessings. Do as we say and you’ll not be hurt and be forgiven,” said Nehru.
Gunadhar hang his head down and stared blankly at the ground for a while. Slowly after a while he lifted his head, took the pen and paper from Nehru and started scribbling. Everyone started applauding, cheering and congratulating each other when he handed the paper back to Nehru at the successful replacement.
“Put the mike on. Let’s hear some music of shehenais (flutes),” commanded Tapan spiritedly.
Gunadhar Ray and his accomplices walked out gravely from the house.
“Arrey Dadu( granddad),”called out Tapan from behind. “Please have your food and then leave.”
Without looking back or responding he walked on.