If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
“Let him sleep. He’ll be alright if he sleeps.”
May 25, 1992: Borka had spoken those words on the way back from the “Conversations with the Dead” office—Harbart’s room—spoken them deep into the night, late into the darkness, to the house in the lane … the road in the house … the house in the street … the house back home.
For Koton, Somnath, Koka, Daktar, and Borka, the memories of the walk back home after the drinking that night are jumbled. Slime on the face of the moon. The frothy-foaming light-dust of the streetlights. Everything slippery with heat. And from the pits of their bellies, curdled chops and chana and whisky and rum and ice water roaring up into their throats. Swarms of cockroaches seething out of the gutter grilles and flying up into the streetlights’ glow. Koka vomiting against the Dutta-house gates—hot, sour, and slithering vomit—Borka could still smell its acid reek. Daktar and Koton playing piss-cross games. Like a dirty sack, an oily cloud suddenly covers the moon. At the turn to the cowmen’s slums, a Corporation tap. A mumble-mad woman sitting there in rags, legs wide open, splashing the water. Every now and then an owl letting out a screech and the skin-rotten street dogs whimpering in their dreams.
On the roof of Harbart Sarkar’s house sat a Star-tv-signal-sucking satellite dish, gaping up at the night sky, hoping to swallow a falling star.
Daktar finished his pissing games and then looked at Koka, leaning against the Dutta-house gate. “Drink and puke. Don’t drink, still puke. This is why I swear I don’t like to drink with you lot. Screw the high! Fuck the happiness! Racket and ructions—that’s all you can do!”
“Harbart-da screwed!” Koton screamed, “Harbart-da fucked!”
Koka was thinking that he’d never touch another drop in his life. But then he began to run, vomit-threads trailing from the corners of his mouth—because, loud enough to wake the street, Somnath had started to scream: “Khororobi’s coming! He’s coming to feed you all fish!”
Drowned and dead a long time ago, he could still come, could Khororobi. Especially if Harbart-da called him.
That night, then, this—a fatal kick-ass googly—had been the plan. More often than not, such nights slid past in a haze, a booze glaze.
With, sometimes, a dead breeze.
The large clock on the second-floor veranda struck: one. Chop chunks on sal-leaf plates; at the bottom of the clay pot, stripes of Gujarati-shop chana gravy—about eight cockroaches were relishing their dinner on the floor. A fat lizard slowly slid down the street-side wall, then crept up the leg of Harbart’s bed and looked—was he asleep? Harbart was still. So still that the lizard crawled across his chest and then down his arm to his left hand, only to find it immersed in a bucket of blood-smelling cold water. Calculating the distance between arm and bucket rim, his green eyes shining in the dark, the lizard paused for a moment and then leapt. And then—just as he was thinking of sliding down and making his way over to a dinner of cockroaches—an extraordinary blue light filled the room. The lizard and the cockroaches were the only witnesses. On the outside wall, toward the alley, the closed window; rubbing her face against its dusty glass, a fairy was flapping her wings, trying to make her way into the room, trying to come close to Harbart. The blue heat of her blue face fogging up the glass, her blue tears washing it clean.
Harbart’s eyes had been half open then.
Someone had closed them later.
This night, then, this had been the plan.
Then, in the early hours of the morning, the ants had come. Ants know how to share, how not to fight and fisticuff. The black ants pick up the crumbs, the bits of food, the grain of dal, stuck between the teeth and then, picked out and flicked away, dry food, minuscule morsels. The red ants and the large ants go straight for the nostrils, the phlegm, the eyes, the saliva at the corners of the mouth, the base of the tongue, the soft spots in the gums. And so on. Amid such a carnival of carnivores, it was but natural that the cricket cacophony would be relegated to mere background music. For whether good days or bad, in civilization or savagery, they have been singing the same song. Whether they are heard, or not.
In the wall, a rusty iron hook. From it, hanging, on the inside, Harbart’s curl-handled umbrella. Invisible to the naked eye for over it, like Dracula’s cape, hung Harbart’s Ulster overcoat. Near his head, in a shelf cut in the wall, lay his two most important books:
(1) Mrinal Kanti Ghosh Bhaktibhushan’s Accounts of the Afterlife. (Revised and Enlarged, Second Edition. Price: 2 Rupees only.) Upon closer examination, the book appears to begin at page 171. So the first thing you see is a photograph of Maharaj Bahadur Sir Jatindramohan Tagore kcsi. And beneath it, the information that on January 14, 1908, aged 77, he left this world for the great hereafter, and then the book began, thus—“[W]rote, ‘Mother, I have troubled you a lot, forgive me. I too have suffered but now I am finally resting in peace.’ Then, after writing many more such things, Shibchandra’s wife burst out of her trance. She began to weep for her daughter …” Etc.
(2) Kalibar Bedantabagish’s Mysteries of the Afterlife.
Harbart had found both these books in his grandfather Biharilal Sarkar’s collection. Apart from Mysteries of the Afterlife, no book had been intact. No, one other book had been— Srigurupada Haldar’s A History of the Philosophy of Grammar, Volume One. For obvious reasons, Harbart had never read that one. But he had read The Horribly Haunted Circus in a bound but crumbling volume of The Dance Hall magazine. From that he had gathered the out-knowledge that the nicknames of the two actress sisters Suchinta and Sukumari had been Suchi and Bhudi, respectively; that Srimati Sushilasundari would play at Professor Bose’s Grand Circus; and that two other actresses, Hironmoyee and Mrinmoyee, alias Bhuti and Bhoma, resided on Beadon Street.
One could say that Harbart was attracted to them, by them, that he thought them familiars in a way that went beyond their ever meeting or living in the same time.
It was the dead of night. When, suddenly, the palace of Pithapur was set atremble by the frightened screams of the ladies and the confused shouting of the gentlemen. Who knows what ghastly ghostly creature had struck again—thinking thus, Gopal Duria and the rest of the stable hands ran toward the palace doors!
It would be no exaggeration to say that Harbart felt as though he had seen it all with his very own eyes.
Tired of flapping her wings against the windowpane, and afraid of the brightening sky, the fairy fled back to the shop.
The lizard and the cockroaches had, in any case, forgotten all about her.
Around midnight, when Harbart slashed the vein in his left hand, a fly trapped in his room, like a shark in the ocean, had smelled the blood. But it could not see, so it could do nothing. When drops of morning light began to seep into the room, it buzzed over to the blade fallen to the floor.
But the blood on it had dried black, long black, long ago.
Harbart’s hand, its vein slashed, still hung still in the bucket of ice-cold water. His eyes, almost closed. His face, however, no longer as fair or as sharp as usual, but black. His mouth, a little open. His right hand, folded across his chest.
All that alcohol he’d sent for, it had been to dull the pain.
The one who’d written the letter, and the photographer and the reporter, and the college boys and girls—after they had all gone—Koton, Borka, Koka, Gyanobaan, Buddhimaan, Somnath, Abhay, Khororobi’s brother Jhaapi, Gobindo, all the boys rushed into the room and saw Harbart shivering. Gasping, clasping-unclasping, sweating. His shirt he’d thrown off. The table fan swung from side to side, and with it swung Harbart, trying to catch the breeze. They stopped it swinging, made him sit on his bed, made him drink a glass of water. Sent for tea, special tea, until slowly, Harbart began to calm down. But the fear wouldn’t leave his eyes. “Thumping inside,” he kept saying, “thump-thumping, thump-thumping inside …” My god, what plan is this?
“Boss, relax. Calm down. Have some more tea?”
“No! I’ve had my last supper. Just beating. Only beating! Crawling, still beating. Flat on the floor, still beating. Punching slapping kicking beating …”
Harbart let out a heartrending wail, then began to tug at his hair. Kicking away the pillow, he leapt to his feet, looked at himself in the mirror on the wall shelf and then, still sobbing, suddenly stood straight and still. Smiled. “Father-mother dead, khanki-kin, whoreson, wanted to earn your living by fucking with the ghosts? Couldn’t bugger the living, so you had to screw the dead? So, how does it feel now? To be pole-axed, rod-arsed? Deep in shit up to the roof of your mouth, how does it feel, Harbart? Har … bart, Ha … r … bart!”
Slapping his cheeks left and right, he begins to jump about the room. The boys grab him and drag him back to bed. His dhuti has fallen off. He is only in his underwear. He sits on the bed, his eyes closed, and sways, to and fro.
“I won’t speak anymore, I’m not speaking anymore. Not anymore, not a bubble more. Wait for as long as you want with the fish-cutting blade, won’t see no sign of me. Peeyu kahaan, peeyu kahaan!”
“Guru, get a grip, please! Why don’t you lie down?”
“No, let go. Stomach’s turning. Churning.”
“Maybe. Let me try.”
If Harbart needs a shit or a bath, he has to go down the street and round the house to the back door. That’s where the servants were meant to go. As they glimpsed Harbart step out in his underwear, some kids on the street shouted “Titbird, titbird!” Koton rushed out: “One kick in your teeth, and you’ll shut up forever!” They ran away.
Back in the room, they wait for Harbart. They talk. “Once he’s had a shit, just see, boss will be fine again.”
The one named Daktar, he had a medicine shop—studied only till Class Seven, but he knew a lot. “I’m thinking something else. Often, before the heart chokes, one needs a shit, one wants to puke.”
“I’ve seen, when they’re hanged, they shit themselves.”
“Shut up! I’m talking of heartchokes, and you’ve gone off into hangings!”
“That’s why his father named him Gyanobaan, fucking know-it-all.”
“Don’t dare bring my father into this, Koka. I’ll pin you I swear!”
Outside, the blaze of the sun is slowly enveloped by tendrils of early-evening light. A weak, golden glow. Suddenly they see Harbart, beautiful Harbart, standing there, the light like a halo round his head. His head is wet, his body, the hair on his chest. The hair on his head, plastered against his skull. His underwear, soaking. The water running off him in big fat drops, and Harbart laughing. Twirling into the room like a ballerina, he pulled his towel off the line and then, drying himself, said, “Saw the tank overflowing with water. Thought I’d take a bath.”
“How you feeling now, boss?”
“Full of good feeling. Why don’t we go out?”
“You won’t drink tonight, boss?”
“Not drink tonight? Tonight’s the grand celebration! Tonight the booze will be extraordinary! Tonight we’ll fly sky-high.”
“Great! So you’re back in the mood, then!”
Harbart selects a fresh dhuti. Talks as he ties it around him. Talks as he combs his hair. Then puts on a hand-washed full shirt. Then opens the trunk. Then counts some money. Counts a lot of money. Counts so much he has to use finger-spit.
“Like we need to worry about moods. Know this: khanki-kin don’t fuck about with all this mood crap. All we know is fun. How can I tell you what a time they’re having, the katla fish on the babla tree. The bells are tinkling, the lights are flashing, flashing blue, flashing red, like a dance party. On the branches the gleam and the glitter of the big ones, the rui and the mirgel. And on the leaves, the little mourola, shining. Silver-sparkle. Sparkle-silver. No one can stop the bedlam, I tell you! The shahebs beat us black and blue, day and night. Could they stop it? The shahebs got tired, then this lot arrived. If English-spurting was all it needed to stop the bedlam, then …”
He tied a rubber band around the bundle of notes. Threw it across to Gobindo.
“There’s three thousand. Enough for a portable tv.”
“For the club, boss?”
“And what else? Since everyone’s rushing about yelling fraudery and fakery, I’m not bloody hanging onto any of that money. Oh, and Koka, here’s another four hundred. For booze.”
“Four hundred will get us twenty bottles, boss!”
“Twenty bottles! Fuck off! I’m not talking Bangla. I’m talking English, English—Foreign Liquor Shop.”
“What should I get, Harbart-da? Tonight seems to be a lion-league night!”
“One whisky, large. One rum, large. Ice, three kilos, from New Market. For those who don’t drink, get chops, chili-hot chana, prawn cutlets, the ones with the sticking-out tails. Then salted peanuts, cigarettes—oof, I can’t think of everything. You lot can’t even learn how to spend the damn stuff! Tonight we’re going to be mem-merry, femme-frothy.”
Harbart told them to come around eight-thirty. Then he fell asleep. Woke up at seven. Carried a chair to stand on and took down the sign from above his door, the one that read “Conversations with the Dead. Prop: Harbart Sarkar.” Placed it in a corner, its face turned to the wall. There’d been a new razor blade under the two books on the wall shelf. He checked to see it was still there. Then, pulling shut the door to his room, he went up to the second floor to meet his Jyathaima, she who’d married his father’s older brother.
Jyathaima was engrossed in a tv show. Harbart stood beside her for a while, then silently came away. On a page in his notebook he scribbled a few words, then tore it out and folded it into his chest pocket.
The booze bash was a smash hit.
The ice in the bucket was slowly turning to water. Harbart said, “The fan will spread the cool air from the melting ice, cool the room.” Harbart said, “He scared the shit out of me. That Ghosh, that one who wrote the letter. How he was staring at me—bloody bastard. And only spurting English, only blurting English. The more the English, the more my balls shrinking and shrinking.”
“And that newspaper girl, boss—what a fucking cow! Puffing on her cigarettes one moment, flashing her camera the next!”
“Harbart-da, all these conversations with the dead—was it all a load of crap?”
“What do you think?”
“If it was, then why did so many people come to you? So many people, so much talk—all crap?”
“I won’t do this anymore. There’s no stopping the stink that will spread, but Harbart Sarkar will pursue this line no longer.”
“Then what, boss?”
“I’m thinking. Thinking. A new line is bound to show up. Oh, and did you see, I took off the noticeboard outside? Now, Koka—show us something.”
Koka can show two things very well. One is an Isabgol ad, entitled Hanuman Shitting on a Chair Pot. This he’d picked up from tv. The other is Goju Bose’s expression when he finally succeeded in signing up Kushanu and Bikash for Mohun Bagan.
“Which one, guru? Shit on a chair?”
“No, no—Goju Bose.”
Koka showed them. They freaked out—they flew high as kites. All the ice in the bucket turned to water. All the bottles grew empty, save a few drops of rum in one. By the time they got up to leave, Harbart was closing his windows.
Deep into the night, late into the darkness, to the house in the lane, the road in the house, the house in the street … the house back home … Borka had spoken those words:
“Let him sleep. He’ll be alright if he sleeps.”
Translated by Sunandini Banerjee.
Nabarun Bhattacharya (1948–2014) was an Indian Bengali writer. With its anarchic pace and fiery verbiage, Harbart—forthcoming in June from New Directions—is the most famous of his dozen novels.
Sunandini Banerjee is chief editor and senior designer of Seagull Books.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.