(A translation of “Thela-gari,” by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay)
I was just up from bed; even the sun was not quite high yet. Some shalik birds were quarreling on top of the trees near the backyard gate and I was wondering how to ask mother for the plantain chops that were kept in the shika from last night's dinner. Would she mind if I ask for them even before the morning rituals were done? It was at this crucial point that a sweet voice rang at the back door—“Tuni-i-da-a, O Tuni-i-da…”—along with the sound of a cart.
My elderly aunt sprang up and ran to the door yelling, “Good heavens! Don't people have any sense? Not even the birds are up and he has arrived to take the boy out! Isn't there a time for everything? No, this toy-cart roams from morning till evening… I have to talk to Hara Ganguli… what do they mean by allowing the child to play with his cart through the day? Go, go away. Tuni won't play now. And take your cart with you too.”
I went to stand behind my aunt, but by that time the sound of the toy-cart had disappeared beyond the path that led to the pond. As I went to wash my hands and face near the backyard door, I heard a faint sound and a call, “Tuni da…” I looked into our yard to see if my aunt was at a safe distance and then sped out through the back door. Noru stood there with a face and smile as radiant as a freshly bloomed lotus.
“Won't you come, Tuni da?”
“I just woke up; haven't even washed my face properly. Why don't you come in?”
Noru took a quick look and asked, “Where..?”
“Auntie won't say anything. Do come…”
But Noru refused to comply.
“Why don't you come after you're done with breakfast and everything? I will be waiting under the chalta trees with the cart.”
We went out together to roam around the neighbourhood. All the boys had gathered under the tamarind tree. Noru said with a smiling face, “Come Potu da, Nitai da—see I've brought my cart. Have I not arrived at the right time? Come…”
Noru let us ride his toy-cart one by one. Everybody took their turns. Potu asked, “Will you come to our house at noon?”
Noru shook his head declining the offer.
“But you do come sometimes—the other day my chhoto chacha got mad at you, na?”
“That's why I don't want to go. That day your uncle wanted to beat me up. What if he takes away my cart?” Noru replied.
The two of us went to sit under the jamrul tree by the roadside. We used to chat everyday—what would happen, what we would become when we grew older, etc.
Noru was still a child, he could not phrase his thoughts coherently. One day he would want to become the leader of the boatmen, the next he said he would be a train driver. He also wanted to operate steamed launches. I was somewhat advanced compared to my friends and I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer.
He would return home around noon with a red face, the result of running around in the sun. He would not enter the house through the front door as he was afraid of facing his father. Stealthily, he would tip toe through the back door. His mother would say, “Why, you wicked boy, where have you been throughout the day? You left early in the morning, and you're back so late!”
And Noru would say, “Shh… shh… I didn't go far, Ma. I was sitting right under that jamrul tree… me and Tuni da. I didn't go anywhere else, Ma, really…”
I do not know why, but I loved that boy more than any other in the neighbourhood. He was such a sweet child! I had to see him at least once every day. He also used to seek me out from all other boys.
One day on way back home he told me, “That Nitai acts so strange! I asked him if he wanted to ride my cart, but he refused. Says, he was on his way to buy cooking oil and that his mother would scold him. Will you ride my cart, Tuni da?”
“Nobody rode your cart today?”
“Not anyone in our vicinity. They're all so wicked. Please, Tuni da?”
I did not have the heart to refuse him. I indulged him on a daily basis. He would drag the cart with me in it under the burning sun of chaitra and Baishakh.
He was younger than us, and he was also not very sturdy. The boys in the neighbourhood were ruthless and they would torture him relentlessly. Noru endured.
That particular day was just hot. The late spring sun had heated up the sandy roads and people were preparing the stage at the marketplace. Everybody was busy. We heard the sound of a cart near the large pituli tree. Anu said, “There comes Noru.”
It was Noru all right and behind him was his trusted companion, the cart. He pointed at the stage and asked, “When will the jatra begin, Tuni da?”
His face brightened after acquiring the information and he pointed at his cart asking, “Will you ride, Potu da?”
Potu nodded but said, “I can, I suppose. But who will draw the cart?”
The little boy's eyes shone with anticipation and he said, “I will, of course.”
Potu scoffed, “You? Nah… you can't draw that cart by yourself..”
“Why don't you sit in my cart and see if I can't,” replied Noru.
All the boys took their turns and little Noru dragged us all around. After everybody was done he said with a smile, “Now it's my turn. Wouldn't anyone drive me a little?”
The boys started looking at each other. I could discern that nobody was willing to draw his cart. Wasn't it enough that they had all condescended to ride his cart? How could he even ask to be drawn?
“That's not fair. Didn't I let you all ride?” pouted Noru.
I wished I could do it but I was afraid of being jeered at by my playmates. So I, too, did not make a move. Noru went away dragging his cart behind him. I am not sure if they had been conspiring against him, but one of the boys picked up a large slab of brick and threw it at Noru's cart.
The bottom of the cart broke off immediately with a thud. The boy turned to look at his cart and was dumbfounded. He sat down to look into the matter and gave us another look of disbelief. Then he turned his innocent gaze on me as if saying, “You are with them too?” That hurtful look stung me, but before anybody could say anything, he sat on the ground trying to measure the extent of his loss. In the meantime, the boys had disappeared.
He sat by the box-flower tree with white florets. He sat there for quite some time before finally leaving with his cart.
I could not sleep at night. If I had gone off to see him the next morning, things would have been fine. But I felt uncomfortable and didn't go. He too did not come to visit me that day. Then one whole week went by. Sometime later, I went off to my grand parents' to attend the wedding of my maternal aunt. When I finally returned, ten months had passed.
I never saw Noru again. He had died of whooping cough that past winter. I went to visit them some ten days after our return. His mother was drying kul boroi in the sun. She exclaimed, “Tuni, did you all just come home?” Before I could say anything, she burst into tears, “At least you've come to visit us, Tuni. Will any of you ever come to this house again? My little boy left me like that! Come, sit and have some grapefruit. Let me cut the fruit and you can take it with a little salt, perhaps? No one is left to eat those.”
It was an autumn afternoon. One lone bird flew under the cloudless blue sky. From some broken crevices of the rooftop came the call of a dove… the yard was fragrant with the smell of dried kul. …
I saw Noru's cart in a nearby shed. Even the rope was still tied to it. Nobody had touched it in a while.
It all happened so long ago. But I could still discern that eight-year old child dragging his small cart. He comes out of the back-door of their house, walks through a silent noon interrupted by the call of some lone dove; through the jamrul grove, past the large mader tree by our house he strolls with a face glowing with hope and anticipation. . . He would stride through the coconut tree grove, pass by the large mango tree that grew by Potu's house. . . And slowly, his silhouette would disappear beyond the betel nut trees….
Sohana Manzoor is Assistant Professor, Department of English & Humanities, ULAB. Currently, she is also the Editor of Star Literature & Reviews Pages.