TRANSLATED FROM THE BENGALI BY RITUPARNA MUKHERJEE
Jessore Road was sweltering at midday- as though a half-burnt python, its scaly skin emitting fumes. The busy traffic seemed to drown the pain of the burns, its howl, the writhing of its body. The midday sun was being refracted customarily. As a result, the burnt asphalt seemed wet to the city’s eyes. I was being able to connect with the old street. I stood waiting in the shade of a tree near the airport- it was reported that the spy’s body would arrive in the cargo. I had received a phone call last night- the Spy was no more; I must come to the airport. I didn’t know who had called or where had he called from, I didn’t try to find out either, because it was meant to be this way. The Spy would often remark in a way that spelt ‘let me live my own way’- if you put your mind to these mundane affairs, your writing would lose its firmness. What is the point of knowing who does what or who lives where? Focus on your writing. Entirely. Create your own city, your own river.
I didn’t have a river, nor did I have a city. However, it was imperative for a writer to have her own river and city. He had told me these things. The Spy. He didn’t like the word ‘detective’ to describe himself, considered it heavy and vain, as if an exaggeration. He used to say- “The word ‘spy’ is so light- doesn’t even have a vowel- like a sparrow- it sits on one branch at one moment, on the cornice or a television antenna the next. You don’t really notice but nothing escapes the sparrow’s eyes- your home, your day-to-day routine. See, you need to learn to recognize which word is heavy, which is light, which is fragrant, which is illuminating and which is dark. Just as spies can easily deduce who is a friend and who an enemy. Haven’t you watched James Bond?”
The sun had skimmed the tall buildings all around and was in a straight line in the sky. I was thinking what to do with the Spy’s body- it wasn’t as if I was in a rush of tears. The incident was expected because it is common knowledge that spies die suddenly one day in a distant shore. Even after claiming ‘no time to die’ James Bond had passed away in the Sea of Japan or thereabouts. Actually, I had wanted to look at the Spy’s dead body; perhaps to confirm the identity of the Spy in the manner of his death. I glanced at my watch. A bird flew by very close to me, its wings cutting air with a flapping sound. The flight would take some time to land.
I used to stare at planes from the terrace of my house; its arrival or departure could be deduced from its body language. If I would spot a plane with its nose to the ground, its wings slanted slightly, that would mean it was about to land. If I found it with its nose to the sky it meant that the plane had just taken off. I used to learn directions in my old campus. On holidays I would keep a track of the comings and goings of the airplanes. A pattern would emerge- twenty planes would travel to the north in the morning, possibly fifteen would return from the north at dusk, a mere ten from the west and so on. When darkness would fall, I would deduce the numbers from the sound. It would be difficult to gauge the direction of the planes amidst the medley of sounds- the sound of the television, the whistle of the pressure cooker, the barking dogs, the rickshaw horns. I would construct a somewhat incomplete map that would change every day. The numbers that would not fall in place would sharply come to life- different colours, discrete shapes- as if they were the pieces of a board game- waiting for the rules of the game to take shape. I would feel as if I would have to construct the rules myself- but I would have to learn the map before that. The map or a story- the Spy had told me.
The sky was brimming with clouds that day; torrential rains had been forecasted. I was in the midst of my calculations when the sound of a plane drew me to the window. The Spy was standing downstairs- he was just another man for me at that point. He had said, “I have come from Baluchistan.” Then he laughed and said, “Joking, just joking. Don’t call the police please. I am your father’s student. Can I come inside?”
The students of my mother and father would visit our place often- some new, some old. I said, “Please come in. What name should I tell my father?” he said- “Khokon, tell him Khokon has come to see him.” My father lifted his face from his papers and looked at me with a perplexed face, “Khokon? I can’t recall anyone of that name. Have you asked him to sit? I’m coming.” The Spy had touched my father’s feet, told him the year he had passed out, naming the gold medalists of his batch.
-What is your good name?
-Oh I wasn’t remarkable Sir, perhaps that is why…
My father looked troubled, he said, “Of course you are my student. Sit. Have some tea. What do you do at present?”
– I am employed at a private organization in IT.
My father had a phone call at that moment. Spy in the meantime engaged me in a conversation, sipping his tea- “What are you doing? Mathematics, is it? Do you want to be like your father? Or like your mother?”
I felt attached to the man somehow. I showed him my calculations of the plane traffic eagerly just as children of a particular age show absolute strangers their drawing copies, toys; stand next to them and take in the scent of their bodies or study their clothes, the shape of their ankles. Spy looked at my notebook for some time, and then at me, at my eyes- as if he were a doctor studying at his patient. A rickshaw had passed by the street at this moment, its honk ringing clear. Spy said, “What did it say?”
-Yack, yack, yack, yack
-Leave the path oh traveller, yack, yack, yack, yack.
-What? Now when did he say these things? He has said, you haven’t been able to hear-
I was somewhat scared- “You have been able to hear but I haven’t? Am I sick?”
– You have to want to listen- with your fullest concentration- half of your mind is in this notebook of yours, a quarter of it holds my name, while the rest is thinking, once this man leaves, I’ll ask father- Father is he really your student? Really? Am I correct?
I had learnt the word omniscient in school by that time. The letters of that word roamed my mind like termites. I said- “I want to listen.”
-How did you know?
Seeing I was quiet, he said- “From your calculations of the airplanes.”
My father returned meanwhile.
When Spy was leaving, I said loudly and customarily, “Please visit us again.” He said- “I will.”
He returned the very next day, in the afternoon. He said, “I have left my umbrella here.” When he didn’t get it, he said, “Perhaps I left it in the bus.” His use of the word ‘perhaps’ endeared me to him somewhat. My father didn’t have to direct me this time, I gave him water and some sweets, increased the speed of the fan by two points. He scratched his head and said- “You aren’t writing?”
– “What do I write?”
-“The story of an airplane?”
I managed to write a story about the airplane about fifteen years after that incident- it was my tenth story published in a magazine; I heard a word or two of praise from here and there. I received a phone call that night in our landline. When I received the call, I heard a disturbance in the connection, the sound of squalling winds, two thunderclaps.
– You took this long to write the story?
-Who is this?
The word took me back to that afternoon, my father, a man called Khokon who nobody was being able to place.
– Are you Mister Khokon?
I could make out the slightest laugh amidst the noise of the thunder- “My real name is not Khokon, you know. You should never bother yourself with mundane things like names. Just keep writing.”
-Do you want to speak to father?
– No, no, I just wanted to talk to you.
– Where are you calling from? Is there a thunderstorm there?
– Ah! you have learnt to listen. What would knowing names of places achieve? It’s just a place with some tempestuous weather, from where you have received a call- any other information is extraneous.
– “Weren’t you in IT? Are you offshore?”- I wanted to show I was smart.
– I am sometimes IT, sometimes unemployed, sometimes police, sometimes a thief.
Was the man drunk? Or was he merely joking?
-What do you mean?
-You are like that as well. Sometimes planes, sometimes cats, or tigers, at other times an actor or an actress.
-Yes, but that’s a part of the story…
He laughed mid sentence- “I am a spy. If you want to write, you will have to become that.”
He cut the call. Perhaps he worked in the RAW. I didn’t think any further on this.
I was awarded a prize, given to promising new writers, somewhat prestigious. I had a call again that night on my mobile phone. The line was clear this time. I discerned the sound of the shunting of a goods train.
-Where did you get my number?
I couldn’t guess anything specific- perhaps he had got it from my publisher somehow. I remained quiet.
After thanking him I couldn’t help but think that he kept abreast of every little development. Was he watching me?
– Are you happy with the prize?
– Yes, a little.
-You are writing quite well, but do you know what is the major lack in your stories?
-Your stories don’t have space for love-
-No, it’s there…well, in some ways…
-It’s very conjured. Flat. Merely exists in words. It doesn’t travel outside the pages of the book, doesn’t walk the streets- isn’t alive. Don’t you love someone? Haven’t you ever been in love? Haven’t you ever broken up with someone?
I was quiet. I found no reason to discuss my personal affairs with a stranger in the middle of the night. I was thinking whether to disconnect the call-
-Your stories have kissing, love making, striking descriptions of intimate feelings, but I doubt the reader feels anything-
He was beginning to irritate me.
-Do my remarks offend you? But this is a fact. One can’t make out the sound of the kissing, the taste on the tongue, the intensity of the pleasure, the warmth, the sweat- lifeless! You haven’t been able to capture the moments in their fullness. Haven’t you ever told someone you love him?
It sounded like a statement- as if someone was impaling my ribcage with a blunt hammer.
-Would you want to love me?
The words reached my ears amidst the sound of the shunting- “I love you.”
The Spy disconnected the call, or the connection was lost somehow.
I did not write for a few months. I read all the stories I had written instead. The descriptions of romance really did seem construed. I kept asking my friends for their opinion- they said that this was perhaps my weirdness on getting a prize for writing. I began dissecting and editing my old stories.
I had once this idea of calling back the number from which the Spy had called me; I called the number, a little hesitantly, a little afraid- why had he said he loved me? Was he really drunk? Or was he just trying to provoke me?
I avoided the issue of love and wrote two stories- somewhat surreal. I heard that a renowned author had praised it highly. That night I got the call from a different number. A cat was meowing constantly.
-Are you avoiding?
-Are you afraid of love?
I was quiet.
-I love you. Love you, love you, love you.
Initially I heard the cat’s mewing, then the words fell one after another- getting cut- then suddenly warbled- a shapeless lump at first, then a face, then the smell of a tiger. My body was shivering. I drank some water.
-Are you drinking water? Are there water droplets on your lips? Don’t wipe them away. I want to kiss them.
I heard the sound of a long kiss through the phone.
-I am kissing your throat from which the water glides down to the rest of your body like a river- down through your chest, your stomach- let me touch those with my lips.
It seemed as if someone had pierced my shell with his fingers- it was bleeding but it was very relaxing at the same time- and I wanted more and more of it. My body was in the throes of a passion, I let out a sound caught unaware- it was gentle like the sound of an infant bird hatching out of its shell, but at the same time intense and disturbing like the sound of a spoon being scratched on a steel plate, which became dense like the cries of the wounded-
-Would you be able to write these sounds?
He disconnected the call.
A novel of mine was published. I knew I would receive a call. Today, in the background, it was the calls of the birds, the usual morning sounds, somewhere dawn was breaking.
-You have written a lot on life- love and its separation, write about death now, if you don’t start writing from now, you won’t be able to grasp it completely-
-I have written about death, in fact, death appears in many forms in this novel I have just published.
-You have written. But have you tried to listen for death’s footsteps? Have you tried to look at it? Listened to it? Where is the yearning for life?
-I am trying.
-Will I live long enough to see that in writing?
-Why are you saying such things, Spy? What’s wrong?
-I am in a war zone. Anything might happen anytime…
-War zone? Where are you? Ukraine?
-So many battlefields inhabit this earth of ours. Do you get to read about all of them in the newspapers? One has to look for them oneself- high time now.
-I am hearing birdsong-
-Can’t birds sing in warzones? However, it is important to listen to what the bird sings about.
I was in tears- I immediately gulped my tears just like the water seeps out of the sand and said- “Why don’t you return Spy?”
-Where? In your writings?
I heard two birds call and then everything was quiet.
I was told in the phone call yesterday night that I would be summoned in front of the cargo as soon as the plane would land. I had expected the Spy’s friends and family members to be there, so that I would not have to handle the matter by myself. I could not believe that the Spy would arrive in a coffin, merely as a cargo- perhaps that is why I couldn’t summon my tears. I felt I had to see the coffin to realize the material feelings of sadness, grief, emptiness, tears.
There was a line of cars in front of the departure terminal. People were coming out of the cars, getting inside carrying their luggage, waving people goodbye.
My phone rang at that moment.
-Have you reached? Don’t stand near the cargo, come to gate number 4 of the arrivals.
-How will I recognize you?
-I will come find you.
People were coming out of the arrival gate pushing their trolleys. All had the same expression- exhaustion mingled with happiness. Someone tapped my shoulders- beard, moustache, a bead neckpiece, wearing saffron and sunglasses.
-I have been instructed to give you this box.
-What about the coffin?
-I don’t know anything else. Please hold the box. In both your hands.
I couldn’t comprehend any of it. What was there in the box? It was a box of about two feet in length, light at first, too heavy to be borne thereafter. I wondered if it had his ashes, and then pondered if the Spy had sent me his pistol. What was I to do? With whom could I share? Should I go to the police station?
The burnt snake-like streets of the city were now covered in increasing traffic. It was evening when I finally managed to return home in a taxi. I opened the box in the light of a lamp on my study table; it was a well-polished, reddish brown wood violin, its bow by its side, and a note- Yours. To resonate.
Also, read The Charm by Chandrakiran Saunriksa translated from the Hindi by Vignesh Hampapura, and published in the Antonym: