I have been in Hyderabad for quite some time. As I don’t earn a big salary, I cannot afford to visit Calcutta as often as I would want to. That makes me rather sad. Sometimes two or three years go by before I can afford a trip. All my relatives and friends live in Calcutta. So if I can manage any work related trip there, I feel really happy.
Thus, I had been deprived of Calcutta for last three years. I could not even manage an office tour to satisfy my family. Suddenly one day I received a telegram from my cousin Binoy. I am at heart still a middle-class Bengali. The word ‘telegram’ always warns us of some bad news. I live so far away, and many of my friends and relatives are getting old. Perhaps some disaster happened to someone.
Binoy’s telegram did carry bad news. He had written, “Vishnu uncle is dying. He wants to see you one last time.”
This was really hard news for me. Vishnu uncle was not my blood relative but something even closer than that. In 1963-64, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I had just left home in Bangladesh and come to Calcutta for the first time to continue my studies. I had finished my school final exam from Dhaka Board. My poor parents had hoped that if I could get a college degree somehow, I could find a job that would help me support the rest of the family. In Calcutta, I arrived first at an uncle’s place, but that did not work out well. My uncle’s father in-law was staying with them, and for some reason he hated me from the first sight. He used to make me work even harder than the menial servants. Too, he had an additional obsession of proving me a thief. His past occupation in police force might have had something to do with this. We had some fifteen to twenty bighas of farm land in Bangladesh. Whatever crop it yielded twenty five to thirty years ago barely met our own needs, but uncle and aunt always lamented for not having any claim on it, and uncle’s father-in-law never missed a chance of blaming my father for this and calling him a cheat and a scoundrel. Poor and helpless, I had to keep my mouth shut and tolerate these unjust humiliations.
Vishnu uncle arrived during these days. He told me to go stay with him. He also said that he had informed my parents about this. Apparently my father had learnt about my condition and asked him to take care of me. It seemed once Vishnu uncle had received shelter at my parent’s house and my father had been fond of him since.
I stayed with Vishnu uncle for four or five years at that time. Uncle was barely ten years older than me but vastly different in nature. He was probably 27 or 28 then, just married, and had two jobless brothers and a senile uncle as dependants. He worked at a foundry in Taratala, did not earn much and then got saddled with me as another dependant. Surely, it was tough on him, but I was vastly relieved.
In those four to five years, uncle and I became very close. Uncle had an open heart and that rare ability to treat everyone with equal justice. He was also extremely disciplined and organized. Looking back now he almost seemed a bit obsessive. We were never intimate enough to have long chats. In fact I was a bit intimidated by him but I also respected him a lot. Later, when I was older, the intimidation was replaced by more respect.
But this discipline and obsession for equal treatment of all had caused problems in his personal life. Unfortunately this happens often. It is rare to come across a great man. And most of them suffered the injustices of ordinary people. One group tried to cheat him and the other tried to restrict him from doing the just thing. This second group was usually his close relatives, and they are the ones to hurt him the most.
Vishnu uncle’s wife, children and other relatives were of totally different characters. Right from the beginning there was trouble with his wife Ramola auntie. She was a shallow person, not interested in domesticity. All she wanted was dressing up and having a good time with her friends. The disorganized, chaotic home resulting from this was a total anathema to my uncle’s disciplined nature. He just could not tolerate the careless, unkempt, uninterested attitude of his wife and this often resulted in tremendous fights. My simple aunt often did not even understand the main reason. As usually happens in such families, the initial attraction was soon lost and within a few years uncle became a cantankerous, nitpicky, obsessive type of person.
When I arrived in Calcutta, I learned that Vishnu uncle was in hospital. Binoy said that his kidneys had failed. The doctors had given up hope. I was stunned at the thought of a strong life ebbing away so fast.
That very evening I went to see him. It was difficult to recognize the change in him. He was a large man who now had shrunk to almost nothing. His sad face had brightened up for a moment at my sight but relapsed immediately. A hopeless, poor man. Yet, even in those dire circumstances, there was an irritated look in his face, which also kept others from coming too close.
“How are you, uncle?”
“Just surviving a few more days. How are you? Haven’t seen you for ages.” Uncle was reclining in bed. I touched his feet respectfully for pranam.
Uncle trembled at the touch. I looked at him in surprise but could not see any change.
Uncle’s two daughters and a son were also in the room, but uncle was not talking to them at all. Suddenly he asked me, “You know what is the biggest stupidity of man?”
I stared at him in silence. I was not sure how to talk to a dying person. Both of us were agnostics, thus talking about God was out of question.
Uncle continued, “It is following all those ‘good habits’ like religion, civilization, culture, all that stuff. And I am not even mentioning honesty, dutifulness etc. etc.”
I could not figure out why uncle wanted to talk about these subjects. So I stayed quiet. Perhaps there were some disagreements with the children, which caused this irritation.
Uncle continued, “Take this hospital—all the trash heaps around it, the chaotic administration, the petty stealing, the cruelty—you will see if you stayed here awhile. Do you know the main reason behind all this?”
I realized the question was rhetoric, so kept quiet. Perhaps uncle indirectly wanted to lecture his wife and children.
Uncle continued talking, “There is a popular phrase nowadays ‘work culture’. Apparently we’ve lost our work culture! When did we ever have it? We worked because the masters held a whip over our heads. Now there is no whip, so there is no work. Another thing we had in old days-- personal good habits, something that men learned from their elders in patriarchal families. You are a communist. Perhaps you do not agree with this.”
“No, not at all. Please continue.” I said.
“I call them stupid because nobody learns these things anymore. If one does learn, he will have to suffer at the hands of the others. If in a joint family one person keeps the bathroom clean, he will end up cleaning the bathroom after everyone else. Because he has the good habits. These people with good habits always suffer more than the ones with bad habits.”
After listening to him thus far, the three children left the room. I clearly saw the younger girl make a face before leaving. So my guess about a family disagreement was correct after all.
I was the only listener left. But I tried to restrain him, “Uncle, enough. Don’t talk anymore. It is tiring you.”
But till then I had not seen any overt sign of impending death or any sign of fear in my uncle. I knew he was a proud man, but I did not know how long he could put up the façade of his pride. So, I was surprised to see him totally ignore the matter of dying. At that moment, I needed more consolation than he did. And the sensitive man understood that too.
Uncle answered me, “Gopal, not talking is not going to increase my longevity. I know very well that my time is over. Perhaps two weeks to two months at the most. So, let me have my say. I have not seen you or talked with you for such a long time.”
Suddenly my heart constricted. “Are you scared uncle?”
My uncle looked in my eyes for a moment then looked away.
Something was feeling stuck in my throat. I had really loved this man.
Looking away, uncle said, “I don’t know. Not exactly fear. You know me…”
I could not understand what he tried to say. At last uncle said, “Listen, the reason I wanted you here” then he suddenly changed topic, “—You know the biggest tragedy in my life? All my life, wherever I’ve been, all the people I met and worked and lived with—everywhere, at all times, I could detect every single lie, selfishness, scam, smallness and deception. I can’t tell you how much I have suffered for pointing out these flaws. It is like an x-ray machine in my head that can accurately picture everything inside everyone else’s head. Earlier I used to be proud of my perception. But later I wanted to be rid of it. Even visited psychiatrists. But to no avail. It is like a curse I am carrying in me all my life.”
Uncle stopped. I asked, “Why did you call me, uncle?”
“Yes, I better tell you now. Later, there may not be time.”
Right at that moment Ramola aunt entered the room. Perhaps she was talking to the doctors or nurses outside. I touched her feet also. She said, “Oh, you Gopal! When did you arrive?”
“Just yesterday, auntie.”
True to her nature, aunt started telling me all the mundane details of her life. Uncle’s face was showing the impatience and irritation. Without looking at his wife, he said, “I have some important matters to discuss with Gopal. Please leave us alone.”
Aunt quietly left the room. Perhaps unhappily.
Uncle took out a thick envelope from the bag near his bed. “Keep this safely with you.” I did.
Looking out of the window, he said, “There is an address on the envelope. You will go there tomorrow. Whatever next you have to do is written in the letter inside. If something else comes up, do the best you can. I am leaving it all to you.” The tired, sad patient then turned his face away. I was a little surprised. The whole event appeared rather dramatic to me. But uncle was not talking anymore and the visiting hours were almost over. I got up and said, “Okay, uncle. I better get going then.”
Uncle murmured something I couldn’t catch.
After returning home, I took the envelope out. It was addressed to a Niti Basu in Krishnanagar. Why did uncle have to make it such a secret? All kinds of doubts were crowding in my head but none had any proof.
Next day, after lunch, I took a train from Sealda to Krishnanagar. By the time I took a rickshaw from the station and reached the correct address, I was near bursting with curiosity. An elderly man pointed the door. “Yes, that is the house.”
I sounded the knocker.
A young lad of about fifteen opened the door. “Who do you want?”
“Does a Niti Basu live here?”
“Yes. My mom.”
“Can you call her?”
But there was no need. A middle-aged lady of about forty-five came to the door.
“Who is it, Shobhan? You?”
By then I had recognized her. She was Ramola aunt’s younger sister Renu. Renu and I were of same age. I didn’t know her proper name was Niti.
“I am Gopal, Renu.”
Renu squinted at me for a while. “If you can explain…”
“I am Vishnu Mitra’s nephew, Gopal. Don’t you remember me?”
Renu suddenly remembered. “Go-pa-l! Oh goodness, after so many years...”
Then suddenly she turned pale. “But why are you here? I mean…how did you…”
Afterwards, half an hour later, sitting in her room, I opened the envelope with her. There were numerous deeds, policies and certificates. Proofs of Vishnu uncle’s savings from his salary from the foundry.
But Renu wasn’t seeing the papers. “Will he live?”
I tried to keep myself natural as much as possible. I was also reluctant to say the truth to her. I said, “Oh no. Nothing to worry. After fifty, everyone gets a few diseases.”
But Renu wasn’t listening. “Can I see him once? The kid?”
The papers showed almost three lakh rupees in savings. Neatly itemized. Renu would have no problem cashing it. To distract her I said, “I am ready to wait for twenty years for such a fortune, but I am a bit curious, if you don’t mind…”
“Oh, there is nothing exciting about it. You know my sister. She made Vishnu’s life a living hell. I couldn’t stand to see such a great man suffer this way… Also I got a good job here, so…”
That is why she had disappeared from home seventeen years ago. She had just left a short note. Vishnu uncle started his new family here in Krishnanagar. I had earlier heard a rumor about him joining some Sadhu’s Ashram. This was the real reason.
At Renu’s request, I had to stay the night there. She also made me agree to another request. I had to bring her to the hospital. We decided to go before visiting hours. Uncle had said, “Do whatever you feel the best.” But I was uncomfortable. The man who fought all his life against lying and cheating had to do this to his family?
Next morning Renu and I reached the hospital around ten in the morning. It was crowded in the ward, with people running busily in all directions. Elbowing through the crowd, I reached Vishnu uncle’s bed. Someone else was lying there. I asked a nurse, “Where is the patient in bed 14?”
The nurse curtly said, “He is dead. There in the small room next door.” She strode busily away!
The old man in the next bed said, “Here. Let me tell you. See that kid in the bed behind the pillar? He is suffering from thallassemia. His poor father got him a pint of blood with great difficulty. At night it was stolen. You know how they do it? They take out half of the blood from the bottle and mix saline. That blood is then sold outside in the black. Vishnu had suspected earlier. Last night he tried to catch him red handed. I had advised against it, but he did not listen to me. The man hit him hard . He fell down. That was the end.”
I peeked in the room next door. A body laid on the floor, covered with a white sheet. I didn’t realize when Renu came to stand next to me. Suddenly she trembled so badly that I had to hold her from falling down.
It is foolish to draw a man in straight lines.Published in Parabaas, August, 2013