Bitter Harvest10 mins 464 10 mins 464
The year began with burden. The burden of debt. The burden of a new member in the family. The burden of a poor harvest last season. Not that Ratan did not know how to ease it like his friends did. Moloy and Amit cultivated almost the same size of land as Ratan did, yet they managed to double their earnings. Last week, near the ration shop, he bumped into them. Amit had a DVD player perched on his shoulder. “Went to town. Bought this video machine. Only for 1600 rupees. 2-year guarantee. Now we can watch Uttam, Amitabh every night. Buy one for Gouridi. She will be happy,” said Moloy with a smirk, knowing full well that Ratan could not spare so much money.
“Come one day, watch a film with us,” Amit signed off. Ratan was confused who had actually bought it; their intimate bonding prevented him from asking who owned the player.
The mention of Gouri reminded him of what he had to buy for her. Having delivered a boy, she had won the bet. She demanded a silk sari as her prize. With his meagre income he had no idea as to how that would happen soon. Plunged in worry, he could not concentrate much in his work. Sat under the shade of a mango tree, and wondered how difficult his life was becoming. He spoke aloud, to make the gods hear his misery. The crows flew away – only the scarecrow sulked with a tilted head. As the sky turned grey, he said rather wistfully, “Life and the skies are unpredictable.” The philosophical outburst was, however, short-lived. Other farmers gathered their tools and began to return home. Thick arrows began to pierce the bosom of the earth.
The curiosity of finding who bought the video player took him to Moloy’s house. The excuse was provided by the sudden downpour. In the last two years he had not stopped here whenever he took the short cut route – by the side of the well. Old memories flashed past his mind like lightning.
Standing at the doorstep he could hear Hindi film songs. Moloy opened the door and was surprised to find his estranged friend. “Didn’t see you in the field today?” Ratan asked with fake concern.
“Feeling unwell. Radha did not let me go. Come in.”
Moloy took Ratan inside and made him sit on a wicker chair. Radha was still glued to the TV.
“Watching dance numbers…look, Ratan is here,” he said softly.
Radha found the screen hero more exciting than Ratan who had spurned her oblation of love as she did meet his standards of a virtuous wife.
Moloy nudged Radha, in a bid to send her to the kitchen to prepare tea and thereby demonstrate how obedient she was. Unwillingly she crawled out of the bed, offering a good view of her cleavage to make him feel remorseful of what he could not grab. Ratan could not drag his eyes to the bevy of scantily-clad girls gyrating on the screen even though Moloy kept saying, “See, see, just imagine one such in your arms. You get these items only in big cities, not here...”
Steering the conversation to a serious pitch, Ratan trailed off his worries, hoping that his friend would empathise with his plight. “It seems these hailstorms and heavy rains will damage our crops. Why does God punish farmers every year? What are our sins?” Radha walked in with home-made sweets, and Ratan paused to receive a piece from her while Moloy began his prudent response: “Leave God. Learn to take care of yourself. Apply your head to solve problems - ”
Interrupting Moloy, Ratan said emphatically, “I know you will advise me to become like you. Use pesticides, chemicals to speed up growth and ensure better harvest.” Ratan uttered these words loud and clear to draw the attention of Radha who he thought was not aware of the unfair means Moloy had used to take good care of her needs.
Instead of Radha, Moloy went hammer and tongs as he understood that Ratan was trying to tarnish his image: “Why should we worry what the world eats? Moral responsibility does not lie with us alone. I know you will not like it but that is the truth today. The world has changed. So wake up. If you can’t, stay like this. Go to any town or city and see how people cheat and flourish. And look at us. Where we are? Do they care for us? Why should we care for them? They have everything, and we have to struggle for everything. Better you save yourself by doing what I have been doing for years now. Or commit suicide.”
Moloy had studied till class eight before dropping out when his father died of cholera. If a more educated and knowledgeable person had compromised and become harsh, why should Ratan stick to ideals and suffer? Ratan chose to give it a second thought when Radha jangled her gold bangles to flaunt her wealth and prosperity. Ratan seemed to regret he could not give Gouri so much.
Radha’s lines, as she placed tea in front of them, jolted Ratan: “Is there anything left pure in this world? Is love pure?”
Ratan felt foolish in adhering to morals. Of what use was uprightness when he could not breathe easy? Radha sat on the bed, fiddling with the CD cover, humming the lyrics printed on the flip side. As they took the last dregs, she lobbed a less difficult question, “How was the tea, Ratanda? I know Gouri makes better tea.”
“No, it was very good, really tasty.” Ratan fumbled to generate a satisfactory answer.
Moloy pitched in, “I keep telling her to learn stitching and cooking from Gouridi. She is an expert.”
“I know. That is why she is Ratanda’s wife,” Radha said with a tinge of jealousy.
The fragrance of wet soil now reached the room. Ratan made a feeble attempt to leave, after receiving generous advice from Moloy as to what substances he could use to augment the productivity of the soil and protect his crop.
“It has stopped raining. I should go. Gouri must be worried,” Ratan said, casting one last look at Radha who was busy tying her hair in a bun. Moloy came to the main door to see him off and share a few words about Amit’s extra-marital dalliances with a girl half his age, which he could not mention in Radha’s presence.
Before applying the methods suggested by Moloy, Ratan chose to discuss it with Amit who stayed in another lane not very far from this place. He was happy to be accorded so much of importance, to finally get in their fold an old friend. “All these years we discussed you. Your absence was painful. Your struggle against all odds, poor harvest and all that. Anyway, it’s never too late to make a fresh beginning. Look at my example. When I went to the market with small papayas, brinjals and cauliflowers, nobody looked at the small ones. Now these big ones attract. Just like all men are attracted by big breasts. Always grabbed. The naturally grown ones did not grow extra large whereas these chemically treated ones did. Big size matters. Why am I saying all this? You know it. Use pesticides, carbides, whatever is available to produce more and sell more. Don’t burden your conscience with guilt. The world has changed. You should change too.” The words sounded similar. This lesson in deceit could well open the doors of prosperity for Ratan and his beleaguered family.
Amit gave him a bagful of chemicals and spelt the directions to use. Ratan came home and showed the bag that would finally revive their sagging fortunes. Gouri thanked the Lord for instilling sense in her idealistic husband who was previously unwilling to compromise. “Now I can buy ornaments like that ***** Radha,” she said. Her use of an abusive word invited a slap that crashed mid-air. Gouri stomped out in anger for she could smell his love for Radha.
The wailing infant suddenly turned silent. When Ratan peeped into the other room, he saw Gouri feeding him. Dumping the bag in a corner, he went to have a bath. He looked into the mirror and saw a different person. He hated his new face and felt a strong urge to break it. Then he closed his eyes to see saris, bangles, necklaces, tractors, Amit, Moloy, Radha. He became quiet and promised to accept this new face with dignity. The mask of fortune that all wore.
Some months later, he saw his efforts bear fruit. The crop was better this time. He was confident of making good profit by selling his produce. With a pocket stuffed with notes of small denominations, he stopped in front of Bimal Sari House to admire the colourful saris displayed. He touched a mannequin wearing a brick red sari and felt the soft, smooth silk. A salesman at the gate cast one look at his ordinary clothes and informed that the entire range was priced 1900 rupees onwards. The next day he wore clean clothes, walked into the air-conditioned store and demanded to see some good silk saris priced around 2000 rupees. He selected one and urged the fat shopkeeper to reduce the price. He pointed at the ‘fixed price’ tag and charged 1800 rupees. Ratan did not know whether it was a good bargain.
Gouri was excited as he fished it out of the gift-wrapped box. She was overjoyed to see the gorgeous brocade on the border, the colour and pattern. She demanded a similar sari for her younger sister who was about to get married soon. That night she made better love, wearing the new silk sari.
Almost a month later he went to the same shop, after he had used more chemicals to produce more in a shorter period of time. He had saved money for another costly sari. The fat shopkeeper, who had prepared the bill the last time, had moved to a higher level. His garlanded photo came as a shock. In his cushioned chair sat a young boy, hardly twenty, clutching a smartphone and placing an order much like a seasoned businessman.
Ratan approached the salesman who had shown him a good variety the last time. He was happy to find a similar sari, though the colour was different. He quickly grabbed it and asked the assistant to pack it. When he came to the counter, he decided to share the grief of the young boy in an attempt to get some discount.
Looking at the salesman Ratan said, “Seth was very good, nice human being. What happened to him?”
He was expecting a reply from the son but he was busy with his bill book and cash box.
“Cancer. Last stage. Spent lakhs of rupees on treatment. Took to Bombay. No use… these days we eat everything impure, oil, vegetables, fruit…” the salesman said to offer his views on the subject. Ratan did not identify himself as a farmer.
The young boy demanded Rs 2300. Ratan was stunned. “Only last month I took a similar sari for 1800.”
The salesman explained, “Maybe, but this is fresh stock. New from Bangalore. Arrived this Sunday. Half the stock is yet to be taken out of the cartons.”
Ratan examined it properly. Same as the one he took last time. He opened the pack and saw it again and tried to convey his point. Nobody was willing to listen. It was a take-it-or-leave-it situation. Since he had made a promise to Gouri he had to buy it at a higher price. Mumbling expletives in his dialect he came out of the shop, calling them a bunch of thieves. It took him a little while to understand the reason for this price hike.
“Can we do the same thing in the vegetable market?” “Will people buy potato at double the price? Moloy and Amit are right in their observation. This world has indeed changed.”
Next morning he went to the fields and sprayed an extra dose. He suffered no pangs of guilt. Just went on saying, “More chemicals, more growth, more harvest, more money, more saris.”
As he was about to wrap up for the day, he saw Moloy pass by on a motorcycle, with Radha sitting behind like a coy bride. Her words were lost, just heard Moloy say, “Bought new bike. Going to the temple to offer Puja. Come in the evening.”