The Gift of Death: Nabarun Bhattacharya

Some people’s lives are so dreary that in the process of putting up with the tedium they don’t even realise when they just die. When you think about it, they seem to be under a cloud of doubt even after death. In that respect, few people are born as lucky as me. Whenever I get fed up of things, something inevitably happens to revive my spirits. But you can’t say this to too many people. Friends and relations all assume I’m grinding out an existence just like them. Hand-to-mouth. Brainless sheep, the whole lot. But then it’s best for them to think this way. Else they’ll be jealous. They’ll look at me strangely. I don’t know how to cope with envy. I’m afraid of the evil eye too. Good and evil – that’s what makes the world go round.

The first thing I have going for me is my amazing contact with lunatics at regular intervals. Chance or fate, it just happens. An example or two will help me explain without creating problems on the business side. But it’s best not to tell the psychiatrist my wife took me to. Suppose she changes my pills?

Just the other day this man – gaunt, half-dead, looks like one of those people who can fly – got hold of me. Had two terrific schemes, he said. He’d sent the details to every world leader. Two of them had replied so far. Both Thatcher and Gorbachev had praised his ideas. He’d be talking to both of them soon.
He was flying out next month. I sat down to hear of his schemes.

The first one was to build a projection jutting out from the balcony of every apartment in all the high-rise buildings coming up these days. Something like a diving board at a swimming pool. He would make a couple of prototypes to begin with. Once the government had approved enthusiastically, it would be added to the building plan, without having to be added on later.

Apparently it was essential for people to have such high spots nowadays to stand or sit on. Without railings, not very large. It was for those who wanted to be by themselves. People were chased by thousands of things these days. He was being chased by the chief minister, by scientists, by the prime minister. The police commissioner too. Also by the Special Branch, the Criminal Investigations Department, and the Research & Analysis Wing. That was when the plan struck him. A slice of space – but outside the building. Speaking for myself, the idea appealed to me too. Entirely possible. But because I lived in a single-storied house inherited from my father, I didn’t give it too much thought. His second scheme was not exactly a plan – it was more of an adventurous proposal or proposition, though it was closely connected to the first scheme. He would stand as well as walk on the wings of a mid-air aircraft. He wanted to demonstrate this practically. Today’s youth would regain their courage if they saw him. The youth needed dreams, for the alternatives were drugs, cinema and HIV. He wanted to perform this feat on an Indian Air Force plane. He had written it all down in detail. There were diagrams too. All of it gathered in a thin plastic folder. He kept these documents in a file tied up with a string. He wanted to know if I could help him with the second idea in. Whether I knew an Air Marshal, for instance. When I said I wouldn’t be able to help him, he requested me to pay for a cup of tea and a cigarette at least. I did.

I have met several such insane people, in different shapes and sizes and with different behaviours. I have seen people who have gone mad with sudden grief. I’ve encountered not a few suicides too. Before killing themselves, some people develop a half-mad detachment. I’ve come across such people too. But then I’ve also run into not one but two cases where there wasn’t a whiff of insanity. Both of them used to spend time with mystics. One of them used to go to Tarapith, that den of mystics, every Sunday. The other was embroiled deeply in office politics. Both hanged themselves. All of these incidents are true. The age of making stories up has ended – why should people believe me, and why should I bother to make them up, either? Some of the lunatics and suicides I’ve seen were tragedies of love. But this isn’t the time for stories about women. Although the first person whom I told the story that I have eventually decided to recount here was my wife. A woman, in other words.

And this was what led to all the quarrels and demands. For what? That I must see a psychiatrist. I was an able-bodied man – why should I abandon the business I ran and go see a doctor for the insane? She paid no attention. Her brothers came. Collectively they forced me to see a woman psychiatrist. What an enormous fuss they made. But it turned out to be a good idea. Very pretty. Western looks. And matching conversation. Very cordial. I liked her so much that I told her the story too. For years altogether now I’ve been taking the tiny white pills she gave me, thrice a day. Sometimes I take a blue one too. It gets wearisome. I get annoyed. But I like the woman so much that I can’t help trusting her. I try to tell myself that I’ve recovered from an illness. Not that I’m ill.

The story that all this preamble leads up to is not about lunatics or suicides, however. In fact it’s been three whole years. I was returning home by train from Madras. I have to travel indiscriminately on business. To save money I travel second class on the way out, but on the way back I give in to my longing for luxury and inevitably buy a first class ticket. There was no one else in the four-berth compartment. I was comfortable. Somewhere near the Andhra-Orissa border I woke up and found everything dark. The train wasn’t moving either. Pitch dark. You couldn’t see anything out of the window. Once my eyes had adjusted to the darkness I realised that the train was standing at a small station somewhere. A deep indigo night sky. Hints of low black hills. A few lonely stars. People moving about. The glow of torches. Getting off the train, I heard that a goods train had been in an accident. It would have to be moved and the line, repaired. Only then would our train resume its journey.

Almost without warning, the lights came back on. I went back to my compartment. At once I discovered that someone else had entered in the darkness. The man was – not probably, but almost certainly – not a South Indian. His appearance and way of talking made that obvious. In his forties. Fair, well-dressed, handsome. Slightly greying hair. His fine shirt and trousers, gleaming shoes and the tie around his neck gave him the appearance of a successful salesman of a multinational company. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but I still don’t know the name of the company or how big it was. So big that it was almost mysterious and obscure.

After some small talk both of us lit our cigarettes. He was the one to offer his expensive cigarettes. When I asked him whether he wouldn’t mind a little whiskey, he said he didn’t drink. So I drank by myself. There was no sign of the train leaving. Neither of us spoke for a while. Almost startling me, the man suddenly said, – Keep this business card of ours. Might come in useful. The card was black, made of some kind of paper with the feel of velvet. On it, an address in an unsettling shade of bright yellow. Nothing else. A Waltair address. Nothing else on either side of the card. Neither the name of a company, nor a phone number.

– That’s not our actual address, mind you. You have to take a roundabout route to reach us. But when you write to us add your address with all details. Our people will certainly get in touch with you. It may take a little time. But they will definitely meet you.
– What exactly is this business of yours? Seems to be some sort of secret, illegal affair… But then you’ve got business cards too – strange!
– Look, our company doesn’t have a name. No name. We help people die – you could say we gift them death. Of course it isn’t legal, but…
– You mean you murder them.
– Absolutely not! Murder! How awful, we aren’t killers. It will be done with your full consent. Different kinds of death, in different ways. You will choose your method, and pay accordingly. You want to die like a king? We can do it for you. We will fulfil whatever death wish you might have, no matter how unusual. You’ll get exactly what you want, just the way you want it. But yes, you have to pay.

I had a long conversation with the man thereafter. I’m recounting as much of it as I can recollect. As much of the strangeness as actually penetrated my whiskey-soaked brain in the anonymous darkness of the station. As much as I’ve been able to retain three years later.

His position was that, for a variety of reasons, each of us harbours a unique death wish within ourselves. That is to say, a pet notion – and desire – of how we’d like to die. Like a romantic, someone might want to leap from a mountain into a bottomless ravine on a cold, misty evening. Others want their bodies to be riddled by bullets. Yet others, to be charred to death in a fire. Someone else wants poison in their bloodstream, so they they begin with a slight warm daze and bow out as cold as ice. Some want to be conscious at the moment of death, while others prefer to be halfway to oblivion. One person wants to be strangled to death. Another is keen on being stabbed. Some people wish for death in a holy place, the sound of sacred chants ringing in their ears. But wishing doesn’t guaantee fulfilment. No matter what, the majority of deaths are uninteresting, drab and dull. This company meets the demand for such deaths, fulfilling its clients’ death wishes. I remember some parts of the salesman’s pitch verbatim.

– There’s a theoretical side to this too. Our R&D is extremely strong. You’ll find non-stop research underway, not only on the practical side of death, but also on other aspects, covering data from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Thanatos Syndrome, Indian thoughts on death, Abhedananda, and Jiddu Krishnamoorthy to the latest forms of murder, suicide and clinical death. Forget about India, no one in the world is engaged in this sort of business. It wouldn’t even occur to anyone. We’ve been told of a few small-scale attempts in Japan, but this isn’t a matter of automobiles or electronics, after all. They may have their Toyota and Mitsubishi, but those poor fellows still can’t think beyond hara-kiri. All those bamboo or steel knives – so primitive. Not at all enterprising. Incidentally, do you know which country has the most suicides in the world?

– Must be us.
– No sir, it’s Hungary. Magyars are incredibly suicide-prone.

They offered access to all kinds of death. They would fulfil even the most intricate and virtually impossible proposals. A man from Delhi had always imagined dying when his jeep skidded on an icy mountain road. It was organised. If you wanted to die of a specific disease, their medical team would check on its feasibility. But they would not engineer someone else’s death on your request. You could only arrange for your own death through their services.

I learnt a great deal from the conversation. Apparently many people lived such bewildered lives that even though they had a vague idea of how they’d like to die, they could not express it clearly. The company had a choice of pre-set programmes for such clients. The most regal of these was the ‘record player’.
A gigantic record player was set in the ocean at a distance. A huge black disc was set in it, the disc of death, turning at thirty-three and one third revolutions per minute. The record player was placed on a rig similar to an offshore oil-drilling platform. You had to get there on a speedboat. The fortunate man desiring death was made to sit on a chair over the spoke, shaped like a bullet or a lipstick, reaching upwards through the hole at the centre of the record. The record-player played an impossibly tragic melody – Western or Indian. Rachmaninoff’s Aisle of Death, or the wistful strains of a sarengi, as you wished. Several thousand watts of sound enveloped the client in a trance. Revolving on the surface of the ocean along with the record, he was also transported to a place beyond the real and the unreal. When the music ended, the stylus entered the glittering space in the middle of the record with the sound of a storm, striking the man a mighty blow that ensured his death even before his body hit the water. His head was either torn off his body or pulverised. As soon as the corpse fell into the sea, hundreds of sharks swam up at the scent of blood. This was a very expensive affair. Very few people could afford it. Till date, not more than two or three people had heard the symphony of death.

– Who are they?
– Excuse me, but clients are more important to us than even god. We cannot possibly divulge their identities. Although we are practically friends now, you and I. Do you remember how Mr ____ died? You should.
– How could I not remember. Such a horrible plane crash!
– It was a plane crash all right, but that was what he wanted.
– But what about the other passengers? Surely they didn’t want it.
– Sorry. It’s prohibitively expensive. Because there are other victims.
– But they were innocent.
– Innocent! My foot! In any case, there’s nothing we can do about it. None of them told us to kill them. But if they insist on taking the same flight, what are we supposed to do? Moroever, this was his choice. Yes, choice. We made all the arrangements to fulfil his request, using the money he paid us.
– But. Why did he do this?
– He had got rid of Mr ____ the same way. Not through us, of course. Lots of innocent people had died on that occasion too. So he wanted a similar death.
– How many more such cases have you handled?
– Numerous. But why should we tell you about all of them? Can all such cases be talked about? Should they even be talked about? We offer many services. We sell suicide projects, for instance. Not as expensive. Lots more. Let me just tell you this, all the famous people who have died recently – from the Bombay mafia leader being gunned down to the Calcutta filmstar who committed suicide with the phone in his hand and forty sleeping pills in his stomach – it was all our doing. And then there are always the political leaders. It’s very easy to help them – all of them prefer a heart attack.
– So you people help only the famous? Give them the gift of death, that is.
– We’re still trying consolidate our business, you see. The company’s a long way from breaking even. But yes, pride in our performance is our major capital at present. Later, of course, we’ll have to think of the economically weaker classes too. To tell you the truth, poor people are much more trouble. The bastards aren’t even sure whether they’re alive in the first place, how can they be expected to think of death? And besides, they’re unbelievably crude.
– What about those even lower down – miles below the poverty line – beggars?
– Impossible! Last year our R&D people studied the death wishes of beggars in three metropolitan cities – Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Their findings were – how shall I put it – silly and delightful. Childish demands.
– Such as?
– In most cases the image involves eating. For instance, some of them want their limbs, heads and bodies to be stuffed with meat, fish, butter and alcohol till they explode. They desperately want liquor. Then again, some of them wanted god to take them in his arms at the centre of Flora Fountain in Bombay. Infantile, and so naive.
– But you have to say they’re imaginative.
– That’s true. They’re bound to, since they’re human beings. But yes, we get a lot of valuable ideas from children. Just the other day our R&D unearthed a fascinating story from an American newspaper.
– Tell me, please.
– A boy, you know. About twelve. Somewhere near Chicago. The fellow had dressed up as Batman. He was Batman constantly, jumping from roof to roof with a pair of wings clipped on. No one took him seriously. Even the girls used to laugh at him. Child psychology, you see. So none of you can recognise Batman, he said. One day he was found in a deep freezer, frozen after several days in there. You’d be astounded at the kind of cases there are. Batman! Actually it’s not like I don’t drink. Pour me a strong whiskey, will you? What’s this whiskey called? Glender! Oh, it’s Scotch. I’ve never heard of this brand.
I had poured a few whiskeys. For the salesman. And for myself too. After I had poured several, he had left like Batman, swinging and weaving. I had weaved my way to bed too. The train had started moving. I could still hear his voice ringing in my ears…
– But yes, there’s a grand surprise in death, especially in accidental death – a thrill that we never deprive our clients of. Say someone has booked a death to be run over by a car. But not all his efforts will allow him to guess when, where, or on which road he will die. The virgin charm of sudden death will always remain.

Who was this man? What company did he represent, for that matter? The gift of death – the idea couldn’t exactly be dismissed out of hand. Despite my best efforts, I hadn’t been able to do it for three years. Secondly, don’t we have our own visions of death, after all? Would it be fulfilled in this one life, in this life? For instance, I have a specific sort of death wish of my own too. But then the death by record player is very expensive. Naturally. I live with doubts and misgiving like these. These things lie low when I take my pills regularly. When they raise their heads I visit the psychiatrist. She changes the medicine. Blue pills instead of white. In the darkness of power-cuts I pull that man’s black business card out for a look. The disturbing yellow letters are probably printed in fluoroscent ink. They glow in the darkness. I don’t mind showing the card to anyone who gets in touch with me. You can check for yourself by writing to them. It might take a little time but their people will certainly get in touch. You can be sure about this. They will definitely meet you.

Love and the Madman: by Nabarun Bhattacharya

We young men from rich families have a unique rhythm to our lives. Perhaps young women do, too, but we had no idea what kind of family the only young woman to appear in this menacing story belonged to. It was possible that she didn’t even belong to this world. Maybe dangerous young women such as these are created in winter from a blend of fog, smoke and black magic. The very thought made beads of perspiration appear on our skins even in the icy weather, while Malli kaka’s continuous laughter could be heard outside the blanket and the mosquito net.

We turned over on our stomachs in fear, burying our noses in pillows with floral covers. Our only hope was the scent of naphthalene balls that had eventually shrunk into oblivion. Our stomachs used to turn after we had eaten our pastries, cakes, cream rolls and sweets — washing them down with warm milk — on summer evenings. We had slight paunches. Rich men’s sons, bellies like buns, our maids would say. There were other reasons for feeling queasy too. We would be dressed in jackets, sweaters, caps, woollen socks, gloves, thermal vests and so on before being given our warm milk. It was the same routine in every home before our game of badminton. Then we’d go out with our badminton racquets. Stamping our feet clumsily. As each of our feet fell on the pavement or the road, our fat cheeks quivered. The queasiness would persist. This was the state in which we would arrive at our friends’ houses where the barking of dogs reverberated.

Often, we’d run into one another even earlier. In front of a big gate. Each of our houses included a garden and a lawn. The gardeners in each of the homes prepared badminton courts for winter evenings. We’d play by turn in different houses. Sometimes close by. Sometimes further away. When further away, we’d be chauffeured in cars. And chauffeured back, too. The badminton courts would be dazzlingly lit. The feather would go back and forth across the net, holding light beams in its beak. Sometimes it would be snared in the net. At times it would even disappear in low-hanging branches or amidst the leaves in the light and shade. We would see the feathers of the tattered shuttlecock beneath the tree. You could see similar sights these days at shops selling chicken in the market. White feathers scattered everywhere. As a matter of fact, this was nothing new.

Familiar images were being attached to unfamiliar scenes to befuddle us. They couldn’t be named. We were flustered. This was normal before the stomach started turning. But what if it was! Anyway, cars did not emit much smoke in Calcutta then. Most of the smoke came from ovens. Although our homes had piped gas or electric cooking ranges.

It was on such a smoggy winter evening that we had gone to Sumitesh’s house for our game of badminton. Just as we had started playing, someone laughed like a barking jackal from the first floor balcony. Raju and Sumitesh were on one side of the net, Mohan and I on the other. The sound injected fear into our game, distracting us. We forgot to change courts when serving. We perspired more than we did on other evenings. We had not realised then that this was because of the weather. An unseasonal, mild, winter evening drizzle began. We rushed into the ground floor drawing room of Sumitesh’s house with our racquets, shuttlecocks and the cylindrical box for the shuttlecocks. The rain drenched the net and the lights. There were a few gusts of wind too. We sat on large rexine-covered chairs in the room. Slices of plum cake and warm Ovaltine were brought for us. We chatted as we ate and drank.

Who was that laughing that way from the first floor, Sumitesh?

Ghosts!

Who was it, please tell us.

Oh that’s Malli kaka. He’s mad. He laughs this way now and then.

I thought he was laughing at us playing.

He laughs even when we don’t play.

Maybe he thinks of a funny story or a Laurel-Hardy movie or something.

I have no idea. But you know what — it was a girl for whom Malli kaka went mad.

How do you know?

You can get to know the same way that I did. It’s all in a movie. Without sound, though. Want to watch?

Of course. But what if someone comes?

Let them. I watch it quite often. But let me tell you something before we start. Before Malli kaka fell in love with this girl, he used to spend all his time with birds.

What birds?

All kinds. There were entire rooms for birds on the roof, covered with nets. Pigeon coops too. Besides cages in all the balconies. Cockatoos, macaws, lovebirds, Nepalese parrots, budgerigars — lots and lots of birds. The girl had told Malli kaka that she would marry him only if he set all the birds free. He had just four budgerigars left. Three yellow and one blue. But you won’t be able to tell from the film. They’re all black and white. And I’ve lip-read them so many times I can provide the dialogue. You can easily put the whole story together.

In one corner of the room was a projector covered by a cloth. Two reels were loaded on it, one with film and one without. A square patch of light fell on a white wall decorated with the horns of a deer. This was the screen. Smotes of dust and insects were visible in the beam from the project. A few clicks were heard at the beginning. Then the numbers 1, 2 and 3 appeared on the screen. Although the image shook a little initially, soon we could see:

A cage with squabbling budgerigars.

Sumitesh made a sound like quarrelling birds. Then a bowl with grains for food and another with water are seen on the floor of the cage. The camera retreats, revealing a man in shorts and a tight vest pacing up and down, shaking his head repeatedly. Sumitesh: That’s Malli kaka. Can’t wait for the girl to come. Just the four birds left in the cage. The rest have all been freed.

Malli kaka is quite close now. He’s lighting a flat Turkish cigarette with his lighter. Letting out smoke, he puts the lighter back in his pocket. The cage. Two birds kissing. Two birds squabbling.

Sumitesh made both sounds.

The young woman is seen at the head of the stairs to the roof. She’s dressed in pedal-pushers, a shirt with large buttons and puffed sleeves, and sunglasses. Saira Banu, Asha Parekh and other heroines used to be dressed similarly once. Especially in the first half of the film. All the dialogue that followed was spoken by Sumitesh.

Malli! Malll… leee…!

No, my dear. Mallinath Sanyal.

Malli kaka looks like Dev Anand or a miniature Gregory Peck.

The girl’s face. Her lips move. Sumitesh’s dialogue came a little later. No synchronisation, but acceptable. Haven’t you freed these birds yet? I’d expected them to be flying towards the jungle by now. Look, these aren’t jungle birds. Maybe they’d been once. But these have been bred in cages for generations.

Oh Malli! That same old argument. Nothing new. Let them go Malli. Release them, please. I cannot bear to see them in captivity. I don’t want to. I’ve told you a hundred times.

What harm will it do to keep the last four budgerigars? Three yellow and one blue.

So you don’t want me?

I do. Of course, I want you but I want these last four birds too.

That’s impossible. Either the birds or me. You have to choose one, Malli.

The sun is seen setting immediately after this. Shadows gather over the large trees around Sumitesh’s house. Malli’s face. Silhouetted against the setting sun.

I’ve chosen, I’ve made my choice in that case.

Whom have you chosen, Malli? The birds or me?

You.

Malli opens the door to the cage. The girl’s face is seen Brimming with her smile The cage again Sumitesh waved his arms and made fluttering noises to create the atmosphere.

The birds are afraid to leave the cage Mallinath brings them out one by one and releases them.

The girl claps and dances The Turkish cigarette hangs from Mallinath’s lips, broken All four birds beat their wings but because they have no experience in flying, they tumble downwards in a heap, their wings locked, their feathers flying.

The empty cage. Mallinath’s face He’s saying something, but Sumitesh was silent. Therefore the dialogue remained unsaid to us too.

As soon as the birds fall into the grass and bushes below, some other birds or grotesque bird-like creatures emerge suddenly, as though they have been waiting in the twilight for the budgerigars. Some of them are furry. Without feathers. A few resemble flying lizards. Others have teeth like hacksaws between their parted lips. They tear into the four budgerigars, eat their flesh, drink their blood, mangle their bodies.

The empty cage, again. Mallinath’s face beside it. His eyes popping out. The young woman walking off towards the staircase. Mallinath’s eyes, again.

Sumitesh said: This is the time, this is when Malli kaka went mad The film ends here too.

But what were those things that attacked the four birds and ate them? Were they birds too?

Birds, but not quite birds. All pre-historic birds. Birds like those don’t exist anymore.

Can’t we find out their names?

Of course we can. Archaeopteryx, aptornis, paleocarsonis, hesperornis, sinosauropteryx prima, pterodactyl.

We hadn’t heard of any of them besides the pterodactyl.

Once again, cake and milk with cocoa were brought for us. We ate and drank. All of us were feeling a little queasy.

Later, when we grew up, all of us became even fatter. But not milk, now we drank alcohol. Still our stomachs kept turning.

Sumitesh had the film digitally restored afterwards, creating a soundtrack with surround sound in stereo. It was originally available as a video cassette, and later as a compact disc.

The film was shown quite often. By turn on different channels On STAR Movies, on TCM, on HBO, on MGM, etc. We were reminded of Malli kaka’s laughter whenever we watched the movie. We even felt a stab of fear.

But we never let anyone know.

About Harbart

Harbart
By Nabarun Bhattacharya
Published in Bengali 1993
Published in English translation by Tranquebar Press, 2011

Harbart Sarkar, sole proprietor of a business that brings messages from the dead to their near and dear ones left behind on earth, is found dead in his room after a night of drinking with local young men. He has killed himself. Why? When he’s taken to the electric crematorium and placed in the furnace, lying on the same cot that he used to sleep on, the furnace explodes. As in his life, Harbart is a mystery in his death and after it. An extraordinary novella by the offbeat Bengali author Nabarun Bhattacharya.

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Chapter 1: Harbart

By Nabarun Bhattacharya

No chains on my feet, no beats to my heart
Awake in Nirvana, my consciousness stilled
– Bijay Chandra Majumdar

– Let him sleep it off. That’s all he needs.

May 25. 1992. That was what Barka had said between spurts of vomit on his way back from the office of ‘Dialogue with the Dead’, or Harbart’s room, to the house in the lane the house on the road the house somewhere very late at night. Koton, Somnath, Koka, Doctor, Barka… all these people’s memories of their return home from the boozing session were blurred. There were dirty wet spots on the moon. Foamy grains of light were suspended by the streetlamps. Everything was slithering in the heat. The fries, the chickpeas, the whisky, rum, iced water were all frothing out of the stomach. Cockroaches emerged through the grille covering the drain and flew towards the lights. Koka had vomited on the Duttas’ gate. He had still not forgotten the warm sour slippery pungency of that vomit. Doctor and Koton were duelling against each other’s urine streams. An oil-stained cloud like a sack slipped a blindfold over the moon. The corporation tap was next to the milkmen’s slums. The mad old woman in rags was sitting there, her legs splayed, splashing water. Dogs with rotted flea-ridden skins were trembling in their sleep at the sound of screeching owls. On Harbart Sarkar’s attic-roof the dish antenna for capturing Star TV signals had been staring upwards with its mouth open to catch falling stars. After their urine-duel had ended, Doctor had told Koka who was holding on to the gate, vomit if you do, vomit if you don’t. That’s why I swear I don’t like drinking with you arseholes. Fuck getting high. Fuck getting drunk. All you do is raise hell!

Harbart-da screwed! Harbart-da fucked! Koton screamed.

Koka was trying to tell himself he’d swear off booze for life. But even he ran off with threads of vomit hanging like saliva from the corner of his mouth because Somnath was shouting loud enough in his nasal voice to wake up the neighbourhood, Khororobi’s coming. Khororobi’s coming to feed you fish. So what if Khororobi had drowned? He could still come. If Harbart-da summoned him he certainly would.

Such was the plan that night. This was what you call a lethal or fatal googly. Usually such nights passed in a haze of drunkenness. They were accompanied by a dead breeze.

The big clock in the first-floor verandah struck one. About eight cockroaches were smacking their lips over a meal of the remnants of the fries on plates of dried leaves and the the Gujarati chickpea gravy at the bottom of the earthen pots. Plotting to hunt one of them, the fat lizard on the wall nearest the road climbed down the wall, crept up the legs of Harbart’s bed to check whether he was asleep or not. He saw that Harbart was motionless. Then the lizard crawled across Harbart’s chest and climbed down his arm to discover that the end of the arm was submerged in chilled water smelling of blood. Gauging the distance between the arm and the rim of the bucket with his green eyes, he leapt onto the rim. As he skipped down the side of the bucket, about to decide which of the caterpillars to target, a strange blue light blinded everyone. The lizard and the cockroaches had seen this unsual sight. On the outer side of the wall, at the window facing the lane, a nymph was trying to approach Harbart, rubbing her face on the dust and grime on the glass pane of the window and beating her wings. The warm vapour from her blueish face fogged up the window, her tears washed away the grime. Harbart’s eyes were half-open at the time. Although they were closed fully by someone else afterwards. Such was the plan that night. Then the ants began arriving just before dawn. Ants know how to share without conflict. The black ants head for fragments of food, grains or ground food stuck between the teeth. The red and large ants prefer the direct route of nostrils, phlegm, eyes and saliva to the corner of the lips, the base of the tongue, the weak gums and so on. In such a crowd of carnivorous ants and insects a handful of loud crickets is insignificant, naturally. For in good times and in bad, they have over the generations sung praises neither to civilisation nor to barbarism. Whether anyone listens or not.

A rusted iron hook was hammered into the wall. From its crook hung Harbart’s umbrella. It wasn’t visible because, like Dracula’s cape, Harbart’s overcoat hung over it. In a niche in the wall near the head of Harbart’s bed were two extremely useful books:

1: ‘All About the Afterworld’ written by Mrinalkanti Ghosh Bhaktibhushan, Revised and Enlarged Second Edition. Price: Rs 2 only. Only the pages from 171 onwards remained. Hence the first item on view was a photograph of Maharaj Bahadur Sir Jatindramohan Tagore KCSI. The information presented with the photograph revealed that he passed away on January 14, 1908, at the age of 77 – the book began thus – “…wrote, ‘Ma, I have made you suffer terribly, forgive me. I am at peace now after having suffered a great deal of pain too.’ After writing many more of such things, Shibchandra’s wife’s trance broke. She began to cry for her daughter…” Etc.

2: ‘The Mysteries of the Afterworld’ by Kalibar Bedantabagish.

Harbart had got these two books from his grandfather Beharilal Sarkar’s collection. Besides ‘The Mysteries of the Afterworld’ none of the other books Harbart had picked up was intact. There was another book that was intact too – ‘The History of the Philosophy of Grammar, Volume One,’ by Gurupada Haldar. For obvious reasons, Harbart had never even opened this book. But he had read ‘The Infestation of Ghosts in the Circus’ in crumbling, bound volumes of ‘Natmandir’ magazine. From it he had acquired the additional information that the two actresses Suchinta and Sukumari, who were sisters, were nicknamed Suchi and Bhundi, that Srimati Sushilasundari used to act in Professor Bose’s Grand Circus, and that two other actresses, Hiranmayee and Mrinmayee, aka Bhooti and Bhoma, lived on Beadon Street. From one point of view Harbart felt a certain attraction for them, felt a certain kinship that didn’t care for actual acquaintance or even for being contemporaries. “The terrified screams of the women and the commotion created by the men at the dead of night made the palace of Pithapur quake in a very literal sense. Under the impression that another unprecedented supernatural act had taken place, Gopal Duria and the other stable hands ran up from their living quarters!” – it would not be an exaggeration to say that Harbart had virtually seen the incident with his own eyes.

Realising that beating her wings against the window-pane for hours on end was producing no results, the nymph, worried that the sky was turning light, returned to the shop before dawn. The lizards and cockroaches didn’t pay attention to the nymph anymore. A fly trapped in Harbart’s room had, like a blind shark in the ocean, scented blood around midnight when Harbart had cut the vein in his left hand. But being blind, he hadn’t been able to reach the spot. When light began filtering into the room, he flew off to perch on a razor-blade lying on the floor, the blood on it no longer sticky but drying. Harbart’s left hand, the vein cut open, was submerged in ice-water in the iron bucket. The eyes were partly open. The face was no longer as fair or sharp as at other times, however. It had darkened. The mouth was parted. The right arm was folded on the chest. All that alcohol was meant to have reduced the agony.

After the people who had sent the letter – and, later, the newspaper photographers and reporters and the college students – had left, Koton, Barka, Koka, Gyanobaan, Buddhimaan, Somnath, Abhay, Khororobi’s brother Jhapi, Gobindo… all of them entered to find Harbart trembling uncontrollably. Gasping, sweating. He had taken off his shirt. The table-fan was rotating in an arc, and Harbart was moving along with it to stay in the line of the breeze. They stopped the fan from rotating. Made Harbart sit on the bed and gave him a glass of water. Ordered some special tea for him. Harbart calmed down gradually. Fear hadn’t left his eyes. He kept saying, it’s all become a googly. All a googly. Oh… my heart’s beating so fast. So fast. God, what kind of a set-up is this!

– Boss! Calm down now. Relax. Another cup of tea?

– No. I’m never eating again. It’s hitting all the time. Won’t stop. Crawling, but still. Down on the floor, but still! Slaps,
kicks, punches…

Harbart broke out in loud sobs, trying to pull his own hair out of its roots. Kicked the pillow off the bed. Looked at himself in the small mirror in the niche, suddenly stood upright through his tears, a smile on his face, said, fucking orphan, son of a whore, don’t want to make money buggering ghosts any more? Couldn’t do living people, had to go fuck the dead and get a rod up your arse. How does it feel now to eat shit? Is it sticking to your gums, how does it feel, Harbart, Haar… baart, Haa… aar… baart.

He rained slaps at random on his own face, bouncing up and down. They managed to wrestle him back into a sitting position on the bed. His dhoti came loose. He was only in his underwear. He kept swaying forward and backward, his eyes shut.

– Won’t talk any more, not talking any more. Not even a bubble. Wait on the shore with your hook as long as you like, you won’t see a sign of me. Piu kahan, piu kahan!

– Get a hold on yourself boss. Lie down for a bit.

They tried to force him to lie down.

– No, let go. Stomach’s churning. Funny feeling.

– Need to shit?

– Probably. Let me try.

To go to the toilet Harbart had to go round the back to the rear entrance used by the toilet-cleaners – that was the arrangement for servants. Seeing Harbart clad in nothing but his underwear, some children yelled, “Buttface, buttface!” Koton went out to grab them, saying – want a kick on your butt, you can forget all your jokes. The children ran away.
They waited for Harbart in his room. The boss will be just fine after he’s had a shit, they commented.

The person named Doctor had a medicine-shop. Although he had read only up to Class Seven, Doctor knew a lot.

– I’m thinking of something else. Very often before a heart-attack you feel like vomiting, shitting.

– I’ve seen them shit when they hang themselves.

– Shut up. Here we’re talking about fucking heart-attacks how the fuck does hanging come into it.

– That’s why his dad named him Gyanobaan. Knowledgable.

– Don’t you bring my dad into it Koka. I’ll screw you.

So the conversation went. Outside the sunlight was taking on the magic of the waning afternoon. A weak golden glow. Suddenly they saw the beauteous Harbart bathed in that glow. His hair and body were wet, the hair on his chest was wet, his wet hair was sticking to his scalp. His underwear was dripping water. Water dripped from him continuously while Harbart smiled. Pirouetting into the room, he said as he took a towel from the line to dry himself –

– The tank was overflowing, so I felt like a bath.

– How do you feel now boss.

– Have this great feeling. Want to go out somewhere.

– No booze tonight boss?

– What do you mean no booze. Going to be a fucking festival. The booze will knock us out tonight. Make us fly. The real thing.

– Thank goodness your mood’s improved.

Harbart put on a fresh dhoti. Talking as he did. Talking as he combed his hair. Put on a fresh full-sleeved shirt. Then opened his trunk. Counted out some money. Lots of money. Licking his fingers as he did.

– As if we care for moods. Sons of whores don’t have all that fancy bullshit, remember. All we have is fun. Can’t tell you what a show the cuttlefish on the bottle-tree are putting on. Tring-tring the bells are ringing. Red and blue lights flashing – like at the disco. Then there’s the big fish gleaming on the branches, the tiny fish are glittering on the leaves. Twinkle-twinkle. Twinkle-twinkle. No one can stop the shit, I tell you. The white-skins tried so hard. You think they could stop it? When the white-skins gave up these people came – look, if only shooting your mouth off in English could stop all the shit, how easy it’d all have been…

He wrapped a rubber-band around the wad of notes. Then threw the bundle into Gobindo’s lap.

– Three thousand. Enough for a portable.

– TV for the club boss?

– What did you think? Since everyone’s calling it a fraud I’m not fucking keeping any of that money. And Koka, here’s four hundred. For the booze.

– Four hundred! That’s twenty bottles boss!

– Twenty! Fuck off! Not some local hooch. English – straight from the foreign liquor shop.

– What should I get Harbart-da? Big boys going to play tonight.

– Get a large whisky. A large rum. Get three kilos of ice from the other market. Fries and that spicy chick-pea thing for the non-drinkers, and those prawn cutlets, where the tails stick out. Salted peanuts, cigarettes… hell, do I have to tell you everything? Got to learn for yourself how to blow up cash. Tonight’s the night for fun. Slutfun.

Harbart had told them to turn up at eight-thirty. Then he had napped for a while. Woken up at seven. Taken a chair outside, climbed on it to bring down the signboard. Which said ‘Dialogue with the Dead. Prop: Harbart Sarkar’. Turned its face towards the wall. There used to be a new razor-blade under the books in the niche in the wall. He had checked whether it was still there. Then shut the door and gone upstairs to meet his aunt. She was watching TV in rapt attention. He had stood silently for a while and come away. Scribbled something across the half a page from a notebook and put it in his breast pocket. The booze party had been a hit. A lot of ice had melted in the bucket. Harbart had told them the fan would spread the cool air and make the room comfortable. They had me scared, Harbart had told them. That Ghosh, the one who wrote the letter – the bastard was staring at me like a stubborn stork. And he kept spouting English, kept spouting English. The more he did the more my balls shrunk.

– And that newspaper girl such a weird chick boss! Smoking away one moment, taking photos with her flashgun the next.

– So Harbart-da, all this dialogue with the dead of yours – all bullshit?

– What do you think?

– If it was all bullshit why would all those people come to you. All those people, all those things you told them – all crap?

– But no more of this business. If I’m going to get a bad name Harbart Sarkar is out of here.

– Then what’ll you do boss.

– Got to figure it out. Something will come up. Bound to. Have you seen I’ve taken the signboard down. Koka, show us that act of yours.

Koka had two terrific acts. One was an ad for isabgol named ‘Hanuman taking a crap on a chair-shitpot’ – he’d picked it up from TV. The other was Mohun Bagan manager Goju Bose’s expression when football stars Krishanu Dey and Bikash Panji had signed for his club after he had chase them for years.

– Which one boss? The chair-shitpot?

– No no, Goju Bose.

Koka performed his act. Much merriment. They were all higher than a kite. The ice had melted entirely and filled the bucket with water. A little rum remained in the bottle. When they left Harbart was shutting the window. Barka had said between spurts of vomit on his way back to the house in the lane the house on the road the house somewhere very late at night…

… Let him sleep it off. That’s all he needs.