TRANSLATED FROM THE BENGALI BY NANDINI GUPTA
It was two in the afternoon. The local to Bardhaman had just departed Konnagar and was approaching Rishra. In one of the coaches of this train, Little Khoka was selling newspapers. On local trains, especially those travelling far, newspapers sell well into the day. A newspaper is a good way to pass the time.
It was Sunday. There were fewer passengers. Many copies remained unsold. He did not expect to make any more sales in the coach he was in. He had traversed the coach end to end several times, calling out paper, paper! He had sold only two. The train was a ‘galloping passenger’, and would not stop at Rishra. The next stop was at Srirampur. Khoka planned to disembark at the next stop and board the coach behind this.
In the meantime, the train was passing through Rishra. Khoka stood at the door. A curious scene at the Rishra station caught his eye. But the train had left the station before he could process what he had seen. What he saw did not make sense. A body covered with a white sheet lay on the platform. It was a dead body. The strange thing was that there was no one accompanying the body. A body was generally laid out in this manner when there was no money for the funeral. Whatever was collected from the passers-by provided for the last rites.
This was a common enough practice among poor people. Of course, not all cases were genuine. Even families who were not in such dire straits might place the body of a dearly departed family member in a busy public location for a few hours if only to make some money. People would place notes or coins on the shroud. These would be collected by the accompanying person. But there did not seem to be anybody with the body at Rishra. The corpse lay alone, covered with a sheet. This was perplexing to Khoka. Little Khoka saw some money lying on top of the sheet. Where was the man? Was he seated somewhere afar? Otherwise, who would collect the money? The corpse would not rise from the dead to pick it up.
The train entered Srirampur station and slowed down. Little Khoka quickly got off. He made his living on the train, he was used to climbing on and off moving trains.
He decided to return to Rishra station to investigate the matter of the dead body. Where was the person who had carried the body into the platform?
Little Khoka made his way along the underpass to the ‘down’ platform. A local train arrived immediately. He boarded the train. This train would stop everywhere. Khoka got off the train as soon as it entered Rishra. He hastened to the dead body. It lay just the way it had appeared from the train. There was nobody with it. The sheet had looked white from a distance. It turned out to be bluish instead, and pretty old. There was quite a bit of money lying on the sheet. Enough for a cremation, and more.
Little Khoka placed the bundle of unsold newspapers beside the corpse and sat on it. He expected the person with the body to materialise at the sight of him, and ask, “What’s your game, man?”
But nobody appeared. The passengers dropped five to ten rupees in notes or coins on the sheet. They probably thought that Little Khoka had placed the body there, and was collecting money for the funeral. Beyond doubt, the person who had placed the body on the platform was held up elsewhere. If he did not appear, Khoka would have to arrange for the cremation. He would also need to procure a death certificate. Else, cremation would not be allowed at the burning ground. The person who had brought the body possibly had the death certificate.
Before going to the burning ground, Little Khoka would have to go to the police. The police might arrange for cremation, but they would also pocket all the money. For Little Khoka it was difficult to forego the allure of so much money; he wondered if he could take some of the notes and coins, one or two at a time, without anyone noticing.
Little Khoka was startled. The speaker was an elderly man standing beside the corpse.
Little Khoka replied, “Yes, my father.”
“How did it happen?”
“A sudden heart attack.”
“What a shame! How old was he?”
He did not answer immediately. Little Khoka now needed to assume the role of the eldest or the only son of the dead man. How old should his father be? The words came out suddenly, “He just turned 62.”
Undoubtedly, a plausible age. The man seemed to think so too.
He said,” How unfortunate, that’s no age to go. Too soon.”
He then held out a ten rupee note to Little Khoka, who took it and put it in his pocket. This money was legitimately his, and only his. There was no reason to hand it over to anybody. He had earned it. He had handled the gentleman’s queries.
All at once it struck Khoka, that though he had claimed the body belonged to his father, he was unaware of its gender. He needed to take a discreet look under the sheet. He did not wait any longer. He put out his hand and lifted one end of the sheet. A hammer blow landed on his heart immediately; it was an old woman with a shock of white hair. He let go of the sheet at once and stretched it carefully over the body. He glanced back to check if he was being watched.
The hammer fell again. The man he had just talked to about his dead father sat on a bench looking his way. Khoka hoped he was too far away to share Khoka’s discovery. But if somebody wallowed in pity, ‘oh dear’, ‘what a shame’, and whatnot, asked for a glimpse of the face uncovered, what would Khoka do? He would have to say it was his mother who had died. But this man who thought it was his father was still around. Khoka would change the story after he boarded a train and left.
Both his parents were alive, though. He had always been told not to make up such stories about his parents, lest it came to pass. Little Khoka knew that was nonsense. Take the case of Rabi who hawked candy in trains. When sales were poor, he shaved his head, dressed in unstitched clothes like a freshly bereaved son, and stationed himself in front of the ticket counter. He told the passengers, “I have just lost my father. I do not have money for his last rites. Help me please.”
People looked at his shaved head and entertained no doubts. His takings were considerable. But Rabi’s father continued to be alive and well. He was a van-rickshaw driver. He would look at Rabi’s shaven head and ask, “What, you killed me again?”
Rabi would laugh embarrassedly. But Rabi never killed his mother, not even in falsehood. He loved his mother dearly. Rabi had a reasonably good relationship with his father too, Khoka wondered if his father, at times, even remembered his existence. Just last month, a customer getting a haircut in his father’s shop, had asked, “Kamalda, how many children did you say you had?”
His father had replied, “Four boys and three daughters.”
Little Khoka was at that moment in his father’s shop bringing him his tiffin. He heard his father and was struck dumb. His father had completely forgotten him. Little Khoka was the “chhoto khoka”, the youngest boy of the family. They were five brothers and three sisters. If his father was prepared to forget him, why then should he have any compunction about making up stories about his father’s death? His mother, though, never forgot her youngest. No matter how late he was for lunch or dinner, she waited for him with his food.
The issue was elsewhere. One morning selling newspapers at the market, he might see Barda, his eldest brother buying a whopping Rui fish, weighing some 3 kilos. His heart might leap with joy at the thought of the delicious fish-in-mustard curry his mother would cook! A lunch to look forward to, he would think! He would come home in the afternoon, brimming with expectation, bathe at the well, and sit down to eat. There would be no fish! He would ask his mother, “Why?” His mother would reply, “What am I to do? Your Chhorda, (the brother right above him) took two pieces. I told him that it was his share of the fish. He said, what share? How much does he give towards the running of this household? It’s enough that he gets to eat and sleep.”
That was true. Khoka did not contribute to the household finances. He had no fixed income. If today he sold newspapers, tomorrow he might be dealing in colourful fishes. His ventures often lost money. His wallet was generally empty. Sometimes he could not be bothered to work. He wandered aimlessly. Sometimes he might go to Burrabazar to observe business ventures, sometimes he’d go to Dharmatala to observe people. Sometimes he went to the football stadium and cried himself hoarse cheering for Mohun Bagan. Little Khoka, was by nature, a bit capricious; or as his acquaintances put it, he had a few screws on his head loose. Be as it may, was it too much to ask his mother to care a tad more for her screw-loose son? Couldn’t she tell his older brothers, “All of you earn well. If some of your money goes towards one boy eating well, will the world turn upside down? He too is my son.”
But Ma would not say that. She lived in mortal fear of her older sons. She served him his food as if he was a boy from next door. Little Khoka often found his mother’s attitude hurtful. So some days he refrained from going home for lunch. He ate instead at the rice place near the Liluah railway car shed. As he had, today. That was how he got to wait with the corpse.
Khoka looked back once more. Oh my god, the man was still seated in the same spot. He was not waiting for a train. He was there just to pass the time of the day.
The day drew to an end. Around him, bleary darkness settled. There were very few people on the platform, it was a holiday. The loudspeaker announced the arrival of the ‘UP’ Katwa local on platform number 2.”
Even the man who had said, “How unfortunate, too soon,” had left. There was now considerably more money on the sheet. Now was the time for Little Khoka to collect the money and flee. The corpse was the responsibility of the Railway police.
Khoka squatted next to the body and started picking up the notes and coins. Suddenly someone spoke,
“Are you sure nobody is watching you?”
Khoka was scared witless. Who spoke? There was nobody in sight. It was a woman’s voice.
“What? Why don’t you reply? Are there any passengers nearby?”, again the disembodied voice.
Khoka’s voice trembled as he answered, “Where are you? Why can’t I see you?”
“I am your corpse speaking.”
Little Khoka jumped away. Again, the woman’s voice sounded, “I am very much alive. I am only trying to make some money pretending to be dead. Have a good look and tell me if the Katwa Up local is entering the station right now.”
Little Khoka looked to the left of the platform. Yes, he could see the engine of the Katwa Up local. Fearfully he answered, “Yes I can see the front of the train.”
“Right! Quickly get the money. The train will come to a stop. Passengers will get off. As soon as the train starts again, I will jump onto it. You do the same. Got it?”
Little Khoka nodded and got busy with the money. The woman’s voice sounded again, “Why don’t you answer? Don’t try to run off with my money, I will surely catch you.”
“I did answer. I nodded, didn’t I?” Little Khoka replied.
The woman said, “I am lying here with my eyes closed. How would I see you nodding? Speak up.”
Even as they spoke, the Katwa local arrived at the platform. Khoka had managed to collect all the notes and coins. Many people alighted, only a few boarded. As soon as the train started again, the old woman wrapped the sheet around herself and climbed onto the nearest compartment. Little Khoka followed suit.
Little Khoka did not go home for a week. He hung out with Bhanumoti. He found this money-making scheme rather attractive. Bhanumoti covered herself with a sheet and lay like a corpse. Little Khoka sat beside her body, with a doleful expression and dishevelled hair. Their earnings were good. They shared it between them, her sixty to his forty. This had been the bone of contention between Bhanumoti and her previous side-kick, Bachchu. He had wanted sixty for himself; he thought he had to work more than she. He had to sit up and stay awake in front of a make-believe corpse. He had to keep his wits about him and field questions from passers-by. In comparison, Bhanumoti did nothing. She just lay there with her face turned up. She could even catch some shuteye.
Bhanumoti responded, “Let’s see you do that for 15 minutes. Breathe, without your body stirring.”
Bachchu had not tried. He had known he would fail. Bhanumoti had long years of practice behind her. Bhanumati had served, once upon a time, as an assistant to a magician. And so, Bachchu had decided to strike back differently. After she had lain down at Rishra station, he had made himself scarce. Let’s see you get out of this, he had thought! If Bhanumoti had risen from the dead and had started collecting money, all hell would have broken loose. The ‘public’ would have been baying for her blood. Thankfully Khoka, out of sheer curiosity, had stationed himself beside the body. Or else, that very day Bhanumoti’s business would have folded.
After Bhanumoti and Khoka got on the train at Rishra, Bhanumoti asked him, “How do you like the job?”
Khoka, a bit dazed, nodded. He liked it. Bhanumoti said, “In that case, tag along with me. You will get forty percent of my earnings. You will stay, eat and move around with me.”
Little Khoka was more than happy. He always found new jobs attractive. There was only one drawback to working with Bhanumoti. There were long distances involved. Today she might decide to operate at Canning Station, and tomorrow at Mecheda. Distant stations were deliberately chosen on consecutive days so that no passenger would come across them in quick succession.
Bhanumoti lived in a slum in Beleghata. Little Khoka stayed on with her. Bhanumoti cooked for him and talked to him about this and that. Bhanumoti used to live with her son and his wife. But they had fallen foul of each other, so now she lived alone. Bhanumoti asked after Little Khoka’s family. She said, to call them up and let them know. They will worry. But don’t tell them where you are. I never disclose my address to anybody. After all, what we do is illegal.
So Khoka called his home. He asked his mother, “Were you very worried? I am fine.”
His mother said, “Of course I was. But your eldest brother told me not to worry too much. He said that my madcap son must be wandering around. and was bound to be back soon.”
Little Khoka was saddened; apparently, people weren’t even looking hard for him. He was better off at Bhanumoti’s place. Bhanumoti cooked for him, and gently caressed his head while he ate. There were many children in the neighbourhood. They all loved Bhanumoti greatly. They all called her Bhanumoti; she had no other name. Her work as an assistant to a magician had probably earnt her this name. (In Bengali adage, Bhanumoti’s khel, or Bhanumoti’s game means magic). Bhanumoti had some magic tricks in her repertoire. She performed a few for the slum children. Little Khoka said “Why don’t you do shows on the trains or the platform? It would be easier than pretending to be dead all day long. You would not have to live with the fear of being caught.
Bhanumoti said, “That’s what I did earlier, perform magic on trains. People would crowd around me. But as soon as it was time to pay up, the crowd would thin out. People pay more if you are dead. As long as you are alive, nobody cares how you live. When you are dead, they are moved to pity,”.
True words, indeed. Today Bhanumoti was lying down on the platform at Payradangaa station. At her side was Little Khoka looking woebegone. It was only eleven, but already there was a good quantity of notes and coins on the sheet. This could prejudice people. Little Khoka wondered if he should put some of it away. For that, he needed Bhanumoti’s permission. Just now there were no people around. Little Khoka lowered his voice and asked, “Should I put some of the money away? There’s quite a bit of it. People may not want to give more if they see it lying around. “
“Yes, move it out of sight.“ The reply came from under the sheet.
Little Khoka squatted to pick up the notes and coins. Suddenly someone grabbed his shoulder and pulled hard. Little Khoka was thrust to the ground. He turned around to find a boy looking at him with angry eyes. The boy said, “Scoot! This is my spot! I have been working with Bhanumoti for five years.”
Little Khoka figured out who this was. Bachchu, Bhanumoti’s side-kick before him.
Bacchchu spoke again, “What? Are you going or do I have to kick you out of here? What makes you think you can just push your way in and make yourself at home?”
Little Khoka found himself at a loss for words. It was Bhanumoti who spoke out from beneath the sheet.
“Hey, Bachchu! Don’t throw your weight about. You left me in the lurch, remember? Now you are back because you do not have work. You have no place here. Little Khoka is doing the job way better than you ever did.”
Bacchchu was deflated. He said, “Okay let him be. Give me work for a couple of days. My pockets are empty.”
“Oh no! I will not employ a deserter! The condition in which you left me! I would have been outed. What a stroke of luck that Little Khoka arrived on the scene!”
“That’s your last word then?” Bachchu flared up again.
“ Yes. I do not want to see you within a mile of me ever again.”
With long strides, Bachchu walked away. Little Khoka had not liked the look of him. He could not help feeling that Bachchu would find a way to harm them.
A couple of hours passed. Little Khoka felt the rumblings of hunger. He addressed the sheet in front of him, “Shall I go get some lunch?”
“Do that,” Bhanumoti replied from beneath the sheet.
Little Khoka was not comfortable leaving Bhanumoti unfed. Bhanumoti had some beaten rice and ground barley at dawn. Her next meal would be dinner at night. In between, she stayed almost without any food or water. She had grown accustomed to this schedule. She had had to, for the sake of her work. Little Khoka got up and walked towards an eating place.
Having finished lunch, he was washing his hands at the basin in front of the shop when a sight on the mirror over the basin stopped him in his tracks: Bachchu was walking beside a policeman while talking to him earnestly.
Little Khoka realised the gravity of the situation. He started running. He came to Bhanumoti and said, “Bacchu is coming with the police.”
Even before the words were out of his mouth, Bhanumoti leapt up from under the sheet. Then she started running. So did little Khoka. Bachchu and the policeman gave chase. Little Khoka wondered at Bhanumoti’s agility. She hitched up her sari at one side to run better, and with what speed she ran! She jumped from the platform onto the tracks. She leapt over the railway boundary wall onto the road. She did not stop but kept running, weaving her way through the streets, and disappeared from sight.
After being chased by the police, Bhanumoti did not go out to work anymore. Little Khoka went home for the night. His mother asked, “What are you doing now?”
Little Khoka replied, “I am learning magic with someone.”
His mother did not question him further. Her youngest boy was whimsical.
Today Khoka and Bhanumoti had found their way to the Baanshberia station. Bhanumoti lay under the sheet. Khoka sat beside her looking helpless. Some money had been collected on top of the sheet, but nothing like at the larger stations. But they didn’t need much either. It was the birthday of a girl from the slum. Yesterday she had come to Bhanumoti, asking her for a top and a pair of jeans.
The slum children often came to Bhanumoti, asking for this and that. Bhanumoti readily obliged. Bhanumoti had been staying home for some days. Early this morning, she told Khoka, “I am out of money. We need to work. Get ready.”
Khoka quickly got ready and accompanied Bhanumoti. They’d been a while at Baanshberia station. Little Khoka had had his lunch. They will finish early today. Back at the slum in the evening, there would be a birthday party for Tinni. They would have fun.
Daylight began to fade. Birds returned to their nests in the trees on the platform. They chirped deafeningly. The ‘down local’ was announced. He asked Bhanumoti, “Shall we take this train back?”
There was no reply. Had Bhanumoti fallen asleep? She had not been very spry the last few days. She must have fallen asleep with exhaustion. Little Khoka nudged Bhanumoti’s shoulder. He was alarmed at the way the body reeled at his touch. He quickly uncovered her face. He placed his finger below her nostrils. No, she was not breathing. Her chest was still. Bhanumoti had taken flight under the cover of the sheet. Little Khoka’s heart welled up with sorrow. But he could not cry. People had seen him sitting all day with a dead body. What would explain his bursting into tears now, after all this time?
After Bhanumoti’s last rites were over, Little Khoka returned to his own home. Immediately he came face to face with his father.
“Who are you?”
“I am your youngest son, Little Khoka.”
“Why have you shaved your head? I cannot recognise you.”
“Just like that.” He said and moved away.
His mother too was baffled by his shaven head. She asked, “Why did you suddenly shave your head, my dear? What will people think? Both your parents are alive.”
“Tell people you have no clue about what your madcap son thinks or does.” He took down a thin bath towel from the clothesline in the courtyard and walked towards the well.
There was quite a wind near the well today. It blew on his shaven head like someone gently fanning him. Are Bhanumoti’s fingers caressing his scalp?
Also, read twenty micro-poems and two other poems, self-translated from Greek by Katerina Agyioti, and published in The Antonym: