Death of a Reader

Banaphul (Balaichand Mukhopadhyay) was the King of Bengali short stories – according to me. I tried to translate one of his stories.

Almost ten years back.
I was waiting for train at Asansol station. Another person was sitting beside me. He had a book in his hand. It was a thick novel. After we began chatting, I came to know that he had to wait the whole day for his train.
My train was supposed to arrive in three hours.
Both of us were Bengali.
Hence, within five minutes I asked him, “May I see the book once?”
“Oh yes, why not?” – I received the answer as I expected.
I possessed the book immediately as he handed it over.
It was an afternoon of the intoleranly scorching summer.
We were sitting under the tin roof of Asansol station.
Nothing could bother any longer.
It was a wonderful novel.
The owner of the book looked at me once with the corner of his eyes. A line appeared between his eyebrows for a moment. He took out a time table then and concentrated in that.
I continued reading breathlessly.
Excellent book!
In fact, I did not read such an appealing novel before.
The lines were almost whipping me.

***

Two hours passed.
The owner of the book browsed through the time table several times in the meantime. Finally he looked at me and told, “I think it is almost time for your train – so…” he cleared his throat once.
I was immersed in the book.
Once I took a quick look at my watch. It was still one hour left for my train. The book was left over a half. I did not want to waste time by talking. Again I concentrated in the book. I was devouring it.
Wonderful book!
That one hour almost flew away.
The bell for my train rang.
The large part of the book was still left unread.
I turned aggressive.
I said, “I will go by next train – not going to leave before finishing this book.”
The owner of the book coughed once and went silent after this.
The train left – I continued reading.
But I could not finish it – a few pages at the end of the book were torn.
I said to the owner of the book, “Oh – so many pages of the book are torn! What a shame! You could tell me before!”

The man only gazed at me in response. I noticed the veins on his forehead bulging.
***
I found the book once again after ten years.
It was the in-law’s place of my niece. I accompanied her to her home and was supposed to come back that day only. But my attraction for the book made me stay back.
I picked up the book from shelf; began reading once again. I decided to start anew instead of reading arbitrarily from the end.
I felt bizarre after a few pages.
I turned the cover – was it the same book? – It was the same!
Again I started – But another few pages of reading brought me the same feeling –something seemed wrong!
Yet I continued.
After some time I realized my inability to carry on reading anymore.
Was it the same book which I was reading breathlessly in the scorching summer afternoon in Asansol station?
How could an author write such a rubbish!
It was not at all possible to finish it!
I could not even realise when the curious reader of ten years back had died.
I could not finish the book this time as well.

Valentine’s Day

Rupesh was day-dreaming that day. Or he was trying to see Shiva in his dreams. He loves to remember Shivakami’s face which fills his life with youthful ecstasy at times. But is it possible to dream of a fairy queen lying in this dilapidated bed in the one-bedroom slum-home? He was on the bed while his three sisters and mother were lying on the floor. It was a Sunday afternoon of the hot summer. All of them were sleeping. Only Rupesh was trying to dream. And more he was trying, more he was getting annoyed. He could not tolerate the environment. Which other software engineer in his office is forced to stay in this kind of unbefitting surroundings? Will it be ever possible for him to propose his dream girl?

How could he? Rupesh’ father was wage-labourer. Only dream the entire six-member family lived with was of his becoming an engineer; at least since Rupesh was grown up enough to understand the dream of his family. He was good student and oldest of the four siblings. He never denied to follow his family’s dream being an engineer and take responsibility of them as a grown up successor of his father. He finished his school in the suburb with good marks while his parents kept on struggling to provide all kinds of facilities he needed to succeed in life. The support they could provide obviously did not match with those received by his class-mates from well-to-do families. But he did never complain. He was studious and target-oriented. His trouble started as his father suddenly passed away at an early age. Rupesh was still in his engineering college then; was not prepared for such a disaster. Somehow he managed to complete his studies and secure a software engineer’s job in one of the promising software companies in the city, but the meagre savings of the poor wage-labourer ran out within those two years. Rupesh had to sell their small suburb home and take a room in the city slum on rent for the five of them – he could not arrange better accommodation with his salary of twenty thousand per month. And there started his hitches in life. Had he not been a poor man’s son with three sisters and the widow mother to look after, he could enjoy life like all his other colleagues – new joiners of the software company who stay together in a rented apartment, go for lunch in restaurants and movies in classy theatres, and set out for trekking on weekends. No – he could not even dream of little luxury in life. His could not expect anything but home-made cold idlys and rice with watery sambar on his plate. He could not think of spending money on cloths and movies and travels, he could not even imagine having a separate bedroom for himself; but worst thing is his life is he could not even fantasise his future with Shivakami.  Shivakami was another software engineer whose seat in office was allocated beside Rupesh’. She was the daughter of a government clerk who had no idea of a life in a slum. Rupesh knew he would never be able to express his love for Shivakami. He only tried to remember her beautiful face once in a while in his dreams – but even a sweet dream seems absurd in a dilapidated slum-room in the hot summer afternoon.

He felt irritated. He got up and sat on his bed –and noise of his movement on the old bed woke up two of his sisters. The youngest sister is a seven year old girl, still not aware of the harshness of life. But Jeya, the sister born after him is well-aware of life’s unkind secrets as well as her brother’s mood swings. She could not tolerate his callousness. She started screaming – “Don’t you know how old the bed is? What makes you jump on the bed like that – are you going to purchase a new one soon?” She finished the last sentence in a mocking tone. She knew that the economic status of his brother didn’t permit him to purchase any.  The tone angered Rupesh. He tried to jump out of the bed; he could not because all his sisters and mother occupied the entire space left on the floor. His effort made a worse noise which the youngest sister didn’t like. She started crying. Jeya yelled louder, “You are behaving as if you are a prince here!” Their puzzled mother tried to pacify her, “Why are you irritating him? He is only earning member of the home; still doesn’t get minimum comfort the boys of his age enjoy. You should feel bad for him that he is not being able to sleep!” Jeya is not a person to be pacified so easily. She continued –“Oh yes, it’s me who needs to feel for him. And the earning guardian of the home, who actually has the responsibility to take care of all of us, does not need to bother!” Rupesh lost his patience; shouted at the highest pitch of voice: “Stop it!” All of the mother and sisters were awake by then. His voice scared his mother and middle sister; not Jeya or Lakshmi, the youngest sister. The youngest one started crying aloud – whether to protest of in fear, was beyond Rupesh’ understanding. And Jeya started howling: “You incapable elder brother– never has the ability to take good care of the family. What do you consider yourself?….” Rupesh could not tolerate any longer. He jumped out of bed – this time without bothering whether he was stepping on his young sister’s hand or mother’s stomach. He picked up his shirt and trousers – one of the four pairs that hang from the hooks on the wall, and the wallet, and walked away. This is not the home he wanted to stay in.

……

It was middle of the night. None of the women stepped into the tiny kitchen since Rupesh left in the afternoon.  His mom went on cursing Jeya for a couple of hours and lamented for another. Middle sister does take part in conversations – she kept silence as usual. Jeya tried to comfort her crying mother: “Don’t worry ma, why are you so worried? He is young – hot tempered and should have gone somewhere to cool down – will come back on time.” Inside she was repenting for own rude behaviour. But Rupesh didn’t come back that evening. Even Jeya went silent. None of them but Lakshmi felt hunger. Jeya gave her a few Rusks, only delicacy at home they enjoyed with tea. The dinner with rusks made Lakshmi so happy that she didn’t mind sleeping early. The night turned unusually silent. Both mother and elder daughter continued praying to gods, sleepless, and waiting for Rupesh to return.

………

He did not return at night, not even next morning. He spent previous night with some colleagues – all good friends, in their three-bedroom apartment. He enjoyed his time with friends having dinner with some Andhra style Chinese delicacy at roadside food-corner and then watching movies. He got up at nine in the morning and left for office straight from there. During lunch-hour he called his mother and told her not to worry – as his anger didn’t last longer. The family had already requested neighbours to help in filing a missing person’s diary at local police station. All of them and the worried neighbours took a sigh of relief – the sole earning member of a neighbourhood family is not lost after all!

But there was some surprise waiting for Rupesh that day in office. After lunch-hour, his delivery manger called him along with four of his colleagues. Even Sivakami was in the group. “Guys – good news for you!”  – the middle aged talkative bald man whom Rupesh and team jokingly called uncle behind him, started in his usual cracking voice – “Our US client wants all of you onsite. It will be long-term, say for three years. And they want you ASAP. We are starting visa processing tomorrow. You guys wrap up your engagements here –guess you have to start within a month…..”

The five-member onsite-going team of new-joiners was overwhelmed with the kind proposition of the company and the client. They did not even butter the delivery manage for an offer and still they were given such a scope! They did not find enough words to thank “uncle” after he finished his long speech on onsite facilities; still somehow managed to thank him and came back to cubicles.
Rupesh was lost in thought. He was looking at the sky outside the window before him. He never realised that the sky looked so open from his place on the fifteenth floor of the building.   He started calculating – how much money he would be able to send home from there – the amount should be enough for the livelihood for his family here. May be he would be able to save some money for poor Jeya’s marriage too within next three years. He suddenly felt deep regret – how unkind he had been to the family who lived their life waiting for his success!

He was not aware Shivakami was looking at him while he was busy calculating his and his family’s future looking at the sky outside their office window. Suddenly he heard her telling, “Why are you looking so lost today? Who are you thinking of on this valentine day? Your fiancé?” Rupesh remembered the association of Saint Valentines’ with the date, he gazed intensely into her eyes, told, “Yes – Happy Valentine!”

Shivaparbati