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Authors: Bani Basu

The Fifth Man

BOOK: The Fifth Man
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BANI BASU
 
The Fifth Man
Translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha
RANDOM HOUSE INDIA
A NOTE ON THE AUTHOR

Bani Basu is arguably the most versatile contemporary writer in Bengali, the broad range of her fiction deals with gender, history, mythology, society, psychology, adolescence, music, sexual orientation, the supernatural, and more. Besides writing novels and short stories, she is also an essayist, critic and poet. She has won a number of literary awards, including the Sahitya Akademi award. She lives and writes in Calcutta.

A NOTE ON THE TRANSLATOR

Arunava Sinha translates classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction and non-fiction into English. Twenty-eight of his translated works have been published so far. Born and brought up in Calcutta, he lives and works in Delhi.

To
Durgadas Chattopadhyay

ONE

Aritra had woken up after a strange dream, recovering slowly in a room suffused by blue light. The curtains at the head of his bed were drawn. Like a torrent of water impeded by boulders, the street light had rushed in through the opening, and the blue night-lamp had faded. The blue of the earthly sky. In the dead of night, his sparsely-furnished room had silently merged in its entirety with the external world. The room was no longer recognizable as a room, its six walls seemed to have fallen away. There was only a white strip on the window near the head. The entire western wall was an eagle with unfurled wings. More wide open windows. A desolate emptiness and the sense of an enormous expanse. Not the room but the world, not the world but the sky when it is blue. The sky itself. Uniting sleep and wakefulness, dream and reality. Was it a night of strong winds? And so, formless dreams had arrived at the junction between sleep and oblivion. The night wind had separated the physical Aritra from the mental one, overcoming space-time. Somewhere between deep and light slumber, something moved in a flash from ignorance to knowledge, like a bolt of lightning, before it disappeared. Some dreams are clear remnants of certain wishes, fears, rages and desires. Tamarind seeds used for indoor games were scattered across the terrain of consciousness. But this wasn’t that sort of dream. Someone had appeared, to say something. Sleep had no ears. So it had to be said through visual symbols.

Now light sleep and wakefulness were celebrating their union. Listening to the cries of triumph, Aritra felt he was much taller than his six foot frame. His feet had stretched to where the sun sets in the west, his arms were exploring the eastern horizon, getting longer and longer. His memory and identity had expanded many, many miles beyond the limits of the past and the future. His mental self floated in an ocean of space with no compass points. So wakefulness was the real state of sleep. Only one tiny cell remained animate. And sleep was an awakened state of the consciousness. Where one could find oneself, but only after losing oneself in a huge explosion.

Aritra couldn’t locate his limbs when he woke up. Only the sense of ‘I am Aritra’ dangled loosely somewhere near his mind. At any other time he would have been afraid. Especially since he had been close to literally losing his legs in a terrifying scooter accident. But Aritra was not frightened. He was perfectly aware that he was neither lying on a road in Shivajinagar with twisted limbs, nor unable to regain consciousness after his surgery at Sassoon Hospital. Only if he could maintain this fearless state would he be able to recognize in its entirety the momentary dream that had flashed in the deepest recess of his sleep, taking the form of a ghostly cuneiform script before vanishing. Only then would he able to retrieve it.
Nannyah pantha vidyate
. There is no other path to eternal life. Therefore Aritra closed his eyes again. In case he could go back to sleep, that sleep which was really awakening. Once more. Somewhere far away a bird of dawn was calling irresistibly. Aritra tried to return, riding this sweet romanticism. But the blue sky quickly changed its colours, donning the pallid robe of dawn. The resident gods of the arms and legs and chest and back and stomach and voice returned to their kingdoms. A tall mirror against the wall at one end of the room shimmered as though it were floating to the surface of the water. Next to it a mid-sized table, on it medicine bottles of different sizes, and on the opposite wall, arranged in a half-moon configuration, the Last Supper, the Burial of Christ, and the Pietà—three paintings of Christ, no one knew the reason behind this sublimity of sin, death and betrayal in the bedroom—and, seated in profile on the chair in front of the table with her forehead resting on her hand, a sleepless Neelam in a turquoise nightdress. Her close-cropped curly hair usually resembled a halo of mist in the morning. This was Neelam’s distinguishing feature. Aritra called it Neelam’s Aureole. Her head usually acquired this shape soon after she had attended to her hair. The reason was simple. Neelam had some juvenile hair which had vowed since birth never to grow. Although, some of them had had no qualms about greying in infancy. The second reason was Neelam’s habit of shaking her head violently.

The chirping of morning birds from the cluster of trees in the field behind the house was getting louder. Opening his eyes a quarter of the way and watching Neelam intently, Aritra tried to understand how long, just how long she had been sitting there. He had not seen her come in; her eyes were sunken. Had she sat there all night, then? Why? Aritra was much better now. There was no question of watching over him constantly. He went to the bathroom without help, though he still had to drag his left leg a little. Two sections had been amputated from the index and ring fingers of his right hand. In other words, the god figure had deprived him of the right to threaten anyone for the rest of his life. If he wanted to wear a ring it would have to be on the left hand. But Aritra had recovered completely. In fact, long rest and attention had practically given him a new life. There was no need for anxiety. Why then was Neelam sitting that way? She seemed to have collapsed, with her head in her hands. Engrossed in thought. Aritra wanted to ask, ‘Did you have the same dream that I did, Neelam?’ Was it possible to have the same dream at the same time except in a fairy-tale? Neelam would be needlessly flustered if asked. Aritra had been quite delusional after the accident. So he just shifted in his bed without a word. He had been lying on his left side, facing Neelam and the table. Now he turned towards the Last Supper and the Pietà. At once Neelam rose to her feet, like someone still in a dream. Coming up to him, she said, ‘Are you up? Will you get up? Shall I bring you some tea?’

These were the words she uttered, but Aritra seemed to hear Neelam say, ‘Are you listening? Will you listen? Listen to me quickly.’ Anxiety was writ large on her face. Aritra answered the unasked questions, saying, ‘Yes, tell me.’ Neelam started. Then she said, ‘Did you hear anything last night?’

‘Hear what?’

‘Mahanam-ji passed through this road. Mahanam-ji is here.’

Sitting up in bed, Aritra shook off the sheet he had been sleeping under. ‘What are you saying, Neelam?’ he said. ‘Tell me clearly.’

Neelam’s voice was trembling. ‘You didn’t hear a car horn outside our gate around 2 a.m., did you? Shambha-ji, the new night guard, rang our bell, saying, some people are here, looking for you. I said, I’ll come and check, don’t unlock the gate. He had got out of the car, he was standing outside. Even from a distance I knew who it was, but I couldn’t make out his form properly in the darkness. When I reached the gate Mahanam-ji said, the road booming with his voice, well, Neelam? Were you scared to send Ari? I didn’t tell him anything about your accident, all I said was, I’ll tell them to open the gate, come in. So late, though? What’s the matter? Did you miss the Sahyadri Express? Mahanam-ji said, there are so many things I’ve missed. My destiny is missing my chances. So there’s nothing to fear. Go back to sleep happily. I’m going towards Pimpri. That’s where I’m staying.’

‘Staying with whom?’ Aritra asked. ‘At Pimpri! If it’s a Bengali we should know them.’

‘I don’t know,’ answered Neelam. ‘Whom do we know who has a white Fiat there? I couldn’t make out anything more in the darkness. He entered and exited so dramatically.’

Aritra frowned, telling himself, ‘That’s his tactic. But it won’t checkmate me anymore.’ To Neelam he said, ‘Will you get me some tea?’

As soon as Neelam left the room there was a clap of thunder in Aritra’s head. Against a light blue backdrop, something like a dark blue room, a cave. Two black birds flying out of it with outspread wings. Maintaining a fixed distance and an identical rhythm, as though attached to each other by a thread. After a while they begin to retreat, slowly. And then disappear in a flash. That was the dream. Now on his dishevelled bed in the first light of dawn in a room jangling with footsteps, taking in the troublesome news of Mahanam’s arrival, Aritra realized that those had not been birds in his dream, but eyes. Someone was coming, had come, and was looking through the eyes of the flying birds. And had gone back. What a strange connection. Was it a coincidence? Or were the beginning, middle and end of the mystery of life always linked together? Mahanam had arrived after eighteen years. And, in those same moments, so had someone else within his dream. Looking through the eyes of the flying birds.
Aadheko ghumey, noyono chumey
. In half-sleep, kissing my eyes.

Aritra was still in a trance. Exhausted, he said regretfully, ‘I fell asleep.’

Esha said, ‘It’s bound to happen. If you’re going to be up so late with your poetry and beer, with your beer and poetry, oversleeping is inevitable.’

Ari said, ‘Inevitable indeed. I must have been absorbed in something when you left. You went away quietly while I slept—you couldn’t have left otherwise. And because you did, you keep returning in my sleep now. Fragmented like a cubist canvas. Sometimes with a terrifying blizzard in your hair, sometimes with a body reaching up to the sky like a eucalyptus pole, sometimes as a bird, as clouds, as water. Why am I confused every time, Esha? Who, what, why, when—a thousand questions raise a storm in my head. Your precious footsteps fly off like dry leaves in this tornado. After they have been lost, long afterwards, my soul realizes you were here and yet you weren’t.’

Neelam brought tea. For both of them. A cool early morning breeze blew in through the window. Aritra wrapped himself in the sheet. Accepting a cup, he asked, ‘Where’s Pupu?’

‘Not up yet. I didn’t wake her.’

‘Why not? It’s been so long since all three of us had a cup of tea together.’

Hurt gathered in Neelam’s eyes. She said, ‘Considering what I just told you, don’t you think you and I should first have a talk without Pupu present? Mahanam may turn up any moment.’

Aritra said, ‘Don’t you know, Neel, that talking about it is pointless? You and I cannot even imagine the direction that Mahanam will attack from. So it’s best not to be prepared.’

‘What shall we tell Pupu?’

‘Pupu is old enough, give her the chance to come to her own conclusions. Only if she asks does the question of answering arise.’ He added lightly, ‘Don’t worry so much. There’s nothing to worry about.’

Neelam said, displeased, ‘What does it matter to you!’ Abruptly she picked up the tea tray and left. Looking at her, Aritra told himself, ‘You have to solve your own problem, Neelam. I cannot reject my responsibility, but you must accept yours too. I can stand by you, but the problem of your conscience is yours alone.’

Early March mornings in Pune carried more than a touch of the mountain chill. Kharkibazaar and Priyalkarnagar presented their backs to the south-west monsoon winds. The locals found the mildly cold weather very pleasant. To people from eastern India this kind of cold was positively thrilling. Like a pleasant, soothing caress. It rained frequently, lowering the temperature in one fell swoop. Otherwise, as the day progressed, the sunshine turned golden in the heat of the unpolluted sky. The skin reddened under this sun, even if it did not shine with perspiration, when riding on the scooter from one end of the city to the other, from the suburbs of Pimpri to Priyalkarnagar, from Priyalkarnagar to Shivaji nagar station, through the university, Deccan College, the Chaturshrungi temple, the cantonment and the Pune municipal areas. There was no need for caution. This heat did not lay anyone low. From the bathroom Ari could hear the angry growl of Pupu’s scooter. Because Ari was still largely confined to his bed, Pupu was the only one to run errands for her mother. Neelam was so obsessed with the patient and her household that she had no time to go out. Pupu would probably have to do the mid-week shopping for food today, which was why she had left so early. She would bathe when she returned and then go to college. Although Neelam was a competent housewife, she was becoming a little absentminded these days. And very insistent. If Pupu forgot to get something she had asked for, she refused to wait, sending her daughter back to the shops. Pupu was indifferent to all this. She ran the errands mechanically, with no objection to going to the market twice or even thrice in succession. Maybe the scooter gave her the joy of riding a horse. Aritra had bought her the scooter only last year. She used to ride a cycle earlier. It was quite arduous to cycle such long distances. Nor was it particularly healthy for girls to cycle so much. Pupu had been astonished by her birthday gift at first, even forgetting to express her happiness. She had actually scolded her father mildly.

‘This is mine? Just for me? Why? We have a car already Baba, you really overdo things sometimes.’

‘Not overdoing anything. You can’t use the car when I go out. I know you’re finding it difficult with the cycle.’

Then Pupu had come running to her father to hug him. Aritra trembled at Pupu’s touch. She had grown up now. He was not entitled to such physical affection from her. To assume that he still merited them on the strength of being her father made him anxious, which Neelam did not understand. Or, even if she did, she did not let it be known. However, Pupu was slow, restrained by nature. She seldom allowed herself such wild, childlike spontaneity.

Aritra emerged from the bathroom, pressing his towel to his hair to soak up the water. He had put on his kurta without drying himself properly. The wet spots throbbed in the chilly weather. Peeping in, he found his bedroom had been cleaned thoroughly. A gap in the eastern wall led to a small anteroom, which Ari referred to as the sanctum sanctorum. On the wall of this atom-sized room an eagle held an egg-shaped mahogany rack in its beak. On it rested a few select representatives of Neelam’s three hundred and thirty million gods and goddesses. She was devoted to beauty and modesty, therefore Lakshmi. Because of a reputation for being easily-pleased, a Shivling. An image of Durga, slayer of misfortune, and the national god of Maharashtra, Ganapati. The priestess had not combed her hair yet, her broad, fair face was cleansed and tinged with red after a bath, her eyes were tightly shut. Refined, gentle, humble, her sari drawn around her shoulder. Simple arrangements. No incantations, no prayers, just a few grains of cardamom on a silver plate, and, in a silver tumbler, a drop of water collected from the dying canal of the Mulamutha river that ran behind the Ganesh temple. Some flowers deposited at the feet of the idols of Ganesh and Lakshmi. Neelam was performing her puja. Possibly with greater devotion than on other days. Or so it seemed.

BOOK: The Fifth Man
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