Bipin Bihari Choudharee belonged to a very particular breed of endangered Bengalis. A dying pedigree reminiscent of the bygone days of the Zamindars and ‘babu-culture’. A typical Bong in many ways and unique in some very distinctive traits. Residing in his ancestral home – a dying palatial facade in Goabagan, north Kolkata, Bipin had never left the ‘City of Joy’.
The septuagenarian led a very routined life. His day began at four every morning through the ritualistic gargling with saline water, which according to his wife Mrinalini, could raise the dead from its burning pyre. This was followed by a voluntarily induced vomiting caused by deep throat fingering – The yogic cleansing act of Kunjal Kriya. It produced one of the weirdest sounds that no one would desire to hear at the break of dawn every morning.
Bipin was a highly superstitious and religious man. Right after cleansing his throat and taking a bath to clean his body, Bipin would concentrate on purifying his soul by offering an intricate and clamorous hour-long prayer to his favourite deity, Goddess Kali.
Completing his other disturbing morning rituals, sharp at five Bipin would prance out of the house, wearing white canvas keds and red socks along with his usual Dhuti-Panjabi. Ten loud cries of “Joy Ma, Joy Maa Kali” would announce Bipin’s exit from the house. Of course to the relief of his neighbours.
Fifteen minutes of speechless power jogging, with occasional nods and clasped hand namaste’s to fellow walkers, Bipin circled the Hedua Talab swimming pool, like a wound-up tinker toy.
Then he would spend the next thirty minutes socialising with fellow pseudo-comedians through artificial bursts of frantic laughter at the ‘Young At Heart’ laughter club, which gathered beside the sacred banyan tree on the fringe of the Talab.
All of his other morning outdoor activities ended at about 8:00 AM when Bipin performed the most important act of his existence. He had never missed doing this for the last 50 years. Rain, hail or thunderstorm, nothing had ever dithered him from buying fresh fish at the Maniktala Bazar Fish Market.
He could reschedule or skip any other activity to perform this fish buying ritual. Except on Tuesdays and Saturdays when he became a complete vegetarian to please the Goddess.
Bipin babu was one hell-of-a fish-crazy Bong. He trusted no one and had to buy the fish himself. More than eating, it was the sheer act of buying, which excited him. It was an act that he had mastered for over half a century. And the Maniktala Bazar market proved to be his ideal fishing grounds.
The earliest reference of Maniktala Bazar is found on a map drawn by Captain Mark Wood of the East India Company in 1784. For more than two centuries now, this wet and dry market has been in existence and Bipin Bihari was perhaps its biggest living fan, most ardent customer and greatest beneficiary.
The morning of July 4th in 1998 was no different. Bipin got up at his usual time and followed his morning antics one after the other like clockwork. However, something felt off! His gargling water was not at the right temperature. He nearly choked while performing Kunjal Kriya. He could not find his socks for a good 10 minutes. He instantly knew that it was one of those days with a faulty cosmic alignment.
This meant he had to be extra cautious in doing everything and had to please the Goddess more than ever. Ma Kali might have been offended with him for some very serious and unknown reason.
The run at the park had its share of hitches. “Dhur Shala” cursed Bipin, accidentally stepping on something brown at the entrance of the Talab. This resulted in a hilarious display of the weirdest moonwalk (on the nearby sandpit) that one could ever witness – Bipin’s attempt to ‘cleanse his sole’ of dog s…
Occasionally grazing the sole of his shoe on rough surfaces here and there, Bipin made his way to the bazar, skipping laughter club for the day.
His stint at the Bazar proved to be equally ill-fated. A broken water pipe had turned the fish selling area into an ankle-deep wading pool. Fish blood and guts floated freely amidst the chaos. However, nothing discouraged the usual hoard of fish crazy Bongs – and certainly, nothing could stop our beloved Choudharee babu.
“Ki re Bhola, Katla ta koto re – Hey Bhola how much for the Katla fish” enquired Bipin with one of his patent fishmongers. “Aggey Charsho Korta – just rupees 400 sir” replied a toothless pan-chewing relic of an emaciated fish seller. Shooting his clenched fist skywards Bipin cursed Bhola for being a dacoit. The price according to our babu was too high.
It was really turning out to be an ill-fated day. After a one-and-a-half-hour of elbow jabs, head butts and rigorous negotiations, Bipin was yet to buy his fish. Either the price was too high, or the maestro spotted a defect in the ware.
Then amidst all the chaos, his dhuti (traditional Bengali lower-body wrap-around for men) nearly came off on being tugged by an old lady’s rickety umbrella. “Arey arey ki kando mashima – What the heck are you doing aunty” blurted Bipin, somehow managing to hold on to his dhuti.
A pigeon even managed to bless him on his shiny dome through the narrow openings of the Bazar’s corrugated ceiling – “Dhu-tari-ki – What the heck” cursed the furious Bengali.
“Bandor Cheley – Monkey Boy” Bipin shouted at a little brat – the grandson of a fellow marketeer. The kid was following him through the market and mischievously filling Bipin’s red plastic bag with all sorts of dirt and garbage. The kid sprinted splashing water all around, startled with Bipin’s sudden discovery of his mischief.
An over irritated Bipin now had to spend considerable time cleaning his red plastic bag at the Bazar communal tap.
Bipin was environmentally conscious and had been dedicatedly using this red plastic bag from ‘Sriniketan’, a renowned garment store at Hatibagan for over a month now. The missus had bought a saree from there and thus came the ‘red plastic bag’ in his life.
Overcoming many more irritating difficulties Bipin finally managed to buy a one-and-a-half kilogram Katla fish after reeling for nearly two-and-a-half hours in the market.
After accomplishing this mightly feat, Bipin let go of himself and sat on the wrought iron bench outside the Bazar with a thud. ‘Ami ki Amon paap korlam Ma – what sin did I commit Goddess’ sighed the gasping Bong. He felt miserable with the shadow of misfortune overcasting him from the moment he woke up that day.
A panting and frantic Bipin started murmuring prayer after prayer, pleading with the Goddess to lift this curse of misfortune from his head. The longer he sat lamenting, praying and reflecting on his stint of morning misfortune, the stronger his superstitions engulfed him. The more he believed that he had offended the Goddess in some unknown and big way.
All this while a white-beard, Rudraksha adorned, vermilion smeared, saffron-sarong wrapped yogic man observed his discomfort and soliloquies from a distance.
The Baba (sage) came quietly and sat beside a swaying and hyperventilating Bipin.
“The dark shadow of Shani (Saturn) has entered the realm of Budh (Mercury) – rokha kor maa kali, rokha kor (save Goddess Kali, save)” blurted the husky sage.
Bipin stopped swaying and instantly turned towards the mystic. “What did you say oh wise one” he addressed the yogi with a glimmer of hope. It felt like suddenly all his problems were about to be solved.
Like millions of other staunchly religious Indians, Bipin too had great faith in Gurus and mystic men. And on this particular day of misfortune, sitting on that wrought iron bench outside the Maniktala Bazar Fish Market, Bipin believe the baba to be the solution to his problems.
“You are having a bad day my child and you love to eat fish” calmly declared the sage in a very sombre voice.
“Haa… ha… How do you know this, oh omniscient one” stuttered Bipin in utter surprise?
“All your ill fate has culminated in the red plastic bag, which you dearly clench in your hand,” said the Baba pointing at Bipin’s bag of fish. “Years of obsession with fish has tipped your inner chi. Today’s cosmic imbalance acted as the catalyst to your misfortune” continued the wise man.
Bipin’s face turned paler, it felt harder to breathe. After a moment of blank demeanour, swallowing his anguish with a fairly audible gulp Bipin pleaded with the sage in a feeble and defeated voice, “Save me oh wise one, I will do anything to escape this curse of misfortune.”
With a deep and long sigh, the yogi revealed, “there might be a way after all.”
“There’s a small and obscure Kali temple at Chapatolla Ghat on the bank of the river Ganges. You can reach it in fifteen minutes by auto. Once at the temple, meet with priest Boom Shankar and give him your bag of fish as an offering to Goddess Kali,” explained guruji slowly in great details. “Do this without any questions, and your troubles will be over. Or else this stint of misfortune will stay with you till your dying day,” warned the sage with a stone gaze of caution, and got up from the bench and vanished into the crowd of shoppers before Bipin could react.
Flabbergasted Bipin remained seated deliberating what to do? After ten minutes of deep reflection, the babu finally got up from the bench. He had made his mind. He would not take any chance with the Goddess. He could not dare to test her wrath.
The Bygone Zamindar stopped and hopped into an auto and went on to offer his fish to the Goddess at Chapatola. At the Ghat He found the mandir (temple) and gave his precious bag of fish to priest Boom Shankar, along with a tear-filled narration of his sad story. “The Goddess will be pleased with your offering, go in peace and do not be worried,” blessed the priest.
Sad and depressed, Bipin slowly walked away from the mandir. For the first time in fifty years, his fish-eating act was disrupted. Disoriented with grief and anguish Bipin no longer knew where he was going till he reached the brim of the river – where he let go of himself and sat under the shade of an old Peepal tree, gaping at the tranquil water.
A kaleidoscope of scenes from his childhood, faces of Goddess Kali, the Bazar, Guruji, priest Boom Shankar, and lots of fish mosaicked his vision. Hours passed by before Bipin regained composure and realised it was time to go home – Mrinalini must be worried sick.
As he got up and started walking away from the bank towards the connecting road, he heard a very familiar husky voice and a group of men talking.
Something drew him towards the din. Perhaps it was the smell of freshly cooked fish and rice that had filled the air.
Drawn by a sudden curiosity fueled by a familiar voice and smell, Bipin moved closer to the floating conversation. He parted the leaves of a nearby Hamelia bush to have a closer look. There he saw Guruji from the Bazar along with priest Boom Shankar and two other sadhus gormandising freshly cooked Katla fish with steaming white rice, and in one corner fluttered Bipin babu’s red plastic bag…
Copyright © 2020 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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