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Black wine : Fiction

Black Wine

black-wine-fiction

Black Wine

Suvendu Chowdhury


Calcutta, 1992 –

Another bundle of files dumped on the old fir-table.

Amal flashed up at the sound of the dump. And, the thin cloud of dust so released, made its way straight through his nostrils, just above his black, thinner moustache bordering a pair of the thinnest brown lips.

His sneezing fit was about to start. But it was averted somehow, only with two or three mild blows.

The orderly who came with the load and dumped it on the table, walked away, without once looking at Amal. Without looking, he just said, ‘Amal da, the first judge wants this done quickly’.

‘Raghu? Come here’, Ananta babu called out to Raghu, the dumping orderly.

‘Coming big brother’, Raghu became nimble dusting off his brown uniform with a semi-dirty duster.

‘When did I tell you to bring me a filter pack and a sweet betel leaf?’ Ananta babu tried to get angry with Raghu.

‘Don’t worry big brother, think in your hand’, Raghu brought him around easily. He whispered something into Ananta babu’s ears and Ananta babu laughed up, yet not opening his mouth as he was chewing a betel leaf. His lips were red. Like a pig – his big belly shook up and a grunting sound of laughing came out of his closed mouth.

Ananta babu gave him a fifty-rupee note and said, ‘now go’. Raghu while putting it in his uniform’s pocket said, ‘yes sir’. Ananta babu dug his attention deep into the pages of the morning newspaper, which he had held between his two hands and had spread straight before his eyes. It was also his duty to see how far the country had gone. Missing morning news means missing his obligation to the country. He cannot allow this to happen no matter how thick the pile of backlog is on his table too. He doesn’t bother. He is not worried at all; he is the leader of the government-workers-association after all. The association will take care of everything.

Amal who had been watching Ananta babu unmindfully until now, could no longer see him because of the newspapers. Now he came back to his senses and put the unfashionably thick, black-rimmed glasses over his worrying eyes, as slowly as possible.

Amal is Amal Dey. The man is as simple as his name is. Of course, people do not call him simple, they say simpleton. Because he works madly and takes no extra money, which his colleagues have exclusive rights to.

He possesses such a nasty thing that nobody is covetous of today – Honesty.

His colleagues chuckle watching him, make pinching jokes about him and make him do the difficult works for them. One or two flattering words will be enough for this good man.

Even enough he will not be able to understand why Nirmal Da or Yotin is so gracious to him today. Why they are telling the beautiful things about him. Just as he would never know that, the greengrocer had hiked the price of the eggplants and potatoes by 5 rupees as soon as he had shown his simpleton face in the market.

His office mates will sit by him very affectionately and say, ‘Amal da. You are the man whom we derive our energy from. The only one in here. You don’t know how we adore you, admire you. A man like you in this modern world of all round dishonesty, corruption is a blessing for us. Otherwise, the earth would not have been existing. It is just because of the men like you.

Others will ask… ‘how are the family? What grade is your son now? And your daughter, the sweetest little baby, has totally gone after you. They are jewels I say Amal da, sure will excel in life, you’ll see. Remember my words….’

Amal’s already very soft heart has started melting. He always likes to hear good things about his son, about his daughter. They are all he has got for him. He is not boastful of himself being honest or so. Because he cannot do anything awry, anything that is crooked. Because he does not have this skill running in his blood, the skills that will bring him and his family a huge ill-gotten money that will in turn let them live in opulence. Even if he wants to be dishonest, he cannot. His forefathers will hold him back. He does not have to be honest; he is by nature.

He wants happiness for him, he wants happiness for his wife, he wants progress for his son, for his daughter. But, he also wants this happen honestly, naturally without resorting to taking up of any easiest method that is unfair, unjust. His father has taught him throughout his life, he will teach his kids throughout his life.

30 staff in this 1000 sq. feet room run hither and thither carrying files and folders under arms. People are bustling all around. They include staff, half-staff workers, casual staff, orderlies, sweepers, vendors, lawyers, porters, migratory peddlers and the highest paid officials. The court compound is more like a railway platform swarming with people of a variety. Only dissimilarity is that this variety of people has a single convergent aim of activities and that is ‘law’. Some are using it to catch money and some others are using money to get out of it.

Amid this huge noisy air, Amal began to untie the pile of folders kept in front of his eyes. He put one of them open on the table just beside his workaday gross typewriter. He adjusted his glasses in left hand and tried to read the lines of the brief of a case. His eyes sunk in between the lines, his mind was moving elsewhere.

He became worried about how would he be able to go back home in the evening if he could not finish the files marked as ‘URGENT?’ The judge will call for them anytime, after the court day.

He pulled the roller of the typewriter down to left with a creak and began to type words from the files on to the set piece of paper.

The summoned were pursuing the lawyers, peddlers were peddling snacks and cooked food in lidded containers, sweepers were sweeping the floors with long handled besoms, a nearly sleeping stray dog was winking at the foods being sold, and a crier had come downstairs to cry for the witness to a criminal case. At least twenty typewriters began to clack altogether. The clacking sound of the typing letters and the repeated sliding of the typewriters’ right handles had made it a bedlam. A tea vendor was wandering along the verandah and catching sippers now and then, and putting coins in his pouch.

Tapan babu was talking to his client just outside the big room window, which has a crescent shaped top and is at least ten feet high. Higher than the windows are the ceiling fans. They were hanging from the iron beams of the rafters by 15 feet long rods just above the heads. While doing his typing job Amal accidentally saw Tapan babu, his colleague taking money from a man. In doing so, his eyes contacted Amal’s. No offence, yet Tapan babu felt uneasiness and dragged his client aside, beyond the window.

‘Sir, would you like to take a cup of tea? Sir, would you like to take a cup? Would you like…sir?’ in the midst of this cacophony Amal missed the plea of the tea-vendor Sukhiya. Amal kept typing, a bit preoccupied.

Sukhiya lowered his head down almost to Amal’s head and whispered the same line again.

It was Sukhiya’s red turban and his big beaky nose sticking out of his very thin face that startled Amal who discovered him just over his shoulder.

Sukhiya asked very kindly, ‘do you have a headache babu?’

Amal nodded to Sukhiya. Sukhiya had seen him rub his forehead.

Sukhiya is from Bihar, though he speaks Bengali very well. Sukhiya poured warm tea in a paper cup and held it before Amal.

Amal took the cup from his hand and saw his tattooed lower hand, written, ‘Sukhiya Bihari’. Sukhiya wears a copper wristlet, which he often drags up his bare hand.

‘Do you know Sukhiya what is best in the office?’ Amal asked as he just took a sip.

Sukhiya said, ‘no babu’.

Amal replied, ‘your tea. A good cure for my headache always’.

Sukhiya laughed, ‘ho..ho..ho..’

Nandi babu advised from his chair, ‘then you become our tea-member. Get as many cups as you want for a single subscription. What do you think Amal?’

‘You know Nandi da I can’t. I save pennies for my family. If I waste money like that, they will end up like me’.

Nandi babu would not understand. He only said, ‘you are too stingy Amal. Never want to spend a rupee’.

A chorus of voices rose for once, ‘right, Amal is very stingy’. Another colleague said, ‘even he has not contributed to the marriage gift we’ve bought for our co-worker Sarat. Says that he has a troubled abdomen. So he would not go to the marriage feast, would not pay for the feast’.

‘This is not fair Amal. After all, we are co-workers. You should have given your share’, Akhil replied angrily.

Amal said feebly, his throat eating his voice, ‘brother..I find it hard to get along with 8000 rupees a month. I live in a rented house. The house owner charges 1000 a month. Electric bill, gas bill, schooling and tuition fees for the children claim another 4000 rupees. Then there is the aggressive market. I fear going to the vegetable market. I forgot when I was able to buy fish for the children. Now my son and daughter say they smell foul off the fish. So they do not want to eat fish anymore. I am cutting down on groceries everyday. The milkmaid does not come any longer. Your ‘Boudi’ (sister-in-law, Amal’s wife) principally cooks by boiling and sprinkling turmeric powder, salt. She just does a wipe of the cauldron with oil to fry things. But she is so good, she never asks for anything, only when I ask her if she needs anything, she nods, else not. She has been wearing the same pair of cottony sarees alternately, overused for days-months-years. She never wants anything, I wonder sometimes to see her exceptional capacity to adjust and adjust and adjust. I went to the ‘cloth merchant’ five times to bring her a saree, but could not afford to buy one once……the clothier wanted to give on hire-purchase, but I feared I would not repay him soon’, saying hitherto...Amal kept quiet.

Now the room is silent, only the overhead hanging electric fans are making continuous whirring sound...All his fellow-staff closer to him, to his table now.

..then he resumed.. ‘once I put on my sandals and my daughter discovered a hole in it. She asked, ‘Baba? Why do you wear holed sandals?’ I said, ‘this let the air pass easily, they are good for a hot weather’. She is only 4. She paused a bit, turned something around in mind and said back, ‘bring me a pair of holed sandals when you return home in the evening and I also want a holed frock. It’s too hot’.

I have seen my wife sob secretly, on many occasions. These tears are not for herself, but for me living so miserably. Because when I asked her, ‘you are weeping because I can’t keep you up properly, aren’t you?’ She said ‘no’. She said, ‘because I can’t help you anyhow’. She is such a good housewife, a gift to me by my mother who had chosen her for me.

‘But, you are right. Sarat is my colleague. I must have my bit in buying his marriage gift’, Amal said. He took out three hundred rupee notes that he had put by to bring a saree home and crimped them into Asit’s hand, and said, ‘take this brother’.

The office crew knew Amal would not go. He never eats anything without his wife and children. Even he carries a lunch-pack, of certain occasions at the office, back home.

To some extent his absence will not dampen them, rather please them. Because they longed only for his contribution. He is not a very likeable person. They mock at him, yet his honesty has something to be envied. His colleagues do not work without a backhander. The backhander has made their income double. On the other hand, Amal’s honesty has made him a felon. He is in the group, yet out of it.

Overtly-

Now Anima, the female typist, opened to lighten things up, ‘Amal da will not come with us. Amal da loves boudi very much. Don’t you, Amal da?’

‘Yes, yes he does’, said one of the colleagues and was joined by many others.

Amal became a little shy. He said, ‘Yes I do. You know, when I was in school, I read about Newton’s third law of motion. It says – every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I for one cannot belie the great scientist’s laws of motion’.

The courtroom was abuzz with laughter.

***

Since 10 am in the morning to 8 pm in the evening, through a very sultry hot noon, Amal had been typing like a crackpot to finish the huge pile.

He never keeps work waiting. He does not want his mind bear the headache of a backlog. Rather, let his forehead take a real bad headache home.

The last room was closed by the caretaker at 6.00 pm. The caretaker had chased him, ‘Babu, go home. Your family must be waiting. You will miss the bus’.

Meanwhile the big clock had declared it was 7:35.

There were 21 files he finished until now. They were all ‘URGENT’. He counted he had typed 203 pages today. His body was shaking when he stood up. He sat back on the chair by holding its arms. His forehead was beeping, waist refused to bear him. Amal’s eyelids were coming down, he could not resist.

He placed his hand on the table and rested his head along it.

The court, as a whole, now contained a sole life in the midst of all pervading silence.

After some time -

A rattling sound disturbed his sleep. His eyes reddened and irritated when he tried to open them. He followed the sound and saw a big black mole forcing its way through the heaped up wasted, old, typed folio papers at the base of the almirahs, wall brackets.

Suddenly Amal became anxious. Worries seized him about his home; they are waiting!

He looked for the clock. It was 8:00 o’clock. ‘Oh my God! The last bus is at ten past eight’, he mumbled to himself.

He was a bit fearful, hurried, lest he should miss the bus. But, the unbalanced hurry made his big toe hit hard one of the table posts. Amal crouched down in pain.

Yet he knew he had not saved time enough to dwell on the pain. So, he quickly stood up, swung the long strap of his office bag through his left shoulder and started limping towards the big door, crying for the caretaker, ‘Ratan, Ratan, Ratan….shut the door…..shut the door….Ratan?’

Ratan was baking chapattis on a small oven, inside his room. He will guard the night and sleep here. So he came sharp. He cried back, ‘coming babu ji, coming’

……………….. While Ratan was shutting the courtroom down, Amal was hobbling fast, faster to catch the last bus 8B.

***

Next morning Amal was seen roaming about the clothes market. The clothes market had a little grilled shop with a signboard ‘BLACK WINE’. Amal was standing by the BLACK WINE.

A colleague, on his way to the court, accidentally spotted him in front of and closest to BLACK WINE. He quickly hid himself behind the parked vehicles. He was trying to watch Amal. To him Amal looked very suspicious; his restlessness was giving reasons that he was going to buy wine. Colleagues like him would always find a kind of sadistic pleasure if they could bring out anything that would smash his intolerable breastplate of honesty. The hiding colleague was Samanta who never wanted to miss the chance.

There was a queue leading up to the BLACK WINE.

Amal was not in the queue. He wanted to talk to the shop owner. He somehow craned his neck to talk to the man behind the counter.

One by one, cylindrical, rectangular, gorgeously labelled glass bottles sold out from the opening of the counter. The habitual, occasional and aristocratic boozers were taking the bottles and leaving the queue very silently as they do when they cast ballots to elect their favorite candidates to Lok Sabha or Bidhan Sabha.

Samanta watched him say something to the bottle seller. Then watched a man came out of the counter and walked into the by-lane adjacent to the shop. Amal waited for him.

After sometime the man came back with a sling-necked black bottle totally filled with some black liquid. Amal took the bottle and put it into his office bag. He paid the man off and took the road of the district judge court.

A devilish grin passed across Samanta’s face. At last, he got what he wanted.

***

The courtroom would not let the opportunity go wasted. Amal received a grand welcome when he entered his much familiar office room.

All the staff were so kind today. Everyone wished him a very good morning. Amal noticed there were more than the usual number of staff today in their room. Staff from the other sections had been coming forth and smiling awkwardly at him.

It took him ages to realize that the smiles were type of scornful. People, even the non-staff sweepers, porters, peddlers gathered around, surveyed him suspiciously and spoke gibberish among themselves. Amal could not figure out why they were behaving that strange way today. What had happened.

Within a while, it was clear to him, though, it was painful to think. The officer-in-charge Mr. Aniruddha Goswami dropped by soon. A suppressed commotion spread about the room.

As Mr. Goswami approached Amal, he stood up. The staff besieged Amal with Mr. Goswami in the forefront.

Before Mr. Goswami would say something, the colleagues started to admonish Amal, ‘shame on you Amal. How did you do it?’

Amal looked blankly at everybody.

‘It is a government place’, said one.

‘Moreover, it is a court’, said another.

Amal replied very humbly to Mr. Goswami, ‘what happened sir?

Didn’t I do my work properly?’

Mr. Goswami said none. He was just observing Amal who he knows very well.

‘Sir, my work…’

Mr. Goswami cut in, ‘No. Not that’, then he asked Amal’s colleagues ‘are you sure? You sure you are not mistaken?’ Mr. Goswami sent his glance round the circle of staff.

‘100 percent’, said Samanta gritting his teeth.

‘What happened sir?’ Amal asked again. This time he was frightened. He guessed something serious must have happened.

Asit said with closed jaws, ‘do not pretend. How did you move in carrying the nuisance?’

‘I moved in…I moved in with what?’ Amal asked being very surprised.

‘Sir, check the honest devil. Ask him to open his bag’, a colleague urged.

Mr. Goswami said in calm, self-controlled voice, ‘Amal have you brought along bottles of wine?’

Amal was astonished to hear that, ‘bottles of what sir?’

‘You heard me’, said Mr. Goswami. This time he was a little more authoritative.

Upon a forced appeal from the gathering, Mr. Goswami ordered Amal to open his office bag.

Amal hesitated, looked nervous. He said, ‘there is nothing sir. There is….’

His more aggressive colleagues attacked his frayed, much used, discolored bag and almost tore it out. Its big buttons strewn across the floor, the strap disjointed.

‘Here it is sir, here it is’, Samanta took out the black bottle and held it up as an exhibit of Amal’s crime, so that everyone could see it.

A number of voices rose in unison, ‘oh my god!’

‘See sir, here is your God of honesty’, shouted Ranjan, Amal’s next seat neighbor.

One of the crowd demanded, ‘punish him sir. Do not let him off’.

Goswami tried to pacify the crowd, ‘silence, silence. Calm down’. Then he surveyed the black bottle carefully. ‘Is it a wine? Is it any kind of liquor at all?’

Now the uproar came down to a huge murmur. People started to converse among themselves.

‘Absolutely sir, absolutely’, Samanta broke through the crowd. ‘I saw him take the stuff straight from the bar’s counter’, Samanta vouched.

Goswami took the bottle from his hand. ‘Without a label?’ he doubted. Then he turned to Amal. ‘Amal? Is it wine?’ asked Mr. Goswami with a tone of sheer disbelief.

Amal moved his head from right to left.

Instantly many people shouted, ‘what a liar! Caught red handed, negating though’.

Mr. Goswami put it on the table and asked Amal very calmly, ‘then what is it?’

‘It is pure damn black wine sir. Look at the shape of the bottle’, Samanta accented the words, visibly annoyed.

‘I..am..not..concerned..about..the..shape.I..am..concerned..about..the..content’, the firmness and authority of Goswami’s words instantly dissuaded the accusing crew from influencing him.

Then he ordered Amal to open the bottle with an equal firmness.

Amal, looked aghast at the violent staff who were until yesterday so friendly. He could not believe his eyes. His colleagues, with whom he shares this room, shares his story of ups and downs in life – they sit together, laugh together, ask about each other’s problems. What made them turn so hostile today? They had been nurturing so much hatred and anger against him, one of them!

Amal removed the cap and said, ‘it is not wine sir. It is..’

He could not finish his words. Someone off the crowd snatched the bottle away and sniffed the liquid. He was baffled. The bottle cruised through a number of hands thenceforth before coming to Mr. Goswami.

Mr. Goswami said, ‘it’s Phenyl !!”

‘Yes sir’, Amal admitted and stopped to start soon. ‘It is cheaper sir. The price of a bottle is higher on the market. BLACK WINE also prepares phenyl and kerosene and sells them in old, used bottles of wine at just 50 rupee a bottle’.

The crowd, which was so united, broke up. Their accusing eyes then fell upon Samanta. The staff pointed at Samanta, ‘you are the culprit’, ‘you conspired to cast slur upon him’, ‘you are the damn…’

‘Shut up. Shut up you all’, Mr. Goswami shouted. His bloodshot eyes silenced the least sounding air of the room too. ‘You call yourself co-workers? I shall make sure that this section is under strict vigil’, then Mr. Goswami put his warm hand over his shoulder and talked to Amal very humbly, ‘sorry Amal. I really am…’

Then he pushed the crowd back, shouted, ‘get back to work’. He then jabbed his finger at Samanta and ordered, ‘you come to my chamber, now.’

A fountain pen, a little notebook, a water bottle and several okras, onions, potatoes, green chilies were sprawling across the floor of the room. Amal squatted on his knees to take two and two together.

***

When Amal was coming back home at night, three shadowy appearances could be seen standing at the front-gate of the rented house. They were his wife, son and daughter. They had been waiting for him since the sun down. Now as he had started to be seen within their vision Bani and the children were as happy as they were seeing Amal, Bani’s husband and the children’s father, as they had not seen him for a long time.

They slowly entered the room. The little room was lit in the light of joy again.

-At night, a slant ray of the moonbeam had fallen in the bed of four – Amal, his wife and the children. All lay cluttered together in the small bed.

Crickets were chirping outside the windows. A very charming silence of the moonlit night had been waking.

Bani was smearing some soothing balm on her husband’s forehead, gently. Amal was looking out of the window to see the beauty of night.

She asked, ‘Your friend, Smanta. He is very rich, isn’t he? Yesterday he sent message through our house owner that he was going to give you a big present for your honesty’

Amal was sad to hear it. He was surprised. He gulped an empty draught.

He took some time to answer her. Then he looked at her very dutiful face and looked at his two very innocent, sleeping angels. Then he smiled and said, ‘not richer than me’.

Bani could not understand - she did not want to understand either.

Then she joyously asked further being very curious, ‘did he really give you a present?’

Amal said, ‘Yes, they gave me this bottle of Phenyl as a present to clean our dirty floors’.

‘Where?

Amal said, ‘there’. He pointed at the black bottle on the table.

‘You did not tell the kids. You know how much they love to see their father achieve any mark!’

When Amal told her the truth about what actually had happened today in the court, she said, ‘if I had money I would have given them a bottle of Phenyl as present to clean up their dirty minds’.

-

© 2023 Suvendu Chowdhury