The para was as unique as its name – ‘Ghawnta-tola’.
It was, in fact, a museum of monumental bungalows with peeling wall paints and moss covered parapets. Shrubs and outgrowths interlocked and intertwined in damp corners which had long forgotten what a hard scrape with rough-ended narkel-jharus felt like. Generations of crows, pigeons and sparrows had made themselves comfortable in the ventilators and ramparts of the bungalows, giving stiff competition to the residents themselves. As for the countless families living there, they were separate ‘families’ only to the outsiders. Within themselves, the Chatterjees, the Rays, the Sanyals, the Duttas, and the Ghoshals, to name a few, had tuned into one big family, albeit unwillingly. In spite of unanimous resentment, everybody’s business was everyone else’s, which turned into a major cause for concern in these changing times with increasing need for personal space. No one, however, could rid of this odd tradition which had been running within the families as long as the para itself.
The effect of it was felt by Mimi even before she had properly arrived at Bela Mashi’s house, when the latest gossip circulating within the para caught up with her. Mimi was a History student at the University, and this was her first visit alone after almost five years since her father got a transfer to New Delhi. While she was unloading her backpack unsteadily and getting down from the rickshaw, she overheard two women near the tube well, whispering audibly among themselves.
“Dutta-bari has suddenly become very sneaky about everything, have you noticed?” one of them said rather indignantly.
“Would you have even noticed if Malati would not have pointed it out?” said the other. “Didn’t I always tell you that they are a mysterious lot? And that Dutta Khuro, sitting at the head of the family, is the working mastermind behind all of this! I’m telling you, I never really liked the people of that house…”
It was therefore not very surprising when Mimi brought it up as the first topic of discussion during lunchtime with casual flippancy, more so out of a lack of topics than genuine curiosity.
“Bela Mashi,” she said, taking a bite of the delicious fish cutlet and giving each of her taste buds the chance to relish it abundantly, “what was this talk about Dutta-bari I heard just outside your door?”
Tirtho Mesho looked up from his mustard-caked hilsa, a playful smile on his lips.
“Gossip,” said he, getting back to savoring the hilsa curry. “Idle gossips here end up to nothing. People take cheap thrills in discussing others’ lives and sensationalizing them, a substitute to television soaps, as I always say.”
“But it did not really sound like common gossip, Mesho,” said Mimi.
“Didibhai,” interrupted her cousin Bapun, “the para has been abuzz with tales from Dutta-bari for about a week now. So as per the para’s standards of a gossip, it certainly has some relevance. The last time some news created such an impression was when Jhinni Di got married. All everyone who was anyone, and had been invited to her reception dinner, could talk about was how exquisite it had been. That lasted a week. But this one has overlapped into the second week as well. The story is gripping and much more interesting than a wedding reception, which can only interest the ladies. However, there are slim chances of this one being true. You see,” Bapun dropped his voice, “Malati Di, the maid, is the harbinger of this. And it doesn’t help, because she has a habit of exaggerating everything.”
“But what is all the talk about Dutta-bari anyway?” Mimi asked, crinkling her forehead.
“Treasure,” said Bela Mashi quietly.
Mimi’s eyes turned the size of tennis balls.
“Treasure?” she whispered, the word escaping her lips with the sound of a whistle. “What sort of treasure? Is it even a treasure in the real sense of the word, or simply…?”
“Nobody knows, really,” Bapun shrugged, reaching out for a second helping of rice.
“I’m sure it is nothing at all,” said Bela Mashi. “That Malati is merely exaggerating…”
“Upon my word, Boudi, no exaggerations at all!”
No one had noticed when Malati Di had entered the room with a glass bowl of sweet curd.
“Rupa is no liar, Boudi,” she said defensively, as she went about serving curd to everyone present at the table. “Why, the other day, I went over to Dutta-bari on the pretext of something or the other, and I saw it with my own eyes. The courtyard had signs of it being dug up and then redone.”
“Is that why you came an hour late on Saturday?” asked Bela Mashi sternly.
Malati Di ignored, and continued,
“A week before, Rupa was taking down the curtains for washing when she heard voices coming from inside the closed doors of the room of Dutta Khuro. He was in conversation with his grandson. Rupa didn’t really want to hear, but then she was just outside the door, right? So she heard Dutta Khuro say something like ‘the findings of last night from the courtyard must not be disclosed to anyone beyond this room!’”
“Do you mean that even the family was unaware about this ‘treasure’?” Bela Mashi asked skeptically.
“So it turns seems, Boudi” said Malati Di, putting down the bowl of curd and straightening herself to narrate further. “Rupa being the simpleton that she is went and asked Boro Boudi, ‘What happened, Boudi? Did you strike upon some hidden treasure?’ Boro Boudi was busy and not paying much heed. So she asked Rupa to explain herself. When she did, Boro Boudi was so shocked that she did not even notice that the milk has spilled over from excess heating. She didn’t say anything, but Rupa guessed that this information was unknown to them as well…”
“What surprises me is the bit about digging up the courtyard,” said Mimi somewhat puzzled. “How did the family not see that?”
“The grandson, Didimoni,” said Malati Di, as if the words were on the tip of her tongue. “Rupa tells me that she has often seen the grandson digging up spots of land. At first she did not understand, but then Boro Boudi told her that he studies something…”
“Archaeology,” piped in Bapun. “Word has it that the grandson is studying Archeology. Maybe he saw something, you know, like archeologists do…check the soil or have it tested. Plus, the Mitras’ son Tubai told me he has brought some funny instrument with himself.”
“That Tubai is a born liar, same as his family,” Tirtho Mesho growled. “Maybe he heard something and then made up this fanciful story.”
“Yes, but is it possible for even an archeologist to start digging around like that?” Mimi said suspiciously. “Just by looking at the soil…”
“So you see, Didimoni, the grandson is forever digging up one corner or another,” continued Malati Di, ignoring the previous interjections, “Nobody has any reason to suspect anything. I am sure he must have called few men at the middle of the night, lit lanterns and dug up the courtyard till the first crow cawed.”
For a few minutes, no one said anything. Then Bela Mashi broke the silence.
“At any rate Mimi,” said she, picking up the plates, “you’re here on a holiday. Relax. Enjoy. No need to bother about our crazy neighbours and their lives. All of us detest gossiping and refrain from it as much as we can, although I think Bapun is turning out into quite a gossip owing to his hanging out too much with the Mitras’ son.”
Later when Mimi and Bapun were alone on the balcony in the afternoon, Bapun whispered,
“Didibhai, this time I think there might be some truth in the gossip after all.”
“Really?” asked Mimi.
“Maa refuses to look carefully into the matter, but I have. Dutta-bari was always quite guarded and talked in a very calculative manner, as if afraid of giving out some secret. Of late, they have stopped interacting much with everyone and even forbade their maid from talking to the other maids in the locality.”
“And who told you that? Malati Di?” asked Mimi.
“Parts of it, yes. But the rest I conjectured,” Bapun said proudly.
“Simple. After the first bit of news, there has been no more news, which means the only source who could have given out anything has been threatened and kept shut!”
“Speaking of Dutta-bari, I would very much like to see this famed establishment sometime,” said Mimi.
“You only need to turn your head to the right, in that case,” said Bapun.
“What do you mean?”
“The adjoining house to our right. That is Dutta-bari. Our next-door neighbours.”
Mimi peeped drowsily from underneath the blankets. She decided that the air conditioning definitely had a dose of opium since the breeze that wafted out made her head refuse to pull itself up from the pillows. When she tried to recall what woke her up in the first place, she heard indistinct noises of people rambling from afar, followed by rapt knocks on the door.
It was Bapun, hissing urgently and then knocking some more.
Mimi hated the thought of leaving the comfort of the blankets and getting up, but Bapun was relentless with his knocks. Sighing deeply, she forced herself out of the bed with a jerk and switched off the air conditioning first. Still rubbing her eyes, Mimi unlocked the door and had an agitated Bapun almost tumble into her room. At the same time, the indistinct noises became louder, but not clear enough.
“Theft!” blurted Bapun.
“So? Thefts do happen in the middle of the night!” said Mimi groggily.
“What?” Bapun sounded confused at Mimi’s nonchalant response. “Didibhai, do you even know what you are saying? Plus, it’s four in the evening! Wake up now!”
Hearing this, Mimi was somewhat jolted out of her reverie before her mind fully registered the gravity of the situation.
“Theft? In this house?” she asked, bustling to leave the room.
“No! Dutta-bari,” said Bapun.
“Oh,” said Mimi disinterestedly, quickly putting her foot inside the room. “You spoiled my siesta to inform me of a break-in in Dutta-bari? Do I look like I would be interested?”
“No but Didibhai, it looks like the robbery took place because of the treasure,” Bapun said rapidly.
Mimi stopped rubbing her eyes.
“Who told you that?” she asked.
“Everybody!” Bapun replied dramatically. “I mean, everybody is whispering about it. Why else will there be a theft in the afternoon? The last time that happened in this para was…was…well, see! I can’t even remember!”
The noises were getting louder and louder. As Bapun ushered, Mimi followed him out near the front gate. There was a cluster of people and everyone was busy proving their point… raucously. The voice that made itself heard above all the pandemonium was the raspy intonation of a mean-looking old man of about eighty.
“Dutta-Khuro,” whispered Bapun.
“What I do within the four walls of my house should be nobody’s headache save mine.” Mimi had never seen someone’s voice reflect the exact spitefulness of their appearance. Dutta-Khuro’s voice did that.
“It has turned into our headache, Khuro, and that is not because we asked for it,” simpered Sarkar Jethu with some aspersion. He was a medical representative of about forty five, and already balding.
“Exactly!” said the loud voiced Sanyal Kaki, “Why are you exposing all of us to such hazards by hoarding valuables in your house? Why don’t you keep them where they belong, in the bank? Or else, you could come clean breasted about what is it that you are being so discreet about!”
“Ah! Sanyal Boudi… please calm down,” said Dutta Jethi in a brittle intonation. “Why can’t we discuss this calmly?”
“Enough, sister!” Sen Kaki’s taut voice traversed every other voice around her. “Why blame us? You all started this in the first place! Today, there was a theft in broad daylight, tomorrow someone will be murdered! I’ll see how you manage your ‘calm’ then!”
“How dare you speak to my daughter-in-law like that?” Dutta Khuro screeched. “STOP MEDDLING! ALL OF YOU!”
Mimi’s ears had turned momentarily deaf at this outburst. She looked up at the balcony and saw Bela Mashi and Tirtho Mesho whispering among themselves with a rather disgusted expression on both their faces. Catching Mimi’s eyes, Bela Mashi motioned her to come upstairs.
<…and bring Bapun along!> she mouthed dexterously.
Mimi nudged at Bapun, who was so immersed in the proceedings that he seemed transported to a different realm altogether.
“Bapun!” hissed Mimi. “Come! That mad old man might haul us up next. And these people might pounce upon us any moment for details. We are the next door neighbours, remember? Bapun! Are you even listening?”
Mimi was about to yank Bapun by his arm, when a mellow but firm voice made her peer above the sea of heads.
“Dadu, please come inside. This is not good for your health.”
“Piku, don’t order your Dadu about!” glowered Dutta Khuro.
“I am requesting, Dadu. Think about your blood pressure.”
“Nothing is wrong with my blood pressure! In fact, there is no blood left in me! These leeches,” and with that, Dutta Khuro nearly spat at the crowd, “have sucked all my blood! Ruined my peace of mind, they have!”
“You only need to ignore, Dadu.”
Dutta Khuro paused momentarily. The surroundings bore the quietude a storm leaves after ravaging the landscape. Mimi was astonished and nearly marveled the capacity of this person who had managed to calm the mad fury of Dutta Khuro. Only, she could still not see him. The sea of heads had risen way above her horizon.
“Piku Da managed to drill some sense into the old man’s head, then,” Bapun spoke with a dead voice.
“Piku Da?” Mimi frowned.
“The archaeologist grandson I told you about, remember?” Bapun spoke betwixt pauses, eyes still glued ahead, although he could see about as much as Mimi could manage. That did not seem to deter him in any way.
Mimi was eager to see this wonder, by the name of ‘Piku Da’, but Tirtho Mesho intervened right at that moment with a formidable tap on her back.
“Come now, what’s more to see?”
In deed, after the grandson had spoken up, there was absolute silence all around. It seemed as though everyone was hoping the other will speak, but no one ended up doing so. Mimi jostled through the crowd somehow, and had a brief glimpse of Dutta Khuro turning to go inside the house with the grandson. She did not see his face.
“This treasure has now begun to interest me as well,” Mimi mulled over, absently eating the Fish Finger, but failing to record its taste.
“I told you!” Bapun frowned. “It’s only people like Maa and Baba who can be indifferent in something as interesting as this. Come to think of it, Didibhai, what if Dutta Khuro is hoarding something illegal in the name of treasure in his house? Ghawnta-tola will loose its hard earned reputation of decades!”
“Illegal?” asked Mimi.
“Well, Maa says that the family traded in opium way back when Dutta Khuro was a lad himself. His grandfather had started the business apparently. That is why they are so rich!”
“Come on, Bapun, they can’t be hoarding opium now! That is simply too much of fanciful thinking on your part!”
“Bapun is full of fanciful ideas, Mimi…”
Mimi did not notice when Bela Mashi had silently entered the room. Bapun’s uncomfortable wriggle meant even he had been caught unawares.
“Let it go, will you?” said Bela Mashi. “Bapun, you have your exams coming up. Why don’t you concentrate on that?”
“Speaking of which, Mashi, was anything stolen? Or just a break in?” asked Mimi.
“Don’t think so,” said Bela Mashi.
“The thief was trying to get in through the terrace though, Boudi.”
No one had noticed when Malati Di came in, but she was full of news anyway.
“It is true Boudi, because I know they keep their terrace door open. Careless bunch, they are! Who has ever heard of terrace doors being kept ajar in afternoons?” Malati Di crinkled her nose, and continued. “So Rupa tells me, Boro Boudi heard some indistinct noises coming from upstairs, and she panicked and called Boro Dadababu. At first, everyone thought it was another of Boro Boudi’s fancies. Very fanciful she is, you know. But then, after a while, Haradhan the cook also heard something and called ‘Who’s there?’ out loud. There was the noise of scampering feet and of the brass bucket falling. By the time everyone rushed upstairs, there was no sign of the intruder.”
“And who supplied you with this fresh gossip, Malati?” asked Bela Mashi.
“No gossip, Boudi! Rupa told me just now, after everyone left.”
The discussion about Dutta-bari had to be stopped thereafter because Bela Mashi did not appear too encouraging, although Malati Di was hoping to continue further. Mimi reminded herself that she had no business involving herself in the affairs of a para that she was merely a guest of. In fact, she had never lived in a para like Ghawnta–tola; their locality back home was impersonal and unaffected. She had heard from her parents that the politics within paras like Ghawnta-tola were of a different plane which outsiders would never understand and therefore, at best, would be wise to keep out of. Mimi wanted to do just that, but a part of her was just as curious as anyone else in the para. She chided herself mentally. She was getting side-tracked from her main goal. In fact, there was more than one reason behind her spending the holidays at Bela Mashi’s. As a part of their Summer project, they were supposed to do a research on a locality that was at least seventy five to eighty years old. Bela Mashi had mentioned sometime that Ghawnta–tola was around a hundred. Mimi was not sure if the residents of the para would be friendly enough to answer her questionnaire, but as of now, she could at least finish with taking the photographs. Maybe later, she could chalk out a plan with Tirtho Mesho about tackling the inhabitants.
“Bela Mashi,” called Mimi. “Could you wake me up at about five thirty tomorrow?”
“What on earth are you planning to do so early in the morning? Not go sneaking around Dutta-bari, I hope?” Tirtho Mesho teased.
“Now look who is actually interested underneath that pretentious garb of ‘I-don’t-care’!” said Bela Mashi slyly. Tirtho Mesho looked positively snubbed. “Don’t worry, Mimi. Five thirty it will be, then.”
“But what are you planning to do so early, Didibhai?” asked Bapun.
Mimi told everyone about the project.
“Sounds exciting! Can I come along?”
“Bapun, you have your tuitions from eight tomorrow,” Bela Mashi said sternly.
“Exactly. It is serious work, Bapun,” said Tirtho Mesho solemnly. “Mimi had better work on it alone.”
“Oh Mesho! I will require some help from you…”
Mimi elaborated the part dealing with the questionnaire, and rest of the time at the dinner-table passed thus.
Mimi was given the guest room. The air conditioning had been switched on, but after a while, she tiptoed out of the bed to switch it off. The floor had turned icy cold as had the bed covers and the thin wrap she had drawn over her. Mimi wasn’t too fond of the air conditioning, so instead she opened the window by the bedside, drawing down the curtains nonetheless. Sleep seemed to be evading her as it often happened when she stayed over somewhere that was not within the four walls of her room. She tossed and turned hopelessly amidst the bed clothes, trying to catch one fleeting wink in the least.
It was then she heard voices.
For a moment, Mimi almost imagined it to be the wind playing rhythmically outside the window. But it was not. Someone next-door seemed to be speaking in hushed tones. With a fleeting sense of foreboding, Mimi realized that the windows of her room overlooked a room of Dutta-bari! Dare she part the curtains and peep?
The lights of her room were switched off. Mimi glanced at her radium dialed wristwatch – it was one at midnight. Would it matter if she peeped just a little from the corner of the curtains? She writhed slightly, bedclothes and all, until she reached by the window. Now, she could distinctly hear two voices speak. One was of a man which was unfamiliar. Another was of a woman. The second voice was a known one, but Mimi could not recall whose it was.
“What if they start suspecting? How long can we continue this way?” the male voice whispered raspily.
Mimi could still not muster courage enough to part the curtains to see who the speaker was.
“Calm down, please!” the female voice pleaded. “You will wake the neighborhood up!”
“I don’t care! All I know is that I want my share, and I will stop at nothing to have it!”
“But you don’t even know what it is! What if it is another of Baba’s whims? Another of his…hallucinations?”
“Oh no! That old man won’t be fooling me any more! And think of it, our son, our very own Piku is siding with him! He knows what it is all about, but we don’t!”
“Maybe Piku is simply playing along…”
“How can you be so naïve? Really?”
Piku. That was the grandson, wasn’t it? Mimi’s curiosity was getting out of hand. Through the lacy white curtains, she could conjecture that the lights within the opposite window were still lit. Should she peep, just for once?
While she was still contemplating, the lights from the opposite room were put out. A pall of silence was drawn. Few dogs yelped in the streets. Somewhere far off, someone had left the tap running, the gurgling of which running freely sounded eerie in the still night.
Should she tell anyone about this? Mimi decided against it. Bapun was as good a gossip as the kitchen maid Malati Di and Bela Mashi would not really appreciate. Neither did she think would Tirtho Mesho. Besides, Mimi was a guest, as she often kept reminding herself, and therefore had no business involving herself with the people of Ghawnta-tola. She decided she would keep mum about it. Maybe by morning, this whole episode would appear as real as an immensely vivid dream.
Mimi was groggy-eyed when Bela Mashi called her the next morning.
“What happened? Didn’t you have a good sleep?” asked Bela Mashi.
“No…I mean, I can’t sleep properly for the first night when I’m out of home,” said Mimi. “I’d better be leaving! I don’t want the sun to be up and your crazy para people asking me a thousand questions about my activities.”
Mimi left with her camera after having a cup of strong tea. Bela Mashi told her which houses would be best suited for her project. Needless to say, Dutta-bari was one of them. Although…
“It will be better if you don’t go near that house, Mimi,” warned Bela Mashi.
“But Mashi, if that house is actually so old…” Mimi argued.
“What is the need? There are so many other houses. Our house, the Bhowmicks’ house down the lane, the Chatterjees’ house near the peepul tree…”
“But architecturally, that house is one of the classic examples of…” Mimi began.
“Fine. If the house is so important,” smiled Bela Mashi. “But be careful.”
Mimi was very happy. She felt a sense of adventure at the thought of snooping around to take pictures of the house which was the center of activities of late. Who knew? She could even ‘bump’ into something.
Except that she bumped into ‘someone’.
Mimi had been very carefully going around and taking pictures when somebody shouted.
“Who’s there? What are you up to?”
Mimi stopped dead. The voice did not sound pleasant at all. Before she had the time to clearly frame her sentence in response, a man between fifty-five and sixty was seen opening the gates angrily. He wore a pair of pajamas which was more yellow than white and a vest with patches left from overusing the blue whitening liquid.
“What is this? With whose permission are you clicking photographs here?” the man barked. “Do you think that I don’t understand anything? Tell me, girl, who has asked you to come and keep an eye on us? Which vermin in this locality has his greedy eyes on the wealth of this family?! Tell me!”
Mimi realized what predicament she had got herself into. She was scared, for her own sake as well as for Bela Mashi and Tirtho Mesho. What if this man thought her relatives were secretly after their damned wealth, whereas Mashi and Mesho were the last people to even care!
“I…well…I was just taking photographs…” Mimi stuttered.
“WITH WHOSE PERMISSION?” the man shouted.
Mimi took a few steps back, mentally calculating the chances she had of saving her skin if she could break into an impromptu sprint at that moment.
“What’s wrong, Bor Da?” someone called from inside the house.
Minutes later, the person emerged at the door. A man not much younger than the former, but more composed and level-headed as it seemed. Clad in a yellow kurta and white pajamas, he looked suspiciously at Mimi through his gold-rimmed spectacles, perched on his rather hawk-like nose. His voice, when he spoke, was however much gentler.
“Who are you? Can’t remember having seen you in Ghawnta–tola before,” he asked.
“Mri…Mrinalini Dey,” Mimi hesitated. “I…erm…I am the niece of Bela and Tirtho Majumdar next-door.”
“Tirtho Da’s relative?” the man in yellow kurta smiled. “Bor Da, she’s a relative of Tirtho Da. You don’t think now that she has any wrong intentions, do you?”
The elder brother did not look too convinced, and kept up his grumpy façade. Mimi was rooted to her spot, not knowing whether she was to leave or stay.
“But why are you clicking pictures of our house?” the man in yellow kurta enquired.
Mimi gave her reasons haltingly. The grumpy man left with a huff, swearing curses under his breath.
“Don’t mind my brother, please. He is not in his best spirits for the past few days. I am Binoy Dutta, by the way, the youngest son of this house,” the man had turned amicable by now. “That was my elder brother, Biren Dutta.”
Mimi was feeling a bit relaxed, because she realized that these people would not go complaining about her to Tirtho Mesho.
“So you study History? My nephew too, I mean Bor Da’s son. Although he studies Archeology now. But he was a History graduate. Wait, I’ll call him.”
Mimi was about to say that there was no need, and that she had better left, but the nephew had already been summoned.
“Kakamoni, you called?” a boy in his early twenties came to the door, a respectful smile on his lips.
“Piku, look here…this is Tirtho Da’s relative…what was your name, child?”
“Mrinalini. Mimi is my nickname.”
“Yes, Mimi. So Mimi here is a student of History and she has this assignment to do. You have been a student yourself, so why don’t you help her if you can?”
“Oh no…I don’t think…” Mimi began hastily.
“Why not? I will be glad to help,” said Piku jovially. “What assignment do you have?”
“Good! I’ll take your leave then.”
“Binoy Kaku!” called Mimi. “Thank you.”
Binoy Kaku went in with a smile. Mimi was feeling so relieved, like she could finally breathe freely again.
“I am Soumyo, by the way. But you can call me Piku.”
“What are you saying? You got caught by Biren Jethu?” Bapun asked in a panicky voice.
“Yes. It was a mercy Binoy Kaku came right in time and saved me,” said Mimi, popping a fistful of puffed rice into her mouth.
“Binoy Kaku is the nicest man living under that roof. Of course, Piku Da is good as well, but he doesn’t stay here. He studies abroad,” said Bapun. “You know, they have this other brother, Bipin or something.”
“Really? Don’t remember his name being mentioned,” said Mimi.
“He’s the infamous black sheep of the family. We’ve never seen him,” said Bapun. “When Baba was in college, Bipin Kaku left home. Never returned since. Rumor has it that he earns five times more than the joint income of the two brothers. Naturally, the family is jealous and angry at him for not keeping any contacts. Not that Bipin Kaku minds a lot, I think. The Duttas just act like he never existed.”
Piku was a storehouse of information, which meant that all Mimi had to do was sit and jot down points. The assignment that began on a dreadful note turned not only into something more interesting but even simpler with Piku offering his help readily. Sometimes, Bapun would tag along as well, and although he genuinely wished to learn something new, his general disinterest towards the subject would leave him gazing at the blue and red kites drifting lazily in the afternoon sky.
“Piku Da, I have this questionnaire you know, and it has to be filled,” said Mimi one day.
“Let me have a look,” Piku took it from her hand, slowly going through. “Quite interesting it is.”
“Do you think your family members will mind too much if they are asked to fill this?”
“Oh no. I suggest you better not hand this to them,” said Piku dully. “The turmoil going on in our house is not hidden from you, and amidst all this…but don’t worry, I’ll fill it for you, if it is not much of a problem.”
“Of course, there won’t be a problem!” said Mimi happily. “But, I need near-accurate answers…”
“Don’t worry. I know my family history better than my parents,” Piku laughed, then turned somewhat forlorn, “although, not better than Dadu, I guess…”
Mimi did not know what to say. She was not the best person around when it came to sentimental moments. She never had the right words to say, and often ended up saying what she was not supposed to. So she chose not to speak at all, rather sit with a gloomy face which seemed adequate according to her.
“Of course, I do realize Dadu didn’t make the best first impression before you that day,” said Piku wryly. “But he is a scholar, is my Dadu. No one in the family came close to his intellect, not even me, although Dadu says I am the second genius in the family after him. That is his unaffected love speaking, for I know I can never match up to him, ever.”
Piku talking thus about Dutta-Khuro made Mimi feel bad about the old man for the first time. She suddenly saw him as he was – a frail person, ignored and misunderstood by everyone.
“Dadu was not like this, you know. He was the life and soul of our house, very protective about the ones he loved and a patron to many people in need,” said Piku. “But old age is not kind to everyone. Not every person ages gracefully. For some, aging is like being repeatedly stabbed with a dagger, and when the hilt is on the hands of the ones closest to you…there is nothing more painful than that.”
Mimi did not dare to ask any questions of her own. She realized Piku was going through a lot, and somewhere, she had a hunch that everything was ultimately linked to the mysterious treasure. Dutta-Khuro’s plight, his helplessness became even more poignant, and if Mimi took into consideration that the whispers she heard few nights back actually belonged to one of his sons, then it was pitiable in deed.
“I’m sorry I got carried away,” Piku jolted out of his reverie. “I have no business boring you with my sad story.”
Mimi wanted to say something comforting, but decided to eat her words instead.
Mimi was sitting in the balcony, slowly sipping her cup of tea and going through the day’s newspaper when a shrill outcry made her sit up. The clamor seemed to be coming from next-door. Bela Mashi rushed to the balcony from the kitchen with Bapun and Malati Di in a tow. By then, a few passersby had also stopped to watch on. Bapun had full plans of going down, but Bela Mashi gave him a death stare ensuring that he stayed where he was.
“What is going on?” Mimi asked somewhat frightened. Quarrels always unnerved her because it gave her the feeling that any odd moment, people might drag them into it. Although given the circumstances it was not possible, but the rate at which people were peeping outside their windows and appearing on their balconies made her nervous.
“So now you are here? After all these years, just so that you can lay your hands on the…the…?” lashed a voice that Mimi judged to be Biren Jethu’s.
The accused person’s voice could not be heard. Mimi tried to see who it was, but Binoy Kaku was blocking the person from her view.
Mimi was scared out of her wits. She had faced the wrath of Biren Jethu the other day, and was sure that the man was competent enough to strike if the need arose. The last thing anyone wanted was a riot in the para. In deed, if Biren Jethu went as far as to physically assault the person in question, Mimi was sure that the person at the receiving end or his family for that matter would not hold themselves back either.
“Bor Da! Please!” Mimi heard Binoy Kaku’s voice. “There is no need to create a scene. We can go inside and talk.”
“I am not letting this outsider set a foot even one inch inside the choukaath!” raged Biren Jethu.
“What are you even saying?” murmured Dutta Jethi. “Your own brother…”
“Don’t interfere!” snapped Biren Jethu.
“Brother?” Bapun repeated. “Does this mean…?”
Mimi could guess already, and it did fit perfectly with the scheme of things. Prodigal sons making unexpected returns at the news of a treasure was not unheard of. However affluent anyone might be, Mimi knew it was something of an inherent psychology that was bound to make the richest of the rich to come back and demand their share of the family property. So what if they had to risk a dramatic appearance? Not to forget the antagonism that came with it.
“Dadabhai, why are you complicating…?” spoke a new voice. It was unusually calm, even cold, and the Bangla seemed somewhat affected.
“DON’T YOU DARE CALL ME THAT!” Biren Jethu‘s voice blasted out, making Bapun cringe beside Mimi. Even Bela Mashi could not pass this off as something irrelevant, judging that she stood where she was without intending to move.
“Please…think about Baba…” was all that Dutta Jethi could say.
Mimi felt bad for her. Even after repeatedly being shouted at, Dutta Jethi was trying her best to control the situation. Not to mention, Binoy Kaku.
“Enough thinking I have done! The only thing we should all think of now and find out is the rascal who told this man about our family affairs,” said Biren Jethu. “We have spies in our locality, Maya, do you realize that? SPIES!”
“Yes I have spies! I don’t regret it in any way, and neither can you make me feel guilty about it.”
Mimi had finally managed a glimpse of the famous prodigal son, the black sheep – Bipin Dutta. She was astonished at first by the remarkable likeness he shared with Biren Jethu. In their first glimpse, anybody would be liable to think of them as twins, although the second and more scrutinized look would reveal that Bipin Dutta had a more elongated face than Biren Jethu’s pudgy one.
“Chhor Da! What are you saying?” said Binoy Kaku.
“Yes. I have people in this locality who keep me updated about everything,” said Bipin Dutta, lips curling into a condescending smirk. “Don’t even try to guess or find out, because you won’t be able to.”
“Piku! I’m sure it is Piku!” shouted Biren Jethu.
“Are you out of your mind?” said Maya Jethi. “Suspecting your own son? Shaming us before the entire locality…”
“Please! Bor Da, Chhor Da…please let us go in,” pleaded Binoy Kaku.
“If anyone needs to go anywhere, it is this man who will get OUT of the para!” lashed Biren Jethu.
All that was lacking in this entire mayhem was the presence of Dutta Khuro, thought Mimi, and judging by the ever increasing decibels, it wouldn’t be very long either before he would make his appearance. Mimi had no inclinations whatsoever to witness the face-off between father and son, and she fervently hoped Piku would do some damage controlling at the opportune moment. Her interactions with the boy had revealed that he was probably the only one who could calm the old man’s nerves.
“What if someone strikes the other?” Bapun voiced exactly what Mimi had been thinking all this while.
“Don’t be silly!” snapped Bela Mashi, although Mimi sensed that there wasn’t much conviction in that snap, either. Bela Mashi, in her heart of hearts, knew that Bapun wasn’t entirely wrong.
“When do you plan on leaving?” growled Biren Jethu again.
“Not until I’ve spoken to Baba…” began Bipin Dutta.
“How can you think that Baba will be even remotely interested to hear about what you have to say?!”
Even from the balcony, Mimi could see the nerve on Biren Jethu’s forehead looked ready to pop out. The situation wasn’t getting any better and could only end in disaster.
“He will be. After all, his eldest son is no better…” said Bipin Dutta with malicious serenity.
“Chhor Da please! Let us not wash our dirty linen in public!” Binoy Kaku nearly pleaded.
“Please…everyone is watching…” Maya Jethi whispered almost in tears, trying to usher Biren Jethu inside the house.
But he stood there, unflinchingly, seething with rage at the insult having just being hurled at him like a dollop of mud.
“I am no better? What have you been all these years is very well known to the entire para, and you dare to raise a finger on me?!”
“You won’t call Baba, then…” said Bipin Dutta.
“Baba is not in,” began Binoy Kaku. “He has gone to 36 Avenue to meet an old friend.”
“I’m not leaving until I’ve met Baba,” said Bipin Dutta.
“You won’t stay in the same vicinity as Baba, and I will ensure that!” bellowed Biren Jethu.
“Come, let’s go inside,” sighed Bela Mashi. “No good is going to come from standing here.”
The squabbles receded as Mimi went indoors and Bela Mashi shut the door of the balcony.
“It wasn’t right…whatever happened.”
Piku didn’t appear his bright, cheery self that evening. Mimi could feel Bapun squirming beside her, sitting on the rok, and although Mimi too wished to skip a retelling of what she had already witnessed and get on with her work, she knew she ought not to be so selfish. After all, Piku Da had always helped her unflinchingly and with a genuine interest. Also, it wasn’t as if she was entirely disinterested. Really, she sighed inwardly, Bapun seemed to be passing on his curiosity in her too rapidly.
“I wasn’t in, when all of it happened,” Piku went on. “Although I doubt my presence would have made a difference. Baba, when he is furious, stops at nothing or pays heed to anyone.”
“So…did your Uncle leave?” Mimi asked timidly, wondering if she should even be asking anything or not.
“Not Boro Kaka,” said Piku. “From whatever I’ve heard of him, he is very stubborn. Won’t leave until he has said and done his part. He is staying at some hotel, not very far away from the para”
“But what beats me is why Bipin Kaku came to Ghawnta-tola all of a sudden, unannounced, like this?” Bapun mused.
Mimi shot a glance at him, but too late. She knew her cousin had spoken out loud unintentionally, and that made her uncomfortable. Whatever would Piku Da think? That they discuss their household among themselves? Piku, however, did not seem to mind much.
“That has left all of us baffled,” said Piku. “Boro Kaka never bothered to keep in touch with this family. In fact, I’ve only heard of him. He left the house way before I was born.”
She was so close, Mimi thought. Would it harm if she just asked Piku Da what this great treasure was, around which the entire hullabaloo had been created? It wouldn’t even seem out of context, given the discussion that was going on. But then, Mimi reminded herself, it would be completely inappropriate. She hardly knew Piku Da from her three-day interaction; she could not enquire about something which concerned none but his family. Besides, she could never tell. Outwardly, Piku Da was jovial and friendly. But what if he had a side like Biren Jethu? He was his son, after all. And, Mimi reiterated, it was not her concern. She was merely a guest visiting Ghawnta-tola, and in three days she would be gone.
What if she told Piku Da about the voices she had heard that night, that she had heard his name being taken? By now, she knew that if she really heard what she did that night, then the two people who were talking were Piku Da’s own parents. But what good would that do? Either Piku Da probably already knew his father loathed the fact that he was siding with his grandfather, or he would feel hurt to know of it. Besides, she didn’t feel too sure about it now. What if it was really a dream? She had heard the name ‘Piku’; what if she had conjectured everything? Mimi reminded herself again – not her concern…
She forced the question and the information back into the recesses of her throat as she felt it getting sore like she had caught a cold.
For two days, nothing happened. Binoy Dutta abstained from making a dramatic reappearance, much to Bapun’s covert dismay as Mimi could see. On the other hand, Mimi’s assignment was on its verge of completion as was her stay at Ghawnta-tola. Somewhere deep down, Mimi was miffed with the fact that the mystery regarding the supposed treasure of Dutta-bari remained a mystery. She was hoping for a dramatic resolution, or even a hint regarding it.
But then, reality took over the situation. Mimi sighed, folding her jeans dexterously in front of the open suitcase. It wasn’t a mystery novel and she couldn’t really fit into the shoes of a detective to solve it. Maybe it was right, what she had heard that night – the old man had been hallucinating and Piku Da was merely playing along. Or whatever it was, the family had resolved it among themselves. There was no more news to be had from within the portals of Dutta-bari. Malati Di had told them last night that the Duttas had appointed a new maid in place of Rupa, and that she being a newcomer did not bother to socialize with the eager housewives of the para. Mimi knew that once back home, she would eventually forget the entire episode of Dutta-bari and Ghawnta-tola. But what she did not like was the fact that there was no closure which she had earnestly wished for. It was like finding the last pages of a book ruthlessly torn.
Mimi had her train the following morning. She decided she would go and meet Piku Da once that evening. He had selflessly helped her with her assignment in spite of having so much going in his household. She hoped Piku Da wouldn’t mind staying in touch. He might be able to help her when she took up further studies. It was always beneficiary to have connections, as her father often told her.
She found him, sitting absently on the rok, scrolling through something on his phone.
“Piku Da,” Mimi called.
Piku looked up, and his face broke into his usual smile.
“Mimi, it’s you. Where is Bapun?” he enquired.
“He has his tuitions,” said Mimi. “Piku Da, I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Really?” he asked, keeping his phone aside, and motioning Mimi to sit. “So your assignment is complete?”
“I hope our para helped you in every way possible?”
“It did, and more than that, you did Piku Da,” said Mimi. “I cannot thank you enough.”
“Come on, I enjoyed helping you,” he said. “And besides, I got to know so many things about the people of my para, courtesy you. Come to think of it, I have lived all my life here and I never knew that the Sens’ forefathers had been zamindars!”
“Piku Da, I was wondering if you would mind keeping in touch…”Mimi began hesitatingly, then quickly added, “because I’ll graduate next year and it would be great if you could give me some suggestions regarding what prospects I might have…”
“Of course! Why not?” said Piku. “Here, you can take my email address. You can have my phone number too, but reaching me through mails will be easier. Mail me whenever you need any help, Mimi. I’ll be glad if I can assist you in any way.”
“Thank you Piku Da,” Mimi smiled, and in an afterthought, added, “Hopefully you’ll be here the next time I visit Ghawnta-tola.”
“I don’t think so, Mimi,” Piku said slowly.
“Oh yes, I almost forgot. You don’t stay in India,” said Mimi. “You don’t come very frequently, I suppose.”
“Not that,” Piku said, turning very grave all of a sudden. “I’m afraid…no one will be here when you visit the next time…”
It was as if Mimi could suddenly make sense without realizing what it was.
“Why? Where are you all going?” she asked, surprised. A tad dismayed, too. “Do you have a house elsewhere?”
She knew some of these old families were fairly wealthy and it would not be surprising if they had another house in some corner of the city.
“No. But we will,” said Piku, his throat tightening a bit. “A pigeon roost we will have, for a house…and for all my efforts, I could do nothing.”
Suddenly, everything became as clear as daylight for Mimi. She could not believe, but realized that what she was thinking was probably true.
“So you mean that…?”
“Yes,” said Piku, realizing that Mimi had got it at last. “There is no treasure we are hiding. No gold coins, jewelry or assets worth a fortune. The treasure is right before you. This house is the treasure.”
“What do you mean?” whispered Mimi.
“This was supposed to be a strictly private affair, but I know you, Mimi,” said Piku. “For one, you don’t live here and I know you are not, forgive me, a gossip like your cousin. For the past few days, I have been so distressed that in spite of Dadu and my joint attempts, we will probably not be able to save this house. I still cannot believe that the people who were born and have lived here all their lives can easily give up on their home because suddenly, it is being deemed as cumbersome.”
Mimi could not still believe that what Piku was saying could be true. She had a nagging doubt if he was making it all up and that there was actually some treasure.
“So what about your courtyard being dug up?” she blurted out.
“Oh so you have heard?” Piku asked with a wan smile. “Yes, I did that. I did it myself to mislead everyone.”
Mimi still looked perplexed.
“When I came here,” Piku continued, “Dadu called me to his room one day and told me with a broken voice that his sons were planning on selling this house. A promoter had approached them with a very high offer and they said they could not let that slide through their fingers. Baba’s business is going through very bad times and he has incurred huge losses. Kakamoni lost his job a year back when the factory he worked in closed because it stood on illegal property. Besides, they argued that maintaining a house of this sort was no longer practical or feasible. And although that is not entirely wrong, but what added fuel to the fire was the offer made for the house. Dadu knew that no one but I will understand his pain and predicament. So when I came, we decided to come up with this as a temporary solution.”
“But I thought your grandfather had the papers of the house,” said Mimi.
“He does,” said Piku, “and so Baba and Kakamoni can technically do nothing, except pressurize Dadu. And for how long do you think an old man like him can oppose?”
Mimi breathed out sharply.
“Which is why the rumor about a treasure,” continued Piku. “If Baba and Kakamoni believed in it, then their focus was bound to shift on that instead of the selling of the house. And it wasn’t too difficult either. Call it a misuse, but I am a student of Archeology. My people don’t know too much about it and they will believe if I say a treasure is buried somewhere in the house. After all, that is what common people think, don’t they, that archaeologists can tell what’s underneath by merely looking at the ground? Besides, there was a story of one of our forefathers having hidden a pot of gold coins somewhere in this property. If Baba and Kakamoni believe that it is that treasure which has been unearthed, or that proofs of that have been found, then they will temporarily drop the idea of selling the house.”
“So how did you do it? All of it?” asked Mimi.
“It wasn’t too difficult,” said Piku. “We all knew Rupa was a gossip, just like most maids are. So the best way to spread a rumor was through her. So one night, when everyone was asleep, I went to the courtyard myself and dug it up. If you step inside through the gate, you’ll see that there is a side which has not been cemented like the rest of the area around it. It was easy to dig it up and then cover it again.”
“And the instrument?” asked Mimi.
“What instrument?” Piku looked confused.
“Well…Bapun was saying that the Mitra’s son Tubai told him you had an instrument…” began Mimi, but seeing Piku still looking confused, hastily added, “Of course I should have known. The Mitra’s son is always lying, so Mesho says.”
“Any way,” continued a bemused Piku, “the next day, when Rupa was around, Dadu and I tactfully said what we had to, and let her do the rest. Everything worked as we had planned. Of course, it was becoming difficult to control Baba’s violent outbursts and Kakamoni’s droning. But what we had not anticipated was Choto Kaka’s sudden intervention. I honestly have no idea how he, who had severed all contacts with this family for years, suddenly came to know of it. Maybe he has someone in this para who keeps him informed, although I can’t guess who that might be.”
Mimi felt distressed. Will another historical testimony be wiped out just like that? she wondered. Maybe, Piku had read her mind.
“I was chalking out a plan,” he said. “I’m sure I would have come up with something if only I had some more time at my disposal…”
“So is it decided, then, that the house will be sold?” asked Mimi.
“Not yet, but I believe Baba and Kakamoni are beginning to see through the plan,” said Piku. “They have repeatedly asked Dadu about the treasure, but he kept mum. They even tried to forcefully go through his personal belongings. They have found nothing out of the ordinary, and when they don’t even after further rummaging around, they will be assured that it was merely a trick.”
“Is there nothing, absolutely nothing you can do, Piku Da?” Mimi asked desperately.
“I don’t think so,” Piku heaved out a wistful sigh. “Why only me? Soon, no one will be able to do anything about this. Progress, they call it. Annihilation, I say. Our heritage does not merely lie in those few monuments that have been approved by the government, Mimi. Our heritage lies here, in these houses as well. These houses that are being destroyed in the name of modernization are where our roots, in fact, lie. And maybe one day, when we would want to return to all of this, we’ll realize that we have burned the bridge with our own hands. It will have been too late.”
The sun was setting slowly, and for the first time Mimi noticed how it spread its golden radiance as it seemed to take a plunge behind the crumbling walls of Dutta-bari. She looked around at the para with a lump on her throat, scarcely able to believe that one day, all of this will be gone and long forgotten. The locality will be given some sophisticated name and have high rise apartments filled with people leading divided lives, locked within the recesses of their cells called ‘home’.
Mimi looked steadfast at the figure seated beside her. Sitting there with Piku on the rok, she felt her consolations would be nothing but hollow intonations emanating from an insincere mouth.
9 November 2015