Call it â€œFourâ€™s Companyâ€ or â€œLeave it to Birpara,â€ but thereâ€™s no doubt: not since the Managua Pimp Tower have I found myself in such a perfect setting for a real-life sitcom. Here in our flat of the Akhil Bhavan building, Tay and I spend each day amid a host of colorful characters. Allow me to introduce them:
Debasish Chakraborty and Sarmishtha Biswas
Our co-stars are an exceptional pair of childhood friends from Calcutta, aged 35 and 31, respectively. We have more in common with Deba and Sarmish than differences, including a shared love for the countryside and good music. Because of their city upbringing, the four of us share an outsider status in Birpara, although because of their previous (and continued) activist work, they are becoming known (especially among the tea workers) as capable and trusted community organizers. Debasish and Sarmishtahâ€™s official capacities as our guides, translators, and work counterparts are complemented by their equally important roles as our roommates, Indian cooking instructors, Bengali language teachers, and, of course, our best friends in town. Deba-Dada is the mild-mannered, mellow male part of the duo, while Sarmish-Didi is the fiery female. The two go through several packs of Gold Flake cigarettes daily and when, on the first day, we suggested the house be non-smoking, Sarmishâ€™s reply of, â€œThat is not possible,â€ was accompanied by a laughter that was more amusing than irritating in its audacity. She sings along beautifully to their CDs of Bengali folk music and the Kingston Trio, and I hope that, in some future episode, we will find out whether or not Sarmish can really play the sitar and Deba the tabla drums, as they claim.
Vikash Roy, a.k.a. â€œBulbulâ€
â€œThe Nightingale,â€ as his nickname means in Bengali, Bulbul is the owner of our rented vehicle and boss of our driver, Mani. However, Bulbulâ€™s presence is much greater than that. As a former tea worker and current connected man about town, Bulbul is also our Godfather. If we were a musical group, he would be our booking manager. He strolls unannounced into our Akhil Bhavan flat several times a day, plopping down on the floor for a cigarette and a cup of Darjeeling cha (tea), and to help us plan the next dayâ€™s programme.
Have is no doubt: Mani is money. In fact, thatâ€™s exactly how you pronounce our Nepalese driverâ€™s name. A man of few words, Maniâ€™s job is to drive the four of us anywhere we need to go, anytime. He likes chewing his paan (a betel nut mixture, wrapped in a leaf with bitter spices) and can always be found spitting the red mixture out, usually while squatting by the front tire, waiting for us to complete our business. Mani got himself in a jam on our second day, when one of Bulbulâ€™s informers spotted him accepting paying passengers on our gasoline dime â€“ Bulbul was furious but decided to give Mani a second chance, adding some dramatic tension to the general hilarity.
Bodi, Shanko, and Dada
Our big-hearted neighbors and floor-mates at Akhil Bhavan. Bodi (â€œSister-in-lawâ€) is protective and mother-hennish, in charge of filtering our drinking water and managing our sweeper girl. She is a full-figured, big-eyed, matronly figure, with a loud voice and an intense curiosity that keeps her popping in at all hours of the day and night. Her husband, Dada (â€œBig Brotherâ€), is a big-smiling, white-teethed, big-haired insurance salesman (policies for houses, cars, and cows, no joke) who swoops in every now and then for a few laughs. Little Shanko (named after the conch shell used by Hindus to call out to their many deities) is a thin-legged little boy of three who is usually stunned into silence at the sight of us, but is just starting to warm.
Our local hangout down by the bus stand, â€œLovely,â€ as we call it, can be counted on for a quick take-out lunch of samosas or an early evening momo session. When the power in Akhil Bhavan goes out due to load-sharing (a daily occurrence which, without our ceiling fan renders the flat unbearably hot), the four of us (sometimes with Mani in tow) head down to Lovely, where their generator keeps things well-lit and the open-air seating is relatively cool. At these times, itâ€™s a cup of cha and some heavenly gulab jamuns (fried milk balls, soaked through with hot honey syrup and rose water).