The Grey Manuscript : Jibanananda Das
translated from Bemgali to English by Shambhobi Ghosh
Even after seventy years since Jibanananda Das passed away, he is known for the magical lines of poetry he wrote, particularly those describing the beauty of Bengali landscapes, flora and fauna in starkly original metaphors. And yet, the larger share within his body of work is claimed by his prose — short stories and novels. His stories, even though just as magical (and in many ways mirroring his poetic imagery and diction), has not been able to conquer the collective Bengali consciousness in the way his poems have. For some critics, his stories are repetitive, too radical in their structure to be “conventionally” called stories, and seem to obsessively explore the same themes over and over again. This is true to some extent; the broader themes in his stories do seem to be limited to the frustrations of conjugal domesticity and unemployment. However, the juxtaposition of the surreal with the tedious quotidian in these stories is so startling, the narrative language so haunting, that dismissing them as “tedious” or “redundant” would be a misjudgement. In my choice of story, I have tried to pick one that best represents Jibanananda’s multi-faceted brilliance — a story that, while exploring the relationship of a married couple, astonishes the reader by presenting a profound existential question through a surreal portrayal of landscape.]
“Oh God, he’s beating up the poor motherless child again! Do you hear that?”
“Hmm. Every day.”
I turned up the lamplight and went back to my book.
“But isn’t there a way to stop this?”
“How can there be, Sukriti? He’s beating up his own child, after all – not someone else’s.”
“Why do you think he beats him?”
I was silent.
“Why does he beat him up like that? Good God, he’s thrashing the poor boy to death — like he’s some stray dog or cat!’
She went quiet for a moment, then said, “It’s been only two years since the man’s wife passed away. He isn’t even that old, only thirty. And he wasn’t planning on marrying again — that sounded great. I thought he had a heart. But this is such a shame … hey, what on earth are you doing?”
“An English book.”
“I thought you didn’t have any?”
“Of course I do.”
“I know a little English too. What is this book? A novel? Must be a Russian author. Am I right?”
“You’re a graduate from the University of Calcutta,” I said, smiling a little, “How could you be wrong, Sukriti?”
I didn’t try to pull her leg anymore and concentrated on my book again — one thing would only lead to another. The book is enormous; I wouldn’t finish even a quarter of it. I just skim through a few pages once in a while and put it away. What thirty-eight-year-old man would read a book like this? Besides, my eyesight is a lot worse now. I need a pair of glasses. I’ve been thinking long and hard over whether I should see a proper doctor in Calcutta, or one of the quacks in the town. I’m short on cash, short on time, and short on many other things inside my heart. All I like to do is sit quietly and read, but I’m still in denial about how neither the sun nor the lamp is giving me enough light — I’m having to depend on another mute materiality. Why should material things have so much power over us? Why can’t all things become spiritual? Why do our hearts depend so much on the flesh? Why can’t the light that’s within us all to use —
“Why does Biman babu beat up his boy every day?”
“Perhaps he lies, perhaps he doesn’t want to do his homework, perhaps he’s not great at Math. Children commit so many crimes.”
“Thank God we don’t have any children,” said Sukriti after a moment of silence.
“That’s true. He must be thanked.”
“Please don’t turn up the flame so high. It hurts my eyes.”
“You’re in the next room, Sukriti. Can this light penetrate the wall?”
“There’s no wall, mister. Just a bamboo screen. I can’t sleep with a flickering light in the room.”
“Oh, so you’ve gone to bed?”
“Indeed, I have, and now I want to sleep. What else could I do? You can’t entertain people to keep them up all night. You’re simply not that kind of man. I had such hopes when I married you. But some women have rotten luck.”
“That’s right. Tuck your head in while you sleep.”
“I can’t! I’m boiling in the heat, and not even a hint of breeze anywhere …” she dozed off as she spoke.
I sleep alone on this side of the room, and Sukriti sleeps alone on the other side — this is her arrangement. I’m grateful for her clarity of mind. Lying in bed at night, I can fancy myself a single man — a priceless feeling after you’re married. The entire dark night belongs to me. Keep the window open and look at the stars, feel the nocturnal breeze, and dream. No one will stop you.
A few years have passed like this since our wedding. Recently, though, Sukriti has developed a peculiar fear in her mind. Our thatched hut stands at the edge of the town, on the road to the village. Sukriti had seen a face at the window on a late winter’s night. She has guts, I must admit that. She still hasn’t left her side of the room. But after her first bout of sleep, she wakes up almost every night, and bothers me until dawn. This has nothing to do with love or desire. Her own heart doesn’t have it, and neither has she painted the red, blue, and orange colours of desire within mine.
She must have been a difficult child once, and is a difficult and restless woman still. Her father has died, and I have taken his place. But I have neither the wish nor the strength to discipline her like a father. At times I’m hurt by her behaviour. But when she sits quietly or falls asleep, I feel like a wise, caring mother poring over the outlines of her face.
This is what my married life tastes like. Had I not married, perhaps I could have lived in peace. But marriage has given more breadth to my life.
“Who — who is it? Oh!” yelled Sukriti, waking up with a start.
“Come here, quick! Please, for god’s sake —"
I went up to her bedside. At once, she pulled my hand and sat me down.
“I was asleep, but had such a horrible dream!”
“What did you see?”
Sukriti sat up and wiped her brow with the end of her sari.
“What if this weren’t a dream! I saw a woman in a scarlet-bordered sari — God, she was so ugly! She was kneeling on my bed and staring at me. Oh my god!”
Sukriti laughed out in fierce emotion.
“You just saw a woman, it’s not a big deal,” I said calmly.
“But her head was bowed and she was sobbing.”
“Go to sleep.”
“No, I won’t. Sit by me.”
“Why don’t you come to my bed?”
“Just sit by me here.”
“Shall I shut the window?”
“Yes. It’s really hot, but I don’t want any breeze. Shut the window.”
“Tell me what this means,” she said, picking up her fan.
“Leave it, Sukriti. Let’s talk about something else.”
My answer seemed to scare her even more. She looked at me steadily and said, “You want to avoid this. It must mean something terrible. You know everything, you’re just not telling me.”
I took the fan from her hand and smiled, “You’re such a child.”
“Don’t you dare say that. You don’t know me. You —”
“Sukriti, I think a dream is a dream.”
“What d’you mean?”
“It’s just a big lie,” I replied, frowning.
“It’s a lot more normal than what goes on in our real lives. There’s no greater lie than dreams, Sukriti.”
She didn’t seem reassured.
“This woman in the scarlet-bordered sari —” she began, and was suddenly shaken.
“That strange, ugly face isn’t a lie at all. I’ve seen it before.”
“I don’t know — but I’ve seen it.”
“You’ve seen it in your dream, and nowhere else.”
“No, no, I’ve seen her many times before.”
We remained silent for a long time.
“Dreams can be vivid sometimes. Even after we wake up, those sounds and faces feel familiar, as if they’re from a distant past. I think of it as a kind of jest.”
I stopped short of uttering the phrase ‘dark mystery’. Instead, I continued, “I think of it as a kind of jest in our lives. It can be an annoyance for some people. Anyway, all these things are lies, as intangible as the mist. You’ve never seen that woman before, except in your dreams. I think you’ve been dreaming the same dream over and over again.”
Sukriti straightened up, took the fan from my hand, and said, “Could you check if she’s hiding somewhere in this room?”
“That ugly woman, obviously.”
“That ugly woman? Alright, let me check. But I think I’ll send you away to your uncle’s place in Calcutta.”
“Oh god — her mantle was such a murderous red — she looked like she’d woken up from death on the funeral pyre.”
I took my flashlight and carefully searched the entire room.
“Didn’t see anything besides a cat.”
“A cat? Shoo it away.”
“The poor thing’s sleeping.”
“Shoo it away, I tell you.”
The cat could easily return through the gap in the fence, through the window, from under the door. But I didn’t reason with Sukriti. I chased the drowsy cat away, and came back to her.
“There’s no woman around, my dear. Could you please go to sleep —”
“In a while. But where have I seen that face?” Sukriti pondered, resting her face on her palm.
I tried making fun of her and said, “Your home, surely, where else would you have met her? She probably loved you to bits and had been missing you a lot. Now she’s come in for a cuddle. Why else would she kneel on your bed…”
Sukriti was scared again, so I stopped, and asked her, “What did you have for dinner?”
“Did you overeat?”
“Sure, there’s such a feast going on here every day to stuff myself with, isn’t there?”
“Or maybe you didn’t eat anything.”
“Why on earth wouldn’t I?”
“Dreams often depend on our food. Sometimes, when we eat unnecessary things, the stomach can’t handle them, and it all forms a sort of cloud inside our heads. And then we have weird dreams.”
“Open the window.”
“Should I, again?”
“Let some air in.”
“I thought so too, the night is so stuffy —”
“If that bitch comes again, I’ll bash her face in.”
I opened the window. A gust of wind blew in. My unkempt hair fluttered in the breeze. Sukriti seemed to gain composure again.
“Come to my bed,” I said.
“You’ll sleep here?”
“Yes. I’m not one to run away from a bloody woman.”
“Especially when that woman isn’t a woman at all. She’s nothing. Isn’t that right, my dreamy Sukriti?”
“No, that’s not right. She’s very real. She does exist, I’m sure she does.”
Sukriti looked outside the window as she turned the fan in her hand. I smiled and said, “Well, I searched everywhere in the room but couldn’t find her.”
“A woman who can mess with people’s consciousness in their sleep can’t be that easy to find.”
“Because she doesn’t exist.”
“You don’t know anything. She’s lusting for me.”
Sukriti’s voice had a strange calmness. I’m sure the dream was as unreal as any dream, but it had struck her like one of the hard, metallic realities of our bright, bustling world. I thought about going back to my bed, but didn’t move. Instead, I asked her a little uneasily, “You think she’s lusting for you?”
“Damn right she is.”
“Can you remember your mother’s face?”
“That woman isn’t my mother.”
“Nobody from your side of the family?”
“I did think of everybody’s face. Hers isn’t like any of those.”
“I suppose you can recall her face quite clearly, since you just had the dream?”
“Don’t even ask,” said Sukriti, swatting a bed bug with the handle of the fan, “I’ve managed to stay calm because of my guts. Anyone else would’ve gone mad by now.”
I was quiet for a while, and then asked, “How old do you think the woman might be?”
“Yes, I think so. But don’t ask me anything about her. Once I’m up tomorrow, I’m going to think long and hard on who she might be. I’ll take Bindubashini from the Dutta’s along with me and go round the neighbourhood once.”
Sukriti pursed her lips in firm determination and glanced at the darkness outside. “What time is it?” she asked.
“Were you reading?”
“Are you going to read again?”
“Okay, go and read. Or go to sleep, it’s pretty late.”
“Can you stay in bed on your own?”
“But what will you do in the neighbourhood with Bindubashini?”
“Why do you want to know?”
She remained silent for a while, and then replied, “If I meet any hag in the neighbourhood that looks like this woman — I’ll show her what I can do.”
That’s how she comforted herself.
I returned to my table and sat with the lamp. There’s nobody anywhere — as if there never was. Sukriti and I live in a hut by the village road near the little town. I’m thirty-eight now, but I’ve spent thirty years of my life with my parents and siblings amidst the noise and chaos of Calcutta. Where have they all gone? Did they even exist? Each voice seems to have ceased only yesterday — but they could well be voices from another life. Looking at the lonely grey clouds in the sky, I sometimes feel I must have been a bird in my previous birth, nesting among the slender reeds by the banks of the Dhansiri River. Sukriti was there too, or perhaps it was someone else. There were other birds besides us, many close-knit couples. The crowd of countless birds covered the forest with a misty blanket, like dreamy white nocturnal clouds. Their chirps were heard through dark nights, and through moonlit nights. Even now, I’m sometimes startled by the night, as soft and curvy as the breast of a bird. Within it I can smell lustful ecstasy, the scent of feathers and the waters of the Dhansiri River, like the scent of a mother.
Those enchanted lands were torn apart. I was a bird once; I’ve become a human. I took up a job, built my nest in this straw-thatched hut by the village road, and I live with Sukriti. An ugly woman in a scarlet-bordered sari comes to haunt her sometimes.
I had turned my chair towards the window. I smoked a cigar and pondered, stretching my legs out into the darkness. But in the end, one must come back to this world. I turned my chair back towards the table, relit my cigar, turned up the lamp, and opened my book.
A dog was digging up a pit on the front porch. Despite the heat — or perhaps because of it — he couldn’t sleep without crumbling up the floor into dust. He was digging too deep, and making a sick, animal noise. He sounded like the man of this house — an obscene, primal lord. I didn’t chase him away. The poor thing’s sleepy, and preparing a nice bed. Let him be, and soon he’ll fall asleep.
Hamid came out of the stable and coughed himself out of breath — must have smoked an embarrassing number of biris. He released two skeletal-thin horses on our courtyard and left. They’ll graze here all night — let them.
An owl has landed on the Krishnachura tree. It spread its wings and swooped down from another tall, dark tree in the distance. Its face is like a wise child. An ancient bird of this earth — deep is its knowledge, its imagination vast. I don’t think it minds the light by my window. The owl has grown quite urban in this century. Perhaps it has pricked up its horn-shaped ears and staring at me right now. The owl could tell me so many stories. Tales of fruitful and wasted harvest, stories about croplands, the vast outlines of the earth, a store of pain, desire, and flesh are recorded in the grey manuscript of its heart. Far above its head, the mysterious moon is awake, like a god’s arched eyebrow. Fireflies and dewdrops are swimming around and playing within the branches of the Krishnachura, among the feathery shadows. I was staring at the owl, stunned by its profound question, its proposition, its answer, and its fierce, dreadful appearance.
Half an hour had passed. I was startled again, and asked, “Who is it?”
“Sukriti, you’re up again?”
“Not by fancy —”
“No, of course not. I heard you snoring a while ago.”
“Could be. And then?”
“And then I woke up.”
“From a dream?”
“No, not this time.”
“So, you just woke up like that?”
“It was hot in there.”
“Did you shut the window?”
“You didn’t even put up the mosquito net, did you?”
“No. The night’s quite humid.”
I looked up at the sky and said, “A bit of rain would have been nice. Jaistha is almost over — some years see a lot of rain and thunder this time round. Not a hint of clouds this year.”
“You feel lonely, don’t you? But then again, you’re a strange man. Books are everything to you. The house is so quiet. Even the mosquitoes felt like friends when I woke up in the dark.”
“Is that right?” I picked up the cigar from my table and smiled, “And yet you can’t leave your side of the room and bed.”
“Think about who’s responsible for that. I can’t force love on to people.”
“And when did I force unlove on to you?”
“Anyway, I can’t argue over stupid things. Just hear me out on what I have to say.”
“Did something happen again?”
“Didn’t you sense anything?” said Sukriti, turning the fan slowly in her hand.
“No. Have you been dreaming again?”
“I was sitting on the bed, awake — killing bed bugs and mosquitoes. I thought of calling you. But then I looked outside the window, and that woman in the horrible scarlet-bordered sari was staring me down with stony eyes.”
“What!” The cigar slipped from my fingers. In a moment, I could feel my blood running dry.
“It’s true. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to live in this world. But my days have run out.”
I stood up, entranced, and said, “show me the woman.”
“She’s gone now.”
“Still, let’s go and see.”
“You can go see if you like. I don’t want to know or understand anything anymore. My life is over.”
“Don’t be insane! Nothing’s wrong, Sukriti. We’ll leave this house tomorrow. Come and sleep in my bed — go to sleep, let me turn off the light. You must have been dreaming again!”
I cried out — the room was dark and empty. I was lying alone in bed under the mosquito-net. Sukriti had glided past my bed, outside through the window, stopped for a moment among the Krishnachura branches, and then disappeared among the grey dots of stars.
So, had she visited again tonight?
I put away the mosquito-net, rose from the bed, and went to sit at my table by the window. Sukriti had never talked to me about a dream like this while she was alive. She did dream, of course, but those were nothing out of the ordinary. She was a transparent person — there wasn’t any mystery for miles around her. But then, do dreams really mean anything? I’ve always known that people who die, simply die, nothing more or less.
There’s a bird perching on the Krishnachura branch so late in the night — it’s that ancient owl, pricking up its horned ears. The mysterious moon is awake.
Published in Parabaas: March 15, 2022
The original story 'Dhusor Pandulipi' (ধূসর পাণ্ডুলিপি) was written in 1936. It is included in Jibanananda Rachanaboli ('জীবনানান্দ রচনাবলী, ৩য় খণ্ড'), edited by Debiprasad Bandyopadhyay and published by Gatidhara, Dhaka.
অলংকরণ (Artwork) : Nilanjana Basu