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Ashapurna Debi

Illustration by Vishwajyoti Ghosh

It was a painful sight. Quite horrible, actually. An eyesore every time someone stepped out of the house or stepped back in. Even for visitors. It was there — unavoidable. The room by the stairs beside the front door. There was no other way in. Or out.

Of course, it was a bad idea to keep a cripple in a room facing the front door. Especially when the house had other empty and available rooms. But Biswapati refused to leave his sanctum. The irritatingly adamant old man had come down from his first-floor bedroom one morning, planted himself in that room and just refused to move out. Exactly the way, as some people cruelly put it, he refused to move out of this world.

Biswapati was like the sun and the moon, the day and the night — an eternal presence. Stuffed into the strange round chair that had been specially made for him, beside the ground floor window overlooking the busy street. In plain view of every passer-by.

That was another bad idea, argued the other members of the household. After all, the old man was the patriarch of a renowned and respected family.

People looking up at the window from the street saw a man sitting in his chair, seemingly immobilised by age. Or perhaps paralysis. It was impossible for them to figure out that Biswapati’s legs had been amputated at the knee. Just as it was impossible for the rest of the family to know that Biswapati talked to strangers, bought junk food from every passing vendor and paid them in advance for more treats.

Surprisingly, though, all the vendors chose different routes the next day. If they passed through the neighbourhood, they did so in total silence, hurrying down the footpath on the far side of the street.

Biswapati didn’t miss a trick. His eyes, amazingly sharp for his age, pinpointed every vendor scurrying across the street, slinking away with his money. But his feeble voice didn’t carry that far. In any case, the whole thing was supposed to be a secret.

But Biswapati never realised how difficult it was to keep secrets from his three grandchildren. Families used to be much larger when Biswapati was young — big, overarching family trees with many branches spread wide. But Biswapati’s two sons had decided to keep the count low — three children between the two of them. Seven or eight years old, the kids were quite a handful and had an astonishing information network. They knew exactly what Biswapati did by his window. "So many phuchkas1, Ma… and all those ripe guavas… he, he, he… what a greedy old man."

Was Biswapati Ganguly really a hundred years old?
Unlikely. But sitting there in his chair year after year like some
inert substance somehow made him look even older. Yes, ‘inert substance’ was an apt description — Biswapati couldn’t
do anything without the help of his nurse

The granddaughter was the cleverest — sharp as a razor. Precocious, too. She was the daughter of Biswapati’s younger son Tirthapati.

"You folks are such geniuses!" she pouted. "Why give money to the old glutton in the first place?"

Her mother made a face. "It’s his money… from his pension fund. Who can prevent him?"

"Oh come on, Ma. As if he collects his own pension… doesn’t Jethu get it for him?"

That was Bhubanpati, Biswapati’s elder son.

"Of course he does… he has to."

"So why give it to him? He’s just a frail old man… he can’t fight Jethu for it."

Her mother couldn’t keep a straight face any longer. "Okay, okay, go tell your Jethu," she laughed.

"Like he’ll listen! Jethu has this thing for his father… he’ll only yell at me," countered the little girl. "Anyway, all those phuchkas, jhalmuri2, guavas…inevitable diarrhoea."

So one day, the old man’s secret became public knowledge.

Bhubanpati and Tirthapati heard the story, adequately spiced with bitchiness, from their wives. Usually, the two brothers maintained a healthy distance. They weren’t too close and didn’t agree on many issues, but there was no animosity. After all, they were far apart in years, thanks to a couple of intervening sisters. But this incident left them equally humiliated, angry, depressed and downright devastated.

Biswapati wasn’t supposed to have been around for so long. The siblings could have reasonably expected an inheritance by now. With their own names on letters, utility bills, property tax summons… even invitation cards. But even now, Biswapati’s name was on everything, even though he had nothing to do with most of it.

It annoyed Bhubanpati and Tirthapati. They should have been patriarchs in their own right long ago. Now, with every passing day, it was like chasing a dream.

It annoyed their wives even more. They existed only as the daughters-in-law of old man Ganguly.

Was Biswapati Ganguly really a hundred years old? Unlikely. But sitting there in his chair year after year like some inert substance somehow made him look even older. Yes, ‘inert substance’ was an apt description — Biswapati couldn’t do anything without the help of his nurse.

Except eat.

That was the only thing he did on his own. And he did it with a passion. He ate more than his sons. And surprisingly, he managed to digest it all, even at his age.

Bhubanpati couldn’t even drink a cup of milk. Tirthapati followed serious dietary restrictions. But their father consumed a large bowl of kheer3 every day. Without fail, and without any ill effect.

And now there was this childish behaviour with the street vendors… an absolute nuisance.

"We have to get him out of that room," Tirthapati told Bhubanpati. "I’m willing to exchange rooms with him. His earlier bedroom upstairs also overlooks the street. He could see everything. But he couldn’t buy all that rubbish from up there — he moved downstairs out of plain greed, Dada. The neighbours must think we don’t give him enough to eat… how terribly demeaning!"

Bhubanpati’s wife supported her brother-in-law right away.

"Exactly," she snapped. "Sitting out there like a gargoyle, stuffing his face with all that garbage. What a lovely sight it must be from the street!"

True, it wasn’t a pleasant sight. A drooling, dribbling, decrepit old fogey munching all day on food, medicines and junk.

Amulya, Biswapati’s nurse, caretaker and guardian, frequently dropped by with updates.

"Ugh!" he grimaced. "The number of times I have to wash and dry his hands, Chhotomashima," he told Tirthapati’s wife, "I feel like eating with a spoon, not my fingers."

"Oh Boromashima," he grinned at Bhubanpati’s wife, "I keep telling him: Dadu, cut down on all that junk. But he shouts at me: ‘Does your father pay for my food, you swine… it’s my money!’"

"Humph!" sniggered the two wives. "What arrogance!"

But events soon took an unexpected turn.

Every evening, Amulya had to leave Biswapati’s room to prepare the incense-burner used to smoke out the mosquitoes. Actually, Biswapati used the mosquito menace as a ruse to force him out of the room at dusk. Amulya suspected that that was when he paid off the vendors. Once or twice, Amulya had caught him whispering to people standing outside his window.

One evening, as Amulya silently came back into the room with the burner and hand-fan, he saw Biswapati slip something into the hands of someone waiting outside the window. As the man disappeared into the darkness, Amulya accosted Biswapati.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3

Ashapurna Debi (1909-1995) was a stalwart of Bengali literature. Her novels and short stories, exploring human nature and relationships in everyday domestic situations, exude a rare power and sensitivity.
Her honours include the Jnanpith Award