Translated from the Bengali by Shamita Das Dasgupta
The day the first truck packed with bricks trundled in to pave a path through the fields of Chokmadhura, the people of this remote village shivered, despite the scorching heat of Chaitra.[i] A few days later, when a cement truck waddled on to the abandoned government owned land in the north, with the intention of establishing a hospital, and stopped in relief, the villagers knew they were in trouble. That was only the beginning.
The person who should have expressed these sentiments, perhaps not in similar terms, is Monser Pramanik, an early resident of Chokmadhura. But then, he was not in a state to speak.
Straining to raise his head and shoulders from a prone position on the wide, concrete verandah, he was having problems. The muddied boot of a scrawny policeman rested on his belly and a fist clutching a long, knobby bamboo pole was bending toward him. A cluster of ten or twelve boisterous spectators was enjoying the scene – some displayed smiles reddened with betel juice and other faces were aflame with curiosity. A bit away, a strident voice, whose owner’s burqa flap flew like a flag over her head, unceasingly encouraged the policeman, “Hit him, brother. Beat him until his longing for death is sated!” This was Monser Pramanik’s wife, Jebunnahar.
There may be plenty of reasons for a spouse to cheer on a police officer to thrash her husband: he may have deserted his wife and children to philander; or has married again; or perhaps tortured his wife for more dowry; or… there’s no end to the possibilities. But the place was a hospital, not a police precinct, and the skinny thirty-year-old man whose boot was atop the gastral sac, was not a policeman at all. He was a hospital guard. The surrounding crowd constituted of patients and their kinsfolk. Entertainment is de rigueur, particularly when a shameless woman squawks powerfully, ‘Beat him, brother!’ Even amidst illness and grief, it provides a strong incentive to live. People who knew the basic issue, did not need further clarification to understand that she was the man’s wedded wife – that, precisely, was the source of the excitement.
As the situation became clear, individuals looked at each other and left. The man had been caught at attempting to kill himself by swallowing insecticide. Instead of dying, he was now distraught about how to respond to the duress imposed by the boot and the stick. The guard in the khaki uniform was apparently mistaken for a policeman. Unfortunately, he was unable to take his foot off the man’s mid-section due to the wife’s robust prompting. He held his boot lightly on the man’s striped lungi knotted at the waist, without much pressure. The wife had handed him the bamboo stick and was addressing him as ‘brother.’ When he learned that this guy had indulged in the drama of attempting suicide, at least once before, and caused his wife unnecessary worry, he decided to shake him by the collar to put some fear in him.
“Will you try this again?”
The guy couldn’t absorb the modest jiggle and fell flat on the wide verandah of the outdoor clinic. That’s when the woman’s wrath pushed him to put the booted left foot on the man’s tummy. Although he felt like a policeman then, he noticed a large drop rolling down the terrified man’s eyes – what was it – tears of pain?
Now, let’s go back to the beginning.
Several years ago, streets, hospitals, schools, and Madrasas were erected in Chokmadhura. When the efforts to also launch irrigation pumps in farms occurred, the villagers became highly nervous as they anticipated drastic changes in their lifestyles would be ushered in by this progress. Young Monser Pramanik recalled that his mother had exclaimed,
“What’ll happen to us! By forcing us to live well, they’ll take away our pleasure of dying!”
When Monser was a child, his father, Shamsher Pramanik, had swigged a bottle of poison because he couldn’t pay the installment of the micro-loan he had taken. The poison had worked. Shamsher had borrowed five thousand rupees to buy a cow. But that wasn’t possible. Where could one get a cow for five thousand? Shamsher Pramanik spent the money shopping and arranged for his daughter and son-in-law to visit from the next village, Tagamara. The couple stayed for two days. They had eaten well those couple of days.
After a month, the representatives of the NGO came to collect the first installment but went back without much hullabaloo and the payment. They returned the second time in another month. When they didn’t find Shamsher Pramanik again, they threatened Monser, his brother, and his mother, stood in the yard for some time, took a few rotations around the house, and left after yanking a half-ripened pomelo off the fruit-tree. Two days before they were due for the third time, Shamsher Pramanik swallowed the bottle. A tiny bottle, as tall as a man’s thumb and forefinger could stretch – about five or six inches, and as reddish black as a muddy catfish. Not a drop remained in the bottle. Monser’s mother remarked,
“He could’ve waited for two more installments.”
This was Monser’s father’s tale.
However, there were no complaints about his older brother, Moksed. His wife left him because she couldn’t get enough to eat. Moksed left the village, moved to the nearest town, and got a job at the lumber factory. Then his foot got stuck in a saw at the factory. The injury wasn’t much, and the owner of the factory took him for treatment to the hospital. Only, it didn’t work, and the leg rotted away. Nothing could be done but to chop the right leg off below the knee. His wife was gone and so was the leg. Moksed waited a while. What he waited for he only knew! He came home, limped about for a month or two, and then drank the bottle. The villagers didn’t mourn, nor did the family members. Monser’s mother said,
“Khuda[ii] grants people life. When life becomes intolerable, He shows the way.”
Whether these were her own words or if she had heard them from someone else, no one knew. Most likely they are not hers entirely.
So, in the marketplace of Chokmadhura or the tiny thatch-roofed grocery store in the village, one item was never missing. The bottle. Not all were of the same size. Some large, others about five-six inches – like the one that was found near Monser’s father, Shamsher’s head. For a lone person, the small sized bottle was enough. The people who bought large bottles, had something else in mind. Some ten years ago, close to Monser’s home, the large bottle was adequate for Lalu Fakir, his wife, and two sons.
When someone asked for it, the shopkeeper put the bottle in a paper bag. They were prominently displayed in the store, lined up like dolls on a wooden shelf.
One day, an eighteen- or twenty-year-old boy chit-chatted as he sat on a bench at Tapan Pal’s chaff shop as he eyed the shelves on the left side of the store. There, a dozen small and large bottles of reddish black tint were lolling against each other. Tapan Pal knew the boy, Moti, whose father was well-established in the village and owned some land. Moti had passed school and was going to college in Nator, or some such place. Tapan Pal recognized the direction of Moti’s glances. He was young of age, shy, didn’t know how to ask for it. One couldn’t just push a bottle on such a timid boy!
Tapan Pal was a little sad as he knew the boy, who was from a nice family, good-looking, had on fine clothes, but carried a bowlful of pain in his eyes. Who knew what hurt had driven him to look at the bottles on the flimsy wooden shelf! At last, when Moti said, “Uncle, give me a small one,” Tapan Pal wrapped a bottle in a paper bag and offered it to him. He paid for it and walked away without looking around.
Next day, it was revealed that Tapan Pal’s conjecture was a mistake – that is, the basketful of anguish he detected under Moti’s eyes, wasn’t a solid grief at all. Moti was in love with a young classmate in college. The girl had challenged him by querying if he was ready to sacrifice his life for true love. That’s all. The girl hadn’t commanded him to die. Moti could’ve verbally stated, ‘yes’ and gone on. To drink a bottle for such a paltry reason was a bit too much. Many in the village griped about it.
It was a small village and each year, nearly thirty to thirty-five such episodes occurred. All drinking the bottle. Being mindful of the trauma of hanging or drowning in a pond with a pitcher attached to one’s neck, people were inclined to avoid them. Hanging is quite problematic – one needs to make elaborate preparations for it. Regardless of gender, one needs a sari or a rope. And then to secure that sari or rope to a roof-joist or a tree branch, is a lot of work. A bottle is easier, and safer.
Some years ago, Monser Pramanik recollected bits and pieces of it, during the routine starvation of Kartik,[iii] Akalu and his wife decided to hang themselves. Later, people guffawed at their choice. Most likely, they didn’t have enough money to buy the bottle. Akalu’s wife fell when the beam collapsed. Akalu preferred the outdoor to the privacy of his home and a little distance away, found a lovely berry tree with long branches. He cautiously climbed on it, careful to evade the thorns. When he was a few feet up, he remembered that he had forgotten the rope. Also, he had left his tattered cloth towel at home, assuming it won’t do the job. What to do now! He took off his lungi, and naked as a jay bird, tried to fasten it tightly round his neck. The short lungi didn’t do the trick. He labored unsuccessfully for a while and then, slipped and fell, cracking his hip. He wasn’t that high up, but if luck’s out, nothing helps. If he had broken an arm or a leg, he could’ve reconciled – but he broke his hip. His wife kept moaning at home after the plunge from the wrecked beam. And he, with a fractured hip, couldn’t utter a single cry due to the embarrassment of his nakedness. After the fiasco, no one risked hanging anymore. Akalu and his wife got the bottle finally. Someone must have given it to them; otherwise, how could he move about with a shattered hip!
From time to time, police inspectors arrived to check – but that was as far as it went. They circled around the yard of an affluent resident, asked someone to get them green coconuts from a tree they spied, and if they didn’t find anything to eat, asked for a sour mango mashed with salt and chili peppers. They walked around the village and speculated that since people drank from the bottle so easily, it might be a matter of addiction. Individuals were inspired by others due to their obsession with the bottle. They stocked bottles at home to sidestep suffering in hard times. This was their way of solving problems.
It was a poverty-stricken area of a single harvest. Even if people ate sparingly, they couldn’t get sufficient food throughout the year, let alone during the predictable starvation of the month of Kartik. However, the police officers thought this might not be the only reason.
“These people are ailing from a disease – the disease of melancholia. All they need is an excuse.”
Monser Pramanik’s cousin Bilkis was pretty enough but couldn’t attract any marriage proposals. The willowy young girl slowly began to change. What misfortune, the day she consumed the bottle, a proposal arrived.
What were police inspectors to do in such situations! Not a murder, no serious illnesses, but individuals kept dying – up to four or five a month. People didn’t mourn, nor did they blame others. All they said was – he was in pain; was hurt; no one should have to endure such agony; he found his way. But some erred like Moti. You couldn’t really justify drinking the bottle because your father hadn’t bought you a mobile phone!
Things transformed when roads, hospitals, and schools began to pop up. In the past, people had to fold themselves in a rickshaw van[iv] or cow-driven cart for a body numbing day-long ride to the town. Now, the town officials drove in and out daily in their airy cars. They announced – ‘no shop shall sell bottles. If it’s found in a home, a beating will be doled out before the owner is locked up.’ What kind of talk was that? How would the people survive without the routine they have indulged in for so long! People didn’t partake of the bottle for pleasure! They used it only when necessary – how would these outsiders comprehend their needs? They poured the bottle down their throats to assuage the sting of living – just as one took medicine when sick. The officials said,
“Your hearts are dank. Turn the key and your hearts will flourish – you’ll forget about the bottle.”
The villagers couldn’t take hope at such talk. Okay, maybe they wouldn’t drink it; but not to find it in a shop when one wishes to purchase it, or not to stash one or two bottles at home – that’d be unbearable!
They heard that if they got jobs in the town or city, if they engaged in earning money, their mental disorder would vanish. They wouldn’t remember the bottle at all!
The notion was new. Monser Pramanik came to town. His body was strong and had no problem in doing heavy work. He joined a masons’ team as a helper. He worked day and night, lived with other helpers, and ate with them. After a whole day of toil, when he sat down to satisfy his ravenous appetite, he realized that never in his life had he such happy opportunities to eat. When he received his salary, he contemplated whether this was turning the key – was his mind waking up? Was this what the officials meant?
Still, something was missing. The lost part wasn’t close at hand, nor was it with others. This awareness of loss, feeling of absence, bothered him a lot. The city of Rajshahi – the place was huge with many people – such a variety of people! He observed them and pondered whether any of them thought about the bottle! He was surprised at his own musings – all these people were bent on life, but no one was conscious of the ache of living! The lame beggar whose leg had decayed with leprosy; the sorrowful mother who emerged from the hospital gripping her dead infant to the bosom and begged for funeral money – these were everyday happenings. But none considered taking the bottle. Besides, where would they find one?
How could one be so bereft! He inquired prudently and gathered that there was no bottle business around. A bit of rat poison might be located – hawkers sold them in firmly sealed polythene or paper packages. He couldn’t trust that – a rat has a petite life. Poison for rats may not work on humans. There were more – insecticides that farmers bought to save their cultivations. It was sold in bottles, big bottles, like a cask – the color was dark. He decided to buy one just to keep it handy, and then changed his mind. Later, he regretted the decision. It could’ve laid at the bottom of his tin suitcase – no one would have known.
He earned a decent salary, even saved a little after expenses. His mother had passed away – not from the bottle but some disease. He could’ve remitted money home if she were alive. For the first year, he had sent her money regularly. Since his mother died and his expenditures were curtailed, Monser started to reflect what next! Within a few days he realized that his heart was embracing romance – he was turning the key. He began to buy stuff he fancied – this and that, clothes; a watch; a heavy, laced espadrille from Bata; and finally, a mobile phone. Only one task was still left open – marriage. He ended up achieving that too. One of his ‘helper’ friends made all the arrangements. Within a year, his wife had a beautiful baby. A baby boy. Now what?
A few days passed in indecision.
One morning, the sky was heavy with clouds – rain imminent. The breeze gusted once and then blew more gently; it shifted around a lot until rain came. Listening to the rain chime on the tin roof, Monser told his wife Jebunnahar, shortened to Nahar, that he was skipping work that day. Nahar didn’t respond but placed a pot full of rice and lentils on the stove and soliloquized that if she had an eggplant, she would’ve fried some in thin strips. Monser didn’t reply – his wife repeated the bid. He left home with an umbrella and found the world totally dark – the streets were water-logged. He shut the umbrella, returned home, and sat quietly in a corner. The one-and-a-half-year-old boy was sleeping next to him – without any apparent reason, he started to wail. Nahar ran in from the kitchen, picked up her son, and while she consoled the boy asked him, ‘where had he put the eggplant?’ Right then, Monser’s heart felt empty. Nahar didn’t fuss much about it. So, what if there was no eggplant, she had potatoes at home and thinly fried potatoes with khichdi would be no less delicious. They ate khichdi for lunch and after food, Monser acted oddly – he napped for a long time and then, stepped out with his umbrella.
It was still drizzling – but the streets had cleared. He went to the corner store and cozily lit up a Star Filter cigarette. He murmured loudly to let the shopkeeper know that rats were wreaking havoc in his home and asked for some rat poison. He held in his hand the package with a shiny rat image and asked whether one pack would be enough. The shopkeeper smiled,
“Just one morsel of this and light’s out! They’ll drop dead where they taste it. Of course, if you want more, you can have more.”
Two or three, or even more – Monser dragged on his cigarette to decide.
“Give me four – it’ll be useful.”
Monser couldn’t describe fully how enchanting was that evening at home! He gave his boy horsey rides on his back through all the rooms, then surprised Nahar by offering her a ride on his back. He cleverly hung the poison packets by strings nailed under the wooden bed and slept peacefully that night.
Next day at work, he was flabbergasted to think of the previous day and evening. He could have done this long time ago and avoided the excruciating desolation of his heart. He became forgetful at work. He thought of his village and wondered what those people were doing without their bottles. He remembered his father and elder brother. He was surprised that he hadn’t recalled them for some time. He remembered many others. The more he mulled over the issue, the more he could see them. Dejected, tired faces – he was glad they had coped successfully with their sorrow. Then again, he considered, that he had come to town, settled down, married, and become a father – what did he really gain? Was it because of yesterday when Nahar fed him khichdi and hash brown potatoes on a rainy day, or was it because he carried his son on his back like a horse, or was it because he had slept long at night?
That night, Nahar slept soundly by him, and the boy didn’t stir at all. He crawled under the bed to gather the shiny packages and went out to stare at the sky. A flattened moon screened in clouds, wet, a miniscule light playing hide and seek, and the question – what did he really gain?
That’s when Monser Pramanik took the rat poison and barely survived. Nahar had to deal with all the nuisances. She had to call and gather people, take him to a hospital, beg the doctors and nurses to treat him, arrange for the medicine, etc., etc.
Without a rhyme or reason, why would this man attempt suicide? It must have been a riddle to Nahar. She prodded Monser to uncover the solution to the puzzle. He told her something strange. He remembered his village, the pomelo tree behind the house, and the moon… What about the moon? He kept silent. Nahar wanted more – say, what else? He didn’t answer. After a long while he slowly said, this was the practice of his village. Although she hadn’t thought she was living with a madman up until then, after listening to Monser’s explanation, Nahar felt she also would take some if she could lay her hands on it. Not too much, just a teeny bit to punish this man. Instead, she thought, how could she chasten a person who drank poison, even though he had a beautiful son at home!
Nahar was vigilant for a few days but didn’t spot any sign of insanity in Monser. A placid, peace-loving man who got up early, washed himself, ate whatever was given, and left for work. He toiled all day and ate the dinner that was put in front of him. From his earnings, he kept only a little for cigarettes and handed over the rest to her. He didn’t worry about others’ affairs. He wasn’t even worried about his own welfare – of that Nahar was certain.
When she discovered nothing after a lot of sleuthing, Nahar wanted to know more about the custom of the village. Monser looked at her weirdly and replied,
“That you wouldn’t understand.”
Nahar was a mild-mannered person and wasn’t in the habit of shouting. But that day, she lost her cool at being accused of idiocy and screamed the roof down. Monser took fright at his wife’s appearance. Nahar bared her teeth and mocked him – what couldn’t she understand?
“You’re craving rat poison, are you? I’ll get it for you. How many packs do you need so that you don’t end up at the doctors? You’re a rat bastard!”
That was the first time Monser heard Nahar utter the word ‘bastard,’ and, it was directed at him no less! He really wanted the bottle then.
After calling him ‘a rat bastard,’ Jebunnahar, or Nahar, got over her inhibition of using obscenity. From then on, she raised her voice nearly every day for an array of reasons. Her son sat on the ground and put stuff in his mouth, she skreiched bloody murder at him; the lentil masher broke as she was cooking – more yelling. Monser brought home soybean oil instead of mustard oil, an occasion ripe for shrieking. Her anger at his act of consuming poison increasingly bothered her. It doesn’t take much confirmation to grasp that if your husband has gulped down poison, dead or not, part of the blame falls on you. What has she done that Monser decided to be a rat and devour poison? Well, if he was a rat, then, she’d be a cat. So, when she confronted Monser, her hackles went up like an irate cat. But she didn’t realize that a scared rat might try to hide from the cat in countless holes, and then, suddenly bolt.
In the meantime, Monser’s health crumpled. He didn’t find enough strength to work anymore. Unlike before, he couldn’t even find satisfaction in food. Again, he remembered his village – between work assignments and oftener. His father and his legless older brother repeatedly came back to him. He remembered many others. He kept brooding on what misery the villagers might be going through without the bottle. Should he visit them to check whether they were ably turning the keys without their bottles?
He didn’t think he could be a rat any longer. But he couldn’t bring home a large bottle filled with pesticide for farms. So, he didn’t come home. After a long workday, he sat under a quiet tree close to the street, smoked a Star Filter cigarette to the nub, and pulled up the snug stopper of the bottle. The odor wasn’t too bad. He didn’t wait any longer. How much he poured down his throat, he couldn’t verify. His chest burned so! As he slid down to one side, he did see that the bottle still held a large amount. It was getting dark.
What occurred after that – who brought him to the hospital, instead of dying, how many days he remained unconscious, how Jebunnahar came to know, all this information stayed out of Monser’s reach. Prostrate on a hospital bed, he assumed that the medication had worked – the ruins that he vaguely saw through his muddled vision, assured him that the medicine had been effective. He saw his father, his elder brother, his mother, and many others. Surprisingly, Lalu Fakir, who had escaped with his wife and two boys in his first attempt at the bottle, came with his whole family.
But this man, holding a long bamboo stick, who had his booted foot on his stomach, proved the vision had major flaws. The man shifted his foot but did not release him completely. He was looking at his eyes – what was he seeing? Monser didn’t recognize the leaning man’s face through the drop of water in his eyes! Who was screeching so piercingly? A woman’s voice – he couldn’t identify the creature! Who could it be?
[i] Chaitra is the twelfth month of the lunar calendar that Bengalis follow. It begins in the middle of April.
[ii] Khuda or Khoda is a Persian word for God.
[iii] Kartik is the seventh month of the lunar calendar. It starts around the middle of October. The reference here is to the month’s usual scarcity of food. It is a month when poor farmers have depleted their food stock and must wait for the new harvest to arrive in a month’s time.
[iv] A motorized open cart. Vans are also known as van-rickshaw or rickshaw-van.
A well-crafted and beautifully written short story that combines the daily pathos of living with an incredible sense of humor. The writer’s casual acknowledgement of death as the ultimate escape route for the poor, shakes one to the core. While translating the story, I kept flashing on a timeless poem by the great Bengali poet Jibananand Das, “At Bachar Ager Ekdin” (A Day Eight Years Ago). To the poet, the reason for evading life is not necessarily deprivation but the ennui that fatigues our sensibilities. Monser, the protagonist of this short story, echoes similar sentiments, without a twinge of rancor toward the world that has not dealt with him fairly