Rabin Babu

83 Comments

[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.

Narayan-Bari.

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.

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83 thoughts on “Rabin Babu

  1. Bengal Voice, the thing is that the thief was dead. One had to die. And Rabin-babu wants to make sure its not him. Which left him only option. Kill the thief.

  2. @GB, If you don’t mind me asking … What is the name of your ancestral village? Which district is it in?

    I reckon my folks might know your folks through the “Six Degrees of Separation”/Human Web concept.

  3. Oh…but GB….since Rabin Babu didnt believe in these stories of the temple….isnt it strange that he felt that one of them had to live and the other had to die?

    Consider, the sound that had woken him up had come from a logical source and not a supernatural one…… he might have just have caught the thief or driven him away….

    Dont wish to be overtly critical here……

  4. Martin,

    First of all when people say they dont believe in lore, dont take them at face value. Its like the line “I dont believe in God but I am afraid of him” from a favorite movie of mine.

    And the legend doesnt say anything about logical sources, it just says “sound from the temple” and whether that is the death knell or not it leaves upto you (essentially to creative interpretation). Rabin-babu interpreted the sound as the call of the Lord and did what he had to do in a very logical fashion. Also in case you didnt notice, Rabin-babu isnt quite “right” up there.

  5. hoping u would welcome any kind of criticism i have the following comments to make, i would not classify them as + or -,
    1. I think the story is too short (even as a short story) to build up the situation, despite the “shesh hoye hoilo na shesh” feeling.
    2. the flashback sequence is abosultely brilliant in the shock element
    3. to set up the story in a village is a nice surprise. sense an influence of tagore or ray or both.nothing un-natural in that, but correct me if i am wrong.
    4. waiting for ur next story.

  6. I also enjoyed the earlier “Ghost” story that GB had written.

    I have also heard a paraphrased version of the movie dialogue. After watching “The Omen” movie, I asked my cousin “Do you believe in ghosts?”, he said “No, I don’t believe in ghosts. But I am afraid of them”. 😉

  7. Nice, you could make Rabin babu your unlikely hero and involve him in all kinds of adventures from now on.
    After all, he wants to be alive more than ever.

  8. Is indeed a different attempt but can’t say was awesome! I think mainly because it was too short and just when a character was emerging, the story ended… Would love to see where this leads…

    I also think you’ve tried to abbreviate it for the audience on this blog and I guess because of that, there is almost no flavour of the village.

  9. Khoob e bhalo, the choice of the name for the protagonist is the best. I know someone, who recently contemplated and carried out a suicide attempt, I think I can completely understand what Rabin babu went through before he tried executing the “live live live” voice. Also, the “logical conclusion” to execute the “live live live” in a different context is just awesome and superbly stitched into the plot and is quite believeable- one has to know a person like him to appreciate the reality of the whole plot and occurances.

  10. Simply wonderful writing ! Gripping and taut – just the way I like it.

    And I simply loved this line: ” He had tried to escape death by ending his life.”

    You should write more such stories !

  11. Great work GB!!
    Did remind me of Satyajit Ray’s short stories…
    Of Course felt great reading this, thanks!

  12. Similar to the legends of the screaming banshee in ye olde england..where if you heard the scream someone you know will die and if you saw hte banshee it was your turn

  13. GB take a bow… amazing the way u keep surprising everyone.. great story.. I too hate the short stories that dont have a proper ending

  14. It was a nice story – I liked the way you portrayed RB’s character. Loner and suicidal – am sure many can identify with it 😉

  15. Loved the story…in fact I now want to know more about Rabin-babu’s earlier life, in the “flashback” era. 🙂

  16. I am not in the right state of mind right now to decide if the story was good , or if it wasn’t. I’m not in a position to judge anything right now.
    But, bloody hell, I can identify with the protagonist.
    Right at this point of time, I AM RABIN-BABU.
    A nobody in a crowded city, with a elite lineage from a small town.
    I’m in a situation where I have to either attack or give in.
    I will attack. I will kill. I WON’T die.

    There couldn’t have been a more appropriate post than this at this very moment.

    Thanks you, GB. Thank you very much.

  17. Quite, quite chilling. It’s always the quiet ones, isn’t it? Ennui is something we would do well to tread carefully around.

    Very well constructed, Arnab.

  18. Bhalo legechhe galpota. Tabe aro bhalo lekhhun ei subhechha janai.Apnar kachhe akhanka ta sabsamay beshi thake.
    Ar akta katha apni birbhum er jene khub bhalo laglo(karan ta asha kari bolte habe na.)

  19. Really nice GB! But i have feeling it would be a better read in Bengali!

    BTW did u hear sandeep ray wants to make professor Shonku in English?

  20. * To be read aloud in a faux Irish accent *

    Shouri, me mate, What’s the craic?

    ” screaming banshee in ye olde England”, ya says? Ask me bollocks. You pissed on the chips, yeah?

    I twig ya meant Ireland, me lad…. Screaming Banshees an’ Irish folk-culture are intertwined like a Paddy and his bum. The divil a one. The scutterin English langers ‘ave it arsewise. I’ll call over later, so.

  21. Here is wat i made out of the climax of this story. one might find this interesting…

    since the ‘death knell’ was heard by ppl of Rabin babu’s family on two previous occasions.. this time also it had to be someone from his family…either him or someone from his family..hief.
    Rabin babu’s cousin needed money so he decided to steal the stuff from the temple… and as fate wud hav it he and rabin babu (members of the same family) heard the ‘death knell’…Rabin babu did not kill the the thief(cousin)… his cousin died coz of the cursed death knell…

    I found this story scary… something diff from gr8bong this time !!!

  22. Great! Touches of old Bangla stories, but updated. Reading the initial part, felt nostalgic of stays in rural places, hope to be there some day, alone that is. But are there really any jamindaars of your who keep a village house these days?

  23. Most of us are like rabin babu …we think of ourselves as rational, just and good people …but we all need a simple rumor or opportunity!!
    Remember the incident of Ganesha statues drinking milk from devotees! Most of us turned theists instantly!!

  24. You write to deceive.
    The story started a little on a dull note for me but the unimaginative tone becomes the thread unraveling the cocoon Rabin babu has deliberately and painstakingly built around him. Well done.
    The descriptions of Rabin babu’s cubicle and village, though sparse, are also evocative.
    This is quite an effort considering that you have considerably toned down your usual flair and wit to find a tone befitting the telling of this tale.
    In the end, the prose can be tightened a little here and there. The staring paragraphs can be tighter and some bits, like “being the most ordinary of men doing the most ordinary of jobs with the most ordinary of pasts and the most ordinary of futures” don’t really work that well.
    But all said, I really enjoyed listening to your story (The legend reminded me of Hound of Baskervilles a little), it was very well told, and hope to listen to many more here.

  25. GB,
    I guess you are planning to publish ‘short stories collection from Bengal’ of your own and this was an exclusive preview for us :-)..
    Had read that you were wrirting a book/biography to be published sometime later this year or early next.

  26. liked the story … but did not like the fact that you chose to “explain” the story in your comments …

  27. This is an excellent, award-worthy short story. Not just because this is so radically different from every other GB post, but simply because of its extraordinary look into ‘the mind of the ordinary’.

    One of the criticisms I see here is that the post is too short. That I would claim is the biggest achievement of this story in that it leaves us wanting to know more about Rabin-babu and what is it that drives him. This is precisely the effect short stories strive for. Many authors try to create this effect by constructing an ambigous open ending; by not tying up the threads. GB does not do that however and accomplishes his aim through deftly executed characterizations.

    The other big achievement is that there is something in it that touches us in a very personal way or as Rishi points out, it holds a mirror for many of us.

    The twist is of course fantastic and I never saw it coming. I was figuring the story would end on a supernatural note but it does not. It ends with the ultimate example of a self-fulfilling prophecy like those of the witches in Macbeth.

    The other really nice parts of the story are the vivid pictures of a silent village night and that of an old-school office, the ones that did not have cubicles, diffused lighting, Feng Shui,air conditioners and water coolers.

    We want more GB. You not only have a great sense of humor and an amazing control over language but you also possess a deeply insightful mind that can capture the essence of a place and a person with but a few strokes of your virtual pen.

  28. good story. hope you are ok with + and – feedback:

    the – list
    ———-
    .
    too many “not thats”, “of course”s some of the other usages also are repetitive. Maybe this is deliberate?
    .
    the heavy torch / heaviness of the torch could have been introduced earlier, not right before Rabin heads off to investigate the noise.
    .
    i picked up an image of an almost elderly person (30 yrs at a job), him wielding the torch so effectively while the thief stood transfixed read a bit weak.
    .
    the idea is suggested that there has only been one rail roko in 30 yrs (at least, serious enough to delay Rabin to office). Wow! and in kolkata (wow to the nth degree!) 🙂
    .
    is there a disconnect btwn Rabin’s perceptive read of the villagers and their yarns and his hearing voices, his level headedness in assessment of them and his own subscribing to the death knell belief.

    the + list
    ———-
    .
    nicely detailed, good atmosphere and setting
    .
    the whispering conspiring fans and breeze- super!
    .
    the idea of the death knell itself – a nice little chill up the spine, the way the climax is set up.

    thanks,
    Jai

  29. I paused my reading of “Stranger Stories” – Satyajit Ray and read this… felt like I had just turned a page in the book I had been reading … not that you sounded alike but just the feeling of something with suspense, soul and euphoria of extraordinary encounters in a life of a simpleton. Thank you for a good story 🙂

  30. Arnab, I liked the story but did not get the end. I got it only after you explained the ending in one of your replies. It was a nice read but did not pull on the heart strings or make me feel emotional/nostalgic like most of your write-ups do.

    Thank you for something different.

  31. I am not good at criticizing.. may be not that brilliant enough.
    But what i liked most is the shortness of the story once i finished reading it you left me asking for more.. more stories from you would be great..
    more eagerly waiting for your book now..desperate..

  32. One of the finest short stories I have read in recent times!! I really liked the way you weaved your story and the fine peripheral details with the use of minimum but choicest words. That is what, I feel, makes a short story great beyond just the main plot.

  33. Nice work Arnab. Found it quite remniscent of RK narayan’s stories in structure and setting. Hope there are more ogf these till the book comes.

  34. There’s a clear inspiration from Satyajit Ray. It reminded me of one particular Ray story “Ratan Babu o sei lokta” (Ratan Babu and that man). I am not talking about the plot; it’s more about the way Rabin Babu’s character is sketched.
    Superb character development, the ending is a bit over dramatic.

  35. GB this was one of your hatke posts quite different from the usual sort of stuff you write but it lacked vigour…again only I may have felt like that and others may have a different opinion.
    Most of your readers just look at each of your posts as a piece of art and start their analysis with Da Vinci can never go wrong! to me it was a good attempt and that was it just a good attempt…You can safely say I am one of your biggest fans and being a long time reader (dont comment that often though)I was disappointed…It was like Black from Sanjay leela bhansali…I hope you get the feeling…look forward to more interesting plots!

  36. Excellent work! But I agree with many other readers that you need to spin the yarn some more towards the end. Typo–“And so *noone* at work expressed any interest in him at all.”

  37. Great short story,GB!

    I enjoyed it a lot.Although I’d have ended the story at

    “That left him with only one other option.”

    However,I can understand that you had intended to complete the story by adding the conculsion,IMO ,I thought it already ended at that statement,I just knew he was going to live and choose the option by staying alive.Just my 2 cents!
    Eager to read more! 🙂

  38. Thank you GB for something different. It reminded me of the days when I used to read ‘Anondomela’.

  39. Excellent characterization of Rabin Babu’s ordinary life, reminded me of Jeffery Archers characterization of “Septimus Horatio Cornwallis” from the short story Broken Routine.

  40. @Rishi Khujur above-

    “Nice little story.
    I could almost visualize this in so many of Bengal’s villages…the Jagroto deity….the big torch…very nice.”

    You mean the thief..:))))…I wont say it….but I think you know what I mean.

    I like the style in which the third-person narration is done. The anecdotes about how viallge folks spend time is also rather nice.

  41. Sexy story, an ordinary plot turned into pot-boiler by the sheer narration.
    I esp liked this:
    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

    A dastardly murder described in a sublime way, Classy..

  42. Nice stuff, GB. Very nice. The detail and the atmosphere are beautifully done. My only grouse was in the fact that the final blow is almost too understated. The effect is chilling, no doubt, but the lack of detail does not convince me as much as it might.

    Just my 2c.

  43. I have a very bad habit of visualising stories and novels…
    If this story was to be acted (in bollywood) who do you think might have suited the character of Rabin Babu…
    I believe it might just be Rajpal Yadav.. it might suit his personality,

  44. Hi
    I am part of the team that runs the Global Short Story Competition, which has been running for more than two years now and has already handed over more than £3000 in prize money to writers all over the world.
    We have created a new social networking site for writers. Free to register, it can be found at http://www.storyworld.ning.com and offers the chance for authors to swap views and comments. More information on our competitions can be found as well, including our new flash fiction competition.
    We do get some entries from India and would love more.
    Many thanks

    John Dean Competition administrator

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