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Abba: A short fiction

  • Published at 08:47 am October 29th, 2020
Abba: A short fiction
Labani Jangi

Bengali classics in translation

(Translated by V. Ramaswamy)

It wouldn’t be correct to say that Sadashiv was in the mob that was directly involved in the riot. But again, how could one say that he wasn’t? After all, even office-going babus and their wives had arrived by car and set out to loot shops. And hadn’t the police been involved? In short, it was becoming difficult to distinguish between those who had been involved in the riot and those who hadn’t. But yes, even if Sadashiv was counted among the rioters, he was insignificant. A few months ago, when he too returned home carrying a trishul like he had seen many of the neighbours doing, Sadashiv’s Ma had said,

– What will you do with that?

– There’s going to be fighting. Everyone’ll go in a mob to kill the rats.

– So what’ll you do?

– I’ll go too.

She would have said a few more things. It was almost on her lips. But since she couldn’t figure out how much hooch he’d drunk, she didn’t say any more. Sadashiv’s dad had been dead for four months. He too drank alcohol in full measure. But that was after he finished his day’s work. The mill closed down last year. After that he began drinking foul stuff. People drank even more dangerous spirits than hooch. They drank that and died. Sadashiv’s dad had consumed isopropyl alcohol pilfered from a paint factory. The pair of trousers and the shirt with a frayed collar that Sadashiv’s father wore to work were hanging on the string inside the room then. One of Sadashiv’s legs was polio stricken. He was skinny and short to begin with. And because his left leg stuck out crookedly, he looked even shorter and more grotesque. That evening, after Sadashiv had rotis with water and went to sleep, his Ma examined the trishul. Utterly useless. Made by casting scrap iron. It wouldn’t even fetch the price of a small bowl. Sadashiv’s Ma had removed the box of matches from his pocket while he was sleeping. Besides a few matchsticks, there were two bidis and another half-smoked one in the matchbox. Sadashiv’s Ma had lit a beedi. As she puffed on it, she could hear Kanji and his wife quarrelling in their room on the opposite side. Kanji’s wife had run away to Surat with Kanji’s brother last year. And then she returned all by herself. They quarrelled every day. But they also made up. When they made up, they played the cassette recorder. The trishul rested against the wall in a corner of the room. There was no door on the door-frame of Sadashiv’s room. A curtain made by stitching together large plastic bags used to pack flour hung there. The smell of diesel and cooking made the room suffocating, but every now and then, with long gaps of time in between, there was a gust of wind that blew it away.

The road got lost and turned weak amidst the lanes and alleys of the workers’ colony. It began to get stuffy once again. Sadashiv’s Ma didn’t sleep. She kept dozing off as she lay half-sitting. When she woke up with a start from her doze, she banged the side of the flour-tin and made a noise. That sound was to frighten away the mice. Hovering between sleep and wakefulness, she kept hearing another sound, albeit from far away. A public meeting was taking place somewhere, even at this late hour. Someone was shouting loudly as he delivered a speech. Did anyone ever hold a public meeting so late at night? Did anyone attend at this time? Actually it wasn’t a meeting. A white Ambassador car stood at a four-pronged crossroads. Two loudspeakers jutted out of its wide-open rear doors. And the speech was playing on a cassette recorder. Those who were playing stood on the road, talking among themselves in hushed tones and chewing pan-masala. One person was wearing a safari suit. And the remaining three people were wearing freshly-laundered, white kurta-pyjamas. The driver squatted at the edge of the pavement. He was drowsy. That was because he had parked his car in three neighbourhoods before this one. Everywhere, the same cassette had played for half-an-hour each time. He had to stop the car at two more places and play the same cassette for another half plus half, that is, one more hour. The cassette had been made in a studio, in the most professional way. In some parts, there was musical accompaniment, in the style of a jatra performance. Sometimes there was a role for someone distressed, and again in other parts, there were guffaws of laughter signalling mockery. While the speech was playing, a police van came and made a round of the place. The man in the safari suit raised his face skywards, opened his mouth wide and poured whatever remained in the pan-masala packet into it.

If the mob of rioters could be passed off as bloodthirsty troops in the battle against injustice, then Sadashiv couldn’t be counted in their numbers, although he too had managed to obtain the bottle of alcohol and three-hundred rupees that had been allotted for each person. After the killings were over, when the corpses lay on the streets and no one even came to remove them, a pack of jackals arrived, as did starving dogs and hopping vultures. Sadashiv was in the band that arrived after that, with the rats, flies and ants. He had thought that he would enjoy drinking the alcohol. He polished off half the bottle sitting at home. But he didn’t really get very high. He had given fifty rupees to his Ma. And he had kept the remaining two-hundred-and-fifty for himself. It would see him through many days. And he thought that he wouldn’t go. But Shankar, Kanji and Bhoja arrived in a group and dragged Sadashiv out. There had been a fierce attack on Rigyalnagar. The flames were visible from the roadside. Mobs had arrived in lorries. Bringing stacks of gas cylinders. They carried swords, rods, knives, skewers, acid and petrol bombs. If he could get there now, there might be some stuff to loot. But he had to get there quickly. People from other neighbourhoods must surely have set off by now. Sadashiv joined the band, limpingly. He picked up the trishul placed against the wall in a corner of the room. He tightened the string around his pyjamas. After that he rolled up the legs. And in the middle of this animated process of preparation, he didn’t utter a word or say a thing, he only let out a meaningless whoop under the spell of intoxication. This mood was most infectious. The others were like him, skinny and the riff-raff type, each of them whooped in his own way. They walked down a narrow alley of the mill-workers’ colony, and when they crossed the wide lane and arrived at the road, gazing westwards at the evening sky, they observed the splendour of the plumes of smoke rising from the burning Rigyalnagar. The smoke rose upwards, dissipating a bit when it caught a current of wind. On the left side was an unruly mob, in a procession. They danced in joy occupying the whole road. Nothing would happen to them. It wasn’t supposed to either. Standing majestically in front of the newly-built Shivan Apartments were Matiz, Santro, Maruti and “josh-machine”, Ford Ikon cars. Each one in Sadashiv’s band felt like a josh-machine unto himself right then. The joyful gang advanced a bit and as soon as they turned right at the crossroads they paused.

It was probably his own bicycle. He lay dead with that on his chest. He was wearing a dirty T-shirt and a faded pair of striped, track-suit bottoms. His face was covered with a torn cinema poster. A brick had been placed over that. So that the smashed face wouldn’t be exposed if the poster blew away in a gust of breeze. Bhoja inserted his hand inside the dead man’s pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. He threw it away. There was silence for a little while. After that they started walking again. Sadashiv was lagging behind the group because he was lame. A lorry arrived from the opposite direction. The few people on the hood above the driver’s cabin were waving swords, spears and billhooks and chanting slogans rhythmically about taking revenge. Stuffed in the lorry were cupboards, racks, refrigerators, TV sets, suitcases, cooking utensils, curtains, scooters, mirrors and chairs. As the lorry advanced towards them, they moved to the side and made way. The lorry picked up speed. At its rear, a sky-blue coloured synthetic dupatta, that had accidentally got stuck on the hook on the lorry’s body, or been intentionally stuck there, fluttered in the wind. Sadashiv’s group now loudly chanted victory slogans. They began running. Because Sadashiv couldn’t run, he was left even further behind. He used the trishul as a staff. Its clanging sound rang out on the road.

When Sadashiv followed them and reached the main gate of Rigyal, he saw that they were standing outside. The very people who had set fire to the place, killed people and raped women there, were the ones who were disallowing the lumpen looters from entering because both the buildings encircled by the wall were on fire. Within the buzz of euphoria over the fire there was the sound of things breaking. Doors were falling. The grilles on windows hung loosely as the frames caught fire. Sadashiv stood there awhile, gazing at the destructive dance of the flames and the plumes of smoke. A car parked inside the compound was also on fire. Sadashiv had come to this apartment complex once. There was a bit of vacant land at the rear. Bhagyesh had landed the job of cutting the weeds there. Sadashiv had come here with Bhagyesh. There was a gate at the rear. There were three sheds with asbestos-sheet roofs abutting the rear wall, those were the servants’ quarters. Perhaps those hadn’t been plundered. Would he find something if he slipped away without anyone noticing and entered through the rear gate?

Sadashiv had been wrong. At the rear, there was the stench of burning flesh. There had been vandalism. Dead bodies had been set on fire using burning tyres. There were slippers lying upside-down. The gate was open. Perhaps some people had escaped from this side. Broken crockery. The sheds with corrugated asbestos sheets hadn’t been spared. The rooms inside were burning. Standing at the door, Sadashiv had peeped inside. The heat inside hit him like a blast. The door had come off. A hand was visible under that. Maybe he’d find something if he went in and searched. But Sadashiv couldn’t gather the courage to do that. Just then, Sadashiv was startled by the sound of a moan, an unusual kind of sound; he turned around to look. No. There was no one there. Only the sound of the flames blazing. The evening light was waning, like it did every day. And with that, so was the sound of the blaze diminishing. Perhaps there was nothing more that could burn. Was Sadashiv wrong when he thought he’d heard a sound? He felt a bit scared too. Was that why Sadashiv had shouted out, flaunting the trishul in his hand,

– Who’s there?

There was no response.

– Is anyone there?

There was no reply to that either.

There surely couldn’t be anyone inside the rooms here. Sadashiv got a creepy feeling. He gripped the trishul firmly. It occurred to Sadashiv for a moment that he hadn’t heard anything. But was that correct? Was the man whose hand was visible under the door alive? Was it he who had moaned? But he didn’t have the courage to move the fallen door.

– Beware! I’m carrying a trishul. I’ll kill you with it.

There was no response this time either. Sadashiv observed that everything seemed to turn extraordinarily alive at this time of day, when the evening light was fading. Did everything stir itself one last time before they were submerged in darkness? Or were they startled in fear? A short distance away, a water-trough had been constructed at an elevated spot on the land. Sadashiv knew it was to soak the bricks used for constructing the building. But what about inside the water-trough? It wasn’t fully visible from here. Sadashiv held the trishul aloft like a spear. He walked towards the trough. There was a little bit of water in the sedimented bottom. He was sitting there, in a corner, with his back resting against the wall. A small boy wearing underpants. His head was shaven. There was a boil on his head. Seeing Sadashiv, the boy stood up. Sadashiv had raised the trishul as if he was about to fling it. The child was silent. But his mouth was open. After a few moments passed, Sadashiv lowered his arm. With daylight waning, everything was becoming hazy. He had realised that Sadashiv wouldn’t kill him. He sat down again. His underpants were wet. Sadashiv too had realised that he wouldn’t kill the child. His intoxication had vanished long ago. Sadashiv now put the trishul down beside him and sat down, spreading his thin leg on one side. Both of them were sitting now. Sadashiv on the edge of the trough, and the child inside. Sadashiv had lit a bidi. He had decided that he would smoke the bidi and then leave. But even before Sadashiv could finish the bidi, he realised that the child was entering his thoughts. What was the need for him to think about the child? After all, so many people had died! Right there was the hand sticking out from under the door. Perhaps there were people burning inside too. Perhaps those who had fled had also been chased and finally caught in the nearby streets. Sadashiv once again fell into a quandary. He couldn’t include the child among those who had died. He could walk away quietly and with the trishul in his hand, no one would say anything. They were all at the front entrance. But once Sadashiv left, even after it got completely dark, the child would still be sitting inside the trough. For how long? Or would he get up and come out? Sadashiv wasn’t able to figure out what might happen. But he was certain about one thing. Those who were waiting outside wouldn’t be able to find the child. Daylight went out. It was dark inside the trough. There was a bit of foul water at the bottom. He was sitting in one corner inside that, wearing small underpants, a boil on his head …

– Hey, get up and come out! 

There was no response from the darkness.

– I won’t do anything. Don’t be afraid. Get up and come.

There was some movement in the murky water.

– Hold my hand and climb out.

Small hands had held Sadashiv’s hand. Sadashiv pulled him by his hands. His underpants were drenched and dripping water down his legs. The child was cold in the breeze. He was shivering. Sadashiv heard the sound of his tiny teeth chattering. Sadashiv held the child to his chest. He ran his own warm hand on the child’s back to warm him. Holding the child to his chest, he sat in the darkness. His heart was beating fast. The child breathed rapidly. And then he shrivelled up. He held on to Sadashiv even harder. Sadashiv felt his tiny fingers and nails. He was scratching him. After that he relaxed.

Sadashiv had exited from the rear gate in darkness. His left leg was thin and lame. He held the sleeping child on his right shoulder. He held the trishul in his left hand, with the blades pointing upwards.

Emerging on the road outside, he had walked rightwards. Another lorry had arrived near the main gate. They were waiting there in a group. Perhaps more stuff would be removed. Or human bodies. Naked women with their throats slit, or men clubbed to death. Perhaps they had noticed Sadashiv. But even if they did, perhaps they didn’t think about it. Perhaps the trishul was all that they noticed. 

The fire had gone out in the buildings just then. But either in the basement or a kitchen on some floor, a gas cylinder had suddenly exploded very loudly. They were stunned. Sadashiv as well. The child had woken up with a start. He was gazing fearfully at the light of the new fire that had erupted. He had screamed and wailed out,

– Abba!

They had heard the scream.

Nabarun Bhattacharya (1948–2014) was a Bengali poet and fiction writer. His novels include Herbert and poetry collections include Ei Mrityu Upotyoka Amar Desh Noy (This Valley of Death is not my Country).

V Ramaswamy translates Bengali fiction into English. His translations include Subimal Misra's This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar's Tale: Two Anti-Novels.




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