Saturday, Jun 03, 2023

The Custard Apple’s Seed

Book Extract

The Custard Apple’s Seed

Kitty Texeira, an Anglo-Indian woman, has been living in McCluskieganj for decades, searching for her identity. An extract from Vikas Kumar Jha’s novel

The Trend Breaker:  Kitty Texeira has broken the stereotype of the Anglo-Indian community by marrying a local tribal man
The Trend Breaker: Kitty Texeira has broken the stereotype of the Anglo-Indian community by marrying a local tribal man Photo: Chinki Sinha

The struggle for existence was driving Kitty insane. The two met almost daily at the station but never exchanged any words. Their quarrels were limited to the four walls of Kitty’s house, for she did not believe in washing her dirty linen in public. She worked hard from morning till evening, selling fruits at the station, and it was with this work that she supported her family. Still she knew how bad her children felt about her struggle and their father’s utter indifference. In her heart of hearts, Kitty really had nothing against her husband. She knew the condition of his upbringing: she knew that his background was responsible for what he was, for the perverse streak in him. There was nothing she could do to change it, but, more than the others, it was Babloo who held Ramesh Munda responsible for all the ills that beset them, particularly his mother’s pathetic life. Babloo felt that Ramesh Munda alone was responsible for degrading Kitty, who came from a good, cultured family.

Many years ago, when Babloo was still a child, Kitty had taken him to the government primary school for enrolment. In spite of repeated inquiries about his father’s name, Babloo had refused to answer. Ultimately the boy had said, ‘Ask me any question other than my father’s name’. The headmaster had been taken aback, ‘Why does the boy hate his father so much? Please do send Ramesh Munda to me’, the headmaster had said. Kitty had replied, ‘There is no point at all, he will never come.’ Ultimately Babloo’s name had been entered as Babloo Taxeira in the school register. ‘Let it remain so!’ Kitty had requested.

Even in sleep, Babloo’s face looked agitated, not so the other siblings. In fact, the girls were always close to their father, but Babloo, even as a child, if his father so much as held him in his arms, would kick and go into such a paroxysm that his father would say, ‘Take him, he cries too much, the bastard’. Of her four children, Evelyn and Linda had taken after their father with jet-black hair and somewhat swarthy complexion, but Sylvia and Babloo looked like the Taxeiras, with their golden blonde hair and their rosy, pink complexion. Babloo would often look at his grandpa Taxeira’s photograph. The picture was taken in full uniform when his grandfather was serving in the British army. ‘Wow, what a handsome man! And this black weed, always drunk and ill-tempered, Ramesh Munda. He alone is responsible for my mother’s abject state; Babloo just couldn’t reconcile himself. If I could only draw out all my father’s blood from my body, he thought to himself. One day he had heard Ramesh Munda shout at his mother, ‘No matter what you may do or say, my blood runs through these children; and Babloo had heard him through. Despite Kitty’s wanting to disclose her life story to her children, she could not do so. She wanted to tell them the circumstances that forced her to marry an already married man with children. The children, including Babloo knew that Adivasis were, by nature, not a bad lot, they were just very irresponsible.

McCluskieganj: The Story of The Only Anglo-Indian Village in India |  Vikas Kumar Jha | Harper Peren
McCluskieganj: The Story of The Only Anglo-Indian Village in India | Vikas Kumar Jha | Harper Perennial India | 2015

Ramesh had not married Kitty out of dislike for his first wife, Phulwa. Phulwa had always lived with her parents in Mahuatand. Along with her children, it was she who pulled the domestic wagon never thinking that Ramesh Munda would marry once again and that too a mem. But the fact was that circumstances had forced Ramesh Munda to emerge as a protector to Kitty’s vulnerable and orphaned state.

Then Phulwa had come and created such a scene! Her father Kapil Munda, too, had come and called the panchayat to settle Ramesh Munda, but the panchayat too had balked. No one wanted to take sides. The point was that when Kapil Munda was negotiating his only child Phulwa’s marriage with Doman Munda’s son Ramesh, he had hoped Ramesh would come and settle with Phulwa in his part of the village. Ramesh would do farming on his land for all time. But Ramesh had flatly told him, ‘I will visit Mahuatand from time to time, but I cannot live with you. I have no objection in letting Phulwa stay with you and look after your land. I cannot leave McCluskieganj as the sahibs there are exceedingly fond of me: At the time, Ramesh Munda was working for the Taxeiras as well. But sadly enough, within a few years, both Kitty’s father and mother passed away. When Phulwa heard of Ramesh’s second marriage, she came to McCluskieganj and wept bitterly. ‘My curse is on you, Kitty. You will be destroyed’, she had said. Today, so many years later, Kitty often felt that she had invited the evil eye on herself. Yet, when she heard of Phulwa’s untimely death, Kitty felt sad for days on end. Phulwa had four daughters and one son, Suresh, from Ramesh Munda. Phulwa had got her daughters settled during her lifetime and Suresh used to work as a coolie in the railway station. When Babloo’s friends sometimes jokingly told him, ‘There goes your brother Suresh Munda’, Babloo would once again get into one of his black moods. But not Suresh, who would merely smile. Such jokes did not affect him, though Babloo would strut home and tell his mother, ‘Listen, I am not going to become a labourer, like Suresh Munda!’ Kitty could understand Babloo’s underlying intention in saying that, but she would just smile weakly.

Many years ago, when Babloo was still a child, Kitty had taken him to the government primary school for enrolment. In spite of repeated inquiries about his father’s name, Babloo had refused to answer.

Kitty’s stepson, Suresh, was a simple lad. She used to see him daily on her visits to the station. He use to spend the nights sleeping on Canteen Majeed’s bench. He did not have much truck with his father either. Kitty had often thought of asking him to sleep in her shack but resisted fearing Babloo’s response. Her little shack, with the asbestos roof, was the last one to be located on the margins of the village beyond which loomed the Kanka hills. She had built it with Ramesh after forfeiting her own beautiful bungalow to the moneylender after her parents’ death. The place was so desolate back then that it was called Siyartoli or the area of jackals. Recently it had acquired the new name of Vikastoli, but the old name persisted still. Even today that area was like an abandoned wasteland. Kitty’s shack, now old, was giving way. She had approached the BDO many times to help her avail of the Indira Awaas Scheme, so that she may restore the hut, but the BDO always put her off with a smile. ‘Memsahib also needs the Indira Awaas?’ Perhaps she would do well to grease a few palms, but Kitty unfortunately lacked the resource even for that.

The wraithlike, tobaccochewing, once beautiful woman, had now become the Kitty who went to and fro through her lonely hamlet consisting mainly of tamarind, jamun and guava trees. She was not beset by fears, and people wondered at her asperity, challenging the rumours that the forests abounded with spirits. Canteen Majeed would remark, ‘Which spirit will dare take on the indomitable spirit that Kitty herself is!’ She got her spiritual strength from the belief that her parents served as her guardian angels, keeping a constant vigil on her, that is, Kitty Munda nee Taxeira. Sometimes she would wake up in the middle of the night dreaming of her beautiful past. Feeling wretched, she would quietly go sit near the small lamp burning in the recess in the verandah wall. Chewing tobacco in the dark, she would look at her courtyard where she could vaguely see the contours of the custard apple tree. Its fine branches and leaves swaying in the breeze would take on a strange look. She hadn’t planted the tree. Probably the children had eaten and thrown out seeds that germinated, or maybe it sprouted from bird droppings. This fruit was so very tasty and yet so difficult to eat. The seed always got in the way, and yet, the one could not exist without the other—the black and the white. ‘Yes, it is that black seed that is destroying Babloo,’ thought Kitty. She sometimes felt that Babloo was not just her son, but a reincarnation of her father, who had come back to her, and who found the irresponsible Ramesh Munda totally unacceptable. Although in his last days, Mr Taxeira had been cared for very devotedly by Ramesh, Kitty felt that had she married him during her father’s lifetime, Mr Taxeira would probably have shot a bullet through his head.

Though he was a very loving parent, he was extremely conscious of class distinctions, and this lowborn, despicable tribal as his daughter’s husband would have been too much for him to bear.

But Mr Taxeira’s long-drawn illness had drained the family resources and driven them to penury. And when Mrs Taxeira too followed her husband to the grave, Bulkan Sao, the moneylender who had provided financial help, was relentless in claiming what he had given. Kitty had no option but to sell her family property. But where would she go? An unmarried girl, helpless as she was, with no support from any quarter, she broke down. It was then on that dark night that Ramesh Munda came and held her hands and said, ‘Memsahib, why do you cry when Ramesh Munda is with you; and Kitty found refuge and strength in this Adivasi. For Kitty, there was no looking back and there was no other man in her life.

Then followed her marriage to Ramesh Munda in Adivasi style. The Anglo-Indians of the village had responded very sharply and were unsupportive. Maybe things would have been different had they taken Kitty under their wing, but that involved a lot of responsibility and commitment. So it fell upon the Ganjhus of the place to solemnize the wedding rites. Kitty still remembered the songs the women sang and how they dressed her. Even now when Kitty heard those songs at Adivasi weddings, she could not help but remember her own—‘Who bought the vermilion and kohl for my eyes? My beloved did bring them.’

Now so many years later, she wondered where it all went. ‘All consumed by hunger and poverty, she mused. She hadn’t seen herself in the mirror in ages. Maybe just once in six months or so. She had greyed prematurely. Sylvia loved adorning herself with alta and kajal. Sometimes she asked her mother somewhat petulantly, ‘What is wrong with you, Mummy? Why don’t you put on kajal and bindi?’ And her mother answered, ‘At this age?’ What age, one wonders, had Kitty reached? She was still quite young and beautiful. Perhaps Kitty realized her responsibilities, her lack of propriety could lead people to take advantage of her person. That was why perhaps she stopped dressing up. ‘No, Mummy. Our bad luck is Ramesh Munda’, Sylvia would say after some deliberation. Kitty remained peevish the whole day. Several trains came and went, but she did not venture to board them with her fruit basket and sell her fruits. Inspite of being so far from Ramesh Munda, she could never explain to her children, least of all to Babloo, her relationship with their father.

No matter how abusive she got with Ramesh, she could never tolerate her children humiliating their father. That is why often when she sensed Babloo warming up to fight his father, she would jump in and start a fight herself with Ramesh Munda before Babloo could.

Nowadays they rarely saw Ramesh Munda, who worked for Suresh Gupta’s small hotel at the station. He prepared sweetmeats for the hotel from morning till night, then slept outside it on two benches joined together. For many years, Ramesh had been a coolie at the station. He would reach the luggage of the tourists to the guest house. When the Shaktipunj Express arrived in the middle of the night, carrying the Bengali tourists from Calcutta, Ramesh was always around. So familiar had they become with the coolie’s name that the moment they alighted they hollered in their anglicized accents, ‘Romesh Munda coolie kidhar hai?’ He would materialize, as if from nowhere, concealing a smile behind his thick moustache, and ‘would double up as a guide as well. ‘You must see the watchtower on top of the Kanka hill. Then there is Bahri sahib’s love temple, and the Chatti river, and of course Mr McCluskie’s fountain: All this despite being a man of few words. Yet Ramesh thought that it was his duty to acquaint the tourists with all  McCluskieganj had to offer.

Ramesh gave up his coolie’s job however. After a while, keeping awake all night to receive the tourists proved to be difficult. It was then that he approached Suresh Gupta. ‘Can you employ me for washing the dishes in your hotel?’ he had asked. Suresh Gupta tried to dissuade him saying, ‘You will not get much by way of pay. Also, the tips you get from the tourists will not be there, how will you manage?’ But Ramesh had replied, ‘I have not even spoken to you about money.’

Anyway, it was all settled and Ramesh started working in the hotel. His work was very neat and satisfying. After all, he had been trained by the sahibs. Sometimes Suresh Gupta joked, ‘Having married a mem and being trained by sahibs, my Ramesh has turned into a black sahib himself. If only he had not succumbed to the vicious habit of drinking. Often Suresh Gupta’s work required leaving his hotel in Ramesh’s care, but he knew how perfectly honest Ramesh was. He would give him the keys of his cash box. This key Ramesh would hang around his neck in a sacred string. No matter how drunk, Ramesh never stole from Suresh Gupta’s cash box. It was as it were a sacred responsibility for him. Yes, he would borrow from others if need be. To this Suresh Gupta’s halwai by the name of Sukhdev remarked, ‘So much faith in a drunk. Then one day, Sukhdev went home and never came back. Suresh Gupta was very distressed. He told Ramesh, ‘How will I run this business if I don’t serve snacks and sweets with tea to my customers: And Ramesh answered, ‘I will make all the items that Sukhdev used to make, gulab jamun, kalaakand, rosogolla, you name it.’ Suresh Gupta retorted angrily, ‘There is no limit to your idiocy. How will you make them?’ Ramesh said, at least, give me a chance: Ramesh started making the sweets and, to his masters surprise, very successfully as well. Suresh Gupta was really impressed, and so Ramesh Munda was elevated from dish cleaner to halwai.
When his daughters visited the station, Ramesh always gave them a packet of sweets to take home. The girls would happily bring back the sweets. But Babloo wouldn’t touch them. ‘You are greedy, you girls. You must have gone wagging your tails.’ If his mother kept some on his plate, Babloo would just get up saying, ‘I don’t like sweets; and walk away.