By Tejaswinee Roychowdhury
Not all heroes wear capes, some are just drunk! Well, perhaps not heroes that you may have heard of, but it rings true of at least one hero in a tiny little village somewhere in Bengal.
The villagers of Hulupukur had developed different theories over the years as to why Madhu, short for Madhusudhan, had become an alcoholic. Some believed the father’s degenerate ways passed on to the son, either through genes or by example. Others believed that his lover’s betrayal drove him into grief and madness; a poor Devdas, if you will. Needless to say, this was the more popular theory.
As the story goes, Madhu loved Phuli, the tea seller’s daughter; but one day Phuli who used to work as a domestic help at Jagannath Babu’s bungalow, ran away with Ponchu who also worked at the bungalow as a gardener. On that day Madhu picked up his first bottle of Bangla, a locally sourced cheap alcohol made from starch. Years later, after much coaxing by his mother, he finally agreed to marry Moti. However, despite having six children with Moti, he never could love her like he loved Phuli, hence continuing on his alcohol-soaked path to the inevitable afterlife.
Madhu of course was never the drunken menace his father used to be. He led a fairly simple life. From morning to evening, he drove passengers from the railway station to the village and vice versa, on his cycle-rickshaw. And when the clock struck eight, he lined up at the local liquor shop for his daily Bangla. It was what happened after that didn’t make a shred of sense to anybody.
As soon as he saw a woman, any woman, whatever her age, he would scream, “Joy Maa Dugga! (Glory to the mother, Goddess Durga)” He would then run towards her like a madman, fall at her feet in a shashtang pranaam, and start chanting the Devi Durga Stuti in slurred tongues. Once he was done reciting, he would pick himself up, join his hands in a namaskar, bow to the woman, and stroll away; swaying and twirling as he did.
The first few times this happened, women were alarmed and men were startled. But when the villagers realised that Madhu meant no harm, he gradually became a source of amusement. Women of the village were of the opinion that deep down Madhu was a man who held women in utmost respect. After all, in a drunken stupor, he saw the Goddess Durga in every woman, didn’t he? Some women were even jealous of Moti for having a husband who was a drunken gentleman instead of a drunken brute! However, many villagers who weren’t fond of the women praising Madhu sought to find faults with him.
One day Kaju, Raju, and Ganesh went to the elders of the village panchayat with their complaints against Madhu. “This Madhu gets drunk and insults Goddess Durga,” Kaju said. “Firstly, he recites the chant while he is drunk, and if that wasn’t insulting enough, he addresses it to any and every woman he comes across instead of addressing the Goddess,” added Raju. “Something must be done about him,” chimed in Ganesh.
Old Haripada listened to the hot-headed youngsters with furrowed brows and convened with the other elders. And then they called for Madhu; a very sober Madhu since it was the middle of the day.
Madhu, on listening to the grievances against him, immediately held his ears and started doing sit-ups. “I am very sorry, Hari Kaka! I won’t do it again! I promise,” he said repeatedly, almost on the verge of tears.
Haripada gravely nodded and dismissed him and everybody thought that was the end of things. But that very night, Madhu got drunk again and repeated history.
The village panchayat called and warned Madhu a few times to satisfy the unhappy chunk of villagers. But the truth is, Haripada knew that Madhu’s drunken actions did not insult the Goddess. He was also aware that Raju and his two obsequious friends had personal grudges against Madhu. Eventually, he put a stop to their complaining. “Listen, we’ve given attention to this grievance but it’s of no importance to the village. We cannot keep wasting time on this. We all know Madhu. He means no harm to anybody, and he does not mean to insult the Goddess either. I suggest you three find yourselves some work to do,” he said irritably and dismissed the trio.
Raju was furious but he didn’t have the guts to speak up against the panchayat. So, he waited for an opportunity to teach Madhu a lesson.
One winter night, Rubi was closing shop. She sold roti and tadka near the peepal tree at the village square every evening. Most villagers got their evening meals or dinners from Rubi. Because it was winter, the village square was empty. But she was used to winter nights like these. Rubi was just about to hop on her bicycle as two men whose faces were covered in gamchas, only their ferocious eyes peeping through, came at her brandishing daggers. “Give us all the money you have,” they said gruffly.
Rubi tightened her grip on the handles of the bicycle and stared at the men defiantly. There was something about their voices that angered her, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. She wanted to react but there were two of them and one of her. Rubi was a smart young woman; she knew that if she managed to get to any villager or reached the huts, she’d find help, but she needed a head start.
Without warning she threw her bicycle on the two men, knocking them off, and started running towards the huts.
Raju came running out of nowhere. “Rubi! Are you alright?”
“They are trying to rob me,” panted Rubi, pointing at the two men who were now closing in on her.
“Don’t worry, Rubi. I’ll save you from those hooligans!”
Raju intercepted the two daggered men and a few punches and kicks later they both were lying on the ground. Raju himself was bleeding profusely from his nose and his shirt was ripped. He limped towards Rubi smiling faintly.
“Go home, Rubi,” he said. “If they come to their senses, they’ll be furious.”
“Thank you,” she said. “But I have to get my bicycle. It’s lying at the village square.”
“In that case, I’ll come with you,” he said.
“There’s no need —”
Now, Raju had his eyes set on Rubi. But each time he approached her, she dismissed him. For Rubi, it was a matter of pride and dignity. She made an honest living and was a hard-working woman. Raju, on the other hand, spent his days with his two good-for-nothing friends. His father was the owner of the village’s biggest grocery shop and he strut about like he owned the village, even though the man was thoroughly ashamed of his son.
Naturally Rubi was skeptical of letting him walk with her. His demeanour was rather unsettling, and frankly, his little heroic fight looked rather easy. She gave him a calculated gaze and concluded that if he tried anything, she could manage to inflict a few blows and derail him.
“Alright,” she finally said.
Rubi started walking to the village square, Raju by her side. He didn’t say anything and Rubi wasn’t sure what to make of it. Once she picked up her bicycle and checked if it was in working condition, she said, “I can cycle home from here.”
“Rubi… I think… I think I lost too much blood! My head is spinning!”
She raised an eyebrow and scrutinized Raju. “In that case, go home,” she said icily and hopped on her bicycle.
Raju quickly grabbed the handlebar of the bicycle. “Wait! I can sit on the carrier behind you and you can cycle me home. I’m weak. How can I go alone?”
“Ask your two friends to get you home. I’m sure they’re still lying there, waiting for you,” she said through gritted teeth.
“What… What are you suggesting?”
“Do you think I don’t understand what you’re trying to do? There were two of them and they had daggers! And you just, what, defeated them, and knocked them out, with a couple of kicks and punches? I’d still buy it if you were a wrestler or something! But you’re thinner than a palm tree! You really thought you could stage an attack on me, come save me, and I’d fall into your arms, my knight in shining armour?” Rubi shook her bicycle. “Leave my bicycle!”
Raju’s jawline hardened. “I save your life and you offend me by making disgusting accusations?”
“Give it up, Raju!”
“Rubi, I need you to know and understand this, I love you.”
“I don’t care! Let me go!”
Raju stared at her for a few seconds and grabbed her wrist. But Rubi was quick, and she was prepared. She kicked him between his legs, and swung her pouch of coins at him, hitting him in the eye.
Rubi hopped on her bicycle but seconds later, had to hit her brakes because before her stood Kaju and Ganesh, with their daggers. They were no longer covering their faces.
“Look, Rubi,” said Kaju. “You misunderstand Raju. He’s a good fellow; he will love you and take good care of you. Come let’s get both of you to the Kali temple and get you married.”
Ganesh nodded. “He beat us up for you, just to prove how much he loves you. Please, Rubi.”
She glared at the two of them, but she knew she couldn’t fight them both. “Let me go home. We’ll let the elders sort it out tomorrow.”
Kaju took a step forward. “Rubi, Rubi, Rubi! Why bother the elders with this? You’re nineteen, Raju is twenty-three, and we’ll be your witnesses! Come on, don’t make this difficult!”
“He’s right, you should listen to him,” Ganesh added.
“Joy Maa Durga! Ya devi —”
“Hey, Madhu! Get lost, you drunk bastard!”
Madhu had dragged his feet into the scene. He now stared at Kaju and Ganesh trying to figure out which one of them cut him off. “Who was that,” he slurred.
The two men charged at Madhu.
Raju had limped onto the scene as well. “You bastard, Madhu! You’ve gone out of hand!” He lunged at Madhu.
Rubi took advantage of the commotion and pedalled away as fast as she could. It took her a while but she found Haripada’s hut at the far end of the village and knocked on his door. “Hari Jethu! Hari Jethu! Those hooligans and Madhu got into a fight at the village square! Help!”
Haripada and a few other villagers rushed to the village square along with Rubi. Of course, the fight was visibly over but the scene they were met with was so strange that even after all these years, the villagers still scratch their heads over what could possibly have transpired in that twenty-five-minute window that night.
Raju was hanging upside down from the peepal tree, one of his legs tied to a massive branch, fidgeting comically but unable to free himself. Kaju was on the ground, lying unconscious on his face, with no pants. In fact, his pants were nowhere to be seen. But Ganesh wasn’t there, and neither was Madhu. The villagers found Ganesh at the cowshed a couple of minutes away from the village square; he lay groaning in a tub full of cow dung. And they found Madhu snoring on the steps outside the railway station, sleeping without a scratch or care as if the night never happened.
The trio never spoke of the night; they never bothered Rubi or any other girl, and quietly found themselves work, eventually leaving the village and moving to the city. As for Madhu, he didn’t seem to remember the night at all and went about life being, well, his authentic self.
Years later, after Madhu had passed because his liver had given away, the villagers put up a framed photograph of him by the peepal tree in the village square. If you were to visit Hulupukur, you would see it enclosed in a glass case shaded by a cement structure. And if you were to go to the peepal tree after sunset, you could sit down on the concrete bench around it, munch on freshly made ghoti gorom from a newspaper cone, and listen to old Rubi narrating the tale of this unlikely hero.
Made in ’93, Tejaswinee is a lawyer with a Master’s degree in Business Laws from the Department of Law, University of Calcutta, from the city of Chandannagar in West Bengal who finds catharsis through the written word. She also dabbles in the occasional poetry. Music is her drug, travel brings her peace, and solitude is her therapy.Her socials are:Twitter – @TejaswineeRCInstagram – @tejaswineeroychowdhury