The Circle of Reason by Amitav Ghosh

thanks to

The day finally came. A big-headed, quiet boy arrived at Balaram and Toro-debi’s house, far away from the center of the city. Years before Alu embarked from Calcutta to Lalpukur village of Bengali, rumors have spread on how weird he would look. And things became much more shocking for the childless couple that Toro-debi had to hide away from Alu when he just stepped into their house. Balaram, a huge fan of phrenology, was way more afraid than his wife. His great love toward the old science put himself at such an alarmed level that he saw nothing but bleak future ahead of Alu’s life, merely because of his potato head.

Indeed, Balaram had more worries to think of. First, Alu did not behave like his peers did. He spoke so little. For the couple, this confused them so much. What does he like? What kind of food does he want? Toru-debi, who spent too much time working on her sewing machine, was at first clueless on how should she prepare for Alu.

As years went by, things got little clear yet still confusing. He doesn’t like to be at school. Must have been something to do with his head. He is so weird, Balaram once confesses to his close friend Gopal. You’re non sense. He’s just a boy. Watch him grow up, Gopal replies.

Ill-fated eight year old Alu had to face bitter fact when his parents died in an accident. He was transferred to Balaram, whom, as a matter of fact, was expelled from the family as he was accused of ruining the family’s business. Balaram himself was a teacher at a school in a small, traditional village of Lalpukur. Gopal and Balaram was good friends, who remained in a good touch, despite their differences, arguments, debates on science, logic, and microbiology.

Alu did not like being at school. This embarassed Balaram for he was a respected teacher in the school. But don’t get it wrong. Alu was not a stupid boy. Not at all. In fact, he was very smart. He loved reading. He used to stand hours watching his uncle sitting in a chair while his eyes wandering all around Balaram’s room, with eyes fixed on his old bookshelf. Alu was a master of language, too. He could digest new, alien words, in quick ways. People were always watchful when they talked bad about him in a local dialect language for Alu could understand what they were talking about.

But still, well-educated Balaram was disturbed by Alu’s indiscipline when it came to attend lessons at the school. Then when he was at the school, Alu was not interested with the lessons and did not get along well with his classmates. It happened one day when Balaram had to rush to the classroom and discovered Alu’s classmates mocked and bullied till blood was coming out of Alu’s face. Yet, neither Alu cry nor scream for help. He kept silent, motionless.

Alu felt so much joyful when he spent time at Maya’s hut, daughter of weaver Shombu Debnath and servant of Toru-debi. This close linkage gave an idea for Balaram. I’m going to make Alu as Shombhu’s pupil. He loves weaving, so let him be, Balaram tells Gopal. What? You are an educated man Balaram. Why can’t you find better alternatives for him? Gopal protests.

Though at first sounded ridiculous, Alu jumped in happiness. It took a bit of time for Balaram to convince Shombhu about his future plan for his sole niece since Shombhu never thought of himself as a good teacher, and due to his strange behaviors.

Well, that sounded reasonable for Shombhu was a very unique character. He occasionally disappeared with unclear reasons. Then he would return home. And he loved singing in the middle of the night at Bhudeb Roy’s plantation, the school’s principal with whom Balaram shared a hate-and-like friendship.

At the beginning, Alu learnt nothing for Shombhu, as feared by Maya and her brother Rakhal, did not teach him anything. It was Maya who shared a bit of her experiences with Alu. You don’t deserve the money from Balaram, Maya once says to her father, as you never teach him. So at last, Shombhu starts giving lessons to Alu. From simple models to complicated ones, Alu could master them all in short moments. Rakhal, who was initially pathetic with Alu’s plan to work as a weaver, offered to market Alu’s clothes in the city. But you have to give some parts of the money to me, okay? To pay my kung fu lesson, Rakhal says. Bit by bit, Rakhal was able to sell many of Alu’s clothes.

courtesy of

Meanwhile, Balaram’s fate was not good. Bhudeb decided to close the school, leaving Balaram with no job. Bhudeb argued he wanted to make some turns in his career. In the meantime, war was nearby the village. People were busy with their affairs yet thankfully Lalpukur was safe until the school was bombed away. But Budheb was not sad at all since he took an insurance for the school 15 days before the incident. He made use the money to enrich himself, buying fashionable shirts for his sons, and everything. His wealth caused envy to his peers, who were mostly unemployed and spent days behind a banyan tree while gossiping.

Balaram did not care about all of this. Instead, he thought a lot how to make his village free of germs. So he took initiatives to buy carbolic acid, some of which was by using Alu’s money. And he was able to convince the whole village to agree on his plan… making the place free of bacterias in times of warship. Everything should have started from the freedom against germs, he says, quoting his most beloved book ever The Life of Pasteur.

Soon, his plans turned out fruitful. His neighbors and friends joined in his actions to fight against germs by spreading carbolic acid, setting an alarm for Bhudeb Roy. But Balaram’s money was running out. One night he sat down with Shombhu and shared his brilliant idea. You know what Shombhu? I am thinking of setting up a school, here. Everybody can join us with affordable fees. And you will be a teacher in this school.

The school will be divided into two parts. I will teach theories then students, who graduate from it will continue into the advanced class where you can teach them how to weave. Plus, my wife will show them how to sew. Then we still have Alu and Maya. Rakhal will sell products made by the pupils so as we have money to keep the school running. They furnished Balaram’s house into a modest classrooms. Though initially it failed to draw people, new pupils came at last thanks to Rakhal’s ideas of persuading his peers to attend them. More and more students were present, young and old, till Balaram had to cease registration. Balaram put the school at hold when he wanted to resume his plans on carbolic acid. Some of his students agreed to volunteer themselves. But just when they wanted to kick it off, Bhudeb Roy screw it all.

He gathered Balaram’s students in place where he was about to give a speech. Balaram, Alu, and Rakhal sensed this then they went straight to the hall where Balaram was going to stand up. Carbolic acid was then spread out. Bhudeb Roy fell from his podium, fainted. Attendees ran away, while Bhudeb Roy’s servants helped him to go to the hospital. That was when real war between Balaram and Bhudeb Roy began.

That’s not worth the inspection, young policeman Jyoti Das says to Bhudeb Roy. Either feeling threatened or jealous, Bhudeb Roy reported to the police in the city on Balaram’s terrorism plot. Jyoti was forced to investigate the incident as his police office asked for him to do so after Bhudeb persuaded his bosses.

Please stop doing this, Balaram. Bhudeb Roy is not looking for you. It’s me whom is he searching for. That’s why I am leaving, Shombhu says to Balaram, who was watching toward Bhudeb’s house. Balaram has been on alert and kept his watchful eyes to the house after the scene in the hall where he threw carbolic acid. What Shombhu said was true for he was taking Bhudeb’s wife and his newly-born daughter to him. But Balaram did not get this point. I’m leaving Balaram. Promise me you will stop doing this, Shombhu begs him.

Shombhu’s departure brought a disastrous fate for Balaram. Just when Rakhal and Alu was preparing for carbolic acid and hand-made explosives, a group of armed men were approaching the house. So fast that Balaram did not have much time on what he should do next. Take this sewing machine with you, Alu, Toru-debi says. Hide this to the forest, she adds.

Without further ado, Alu left the house. But when he was only few distance of it, he heard chaos and wanted to save whomever he could. Just when he was about to head to the house, Bolai-da stopped him. Where are you going? You should leave the house, he says. Alu disobeyed his warning and forced to pass through him. Bolai-da hit Alu then brought him away from the house where which the mob turned out to become unbearable.

Bolai-da took Alu to Gopal’s house. But of course, his whereabouts were easily tracked down by the police. Here, take it with you. Your uncle saves this money and bring Life of Pasteur with you, Gopal tells Alu when he is about to leave again.

Away in the Arabian sea, he was tucked in Mariamma with strangers when the boat was suffering from technical failures. In the boat, Alu met with Professor Samuel, whom, despite his inadequate educational background to use the title, was a good fellow. He was actually just a teacher but people in his village called him Professor for his intellectuals. Also, there was Zindi, a fat woman who took care a lot of small businesses. She often traveled to India to search for poor locals in desperate need of jobs. That was where she met Kulfi, an unpretty divorced woman, and Rakesh. In the boat, there was a pregnant woman called Karthamma, who was fighting between death and life to born a son, later being named as Boss.

the pict is from

Together, these strangers, who barely knew about each others, took days of shipping to head toward al-Ghazira. Each hoped a bright chapter of life did really exist. Why don’t you work for me? Zindi says to Alu. You can work in a tea house or everything. I have lots of jobs. Many people in India begs me to take them to al-Ghazira.

Six months after their arrival in the city, Zindi was shocked to find out her house was in a ruin. Worse, Alu was trapped in the collapsed materials of new building called The Star with two sewing machines. There are three of us in the building. Only Alu who can’t escape from the collapse, Abu Fahl says.

Everybody believed Alu was dead because of the collapse. It has been four days and no one believed someone could survive in the ruins of the big materials without eating and drinking.

I hear people say Alu is still alive, Kulfi once broke into a silence when Zindi and others were gathering in the house. But Abu Fahl disbelieved this. To prove which one was correct, they asked for help from locals to search for Alu’s whereabouts in the ruins. Miraculously, Alu was still alive. Healthy and safe, with two sewing machines protected him from the further possible collapses.

Strangely, Abu Fahl says, Alu did want anything, not even food or drink. He said he was fine and was thinking a lot. Pasteur did invent cure for some disease and helped a lot of people. “But he had died a defeated man. He, and others before him, he said, had thought over the matter for a long, long time, and at last, in the Star, it had fallen to him to discover the answer. There, in the ruins, he had discovered what it was that Pasteur had really wanted all his life – an intangible thing, something he had understood himself, yet a thing the whole world had conspired to deny him. Purity was he had wanted, purity and cleanliness. … For all his genius Pasteur had never asked himself the real question: where is the germ’s battlegrounds? …Money. The answer is money,” Alu tells a crowd after he had been lifted from the ruins. We will wage a war against money, are you coming with me? Yes, yes, yes, the crowd replies.

So, the Ras breathed its a new life. From now on, what they earned had to be submitted to Professor Samuel, who knew a lot as an accountant. Each resident had their own name and their noted accounts. Professor Samuel would count each of the resident’s earnings and expenses. They did not have cash anymore in their pockets. They also declared a war against dirt and germs. They were even wearing tshirts to show their membership of this kind of new life for the people living in the Ras. Almost everybody, including most respected Hajj Fahmy, Abu Fahl, Rakesh, and Kulfi, joined the movement. In the meantime, Alu as the initiator, kept on weaving and weaving. They centered their activities at the Hajj Fahmy’s residence.

But Zindi did not follow their path for she considered that as illogical and was not really beneficial for her life. And also Jeevenbhai, an owner of a tailoring house, whom with he shared a unique relationship with Zindi. Jeevenbhai did not want to give any damn on what was happening in Ras. But he needed to meet his new fellow Jyoti Das with Alu, his Suspect, so as he could get leeway to return to India.

So, Jeevenbhai asked for Zindi to bring the officer to the Hajj Fahmy’s house in exchange of his tailoring house. Zindi agreed to carry Jyoti Das to come to the house but just when they were about to depart for the place, Jyoti Das, or the Birdman, came to a halt when he saw a car turning upside down. So it was told that the owners of the car were taken into the house and were asked for “taking a bath in buckets full of carbolic acid” as a form of self-cleaning.

All of Alu’s plans were actually running very well until one day when they were gathering in the house to do some shopping and take the two sewing machines to Alu. That was when the battle began for armed people were storming into the Star when they were all present. The police took them all away, only few could escape, including Alu, Kulfi, Boss, and Zindi. Hajj Fahmy died while Professor Samuel and others were deported to their homeland.

Alu, Kulfi, Zindi, and Boss headed West. West and West until they were lucky to meet Mrs. Verma, a microbiologist whom was looking for an Indian maid. It was a bit hard to find a good Indian maid in the deserts of Algeria. Soon as she found Kulfi, whom she called herself as Mrs. Bose with Alu as Mr. Bose, her fake husband, Mrs Verma invited them to her house. She even helped to cure Boss, who was catching a bad fever due to long and difficult journey after the raid.

I am thinking of performing Chitrangada, Verma says to her husband Dr. Mishra, to tell people of Algeria about our culture. And I think Mrs. Bose will be perfect to play Chitrangada and we already have Jyoti Das to play as Arjuna. But how about the scriptplay and everything, her husband asks. Don’t worry. My father already writes it. All we have to do is playing the record and Mrs. Bose only have to mimic the words.

Kulfi! What are you doing? You will be easily recognized, Zindi protested as she saw Kulfi in a drama costume full with makeup. I will be Chitrangada, Zindi. And there will be Arjuna. Who plays Arjuna? Tell me! Zindi asks. He is here, isn’t he? The Birdman? He does not know me, Zindi. After all, you dont have to be worry, Kulfi replies.

Alu did not care much about the play even after he sensed the Birdman was sharing the same roof as he was. Instead, his eyes gazed at an old bookshelf and quickly set toward a copy of the book he really admired: The Life of Pasteur. Do you want to take it? Verma says to Alu. Yes, I will keep it. Good. Because I don’t like the book. As he turned the book, he suddenly hugged the book as he found the name of Balaram Bose as the giver of the book to Verma’s father.

It was the time for a rehearsal. Kulfi and the Birdman was facing each other and practising the lines of the drama. Are you Kulfi-doti? Jyoti says. Please be honest with me. You will be fine, he says. Kulfi, on the other hand, attempted to ignore his words and kept on murming the words. But as when the practice was moving smoothly, suddenly Kulfi fell unconsciously.

Slowly, Verma closed Kulfi’s eyes. She died of heart attacks. Neither Zindi nor Alu know about this fact, unfortunately. They then cremate Kulfi in an Indian proper way of funeral. I don’t want this book, Alu said referring to The Life of Pasteur. Well, I don’t want it either. What if we burned this, too? Verma says.

Where are you going? Jyoti asks for Alu and Zindi. I received a call for my uncle. I would go to Germany. The case was dropped and Jyoti was dismissed from his position as his search for Alu bore no significant results in months.

They separated in Tangier, where Zindi, Alu, and Boss headed to Spain. Alu! Jyoti shouts when they were about to go their own ways. What? Alu replies. “Don’t worry about the sewing machine;they make them better at home now.” Alu laughed. While Jyoti was heading to Dusseldorf, Zindi, Alu, and Boss “settled down to wait for Virat Singh and the ship that was to carry them home. Hope is the beginning”.

thank you to for the picture


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