Shasti Babu chewed on a guava twig and contemplated his banana tree. The tip of the twig had become a brush after two minutes between his teeth. He spat out loose fibre and massaged his teeth and gums. The banana tree grew at a slant on the tiny patch of land adjoining his back door, and almost tipped over into Nani Gopal’s house. Shasti Babu knew his next-door neighbours stole a leaf or two every now and then, so he kept a watchful eye on his precious tree. Especially now that a glossy garnet-coloured banana blossom was curving out of the foliage and Jamai Shasti was only a month away.
Shasti Babu’s daughter had been married off the previous year with as much pomp as he could muster. He prayed that his daughter’s in-laws were pleased with all that he had given them—his daughter, the ten grams of gold jewellery she wore on her wedding day, the twenty Tangail saris as namaskaris, the top-class plywood bedroom set, the Salem steel utensil set, the six-kilo rohu fish, the boxes of extra-large sweets for the totto, the Bajaj scooter, the Titan watch and gold buttons for his son-in-law, as well as the guest house where he had put up all forty of them for three days. The wedding had been the talk of their locality.
Nani Gopal’s wife, whose own daughter had not had such a grand wedding, had come to them complaining that her daughter-in-law had not brought half the things Shasti Babu had given his daughter. She had then added with a glint in her eyes, ‘But my daughter-in-law is so fair, naturally her parents didn’t have to work hard at finding a boy.’ Shasti Babu ignored the jibe, but Bimala fumed and gnashed her teeth for days. ‘We will see what colour grandchild she gets! Mark my words, it will be coal-black like her son. Or striped, like a zebra!’
Shasti Babu’s concerns, however, were of a more immediate nature—what to feed his son-in-law for Jamai Shasti. For, as Shasti Babu well knew, the onus of keeping his daughter’s in-laws happy by showing his eternal gratitude towards them for having selected her fell squarely upon his shoulders.
Sundari, the cow, rubbed her neck against the banana tree. ‘Ai! Hut-tut-tut!’ Shasti Babu charged towards her with his arm raised. Sundari flicked her tail at him disdainfully and moved away. ‘Arrogant cow,’ muttered Shasti Babu under his breath as he shortened the rope with which Sundari was tied up. He didn’t want her upset.
Sundari was a good cow. A cross between a Patnaiya and a New Zealand breed, she was as beautiful as her name implied. She had brought two female calves into the world after joining Shasti Babu’s household five years earlier. One of them had already fetched a good price. The younger calf remained by her mother’s side, drinking the three litres of milk that Shasti Babu generously allowed it from the thirteen litres which Sundari generally produced. Now that the calf had started to eat fodder, he was seriously thinking of reducing her quota by a litre. Good quality cow’s milk sold for fifteen rupees a litre. Sundari was an important earning member of the Shasti household.
Shasti Babu inspected the banana tree one last time before going inside. Bimala met him at the kitchen door and handed over the two cloth bags he needed for the market before going back into the kitchen. She would get the rice and dal done by the time he returned with their day’s requirement of vegetables and fish. Shasti Babu had retired from his post as a non-teaching staff at the local college. But he still went there and kept the ledgers on a freelance basis. The money was a pittance, but it gave him something to do, and helped him stick to his earlier routine for at least part of the day. It also kept him out of Bimala’s hair in the morning, so her own routine was not disrupted. Shasti Babu enjoyed a breakfast of rice with dal and fritters or some light fish gravy before leaving for college.
With the bags rolled up under his arm, Shasti Babu went up to Sundari. Every day he took the cow and the calf to Gobindo’s cowshed. Gobindo milked Sundari and measured out the milk under Shasti Babu’s watchful eyes. The calf mooed in anticipation of the moment when it would be let loose and allowed to rush at Sundari’s teats. Gobindo paid Shasti Babu twelve rupees a litre for the milk. That was three rupees less than the market price, in lieu of which he took Sundari and her calf out to graze along with his cows. Gobindo brought her back in the evening, when he milked her again under Shasti Babu’s supervision before the latter took Sundari and her calf back home. What Shasti Babu did not know was that Gobindo milked her in the afternoon as well, and extracted two litres. Ignorance is bliss. Shasti Babu amiably listened to Gobindo gossip as he milked Sundari, and she flicked her tail at both of them.
Shasti Babu counted the money. Today Gobindo had given him less than usual. But he was not worried. The amount due would be jotted down in Gobindo’s hisheber-khaata, and repaid when it was time to sell off the second calf. Gobindo would either buy the heifer himself or act as a go-between for its purchase by a fellow milkman. He would also deduct the fees for the services of the stud bull that he kept, and which had impregnated Sundari. This was the standing arrangement he had with Shasti Babu and other bhadrolok Bengalis like him who owned a cow or two, but would not or could not make a business out of the animals.
Shasti Babu, content with the money in his pocket, walked off to the haat to buy their daily necessities. He was by nature a contented man. Even when he prayed for his daughter’s happiness at her in-law’s, he prayed with the sort of satisfied half-heartedness that told Bholanath, his patron lord, that Shasti could adjust his degree of contentment according to the lord’s dole.
Shasti Babu first scoured the market, looking for bargains. Today’s prized catch were the small carp swimming around in earthen pots. But the koi or climbing perch which looked like they were of the correct breed, and would do Bimala’s cooking justice, were a tempting choice, too. Shasti Babu, whose expert eyes could make out the pedigree of any fish, ogled the koi eagerly. Of course it would not do to let that thug Jiban Das know how eager he was, for that would make him lose his bargaining power. He acted extra gruff, but the koi was too much to resist and he did not clinch the deal entirely to his satisfaction. Shasti Babu consoled himself with the thought that sometimes quality mattered more than price, and moved on to the vegetable sellers.
The season for cauliflowers had waned, and those that were still around were ragged things that even Sundari would reject. The cabbages had already lost their winter crispness. However, the pumpkins looked bright, and the tomatoes were smooth and red, though less juicy than their sisters in season. The saving grace of the market was the mound of potol or wax gourds lying on a jute mat before the vendor. Shasti Babu looked at them and visualized the dolmas Bimala could make for Jamai Shasti.
Lately, Shasti Babu had taken to visualizing every vegetable and fish for the banquet for his son-in-law. Every time he encountered a particularly robust ash gourd, or a tender long bottle gourd, or an irresistibly succulent prawn, he would close his eyes and see it in its most splendid culinary form. In this happy mood of anticipative reverie, Shasti Babu had of late been buying more food than was necessary for his wife and himself, much to Bimala’s vexation. Today was no different, and by the time Shasti Babu was through, his pockets were empty and his two cloth bags were bursting at the seams.
Bimala received his bounty in silence. She knew he was going through the initial process of selection through elimination for that perfect meal, the memory of which would carry their daughter through the rest of the year in sheer marital bliss. She had been cooking two extra items for the past three weeks to work out possible choices for the final menu. Later, after their siesta, when she served cups of tea with Marie biscuits, both of them would discuss the pros and cons of the dishes tried out that day and the night before. The menu would be drawn up afresh every time an item appealed but did not match with the rest. This problem of a constantly changing menu was compounded by another matter. They did not know much about their son-in-law’s food preferences, except for two things. First, he liked fish more than mutton, but was allergic to shellfish. And second, he loved sweets but not the standard shop-made rossogollahs and pantuahs but the complicated home-made variety, like gokul pithey, paatishapta pithey, chhaanaar jilepi and so on.
Their son-in-law’s sweet tooth created a bit of a problem for Bimala, because the season for good date jaggery had ended, and most of the sweets he liked could only blossom under the influence of that fragrant brown sweetening agent. Shasti Babu was generous with advice but Bimala knew she had to come up with not just a reasonably good substitute, but one considerably superior to the original. Beads of sweat would gather on her forehead as she grated the coconut for yet another version of gokul pithey.
The days flew by as Bimala sweated it out in her kitchen. Shasti Babu put on a couple of kilos. Summer gathered steam and the menu changed one more time. Meanwhile, the banana blossom grew and grew until it almost touched the ground. Shasti Babu could tell what delectable mochaar-paturi it would make. He watched its growth excitedly and, two days before Jamai Shasti, he brought Bimala out in the early hours of the day to take a look at the culinary prize growing in their garden.
The banana blossom was gone.
Bimala and Shasti Babu stared at the blossom-less stub in disbelief. A solitary outer petal lay on the ground where the vandalism had taken place. The hoof mark on the powdery surface of the dry soil clearly revealed the culprit’s signature in the pale morning light.