Bridge to Global Literature

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From Trash To Swish— Swapnamoy Chakraborty

Dec 6, 2022 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Bengali by Kathakali Jana 

 

When he was all of six months old, Panchanan had apparently spoken out the words ‘piring piring’ during a bout of wailing. He had really wanted to say ‘ispiring’, which, in chaste Bengali, is ‘spring’. At the age of two, Panchanan broke a watch to dismember and scrutinize its contents. At five, he dissected a magnet with a speaker he found on a radio. He was yet to hear of Jagadish Chandra Bose and had to wait a good twelve years before he could attach the speaker to his mouth and roam the streets, proclaiming, “I am JC Bose”. A few days later, he heard of Einstein and saw his photograph. Panchanan decided that he liked Einstein better than Bose. He proceeded to make efforts to acquire an Einstein-like mustache, but sadly, that was not to be. His hirsute growth was scarce. Anyway, at this point, he got busy finding fault with Galileo and Newton . It began with his criticism of the theory on the rise and fall of tides. He started delivering speeches at street corners and marketplaces for whoever would care to listen, claiming that the hypothesis of the moon’s gravitational pull causing water to bulge out and triggering the high and low tides was bogus. Before tugging at the water from the oceans, the moon would pull at the clouds which were closer to it. Then there would be no clouds in the sky because they’d all be on the moon. Panchanan had not received much formal education. He did not finish school. But so what? A lot of great men and women hadn’t.

What his Bengali teacher from school, Ashimbabu, had said kept coming back to him. “When you’ve arrived in the world, make sure you leave a mark.” He learned later that these were Ramakrishna ’s words. He also knew that most of the major inventions and discoveries of the world were the results of accidents. During a bout of melancholy, had Newton chosen to play Ludo instead of walking out into the garden, would he have seen the apple? Would gravity have been discovered if there were no apples? The invention of the X-Ray was also an accident. When some Arabian merchants lit a wood fire in the sand to cook a meal, they were witness to the birth of glass. Antibiotics too owe their origin to an accident. And so, Panchanan waited for an accident to happen. 

It was his habit to mix one thing with another: goat pee with Coca-Cola , adding Diesel to the blend; Vitamin A and D fortified baby massage oil with a growth formula for children to make a paste which, in the absence of guinea pigs, he applied on the skins of slum kids and got beaten by their parents. This, however, did not dampen his spirits. In an aquarium, he sprinkled Complan with the chant, “May the little fish quickly outgrow their clothes.” Buying a rabbit from a Hatibagan pet shop, he dipped it in Ujala whitener to see if the animal got any fairer. Then he turned to other experiments. He stopped brushing his teeth. Do tigers brush their teeth? And yet, their teeth are stronger and whiter than those of humans. Tigers don’t wash themselves with soap, nor do rabbits or deer. He applied Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to the way he dressed. He wore a garment continuously for a few days until it was dirty. He then changed into another piece of clothing that was clean. When the second garment was dirty, he began to wear the one that was somewhat cleaner. And so it continued, with Panchanan always wearing cleaner clothes. From Panchanan, he had become the less reputable Panchu to his neighbors. He had started responding to the name Panchu Pagla (Panchu the Madman). He also responded to the name Einstein.

Environmental concerns had begun to rock the world at this time. Panchanan also gave it due thought. He planted some seeds. When the plants were eaten by a cow, he beat up the cow and got beaten up in turn by those who worship cows. There were scars on his body from the various times he was beaten up by different people. This is how the expression—”Since you’ve arrived in this world, leave a mark”—came true in his life.

One day Panchanan read in the newspaper that international experts were coming to look into the recycling of garbage. Waste could be used to produce fuel, fertilizer, paper, board, and plastic. This piece of news made Panchanan very thoughtful. He started spending most of his time around garbage dumps, even sleeping next to them. He gazed at them with new lenses. Those who live by the river do not perceive its beauty. The splendor of trash had so far eluded Panchanan. He now set a tune to an adage he had learned as a little boy—“Whenever you see ash blow on it; who knows, you may find priceless gems”—and made it his anthem. He stood in front of rubbish heaps and respectfully sang this song. He gradually became a garbage expert. On observing closely, he found that the garbage from different parts of the city had diverse characteristics. The dump at Dumdum Prafullanagar Colony had stuff like Bombay duck fish heads, jackfruit residue, and coal cinders which were entirely absent in the Salt Lake, Lake Gardens, or Golf Green garbage where you were more likely to find empty packets of Maggi, polythene bags, and chocolate wrappers. In addition, there were bottles in varying shapes and loads of packing material. If the Burrabazar neighborhoods mainly had sal leaves and chunks of fruit, Kidderpore and Rajabazar were predominantly about animal bones. He had heard long back that in America one might come across radios, televisions, tape recorders, washing machines, and even cars in garbage dumps. Although in Salt Lake he had found a couple of electronic watches, some spring toys, and bags, his search for other kinds of machinery did not yield any results. He wandered off to the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass’ ‘Let’s Industrialize’ township where he found a new kind of waste. It was a housing colony inhabited by industrialists and international experts. These people often went abroad. There were many local sahibs too. The buildings had dish antennae, their parking lots had cars, and their terraces had cacti and crotons alongside beautiful saris, maxis, and skirts. Right next to the housing, there were some factories that used global technology and foreign patents—everything was wonderful about them. The garbage here looked, felt, and smelt different. One day Panchanan found a television set in the garbage dump here, in addition to a table lamp, a fused arc light, some PVC tubes, a sponge, a conveyor belt, and machine parts amongst a load of other things. He noted that there was stuff here that he had found at Golf Green, Lake Gardens, and Salt Lake, too.

Panchanan started sorting through the garbage to separate the machinery. He found a large magnet that had a child’s photo wrapped around it and a broken table fan. He also discovered a box of silicon chips and machine parts. He dissected the broken television set and laid out its insides. He had never seen so many technical objects in his entire life. The array of machines and instruments looked to him like a huge open-air laboratory, and he felt like its director. With such a wonderful laboratory, he thought that he had to invent something. He began work. 

Panchanan had found an astonishing statue of the goddess Kali . On turning its key, its tongue started lolling, the eyes began to roll and one foot stepped on the chest of Lord Mahadev who lay at her feet. Mahadev let out a sigh of ‘Ah’ when she stepped on him. The machine had been out of commission, but Panchanan had managed to fix it. He wound wire around the leg of Ma Kali and connected it to the picture tube of the television set. He then started connecting it to other objects such as parts of instruments, a transistor, silicon chips, bottles, torn pages of pornography, and stuff. He expected an accident each time he connected it with a new thing. An accident would mean a discovery. But nothing happened. Several days went by. Panchanan was engrossed in the pursuit of a breakthrough. And then one day, thinking about nothing in particular, he made a hole in the middle of the eight-foot PVC pipe that had a two-foot diameter. Fitting the broken steering wheel of a car into it, he attached several bits and pieces of machinery to the positive and negative ends of the wire. And the much-awaited accident happened! Ma Kali’s tongue disappeared inside her mouth. Mahadev stood up. The television screen displayed a scribble and the pipe trembled to life.

Archimedes had cried, “Eureka, eureka!” Panchanan was speechless for a little while. Eventually, all he could say was, “Jai Hind!”

The PVC pipe had got a life of its own. What would he call the contraption? Would he immortalize his own? He thought of inscribing a name on the PVC pipe with chalk: Panchananograph? Panchuscope? He kept thinking. He must also know what use the machine would be to humans. But he decided that he would think about the utility later. A machine was a machine. Did all machines help humans? Some were there simply for show, weren’t they? They were there only to do up the room. Some others were there to decorate civilization. He would give it due thought afterward. For now, he wrote PANCH with a piece of chalk, dropping the ‘u’ from his abbreviated name Panchu. He pronounced it ‘punch’. Some people would perhaps read it as Panch. Bengalis might think of it as a synonym for crooked, which is what the word meant in Bangla. Without thinking much, he tossed some garbage into one end of the machine and turned its handle. A pair of jeans came out the other end. How bizarre! He shoved in some garbage and turned the handle again. This time he got a pair of shoes with heels. Panchanan’s pulse began to race and for a moment he felt blinded. He lay limp in the dump. But the spring in the garbage persuaded him to stand up again. He shoved some old newspaper, packets, shoe boxes, and chicken bones into the machine and got a sandwich toaster. He converted torn brassieres, dirty napkins, and knotty rubber bands into a book of pornography. Panchanan was filled with the joy of creation. He was recycling garbage. He would distribute these products among the poor. Panchanan would turn into Harshavardhan , Karna —the great giver, Robin Hood … Ashimbabu, O my dear Ashimbabu, see I’ve left my mark on the earth! O Bhepu, Poltu, Chaku, Polti, Bantu, all of you who threw stones at me, just wait for me to get the Nobel Prize. I will treat all the crows of the world to jhalmuri but not you. He regarded the products on the other side of the pipe with much affection. Neckties, blue jeans, sports shoes, guitar, cellular phone, fax paper, the seat of a motorcycle… there was quite a pile of things. Who will Panchu give these to? What will Haru Jyatha do with a necktie? Would Joti Buri have any use for the jeans? What will beggars do with any of these things? In fact, they won’t even take these. These will have to be passed on to Bhepu, Poltu, Polti, and Bantu. Panchanan rummaged through the garbage to look for some dirty cotton wool, bandage, and pads and shoved them into his machine, praying all the time, “Dear Ma Kali, please let there be a gamchha towel, a robust, useful gamchha, oh please!” But only a swimming costume came out.

As the garbage dump was getting depleted, more and more products were piling up. People were stopping by to look at the odd-looking machine. If this had been Ahiritola or Bowbazar instead of the ‘Let’s industrialize’ township, the products would have been looted.

The Director General of the ‘Let’s Industralize’ township, a foreigner, heard about this extraordinary phenomenon. He came to inspect what was going on. He wore a coat, a suit, and a hat. An interpreter and a lackey followed him. They had cans of coke in their hands. 

—Have you made this Panch machine?

—Yes, Sir.

—What is the theory behind it?

—Have a look.

—How did you devise it?

—Have a look. 

—Sell the machine to us.

—No.

—None of these things belongs to you. The raw material is ours.

—I don’t need these things.

—You have to sell your technology to us and nobody else. The International Patent Law, Section 92…

Dhur, nothing you’re saying makes any sense to me. I don’t like this at all.

—Then why are you doing all this?

—Because my Ashimbabu Sir, he told me, when you’ve come to this world, you must leave a mark. 

—That’s excellent. Then let’s do something. Let us buy your machine. We will keep it in a different place. There isn’t a lot of garbage here. If we get good quality garbage from other places, then there will be a health hazard here. It is better that you hand over the machine to us. We will pay you a lot of money.

—I will operate it myself, Sir, I will not part with my machine.

—We will buy you a bungalow in Switzerland. 

—I will not leave Banglaland for any other land. 

—Then we’ll shift the whole project to another place. 

—You cannot remove this machine. A lot of thought has gone into collecting its parts. Displacing will ruin it completely. 

There was a commanding tone in Panchanan’s voice. He was using his arms confidently as he spoke. The Director General’s flunkey said, “Maybe he’s right. He does not have a blueprint, he’s only a quack scientist. Let’s increase the garbage area by getting trash from Burrabazar, Rajabazar, and Bowbazar, and dumping it all here. We can import good quality garbage from Bangladesh, Tunisia, and Tanzania. When there is greater variety in the waste material, we will get better quality products too.” The Director General nodded.

The flunkey then added, “There’s a problem too. If the dump is made any bigger, it will become a health hazard for the residential area. This is why I was thinking of shifting the whole unit…”

The Director General said, “There’s no need to increase the area. Let the garbage remain where it is. Let us just do the processing here. Let us also construct a wall around this dump and have an envelope of disinfectant fumes surrounding it.”

—Yes, Sir. 

—Let us do the deal now. But before that, let us do a cross-check. 

—What do you mean by a cross-check?

—See, you’re shoving torn garments into the left end of the machine and after turning the handle, neckties are coming out the right end. Now, toss the necktie into the right end and turn the handle. Let us see what happens.

As soon as Panchanan did this, the neckties were back to being the torn fabrics they originally were.

He had converted some half-eaten corn to packets of cornflakes. But when he found out from the writing on the packet that you needed milk to eat it, he turned the cornflakes back to worm-eaten corn-on-the-cob.

Some packets had stuff written on them that made no sense to him. He did not know what they were used for. When he put it into the right-hand end of the machine, chewed, half-eaten fried chicken in McDonald ‘s boxes came out. “What are you doing,” exclaimed the Director General, waving his arms in excitement. His hat flew off his head and fell into the garbage heap. When Panchanan shoved it into the wrong end of the machine and turned its handle, thin babies emerged. Yes, babies—moving, wailing black children.

Were they from Bosnia? Ethiopia? Kalahandi?

The Director cried, “Recycle, recycle, recycle.”

Panchanan lifted the babies in his arms. 

—Oh my beautiful Sona, Mona, Dhona, my dear Lab, Kush, Narugopal… 

Half-consumed coke cans were lobbed into the garbage dump. The Director was agitated. The babies howled.

The restless Director said, “Recycle immediately!”

Panchanan did not pay any attention. Instead, he asked, “Do you have any more hats?”

More people gathered. There were some men in Khaki uniforms with guns in their hands. The guns had silencers. Bullets came out of the machines in silence.

The entire production unit was quietly taken over. Everything was recycled back. The Director General got back his hat and put it on his head.

Under layers of polymer waste, chocolate wrappers, torn socks and gloves, springs, nuts, bolts, and silicon chips, Panchanan vanished in silence.    


Also, read a Bengali story by Bangladeshi writer, Shaheen Akhtar , translated into English by Shamita Das Dasgupta , and published in The Antonym:

The Edges Of Love— Shaheen Akhtar


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Swapnamoy Chakraborty was born in Kolkata. He started his writing career with short stories. His first short story was published in 1972, and Chakraborty’s first book Bhumi Sutra was published in 1982. His book Abantinagar won the Bankim Puraskar in 2005. His work is both critically acclaimed and well-received by readers.

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.

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