Everyone in Khanayan was talking about the thefts that had been happening in the village for the last one month. It was a nagging nuisance, though the local police was not too interested in catching a thief who seemed apparently harmless. And petty. Stealing a pillow, sometimes a bag of rice and other times slipping in the darkness of the night with a pair of leather shoes or a brand new button-up bush-shirt someone had brought back from a trip to Calcutta.
However no one really found out who it was, whether it was a gang of chichke thieves wiping off stuff from homes of the residents of the small village of Khanyan, or was it someone working all by himself.
The Higher Secondary exams had just got over. The boys were coming back home. And so was Didima’s grandson – Gopal.
Didima was the village grandmother. People recognized her from faraway by her silver-grey hair, almost like a halo under a bright light.
But this time it was special since Gopal was bringing home three of his friends from Bihar who studied with him in the same school and shared the same lodge he lived in. The three boys wanted to experience what Gopal always talked about - catch fresh fish from the pond in Gopal’s father’s property, frolic in the pond while the servants cleaned the fish and cut them into thick slices to deep fry them in mustard oil, right under the trees.Three more boys meant more sondesh for Didima to make, and more beds for the servants to lay outside in the courtyard for the young babus to sleep at night.
After dinner that night the boys ate mangoes and went to watch the jatra. The sondesh Didima spent the whole afternoon making were untouched.
It was only very late in the night that the boys came home and got into their tented mosquito nets.
He came too, crawling like a spider. The darkness of the amavasya night a perfect cover for his dark-skinned body. The mustard oil on his skin glistening under his own gaze. He smiled at his own slick idea of applying handful of shorshe tel each time he stepped out for his nocturnal adventures, so that even if he got caught, he could slip off the grip.
He tiptoed till he reached the first few steps of the staircase descending downstairs to the courtyard. His flamingo-like walk cast a shadow on the sidewall from a little ray of light from somewhere. He held on to the discriminating handrails, feeling the coolness of the iron under his hands.
He pressed his bare back on the wall just as he reached the end of the staircase. He paused, almost certain he heard someone cough.
Crouching and crawling were not the greatest positions to be in for a tall man like him. But he knew it was the only way he could be unseen behind the rows of hay sack kept at the sides of the courtyard.
With one push of his hand he opened the door. It was dark, but by now his eyes were adjusted to the dimness around him. At first he groped, touching everything around him. He felt something round and smooth. Potato.
But today he wanted some oil or ghee to take back home. Whatever was left from cooking today’s murgi’r jhol, the hen he had grabbed from Ramaprasad’s chicken coop, he had slobbered it all.
He stretched the palms of his hands and pressed them against the wall, stood up from where he was sitting and kept feeling his way up to where the jerrycans of oil were kept. He picked one up, and wrapped his arms around it.
This was easy, he thought. He made a mental route plan of his return. He knew his bare feet would give him good traction on any surface if he had to change his track.
He started moving towards the door. His right foot collided with something hard while his unbalanced left stepped on a potato. He was on his back, the jerrycan spilling oil all over him. The smell of pure khaati mustard oil filling up the bhandaar ghor. He knew the thud was loud and he had to act fast. He did try, but the oily floor left his hands and feet unanchored. He remained frozen in oil.
The boys were already towering over him. Their dark shadows looming large over his fallen body. Someone had turned the overhead light bulb on. He turned his face away from the light and squinted his eyes.
They treated him the way a thief ought to have been. First came a barrage of kicks and blows. Then came high-pitched questions, more like screams of wanting to know his name, who he was, what he was doing there, what had he stolen.
Then they tied him up around the cement pillar outside the storeroom. It was too late anyway to walk him to the police thana, they decided they’d take him to Inspector Saha in the morning. “Lets all get some sleep'”, someone said in a hoarse voice.
He felt the nudge of a soft hand on his shoulder. His head had bobbed to the side in his sleep and did not notice Didima kneeling in front of him.
She was talking in whispers, quickly freeing his hands from the coir rope he was tied with. He rubbed the wrists of his hands and saw dent lines from moisture and twining of the rope.
She led him back to the bhandaar. The oil was still spilled on the floor. Someone had moved the oil can and kept it on a small stool.
“Tui kay”, she asked wanting to know who he was. He remained silent. Didima gestured him to sit on the floor. He followed meekly and crouched, his arms wrapped around his folded knees.
In her soft affectionate voice she asked why he stole, if he was hungry, whether he lived in Khanayan. He said nothing and kept his gaze focused on Didima’s feet peeping from under her black-bordered white sari.
Some moments later, he felt a touch of cool metal at the back of his hand. Didima had got him a ghoti of water and some of her sondesh.
“Khe nay, baba”, she said seating herself on a cane modha in front of him. That’s when he started to howl. Just like a baby, bawling and muffling his own sobs. In between drinking water and stuffing his mouth with the sondesh. He choked, ate the sondesh and gulped the water down all at the same time. Didima cried too. Wiping her mist-filled eyes with the end of her starched white sari.
He thought those were the best sondesh he had ever had. He suddenly felt hungry and stuffed two sondesh at a time in his mouth, savoring the melt-in-your-mouth feel of the sweets, biting on a little piece of nut and the sweet flavor of cardamoms. He cried more wondering why his own Mother had never made these for him.
Didima sat there happy and very amused. Her eyes twinkled to see him wolf down her sondesh. She then decided she’d wrap some more sondesh in a piece of torn newspaper. She handed him the package which he grabbed with urgent joy.Nothing was said. So nothing was heard outside the walls of the storeroom, even when he left. Didima stood at the backdoor of the house looking at the back of a tall, lean man walking with his head bent down…
More photos of my sondesh-making experience are here.