Translated from Odiya by the author, Satya Misra
Like every city or village, every road too has a character of its own. The road which has spread out its clumsy, uncouth body here, aiming to touch some distant point in the south of town, has no character to speak of. It is ugly and chaotic. It has let its coarse surface to be abused daily by scores of vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, rallies, wedding processions, hearses and more. Humans and their automobiles mingle with stray cattle and dogs in a sad spectacle of urban confusion. Pedestrians have surrendered their right of walking to assorted vendors whose unauthorised shops have blocked the footpath. Anybody bold enough to walk on the remaining part of road is under constant threat of being hit by vehicles zooming past in both directions.
Our protagonist here is not the road but a person walking alone on the road. His name is Narottam Chowdhury. His destination and intent are both extremely unusual. Tragic and extreme too. He is on his way to commit suicide by jumping before a moving train. He is aware that the road on which he is walking doesn’t touch the train line, so he has planned to leave this road and enter into a narrow lane on the right side after about half a mile. The lane ends at a shrubbery which has the look and feel of a small jungle. He will find his way through the bushes to the open expanse where he will find two silvery lines of steel on which the trains pass. He has no idea where these two parallel train lines originate and where they end. Narottam will throw himself in front of a passing train today, which he has planned meticulously. This is going to be his last walk on this road. This same road may be used to bring his mangled, lifeless body from the railway track, possibly in an ambulance, after an hour or two.
He has been contemplating suicide for a long time. Once he had accidentally blurted it out before a few friends, but couldn’t come up to the stage of actual implementation. Although almost five long years had lapsed since that date, he was still hanging on to his meaningless life shamelessly. But he was determined to accomplish the task today. His life was becoming unbearable with every passing day. He was not so immature as to die just to honour his word. He had to die because he was unable to live the life available to him.
He gently touched his chest while walking, but not to check his heartbeat, which is steady. He wanted to ensure that his cell phone was intact in his chest pocket. He was not in favour of carrying this device up to the point of death, but realised afterwards that it was an essential accessory for anyone dying outside home or hospital. A phone in the pocket of a fresh corpse would quicken the intimations to his kin. The body would get identified fast. He had also placed a neatly folded note in his pocket which contains just the basic information about himself, including relevant phone numbers. It would come in handy for the finders of his body. He wasn’t too sure if either the cell phone or the paper can be salvaged from the mangled corpse, but it would always be better to carry both in order to improve chances. He also carried some money in his pocket. His spectacles were in place on his nose. His old wrist watch stayed at its rightful place, his left wrist. These were the only earthly possessions he was carrying with him, apart from the modest clothes he was wearing. The noisy erratic traffic on the road did not bother him. He did not mind being hit today by a passing vehicle on the road, although he will be terribly disappointed if the accident left him maimed but not dead. It would be very difficult to plan a decent suicide again if he wer maimed.
Did he hear something? Some vague distant voice seemed to reach him in spite of the din and bustle of the busy road. He would have dismissed it as a disturbance in his own mind, but it actually sounded like some announcement through a microphone. Had he been caught? His secret exposed? A public announcement asking people to capture Narottam before he did something foolish? He chuckled at his own silly thought.
How could anyone even guess what he was up to? He had been extremely careful; knowing well that even the slightest slip from his side could abort the mission. True, he had once blurted it out before four friends; but that was five years ago. He had let his intent slip in a moment of carelessness, purely by accident. He was neither hungry for sympathy nor did he want to deliver a shock. His announcement had not jolted anybody. Nor had anyone asked him to desist from such misadventure. They just asked him not to blabber like a mad man and veered away from the topic which, in their judgement, didn’t merit any further attention. Narottam wonders whether any of those friends still recalled his intent. Or perhaps, they were silently waiting to see whether Narottam really meant what he had said.
He was satisfied that during the half hour since he left home, not for a moment did he waver or vacillate in his resolve. Sometime back, he had stopped briefly at a stall selling hot snacks on the pavement. A sweaty man with a balding forehead was passing on hot samosas on round paper plates while collecting cash with remarkable speed and efficiency. Narottam stood and watched silently as balls of yellowish brown dough, with fillings of cooked potato, were moulded into tiny pyramids and dipped in a cauldron of boiling oil perched on a huge hissing stove. The samosas were allowed to sizzle and dance in oil a few minutes before a large slotted spoon would fish them out and heap in a basket, for onward transmission to the paper plates. The entire process, right from making of dough to eventual annihilation of the end products in hungry mouths, presided over by the balding man, was taking place in full public view. Narottam saw life pulsating at every segment of this activity, but scampered away from the spot, afraid that such open display of life might weaken his resolve to die. He wouldn’t allow some silly distraction to interfere with his tryst with death.
Narottam could vaguely hear the public announcement which had become a bit louder by then. Slightly louder but still indistinct. He strained his ears but could not make out what it was about. He would have been happy to hear every news, gossip, message circulating in his world during his lifetime, but what was the point now? Even if the government was announcing a ban on use of this road for walking towards train tracks, it wouldn’t affect him. He would have gone before the dictum was enforced.
An assessment of his age and health had convinced him that number of years he could reasonably expect to live was by no means small. He could not wait so long for a natural death with his unbearable life, with every passing day renewing a blow to his desire to live, which was already at its lowest point.
He had even weighed all alternate modes of suicide to choose the method most suitable to his condition and temperament, with zero risk of failure. Swallowing some strong insecticide, or any other dependable poison, in solid or liquid form, would have been easier but with uncertain results. He had heard of people surviving such attempts with severely damaged organs. Jumping from the terrace of a high-rise had never appealed to him, for fear of hitting some innocent person or dog or car on the ground. He preferred his corpse to be delivered undamaged at his home; but he had to abandon that preference when his secret attempt to hang himself failed by a wide margin of error. That was almost a year back. He had rolled his wife’s sari into a coil, secured one end around stem of a ceiling fan just above the blades; but the art of making a proper knot eluded him. The sari was retrieved with a thick film of dust collected from the ceiling fan. Cleaning it secretly, folding neatly and placing it back in his wife’s wardrobe was no mean job.
Slicing a wrist to allow his blood to drain out was an option, but his research showed that the success rate was only about forty percent. Even swallowing handfuls of powerful sedatives, with its fifty one percent success rate, didn’t meet the rigorous, zero-error standards he had set before himself. Finally he was left with only the train line, widely followed and highly popular among the suicide aspirants. Easy availability of open train tracks in his town came as an additional incentive.
Not far from the rail lines stood the small temple of Shiva on right side of the road. Narottam suddenly decided to have a last glimpse of the deity. It was not a part of his plan, but why not? Like all Hindu temples, this too expected devotees to remove their footwear outside. But Narottam didn’t go in. Gaining an unhindered view of the deity from the road itself, he folded his hands, closed his eyes and muttered a brief prayer: “I haven’t come to seek anything, Oh God. I am leaving. This is our last meeting! Goodbye.”
As he descended back to the road, he halted briefly, training his ears to listen to the announcement which was now audible clearly. A rickety van came slowly , with a large funnel shaped amplifier repeating one sentence ad nauseam : “Please be informed that electricity will be cut off tomorrow from seven o’ clock in the morning to five o’clock in the evening , on account of urgent maintenance work.”
How did that matter to a person who would not be around tomorrow?
But no, he made a quick reality check. What would happen if the news didn’t reach his home that day? The next morning there would be no water in the overhead tank, no electricity for any work whatsoever, not even for charging a mobile phone – and all this while a mutilated body would be awaiting cremation, not to speak of the fast arriving crowd of friends and relatives. This piece of news had reach his home immediately. His hand reached his pocket for the mobile phone, but he stopped again. Could he call at this point just to pass on this information? He would surely subject himself to the obvious question: why couldn’t he wait till he returned home. Could he say he had no plans to return home? He surmised that a public announcement as loud as this must have reached his home too. So his cell phone went back to the pocket.
In fact he didn’t have to feel guilty about leaving such a petty problem as a temporary power outage outside of his life span unresolved. He had listed and attended to every single issue that a man of the world is expected to. All financial and legal issues relating to his home, money, mortgage, insurance etc. were taken care of. Keys, IDs, passwords, codes, ATM pins were all kept neatly and could be easily located. He had also kept an index of all documents clearly mentioning where they could be found. Content with the knowledge that his absence would not cause any material problem to his family, Narottam continued his death walk.
His preparation had been thorough even about action points during his final moments. His mind and body both were well prepared, strong and unwavering. He had planned out where exactly he would stand before his final leap. He had to hide behind the thick foliage nearby waiting for a train to arrive. The wait would not be long because this line, extremely busy in the evenings, had a train passing almost every five minutes.
Last week, he had seen three trains passing in about twenty minutes, two carrying passengers and the third one some cargo in containers. The second train was passing slowly; so he could see a bunch of giggling kids waving their hands through the open window, hollering something he could not hear. He had wanted to ask them why they were so happy while in a moving train.
Today it would not matter what or who were in the train. He would jump not more than five seconds before the train reached the spot, not allowing enough time for the driver to apply brakes. In those few precious moments, his tormented soul would have been released to heaven. Or hell ; it did not really matter.
It was entirely up to him on which of the passing trains he would bestow the honour of crushing him. He might let the first train pass, perhaps the second one too; but not beyond the third, lest his resolve lose steam. His day without a tomorrow would be drawing to a close even as the townsfolks would be preparing for next day’s power outage. The announcement, still audible to him even from a distance, irritated him. He had two questions for the announcer in the van. Had it been announced distinctly near his home? Was the man sitting in the van using pre-recorded audio or parroting the sentence in real time?
Nearing his destination, he made a quick calculation in his mind and realised that in fifteen minutes he would be at point zero. Within an hour he would be dead and within the next one hour, his body would have been located, identified and taken to morgue.
He felt a vibration near his chest and stooped to locate its source. The cell phone. It released a gentle alert, shook a bit and fell silent. A message for sure. Should he read? Let the message also die unseen, unread. He hadn’t brought the offending device with him to receive messages today. He decided not to touch the mobile at all, but could not approve the propriety of dying before reading a message specifically meant for him. He would remain in dark about its content for ever, even though ‘for ever’ for him means just an hour. His curiosity overpowered him. He fished out the phone from his breast pocket and stared at the screen.
Gosh! This? Of all matters on heaven and earth?
It was a shame that such careless, offending words would claim his attention at a sensitive and delicate moment of his life. He would have thrown the cell phone and crushed it in sheer disgust, but he didn’t. It went back to his pocket. Cursing himself for having read the message, he decided to ignore the message and walk on towards his tryst.
But he could not. A sudden feeling of helplessness overpowered him. The moment he read the single sentence, he had understood that he had lost. He could not ignore it and proceed on his own. Not today.
He walked back and entered a market he had left behind. He took out his phone, read the message again and felt like kicking himself for his surrender. ‘Bring flour, sugar and some vegetables on your way back.’ Just ten words.
What does ‘on your way back’ mean? He had no plan to turn back today. Silly. Humiliating. But that was that. His zero-error plan, carefully chartered strategy lay assaulted and shattered by rude, untimely interruption of these shameless words.
While trudging homeward on the same road, clutching a bag of grocery, Narottam resolved to wait and plan for another day. The setback was temporary, not strong enough to break him.
A glance at his watch convinced him that nothing would be out of place. This was the normal time for his homeward trek every day. He would reach home at the usual time and nobody would be any wiser.
Satya Misra writes short stories in Odiya , a regional language of India. Some of his stories have been translated into other Indian languages. This was first published in Odiya magazine, Katha, and subsequently included in his collection, Miccha Raastara Sata.
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