The Gastro-gnome

By Shyamal Chakrabarti

      Old Madhab Mukherjee's last desire remained unfulfilled. The desire was gastronomical and in spite of all the trouble Jiban, the fish seller, took to deny the small time customers flaunting their puja bonus, Madhab could not get a bite of the silvery leviathan brought fresh from Roopnarayan near Kolaghat. He started towards his home followed by Kesto, the servant, trotting under a basket-load of vegetables on the head and the three and a half kilo hilsa hanging from his left hand by a rope that nearly cut his wrist and made the fish's mouth look wide agape.Nobody questioned the propriety of Jiban's act but one of them cursed Madhab in undertone, " God will see to it that the greedy relic has thatas his last supper." He was only a bit too optimistic.

      Madhab reached home and was accosted by an army of his grandchildren. They shrieked in sheer delight on seeing Kesto's Siamese twin. Mokshoda, the widow-maid, who never stopped at wondering at anything, however trivial, exclaimed, "Oh Ma! Tha-a-a-t big and tha-a-a-t beautiful! Oh boudi, o didimoni, just come and have a look at what Kartababa has brought from the market!" Next moment, all the womenfolk scrambled to the ground floor and first floor verandah with the same _expression of disbelief in their eyes and with lips rounded in hollow circles. Mokshoda was the ladies' darling for her scoops.

Mokshoda's tongue drooled saliva which quickly disappeared in her already wet sari, for she was working on a huge heap of dirty linens, spraying soap solution in every direction. Madhab disliked this buxom maid in her late thirties and never understood her popularity among the female members of his family. She seemed to take no particular care to cover her ponderous bust with her scanty sari. Madhab had heard from others that she had less virtuous means of earning a little extra for her cosmetics and in the forcibly occupied refugee colony where she inherited a hut from her deceased husband, there were men who even adored her and called her fashionable names. Madhab had been surprised to learn that this was not unknown to the female folk of her family. Their view on the subject was a stoic "That's none of our business." The truth was that Mokshoda was a work horse, or a work mare, and her attendance was excellent. 

      Madhab made himself comfortable on the easy chair, ordered the second round of morning tea and detailed the menu for the midday meal. He was an astute deputy magistrate and his expertise on land disputes made him practice law after taking voluntary retirement twenty years ago. Since then he had earned enormous sums and many big insurance agencies were his

clients.

      His two and a half year old grandson Tulu had scarcely finished his newly learnt rhyme, "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall," when Madhab felt a lightning pain passing through his ribs. He convulsed and writhed in agony. With rapidly diminishing eyesight, he found terror writ large on the eyes of the onlookers. The local cardiologist came a half hour later.

      *  *  *  *  *

      How long he was held in stupor, Madhab could not say. It was evening and presently he found himself laid in state on a Bombay cot decked with marigold and tuberose and burning incense sticks. The air was heavy with the smell of the perfume he had always hated. He heard the clanging of tambourine and a loud cacophonous chanting of Lord Hari's name outside. His wife sat with bleary eyes at the feet of what she thought to be her dead husband. He tried to lift himself gently on the cot in order

to enquire what the fun was all about. To his surprise he found that body and soul were not inseparable and his effort lifted him several feet above his mortal remains which, however, made no movement at all. He fancied himself a trick star whose action was displayed in slow motion. He felt his widow's grief might be partly due to the fish she would have to abjure.

      Suddenly his thought went out to the fish and his last desire that had remained unfulfilled. He felt the atmosphere inside the room loathsome for spirits generally dislike human association. He gently came out through the window and Tulu, standing by it, felt a cold breeze past his ear.

      In one dark corner of the courtyard Madhab found Kesto, the old faithful, dozing under the influence of opium, which he surreptitiously indulged in. For once Madhab thanked him inwardly for taking the drug. Kesto raised his turbid eyes on being asked by his master, "Kesto, where is the fish?" He was a trifle surprised at not being scolded first. Madhab repeated the question to which he replied, "Mokshoda, the broad, has taken it home" and wondered what had gone wrong with his master. Madhab however had no time to lose. He hastened towards Mokshoda's cottage.

      Meanwhile, Mokshoda, despite every effort to keep the fish a secret, had had enough trouble with a whole lot of neighbors who squatted around her house demanding their share of it. In the forcibly occupied colony, the settlers were all from the district of Barisal, the land of Fazlul Haque. Over conscious about their rights, they roared like tigers in the semi-lit darkness. This was certainly an occasion of general celebration.

      However, the mortals were not the only neighbors who gathered around Mokshoda's house. On the thatched roof of her house thronged a cluster of those dark shadows who talked in nasal tones and were known for their greed for fish. The scene on the roof was reminiscent of the great Bengal famine, with hundreds of cadaverous figures begging for a bowlful of gruel. They were goblins, gnomes, spooks - specters of wide spectrum and of all ages and sexes. They were invited by Pencho, the ghost of Mokshoda's husband Poncha or Ponchanan, who lived atop her house. Poncha died under mysterious circumstances in his own house three years ago and according to the popular rumor, his death was caused by the severe beating he used to receive from his wife periodically. Even after death, he remained equally uxorious. He filled Mokshoda's kerosene bottle with oil hoping that one day she might immolate herself and join his world. Mokshoda on the other hand, abused him and brandished half-burnt logs through the small aperture he had made on the roof. But when she was in short supply of kerosene, she would talk to him about her distaste of life and express her desire to join him.

      As he reached the scene, Madhab was accosted by Pencho who gave him a courteous salute for he he had known his wife's master before. They were delighted for at last they had the rightful owner of the fish with themselves and Mokshoda could hardly refuse their plea. But Madhab wanted to remain anonymous lest his maidservant should come to know of his greed.

      Inside the house, Mokshoda was nervously frying pieces of the fish in its own oil. She did not fear the ghosts to whose pester she was used to but she was scared because the people outside had threatened to call the panchayat of the colony. That rogue of a sarpanch was entitled to enter her house if necessary and would certainly seize this opportunity to assert his populist image. But she decided that enough was enough and it was time to prove that Mokshoda could not be browbeaten by any smart-aleck. While men outside were planning a frontal attack, the crowd at the top was finalizing its strategy of an en masse nosedive below.

            *  *  *  *

      The resultant skirmish was short-lived; lasting not more than thirty seconds, for both the attacks took place simultaneously. As the men with Bhombal with their leader stormed into the hut, the weak bamboo structure that served as the ceiling gave way to the gust of wind that another huge crowd, entering vertically downward, brought with them. Bhombal found himself buried under a viscous heap of flesh whose enormous weight made him totally helpless. The men outside came to their rescue

even before the collapsed roof went into flames from the fire of the oven. The fire spread from Mokshoda's house to the whole colony for every house was as inflammable as hers.

      In the grievous tragedy, everyone forgot about the fish. Whether the flame or the hungry crowd of another world consumed it could never be known.

      A shaken and apologetic Bhombal lost the next panchayat election and Mokshoda, who alone knew the cause of the collapse, renounced fish forever.

Shyamal Chakrabarti teaches Physics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. He writes stories, poems, popular science articles and has never travelled abroad. He did my M.Sc. in Physics, M.Tech. and Ph.D. in Materials Science all from IITs (Kharagpur and Kanpur).

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