Saturday Story 24: Connect the Dots
It was 4.30 am – still dark outside – but Didi always woke up at this time. Four hours of sleep was all she got, most nights. It was enough for her.
“Om Namah Shivay, om namah shivay,” she chanted softly as she went about her ablutions. Followed by some light exercise and 20 minutes of vigorous pranayam.
People whispered about her size – made nasty jokes. ‘Rosogulla mata mukha’. She didn’t care. And she didn’t stop eating her daily rosogulla either.
What did these people know about the things that really matter. Most women spent their lives searching for a husband. And then clinging on to the man. Did they do anything useful phor the society? Phor the country??
Na na, all these people who criticise, who cast aspersions and call me names. They are jealous. How can a woman achieve so much! She can – but only if she sacrifices everything for the goal.
“Bhen I was 19 years old… I took a vow. I will nhever marry.”
Bas, from that day life had become simple. Didi gave up all the womanly pleasures – dressing up, socialising, gossiping. She bought 3 saris – white with maroon border. It made life so simple.
After all, I am the daughter of Bibek Das, a revolutionary, a freedom fighter. Baba had only two sets of kurta pyjama and a spotless Gandhi topi. Every other year, during Durga pooja, he would get a new set, exactly like the previous one.
“He would be so proud of me,” she often thought. Nibedita Das – first woman Chief Minister of Sonar Bangla state. Youngest mhember of parliament at the age of 26, defeating the 4 time sitting MP from the Hind Communist Party, in the elections of 1984.
Some people said she was just lucky and rode the sympathy wave which put the Azad Congress party in power. But who can ride the wave? Only one who knows how to swim in dangerous whaters. Going up, going down, almost drowning… but fighting her way back to the surface.
A woman with the will to survive.
“I am that woman,” she affirmed, bowing down to Ma Kali and placing a red vermillion dot on her forehead. Her finger went to the buzzer and an aide hurriedly appeared.
“There is a vhisitor… make her wait for an hour… then bring to my office. Don’t disturb me till then.”
The aide nodded and scurried off.
Receiving visitors was a tiresome part of being Chief Minister. Dignitaries, ambassadors, heads of state – she had met them all and managed cordial interaction.
But today, she felt different. When her P.A. mentioned a request from a prominent businessman for a meeting, she had treated it with the usual disdain. The request, however, carried an additional paragraph which the P.A. also read out.
“Madam, my wife Geeta was your class fellow in Mount Carmel girls secondary school in Bishnubhumi. She sends her regards to you.”
The words hit her in the gut… bringing back a flood of memories. Geeta Bafna, the girl who came to school with fancy hairclips and shiny black buckled-up shoes. She was always smiling, always came with two tiffins – one for short break and one for the long break.
The tiffins had sandwiches with cheese and biscuits with jam. Fragrant luchies with aloo dum and yellow rice with big-big kajus. How she longed to share that tiffin… But how? When her own contained nothing but dry chapati and onion, with a sliver of pickle.
The same tiffin, day after day after day.
And even that, she knew, was a luxury. Many a day Ma claimed she had eaten at her employer’s house when she was probably going to bed hungry. But what to do, Baba’s medicines were so expensive. And still, he was only getting weaker and weaker.
“I wish I could do something,” thought Nibedita. And soon, that opportunity came.
Pronobda used to deliver newspapers door-to-door but evening, walking in the crowded bazaar, his foot was run over by a haathgaadi. The doctor said it was a fracture, Pronobda would not be able to deliver any newspaper for at least 2 months.
So it was that Nibedita got a job which paid the princely sum of 5 rupees a month. Though it meant waking up at 4 am each morning, and sometimes she got late for school.
“Naughty child!” Sister Bertha would scold her, in front of the entire class. “Cultivate good habits! Let me see your fingernails….”
Nibedita’s hesitated to extend her plump little hands. The fingernails had not been cut, they were dirty.
“Hmmpph,” snorted Sister Bertha. “Disgraceful!”
From that day on, there seemed to be a hard corner in Sister’s heart. She derived almost sadistic pleasure in singling out Nibedita and finding fault with her.
In Bishnubhumi, Durga Pooja was the biggest and grandest festival of the year. The trustee of the school announced a drawing competition with a prize of Rs 100 to the winning entry. Such a big sum of money! All the girls were excited…
The theme chosen was: “Amar Desh, Amar Gaon.” A scene from Thakurma’s village flashed in front of Nibedita’s eyes. The village her family visited every summer and winter. She remembered sitting under the jackfruit tree, watching men and women working the fields.
She began drawing furiously, pouring the scene onto paper, using only a pencil. She kept drawing, and drawing, until two hours had flown by. And the bell rang.
A week later, results were declared. The first prize went to none other than Geeta Bafna. It was a village scene with blue mountains, green meadows, a cute little house with a chimney and a little girl in a white bonnet, clutching a red rose.
“This painting is so beautiful… so colourhul… ” gushed Sister Bertha, later that day in the class. “Oh, it is so joyful to look at!”
Geeta beamed with pride and happiness. And then Sister looked at Nibedita, and curled her lips.
“And this…. what is this?!! she screeched, waving around a sheet with a pencil sketch of a thatched hut, skinny bare-chested men, an emaciated cow and a stray dog.
Shaking her head, Sister Bertha pronounced, “Nibedita I can say with confidence, you will never be an artist… ”
As the sheet was passed to the errant student, there was giggling and whispering. When she reached home, Nibedita tore up her drawing into a hundred pieces and said to herself…
“If I cannot be artist I whill be a scientist”!
By the end of the year she had topped the class, in the board examinations, she topped the school. And got a scholarship to study mathematics in St Stanislaus college. There, in the first year of her bachelor degree she accidentally joined student politics. And soon found that mathematical theorems no longer excited her…
She was born to lead.
An election is all about adding up the right numbers. But there is also an undefinable X factor… which a lucky few possess.
Through winning and losing, campaigning and mud-slinging, presiding and pronouncing, hugging and backstabbing, it’s a long and desolate journey. And when you are at the very top, you are absolutely alone.
One morning the Chief Minister was inaugurating a residential school for children of sex workers and victims of trafficking, whose families refused to take them back. As she toured the building, in one of the classrooms, the CM’s eyes fell upon a row of easels and paints.
Instinctively she picked up the brush, dipped it in blue and painted a bold stroke across the canvas. She picked up another brush and spattered the colour red. Another brush, another stroke, another colour… it was a frenzy of action and abstraction.
It was a full 5 minutes before Nibedita recovered her bearings, and put down the brush.
The superintendent of secondary schools was the first to clap. Followed by the principal, the teachers, the students and the peons.
“You are a Kalakaar, didi,” exclaimed the superintendent. “Please sign the canvas… we will be honoured to hang it in the assembly hall!”
The Chief Minister beamed from ear to ear.
When she returned to her office that evening, she directed her P.A. to procure 20 canvases. And water colours, oil paints, palettes and easels. Every possible paraphernalia of an artist. Which government money could buy.
Painting became her passion, her release, her therapy. And a means of marking her territory.
A canvas by Nibedita Das became a mandatory fixture in all government buildings.
Occupying pride of place with portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and B R Ambedkar.
Geeta Saraf waited outside the CM’s office, with nervous trepidation. Nibedita Das had turned down her husband’s request for a meeting (and understandably so). He was, after all, in big, big trouble.
But she could not turn down a request from Geeta herself.
Geeta had faint memories of a plump, dark-skinned girl who was often made fun of in class. Had she been one of the mean girls? Diffcult to recall, after all these years!
Well, who knew that of all the girls who had ever studied at Mount Carmel senior secondary school, Bishnubhumi, this girl would blaze a trail of glory… they just might have been kinder to her. But such is life.
Geeta recalled that fateful day when she won the 1st prize in a Durga puja competition at the school. That’s when she got it into her head that she was destined to be an artist. She enrolled in the JK School of Art but in the second year of college, her parents found a good match.
They met at Taj Bengal, and Geeta happily agreed. After marriage, Vinay encouraged his wife to get her degree, but somehow it never happened. Actually, Geeta was relieved. Copy karna aasaan tha but apne man se kuch banana mere bas ki baat nahin. It was enough to be able to help her kids with their art assignments… and admire the work of others.
“Madam Geeta, CM is ready to see you now,” said the P.A., breaking Geeta out of her reverie.
NIbedita Das greeted Geeta warmly, ordered tea and offered sondesh. She enquired after her children, and of other classmates’ whereabouts, delicately skirting around the subject of Geeta’s husband.
After tea had been drunk, and there was no more small talk to make, there was an awkward silence. Geeta hesitated… there was no option but to bite the bullet.
She knew, from reliable sources, that every kind of favour was available at the right price.
But it was a delicate matter… how to bring it up?
“You know…” said the CM, clearing her throat. “Last wheek some industrialist came to meet me and he offered me 5 khokas to settle his matter. Can you imagine… a bribe! Me, daughter of freedom fighter Bibek Das, who has no personal nheeds, no personal bhank account!”
Nibedita shook her head sadly.
“But you… my old school fellow… you know what kind of whoman I am. You would nhever insult me like that!”
Geeta nodded in assent, her mind racing… was it a lost cause?
Just then, her eyes fell upon a painting hanging on the left wall panel. It looked like it had been made by a kindergarten child. But who?… the CM had no husband, or children or grandchildren.
And then, Geeta noticed the artist’s signature.
“Didi,” she said, “You are right… my husband may be in trouble but let him face his karmas… I have not come to meet you for that.”
An air of expectancy hung in the expansive air-conditioned room.
“I am a connoisseur of art… and lately, I have been hearing a lot about your extraordinary paintings. This one here… on the wall… I cannot take my eyes off it!”
Geeta stood up… and pretended to take a closer look.
“Didi… it is my humble request… I would like to have this painting to hang in my living room… for all to see and admire… the work of a true artist.”
Nibedita Das beamed from ear to ear.
“I will hand over a small token payment to your P.A. Didi… mana mot korbe.”
That afternoon, Geeta Saraf walked out of the CM secretariat, leaving behind a fat briefcase. And carrying with her a painting of indescribable value.
Six weeks later, all cases against Vinay Saraf were dropped.
Art collectors from all over India now queue up at the CM’s office… Paintings by Nibedita Das greet entrants to every industralist’s home. Demand for paintings is known to peak just before election season.
Sister Bertha – had you been a bit kinder to that plump little girl – an artist may never have been born!
Don’t miss the audio file: Inside the Author’s Mind: Why I wrote ‘Connect the Dots’.