Please look at me, just once. Here I am, standing squashed in a corner. I got on the bus a little while ago, barely finding myself a toehold on the crowded footboard. Then, slowly and patiently, I pushed my way through the dense jungle of bodies, slithering under armpits and ferreting between legs. Unfortunately, I can't reach the overhead rod for support – it’s too high for a short person like me. I support my weight against the back of a seat, instead.span styleWhenever the bus lurches and sways, I lose my balance and bump against other people's bodies. Nobody seems to mind terribly – I’m so slight, they probably don't even feel my weight.
So that’s where I am right now – leaning against the back of a seat. Tall people loom over me like mountains on every side. They tower over me so completely that I doubt they can see me. Even if they do, they take little notice of me, as though it doesn't make the least difference to them whether I exist or not. This, perhaps, is in large part due to the fact that there is nothing distinctive about my appearance. I'm five foot two, slightly built but not excessively thin, dark skinned but not so dark that people would take a second look. Being over forty, my hair has started to thin, yet I'm far from bald – at least, fully bald people sometimes attract curious glances. Then there's my face – it’s neither handsome nor spectacularly ugly. My nose is neither chiselled nor flat; my eyes are not large, but neither are they piggishly small. So here I stand, unnoticed, anonymous, in the middle of a motley crowd.
Just after I got married, a rather tragically interesting thing happened. A couple of days after the wedding, I went shopping with my newly wed wife. We were due to go back to my wife's parents' home in a few days for the dwiragaman ceremony, so I needed to buy some clothes as gifts for my new in-laws. I asked my wife, "Do you want to go to the New Market?" Frankly, I didn't make enough money to be able to shop at the New Market – I had always bought my clothes from the cheap, roadside stalls in my neighbourhood. The main reason I suggested the New Market was to impress my wife. She was a small-town girl, who had never been to this famous Calcutta landmark. A secondary reason was that my wife’s family was a good bit better off than my own. I figured that shopping at New Market would not only please my wife, but when her relatives found out where their gifts had been purchased, my stock in their eyes would go up. But in hindsight, my suggestion had been extremely wrong-headed, for had we not gone to the New Market that day, the whole sorry incident would never have happened.
Anyway, we went to the New Market, and my wife was immediately entranced by the glittering spectacle. She would pause in front of every shop, walking very slowly, her eyes glued to the shop window. Eventually, she even forgot to look at me. I was naturally a bit hurt at being ignored by my new wife. I tried to show off my sophistication by pointing out this or that to her, but rather than pay attention to particulars, she was devouring the scene in its entirety.
When my hurt feelings reached a sufficient level of pique, I deliberately slowed my own pace and fell behind. Not noticing that I was no longer at her side, my wife continued to amble along by herself. At one point, I stopped walking and simply stood there. Her mesmerized eyes fixed on window displays, my wife walked on in the goose-stepping, marionette-like gait of soldiers offering a guard of honor.
Standing at my spot, I watched her being borne along the glittering hallways by the tide of shoppers. She was speaking occasionally, as if I was still with her, but not really caring to check. After she had gone quite a long way, she suddenly grew excited at the sight of something and turned around to point it out to me. Discovering my absence for the first time, she started looking around with a stricken face. Unable to resist the temptation of having some more fun at her expense, I hid myself in one of the maze-like alleyways of the market. Let the country girl look for me now. Let her pay the price of ignoring me all this time. Allowing myself a little smile, I peered out to see her retracing her steps back and forth, panic writ clear on her face.
I felt sorry for her, but deciding to reveal myself after heightening the tension a bit more, I retreated deeper into the alleyway. My wife walked up and down the main passageway several times, turned into this alley or that, looking for me frantically. I kept her in my sights the entire time. At one point, I realized that if she didn’t find me soon, she was going to start crying. She was practically on the verge of tears, her eyes reddened and watery. So when I spotted her entering a certain alley, I quickly entered the alley from the other end, and stood waiting for her with a smile. She hurried in my direction – our eyes met, she passed within a foot of me, yet she could not recognize me.
I was perplexed – did she really not see me? I took another path and stood in front of a glassware store under a very bright light. Once again, she approached from the opposite direction, her eyes raking the crowds. Once again, our eyes met, but she continued to walk, not even turning around to take a second look. This happened a few times more: our paths continued to cross – in front of a bookstore, in the alley with the fruit stalls, in the toy department. Every time she failed to recognize me. Searching for me in a crazed manner, she kept passing me by. It occurred to me then that the country girl was actually quite sly – perhaps sensing that I had deliberately hidden myself, she was pretending not to recognize me. But looking at her increasingly anxious face, that did not seem to be the case.
Finally, I stood in front of a watch store and intercepted her directly. Stepping right in front of her, I said, “Hey.” She stared at me with startled disbelief. After looking me up and down for a few seconds, she said in a trembling voice, “Where were you? I’ve been looking for you all this time.” From her tone, I could tell she was sincere in her relief. On our way home, I told her the truth. I also told her that during our game of hide-and-seek, I had given her multiple opportunities to find me; that, in fact, I had stood right in her path on several occasions. She didn’t believe me at first, but when I insisted repeatedly, she said in a worried voice, “Really? In that case, never hide yourself from me again. It could be dangerous.”
Stop, conductor, stop…this is where I get off. Could you kindly step aside, sir…Brother, try not to knock my eyeglasses off. See? Nobody listens to me. Even before I had the chance to step off, the conductor rang the bell to get the bus moving again. The hefty man at the door remained immovable, and the young man in the short-sleeved shirt bent my glasses with his elbow. This is what I meant when I said nobody takes any notice of me – not on the street, not on buses, not on trams.
It’s a nice day today – a cuddly, caressing kind of day with a light breeze and bright sunlight. It’s almost the beginning of autumn, so the heat lacks its usual bite. I was feeling quite energized as I was walking to my office, just beyond the next intersection. As I reached the intersection and was about to cross the road, the traffic policeman on duty suddenly lowered his outstretched arm, letting loose a cascade of moving vehicles in my path. Hello, Mr. Traffic Cop, did you not see me as I was about to cross? Had you kept your arm raised for just a couple more seconds, would it have fallen off its socket?
The elevator on which I’m riding now looks to be about a hundred years old. It’s surrounded on all sides by cast iron grillwork, like a moderately capacious cage. The elevator shudders at regular intervals and climbs very, very slowly. I’ve been riding on this elevator for the past thirteen years. Ramswarup Abhogi, the lift-attendant, has ferried me up and down six days a week for the past thirteen years. Let’s see, Ramswarup, you’ve seen me since I was quite young, haven’t you? I must have been twenty-six or twenty-seven when I first started working here – age had not started leaving its mark on my face yet. Now tell me what my name is. If I were to really ask Ramswarup this question, I know he’ll reply with great confidence, “Why, you’re Arabinda-babu, of course.” But he would be wrong. I’ve never in my entire life been Arabinda. What I’ve been, ever since I was little, is Arindam Basu.
I work for a bank. My office is on the second floor. In the early days, I was rotated through various departments, but for the past ten years or so, I’ve stayed put at the cash department. Besides being able to count huge stacks of currency bills quickly, I’m also very accurate in my arithmetic, which is why the higher-ups in the cash department never want to let go of me. Even when I’m transferred out of the department, they manage to bring me back. I work with both receipts and payments – mostly in payments, though, because that’s where they really need sharp-eyed people. I sit inside a wire cage, facing a chest-high cabinet with many small drawers. I can almost tell without looking which drawer contains how many bills or coins of what denomination. When making a payment to a customer, I open the appropriate drawer, pull out a wad of bills, close the drawer, count the money once, then count it again, just to be sure. I hand the money to the payee, and then turn to the next customer. Taking the brass token from the customer, I open another drawer, take out the money, count it…and so on. People who wait in line outside the tiny opening set in the wire mesh screen in front of me probably find my routine excruciatingly monotonous. “Poor man, what a deadly boring job he has,” they probably think to themselves.
My customers see me through the mesh partition, but they don’t remember me. Take the case of Rambabu, for instance. Rambabu is an old customer of ours. The owner of a large factory, he’s so rich that even the chief manager of our bank treats him with deference. Rambabu is somewhat finicky – rather than send an employee to cash a check, he often comes to the bank himself. I’ve made payments to him countless times – he accepts the money through the window and smiles at me graciously.
My wife’s oldest brother visited Calcutta once and lavished a lot of money on entertaining us. One night he took me out to dinner at a fancy restaurant onPark Street , where I ran into Rambabu. He was sitting at a table by himself, sipping a glass of clear gin, a distant look in his eyes. I’m not an ambitious kind of person – it would never occur to me to hobnob with somebody like Rambabu out of an ulterior motive. Simply from a sense of acquaintanceship, I stopped at his table and greeted him. Rambabu looked up at me with a frown and said, “Where have I seen you before? I can’t seem to remember…”
I was feeling embarrassed in front of my brother-in-law. If the man failed to recognize me, or if he turned out to be an arrogant jerk, I would lose face hugely. In desperation, I mentioned the name of my bank and said, “I work at the cash counter.” Immediately, Rambabu’s expression cleared up like the gin in his glass. He smiled widely and said, “Oh, of course, I remember now. Actually, I’m so used to seeing you behind that wire screen and the little window that I couldn’t place you in a different context. It’s all a matter of context, you see – separated from our milieu, we are nothing. Your context is that wire cage with the tiny window, mine is this suit-and-tie and my balding head. When stripped of these familiar cues, we find that we humans have no real identity of our own.”
He continued, “Actually, I was thinking about this matter of perspective just before you came along. My family lived in a succession of railway townships when I was young – my father was a railway clerk. When we were living in Katihar, a neighbour’s daughter used to come to our place often. She had a stepmother at home and not much love. She used to sit by my mother’s side on the kitchen floor, near the stove. Tugging her torn dress to cover her knees, she would roll out chapattis for my mother to bake. Sometimes she would carry my crybaby younger sister and walk around in circles, trying to put her to sleep. My mother once told me, ‘I’m going to marry you to this girl one day.’ After that, I started paying particular attention to her – in fact, I almost became obsessed with her. She had a sad, thin face, and a fragile, delicate sort of beauty – as if she was not destined to live long on this earth.”
Rambabu sighed at this point. I asked breathlessly, “So what happened? Did she die early?” Rambabu shook his head. “No, why would she die?” he said. “I duly married her when I grew up. She’s my wife now – fat and ill-tempered, keeps me under a tight rein. But when I see her opening the fridge, or pawing through her jewelry, or scolding the servants, or ordering the chauffeur to get the car out, I can’t believe she’s the same girl, the same Beli who had smiled so happily when my mother visited her when she was ill and gave her a couple of oranges. We had a huge fight earlier this evening. I was feeling pretty mad after the fight – the love I had for her once seemed to have vanished into thin air. But sitting here by myself, I could once again see her as she used to be – huddling close to the stove, trying to cover her knees with her torn dress. I also remembered the look of compassion in my mother’s eyes as she observed the pitiful body language of the unloved young girl. Now I feel love for her once again – after I get home tonight, I’m going to try to assuage her anger. I’m sure you understand,” Rambabu took a sip of the gin and smiled at me again. “That little window through which I see you always,” he said. “That’s what really frames you in my mind – that little window.”
A young man of twenty-three or twenty-four is standing outside my cage, tapping his brass token absent-mindedly on the counter. We're slightly acquainted with each other. His father owns a business that deals in scrap iron. It was the father who used to come to the bank earlier; now it’s the son. If our eyes meet during a transaction, I ask, "How's your father?" He smiles politely and replies, "He's well, thank you." I can't help feeling, however, that if I were to be removed from the cash counter one day and replaced by another nondescript-looking cashier, the young man would probably not even notice the difference. He would still tap his token on the counter-top, he would still look around vacantly, and if his eyes should meet those of the new person, he would still give him a smile of vague acquaintance. It would probably take him quite a while to figure out that I was no longer at my post. For even though he's standing outside my window at this moment, it's not me he's thinking about – most likely he's thinking about his new girlfriend, or the new scooter he's about to buy.
The young man just turned his head and glanced briefly at the girl at the reception counter; then he glanced at his watch. Looking idly at the number on his token, he watched as my hands swiftly counted a boringly large bundle of money. He looked at my face for a moment and then looked away, but I know he didn't really see me.
I had another fifteen minutes to go until two o'clock. I would then close the cash counter and go downstairs for my lunch break. If the young man saw me in front of a street vendor, drinking tea from an earthen cup and munching Thin Arrowroot biscuits, would he be able to recognize me?
How are the bananas? Forty paise a pair? Are you kidding me? Yes, I know they're Martaman bananas – Martaman bananas are easy to recognize. Should I buy them? Actually, it's not my day today to eat bananas – I just had some yesterday. I eat bananas only every other day, you see. Well, give me one, anyway. Yes, just one -- here's twenty paise. Mmmm....the banana tasted good. After I finished eating, I clutched the peel carefully in my palm and then walked around the neighborhood for fifteen minutes or so, the banana peel still clutched in my hand.
People were walking by unhurriedly, the expressions on their faces placid and unremarkable. These were people who had not taken part in any war or revolution. They had not had to sacrifice their lives for some great cause; they had not even achieved any particularly significant or complex accomplishment. They were emblematic of how the nation was slowly being depleted – everybody walking around in their own daze, indifferent to everybody else in the world. People such as these had a one-dimensional view of time: for example, the year 1969 was just a number to them – they had no conception of how that year fit into a two thousand year-old history. "India" was just another word for these people, like "telepathy" or "Creek Row."
Look at me, please – me, Arindam Basu – a not-tall, not-thin, not-light skinned individual. I'm not telepathy, not Creek Row, not even India -- there's a certain distinction between Arindam Basu and these other words, but will you people ever be able to tell the difference?
No use talking about such things. Sometimes I wonder – do I even exist? Bank customers shove their hands into my little window and count the money I give them – a few smile their thanks. If and when somebody else sits in my wired cage, they will extend their hands for the money and occasionally smile their thanks in exactly the same fashion – they won't even notice that a huge change had occurred behind the mesh screen. Somewhat like the scene at the New Market years ago: my wife walking around in a panic, searching for me desperately, yet missing me again and again, right under her nose.
I put the banana peel down carefully in the middle of the sidewalk. Unmindful members of the public, if any of you steps on that peel and slips, I hope you’ll be jolted into awareness as you’re falling. If you’re not too injured from the fall, or if you prevent yourself from falling at the last minute, you’ll have gained a valuable lesson. You’ll be more aware of your surroundings. You’ll open your eyes and look around yourself. Realizing that you could have broken an arm or a leg had the accident been serious, you’ll become more cautious about the dangers that surround you. Perhaps the drowsy “I” within each of you will awake and exclaim, “How wonderful it is to be alive.” As a result of this near accident, perhaps you’ll become more connected to the rest of the humanity. Who knows, you might even suddenly remember that today is July 16th of 1969, your marriage anniversary, which you had totally forgotten. You’ll also remember that you passed your fortieth birthday this year. After all this, perhaps you’ll admit to yourself that I did you a favour by placing that banana peel in your way on a sleepy afternoon in this warless, revolution-less India.
Are you thinking of the moon now? And the three brave men who’re walking around on the moon as we speak? Don’t, I’m warning you. For people like us, it’s no use thinking about such exploits – they make us feel terribly excited for a while, only to sink back into a deep apathy afterwards. Those astronauts have very sophisticated machines. They’ve gone to the moon, fine; they’ll eventually return to the earth safely and soundly. But don’t let that make you feel wantonly excited and careless. Keep your eyes on the road. Once you turn the corner near the Governor’s Mansion, you’ll see a great, green park in front of you, covered by a vast, clear sky. At this point, take good notice of all the people who are walking by you, try to remember as many faces as you can, so that you might recognize them immediately if you were to see them somewhere else.
On this fair and pleasant evening, I’m walking fairly close to you near the edge of that vast green expanse – look at me. I left work a little early today to watch a football game. You seem to be headed in the same direction, no?
Look at that player – such an idiot – spoiled such a great opportunity by standing on the offside. Just ten minutes left to the end of the game, not a single goal yet. And that guy over there – he shouldn’t be wearing that red-and-yellow jersey. Kick him out of the field. Yes, sirs, lambaste him with your choicest obscenities – I can’t curse well, alas. But look, my whole body is shaking with tension. Since this morning, I’ve been obsessing about those three men on the moon – so much so that my nerves are all jangled. To make things worse, that no-good rival team is gaining a point at the expense of my favourite team.
One whole point – what a shame! Only eight or nine minutes are left now. What do you think, sir, will they be able to score a goal finally? But how? The other team has massed its players like a solid wall around the goalpost. And my team – from their moves so far, does it seem as if they even want to score a goal? Especially that guy over there – the one who stood to the offside and missed a golden opportunity. I feel like going up to him and yelling, “Look at me, pal, I’m Arindam Basu – I’ve been a supporter of this team since my childhood. Whenever this team has won, I’ve made offerings to God; whenever it’s lost, I’ve thought about committing suicide. But you – do you understand any of this? You don’t even know that I – a unique individual within this faceless crowd – am looking at my watch anxiously with tears in my eyes. Anyway, why should it matter to you? Whether I smile or cry – or do something else – nobody really cares.
No sir, there was no goal, after all. The referee just blew on his whistle to call an end to the game. Please look at me once. Notice how broken-spirited and fatigued I’ve become – my shoulders are drooping in dejection. See, I love my team so much, but my love, my devotion doesn’t mean a thing to them – they have no idea I even exist. Yet at the end of every win or loss by that team, I’ve laughed, jumped for joy, wept, backslapped complete strangers hundreds of times. It was all pointless – it didn’t make the slightest difference to anybody. And the fact that I’ve been worried sick about those three men on the moon – I couldn’t eat my lunch today in agitation – even that doesn’t mean a thing.
Please look at me once. I know you’re probably worried about your team’s standing in the league tables. In addition, you’re no doubt thinking about those men on the moon. So many things are happening around the world – athletes are making record-breaking jumps of up to twenty nine feet-and-a-half, presidents are dying from assassins’ bullets, your favourite party is losing the elections, the revolution is taking too long to happen. I guess that’s why you don’t see me – Arindam Basu, bank clerk – even though I’m standing right by your side.
Look, there's my four-year-old son, Hapu, leaning from the railing of our second-floor veranda, waiting for me. Before I left for work this morning, he told me repeatedly, "Come home early today, Baba. I want to go to the Rathyatra fair." There he is, waiting eagerly for my return, his bright eyes shining under a thatch of thick, curly hair. I can see those eyes even from this distance.
No sooner do I set foot inside the stairwell, he comes running down the stairs, his mother yelling behind him, "Hapu, Hapu, where are you? Come here immediately." Grinning from ear to ear, Hapu virtually leaps into my arms and says, "You're late, Baba. Aren’t we going to the fair?" Yes, sirs, I feel a great sense of repose when I come home to this little family of mine at the end of the day. Scooping Hapu up, I inhale the sweet scent of childhood sweat on his body. He feels warm and soft in my arms, like sunlight on a winter morning. Burying my face into his body gives me the sensation of taking an invisible, deeply comforting bath. I say to him, "Of course, we'll go, son. But I'm very hungry. Let me have something to eat and rest for a while."
While I’m taking my rest, Hapu stays by my side and keeps saying excitedly, "Hurry, hurry. We're going to be late." When his mother tries to get him off me, I stop her. "Oh, don't scold him," I say. "He's just a child." Truth be told, I actually rather enjoy his clinging affection – it makes me feel as if I'm the most important person in his universe.
Hapu seems to go berserk at the fair, trying to wriggle free of my grip and running off here and there. I tell him, "Don't be impatient, Hapu. Hold my hand – that way you'll get to see everything." His eyes roving around the fairground ceaselessly, he keeps asking in a loud, excited voice, "What's this, Baba? And that? And that thing over there?" I reply patiently, "This here is a Ferris wheel. And that's the circus. And that one is the Globe of Death."
Nibbling on a crispy papad, Hapu goes for a ride by himself on the Ferris wheel. I can see him from the ground as he floats high up in the sky, laughing wildly and gesturing at me. He swoops down to the earth and shoots up again, smiling and waving at me. I love watching him having a good time.
On the high platform adjoining the Globe of Death, Hapu clutches me tight and watches as a couple of gravity-defying motorcycles zoom up and down the circular walls with a deafening noise.
From there we go to a half-hour show at the circus. We see a man with two heads, a singing doll, an eight-foot tall man, and various other wonders. Hapu is silent with astonishment. His eyes are shining like stars.
When we come out of the circus tent, I let go of his hand – it’s beginning to feel clammy with sweat. Freed of my grip, he begins to walk slightly ahead of me, exploring different attractions. There he is, examining a tray of whistles set outside a stall; then he stops at another stall to watch a race between little model airplanes. Next he looks in wonderment at people shooting airguns at a target made up of brightly coloured balloons. He is beginning to weave in and out of the crowds -- I quicken my steps to keep pace with him. My thoughts stray to my soccer team...they wasted a point unnecessarily. Then I think about the three mortal human beings hurtling through space on their way back to the earth....were they going to make it safely?
I realize suddenly that I can no longer see Hapu. I remember catching a glimpse of his blue shirt just before a swirl of people hid him from my view. I run in that direction, calling, " Hapu-u-u."
Sirs, have any of you seen a small boy wearing a blue shirt? His name is Hapu -- a very restless child. You haven't? He has a mop of thick, curly hair and bright, curious eyes. No, he's not the boy standing outside the toy stall, although they do have certain similarities. No, I can't remember any particular detail of his appearance – he’s pretty average looking, just like me. I can only tell you that he's four years old and he's wearing a blue shirt. True, there are hundreds of boys in this fairground who would match that description. No, sirs, it would be impossible for me tell from afar which of these hundreds of kids is my Hapu – and perhaps he can't tell which of these thousands of adults is his father, either. Even his mother failed to recognize me in a crowd once...If by any chance you run into my boy, please tell him that his father – yes, that's right, I'm his father. Please take a good look at me now – for heaven's sake, try to remember me.
The original story "Brishtite Nishikanta" by Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay is included in the collection Galpo-Samagro (Vol.2) published by the Dey's Publishing, Kolkata.