Calling Bell

Today is the last day of Jadav Bara’s service life. Today he will retire. Today, thus, he is frequently ringing his loved calling bell.

Usually every office has some calling bells. Apart from the officers, the table of Head Clerk or Bara Babu is also graced with calling bell. In some offices even U. D. Clerks use calling bell. If we visit an office generally we can hear cring cring sound of calling bell coming out of the tables of officers and head clerks.

The Main Office of District Inspector of Schools of Western Circle is at Dhubri. Jadav Bara is Bara Babu of this office. In matriculation certificate his original title Bodo has been mistakenly entered as Bara. Since then he has been Jadav Bara.

On East-West side, the D. I office seems to be an Assam-type house. The old big hostel has been reworked and remade as D. I office. It has five rooms.  The Western side room is fixed for the Accounts Officer. Next to his room sits Inspector Sahib. He is followed by Sub-Inspector Sahib. The Eastern side room is for Jadav Bara. And between Jadav Bara and Sub-Inspector there is a broad room where peons and other staff work.

Jadav Bara’s table is made of sheesham wood, polished, and covered with a piece of rexine sheet. But it has been dirty because of continual neglect and over use. From this table two head clerks have already retired. Tomorrow the third one will take leave for life. Bara’s table is littered with stacks of files, heaps of loose papers. At centre rests a pen-stand, a glass covered with a plastic coaster, and some bright-coloured paper weights. At his right hand Bara Babu has his dear, sweet calling bell. Built in Britain it is covered with a stainless steel head; other parts are also made of the same metal. Jadav Bara has been ringing it since the day he is promoted to the post of Head Assistant. From tomorrow he will lose power to ring it.

Jadav Bara, before pressing its button for calling his subordinate staff, carefully twists the key of his calling bell five times at least. Its sound is clear, deep and sonorous. As he presses its button it begins cringing. In sweetness, sonority and clarity its sound supersedes the bells of the Accountant, the Inspector and the Sub-inspector. All are made in India and have to be repaired time and again. But Bara’s bell is working without a hitch since its installation. Naturally he feels proud.

Bara’s skin is akin to tar. He is a man of medium height with a paunch, eyes small, floppy. His eyes have a strange magical power and it becomes evident especially when he looks at someone slantingly. He chews paan round the clock. He does not touch biris or cigarettes. But he takes snuff as he wishes. He readily makes snuff taking out a bundle of tobacco leaves and a pot of lime from his pocket.  Habitually he brushes the corners of his table with lime-smeared tip of his finger. So, four corners of his table are stained with lime. He, however, keeps his calling bell polished as if it is newly bought. He is most wary of his calling bell. His bell is secured from the embrace of even a mole of sands or dirt.

In his long service life he has gradually fallen in love with the cringing of his bell. So without reason or rhyme he cringes it to call his subordinates—peon Dumashu, footman Ghedai or guard Kanailal. With the cringing of the bell they hastily run to Bara Babu and with drooping head they ask, “Ki hukum Bara Babu?”  What more can a Bara Babu expect? A mere cringing of a bell has power to tie the two-legged animals to his rope, he thinks and feels extremely pleased.

But what lies behind his authority? Is it his power or status of his job or his personality or the magnetic power of the calling bell? For this heavenly reward Jadav Bara smiles himself now and then.  What is the value of a Head Clerk? Who gives him due respect for his power or rank or personality? He is at the beck and call of his superiors. If he commits a mistake he is rebuked by his bosses.  Even he has to digest their warnings.

But he is not unhappy as he has the power to call Kanailal, Ghedai, Damashu whenever he wants. He deeply believes that his power and authority as a Bara Babu of this office actually lies in the cringing of the calling bell. The hidden power of his calling bell can drag Kanailal, Ghedai, Damashu to his lime-smeared old table like the military men in a parade ground.  And he has the authority to make them ask “Joh hukum Bara Babu.”

Presently one of his gums looks swollen like a tumour. No, he is not stung by a hornet. His mouth is filled with a big paan leaf. For a while he happily chews it and then orders Dumashu, “Fetch a glass of water, a bundle tobacco leaves, a bundle of paan leaves.”  “Hey! Ghedai, take this file and run to Inspector Saab,” commands Jadav Bara. He asks Kanailal “Make surti (a kind of dish). When will you visit your village-home?”

Dumashu and Ghedai are local, one is Bodo and the other is Koch. Kanailal is Bihari. Kanailal replies in a childlike way, while taking care of his thick moustache with fingers, “Now I won’t go. Yesterday I have sent money order. A gaamcha (napkin) also.”  Bara Babu then mockingly asks, “For the birth of your child?” Hearing this joke clerks from the adjoining room burst into laughter. Jadav Bara himself cannot smother his smile. He rings the bell again and Kanailal who has gone some step away, rushes to the table and sullenly asks, “Ji, kaya hujuoor?”

Bara Babu smiles and curtly says, “No, nothing. Go.” Then he begins brushing his calling bell with softer hands. He loves to ring it too much. As the masters softly stroke their pet dogs from side to side Jadav Bara is continually brushing the silvery top of his dear calling bell with his palm and fingers.

Today he looks very sad. He has actually fallen in love with his clerical job. Today he has to leave this job. He will no longer ring his prized calling bell. He will have no grasp over Kanailal, Ghedai or Dumashu. Such gruelling thoughts pain him. From tomorrow he will have no right to touch the button of the bell. He will be set apart from its warmth and sonority and sweetness. Reality is too hard! He readily becomes nervous and his limbs begin to quiver. He has been suffering from cardiac ailment from long period. Moreover he is the victim of high blood pressure.

Today Jadav Bara is frequently ringing his bell. The gap between two calls has shrunk to five minutes. Today is his last day in office. So he wants to savour cring cring melody of the bell with his heart’s content for the last time. Kanailal, Ghedai and Dumashu are exasperated for his continual meaningless cringing. But they are also sad because from tomorrow Bara Babu will leave them alone along with his loved calling bell.

“Bara Babu,” Ghedai asks, “today why are you frequently ringing the bell?”

“How can you know, Ghedai? Today I alone know what is working in my mind. Pains of separation! You will also come to know when your day will knock at your door. From tomorrow I will have no authority to ring this bell so I am ringing it for the last time of my life. Today I am terribly sad and shocked. Today I will have to pay adieu to my dear calling bell. Now I am a spent fellow! Break down!”

Then he stops talking for a while. Perhaps he is recollecting his old golden days, his decade long deepening honeymoon with the calling bell.  And the changed reality!  Its shadow looms large on him. He then thrusts a paan into his mouth and begins to cring  cring  again. Ghedai is still at his side. But Dumashu and Kanailal remain indifferent to Bara Babu’s bell though they have heard its clear cringing. Because they have assumed that today Bara Babu is going to retire so he is unnecessarily ringing the bell. Bara Babu becomes joyless and feels very sad as his minions don’t turn up to his table.

“I am going to retire today so they are not paying heed to the cringing of my bell,” Jadav Bara thinks. “Only Ghedai has felt the turmoil of my mind.”

“Bara Babu,” Ghedai says, “take this bell to your home.”

“Why?” Bara Babu retorts with a surprise.

“I know you don’t want to live without your calling bell.”

“But, Ghedai, how can I take it home?”

“Why can’t you take it? We will urge Bara Sahib to gift you it.”

“This calling bell is meant for the office. Kalipada Babu who has got promotion as a Head Clerk will ring it from tomorrow to call peons, guards, footmen to his table. What will I do with it at home?”

“Why? You will ring it to call your wife and children.”

A roll of laughter comes out of the next door. Jadav Bara himself sways with the happy mood with great difficulty. He cannot but swallow Ghedai’s bitter pill.

Next day a farewell ceremony is held and Jadav Bara is duly given his farewell. From his farewell celebration he sadly goes home. It seems he has lost something more costly than his wife. He is overwhelmed with a pall of gloom. Loneliness grips him. Gloomily he remains seated in his chair for a while. His wife is cooking in the kitchen. Children are waiting there for taking food. It is nine o’clock. At this exact moment Ghedai is knocking on Bara Babu’s door. He is also ringing a bell. Jadav Bara is taken aback hearing the sudden cringing of the bell. He is familiar to its sweetness, clarity and sonority. His pressure becomes high. His heart begins to beat fast.

Jadav Bara opens the gate and finds Ghadai standing with the calling bell in his hands. Waves of pain grip him as he watches the spotless silvery shade of the bell. For a while he stands dumb. “Bara Sahib has gifted it to you. When I tell Bara Sahib all, he happily agrees,” Ghedai claims with flushed face.

“Ah! My dear calling bell!” Jadav Bara exclaims in a trembling voice, and presses it tight to his breast as a lover embraces his beloved after a long separation. He starts to repeatedly stroke its oily silvery spotless roof with the palm of his right hand. Then he keeps it at the centre of his old table. Ghedai meantime takes leave saying namaskar to the retired Bara Babu.

The calling bell stands quiet at Jadav Bara’s table, ever ready to carry out the orders of its old master. Bara is staring at it and he is smirking. Gradually it turns into a loud laughter. He is laughing like a mad man and a finger of his right hand presses the bell’s button. The bell begins cringing cring cring cring. His wife is dumbfounded. She runs to his husband’s table. Children follow their mother. Ghedai has not gone too far. He also hears Bara Babu’s call. He speedily comes back to carry out Bara Babu’s order. Bara’s wife sees that his husband is quietly seated in his chair keeping a finger on the button of the bell. She shakes her husband to make him awake. And she to her deadest fear finds the body of her husband cold as ice.

(*this story is translated into English by me from Subodh Bagchi’s Bengali translation of Manaranjan Lahari’s Bodo short story” Calling Bell”. It is taken from Bengali translation of Selected Bodo short stories, Bodo Galpa Sankalan, Trans. ed. by Subrata Mukhapadhya, 2012)

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Abu Siddik

Abu Siddik

It's all about the unsung , nameless men and women around us. I try to portray them through my tales. I praise their undying suffering and immaculate beauty. And their resilience to life's vicissitudes, oddities, and crudities I admire. They are my soulmates who inspire me to look beyond the visible, the known, the common facade of the educated and the intellectuals.

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