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Amlan Babu and the encyclopedia of Bengali indigestion

sandip roy | Updated on March 10, 2018

Holy triad As Amlan babu discussed the finer points of Pudin Hara vs Zinetac vs Unienzyme and lamented the disappearance of Aqua Ptychotis from the marketplace, the publisher had said, “Amlan babu, you should write a book about this” Partha Pratim Sharma

Sandip Roy

J – Jowaner arak

The pungent bright orange Aqua Ptychotis made from ajwain seeds is the Bengali saffron — more valuable than gold. Made by Bengal Chemicals, it is the only reason the Bengali race has not been wiped out by dyspepsia. Sadly, in globalised India, it is becoming harder to find. Thankfully, its cousin Carmozyme, brewed from Nux Vomica tincture and cardamom, is still plentiful.

After Amlan babu retired from his job as a mid-level bureaucrat, he was free to devote all his time to his dream project — the comprehensive encyclopedia of Bengali indigestion. Amlan babu had always been a man of modest ambitions, someone who had not wanted to be noticed by the world. His main aim in life as a bureaucrat was to stay out of sight. Even promotions gave him stress. And any kind of stress gave him acute indigestion, which came with an ominous rumbling sense of impending doom. He was never to be found without his Pudin Hara and Zinetac, which he carried with him everywhere like talismans. Sometimes when he felt extra stressed, he patted his pocket gently to reassure himself that they were still there.

One of the high points of his life was when he had been able to offer a Pudin Hara to a well-known publisher, who had just had a very rich lunch of extra oily mutton kasha while meeting with the minister who headed Amlan babu’s department. As Amlan babu discussed the finer points of Pudin Hara vs Zinetac vs Unienzyme and lamented the disappearance of Aqua Ptychotis from the marketplace, the publisher had said, “Amlan babu, you should write a book about this.”

Amlan babu had turned red. No one had ever suggested such a thing to him in his life. But the idea teased its way into his mind and refused to leave. That very evening he bought himself a lined notebook and started writing down his first notes about indigestion.

A – Ambol

Acidity. Unavoidable Bengali condition precipitated by many factors — deep-fried puris after sunset, drinking water after savoury chanachur, fruits at the wrong time of the day, not listening to your mother. Ultra-sensitive Bengalis are known to get ambol just seeing parathas being fried in ghee in television ads.

His wife Sandhya was less than supportive.

“What is all this hiji-biji you keep writing at night?” she would complain. “Why don’t you just come to bed? That table lamp is keeping me awake.”

“Oh, just some reports,” he would mumble without revealing what he was really doing. Sandhya too was known to worry about gas and indigestion and never had water after eating fruits, but Amlan babu jealously guarded his project, keeping it a secret from everyone around him. He did not tell his friends and colleagues either.

As he sat in his office going through files and reports, he daydreamed about Isabgol.

I – Isabgol

Psyllium husk or dietary fibre for regular bowel movements is a carefully timed Bengali ritual to ensure the “pressure” comes at exactly the right time. No Bengali wants to wake up at the crack of dawn thanks to some mistimed Isabgol.

He cleared out an old writing desk in the living room and installed a table lamp. At first he typed on the old Olivetti typewriter that had belonged to his father. But the clickety-clack of the keys also disturbed his wife. In time he bought himself a laptop.

After he retired, Sandhya asked him about whether they should sit down and organise their finances. Amlan babu nodded agreeably, but in his mind he was already figuring out the next entry in his encyclopedia.

He visited homeopaths to learn about what studies had been done on Nux Vomica. He spent hours tracking down Ayurvedic doctors to find out the digestive value of Thankuni leaves or the Asiatic pennywort. “Are you sure you have retired?” Sandhya asked suspiciously.

“You seem to be out of the house far more than when you were actually going to work.”

Amlan babu just smiled mysteriously. He had some consulting projects, he mumbled.

He was not sure why he lied. But he felt his encyclopedia was not ready to meet his wife’s scrutiny.

Then one day Amlan babu died.

His heart was clenching with pain but his wife thought it was a gas attack. “I think you should not have had that Mughlai paratha last night. It was too rich,” she said reprovingly. His wife, who had no medical training, was prone to making medical judgements with great certainty. To be fair, he had a gas attack before that had been mistaken for a heart attack. But this one was a real heart attack. Amlan babu died.

R – Rich

Rich or “ektu reech” (a little rich) sums up almost everything that’s part of eating out (see E) or wedding feasts.

The post-midnight roadside biryani and egg-chicken roll eventually take a toll despite all the Pudin Hara pills. “During Durga puja, it’s always ektu reech,” laments the Bengali.

He had not been a very religious man or a superstitious one and had not thought deeply about what to expect after death. So he was a little taken aback to find out that he had become a ghost. Then he realised to his further consternation, he was not only a ghost, he was what his mother used to call an “otripto aatmaa”, an unsatisfied spirit who is still craving something.

Amlan babu sat on the neem tree outside his house and gazed longingly at the desk where his encyclopedia lay unfinished.

His family did not seem too devastated by his death. Sandhya appeared more concerned that she did not know where he had left an account of all their investments.

The ghost of Amlan babu did not wish to harm his family or scare them. He discovered he appeared in his wife’s dreams. Once she woke up in the middle of the night from a dream and patted the side of the bed where he used to sleep and started weeping softly. Amlan babu was touched that she missed him more than he had thought she would. Another day he found her leafing through an old album of pictures of their honeymoon in Shillong. He stood behind her as she smiled nostalgically tracing a photograph of the two of them standing together at Elephant Falls. Amlan babu, in death, felt a rush of tenderness for his wife.

Perhaps I should have shared more with her, he thought. Perhaps this encyclopedia could have been our great joint project. The more he thought about it, the more it made sense to him. A spouse sometimes finished the last film of a famous director, did she not? He imagined her writing the entry for ‘Pet bhaar’.

P – Pet bhaar

Literally, heavy stomach, meaning no appetite. The most sorrowful expression in the Bengali vocabulary because it is not accompanied by ambol (see A) or loose motions (see L) or choa dhekur or eggy burp (see C). In short, the Bengali feels physically fine, just unable to eat. Might be an omen for constipation. Double Isabgol dose (see I) immediately.

Amlan babu decided to start leaving a treasure trail of little ghostly clues for his wife.

One day he left an old photograph from their wedding on the floor near his desk. She picked it up, looking puzzled and then put it away. Another day he left the table lamp on. He began to enjoy this spectral dalliance.

Amlan babu and Sandhya had an arranged marriage. They had never had an opportunity to date. In the early days of their married life, they would sometimes go to films together but even in the dark theatre they never held hands. Now he felt he was leading her by the hand to his life’s great unfinished masterpiece.

Each little dropped keepsake brought her closer and closer to the desk. Sandhya was not an unintelligent woman. She surely remembered the late nights he worked on “reports” even after he had retired. The day he left his old key on the floor, he knew she would sit down at the desk and try to see where it fit.

That was exactly what she did.

The ghostly Amlan babu watched with bated breath as she tried one lock after another until she found the correct one. His eyes glistened as she pulled out his old inkstained Nataraj folder and untied the string. She stared at the pages in bewilderment, with furrowed brows and then turned on the lamp and started to read.

Then she shook her head, staring at each sheet as if in disbelief. Amlan babu wished she would say something but she said nothing at all, just sitting there, reading page after page. One page fell to the floor. Amlan babu gently made it flutter a few feet. She reached for it. He blew it out of her reach. Then he stopped because he did not want to scare her and shatter the moment. As she slept that night he kept watch over her. She smiled once in her dreams and his heart swelled with pride.

But the next morning everything changed. “I thought he was doing retirement planning in that study. When I found that folder I was so relieved. I was sure it listed all his investments. But he was writing pages and pages of nonsense about indigestion and ambol,” he heard Sandhya tell her sister on the phone. “Tomorrow I am calling the bikriwallah.”

By evening, he found his desk had been cleaned and his folder was nowhere to be found. Later he discovered everything piled in the storeroom next to the old newspapers and the broken showerhead. If he had not been a ghost already Amlan babu’s heart would have stopped.

However Amlan babu’s life’s secret work did not go entirely to waste. It was turned into paper packets and a stack of them ended up in Nalin’s roadside stall selling deep-fried telebhajas. One day on her way home from the market, Sandhya, stricken by a moment of temptation, bought two aloo chops from Nalin’s. She did not notice the packet it came in and crumpled it and threw it away after devouring the contents.

That night, despite a Zinetac, she had terrible indigestion laced with eggy burps or choa dhekur. As she tossed restlessly in bed and got up to drink water, Amlan babu watched her from his neem tree. A pettier man would have relished her plight but Amlan babu merely felt a strange sense of melancholy as he realised that now he would never ever have another choa dhekur again.

C – Choa dhekur

The long-lasting eggy burp is the bane of Bengali existence. Brought on by gastronomic excess. Assumes pandemic proportions after copious roadside biryani consumption or an overdose of “reech” food.

(Sandip Roy’s Don’t Let Him Know (Bloomsbury Publishing) released this month)

Published on January 23, 2015

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