Story by Shankhadeep Bhattacharya, translated from Bengali by Rituparna Mukherjee
I wake up with a start in the morning. Breathing deep, I realise that the essential substances are not permeating into my lungs in proper amounts. My limbs are turning a blackish blue. It seems as if someone is hammering my skull right behind my ears. My head, like a ticking bomb, is almost fit to burst. This claustrophobic, terrifying existence is of course not new to me. The scientists proclaim that they have recorded the highest degree of air pollution in the Babynamen region. It was Kikoro about a month or two back. I was there the last time. I reach Babynamen without wasting a lot of time. I sit there like an ancient monk and inhale deeply for seven hours. My body feels relaxed. The colour of my body turns normal, from a blackish blue to a healthy pink. I write the name of Babynamen right below Kikoro in my diary as well as the details of the day’s events.
My house is not near any human settlement. I don’t even know if there is any human activity nearby. My home is a twelve feet by twelve feet room made of porous, rough plastic. My routine happiness lies sedimented in the resting peace of the room. There are no windows in this room, not even the smallest hole lest the flies enter. There is a reason for such an arrangement. I don’t want the pure air — a rare treasure these days — that comes from the forest across the river, touching the lush trees, to enter my room. If that unadulterated air finds its place in my lungs, there will be trouble. The colour of my skin will immediately turn a blackish blue. I check the two sides of my abdomen just to be sure. There is a hint of red tinged with pink across my skin, which means my body is completely normal. I break into a song in joy. My song is interrupted by a knock on the door about a minute later. Someone is knocking gently at the door. I open the door and my body shivers with a feeling of deep happiness and sudden thrill. Samapti stands in front of my eyes.
I had first seen her around thirty years back. We were both twenty-one in the first year of the twenty-first century. Seeing her for the first time, I had felt that Samapti was a beautiful young woman, a newly bloomed red oleander flower in flesh and blood. Samapti has always been my first and only love. The sunflower was our favourite. We used to listen captivated to Raga Hangsadhwani in dusk. We loved building shelters for birds and animals with the wet sand near the sea. We often travelled close to the mountains in search of pure air. We inhaled calming oxygen to our fill. We gazed silently at the mountains clad in clouds hand in hand, stared at the white stars twinkle in the black sky from tents in the middle of the forest.
Samapti used to speak of her work then. Her work comprised waking up the people from their untimely sleep, to ensure that their five senses worked properly. She was exceptionally good at keeping people alert and full of life, the very best in her team. When she would finish talking about her work, she would ask about mine. My task lay in spinning stories, poems and songs for these lively people, the history of human struggle, stories of the sea, poems of the river or the cuckoo’s songs. Listening to these, they would themselves inspired to write poetry about the squirrel at times or to empathise with the suffering of an unknown, distant humanity. Our work was a long process. We weren’t always successful in our work.
Initially our work had been very fulfilling. But after ten years or so, Samapti told me with a worried face, “Humankind is not waking up from its slumber anymore, Diganta .” I had also observed that the alert and lively human beings were no longer mesmerised by the songs or the stories of the trees or the dance of the peacock, neither were they moved by the suffering of others.
Another ten years later, our travel in search of pure air was also stopped. Humankind started living inside their homes. The entire world outside was plagued by a deadly disease. Samapti and I could not meet as well. I used to flap around claustrophobic in my house like a fish caught in a net. I found breathing normally inordinately difficult. My body would turn a blackish blue in absence of pure air. I would often think of Samapti then. I didn’t have a trace of her after that time. Today Samapti stands at my door, awakening the latent questions in my consciousness. Her face doesn’t look as lovely as before. Samapti used to be dark-skinned. Her skin has turned somewhat sallow now, sunflower yellow.
I say, “You have changed Samapti.”
Samapti laughs and says, “I have long been dead, Diganta.”
“Yes, when we were cooped up in our homes, the disease outside found its way into my body. I could not be saved even after a lot of effort. I died from a lack of pure air. But you are alive Diganta, even after such a catastrophe. I am so happy to see you.”
“Why don’t you come inside Samapti?”
Taking her hands in mine I say, “Don’t leave me alone anymore, stay with me. Promise me you’ll stay.”
“I don’t have anywhere else to go. Diganta, tell me, how many times does a person die?”
“I don’t know.”
“Seven times if it’s a man, seventeen if it’s a woman. I have only one step left to reach seventeen.”
I didn’t really understand what Samapti is saying but I tried to figure out which of those seven stages of death I was in.
Samapti looks very thin. I think she is hungry.
I say, “Will you eat something?”
Samapti says, “I haven’t really eaten anything since my death. My tongue doesn’t feel taste neither can I smell anything. Everything I see is blurry. I don’t even feel hungry.”
I take out a watermelon, an apple and an orange, a few vegetables and some more delectable food items. Samapti is looking at me. She has deep love in her eyes, on her face a gentle smile. She watches me suck all the formalin and carbide from the watermelon and apple into my body. I have been doing this quite easily for a long time. I lick away the pesticides from the vegetables. I cook the clean vegetables, cut the fruits, and present a wholesome meal to Samapti.
Samapti says, “If you eat the food you have just given me, will you experience stomach pains, nausea, insomnia?”
I nod my head in agreement.
Samapti has her fill of all the food. She says, “I have eaten such uncontaminated food for the first time Diganta. I could taste and smell all the food items.” A sliver of memory makes its way into my mind at this moment. Samapti’s eyes and face used to be filled with pure delight on watching the rain. She would swim in the river on hot summer afternoons. She would not want to leave the water. I would join her. Not just that, I could feel in my very bones that even the simple act of drinking water would give her immense satisfaction.
I have heard water is hailed as life itself, an element without which human beings cannot survive. I pull away arsenic and other harmful chemicals from the life-giving water into my stomach and give Samapti the clean, fresh water in a brass tumbler. I realise she has been thirsty for long by the way she drinks water.
After drinking her fill, she observes, “You don’t drink pure water anymore Diganta. You might get rashes, problems in your kidney, even cancer, isn’t it?”
I nod my head again in agreement.
Samapti has tears in her eyes. Wiping her tears away, she says forlorn, “Why did everything turn to this Diganta? What was our mistake? We have spent our entire lives with the humankind. You would sit on a hunger strike in the streets for days on the disappearance of the honeybees. You would be heart-broken at the death of a butterfly. You gave your best to rejuvenate the sad humanity. Were you the only one to love nature? What about the rest of humanity?”
I take Samapti in my embrace. Breathing in her smell, I smile to alleviate her dismay, and say, “Do you remember Samapti, you had once cooked chital fishcakes for me? I had promised myself that I would treat you to steamed hilsa one day. But I could only feed you boiled rice and omelette. An omelette was the best I could do. Do you remember?”
Samapti laughs. She is still laughing. She must have remembered a lot of other things, which means I have succeeded. I relish these moments. We walk through the pleasant alleys and lanes of memory through the day. We stare at the star-filled night sky for a long time. The stars in the night sky, so many light years away, are the same still. Perhaps they are intact because they are away from the earth. Samapti holds my hand tightly and says, “Listen to me Diganta. The earth will heal itself and will again become what it used to be. I firmly believe it. It will come to pass. Humankind will return the earth to its former glory. A peaceful earth. An earth where children can play carefree. You will get untainted fresh air again, Diganta. It will happen. Just don’t give up hope.” Samapti hugs me and lies down very close. She falls into a deep sleep. Having spent many nights without sleep, my eyes become heavy with slumber soon.
When I wake up the next morning, Samapti is nowhere to be found. I can’t see her anywhere in the room. She has left. But where has she gone? She had said yesterday that she had nowhere to go. Is she then in the last rung of death…?
I am in pain. Salty tears form at the corner of my eyes and trickle down. I do not want to lose Samapti. How can I live without her! She has said that the earth would regenerate itself to its former glory! I will get fresh pure air back in my lungs! She has urged me not to give up hope.
I suddenly feel very scared, fear of death from the pure, fresh air. I usually avoid any contact with pure air. The hope in Samapti’s words has somehow channeled itself into my being. I am torn between unadulterated hope and terrifying fear of death. With an overwhelmed mind, I search for a small forest of green trees. By the time I make my way to the middle of the forest, the colour of my body begins to turn. My body temperature is getting warmer and the skin colour is rapidly changing to a blackish blue. My breath seems to be choking in my throat. I do not have much time on my hands. I do not want to die. I reach Babynamen as fast as I can. I fill my being with the most polluted air of the world. But even that cannot not allay my breathing troubles. The insides of my chest feel empty. Consequently, I lift the cover of a manhole on the street and put my entire face inside. I pull in deep breaths. The blackish blue colour seems to fade out a little. I am still not out of danger completely. An old matador stands near. As soon as it starts, the exhaust of the vehicle spews dense black smoke. I quickly take the exhaust pipe and shove it inside my mouth till it reaches my throat. I fill my lungs with the fumes like I was enjoying a hukkah.
The colour of my skin is now pink. The area around my navel is somewhat red. I feel healthy. My breathing is almost normal. I am calm. I return to the middle of the forest. I have not given up yet, Samapti. I touch the branches and leaves of the verdant trees; the fresh air seems to graze past my nose. Although it is risky, yet I splay my fisted hands to the sky as if I want to enfold the forest in my arms.
I breathe in with all my might. My body gradually turns a blackish blue. But I do not give up. Like one crazed, my burnt and withered lungs suck in the lost purity to return to a life, fresh and animated, as it used to be before lakhs were born and lakhs had died.
 Samapti means ending in Bengali
 Diganta means horizon in Bengali
(First published in Bengali in 4 Number Platform in August 2021)
Shankhadeep Bhattacharya is a software engineer who is keenly interested in spreading awareness about the environment, society, the socio-economic impacts of technology through regular seminars and webinars. He likes writing for little magazines. He is associated in the editorial capacity with Pariprashna and Sangbartak magazines. He has strived to create narratives in his stories and personal essays that centre around the current realities. He was awarded the “Namita Chattapadhyay Sahitya Samman” in 2022. He has published three books so far: Parisheba Seemar Baire (a collection of short stories, Parashpathar publications, 2018), Manush, Samaj, Prakriti (a collection of essays, Sangbartak Publications, 2021) and Prayukti Tokko Golpo (theory fiction, Sopan Publications, 2021)
Rituparna Mukherjee is a faculty of English and Communication Studies at Jogamaya Devi College, under the University of Calcutta. She is currently pursuing Doctoral degree in Gendered Mobilities in West African and Afro-Diasporic Literature at IIIT Bhubaneswar. A poet and short fiction writer, she works as a freelance translator for Bengali and Hindi fiction and is an editor at the Antonym Magazine. She is also an ELT consultant and ESL author outside of her work and research schedule.
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