THE GLADIATOR | A Short Story by RATAN LAL BASU

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THE GLADIATOR

A Short Story by RATAN LAL BASU


I had almost lost the bout. It was my pride and overconfidence that drove me along to the precipice. In my weight group I had no match ever since I participated in the tournament. This time too I had rammed through to the final with very little effort and the final would be a cake walk like the previous ones I thought. I neglected practice before the final and the looks of the lanky rival could hardly impress me. But things were different this time and I was overwhelmed by the unanticipated power and skill displayed by the rival from the very first round.

My boxing talent was discovered by Anti Biswas, the instructor of Pragati Gym at naya-basti of Jalpaiguri town. The institute was close to my lawyer father’s palatial house at racecourse-para and I used to take regular light exercise along with my body-builder elder brother in the institute. After detecting my boxing capabilities by accident, Antida started coaching me with care and soon I became a good boxer. After only six months’ training I was selected for the quarterly inter-club boxing competition organized at ashram-para, Siliguri by Kalidas Ghosh, the renowned weight lifter and owner of the hotel Airview. I was a bit shaky at first but soon overcame it and could cruise smoothly through all the stages to win the cup. Accolades were showered from the judges and veteran spectators making my heart inflate in pride and euphoria. Since then nobody in my weight group could be any match for me and soon pride got the better of me and I started neglecting practice. Antida and my elder brother reminded me again and again but I paid no heed to the wise advices.  


This time too I entered the ring with the same bragging gait and looked with slight at the rival whom I was confident I could knock out in seconds but I would have to linger through to the last round considering the financial stakes of the organizers and interests of the spectators. God of fate smiled at my vanity and audacity and I could not offer the slightest resistance when the lanky rival moved close like lightning and the combined upper cut and hook sent me reeling. I felt sharp pain in my chin and left jaw, tremor in my legs and salty taste of blood on the tongue. I could, however, keep the tough in-fighter at safe distance by rapid footwork and powerful defensive jabs and at the end of the round I was morbidly languid and he had a good point advantage over me. Antida and all my supporters encouraged me but I’d already lost confidence and in the second round I could barely defend his powerful hooks and upper cuts and clinched twice which shocked everyone known to me. Point advantage of my rival increased at the end of the round. I felt my nerves giving way and was dismayed being on the verge of ignominy. But I cannot give away the coveted trophy to a debutant. I made up my mind and loosened the lace of the right glove so that I could flex the palm. At the very beginning of the third round as he moved fast to close in I drew back and fell back on the rope pretending to have lost balance and dropped my hands defenselessly. He moved forward and I ducked the cross. Then I bent my knees and unleashed a slow right uppercut and as soon a the glove reached his unprotected jaw I flexed my palm to the best, twisted the wrist and snapped hard like a snake below the mandible in between the parotid and sub-mandibular glands. As a cover up I jabbed hard with my left hand keeping at safe distance and the blow simply grazed his temple. He fell unconscious and everybody including the referee took it to be the jab on the temple that did the crucial job. Antida admonished me, “Why did you hit his temple? It could have done harm to the brain.”

Kalida intervened, “It’s not his fault. Next time we’ll arrange for head guards.”

Nobody except me knew the real story. Snapping at the specific point below the jaw leads to reflex contraction of the carotid artery and could be fatal if hit by open karate fingers and I was relieved when his consciousness returned. The Tibetan acupuncture-doctor in Sikkim had taught me the trick for self defense only and not for winning games. I felt a prick and resolved to win the next match by fair means.

I undertook rigorous practice and won next time on point. Antida and my brother appreciated my superb performance, but father was not at all happy. He sent for me in his room and said, “I won’t force you to discontinue boxing so long as your exam results are o.k., but I must tell you unequivocally that this is but a cruel gladiator game and I don’t like it. You may read this book.”

It was an interesting book on the gladiator slaves of the Roman Empire and it impressed me so deeply that I decided to eschew boxing. Antida and my brother requested me to rethink but I was adamant. My rival Suraj won the next bout and he greeted me with sweets saying, “I’ve won simply because you were not there.” Since then we became good friend.

After giving up boxing I took to swimming in Tista River and Suraj started accompanying me. By dint of his boxing title he soon got the job of coolie sardar at a tea garden at the outskirts of the town. He sold out his shanty on occupied land to a neighboring shopkeeper and shifted with his widow mother to the coolie quarter at the tea garden.

After the Higher Secondary examination I had plenty of free time and I kept Suraj’s request to visit his mother at the coolie line of the garden. Like all the shanties there it was a tin roofed lowly house and there were large gourds dangling from the overhanging roof. I was charmed at the candidness and hospitality of his mother and it was pleasant to hear her story in oddly accented Bangla mixed with Bhojpuri. Her husband, a truck driver, was killed by a road accident while Suraj was just three years. She had brought him up by doing odd jobs and going through unimaginable hardships. She was then young and beautiful but well aware of her ijjat (dignity) and no rich debauch could lure her to the dark path of hell.  

Rains came in full swing and Tista was in spate submerging the islands and both the banks assuming a width over ten miles. Swimming was not safe because of the dangerous eddies and undertows and above all the fast floating sal trees uprooted at the foothills.
Suraj proposed that it would be thrilling to swim down Mahananda at Siliguri. Unlike Tista, it is free from the hazards. Moreover the river has crossed Tentulia of Pakistan and so we could venture through a foreign land if we wade down from Siliguri to West Dinajpur. If we swim down the middle of the fast flowing river in spate no body could detect us in the foreign territory. The crucial problem was how to mislead father. But it was not as difficult as I had apprehended. When I told him that I would visit Darjeeling with Suraj and a friend at Siliguri he at once nodded assent.

We went to a friend’s house at Siliguri and packing up garments, money and other essential stuffs in waterproof rucksacks tied to our backs and interlocking our waists with flax ropes, we three dived into the turbulent river at a place where the river was deep right from the bank. We reached the midstream with freestyle and breast strokes and then it was all easy. Without any effort on our part we were floating down at lightning speed and it was blissfully thrilling. The railway bridge of the newly constructed Farakka broad-gauge track indicated that we had entered India and not withstanding all our efforts, we were swept away by the current beyond the desired place and when we could eventually hit upon dry land, teetering across the muddy inundated bank, we were in Bihar, somewhere near Katihar. Plastered with mud from head to foot we looked like scare crows and the first human being we came upon doubled up in laughter watching our ghost like appearance, but when we told about our adventure he admired our courage and took us to his straw cottage. He was a medium farmer and a nice person. He gave us the address of his relative at Jalpaiguri and requested us to meet him when we departed after two days. We had to walk a few miles to get at the nearest railway station for Siliguri.

Hari Singh, the relative of the farmer, was a poor peddler and living at mohit-nagar at the outskirts of Jalpaiguri town. When we called on him at his shack in the afternoon he was immensely delighted at his rich cousin remembering him. He knew my father well and was at a loss how to entertain the son of vakilbabu (lawyer). To dispel his nervousness I told that I would like to have a glass of water and tea. Unlike in Bihar caste rules are not rigid in West Bengal and he gladly called out his daughter to serve us water and tea.

Tulsi, the eldest daughter of Hari, was a swarthy but good looking girl around fifteen with sharp nose and smiling candid looks. She made tea for us and the cheap biscuits smelled of kerosene. Hari was proud of and all praise for her daughter. His wife is almost invalid because of incurable gout and Tulsi does all household chores single handed with smiling face. Her robust health, thick black hair gliding down the waist and deer like eyes were really impressive. She was not at all shy unlike the other Bihari girls and did not hesitate to gossip with us for an hour.

My Higher Secondary results were satisfactory and I could cruise through the admission test to get admitted to honors in English at Presidency College, Calcutta. The new world in the posh college and Eden Hindu hostel was charming indeed, but I very often missed my parents, brother, Suraj and the life at Jalpaiguri and this made me sad.

The long awaited puza vacation came at last and I was received at the Panga airport by my brother and Suraj and in a moment I was relieved to rediscover myself in my familiar ambience.
After a few days I accompanied Suraj to his coolie quarter and his mother showered me with a barrage of questions about the great city Calcutta. She could not find any words to express her gratitude when I presented her the bottle containing water of the Ganges. We sat at the bank of Tista which was much docile now and the hazy tree-shaded bank on the other side, the shining peaks of Kanchanjengha to the far off North West, and the serenity of the atmosphere made me oblivious of the din and bustle of Calcutta. Much water has flown down Tista during the last few months. Suraj told me that he’s now making good money by assisting the manager to sell out low grade tea to rural stalls behind the back of the owner. While I mentioned the unethical aspect and risk of the venture he explained to me that in tea garden job this is the common practice and he’s compelled to do this to keep his job. The most interesting part of his account was that he and Tulsi had fallen in love with each other and both Hari and Suraj’s mother have approved of their marriage next year as they belong to the same caste. He told me that he would soon take me to Tulsi’s house.

On my way back in the mellow light of the evening sliding down the crevices of the away off dark hills I was marveled to watch the rows of white herons flying across the murky sky and the chattering parrots gliding along in wavy lines. Tinges of orange on the vast western canvas, the dots of lights adorning the dark line of trees on the bank across the river and the sonorous music of the fast flowing Tista opened up a dreamland and when the crescent moon poured its uncanny glow, winged fairies gliding across the vast uncanny stream melting down the mystic moon took possession of my bewitched vision.

When we approached Hari Singh’s house the next day, I was astonished to observe the sea change in his house. The wattle walls have been replaced by wooden planks and the shabby tile roof by glistening corrugated tin. The kitchen, bathroom and latrines all have been remodeled, doors and windows painted and the border of the house fenced by bamboo twigs. Hari is now running a grocer’s shop at dinbajar. Hari was all praise for Suraj, a diligent and modest boy with bright future. Hari left for his shop. Tulsi looked more ebullient now and called me dada (elder brother) and looked aside bashfully at the mention of their affairs. Both the tea and biscuits served now were of good quality. All the way home I wondered why Bengali girls cannot be so healthy, jovial and candid like Tulsi. Is it education, middle class life style or something to do with genetics?    

Pressure of study compelled me to remain confined to the college, hostel and libraries till summer vacation and as the city life started unraveling its multifaceted charms, the memories of the past started fading out. Even my mind did not miss my mother so painfully. At the beginning I had written a few letters to Suraj none of which was replied and I thought they could have been misplaced. Soon his image subsided to the inner chamber of my mind, submerged below the new acquaintances, the smart and brilliant friends in the posh college.  

During summer vacation I had to do a lot of library works and I could not afford to stay more than a week at Jalpaiguri and because of other preoccupations forgot to look for Suraj and Tulsi. During the puza vacation I took all the necessary books and notes along and resolved to stay home for the entire vacation. While I asked my brother about Suraj he looked morose and did not disclose anything at first. Upon repeated requests his account of Suraj sent waves of shocks through my mind. The Marwari owner had caught the manager red handed and dismissed him from job along with Suraj and other accomplices, and they had to leave the garden compound at one hour’s notice. Suraj used to keep all his savings with Hari, but while he asked for some money Hari, now the owner of a hardware shop, denied that he had received any money from Suraj and he did not even permit him to talk with Tulsi, who was soon married outside the town. After a few days Suraj committed suicide by jumping before a running train.

“What about his mother?” I asked.

“Last moth while returning from Siliguri I saw near Dasdaraga, urchins teasing a mad woman with tattered cloth. I got down from my bike and chased away the urchins and looking closely I was shocked to see Suraj’s mother. I dropped a ten rupee note in her begging bowl and started off at once with tears dripping down my cheeks.”

I spent a sleepless night cogitating over Tulsi’s sufferings after the marriage she had been forced into and an unendurable wave of pain started coursing through my heart. I felt deep hatred for her conscienceless father.

Upon return pressure of the ensuing B.A. Part-I examination soon swept away the moroseness and the sad story of Suraj faded into oblivion.

Questions were easy and I was satisfied with my performance in the examination and I did not hesitate to accept the offer of my room mate Tapan to visit on my way home Balurghat in the West Dinajpur district where his father was a high ranking police officer and his bungalow, Tapan told, was posh and spacious. It was more than what Tapan had described. The edifice was on a beautiful plot of land embellished with tree ferns, pines, eucalyptus, bougainvillea and multiple unknown flowers.

Tapan’s father was a very busy officer and he entrusted the task of showing us the sights to the Officer-in-Charge of a nearby police station. The sub-inspector gave us his police jeep and a good driver Ramlochan alias Ramu, a person well versed with all the places around. Ramu was a very nice and obedient person and he had a good knowledge of the routes and history of the important tourist spots in the district. We started off early in the morning taking along the breakfast and lunch packets and visited temples, forests and historical places. We were most impressed by a vast lake called Tapan-dighi and Ramu told that in winter the place reverberates with the chatters and songs of migratory birds. On our way back in the afternoon we visited the famous Raghunathpur forest and Ramu entreated us to visit his poor-man’s hut which was close by.

While we approached the village we found that his house was not at all a hut but a beautiful one-storey building in the midst of a flower garden and a neat and clean courtyard. I could not but praise the aesthetic sense of the uneducated Bihari driver.  We preferred to take our seats on the coir-roped khatia in the open and he started calling out his wife and mother to entertain the important persons like us. Suddenly a loud voice startled me, “Dada, you’re here!”

Tulsi had become more beautiful now and looked a mature housewife beyond her age. Her joy at my visiting her house knew no bounds. She started explaining to her husband and mother-in-law in a loud tone audible to the peeping neighbors, what an important person my father is and then she started querying about my family and my studies as though I’m her own brother, shooting occasional prideful glances at her husband, mother-in-law and the neighbors.

She told her husband that we don’t like Bihari food and sent him out to a Bengali sweet shop ignoring our protests. It occurred to me that Tulsi’s outward jollity must be to suppress her deep sorrow. “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought” I mused.

The kansat and khir-dahi were specialties of the place and the savor lingered for a long time. Tapan assured me that they are available at Balurghat town also and I could buy them before leaving for Jalpaiguri.

At first I considered it would not be justified to evoke out the deep pain of Tulsi hidden beneath all these outward hilarity, but eventually curiosity prevailed upon me.

I took her aside before departure and asked after long hesitation about Suraj. She immediately flew into rage.
“Don’t mention his name, the dirty thief. The bugger had the audacity to ask for my hand!” She dredged out a sarcastic smile,

“Don’t you know that he was arrested and it was your kind father who bailed him out?”

“In fact I was busy with my studies and could not come home for a long time.”

I assured Tulsi that I would visit their house the next time I come to Balurghat.

The hoodless jeep sped off along the smooth road and peering into the starry new moon sky my mind drifted off to the long long past, the Glorious Roman Empire and the GLADIATORS.


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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