The baltiwala

by Razia Sultana Khan

My maternal grandparents lived in Aga Sadek Road in the older part of Dhaka known as Old Town. If you chance to visit it now you will notice that the whole area oozes a stale smell of rancid food and festering garbage. It is a motley jumble of crumbling bungalows and gaunt multistoried buildings overlooking narrow winding lanes spewing garbage at regular intervals and clogged drains used by children as latrines. It is a far cry from the colonial bungalows that dotted Old Town half a century or so ago.
It is difficult now to visualise that Old Town was the centre of Dhaka and one of its posh areas. My grandparents’ house was one of those colonial bungalows. When you are a child and small in size your surroundings and the people around you loom large. When I came to visit my grandparents’ house it seemed like a mansion. The house stood on an elevated platform facing a red cemented open court and yards flanking both the front and back of the house. The front yard was a garden with a lawn of dark green with jasmine bushes sprouting here and there.
One day I saw my Naniamma, my grandmother, picking shoots from this green lawn.
‘Are you weeding the grass, Naniamma?’
Naniamma smiled, ‘No Sweetie, we’re going to have this for lunch.’
‘We’re going to eat grass?’ I was aghast. ‘Are we poor then?’ The concept of poverty was not alien to me despite my young age, but I had not thought to wonder at my grandparents’ level of poverty.
Naniamma burst into peels of laughter, ‘This is edible; it’s greens that you can cook with meat. It’s called nunya sag. Tell me after lunch what you think of it.’
I forget whether we continued the conversation after lunch but nunya sag cooked with meat has remained one of my favorite dishes. It’s not just that the light sourness of the green blends in well with the heavy blandness of the meat, or that it has an exotic some-shade-of-green look, but the simple fact that it is a whiff of my childhood.
The back of my grandparents’ house had an even larger open area. This too was sprinkled with bushes of fragrant jasmine and, not-so-fragrant four o’clock flowers, some with white stripes alternating with fuchsia ones, others with varying shades of chrome and lemon.
At one end of the backyard stood a well with a large gardenia (gondhoraj) tree behind it. The gardenia story goes like this: Nanamia, my grandfather, had noticed Naniamma drying her hair in the smoke of burning sandalwood. Intrigued he had asked her why she was ‘smoking’ her hair and Naniamma had blushingly admitted that it left a fragrance of sandalwood in her hair which she loved. Nanamia had smiled and admitted, so did he.
The next day Nanamia came home with a short piece of thick log which he planted in the soft earth next to the well. On Naniamma’s query as to what he was up to he had told her it was a gardenia cutting and one day its fragrance would perfume the air around the well.
Under Naniamma’s watchful eyes the plant took root and thrived. In a few years time, in boishakh, the first month of the Bangla calendar, the plant burst into a glory of white multi-petaled waxy flowers and the heady smell enveloped the space around the well.
The well was a circular hole in the ground lined with bricks extending upwards above the ground level for about four feet. It was an average well as wells go, I suppose, but for a child of nine which was my age when I was first allowed to look down the mysterious hole on my own, it was a storybook adventure place.
The surface of the water which was way below the edge of the well looked different at different times. At times it looked placid and the water felt gentle and soft. At other times it was dark and opaque, very different from the colorless liquid that sloshed out of the bucket. How could the color of the water change so? What transpired inside during the time it took the bucket of water to ascend from the bottom to the top of the well? I would stand for long minutes glued to the rim of the well, until my mother, feeling uneasy at her inability to divine my thoughts would frown and say. ‘If you’re done move away from the well. It’s not a toy.’
Inside the well the surface was not just dark as an absence of color, but a blend of different shades: moss green, meridian blue, dark maroon, magenta and so many others. I often pondered what lay below the surface. I could conjure up undefined shapes slithering and swirling in the mysterious depths.
On either side of the well were two square wooden protrusions joined by a thick iron rod; the whole covered by a roof not unlike the conical bamboo hats worn by Asian farmers. A basic pulley was attached to the iron rod in the middle and around it was curled a thick rope. The other end of the rope was securely tied to a small brass bucket. Only the adults were allowed to use the bucket to draw water and to ensure each time that both ends of the rope were secure, one to the bucket and the other to the pulley on the iron rod.
Even adults, however, can be unmindful and once in a while someone would find the rope dangling without the bucket at the end or both bucket and rope missing. ‘Where is it? Where is it?’ The outraged cries would shatter the peace of the day. There could only be two answers to that: either the bucket had been stolen or it lay at the bottom of the well. If stolen, asking for its whereabouts was of no use. If the second option, which was the greater possibility, there was only one solution. For some reason that solution was skirted till the commotion reached Naniamma’s ears and with a far from happy look on her face she would send for someone ingeniously called the Baltiwala, ‘the bucket retriever’.
In our part of the world then, as now, an audience can be found for anything out of the ordinary, and sometimes even the ordinary acts as a magnet for people with time on their hands.
The arrival of the Baltiwala was definitely out of the ordinary and all family members at home plus a few of the neighbours would gather around to watch events unfold. The Baltiwala was a tall hefty man with a head of dark flowing locks and a thick gunny bag slung over one shoulder. He never asked what exactly he had been call for – he didn’t need to. His job title defined him: he was The Baltiwala, the only person who could retrieve the bucket.
At his arrival the crowd, in deference, would part, in a biblical sort of way and a passage created for him leading to the well. He would glance neither to left or right but stride straight to it. With precise movements he would lay the bag next to him and fold his shirt sleeves, fold by fold. He would square his shoulders and in one brisk movement lift one leg onto the rim of the well and brace himself with both hands. Before looking down he would shake his forehead free of the dark locks. How much of this was necessary and how much contrived for the benefit of the audience, remains a mystery to me. Let it be noted that he could always command the full attention of the crowd.
Like a psychic gazing into a crystal ball to gain mystic insight, he would state fixedly at the murky waters of the well. Presumably some communication did take place between him and the well, because after some time had elapsed, he would either make a ‘huh’ sound or frown and shake his head. If he frowned, be it ever so slightly, the feel of something ominous would ripple through the crowd and it would take a faltering step backwards.
Out of the gunny bag would come what looked like a multipronged hook much like a martial arts grappling hook, only larger. There would be a long length of rope attached to it. The Baltiwala would snag the open end of the rope around one shoulder, wind the remaining length around himself and with a fluid motion twirl the hook a few times, then lower it into the well. The braver ones in the crowd would creep as close to the well as they dared and try to rubberneck into the well.
He lowered the rope until it became slack in his hands then he closed his eyes and stood motionless with one foot still resting on the rim of the well. There would be pin drop silence around him as he stood there, the Lord of the Bucket, the only one who knew what was happening. Then very carefully with precise movements he would start twirling the rope in small circles. Gradually the circumference of the rotation of his arm would increase until it was circling the well.
The audience, its gaze concentrated on his face would notice a change; perhaps a loosening of the muscles and he would stop and give a couple of minutes’ jerks as if mentally hooking the bucket to his medieval instrument. By this time his locks would have once more covered his face and would need to be jerked back. His eyes would open and if one were focused on them one could not miss the sparkle as he would regally reel his prey in.
The tension in the audience would break loose and the excitement spill out in a soft communal sigh. Very soon the subdued brass bucket, like a chastened child hauled home from a furtive outing, would sway into view embarrassment spilling from all sides.
After my grandparents passed away, long years passed before I revisited Old Town. In the meantime the place had been carved up among my uncles who had sold their inheritance and moved away. The one time I did visit my Nanabari running water had arrived. The well had been filled up and the space developed into rooms. I stood for an eternal moment as I saw part of my childhood obliterated.
Did I mention that in my balcony in Gulshan a tired gardenia tree occupies the pride of place? Every boishakh its yellowish bloom perfumes the whole balcony. •

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