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.
A tiny, dark, haunted little room. I was lying on a cold metal stretcher. An old, hunchbacked, grey haired doctor with heavy spectacles was busily walking back and forth, carrying a scalpel in his hand. He went to another table in the opposite corner of the room and checked something in a notebook. Then he came to me and bent over, “So what the hell did you swallow, you mother fucker? Potassium cyanide?”
I recognized him. He was Mahim Sarker. Our doctor who also cut dead bodies.
I pitifully pleaded, “Let me go Mahim uncle. I’m scared of your scalpel.”
Mahim Sarkar mimicked me, “I’m scared! You didn’t think of it while swallowing poison? Do you know what you’ve done? How would I tell what you did without cutting into you?”
Suddenly he stabbed the scalpel deep inside my body and started tearing my skin open. I moaned out in terrible pain.
Mahim Sarker scolded again, “Quiet, idiot. Take a look inside your body. Can you see? It is the finest factory in the entire creation. Head to foot every instrument is arranged perfectly. This is called a celestial art form. Look at this brain, it can easily beat a million computers. And these eyes, not even the best camera in the world can hold a candle to it. The ears, world’s best microphone. Heart, the generator for a lifetime. Look closely, this body of yours, it’s a creation of an ethereal genius. Appreciate this perfection. You will never want to neglect it again. Aren’t you a goalkeeper? What is the job of a goalkeeper? Not to let the ball get in the four corners of the net. Your body too has millions of such goalkeepers. They fight with the germs, block invasion of diseases. And these genes? They carry all the messages of all your ancestors. All their victories, defeats, happiness, sorrows consciousness and culture, all are archived in these genes. You are not just Runu Bharadwaj, not just a goalkeeper. Not a solitary man, alone by himself. You are part of a stream of people, one after another, like teams in relay races.” “Doctor! You are cutting up everything inside!”
Mahim Sarkar’s eyeglasses shone in the dark, “Want to die again? Will you take cyanide again?”
“No, no, no…”
I woke up from an uneasy sleep and stared in the darkness.
In our town, the morgue was right next to the jail. Right outside the tall, wavy, red wall of the jail was a tiny little plot with a small red colored room that was the morgue. Most of the time it remained locked up. Sometimes a diener would come from the hospital. Perhaps there was an unclaimed body. And then Mahim Sarkar would get a call. He had an irritable, frowning, unsmiling face. He always wore full sleeve shirts and loose pants, neither was ever ironed. He was never very busy. Nobody was in any hurry about unclaimed corpses. Mahim Sarker would write a report and the undertakers would carry the body away.
Occasionally our small town would be churned up by some big events. One such was the dual suicide by Niloy and Mahua. They jumped in front of the late night down train. Both loved each other but the parents refused to let them get married. Another one was Sarit Sen. He always called himself a poet. He fell in love with Binapani, the young wife of the yardmaster Panchanan Biswas. Binapani got scared seeing her name in his love poems and made such a scene that everyone came to know about it. This juicy story was enjoyed by all for awhile, then it was found out that he also fell in love with the new school teacher Rekha Ray, the contractor Sudhir Biswas’s young daughter Saheli and the milkman Mukund Jadab’s wife Motia. At the end he married a girl named Shipra from Shilchor. But right after marriage, there were fights and quarrels. Ultimately to end it all poet Sarit Sen hung himself.
Mahim Sarkar came most reluctantly to do the post mortem. The relatives didn’t want it and as suicide was quite evident—there was a note too—Mahim Sarkar just did a preliminary exam and let the body go.
Who knew how good a doctor Mahim Sarkar was. But most people were scared to go to him because he ‘cut dead bodies’. Only very poor, lower class people like the paan seller, rickshaw driver, street sweepers and railway porters visited him.
Mahim Sarkar often repented that people forgot that he too was a regular certified physician.
Seasons changed like fairy tales in our little town. Autumn came like a dream; the winter arrived like magic, wrapped in mysterious fog.
It was a moonlit December night, sad and somber, wrapped in moonlight and fog. The shehnai was playing Basantbahar under the decorated tent. I was off playing a match far away and counting the remaining days of my life sitting alone on the dew drenched grass. Alone. Very alone.
Sati and Nadan got married without any hitch.
Shyamdas Lahiri took a loan from his provident fund and paid for the wedding expenses as best as he could. I heard that the feast was great. The bride and the groom looked lovely together. Everybody was saying the matched each other perfectly. As if they were truly born for each other. Our entire town went to the wedding and many women were envious of Sati’s good fortune.
Mothers could sense these things. Only they can feel the deep pain in their sons’ hearts. On the day of the wedding reception, mom asked me, “You aren’t going?”
I just nodded, no.
She lay her hand softly on my back, “Then go to some friend’s place. Don’t stay alone. Loneliness breeds evil thoughts.”
I looked at her face. Soon this great lady would suffer the loss of her son. How would she look then?
Mahim Sarkar’s wife had run away with a young and smart medical representative. We heard many juicy gossips about how they got together. She left behind a two-year-old son. Police was involved and ultimately they were found after a couple of years, living in Patna as husband and wife. Mahim Sarkar didn’t try to get her back. He said, “What’s the point. I could get her body but not her heart. Let her be where she is. Life is short. Let her enjoy herself.”
Mahim Sarkar’s son Sujit was my friend, so I visited his house many times. There was no order in his house. Everything was scattered haphazardly. Dirty dishes piled up on the table, beds were never made.
Mahim Sarkar used to say, “You know, from the beginning of time, man has had five basic questions, who, what, why, when and where. That’s all. However you may try you can’t go beyond that.”
He used to have a bike, dusty, old, tottering thing that he rode very slowly. He was never in a hurry to reach anywhere.
People would say, “There goes the corpse cutting doc.”
I remember well the evening of the wedding reception. Mom had told me not to be alone, to go visit a friend, but I had no such desire. I had to be alone that night. My heart was arid and cracked up like the earth in summer. There was only an endless twilight in front of me. Only thinking of death brought me some solace. Yes, I had the means. Any day I could end it all.
At that age, thinking of death caused a powerful frisson of mystery. I had pilfered a bottle of poison from the science lab. It was used to kill insects in the entomology class. At the bottom of the bottle, in a separate chamber were a few crystals of potassium cyanide. All I had to do was break the bottle and get those granules. Instant death.
That night was Sati’s reception. It was stone cold in our town. The fog had covered up everything around. Even the moon looked ghostly through the fog.
I had always loved open fields. I loved the smell of grass. I always felt centered in a field. That night too I was sitting in the football field of our college. The dew was soaking in my clothes. The north wind was making me shiver in cold. But I did not sense any of these. All I could hear was a call of distress “Take me away.” No, Sati didn’t speak it aloud, just sent her call in a torn piece of paper. I read that piece of paper countless times. That silent sentence was the loudest I ever heard.
It was a wintry night. Most guests had left by eleven. All sated and smiling. Outside the street dogs were fighting amongst the trash heaps. The shehnai had stopped, the halogen lamps were turned off. Only the bridal couple and close relatives were at home. A mountain of gift boxes had not yet been sorted. Someone asked, “Say, where is Sati? She left awhile ago for the bathroom, but she isn’t there.” Someone else replied, “She left the bathroom long ago, she was washing her face and I said not to take off the sandalwood paste, she said it made her skin feel dry.” Another person said, “The bride? She was looking for somebody, I think she went that way.”
The whole affair still hadn’t reached the point of panic. Everyone thought she must be somewhere. After all she was new, where could she go.
But gradually a worried strain crept in. Where could she go? Oh my God! Brand new bride is missing! The formal smile on Nandan’s handsome face disappeared. He ran around like crazy looking for her from attic to the basement, including all the toilets. Someone suggested perhaps she had left with the bride’s party; after all she was a young girl, perhaps she felt homesick. It was patently impossible; still they sent messengers to the bride’s house. Hearing the news, they were stunned and soon came rushing back.
Ultimately, the inevitable suspicion was given a voice. Did she run away with someone?
Hearing this Shyamdas fell on the ground, “It would be better for her to die than this.”
Before this rumor grew any further, they did find Sati. She was lying face down, under the jamrul tree in the backyard. She was still wearing all the jewelry and make up of the new bride though some of it had washed away in tears. Who knows how long she had cried. But she wasn’t crying anymore when they found her. There was a little froth at the corner of her mouth. Other than that she looked perfectly normal. Even when she was carried to the bed, everyone was calling her by name, trying to wake her up. Someone said, “Poor thing, must be tired after all the stress of the wedding.” Another person said, “Perhaps an epileptic fit. She is so thin.”
Mahim Sarkar had just left the party after giving the wedding gift of a set of earrings. He was brought back right away, this time bringing his stethoscope. He felt for the pulse, and then looked up in surprise.
It was beyond midnight. I had returned home and mom was forcing me to eat something. I just sat there playing with the food when someone called from outside, “Runu. Hey, Runu.”
I came out to see some of my friends and some college kids. “Come quick. There is a disaster in Sir Nandan’s house.”
I don’t remember how I walked the distance. I was in a trance. I can’t remember if I walked at all.
Mahim Sarkar looked up in surprise and said, “But she died quite some time ago!”
It took a few seconds for the words to sink in. Then there were shouts, cries, screams, and Sati’s mother fainting away. Shyamdas couldn’t believe it. He kept saying again and again, “It just can’t be. Just throw some water on her. She will come by. Look closely, her eyelids are moving, just feel her forehead, it is still warm. It is nothing serious, I’m telling you…”
Mahim Sarkar said gravely, “You need to call the police, it is a case of poisoning.”
Nandan was stunned for a second. Then he held Sati’s body close, “No, that is impossible. Poisoning? Why, a minute ago she was smiling, talking to us all. How can it happen? How…”
Mahim Sarkar was leaving when I arrived, “Mahim uncle, what happened?”
Mahim said most bitterly, “What was the purpose of this suicide? Total waste! The birth of a human body takes so much preparation, care, so much time, long waiting, then growing up over all these years… and now destroying it like this? Meaningless!”
I stood there like a statue, “What happened?”
He said, still bitterly, “Go see if you can find any suicide note, and the bottle of the poison. Just got married, and now have to go through police investigations, post mortem…”
A bottle of Tik20 was found under the jamrul tree, but there wasn’t any suicide note.
Through all the confusion, commotion and crying, Priti had sobbed, “I knew she would die.”
“You knew? How did you know?”
“Because she loved someone else.”
“Who? Who did she love?”
“I don’t know. She never told me his name.”
Nandan was most hurt by Priti’s statement. He obviously considered himself to be the most desirable man in that rural town. He had asked, “Are you sure Priti? Or are you just guessing?”
“I am sure. She pleaded with mom not to get her married, she kept saying ‘give me some time. I am not ready yet.’ But mom didn’t listen. My sister was a coward, so couldn’t speak openly.”
“But she is your sister, didn’t you guess whom she loved?”
“No. How could I?”
“Perhaps you do know but don’t want to say it?”
Priti shook her heard, “No, I really don’t know.”
“Then why didn’t she say something before the wedding?”
“She did? When? To whom?”
“She said, ‘Why a simple girl like me? There are so many more suitable girls. I should marry only a simple boy like myself.’”
“That is just saying for the sake of it.”
“I don’t know all that. But I know she used to cry all the time. We slept together. I could tell.”
“Strange! You too could have told me. We could have averted this tragedy. My God! Now there will be police, questioning, scandal all over the town.”
Nandan took the blow hard. Perhaps partly missing Sati, partly for spoiling his image in the community.
I kept thinking that Sati might sit up for me and say, “Take me away.”
Of course that didn’t happen.
Nandan saw us, his students, and wiped his tears, “I can’t understand how this disaster happened!”
I stared at Sati still beautifully clad in her wedding sari. Then I asked Nandan, “I need to have a word with you, Sir.”
He took me to the next room, “Yes?”
“Have you called the police yet?”
“No. But the doctor said…”
“Don’t do it.”
“There will be no need to call the police if we can get a certificate for natural death.”
“How’s that possible?”
“If you want, I can try.”
“I do want it. Police will cause more scandal.”
“ Be calm. Let me see.”
Before leaving, I looked at Sati once more. How could such a sad princess survive in this cruel world? I told her silently, “You asked me to take you away? Now I’m telling you the same, take me away from here.”
I felt I shouldn’t delay anymore. Perhaps Sati was still waiting for me on the bank of Dungri.
Mahim Sarkar was dozing. He got up seeing me, “What’s up?”
“Uncle, I have a request.”
“What is it?”
“A death certificate. For Sati.”
“Are you crazy?”
“It is clearly an unnatural death. Everybody has come to know already.”
“You can do this uncle. I plead you.”
“No, I can’t. If I get caught I may lose my license, my job, at this old age, I may not even get a pension. You want me to die?”
“Please save Sati, uncle.”
“Can’t save a dead person!”
“Not physically, but at least her good name?”
“What good name? A person who can destroy her own body like that is a sinner!”
“Please don’t say that. There are many weak persons in this world.”
“Go ask. She must have had an affair with one of those louts hanging around.”
“Please do this small favor, for me.”
Mahim Sarkar stared at me for awhile, then said suddenly, “Is it you? Tell me the truth Runu, is it because of you?”
“Let it be uncle, it’s in the past now.”
“Then promise me one thing.”
“You look like you too are hatching some plan. I may be a cadaver cutter but I can tell who is planning death. You promise me you won’t do anything stupid?”
“I promise, uncle.”
He faced loss of his job, pension and reputation. Yet in spite of all that he took the risk and wrote in the death certificate, “Death due to convulsion.”
“Where are you taking her? Where?” Sati’s mother clutched Sati and wailed. This too was very conventional. One saw this kind of moaning at all deaths.
I suppressed tremendous bitterness, “Let me take her auntie. At least now there shouldn’t be any caste restrictions.”
There were anger, despair, bitterness and sorrow raging inside me. But everything melted away as I carried Sati to the crematorium. That late night, under a clear sky, in an unworldly eerie darkness, sad cluster of stars and keen north wind were undoing all her shackles. Sati didn’t belong to anybody anymore. She was no one’s daughter or wife, nor a Brahmin or lower caste. She had shaken off everything to go with me on this last eternal journey. She had asked, “Take me away.” I was doing just that.
I was packing to return to Kolkata, when Nandan Sanyal dropped in. He looked strange and had a wild stare in his eyes.
He sat looking at me for sometime, as if he had never seen me before.
“Would you tell me something, honestly?”
“What is it, Sir?”
“Did Sati ever…ever love you?”
“Let it be Sir. No point hashing up those things now.”
“But I want to know Runu, please.”
“I really don’t have anything to say.”
“But it is extremely important for me to understand the entire story. I can’t still believe it. Otherwise it will remain an unsolved riddle for me, all my life.”
“I don’t know anything. Why are you asking me?”
He sat still for a while, “Are you crying?”
“Couldn’t help it Sir. Tears just came to my eyes.”
“Your tears are telling me the whole story. Do you know?”
“Love is a useless thing, Sir.”
Nandan Sanyal sighed, “Right. But that useless thing never lets us go.”
I don’t subscribe to newspapers. But I wanted to see today’s paper. I finished my morning run, my workout, and shower. Standing in my balcony I was enjoying my breakfast of toast, egg and milk and tossing pieces of the toast to the crows. Those crows were grabbing them from air! They had to be extremely fit.
Yesterday we played against the champions from last year. It was a hard game. I had to save three, all dangerous shots. One almost cracked my ribs; it was still sore on my left side. In the last minute the referee gave them a penalty. It was not illegal. If a defense player fell in the penalty box and caused obstruction then a call could be made. But the referees from Kolkata usually didn’t care about such fine points. Yesterday they made an exception. The kid who came to make the kick was Tapan Das. I knew him. Good kicker. But I thought he usually kicked high. Accordingly I was ready for a high shot. He did kick high, on right; I jumped up and deflected the ball with my right palm over the bars. The match was a draw. The whole team rushed to carry me on their shoulders. Usually my name was not mentioned in the sports pages, at the most in a small column.
At eight thirty in the morning Yogeshda rang the bell loudly. He was wearing sweat stained white t-shirt, shorts, a pair of Nike and carried a newspaper under his arm.
“What have you done, brother! It was an impossible feat yesterday! Look at this heading.”
He opened the page. In large letters, “Bharadwaj defines the champions”. Pretty big headline. I didn’t need to read the rest.
“It calls for a celebration. Come to our apartment. Have a nice cup of cappuccino. Oops, you don’t drink coffee. Still, you must come. Mrs. has specifically asked me to drag you out.”
I got a bunch of calls. Ghanashyamdasji, my friends, leader of a big club, a teenager named Sarika.
“Finish your calls. I’ll go change.” Said Yogeshda.
When I went to their place, there was already a party atmosphere. Households were like fine cobwebs. Husband, wife, kids, TV, fridge, furniture everything is stuck in that invisible web. The ties are fragile, but true.
“Hello, come in, come in!” It was nice to receive a hearty welcome.
Bandana was smiling. Her eyes caressed me, “Today I’ve made something special for you.”
“But, Ma’am, I’ve already had breakfast.”
“So what? It’s a holiday, no harm in having a little heavy meal. Besides, people who exercise like you must get hungry more often.”
“That’s true, Ma’am.”
Richa came quietly and sat by me, placing a thin hand on my knee.
She looked up at me in surprise, “Were you shaking hands with a dog on the street?”
I was embarrassed, “Who told you?”
“Shambhu saw, Paramadidi saw, even the sweeper Guppu saw you. Tell me, did you?”
“Ah, don’t mention it. That dog sat by the road, raising his paws in such a way that I thought perhaps he wanted to make friends with me. So I shook his right paw and said ‘good morning’. He looked really pleased!”
“Hehehe! And Shambhuda says you talk to the crows when you feed them pieces of bread in your balcony?”
“Yes. And they talk back too. There was a strike the other day, they all cawed, ‘Strike, strike’!”
“Tell me more!”
“Shall I? But you may not believe it. One day the fridge in my kitchen scolded me, you know. I took out the packet of milk and turned away and heard someone say, “Hey!” I turned back in surprise to see that I didn’t close the door of the fridge properly. It was ajar. As I quickly said ‘Sorry’ and shut the door, I heard the fridge say, ‘Thank you.’”
“He he! More, please!”
“Wait, let me finish these meat patties first.”
“No, tell me while eating.”
“Well, one day I was putting on my socks and found my socks were smelly. I pursed my nose and said, ‘Phew, you smell awful!’ Immediately the sock started crying noisily. Poor thing. It wasn’t his fault. I should have washed him. So I did. When I took it outside to dry in the sun, a crow came and snatched it away, thinking it was food. Then he got so mad. He kept glaring at me, saying, ‘Shame, shame!’”
Behind me I heard Bandana say to herself, “What a crazy man!” Then louder, “Richa, please let uncle eat. You are really bothering him.”
Crazy? Perhaps I am. There is something full of light and shadow, like the eternal twilight, inside me. Real and unreal mixes up easily, animate and inanimate blend into one. Just before falling asleep, I can hear so many voices, see so many dead faces, so many unseen and unheard of places. Logic and intellect loosen up. I can’t tell living from non-living anymore. Something strange goes on inside me. So many messages come at me from all directions, so many silent sounds fly in. Perhaps they are memories of another life, or something else unknown.
The original novel "Satideha" (সতীদেহ) by Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay was first published in 2015 by Ananda, Kolkata.
Illustrated by Nilanjana Basu. Curently based in California, Nilanjana has been regularly illustrating for Parabaas.