Story: The Return by Sanjib Chattopadhyay
13 Apr 2017, 21:38 | updated: 13 Apr 2017, 22:09
After a long time I have returned to my childhood land. Nowadays I live in a distant foreign country. What would I do? I had to go where fate took me to. I have come for several days; my mind was desperate to come for last few days. No relatives of mine live here now. All died. My father, mother, uncle, aunt, my elder sister. No one is alive now. There are some families all the members of which die. Their friends, relatives – all. Gossiping in crowd with all, eating puffed rice with mustard oil, bell sound from the worship room, delicious scent from the kitchen – all these types of happiness are barred by their fate. I am one of those. Death has took away all of my near and dear ones. In this vast universe, I am totally alone. I have nothing. All I have is a heap of stories. Story of my father, story of my mother, story of my elder sister. If I knew how to write, how many things I could have written!
This place of my childhood is on the bank of the Ganges. Our school was also on the bank of this Ganges. An old school. The school is still existent; but what happened to it! It must have been a long time since it was painted last. It is time of summer vacation now. I have entered into it through the gate. No one to stop me. The room for those guards is near to the gate. Locked. When I was a student here, Ramadhor lived in this room, and lived Keshoram, his brother. The two were very good fellows. In summer, our school used to have morning shifts. There were two jasmine trees in the two sides of the gate. In morning what a fragrance they spread! The two trees are now no more. It is unlikely that Ramadhor and Keshoram would live till now. They too must have left this world. Ramadhor used to sell boiled gram and chickpea. My father used to give me one anna every day. I used to eat gram and chickpea with that one anna in a green sal leaf. With chili and onion. The taste is still stuck in my tongue. Who can forget the taste of childhood? No morning shift now, no Ramadhor, and no children to eat gram and chickpea. Time has changed. Ramadhor was a quiet man, a worshipper of the god Rama. Keshoram was tender-aged. He used to laugh all the time. The locked room reminded me of all the memories with them. Does anyone live in this room now?
Along the small stoned path, I stopped in front of the entrance of the building. Four steps serially. Broken. Unclean. Not swept for a long time. A marble plate in the right wall. The names of the alumnae who became famed in their later life are inscribed in the plate. No names after fifty. I read the whole plate. Then entered into the building. Through the corridor. Large classrooms in both sides. Doors of blind plates. Queues of benches inside. Dirty, broken. Heaps of dirt beside the windows.
Standing there, I was hypnotized. Visualized that the room was full of students – boys. I was sitting on the second bench. In front was Kumudbabu holding the class. At first, he was checking our attendance in the register book. One, two. As soon as he called seven, I stood up and said, ‘yes sir’. I can hear the sound of the chalk used to write on the board. The sound of the falling duster on the table. He would write a drill of simplification. I would be called for very soon – come to the board. Simplify it. He looked at me with intense amazement in his eyes, if I could do that. He would say, very good. Tear would come in his eyes, if I failed to solve the math – you can’t solve this simple math! You totally aren’t studying, my boy! I had big hopes with some of you!
Suddenly the chalk broke. No one’s here. Empty, unclean classroom. A frowzy smell. One side of the blackboard is slightly down. Someone wrote ‘Partho, the he-goat’ on the board before vacation. We too were used to writing these. My classmate, Kishor used to draw very beautiful cartoons; I have heard that he is now in Paris. He is now in a very big job – Foreign Service. Who knew Kishor would be such a big man! Almost regularly, holding his own ears, he had to remain standing in the class for misdeeds. He was sharp at misdeeds. In their jolly mood, our teachers used to say him, Kishor, if you could use this talent of you in studies, who else could stop you?
I recalled an incident of a random day. Satyen used to sit just in front of Kishor. The habit of Satyen was that he used to run after the teachers just immediately after the classes were over and ask them a question – any question. He intended to show how enthusiastic and good a student he was! What an eagerness of him for knowledge! We regarded that as an extra-curricular activity of Satyen. On that day the last class of history was just over. Dwijenbabu was just approaching towards the stairway for the second floor, while Satyen was running after him as usual. A long rope was tied to the back of his pant, and an empty can of tin was tied to the end of the rope. As he was running the can was making unbearable sounds. Like the fire alarm. The whole class was laughing out loud. Hearing the alarm-like sound of the can, Dwijenbabu was running to the stairway. Kishor was shouting, ‘fire, fire’. The Headmaster came hurriedly. Even till now Satyen did not understand the real matter. Why the sound was. He heard Kishor shouting ‘fire’, and saw Dwijenbabu running out of deathly fear. Now Satyen started shouting ‘fire, fire’. He was running up through the same stairway as Dwijenbabu did, and the empty can started making that noise more severely. This time the headmaster caught Satyen by his hair and started beating him mercilessly. Satyen started crying, ‘What have I done, sir? Why are you beating me? I was just coming to know about the internal affairs of the Sepoy Rebellion.’ ‘Tied a can in the tail and talking about the Sepoy Rebellion! Monkey. Goat.’ And again beating. Ramadhar came and saved Satyen. He untied the rope and the can. Kishor at that time became the most attentive student. He was reading morphology of Bangla grammar. For the next class was Nirmalbabu’s Bangla grammar.
Where is now that Satyen? I came to know that he became a librarian in a renowned college. Government job. I approached to the stairway. This is the bent where the headmaster beat Satyen. Kishor should have been beaten. But he was not accused due to lack of evidence. If I had been the witness, Kishor would have been punished. Satyen’s cunningness stopped for ever.
The steps and the railing are no longer as they used to be in our time. The sign of poorness and neglect is everywhere. This whole setting added fifty more years in its age. Severely worn-out. The school has produced so many sons that nobody cares to look after it. All in this sense are unworthy sons. The sound of a typewriter was coming from a room in the second floor. The table for the teachers in the lobby of the second floor is still there. It was made from the mahogany tree. It shone at our time. Now black like a ghost. Some used cups are scattered on it. I felt like cleaning the table. At a time, how many teachers famous throughout the whole country used to sit here! The great pundits. Glory, fame, reward, patronization of the government – nothing mattered to them. The only thing they wanted is to produce good students by spreading their knowledge and wisdom. I was visualizing those great teachers of the past. Just here is sitting Pranodhonbabu, Bankimbabu, Nirmalbabu, Anilbabu, Dr. Kanjilal, Pundit Bhujangababu. As if all they are sitting together. The great pundit Nalinibabu with his grave face is talking something about Einstein’s theory of relativity. All are listening eagerly.
A feeble and thin gentleman came out of the room from which the sound of the typewriter was coming. He was surprised as if he had seen a ghost, ‘What do you want? What are you doing here? It is vacation now.’
‘Fifty years ago I got admitted into this school; Kanjilal sir was the headmaster at that time.’
‘He was, he was. He is not here anymore.’
‘I know that. He is in the other world. I live in a foreign country. After thirty years I came to the country; so, I thought to see the old school for once. Are you a teacher?’
‘In our time Panchubabu was the head clerk. He was a very good man. He had many coconut trees in his village home. After the vacation for the Durga Puja, he used to entertain us with coconut ‘naru’.’
‘You have come to see the school, haven’t you?’
‘Have you brought anything with you? Like sandesh?’
‘When will you have senses? Does anybody come to his teachers with empty hands? At least, let’s have tea and cake.’
‘Where could I find those?’
‘Give some money, and these are at your hands. Give me ten taka.’
‘That I can do. Why ten, I am giving you fifty.’
‘This is not good; you are to spend considerably. The days are bad, very very bad.’
‘Could I know your name?’
Mohon Mittir shouted, ‘Jaga’. A fellow of 30-32 came like a bullet from the room where typing was being done. Mohonbabu said, ‘Go and bring tea and biscuit. Don’t neglect your health. He eats whenever he gets a chance. This is our ex-student. What’s your name?’
‘What do you do?’
‘I am a service holder in America.’
‘The student of this school is in America! Strange saying!’
‘Why? Is the school bad? Did you not see the names in the marble plate downwards?’
‘Why not? This is the country of one piece?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean one piece. One piece Rabindranath, one piece Nazrul, one piece Sharatchandra, Netaji Suvash. With these ‘one’ pieces it will go on as long as possible. Do you know our result of this year? Cent percent.’
‘Cent percent passed!’
‘No. Cent percent failed. Don’t you have foreign cigarettes in your pocket?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘Why are you hiding those? Do not make your mind narrow. The Bengalis are drowning for that very reason.’
I had a packet of Marlboro in my pocket; Mohon Mittir became very happy as soon as I gave it to him. We entered into the room, and immediately a song came to my mind – ‘I will turn gray with dust’. The room was filled with unimaginable thickness of dust. The dust of fifty years. I asked fearfully, ‘Mohonbabu, what would it be like if the dust was swept occasionally?’
‘Very bad. Dust means infection, germ. The more you sweep, the more it will spread. If you leave it carefully, there will be no harm. There are so many big issues in the world, brother; why are you wasting your head on this silly dust? Oh, I got it, living abroad made you consider these types of things. You will not be able to live in this country in that manner. Dust, smoke, mud, holes, shit, dung - you will have to live here with all these.
We finished having tea and biscuit. Mohon Mittir looks good. Very entertaining man. The fellow Jaga is also good. But they cannot be compared with Ramadhar and Keshoram. They were the men of clean character. Also, that age was the age of deities. I asked Mohonbabu, ‘Could you show me the headmaster’s room? I was so fond of that room.’
‘What problem in that! Jaga, open the room.’
A stagnant air came off as soon as the room was opened. Stale smell is coming from the dead bodies of learning. All the almirahs are still existent, but not a single book in those. The set of encyclopedia was in the almirah of the right side. Gone. It is useless to ask Mohon Mittir. But what happened to that famous chair of the headmaster?
‘Mohonbabu, where’s the chair?’
‘That beautiful big chair? The teachers broke that when they were fighting with one another.’
‘The teachers fighting?’
‘O, you live abroad, how would you know? Politics has entered into this school now. Right and left, the two hands are clapping. And students also play clarinet.’
Mohon Mittir sat for typing again and Jaga for binding exam scripts. Examination might be very near. I came to the small open field of the school. The very old mahogany tree is still here. O, how many days Kishor and I sat under this tree! We used to be busy gossiping here, with no end. Nalinibabu made us addicted to geography. How many countries, how many peoples, how many rivers, hills, seas! We used to go to those places in our imagination. The evening would come slowly. Such a big and high tree, with flocks of parrots in its foliage!
I sat under this tree. I felt so lonely. Without Kishor, Satyen, Santosh, Tarun. All on a sudden an incident came to my mind; let me check if it is there! Kishor and I, once on the day before the Dol festival, inscribed with a knife our names on the trunk of the mahogany tree, which faces to the boundary wall. That year was our last year. Let me check if the two names are still there! Surprising! The two names are totally okay – Kishor Proshanto. The two names are side by side, but how distant the two men are! They may not meet each other any more in their lives!
Life does not end where it starts. It is like a river. It starts its journey once and never turns back. Its journey continues forward and more forward. Ends only in the sea. It will not probably be possible for me to come back to my country. I had a knife in my pocket. A foreign knife. I took it out. I knew it is crazy, nevertheless I inscribed just like I did on that day – ‘I came’. If Kishor comes someday and remembers the day we inscribed our names, he will understand that I came and went back to our childhood, even if for a little moment.
Writer: Sanjib Chattopadhyay
Story: The Return (Fera, ফেরা)
Book: The Red Kites in the Blue Sky ( নীল আকাশে লাল ঘুড়ি, Neel Akashe Lal Ghuri)
Translated by Bishnu Pada Roy