The Night of the Full Moon : Gautam Sengupta
translated from Bengali to English by Tapati Gupta
Like any other shocking event there was nothing extraordinary about how it all began. In fact if what is conjectured to be the real cause was actually the cause, then the circumstances were indeed rather common. If mama and papa came home late every night then their only daughter could very well be angry with them. Does anyone like to turn the key and enter an empty home? …sit in an empty room alone …. every day?
But of course Jiji never came straight home from school. There were four days of tutorial classes, dancing lessons on Wednesdays and singing class on Saturdays. On Sunday mornings there were drawing lessons, though at home. The little note (written on the yellow paper from the ‘paste where you like’ note-pad) that she found stuck on to the fridge as soon as she entered her home; was that the cause of her ill temper? It must be so! Or else why did she roll the note into a tight ball and hurl it to the ground so hard that it got under the sofa, and bumped against the wall behind, only to bounce out again?
Yet the little note was also quite the ordinary sort. It read :
Your sandwich is in the hotbox. Wash your hands with the Lifebuoy Liquid before having it. If Mita Aunty rings up tell her we shall be late tonight. Give Subol 12 rupees when he brings the laundry. The money is underneath the phone book. And be a goody goody girl.
Had this note caused her annoyance then after reading it… or if it had not been the note but something else, then some time before reading it, she had flung her school bag (perhaps in the style of her favorite Ajju) in the direction of the bed in her room. But the heavy bag probably struck the door, and, turning a bit, fell a foot and a half away from the wall that had a mirror hanging on it, and that means to the left of the box that contained her new shoes (Reebok).
It is difficult to ascertain whether she had made faces at her Thammi’s photograph hanging beside the mirror or had murmured anything about her terrible decision. Or did she decide anything at all?
On the wall opposite to Thammi’s are pasted one after the other, the ever-annoyed Azher, the black-jacketed Jackson and Sachin with earring in one ear. Had she met Jackson’s eye in the mirror? May be at that moment she had remembered about returning Rimpi’s cassette, yet…that day she had not walked in the direction of Rimpi’s house. On the contrary she had walked exactly the opposite way, keeping the Buddha temple on her left. When later her Walkman, (Sony) was played, one heard the lyric, did you ever stop to notice the crying earth, the weeping shores…
True, as long as her grandmother was alive she would open the door and wait for Jiji as soon as she heard her footsteps on the stairs. She would hug Jiji to herself and, relieving her shoulders of the heavy schoolbag, she would say,”Oof, it’s not a bag, it’s a sack!”Aah, and Jiji would quickly wash her hands and face, and then sit cuddling her Thammi who would feed her --- rice with milk and banana, kheer, or chira. Thammi would caress her hair, saying,”Your mum-mum-Ma will be late today.” “Mum-mum-ma my foot!” Jiji would retort, her face buried in her grandma’s lap. ”You must not make such comments about your elders, my dear,” granny used to say and then begin stories about Buddhu-Bhutum, Ashoka Shasthi, Chapra Shasthi….
But on the day in question Jiji had not washed her face and hands. The bathroom was stone dry; only a little Coke had evidently been spilled into the basin. Therefore it may be surmised that the girl had taken some Coke from the tin in order to have it with her papa’s rum. Then she must have thrown the rest into the washbasin. The empty tin was later discovered on the sofa.
The reason why Jiji had ventured out of doors was not very clear as yet. Perhaps through her mind had floated the memories of Buddhu-Bhutum and the wind-wafted odour she always associated with her Thammi? It could also be that she had meant to teach her parents a lesson. Had she developed a well-what-do-they-think attitude? Or was it a strange ennui, monotony, or emptiness that drove her down the stairs? She walked like a person who in a dream, in some abysmal dream, who with the moon above, walks towards yet another dream.
For the sake of the story let us assume that she had walked on absentmindedly and had stopped suddenly; that this sudden cessation of movement had made her conscious of her surroundings. She had never before been on this side of the lake. Huge pipes made of cement were lying on one side; on the other, the deep black water, The big round moon mirrored in the water reminded her of her Babi. He was saying that very morning that it was Buddha Purnima. Standing in the glare of the full moon, a bit nervous perhaps, was she thinking of returning as she stood tidying her hair? At such a moment Nelo saw her.
Yet Nelo was not supposed to go out of his ‘shelter‘ that day. He knew that Lottery Papu’s men, like mad dogs, were out hunting for him. They would tear him down at the first opportunity. How would it feel to be finished off like that, wondered Nelo. He did have more experience of such things than was expected from a boy of his age; and anyway it could not hurt much…. slightly more perhaps than it did that time when Raju and his gang busted his face and left him lying on the tracks. He had noticed how terribly afraid people were of dying. Only the other day he had seen Madna sobbing away hard when they were dragging him off to be hacked. Madna, with the huge Bachchan-like bulk of a body was sobbing and imploring, “Ustad, let me off, I beg of you!” He even wet his pants before he died, the bloke!
Actually Nelo had gone out to buy some booze. He was about to return to his ‘shelter’ using the alleyway, when suddenly he noticed the pipe in the light of the full Moon and decided to have a sip. And that was that. He had been glued to the place since then. That day he got kicking right from the word go. In his own lingo, it could be described as full tight, fullchhakash. Addiction to grass was the right royal addiction. It got you high as a kite; he knew that. The only snag occurred when one did not get the dose in time. He had experienced it for the first time in the lock-up. It started with yawning, and then the water! Oozing from his nose, his eyes, and oh! The pain! Such pains that it seemed as though his bones would break and pierce his skin. Oh guru! This was called cold-turkey, Billu had told him. His passion for booze, this too Billu had taught him last year, in jail. At first Nelo used to throw up a bit, but now it’s no trouble.
In spite of the fact that Billu had little education he was ‘heavy’ knowledgeable. Billu says that the sahibs had discovered these pleasures. Really, who else but ‘sahibs‘ can have such brains, Nelo was thinking with his eyes closed when through his mind there flashed a torn yellow mat spread across a 70mm screen. The man, who was sprawling in one corner of the mat groaning, was Nelo’s father. The man who had kicked him with his boots on was Nelo’s uncle, his father’s brother. The woman who was giggling and pawing his uncle’s shoulder, that bitch, was Nelo’s mother.
Since Nelo had often witnessed this scene with his eyes closed, he knew the sequence by heart. He knew that the man who was the uncle would pull open his fly and piss on the man who was the father. And the bitch who was the mother would laugh even louder and while tidying her dishevelled hair would get into a taxi with his uncle and drive away. Then the bloke of a father would get up, put his ‘lungi’ in place, and since no other person was available, would have it out on Nelo: a thump of his fist was enough to break Nelo’s teeth.
With eyes closed he was watching this free show and ruminating to himself. Time sometimes burnt bright in memory: that was just what was happening to him then, and he was on flames. With eyes still closed he took out the bit of silver paper from his pocket. He needed it; he needed cocaine to get a bit more high. Just at this moment a bright light struck his eyes. Opening them he saw a big round moon. It had descended and was fully focused on the ground…. With his jaws clenched he threw at the moon the six-lettered word, the ultimate curse. Then he turned away his face from the moon and to the left, and saw Jiji just then. A jeans-clad female was standing alone. She had a Walkman in one hand, and with the other she was occasionally tidying her hair, even as the other woman, that bitch, his mother, had done.
The police station was humming with the hottest news of the day, the rape and murder of Antara (Jiji), the only daughter of Dr Mallinath Sarkar, poet and professor. A peace procession had just passed through the area. The news was flashed in all the evening papers. Phone calls kept pouring in. Chakraborty-babu, the O.C. had just managed to obtain a transfer from Cooch Behar to Calcutta; it was the result of a lot of string pulling. And this thing had to happen so soon after his arrival! He surveyed the rings on his fingers --- pearl, jacinth, and cornelian. Oh no! It‘s high time he acquired a coral. And at once he rang up his astrologer in Baghbazar.
The second officer of the police station, Paresh-babu, was quite an experienced hand. He had stepped out a bit to feel which way the wind was blowing. He came in, and finding the O.C busy talking over the telephone, he stood near the door picking his teeth with a matchstick and waited for the telephone conversation to be over. Then dislodging a piece of betel nut from his mouth and flicking it off with a finger he entered the ‘O.C. Sahib‘s room. He drew up a chair and said, “Have you seen the body, Sir? Nothing is left in it. The left one is torn to shreds.”
“Ridiculous!” remarked Chakroborty-babu,” Televisions leading the country to ruin.”
“The mouth was tightly gagged. But this is not the job of a gang, ----- it’s the doing of just one or two persons. There must have been an old grudge.”
“Now who would nurse a grudge against such a kid?” protested Chakraborty-babu.
“A kid?” said the second officer with a meaningful smile, screwing up his right eye. “You don’t know these south Calcutta girls! They’re ripe and nubile.”
“No, no, how can you make such a distinction, --- south and north?” objected the O.C., nodding vehemently.
“It’s quite justified, sir. You won’t find a girl of our locality, --Barasat, going out alone to the lakes, and that too, at eight o’clock in the evening. There must have been an old affair, just wait and see. I’ve seen enough over the years. I’m thoroughly disgusted,” and with that Paresh-babu rose to go, rubbing his nail on yet another matchstick.
Chakroborty-babu suddenly remembered that it was Wednesday, the day his daughter went to her singing class. She was in her final year there. So what, he thought, there was no need to go so far for it, all the way from Salt Lake to Teghoria, with the dark stretch of the V.I.P. Road lying in between. O-oh! He could think no more. He glanced at his watch, an Omega--- it was not yet seven.
“Listen Rani, has she gone out?” he asked his wife over the phone.
“Who else --- your daughter. Has she gone to singing class already?”
“No, but she‘ll go soon. Why, what’s the matter?”
“ Listen, from now on she‘ll have her singing lessons at home”
“Dear me, that’s impossible! Jayanta-babu never gives lessons to anybody at home. You know that.”
“Then she’ll have a different teacher. She will not go anywhere alone, do you understand? Not anywhere ---that’s my order and that’s final.”
“But what is the matter?”
“What if I tell you? What can you do,“ snarled Chakroborty-babu, “She will not go out in the evening, and that’s all there is to it.“ Then without waiting for a response he slammed the receiver down.
Jiji’s home is so full of people today that some of her relatives have even crowded into her neighbour Monica’s flat. Jiji’s uncles, her Jethumoni and Kakai and her father’s friends are in Monica’s sitting room while her other uncles, her mother’s brothers are in her parents’ sitting room. So are her mother’s colleagues. Binata, her mother, is sitting on the ground in Jiji’s bedroom, leaning against the bed, with her legs outstretched. Jiji’s aunt--- her Mashimoni, is sitting by her side holding her hand. Propped up against the bulky Oxford on Jiji’s desk, is a photograph. Her uncle would get it laminated.
Jiji’s father had taken the snapshot last year just before they went to Elephanta. In a corner of the photo wearing a pink polka-dotted frock, Jiji is seen laughing, and in the centre there is Binata smiling, her arm flung around her daughter in a tight embrace.
She is wearing a scarf around her head and the pallav of her sari is flying across the space on the right. It has batik designs done in the Worli style. One can just glimpse the old building of the Taj Hotel behind the flying pallav. Jiji’s aunt, her Kakima has taken charge of the kitchen. Because Jethima’s gout has suddenly aggravated, she is seated at the kitchen door on a round wicker seat. Mallinath, wearing an yellow ochre corduroy and a pale saffron kurta keeps pacing to and fro between the two flats restlessly, his cup of black coffee in one hand and cigarette in the other. His old aunt, herself sobbing, tries to console him when she sees him near the door. “Be brave, my dear Bhola,” (Mallinath’s pet name) “We are being stood on trial by God. “God, my foot,” says Mallinath to himself, and stamps on his stub of cigarette.
Mangoes are being peeled for the visitors. There is also sandesh and coffee. But naturally, nobody is in the mood to take anything--- just a sandesh or a piece of the mango, that is all.
“You have made the mango too small, Nomu,“ says Jethima from her seat near the door of the kitchen.
“Not to worry about that, Baudi, I shall provide forks for them.”
“Where from will you get so much cutlery in this commotion?”
Sarama, the maidservant is squatting on the ground washing the cups. “The forks are on the top shelf of Baudi’s showcase,“ she says, without looking up.
“You do your work,“ says Jethima, wearing a grave expression.
People have given so much fruits, flowers, and sweets that Binata’s fridge is full to overflowing; so is Monica’s big BPL. “Wish I could take some home, “says Sarama to herself, wistfully. At home her children are waiting expectantly. Besides, no one is going to give her anything, though in the end some of the stuff is sure to be thrown away. Then all on a sudden the memory of Jiji floats through her mind. It seemed only the other day when wearing red pants Jiji followed Sarama about the house, calling “Mashi, Mashi! “ In no time she became as tall as her father. Alas! Such a pity! And Sarama’s eyes filled with tears.
Little Jiyon, Jijji’s uncle’s son is having a grand time. He has taken down a Barbie doll and is busy giving it a bath in the blue washbasin in one corner of the balcony. What fun! No one is asking him to eat, to put on his shoes or preventing him from playing with water. How nice it would be if he could be like this more often. He presses his finger into the mouth of the tap and a slender jet of water is showered on to the doll’s face. He knows that wicked people have killed his Jiji-didi. But he does not cry. For he also knows that He Man would soon appear with sword in hand and will fight dhshum dhshum and lo! Jiji-didi will be brought back.
Three days after the Jiji incident Nelo was found murdered in front of Jamai ‘s old teashop in the narrow lane behind the Bazaar. About 5.45 in the morning that day Nelo had woken Putia up from sleep and had got the goods from him. Then he took the shortcut back but was surrounded by a group of eight. They were armed with swords, choppers, pipe guns and revolvers. Aiming at Nelo’s head and behind his ears they had fired four successive shots, one of which instead of hitting the target had hit the wall behind the bazaar, scarring it with yet another mark. They had then kicked Nelo’s lifeless body out of the way and towards the drains. The group then walked off merrily in the direction of the railway tracks, and through the bazaar, clapping and singing pardesi, pardesi as they went. The Bazaar, of course, downed its shutters, and after the usual retaliatory killings which followed in the wake of such happenings, peace eventually established itself.
The lakes were provided with powerful lights after the Jiji incident. But as the months passed the electric bulbs were either stolen or broken so that the area returned to its original dark state. This was much to the convenience of lovers, policemen and the patties vendors who co-existed quite peacefully. The old familiar routine was rather welcome. Nowhere was there any discord.
This year Buddha Purnima has advanced by five days. Again the yellow moon is spilling into the sky. Nowadays Binata sleeps in Jiji’s room. No one seems to have remembered the day, for no one has visited her. It was her daughter after all, thinks Binata to herself, so why should her death affect the rest of the world? Why should they bother? They will all arrive on the actual date, they will come in a bunch, and they will come with flowers.
Today she is alone in the apartment. It is almost nine months now that she has left her job. Most of her day is spent in the library of the Ramakrishna Mission. In the evenings too she goes there to listen to discourses on the Upanishads or the Gita. Her Guru has advised her to spend more time in meditation. But whenever she tries to concentrate her daughter’s face floats into her consciousness. She rises and starts re-arranging Jiji’s books. She inhales into the folds of Jiji’s dresses and then folds them up again. She had even thought about having Sarama’s younger daughter to live with her in the flat but the plan had to be abandoned because of Mallinath’s strong disapproval.
Lots of people have suggested that she should go in for another baby. They say thirty-seven is not too late. Perhaps not. But she is averse to the very idea of it. All her physical desires are dead from the roots, dead and rotten, given up their ghosts. One night while leaving her room Mallinath had called her “a frigid bitch”. He had even been about to give her a slap one day. If this goes on too long it would be difficult indeed to maintain even this relationship. Even though she understands, Binata is unable to bring herself to it.
Since this afternoon she has been sitting clinging to one of Jiji’s tops. Well, suppose the doorbell should really ring one of these days, and she should open the door, and Jiji should jump into her lap? Again the tears well up from somewhere deep within her being. Lifting up her face she finds the cursed moon watching her quite shamelessly. Through the wide open windows flow in the moonbeams bathing every corner of the room. She fastens the windows securely and draws the curtains, leaving not a chink.
As for Mallinath, for him too time had passed. He was preoccupied with his profession as college teacher; there were the usual seminars, and the regular adda sessions. Whatever little poetry he wrote these days became merely a variation of what he had written earlier. Whenever the memory of his daughter began to cloud his mind he tried to dispel the gloom by philosophical rationalization; it is senseless to grieve for the dead. Life is nothing but a huge kaleidoscope in which different movements produce different patterns. It is the duty of us humans merely to observe and occasionally pen down what one sees. That is all. Therefore grief and joy are both quite irrelevant.
The routine addas in the Coffee House on Saturdays and Thursdays have long been abandoned. These were replaced by get-togethers on full moon evenings held in the house of one or the other of his friends. It is about a year now that this sort of party has not been held in his flat, because Binata was vehemently against it. So he did feel a bit hesitant about participating in these sessions. But today it had been different. The gathering on the rooftop of Badal’s Salt Lake home was to celebrate the silver jubilee of the publication of Badal’s first book of poems, Ek Alaukik Jatayat (A Supernatural Sauntering).
Two brands of Scotch had been served, the Blue Label and the Black Dog. There was also the Gold Reserve that had been bought specially for him. Sitting in one corner he had been deeply absorbed, hearing Badal recite his old poems. Twenty-five years! Mused Mallinath, his eyes closed. He remembered the day he collected Badal’s book from Durlav-da’s press and boarded a tram for College Street. And from there, straight to Katy’s. Oh, age, age has overcome him.
In the taxi, on his way home, he felt he had drunk a bit too much for the day. About halfway down the by-pass, near that bulky uncouth piece of sculpture, he had to wipe away with his handkerchief the sticky perspiration that so oppressed him. Looking through the rear window of the cab he saw a monstrous moon giving them the chase. It reminded him of Tezcatlipoco, that primitive deity whose arrival upon earth was supposed to let loose all the forces of violence and cruelty.
He paid off the taxi. The driver returned the change. He felt uneasy. He was breathing with difficulty. He had to sit down, learning against the closed shutters of the shop in front of his house. The shop from which he used to buy cigarettes, and take home Cadbury’s for Jiji. Could it be a heart attack? He nodded in disbelief. He knew that death would not be so easy for him.
Then suddenly he saw Jiji standing before him, wearing a round-necked T-shirt. She was laughing and inclining her head on one side, she was saying: ”Babi, Sachin is greater than your Gavasker.”
“Hear, what’s all this!“ exclaimed Mallinath. Leaning upon his arm he tried his best to get up. But just then the whole sky and the moon spun around like a spinning top before his very eyes.
On the rooftop of the house (Akash Deep) opposite the shop, the caretaker Robi was out to enjoy the moonlit night with his newly wed wife. She hailed from Belda and this was her first time in Calcutta. The city and its ambience, the palatial houses all around, to her it all seemed to belong to the world of the Silver Screen. Suddenly she noticed Mallinath lying on the pavement opposite and gave Robi a sharp, inquisitive nudge. “Oho! That is our Mallibabu,“ said Robi with a broad grin. “He is a bit too drunk today. It‘ll soon pass and he’ll go home.” He held her hard by the shoulders and said tenderly, “Have you seen such a big moon in your Belda?” The magnificent buildings all around, looking so dreamy, and above them the moon round and bright like a big brass plate -- the strangeness of it all made Robi’s wife think that such a moon had really never been seen in Belda. She rubbed her face against her husband’s vest. Everything seemed ethereal to her tonight, this night of the full moon.
অলংকরণ (Artwork) : Rajarshi Debnath