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Kamala Das
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Ashapurna Debi

People never understood why Biswapati didn’t have a decent room upstairs. After all, it was his house. He had built it. So how come he lived in a room by the servants’ quarters?

"It was his decision… he wanted contact with the outside world..." It seemed such a lame excuse. People drew their own conclusions — it must be the daughters-in-law who have forced the sons to keep him there.

Unlike the grandchildren, the sons paid him a little more attention. There was a daily ritual. Every morning, on his way out, Tirthapati threw him a quick "I’m off." in passing. Bhubanpati paused near the door (Biswapati had to crane his neck sideways to see him) and rattled off: "Be careful. Keep the sun out. Close the window. Take your medication on time. Don’t make a fuss. See you later." And then he disappeared swiftly.

He was doing the same today when he heard his father’s voice: "One moment…"

Bhubanpati was running late. "Are you talking to me?" he asked impatiently.

"… you…will you…um… get something for me, please? Actually…"

To hell with the preamble, get to the point… An exasperated Bhubanpati did something truly unusual — he lost his temper. "Amazing! Just what I needed on my way out… why didn’t we have this discussion yesterday? What do you want?"

Biswapati didn’t seem angry or hurt. In an embarrassed tone he hurriedly said, "It’s nothing urgent… we can do it tomorrow."

Bhubanpati was also embarrassed. He seldom lost his cool, particularly with his father. "Just tell me quickly," he said.

Biswapati cringed, "Its okay. Tomorrow’s fine. There’s no hurry."

What a self-centred existence, thought Bhubanpati. Focused entirely on personal needs. It doesn’t occur to him that other people have lives… that they have to survive in the rat race. That must be the cause of his perpetual distress. That’s why he’s sulking.

Bhubanpati never tried to justify his father’s antics. But he was tolerant — like a person is tolerant of a child — and pretended to appreciate the old man’s needs. This was something that really irritated his wife. Even Tirthapati sneered at him.

Right now, there was no scope for pretence — Bhubanpati was way behind time. So he decided to address the problem the instant he got home from work. In any case, what could be so critically important in Biswapati’s life? His requirements were like a little boy’s — asking for the sake of asking. And wasn’t Bhubanpati the only person who sometimes put up with these absurd demands?

One day in Biswapati’s life — a drop in the ocean. It wasn’t going to make a difference.

On his way to work, Bhubanpati prepared his speech for the evening. He would meet his father before going up to his room. "What was it that you were saying in the morning?" he would ask, "I was running behind schedule… late nights and all that." Yes, that would be the right way to approach it.

Bhubanpati needn’t have bothered. It was a speech he would never make.

The call came a little after he reached his office. Bhubanpati was stunned. It was so unexpected. He looked totally bewildered and kept on repeating, "What are you saying?" And then he rushed out.

"Oh, Pishima," cackled Amulya, "looking for Dadu’s favourite junk food for your Chaturthi ritual, are you? Ha, ha… all that was such an inspired charade. You know what he told those vendors when he paid them in advance? To get him something laced with..."

His colleagues tried to suppress a smile. No control over his emotions, they sniggered… looked as if the sky had fallen on his head. How ridiculous! He must have known it was coming for the last ten or fifteen years… at least, he should have.

At home, Bhubanpati noticed the same reaction. It looked as if everybody had received a much-awaited gift… as if they had just heaved a sigh of relief.

Bhubanpati began to understand. He would have probably reacted the same way, if it weren’t for that morning…

Yes, if only he hadn’t hurried off that morning… if he had just waited to hear what Biswapati had been saying in that strange, washed-out voice… what he had wanted…

Had he been upset? Was that why he had said he was willing to wait till the next day? Bhubanpati thought hard. Had his old, crippled father been angry? Sad? Sentimental? Or had it just been embarrassment? What was it that he had wanted?

Now, he would never know.

It was like a closed door. Bhubanpati would have to spend the rest of his life before a closed door.

But that Amulya? How did the same door open up for him?

Amulya (he had been asked to stay back for the funeral), who was laughing about something the old man had done.

True, it wasn’t a sad death. It was more like someone had been set free. So maybe it was all right for people to laugh. The house was full of noisy guests. The whole affair was more like a festival than a funeral. And the grinning Amulya was the centre of attraction with his funny stories. He was speaking to Bhubanpati’s sister, who had come down for the funeral and was preparing for her part of the service.

"Oh, Pishima," cackled Amulya, "looking for Dadu’s favourite junk food for your Chaturthi ritual, are you? Ha, ha… all that was such an inspired charade. You know what he told those vendors when he paid them in advance? To get him something laced with poison! Ha, ha… totally senile. As if anyone in his right mind would do such a thing."

Pishima was shattered. "Is that what he did?" she could only ask.

"What else? Dadu would give them money, and then he would yell bloody murder when they never turned up again. He must have tried to lure that man with the ring. But what an irony… Yamraaj snatched him away without notice… and without any bribes… he, he, he... So if you’re looking for your father’s favourite food…maybe you should arrange for a little poison… ha, ha, ha..."

Everyone joined in. A truly funny guy, this Amulya.

But no one told Bhubanpati about the cause of all the laughter. If he knew, maybe he would have tried to find a way in past the closed door. No one would ever tell him, though.

Bhubanpati would spend eternity waiting in front of that closed door.

Translated from the Bengali by Ahitagni Chakravorty with TLM

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