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SLEEPY HOLLOW— Sarbani Bandyopadhyay

May 6, 2023 | Fiction | 0 comments

TRANSLATED FROM THE BENGALI BY DR. MALINI MUKHERJEE

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Morning paper in hand, as I am about to sip my tea, Bulan arrives panting. I can see him through the gaps in between the grills. It seems he has come with some news. As I open the door, Bulan gives me the milk packet and is about to ride his cycle. He acts quite busy.

“Hey Bulan, why are you in such a hurry?” 

“Don’t you know anything?”

“What?” 

“There’s a body right at the Binodtola Crossing at the end of this locality…”

“A body?”

“Yes, it’s been there since last night…”

“Will you be clear about what exactly has happened?”

“Oh, a murder! Including this one, there’s been two murders in the mill area.”

“What’s the reason?”

“Who knows? One was found in the early morning near the ghat and another at the Binodtola Crossing. Two corpses. I’ll not wait anymore. Have to deliver the milk packets and go home as soon as possible. A curfew might be announced.”

Bulan leaves. The door remains open. I feel sick. Paula isn’t awake yet. Buchai is still in bed. Baba is in the prayer room. Ma is probably in the bathroom.

Standing at the door, I gaze outside. It’s about 7.30 in the morning, a holiday. A glorious sunlight is bathing all around. At the crossing of the road, red flowers of the Krishnachura are almost covering the sky. A heap of garbage is lying in front of the dustbin on the sun soaked bend of the road. A cat skitters away from the legs of two cows. Side by side, houses are standing in a row, with shrubs and foliage peeping in between. All doors are closed. It is only me, standing at one. In such a situation, Bulan’s information seems unbelievable. Apparently everything seems as usual, but then – two bodies? The term ‘body’ is so disturbing. Somehow it doesn’t give a clear picture.

Silently I change into trousers and come up on the street in my old cycle. Binodtola Crossing is quite close at hand. Let’s have a look. Haruda owns a tea shop there. Oju babu, a teacher of my school has possibly come to have his morning tea. 

Looking up from behind the glasses, he asks, “Apu, is that you?” “Yes sir.” 

“What the hell is happening here ?” “Why have you come out in such a troubled atmosphere?”

“I’m but an old man, who will bother me? Thought of visiting the spot once. There was quite a crowd here in the early morning. I could watch from my window. It all has started once again, like it used to happen in 1948. At that time, we were children. After that, it recurred in 1958, and then again in 1974.”

“Why are you thinking in such a way ? The police will come and take matters into their hands. Everything will be fine.”

“No no, these are not good symptoms at all. Elections have become so frequent. The pillars of democracy are becoming fragile. Nothing good is going to happen in this country.” 

Suddenly he becomes restless. “Go, go. Go home. The body was removed a little earlier.”

“Do you know the victim? Is he a Hindu ? Or…”

“It’s only a corpse, Apu. I don’t know anything else. Last night, close to the hours of early morning, I heard the sound of bombs. Your aunt was awake. I could guess that it was somewhere nearby….. came to know about the whole incident in the morning.”

The terrace in front of Haruda’s shop has been washed. Possibly the body was there….. I turn round my cycle. The streets are desolate. It’s better to go home.

The house has woken up. Paula gets startled, seeing me. She has been brushing. Her mouth rinsed, she follows me, towel in hand. I look around for the newspaper. It would be wiser not to break the terrible news to her right in the morning. Paula is smiling.

“Hey, where have you been so early in the morning?”

“I went to have my cup of morning tea.”

“Don’t give me a bluff. Rather say that you won’t tell me.”

Paula watches me through the specs of her sharp sixth sense. She is wearing a dark blue housecoat over a white maxi, locks of disheveled hair falling on her face. Why can’t I appreciate her in spite of this? A bitter taste in the mouth so early in the morning, I can hear the sound of Buchai’s sandals.

“Daddy, where did you go?”

“Nowhere darling.”

“But I was looking for you.”

I hug him to regale myself. As I open the window, a swallow appears on the street. 

“Dad, dad, there’s one for sorrow.”

“Buchai, go and have biscuits. I hope you remember you have drawing class today.”

I go to the garden. The trees stand detached, indifferent. The jasmine tree stands a little slanted. I support it with a stick. Scrubbing utensils on the porch, Meera is chatting with Ma, with meaningful hand gestures. I get that she is informing her. Meera is not a Bengali. She stays in the mill area.

“There was rice and vegetables in the bag. Leaving all, he just ran away”.

“Did you see?”

“Yes madam. He was buying fish. They cut off both his hands.”

“What are you saying ?” Ma is horrified.

“Ma! Ma!”  I shout, making a gesture at Meera to stop. Ma will be in terror through the rest of the day. 

My youngest maternal uncle, Ma’s youngest brother, absconded during the Naxalite movement. Ma still awaits his return.

Narayan , Narayan ! Apu, what’s going on ? Will there be a riot ?”

*

It’s quite secluded and shadowy beneath the terrace of Laltu’s house. Bhulu is lying there, deep in sleep. A feast was held in the house till late at night. Bhulu was the last one to have dinner, and went off to sleep for hours. Sleeping so deeply, he had not heard the hens crow in Goshta’s poultry.  At daybreak, rays of the sun fell on him, still failing to awaken him. With his stomach full, he was immersed in such a deep sleep that it was difficult to awaken him, at all.

Pinki had rubbed her tail a while ago. She even tickled his ears twice. Still, Bhulu was in sleep. He woke up only when Haru’s aunt roused him up. It’s impossible for anyone else to wake him, unless Haru’s aunt shouts at her house, waking up the whole area with her resounding voice.

Bhulu is a dog, while Pinki, his girlfriend is a cat. Both live in the same area. Close to the mill, quite a variety of people live here. 

And, there’s Bhulu and Pinki too, in love with each other. 

Seeing the extent of their camaraderie, the foreign-breed pet of Nimu’s family sticks out his neck from the grills and says, “Bhulu, being a dog, aren’t you ashamed to befriend a cat ?” 

Before Bhulu can reply, Polly, Nimu’s elder sister shouts, “Born an Alsatian, how can you be so eager to befriend a pariah mongrel? I’ll shoo you out for sure.” 

While severely being chastised, the poor dog is savagely pulled away by chain into the house. 

Bhulu has no leash on his neck though. He roams around everywhere. Unlike Pinki, he never enters houses or roams in other areas. He is happy to roam around his own territory. There are several other dogs in this area like Kalu, Lalu et al. Some of them are even nameless. This pack doesn’t mix much with Bhulu, though he doesn’t care. Bhulu doesn’t let go of Pinki in fear of them. Who else, but Pinki welcomed Bhulu as a newcomer in this area? Attacking him with scratches and bites, Kalu, Lalu and their pack gave him a hell of a trouble. Seeing his distress, Pinki brought him food, licked his wounds, healed the sores. Could he ever forget her so easily?

In the morning Bhulu went to the fish market with Pinki. She loves the sweet, fishy smell there. There’s a meat shop too at the back. Bits and pieces of meat and fat lie on the floor. As usual, Pinki was loitering around fishes, while Bhulu was in front of the meat shop. A black dog (they don’t know his name) lives there. Seeing him, the dog growled, his tail hidden under his tummy. Bhulu didn’t bother. Suddenly he saw Pinki, running towards him.

“What happened?”

She was panting. “A man was buying fish. Another man cut off both his hands with a chopper.”

“Where’s that man?”

“Running away, followed by the attacker.”

“What about the others ? No one came to his rescue?”

“None. All cowards. Running away with their baskets and crates.”

Perhaps the owner of the meat shop got the news too. He was about to close the shop. The black dog too was stunned at the news. Going in front of the fish shop along with Pinki, Bhulu could see utter desolation. There was absolutely no one in the street. Only drops of blood were there. It was not fish blood. Where has the man gone?

*

Yesterday there were four murders altogether. 

How can I go to the office? The streets are all silent. Among the victims, three were Bengali and one Bihari. The RAF has arrived. A large area has come under the curfew. Each person has to move with hands up.

We laughed a lot about this on the train. A curfew has been announced in Robi’s area. Robi and some of his friends were chatting on the streets; seeing the police, they ran away.

Robi was saying, “The buggers threw away all the cycles into the pond.”

“How could you get those out ?”

“We pulled them up later. All of them were in a mess. You know, they had white masks on their face and white bandana around their heads.”

“Like robbers?”

“Absolutely. Just like the dacoits of Chambal. All were muscled and hefty.”

“Did you actually see those ‘dacoits of Chambal’?”

“Are you crazy? Would I be standing here then ? However, it would be wrong to say that I haven’t seen them at all. I’ve seen them in Hindi movies – rushing in on horseback, stopping the train, kidnapping the heroine and disappearing from the scene.”

“But all these men belong to the RAF. They have been called in now. By the by, Titanic has released in Globe, have you got tickets?”

“No. There’s a huge crowd. The movie has got 11 Oscars. I saw it in the paper.”

Drops of sweat were trickling down my neck. Paula too wants to watch the movie. How will I get the tickets? Sitting beside me, Anjan was getting restless.

“Do you want to say anything?”

“What will happen now ? Our house is just adjacent to the mill area. Yesterday there were four murders. Will there be a riot again?”

“Is the ferry service operating ?”

“No. It’s closed for quite a while. Even the Muslim workers of the mill are not coming.”

“Are the victims all Hindu ?”

“I don’t know for sure.”

What can I say to Anjan ? I myself can’t digest the whole incident properly. During the earlier riot, I was much younger. We didn’t go. Bhupenda, Kartikda from our area ran to the spots.

So many incidents happen on a train! 

Suddenly, Robi was shouting in front of the door, “ Up to the usual tricks, eh? I’ll throw you down by the scruff of your neck. Can’t you get into the vendor’s compartment? You could’ve died just now.”

A thin lady was pulling her husband away. “Please stop arguing. Whatever has happened, it’s over now.”

A gentleman got into the train with luggage. There was a sackful of vegetables kept in front. He overlooked and could have fumbled and fallen down under the wheels, unless Robi caught him just at the nick of the moment.

“Whose sack is this?” Robi was shouting. Nobody answered. “Whose sack?” The train was entering Howrah. Anjan and I stand up. Has Robi gone crazy? He’s still going on shouting, “Whose sack is this? Whose?”

*

Recently a group of people have arrived in Dey para. They wear white masks, tied up to their head. Carrying weapons, these weird people chasing away those who they see running away in a group. The ferry service on the riverside is closed too. It’s also a marketplace where fishes are sold in the evening. Bhulu goes to the nearby fish market with Pinki. For several days, the place is deserted. In Lalu’s area too, there was a body, lying in front of the tea shop. The man was dead – Bhulu could realise that quite correctly.  

Long back, Bhulu saw a dead cat in the area. It was lying there, near the dustbin — silent, without movements, its tail spread on the ground. Returning there after a while, Bhulu couldn’t see the cat anymore. Here too, the man is lying in a similar manner. People are coming, stopping by, going away. No one knows him. The Banyan tree beside the shop is full of silence. The shop is closed. Bhulu leaves.

Why are these people dying all of a sudden? Who knows, why they are lying on the streets. Pinki was telling him that four people died yesterday. There was a ceremony and a feast at Nimu’s house last night. The lights were shining bright, music played all throughout the night. They threw away a large amount of food on the road. It was quality food, though Bhulu eats the rotten too. Pinki is more choosy though. Perhaps many invitees hadn’t come due to troubles in the area. The children of the mill area too, hadn’t come to ask for food.

People have returned to normalcy now, though quite a sensation was set up among the dogs. Bhulu met many of them last night when he went out for food. All of them were telling each other to be alert. Earlier, men would kill dogs, but suddenly, they have started killing each other. The whole matter is confusing. One has to remain on alert. These days are not at all safe.

Pinki had more information, as she was in a habit of visiting several houses in the area. She said that there is nothing to fear. Even all the humans are not worrying about such incidents. Mr. Majumder, owner of the ration shop was telling his wife not to worry. Nothing will happen here. A more dense crowd of people live near the mill. Many outsiders are there, doing a variety of illegal business. It serves them right if some of them die.

Mrs. Majumder said, “Don’t keep the ration shop open till late hours at night. Close it at 9.30. I am sick with worries. It won’t take much time for the storm of trouble to spread here too.”

I ask Pinki, “ Aren’t you scared?” 

“Absolutely not” — she says, “we are not humans after all. The only thing that troubles me is that the fish markets are not open.”

Of course Pinki would say just this. She only roams around the fish markets.

*

No one bothers at all. To me, this is very weird. 

This morning Ma was asking, “Apu, has the riot abetted?” 

She is really scared. 

“There’s been no riot Ma. Only some people have died.”

“Isn’t this a riot ? Four people, murdered within a few days without any reason.”

I have bought tickets for Titanic. Paula and I‘ll go tomorrow. Today is a Saturday. 

We’ll go to Globe in the evening show from Paula’s elder sister’s house. The movie is excellent.

I was about to chew on paan after lunch, when I saw Bubla coming.

“Apuda, there’s another murder.”

“When?”

“ Today, at dawn.”

“Could you recognise who it is?” 

“Son of the cobbler who sits at the crossroads with shoes. He was a mason, returning home at night. It happened at about 4 am. He had been working through the whole night.”

“Who killed him ?”

“ That’s difficult to guess.”

“This can’t be dismissed so easily. You all should do something.”

“The boys of Milan Sangha have said that this case belongs to Dey para, near the mill. It’s a different area.”

“How can they say this ? The Milan Sangha crossing is just a stone’s throw, at the bending of the road. Who will ensure that there will be no trouble in this area ?”

“We’ll see to it when that happens. Now give your subscription.”

“What subscription?” I ask, irritated.

“Coming Sunday we, the boys of Nabin Sangha will make a trip to Belur by launch. Only the boys. Families are not allowed. There’ll be drinks, dance and fun.”

“I won’t go.”

“That doesn’t matter. As a club member, you have to subscribe.”

Bubla went away. I had to take the subscription bill to save my face. Returning home, I ask Paula to get ready. The weather is very hot and sultry. Still, it’s Titanic. We have to go to Kolkata.

*

Pinki brought a strange news. Some people had broken into a house at Pal para and murdered a lady. I scolded her a lot. “Don’t you feel a bit ashamed to roam around that far ?” Pinki was silent. Smirking, she said, “What shall I do ? Cooking has stopped in most of the houses in the mill area. Fish has become rare. I’ve developed a habit of eating a savoury meal at lunch. That’s why, I went to peep into Pal para while roaming around from one high wall to another.”

“Did you go to that house ?” 

“At first I didn’t. A strong smell of fish in one of the kitchens made me look into and I saw that keeping the pieces of fish on a plate with all seasoning, the mistress of the house had probably gone to get the dry clothes from the roof.”

“Surely you finished the whole lot ?”

“Of course not. You know too well that I am not that greedy. I just ate one or two; climbing up to the roof I saw that the mistress was chatting with her neighbour. They were talking about the murder. Seeing me, she ran down and started screaming. By then, I disappeared from the scene.

“Don’t talk rubbish. Did you go to the house of the murder ?”

“No. I just peeped from the high wall of the house adjacent to it and saw the plump housewife lying sideways on the bed. No one would think that she was dead. People are saying that surely there are some deeper issues involved in this. You understand all these much better.  Do you think these recent murders have any relation with the people we know ?”

“Of course. These are all done by some goons. This murder has also been done by such people.”

“Then why don’t people ask anything to these rogues ?”

Pinki is rubbing under her nose with a paw. Montu hurt her there with a stone. The wound is still raw.

“That’s exactly what I am thinking too. Why have all the people become so silent ?”

 *

Murders have temporarily stopped in the mill area. There are curfews, and it’s peaceful as the RAF are there for the time being. But such is not the case in other areas. The murder of the lady at Pal para is terrible. It has spread panic everywhere. In the evening, all the areas in the neighbourhood turn utterly desolate. The movie houses are closed for an indefinite period. Streets are empty. As I return home, Ma comes running, “Apu, are you here? Apu? Don’t come so late dear, I feel so stressed.” Ma’s old disease has cropped up again. She is getting anxious with or without reason.

On Sunday, I go out. The clubs have done nothing whatsoever. Let’s the if the Parties do anything about this.

At the Tentultola crossing, a meeting is being held by one party and by another at the Bot tola crossing.

“All of you, come forward. We’ll have to unite to fight against these atrocities. We have to unmask the antisocials. Join our procession, all of you.”

Two more meetings are going on at the mill crossing near the ditch. The processions rounded all the areas, except the curfewed one. Very few people were there. On a holiday, everyone is busy with some personal work. Who wants to join such meetings ? The lines of people would have been much longer if all the separate processions joined together. Such a thought seems ridiculous. Does that ever happen?

The meetings and processions do not yield anything at all. In the evening, Abonish Halder is gunned down near the lamppost at the Karali para crossing. Luckily, he has made a hair breadth escape. The first shot hit him in the leg. They made a second shot too. It has killed an innocent street dog. The aggression of the other mongrels made the killer escape. Abonish Halder has been hospitalised. At present he is out of danger. A trade union leader, he is all in all of the Purbachal club and has many followers. This matter will go further.

Kalu is nomore. The strong leader of the Dey para dogs has been laid down forever. None of the dogs are able to accept the fact. Kalu was lying near the light post as usual. He saw the cycle too, coming up from a distance in the dark. Still he was lying silently. On a sudden, he could smell another man near the crossing. It was a scary smell. It made him jump to avoid the crossing. Just then, the first shot went towards the cycle. It made the target fall down along with his cycle. The second shot followed, which hit Kalu as he was running away.

Bhulu gets to know all these from Pinki, who hasn’t yet spoken out to anyone else. She is cowering in fear now, sticking to Bhulu all the time. She has stopped roaming around. 

“Come, let’s go away somewhere else “— she nags, continuously.

“Where were you at that moment?”

“Near the dustbin at the crossroads.”

“What were you doing there at this hour?”

“The maid from the big house at the front comes in that hour to dump the kitchen garbage in the dustbin. Kalu was sitting there too, for the same reason. I would have gone there after he left. They throw away so many good items. Kalu doesn’t eat all of that.”

Bhulu was getting scared, thinking of Pinki. All the dogs were present at the spot. The wounded target had been lifted by car. Kalu was lying there in silence. Then, he too was lifted up by other men. 

All the dogs were smelling the spot. They could smell the murderer. Pinki can’t comprehend such things. She says, “ What will you all do, if you find out the smelly man?”

“We’ll tear his throat apart. No one can forgive Kalu’s killer.”

 *

All the dogs have suddenly become ferocious. Murders have stopped; so also the tension in the area. Still, there’s no peace. There was a great uproar after Abonish Halder was shot, leading to meetings and processions. It made news. The government also took measures. The area is now lit up with bright street lights. But in spite of the comparative slackening of the police guard, there’s no peace. The mongrels have turned desperate.

After dark, no one can wander around the neighbourhood areas. Even if one rides a cycle, the dogs chase him, barking in aggression. Morning makes everything as usual though. Nobody knows what happens to them at night. The fear of dog bite and injections prohibit people from wandering onto the neighbourhood.

I went to Nimu’s house the other day. The moment I entered, the chained Alsatian  started jumping. Nimu said, “Even this one of foreign pedigree is behaving like crazy as the mongrels at night.” 

It has become impossible to enter anyone’s house. 

In the meeting of Nabin Sangha, the agenda was whether poisoning the local street dogs would yield any effect. Almost all the members disagreed. This seemed quite unnecessary to them. It might be the case that the unnatural atmosphere has made them wild. Things might return to normalcy later. It’s better to wait and watch.

 *

Humans are really silly. They are quite unworried and always want to remain so. Once again, the smell is floating in the air. A smell of fear. This very smell was hanging in the air after Kalu’s death and now it has bounced back, floating in the air near Haru’s tea shop, near the fish market, even at the Dey para crossing.   

Pinki has seen an assemblage of a good many people. They are not having an innocent conversation. Once again, they are being prepared to kill. They will kill others.

“We never kill each other,” Pinki was saying, “Why do they….? Kill each other?”

Bhulu could give no reply. No one truly knows why these people behave in the way they do. Kalu’s death has united all the street dogs. Even Nimu’s family pet was saying, “Don’t worry. I’m with you all. Will pass to you whatever information I get.”

Awake in the early morning, Bhulu was roaming around with Pinki. After passing a sleepless night, the early morning breeze had lulled him to sleep. Brushing her tail lightly on his face, Pinki woke him up.

Moving ahead, as they left Dey para, they could sense the intense smell of fear, getting louder. The Krishnachura trees were frantically shaking heads. Perhaps they too had sensed the fear. Stunned, the roses were peeping through the fence around Nimu’s house. The lamp posts were still lit up, the moon disappeared at the onset of dawn. However, the dispelling darkness was unable to dispel the smell on earth. Sniffing it, Bhulu came to the riverbank. 

The smell is getting more intense. Pinki and I are the only ones present at the riverside. Pinki is getting scared, trying to prevent me from going ahead. Still I advance. A man is lying near the river, face down. He is in sleep, motionless, like death. Sleeping forever. I bark aloud. All of our group are rushing in. The smell of fear has brought them all. On the way, they are informing others too. The group is growing in number. Pinki is standing on one side in silence.

Not a single human has the news. Nobody has arrived. They are all asleep. I know that they will not wake up at this hour.


Also, read a Hindi fiction, written by Maitreyi Pushpa , translated by Rituparna Mukherjee, and published in The Antonym:


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Sarbani Bandyopadhyay

Sarbani Bandyopadhyay

Sarvani Bandyopadhyay, a permanent resident of the traditional city of Chandannagar, is an economics graduate from Burdwan University. She was an economics teacher in a higher secondary school in Chandannagar. In 1996, her first story was published in ‘Dibaratri Kavya’ newspaper. In 2001, at first, a poem and then a story was published in ‘Desh’ newspaper. In almost all the sections of Anandbazar Patrika, namely- ‘Vartman’, ‘Ajkal’, ‘Pratidin’, ‘Tathyakendra’, ‘North Bengal News’, her literary works are frequently published. She continues to publish poems, stories, novels, essays for adults and children in various magazines like ‘Anushtup’, ‘Kuthar’, and ‘Mushayara’. Also, a series of novels is currently being published in an online magazine. Nine of her novels, four story books, and two books of poetry are published till date.

Dr. Malini Mukherjee

Dr. Malini Mukherjee

Dr. Malini Mukherjee is an Associate Professor in the Department of English, Shri Shikshayatan College, Kolkata since 1999 till date. She did her Graduation, Masters, M.Phil and Ph.D. in English Literature from Jadavpur University. A passionate translator, she has done translation works for Sahitya Akademi. Her other interests are music, classical dance and books.

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