Translated from the Assamese by Harsita Hiya
On the way home from the office that evening, Bisnu Dutta came across an inland letter card. He was just about to enter his by-lane. His pace sloth-like, and the dust and malodor of domes of files upon his body. The inland letter card lying on the ground made him stop for a moment. He looked all around him. The lane was deserted, except for an abandoned horse-drawn cart close by, a closed paan shop, a pile of stone chips on one side of the road, and the lively ruckus of kids at play streaming in from the nearby park.
Bisnu Dutta picked up the card, holding it between his thumb and forefinger. It seemed of no use to him, this piece of blue paper. Yet, he put it inside his shirt pocket.
Out from the body of the earth, darkness was gradually unfurling everywhere at the time. With tired steps, Bisnu Dutta made it to his house. His fingers grazed against the letter card as he groped around for his keys inside his shirt pocket. As soon as he opened the door, the emptiness of his room greeted him. He switched on the light. Bisnu Dutta’s exhausted eyes met the cobwebs on the walls, the empty cigarette packet in the corner, and the newspapers delivered by the hawker piling up by the door. He looked at the office papers and files scattered over the table and bed, and at the few shirts and pants awkwardly dangling from the hangers on the wall and clotheshorse.
After taking off his shirt, Bisnu Dutta paused before tossing it towards the clotheshorse. The inland letter card inside the pocket was crinkling, announcing its existence. He took it out, unfolded it, and flung it onto the table. After having his tea and washing himself, he threw his spent body on the bed. The paint on the ceiling was peeling away. These days, he could feel water droplets seeping in after every spell of heavy rain and strong winds. Bisnu Dutta made a mental note to talk to his landlord about the matter. The floor was cracked in several places as well. The house felt damp and cool at all times.
A house in ruins. And inside it lay Bisnu Dutta, a man ruining away.
The strength of his body and mind had begun waning. The newspaper was within his reach. All he had to do was stretch out his hand, really, but the news of the world seemed of no use to him. If he kept to his bed, Bisnu Dutta knew sleep would take him soon enough, but no dreams would come to him anymore. No dreams of any kind.
Before a terrible sense of loneliness and isolation could pounce upon his worn-out body, Bisnu Dutta sat up with a jump.
Well, now. He did have an inland letter card lying on his table. Clear and blue, just like the sky.
He pulled up a chair and switched on the table lamp. Picking up his old office pen, he drew the letter card closer.
Bisnu Dutta wished to write a letter. For years now, he hadn’t written to anyone personally. No one had felt the need to write to him either. After finding suitable matches for his three sisters, making sure his two younger brothers were well-established, and discharging his duties as the eldest son of the family by taking care of their ailing mother till the very end, Bisnu Dutta had, at last, turned to look at himself, only to notice the decline of his own body. Like a master artist, time had painted silver streaks on his hair and fine lines like spider webs around the corners of his eyes. His face was a picture of ill health. Like satellites moving away from their orbits, his loved ones had drifted away from him. Well, that was after he had nothing more left to give. No one wanted to share in his joys and sorrows anymore. They were unwilling to even admit to themselves that they had a well-wisher sitting somewhere in a rented house at Number 7, Dharamtala Bylane.
Perhaps, thought Bisnu Dutta, his personality was no longer as keen as it once was. Perhaps, his awareness of his own existence was fading away, and he was turning into a dull, insipid man. It was why Bisnu Dutta never saw anything new in himself these days, or couldn’t. He had a humble job at an office in the city. He lived in a humble house paying a humble rent. (Which via city bus, was fifty paise away from where he worked). Home-office-market-home—that was his daily routine. He had convinced himself that the rest of his days would pass by the same way, giving him little to care for.
But today, the letter card sat on his messy table. A sky-blue piece of paper. Today, at this moment, he was simply unwilling to endure his loneliness. He was sure there was someone out there—somewhere in the world—who remained close to him. Who thought of him. Worried about him.
Who was it? Who could it be?
Bisnu Dutta rubbed his chin, lost in thought. He ruled out his own family. As far as they were concerned, he was no longer wanted. His younger brother, now living in a faraway city, was once the apple of his eye. With fondness Bisnu Dutta often remembered his two kids— his little niece and nephew—innocent as budding blossoms. Yet, he had never been able to muster up the courage to visit them. He knew all his brother’s time was devoted to his career and family. Working hard, he had managed to buy them a television and a fridge, among other middle-class household essentials. For some unknown reason, Bisnu Dutta’s presence was upsetting to him nowadays. Evidently so.
But he could still write to his niece and nephew, thought Bisnu Dutta. He readied his pen but stopped before he could write the first word. No, how would he write to them? The boy was only a year old, and the girl was hardly three! What sense could they possibly make of letters?
Alright, Bisnu Dutta reassured himself. He would send the letter to friends and well-wishers from his past. Leaving salutations aside, he started writing.
I hope you are keeping well. It’s been so long since I heard from you. I don’t know where you are now, or what you’re doing. Whether you’re even alive or dead.
Before growing so distant, you should have at least thought about me. You have no idea how earnestly I miss you! Don’t you miss me too?…
Bisnu Dutta stopped. He adjusted the shade of his table lamp. On top of the table, the light was a pure, unadulterated substance. Everywhere else in the room, it was scattered and dim. Through the dimness, he looked at the empty chair in the corner. At the bare bed and the clutter filling the house.
Who could he write to? He wondered, sipping his tea. His old friends from the village…could he write to Apu? Pulin?
Bisnu Dutta wrote on.
…Do you not miss going to the river in the afternoon? How still its banks were! The evenings we spent kicking around pomelo fruits under the Banyan tree? Do you still remember the lessons Kula Master taught us? Don’t you miss learning the first stanza of a new song?
But, thought Dutta again, where would they even be now? He had heard Pulin had a job in Dibrugarh these days. Apu’s family had left the village many moons ago. He didn’t know where they lived now. Tarun, he too was a good friend once. He used to work at a college in the town of Nagaon nearby, but that was quite a few years ago. That was before he had taken his own life.
Biting his pen, Dutta paused. Okay then, he thought at last. Better to write to Kalu Khura—the neighborhood uncle from his old village. After all, he hadn’t heard from the man in ages. He had last seen him fourteen years ago. Khura had already grown sickly by then. Many terrible ailments had made their home in his body. Bisnu Dutta still knew his address, at least. He could write to him right away. Ah! What a towering personality the man once had! And how smoothly he used to recite bhaona lines! Back when they were children, he was the one who had trained them ahead of their bhaona performances and helped them understand their trickiest school lessons with ease. In fact, years ago when the village farmers and landowners were locked in a raging conflict, he was the one who had led the charge on behalf of the tenant farmers.
Dutta began writing, absorbed in the task.
Well, now. How are you doing? Long ago, I had left you behind in a world of green and blue. Is that where you are today? Among the same people? What can I tell you about myself? I am an unhappy creature these days. A man with no river. No sky. No direction. We think people are incredibly self-absorbed, but I have come to find over time that, in truth, we love ourselves the least. Our own company, uninterrupted, is intolerable to us. Never mind all that, though. You take good care of your health. You are no longer a young man, so don’t you keep darting about like you used to—
—Bisnu Dutta suddenly stopped in shock. How could he be certain that Kalu Khura was even alive? He had met him fourteen years ago. Found him sitting on a low stool in front of his house with his head buried in his knees, his frail body defeated by age and sickness. Was it not audacious to think he was still drawing breath? And if he wasn’t, wouldn’t this letter card create a great ruckus in his house? With a heavy heart, Bisnu Dutta crossed out the last sentence he had written, abandoning the idea of writing to Kalu Khura.
But he had to write to someone.
He could not stop dwelling on the matter even after he had eaten and retired to his bed. Leaving the real world behind, he found himself wandering in a hazy realm of memories, frantically searching for a known face. A familiar mind. After a while, he started feeling sleepy. Bisnu Dutta, at last, went limp on the bed.
The next day he left for his office in his usual, hurried manner. It had rained hard the night before. Something vapor-like was now rising from the asphalt roads. Despite being extremely busy, Bisnu Dutta found pleasure in listening to the loud, rapid pacing of rain upon the tin roof of his office. It took him back to his childhood and youth. Those days—young, green, and drenched in rain, came rushing back to Bisnu Dutta.
That night, he decided he would write to Oli. No. It wasn’t like anything stirred in his heart anymore. Love? Once upon a time, something as special as that had perhaps existed between the two of them, only to remain unrealized, but such sensations and feelings had lost their strength. Tonight, he simply wanted to write to her as a friend. A well-wisher…
…Missing you is like missing myself. All those days I had bared my childish whims before you, sulking and demanding love just because I could. I can only laugh at those memories now! At a certain age, we tend to toy with emotions and feelings. We tend to think the world revolves around us. I hope you have forgiven it all by now. I am certain you’re happy. Surrounded by untouched fulfillment. That is what I have wanted all along…
One day, one blazing hot afternoon, this blue inland letter card would reach Oli’s hands. The address would most likely surprise her. With trembling fingers, she would open it. Read it. She would look around her. On the bed in her room, she would see her sleeping child. A perambulator nearby. The happy pictures of her and her husband sitting on the table. Sorrow suddenly overcame Bisnu Dutta. What right did he have to write to her now? That is what Oli would ask as well. All these years, she had lived enveloped in the warmth of her children, immersed in her domestic life. What excuse did Bisnu Dutta have for making his unsettling presence felt in her life?
Alright, he had finished his letter to Oli. Bisnu Dutta halted, more confused than ever. He sat within the constricting four walls of his room, in the weak light of his table lamp. Sat in the warmth of a dark night’s stillness—an unremarkable, crooked, dim-eyed, jaundiced old man.
For many days, he didn’t write anything on the letter card. What would he write, and to whom? Yet, the blue piece of paper on the table kept disturbing him. Was his existence of no value to anyone? Bisnu Dutta shivered in terror. He wasn’t brave enough to throw the letter card away or tear it up. He was desperate to make his presence known to somebody somewhere.
Someone or the other would come to mind soon enough, he knew. Someone in some corner of the world who was eager to hear from him.
Where was Kushal Saikia these days? He mused, remembering his roommate in college. Back then, goofing around and drinking too much were his entire personality, but for some mysterious reason, he had always had a soft spot for Bisnu Dutta. And what about Rajib Barua? He could write to him too. He could never forget Rafiul either. During that critical period in life when one first unravels the many mysteries of the world, these men had been his only companions.
And Vijay Thakur? Gaur Singh? He could enquire about their well-being too. Bisnu Dutta began to write—
In drifting far away from each other, we end up drifting away from ourselves. Have you ever thought about that? About how I am lying here, in some house in Guwahati at Number 7, Dharamtala Bylane. Without any emotional connection with anyone in the world. Without anyone asking after me. So much so that I may soon become suspicious of my own existence…
Looking at the harsh darkness of the night through the open window, Bisnu Dutta thought of his past. A stream it was, of melancholy images! Shattered, everything! Uncountable faces and pictures flitted across his imagination, a slew of unclear geometric shapes. Gaur, Kushal, Amulya, Vijay—did he have any idea where they were now? Truly? A tumultuous silence created havoc in his chest. Yet, he tried to conclude his letter—
When you receive this letter, all it will do is bear witness to my existence. It may be pithy now, this existence. Lowly, much like grass or weeds. It is why I await an answer. A word from you, eagerly so. I hope you won’t disappoint me.
Your Dearest Friend,
Ah! He had at last finished the letter. Bisnu Dutta’s mind felt free.
But what about the salutation?
Let it be, he decided. It will have to be written along with the address anyway.
Bisnu Dutta carefully sealed the inland letter card with glue.
Then he waited and waited for days. He waited for an address, wasting much time, but the letter card remained on his table without one. Its very existence grew too great for him to bear—as great and terrifying as an empty sky descending upon his room.
No one was there. He had no address.
One morning, while preparing to set out for office, Bisnu Dutta stopped to gaze at the inland letter card. Lost and confused, he picked it up and examined it. He felt as if it held nothing but stinging jokes within. Suddenly, he grabbed his pen and pulled the letter card towards him. With shivering fingers and a forceful hand, he finally wrote down an address on the paper.
Sri Bisnu Dutta
Number 7 Dharamtala Bylane, Guwahati-11.
The same day, he dropped the card into the red mailbox by the nearest crossing.