Translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha
Chondona had not become Roton’s disciple yet. She had just started to visit the city from the village and begun work as an ayah with a family, commuting by train. She had to work every night, staying up to look after the newborn son of a well-to-do gentleman.
Chondona was made to sit on the floor of the room in which the mother and the baby slept. A low-powered bulb burnt all night, its light enabling her to check whether the child had urinated or defecated. If she had, it was her job to clean up.
Chondona had to work twelve hours, from eight at night to eight in the morning. After seven consecutive days of night duty, and because she was a little ill, she fell asleep during her work hours, and was sacked for her crime.
That afternoon Chondona took a train in search of work elsewhere. An incredibly crowded train, where bodies were smashed together. As it happened, Roton and his gang of pickpockets were in the same compartment. Seizing the opportunity, they stealthily lifted the purse out of a target’s pocket. Unfortunately for Roton, the victim realised at once—not only that his pocket had been picked, but also who had done it. At once he grabbed Roton’s arm, screaming, “Fucking pickpocket, took my wallet.”
Used as they were to this crime on trains, the other irate passengers immediately surrounded Roton and searched him minutely. But of course the purse was not with him, and it couldn’t be proved that Roton was the pickpocket. The owner of the purse said he had five hundred and twenty-seven rupees in it. But he didn’t kick up much of a fuss because that would mean getting late for office. There weren’t too many people on the train to stick their nose into other people’s affairs, so Roton escaped with a few desultory slaps and punches.
The whole thing had happened in a flash. Unable to find any of his gang members to slip the purse to before he was caught, and unwilling to be beaten up within an inch of his life, which would be the case if the stolen goods were found on him, Roton had simply dropped the purse into Chondona’s sling bag, which was hanging from her shoulder.
When the dust had settled, Roton looked around for the woman to whose bag he’d transferred the purse, only to find she was gone. Chondona had got off the train with no idea that there was a purse in her own bag now. She spotted it only when she was fishing out her lunch on a bench in the ayah supply centre. Although the money in the purse was far less than its owner had claimed, it was still a boon for Chondona, who was very hard up at the time. In her head she heaped thanks on whoever had put the purse in her bag.
Chondona had heard of Santa Claus. Was there a Santa Claus in Calcutta who helped the poor with money? She had after all told her regular fellow passengers that she was out of work. She had asked them for help finding her a job, for she would soon be unable even to buy food for her family. Maybe someone had heard her and passed on whatever little money they had.
It had obviously not occurred to her that the cash was the result of a pickpocket hiding stolen goods. She didn’t remember the incident on the train, for these things were daily occurrences, after all.
A few days later, she had still not found herself a job. Yet she went to the ayah supply centre every day in the hope of work, and then went home with a broken heart to her crippled husband and two children, all of them starving. One day she was waiting at the station for a train to go back home when Roton showed up and sat beside her. Smiling obnoxiously, he told her, I’ve been looking for you all this time.
Chondona was surprised. Why was this man looking for her?
After a pause, Roton said pleadingly, you saw how those people beat me up the other day, didn’t you? One of them punched me so hard a tooth came loose, my face was swollen so badly I couldn’t eat for three days. But I made sure there was not a scratch on you. That’s why I’m saying, I earned it the hard way, you can’t keep it all for yourself, god will punish you. You keep half, give me half.
Half of what? Chondona’s astonishment was evident in her voice.
The money, of course, said Roton. The cash in the purse I slipped into your bag that day, that’s what I’m talking about.
But I’ve spent it, Chondona said. Had no work for ten days. Not even rice, I bought half a kilo for my children.
Half a kilo of rice! Five hundred rupees on half a kilo! What are you saying!
What do you mean five hundred? There were just twenty-seven rupees.
Roton felt Chondona was telling the truth. There was nothing in her expression to suggest she was lying. He realised this was why he had got away lightly, had it really been five hundred like the man had claimed, he would not have been let off easily.
For some reason he felt a pang of concern for Chondona, who looked emaciated and malnutritioned. Married off at an early age like so many girls from the villages, a mother in her teens, an old woman at twenty.
What do you do, he asked her. For a living, I mean. Kamaane khaanewala, right? Where do you do business, is it Harkata Lane?
Kamaane khaanewala was code for the impoverished women in prostitution who charged very little and came to the city from their village every day to work. They ate only when they earned some money, they had no savings. Chondona knew what the term meant, she had heard it used in train compartments. Looking repulsed, she said, I work as an ayah. Physical labour. I’d hate to sell my body, is that any way to live?
Roton chuckled. And what’s so great about handling people’s shit and piss and vomit? I know some women who work as ayahs like you do. I’ve listened to their descriptions. Shubhodra was talking about the old man she has to look after. Apparently he… what’s that container they piss into called?
—Yes, the old man has diabetes. Has to piss often. And every time he does he tells Shubhodra, take hold of it and point it into the pot.
Chondona said, taking care of someone ill, what’s so bad about that? If the patient is really sick, can’t move at all, I do it too.
—Oh he’s not that old. Just wants Shubhodra to hold his thing.
It was true, there were plenty of dirty old men. Chondona too had come across one or two. They tried to get their money’s worth in any way they could, even though they paid a pittance. But Chondona didn’t complain.
—How much do you make for having to hold their things?
—Two-fifty a day.
—But only when there’s work, right? Otherwise nothing. Even if you work every day you won’t make more than eight thousand.
—Who will pay me more? This is enough for me.
After a pause Roton said, want to work with me? You can make five hundred, even a thousand a day. Sometimes more.
—What sort of work? Pickpocketing?
Chondona looked overwhelmed.
Calmly Roton said, what’s wrong with it? Isn’t picking pockets work too? Needs both effort and intelligence.
—And get beaten up if you’re caught.
—Who isn’t beaten up these days? That’s all people do, look for someone to beat up. The public has turned into mad dogs. All these bus drivers, truck drivers, rickshaw drivers, they’ll lay into anyone they can. Don’t you remember how they attacked a bunch of innocent sadhus on Ballygunge bridge claiming they were kidnappers?
—That doesn’t mean I’m going to take up work that I know is wrong.
—That’s up to you, of course. But plenty of people take up this line, even good people do it when they’re starving. You can’t think about what’s wrong and what’s right on an empty stomach. What about all these people who join the police and the military? Are you telling me they don’t know it’s wrong to beat up and kill people, to rape women, to burn down houses? Don’t they do it still? Why do they? Because orders. And they have to keep their jobs. For money...
Roton stopped to catch his breath, and then continued.
—You work as an ayah, do you know what goes on in those big nursing homes? We slash pockets, they slash throats. Anyone who is forced to go to one of them ends up putting their neck in a guillotine. And then they chop their head off at will. You say pickpockets are criminals, these people will eat us for breakfast. Some of them even entice poor people and remove their kidneys to sell them. When they admit pregnant women they kill the baby if it’s a girl.
Roton’s voice was dripping with regret now.
—As if each and every one of those bastards is innocent, as if we’re the only ones who do bad things. What about that Mallya or what’s his fucking name, he’s holidaying abroad after robbing thirty thousand crores. They can’t even touch his pubic hair. But he’s not a bad man, no no no, he’s a gentleman. And we, we’re...
Roton stopped, but Chondona had no difficulty surmising the rest. She accepted his foul language because of the truth, the anguish, the suffering it held. Although Roton and she spoke frankly to each other, and even had a cup of tea and snacks together at the station, Chondona didn’t join his gang the same day.
She did it a few days later, when the hunger of her family was speaking louder. The centre had found a day or two of work for her, but never an entire week. There was a glut of job hunters, and not enough openings. Opportunities were rare, but the belly demanded food every single day.
When Chondona couldn’t bear it any longer, she went up to Roton at the station.
—I’ll work with you, teach me.
—What about my fees? What are you going to give me for teaching you this priceless art?
—What do I have anyway that I can give you?
—Oh I’ll only ask for something you have, I know you can’t give me what you don’t possess.
Hesitatingly Chondona said, I’ll give it if it’s mine to give.
Roton’s response was brazen.
—Those tits of yours, fuck, they’re like snakes about to strike. No one would say you’ve had two children. Ninety-nine out of a hundred men won’t be able to stay away from them. I need those two.
Roton paused, looked at her, and continued speaking.
—You’ll have to forget about chastity. No chastity possible in this business. You can’t complain that someone touches you or feels you up or fingers you. If a man wants to plaster their body to yours you have to do the same. Rub those tits on his chest. Keep him occupied. And while he’s busy with you I’ll pick his pocket from the back. You’ll do well in this business. Nice long thin fingers, made for picking pockets. If you learn well you’ll make a fortune. You can use it to keep two whor...no, what’ll you do with whores, you can keep two maids.
Manoranjan Byapari is a Bengali writer and activist, and currently an MLA in West Bengal. His 2019 novel, Chhera Chhera Jibon, was translated into English by Arunava Sinha, and published as Imaan in 2021.
Arunava Sinha is a translator of modern and contemporary works of fiction and non-fiction between Bengali and English, as well as English and Bengali.