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  The Visit  

  Looking Back
  Vol II : issue 2

  Amit Chaudhuri
  Cass Sunstein
  Dibyendu Palit
  Vinay Lal
  Only in Print

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Pastels on paper by

Dibyendu Palit

Everyone knew Priyanath’s family wasn’t rich. They led a hand-to-mouth existence. The neighbourhood they lived in was reasonably secure, financially as well as socially, and there could be no comparison between Priyanath’s frugal existence and his neighbours’ comfortable lifestyle.

But that wasn’t a bad thing — the older residents protected these lesser neighbours with love and affection, introducing them duly to all newcomers, to ensure that familiarity bred sympathy and love for this unfortunate family.

There were advantages of living in such a neighbourhood. Priyanath and his family were always at the top of the guest lists for dinner and lunch every time a neighbour had reason to celebrate. Priyanath lived in a tiny, cage-like, two-room house with his wife and three children, and they lost their privacy the moment they opened their front door. Everyone was aware of this, so no one would ever step in. “My eldest son is getting married this Sunday. Do come…” — all invitations were delivered from beyond the threshold. Priyanath or his wife Shyama would say: “Won’t you come in?” They’d always decline politely, “Oh, no! Still have a lot of houses to visit. But not only for supper — you must come for lunch as well…”

Two of his children (who were old enough), would eavesdrop, giggling excitedly at the thought of the impending feasts: not just one, but both meals of the day! Shyama would sigh at their salivating fantasies while Priyanath — even though he didn’t sigh — would feel dazed, as the dynamics of food and hunger clouded his brain.

Frugality was fun too, but only occasionally: on the days this needy family had little or almost nothing to eat, the children wouldn’t complain. They’d fall asleep, tired after recalling and discussing the delicious food they had had in all those feasts they had been invited to.

Priyanath hated this existence. In the beginning it had insulted him, more so as he couldn’t forget that he was a post-graduate, and therefore educated and a bhadrolok. What was the use of these degrees, he’d ask himself. A man is judged by his status and money, things that had always eluded him. He never got a permanent job, or could never get settled in one. After failing to secure stable employment, Priyanath had taken to doing several jobs at once — none of which, unfortunately, were very paying. He felt his value spiralling downwards along with the rupee’s — he couldn’t satisfy any of his family’s wishes. So how could he even dare to oppose the neighbours who politely fulfilled them, that too without any active contribution from him?

So reasoned Priyanath, and he learned to compromise — and duly passed on the skill to Shyama. From then on, though they sent their hungry children to the neighbourhood celebrations, either Priyanath and Shyama would stay home, ‘sick’. This was how the couple preserved their self-respect, at least for themselves.

But it wasn’t as if they were only invited to feasts — invitations also came every time an important person visited the neighbour. The neighbour who’d invited them would introduce them to the big person too: “This is Priyanath,” they’d say, “a very nice person; and this is Shyama, his wife. And these — Bhooni, Taaku and Bini — these are their children.” They’d go on: “Arrey, why are you so quiet, Priyanath? Come on, say something. You know so much…” Priyanath would be silent with embarrassment. Sitting there, hands gathered in his lap, he’d be acutely aware of how he and his family were inevitably delaying the others, who’d queued up to enjoy the big person’s presence. At such times, he’d maybe mistake himself for a big person as well.

Back home, after the children had fallen asleep talking about the big person, Priyanath and his wife would leave small talk about big persons aside and speak of special things… and then even they’d fall asleep. It was during one such conversation that Shyama said something strange.

“We can’t afford to invite people to lunch. But couldn’t we invite a big person just once?” Priyanath heard her, but didn’t pay much attention.
“And which big person do we know?” he simply asked.
“Why? What about that Mr H of yours? He’s become famous.”
“Mr H!” Priyanath said, as if he had forgotten, “Yes, he could be called a big person now.”
“At one time you worked hard for him, didn’t you? You helped him establish himself,” Shyama said, “Why, you’d talk about him even after our marriage. And he even came to our place once, remember?”
“But that was before he became a big person — a long time ago. Maybe he won’t even remember me now — he is surrounded by a lot of other people today. He won’t even recognise me — and I’ve changed so much myself.” Shyama asked, “Could he possibly forget the ladder he once used to climb the great heights?”
“Maybe that’s not possible,” Priyanath conceded, “but it’d be wrong to compare me to a whole ladder. Maybe just one rung… that too at the bottom somewhere…”

p. 1 p. 2 p.3 
Translated from the Bengali story ‘Abirbhab’ by Arnab Ray Ghatak with TLM

Dibyendu Palit, an award winning fiction writer, is also a respected novelist and poet of contemporary Bengal. An editor with Ananda Bazaar Patrika, he writes in Bengali
and lives in Calcutta