Brunch Quarterly Story: Mangoes & Indigo
Beware: What you do unto others will be done unto you. Madhulika Liddle reminds us of this little fact in this story, set in 19th century Calcutta, written exclusively for Brunch Quarterlybrunch Updated: Oct 15, 2011 19:26 IST
Oscar Leadbetter, after two months on board ship, followed by a cross-country journey from Bombay to Calcutta, was ushered into his cousin’s presence by a turbaned servant. The man, his white muslin jama swishing about pyjama-clad knees, bowed out. Oscar stood before the vast mango-wood desk behind which his cousin sat. Stephen’s drooping moustache and thinning hair were blond, his icy blue eyes the gift of some long-ago Nordic ancestor. He turned that frosty gaze on Oscar.
‘I have had to get rid of my last secretary to accommodate you,’ he said. There had been no invitation for Oscar to sit, no ‘Koi hai?!’ yelled to a servant for whisky.
Oscar murmured something about trying his best, and was treated to a cold stare before Stephen began listing his duties. They were many, and varied. Oscar would receive and segregate correspondence. He would write suitable responses. He would keep the accounts for the house. He would be in charge of making large purchases – not the meat and vegetables, or the dhobi’s lye, but the substantial ones. Furniture, for instance, or mattresses.
‘Do you expect them to wear out every few months?’ Oscar asked.
That ended the interview; Oscar was dismissed for the day. They would meet the next morning, at breakfast. Stephen would be dining at the Blakes’. Oscar wondered who the Blakes were, but merely nodded. ‘Well, then, Stephen. Good evening.’
Stephen winced. ‘Mr Carlton, if you please.’ He looked like a man who, walking along, has discovered that his boot has landed in a cowpat. ‘I would not wish my acquaintances to know I had been reduced to employing relations.’
Oscar discovered, that Sunday at church, who the Blakes were. Mrs Blake was a wilting lily. Her husband was a moustached male version of the Empress, stout and pompous.
‘And so he has a right to be,’ whispered a gossipy little lady who had slid her hand onto Oscar’s arm and tugged him away to stand under the mango tree where most of the congregation had now begun to drift. She fanned herself briskly. ‘Mr Blake is frightfully wealthy. Shipping and construction, mostly. Prudence will inherit it all: Mr Carlton is a lucky man.’
Oscar nodded. On an occasional table in Stephen’s drawing room, he had seen the photograph of a slender young lady wearing a fussy dinner gown, its swathes of lace, heavy train, frills and rows of buttons swamping the wearer. There she stood now, beside Stephen, looking so like Mrs Blake that there was no doubting her identity.
‘She is – well, a gentleman does not speak ill of a lady,’ said Stephen that evening as he pressed a napkin to his lips.
Major Thorne, Stephen’s lone good friend, looked up from his lamb cutlets. ‘That says a lot,’ he said, with a crooked smile. ‘If all that stops you is your being a gentleman – then why marry her?’
Stephen swirled the wine in his glass, gazing into its crimson depths. ‘There is nothing wrong with her,’ he said. ‘Just a certain insipidity.’ He tossed down the hock. ‘But she comes with a beautiful dowry. For that, I would marry the devil himself.’
Oscar, sitting at the foot of the long, highly polished dining table, knew he had been forgotten by all but the khidmatgaar who waited at the table.
‘She’s quite lovely, though,’ Major Thorne said. ‘And I daresay you could find a use for a fat dowry.’
It was a remark Oscar would come to understand better in the following days. Stephen had inherited wealth from both parents. His father had left behind a baronetcy and estate in Yorkshire. A bailiff looked after it, but the land was poor beyond belief. From the considerably richer distaff side, Stephen had inherited a swathe of mango orchards and the Chowringhee house. His father had acquired an indigo plantation in 1880, a year before his own death. Stephen would have been rich, had he not spent so recklessly in the eight years since his father’s death.
There were outstanding bills from just about everybody in Calcutta. Tailors, grocers, carpenters, wine merchants… the list was impressive. Topping it was a certain Nobin Chandra Banerjee. Stephen owed him a startling eighty-six thousand rupees.
The man himself came one day in May, two months after Oscar’s arrival. Nobin Chandra Banerjee was in his mid-twenties. He was slim and gentle-eyed, clad in a starched dhoti and kurta. He spoke English slowly but precisely, and nodded when Oscar explained that Stephen was at the Bengal Club and there was no knowing when he would return.
‘I must meet him,’ Mr Banerjee said. ‘May I wait?’
Oscar, who found his long days of relative solitude dull, agreed. He even – disobeying Stephen’s injunction against unnecessary expenditure – offered tea. Mr Banerjee murmured no, and Oscar flushed at his own mistake. Of course Mr Banerjee was a Brahmin, and Brahmins did not go about eating and drinking in every house they entered.
But if Mr Banerjee refused tea, he did not refuse Oscar’s overtures of friendship. Within the first half hour, Oscar had confessed that he had come across Mr Banerjee’s name among Stephen’s creditors. ‘It seems incredible,’ he said. ‘Such a massive debt?’
‘It happens, Mr Leadbetter,’ said Mr Banerjee, ‘when one takes no note of one’s expenses. The Bengal Club, now – that is expensive. And the theatre. Clothes, riding, balls. And servants – how many?’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘At least sixty?’
‘Sixty-three,’ confessed Oscar.
‘Hmm. When one spends on that scale, and does not possess millions, one is certain to run up debts.’
Oscar mulled over the remark long after Mr Banerjee, having waited fruitlessly for over two hours, had left. At dinner that evening, he broached the topic. ‘Why not sell Mr Banerjee the indigo plantation?’ he said as he broke bread. ‘That should be –’ He was cut off in midsentence by the crash of the soup tureen as it went flying across the room, flung by an enraged Stephen right out of the hands of the khidmatgaar who held it.
Oscar found himself looking up into a face purple with rage. ‘Don’t you dare interfere in my matters again,’ Stephen grated. ‘I employed you because Uncle asked me to. But if you overstep yourself, I shall throttle you.’
He seemed perfectly capable of it. An unfortunate punkhawallah, who fell asleep during the night leaving Stephen in airless discomfort, was kicked half to death. Oscar had the man taken to the hospital. He vomited blood all the way.
‘He would never sell the indigo plantation to me, Mr Leadbetter,’ Nobin Chandra Banerjee explained when he came next. Stephen was away at the Turf Club. ‘You see, there is a history to that plantation. It once belonged to a certain Durga Prasad Bandopadhyay.’
Bandopadhyay Babu had been a zamindar. The indigo plantation consisted of four hundred acres beside a lake, and another two thousand scattered across the surrounding villages. Through the summer and monsoon the villagers sowed and harvested, steeped and fermented the indigo plants, and pressed the precious blue dye into cakes. The indigo-filled wooden chests, transported to Calcutta for auction, brought Bandopadhyay Babu a decent income.
Until one particularly hot summer, when the indigo was shrivelling under the sun. Bandopadhyay Babu’s only son died of cholera, leaving behind a wife and three children, a son and two daughters. Bandopadhyay Babu was distraught.
He realised, within a year, the financial short-sightedness he and his family had been guilty of. They had spent as if the money was limitless. But it was not, and one bad season had proved it. The indigo crop failed, and with no savings to fall back on, Bandopadhyay Babu was forced to sell off the plantation and move to Calcutta.
Stephen Carlton’s father was the buyer of the plantation.
‘And Bandopadhyay Babu was my grandfather,’ Mr Banerjee said.
The proceeds from the sale had been used to give Bandopadhyay Babu’s only grandson a good education. Nobin Chandra had done well. ‘He was disappointed when I became a sahukar,’ the young man confessed to Oscar on his next visit – Stephen was proving impossibly elusive. ‘A lawyer, yes; a clerk, perhaps. But a moneylender? Despicable.’
So it was as a sahukar that Nobin Chandra Banerjee had presented himself to a financially embarrassed Stephen, and Stephen had succumbed. He had already been in debt to Mr Banerjee to the tune of twenty thousand rupees when Nobin Chandra revealed the connection to Durga Prasad Bandopadhyay.
‘Mr Carlton nearly leapt at my throat,’ Mr Banerjee recalled. ‘But he contented himself with saying that even if he were to die in debt to me, the plantation would never be mine.’
He finally got to meet Stephen in early June. It was hot, boiling in the suffocating way of summertime Calcutta. Nobin Chandra Banerjee glanced at the slowly swishing punkah above and cleared his throat. ‘I would not have bothered you for anything more than the interest, Mr Carlton,’ – the fact that this native called him ‘mister’ instead of the more deferential ‘sahib’ further irked an already incensed Stephen – ‘but my younger sister is to be married. I need the money.’
‘I am not your only debtor.’
‘True. But you are the largest. If I were to visit everybody who owes me a thousand – it would take a month to collect the money.’
Stephen was too aware of his own dignity to tell Mr Banerjee to go to hell, but his glance spoke volumes. ‘You can take five thousand,’ he said, after some thought. ‘Tomorrow.’
‘You owe me eighty-six thousand, Mr Carlton. I need at least forty thousand from you.’
Stephen leant forward, eyes narrowed, voice sunk to a whisper. ‘What do you want, you slimy bastard? The indigo plantation?’
Stephen had forgotten his dignity, but Nobin Chandra Banerjee had not. ‘That would be very welcome,’ he said gently. ‘But it would not be enough.’
‘It is worth that, and more, dammit!’ Stephen bellowed. ‘You know it!’
‘Your father bought it from Bandopadhyay Babu for ten thousand.’
‘Nearly ten years ago! Land appreciates –’
‘Not so much. You can check the land records. Nowhere have land prices appreciated to the extent you seem to believe.’
Stephen sank back in his chair.
‘There are the mango orchards,’ Mr Banerjee said softly. ‘They would be worth about thirty thousand, I suppose.’ At which point, Stephen, his face pale and stiff, rose and said, ‘I will see what can be done,’ before leaving the room.
The meeting was recounted the next morning to Major Thorne, who had stopped by for breakfast before leaving for Darjeeling. ‘Not that I see much point in going to the hills so late in the summer,’ Thorne said, picking at the kedgeree. ‘But orders are orders.’ Oscar, sipping coffee at the other end of the table, wondered if Thorne would meet Miss Blake, who had moved to Darjeeling in April.
The same thought, obviously, had occurred to Stephen. ‘You might come across Mrs Blake and her daughter,’ he said.
‘They’re in Darjeeling, are they? Nice girl, that fiancée of yours. When is the wedding to be?’
Oscar, looking at Stephen, saw the flurry of expressions – the ennui giving way to disgust at the thought of the wedding; the disgust reminding him of another wedding and a debt to be repaid; and voila! – a brainwave. Oscar saw the moment it struck. He saw the triumph that lit up Stephen’s face, the joy of imminent victory.
‘In October,’ Stephen said, his eyes shining. ‘Once the rains are over.’
David Thorne poured coffee for himself. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Congratulations.’
Oscar was given the task of going to the courts and getting the paperwork done. Stephen had given him his instructions before he, Stephen, set off for the day’s round of visits and clubs. Oscar marvelled at his sangfroid. In his position, Oscar would have worried himself into a decline.
‘I will transfer the mango orchards to Banerjee, but only till October. By the end of October, I will pay him all the money that is due, principal and interest. He is then to return the land to me, in exactly the same condition as when he received it.’
‘But if Mr Banerjee needs cash for his sister’s wedding, that won’t help him,’ Oscar said. ‘If he sells the land, he can’t possibly return it to you.’
‘Then he should mortgage it. It is the best I can do,’ Stephen said in a flat, unrelenting tone. ‘Or he can go drown his sister in the Hoogli.’
It took time. Three weeks went by before the courts were satisfied and the papers ready. The land and its orchards were valued at thirty-two thousand rupees.
‘Send for the bloodsucker,’ Stephen told Oscar. ‘This evening.’
‘He’s gone to the Eden Gardens Cricket Club,’ Oscar explained to Nobin Chandra Banerjee, who arrived punctually at 5.30. ‘A small local match.’
Nobin Chandra Banerjee nodded. ‘It is a good day for cricket. There’s a nice breeze.’ He rubbed a palm absently on the sleeve of his muslin kurta. ‘The weather is beautiful in Darjeeling these days, I hear. My elder sister lives there, did I mention? Her husband is a clerk at the Darjeeling Club. He is privy to the town’s gossip, all its scandals, without actually being in the midst of them – strange, is it not?’ There was something odd about his smile, though it was as beatific as ever.
Oscar had begun to say he hoped to visit Darjeeling someday, when Stephen stormed in. He had spent the day in the pavilion at Eden Gardens, doggedly cheering on a team that had been reduced to a follow-on. At the end of the day’s play, Stephen had been cajoled by an acquaintance who was a tram enthusiast, into going for a joy ride between the Dalhousie Square Customs House and the Strand. They had sat just behind the horses pulling the tram. Stephen’s new linen suit reeked of manure.
Stephen headed for his room, fuming and shouting for whisky, bathwater and fresh linen. When he emerged – and after thrashing his valet for not having had the water cool enough – Oscar and Mr Banerjee were sitting in awed silence in the study.
Mr Banerjee’s awe was all surface. Oscar, watching the man as he offered Stephen a gracious namaskar, could not help but admire his fortitude. He had backbone.
Nobin Chandra Banerjee looked up from the papers a surly Stephen had shoved at him. ‘This is all very well, Mr Carlton,’ he said, ‘but you have forgotten; I asked for forty thousand. This is eight thousand short.’
Stephen raved and ranted, but the young man was adamant. He would not accept one anna less than forty thousand.
‘Oh, very well!’ Stephen grabbed the papers, sat down behind the desk, and pulled out his pen. ‘I trust you are satisfied that the indigo plantation is worth at least ten thousand?’ His voice dripped venom. ‘Well, then. I hand over the plantation to you too’ – he scribbled furiously on the page, crossing out something here, adding something there, affixing his broad sweeping signature everywhere – ‘there. Pleased?’ he flung the bunch of sheets, sending it skidding across the desk, to land in a flutter at Nobin Chandra Banerjee’s sandalled feet.
‘I don’t know if this is strictly legal, Mr Carlton,’ Oscar said, nervously.
‘Of course it’s bloody legal. It’s my land, to do with as I please. You sign as witness, Leadbetter.’
So the papers were attested and witnessed, and Mr Banerjee, with a brief ‘Good evening’, took his leave. ‘I must go home,’ he murmured to Oscar. ‘My elder sister and her family are visiting.’
‘Well, that’s that,’ Stephen said, when Oscar returned to the study. ‘You had better let that bastard know what will happen if he doesn’t return my lands in October.’ He heaved a great sigh, of mingled exasperation and anger. ‘What has been happening? Any visitors? Letters?’
There had been no visitors. But there were two letters, one from an old schoolmate, the other from Mrs Blake in Darjeeling. ‘Read them out,’ Stephen said, leaning back in his chair, eyes closed. ‘I’m too tired.’
Oscar picked up Mrs Blake’s letter first.
It was a single page, written in an untidy scrawl. More than half the page was devoted to apologies: profound apologies, abject apologies that made the writer’s pen waver even more than usual. They did not know how it had happened – no banns had been announced, as far as they knew…
‘Why doesn’t the stupid woman say what she wants?’ Stephen growled.
She did. Prudence had done something very imprudent indeed. She had eloped with Major Thorne, and had married him a week back at St Andrews’.
This story is from the latest issue of the Brunch Quarterly.
From HT Brunch, October 9
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First Published: Oct 15, 2011 12:33 IST