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  The Visit — 3  

  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

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