The Box of Mangoes

The Mangoes.  They might have been fazlis.  (Image: wikipedia)

Now, it’s a small matter really and probably not something to fuss about.  It might be altogether better not to mention it.  But on the other hand, if promises are meant to be kept, so it’s true: India owes me one box of mangoes.

Now, in writing that, I suppose I am not suggesting ‘India’ in the sense that Sonia or Manmohan or even one Ms. Banerjee of Kolkata are, or should be, struggling with their consciences over said outstanding mango box.  India is clearly a big country with any number of issues upon the table in a singular instant and it’s reasonable to conclude that a certain minor mango debt is not one of their larger concerns.  No, when I write ‘India’, I suppose I am referring more precisely to the individual promisor in the matter of said box, a one Mr. Nurul Islam, a professional rickshaw driver by trade, from Malda Town in Paschimbanga.  But in any case, it’s not nice to harp on about unpaid debts.

I like Malda Town.  It’s distant enough from Kolkata to make a worthwhile journey break en route to the Himalayas and it’s neither too small nor large a town to be burdensome.  A further advantage is that foreign tourist numbers are sufficiently limited for the experience of a more genuine, unadulterated India to be had.  With the main sites sixteen kilometres to the south in Gaur, some kind of local transport is required for the tourist, and as the morning train pulls up alongside the Malda platform there would usually be a handful of rickshaw drivers waiting to oblige.

Gaur was the capital of the Pala and Sena dynasties from the seventh to twelfth centuries, although the ruins date from a later period, mostly the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries during Muslim Nawab rule.  As the ruins are scattered about the greenery of rural Paschimbanga, a few-hour leisurely rickshaw tour is a wise choice. 

Now, in everybody’s life there are instances when something borrowed or pledged was never repaid or delivered for whatever reason and despite intentions.  A box of mangoes is indeed a small thing so it’s best not to consider it further.

The essence of success in a tour of Gaur from Malda is in the character of the chosen rickshaw driver.  Ideally the driver should not take short cuts or stretch out the bargaining process over small matters through the duration of the day. 

It wasn’t immediate that we found Mr. Nurul Islam.  As the drivers at the station for the most part seemed eager to turn a quick profit, my friend Situ and I chose at first none and went instead to find lodgings.  After a good hour we stopped for tea, ironically back at the train station where the best tea stands were, and from the original flurry of drivers there remained just one.  He sat near us as we drank.  Patiently he waited until the negotiation commenced, and I bargained hard, less because of the price, more to know him better.  He seemed alright.

And so it was that we three sealed a deal over a pending departure cup of tea.

Mr. Nurul Islam wheeled up his vehicle and we started, first following the long road beside the railway then gradually working our way out of town until we reached the open highway.  It’s not easy, a rickshaw on a highway with overloaded Tata trucks bowling along at ungodly speeds, trucks that really need that extra pair of eyes painted onto the side fenders.  For the rickshaw driver, it’s not easy to know when to be forced onto the road shoulder for the sake of continued life.  But closer to the ruins the roads are quiet. 

Along the highway it was common to pass other rickshaws heading towards town and it was usual enough to be considered a trait that some of the other drivers on seeing Mr. Nurul Islam had a foreigner on board were given to calling out, sometimes rather greedily, ‘how much?’  It’d surprise me if in Malda-Mango rickshaw circles there weren’t big fish tales of what foreigners had been induced into forking out.  But our Mr. Nurul Islam replied, ‘I’m taking them for free.’  I liked him already.

Now, it’s not because of the mango debt I stopped speaking of Malda.  What occurred was really something.  I quit the chat of Mango Town due to the risk of the narration sounding too self-congratulatory.  It was never the point.  But now, risk in tow I’ve changed my mind, for the events of that day should be shared in just the way one Mr. Nurul Islam offered that box of mangoes.

Rickshaws give time for thoughts and mine turned to Mr. Nurul Islam, his life and how similar or different it might’ve been from that of his colleagues in Hatiya in Bangladesh, many of whom are friends.  It was impossible not to notice his shirt had a tear that seemed to rival the Brahmaputra in length and that one of his sandals was broken.  He was a family man, he’d said, and he had a pot belly that must’ve sheltered a sizeable colony of worms.  It’s never a good thing, worms, as the condition brings lethargy and drains strength, but it’s particularly inconvenient when you’re on a rickshaw for a living.

I pictured his house, making it Hatiyan-similar with thatch and no sanitation, though probably its roof was tiled.  I wondered at a world with both of us in it.  I was on a tour for not more than pleasure; he was all about physical survival. 

Meanwhile to the east the long zigzag of the black fence had come into view.  On the other side was Bangladesh and I wanted to stop the rickshaw, run to the fence and somehow embrace Situ’s country, but certainly there’s no way to embrace a whole country.  Close enough to the border, like the mango orchards the ruins of Gaur spill onto the other side.

Now, when I think of it the details of the mango promise were never finalised and whether it was talk of the gopalbhog, langda or khirsapati varieties, what he had in mind I couldn’t say.  Perhaps it would’ve been a mixture of varieties?

I could describe the various ruins but half of Gaur is in the ease of the subtropical paddies and mango trees by the pace of a rickshaw.  There’s the stopping for tea and chatter; and the finding a spot in the yards about the ruins to relax and ponder a bit. There is, however, one specific site to mention, the Qadam Rasul Mosque which is said to house the footprint of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him.  Most of the ruins are fairly open but at that mosque there’s a gatekeeper who fusses about with keys to unlock the padlock to let the smattering of tourists enter.  He wanted baksheesh but he seemed a bit self-appointed to me; yet Mr. Nurul Islam, I saw him, from a fold in his lungee quietly pushed a few rupees into the padlock unlocker’s hand.

Now, when I think of it Mr. Nurul Islam simply said he’d present a whole box of mangoes if I came back to Malda during the season.  He probably would’ve picked them from random trees in his village, so I’m thinking there’s a decent chance they would’ve been fazli, or a majority may have been fazlis.  How long would it take to eat a box of fazlis?

By lunch time which is around two p.m. in Bengal we’d finished our tour and asked Mr. Nurul Islam to take us to a decent restaurant.  He’d chosen the best place he knew, a truck stop diner along the highway and, as once had been the custom in Hatiya, when he followed us inside he chose to sit at a distance, at another table.  The rights and the wrongs of it I don’t know but in Hatiya in the young days I’d made a point that the rickshaw drivers sit at the same table as us, for why should they not?  In Hatiya the tiny gesture had been well-received, though at first it really took some coaxing such that I wondered if I wasn’t disturbing them.  In any case, after some cajoling, at the truck stop the three of us ultimately ate together.

Now, the fazli are large, green skinned and sensational.  The favourite picture of Situ and me in the same frame is of us sitting on the ground at his wife’s ancestral home eating, dripping in fazli delight.  It’s not even in focus, that photo.

After lunch I don’t know, I thought I wanted to buy one Mr. Nurul Islam a new shirt.  It’s not the sort of thing I’m great at doing but on a short trip with a Sydney salary it didn’t seem like much, so we asked him to take us to the clothes market and to the best shop he knew.  We set off, back into town, without Mr. Nurul Islam having the slightest inkling of the substance of the plan.  On the way I coaxed Situ into, as he would say, ‘technical’ talk of the worms, on the delicate subject of the intricacies of Mr. Nurul Islam’s intestinal tract; and we stopped by a pharmacy to collect a couple of those chewable tablets, standard and almost free.  We tried to explain how to avoid the problem.

It was an ordinary shop he chose, a floor space surrounded by shelves in the corner of a building.  We removed our shoes upon entering and sat on small stools as the shop attendants fussed about pulling shirt possibilities from plastic packets.  I didn’t know how to unveil the surprise so at first I just asked Mr. Nurul Islam which shirt he thought would look nice.  He was agreeable to all; to be expected.  Then I put one shirt, a plain brown one against him to check its size; and said I wanted to buy it for him.

Now, suppose it’d been a box of a decent size, say fifteen or twenty fujlis inside, I’d estimate it would’ve lasted most of a week unless Situ had been there when I’d collected said box such that its contents would have to be shared. 

Of the shirt Mr. Nurul Islam protested.  ‘No, no, I can’t,’ he said; through Situ I made him understand it was okay, not to worry.  But by this time his eyes had the first signs of dampness about them.  So we agreed on the brown shirt in part because in front of the shop assistants it was all rather embarrassing; and we left.  Our tour was done so we asked Mr. Nurul Islam if he’d take us back to the train station and on the way with Situ’s help, I made him promise not to tell the other rickshaw drivers about the shirt.  It’s important to think of the tourists who’ll come later and who wants a Malda Mango where rickshaw drivers demand shirts and higher prices?  Mr. Nurul Islam promised not to say anything; but his mind was focused on his family.

‘My sister-in-law,’ he sobbed slightly, ‘she’ll say I cheated you for this shirt.  But I didn’t, I didn’t.’

When he pulled up and dismounted from the rickshaw he couldn’t hold it.  A certain Mr. Nurul Islam burst into full-blown tears with his hands about his face.  ‘You are not only a human,’ he told me, ‘it is Debota’s work you do.’ I knew those tears.  Those are the tears of someone bothering: not family, not friend and not for any reason.  By that stage my eyes were watery too and it was interesting that as a Muslim he’d used the Hindu word Debota, perhaps because he knew I wasn’t Muslim, although religions are in the habit of blending a bit in North Bengal

Well he’d blown his first promise, our Mr. Nurul Islam, if not in technicality at least in practicality, for his wailing had drawn the attention of other rickshaw drivers who rushed towards us to see what the foreigner and his friend had done to make him cry.  I thought we should leave in case they misunderstood and started to hit us, so I pushed the payment, a little extra, into Mr. Nurul Islam’s hand and he didn’t even look to see how much was there.  He didn’t look.  I suppose that’s what in this part of the world honest people do.

‘You come again in mango season,’ he said, the last we spoke to him, ‘I’ll give a whole box of mangoes.’

But he still had a broken sandal.

Firoz Minar at Gaur (Image: wikipedia)

Other small matters not worth mentioning might include a little list written on paper, three short words or a dog with a line of credit...

This article also published in Star Magazine, here: The Box of Mangoes

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