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Down the Stairs by Nabendu Ghosh

Translated by Sarmishta Mukhopadhyay, edited by Nabendu Ghosh’s daughter, Ratnottama Sengupta, to mark his birth anniversary, Siri Beye Nichey (Down the Stairs) was first published in the Bengali weekly, Sharadiya Bartaman (1998) and subsequently in the anthology, Paresh Mandaler Laash ( Paresh Mandal’s Corpse, Publisher: Mitra & Ghosh).

“This does not feel like Bangur Hospital, Jibu,” Judhistir said to his son.

Jiban was leading the way. Sunayani was following with her husband, holding his hand to lend him support.

Jiban replied in a very low voice, “This is Bangur…”

“Can you again see with your eyes?” Sunayani snubbed her husband. On hearing this Judhistir fell silent. 

But he was right: it was not Bangur, it was Chittaranjan Cancer Hospital.

Jiban and Sunayani did not utter ‘Cancer’ lest the word put a scare in Judhistir and he refused to go for the required tests. Of late Judhistir would cough continuously and groan, feeling pain on the right side of his back. So initially he was taken to Bangur Hospital. After the preliminary tests they referred him to this hospital for the final detection. That’s how they were all here this morning.

Judhistir was not blind by birth. He lost his eyesight when he was sixty — a fallout of Glaucoma. But he has implanted in his mind whatever he has seen over the last sixty years, so he can still make out where he is and which way he is going.

It took about four hours to finish all the tests. The results would be known to them in another three days. They all came out of the hospital.

At around two in the afternoon, they returned to their single bricked home in a Jadavpur shanty. A rented space where they’ve been living for the last thirty years, paying Rs 50 a month. 

Their poverty set in when Judhistir went blind some fifteen years ago. That’s when they rented out two of their rooms and a small corner of the veranda to Shibnath for Rs 30 a month, to supplement their income.

Jiban’s four-year-old son, Nantu, was playing in the courtyard with Shanti’s eight-year-old daughter, Ritu. As soon as he saw his grandparents he ran up to them, hugged his grandma and asked, “What have you brought for me Thamma?”

With a smile Sunayani brought out a small parcel of sweets from her bag and gave Nantu and Ritu a piece each. She had bought these on her way back. It made both the kids very happy.

Judhistir coughed a couple of times and flopped on the bench in the veranda.

Shibnath’s widowed sister Shanti came out. Casting a glance at Judhistir she asked Sunayani, “What did the doctors say, Mashima?”

“They carried out the tests,” Jiban answered. “Nothing serious or to be scared of.” As he spoke, he looked at his mother, then at Shanti. Eye to eye they had a silent communication. Then Shanti said, “Well then Mashima, finish your bath and have your lunch. It’s already very late.”

“Yes Ma, I’m going in,” Sunayani said stepping towards her room. “Let me arrange for your Mesho Mashai’s bath first.”

When Jiban and Sunayani were by themselves she whispered to her son, “I’m scared for your father Jibu…”

“If you fear from now Maa, how will you survive?” Jiban smiled. “We will worry about fear after three days.”

*

After lunch when Sunayani brought the medicines to her husband, Judhistir said slowly, “Because of me both Jibu and you had to skip work today.”

Sunayani placed a hand on his shoulder as she said, “One of us stayed away for his father, another for her husband, so don’t you worry.”

Judhistir smiled. And repeated the words he always uttered, whenever he was happy or sorrowful: “Hari Hari Hari!”

*

Judhistir had been blind for the last 15 years but before that he had seen and enjoyed life. So even now, when the light was switched off he could feel the darkness deepen and when the sun rose he can feel that too, and his dull eyes shimmered with life. Slowly he rose from his bed and called out, “Jiban’s Maa, d’you hear me?”

“Coming dear,” her trembling voice answered.

The sweet smell of something frying in the pan entered his nostrils — it signalled that a new day had started.

Sunayani came and stood by him. The heat of the stove imparted a blush of pink to her fair skin. Her forehead gleamed with beads of sweat. Her face, though lined with wrinkles, showed that she was once a beautiful lady.

“Awake? Are you feeling well?”

“Yes dear, I am fine.”

Combing his unruly hair with her fingers, Sunayani said, ” Wait, I’ll get you your tea.”

“Is Jiban up?”

“Still lying in. I will wake him up with his morning cup.”

“Where’s Nantu?”

“Sleeping in Shanti’s room, next to Ritu.”

“Hari Hari Hari!”

*

The clock hands were racing. Judhistir realised that Jiban was up. Shanti’s brother Shibnath, his wife Jaba, Nantu and Ritu were all awake. 

Shibnath worked as a salesman in a stationary shop at Gariahat. He was ready to leave. Jaba served as a maidservant in three houses in Jadavpur itself. She too would leave to be back by five in the evening. Sunayani would finish her cooking and go to one Sanjay Chatterjee’s house where she supervised the kitchen. Jiban, a peon in an advertising firm, was also preparing to leave. Sunayani and Jiban respectively brought home Rs 500 and Rs 800. This 1300/- was their total source of livelihood.

Sunayani helped her husband to wash up and take a bath. Then she fed him some roti and tea. She finished all her chores and kept lunch ready for him. Shanti had become like their daughter. All through the day she took care of not only Judhistir but also of Nantu. In her spare time she made paper bags. Every Saturday a man stopped by to collect them. The  profit wasn’t much but even Rs 100 was not to be sneezed at.

By this time Jiban and Sunayani were ready to leave. “I’m off Baba,” he said to his father. “All right son — Hari Hari Hari!” “I’m off too — you take care.” 

“Hyan, you too. Hari Hari Hari…”

*

Mother and son headed out of the house together. Once on the main road, they took a bus to Lord’s Crossing. Within five minutes they arrived at the junction. From there they reached the Lake Gardens Super Market where Sunayani sat down under a leafy tree near the eastern gate.

“Okay Maa, I’ll carry on now,” Jiban said to her.

“Hyan,” Sunayani nodded to him, “but be very careful while on work.”

“Yes Maa,” Jiban went his way.

Sunayani had come in a worn out, soiled sari. She pulled the pallu over her head and sat down. The bindi on her forehead was bright crimson. She leaned against the wall with the palm of her right arm stretched out. The passers-by, in a rush to get to the market, didn’t even cast a glance at her. But those coming out with their hands laden with purchases all noticed her saddened, poverty stricken beautiful face. Some of them stopped to drop ten paisa, 20 paisa or a quarter too in her outstretched hand. At times some of them moved on and then came back to give her something. 

This was a daily occurrence. Sometimes two or three shoppers dropped even a rupee each while five-six others happily parted with 50 p coins. “May God bless you!” Sunayani gratefully muttered. Or she varied the blessing: “May you be victorious!”

In other words, Sunayani neither cooked nor supervised the kitchen in any house. She had taken to begging because she did not get a suitable job. But she did not tell this to Judhistir whose self-respect was intense although Shibnath, Jaba and Shanti were aware of this. This job easily earned her 300 to 400 rupees every month.

*

By now it was around 8 am. Jiban could be spotted in Lake Gardens. He had come out of the house wearing a dhoti and kurta. Now he had put the kurta away in a plastic bag and in its place, covered himself with a thin white cotton drape. His hair was ruffled. He’d not shaven since the previous day. In his underarm he was holding a rolled straw mat. He had grief writ over his face.

He entered a three-storeyed building and climbed up the stairs. 

There were three flats on each floor. He pressed the first bell. 

A lady opened the door. “What d’you want?”

“I’ve lost my mother Madam! Please help me, I’m too poor to observe the rituals of mourning.”

With sharp eyes the lady looked at Jiban. The sadness on his lean and tender face touched the mother in her. “Wait,” she told him and went indoors. A minute later she emerged with an almost-torn two rupee note.

Jiban bowed low as he took the money and slowly walked towards the staircase. As soon as the lady shut her door he turned around and pressed the bell on the second door.

“Who’s there?” A heavy voice floated out moments before the door opened. A thickset Punjabi gentleman in his mid-fifties came out.

“What do you want?” The gentleman asked with a frown, then repeated the question in Bengali, “Ki chai?”

A charming teenaged girl came and stood behind him. Jiban repeated what he’d just phrased: “I’ve lost my mother Sir! Please help me, I’m too poor to observe the rituals of Matridaay.”

“Matridaay?!” The Punjabi gentleman could not comprehend the term. 

“Papa, his mother is dead,” the girl helpfully interpreted. “He needs money for her shraddha. He seeks some help.”

“Rubbish!” The man uttered and went in. 

The girl stepped forward and asked in unaccented Bengali, “When did your mother die?”

“Day before yesterday sister.”

“What happened?”

“She had cancer.”

“Oh!” she said, and shouted, “Papa, his mother died of cancer.”

“Okay okay…” Once again the man stood framed by the doorway. He handed his daughter a two-rupee coin and said, “Go give it to him.”

The girl gave him the two rupees and said, “Our sympathy is with you.”

“Thank you sister, thank you.”

The girl closed the door. 

*

Now the third flat. The door was opened by a bespectacled Bengali gentleman in pajama kurta. He would be in his forties. 

The moment he saw Jiban he harshly demanded, “What d’you want? Help? Money?”

“Yes sir, for my mother’s last rites I need some help.”

“Help? No hope of that here.”

“Have pity on me sir!”

“No, I never pity anybody. Asking for pity is your business but not showing pity is my belief. Go, get lost.”

Jiban looked at the man as if crestfallen. He shut the door with a bang.

Defeated, Jiban slowly started to walk away. Just then the same gentleman opened the door again. 

“Hey, come here.”

Giving him a rupee coin he ordered, “Scoot!”

Again the door closed with a bang.

*

Jiban climbed one floor down.

The door to the first flat was opened by a Bengali youth. He smiled as he asked, “Mother’s dead, isn’t that so?”

“Yes sir, my mother…”

“Oh what a truthful Yudhisthir!” he mocked. “Get lost!”

The door closed on Jiban’s face.

The next flat was opened by an elderly lady. She was saddened by Jiban’s mourning uniform and grief stricken appearance. “Wait,” she said before disappearing inside. She returned with a five rupee note.

The lady in the third flat also gave him a rupee.

Finally Jiban came to the ground floor. An elderly Marwari opened the first door. Patiently he listened to what Jiban parroted, then with a stern face and a quiet voice he said, “You cheat! Bolt – or I’ll call the police.” The door banged shut.

The next flat yielded Re 1, and a paan-chewing Marathi in the last flat also parted with a rupee.

Coming out of the building he counted his earning — Rs 13. 

From one building to another, Jiban roamed about in the Lake Gardens area till 12.30 pm. Then he halted – “All the ranting will start now,” he thought to himself. So he counted his net collection of the morning – Rs 30.50. Not bad at all. Satisfied, he returned to the supermarket where his mother was waiting.

*

“Had your lunch?” Sunayani asked.

“No. What about you?”

“No. Come let’s eat together.” Both of them took out their tiffin boxes filled with three rotis each, some dry vegetables, and molasses. They ate, then had their fill of water. Aah! Deep satisfaction. 

“How much did you earn this morning?”

“Good intake Maa, about Rs 30. And you?”

“Rs 11.”

A moment’s hesitation, then Sunayani said, “Sometimes I fear for you… This profession…”

“Maa, people are still kind,” Jiban reassured her, “if they hear something has happened to your parents they take pity on you.”

Sunayani fell silent. Then both of them rested under the same tree. It was 4 pm but the market was still dozing, the shops had their shutters down. Sunayani would stretch out her arms again at 5 but Jiban carried on. He tried his luck in ten-twelve other houses and stopped after sunset. This round fetched him another Rs 15. It would take another week to complete Lake Gardens. This was a classy area, and people still respect the word ‘Maa’. So his earning was bound to be good despite all the abuses.

*

It was late evening when Jiban returned home. Shanti was at the door, she gave him a sweet smile. At about twenty eight Shanti was lean, carelessly dressed, had no time for grooming and still was nice looking. They stared at each other for a few seconds, conveying their feelings to each other through their eyes. Then Jiban went in.

Judhistir heard Jiban’s footsteps and asked, “Jibu, hasn’t your mother come home yet?”

“No Baba but she will any minute now.”

“I was just a little worried. It’s a bit late today, isn’t it? Past 7…”

“No! It’s just 6.30…”

Judhistir kept quiet.

Jiban washed, bathed, put on a rather old but cheerful lungi and a fresh shirt. Cautiously he went out of the house, came to the main road and sat in Anil’s Tea Stall. “Come friend!” Anil invited him in. Jiban sat in a corner, picked up the day’s newspaper and started going through the headlines.

Half an hour later he asked his friend for a cup of tea. Like every other day Anil put two cups of tea next to him at one go. Jiban sat there till 9 pm. In between he lit up a cigarette, his one luxury. He sat there listening to all the conversations between the other customers. He set out for home when Anil closed shop for the day. This has become his daily routine.

Back home he played with Nantu and Ritu, he chit-chatted with Shibnath and Jaba, had small talk with the others. Then came dinner. After washing up, it was time to go to bed.

But for some reason Jiban couldn’t sleep. As on other days he woke up in the middle of the night. The fears that were buried deep within now started to haunt him. Images of his past life surfaced on the screen of his mind like scenes from a movie.

Jiban had studied up to class nine when he landed his first job — in a decent steel factory. In four years he mastered the job but just as he was to be made permanent in employment the Employees Union declared a strike. Jiban had played an active role in the strike. The labourers won after a month of striking work but six months down Jiban was laid off for a small mistake. The Union sympathized with him but did not come to his help as he was a “casual worker.” He was twenty six then.

After this he got a job as a peon in an office at Dharamtala. Around this time he married Shipra from his neighbourhood. His mother did not consent to the marriage but he was adamant. A year later Nantu was born and two years later Shipra eloped with the local hooligan, Paresh. What shame! No one knew their whereabouts now.

From then on his life changed. Unsuccessfully he tried his hand at different jobs and several businesses — all in vain. At last when he found no other way he took to earning by deceiving others. But now what?

His blind father’s condition was deteriorating by the day, his mother’s health was failing yet she had taken to begging on the streets under the open sky. And Nantu was growing up. What does the future hold for him? 

The thought made him restless. Edgy. He got out of his bed and lit a cigarette — the second luxury of the day.

*

Old people don’t easily fall asleep, either.

From his bed Jiban could hear his parents talk.

Judhistir was whispering to his wife, “I feel nervous when you are gone from home for so long. I get depressed. I can’t see you even when you are at home but I feel…”

“Don’t I know that!” Sunayani placed a hand on his mouth. “And am I happy staying away from home for hours on end? But now please be quiet. Sleep…”

*

The next morning Jiban went to the Cancer Hospital to collect his father’s test report.

A long queue.

After about half an hour the doctor summoned him.

“Who are you to Judhistir Das? Any blood relation?”

“Yes, I’m his son.”

The doctor was sympathetic. “I’m sorry to inform you,” he shook his head, “your father has cancer in his right lungs and it has reached the terminal stage. You should have started the treatment long ago. Now he has a very limited his time span.”

Jiban gulped twice before speaking, “Even so, how many more years doctor?”

With a sombre face the doctor replied, “Six to seven months, at the most a year.”

It took Jiban some time to find his voice, “Any possible treatment?”

“Your father is beyond any treatment,” the doctor said, “but if, for your peace of mind, you wish to go for an operation, it would cost approximately Rs 20-25,000 here in Kolkata and about Rs 60-70,000 in Mumbai. It is for you to decide. Anyway, here are the reports and a prescription of the medicines he will need right away.”

As he took the reports Jiban felt as helpless as his blind father. When he staggered out of the hospital it was 11 am. It was late, still he went about his business as usual. He did the rounds of 10-12 houses in Lake Gardens repeating the same story of his mother’s death and managed to earn Rs 16.

Sunayani was anxiously waiting for her son. The moment she sighted him she eagerly asked, “Got the report?”

“Yes Ma,” he flopped next to his mother.

“What is ailing him?” 

Jiban could not utter the ‘Cancer’ word.

“Why aren’t you answering? What’s wrong?”

Jiban recounted everything he’d heard from the doctor. Sunayani stared vacantly at him, then lay down on the ground.

“Maa!”

Sunayani did not respond.

“Maa it won’t do to break down. Oh Maa!”

“Let me get my breath back son…”

“Don’t breathe a word of this to him,” Jiban said, “not even by mistake.”

“But we must try to save him.”

“Yes Maa, we must. But if we break down who will try?”

Sunayani nodded, “Right.”

*

As soon as Sunayani entered the house in the evening Shanti rushed out and told her, “Mashima some relative of yours had come today — he saw you begging in the Lake Gardens Super Market and gave the news to Mesho Mashai. Since then he is livid and ranting like a madman.”

Sunayani thought it would be better not to face Judhistir then. She wanted to talk to Jiban first and decide how to deal with the situation. 

Judhistir’s voice could be heard calling out, “Shanti! Ma Shanti!”

Shanti walked up to his room, “What d’you want Mesho Mashai?”

“Isn’t your Mashima home yet?”

“Shanti looked at Sunayani who shook her head to say “No.”

Shanti replied, “No Mesho Mashai.”

“And Jiban? He isn’t back too?”

“No Mesho Mashai, Jiban Da isn’t back either.”

“Hari Hari Hari! Oh god, please take me to you!”

Hearing his anguished cry Sunayani was reminded of the report from the hospital and tears welled up in her eyes. Somehow she controlled herself.

Nantu and Ritu were still playing in the courtyard. Shibnath returned from work followed by Jaba. In a low voice Shanti told them not to ask Sunayani anything.

After a while Judhistir again called out, “Shanti! O Ma Shanti!”

“Yes Mesho Mashai?”

“Your Mashima…”

“Still not back — nor is Jiban Da -“

“Why is Jiban’s mother so late today?”

At that very moment Jiban entered the house. Sunayani gestured to him to be quiet, drew him aside and told him all the developments. “What will happen now Jiban?” she asked him in despair.

Jiban thought for a while, then said, “We’ve lied to Baba all these years but now it’s time to tell him the truth.”

Again Judhistir called out, “Shanti! O my Shanti Ma!”

“Yes Mesho Mashai, tell me…” She came out of her room and spotted Jiban.

“Aren’t they home yet? Jiban? His mother?”

“Yes we’re home!” Sunayani spoke up. “What’s the matter? Why are you so agitated?”

“Both of you come to me right away,” the blind man’s voice resounded with sternness.

“Yes we’re here,” Sunayani came and stood near her husband.

Judhistir couldn’t see her but his sense of smell recognized her presence. Rudely he asked her, “Have I ever sinned against anyone? Have I committed any crime? Did I ever steal or pick any pocket?”

Sunayani stiffened, “Why? What happened?”

“Answer me first!”

“No you’ve not. True to your name you are truthful, pious.”

Jiban came and stood behind his mother, behind him stood Shanti. “Indeed!” Judhistir’s stern voice rose a pitch higher, “now you’re spewing sarcasm! Tell me, did I ever beg before anybody on the streets?”

“Never.”

“Then why do you?”

“Who gave you this news?”

“Sudhir, my first cousin. He saw you with outstretched arms. Tell me, is that true?”

“Yes, I was begging. But not just today, I’ve been doing that for the last two years, stretching out my hands to arouse pity in passers-by. Every human has God inside him, I spread my arms to that God. Because I want to live. I didn’t get any other job and I don’t have the strength to roam about in search of a new job. I have done no crime. If begging was a crime, people would not give me any money.”

Judhistir was dumbfounded. He remained speechless for some time, then said, “You… Are you preaching to me?”

“No, only you men can preach — tell us what to do and what not to do. You taught me all these years, and I lived the way you wanted me to. Now I will do as my conscience dictates. Yes I will beg — and you don’t say one more word on this.”

Judhistir suddenly screamed out, “Jiban!”

He stepped forward, “Yes Baba?”

“Do you know about your mother’s job?”

“Yes I do,” Jiban replied. “I also beg but in a different way, to earn our upkeep,” he went on. “We didn’t tell you because it would not be to your liking.”

Speechless, Judhistir stared vacantly into air.

Jiban continued to speak, “Baba don’t carry on like this, don’t be angry. This is where Fate has taken us. Now even if you want us to stop, we’ll carry on doing the same work.”

“What are you saying?!! You…y-o-u…”

“Yes, we’ll continue to do whatever we’re doing. I haven’t done what so many others are doing out of sheer necessity — hooliganism, thievery, hijacking, murder…”

Judhistir saw red. “Go away, get lost!” he screamed at the top of his voice. “You too go away, go away. I will not say a word more, not a word..”

Jiban moved out of the room, Shanti too returned to her room.

Sunayani stared at her husband for a few seconds, then she too slowly walked out.

*

Jiban didn’t care. Like every other day he put on his cheerful old lungi and a fresh kurta; went to Anil’s Tea Stall, stayed there till 9 pm and returned home. 

Judhistir now started on a new track — hunger strike.

Sunayani came asking him to have his dinner and he declined. The more she asked him to have his meal the more vigorously he refused it, “No – no – no.”

Then Shanti came to plead with him, “Mesho Mashai don’t be angry, not with food!”

Judhistir folded his hands and shook his head, “No!”

Shibnath and Jaba came with the same request, and got the same reply, “No.”

“Oh Mesho Mashai…”

Before they could say anything else Judhistir folded his hands and shook his head, “My dears, please don’t ask me to eat. Why worry? I am not committing hara kiri — but I simply can’t swallow a morsel today.”

*

Only Jiban didn’t utter a single word.

Like every other day he went to bed but couldn’t sleep. The chronology of his failures danced before his eyes like a movie and then evaporated in thin air with his cigarette smoke.

Today he tried to listen in but couldn’t hear his parents talk. Instead he could hear his father cough. He was coughing incessantly. He must collect money for his father’s treatment. By hook or crook. He has made some friends in Anil’s Tea Stall — three of them were daredevils. They’re crazed by want — poverty — and greed. What if he planned with them to rob a bank in the suburbs of Kolkata? 

But what if he could not do that? His father’s death would draw closer. It would be sooner, faster. “But what can be done?” Jiban thought philosophically. Humans came into this world and, like any creature big or small, like mosquitoes, house flies, cockroaches or ants, they die…

Irrelevant, but he also thought, “Will it be appropriate to marry Shanti before robbing the bank?”

*

In the morning Sunayani brought a cup of tea and sat next to her husband. Judhistir turned his face away from her. “What happened? You won’t have tea? Still angry?! Okay,” she said, “if you don’t, I’ll stop eating and drinking too. But do remember that I will not stop doing the work I do, because I’m doing it for our grandson.”

Sunayani stood up to go. Suddenly Judhistir reached out and caught hold of her hand. “Give me the tea,” he said.

Though Judhistir started to eat he didn’t speak with anybody. He simply couldn’t accept the fact that his wife was begging on the streets for a livelihood.

*

For ten days Jiban begged with everyone to help him in his ‘mother’s death’. After ten days he shaved off his beard. Now started another chapter of his life: he was collecting money for ‘Sri Gourango Ashram of Basirhat.’ 

This time around he was to be spotted in the Paikpara and Lake Town areas of North Kolkata. He was donning a white dhoti and a handwoven khadi kurta. He had a namavali – a folded stole printed with the name of gods – over one shoulder and on the other a white cotton sling bag. Inside the bag he had two receipt books and a pen. He sported a sandalwood tilak on his forehead and was singing the Vaishnav chant in praise of ‘Nitai Gaur Radhe Shyam’.

In this avatar Jiban collected donations from more or less everyone — even aetheists give him a rupee! When he plays this role Jiban went by the name of ‘Gobinda Das.’  He was very professional about the job: he signed a receipt for whoever donated some money, big or small. Then he folds his hands and humbly salutes like a born Vaishnav, “Jai Nitai Gaur!” 

He spent ten days in this manner and then stopped. Next Jiban thought of another way to earn money. With his father’s cancer report and the prescriptions for medicines he went from door to door in the aristocratic area of Alipore. And he collected quite a bit of money. On the last day he did not shave. The next day he went back to the original strategy of seeking money on the pretext of “Matridaay”. “Mother’s funeral… Please help!” This time he chose to operate in the upper crust area of Ballygunge.

*

Jiban pressed the bell on the first door. It was opened by a handsome man in a dressing gown. “What d’you want?” he asked in Bengali. Jiban lowered his head, “My mother passed away the day before yesterday. I’m in mourning…”

“Silent!” The man roared like a blood hound. “Not a word more — just go out!”

The next door was opened by an aged lady. She heard Jiban out and handed him Rs 2. 

A sober Punjabi gentleman emerged from the third door. On hearing what Jiban said he sighed. “Mother! Oh! Hold on son.” He went indoors and came out with a fiver. Handing it over he said, “May your mother find peace.”

The fourth door was opened by a Bengali youth in his twenties. Soon as Jiban uttered the word ‘Maatriday’ he lost his cool. “You cheat! Aren’t you tired of lying?” he shouted.

“What’s the matter Apurbo?” Another young man of his age came out.

This guy who lived in the Lake Gardens area recognized Jiban — he’d seen Jiban in his house in the same attire. “Yaar this man had come to our house a month back. What’s he saying now? His mother’s dead and he needs money for her funeral?”

“Correct. He’s saying he needs help for her shraddha.”

“No Apurbo, we must do a funeral for this cheat,” the boy angrily spewed out. “His mother’s been dying through an entire month!”

“No sir, you’re mistaken,” Jiban said with an innocent face.

“Cheat! You’ve the gumption to say I’m mistaken!” The Lake Gardens boy came out aggressively.

Sensing trouble, Jiban retreated and broke into a run. Now the Ballygunge boy came out.

“Grab him! Don’t let the cheat get away…” The Lake Gardens boy chased Jiban saying, “He deceives people by saying his mother’s dead and swindles them out of money!” 

As the cousins ran after Jiban some boys on the street also joined the chase. Before they could lay their hands on him Jiban felt a stab of pain in his chest. He stopped running, tumbled, fell on the road and lost consciousness.

*

Jiban did not return home that night. When he remained missing the next morning Shibnath set out to lodge a ‘Missing’ diary at the Police Station. Just then a young man came with the news that Jiban was admitted in Dr K Basu’s private clinic. He’d suffered a heart attack but at present he was stable.

This worried Sunayani. She joined Shibnath and they followed the youth to Dr Basu’s clinic at Gariahat.

On seeing his mother Jiban gave her a wan smile.

Sunayani and Shibnath met Dr Basu. Before they could reveal their identities Dr Basu explained, “Yesterday I witnessed some commotion on the road and then saw this man lying on the footpath. I went to him and realised he’d had a heart attack. He would have died on the spot if he’d not been taken to a hospital. Since the government facilities were at quite a distance I brought him here to my clinic. Now his condition is under control. You can take him home after two days.”

The doctor continued to speak, “From his attire I can see his mother’s dead. I can also make out from his condition that he’s not well off. So you don’t need to pay me anything. But make sure he gets complete rest for at least two months. And he must be given proper food and medicine. He must undergo some tests as well.”

After two days Jiban came home in a taxi. He entered to see Nantu and Ritu playing in the courtyard. He kissed them both, went to his room holding Shanti’s hand and lay down in his bed.

Judhistir rushed out of his room to meet his son and collided against the wall. Sunayani led him by his hand and made him sit on Jiban’s bed. Judhistir scrambled around and placed his hand on his son’s head.

Two days passed.

Sunayani returned to her normal routine. She gave Judhistir and Jiban their morning tea, and their medicine; she finished cooking, fed her husband, gave some instructions to Shanti, then stood at the door of Judhistir’s room. “We’re in need of money,” she told him. “So I’m going to work, okay?”

Judhistir did not reply. Sunayani turned around to leave. But before she could cross the threshold Judhistir suddenly called out, “Listen Jiban’s Maa…”

*

Two boys in late teens were entering the Lake Gardens Super Market. Suddenly one of them started searching his pocket for his shopping list. 

” Did you misplace it somewhere?” the other boy asked.

“No, here it is. Got it.”

Hearing their voices a beggar spoke from the corner, “Have mercy on me sons!”

The boys turned around to see the beggar.

“New face?”

“Blind.”

“Is he really blind or just acting?”

“Yes sons, I’m really blind,” the beggar said.

“Really?!” Suddenly the first boy swished out a knife and made to strike him on his nose. But the beggar did not react. He didn’t draw back or turn away his face. No expression.

“Oh, he’s really blind,” the second boy said.

” Then we must give him some alms.” The boy fished out a coin, “Here grandpa, stretch out your hand.” 

They placed the coin in his palm.

Judhistir felt a deep satisfaction as he held the 50 p in his hand. It was his earning after long years, he sighed. And he thought to himself: “All these years my wife and my son have begged for my sake. Now on I will beg for my son and grandson.”

Glossary:

Thamma — Grandma

Mashima — aunty

Mesho moshai — uncle

Hyan — Yes

Pallu — the loose part of a sari, can be worn over the head or just left hanging over the shoulder like a scarf

Maatriday, Shraddha — Death rituals

Judhishtir or Yudhishtra, the eldest of the Pandavas in Mahabharta, was known for his legendary honesty.

Nabendu Ghosh & his daughter, Ratnottama Sengupta.
Photo shared by Ratnottama Sengupta

Nabendu Ghosh’s (1917-2007) oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories. He was a renowned scriptwriter and director. He penned cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta, Majhli Didi and Abhimaan. And, as part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.

Sarmishtha Mukhopadhyay is a retired teacher who has taken to translations and to writing travel blogs.

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

2 replies on “Down the Stairs by Nabendu Ghosh”

A very interesting read. While painting a grim picture of post partition Bengal it presents a thesis on the making of a beggar. It’s sad but engaging to read about the process by which shame and guilt gives way to a sense of entitlement. A very depressing but true account of the curse of poverty.

Liked by 1 person

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