In the middle of the night, still asleep, Obinash suddenly experiences a terrible discomfort. As if his breath will stop. An unfamiliar pain in his chest.
He wakes and feels his limbs wet with sweat, the pillow under his neck sodden wet. He tries to sit up but can’t. He thinks it would be good to lift his neck and turn the pillow over, but understands he won’t be able to do it. He can’t move his arms or legs, which are numb, stone-like.
Almost at the mark of sixty, Obinash has seen much of life--this realization sets up a swift question that runs a sharp-edged saw across every cell, every membrane, every nerve in his brain.
So am I having a stroke? This breath-stopping pain in my chest? This sweating, this numbness in my arms and legs--these are all signs of a stroke!
Unbalanced, panicking, Obinash tries to cry out someone’s name--maybe his older son’s, maybe his younger son’s, maybe one of his granddaughters’, or maybe even Shoilobala’s! No, it can’t be Shoilobala’s, when has he ever called Shoilobala by name, how will it come to his lips? If it’s not practiced, it won’t come even at the final hour. That’s why the sages tell us to keep on rehearsing the Name.
Obinash has not practiced that either, so he calls out some practiced call. But whomever he might have called, that call doesn’t reach anyone’s ear: the call writhes and thrashes within; no sound comes out of his throat.
This means Obinash has had an attack of palsy. A sudden attack, catching him completely unawares. Catching the Obinash who was healthy, normal, relaxed, right until the time he lay down in bed, oh, right up to the moment he fell asleep!
During the day he’d followed his daily routine without exception, and his body hadn’t felt different in any way. He woke up at dawn and went out for a stroll in the park, and on his way he brought back the milk for his younger grandson from the dairy-house, having the cow milked in front of him and acquainting the milk-seller, as always, with his proper duty.
Of course Obinash’s younger son and his wife, his grandson’s parents, have not asked him to do this. They rely on tinned milk. Obinash has taken on this responsibility of his own accord. He even carries the aluminum container with him on his walk. And proudly tells his granddaughters, I don’t care if people laugh.
Anyhow, today, too, he ate toast with his tea as soon as he came back home, and after finishing with the newspaper he ate halua and some spiced potato with a second large cup of tea. It seems as if in his old age he feels hungrier in the mornings, but he’s ashamed to say anything. Sometimes he suddenly catches a whiff of whatever’s being prepared for Nondita’s tiffin.
Obinash used to take ruti and torkari for his tiffin; his sons take luchi and mishti; his granddaughters can’t eat the large luchi quickly, so they have to be given something easier to swallow, such as egg fritters, nimki, halua, spiced potatoes, and so on.
Sometimes these airborne aromas float from the kitchen and seem to make Obinash restless. Then he walks towards the inner rooms with his newspaper still in his hand. --Have you heard the news? A wedding party killed in a bus accident near Motihari! . . . Or, voice raised, he says, Did you hear what happened? Yesterday, in a huge fire--
The target of this serving of news is of course Shoilobala. He cannot talk about the real news in the paper, politics and political chicanery, with her, she has no time to headache about the country’s problems. When prices go up, she’s fired up with anger at the authorities, and if they come down somewhat, she’s pleased. If she listens carefully to anything, it’s to these reports of accidents and calamities. . . . So what’s to be done, these topics have to be discussed. But sometimes when she’s really in a hurry, Shoilobala says, Leave it babu, don’t start telling me about all that, it makes me unhappy, and so early in the morning too.
Obinash understands that the talk about unhappiness is an excuse; when she’s busy she has no time even to listen to the news. He says, So that’s why I say, it seems to have become an exceptional thing for people just to be able to survive--and then he potters about for a minute and says, What a fine smell! You’re making halua, are you? . . . Are you frying potatoes? It smells as if you’re frying eggs. What are you frying them in? Ghee or mustard oil? It smells very good.
Whether it’s because of these hints or because of Shoilobala’s consideration, with his second cup of tea Obinash receives a second breakfast. Today, too, he ate it with great relish.
In his mind Obinash sees pictures of the day’s progression; he wants to see if somewhere there was a sign of any weakness. But he can’t see any.
After that he went to the market, as usual. That too is a repetition: his older son takes the servant to do the morning’s shopping, but even so, after his sons leave for work Obinash walks to the market once more to finish the job. He brings back something inedible and presents it proudly, something they don’t even touch. . . . Banana stems, small greens, yam sprouts, tiny fish--people don’t eat these things. If they don’t eat it, why is it sold in the market! Anyway, if nobody eats it, Obinash will eat it by himself. Shoilobala, too, has now begun to insist that eating these results in acidity. That’s all nonsense; it’s just to ingratiate herself with their trend--following sons and daughters-in-law. Obinash doesn’t care to ingratiate himself. In fact he made a point today of taking a large helping of unfashionable chochchori in front of his daughters-in-law.
Then he had biscuits with his tea in the evening; he performed his duty of bringing back his younger granddaughter from school; he went to the park with his younger grandson. The maid always goes to the park, pushing the perambulator; still, Obinash goes along. He cannot agree to leave it in the maid’s hands. Even though his grandson’s mother stifles her laughter to say, So many children go to the park with other people, but whose grandfather comes along to guard them?
Let her say it; Obinash goes anyway, he went today too. And after that? What else after that, his sons came home one at a time, tea was made for them, he ate a little with them, as he usually did, and after talking for a while about this and that he finished his dinner and lay down. And among all this, was there any sign of that deep pit into which the man called Obinash Shen has put his foot and is sinking?
Obinash tries to shout again, can’t raise any sound from his throat. This means that the palsy has taken over his entire body. That demon hasn’t even left him his tongue.
Pokkhaghat, palsy! Instead of using the common name for the disease, Obinash has taken this uncirculated word from the pages of Ayurvedic science. This word is much more fearsome than “paralysis,” perhaps because it’s so much harsher? One that seems necessary for the weighing of his sorrow.
It’s summer, but after a strong northwesterly breeze in the evening the air has turned quite cool, and because Obinash is susceptible to colds the window at his head is shut. The fan on the table in front of him turns gently, noiselessly. It’s a narrow room, it couldn’t really be counted a bedroom, so there’s no ceiling fan, it’s not needed, if the other window’s open the wind is strong enough to fly you away; today one panel of the window is shut.
Shoilobala took care of all this before going to bed. Of course she doesn’t go very far, her dwelling-place is in the very next room. This room is a small strip, the distance from the other very small, and between the two rooms the door stays open, a curtain hangs in the doorway. . . . Still, how immense this intervening distance.
When his older son’s daughters grew up, Obinash lost a longtime habit and a prize possession: Shoilobala’s proximity. He was forced to lose it for a trivial reason: the girls’ parents’ share of the house was only one room, and apparently it wasn’t proper to sleep with two grown-up girls in the same room, therefore to preserve propriety and decorum, one day Shoilobala herself made this arrangement.
Obinash was exiled from that very room in this ancient house in which he had had his bed of flowers, the first night of his marriage, and where he had spent all his days since. Shoilobala now sleeps in great comfort with her two granddaughters in the immense old-fashioned pair of beds that they received at their wedding, and Obinash in this narrow room, on a narrow cot.
When this arrangement was first discussed, it was a thunderbolt falling on his head, but Shoilobala had warned him earlier: Be very careful, don’t say even one word about this, or there’ll be no end to our shame. So Obinash kept his lips under lock and key, his sorrow pride anger mortification all stored away in his mind.
When his older son said, I think this room is actually better in one way, there’s such a large window to the south, which you didn’t have in the other room--then Obinash lifted his newspaper and held it in front of his face.
And when his daughter-in-law pointed out, That room was always so cluttered, we didn’t know it was such a beautiful room, if both the east and the south windows are open, the breeze lifts you away, isn’t that right, Father?--then Obinash said, Bou-Ma, when will your washerman be here?
Certainly Shoilobala understands, she understands in every bone the slightest difference in the way Obinash lets out his breath, but she doesn’t show that she understands, she feigns a lack of perception. Still, Obinash tries now to make his final, grievous cry reach their ears, the ears of those who don’t think it very necessary to heed what he has to say.
But it isn’t reaching them. His utmost effort is fruitless; his sweat gathers. In sorrow and pain he tries to cry out loudly, and then from his throat emerges a groaning noise, much like the wretched cry of some feral creature.
Now Obinash hears his older granddaughter’s voice, Dida, oh Dida, Dadu’s making such a strange sound.
This means that Shoilobala is still lost in blissful slumber, the noise hasn’t reached her in the depths of her sleep. . . . Oh, Obinash is suffering his death throes at just a few hands’ distance, and Shoilobala--
And then some kind of lump forms in his chest . . . that’s just as well, if Shoilobala and her sons rise from their happy sleep in the morning to find Obinash’s dead face. And at the same time as he articulates in his mind this terrible curse upon his wife and sons, a flush of water rolls down from his eyes.
But Obinash’s curse doesn’t take effect. The next instant, Shoilobala's just-woken voice cries out--O Ma what’s this!
And then the curtain moves, Shoilobala’s dishevelled form is seen beside it.
Obinash shuts his eyes. He has no wish to show Shoilobala his watery eyes. Obinash realizes, even with his eyes closed, that his two granddaughters have come into the room, and then the younger one, in a very loud voice--Bapi Bapi, Kaku Kaku--runs out shouting.
Obinash realizes, Shoilobala has sat down on a corner of his narrow cot and taken hold of his right wrist to feel his pulse. She’s an Ayurvedic physician’s daughter and has a keen, innate perception on matters of health; and she’s very quick to use this knowledge. Whenever anyone falls ill, the first thing Shoilobala does is to feel their pulse.
Obinash realizes that Shoilobala has lowered his hand carefully to the bed and is now pushing and shoving at him, calling loudly, Are you listening? Oh, are you listening? Where’s the pain--can you hear me? Did you have a bad dream?
Obinash can open his eyes if he wants to, he has no paralysis of the eyelids, but he doesn’t want to. He begins to enjoy that cry of distress. Are you listening? Oh, do tell me what kind of pain it is? . . . And with that, Shoilobala’s loving touch. But this dreamlike enjoyment doesn’t last, both his sons enter the room. Even with his eyes shut Obinash can see that one has on a silk lungi, and the other his striped night-pajamas, and, stepping close to their father’s bed and bending their faces down, they are calling loudly, Baba Baba. And then in a lower voice, What’s going on?
He hears Shoilobala’s reply, Don’t know. Rinku woke me saying Dadu’s making a strange sound, and I came and called to him, but I can’t get any response.
But why is her voice changing this way? Why hasn’t the lamentation burst forth in her voice? Even the distress of a moment ago is gone, her manner seems quite relaxed. That means she won’t humiliate herself in front of her sons. So anxiety for her husband is a matter for humiliation for Shoilobala. Yes, that’s true, Obinash has noticed this earlier too.
The older son calls out again: Obinash doesn’t react. The boys broach the subject of a doctor.
Who knew that these two tiny leaves over the eyes could be such a screening rampart, in the lee of which so much of oneself could be concealed.
With deep regret Obinash realizes now that the extreme pain in his chest has greatly abated, he thinks he might now be able to speak, he might be able to blow away their concern with a single breath, saying, Please, Baba, there’s no need to go calling a doctor-foctor in the middle of the night. Your father isn’t going to die right this minute.
He thinks he might be able to speak, his condition has improved, but still Obinash doesn’t try to speak, he lies there with his teeth clamped together and his eyes shut.
He is sure--and it is a dreadful awareness--that if he speaks up now he’ll suddenly lower himself in their eyes, become cheapened. No, he has no wish to become cheap right now. He’d rather lie there with his eyes shut and enjoy the situation, the doctor arriving and making his examination, calling to him, getting no response and indicating his suspicions with signs and gestures, it might be a cerebral hemorrhage. He gives the order: keep him in bed. Absolute rest.
So then? His sons would no longer be able to remain as indifferent towards their father. And Shoilobala? It would be a fitting punishment for Shoilobala. It wouldn’t do any longer for her to live her life with all her energies, only coming once or twice into his room to turn the fan on or shut a window, all for the sake of showing her concern, all mere lip-service to duty, before retiring with her granddaughters to sleep in her bed of comfort.
Obinash begins to wait for the doctor--from behind the shelter of his screening rampart. But his wait isn’t successful. Obinash hears in Shoilobala’s voice what he might have said himself, Let it be, Khoka, there’s no need to rush out for a doctor right now.
The younger son says, Would that be right, not to call a doctor?
Yes. I think he’s just had a bad dream and doesn’t want to talk--nothing else. The pulse is fine. She’s the daughter of a physician’s household and doesn’t shrink from displaying her pride in that fact. Oh, what shameless cruelty. What ruthlessness, just to maintain her influence over her sons.
His limbs burn with rage, a crop of words rises in his mind, I see your great arrogance! All at once you’ve become omniscient! The pulse is fine! And who on earth asked it to be fine. His eyes fill up again at his own misbehaving pulse. His eyes begin to smart from the salt water, but still he doesn’t open them.
Shoilobala’s careless-sounding voice is heard again, Turn up the fan, Rinku. And open the window wide . . . listen, can you hear me--will you drink some water?
Water! The sound of the word makes him eager, expectant with every straining nerve. He realizes that at this moment what he really needs is water. It won’t do to keep his eyes shut any longer. Getting no response, they won’t bring him any water--Let him be, there’s no need to disturb him, he’ll drink water when he wakes. Obinash opens his eyes.
The older son says, Baba, will you drink some water?
How many days has it been since Obinash last heard this tone of voice from his older son? Soft with kindness, loving, compassionate. He nods his head--Yes. The older granddaughter quickly brings some water. This too is new, everyone knows; Dadu is usually Dida’s business.
The younger son says, What happened all of a sudden? That tone, too, seems to float across a distance of many years.
Obinash opens out his palms and says, I don’t know! All at once, somehow, I was a little--
And it occurs to him that he can move his hands normally. And he has been able to speak. Stealthily he tries to move his foot; it moves. That means all is well with the elderly gentleman called Obinash Shen.
The younger son says, Are you all right now? Or should the doctor be called?
Whether the doctor should be called is not a question for the patient, and it hurts Obinash deeply. Once again his eyes well up, he shakes his head, No.
Then try and calm yourself and go to sleep. Don’t sleep with your hands on your chest, sometimes that can cause this kind of thing.
Shoilobala rises from the edge of the bed and smoothes out the wrinkled bedsheet with her hand, and says easily, Khoka, why don’t you get one of those pills you have, those digestive pills. I think it’s indigestion of some kind--
It’s only to be expected, Khoka says effortlessly, I thought the same thing when I came in--he doesn’t think about the fact that he’s getting old, he should restrain himself a little in matters of eating and drinking. At least at night, it’s better not to eat mangoes and suchlike. It worries me sometimes, to watch him eating.
An intense earthquake shakes Obinash inside. His carefully molded self-worth, founded in the pain of his hopes and longings, is reduced to dust. He is cheapened, turned into an extremely small old man, that kind of old man who will eat without regard for the consequences and fall ill and suffer and cause others to suffer.
Shoilobala brings him a vest and says, Take off that sweaty vest. . . . Khoka, Budu, you all go back to sleep now.
Khoka yawns and says, What sleep! My sleep’s ruined for the night.
Budu says, Yes, this ruckus in the middle of the night--my stomach’s starting to feel queasy too. I don’t think I’m going to get any more sleep. He says all this, but still he walks off. He doesn’t say: Since I can’t sleep anyway, maybe I’ll sit awhile with Father.
The granddaughters have left after watching him drink the water. Now there’s only Shoilobala--and from the way she moves it’s very clear that she’s preparing to leave as well.
Obinash says in an unconcerned voice, You’re going too?
Shoilobala is somewhat abashed. --No, it’s just that Khoka seems to have forgotten the medicine. Let me get it, then I’ll sit for a while.
You don’t have to sit, why don’t you sleep here?
Shoilobala looks at Obinash’s two-and-three-quarters-foot-wide bed and says, her tone more embarrassed, The things you say!--That bed of yours, wide as a field isn’t it!
Surprising, just these few days ago Shoilobala and he had slept in the same bed, though it was the other, field-wide bed. In truth, some practices, once abandoned, cannot be resumed. One feels ashamed. In many matters: eating, dressing, sleeping.
Obinash says, Once on a train berth, the two of us wrapped ourselves in a single blanket--
Shoilobala says quickly, Stop it now, those days and these days, won’t our granddaughters laugh if they see us? Let me go see what Khoka’s up to.--And Shoilobala stands up. I don’t want any medicine, Obinash says and turns on his side to lie facing the wall.
Perhaps Shoilobala sees this curse as a blessing. The boys have forgotten, now I’m reluctant to go wake them up again. . . . After a moment Shoilobala turns the table fan down for no reason, turns it up again, then quietly leaves the room.
Maybe the two granddaughters are awake, they might think the old couple are billing and cooing to each other. In youth, shame before one’s elders; in old age, shame before the young.
As soon as Shoilobala leaves, once again Obinash feels his breath will stop. He sits up, then lies down again without changing his vest. And, lying down, he begins to pray--God, let Obinash have a stroke.
Not an attack of palsy, but the ultimate attack. So that his wife and sons can slap their palms against their foreheads and say--What a mistake we made last night, to call it heartburn and walk away!
Especially Shoilobala. In the morning--Oh, how are you feeling? And when she comes in to see him, to do her duty, when she realizes that it’s all over, her colorful sari, her bangles, her life’s dues all cleared--what then?
Again he tries to feel a fiendish delight, and again he is useless. His eyes begin to water profusely, a rivulet of tears wetting his pillow.
A man Obinash by name is lying dead, silent, alone in a room--Obinash’s chest is bursting as he imagines this scene, as if he’s watching the death of a close relative. He glances at that supine lifeless form and the tears surge up choking him but he keeps on praying for that friendless wordless wretched death, does Obinash Shen.
Chochchori, stir-fried vegetables
Halua, a kind of porridge
Luchi, fried unleavened bread
Nimki, fried snacks
Ruti, unleavened bread
Torkari, a vegetable curry
Kaku, uncle (father’s younger brother)
Lungi, a waist-to-ankle wrap for men