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  The Visit — 2  

  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

“These are just your apprehensions. He’ll definitely remember you once you’re with him,” Shyama replied. Priyanath’s daughter Bhooni was around. Covering her knees with her skirt, she asked, “Which Mr H are you talking about, Ma? The one who makes the headlines in the newspapers?”

“Yes, him. Once upon a time your father knew him very well. And even though Mr H was older, he and your father were almost like friends…” Bhooni looked at Priyanath. In the yellow glow of the lantern her eyes shone with respect. Then she said, “Why don’t you bring him to our house one day, Baba? Not only would we see him, but we’d also get others to see…”

“House?” Priyanath asked, “How could we ever invite anyone to this dump?”
“Why blame the house? Just get him and see how I make this place shine. These days, no one even comes in — they all stand outside and peer at us as if this is a zoo…”
Priyanath didn’t reply — he suppressed a sigh, thinking that the cage was their fate. The neighbours weren’t to be blamed.

“A big person brings good luck to the household,” Shyama urged. From then on, the idea of having a big person in their home reverberated inside their heads, within the dark corners of the two claustrophobic rooms. Bhooni and Shyama talked about him endlessly, while the son, Taaku, even pasted a photo of Mr H (cut from an old newspaper) on the wall. A big person is coming soon, the rumours spread fast, bringing along pregnant expectations and concealed excitement, much like that experienced before the Durga Puja. Though no one knew exactly how soon he would be coming.

One day, Priyanath went to Mr H’s residence. Standing outside the gates, he compared what he saw to what he remembered. Looking at the palatial house, he realised that life’s awards were proportional to how big a person got. A simple ladder couldn’t have got Mr H this far — it needed to be a stairway to heaven. Still, thinking of himself as a brick within that stairway, Priyanath felt good. Then, suddenly, he remembered. A long time ago, during a financial crunch, Mr H had borrowed fifty rupees from Priyanath — and never got around to returning it. Fifty rupees back then would mean a lot more now. But he was certain that Mr H didn’t look at it that way now that he’d made his pile. Instead, Priyanath was certain that this unpaid loan was bound to embarrass Mr H now.

Once inside, seeing the assortment of people in the large hall, Priyanath realised they all wanted to see Mr H; many must have been waiting for a long time. Maybe he’d have to wait too.
A person asked Priyanath what he wanted.
“To see Mr H,” Priyanath replied politely.

“Priyanath Ganguli. I’ve known him for a long time, he’ll remember my name.”
The man went away. “You’ll have to wait,” he said, when he returned. Priyanath nodded in understanding: it was only natural that Mr H would be busy.

About half an hour later, the man returned for Priyanath. He led him to a second-floor room where, reclining in an easy chair, was Mr H. The man asked Priyanath to sit on the sofa and went away. Priyanath faced Mr H.

“What’s the matter?” Mr H began.
“Do you remember me? I’m Priyanath Ganguli. We used to stay together in the mess…”
“Couldn’t, not from just the name,” Mr H smiled sophisticatedly. “But now I think it’s coming back…”
Priyanath bowed his head in gratitude.
“What do you do now?” Mr H asked.

“Um, nothing much, sir. Have a couple of tuitions, write money orders and letters at the post office for a fee. Nothing permanent! I’m barely pulling along…” A sharp glance from Mr H silenced Priyanath before he could finish.
“Here to get a job?”

It hit Priyanath’s already bowed head like a blow. But he realised immediately that anyone could’ve made that mistake in appraising him from his circumstances. Maybe people flocked to Mr H’s door for jobs. Mr H couldn’t have meant it in any other way. Then he looked up and said, “Not for that, sir. My children have this wish of seeing you. If you could bless our house with you presence…”
“Children’s wish? Or do you want to impress others, get an image?”

“Um!” Priyanath became nervous and muttered, “Not that either. Nothing changes a poor person’s image.”
“Right!” Mr H smiled, “but where does one find the time to satisfy these wishes? The funny thing about the world is that those who make such wishes far outnumber those who can fulfil them. Where does one find the time?”
Priyanath was silent.
“Where do you stay?”
“That same house. You went there — a long time ago…”
“Wasn’t there a pond right next to it?”
“Not any more. There’s a three-storied apartment building now.”
“Leave the address behind,” Mr H said, worried. “I’m not promising anything. Where’s the time? But then you mentioned children. They’re our future. I’ll try to drop by if I’m in that area.”

“I can’t say that now. But someday — maybe any day. But I’m not promising anything…”
Priyanath returned with mixed feelings of expectation and disappointment.
“Did you meet him?” Shyama asked. He nodded in reply.
“What did he say? Will he come?”
“Maybe he will. But he’s a busy man… didn’t say when.”
“What do you think?”
“I could’ve figured that earlier. He’s changed now — he’s not only a big person, but also a distant one. Seemed like a complete stranger. But he did take down the address.”
“Then… I’m sure he’ll come.”

Thanks to his enthusiastic wife and children, the neighbourhood soon got wind of Mr H’s impending appearance at Priyanath’s house. Many believed it and began making queries about the date and time. Others, who didn’t take it seriously, sympathised with Priyanath’s condition and discussed among themselves how it was all utter nonsense — where would someone as important as Mr H find the time to pay them a visit? He was just being polite.

However, Bhooni and Shyama didn’t let this discourage them. Though uncertain of the time and date of his visit, the possibility itself enthused Shyama, who went about cleaning up her home. Within a few days, Priyanath saw a change. Shyama had taken out all the money she’d collected over the years in the traditional piggy bank, spending it on new curtains for the windows and on a new frame that replaced the old woodworm-infested one that held their wedding photograph. Looking at the rooms and the washed floor now, no one could say Priyanath’s family was poor. Priyanath was happy, although not without feeling a pinch of dread.

One day, he called his wife and said, “I wish things would be just as they were earlier. Will Mr H’s presence really change our lives?”
“Maybe nothing will change. But it’ll spare us the pity of the neighbours.”
“If Mr H comes here at all, it’ll also be out of pity.”
Shyama thought silently, then said: “There’s goodness in a big person’s pity. If he comes, I’ll credit it to fate. After all, he doesn’t go to just anybody’s home, does he?”
“That’s true,” Priyanath said. “However, if he doesn’t, then everyone will laugh at us. Many have already begun…”

“Out of jealousy,” Shyama cut in.
Maybe she’s right, Priyanath told himself, jealousy shrinks the goodness within, isolating people.
A few days later, it began to rain heavily. The city was flooded; Priyanath’s roof leaked. It didn’t stop even after the rains. Shyama and Bhooni placed buckets and bowls on the floor under the leaks. “Some more of this and we’ll die in a roof collapse,” Shyama said.

“That’s right,” Priyanath replied, “death is pity itself. These days, I keep thinking that perhaps death alone can save us.” The words dug deep, loaded with meaning. Looking at her husband’s confused face, Shyama said sadly, “What nonsense! Ominous thoughts all the time!”

Right then, someone knocked loudly on the door. Priyanath rushed to see who it was. Unlocking the door, he saw Mr H, who took up almost the entire width of the doorway. Snapping out of a daze, he screamed, “Shyama! Bhooni! Come see who’s —”

“What a downpour! And look at all this mud!” Mr H said, entering the room after Priyanath had moved out of the way, “I was in this neighbourhood. Suddenly, I remembered. So, where are the children?”
“They’re here…”

Leading him towards the cheap cot topped by an old bedspread, Priyanath couldn’t help noticing how Mr H’s shoes were leaving muddy prints all over the floor that Shyama had spared no effort to clean. Where did all that mud come from, anyway? But before Priyanath could think any further, Shyama and the children crowded around.

“Eesh! My mistake! Should’ve left the shoes outside,” Mr H said.
“Arrey, that’s nothing,” Priyanath said, eyeing the footprints, “just mud. Easy to wipe off. But do sit down and make yourself comfortable —”
“Where’s the time to sit? The car’s outside, waiting, I’ll leave right now. Only because you said your children wanted…”
“Even then, do sit down…”
Priyanath gave his children their cue, and the trio lined up before Mr H and touched his feet. “Bless you,” he said casually, running his palm over the children’s heads and looking around the house. “I heard this was a posh neighbourhood. So they have these as well…”

Priyanath explained, “We’re old tenants — that’s how we’ve managed to cling on…” His eyes met Shyama’s, and she beckoned him over. Once he was closer she said, “Look at all the ugly mud! Do you want me to wipe the floor?”

“No, no. He’ll be embarrassed. Why don’t you make some tea instead.”
After a few moments of silently staring at something behind her husband, Shyama said, “Didn’t I tell you? Look at them outside the door. So many of them…” Looking away from her face and at the door, Priyanath noticed his neighbours standing outside the door; with a strange look in their eyes, they were looking at Mr H and then at his muddy footprints on the floor.

Priyanath was taken aback by the sight. Some of these people had earlier come around to invite them to some dinner or the other. But none of them had entered the house; he couldn’t decide if he should invite them in now. Then he thought how none of them was prepared for this big person’s visit today, and how nothing special had been organised. If he did call them in, where would he ask them to sit? Looking at Mr H, Priyanath wondered if his poor family really needed this big person’s appearance. Getting no answers from within, he went up to Mr H, who suddenly became agitated.

“Who are these people, Priyanath?”
“Neighbours, sir. Our friends, here to see you.”
“Exactly what I was afraid of. Crowd, I get a crowd no matter where I go. If you notice, you’ll realise how a formidable chunk of the Earth’s population serves no purpose — it’s just a crowd!”
“Would you like the door closed, then?”

“No, that will only fan their curiosity. I’ve been here long enough — I’ll make a move now —” And Mr H quickly walked out of the house. Shyama, who hadn’t been able to play the hostess yet, rushed out at the sound of Mr H’s departure and said, “What sort of visit is this? It would be better if…”
“…he hadn’t come at all,” her husband said in a tone full of irritation and disappointment, “How could we have even thought of keeping him here for any longer? Anyway, the floor’s all muddy. Go wipe it.”
It was then that they noticed it. Depressed and absent-minded, Shyama said, “Listen, what sort of mud is this? No matter how much I wipe, it just won’t go away!”

“Mud’s mud. Wipe properly and it’ll go away.”
“I am wiping. How much more wiping does it need?” Shyama was irritated. “Big person, my foot! Only thing he could do was to dirty the house…”
Priyanath was silent.

Despite the subsequent wiping, washing and some more wiping, the footprints simply refused to be erased. Priyanath’s whole household would inspect these prints closely. Soon, they noticed that others were also there to see the prints, with something more than just wonder and curiosity in their eyes. It didn’t take long for the news to spread. Gradually, more and more people crowded around Priyanath’s door. The neighbours offered their own remedies; some even tried a hand themselves. But when nothing worked, they all decided that it couldn’t be a good omen.

Whatever it was, this weird event altered the family’s life. Priyanath and his family weren’t invited to lunches and dinners any more. Not even a big person’s visit to the neighbourhood resulted in an invitation. Though Priyanath and his wife never spoke about it, the children did — they discussed the possible menus and conversation topics of different households in the area before falling asleep. Every knock on the door would mean more people to see the prints. Silently, they’d open it and stand aside. Once the viewing was over, they latched the door again, in silence.

Then one day they didn’t open the door. The police came. And when they broke in, they saw the big person’s footprints, and Priyanath and his family lying silent, unmoving, thin and skeleton-like, facing them. No one wanted to know how it had happened. But, as they say, a big person’s appearance often does cause things like this to happen.

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