Dhananjoy was all of 13 years when he came to work for us at our maternal grandparents’ house in Kolkata. Gosaba, a village at the border of Sunderban was his home I was told by my grandmother. I had never heard the name of the place before and somehow on hearing Gosaba the picture of a ‘go-shaap’ a huge lizard (Bengal Monitor) came to my mind. I had seen one at the zoo and found it quite scary.
I was younger to Dhananjoy by only a year, but looked little beside him. I was thin, wiry and fair while he was burly, had cropped hair and dark complexion. I felt intimated by him partly because he looked bigger and stronger and perhaps the name of his village had struck fear in my mind at the outset. I had come down to stay with my grandparents with my mother as my sister was due to be born in a few months.
Dhananjoy’s parents were extremely poor, as were the majority of the people belonging to his village and the job of a domestic help at Kolkata was considered prized. It meant that Dhananjoy was now independent and his parents could now concentrate in rearing his five other siblings. One less mouth to feed meant some respite to the family.
Dhananjoy was assigned the job of cleaning utensils, washing clothes and running errands for the house. Both my grandparents were working and hence left home in the morning. During the afternoons he was left with little work and used to come and sit by my side. Soon he became my playmate and we would run up and down the house playing hide and seek or some other game. At that time it was my firm belief that every child born has to study and go thru the grind of learning lessons and going to school. I was really taken aback when I found that the subtleties of the three Rs were beyond his grasp. I immediately took it upon myself to teach him a few things. It gave me a sense of being superior to him and negated the physical inferiority that I had been feeling so far.
Dhananjoy looked most vulnerable during these study sessions and I rebuked him at his mistakes and ordered him to complete his homework in the same manner in which I was taken to task by my teachers and parents for my studies. Internally I felt a pride at my superiority and thanked my teachers mentally for giving me this edge. Once the study sessions were over we got back to our games. I had noticed that from the time we had started these sessions, Dhananjoy was much more reverential about my achievements in games and even purposefully lost to me on a few occasions. I enjoyed this preference and much later realised that this was a purposeful move so that I would go easy on him during his studies.
Around three months had passed and by this time and my little sister had arrived in this world. My grandmother had taken leave from her office and was attending to my mother. An ayah had been appointed to look after the baby and now most of the washing and cleaning was being done by her. This left more time to us as everyone was engaged in attending to the child. Dhananjoy was now more confident and had learnt to write his name in English. He felt elated at this achievement and I considered myself to be a worthy teacher. Making him write in Bengali was my next target and even at the expense of neglecting my own studies I concentrated on trying to make Dhananjoy literate.
Winter set in and days flew by. Soon we were getting ready for Saraswati Puja, the Hindu custom of soliciting blessings from the goddess of education – Mother Sarswati. Students of all ages are supposed to seek mother’s benediction so that they come out with flying colours in their exams. The stress was more on crossing an exam hurdle than acquiring knowledge. “Namaskar karo bhalo kore ma Saraswati ke. Balo jeno parikhkha jeno bhalo haye”; (Pray to Mother Saraswati with folded hands and seek her blessing for your examination), was the favoured dictum from elders. We decide to hold the puja on the roof of our house and Dhanajoy was thrilled when he came to know that he would have to play an important part in conducting the puja.
I went around the house collecting money for buying an idol of Saraswati mata and also for the flowers, fruits and sweets that we intended to offer to the goddess. Dhananjoy put together a few bricks to create a platform and then put a few more on three sides to make a place for the idol to be placed. He managed to find some coloured paper with which he covered the bricks. I was impressed by his ingenious idea and complimented him on his work. He looked elated at my kind words and announced that he would go and get the rest of the items for the puja. We borrowed the agarbatti stand from my grandmother along with a few incense sticks and a few small plates on which to place the fruits and sweets.
The day of the celebration dawned and Dhananjoy had put on a fresh shirt, one of the two he owned. He had washed and ironed it the day before. All things that we thought necessary for the puja was there. I had purchased the sweets myself and had paid Dhananjoy to get the other things. The sweet was a special sandesh that both of us liked. I laid them out on a steel plate and put it before the idol. The fruits were washed, cut and placed in another plate. We were ready. I had convinced my grandmother to read out the mantras of the puja and she was getting ready after taking her bath. I left Dhananjoy on the roof and went to invite the other members of the house to come up. My uncle, aunt and a cousin sister agreed to come upstairs.
I returned to the roof and took a place just in the front of the idol. I could not see Dhananjoy and called out his name. He came running wiping his face. I was annoyed and asked him to sit down. By this time everyone else along with my grandmother had come. All of us settled into individual asans made of patched cloth and shut our eyes as the mantras were read out. Dhananjoy sat at the back causing me to be irked. Soon the puja was over. It was time for distribution of prasad. I asked everyone to go inside and sit as I prepared to distribute the sweets and fruits to them.
As I pulled the plate of sweets towards me I was astounded to see that the number of sandesh had dwindled. Someone had removed it from the plate. Two things happened to me at once. I was outraged about the fact that someone had the audacity to remove the sweets from the plate before the puja was over and an overbearing rage on Dhananjoy, my prime and only suspect who could have done this. I kept my cool with an effort and distributed the prasad, dividing the sandesh into two, so that everyone got a piece.
Once over with it, I went to look for Dhananjoy who was nowhere to be seen. I found him at the back of the house sitting quietly. The moment I set my eyes upon him I was overwhelmed with anger and punched him in his face. He looked stunned but did not try to resist. He started to say something and I threw a few punches on his chest and stomach with all my might. I screamed at him asking him why he had stolen the sandesh before the puja. He did not react nor did he say anything. I asked him to leave immediately, though I was no one to tell him so but I was not in my senses. I felt outraged and cheated. Dhananjoy stood his ground, hanging his head not trying to defend himself at all. After shouting at him for a while I felt drained. I walked away to another part of the house and sat down and wept. I was careful so that no one saw me cry. Slowly I went and sat by my sister. My mother sensed that there was something wrong and asked me what the matter was. I avoided her question and eyes. The ayah came into the room and as a matter-of-factly began talking to my mother “Didi you know, Dhananjoy has become so dedicated about his studies that he has been fasting since yesterday. Poor chap he can never bear hunger and today morning I was felt that he was having great difficulty in keeping his fast. When khoka (meaning me) was not there I went up to the roof and found him holding the sandesh plate and looking longingly at it. I felt extreme pity for him so I picked up two sandesh and asked him to eat it. He did not want it and asked me to keep it and go away. Just then we heard people coming upstairs and the sandesh fell on the ground. Dhananjoy looked aghast and quickly placed the plate and carried away the two sweets as he could not place them back after picking them up from the ground. He warned me that what I had done was not good”. The ayah looked pleadingly at my mom and said “Tell me didi did I do something wrong? All I wanted to do was feed a hungry boy.” I was stunned and felt dizzy. I ran as fast as I could to find Dhanajoy. He was nowhere to be seen. I rushed to my grandmother and asked her where I could find him. My grandmother looked at me enquiringly and said “Did he not tell you before leaving? He told me that he was leaving for his village for a few days as someone from his family had suddenly fallen ill.” I kept quiet and stood motionless for a while. I knew he would never come back.