Early evening, Eva, Barbara and I were going down the dirt road to Chandana’s house to pick up a book that had been left behind. Eva left Barbara and I at the gate. While we stood there, a young girl of 18 or 19 turned the corner onto “our” street, jumped off her bike, dropping her purse, shoes, books, and started running in our direction.
From around the same corner a young man of 20 or 21, came running on foot behind her. Just as the girl might have reached Barbara and I, she turned instead into an empty lot and began clawing her way into heavily thorned brush. The girl was screaming; the man pursued her into the bushes. The girl grabbed onto a tree trunk and held on fast. The man wrapped his arms around her waist and tried to pull her back out into the lot. He was talking now. Of course, they were both speaking in Bengali, so Barbara and I didn’t know what was happening.
Stunned, at first, we finally looked at each other and said, “What’s going on?”
A man on a motorbike appeared from the other end of the road. He saw the man and woman struggling. He stopped, got off his bike, and approached the couple. The older man started to interrogate the younger man, who continued to grapple with the woman.
An older woman had appeared from around the corner where the couple had emerged. She began picking up the girl’s belongings and silently approached the scene.
Barbara and I decided that Chandana was needed. We had no idea what was happening to the poor girl who was obviously terrified of the young man. Barbara went off to fetch Chandana just as the young man and the older man both got a hold of the young girl who was suddenly no longer struggling. The two men carried the young woman out of the brush. She was not moving. Her eyes were not open. They laid her on the ground and started talking in raised voices. The older woman knelt by the young woman.
Chandana, Eva and Barbara came rushing from the house. Chandana immediately took charge in as calm yet authoritative a way as I’ve ever witnessed a person behave in a stressful situation. Barbara and I explained quickly what we had seen. We said the older man had just stopped to help; it was the younger man who was chasing the young woman. Chandana spoke to each of the other players in turn, while Barbara and Eva in a wonderfully Germanic way, took charge of the young woman who was still not moving and had fallen into a deep sleep. Barbara put the woman’s head in her own lap. Eva raised the girl’s feet to make sure blood was flowing. Water was fetched.
It was soon determined that the girl had lapsed into a diabetic coma. The young man, her husband, said that he was trying to help his wife who had not eaten all day because she was distraught over a fight they’d had the night before. He said that his wife was headed to the train tracks to kill herself. The older man was the young girl’s father. The older woman, who still had not spoken, was her mother.
Chandana called a doctor who said that the girl must be taken immediately to the hospital. A bicycle rickshaw was called. The mother climbed into the rickshaw. The husband picked up his wife and awkwardly deposited his wife into the arms and lap of his mother-in-law whose silence was possessed by such a deep sadness I could not help but weep for her as they lumbered off towards the hospital.
Barbara related this story of a man she studied cooking with in Germany:
There was an Indian man who lived happily with his wife and baby daughter until, one day, his wife suddenly disappeared taking their daughter with her. He had no idea why. He had no clue where they had gone. His wife’s absence was confusing and sad, but the loss of his daughter was devastating. He became completely distraught. He spent weeks, months, a few years searching for his daughter. He was becoming more and more sick with worry; his friends feared for his health.
He decided that he needed to get out of India before he went crazy. The man was a chef. His specialty was Bavarian Cream Pie. He decided he would go to Bavaria where he also had some relations.
After he arrived in Germany, his despair did not lessen. He continued to get sick. Soon he was on the verge of death. While in the hospital he had an epiphany. He knew there was nothing he could; he had to give up on seeing his daughter again and return to living his life. He knew, that in time, his daughter might choose to find him, but he could not hold on even to that.
He began to get well. He got a job cooking for a convent of nuns who lived on an island in the middle of a large lake. The years passed. He made a peace garden that he dedicated to his daughter. More years passed. He began giving cooking lessons. Barbara came to his lessons and met the tiny Indian man with the “very large aura” who shared the story of his daughter and how he had found the way to peace through letting go of his anger and despair and choosing to live in the reality of his life with an open heart.
A few more years passed.
Barbara returned to the island for another cooking class. This time she learned that the daughter, after 25 years had found her father on the island in Bavaria.
Nandu, the principal of Antaranga School, married a woman from a lower caste, Bhatika, for love. 15 months ago they became the parents of a beautiful baby daughter.
While we were discussing what story to work with at the school, Nandu told us a very “well known and important” Bengali tale of a man from Kabul who left his wife and daughter to make money in Calcutta. A nut-walla, he roamed the streets in his large turban, carrying big bags of nuts and dried fruits. While passing a house, a young girl the age of his daughter, yelled over the gate a greeting. The nut-walla returned to the house and opened its gate. The girl saw the great man with his turban and bags and became frightened and shy and ran into the house. The nut-walla saw the girl’s father sitting on the porch and asked him if he might just say hello to the little girl. The father said, “yes.” But the girls’ mother who was listening came outside and said, “No.”
There was an argument, but eventually the girl was coaxed out and the nut-walla gave the girl some nuts, free of charge. After that, the nut-walla would stop everyday to see the girl. Much to her mother’s disapproval, the girl and the nut-walla became friends.
Several months later, the man got into a fight with another man for some reason. Tempers flared and the nut-walla ended up stabbing and killing the other man. The girl’s father tried to intervene on the man’s behalf, but was unsuccessful. The nut-walla was sentenced to prison.
The prison guards liked the nut-walla and let him sit in the gardens reserved for the warden and 7 years later the man was released since he was obviously not dangerous.
The nut-walla resumed selling nuts and fruits and went as soon as possible to see the little girl who’d befriended him so many years before. When he arrived at the house it was awash in color and decoration. The nut-walla went into the courtyard and met the girl’s father who did not recognize the nut-walla who was much changed after his prison sentence.
The nut-walla said, “Don’t you remember me, I am the nut-walla. I would just like to say hello to your daughter, to tell her how much her friendship means to me.”
The father said today was not a good day. The nut-walla would have to come back.The nut-walla gave the father some nuts and fruit for the girl. The father began to pay the nut-walla.
This made the nut-walla very sad. He said, “This is for my friend. I do not want any money, this is a gift.”
The girl heard this and came out of the house dressed in her wedding dress, for it was her wedding day.
The nut-walla took in the sight of the woman who used to be a young child and he started to cry. He thought about his own daughter and he knew she too must also be a young woman now.
This is where Nandu ended the story.
Barbara asked, “Why is this story so special to the Bengalis? Is about class? Is it about race because the Nut-walla is from Kabul?”
“No,” Nandu said. “It is because this girl was his friend. It is because he had a daughter himself. It is about fathers and daughters. This is why it is so special to the Bengalis.”