The Moments of Life (The title story of my second book of short stories- The Moments of Life), The Pride of a Woman ( included in “Einfach Menschlich”- Simply Human- published by the German Language Department of the University of Mumbai, as one of the Indian Short stories translated in German), The Last fire and Blessed by Bees.
All the stories presented here have been published in magazines like “Indian Literature” and others before being included in my book of short stories. I have three books of short stories in Bengali and long back I edited two short story magazines in Bengali. I was given second prize in a short story competition by Bizz-Buzz in 2007. My short stories have been published in five anthologies including in “Einfach Menschlich”. Besides the short stories I have a novel, In Train, published by The Writers Workshop. A book has recently been published with papers on my short stories including papers on short stories of others and two books have papers published on my novel.
All the Stories are published in the Book titled, “The Moments of Life” 2009, published by Frog Books, Mumbai/U SA. It included all the stories published in “A White Bird and its Black Shadow” published in 2005. All are copyrighted by the author.
Three more short stories added on 13.5.2016- all from the same book: The Crawler, The Phoney and The Flame
The Moments of Life
‘I was ordered to proceed through the northern side of the scrubland. Many tall trees were cut down by the military. Some still remained. Slimy brine spread at a distance near the sea but some remains of it were seen near my elbow. Somewhere white dried salt glistened in the star light. Kitty was to come from the south. Both of us were to stop at a certain point, as shown in the maps sketched and kept in our pockets. We were in tattered jeans with rough and torn jean shirts, bound by w ires and ropes. We had cell phones with watches to receive and give very urgent messages. One was essential when we would reach the point and see each other from a comparatively closer range. Usually in such operations no message would be sent or received, except the last one between us. We were entirely detached from the Head Quarter. No further communication was expected. It was essential that we should reach the point by about 3.45 am to attack a military convoy scheduled to pass at 4 am sharp, guarding a jeep in between vans. A kind of low land with trench, dug earlier, would be available to us. At the appropriate moment we were to crawl and roll swiftly between the convoys from two sides and to push the switches on our bodies triggering actions simultaneously. We were human bombs, members of the death squad. In fact almost all of us were members of the death squad. We were not to meet physically. Who, what, how many vans were to pass? Was neither known nor were we expected to be eager to know about that. We were to meet in dead bodies. We were to bring death to as many military people as possible, may be with other VIPs, by dying ourselves.’
Sitting face to face on the sea shore near the light house of Pondicherry, she was telling me the story of her life in a calm and clear voice, slowly yet fast enough not to waste time, without an iota of emotion.
‘It was a dark night, chosen as appropriate for the action. We knew that soldiers were posted at certain points to keep vigil. Almost the whole night I crawled on my breasts, sometimes just dragging my body, keeping me alert with drugs sometimes. Reaching, we exchanged messages and saw each other from either side of the road. We were waiting. The last wait. At 4.30 am the convoy appeared at a distance. Heavily armoured vehicles with helmeted soldiers were passing slowly. After six vans the cute military jeep appeared in between vans. As soon as it was near enough, Kitty started rolling at the highest speed. None except me noticed but when she came near the jeep, rolling almost through the wheels, a hand with revolver flushed from the seat next to the driver and fired at the jumping body, up in the space for before the bullet could hit her she triggered. Yes, I saw the jeep jumping in the space and falling on the ground with kitty. A great fire ensued. Two three vans upturned. The movement of vans stopped forthwith. Soldiers jumped out of their seats. A great din followed. I ran speedily from the smoky scene and jumped into the sea.’
As I tried to raise a point, ‘So you decided. . .’
‘No. I didn’t decide earlier, for even a thought of dissension might be guessed and appropriate action taken. It was at the last moment, when Kitty started rolling and running that I undid the electronic circuit and then in the din of action I started running at the just moment. None noticed or even if noticed, none could run after me.’
She looked at the dying day over the sea and began again, ‘The Sun was over my head. I was floating in the water, half-living, breathing deliriously, when an Indian fishing boat was passing by. As I indicated by hands, they picked me up and kept me in the deck, below which there was enough catch. I was already smelly, perhaps more than the fishes . . . ‘
She hesitated a little and continued, ‘You know, there was no question of nature’s call in the usual way and my responding to it suitably. Whatever wanted to go out of my body on their own was excreted without any hindrance’, said she with a smile.
The moon was shining on the eastern sky. Its light fell slantingly on us. The beach was lighted enough. We saw a few persons squatting at the end of the beach to defecate near the bushes, while starkly looking at us. She looked at her watch and got up. ‘They were fishermen from this place. It was five years ago when they dropped me here. It’s such a mix of culture here that from the lowest primitive to the highest modern persist without any governmental or other intervention’, she said and started walking toward my two-wheeler. I followed to drive her back to the town.
On another occasion she came to the gate after her duty was over at 9 in the evening. We entered the Ashram. We sat for meditation for half an hour and came out. The crowd at the beach road was thinning. She crossed the sea wall and sat on a huge boulder almost at the same level, facing the sea. The sky was cloudy. ‘How did you feel today?’ I asked.
‘As usual. He’s bid me good bye.’
‘Sri Aurobindo himself.’
‘I can’t confirm the way you ask but may be I saw him doing so!’
‘Did you go there earlier?’
‘Many times. And I’ve complete faith in his vision and hope for the future. But who are doing his work? Who are ready? Who has come for it?’
I looked askance.
‘Otherwise so many wouldn’t have been rotting or simply passing their time jovially here. However, I know that such things are bitter to utter, may not go unchallenged.’
‘Why not you. . . ‘I was going to throw a challenge but she was ready for it. She simply laughed at it.
‘No I don’t want to play. If that time comes. . . I believe that his call was not for most of them who’re here. It’s not just possible to establish what he calls the truth. But I truly realize that when oligarchy, feudalism, capitalism, communism, socialism, democracy and all other isms failed to realize their own dreams, Sri Aurobindo was successful in his own sphere but not for humanity at large, for it could be established only through transformed humanity, inhabiting not this but a different world. In that sense it is not to be!’
I had no simple word to put before her but the one usually one utters, perhaps as an escape, ‘But we have faith!’
‘I know how hollow it is, though many times uttered. Perhaps you mean to say that you’ve bhakti!’
Both of us looked at the cloudy, hazy horizon where a faint black line indicated the beyond, from where a faint light was entering into our world, demarcated by the line. Silence prevailed between us for some time.
Then she suddenly said, ‘As I told you, till the last moment I didn’t think of anything, even of triggering. When the moment came my hand refused. I undid what was done for months and days. My legs ran, as if realizing the futility of all such things, of sacrificing one’s life for being a martyr or for acquiring someone’s land, even if one claims right over it; most of all, when such actions are forcibly imposed and martyrdoms gifted. All such efforts are only pressure tactics. Even Sri Aurobindo was a leader of terrorists and he realized the futility of it.’
The last sentence jarred in my ear. It required threadbare discussion but I knew that she had her point.
‘I knew that my visit to Nepal, Tibet and Himalayas would be fructified through you’, she suddenly said, looking at me. Even in the dark I could see her small eyes, aquiline nose with yellowish white colour of the face, which was eager to hear my confirmation. Such a look cannot be avoided.
‘I hope to get confirmation in a month or so. Dr. Saroj De may accept you as their helper in traveling through Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan.’
A real happiness was spreading on her face, through her whole body. Her eyes were moistened. Even in darkness these were visible. I remembered how much she wished to get the chance, when she requested me to explore the possibilities, knowing my resourcefulness.
Saroj was my school friend, a middle ranked IAS, but crossed the marriageable age quite some years ago. Recently he had a love affair with one of the officers of the Central Government and they got married. They planned to travel through some erstwhile Himalayan kingdom including Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan.
Suddenly she clasped my hands and said, ‘Uncle, I strongly hope that you’ll do me this favour.’
‘I must help you to find out your ancestral root’, I said. I remembered that she once said that her father, during his early youth, visited India from Lanka in some business connection. He made a friend at Coimbatore and married a Tibetan girl who often travelled to India with her father. Riki’s father often said that his ancestors had settled in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, migrating from northern, probably Himalayan habitat and that, the distance between Lanka and India was much less at one time. She often felt romantic about such places. She could not finish her school education when she was forced to undergo military training and to take part in some combats before her selection as a suicide bomber. While fleeing from Jaffna, she was carried at first to Kanyakumari. In a few more days, changing boats twice, she reached Pondicherry. She liked it but moved to her father’s friend at Coimbatore and remained there for some years. While in a college, her father’s friend died. She had earlier heard about the demise of her father. Home coming was out of question. She heard that her sister also was compelled to join the guerrilla force. A big agro based company which had their orchards at Ooty, Coonoor and Bangalore, opened their air-conditioned outlet at Pondicherry but recruited staff from their region. She joined it.
Riki studied extensively while doing her job at the counter, wearing sari. She had few friends but none intimate. Somehow she found her friend and benefactor in me, though I cannot boast of gaining her entire confidence. She was precocious, courageous and straightforward.
I could not go to attend my friend’s marriage. Now I took the chance of taking Riki to Kolkata and meeting them. Riki, wearing shalwar kameez, led me to Kolkata. I stayed there for two days and saw them off. My friend liked her immediately and allowed her to wear jeans like her wife. She looked very smart while boarding the plane. Saroj was posted to New Delhi. He proposed to keep her as their assistant at home, not as domestic. Who knows what great success awaited a woman of her caliber? Let her get back her root, let her be happy through her creative faculties, I prayed.
Back home and then back at the shop, I was alarmed when I found myself to be the cynosure of every girl at the counter. They came out with the Manager. The proprietor came to say, ‘Well, you’re very familiar to her; tell me where has she gone. I admit that we did not properly establish her identity while recruiting her.’
‘What happened, has she gone taking something from you?’
‘Not that. Rather she hasn’t taken salary for the broken period. She submitted her resignation to the Manager, calling on him, who was in fact enamoured of her.’
Now the Manager was close to us, standing with four, five counter girls, eager to hear me. I knew that he disliked me. Smilingly I said, looking straight at his face, ‘See, she’s refused me too! As far as I know, she’s got a very good offer for a job at New Delhi and she’s left.’
The young man felt insulted. While the proprietor entered his chamber, the manager stood unmoved and the girls entered their counters tittering. Some were gloating. The tittle-tattle spread from counter to counter.
The Pride of a Woman
A person with strong a personality or individuality, a particular trait of character or with a particular possession, has cause to be proud, has something to live with. Such a person lives in his or her own image. Vinita Singh, the widow of late Harvinder Singh, had a few such things to live with and be proud of. The things were her husband, her faithfulness to him and her chastity. She bore the Indian traditions in herself.
Fresh from her college, Vinita was married to a robust young man from Punjab who had a little earlier joined the Indian Army. But she was not destined to live with him for more than five years and that too intermittently. Only five years but those five years were enough to carry her through the remaining years of her life with the golden memory of a rich married life. She remembered with delight her lonesome noons and afternoons when the menfolk would be at their workplaces, the women in the fields and the elderly ones would take rest on their charpoys. In some such lonesome noon days her frivolous mind would move round her first and only man in her life. She would often ruminate in detail on what happened during their last meeting.
Sometimes she came out intuitively and stood on the main road passing through the village. At times people worked in the field at a distance. Otherwise the place was deserted during those hours. Only a few relaxed here and there, under some trees. She preferred to stand alone, unnoticed by others. If someone came her way by chance she would hide herself behind a tree. Whenever she felt very thirsty of her love the time for his coming was matured.
From a turning of the road at a distance a big dark-green military wagon would appear, as if from nowhere, to allow her charmer to drop before her. The heavy vehicle then sped up, leaving the couple on the road. And they ran, forgetting everything else on earth, toward the riverbank where they remained up to late evening or sometimes until the daybreak. Rarely was she disappointed when the truck sped through the road, without caring for her presence.
Harvinder lived a life full of love, romance and adventure. Many of their folk were in the army. They loved, liked it and were proud of it. Moreover, he always lived for her, Vinita felt, at least after their marriage. She specially remembered her two days’ life with him in a houseboat in the Dal Lake in Srinagar, the earthly paradise. Limpid water, pine and fir trees, the moon and the distant sky, everything made them love each other for ever. It was a life in the water. It was watery life. She was confirmed during the rendezvous that he had never known any other girl before her, in true sense.
And then that happened, a bolt from the blue. She had no information about the so called war, until the day when the telegram came. Harvinder Singh died in an encounter with the enemy army in Pakistan in 1965.
She did not know his exact address. It was in code Number. He seldom wrote her any letter. She had no inkling about his moving to the front. But this much she knew that this type of movement often happened in the military, a sudden transfer to the jaws of death.
She already had two sons. After a few months of this accident, a daughter was born posthumously. Ever since that moment she was with her husband, as if in her dream, in her memories. She was afraid, that a severance of that link might bring death to her. But the more she was aloof from her family the more she was in trouble. As a young widow she had to overcome many temptations and stormy situations.
After some years of the tragic incident the hard time began to show itself. They were sent to Calcutta. Being the wife of a soldier died in action, she received Government’s help in running a petrol pump. The business was managed by her elder son with whom she lived. Her younger son had settled in America and her only daughter was married to a Delhi based businessman. She often came to see her mother. Gradually her wealth and reputation was restoed.
Surrounded by her own kith and kin in a wealthy family, she felt proud of her husband who died a martyr’s death. She was proud of her own chaste and pure life, remaining busy usually with religious rites in her own portion of the house, away from others.
One day she was knitting a woolen sweater sitting on her sofa. As the expiring day was giving place to darkness and the shadows on the wall were lengthening, she suddenly raised her eyebrows with a feeling of unease and saw her husband, standing in full uniform with a smile on his face as before. Though strong and stout, he had become an aged man. Then a few seconds passed each looking intently at the other.
Recovering her sense, Vinita quickly ran towards her door, where her lover was standing but fell with a big thud even before reaching him. It took some ten days for her to recover. She did not recount the story to anyone for she herself was not sure about what she had seen. Could it be that he had really come but quickly disappeared before others gathered? Could it be his apparition?
On a day when she was languishing in her bed, her elder son came, sat silently beside her and opened his mouth, ‘Mother, firstly it was strictly forbidden, secondly for obvious reasons, I could not tell you so far what I am going to tell you now.’ As he stopped after the short but abrupt introduction, the mother looked calmly at her son with some eagerness. ‘I knew it only a few years ago,’ the son continued, ‘that our father had not succumbed to his injuries. Though declared dead, he recovered in a private house in Pakistan. He was converted to Islam and married a Muslim woman whom he had known even before the partition days, perhaps long before he became our father.’
He fell silent. Vinita too was silent but not her oldest companion, the heart. It was trying to take a new turn, trying to revolt, by a rapid thumping motion. Somehow she controlled herself. The son resumed again, ‘He had three children there, he was doing a business also,’ he paused for a full minute and then said,
‘I was informed yesterday only that he died of a sudden heart attack on the day you fell down on the floor and suffered injuries.’
She was looking indignantly at her son, who sat with a bent head. Feeling very sad and distressed at the end, she curled up and fell on one side, as if to hide her face under the pillow. The son looked at the inert body for some time and then left the room slowly, without a word.
The Last Fire
We were neither globe-trotters nor was it our wont to go places every year. We are middle class people, simple folk. Remaining healthy in body and mind while managing our own affairs are all that we want. We try to be happy with what we have, for we know it well that suppression of a desire inevitably eats into our heart. Who knew that an act of travelling to a distant place, for a simple change of climate for a sick man, would bring that excruciating experience in our life!
When we completed our second marriage anniversary, my father’s health deteriorated further. He had a chronic disease of the stomach. After our first child was born, his disease took an acute turn. Though he remained well thereafter for some time, the disease tightened its grip again. Doctors were always consulted. But I had an impression that his condition would deteriorate progressively with the growing up of my son. I could visualize his steady walk with a stick in hand, towards the cremation ground.
So long as my mother lived, he was under her control. He lived better. But after her death, in the course of time he had become gluttonous. Due to unrestrained eating he suffered from time to time and often took to bed. After recovery he used to go back to his old habit, the craving for food. I knew what it signified. But little could we do to save him.
After two years of our marriage, he was reduced to a skeleton. Doctor advised a change of climate for him. We consulted many well-wishers and a travel guide. Finally depending upon the choice of my wife, we decided to go to a hill station near Musoorie, just before the Puja holidays. A month’s leave was obtained, suffixing it with the festival days. Apart from the amount of money that I could manage from my savings, a loan was obtained from the co-operative credit society, as a matter of extra precaution.
My father’s illness and my wife’s gaity produced a mixed emotion in me. Earlier we had gone to nearby places like Uluberia or to our uncle’s house at Krishna Nagar, but it was the first time that we ventured to travel to such a long distance. As the days were nearing for our journey, my father became svelte and bold. He was in a light mood. My mood also changed, I hoped for better result. All our worries vanished. Like a flock of birds we were ready to fly.
We really had our happy days during the first fortnight of our stay in the hills. Father was enjoying good health. Soon after, as the winter progressed, his condition worsened. He was bedridden. When he used to groan or fidget, his daughter-in-law, Tanima, would run in with a hot-water bottle and pressed it against his stomach. He would get some relief and she would leave him. It became a regular affair. But sometimes he endured the pain with great effort, feeling shy of engaging his daughter-in-law. His furrowed face indicated his state. Though she would get up and go for alleviating his suffering, it continued. We became used to it.
A local doctor was consulted. He advised to keep the doors and windows closed and prescribed some medicines. Our morning walk and other diurnal routine had to be changed. Chances of our seeing the sky became restricted. It was usual for all the visitors to leave the hill station at the onset of winter. Many went back in groups like seasonal birds. My leave got exhausted. The winter dresses which we took with us proved insufficient to protect us against the severe winter. We were trapped.
After a few days the doctor went down to his brother’s home at the foot of the hill. He used to go down like that every year. Before moving, he gave us a dietary chart for my father and prescribed medicines for a month. Doctor’s fees, cost of medicines and the railway fares for the return journey had almost eaten up our liquid resources. The position was such that we could hardly maintain ourselves there for another month. We were left with no means even to go to the doctor, down at the foot of the hill, in case of any emergency. We were compelled to live in that desolate place with the locals, both human and non-human, with my father on his deathbed and the severe winter.
Snowfall started. The doors and windows began to be covered with snow from outside. Locals lent us some coarse winter dresses out of sympathy. They supplied us firewood also. Sometimes, towards the noon, we used to go out of our house. This was our first meeting with such a cruel weather; vast mountain ranges, white with snow up to the horizon, chilly air and the forlorn pathways.
The trees had no leaves, their trunks and the branches were snow-clad. The chill wind numbed all our senses. Unable to endure it too long, we had to retreat soon to our cave from our untimely sojourn. Our father had stopped talking earlier. We too stopped talking between ourselves. Whatever we did was mechanical. Whenever there were furrows on our fathers forehead, Tanima would run in with hot-water bag and pill, to give him temporary relief.
Snowfall was incessant. We were alienated from each other. It was really a struggle for existence. Our only son used to remain inside the quilt, inert. The naughty boy had forgotten to play, to cry. Then, a time came when my father was under the spell of coma. We, me and my wife, slept together but without any contact, either physical or mental. At the dead of night, when she inadvertently touched me or when I touched her nose or chin, I felt that we were there. I verified if I too still had my chin and nose. Our movements and activities became so stereotyped that a single variation would startle us.
Sometimes a thought visited me with an idea to run away, leaving our father alone, as it happened in The Law of Life by Jack London. It seemed that we would not survive otherwise. A casual glance at my wife seemed to suggest that she too had the same thought. Whenever we caught a glimpse of our father, it seemed that he was always looking at us, as if reading our thoughts. Dumb eyes, how deeply could they penetrate our hearts! But I resisted the idea. We did not divulge the idea to anyone. When we, the husband and wife, looked at each other by chance, each of us felt guilty. As civilized persons, we could not accept the idea of leaving him alone.
A few such terrible days passed by. One afternoon, after feeding him a few tablets as a matter of routine, Tanima went out. Re-entering the room after ten minutes, she found him dead. That it was afternoon we were informed by others, when we conveyed the news to them. I had been near him, in the same room, as he passed away, but I could not guess it. Very silently he left us, forever.
We were not grief-stricken. Rather hope was creeping inside us. Firstly, we looked at each other, bewildered. Then Tanima took no time to open the door and inform the locals. They called on us after a while to inform that the firewood was ready. There was no incinerator in such a place, but a cremation ground was there, at a distance.
The people didn’t accept our suggestion to take the body there at night. It was simply impossible, they said. No usual funeral arrangement could be made at that time. So it was decided to cremate the body in the open space, a few yards away from our window. That was the only work left to us then. All of us joined hands to make the arrangements.
My father’s body was placed on the pyre. I completed certain rites. Then I singed his lips and mouth and ignited the body. Others, who brought the woods, helped us. There was a big fire within a short time. My father was there inside, naked, as he came down on earth. We were standing around him wearing whatever thick woollen dresses we could manage. Snowfall continued to chill the air. In between the heat and the cold we were struggling to exist.
When the fire was raging high, all of us found ourselves around it in a circle. We began to feel comfortable. I began to rub my palms. Few others imitated me. We were gradually coming closer to the fire. Suddenly I saw my son, Rahul, sitting with the others. He was wobbling and trying to get closer to the fire. The poor people of the hill were accustomed to the severity of the winter. They usually suffered and endured. Never before had they been able to make such a bonfire in the winter. All of them seemed happy, at least during that time. I looked at Tanima. A faint smile was already spread on her face.
After more than an hour the fire was dying out slowly. My father’s body had been transformed into ashes. The warmth was still there surrounding the place. Suddenly I remembered that once upon a time he was a freedom fighter. But after independence he was not much esteemed as he had not been in the forefront towards the end of the struggle. The fire was his last gift to the country though it didn’t spread much beyond us.
We entered our home after the fire got extinguished. The night was very dark. A silent sadness engulfed me. None of us could sleep. Not even a wink. Towards the end of the night I opened the window, almost disregarding my wife. At the open space, where my father had been cremated, a white sheet of snow was spread. No trace of my father or the fire was there. It was a mysterious white, under the canopy of the starlit sky. The dawn was not far away.
Blessed by the Bees
Sometimes strange things happen quite unexpectedly out of the common daily affairs. A furore was created by a swarm of bees in the placid, sleeping Weekend Home of our VIP. A storm in a coffee cup, really.
A group of houses is within the big compound wall of the Home. All of us have known it from our grandfather’s time. It is the real home of a very respectable citizen of the state. There are number of hedges, alcoves and paths between rows of trees and fountains in the well-kept garden surrounding the Home. A number of people are engaged, including armed guards at the gate, for the maintenance and security of the Home. But the VIP seldom visits it now-a-days.
That day while passing by it I was attracted by a curious crowd, consisting mostly of teenagers. It was said that they had seen the VIP running naked here and there. Strange as it was, I was intrigued to stay on. More people were gathering. It attracted a few paparazzi also.
It was in the early morning, so no staff was to be seen inside the compound. The private secretary of the VIP, a very clever woman, appeared in no time and asked the people, by a gesture of her hand, to disappear.
Running a few yards, she vanished in the alcove at a distance. After some time the VIP, the cynosure himself, came out of the alcove with a light scarf round his loin. It could hardly give him any protection. He ran toward the house followed by his secretary. There was some innocent grinning, some sniggering. Cameras clicked continuously. Some tried to clamber on the gate but that was resisted by some others. The Home became quiet after sometime but strange gossip began floating in the town. The VIP came for a holiday and was caught in a trap. None of his usual staff could be seen inside the compound throughout the day as the on lookers came to pass by. Only the young private secretary was seen with the VIP in the morning. Then everything fell silent. It was quite intriguing, indeed. In the evening they hurriedly called the local Pres in his Home. And then some of the usual residential staff was present.
There the VIP explained that coming home after a long gap he wanted to enjoy the day. As was his wont, he rose very early in the morning and went to the bathroom. Enjoying the shower for a while he found himself surrounded by a swarm of bees. Understanding that there was a bee-colony outside the window, he endeavoured to close it. Thence the real attack began. More bees inside the bathroom, more the anguished droning sound. Some of them stung him. He rushed out of it, chased by them.
Though they stung him in his belly and many other parts of the body, retorting to a silly question he said, ‘I can’t tell you about all the parts of my body, as you already know them, which were blessed by the bees.’ His answer was greeted by a loud laughter. On being questioned as to how the secretary’s scarf, which is generally used to adorn the front part of a lady’s body over her shalwar-kameez, came to his rescue, the VIP replied that it was the secretary’s intelligence that had saved him, not the scarf. He was again greeted with laughter. A volley of questions was thrown at him, as he was their own man, a native of the place. The good looking, ever bachelor sexagenarian, in reply to another question confirmed that he could certainly marry his secretary, if she needed.
While the audience rejoiced, the young secretary, sitting by his side, blushed. In the end he said that he was not in favour of banishing the bees as they have their right to choose their place of settlement.
The meeting ended with a happy note after sweets and drinks were served. The ripples created by the angry bees subsided gradually, without their knowledge.
© Aju Mukhopadhyay, 2009
The bug had been constantly adding ire to the irascible state of his mind which was due to his constant attachment to Mina. He was sitting on his chair. Before him on a table a book was kept opened. The subject of the book was economics, accountancy, philosophy or some such thing. He could not comprehend it, as he had not properly read, even the first line of the opened page during the past hour. The moment he tried to concentrate on the subject, a thought stirred up in his mind that only Mina could give him pleasure. It was not something trifling; it was all the pleasure that Mina contained in her. ‘Oh Mina!’ he said.
The moment he turned his gaze toward the forgotten first line, the bug bit on the soft inner portion of his thigh. With irritation he shifted his bitten thigh over the other one. ‘Yes only she could give me pleasure.’ He thought again. ‘Though I have never seen a volcano’, he confessed, ‘I always dream about volcanic eruptions. May be that I dream at night of such volcanoes impregnated with fire. Voluptuous Mina is impregnated with fire.’ He dreamt at night but could do nothing during the day.
He tried to move while sitting in his chair as the bug had been caressing his other thigh with eagerness and obduracy. But he could not move even an inch, as the old torn cane chair was no bigger than his buttock. He tried and became successful in moving mechanically, tilting from one side to the other, to get a temporary relief. The bug waited, allowing him to settle. As he tried to concentrate on the first line of the printed page, the words simply vanished. Mina remained with her soft rosy chin and pink-green veins in different parts of her body. ‘She only could’ he murmured, ‘It would become hard with a touch’, while thinking this he almost jumped up from his seat as the bug had succeeded in sucking a considerable quantity of blood from his soft thigh. He felt as if a shark had been working on him but he could not feel until the last moment. Eventually he got up.
Seated in his chair, he opened the book with the help of a tag kept on the first page which lay before him on the table. There was a roof overhead from which water would ooze during the rains. On his left there was a window on the right up on the wall, a ventilator and yonder, there was the door. A bird’s nest in the ventilator and an extinguished hearth in the open area outside the room, not exactly a courtyard, containing the others objects he was bored with besides few unwashed cups with stains of tea and a few unwashed utensils, scattered as usual. He verified them again and plunged in the world of his voluptuous ideas but the bug was busy drawing out his precious blood with all its might. His soft thigh was its only haven now. He fidgeted and realized his own negligence in not repairing his cane chair. But immediately his thought was diverted toward Mina. He would spend for her rather than for the chair. ‘Oh, Mina!’
Instead of holding her, he strongly held the handles of his chair for truly, no relationship ever grew up between them. His face was twisted. He would certainly wash the chair with hot water, he resolved but he did not get up but waited in his chair to be bitten by the bug for enjoying a masochistic pleasure, even without desiring so. He thought of doing the work the next day, but the plan was postponed further as he remembered that he would then be serving overtime in the office as required by the boss.
He tried again and again to read and understand the meaning of what was written in the first line of the book but he could not make head or tail of it, as he had been infatuated with Mina. Only she could give him solace, he thought. As he was with her again, all the bugs started biting him at a time. At once he jumped in revolt. The book was automatically flown on the ground. The spectacle was somehow saved from falling but it hung from one of his ears. He could properly wear it again with much effort.
After a while getting up with a feeling of giddiness he looked into his chair. Nothing was visible, as if all the bugs were gone home. Then lowering the head he observed a bug going down the leg of the chair. As he was preparing to take revenge squatting before it, the insect stopped moving. He was face to face with the bug. Eye ball to eye ball they looked. He became numbed.
After sometime as the bug started crawling down, his muscle became stiff. He lowered his face to look at it but realizing the tiny insect’s capacity to suck blood with such vigor, he became aghast. Afraid to move further, he decided not to fight the bugger then and there. He preferred to wait for it.
It really came down and started to move slowly. Coming to the cot at one corner of the room it started crawling up its leg. Recovering his strength he confidently neared the insect and raised his index finger and thumb over its tiny body to hold and crush it. But the bug was continuing to go up the leg, disregarding what was going to happen to it soon.
‘What a trifling thing, how slowly does it move! I may kill it at any moment with my fingers. Its death is imminent in my hand!’ He was gloating. He would not let the chance go. He would take the revenge. He would get back the blood which the bug had sucked, he decided. All around him there had been volcanic irruptions. He would crush the whole world; incinerate it, if he could.
He was sweating. Pearl drops adorned his forehead. Tremulous, he neared the bug and brought his fingers over it but instantaneously came back two steps. ‘If I kill it, a river of blood which will flow from its veins and arteries, may flood the earth.’ He felt a tremendous force of the flowing blood under his feet. Somehow he managed to save himself from falling by holding the edge of the cot.
After a while he opened his eyes and looked around to verify whether he was in the right place. Hot red torrents of blood vanished. He recovered his senses.
Over his head there was the roof from where the water usually trickled during the rains. On his right, upon the wall there was a sparrow’s nest. An extinguished hearth, stained cups and utensils adorned the place beyond the door. The cane chair was now behind him. As he looked back at the chair and the book that had fallen on the floor, he remembered that the bug had drunk his blood.
He was on his knees, holding the edge of the cot. The bug also had neared the same edge. Though it remained there unmoved, by a little effort it could go under the quilt or could be lost within its folds. The moment their eyes met, the bug again moved.
He became angry and very revengeful. Without any further dalliance he raised the insect with his thumb and index finger. The moment the insect was raised, it bit him. With pain and anguish he went to the window and shook the vermin off his hand. The rogue started falling below, frantically moving its legs. He went ballistic, failing to kill it instantly. However, he rejoiced its fall.
Gasping for breath for some time like a wild boar, he suddenly exclaimed, ‘I too could go down and settle the score with him’ and ran down the stairs. He was in no time on the road. It was noon. The asphalt was burning. A light air above it was dancing in the sun. The road was less frequented at that time. He made a thorough search for the bug. Both sides of the road were sloped as usual. Dried mud with broken lines was seen just below his window. He knelt down, expecting to find the vermin in the gutter. Under the scorching sun with sweat dropping from his body he started crawling alongside the drain. Soon he became dog-tired but found the bug resting in a shadowy place.
With stiff muscles and thoroughly revengeful mind he lowered his hand to lift it with two fingers but just at that moment an octogenarian crone,
(it was made acquaintance but I restored the word crone) resting on a stick, was passing through the road. On her left hand was a bag. A pair of thick and hazy glasses with many scratches on them adorned her eyes, full of crow’s foot. As he looked at her eyes, it seemed that strange rays were being emitted through them. The hunchback woman had her rosary hanging from her neck.
As she looked at him with her tired eyes, resting on her sticks with an unusual inquisitiveness, he abruptly stood erect on his feet. He knew that the people of the world were selfish and treacherous. As she continued to look askance at him, he shuddered and recoiled. ‘A teacup after the tea is sipped gets sullied with stains of the drink’, he remembered as he had a few such cups in his house. After a pause the old crone resumed walking at a snail’s pace. As she crossed him and had gone, he felt that she was emitting a hind light, which was mingled soon with the blazing sunlight.
‘I think that she is a prehistoric mammal, who has become aware of my conspiracy against the bug. Back home she will whisper about my affairs to her people and then all of them would come running, to call for my explanation.’ He mused.
But ignoring her he was again on his knees to see the bug so he could finish the worm quickly before others arrived. Now the bug was walking on the road, almost a highway. He started crawling behind it slowly. He seemed to have gathered massive strength and conviction to complete the work soon. But an unexpected incident happened. A car was coming at a high speed from afar. The driver, at a distance, took him to be a quadruped. When the car was very near, he tried to get up in fear but was, unfortunately, run over. The driver soon realized his misdeed. As the road was almost deserted, he drove away for his life.
Gradually a few people gathered around the dead body. The body was beyond recognition. No one knew the owner of the body. No one knew who killed him and how.
The head was smashed. One of the eyes came out entirely, leaving only a cavity in its place, the other was badly mauled. Was the man one-eyed? A question hung in the void. His waist was buried deep and a few ribs from the diaphragm were showing themselves to the sky. The lower parts of the body, including the legs, were intact. His clothes became the skin of his body.
The police was informed as usual. They came in a van, made some enquiries and left. Further enquiries were to be conducted before taking the body. Some policemen were retained near the body to keep vigil. The place became crowded in the meantime. The neighbors from the surrounding houses stooped from the windows in different floors, including the window of the room used by the dead person. Several faces hung with unknown curiosity in their eyes.
From the chunk of the clotted matter a thin yellowish blood flowed towards the slope. The bug crossed the flow very slowly. It sniffed but did not taste the blood flowing from the dead. It moved further on. It is strange that no one noticed the vermin.
Moments are preceded by moments followed by others. No one moment can stay put. It is known. But some moments become remarkable to some or many. Even after long past they are remembered with awe or reverence, with pride or remorse, whatever it may be. It was such a moment when Latha came out from the turning of the lane, the renovated slum, of which they were the original inhabitants, dressed in a new green silken sari, fair with face powder, eyes bigger with collyrium, lips red-polished and a scented jasmine circlet adoring her chignon.
She came accompanied by her aunt with a big filarial leg, her mother and sisters. She looked like a beautiful bride. As she came near, the tall young man, who was waiting alone in the auto rickshaw, came out and greeted her. She saw her match maker for the first time in her life. But she was yet to see her bridegroom. The auto driver came out from a dark corner where he was smoking. He threw the butt of the cigarette and held the steering happily. The women stopped talking. As her smiling younger sisters clung to her, a pearl drop fell on the ground from her eye. Her face seemed uncertain out of trepidation. Gowri saw balls of sweat on her face glistening in the road light as she bent her head to enter the small vunty. The tall man entered from the other side and the driver sped his vehicle breaking the midnight silence with a harsh sound. It was just four days after her auspicious manjal neer (puberty) ceremony, Gowri remembered.
On the way to toilet through the balcony her eyes had fallen on the lane and she had spotted an auto rickshaw waiting in the middle of it at the unseemly hour. Intrigued, she stopped for some time there. After the nocturnal moment was over, she left for her errand. Completing her job she came back to her bed but could not sleep soon.
What a marriage? What it could be? She wondered and involuntarily began ruminating on the affairs of those people. She knew them well ever since she settled in this seaside locality of Pondy after her marriage. Once it might have belonged to the fisherman community but now it belonged to all communities. Of them the family of Lathas was famous for their selfishness and possessiveness. Belonging to a narrow sect of a religion, they had all sorts of cards to enjoy things available free or cheap, which were allowed to all special categories of people, either this way or that. Religiously converted, they were aware of their original castes but outsiders would not know for none of them used titles after their names.
Gowri saw her grandfather who walked with a crutch in his old age. They lived occupying a piece of Government land. As his children increased in numbers they scattered, living here and there in nearby areas, but their original dwelling with a small icon in a corner, remained. The crutched man himself became the progenitor in his lifetime of some 100 family members. His sons did something, one of the many things such males usually do, and looked after their own affairs. Most of them are married and they have children and children’s children. Huts increased in number. Slums became thick day by day. Giving them pattas for land, distributing sari and rice through popular distribution system for free became the pious, popular and essential work of the politicians, their mainstay to earn their votes. Their children have been going to school; boys with neckties or bowties on their uniforms, girls with similar show in skirts. But their progress through free education system usually stagnates after a while. Many wisely become school drop outs rather than crowding the classes unnecessarily. It is a case of neglect- both ways. None are very serious about real education. After some years they usually marry or live with some. Some become comparatively richer with brick built, asbestos roofed dwellings but some remain in thatched houses. Some of them have left for Chennai some for Dubai.
Old values are crumbling down, borrowed ideas and practices are growing among newer denominations. It is a vast thing for study. But Gowri knew one thing for sure that each group of people knew their origin by heart. They knew their capacities, their limitations. In spite of the discovery of such things as chromosomes and genes, the cause of difference by birth, blood and heredity has remained a puzzle to all educated and uneducated people, Gowri thought. No cloning is likely to solve the problem, she concluded mentally.
The daughters of the crutched man who no longer remained on earth, tried to catch men of higher orders. They could not be married off easily but they attracted some handsome men, may be for a while. Most of the four sisters gave birth to ordinary children, some bordering the ugly. Such people manage to have children to use them at suitable points of time till they go out of their reach. They all live in nearby dwellings. None of them had a husband living with them except the last one who looked little better even with black complexion.
Gowri now remembered that after an absence of one year she came back with two daughters and a husband. The husband looked nice but disturbed. Both the husband and the wife spoke Hindi. The husband, a fish out of water, was shy of remaining in the locality. He moved round places doing odd jobs, returning home late in the evening. But he could not stay even for a year. After a couple of months he used to sleep in a suitable place outside the room. Road was his only refuge. He was much attached to his children. Gowri saw him carrying them on his shoulders or flank. He was attached to his wife also. Often he was seen talking to her or embracing her even on the road, near home. Gradually his stay became irregular. The time in between his visits became longer. Though he was originally from Tamil Nadu, his forefathers settled in the North. Again the question of originality diffused her thought. She was not sure of his real origin. Let that go, she thought. He was considered a persona non grata, a floating rogue who was temporarily attached to the youngest of the four daughters. He was not desired now, pushed away from their den, from the locality and finally from the town.
Of the two daughters, Latha the elder one looked well so grew up nicely under the tutelage of all the sisters, including her mother. And now she was used, at the right time. An idea about the fate of the innocent girl gnawed at Gowri’s heart.
‘Why are you laughing?’ Gowri asked the mother of Latha as the four sisters were crossing her doorway the next morning. Kalamuchi, the eldest one grinned, ‘To be able to laugh properly we celebrated Manjal Neer so pompously. The highest bidder only could have her.’
Not one or two but seven days passed by before Latha was dropped by an auto rickshaw at night. For the first two days after she came back she was in seventh heaven. She wore a costly sunglass, silken skirt and silver anklet. She danced like a pea-chick before her friends. All her friends, both male and female, gathered round her to hear about the new life into which she was initiated. After a couple of days she resumed going to school with others.
‘What the other girls in the school will learn from her?’ Gowri shuddered. Most of them would not complete their studies and of those who would appear for the final examination, many would get plucked, she was sure. Yet the minister’s chest gets swollen when he narrates how education system has been improving year by year after he introduced noon-meal and breakfast-milk programmes in such schools. It is such a thing that does not invite comments for it is self explanatory, Gowri thought.
The tall pimp has become very familiar. Often he comes to fetch her or to stay for a night. Latha’s elder cousin sister, who joined the trade earlier, enjoys the tales of the neophyte. They go to school together and come back.
One day when Latha, a slim girl without much sign of womanhood, was coming back alone from school, Gowri, with painful affection for her asked, ‘What did you learn? How is life now?’
The teenager quipped with a sardonic smile, ’I have learnt the same as you learnt before me. My life? Can’t you see yours?’
Dumbfound, Gowri thought, ‘Will she ever reach her proper youth as normally a lady should? Who’s the trafficker?
She or her mother?’
I was going through the wood, so dark that the depth could not be guessed. No sign of light was there all around, yet I was definitely moving towards a flickering light. It was neither bright nor dim, in a sense inexpressible. My steps were neither hasty nor rambling, but steady towards the goal. Forward and forward my body was moving, nowhere but towards the light through the wood, which was dark and lovely. All this was a sensation of the surroundings, a vague but deep feeling. My sight was directed neither to this nor to that. It was not looking at anything but the light.
The mind was trying to form some images, trying to brood over them and some stories but no definite formation was possible, no pattern could be weaved. Some figures of the bygone days, some forgotten faces passed quickly by before my eyes, as in a cinema screen. They gave slight pain for what was not achieved, shame for what was done. The blood flowed quickly inside the body. Some distant relations came together to re-create the past stories but nothing could stand firmly in that quickly passing screen, faces were scattered and lost. The mind was again silent and still, at repose.
I was moving through the forest alone. No human face could stand, no happiness, no sorrow for long. No sense of time perturbed me but an interminable attachment towards that vague light, which dragged me forward and forward.
After all human faces vanished; there appeared giant animals, predators and beasts more serious. Perhaps ghosts also. There were some roars, some hooting, some attempts to paw, scratch and bite. Though all such attempts failed, the illth of them remained for some time. They moved and jumped all around me but none could touch or scratch, even faintly. Fearlessly I moved, neither quickly nor slowly but with steady steps towards the goal.
Gradually I was unmindful of my steps. I was walking and yet not walking but proceeding towards the light. After some more time I found myself before the bars of a window, through which that vague light was visible. It was steadily burning. The room was as big as to contain that unwavering white flame only. I saw myself as if in a mirror, trying to enter through the window but failed to do it like a caterpillar, which hurts its head against the closed window uselessly. This was going on again and again. I was observing myself without a remedy.
Then suddenly that happened. There was no window, no room. The huge flame was in my centre, burning steadily alone. There was no air, no wavering of anything. The fire was burning with its head aloft. I was in it, consumed by it. Who witnessed the whole dissolution? It was I, of course.
(c) Aju Mukhopadhyay, 2009