TRANSLATED FROM THE BENGALI BY ADRIJA GHOSH
The ravens were the first to know.
Even from a height, their sharp gaze was hooked on to the earth, almost anchored – even though their smooth, silky down had already turned westward.
A single deduction from the gaggle of geese or a gentle tremor in the breeze causing a sudden loss of balance, accompanied by lowering eyes, suggests falling. Passing the cargo steamer tangled in a mesh, one could see a svelte stream of blood, gushing onto the sand from eyes that were still open, still trembling. It pleased Robin. It had been days since he had tasted purity in his hands.
“A fine creature! What shall we do with this one? Roast? Fry? There must be a primitive touch to it.”
The saline sea-breeze from the Arabian Sea was coating Neelkantha Chaki’s throat with salt muddled sweat. There was an abandoned boat lying upturned on the shore, the anchor nowhere in sight. Far away, the shacks thatched with coconut leaves seemed blurry and besides, the evening market had just begun to break out into the silence. In a little while the homestays were going to light up like little fireflies. Isaac had claimed that if one stormed this haunted sand dune with its Jhau bushes, they could reach the border.
Neelkantha could see Robin breathing heavily. A wisp of red was spreading across his nose, down to his neck – it wasn’t only because he was white. It was also because his blood pressure ran high. On the right side, beneath a Jhau bush, Isaac had passed out on a drunken stupor. He was resting his head on his knees; his sleep was unperturbed even amidst the noises of guns going off. It was then when Neelkantha had noticed the conspiracy of ravens cacophonously descending upon them – the birds had already done it thrice.
“Consuming bird meat is banned in my family. Have you ever even seen me eat chicken?”
“Cut the crap. Did you see the waiting staff at Ramana’s? Black like Africans. They told me there is going to be live country music in their courtyard today. Wine, roasted duck, rising smoke,” Robin salivated. Neelkantha stared at the hunted duck – its eyes were fading into a smudged blue. The flock of ravens had descended on their heads like huddled ancestors performing last rites at a funeral. He had to exit the eerie insides of such woods, but Robin was going on and on, “I will ask them to fry a couple of sardines for you. But, the special preparation they make with Karimeen, it doesn’t go with anything as well as it does with the duck. Just taste it once. Sink your teeth into the bones and slurp the marrow clean – you will not be able to forget the taste, Chaki.”
Neelkantha didn’t know where Robin hailed from. But his blue eyes, chiselled jaw, and the hint of blonde in his shaggy beard hinted at some indomitable seafarer whose rule had ended centuries ago. All that remained was the blood that carried a genetic imprint like sludge at the bottom. Robin was resourceful. Even though he had arrived on Company duty, he had managed to obtain a bird hunting permit in a matter of two days. He also knew which shore to go to, to get what he wanted.
During the day when this Robin stood with his hands on his hips instructing Isaac and Neelkantha about the exact location where the port’s foundation must be dug, against the blue vastness of the sky and the desolate Jhau trees, his body looked like a crooked, ancient sword, at the mercy of some great men’s victories, ages ago. His pale hair fluttered in the sea breeze, but the sea could not get on his Rayban glasses . Laughing, he told Neelkantha, “I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one. You should become one as well.”
“I get scared.”
“Stupid. All you need is the courage to imagine, Chaki. How long will you bury your head in the budget section? The Company is going to change this town – and you are scared to imagine that?” Let’s go back now. That idiot Isaac has been sleeping since the afternoon. Kick him awake, Chaki! We will not be able to find the way to go back otherwise. We are in too deep.”
On the way back, Isaac was sleepily pointing out abandoned forts, museums, houses belonging to spice merchants. Neelkantha was enjoying the glow of the sunset, he moved into the shade. Isaac kept brownnosing his Sir – Robin had promised to get him a job once the construction for the port in the city started.
Isaac’s face was slick with a drunken, docile smile, “Whatever you want, Sir, just give us a shout. You have selected well – the Ramana Homestay is very good, and you have been given the best rooms. Seen the jackfruit tree at their courtyard? It is almost a century old. Even my grandad had seen it in his childhood. They get their waiting staff from Africa. Heard that they cut off their tongues so they can’t speak. But if you order, they will get things done. Otherwise, I am here. Since tomorrow is the day of the survey, I will be with you from dawn. If you want, Sir, I can sleep here in front of the door, tonight, on the doormat.”
“I will get whatever I want?”
“Just ask and see.”
“How about a woman?” Robin cackled with his beady eyes.
Suddenly, Isaac froze. He lowered his head and shuffled ahead, “No, sir. Can’t find that. No woman lives in this city.”
“What do you mean ‘no woman’? Don’t people get married here?”
“Why wouldn’t they! I myself am married. But I left my wife at our village. But no woman lives here, Sir. It has been so, for a long time.”
“Why don’t they?”
“Can’t say why. But it has been so since the time of cholera. A couple of those who stayed, died and the rest disappeared here and there. Since then, only men live here. We run the shops and the homestays, we build ships, we work in spice factories, we work in local banks, we get drunk, we fight, we vomit by the gutter, we go to church on Sundays, we go fishing in the middle of the sea. We do all of this, all men. Together.”
“Strange,” Neelkantha murmured. True – they had not spotted a single woman around.
“Hell with your crap. Available or not?”
“Not in the city, Sir. There is a village in the outskirts, but it’s risky. You will find them there. If you give money, you will get them.”
“What’s so risky? We will go there, throw some money, if they like it, they will come, otherwise they won’t.”
“Locals might attack us!” Neelkantha exclaimed.
“Oh! Is there a risk of such things? What a rubbish place we have arrived at, Chaki! Is there not a single woman? How will my labourers work here? We must win the war!”
“No, no, Sir, don’t think of such things. No one is going to attack you. But you know there are so many kinds of danger. None of us frequent that side.”
“If nobody attacks us, there isn’t any risk. Take us there tonight.”
Isaac’s brown, wrinkled face looked like an ancient mummy in the late twilight. “What is the need, Sir? You have hunted a bird, roast it and feast. There is a lot of fish, have some with beer. From tomorrow, the digging will start. A lot of work is to be done.”
“What’s going on? Why are you trying to avoid this? Does your family live there?” Robin licked his lips.
Isaac’s eyes, dull like dead fish, gazed at the coconut shacks in the distance, where silver sardines , shrimps , seers, and pomfrets were hauled in from the trawlers and piled high. They will be grilled next. Their tender flesh will be scorched in the raging fire, the flavour of smoke will graze their veins. Then they will be mixed with onions, chillies, and lettuce and then be presented on banana leaves to drooling tourists. Their eyes will glisten with lust at such a lush affair.
“No, I don’t have anyone there. None of us do.”
“Then stop wasting our time. Do you think of us as sheep? Arrange the whole affair tonight. Two for two. Take whatever money is required.”
“None for me,” Neelkantha gulped.
“Hell with your fears, Chaki!” Robin scolded, “I am your boss here. I can see it on your face, you want it too. Why are you playing the saint?”
“Think again, Sir. None of us go there.”
“Why don’t you? What’s the mystery?”
“No mystery, Sir. If you want to, you can go. I will take you there. I don’t go there because I have been forbidden. Can’t say no to outsiders or tourist parties.”
Three dead ducks dangled from Isaac’s bronze muscular arms. Black blood pooled near the eyes of the dead birds.
The three of them came across a creek, through which ships had once navigated, but since had dried up. There was an ancient mansion by the road. It was a shop of miscellaneous items mostly made of seashell. There was a rusty, cobwebbed omega shaped arch on its terrace, one could see shooting stars if they perched a telescope there. In the dim light streaming in from the skylights, the inside of the shop looked mysterious. Ropes were hanging everywhere, as if ready to suspend an old ship. The coconut oil lamps on the windowsills swayed with the gentle breeze; they made the whole house sway in their light. It seemed all their dreams and memories could be shattered with just a knock. Robin had entered because he liked a spiked belt in the store.
Upon exit he said, “This house will be demolished. It falls under the position of their town rebuilding.”
“A couple of centuries ago it built to a Jewish spice merchant. Recently a Nair has bought it and turned it into a shop.”
Robin shrugged and kept walking as Isaac and Neelkantha trudged behind. Robin’s footsteps could not be heard on the pavement, but the steady drip of blood could be heard. Along their journey, groups of men and children continued to observe them silently. Their eyes were dull like dead fish. They were motionless like lighthouses in wait. Everyone recognized them, everyone had heard the gossip about a port being built, but nobody came forward to greet them.
Robin became angry while continuing to laugh, “God damned town! I don’t understand how Joshi went missing from here, Chaki. It is so tiny that if you want you can crumple it in your fist and hide it – right? Joshi was a loser. Bet he tricked some girl and then ran away to Saudi or something.”
Neelkantha knew, if the Company’s surveyor Shankar Joshi had not disappeared six months ago from here, the port would have been built faster. Robin had drunkenly cursed Joshi several times now, calling him a ‘bloody bugger’ amongst others. Despite the missing diary at the police, Joshi’s wife was sure that Joshi had eloped with his Gujarati girlfriend. She had even chased the poor girl into the office causing a huge scene.
Now, when at six-foot-two Robin slightly leaned in with his tightening jaw and battered face, Neelkantha remembered that in the last picture on WhatsApp , Joshi was standing with both hands poised on his waist at an abandoned ship wharf. His sunglass was pushed back into his hair and a conspiracy of ravens was flying in his backdrop. There was a closed shack to his right, and weeds growing on the door of the nalukettu . Glimpses of descending ropes crowded the edge of that picture.
Not a single woman in the entire city. How was it possible? Was it a superstition? How long would they have to walk towards the place for nightly shenanigans?
As the night deepened, the shadow of the jackfruit tree in the courtyard of Ramana’s homestay expanded over the bodies of the sailors sat in a circle. The condensation from the beer bottles pooled onto the wooden benches and dripped to the ground. The dampness from the fish made the mossy walls tepid, and Isaac came calling, “Let’s go, sir, it’s time.” They packed the smoked duck and swung a few alcohol bottles, leaving for the village.
It took half an hour by car. But since the village had no electricity, they had to drive carefully in the dark. Two girls had already been selected. Isaac had guaranteed the men of their beauty, warning them again, “Think twice,” to which neither of the men paid attention. Robin only instructed Isaac to pick them up at 6AM the next day, because it was the day for the work to begin.
The village houses were lit with flickering lamps in the dark. These were small houses, thatched with coconut leaves, with little balconies at the front. One could easily mistake it for a village in Birbhum at first glance. They could see hand drawn murals on the walls. At the end of the road, stood a barren tree. Its two branches rose in the sky like a skeleton beckoning, it was unmistakable even in the dimmest of lights.
They encountered an abandoned, dried-up furnace along their path. In front of every house there were throngs of people watching them, adding a sense of uneasiness to their path. Isaac was walking silently with his swinging lantern. At the end of the road, Isaac knocked at a mud house. “Go inside. There are two rooms. You will get everything you require.”
“What about you?”
“I won’t go inside, Sir. I told you; it is forbidden. My journey was until here.”
Inside, even in such low light, the two of them felt their eyes take root. Two beautiful girls. One of them perched on the bed, the other one on the floor. Both were dressed in skirts. They had bodies like guitars – even the dark could not hide their luscious olive skin.
Thick lips, heavy thighs, one of their bosom’s hinted at malnourishment, but that was readily forgiven. Both stared ahead with their mouths parted open.
Robin took in the whiteness of their glittering eyes. He didn’t know how to break the silence and he was unsure whether they could decipher his language, so he awkwardly turned to Nilakantha instead. “Your turn. You choose first.”
Isaac had already closed the door of the room and left.
“Will you enter your room immediately? What about the food and wine?”
“Let’s split it. There is no point in wasting time.”
They were discussing between themselves, deliberately not paying attention to the girls, who were silently waiting for them, unable to understand what either of them spoke.
Robin shrugged lazily, “Take the one on the bed. Looks like your type.”
In the next room, unable to see well in the dark, he offered the girl some smoked duck, bread, and wine. He was met with a faint flash of gleaming white smile.
The girl nibbled at the bread while Neelkantha took his shirt off. Suddenly, the girl spun him around by his bare waist. Now, they were face to face. The girl wrenched him forward by tugging at his hair and bit his lips really hard. She forced his mouth open with her tongue and thrust a piece of wine-soaked bread inside.
The next morning, he woke up to the hoarse cry of a raven. He spotted the fluttering of black wings through a single-paned window. Neelkantha wondered if Robin was hunting again after their arrival. He saw the empty bed and felt his empty body underneath the sheets. Through the window, he could see the vermillion flag of the local temple flutter at a distance. He could taste the tenderness of the broken morning as it brought with it the previous night’s unbridled play. He wanted to sleep again.
Still, there were too many ravens circling overhead, screeching at the top of their lungs over the hut. To understand what was going on, Neelkantha left the empty rooms for the outdoors.
Many people had gathered outside, amongst them was Isaac, and Robin who sat by the door. His eyes were blank, almost pale. He didn’t acknowledge Neelkantha even after spotting him. Others were also silently still. Neelkantha saw two donkeys tied to a pole nearby, calmly chewing grass.
The village had become better visible during the day. Neelkantha could spot the coconut trees tumbling into the distant paddies. The ravens continued to caw overhead; he called out to Robin. There was no response.
Neelkantha wanted to address the crowd gathered but hesitated when he couldn’t decide upon which language to use. While he was thinking, he noticed the mob around them. Everyone’s nose, eyes, mouth, and feet had blotchy, swollen red spots. Two of them had chunks of flesh missing around their noses, juice oozing from the facial potholes.
He saw the two girls from the previous night. One had a dime-sized red spot near her elbow, the flesh rose and ragged, the other’s throat was scarred up to her back. She stood afar and smiled at him like she had the night before. The white of their eyes glittered like silver coins. Neelkantha slowly collapsed to sit beside Robin. His stomach felt empty.
Isaac came forward and remarked, “I warned you several times, sir, but you didn’t listen. What else can I say?”
Neither of them responded.
After pausing briefly, Isaac resumed, “This is why there are no girls in our town. During the cholera , the few who survived were forced to sell their bodies to make ends meet. By then most were dead. The shops were closed, tourists no longer came, and food was scarce.
A foreign client from the city came to build a port here, just like you. He brought the leprosy. A girl got it from him. She and all the other girls were exiled to this village, but by then the disease had spread to the surrounding towns and villages, because many of those who came to that girl, who came to be loved, had made love among themselves.
Someone’s wife made love to another, or one man made love to another man, and thus one by one, villages and towns were destroyed. So, all of them were brought to this village. That was a long time ago, and since then we don’t keep any girls in our town.”
The words floated like incantations through the still air. Neelkantha and Robin were rooted to the spot. “Why didn’t you say so before?” Robin finally managed to choke out.
“How could I? Our city survives on tourisms. Leprosy did spread here, but it doesn’t matter how long ago it has been, the truth is not good for business. People would die of starvation like they did during cholera.”
The cawing of the circling ravens increased steadily. Neelkantha’s mouth had become dry, he somehow muttered, “Want to go back home.”
“Where will you go sir?” Isaac chuckled, “this is a nasty kind of leprosy. You won’t be able to stay in peace even if you go back. Either you will be sent to a hospital or an asylum, but you won’t be cured. There is no treatment for it. And how will you return? Everyone on the other side already knows about you, you won’t be able to hire any car.
A few forced their way back, walked back to town, and returned in three days because no one would receive them. There is no going back from here, Sir. Instead, stay in this village, marry those girls. Savour the little peace you have left. There are parties during Easter , plays where the villagers themselves perform, and sometimes even a grand feast is organized for everyone – it won’t be too bad.”
Robin wanted to say something, but all that escaped from his mouth was a strangled groan.
“What about the port?” Neelkantha whispered.
“Many people had come just like you. Maybe it will be built one day. Some other time. When all the lepers from this village perish and the world doesn’t remember our story, only then I think a golden harbour will be built in our city. It will lounge on its back to welcome women and that day the women will return.”
An old man came forward. He was dressed in a tattered robe and wore a crown of thorns on his head. His unruly beard blowed in the wind, one of his eyes had rotten away. He ran his fingers all over Robin and Neelkantha’s faces, earning their shivers.
“Don’t be afraid, the village priest is performing a ritual. I am leaving now, sir, I have no use here anymore. You two will be taken to the seaside. Ghee and spices will be applied all over your bodies after you bathe in the sea. Then, you will be locked indoors for three days. When you leave after those three days, a festival will begin in the village. Chickens will be slaughtered. There will be singing and dancing. This is how they welcome new residents.”
Neither of the two had any control over their bodies. They were dragged up and placed on top of the donkeys that had been set free from the pole. Dead ducks were hung around their necks whose bodies were cold and their eyes dripped with blood with a fishy stench.
They had already finished yesterday’s ducks, but no one asked if these were freshly killed birds. The cry of the ravens had broken the calm spell. The cool sea breeze did not bring back any memories, and yet people were laughed. Tears spilled from their eyes when they laughed. They were crying out of joy. Those two girls were also laughing. Everyone was chanting in tones but none of it was legible even to the lepers who were voicing them.
The crowd parted in two. The two men were being led towards the sea, they sat on donkeys and followed the middle path. Isaac disappeared down the road leading to the city.
They spotted a pale-faced, red-skinned man sitting under a barren tree, who could not join the procession because he had lost his mobility. “Joshi!” whispered Robin. By then they were lavished with a downpour of dried blossom. The flowers fluttered like currents in the calm wind over pavements, trees, and cottages. Their journey ended at the shore which they reached dressed like sovereigns and disguised as saviours with the purity of surrender.
The placid ocean waited for them with outstretched arms. Like an unmoved old mother standing by the threshold at dusk for her conqueror of a son who will heal the broken body of the child, soften it with her own hands, cover his masculinity with the gentleness of sandalwood, love, and mercy. That is what was left to be desired.
The conspiracy of ravens continued to haunt. A sailor could measure the ratio of emptiness and balance of salt in the air. The waves could be counted one by one, as they broke into white sea foam on the beach in steady and slow rhythm. The ravens are the first to notice.
The ravens are always the first to know…
Also, read Son of Man by Sakyajit Bhattacharya, translated into English by Shamita Das Dasgupta, and published in The Antonym .