Mother said, “No dear, this will not do. You just arranged to murder your own daughter. But why? What was wrong with four wheels?”
My daughter got her driving license long time ago, but she just would not even touch a four wheeled vehicle. What could I do? I didn’t buy her the moped. She was now twenty-one, an adult; she withdrew the money all by herself from her own bank account, and promised to pay back from her salary. Would I deliberately kill my own? My mother thought that my daughter should obey me just as I obeyed my mother. But the times had changed—now I was the one who had to listen to both my mother and my daughter. My mother just did not want to understand this. Actually, my daughter had a strong personality. Even my mother was scared of disciplining her. So she lectured me instead. Too, this personality thing was rather lacking in me. Everyone took advantage of me, not only my mother and daughter.
“How could you take such a dangerous risk? Cars are running every which way on the roads. Licenses are in name only. Anyone can get one with enough bribes. No one knows the rules and regulations of driving. Everybody drives however he pleases—and…and you just pushed your daughter in this jungle? Even jungles have some rules, some order among the wild animals. But Calcutta traffic knows no orders, no rules. This is why we did not buy you a bike when you were young, and now you did this to my grandchild? Without even bothering to ask me first?”
My mother’s complaints and scolding went on. I felt very put upon. This was so unfair! I did not do any of this. I had no input in any event. I was not responsible for any of it, yet my mother would scold me for everything! Just to answer back, I took the opposite side—
“It's not all that dangerous mom. These days, so many young boys and girls are driving mopeds. In fact—the way gas prices are rising every day—I too might start riding her moped to college. It is too expensive to drive a car just for one person.”
My mother’s face glowed with heavenly relief. “Would you? Would you really do it? Oh. That will be so wonderful. You have some experience in traffic. Yes. This is for the best. You take her moped and give her your car. Poor thing is still just a kid. The car has nice four walls to protect her at least. Mopeds are too exposed. No protection at all. One little nudge and you are gone.”
In other words, it was perfectly fine if her daughter got hurt, just as long as her granddaughter remained unscathed! The car was like a fort, and moped like riding a horse. Unprotected.
“Ma? Ma will ride my moped?” My daughter chimed in.
“Yes. And you will drive her car.” But grandma’s reassurance did not please my daughter at all. “No. I hate driving cars. I don’t even want a car. But I can lend my moped to her occasionally, provided she does not take it to the university.”
“Why not? Of course she has to go to work. The idea is to cut down the gas expense.”
“Really, grandma” my daughter is amused,
“How much gas is needed to go from here to Gariahat? And to Central Avenue? You ask me to drive the car, how about my gas expense?”
Grandma is still undeterred, “Then your mother will go by moped, you by minibus and we will keep the car for family outing.”
“Huh! I went through all this hassle to buy a moped, helmet, sari-guard, and now I have to go by minibus? No way!” Now I had to rejoin.
Now I had to rejoin, “Wait, wait. First let me learn to ride this moped. I have never even sat on one, let alone ride it. If I can ride it first, then only I will take it somewhere. By the way, why can’t I take it to the University?”
“Because all my friends will make fun of you!”
“Let them! As if I care. You can’t do anything noble if you worry about that. If I learn to ride it, I am going everywhere, period.”
“Of course you can learn to ride it. It’s easy. Very easy. Not at all like driving a car. In a car you have to learn to do so many things with your hands and feet all at the same time. Kinda like learning to dance. In a moped, it is only the starting that is a bit tricky. Once you’ve got that, it just keeps on moving. You don’t even have to use pedals. It’s even easier than a bike. I am telling you Ma, if you see it once you’ll figure it out. But I am warning you, once you learned, please don’t monopolize my moped. Just ask for it occasionally.”
This ‘asking for it’ business sounded fishy. But I just said, “Let me first learn, then we will see.”
“Come on then, I can teach you right now.” My daughter generously invited me. In stead of agreeing immediately, for some reason, I hesitated, “No, no. Not right now! It is mid afternoon, daytime. There will be a crowd; all kinds of people will gawk at us. No, let's do it at night. There will be no crowd. It will be safer.”
“Didn’t you say just now that you can’t do anything noble if you worry about other people’s opinions?” My daughter countered.
“But this is not anything big or noble. This is a small thing. It's not worth suffering other’s opinions for this. We will do it at night.” I tried to postpone the trial.
Alas! The night did arrive. It had to. Mother called, “Khuku dear, come along. Roads are nice and vacant now. Go quickly and finish your lessons.” I too thought it was a good idea. With age, my mother slept less at night. We too stayed up with her and gossiped. It was past eleven thirty. Roads were really uncrowded. All the neighbors had gone to bed. Their lights were off. Nobody to embarrass me. I went downstairs, accompanied by my two daughters and our housekeeper, Kanai. The brand new moped stood at the gate like a speedy dark horse. My younger daughter rode her bike quite well but had no interest in mopeds (“Oh no. Too hard! I can’t do all that!”). My older girl started the lesson, “This is the handle. And this here is the accelerator, this one is brake. See, both are at your hands. Nothing to do with your feet. Except for the starting part. See now, just kick here like this and press here with your hand. This is a bit tough. Look closely…”
“Where are the gears?”
“No gears. This is not a car. It is actually a bike. Only, this one runs on motors. There are pedals. If you run out of gas, you can use the pedals, but it is a bit heavy. That’s all. Now look here—what are you staring at? Pay attention, Ma—”
“There is a light on, next door!”
“Let it be. It stays on every night. That is the light of their staircase. Now look, after you start, you have to take off the stand, like this. OK? Now you are ready to ride. So, start first, like this. Got it? Then—better let me ride and show you—you just watch and learn.”
Daughter was of course in jeans. She jumped up and settled on top of the moped. I could never jump like that in my sari! Not even if I raised it to my knees.
“After starting, you kick up the stand, like this, then sit down, got it? It’s not like a car; you don’t sit first and then start. Now you rev the accelerator, like this…” daughter’s voice was drowned by the loud roar. Before I could blink, she had sped off to the crossing ahead, then turned and came back slowing down to a stop, “See, this is how you apply the brake to slow...” Of course, I could see nothing in the darkness. I could not tell how she accelerated or how she braked. But I could not admit that to her. In the meantime Rani—a retired daily maid who sleeps on our porch—came up to see the fun. On the other side, an old beggar was drinking water from the tube well; he too joined us, carrying his stick, bowl and a bundle under his arm. Kanai struck up a conversation with him. I offered a silent prayer and stepped forward with the bike. First I tried to kick start it, like my daughter. But nothing happened. Then my teacher had to do that for me. Somehow I hitched up my sari and got myself seated, like Goddess Jagaddhatri on Her tiger. My feet still touched the ground. My little girl was a bit scared, “Ma, be careful! Don’t fall.”
Her older sister was more daring, “Why would she fall? Didn’t she ride a bike in college? Didn’t she win three medals in cycling?”
“Yes, true. But don’t you remember how she fell from the bike in Shantiniketan?” younger one is still doubtful.
“That was because she was out of practice, she hadn’t biked for a long time. Swimming and cycling, don’t you know these two are never forgotten?”
“I know. But mom is different. Remember that year? How she almost drowned in the Ganges during the Mahalaya? I saw it myself! Yet she has swimming and life saving certificates kept in Grandma’s locker. No?”
I couldn’t stay quiet anymore.”What nonsense! Why would I drown? I just got tangled in my sari, that’s all. And riding bike? I can’t do that anymore because of that accident in Cambridge. Psychological block.”
“What accident Ma?” Both asked worriedly.
“Oh, nothing really. I was riding to my tutor at Queens College. I must had been a bit absent minded, suddenly I crashed into a parked red double decker bus and fell on the road. Thank God a policeman was right there. Since then I have a dread for riding bikes. I even gave away my pretty red bike to the famous economist Partha Dasgupta. He was an undergrad in Trinity at that time. You can ask him when you meet him next time.”
OK. Enough chitchat. Try riding now.”
“Like this, right? Just push me a little. How will I go forward otherwise?”
“Why do you need a push? You should move by yourself. I have already started your bike, now you have legs on both sides… kick the stand with your foot, good… now the acceler…”
Before she could finish her word the bike sped off like an arrow, with me on its back. My two daughters were running on either side, along with Kanai. And behind him the beggar too ran with his stick, bowl and bundle. He also had gotten caught up in our midnight experiment. Only Rani stood in the middle of the road with her hands on her hips and screamed at the top of her voice like a cheer girl. Of course we all were screaming, but each in her own pitch and scale, perhaps that was what they call harmony.
Older girl, “You are doing fine, Ma. Keep on.”
Younger girl, “Ooh! Ma! Dear Ma! Don’t fall. Please don’t fall…”
Kanai, “Didi, not so fast. not so fast.... just slow down, slow…”
Old beggar, “Be quiet you all. Let her drive. She will be fine. Oh God, protect her…”
Rani, “Oh my God! What is going on? Even the mistress of the house is driving a ‘mopet’!”
Moped, “Grrrrr, phut, phut, phut,…”
Me (silently), “Please God, save me, please.” (Aloud, in a rising scale) “Get me off, I want to get off, how do I stop it? It is not stopping! What do I do?”
My moped-teacher threw quick lessons at me while running along, “Lower the speed, brake, put your feet on the ground, ground, drag your feet…”
My younger girl, also running and almost in tears, “feet on the ground, oh Ma, Ma, feet, ground…”
Kanai, also running, “Didi, just stand up, just put your feet down, and stand up—”
Running beggar, “Madam will be fine, she will get down herself. Don’t you all make her more nervous. Stop yelling—”
Rani warned me in sudden concern, “Don’t go that way, enough is enough, come back right now. There are cows on that side, they will gore you, c o w s—”
Too late. By then I had almost reached the herd. The poor milkmen were sitting on the sidewalk, playing their drums and singing “Rama ho—I cry and cry, writing to my beloved,”... They were so rapt in their singing that they did not hear my arrival. Suddenly I appeared barely a few inches from them. Just like in circus, I threw down the bike, jumped six feet in air and landed right next to them. To prove my ultra sense of space, I landed exactly half a millimeter away from a pile of cow dungs. The moped was flat on the ground, but the men and their cows were unhurt, I was unhurt. Everything was fine. I stood up, smartly dusting my sari, thinking that it was indeed like riding a bike. By then my running troop had reached me, gasping and panting. I proudly announced, “It really is like a bike. You said it right!”
Older girl, affectionately, “See now. You rode it! Good.”
Old beggar, “But why were you swerving right and left like that? Isn’t it better to go straight?”
Kanai (proudly), “She just needs a little bit more practice—once you get the balance—you’ve learnt a lot on the very first day.”
Younger daughter (still scared), “No, no, please. This is enough for one day. Ma almost ran over those guys, she could have landed in the cow poop. Just by chance, she is saved—”
Rani (still far away praying to the invisible Gods), “Oh my princesses, please bring you dear mother home now. By God’s blessings, no more fooling around with that damned ‘mopet’.”
Although I stood proudly, my heart was still thudding inside. Like that sweet boy who while crossing a narrow bamboo bridge muttered, “I am not afraid, I am not afraid, only just a little bit, inside" I was a wee bit afraid inside, just like him.
The cowherds by then had stopped their drumming and singing and stood up muttering prayers to their Gods for a close call. The cows were of course tethered, but they too realized something unusual had happened. One calf mournfully mooo-ed. Sounded rather inauspicious!
Nope. I wasn’t going practice riding in that direction anymore. In the mean time, the local stray dog—that self designated protector of the neighborhood—had joined us and wagged his tail with great enthusiasm, as if encouraging us. I walked with steady steps, walking the bike, with the dog following me. It had to remind me of the last scene in Mahabharata (where the dog follows Yudhisthir all the way to the gate of Heaven).
Anyway, never again would I go riding on this side, I told myself. In fact I decided to go to the opposite direction, towards our honorable Jyoti Basu’s house. There were no cows, no cowherds, no cow poops or anything cow related in that direction. Only a few snoozing policemen.
That’s what we did. As our house stood at the crossroad, we had a choice of going in more than one direction. We decided, no more to the west. We turned southeast. And right away, open wide road—no traffic, no more swerving left or right. I held the steering handle steady and flew along straight and true. Ah! At last, perfection!
But, suddenly, Oh my God! I almost died! As if someone held a red-hot iron on my leg. Unconsciously I swerved and perhaps squeezed the handle, immediately my carriage literally jumped up and flew off the road like a bullet. I was sure it wasn’t even touching the ground. I could hear nothing but my own nasal screams. “Get me off, get me off, get me off…”
Older daughter, running, “Brake, brake Ma, turn the accelerator to the opposite side, brake!”
Younger daughter, also running, “oh Maa, Maa, just jump off, Maa -- aa --aa!”
Kanai, running, “Brake is on your right hand, didi, brake, right hand, right--”
The beggar, running, “You stupid, shut up! Madam will brake all right, as soon as you quit shouting—”
Rani, standing near our house, “Alas, alas, this is the end! She won’t make it this time. Oh God! Protector of all. Please protect her--”
The dog, running, "Woof, woof, grrr, arf, arf!”
Me, flying, “This is not stopping, not even slow--ing, what do I do - oo —''
Younger daughter, “Oh, God! please, God!”
God perhaps heard her. He had piled a huge mound of sand between the houses of poet Jatindra Mohan Bagchi (Ilabas) and artist Sunil Madhab Sen, as if waiting for my arrival. My moped flew like a bird and barreled into that mound. It was a beautiful moonlit night. I laid flat on the sand and looked up at the smiling face of the moon and the winking lights of hundreds of stars. As if they were saying, “So, how is it going? Having fun yet?”
By then all the houses had lit up. All the neighbors had come outside. Only the policemen were still asleep inside their camp. There was a circus like excitement in the air. Everyone was fired up, everyone had a point of view. If Dipankar were there he could have taken an opinion poll right there. Thank God he wasn’t around. Everyone was adding his or her two bits. Just like when that young chap announced of cycling non-stop for seven days, and did for three days and nights. The atmosphere was tense like those cycle-circus days. The elder neighbor from the house in front lit up the wrong end of his cigarette in excitement, declaring, “Picco, your mother should drive four wheels only.” The lady from next door tying her housecoat on top of her nightgown said, “Toompa, don’t let your mom touch that moped, ever.” I stood up shaking the sand off and felt waves of sympathy rolling around me.
“How do you feel dear? Hurting a lot?”
“You can’t learn without a fall or two. One has to get wet to learn swimming, or get hurt to learn biking.”
“Don’t worry dear. Just a few more days of practice like this and you will be a pro.”
“This is nothing. If you think about the hurt, it will hurt more.”
“More advice, more fight, everyone off.”
"Get off... all. Go, go. Woof, woof...get off, you dog.” The old beggar had worked hard that night. He had run up and down the street with me, carrying all his worldly belongings. The public spectacle of my fall had disappointed him. He was tired too. Running was tiring. Now he requested Kanai to pump the tube well for him, he was thirsty. Speechless Kanai, embarrassed by his Didi, rolled up his pants and pushed the moped out of the sand bank. Two daughters of mine were stuck to me on both sides, murmuring, “Is it hurting a lot, Ma?” I was trying very hard to walk to my front door gracefully, without limping. Like Imran Khan walking oh so gracefully back to the pavilion, after being bowled out by Kapil Dev (Oh what grace, what poise!) I too tried to lean a little forward and step stylishly. On both sides curious onlookers crowded like guards of honor. Some rickshaw pullers came over to see the fun. Those milkmen, too, had walked up all the way. Even the respected policemen had at last woken up by all the noise. Only the poor cows couldn’t uproot their tethers.
Ears red, leg burning, somehow I managed to enter my house, all the time pretending as if nothing was wrong. As soon as the front door was closed I mourned, “Burnol, Burnol. Please, my leg is burned.”
“Burned your leg? When? How? Was the sand still hot at midnight?”
“Not bruised, not cut, but burnt?” Rani dramatically slapped her head, “Of course it is burnt. This is Kaliyug. All kinds of evil things will happen now. This is just the beginning!”
Kanai was quiet, and calm. He had checked the temperature of the various parts of the bike and found one hot spot, that was not supposed to touch my skin, but perhaps it did when I sat crooked. But Kanai hadn't got burnt, nor had Picco. They too had driven that very same moped. I just ignored their silent smirks and limped up to my mother. My mother was bed-bound, and did not get to go outside her room much. So she had missed all the nocturnal excitement. She welcomed me with bright smile.
“Come, sit by me. So how was your lesson in moped riding?”
“Can you drive it now?”
Just then Kanai came, “Didi, Burnol.”
“Burnol? What do you need Burnol for?”
“Didi burnt her leg.”
“Oh God, let me see, show me—”
“Really, Maa! We all ride bikes. No one has ever got burnt. How did you manage it?” My daughter asked.
“You got burnt while riding a moped? Is it like cooking? Amazing woman!” Mother exclaimed.
“She touched the exhaust pipe. That’s how!” Kanai said.
“Really?” My mother, ever faithful of her daughter’s driving prowess, was surprised and disappointed. In other words her eyes said, "After all the driving in Calcutta, this is what happened to you?” Of course the exhaust pipe of a car could never burn one. But how to explain that to my mother!
“It’s nothing. Just a little blister.” I say shamefacedly.
“Let me see. Oh God! What a h—uge blister! My poor child!” Mother lovingly smeared burnol on my leg. Then sighed loudly, and fell silent... I quickly said, “Don’t worry, Ma. As soon as I am OK, I will start my moped lessons again—”
“No dear. Let it be. You are not meant to ride a moped. You drive your four wheeler. I thought you too could do what your daughter could, but I was wrong.” My mother sounded disappointed. Truly, I had failed at a simple task. I hung my head in shame for a few moments. Then I gathered my courage and spoke out,
“I really made it, Ma. If only I didn’t get burnt—”
“Did Picco ever get burnt?”
“But she wears jeans”
“You too could have worn jeans. Who told you to go riding in a sari?”
“Oh God! Now I have to wear jeans, just to ride a moped? No thanks. I will keep my ramshackle car...”
Next day, while I was getting the car out to go to the University, Rani was enjoying a snack, sitting on our porch. Seeing me in the car, she winked broadly, “Now see? You look so nice inside the car. Say, how is the blister on your leg? I tell you, Didi, one should always act one’s age. Otherwise, you know what happens!”
The original story That Terrible Midnight (মধ্যরাতের ভয়ঙ্কর) by Nabaneeta Dev Sen was first collected in Natyarambha (নাট্যারম্ভ) and was later included in Golpo-Samagro (Vol. 2) ('Complete short stories, Vol. 2,' 'গল্পসমগ্র (২য় খণ্ড)'; দে'জ; ১৯৯৭) (Dey's, Kolkata, 1997).