Translated from the Bengali by Shamita Das Dasgupta
Usually, my throat starts to itch when I see a driver talking on his mobile phone.
“Hey, brother, talk later please. La…ter…”
On that fateful day, I watched the driver rest one hand on the steering wheel, and with the other, take a phone out of his shirt pocket. But before I could utter a sound, there was a loud crash, and my head split open from a large gash. And before I could understand what’s going on, water rose to my nose. In a split second, the murky water turned red. The sludge stank horribly. My head was down and my legs up. I was sinking in the water – down, down, a mammoth blackhole – at the bottom of which I could see no light. While I tried to fathom what was happening and why, and how I could end this dreadful suffocation, dense darkness ensnared my hair and the sari I was wearing fell off.
I remember a lot of childhood incidents that happened in my uncle’s home. The image that appeared then and stuck to my eyelids was that of a small cage built of iron rods. A tiny mouse was inside it. My youngest uncle was lowering the whole cage in the pond. Time and again, the mouse climbed to the ceiling of the cage but unable to find its footing in the thick, muddy water, went down again. It was a bright sunshiny day. After a few bouts of up and down, I noticed dusk descending in its intelligent eyes. I had thought my uncle was horribly cruel. I still believe so.
I was on my way to Malda.[i] My only sister was the headmistress of a school there. She was a stubborn and harsh teacher and was engaged in an ongoing feud with the school’s secretary. When she complained to the District Inspector of schools that the number of students in her Bengali medium school was dwindling, the Sahib had replied:
“Aren’t you getting paid a salary? Do you think I should advise local parents to have more children? What nonsense!”
My sister quipped, “Of course not. Charity begins at home. I know suggestions don’t always work. An adviser must set an example.”
The DI stood speechless for a few seconds and then stated, “Mrs. Das, I am going to retire in two years!”
“I am aware of it, sir. That’s the reason I couldn’t imagine you’d deign to speak like that to a much younger teacher.”
My sister lived with her two daughters. Although she seemed harsh on the outside, unlike me, she had never taken a vow of celibacy. Unfortunately, providence had intervened. The man who came into her life was not quite a gentleman. So, she decided to live alone. I, too, couldn’t trust anyone after Shailen had suddenly gone and married someone else.
I felt like the gasping rat in the cage. The man who had plunged it in the cage in the water and was now waiting on the banks, looked exactly like Shailen. Usually, when I huffed too much for breath, I dashed off to Malda, particularly during the summer or puja holidays. I loved to listen to the ruckus my nieces made. After these jaunts, I returned recharged like a mobile phone.
A bottomless sigh rushed out of my stomach. I felt the bubbles rise above me. How deep under was I? To assess the situation, I tried to turn my head on my stiff neck, but my eyes remained shut. That didn’t quite work. I guessed I had rolled under the back end of the standing bus. Several bodies were on top of me. A twisted left arm adorned with conch-shell bangles was tightly embracing my neck. The body of the owner of that arm was on my left. The head that was relentlessly squashing my nose was hairless. The top of the man’s head glistened in the water. Even in my agony, I felt like giggling. Last year, when I had unexpectedly run into Shailen at the book fair, he was sporting a similar bald pate – and sunken cheeks. Shailen had aged early even though he had a beautiful wife and a house full of children.
As the saying goes, old rice increases more when boiled.[ii] That is, past hurt paralyzes one as time goes on. Perhaps to get rid of that numbness, I gave my body a desperate jerk. I heard a thick pane of glass shattering beneath my back. The bus window… must have been damaged earlier. My elbows were fractured and bloody, but still I crawled through the gap and surfaced nimbly. As soon as I escaped the serpentine bodies swollen from drowning in the putrid filth, my body soared like a butterfly. The dark curdled waterweeds gently caressed my injuries. I realized that our bus had plunged through the railing on the bridge and was wedged in the waveless canal bed like a shooting bullet. A crane was being used to hoist it from above and I had gained my freedom because of that effort.
I had no idea how long I had been floating. It was gloomy even before the sun had set. When the shadows got even longer, I knew that night had fallen. No one hopes to rescue dead bodies – what good would that do? I didn’t have any expectation about it. Additionally, my body was entangled in thick algae and a bushy tree offered me a bit of privacy. It was a good place to hide.
I must have floated up a bit and moved near the bank. By then, I could hear loud cries, sounds of distress, a few stray words, laughter, a little banter, and the odor of rustic cigarettes. Loads of people had gathered there. Someone coughed and spat out a wad of phlegm that glided by my ear. I wanted to move but couldn’t act at all. Yet, I vaguely grasped the goings on around me.
A sturdy, dark-skinned young man in an orange jacket was leaning from a boat. Like a cat catching its prey, he scooped up a bag that floated past me. It was bloated like a drum. Water dripped down its sides. A sandal off a man’s foot drifted past him. A bright light shone on the bridge. It was intense enough to penetrate my sealed eyelids like a spear. I wasn’t in any pain. The tiny fish bites felt ticklish. That I had no sensation of physical aches and pains but was totally aware, gave me tremendous pleasure. It was quite improbable that I, an old teacher at a girls’ school sliding toward retirement, would be favored with such a unique experience.
I have no idea if it was due to this euphoria that my body bumped against the bow of the boat. Immediately, a horrible scream rose from the crowd.
“There! There’s another!”
“Yeah, yeah! We see it – a woman!”
“An old woman!” Someone corrected him.
Another voice remarked, “Uh-oh! This one is also nearly stripped.”
After that, unrestrained hollering arose around me. A few excited ones waded up to their knees into the water. The boat turned around and came to the tree that was sheltering me. I heard the young man in orange jacket yell.
I was pulled roughly onto the rubber raft. Four young men swung me by my arms and legs and threw me on the boat next to them. I landed by the side of a young woman. Thank goodness her arms were stretched skyward due to rigor mortis. Otherwise, just like the drowned bus, she would have been flattened by my weight. I rested a bit and took a closer look at her. I am sure no one would believe me, but I even caught a whiff of perfume on her earlobes. Maybe she was traveling this early on a bus with a crumbling engine to meet her lover. A bus that had been allowed on the road by the State Transportation Office. The lover must have heard the news by now and maybe he was near the bridge. No way he could see so far below the bridge and find his woman with her arms raised to the firmament. But, what good would it have been even if he had found her! She was not his beloved anymore, but a rotting corpse that was waiting for the drunken undertaker’s knife-stabs.
I listened to the shrieks of a female voice.
“Oh, my miserable luck! Who shall I call dada[iii] from now on!”
The woman’s older brother’s remains must have been recovered already.
The wail doubled as cameras flashed on my body.
“We have no one now!”
I was a bit perplexed. Until my sister and her daughters got the news, there would be no one to shed tears for me. I realized, perhaps everyone was in the same situation. So, from where did this throng come?
As such thoughts raced through my mind, the two dead bodies were launched their boat trip toward the morgue.
I took a fancy to the perfume-dabber by my side. She must be as old as my nieces. Her lips still had their blush. Water droplets clung to the lashes of her unopened eyes. Her expression was guileless. A stray thought crossed my mind, If Shailen hadn’t abandoned me and our love had culminated in the customary way, we could have had a daughter just like her. Making sure I avoided the four pair of eyes in the speedboat, I touched the girl’s arm with a lone finger.
Ah, she was quite dead. Her look was colder than neglect and more bloodless than insults. Her hair and face were caked in clay. I was considering cooing in her ears and stroking her affectionately when I was rudely pushed to the other side of the boat. The helmsman spoke to his mate:
“Take over, my friend. It’s my seventh trip. My arms are just about to quit. I’m gonna sit here, ‘tween the two stiffs, and try to catch my breath.”
As the man sat, my senses became alarmed at his gestures. He had been ogling perfume-dabber for a while. Naturally, people would regret more the death of a beautiful young girl. I, too, didn’t have a sari on me, but my blouse was still intact. The petticoat was above my knees – wet, but still there. But the girl was almost nude. She had a rag between her legs, but her upper body was naked. Her round perky breasts were on display. Her limbs were rigid, but the breasts looked supple. After baring us awhile to all eyes, they had draped white sheets on both of us. A woman’s crowning glory is modesty. However, if a hand is inserted under the sheet, the dead can’t be expected to eject it! Right?
I didn’t like the young man who sat between us. His eyes were soused – his nostrils flared. I couldn’t follow his right hand; his left palm was spread wide on the deck. He was doing something. Maybe his fingers were kneading her lifeless nipples. Or they were somewhere else. In the light and shadows of the twilight, his companion was oblivious.
I started to shout but realized my throat was full of muck. There was nothing I could do. The dead are helpless at the violence of the living. Nevertheless, I couldn’t reconcile with the abuse of my newfound daughter. I wanted to be free of the cage that Shailen had sunk. I focused fiercely and rolled to the edge of the boat. Then, at the least wobble, dropped – like a salt figurine in the sea. Before I went down, I observed the young lad rise from the tiller and bellow:
“Look, the crone’s body has fallen again. What the hell are you doing there?”
The sitting boy jumped up so fast that the boat listed to my side. My perfume-dabber’s body rotated and fell on me. I clutched her taut hands in mine and began my voyage to the deep – toward the singular solitude of the sandy canal floor. No diver may gain entry there. On a bed made of waterweed, we’ll watch fishes play and I’ll sing lullabies to my daughter for eternity. I’ll hold her head to my breasts while she sleeps – for as long as she likes.
It is not my concern how they account for the bodies – numbers thirty-one and thirty-two.
Come, my baby, no one can snatch this little space from us.
[i] Malda is the sixth largest city in West Bengal and the primary seat of a district by the same name. It is considered the gateway to north Bengal.
[ii] The Bengali proverb, ‘পুরনো চাল ভাতে বাড়ে’ may be interpreted in two ways. The first meaning is, as things grow old, they gain value and wisdom and the second interpretation is, if something [memory, experience, etc.] is stewed over for a long time, it becomes sharper.
[iii] Bengalis address their older brother as ‘Dada.’
Narratives about mothers’ undying love for their children abound in every culture – a love that often pulsates beyond the grave. American songwriter-singer Johnny Cash related one such popular folklore in the lyrics of his song, ‘A Mother’s Love.’ As I was translating Ms. Prativa Sarkar’s story of a childless elderly woman, whose love for a newly found daughter literally blooms after death, I was reminded of it. The allure of Sarkar’s short story is that she skillfully weaves the contemporary with the eternal and simultaneously, shifts the traditional paradigm of motherhood. Nested within Sarkar’s portrayal of archetypal femininity, I believe, the readers would discover a powerful challenge to patriarchal oppression.
At The Antonym, we believe that writing is an important tool for women to voice their experiences of identity, sexuality, marriage, love, family, and life. Our magazine is taking a measured look at the Bengali women who have contributed to contemporary Bengali literature. They are all borne out of different life experiences and have created a distinct storytelling style that not only differentiates them from men writers but also from women. Their distinct approaches have made us believe that we could bring a new focus on Bengali women writers and explore and expand our scope in the form of translating their contributions to Bengali literature. To read about the different Bengali women writers that we have translated, please visit the following page of The Antonym magazine: