[Introductory remarks: Something a bit different today. My attempt at a short story, based on a legend from our ancestral village. Warning 1: Long post. Warning 2: There is no humor here.]
It was a quiet night. A stiff wind blew in from the west making the heat slightly less oppressive than on other days.
Rabin-babu was on the porch, reclining on an ancient chair. Nights in the village were always quiet. And today it was even quieter. There was a fair going on a few miles away and it seemed that the entire village was away.
Silence. That was what he had been seeking ever since he had arrived at his ancestral home ten days ago. Not that he had found too much of it. Every evening there would be someone who would drop in—the postman, the village headmaster, the local political dada, the owner of the brick kiln and once they ensconced themselves with tea and biscuits it would be quite a few hours before they would leave.
Rabin-babu understood. Nothing much happens here. And they don’t much see anyone new. Given that, his sudden unexpected arrival from the city was indeed big news making him as much the object of curiosity as the circus clown and as much the subject of gossip as that girl who ran away with the low-caste sweeper four years ago. So whether these people who visited him every evening were genuinely interested in discussing the price of chicken feed and the latest happenings in Kolkata or were just looking to check him out, the last surviving scion of the Zamindar family who had never before in the last fifty years ever been seen here, Rabin-babu never quite figured out.
Today however there were no hangers-on. Today he was free from the ordeal of having to listen to them yapping away, from having to politely keep an interested smile on his face, from having to make the occasional exclamation or the “chuk chuk” sympathetic noise. Today he was free to just look at the stars and listen to the gentle chorus of the crickets.
Despite the frequent inane interactions he had to labor through, Rabin-babu liked it in the village. Here at least he was “somebody”. Perhaps mainly an object of curiosity but there was no denying the accompanying respect. He was after all still the Zamindar-babu’s son. And though the big house was empty save him and the old servant and though the glories of old were a thing of the past, people here still remembered his lineage . If indeed there was anything about the discussion of the mysterious cattle illness which killed Gopinath’s healthy cows or the need for a new room in the village school that he enjoyed, it was the hushed reverential tones of the interlocutors.
He was sure of it. Here he felt at home. It was almost a world away from his life in the city. There in Kolkata Rabin Ghosh was a nobody. A nameless faceless cog in the machine. A government employee—the kind that used to be called a “clerk” till it became no more fashionable to use that term.
Thirty years. Of coming to work amidst the sweat and grime of the local train surrounded by the filth of city life. Of sitting at the same table shifting files from one pile to another. Quietly.
If there was one word that people would use about Rabin-babu, it was “quiet”. He didn’t engage in union-baazi. He didn’t sell insurance policies on the side. He didn’t deal with touts. He didn’t leave his table to discuss politics with the rest. He didn’t attend union meetings. He didn’t gherao superiors. He didn’t go upstairs to flirt with the third floor typists. He didn’t play bridge.
Of course all this meant he didn’t have friends at work . People maintained a certain distance from him. Rabin-babu preferred it that way. It was not that he was rude, he would have a conversation now and then. But most of the time he kept to himself and after thirty years people knew to respect his privacy.
Not that people who want to be left alone usually are. But Rabin-babu, a loner with no family, had no scandal surrounding him and absolutely no color being the most ordinary of men doing the most ordinary of jobs with the most ordinary of pasts and the most ordinary of futures.
And so noone at work expressed any interest in him at all. Which of course suited Rabin-babu fine.
Then one day it happened.
There had been a rail-roko near Sealdah. Rabin-babu had to get down from the train and walk a distance, silently baking in the heat amidst the stream of humanity. This had made him late for work. Not that anyone cared. But he did. Because he was never late. The tea that Chotu served that day was different—-it was pale and lacked flavor. Not that this was a rare occurrence in itself but still two things never went wrong in his monotonous life at the same time. Definitely not like this.
But what disturbed him most was the fan.
For thirty years he had sat under the same fan. Had become accustomed to its “chai pok pok” creaky rhythm. Today as he leafed through yet another moldy file, he realized that the fan was moving differently. In a funny, jerky sort of way as if he was watching a movie with a few frames missing.
Not only that. It was talking to him.
Rabin-babu was sure of it. He stopped several times and looked up at the fan. He kept working. He took out his tiffin carrier and had his lunch of two slices of bread and potato curry. The potatoes had hard centers—the kind he hated and the bread tasted stale. He threw away his lunch. That made it the third thing that had gone wrong.
He tried to work. But the fan. It went on and on. He thought of turning it off but then in April doing that would invite questions from those sitting at nearby tables, more so since they were also being served by the same fan.
The whispers grew steadily in strength.
By now Rabin-babu thought he could clearly make out the words.
Live. Live. Live.
The next thing Rabin-babu remembered was that people were rushing to him with agitation and fear writ on their faces. But he himself could hear nothing. Except the sound of the fan. And a feeling of overpowering warmth. Then he passed out.
At the hospital, the doctors told him what had happened. Evidently he had taken the paper knife on his table and had started slicing up his wrists. Yes him the quiet Rabin-babu. Had tried to kill himself at the same table where he had worked for thirty years. At the same table where he had hidden from people behind the mountains of files and the wall of silence.
Rabin-babu had lost a lot of blood. But even more importantly for him, he had lost his anonymity. Now he would have to put up with stares and endure hushed whispers—from the peons on the first floor and the lady typists on the third–“There goes that old sod who tried to commit suicide at his desk”.
This he felt he could not deal with. At least not now.
So Rabin-babu had applied for leave. The application was readily approved. Boro-babu, his boss, had been understanding. He agreed that Rabin-babu needed some time alone, somewhere away from the hustle-bustle, somewhere away from the stress. The fact that Rabin-babu hardly ever took a day off also worked in his favour.
And so here he was. At his ancestral village home. The remembrance of what had brought Rabin-babu to this place gave him a momentary shudder. But presently as he looked towards Narayan-bari and the quiet darkness that had descended upon it, he again found silence.
Narayan-Bari. The old Narayan temple that had been his family’s, once the hub of the village, a spot now taken by the new community center (the “aatchala”). The idol was still there and every year Rabin-babu would send a substantial amount of money for its upkeep. The rest of the money needed for temple maintenance came from small donations and income from the plots of land that Rabin-babu still owned in the village. Which admittedly after land reforms and encroachment was not much.
The Narayan idol was evidently very potent (what the villagers call “awake”) and people from far off would come to do darshaan. Not that it translated into much income thought Rabin-babu wryly. But it still remained the focus of local lore. The childless woman who bore two sons after a night at the temple. The blind man who sat in front of the idol without food or sleep for fifteen days and regained his sight. The death knell.
The death knell story. A few days ago he heard it from a distant cousin, a fairly regular visitor whose main reason for dropping in regularly Rabin-babu suspected was to get him to invest in his floundering poultry operation. The story goes that, very rarely, supposedly once every generation, the idol “cries out”. That is there is a sound that originates from the temple— typically at night. And among all those who hear that sound, it is written that one must die before the next sunset.
What kind of sound would this be?” Rabin-babu asked more out of politeness than anything else.
According to his cousin, those who hear it know. Evidently Rabin-babu’s grandfather heard it the night before he passed away. So did his father.
Rabin-babu couldn’t help but smile to himself. Considering his father was perennially drunk (or so he had heard since he had no memories of him) it was unlikely that the Lord would call out to him or that his father would recognize such a call. His father’s liver had given away one fine morning, to no one’s surprise, and that was the story.
But whatever it be Rabin-babu always liked a good yarn. More than the yarns themselves what Rabin-babu really liked was the way villagers spin their little legends—their eyes would open up wide, their shoulders would drop, they would look once around to check for invisible presences as if that in itself made their little stories more believable. Rabin-babu played along of course and would nod his head and mumble something on the lines of “One never knows” but of course he knew that these tales were invented only to add a spark of excitement amidst the humdrum of village life.
Lost in his thoughts, Rabin-babu dozed off. He woke up suddenly.
There had been a distinct though not loud clang. Framed against the silence, it had been enough to wake him up. The sound Rabin-babu was pretty sure of —it was the sound of metal being dashed onto a hard surface.
What however made him pause for a split second was where the sound had come from.
Rabin-babu quickly got up. He grabbed the heavy torch that lay at his side. The Nayan-Bari was barely fifty yards away from the porch. He had to find out what had caused the sound. The temple should be empty now and locked. What could be the cause of…
It did not take long to see what was wrong. The lock on the temple door was broken. Suspecting the worst, Rabin-Babu opened the metal door and shone the torch light straight at the idol.
And there he saw him. The thief. He was stripping the idol of its jewelery and putting it all in a bag. The other metallic utensils that lay about were also gone, one of which while stuffing in he had evidently let slip causing the noise.
The thief, who had obviously thought that the village was empty, was startled at the presence of another human being. So startled that he kept standing there looking at Rabin-babu.
Rabin-babu was startled too. Not because of the thief. But because the wind, that had been blowing gustily through the open door, was whispering something he had never thought he would hear again. Or perhaps he had hoped not to.
Live. Live. Live.
This time it was different though. He knew what it meant. In Kolkata he had been dead, buried alive by his insignificance and his silence. So he had obeyed the voice from the fan in the way he thought was the most logical. He had tried to escape death by ending his life.
But today logic dictated otherwise. Two people had heard the sound from the Narayan Bari. He and the thief. Just two people.
One of them had to die before the sun set tomorrow.
And Rabin-babu was sure it was not going to be him. He would not allow it.
That left him with only one other option.
The heavy torch made a smooth graceful arc in the darkness as it descended with full force. There was no sound this time except a soft dull thud.
Rabin-babu stepped out of the temple. His heart was beating fast. The sweat trickled in rivulets down his back. The crickets were chirping louder than usual. The wind had picked up its intensity—–there was possibly going to be a storm.
Rabin-babu looked up at the sky. And closed his eyes.
And for the first time, in many years, he felt alive.