My boat was moored along the dilapidated architecture of a quay. By that time the sun had already retreated for the night. The boatman offered his namaj from his position at the roof. In the twilight laden western sky, the silent prayer of the devotee seemed to etch its indelible strokes at intermittent intervals. In the limpid depths of the listless waterbody, the spectrum hues of the evening sky eventually gave way to darker tones, the golden metamorphosing to weighty iron and the multi-tonal variance of crepuscular atmosphere.
The steps of landing stage pulsating under the aegis of the aerial roots of an immense Indian fig tree, lead to the massive senile and decrepit mansion with exposed bricks, hanging balcony, broken casements. I sat on the steps alone meditating among the buzz buzzing of crickets, my dry eyes about to well-up as I imbibed the beauty of the surrounding scenery, when I heard a voice from behind: “Mahasay, where have you come from?”
Startled, I turned to see a man who looked as if he had seen better days in his life. He seemed to be a dispassionate feeder consuming perhaps one meal a day, someone whom lady luck hadn’t treated with indulgence. In fact, he had the same kind of appearance that you can observe in thousands of people from Bangladesh who worked in foreign shores. Over his loin cloth, he had an oily specimen of Assamese matka and an open-buttoned coat. A glance suggested as if he had shortly returned from his place of employment and rather than partaking of a nutritious meal at home, had decided to visit the riverfront to imbibe some fresh air.
The stranger seated himself on the flight of steps close to me. “I have come from Ranchi,” I said.
“What do you do?”
“I run a business.”
“What kind of business?” he asked.
“I deal in black myrobalan, silk and wooden.”
“What is your name?”
I stopped short and mused for a bit. Disinclined to share my real name, I told him a pseudonym.
The gentlemen’s curiosity wasn’t satisfied yet for he asked me again, “Any particular reason why you are here?”
“I needed a change of air and scenery.”
The man was strange. He said, “For the past six years I have been regularly imbibing the air of this place along with a dosage of approximately fifteen grains of quinine. But I haven’t found the exercise beneficial so far.”
“Nevertheless, I can distinctly feel that the air quality here should turn out be superior to that of Ranchi.”
“Yes, of course,” he said. “So, where are you staying here?”
I pointed at the decrepit mansion and said, “Over there.”
Although he seemed suspicious at first as to whether I had any news of treasure hidden in the decrepit depths of the mansion, he didn’t argue any further on my choice of residence. Instead, he began to give me an extensive account of the event that took place in that cursed mansion some fifteen years previously.
My new acquaintance was a local school master. In his hunger and disease laden visage, under the canopy of a bald head, a pair of big and bright eyes predominated.
From within his shrunken eye-sockets, the pair of eyes gazed forth with such penetration and brilliance that it reminded me of Coleridge’s ancient mariner.
By this time, the devout boatman having completed his prayers had turned his attention to the preparation of the evening meal. The remnants of any crepuscular glow having disappeared completely, the huge, dark and derelict mansion crowning the quay seemed to stand like a monstrous still sentinel that had grown twofold in the darkness.
The school master began his narrative—
Mr. Fanibhusan Saha used to live in that mansion yonder ten years before my arrival in the village. He had inherited a vast fortune and an extensive business from his childless uncle Durga Mohan Saha.
Nevertheless, Fanibhusan was a thorough representative of the modern times. He was extremely well read. It is said that he could walk straight into a British officer’s cabin shoe and all and speak with him in fluent English. If that didn’t suffice, he began to grow a beard thereby jettisoning any prospect of receiving indulgence from the English gentle community or sundry businessmen alike. In many ways, he resembled the firebrand members of the Young Bengal community.
To add to the aforementioned, there was another impediment on the home front too. His wife was beautiful. Now, not only was there the contingency of a college education for Fanibhusan, but also that of a handsome spouse which, ultimately, led him to defenestrate the ways of the yore once and for all. Matters so stood that the suffering of any ailment occasioned a call for the assistant surgeon. In fact, the metamorphosis gradually became evident in his overall bearing, his clothes and manners equally.
I presume you are a married man. If that is the case then you are probably aware that women in general like sour raw mangoes, hot chilies and an authoritative spouse. A man who isn’t destined for spousal affection is not in general case ugly or financially disadvantaged, but meek and disinterested.
If you ask me the reason for such a universal tendency, I could tell you, since I have extensively deliberated on the topic, that if one doesn’t sharpen by exercise the propensities, inclinations and authority naturally inherent in him, he can never be happy in life. A deer searches for the trunk of a solid tree to polish its antlers since the soft leniency of a banana tree stem wouldn’t suit its purpose, similarly since the inception of time, women have been perfecting the art of entrancing the restless spouse through a systematic study and culture of a myriad of mesmerizing practices. In such circumstances, a spouse who is naturally spellbinder defeats the purpose of the antiquated education and artful weaponry that a woman has inherited from the ancients of her sex.
What results in such a situation is a drastic turn of events when women forgetting the importance of the needs of the spouse, strives to demand affection by virtue of the power she holds on him. Now, if the male half of the sketch doesn’t grant his spouse this opportunity to extract affection, then the lot of both suffers a marked decline.
The civilized man of the world having relinquished his natural rude discourtesy have transmogrified his marital life to such an extent that no magnetism could hold its moorings. The hapless Fanibhusan, a product of the modern civilization, came out as a perfect gentleman—unsuccessful in both his employ and his marital life.
Fanibhusan’s wife was indulged without effort, received exquisite Dhakai sarees without shedding tears and gold bracelets without any altercation at home. This tendency of perpetual receiving altered her essential character in that in her quest to receive, he forgot to give. The innocent spouse of the woman thought giving is perhaps an assured way to eventual reception. Of course, his understanding was erroneous.
It so happened that over time Fanibhusan’s wife began to regard him as the means to the end of receiving Dhakai sarees and gold ornaments. Such labile was the machinery of dispensing the exquisitely expensive gifts that Manimala never had to oil its works ever with any effort.
Fanubhusan natal house was in Fulbere; his business engagement here. Because of the demands of his business, he shifted his domestic quarters. The house in Fulbere didn’t include Fanibhusan’s parents; nevertheless, his aunts and other relations lived there. It was for the sake of those existing relations, the sundry aunts and others in the family that Fanibhusan didn’t make his beautiful wife reside in his natal home. Instead, he deracinated her and brought her home to this mansion here away from the prying eyes of his relations. One thing he didn’t understand is that the difference between the ownership of other utilities and that of a wife is that even though you may possess her all by yourself, it doesn’t guarantee excess devotion, love or emotion from her.
Fanibhushan’s wife speak much or gossip with her neighbours. On days of special festivities, it wasn’t her custom to give extra alms to the mendicant vaishnavi or feed a couple of hungry Brahmins. In fact, she never wasted anything. Except for the love of her of her husband, he saved everything she received. The strangest thing was that her prudence percolated into the dispensing of her youthfulness as well such that she didn’t squander away even an iota of vivacity as she matured with age. At twenty-four, people said, she looked like an innocent fourteen-year-old youth. Possibly people with cold hard ice for heart, who taciturnly avoid emotional entanglements, the pedestrian pain and agony of human life, could assiduously save themselves like a miser from the trials and tribulations of life.
Like a verdant bush abundantly sprouting foliage but devoid of fruits, Manimalika remained barren and childless. Meaning, nature didn’t grant her a gift, something that she could call her own, something that she might regard as more precious that the jewels she kept under lock and key. A child might have warmed the heart of the woman, melting the block of ice in the cardiac region with the temperateness of emotion.
Notwithstanding her youthful facade, Manimalika was efficient in performing her household chores. She never employed an extensive staff. Disinclined to pay others for tasks she could perform herself physically, she did everything herself. Neither did she have any consideration, nor any love for anybody; she only worked and saved, saved and worked, relentlessly and persistently. For that reason, she remained physically supple and devoid of ailments, luxuriously dowsing herself in the diaphanous depths of peace and tranquility.
For a lot of husband such peace at home would have been sufficient, nay, precious. You realize the bodily importance of the waist only when you suffer from lumbago. The yearning of love which reminds one of one’s spouse, is akin to the acute pain of lumbago. I am of the opinion that even though excessive devotion for a partner may suit a woman very well, when a man is concerned, it become an ill-fitting garb. Tell me, dear sir, does it befit a self-respecting gentleman to analyze the upsurge or plummeting of a spouse’s affection with scientific precision? To perpetually tally the data and brood on it? The general equation of the household entails me and my wife respectively performing our allocated tasks. What is left uncommunicated within a message, what emotion is buried in an expression, what ambivalent hints reside in a seemingly unequivocal message, the prospect of a universe within the minutiae— God hasn’t granted man the ability to decipher the dynamics of love in this way; nor, I feel, is there any need for such an aptitude in a man. It is usually the custom of women to perpetually weigh the attraction and aversion of men such that even an iota of difference that disrupts the balance of emotion becomes apparent to their discerning eyes. They are adept in vivisecting the underlain meaning of words and gestures because the love of men is their indelible lifeblood, the jewel most precious to them. It is the contingency of losing the love of a man that makes women deft navigators such that they can change their bearing according to the direction of the wind. The defter they are in steering their comportment, the longer they would be able to sail their lifeboat. This is perhaps the reason why God has embedded the measuring device to assess the equation of love within a woman’s heart. And consequently, denied men an analogous gift.
Nevertheless, of late, men have managed to obtain that expertise of gauging love that they have naturally been starved of. For this development, we have to thank the poets of our society, who have successfully triumphed over the wish of God. For they have not only obtained the rights to that precious machinery for the men of the community, but also distributed the knowledge of its works among all and sundry.
For the changing dynamics of society, it would be imprudent of you to recriminate the Almighty for he had unequivocally followed differential statistics when creating men and women; nevertheless, the codes of civilization have so altered the gender parameters that one is not sure if one is marrying a man or a woman. The anxiety created by such a contingency is palpable in the palpitation of the hearts of prospective brides and bridegrooms.
Sir, I apologize if I am irritating you! A man like me, banished by the spouse, and living along cannot help but consider the fundamentals of the household life, its nature and essence, from afar. My interpretations of the same do not befit the ears of my students. The chance meeting with you granted me an opportunity to share my perceptions with another person, who might appreciate them. Do ponder over them sometime.
The crux of the matter was that even though the food Fanibhusan consumed never had excess salt in it, or the betel leaf he chewed was never caked with superfluous lime, he experienced an incurable trepidation within him. Not only was his wife blameless, but also devoid of any illusions; and yet, despite that Fanibhusan was in his heart of hearts an unhappy man. He tried to fill the cavernous depths of his wife’s heart with gifts of diamond and pearls; nonetheless, her heart remained parched of emotion. Although his expensive gifts filled the iron chest, they never managed to fill her heart. His uncle Durga Mohan was contrary to him in this regard for he never understood nor felt any need to understand the finer aspects of love. Unlike him, his uncle never yearned for it with such longing, nor did he ceaselessly dispense expensive ornaments to bribe his him into loving him. Even so, his wife, Fanibhusan’s aunt, adored her husband like any other woman. In this respect, it must be remembered that one cannot be a representative of the Young Bengal community and own a flourishing business. Also, in order to be a good husband, one must be a manly-man.
During this time in the proceedings, a group of jackals piercingly howled from some nearby thicket causing the school master to pause his narrative for some time before beginning it again. It seemed as if the jocular council of quadrupeds were issuing cannonades of laughter at the ethics of domesticity recounted by the school master or at the vicissitudes experienced by Fanibhusan, enfeebled by his association with the modern culture. When the raucous of the jackals finally subsided and the surrounding neighborhood quietened, the silence becoming denser than before, the master, his eyes scintillating from their cavernous sockets, resumed his narrative:
It so happened that during this time, the complex and extensive networking chain of Fanibhusan’s business experienced an impediment in its proceedings. What really transpired was something that a novice like me in terms of business could not divine. The crux of the matter was that his reputation in the market had become for some reason known to him equivocal. If only he could get hold of a sum of a lakh or one and half lakh rupees and float the money in the market for a few days then his moribund business would revivify. If he could only allow people to take a fleeting glance at the sum in question then the sinking vessel of his business would be up and running with its usual vigor and speed.
However much he tried, Fanibhusan failed to arrange the sum of money he needed to keep his business afloat. The contingency of renewed misfortune that might befall if he approached moneylenders in his immediate neighborhood, the raucous such an action might create and the resulting disgrace he might experience caused him to approach the lenders from unknown locations. Nevertheless, that hardly alleviated the burden because the mortgage demanded by the financiers was difficult to arrange. In such a situation, mortgaging jewelry usually helps since fewer paperwork is required and the process becomes fast as well.
Fanibhusan approached his wife. However, the ease with which a man usually approaches his wife in case of trouble was conspicuous by its absence in his manner. Unfortunately for him, Fanibhusan her with the same intensity as a protagonist in a poetic piece loves his heroine; the kind of passion that makes you participate in endless trials and yet begets resounding straits between the beloveds.
Nevertheless, when facing some dire situation even the hero of a poem is forced to mention such unromantic subjects as backdrafts, mortgage and hand-note in a discussion with his beloved. And yet, even in such a clear communication, the barriers are noticeable. The tone of voice falters, there are slips of the tongue, untoward waves of emotion befuddle the speech obfuscating its effect. Despite trying, the unfortunate Fanibhusan couldn’t say: “Darling, I am in trouble. Please give me your ornaments.” Eventually, however, he did manage to ask his wife for the favor in a weak and hesitant tone.
Wounded as he was when after having made the request, he observed his wife’s stern look and her disinclination to reply in the affirmative or in the negative, he didn’t wound her in return. Devoid of the natural barbarian tendencies attributed to men, not only did he deter himself from forcefully grabbing hold of the ornaments, but also luxuriated in his grievances silently. When his lover’s sole ownership of the jewels was concerned, he asseverated that even if he accosted unequivocal ruin and helpless collapse of fortune, we wouldn’t wield his authority over the gifts. If somebody were to remonstrate with him on this regard, he would have justified his position by saying that just as it he lacked the authority to pillage the market to assuage his unfavorable credit situation, similarly it was imprudent on his behalf to forcefully take ownership of his wife’s ornaments if she was reluctant to share them with him. In his point of view, love at home was akin to a good credit score in the market in being the ultimate quality; physical strength belonged to combat on the field. Was it for the purpose of deliberating on epistemic idealism through ceaseless problematization of the abstruse that God had fashioned Man as powerful, magnanimous and mighty in proportion? Did it suit him to exhilarate in the subtleties of the aesthetic faculty of the mind through unwarranted rationalization?
Anyhow, matters so conspired that driven by his high-mindedness, Fanibhusan did not deign to touch his wife’s jewels and left for Calcutta to arrange the sum needed by other means. In a domestic set-up it is usually the wife who understands her husband through and through and not the other way round; nevertheless, if the male half of the sketch is overtly gentle by nature then its nuances remain unappreciated by the wife. Such a contingency afflicted the relation of our protagonist Fanibhusan and his wife. The sad truth was that she never fully understood her husband. The pale of inherited customs and rituals that surround the world view of the intellectually constrained female does not include the aesthetically constructed modern man of the world. They remain, from their point of view, a unique and mysterious specimen who couldn’t be included under the usual ramifications available to men. The compartments which they have attributed to men with barbaric tendencies, the blockheads, the figuratively unsighted respectively have no available space for the nuanced personality of the modernized newbie.
At last, unable to make head or tail of the situation, Manimalika called her minister for consultation. One of her distant relations who hailed from her village, a brother of sorts unconnected by blood, worked as a junior steward in Fanibhusan’s household. The man was devoid of the natural talent to rise in his career; nevertheless, taking advantage of his relation with the woman of the house, he often pursued and received undue benefits.
Having reiterated the entire narrative of her equivocal situation, Manimalika asked the man: “Now, what is your opinion of all this?”
He nodded his head intelligently suggesting that the situation was indeed a difficult one. The truly intelligent people never appreciate the simplicity of a situation; everything is complicated in their eyes. He said, “I don’t think sir would be successful in arranging the money from other quarters. He would ultimately approach you and take hold of your jewels after all.”
The knowledge of human nature that Manimalika had honed suggested a negative turn of events in that she was convinced that her eventual losing of the ownership of her precious jewels was the only reasonable finale to the domestic drama that enclosed her. To the childless Manimalika, cold to the approaches of her husband, her ornaments were her life-blood. They belonged to her and her only and were as precious and as expensive to her as a child would have been, the extent of the assets mounting and budding through generous addition overtime. To Manimalika, her ornaments were not mere tchotchkes, but dearly treasured possessions that belonged to the heart and to the mind—that something so cherished, something indelible to her existence would vanish when confronting the cavernous nothingness of failing business was unacceptable to her. She said, “What do you think I should do?”
“I think you should pack the jewelry and go to your parents’ place right away,” said Madhu. Shrewd as he was, he started conniving such that the greater part of the jewels’ possession came to him.
Manimalika accepted the proposal wholeheartedly.
One evening toward the end of the month of Ashara, a boat moored in the neighboring quay. In the early hours of the dawn when layers of darkness still covered the surrounds, Manimala approached the vessel. The sky was overcast with a thick cumulation of monsoon clouds, the insomniac amphibians croaked and covering herself from head to toe with a shawl, she mounted the boat.
Madhusudan who had been inside the boat woke up to her presence and said, “Give the box of jewels to me for safe keeping.” “We will see to that later,” replied Mani, “for now, set the boat adrift.”
The unanchored boat started to drift with great celerity toward its destination.
Divining the contingency of the loss of her ornaments if she put them in a box, Manimalika had spent the night putting on each piece of jewel such that until and unless there was a mortal attack on herself, the jewels would be safe. Bedecked from head to toe with ornaments of all sorts, she was a vision of resplendence veiled from the world under the cover of her shawl. Seeing that Manimalika didn’t carry any box of any sort, Madhusudan couldn’t imagine where she had hidden her precious jewels. It never occurred to him, shrewd as he was, that she would be festooned with the dazzling array of her jewels under her scarph! It may be so that Manimalika couldn’t divine the depths of her husband’s nature; nevertheless, she knew Madhusudan through and through and she was not going to take any chances.
Madhusudan had left a message for the steward of the household under whom he worked that he was chaperoning the lady of the house to her parents’ place. The old steward who had been under the employ of Fanibhusan since a time out of mind, was naturally vexed. In a stern letter that he composed for his master, he made sure to include the point, equivocally, of course, that it’s not a manly gesture to give one’s spouse too much indulgence.
Fanibhusan understood the workings of his wife’s mind. He was deeply hurt by the fact that there he was trying his best to arrange the money he desperately needed to keep the business afloat and not touching even a tchotchke from his wife’s vast collection of jewels and yet she was suspicious of him. She evidently didn’t know her husband.
The circumstance of his wife mistrusting him so that she left her domestic premises which should have excited the wrath of a man, merely chagrined Fanibhusan. Man is the yardstick of righteous judgment. God had incised a dormant thunderbolt within him that is calculated to galvanize and spew ferocity and wrath when confronting injustice of any sort. Alas, when that naturally latent machinery in man fails to stimulate his just emotions, the outcome is a sad spectacle of defeated manhood! Fie, I say, fie.
The natural dynamics of gender relation courtesy of the divine entailed a man who would erupt like a volcano at the slightest provocation and a subservient woman who would shed buckets of tears to assuage the man of the house. Alas, such subtleties have encountered a tectonic change.
A man like Fanibhusan who was an anachronism in the present century and was fit to be born in some future time decades later when the universe would be powered by metaphysical energy was caught up in a marital relation with a woman whose mind knew no spirituality. A mental troglodyte defined by the scriptures as a force of annihilation, the issuer of a terrible disturbance, Manimalika’s nature was the contrary of her husband’s. As such, the hurt and wounded Fanibhusan didn’t write even a single letter to his wife and promised himself never to raise the issue in any future conversation with her. Such was the punishment he had divined for his wife.
After a matter of ten days or so, having arranged the required sum of money with great difficulty, Fanibhusan decided to go home. He was certain that by this time, Manimalika must have returned home after securely depositing her treasured ornaments in the care of her parental home. Further, Fanibhusan was of the opinion that when his wife would encounter the efficient man of the house who had successfully altered his inimical financial situation without his wife’s help, she would be full of remorse and would implicate herself for undertaking such a bootless errand in his absence.
Imagining the repentance-laden reaction of his wife at his advent, Fanibhusan approached the bed-chamber and was surprised to find it locked and bolted. The room was broken into and discovered to be devoid of any occupant. The iron safe in the corner yawned open; there was no sign of any of the ornaments which were kept inside it. Fanibhusan shuddered at the sight of the empty chamber. The sudden weight of disenchantment with his business endeavours, his domestic life, his love for his spouse bowed him down. There he was dedicating all the efforts that he could humanly dispense toward the betterment of the domestic set-up, for the sake of each probe, each skewer that made up the framework of that institution and all of it, he, now realized, was in vain, because the encaged bird that lent it vitality, had now fled. He now realized that the domestic life that he had regularly tended to with blood and tears, with effort and love was nothing was nothing but an illusion. Angered and saddened at the sight of the empty frame with its occupant conspicuous by her absence, Fanibhusan metaphorically cast aside the domestic cage once and for all.
Being of the opinion that his wife would come back voluntarily when she wanted to, Fanibhusan deigned not to enquire after her whereabouts. The old steward, however, became anxious at the prolonged absence of the woman of the house and requested Fanibhusan to send a messenger to her parent’s place. The messenger returned with the grim dispatch that neither Mani nor Madhu had arrived at her home.
The newly received information unleashed a pandemonium of sorts—enquiries began to be made about the boat and its boatman, the direction the vessel followed, etc. The police were also informed about the missing Madhu. Nevertheless, despite all the efforts, no information could be received about the absconding Madhu or about the missing Manimalika.
Having relinquished all hope of finding his missing wife, a depressed Fanibhusan entered his vacant sleeping quarter. It was the day of the Janmashtami celebration and it had been raining relentlessly since morning.
To celebrate the festival, a fair was held near the outer boundary of the village. In a makeshift stage, a dramatic theatre was being performed for the public. The faint sound of the rural opera mingled with the inexorable beat of the rain could be heard from inside the room. That window yonder, the one with broken sash, was where he sat unbeknownst to his surrounding— the spray of rain, the chilly breeze of monsoon, the sound from the faraway rustic entertainment entered his room unacknowledged and unheeded by its lonely occupant. On the wall a pair of paintings of the goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswati painted by some art studio artist hung with full glory, on the wooden stand for clothes a gamcha and a towel together with a couple of neatly arranged sarees for daily wear suspended with unequivocal domestic regularity. In the three-legged table at the corner of the room rested a container with a few rolled-up betel-leaves drying from exposure. In the glass-fronted cupboard in the room, an array of cherished objects including the delicate porcelain dolls that Manimalika had collected while growing up, bottles of perfuming essence, a coloured crystal decanter, a sophisticated deck of cards, large sea shells, even empty boxes of soap were neatly arranged. The tiny and delicate kerosene lamp that she lit everyday with her own hands and put in the niche of the wall now lodged in lacklustre dimness. It was this lamp, now luxuriating in dim inactivity, that was the silent witness to the final moments that Manimala had spent in the room.
It was strange how someone who was now nothing but a vestige of memory, another page in the annals of historical documentation would leave behind such a repository of reminiscence. Every object in the room that she used, every little tchotchke that she cherished seemed to be etched with Manimala’s inimitable moniker.
Fanibhusan seemed to beseech his beloved wife to come back to her room to the eagerly waiting objects that she had once cherished so dearly, to light the lamp, stand in front of the mirror and drape the neatly arranged saree; to come back to him. Addressing her he seemed to say: Nobody expects anything from you. We want you to come back to your vacant chamber and cast the eternal glow of youthful suppleness that you are laden with on the moribund room and the repository of orphaned objects you had left behind; their unending silent tears of yearning for you have transmogrified the room into a funeral home.
Sometime in the night the rain had stopped pouring. The vestiges of sound that came from the faraway rural opera were also absent; the play must have ended. Despite the considerable passage of time, Fanibhusan sat unmoving at the window seat. Outside the casement, a thick blanket of darkness, impervious, ominous enveloped the world. It seemed as if the colossal sky-scraping gates to the abode of Yama, the god of death, stood sentinel in the smokescreen of dim obscurity and if one were to cry and beckon a dearly departed soul, a memory lost but not forgotten, then that remembered essence may, for once, overwhelm you with its presence. In the ebony-laden dark setting fit for death and oblivion, there was a chance, slight though it was, of a conspicuous inscription, an emblazoning with gold letters.
Just at that moment, a knocking sound was heard in conjunction with the jangling noise of ornaments. It seemed the sound was coming from the direction of the quay adjoining the house, moving up the steps toward the gates of the mansion. By that time, the darkness of the night had comingled with the murky waters of the river. Elated by the approaching noise, an eager Fanibhusan tried to penetrate the surrounding cumulus of darkness with a pair of eager eyes. Nevertheless, despite his exhalation and his eagerness, he failed to observe anything. The more he tried to see, the deeper and overwhelming the agglomerated darkness became. It was as though nature, disinclined to allow the advent of any uninvited guest into the inner environs of its mansion of death was deliberately drawing another drape to shut out the prying eyes of the outside world.
The jangling noise moving up the final steps of the landing-stage now progressed in the direction of the vestibule. The guard having locked the main entrance to the house, had gone view the dramatic performance. On the leaves of that locked door, a strange thudding was now heard. Along with the clanking noise of ornaments, some hard object seemed to pound on the door with great intensity. Fanibhusan couldn’t bear it any longer. He left the premises of his bed chamber, crossed a line of dark rooms, ran down the stairs and reached the closed door of the main entrance. The door was locked from outside and he bashed at it with all his might. It was the sound of the impact, the collision of fists on the leaves of the locked door that his hypnotized somnambulism. Regaining consciousness with a start, he discovered that he had walked downstairs in his sleep. His entire body was drenched with sweat; his limbs were ice cold and his heart quivered like the trembling flame of a nearly extinguished lamp. Fanibhusan realized he had been dreaming. No sound came from outside except for the pattering of rain, and mingled with that ceaseless prattle, was the strain of the morning melody that the dramatic group had unleashed.
Although, Fanibhusan did comprehend that what he had experienced was but a dream, a figment of his imagination; yet, it all seemed unequivocally real to him. The illusion of tangibility that laced his reverie convinced him that he had been denied the fulfilment of an ardent wish by a hairbreadth. The torrential downpour and the classical notes of the Bhairavi raga assured Fanibhusan that his dream and everything it entailed were real; the world was an illusion.
The dramatic opera continued into the second day and the guard, consequently, took his evening off to view the entertainment. Before he had left, Fanibhusan ordered him to leave the main entrance unfastened. The guard, sceptical at first said, “How can I leave the door open, sir? There are a lot of strangers about because of the fun fair.” Fanibhusan unequivocally dismissed his resistance. “In that case,” retorted the guard, “I shall be here at the gate all night.” “No,” said Fani, “you must go and see the opera.” The guard was surprised but he decided to obey his master.
The following evening, having expunged the lamp, Fanibhusan sat at the same window seat in his room. Ominous clouds loomed overheard and a sense of some impending drama seemed to lace the surrounding environment with a strange silence. Neither the amphibians croaking without not the jarring notes from the distant rural opera could pierce the cover of the anticipating silence. What they did was to lather the setting with an additional a dollop of abnormality.
Late into the night when the frogs and crickets have stopped making noise and the wafting musical notes from the distant opera had also silenced and a newer deposit of obscurity supplemented the existing darkness, Fanibhusan realized that the time he had been eagerly waiting for had approached. Like the night before the jangling noise of layered ornaments in conjunction with the thudding were audible. Fanibhusan controlled his excitement lest his sensations overwhelm him. He sat still like a wooden statuette waiting for the supernatural drama to unfold before his eyes.
The resounding jingle of ornaments followed the path of the night before and approached the portico. Fanibhusan heard the noise enter the interior of the house and then move upstairs through the rounded steps of the staircase. He couldn’t control him any longer; his heart began to pound like vessel in a violent storm. He couldn’t breathe. Having reached the landing, the sound now moved toward the balcony, crossed the rooms that lined the corridor and stopped at the threshold of Fanibhusan’s room. All was silent.
He couldn’t stop him from shouting now. All his pent-up emotion, his yearning for his wife cumulated in his throat in unleashing a heart-wrenching cry. “Mani,” he cried. Startled by his own voice, he awoke to find the window panes in his room reverberating in the waves of his piercing cry. The croaking of the insomniac frogs and the tired notes the singers performing in the rural opera drifted into the room.
In desperation, Fanibhusan struck his forehead.
The next day, the rural fair concluded and the entrepreneurs and the dramatic party consequently departed as well. Fanibhusan issued the order to all his employees and servants to vacate the premises of his house after evening. In the servants’ quarter, the rumour was that the master was engaged in the performance of some esoteric ritual which required him to behave in a certain way. Fanibhusan avoided all comestibles that day to prepare himself for the events of the night.
In the house conspicuous by its yawning emptiness, Fanibhusan sat as usual at his window seat in the evening and waited. The sky was clear and cloudless, and through the pellucid cover of a clean atmosphere, the starts scintillated with a rare iridescence. On the tenth day of the period of the fading moon, darkness prevailed for long hours. The fun fair and entertainment having ceased, the river too was vacant of any vessel or boat. And after two-days of celebration in induced insomnia, the people of the surrounding villages seemed to be soundly asleep.
He rested on a stool and watched the stars and reminisced about his college days in Kolkata when a nineteen-year-old Fanibhusan would often visit the greenery adjoining the rotund pond and relax on the soft grass, his head resting on his folded arms, and gaze at the stars. On such occasions, he would imagine the youthful face of his innocent fourteen-year-old bride occupying some secluded chamber in his in-law’s house contiguous to the river bed. The pain of separation from the beloved during those days was devoid of any bitterness. At that time, it seemed as though the sparkling brilliance of the stars and the thumping of his young heart orchestrated a youthful melody reminiscent of spring and its fecundity. Today, the messages of the stars had matured with age and experience. On the canvas of the clear night sky, they seem to emblazon the message that the domestic life was nothing but a strange mirage.
Gradually, the stars too vanished from the sky. Like the upper and lower lids of the eye, two consecutive blankets of darkness, one descending from the sky, another ascending from the earth, encountered at a limbo and enveloped with their conjoined obscurity the entire breadth of the world. Unlike the previous occasions, Fanibhusan was relaxed that night. He was certain that if he was patient, the wait would not be abortive, that ultimately, on that night, his ardent desire would be fulfilled. Fanibhusan knew that on that night, death would unfold its cumulus of mystery before him.
The jangling noise commenced and following its usual pathway, it first moved up the steps of the quay, reached the main entrance, entered the house, climbed the rounded staircase, crossed the corridor and ceased, momentarily, at the threshold of Fanibhusan’s room.
Fanibhusan’s heart pounded in excitement; he had goosebumps and yet he continued to sit unmoving. Ultimately, the sound moved into the room and after briefly stopping at all the corners of the room occupied by Manimala’s beloved possessions, it moved toward him.
Fanibhusan opened his eyes to see that the room was now flooded with moonlight and that before him stood with all its dumbfounding gauntness, a skeleton.
A dazzling array of jewellery covered the skeleton from head to toe. Its eight fingers were adorned with eight rings, a collection of bracelets, armlets, bangles, necklaces, in short, accessories of every conceivable description bedecked the bare-boned chassis. The apparition was a vision of anachronistic resplendence. The brilliance imparted by the gold and diamond was unbecoming to its bony framework. Further, even though the ornaments were loose, wobbling in its structure, they were not falling off from its scrawny bone-house. What seemed most ominous was the pair of eyes that scrutinized Fanibhusan. Out of place in that supernatural framework of bones, was the skeleton’s bright eyes, its dilated pupils, and its delicate and long lashes. They were the same eyes that Fanibhusan had first seen eighteen years previously during the wedding ritual of subho drishti.
On that occasion, in that bedecked household, in the accompaniment of the artistes’ elegant musical notes the beauty of those eyes had enthralled him. And now, transmogrified, that gaze, those beauteous eyes embedded on a skeleton and viewed in that moonlit chamber evoked nothing but chill fear in Fanibhusan. He desperately tried to close his eyes but failed. Like the listless gaze of a corpse, his eyes looked on.
The skeleton now addressing the spellbound Fanibhusan raised its right hand and beckoned him with its bony fingers. The diamonds in its bony fingers dazzled.
The hypnotized Fanibhusan followed the retreating figure of the skeleton. As it moved toward the exit, the ornaments and the bones created a chaotic jangle. Like an ensnared puppet, he walked behind it. The strange duo, the ornament decked skeleton and Fanibhusan, walked on. They crossed the balcony in the darkness and with a strange jumble of noise, descended the rounded staircase, walked the final stretch of the unilluminated and vacant mansion and reached the main entrance. Exiting the house, the skeleton walked down the brick lain uneven pathway of the garden. The macadamized trail issued a strange rattling noise from friction with the bony feet of the skeleton. The verdant cover of trees and plants denied the entry of moonlight in that path. And yet, following the partially illumined pathway laden with the bioluminescence of glow-worms and the scent of torrential monsoon rain, the unlikely couple reached the quay adjoining the river. The steps of the landing stage leading to the river that the skeleton had previously ascended now stood before them. It now serenely climbed down the flight of steps. In the monsoon-swelled river, full to the brim, a horizontal line of lunar luminescence glowed perfunctorily.
The skeleton steeped into the river, and following its footsteps, Fanibhusan too dipped his feet into the water. No sooner had his feet touched the water than the spell broke. His skeletal guide was conspicuous by her absence. Except for the trees at the bank of the river standing guard to a mesmerizing sight and the half-moon overhead looking down with perplexity, there was nobody around. Shivering from head toe, Fanibhusan slowly allowed himself to be engulfed by the swelling waters of the river. Despite knowing how to swim, he voluntarily let go of the control of his senses and eventually allowed himself to be submerged under the depths of the flooding river. Dwelling in a limbo of wakefulness and reverie, Fanibhusan took the final plunge once and for all.
Having finished his narrative, the school master stopped for effect. When he had ceased to speak, it seemed as if the whole world had turned silent. I, too, remained mute for a long time.
My narrator eventually broke the silence with a query. “Do you believe in the story,” he asked.
“Do you?” I questioned him in return.
“No,” he replied. “And, I will tell you why. First, because nature, with all the work cut out for her, doesn’t have the knack to become an author of fiction…”
“Second,” I added, “because my name is Mr. Fanibhusan Saha.”
The school master said in an unabashed tone, “You see, I was right in my assumption then. By the way, what was the name of your wife?”
“Nrityakali,” I said.
Glossary of non-English words:
Gamcha: A Traditional thin, coarse cotton towel, often with a checked design, found in India.
Mahasay: Mister; a manner of addressing.
Subho Drishti: Wedding ritual in Bengali weddings.
Janmashtami: Hindu festival that celebrates the birth of Krishna.
Assamese Matka: A special kind of clothing item from the region of Assam in India.
Rabindranath Tagore was a poet, philosopher, musician, writer, and educationist. Rabindranath Tagore became the first Asian to became Nobel laureate when he won Nobel Prize for his collection of poems, Gitanjali, in 1913.
Barnali Saha is an Assistant Professor at the School of English Studies, Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, New Delhi. She did her PhD from GGS Indraprastha University, Apart from her academic work, Barnali enjoys writing short stories and translating short fiction from Bengali and Hindi to English.