By Mahasveta Devi; Translated by Lila Majumdar; Illustrations by Judhajit Sengupta, Published by National Book Trust, India
There was no other way but to take cover as early as possible. The village school would open as soon as it was light and Aunt would certainly send him to school today.
The mango tree was outside the house, a huge fajli mango tree. Ekkori’s grandmother used to plant good mango saplings year after year, but Grandfather uprooted them all. Aunt grieved over it to this day. “Oh dear, dear!” she would say sadly, “no one shouts in the house now-a-days! Mother and Father quarrelled all day long and the whole house echoed with it!”
What could Ekkori do? He hated lessons. Aunt made ink for him with the juice of herbs and a clay pot to keep it in. There was also a reed pen to write with. She would bury palm leaves and banana leaves in the earth, beside the well and then, when they were smooth and stiff, pile them neatly one on top of the other. She had everything ready.
The schoolmaster whom they called “Gurumashai” would say, “Now write! ‘Ka’ with a hook behind and ‘Kha’ with a bundle in front!” Ekkori would give a cheeky reply and in the twinkling of an eye would run away.
The other day Ekkori was scratching a picture on the earthen floor. Gurumashai saw it and cried, “What! Drawing pictures, are you? Are you going to be a pottery-painter, you wretched boy?”
He ran all the way to the embankment known as Bhim’s embankment. Bhim was a king in ancient Gaurh and his people were known as Kaibartas. The Kaibartas were peasants and fishermen. Bhim had built a road, which can be seen to this day. On either side of the road grew huge banyan and pipal trees.
For a while Ekkori swung on the overhanging roots of the trees. Then he went to the fishermen’s village. The fisherman Ankrur’s son was his friend and he had asked him to come and look for their lost calf.
Ekkori found the calf for them. Then he returned home. Aunt had boiled jack-fruit seeds for the midday meal. She had also thickened some milk which she would serve in a little stone bowl.
But when he drew near the house, Ekkori stopped short. There was Gurumashai himself sitting on the porch! Aunt stood humbly before him, the end of her sari wrapped round her throat. Gurumashai was saying, “However could his father’s son turn out so wicked?”
“Give him a good whipping, Uncle,” Aunt replied, trying to pacify him.
“But why does he hang about the pottery-painters’ houses all the time?”
“That’s his mother’s influence.”
“What do you mean, his mother’s influence?”
“Yes. She was six years old when she came here as a bride. I let her play about. All day long she only made clay dolls and drew pictures. He gets it from her.”
“But how can he earn a living painting pictures? Times are not so good. He must find work in Rani Bhawani’s offices. He must get himself educated.”
“Certainly he must.”
Gurumashai had not said anything more that day.
All year long he ran about wild. But in the month of Ashwin when the rivers and streams were full, and the rice stood high in the fields, the Kajagori Lakshmi Puja would begin on a full moon night, and people would see no sign of Ekkori any more.
Balaram, the potter, would make a small image of Lakshmi for the Puja. Ekkori made clay tiles, square in shape. Then with a chisel he carved on them Lakshmi’s owl, ears of rice, caskets and elephants with raised trunks, fish and lotus flowers.
Then he painted them in lovely glowing colours. He made his paints himself from earth, stones and flowers, and from the barks of trees.
On the day of the Puja, he would lay out rows of tiles at the feet of the goddess. All those who saw them were charmed.
At Bogura one only had to dig a few feet under the ground to find old stone statues of Vishnu and other gods.
“Tell me, Dada,” Ekkori would ask Balaram the potter eagerly, “does no one make images of stone like these any more?”
“Why do you ask, Ekkori?”
“Well, if anyone could, I would learn from him.”
“Let us not talk of that, son,” the potter would say with a sigh. “Those were the days of kings and emperors. They gave orders and men came bearing loads of stone. There are no more kings and emperors now. And those who knew how to carve in stone have forgotten everything.”
“What! No one remembers anything?”
“Not about stone carving. But in Vishnupur, they still know how to carve designs on clay tiles and make temples with them.”
“Where is Vishnupur?”
“A long way off, there in the south! But I have heard that even in Vishnupur, only Khudiram is still alive. The Rani has brought him to Natore and given him a house there. Khudiram is an old old man. His ancestors built splendid temples in Vishnupur and Sutanuti. Such marvellous workmanship!”
“Khudiram is in Natore?” asked Ekkori.
“Yes, at the Rani’s estate,” answered the potter. “It is one of the Rani’s whims. She wants to build another Banaras at Baranagar on the river Ganga. That is why Khudiram is such a welcome guest.”
“Is that true?”
“Yes, of course. But Khudiram is old now. He has asked the Rani to give him some good craftsmen so that he can train them and build the temple.”
“Do you think Khudiram will train me if I go?”
Perhaps the messenger would take Ekkori behind him on his horse to where Khudiram was.
Ekkori would fall at Khudiram’s feet and say, “Please come to our house. You will see the designs I have drawn on the wooden covers of Grandfather’s manuscripts.”
Khudiram would be very impressed on hearing this.
The only sad part was leaving Aunt behind. She could not see very well after dark. When she hand-stitched her beautiful coverlets, Ekkori had to thread the needle for her. Ekkori would miss her.
Aunt often said, “If God gave me a lot of money I would buy a brass cooking pot to boil the milk.” In the hot weather she used to say, “If only I could get a fine reed mat, I would spread it out and sleep comfortably. If someone gave me a sandalwood fan, I would cool myself with the sweet breeze. When will you grow up, Ekkori? When will my troubles end?”
Even now, If Ekkori had fever, Aunt would not cook any food. She would sit by him all day, fanning his head.
He went on thinking about Aunt, and the day wore on. Ekkori came down from the tree and ran to the main road.
The weekly market would be held that afternoon at Sherpur. Rows of bullock-carts were on their way there. They carried earthenware pitchers, jars, cooking pots and dish-covers; huge pumpkins, bales of cloth; wooden doors and windows, even cart-wheels; all to be sold at the market.
Ekkori ran and caught up with one of the carts. “Kaka, will you take me a little way?” he asked the cart driver.