Ten Days of the Strike: Sandipan Chattopadhyay

It was September 27, Thursday. The month, October. The toilet of Shubhobroto’s flat had now been blocked for ten days in a row. The morning of Tuesday before last. Before going to the market, Shubho normally checked, to the accompaniment of a cup of tea and two biscuits, how the week would go. That day, too, he had just fixed his eyes on Aries when his seven-year-old daughter Pinky came out of the bathroom and said, ‘Bapi, the pan filled with water when I pulled the chain.’ ‘Hmm,’ said Shubho, hoarsely.

‘Yes, it’s still full. Take a look.’

Shubho had never heard of such a thing. They had eventually twisted the arms of the company sufficiently to extract an eight per cent bonus. Screaming ‘We want’ and ‘Meet our demands’ for the past one-and-a-half months had almost deprived him of his vocal cords. And at last, since the sky really was looking blue now, since there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky, he had assumed that, as before, this time too the Durga Puja holidays would go well. What strange mockery of the gods this was at such a juncture.

Shubho’s ancestral house was in Ahiritola, on Joy Mitra Street. Five years ago, when the company had moved to Joka from Behala, he had also been forced to move home with his wife and daughter. After all, a three-shift job couldn’t be held down from Ahiritola. The house was over sixty years old, and thirty of his years had been spent there at a stretch. But even in that house he had never heard of anything like this. Naturally it didn’t seem believable.

Shubho rushed to the bathroom, still holding the newspaper. There he saw, what rubbish, there wasn’t a drop of water in the pan. There had been, certainly, because of which some stool was still stuck to the sides. But there was no more water now, all of it had flowed in. So without going in for any more chain-pulling, he filled the ten-litre bucket and dumped all of it into the pan.

Oh god! Look, not only had water and stool come rushing up, racing each other to fill the pan, but they had also overflowed onto the bathroom floor. He swooped down on the sweeper’s broom to at least clean the floor before Kuntala turned up. Her mania for cleanliness had reached a stage where, except for sex, everything at home had been classified as ‘yours’ or ‘mine’. So much so that their toothbrushes on the glass tray above the basin didn’t dare knock against one another. In fact, even the plastic clothesline on which Kuntala’s and Pinky’s clothes were hung up to dry was different from his – theirs was the shade of deep anger. Although he had had this explained to him repeatedly, in his mild rush after his bath to get to work, he had hung his towel on that line one day and then – good god – what a row! All the way through dressing and eating, the bickering had continued up to the moment he had shut the door behind him. He had even suspected that she would throw the rest of her invectives at him from the veranda. So Shubho quickly tried to at least… Just as he’d thought. The girl had told her mother. Or perhaps the racket made by those ten litres of water had made Kuntala rush out of the kitchen and turn up in person to investigate, the end of her sari tucked into her waist. Although the bathroom floor was more or less clean, the toilet was still a grotesque mess of shit and piss. His pyjamas were wet up to the knees.

‘Oh god!’ said Kuntala. Untwisting the end of her sari from her waist, she clamped it on her nose with a force which suggested that she wouldn’t stop until she had unwrapped the entire thing.

The first thing Shubho did was to run to Gopal-babu, the ancient tenant on the ground floor. He dealt in milk products in Notun Bajar, quite a solvent business. Spreading out ten-and-odd saris on the bed, his wife was explaining her Puja gift purchases to him, while he was saying,’O no no no, this one suits you, don’t give it away.’ He wasn’t particularly pleased when Shubho entered suddenly through the back door and appeared in the bedroom without so much as a by your leave. ‘What is it?’ he asked.

On hearing the whole story, be said, ‘Come now. You realised it today. We’re ground floor. Our stuff hasn’t been passing since last week.’

‘What! But you never told me! How did you manage?’

‘Come now. We’re refugees. Came over and settled on a platform in Sealdah Station. Never mind us. Me and my son go shit in that field there.’

‘What!’ Shubho gulped. ‘And the ladies?’

‘They take a rickshaw to my wife’s sister’s place over in Unique Colony. Why don’t you tell the landlord?’ Changing the colour of his eyes like a cat, Gopal-babu smiled dirtily and said, ‘You’re very thick with him.’

He had been living there for fifteen years. His rent hadn’t been raised by a paise. In five years, Shubho had voluntarily increased the rent he paid by Rs 25, in the hope of a few drips and drops of favours. A bolt on the door had broken, the landlord hadn’t bothered to have it repaired. To rub salt into the homeless Gopal-babu’s wound, he had put up a tin-roofed room under his very nose and taken in a Muslim tailor named Liaqat Ali as tenant. The new tenant had no toilet. Apparently he raised the iron lid of the septic tank at dawn every day and, along with his offspring, defecated inside directly. And today Gopal-babu was being snide with him about the landlord! Shuhho really had been mistaken. When merely letting out a two-room flat brought in an advance of ten thousand rupees that wouldn’t have to be returned, twenty-five a month was nothing but a pinch of snuff.

His lips had assumed the shape of the letter o for a long time now. Seeing him in a fix, Gopal-babu probably felt sorry for him. Changing his tune, he said he and his family could cope, but Shubho and his family were cultured people, their case was different. There was something Shubho could do – he could go to Kalikishto-babu, the Conservancy Block Officer of the ward. Nutu’s tea-shop near Pushposree Cinema Hall – that was where the gentleman was to be found every morning. If Shubho went right away, he’d see him there. Kalikishto-babu would find a solution.

At that moment Gopal-babu got a phone-call from Notun Bajar. Grabbing the receiver, he said ‘Hello-who-yes-no-yes-no-yes-yes-no…’ into it. When he found Shubho still standing there, he arranged his fingers and the upturned palm of his left hand into a Bharatnatyam pose, telling Shubho to go quickly.

The gentleman was middle-aged, with the muscular appearance of those who deal in shit and cheese. A two-day stubble on his cheek, without a single white hair. Shubho found him exactly where he was supposed to be. And yes, Shubho was definitely efficient, for he managed to get the gentleman into a rickshaw and straight home within fifteen minutes. Sitting on the sofa, Kalikishto-babu took a luxuriant pinch of snuff between his fingertips, some of it spilling onto his half-dirty kurta. Gesturing towards the TV set, he asked, ‘Watched the Olympics?’

‘Yes.’

‘Not as good as the Russian one.’

‘No. But…’

‘Saw the P. T. Usha thing? Choo-choo.’

‘Oooh, Just a hair’s breadth.’

‘Yes. Juuuust a little more…’

‘The Bengali newspaper had the best headline – Usha touches gold and returns.’

At that moment, quite a lot of fried-rice, with two – yes, two – entire sweets arrived on a quarter-plate, carried by – not Panchidi – but Kuntala herself. ‘Tea or coffee?’ she asked

‘En-no-no. Tea…’

Shubho saw Kuntala standing by the curtain. He didn’t hesitate anymore and said, ‘Well, Kalikrishno-babu, about our toilet… ‘

‘That’s being taken care of. I’ve told Tulsidas. He’ll be here any moment.’

The bell rang downstairs almost immediately. Pinky ran to the balcony. ‘Is that Tulsidas?’ bellowed Kalikrishno-babu.

Before removing the lid of the first tank downstairs, Kalikrishno-babu asked Shubho to step away. Even Gopal-babu drew the curtains of his windows. Standing astride the opening to the septic tank, Tulsidas rotated a long, curved pole inside. Because of the horrible, fearsome stench, the windows of the first floor closed one by one. Only Kalikrishno-babu stood tapping his nose with his index finger, while Shubho held his handkerchief over his nose.

Putting the lid back, Tulsidas jumped down from the cement tank. Shubho noticed his splendid physique for the first time. He was completely naked except for the short dhoti wrapped around his waist, at least six feet tall, with thick hair on his chest, and an aluminium disc hanging from a chain around his neck. Shubho suddenly recalled that their print of Nandalal Basu’s painting Kiratarjan, which used to hang for at the head of their dining table, had fallen to the floor during a storm, the glass breaking. It would have to be framed again. Tulsidas said, ‘The tank isn’t completely blocked yet. It’ll work for a few days more. But vanishing is a must.’

Vanish? What was that? To make something vanish was to hide it. Like making a corpse vanish. Or stolen goods. What was it that was to be made to vanish here?

Kalikrishno-babu said, ‘Do you know how long it’s been since the tank was cleaned?’

‘I know,’ said Gopal-babu, drawing the curtain. ‘Eighteen years.’ He drew the curtain back. Kalikrishno-babu said to the man behind the purdah, ‘That does it. Do all of you use acid to clean your pan?’

No reply. Shubho said, ‘We do.’

‘Then don’t,’ said Kalikrishno-babu.’The insects that breed in the tank eat up the stool, that’s why the water flows easily between the tanks. Four tanks in all. What happens is that if the acid kills off the insects, the outlet of the first tank gets jammed with stool and dead insects.’

Shubho said something that had occurred to him right at the beginning. ’Kalikrishno-babu. The sanitary privy in our Ahiritola house is at least forty years old. But it never…’

‘Look. That is in Calcutta. It is connected to the central sewerage. Goes straight to the dumping ground in Dhapa through the underground system. And this is Behala. It’s a personal system here.’

‘I see.’ The basics of socialism and capitalism became somewhat clearer to Shubho.

The meaning of ‘vanish’ also became obvious. It was nothing but the use of a bundle of rags tied to the end of a long bamboo pole. Since there wasn’t enough, Kuntala had to hand over a frilled petticoat. The drawstring was removed to tie everything together, but it didn’t work. So Kuntala eventually had to offer her scarlet, for-her-majesty-only, plastic clothesline. Then, fill the pan with water and apply a vacuum-pressure on its mouth with the rug-covered battering ram. This, in short, was vanish.

But, worse luck, not even half an hour of vacuum pressuring could clear more than an arm’s length of the stuff. As soon as it had been used once or twice more, the pan filled with stool again.

That’s how it had stood on the sixth successive day. All this time, a yard or so of shit had been clearing up on its own every night, while Shubho managed to make another arm’s length worth disappear with fifteen minutes of effort every morning. The three of them somehow managed to do their business once a day, their faces covered. But for the last three days, the stool had accumulated in the pan without budging an inch.

Shuhho had been urinating outdoors since the beginning. The bathroom was a completely forbidden zone to him for this particular activity. Kuntala had made it clear on the very first day. ‘You can do that wherever the hell you can. Don’t you set foot in the bathroom.’ But two days ago, seeing that the stuff in the pan hadn’t cleared at all, she dealt a heartrending blow. ‘You can shit outside the house too. I don’t know where.’

As a result, for the past two days Shubho had been unloading where Monica – a former student of Kuntala’s – lived, across the road. He went over only after the men folk had left for work. He had had to take casual half-days at his office all those days. Never mind that, but not only was it embarrassing for a thirty-five-year-old man to use the toilet in someone else’s house, it was also, oh god, no little trouble. First, which of the mugs to use? Then, there were pieces of red-blue-yellow-differently-coloured soap on the window sill. Obviously, one was Monica’s, one her parents’, one her aunt’s or brother’s. Alas, couldn’t there have been one colour from the vibgyor exclusively for Shubho? Crossing the road every day with a mug from his own toilet was unimaginable. He had clean forgotten to pull the chain the day before yesterday. Of course, it wasn’t as though there had been any stool left in the pan. It had all disappeared while cleaning himself afterwards. But Kuntala sent him back all the same. Glaring, she practically shouted at him, ‘Go pull the chain. Someone else’s toilet, after all – shame on you.’

So, for the last two days the stuff in the pan had remained in the pan. Covering their face, shutting their eyes, mother and daughter had been unloading on the existing heap. There was no question of pouring water in either. The pan would immediately fill with water and, now, it wouldn’t even flow. Instead, it would splatter them. Kuntala’s foresight had consequently forbidden Pinky to spit into the pan. Indeed, Kuntala was more dedicated than the Anand Marg people in her quest for cleanliness. One felt, not sorry, but like weeping for her.

There was no option now but to clean the four tanks. If the Municipality were informed it might be done, but that would cost Rs 4,000 and neither the landlord nor Gopal-babu would pay a paise. Kuntala had still been willing to pawn her jewellery. But Kalikrishno-babu said the Municipality wouldn’t send its vehicle before six months. So it had been decided that he would employ a dozen sweepers overnight to clear 80-90 per cent of the stuff in the first tank, on a payment of Rs 300 for the moment. Six months of relief, at any rate! ‘Where?’ Kalikrishno-babu answered with a half-wink, ‘What business is it of yours? Here and there,’ swinging his arm in an arc that included India as well as the rest of the world. Shubho’s earlier notion of the word vanish would be given this new interpretation in the early hours of Sunday – even before the birds had risen. Or so things had been fixed. Which meant four more days in hell.

Actually four more days in hell wasn’t the right way of putting it. It was quite wrong, in fact. As in all small flats, the toilet was separated from the rest of the bathroom by a six-foot-high partition. Which meant that it was exposed at the top. The unbearable stench flowed out, filling the flat at all times. Not even incense could keep it at bay. So Kuntala had hung up a packet of Odonil in each room – including the kitchen. And – this was a lack of foresight on her part – the constant scent of five packets of Odonil bad turned the entire flat into a unique two-room toilet, complete with kitchen, storeroom and dining space. So, instead of four more days in hell, four more days in the toilet would be a better way of putting it.

It was about three in the morning. Cring-cring, cring-cring. The phone was ringing downstairs in Gopal-babu’s flat. Even a sound as soft as this could wake Shubho up. But he went back to sleep with its sounds in his ears.

Kuntala woke him up about fifteen minutes later. His mother had died a little earlier.

She had been quite old. This time her cold had taken a detour towards pneumonia. Even a couple of weeks ago, she had appeared to have turned the corner. He hadn’t been able to check on her during the toilet crisis. Did she have to take the opportunity to escape this way?

‘What went wrong so suddenly?’ he asked absently.

‘They didn’t say. Come on, hurry up. Go to Madhu-da. Ask him to get the taxi out.’

‘Y-yes, I’m going.’ Holding up his pyjamas with his hands he was running to the bathroom to urinate. Kuntala objected mildly, ‘Where do you think you’re going? The pan’s full. Nothing’s gone down all night. You’re going out, aren’t you?’ Meaning, do it outside.

‘O yes o yes,’ he said and, unbolting the door, was about to totter out bare-bodied, trapped between semi-somnolence and grief for his mother. Kuntala handed him a singlet. The first thing he did outside was to squat by the open drain.

Sunrise was some time away. One of his elder brothers was standing by the small iron gate. Putting his hand through the window he unlocked the door of the taxi and said, ‘Ah, you’re here. Come in. Couldn’t let you know earlier. O ho, o ho.’

The Ahiritola house was dilapidated. Nearly all of it was now under Shubho’s brother’s control. There weren’t enough rooms for everyone, so only when someone died did one of the young men get married. The eldest brother had died quite young of cancer, and his wife had moved with their children to the room on the roof. Shubho had got married. Their mother, of course, had delayed things considerably, and Shubho’s brother had no choice but to shift her downstairs from the first floor. Setting up a bed in a corner of the dining room and laying her on it for her final repose, he had got his nephew Boltu married the month before. The room that Shubho had shared with his eldest brother a decade ago was now in the joint possession of the family deity and his brother’s youngest son Punpun.

Ignoring the formal gestures of deference for her brother-in-law, Kuntala led Pinky directly into the dining room. Shubho sat with his brother in the front room. His brother switched on the table-lamp and the fan. Some plaster flaked off the walls, falling on the floor. They were both quiet. When the cook came and asked, ‘Tea or Viva?’ Shubho’s brother said, ‘Tea? Mmm… um…’

‘Viva then?’

‘Viva gives me wind. OK Viva.’

‘Tea for Chhotobabu?’

Shubho nodded. His brother’s chest heaved as he sighed. ‘She drank all the holy water in my hand and then passed away. Before that she threw away all the medicine Gouri had given her.’

Shubho was silent.

He was thinking of the last time he was here. His mother had obviously known she didn’t have much time left. Taking his hands, she had said, ‘Come back soon. I want water from your hands before I die.’ Since her illness began, Shubho had been visiting twice a week anyway. Suddenly, out of the blue, while all the toilets in the world were in working order, theirs had to be the one to be knocked out.

Shuhho was her favourite child. Before her got married, he had taken her on all the pilgrimages she had wanted to – Kashi-Vindhyachal, Haridwar, Kedar-Badri. At Vindhyachal he had been a bit short with her about something. That had done it – the old woman had disappeared from the dharamshala. A terrible loo was blowing in the middle of the afternoon. Searching for her all over, he had finally found her beneath a banyan tree. The way she had turned away her face in rage on seeing him was not to be forgotten. Only after much pleading had he succeeded in getting her into a tonga.

That last day he was here, his mother’s meal had just been served. When Shubho’s sister-in-law saw a couple of rats scurrying about, she exploded. ‘Oh, Ma, can’t you even shoo them off?’

What a moonglow had spread over her face! Between the rise and set of a faint smile, she had said, ‘What can I do? I used to shoo them off. They’d run away. Now they don’t pay any attention. So I call out to god now.’

That night Shubho had told Kuntala. ‘I’m bringing Ma over tomorrow.’ ‘Your brother won’t let you. Ma still wears that necklace. Besides,’ Kuntala had said, ‘Ma won’t leave her home either.’

‘Of course she will, of course she will,’ Shubho had said, thumping the bed. ‘Does she have to die in a damp room amongst rats and cockroaches? Must Gouri talk to her that way? Can you imagine how she must be treating Ma?’

‘Yes, bring her over if you can.’ Kuntala had sounded keen.

It hadn’t been possible. The toilet had become blocked immediately afterwards.

It was getting light outside. A taxi drew up. Shubho’s sister Kamala and her husband Jagadish got out amidst the ear-shattering din of street dogs barking. Switching off the table-lamp and draining his cup of Viva, a final sip, Shubho’s brother rose to welcome them. As he walked off, he said, ‘I believe your toilet’s choked?’

Drinking his tea, Shubho felt his bowels stir. He hadn’t yet been to the room of the dead. His entire being was telling him not to go in there, not to witness the one completely believable thing in life that could not be disbelieved at all.

He went to the toilet instead. A toilet that needed the light to be switched on even in the daytime. The light revealed an uneven wall and hundreds of cockroaches. A cracked, scarred pan. The sweeper came just once a week. No cistern. And yet, because it was connected to the central sewerage system, look, just two mugs of water made the shit dance away.

As Shubho’s brother’s wife touched his mother’s forehead with the bangle and vermilion of the married woman before she was placed on the cot that would take her to the crematorium, all the other married women, including Kuntala, lined up behind her – while Shubho’s brother told the photographer, S. Kumar, ‘For the rituals I want a photograph of my beautiful mother, absolutely young,’ – Shubho entered, threw a single glance at his mother and averted his eyes. Her final expression, when she was still alive, hadn’t yet been wiped off her face. ‘Thank god!’ it seemed to say.

His brother was still saying loudly, ‘O ho, is there anything I haven’t done for my mother? When she had cholera… Shubho was a little boy and she was pregnant with Kamala…’ Shubho took the opportunity, put his head on his mother’s feet and said, softly, twice, ‘Forgive me, Ma.’

There was a long line of corpses in front of the electric furnace at Nimtala crematorium. It was evening before Shubho’s mother’s turn came. Before bathing her and dressing her in fresh clothes, during the rite of ‘severance of earthly ties’, the priest at the crematorium said, ‘All this is mine,’ and started taking everything away, from the old clothes to the amulet tied around the corpse’s arm. There was a tight knot in the sari, which simply couldn’t be loosened. All of them bent down for a closer look – Shubho, his brother, his nephew, his brother’s brother-in-law. What could it possibly be? Gouri had already removed all the jewellery. Shubho’s mother had displayed her last remaining possession – the necklace at her throat – just a few days ago, telling everyone, ‘This is for Pinky.’ Gouri would never hand it over.

After a great deal of tugging and clawing, the knot was loosened and a twenty-rupee-note was found. No one knew how long it had been there. It had undoubtedly been washed several times. Holding the pulpy currency note gingerly, Shubho observed a distinctly displeased expression on the priest’s face. Taking his hands, he said, ‘Look, purutmoshai, you can still read the serial number, you just have to go to the Reserve Bank office, they stand outside on the pavement, they’ll keep a rupee at most.’ Shubho apologised repeatedly for his mother’s inconsiderate behaviour.

Dressed in her new clothes, his mother entered the furnace on a trolley. Just like a slice of bread in a toaster. At a touch of the hotplate inside, the flames leapt up. The enormous gates of the furnace came crashing down.

The next day, Friday, they went back to Behala. Shubho had phoned his office the day before, getting a verbal sanction for a fortnight’s leave. Maulik would come by with the application form. In the taxi, Shubho recalled the thought that had occurred to him the evening before while standing chest-deep in the Ganga. How would he go to Monica’s place the next day in this outfit – in the traditional garb of a son who had lost his mother? Of course, it was a matter of one day only. He was already done for today. And early on Sunday, 80-90 per cent of the stuff would be made to vanish. Which would mean six months of relief. Really, Shubho’s mother’s death had changed Kuntala overnight. She hadn’t mentioned the toilet even once. She would definitely cope with it one day more. And oh, Sunday was the first day of the Durga Puja fortnight. The morning programme on the radio would return like the childhood poem, ‘It’s dawn, night’s gone,’ waving its blue flag.

Back home, spreading sand between fresh bricks, Shubho and Kuntala were huffing and puffing for all they were worth over a nearly extinguished fire of sticks and wood – fanning was forbidden – with a boiling pot upon it, when, suddenly… whoosh whoosh!

What was that? They looked at each other with reddened, streaming eyes. Yes, the heartache of one was now, because of the smoke, rolling down as the tears of the other. But the language of their eyes was the same. Wasn’t the sound coming from the bathroom? Their eyes expressed the same hope. Pinky had run to the bathroom before anyone else. Opening the doors of the toilet, she screamed, ‘Bapi! Ma!’

Kuntala raced to the bathroom behind Shubho. What could this be but divine intervention? Despite a little stool still stuck to the sides, the pan, my goodness, was absolutely empty. There was no doubt that the pipe had opened up miraculously, and all the stuff had rushed out and sunk somewhere!

Shubho poured in an experimental mug of water. Did you see that, it just slid away like a gleeful rat. He couldn’t hold his impatience any longer. The muscles in his arm hardened in expectation of the ten-litre bucket filled with water. He poured in all ten litres at one go.

With bulging eyes he stared for a few seconds at the unblemished and clean white of the pan. Just like the inside of his thick head, which also felt clean and shining. His head had never felt so weightless! Swivelling, he did something very strange. He held his daughter up to the sky, piercing the roof of the bathroom with his screams. ‘Ma! Ma!’

Putting his daughter down, he shook Kuntala, his face lighting up as he told her, ‘Yes yes, Ma! My mother, Kunti! Ma couldn’t stand our trouble any more. She’s cleaned the jammed outlet in the tank with her own hands, believe me, look, my hair’s standing on end.’

‘You loved me so much, Ma,’ wailed Shubho, rolling and writhing on the straw-and-blanket bedding laid out on the floor. He sobbed noisily. Neither Pinky nor Kuntala could calm him down. In the kitchen, the food of mourning boiled in two side-by-side earthen pots on the brick stove, turning to bricks themselves.

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