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Nishikanta in the Rain

Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay

Translated from the original Bangla by Nilanjan Bhattacharya


            It had been raining like crazy for the past several days.  Raindrops were erupting out of the sky like thousands of millions of bubbles – bubbles that pierced the earth and burst upon impact with the human body.  Nishikanta was finding the going hard.   The rain covered everything in a gauzy white haze, like a winter fog, through which you couldn’t see far.  Behind that white shroud, who knew what massive turmoil was being wreaked upon the earth?  The news of that cataclysm was being carried to the ends of the world by the rain’s incessant whispering and rumbling.  Of course, the rain hadn’t brought normal life to a complete standstill.  The sewing machines inside Mahendra’s tailor shop at Belpukur market were clacking away vigorously.  A few crow-drenched people were buying provisions at the grocer’s shop.  Bhupen was sitting in the shelter of an awning with his piles of onions and potatoes.  Most of the shops at the market were conducting whatever business they could, although the activity was not always apparent.  Such was the force of the rain that it sometimes appeared as if all human life had been wiped off the face of the earth – as if there were no more human beings left.

            Buses to and from Bagnan were still running, although they could stop any moment now.  Nishikanta had just got off a bus at Belpukur in the darkening light of late afternoon.  He was wearing a short-sleeved kurta and a dhoti hitched almost all the way up to his thighs.  His umbrella was tucked under his arm, as usual.  He did not dare to open it in this wind – the gale would almost certainly upturn the umbrella, making the ancient spokes come apart.  Besides, nobody had ever seen him opening that umbrella.

            It was difficult to see what lay ahead -- one of Nishikanta’s feet landed in a pothole.  The sky gods were flinging their unworldly bubbles at the universe – like those water-filled balloons that kids throw at people on the occasion of Holi.  Huge drops of rain were popping against Nishikanta’s skin.  No sooner had he stepped off the bus than a fresh downpour started and left him soaked to the skin.  He ran and found shelter under the verandah of the nearest shop.  He decided to wait for the rain to subside.  The bus he had just gotten off of sailed off into the night like a ship.

            Nishikanta had carefully wrapped a beedi and a few matches in the folds of his dhoti around his waist.  Seating himself on a bench, he loosened the knot and took them out.  The shop where he had taken shelter was a tea stall.  The owner threw him a look of displeasure: the water pouring off Nishikanta’s body was wetting the bench.  The shopkeeper could tell that Nishikanta was not a customer.

            Despite his precautions, the beedi had gone damp.  Nishikanta blew on it from both ends, straightened it, and then said to the shopkeeper casually, “Pass me some fire, will you?”

            With a fire already burning in the stove, what kind of a fool would waste a matchstick?  The shopkeeper made no move, however, so Nishikanta crouched beside the stove and stuck the beedi into the flame through a gap underneath the kettle.  After he had lit the beedi, he sat back on the bench and relaxed.  He was supposed to pick up half-a-bottle of chua essence – sandalwood extract – from Mahendra the tailor, who had had it brought in from Calcutta yesterday.  It was just like Boudi-moni to send Nishikanta on an errand in the middle of a rainstorm – she couldn’t seem to bear the sight of him sitting around.  Take this afternoon’s incident, for example.  Who in their right minds would get a craving for green coconuts in such weather?  Yet that was exactly what Boudi-moni found herself in the mood for.  Eating rice-and-lentil porridge for three days straight, she said, had caused her body to heat up: she needed to cool down by drinking the water of green coconuts.  So Nishikanta had had to climb a coconut tree in the pouring rain and a howling wind.  He had slipped several feet down the rain-slicked bark and scraped the skin off his chest – the wound still hurt.  Anyway, his movements had dislodged two weak-stemmed coconuts, which had fallen to the ground.  Nishikanta had surreptitiously sliced off their tops, reached inside with his fingers and mashed the soft flesh into the coconut water.  After he had drunk the sweet, milky liquid, he had thrown the shells into the large pond and stood under the acacia tree watching the shells bob in the water like the heads of two drowning men. 

In the rainy season the world appeared to withdraw into itself, become smaller and closer.  Yet at the same time, all kinds of mysterious spaces seemed to open up under the dark rain clouds.  From the overflowing pond, koi and other kinds of fish had flopped ashore.  A bunch of crows were cawing on the wet branches of the acacia tree.   There was something about the scene that seemed about to jog some memory inside Nishikanta’s head…but as usual, nothing happened – and that was the crux of Nishikanta’s problem.    


            The way Nishikanta’s mind worked was akin to someone walking along a dark path by the beam of a flashlight: that small circle of light pretty much defined what you could see.  Everything else – both forward and behind – lay in impenetrable darkness.  Somebody had sent Nishikanta into the world holding a weak flashlight – he could neither look too far back into the past nor ahead into the future.  Whenever he tried to think, the haziness of a gray, cloudy day seemed to descend upon his mind – as on a rainy day, his world appeared to contract and draw closer.  Beyond this foreclosed horizon he could not see.  He did not know who his ancestors were, nor where he had come from, nor his caste or creed.  People said he was mentally retarded.  Perhaps they were right.  Still, Nishikanta liked to think – it was his favorite activity, actually.  Like this afternoon, when he had stood on the banks of the pond, watching and wondering as the two coconut shells bobbed away in the current like the heads of a couple of drowning men.  Where in this vast world would they end up?

            Nishikanta always carried a few stolen coins in his waist-knot.  He sniffed the sweet smell of brewing tea as a wave of heat from the coal stove warmed his body.  Sitting up straight, he turned to the shopkeeper and said with a nonchalant air, “Here, give me a cup of your tea.  Let’s see if it’s any good.”

            The shopkeeper was stoking the flames.  Beside him lay a pot filled with sliced potatoes and onions – he was probably about to take the kettle off and start cooking his evening meal.  At Nishikanta’s voice, he started to pour tea into an earthenware cup through a sieve lined with a brown rag. 

            Nishikanta got off the bench and squatted directly in front of the warm stove.  He sipped the tea slowly, holding the warm cup against his cold cheeks occasionally.  He remembered nothing of the past, yet even such a simple action as this always seemed about to remind him of something else.

The fact that he had had to hike a mile-and-a-half from Paltabere in pelting rain to catch a bus bound for Shibganj-Bagnan just to fetch a bottle of chua did not bother him too much.  Had he been home at this hour, Boudi-moni would doubtless have sent him to go fish with Toka or prepare feed for the cows.  She would certainly have put him to some task.  The reason Boudi-moni had sent him on this trip was that she had run out of her zarda chewing tobacco during this spell of bad weather.  Dried tobacco leaves had been roasted this afternoon, along with coriander and fennel seeds.  Bipinbihari had then sat down with a mortar and pestle to pound the stuff into a powder.  Once she had the bottle of chua, Boudi-moni was going to add it to the mix and chew on the fresh batch of zarda.  The strong, heady scent of roasted spices had wafted through the house and covered up the dank smell of moisture and mold. 


            There were certain smells that made one happy – the fragrance of roses, for instance, or the smell of freshly fried bakphul flowers, or the aroma of damp earth.  Then there were smells that were intoxicating – the scent of keya flowers, for instance, or the musk of a young woman’s sweat, or the tang of roasted tobacco leaves.  Some smells reminded you of God, such as sacred tulsi leaves and sandalwood paste.  Old books carried a wistful smell of times gone by.  And the scent of rain – for some reason, it seemed to evoke a mysterious, reasonless sadness in Nishikanta’s mind.

            People who left their homes in this kind of weather were usually in a hurry.  A man, bent low under his umbrella, rushed into the shop across from the tea stall.  He rushed out again, still bent over, carrying a packet of puffed rice.  From his haste it seemed as if the moment he got home, he was going to slam the door shut and bolt it from inside.  Why were people in such a hurry, Nishikanta often wondered.  He himself never hurried, which was why Boudi-moni was constantly yelling at him.  Nishikanta liked nothing better than to sit someplace quietly and lose himself in thought.  He had noticed that thoughts came to him more easily when he tickled his ears with a feather.  Of course, the few times he had sat down under the madar tree to think, a feather tucked inside his ear, he had eventually felt a tug on the invisible string held in Boudi-moni’s hands.  A voice would call out in his mind, “Nishi-iiiiii.”  Floating in the ether of thought, Nishikanta would feel himself being yanked back to earth.  His thoughts would tumble and scatter.     

              Because he could never keep a proper account whenever he was sent shopping, Boudi-moni had started insisting lately that Nishikanta learn arithmetic.  Bipinbihari had taken it upon himself to teach him to count every night.  He would ask, “How much is left if you take one rupee and eighty paise out of two rupees and forty-five paise?”  At such times, Nishikanta’s mind would grow dark and cloudy, as if on a rainy day.  How much was left, indeed?  Probably a lot.  Probably nothing at all.   If ten beedis cost ten paise, and a box of matches another ten paise, how much did they cost in all?   It was hopeless.  Nishikanta would grow frazzled in the effort to add and subtract.  Bipin would clobber him on the head and say, “Do you know how old you are?”

            “Sure,” Nishikanta would reply.  “I’m a score-and-a-half years old.”

            “Stupid.  Toka’s age is a full score: you’re even older than me.  At least fifty, I would say.”

            Who was to say Bipin was wrong?  If Nishikanta could remember his correct age, why would he be in this situation?   Not that his situation was so bad, really.  What was so bad about forgetting?  It felt fine to him.  He had become used to making his way by the dim glow of a flashlight.  He could remember events or incidents for at most a week – beyond that a white, hazy drizzle would obscure the scenery.  Amnesia was like the darkness that lay just beyond the small circle of light thrown off by a torch; or to put it differently, it was like a dark, rainy day.

            Nishikanta got to his feet after finishing the tea.  People thought he was shiftless and slow-moving – a dullard.  Little did they know that it was impossible for him to just sit around, even if he wanted to.  He was a mere kite – and the reel was held firmly in Boudi-moni’s hands.  No matter how far from home, he would suddenly feel a tug on that string – as if Boudi-moni was calling out his name: “Nishi-iiiii.”

            Leaving his umbrella unopened, he stepped out into the slushy, unpaved road.  The wind was very strong.  Had he opened the umbrella, it would certainly have been blown out of his hands.  The soil here was sandy, so the path wasn’t too slippery; still, Nishikanta came close to losing his balance a couple of times.  The rain was whipping his body, as if drilling holes into it.  The raindrops blinded his eyes, and his ears felt stuffed.  All he could make out were the hazy outlines of shops and the occasional person.  The world appeared to have come to a standstill – like a clock that had stopped running.

            Mahendra looked up at Nishikanta as he approached the shop.  Nishikanta stood outside the door and squeezed the water out of his clothes.  He took his shirt off, wrung it dry, and then used it to wipe his body.  The umbrella, too, was dripping wet, even though it had not been opened once.  Mahendra bellowed in a loud voice, “Leave the umbrella outside.  And don’t come in right away – stand under that tree until you’ve got rid of all the water.  If you wet the floor in this weather, it won’t dry in ages.”  Nishikanta did as he was told.  After drying himself as best as he could, he came inside.

            Plying his sewing machine, Mahendra said, “I always see you holding that umbrella under your arm.  Do you ever open it?”

            “Sometimes – when I let it out to dry.”

            Mahendra chuckled and said, “Well, seems to me you never really use the umbrella.  Why do you carry it around, then?”

            “It has its uses,” Nishikanta replied briefly.

            Mahendra’s apprentice, Gupe, was sitting on a mat sewing a collar on a shirt.  He took a needle out of his mouth and said, “What uses?”

            “It stays with me.  That’s use enough.”

            Mahendra and Gupe exchanged glances.

            Nishikanta remained standing while they went on with their work.  Waiting was almost a habit of his: lacking a sense of time, he never knew how long to wait.  He tried to light a beedi, but the rain had dampened all the matches; whenever he tried to strike one, the powder would fall off the tip.  Finally succeeding after several tries, he said in a meek voice, “Give me my stuff so I can get back before it gets too late.”

            Still working the sewing machine, Mahendra said, “What’s the hurry?  Sit for a while.  Maybe the rain will let off – you never know.”

            Nishikanta did as he was told.  He squatted on the floor near the door and said, “Doesn’t look like this rain is going to let up anytime soon.” 

            This was about all the conversation he could muster.  He couldn’t think of anything else to say.  On the bus, two merchants sitting in the seat ahead of him had talked all way here – about buying and selling, about profit and loss, about religion.  How people found so much to talk about, Nishikanta did not know: he hardly ever had much to say.  Whenever he did want to talk, however, there was nobody to listen to him.  It was this desire – the desire to talk to somebody, to let loose a flood of words – that had once impelled Nishikanta toward thoughts of marriage.  Of course, there was a pleasant mystery about the act of marriage itself – exchanging garlands of flowers with a pretty woman in the light of a hurricane lamp…that could be pretty exciting.   

His umbrella was associated with one episode during that marriage-crazy phase.  Once, while attending the festival of the warrior-god Bhima at the village of Mayachar, he had made the acquaintance of a trickster. Although he forgot most things immediately, this particular incident, like a few others, had somehow stayed in his memory, like the lingering scent of perfume on a bit of cotton wool.  Nishikanta had been staring open-mouthed at the idol of Bhima killing the evil Jarasandha by pulling his legs apart and tearing him into two.  Sizing him up quickly, the trickster had befriended Nishikanta and treated him to tea and cigarettes.  At a certain point during their conversation, Nishikanta had let slip his thirst for marriage.  The stranger had said, “A man doesn’t need to worry about finding someone to marry.  Whether you’re a servant or a day-laborer or a beggar – everybody can find himself a wife.”

            From the Bhima Puja site, the man had made him walk more than three kos, ostensibly to show him a marriageable girl he knew of.  During the long walk, he had helped himself to Nishikanta’s stock of stolen money.  Hoping to get married at last, Nishikanta had not been able to say no.  The man would stop at various shops to buy food, cigarettes, sundry grocery items – Nishikanta was getting tired of these detours.  The man even borrowed some money from Nishikanta under the pretext of a loan.  Finally, when they were in an unfamiliar village, he had pointed to a building and said to Nishikanta, “That’s my house – consider it your own.  Go into the sitting room and make yourself comfortable.  I’ll just swing by the market and get a kilo of meat – I heard they slaughtered a goat at the butcher shop today.  By the way, do you like fried goat fat?”

            Nishikanta nodded his head happily.  It was past noon – he was feeling quite hungry.  The man said, “You’ll probably have to stay here a few hours.  I’ll take you over to see the girl later this afternoon.  You can propose to them and then head back.” 

        It was all to Nishikanta's liking.  After the man left, he walked into the house and entered the sitting room -- it was nicely furnished.  Nishikanta sat down on a chair and started to relax.  A little while later, an unpleasant-looking old man appeared and began to ask him questions like "Who are you?" and "What do you want?"  He was unstoppable.  Nishikanta had not bothered to remember the trickster’s name.  He kept saying, "The owner of this house asked me to wait here, believe me."  The old man laughed a harsh jackal-like laugh and said, "The owner of the house?  That would be me – Nityahari Goswami."   Nishikanta said, "Oh, it must have been your son, then.  He asked me to wait here while he went to the market to buy some goat meat.  He said we were going to have fried goat fat at lunch."  The old man almost exploded in anger.  "We're Vaishnavas -- strict vegetarians,” he screamed.  “How dare you mention meat in this house?  Get out, get out right now."

            Feeling totally confused, Nishikanta had walked out without bothering to make sense of the situation.  On his way out, he had noticed an umbrella leaning against the veranda wall.  Being habitually used to swiping things, he had picked up the umbrella without a second thought and walked out of the house.

            Since then, this umbrella had become his most valued possession.  He watched over the umbrella with an eagle eye and carried it everywhere -- not for protection against sun or rain, but for the sheer style of it.  There was nothing like an umbrella to raise a man's standing in the village.

            "I hear you even talk to your umbrella at night," said Mahendra as he sewed the leg of a pajama.

            Nishikanta said in an abashed tone, "Bipin-da makes up all these stories."

            "It's not a made-up story at all.  Bipin swears he's heard it with his own ears.  He says you wake up in the middle of the night and sit in bed talking to your umbrella -- you talk to it about your joys and sorrows, about whatever's bothering you.  And wonder of wonders, apparently the umbrella talks back!  Bipin says the umbrella speaks in a nasal kind of a voice, but the words are quite clear."

            Gupe held the needle between his fingers as he flattened the collar with his hands. "So, Nishi-da, is your umbrella a man or a woman?"

            "I don’t know anything about any of this.  You guys are teasing me.  Just give me the stuff and I'll be on my way."

            "You're trying to avoid the subject, but everybody between Paltabere and Bagnan knows your umbrella is a woman."

            "Leave me alone."

            "I swear.  Maybe you don't want to tell us your secret, but love is like perfume -- you can't hide it.  It spreads in the air."

            Mahendra set aside the pajama leg he was working on and started sewing the hem on the other leg.  "There's more," he said.  "I've heard you're about to get married to the umbrella."

            "Don't forget to invite us to the wedding," said Gupe.

            Nishikanta got irritated and said, "If you guys are going to give me a hard time, I’m going to leave.  I'll send Bipin–da to fetch the stuff later."

            Mahendra gave Gupe a mock scolding.  "Don't be impertinent, you oaf.  Sit down Nishi.  Don't get mad."

            Nishikanta sat and yawned.  It was getting late.  He liked looking at Mahendra's workshop.  Machines were so amazing.  You couldn't tell what was going on -- all you saw was the foot pedal moving, and yet, up on the platform, the needle rose and fell like a raindrop and left stitches in its wake. 

            It was wonderful -- whenever he saw the sewing machine, some long-lost memory seemed about to surface, but it never did.  What could he do?  That was how his mind was -- like a rain-darkened day.  Or like a circle of light given off by a flashlight -- it illuminated certain things, but left much else hidden in the dark shadows of forgetfulness, in the inky blackness of night.

            He started dozing as he sat and waited.  Finally, Gupe called him awake. Handing him the bottle of chua, he said, "Find an auspicious day and get married.  Sitting up night after night with a female umbrella – it’s not good for your reputation.  What will other umbrellas say?  Umbrellas have their own customs and traditions, you know."

            Nishikanta got up to leave.  But when he reached for his umbrella in the dark crevice behind the door, his hand came back empty. 

            "What's this!" Nishikanta exclaimed.

            Mahendra looked up at him and said, "What's wrong?"

            "My umbrella!"

            "Is it not there?"

            "No. You guys have hidden it."

            "We?"  Gupe widened his eyes in surprise and said, "Do we look the kind of people who would kidnap other folks' women?"

            "What happened to the umbrella, Gupe?" Mahendra asked with apparent sincerity.

            "A bunch of Lodha tribeswomen came to the shop a few minutes ago -- they must have taken it with them.  Nishi-da was dozing at the time, maybe he didn't notice."

            Nishikanta was furious.  He started cursing, "You two are the spawn of thieves...the discharge of a cunt...."

            Gupe said gravely, "Why call us names?  People say you're an umbrella thief.  They say you eloped with that umbrella from a house in Mayachar."

            Nishikanta's head felt as if it was about to explode.  He muttered, "Which son of a whore says that....Which..." and on and on.

            Mahendra said, "Hey, watch your language.  Gupe, give him his umbrella.  Who wants to listen to all this filth?"

            Nishikanta got this way when he was angry.  At such times, he would try to recall some of the curse-words he had heard in the market -- these were his sole weapons.  When people gave him grief, he had to do something in return, after all.

            Gupe pulled the umbrella out from under a footstool.  He gave Nishikanta a sudden kick in the buttocks and said, "Get out of here, you bastard."

            Nishikanta somehow caught hold of the doorframe before he could fall.

            "Hey..y..y," Mahendra yelled.  "Don't hit him, Gupe -- you're going to smash the bottle."

            "The bastard has a filthy mouth," Gupe retorted.

            Nishikanta uttered a few more curses involving Gupe's mother and father and walked out of the shop.  Gupe didn't let him have the last word, though.  He ran after him and hit Nishikanta on the head with something hard.  Nishikanta's head ached from the impact, but he didn't lose his grip on the bottle.  If something happened to the precious chua, Bipin and Boudi-moni were not going to come down here to settle scores with Gupe -- they were going to take it out on poor Nishikanta.  In a blind rage, he stood outside the shop and screamed at Gupe, "Eat shit, you son of a whore..."

            Gupe came out again.  This time he threw something at Nishikanta -- an earthenware jug perhaps.  It hit him on the chest.  Nishikanta stood outside the shop and started yelling, “Eat my foot, eat my left hand, eat my shit…”

            After shouting for several more minutes, Nishikanta felt lighter.  To tell the truth, by this time he no longer remembered who he was cursing, or why.  He couldn’t even recall what had happened.  With this realization, Nishikanta’s rants gave way to a kind of astonished silence. Try as he would, he simply could not remember who he was angry at or why he was screaming at the top of his voice.

            The rain had stopped; the moon was rising in a clearing sky.  The shops were closing their shutters one after another.  Nishikanta felt the tug of a string within himself; the invisible reel was pulling him in.  Nishikanta stumbled and almost lose his balance.  Boudi-moni must be calling his name by now: “Nishi-iiii.”

            When Nishikanta stepped off the bus at the Kharubere crossroads, the evening wore an eerie look.  A ghostly moon had risen in the sky – its pale gleam seeped through black-smeared clouds.  Thunderclouds were still growling now and then with the rumbling sound of stone grinding against stone.  This was the first time in three days that the rain had let up.  Although it was not winter, the sky gods had unfurled a curtain of chill on the world.  The waterlogged earth looked white and bare in the light of that ominous moon.

            Nishikanta was almost as afraid of Boudi-moni and Bipin as he was of ghosts and goblins.  He walked as fast as he could on the slippery path by the side of the stream.  His head was aching; as was his back.  He couldn’t remember where or how he had hurt himself.

            For three entire days, the sky had relentlessly kneaded the earth with a million hands.  The kneaded, pummeled, mangled earth lay supine and tired in the ghostly moonlight.  Bipin Bihari kneaded Boudi-moni in the same way.  Work was slow in the rainy season.  Boudi-moni had decided not to dirty any dishes other than the cooking pots and pans.  So for the past several days, they had been eating a semi-liquid diet of rice-and-lentil khichri served on plantain leaves.  There was no washing and cleaning to be done at the pond, no laundry, no drying of vegetables and fruits in the sun: even the floors did not have to be mopped.  Boudi-moni spent entire days in her bed.  After working the fields for a while, Bipin would be back at the house and bolt Boudi-moni’s door from the inside.  Nishikanta had a certain idea of what was going on behind those closed doors – it, too, had to do with kneading and tangling.  Come evening, Bipin would eat a bowl of puffed rice tossed with mango-oil and green chilies.  Then he would go off to the musicians’ den and listen to hymns until suppertime. 

              But there were other goings-on before and after the hymn-singing.  The rain and the wind carried the news of those activities all over the village with the avidity of scandal.  There were whispers and murmurings all around him: Nishikanta would listen and smile to himself.

            Someone had built a large fire on the bank of the stream.  Several dark shadows were moving around the edges of the fire.  Nishikanta stopped to watch.  As he gazed at the fire, his nostrils caught the smell of burning ghee.  Then he became aware of the burnt-leather smell of scorched flesh.

            Nishikanta shook his head and walked toward the fire.  Looked like Netai’s grandmother had finally passed away.  There was no proper cremation ground in this village – people burnt corpses wherever they could.  These folks had lit their pyre on a raised embankment on the side of the stream.

            Netai was yelling drunkenly.   One of his pals had apparently pulled a log from the pyre to light his beedi – and Netai was getting all worked up about it.  He was shouting: “None of you bastards can light your beedis from the funeral pyre, I’m warning you.  It’s my grandmother’s funeral, not your father’s.”

            One of his friends tried to pacify him: “It’s not a beedi; it’s a cigarette.”

            “Why should he be lighting even a cigarette?  Is it his father’s funeral, bastard?”

            Netai stood up and urinated at the edge of the embankment.  He continued to yell: “Look at my old grandma’s good karma – even the rain stopped so the pyre wouldn’t get wet.  Have you guys ever seen anything like this, bastards?  And you’re lighting beedis from that fire?  Doesn’t my grandma deserve some respect?”

            His friends were laughing raucously.

            Nishikanta noticed that Netai’s grandmother’s face was still visible – the fire had not yet reached it.  Each eyelid was covered with sandalwood paste and a tulsi leaf.  Nishikanta wondered for a moment how it must feel to get burned.  He took a few steps forward and stood near the fire, clutching his umbrella and the bottle of chua.  Nobody said anything to him.  They were all too drunk anyway.

            Suddenly, while nobody was watching, Netai’s grandmother opened her eyes and appeared to look directly at Nishikanta.  His mind could not hold onto anything…he forgot too easily.  Yet, watching Netai’s dead grandmother looking at him with a normal gaze, Nishikanta suddenly remembered that one time a few years ago, the old woman was lying on her bed, writhing in pain from a stomach-ache.  Nishikanta had ground up some young acacia leaves and fed her the paste – the pain had gradually subsided. Earlier today, Nishikanta had stood under the same tree from which he had plucked those leaves.  Netai’s grandmother’s half-burnt corpse lay smoldering in front of him.  When her eyes met his, there appeared to be a question in them. “Do you remember, son?” she seemed to be asking.

            Do you remember?  Do you remember?   A shaft of clear moonlight appeared to cut through the thick clouds inside Nishinkanta’s brain.  Yes, he could remember!   He could suddenly remember all kinds of things.  Nishikanta felt as if a flood of memory was about to overwhelm the banks of his mind.  He gripped the umbrella and the bottle of chua tightly.  With a muffled, frightened cry, he turned and quickly walked back to the path.

            But the flood of memory would not stop.  Raindrops of remembrance fell on his body from the gloomy sky…and kept falling.  One of Netai’s pals came up to him and said drunkenly, “What’s in the bottle?  Where are you taking that stuff, Nishi?”

            “Leave me alone,” said Nishikanta and jerked himself away.  That jerk seemed to dislodge the flashlight dimly lighting the present.  The rainy haze suddenly appeared to lift, and he could see all the way to the horizon.  Everything was clear, everything was visible.  All the memories were coming back to him.

            His name was not Nishikanta.  He was not from around here.  His family had lived in a small house next to a large mansion.  His mother’s name was Manorama, his father’s name Chandranath.  They had been a happy family.  What was the name of the place?  It was on the tip of his tongue.  He could remember the orchards of short, stout lychee trees, bearing clusters of juicy fruit.  There was a schoolhouse on a paved road.  Its bell used to ring loudly, calling Nishikanta by name.  It was coming back.  It was all coming back! 

But along with re-awakened memory, he could feel a sharp pain rising in his chest.  A lamentation-filled wind had begun to blow through his mind.  What had happened to him?  Scenes from the past were beginning to flicker and swoon drunkenly around him.  Very dimly, he saw images of riots, fires, bearded people with blackened faces, burning torches in hand.  He and his parents were hiding in the filth under the latrine and shaking with fear.  There were faint memories of railway tracks, a train station, a refugee camp…


            With a stifled scream Nishikanta lost his footing and fell.  He was on the wrong path.  Where was he going?  In which direction?  He stared dumbly around in the pale moonlight.  Where was he?

            Standing in the middle of a field with the umbrella and the bottle clutched close to his body, Nishikanta looked around at the world, as if for the first time.  What a frightening vastness!  He was lost.  He was alone.

            As far as he could see, the ghostly moonlight stretched away into the night like a silent scream.  He had no home, no family – he had nothing.

            “A-aaaaaaaa,” a wordless cry burst out of Nishikanta’s throat.  Eyes filled with tears of terror, he waded into a flooded field until the water reached up to his waist.  He clutched his head in panic and muttered over and over, “Make it all go away.  Make me forget, please.”

            Suddenly, he felt a tug within himself, as if someone somewhere had just started to reel in a wayward kite.  The kite jerked upward.  Boudi-moni was calling his name: “Nishi-iiiii.”

            “I’m coming,” he said aloud and clambered out of the water.  He pressed the umbrella and the bottle close to his chest and wiped his eyes on the sleeves of his shirt.  Boudi-moni was rapidly reeling in her kite.  There was no way he could ignore that pull.  He might be a servant, a mere laborer, but that invisible tug was all he had.

            “I’m fine the way I am,” Nishikanta said to himself.  His world had once again contracted into the grey closeness of a rainy day, a dim sphere of clarity illuminated by a small flashlight.  Nothing was visible ahead, nothing behind.  This was exactly where he wanted to be.  With a profound sense of relief, Nishikanta resumed walking homeward.


Published in Parabaas, April, 2008

The original story "Brishtite Nishikanta" by Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay is included in the collection Galpo-Samagro (Vol.2) published by the Dey's Publishing, Kolkata.

Translated by Nilanjan Bhattacharya. Nilanjan grew up in Rajasthan and Assam and developed an early interest in .... (more)

Illustrations by Rajarshi Debnath. Rajarshi has been regularly illustrating for Parabaas. He is currently based in Athens, Georgia.

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©Parabaas 2008