Small puti fishes were being fried, while I was seated on a chair (brought from the neighbour's house), about four feet from the oven. As I was munching on a crunchy fish, I went back to my childhood days when we used to have a picnic, catching puti fish from the pond, taking rice and lentil from home, and making a dish of whatever vegetable was available. One year, we ran out of regular vegetables. Someone picked some violet-blue flowers from the small pond. "Are you crazy? Those are water hyacinth flowers!" I said in a shocked voice. "Those can't be eaten." My voice was ignored because of my lack of seniority. Fried in a rice batter, the hyacinth pakora tasted more of the batter than of the thin-petal flower. Each of us survived, with no stomach discomfort, proving once again that water hyacinth flowers --- a nuisance in ponds, lakes, canals and rivers --- were indeed edible, like dandelions, a nuisance in Canadian lawns, are eaten by Italians and served in some fancy restaurants as a delicacy, including the pricey Istanbul restaurant I had dined in a week earlier, on my way to Dhaka. Bishnupur villagers knew which leaves and flowers could be eaten, through experimentation by their forefathers and foremothers. One flower we were told to stay away from was dhutra, tubular in shape and white in colour, bearing a spiky, golf-ball-sized fruit. "You will go crazy!" we were warned by many, including Mother.
I noticed two young men walking around the tin-roofed house, looking like inspectors. One of them was the son of the current owner of our former house, I was told. He worked in the Middle East. He did not seem to mind that we were in his yard having a picnic, digging a big cavern to make an oven.
"Would you sell the house?" I asked the young man as he walked by.
"Not thinking about selling now," he said politely.
I did not know what I would have done if his answer was yes. Dhonagoda River was closing in. The chaos in the country was intensifying. My name in the 'next-in-line' list was climbing up.
"I heard that Boba (a mute boy) is a father!" the young man from the Middle East announced, to my surprise. He was referring to the boy who would not stop staring at me. He looked too young to get married, I thought. "How so? How is he going to take care of his wife and the new baby?" I asked the youngest son of our neighbour. "Arranged; the bride from the same village; lives with his parents; they will manage," he explained in incomplete sentences. Boba was his cousin, his father's elder brother's son.
They dug only one oven. So it took quite a while to prepare six dishes.
It was as if heaven had descended on the pristine yard that day on January 26, 2015. In its placid environment, we were relishing the spiced hilsa, the broad beans, the home-grown chicken curry, and the bhuna khichori (dry rice-lentil mix). They were fresh and healthy, and prepared and served hygienically in plates washed with boiled water.
After lunch, the picnic participants started playing cricket, bowling from south to north. The oven had already been quenched and covered up. Seated on a chair on the vacant foundation in the south lot, I went back to my childhood days when we played football (soccer) in the same south-north direction. There were only two to four of us, then. We used round fruits like a golf-ball-sized betel nut, which rolled smoothly, but hurt the inner side of the kicking foot. Sometime, we used a pomelo fruit (jambura or batabi lebu), which was too heavy and required more effort to kick around and make it roll, before it disintegrated into unplayable pieces. When fruits were unavailable, we used to make a ball out of waste papers, rolled into a round shape and tied together with a jute cord. A paper ball did not roll much and did not last long. But that did not deter us. If there were no balls, we would play ball-less games, like goolla chhut (touch me, if you can) or hadodo (grab my leg and gang tackle me, if you can) or danguli. In danguli, I used to bend over and hit one of the two shaved ends (thinner than the middle part) of a small piece of wood placed on the ground to make it jump, and hit it hard on the fly with a long stick. The goal was to make the small piece land farther away than my competitor. It required better hand-eye co-ordination and more power of hitting to win. The risk of getting injuries in danguli was higher than that in other sports. The small stick once jumped from the ground and hit one of my eyes, before I could hit it away.
For the picnic, I had invited the marine engineer, I met the day before. He did not help; talked to me for a while; went home once to say a prayer; ate the picnic lunch; came back; and sat down next to me, being busy with his Smartphone, reading the last segment of the "A Marked Man in 1971", a story in the Daily Star describing how I survived during the Liberation War as a refugee in India. The young men were playing in front of me in the yard. Friendliness was around, in the blissful Bishnupur yard. Fear was far away in Dhaka. At least that is what I thought.
Then I sensed something! I looked back and up. I saw fear. I saw hatred. I saw hatred and anger. I saw the face of a fair-skinned stranger, in his thirties, staring at me. "How long had he been standing there?" I had seen him walking south past the players, past the foundation we were on, some time ago. At that time, he looked like someone going somewhere, looking down, showing little interest in me or the game of cricket. He must have turned around and came from behind, stealthily. "Why are you looking at me like that?" I asked in a friendly tone, trying to diffuse the tension. "Just looking," he said showing no emotion and walked away to the treed area to the south. "That was some looking!" I said to myself.
After the game, the leader of the cricket team made a proposal to form a cricket club, in my name. His timing was impeccable. I had been thinking of our lack of resources to purchase even a round ball when we were kids. I thought of the way he proposed, applying the psychology of raising money for a cause by linking the donor's name with the cause. It was a good cause and a savvy approach. He gave me an estimate. I paid the money.
"Your mother was fond of me," the father of the two young men, stopped by, leaving early from his job at Matlab. He, a Muslim, said how he and others came to our Hindu house for the DP festivals and enjoyed the fun part of our religious functions. I had heard the same description from another gentleman of my age, when I visited Bishnupur five years ago. "Your family gone! All the fun gone!" he lamented alluding to the DPs. These villagers did then what many in Canada, US and elsewhere have been doing recently: view other cultures not as threats, but as sources for enjoyment and enrichment. (The next instalment of this article will appear next week.)
Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher and an inventor, writes from Calgary, Canada