May I know your name? Samita Majumdar. At five twenty-five the other evening did you… Yes, I leave my office at exactly ten past five, although we close at five I choose to leave a little later… It doesn’t take more than five minutes to cover the short distance… How far away do you live? I live near the Jagubajar bus-stop…
And you? Were you there that evening? … Yes. … You remember? Yes, why shouldn’t I remember? Although I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I was seated near the front… What’s your name? Ratna Dasgupta…
And you? I was standing next to the gate… Just a minute, let me get your name. Sarbari Mukhopadhyay? … You’ve got the spelling wrong, there should be an ‘h’… Sharbari? I’m sorry… Yes, so you were standing by the gate, weren’t you? Where do you work, by the way? Central Bank … The one that caught fire? No, I work at a different branch… I see, how long does it take you from there? … Five or six minutes … Sometime I get late at work – I miss the tram those evenings… Where do you live? I live near Tollygunge Bridge, here’s Reshmi, we live together…
Is your name Reshmi? … Reshmi Sengupta … What! Why should I be a Sengupta… No, I mean I used to know someone with that name, that’s why I was mistaken… She looked a lot like you… So your name is… Reshmi Chowdhury… And before you were married?…. I was a Chowdhury then too… Why does that surprise you? Oh no, I’m not surprised…
So, Reshmi-debi, were you standing by the door next to your friend Sharbari Mukhopadhyay?
No, I wasn’t near the door.
Then the two of you didn’t board the tram together? Or maybe one of you got a seat, but not the other.
I took the tram from the terminus, Sharbari got on two stops later… We live in the same neighbourhood.
Do you live in adjoining houses?
We live next to each other, but not exactly in adjoining houses.
I don’t quite understand.
I live at home. The building next door is a hostel, where Sharbari lives.
A hostel? Are you a student?
No, it’s a working girls’ hostel… Haven’t you heard about such hostels before?
I’ve read about them in English novels.
I myself know of at least five such hostels in Calcutta.
Does that mean you’ve come from some other town to work in Calcutta? Please don’t mind my asking, you’re married, aren’t you, judging from the red mark… But then this is becoming a little too personal.
You’re asking why I live in a hostel even through I’m married, aren’t you? We used to live in a flat on Anwar Shah Road earlier… My husband and I… He has to tour a lot on work. At least twenty days a month… Most of the time I had to live by myself… Managing a flat on your own… It’s a lot of trouble (laughter).
I’ll tell you… Sharbari had to live by herself most of the time… A couple of louts in the neighbourhood began to make a nuisance of themselves, kept turning up on flimsy pretexts… You men think a woman has no right to live by herself… And if she does, she must be romanced.
So you’re clubbing all men together.
Certainly. You’re all the same.
But… Let’s take your husband and those neighbourhood louts, surely they’re not the same though they’re all men? Local ruffians are one distinct breed, and husbands, another… Or take familiar and unfamiliar people… Surely they’re different breeds too, even if they’re male as well…
If a man puts his hand on the shoulder of a woman he knows, while another does the same to one he doesn’t know…. These are quite different matters. Or take a young man and an old man, they’re different from each other too.
Why this unwarranted conversation?
If you have objections I can go away at once…
Why should we object? One moment, Sumita, let’s see what he has to say…
I only want to get one or two pieces of information. Now, Sharbari Debi, there’d been some trouble in your previous neighbourhood…
That’s why I gave up the flat. I live in peace at the hostel now.
But when your husband returns to Calcutta from time to time, I’m told he’s in town at least ten days a month…
We have our own house in Ranaghat, when he’s not on tour, that’s where he stays and goes to work from. I join him Saturday evening, and go directly to office Monday morning.
Wonderful, such a modern arrangement…. Did your husband come to know of the trouble in your previous neighbourhood? Did he think you… No, never mind, you needn’t answer this question, I can see you’re getting angry… Then I take it that both of you are living contentedly now, there’s no trouble anymore in your lives… But why shouldn’t there be trouble? There’s always some trouble when you’re married (laughter)… Never mind, we’re digressing, you were standing near the door the other day… you remember the entire incident… Did you talk to him?
No. I think Anjali-do may have exchanged a word or two. Here, Anajali-di… What’s your full name? Anjali Roy. Did you talk to the man?
No, I didn’t.
Were you also standing near the door…
Anjali-di, didn’t you say you spoke…
No, I didn’t talk to him.
Were you standing near the gate too?
I don’t remember.
It was only two months ago. Don’t you remember?
I’ve already told you I don’t.
All right, do YOU remember? Excuse me, I’m asking YOU. I wasn’t even on the tram that day.
Do you alternate between the tram and the bus on your way back? Depending on whichever is easier?
No, I normally take this same tram. But I was on leave at the time you’re referring to.
It was Tuesday. Can you recollect the date, Reshmi-debi?
No idea, I don’t know.
Do YOU remember, Sharbari-debi?
That’s easy enough. It was the first of the month. Many of us were paid that day.
Sharbari is right. I remember too, it was the first, it had been overcast since afternoon.
It had probably begun to rain by then.
No, it wasn’t raining, but it was overcast.
What are you saying Sumita! It started pouring in the afternoon…. I was soaked by the time I got on the tram.
Do all of you know one another’s names?
Many of us do. We return together every day, naturally we get to know one another…. We can always tell when someone new gets on.
People who commute every day by local train also get to know one another this way. Some of them even form clubs… Card clubs, or singing clubs… Many of them even rehearse for plays inside the compartment… Do you have anything like this?
No, we don’t have a club or anything.
You just chat with one another?
Yes, we chat.
Did you discuss that evening’s incident afterwards?
Are you a reporter? Why are you asking so many questions?
No, I’m not a reporter. Reporters only gather fresh news. But this incident is two months old.
Then why are you asking so many questions?
No particular reason. If you have objections to answering…
It’s five twenty-five. Why isn’t she here yet?
There’s a meeting at Brigade Parade Ground. There must be a traffic jams. She’s certain to be late.
She may be late, but she’ll come.
The man was blind.
My name is Shiuli Dasgupta. I saw the whole thing. I’ll tell you, take it down.
You’re saying the man was…
Yes, he was blind. I was startled. The sockets for his eyes were absolutely empty, there was nothing inside.
No, not at all, he wasn’t blind at all, I saw him. He wore glasses… No, not even glasses, he was staring at everyone… He was flustered when he saw us laughing… How can you say he was blind, Shiuli… He wasn’t blind at all, if we had been blind we would…
Well then Shiuli-debi, many people are protesting. All of them are saying the man wasn’t blind.
Maybe both his eyes were shut, then.
By the way, men often sleep on a bus or a tram, but women don’t, do they?
There was no question of his sleeping, because he wasn’t seated, he was standing… No one sleeps on their feet.
Some people do sleepwalk.
Do any of you remember whether the man said anything?
Yes he did. Anjali-di was talking to him.
No I wasn’t.
Then someone else was. He had even answered.
Then we can assume he wasn’t asleep.
I even remember what he was told. Someone asked, don’t you have eyes?
A person without eyes can certainly be termed blind. Is that why Shiuli-debi said he was blind?
Whatever Shiuli-di may say, he was definitely staring.
At first I thought he was mad.
Rubbish, he wasn’t mad, he looked quite decent.
Can’t decent people be mad?
What I mean is, his clothes were quite… He didn’t look mad… He was dressed in a clean dhoti and kurta.
Dhoti and full-sleeved shirt. A grey shirt. Keds on his feet.
Wonderful, you remember quite a lot of details. Your name?
Chandra Basu. I’ve dreamt of him thrice.
How old was he?
About fifty-one or fifty-two.
Not more than sixty-five.
Below sixty, I think.
Nonsense! Not a day below seventy.
Let’s hear Chandra Basu’s opinion. Since she’s dreamt of him thrice, what she says is more credible.
People see strange things in dreams.
I saw him though in my dreams. Looking at me in surprise.
Did you dream the same scene all three times?
Have you ever dreamt thrice of a stranger before?
How do you dream so much, Chandra? I never have dreams.
I do dream, but I can never remember anything the next day.
I remember everything. I see a lot of dreams.
In your dreams, how old was the man, Chandra-debi?
About seventy, I think.
Your estimate is correct. The doctor thinks so too.
Do you know him?
I’ll tell you later. First, I have a few more questions.
Your whadoyoucallit has a male conductor. Have you ever demanded a female conductor?
Makes no difference.
The poor man suffers all the while. Has a hangdog expression.
Why do you take this one in particular on your way back instead of other buses or trams? You don’t like travelling with men?
It’s not that, it’s just that you get room in this one.
Surely not everyone gets a seat. Already some people have to stand by the time it leaves, it must get even more crowded, right? People must be jostling against one another.
That’s true. But no one does anything indecent. I feel suffocated in a bus.
You’re saying people act indecently in crowded buses and trams. Is it only men who do it, never women?
Then the question can be phrased this way, men act indecent, they brush against women, this annoys women at times, but don’t they enjoy it ever?
Enjoy it? How awful!
I don’t know about young girls but it’s intolerable to us.
Do you think they merely brush against you? They do a lot worse…
That’s true. Some people take advantage of the crowds to do horrible things, some pick pockets, some snatch necklaces, and some also give up their seats deferentially, don’t they?
Why shouldn’t they? Everyone’s not the same, there are some gentlemen too.
Most gentlemen take the minibus these days.
Does a young woman ever give up her seat for an old man?
If a woman gives up her seat for an old man she’ll have to suffer indecent advances from some other man pressing up against her.
Still, many women do give up their seats for very old men.
Have you ever done it yourself?
Yes, I mean, why shouldn’t I?
Who are you to ask all this?
Just asking. Don’t answer if you’d rather not.
No such occasion has arisen. If it had, I would certainly have.
Don’t louts get into your tram sometimes?
Some do by mistake, others, to create mischief.
How often has this happened?
What do you do in those cases?
What can we do?
Don’t you tell them to get off?
Why should we? That’s the conductor’s job, he’ll tell them.
Do they get off when the conductor tells them to?
They do, actually.
What do you do until they get off? Do all of you stare at them together?
What if Uttam Kumar or Soumitra Chatterjee were to board your tram by mistake one day? Would you ask them to get off?
Of course not!
It was Tuesday. The first of the month. The sky was full of threatening clouds, it had started drizzling. Did the man in the grey shirt get into the tram by mistake, or to create mischief?
How should we know that?
He leapt into the tram suddenly just as it started moving after the Lindsay Street stop.
Some of you were near the door too. For instance, you, Sharbari-debi. Weren’t there some other people near you?
Two or three, yes.
I don’t remember who they were.
I was there.
You are, er Chandra-debi. Did the man try to shove you aside when he got in?
No. He was probably flustered because all of us laughed.
After which someone pushed him off.
That’s a lie. A complete lie.
Who told you he was pushed off?
Can anyone possible push an old man of seventy off a tram?
Let me talk, be quiet for a minute, Sharbari, I saw it all clearly, I remember very all. He was flustered, he muttered something, whereupon everyone laughed some more. Then the man…
You said he was blind, Shiuli-debi.
He may not have been blind but he behaved as though he was…
And still he was pushed off.
That’s a lie. How strange…
Many of you use the feminine versions of your surnames… You do not object when women brush against one another. But you dislike it when there are men in a crowded tram.
What are you trying to say?
Nothing. Only information.
We really can’t stand the indecent behaviour of men in crowded buses after a hard day’s work at the office.
It was the first of the month, salary day. All your handbags were full of cash.
Handbags full of cash? Do you suppose we earn thousands every month?
We have to bring larger handbags on salary day Anjali-di.
At any rate, many of you were carrying your salaries. When he leapt into the tram suddenly, did you think he was a robber?
He could very well have been one.
But you didn’t really think he was one. Because all of you were laughing.
The man was by himself, and quite old… None of us thought he was a robber.
You were laughing too, Sharbari-debi.
We were all laughing.
Shiuli-debi, you were saying the man was…
Yes, he muttered something, then turned round and…
Couldn’t you hear what he was muttering?
Is that why someone…
Pushed him off the tram?
Of course not.
Don’t talk rot.
Did he collide with something?
Collide with something? With nothing, possibly. With the wind, perhaps.
We all saw him jump off. That’s why we thought he might be mad.
I even grabbed his arm.
You grabbbed his arm? Did you really touch him then?
Yes, as soon as he turned around… But I couldn’t hold on to him.
Were you still laughing when you grabbed his arm, Sharbari-debi?
No, why should I have been laughing?
Are you sure, Sharbari-debi?
Of course I’m sure. Still the man… the gentleman… jumped out, it was an accident.
Did y see him fall on the road?
The road was dark. The sky was dark that evening. The tram was going past the Maidan, it’s dark over there.
Why did you say he was pushed off the tram?
All of you were laughing.
Yes we were. But it was an accident. He deliberately jumped off the moving tram… It was travelling very fast.
All of you were laughing from the moment he leapt into the tram.
Yes we were, so what. Someone had said something funny…
It happens all the time… Is it a crime to laugh?
Who was it that said something funny? Does anyone remember the joke?
You were saying you remember everything, Shiuli-debi…
Does that mean I have to remember what joke each of us had told?
Only one of you did, don’t you have eyes?
Yes, only one of us did. I was just saying.
Everyone else was laughing. It was drizzling. The sky was overcast… Did the tram halt at once?
No, all of us screamed, but still the tram travelled some distance before coming to a stop…
Where was the conductor?
He was right at the front.
Didn’t he say anything?
He’s a complete idiot… This same idiot’s on duty most of the days.
Didn’t any of you ring the bell?
No, we didn’t remember to, the driver heard us screaming and…
Did any of you get off for a look when the tram stopped?
The conductor did…
None of you?
Who wants to see a macabre sight like that? How would it have helped?
It wasn’t exactly a macabre sight, anyhow.
The tram was stalled for almost half an hour, there was a big crowd.
Then the tram continued on its way, each of you got off at your respective stops, everyone at home must have been very worried that evening because you were late. Meanwhile the rain had intensified, forcing the crowds to disperse, the man lay on his back, he hadn’t bled at all.
The ambulance came, we saw it, then the tram moved. We hadn’t imagined though that he would actually…
None of you had imagined he would actually die. You had expected him to have fractured his limbs at most, bleed through his mouth, or maybe even roll over a couple of times and get to his feet.
We didn’t expect that either. We expected nothing.
You were laughing.
Why do you keep harping on that? Aren’t we supposed to laugh if someone says something funny?
Did someone say, don’t you have eyes?
Yes, I did, it’s not a crime.
Your lives have been the same since then, nothing has changed for any of you.
Why are you asking so many questions? Did you know him?
What if I tell you he was my father?
No, he wasn’t my father, I didn’t know him at all. I don’t want to impose a burden of guilt on any of you. I’ll tell you whatever I’ve come to know. His neck must have snapped as soon as he hit the ground, killing him instantly. For he didn’t make a sound, didn’t call out to anyone, he looked for all the world as though he was sleeping. He was taken to Shambhunath Pandit Hospital. The doctors declared him dead on arrival. He could not be identified. He had five rupees and seventy paise in his pocket. And some useless scraps of paper. A handkerchief, a pocket-Gita. A slim gold ring on his left ring-finger. None of it yielded an address or information about his family. His corpse was sent to the morgue at Mominpore. Even after the news of the accident was published in the next day’s papers, no one turned up to enquire about him. Eleven days later the police department advertised with this photographs, for his clothes and expression had suggested he was an educated gentleman. The gold ring and the pocket-Gita. But no one turned up with enquiries. No one came forward to claim the gold ring and the five rupees and seventy paise. After waiting a month, the corpse was cremated.
Maybe he was a redundant individual. The kind of person whose existence was irrelevant, whose death would not be a loss to anyone. Perhaps he had no one in this world to weep or mourn for him. Or even feel his absence. Maybe he was completely alone. No one knows where he might have been going with five rupees and seventy paise in his pocket! Or maybe wandering around the roads was his only occupation. It was probably his fate to drop dead on the streets some day. If he had just died in his sleep on the pavement there wouldn’t have been a stir over his death. Isn’t this what would have happened? Isn’t it surprising that not a single person enquired about him? Are there so many lonely people in his city? If he really had been so lonely, then the sound of so many women laughing in unison… he must have been wandering around the roads as he did every day – when it started raining he leapt into the wrong tram… then he heard the sound of laughter, so many women laughing at the sight of him… who knows whether he had ever married, whether he had ever even come into contact with a woman, he might have had a relationship of some kind if he had, with at least one person… No, no one wept over his death, no one felt his absence, he was an unnecessary man… Still, it is a matter of fortune for him that you, Sharbari-debi, grabbed his arm at the last minute to save him, that you, Chandra-debi, dreamt of him thrice.
Perhaps this death was the most memorable incident of his life. I believe he had seen a dream a moment before his death. A dream of several laughing faces.
Maybe even this had not been given to him earlier in his entire life.