Dharitri-debi no longer looks at herself in the mirror. She cannot comb her own hair, either. She stopped oiling her hair long ago, now she has virtually given up wetting it too. Her whims, obstinacy, and laconic nature have always led her to being treated deferentially by everyone, including her sister Bhubanmayee. And now it’s a different story through these 11 days. She is either hard of hearing or completely deaf. She forgets to eat, or asks, even after eating, where’s my food? Despite the prescribed 11 days of ritual mourning for the dead, despite her changed situation now, she follows no rites. That she is not in her own home but in her sister’s has caused no sense of temporary displacement. No one gives her instructions. No one can do anything about the fact that she’s sleeping alone at night, though she should not be doing so during this period. When she was brought to this house after the calamity that befell her, she entered the room alone the very first night and bolted the door, although Bhubanmayee’s second daughter Khuku had followed her with the intention of sleeping in the same room. You could say she slammed the door on Khuku’s face. Still, no one is saying anything to her about all this. All of them have accepted everything. For everything pales in comparison to the calamity that has befallen Dharitri-debi.
Of course, it would have been simpler if it was only a matter of the calamity, but it isn’t that exactly, actually Dharitri-debi refuses to believe that the calamity has occurred. The facts are as follows: it’s been a year now since her youngest son Swapan has been missing. Just as she was almost reconciled to his not coming back, she was told that Swapan had died in jail. Apparently he had been killed in a skirmish with the guards while trying to escape. His corpse was handed over to his family. The family, aka Bhubanmayee’s eldest son Khokon, second daughter Khuku and even Bhubanmayee herself, accepted the corpse as Swapan’s. The autopsy report was not given to them, but they drew their conclusions after viewing the corpse. But Dharitri-debi has not been persuaded to believe this. She has not acknowledged the corpse as Swapan’s. She even did what is considered impossible for her or for any mother of a dead child. She had the undertaker turn the bruised, contorted body over for a closer look. After which she did not identify the body.
The corpse had no skin. No eyes. Even its ribs were mostly missing. Not even the blue birthmark on the buttocks which would have confirmed the body as Swapan’s was present. Either because of the autopsy or because of the beating he had received, the body had been sliced and then stitched up with coarse guts, which did not cover all the gaps between the pieces. It was possible to see the innards. Dharitri-debi actually saw them. There should have been twelve pairs of ribs in the chest. There were only remnants of the last three pairs, and nothing at all of the remaining nine. So, from start to finish, Dharitri-debi considered this body wrongly attributed to Swapan and refused to identify it as his.
Standing in the dirty yard outside the morgue, she screamed, ‘This isn’t a human corpse,’ driving everyone present insane. Eventually, inserting her finger into the body, she said, ‘See, this is pulp, this is mud, can pulp and mud be a human being?’ though she couldn’t weep. The word ‘body’ did not appear on her lips, nor the word ‘rose’, though the corpse appeared to be a rose to her. Someone, possibly Bhubanmayee’s daughter Khuku, whispered in her ear, ‘They’ve beaten him to a pulp, Phoolmashi.’ Only then did Dharitri-debi, who was also known as Phool, cry. Her unimaginable sobbing made the rifles slung dutifully from the shoulders of the armed forces lose their potency. The hands poised over the barrels drooped. No, her tears were not remotely heartrending. For, where were the eyes? Where were this body’s eyes? Why was the blood so cold, so stiff, so dark? All these factors existed. By then it was proved that Dharitri-debi was deranged.
Of course, the body had already been handed over to the legal heirs, subject to certain conditions.
Condition 1: Only the ‘close family’ would be involved in the cremation. In view of the special circumstances, the home ministry had included Bhubanmayee and her children under the category of ‘close family’. This status was temporary, applicable only till such time as the cremation was completed. Mother Dharitri-debi would be permitted to be present at the cremation only on obtaining a ‘fitness certificate’ from the jail doctor.
Condition 2: Besides those who had been included in the category of ‘close family’ under special orders, no one who was not legally related – in other words, those who had no permissible claim on the corpse, such as neighbours and fellow-Indians – was allowed to shed tears or place flowers or wreaths on the body.
Condition 3: The cremation would be performed in complete accordance with Hindu rituals.
Condition 4: Any manner of procession or processions and/or shouting of slogans related to the corpse was banned. Writing, printing, or publishing graffiti, posters, bulletins or handbills was punishable by law.
Condition 5: Section 144, banning the gathering of an unlawful assembly with deadly weapons, would be operative during the cremation.
Accepting these conditions, Bhubanmayee and the rest of them took charge of the body. As mentioned before, however, Dharitri-debi did not. She was not taken to the crematorium, either. She was moved to her sister Bhubanmayee’s house here in Jadavpur. It has also been mentioned that she has been here for 11 days now.
What also needs to be said is this: it isn’t just Swapan’s death that Dharitri-debi is unwilling to accept; she does not believe Bhubanmayee and her family either. For they had always been aware of Swapan’s activities. Perhaps it is wrong to say all of them knew, but at least Khuku did. And yet Dharitri-debi was not informed. Not even her two eldest sons, who are Defence Department officers, were told. Only the third son Tapan was informed. However, it has only been a month since Tapan was made aware of the events. He was instructed to explain the situation at his discretion to his brothers. The news of Swapan’s arrest, that is. Apparently it was explained to them. But no one knows what action they took when they got to know. But it is known that Swapan was taken from one jail (Alipur) to another (Behrampur), he was even placed in isolation. But it is not known what role his brothers had to play in this, nor whether this was a serious punishment or a lighter interim sentence. But it has come to light that he used to be interrogated and that the skin disease which had erupted was also being treated. Apparently Bhubanmayee received permission to meet Swapan at this time. No one knows who had arranged for this, or whether she had actually met him. No one is saying anything clearly, at least, not to Dharitri-debi. From the bits and pieces that are being revealed, it appears that Swapan was well, he was comfortable, he would have been released eventually, but because he had asked to be freed earlier, this situation had ensued, that is to say, he was beaten till he died, just like a prisoner attempting a jailbreak. Of course, if ‘a prisoner attempting a jailbreak’ is only a description of a thief or dacoit, it must be said that such criminals have never been heard to be beaten to death. And far from being a thief or a dacoit, Swapan was a jewel. Unbelievable, it’s unbelievable, there was no question of beating him to death. In fact, if what people heard was correct, his sentence was about to be reduced. No one is stating clearly that his brothers had a hand in his. Even if they did, there is no way for anyone to know. It is difficult to say whether the brothers, who are Defence officers, have any connections with the Calcutta Police, the Central Reserve Police or the Intelligence Bureau. But they might have some contact with the Home Department or the Governor, considering that the Military are literally patrolling the streets in this state; perhaps it isn’t impossible, but who can say for sure?
The even bigger question for Dharitri-debi is why her sons have not told her anything yet. In fact, despite being informed of Swapan’s death 11 days ago, they haven’t taken any steps. They could at least get in touch, but why haven’t they even done that? Or why weren’t they present at their younger brother’s cremation? It’s impossible to believe that the need to stay in the good books of the military or to avoid censure would have forced them into silence, it was their brother, after all. This clearly suggests that Swapan’s death is fictitious. They must have investigated the rumour of this death within the relevant circles. And discovered that nothing had happened to Swapan. The person who was being assumed to be Swapan was someone else.
That is why Dharitri-debi is not performing Swapan’s last rites. For one who is alive, she is determined to perform only the rites of the living, which is what she’s doing. She won’t tell anyone what she’s doing. It’s all in her head. That’s why she is in Jadavpur. Not because people have told her to be there, but simply for her own reasons. Of course, Bhubanmayee and the rest of them feel Dharitri-debi should not be alone at home at this time. For, they think, Swapan is dead. That’s why, on the third day of the rumour, Bhubanmayee had performed some rites of her own. At least, Dharitri-debi had sensed without an iota of doubt that a priest was in the house, accompanied by the smell of a new gamchha, a fresh dhoti, moistened rice grains on brass utensils – all the ingredients of a ritual, in other words. Today, on the 11th day, Bhubanmayee started talking about Swapan; had she been allowed to complete what she was saying, she would inevitably have brought up the question of the 11th day rituals for the dead, realising which Dharitri-debi didn’t let her continue.
This is how it started. Swapan wasn’t the type to attempt a jailbreak. Nor was it possible for him to have tried it as part of a group, because he had been kept in isolation. Besides, the Swapan they had seen the other day across the iron bars did not have the ability even to walk, never mind making a run for it. Even from a distance of five yards there had been no mistaking the circular ringworm scars on his face. And the way his arms and legs were shackled, the slightest movement would have made the chains clang. Swapan had even said there was no point visiting him, meals weren’t served on time. Only after the first batch of prisoners had finished their meals and washed their dishes themselves did the second batch get to eat. The afternoon slid by this way. They no longer allowed anyone to eat food brought in from outside the jail. Even if they did, they tested it thoroughly, a process that made the food rot. Bread or bananas were mashed so completely to examine their innards that they were no longer edible. This system had been put in place after discovering pencil sticks of dynamite in a loaf of bread, and a file within a banana. Any delicacies were stolen by the authorities. Besides, they didn’t provide clothes. There wasn’t enough water to bathe. They had to wear the same set of clothes for days on end. Every week, they could bathe once and wash their clothes once. Why blame skin diseases? Dinner was foul-smelling chapatis of flour and a curry made with potato peel, with a dal of the officially banned pigeon peas. Every meal was followed by acidic burping. The rice for lunch was full of grit. Swapan’s prison cell was so small that he could neither stretch both his arms out without touching the walls, nor sleep at night without having to curl up. Still his head brushed against the wall. Swapan had to sleep on the floor. He passed urine and stool inside the same cell. He had told them many more things in the same vein. He had wanted to know whether the newspapers wrote about these things. Whether people discussed them. And immediately afterwards he had said, not in this country. People think this is the world’s largest democracy. People also think the ruling party in India is not very cruel. Certainly not as much as Hitler. In fact they are even more cruel, for their faces are effeminate. They invoke Indian tradition at the drop of a hat. But there’s no such thing as Indian tradition anymore. All of it has been usurped by British imperialism. With Bande Mataram on their lips, they handed the country over to imperialists. There’s nothing we can do. Because unless there is a people’s army, the public can do nothing. It cannot even protest. It cannot even revolt… When he said these things, it was impossible to tell from Swapan’s lips that they might tremble or run dry. The eyes and lips of the Swapans of the world are never destroyed. Even in death, Swapan’s eyes and lips are just like those of people who don’t lose hope easily, who are always spirited or alive. That was as far as it went… Dharitri-debi did not want to hear anymore, for she had heard a great deal of all this.
On her very first day in this house, Khuku said many more things.
What Khuku said was something like this: he could be seen approaching exactly at two in the morning. Only because the window at her head had been open did the ball of paper hit her precisely in the middle of the forehead. Then, thank goodness Khuku had been alone in the room, and precisely because there was moonlight, she had seen him through the open window, as startled as though she was seeing a ghost, no she hadn’t been scared, but in a sense she had, she hadn’t known what to do. This was apparently how she had given Swapan shelter for the first time, six months ago. That first night, no one had told her to open the front door carefully, without making a noise, but still she had felt that she should let him enter without waking anyone, without telling anyone. And when he had come up to her, although she wasn’t supposed to hug him, on the contrary, she should have retreated, but still she had had no choice but to hug him straightaway. The heat from his body had not remotely felt like that from a male, but it had felt terrible. Leading him into the room, without switching on the light, she had locked the door and shut the window carefully. The pleasure or regret of seeing her after such a long time had made him put his hand on her shoulder, along with, ‘Give me something to eat, I haven’t eaten anything for four days.’ This had made her wonder whether this country was a starving Biafra, whether we were the guinea-pigs of rich nations who burnt their harvest for fear of prices crashing. The first day she hadn’t been prepared, after all, so her clandestine foraging hadn’t yielded anything but a tin of biscuits. The way he had wolfed down fistfuls of biscuits from the tin would ensure that the crunching sounds would stay with her even after her death. He had wanted to leave immediately, but after a request for a second glass of water, the way he had sat down on the bed, and the way his eyes had begun to close, as suggested by his voice in the darkness, made it clear that it had been even longer since he had slept than it had been since he had eaten. He had not said how long it had been since he had slept, he had not said it even once. But as soon as she had said, ‘Then get some sleep now, I’ll wake you up at dawn, I’ll stay awake and keep watch,’ he had slumped on the bed and fallen asleep without a pillow, in a way that clearly showed how long it had been since he had slept. No, what use was it counting the days, actually it was the eyes that needed to be counted, for even though the pair of eyes they used to sleep with and the pair of eyes they used to look around with, or the pair of lips they kept closed in order to rest and the pair of lips they used in order to speak when necessary, were beyond counting, but still she felt like counting them, especially when she had to hear even before she could open the window and peep out at the slightest sound, ‘Just a dog,’ or, ‘Is that a car?’ even before a car could be heard. And yet, deep sleep. No, there had been no danger that night. There had been no danger on any of the nights. He used to turn up this way frequently, exactly at two in the morning. But she had never found out where he spent the rest of the day, what all of them did, who the others were, she had never got to know any of this. So many times she had asked the same questions in roundabout fashion, so many times she had said contemptuously, working for the country my foot. Still she had not found out anything. Only once had she felt a horrifying doubt. Aren’t they human, she had wondered. Were they different? Did they feel no fatigue? Did they have no time for peace? Would they never sleep? Would they never taste the comfort of lying back awake? Would they never feel the joy of setting eyes on women? Did they have no hunger in their bellies? No thirst in their hearts? Or tenderness? I hear they have compassion, but where is the faith with which to take my hand? Am I not worthy of trust?... Still, at least once, when, suffering from a stomach ache, he had been looking for something, when, even after lying awake by his side and asking him, ‘Why don’t you say something?’ I had not been able to put my hand on his shoulder, when the words ‘Where does it hurt?’ had escaped my lips nevertheless, when he had clutched my hand and gritted his teeth against something – only on that one occasion had he said, ‘I’ll tell you everything one day. For now, just listen to this. I have an ulcer, but that’s not what I suffer from.’ He had not revealed what he did suffer from. Apparently they were forbidden to talk of personal suffering. They could only talk of social suffering. They merely mentioned their personal suffering in the context of social suffering. They could only say that wherever there was oppression, there was resistance. They loved nothing but blood. Their flags were spattered with blood too. They wanted to bleed as well. As long as there was oppression, there would be resistance, and they would have to bleed. But still he couldn’t make me bleed. I came to know him, I touched his bleeding body, but my blood did not sing. I had nothing more to do besides giving him shelter, but he never took me along. He never understood that my blood curdled. Is all the blood in the world gathered only in their flags, can it not curdle anywhere else, in someone’s body? There was no blood in his lips that day. They were like raisins in winter, but not moist. I saw it on those same lips after his death…. His friends informed us. I couldn’t recognise any of them. They said the police had apparently arrested Swapan.
Dharitri-debi hears Khuku say all this. She only hears, she doesn’t want to listen. But she ends up listening. And she draws the conclusions she has to. They don’t know Swapan, she concludes. Some of them know his lips, some his hunger, some the eyes, some a promise, some the belly, some his sacrifice, some assume he has ended as pulp, a lump of mud. But still no one wants to rake this mud. They think Swapan is a heap of ashes under the flames, but no one wants to rummage beneath the ash for the precious stone. How can they imagine that a man can be beaten to pulp? Is a human being only a lump of clay? A human body is supposed to have bones, supposed to have a spine and ribs, hands and feet, at least it should have eyeballs, hair and teeth. The dead body had none of these. How can they assume it’s Swapan? Dharitri-debi is astonished at the thought. She even feels a stab of sadness. They seem determined to declare the body as Swapan’s. Did they know Swapan’s body? Had they nurtured him in their wombs? Were they aware of every moment during those 10 months and 10 days? Had he kicked inside anyone else’s womb besides Dharitri-debi’s? How then would they know what he sought when he was in pain, or what he looked like when someone hurt him? It was true that he slept like the dead, but that was only sleep, this was pulp. And why would the police beat him to a pulp anyway? He didn’t even have the strength to escape. Apparently he had ringworms on his face, his cheeks, his body – apparently his arms and legs were in iron chains – but where were the ringworm marks on the corpse, where were the marks left by the chains? Where, for that matter, was his birthmark, a large blue mark covering much of his fair buttocks? Which had prompted his father to say, he’s got the blue blood of the Chakraborty family in his veins. Can a birthmark be wiped out? Birthmarks cannot be removed. Dharitri-debi has never heard of a birthmark being obliterated unless a body is skinned. She cannot understand how they benefited from acknowledging the body or the pulp as Swapan’s. The thorn keeps pricking their hearts, isn’t that all? There’s no more hope, isn’t that the sum total of the benefits? They had been saying from the outset – they’ll die, these boys will die. They had been saying – this killer politics will kill them first. Was this road to hell meant for students? The path for students had been fixed for an eternity. Walking into danger can only lead to death. To them Swapan is dead, he has long been dead. They are bound to wish for his death, for Khokon here used to criticise him openly. He would say, Swapan and his types are anti-social elements, wagon-breakers, murderers, deluded, insane, suicidal. This same Khokon had apparently been the first to identify the body as Swapan’s. That Khuku is no better. An overnight convert who spouts jargon. She was the one who said, they’re Nihilists, they may work in the villages, but eventually it’s the city that they return to when they have to go into hiding. How will Swapan trust you? All you know are his eyes and lips. How can you put your hand on his shoulder? There’s nothing to be said about Bhubanmayee, she can be persuaded to believe anything anyone wants her to believe.
It’s nothing but fiction that at two in the morning a young man will not go to his mother for a meal, but to that overnight convert. Someone who simply sleeps. Does she stay up all night the way Dharitri-debi does? Does she keep the door open? Does she keep a plate of food ready all the time? Does she always keep one side of the bed unoccupied? Or keep an extra pillow at hand? It’s nothing but fiction that at two in the morning they sawed through the bars of their cells and broke the iron railings and used them to attack the cruel, heartless policemen. Were they babies or angels or gods who could jump across the 23-feet-high walls despite the bruises from the chains on their arms and legs, despite their starvation diet and wasted bodies? And besides, they could barely walk, a single blow was enough to stop them. Why would they have to be injured so badly, so that their eyes were ripped out, their hands and feet blown away, their ribs pulverised, their lips smashed, their hair removed? This is nothing but fiction.
Dharitri-debi has seen jails, you see. She has heard the jail clock strike two a.m. She has even heard the alarm bells go off. She was pregnant with Swapan then. Four months pregnant. They lived in Raniganj at the time. Returning home from Asansol Club at two in the morning. Past the high walls of the Central Jail just after the courthouse, she remembers the walls being red, it was exactly two a.m., the jail clock was striking two, the alarm bells had rung too. They had been very scared. They learnt afterwards that robbers were let out of jail at that hour. And then let in again at dawn, when they had finished whatever they had to. The alarm bells were for show. Needless to add, the loot was shared. But this proved that the alarms were false, the credit of recapturing the robbers in the morning was also shared. They belonged to that breed which spent their life capturing – or not – criminals. They were those demons who oppressed people without shedding blood. How could they ever beat tender young students, the shining lights of their schools and colleges, into pulp? Those who spread such rumours believe that this is a central government conspiracy to kill all the brilliant young men and women in this state. The rumours even went so far as to claim that all the young men in this state would be killed in the course of this decade. Can young men ever be killed and annihilated? They are born every second, every nano-second. What do those people know of giving birth or being born? Does any of them have a womb? Do they possess the patience of 10 months and 10 days?
This is what Dharitri-debi thinks, one can say, this is what she has concluded. Especially since all that she has been witness to do not negate these conclusions. On the contrary, they become even more true with every passing day. For Dharitri-debi can see every night, precisely at two a.m. on a slice of green by the pond here in Jadavpur, a handful of young men who, despite knowing that many births on this earth have been wasted, immerse themselves in the source of fresh currents and return to the fragrance of the sun to claim the water, grain, light, land, etc. made familiar by the ambrosiac quality of the dust and grass and buds of this world.
Dharitri-debi has seen them on each of the 11 days that she has been here. Precisely at two in the morning, when the clock at some jail strikes two, on the road just below her first floor room which runs a long way in both directions, at the spot where the road forks at the large tree towards the station on the right and the colony of houses on the left, where there is a wall on the left and a canal on the right. A police van appears silently at this very spot. There is a black-out across Jadavpur instantly. The wind dies down. Neither the leaves on the trees nor the water in the canal quivers. The police van seems to appear without its engine running, and seems to stop without its brakes being applied. For the van makes no sound. Its headlight sweeps over the area just once. And then it goes out. Nothing but darkness remains. Still Dharitri-debi can see four policemen taking a corpse out of the van. But the clouds in the sky part at that very moment. The moon becomes visible. Mistaking this moonlight for dawn, the birds in the large tree flutter their wings. The leaves tremble at this. Terrified, the four policemen drop the corpse and rush into the van. The harassed van disappears along the fork to the right, which leads to the station. A real breeze springs up. The leaves tremble even more. The water in the canal trembles too. Then the rain comes. Meanwhile Dharitri-debi also does what she has to. The door is open already, she only has to walk across the long veranda to climb downstairs and open the front door. The rain turns torrential as soon as she steps on the road. Torrential enough to obliterate the earth. The corpse lying on the roadside is obliterated too. By the time she gets close to it, it has turned to pulp. To mud. She rakes the mud but finds no corpse. Even if her hand does meet something she cannot find its buttocks. Everything has turned to a pulpy mud.
It is very surprising that, despite making all arrangements to reach on time, she has not found the buttocks over these 11 days. She is relieved at not finding them. But her doubt is not entirely dispelled. Her heart turns cold at the thought of what she might see if she does find the buttocks. That’s why this search is her persistence, her mission. Still she has appeared at the same time on each of these 11 days, when the corpse has no skin, no flesh and blood, not even bones, when there’s no question of its having eyes or lips or buttocks. At that moment she really does lose her head. Her dishevelled hair billows in the wind. Only a single noble wish remains alive on the way back. Which is to perform the rites for the living for Swapan. When the lights come on in the streets and they arrive. They inevitably do. Seven of them with guns. Three of them take positions beneath the large tree. And three more near the front door. Firing with perfect aim, the remaining one puts out the three streetlights one by one. There are three successive sounds like balloons being burst. Then one of them comes up to the wall and writes rapidly, ‘The revolution cannot be halted by killing us.’ Dharitri-debi takes up her position too by then so that she can catch him. But as soon as he finishes, the same thing happens on each of the 11 days. He stands up straight and croaks like a frog. At once three others approach from each side, a total of six. The barrels of their guns point in seven different directions. Poised this way, they rush wildly towards another piece of graffiti on the wall. Where it says ‘Workers of the world, unite.’ Over these words they write again, ‘Workers of the world, unite.’ All seven take turns to write. They don’t exactly write, they run their hands over the letters. But by then several other young men jump off the wall, landing with thumps. Silently they surround these seven young men. Each of the newly arrived young men holds a curved sword. They pierce the breasts of the seven young men with their swords. And laugh loudly. And as they laugh they don’t hold back from saying, ‘Do you dare to touch our words again with your dirty hands?’ They threaten them. But the seven are not thwarted. Dharitri-debi realizes that the battle will now start. And so it does. She runs towards them. By then what had to begin has begun. How inhuman and cruelly they behave! Such blind rage! None of them can even see Dharitri-debi. But no one can stand up to the guns. The seven are triumphant. They disappear, pursuing the sword-wielding group. One of the gun-wielders remains. He’s a little injured. But he’s still on his feet, upright. Picking some things up from the road, he tries to run off towards the colony of houses. Dharitri-debi pursues him. She catches him before he has covered the length of the canal. Because his feet is trapped in the mud. When he pitches headlong into the mud, Dharitri-debi doesn’t hesitate anymore. She pounces on him. And searches for his waist in the mud. She places an unerring hand on the spot. It descends like a paw. She tears his trousers off. His buttocks are revealed in the light from her eyes. She takes in the sight. She cannot stop taking it in. She sees that the blue birthmark on his right buttock is as clear as she has been hoping it will be. No other sound except ‘Swapan’ emerges from her throat. Before she can put his arms around him, he runs away.
In this way, she finds the blue birthmark on the buttocks of 11 young men on 11 successive days. She has no difficulty in surmising that Swapan is alive. And that he will remain alive for a long time.
The original story Swapan mrito, Swapan deerghojeebee hok (স্বপন মৃত, স্বপন দীর্ঘজীবী হোক) by Udayan Ghosh is included in an anthology of Bengali short stories published by Sahityam, Kolkata.