In course of time school ended and college life began for Subrat. It didn’t, however, bring the much coveted independence. Also it was a new ‘C’ word that troubled him now, making a mockery of his just achieved adulthood.
As a school kid Subrat had looked at, as if from the foot of a hill, college students acting with freedom and abandon. They went to the movies or loitered near tea stalls and cinema halls until late evenings without the fear of incurring the wrath of their father. Uttam Mohanty, even before he became a matinee idol of Odia cinema, was their romantic youth icon whom the entire Baripada idolized. The drop-dead good looks of Kunia bhai—the name by which he endeared himself to Baripada, his shapely body built by exercise, the way he picked the clothes of the latest cut to wear, the bicycle on which he stylishly scoured the Baripada town made the whole young population enamoured of him. Girls couldn’t take their eye off this very incarnation of Kamadeb. And Kunia bhai was a college student. He was the boast and toast of MPC College as the Best Actor in college drama for two years in a row.
“Bina nana, what’s the secret of the college student’s worry-free life, his ability to do as he likes?” Subrat had asked his college-going elder cousin.
“Because college students are supposed to be adults, full scale men, not kids”, he had answered.
He had looked forward to this day in his life ever since. That time duly arrived, but without delivering what it promised. On the contrary, he found himself confronted with another dreaded ‘C’ word.
That was a hassle-free Sunday morning. Subrat glided down the slope to his mausi’s—maternal aunt—house at the river’s edge to give a hand with the preparations for receiving the most important guest, the father-in-law to be. The gentleman had already arrived and was being served refreshments. Wanting to make himself useful, Subrat carried the water jug and the steel glasses into the room where he sat, looking significant and dignified, as was the way with fathers-in-law.
“Who is this boy?”
“He’s my sister’s son, the one who has died,” mausi answered.
“What’s his father do?”
“Oh, a clerk,” mausi said, wanting to dispose of the matter as quickly as possible.
The first ‘C’ word was already working out its mischief. But another ‘C’ word was in the process of being born.
“Tell that half-caste boy not to come to our house after the marriage.”
The gentleman had left with the injunction, as Subrat discovered later from whispers and hearth-side talk that rippled over. But half-caste! He had heard about his mixed parentage from his relatives. But they usually made it a point to cushion the sledgehammer effect of the blow by referring to the mitigating circumstance of his brahminical upbringing in the home of his Aai—maternal grandmother—after the sudden death of his mother when he was a baby. For the others, of course, the mixed was only a see-through euphemism for the mongrel. And the word ‘half-caste’ summed it all up.
The memory of the future father-in-law had yielded up the word on this crucial tip-off by his mausi about his dead mother. It had perhaps further called to the gentleman’s mind the verse in the satirical monthly magazine, Niakhunta, that served up the juicy story of the scandal that had for a fleeting moment rocked the sleepy Baripada one September day in nineteen fifty six. The irreverent lines of the fire-brand—the literal meaning of Niakhunta— organ had reportedly offered to send the ever vigilant crow of the Oriya imagination, the damara kau, in hot pursuit of a matha in an out of the way nook called Jasipur (this would rise from obscurity to visibility two decades later as the home of the tigress queen Khairi and its tamer, Mr. Choudhury). The place was, of course, infamous just then as a wilderness and, hence, an ideal setting for an unnatural wedlock between a twice-born woman and a low-born man from Baripada, Subrat’s mother and father.
Suddenly a few more pieces of the jigsaw fell into place for Subrat. In a flash he saw the dark underside of the brightly lit clay lamp of his blessed double condition. He recalled how, if his mother’s side had given him the name of Subrat, his father’s side had insisted on calling him Chhayakant; how he had received two pairs of dresses regularly on the two Puja days (Ganesh and Saraswati), on Kumara Purnima (Festival of the Full Moon), and on the day of Padhuan Astami (Festival of the First Born). He understood the subtle power game that had been fought over him since he was little, with each warring side taking care to win some and lose some in order to maintain a fragile peace. If his father’s side had allowed him to get on with the maternally-donated name of Subrat, they had also made it clear that it was part of his patrimony that his birth day not be observed, as demanded by the karana custom.
The mother’s side, in turn, had tried to get even, nay, more than even, by making Subrat despise the karana caste rituals and all the agreed marks of that inferior birth. Through the devious but unshakeable process of brahminical ascription these were now epitomised in his father: such as a dusky skin colour, the absence of the glorious and life-enhancing sacred thread, the absence of hair in the chest, an ungainly spaced-out moustache resembling the face of a magura (catfish) and an awkwardly bulging waist line caused by the karana habit of wearing the lungi rather than the dhoti, and that too several inches below the navel. There had, of course, been a roughly equal division of the spoils between the two sides when it came to the use of the kinship terms. Subrat had been allowed to divide himself between nani, nana and kaka on the maternal side and apa, dei, bhai and dada on the paternal side, although he had cherished—been in fact made to do so—the former and had hated the latter.
So much then about his blessed double condition, which consigned him to a miserable half-life, as when he found himself referred to as a half-caste boy. That really was the last nail. He knew now that he would meet with barbs at every turn. All hopes of a life of dignity were at an end. And a life of evasion and stratagems seemed to be the only way out and forward.
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