“Ratho Babu is coming! Ratho Babu is coming!” yelled Suhash, jumping up and down. His bare feet kicked dust and his brown eyes sparkled. The mop of rusty dry hair on his head flapped as he urgently twisted around to look at his father.
Jayanto, swinging idly on the rope hammock strung between two coconut trees, sat up. “There goes another holiday!” He spat. But at least, this time that wretched Ratho Babu hadn’t turned up during lunch time. “Thank Lord Jagannath for that!” muttered Jayanto. “Otherwise Bakul would have served up the best portions to him!” The thought enraged Jayanto so much that he forgot to spit.
Jayanto watched the sandy path bordered with scattered coconut trees. Ratho Babu’s portly figure was sauntering at a leisurely pace, and still too far for Jayanto to make out what else he was carrying apart from the cloth bag hanging loosely from one shoulder.
Cunning old Ratho Babu always brought presents for Suhash and Bakul. Just to make his case stronger, thought Jayanto bitterly. Suhash was only a child. Who could blame him for gleefully making a grab for the kite or the jaggery sweets? As for Bakul, she was an illiterate village woman. What did she know of the world? To be fair, Ratho Babu also brought tobacco for him, but Jayanto knew better. It was another one of his ploys. Ratho Babu was smart, but he, Jayanto was smarter. Ratho Babu could let the conflict between them fester for as long as he liked, but Jayanto was still the master of his own house. No matter how much Ratho Babu argued and cajoled, lectured and grumbled, his influence over Bakul and Suhash wasn’t so strong that it couldn’t collapse under a couple of blows. Jayanto smiled grimly as he examined grimy nails. He cracked a few knuckles. There was a time when he could crack coconuts bare fisted. Well, there was still some strength left in those hands yet.
“Ratho Babu’s coming!” yelled Suhash again.
Now Bakul also ran out of the hut. Her sari edge covered her head; her nose wrinkled and eyes squinted under the westward bound sun’s glare. Jayanto could sense the delight rippling down her still youthful body. He caught glimpses of tight brown skin through the holes in her clothes. Like Suhash, Bakul’s eyes also sparkled. The mere sound of Ratho Babu’s name seemed to have that effect on Jayanto’s family members.
“Cover yourself up!” barked Jayanto. “Indecent woman!”
“Cover myself with what?” hissed Bakul. “When did a lazy lout like you earn enough to clothe and feed his family decently?”
Jayanto clenched his fist and bit back the abuse. Bakul would pay for her impertinence. Later. Right now he contented himself by spitting on the grass again, just as Ratho Babu came up. “Ho there, Jayanto! Mood off today?” said Ratho Babu affably.
Jayanto said nothing. From the corner of his eyes he saw Suhash dipping grubby fingers into a greasy newspaper cone. Bakul was smiling widely, practically wagging her whole body. He felt like tearing that torn sari off from her body and dragging her by the hair into their hut. Jayanto swallowed hard, but otherwise didn’t let his emotions betray him.
“Chaha? Ratho Babu, chaha?” gushed Bakul, and ran off to make tea even before Ratho Babu had finished nodding his head.
Ratho Babu patted Jayanto’s shoulder and sat down next to him. Jayanto waited for Ratho Babu to start talking his usual spiel.
Ratho Babu always arrived on the first week of every month. He gave money for Suhash’s school fees, and a bag of groceries to Bakul. He brought new clothes for them all, including Jayanto during festivals. Sometimes, Ratho Babu would eat a meal with them. But mostly, he accepted only puffed rice and tea. He always chatted with Bakul and Suhash for a while, before turning to Jayanto to talk to him gently but determinedly.
Jayanto never argued back. He always sat hunched with his head hanging low, apparently listening. In their village, nobody talked back to Ratho Babu; nobody took advantage of his mild manners. He was not the village headman, but he commanded the considerable respect of a successful son of the soil. Ratho Babu was a big man who owned four auto-rickshaws in Bhubaneswar. He was the big and generous man who had never forgotten this tiny hamlet of his forefathers and was ever ready to help where it was needed. But Ratho Babu could be as hard as nails too. He was used to having his way and never gave up once he got a notion going inside his head.
Ratho Babu wanted Jayanto, his father’s best friend’s son, to drive one of his auto-rickshaws. Ratho Babu insisted that he had promised Jayanto’s father on his deathbed that he would do something for his wayward son; that he would be an elder brother to Jayanto and see him properly settled. A promise made had to be kept. Ratho Babu persisted with patience and some reproach.
Jayanto lay on his hammock. Ratho Babu continued to lecture and sip tea. The setting sun’s rays lit up the tops of the coconut trees, painting the fruits clustered among the fronds with gold. Indeed, to Jayanto they were gold. His trees had never let him down even once during his life. Ratho Babu could keep on blathering for as long as he liked, and Bakul’s eyes could light up at the sight of the groceries and clothes, and Suhash could run out in glee, but nobody was going anywhere. Jayanto knew that. This village of mud huts and no electricity was where they would stay as long as the trees produced coconuts for five rupees apiece in the wholesale market and Suhash kept shimmying up those trunks. Oh no, not for the world was Jayanto ever going to budge from his hammock beneath his coconut trees. Ratho Babu had made the promise, not he.
Rumjhum Biswas sends her husband out to earn the daily bread and jam and bacon, so she can write in peace when the muse hits her. She does compensate by cooking which she seriously enjoys, but she’ll clobber anyone who calls her a housewife! She also blathers from time to time in her blog: http://rumjhumkbiswas.wordpress.com/.