Ishan Thakurda (Ishan Grandfather)

{xtypo_dropcap}T{/xtypo_dropcap}his is an old story my Dadabhai (Grandfather) used to tell us…he was a master story-teller. Given his massive capabilities as a writer (he had written several plays, travelogues, Poems, etc), story-telling came as a natural corrolary along with his acting skills (yeah yeah…I know, everyone’s Grandpa is the Best…)

Anyhow, I’ve been meaning to put into words the memories of my childhood, but have not really got around to yet until now (I must confess, I was inspired to put down in print these fading memories after reading Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Interview). Also, in the back of my mind, I have this fear that I might not be able to do justice to Dadabhai’s story-telling (as a scribe), because his stories would contain not just the voice of the narrator, but the voices of the characters of his stories would somehow magically come to life as well (and yes, he would change his voice for each character, when necessary for dramatic effect).

This story he told us was a true story, one he had read in a newspaper back in the 1940s (I think). I don’t remember all the names of the characters as he told them, but the central character I do remember very well. I will take liberties with the other names (If any of our readers has heard this story before, my apologies if I mess it up somehow) and some of the finer details of the story.

Deepak was a young Medical Student in Calcutta Medical College, and lived in a private hostel in Central Calcutta. He hailed from a rural part of Eastern Bengal, where his family had a little farm and his parents and siblings still lived and farmed there. He would travel back to his village whenever he got the opportunity (and could afford it…for as a poor student from a rural background, he had barely enough to make ends meet from his evening job as a clerk in the local News press.

It was just the beginning of the monsoons, and the Rain God had been especially benevolent that year, because there was news of flooding in many parts of Bengal. Deepak would know all these things, because he spent a good deal of time in the Newspaper office, working on the press (and reading some of the breaking news in the process).

One rainy thursday evening, as he was sifting through the headlines for the next morning’s paper, a bold line caught his eye.

” Purbo Bangla’r Pabna zella’te Ola-Ota’r rog choriye geche “

“There has been a serious outbreak of Cholera in Pabna District of East Bengal”

This was the top Bangla daily and the newsline made him very restless. His village was in Pabna District…a sleepy little hamlet called Khejripur. The population was small, perhaps a thousand (about 300 families)…everyone knew everyone. Deepak’s mind was racing…his parents and younger sisters and a little brother were in Khejripur. So were his best friends Madan and Kanai. His heart began quivering as worried thoughts flooded his mind.

“I have to get home right now…” he thought…”With my background in medicine, I will be able to help a lot of people if I reach on time”

With that thought, he stopped by Naren-da’s (the Shift Supervisor) desk and requested permission to leave immediately for his village. Naren-da immediately obliged and told him to be careful.

Deepak ran out of the office and made his way back to the hostel, with an old sun-bleached blackish umbrella in one hand and a copy of the next day’s newspaper in his armpit. The rainy streets were messy and muddy and his white dhoti was almost brown by the time he reached his room. He quickly threw together a few bare essentials he would need, packed his battered medical case (a kind professor had given Deepak his old case the year before) with the samples and basic first-aid material he had gathered from college.

He picked up a couple of mowas/Mewas (these are balls of rice-puffs glued together with jaggery (raw sugar)) for his dinner and ran out onto the street again.

He took the local bus-ride to Howrah Station, from whence he boarded the next available train headed to Rajshahi. It was around Nine in the evening, the gloom and dampness of the rainy night, buttressed by his sense of impending disaster at home, made the journey a long and ardous one for young Deepak.

Sometime after dusk, the next evening, train stopped at the Rajshahi station. Deepak was standing at the door and jumped out before the train had even come to a complete halt.

Now, to go to his village in Pabna was another long ride the “old-fashioned” way…part by local train and part on foot.

 

He found the next train leaving for Pabna and boarded it. The ride was not very long, perhaps an hour or so. By the time he arrived at Pabna station, it was around ten in the night. He took a deep breath and stepped onto the platform.

 

The usually modestly populated station was almost empty and the old single kerosene lamp that hung on a six-foot pole barely provided any visibility. The skies were overcast with rain clouds and not a single star was in sight. With a pounding heart and a dry mouth, Deepak walked towards the main gates of the station.

 

Outside was a similar scenario – the shanty shacks that lined the walls of the station were closed. There was only one timid lamp burning in a tea-shop, and a haggard-looking old man was sitting propped up against the side of the shack. Deepak walked up to the shop and hailed out – “Oh Kaka…jaga acho ki?” (Oh Uncle, are you awake?)

Old man looked up wearily and said “Achi ho…asho edike…ki chai?” (Indeed I am awake…what do you want?)

Deepak then proceeded to rain the old man with questions “…“What is happening? …I read in the paper that there was an outbreak of cholera……Is it under control now?”

Old man replied – ““The cholera started last month, with the advent of the monsoons…things are not very good right now……many many people have died”.”

Deepak’’s heart sank as he tentatively asked – ““Do you know anything about Khejripur? How are things there?””

Old man replied “”Khejripur was hit very hard, since it is lower lying than the surroundings……more flooding, more cholera. I’’ve heard not many have survived”.”

Deepak’’s eyes widened in fear and he thanked the old man and started running towards the road that led to Khejripur.

Khejripur was’n’t too far from Pabna city……it was approximately a 2-hour walk. Deepak started off around 10:30 in the night and reached the edge of the village around 12:30. He was bone tired.

The village was surrounded by Paddy fields, with irrigation canals lining the fields and flowing through the middle. The wet night was also warm, thus an ominous fog clung to the earth, rising about 3-4 feet above the ground, thick, making visibility even lower than normal.

Deepak spotted a little lantern light fluttering in the distance, perhaps a quarter mile from where he stood, at the edge of the paddy fields. He started walking up towards the light. As he approached the light, he saw some people sitting on the ground on their haunches (the rustic way of sitting), muddy dirty clothes, the faces were not visible. As he got closer to the light, he suddenly felt he heard someone calling out his name from afar.

The open fields, rural landscape and lack of city pollution meant that both sound and light traveled a long distance. The sound seemed to be coming from his left, while the light was to his right (pointed towards the north-easterly direction). Deepak stopped walking and turned towards the source of the sound. Again that call –… ” “Deeeeeeeeeeppppaaaaaaaaaaaaak! O Deepaaaaaaak!”“, piercing the damp night air and fog and hitting his ears.

“That voice sounds familiar…” Deepak thought to himself “…“Let’’s wait and see who it might be…. Could that be Ishan Thakurda (Grandpa)””

 

Again the voice – “Deepaaaaaaaaaak…dara…aami aschchiiiii” (Deepak, hang on I’m on my way).

 

By this time, the voice had gotten much closer…and as he peered into the darkness towards the North-west, he saw a tall and proud frame filling his frame-of-vision gradually.

 

It was Ishan Thakurda, practically the Grandfather for the entire village (even his parents called him that). He was a timeless constituent of Khejripur, the main priest at the local Kalibadi (Kali Temple), a kindly and generous man. Deepak had memories of Ishan Thakurda from the day he remembers being conscious of his existence in this lifetime. A gentle giant, Thakurda would always be there for everyone in that little community, with words of advice on life, illness (he was also the local doctor) and everything in between. Everyone loved him and he loved everyone…

 

As Thakurda got closer, Deepak’s face beamed with a happy smile and he greeted him by bending down to touch his feet. Thakurda told him “Don’t bother with all that now…you have to get home quickly…things have changed around here”.

 

Deepak asked him “Thakurda, tumi kamon kore jaan le ami ashechi?” (How did you know I’m here?)

Thakurda said – “Aarey, Ma’er Bhoktora onek kichui jene jai” (Those who worship my Mother, learn about a lot of things others don’t)

 

That was a convincing explanation to Deepak, since he knew Thakurda had some strange powers, him being a priest and a dedicated upasak (devotee) of Ma Kali.

 

Deepak asked – “Thakurda, how’s everyone? I heard at Pabna station that we were hit very badly by cholera?”

Thakurda replied – “Things aren’t very good dear child. There have been lot of deaths…but things are getting under control now gradually…”

He added “Don’t worry…your family is safe”

 

 

Deepak was greatly relieved. As he walked, he noticed he was struggling to keep up with the 80+ year old man (which was his guess…no one really knew how old Ishan Thakurda was). Thakurda had a long staff in his hand (as was the norm with most men in the region, to ward of wild animals and occasional robbers) and he was using it to add to his rapid gait. Deepak was exhausted and after walking about 3-4 miles, he asked Thakurda if they could stop for a bit and rest up. He observed that there was a little fire going on the side and suggested they stop there.

Thakurda said “Don’t stop now…this area is not safe these days…”

Deepak was confused and replied “But there’s a fire burning and I can clearly see people around the fire”.

Thakurda replied “They are no good for you Deepak…don’t even look at them if you value my advice!”

Deepak couldn’t understand why Thakurda was telling him what he was and he was too tired to think and rationalize. He was only glad he had some company, that too of this old man whom he loved like his own grandfather.

But Thakurda’s words did rouse his curiosity…so as they got closer to the fire (it was along their path), he sneaked a look. There were men, women and children standing and sitting around the fire…their faces turned away from him. Suddenly one little girl turned to catch him staring.

What he saw chilled Deepak’s blood. This was no little girl…the face was white as paper…and eyes were black as the night, sunk into their sockets…with dark circles around them. The face was gaunt and skinny (but a skin covering the bones). He stopped, transfixed at the ghastly sight when he felt his hand being yanked (and with it his whole body seemingly uprooted from that spot).

 

Thakurda’s voice brought him back to his senses – “Don’t look! Don’t Look! Let’s get going…faster, faster…but don’t run!”

 

After another half hour’s breathless walking/running…they reached the pond behind his home. There was a solitary light burning at the window of his parents’ old brick and wood home.

 

Thakurda told him “Deepak, go wash yourself in the pond and tell your mother to fix us something to eat, perhaps some tea to drink…I don’t know about you…but I am exhausted. Let me take care of another little thing here and then join you inside”.

 

It was well past 2 AM by then and the fog had gotten thicker. Deepak quickly washed his feet and hands in the pond and walked towards his home. His mother was sitting up, propped against the wall, he could see through the window. As he knocked on the door, she got up, startled…and asked “Ke okhane…ke eshechey?” (Who’s there..who’s come?)

 

Deepak called out “Ami Ma…ei elam Kolkata theke” (It’s me Mother…I just arrived from Kolkata)

 

Mother opened the door and hugged her son. And the next five minutes were chaotic, with all members of the family being roused and joyful greetings (everyone was happy to see him safe and sound, as was he seeing them safe).

 

Slowly as order returned in their living room, Deepak told his mother – “Ma, tumi amader jonno kichu khawar aar cha toiri koro to…amader dujoneri bheeshon khide peyeche” (Ma…could you please arrange for some food and tea for us…we are both very hungry).

 

Ma looked at him and asked “Who else is there with you? Did you bring a friend from Kolkata?”

 

Deepak said “No…Ishan Thakurda found me near the fields and escorted me home. He said he’ll join us in a short while…to ask you to prepare something to eat and some brew some tea”.

 

There was a frigid silence all of a sudden…everyone looked shocked.

Deepak struggled with his words as he realized something wasn’t right…the hair on the nape of his neck was standing up in attention!

“What is the matter? Why do you all look like you saw a ghost?”

 

Ma replied “How could you have met Ishan Thakurda? He passed away last month, right one week after the cholera outbreak. He caught it while helping other victims!”

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