The Obsession11 mins 202 11 mins 202
The dinner table was as quiet and terrifying as an elephant graveyard. Bhudev sensed volcanic emotions in his sons and so decided silence was his best bet.
'Why did you work for so long?'
'The way your health is failing each day, it would become difficult for you. Do you not understand papa?' The anxiety gushed out of his elder son.
Bhudev continued to nibble silently, well aware that a storm could stir up at the slightest provocation.
'Papa, please don't act so reckless. You are all that we have. We want you to be healthy and that's why bhaiya has put together your daily routine.'
'Would you not follow it for us?' said Anand, almost pleading to his dad.
Anand is the younger son, but he's relatively more composed and most patient with Bhudev.
Bhudev sat still. He had to finish the pieces of art he had started creating. He could not flicker. There was no going back.
He did not utter a single word knowing in the core of his heart how much both his sons love him. He understood the cause of worry, but didn't feel obliged to explain his fulfilling entanglements or the creative concussions that keep him alive. Except the restriction on creative labour, he could live with all restraints.
His silence infuriated Atul. Being a doctor himself, Atul could prescribe medicines, recommend diet, instruct the house-help Mansi to monitor, but he could not take the meds or the rest himself on Bhudev's behalf.
The dinner ended abruptly over the pointless persuasions. As his sons retreated to their rooms, he went back to the landing of the terrace. He had full autonomy over his decisions. Had his wife been living, things would have been different.
It was 9 'o clock. He needed at least an hour to chisel and finish the last piece. Mansi followed him.
Bhudev was young when he learnt to carve on wood. He loved the art. It lent him a window to imagine and display his reflections with exquisite artistry. His art was his gateway to a different world where anger or sadness couldn't do a prick, where children filled all his voids with love and peace.
His vivid imagination and an exceptional gift of precision at carving wooden toys could have earned him the name of a noteworthy wood sculptor, had he not lost his father so young. He brimmed with pride to call himself a descendant of the Sutradhars, a famous clan of craftsmen from the Burdwan district of Bengal.
With age the passion had grown sharper than the tools and his energy. Mansi sat near Bhudev as he worked, intermittently posing one or two questions. 'Dada, how did you know you could do this?'
His craftsmanship filled the vacuum of pride that he could have achieved with a formal college degree. He was different from his sons as a child. He had purposely missed school every now and then, to make others see his ubiquitous talent and make belief that school added no value to his life.
'As a child, I used to accompany my father to exhibitions and to our shop, occasionally. My father let me carry some of my own woodwork as well.
Tourists trooped to our stall at every exhibition and my creations always sold well.
That's when I knew I could do this', Bhudev replied as he continued chiselling softly. He didn't want any sound to permeate downstairs.
'Then why did you leave Notungram?' Mansi chipped in as she handed over a bottle of paint to him.
Bhudev had narrowed his eyes to concentrate on the finishing touches. He slowly responded, 'Money had been a burning concern for my family.'
As he finished the last of the memory holders, he continued 'It had worsened with my father's untimely demise. Circumstances had forced me to move out of my cocoon with only a few pennies and I landed in Kolkata.'
'If you were poor, then how did you manage this woodcraft?' Mansi asked again.
'When we reached Howrah, we had nowhere to go. So, we camped in the station itself. I picked odd jobs of sweeping.
One day the housekeeping supervisor of the station called me and asked my whereabouts. I was 8th pass but he offered a job as a housekeeping apprentice.
I worked very hard, day and night, and in just three months l was made the housekeeping assistant. I only had to assist the supervisor. I got paid well and had managed a roof over our head.
But my heart was in my craft. So, I started working in the station during the day and worked on wood during the night. I had decided that I would follow the passion even if I had to struggle.'
Bhudev smiled to himself as he rewinded some of the old moments.
He remembered how he had created thousands of artefacts, toys & animals for children which was his livelihood all through the prime years of his life. He had spent more than 25years in a two-room cottage in Kestopur with his mother, and later with his wife & children, until Anand became an IAS Collector and they shifted to the new big house about a couple of years back.
The next morning was less strenuous for the father and the sons.
Atul checked the blood pressure and gave him the tray of medicines with the regular blood thinner, thyronorm, and vitamins. He just had to gulp them one more time and again. He had started resenting this life hinged on the crutch of medicines.
Growing age, variety of diseases, heart surgery and the pandemic together had stirred a whirlpool in the last two years and had turned Bhudev into a sugar doll. It takes a lot of concerted effort to keep him sound.
He understood that and deeply appreciated all the care. But he didn't mind if he melted away while doing what he loved to do.
No sooner his boys left home, he climbed to his room on the first floor to get ready. He had planned to step out no matter what.
'Have kept the ironed clothes on the bed', Mansi announced as he stood shaking after the bath.
Bhudev stood in front of the mirror and looked at his lean body. The kurta felt quite loose now. He held his face and turned around to inspect if his bony jaws had gained any fat. Months of rest have done me worse than good, he murmured to himself.
He wore his mask and hung the big black bag full of wooden dolls and toys on his old tired shoulder. In his youth, he could carry thrice the size of it. Now his back hurt a little.
He was ready to leave. He felt impatient like a child, to let his heart touch the bubbling happiness again. He hurried to get the scooter keys. The day was his only ticket to his loved world.
As he couldn't find the keys, it made him dislike his new home a little extra. The big house with so many rooms and too many well-organized storage spaces made him feel lost.
It made him frustrated to look for garments in one wardrobe, shoes in another and documents, keys in another. He remembered his old house didn't have so many confusing cupboards and drawers. It had only one second-hand Godrej almirah and that's where he found everything he needed. Living rich wasn't easy.
Bhudev took a deep breath and dropped in the rocking armchair. He loved this cosy balcony; a corner that was only his and never failed to pep him up. He missed his wife Kamala for everything.
From the balcony he could see the green front lawn. The other side of the balcony overlooked the open courtyard, where he could see Mansi wrapping up the water pipes.
He gave a shout out to her. The nineteen-year-old had amazing hearing senses.
She got the keys and held out both her hands. In one hand she held the key and opened the other palm for Bhudev to hold. She was determined to not let him go and have fun alone. She had prepped since morning for this time.
He didn't have a choice to reject someone who believed in him, who backed him all those months and helped as apprentice. And he needed support on his first day after such a long gap.
Little help will not spoil the fun, he decided.
He got on the pillion seat as she drove slowly through the by-lanes avoiding main roads as much as possible. Mansi didn't have a license but she drove well.
It was almost 11 am when they reached the gate of Charigram Boys School. The students would be free in an hour. There was still enough time to lay down his stock. They took out one piece of everything he had made and placed them on the blue mat over the cemented sill of the closed student canteen, right opposite the school gate.
He knew young children were not going to be there yet. Schools had opened but only for older children. The vicious tentacles of the pandemic had spread so far & thick that the trepidation will take time to leave us.
But still, he had taken a few pieces that suited them. He remembered how the younger children smiled like the sun, tossed his toys with delight, and convinced their parents to buy from him.
Mansi stood by the side with her eyes wide open fancying the wooden splendour. She hadn't seen such detailed carvings and nuances in wooden toys.
'Dada, did you always put up a stall here?'
'No no...I used to walk miles at a stretch even on the hottest days of Baishakh going from one house to another.
Rarely did anyone sell wooden toys then. Mostly they were plastic dolls, the industrial output in the era of economic reforms of the 70s.
With time they gained confidence and developed a liking for all that I made. That's when I decided to set up stalls in front of schools.' said Bhudev, eager to tell his tale.
Bhudev took out his folding stool that was tied behind the scooter and sat gazing at the gate. He waited in anticipation.
The school gate was now green in colour unlike the rugged brown two years back. He remembered the time when he started selling his toys in front of this school before the pandemic touched our world. During then as the school gates opened, children of all shapes and sizes hovered over his canopy. Some would come with their mothers, some with their siblings and some all by themselves. The ones who came alone were the most experimental. They would pick the latest ones but negotiate very hard to fit within their pocket money.
The memories seemed closer than he had thought. His eyes glinted at the recollection of the excited small faces and their tickled laughter. Their innocence and joy were the happiness antidote to his struggling life then.
His toys sold well if the first boy who came out of the school gate visited his stall. A superstition that got rooted with time. He had to lure the early birds.
Just about noon, the school gate opened and older children, maybe around fourteen years and above, came flocking out of school. Only a handful of the handful who came to school took note of Bhudev's display.
A tall boy grade walked towards Bhudev with an ear-to-ear smile, as if he just reminisced a beautiful moment in time.
He asked the price of an old toy ship. Bhudev didn't expect him to buy as he made it keeping a ten-year-old in mind. Still, he said, 'fifty rupees.'
The boy took out a Rs. 20 and Rs. 10 notes. As he handed it over to Bhudev, he said, 'kaka please give me that. I had bought it from you only years back but my little brother broke it.
I loved the ship. It didn't cost as much then. Please give it in thirty rupees.' The boy coaxed, a trick of negotiation, that every child learnt from their parents. But Bhudev was not there for money. He was there to collect memories. He felt a tug. It was worth a price for his own happiness.
He decided to give all for free, but then no one values the quality of a free gift. So, he gave away at whatever price the kids negotiated.
More children trooped towards his display and oscillated between options. Some of them recognized despite his ageing face and smiled as they would smile at someone they closely know.
He derived immense pleasure looking at the children when they gazed in wonderment and teetered over everything. The familiarity in their eyes made him enthusiastic like a twenty-year-old.
'I'm Subbu. Remember me kaka?
Give me that memory box', a child called out in a husky voice.
As Bhudev packed the box, he saw the child taking out his money from a wooden pencil box that he had gifted to a child, many years back.
He remembered Subbu. The orphan child who grew up in the school's orphanage. Years back, Subbu had been very upset that he didn't get any gift on his 9th birthday; he had been lonely.
Bhudev had found the child hiding behind his stall and crying. That day later, he gifted the pencil box with his name carved on it.
'Oh yes! I do Subbu', Bhudev exclaimed at the lightning of his memory bulb. 'You have grown so much. Oh, dear!'
The boy held Bhudev's hands and turned it on the palm. He kept the money and a folded tiny paper on his palms and closed it.
Bhudev opened the piece of paper. It was worn out; maybe it was kept folded for a long time.
Thank you, kaka.
I'd never got a gift. Yours in my first and I love it.
I've never been so happy. This is my best birthday ever!
Bhudev stood caught between a swirl of emotions and the sweet tingling of pure love. Subbu had walked away from him by then. He waited for Subbu to turn around so that he could smile back and acknowledge.
As he watched Subbu wave to him, he felt ready.
The day reminded him of thousands of little hands that touched his life. He was humbled to have felt the first-hand experience of such joy again in his life. He would be alive in somebody's memory, someone's' stories.
It was 1.30 pm. Mansi winded up whatever was left over and took Bhudev back home. He did not speak a single word. He only smiled at everyone. His sons were happy to see him happy, though unaware of what happened behind them.
Bhudev went straight up to his room after a jovial dinner. That night he slept in peace. Forever.