Chapter 2: A Ballad of Remittent Fever, by Ashok Kumar Mukhopadhyay

A sense of doom hung over the Chakraborty home in Belgachia. Most of the trees around seemed to have sensed the danger signals and lapsed into silence; their leaves were grim, not stirring. The bareness of the deciduous branches appeared to reflect the mournful environment evident inside the house. The birds had disappeared, with only a handful of ravens tilting their heads like experts to gauge the situation. This was necessary because the leftovers of ruti or luchi from breakfast had not yet been deposited on the rubbish heap. Nor had there been a shower of vegetable and fish fragments. For Shashibhushan, the youngest boy in the family, had a dreadful fever, accompanied by unbearable body ache. The end seemed imminent every time he began speaking deliriously.

There was just the one doctor in the vicinity—young Nabinchandra Gupta, rather green behind the ears. No one knew which college Nabin had studied medicine at. Not that anyone was bothered, because there were many medical practitioners who had acquired their abilities only from being in the company of skilled doctors. What mattered was whether they could cure an illness; the patient had nothing to gain from checking the doctor’s certificate. In fact, Nabin pratised both allopathy and ayurveda. Sent for at the onset of the fever, he had examined Shashi and prescribed a number of red and blue pills. But instead of being conquered, the fever had flared up further. Nabin had been sent for again.

Meanwhile, Shashi’s relapse into delirium had changed the atmosphere for the worse. Kamakhyacharan, the head of the family, was pacing up and down inside and outside the patient’s room. His heart quaked every time he glaced at this grandson, who had only recently lost his father. What would happen to him? No one knew. Shashi’s elder brother Phanibhushan, who had just joined college, felt the signs were ominous. He must be examined by a good doctor from the Medical College at once. Without waiting for Kamakhya’s decision he had rushed off to Calcutta with his friend Manmohan and their neighbour, Haldar moshai.

Three other neighbours were in the drawing room. Kenaram had carefully prepared hookahs for them, and Roy moshai, Baikunthanath Banerjee and Pratap Majumdar were looking for solutions as they smoked. Banerjee moshai was coughing intermittently; smoking made him cough a lot these days.

As soon as Kamakhyacharan entered the room Shashibhushan screamed, ‘Head bursting… tongue so dry… falling back… thirsty… water… oh i’m burning…’

– ‘Any minute now dadubhai, the doctor will be here… have a dose of his medicine meanwhile…’

Shashi looked up, sweeping the corners of the room with flaming, unfocused eyes. Maybe was looking for his dead father. Once again Kamakhya suggested taking the medicine. Now the patient shook his head.

– ‘More medicine?… Why is my belly swollen… so much pain… can’t have any more medicine…’

Kamakhya repeated his request. Shashi not only refused but also conveyed deep irritation.

– ‘A little amani… give me some rice…’

Kamakhya did not give up his attempts to persuade his dearest grandson. Holding the medicine close to the boy’s lips, he said, ‘Just a little medicine, baapdhon…’

Shashi was admant.

– ‘No medicine… no medicine… I’ll die if you force me, I really will die…’

Nabin arrived in the middle of this altercation between grandfather and grandson and surveyed the patient from head to toe. It didn’t take him long to understand the gravity of the situation. He checked Shashi’s pulse with closed eyes, willing himself to feel it throbbing.

Nabin opened his eyes a few moments later. ‘Was the medicine I prescribed yesterday given to the patient?’

‘Indeed it was,’ Kamakhya nodded. ‘Five of the six doses have been given… but… he is getting worse, so we sent for you…’

Meanwhile, the neighbours gathered in the drawing room were now crowding around the patient’s bed. The pillars of any society usually had opinions on everything from the post-office to prescriptions. Pratap Majumdar was no excetion. Because he had spent some time in the company of a doctor, he was under the impression that he understood the nature and progress of diseases better than ordinary people. Moreover, he was a plain speaker.

‘Acute thirst and pain, daktar moshai,’ he said, ‘as you were informed earlier… you said this medicine was certain to effect a cure… but what we observe now is quite the opposite…’

Nabin began to flounder. ‘The case had initially semed to be nothing but fever… I cannot understand why it took a complex turn… I suspect he has cerebro-spinal fever… his condition has deteriorated greatly since I saw him last evening…’

Roy moshai emitted a mouthful of smoke, his expression sombre. Drawing Nabin aside, he said, ‘What is your surmise now? Will he survive?’

Nabin tried to shed his bewilderment quickly. ‘Oh yes, I see no risk of anything else… considering the stage the illness is in… I’m here after all… there’s no danger.’

Boikuntho Banerjee expressed his view now. ‘How about rubbing some stale ghee on the stomach to reduce the bloating?’

Nabin knew these elders only too well. Acquiescing to their proposals helped both the reputation and the earnings of the doctor.

‘Yes… why not… stale ghee has a lot of benefits… it might ease the pain.’

Pratap was vehemently opposed to this idea. ‘Have you considered the possibility that this may lead to evacuation of the bowels? I daresay that will harm the patient.’ He was oozing annoyance.

One look at Pratap and Nabin promptly said, ‘Yes, that is possible too… what you could do is… take some cold water and whip the ghee thoroughly into it before applying it… you know, gentlemen, not every illness can be treated by looking it up in the Materia Medica… sometimes one has to attempt a treatment based on experience…’

Kamakhya approved of this statement about treatment based on experience. ‘See for yourself,’ he told the gathering. ‘Our Nabin can do allopathy, he can homoeopathy, he can do ayurveda… he diagnoses and prescribes as the situation demands…’

‘Of course,’ echoed Banerjee moshai. ‘How would ordinary people like us turn to him otherwise?’

Finally Nabin sounded sprightly once more. ‘You’re too kind… but it is true, I do study all the forms of medicine… now, I want you not to worry so much… I’m writing out a prescription… collect it quickly from my dispensary and give it to the patient…’

‘Amani… I want rice,’ the patient intervened. ‘Don’t want medicine.’

Nabin said before Chakraborty moshai could seek his permission, ‘Why not… let him have it… first the medicine… give him a little lemon juice with it… it will keep the stomach cool, no danger in that…’

‘Will my Shashi feel better, Daktar moshai?… My grandson means everything to me… I cannot rest till his illness is arrested…’

‘There is no need to be so nervous… the medicine I have prescribed will subdue any fever on earth.’ Nabin had a broad smile on his face.

The doctor left after taking his fee of four rupees. Kenaram the family servant followed him to collect the medicine. No sooner had they left than Pratap exploded in rage. ‘The imbecile has asked the patient to be given stale rice… and with lemon juice at that… it will lead to acidity… the stomach ache will become more acute…’ He shook his head repeatedly to indicate his opposition. ‘I concur,’ declared Roy moshai. Boikunthonath began to nod as well, leaving Kamakshya with no option but to listen helplessly to the neighbours arguing. Nabin’s medicine arrived meanwhile, and it was finally decided that, considering Shashi’s high temperature, it was the medicine and not the rice that he should be given. He was persuaded to take the medicine after much coaxing.

Shashibhushan’s fever shot up further in the next half an hour, with shivering and convulsions. Soon afterwards Shashi began to speak in a delirium, ‘There… come to take me away… the black demon… I won’t go, I won’t…’

Giving up hope, Kamakhyacharan began to pace and up and down again, going out into the street now and then to see if Phani was on his way back. When he returned to the drawing room Roy moshai said, ‘Don’t worry so much, Kamakshya… why not wait and see.’ Taking a long drag on his hookah, Banerjee moshai said, ‘Indeed… some medicines do take a little time…’ But he was overcome by a fit of coughing before he could finish, the intensity rising quickly. Boikuntho was left gasping for breath.

That was when the brougham came a stop outside. Manmohan had left for his college, and Haldar moshai had been summoned home urgently as someone there had a fever too. Dwarikanath strode into the house, with Phanibhushan carrying his bag. Kamakhyacharan welcomed him deferentially, and Kenaram rushed up with a hookah. Paying no attention, Dwarika went up to Boikunthanath, who had not yet succeeded in bringing himself under control. The doctor listened closely to the sound of his coughing; a raspy, grating cough. As Boikuntha returned to normal, Dwarika identified the sound and made his own conclusions.

‘Do not smoke.’ He snatched the hookah away from Banerjee moshai, leaving him bewildered. Had a callow young man just taken his hookah away?

– ‘Go home at once and see a good doctor…’

– ‘There is nothing wrong with me, the patient is inside.’

Boikuntho sounded displeased. About to continue, he was silenced by Dwarika’s cold eyes.

– ‘You have pleurisy… first stage… you need treatment.’

Dwarika went into Shashibhushan’s room without expending any further words.

All the windows were closed, and Shashibhushan was lying in the darkened room, tossing and turning on his bed like someone possessed by a spirit. Sunlight was necessary to examine the patient. The windows were opened in resonse to the doctor’s instructions.

Dwarikanath laid his palm on Shashibhushan’s brow. It was burning; his temperature must have been a hundred and four or hundred and five degrees. The pulse beat was a hundred and forty per second. Laying the stethescope on the patient’s chest yielded nothing unusual besides a racing heart.

– ‘Is the fever constant?’

Kamakshya was prepared. ‘No… it builds in the afternoon and at night… of late in the morning too… but at intervals…’

‘Get a seer of ice at once… put some cloth soaked in ice-water on his forehead… don’t move it till the fever goes down…’

‘Very well.’ Kamakhya nodded twice.

The examination continued. Rolling up the patient’s eyes, Dwarikanath found them a little too white. What about the tongue? Dirty in the middle, reddened at the edges. Gentle pressure on the spleen brought forth an a cry of agony; it was obviously enlarged. Pressing down on the liver also caused pain, though not to the same extent.

‘You do not anticipate a crisis, do you daktar moshai… his father… just a recently…’ Kamakshyacharan’s lips trembled.

‘What is the quality of his stools?’ Dwarikanath stroked Shashibhushan’s brow ‘Well, Shashi? Have you been to the toilet today?’

– ‘It was all right till yesterday… today though…’

Meanwhile, the three guests in the drawing room had entered again, including Baikunthonath, who had not gone home. He was more curious about the fate of his neighbours than he was concerned about his own well-being.

– ‘Hmm… all right, he must be isolated… use a mosquito net to…’

Turing to Kamakshyanath without finishing what he was saying, Dwarikanath noticed the three figures he had encountered in the drawing room.

– ‘Did I not ask you to go home?’

Baikunthanath became defensive under Dwarika’s glare. The doctor cut him short when he tried to respond. ‘Not another word, go home at once.’

And so Banerjee moshai went home like an obedient schoolboy.

Pratap began his usual litany. ‘Of course the boy has a fever, daktar moshai, but the headache and the body ache are very…’

Dwarika smiled. ‘Well then, it should be simple enough… a headache accompanied by a fever… leeching, laxatives and a cold compress… Medical College students have been committing this formula to their memories for ages now… do the same thing here… let loose leeches to drink the boy’s blood, give him laxatives and a cold compress…’

Pratap was rendered speechless at last. Roy moshai remained quiet too.

Turning to Kamakhya, Dwarika repeated, ‘A mosquito-net… he must be under one all the time… or else all of you will fall ill too, and it will spread in the neighbourhood.’

‘What is the matter with him?’ Kamakhya’s voice quavered. ‘Is it cerebro-spinal fever?’

‘What, cerebro-spinal fever? Nothing of the sort, it is malaria… a nasty strain, but do not worry, nothing untoward will happen…’ Dwarika smiled. And finally, there was a smile on Kamakhya’s face as well.

Now it was time to prescribe medicines. The doctor turned to Pratap, who sat down with pen and ink.

– Age?

‘Twenty-nine,’ said Pratap.

– Not yours, the patient’s…

‘He has just turned twelve,’ interjected Kamakshya quickly.

‘Twenty grains of quinine…’ said Dwarika, muttering, ‘I wish it could have been administered hypodermically…’

‘But who will do that hereabouts? I do not trust myself…’ Pratap trailed off, lest the doctor flare up in rage again. But there were no signs of anger or annoyance in Dwarika’s demeanour. He stared at Pratap.

‘In that case, compounder shaheb, he’ll have to be given a powder or a mixture…’

Pratap was embarrassed.

‘Get it from a reputable shop… Bathgate, Kemp, or Scott Thomson… make arrangements to get it at once…’

Kamakhya’s head bobbed up and down energetically, and Pratap nodded too.

– These twenty grains have to be divided into two or three portions and given in a space of twenty-four hours…’

‘If you could give us the measure in rotis…’ said Pratap mildly.

– One roti is roughly equal to two grains, so…’

‘Ten rotis a day…’ Pratap was about to say something more, but Dwarika stopped him and continued dictating the prescription.

– ‘Six rotis in the first dose, and then two rotis twice each. It’s best to give the medicine two to three hours before the shivering and fever begin. The same dosage will continue for one more day after the fever goes down, followed by three quarters of the dose the next day, and then half for the next two or three days. After this a quarter dose will continue for another three weeks…’

Dwarikanath gave these instructions as he paced up and down the room.

– ‘Quinine might lead to acidity, so along with the medicine or just afterwards…’

‘What should Shashi eat, daktar moshai?’ asked Kamakhya.

– ‘Milk misri sago barley fish curry sweet pomegranate grapefruit raisins grapes—he can have any of these that he wants… once the fever goes down, depending on the situation, milk with sago or semolina at night…’

Roy moshai was drawing rapidly on his hookah in the desire to speak. He was craving a cup of tea, too. Eventually he couldn’t hold himself back any longer. ‘Would you like some tea, daktar moshai?’

Pratap looked up.

Glancing at Roy moshai and Pratap in turn, Dwarikanath said, ‘Once the patient’s temperature returns to normal he must be given hot tea, but light, and covered with a quilt. If his body is warm to the touch the food must be cool. He must be given a sponge bath in tepid water. If he perspires he must be given fluids in adequate quantity…’

Gradually Pratap began to feel relieved. He realized that while the doctor was undoubtedly a little eccentric, he was a good man. Perhaps it was the sense of relief that suddenly made him want to urinate. He began in a composed but theatrical manner, ‘Daktar moshai, my urinary tract is somewhat…’

Suddenly Shashibhushan went into convulsions again.

After a quick glance at him Dwarika turned to Kamakhya. ‘Let me see what the previous doctor had prescribed…’

Dwarikanath looked grim after reading both of Nabin’s prescriptions. ‘Bring the medicines mentioned in this second one…’

The doctor was startled on sniffing one of the bottles. It smelt of tincture of iodine. Pouring it into a glass bowl, he tasted a drop with the tip of his tongue. He had guessed correctly.

Kamakhyacharan said, ‘It was after taking this that the convulsions began…’ Pouring the contents of the bottle marked Aqua Pura into a glass revealed froth.

‘The boy already has malaria, now he will develope a stomach problem as well…’ Dwarika began to shake with anger.

Kamakshya lapsed into silence. Pratap said, ‘In that case…’

‘In that case, what? Go and smear the esteemed doctor’s face with ink…’ Dwarikanath controlled himself quickly.

Explaining every last detail, Dwarikanath accepted his usual fee of ten rupees, which was on the higher side. But then he took his time and examined the patient carefully, for which charged more than others did. This was his principle. Anyone who wanted him to make a house call had to be prepared to pay this amount. He charged half for examining patients in his own house at Beliaghata.

Phanibhushan had not said a single word since they had entered, but his respect for Dwarikanath had grown. The man was straightforward and uncompromising, which was why he went directly to the heart of the matter, and made accurate diagnoses. Phani, too, believed in plain speaking. Now he asked the question that was on his mind. ‘Daktar moshai, quinine is so expensive, we may be able to afford it, but what will the poor people do?’

‘That is right, what will they do? One way out is to rub mustard oil into their bodies… and if the oil is not available, then crushed basil leaves… the main thing is to ensure they are not bitten by mosquitoes… burning resin or camphor in dark corners of the room every morning and evening can also keep mosquitoes away…’ His glance fell on the rubbish heap and puddles and overgrown weeds outside. ‘Unless these are cleared the malaria will continue to…’

‘The government is not doing anything…’ Roy moshai shook his head, ‘they do nothing at all…’

‘Those who have sailed across the seas to rule over us are thinking of little else beside being our lords and master… how much money do you suppose the government gave for building the Medical College and Hosital? Most of the money was donated by Indians… you have to arrange for everything yourself if you want to survive…’

Roy moshai was helpless against Dwarika’s outburst. Pratap, Kamakhya and Phani were silent too.

– ‘You will be the beneficiaries if you can keep your neighbourhood free of rubbish… you will not have to send for the doctor… you know what they say in English… fond of lawsuits, little wealth; fond of doctors, little health.’

Since Roy moshai was having trouble understanding the English saying, Dwarika explained what it meant. ‘Brilliant!’ applauded Roy moshai.

Dwarikanath arrived at the Calcutta Medical College to find the doctors in a state of immense excitement.

Pulin ran up to him. ‘Ghoshal moshai you lost a great opportunity… just to attend to a patient, you…’

Dwarika was irked. No suitable response was possible.

‘A new era begins.’ It was the gaunt Harimohan.

‘He has actually cultured the comma bacillus,’ said the stocky Bholanath.

‘Yes, and the germs do swim,’ added the lanky Hridayranjan.

Such were the fragmented pictures of the collective happiness. No cogent account of what had taken place was available. The sequence of events that emerged by joining the pieces was this: First, the principal of the Medical College, J.M. Coates, introduced Koch and his colleagues Fisher, Gafki and Tresco. Coch was not the one who gave the lecture; Fisher did, going to great lengths to explain the process of culturing the germs artifically. Before this they had tried to induce cholera in animals by making them consume the faeces of cholera-infected humans, but they had not developed the disease. It was in Calcutta that the researchers had discovered the comma-shaped germs for the first time in the faeces of cholera patients. The faeces of healthy people had no such germs. The cholera patient admitted to Sealdah Hospital from whose faeces the germ had been cultured was a young man of twenty-two.

Moulinath said, ‘He’s found the comma bacillus even in some pond in your Beliaghata, Ghoshal moshai, he’s cultured it too…’

‘Be very careful, therefore…’ warned Harimohan, his eyes protuberating, ‘drinking the water of Beliaghata makes cholera a certainty.’

Dwarika laughed. ‘In that case the newspapers will now demand an outbreak of cholera in my neighbourhood… it is not a matter of levity…’ He turned to Moulinath. ‘The treatment for cholera will change now… the older notion that the disease spread from foul smells will be replaced… now that the germ has been identified there will be a vaccination too…’

The other doctors joined the discussion, while the hands of the clock turned remorselessly. An engrossing exchange could make everyone forget time and place.

The night cannons were going off at the fort when Dwarika returned home. Panchu materalized out of the darkness suddenly.

‘At this hour?’ Dwarika was astonished.

‘Found a beautiful thing.’ He grinned, displaying all his teeth. By “thing”, he obviously meant a corpse.

– “Absolutely fresh, got it as soon as it kicked the bucket…”

Panchu was tottering on his feet, but there was no smell of alcohol. Dwarika realized that the rascal had had majoon—a mixture of sugar, flour, butter and milk with bhang. The intoxicant made a person weave as they walked, and smile for no rhyme or reason. It boosted sexual desire too.

By rights Dwarika should have been irritated, but he found himself feeling cheerful instead. For, a new corpse had been found. Fresh inspiration, renewed excitement. His curiosity – and enthusiasm – would not subside till he had learnt why yet another life had been snuffed out.

‘Want to take a look?’

‘Let us go.’ Dwarika walked ahead, Panchu trotting alongside with an oil lamp.

The corpse lay on a slab of ice. Dwarikanath was stunned into silence when he saw it. An exquisitely beautiful woman of about twenty-five, a foreigner. You could hardly tell she was dead; she merely seemed asleep. She looked familiar—where had Dwarika seen her? Was it in Kalinga or Birji Talao? He coudn’t recollect. Distractedly he returned to the quarters of the living.

Dwarikanath went to bed at the appointed hour. Sleep came to him as it was wont to, and so did dreams, which swam in front of his eyes, in his heart, in his body.

Suddenly there was an explosion in his head. Dwarikanath woke up. The McCabe & Co. clock on the wall said it was one-thirty in the morning.  An immense darkness lay beyond the window, quite impenetrable. There it was, the same sound once more. Not in his head, though, but at the door. Dwarika got out of bed swiftly and opened the door to discover a terrified Surweshwari standing outside, Mokkhada behind her, shaking like a willow in a storm, holding a ship’s lantern. She forced the word out. ‘Ghosts…’ 

The doctor was amused. Sureshwari and Mokkhada would never give up on ghosts as long as the autopsy room continued to run. They had claimed the presence of spirits two or three times earlier, and had been proven wrong on each occasion. And yet here they were, babbling about ghosts again. Annoyed at being awoken so soon after going to sleep, Dwarika nevertheless said calmly, ‘Ghosts! Where?’

Mokkhada pointed to the autopsy room. Going up to the window with the lantern, Dwarikanath discovered that there was indeed a flickering light in there, moving about. And now it was still suddenly. How odd.

Returning the lantern to Mokkhada, he ran downstairs. Finally returning to her senses, Sureshwari said, ‘Don’t go there baba Dwarik… I beg of you… take the lantern at least…’ By then a curious Dwarik had opened the front door.

When he entered the autopsy room the light was set in a corner. Dwarik turned towards the corpse, and almost stopped breathing as an icy current ran down his spine. The dead body was absolutely naked, and poised over it was Panchu, without any clothes, attempting copulation. Necrophilia! Panchu was a necrohiliac.

The practice used to exist in ancient Egypt; Dwarika had seen illustrations. There was a similar story in the Mahabharata too. The powerul king Bushitaswa of the Puru dynasty had died, leaving his wife Bhadra bereft with grief. She lay on her husband’s funeral pyre, clinging to his body, refusing to allow it to be cremated. She was, of course, distressed because of her beloved husband’s death, but a second significant reason was that he had left her childless. Even a single child would have made the grief bearable. As her lamentations intensified, an incorporeal voice spoke to her from the sky—arise and repair to the palace, o wide-hipped beauty. Perform your ablutions and await our consummation on the eighth or the fourteenth night on your own bed. It was the king’s voice. The corpse was preserved instead of being cremated. On the appointed day the king’s organ stiffened and Bhadra had intercourse with her dead husband, giving birth to seven sons afterwards.

Dwarika was incensed, a flame shooting up inside his head. Every drop of blood in his body seemed inflammable now, the fire spreading through his arteries and veins. Someone else was in control of Dwarika at these moments, a primitive man from thousands of years ago. How dare he! He had actually fondled and assaulted the dead woman, the rogue had defiled the corpse. A roar emerged from Dwarika’s throat—you necrophiliac!

Panchu was no less shocked. Overcome with anger at being interrupted, he jerked away from the dead body and charged towards, looking like an ape without his clothes.

Dwarika took two steps forward and aimed a mighty blow at Panchu’s jaw. His strong and muscular hand struck the young man’s face like a sledgehammer. Panchu collapsed on the floor.

Picking up a scalpel, Dwarika drew it sharply across both of Panchu’s cheeks. He screamed in pain.

Baiju had come running from the front gate. ‘What’s the matter, saab?’

He was astonished to see the naked Panchu, and even more puzzled to see him bleeding. Unable to grasp what was happening, he muttered, ‘Hai siyaram…’

The sight of blood brought Dwarika back to his senses. The fellow could well be mentally unabalanced. Beating him up would not cure him; he needed treatment.

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

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Shardulshundori: Sirsho Bandyopadhyay

Singapore, 1920: Curtain Call

Priyanath was slowly sinking into the quicksand. The deep yellow mass of sand had the tight consistency of mud. The dense, impenetrable, yellow sludge closed in on him, entering his nostrils, his mouth. Priyanath was choking. Suddenly the deep yellow began to change colour in some places to orange. An unusual coppery orange.

Priyanath tried to recollect where he had seen this particular shade before. But even before he could remember, he had a view of black stripes on a tawny background, and was simultaneously overcome by a sharp, foul stench. It was a familiar smell. The raw odour of tiger urine. It wasn’t just in the jungle but also in its cage that the tiger sprayed its urine to stake its territory.

Even in his benumbed state, Priyanath wanted to laugh, reminded of a strange habit of his own. Wherever he went with his troupe, he always urinated beneath the open sky after the last post of the main tent had been driven into the ground. It was Fatikchandra, mad Fatik, who had been the first to observe this peculiar practice of his. ‘So you’re staking your territory, Priyababu,’ he had brayed one day.

The stripes appeared even clearer now against the tawny background. Priyanath reached out. His fingers sank into coarse, thick fur. A rumbling sound emerged, which he recognised at once. Lakshmi. The Royal Bengal tiger whom he considered no less than his daughter. Lakshmi and Narayan had been tiny balls of cotton when the King of Rewa had gifted them to Priyanath. He used to give them their milk himself, using cottonwool wicks to drip it into their mouths.

Lakshmi was as good as her name, totally obedient and utterly devoted to Priyanath. Narayan wasn’t naughty either. Both of them knew as soon as Priyanath went up to their cages, leaning their heads against the bars and purring for his caresses. But Lakshmi was more than a daughter. As a baby she would often refuse to return to her cage, adamant about staying with him. He would have to let her sleep in his tent, next to his bed. On some winter nights she would even climb into his bed, nestling against him.

Where’s Lakshmi, where are you? Why can’t I see your face? About to lose consciousness, Priyanath tried to keep his eyes open with great effort.

But what was this? This wasn’t Lakshmi! The body was a tiger’s, but the face was a woman’s. Was it a woman or a demoness? What did she want? Why was she slithering up to him like a giant python, bringing her face so close to his?

‘Who are you? What do you want?’ Priyanath screamed.

The woman’s lips tried to form an answer, but all Priyanath could hear was a purring. The kind that his tigers made when they wanted his attention.

But what was she saying? Listening closely, Priyanath detected her slurred speech. ‘Will you kiss me? Give me a kiss. You’re so brave. Why don’t you kiss me?’

The words sounded like groans, but they seemed familiar. Who was it who used to talk this way? Who? Someone he knew very well.

The woman’s face was inches away from Priyanath’s now. Suddenly she said, ‘Kiss me here, right here…’ and turned her face away.

Priyanath gasped. One side of her face was all but gone. Someone had ripped off part of her jaw in a fury, leaving only a misshapen lump of flesh where her neck and shoulders should have been.

Opening his mouth to shriek in horror, Priyanath realised that only a rumbling sound was emerging from his throat. The mangled face was still bleeding profusely. His white vest was soaked, turning red with blood.

He tried to push the face away with both his hands, but his hands only passed through air. The woman broke into peals of laughter, which turned into maniacal rage the very next moment. Heaving with anger, she said, ‘You can’t, Priyababu, you can’t. You can try as hard as you like, but you can’t push me away.’

She clung to his neck with arms that ended not in fingers but in fearsome claws. Priyanath tried in a frenzy to extricate himself. He was panting, desperately trying to draw deep breaths. The bed, the entire room, was awash with blood. It flooded into his nose and mouth, suffocating him.

A terrified Priyanath woke up with a start. He had fallen asleep in the comfortable wicker chair next to his desk. His clothes were sopping wet with perspiration. Beads of sweat streamed down from his face.

He sat there for a while, trying to normalise his breathing. My god, what a horrible nightmare.

An electric bulb was burning brightly in the room. It was hurting his eyes. These lights had been introduced to Calcutta a few years ago. They must have come to Singapore even earlier. But Priyanath was not yet accustomed to them. He had always travelled with his circus from one village to another, performing in the countryside. The glare was painful. He couldn’t open his eyes properly.

Priyanath squinted at the adjoining bathroom. He needed to wipe off his perspiration. The towel was in there. But he staggered as soon as he got on his feet. His head began to reel.
He clutched the side of the desk to save himself from falling. Sheets of paper were strewn on its surface, all of them prescriptions from European medical practitioners. Doctors in Singapore had tested his blood and diagnosed jaundice. He had led an indisciplined life for years, with irregular meals, on top of which there had been frequent bouts of fever, along with searing headaches. He used to swallow fistfuls of painkillers, which had apparently harmed his liver severely. Visiting Penang with his troupe, he had fallen so ill that he had had to be taken to Singapore for treatment. The doctors had grounded him after a thorough examination, warning him that he wouldn’t survive unless he was treated immediately.

Since then Priyanath had remained imprisoned in this hotel in Singapore. But he was close to losing his mind in worry. He had barely managed to restart his circus after a great deal of trouble, and there was no one besides him to ensure that everyone in the troupe was fed properly and looked after, and that the animals were taken care of.

Priyanath sighed. His elder brother Motilal used to shoulder all the responsibilities of his Great Bengal Circus at one time. Priyanath did not have to concern himself with anything but the performance.

But Mejobabu was extremely bad-tempered. It wasn’t just with outsiders or with other members of the circus, Motilal had often fought bitterly with his own brother too. But then they had always made up. Despite all their conflicts, Priyanath was certain that Motilal would never be able to turn down his younger brother.

But there was no opportunity for patching up after their last feud. Motilal bid goodbye to the world suddenly.

What ensued after this was even more unbearable. Motibabu’s eldest son Motilal decided that he had come of age, and demanded to see the accounts. He even had several arguments with his uncle, claiming that Priyanath was single-handedly destroying the circus founded by his father. But he refused to accompany the troupe on its performances, or to find out for himself how such a large circus was managed.

Priyanath sank into gloom as he mused about all this. None of his own sons had evinced any interest in the circus, concentrating on their education instead. His second son, Abanikrishna, was a lover of the arts, just like Priyanath himself, and had already developed into a skilled artist. He wrote regularly to Priyanath, although each of his letters bore the same message, of the family’s financial hardship.

It was true that they were helpless, unable to cope. Just the other day a letter had arrived to inform him of mounting debts at all the neighbourhood shops. While none of the creditors was yet to visit them at home to demand their dues, they had let it be known that this could not go on.

Everyone at home was hopeful that this time, too, Priyanath would bring some money from his profits, as he usually did. But Priyanath himself was reeling under loans. Whom could he possibly tell that he had borrowed money at high interest rates to pay for this tour his circus was on? He had no idea how he would pay back his loans.

The only person aware of the situation was his friend Kazi Kader Daad, who had lent money to Priyanath in several instalments to help him overcome this difficult time. Priyanath had learnt from Abani’s letters that Kader Dead had even helped his family out in Calcutta with money occasionally.

When would he repay his friend for this favour? And how? Priyanath was at his wits’ end.
He was still discomposed. It was May, a hot month in Singapore. Priyanath felt as though his insides were on fire. He was perspiring profusely, his tongue was coated, he could barely keep his eyes open. He was overcome by exhaustion. Pouring several buckets of water over himself might bring some relief.

Priyanath stumbled towards the bathroom, only half conscious, groping for things to clutch. But halfway there, his head began to reel again.

With nothing to hold on to, Priyanath was about to lose his balance and fall. One of the posts on his four-poster bed appeared to him dimly. He tried to grasp it, but failed. His tall frame spun and collapsed on the corner of the bed.

Made in the western style, the bed had a low upright plank at its foot. Priyanath had fallen across it on his back, his hips resting on the patterned length of wood. The lower half his body was partly dangling, partly on the floor. The portion above the waist was slumped on the bed.

His head, however, had struck the floor with great force. It was a wooden surface, which was why he had not fractured his skull. But two streams of blood were flowing from Priyanath’s ears, pooling on the floor. His eyes were open, and the eyeballs had rolled upwards, inert.

The opening orchestra began to play with the ringing of the third bell. The solemn notes of the trumpet, clarinet, and English horn filled the tent.

Priyanath was still aroused by the sound of this music. it made him joyful, freeing him of all burdens. He remembered none of the financial uncertainty or the trouble of managing the troupe or the worry of how to run his household. On the contrary, he felt as though he were making a fresh start.

Priyanath swung cheerfully on his trapeze, his head pointing towards the ground. The upside-down face of a 12-year-old girl approached and receded alternately. She was also swinging upside down on her trapeze. Her nose-stud glittered, and stray strands of hair were stuck to her sweat-covered brow. Fervour shone in her dazzling eyes.

Priyanath called out to her, ‘Don’t be afraid, Sushila, let go. Let go at the end of the next swing.’ With a covert smile Sushila said, ‘Why should I be afraid? I know you’ll catch me, Priyababu.’

From ‘Mahanadi’: by Anita Agnihotri

Flowing out of the Hirakud reservoir, the Mahanadi flows south for some distance, through Sambalpur and then to Suvarnapur or Sonpur, before turning eastward towards the Buddhist district, passing the hills and forests of Tikarpara and going on to Nayagadh district, and finally to the sea through the plains of Kendrapara and Jagatsinghpur, which are split by rivers running through them. All this comes much later, however. The town of Suvarnapur is drenched in the love of many rivers. The Tel is the longest tributary of the Mahanadi, renowned for being a witness to the archaeological history of southern Kausala. IN addition, the Utei from the tribal land in the south, the Sukhtel – which cuts through drought-seared Bolangir, and the Ang from deep within Bargarh-Padmapur all flow into the tributary. All these tributaries merge with the Mahanadi north of Sonpur; the place where the Tel joins the bigger river is named Vaidyanath. Sonpur was once a subdivision in the district of Bolangir, but it has been a full-fledged district for the past 15 years,

The new district does not appear particularly ostentatious. The town is as rustic and haphazardly laid out as many other sub-division towns. Old and new houses adjoin one another, there are open drains and vagrant bulls. Vegetables sold on the roadside. Lanterns in ramshackle huts turned into shops. When you look at Suvarnapur today, you won’t know how bustling a kingdom it once was, how many histories of victories and defeats have been written here.

But Sonpur has the Mahanadi. Like a decaying zamindar family’s classic sari spun with a single gold thread, the river has brought the murmur of running water to the district and town, to villages and markets, it has brought irrigation with the Bargarh canal system, greening the areas in and around Binka.

Walking down the narrow lane to the ghat at Tentultala, Subal discovers this extraordinary sight – or achievement – almost every day. This river. It is no lifeless geographical landmark, it is a beautiful, magical and distant woman from his own family. There’s some old human habitation in this part of town – the lanes are dirty, uncared for. The stone layers have peeled off, with mud and slime accumulating. The house that Subal lives in is an old, small building, the bricks exposed. Subal and his family cannot afford a higher rent, and the landlord hasn’t bother with repairs. It’s almost as though he wants the building to collapse on its tenants.

There’s just the one room, with an area for cooking next to it, separated by a wall rising halfway to the ceiling. The walls are decaying, untouched by paint for many years. From the half-covered cooking area, Gouri, Subal’s wife, has told him loudly, we’re out of cooking oil. She always reminds of something or the other they’re out of when he’s about to leave – rice or cooking oil or spices or kerosene or daal. Only the absence of rice and kerosene affects Subal’s practised ears, the other shortages do not come in the way of daily life.

Satya sir has been responsible for Subal’s interest in living in a city. Professor Satyendra Pradhan. Subal studied literature in college, where Satya sir taught the history of language. But his lectures effortlessly included geography, archaeology, social history and economics. Even a small town can contribute to the life of an intellectual. Like others, Subal too is attracted by magazine stalls, bookshops, libraries, DTP centres, movie halls and gatherings over cups of tea or coffee. He has neither much money nor many friends – but it is the town that Subal considers his sphere of existence and thought. It is no longer possible to go back to the dilapidated home in the village and live a starving existence with this parents and brother. He prefers his hungry life in the town. His mind, at least, gets nourishment. Yes, there’s the river too. As Subal stands at Tentultala Ghat in the morning, waiting for a long day of unemployment to be born, the blood in his veins begins to agitate in despair. He is not remotely adroit with words; nor does the stirring magic of poetry infect his thoughts. But still, Subal does write some verse these days, alongside his prose. This is the upheaval of the anguish that flows from the bereft feeling which confronting beauty leads to. Subal hesitates even to acknowledge it to himself.

Satya sir is coming today. It takes a lot of time to negotiate the roads crowded with cycle rickshaws and cattle. So the ghat is the best location. Satya sir has retired from teaching and lives in Sambalpur now – he doesn’t care to settle down in a single place. His students, who live in different places in eastern India, keep inviting him, or perhaps an educational institution – he’s happy if his ticket is paid for, he goes wherever he’s invited, to read a paper or give a speech or just meet people.

The teacher loves the Mahanadi. He often spends the night on the large passenger boats moored on the river. On moonlit nights – when the moon is full or soon afterwards, during torrential rains or in spring or in autumn, when the moonbeams and the waves create ethereal beauty – Satyendra loves gazing at the water. Sometimes he asks the students of Suvarnapur to join him, listening to them as they read poetry. Subal has visited him too. Satyendra has taught him with great care the histories of the temples and ghats and kings of Suvarnapur. Such knowledge is of great use for all sorts of research, it even earns money when offered to scholars doing their fieldwork. Satya sir keeps a quiet eye on opportunities for Subal to earn some money. He often initiates these himself, passing on Subal’s address to travellers and researchers.

Satya Pradhan’s hired car will reach the ghat at Tentultala along the road that leads into the city, running parallel to the river. This is where the town begins, and, along with it, the traffic congestion.

This time the teacher has told Subal, I want to travel on the rive by daylight, hire a boat. That is what Subal has done, telling Gandaram the boatman to make himself available, although he has paid no advance, which is why he has felt a stab of anxiety at dawn, what if the boatman does not come?

How beautiful the expanse of the river is in the morning. Across the water stretching to the horizon, the golden hue of the sandbank on the other side is visible. The clouds are reflected in the clear water. Near the bank the water is dark green – is it green or emerald – lightening gradually to sky blue. Rocks rise out the water, large or small, enormous at some places.  Although not visible here, strong rock structures can be seen in the north, where the Tel flows into the Mahanadi. Satya sir says the rocks on the river-bed at Sambalpur are much narrower and steeper. Why? Is the current stronger here, tormenting the rock, cutting into it deeply? Water cutting into rock is an unusual image, a strange thing to happen. Water was force, rock does not, rock is helpless. Long, narrow dinghies lie in parallel at the ghat. The boatmen take as many as forty or forty-five passengers across on them. It might look fragile, but it needs four people to row these ‘Kausli’ dinghies or ‘dinghas’ when the river swells in monsoon, and the current becomes sharper. Even slimmer dinghies ply in the Mahanadi – they’re called ‘Huli donga’s. The boatmen cup their hands to use their fingers as oars, which is why these small craft named after fingers, the local word for which is ‘ahuli’ or ‘huli’.

‘Ho…oi Sobalbabu!’ It’s clear from the sound of his voice that the boatman Gandaram Nayak is drunk out of his mind. He drinks even in the daytime, for he cannot row otherwise. He is dressed in a short-sleeved banyan and a dirty dhoti, with a gamchha with a pattern of checks wrapped around his waist. Hereabouts people wear rings and amulets made with nails from boats. When people need them they turn to the boatmen. These rings are certain to solve difficult, even impossible problems, such as a daughter who can’t be married off because she’s too old. Where does this power come from? From the fact that since the boats go across the river, the iron on them can help overcome problems.

Getting out of a wheezing Ambassador, Satya sir crushes Subal in his arms. Gandaram is staring with a frown, not sure whether to smile or not.

Let me introduce you, Satyendra says after Subal had recovered his joy, this is Smita Khujur, from Jharkhand. She teaches in Delhi, having heard of our beautiful river she’s come to see it.

Subal stares at Smita in astonishment. She’s as dark as he is, tall, her hair piled high on her head. Not a trace of jewellery anywhere on her. The coarse handspun sari she’s dressed in suits her beautifully, on her left wrist she wears a watch with a broad black band. Smita is gazing at the river, charmed. Then she extends her hand to Subal. His palms are perspiring in embarrassment. Smita says, I’ve seen this river even more beautiful in Chhattisgarh, where it is born, but here it looks completely different.

The Kosli donga takes a slight turn and begins to move northward. Gangaram sits at the prow, his helper at the stern, Smita on a plank in the middle, with Subal next to her, forced to sit there by Satyen, who’s facing both of them.

The water is green, the river flows pleasingly. There are fast currents even near the bank, giving rise to waves. The gurgling of the water is soft but constant. A bird is calling in the distance, a continuous, metallic sound with occasional pauses. Leaning to her right, Smita really dips all her fingers or ahulis in the water. The green water flows over them, the sunlight making dappled patterns on the surface. There aren’t any crocodiles, are there?

Before Satyendra can answer Gandaram exclaims, crocodiles, here? You can find them to the south of Satkosia, there’s a crocodile project there.

Smita turns to look at him. Gandaram has unhealthy puffiness beneath his eyes and on his cheeks, induced by alcohol. His forehead is wrinkled, though his jet black hair makes it difficult to guess his age quickly.

This isn’t his real name, Satyendra tells Smita with a smile. He speaks so softly that only Subal should be able to hear him, but because the boatman’s attention is on everything except rowing, he speaks up loudly.

My father’s name is Neelkantha. My parents were filled with fear after losing two children in a row, a daughter and a son. So my mother sold me to a Ganda or an untouchable when I was a baby. I have been called Gandaram since then. I was sold with the faith that death will not summon a child touched by an untouchable. There is even the practice of passing on a child to a washerman  in this area.

Smita laughs. A water partridge flies past simultaneously, calling out, twaang twaang.

 

A Poem: Rumi

I never tired of thinking of you, my beloved
Do not deprive me of your compassion

This jar of water, this water-carrier
Must be exhausted with me

A parched fish remains within me
Never given enough water
To quench its thirst

Show me the way to the ocean!
Shatter these half measures
All these tiny containers

All this is sorcery
And mortifying

Let my hut be swept away
By the wave that rose last night
From the depths hidden in my heart

Just like the moon, Yusuf came down into my well
Even if the harvest of my hope has been flooded
What does it matter?

The flames have risen over the tombstone
I seek neither knowledge nor honours
Nor is respect desired

I only want music and this dawn
The warmth of your face on mine

Travellers of heartache are gathering
But I shan’t go with them

This is what happens every time
When I have to end a poem

A deep silence envelops me
And I wonder in astonishment
Why I have been pursuing words

[Translated from the Bengali version included in Rabisankar Bal’s ‘A Mirrored Life’]