Chapter 1: Harbart

By Nabarun Bhattacharya

No chains on my feet, no beats to my heart
Awake in Nirvana, my consciousness stilled
– Bijay Chandra Majumdar

– Let him sleep it off. That’s all he needs.

May 25. 1992. That was what Barka had said between spurts of vomit on his way back from the office of ‘Dialogue with the Dead’, or Harbart’s room, to the house in the lane the house on the road the house somewhere very late at night. Koton, Somnath, Koka, Doctor, Barka… all these people’s memories of their return home from the boozing session were blurred. There were dirty wet spots on the moon. Foamy grains of light were suspended by the streetlamps. Everything was slithering in the heat. The fries, the chickpeas, the whisky, rum, iced water were all frothing out of the stomach. Cockroaches emerged through the grille covering the drain and flew towards the lights. Koka had vomited on the Duttas’ gate. He had still not forgotten the warm sour slippery pungency of that vomit. Doctor and Koton were duelling against each other’s urine streams. An oil-stained cloud like a sack slipped a blindfold over the moon. The corporation tap was next to the milkmen’s slums. The mad old woman in rags was sitting there, her legs splayed, splashing water. Dogs with rotted flea-ridden skins were trembling in their sleep at the sound of screeching owls. On Harbart Sarkar’s attic-roof the dish antenna for capturing Star TV signals had been staring upwards with its mouth open to catch falling stars. After their urine-duel had ended, Doctor had told Koka who was holding on to the gate, vomit if you do, vomit if you don’t. That’s why I swear I don’t like drinking with you arseholes. Fuck getting high. Fuck getting drunk. All you do is raise hell!

Harbart-da screwed! Harbart-da fucked! Koton screamed.

Koka was trying to tell himself he’d swear off booze for life. But even he ran off with threads of vomit hanging like saliva from the corner of his mouth because Somnath was shouting loud enough in his nasal voice to wake up the neighbourhood, Khororobi’s coming. Khororobi’s coming to feed you fish. So what if Khororobi had drowned? He could still come. If Harbart-da summoned him he certainly would.

Such was the plan that night. This was what you call a lethal or fatal googly. Usually such nights passed in a haze of drunkenness. They were accompanied by a dead breeze.

The big clock in the first-floor verandah struck one. About eight cockroaches were smacking their lips over a meal of the remnants of the fries on plates of dried leaves and the the Gujarati chickpea gravy at the bottom of the earthen pots. Plotting to hunt one of them, the fat lizard on the wall nearest the road climbed down the wall, crept up the legs of Harbart’s bed to check whether he was asleep or not. He saw that Harbart was motionless. Then the lizard crawled across Harbart’s chest and climbed down his arm to discover that the end of the arm was submerged in chilled water smelling of blood. Gauging the distance between the arm and the rim of the bucket with his green eyes, he leapt onto the rim. As he skipped down the side of the bucket, about to decide which of the caterpillars to target, a strange blue light blinded everyone. The lizard and the cockroaches had seen this unsual sight. On the outer side of the wall, at the window facing the lane, a nymph was trying to approach Harbart, rubbing her face on the dust and grime on the glass pane of the window and beating her wings. The warm vapour from her blueish face fogged up the window, her tears washed away the grime. Harbart’s eyes were half-open at the time. Although they were closed fully by someone else afterwards. Such was the plan that night. Then the ants began arriving just before dawn. Ants know how to share without conflict. The black ants head for fragments of food, grains or ground food stuck between the teeth. The red and large ants prefer the direct route of nostrils, phlegm, eyes and saliva to the corner of the lips, the base of the tongue, the weak gums and so on. In such a crowd of carnivorous ants and insects a handful of loud crickets is insignificant, naturally. For in good times and in bad, they have over the generations sung praises neither to civilisation nor to barbarism. Whether anyone listens or not.

A rusted iron hook was hammered into the wall. From its crook hung Harbart’s umbrella. It wasn’t visible because, like Dracula’s cape, Harbart’s overcoat hung over it. In a niche in the wall near the head of Harbart’s bed were two extremely useful books:

1: ‘All About the Afterworld’ written by Mrinalkanti Ghosh Bhaktibhushan, Revised and Enlarged Second Edition. Price: Rs 2 only. Only the pages from 171 onwards remained. Hence the first item on view was a photograph of Maharaj Bahadur Sir Jatindramohan Tagore KCSI. The information presented with the photograph revealed that he passed away on January 14, 1908, at the age of 77 – the book began thus – “…wrote, ‘Ma, I have made you suffer terribly, forgive me. I am at peace now after having suffered a great deal of pain too.’ After writing many more of such things, Shibchandra’s wife’s trance broke. She began to cry for her daughter…” Etc.

2: ‘The Mysteries of the Afterworld’ by Kalibar Bedantabagish.

Harbart had got these two books from his grandfather Beharilal Sarkar’s collection. Besides ‘The Mysteries of the Afterworld’ none of the other books Harbart had picked up was intact. There was another book that was intact too – ‘The History of the Philosophy of Grammar, Volume One,’ by Gurupada Haldar. For obvious reasons, Harbart had never even opened this book. But he had read ‘The Infestation of Ghosts in the Circus’ in crumbling, bound volumes of ‘Natmandir’ magazine. From it he had acquired the additional information that the two actresses Suchinta and Sukumari, who were sisters, were nicknamed Suchi and Bhundi, that Srimati Sushilasundari used to act in Professor Bose’s Grand Circus, and that two other actresses, Hiranmayee and Mrinmayee, aka Bhooti and Bhoma, lived on Beadon Street. From one point of view Harbart felt a certain attraction for them, felt a certain kinship that didn’t care for actual acquaintance or even for being contemporaries. “The terrified screams of the women and the commotion created by the men at the dead of night made the palace of Pithapur quake in a very literal sense. Under the impression that another unprecedented supernatural act had taken place, Gopal Duria and the other stable hands ran up from their living quarters!” – it would not be an exaggeration to say that Harbart had virtually seen the incident with his own eyes.

Realising that beating her wings against the window-pane for hours on end was producing no results, the nymph, worried that the sky was turning light, returned to the shop before dawn. The lizards and cockroaches didn’t pay attention to the nymph anymore. A fly trapped in Harbart’s room had, like a blind shark in the ocean, scented blood around midnight when Harbart had cut the vein in his left hand. But being blind, he hadn’t been able to reach the spot. When light began filtering into the room, he flew off to perch on a razor-blade lying on the floor, the blood on it no longer sticky but drying. Harbart’s left hand, the vein cut open, was submerged in ice-water in the iron bucket. The eyes were partly open. The face was no longer as fair or sharp as at other times, however. It had darkened. The mouth was parted. The right arm was folded on the chest. All that alcohol was meant to have reduced the agony.

After the people who had sent the letter – and, later, the newspaper photographers and reporters and the college students – had left, Koton, Barka, Koka, Gyanobaan, Buddhimaan, Somnath, Abhay, Khororobi’s brother Jhapi, Gobindo… all of them entered to find Harbart trembling uncontrollably. Gasping, sweating. He had taken off his shirt. The table-fan was rotating in an arc, and Harbart was moving along with it to stay in the line of the breeze. They stopped the fan from rotating. Made Harbart sit on the bed and gave him a glass of water. Ordered some special tea for him. Harbart calmed down gradually. Fear hadn’t left his eyes. He kept saying, it’s all become a googly. All a googly. Oh… my heart’s beating so fast. So fast. God, what kind of a set-up is this!

– Boss! Calm down now. Relax. Another cup of tea?

– No. I’m never eating again. It’s hitting all the time. Won’t stop. Crawling, but still. Down on the floor, but still! Slaps,
kicks, punches…

Harbart broke out in loud sobs, trying to pull his own hair out of its roots. Kicked the pillow off the bed. Looked at himself in the small mirror in the niche, suddenly stood upright through his tears, a smile on his face, said, fucking orphan, son of a whore, don’t want to make money buggering ghosts any more? Couldn’t do living people, had to go fuck the dead and get a rod up your arse. How does it feel now to eat shit? Is it sticking to your gums, how does it feel, Harbart, Haar… baart, Haa… aar… baart.

He rained slaps at random on his own face, bouncing up and down. They managed to wrestle him back into a sitting position on the bed. His dhoti came loose. He was only in his underwear. He kept swaying forward and backward, his eyes shut.

– Won’t talk any more, not talking any more. Not even a bubble. Wait on the shore with your hook as long as you like, you won’t see a sign of me. Piu kahan, piu kahan!

– Get a hold on yourself boss. Lie down for a bit.

They tried to force him to lie down.

– No, let go. Stomach’s churning. Funny feeling.

– Need to shit?

– Probably. Let me try.

To go to the toilet Harbart had to go round the back to the rear entrance used by the toilet-cleaners – that was the arrangement for servants. Seeing Harbart clad in nothing but his underwear, some children yelled, “Buttface, buttface!” Koton went out to grab them, saying – want a kick on your butt, you can forget all your jokes. The children ran away.
They waited for Harbart in his room. The boss will be just fine after he’s had a shit, they commented.

The person named Doctor had a medicine-shop. Although he had read only up to Class Seven, Doctor knew a lot.

– I’m thinking of something else. Very often before a heart-attack you feel like vomiting, shitting.

– I’ve seen them shit when they hang themselves.

– Shut up. Here we’re talking about fucking heart-attacks how the fuck does hanging come into it.

– That’s why his dad named him Gyanobaan. Knowledgable.

– Don’t you bring my dad into it Koka. I’ll screw you.

So the conversation went. Outside the sunlight was taking on the magic of the waning afternoon. A weak golden glow. Suddenly they saw the beauteous Harbart bathed in that glow. His hair and body were wet, the hair on his chest was wet, his wet hair was sticking to his scalp. His underwear was dripping water. Water dripped from him continuously while Harbart smiled. Pirouetting into the room, he said as he took a towel from the line to dry himself –

– The tank was overflowing, so I felt like a bath.

– How do you feel now boss.

– Have this great feeling. Want to go out somewhere.

– No booze tonight boss?

– What do you mean no booze. Going to be a fucking festival. The booze will knock us out tonight. Make us fly. The real thing.

– Thank goodness your mood’s improved.

Harbart put on a fresh dhoti. Talking as he did. Talking as he combed his hair. Put on a fresh full-sleeved shirt. Then opened his trunk. Counted out some money. Lots of money. Licking his fingers as he did.

– As if we care for moods. Sons of whores don’t have all that fancy bullshit, remember. All we have is fun. Can’t tell you what a show the cuttlefish on the bottle-tree are putting on. Tring-tring the bells are ringing. Red and blue lights flashing – like at the disco. Then there’s the big fish gleaming on the branches, the tiny fish are glittering on the leaves. Twinkle-twinkle. Twinkle-twinkle. No one can stop the shit, I tell you. The white-skins tried so hard. You think they could stop it? When the white-skins gave up these people came – look, if only shooting your mouth off in English could stop all the shit, how easy it’d all have been…

He wrapped a rubber-band around the wad of notes. Then threw the bundle into Gobindo’s lap.

– Three thousand. Enough for a portable.

– TV for the club boss?

– What did you think? Since everyone’s calling it a fraud I’m not fucking keeping any of that money. And Koka, here’s four hundred. For the booze.

– Four hundred! That’s twenty bottles boss!

– Twenty! Fuck off! Not some local hooch. English – straight from the foreign liquor shop.

– What should I get Harbart-da? Big boys going to play tonight.

– Get a large whisky. A large rum. Get three kilos of ice from the other market. Fries and that spicy chick-pea thing for the non-drinkers, and those prawn cutlets, where the tails stick out. Salted peanuts, cigarettes… hell, do I have to tell you everything? Got to learn for yourself how to blow up cash. Tonight’s the night for fun. Slutfun.

Harbart had told them to turn up at eight-thirty. Then he had napped for a while. Woken up at seven. Taken a chair outside, climbed on it to bring down the signboard. Which said ‘Dialogue with the Dead. Prop: Harbart Sarkar’. Turned its face towards the wall. There used to be a new razor-blade under the books in the niche in the wall. He had checked whether it was still there. Then shut the door and gone upstairs to meet his aunt. She was watching TV in rapt attention. He had stood silently for a while and come away. Scribbled something across the half a page from a notebook and put it in his breast pocket. The booze party had been a hit. A lot of ice had melted in the bucket. Harbart had told them the fan would spread the cool air and make the room comfortable. They had me scared, Harbart had told them. That Ghosh, the one who wrote the letter – the bastard was staring at me like a stubborn stork. And he kept spouting English, kept spouting English. The more he did the more my balls shrunk.

– And that newspaper girl such a weird chick boss! Smoking away one moment, taking photos with her flashgun the next.

– So Harbart-da, all this dialogue with the dead of yours – all bullshit?

– What do you think?

– If it was all bullshit why would all those people come to you. All those people, all those things you told them – all crap?

– But no more of this business. If I’m going to get a bad name Harbart Sarkar is out of here.

– Then what’ll you do boss.

– Got to figure it out. Something will come up. Bound to. Have you seen I’ve taken the signboard down. Koka, show us that act of yours.

Koka had two terrific acts. One was an ad for isabgol named ‘Hanuman taking a crap on a chair-shitpot’ – he’d picked it up from TV. The other was Mohun Bagan manager Goju Bose’s expression when football stars Krishanu Dey and Bikash Panji had signed for his club after he had chase them for years.

– Which one boss? The chair-shitpot?

– No no, Goju Bose.

Koka performed his act. Much merriment. They were all higher than a kite. The ice had melted entirely and filled the bucket with water. A little rum remained in the bottle. When they left Harbart was shutting the window. Barka had said between spurts of vomit on his way back to the house in the lane the house on the road the house somewhere very late at night…

… Let him sleep it off. That’s all he needs.

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