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The Difference

  • Published at 06:09 pm August 9th, 2020
Image: Jahid Jamil
Image: Jahid Jamil

A translation of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s “Parthakya” which has a lot in common with crises arising out of the current pandemic

The beggars had been streaming in since morning.

Rice was scarce these days. My wife informed me that the amount of rice we had would suffice for another three to four days. Well, it’s not that no rice was available in the market. There was—thirty-seven takas per maund

I grumbled loudly hoping my wife would hear it too that all the good things in rice were available in the starch. The British didn’t throw it away, nor did the Japanese. Only we, the poor Indians did. 

But nobody in the house seemed to take the hint. We went on eating rice without starch. I was informed that we had rice for two more days.  And the beggars continued to appear from dawn to dusk, “Ma, give us some rice; Ma, just a drop of starch…”

By this time, I had lost all compassion. We had so little rice for ourselves; how were we supposed to spare some for the beggars? Moreover, it was not even available in the markets. We could buy just enough for ourselves from the black-market, but we certainly could not afford to feed the horde that arrived every day. But then, how to say that we won’t give alms? Since childhood I had seen my parents giving alms to the beggars, and alms meant a handful of rice. It was a ritual. 

But at this point, the beggars were not welcome at all. 

I was writing in the small room when the man-servant entered with a small sack. Was he sent to buy rice? “What’s in that bag, eh?”

Rajen, the man-servant, appeared somewhat embarrassed. He started scratching his head and replied, “Rice, Sir.”

“Oh, so how much is that?”

“Two sers of rice. From the special outlet…”

“Oh, so the controller’s outlet has been opened here too? How much did you pay for it?”

“They won’t sell more than two-taka worth of rice, Sir.”

Indeed! This was not the famine inflicted Bihar; this was Bengal. And yet they have opened the rice control office here and won’t sell more than two-taka worth of rice! What was going on?

A beggar called out, “Give me a bite, o mother!” 

Rajen said, “No alms today. Go.”

I urged while writing, “Give something.”

He was given some rice and another came. She also received some. Around 9:00 in the morning, two more came. They also received alms. 

After some time, another bloke came. By that time, I was exasperated and had told Rajen to withdraw. But this fellow persisted and went on whining outside the house. I went out and told him, “No more alms today. What are you waiting for? Go.”

He was an old man wearing a piece of faded rag and carried a twisted mug in his hand. He held the mug out and said, “Give me a bit of starch—I am so hungry.”

I was furious. “What nonsense! And starch too?”

“Just a little …”

“Where will one get starch so early in the morning? As if we are saving rice starch from yesterday! Just leave.”

The man left and I sat down at my writing desk again. I did not feel sorry as I had already paid my regular alms. How much can one give? It was around noon and time to take my bath. At this time, an elderly man called through my window. He carried a bamboo stick in hand and his clothes were not too clean. He wore sandals. “Are you Brahmin?” he asked.

“Yes.” I peeped through the barbed wire. “Why? What do you want?”

“He put his hands together and said, “Brahmanema namah.” 

I greeted back and asked, “Where are you from?”

“Should I come in, Sir? I am Brahmin too.”

I replied in the affirmative.

He entered the house but stood in the yard and said, “I’ve been looking for a Brahmin household for a while but could not find any. My home district is Nadia. I was heading to a relative’s house in Musabani. I have my small son with me—he is sitting under the custard apple tree. If you could give us a drop of drinking water, we would head out right after.”

“Yes, of course. Bring your son.”

The boy came and I realised that they were drifters too—gentleman drifters. The only thing was, they could not ask for alms. I offered, “You haven’t eaten anything today. Come, have lunch with us—just rice and dal…”

“No, no,” the Brahmin replied. “Just a drop of water and we’ll be off. We don’t want to disturb you. Besides, my nephew lives in Musabani…”

“What nonsense! Musabani is six miles away from here…”

I paid no attention to what he said. They had lunch at my house and left in the late afternoon after taking proper rest too. 

As I was getting ready to go to bed that night, suddenly a thought struck me. What happened there? I chased out a beggar asking for alms and then I welcomed two Brahmins from Nadia for lunch! Why did I not think of saving rice? 

I thought over and over and realised that the beggar did not belong to my class. I cannot imagine myself as a beggar. But I can surely identify with an afflicted Brahmin from Nadia.


Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor of English at ULAB. She is a translator and fiction writer.