‘A Call to Alms’ and ‘The Other Side of the River’ – Srinjay Chakravarti

A CALL TO ALMS

The conversations at the office that morning, quite naturally, swirled around the letters of increment and dearness allowance which were expected to be distributed that afternoon. These letters, which had been in the offing for several months, were the subject of much animated and ardent discussion today, with the most conservative estimates putting the figure at ten percent while some more adventurous souls hazarded fifteen or even seventeen percent. Plus DA, of course. One of the party-poopers suggested a paltry seven percent, but was, of course, shouted down—dismissed and pilloried by popular vote. The poor fellow kept mum throughout the rest of the day, licking his wounds.

Endless cups of steaming tea did the rounds and unending spirals of cigarette smoke filled the air in the damp hall that was the Zonal Headquarters of the Amalgamated Shipping Company, but precious little work was done that day in the Calcutta office.

Mr Sanjoy Chattoraj, however, took little part in the general discussion. He sat at his desk in a dingy corner of the office hall grumpily, and brooded. If the other clerks noticed it, they did not pay much attention to him. Not that he was disinterested or indifferent to the fate of his increment—far from it. He was, in fact, feeling rather morose since that morning. The sky had been overcast since seven o’clock and he had thought of bunking office on the pretext of a rainy day. But it had cleared up by nine o’clock, and, besides, it was the big day. He knew that the letters of increment could well be distributed today. So he had made his way rather sulkily to office.

Imagine the consternation and outrage—universal and unanimous—when the letters of increment finally arrived at three in the afternoon. Just four percent across the board, plus DA! The clerks were left speechless.

The office seethed and boiled like a cauldron the rest of the afternoon, with even the doomsayer vociferous in his vituperation of the management. Finally, a collective decision was taken by the union leaders to go to the Zonal Manager’s chamber in deputation to register their protest. ‘If nothing happens,’ thundered the burra baboo, Mr Damodar Mishra, ‘we shall have a day’s token pen-down strike next Monday itself. After that, the next course of action will be decided upon.’

But Mr Chattoraj could not wait that long. He barged at once into the Zonal Manager’s chamber, his agitation writ large on his face. Mr Mandar Ghosh, the manager, looked up with a frown.

An irate Mr Chattoraj started babbling, almost incoherent in his rage: ‘What’s all this, Mr Ghosh—just four percent—how do you expect me to feed my wife and children… my daughter’s marriage is coming up… the date of the wedding has been fixed… how the hell do you expect me to meet the expenses with an increment of a measly four percent… just look at the inflation rate…’ and so on and so forth.

Mr Ghosh glanced at the clerk, his arrogance evident on his face. ‘The decision has been taken by the Company’s management,’ he said firmly, his brown eyes baleful behind his thick-rimmed glasses. ‘As you know, times are difficult, and it has been decided that this increment of four percent across the board is all that you all will get this year. Plus DA.’

Mr Chattoraj’s bluster faded at this direct riposte. He had not expected it. ‘Well, I mean, well…’ he mumbled, at a loss for words.

Yet he ploughed on manfully. ‘But in these days of inflation, an increase of just four per cent in our salaries—this is really too niggardly. It’s pitifully meagre. It’s unjust! It’s unfair! At least give me a raise…’

Mr Ghosh looked at him, astonished.

Now Mr Chattoraj pleaded with folded hands. ‘Sir, I need some money desperately. My daughter’s marriage has been fixed. The wedding is just a couple of months away. I really need some more money…’

Mr Ghosh said firmly, ‘Nothing doing, we can’t hike your salary any further.’

Mr Chattoraj said hesitantly, ‘You could at least give me an advance on my salary…’

‘No, nothing doing.’

‘Or at least a loan…’ he was blubbering now.

‘Out of the question. You people don’t do any work all day long, and now you dare ask for a loan? It’s out of the question!’

‘But sir, I’ve been working here for thirty-three years. You could at least consider my case…’

‘No pay hike, no advance, no loan. You can go now.’

‘Sir, I entreat you, I beg of you…’ He was almost on his knees now.

‘What do you want me to do, pay you out of my own pocket? I don’t give money to beggars. Get out!’ said the tall man, his gimlet eyes gleaming and his steel-grey moustache bristling.

Mr Chattoraj had no choice but to leave the boss’s room. The fifty-four-year-old shipping clerk heaved his portly frame sorrowfully down the stairs. He truly had no choice, he knew; he would not be able to do anything at all. At this age, he would not get a job anywhere else. He would have to turn to the market for a loan to meet the expenses now—and that would be at an extortionate rate of interest.

The weather outside did little to uplift his black mood when Mr Chattoraj stepped out on the street at Fairlie Place. As the sky had cleared up by the time he had started out for office, he had not bothered to take his umbrella with himself. It was November, and as everyone knew, it hardly ever rained in Calcutta in November.

Yet a light drizzle was falling from the sombre sky when he boarded the bus from Strand Road. It became a shower at Esplanade, and then a heavy one near Minto Square. By the time the bus reached Deshapriya Park after negotiating the rush hour traffic, it was raining in torrents, and puddles had already started to form.

Near Rabindra Sarovar—the two large lakes adjacent to Southern Avenue—the bus broke down. The conductor shouted, ‘Everyone out! Everyone out! This won’t go any further.’

Mr Chattoraj got down from the bus, muttering angrily to himself. He was soon drenched to the skin and started shivering in the cold air. He was not wearing even a pullover, and thought sourly that he would soon catch a cold if such damp weather continued.

The streets were beginning to empty out. As it is, Southern Avenue was usually deserted at most times of the day, with its parks and gardens and upscale aristocratic houses and bungalows. And no rickshaws plied on that stretch. This had happened in the early 1980s, when auto-rickshaws had not yet made their appearance on Calcutta’s roads. So buses it was—they were the only way out. A couple of mini-buses whizzed past, one headed for Golf Green and the other for Lake Road. He had to let them pass since they would not take him anywhere near his home in Picnic Gardens. It continued to rain in torrents, unseasonal rain, but like the monsoon.

Mr Chattoraj had taken shelter at the bus-stop. He was getting more and more annoyed by the minute. The other passengers of the bus milled around forlornly.

Suddenly, there was a shout, followed by a general clamour. ‘Here’s a bus of Route No. A 39!’ The selfsame route on which the earlier bus had been travelling. The crowd surged towards the bus and Mr Chattoraj joined the melee. The tin-plated contraption was packed to capacity, with people spilling over the sides. It seemed as though it would topple over at any moment. The driver slowed down, and he tried to scramble aboard. There was a muddy flurry of hands and feet and faces, and Mr Chattoraj was right inside the bus, in the press of heaving, sweating bodies of the passengers. He was ground almost to a pulp and received a violent push from someone somewhere. Mr Chattoraj was certain he had made it inside, and relaxed. He distinctly heard the conductor bellow the signal to go—it almost shattered his eardrum. But then, he was propelled by invisible hands, pushed, and shoved, and when he finally succeeded in collecting his wits, he found he was back on the pavement, pushed down by the dizzying swirl. He could see the disappearing tail of the overloaded bus, with people hanging for dear life on to its doors.

Mr Chattoraj picked himself up from the muddy drain, swearing. Two other elderly Bengali gentlemen had been similarly ejected from the bus and had landed with a thump on the sidewalk.

‘What the hell,’ shouted one of them. ‘I get upon a bus and then they throw us out?!’ He abused the bus conductor roundly, using a range of vibrant expletives. ‘What do we do now?’ mourned the third man in despair.

After what seemed like hours, but was probably no more than twenty minutes, they sighted a mini-bus headed towards Picnic Gardens. It was more or less empty and they waved at it frantically. But the bus neatly swerved past them and roared away. They glanced at its retreating behind, incoherent fury bubbling up within them.

Sheets of rain slanted down onto the road, accompanied by heavy squally gusts of wind. Mr Chattoraj sneezed—once, twice. Southern Avenue, which was notorious for water-logging, was soon knee-deep in water. Pretty soon, he realized, the entire city would be transformed into an ersatz Venice of very dirty canals.

At this point, a black-and-yellow Ambassador taxi came into view, merrily splashing water all around. The two men hailed it with alacrity. They asked the driver, ‘How much to Ballygunj?’ ‘In this rain,’ replied the taxi driver, ‘it will cost you thirty rupees.’

‘Thirty bucks, are you mad?’ exploded Mr Chattoraj. ‘The fare is never more than seven rupees, from here to Picnic Gardens. And Ballygunj is a lot closer.’

‘Don’t go, then, if you don’t want to,’ said the driver rudely, and started the ignition. The other two men cried, ‘Wait, we’ll split the fare.’ They clambered into the cab.

The car rolled off through the waterlogged road, but not before drenching Mr Chattoraj’s trousers with a liberal dose of muddy water. Seething with rage, he shook his fist at the departing cab, his face mottled.

The minutes ticked by. The sky grew steadily darker and darker, with the massing clouds and the approach of dusk. Mr Chattoraj stood there glumly, watching the occasional scooterist whiz past.

Soon there was not a soul in sight. With the bus stop no longer providing much shelter, he went to a dry patch of ground under a cluster of trees, peepal and kurchi and gulmohur. He stood under a large peepal tree, brooding over the day’s events.

It had been a jinxed day, he said to himself. His conversation that afternoon with the Zonal Manager came back to him. It still rankled—how that Mandar Ghosh had dismissed Mr Chattoraj’s entreaties and called him a beggar.

He was in such a foul mood that he did not even notice that the rain had paused for a while. The sky was terribly overcast and gloomy, but at least there was no longer the pitter-patter of raindrops. There was silence all around. He stood there, a lonely, miserable figure, grumbling under his breath, oblivious to the sights and sounds all around him.

He had not noticed that he was not alone under the clump of trees. An old decrepit beggar, clad in tattered robes, had been sleeping there. He was completely blind, with a scruffy grey beard and locks of matted grey hairs. Having crawled to the spot where Mr Chattoraj was standing, he was now sitting cross-legged on the ground, almost hidden in the shadows. He was holding an aluminium bowl in his hand, empty but for two or three coins.

Mr Chattoraj was startled to hear someone murmur right behind him in Hindi, in a cracked, disembodied voice: ‘Please sir, thank you kindly sir, just a rupee, sir. I haven’t eaten all day, no alms for me today yet. Please sir, kindly sir.’

Mr Chattoraj was about to retort, ‘I don’t give money to beggars,’ when he suddenly noticed something, and paused.

He looked down with undisguised contempt at the beggar who was squatting on the ground, with the bowl in his uplifted hand. The beggar stretched out his hand, shivering in the cold air. The rain had begun to fall again. The big fat raindrops started to splash softly all around. As Mr Chattoraj watched, the rain slowly splattered around him and into the bowl. A sudden gust of wind—and plonk, plonk, fell the coins of rain into the begging bowl. As the drops struck the bowl, each of them made a metallic noise, which sounded just like coins dropping from above. The beggar had sat down right down under the trees and bushes, so that his body was well protected from the rain; his bowl, however, was exposed to the clouds above.

The blind beggar opened his toothless gums in a wide ingratiating smile, croaking almost inaudibly in gratitude. ‘Thank you, sir, thank you so much sir, thank you, thank you, kindly sir…’

When Mr Chattoraj looked down intently, he was able to make out just those two or three coins in his bowl, probably the leftover of the alms he had received yesterday. The beggar sat there, nodding his head and smiling his thanks, over the spurious manna of rain the sky was so cruelly tossing at him. His long fruitless wait had probably sharpened his expectations. His reflexes, too, had been dulled by his disappointment in not getting alms the whole day, and by his hunger.

Mr Chattoraj realized that the beggar had mistakenly thought he had got some alms at last. The paise of the raindrops that the drizzle had so disdainfully dropped in his bowl had deceived him.

Mr Chattoraj was about to say something mordant, when he stopped. The poignancy of the scene, or perhaps the unreality and gloom of the twilight, had its effect. He could well imagine the beggar’s disappointment and frustration when he would eventually place his hand in his bowl and scrabble desperately in it. Perhaps the shipping clerk was reminded of his own disappointment, his own frustration, earlier in the day.

Mr Chattoraj took out his wallet, and, quietly taking out all the loose change in it, gently put the coins in the beggar’s bowl. The blind old man was still nodding his head in unknowing delight and gratitude.

Mr Chattoraj seldom—nay, never—gave money to beggars. But today he placed this fistful of coins very softly, very gently in the bowl so that the beggar did not realize what he was doing. Mr Chattoraj had made sure that there was no tinkling sound.

Mr Chattoraj stood up straight, and looked all around him, at the deserted avenue. He knew he would have to walk home now. There was no-one in sight, not a single bus or car. Yet, as he squared his shoulders and stepped out on to the road, he felt lighter and happier, and the day now seemed much brighter.

THE END



THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER

Topaz perked up her ears at the mention of her name. She raised her head and looked with her eager brown eyes, now filmy with cataract. Those eyes, which were once like sparkling gems, and had given her her name.

‘Look,’ said Nayan, noticing her reaction, ‘She knows that we are talking about her.’

‘Yes, but better not mention her name in front of her,’ muttered his father. ‘She might guess what’s going on and create a fuss.’

Nayan looked morose. ‘So. It’s decided then.’

‘Now don’t you start again,’ said his sister Rupsa. ‘We’ve gone through this umpteen number of times. The judges’ decision is final, as they say.’

‘But…’ Nayan started to say.

‘No ifs, no buts. This time it’s the other side of the river for her,’ said their mother. ‘Three thousand rupees a month, just for her pet food. We can’t afford these expenses any more. This is a time of rising costs.’

But—as Nayan argued yet again—‘she has delivered no less than five litters, and we have sold off all the pups. That has brought us enough money all these years—I mean, enough to see her through her old age…’

‘She is much too old now,’ interjected Abir, ‘she can hardly walk! And in any case, Nayan, you are too young to understand these things. You need to be a grown-up to appreciate all that has to be done.’ Abir was all of fifteen years of age, while Nayan was only nine.

Abir went on, ‘And in any case, I must have the new Razzmatazz gaming console.’ Rupsa piped in, ‘Not to forget my Alcheringa smartphone.’

Their father, Mr Majumdar, attacked the omelette on the breakfast table with gusto. He said to no one in particular, ‘Inflation is at an all-time high. Government data shows the rate is 0.44 percent, but of course no one believes it. Prices have actually doubled over the past year, as everyone knows. I have seen data at our bank—industrial growth is slowing down and there is a credit crunch. In such circumstances…’

Nayan switched off the voice in his head as his father droned on and on about risk indices and mortgage collaterals. He just stopped listening.

The last time they had abandoned Topaz at an old children’s park beyond the railway tracks, but she had come back. She had sniffed her way back home, and only Nayan had been delighted to see her. This time, in a decision by popular vote, it was the other side of the river for her.

That afternoon they bundled Topaz into the car and set out from their flat on Rhododendron Avenue around four. They drove across the second Hooghly bridge, the Vidyasagar Setu, from Kolkata to Howrah. The wind whipped their faces and hair as they sped through the bridge’s framework of trusses and girders, the flamboyant architecture of geometrized steel that always filled Nayan with awe and wonder.

Their parents chose a spot, deserted and secluded, next to the road near the Botanical Gardens. Eighteen-year-old Rupsa coaxed the brown cocker spaniel out of the car and slowly led Topaz to the water’s edge. Topaz walked feebly, her legs infirm, her vision clouded. As she looked around, Rupsa quickly ran back to the Maruti Omni and got in.

The car roared off in a cloud of dust. Topaz barked feebly and ran for some time behind it, as fast as her wobbly legs would allow.

Nayan was looking out of the window, but Abir pulled him inside. ‘What are you looking back for? Don’t be so sentimental.’

Nayan said, ‘She would have lived only for a few more months—she is fifteen now, as it is. We could have easily kept her at home.’

‘No way,’ replied Mr Majumdar firmly, as he drove the car. ‘No old, worn-out things in our household, no old books or magazines, no old clothes. Anything that has outlived its utility has to be cast off. What is past is past,’ he intoned.

Nayan sobbed. The others remained silent. They drove on into the dripping darkness, clotted with the city’s blazing lights and its swirling smoke and fog.

THE END

Srinjay Chakravarti is a writer, editor and translator based in Salt Lake City, Calcutta, India. He was educated at St Xavier’s College, Calcutta and at universities based in Calcutta and New Delhi. University degrees: BSc (Economics honours), MA (English). A former journalist with The Financial Times Group, his creative writing, including poetry, short fiction and translations, has appeared in over 100 publications in 30-odd countries.

His first book of poems Occam’s Razor received the Salt Literary Award from John Kinsella in 1995. He has won first prize ($7,500) in the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Poetry Competition 2007–08. You can find more of his work on Aloka here: https://aloka-magazine.com/2020/07/17/post-mortem-and-other-poems-by-srinjay-chakravarti/

Website: www.srinjaychakravarti.com.

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