The day was coming to a close at Tia-khali, an island in the Sundarbans, bordering the Bay of Bengal. Afternoon was long over. Since 4 p.m. Caabla was waiting near the school gate for Maya. But the girl was nowhere to be seen. Last Sunday, they had an argument. In a fit of rage, Maya had left the spot and vowed never to meet Caabla again.
At a little distance, Maya was also waiting but not at her usual spot. She was coolly sitting in a tea shop sipping a cup of tea. From her viewing post, she was observing Caabla keenly. She was enjoying his growing impatience with every passing minute. Anxiety seemed to have pervaded the space between them and bridged the distance.
There was something abnormal in Caabla’s behavior. Maya was only eighteen but the tough island life matured her beyond her years. She could sense something abnormal in Caabla's behaviour and decided to find it out first-hand.
Frustrated by the wait, Caabla was about to leave the spot, Maya came out of her hiding. For a moment they looked at each other without uttering a single word. Then as if Maya did not exist, Caabla made his move.
“What’s the matter? You said you have lots to discuss with me; now leaving without a single word,” Maya demanded.
“I can’t wait for your highness the whole day. I have my work to do” replied Caabla.
“There is puja at Prahlad’s house.”
“The village headman.”
At the mention of the word ‘puja' Maya squeezed her nostril. But it also reminded her about the importance of the day; the day of Kojagori Laxmi puja—a puja celebrated on the twilight of the first full-moon day after the great autumn festival --Durga puja. Maya’s family was not particularly religious but many in the village offered special puja to Goddess Laxmi on the occasion. Rich families even employ professional priests to perform the puja.
“You – you will be performing puja! I never knew you are a Brahmin!”
With anyone else, Caabla would have gone into an offensive but with Maya he preferred to maintain silence.
“Are you really a Brahmin?” Maya was not one to give up so easily.
“What makes you think I am not?” Cabala knew, offence is the best way of defense.
“Well, you don’t look like one.” Maya replied bluntly.
“Do Brahmins have two heads and four hands?”
“Nah. They have only one head but they have brain in it. You, on your own admission is a Caabla - a fool.”
Caabla was on the verge of blurting out that once he used to be the topper of his class. Among the forty -three boys of his class in the seminary, only he could recite the entire holy book without ever looking at it. But he controlled the urge. Maya too was an intelligent girl —the topper of her class. It was difficult to hide things from Maya.
“Hey! Are you hurt? I was just joking.”
“Not at all,”—Caabla answered but his tone indicated his mind was somewhere else.
Caabla had a good name given by his father but it eroded into obscurity by lack of use.
“Hey, I brought something for you.” Maya extended a packet of deep- fried rice flakes towards Caabla.
“Today is my fast,” Caabla did not accept it.
“Come on. No body fasts now-a-days for puja.” Mala snapped.
“I do.” Caabla gave her a dry smile.
“Was your father a priest too?”
“Will you please stop inquiring about my parents? I don’t have anybody. Even if I had, I don’t like to discuss them,” Caabla could no longer contain his anger.
Though discussing childhood was the least favourite topic of conversation for Caabla, he did have a vivid memory of his childhood home. At Khulna, a city of Bangladesh, Caabla’s mother was a minority Hindu but his father belonged to the majority community. He had two wives and Caabla’s mother happened to be the second one. An exceptionally bright high school teacher, Cabbla’s father was in high demand as a private tutor. Caabla’s rich businessman maternal uncle had employed the man as his sister’s private tutor but duo fell in love and eloped. Unfortunately, the romance evaporated quickly after the marriage. Caabla’s maternal uncle had refused to accept the inter-religion marriage and withheld his financial support from his sister. As a child, Caabla used to live with his mother in a small one- room accommodation away from his father’s paternal home. There, Caabla had seen his mother doing all sorts menial work and getting manhandled by his father in return. Nobody loved Caabla --not even his paternal grandparents. Whatever little attention he got as a child came only from his mother. Then one day, Mom also went missing. Rumour had it that Caabla’s rich maternal uncle had arranged her escape to India. There, in the metro city of Kolkata, he got her married the second time.
The educated schoolteacher husband had taken the escape of his second wife as a personal insult. He had complained against his infidel brother-in –law in the court of law. But moneyed people are always judged in a different court of law. Caabla’s maternal uncle was the highest tax payer of the city. So when he pleaded ignorance, the government lawyer had accepted his plea. Finally, Caabla had to bear the brunt of his father’s wrath. To inculcate Islamic values into the son of an infidel mother, he dropped him into an Islamic seminary. Then, Caabla was only eleven years old.
“Hey. What’s the matter? You are totally absent minded today.” Maya gave him a gentle shake.
“Nothing—but Maya, I have a hunch. Something really bad is going to happen soon. Please, please don’t roam alone in the village.”
“Are you scared of tigers?“
“No, but there are people worse than tigers. I think you know that.”
Maya had come from tough stock. Two of her uncles were involved in active politics. Two decades earlier, when Tia-khali was nothing more than a fishing island surrounded by mangroves and man-eaters, her aunt Moyna had stood up against every odd and secured a nursing degree. Now her niece, ambitious and outspoken Maya had focused all her energy on cracking the medical entrance test. Well ahead of all her classmates, Maya had secured star marks school leaving examination. But cracking the medical entrance was a real challenge. Yet Maya was not scared. She was determined to do it at any cost. Often she would go for special tuition in the city of Canning at odd hours.
Situated in the Sunderbans, the village of Tia-khali, is a microscopic dot in the map of India but it nurtured a glorious cultural heritage. Founded by a Buddhist philanthropist, the village was noted for his communal tolerance. People were united by the need of survival-- the constant struggle against the tides and ravenous animals; Royal Bengal tigers and crocodiles. Here, religion was a source of entertainment — rather than a way of life.
Originally the village did not have any religious establishment, any mosque or temple. Home to both Muslims and lower caste Hindus, most villagers used to worship ‘Bon Bibi’ the mighty woman deity of the Sunderban forest. But ten years back, Chowdhury, a reputed politician had donated some land and the local club built a temple of Goddess Kali there. The village started celebrating Durga-puja --the gorgeous autumn festival –-- in the permanent structure of that temple. The generous politician, Chowdhury, shouldered the responsibility of the temple’s maintenance. It was he, who employed Caabla as the temple’s caretaker.
Caabla was not an original resident of the village. Some two years back, along with some friends from the seminary he had ventured along the intricate water-ways of the Sunderbans. The border police at the Indian side had caught the boat and taken them into custody. Luckily for Caabla, Chowdhury was there at the police station. He had taken pity on these young adventurous people and arranged for their release.
Caabla’s friends had gone back to Bangladesh but Caabla wanted to stay on. At the back of his mind, there was a hidden mission—‘tracing an escapee mother’. But this, he never uttered to a single soul—not even to his saviour.
The duo, Maya and Caabla, were walking in slow motion. Near the temple they parted ways-- Maya towards her home and Caabla towards the village headman’s house.
The moment of sunset was considered most auspicious for worshipping the Goddess of riches-- Laxmi.
It was almost dark; yet some fifteen minutes was left before the sunset . Caabla decided to utilise the time in homework. Slipping his hand into the pocket, he slyly brought a small book—‘The methods of Laxmi puja’. Then, standing under the great Banyan, he slipped on a piece of brand new holy thread, that identified him as a Hindu Brahmin.
As he manipulated the holy- thread over his shoulder, a faint smile was portrayed on his lips. He remembered a conversation with Maya. He had asked Maya whether it was necessary for her to marry within the caste.
The answer had bowled him over. “Yes, of course. Getting a free medical seat is more than winning a lottery. There is quota for schedule-castes even in medical-seats’. I won’t give up my schedule caste identity for the world!”
When Caabla came back to his cottage, he was richer by a couple of hundred rupee notes and a sari. After the puja at Prahlad’s house, two of his neighbours had requested Caabla to perform puja at their houses too. Caabla could not refuse them. The sari was his earning from one of those houses.
“But who will wear it? Will Maya accept it as a gift?” Caabla was pondering over the possibility.
The cottage Caabla lived in was small but well maintained. In one corner neatly arranged, was a set of cooking utensils along with a small stove. A folding type iron cot served the purpose of sleeping. Among an assortment of cheap daily use items, only one item stood out as different; a steel cupboard. Chowdhury’s Dubai based rich son recently gifted his father a set of fashionable furniture. Chowdhury had donated Caabla his old Godrej Almira. Caabla lovingly caressed the sari and kept it in the locker of that Almira.
But Caabla did not sleep well at night. He saw himself standing in the hell surrounded by snakes. The tallest snake had the face of the village headman Prahalad. An ominous hissing sound was coming from its mouth . Running for life, Caabla could reach the cyclone shelter but there he was confronted by a woman. Maya was waiting there, wielding an ominous sword. Draped in a red bordered white sari, she looked somewhat similar to the omniscient Goddess Kali. Caabla woke up in a pool of sweat.
The nightmare was not an isolated occurrence. It was bothering Caabla for quite some time and when it happened, there was only place he would run towards. Tonight also, the cottage suffocated Caabla. Leaving his hut, he climbed to the topmost point of the embankment that protected Tia-khali from the twice- daily flood. There he sat face to face with himself. A sense of guilt was lingering in his mind but he couldn’t put his finger on its root.
After the puja, Prahlad’s wife had touched his feet. Caabla was absolutely unprepared for the move. Instinctively he had jumped backwards.
“Please, please don’t touch my feet. You are so much older than me.” He had pleaded with the lady.
“But you are the Priest. Are you not?” The elderly woman insisted on touching his feet. But Caabla knew the root of his discomfort did not lie in that incident. The training of Maadrasa hardened him beyond that. Then, the uneasy feeling must be associated with Maya! Caabla had mastered the intricate electronics of bomb making in no time but was dwarfed by the tomboyish girl from day one. In the initial days at Tia-khali, Caabla thought of moulding Maya—with the lure of a good life but he failed miserably. It was not that Caabla lacked the cleverness to mould Maya but problem lay deep within. He himself was slowly getting moulded by her. In his initial days at Tia-khali, he used to get a high in tricking the stupid water-police who didn’t know how to use their own weapons. Ferrying the bombs across the border in small fishing boats through the treacherous terrain of man-eating tigers was also fun. But since the day, his eyes had met hers, his subconscious was yearning for a different kind of thrill.
The face of two women, Prahlad’s wife’s and Maya’s, alternated in Caabla’s mind. Caabla always had reservations in playing the part of an Hindu priest and he expressed his unwillingness to Chowdhury. “Chowdhury sab, I will do whatever you say but I don’t like playing this priest’s role. I am not a Brahmin and I have never seen anybody performing puja. One wrong move and I will be exposed.” But Chowdhury had dismissed his objection. “You think Brahmins don’t make mistakes?”
“Well, they may. But in their case, it will be ignorance while for me it will be plain cheating. They will skin me alive.”
“See Caabla, here in India with the help of a little money and an affidavit you can be just anything. I will arrange an affidavit for you that will make you a Brahmin. At least at par with the ignorant Brahmins.” Chowdhury had laughed at his own joke.
Though Chowdhury did not tell him, Caabla could guess the cause of his interest in making him play the role of priest. Traditionally the Tia-khali village Panchayat was dominated by the followers of the ruling coalition which actively cultivated the minority vote bank. But of late, a radical nationalist party was spreading its wings. Priests from that organisation were conducting Yagnas and Homas at the slightest of pretexts. Chowdhury needed a priest of his own to learn the inside story.
Sitting on the embankment, Caabla watched the sea rising. The surrounding was awash in soft moonlight. It was the time of high tide; an opportune moment for change; an auspicious time for beginning afresh. In Caabla’s life too, it had brought a spell of happiness. Sitting alone on the highest point of the village, Caabla loved to revisit those precious moments.
That day, Caabla had gone to the natural pier of the village of where boats and ferries unloaded. It was the time of high tide and waves were rising. Around an hour past evening , a boat unloaded a few passengers. Among them was a girl and three young men. The girl was carrying a bag of books; Caabla had seen her at Tia-khali quite a number of times. However, none of young men were local. Worse, their way of talking clearly indicated their drunken status. All three were making erotic gestures to the teenage girl and were walking along with her. Caabla had noticed the developments and worried for the girl. Unconsciously, he too had started following party. His fear had come true. Half a kilometre along the way, at a comparatively lonely spot the trio had pounced on the girl!
The girl resisted but the combined force three men were too much for her. Gagging her with a handkerchief, the trio was running towards the school when Caabla attacked them from behind. Years of training at an Islamic seminary had yielded quick results. Within five minutes, all three had bruises all over their body. The girl was shaken. Her books and pencils were strewn all over the area. Caabla collected them and put them again into the bag. That night he escorted the trembling girl to her home. On the way, he learnt that she was an offspring of the well to do Mondal family and her name was Maya. While parting ways, the girl had suddenly took hold of his hand called him a friend. It was a precious moment in Caabla’s life-- the first time a member of the opposite sex conferred him a special status. In the dark oval of Maya’s face , two bright eyes were sparking with tears yet she was smiling. The image of that tear sprinkled grateful smile had been imprinted in Caabla’s psyche ever since. He revisited those moments again and again. In his dream, he had saved Maya innumerable times and Maya rewarded him with that grateful smile.
Caabla never shared that incident with anyone but Chowdhury seemed to know of it. Of late, he had been teasing Caabla with Maya’s name. Though their friendship did not reach the level of a love-affair, Caabla had a hunch that Chowdhury did not like the possibility.
As if in cue, the mobile rang; A tune from popular Hindi movie ‘ Three idiots’. Chowdhury was on line.
“Caabla, are you awake? I have got serious issues to discuss with you. I am coming.”
Though Chowdhury did not mention, Caabla guessed the purpose of his coming.
The circuitry in the last consignment of bombs was far from perfect. Explosive expert Caabla anticipated some problem but did not bother to correct it. He steeled himself for an unpleasant interaction.
Chowdhury was literally boiling in anger.
” You son-of-a-bitch, son of an infidel mother. I trusted you and you betrayed me! Scoundrel-do you know where you landed me? I sold the last consignment for a neat lakh. Not a single one exploded.”
“What am I to do? If they did not explode, the components must be faulty. I did not make the components -- just assembled them.” Caabla tried to sound logical.
“Do you really expect me to buy that argument Caabla?”
Caabla did not answer. He knew, ‘Trust’ is a big word in the underworld. Implicitly though, he had violated that Trust. So he maintained silence and allowed Chowdhury to disburse his anger.
“I understand Chowdhury sab, unintentionally I have let you down. I will pay the damages.”
“What? You will repay my damages. They purchased those cuties for election. And they lost the election—can you repay that sort of damage?”
“I am sorry but if those babies were their only strength for fighting elections, they don’t deserve to win,” Caabla used the policy of offensive defense.
“Really? –You traitor! You are teaching me the rules of politics. Who has put such pompous words in your mouth? That dumb faced stupid girlfriend of yours? Has she totally brainwashed you? I will teach her a fitting lesson. Next time, there won’t be anybody at the pier to save her from a gang rape.”
“Chowdhury sab—you will do no such thing. First, Maya is not my girlfriend. She is just a friend.
Secondly – even if I guessed that those bombs might not work, testing them would be too dangerous. I am not scared of dying but if I lost a limb what would be your compensation?”
There was something threatening in Caabla’s voice that made Chowdhury regain his composure. A hardened politician, he did not want to destroy his carefully built network in a fit of anger. If past records were anything to go by, Caabla was a gem of a worker. But he must be kept under leash.
“Listen Caabla , the High-command does not like your hanging out with that infidel girl. She too comes from a political family and her family may not like her hobnobbing with a Muslim boy. So get back to work. People burn tons of crackers in Deepabali--and I want my next consignment on that very day - tested and certified by you. Do you get me?”
“But Chowdhury sab—How am I to deliver the goods on that day. Already six families have requested my services to perform special puja on that very day.”
“Well, if you do not, your friend may pay a price,”—Chowdhury left the place with an implicit threat.
It was a suffocating situation for Caabla. Deprived of love, he had grown up like a weed, alone in a seminary. The feeling of anxiety for a loved one was unknown to him. Now– a-days, he constantly worried for Maya.
Caabla was restless. Like a trapped fish, he was trying to break away from Chowdhury’s clutch but could not see a way out. He thought of calling Maya and sharing with her. But since it was the year of her medical entrance, he did not want to burden her mind.
Finally Caabla could not take it anymore. He called Maya and told her that due to some unavoidable reasons he had decided not to see her any more. Maya insisted that he came clean with the reason. So Caabla had to give her one. He told her that he had reasons to believe that mingling with a schedule- caste girl might be damaging for his priestly career. Banging the door, Maya had left in a fit of rage. Caabla did not run after her. He clung to the close-door privacy of his hut and concentrated on his assigned work.
On the night of Deepabali , crackers were bursting all over the village. The temple wore a garland of lights but Caabla was not there to enjoy the show. He was not even there to collect the donations, when people gathered before the Kali temple for offering special puja. He was suffering from a mysterious fever.
Around midnight , a series of explosions had rocked the philanthropist politician Chowdhury’s house. Ignoring risk to his life, Caabla ran in that direction. Chowdhury could not be saved but Caabla had rescued his wife and daughter from a live inferno.
But Caabla was far from safe.He was badly burnt. People suspected he might have lost his mental sanity too. Because in his feverish delirium he was trying to save somebody called Maya.