Translated from the original Bangla novel
Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra
|Our protagonist is a bachelor and professional goalkeeper. After a traumatic event in his past he tries to stay away from any serious relationship with the opposite sex and keeps himself busy protecting crows' nests and helping little girls find mouse holes for their lost teeth. But despite all his efforts he gets involved with someone who knows the exact cure of his malady.
“Is there a dog’s doctor here? Hey! A dog’s doctor?”
The man would stand all day in the sun at the three way crossing. He was stooped, very thin, spiky grey beard, grey hair all tangled up. He wore a lungi and a dirty shirt. His eyes had a scared, lost look like a drowning man. He had been asking for a doctor for a very long time. I knew, as everybody else, that it wasn’t for a dog. He was looking for a doctor who could cure his daughter Shibani. She died of hydrophobia, from a dog bite. Since then the man stood at the crossing whole day asking any passers by, “Is there a dog doctor? Yes? Doctor for dogs?”
He used to be Ramanimohan, a devotional singer. Used to tie up fences, repair roofs, do odd jobs in the gardens and steal whatever he could. I had known him since I was a kid. He used to carry his little girl around since her mother died. He would sit her down under a tree or on a porch and go about his chores. He also belonged to a singing group and did gigs during pujas or memorials. Little Shibani always accompanied him. I could never remember Ramanimohan without his daughter.
“Hey, Ramani, why don’t you marry again? How long are you going to carry that kid around by yourself?”
“Are you kidding Madam? A step mother would only beat her.” He would say.
He came to our house many times too, to work in the garden. He would pull up the weeds after the rains, or turn up the soil for planting peas. Shibani would sit quietly on the porch.
My mom would ask, “Shibani, want to eat something?”
“I wanna eat proper. Only rice!”
She would eat rice with such care, picking up each grain with such concentration. If there were an egg in the plate, she would give a big smile. She would carefully remove the bones from the fish like an adult.
Gurguri Thakur had a filthy mouth. He would call, “Hey Ramani, asshole! Think you are special somebody because you can sing? Do you even understand the meanings of those songs, you son of a bitch? Those devotional songs can go to your head, know that? Then when they clamp down your brain all your lust and greed are let loose. That’s why all you singers are thieves and rapists. If you want better, you need to turn to God.”
Ramani had a special smile. It had a touch of guilt, some remorse, and perhaps even some fake religiosity. He would say, “Thakurji, we are the lowest of the low class. See, we don’t even have any religion. We just bow to you Brahmins, that is enough for us.”
After the dog bite, he carried his daughter to some shaman. But his healings didn’t work. Later even bringing her to the hospital couldn’t save her. Ramani himself cremated her body. Still for some reason, he keeps on looking for a doctor.
Storms came, with pouring rain and loud thunderclaps. My mom would quickly pull me indoor and hug me close. Ramanimohan would still stand on the crossing mumbling about a doctor.
Evan at that young age I could understand who he was seeking. I too had sought him when my mother was delirious with high fever. I too was calling for that hallowed doctor who had magic in his hands. He would come, lay those hands on your chest or touch your head and say, “Does it hurt here? No more! I am making it all go away. You are cured. Nothing is wrong with you anymore!” And immediately we would sit up, completely cured of everything that ailed us.
Many times, on rainy days I had seen Ramanimohan walking along holding an umbrella over his daughter perched on his shoulder. Mrs. Kundu once called him, “Ramani, why take that little girl out in this rain. Why not leave her with Kusum next door?”
“I did, once. When I came back, she had ants all over her legs.”
One moonlit night, I was returning home after attending Satyanarayan puja at the Tuku’s. Suddenly I saw Ramanimohan at a distance, walking by with Shibani on his shoulder. I was thrilled to see Shibani all better and alive again. Must be that magician doctor’s work. I yelled, “ Hey Ramanida. Why are you holding that umbrella? It’s not raining now.”
He glanced back, “Well, you never know when it may start, do you?”
When I came home and told my mom, she got rather scared. She hugged me close and said, “No more walking alone at night for you.”
I don’t know why mothers always teach their sons to be scared of things. They don’t like daredevil sons. Perhaps they worry about all the dangers and want their sons to run to their mothers instead, not go anywhere alone, and change lanes at the first sight of danger. Mothers perhaps prefer coward sons.
Once someone bought me red rubber ball. It would bounce chest high when dropped. I used to run all around the house bouncing that ball. It was the best toy ever. That red ball and I became fast friends. After a few days though, the ball didn’t bounce as high. I picked it up and dropped again. It made a flat sound and rolled away. What happened to it?
After checking it closely I found a tiny puncture. When I squeezed the ball more air came out of the hole like a sigh. I looked at it sadly. “You are broken. What to do now?”
I tried to patch it up with glue and sticker, but it was no good. When I tried to bounce it, it just burst in two halves. Our maid Batashi threw it away under a mango tree.
I did get another ball but I still would go to the tree and visit my old friend. Two red halves laid flat on the ground, as if staring at me with two vacant eyes. After a rain shower they would even look tearful as if saying, “You threw me away? I thought we were good friends!”
I would feel sad and mumble, “Old ball, I still love you.”
“I know I failed you. Now you have a new ball and will have many more in future.”
I would feel my eyes tearing up, then I would say to myself, “Rots! Crying over an old ball?”
After many, many days I told Murchhana the story of that red ball. Of course she didn’t understand it.
I must admit here that I don’t understand the concept of feminine beauty. The girls I think to be beautiful would not be considered so by the others. Murchhana was slim, dark and tallish. She did have two very large, expressive eyes, and her hair was thick and tightly curly, like the Africans. You couldn’t braid or make a bun with that hair. Her nose was a tad short and lips were very full. These were her details. But they were not noticeable in the first glance. In the first glance Murchhana could bowl you over.
Even till five or six years ago, I had to play for cash. I was, what we used to call ‘hired player’. Most of the time though, cash was scarce, in stead we got sweets, snacks, at the most a t-shirt, an anklet or a kneecap. Once I even got a cheap wristwatch which surprised and thrilled me no end!
Five or six years ago, I was in one such team, playing in Asansol. It was some shield final or the other. I knew the club. I had played for them before. They paid well, gave good gifts too.
In the afternoon, Anil Ghosh, the middle-aged secretary of the club dropped in.
“Need to have a talk with you, brother.”
Anil was soccer crazy. He also had some small side business but mostly spent his time with soccer.
Before saying anything, he first cooled himself under the fan, wiped his brows with his handkerchief, then pulled out a wad of five hundred rupees and put it in my hand, “Keep it.”
“What’s going on Anilda?” I was surprised, “Extra cash, suddenly?”
“We have to give up the match.”
It wasn’t anything new in the sports world. It happened. So I wasn’t too surprised, I just said, “Suddenly? You would’ve made hat trick if you won this final.”
“Yes, but can’t help it. It’s a matter of prestige for Mr. Bimalangshu.”
“Who is Bimalangshu?”
“Local MLA. President of Udayan club. His son is the captain of the team. Election is round the corner. He needs some leverage.”
“Got it. But if the match is fixed, why hire me at all?”
“Oh no. If we don’t bring the full team, people would catch on right away. That is not to be allowed. But don’t worry; there will be a penalty in the second half. Nobody will blame you for missing a penalty kick.”
I smiled, “That means there will be no sports today, just a drama about sports.”
“You know, the problem is, and there is a basic difference between acting and playing. Acting is predictable. The hero would die in the last act every night and get up next day to play the same role, but in sport, there is an element of uncertainty. That’s why it is hard to play act a game.”
“Are you a goalkeeper or a philosopher? But let me tell you this, the opposition too has hired a bunch of players. If it were a real game, we would probably lose. But Bimalangshu is most worried about you. Told us multiple times, to manage you properly.”
“Is that a compliment Anilda?”
“If you like. That bundle has ten thou. Ok. I will push off.”
Vicky Raman made the penalty shot. I must admit, I couldn’t have blocked it even if I tried. Vicky was famous in Kolkatta(??) for his shots.
Later there was a reception. Bimalangshu hugged me gratefully, “So, when are you returning to Kolkata?”
‘Tomorrow morning, by train.”
“By train?” He sounded surprised. “On Monday? It will be extremely crowded! No, no. You are going by our car.”
When the huge limo arrived to pick me up next morning, I was surprised to see a girl sitting in front, wearing dark sunglasses. While opening the door for me, the driver told me in low voice that she was the daughter of Bimalangshu, also returning to Kolkata.
Murchhana was then eighteen or nineteen. Very lively, active and amusing girl. All the way she pestered the driver to let her drive the car.
The driver kept saying, “No Miss. The roads are very bad. We will see after Durgapur.”
“Then you will complain about the trucks on the highway.”
“If it is not crowded, you can have a try. Now sit quietly. If your dad hears about it, he will be very angry.”
“But I do have a license.”
“License alone is not enough. You need experience too.”
“But you will be right next to me, please Buluda…”
“OK, but we also have a guest in the car. Have you asked him? He may not agree.”
Murchhana turned to me, “Hi, I’m Murchhana. Youngest daughter of Bimalangshu Rai.”
“Hi Murchhana, I’m…”
“I know. You are a celebrity.”
“You may drive if you want. I’ve no objection.”
“Thank you. Thank you. See these folks don’t think I’m an adult.”
“I think people turn adult at fifteen nowadays. But adulthood and maturity are not the same.”
“Well, as you gave permission, let me drive now?”
The driver Bulu stopped the car and changed seats with Murchhana. She drove pretty well for some time.
“Well done! You seem to be an expert.”
She showed a proud smile. I noticed two dimples on her cheeks.
After about half an hour, they changed seats again. Murchhana got busy with her earphones, then turned to me, “Aren’t you hungry?”
“Nope. I had a heavy breakfast. Are you hungry?”
“Not exactly, but car journey is so boring. There is nothing to do or see. Hard to pass the time. Train is so much nicer. So many different people, noise, snacks sellers. The time just flies by. That’s why I was wondering if you would like to stop for a while at some roadside dhaba?”
“I’m feeling the same way too.”
Bulu tried to warn me, “Sir, there are better restaurants near Durgapur.”
Murchhana shook her head, “Restaurants are no fun. Dhabas are nice and open, so many people…”
So we got to a dhaba. We sat in the sun in a courtyard like open space and drank tea in tiny clay cups. Murchhana suddenly said, “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure you can.”
“Did you lose the match deliberately yesterday?”
I glanced at her face. Not smiling but full of childlike naiveté. I said, “Does anybody lose deliberately?”
“If they really want to.”
“But is that even possible? Doesn’t everybody like to win?”
“Many people were saying…”
“That Bijoyi Sangha deliberately lost the match.”
“People say all kinds of nonsense.”
“You know what Putu said? That you could have easily blocked that penalty shot.”
“Are you crazy? I’m not that great a goalkeeper.”
“I was so mad. I was praying so hard for you to win and you just gave it away at the end. Isn’t it maddening?”
“You wanted Udayan Sangha to lose?” I was surprised.
“But why? It is your dad’s team. Your brother is the captain.”
I shook my head, “ But I’m confused. You supported us! Why?”
“ You won’t understand it. There is a reason.”
“Something strange? Abnormal?”
“No. Jut that I am a little weird. That’s all.”
“But, as far as I know, the weird people don’t realize that they are weird. And those who think they are weird, are most often quite normal.”
“I am, and I know that. Everyone in the family thinks so too.”
“Be that as it may, but you still haven’t told me the real reason.”
“The reason is my friend Shuchismita. We are very, very close. Always hang out together. So many nights, either I sleep at her place or she at mine. We graduated from school together, college too. And then she was diagnosed. She was so gorgeous, great figure, hair, and face, just a bit weak and pale. She used to tire so easily. Had to lay down after college every day.”
“Some type of blood cancer?”
“What a nasty disease! Why Shuchi of all people? Her father was only a clerk in the food department. Still they sold their jewelries and went to Mumbai for treatment.”
“I’ve heard some get completely cured nowadays.”
“Yes. Some say Shuchi too will be cured, some say not. I don’t know. I feel so bad that nothing seems fun anymore. I’ve always been fond of God Krishna. Right from my childhood, He is the one I liked the best. How about you?”
“I love him too. Tall, dark and handsome. Smart and high in sex appeal!”
“Yes. He is great, isn’t he?”
I pray daily to Him. I don’t ask for anything except a cure for Shuchi. Hey, turn your face this way, please.”
I looked at her, “What?”
“I just wanted to make sure you were not laughing at me.”
“Not at all. I don’t see anything to laugh at.”
“That’s good. Night before last, I had a dream that God Krishna was standing in my room. He looked exactly like his picture. He said, ‘Don’t worry, if Bijoyi Sangha wins the match, your friend will be cured.’ Do you see?”
“I see that you had a dream.”
“Yes, but you are involved in it too.”
“Because when Udayan team got the penalty, I had shut my eyes, and Putu sitting next to me said, ‘Don’t worry, Runu Bharadwaj will definitely block it.’ He knew about my dream. But you failed. Now if Shuchi dies I will always think of you as responsible for it.”
I looked at the sunny green rice field and said, “Yes. I too would feel that way for your friend. Our Ramanimohan too was looking for such a doctor who had the magic touch and could cure all our illnesses. We are forever looking for Him, be a physician or a goalkeeper or something else.”
Murchhana frowned at me, “I think you too are slightly touched, like me.
I nodded in agreement.
Coming back Murchhana asked, “May I sit in the back seat with you?”
I was surprised. After all, the car belonged to her, yet she asked my permission as if I was the owner. I smiled, “Sure. If you want, I can sit in front too.”
“Did I say that? I just wanted to pester you with my nonstop chattering.”
“But that’s wonderful. I am not a big talker but I can listen very well to others.”
Inside the air-conditioned car it was noiseless. Murchhana sat next to me and talked on, “You know how much I love Shuchi? I never wanted to be a doctor. The sight of a knife or blood turns my stomach. But since her illness, I’ve decided to take the medical entrance exam. I’ve passed too, but even if I hadn’t, I would’ve studied in some private school.”
It was then that I told her about my red ball. My friend, whom I visited even after it was split in half.
Our conversation was slowing. The motion of the car was making us sleepy. After awhile both of us weird people had dozed off.
When I woke up, the car had stopped. With surprise I noticed one of her hand still asleep in mine. How perfect was that hand, slim fingers, no ring or nail polish. A simple bare innocent hand of a young girl.
Unbeknownst to us that hand crept in to make friends with mine. When and why? My hand was guilty for not saving the goal, yet her hand nestled easily in it like a bird in its nest.
Bulu spoke softly from the front seat, “Sir there is a traffic jam in Panagar.”
“Yes. I see.”
“If it lasts long, I may have to shut the AC. Sorry Sir.”
I looked at Murchhana’s hand again. It was lying prone on mine. No. I didn’t feel any tingling, tremor or any romance. It wasn’t the hand of a young boy. In our family, we were strongly urged to stay thousands of miles away from women. I did try for self-control for a long time, but sometimes desire just flooded in without any conscious control. Perhaps there was a hint of glamor, or virility, or an inviting look. Some women deliberately wanted to be taken. I couldn’t help it.
I used to go to B.B.Clinic for ultrasonic therapy for sports related injury. A thirty plus, fair, plump non-Bengali lady used to run the clinic. One stormy night I went in to find the place empty. Even the kid who ran the machine was not there. I was about to leave when this lady came in, “Are you leaving? But why?”
I smiled. “But Madhu is not here to run the machine.”
“But I am here. Come inside.”
Then she shut the door, ostensibly to keep the storm out.
The inevitable did happen. We thanked each other with mute gestures and satisfied smiles. I was only eighteen.
For a long time I didn’t get the overt signs from women, couldn’t catch the unspoken clues in their talks. After Mrs. Suri, it got a lot easier for me. Still, I swear I only took those who were ready to give. I personally never chased after anybody unwilling.
Bulu had to stop the AC. I rolled down the windows. Murchhana woke up, “Oh no! I fell asleep!”
She looked at me with those deep eyes, “You must have been staring and laughing at me!”
“Why would I stare? Or laugh for that matter?” I was surprised.
“But my mouth falls open when I sleep.”
I replied innocently, “ It happens when you fall asleep sitting up. Happens to me too.”
“Men are different. But it’s so embarrassing for us.”
“But I never even saw you, because I too was asleep.” I said.
“Liar! This must be Panagar? This is why I don’t like car drives. I was having a bad dream.”
“Can’t tell you that.”
“Why? We can talk about it while the jam untangles.”
“No. You will laugh at me. But why did I suddenly fall asleep? I’m not at all a sleepy head.”
“Sleep often comes when one finds the companion boring.”
“At least it happens to me.”
“Then I must be boring too?”
“I never said that.”
“Did too. Otherwise why did you fall asleep?”
“There was nothing to do after you slept. That’s why”
“By the way, I hope I didn’t snore?”
“I didn’t hear. But what if you did?”
Murchhana frowned at the jam in front. Cars were slowly starting to move. Bulu started the AC.
Suddenly Murchhana looked at me, “I remember!”
“I took an anti allergy tablet in the morning.”
“Oh! That’s why the sleep.”
“Yes. Otherwise I would have driven you nuts with my nonstop yakking.”
“Kolkata is still a long way. There is plenty of time for yakking. Lets rather talk about the dream.”
“No. It’s very embarrassing.”
I sometimes thought that I had no morality. Having morality meant you were like a caged tiger. No prey, no chase, no rejoice in victory. No use of teeth and talons. Dutiful caretakers would feed you the daily quota of meat and awed spectators outside the cage would applaud. But once you shook off the morality, all bars of the cages were gone. The addictive odors of the forest surrounded you again, teeth and talons would be sharpened, eyes would have that predatory look, feet would step silently after a prey, and there would again be the hunger and the chase.
Murchhana was talking about her school. Suddenly she complained, “You are not listening to me at all, just saying Yes and No.”
“I am listening.”
“OK. Tell me what was I saying?”
“About your Bengali teacher. She didn’t know her grammar and when asked a question, she would turn to the best student in the class and made her answer for her.”
“That means you didn’t hear a word. That story was over long ago. I must be really boring you.”
“Actually, I was suddenly reminded of Haladhar and Jaladhar ghosts.”
“Who on earth are they?”
“They would fight every night at the Charaimari pond near our place.”
“They are real ghosts?”
“How can that be? There are no ghosts.”
“They definitely are there.”
“Nonsense. You are just changing the topic. Why don’t you just say that you are so bored that you tuned me out.”
“I come from a place which is not exactly real.”
“Not real? How’s that?”
“It is part fable, part make believe, a little mystery and a bit of ‘other world’. On moonlit nights, the fairies come down from the sky and wet their feet in the dewdrops on the grass. Sometimes clouds come there to steal the sunlight and run away. If you cross the knee-high Doongri River, you can reach the forests of Nilpur. On the banks of the river is the ramshackle hut of Moti witch. There she sells live snakes, scorpions, caterpillars and spiders to the alien visitors who come from other planets in the dark of the night. Crazy Haridas then takes a stick and pokes at the sky and all the stars fall scattering on the ground. We always knew that the ‘other world’ existed right beyond the lemon tree behind Badyinath’s backyard. Dukhiram often came out of that misty world and went to play chess at Nandalal’s house, Shyamdas Ghoshal came out to check the prices in the market, I have seen Shibani so many times sitting on our porch, eating puffed rice snacks,”
Murchhana was staring at me with wide eyes, “You are seriously weird.”
After some silence, “But I do like weird people. But why tell me fables? Am I a little girl?”
“It is strange there. Everything mixed up, upside down. Being alive and dead can get mixed up together just like sugar in tea, just like reality and dream. So many nights while walking by the soccer field I’ve seen the full moon all tangled up in the net of the goal post.”
Murchhana was smiling with her dimples, “Thank you.”
“Suddenly? What for”
“Because you lifted my mood. For past two days I’ve been feeling lousy since that dream about Shuchi. You just cured it. You are a funny man.”
“Funny or crazy?”
When I left her in Kolkata, I realized that she never asked my phone number. I too hesitated asking hers. Perhaps she didn’t want to continue this relationship any further. What use she would have of a goalkeeper?
But a relationship of few hours may be of enough significance too. Every relationship did not need to be dragged to the inevitable bitter end. This short interlude was just perfect. Bye.
The original novel "Satideha" (সতীদেহ) by Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay was first pubished in 2015 by Ananda, Kolkata.
Illustrated by Nilanjana Basu. Curently based in California, Nilanjana has been regularly illstrating for Parabaas.