Kiriti Sengupta (Translator)
Translated from Bengali
The black smoke ascends along a straight line. It will fade into air as the fume reaches a certain level up the sky. The wind seems static today, and thus, a gray layer appears. A while ago Lali had recurrent bouts of excruciating pain, but now it refuses to go away. She tries to relax; her spine loosely rests against the wall of the leather factory. Lali shrinks again—her little baby stretches limbs inside her womb. At a distance her husband, Fatik, is looking after their domestic belongings in the broken house. He is alert; he is trying hard not to lose on their utility items. He won’t let anyone take away their hard earned household goods. Fatik does not know what they will put in the fire. A few people, appointed by the government, collect the crushed bamboo walls from the ghetto, and add them to fire. More the combustion more is the smoke. At a safe distance a curious crowd witnesses the flow of the events.
Fatik packs goods in small quantities and takes them to Lali who is getting some rest under a shade. He quips, “I could have packed up sooner had I got someone else for help. You have pain, eh? Hold on a bit; we will board the train in a while.”
“Hey scoundrels, that’s mine. Keep it there, I’m telling you! Else I’ll put y’all in that fire.” Fatik rushes to their wrecked house. Not a house anymore! A bare land holds the impressions of bricks laid down for years. Fatik’s shanty appears the same—a square piece of land with torn plastic sheets and fragmented earthen roof-tiles scattered hither and thither.
Lali continues to suffer from pain. Fatik looks exhausted; he is busy arranging goods. No point disturbing him further with another complaint of affliction. Lali keeps silent and tries to sketch the new place they are going to inhabit for the next few months, or say years. Nobody will be a stranger there; they cannot afford to explore the luxury of an exotic living.
Fatik once told her, “Shashthida has affirmed that we can come back here once the air cools down.” It’s easy to earn a living in the city, but securing a job is difficult around the countryside where opportunities are few. Once the fly-over is built, Fatik has plans to return and set up a small eatery for the evening. In a tone drenched in love and care, Fatik tells Lali, “No one can escape the mutton curry you cook. All visitors will become regular customers at our shop.” Lali adds a pinch of raunch to her response, “I won’t. I’ll rather teach you the recipe. You cook and feed them.” Looking at the roof with wide eyes Fatik keeps lying in bed.
Lali does not believe in Fatik’s words that they will be able to come back here again. A few minutes ago Hema came to see her, “My bad luck; I won’t get a chance to see your child. But you never know if I’m destined to meet you again somewhere else.”
“Won’t you return here?” Lali inquires.
“They will not allow us here again,” Hema replies. “The officials told us that they were looking to knock together a marketplace below the flyover after its construction.”
Mum’s the word when Lali relays the news to Fatik. He murmurs, “But then Shashthida has assured…”
“You can pursue for a small shop in the proposed market,” Lali advices.
“I can’t say; they might ask for a cash lump sum as advance payment.” Fatik appears worried.
The pain shoots once again. Lali flings her legs aimlessly. The dusty floor marks the movement. She keeps quiet. On the other side, Fatik gets into trouble with Dulu and his family. Dulu’s mother seems to have bagged the rice pot Lali owns. Lali raises her voice, “The pot is mine!” Her words are out of earshot.
Fatik knocks Lali by his bag, “Come on, the Hasnabad local is at platform eight. Walk along the straight direction.”
Lali has heard of the Sealdah railway station but she has never been here. A large station, several platforms, numerous trains, and huge crowds! Passengers jostle each other. With great caution Fatik walks fast across the platform to board the train; to get into a compartment by any means. There must be a few Traveling Ticket Examiners around. In such time they usually don’t enter the coach. Lali fails to match steps with Fatik. She remains way behind him, but compensates for the distance as she tightly grips one side of the gamcha he has draped around his neck. Fatik collides with the commuters approaching from the other end. A few passengers express their annoyance and utter a word or two in rage. Fatik does not respond at all. Lali pulls her saree to veil the breast. She has no control on the saree girdled around her head, but which has now fallen on her back.
The train will start after ten minutes. All coaches are full, not a single seat is vacant. Fatik quickly decides on a favorable compartment and boards the train with his wife. Lali cannot keep standing anymore; she sits on the floor beside the door. Her hands placed on the belly. Fatik arranges their bags around Lali. An elderly gentleman asks, “Where will you get off?”
“Barasat,” Fatik answers.
“What the hell are you doing here? Get inside the coach. Have you lost your mind or what? How can a sensible man board the train in such conditions?”
Fatik turns to his wife and whispers, “There is no vacant seat. Would you still like to go inside?”
Lali refuses to move. Her body and mind have been taken over by the spasm. She cannot stand up. She wishes to stretch her legs, so her baby enjoys more space. But, the situation won’t allow the privilege. With every passing minute more passengers crowd the coach, and the draught is cut off. In a dry voice Lali calls out her husband, “I cannot breathe. I need some air.”
“Hold on a bit. The crowd will be less after passing two stations.”
As soon as the train sets off more than a handful of late passengers hurriedly boarded the coach. They will travel a long distance and want to go inside. The bags and goods kept around Lali create an obstacle to their movement. One of them raises his voice, “Is this a place to sit?”
Another guy from the crowd yells at Lali, “Stand up, I said!”
Someone informs with empathy, “Try and understand; she is carrying.”
“Oh! This is horrible. Hey brother, you aren’t pregnant, I guess. Better you stand up. There will be more passengers entering the coach at Bidhan Nagar and Dum Dum. They will smash you to death.”
Fatik gets anxious and follows the instruction. Lali shrinks in fear. She feels breathless. In her womb she is carrying their only child who waits to see the world—as if the baby complains, “I cannot stay in this small dark space anymore, Ma!” The passengers get scared as Lali gives a low moan of pain.
“Are you okay?”
Fatik bends toward Lali as much as is possible to ask, “I’m sure it is terrible to bear anymore.”
“No air; it’s suffocating!” Lali sounds fragile.
“It won’t be long; I’ll take you to the hospital as soon as we reach there. Shashthida has shared the address.”
Lali’s facial muscles deform in extreme agony. Fatik isn’t sure whether she has heard him. Intoxicated Fatik had seen her suffer from pain before. In such times he did not feel her distress. Lali wept profusely. Fatik never wanted to hurt her, but lost control as he downed liquor. The very next day Fatik got committed to his wife, “I won’t trouble you anymore. All I want is a son!”
A hint of dejection in her eyes, Lali poked, “Right! So he can run a liquor shop you longed for.”
“Shut up! I’ll make him a real gentleman,” Fatik readily addressed her concern.
Several travelers board the train as soon as it stops at the following stations. Lali, who somehow continued to sit on the floor, gets badly pressed against the legs. She feels worse than ever. Fatik seems restless and peeks carefully from behind the crowd to read the name of the stations. And at times he turns to look at their goods kept around. A few passengers get irritated, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you stand still?”
“Be careful, dada! Take care of your pocket. You never know…Dasbabu lost three hundred bucks yesterday only.” Someone from the crowd airs the words of caution.
Fatik understands the meaning of such lines. He does not utter a word, for he knows if he begins an argument they will forcibly push him out of the coach at the next station and beat him like hell. He requests the passenger standing next to him, “Dada, could you please let me know as we reach Barasat?”
“We are now at Cantonment. Have patience, it will take another thirty minutes or so to reach Barasat.”
Lali wants to scream. She feels thirsty. Amid the several legs visible to her eyes, she fails to identify the ones of Fatik. Even when Lali looks up to see the faces, she cannot locate her husband. The child-in-womb revolts; it will not tolerate the torture the mother is subjected to. The baby twirls; it rapidly changes position. Lali realizes that her child is responding to the world—passengers in the coach, for that matter. The tiny tot wants to come out of the confinement to greet them. Lali is afraid—will they treat the child as lovingly as their family?
Fatik bends down to say, “We will get off at the next station. Several others will disembark. I’ll first pursue the bags, and then I’ll take you off the coach. Be careful.”
Lali collects courage and prepares for the exit. She moves her palm on the belly, “A little more of waiting, Baba!”
The train halts at Barasat. Passengers get off the train like a vigorous ejection of water. Fatik becomes puzzled; the bags get scattered. A few passengers are yet to deboard. On the other side, a lot of commuters, waiting to board the train, begin to enter. Ignoring the rush Lali tries to stand up but fails. Fatik quickly collects their bags and sends them out to ensure a speedy exit. The passengers, about to get off, push him out of the coach. Fatik cannot resist the force and is pushed away from the train. The coach has room for more passengers and fills pretty fast. Lali crouches toward the gate; she howls, “Help! I’ll get off, stop the train.” People leaning out of the coach warn her.
No one can hear Lali. Fatik rushes to the coach to grip the rod of the gate. He fails every time he stretches his hand to get hold of it. A guy leaning out of the coach has gripped it in such a way that Fatik fails to get an access to the rod. He refuses to give up, and keeps running along the train. The thick crowds challenge his fast move. Amid several passengers inside the coach Fatik sees the hands of his wife and the two pairs of bangles she wears. He reaches the fag end of the platform.
Fatik breathes fast. He is exhausted, and sweating to a great degree. He shivers while keeping his head down. A drop of sweat rolls down his forehead to fall on the tip of nose. Fatik can see the passengers, hanging out of the coach and trying their best to get inside. And in their gutsy toils Lali’s hands disappear.
Note by the translator: Literature mirrors society and the mechanism of its existence. “Disappearance” by Bitan Chakraborty elicits the struggle, pain, despair and small dreams of Fatik and his wife, Lali, who represent a lower stratum of the Bengali (Indian) community. The story also provides broken images of the common people who commute by train on a regular basis. These images are not exclusive of Calcutta or West Bengal; they bear flavors of attitude of the general public in India toward the lower strata of society.