Jagmalwa. A small village tucked in the vicinity of Thawe town in Goplagunj district in Bihar. It looked like any other village in Bihar, North Bihar to be precise. However, it held special appeal for me – Bouka belonged to this small, nondescript village. Thawe had been quite well-known in that region for its ancient Durga Mandir. People from far off places in Bihar would come to this temple, having great faith in Devi Durga, Goddess of Shakti, the divine feminine force who had killed the demon according to Hindu mythology.
The temple was not far from the highway connecting Goplagunj to other towns of North Bihar – Siwan, Chhapra and Sonepur. The last one, Sonepur, was famous for the longest railway platform at one point of time and of course, for its unique animal fair. The road used to hit a dead end at Pahleja Ghat on the bank of river Ganges where one was required to take a steamer to cross the river and reach Patna, the capital of Bihar, situated on its opposite bank. The Ganges looked huge and intimidating; during the monsoons, it was difficult to fathom the distance between its banks. The river cruise used to be fun for occasional travellers like me but was a pain for frequent travellers. In our childhood, we used to see the upcoming bridge at a fair distance across the Ganges. It was supposed to be the longest bridge in Asia at that time. It was expected to make travel easier and faster, connecting North Bihar with Central and South Bihar. Much later when I saw the Ganges near Patna, it saddened me because of its dry bed, barren banks and its emptiness.
The bridge across the Ganges was a bridge of hope for the people of North Bihar; it was a bridge of the future, a bridge for development, a bridge of achievement. I don’t remember how long it took to complete the bridge finally and whether it met all the expectations. For sure, it didn’t help in connecting the hearts of the people from South and North Bihar. They remained as far separated as they were earlier, if anything, their differences grew; the cultural divergence could not be bridged by the bridge of convergence across the Ganges. The highway used to pass through Gopalgunj on its way to the Nepal border; it would touch our house at Goplagunj which was well-known and well recognised in the town. The dark red colour of Mallick Villa was quite
prominent. I later noticed this particular shade of red in many British-era buildings.
The road to Goplagunj was traversed less once we shifted to Ranchi, part of South Bihar at that time and its one time summer capital. I left Gopalgunj with my mother and Bouka after my father’s demise, when I was still fairly young. My father was a promising doctor and commanded great respect in that region. In fact, ours was a family of doctors; my
grandfather, my uncle and my father – all doctors.
It was a lazy winter morning. I had been in Gopalgunj during my winter vacation. The usual pass time was sitting at the veranda in one of those relaxing chairs, as I realised later, it was a perfect match for that unhurried lifestyle. The sun had finally come out after a long hiatus and the winter fog finally dissipated. The bullock carts laden with sugarcane were moving towards the sugar mill at their own pace. It looked like a procession of bullock carts – locally known as tyre gari. The reason for their being called so was that unlike wooden wheels of typical bullock carts in use during the olden days, these carts had rubber tyres like a car, making their movement smoother. The roads were littered with cow dung. More the activity, more cow dung; it spread an obnoxious smell all around.
The sugar mill would only run during that particular season when sugarcane used to be available from the farms or until the stock would last. Winter was the peak season and a period full of activity and bustle. People had cash in hand and expenses would spiral. At times, the most visible sign of cash on common people would be the drunkards high on liquor or tadi.
During those childhood days, one of the most interesting features of a winter season was the abundance of fresh sugarcane, readily available from the tyre gari whenever you wanted. It was normal to ask someone standing near the road for sugarcane, and he would pull it from one of
those carts moving past leisurely and pass it to you, with the cart owner not minding at all. One could even ask the cart driver for sugarcane and he would oblige. Sitting idle was never a great idea and I got into the most usual activity, chewing a sugarcane piece like many other people around, a symbol of leisure in this part of the state. No doubt this required some effort, but the fresh, sweet juice compensated for the effort in the end. Some exercise for the teeth, gums and facial muscles too!
It was on one such nippy morning that I heard the complete story of Bouka from my uncle, my father’s eldest brother by quite a few years.
“Where is Bouka?” he asked me.
I replied, “He has gone to his village.”
“Do you know where his village is and what is its name?”
“I know it is near Thawe, but the name I don’t know.”
“It is Jagmalwa,” he said.
Chewing pieces of sugarcane while struggling to manage them within my mouth, I heard the story of Bouka. It was going to remain in my memory for years; simple yet so different, a story that crossed the boundary of religion, a story that spoke about impeccable commitments, the story of a man who never spoke.
It was the era of Ray Sahab Dr. A.K. Mallick, my paternal grandfather. Migrating from West Bengal, doctor saheb was well established at Gopalgunj. His name and fame matched his towering personality which was rising. It was the pre-independence period. Gopalgunj was a small place, a part of Saran district at that time. The family of Dr. Mallick was a big one, lived in a palatial house, had many family members, numerous servants and many visitors.
Thawe’s Durga Mandir had existed for long, though it was amidst a jungle at that time. History says that the temple was built by Hathua Raja, the king of Hathua. The temple had a peculiar tree that was famous; the peculiarity being the botanical family of the tree had not been identified.
The palace of the King of Hathua was there but over a period it had lost its royal touch and was now dilapidated. Various legends surrounded the tree and the idol of Goddess Durga. It was believed that dacoits in that area used to worship during the late hours of the night and no one dared to go there after sunset. However, there used to be a gala fair during the month of Chaitra by the Hindu calendar (in March – April), that would reach its climax on the day of Ramnavami.
People used to visit the fair from all the nearby places – from villages and hamlets. A typical village fair during those days was something people looked forward to with a lot of eagerness. The faith in Devi Durga used to get harmonised with the glittering faces of the villagers coming to visit the fair.
It was at one such fair, where the eldest son of doctor saheb, Biren Babu, came across a small child, hardly four or five years of age, moving around and making weird noises. Initially it was difficult to make out whether this child was shouting or crying. On peering closer, Biren Babu and some other revellers noticed that the child was crying and trying to say something but he could not. They tried asking him questions about his parents and his village. No response. The child continued to make those strange noises and expressions that no one understood. By that time a small crowd had formed around the child, with everyone clamouring for a look at the devastated child. Someone from the crowd said, “Bouka baa,” deaf and dumb being called “Bouka” in the local dialect. Some words of sympathy floated round; some others started sharing stories of other deaf and dumb people they knew.
The child was crying now, unable to see his parents in the crowd. The growing crowd made him even more vulnerable. He had sat down by then, still crying relentlessly. His unusual vocal efforts were painful to bear. The crowd had got into the next stage of discussion. What should be done with this child? Opinions didn’t vary much. What better place than doctor saheb’s house? They all looked expectantly towards Biren Babu with hope and there was no way a member of one of the most respected families of the region could have denied this social responsibility. Strangely, the child didn’t resist much, as if he knew instinctively he had to go to that house. A small incident in one’s life changes the road to tread. Destiny had something else for him. No one knew who he was, where he came from, what his name was. He became “Bouka” – The man who never spoke.
Biren Babu returned home with Bouka, a child found at a mela, very typical of a village story. The child started getting accustomed to the large villa of doctor saheb. He became friends with the younger sons of Dr. Mallick, Kumar and Amal. The house had many family members but ample space. Patients also used to come to the clinic and wait in the compound. Bouka started getting adjusted to this new environment.
A week had passed since Bouka had been brought home from the Thawe mela. It was another routine day for the Mallick family. No one had a problem with Bouka staying there. Breakfast had just ended. Mathura, a servant attending to outdoor jobs came running inside. He was looking for Biren Babu. On seeing Biren Babu, he said,
“There is someone from Thawe who wants to meet you.”
Biren Babu went to meet the man, standing at the steps of the veranda outside.
“What is the matter?” he asked.
The person was in a lungee and a shirt, very usual of someone from the adjoining villages. His small beard at the chin made him appear to be a Muslim. There used to be a number of Muslim patients visiting Dr. Mallick for treatment and Biren Babu initially thought this person had
also come to doctor saheb for some help. The visitor stood below the steps leading to the veranda and didn’t dare come up. He saluted Biren babu from there.
“Forgive me huzoor if I am not asking you the right question. Have you seen my child? He is a Bouka,” He said.
It didn’t come as a complete surprise to Biren Babu. In this small place, it was very easy to trace the child and particularly when he was at the villa of Dr. Mallick. He wanted to verify some details and enquired further.
“Where did you lose your child?”
Once he was informed of how he lost the child in the mela while buying something, Biren Babu rebuked the person for not taking care of his child particularly when he could neither speak nor hear. He asked Mathura to bring Bouka. After a couple of minutes, Bouka came out and his face lit up when he saw his father. He ran towards his father.
“How are you Asgar? Asgar Ali is his name,” the person said.
There was no reaction from Biren Babu initially. Many established Muslims of the town were regular visitors and family friends. Patients used to come from all layers of society, religions; rich or poor they came to doctor saheb’s chamber. However, a Muslim boy staying with the family even for few days was sufficient to raise a few eyebrows in this small town. No one could reverse what had transpired. Now, the boy had to go to his village, Jagmalwa. Jaqir Ali, Asgar’s father , was there to take his son back.
Biren Babu asked Mathura to bring some clothing and other small belongings of daily use that the child had acquired during his weeklong stay at Mallick Villa. The moment Mathura came with his belongings, the child realised, perhaps for the first time, that he had to go. All of a sudden, all the sparkle vanished from Asgar’s face.
A big house, bigger lineage and large hearted people didn’t disappoint the child. Asgar stayed back at Mallick Villa growing up with the brothers of Biren Babu, particularly in the company of his youngest brother. Though he never went to school, as schools were not geared to handle deaf
and dumb at Gopalgunj, he sharpened his knowledge on various skills, his intelligence quotient being quite high. In the small town everyone knew each and every member of Mallick family and he too became popular. His name Asgar Ali was forgotten gradually by everyone and he became Bouka.
When the youngest son of Ray Sahab Dr. Mallick returned from Calcutta as a qualified doctor, Bouka became his assistant in almost all aspects – helping out the junior doctor saheb by carrying out basic medical tasks like pushing the injection into patients, even at odd hours when the regular compounder Suresh Babu would not be available, putting patients on a saline drip or taking care of patients who came in at odd hours with snake bites as the Indian Krait was commonly found in the area. His skillset didn’t end with his para-medical skills. His other notable skills were maintaining cars, that doctor saheb kept on changing from Baby Austin
to Vauxhall to Morris Minor to Jeep and finally the sky blue coloured Ambassador. He handled basic electrical problems in the house and the clinic, carrying out the repair work, played the role of a messenger at times and accompanied doctor saheb during odd hours of night when there would be a call from a critical patient. He also took up the ultimate responsibility of taking care of doctor saheb’s kid.
He was doctor saheb’s shadow and the small town knew that. Everyone looks to such a dedicated, honest person for support and assistance but few are privileged to find one. By that time, Ray Sahab was no more and it was the junior doctor whose name and fame were spreading as one who could cure all diseases, perhaps ‘panacea’ was the right word.
Bouka’s adventures were also a topic of discussion at times, other than what he used to do for doctor saheb. During his teenage years, he vanished for some time, making everyone anxious. He finally returned after a month, with no one the wiser as to what had transpired. The only experience he could explain was that he had been to a place where people used to eat dog meat. It forever remained a mystery, where he had gone and why.
His other adventure became the joke of that small town for a few days. It occurred during one of his usual visits to the only cinema in town where he had absolutely free access any time he wanted. In his attempt to relieve the projector operator for a short break, he brought out another skill from his armoury, but this time it didn’t work, in fact it led to a hilarious situation. The show had started late as the passenger train to Gopalgunj from Mashrakh, connecting cinema lovers to “Janata Cinema” arrived late and projector operator could not plan his time to urinate accordingly. He went to relieve himself, handing over the responsibility of managing the projector to Bouka in his absence. Bouka suddenly realised the current reel was at its end and he needed to load the next one. He fitted the film but did so wrongly and suddenly at the point of changeover of films, as they used to happen those days, the audience was in for a rude shock when they saw the hero and heroine dancing on their heads and throwing legs in the air on a popular number. The audience started laughing initially but it got converted into booing and shouting soon. Bouka kept on rolling the film as he could not hear the jeering or shouting. The comedy continued for a while until the projector operator came running and stopped it. In that
small town, where the only public entertainment was watching a movie, it became an interesting and funny topic to discuss. People discussed this comical incident and when they realised that it was Bouka’s doing, they took it in a jovial manner.
His understanding of local culture and caste dynamics were demonstrated when two caste groups fought each other inside Mallick Villa, in front of the clinic. I can faintly recall the glimpse of that hatred even now, a violent, caste sensitive crowd fighting each other with the ubiquitous lathis they usually carried. I viewed this from the terrace, my mother taking me in her arms so that I would not be obstructed by the railing of the terrace and those two palm trees on either side of the entrance to the veranda, which almost reached up to the terrace. I was witness to the first display of violence in my life, not knowing exactly what was happening and why it was happening. I was crying. My mother was worried as my father had to come out of his clinic to stop this caste battle being fought on our premises. There was complete chaos in that large compound, lathis were swinging like swords, people were roaring like enraged tigers, perhaps barking and biting like mad dogs would have been a more appropriate comparison. Bouka was there with my father, what he exactly did along with his mentor to pacify the warriors of this caste battle we could not understand but the brutal forces finally calmed down. Much later, I heard the complete story from my mother, many years after my father’s death. That day, though the battle was fought at Mallick Villa, it was a manifestation of the deep rooted animosity between those two castes in this nondescript town of Bihar. Bouka had quickly understood why this particular fight had started and who the catalysts were. He had tipped off my father about all those details at the right moment and took a blow or two on himself to stop the skirmish. Finally, peace was made between those two castes - poles apart - mediated by two individuals who belonged to neither of those castes, one being a secular Hindu and another a secular Muslim, if these are the correct words to be used.
Bouka’s biggest adventure turned out to be his marriage. It was attended by many people from the Mallick family including doctor saheb but it turned out to be a disaster for him. No one understood clearly how it impacted his emotions and his life afterwards. I realised, perhaps too late, that his affection for me might have been a function of affection he had for his daughter he never met or so we always thought, after his marriage broke down. His daughter was a toddler at that time. This remained an enigma for me, forever. He never told us whether he wanted to meet them, particularly his daughter. We remained in the dark and never came to know whether he had tried locating them or whether he ever missed her. He would have missed her, I presumed, after so many years.