Translated from the original Bangla novel
Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra
|Our protagonist is a bachelor and professional goalkeeper. After a traumatic event in his past he tries to stay away from any serious relationship with the opposite sex and keeps himself busy protecting crows' nests and helping little girls find mouse holes for their lost teeth. But despite all his efforts he gets involved with someone who knows the exact cure of his malady.
“I’ve decided to adopt you as my son.”
“Son? Do you realize you are six months younger than me?”
“So what? Age is no bar. Besides, I’m not asking you to call me ‘dad’.”
“Why are you suddenly into adopting? Why not get married and have a real son?”
“Of course I am thinking about that too. Quite seriously. But not Bengali girls. Too whiney. Know what I mean?”
“Then marry an Arabian girl.”
“Have you seen my dad recently?”
“You sound like dad is prompting you from behind. Last Wednesday he was saying exactly the same thing on the phone. Of course he didn’t say Arabian but he did say, ‘It will be fine if you marry a foreigner.”
“So, what is your decision?”
“I told dad that if I marry a foreigner, there would be no one to do my last rites. Dad got very mad and disconnected. Get ready, you will be my adopted son.”
“Why? You want me to go to Gaya and do your last rite?”
“No, stupid, it gets lot easier to transfer property if you are adopted.”
“What property transfer?”
“I told you. I just can’t handle all these properties and estates. I want to get rid of some. We have three huge houses in Kolkata. One is rented out, thank God. The other two are sitting vacant.”
“Then sell them.”
“What’s the point? That will add more money in the bank. More tax. Too much money is a curse too.”
“Then why are you sitting in Dubai making more money?”
“This is an adventure. But here too the money is piling up. Disgusting.”
“You want to be poor? That won’t take long.”
“You have a bad habit of giving advice. Check out your old ones, they are beyond their expiry dates.”
“Hey, if you talk like that, I’ll quit your apartment and go somewhere else!”
“Runu, this ego of yours will destroy you one day.”
Shankar decorated his apartment very nicely. Who knew for whom? Perhaps for no one. Money often irks the rich. This huge apartment has a fifty-one inch TV, a dining table for twelve, wall to wall wardrobe, microwave on a marble counter top, tons of books, computer.
I hardly used any of these. So that I didn’t have to pay for maintenance, tax or electricity or cable bills, he even opened a joint account with me. I never touched that either.
Perhaps Shankar wanted to pay some debts by his kindness. But I thought thoroughly about it. Whatever I did at that time, I did as if in sleep, half consciously, or by some reflex action. Shankar didn’t owe me anything.
When I got invited to play in a famous club, I didn’t feel any joy, just relief at being able to run away from it all. At that time I was somewhat of a schizophrenic young man, deeply submerged in depression. I existed in a strange state of reality and unreality. Most of the time I didn’t remember where I was, what I ate, if I were thirsty or not. I forgot to carry money when I went out. I could not stand human contact, so I went and sat alone, away from everyone. Often I lost all tracks of time. I was like a vine trying to reach the support of a tree, which some vandals came and cut off. I was nothing but a supportless, futureless plant.
At that time I packed up and ran away to Kolkata. I did return to the city but couldn’t quite return to my consciousness. Still I went through the motions of practicing, running, working out like crazy. Perhaps I thought hard exercise would get me back among the living. I played in that state of half consciousness, saving goals mostly by reflex.
Some of my friends would ask, “Runu, are you talking to yourself?”
Suddenly I would be aware. True, I was talking to myself. Was I going mad?
During that time I don’t remember who all I met or was introduced to. It was that time I first met Shankar. In those days I met people but didn’t build any relationship with anyone. I had lost all conversation. My memory played tricks on me. Only one word brought much peace. Death. Whatever else happened, death was there at hand to bring an end to all pain, all suffering. And it was so easy to die. There were pesticides, railway lines, sleeping medicines.
I could die today, or tomorrow. OK, perhaps not today. We’ll see about it tomorrow. That is how I was living. Not dying but not living fully either. It was a strange existence.
In those days, Shankar would visit occasionally, “Hey your network is totally off. Come let me wake you up with some vodka.”
He had taken me to many strange places on his motorbike.
Weird bars. Definitely not for the timid. Mazes of lanes and bylanes. Not all places were even licensed to sell liquors. He would pour vodka in me to wake me up but I never felt any response. In fact my mind would get even fuzzier. I continued feeling lifeless.
One night we were sitting in a suspicious looking bar along a filthy road in Tiljala. The place was unclean, dingy. There weren’t many customers. Shankar was very rich but I never understood why he patronized such places. Of course it didn’t affect me. Nothing really touched me those days.
It was past nine thirty. Suddenly four men silently entered, came straight to our table and kicked the table upside down. Before we could figure out what was going on, one of them grabbed Shankar by his collar and started dragging him away. Confused, I followed him shouting, “What’s going on? What are you doing?” One at the back carried a gun. He was a big guy. He turned to me and slapped me hard, “Shut up, you son of a bitch. Say one word and I’ll finish you for good.”
Stunned, I stopped. I still didn’t understand what was going on but I did realize that Shankar was in deep trouble.
I was never a hero, never took part in any vandalism, but I felt that this was wrong. This shouldn’t be allowed to happen.
We came outside; three of them were trying to drag Shankar away. Shankar was trying to tell them something, I could hear his moans.
On the right side there was a shack, where snacks were being deep-fried in hot oil. Without thinking, I walked straight in, picked up the wok with boiling oil and expertly threw the whole thing at them.
With a gruesome scream, all three were thrown to the ground. The fourth one was stunned. Shankar took the opportunity and fled into the darkness. There was much running and screaming. I still didn’t realize what I had done but knew that I had to flee too.
Fleeing was not too hard in a screaming melee. Later on I realized that I perhaps would have to pay a heavy price for my action. I had seriously injured three murderous goons. They would definitely take revenge. The snack seller lost two or three liters of oil, he too might demand recompense.
The hot oil had splattered on my hand too and raised a few blisters. They would be the evidence that it was I who threw the oil. Yet, at that time, none of these caused me any fear or worry. But I also realized that I was not that cruel or heartless to pour hot oil on someone. Yet I did it. At that time I had no conscience, no repents.
Next day Shankar came to the club and very casually asked, “Runu, have you ever killed someone? Or was yesterday your first?”
I looked up, “Why, are they dead?”
“No, but they are critical. But one thing for sure, at last they are out of my hair.”
“Who are they?”
“Enemies. I don’t have any dearth of them.”
“I don’t want to know anything. But I’m not going with you anywhere again. This was enough.”
“Hey, don’t get mad. Aren’t you happy to see me alive?”
“Can’t afford such happiness, man. Please let me be.”
“If you want to live, you’ll have to take some risks. About six months ago, Moti uncle lost a property related lawsuit to us. They wanted to mediate, but I didn’t agree.”
“Who is Moti uncle?”
“A relative. Influential man. He hired Swapan and Shubho. For last three months they have been after me. Well, now it’s over.”
“What if he hires somebody else?”
“I will blow him away first. Anyway, all this is complicated. No need for you to worry.”
“No, and I don’t want to either.”
“But I hope this doesn’t ruin our friendship.”
“Why do you ask?”
“From now on I will see you as my savior and will feel like respecting you. Can respect and friendship live together?”
“Actually you better respect me a little. That will be a relief.”
Perhaps there is no such thing as a silent vacuum cleaner. I was trying to vacuum the apartment on a gorgeous autumn morning. It felt as if I was insulting the morning with that noise.
My housework was meager. Preparing breakfast, doing a few dishes, occasionally doing a load of laundry and once a week running the vacuum to get rid of the dust, that’s all.
Yogeshda had asked one day, “Tell me something, most sportsmen have rows of trophies and medals in their houses, how come you have none?”
I said uncomfortably, “Those are nothing…”
“But they are meant to be shown to others. I had won a cup in some recitation competition, years ago, I still have it in a show case.”
In the master bedroom, there was a large wooden cabinet. I opened it after a long time. All my trophies and prizes were dumped in it. There were cups, shields, and many gifts none of which were unwrapped. One day I had opened one gift and found an expensive omega watch. I left it as it was. All these looked like a trash heap to me. I felt no interest in any of them. Back at home; the trophies that were with my mom were carefully kept. Mom dusted them regularly. Like all moms.
I shut the cabinet again. There was a mirror attached to the door. I never worried about my looks or figure. But today I looked at myself. Was my face expressionless, or cruel, or totally idiotic? I could not make out. I never got around to contemplating myself.
Day before yesterday Bandana showed up at my door without any excuse. It was little after ten in the morning. She had on a yellow housecoat, hair open but combed, clean face. She looked wholesome.
“May I come in?”
“Sure, sure, please do.”
She came in and closed the door. Then looked around with surprise, as if she came just to see my household. I was carefully observing her. She walked slowly around the living room for at least two minutes. Then looked at me with a smile, “You have a strong scent of masculinity in your room.”
“Scent of masculinity? How’s that?”
“Unless you are feminine, you won’t understand it.”
I said nervously, “Hope you are not referring to men’s sweaty smell.”
“That every man has, but everyone is not masculine.”
I didn’t understand this masculinity, but I said, “No need to keep standing. Please sit down.”
“No. I am just checking out your apartment. Just because you are a bachelor you don’t need to keep it so messy.”
“I am a bit lazy. Besides, it will stay locked up after I’m gone.”
She stopped and frowned at me, “Gone? What do you mean?”
“This pad is not mine, it is Shankar’s. Sooner or later I will have to vacate it.”
“Not right now. Do you?”
“No. Not right now.”
“Phew! You scared me with your talk of leaving suddenly.”
I was surprised. I was not a close friend of Bandana. Just casual friendship. I said, “Would you miss me if I leave?”
She looked at me with wide eyes, “A little.” Then she walked aimlessly to the next room, “If you leave, I too won’t be able to stay in this place.”
I was walking by her side. Again I felt she was trying to hint at something, or meaning something else with her words. But I couldn’t understand her. Was I going dumb?
“I dreamed about you the night before.”
“I saw both us, married couple, vacationing at a beautiful place, with two little kids.”
“The nightmare spoiled your sleep, right?”
Bandana smiled sweetly, “On most days my mood stays off. But after that dream I felt so good, it seemed last two days I was indeed in a dream.”
We had just entered the master bedroom. I don’t know what happened, usually I’m not a libertine, I don’t grab any woman, I wait. But obviously I was wrong about myself. Something was churning inside me. I forgot everything else and grabbed Bandana by her shoulders and pulled her in my arms.
Bandana didn’t exert any force. She just looked up at me and said softly, “Please, don’t do anything. This body is not a big deal. You can get it whenever you want. But it is over too soon. Then you get tired of it. After all the craziness, you feel dirty sometimes.”
Perhaps I was a bit angry. After she left, I started to think if it was an insult to me or not. There once was a flute player in me, a romantic, a dreamer. But he died long time ago. Now at twenty-nine, he is only lustful.
Sometimes while shaving or combing hair, I cast a glance at myself in the mirror and say, ‘this body, is just a body? No heart here? This lustful instrument in my hand, eating up all the dirt like an animal, it resembles me quite a lot. That Runu who once spun a web of dream and imagination around a shy, innocent girl, had died long ago. Even if not dead, he would be around in Lamding, riding his bike tirelessly, in rain, fog and darkness, searching for her. That Runu left me long ago, never to return. Once in that far away morning, the cuckoo’s call did him in. When he returned home, it was a different person. Nobody had an inkling, except my mom.
The spider was out of sap. He couldn’t spin anymore web of unreal dream and imagery. He was like a shopkeeper with no inventory, like a collapsed football, like the dried up Dulung River in summer. Why did Bandana want something he didn’t have?
When I forcefully finished up all my cleaning chores, I found four missed calls on my phone. One was from a landline, an unfamiliar number.
Except while singing, Sati’s voice was inaudible most of the time. She used to speak extremely softly, and very seldom. Her mother would say that she sometimes thought Sati was dumb. She didn’t even cry out loud when in pain. If scolded, she just stared at you.
She didn’t speak, didn’t fight. She was like a person who lost the battle even before it had begun. The only daring action she ever did was writing a line on a torn piece of paper, “Take me away.”
I could still hear that silent scream in my head.
It is a well-known fact that men and women in love often exaggerated their feelings, often colored their lovers with unrealistic attributes, and saw them as persons they were not in reality.
That was how imitation Romeo and brainless Juliet, greedy Paris and disloyal Helen, unbeautiful Leila and head-in-the-cloud Manjnu had been worshipped for generations. This hallucination has been with us from the beginning of creation, yet we go through it again and again, making the same mistakes, building castles in air knowing well that the castle may fall apart any moment.
That unrecognized landline number called again. Are you there? Are you?
“Perhaps you don’t remember me. Exactly eight months and seventeen days ago…”
“How is Shuchi, Murchhana?”
There was a long surprised silence on the other end. Then a sigh of relief. Then in a lower voice, “You are really a no-good person!”
“Why? What happened?”
“How did you recognize me so quickly?”
“Not only that, you even remembered Shuchi! You are terrible!”
“Hey, why are you scolding me for no reason?”
“Because I felt like. That’s why. When I am pleased with someone, I scold him.”
“So that’s it.”
“You asking about Shuchi right away brought tears in my eyes. Thank you. She is better now. If she gets better like this, little by little, I’ll probably die of happiness.”
“She had to get better. I think love increases longevity.”
“You know you are a bit crazy.”
“Who else but a crazy man can talk so beautifully.”
“You know, one may forget many faces, but not a crazy one. That’s why perhaps you have remembered me.”
“Then perhaps I’m crazy too. That’s why you recognized me so quickly.”
“That you are. But how did you get this number. I didn’t give it to you.”
“Oh, you never give your number to anyone? Perhaps I shouldn’t have called you.”
“That’s not it. That day you didn’t ask for my number, so I thought perhaps you didn’t want to stay in touch.”
“Did you ask my number?”
“It is rude to ask for a girl’s number.”
“And it is OK to ask a boy?”
“Of course. It is not a big deal.”
“Who makes these rules?”
“Me. Everybody has some personal rules.”
“Hope I didn’t break any by calling you.”
“No. You could’ve called a lot earlier. But why from a landline?”
“I always use landline, but very rarely.”
“Why? No cell phone?”
“No. I hate cell phones.”
“I hate to think anybody can call me anytime and get hold of me. Why should I make myself so easily available to all? My boyfriend doesn’t like cell either.”
I had to stop for a second, “Looks like both of you are rather old fashioned.”
“Yes, we both hate phones. Unless very necessary, we don’t call each other much.”
“Then how do you converse with each other?”
“We don’t. We talk perhaps one or two days every month.
“Murchhana, is your boyfriend an astronaut? How can you live with so little talking?”
That made her laugh, “No, not an astronaut, He has a farm in Hoogly. A huge, green place. There are cows, goats, even a small poultry. He spends all his days among the greenery, and in the evening he plays esraj.
“I have heard of esraj. How does it sound?”
“You play it with a bow. Sweet sound.”
“He sounds interesting.”
“Yes. He is very interesting.”
“Then you are to become a doctor and go live in his farm house in Hoogly?”
“No way! Why should I live in a farmhouse? What about my patients, and practice?”
“But then, what is the future of your relationship?”
“Why? The future looks bright. You know the name of his farmhouse?”
“No. How would I?”
“What? That’s a lousy name. ‘At the day’s end, in the land of nod…’
“I like it. Day’s end means twilight.”
“Then you two will have to stay separated.”
“I go there occasionally. I love the place so much. You want to go see? You won’t feel like leaving.”
“We’ll see about that. But I am thinking, perhaps I’m old fashioned but I don’t get these relationships of the kids of this generation. You are here, your boyfriend is somewhere else. How do you manage?”
“Why, I have my studies, computer, and he has his farm, pet dogs, cats, other animals. Of course he has other helps too. He even has an aged wife whom I call grandma.”
“You naughty girl! You were teasing me about your grandfather?”
“Yes, Sir! Men are such idiots!”
“What do you mean by hmm?
“Just means hmm. Nothing more.”
“So did you get it?”
“What did you get?”
“That you have no boyfriends.”
“Why are you harping on ‘boyfriend’ so much? Why does a girl have to have a boyfriend? Can’t she do something else?”
“I hope you are not anti male. You sound very agitated.”
“No, I’m not. And I’m not a lesbian either. People are becoming so suspicious nowadays. And relationships are getting so complicated. Why that irritating laugh?”
“That’s the problem with the idiots. They laugh for no rhyme or reason.”
“Actually you want to get rid of me. OK, I’m going.”
“Hey, wait, wait. Let’s skip boyfriends. We can talk about other things.”
“Sure. That’s why I called you today. That day too I was feeling blue but talking with you cheered me up.”
“Are you feeling blue today too?”
“Yes. I am.”
You will laugh at me. Should I feel sad if a beggar dies on the street? As it is she was not supposed to live. There was no hygiene on the sidewalk. Dirt, germs, infection, rain, storms, so many things can happen. She had a little girl, two years old, perhaps her granddaughter. They lived in one corner on the sidewalk. She was so thin and so dark. Everyday I would give her ten rupees on my way to college. People may call it a show off but it was nothing. At the most monthly three hundred? One day I didn’t see her. Asked a fruit seller nearby, said that she died and the police removed the body. Nobody could say anything about the kid. That tiny thing, where could she go? Did she get run over in the street? I was very worried. So I went to the police station. A sub inspector asked why was I so interested, did I want to adopt the kid. I said at least I could place her in an orphanage or something. Police said why should they take such kids. Nothing was done, you know, for last two weeks I’ve been searching for her in every possible way.”
“Perhaps you should have told them that you are the daughter of a big shot MLA.”
“You mean show off my status to everyone?”
“In such situations, it may prove useful.”
Murchhana was silent for a while then sighed and said, “You are right of course and I did do that. I got a little more help, but not much. The police filed a missing person’s report. They kept asking me the kid’s name, parents’ names, age, and physical appearance. How would I know all those, tell me? I couldn’t even remember well what she looked like, dark, bald headed, thin. When I gave the money to the woman, she too would put out her stick thin hand. I used to feel so sad for them you know. I often thought of buying her some cookies or candies, but never managed it. There were no such stores nearby. Wouldn’t you be sad too?”
“I wish everybody would feel bad like you. The police, the government, the tycoons, the misers, everyone. I feel glad to hear about your sadness.”
“You are kidding me again.”
“No, not kidding. I’m serious Murchhana. I hope your heart remains soft like this. Don’t get any treatment for this sadness.”
“You are one hopeless man.”
“Hmm again? What do you mean hmm?”
“Hmm means hmm. Nothing more.”
“You are awful. But thanks at least for not laughing at my story.”
“Do you have any more such stories?”
“Plenty. You can spend a whole day listening to them if you want.”
“I do. Can I call you on landline?”
“After ten pm, if I am in the mood, or if I am not asleep or if I feel like picking up the phone or if I like the sound of the ring, only then.”
“What do you mean Murchhana? Does your phone have different rings?”
“No. It is just an ordinary phone.”
“There is something. You won’t understand.”
“Not again! Do you always love making mysteries?”
“Do you know you have a most irritating laugh? If I tell you the reason, you will do that laugh, for sure.”
“OK. I won’t laugh.”
“I am very choosy about picking up phones. I can often tell by its ringing, whether I should pick it up or not, or who is calling. You may not believe me but the sound of the ring does tell me who is calling. Sometimes the sound says, ‘don’t pick it up, it is a useless boy’, or ‘hurry up, it’s your mom’. Or ‘you may or may not want this call, it’s your silly girlfriend Ujani.’ You better not be laughing!”
“Not at all.”
“Are you feeling like laughing?”
“No, but I’m getting worried.”
“Oh no! Why?”
“Thinking, if I call you, what will the ringing say.”?
“It will say, ‘this is that weird man, pick up the phone and give him a good scolding.”
“Now can I laugh?”
“Yes. I scold people when I am happy.”
“Again hmm? What’s the meaning of this one?”
“It means, I understood.”
“What did you understand?”
“I understood that you won’t be mad if I call you.”
The original novel "Satideha" (সতীদেহ) by Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay was first pubished in 2015 by Ananda, Kolkata.
Illustrated by Nilanjana Basu. Curently based in California, Nilanjana has been regularly illustrating for Parabaas.