[Issue 10 / August 2014]
[In homage to Kamalkumar Majumdar]
As the girl offers her withered breast to the emaciated, lifeless baby with skinny arms and legs, that to all appearances looks like a mouse from afar, and boils vegetable peels in an earthen pot, chipped at the edges, the other child, every one of whose ribs is visible and could be counted, one, two, three, sits near the stove like a prodigal son, eyes and face fixed on the pot with single-pointed attention, his nose exploding as he takes in the aroma of the cooking, the whole day’s hunger in his belly, like a raging fire, eyes too lying in wait for when the pot would be set down, then, right then, a drop of rain falls on the Mongolian-style moustache of a bhadralok in freshly-laundered clothes, who has a James Bond-esque attaché case and wears a multi-coloured shirt with a floral design, and the man, in the artful composure becoming his big babu bearing, casts his eyes once towards the sky, and in search of a safe shelter arrives at the very spot on the pavement, underneath the mezzanine verandah projecting overhead. The girl is a beggar, a few broken pots, a bundle wrapped in a dirty cloth and about two skinny children comprise her world, which is here, in this deserted spot under the mezzanine verandah, now in disarray.
With the sound of loud knocking on the door, all the four beings inside the room are startled as one. Blowing and putting out the kerosene stove in a trice, the young boy, somehow squeezes himself under the taktaposh, where torn kanthas, broken tin cans and so on are piled. There is the sound of a staff banging on the door of the room. The very old door trembles ominously. As the old father, whose eyes had lost their sight and sequence, slowly rises and opens and holds the door, four or five ruffians barge into the room. The one with the revolver in his hand screams out: ‘Where’s Gour—the fucking son of a pig?’
Now a dusty gale has begun. Dark, swelling clouds gather in the sky. The rain is about to descend. The girl, two children on two sides, is now, as always, busy boiling vegetable peels there, where her corner of domestic bliss was. She was once a young wife. She wears her favourite green-coloured sari (which wasn’t at all grand and yet very dear). Her arms are full of red and blue glass bangles, a broad streak of sindoor on the parting of her forehead. Three or four iron bangles on the left arm (gifted to her when she was pregnant). Long black hair—flowing like waves on the two sides of the parting. At that moment the mass of hair is spread out over her back, very wet, she had just bathed…
Hussain Ali performs acrobatics before the assembled populace. He hops on to the makeshift stage for the magic show, his lungi billows and flutters in the wind. From a pocket of his flowing robe he takes out some three Japanese dolls, and a revolver from another pocket. Arranging the three dolls in turn on the table and pointing the revolver at them, Hussain Ali starts explaining to the assembled populace, with accompanying gestures and gesticulations: ‘Just watch, people, see how an enemy ought to be punished’. As he speaks, Hussain Ali dangles and twirls the pistol under the people’s noses, he keeps twirling it, and then after a while he aims and fires. The dolls’ chests are pierced, and when drops of fresh blood pour out, the rapt public claps away in amazement and delight, as they learn with greedy eyes the trick of how to punish an enemy.
A boy and girl came running, they were still laughing gleefully then, and entered the spot beneath the mezzanine verandah. There were people on both sides of them, who had taken shelter there to save themselves from the rain. They gape at the ripening young girl, at her gleeful laugh—they see everything. But they, the girl and the boy, don’t pay any attention to them. The girl says: ‘How I love to get wet in the rain, come on darling, let’s get wet again.’ As she says it, she clutches the boy’s shirt near the chest and brings her pair of eyes near his face. Outside, the rain grows heavier. The tram lines get submerged. More people crowd into the limited space under the mezzanine verandah, where the beggar girl, about two kids and her beloved domestic world are.
Hussain Ali now performs the skull trick. He is in his element. Placing a huge skull atop a shining brass plate, he explains to the assembled populace: ‘Babus, take a look, just witness this, the skull actually speaks in the voice of a living man and answers questions’. After the announcement he ceremoniously salaams the public, and chants out the questions:
Oh skull, are you human?
By the grace of the compassionate Lord.
Why are you here?
The will of the compassionate Lord brought me.
Why was your head severed?
But everything in the universe is by the will of the compassionate Lord
Who do you have in the world—father, mother, brother, friend?
There’s no one but the compassionate Lord.
The rain grows fiercer. It keeps growing. The streets become flooded. The limited space beneath the mezzanine verandah becomes crowded. It is crammed with people—here now a tie-clad, shiny office-babu with sparkling spectacles; a bald-headed, middle-aged, sad-faced government clerk, umbrella in hand; a dandy ruffian with long hair coiffured like the hero of Bobby and long sideburns; a peanuts-seller with a basket on his head; a ghugni-wallah with ghugni heaped on a huge platter over a lit kerosene stove. The beggar girl’s cooking was now totally disrupted. Her world was wet with the spray of the rain. Somehow or other, she manages to sit crouched in a corner, watching over her worldly possessions—the bundle wrapped in dirty cloth, a couple of broken earthen pots, a battered metal tumbler and two kids.
Here, in this locality on the city fringe, there’s only empty desolation. On one side of the narrow pot-holed road are large tin sheds, the rear ends of factories. On the other side, a vast wetland area comprised of segmented water-bodies, covered over with water hyacinths and their purple-coloured flowers, blooming with all their fragrance, and a veritable jungle overgrown with clumps of kalkesunda, asheoda and wild kalomi. Every now and then a cycle rickshaw goes by with a clanging sound. Lorries go by noisily, raising a storm of dust. Here, on one side of the desolate, deserted wetland, lies Gour’s corpse, cut into pieces and stuffed into a gunny sack, dirty with mud and slime. It lies there, rotting away. Just a hand sticking out of a tear in the sack; the liquefying hand, fist clenched tight—being guarded by two dogs and some three vultures.
The city was now inundated with rain. The people crammed together in the spot beneath the mezzanine verandah became wet with the spray blown in by the wind. ‘Beggars here too’, commented some. ‘They’re making Calcutta unfit for habitation day by day.’ ‘Why don’t you drive them away—people are unable to stand, but she sits regally with her household sprawled out!’ The girl finally snaps testily, ‘Where’lligo?’ ‘A beggar by race, and feisty too—a bloody nawab’s daughter!’ ‘They’ve occupied all the roads and pavements, as if it’s their dad’s property.’ A pretty-faced woman, her left hand still holding a pair of folded go-go goggles, hadn’t found a place to stand. Her low-cut blouse and exposed back were getting drenched in the spray cast by the wind. The Bobby-haired, long-sideburned boy moves up to the beggar girl, ‘Hey you whore—get up from here, make a place for the bhadramahila to stand’. ‘Where’lligo?’ ‘Throw her out, mister—these shits won’t heed straight talk’ …
Gour’s arms, legs, head and torso, cut into pieces and stuffed into a sack, rot away beside a desolate wetland, guarded by two dogs and some three vultures. The body rots away. The closed-fisted hand rots and poisons the atmosphere. The whole city becomes poisoned. Stench pervades the air.
Hussain Ali stands atop a table and performs tricks—the trick of punishing the enemy by piercing him with bullets, and the skull trick.
The girl refuses to vacate her space. Nonetheless she is dragged and pulled out. Now she’s in knee-deep water, on her left side the baby at her bosom, the other boy’s hand held tight in her right hand, the cloth bundle of her world on her head. The rain pours down lustily, over her, over her kids, over her world placed on her head. The flood of water flows like a river. All the roads are submerged. Directionless in the pouring rain and raging flood, with her two children on two sides and her world on her head, she looks on
The colours of the poster printed with the hammer and sickle are washed away in the rain.
Robi Thakur’s song plays on the radio:
Youuu nurture me with tennnder care in your abode
Glory be to you, O Lord
Glory be to you, O Lord
Gour’s cut-up corpse stuffed in a sack rots beside the desolate wetland.
Hussain Ali’s magic show comes into its own brilliantly
featuring the skull, and the punishment of enemies.
This is a translation of the original Bengali story, “Ashun, Bharat-borsho Dekhe Jaan (1975)”, by Subimal Misra. Translated by V. Ramaswamy.
Subimal Misra (b. 1943) is an anti-establishment and experimental writer in Bengali and lives in Kolkata. He has written exclusively in small, limited-circulation literary magazines (or little magazines) from the late sixties. About thirty volumes of his stories, novellas, novels, plays and essays have been published. The Golden Gandhi Statue from America, a volume of his early stories in English translation, was published in 2010.
V Ramaswamy (Translator) lives in Kolkata. He has translated The Golden Gandhi Statue from America by Subimal Misra, the first of a four-volume series of Misra’s short fiction in English translation.