Opium War & Leather Boots – Calcutta’s China Town

Subhadip Mukherjee ~ The Indian Vagabond

Opium War & Leather Boots – Calcutta’s China Town

Chapter 1 – The Match Box

1925, Calcutta, somewhere in China Town renowned for its leather boots and wood works the shops often hid the real business that went on beyond its façade, it’s actually opium that ruled this part of the city. Smuggled from China these opium entered the streets of Calcutta through the narrow lanes of old China Town.

My great grandfather Mr John Solomon was a Daroga (Inspector) in the Excise Department which was at that time an integral part of the British India Calcutta Police. The British Government wanted to stop the infiltration of illegal opium in to the country as it was seriously hurting the revenue whereas the Chinese Opium traders were using the wealth of the rising upper middle class Bengalis or the Babus who often got lured into opium addiction.

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The Rainbow Bubble

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1

For a moment I sensed a hurried numbness overtake every part of my body – my fingers, toes, shoulders – the not-being-alive feeling seemed to grip every nerve of my body with alarming rapidness. But it shouldn’t have been so. A rainy day has always been a welcome break for us – for Tojo and me. We’ve made paper boats and gone out in the rain, we’ve jumped in the muddy puddles till creases have formed in our toes and then the wrap-up under the blanket with a hot cup each – chocolate milk for Tojo and coffee for me…. But today was different. The unexpected call from his school rather increased the rate of my heart-beat, faster than it should.

” Mrs Sengupta ? Ah, here you are. This is Mrs. D’Costa, the school administrator of Sunrise Academy. Actually Mrs. Sengupata we’ve been trying to contact you over the landline but….”

“ No, its out of service.” I hurried to put an end to her prologue. Now what ? Toja has had an accident ? He’s not well ?

“ Oh that’s why…actually Mrs. Sengupta we’ve declared a “Rainy Day” today at Sunrise. Actually its more about a leaking overhead tank than about the rains. But we can’t declare a “Tank Leak Day” you know”, Mrs.D’Costa laughed at her own joke.

I collected myself. Phew! My heart was almost in my mouth!

“ That shouldn’t be a problem. Another twenty minutes and I would be there at the school gate to collect him”, I assured her.

“Oh no Mrs.Sengupta. You don’t have to worry about that. Sunrise Academy is always sensitive towards the difficulties of the students and the parents aike. Aniket is already on his way home. Our school bus will drop him right at your doorstep”, the administrator tried to assure me. And then added, “ I suppose you or someone would be there to receive him?”.

“I’ve come out for some personal work. My mother-in-law is at home….”, I tried to bring in as much softness in my voice as possible. After all they were doing quite a bit for T.ojo

“ Very well then, have a good day Mrs. Sengupta and enjoy the rains”, she signed off.

I put the mobile back in my handbag and then it struck me! Amma would receive Tojo, change his dress, open his shoes but what next ? With her heavy medicines she would certainly doze off in her reclining chair. She normally has this small siesta everyday at 11am. It’s a small nap but a deep one. And then Tojo would be left alone with Tara!

2

She twitched her nose, when I touched it. A little twitch, not too much but it definitely added a kind cuteness to her face. Aww…that looked so cute! Her lips curled up in a smile, as if to acknowledge my touch. “ Mamma, can I touch her ? Just once”, Tojo whispered into my ears. He knew he shouldn’t be loud otherwise the baby might wake up.

“Yes, you may”, I assured him. He lifted his index finger and placed it on her cheeks, just at the spot which had been a dimple just seconds ago. Joy glanced at us through the rear-view mirror. Our family was now complete!

The picture was so different even an year ago. Tojo was already four years and we desperately wanted a new member in our family. “A brother or sister for Tojo would definitely be a welcome change for him. He would be less lonely and less hyperactive”, our doctor friend Meera had advised us. But things were not as simple as we had thought. Many tests and tears later it was concluded that medically it would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to conceive once again. Medical options were available but……For us that was it. We decided not to go on and on with the medical processes.

“Why don’t you think about adoption? Or even surrogacy”, Meera had suggested.

“ Adoption would be great! Tojo would have a friend and a child would be blessed with a home.” To my utter surprise Joy hadn’t even wasted a minute to come to a decision and then as if on an after-thought had looked at me for an approval. I was only too happy to relent.

Many counseling, home-visits and discussions later our daughter was finally ours! As we took her home in our car, Tojo could not contain his happiness. He would give a small tug at the towel one moment, the next moment he would be playing with her soft, pale fingers! “Mamma, what shall we car her?”, he asked while stroking her cheeks.

“You find a name for her” , I told him indulgently.

“Hmm…then I shall call her ‘Twinkle Twinkle little star’”, Tojo replied with all the seriousness one would expect of a big brother.

Joy laughed , “Hey big one. That’s a lovely name but a bit longish. What about Tara ? That means the same – a star! Tojo’s sister Tara!”.

“Yay…yippee….Tara! Tojo’s sister Tara”, Tojo screamed with joy.

The one who was just christened Tara, woke up startled, the commotion around was too much to be able to remain in the recluse of a good, warm sleep. And looking around with her tiny little eyes and furrowed eyebrows let out the loudest wail one would ever expect of a child of five months.

3

I don’t know how I managed to pay the bills at the counter but I did so with lightning rapidness and dashed towards the gate of the shopping mall. The guard at the gate came running towards me, bewildered probably at the pace of my exit. His anxious looks almost seemed to question if there had been any terrorists inside the mall.

”Taxi, where can I get a Taxi ?”, I asked him in between my breath.

“Hmm…did you say Taxi ? Well if you are looking for Taxis then I can tell you that you won’t get it anywhere nearby, this lane is one way now. And you will have to walk all the way to the crossing to get one,” he informed me. He smiled broadly having ‘successfully done his duty towards a hapless customer’. Holy Crap! Now what? I will have to walk upto the crossing and without a guarantee that I would get a Taxi back home.

While I walked towards the crossing I thought of calling up Joy. Though that won’t be of much help but atleast it would help me unburden myself. Joy picked up the call after two rings.

“Mmm…what is it Nidhi ?”, he sounded busy.

“ Joy, Tojo is having a ‘Rainy Day’ today at school”.

“ And you want me to come home early to take him to the park ?”

“ No, that’s not the issue.”

“ Then what ?”

“ He is going to be alone with Tara!”

There was a silence at the other end for a few seconds and then came the response, “Exactly what do you mean by that Nidhi?”

“ Actually Tara normally sleeps between 10:30 to 12:00 in the mornings everyday, after her bath and milk….that’s been her routine forever since she’s been with us. She never bothers to get up in between. And Amma takes her nap around the same time. So I thought today…..”

“ Today what ?”, Joy seemed too impatient to let me drag on.

“ So I thought I would just check out this new shopping mall at Kyd Street. I had to buy some dresses for Tara and…”, I mumbled.

“ Jesus Christ! How could you do this Nidhi ? You know we have to be careful with Tara. And Amma has been here hardly for a week and she has no idea so far about Tara’s condition”, he sounded furious.

“ I know, it was not a wise decision…but I thought since both of them sleep around the same time I can always make a fast trip and go back….”

“ Anyway, what is done can’t be undone. And now please go and pick up Tojo and rush back home”, he advised, having completely forgotten the primary cause of my concern.

“ But Tojo would have already reached home by now….his school bus would drop him. And the god damn phone at home is also out of service. I can’t even call up home to tell Amma to keep an eye on him!”, I tried to put all the issues in a nutshell.

“ What! He is alone with her? And you have not yet reached home!”, he panicked.

“ Now don’t add fuel to my panic Joy…my nerves are already out of order!”, I screamed back at him, quite unnecessarily and disconnected the call.

A taxi was in sight and I took no time to rush past other potential customers to get hold of that only taxi around.

4

“ Everything is not very fine, Nidhi”, Meera’s voice was laced with worry. Tara was already two years old but she hardly spoke a word. Apart from an occasional childish gurgling sound or two, she hardly seemed to respond to any gesture. She would let out a faint smile and then keep that smile intact for many minutes at a stretch. Too long enough to give an uncanny feeling within. She never cried out loud, only a constant, nagging roar seemed to emerge from her.

Her eyes would well up and the roaring sound would continue for many minutes or even hours; no amount of coaxing would convince her to stop her from crying. At first it seemed strange, then that strangeness gradually transformed into an eerie feeling! Was she dumb ? Was she deaf ? Or was there any deeper problem? The questions we didn’t want to entertain began to huddle in our minds every day with increased rapidness. And finally we decided to consult Meera…in case she could suggest some tests.

“I had a word with Varun, I mean Dr.Varun Jain a few hours ago. After having met you all, Tara especially, he is of the opinion that she is unlike a normal child”.

“ You mean abnormal? “, Joy asked. I could not determine if it was a question or an anxious expression of a loving Dad. Joy loved Tara immensely and it was because of him that we had held back this visit to the doctor for so long.

“ Oh she is perfectly fine, just a bit lazy enough to pick up new words”, he would laugh off my anxiety. It was only after much coaxing did he consent to meet Dr.Varun and only after Meera had assured him that Tara ‘would not be pestered’ by the doctor!

“ Being different does not being abnormal Joy”, Meera almost chided Joy. I glanced at Tara. All these discussions seemed to have no effect on her. She was not even interested in the teddy that I carried along for her – just in case she finds it interesting! She stared blankly at a poster on past-partum depression that hung from the wall behind Meera.

“ We cannot be sure as yet but Tara definitely is showing signs of autism – hopefully of the milder form”., Meera tried to sound less alarming. The degree of autism didn’t matter to me what mattered was Tara’s reaction to Tojo. Tara would just not tolerate Tojo – she would shake her head , roar in incomprehensible – monosyllables and would advance towards him violently! Sibling jealousy – I had comforted myself! But Meers’s words just shattered my belief – there was definitely more to it than mere jealousy!

5

What could be more distressing than an incessant rain and a traffic snarl just when you need to reach your destination – at the earliest! No amount of coaxing or pleading with the driver worked in my favour.

“ Bhabiji, just see for yourself! Show me one gap and I will push my Taxi through it!”, he reasoned with me. I knew he had a valid point. I closed my eyes and tried not to think about the problem. At that moment how I wished we had confided and shared our problems with Amma. But it was the last thing that Joy wanted to share with her, just when she was coming to terms with this whole issue of adoption – that too after almost two years of Tara’s arrival. She’s been here for a week now and we were careful not to let Tojo and Tara remain together in front of her lest she gets a picture of the reality.

“She’s warming up to Tara now…so lets wait for a few more days”, Joy had advised. But right at this moment how I wish we hadn’t been so foolish!

I fiddled with the mobile for a while. Should I call up Joy and tell him the real cause of my anxiety? How could I tell him that it was more about Tojo than about Tara ! It was about two months ago that I discovered the scratches on Tara’s cheek. Poor child, must’ve scratched herself! I clipped her nails neatly to avoid any such mishaps again. But again and again they appeared till I discovered the chilling truth – it was Tojo who was scratching her!

When alone in the room I confronted him. He looked straight into my eyes and replied, “ Yes, I scratched her. I will scratch her, beat her, kill her…I hate her. She is not my sister , she hates me! One day if I get her alone I will push her down the stairs or stuff a pillow inside her mouth. I don’t want her!”

A chill ran through me! Was this my Tojo? Was this really my son ? And now, with Amma probably sleeping in the next room Tojo would be all alone with Tara!

With desperate fingers I tried to call up my neighbour Mani but her phone went unanswered…..

6

It is hardly a matter of twenty steps from the gate to the front door but I made it in six . I almost flew through the distance. My hands shook while the opened the lock. I opened the door ajar only to discover Amma deep in sleep on the sofa. She was so deep in sleep that my entry to the room did not awaken her. Tojo’s shoes and socks lay strewn on the floor. A half-open tiffin box was kept on the centre table. Tojo would surely have skipped his tiffin, he needs a lot of coaxing to complete his food.

I tiptoed down the hall to the bed-room. A strange gurgling sound was emerging from behind the closed doors – a muffled grunt….My heart stopped beating for a second. Did my worst dream come true? Would my Tojo be so cruel as to harm my little Tara ? I didn’t know, I didn’t want to know. I pushed the door open. The sight that was in front of me was the last thing I could have ever imagined.

Soap bubbles- big, small, medium – floated about in the room. And Tojo was trying to blow out yet another one! This was one of the games I used to play with Tojo when he was small and wouldn’t stop crying! I used to make soap water and blow up the bubbles and let Tojo touch them with his little fingers. We used to call them ‘rainbow bubbles’ because of the myriad hues that the bubbles adorned on them. And now my Tojo was trying out the same trick with his little sister. Tara sat wide-eyed in front of her brother, trying to touch the bubbles with her unsteady fingers. And everytime a bubble burst she let out a strange muffled giggle. So immersed were they in their play that they did not notice me. And I was too stunned to move any further.

While I stood mesmerized, Tojo blew up a really big bubble and said, “ Look Tara, rainbow bubble. Say, RAINBOW!”.

Tara grinned and then with sheer might pushed her tongue to utter, “NEN…BAU”. That was the first ever complete word that my daughter spoke in all these two years!!

Photo Courtesy: Pixabay

The Blue Cross

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There are times in life when we are at cross-roads of puzzled decision-making. When the going is tough – equally- in each of the paths. We are confused, worried and angry with ourselves. And then we unknowingly get the answer – from a source that we could have never imagined.

Those days we were in distress. Things were as bad as ‘bad’ can be. My grandmother had just passed away, my husband did not have a job, my son was coping up with a new school. And I was mentally traumatised with spiralling cost, home loans and family difficulties. Just then I discovered I was pregnant.

Never! Not at this moment! The very feeling that there was going to be an ‘additional burden’ was a repulsive thought….I did not want the child. But somewhere down there – deep within there was also that nagging feeling – a sense of sin and guilt. Every time I touched my tummy there was a shiver at the thought of a growing life….I was angry with myself. At that moment, when my family had just faced bereavement, I could not confide on anyone…..But I was somehow sure that I did not want the child.

It was my grandma’s prayer meeting that day! The meet was to be at our local chapel. It was 3:30 in the evening. I had taken a huge bundle of tube roses to the chapel for decoration. There was no one in the chapel except the pink evening light and the mellow eyes of Mother Mary with Baby Jesus.That moment was special. Just God and I. I did not want to meet eyes. I was too angry and hurt. “Why God, why?”, I questioned her. “If you have pushed me into this trouble, you’ll lead me to a solution”, I blurted. I was too distressed for words. I did not know if I would receive answers for my silent prayer. I prayed on….all the while arranging the flowers. “Just give an answer Lord”, I demanded. Just then I opened the bundle of tube-roses. And out of no where something fell near my feet. I was curious! I picked it up….It was a blue, plastic cross! A cheap, blue, plastic cross! From where it came, how it came I did not know but I had received my answer! It was enough an assurance for me. I decided to get ahead with my pregnancy!

‘Miracles’ are individual perspective – it is purely based on belief .If we believe it is a miracle, it is! For me the ‘blue cross’ is one of the greatest miracles of my life!

Blogger Recognition Award

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Yay! Yet another award….the Blogger Recognition Award by Neerja of Ametalk.

Not only is she a popular blogster but a super-duper humanista! Her recent blogs on memoirs are one of the best memoir pieces I’ve read so far. And she is a superb human being who encourages other blogsters immensely, making them believe they are super stars! She is and will always remain ‘the special one’ for me!

This award has quite a few rules. Here they are:

Rules:

-Give a brief story about how your blog got started

-Give a few words of advice to other bloggers

-Thank whoever nominated you and provide a link to their blog.

-Make sure to attach the picture of the award (Either hold down or right click on photo at bottom of page, save the photo and insert it into the post and provide source if you feel needed)

  • Nominate 15 other bloggers to give the award to (not including yourself or the person(s) who nominated you . Like Neerja I am changing the rule and nominating only 3.
  • Let the bloggers nominated know they have been nominated and provide a link to the award post. Since most bloggers know the ones I am nominating, I am refraining from the link thing! (To be honest, providing links is too cumbersome for me!)

Let there be light: 

Strangely enough, I’ve never been an English writer as such. In 2nd Standard I got 100 out of 100 in English and my entire family was left rejoicing – thinking that the next Shakespeare would be from Mukherji family! Sadly my graph went down and down post that day and I became an average student! On the contrary, though I had hardly studied Bengali for 4 years, my grip over creative writing in Bengali was superb. That was perhaps due to the fact that my grandma was a good enough Bengali author and much of my achievement was a handiwork of my good genes from grandma! That my English was equally strong was first revealed when I was in 12th Standard. Our Vice-Principal was our English teacher. She did not mark my English essay in our first term examinations. ‘Meet me in my room’, she thundered. When I went to meet her, she asked, ” Are you sure you wrote this essay all by yourself?” “Yes Maam!” , I squeaked ! (“Who else will write for me during exams?”, I wanted to ask her!). Her suspicion still wouldn’t wean away, “Well, if you have written it yourself, I must say, this is the most brilliant original piece I’ve read. And I am compelled to give you 20 on 20!” My heart was in my mouth and I could hardly mumble a ‘Thank You’. My family was once again convinced that Shakespeare, for sure, was born in Mukherji family! But once again, that was not to be! My good English marks never translated to my creative best! I became a good Bengali writer instead. My connection with English writing actually began with a tiff in my office. ‘No more Bengali stories in our in-house magazine!’, it was decided during a meeting one day…I was upset and dejected. And that is when I decided to try my hand in English writing…I came across a site yourstoryclub.com. And thus began my journey into the world of English writing. It is there that I made some brilliant friends: Hema, Tejas, Bala, Kavya, Priyakshi, Deloret, Bulusu Sir, Nanditadi, Shakil Bhai….They changed my perspective about myself and my writing…Some of them had awesome blogs and I timidly followed them! I really don’t know what to write about and hence I resort to memoirs……I am way behind them but this has been one of the best decisions I have taken about myself….I got some very talented friends in blogosphere – Neerja, Nimzy, Deeps….who are now my friends for life!

Let the light shine brighter…..

Being a newbie myself, I hardly have any advice to offer…..Only one thing, write not to be popular or what appeals to others; write for yourself! The journey of writing should begin with yourself and end with yourself.Remember, unlike any other medium, a blog is a personal diary that is made public, so be honest to yourself and write what you want to write. Though “likes” and “comments” make a huge difference, at the end of the day, YOU should be happy about your writing….Let the light shine brighter……

And my nominations are:

  1. Hema
  2. Tejas
  3. Mahua