Saturday 15 August 2020

Haimanti Dutta Ray, Short Story 2020, Second Prize

 PAGES OF SEPIA                                              

1971. Calcutta:                                                                                 

The city is reeling under the Naxalite Movement. Some of the best minds are getting involved in it. Students of reputed colleges and universities are throwing stones and beheading the busts of political leaders and educationists, in an attempt to spread the message of their revolution far and wide. It is their belief that the gun would provide the best and only answer. Men are getting slaughtered like beasts. Women are losing their sons, for the cause of the revolution.

A blind lane in Kumartuli towards the North of the city:

A sculptor is busy kneading his earthen dough to make idols of the Durga Goddess. It is the festive season. The family members of Paban Chandra Pal are clay potters since a very long time. It is believed that Paban’s grandfather, Sukanta kumar Pal was assigned the remarkable task of modelling the Durga Goddess by the British. The tradition of sculpting the Goddess was handed down to his grandchildren and acted as their talismans.

Paban is busy giving final touches to the clay figurine of his Goddess. He fails to notice that a boy, staggering on his feet, is entering the lane. But the shrill cries from a bunch of youths, shouting “Catch him!! He’s the traitor!!” urges him to turn his head. Hands smeared with clay, Paban lets out a scream.

The boy was pointing a gun straight towards his forehead.

Paban raises both his hands in an act of total surrender.

 HIDE ME SOMEWHERE. Anywhere will do. Only then I’ll spare your life.”

The boy lowers his gun now. But his eyes have that glowering look that could have melted away the strongest of iron rods.

Paban, partly by compulsion but hugely by compassion for the intruder, is wiping his hands with a piece of cloth. After all, it is not every day that an unknown visitor called for his help! That too with a gun in hand! Paban, conquering his initial sense of fear and a dreadfully paralysis, relaxes after a while.

“Who are you?”

“Never mind who I am. I need shelter. Right now! These people will kill me if they catch hold of me. And I will kill you if you do not provide me with a shelter. The choice is yours, and there isn’t much time.”

Paban looks at the boy.

 By his looks, Paban guesses that the boy is still in his teens. Clad in a cotton shirt, torn at the edges, with a shabby pair of trousers to match, this intruder is unknown to him. Paban is aware of the prevailing unrest of the Movement that is raging in the city. Perhaps this boy is innocent and been wrongly framed! Who knows? Paban feels a twinge of parental affection for this fellow, despite the latter’s gun hovering around his neck.

“Come with me.”

Paban leads the boy into the inner courtyard of his house. Does he even consider what his family and neighbours will say if he gives shelter to a Naxal? No. He doesn’t.  

The boy, like a dutiful son and with a sangfroid countenance, follows Paban Pal, into the precincts of the latter’s household. Perhaps Paban gets swept over by the look of juvenile innocence that the boy exudes? Perhaps he likens the boy to his own son, Madhab, who drowned when still a child of three? Whatever may be the case, Paban takes this boy, a Naxal activist, within his folds.


“He is really a lovely boy. Where are you from? Who are your parents? Are you someone from this neighbourhood? But you don’t look familiar to me!”

Paban’s mother, a grand dame of eighty, exclaims beholding their sudden guest. She too is reminded of Madhab, the apple of their eyes, whom the family lost a few years ago, a bereavement which they are still to come to terms with.

The sudden intruder immediately stoops and touches the feet of Paban’s mother.

“I am Shyam Sundar. I need shelter here for a few days. If you give me some food and a roof above my head, I will remember you till my dying day.”

Shyam Sundar, after initial introduction, sits down with a sigh of relief on the earthen floor, and brings the pitcher of water kept near the entrance, to his mouth.  He drinks the cool water gratefully and wipes his mouth with the torn edges of his shirt.

Paban now realises the danger that he has welcomed albeit inadvertently, by letting this boy inside his house. He is not a Naxal sympathiser. Far from it, Paban can never make out why these young people are losing their lives in the name of their revolution.  


With a heavy tread, he leads the boy towards the inner ramparts. He calls out to his wife, who he presumes is busy cooking food for everyone in his family, in the kitchen. His wife, Kanak, is busy adding the final touches to the fish curry.

“Please wait. I am coming. Gokul, see to it that the fish doesn’t get overcooked.”

Kanak, after providing her directions to their head servant, comes out of the kitchen, arranging the folds of her sari.

“You are home early today. Who....?

She stops in mid-sentence. Her first thoughts upon seeing the lad Shyam Sundar, are whether she added enough Katla fish pieces to the curry. She knows her husband well enough. He often brings in guests, at any time of the day, and asks her to serve them with sweetmeats.

“This boy will remain in our house until he finds a better place to live in. He is a Naxal.”

Paban answers the question hanging around his wife’s mouth.

Both his wife and his mother are looking at the boy, open-mouthed. It seems as if this boy is an alien.

“Give him some food, Kanak. I think he hasn’t had any since a long while.”

Paban tries to ease the tension hanging like a cobweb in their courtyard. Shyam looks at Paban with gratitude in his eyes. For in reality, Shyam left their den, a Naxal ghetto, where all their meetings are conducted the day before. It is from there that he received the loaded pistol with renditions of the ‘Red Salut Comrade!’ slogan. Since then, he’s been absconding and on the run.  


 “What? You eat so little? I am sure your mother cooks much better than me. But as you are our guest, you’ll have to eat all the dishes.”

Kanak is serving fish curry, rice and lentil soup on a big, round brass plate. Shyam, after initial inhibitions, head bent over his knees, is pecking like a bird over his platter.

After finishing his lunch, Shyam washes his hands under the running water from the tap.

“You will stay in the corner room, next to ours.  A good source of light comes in from the windows on the east. So you’ll be able to study as much as you want and for however long as you wish. Since you will live here for a couple of days, why don’t you spend some time teaching Krishna, my elder brother’s daughter? She goes to school but is a very truant girl and her mother has a hard time getting her to study her lessons.”

Paban is speaking with Shyam, who is considering the option of whether to accept one from the plate of arranged betel leaves with nuts.

“Thank you for giving me shelter. If you are willing to accommodate me for some time, I can perform errands as you like. And yes, I can teach the girl but you’ll have to allow me to attend our comrade meetings.”

The two are seated on the cushioned sofa, in the drawing room. The room has decorated chandeliers hanging from the overhead ceiling. But these are in sorry states of disrepair. The cushions, Shyam notices, lying scattered on the sofa, also wear soiled looks. It seems as though they haven’t been washed for ages.

“Krishna, come here... This uncle will help you with your homework and your studies. He is our guest. So make sure, that you do not misbehave with him.”

Krishna, a ten-year old girl, slowly scratches her right leg with the nails of her right hand. No one notices that she’s arrived, slowly and stealthily as a cat, from behind closed doors.


“Hello. I am Shyam Uncle.”

Shyam stands up and crosses the invisible divide that hangs like a shroud between them. He draws the shy girl towards himself. Immediately Krishna hides her face with her two hands, but Shyam Uncle is too quick for her. She ends up hiding her face in the folds of the latter’s crumpled shirt.


Greenery, in a green pot, turns greener with fingers green. Krishna, repeat this quickly. The faster you can repeat it, the quicker will you be able to shed away your shyness. This is called ‘a tongue twister’. And do you want to know the truth? I have coined this myself.”

Krishna smiles, shyly, towards Shyam.

“Krishna, you must learn this too. She sells seashells on the seashore. This is a very popular one.”

Kanak enters the room. She stares in amazement at the boy. There seems to be something very special about this boy, Shyam. Kanak immediately feels a motherly affection towards him.

“Krishna is a very intelligent girl. Mark my words. She will score very good marks in her examinations, provided she overcomes her predicament of remaining tongue-tied.”

Shyam begins to teach this girl in a room, which Paban vacates for the purpose. Finding a shelter above his head, when he is sought after by the police, is sheer luck. He decides that, come what may, he’ll assist them in whatever way possible.

It is close to evening and darkness envelops all the corners of the residence. Paban is busy giving final, masterful strokes to his idols of Durga. This is the way he earns his bread. Yet when these idols are carried away in trucks, he always experiences a pain hidden somewhere near his heart. The Goddess symbolises women power and is worshipped with great devotion by the Bengalis. Till the time the idols are taken away, they lie in Paban’s shed as mere masses of clay and mud. It is only under the skilled hands of Paban that these idols come to life. It always seem as though the girls of the house are being given away to their respective in- laws.

“But I am quite certain that the gold necklace had been there when you came to bargain over the price. It was your wife who adorned our devi with the ornament.”

Paban is speaking animatedly with a Mr. Haldar. The latter is the president of the Bagha Jatin Durga Puja Committee. He, along with his coterie of followers, has arrived to take away one of the idols. There are just a few days left for the Pujas to commence. The Puja, the biggest in the almanac, usually heralds the onset of Devipaksha or the season of the Mother Goddess as opposed to that of Pitripaksha – the season for the Father.

Kaash flowers, the exquisite white feathered ones, adorning the rural Bengal countryside during this time, sing the agomoni songs of nature. Satyajit Ray made his film, Pather Panchali, where he showed the two characters of Apu and his sister, Durga, running across the Kaash fields in order to catch their first glimpses of the steam engine. Despite being called ‘flowers’, these Kaash Phool are really long stalks of white grass. A field of Kaash Phool, right in the midst of greenery, always suggests the advent of autumn in Bengal.


“But how can the necklace get lost? Paban, I am warning you. If you cannot trace the missing necklace within a week, then I’ll have no other option but to summon the police.”

Mr. Haldar is vehement. He knows that his words will produce the desired effect. Lo and presto! Paban Pal, the sculptor of the deity, is shaking like a leaf caught in a breeze!

“If you are accusing me of thievery, then you can think again! I, Paban Pal, have always regarded my profession as akin to that of worship. And as the Goddess is sacred to us all, so is my profession to me. I have never blasphemed my profession.”

Paban wipes his eyes. His wife, Kanak, stands at a corner of the open courtyard as a silent witness to the ensuing drama. Even she can’t believe her ears when she hears her husband being accused by Mr. Haldar. Ever since they married, Kanak has been very proud about the fact that Paban is a very upright person, always siding with the truth and nothing but.


Mr. Haldar barges out of Paban’s workshop, threatening that he’ll call the authorities soon.

Paban Pal is now in dire straits. In any other circumstances, he could counter allege Haldar on his own grounds. But he knows that so far as he is concerned, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. He hasn’t taken the mentioned piece of jewellery, and he can vouch that none of his two assistants also had.

Paban rules out the preliminary doubts out of his mind. Never will these two boys dare to malign their master’s name and reputation. Besides, what will a golden necklace mean to them? Unless they consider selling it, it ought to appear quite redundant an item to them.

“Has this boy Shyam Sundar taken the necklace?”

Kanak and Paban are lying down beside each other. It is close to ten at night, and they just finished their dinner of chapati, dal and curry with brinjals, okhra and cauliflower. Paban decides to call it a day when Kanak lays down the dinner plates on the floor, laden with the freshly cooked items. It will be a day which he’ll remember for a long time.  

“What are we going to do now?”

Kanak is voicing her own fears, while lying beside her husband. The latter is resting his head on his folded hands and staring at the ceiling, with a vacant expression.


Paban slowly turns tensed and nervous. He knows that if Mr. Haldar brings in the police, then he is in for some deep trouble. The police entering his household will mean that they’ll get to know that he’s given food and shelter to a Naxalite. He still has the feeling that their house is being constantly watched by these men, wielding the baton.  


“I simply cannot risk bringing in the police at this time. If they come to know about Shyam, then they’re sure to handcuff him, if not something worse. Probably they will take him away with them and then put an end to his life. Kanak, he is just like our son.  Just give me time. I’ll have to think about a way out of this mess.”

Paban lowers his forearms and turns towards his wife. The Durga Puja is just a few days away. To Paban, Kanak always resembles the Goddess herself. The way she manages the entire household, without leaving anyone to complain, appears to be nothing short of a miracle. Paban’s father selected Kanak to become the bride for his son, mesmerised by the glow of her skin, which is the result of a natural complexion and an absolute abstinence from artificial cosmetics. Her cordiality while receiving guests, coupled by a natural feminine grace, is still admired by the entire Pal clan.


 Whenever her husband appears to be in a dilemma, Kanak tries her best to ease away his tensed mind. She decides to apply a balm, which she prepares herself by crushing some herbal leaves and bringing them to a paste, on Paban’s forehead. To that end, she prepares to get up from the bed now. But Paban entwines his wife, within his embrace.

“Where are you going?”

“Off to bring some remedy for you.”

“No, Kanak. I want to discuss something more important with you now. I have no doubt whatsoever that Mr. Haldar is framing me falsely, in a gross misdeed. But if he is to bring the police now, I’m afraid that I may get caught for providing shelter to this boy.”

Kanak’s eyes become mesmerised, an expression that is akin to one often found in children when they’re told adventure stories from distant lands. She displays a presence of mind which leaves even her husband, Paban, speechless.

“He is such a sweet boy. Even if the police are to raid our house in search of Haldar’s lost ornaments, then you, yes you, will take upon yourself the entire blame. We just cannot let them catch hold of this boy!”


Now it is Paban’s turn to stare and stare at his wife.

Is she the same woman whom he betrothed some years ago? Sometimes it seems to be ages ago. But today, when Kanak expresses her inner feelings for a Naxalite, Paban respects her. Yes! She has uttered his latent feelings so lucidly! It’ll be him, and him alone, whom the police will handcuff, if the situation thus demands as Paban also cannot afford to let the police search his house. He just has to protect Shyam!!


With the crack of dawn the next day, Paban realises that he hasn’t closed his eyes even for a wink. Deep contemplation kept him awake. He knows that, given the chance, Haldar won’t lose an opportunity to disgrace him in public. But what is he going to do? If the police enters his premises now, then this boy Shyam Sundar will surely get caught and he too, along with him. But Paban has by now developed a kind of ‘maya’, a kind of parental affection, for this guy in distress. Even though he is not a staunch supporter of the revolution, Paban fells that it is his duty to protect the boy from the hands of the police, now that he is his guest.


Paban’s routine cup of strong tea, with plenty of milk and sugar, grows cold. His mind is racing as to what to do next. If he’s to hide Shyam from the police, then his only resort is to abide by Haldar’s accusations. Paban never stole even a handkerchief in his lifetime.

Kanak intercedes.

“What are you going to do today?”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking through the night.”

“Please, please, hide this boy from Haldar and his men. Take the blame upon yourself. What harm will it do you if you get caught? You’ll be jailed, for maybe a year? Think about what may happen if Shyam gets caught. Not only will he receive what you call, ‘the third degree of torture’, but his mates will also get traced.”


“Kanak, as always, you’re right. Promise me this. Whatever may happen to me, you’ll take care of the household. In no way, shall Haldar succeed in ruining the festive occasion. Yes, though I may be a poor artisan, I’ll play a small part in this revolution thing.”


With this, Paban embraces his wife and holds her tight, for a long time. He sees, from a crack in their window grill, the retinue of Haldar entourage approaching their house. He braces himself for the ordeal ahead. But why are these people running in the opposite direction? Why are the policemen going towards his shed, situated at the rear end of the house? Why, has Shyam escaped? Sensing trouble, has he taken refuge in his shed again?

“There he goes!! Catch him!!”

There are cries from the approaching contingent of police force. Paban clad in a vest, rushes out of his room. There, to his utter horror, is Shyam running through the court yard, with shouts from the armed guards at his back.

SHYAM, run like you’ve never run before. Don’t let these men catch you.”

Paban is staring again at his wife from whose bowels, these full-throated shouts are emanating. Both of them look towards the horizon, where the glow of the setting sun casts a theatrical spell. Shyam, their uninvited guest, is escaping! He is escaping from the police, jumping out of their view. But aren’t both Paban and Kanak responsible for saving one life? These two individuals are caught in the imbroglio of the revolution despite their aversion to active politics. Who knows whether Shyam really managed to escape or not?

The movement gets nipped. Most of the activists get caught, tortured and killed. But Shyam indeed, manages to escape that day. He escapes to safety and the people to whom he’s grateful are Paban and his wife, who felt that they’d lost their son for the second time.


  1. Good short story Haimanti Duttaray.

  2. V touchy story, nicely described.

  3. Interesting meeting of discordant strands in Kolkata's history--the Naxal unrest, the Pal heritage of image making, the barowari Durga puja of recent times. Am I right in thinking Mr. Haldar was helping the authorities get a search warrant by making up the missing necklace story?

  4. An excerpt taken from reallife cz no matter how hard we try to isolate ourselves from the push and pull of events around us, at some point we get sucked in and years of pain and betrayal suffered boils out disregarding the coconsequences and we climb out of the darkness to face the light, the truth, the reality..beautifully scripted and thoughtfully represented.