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.
The routine of my daily life sometimes undergoes changes. Usually I would get up very early, go running, do a good amount of exercise, shower, breakfast, go for practice session etc. But during parties and get together, sometimes, I ended up drinking too much. Those days, I would sleep late, and the entire day would be out of sync. I never enjoyed those days.
Somehow I got this idea that except for taking care of our health, all our other activities were fruitless. Regardless of how talented one was, whether a Dostoyevsky, or Da Vinci, Bade Gulam Ali or Einstein, if the body fell apart, all other talents would be in vain. Those who did drugs or alcohol to show off their talents were ignorant. Talents had no roots if the body was not strong enough to support it. Dostoyevsky said in his old age, “Now I realize how precious health is!”
When you are healthy you are not even conscious of it. But a slight misalignment would repeatedly announce its presence. That’s what happened on my irregular days. I would get irritated at myself. Getting injured in sports was one thing, but deliberately overdrinking and being sick was stupidity. Those days I would feel irritable and out of sorts.
On one such irregular day, I was trying to wake up and cursing myself for my stupidity, when the doorbell rang. Who could it be? It was about 9 am. I wasn’t expecting anyone.
When I answered the bell, I was surprised to see Bandana at my door. She wore a very pretty blue housecoat with yellow polka dots. Her hair was open, and she had a wide-eyed look. She offered me a bundle of letters, “Your mail. Came by courier.”
I was surprised, “You needn’t have troubled yourself. Shambhu could have brought them.”
“I went downstairs. Shambhu game me a few letters, I saw a few of yours too, I just thought I would bring them over. Did I disturb you?”
“No, no. No at all.”
“May I come in?”
“Sure, please do.”
She came in, closed the door and looked at me, “Is it good for sportsmen to drink?”
I hesitated, “It is perhaps not good for anybody to drink.”
“You were very tipsy last night. Isn’t it risky riding a motorbike in that condition?”
“Yes. Very risky. Reflex is diminished, Eye sight is blurred.”
“Then why do you drink?”
“I only do it occasionally, not every day. We have to follow so many taboos and regulations. Sometimes I just feel like breaking some rules. No smoking, no junk food, no late night…no end of ‘no’s.”
“But those ‘no’s are for your good only? Aren’t they?”
“I am the daughter of a drunkard. From experience I know that you need a heavy breakfast to get over the hangover. But yours is a bachelor’s den. I don’t think you do much shopping or cooking either. Wait, let me see in your fridge.” She opened the fridge and turned to me, “Nothing but half a loaf of bread and a pinch of butter. No fruits, eggs, milk, nothing.”
I was ashamed, “I only finished those yesterday.” I said.
“I see. Go shower and then come to my apartment. I’m cooking breakfast.”
I was surprised and embarrassed, “Oh, no. There is no need for that. I will manage it fine.”
“How would you manage? That loaf also has fungus. You’ll have to throw it out. You don’t have anything else. What is the problem having breakfast at my place?”
“But it’s a hassle for you.”
“I wouldn’t have invited you if it were a hassle.”
My ears always hear the unsaid messages. I felt Bandana wanted to tell me something. In that case why shouldn’t I listen? So I said, “Ok. I’ll come.”
Bandana’s face brightened up. Her first move was successful. Now the second step.
I was sure Yogeshda and Richa both would be absent from the apartment. Most likely the maid would not be there either. I was not a libertine by nature, but I had been the victim many times, so I was familiar with the plot.
After half an hour when I rang their doorbell, Bandana herself opened. She looked very sober, with serious personality. Her looks had no license, eyes had no clues, face had no naughty smiles. But there was a deep thirst in her eyes as she stared at me for a few seconds, then said, “Please come in.”
The breakfast was sumptuous. There were milk, corn flakes, orange juice, apples, a bowlful of pomegranate seeds, bananas of Singapore variety, scrambled eggs on toast, and stuffed buns.
“Goodness! This is too much!”
“You don’t have to worry about dieting. So eat well. We have to calculate calories of every spoonful of rice.”
“Yogeshda must be at work?”
“No, he is off to Singapore. Then Indonesia, then home.”
“You don’t have to go to college today?”
“I do, but in the afternoon. I’ve three classes, one after another.”
“You made all this by yourself?”
“Who else?” My maid had taken a few days off for her brother’s wedding. Besides she doesn’t know these things.”
I didn’t ask about Richa. She most likely was in school. Therefore the stage was all set.
But all these preambles appeared old fashioned to me. There were girls like Madhurupa Kakkar, who, after five minutes of chitchat would wink and say, ’Let’s do it now.” They didn’t like all this preparations nor had any time for them. For them, it was like a matter of eating when one was hungry. They were always in a hurry, never had any patience. After all it was only a matter of five or ten minutes. No big deal.
In a gymnasium in Himachal Pradesh, polo player Nitu Sorabji was once giving a press conference. Nitu was not a big girl but had a very strong personality. Her team had won an important match the day before. She boasted conversationally, “I can do everything on a horseback!” Apparently she could eat, sleep, change clothes, everything. Then she joked, “If I wish I can even have sex!” I was not one of the reporters but for some reason I put in, “Even go to the toilet?” Nitu gave me an angry glance and ignored my question. But she did notice me and after the meeting she approached me, “Where are you staying?” I told her the name of the hotel. She turned away and said, “Check out and come stay with me.” I had never been so surprised in my life. But I did stay with her for the next three days. One morning, looking at the beauty of the mountain range from her balcony, she said, “You know, love making is good. But romancing and courtships are waste of time.” I replied carefully, “People prefer different things in life, Nitu.” She said seriously, “That’s right, but basically we are all animals.” I didn’t argue but just said, “Animals don’t have happiness or sorrow, laughter or tears, love or imaginations. Have you seen any animal writing poetry or drawing pictures or cooking tandoori chicken?” Nitu smiled, “But you are the animal I like.”
I said softly, “You don’t have a maid, why did you go to so much trouble for me?”
Bandana was staring at me deeply. She smiled and said, “My nano car is parked downstairs in the garage. And right next to it is your motorbike. Have you noticed?”
I didn’t quite get it, “Is it that small grey car?”
“Not grey, deep yellow.”
“Yes, yes. Yellow.”
“They stand next to each other but there is no relationship between them. Because they are inanimate, right?”
I smiled, “Yes, of course. Inanimates have no relationships.”
“But look at us. We are animates, we are next door to each other, yet we are so cold, not too different from those inanimates.”
I still didn’t get her meaning but agreed, “Yes, relationships have become very passive nowadays.”
“You don’t take tea or coffee?”
“No, I don’t have those habits.”
“Quit alcohol too, please.”
I didn’t understand her strategy. Nowadays nobody stops another person from any personal habits, even if they are bad or dangerous. No one cares. Everybody looks after his own. This kind of interfering is unexpected and unwanted. I was at a loss.
Bandana softened herself with a sweet smile, “If you do drink, please don’t ride the bike. Take a cab instead.”
I politely nodded, “Yes. Of course. You were saying something about relationship… ?”
“I was thrilled to learn that you took all the trouble to find a rat hole for my daughter!”
I stared at her, not understanding. Was there something wrong with my brain? Rat hole, rat hole… suddenly I remembered that morning.
I was working out in my shorts and sneakers when the doorbell rang.
I pulled a towel around me and went to the door to find Richa. She looked up at me with great anxiety, “Look, I lost another tooth!”
“That is good news.” I said, “That means you are growing up.”
“But I can’t find a rat hole.”
“Why do you need a rat hole?” I was surprised.
“Molinadi said to put the tooth in the hole of a rat.”
That was true. I remembered hearing it in my childhood. We too did it. But now nobody remembers or believes in such things.
“Who is this Molinadi?”
“So she couldn’t find you a hole?”
“No. She has many in her house but she lives far away.”
I saw Richa holding the precious tooth wrapped in a cotton ball.
“How about our doorkeeper Shambhu?”
“He said there are no rat holes here.”
“Then we have a problem.”
“We do. If mom or dad hears about it they would be very mad.”
Richa’s pitiful face touched me. I said, “OK. Come on. We will search and find a rat hole. Kolkata has so many rats, there must be many holes too.”
Happy Richa gave me a toothless smile. I put on a T-shirt and came down with her. Our apartment complex was quite large, with a fairly good size compound. There were many types of flowers and shrubs, all carefully tended. We roamed all around looking for a rat hole. Richa was clutching my right arm. The back of the building was weedy. There were some large mango and neem trees.
Suddenly Richa said, “You know uncle, Brinda has stopped talking to me?”
“Why? And who is Brinda?”
“My best friend. Brinda Madhavan.”
“So why has she stopped talking? Did you have a fight?”
“Because Abhishek kissed me!”
“Abhishek kissed you?”
“On the lips?”
“Don’t be silly. On the cheek. You don’t know anything.”
“But why did that stop Brinda’s talking?”
“She was jealous.”
“My God! What will you do now?”
“I posted my picture on Facebook and wrote ‘I am alone now, my best friend Brinda is out.’”
“You do Facebook too?”
“Of course. You want to be my friend?”
“Sure. But Brinda didn’t reply in her Facebook?”
“No. She doesn’t have Facebook. Her parents don’t like social networking, so.”
“Your parents don’t mind?”
“Mom doesn’t like, but dad started my account on Facebook.”
“Is Abhishek Brinda’s boyfriend?”
“No way! But she has a crush on him.”
“Really! Is he very popular?”
“Oh God! He is a celebrity! Do you know how many music competitions he has won? Abhishek Kanwar is a big name now.”
Even after a long search, we couldn’t find any rat hole. But we did meet many squirrels, lizards, ants, spiders and crow-myna-sparrows.
I said, “No Richa. No rat holes here.”
“What shall we do now?”
I remembered seeing a large size rat near the Gulmohar tree on the way from my morning run. Perhaps he had a hole there too. I held Richa’s hand, “Come on, let’s see if there are any in the park.” I crossed to the road in front, “So, is Abhishek a singer?”
“Do you like singing and dancing?”
“Not that much.”
“Can you sing?”
“No. I have asthma, so the doctors ordered not to.”
“Asthma? It is not a serious disease.”
“Please tell my mom. Because of asthma she does not let me do anything.”
“OK. I will tell her. Is she very strict?”
“That she is.”
“You are scared of her?”
Richa smiled, “How did you guess?”
“Silly. Dad is never scary.”
“With us it was exactly the opposite. We weren’t scared of mom, only of dad.”
“Are you serious? Does anybody fear dads?”
We reached the tree; I said, “I’ve seen a big rat here, many times. I’m sure there is a hole nearby. See those calla lilies near the railing? Perhaps hidden there.”
“Why did you fear your dad? Was he very bad tempered?”
“Not exactly. But he was very serious. Those days it was expected to fear your dad.”
“What do you mean ’expected’?”
“Means it was the rule.”
“But why such a rule? I’m not at all scared of my dad. Why would I fear him because of a rule?”
“No, of course not your father. He is such a friendly person and I know he pampers you a lot.”
“That’s true, but mom doesn’t. Dad bought me such a beautiful cell phone. Mom took it away.”
“What do you need a cell phone for?”
“Dad worries about me a lot. What do you say, the bad guys kid… kid... what is that word?”
“Yes. He worries about someone kidnapping me, or if there is a fire in the school, or if the school bus is late or if I suddenly fall ill, or if there is an earthquake… ”
“Well, bad things can happen.”
“Mom took my phone away. She said, 'Thousands of kids go to school everyday without any disaster, why can’t your daughter?’”
“That is true too. Do you miss your phone?”
“Yes. Mom did say that I could get it back when I grow up. But by then there will be so many new features. What would I do with an outdated phone?”
“That is a good question too. But this does not mean your mom loves you any less.”
“No. She loves me a lot but not as much as dad.”
“Then you better forget about that phone.”
“Yes. When I grow up, I will buy myself an iphone.”
“Excellent. See this watch on my wrist? My grandfather gave it to me. It was his wedding gift. Fabre Leubar Zenith. It runs slow, I have to wind it. But I still love to wear it.”
Richa examined the watch, “What do you mean you have to ‘wind it’?”
“This watch doesn’t run by itself. No batteries. We have to wind it to make it run. Old stuff. That was the technology in those days.”
“Why do you wear it then?”
“That is called attachment.”
“What is that?”
“You feel sad to throw away your old clothes or shoes?”
“No. We donate them to the orphanage.”
“That’s good. Too much attachment is not healthy. Like this watch, we collect all kinds of useless things.”
“You know what mom says? She says that you are a good man.”
“How does she know?”
“That I don’t know. But she said one day, ‘That goalkeeper uncle of yours is a good guy.’”
At last, behind the thorny shrubs, we discovered the rare rat hole.
I drew Richa’s hand towards it, “See it? It’s Jerry’s house.”
“Don’t you watch Tom and Jerry?”
“Hehehe! But uncle, what if Jerry bites me?”
“He won’t. See I am putting out my hand. You do too. Then carefully drop that cotton ball with your tooth.”
Richa clutched me with one hand and very carefully extended her other hand, releasing the tooth carefully in the hole.
I stood up, “Done!”
“Uncle, will Jerry eat my tooth?”
“Probably not. Perhaps he will smell it a bit, try to chew it perhaps, then discard it.”
“Then what will happen to the tooth?”
“Are you feeling sorry for it?”
“A little bit.”
“There is your attachment.”
“I am thinking if the tooth will remain in the hole or something else will happen to it.”
“Perhaps a tooth tree will grow out of it. Hundreds of tiny shiny teeth will sparkle on its branches. Everybody will call it the ‘smiling tree’ and say ‘See how it is smiling.’”
Richa burst out laughing and held my hand close, “Thank you uncle. I gave you a lot of trouble, didn’t I?”
“No. It was a sweet adventure.”
I hadn’t expected to remember all these details. I smiled shyly at Bandana, “I was sure you would get mad hearing about the rat hole.”
“I was indeed mad in the beginning. Even lectured Molina for teaching Richa those nonsense stuff, but later on when I thought about it I realized how one can learn about the environment through such small actions.”
“Very true, Ma’am.”
“But what kind of crazy grown up are you? My daughter asked you and you dropped everything else and started looking for a rat hole?”
“Nostalgia perhaps. We too used to drop our teeth in rat holes.”
Bandana smiled innocently, like a teen-ager, “And those teeth grew into tooth trees with tiny little teeth, smiling all day along, right? Richa even wrote up a story about it. “The Day I Lost A Tooth And Gained A Friend.”
“Really? Did she post it in Facebook?”
“Of course. And she received a lot of praises too. …But, you didn’t finish your food. Don’t you like English style breakfasts?”
“I do. I usually eat this type only. Bengali style loochi-parota-sabzi is another form of junk food.”
“Then why didn’t you finish? You don’t have calorie problem?”
“True. But I really have eaten a lot. You cooked for five and I ate at least half of it. Thank you.”
I noticed there was no beckoning in her eyes. No nod towards the bedroom. It was surprising. I had expected something in her invitation. But human body had become too easy nowadays. Often it came without asking or wanting. And all women had the same bodies, boring, unromantic, and too easily available. I had expected it out of habit. But perhaps it wasn’t the body. Something else? Bandana’s eyes had an attraction, no electricity but there was depth in it.
And that was what I was wary of.
Just when I was getting up from my chair that surprising thing happened. Suddenly I heard a bird chirping, “Hi uncle, good morning!”
At the bedroom door stood a little girl wearing a thin smile.
“Hey! You aren’t in school?”
“How could I? I have a fever. I was sleeping. Mom, can I have an egg toast?”
Before Bandana could say something, I spoke up, “Absolutely. Come along. You need to feed a fever.”
Yogeshda was absent, Molina was absent but Richa was home. I didn’t understand Bandana’s strange plan.
And I smelled danger.
From far, far away somebody threw a hammer at me. It came towards me turning round and round, straight at my head. I moaned in surprise and pain. That hammer was the word ‘Barendra’. From far in my past that word had haunted me.
Earlier, I used to dream that I was on a steamboat where someone in the dark was shouting, ‘Any of you non-Barendra, please get off the boat.” The order sounded immutable. I was panicky and felt lost. The ship would not take me. I was not a Barendra. I was to be left behind, all alone.
I had prayed many times to God to make me a Barendra. Not Lev Yasin, not Muhammad Ali, not even Don Bradman. Why didn’t He just make me a Barendra?
Occasionally, when I passed by their house in the evenings, I tried to peek in their door without getting in. Almost every time I would see a pair of fancy sandals left by the door. My heart would skip a beat. Sandals outside, harmonium sounds inside. Two sweet voices intertwined in song like mating snakes and lost in each other.
Alas! A goalkeeper had nothing to give to this world. He only blocked some goals, got beaten some times. Nobody cheered his name. He could only mumble, ‘Could that man save like me? Could he stop a penalty shot?'
One day Auntie saw me and looked very embarrassed, “Oh my God. You are here? Come in come in. Today they all have come too, the house is full.”
I asked in surprise, “Saw a couple of rickshaws waiting outside. Who have come?”
“They live near Kolkata. Just came to visit.”
It was clear that she felt very uneasy. And because of me.
I said, “I see, you have visitors today. I better go then.” “Come by another time.” said auntie with relief.
Small town, nothing stayed a secret for long. Soon we learned that Nandan Sanyal’s parents had come to visit.
Two days later, the bolt from a clear blue sky. They had met and liked Sati for their son’s bride!
I first felt as if someone was punching in my head. All knock out punches. I was reeling but didn’t fall down. Then it felt as if someone had turned off the main switch inside me. All was dark. After that came the third feeling of a mad bull stomping like crazy inside in an unbearable rage, terrible frustration. There was no other sense, no conscience, no pity, no love, the bull stomped on all in his madness.
I remember dragging out my bike in that half crazy state. It wasn’t a racing bike, but it tried its best to keep up with my craze and run as fast as it could. Faster and faster, beyond the town, beyond the community, beyond all civilization, beyond even the world, further the better. I don’t even remember how far I went.
But how far could one go in a handful of world? At the bottom of a hill, in a deep dangerous forest, I alone laid with my bike with punctured wheels. I don’t know how long I stayed like that. Afternoon passed on to evening. Evening went over to night. Mosquitoes and gnats sucked me dry, something crawled over my feet, some animal breathed on my face, perhaps a leopard or a hyena.
Early next morning I returned home exhausted and utterly demolished. My folks were not too worried as I was supposed to be away on a tour.
Couple of days later Priti stole in, “Runuda, I’ve something to tell you in secret.”
“My sister is crying a lot.”
I tried to control myself. What was the use of crying now Sati? Why didn’t you think about it when you sang duets with him?
“Are you listening?”
“Yes. I heard. Why is she crying?”
“Because her wedding is all set.”
“Great. That is good news. Let her get married. What do I care.”
“But she is not happy. Not at all. She has written you this letter. Read it.”
I read it. Only one sentence, written on a page torn from an exercise book, “Take me away.”
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 illustrating for Parabaas.