The Sandstorm

  • Work-from-home


•°o.O Born to Fly O.o°•
Mar 5, 2010
The Bannerjees were a satisfied lot. The meals were good, and always included a recipe of fish curry. The hotels they frequented during the tour always carried the Deluxe label and the bed sheets were almost clean. Ashok Bannerjee exuded the confidence of a military dictator during the annual exodus to the boundaries unknown. The precision permeated down to the lowest ranks. The wake up call was at six am .The bed tea reached the rooms at 6.15 am. Henceforth Ashok Bannerjee went on an inspection spree at seven thirty to moniter the progress in morning rituals, by that time the male members of all the rooms were expected to be ready for the day. The elder Mr. Bannerjee remained quite determined to stick to his schedule. He had stuck to schedules all his life. Discipline is needed for success, something he had always tried telling his son. Bannerjees could afford this luxury once a year for 15 days but it was not always so.

Mr Ashok Bannerjee through dedication, discipline and perseverance had create a mini empire of flour mills in and around Calcutta. Familiar hoardings of ‘coconut tree followed by the ever familiar lines`super healthy and tasty atta‘ adorned the coconut trees and lampposts of rural and suburban Calcutta .It beckoned the rural populace with its brown and red colorful bags. The business had been a roaring success right from the word go .Not many would venture into an flour mill business in Bengal ,where very few and far between really relished the staple food of the north .Mass supplies went to canteens and hostels and over the years, Ashok Bannerjee found that the common man had realized the benefits of the flour ,much to his secret pleasure.

Nayantara his dedicated wife never went to school. Her learning consisted of her experiences in and outside the kitchen. When she joined Mr Bannerjee in this long journey of living she was a novice, but importantly she was intelligent and can be almost termed as an equal partner in his success. The early years were trying, Ashok da as he is fondly called would come late from work ,eat ,sleep and go out again early in the morning. He was almost unaware of the birth of his elder son Nirmal, or the grievances of his mother and wife. Unusually Nayantara did not have many grievances. She knew that those days would pass quickly and believed each day would be a new beginning . Her stature grew with the number of flour mills. The way she talked and dressed changed. Not many could guess that she could neither read nor write. Nirmal their elder son had seen the struggle. There were days when his mother would not cook fish ,even though he liked it so much .Nirmal even at that age was responsible and understanding, he would never complain, only cry himself to sleep in the night. Nirmal went to school at the age of seven, when the family moved to a bigger house .His most exciting realization was the fact, that there would not be a single day when he would have to go without fish.

Shymal the younger did not see the struggle, he only saw the rise .He went to one of the better schools in suburban Kolkata, and last two years of his schooling was completed in a boarding school in Darjeeling. But the only thing still binding the family now was annual 15 days of vacation .It had the frivolity of a child’s play and gaiety of youth. The old and the young became one with single quest of laughter. Moments of laughter were feverishly searched and held upon. The most gayish looking clothes were packed ,and new ones bought with an enormous speed. The whole household waited for this one release of energy when all would be forgotten. “ready, ready, ready.” rang Ashokda`s authoritative voice in the corridor. A team of three gathered in his room to chalk out the days plan .Shreelekha more than occasionally filled in for Nirmal. A presence welcomed by all. Shymal, who was handsome ,soft and shy looked forward to this meeting each morning. It was a relief from the suffocating quarrelling environs of his wife and maid. “ Baba lets venture out today, I don’t feel like going back to the city …please baba .shreelekha persisted. `What is this place you want visit, ma . .how far is it…will the agency man take us there ?` asked Elder Mr. Bannerje in an uncertain voice. `Baba it’s a beautiful bauli and is almost 200 years old. You remember Shymal,” turning her head delicately towards her brother-in –law, “ the magazine you gave to me after puja last year,” said Shree addressing and looking straight in his eye,` I read a description of this bouli in that. It is huge, almost like a four storied super market.” shreelekha would have carried on ,if not for the quizzical expression on Shymals face.

“I don’t remember,” he said. His eyes remained for a moment on the luscious and thick hair that touched her hips. Discussions continued between Shree and her father-in-law. It resulted in the old man ultimately relenting to the forces of female persuasion. “So it is decided ..we'll visit the bauli.” elder Mr Bannerjees word was final “I don’t think so it is a good idea,” said Nyantara “ how many palaces we have visited here ..none,” she said answering herself. “I always heard that the children will be bored. Have we come all this way, hundreds of kilometers to visit places which perhaps do not exists?” cribbed Mrs. Bannerjee. No one paid much attention to her. She did not even expect to be heard .sitting in her unstarched cotton sari ,she may well have been in her own living room. She never really left her living room wherever she went. “Ma since we have come this far .. why not ..It may turn out to be a pleasant surprise.” quipped in Shymal .There was eagerness in his eyes, much like a child waiting for an ice-cream. “Ma lets go ..I may not come back to see it… ever ,” pleaded Shreelekha .

By now most of the other occupants of the adjoining bed rooms were aware of something brewing and had joined the gang. Children are of course faster than pigeons. Parul held a milk bottle in one hand and tried to adjust the baby in the other. This effort went on for sometime, when suddenly Shreelekha quietly said, “give him to me.” She took the baby dexterously in her arms and continued with the process of administering the milk. No one really noticed except perhaps Shymal, the proud father. The uncompromising opinions of few members played truant with decision for another 10 minutes before the tour guide who was already waiting with his vehicle of transportation, the mini dilapidated passenger van was called in, and the matter duly resolved. He was a man of much experience and knew that pleasing a particular group in a particular manner, would please all. “Not many people go there ,it is derelict and forgotten ,not even properly maintained ,but it is a home to almost thousands of parrots .This itself is a sight to see . It is a very good idea .LET US GO .” His word was final

The final journey on the unknown dirt track pleased only a few of the group. The few that went merrily on this track were Dhiren and Anupama clinging to the overzealous guide and Pompa the little maid .Following them was not so enthusiastic group of elder Bannerjees and Nirmal, still a little further back was another group a little noisy group ,as its center of attention was the child of one year from a distance they looked like a troupe of nomads in search of a n oasis in the vast wilderness with the sun beating down. It was one of those days when the sun was really cruel even in December. It was almost half an hour since the company had left behind the transport vehicle and was moving on foot. The harshness of the situation made the enthusiasm and smiles disappear one by one, from almost everyone’s face.

“Don’t run too fast,” shouted Nirmal at none of the children in particular. “dada,” he shouted out to guide , “be very careful with the kids … the younger one is very very naughty…It is very necessary that the kids don’t run …am I not right Baba ,” said addressing his beloved father. He again shouted at a higher pitch , “please Brijeshwar da be careful, I repeat.” Old Brijeshwar grinded his teeth, drew in a deep breath and turned with a smile, “The children are enjoying sir ..and as usual I will take care of them.”

then as he turned the smile disappeared .Yes it has been some time since he has made a visit to this place. He did not like going there, but it was his fathers favorite place. When he was young he would walk miles with his father to see the bouli. “Where are we going ,what are we going to see it going to be another fort.” chirped Dhiren excitedly ,for the fourteenth time “yes ,tell me too please .. are we going to see a palace.” Anupama joined in. “No, no children we’ll see a much more interesting place . It is a deep, deep, deep hole, a well ….I don’t know if there is water still there.. when I was young I used to go there often ..there was a little water and lots of parrots .Its very dark ,”saying so he looked at Anupama. But Anupama was already attracted towards a commotion in the group that was following. “no I cannot walk anymore ,” shouted the old lady , “I am an old lady not a running expert …If I fall sick,” she asked and added , “ if your father will fall sick ,…then who will look after us .” The question was aimed at no one particular. The guilty could not be brought to book, as they were still couple of steps behind. “I don’t think it will be advisable for me to walk too .Let us sit somewhere.” Saying so old Mr. Bannerjee started to search the horizons for an watery hole. Finding none he looked dismayed .Nirmal who nonchalantly leaned on others, called out to Brijeshwar , “ANY PLACE TO REST …DADA ANYPLACE TO REST.”

Brijeshwar knew the usual problems, but did not have the usual solutions this time, there were no kiosks with rickety chairs lined for the customers, selling cold drinks and samosas. There was no hut no building ,only endless desolation. A little further to the north was tiny hamlet but even that was as further as the well. The agonizing hails of “dada, dada” seemed endless. Then his eyes fell on a single keekar tree shedding a shade with its thorny branches, standing in the middle of nowhere .He was sure the Bannerjees would be equipped with a mat . Mr and Mrs Bannerjee rested there aging bones while the others moved on. Parul handed in her child and her maid. Nirmal also stayed back. They would keep their company. The narrow circle of the shade was almost full to its brim. The sun had passed its prime and was not exactly overhead. The group had taken a heavy breakfast but Mrs Bannerjee was worried about the children ,perhaps they would get hungry. Their usual ration of mudi and mishti was off course with them and the quantity could last the battle weary travelers for another week “It has got nothing this place , I feel a little worried … lets pray that everything will be fine .” said Ashok Bannerjee “ such old man and afraid like a child ,what would the children think …they will be back in a while ..Pompa ..the child needs milk and sleep ,” Pompa promptly brought out the flask with warm milk and the bottle ,and set out clumsily to fill it .

“I have always been telling you, its difficult keeping the family together ..I fear it is the last vacation for us all together. Mr. Ashok Bannerjee had always been a bit skeptical about this issue. His eyes were fixed at the vanishing group, he prayed in silence for their safe return .Meanwhile the rantings of the old lady had not stopped . “Is it that non Bengali Parul ….she spreads discomfort wherever she goes ,she doesn’t talk ,she doesn’t laugh, looks blankly about with that red lipstick pasted on her face …Don’t you feel she is responsible for all that has happened till date .”she asked her husband with her eyes fixed on the child, but it was Nirmal who had listened patiently till then ,who answered “is it nice to talk about her behind her back. Anyway Shymal is still with us ,has he stopped coming to the house after they have shifted ?…No then why do you bother.” he turned and looked the other way, reinforcing the final words just spelt out . His father had already dozed off. `Tell us more ...tell us more` shouted Dhiren

The company was making a steady progress, but Brijeshwar feared that the light would soon fade away. This in turn would make it almost impossible for anyone to go down the well ,if they wished. He hurried his strides .So did the others. The children were tired and Shree became the leader of the pack “Are you not going to tell us an interesting story connected with the well,” asked Shree with the excitement of a child Brijeshwar Singh looked at her deeply and turned to others,`is everybody interested`

`YES` shrieked the children and almost their parents. A sudden gust of wind swept the loose sand ,shaking it up from its deep sleep and making it jive to its own music. It had a tantalizing hold on the earthy matters ,the story had started. The groups morale was low but no one dared turn back, Parul was rightly worried about the fading light ,Shymal had meekly suggested turning back, but shreelekha had said no `many ,many years ago it was called chanda ki bauli . It was huge. At one time it could take in more than 2000 people on its steps. 'how many years ago` interjected Anupama ‘it was built between 1794 to 1798 by the then Maharaja Bhuri Singh ji ,..erstwhile ruler of the state. Yes the same maharaja whose palace you saw on the way" said the guide “the yellow palace on the top of the mountain.” asked Shymal, unable suppress his excitement any longer. “Yes … In those days the water table was very high The story goes that on the full moon night the reflection of the moon scattered like broken silver dust on the water's surface for almost the whole night. On those nights the king would come with his entourage ,consisting of 40 to 60 concubines and spend the whole night in the water.` “Who are concubines.” asked Dhiren. He was surprised to see everyone looking the other way. Brijeshwar stopped, waiting for the silent questions to find a voice, then he continued, “ this carried on for many years until one fateful night ,disaster struck ..the king had arrived as usual at the appointed hour, but failed to see the gathering sandstorm .Out of the lull rose a monster so fearful that each feared for their own life forgetting the others.” Brijeshwar looked at the dark faces ,and quickened his space

“Then what happened ,” asked Dhiren `The kings entourage fled , in the melee they left behind many of the concubines ,among them was Lilawati the most beautiful and the most loved …`, he paused for the affect and continued , “ in the morning search parties came back but it was useless ..the king became mad with grief and his great kingdom was ruined ,” he stopped abruptly , “ …so ..that’s the story ..from then on it was called mout ki baoli .” said Brijeshwar `what did you read boudi ,which name was there in the magazine`, asked Shymal turning towards shreelekha. `I don’t remember,. I do not think I read a name `, said shreelekha `From then on many tragedies have taken place in the bauli ,,,in 1937 the government banned the entrance into the bauli ,it was sealed .since there was nothing to see ..then tourists stopped coming here .The government did not go ahead with the project to construct new a new road .now no one comes here is too far off .` added Brijeshwar lightly . The silence was broken by a discontented voice . It was shreelekha ,”why did you bring us here .you said it was only half an hour from the road .we reached here at twelve in the morning it is almost four let us go back otherwise it will be dark .”

“I think Bantu will be screaming by now. lets us turn back ,”added Parul. “it was not I who persisted …I relented to your persistence .” thundered the guide , “anyway we have reached .” Everyone quickly surveyed the surroundings .There was nothing but dust all around .Dust and sand formed tentacles surrounding each and every object .Then they all looked towards the direction Brijeshwar pointed, except a green tuft ,nothing was visible .`Yes , Yes ` shouted little Dhiren ,the green tuft were visibly more greener than the surroundings. Four ageless keekar trees stood silent with bent trunks On four corners of the step well, as if an artist stroke had touched their curves. They stood like custodians at the gates of hell. A rectangular, gaping black whole ,slept ominously facing the blue sky. A magnanimous flight of stairs lead into the inner belly .The walls were broken ,the staircase was broken .the walls and the staircase were black ,for years and years dead algae deposited on the top of each other to produce this eerie color.

Dark faces peered down the oblivion ,hoping to make sense of their destination which spelt nothing short of disappointment .Shymal looked quizzical wishing to say a lot but holding himself back .Shreelekha`s face was blank devoid of expressions, whereas Parul was at the point of breaking the edges that controlled her anger. The children separated from the group and were circling the structure .Brijeshwar stood under one of the keekars. The lower branches were lined with rows and rows of sanctimonious red threads . , most were faded ,few were new .A musty, dank smell filled the area. Brijeshwar had lit a cigarette and waited for the group with a tired expression. Suddenly Dhiren shouted `didi ` the next sound of didi came as a resounding echo form inside the belly .Dhiren again shouted ,at last he had found something to do. In the midst, a screeching sound started from inside ,the magnitude of which increased with every passing second .The group could hardly register this new episode when a host of fluttering wings rushed out .Everyone ducked in reflex except Parul, who was a bit late .A shearing razor like pain slapped her on the face .As shreelekha looked up ,she saw blood oozing out of the deep gash on her cheek .The children who were on the other side of the entrance were saved. Dhiren squealed “parrots ,look so many parrots.”

“Water ,pour some water in the handkerchief and press hard .” Shymal instructed Shreelekha hurriedly. Parul was crying and ready to wail. “sheeee …sheee its ok ,nothing to worry, it is a small cut,” said shreelekha ,well aware that this episode might snowball into an issue of discontent. “Here pour this into the wound,” Brijeshwar handed in a bottle `what is this.. alcohol ,”screamed Shymal in disbelief , “cant you see there are ladies here.” Brijeshwar in turn tried to look livid .Shreelekha who was sitting on the ground ,cuddling the face of Parul on her shoulder ,held on to the flaps of Shymals trouser, “perhaps he is right ,” she added Anupama looking worried , “ so much bleeding .” The handkerchief was doused in alcohol and used as antiseptic .the bleeding stopped so did everyone’s heartbeat, it was a deep gash which would certainly need a stitch or two. `lets go back ,` pleaded Anupama ,` mummy please ,look whats happened to kaki .`Shreelekha looked at Shymal then at her children ,“ can I just go down for for 5 minutes …to have come so far and.. not to go down ..we would off course never come back again you know .” she looked uncertainly at the maze of stupidified faces. They all knew, if she makes up her mind once ,then nothing can stop her . “yes. yes by all means, although you will find no water, there is a lybrinth of tunnels starting just at the bottom…of the first landing ..yes ,yes ,take the torch its amazingly built .”goaded Brijeshwar “no mummy don’t go down no mummy ,” screamed Anupama “I will back in a few seconds ,” said shreelekha , “ don’t worry nothing would happen ,” she said , “ Shymal why don’t you come with me can hold the torch ..then it wont take much time ,`Children were relieved that mother was not going down alone .Brijeshwar looked on with a wry smile “Yes please ...lady should not go in alone ...and just be careful don’t walk into the maze swallows up is dark ..too dark for any kind of thought to light goes in there …dark places are better be avoided.” said the guide Parul was sitting with her head down ,her back bent agonizingly ,she had no words to offer ,and perhaps wouldn’t have offered one if she had .The light was fading ,it was almost 5 o’clock .the birds were chirping incessantly, worried that their abode was being ransacked by strangers .It was also the time to go home .

Before any one could speak further, Shreelekha vanished down the stairs followed by Shymal. All was quite at the top ,no one said a word .The children were either too worried or too harried by the apathy of the elders to take notice of anyone anymore .On the first step of the forsaken well sat Parul ,like an ominous sign ,dried blood ,caking the white shirt at the front ,white of the cloth already turning into brownish ,grayish color .but more than the deathly scratch on the cheek was the unseen line that had broken her heart ,abandoned at the mercy of an alcoholic stranger ,she longed for the comforting words of any dear one .Why had Shymal cared for someone other than herself ,that too at this hour was bizarre. “I have thrown my dice, lets see what the next and final move is ..will the queen succeed in winning the battle for her minister ..or will the rival queen kill her before that .” said Brijeshwar .

Parul looked at him ,looked aside .One cannot be sure if she had heard him .Desolate souls hanging on a desolate and heartless landscape ,aimless in their present location, in forced bondage. All eyes were steadily fixed down the deep hole of the well .There was complete silence as words had disappeared. The man who spoke the most stood at a corner sucking in nicotine to keep himself afresh . The pungent smell was slowly spreading in the vicinity. Dhiren had fallen asleep his head neatly cuddled in his sisters lap. The elder was so tired that she could hardly move a limb. She was too young to blame anyone .15 minutes passed 20, 25, 30 half an hour went by and there was still no sign of Shymal or Shreelekha. Parul meanwhile had stopped sobbing and reconciled to her fate The non coming of the two worried her ,but her condition did not allow her to think clearly. Twice her eyes met Brijeshwar ,twice he averted the gaze .The third time he couldn’t “They are taking too long .It will be dark soon .it will take time to reach back .they should have come up by now .” said Parul Parul could not control her anxiety any longer and started shouting, hoping her voice would reach Shymal “Shymal ….Shymal …come back, it is getting late..shymal ..shymal can you hear me ,” Parul broke down ,and started sobbing relentlessly. Brijeshwar had a look of disgust in his face “hope they have not ventured into the maze .” he said “Maize.. what maize ..,” screamed Parul , “ please I beg of you bring them back ..please I beg of you ,” she repeated The middle aged guide was not too pleased. He too joined the screaming brigade hoping to come to a solution .

“Shymal ...Shymal ...can you hear us please come up ,it is getting dark.” they both called out ,but the echoes knew no difference and collided with each other .The resounding sound resembled voices shaking in a huge metal cauldron .As it stopped Brijeshwar was rushing down the broken steps in an instant , “ no use use ..,” he kept repeating to himself .Then he turned , remembering the presence of the solitarily women in a disheveled state and said “I will bring them back ...that’s a promise.” Brijeshwar skipped down the flight of stairs, careful not to sprain his foot or ankle. He had enough of this trip anyway .He touched the right hand side of his court, the comfortable feel of the penlight torch made him feel easy .it was one of the many gifts he had accumulated from foreign travelers with large hearts .looking back over his shoulders ,he could still see the tiny speck sitting on the stairs, expectantly. A wave of pity rose in him which brought a tear to his eye .He went down inside it had suddenly become dark. The stairs continued although Brijeshwar could feel he had reached the bellows. He had heard the depth was equal to a modern six storey building, but this was the first time he had ventured down .he did not switch on the light, put lot of thought before placing a step ahead .He was afraid of the snakes, they were blind but could easily sense vibrations ,moreover he was not sure what he would find, `there is no maze here, so where could they have gone ..what maze have they discovered`. he whispered to himself .

He had reached the bottom. The abode of the snakes they were one of the most poisonous in the area. He knew they were here somewhere, he tried to hear them out He heard a gentle shuffling noise. It could be a snake, it could be them. He tried to trace the presence and moved his feet in that direction. He moved closer ,but dare not disturb ,by now he was beyond anticipating the final outcome of his search .He took out his penlight torch. Its narrow beam fell on a bizarre spectacle .It was a hissing and sucking spectacle. Shymal and Shree were coiled in a snake like embrace, mud dust and sweat had made their bodies unrecognizable. Only part visible was their pink tongue locking into each others .they were oblivious to Brijeshwars` presence. Brijeshwar quietly said , “it is getting late Shymalji ..lets go .” Shreelekha leapt up, followed by Shymal. She quickly adjusted her dress ,her brother –in –law also buttoned up. Brijeshwar turned and indicated them to follow not a word was uttered .As they climbed into the fading light of the evening, Brijeshwar felt something slip into the palm of his hand ,a small bundle of papers that felt like notes ,he smiled and slipped it into his pocket .he also knew more would come in the next few days. Shymal ran up to his wife and enquired of her well being. Shreelekha too hugged her children. They explained that they had lost sight of the way out in the maze.