Bengali Winter: The North Winds are A-Blowin’

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We said goodbye to Sarmishtha and Debasish on the first day of winter. Or close to it, anyway. It was raining and fifteen degrees colder than the previous morning as the four of us got up to prepare for our trip to the train station in New Jalpaiguri (NPJ). There Bulbulda, Tay, and I (and our new driver, Raju—Mohammed got sacked after five days) would see our friends off that evening.

As Deba-dada and I walked across the street to buy eggs and bread for breakfast (one last time), he said he could feel the north winds. From the Himalayas.

“Two, three days more rain,” he predicted, “then winter is start.”

There had been other signs of the approaching season change as well during the past few days: frenetic fields of fireflies (a nostalgic sight from my West Virginia childhood, but an amazing novelty for my Colorado-raised wife), the blooming of certain white puffy flowers which reminded me of Nicaragua’s flor de caña, and, in the human realm, the end of the monsoon is marked by vast preparations for the coming puja; extensive bamboo-framed stage-type structures were springing up along the road, and artisans were producing armies of clay-and-straw idols, to be focal points of the celebrations, various gods depicted in scenes from their epics.

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The heat, which we thought would never end, had broken. And our two roommates, interpreters, cultural guides, cooks, and constant companions for nearly two months were leaving that night for Calcutta. We’d finished the last of our fieldwork the previous evening in a downpour, scrambling from mud hut to straw shack amidst puddles and dung piles in the labor lines, completing our sixth and final tea garden in the dark of night, narrowly escaping back to Birpara across a river bed that had already begun to run with water.

Now, Tay and I would stay on in the Akhil Bhavan flat to crunch the numbers and write the final report (“Nutritional Status of Tea Workers on Closed and Open Gardens in North Bengal”) while Sarmishtha and Debasish went home to attend to other business and be with their families during puja. “Puja” means worship and, beginning with the Durga Puja on October 9, the state of West Bengal throws down a series of celebrations, the scope and intensity of which, we are told, rival any carnival on the planet.

But not yet, or as Sarmishtha often said in one of her quirky English-isms, “not that.” This entry is a tribute to our friends, not to puja. It is in honor of two people with whom we have shared more than just two months of work and camaraderie. In fact, we have yet to realize all that learned from each other, something that will only happen after years of reflection, the journey living on in the new, changed versions of of the original travelers.

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On that rainy, early winter’s day, on the way to the train station, we stopped once again at the garden which was the site of so many recent starvation deaths; there, the meeting Sarmishtha and Debasish called and the information they passed on may very well result in saved lives. The two are cautiously self-described revolutionaries who follow their own openly-forming ideology. They are people of action and their ability to communicate with those around them, especially the “downtrodden,” as they refer to the disenfranchised tea workers, fishermen, and farmers with whom they have worked over the last decade, is remarkable. One can feel this as the workers gather around them, enclosing them on all sides; Sarmishtha’s and Debasish’s voices carry across the throng of hungry people who continue to arrive, looking for somebody they can finally trust.

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After visiting the garden, we stopped for lunch at a roadside dhaba, While she laughed and smoked her third cigarette since we’d sat down, Sarmishtha told us about the dream she had the night before in which Karl Marx (in the presence of Lenin, Mao, and the Buddha) asked her for a new theory for the world; “Marxism,” he told her, “is false.” She responded, she told us, by teaching him about the universality of Buddhism, and also that the enjoyment of life would surely help the revolution. A tik-tikki lizard chirped from the wall which, said Debasish, meant what she said was true.

Driving through the countryside, Sarmishtha and Debasish sang together in Bengali; there was no radio in Bulbulda’s van, so this was a common occurrence and they are both talented singers. What is that song, I asked them.

“Joshua,” said Debasish, “It is a song for you, for the Sutay, it is a song for love, for the true life partner; for the partner, we should sacrifice everything.”

A few hours later, outside the NPJ rail station, whose name blazed in red neon behind them, we hugged, but did not say goodbye. We said “Aschi,” or “see you later.” I added, in one of the Bengali phrases Deba had taught me, “Taku er kripai,” the Hindu version of “Inshallah,” “si Dios quiere,” or “God willing.”

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Our foursome’s time in Birpara is finished, but we plan on meeting back up in Calcutta at the end of the month, a reunion in the city where they will introduce us to their “intellectual friends,” most likely in the coffee houses of College Street; Deba wants to take us to the Sunderban swamps, where we will meet the fishermen he is helping to organize; Sarmishtha wants to bring us an hour-and-a-half by train to a village of weavers, where we will enter the homes of loom-spinning women, maybe shop for custom saris.

But for now, there were separate ways to go; Didi and Dada walked to the station entrance and we climbed back into the car. After we’d driven away and escaped the lights of NJP and Siliguri, Bulbulda turned around from the shotgun seat and observed, “You are feeling very alone for Sarmishtha and Debasish.”

“Yes,” I answered, holding my silently sobbing life partner in my arms.

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