SUCH a day was not commonly witnessed even for a solar eclipse, one that took place during the Puja holidays.
Schools were closed, the exams were just over. Benimadhab’s Baba – Mr Satya Sundar Sarkar, out of his habit of saying it almost every year, recommended, “If you wish to visit the zoo, let’s go now, else I am not sure if I will be in the mood after your results are out.”
A circus party had hoisted their tent at Palpara ground. In the last few days their truck, ‘Roman Circus’ written on its head-board, and with images of a funny red-nosed joker juggling painted on the truck’s side panels was roaming the streets and distributing leaflets. Beni’s family goes to the zoo every year. Why not try the circus this time, he thought.
But that wasn’t going to happen. A thoughtful guardian, Baba, didn’t like to take children to the circus where short, fair-skinned, big-breasted, illegally trafficked Nepalese girls performed gymnastics wearing their colourful, skimpy bikinis. Tamed lions, horses and elephants, and the death-rider with his motorcycle lacking a silencer were also there; the clowns cut non-vegan jokes and the female performers who rode on the animals would be clad to the bare minimum possible. So the alternative outing during the festive holidays was undoubtedly the zoo.
In Baba’s respectable but unorthodox home, eclipses weren’t considered ominous signs that many would often see them as such; the residents of his home could quite unscrupulously eat and drink as the fade-out and fade-in of the Sun was taking place. They could even go out and visit the zoo during such an event, which by chance, Baba had decided to do that day.
Not everyone in the neighbourhood felt the same; they would empty the bathwater and refill it after the period of darkness had passed. Eating and drinking was quite questionable, and would try their best not to even swallow a knot of their dry saliva down their throats.
Exposed to Anglican culture, Baba was much influenced by Beni’s baromamu, Prasanna Chaudhuri who had converted himself into Protestantism, fighting all forms of superstition not associated with his personal beliefs. So, in case off-chance someone had sneezed behind him, which was considered an ill omen, Baba held his nose firmly in the other direction, paying no heed as he started his journey to the Centrale Téléphonique du Town-name without a moment’s pause, taking his bicycle every morning at 9 o’clock sharp. Ordinarily, his neighbours would have stepped back, sat down, and untied their boot laces, eventually tying them up again in about two minutes by which time the effect of the sneeze could be safely neutralized and the crisis averted.
It was on that particular eclipse-day trip from his home in ancienne colonie Française, Beni witnessed the machine for the first time.
On the train journey the brightness of the Sun had gradually dimmed to almost nothing. By the time they reached the zoo’s huge main gate, it had just started to brighten up again. Carved in the shape of the sickle, the light that fell through the gaps of the dense foliage of the tall trees, started to reform into fuller circles.
In that magic of illumination, Beni saw a huge iron wheel with teeth placed on its periphery much like a gear, and being turned by the force of a pair of well-crafted arms which obviously were part of a dark, sweaty body naked to the waist. He was decorated with a countrymade-gamchha that was turbaned on his head. A cluster of goat-bells were tied to one of the thick spokes of the giant wheel; at every turn of the wheel the bells jingled to the delight of the eager children.
Polished by the regular and dutiful thrust of those muscled grips, the lever rod that supplied the centrifugal force to turn the wheel had almost a glossy silver sheen. As the wheel turned, the gears would catch up to a substantially smaller wheel and in turn with another even smaller one, till finally they would end with a pair of steel-rollers being fed a cluster of yellowish canes.
A tumbler was placed at the receiving end to accept a flow of beige coloured nectar as it left the end from where the class struggle between the gears happened. The crushing oppression squeezing every sense of purpose out of the stalks, but united, they stubbornly stayed true to their form of shape and structure, almost to no definite resolution. The tumbler had an imitation cut glass look, but actually it was moulded and stains of brown-ochre dirt had settled between the laps of its raised patterns.
Now, as the wheels went on rotating, it resembled, though on a much larger scale, the opened backs of Favre Leuba wristwatches that Beni has seen his father opening up occasionally. Satyababu liked to look at those tiny wheels, the hair-spring, and its balance-wheel, to move in minute gestures through his eye loupe magnifying glass and view them with love. Taking the watch to his ear he used to listen to it carefully. Maybe the magical light of the eclipse had blown up the wrist-watch to an enormous size.
The large pair of hands inserted dark spotted, yellowish sticks into the marginal gap between the adjacent steel rollers, which on receiving the crushed product churned out on the other side reloaded the not-sufficiently-crushed-enough material through the other end again. Consequently, when the tumbler became full, the same hands replaced the glass with another one, pouring the collected syrup into a small, equally-dirty bucket made of brass alloy which had a greyish piece of cloth spread over the top of it in the pretext of a filter; and then the hands continued to relieve the tumbler for its next term.
All of this happened alternately and with magical precision. And when there was absolutely nothing more to extract out of the then-good-for-nothing crushed yellow mass, the hands threw the byproduct to a corner where a rickety cow and a half-sized mule were very happily making mulch out of it.
Beni’s eyes popped out. My God! What a machine! It was really very difficult for a boy of nine to make out who was the machine and which was the man.
* * *
There was an additional element to the pleasure trip; one of his father’s colleagues, Mr Chakroborti, had accompanied them with two of his own boys under his fold. Chakroborti was short, darker-skinned and balder than Beni’s father; he was chubby, well dressed and spoke in a Bangaal dialect. Long before this, in the days when the Akashvani Kolkata still aired (AIR-Calcutta), its famous broadcaster Din Dayal Dutta, who, with all the pathos in his golden voice, demolished all the native dialects that had grown out of the native soil over the ages, and would dictate how the language should be spoken. Evacuees who had come from the then East-Pakistan during the Partition spoke in this dialect; Mr Chakroborti was one of them.
Though it was a long time ago, Mr Chakroborti didn’t change his style and continued speaking his preferred way. He was well connected. Though he had similar qualification as Satya Sundar, held a relatively senior post in the Centrale Téléphonique, where Benimadhab’s father was the officer-in-charge. The Chakrobortis used to stay in a prime piece of land at the forcibly occupied Government Colony No.2 but received various advantages from the government as refugees. It may be worth remembering what Beni’s Nanaji had said with a deep sigh on one such occasion, “See, how we are being pushed aside like Jews in our own promised land. This is the outcome of that Son-of-the-Gandhi’s misdeeds. If Chandra Bose could have made himself to the prime ministership instead of Nehru, the picture would have been very different.” Of course, Benimadhab could not understand the true depth of the anecdote at that time.
The two Chakroborti boys were always smarter than Beni because they ranked as the 1st or the 2nd of their respective classes. However, there was another story, which was the idle talk of every boy in Beni’s class, but never spoken aloud, that if these two brothers were unable to score the highest or so, back home they were to be punished harshly, their tongues being pulled out with kitchen tongs. To be honest, Beni, who always managed to escape the ‘Not Promoted’ category by a narrow margin, rarely had much of an interaction with them and would not be able to say if this was true. Also the two young brothers were very surprised on seeing the man-machine, but knowing the less-foolish course of action, they restrained themselves from expressing their astonishment.
Poor Beni could not resist expressing his curiosity, “Wow! What a machine!”
Naturally, as the legend goes, the smarter children must have been born of a smarter Baba. So just to make Beni more nervous, the smarter Baba smiled. Then, with an air of authority, he turned to him and declared, “It’s too early for you to understand the mechanism at this stage; still, take my word as an advice for your future – when you complete school, grow up enough and take up service in a business house or land in a Government job, you will know what it is.”