TRANSLATED FROM THE HINDI BY DR. PRITESH CHAKRABORTY
Getting down the bus, he stationed himself at the crossroads of the marketplace. The town hall stood tall and forbidding right in front of him. There were long and slovenly windows on the first floor and the drooping sun rays on the panes appeared to be more grimy on them. A few yards away there were a couple of stores – a pub, a barber shop, and a couple of general stores. A little ahead lay a square.
“When does the last bus leave?” He enquired with the conductor of the bus that he arrived in.
“At Ten.” The conductor threw a casual glance at him and pulled out a bottle of beer from his overcoat. He walked towards the shops. Though he was here for the first time he didn’t register any difference. Whenever he visited small cities away from Prague, they all seemed the same to him. A town hall, a church, a square in the middle and a sense of drowsiness.
Though it was the middle of May, the air was cold. He brought out a muffler from his duffle bag. As for the gloves, they were already in his coat pockets. Though he didn’t want to wear them yet. He had a sleeping kit on his back. In case he missed the last bus he would sleep out in the open. He always preferred sleeping in the open rather than in hotels, provided the cold wasn’t bitter.
Last Summer when she accompanied him to Moravia, they slept in the open. That too in the same kit. That was how they roamed around the entire Moravia. It was with her that he was hooked to sleeping in the open. Whatever they could save as hotel expenses, they used to spend on beer.
For a while he ruminated about last summer. Then he wrapped the muffler tightly around his ears and neck. It was cold but not too bitter.
There was nothing that could not be weathered. Even for her. At first she was scared to death but now she must have overcome the fear. He thought, now there was nothing to fear. There was absolutely nothing to be worried about – he reassured himself.
He stood brooding outside the grocery shop for a while and after inspecting the items from the display window, went in.
It was a ‘self-service’ shop. He pulled out a basket from the counter. There were rows of tin boxes of various shapes and sizes. These days fresh fruits were scarce in markets. He put a couple of pineapple and peach cans into the basket. He got half a kilo of salami and French cheese packed to go. She was always fond of French cheese. Whenever she used to sleep in his room she would nibble on the cheese just like a mouse.
No sooner had he come out than he remembered something and made a u-turn into the shop and grabbed a packet of ‘Lipa’. She must be out of cigarettes in the hospital, he thought. He put everything in his duffle bag. He felt thirsty. He had time. Not much but enough for a pint of a beer. Crossing the square he entered a pub.
He didn’t sit but kept standing at the bar.
“A small beer please.” He said. The bartender placed a mug under the beer tap without looking at him. As the foam rose above the brim of the mug he closed the tap. Cleaning the sides of the mug of foam with a much used cloth, the bartender placed it before him.
He took a sip and found the taste to be nutty and the beer a little warm but didn’t mind it. Meanwhile the bartender was busy eating a piece of sausage that he produced from his pocket. He was a middle aged man with moist blue eyes.
“Could you point me to the hospital please?” he asked.
The man took a good look at him and then his eyes got stuck at his sleeping kit. “Are you from Prague?”
The man kept looking at him with a hint of suspicion.
“Right of the town hall, a few steps ahead of the cemetery.” He directed.
“Bit far is it?” he asked.
He raised his half eaten sausage obscenely and laughed out saying, ‘One kilometre.”
He thanked him and putting a blue note of three crowns on the deck made his way from the pub without waiting for the change.
Outside the spring sun shone brightly, not the burning brightness of the summers but a warm light that appears after a long winter.
The hospital was only ten minutes away and he was walking briskly. He was not anxious any more. He felt better than he was feeling on the bus. The beer helped. Leaving the square behind he was now on an open road. The wind had died down and he could hear the distant hum of the tractors in the nearby fields as if so many bees were humming by.
Approaching the cemetery he lit a cigarette and shifted the duffle bag from one shoulder to another. The cemetery was surrounded by cedar trees and their new leaves were glimmering in the setting sun. The dirt road had developed a few mud pools due to the rains and passing trucks and lorries left their strong imprints on them. He folded his trousers’ sleeves up and was happy that there was no one to observe him this way. She would certainly be surprised to see him. Perhaps she would be happy to see him but he wasn’t sure about it. She had asked him not to follow her here. That way no one would doubt anything. She would stay in the hospital for two days and once she returned no one would bat an eyelid.
He stopped in front of the hospital gate. Atop the hill the building appeared akin to her hostel – familiar and innocent. This hospital didn’t betray a sense of shivering nakedness common to other institutions of this sort.
He unfolded his trousers sleeves and pushed the gate open into the premises. Flower tubs at intervals decorated a long corridor. The italicised shadows of the pillars lay imprinted on the clean floor.
He found a big desk with a board engraved, ‘receptionist’ hanging above. A lady in a nurse’s uniform sat there with her face hidden by the newspaper she was reading.
He hesitated before approaching the desk.
The nurse extended her neck above the newspaper to have a look at him.
“Who do you want to visit?”
He told her the name. He thought that this person was not just a nurse but a woman wearing a nurse’s dress. This made him feel a little reassured.
She brought out a register from the drawer under the desk.
“Maternity ward?” she enquired.
After standing over there in a dilemma he wiped the sweat that had appeared on his forehead.
“I do not know that. I am here for the first time. Would you please look into the register for me?” Although he didn’t have to say that since the receptionist was already looking into it.
“I can’t find your wife’s name on the list in the maternity ward.” The nurse gazed back at him with questions in her eyes.
“She isn’t my wife. I mean we aren’t married yet.” In his desperation he tried to smile. Soon he realised that not only was this explanation uncalled for, it was indeed foolish.
The nurse looked at him sourly and bunched her hair up.
“You should have told me earlier.” Her voice didn’t betray any irritation but a cold indifference. She pulled out another list and asked her name again.
He waited patiently.
“First floor, left, surgical ward.” She glanced at him and got back to reading her newspaper. After reaching the end of the lobby he started to climb the stairs. Doors were open on both sides of the floor. Women in their long skirts were perching on their beds. Nylon socks, brassiers and underwears were kept on the cloth lines to be dried outside the doors. A sour and wet smell had stagnated in the air that often emanates from the bodies of household women and their garments. Red and blue buckets filled with sand were dangling from the iron railing, perhaps for extinguishing fire, he thought.
As he turned towards the surgical ward he felt as if someone held him back. When he turned around he found a well built man wearing a white apron and pyjamas like doctors wear here.
“Who are you visiting?”
He repeated her name.
“Ok but you can’t take that inside.” he pointed at the sleeping kit.
He took down his sleeping kit and put it in a corner.
“What’s in it?” He pointed at his duffle bag.
He put his bag in front of the speaker without a word.
The doctor glanced at the items in the bag and then laughed softly.
“So you are the man?” He switched from his language into English.
“What do you mean…?”
“Nothing.” He switched back to his language.
“Bed no. 17. . . only half an hour. She is still very weak.” He said in a dry business-like tone, “You can go inside.”
He couldn’t get inside the ward instantly and stood holding the duffle bag with both hands like a confused child.
There was an empty wheel-chair in front of the door. A large hall lay ahead. There were small cubicles on either side and long pink curtains between them. Each cubicle was dimly lit. There was a stretcher at the end of the hall and it had a few stained cotton gauzes, perhaps a nurse had forgotten to remove them in hurry.
He went inside. After removing his sleeping kit he was feeling light. He stopped in front of bed number 17. It was perfectly peaceful inside, perhaps she was asleep.
For the first few moments he could not locate her.
He found a big bed, white and perfectly plain. There were two blankets, completely white. It was difficult to understand which way the bedstead lay. There were no ups or downs on the bed. For a while he thought that the bed was empty.
It wasn’t. First, her head came out and then her eyes. A feeble smile followed while she looked at him. She recognised him.
She nodded towards the stool. It was occupied by a cup full of milk.
“You didn’t drink it?” He said bending down.
“Later, put it down.”
He shifted the stool nearer the bed.
“When did you arrive?”
Her lips had turned purple and her lipstick was disturbed at several places over her lips.
“When was it done?”
“In the morning. Take your coat off.” He put his coat and duffle bag behind the stool. The window was shut. Her suitcase, which she brought from Prague, was also lying there.
“Did it take long?”
“No. They used chloroform. I was out cold and didn’t even know what happened.”
“I told you that you wouldn’t feel a thing but you didn’t agree.” he tried to smile.
She kept looking at him silently.
“I told you not to follow me here.”
“I know but here I am.”
He bent over her bed. He kissed her amber hair and then her lips. The room was warm but her lips were icy. He kept kissing her. She remained motionless with her head straight on the pillow.
“Are you happy now?” Her voice was barely audible.
“We were happy before as well.” He replied.
“Yes. . . but are you happy now?”
“You know it. . . I told you before. It was better for both of us.”
The blanket went below her chest. She was wearing a green coloured night shirt. It was patterned with black flowers. When he used to see those flowers in his room he felt a sweet tension in his body. Now these same flowers were hurting his eyes.
“What’s that?” She pointed at his duffle bag.
“Nothing much. I bought a few things.” He took out all the items in the bag and paraded them on the bed – French cheese, tins of peach, pineapple, salami and Lipa.
“Would you like to have a slice of the cheese right now?”
“Not now, later.” She kept looking at the things that he had kept on the bed.
“You shouldn’t be indifferent to your nourishment these days.”
“Did anyone ask about me over there?”
“No. No one knows that you are here.” She laid there with her eyes closed for a while. Her hair was always short and sleeping on the pillow made them bunched up and appear shorter still. Last summer she had coloured them in a black shade just to make him happy. He didn’t find it too attractive though. Her hair had regained its amber shade since then, yet a few strands of black could still be spied.
“Feeling tired?” He grasped her hand. “No.” She looked at him and took his hand inside the blanket and put it on her stomach.
“Can you feel any difference? His hand was on his soft warm belly.
“Are you in any sort of discomfort?”
“No.” She laughed feebly. “I feel light now. There is nothing here now.” He looked at her. Her dried lipstick was dimly glowing. He withdrew her hand softly from the blanket.
“You shouldn’t exert yourself much.” He cautioned her.
“I am feeling so light now.” She responded.
“Did the doctor say anything to you?”
“Nothing in particular but if I had come a month earlier I wouldn’t have become this weak.”
“You are feeling fatigued, aren’t you?”
“Nothing like that, just a lightness.”
“I told you to come earlier but you kept deferring it.”
“You are always right, aren’t you?”
He didn’t reply and looked away.
“Are you mad at me?” She sat up using her elbow.
“Not at all but do not speak so much.” He said caressing her hair.
“See I am alright now. Nothing to worry about.”
“But you are still thinking about it, aren’t you?”
“I do not think about anything now.” She unbuttoned his coat.
“You haven’t worn a sweater?” She asked.
“Didn’t have to. Wasn’t so cold today.” They fell silent for a while. Meanwhile a nurse came. She was blonde and amicable. She saw them and came closer to the bed.
“You should not sit like that just yet.” She placed her head on the pillow and took a good look at her.
“She shouldn’t take much strain today.”
“I will be off in a while.” He pleaded.
She observed the things that lay on the bed and smiling gently she turned towards him and said, “Be careful in the future. There was a lightness in her tone. She was about to leave but turned back.
“Do you have enough cotton wads with you?”
“Yes. Thank you sister.” The nurse went away.
“Turn your head around for a while please.” She said softly. She was trying to extract something from under the pillow.
“I can go outside if you want me to.”
“No. Just look the other way.”
He turned his face towards the wall. He remembered those days when she would dress herself in his room and he would turn to the other side and listen to the rustle of her skirt on her skin. “Done.” She broke his reverie.
He turned the stool towards her head. There was a smell in the air which was different from the smell of chloroform. His eyes went towards the bed pan underneath the bed. There were a number of blood stained bandages there. He couldn’t believe that the blood could be hers.
“Are you still…”
“No, the flow has ebbed.”
Bending down she pushed the pan further under the bed.
“Do you have cigarettes?” She enquired and fell back on the bed.
He took out two sticks from the Lipa and put them in his mouth. Igniting both, he gave one to her.
“So you can smoke here?”
“Technically no, but nobody really cares.” She took a long and deep puff. Her nostrils trembled a little as the smoke made its way out of her nose. She threw it down in the bed pan.
“I can’t smoke.”A slim and weak smile surfaced on her lips. She brought the burning cigarette out and snuffed it. Her lipstick had made an impression on the cigarette butt.
“Now will you have a slice?”
“No, but you should leave now.”
“I will. Don’t worry. We have some time left.”
She had closed her eyes. Her amber eyelids on her pale face appeared to be the eyelids of a wax doll.
“Feeling sleepy?” He asked in a low voice.
“No.” She opened her eyes. Taking his hands into hers she slowly massaged them.
“I expected that you would come. I thought so.”
He kept looking at her wordlessly.
“Listen, we could stay together like we used to.” There was a hint of surprise in her voice.
“Do you remember, we wanted to go to Italy last summer?” She pressed his hand and continued, “Now we can.”
“Now we can go anywhere we want to. There is nothing that can stop us anymore.” He felt there was a queerness in her tone but she was smiling and he felt contended.
He heard the creaking of the wheelchair from the corridor. Someone was screaming from the next cubicle. A woman peered into the cubicle but finding him sitting there she turned away embarrassed.
He took a glance at his watch and started to get into his overcoat.
“You will eat all of this, okay?” He told her in English.
She nodded. “Did you understand what I just said?”
“You will eat all of this, okay?” She repeated the sentence in English. Both broke into a smile.
He wrapped his muffler around his neck and got up from the stool. “So you are leaving now?”
“Yes, but I will be back tomorrow at the same time.” She looked at him intently and said, “Come here.”
He bent over her. She removed her blanket and pulled his face on her breasts with both her hands.
“Someone might come in.”
When he came out a while later, the spring night was at its peak. The air carried a damp smell. Feeling calm he took a deep breath in the fresh cool air. He found the air refreshing after the uncomfortably warm and claustrophobic cubicle. He looked at the watch. He still had ten minutes left. He felt happy that he could drink beer before he left for Prague.
For a while she lay there with her eyes closed. When she was sure that he had gone away from the hospital she softly got up from the bed. She opened the window. The lights of the city were glimmering in the dark. It reminded her of her hostel room in Prague. Though she had left her hostel just two days ago she felt as if a long time had passed. She stood there motionless for a while. A child cried out of the maternity ward but then everything fell silent.
Quietly she made her way to the bed and brought out an old towel. She carefully wrapped the things that he had bought for her and then threw them away into the darkness.
When she went back to her bed, she felt dizzy. There was still the packet of Lipa on the stool. She ignited it but she found the taste weird. She stubbed it on the floor and lay down on the bed. A warm tear escaped from the sides of her eye and got lost in her hair, never to be found again. She was sleeping peacefully.
Also, read Two Flash Fiction Pieces by Rongili Biswas, published in The Antonym: