“Son of a pig!” Kanto Kundu bellows.
“Yessir,” replies Brindaban-Brinda-Benda, absent-minded.
“Sisterfucker!” Kanto Kundu bellows again, harsher this time.
“Yes, sir, what is it?” Benda runs up, now completely attentive, face anxious, reflecting great distress. Before he comes, though, he winks at the boy--who is about his own age, about ten or eleven--standing at the stationery counter.
Kanto Kundu says, “Son of a sheep, are you deaf, or what? Get the tin of sugar-candy from shelf number three for Ishen.” Kanto puffs noisily on his toasted-tobacco cigarette. He looks at the elderly man in dhuti-panjabi standing before him, and says with a laugh, “People don’t know these things. They put sugar in their pyesh. Hey, when they eat pyesh in winter they should eat it with gur, or at other times put in sugar-candy. Candy soothes you. Pyesh with candy settles your stomach. I eat pyesh every day, pyesh with candy.--Yes, what do you want? Oil? There isn’t any.--You? Gur?”
Seated on his large, comfortable cushion behind the cash box, Kanto Kundu asks the customers, one by one, what they want, then tells his workers to measure out the groceries. He turns his head and says, “What’s keeping you, Ishen? How long can it take to weigh out three kilos of sugar-candy?--How much gur? Five kilos? Okay. Hey!--Hey, son of a hyena!”
Benda is talking to the boy standing at the stationery counter: “Potla? The Potla who comes in all the time to buy four lozenges? He scored a goal?--He’s got the legs for it, doesn’t he?”
The boy says, “Yes, I’ve heard he eats turtle meat every day.--Give me a toffee. The six-paisa kind.”
“Okay. So, do they play every evening in the field behind the school?” Then he hears Kanto’s call, “--Son of a hyena!” and answers, “Babu?”
“Come here, rascal, get the gur from shelf number one and give it to Ishen,” commands Kanto Kundu.
Benda signals the boy to wait, and runs to the crammed shelves. Benda is twelve. Bare-chested, wearing shorts. His torso’s rather grimy, but his complexion is surprisingly fair; he could be called Gorachand [“White-Moon,” a name of Chaitanya]. More surprisingly, he isn’t all skin and bone. Maybe even somewhat pudgy. Spiky ashen hair, eyes almost round. Button nose. When he shows his teeth--all healthy new teeth but stained--in a smile, his eyes almost vanish. Gritting his teeth, he lifts the twenty-kilo tin of gur from the shelf. He can’t carry it far, so he pushes it across the floor towards Ishen, and leaves it in front of the scales. Ishen pinches Benda on the buttock, and Benda goes to the stationery counter rubbing his backside. He takes a toffee wrapped in colored paper from the jar and pushes it towards the boy. The boy gives him a five-paisa coin and a one-paisa coin and says, “Can’t you come to the field to watch the game?”
“I can’t get the time off.”
“Why? The shop’s closed on Thursdays.”
Benda says, “Thursdays I visit my mother in Kanchrapara.--I don’t want to. But if I don’t go, Ma gets angry, and Babu gives me a beating.” He indicates Kanto Kundu with his eyes.
The boy takes off the wrapper and puts the toffee in his mouth. “Why don’t you want to visit your mother?”
Benda grimaces and says, “I don’t like Ma’s man. He makes me do all the heavy work, and he swears at me.”
The boy looks surprised. “Who’s your Ma’s man? Not your father?”
Benda says, “Oh, my pop handed in his gourd a long time ago. Now Ma has a guy. And a bunch of kids. I don’t like it. One of these Thursdays I’m going to take off and go watch the game.”
The boy stares blankly at Benda.
Benda says, “I really want to go out and play. Football. I want to kick the ball so hard I bust it.”
The boy asks, “Don’t you play anything at all?”
Benda leans forward, eyes flashing, and says, “I do, every night I play kill-the-mice.” A hard smile flashes across his face. “At night I sleep in the room behind the shop. I make the room dark and I play kill-the-mice. In the dark I can see--”
“Hey, son of a dog!” comes Kanto Kundu’s bellow. “Fetch five kilos of oil cake from the sack and put it in a bag.”
“Coming, Babu.” Before going, Benda winks at the boy again.
Kanto Kundu puts on a soft voice and turns to his brother-in-law. “Gopal, what’re you doing, all the sisterfucker does is talk.”
At one end of the stationery counter, Gopal, middle-aged and scrawny, has been dozing. He is Kanto’s brother-in-law from his previous marriage, and he looks after the stationery department. Without answering Kanto, he says to the boy standing at the stationery counter, “What do you want, lad?”
The boy shakes his head. Gopal says, “Then run along now--that son of a crow, all he does is talk.”
Just then a customer comes in and asks for toothpaste. The boy stays put. Benda places the oil cake in a bag and pushes it towards Ishen. Then he comes back to the stationery counter. Gopal gets the toothpaste out of the cupboard for the customer. These jobs are not supposed to be Benda’s: oil soap toothpaste cream powder notebooks paper pens pencils--these are things he isn’t allowed to touch. He can only handle lozenges and chanachoor. And he fetches and carries for the entire shop. When Benda reaches the counter, the boy asks, “Why doesn’t anyone call you by your name?”
Benda, not understanding, stares at the boy. The boy says, “They call you son of a pig and son of a crow--why do they call you these names?”
Benda laughs and says in a low voice, “Oh! They’re all sons of mice.”
“Hey, son of a monkey!” Suddenly, again, Kanto Kundu’s bellow. “Two-fifty of mustard seed in a bag.”
“Right away, Babu.” Benda runs off.
Kanto Kundu’s shop is always humming. Stationery, supplies. Next to that, the ration shop. Gopal, former brother-in-law, is in charge of the ration shop, but everything is done with Kanto’s advice, Kanto’s supervision: Kanto owns everything. Benda is his youngest worker. He gets food and clothes, and a salary of twenty rupees, which his mother comes and takes every month. He eats at Kanto Kundu’s house; before going there, he bathes under the roadside tap. Kanto’s first wife is dead; they didn’t have any children. He married again four years ago; no children. This wife is young, pretty. She lets her widowed aunt sleep in their kitchen. The aunt calls Benda stinky goat--apparently Benda smells like a goat. Kanto’s wife calls him turnip--apparently his face resembles a turnip. His own mother calls him many names, most of them not worth repeating. Kanto, too, has many such epithets for him, not worth repeating. All this matters little to Benda. In his mind he calls all of them mice, or sons of mice. Kanto’s wife’s widowed aunt gives Benda very little to eat. Still, all this matters little to him. He lives only for one reason, one passion. His game of kill-the-mice. And with the excitement of the game comes the thrill of money. A small mouse fetches five paise, and a larger field mouse is worth ten paise. Kanto Kundu pays.
It is nine-thirty at night: Benda has returned from dinner. Kanto Kundu sits with his brother-in-law, does the accounts for the day, picks up his bunch of keys, and stands up. The front door of the shop has already been closed. At the rear of the shop is a warehouse, where Benda stays at night. There’s a door at the rear of the warehouse, and on the other side, between the door and the surrounding boundary wall, is a narrow patch of land with a toilet in one corner. The boundary wall is crowned with pieces of broken glass set into the cement along the top, and above that three strands of barbed wire.
From the shop to the warehouse there’s only one door. After letting Benda into the warehouse, Kanto Kundu secures the door with four padlocks. Then the outside door: he pulls the collapsible grill across it, puts about a dozen padlocks on it, and goes off. Everything is set for the night.
Benda is now alone in the warehouse. Candle and matches are stored atop a large wooden box. There’s an electric light, but the switch is in the shop, and it’s turned off at night. When Benda needs light, he has to use a candle. In the darkness he walks forward until he reaches the box. He stretches out a hand across the top of the box, to the usual place. He picks up the matchbox and strikes a match, and lights the thin candle standing on top of the box. From the gap between two sacks of bran he pulls out a blanket and a stained old pillow and lays them down on the sacks. He finds the small can hidden behind a sack of beans, opens it, and sees that there are three biris left. He takes a biri and returns the can to its hiding place, and lights the biri at the candle. Then he looks around the warehouse.
In the light of the thin candle, the whole warehouse can’t be seen. On either side of the blood-red glow are sacks, boxes, and barrels, and the gaps between all these different things contain little handfuls of darkness. In that darkness and in that red light, Benda’s shadow is immense, his limbs inhuman. Pulling at his biri, he opens the door near the boundary wall. He lifts his shorts and urinates. On the other side of the wall is the bazaar. He shuts the door and returns to the wooden box. With unblinking eyes he begins to look around. Smoke drifts from his mouth and nose. The skin on his face grows taut: his eyes start to burn. Eagerly he listens to every noise, inside or outside. This expression is never seen during his entire day at work. It’s as if he’s preserving his body’s energies by means of some mantra, allowing only his face to show excitement. He puffs on his biri, blows out smoke. The muscles of his soft body stand out. His face becomes hard and ferocious. Somewhere in the warehouse there is a slight noise. He doesn’t turn his head; he closes his eyes, tilts his head, listens carefully.
He stops puffing on the biri. He lifts the stub to eye level, then easily pinches it out and throws it away. He reaches behind the barrel and pulls out a bamboo lathi, shiny with oil, one end bulging like a head. He lifts the lathi to his eye and stares at it once. Then he grasps the narrow end in his fist, with the large end hanging down. He turns his head and blows out the candle, and the darkness thuds down like a heavy curtain. Benda slowly, soundlessly walks a few steps away from the box and stands motionless as a figure carved in stone.
Benda’s world, too, is motionless now. The universe is dark; the creature called man ceases to exist. Time is stopped, waiting.
Benda sees two small red burning points. Immediately they rush off to one side. Benda is still. Again two ember-points gleam, high up, near the roof, then move down rapidly and blend into the darkness. Benda is motionless. Four ember-points move across the floor a few feet from him. Benda is carved in stone. Two ember-points hurriedly move close, stop for an instant, and disappear into the darkness behind. Immediately, again, two ember-points come from the left and stop at his feet, then run away to the right.
These pairs of ember-points, high and low, far and near, begin to move and run and jump. Then, as if hypnotized, several ember-points begin to frisk and frolic in front of him. Benda’s fist tightens, the lathi rises and comes down incredibly quickly, violently. Benda jumps around, bringing the head of the lathi down in heavy thudding blows. Then he moves to one side and again stands as still as a stone statue. The world, too, is stopped again, become motionless.
There’s no counting time, no measuring the depth of the darkness. Again pairs of ember-points begin to appear, high and low, on the floor, on the sacks, on the box. Running and jumping, twisting and turning again, some ember-points begin to move, as if in a trance, in front of Benda. Benda’s hands rise again, again the blows fall like lightning. Then he comes back to the box, strikes a match, and lights the candle. The glow of the candle slowly pushes away the darkness. Benda, looking from side to side, picks up from the floor the carcasses of three small mice and a field-mouse. He sets them down on top of the box near the candle. He stares at them with shining eyes; a cruel smile spreads across his excited face. His face and body are slick with sweat, his hair fanned out over his forehead. He says, “Bastard mice, sons of mice.”
He puts the lathi behind the box. He blows out the candle. In the darkness he goes to the blanket laid out on the sacks of grain, stretches out on it, lays his head on the stained pillow, and falls asleep.
After the long day’s hard toil in this nameless life, after many insults and many hungry days, this is his one pleasure. So much pleasure, it doesn’t take him long to fall into a deep sleep. This pleasure and ease last until the dawn. Then, again, another cursed day begins. After nine at night, the game, the excitement, the pleasure, and then the ease of a deep sleep.
Benda has no time to think how some unknown force arranges these days and nights of his life. Where this life will end, he doesn’t know. Sometimes on the surface of this life, on its body, some openings appear for an instant. And in those openings float up images of playing in a large field, the sounds of many children’s delight. All these images and sounds are in the realm of the forbidden. The openings are forbidden.
Published in Parabaas, February 15, 2004
The original story [nishhiddha chhidra*] by Samaresh Basu is included in baachhaai galpa [`Selected Stories'] published by Mandal Book House, Kolkata, 1985.