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A Poor Conductor— Indrani Datta

Sep 25, 2022 | Fiction | 1 comment

Translated from the Bengali by Kathakali Jana 

1.

He picked it up from the street. The painting has always looked like a lighthouse to Paritosh. He remembered Batighor, the  Bengali synonym for the word along with the English one the first time he saw it. When he first came to this country, he saw chairs, tables, sofas, televisions, toys, and books left on the sidewalks. Sometimes declared as ‘Free’ in large lettering on a scrap of paper, or they were just dumped as is. The municipality garbage truck would come and take it all away. Once, there was a brand new perambulator and a cot abandoned by the dumpster next to the guest parking at his colleague Prasanna’s home. Sadness welled up in him… After coming home, Paritosh told Suparna if she was okay with it, he could go over to Prasanna’s again and get the pram and the cot. Suparna was pregnant for the second time then. Sohini was three years old, and Swagata was on her way. Suparna thought Paritosh was drunk. She handed him a glass of water without responding. But as he downed the water in large gulps, she realized he was serious about the proposal. Paritosh had done it before. Once, he picked up a large ceramic bowl with a blue-yellow border from some sidewalk. They had guests that evening: Sayantani, Partha, and Sanjukta had come to dinner. Paritosh had washed and dried the bowl to serve salad in it. Suparna was a bit hesitant about using the bowl. Sohini, their three-year-old, pointed out that Daddy had served salad in a doggy bowl. When the guests looked at her amused, the little girl left no part unsaid about how the bowl was acquired.

The evening came back to Suparna as she looked at Paritosh drinking the water. A bitter argument followed, and Suparna left with Sohini. She went to her uncle who had been living in the country for many years. Suparna went to the hospital too from there but ultimately returned to the apartment with Swagata. Just for three more years. They did not get along. When Paritosh thinks about his relationship with Suparna, he is reminded of a doll, once seen in a toy shop. A nicely dressed-up girl inside a cardboard box wrapped in cellophane. Her hands were gestured as though she was dancing and jutted from outside the box, one hand pointed up and the other downwards. ‘Hold my hands,’ it said on the box. Paritosh watched as kids and their parents touched the doll’s hands delicately with two fingers, and its chest lit up with red-blue lights, and a piece of lovely music emanated from it. Paritosh too wanted to light up the doll. He touched the doll’s hand softly, but there was no light. He pressed harder, and yet nothing happened. Maybe something was wrong with the doll, he thought and moved on to the next one. But still, there was nothing. Paritosh was caught in a kind of frenzy after this. He kept picking up one doll after the other. No light came on. “Your hands are probably too dry,” said a shop assistant. Paritosh left the shop. Later on, he bought the doll for Sohini. She lit it up easily, but he never tried again.

The bubble of dry air between his hands and those of the doll’s hands grew larger and larger until it swallowed him completely. 

Now, Paritosh lives all by himself. He picks things up from the sidewalk and gives them a pride of place in his home. The painting was also acquired like that. 

2.

Paritosh spotted it sometime last fall when the red, orange, and yellow leaves shed in the cold dry wind, some swirling in the strong breeze before settling on the ground. Paritosh was out for a walk. The leaves crunched under his shoes. He liked the sound—a very small, insubstantial kind of liking, as though someone was walking with him. It was then that he spotted the painting. Mounted inside a large frame, it rested against a couple of cardboard boxes full of toys. In a big silver frame, on a bed of red, orange, yellow, and brown leaves, the painting lay. Paritosh possessed no understanding of art. He didn’t know if it was by a well-known artist. There was no signature. The green and blue sea amongst the fallen leaves just drew him instantly. So did the man in it… The foamy green and white waves looked like the flared hood of the mythical snake. Right under the hood, just like in those old calendar scenes from home where father Basudeb used to stand with the divine child in a basket on his head, was the lighthouse. Both batighor and its English synonym flashed in his mind. But ‘lighthouse’ had a blinding shot of light and ‘L for lighthouse’ written on a bright and shiny page. So he rejected that and settled for batighor.

The batighor is only a tallish structure of dark bricks. The lower part, guarded by a blue railing, and only the two storeys above it, can be seen as the painting ends there abruptly amidst a swell of waves. The green and white sea have completely surrounded the batighar. Below the blue railing, the waves are crashing. Because the painting ends there, Paritosh has no way of knowing if there is a light falling onto the seawater from it. But he still thinks of it as a batighor. There is a door and two windows. And there is a man. Dressed in trousers and a pullover, his hands buried into his pockets, he stares at Paritosh. The man does not look like he belongs to the sea. Paritosh isn’t sure how he can be standing in the middle of all those raging waves, impeccably dressed as he is. There is not a hint of anxiety in the way he stands. He looks as though he has been standing there forever, detached from his surroundings, with nowhere to go. He does not seem to have any regrets about that either. The sea holds him in a tight embrace. Paritosh has looked closely into the painting to see that the door in front of which the man stands has two windows above it. He has also detected a glimmer of light on those windows. However insignificantly lit they may be, there are certainly some lights. Paritosh has clicked a photo of the painting on his mobile so that he can take an even closer look at it. 

Not that he thinks a lot about the man in the painting, but these are some of the thoughts that pass through his mind when he looks at it. This is typical of Paritosh. He does not feel anything too intensely. Now that he is completely alone without Suparna, Sohini and Swagata—he does not really feel too lonely. Except, he misses Sohini at times. And he misses Satoo—Sohini and Paritosh’s pet tiger, who lived under their bed. One day, back from visiting the zoo, Sohini lay next to her father. “Baba, Satoo has come through the window. Shall we let him sleep under our bed?” she had asked. She had told him that the tiger called Satoo had followed her from the zoo. Later on, they also kept a baby elephant in the bathtub. Only Paritosh and Sohini had ever seen them. At night, Paritosh would tell Sohini stories. From their window, the star-lit sky could be visible. “Baba, can you smell? Satoo is here.” Sohini whispered. Sometimes, as if Paritosh too could smell Satoo. He sprayed some room freshener to get rid of the odor. 

Whenever he had a row with Suparna, Sohini would drag her father by his hand to the bed. “You stay under the bed with Satoo,” she commanded. When Suparna left with the daughters, Sohini told her father, “Baba, Satoo is under the bed. Feed him chicken every day.” Paritosh hadn’t thought about Satoo for a while. Today, while heating the dinner in the microwave, he thought of Satoo, and just at that moment, the phone rang. The call was from Babin da, Paritosh’s paternal cousin. “Mama slipped in the bathroom. They put a cast on the leg and stitched up his forehead. He is at home and okay but given his age… you understand… do come if you can,” he said. 

Babin da had informed him about his mother too. Suparna and he were going through violent disagreements at the time. “Mamima has had a heart attack. Buro, you must come,” Babin da said. The next day he called again, “Mamima has been shifted to a ventilator. Aren’t you coming?” Paritosh didn’t. He didn’t know why… He was probably worried that people might ask about Suparna. They’d ask him why she hadn’t come. They’d enquire whether Suparna and he were separated. Paritosh worried about these things much more than he worried about his mother, even though Suparna too had repeatedly urged him to go. When Babin da called again, Paritosh lied that he had been to the airport but had missed the flight. After this, Babin da hung up and didn’t call again. Until today. 

Paritosh looked at the man in the painting. Waves crashing on the veranda of the batighor. The man stood with his hands in his pockets. Paritosh decided to visit Kolkata.

3.

Satyacharan, his dad, was being fed by Kajol di. The old man was propped up with pillows on his bed, a napkin tied around his neck. The television was on. Lokkhi Pishi had been in the house since Thakuma’s days. Kajol di, her daughter, had also been there for a long time. They looked after everything in the house—or whatever little there was to look after. 

As soon as he arrived, Lokkhi Pishi cried out, “What took you so long, Buro? Everything is over now!” Hanging his head low, Paritosh entered his father’s room. “How’s your mother doing today, Buro?” Satyacharan asked. Startled, Paritosh saw Kajol di and Lokkhi Pishi gesticulating that Satyacharan was all muddled in the head. He pointed to the television, “See, they are saying that your mother is stable.” Paritosh saw renowned actress Suchitra Sen’s still photograph flashing on the screen. A bespectacled man in a sweater, his head and ears covered in a cap, spoke excitedly, “As per the hospital sources, the legendary actress has been able to sit up today. She is stable.” “They don’t let me visit. I get updates only on the TV. How did you see her today? Did she speak to you?” Satyacharan’s words slurred.

“She is in intensive care. They didn’t let me see her either,” Paritosh mumbled.

Paritosh was visiting Kolkata during winter after many years. He was not in touch with anyone other than Babin da. Nobody knew how he was doing. No one knew about his separation from Suparna. Paritosh did not write letters or emails to anybody. Babin da found out his landline number from Satyacharan. Kajol di asked, “I suppose Boudi couldn’t make it because the girls’ school is on?” Paritosh nodded and rubbed his palms. “Are you cold, Buro? Doesn’t it snow where you live?” Lokkhi Pishi was curious. 

It was foggy in the morning. Satyacharan was still fast asleep. Paritosh slipped out of the house. The sun hadn’t risen yet. People were walking with their heads and ears covered. There were fruit and vegetable stalls on the footpath, oranges, shakalu, and cauliflowers. Paritosh remembered that he needed some Boroline lotion. Ramakrishna Pharmacy was open and he went in. Three or four customers were already there even though it was so early. They were buying antibiotics and cough syrups. In the small TV set, Suchitra Sen was singing a song, a garland around her neck. “There will never be anyone like her,” commented someone. “When we die, we will be gone. But after people like Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen pass, they come alive whenever you switch on the TV,” said someone else. “She will be fine soon. Our chief minister of the state went to see her yesterday,” another person interjected.

Paritosh stepped out of the shop with a Boroline. He had nowhere to go. He took out his mobile to look at the painting of the batighor. Just then a young woman with two heavy bags hanging from her shoulders came and stood in front of Paritosh. Hair disheveled, the skin on her arms had gone a flaky white due to the wintry dryness. A brown scarf was wrapped around her head. “Dada, can you show me the way to AMRI?” she asked. Paritosh made up his mind about where to go next.

It was a stone’s throw from Ramkrishna Pharmacy to AMRI. Babin da had admitted his mother there because it was so close. “It’s right there. As a matter of fact, I’m on my way too. My mother is there.” Paritosh said, slipping his mobile back into his pocket. On their way to the nursing home, the girl told him that her family was from Murshidabad. Her sister, Mejdi, was admitted rather late the night before. She was not able to come at that hour. Neighborhood boys had arranged for the ambulance and got her admitted. Her brother-in-law was also not in town. Paritosh was not paying much attention to what the woman was saying. He now had a place to go and he was on his way. 

The hospital had a glass door and it was quite comfortable inside. The girl dropped her bags at his feet. “Please keep an eye on these. I’ll be right back from the washroom,” she said. There were rows of chairs. In the back row, he saw a few people fast asleep with their bags under their heads. Cars and ambulances kept stopping outside the hospital door. The door was swinging open continually and people kept entering, either on their feet or on stretchers. The reception counter was crowded. People were talking everywhere, some standing, others sitting. The girl came back, collected her bags, and went to the reception desk. Paritosh remained seated. Here, too, Suchitra Sen was on the television screen. Her condition was stable. 

Paritosh felt good and relaxed. The crowd kept swelling. Swarms of people and their illnesses and grief surrounded Paritosh. Nobody asked him any questions. Nobody wanted to know how he was doing, or when he had arrived. Nobody asked him why he had chosen to come now even though he hadn’t come to see his mother. Nobody would ask, “Dada, Boudi didn’t come with you? Don’t your daughters want to visit their grandfather’s home?” Paritosh took out his phone and looked at the picture. Then he rubbed his palms. 

He came home late in the evening, went to Satyacharan’s room, and told him that his mother was doing well… He ate and went off to sleep. He followed the same routine every day after this. The rows of chairs at AMRI, the TV set on the wall, the door opening and closing, the lift carrying patients upstairs in stretchers and depositing them on the ground floor, doctors and patients’ friends and family. Amidst their illness, grief, and recovery, Paritosh hid himself and slept. 

He met the woman after three days. “Mejdi is doing much better today. Tomorrow they are going to shift her to a general bed. How about your mother, Dada?” Paritosh stole a glance at the TV set. “Stable. She wanted to eat khichdi today,” he said.

A guy accompanied the woman today. He had a bag slung on his shoulder. “This is my brother-in-law,” said the girl. Paritosh watched them from inside the glass door, sucking on ice lollies, laughing. 

This is how the seven days he spent in Kolkata went by. And then he ran away. 

4.

Paritosh looked at the wall as he entered the apartment. The waves were crashing. The man stood unmoved, his hands in his pockets. As though he had lived right there his entire life, as though he never wanted to leave the sea.

The phone rang. It was the Kolkata number. Babin da. “Did Paritosh reach home safe and sound…” or “Father was no more…” He did not answer. 

The last few days were comfortable in hiding. Today, once again he felt that he needed a cover, an impenetrable wall, or probably an unreachable ocean to stand without a worry, hands dug deep in his pockets. Paritosh heated his dinner in the microwave. It was just then that he caught the smell. He went near the bed and peeked under. He hadn’t vacuumed in a while. A multi-colored ball, the broken doll, red and blue socks, and some sketch pens lay covered in dust. The room filled up with the smell of the tiger after a long time. “Satoo, come here, eat your meal.” The phone rang again, once, twice…It went on ringing…He rubbed his hands and crawled under the bed. 

The man in the frame watched him. As Paritosh slipped under the bed, in that instant, the man took his hands out of his pockets and stretched out to him. But then, he rubbed his palms and put them back in his pockets. Paritosh did not see any of this. Under the bed, the broken doll had her heart clogged in dust. He began cleaning her with his dry palms. 


At The Antonymwe believe that writing is an important tool for women to voice their experiences of identity, sexuality, marriage, love, family, and life. Our magazine is taking a measured look at the Bengali women who have contributed to contemporary Bengali literature. They are all borne out of different life experiences and have created a distinct storytelling style that not only differentiates them from men writers but also from women. Their distinct approaches have made us believe that we could bring a new focus on Bengali women writers and explore and expand our scope in the form of translating their contributions to Bengali literature. To read about the different Bengali women writers that we have translated, please visit the following page of The Antonym magazine:

Feminine Pen: Translating Bengali Women Writers


Also, read a book review of  Kalicalypse: Subcontinental Science Fiction a dual language edition (English-Italian), edited by Tarun K. Saint , Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay , and  Francesco Verso , published in The Antonym

Book Review of Kalicalypse— Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi


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Born and brought up in a Calcutta suburb, Indrani Datta is an expatriate writer who started discovering her writing skill after landing on a distant shore. While on an incessant mission of searching for the magic words to connect with the readers, Indrani authored two collections of short stories and is working on a novel.

A journalist-turned-administrator with an arts organization, Kathakali Jana is an arts writer and dance reviewer. A former student of English literature, she enjoys the challenges of translating literary texts.

1 Comment

  1. Sukti Sarkar

    There was something very uncanny in the story that was somewhat unsettling. May be that was quite intentional in the original that was not lost in translation.

    Reply

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