By Pradeep Sen -
(CALCUTTA CITY- INDIA) 1959
There is another truth that must be “Universally accepted,” other than the one suggested by Jane Austen in the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice, which is, that a childhood experience, usually accompanied by a sense of wonder, often becomes a springboard for the pursuit knowledge in later years. My childlike sense of wonder was first tickled and then fuelled by an incident that is stuck like a limpet in my imagination, and continues to haunt me even now.
I must have been about seven at the time, and visiting my uncle in Calcutta. Always an early riser, perhaps odd for one so young, I used to play with my collection of Dinky cars on the carpet of the small living room in his two-bedroom flat on Ashwini Dutta road. I loved those cars, they were the pride and joy of my life, and I took great pleasure in displaying my collection to my uncle’s friends who dropped in for an evening’s entertainment of jokes, tea, Shingara and cigarettes.
One morning, the doorbell rang, just once, as though the guest knew he would not have to ring again, and a spindly hollow cheeked boy called Baankey, not more than eighteen years of age, the all purpose domestic help, walked purposefully towards the front door, opened it, and stood aside ceremoniously and with studied deference. A man entered, and without looking left, right or acknowledging Baankey’s salutations, made his way to the dining area and took his place at the head of the table. His movements were jerky and confident, and not a trace of hesitation did he betray as he walked from the front door to the dining chair. He wore a white shirt that looked grayish, the collars of which were threadbare, with one of the cuffs missing, and a button pinned together like a contrivance. The grey trousers were turned up at the bottom, and from behind the chair in which he sat I had a clear view of his socks, dominating each, was a gaping hole, which revealed the back of his dust-laden heels. In School, we called them “Potatoes.” I found his indifference unbearable not just to my presence but towards the Dinky cars. I held a miniature station wagon in front of him, and instead of drawing his interest, I found those sunken eyes take a cursory glance and then with a curling of his lips look away.
As he began to spread the napkin on his lap, I moved around the dining table with a sense of obdurate defiance to catch his attention, like Custer’s last stand. This time I approached the man with a miniature Stude Baker car stuck to my hand, and walked around the table until I faced him, holding the car conspicuously. He glanced at me, stared, and then, yet again, with his lips curling in a deliberate show of derision, looked away and stared straight ahead as though I did not exist. This was insufferable.
Baankey emerged from the kitchen carrying a dinner plate on which two fried eggs spluttered and fumed and a quarter- plate with two toasts, buttered. He put the service respectfully in front of the intruder, and began to dust the sparse furniture with a white cloth that hung over his shoulder. Baankey, it occurred to me, always began dusting when a family member was around, and did it with greater vigour for the benefit of the strange guest.
The table was set, the man picked up the knife and fork, and after having sprinkled salt and pepper on the yolk of the egg began to eat. He ate noiselessly, wielding the knife and fork with consummate ease and with concentration unmindful of my unfaltering gaze. His head was bowed (for a change) and his eyes fixed unwaveringly on his plate. Baankey, who, after a flurry with his cloth duster had disappeared into the kitchen, appeared once more and placed a cup of beverage on the table. It smelled like coffee. Having finished the meal, the guest placed the knife and fork in the perfect position that signals the end of a meal, pushed back the chair, and without a word or a gesture of acknowledgment to Baankey, who held the door open, departed.
It happened again the next morning. The doorbell rang, Baankey admitted the intruder, served him two fried eggs, two buttered toasts, and coffee. The man ate, drank, wiped his pinched mouth with a napkin, and left without a word. This happened every morning. Nothing varied- the time of his arrival, the menu, Baankey’s deference, and his departure. Who was he? What was his name... where did he come from… and why… were questions that touched me and filled me with a sense of intrigue, aware as I was, despite my lack of years and experience, that guests are entertained in some manner by the host, but, in this case, not only was the host not present, but seemed unaware of his daily appearance .
A child’s mind diverts easily, and the incident of the man who came for breakfast was committed to the back burners as the days progressed. Chinese food at Peking and Tafashu, shopping at Paragon and Hobby Centre, movies at the Metro, and the cosmic reverberations of the space show at the Birla Planetarium occupied the mind. The holiday was over, and, by and by, as life’s compulsions impinged, the strange man and his presumptive behavior faded, like invisible writing from the pages of memory.
Then, many years later, at a nephew’s wedding, the family converged, and like most weddings, the occasion was celebrated not only for the wedding but also for the reunion. My uncle was present, and during one of those evenings of jokes and anecdotes, of trivia and recollections of past events I managed to take him aside for a private conversation. I asked him if he was aware of the breakfast guest who came every morning at his Ashwini Dutta road flat. He said he was, and I could see an amused twinkle in his eyes. He seemed delighted, and not a little surprised, that I remembered an occurrence that took place such a long time ago. I decided to pursue the subject. The question turned into a lesson and a quick journey through the corridors of history.
‘1925- In a place called Cooch Behar, somewhere between Jalpaiguri and Alipurdoar on the borders of Assam and Bangla desh, a mansion called “Chowdhury Haveli” comes awake at three in the afternoon. The servants come to life as the kitchen area fills with sounds of cooking, and the courtyard between the kitchen and the mansion echoes with the sound of running feet. The men are awake and service is in full swing. The wives of the men in flowing sarees, their heads covered with pallu,move about supervising the service. Tea is served to the men in their rooms and bath water prepared by the servants. The family Ayurved arrives, and administers herbs mixed with milk and honey for energy and sexual stamina.
Dhiren Roy Chowdhury, the third of the five Roy Chowdhury brothers, bathes in perfumed waters, puts on the delicately embroidered silk Kurta fastened with small gold buttons, and ties the dhuti around the waist. As he applies imported perfume on the sides of his neck, a servant wraps a Pashmina shawl across his shoulders. Dhiren Roy Chowdhury has the deportment of an Emperor in waiting; the slow languid movements of a man for whom time has no motion, and the contemptuous demeanor of one who believes that the world is created exclusively for his indulgence. As he walks down the corridor, a servant follows with a box of jewelry. Dhiren Roy Chowdhury stops in front of a bowing maidservant, hesitates, starts to walk, then stops as an afterthought, turns around, opens the box held by the servant, and takes out a necklace. He looks at the glittering jewel with cold disdain, and then tosses it on the floor near the house cleaner’s feet. The servant stands inert, hands shaking, head bowed, the open box clutched in his hands. Dhiren Roy Chowdhury walks on, unmindful of the cleaner’s acknowledgement expressed with folded palms and bowed head, much less of her beating heart that alternates between fear and gratefulness.
The horses steam and stamp on the portico in front of the entrance hall, their animation barely controlled by the coachman, as another uniformed retainer holds the carriage doors open. Dhiren Roy Chowdhury is on his way for his evening’s pleasure.
The evening starts with a Pigeon race on the courtyard of a friend’s Haveli, at the conclusion of which, most of the pieces of jewelry are lost in wager, and undeterred by such inconsequential reverses, the party then moves to a Kotha frequented by Dhiren Roy Chowdhury and his friends. After a night of drinking and enjoying the performance of the Nautch girls, and with assistance from the long suffering servants waiting outside the Kothas, the party of men, tottering on their feet, enter the horse drawn carriages for their journey home.’ As my uncle told the story, my mind conjured up images of Havelis and the world of Zamindars, which, as a child, I had imagined with romantic vividness, having been coaxed to sleep by my mother and aunts with stories that seem to lie somewhere between fantasy and the real world; one reinforcing the other and firing my imagination: The fountains and Lotus ponds, the long corridors with carved furniture that were never used, the high walls lined with oil paintings of ancestors with their handlebar moustaches, and layered headgear, the chandeliers, the Chhum Chhum sound of ghungroos from the ankle of the dancing girls, the snorting of horses and the rumble of carriage wheels. ‘The generation to which Dhiren Roy Chowdhury belonged was given a Western education. Private tutors were hired to instruct them in the English language, the art of conversation, and Social etiquette, and even the ability to sip noiselessly from a cup with gentility and grace.’ My Uncle explained. ‘Dhiren Roy Chowdhury was an embodiment of this borrowed panache, as were the others of his tribe, but they missed the most important qualification- a formal education.’ he explained, then paused to light a cigarette before continuing,‘When the Land Reforms Act choked the only means of livelihood, the Roy Chowdhury family and others like them fell upon hard days; to survive, they began to sell the family jewels, then bits of land, (some of which did not belong to them), and then, finally, the ancestral Haveli. Who were these Zamindars?’ My uncle posed the question and then provided the answer, ‘The word ‘Zamin’ is from a Persian word meaning, Land; Zamindaars were appointed by the Government to collect rent from the peasants through a well-designed system of patriarchal usury, and then, over a period, they seized the land from unsuspecting peasants and farmers, and accumulated enormous wealth. The second generation lived on inheritance and enjoyed a life of pleasure, being much better qualified to squander rather than to earn. Working was against the family tradition, and a life of profligacy and wanton indulgence a birthright. They squandered what the ancestors had acquired, and when it all finished, these young inheritors, unqualified for a profession, were committed to the streets. The lucky ons died, some became beggars, and some beneficiaries of a society’s munificence.’ There it was; the context framed a part of the social History of India, and my uncle’s narrative solved a puzzle that had needled me for years. Dhiren Roy Chowdhury was one such beneficiary, and, later, the victim. He was the enigmatic guest that appeared every morning at the breakfast table. From, as they say, the heights of Olympus to the depths of Tartarus. The decline was rapid and ruthless.
He had nowhere to go. Some of his friends decided to help, and one of them allotted him his garage where Dhiren lived, or more accurately, spent the night. Others provided him with meals. At a benefactor’s place for lunch, to another’s for dinner. ‘And you provided him with breakfast.’
My uncle nodded his head. That was the man towards whom I had developed such antipathy, and who remained in my memory despite the passing of so many years.
There were no more carriages for Dhiren Roy Chowhury, and no servants to hold the box of jewels for his indulgence. There were no more pigeon races, Kothas or concubinage.
He would leave the shelter of his garage in the morning and arrive at my uncle’s flat for breakfast. He would leave as he came, without a word. He would then appear on the doorstep of another benefactor for lunch at one o’ clock, and then to another’s home for dinner at seven.
Where he went between those times, no one knew. He would return to his garage at ten o clock and lock the door. Those who saw him on rare occasions remarked on his proud disposition- his head held high, the lips curling down in a look of contempt- and I suppose he must have followed the crawl of the spider and contemplated on the wings of the moths as they moved like cats and mice on the decrepit garage walls, and curled his nose at the smell of kerosene from the lamps, until sleep overtook his senses.
My uncle said that shortly after my first encounter with him, he died. His body was fished out of the murky waters of the Hooghly river one smoggy morning. A fisherman testified that he saw a man standing on Howrah Bridge that winter morning, the head erect, a skeletal figure, as though a shadow had come to life. His eyes must have dilated as he stared at the grey waters of the river. His head must have been unbowed as his body plunged into the waters.
That was the man who came for breakfast, and such his story.
Some years back I saw a program on television called “The Dispossessed”, where they showed the life of a coachman employed by a luxury hotel to ferry guests, mainly foreigners, for guided tours of Palaces in Jaipur. He was one such, of a Zamindaar’s family, an unfortunate survivor, living out what remained of his life in painful servility. Louis Untermeyer, the writer of the book “Makers of the modern world” described Hitler’s rise as “The gutter had come to power;” In the case of Dhiren Roy Chowdhury it could be said- The power was committed to the gutter.
Should we say that justice was done, or do we shed a tear for Dhiren Roy Chowdhury’s wretched and dismal end, or do we look away with a curling down of our lips in derision.
Pradeep Sen is from India. Having retired from the Commercial world after twenty years of Service as a corporate executive, he has dedicated his time to writing. He has completed two works of prose fiction and nine short stories; All with Indian themes.
In addition, he has completed a book of fifty poems called- Still life.
Two poems have been published- ‘The forgiven spaces,’ by Deracine magazine for their 2019 winter collection, and ‘Antimoon’ by Mono publications, on their website; Mono have selected a short story- ‘Fish- dead or alive,’ for their October issue.