The Cuckoo and the Lorry Driver: by Sunil Gangopadhyay

I looked around furtively. Had anyone seen me?

Many people had, obviously, but no one I knew. The left sleeve of my shirt had been completely ripped off, attracting several curious glances.

I stood for a couple of minutes, my hands on the Curzon Park railing. A light vapour of pique clouded by heart. Pique against whom? Against the lorry driver? Was it possible to have a relationship involving pique with someone I didn’t know, someone who didn’t know me either? Many people don’t know God, God has forgotten people too for a long time now, but still they have relationships involving misunderstanding and weeping.

The feet of the brass idol are flooded with tears. But God is not a lorry driver.

I saw a young woman in motion next to a young man. First her face, then, successively, her breasts, a slice of her waist, the rhythm of her movement, and again her breasts. And then the young man. Once more the young woman’s waist, breasts and face. A brief sigh. She didn’t belong to me. And yet a forbidden envy remained. The desire amassed over seven hundred and fifty thousand years, sparked by the sight of a lovely woman, has still not disappeared.

It was not just my sleeve that had been been ripped off, I had a gash on my arm too. A long, thin line, its mind not yet made up on whether to bleed or not, similar to the hour between afternoon and twilight. I caressed my left arm very lightly.

I had many things to do, many places to go to. I was no longer the person who could have stood indolently a decade ago, his hands on the Curzon Park railing, as long as he liked. Those tattered clothes, that unshaven face, that freedom to wander around. The world had changed him.

There are no rajahs in Raj Bhavan. The trees in the garden are huge. An invisible cuckoo sang in the garden, startling me. I don’t much care for the voice of the cuckoo, it’s far too sweet. But in response to that song another I hummed the octave very softly. ‘The cuckoo sings the F note,’ goes the poem. Does the cuckoo really hit F? It seemed more like F sharp to me.

I should have directed my pique at the cuckoo. Because, as I crossed the road absent-mindedly, that dreadful road on which every vehicle was a demon, where the path was not for walking, a lorry came and…

Shibram Chakraborty would have written of having no truck with trucks. But it isn’t funny. Because a man with a salary of two hundred and forty five rupees had raised his arm, the truck was waiting demurely, just like the other cars, at the junction of three roads. I took the opportunity to slip through. But my shirt-sleeve was impaled on a hook protruding from the lorry, and the man at the crossing with the raised arm lowered it at that very moment. As soon as the lorry started moving, I thought I would be dragged along with it. The fear of death for a moment or two. My sleeve came off with a ripping sound at the sudden jerk, I fell on my face on the road, that the car behind did not run over me was out of sheer magnanimity. Jumping to my feet at once, I loped like an orang-utan towards the Curzon Park railing.

I couldn’t roll my sleeve up either, for it had been ripped off from the shoulder. Still I thought of the cuckoo. F sharp, wasn’t it?

I had many things to do, several places to go to. I could take a taxi home to change my shirt. It would delay me but it wouldn’t turn the world upside down. But my pique mounted. Why did the cuckoo in this Raj Bhavan without a rajah or the lorry driver for that matter leave me in the lurch this way? I hadn’t even seen their faces – neither the cuckoo, nor the lorry driver’s.

This had happened to me earlier too. Once, a Hindustani milkman – it wasn’t yet forbidden for milkmen to board buses with their pails of milk, the transport system was not as advanced yet – had burst the pimple bulging with white pain on my forehead with his elbow. The milkman was as well-built and handsome as the idol of Mahishashur to be seen at the Durga Puja organised by the Simla Bayam Samiti, as he raised his elbow unknowingly, the blood began to flow all over my shirt. I forgave the milkman, for having a pimple on my forehead was in fact my misdeed. If it was wrong to board a bus with a pail of milk, it was equally wrong to get into a crowded bus with a pimple ripe for bursting.

Another time, when I was on my way to Goabagan for a funeral, an unmarried woman of twenty-one years and three months in a yellow sari had spat paan juice on my dhoti and kurta from the cantilevered first floor balcony of a house the colour of gunpowder, turning them blood red. On spotting me and her recent handiwork, she had run back into the house. It was an unpardonable error on her part. But I did not ring the bell and complain. On the contrary, when I sought assistance at a paan-shop on the corner, three young men loitering there laughed at me, while the shopkeeper made things much worse by pouring a pitcher of water on my clothes.

For three year straight after that I followed the young woman like a shadow. I never spoke to her. She recognised me and came to know me. Sometimes she looked at me with pathetic, pleading, silent eyes. I smiled back, but not in a way that demanded an actual exchange. A thin, narrow smile, the kind that vanishes in thin air. Then after intimate and violent love-making with her in the bathroom (in my imagination) I released her. She was to get married in five days. It was true that I had never actually been angry with her, for in fact she had offered me a pretext not to go to the funeral that day. Who wants to go to a funeral?

But late on this afternoon, on what grounds would I pardon the cuckoo and lorry driver? Let the cuckoo sing away to itself, but why should it hit a false note? And a hook protruding from a lorry? And yet, the problem was that neither of these could be followed.

A fully-grown adult male lay in the shade of a drumstick tree inside Curzon Park. I turned away after a quick glance at him.

A few shreds of fabric hung from the left sleeve. I ripped them off. It was a clean job now. The right sleeve was intact, the left sleeve was missing. Was it possible to visit anyone this way? A film company’s office, for instance? Where signing seven sheets of paper – in original and duplicate – fourteen times would yield quite some money. Would they laugh? Would they try to lower the price on grounds of lunacy?

But why couldn’t I go this way? I could easily start a fashion involving one intact sleeve and another missing one. If I could have myself photographed right now and have the picture sent to Jean-Pierre de Boram at France’s La Figaro magazine, he would definitely grab it and make this trend popular all over the world.

I took another look at the man lying beneath the drumstick tree in the park.

I had many things to go, several places to go to.

I had a girl to call my own, I had friends. I had places I frequented regularly, I had a family at home. And besides all this, I had raging dissatisfaction. Greed. Since the car behind the lorry had not run over me, I intended to enjoy a great many more things in life. I would gulp down power. I would put my hand on a woman’s hips. It did not suit me to pass my time leaning on a park railing late in the afternoon. That right belonged to a young man a decade ago.

A tall man walked past me. His shoulder blades were high and slightly curved, his skin looked oily, the nose on his thin face was excessively long, his lips reflected annoyance. He was on his way back from office. I was not like this man. He seemed to have nothing more to get from life, he had given up hope. There is a certain kind of person like this, moving about with his eyes wide open but seeing nothing. Stories and novels are written about such people. But they never read them. Rilke’s rose – had any rose bush on earth even read the poem about the rose?

Then another identical man passed. Not as tall, his face was round, but still the same. Then another. And another. Such people were the majority late in the afternoon.

The man lying beneath the drumstick tree had covered his eyes with his hand. Because of the sun. But he did not know that the sun wasn’t strong any more, he was asleep.

Now the roads were full of people on their way back from office. Many of them were homebound, and then again, many were on their way from their homes to the riverside. Those who were bound for home did not pay any attention to me, some of those who were walking in the opposite direction glanced at me, a few smiled, a few whispered to each other. One or two may have recognised me. Some people in this city do know me.

My watch was on the wrist without the sleeve. I was like a naked man in socks. Taking off the watch, I put it in the pocket of my trousers. Six past ten. I was supposed to have been there at six, the place that I had to go to.

How long had it been, ten years, twelve, maybe even longer since I had last lain down alone on the grass in a park. When I had nothing to do, nowhere to go to. When I simply had plenty of time on my hands.

The man sleeping beneath the drumstick tree was dressed in a sleeveless shirt. How could he sleep so peacefully as the evening lengthened?

A couple was out on a stroll, accompanied by three infant girls and dog on a leash. Both the husband and wife were unsmiling, perhaps they had quarrelled today, although they had still come out on their stroll. The dog sniffed at the sleeping man’s face.

I had lots of things to do, many places to go to. Not to a funeral today. First to the film company’s office, then to the newspaper office, and finally to a routine party at the German consulate. There was a rat-race here, in which I was deeply involved. Weren’t there hoards of rats once in this corner of Curzon Park? People would gather to watch, some of the would toss breadcrumbs to make the rats dance. All those rats had been killed, the cactus was quite healthy now, there were lots of flowers next to it.

People in sleeveless shirts were probably happier than those in one-sleeved shirts. My grandfather used to wear them, there is no reason for me to doubt that he was happier than my father.

What if it had been the collar at my neck rather than my sleeve that had been impaled by the hook? Would it have been ripped as easily? The lorry would have picked me up like a newborn kitten and carried me along, dangling from the hook. I would have flailed my arms and legs, screaming, and everyone on the road… even the thought made by bristle with anger. Blasted cuckoo!

As soon as I held my right sleeve between the fingertips of my left hand and tugged hard, some of the fabric tore with a ripping sound. The shirt was obviously very old. Some old clothes are often favourites. Besides, I had probably bought this one at a discount sale. But it was very beautiful, I really like the colour blue.

If I ripped this sleeve off too, I would have a nice sleeveless shirt. With a collar. But if only things turned out the way I wanted them to. Thanks to too much of tugging, a portion of the fabric near my chest was also ripped off.

You cannot stand on the road ripping the shirt off your own back as you please. You cannot stand on the road lighting all the matches in a matchbox one after the other. You cannot stand by yourself and smile without any reason. At most you can kneel to tie your shoelaces. All these are the rules of the road.

I vaulted over the railing into the park. Everything changed at once. There was no relationship between the road and the park, this was a completely different world. A man could lie on his back even in the late afternoon.

I tore the ripped shirt off my back. Taking the money, pen and cigarettes out of the pocket, I threw them into a bush. Nobody objected. I felt a strange taste of freedom. The ripped shirt had been sticking to me like an embodiment of discomfort. Was it a shirt or a straitjacket?

Now I could settle down at ease on the grass and smoke a cigarette in peace. Daylight had disappeared suddenly, darkness swooping down. The film production office must have shut shop by now. I needn’t worry about it any more, at least one of the destinations could be removed from the list.

Let me not meet him.

I’ve long had this feeling, let me not meet him. The need was mine, the person I was to meet could help me in many ways. Still I had felt, when near his home, that perhaps he was not in, it would be good if he wasn’t. If he had indeed been out, I had breathed a sigh of relief. When I used to go looking for jobs, so many times I had…!

I was beneath another tree, at some distance from the sleeping man. The road was visible from this spot too, the crowds on the road, there were more happy people now than tired people.

That left the newspaper office and the party at the consulate. There was still a way out. I could take a taxi home in a jiffy and put on a fresh shirt. My family would be surprised to see me in only a vest, but they wouldn’t disbelieve me if I said a man on the road blew his nose on my shirt, which I took off out of disgust. This was entirely possible. So the vest stood in the way. As long as I had it on, I could go home whenever I liked, after which everything would become normal again.

I’d wasted enough time, this is what I should do now. Go home. I had lots of do and in particular I couldn’t forget the rat-race, could I? Only the jobless and the pessimist could behave this way. Why should I force myself to be like them?

I was about to rise after finishing my cigarette and stretching when I remembered something else. It could turn out that I would rush home only to find it locked. Everyone had gone out. It was possible, wasn’t it? I wasn’t supposed to return before midnight, after all. Where would I go in that case? To a friend’s house? Which of my friends was likely to be home in the evening? One wasn’t home, visit a second, or a third – this is what enterprising men did.

Or, suppose I visited a friend at home since mine was locked. He wasn’t home either, but his wife was. I would tell my friend’s wife, give me a shirt at once, quickly. Give me, give me a shirt, I need one desperately, I have to join the rat race.

So the vest was coming in the way. Taking it off in a flash, I tossed it away. It didn’t travel very far. Therefore, rising to my feet to fetch it, I threw into the road after some hesitation from where I stood by the railing in the darkness. Perfect, there was no telling now where it would end up under people’s feet.

Now what? I couldn’t go home bare-bodied. I could offer no logic for returning home in the middle of evening after abandoning both shirt and vest. Besides, would a taxi let in a bare-bodied passenger? I didn’t even have enough money to buy a new short. Why should I, wasn’t I supposed to have got several thousand today? Just for a cuckoo and lorry-driver it had… Or maybe they’d have given a cheque? Or they might have changed their mind. This had happened several times in the past. If they were interested they would approach me again.

For that matter, of all the people in this city, why had I chosen the man beneath the drumstick tree to envy? No, maybe it wasn’t envy but kinship.

The sound of trams on tramlines can grate at times. The silence after a couple of trams have passed is delightful. I used the gap to sharpen my hearing to the utmost, in case the cuckoo could be heard again from Raj Bhavan across the road. It could not. Darkness had fallen, the cuckoo wouldn’t sing any more, it was not a night bird. My pique rose.

Suddenly awaking with a start, the man beneath the drumstick tree called out as soon as he sat up, tea, hey, tea.

A vendor was indeed passing with tea in a brass pot, I had neither noticed him nor heard his cry, but the sleeping man had. He drank a pot of tea. Taking a tin out of his pocket, he counted out the payment, the tin also yielded a bidi, giving the tea-seller one, he lit one himself.

A little later, the tea-seller and the man disappeared in different directions.

How could the man go off so suddenly? How strange. How can you just vanish without a word? So he didn’t see me at all? Surely everything needs a sense of proportion.

It was my turn now. Here in the middle of the busiest part of this busy city, there simply had to be at least one person lying back without a care in the world. Else there would be grave danger. There might be a horrible noise and everything might explode.

Taking my shoes and socks off, I lay down. The park wasn’t particularly crowded now – some people were wandering around, here and there shadowy couples sat side by side, a couple of women without male companions passed by slowly, looking from side to side. It was quite dark where I was. No one asked why I was bare-bodied. Or no one saw. No one wanted to look.

I saw the sky through a gap in the trees. The moon wasn’t up yet, one or two stars and some floating clouds were scattered about. I was supposed to have been at the newspaper office now. I would have been surrounded by clusters of sizzling and exciting news from around the world. There was no news here. The cars whizzing along the road by the park were all carrying news of some sort. All the people passing on foot, too, had news of one kind or another. I didn’t belong to them. I didn’t belong to this city, I was just a human being lying back in the darkness without a care.

Where are you now, lorry driver? He must be on the highway to Howrah or Delhi or Bombay by now. The road was pitch black, the truck roared through it with its headlights on, the deadly hook dangled from the back, swinging, swinging…

Go wherever you want to, lorry-driver. I shall be lying here. I am seven hundred and fifty thousand years old, I used to lie beneath a tree like this on the horizon somewhere. So many walls of brick and wood had come up around me, so many tram lines, so many cars and trucks, hooks dangling at the back. There were so many garments to smother my greed and my desire. Today I was liberated, free.

To be even more liberated, even freer, I took off my belt, trousers and underwear, nudging them away with my foot. Anyone who saw me would think I was mad, insane. No one comes near a madman.

Seven hundred and fifty thousand years ago we were all insane, after all.

Wonderworld: by Sunil Gangopadhyay

Subal had few expectations, and, therefore, few regrets. But actually he looked quite pleased these days. Prices were so high you had to swallow all the humiliation just to survive, other than the minnows, the big fish seemed to have fled, both the nets were rotting in the corner – he had to buy from the wholesalers to sell in the market – making profits of more than three or three-and-a-half rupees meant having to wait endlessly – but still Subal’s heart thrilled at his unexpected fortune. Four and a half thousand! Just by smearing this thumb of his with ink and pressing down on a piece of paper, he could make four and a half thousand. Subal stole a look at his right thumb every now and then these days. As though he were mocking himself with a show of his thumb. Had anyone in his family ever seen or even heard of four and a half thousand rupees at one go? They had never even managed to make ends meet.

About a quarter of a kilo of the bele remained unsold, the fish was slowly turning yellow, bluebottle flies were swarming – Subal had lowered his price all the way to two rupees twenty five paise a kilo – still no one would buy them – an old man circled nearby – he was hoping Subal would come down to a rupee and a half eventually. Suddenly Subal decided in a burst of generosity not to sell the rest of the fish but take it home. Netai had been waiting for a while, all his fish had been sold, Subal would go home with him. Taking his basket, Subal said, let’s go, Netai. Back’s aching I’ve been sitting so long. Got a bidi?

No, dada, I have to get some, answered Netai. I have to get a kilo of rice too.

– How much is the rice today?

– Two twenty, that too, the damaged stuff

– Let’s go then, it’s at least fifteen paise cheaper at Baguiati.

Netai was slightly sophisticated, he dressed in shirts. Kept his money in a plastic packet. Subal couldn’t be bothered, he had a red pouch tied around his waist under his dhoti, his bare body glistened. Having a vest and a shirt meant taking on the trouble of washing them – the body needed no laundry. A dip or two in the pond – that was enough. Netai bought his rice, and chillies. Subal had collected the state rations the previous day – they wouldn’t need rice for a couple of days now – he bought half a kilo of salt, changing his mind at the last moment about buying bidis. A smart move – Netai was buying some – if Subal bought some too he couldn’t take one from Netai. He’d buy his own later instead, after Netai had taken the turn in the road towards Keshtapur.

Back on the main road, Netai said after lighting up, how quickly the houses are coming up here. You can hardly recognise the place any more.

Recollecting his fortune, Subal said with a touch of pride, things always change. I’ve seen a crocodile here with my own eyes… its open mouth thi…i….i…s wide…

– A crocodile?
– Oh yes, a crocodile. And the goddamned fish around here, huge bowaal and chital… and look at it now. All filled up, buses running on the road.

– Aren’t you selling your land, Shobol-da? Three and a half thousand it’s gone up to, I heard.

Three and a half? That’s nothing. It’ll go up to ten, Subal said like an expert. I’m not selling now, I’m no idiot.

Netai lived deep inside Keshtapur, a mile and a half away. Subal’s house was visible from this spot. A couple of vultures were perched on the palm tree. The bastards were there every day. Canals ran down both sides of the road. The one on the left was old, it had always been there. The one on the right was new. A new road always had a canal running alongside. The road was made with the soil from digging the canal, but the canal on the right didn’t run continuously, there were gaps. That is to say, there had originally been gaps, but the rains this year had flooded the entire place. Fresh rainwater gurgled along, it was perfect for tiger prawns to breed. Stepping off the road, Subal rolled his dhoti up. He knew where the water was shallow. He had to haul his dhoti up all the way to his waist, setting off waves as he pushed through the water, Subal reached home – even his yard was submerged this year – the pumpkins and green chillies he had planted had all been spoilt. By god, no one had ever seen such rain.

But all this rain pleased Subal too. Let the yard be flooded, let there be water in the kitchen – but the fields and canals and ponds and lakes were all a single vast sheet of water now – there was water in Sengupta-babu’s garage, even their car had been almost completely submerged, the gentlemen all had to splash their way to office with rolled up trousers – Subal had laughed his guts out at the sight. That arrogant bitch of a maid who worked there – even she had to stuff her sari all the wau tp her bum… Besides, Subal had benefited, too. Large fish had floated into his pond – Subal had surreptitiously dumped sacks stuffed with cow dung in his pond – the large fish would never swim away once they had smelt cow dung. Let the water drop a bit – Subal would get his nets out. The tulsi had survived the rain, however – the tulsi bed was at quite a height.

It was all because of this tulsi. All this used to be wild marshland, with reeds and fisheries. There was no counting the number of generations in Subal’s family who had lived here. They had actually been quite well off in Subal’s grandfather’s time, Subal had a few memories of those days. His grandfather used to supply fish to the zamindars at Paikpara. He went bankrupt trying to buy a new fishery at Mahishbagan – went belly up after selling all his land and everything else. And what kind of price could he have got for the land anyway – who would buy all this marshy land, after all – two hundred, two twenty five an acre – that too without any proper measurement. But things changed – people from the government came and set up tents – bringing silt from the river in thick pipes they filled the marshes – it began to be called Salt Lake. A road was constructed on this side – VIP Road – with separate arrangements for movement along both sides. The few Barui and Sapui families who used to live here were thrilled with the rate of four and a half thousand per acre and promptly sold their land and moved. Subal wouldn’t have stayed either. He had five brothers, the rest of them all sold their share of the land and moved to Hatiara and Kaikhali, their pockets bulging with cash, but Subal couldn’t join them because of that tulsi and because of his mother. Subal’s share of the property was their ancestral home – Subal’s mother Bagala flung herself weeping to the ground beneath the bed of tulsi: will you sell the house? What do you think? Don’t you know the eldest son of the family dies with blood flowing from his mouth if you sell the family house? Kill me first, kick me to death – I’ve given birth to a clump of thorns – money’s turned their heads – your hand turns leprous if you uproot a tulsi. Not that Subal was one to be swayed by tears – given the price of four and a half thousand, all these laments were like trying to trap fish with torn nets. But his wife became scared and put her foot down – and when Bagala threw herself at Subal’s feet, even he was flustered – a mother reversing roles and touching her son’s feet, Bagala hammered her forehead repeatedly on Subal’s toes.

Subal’s house was on the other side of the road, it had barely survived. If the government had demanded it he couldn’t have raised a finger. Bagala’s hysterics would have made no difference – Haridas Sapui down the road had not wanted to sell to the government, the Marwaris had offered him a better price – but the road would run through his land, he was forced to sell it to the government eventually at the lower price. The government hadn’t asked for Subal’s land, but many others had pleaded with him to sell, the cycle company wanted it to build a road to their factory, the Senguptas had wanted it too because it adjoined their property, the price had jumped all the way to four and a half thousand – that too for less than an acre – Subal had refused. His mother wouldn’t live much longer. Once the old woman kicked the bucket Subal could offer his thumb impression and get his four and a half any day he wanted – the thought was an unremitting source of pleasure. And maybe the price would climb even more meanwhile.

Subal was forty-one. He had nine children, seven of them living. His eldest son hawked vegetables in Hatibagan, he lived with his wife over there – didn’t keep in touch with his parents. Subal’s wife was an annual baby machine – she had let up only for a couple of years in between, but there was no trusting her, who knew when she would be in the family way again. The children splashed about in the flooded yard – they couldn’t be bothered about the water spilling into the bedroom. Subal lost his temper the moment he saw this. The middle daughter Kushi as the worst of them, never mind managing her brothers and sisters, the hussy ran wild herself. The girl was the devil incarnate – she stole food from the kitchen, she stole food from her siblings – as greedy as a demon, putting his basket down on the porch, Subal shouted harshly – Kushi, come here.

Her sari was bunched above her knees, letting it down while she was still in the water, Kushi approached her father apprehensively, adjusting her sari over her breasts. Subal clutched a handful of her hair, asking, what were you doing there? Huh?

Kushi’s head hung down, in a nasal voice she whined, a fish, there under the tulsi…

Slapping Kushi relentlessly, Subal said, a fish? I’ll stick it your mouth you slut, you daughter of a whore, won’t help the family, why don’t you die? Die, bitch, die! Fucking around in the water? The boy’s got a fever, him too…

Emerging from the kitchen, Subal’s wife also began to rain blows on Kushi’s back, screaming, shitface won’t listen to anything I say, didn’t I tell you to make the chilli paste… Kushi was well-developed physically, she didn’t look sixteen – her brothers and sisters were all quite thin, she was the only one her parents derived any pleasure from beating up. Kushi didn’t weep even after the thrashing, she just went into the kitchen with a stony expression.

Subal awoke before dawn every day to walk all the way to the wholesale fish market in Duttabagan, buying fish there to sell it at Nager Bazar. By the time he covered the long distance back home on foot after his sales were done, the sun was overhead. It was his regular habit to beat up his children as soon as he returned home. Wasn’t it because he had so many stomachs to feed that he was dying of work? Slapping a little mustard oil on his head, Subal took a couple of dips in the canal. Then he spread the mat out on the porch and sat on it. He had issued an edict – he would eat first, followed by the children. If he didn’t stay healthy, who would feed this army of demons? If he were to fall ill, no one would lift a finger to help him. His wife brought him an enamelled plate heaped with rice. Digging a hole in the mound, Subal poured the daal in and made a mash. Then he ate the whole thing with great relish, accompanied by whatever his wife gave him on the side – a maachher jhaal or kumror shaak. He licked the plate so clean and shiny that they could get by without washing it afterwards. After his meal, Subal took a long nap. Awaking just before evening, he lazed a bit, on some days he gave his children another round of beating, or tried to mend the bamboo fence around the house, or climbed on the thatched roof to count the tender gourds – smearing them with lime if he found any of them worm-infested. On other days none of this caught his fancy – even when it was almost dark they didn’t light lanterns at home – oblique beams of light from VIP Road played on the water in the canal – he fidgeted for some time – then strolled off to Keshtapur, where he drank some hooch with a couple of old pals for twenty paise, discussed the possibility of starting a big fish-selling enterprise with Netai. Back home, he first downed a few chapatis with gur, topping them with glasses of water till his stomach felt bloated, and then went to sleep. The evenings that he didn’t drink – the hours just didn’t pass on such days – he hustled his wife for an early dinner – grumbled about the wasteful use of kerosene, worrying only about how quickly he could turn out the light and go to bed. There was just the one bedroom – the children slept in a row on sheets of jute and swaddling on the floor – Subal next to the door. One side of the porch outside was covered – Bagala slept in this space. On these evenings Subal smoked continuously, a different itch took hold of him before sleep could – when his wife came to bed after cleaning the kitchen – Subal pounced on her near the door – he didn’t care whether the children had fallen asleep or not – he rummaged through his wife’s body for some time, squeezed it – skinny and emaciated, she panted like a set of bellows – on some nights she wept softly in grief, one more enemy in the womb, and as for you – do you still enjoy all this even at this age? Subal laughed loudly like an idiot.

When Subal wasn’t home the children wandered all over – when a car stopped on the road they sidled up to it and stared open-mouthed – they couldn’t tear their eyes away from the beautiful, fair-skinned, well-dressed ladies and gentlemen – the two boys scavenged cigarette butts, soda-bottle caps and bread crusts before running away. Haran was twelve – he was the only one to have been going to a primary school for some time now. Subal’s wife could not control the children – she tried only to keep an eye on the middle daughter Kushi. Ei Kushi-ee, ei bitch, where are you? If Kushi didn’t respond, she instructed whichever of the children was nearby, go find out where that whore has gone. Go, shitface. Kushi came up panting, why are you yelling? I was only standing on Bhaipee Road. Gesticulating wildly, Kushi’s mother said, you expect me to pray instead of yelling? Let your father come home – what do you have to go stand by the road for? You think I don’t understand? Look at your sari – tits spilling out, a grown-up girl running wild – trying to cover her breasts with the end of the her sari, Kushi said, you didn’t buy me a blouse, everyone’s got a blouse…

Buy you a blouse? I’ll whip you. You should be happy I don’t make you run around naked, don’t get enough to eat, wants a blouse – and how some people can stuff their face!

A couple of cars were parked, four or five gentlemen were talking, pointing to their house and waving their arms. Subal was there too. Bagala looked on, her eyes probing like fishing hooks. Those dacoits must have come to tempt her son again. Holding her ground, Bagla shouted, o Shobol, Shobol, what are you talking to them about now?

Ignoring her, Subal continued his conversation. The visitors slithered a long way down the slope from VIP Road. Positioning themselves by the canal, they leaned back for a view of the house. Kushi stood by her grandmother – one of them ran his eyes repeatedly over her sinuous frame. Shielding her, Bagala continued shouting, o Shobol, listen to me, come listen to me before you talk to them. Blood will flow, I’m warning you, my father-in-law’s home…

Subal turned to snarl at her through clenched teeth just the one time, shut up. Else I’ll make you shut up for life. He resumed his conversation with the visitors with great attention.

Subal returned after quite some time, practically jumping for joy, with wads of money in his hand. Bagala was pale with fear, her lower lip kept curling in terror – pouncing on Subal, she said, what have you done, have you given them your thumb impression?

Yes I have, answered Subal with a mysterious smile.

– What, even without waiting for me to die?

– What are you fainting for? Listen to the whole story first. Talk about being a woman. Always dying of fear. Haven’t I promised you not to sell the house as long you’re alive? You’re not dying so easily either – women live longer in poor families.

– But what is it? Why were those people here? What’s all the money for?

– I haven’t sold the house for heaven’s sake. Just got thirty rupees free. They’re going to put up a picture here – they’ll pay fifteen rupees a month for it.

– They’ll pay you to put up a picture? What picture?

– How should I know. Some picture. A hoarding.

– What’s a horting?

– I told you, a picture. Fifteen rupees every month – damn what a lucky day, god has put money in my hand, here you are, he said – I’m going to Netai’s.

– Every month!

Overcome by a burst of generosity, Subal promised his mother a four-rupee blanket. Haran demanded paper and pencil – else he would be thrown out of school. Buy a blouse for Kushi, will you, said Subal’s wife – she’s filled out so much. People stare. It suddenly seemed as though this fifteen-rupee increase in their monthly earnings would solve every problem in Subal’s family.

The equipment arrived on a truck three or four days later. A few brisk young men in shirts and trousers walked past the pond to arrive at Subal’s house. Two strong iron posts were planted on either side of the building. Metal left its mark on the soil here for the first time, and an enormous picture was attached to the poles. A picture of an airline. The entire picture was a lovely intoxicating blue, in the right-hand corner a plane in mid-air, to the left a scene from a city in the distance, its buildings with spires like temples, as though this were a picture of the abode of the gods in heaven, below them ran a couple – a man and a woman – holding hands, the woman’s skirt had flown up a long way, how beautiful her legs were, the curve of her breasts was pleasing too. Written in large English letters across the middle of the picture were the words:

FLY QUANTAS TO THE WORLD

The picture ran from one end of Subal’s house to the other – the young men put everything in place in about three hours and left. The picture was so shining and new and eye-catching that, never mind the children, even Subal stared at it open-mouthed for a long time. The very look of his house seemed to have been transformed. Now everyone would look at his house as they passed by on Bhaipee Road. God, what a picture, they looked alive. The girl seemed to have started running this minute, holding the man’s hand, she was running, still running. The roar of the plane would be heard any moment. And those houses? Exactly as though the skies had parted by chance to offer a glimpse of heaven. Subal shook the iron posts to examine whether they had been planted firmly enough in the soil. Then, with his eyes on the picture, he ran his hands lovingly over the post. Even the palm tree next to his house had been dwarfed by the picture. A pair of vultures perched on the tree. The bastards simply could not be got rid of. Subal decided to cut the tree if needs be. But would the vultures perch on the picture then? He couldn’t let that happen. The picture seemed to have become Subal’s property in this short span of time.

It was a day of momentous excitement for the children. Even Kushi kept turning round to look at the picture. It made her so happy, she could not decide what to do, whom to tell about it. How lovely the girl was, and the boy was handsome too. Kushi had seen many ladies and gentlemen – many cars passed this way on the airport with such people in them – but none of them was as beautiful as in this picture. How broad the boy’s shoulders were, and the girl’s legs were so pink and ripe – the clothes that she was wearing must be very expensive.

Haran was the only one in this family to have recently become literate, none of the others could read either English or Bengali. No one had understood the words written across the picture. Haran spelt them out solemnly, f, l, y, fly, which is an insect. Insect my foot, the others responded in a chorus, where do you see any insects in there. That’s what it says, what can I do, Haran responded gravely. Haran’s younger brother Nobu was the most precocious of the lot – look, Ma, you can see the girl’s bum, heehee. As soon as Kushi slapped him without provocation, her mother snarled, what did you slap the boy for at this time of the evening? He hasn’t done anything. You’re getting too uppity. I’m going to break a rod on your back.

Since something so wonderful had happened at home today, Kushi had expected there would be rice for dinner. Her mother didn’t even tread that path. Subal was out celebrating with hooch. Kushi had to knead the dough for the chapatis. A couple of chapatis each certainly didn’t satisfy her, in fact they whetted her appetite further, rice was far better, even a single mouthful gave some comfort. Kushi sat neat the kitchen the door, kneading the dough, darkness closed in quickly, frogs croaked, one of them sounded exactly like a small boy wailing – must have been grabbed by a snake. The place became infested with water snakes in the monsoon. Turning her head, Kushi realized she could no longer see the picture in the darkness, the vultures could be heard fluttering their wings on the treetop.

Kushi became restless as soon as a piercing whistle, like the cry of a squirrel, was heard. She looked at the road with probing eyes. Quickly rubbing her hands to get rid of the dough on it, she said, will you make the chapatis, Thakuma, the dough is ready.

Why, where are you off to, her mother screeched in the kitchen.

– I’ll be back in a bit.

– In a bit? Where do you think you’re going at this hour?

Kushi knew how to screech too. For heaven’s sake, she said in rage, am I not allowed to go for a shit?

She stole away to VIP Road around the back of the house. As the cars whizzed past, Kushi skipped across the road to other side, clambering down the slope to a spot beside a berry bush by the water. At once a young man pulled Kushi firmly into his arms. Holding a packet near her face, he said, I got this for you. You love alur chop, don’t you?

Kushi was constantly scolded and beaten by everyone at home all day. Moreover, she always felt hungry after her meals. Here was the only person who was good to her, who gave her things to eat, who kissed her. His name was Tabu, he worked as a fitter in the cycle factory. Kushi began to bolt the alur chop and beguni – delicious and deep-fried – he had brought her. And meanwhile Tabu slipped his hands under her sari began to knead her tender breasts. After she had eaten a few, Kushi said, don’t you want some, Tabu-da? Ei, don’t do that, it tickles, heehee.

– Shhh, don’t shout.

– Not there, I’m really going to shout if you do.

– All right, you silly girl.

Moving his hands from Kushi’s thighs, Tabu rested them on her buttocks for a moment before they began to wander again. As soon as Kushi stirred and twisted and lay down on the ground, so did Tabu by her side.

They lay on the slope in the darkness – cars passed by continuously above them. No one could see them. Kushi whispered, they’ve put up a picture at home today.

– What picture?
– Haven’t you seen it? God, it’s so beautiful – you won’t believe it till you see it. It’s dark now, come tomorrow morning.

An agitated Kushi suddenly jumped as though terrified. As though she were confronted with a supernatural scene. A passing headlight had lit up the advertisement hoarding painted in fluorescent colours, the entire scene glowed briefly, becoming invisible again as soon as the car had passed. Kushi asked, did you see it? Did you? You didn’t?

– What, see what? Speak softly, if some bastard…

– There, see, our house.

The scene was lit up again by another passing headlight. Spotting it, Tabu said, ah, advertrise.

– What does it mean?

– When did they put it up? It’s beautiful.

– Isn’t it? Did you just see the boy and the girl …

Each time a passing headlight illuminated the picture briefly, Kushi raised herself in eagerness to see it. Tabu’s busy hands roamed all over her body, she no longer stopped him. When he brought his mouth close to hers, drawing blood from her lips with his teeth in his hurry, Kushi said, lapping up the salty trickle with her tongue, why are they running, Tabu-da?

– Will they take the plane to where those houses are?

– Yes, mmm…

– Where’s this place?

– I don’t know. London, maybe – which means England.

– Why did they put the picture up at our house?

– Can’t you be quiet, oh, how I love you, mmm darling, I’ll bring you chicken cutlets tomorrow.

– They’re both so beautiful, aren’t they?

Even as an unequalled delight ran through her body, Kushi kept turning her head to gaze at the picture being lit up every now and then in the darkness.

Post Mortem: by Sunil Gangopadhyay

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.

You are…?

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?

(Laughter)

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.

(Laughter)

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.

Why?

No idea.

How old was he?

About fifty-one or fifty-two.

Seventy.

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?

Yes.

Have you ever dreamt thrice of a stranger before?

No.

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?

Yes.

No.

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?

Never.

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?

Certainly.

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?

Have you?

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?

Frequently.

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 nonsense.

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!

(Laughter)

(Laughter)

(Laughter)

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.

Yes.

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.

Certainly not.

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.

(Laughter)

At any rate, many of you were carrying your salaries. When he leapt into the tram suddenly, did you think he was a robber?

(Silence)

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?

No.

Is that why someone…

Pushed him off the tram?

Of course not.

Don’t talk rot.

Did he collide with something?

Impossible.

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.

Yes, dark.

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?

(Silence)

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?

(Silence)

(Silence)

(Silence)

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.