Translated from the Bengali by Rituparna Mukherjee
On a wintry Saturday afternoon at the beginning of 2013, in the month of January-February, commonly called Magh, Samaresh found himself acutely worried. The place where the events unfolded was a railway station, around two hundred kilometres from Kolkata. Alongside Samaresh was Sohini, and their two trolley bags. The wintry Magh sun was not harsh on the skin—the rays travelled diagonally underneath the platform’s shade. Samaresh and Sohini stood on one side of the rail line, on platform number three, with four or five hawkers sitting in a circle next to them. On the other side, there was a small room made of aged bricks, ten monkeys playing on its tin roof, and a tall moringa tree next to it. It was almost two-thirty. The long shadows cast by the twin trolley bags moved gently from the puffed rice-seller’s hunched back to the teaseller’s kettle. The train heading for Kolkata was announced to arrive shortly. The puffed rice-seller stood up shaking his bottle of oil. The people selling tea and bags moved to the left on the platform while the ones selling locks, clips and combs walked to the right.
Samaresh lit a cigarette at that point. Sohini immediately stood apart from him, because of which the shadow of the sun played around her feet. The green and gold border of her saree touched the platform at the point where the shadows stopped. Samaresh saw a small, black wide-toothed comb in that place. Suddenly he felt that he was no longer on the platform and found himself in a forest instead—surrounded by tall trees and long messy grass that grazed his knees. A large white bird kept calling loudly and flew over Samaresh’s head. And he, torch in hand, began searching for a comb that had fallen from his pocket, on the forest floor. Samaresh felt that a strand of Sohini’s hair was entangled in this comb, and he had to locate it somehow, anyhow, among the grass, the trees, within the forest. He looked high and low for the comb, constantly glancing at the mobile phone in his pocket. He felt as if he had been separated from Sohini, and it was precisely why finding the comb was essential. He felt that Sohini would call him as soon as he had found the comb. Samaresh kept hunting for an unknown story—the story of Sohini and his separation. He sensed that with Sohini’s phone call, he would be able to locate that unknown story as well. The events rolled out fast in Samaresh’s mind, splitting it into two—his alert self, attuned to the arrival of the train on the platform and his other self, located amidst the wild grass and trees of his mind’s forest. Samaresh’s grandmother also had such visions. She had learnt the word “vision” from his foreign-returned brother-in-law. She would smile widely and say, “I have seen a vision again today. Do you want to hear the story?” The alien word “vision” would rule over the sensibilities of those surrounding her; they would submit willingly to her proposal.
Samaresh too saw visions. He saw stories unfold, but stories that just had a middle, that began abruptly in the thick of action. He had to frame the beginning and the end. Samaresh spent his days gluing his broken stories together, building them up in his mind. The stories that happened to him on the platform, had occurred to him in the previous night as well.
He lay in bed, kissing Sohini. They had met around five years back at the Book Fair. Sohini was an author, Samaresh, a reader. Sohini was married, Samaresh wasn’t.
Last night while kissing Sohini in the emptiness of the guest room, Samaresh’s eyes had swiftly opened—Sohini’s shut eyes and her hands lay in front of him; the fold in her eyelids had a rose-brown tint. Her left hand held the bedsheet in a passionate ball and her right stroked the bedspread. Samaresh knew that he wasn’t in that room in the guest house at that moment, he was coming out of a hospital instead. The insides of the hospital were very cold, and the minute he walked out of the glass doors, he was greeted by the hot air outside. His hands were in Sohini’s hands, her eyes were closed, tears streamed down her face. Samaresh discerned a car on the other side of the street—someone opened the car door, they sat in the back-seat side by side, and Sohini, quite to his surprise, stroked the car seat, as if gauging its materiality and value.
The two halves of Samaresh’s mind coalesced at this moment in the story and he held Sohini tightly, swiftly in his embrace.
Sohini perceived something. Later that night, with her hands softly caressing Samaresh’s hair, she asked, “What happened to you?” Samaresh narrated his vision of the big hospital, the hot loo air outside it, and the car. He told her about watching her stroke the car seat as well but didn’t add the deduction his mind had forged, watching her do that, in that tiny moment. Sohini had told him pragmatically, “You have read a lot Samaresh, now it is your turn to write.”
Samaresh didn’t respond, he lit a cigarette. Sohini turned and lay languidly. The smoke of the cigarette created a small circle around him, its smell trapped in the air of the enclosed room. Samaresh unearthed for the first time that perhaps he could not share everything, even with Sohini.
The train to Kolkata was slowly entering the platform. Both of them dragged their trolley bags and moved towards their compartment. Samaresh’s hand touched Sohini’s arm. He wondered if he should tell Sohini, rather if he could share anything with her at all, especially the story of the comb he had experienced a few moments back. This thought made him wary. The very fact that he might have to keep secrets from Sohini had never occurred to him in these five years with her. He had told her banal things, everyday things—what time he woke up from sleep, for instance, or if he would have a headache; if his boss resorted to petty politics in the office. Even when he bought mangoes from Nagerbajar while returning home, or if an apple had dropped from his green plastic bag on to the street; or if he had seen the advertisement of Sohini’s latest piece of writing in the Pujo (autumnal) edition of a magazine. very phone call, email or SMS was relayed to her. Actually, Samaresh had always wanted someone with whom he could share every morsel of information, all his stories, without hiding any bit of it. He craved someone’s company as a sick man desires the warmth and assurance of the gentle winter sun, in absence of which he looks deprived, longingly seeking out the layers of thick blankets for comfort and sustenance. He used to share everything with Niladri in the eighth standard; and in his childhood, he would tell his mother everything. Ever since his mother’s death in an abrupt stove explosion, and outside the small time that he had Niladri as his friend, Samaresh’s listeners were his mother’s orange saree with golden edges and his pet dog, Lalu. Niladri had gone away to America, the emails grew distinctly sporadic, used merely for exchanging social courtesies. It wasn’t possible for him to ramble on in ISD calls made on Poyla Baisakh and Bijaya. Niladri would reassure him, “How many people have this privilege? People lose connections. Stay in touch.” But Samaresh knew that it was merely staying in touch, somehow the true connectedness was lost. The word “connection” evoked images of the Kali Puja evenings when turning on the black switch in the sitting room would illuminate immediately the colourful fairy lines in the bannisters of the veranda. Samaresh had tried social networking and participating in internet addas. But the bulbs didn’t light up. The true connections hadn’t been made. As a result, his stories remained sedimented. Samaresh felt the fairy lights glow within three months of meeting Sohini at the Book Fair. He had always something more to say to her even after the regular calls, SMSs, and emails. His stories or body seemed to want more of her. They had begun to stay together for one or two nights near Kolkata for the last three years.
At that moment, right before boarding the train, Samaresh felt as if he could not locate the switch to light the tiny bulbs. He was sweating profusely in the Magh evening, even though winter had not left; the skies darkened faster than usual outside the train window.
Samaresh’s experience in 2013 turned him from a reader to a writer. When Magh was almost drawing to its end, he returned home from office one day and began writing. He wrote fast. He finished writing ten short stories within Baisakh, one of which he named “The Hunt for the Comb”—the story he had visualized that Magh afternoon, two hundred kilometres from Kolkata.
Samaresh nurtured his writing with a lot of care, hid it away from the prying world, like a new mother who puts her infant child to sleep by surrounding it with pillows, observing it time and again without sleeping herself, and looking for the slightest misgiving. He sent his stories to sleep, would observe them carefully while they rested in his mind and then would suddenly wake them up, wailing loudly in his head, when new thoughts would strike him. He flicked the heavy black switch in his room every day that would light the tiny bulbs in his veranda. As this increased, his need for Sohini’s company and thirst for her body subsided.
One day, when their car stopped at the Bypass Ajaynagar signal, Sohini broached the issue.
“Samaresh, what is wrong with us?”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you understand what is wrong?”
“Well, we talk less, meet less. Nothing else that I can think of . . .”
“You have summarized the problem very succinctly, Samaresh. This is what I want to know. Why? What has suddenly happened?”
“You are busy. You need to write for the Pujo issue, your daughter has her examinations. My workload has increased significantly in the office. I mean, you know that this time of the year is usually very busy.”
“We could read each other’s minds. I still can. You are hiding something, Samaresh.”
Samaresh stayed quiet. He scribbled on the palm of his hand. Looked outside once. Then he looked at Sohini and murmured, “I am writing. Stories. Short stories. I have finished writing quite a few. I haven’t had the opportunity to tell you.”
Sohini usually drove herself. Keeping an eye on the road, she asked, “Why?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t know why I didn’t tell you. Do you want to read?”
Sohini gulped nervously and with an eye on the road, said, “Email it to me once you reach home.”
“I have written it in a notebook, Sohini. I would need specific software for writing in Bangla in my laptop. Didn’t want that kind of hassle.”
“Alright, courier it to me then. Do you like it? Writing?”
“I really can’t say, Sohini.”
Both stayed quiet for the rest of the journey until Samaresh got off at Salt Lake.
Samaresh stood staring at a Benarasi-draped mannequin in front of the Mohinimohan Kanjilal store on a Baisakh afternoon in 2014. Sohini was supposed to come along, and they had planned to visit a publication house at Potuatala Lane.
Actually, Sohini had called excitedly within a space of a few hours after receiving Samaresh’s courier.
“Samaresh, you have hidden this writing for so long? Why haven’t you sent it anywhere?”
Samaresh muttered to himself, “I haven’t even shown them to you, Sohini, for so many days. I liked writing them in secret.” But he just laughed on the phone, subdued.
“Listen, can you come over to College Street the day after tomorrow with your stories?”
“Day after tomorrow is Friday, it’s a working day at the office. When?”
“Come at around four in the evening. It’ll be a little inconvenient for me after that. My daughter has her examinations.”
“Why with the stories?”
“I know a publisher—he publishes new writers. I think I will give him your stories to read. Seriously Samaresh, your stories should reach everyone.”
The Baisakh afternoon slowly dripped by. While he waited, Samaresh heardthe horns of the buses, observed the paan-seller on the opposite side, while the magazine stall next to him sold panjikas. Samaresh was looking at a blue Benarasi saree and contemplated how it would look on Sohini. She did mention once that she hadn’t worn a Benarasi on her wedding, contrary to the norm. Meanwhile, Sohini reached and stood by him, “Have you been waiting long? Did you get all your work?” Samaresh tapped the strap on his shoulder and laughed gently.
They walked through Harrison Road and reached Potuatala Lane. The narrow footpath didn’t allow them to walk together—Sohini ambled on a little ahead.
They came across a staircase that led to a small room, right in the middle of the street. The bookshelves on the wall had many books, a few of which Samaresh had read. Most were by new writers, one or two were by established ones, among whom Sohini was one. The publisher was of Samaresh’s age; he stroked his beard and said, “Didi, since this is your recommendation, it must be written quite well—I will still go through it once. Please come back in a week’s time at this very hour.” They climbed down the staircase, on to the footpath and made their way to Harrison Road. Sohini said, “I am in a hurry today, I need to return home. Will you get back to the office?”
“No, I think I’ll stay here a little more, I have come here after quite a long gap. I’ll visit Paatiram. I’ll take a few books from Dey’s as well. I did empty my bag after all.”
“But make it a point to return home quickly. There’s a forecast for a thunderstorm, a Kalbaisakhi.”
It really did seem like it would rain. There was a mass of dark bluish-black clouds gathering atop in the direction of Medical College. The entire College Street was swept up in a strong breeze. Samaresh bought books—little magazine, volumes of poetry, a new novel. His empty bag was now filled to the brim. He began to walk through Bidhan Sarani. His long shadow fell onto the footpath. A long, dark shadow. His bag skirted his right knee. The bag’s shadow mingled with the shadow of his frame on the right side. Consequently, the shadow of his thigh on the right side seemed heftier than his left side. It looked to him as if he was riding a vahana, a mythic animal. At that very moment, the storm thundered. His shadow receded gradually and plastic cups, scraps of paper with suggestions for the Madhyamik examinations, a saal leaf with remnants of a meal, a chocolate wrapper, encircled him, spurred by the gusts of wind. The clouds and bolts of thunder painted the sky above Bidhan Sarani a purple hue. Samaresh saw a circus tent underneath that purple sky near the Thanthane crossing. The small tent was decked up with strings of light, somewhat like a bride blushing on her wedding reception. He ran inside the tent.
Bright disco lights of red, blue, and green sparkled there, and a team of trapeze artists was showcasing its pageantry in the arena. As soon as Samaresh entered the tent, a magician ran in, wearing bright clothes, a turban, and a wand in hand. He took Samaresh by hand, crossing the arena, to the interior of the tent. A motor bike began to go around in a circular cage, a lion jumped across the fire, six beautiful women rode a tall bicycle, waving their hands. A clown vaulted his way past them to the arena. The magician took Samaresh by hand, brought him out of the circus tent and stood under the purple sky. Horses were grazing there. White, brown, and black horses. The magician picked a whistle from the sky, and it started raining heavily just about then. With rain falling on his head, the magician blew the whistle. It was at this moment that Samaresh’s phone began to ring. The Thanthane Temple returned, so did the traffic, the horns of buses and minibuses, people walking the streets with umbrellas on their heads. The rain, however, stayed, surrounding Samaresh—the tar-covered streets layered in raindrops, reflected the bolts of thunder and the streetlights.
Sohini had called.
“Have you reached home safely?”
“Sohini, we saw a circus tent when we went to Bardhaman last time. Do you recall the exact location?”
Sohini heard the reiterating thunderclaps over the phone.
“Are you getting wet? Where are you standing?”
“Sohini, please, first try to remember the name of the place.”
“How do I recall the name of the village? I think I would be able to locate the place if we were to go there again. Why? What happened?”
“Do you want to go there tomorrow morning? With me?”
“My daughter has her examinations, Samaresh. Didn’t I tell you? But why do you want to go all of a sudden?”
“I am not sure. May be in search of a story. I’ll catch the Ganadebata Express early morning tomorrow.”
Samaresh had accurately recognized the place where the circus tent had been constructed in Maghearly in 2013when he went back in Baisakh. He rented an ambassador from the Bolpur guest house where he was staying. Crossing the river Ajay would lead him to Bardhaman. In , the rice crops were drying in the sun. There were fields of mustard. And whisps of dry kans grass milled about in the air. He passed Naim Auto Centre, King Homeo, Kalimata Furniture, located right next to Shami Art Centre. In the wall next to that, the chief minister stood with folded hands between Rabindranath and Nazrul. After that came Dona Brick Manufacturing Centre, Moumita Matching Centre, and Baba Biswakarma Multipurpose Cold Storage. Right after that was Lochandas Setu toll-tax. The circus tent lay beyond Natunhat and Peertala. In Baisakh, the field carried an emptiness. Samaresh got off the vehicle, spotting a small roadside shop. Geeta Variety Stores. Proprietor Subhabrata Laha, a young shop owner.
“Do you have a notebook?”
“Ruled or blank?”
“Give me a ruled one, please. You have quite a large shop. Do you stay here in this village? Didn’t a circus come to this village in the winter?”
“Yes, one had come during the Kenduli fair. But it’s gone now. Where are you from? Are you a journalist?”
“No. Was a journalist supposed to come? Has anything wrong happened?”
“Why there was news about a horse the Sunday before last! It’s to do with this circus. Haven’t you read it? The circus left one of its horses here. The horse is blind. It was written in the papers. Nobody took it. It’s still here in the village.”
“I have missed the news, it seems.”
“This is the first time we have seen the name of our village in the papers. A reporter had come. He spoke to many people. The next village is quite famous, you know, I was quite young when I saw the name in the newspaper . . .”
At that moment, the driver of Samaresh’s rented car called out to him, asking if he should wait by the shade. Samaresh let the car go. He decided to take the bus back to Bolpur.
There were quite a few customers in front of Geeta Variety Stores. Samaresh asked a little loudly, “Can I see the horse?”
“Just take the left. You will find a small road next to the pond. Walk straight along that road. You will spot a doctor’s signboard. The horse is kept there. The way is not confusing. Do go and see it for yourself”.
Samaresh kept walking after that. To his left was a pond, with a cemented ghat. The signboard was right next to an Airtel advertisement: “Dr. Sitanshu Pal, Homeopath, BHMS.” A page out of the Higher Secondary textbook lay on the mud road. The Baisakh sun beat down hard. Samaresh found the horse in a sliver of a shade, tied to a tree, its face down, wagging its tail. Right next to it, someone sat on a wicker seat. A persistent, monotonous music came to his ears. It seemed to Samaresh as if someone was reading a panchali, a narrative folk song, tonally, in the distance. When Samaresh went near and stood by the seated man, the reading stopped.
“Have you come to see the horse? Are you from the papers, Sir?”
Samaresh nodded his head. The man with the salt and pepper beard and a balding head, smiled.
“I am Dr. Sitanshu Pal. This is my house, right here. Where are you from?”
“Kolkata. Didn’t a circus come here in the winter?”
“This horse is from the circus. It doesn’t see. They have left it here, poor thing. Cheats and thugs, the lot of them”.
“You have kept the horse?”
“Who am I to keep it, Sir? Everyone from the village feeds it. It just stays at my courtyard.”
“I had gone to Geeta Variety Stores near the main road. I heard that your neighboring village is famous. Which village is that?”
“It is the village of suicides. Icchabat. There was a time when the rate of suicides was so high that it was written about in the papers. Many people had come, and clicked many photographs.”
“Oh yes, I have read it. It happened many days back.” Samaresh asked a little excitedly, “What were you reading in a monotone? Panchali? Whose panchali was it?”
Sitanshu pointed to a mora, a wicker seat, and offered, “Why don’t you take a seat, Sir? Will you have water? No, it wasn’t a panchali. I was telling a story.”
“Were you telling the horse a story? What story was it?”
“Its name is Sultan, Sir. I was telling it a story I had written. Do you know Gangotri Publications from Kolkata? I had published three books from there. “The Call of the Mountain,” “The Sound of the Sea,” and “The Stories of the Forest.” No one read it, Sir. Not even a single copy was sold. After that I didn’t publish anything. I practise medicine here and write stories. But I don’t give my stories to humans to read. I used to read them out to dogs, cows. But I have never found a better listener than Sultan, Sir. Because he is blind, since he cannot see, he listens. He listened to the sound that the wicker stool made when you sat down a while back, for instance. When the branch fell, his ears pricked up at the sound, did you see? He understands what I say to him. Actually, what I am trying to say is I feel connected with Sultan.”
Just then, the door opened, and an old woman walked out. Sitanshu introduced, “My old mother. She is quite old. She doesn’t feel connected to me anymore, she identifies more with her grandchildren.” Sitanshu chuckled lightly. Looking at the sky, he said, “There will be a thunderstorm in the evening. Do you have a car with you?”
“I want to listen to the story of Icchabat from you Sitanshu Babu. Will it be terribly inconvenient if I stay back tonight?”
Samaresh stayed back. He had left his mobile phone at home when he started his journey in the morning. Although he remembered forgetting his phone during the cab ride to Howrah station, he didn’t return for it. Sohini must have called the guest house several times by then, after not being able to reach him on his mobile phone. Samaresh didn’t feel the urge to use any other telephone. He felt drawn by Icchabat’s story and the technique of the connection he could build. With one-fourth of the hot Baisakh sun and the rest of the bakul tree’s shade on his head, he glued himself to his seat in front of Sultan, beside Sitanshu.
“Shobhakar from Icchabat was our friend. His elder brother, Prabhakar drank poison, while he licked an apple. He was found lying dead in a dike between two fields. His hands clasped a half-eaten apple, the bottle of poison lay near his feet. He had fifty-two rupees in his pocket and a piece of crushed, folded paper.”
“What was written on it?”
“I am dying without a reason, no one is to blame. Note the construction of the language, Sir. He must have made some connection before his death, otherwise why would I remember what was written in that note, after so many days? Ananda had also died similarly, without a specific reason, just because he felt like it. He was our age. He told us on the day of the Kali puja: My name is Ananda; I will be extremely happy today. After that he burnt crackers, was boisterous in his merry-making, and at dawn he hanged himself from the banyan tree in front of his home.”
“Why did such incidents occur? Do you know?”
“No, nobody knows. But it seemed contagious. There was Murari Chakraborty. He consumed the seeds of the yellow oleander flower at the age of twenty-two. Things started becoming public after that. It seemed like people were hungry for accidents, for morbidity. Journalists arrived in hoards. India Today had come. A team from Science College had also arrived. They took samples of the soil and water. But no one could detect anything extraordinary.”
“It’s all cured now. This is connection as well, Sir. You know, Icchabat has changed completely. Didn’t you see the wide roads? Young lads from the village work in other states now. Mobile phones, dish antennas and television are common objects. There are even instances of inter-caste marriages. Boys and girls are studying in college together. Everyone is connected, Sir. Why would they want to leave? However, there are still, one or two people who haven’t been able to connect. They consume poison, inexplicably, even at this date. If I were to give you a number, one or two cases a year. Last year, around November-December in the month of Agrahayan or perhaps in October-November, in Kartik, Charan’s wife died. The year before that another died, in this month of Agrahayan. Connection is indispensable for survival. Isn’t that correct, Sir?”
After a fierce thunderstorm and rain, the moon finally appeared in the sky. Sitanshu Pal’s courtyard was flooded with the light of the moon. The light touched the courtyard, the bales of paddy in the fields, the front branches of the bakul tree. Light and moist air entered through the window in the room of the old woman, Sitanshu’s mother. When she got up to close the window, her eyes fell on Sultan. It was standing with his head upright, towards the light, shaking his mane, the moonlight seemed to slide off its body. A person loosened its hold and climbed on to its back. Sitanshu’s mother opened the door to the house and peeked outside. She stood mesmerized by the beauty of the light-filled courtyard and the bakul tree. Suddenly, Sultan brought out its two hidden wings, spread them, shook them, and then flew off. Sitanshu’s mother enfolded the resplendent paksiraj, the king of birds, bathed in the moon rays, in her eyes. She watched the paksiraj carry the person towards Icchabat.
Sitanshu’s mother shut the door. She tucked her sleeping grandchildren in. Then she whispered to them, “Do you want to listen to a story? The story of a paksiraj. It’s a true story. I saw it with my own eyes. Shall I start?”
Loo: a strong, dry often dusty summer wind which blows over the Indo-Gangetic Plains
Poyla Baisakh: the first day of Baisakh celebrated as an auspicious day, the beginning of the financial year for Bengali businesspeople
Bijaya: the last day of the autumnal festival, Durga Puja, Bijaya Dashami marks the tenth day of the puja, a convivial day for family gatherings
Kali Puja: celebrated along with Diwali, a Bengali festival in veneration of the Goddess Kali
Benarasi: silk sarees with heavy and opulent brocade embroidery that are made in Varanasi
paan: betel leaf
Didi: elder sister
kans: a perennial grass native to Indian plains
Kalbaisakhi: thunderstorms in Baisakh
Piyushkanti Nandi, “The Village Where People Die Suddenly,” Ananda Bajar Patrika, 30th May 1993.
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: