ABOUT THE STORY As arguably the twentieth-century Indian writer with the imagination and technical gifts most suited to the creation of great fiction, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay continues to enjoy renown across India—though unfortunately not elsewhere—for his stories and novels, written in his native Bengali.
Every reader finds some new way to describe the legerdemain of Bibhutibhushan (as he is commonly known in Bengal). One interpretation holds that here is a narrative artist who seems to drop into the world of his characters and then become invisible, producing the illusion that the story is telling itself. His sympathy is so vast that each person touched by the roving lens of his fictional narration seems momentarily to turn into the protagonist of the story. The work of many great fiction writers seems somehow self-consciously literary, but not so with Bibhutibhushan, who prizes—and produces—narrativeness (a term used in literary theory), that mysterious quality of constant motion and confident verisimilitude that makes a reader forget he or she is reading a story.
Here are the opening pages of one of Bibhutibhushan’s best novels, Adorsho Hindu Hotel. For a while, the narration holds the daily life of the hotel in focus. Then, from out of the picture, emerges the unforgettable figure of the cook Hajari, a middle-aged toiler and dreamer. “Why then did he weave these dreams every day here by the Churni?” the narrator asks. “Because it was pleasant, that was why.” No greater insight is required—and Hajari’s reasons are also the reasons why we read fiction.
Adorsho Hindu Hotel
Translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha
EVEN IF IT WASN’T WRITTEN in capital letters, lots of people knew that Bechu Chakkotti’s hotel for meals in Ranaghat’s railway market was the first and original hotel in town. With the railway market flourishing beyond imagination over the past few years, the fortunes of the hotel had improved too. In just ten years it had acquired a permanent structure, and such was the press of customers that even four baamun thakurs—Brahmin cooks—could not cope.
Bechu Chakkotti, or Chakraborty—aged over 50, well-built, neither fair nor dark, with salt-and-pepper hair—was sitting on a cot in the front room of his hotel, leaning his elbow on a small wooden box. Ten in the morning. A train on the Bongaon line had just arrived. A trickle of passengers emerged through the gate on the street.
Moti, the servant at Bechu Chakkotti’s hotel, was stationed on the road, shouting, “This way babu, the rice is hot, the fish curry is ready, the daal and tarkari too, Hindu hotel, babu…”
Enticed by his promises, two of the travellers ignored the warm invitations by the men from Jadu Banrujjey’s, or Banerjee’s, hotel and picked Chakkotti’s instead.
“Here, put your luggage here. Just a minute babu, you must buy a ticket first. Which class do you want to eat in? Fust or seken—five annas for fust class, three for seken…”
The rule here was that customers had to purchase a ticket—a scrap of white paper with a number and the class on it—before entering. One of the cooks from the kitchen took their tickets and showed them to their appropriate place. The eating area was divided into two by a makeshift wall of bamboo strips. First class on one side, second class on the other. After the customers had left all these tickets would be deposited with Bechu Chakkotti, which he would reconcile with the cash and the leftovers to ensure that the cooks had not pilfered any food.
The servant arrived to announce, “Just four customers. Two went off to them.”
“Let them,” said Bechu Chakkotti. “Go take up a place closer to the station, the Shantipur is about to arrive. It’s always got customers. And tell the cook not to put on any more rice till Shantipur arrives. Let them manage with a single pot for now.”
The hotel maid, Padma, entered, saying, “Give me some money, babu. I’ll go get the doi.”
“Doi?” asked Bechu. “What do you need curd for?”
Padma-jhi chuckled. “Someone’s going to eat fust class. He’s sent word. Needs doi, bananas…”
Bechu said, “Who is it? Is it a customer?”
“Of course it’s a customer. He’ll pay. Not eating for free. My nephew’s arriving on the train from Shantipur.”
“Of course not, no need for him to pay. Just a boy visiting for a day or two, why should he have to pay? Here’s the money for the doi…”
Bechu never made such offers to anyone else, but it was a different matter with Padma the maid. The hotel ran on her wishes. There was no one to overrule her, which led mean people to say all sorts of things. But such observations should not be entertained.
The train from Shantipur was heard arriving.
The servant was setting off for the station in search of customers when Bechu Chakkotti said, “Don’t forget that you’ll be sacked if you can’t bring in more customers. Why should I pay you if the money goes down the drain? You brought in just twenty-three customers last week, can a hotel survive that way?”
Padma-jhi said, “I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve told you. Raise the price by three annas to fourteen paise, and get rid of this fust class. How many customers do you get there anyway? Jodu Banrujjey has lowered the rates at his hotel…”
Bechu said, “Shh, speak softly. If anyone hears…”
Moti the servant returned with six customers.
“This way, babu,” said Bechu. “Put your bags here. Which class will the babus eat in? Five annas and three annas…”
One of them said, “I hope you still have your old baamun thakur. We’re here for his cooking. We haven’t forgotten what he served us last time. Any mutton?”
“No babu, there’s no mutton now, but if you place an order for dinner…”
The man said, “We’re here to fight a case, you see, if we win, by the grace of Pora-ma and Siddheswari, we’ll have to stay the night. We have business with the lawyer tomorrow—three kilos of mutton for the evening then, but you must get your old baamun thakur to cook. We’re eating somewhere else otherwise.”
When they had bought their tickets and entered the eating area, Padma the maid said, “That wretched man, that porarmukho minshe, had better not hear all this. I don’t know why people praise his cooking, what’s so fine about it?”
“Get the tickets from the cook,” Bechu told her. “Let me do the accounts right away. No more trains now—only the Murogachha local at one…”
“What about the Assam Mail?” said Padma.
“I don’t see too many customers on the Assam Mail these days. At least nine or ten customers used to be guaranteed earlier… times are bad now.”
Going in to collect the tickets from the cook, Padma said on her return, “Can you believe it, all the daal in fust class is gone. Hajari thakur’s doing. And here are all these customers sending him halfway to heaven with joy, how glorious your cooking is… I can’t bear to see all this nonsense. Now what do you want to do about the daal…”
“How much daal left?”
“Very little. Barely enough for three people…”
“How many did he cook for?”
“I gave him enough moog daal for ten, to make murighanto for the fust class, and a musuri-khesari mix for thirty for the seken class…”
“Send for Hajari thakur…”
Padma-jhi decided to fetch Hajari the cook herself.
He was about 45 or 46, frail, dark. To all appearances a harmless, innocent man.
Bechu Chakkotti said, “How did we run out of daal, Hajari thakur?”
“How would I know, babu?” answered Hajari. “I didn’t give the customers any more than usual. What can I do if there isn’t enough.”
Padma screeched, “The devil lives in your bones, thakur. I saw you with my own eyes piling the murighanto on those babus’ plates after they praised you. They must have given you a tip too…”
“You know exactly what sort of tips I get here Padma-didi,” said Hajari. “I’ve been here five years, has anyone even offered a bidi once? I wonder what tips you’re talking of.”
Padma said, “Don’t you dare argue. Padma-jhi won’t hold her tongue out of fear. Are you saying the fust-class babus didn’t buy you a vest during Durga Puja?”
“A vest! Do you think they bought me a new one? An old vest…”
Bechu Chakkotti said, “Enough, thakur, don’t be impertinent. If we have to serve more customers the price of the additional daal will be deducted from your salary.”
“How is it my fault, babu? Padma-didi measured out daal for eight people, I served 11…”
Going up to Hajari thakur and shaking her fist at him, Padma said, “So I measured out daal for eight! You scoundrel, you thief, you ganjakhor opium eater! Are you telling me I didn’t give you five poaa daal for ten people?”
Hajari thakur seemed to lose all enthusiasm for arguing.
Padma-jhi may not have relented easily, but because customers had started arriving she broke off and left. Hajari thakur went back to the kitchen.
Nearly two-thirty in the afternoon.
The Assam Mail had long come and gone.
Hajari thakur sat down by himself to eat. There was only a trace of rice in the large pot, and the remnants of the vegetables in the pan. He had had to serve all the leftover daal and fish to Padma-jhi on her large plate. Every day at one-thirty she took home the excess daal and tarkari and fish from the kitchen, whether there was anything left for the cooks or not.
The other cook was from Odisha. His name was Ratan. He did not eat at the hotel, for he lived close by. He too took some rice and tarkari home every day.
Hajari had no one hereabouts to call his own. He lived in the hotel, ate here too. This was what fate held for him every day. Starving and slaving till two-thirty in the afternoon, followed by a mouthful of stiffened rice, a drop or two of daal on some days, and not even that on others—this was his ration. In case there was a little more rice than usual in the pot Padma-jhi would say, “There’s no one here to eat all this. Enough here for three people—give me some extra rice today.”
Every time he sat down to eat Hajari told himself, “If only there were a little more rice, I could have even eaten it with some tentul. That Padma is such an evil bitch—she can’t even tolerate anyone eating his fill. At Jodu Banrujjey’s hotel the cook has a plateful of rice at 11 every morning—can you imagine anything like that here? As the man, so the wife.” (Hajari felt a great sense of satisfaction at referring to Padma the maid as Bechu’s wife—there was such pleasure in telling yourself what couldn’t be said aloud!)
A mere two-and-a-half-hours’ break after the meal.
He would have to put the pot on the stove at exactly five o’ clock.
Ratan usually went home for a siesta, but Hajari passed the time by himself, either in the Thakur’s old mansion by the Churni River, or in the temple at Radhaballabh-tala.
There was a reason he did this instead of taking a nap.
This was Hajari’s time for reflection. He had no other opportunity for thinking things over in peace. He cooked till seven in the evening, served customers till 11, and ate at midnight, after which he had to account for the rice and daal and other ingredients he had used to the owner. There was no chance of going to bed before one, leave alone snatching a few moments for himself.
He rather liked this spot by the Churni.
An unpaved road on the opposite bank led to Shantipur. People were crossing the river on ferry boats. There were bamboo groves, silk-cotton trees, bean fields, and fenced-in village homes.
Lighting a bidi, Hajari began to ponder.
He had now spent five years at Bechu Chakkotti’s hotel.
He could still recollect the day he had joined. The first thing he had done on arriving at Ranaghat from Gangnapur was to go to Bechu Chakkotti’s hotel in search of a job.
The owner was sitting near the entrance. “What is it?” he had asked.
Hajari said, “I’m a cook, babu. Looking for a job. Is there an opening here?”
“Aggey, Hajari Debsharma, title Chakraborty.”
Hajari’s father had taught him to announce his name this way.
“Where do you live?”
“Eroshola village. The nearest station is at Gangnapur.”
“You can cook?”
“Try me out, babu. Fish or meat, I can make anything you want me to.”
“Very well, you’ll have to cook without pay for three days. After that, seven rupees salary, and food. If you’re willing, start at once.”
The salary of seven rupees had not been increased by even a paise since then. But all the customers praised his cooking, although he had never heard a single word of appreciation from Padma. Far from complimenting him, Padma-jhi would slice him with a kitchen blade if she could. But then he had no money, and considering the state of things, what would he do for a living if he gave up his job? All this didn’t worry him overmuch, however. He had a secret desire—all his unhappiness would be dispelled if god were to fulfil it one day.
Hajari had learnt all the work involved in running a hotel. He wanted to start one of his own now.
A sign on the wall would say:
Hajari Chakraborty’s Hindu Hotel
Cheap food and rest for gentlemen.
Come in. Try. Test us.
He would lean back on a bolster like his present employer, selling tickets. The cook and the maid would address him as babu. He would buy all the fish and vegetables personally instead of leaving it to the maid, like they did at this hotel. He would serve top-quality food to his customers to please them and only then take their money. He had realised over the past few years that people did not object to paying a little extra for delicious, well-cooked food.
He would not cheat his customers like they did at this hotel; he would not mix cheap khensari daal with mushurir daal, he would not deliberately pick out the rotting brinjals and the dying fish kept alive on ice supplied by the railways.
There were no arrangements here for the customers to get a bit of rest after eating. Those who were absolutely desperate took a seat on the owner’s mattress to smoke a bidi or two. But he felt that he would get many more customers if he made arrangements for people to rest comfortably. Many customers liked a short rest after their meal. For them he would have a separate room in his hotel. Sheets would be laid out on cots, along with pillows and tobacco—anyone who wanted could even have a nap. Have your meal, rest a little, have a smoke, leave. No hotel in Ranaghat had such arrangements, not even Jodu Banrujjey’s hotel. All this was necessary for business to thrive—it wasn’t enough to just plant yourself at the station every time a train arrived and bellow, “This way, babu, excellent Hindu hotel.”
What customers wanted was delicious food they could eat in comfort. They would flock to anyone who could provide it.
Of course, he knew that if he were to have a room for customers to rest in today, tomorrow every single Hindu hotel across Ranaghat market would copy him and have their own rooms if that helped draw customers.
Still, the first one to establish a new service always had the advantage. Hajari had many other ideas besides a room for resting. For instance, those who came here for court cases might want a game of cards after working hard all day. His hotel would have the necessary arrangements. There would be no need to pay for the paan and the tobacco—they could either help themselves or ask to be served.
Many such new ideas occurred to him whenever he sat alone by the Churni, letting his thoughts flow freely. But would they ever materialise? Would his wishes ever be fulfilled? He was over 46 now—he had achieved nothing in his entire life; he had not even progressed beyond his seven-rupee job. How was an ordinary man like him with no money going to accomplish any of this?
Why then did he weave these dreams every day here by the Churni? Because it was pleasant, that was why.
But he was not one to be intimated by his age. Forty-six was not very old anyway. He was going to live many more years. He had the enthusiasm to work hard—if he could just start his own hotel, he would show everyone how to earn a good reputation. Once he had his own hotel, he wouldn’t even regret dying.
It was time to go back. He couldn’t afford to keep sitting much longer. Padma-jhi would have lit the stove by now—any further delay would lead to a tongue-lashing from her. And how she carried tales about him! She had told the owner that he was addicted to ganja when he didn’t even touch the stuff.
Radhaballabh-tala lay on his way back, in Chhoto Bajaar.
Hajari stopped here every day to pray devoutly.
“Please baba Radhaballabh, I am your servant. Fulfil my wishes. I cannot take Padma-jhi’s abuse anymore. Allow me to start my own hotel next to karta-babu’s, in full view of that Padma.”
Back at the hotel, Hajari discovered that Ratan was yet to arrive, while Padma had lit the stove and vanished.
Bechu Chakkotti sent for Hajari as soon as he was back from his siesta at home.
“Listen. Some people are going to have mutton here tonight, they’re having a feast, they’ve even paid in advance. Make arrangements to serve them early. They have to leave by the train for Murshidabad. Don’t forget. Ratan not here yet?”
Hajari was upset. Why hadn’t Bechu Chakkotti told him that he was an excellent cook, that he should make the mutton himself? He knew they never praised his cooking. But how hard he had worked to master the art!
How Hajari had developed his cooking skills made for quite a story.
He remembered that an ancient Brahmin widow used to live in their Erashola village. Hajari was nine or ten years old at the time. Her fame for cooking had spread everywhere. People from a dozen other villages knew of her.
Hajari’s mother told her, “You’re getting on in years, Khuri-ma, who knows when you might leave us. Pass on your talents to me. I’ll remember you all my life.”
She said, “Very well, bou, there’s something I will give you. How to cook a nirimish chachhori…”
The old woman had taught Hajari’s mother to cook just this one dish of lightly seasoned vegetables, and it was on the strength of this one dish alone that her fame had spread in nearby villages. It sounded quite ordinary—what was so special about vegetables? For an answer, one had to eat the nirimish chachhori that Hazari’s mother made.
Regrettably, she was alive no more, having died the previous year.
Hajari had inherited his mother’s talent for cooking. He made excellent mutton or fish, but his nirimish chachhori was so delectable that anyone who had tasted it once at Bechu Chakkotti’s hotel inevitably returned. He wouldn’t frequent any of the numerous other hotels in the railway market.
Today, too, it was he who was given the responsibility of cooking the mutton. The customers praised the food to the skies. But this did not mean any personal gain for Hajari besides the accolades. Padma-jhi didn’t have a single word of encouragement for him. Nor did Bechu Chakkotti.
It was very late at night by the time he ate. None of the mutton he had cooked so lovingly remained. The owner had had most of the leftovers sent to his own home. Padma-jhi had mopped up the rest for herself.
This was a regular problem at mealtimes. There was almost nothing for him to eat. Sometimes there wouldn’t be any rice, leave alone fish or meat. He might be 46, but Hajari had a healthy appetite, and he enjoyed his food, too. But on most days he remained hungry.
Twelve-thirty. The owner had checked the accounts and left. No one but Hajari and Moti the servant spent the night at the hotel. Padma-jhi had left long ago—she never stayed after ten o’clock.
Moti said, “There’s a jatra on at Chhoto Bajaar. Will you come, baamun thakur?”
“Jatra? At this hour? Do you think I’m mad? Not after the way they make me work here. I’m not going—you can go if you want to. Just knock on the window when you’re back. I’ll unlock the door for you.”
Moti was young. And much more interested in these things than he was. He left.
A little later someone tried to push the door open. Unlocking the door, Hajari was astonished to discover the owner of the hotel next door, Jodo Banrujjey himself, standing outside. There was cut-throat competition between the two hotels. What was he doing here at this hour? He never paid a visit. Hajari was awestruck. Jodu Banrujjey also owned a hotel, and therefore he was the equivalent of Hajari’s employer, virtually a sort of lord.
“Is there anyone else in the room?” asked Jodu Banrujjey.
Unable to fathom the reason for his visit, Hajari had been speculating wildy. He said deferentially, “No one else here babu, just me. Moti was here, but he’s gone to watch…”
Jodu Banrujjey said, “Let’s go inside. I have something to discuss with you.”
Planting himself on Bechu Chakkotti’s mattress, Jodu Banrujjey looked around furtively and then asked, “How much do you make here, thakur?”
“Aggey seven rupees plus food.”
“Do they give you clothes?”
“Aggey two dhotis a year.”
Clearing his throat, Jodu Banrujjey said, “Listen. Will you work for me? I’ll pay ten rupees plus food. Three dhotis a year. Laundry and barber, oil and tobacco. Will you come?”
Hazari was genuinely flabbergasted. He couldn’t speak for a few minutes. Then he said, “I can’t tell you right away, babu. Let me think it over.”
“Nothing to think over. I always keep my promises. Give up the job at this hotel tomorrow and come to mine, I’m ready to start you off at once. But yes, I don’t want to stab Bechu Chakkotti in the back. He’s a businessman and so am I.”
Hajari felt his head spinning. No one had overheard, had they? Padma-jhi wasn’t eavesdropping, was she? He quickly said, “I can’t talk now babu. I’ll think it over and tell you tomorrow. Come back at the same time tomorrow night.”
Jodu Banrujjey left.
That Hajari smoked ganja sometimes was not entirely a lie, but he did it very covertly and extremely rarely. After what had happened tonight, he couldn’t help stuffing his kolke with a spot of ganja. No one in the whole wide world had ever told him that he was a good man or that he cooked well, or had wanted to give him a reward after eating one of his meals—empty words filled no bellies.
Jodu-babu had personally come all the way to offer him a job with a salary of ten rupees (with food, laundry and barber added)!
He had been living inside the market at Ranaghat all these years, but he had never mingled with anyone—he didn’t care to, either. Passing time in the company of others and smoking ganja with them would not make his dreams come true. He would have to work hard, understand the intricacies of the market, learn to keep accounts, find out the ins and outs of running a splendid hotel. To improve one’s lot in life, to achieve glory before one’s countrymen, to hear oneself being talked about by others… all of this needed both effort and exertion. Adda and ganja with friends, or joining the jatra audience at Chhoto Bajaar like Moti, would not get him anywhere.
It was very late at night. His head was in a whirl. There was no sign of sleep.
Someone rattled the doorknob. Hajari got up to unlock the door—he had realised already that it was Moti the servant. Entering, Moti said, “Not asleep yet, thakur? Why are you still awake?”
Hajari had opened the door only after hiding the kolke of ganja. “It’s too hot to sleep,” he said, “after spending the entire day by the stove… you didn’t go for the jatra?”
“No space,” answered Moti. “Full of people. I came back. Let’s go somewhere, will you come, thakur-moshay?”
“Close by. Come along. Might as well make a trip since you can’t sleep. After all, you never…”
“That’s for young men like you,” said Hajari. “I’m 46. I’m old enough to be your father, how can you say all this to me. Go do as you please.”
”Don’t tell babu or Padma-didi, thakur-moshay, I beg of you.”
Strangely, Moti’s proposal planted a new thought in Hajari’s mind. He was ambitious—god would not forgive him if he spent the night cavorting and wasting time. For some reason Moti decided not to go out after all, going into the room where the utensils were kept (the brass and metal plates and glasses were all stored in the safe next to the kitchen; Bechu Chakkotti personally supervised the act of counting them and putting them away after they were washed before locking the safe and taking the keys home) to sleep. Hajari slept in the same room, but today he laid out his mat on the mattress in the front room and lay down on it.
No, he would not join Jodu-babu’s hotel. The job of cooking was the same everywhere. This hotel had Padma, who knew who was lurking in the other one? And besides, Bechu-babu had been his source of succour for five years. It would not be right to abandon him out of sheer greed.
He would start his own hotel—that was his mission. As long as he had to work as a cook, he would do it here. He wouldn’t work anywhere else. If Radhaballabh smiled on him, things would change.