Manoranjan Byapari’s chilling tale of violence, caste & perfidy in the age of communist Bengal in a translation by V. Ramaswamy
Manoranjan Byapari was born in 1950, in Barisal (in erstwhile East Pakistan), and came to West Bengal, India, in the aftermath of partition. As a child in a Dalit refugee family, his childhood was spent tending to cows and goats and working in roadside tea shops and restaurants, and hence he could not attend school. Thereafter he worked as a casual labourer, sweeper, night-watchman, lorry-helper and rickshaw-puller. He was jailed in connection with political activity, where he learnt to read and write. He entered the world of letters in 1981 with the encouragement of the acclaimed Bengali writer, Mahasveta Devi, publishing an autobiographical piece in her Bengali journal, Bortika. He has written twelve novels and over a hundred short stories, besides essays and poems. He was awarded the Suprova Majumdar Memorial Prize by the Bangla Academy for his autobiography, A Chandal Life in History, in 2012. He lives in Kolkata.
Krring krring! The mobile rang twice and then stopped. In the dim light of the kerosene lamp that swayed like a snake’s hood, the icy, cold, shadow of the death-fairy shrouded the room’s silence. Earthen walls on four sides, thatch above, the room resembled a grave now. Everything was still with an eerie sensation of dread. Two bodies lay side by side, an infant between the two. All alive – not dead. Awakening, startled, the shuddering of one sweaty body as the mobile rang was the only proof of life. The greatest fear of any living man is death. Death, and the dead. Any motionless, dead body reminds him: there am I. There too is the day of my demise. That fear pursues him. Pursues him at all times. Not a leaf of any tree anywhere in the world would rustle. Not for a second would the wave on any river anywhere in the world pause. No shooting star would dash through earth’s atmosphere. The sleeping soil would not rock the tiniest bit. The oowaow cry of a baby whose head peeped out of birth’s doorway at that same moment wouldn’t be dedicated to him. Everything would continue in its normal beat, the next day the same. This tormenting awareness pursued him.
The sound of the mobile’s ring had been kept as low as possible, so it wouldn’t be audible outside the room. It had been purchased by Sumanta Ghosh, the political leader of this region. He had said, “Whenever it rings it means there’s work. Be ready, and I’ll send a man to fetch you.”
Of the two fully-grown bodies lying side-by-side, one bore the name Benda. She didn’t drink liquor or toddy any more, and so wasn’t in deep sleep. The krring krring! sound reached her ears first. Slowly, she nudged the male body beside her – “Did you hear, Ghosh babu is calling!”
Benda knew a motorcycle would arrive within fifteen or twenty minutes. A courtyard of about 350 square feet was in front of the hut. Beside the courtyard lay the path. Beyond the path was the canal. Through trees and thickets along the canal’s black shadows, the motorcycle would come and stop in the darkness, and her husband would step down from the veranda and clamber on to the pillion seat in silence. Then the red light at the rear of the motorcycle would gradually fade, taking him far away; swallowed up by the headless, black night’s shroud.
Benda’s husband Dharma had swigged cholai in the evening till he was full to the brim and then he had vomited. Just as guzzling a bottle of “raw” cholai that sold for twenty rupees was proof of a strong constitution, similarly, vomiting after drinking liquor was proof of blight somewhere, debilitating the body. That blight would slowly make a veritable sieve of his liver.
And just as vomiting after drinking indicated a weak and sick body, vomiting after drinking liquor too made the body feel weak and sick the next day. Dharmaraj had vomited, and now he now lay prone on the date-palm mat spread out on the floor, like a banana stem severed at the base. Benda nudged him again – “Can you hear me, dear? Wake up, he has called. You’ve got to go.” Dharmaraj opened his eyes. The look of a dead fish on their pale surface. The ghostly light of the kerosene lamp in the room danced over his black pupils. He became aware of the salty river of sweat emerging from every pore of his body. Like a flood of fear from some corner of his blighted body. A fever of fear.
Dharmaraj was a butcher. When had he ever been afraid? How many goats and wethers had he not held between his legs to run a knife across their throats. Not once had his hands shaken, not once did he blink. Then why was he frightened today? Did it mean that once decay set into the body, the fabric of the mind started coming apart under its impact?
The motorbike would arrive very soon. In the stillness of night, the roar of its engine would beckon him like unseen fate. Then, like a man possessed by a night-ghoul, making his way through the darkness like a crawling beast, Dharmaraj would have to go and sit on the pillion seat. He did not have the strength anymore to disregard that summons. Heeding Benda’s nudges and calls, Dharmaraj sat up. He looked around vacantly. The encroaching darkness enveloped every corner of the room. Wiping his face with a gamcha, he lit a beedi from the fire in the dim lamp light. Finally, blowing out smoke, he muttered, “There’s nothing today. Why’s he calling?”
He stepped down to the courtyard with the beedi in his mouth. Overhead, the stars scattered, poking holes in the sky like a bullet-ridden chest. Pale light peeped from the pellet-holes. A snake snapped a frog somewhere. A pathetic moan came wafting from the frog. The rustle of feet on the dry leaves of the bamboo grove: perhaps a cunning fox stalking prey.
Lurching to one corner of the courtyard, he pissed. Then, throwing away the beedi, he poured water from an earthen pot and splashed it on his face and eyes. He tied the gamcha tight around his waist. After that he extricated a large cloth bag from a tall pile of firewood stacked in one corner of the courtyard. The bag had once been white, but was now a muddy, dark red colour. When he put the bag down on the floor of the hut, there was a dull metallic clunk. One could sense there were tools inside the bag. The sound of their collision.
“Hey, get me a glass of water.”
The order was directed to Benda. In Benda’s eyes now was terror whetted by the black night, a secret current of ice-cold dread cloaking her whole body. With trembling hands she brought water in an aluminum glass. After drinking, Dharmaraj picked up the bag. He wanted to take a look at the tools once before the trip. To check that everything was accounted for.
It was. Everything was just fine. A cleaver and two knives: a large knife and a small one. Once upon a time, Dharmaraj had a meat-shop in the bazar in Gokulnagar. He used to cut goats with these implements. But that shop was gone now and just the few tools remained. He tested the knives. They were sufficiently sharp. The sharp edges flashed in the lamp’s light. Dharmaraj put them back again inside the bag in the efficient way that snake-charmers stuffed poisonous cobras in wicker baskets. Benda did not say a word but kept observing Dharmaraj’s movements with frightened eyes.
At this time, her condition was as if some part of her had died and withered long ago. Besides, she frequently had the urge to pee. She felt thirsty, her heart trembled. She knew where Dharmaraj went and why. Yet she couldn’t prevent him. Couldn’t say – No, don’t go! In this village and the entire area encompassing many more villages – who had the gall not to go if Ghosh babu called!
The moan of the frog caught in the fangs of the snake grew louder. One could guess that the frog was somewhat larger than the snake’s mouth, which is why it was taking a while to swallow it. But the snake wouldn’t release the frog. This is one great inconvenience with fangs, once a snakes catches something, it cannot release it. The frog could have survived if it had been a bit more alert. If it had sensed in advance the presence of the advancing snake. Just one hop, in a single hop it could have gone out of range. It could have … so could Dharmaraj have, if on that very first day he had bent down, bowed, shrivelled himself up and wept like some ridiculously deformed person. “Dear babu, please! I can’t! I’m not the one for this work.” If he would have said so, what would Ghosh babu have done? He would have had him thrashed! And there would have been plenty of wounds on him – but that’s all!
But Dharmaraj couldn’t have said that. His family was deprived, there was hunger in his belly and also greed in his mind. Ghosh babu had said, “You must do whatever I say. There’s nothing to fear, I’m here. I shall provide whatever you need. But keep your mouth shut. The day you open your mouth, drunk or otherwise …” On that very first day, Ghosh counted out ten crisp hundred-rupee notes and put them in his hand. “Here, take it, go and have fun.” Such wages for just an hour or an hour-and-a-half’s labour – Dharmaraj had never imagined that!
Dharmaraj’s meat-shop in the bazar in Gokulnagar didn’t do badly. At least two fated animals would fall to his knife every day. Fifty and fifty, he would make one hundred for the skin of both, fifty more for the two heads, and twenty-five more for the eight hooves, four lungs, miles of intestines, and so on. In all, he made between 250 to 300 on a usual day. That’s how much he would have been making even now had the shop been there, but the shop was gone. He had to sell it off for a measly two and a half thousand. After all what could the shop fetch? Erected on four bamboo stilts, the sides made of matting. Actually the price was paid only for the right to take over that spot. The local leader of the red party, Kanai-da, had said, “Sell the shop if you like, or else I can simply have it occupied. You don’t join our rallies or attend our meetings – why should I keep you?”
The local leader had had his eye on the shop for a long time, but had not found the right opportunity. He got that only when, intoxicated with liquor one day, Dharmaraj had bit of a fight with Maqbool, who had the shop beside him. In the end, there was a bad cut on Maqbool’s head. In the wake of the incident, Arm-less Kanai-da, the secretary of the bazar committee, announced that the committee would bear the expenses of Maqbool’s treatment, but Dharmaraj wouldn’t be in the bazar anymore. “Sell the shop and leave. If you don’t sell, I’ll put an attempt to murder case against you and then occupy the shop.”
Arm-less Kanai did not heed anyone. He feared nobody. His was the final word in this region. He only deferred to Sumanta Ghosh, the middle brother of the M.L.A. That night, Dharmaraj was confined in the bazar committee’s room, his thumb impression was taken on a ten-rupee court paper, he was handed two and a half thousand rupees and then all but physically thrown out. The next day he went to Ghosh babu’s house, some ten miles away. Fortunately, Dharmaraj was able to meet him. After hearing everything, Ghosh babu said, “Look, one can’t reach a conclusion after hearing only your side. Both sides have to come together. Have to hear their version too. After that it has to be resolved so that neither the snake dies nor the stick breaks.”
Dharmaraj had pleaded tearfully: “Whatever happened was because I was drunk. We both had been boozing, and that’s how the argument started. We have such fights very often, and usually it’s forgotten by the next morning. This time there was some bleeding. But it still would have been forgotten if Kanai-da hadn’t jumped into this. It’s because of him that everything went awry. He told me, “You don’t come for our meetings – we won’t spare you!”
Sumanta Ghosh’s eyes widened. “You don’t attend our meetings and rallies?”
Dharmaraj replied humbly, “I don’t get the time. If the shop’s shut for a day, I lose two to three hundred.”
Ghosh babu replied thoughtfully, “It won’t do to say that. You have to go for the party’s programmes. Just like rice is assessed by using a sieve, people can be known through meetings and rallies. If someone doesn’t attend our rallies, it simply means he is on our enemy’s side. Even if not openly, there’s bound to be a covert connection. It’s clear you were a target for a long time.” There were four rings on the fingers of his right hand – on the left hand as well. A thick gold chain hung around his neck. As he tapped the middle of his brow for a while with one ringed finger, he shut his eyes and pondered. Coming to, he concluded: “It doesn’t matter. Nothing much has happened so far. Let me talk to them. Some arrangement will be arrived at. I’ll do that myself. But you also have to come forward a bit. You have to help get rid of the impression that’s been formed regarding you. Won’t you be able to do that?”
That was in the morning. A person brought a tray with a bowl of muri and some slices of coconut and placed it in front of Ghosh babu. Ghosh babu told the man, “Bring some for Dharmadas too. Putting a handful of muri into his mouth, Ghosh babu continued, “I don’t need to explain anything to you, you’re not a young chap. But still, the one who falls behind has to run very fast. You have fallen behind – haven’t you? Look where those who joined us long ago have reached. That chap Sona, he used to sell vegetables in your very bazar. Look at him now, he’s just bought a truck. I tell you, it’s good that your shop and is gone. Forget about that, do the party’s work. Do the party’s work devotedly and you’ll have ten shops like that.”
After the muri came tea. A cup in front of Dharmaraj too.
Now, taking a sip of tea, Ghosh babu said, “You don’t know the latest news, I assume. On this side is Gokulnagar, and on the other side is the Sumangla river. Mohanpur at one end, and Lokkhongheri at the other. The government is going to acquire all this land and give it to big companies. To build big factories. There’ll be so many kinds of work, so many kinds of people will be needed. Millions of rupees will fly in the wind. Stay with the party, catch some of the flying money. What’s the use of running that wretched shop on the squatted land along the canal?”
Dharmaraj mumbled meekly, “But from what I know, I don’t think it can happen so easily. I heard there’s some committee or something that’s been formed. They’re saying they won’t leave the land under any circumstances.” Ghosh babu at once retorted: “Won’t leave the land, but will they be able to keep it? Won’t the police and party men surround them from three sides and make life hell for them! That’s why I’m telling you – we need men now. Come with me. Don’t they say, a friend is tested in times of adversity. If you pass the test, your destiny’s made.”
This was rural Bengal. Every now and then the two mutually opposed political parties got down to battle with country-bombs and firearms. Every now and then people were killed. Dharmaraj never got involved in these battles. He didn’t like any of that. He sat in his shop all day, and then, after work, he was at the liquor den. And that’s how he landed up in this mess. Now it seemed his destiny was beckoning him. Come, come! With trepidation, he enquired, “Will there be a terrible battle?”
“I’m terrified of riots and violence.”
“But didn’t you do that yesterday?”
“I was drunk then. I don’t know how that happened.”
Ghosh babu laughed inwardly. The bastard’s trying to be clever. Wants to slip away. The party people were right, he surely had a link with the opposition party. He slits throats everyday, sees blood shooting out. And now he claims to be afraid!
He said reassuringly, “Look, do all the people who join the army actually fight? They don’t. Some cook the food, some fetch water, some do something else. You’ll only do what you can. The main thing is to be with us. If you look out for us, we’ll look after you.”
Dharmaraj didn’t know, nor was he supposed to know, that horrific bloodshed was imminent. About a month and a half or two months ago, land acquisition notices had been issued in this area. After that, those unwilling to part with their land began to secretly accumulate weapons for resistance. Those who had once been in Ghosh babu’s party also moved over to the other side, taking the party’s arms with them. If a tally was made, in comparison with this side, the number of people on the other side was a hundred times greater. However, on this side was the ruling party, there was the administration, as well as bags of money, which the other side didn’t have. Their pet, the police force, was there, armed with the latest weapons and awaiting instructions. As soon as they were instructed they would pounce into action like crazed bulls. Beating, killing, loot, rape and arson – they would do whatever they wished.
Dharmaraj was of a somewhat stupid nature. He didn’t know, for instance, that a large number of police uniforms were stored in the party office here. Thousands of goondas and hoodlums from various regions, all affiliated to the ruling party, had been tasked to be prepared. They would be made to don the uniforms at the appropriate time and then they would be unleashed. In the way hunting dogs were set upon prey, the joint force of police and party would ravage the whole area.
But they were outsiders, and hence unfamiliar with the lay of the land. Some people from here were needed to act as their assistants. Which was why Dharmaraj and some more people like him were required. Whatever be the circumstances, he had joined now. And once he had joined, he could not leave. He had to embrace them, like it or not.
Dharmaraj sat with a drooping face. Looking at him one would have guessed that he still nurtured the faint hope that he would get back his matted booth erected on stilts. As if all of life’s pleasures were secreted there, and if that was gone nothing remained in life. He did not know that actually the value written in the paper bearing his thumb impression was much more than the amount of money paid to him. If you want it back, then repay the amount written in the paper. Witnesses would swear in the name of Ma Kali and say: In front of us Dharmaraj received and counted twenty-five thousand rupees for the sale of his shop. How could he ever repay so much money? It would be an immense feat to catch and put back in the cage the bird that had flown away.
But he shouldn’t be made despondent now. Like a carrot, hope ought to be dangled in front of his eyes. He should be told, “We’ll see what can be done.”
Ghosh babu finally said, “Don’t worry. After all, I’m here. Give me ten or fifteen days’ time, let me talk to Kanai Nayak once. Everything will be alright. Doesn’t the Gita say, whatever happens is for good. So trust me, whatever happens will only be beneficial to you. I’ll do my best to see that you get the shop back.”
That day, trusting in a promise, Dharmaraj had to return empty-handed. What else could he have done! Who would he have gone to with his complaint? The police and the courts would all heed only the Ghosh babus. If he approached them – only the weight of his offense would increase, nothing else.
Justice could not be had from the one whose cow had eaten the grain – Dharmaraj knew the rustic proverb. Yet every day or two he went and stood at Ghosh babu’s door. He pleaded: “I can’t take it anymore, babu. I can’t feed my family anymore. Please do something. Or else me, my wife and child will all starve to death.”
“You won’t die! You won’t die any longer!”, Ghosh babu had said laughingly. “Once you have taken refuge with me, who can kill you? No more starving for you now. Whenever you’re in need, come to me. How much money do you need to run your family? I’ll give it.” And it wasn’t just words. He had also held out a five-hundred rupee note. “Take it, and go and make your purchases. I’ll pay you again tomorrow.” Stretching out his hand and taking the money had been Dharmaraj’s big folly. After all, Ghosh babu was in politics, he kept himself apprised about human behavior. He knew that once someone was enticed by greed, he could be dragged right to hell. Dharmaraj was trapped. He was well and truly bound, in strong yet all-too-easily available rope, he was enslaved. His working hands would now be transformed into begging hands.
Dharmaraj reflected that first one person from the party had grabbed his shop, throwing him into hardship. And at the time of his misfortune, another person from the same party pitifully extended his helping hand. Behind this was clearly a well-conceived plan executed by a high-powered brain. This was the very man who, employing a special technique, seemed to transform cold water that was used to douse fire into something that instead fuelled the fire. The man had fathomed Dharmaraj after close observation. He knew that within the man who to outward appearances was a timid, simpleton type of drunken meat-seller lay a dormant power, which, if utilized, could accomplish worthwhile work. The work which, if undertaken by party members, could subsequently lead to various problems. But party-less Dharmaraj was absolutely unproblematic, safe, unaccountable and without demands.
This was a region where, who knows why, the indigenous inhabitants were not really bound to or meek or obedient towards the present ruling party. They had the same rage and hatred towards them that they had harboured against the English rulers. They would never concede under any circumstances. If they were pressurized or intimidated for some time – as soon as there was the slightest loosening of control, they flared up once again, like a snake’s hood. Hence, from the end of the seventies to 2010, that’s a period of thirty or thirty-two years, at no time was this region peaceful. Every now and then firearms and country-bombs were deployed, and people got killed.
But those were all isolated incidents of resistance. This time, seeing the preparations of the two sides, experienced people like Ghosh babu knew that the forthcoming battle would be a comprehensive one. The people from the opposite side were inciting the villagers, telling them that their lands, homesteads, ponds, flower-gardens, and even the schools, hospitals, temples and mosques and so on were all going to be taken away, but they were not going to let that happen as long as they were alive … On this side, the all-powerful government and ruling party too were in no position to relent. After all, there had been a secret agreement with the industrialists. A very major agreement.
So both sides were preparing for a fight-to-the-finish. Just like a singer rehearsing before the main song, in a similar fashion, some warm-up exercises were taking place before the main battle. A couple of stray attacks every day or two. One or two deaths. The time was slowly approaching for the final enactment of the conspiracy of encircling a massive area from three sides, making life hell for the people and thus transforming it into a depopulated cemetery …
One day, Dharmaraj had gone to Ghosh babu’s house. His house was never empty. Ten or twenty people were always present. But all the people he saw that day looked unfamiliar. No one was from these parts. A few of them were speaking in Hindi. Their appearance and movements seemed somewhat wild and reckless. Dharmaraj was sure that if they were made to wear police uniforms, no one would think anything amiss.
The people who had arrived remained there. They were put up in the two-storey party office encircled by high walls, at some distance from Ghosh babu’s house. Those parts were quite vacant. People hardly went there. The people who would cook for them had also arrived, with huge pots and pans, and goats and chickens. Liquor flowed at night like a veritable offering to the gods.
Dharmaraj had become Ghosh babu’s pet pussycat by now. Sumanta Ghosh had also started viewing him as someone to trust. Dharmaraj saw that sometimes the men went away somewhere after it became dark. And on those nights, across the river, there would be a dacoity in the house of one of the leaders of the resistance committee, or some house would be set on fire, or a girl would be raped. The river was wide, but not so wide that intimations from the other side didn’t reach this side. If a house was on fire one could see the glow from this side. One day it was learnt that some people had attacked the house of the resistance committee leader, Nurul Master, and taken him away. They had also taken away his seventeen-year-old daughter, Anwara. She was found in an unclothed state in the slush of a pond. She was dead. Nurul Master was not found. He had been taken away on the motor-boat anchored on the river.
Why had they taken him away? Why didn’t they just kill him? Those who took Nurul Master away wanted to get some information from him. They wanted to know, for instance, whether they had links with anyone outside; what other weapons, besides country-bombs and pipe-guns, the resistance committee possessed, and in what quantity; where the arms were stored; and so on.
Dharmaraj knew Nurul Master, he used to come to the bazar in Gokulnagar earlier. A very good man. Hearing the news about him, Dharmaraj was genuinely saddened.
Going to meet Ghosh babu that day, Dharmaraj was told that he was not at home. He was at the party office. When he went there, he saw that Ghosh babu was extremely busy. He was rushing around here and there, and talking to various people. The appearance, movements and speech of the people present there resembled that of warriors returned from the battlefield. Some of them were a bit injured. Seeing Dharmaraj, Ghosh babu was alarmed. Waving his hand as if shooing away flies, he said, “Go away now, come later.” But after that, remembering something, he said: “Come at night, I need you then. Make sure you’re there, it’s very important.”
Dharmaraj too was in need. His daughter was down with fever. He had to take her to a doctor. And so he needed money.
Dharmaraj had a cycle. It was a bit old, but nevertheless it was usable. That evening, after it became dark, he arrived at Ghosh babu’s house on his cycle. A man said, “Babu asked you to be sent to the banana grove.”
Dharmaraj knew Ghosh babu’s banana grove. Various breeds of bananas spread over four or five bighas. Because the land lay at an elevation, there was no water there. Paddy could not be cultivated there. Some people said, of course secretly, that apparently when the soil there was dug human bones emerged. A great advantage of a banana grove was that hundreds of new plants were born of themselves from each palm. Hence there was no need to dig the earth. An old bloke watched over the grove. Ghosh babu had arranged for him to be brought from Puri.
The banana grove was at a distance of about eight minutes from Ghosh babu’s house. Parking his cycle and advancing a bit inside the grove, Dharmaraj sensed that quite a few people were present there. Ghosh babu was also there. Seeing Dharmaraj, Ghosh babu told the men, “You can go now. I’ll handle it.”
There was no resemblance between Ghosh babu today and the person he had seen until yesterday. Now he looked like a wild bull or boar that had been in a fight a little while ago. But he had just remembered that he had been taught by a master to be calm and unmoving. After the men melted into the darkness, he said in a stony voice: “Dharmadas, today is the day of your test. All these days you ate of my salt, now it’s time to repay the debt. There’s some work you have to do. Only you can do it. It’s essential that you do it. Come.”
Ghosh babu did not specify what would happen if he did not do the work. But Dharmaraj figured that out when, following Ghosh babu to the middle of the banana grove, he saw some broken palms, upturned earth and a lifeless man. The man lay on his face on the earth, the clothes on his body were in shreds, his body was crumpled up like a bundle.
Pointing to the body, Ghosh babu said, “Something has to be done with this.”
That night, it was as if the blackest darkness descended over the whole earth. The darkness was even more dense in the banana grove. One could sense that there were men hiding all over the place. They wouldn’t allow anyone to come anywhere near. Whoever came could not leave either without their say-so. Dharmaraj had arrived. That meant he had truly arrived. He had seen a dead man. He knew what he should not know. Now he had to take at least some part of the responsibility for the death. He too had to be connected to the crime. Otherwise it would be difficult to go back. Ghosh babu would not let him return.
Ghosh babu said dryly, “Cut it into five or six bits. You’re used to cutting meat. After that wrap the pieces in a banana leaf and get to the road, go and tie it to stones and throw it into the river. That’s all the work there is. Dharmaraj remembered the time Ghosh babu’s elder daughter got married. He had been called to cut the goats. Ten or twelve goats were tied to a post. He had instructed him likewise, “Cut it nicely into medium-size pieces. Not too small, not too large, you can take the skin, heads and everything else.” Today it occurred to him that for these people there was no difference at all between men and goats. But Dharmaraj was just an ordinary butcher. His hands and legs turned icy. Sensing Dharmaraj’s plight, Ghosh babu said, “Liquor has been brought, gulp a bottle, once you’re intoxicated you won’t have a clue about what you’re cutting. Get to work at once. The work has to be completed in two hours.”
Dharmaraj had no idea how he completed the task that day. Who knows whether it was he who did it or the terrible intoxication that made him do it. But from that day on, this had become his work. Ghosh babu had given him a mobile phone, “As soon as it rings, get ready. Your tools are fine. Bring those along.” Across the river, the tumult of wailing kept erupting. Every now and then, one or two persons disappeared.
By now, both sides had commenced battle. Initially the people from the resistance committee bore the brunt of the violence and got killed. But now they were striking back. It was said that just as Ghosh babu’s party had hired people from Bihar, now people had come from some place called Chhattisgarh and joined the other side. Apparently each one of them was equal to a hundred warriors. The police were terrified of them. The party men dressed in police outfits were no match for them.
So far, it had been the people here who crossed the river to carry out attacks, but one night the people on the other side crossed over. It had been peaceful so far on this side, while on the other side houses were burnt and people were killed. Night’s darkness had been suffused with the mournful wails of raped girls. But there was hardly any impact on this side. That night the battle that had so far taken place on the other side arrived on this side. There’s no way of knowing how exactly word had reached them that a feast was taking place in the banana grove. Of course, feasts took place every night in the party office. But now there was something of a special arrangement in the banana grove. There was liquor and there were women. If such things entered the party office, there was the fear of damaging the party’s image among people. And hence the need for caution. And after all, one didn’t have an option, this was merely the demand under the circumstances. If one kept a tiger then it had to be fed meat. In order to keep up the morale of the men who had come here leaving their home and family behind, and were risking their lives – the appropriate ingredients had to be supplied.
It was almost midnight then. This was not a city but a black night in rural Bengal. Crawling on all fours, they surrounded the banana grove. The dark grove became as clear as day in the bright light of their torches. After that, there was continuous gunfire and the explosion of country-bombs. The men in the grove were in a stupor of intoxication then. Although they were armed, they didn’t get a chance to use their weapons.
A triangle joining north, south and west, and at the western end, sitting in his own house, Dharmaraj heard the sounds of firearms and bombs. In rural Bengal, sounds carry for many miles at night. Dharmaraj was a bit surprised. All these days, whatever wailing and turmoil had been there, he had heard coming from the southerly direction. So why from the north today? After about half an hour, the sounds ceased.
In a short while, Dharmaraj’s mobile began to ring. Not just a missed call today, Ghosh babu himself came on the line. “There’s no one to go to fetch you, get on your cycle and come at once.” He then disconnected. And Dharmaraj got on his cycle. Darkness everywhere, but Dharmaraj was used to these roads. It was as if the village folk had been effaced by the sound of gunfire and country-bombs. Not a sign of life anywhere. All the dogs who began barking and chasing as soon as they spotted anyone seemed to have been hidden away somewhere.
At a crossroads stood a man with a torch in his hand. Owing to his frequent comings and goings here, everyone knew Dharmaraj. He too knew everyone by face. He also knew a few words in Hindi now. Kattha meant revolver, gun meant firearm, chhabeli meant girl, daru meant liquor and khatam meant dead. The man with the torch lead him to where he had to go. He followed, and saw six men, khatam, and two men gasping for life. There were a few more wounded and dead. But because they were all from this locality, they were taken to the banana grove. Once the police arrived, they would do whatever had to be done. But these few people were outsiders. Hence they had been brought here.
Dharmaraj looked at the men. He did not shudder now seeing dead men. Like the doms in the medical dissection room, he too had become habituated to being together with the dead. But who knows why, seeing these men now in such a condition, he wasn’t at all pleased. Someone hummed a song inside his head. These people had beaten and smashed to death a fine man like Nurul Master, as if he were a snake. And the girl had been brutally raped repeatedly until she died. How much they must have suffered before dying. Even if Nurul Master was at fault, what was the girl’s fault? Compared to them, these people’s death had been so gentle and easy. They got bullets on their chest and head, khatam right there.
After a while, Ghosh babu arrived. He said curtly, “You know what’s to be done, don’t you?”
Dharmaraj nodded plainly to convey he knew. He was no longer an idiot. He had also intuited that these bodies should not be seen by anyone. People on this shore had for long been clamouring that Ghosh babu had hired professional killers from outside and got people killed. Ghosh babu’s party had never admitted to that. Now if the identity of these bodies came to light questions would arise. Why were men from Bihar hiding in the banana grove? Who had brought them? And then one thing would lead to another, exposing everything. So one had to get rid of one’s corpses oneself.
Dharmaraj said, “It’ll take four hours to cut eight bodies. It’ll be morning by then. There’s risk of people finding out. As I cut them, if someone goes and disposes it carefully in the river, the whole task will become simpler.
Ghosh babu was compelled to accept the reasoning. He said, “Okay, I’ll arrange for a person to throw it. You cut them to pieces. Cut it and pile it up, I’ll send a van-rickshaw with two fellows. You needn’t worry, they’ll throw it.”
Ghosh babu went away and the man who brought Dharmaraj also went back to his duty of keeping watch. In the middle of the field was a dry pond, encircling it were some date palms and acacia trees. The few men standing there moved away some distance. There was a big difference between shooting people from afar and seeing men being cut up in front of them. The latter required plenty of guts.
The bodies were all piled up. One on top of another. As soon as Dharmaraj caught hold of the leg of one and began dragging the body out, the man moaned – Pani, pani do!
Pani means water. Where would Dharmaraj find water here. He snapped, “Just be patient for a while. You’ll be going into the water, you can drink water to your fill then.”
The man began to wail, “Where will you take me”, he asked in a Hindi-Bengali pidgin. He was seized of the fear of a cruel death. However brave one might be, one was always afraid of dying. It was not good to add to the fears of travellers on the road to death. Even doctors provide consolation – you’ll get better, they say. But now, floating in front of Dharmaraj’s eyes were the faces of Nurul saheb and his daughter, Anwara. Dharmaraj had never seem Anwara, whenever he thought about her he imagined his own daughter’s face. Simple, innocent, vulnerable.
Dharmaraj said, “Where’ll I take you! Where am I supposed to take you?”
The body of the man from Bihar was completely drenched in blood. In the darkness one could not see where the bullet had entered. But it seemed it was not a fatal injury, if treated, perhaps he could survive. But now he would bleed to death. It would take time for him to die. Dharmaraj had about three hours in hand. He could grant him life for that length of time. If he died during this while, that was it. If he didn’t die, he would think about that later. Now he could exchange a few words with him. That would provide some relief to his fatiguing work.
As he made a cut on another corpse near the groin and separated a leg, in the way he used to cut a leg from a slung goat and chop it into small pieces while talking to the customer, he said, “Bihari brother, the way I’m cutting now, I’ll cut you too the same way. I’ll cut you and wrap it in a banana leaf. Although you won’t be there, at the time of your departure drops of your blood will drip all along the way. After that it will be thrown in the river. You’ll see how sweet and cool the river’s water is.”
In the same den where Dharmaraj drank, Vivek and Basanta Naskar, of Ma Sitala Jatra Company, also came to drink. One day Vivek had remarked, “Your name’s a very special one, Dharmaraj. Do you know what this name means? Yamaraj! When man dies, Yama undertakes his judgement. Yamaraj is the lord of dead men.”
Dharmaraj thought he was now the master of judgement on the virtues and sins of these dead men. The punishment each person was due had to be finely calibrated and explained. But he didn’t feel like according any regard or respect to the man from Bihar. He said, “Oh butcher, can you hear what I’m saying? Or did you pass out after hearing me! Where are your oohs and ahs? Respond!”
The man wept in agony. “Don’t kill me, I’m alive, why kill me!” Dharmaraj felt like laughing aloud. The Bihari was a crazy idiot. He says he’s alive. If he had survived would Ghosh babu have given him over to Dharmaraj’s custody? His was a head fed on milk, ghee and butter and practiced in politics. Did this sattu-eater know more than him? Ghosh babu knew who had died and who had survived. If he said you’re dead that means you’re really dead.
Dharmaraj then thought, what’s the difference between being alive and dead. One breathes and the other doesn’t, isn’t it! On this or that side of a mere breath. If the Bihari man was taken away, hidden away in some secret place, how long would he survive? A day or two at most. What epic overturning would be achieved by his surviving two more days! Besides, if the body was not concealed, and people found out, Ghosh babu’s reputation would suffer, the party would be in difficulty.
Dharmaraj pondered over it deeply. Why had this man come from some godforsaken place to a village in Bengal? He had come on party work, the nation’s work, to help poor folk. How many people had given their lives laughingly for the nation. And this one was so stingy, he couldn’t give up the craving for just a few more breaths. So do you love the country? Or do you love the party? Shame on you!
The dying Bihari saw another man like him being cut into pieces. He would also be, and that’s why he wailed: “Don’t kill me. I have a wife and kids at home.”
Dharmaraj thought, perhaps Nurul Master had wept the same way. Until the very evening of the day, he had been walking laughing and chatting with people. At night, he was killed.
Dharmaraj sought to know, “When you people killed Nurul Master, what did he say before he died?”
The man was silent. He did not speak.
“Speak up, dead man. When someone is caught and taken to be killed, when he knows there’s no hope of survival, what does he do then, what does he say? Tell me, I’ve never heard that.”
The man wailed again, “Give me water!”
“I heard that when Nurul Master asked for water you people pissed on his face! Is that true?”, Dharmaraj snarled threateningly.
The man was mute.
“Speak, speak up, or else I won’t give you even the couple of hours you could have survived. I’ll cut you just now.”
“Let me go.”
“Don’t talk rubbish! There’s no use telling me what I can’t do. Who am I to let you go?”
After a pause, Dharmaraj continued: “One thousand for each body. And I’ll let you go! I’ll lose a thousand rupees, will your fucking dad pay me that?”
The night was terrifying. A ravenous, anarchic darkness lay over every village, town and settlement of Bengal. Blood-thirsty wild animals grew more active in the black night. Nowhere was any life safe anymore. In the black stillness, Dharmaraj’s blows continued. A chopping sound wafted away faintly in the breeze. The severed arms, legs and heads were piled on a large plastic sheet. Of the two men who were gasping a little while ago, one had stopped. One remained. Every now and then he moaned, ooh, ah.
Dharmaraj had heard that when a man’s death was near, he became very simple and easy. Scenes from the past floated before his eyes, like a cinema playing. Remorse awakened for public and secret misdeeds.
Was that awakening in this man? If it did, then it meant his death was close at hand. In that case, it was best to leave him to the hands of fate and wait for some more time for the normal outcome!
And if it did not awaken? That could only mean he was not about to die.
Hey, what if this man survived? There was only one way for him to survive, and that was if the police arrived now. If they picked him up and admitted him to some hospital. That was most unlikely, but if he was lucky, it could happen. What would the man do if he survived? Murder another Nurul Master, rape and kill another Anwara. Ghosh babu had said, our party is a party of the poor. Dharmaraj knew now that these people would actually kill the poor. Who needed such sympathizers of the poor? Why should this man survive?
Five bodies had been cut. Three remained. Dharmaraj lit a beedi, throwing a gamcha over his head and lowering his face near the earth to light the matchstick so that the light wasn’t visible. He’d had to practice all this. Inhaling a lungful of smoke, he groped for a word. A rustic synonym for self-reproach or remorse. He didn’t get it.
Finally he said, “Do you have any sorrows? How many people’s homes did you burn and loot? How many mothers and sisters did you rape? “You killed so many, do you feel bad for anyone? Do you think those were sinful or wrong?”
The man moaned, “Water, give me some water!”
“Water! It’s to water that you’re going! Tell me, do you think you did wrong?”
The man didn’t say anything. Dharmaraj didn’t want to hear anything more either. Must hurry up and finish the work. The morning star was visible. It would be morning before long. He had to wash away the blood on himself and return home before daylight. He dragged the last man, the Bihari, towards him. As he brought down the cleaver, the warm blood that gushed out of the severed throat wet Dharmaraj.
That was about a month ago. After that the whole region fell into deep slumber, like a tired boy at the end of the day. Police and journalists came frequently. But no longer was the sound of gunfire and country-bombs heard anywhere after darkness fell. The will to go from this shore to the other and carry out attacks there – the power of men and arms – was broken. Consequently, the other side did not think it necessary to come and carry out attacks on this side. But for the one whose work now was cutting bodies, how would he and his family survive if bodies did not fall? And the payment for those eight he had cut had not yet been received. Nowadays, Ghosh babu was not to be found anywhere. It was said that apparently the police were on the lookout for him. His enemies were also searching for him. That was why he had disappeared.
And then suddenly the krring krring! of the mobile today. The call had come.
Benda knew where Dharmaraj went, and why. Women’s sixth sense was extremely sharp. Even if Dharmaraj didn’t tell her anything, with her own sense and reflection she had gathered that the work was not something desirable. The frog that had been caught in the snake’s fangs had now been swallowed. Dharmaraj too had been swallowed by Sumanta Ghosh. To tear his stomach and emerge was beyond Dharmaraj’s power. Benda was a vulnerable woman. What was she to do!
Dharmaraj said to Benda, his voice faltering, “I’m going, lock the door and go to sleep.”
Benda would lie down. She would do that as soon as she secured the door. But would she be able to sleep? She would not be able to shut her eyes until Dharmaraj was back. As soon as he returned, Dharmaraj would pick up the soap and go to the pond. He would bathe himself thoroughly and then he would wash the tools and hide them. After that he would drink heavily. Then, in a state of intoxication, he would weep. He would abuse someone. Was it his own fate he was railing at? Benda did not know.
Only on one day did he not cry. He drank liquor, but he did not lose his senses. He had said to Benda, “Do you know, wife, for a long time the burden of sin was piling up. Today I washed away all sins.”
“How was that?”
“I can’t tell you. A woman can digest a plateful of rice, but she can’t digest a truth. I won’t tell you now, but some day or the other, I’ll definitely tell you. Then you’ll know what I did.”
After some time, as usual, a motorcycle came and stopped where it was supposed to. Turning once to look at Benda, Dharmaraj went and mounted the pillion seat. Another man sat behind him. Leaving a cloud of dust behind and emitting fumes of burnt petrol, the motorcycle sped ahead. After moving for half an hour it arrived in front of a deserted garden-house and stopped. Once upon a time, this belonged to some babu from Kolkata. They did not come any longer.
Dharmaraj sought to know, “Why have you brought me here?”
The man behind him said, “Ghosh babu is here. He asked me to bring you here. Go and find out what he wants.”
Following behind the man, Dharmaraj saw Ghosh babu sitting on a chair with his feet up on a table. A candle was burning. In the faint light, there was a ghostly atmosphere in the room. Some men were seated. They looked like guardians of the world of phantoms. No one said a word. The plaster had peeled away in the extremely old house, exposing red bricks that looked like the paan-stained teeth in the gaping mouth of an ogre.
The one who ushered Dharmaraj said to Ghosh babu, “He wanted to know why he has been brought.”
“Do you say!” Ghosh babu appeared surprised. “You could have told him when you fetched him.”
Putting down his feet, Ghosh babu sat up straight now. “Do you follow, Dharma, there’s a great commotion regarding that case. It’s no longer in the hands of the local police station. The criminal investigation department is looking into it. They are terribly pig-headed you know, they catch and question any and everyone. There’s word that they seem to suspect you. Can’t say, they may even arrest you.”
Dharmaraj’s head reeled. The flame raced in the pupils of his eyes. Ghosh babu continued, “You are not politically aware, you don’t understand what ought to be said and what should not be said. So we’re worried about you. That’s why you have to go into hiding now. I’ll arrange a place. I’ll keep you in hiding there. What do you say? You’ll go into hiding, won’t you? Think about it and tell me.” Nodding his head, Dharmaraj indicated that he was willing. Looking in the direction of the other man, Ghosh babu said, “He says he’ll hide. Since he’s agreed, take him. Take him to the hiding place.”
People say politics is apparently a grave matter. That there’s no place for mirth and jest here. Absolute rubbish. The one who knows to laugh laughs everywhere. Just now Ghosh babu cracked such a wonderful joke. So exquisitely did he jest and ask for Dharmaraj to be hidden.
The man called him. “Come with me.” Ghosh babu said, “Go”.
Dharmaraj stepped outside. Entering darkness after light, he could not see properly for a moment.
Outside, in the dense darkness that was whetted like death, stood the motorcycle. On the instruction of the one who had brought him Dharmaraj mounted the pillion seat. The driver sat on the bike, started it, jerked forward and raced ahead along the path on the field, leaving behind a cloud of dust and emitting fumes of burnt petrol. The red light shining at the rear of the bike like a one-eyed monster gradually faded away in an unfathomable dark ocean …
This is a translation of the original Bengali short story, “Shob Kotha Raat Jaane”, by V. Ramaswamy. Ramaswamy has translated two collections of short fiction by the Bengali anti-establishment writer, Subimal Misra, The Golden Gandhi Statue from America and Wild Animals Prohibited. He is currently translating a novel by Manoranjan Byapari about the formerly “untouchable” Namasudra community of East Bengal, under the Literature Across Frontiers – Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship at the University of Aberystwyth, Wales.