Translated from the Bengali by Amita Roy
After that, we lost Atin forever.
Atin was our litterateur, vocalist, artist, addicted to chatting with friends… whom we looked upon with towering expectation that he would in future write another novel like Nilkantha Pakhir Khoje taking all of us by surprise, gradually one day got lost in oblivion. He had said, “I have started with a timeless novel which I will narrate to you as soon as I finish.” After this utterance, some one and a half years back we lost track of him. Then we got fed up hunting for his whereabouts, lamenting his absence. Being disappointed to the extreme point, our anger got directed at him. Then we gave up all hope of meeting him. Right at that moment, suddenly he popped up in our midst and surprising us all declared, “I have finished the novel. When do you wish to hear the story?”
Atin did not seek a self-exile. On the contrary, it can be said that we had once compelled him to go into exile. We did not even offer him a Lakshmana to accompany him during his exile. With only Sita Devi beside him, he was dragging his life in banishment for so long. We had sincerely hoped that like Rama , he would return to Ayodhya and pick up the threads of his responsibility. But returning was a far cry. When we met him occasionally, feigning a look of disappointment, he would say that it was such a task that it could never be completed in time. He added that many even say that a work of this nature can never be completed at all. To him, this was from all angles a never-ending work of art or an ever-incomplete art. I have described the disappointment written on his face as feigned because when he conveyed to us the inevitability of the incompleteness of the work, honey dripped from his face. Discerning it as sound faith, like the glue of a banyan tree, grew in us. We got the vibe that he was spending a happy life in the Panchabati forest.
Actually, Atin was absolutely different from all of us. His stories and novellas which had found space in esteemed little magazines kindled our expectations regarding him. Moreover, his voice for singing was excellent. He had a passion for painting too. Atin was a bit radical in his thoughts and views. He didn’t spare the opportunity to uphold and glorify Marxism under any pretext. And he didn’t even mind if we jokingly made a sarcastic remark about it. He was a real conversationalist; his originality of speech was impressive! Wherever and whenever he was engaged in talking, the environment became balmy with the fragrance of art. Only on days when there was trouble with his landlord, he used to come to our rendezvous feeling low and remained reticent. His blithe spirit would evanesce then for a couple of days. This was indeed a great loss for us because we were heart and soul addicted to adda. In fact, the appearance of Atin with a serious face was absolutely unbearable to us. And it was for this reason that our mind would hover on thoughts of how to teach a lesson to the hard-hearted landlord who was responsible for depriving us of our friend’s jovial companionship. We would discuss in half-framed suggestive sentences, “Should we teach him a lesson? Should we… one day when the wretched man returns home at night carrying bundles of currency notes in his bag at the turn of the lane… the obnoxious defiler of culture…! But we all knew that we couldn’t be so mean to mean it. To attack someone at the bend of a lane was something that we would never have the slightest inclination or courage to do. So we, the friends of Atin, who were his true well-wishers started looking at the problem from a completely different perspective. And while looking at it from other perspectives, our anger on Atin flared up. He was engaged in a good job and had a lot of property in his native place; only if he could sell off his property could he be the owner of a couple of houses in Calcutta. But instead of doing what he should have done, he lived in a rented house, led a disorganized life, and faced humiliating abuses from the landlord. Actually, Atin uplifted his Bohemian lifestyle to the status of art. Atin’s wife presumably left all hope, finding him incorrigible. As she could not see any ray of hope, she, at last, gave up quarreling with him. Even if we kindled her urge to pick up a quarrel, she remained unperturbed. With a smile calm and complacent she would say, “Whom do I blame Rajat da? I should blame my fate. Some are have-nots while some have but do not mature. And if it doesn’t mature how does one enjoy the fruits?”
—”What do you mean?”
—”The meaning is simple. Who has told you that if one has property, it can be enjoyed? First of all, one must have the good fortune to possess wealth. Secondly, he must be fortunate enough to reap its benefits. Take the example of Sita. She was a princess, the daughter-in-law of a royal family blessed with a life of abundant riches. But she was compelled to spend a chunk of her ill-fated life in exile, out in the forest. We are Sita and belong to this clan.”
Right after this, she earned the epithets of Janaki, Sita, etc. We called her by these names.
Though Atin’s wife abandoned all hope, we didn’t. On the contrary, we took it up more seriously. All of us went on pestering him to build his own house. He always used to evade this topic. When we pressurized him he said—”Don’t be mad, who wants to step into such a lot of trouble! Buying a piece of land, mutation, conversion, making a plan of the house to be built, getting it endorsed; then comes the hassle of arranging for bricks, sand mortar, and getting hold of the mason. It might be similar to the proverbial loss of nose for the sake of procuring a nail cutter.”
—”Nail cutter! Nose! What does it mean? Whose nose?”
—”You won’t understand it. If you could read the first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita , you might get an idea of how the nose was lost in the process of getting the nail cutter.”
After saying this, Atin became somewhat unconcerned. His gaze skimmed the distant horizon. He kept on murmuring to himself—”In the battle of Kurukshetra , the soldiers of both sides, Kauravas and Pandavas , have met on the battlefield, and the opponents are ready to charge when the chariot of Arjuna comes and halts between the rival sides. Arjuna notices that among the soldiers on both sides are his kith and kin. He realizes that to get the kingdom he would have to kill his relatives which means that the nail cutter could be obtained at the cost of the nose.” Atin gave us an entranced look… “Moreover, whether it is in the sphere of literature or culture, life is too short to be able to do something worthwhile. Why should a chunk of one’s life should be buried under bricks, wood, and stones for nothing!”
—”You scoundrel, trying to philosophize! We came down upon him strongly. The landlord is turning your life into hell by destroying the innate artistic mind in you… And you are trying to cover it up with philosophical pronouncements! Just spare a thought to the number of times your mental peace has been disturbed by the snarls of your landlord resulting in a setback to your creative output. One can bet that staying in that house will spell utter disaster in your journey as a writer.”
—”Does staying in one’s own house ensure peace of mind?” While saying so, he cast a disinterested look.
—”And pray who is there in your house to drive away your peace?”
Atin’s face beamed with a rare type of smile. He said—”If ordained by fate the crow can contaminate you with shit. The landlord is just an excuse. A peaceful life is also the result of mental training. The rest depends on destiny. However, does a writer’s success depend on his home? One must also be blessed by fortune to write well. If having a home of one’s own could determine the quality of writing, Manik Bandopadhyay could not write anything. He always resided in a rented house. And never did he have any bickering with the landlord.”
—”I have heard that the quarrel was between him and his wife. Why go so far? Take the instance of Shibram Chakraborty . He too put up in a boarding house on rent. Moreover, he was a bachelor.”
—”Stop your gibberish. We came down upon him. It’s no use covering up matters.”
Gradually, our consistent pestering made him buy a piece of land and he completed the following processes… mutation, conversion, and laying out a plan for his house. The plan was duly passed. But after that, there was no further progress. Atin did not start constructing the house. He kept on writing stories in quick succession one after another which he would narrate to us. In our attempt to make him get into the job of building the house, we too pitched in. Throughout the day we went on nagging with the same topic being raised repeatedly. At last, succumbing to our insistent pleas one day he performed the Bhit puja to embark on laying the foundation of the house. We had designed the plan of the house in such a way that we had a self-sufficient room for our animated addas. Well, weren’t we all advancing in our age? How long would it be befitting to gather in tea stalls or verandas for our mandatory meetings and chatting!
Well, our children are growing up and those places had to be bequeathed to them. Otherwise, they would have to find a space for their meetings drifting away as refugees in neighborhoods.
After starting with the construction work of the house, Atin bunked off for three days at a stretch. We were amazed as Atin could not afford to miss his adda even once a day. He would rush to our rendezvous immediately after writing a story or drawing a picture. We couldn’t just think of Atin staying away for three days at a stretch!
All of us were deeply worried; whatever could have happened to Atin? But in our hearts, we rejoiced too. So the fly had, at last, got glued to the sticky jaggery! We wanted just this to happen from the bottom of our hearts.
On the fourth day, he appeared suddenly sweating profusely and looking shattered. Alighting from his cycle he said—”Why the hell did you land me into such trouble?”
—”Why… What’s the matter?” We smirked.
—”This is driving me crazy!” Atin wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeves of his Punjabi—”Disgusting! Bricks, cement, sand, stone chips together with the highhandedness of masons in all possible ways… Together with it is the ruffian of the locality Harish Das’s self-styled club ‘Harish Corner’… Everything is getting on my nerves.”
—”What has that Harish done?” It was like pushing someone into the water on a winter evening. The pleasure derived at his expense was evident in the suppressed smile written on our faces.
Atin said—”Harish has only two insignificant demands, one personal and the other collective.”
—”What do you mean?”
—”He has asked for only two boons from me like Kaikeyi . One is that I should buy all the required items like bricks, cement, stone chips, etc. from his store. The second one is that I should donate Ten thousand rupees to the club established by him named ‘Harish’s Corner’.” While saying all this, Atin waved his right hand fast like an emaciated twig swaying in the face of a tempest.—”It is impossible for me to complete this house; I am incompetent for this job. Within these few days, I have lost my night’s sleep. Well buddies, can you tell me the excess cost I have to bear if I lay my foundation with columns instead of the conventional method?”
—”And yes, another point is, will it be better to buy bricks from the bank of the Ganges even if it costs a little more? Is it true that bricks bought elsewhere are said to catch the efflorescence of salt quickly?”
With these words, Atin suddenly stood up and jumped up on his bicycle astride. “Oh! I have remembered an important thing…” he flew away peddling vigorously. We looked at each other’s faces intrigued by his way of departing. Also, we became doubtful if what we had just beheld was real at all.
Atin again bunked for about a fortnight and then suddenly landed up in our adda. But despite our earnest insistence, he refused to give us company for long. On his face was written a sense of intense involvement and in his gaze a sort of haze. He seemed to be in a trance so much so that he sat there holding the cup of tea which we had offered in his hands. When we asked him to take a sip, he absentmindedly sipped and singed his tongue. Once he asked excitedly—”Well, where exactly is the den of the porters who carry sand? They seem to live somewhere in this locality. It’s such a lot of trouble!”
—”Well, why do you need porters to carry sand?” We demanded teasingly.
—”Try to understand, will the lorry go up to my construction site? It is not only sand that has to be carried, all other items should be carried from the main road. This will involve an additional twenty percent cost to my expenditure. I have told my wife to forego one bedroom in our house… At least doing away with the bathroom on the ground floor. Tell me, what purpose will three bathrooms on the ground floor serve? Won’t a single bathroom suffice for both outside people and servants? On hearing this, Sita Devi made a long face. It seemed that she was being sent for exile for the second time.”
Saying this, Atin laughed heartily as if he was drugged in his favorite addiction. His countenance emanated a feeling of contentment of an inebriated person.
We all had a good laugh at his expense. We said—”So how is it now? You were at first reluctant to get into it. Now you are seriously engaged in building the house.”
Atin did not pay any heed to our words. He said—”If I do have to construct two bathrooms for us why not have an Anglo-Indian commode in one? But my wife’s opinion is that there is no need for it, let both of them be European style. Well, I pity her discretion! If a relative turns up who is not comfortable with a European-style commode…what will happen?”
That day also Atin didn’t spend much time with us. All of a sudden, as if recollecting something, he became impatient to leave. We coaxed him to be with us for some more time. Almost on the brink of tears, Atin said—”No friends, I have to leave. If the problem of carrying sand to the site is not settled by tomorrow morning, the mason can’t work.”
We jeered him lustily. “You are talking like a devoted family man! Trust me, what a transformation! You, who had been addicted to adda! You couldn’t be torn off from our gathering. Plots of stories would fill your mind; nothing else in the world would matter.”
Hearing this, Atin seemed to be a bit abashed. He said—”The matter has nothing about being a family man. I will be the loser if the mason sits idle.”
—”How strange! How will you lose if the mason has no work?”
—”That’s ok, but I wish to be done with the blessed work as soon as possible. I just wish to be out of this mess quickly.” Then Atin went on in a low voice—”Actually, I want to go back to being myself, the sooner the better. This exile is getting on my nerves. Think for once that I have given up all activities of my choice like writing, singing, and drawing pictures! How can I survive like this? Or do I deserve this life? Well, can you suggest while pounding the floor of my house which of these materials will make it strong enough—soil, sand, or ash from the powerhouse? A lot of houses in that locality have developed cracks in the floor!”
In the following two or three weeks, there was no trace of Atin. We couldn’t contact him over the phone too. Even our sister-in-law, Janaki, could not give us his actual whereabouts. She faltered to answer us—”Oh yes, he has gone to place an order for stone chips… Well… I might be wrong… I think he has placed the order on phone… Then, he might have gone to the plumber… Or is it to the godown of wood? Hang it! He is always on the move. I just fail to keep track of him.”
We laughed and said—”You had wanted this but couldn’t succeed, but we have.”
Atin’s wife agreed and jovially added—”Yes, he has been hugely trapped and I owe you for this.”
All of us roared—”We are not going to be convinced by your words only… You have to give us a sumptuous treat. But first, let the house be complete.”
—”You are absolutely right! The humor in her voice was distinctly deep. Let the construction be complete for I cannot believe him. He might at any time kick out everything and immerse himself in painting and writing!”
Occasionally, we could catch him over the phone. But we couldn’t be rest assured whether our words had reached his ears, and even if they did, whether they had entered his mind. And if they did enter, he spoke in such a groggy voice that we became skeptical of him being a denizen of this terrestrial world. His voice bore the impression that he had got up from sleep right at that moment. Some days, we spied him rushing away on his bicycle in a manner that betrayed the urgency of going to inform the fire engine of a fire raging in his locality. By chance, if we happened to meet his eyes, he would glance away instantly as if we were strangers.
At last, we met him at the bend in the road. He was rushing away on his bicycle but we managed to get hold of him raising a hue and cry. We indignantly said—”What made you dart away on your bicycle the other day? You didn’t even recognize us!”
There could not be an answer to our accusation! He looked indifferent and oblivious to his surroundings. The sorrowful look on his face had vanished and on close examination, we realized that Atin had found the address of the sweet water well. He was as if sinking in its depth slowly; an extremely pleasing but suffocating feeling lodged in the pores of his skin.
—”How is it that you have changed radically while constructing the house? We hardly see you! Gone is your passion for writing stories, drawing pictures, and attending our chat sessions! It is difficult to brook this loss in the domain of art and culture together.”
Atin gave a wry smile and in a sonorous voice said—”Just wait a little, Karl Marx ; let’s mow grass for some more centuries.”
—”Whom are you quoting?”
—”I don’t quite remember the name of the poet, can recollect the lines only.”
—”And it is the height of fallacy.”
—”To hell with it.” Then lowering his voice Atin went on—”I wish to say… Let me first finish the house… Literature, art, culture, and adda can all wait. But if I am late in building the house, the cost of cement will rise.”
On hearing this, we stared blankly at Atin. I have heard that when one is possessed by an evil spirit, the spirit speaks from the mouth of the one possessed. Then the voice is his but the words belong to the spirit of a dead person. We wondered whether Atin was possessed by such a spirit! Nevertheless, we were not at all aggrieved with such demeanor or words of Atin. We did want Atin to concentrate on building his house. We didn’t want his wayward nature to gain victory at least in this respect. We couldn’t bear the sight of our sister-in-law without her own house. We ardently wished that Atin would complete the house smoothly. With this end in view, we could gladly compromise with his prolonged absence. We were ready for all sacrifices and hardships for this. Little did we realize that we were being fooled by his long absence in the name of building a house.
After about a month when we happened to meet Atin again, the real fact came to light in course of our conversation. Only then could we understand that he had surreptitiously outwitted us.
The day we first became aware of being deceived, Atin had spent some time with us. All of us were sitting in a tea stall. Being accused of not showing up in our adda may have kindled a sense of guilt in him. He faced our accusations with a shy smile. He seemed to evade the topic of house building because like on other days, he didn’t get restless voicing the urgency of building the house and its associated problems. But we egged him on.
—”How come you are silent on the topic of building your house! How is the work progressing?”
—”House…!” Suddenly, Atin became somewhat unmindful. The next moment, he grinned. Then he went on mumbling—”The house is progressing on its whim, it’s coming up by dint of its own endeavor.”
—”What do you mean by dint of its own endeavor?” We pounced upon him.
—”Well, how many years will you take?”
—”If it is meant to come up on its own, then why have we exempted you from our regular addas and assigned that job to you?”
—”Do you know how much we have sacrificed by engaging you in that job?”
—”Exactly so. We are suffering the pain suffered by Dasharath after banishing Rama to the forest.”
—”Actually, I…” Atin sounded a bit intimate. He lowered his voice just like the master who recoils dextrously the rope to which his goat is tied when they come near a vegetable grove apprehending the ravage that might be caused by the goat. He said—”Actually, I am busy with another work… Something of a different kind… I mean…”
—”What do you mean?” All of us were startled—”What are you up to on the pretext of building your house and staying away from us? Come on, Speak up. Don’t keep us in suspense.”
Wringing his hand as someone in deep guilt Atin fumbled—”I… I have started writing a novel.”
We stared at him dumbfounded. What could we say? We didn’t understand what he was trying to convey. Managing the situation somehow, I said—”What do you mean by starting with a novel? We will chop off your hand you nasty creature… We have given our word to your wife. She has promised to give us a grand treat. Don’t you feel ashamed? You have just one wife but…”
—”Listen, why are you getting angry?” Atin labored to come to a compromise with us.
—”How will you realize… the intricacies of constructing a house? By Jove, this is just a strange world… It is hard for you to comprehend.” Atin smiled as if in a trance.
Right he was! Though all of us had by that time built our own house, we implicitly advocated the last part of his previous utterance. Well, how could we ever conceive it? Do we possess that creative prowess? In case we did possess it, would we, like Atin, end up writing fiction, stories, or drawing pictures? Consequently, we gave him a blank look—”Really, are you up to writing a novel?”
—”I swear it’s true.” Atin gave a radiant smile.
—”Well, the urge went on pressing me from inside. It was like a writhing pain in the abdomen as if I had been afflicted by chronic amebiasis.”
But we could not partake in his joke or laughter. In a bitter voice, we said—”The husking pedal will separate the hull from rice even if it goes to heaven! So how far has your house come up?”
—”Didn’t I tell you?” Atin was unmoved—”The house is coming up in its own glory, paving its own way. I am also, as you mentioned, separating hull from husk according to my wish. And believe me, the story that I am writing has turned up to be engrossing enough. The more I am into it the more involved I am getting. And from my perspective as a writer, I am increasingly surprised probing into the world.”
While saying this, Atin gazed at the sky—”Well, you know that while constructing a house, at least fifty-five types of ingredients and eighteen types of masons are required! And each mason proves to be a nuisance, worthy enough to be framed.”
—”What do you mean?”
—”I mean each of them is a genius, a research subject. Well Pijush, before doing plaster of paris, did you leave the walls with a coat of primer for a season? Well, Ranen…”
—”To hell with your Paris.” We strongly admonished Atin.—”After persuading you to get into the job of building the house, you are back to your whims at the first opportune moment. Isn’t your wife saying anything?”
Atin smirked at the comment. He said—”I have told her that when the novel is published as a book, the copyright will be with her.” She went gaga over it.
Again, Atin got lost and we couldn’t trace him. We gradually lost him. When we tried to catch him up over the phone, we were informed about his escapades to get something. Or we learned that he had returned but was again away in search of one who would paint his house. On rare occasions when we did succeed in catching up on the phone, he spoke evasively. He often agreed to visit us in the tea stall but never did so. Even if he did turn up, he wouldn’t stay long. In the little time he spent with us, he was garrulous about his forthcoming novel. He said—”Well you know… This world of construction is quite mysterious! The more I am into it the more I surprisingly realize it. And all these masons… Each one is an interesting character. Observing them, I am just amazed. I wonder why they cannot be the subject of a piece of writing! But believe me, they are born to make characters of classic stories or novels.”
We were a bit curious—”How is it?”
—”At first, combing the entire world not a single mason could be found who would oblige you by coming at the very first call. If he did turn up, then consider him to be not a seasoned one. He is sure to be a disgrace to the mason community. Actually, it is said that their guru or masters before training them in any skill give them lessons on how not to keep promises with domestic men, how well they could be subjected to subterfuge, and how skilfully they could be harassed on every step taken.”
Rolling his eyes as if he was narrating the story of some discovery, Atin said—”Do you know what is the first lesson taken from the guru? When a man leading a family life summons, one should not appear instantly. Even a date for visit fixed after a period of about a week should be ignored. The long and short of it is that one should not go at all… Not even in the successive appointment dates thereafter. Ignoring at least three dates, he could appear one day at an odd time. It was advised that such a strategy should be adopted so that the person thinks that the mason’s hands are full; he is not sitting idle without work. And one without work spoke of him being incompetent. So the guru drives home the fact that one can do without learning the actual skill of the profession; the thing that mattered most was breaking promises of appointments thereby making the person suffer. If such guile and tricks are not learned and efficiently adopted, the learner’s future will be doomed. He would not get any work in his life. It might so happen that abiding by the guru’s dictum, the poor mason might have to starve for the day, yet the words of the guru had to be followed. The mason would gladly stay without food rather than keep his promise of meeting. A prompt meeting would convey the message that he was sitting idle and so was an unworthy mason. There are other peculiar things inherent in these people that I wouldn’t have known at all had I not been involved in this world.”
As we listened to him, curiosity got the better of us. Indeed, this world has not been explored by the writers at large. Atin had picked up a good topic; the novel could become a hit if it is engrossing. Maybe he would get an award too. But we kept our feelings pent up. It was for the simple reason that our praise might make him go overboard so that his house would remain incomplete. With a serious face, I asked—”So how far are you done with your writing?”
—”Almost through half of it. Only a few chapters are left.” Then a bit of polishing and embellishments would complete it. A smile of deep satisfaction played on Atin’s lips—”Once complete, I will read it out to you.”
—”Will there be a sequel to it?” We burst out suppressing our excitement.
Atin, with a mellowed smile, said—”Let the first book be complete. I leave the rest to the future. We couldn’t hold our exhilaration to the last. Our faces beaming with pride said—”Go ahead with it!”
After this episode, Atin totally gave up coming to our adda. Seldom would we meet him by chance on the road. He would stop by for a very short time exchanging a few words characterized by a predominant feeling of restlessness in him and casting wayward glances. Suddenly he would say—”Well I have to leave… the plot of the novel is haunting me. I will start a new chapter today.”
—”We are meeting after ages, do sit down with us, and let’s chat over a cup of tea.”
—”No dear, I have to go to Kudghat now. I heard that an antique building is being demolished there; they are selling the best of Burma teak at a cheap rate. Can you imagine that age-old ancient palace… The fragrance of history wafting in its crevices… The Burma teak of such an iconic building… Let me first go and find out the owner of the house, the date it was established, how they are doing now, who is demolishing it and why, and the price of the materials for sale… Moreover, I have got the address of a person to paint my house. He is famed to be endowed with magic in his hands. When he paints the wall, his strokes will put to shame the oil paintings of eminent artists. He will give such a facelift to the front wall of the house with sketches born from his mind that it will leave one spellbound. He is a person of such creative potential but while returning home, he will silently pilfer items he is able to lay his hands on from the house. For in him lurks a thief’s mind. Let me go and speak with him once.”
—”Ok, then do come over tomorrow. It’s a holiday for all of us.”
—”Tomorrow?” As if recollecting that very moment Atin said—”I will not be able to come tomorrow. A friend of my sister-in-law has installed a grill in her new house and I believe one can’t take one’s eyes away from its exquisite design. I intend to go to her house tomorrow and take a look at it. This will help me to describe the design of the grill on my window meticulously. Well Swapan, what is your opinion on plastering and painting the outside wall? Should it be done right now or left undone for a year? Some say that it should be done right now giving no room for salt to settle on bricks. Some others are advising me to do it after one year so that the bricks get soaked with water for one year. Is Murarka primer the same as before? Which paint is better, Berger or ICI?”
Smiling, I said—”Will all this information be part of your novel?”
—”Why not? The whole world of constructing a house will find a place between the covers. Carpenter Phani, The contractor Raghunath everyone will be there.”
—”Who are these people?”
—”These are the very people who figure in my novel. The more I watch their activities, the more I am impressed. Take, for example, carpenter Phani who has read up to class three. He does not know whether Afghanistan lies inside India or outside. He doesn’t even care to know that Buddhababu has succeeded Jyotibabu . But he can with half-closed eyes calculate an intricate account of the cost of wood with such accuracy that even the calculator is put to shame. And with his saw cutting through the wood, he will suddenly come up with such a question that will make one hunt for the answer throughout his life.”
—”Really! Sounds very interesting! What does he ask?”
—”What not? Like one day… He was working with his saw… Suddenly he looked up at me and said—Well, is it so that you write stories? What is the use of writing?—Hearing this I was left dazed. Really it is so, what mountains can be overturned by writing, why do we write at all? Is there any pragmatic reason behind it? Just try to understand that he is a humble carpenter… Wait, I will bring Phani along with me one day. Or just consider the plumber Atul… He cuts through the walls of my house to install water pipes. He is stone deaf. Once he turns his back to you, he can’t be made to respond even if you shout at the top of your voice. One has to go in front of him and block his way to say something audible to him. But he is a master in making those pipelines, making holes on the wall fitted with tiles and marble so dexterously… And volumes can be said about Raghunath mason too. He is illiterate, now a rickety old man engaged in brick and cement work; there is no end to his story. After independence, Dr. Bidhan Roy ’s government had opened an adult education center in his locality. He had learned to somehow scribble his name without precision. So, even today while taking his daily wage and putting down his signature on the voucher, he messes up the spelling of his name. ‘Vibrator’ is pronounced as ‘Vimeter’ by him, ‘offset’ for him is ‘offside’, ‘lintel’ is pronounced ‘linton”, ‘dado’ is ‘dito’… But one day, Raghunath while walking beside me on the road, stopped short in front of a four-storied house. He surveyed the house fully for a few moments and frowned. Then he passed his verdict—The house is leaning to a side!”
Amused, I said—”Do you know the owner of the house? It belongs to Tamal’s family. And Tamal’s father is a famous engineer. Raghunath, in answer, gave me a dismissive look making me feel embarrassed. After a few days, I told Tamal about it and he too admitted it. The building was indeed a bit tilted! Can it be believed?”
—”Unbelievable! We are really astonished… How the heck could one… Just by looking at it…!”
—”Yes, just by taking a glance.” Atin raised his brows—”There is another story, Raghunath had once worked under a contractor. He had the audacity to point out a grave flaw in the plan designed by the executive engineer. The contractor was about to give him a good thrashing and sack him immediately. It was with the intention to appease the engineer and parry his wrath. The contractor would have to bear the brunt at his next bill payment. But strange enough, the very next day the engineer himself summoned Raghunath. He frankly confessed that there was indeed a grave flaw in the plan made by him. It was sheer luck that it had been detected at the right time by Raghunath failing which the building would have been damned to an inherent defect during its life span. After that episode, the engineer had offered Raghunath 500 rupees as a reward. You can well imagine how strange it is that the detection was made by one who was hardly capable of writing down his own name correctly…”
—”Really, these people are astounding enough!”
—”Strange and very mysterious. And this fellow Raghunath is a dud while giving an estimate of the quantity of materials required to build the house and working out an approximate cost.”
—”What do you mean?”
—”Well, if a person wants to get an idea of the quantity of materials required before construction, the estimate offered by Raghunath will be half the required quantity. Banking on his words, if someone embarks on any project, it will prove to be a sheer disaster.”
—”This is strange! A mason with such a reputation… Why doesn’t he learn to assess an estimate properly?”
—”Do you really think he doesn’t know to calculate? But he will always give an estimate which is half the actual quantity.”
—”Because that is the second lesson taught by his guru. A domestic person who ventures into building his own house should be given half the actual estimate. The real amount might bewilder him so much that he might be discouraged to build the house. And if he could be successfully cajoled to bear the financial burden, nothing could demotivate him. Once the construction is initiated, the momentum would pick up at any cost to maintain its progress.”
Narrating such stories, Atin’s face glowed with a tenderly mysterious smile; it was as if he had returned from a fairy kingdom and was recounting its tale to us.
We were convinced that Atin was obsessed with the world of the construction business. He was drunk in it.
Atin said—”Let me first finish off with the novel. Then you will be convinced of its quality!”
One day we stood near his half-complete house.
A mason was painting his house, Atin was not present. We went to his house and learned that he was out to look for the proprietor of the marble shop who kept marble with floral prints. He seemed to have set out early at dawn to look for him.
We asked his wife—”Will you do up your floor with marble?”
—”Who knows! He himself is only aware of it. Does he answer my questions? The whole day long, he is in a trance. And just after starting this house, he is with a fat red notebook; he pores over it scribbling when he gets time behind a closed door.”
Smiling, we looked at each other sharing our amusement. We were well conversant with what Atin was up to writing behind closed doors. But without divulging it, we said enticingly—”Don’t ever dare disturb his trance. You know that building a house demands wholehearted dedication to it. Even while properly defecating, intense involvement is essential.”
Taking leave from Atin’s wife, we set out for our den. Their new house is situated on the way and we could see it from a distance. But drawing close to it, we were surprised to discover Atin standing in a wired posture. He stood reclining against a lamp post by the road like a statue. His gaze without batting an eyelid was directed at his half-done house. He stood immersed in his gaze. We went to him and stood very close to our friend.
When Rajat nudged him, he was startled to find us there. But there was no trace of being ashamed in him. Casting a glance at us, he turned his face at the house.
—”Well where have you been? Just a little while ago, we had marked you absent. Our sister-in-law also has no idea about your whereabouts. So… What are you standing here for?”
Putting a finger on his lips, Atin said—”Don’t talk… I am in the process of drawing a picture. So, don’t disturb me.”
Saying so, Atin again got engrossed in looking at his house in front. On following his gaze, we found that the worker painting his house was busy painting the front wall. The relief design which he had created was being painted. He was working with rapt attention, his back turned towards us. At each stroke of his brush, the designs on the front wall were taking shape.
After a while, Atin again cast a look at us. He smiled, eyes exuding deep contentment. Then in a low voice, he said—”Isn’t that person looking like Da Vinci from the back? At least, I can’t decipher any difference in his overwhelming engagement with his artwork. But do you know his good name? Langteshwar Das. His companions call him Langto, Naked da. And can you guess the name of his wife? Ulangini, Ulangani Dasi. Uttering these names, Atin’s eyes sparkled with humor. Well, if the shade of the wall is pink can you suggest a shade for the balcony on the first floor?”
We said—”Well, we can select a shade for you, but tell us where have you been at dawn?”
—”Had been to a godown of marbles.” With dilated pupils he continued—”The world of marbles is so strange! Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I could never believe it. The marbles have a wide range of motifs on them and their craftsmanship is really to be marveled! It seems that nature herself has endowed the marbles with those eye-soothing designs with her brush and pallet of colors for years at a stretch! Really, nature has played Holi, the festival of colors like an emperor on the face of the marble. And what splendid names do they have! Well, a certain type of marble is called ‘Kumari’. I intend to write a riveting chapter on this. Let me see how far I can.
In an impatient voice, I said—”We understand everything. But why are you taking so long to complete it? It has been almost a year.”
—”Is it trash that I am writing? Like… two meet in a public place, both like each other, there is hardly any conversation between them, and they proceed to bed.” Atin pursed his lips—”I am seriously working on it, it will definitely take some time.”
One day Atin surprised us with his declaration—”I have finished the novel. If you can spare some time, I can read it out to you any day.”
Raising an uproar in excitement, we fixed a time.
On that specific day, we reached his home. The housewarming ceremony was not over but the construction was complete. They could troop in any day to reside in it. As we went around looking around the house, we were stupefied. The plot of land on which it stood was vacant just about a year ago. Even the owner of the plot was someone else. We had somewhat forced Atin to purchase the land. On that piece of land stood a classy building in all its grandeur now. The very sight of it made me eager to proclaim in the manner of Asian paint’s advertisement—Atin ba…bu’s… New house… New. This had become possible for Atin even without spending any time on it! Just after embarking on the construction work, he got busy writing a novel. Despite such a freaky diversion, we were amazed to find his house complete. We were also especially grateful to all the masons and workers who had been involved in its construction.
—”Come, let’s see how you have fared in your novel. How big is it? How many pages does it have?”
We were standing on the road in front of his house. Atin lifted his eyes up and down twice like a crane. With a mysterious smile on his lips, Atin, pointing at his house said— “There it is, right in front of you… This is the first chapter.”
We took his words as a bit of jest. I said—”Yes, if the house is conceived as a novel the ground floor can be taken as the first chapter. But let us not linger around. Let’s sit down and listen to the story. It will take time to listen to the whole story.”
Atin did not budge from his position—”Upon my honor, I am not joking. I have been penning it down for the past one year. Isn’t the cover of the novel so radiant! It can well vie with the paintings of Ganesh Payne , Prakash Karmakar , Bikash Bhattacharya , or Charu Khan. Do read the novel and on each page, you will find extraordinary craftsmanship, so detailed is it in essence. The character of each mason and skilled worker is etched so magnificently in all its walls, floor, ceiling, grill, window, staircase, and balcony… Come, let’s take an in-depth look at the novel. You will see the exclusive craftsmanship of a mosaic worker named Shukdev who is pitch-dark complexioned but has worked with myriad hued stones laying out beautiful flowers and creepers. His wife is said to have eloped with one of his helpers without any notice!”
—”Well, there is no need of duping us. Our sister-in-law has disclosed everything to us. Dear buddy, take out that red-colored fat copy of yours.”
—”Oh! Hang it.” Atin smiled—”That is the copy for keeping accounts. The cost of materials purchased, wages of masons and workers, the amount of material received and also spent, wages paid, arrears to be paid, everything is written down in it meticulously.”
We stared at Atin, unblinking… “So you really haven’t penned a novel! We have been fooled at a stretch the whole year through.”
—”Who said that I didn’t write?” Atin now was visibly irritated. Looking at the house in front he said—”Then what is this? Is writing with pen on paper everything that matters?” Then he continued as if muttering to himself—”Scrawling something with pen on rough parched paper… use of some worn out words from over usage… some hackneyed sentences… punctuations… Is it ever possible to chisel out the wonderful characters of the demigods with these? Listen; there are precisely no adequate words in our native vocabulary till now which can faithfully portray a slice of smile dangling on their lips.”
We could not think of any answer to these ravings. Boundless anger and irritation written on our faces, we stared at Atin, speechless.
Atin behaved as if he didn’t see our expression or just didn’t care a fig even if he had seen. Not an iota of guilt played on his visage. On the contrary, he looked very hurt and disappointed as we were not in the least overwhelmed seeing such a scintillating novel.
He said—”Well I wish to know whether black insipid alphabets on prosaic pages could etch out the character of these immensely mysterious persons like Phani the carpenter, deaf Atul, Raghunath, Sukdev, and Langteshwar. Just imagine someone who didn’t even complete his primary education mentally working out the difficult calculations on the expanses of wood. When one of them with chisel and hammer makes a circular hole in marble stone, anyone can verify with a compass that the center of the hole is equidistant from the circumference at any point! He can detect the flaw in an engineer’s plan by looking at it! Take the example of the four-storied house of Tamal which he identified to be slightly leaning just by taking a glance at it! Again, these are the very workers who give wrong estimates to the family man… They don’t keep their promises, go on lying at their own will, or don’t hesitate to pilfer a chunk of mahogany wood stealthily passing it into their bag containing their equipment avoiding the notice of the concerned person … Sometimes behaving like beggars greedily for a paltry sum… If in case a payment made is more by mistake on a day, the daily wage earner would bunk the following day without fail…!”
—”Just imagine, when one of them is deeply immersed in sculpting on the marble floor or painting on a wall flawlessly like Da Vinci, immersed in artistry… Then they can be likened to the gods, and these very people at the end of the day after finishing work drag their stooping frame, leave with a melancholy face tucking their paltry wage in the pouch of their clothing! The narration would not be possible at all with a few platitudinous words as one’s resource. Delineating these mortals on paper would be impossible. Therefore I did not engage myself in such a frail attempt.”
We stood petrified in front of Atin’s house for some time and surveyed him from head to foot in amazement. His face betrayed a tired look. During this year, he had shed off the excess fat from his body; he had been reduced to almost a skeleton. Only his eyes bore a languorous post-delivery look. A strange indefinable radiance flickered in the crevices of his tired face.
—”Well, you have scripted a novel with bricks, wood, and stone. Now let this blessed game end here. Bounce back to your real game.”
Hearing this, Atin looked at us as if he was endangered. He muttered—”How can I go back right now, my pals? I have much to do now! The first chapter is not yet fully complete. If you are a bit attentive, you will find that many things need a finishing touch… Once I wrap up this chapter… I have to work on a second chapter!” Dejected, we glared at him.
—”This world is so strange… There are people of various types, each craving attention… Can a single chapter provide for all this? I have to write down the second chapter. Then if possible, move over to the third chapter… Listen, I don’t have the time to even die… Well, Rajat, what do you say about extending my first-floor balcony about a foot and a half with a cantilever?… Well, Ramen, many are suggesting so but do you think that iron frames for windows on the first floor will be ok? Will it not gather rust within some days?… Well, Swapan, is it true that somewhere in Bowbazar , they make cast iron winding staircases for the attic? Do you have the address with you?… Well, Pijush…”