Maroa – Abu Siddik, West Bengal

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In one late afternoon in April two men, one young and the other old, were angling in a shallow pond. They sat on haunches, and were silent. Their eyes fixed on the baits. No fish they caught. It seemed they cared little for fish. They practiced the art of angling.
“Tudu, I’m terribly sad today. I ask thousand rupees, and he refused,” the old man sighed and he was glum.
“Why does he give? You squander all that on jhandi mundi (a kind of gambling).”
“Who say this? I ask who say this.” He demanded, and his eyes burnt in rage.
“Why man? All know it.” Tudu said bluntly.
“You all know nothing, fools! I see you walking naked in the streets, and you say you know all.” A passerby was going homeward. The old man rushed and dragged him by hand, and asked “What you know about me, Mansur?” The old man stared earnestly at Mansur’s face.
Mansur scratched his head for a while and said, “People say you’re brain-sick.”
“I ask not for people’s opinion, Mansur. I ask you.”
“You’re a good old man.”
The old man laughed loud, and the dogs began barking somewhere in the village.
“Hear him Tudu, he, his father, buried long, know me better,” the old man said, and a gloss of warmth covered his shrunken face.
Nobody spoke for some minutes. Only the frogs croaked. “Hu…,” the old man began, “my own blood didn’t give a thousand rupees. Am I dead? Still I’m working. What’ll happen when I lie in death bed?” He murmured, and his eyes feasted on the fireflies’ dance.
“Don’t worry. We carry and burn you at the bank of Mujnai.” Mansur said.
“A Muslim can say that. What can I have more on earth?” The old man fiercely shook Tudu to explain, but he didn’t speak.
The old man sighed, and said, “You all know nothing. You see me playing jhandi mundi at haats, and lose money. Lie, Tudu, lie! Yes, I can’t pass my days without jhandi, and I’ve been playing it for forty years, and earned 1 crore. Don’t believe! Only last month I won 3 lakh at Kadambini Tea Garden.” The old man spasmodically thumped his chest and cried, “Me, Maroa! I call myself a messiah of the poor. Go to the village and find a hut where my hand hasn’t reached at their bad days. You find none. I challenge.”
“I help them every way—I buy food and cook for the unfed, gave their daughters’ marriages, bear doctor’s fees and buy medicine for the ills.” The old man said at a stretch, and then he hung his head between his knees, and became silent as dead night.
“But people say you’re a hard miser. You never give even a pinch of dirt from your skin.” Tudu argued, and asked for a bidi.
They both smoked, and Mansur counting the stars, hung so low overhead. Yonder, the bamboo bush stood like a haunted house. Maroa’s dog, a black little thing, came crooning and began to lick his master’s leg.
The old man argued himself, “Maroa miser? Ah…I sacrifice my whole life for you, and you call me miser. If I don’t think of you—the poor, the unfed, the dry mouths, I can build a two storied house, buy a rocking chair, swing and smoke at rooftop. But never have I thought that way. I live for you. I give you everything—money, rice, vegetables, fruits, eggs, even milk of my Dhobli. And me miser!” He lamented.
“If I poor, it’s because of you. Hey Mansur, do you know why I’m sick?” Mansur stopped numbering the stars, and asked “What’s Dada?”
“Hey Mansur, not hearing me? What’re you doing?”
“Oh! I hear, but the dark night and the bright stars hanging so low. Dada, forgive me, please tell.”
The old man repeated, “Don’t know why I’m sick?”
Mansur and Tudu looked at each other, and Tudu said, “You grow old, and it’s common at your age.”
“You’re quite right, young man. But that’s not all. There is a reason behind.”
“Any fatal disease?” Mansur exclaimed!
“No, no, I’m well, though I eat less, two or three gulp of rice a day. My mind is ill. I can’t sleep. All night I lie awake, and think of my poor neighbours. This thought haunts me night and day. For twenty years I lost sleep. You know young men I only smoke bidi. Women and wine I never touch. Three things keep me alive—gambling, smoking, and the thought for the poor villagers. To kill time I also catch fish, play with children, go to tea gardens and watch the women plucking the tender leaves. Some mornings after the night rain I don’t visit them. The first rays of the orange disc fell on the washed leaves, and they glisten. I fear the the scene, and keep me shut at my hut.
“Don’t believe me, ask Kanu, the mason of the village, how I saved him. One evening I came out of house, and paced the street up and down. Suddenly I heard a groaning. I looked around and found by the side of a bush a man moaning. His left leg was smashed, and bones were scattered all around. I then took a plastic bag, and collected the bones. I hired a van, and took the man to Falakata Hospital. There was no doctor, and the compounder said he couldn’t plaster. I wasted no time. I took the man to Nine Miles. Amida Bibi, the famous Kabiraj, saw him, and set the bones into his legs, and messaged with oil, and bandaged it, and within minutes he stirred his broken leg like a dog wagging its tail. Kanu was still alive, and if I set feet at his yard, he worshipped me as God.
The old man hung his head low. Tudu lit a bidi, and they all smoked. Nobody was speaking. The old man kissed his dog,Tudu scratched was killing the mosquitoes, and Mansur gazing at the canopy of the stars.
No birds sang. The old man’s dog saw something beyond the bush, and began barking. Dogs from the village heard it, and they began wailing too.
“How’s your daughter-in-law? Does she love you?” Tudu asked.
“Oh…she behaves well and calls me father, father night and day. She takes care of my food. Baba, no more I can eat. In old days I ate hundred rosogullas and 2 kg molasses and 2 kg mutton at one sitting. Now I don’t touch fish, mutton, or chicken. But soup of pigeons and a glass of milk I daily take.” He beamed.
“Uncle, why do you still wear a tattered napkin? Your son earns good. You lack no money. It doesn’t befit you.” Tudu said with a smile on his face.
“Who looks? Your aunt went heaven long ago. Two years ago Sonali, my daughter, ah! my life, died of snake bite. And I’m alone.”
Meantime Tudu’s mobile rang. It was his wife’s call. He jumped up as if he was singed, and somehow he took the angling sticks and the bait, and hurried towards his hut.
“Dada, let’s go home.” Mansur said. He stopped stargazing hearing the rhythm of Tudu’s slippers. “We’re quite late. And herd of Mahakals (elephants) may come. Yester night they came out of the forest and ate the entire paddy field at Munda Para. Moreover, dew is falling, and you have no clothes, you may catch cold.”
“Maroa fears nothing,” the old man shrieked. He then suddenly giggled like a child. His face brightened, and his small sunken eyes glittered. “Mahakals do no harm. They kill the sinful. And don’t worry about my health. For forty years not a single day I suffer. My body is made of iron bars. I can flat seven young men like you with a feast. No weapon I need. My hands and legs are enough for that. Four or five years back I won huge money, nearly two lakhs at Haria Hatti. Have you gone there? No. Men were all drunk since early morning, and they brawled at each word. Six big men, all tall and black and muscular circled and caught me. I fought with one hand, and bruised, and grounded them all. I took the bag, and walked straight from the haat. No drunkards came in my way. All stood aside and blinked their eyes.
“Mansur, my body is still fine. Diseased is my mind. And no medicine can cure it. Yester night I called Hujur Saheb, and he descended from heaven at midnight in all whites, and seeing Pir Baba my eyes dazzled. I told all. He took 14 days to cure me.
The night was dark, and somewhere in the village dogs began moaning. An owl flew over Maroa’s head and he suddenly felt cold and began trembling.

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