The Boat Queen of the Creeks – Mahua Banerjee, Kolkata

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“Aww Boudi…” She would call her every time. That was Maalati Raani working for six and a half months as Mrs. Ghoshal’s domestic help. “Aww Boudi, shall I ask you something?” asked Maalati Raani with a timid look in her eyes to Mrs. Ghoshal, her Boudi and present employer who hired her as a “kaamwali maid” from the nearby Ayaah Centre. Maalati was a middle-aged woman with fragile structure but she was meticulous in her works. Her nose was sharp, she wore a nose-pin and had insightful eyes. She came from the far-flung village of Kumirmaari, in Sandeshkhaali. Her starved and contoured belly surpassed the best of those of the Belly dancers and even the hardest Pilate exercises for Mrs. Ghoshal would fail to achieve Maalati’s ab- finesse. Mrs. Ghoshal was busy looking for her pair of glasses when Maalati Rani uttered those words. She replied quiet absentmindedly, “Umm, yes Maalati, what do you want?” She replied, “Aww Boudi, can you please lend me twelve thousand rupees?” Mrs. Ghoshal’s eyes rounded off – “Ayaan, Twelve Thousand Rupees! That’s equivalent to your quarterly salary excluding the Puja bonus.” “Actually, my only son Gaurav has got cataract in one of his eyes, he is almost turning blind day by day. The city doctors asked for immediate removal of the cataract by operation. I have to go to Barrackpore for the cataract surgery very soon, have you heard of eye hospital there Boudi? They’ll provide my son 100% eyesight but I have to give them Rupees Twelve Thousand on spot in cash, if you don’t give me the money my son will become blind Boudi, I shall repay you the loan as the year passes by.’ Mrs. Ghoshal diplomatically handled the situation by saying, “See Maalati Raani, I shall speak to my husband and let you know later… we have so many expenditures in the coming days…our elder daughter’s college admission fees, mom-in -law’s knee replacement surgery and many others, repairs and maintenances. Maalati Rani turned towards the kitchen with a gloomy face asking her ‘Aww Boudi shall I prepare tea for you?” Mrs. Ghoshal replied, “Ok……yes.” Though living in grim poverty, she always looked jubilant. She had decorated her bun with a pigeon feather which made her appear glitzy and cheerful, even at this moment.
While Maalati Rani was preparing tea in the kitchen, Mrs. Ghoshal thought about this maid of hers for a while. On the appointment date, when the Ayaah centre sent their printed card with Maalati, to verify the identity, Mrs. Ghoshal asked her deliberately, “Ei Maashi, what’s your name?” The thinly built woman replied confidently, “Maalati Rani Sardar”. “Where are you coming from?”, Mrs. Ghoshal asked. “From Sandeshkhali, do you know Boudi, the land of Kamots, I mean crocodiles and the real fierce tigers.” Mrs. Ghoshal replied, “Oh yes indeed, I know. I have heard about Sandeshkhali, in the Sundarbans, but that’s your Desh. Where you are staying in Kolkata?” “Why Boudi, near the canal there is our jhupri, very near to your place, it takes only 15/ 20 minutes of walking at a regular pace.” Mrs. Ghoshal replied, “Ok, I see.” She continued her queries telling her to sit in the stool beside her and asked her, “Why did you come to the city”? Maalati Rani’s eyes sparkled for a moment, then faded away, “Aww Boudi, I was almost a queen in my locality. My father-in -law was a rich crab catcher. He had two fishing boats and several fishing nets to catch the riverine fishes and crabs. Mrs. Ghoshal replied, “Oh really, Maalati Rani, please have a cup of tea and from tomorrow join our work. Your payment will be monthly and we shall be paying you bonus or ex -gratia once a year during the pujas.” While sipping tea, Maalati Rani, dunked the Marie biscuit in her tea cup, had a soft bite and replied, “The Aila, Boudi, the Monster Storm took away everything, the great big storm did not even spare my father-in-law. Mrs. Ghoshal replied in dismay, “Okay”. Maalati Rani continued, “Aww Boudi, I came here in search of food, there was not a single particle of food in our village, my husband was away in Bangalore working in an MNC as a security guard, my son was then only 10 years old. I had to beg from door to door in your city for work and food in the initial days, not even we had a dinner plate to eat” Her eyes moistened again, she paused for a quick breath. Mrs. Ghoshal felt upset, on hearing this said, “Okay Maalati, I shall give you breakfast and tea every day, even you can take some bread and egg for your son. Will it be okay for you? This is not related to anything with the centre, I will provide you at my own cost.” Maalati Rani smiled and replied, “Aww Boudi, I shall be a good worker, but remember my name, I am Maalati Rani and not Maalati”. Mrs. Ghoshal understood, smiled and replied, “Oh, yes! I do forget names, but I shall try to remember yours, you are not Maalati, but Maalati Rani.”

She worked for more than six and a half months at a stretch as a twelve -hour maid in the Ghoshal household and apart from her ten-day absenteeism, there was hardly any error in the works of Maalati Rani. Only once Mrs. Ghoshal’s younger daughter complained to her during her entire work tenure, “Mama, she is not cleaning the stains of my undies, properly.” Mrs. Ghoshal replied, “Okay my little fairy, I shall talk to her about it.” The next morning when the clock struck eight, the doorbell rang, Mrs. Ghoshal knew it was Maalati without even opening the door…she was always on the dot. Before Mrs. Ghoshal could open and speak to Maalati Rani, Anwesha pushed her mama and spoke in a very harsh tone, “Maashi, why are you not washing clothes properly, I feel a lot embarrassed wearing such stained undies …my friends laugh at me. I will ask mama to sack you from your job from today only.” Anwesha was furious and tried to scratch her. Maalati was trying to utter something but Mrs. Ghoshal changed the course of the conversation, “Anwesha, do you know, there are real crocs and tigers in Mashi’s village”. Anwesha opened her eyes widely and said, “Mashi what’s the name of your village and do you have real big crocs there? We want to visit your place during the vacation, give me your address right now. I shall speak to Papa tonight only and make an adventurous trip to Mashi’s native place.” Maalati Rani’s face beamed with a mild colour, “Yes, there’s many things over there, crocodiles, tigers- the most ferocious ones of the swamps, thousands of red and yellow crabs, the raging rivers and the mangrove trees, goran, gewa and golpatta.” “Please tell us the story of your native place Mashi”. Anwesha dragged her to the sofa, made her seat on a couch and said, “Work later, tell us the story first” But Maalati Rani replied , “ Some other day, baby, I have to wash your clothes and remove the stains today.”
One weekend, Maalati Rani, prepared Masala tea and was in a very decent mood. While sipping the piping hot tea she started telling her story, “Aww Boudi, what were you doing during Aila?” Mrs. Ghoshal replied, “Ah well…nothing as such, the windows of our multi- storied building rattled violently, several trees shook crazily and fell down, there were loud cracking noises, severe thunder and lighting and incessant rainfall so much so that, even after two or three days after the storm subsided the roads were inundated. We stacked onions and potatoes and eggs more than required… and there was some power shortage in some areas. That’s all Maalati Rani.”
Maalati Rani sipped the masala chai and tried to add some of her own masala of emotions in her story of the “Perfect Storm”. She was the hypnotising storyteller, with the children and their mother glued in the sofas as if she had a spell cast on them, “Aww Boudi, the monstrous clouds ran from nowhere, the rivers seethed and fumed like oceans, the lightning flashed and blinded our eyes, the clouds rumbled with all their strength so much so that our children turned almost deaf and shrieked like the lambs. Then the waves of River Raimangal surged up, they rolled towards the shore. My father-in-law whom I called “Baap” loved me like a daughter, much more than his own son. When I got married some fifteen years back and stepped in for the first time to my new home he took me in his arms, blessed me and said, “Maa, when I shall not be here in this world, you take commands over my two storied hut, my two boats, my fishing nets and my goats.” Maalati paused for a minute, tears rolled down from her flattened cheeks and her eyes were bloodshot. She took a small breath in between, then continued, “Aww Boudi, when the waves surged up and encircled the sky from all corners, both my Baap and I ran towards the tree where both our boats were anchored. By the time we reached the shore, we were soaked all over and were cluttering our teeth in fear and icy cold air. We fell down so many times that our figures covered with muck were beyond recognition. We tried to pull the ropes as hard as possible to hold on the boats. But failed, the waves washed away everything, everything on their course……they protruded their snaky lolling tongue and tasted everything, trees, boats, huts, cattle, those ferocious tigers, the vicious crocs and also human beings including my Baap, his two boats and the goats. River Raimangal in her frenzy along with her demon waves refused to appease for three days. I fainted almost in horror but managed to run to our hut, carried my mother-in-law and Gaurav with me to the nearby high ishkool and stayed there praying for mercy of Maa Mansa and other goddesses. The next one month we lived amongst the dead- rotting carcasses of both animals and human beings, hunger, thirst and amongst all stench and flies. Our kind hearted Dadas provided us with water and chirwa, muri and gur. Some gamchas and lungis were distributed to us, only after seven days to save us from literal shame, as they could not reach us before that. When the water subsided, we could only see, carcasses, even cadavers of mothers clenching their arms to the dead children, some had their eyes plucked by maggots. Aww Boudi, my mother-in-law died out of shock within six months of the catastrophe. I came begging to the city after Gaurav’s father returned from Bangalore. By that time, he was spitting blood…he had tuberculosis.”
She wiped her mouth finishing the last drop of tea from her cracked tea cup and said, “Aww Boudi, the masala tea was very nice.” Then she scrubbed the tea cup and left for the day. Mrs. Ghoshal got absorbed in her own thoughts throughout the evening. The next day when Maalati Rani came on her scheduled time, Mrs. Ghoshal handed her six thousand rupees and said in a very soft tone, “Malati this is all we can manage for your son’s medical aid.” When Maalati was leaving for the day, Mrs. Ghoshal in a softer tone spoke to her, “Maalati, you don’t have to return the money.” Maalati smiled in disbelief, bent quickly to touch her feet and said, “Thank you Boudi.”
Soon after Maalati left with the money, Mrs. Ghoshal called up the Ayaah centre and said, “Bhaiya, we shall be out of the city for some days, please come and take your payments and stop sending Maalati Rani any longer. The next moment she called up another centre and asked for a maid as a replacement of Maalati Rani from the next day.

Months passed by until one day Anwesha found her mother sobbing desperately early in the morning. She asked her, “Mom, what happened?” Mrs. Ghoshal with her puffy red eyes cried inconsolably, “Gaurav has got back his eyesight, I met Maalati Rani in the market today morning. She was all in smiles.” “Who is Gaurav mom?” asked Anwesha. Mrs. Ghoshal replied “He is the teenager prince of Kumirmari, do you remember Maalati Rani-the Boat Queen of the Swamps?” “Oh, yes, but there’s nothing to sob over a trifle mom,” replied Anwesha. Mrs. Ghoshal spoke to herself, “Those were the pangs of cognizance my sweet dumplings, I pretended to her, but she refused to believe me. I sacked her because her husband had tuberculosis, but today also she touched my feet and said, “Aww Boudi with your blessings, Gaurav has got back his eyesight.”

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