Haimanti Dutta Ray



Haimanti Dutta Ray


The Catastrophe Of Chance

The Catastrophe Of Chance

9 mins


Told in the first-person narrative, The Catastrophe of Chance is a novella that encapsulates memory with pain. Aloka, the narrator girl, is a teenager who is greatly influenced and inspired by the joie de vivre attitude of one of her Uncles – her father’s friend – whom she calls ‘Amalendu kaku’. The latter and his wife love her tremendously in turn. It is the witty asides and repartees from her Kaku that she recounts even in her class at school. 

They - Aloka and her parents, Amalendu and his wife Mithu - decide to visit Odisha, during the summer holidays. They go to Puri, Konark and the caves at Udaygiri and Khandagiri. It is by some quirk in God’s will, as Aloka ruminates later, that an incident occurs at these caves located high up on the hills. The episode, in itself an eerie one, is destined to haunt her throughout her life. 

She ponders later onwards: Was it really a mishap? Or was something else at play that’s beyond human control? After all, there’re more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt about in our philosophy (with due apologies to Shakespeare himself).




I was both happy and sad from a very early age. I was happy because being the only daughter of my parents I had all their attention and love directed towards none other than my own self. I was sad because, due to the absence of siblings, I soon realised what lonely afternoons meant, for a girl like me.

Staring outside and gazing at the leafy growth beside the windows of my room, I spent my time in the afternoons - after returning from school – mimicking the chirpings of unknown birds. Baba had gifted me with the complete edition of Feluda stories in two volumes on the occasion of my twelfth birthday. Feluda, that perennial creation of Satyajit Ray, held me in thrall for days on end. Even though Bengali as a language wasn’t taught in our school, yet on Baba’s vehement insistence, a tutor had been appointed to teach me Bangla at home.

I read Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol and books by Leela Mazumdar soon became my bedside companions. Those were the days when television had yet to make an entry into our lives. Hence, reading both for pleasure as well as leisure, was both popular and practised. When Enid Blyton replaced Sukumar Ray on my bookshelf, I was on the brink of puberty. As I loved birds, every winter, a visit to the Alipore Zoo as part of our schedules. I loved to watch as the animals were fed in their cages. Elephants were bathed with buckets full of water.

Winters were incomplete without winter blooms. Marigolds and poinsettias blossomed in bunches around this time.

“Look Baba! Shuorer Bachcha!” ( a slang in local Bengali parlance.”Shuor” meaning ‘pig’ in Bangla)

“No, no. You should never utter these words. They are piglets.”

We were travelling by train on our way to Bolpur, from where we’d go to Santiniketan, Tagore’s Abode. I was busy looking out of the window and suddenly two baby pigs had come out of nowhere, into my line of vision.

“But you should never ever utter these words. No good girl ever does!”

Baba, who was so watchful over me, was very particular about the way I was growing up. He was more concerned than even my mother. Baba was a painter, a watercolourist to be more precise. Ma was a school teacher. People – friends and family relatives – often supposed that the regimen of strict upbringing, in my case, should’ve come from my mother’s side. Every one of them knew that she was stricter than Baba.

Childhood meant pampering years. But, believe it or not, I was not pampered in the manner, say, others were at that time. I never owned a Barbie doll in my childhood years. Nor did I possess a teddy. But what I possessed in ample amount were books – loads of them – both in English and Bengali. The children’s magazine, Sandesh, which was then being edited by none other than Satyajit Ray himself, was a regular monthly guest in our household.

“Ma, but Sandesh means a sweet, right? How come a magazine is called by that name?”

In all innocence and ignorance, I had asked Ma one day.

“Probably it’s because it covers all sweet things for sweet darlings like you.”

Ma had replied back.

So it all began in that way. I began reading outside my textbooks, a bit voraciously. Then there were letters to be written. In those days, fountain pens served the purpose of keyboards. These, a bit antiquated relics now, had to be filled with ink – indigo blue or black – and lo! You’d go on writing at length. But there were always chances of getting one’s fingers stained with the ink from these pens. And once a drop of water fell on the writing then all are gone in a jiffy!

Receiving and composing letters for friends and relatives used to be an art of yore. People kept well-written letters in impeccable handwriting, stashed away in aluminium boxes or trunks, securing them with naphthalene balls. Just like those lovely woollens... – tended with care, only to be taken out at the opportune moment. Apart from letter-writing, I had also inculcated another habit.

On my fourteenth birthday probably, I was gifted with a red leather-bound diary.

“You’ll write your day-to-day activities here. You can also write down some of your poems.”

Ma, I always felt that teaching or providing lessons for lesser mortals like me, ran in her very bloodstream, told me one day. So, soon enough, my diary became my all-time companion. No, I hadn’t read Anne Frank’s The Diary of A Young Girl till then. But I promised that I’d confide to my diary as I’d confided to no other being on earth. I still remember the joy that I felt in being able to express myself on the pages of my diary.

We were a middle-class Bengali family who believed in hard work and also that it’d eventually bear fruit one day. Hence luxuries of all kinds were a strict no, no.

“But consider yourself lucky! Not all parents indulge their children the way your parents do.”

I and Laxmi were discussing things, not even remotely related to studies, during the recess hours in school, while sharing from our tiffin boxes. As Laxmi loved the ‘luchi and aloo dum’ that Ma packed into mine, I simply gorged on her packed ‘idlis’.

Often stiff competition ensued in our class between me and Laxmi. Sometimes it was her who stood first, sometimes me. But our friendship was hardly hampered because of this. And what’s more, Laxmi lived a few streets away from our own household. And our school was within walking distance from our respective houses. While my favourite subjects were English and History, Laxmi loved Mathematics and Geography.

We shared common interests also. Despite the fact that we belonged to different Indian communities – I was a Bengali girl and she was a Tamil – it did not deter us from sharing and caring. Whenever I was down with fever and absent from school, Laxmi came over to help me cope with the missed classes. I can still recall that she had beautiful handwriting in those days. We were friends right from the days when holding pencils between our fingers, gave way to pens. The day I first held and wrote with a pen – fountain pen at that time – it gave me a feeling of becoming an adult already. I had experienced the same feeling when my mother had replaced my morning glass of milk, with the one laced with tea liquor.

Among our teachers, I liked Tilottama Ma’am, who taught us English, a lot. Laxmi did not like her and often called her by the name of “Your Tilo Ma’am”.

“O Wind! If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

I realised that I was sailing along the waves and rhythms of the poem by Shelley. Ode To The West Wind came to throbbing life in class, as Tilottama Ma’am guided us through the poem. She taught us in a way, in it should’ve been taught. I still remember the way her voice had reverberated while reciting the poem, aloud for us. We had later come to know that teaching was her passion. She was a trained artist by profession.

“Dears, you are the little angels in my life. But as you may know, one has several interests in life. It’s just like you all have several subjects to study. I wander among trees and lose myself among unknown rivers. When I come back, I paint these memories on canvases and tuck them away in a tiny corner of my room.”

We were caught up in a storytelling session in class that day. But Ma’am was recounting real experiences. About that, we were all very sure about it. When called, Laxmi made up a story about a poor cobbler, who eventually turned out to be a royal prince in disguise. But when I was called onto the make-shift podium, I decided to recount about something different, something that’d stand apart from the rest of the stories that were made up. After all, to stand first in class does make a difference, always! Isn’t that so? 

So when Ma’am asked me to come up to her side, and ramble about any experience that had had a lasting impression upon my mind, I decided then and there that I’d talk about not one, not two, but about several such memorable anecdotes that I’d had with a person who was like a father figure in my life.

Amalendu Kaku was a person who could face any adversity with a smile. I have known him ever since my birth. That is to say that he’d been around my parents for a very long time. In Bengali diction and grammar, kaku means ‘uncle’. But it’s also the appellation meant for the friend of one’s father. That’s exactly what Amalendu Kaku was – a friend that too lifelong, of Babas. ‘Baba’, meaning father in Bengali diction, had wide interests in his life. The concomitant result of this had been the fact that he had a gamut of friends from varied walks of life, as diversified as diversity itself.

“Aloka! Aloka!”

Amalendu Kaku’s voice could be heard reverberating around our entire locality. He and I shared a special bond between ourselves. For many, he was the living representation of the popular epithet ‘ Jack of all trades, master of none.’ But we knew that he was trained in classical music in his student years.

But by profession, Amalendu kaku was a tabla player.

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