Translated from the Assamese by Anindita Kar
There’s something about the appearance of some people, as though some part of their body, especially their face, doesn’t quite look right on them, as though it was unjustly acquired by theft or other treacherous means. A featureless face on an unshapely body looks so ill-assorted with an exquisite pair of eyes. Likewise, dark black cheeks, deeply sunken eyes, corners of the mouth dripping with betelnut spittle, and an aquiline nose! Such a misfit!
Brindaban was one such person. The most noticeable thing or precisely the thing one was bound to notice about his bony frame was his mighty nose. It was less of a nose and more of a hill. The nose divided his face into two equal halves, always obstructing one or the other side from view, never allowing one to take in the entire face at once. To get a glimpse of Brindaban’s right cheek, one had to make a full turn from the left of the person to his right. His one-of-a-kind nose had a special curve. A slight hump in the middle, as though the nose had planned to grow at a higher plane as it formed, but gave up on it halfway and drooped a little thereof. He had a pair of small beady eyes on either side of the nose. When Brindaban looked downwards, it seemed as though he was looking through the conical passage of his nose. His head looked like it was first made into a round ball of clay and then flattened by tapping on both sides. To be honest, his entire body was shaped like that—flat and long. The part of his nose that tapered down so as to touch his upper lip was long and curved too, abiding by the general features of his body. They say people with long noses have a high libido. Brindaban, though, had never known the touch of any woman except that of his mother. His sexual experience was nil. He was chaste like a girl who has just blossomed into womanhood and hides behind her mother’s pallu . There were a few strands of silver in his thick hair. He could have been thirty-five or forty-five years old. Or maybe fifty-five, who can tell! But whatever that be, no one could imagine that there had once been a young man named Brindaban. Or a child before that. He looked as though he had been middle-aged forever.
Brindaban knew better than to mull over such things. There will be no second person in this world to worry over the flatness of his head, his one-of-a-kind nose, his lanky legs, or his untouched-by-the-sun body, for Brindaban was a quiet and lonely middle-aged salesman with no one or nothing to call his own. His people, the few he had, were long dead.
This man went straight to the gosain every day after his morning bath. His gosain was a calendar god several years old. The black-skinned calendar god smiled an enchanting smile and kept an eye on the things in the room. A fair-skinned Radha or Rukmini in a gauze saree wrapped her hands tightly around his arm. She too wore a smile on her face. Two or three needles with threads dangling from their eyelets pierced different body parts of the divine couple. In the section of the calendar where the dates are written, some numbers are circled, and brief notes are written as to why those dates were important. All these of course were from long ago.
Brindaban would stand before this calendar god, head bowed, hands folded, eyes closed for about a minute. At that moment, water dripping from his wet robe and hair would gather into a puddle around his feet. For a long time afterward, the mud floor would absorb the water, little by little.
There was nothing Brindaban expected from his gosain. To him, it seemed that his modest life down to its tiniest details was so fulfilling that Brindaban could not adapt to the slightest change of routine. Perhaps, praying came as habitually as getting up in the morning, taking a smidgen of Colgate dental cream on that frayed toothbrush, and brushing his teeth. After he was done praying, he’d have the previous night’s leftover rice with a piece of onion, a few drops of mustard oil, and salt for breakfast. He didn’t pay much heed to the ruckus raised by the cockroaches around the food. He would then put on a striped shirt and khadi pants, lock his gate and walk in long strides toward his workplace. His workplace was a corner of the big Bata shoe store in the middle of the city. There were many corners and corridors in the shoe store. An inconspicuous corner of the store would be Brindaban’s address for the day.
What need did Brindaban have for such a big nose or, for that matter, for a nose at all? The mouth works well for breathing. If it was only for taking in the smells, good or bad, Brindaban could do very well without it. On either side of the place where he lived were two serpentine drains, garbage dumps, and pit latrines; the air would be reeking of myriad smells from all over the place. Urban poverty is many times dirtier and stinkier than rural poverty. All day long, Brindaban would sit in the dark corner of the huge Bata store waiting for the customers. He’d grab the customers’ feet with both hands and take off their shoes. Immediately, the strong odor of sweaty socks would make its way through the nostrils down to his very lungs. The nose just then felt nothing more than an annoying superfluity sitting there on his face. But half his work was done the moment he got the smell. Like an expert spy who has just got hold of a good clue, he would get up, and take long steps to fish out a special box from a little corner in a shoe rack.
Ignoring the customer’s hesitation or minor objections, he somewhat forcefully pushed the customer’s feet into the newly fetched shoes. In that brief moment, Brindaban’s beady eyes twinkled. He knew he was holding the right thing. The rest would happen like clockwork. The customer would ask for the other shoe in the pair, put it on, and walk to and fro on the carpet, twice gently and twice with quick and heavy steps. Head lowered, he would take a good look at the pair from the tip-end and the sole-end and his face would brighten with the joy of finding something to his liking. Some customers never showed it when they liked something, but even when they didn’t, they were inwardly excited to wear the shoes that Brindaban slipped onto their feet with his very hands, and despite their complaints about the price being high, they ended up buying the pair Brindaban had chosen for them. That was the specialty of Brindaban, or one could say, the specialty of the nose.
That Brindaban could fetch a pair of shoes that was the perfect fit for both the customer’s feet and heart with just one sniff, after which the customer would not want to look for a better pair and would most certainly buy it, must be recognized as a special and rare talent. To simply say that he was a ‘clever’ salesman would mean denying the nose its due. One day while he was leaving for home after the shop closed, he found that it was drizzling outside. He started walking homeward anyway but then the drizzle turned into a torrential downpour. On reaching home, he dried himself with a towel but meanwhile, the rain had got the better of him and he felt sick. That night he went to sleep without eating anything. The next morning, he woke up with a fever and a stuffy nose. He had to breathe like a fish with his mouth open. In the store, Brindaban could not find the right pair of shoes for a single customer despite his sincerest efforts throughout the day. Finding some connection between his stuffy nose and the unthinkable drop in shoe sales, Brindaban went to the paan shop across the road in the afternoon and looked for a tobacco leaf spine to unclog his nose. After a few sneezes, he noisily blew his nose to force the gooey mass of mucus off there, wiped his fingers with his handkerchief, and put it back in his pocket. Back in the shop, this time he got into an argument with a new customer. The customer complained to the manager that Brindaban was trying to force a shoe of the wrong size on his feet, hurting his toes in the attempt. The manager threw a stern look in his direction and Brindaban discovered, to his dismay, that his nose was not working. It got clogged all over again with all that gunk.
That day, Brindaban took an early leave and on his way home, he bought two over-the-counter cold relief tablets from a pharmacy. Besides taking the pills, he irrigated his nose a number of times with a saline solution and went to bed early that night. The next day was a Sunday. So Brindaban spent the whole day walking around the ugliest places in the city and checking if his nose was working properly. Led by a strange curiosity, he went into a shop that sold cosmetic products and sprayed some perfumes on his inner wrist, and sniffed it. In the evening, he returned home with a cheerful heart.
It was Assam bandh the next day. Having nothing to do, Brindaban went outdoors for a while. A group of ten-or-eleven-year-old boys was playing cricket placing brick stamps on the main road. Brindaban was in a jolly mood as his nose was back in action. He stood leaning against the light post to spend some time watching cricket when a magnificent six hit by a fat boy landed straight onto his nose. It caused him excruciating pain and dizziness. Ignoring the little players who now stood circling him, he squeezed his bloody nose with both hands and hurried home. His chest trembled for fear that something terrible was about to happen. On reaching home, he hinged the door and lay supine on the bed. He couldn’t muster strength even to clean the blood on his nose. The nose bone was completely crushed by the wooden ball that flew at him with tremendous speed, hitting him on his vulnerable spot, the curve of his nose. Brindaban’s eyes welled up from an uneasy sense of foreboding, his body turned numb and at one point, he fell asleep.
The next morning, none of the cockroaches, the ants on the wall, and the long rows of insects under the bed discovered that the man named Brindaban was dead. Even if the calendar gosain noticed, he was not in a position to give anyone the news and continued to smile as enchantingly as ever at the dead man. Brindaban died from the fatal blow to his nose, because his soul resided in his nose, in that special curve. So the ball broke his nose bone and the soul went out to the netherworld. Exactly a month after Brindaban died, I went to the Bata store, to the dark corner that was his usual place, and looked for a pair of flat sandals. A young salesman came forward.
“Where is the previous salesman?” I asked the manager, making a gesture of a big nose with my hand.
“Oh, Brindaban, he is no more.” The manager informed me with a dry smile.
It was only then I learned that the man with the six-inches-long nose who had put the black shiny pump shoes on my feet two months back was named Brindaban. I can still see the pumps on my feet. Looks like it’s custom-made for my feet. The only thing I learned about Brindaban was that he died. I’ve imagined the rest of it. But even though it is my imagination, there is no doubt that the incident happened exactly the way I imagined it had. Because I am certain that Brindaban’s soul resided in his nose. Otherwise, who needs a nose like that just to breathe!