Aadaab: Samaresh Basu

Shaking the silence of the night, the military patrol car completes a circuit around Victoria Park.

A curfew as well as Section 144 has been clamped on the city. Hindus and Muslims are rioting. Frontal battles are raging – with cleavers, spears, daggers, even sticks. And secret assassins are spreading everywhere, striking under the cover of darkness with intent to kill.

Criminals are out on looting expeditions. The scourge of death on this dark night is making their euphoria wilder. Slums are on fire. The dying screams of women and children are making things even more grotesque. Armed vehicles are ploughing into them, the soldiers firing indiscriminately to maintain law and order.

Two lanes converge at this point. The dustbin has upturned at the spot where they meet, parts of it broken. A man crawls out of one of the lanes, positioning himself to use the dustbin as a shield. Lacking the courage to lift his head, he lies inert on the ground for some time, keeping his ears peeled for the indistinct cries floating in from the distance. The sounds aren’t clear. Is it Allahu Akbar or Bande Mataram?

Suddenly the dustbin moves slightly. All his nerves begin to tingle. Clenching his teeth and tensing his limbs, the man waits for something terrible to happen. A few moments pass. There is stillness everywhere.

Probably a dog. The man pushes at the dustbin to drive it away. There is no response for some time. Then the bin moves again. This time there is curiosity mingled with his fear. He lifts his head slowly…and so does another man on the other side of the bin. Two creatures, frozen, a dustbin between them. Their hearts have all but stopped beating. Two pairs of eyes, probing, the look in them a mixture of dread, suspicion, and anxiety. Neither can trust the other, each of them considers the other one a murderer. Their eyes locked on each other’s, both wait for an attack, but even after some time, there is no aggression from either. Now a question arises in both their minds. Hindu or Muslim? Perhaps the answer will lead to a fatal outcome. So neither of them dares ask the other one. Nor can they flee for fear of being attacked with a knife.

After several minutes of discomfort and doubt, both become impatient. Finally one of them blurts out the question. Hindu or Muslim?

You first, says the other man.

Neither is willing to state his identity. Their minds are swayed by suspicion. The first question is buried. It gives way to another. Where are you from, asks one of them.

Across the Buriganga, in Shubaida. You?

Chashara, near Narayanganj. What do you do?

I have a boat. I ferry people. You?

I work at the cotton mill in Narayanganj.

Silence once more. Each of them tries to covertly scan the appearance of the other. They try to gauge how the other one is dressed. The darkness and the shelter of the dustbin makes this easier. Suddenly a commotion breaks out nearby. Manic screams from two groups of people can be heard. Both the millworker and the boatman become alert.

Seems to be nearby. The millworker sounds terrified.

Yes, let’s get away from here. The boatman’s voice holds the same note of fear.

The millworker stops him. Don’t move. You want to die?

The boatman is overcome by suspicion again. What if the man is plotting something? He stares into the millworker’s eyes. The millworker has been looking at him too. As soon as their eyes lock he says, sit down, stay as you are.

The boatman’s heart leaps into his mouth at this. Is this man not going to let him escape? Suspicion gathers in his eyes. Why? he asks.

Why? The millworker’s voice is muffled but sharp. What do you mean why, do you want to get killed?

The boatman doesn’t care for this manner of speaking. He considers the possibilities, even the impossibilities, and comes to a firm decision. What do you think? You expect me to keep hiding here in this dark lane instead of leaving?

His obstinacy makes the millworker suspicious too. I don’t like your intentions, he says. You didn’t say whether you’re a Hindu or a Muslim. What if you fetch a group of your people to kill me?

What do you think you’re saying? Forgetting where he is, the boatman shouts with rage and regret in his voice.

What I said is right. Sit down. Can’t you understand what’s going though my mind?

There’s something in the millworker’s voice that reassures the boatman.

I’ll have to stay here alone if you go.

The uproar dies down in the distance. A deathly silence descends again. Even the moments seem to pass in expectation of death. Two living beings on two sides of a dustbin in a darkened lane reflect on their own predicament, their homes, their wives and children. Will they be able to go back to their families alive? Will their families survive, for that matter? Like a thunderbolt from the sky, without any warning, the riot has erupted in their lives. There they were, strolling around the market, laughing and chatting with others—and in a moment it had turned to murder and violence, rivers of blood. How can people turn so cruel in an instant? What an accursed race we are. The millworker sighs. The boatman echoes him.

Want a bidi? Taking a bidi from his pocket, the millworker offers it to the boatman. Accepting it, the boatman squeezes it gently out of habit, waves it in the air near his ear a few times and then clamps his lips on it. The millworker is trying to light a match. He hadn’t realised that his shirt has become wet, and with it, the matchbox. The sound of the matchstick being scraped against the box is heard repeatedly, but there is barely a spark. Disgusted, the millworker tosses the stick away.

Bloody matchbox is soaked. He takes another stick out of it.

Impatient now, the boatman leaves his position to crouch next to the millworker.

It’ll work, give it to me. He practically snatches the matchbox from the millworker’s hand. And, after a couple of attempts, he actually manages to get a matchstick alight.

Sobhan Allah! Come on now, light up quickly. The millworker jumps out of his skin, as though he’s seen a ghost. The bidi slips out as his jaw slackens.

So you…?

A gust of wind blows out the matchstick. Two pairs of eyes widen in suspicion again in the darkness. The owner of one of them says, yes, I’m a Muslim. So?

Nothing, answers the millworker. But…

Pointing to the bundle under the boatman’s arm, he asks, what’s in there?

A couple of shirts for my son and a sari for my wife. You know it’s Eid tomorrow, don’t you?

You aren’t hiding anything else? The millworker cannot shed his suspicion.

You think I’m lying? Check for yourself. The boatman offers his bundle to the millworker.

No, there’s nothing for me to check. But you know the times we live in. You tell me, is it safe to trust anyone?

That’s true. Er…you don’t have anything, do you?

Not even a needle, I swear on god. All I want is to go back home safe and sound. The millworker gives his clothes a shake to demonstrate.

The two of them sit down again side by side. Lighting their bidis, they smoke in concentrated silence for some time.

Can you tell me… The boatman seems to be addressing a close friend now.

Can you tell me what all this killing and maiming is for?

The millworker keeps in touch with the news, he reads the newspapers. Hotly he says, it’s that League of yours that’s to blame. They’re the ones who started all this, calling it a protest.

I don’t understand any of it, the boatman retorts harshly. All I want to know is, what’s the use of this fighting? Your people will die and so will ours. What will the country gain?

That’s exactly my point. What do you suppose the country will gain? A big zero. He makes a circle with his fingers. You will die, I will die, and our wives and children will be out on the streets begging. They chopped my brother-in-law into four pieces in last year’s riots. So my sister became a widow and now I have to look after their children too. The leaders lie on their soft beds in their mansions and issue orders and we poor bastards have to die.

We aren’t humans anymore, we’ve become dogs. Only dogs bite one another. The boatman wraps his arms around his knees in impotant rage.

Exactly.

Who cares for us? Where’s the food going to come from, now that we have a riot going on? You think I’ll get my boat back? Who knows where they’ve sunk it. Rup-babu is our zamindar, his manager used to travel in my boat to the island in the middle of the river once a month on work. The zamindar was as generous as the lord, I’d get five rupees as bakshish and five as the boat fare, ten in all. I could buy food for the entire month. And the man who rode in my boat, he was a Hindu.

About to respond, the millworker stops abruptly. The clomping of heavy boots can be heard. There’s no doubt that the marchers are coming into the lane from the main road. The two of them exchange terrified glances.

What should we do? The boatman grabs his bundle.

Let’s run. But which way? I don’t know my way around the city.

Doesn’t matter which way, says the boatman. We’re not going to sit here and get beaten up by the police. There’s no trusting the swine.

Yes, you’re right. Which way, then? They’re almost here.

This way.

The boatman points towards the southern end of the lane. If we can make it to Badamtali Ghat, he says, we’ll be safe.

Lowering their heads, they race out of the lane, not pausing till they reach Patuatoli Road. The deserted tarmac is glittering under the electric lights. They stop for a moment – there’s no one lying in ambush, is there? But there’s not a moment to lose. A quick glance up and down the road, and they rush off again towards the west. After they have travelled some way, they hear hoofbeats behind them. Turning, they see a solitary horseman approaching. There’s no time to think. They duck into a narrow alleyway on the left used by those who clean toilets. In a moment, an Englishman on horseback, holding a gun, gallops past them. Only when the sound recedes in the distance do they leave the alley for a cautious peep.

Stay close to the houses, the millworker says.

They move forward swiftly and fearfully along the edge of the road.

Stop, the boatman says softly. The millworker halts abruptly.

Come this way. Taking the millworker’s hand, the boatman leads him behind a paan shop.

Look.

Following the boatman’s direction, the millworker’s eyes stop at a lit-up building about a hundred yards away. A dozen policemen with guns are standing like statues in the veranda adjoining the building. And an English officer is speaking continuously through a mouthful of smoke from his pipe. Another policeman is holding the reins of his horse on the road in front of the building. The horse is stamping the ground restlessly with its hoof.

That’s Islampur police station, says the boatman. There’s a lane near it, it leads out of the street and goes to Badamtali Ghat. We can take it.

The millworker looks terrified. But how will we get there?

I suggest you stay here, reaching the Ghat is of no use to you anyway, says the boatman. This is a Hindu stronghold, but Islampur is filled with Muslims. You can spend the night here and go home in the morning.

What about you?

I’d better go. The boatman’s voice cracks in anxiety and apprehension. I can’t stay. It’s been eight days since I left home. Allah alone knows what state they’re in. I’ll just have to sneak into the lane somehow. Even if I don’t get a boat I can swim across the river.

What are you saying, mian? The millworker clutches the boatman’s shirt anxiously. How can you go this way? His voice quavers.

Don’t try to hold me back, bhai, I have to go. Tomorrow’s Eid, don’t you see? My family must have been looking out for the Eid moon tonight. My children are expecting to wear new clothes tomorrow, to climb into my lap. My wife is weeping her heart out. I can’t stay, bhai, I can’t, you cannot imagine how I’m feeling. The boatman’s voice is choked with tears. The millworker feels his heart breaking. He loosens his grip on his companion’s shirt.

What if they catch you? His voice carries a mixture of dread and compassion.

Don’t be afraid, they won’t be able to catch me. But you must stay here, bhai, don’t leave this place. I won’t forget this night. We’ll meet again, if fate decrees it. Aadaab.

I won’t forget either, bhai. Aadaab.

The boatman steals away.

The millworker remains standing, his mind clouded by anxiety. His heart refuses to slow down. He stays vigilant—please god, don’t let the boatman come to any danger.

The moments pass with bated breath. It’s been a long time, the boatman must have got away by now. How eagerly his children must be waiting for him to bring them new clothes, how happy they will be to see him! A father’s heart, after all, poor fellow. The millworker sighs. Miansahib’s wife will throw herself on his breast with love and tears.

You’re back from the dead?

A smile appears on the millworker’s lips. And what will the boatman do then? The boatman will…

Halt!

The millworker’s heart leaps into this mouth. Some people in boots are running about. They’re shouting.

He’s escaping!

The millworker leans out to see the police officer leap into the street from the veranda with his gun. Shattering the silence, his firearm roars. Once, twice.

Two bangs. Two streaks of blue. The millworker bites his fingertips in anxiety. The policeman vaults on to his horse and gallops into the lane down which the boatman tried to escape. He can hear the death rattle of the man he has shot.

An image floats up in front of the stupefied millworker’s eyes. The blood flowing from the boatman’s body is soaking his children’s and wife’s clothes. The boatman is saying, I couldn’t do it, bhai. My wife and children will be swept away by tears on the day of the festival. The enemy did not let me go to them.

Eight poems: Binoy Majumdar

Memories

Still those age-old memories linger in my head
In youth I visited the Botanical Garden often
Flowers from various countries were collected there
And yet fate never never held gold dust for me.
All my life I have cut diamonds in different ways
By some magic those diamonds left for other people’s rings
The flowers in the Botanical Gardens have even birthed seeds
All those memories are pink, blue, red, eternal.


The Sound Of Trains These Days

The sound of trains startles me these days.
Railway lines run right past my house.
And a train passes my house every day;
I sit in my room listening to its sound.
The sounds, rhythms, punctuation and metaphors
Of these trains appeal to the heart in unison.
For years I have seen that the sound of trains
Does not awaken the gods. No matter how loud, they don’t wake up.
The railway lines are barely two hundred feet from my bed,
Still the night trains do not awaken me.
Those who created all these trains of the world,
These creators have made arrangements for our sleep not to be disturbed.


There Was A Storm Yesterday

There was a storm yesterday, I see there have been storms sometimes in human history.
There were storms in the Gupta era too.
Everyone knows what a storm is like – suddenly
The wind turns violent, and water-laden clouds from the lowest sea
Soar the highest so that they can burst for it to rain long and wildly.
There was a storm yesterday, all the trees were shaken hard by the storm.
In this orchard of ambrosial fruits, many unripe fruits fell to earth.
Many unripe ambrosial fruits have fallen early to earth in human history.


The Movement Of The Moon

In this universe the moon orbits around the earth.
Not in the direction of the clock’s hands but the other way
The moon circles the earth, a scene the north star observes.
This means the moon travels from west to east –
From England the moon moves towards Bengal, a truth
I have realised watching the moon journey through the stars.
Yet the moon rises in the east over Bengal – sets towards England.
This contrary sight can be viewed around the axis of the earth
Because of its rotation, which means the moon seemingly progresses
In a direction opposite to its real movement – I have learnt this in middle age.


My Own Light

If I switch off my own light the moonlight outside
Is visible, and if I keep my light switched on
And let it spread, then I cannot see
Other people’s lights, when I look out the window
The manicured garden in that world out there seems dark.
And I cannot see the people walking past, although
It is through the courtyard of my world that they walk
But still my light is switched on, it is in the box.
The box, it is locked, my light is inside the box,
Still the people out there find this out, just the way
They have always found this out.


The Body Of The Earth

The body of the earth does not touch the body of the moon.
My body is in contact with the body of the earth.
The moon circles the sun in its own orbit
It keeps circling and the body of the moon
Is not in contact with the body of the earth.
I circle around the sun in my own orbit
While keeping faint contact with the earth.
My situation is almost like the moon’s.
There’s very little difference between me and the moon.


Lay Down A Mirror

Lay down a mirror in your yard at night
Face up, all the stars in the night sky
Will be visible in the mirror, as dazzling
As they look up there in the sky. Therefore
If the village of Shimulpur were covered with a mirror
It would not be so dark, it would be well illuminated.
Not that I have personally tested this theory,
I have only thought of it, is anyone willing to experiment?


The Price Of Meat

Let us assume adding a kilo of flesh to a human
Needs eight kilos of rice.
Eight kilos of rice cost thirty-two rupees,
Which means a kilo of human flesh when attached to the body
Costs thirty-two rupees.

Yet, see, a kilo of chicken meat costs forty rupees.
Why is human flesh so cheap? I have thought
A lot about this. If a kilo of rice had cost
A hundred rupees we could have bragged about it
We could have said a kilo of human flesh
Costs eight hundred rupees and, in comparison,
Thhu! the meat of chicken costs a mere
Forty rupees, merely forty!

Amalkanti: Nirendranath Chakraborty

Amalkanti was my friend,
We went to school together.
He’d be late to class every day, couldn’t do his lessons
When told to decline verbs
He’d gaze at the window with such surprise that
We’d feel very sorry for him.

Some of us wanted to be teachers, some, doctors, some, lawyers.
Amalkanti didn’t want any of this.
He wanted to be the sunshine.
The elusive sunshine after the rain, filled with the cries of crows
Which dangles like a fragile smile
From berries and berry leaves.

Some of us grew up to be teachers, some, doctors, some, lawyers.
Amankanti didn’t grow up to be the sunshine.
He works at a lightless press now.
Sometimes he comes to see me for a cup of tea
And a chat, and then says, ‘Time to go.’
I walk him to the door.

The one among us who teaches
Could easily have been a doctor instead
It wouldn’t have mattered much if the one
Who wanted to be a doctor had been a lawyer.
Everyone got their wish, except Amalkanti.
Amalkanti couldn’t become the sunshine.
The very same Amalkanti who, musing on sunbeams,
Had wanted to grow up to become the sunshine

brown concrete bricks wall
Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

.

Let All That Be For Now: Manindra Gupta

After a million years of living together
It will be decided whether you’re mine.
Let all that be for now.
Wild plums have ripened in the Mikir hills,
Let’s go eat them.
Against the sunset
Unkempt rust-coloured hair
Is flying like gleaming orchid roots.
– Let me, let me look at your coppery face

The sun will set any moment. Gaunt as beasts,
We’re wading through a knee-deep stream –
The current keeps growing stronger…icier…

Another: Tanmoy Mukherjee

Ashutosh-babu made his blunder as he was rushing to get on the tram at Ballygunge Phanri. Missing his footing, he went down in a heap. Evening crowds, the street choc-a-bloc with buses and taxis, auto-rickshaws whizzing past. As he was wondering whether his mis-step would send him under the wheels of a tram or whether it was a minibus tyre that fate held for him, he fell headlong on a wooden floor.

What was this? How could the tarred road of Ballygunge Phanri turn into a yellow wooden floor? Looking around him, Ashutosh could only see impenetrable darkness. Nothing much was visible. This was magic. He had been in Calcutta earlier, but where was he now? Had he died, then? Had a bus come from the back and smashed his head to pulp? This was too much pressure. It wouldn’t have hurt to have died at 42, but the LIC policy was due to mature next month. What if his wife couldn’t manage things properly?

He felt a sharp pain in his side. Should he have been in pain if he was dead? He had no idea. There was no blood on him or anything, but then a spirit shouldn’t really have bloodstains. Still, Ashutosh-babu was astonished at the shabby appearance of the afterlife. There was neither the gloss of heaven nor the frenetic activity of hell. Just this yellow wooden floor.

When his eyes had adjusted to the darkness Ashutosh-babu discovered that all kinds of objects were strewn on the floor. A comb, a wallet, a spear, tickets to the cinema, a pen, a mortar and pestle – an extraordinary variety. Ashutosh felt deeply intimidated. Was he dreaming, then? He pinched himself.

Benu-mama from Bhadreshwar had taught Ashutosh as a child how to deliver a lethal pinch. He groaned in agony.

Ashutosh got to his feet slowly. He needed to walk around and survey the place. But how would he walk, the floor was littered – books, bottle-caps, old inland letters, cigarettes, tonic water, and so much more. This was making him very uneasy.

‘New here?’

The high-pitched bellow caused great consternation to Ashutosh-babu. Turning around, he discovered a decrepit old gentleman lying less than five feet away, a blanket drawn over himself. His age seemed beyond human reckoning, he could well be ninety. All he had by way of physical features was yellowish skin drawn taut across his bones, and not a single hair on his scalp. Clouded eyes, sunken cheeks. He seemed to be trembling.

‘And what might your name be?’ the old man asked.

‘Ashutosh Mitra, sir. I was on my way to Park Circus but I slipped while trying to get into a tram. I don’t know how I got here. Who are you? What is this place?’

– A different dimension.
– I beg your pardon?
– A different dimension.
– What’s that?
– Meaning. Two dimension. This dimension. That dimension. None of those. This is another dimension.
– Pardon?
– Why can’t you understand? Let’s say you put a pen on your desk. But it’s nowhere to be found two minutes later, although you’ve searched the desk with a toothcomb. And then half an hour afterwards you discover the pen exactly where it was. Doesn’t this happen all the time?
– Yes sir, it does.
– So the thing is, many objects frequently slip out of the dimension we occupy on earth to arrive here in this different dimension. You could call it an exception-cum-error of nature’s.
– A mistake on nature’s part?
– Right you are. Most of the time the error is corrected by nature’s own laws. And so the lost pen finds its way back to the desk. Things that disappear unexpectedly are also restored equally unexpectedly. But once in a while they remain trapped in this dimension till infinity.
– My throat is dry.
– Don’t worry. It’s an illusion. Physical sensations like hunger and thrust do not slip into this dimension. There’s no illness or disease either to speak of. How else could I have been hale and hearty even at the age of a hundred and fifteen?
– Er, did you also slip from Earth to this other dimension?
– Yes, I did. Not that too many people make it alive into this dimension, for their dimensional equilibrium is very high. Once in a while they do, though, especially when they’re flung downwards from a height, there is a slender possibility in those cases. In the past eighty years I haven’t seen more than seven or eight humans arriving here. But in most cases they returned to their original dimension, a few in a couple of minutes, some in a couple of seconds.
– But you? You stayed on?
– Yes, what can one do. Destiny. I had nurtured many dreams for my original dimension. All gone to hell. Exceptions like these are not very common. But what to do. I’ve been an optimist since birth, but the trouble is that optimism has no value in this dimension.
– Er, sir, how did you arrive here? Like I missed my footing when trying to get on a tram…
– Air-crash. I made a calculated jump from the burning plane a few seconds before it was to hit the ground. There were definite chances of survival. But who can protect you from god’s will? I landed directly on this yellow wooden floor.
– When did this take place? And where?
– In ’45, I think. I was on my way from Saigon to Manchuria. The plane lost control suddenly when flying over Formosa…
– You…you’re…you’re…
– Subhash…Subhash Bose…
– Ne…ne…ne…

Ashutosh opened his eyes to the sensation of water being splashed on his face. He realised he was lying flat on a pavement in Ballygunge Phanri, surrounded by at least a dozen people. The man who was checking his pulse said, ‘It was a near thing. Very lucky.’

Overwhelmed, Ashutosh declared, ‘Jai Hind!’