STRANGENESS IS BEAUTY | A short story By DR RATAN LAL BASU | WBRi Online Magazine

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STRANGENESS IS BEAUTY

A short story

By DR RATAN LAL BASU


I


The sun was high up in the mid sky and the noon was desolate and serene. They were seated at the steep bank and the shallow river flew below glistening silver in bright sun shine. Wild flowers were dangling from the thick bushes overhanging from the edge of the bank. A small blue bird was dancing joyously from one branch of a tree to the other and an insect was making a monotonous creaking sound.  

The river flowed down, in continuous S-curves, across paddy fields, bamboo groves, cluster of trees and crossed the international border to flow through Bangladesh. To the distant north snowy mountain peaks were covered with thick cirrus and the blue beneath wore an enchanting look. Dollops of small clouds were drifting across the sky as though children playing merrily.  


‘Let’s play the funny Ramayana episode,’ Manas proposed to Umesh. Umesh assented gladly. He would play Lakshmana and Manas, Rama as they used to do. The funny episode, a parody of Ramayana episode, was like this. Everyday before the episode begins, the actor who plays Lakshmana, asks for a biri from the actor playing Rama. Eventually Rama got fed up with this meanness of Lakshmasna and refused to offer him the biri in the dressing room and said harshly, ‘if you’ve so much craving for the biri, buy it with your own money.’ The actor playing Lakshmana did not say anything and planned to revenge this humiliation.  

The episode started as usual. Rama’s wife Sita had been abducted by the demon Ravana. Rama entreated Laksyhmana, ‘brother Lakshmana, rescue my Sita from the clutches of the lusty demon.’ Instead of rushing out with his bow and arrows to chase Ravana, Lakshmana said angrily, ‘I can’t. Why do you seek my help now? I’d asked for a biri and you declined flatly.’

Rama again entreated his brother, ‘oh brother, rescue my Sita and I’ll give you a bunch of biris free.’

Playing the comic episode up to this point, they could not hold any more and both Manas and Umesh broke into uproarious laughter.

II


Manas was delighted to get the job of assistant teacher at his childhood school. After getting his masters degree, Manas had applied for the post of assistant teacher at his childhood rural school in response to and ad in a daily and was called for interview in which he was selected and asked to join immediately. His father had been the Block Development Officer (BDO) for a long time in the block that included the village in which the school was situated. Manas had been a student of the rural school from class V when his father was transferred to that block. Later on when he was in class XII, his father got a promotion to the post of Director of Small Scale Industries and was transferred to Calcutta. But Manas had to stay with his mother at the village to complete his Higher Secondary Examination, the last public examination at school. Thereafter he got admitted to a Calcutta college and along with his mother returned to their house at Calcutta.  

The school authorities were delighted to get a brilliant student like Manas as a teacher but the head master said gravely, ‘would a brilliant student like Manas stay on in this rural school for a long time?’ The bald headed aged teacher of mathematics said to Manas jokingly, ‘many of your erstwhile batch mates are still in the school being plucked several times in each class, may be out of love for the school. Be careful they should not call you by name in the class.’

Manas got a school quarter which was vacant since the retirement of the teacher who had occupied it, and he also got a cook cum maid servant who had served for several years when his mother had been here.  

Being reprieved from the din and bustle of the congested city to the serenity of the rural life mind of Manas was filled up with ecstasy. Every day after school, he started visiting houses of old friends who were still in the village and natural sights with nostalgic memories of his school life. At times he would walk alone along the narrow path through the paddy fields to the river and seated on the bank watch the natural beauties around and at times, closing his eyes, enjoy the sweet music of the river dancing down the pebble bed, chatters of birds and murmur of the breeze in the tree tops. Life is a mystery he thought and wondered where the end of it is. He at times recited poems in a stentorian voice in the lonely river bank and it echoed in the cluster of trees.  

‘All delicate days and pleasant

All spirits and sorrows are cast

Far out into the foam of the present

That sweeps to the surf of the past

Where beyond the extreme sea walls

And between the remote sea gates

Waste water washes tall ships founder

And deep death waits.’

All of a sudden he came upon Umesh at a sweet shop. Umesh offered him a few large sweets, a specialty of the village. After taking two he said to Umesh, ‘I can’t eat any more; my stomach is already full.’

Gaunt and bent bodied Rohini uncle, who was gossiping with friends occupying a bench in the shop, said, ‘take them along Manas, you’re a young boy. At you age…’

Manas did not let him finish and retorted laughing, ‘those days are gone uncle. I’ve heard that at my age you had four married wives and five concubines and I’ve not yet managed to get one girl.’ Everybody present in the shop burst out laughing but Rohini became grave and said in a grudging tone, ‘these urchins don’t have any respect for the aged.’

In fact Rohini had at least one concubine at his young age. Manas had heard that he had secret affairs with a tribal sexy girl who used to work as a maid servant in his house. His wife used to complain about this to Manas’s mother sobbing. Bad people in the village used to say that the youngest son of the tribal girl had similarities in features with Rohini.  

Leaving aside the uncle Manash got into pep talks with Umesh whom he had met after a long time. Umesh now worked in the Army at Hyderabad and had come home on a fortnight’s leave. It was settled that Manas would visit their house the next Sunday.

III


They remained seated in the shadow of a tree on the river bank for a long time in perfect silence. The sun had now gone far down in the west and slowly gliding down far into the clouds which had now turned orange. Small clouds tinges orange were engaged in their color games. The snowy peaks at the away off north were now peeping through the cloud, sparkled in the last rays of the sun and like naughty girls hid their heads bashfully into the blanket of the cloud as though to play coquet with the smaller clouds.  

Umesh looked up at the sky and said hastily, ‘oh we‘ve been here for such a long time. I’m already feeling drowsy and it would be dark in no time.’  

They hastened to their feet and proceeded for the house of Umesh under the lengthy shadows of the trees against the setting sun. The path went zigzag through trees, bamboo groves and scattered cottages of straw. The trunks of the trees fronting the straw cottages were plastered with cow dung cakes to be used as fuel. The hayricks looked like turreted temples and in the vegetable fields, cucumbers, gourds, pumpkins and other vegetables were dangling and swaying in the gentle evening breeze from the lowly bamboo-made platforms to support the creepers.  Birds forming curvy lines were returning to their nests across the murky sky.  

They approached near the ‘goblin-swamp’. In their school days, they used to sit there in moonlit nights and swap ghost-stories and enjoyed the eerie sensations that coursed through them. Chandan, a candid boy, had once shrieked out loudly being horrified by the Dracula story told by Manas.  

They soon reached the house of Umesh. His family had now become well to do after he got the Army job. Their straw cottage was now replaced by a brick-built two storied house. Parents of Umesh were delighted to see Manas. Purna Roy, his father, said in a jovial tone, ‘I was happy to learn from the head master that you’ve joined the school. How are BDO sahib and your mother? Being accustomed to Calcutta life would you like this rural ambience any more?’

‘My parents are okay and about liking this place I can’t commit anything until I stay here for a few months.’

Umeash’s mother said, ‘you look emaciated. Weather of Calcutta is not good for health and food in the city is always pernicious for health.’

From the back room of the house Umesh’s grand mother asked in a metallic shrill voice, ‘whom you’re talking with?’

She’s above eighty five, cannot move from bed, but still feisty.

Umesh’s mother said in an irritated voice, ‘the old woman always talks, quarrels and piques me.’  

While Manas was taking tea a girl entered the room portly and noticing Manas, burst into ebullience, ‘oh. Manasda, you’re here.’

Manas looked up and gave a start to see the naughty girl he had encountered in class XI. Looking at his bewildered countenance the girl giggled out and said, ‘guess who I am.’

‘You’re Fuchki, Umesh’s sister for sure,’ Manas replied with confidence.

‘but you failed to recognize me in the class.’

‘You’re now grown up and so changed and I did not know your good name so could not guess anything from your name in the attendance register.’

‘In my childhood you used to tease me by singing a song that includes my name Kamala. Admit frankly that you’ve forgotten my name.’

‘Why were you sporting naughty in the class?’

‘I just could not help laughing to see you as a teacher and for that trifle you humiliated me before the eyes of so many students by sending me out of the class!’

‘Next time if I find you doing this stuff in the class, I’ll make you stand up on the bench.’

‘Eh!’

Kamala was now a full-fledged beautiful young girl with round Mongoloid face, longish hair and looked charming in the pink sari.

She got fresh in a few minutes and started gossiping with Manas, reminding him of the long forgotten past days of his intimate association with the girl when she had been but a mere child. Manas’s mind too, drifted back to the past with nostalgic recollections.  

The moon was now high up in the sky and pouring down its uncanny rays on the field visible through the window. The ambience looked eerie. Manas said to Umesh, ‘Let’s go to the goblin-swamp and swap ghost stories.’

Kamala intervened, ‘never go there at these hours.’

‘Why?’

‘There are goblins and female spooks guising as beautiful girls.’

‘Would they kill me if I go there?’

‘No, they would captivate you, take you to their dens inside the swamp and force you to marry all of them and remain captive there for ever.’

Her mother intervened, ‘is this the way to talk with your teacher?’

Her father retorted, ‘this is the fashion of the day.’

Kamala replied glumly, ‘you please mind your own business.’

She then said to Manas, “I and some of my friends at school have problems with the subject English language and the present private teacher is not competent at all. We have decided to take private coaching from you in the subject from the next month.’

‘You’ve already taken decision without consulting me!’

‘Why, have you any problem coaching us?’

‘No problem as such, but unlike private coaches in general, I cannot accept any fees from you in exchange for coaching. Tell your friends categorically that I may coach you but it must be free of cost.’

IV


Manas started coaching them from the next month. He was amazed to discover the intelligence and quick wit of Kamala who learnt to write correct English in a few weeks. As Manas did not take any fee from the students, they compensated with gifts of vegetables and fruits from their gardens regularly and the benefit went to the maid servant as Manas himself had no use of the gifts.  

Autumn stepped in with all its charms never experienced in the city life. The sky became deep blue with rafts of small white clouds wafting across, fields became white with flowers of kash-grass, sthal-padma trees adorned orange with large flowers, sheuli flowers filled the air with enchanting aroma, and in the morning sun rays scintillated on silvery dew drops on the leafs of the trees and everybody became joyous with the approach of Durga puza, the greatest and most gorgeous festival of the Bengalis.

Manas returned to Calcutta during the vacation. The city was mad with the festivities and Manas started rediscovering the city and realized that it has its own charm. He enjoyed the puza visiting pandals and watching with friend gorgeous images of the goddess. He also enjoyed the series of festivals that closely followed Durga puza and enjoying a month’s vacation to his heart’s content he rejoined school.   

Soon after the school reopened, the students had to face the ordeal of the test examination to select the students to be sent for the final examination. Kamala did very well in the exam and raised hope in the minds of all the teachers of the school that with a little bit effort she could come out with exceptionally brilliant results in the final school leaving H. S. examination.



Pressure of study increased as the final examination got closer day by day. Kamala had now turned very serious and introvert and occasionally keeps looking at Manas as though she wanted to say something. Manas took it to be the nervousness and lack of confidence caused by fear of the public examination. He resolved to do everything to restore her confidence but he was a bit embarrassed when the aged maid servant told that there was something else in the looks of the girl and Manas ought to be cautious. After all he was the son of a government officer and she, the daughter of a peasant. Manas laughed away the suggestion and he was angry that a maid servant had the audacity to make such remarks. He was confident that it was nothing but the fear of examination and started coaching her more intensively, always suggesting her to take the examination easy as though it was a school examination.  

The final examination came and Kamala appeared at it confidently and discussion of the question papers indicated that she had done well and was likely to have the desired result. After the final exam she chose to spend her time till the results to her maternal uncle’s house in Bangladesh. 

Her maternal uncle was a landlord there. She was elated to see that there was no religious bigotry among the Muslims, the majority there. She soon made friendship with Amina, a Muslim girl from an educated family. They started spending time by wading through the fields, swimming in the rivers; singing, dancing and playing indoor games. The two sons of her uncle aged eight and ten, joined them at times. Time went on merrily, but when alone, she suddenly felt morose as memories of her association with Manas returned to her mind again and again. She at times crooned a melancholic song of lost love. 

V


At last the results came out. It was announced by the All India Radio, Calcutta that within a few days, results of the H.S. examination of West Bengal would be published. Kamala hastened back to home and felt tensed over the results. She, however, had not to go through the agony of waiting for long. Only two days after her return, the results were published and mark sheets sent to schools. The task, of noting down the results before distributing the mark sheets among the students, was stupendous and the school served the notice that the list of students with aggregate marks would be displayed on the notice board in the evening that day and mark sheets would be distributed from one p.m. the next day.

Kamala did not have the nerves to go herself and check up the list and she sent her father for it. Her father returned in an ebullient mood. Kamala had secured highest marks among the students appearing from the school and the head clerk told that she might have secured highest marks among all the students appearing from the district. 

Next morning she took hours to dress up. She wore a bright blue sari, a matching blouse, a green tip on her forehead, and made a chignon and fastened with a butterfly-clip. Looking at the mirror she was thrilled to imagine how Manas would react to encounter such a beauty. 

At school all her friends gathered round her hollering, ‘you’ve done so well, when are you going to celebrate and entertain us with sweets?’

Kamala collected the mark sheet and was confirmed that the result in the list was correct and all her doubts and fear that there could be some mistakes in the list, were dispelled in a moment. In a jubilant mood she hastened right over to the teachers’ room. At the door of the room, blood rushed to her heart as she thought of her encounter with Manas after the long separation. She entered the room taking permission from the teacher near the door and found Manas at the far end absorbed in a news paper. All the teachers present welcomed her and congratulated her for her results. This gave her time to pull her nerves together. Manas looked up as she walked over to him and smiled charmingly to see her. He examined the marksheet closely and said, ‘your result is as expected on the whole, but your marks in mathematics should have been higher. The mathematics teacher, Swarupbabu told me that you had given hundred percent correct answers, but you’ve secured eighty two, i.e. you’ve done some silly mistakes. Anyway, it’s no use crying over spilt milk. What’s your next plan?’

‘I’ll meet you at your quarter tomorrow to discuss the matter in detail.’

‘O’K. Now make merriment with your friends.’

Coming out of the room Kamala felt a bit disappointed. Not for the Mathematics marks. She had at least secured letter marks in the subject. In fact she expected that Manas would give a start to come upon her beauty but he did not have any such reaction at all. Nevertheless, she felt some inner ecstasy recollecting the smiling face and sweet voice of Manas she had just encountered. Among the candidates who had appeared in the H.S. examination from this school, all were present except the two who had plucked. All the friends made merriment for hours. This might be their last meeting unless they get admitted to the same college. It was afternoon when they had finished and Kamala’s house being outside the village and none of her friends resided in that locality, Kamala set off alone for home after the wild revelry. 

On her way her heart leapt up to discover Manas seated on sand near the river bed and reciting poems in loudly. 

‘Let devotion, desire, delight

Be scattered in the uproar of September and

You go and hide in the crackling autumn

Either be quiet or be crazy.’

The crimson sun had now dropped down behind the cluster of trees in the west and evening was slowly advancing along. Her mind became restless and she felt an irresistible urge to climb down to Manas at this desolate place; but she hesitated lest it creates bad impression about her. But her desire got the better of her and she climbed down the gentle slope of the bank with a fluttering heart.  

Hearing her footsteps he sopped reciting and got embarrassed to discover Kamala all on a sudden. He blurted out, ‘returning home?’

Kamala had now braced herself up and emboldened by the friendly attitude of Manas she remarked forthright, ‘yes. But reciting poems on this desolate river bed, a strange fellow you are! If found out, people would call you crazy.’

Manas retorted promptly, ‘that means you think me crazy!’

‘Any doubt about that?’ She started giggling.

Manas said smiling, ‘I don’t care. This is but the ideal place for reciting poems. Have you seen how beautiful the sky has turned at sunset, the reddish tinge on the clouds, the mountain peaks still scintillating, the flocks of birds returning home and the mellow evening slowly creeping in?’

Kamala felt an uncanny pleasure coursing through her. She said in a jubilant voice, ‘don’t you see anything else?’ She looked at him expectantly.

Watching Manas looking hither and thither like a novice she felt agitated and was also amazed. After cogitating for a while Manas gave a satisfied smile and said ebulliently, ‘yes I’ve seen it.’

Kamala felt trepidation in her heart and blood started boiling within her. She asked expectantly, ‘what have you seen?’

‘I’m sure you’re talking about the bi-colored bird on the bush to the right. I cannot but appreciate your keen sight. I’ve been here for such a long time but missed that beautiful sight.’

Kamala felt her heart sinking. And she replied nonchalantly, ‘you’re absolutely right. Let me go now and I’ll meet you tomorrow.’

Kamala left off and Manas resumed his recitation.

Walking along the semi-dark path, Kamala was boiling with anger. She repeated what he had said in a distorted voice. ‘What a blind man in spite of two large eyes! The old rascals look at me with lusty eyes and this young man could not see anything from so close.’ She said to herself with deep chagrin. 

All on a sudden her mind was filled with limitless bliss. Whom was she calling blind? She herself was blind. Beauty lies in something which is far different from the commonplace. 

Walking along in the mystic evening embellished with the glitter of the fire flies, she got absorbed in the dream of that uncommon beauty. Tiny lamps started flickering from the cottages around and a plaintive music came floating from distance. Kamala aspired to fly with the wings of imagination and get lost in the tinged evening sky. She again aspired to become the bi-colored bird and fly toward the unknown.


Dr.Ratan Lal BasuRatan Lal Basu, Ph.D. (Economics) is an ex-Reader in Economics and Teacher-in-Charge, Bhairab Ganguly College, Kolkata, India. Dr. Basu has written & edited several books on Economics.

Apart from his passion for the field of Economics, Dr. Basu's other interests are Boxing & Small Game Hunting (gave up the nasty games during college life); Swimming in Turbulent Rivers (physically impossible now); Himalayan Treks, Adventure in Dense Forests, Singing Tagore Songs and also writing travelogues and fiction in Bengali and English.

Dr. Ratan Lal Basu can be reached at rlbasu [at] rediffmail.com.


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