The Smell of the Land
By Shom Biswas
Nikhilesh Choudhury was a colleague of my father's in Asansol. He was an older gentleman; lean, with sunken cheeks, a shock of salt-and-pepper hair and bright, active eyes. He would land up on a sudden Wednesday evening, and knock on our door.
"Rudro babu, are your Baba-Ma at home?" He had a soft, sonorous voice.
"Ma is at her evening prayers, and Baba has gone out to play table-tennis", I'd chime.
"Accha! I shall wait then?"
With all my seven-year-old man-of-the-house sense of responsibility, I would say, "Nikhilesh-jethu, would you please sit in the drawing room? Let me ask Noopur-di to make a cup of tea. She is taking care of Tinka now."
His face would break into a thousand creases of smile. "Baah, you have grown up a lot! Sure, I will have some tea." He would take off his sandals, walk in, and sit at his permanent place on the high-backed chair of our tiny drawing room.
I was very interested in Nikhilesh-jethu. Ma would say that he was a writer, one of the most respected writers of Bengali short stories in the Asansol area. Was he as famous as Sunil Gangopadhyay? Or Samaresh Basu? No, he is not that famous, Ma would respond. Does he write detective stories of Santu-Kakababu like Sunil Gangopadhyay, or of young detective Gogol, like Samaresh Basu? No, he does not, Ma would say. He only writes for grown-ups. May I read a story or two of his, Ma? No, you can read them when you are a bit older.
Our Nikhilesh-jethu was a real writer. He wrote books, which people would read.
So I would ask him sometimes, in those few minutes when Ma has not yet finished her evening prayers, and Baba has not yet returned from his table-tennis. "Nikhilesh-jethu, where do you write?
"I write for magazines." He would say, with a smile.
"Magazines like Desh?" We had a subscription of Desh in our house.
"No, not Desh. Smaller magazines. These are called 'Little Magazines'."
"Why don't you write for Desh?"
"Only famous writers write for Desh, Rudro babu."
"Famous writers like Sunil Gangopadhyay? And Satyajit Ray?"
"Yes, famous writers like them."
"You are not famous?"
His smile would break into booming laughter now. "Oh no, I am not famous at all!"
"Do you read them, Rudro? Sunil Gangopadhyay and Satyajit Ray?"
"Of course! They write in Anandamela. Feluda is my favourite."
"Nice, nice." He would say with a smile.
"What do you write about, Nikhilesh-jethu?"
"People like Ma-Baba?"
"But what's the fun in that? Satyajit Ray writes about faraway foreign lands. Gangtok, and Madras, and Rajasthan and London. That's fun."
"Yes, that's fun." He would agree, and then add, "Don't you write too? Your Ma mentioned?"
"Yes! I write stories and poems."
"Great! Will you be a writer then, when you grow up?"
"Oh no, I will be a footballer."
This would be about the time when Ma would walk in, smile, and say "Nikhilesh-da, before you ask, I haven't written anything in the last month."
"Labannyo, you disappoint me. You have talent, you know."
I didn't know why he called my mother that. My mother's name is Pramita.
But Ma would smile, and say, "I will, I will. You read out what you have written recently, now. Rudro, have you ordered for tea for Nikhilesh-jethu?"
Baba would then walk in, sweat-soaked, panting.
"Nikhilesh-da, all good with you? Manoj and Subhankar-da would be here in a few minutes."
"Baah, great. It'll be a reluctant writers' gathering, then. Chandan, ekta cigarette de toh." He'd demand.
Baba would extend a pack of cigarettes towards Nikhilesh-jethu. "Let me take a shower. Supriyo might come by too."
Supriyo was the name of my Meshomoshai, my mother's brother-in-law.
Nikhilesh-jethu's voice would grow happy, "Ah, perfect. Bad literature and good music. No, I have to agree, Chandan, Labannyo, this evening has potential."
I would stay back some days, and some days I would be packed off to play with friends, or to study.
It was a curious bunch. There was Manoj-kaku, who would sometimes play a game of chess with me. Achintya-mama would teach me how to make caricatures. Subhankar-jethu and Mafizul-jethu were older, more serious, and when they spoke, the others would listen. Chitra-di was at least as old as Ma, but would insist on me calling her didi i.e. older sister, and not mashi (aunt). And there was Meshomoshai. Meshomoshai looked like a prince, and sang like a professional.
Baba would sit next to the window and smoke one cigarette after another, hardly ever joining in the discussion. Meshomoshai would sit by him, and would borrow a cigarette now and then.
The others would debate, discuss and quarrel. Ma would get animated, sometimes even lose her temper.
I remember this one instance – Chitra-di and Ma were having a heated discussion about Sunil Gangopadhyay's recent poems. Chitra-di was critical. I remember what she said. "Sunil-da has become too famous to write poems that shake you up from inside. These days, he can only move you with language, or with detail, or craft. With prose. The old Sunil-da, our poet Sunil-da, who we were mad about when we were younger, is lost to his fame."
Ma, as I realise now, was entirely incapable of taking any criticism of her favourite poet. "You are blind, Chitra. Here, here, listen to these lines, and then tell me if they still do not touch your soul? And with emotions, not with anything else." And Ma would recite out a couple of lines from her memory, of a poem, in her rich, Ghazal-singer's voice.
Dear youth, I give you Bhubandanga's dark, cloudy sky;
They'd all go quiet. And then Mafizul-jethu would speak, "Baah! Sundor! Beautiful! Why did you stop, Pramita? Let's hear the full piece."
And Ma, quietly to begin with, and then with the dexterity and confidence of an artiste of the spoken word, would recite the full poem -- each word clear and textured, the voice sonorous. They would listen, mesmerized.
After Ma finished, I remember Chitra-di getting up from her seat and hugging Ma, tears in her eyes. "This is no way of ending a debate," I remember Chitra-di say in mock-anger, "reciting an older poem of Sunil-da's. Of course it's magic. It will always be."
And such were the evenings.
Voices would rise. Names I have never heard of would be mentioned and discussed. Tables would be slapped and more cigarettes and more tea ordered. Sometimes there will be sweets, for a promotion at office or for a story published somewhere, and sometimes there would only be Britannia Marie.
Asansol would be discussed, and literature in these small towns. What is the point in literature for literature's sake? Who would read these stupid little magazines? Why do we write?
There would be a canopy of cigarette-smoke near the ceiling.
Nikhilesh-jethu would always talk about literature of the land. Why can't I get the smell of the land in your writings, he would ask, I remember. "Why can't I smell the dust and the coal-smoke and the sweat of the mine-worker and feel the sting of the hot summer breeze in your writing?" "But why should we be limited by our place of stay", someone would respond, "It's restrictive". And the debate would rage on.
A full week's leave! I'd never thought that this would get approved. I hadn't been in Kolkata for the last two years.
Baba is sitting in the drawing room now, smoking a cigarette and watching a movie on DVD. Ma has gone out to meet with her friends next door. Tinka is preparing for her GRE in the other room.
I am on a small ladder, cleaning the loft of its contents of old newspapers and browned, mildewed magazines. I had promised to Ma that I will clean up the loft and the drawing-room bookshelves today. I'd get rid of the old, useless, tattered books and magazines; and set up the drawing-room bookshelf the way it should be for a reasonably-affluent, cultured Kolkata household.
And I see the book.
Nirbachito Golpo. Selected Stories. Nikhilesh Choudhury.
Nearly thirty years after Ma told me that I could read Nikhilesh-jethu's short stories when I am older, I have it in my hands. The only book of his that was ever printed. A thin book, not more than a hundred-and-fifty pages. It's a blue hardcover, the spine broken. The binding was not meant to hold the book together for more than a couple of years. The pages are brown and loose, but somehow intact.
Meshomoshai is no more. The best friend of our family, passed away from a heart attack at fifty-three. Nikhilesh-jethu must have passed away even earlier. Manoj-kaku had come by for my wedding reception, I remember. Chitra-di, of course, is an award-winning writer now; renowned as the most distinguished voice from the coal-belt of West Bengal.
I turn a page, and then another.
And I get that smell. The smell of my old, forgotten town; of the dark, calloused people and their coarse language; of the cruel summer nor-wester; of the all-permeating grey dust; the hard black clay and the gushes of rain.
That place was my home once.
* Translated excerpt from the poem, Uttaradhikar, by Sunil Gangopadhyay (originally in Bengali)QLRS Vol. 13 No. 3 Jul 2014