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Ashapurna Debi

Illustration by Vishwajyoti Ghosh

"What was that, Dadu?"

Biswapati raised his voice — more to hide his embarrassment than in anger.

"What was what? I owed him money from yesterday, that’s all!" he growled.

"How come you always owe them money?" retorted Amulya. "You’re paying them all the time."

"Wonderful," scowled Biswapati, "so now you’re keeping tabs on my accounts too."

Amulya fanned the mosquito-repellent smoke into the dark corners of the room.

"Well, I don’t see anyone else keeping much of a tab on you." he said softly.

What about those three brats?

Biswapati turned to Amulya with a distant look in his eyes. "You know, Amulya, once upon a time we were also children… our house was full of children. But we adored our grandfather… not like these three. Insolent, impudent… grinning like monkeys and running away when I call them," he sighed.

Amulya was silent. He preferred the grouchy Biswapati. He couldn’t bear the old man’s brooding.

The next morning, while he was giving Biswapati his oil massage, Amulya suddenly noticed his fingers.

"Dadu! Where’s your ring?" he demanded.

"Ring? What ring?" Biswapati turned his hands palm-down. He looked surprised. "Yes, you’re right. It must have fallen off."

"Fallen off?" asked a suspicious Amulya, "a ring that always had to be yanked off your finger?"

"Check the bed. Maybe it fell off there." said Biswapati. "Fingers become thinner during sleep, you know."

"Fingers become thinner during sleep? That’s a new one!" exclaimed Amulya. "You didn’t give it to that man last night, did you?"

Suddenly, unpredictably, Biswapati burst into tears. "Ah, what are you saying, Amulya?" he cried. "Do you think I’m mad? Why would I give a gold ring to a stranger? The fact that you take care of me doesn’t give you the right to humiliate me. What are you waiting for? Go on upstairs and tell the whole world that the crazy old man has given away his gold ring. That’s easier than searching for it, isn’t it?" Biswapati stopped, out of breath, to dry his eyes.

Usually, Amulya would have ignored the outburst. He was an affectionate person who actually had a soft corner for Biswapati (though Biswapati frequently addressed him as a merciless monster). But something didn’t seem right here. A cripple with no visitors… his only contact with the outside world through a window… how can such a man lose his ring? Obviously, everyone would suspect Amulya — he was the old man’s constant companion.

Without further delay, Amulya explained the situation to the two wives very carefully — the children must not know anything. Of course, that didn’t mean everyone believed he was innocent. People talked behind his back. "God knows what really happened," they whispered, "who knows what part he played in the whole incident. That ring was of solid gold… at today’s rates it would fetch a handsome price."

Nobody said anything to Amulya, though, simply because they didn’t want him to quit.

Who would take care of that crazy old fossil then?

The only person who would have willingly done so, who could be safely prosecuted for all of Biswapati’s tantrums, had left this world years ago. Left it for the sons to bear the brunt of it all. Sometimes, Bhubanpati and Tirthapati were infuriated by their mother’s treachery. Nirmala Ganguly had departed when Biswapati, at full clout, had the earth trembling beneath his feet. That was a long, long time ago.

If Amulya was not to be harassed, then the source of the calamity had to be appropriately grilled.

Tirthapati took charge.

Bhubanpati wasn’t aware of the incident — he had gone to an office wedding directly from work. In his absence, Tirthapati was expected to tackle the situation — he was responsible by default.

The room was a mess. A bedpan, a urinal, a washtub, a bucket, a table, a bed, the chair by the window… everything crammed into that small space. No wonder people avoided the rat-hole.

Still, today was an exception. Tirthapati put on his sandals and stepped in, careful not to touch anything. He stood before his father and didn’t waste words.

"What happened to your ring, Baba?" he demanded.

Biswapati’s uneasiness was apparent. But in his usual aggressive manner he replied, "Aha! So the scoundrel did go and snitch. I told him it must be lying around here somewhere… look for it… but that would mean hard work, so the shirker never found the time…" Biswapati stopped to catch his breath.

"Nonsense!" Tirthapati responded harshly. In the absence of the elder brother, this was his chance to be in control. "You’ll be transferred to the upstairs bedroom tomorrow morning."

Biswapati seemed distressed. Obviously, he hadn’t bargained for this. But very calmly he said, "Upstairs again? Are you mad? I’m doing fine… when my time comes, I’ll just go off to the crematorium straight from here."

Tirthapati’s voice dripped scorn. "Nice thought, but it looks like the people who are supposed to carry you to the crematorium will get there before you do."

Biswapati lost his composure, "What? How could you say that to my face?" he wailed.

"Just stating the facts," barked Tirthapati. "My blood pressure has shot up to two hundred and forty. But that’s beside the point. Your antics have made us the laughing stock of the neighbourhood. They must think we don’t give you anything to eat. An old man gorging himself on the sly… how revolting!"

Like a drowning man, Biswapati clutched at the straw. "Ha! Why would anyone think that?" he said dismissively. "Everyone knows that age brings on its own greed… old people yearn for tasty morsels, that’s all. Anyway, I’m not going upstairs."

"Yes, you are," Tirthapati’s voice was firm. "And forget those stupid excuses. I know all about your diversions — including your payoffs to those rascals who disappear without a trace."

Biswapati started wailing again, "You’re right! Cheats, all of them… you can’t imagine how many… they never come back, those swindling bastards…" He cut himself short — a little carelessness, and he would be swept away by the tide of events.

"Enough! We have to get you out of here," Tirthapati went on, "I can’t imagine anyone so old being so gluttonous… disgusting!"

Biswapati stared at his son’s unforgiving face. "This is my only contact with the outside world," he whimpered. "Why must you take that away from me? How will I survive… a man with no legs?"

"The result of your foolhardiness!" Tirthapati’s cruel voice reminded his father. "Who asked you to jump on to a running tram?"

A faded memory floated by.

Biswapati looked surprised. A running tram?

Who had jumped onto a running tram? Biswapati? Which Biswapati? What did he look like? What size shoes did he wear?

Satisfied with this exhibition of power, Tirthapati gave the incident a second thought and decided not to insist on the change of room. It really would be easier to take him out of the ground floor when his time came, he argued to himself. Plus all that filth and mess… You couldn’t have the children on the same floor.

So when Bhubanpati returned from the wedding, Tirthapati didn’t raise the issue. He kept quiet about the ring too. Must have been Amulya, he reasoned, but so what? There was no proof, so why make an issue of it?

In any case, Tirthapati was fast asleep when Bhubanpati returned, very late.

Biswapati waited in anxiety, wide-awake since dawn. He entirely expected four coolies to appear suddenly and drag him upstairs. That would mean the end of all his plans.

Nothing like that happened… at least, not in the morning.

In his round chair, Biswapati kept time.

He saw the children leave for school — two different school buses for three children — without even looking at him. That was normal. Biswapati remembered how he had paid respect to the portraits of his grandparents before he left for school every day. He sighed deeply.

But what was it like for these children? Did Biswapati care to understand their point of view? Did he know what their friends asked? "If your grandfather is so ill, why isn’t he in bed? Why does he hang around that window all the time?" The three children always looked away to hide their embarrassment.

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